Literary elements in storytelling can cause a lot of confusion, and even a bit of fear, among new writers. Once you’re able to recognize the literary elements of a story you’ll realize that they’re present in absolutely everything.
All stories are made up of basic structural building blocks such as plot, character, and theme, whether it’s a riveting Friday night TV series, a two-hundred-thousand-word Dickensian novel of redemption, or a trashy paperback about fifty shades of highly inappropriate workplace relations. Once you understand how these elements of story take shape from our literary elements list, you’ll be able to use them to explore entire worlds of your own.
What are literary elements?
Literary elements are the foundation of every story that ever was or has ever been. Common literary elements include character, setting, conflict, and more, which we’ll look at in more detail below.
Here’s an example of why literary elements matter in storytelling:
The cat sat on the chair is an event. A small, quiet happenstance with a beginning and an ending so closely entwined that you almost can’t tell one from the other.
The cat sat on the dog’s chair is a story.
Why? Because with the addition of one little word, suddenly this quiet happenstance is glowing with possibility. We have our characters—a cat and a dog, whose relationship is gently hinted at with the promise of being further explored. We have our setting—a chair, which has taken on new importance as the central axis of this moment. And, perhaps most importantly, we have our conflict. An inciting moment where two characters want something and we know that these desires can’t exist side by side. This is a story.
All stories come from these basic building blocks that we call “literary elements.” Without them, seeds of a story like this one can’t grow into rich, full narratives.
You may already be able to identify some or all of these literary elements from the stories you’ve experienced throughout your life, whether that’s through reading them or from watching them in films or on television. Once you know what these literary elements of a story are and how they fit together, you’ll be able to create vivid, engaging stories from your own little seeds.
What’s the difference between literary elements vs. literary devices?
Sometimes you’ll see a “literary elements list” or “literary devices list” that toss the two together in one big storytelling melange, but literary elements and literary devices are actually two very distinct things. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
These are things that every single story needs to have in order to exist—they’re the architectural foundation. Without them, your story is like a house without any supports; it’ll collapse into a sad, lifeless pile of rubble, and you’ll hear your parents tossing around unfeeling words like “day job” when talking about your writing.
A literary device, on the other hand, refers to the many tools and literary techniques that a writer uses to bring a story to life for the reader. The difference is like the difference between making a home instead of merely building a house.
You can have a very simple story without any literary devices at all, but it would do little other than serve a functional purpose of showing a beginning, middle, and end. Literary devices are what bring that basic story scaffolding to life for the reader. They’re what make the story yours.
Some of the most common literary devices are things like metaphors, similes, imagery, language, and tons more. By experimenting with different literary devices and literary techniques in your own writing, you open up the full expanse of potential in creating literary works.
Once you’ve got a handle on the literary elements that we’re going to show you and how to apply them to your own narrative, you can check out our lesson on popular literary devices to find ways to bring new richness and depth to your work.
The 7 elements of literature
The most fundamental of the literary elements, the root of all storytelling, is this: character.
No matter what species your main character belongs to, what their socio-ethno-economic background is, what planet they come from, or what time period they occupy, your characters will have innate needs and desires that we as human beings can see within ourselves. The longing for independence, the desire to be loved, the need to feel safe are all things that most of us have experienced and can relate to when presented through the filter of story.
The first step to using this literary element is easy, and what most new writers think of when they start thinking about characters. it’s simply asking yourself, who is this person? (And again, I’m using “person” in the broadest possible sense.) What makes them interesting? Why is this protagonist someone I might enjoy reading about?
The second step is a little harder. Ask yourself, what does this person want? To be chosen for their high school basketball team? To get accepted into a university across the country? To find a less stressful job?
The third step is the most difficult, and the most important. Ask yourself what they need. Do they want to join the basketball team because they need the approval of their parents? Do they want to move across the country because they need a fresh start in a new place? Do they want a new job because they need to feel that their contribution is valued?
Once you’re able to answer these questions you’ll already feel the bones of a narrative taking shape.
Types of characters you’ll find in every story
Since character is the primary building block of all good literature, you’ll want your character to be as engaging and true to real life as can be. Let’s take a quick look at some of the different character types you’ll encounter in your story world.
Your protagonist is the main character of your story. Often they’ll be the hero, but not always—antiheroes and complex morally grey leads make for interesting plots, too. This is the character through which your reader goes on a journey and learns the valuable lessons illustrated in your themes (more on theme down below).
You can learn more about what a protagonist is and how to create powerful characters for your story here.
Your antagonist is the person standing in the way of your protagonist’s goal. These two central characters have opposing desires, and it’s the conflict born out of that opposition that drives the events of the plot. Sometimes an antagonist will be a villain bent on world destruction, and sometimes it’ll be an average person who simply sees the world in a different way.
You can learn more about what an antagonist is and how to create compelling opponents in your story here.
Once you have those two essential leads, your story needs its supporting cast. This is where you get to have fun with other characters like friends, love interests, family dynamics, and a whole range of character archetypes that bring your story to life. You can learn more about character archetypes in a story here.
As a bonus, many stories may also feature foil characters. A foil character in literature refers to two characters who may or may not be at odds with each other, but are opposite in every way. This literary technique works effectively to highlight aspects of each character. Your foil characters may be the protagonist and the antagonist, or the protagonist and one of the supporting characters, or both.
You can learn more about what a foil character is and how to use them effectively in your story here.
Your setting is where, when, and to some degree how your story takes place. It’s also your character’s relationship with the world around them. A story setting might be as small as a cupboard under the stairs, or it might be as wide and vast as twenty thousand leagues of endless grey sea. A short story might have only one setting, the heart of where the story takes place; longer works such as novels will probably have several. You can use all five senses to develop your setting.
Setting often gets overlooked as a less important literary element than character, plot, or conflict, but in reality a setting can drive all of these things. So much of who we are is shaped by the social setting we grew up, the places we spend our time, the time period we grew up in, and major events of the time that impacted our cultural awareness. Your characters are no different.
Someone who has spent their life on a sprawling country estate bordering a dark and spooky wood will naturally grow into someone very different than someone living in the narrow back alleys of a noisy, gritty city—just as someone living in the Great Depression of the 1930s will grow to develop different habits and perspectives than someone living in the technological advancements of the late 1990s.
Layers of setting to explore in your writing
Setting isn’t just about place—it’s about building your story world from the ground up. Here are the three different layers of setting you’ll need to consider when crafting your tale.
Temporal setting refers to the time in which your story is set. This means the period of history—whether that’s in contemporary times, at the turn of the century, or in a distant future—as well as the season of the year, time of day or night, and point in your protagonist’s life cycle.
This is the wider world of your story—what fantasy and science-fiction writers call “worldbuilding.” It refers to the natural landscape your characters find themselves in as well as cultural, political, and socioeconomic values and the way your characters interact with those values.
This is the fine details of setting, and what we most often tend to think about when we consider setting in a story. These are the stages on which your story takes place: an elementary school, a police station, a city park, a pirate ship. Your story needs the support of temporal and environmental setting, but individual settings are what really bring the world to life.
You can learn more about what setting in a story is and how to write vivid times and places for your story here.
The way you’re telling your story to the reader is as essential as the story that’s being told. In literary terms, narrative is the perspective from which the events of the story are unfolding and the way that you, as the author, have chosen to communicate them.
Every single character brings a different perspective to the story. They may have prejudices, limitations, prior knowledge, or deep character flaws that colour the way they see the world around them.
Some stories stay with only one character throughout the entire journey; others may explore the thoughts and feelings of many. As an exercise, you may want to try writing a story from multiple perspectives to gain a better understanding of your story world. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about your characters that you never imagined.
Types of PoV used in fiction writing
Point of view, or PoV, is one of the most important choices a writer makes when beginning a new work of fiction. Here’s a quick overview of the different points of view you’ll find in all narratives.
First Person Subjective
First person narratives are written from the character’s point of view (or the PoV of multiple characters) as if they were speaking directly to the reader. You’ll use statements like “I saw a shadow move from the corner of my eye,” or, “and then he told me that it was over.” First person subjective PoV takes the reader into the mind of the character and shows us everything they’re thinking and feeling.
First Person Objective
First person objective is very similar because it’s also from the character’s perspective and uses “I” and “me” statements. The difference is that the objective PoV doesn’t show the character’s internal thoughts and feelings—only their actions. This gives the reader an outside perspective and makes them feel like they’re watching video footage of the story, deducing what’s happening under the surface from the events of the plot.
Second person PoV has a lot in common with first person, but instead of being told from the main character’s perspective, it’s told from the reader’s—this allows the reader to become the person telling the story. You may remember this from “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. In second person narration, you’ll use statements like “you turn a corner and find yourself staring at a door you’ve never seen.” This is challenging to do well, but a fun creative exercise for any writer.
Third Person Limited Subjective
Third person points of view are the most classic in literature; they use “he,” “she,” or “they” to follow the characters’ journeys. In a limited subjective point of view, you’ll allow the reader to experience the thoughts and feelings of your protagonist—but no one else. This is a common narrative choice in mystery novels.
Third Person Objective
Third person objective is pretty similar to first person objective, but it uses the third person pronouns. The reader won’t experience anything the characters are thinking or feeling except through their actions and the choices that they make, leaving the true undercurrents of the story to the reader’s imagination.
Third Person Multiple Subjective
This perspective works like third person limited subjective, in that it takes the reader into the minds of the characters using the pronouns “he,” “she,” or “they.” The difference is that the reader gets to see into more than one character—but only one at any given moment. This might involve chapters that alternate between one character and another, or a story that shows two different timelines with protagonists for each one.
Third Person Omniscient
This perspective is very similar to third person multiple subjective, but it allows the reader to see into more than one character’s thoughts in the same moment. The third person omniscient creates a “mental dollhouse” effect in which the internal workings of everyone on stage is exposed to the reader.
You can learn more about all these different points of view and how to use them in your writing, with examples from literature, here.
In a literary text, the plot is the sequence of events that takes the protagonist on a journey—whether that’s a literal journey from one place to another, a journey in which they learn how something came to be, or a journey in which they learn something about themselves. Some stories may be all of these things.
How your protagonist reacts to the events around them and the choices that they make come from the things they want and the things they need—we looked at that a little bit in character, above. Most of these stories will fall into one of a few classic plot structures that have been shown to resonate with us on a deep, instinctual level. And every one of these plot structures will use several essential plot points.
Important plot points every story needs
There’s a number of different ways to approach the plot of your story, but you’ll find that most of them follow the same general sequence of events from the inciting incident, or the first key plot point, to the denouement. Let’s look at the different stages that a good story will pass through from beginning to end.
The inciting incident is the event that changes the protagonist’s life and sends them on a different path than the one they were on before. This will be the first major plot point of every story, and is essential for grabbing the reader’s attention. A good example might be if a mysterious new stranger enters the protagonist’s life.
During the first half of your story, your characters will encounter several challenges on their way to achieving their goal (the one set into motion by the inciting incident). These “mini battles” form the rising action of a story.
The climax is the great showdown between the protagonist and their adversary, the moment of greatest triumph and greatest loss. Everything your characters have learned through the rising action has led to this moment.
After the final battle, your characters need to adjust to the new landscape of their world. During the falling action, you’ll show the reader how the effects of the rising action and the climax reverberate into the characters’ lives.
The denouement is the final scene of any story that wraps up all the lingering threads and answers any unaddressed questions. A well-written denouement will leave the reader feeling satisfied as they close the book.
You can learn more about applying these literary techniques with these essential plot points and how to build your story from the ground up here.
When looking at the events that make up your plot, all of the choices your character needs to make will be in response to the literary element we call “conflict.” This makes it one of the most essential literary elements in literature. This might be a conflict with another person, a conflict inside themselves, or a conflict with their environment. It might be all of these things. There’s a reason we close the book after “happily ever after”; once there’s no more conflict, the story has run its course and there’s nothing more to say.
In a story, your protagonist should always have something to fight for. After you’ve determined what they want and what they need most, ask yourself what’s standing in their way. What steps can they take to overcome this obstacle? And—this is a big one—what do they stand to lose if they fail?
How your protagonist reacts to these conflicts shows a lot about who they are as a person. As the story progresses and your character grows, the way they handle these conflicts will probably change—they’ll start taking an active role in moving the story along, rather than a passive one.
Types of conflict that drive your characters
Conflict is essential to a good story, but it can be so much more than simply pitting a hero against a villain. Let’s look at the different kinds of conflict that drive a story forward.
Character vs. Character
Above, we looked at how antagonists can be central characters in a good narrative. This type of conflict sets a person against another person, usually the classic bad guys of literature, and watches their opposing needs play out. These will usually be the main characters of the literary work.
Character vs. Self
Sometimes, a protagonist’s obstacle comes from within. This might be something like addiction, alcoholism, fear, or other forms of self-sabotage. This type of conflict shows the main character fighting and ultimately overcoming their central weakness.
Character vs. Society
This type of conflict sets an individual protagonist against the larger world. Stories that deal in difficult themes like racism, homophobia, misogyny, or class divides often focus on this conflict. (We’ll look a little more at theme down below.)
Character vs. Nature
A beloved mainstay of hollywood blockbusters, this type of conflict sets the protagonist against an impersonal force of the natural world—an animal, a natural disaster, or illness.
You can learn more about different types of conflict and how to find the right one for your story here.
Theme as a literary element is something that makes both readers and writers a little cautious. After all, doesn’t worrying about developing and understanding a theme take some of the enjoyment out of stories? Well no, it shouldn’t, because themes are present in all works of art whether they were put there intentionally or not. Theme is simply the sum of what the creator was trying to communicate with their work.
Neil Gaiman approached the idea of theme very nicely by asking one simple question: “What’s it about?” What’s this story really about? Underneath all the explosions and secrets and tense kisses and whatever else makes your plot go forward, maybe it’s really a story about family. Or injustice. Or maybe it’s about being there for your best friend even when they screw up really, really bad.
Contrary to popular belief, your theme isn’t an extra layer you add to give depth and richness to the plot. Your theme is the story’s heart—the reason it exists.
Your central theme probably isn’t where the story comes from, at least not initially. Most likely it’s something you’ll discover along the way as the story’s central message becomes clearer through the actions of your characters. It might be an abstract idea, or a lesson you want to share with the world.
Then, once you find this idea taking shape in your mind, you can double back and add in literary devices, details, figurative language, motifs, and relationships that support this heart of the story. Voilà—now it looks like you knew what you were doing all along.
Examples of classic themes in literature
A story’s theme is the central axis of every literary work. Sometimes you’ll find you have multiple themes present in one story, each supporting and underlining the other. Here’s a list of common themes you’ll find across literature.
Central idea themes
Opposing principle themes
Good vs. Evil
Individual vs. Society
Life vs. Death
Fate vs. Free Will
Tradition vs. Change
Pride vs. Humility
Justice vs. Depravity
Morality vs. Fear
You can read more about each of these themes, with tips for finding your own, here.
A writer’s voice is something that no guidebook can give you; it’s simply what’s left after everything that’s not your voice has been worn away.
Think of it this way: the work of new writers is usually a spark of an idea (sometimes original, sometimes not) encrusted with everything they’ve ever read. They may be trying to emulate writers who have written things that they’ve resonated with, or they may have simply absorbed those things subconsciously and are now watching them leak out of their fingers as they write.
That’s not to say that writing literature in the style of other craftsmen before you is a negative thing; in fact, it’s how we learn to master the storytelling craft of our own. This is how we try things and find them delightful, or we try things and find that, for some reason or another, they don’t quite settle into our bones the way we’d like them too. Those pieces get discarded, and we continue to grow.
Every time you write something, you’re essentially working in the dark to smooth down the rough gem that will become your storytelling voice. Little by little it takes shape, and one day you read over something you’ve written and are surprised by the thought, “Hey! That sounds like me.”
There’s no formula to this, unfortunately. A writer develops this core literary element simply by doing, by trying, by experimenting with word choice and by being aware of what works and what doesn’t and why.
Once you have this your stories become something that is intimately yours, and no one else’s, even as you grow and share those stories with the world.
Tips for developing your writer’s voice
A writer’s voice can only be found by practicing your own writing and looking inwards, but here’s a few tips to keep in mind that will help you uncover and refine your signature voice.
The best way to find your unique voice as a writer is by reading the work of others who have gone before you. This will help you immerse in different styles, sentence structures, and literary devices to find which ones feel like a natural fit.
Try on other writers
As an exercise, try emulating the style of different writers. By experimenting with the different narrative structures in literary works that you’ve read, you’ll be able to refine the parts that feel like you and discard the ones that don’t.
Experiment with structure
Another great exercise is experimenting with specific story archetypes and writing prompts. By imposing restraints on a piece of narrative work, you’ll be able to see how your own natural writer’s voice breaks through.
You can read more about these writing exercises, with examples of other writer’s voices in literature, here.
How to use literary elements to write a great story
There are as many ways to begin a story as there are storytellers. We’ve reviewed the seven literary elements that are the basic building blocks of all good stories:
We’ve looked at how characters are the lifeblood of every story; how our characters are shaped by their world, or setting; how characters reveal themselves through the events of the plot; how plot is powered by a series made of choices in response to conflict; how the underlying theme of your story is at the heart of every choice your character makes; and how their unique perspective and your unique perspective come together to tell the story in a way that only you can.
The truth is, every single one of these literary elements is an essential piece of a perfect, interwoven whole.
To create a powerful story, review each of these seven literary elements and consciously pay attention to each one as you explore your own writing. The most memorable stories are the ones where the writer has carefully used these seven elements in depth to build a solid storytelling foundation.
When you sit down to write, the idea for a new story can come from any one of these literary elements. It might be a cool new character you want to explore further, a period in time that you’re fascinated by, an event you overhear while sitting at a café, or an underrepresented theme that you want to build a story around so that you can share it with the world.
Once you catch a little glimmer of what your story has the potential to become, the next step is to ask yourself some of the questions we discussed here to see how all of these literary elements will fit together. You can also consider incorporating a simple literary device, or several, to watch the work come to life.
Then you begin. Write things. Reconsider. Begin again. Never throw anything away. Allow yourself the freedom to learn as you go. Trust that there’s something that the world needs to hear locked somewhere inside of you, and you’re uncovering it one layer at a time. Sometimes you’ll feel like your creative spirit is on fire. Sometimes you’ll feel like it’s sitting in a pile of ashes. Both are valid. Have a teapot nearby.