• Yessica Jain

Literary Elements & How to Make the Most of Them

Literary elements are the foundation of all stories. Plot, characters, setting, theme, and style define a novel. They are what readers read for. Without them, a story seems incomplete. Keep reading to learn why they are so important and how to best use them.


PLOT

The plot is the story. While you can have character-driven short stories with little to no plot, a novel needs to have a storyline. A plot consists of five main parts.

  • The exposition is when you introduce your characters and setting. One pitfall to avoid is infodumping, or over-explaining things the reader does not need to know. The exposition can—and should—blend into the next part.

  • The rising action is when you develop the plot and the conflict. You introduce the stakes and show the reader why this story matters to them and the characters. During this part, your characters will face various obstacles on their journey towards their goal. Remember to give them wins and losses. A character who always wins won’t undergo character development, resulting in a flat character. If your character never wins, your readers will give up on them. Find a healthy balance.

  • This all leads to the climax, the turning point in the novel. This is when the protagonist and antagonist battle it out. This is when important characters die. Because it is so important, the conflict is often listed as a literary element of its own. Your novel revolves around conflict and the climax is when the readers and character find out how the conflict will end. Does the protagonist win?

  • The falling action and resolution succeed the climax. Loose ends get tied, questions get answered, and apologies are said. You can give the readers a happy ending or an “everyone is dead and the main character has broken down in grief” ending. Your choice. By this point, there should be no plot holes left. That is, unless you are writing a series and want to leave your readers with a cliffhanger.

These five parts are typically shown with a mountain, with the climax at the peak. This is known as Freytag’s diagram. In a short story, there is only one rising and falling action, but in a longer work, there can be numerous. A novel should be a series of ups and downs, all of which build up to the main climax.


CHARACTERS

However interesting your plot may be, odds are, your readers will read your book for the characters. Readers want to fall in love with and relate to your protagonists. Your novel may have a main character, POV characters, secondary characters, minor characters, and antagonists. Here are some ways to develop characters:

  • Your characters should have strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses. Flaws are what make a character relatable and believable. Unless you are writing about a god (and truth be told, that’s not a good enough excuse) your characters need to fail. They need to make mistakes. Their attempt at doing the right thing needs to fall on its head. Some of the best plot twists are when a positive trait is turned into a negative one. A trusting character is gullible and a brave character is foolish. Read more about creating unique and relatable characters here.

  • The characters should have a moral code. Whether they are the protagonist or the antagonist, no character should make moral decisions senselessly. Giving your hero a weak moral code can make the reader distrust them, and giving your villains a strong moral code can make them more believable.

  • Relationships between characters make for great subplots in any genre (and main plots in some genres). Your main character should interact with all the other characters in your book. This helps develop their personality.

  • Characters must change. Their abilities, morals, and relationships need to react to the plot. Is a character forced to lie to their best friend, straining their friendship? Does a character have to choose between their life and their morals? A character may be forced to learn to wield a weapon because of their circumstances. Character development should mirror the plot.


SETTING

Where and when your story takes place will affect the progression of the plot and the development of your characters. Do the many mountains on their path slow down their journey? Does the rain force them to postpone their plans? Are your characters affected by any kind of prejudice?

If your book takes place on Earth (whether in modern day or in the past), research the specific locations your story occurs in. How does it look? What is the culture like there? What language(s) do people speak?

If your book takes place in the future or in a different world, you want to ask yourself the same questions. This time, you probably won’t find your answers online, but in your imagination. Consistency is key to believability. A world with 27 kingdoms will still have 27 kingdoms five weeks later (unless your story is about a civil war).

Wherever and whenever your story takes place, one thing remains the same. The more you know about where your characters are, the more realistically you can write. Accuracy and details allow the reader to better understand the setting, preventing white room syndrome. Readers deserve enough information about the setting to be able to visualize the scene.


THEME

Every story teaches the reader something, and the best stories teach the reader something they will remember forever. A meaningful plot will have a theme, so this literary element is not one you need to work on deliberately. Some stories, of course, spawn from a theme. You may know what lesson you want to teach the reader before you know how, and that’s okay. Let your theme grow into ideas that turn into a novel.

Your book will have more than one theme—that’s natural. In fact, most chapters will have a theme of your own. That’s one way to tell your chapter is important to the story and the reader.


STYLE

Here are two of the many things your writing style includes:

  • Pacing: How long you spend on a single scene in your novel will determine how your readers perceive it. You might skip travel scenes with a scene break, which tells the reader nothing important happened during the journey. You should use simple sentences during action scenes, because your narrator doesn’t have time to make longer thoughts. If a character is watching the sun set, they might describe every detail of the sky, which tells the reader the narrator is not pressed for time. Pacing well can also help you achieve your target word count. If you’re an underwriter, maybe you need to slow down some scenes and describe the setting. If you’re an overwriter, try speeding through less important scenes.

  • Word Choice: your word choice and use of literary devices contributes to the overall theme of your story as much as the plot. Two sentences with the same message can have dramatically different tones. Take, for instance, the difference in formality between you are invited to my home and come over to my place. Consider how different narrators in your novel might express the same thing in different ways.


Literary elements work together. Your plot and characters drive each other and are affected by the setting. Your style is how you tell the story, and your theme is a natural consequence of all of these.

My favorite literary element is characters, because I love reading and writing about their morals and relationships. What is your favorite element? Let me know in the comments!


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