Elements of Literature

Elements of literature or literary elements are the components of a literary work.

A literary work is a branch of literature that involves the use of words to create an idea, a picture, or a story in a meaningful pattern. Literary elements are there to help in the discussion and understanding of literary works.

Elements of Literature 1 | Scientific Editing
Elements of literature

Language

This is the most important element of literature. Language is a system of communicating ideas and feelings through speech, writing, and signs/gestures.

Every literature is expressed or written in a known language since the purpose of every literature is to pass an idea, stories, and concepts to a larger audience.

To read a book, you have to understand the language it is written in. Plus, the language can also help readers understand the book better. Language can be used in a way to help readers understand the tone or setting of the characters.

Plot

The plot of a literary work is the order of events that takes place, where each plot affects the next from the beginning of the story to the end.

English novelist, E.M Forster argued that a plot doesn’t just describe a random event like a story does but instead it describes the cause and effect.

The plot is created in a fashion that makes it enticing to the reader.

For example:

  • The child died and the mother died is a story.
  • The child died then the mother died grieving the child is a plot. There’s causality in this event.

All plots follow a pattern that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but this does not encompass the idea of the basic plot structure. Certain literature like a novel or a play and other long-form literature follow a typical plot structure that’s referred to as a plot arc or story arc.

These types of plots have six elements, in this pattern:

  • Exposition/Beginning
  • Conflict
  • Rising Action
  • Climax
  • Falling Action
  • Resolution/Denouement

Exposition/Beginning

This is the introductory part of the story. It introduces the major characters/protagonist and setting (this is when and where the story takes place).

Conflict

The conflict of a story is the problem that the main characters have to tend to. The two types of conflicts that exist in a plot are major conflicts and minor conflicts.

The major conflicts are the central problem that the characters face. On the other hand, minor conflicts are the smaller problems the characters must solve to be able to resolve the major conflicts.

Rising Action

This is where the primary conflict is introduced and used to create some sort of tension in the story and the reader. This is to make the reader feel more drawn to the story. The conflict may exist among multiple characters or just one character.

The author should have established the stakes of the main conflict to the reader. The reader should know the benefits and consequences that lie within the central/main/overarching conflict.

The rising action is the part of the plot that sets other plots in motion. With more and more tension, excitement increases which then leads to the climax of the story.

For example:

The rising action in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was after we learned of Voldemort and bad things started happening, which the characters realized were linked to Voldemort.

Climax

The climax or the turning point can be argued as being the most important of a story. This is where the characters are put in a position where they have to make a decision that affects the rest of the story.

Tensions are at the highest now, the characters have to address the overarching conflict. What will the characters do, what will their decision result in?

At this stage, the reader is experiencing excitement, dread, and urgency.

In a typical hero story, this is where the hero faces the main enemy, the reader is now wondering who will win and how it affects other characters.

Falling Action

This is everything that happens after the climax but before the resolution. Tension has now dropped and the story is drawing to a close.

Here, the effects of the main character’s actions during the climax can be seen. We now get to understand what their action means for them and their world in the story.

For example:

In To Kill A Mockingbird, the results of the trial and the part Atticus Finch played in it is made clear: we see that Tom goes to jail where he was shot and killed, and the scout and Jem get attacked by Bob Ewell, who accuses their father of making look like a fool during the trial.

Resolution/Denouement

This is the final stage of the plot point. Everything draws to a close and there is a feeling of normalcy for the characters. The conflict that existed in the climax has been solved and all loose ends are almost tied up (except the author intends to set up the story for a sequel).

The resolution can be short, it could be just a paragraph or it could be in the form of an epilogue.

A resolution doesn’t mean it’s going to be a happy ending, resolutions can be tragic or unexpected.

For example:

In Romeo and Juliet, the resolution was when the feud between the Capulet family and the Montague family ended as a result of Romeo and Juliet’s death.

Plot Examples From Literature

Exposition/Introduction: Involves Bella Swan, a high school junior going to live with her father in a remote town in the state of Washington. Then she meets a strange boy named Edward Cullen who she gets fascinated with, then the two become friends. One day Edward stops a moving car with his bare hands before it could crush Bella, which made her realize that there was something different about him.

Rising Action: Bella finds out that Edward is a vampire. Bella meets Edward’s vampire family, and they accept her. One day when they were playing baseball together, they ended up attracting some non-vegetarian vampires. one of these vampires, James realized she’s human and wanted to kill her, but Edward and his family managed to stop him. But James was able to lure her by making her think he had kidnapped her mother.

Climax: James attacks and feeds on her. Edward and his family arrived and killed James. Edward sucks the vampire out of her to prevent her from dying.

Falling Action: Bella is in the hospital, she’s heavily injured. She and Edward agree to continue with their relationship even though they know it is risky.

Resolution: After some months, Edward takes Bella to prom, they both have a good time. She tells Edward to turn her into a vampire, but he tricks her and pretends to bite her neck.

Exposition: The ghost of Hamlet’s father, who was a former king appears one night and tells Hamlet to avenge his death by taking the life of Claudius. Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle and the reigning king.

Rising Action: Hamlet finds it hard to commit to avenging his father’s death. He takes being crazy to confuse his uncle, Claudius. He misses the chance to kill his uncle while he prayed.

Climax: Hamlet mistakes Polonius for Claudius and stabs and kills him. At this point, Hamlet had committed himself to violence and vengeance. This was an important turning point in the play. Another climax to note was when Laertes challenged Hamlet to a supposedly friendly duel.

Falling Action: Hamlet manages to escape being killed in England after the king sends him there to be executed, and return to Denmark. The entire royal family dies, after Ophelia goes mad and dies, and Hamlet duel Laertes.

Resolution: I’m his dying breath, Hamlet tells Horatio to make  Fortinbras the king of Denmark, and to spread his story. Fortinbras arrives and addresses the future of Denmark hopefully.

Mood

This is one of the subtle elements of literature that the author seeds along with the words.The mood of a literary work is the way the readers feel reading the words on the pages. You experience the mood of literature when you feel scared, happy, or tense.

A story can have a central/overarching mood, but the mood will usually change depending on what the author is trying to convey in each scene.

For example:

The central mood of Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, but some scenes had funny and lighthearted moments.

When you think about the mood when reading literature, you feel the way the author wants you to feel about certain messages, ideas, and themes.

For example:

Take a look at this poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou:

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

The emotions in the first three lines are anger, bitterness, and violence. This makes the reader understand that the speaker of the poem has been treated badly. But then, the last line shows great hope.

Maya Angelou shows the reader that even though she’s been treated badly, she won’t let other people’s actions put her down.

Setting

The setting is the “when and where”, the geographical location and time the story takes place. The setting is where the action takes place, this is where the writer wants to project their scenes. It also includes the lifestyle of the characters and the climate in the literature.

The setting captures the reader’s imagination into a world that’s described in the literature. Especially when described vividly.

A piece of literature can have more than one setting. Long literary works like the Harry Potter series have multiple memorable locations, like Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, and Gringotts. The setting conveys important details about the world that affects other literary elements, like plot and theme.

For example:

The atmosphere and plot of a history book set in England in the 1930s will likely be different from a science fiction book set 200 years in the future. Some settings might take the form of a character in the story.

The house in the short story “The Fall Of The House Of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe, was set as an antagonist in the story.

Theme

The theme is the main/central topic, idea, subject, or message embedded in a narrative. Theme can be described as the main idea of a literary work, or more precisely as the ideas that appear repeatedly in the course of the work. Most literature pieces have multiple themes.

Themes are present in every literature piece because the purpose of a piece of literature is to share and explore an idea. Even a short piece like a short poem has a theme(s).

For example:

In the poem “My Life Has Been The Poem I Would Have Writ” by Henry David Thoreau. The poet is trying to tell us to live our lives in the moment, and living is what gives the material for writing.

My life has been the poem I would have writ

But I could not both live and utter it.

Point of View (POV)

The point of view is the perspective from which the story is told from. It is the position of the narrator as regards the plot of a piece of literature.

A piece of literature can be written from one of four perspectives, which are:

First Person

In a first-person POV, the story is being told from one of the character’s perspectives. You can easily tell if a story is from a “first-person” point of view when you see pronouns like I, you, and my.

Second Person

In this point of view the reader/audience is treated as a character in the literature piece. Second-person pronouns like you, your, and so on will be used in this case.

The “second person” point of view is rarely used in novels, this POV is mostly used in poems and songs. Nonetheless, novels like Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins, If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino, and so on are in second-person point of view.

Third Person Limited

In this perspective, every character is referred to with third-person pronouns like he, she, or they, and so on. The narrator’s existence is not developed or explained in the literature as a particular character.

Also, the narrator focuses on the story as it revolves around the main character. A third-person point of view is like when there’s a camera crew following the main character that narrates everything that happens in the story.

Third Person Omniscient

This is a little different from the “Third Person Limited” in the sense that it is not limited to one character. But, it uses third-person pronouns as well too. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens in the story, and can tell the audience everything that’s happening with all the characters at every point in time.

Point of view helps the audience understand the details concerning the characters in a story. Even more, point of view helps establish the narrator in the story, the narrator is the character that tells the story as it happens in their world to the audience/reader.

Narrator

The narrator is the character that tells the story. Every literature has a narrator, the narrator might not be named, or actively in the plot.

In a newspaper, the reporter is the narrator, it’s the reporter that details a particular event to you. The reporter combines interviews, researchers, and their eyewitness to help shed light on a topic, so you can understand that topic better.

Similarly, the narrator of a book or poem helps describe to the reader or audience for better understanding.

For example:

The narrator, John Watson describes the character, Sherlock Holmes to readers in the literature, ” A Study Of Scarlet”

He was not studying medicine. He had himself, in reply to a question, confirmed Stamford’s opinion upon that point. Neither did he appear to have pursued any course of reading which might fit him for a degree in science or any other recognized portal which would give him an entrance into the learned world. Yet his zeal for certain studies was remarkable, and within eccentric limits, his knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute that his observations have fairly astounded me.

Surely no man would work so hard or attain such precise information unless he had some definite end in view. Desultory readers are seldom remarkable for the exactness of their learning. No man burdens his mind with small matters unless he has some very good reason for doing so.

Conflict

Conflict is an important element of literature, a conflict creates uncertainties in the story. A conflict occurs between the protagonist or hero of the story and the antagonist or villain.

A character may conflict with a natural force, like an animal or weather condition, like a tornado. Also, a conflict may exist between the hero and his mind.

Conflict motivates the hero to act. The conflict could be in small scales, like between the hero and their parents, or a large scale conflict, like a war.

Conflict creates tension in the piece of literature, which makes readers more captivated as it leaves them wondering which forces or characters will prevail.  Also, conflict can be both explicit and implicit conflicts.

Explicit conflicts are the obvious conflicts in a story. The characters clearly see the problem and know they have to sort it out.

For example:

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an explicit conflict is established in its plot.

“a vampire has come to England, and the heroes in the story have to kill him as soon as possible”.

The problem is clear, and the heroes in the story have to solve it.

Implicit conflict isn’t an obvious problem in the plot. This is usually used in poetry. You have to pay attention to the details of the literature to see the conflict that’s motivating the narrator.

For example:

In “How Do I Love There” by Elizabeth Browning”, we see implicit conflict at work.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

In this poem, the conflict is that the narrator is so in love that she’s having a problem expressing the depth of her love.

Character

Every piece of literature has to have at least one character; it could be a person, an animal, or an object.

Similar to other elements of literature, there are different types of characters (and archetypes), but we will discuss only these two, the protagonist and the antagonist.

The main character in any piece of literature is referred to as the protagonist. The plot of the work revolves around this character (a person or an object). Also, the protagonist is usually the hero in a story, but this is not always the case.

Some stories describe the struggles of regular people. Most of the time, the protagonists are the characters that you remember after the literature, a play, novel, television series, film, and so on is over.

Characters like Katniss Everdeen from the hunger games, David Copperfield, Sherlock Holmes, and prince Hamlet are the protagonists of their stories. On the other hand, the antagonist is the character that stands against the protagonist in some way.

The opposition that exists between these two characters is what results in the conflicts of the story. There can be multiple antagonists in a story, but there’s usually going to be one main character that continues to put a strain on the protagonist’s progress. For instance, Claudius is the main antagonist in the play Hamlet, and president Coriolanus Snow is the main antagonist in the hunger games.

Wrapping It Up

An element of literature, or a literary piece, or narrative element consist of everything that comes to play in the creation of a literary piece. Understanding these elements will help create a literary masterpiece.

If you are a reader, or a student, understanding the elements of literature will help you understand the ideas and concepts that are in a literary piece.

Also read “History of English Literature

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