Literary Elements: The 7 Essential Building Blocks of Fiction
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 literary elements of story take shape, you’ll be able to use them to explore entire worlds of your own.
Literary elements are the building blocks of story
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.
How are literary elements different from literary devices?
You’ll see some “literary elements lists” or “literary devices lists” that toss the two together in one big storytelling melange, but literary elements and literary devices are actually two very distinct things.
Literary elements 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.
Literary devices, on the other hand, are the many tools and 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.
Once you’ve got a handle on the literary elements that we’re going to show you and how to apply them to your story, you can check out our lesson on literary devices to find ways to bring new richness and depth to your work.
The 7 literary elements you’ll find in every good story
The most fundamental of the literary elements, the root of all storytelling, is this: character. No matter what species your 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 story taking shape. Then you can help it grow by discovering the other characters that help (or hinder) your protagonist on their journey—your antagonist and the rest of your supporting players. You can read more about them when we talk about character 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.
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 place 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.
When you’ve discovered where and when you want your story to take place, ask yourself how that place has shaped your characters and what unique challenges it presents that they’ll need to overcome. We’ll look more at the different types of settings you’ll use in your story here.
The way you’re telling your story to the reader is as essential as the story that’s being told. 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. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about your characters that you never imagined.
Narrative is also the style of point of view, or PoV, with which you’re presenting your character. There are about six different PoVs used in fiction, and most of them will be a variation of either first person perspective, in which the protagonist narrates, or third person, in which the narrator is removed from the story. Every one of these brings a different sense of detail and intimacy to your story.
In your story, 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 (this is the usual formula of murder mysteries), or a journey in which they learn something about themselves. Some stories may be all of these things.
Of this sequence, the first major event is the thing that sets the story into motion—this is called the “inciting incident”. Usually, this is something the protagonist feels they have no control over. Then they react, and that reaction sets off another event. These causes and effects mount in intensity and overall epicness until the climax of the story.
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. We’ll look at how to use the dramatic arc and others to help navigate your story from beginning to end in our lesson on story structure 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 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. Is it another person? An organization? A bad habit or a weakness inside themselves? 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 (we’ll look at this idea a little bit more in story structure).
We’ll go deeper into the different types of conflict found in literature, and how to find the right conflict to power your story, in our lesson on conflict here.
Theme 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 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 what you’re really trying to say becomes clearer through the actions of your characters. Then, once you find this idea taking shape in your mind, you can double back and add in details, motifs, and relationships that support this heart of the story. Voilà—now it looks like you knew what you were doing all along.
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 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 finds their voice simply by doing, by trying, 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.
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 craft your narrative. The most memorable stories are the ones where the writer has carefully used these seven elements 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.
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.