Are you ready to write your first big novel? It may be fun to dive in and start writing, but if you want your first story to be epic, you need to understand the different literary elements and how to use them to build your literary masterpiece.
What is a Literary Element?
A literary element is an essential part of a story. It’s a narrative component that is necessary for flow and understanding.
All significant works of fiction include literary elements. It’s impossible to craft a story without them. They are the backbone of any narrative and the components you consider when making your first outline of your creative work.
The 7 Major Literary Elements
There are seven major literary elements. These are things present in every story, from the first classic poem to modern-day thrillers.
Every guide you will read on literary elements will have slightly different definitions of what one is. Some may say there are nine major literary elements; others say there are five. Some scholars will group certain features as one, while others will claim each stands independently.
Here are seven things that are most commonly agreed upon as literary elements and why they are essential to your story.
The plot is what happens in the story. Having a solid plot is essential to a great story. Nobody wants to read a book where nothing happens. The action, the drama, and the resolution are often the most exciting parts of a story.
The essential elements of a plot are the rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The rising action builds up to the climax, and the falling action leads to the resolution. The climax is generally thought of as the epic action scene at the end of the story, the part where your main character defeats the evil villain in the final battle.
Not all climaxes are epic battles. Your protagonist could find a way to resolve an internal conflict, which was the problem of the entire story. The story could end with a diplomatic solution, or the climax could leave your reader feeling like they want something more.
Every good story needs good characters. Sometimes people will fall in love with a tale with compelling characters even if the plot isn’t the greatest.
A good character feels real. They have real, human feelings and behave in ways you’d expect. Build three-dimensional characters with backstories, hopes, dreams, quirks, and flaws.
New writers commonly fall into the trap of making two-dimensional characters. They are either perfect in every way, with no human flaws to relate to, or evil in any way with no hope for redemption. They have singular goals. These types of characters have their place, especially in stories where the plot is the biggest concern. They can still be enjoyable for a reader. But if you want your account to stand out, creating compelling characters is the way to do it.
Point of View
An essential element of literature is the point of view. Changing a story’s point of view can have enormous implications for the plot and theme. Most books use either the third or first person (that is, using he/she/they or I/we), but some authors have chosen to use the second person (you) as a device to captivate an audience.
A third-person story often gives the impression of someone on the outside looking into what is happening, while a first-person gives the feeling of being right there in the action.
Point of View is also closely related to the element of narration. Will the story be told by someone who was there, watching events, or will it be told by someone as the events unfold? Will your narrator be reliable?
There’s a common trope in literature called “the unreliable narrator.” In these stories, the person telling the story is there with the action but not constantly aware of everything. They may be telling the story from what they know or remember, but you may find out later that they didn’t know the whole story.
The unreliable narrator is most common in first-person stories but can also appear in the third person. Many fans of Harry Potter assume Harry is narrating the story, and they call him an unreliable narrator.
A common way to handle narration is to tell the story from a 3rd person’s point of view, as someone who can watch all events and tell them exactly as they unfold. Readers can assume that the narrator is reliable and does not leave out important information in these stories.
The theme of a story is the underlying idea that the author or storyteller hopes to convey. It’s the story’s overall message and may be overt or subtle.
Aesop’s fables are renowned for having simple, easy-to-understand themes. One of his most famous tales, The Tortoise and the Hare, showcases that hard work and perseverance are often more important than skill alone.
As readers get older and involved in more advanced literature, the themes get more subtle and easier to miss. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Sometimes it’s as simple as good triumphing over evil, and other times it can be a complex theme regarding the struggles of growing up, finding the beauty in the mundane, or any number of things that an author may wish to convey. Some stories even have multiple complex themes.
The setting of a story is where and when it takes place. The environment can drastically impact the plot, so choosing carefully is essential. It also allows the author to be descriptive and make a story come to life.
For example, if you’re writing a space drama, how would you describe the spacecraft, the feeling of floating the stars, the various planets that your hero discovers? How would your descriptions differ if the story was set in a garden on Earth?
Time is an essential part of the setting. A 21st-century crime thriller would have to consider modern technology, but if you choose the 19th century instead, your heroes will have to solve the crime without cell phones, fingerprinting, or current medical investigations. A futuristic setting allows authors to imagine new technologies that can help with crime-fighting.
A great story leaves the audience feeling something, whether happy, sad, thrilled, anxious, or even uncomfortable.
The tone of a story is the mood or feeling of the story. Some stories handle heavy subjects in comedic ways, whereas others can turn ordinary events into stressful thrillers. As an author, it’s important to decide how you want your audience to feel, not only during a story’s climax but during the entire course of the story. This is the tone.
How Do I Use Literary Elements to Craft a Story?
The magic of storytelling is that you can use these literary elements however you want to make your perfect story. The author gets to decide what happens, who it happens to, where it happens, what they want the reader to take away, and everything else in a story.
Sometimes, it’s harder to put things together when we have a world of options. This is where mind maps, outlines, and worksheets can help you.
The best tool to help writers craft a story is an outline. Many writers do freewriting, where they write what comes to their mind, but others generate an outline of everything they want to cover and how they want the story to go before writing.
The outline will generally include key plot elements, a setting, the climax, and the resolution. It will help guide the writer through the story as they are writing.
Mind maps are great tools for visual learners. You can use a mind map to help you combine the literary elements into a perfect story.
There are thousands of ways to use a mind map to help you visualize and brainstorm your story. Here’s an easy example of a mind map highlighting the significant elements an author wants to use in their story.
Canva has thousands of mind map templates that can help with every aspect of crafting a story.
Worksheets can help you craft characters, develop your plot, and build your world. The creative writing prompts I sell on Esty each include worksheets to help you with various aspects of storytelling. The thriller prompts have a character-building worksheet, the horror prompts have a monster-building worksheet, and the fantasy prompts have a world-building worksheet.
The whole bundle includes all of these worksheets, which can help you craft various parts of your story.
Literary Elements Versus Literary Devices
Literary elements are the big picture things that are essential to every story. Every story needs a plot, a character, a setting, etc. These aren’t negotiable. Literary devices, on the other hand, are optional. They are techniques that authors can use to make their story stand out or to play with literature in fun ways.
There are numerous examples of literary devices used in literature, novels, poetry, and even Shakespearean classics.
Here are five common literary devices, but remember there are many more.
Authors use similes and metaphors to describe things with familiar imagery. These literary devices compare the things the author is writing to something that a reader might be familiar with.
Similes are direct comparisons using the words “like” or “as” or similar terms. These transition words make it easy for the reader to understand that the author is making a comparison.
We use similes all the time in casual conversations. Famous figures of speech like “He’s busy as a bee” or “She’s clever like a fox” are examples of similes.
Metaphors are sometimes harder to identify. Although they are also comparisons, they literally say that one thing is another thing, and it’s up to the reader to make the connection that it’s figurative rather than literal.
We also use metaphors regularly in everyday conversations. Sayings such as “Time is money” or “This place is a pigsty” are examples of common metaphors.
Simile and metaphor help authors describe things and add extra imagery to their stories. They also help authors illustrate fictional ideas by comparing them to something the reader might be more familiar with.
Alliteration is a poetic device used to give a sentence or phrase a specific sound and rhythm. In its simplest form, an alliteration starts most words of a phrase or sentence with the same letter. However, many authors also use similar sounds in syllables to create alliterations.
Many tongue twisters that we used to memorize as children are examples of alliteration.
“She Sells Seashells by the Seashore” and “Peter Piper Picked a Pack of Pickled Peppers“
– Common examples of alliteration
Alliterations are more common in poetry than in literature. Shakespeare was a master of alliteration and used the device often throughout his works.
Foreshadowing is a technique in which the author shows the reader what will happen later in a symbolic way. It gives the reader hints of what’s to come.
When an author does foreshadowing well, the reader realizes it at the end of the story. Sometimes authors are too blunt with foreshadowing and give away the story, and other times they can be too abstract with the foreshadowing, and readers might not pick up on it (though sometimes that’s part of the fun!)
It’s a complex device to figure out, but it can make for an immensely compelling story when it works. My favorite example of foreshadowing in literature is in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
*Spoilers for Of Mice and Men if you have not read it!*
In the middle of the story, there’s a scene about an old, sick dog Lulu. Candy, the dog’s owner, knows she’s ill but can’t bear to put her down. Curly shoots the dog to end its suffering, but Candy is distraught. He later told the protagonist, George, that he should have shot Lulu himself because a man should put down his own dog.
This scene foreshadowed the novel’s climax when George had to kill Lennie, the kind, mentally challenged man he was responsible for after Lennie accidentally killed Curly’s wife.
Personification is a literary technique in which the author gives an inanimate object human feelings and characteristics to help convey ideas or emotions. Authors use this to describe the feel of an area and to provide character or life to settings that would be bland otherwise.
A sentence like “the flowers smiled cheerily up at the sun” gives the impression of a happy summer day. Readers know that flowers can’t be cheery and can’t smile, but giving them these very human attributes adds life to the description.
Alternatively, making objects angry can give readers feelings of anxiousness or fear. A sentence like “The wind howled as the thunder erupted in a furious roar” provides the weather with very human vocalizations and can showcase the storm’s intensity.
Diction is simply the author’s choice of words. Author’s can choose to be clear and concise, or they can be overly descriptive and add imagery and detail to every sentence.
The author’s use of slang and dialect is also part of diction. An author needs to decide whether they will write clearly so the reader can easily understand or use more creative techniques like eye dialect and slang to change the sound of their work.
Eye dialect is a literary device in which authors write with incorrect spelling and grammar to highlight the pronunciation of a word. Zora Neal Hurston used eye dialect in her famous novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.“
Every novel has words, so it may seem that diction is a literary element rather than a technique. Some may argue that it is. However, in my opinion, the technique isn’t that it has words, but it’s how you use those words. There are many different ways to do that, making your choice of diction and dialect a literary technique.
Many More Literary Techniques
There are many more literary techniques and ways authors use language to tell a compelling story. Authors use allusion, allegory, rhetorical thinking, symbolism, imagery, irony, and the list goes on and on.
As an author, you pick and choose which literary techniques you will use in your story. Most stories showcase many different methods, and a good mix of them helps keep your audience engaged in the story.
Literary Elements versus Literary Techniques
Literary devices and literary techniques are often used interchangeably. They are the same thing. Don’t let naming conventions trip you up.
Use the Literary Elements as Building Blocks for Your Novel
Now that you know the literary elements, it’s time to put them together to craft your perfect story. These are the building blocks of every epic novel. Start yours today.
Need help? Grab our creative writing prompts on Etsy!
Melanie Allen is an American journalist and happiness expert. She has bylines on MSN, the AP News Wire, Wealth of Geeks, Media Decision, and numerous media outlets across the nation. She covers a wide range of topics centered around self-actualization and the quest for a fulfilling life.