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What Is a Literary Element?

By E. Reeder
Updated May 23, 2024
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Literary elements are devices, techniques and components that authors use in literature to create a certain effect or to relay information to readers. Authors employ various literary elements in their writing, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Plot, setting and characters are all types of literary element. A literary element also can be used by readers as a way of analyzing and studying stories.

Plot is a literary element that refers to the way in which a story unfolds. The plot of a story has to do with what happens and the order in which it happens. Some stories begin with an exposition in which background information is given about characters and setting; this is followed by rising action, in which the tension and conflict increase and lead to the climax, or high point in a story. Falling action and a conclusion wrap up the story.

Different stories follow different patterns. Not all stories end with a firm conclusion. While some have very clear-cut resolutions, some authors design their work to make readers infer what might have happened.

Authors create and develop one or more protagonists and antagonists in most stories. Protagonists are main characters around whom the story revolves. They can be good or bad. Antagonists are people or forces that cause problems or conflicts for the protagonist.

Setting is a literary element that refers to the time, place and social conditions under which a story takes place. The events that take place in a work of fiction are greatly influenced by the setting in which they are placed. For example, a story set during a war in Europe in the 1800s is bound to be different from a story set in a peaceful village in Canada in 1950.

Point of view is a literary element that relates to the perspective from which a story is told. The most common points of view, which have to do with the position of the narrator to the story, are first person, third person omniscient and third person limited. First-person point of view means the narrator is inside the story telling it from his or her perspective. Third-person limited point of view indicates the narrator is outside a story looking in and can see inside the mind of one character, often the protagonist. Third-person omniscient point of view means the narrator is outside the story but can see inside all characters' minds and, thus, can relate their thoughts, feelings and motivations.

Conflict is a literary element necessary for a captivating fictional story. If there is no conflict, there is usually no plot and nothing to resolve that would keep readers' attention. A story in which two people peacefully sit on a porch talking for five hours would not make much of a story unless their conversation used flashbacks — a literary technique that looks back at past events — to tell a fascinating tale, or they got in a fight or experienced a disaster.

Another important literary element is characterization, which is how authors create and develop characters. Readers become more involved in a story if there are fully detailed characters in whom they develop an interest. Most protagonists and other important characters are round characters, which means they are multidimensional, as opposed to secondary characters who may be undeveloped. A dynamic character changes in belief, experience or personality in some significant way during the course of a story, while a static character remains the same. Authors use direct quotations, actions and characters' thoughts to help readers gain an understanding of them.

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