Elements of Literature
Aim: At the end of this lecture, the students will be able to:
1- identify the various elements of literature;
2- illustrate the importance of each element;
3- explain and break down the function of each element.
1- Elements of Fiction
Characterization is a means by which writers present and reveal characters – by direct description, by showing the character in action, or by the presentation of other characters who help to define each other.
Characters in fiction can be conveniently classified as major and minor, static and dynamic. A major character is an important figure at the center of the story’s action or theme. The major character is sometimes called a protagonist whose conflict with an antagonist may spark the story’s conflict. Supporting the major character are one or more secondary or minor characters whose function is partly to illuminate the major characters. Minor characters are often static or unchanging: they remain the same from the beginning of a work to the end. Dynamic characters, on the other hand, exhibit some kind of change – of attitude, purpose, behavior, as the story progresses.
Irony is not so much an element of fiction as a pervasive quality in it. It may appear in fiction in three ways: in a work’s language, in its incidents, or in its point of view. But in whatever form it emerges, irony always involves a contrast or discrepancy between one thing and another. The contrast may be between what is said and what is meant (verbal irony), what is expected to happen and what actually happens (situational irony) or between what a character believes or says and what the reader understands to be true (dramatic irony).
Plot, the action element in fiction, is the arrangement of events that make up a story. Many fictional plots turn on a conflict, or struggle between opposing forces, that is usually resolved by the end of the story. Typical fictional plots begin with an exposition, that provides background information needed to make sense of the action, describes the setting, and introduces the major characters; these plots develop a series of complications or intensifications of the conflict that lead to a crisis or moment of great tension. The conflict may reach a climax or turning point, a moment of greatest tension that fixes the outcome; then, the action falls off as the plot’s complications are sorted out and resolved (the resolution or dénouement). Be aware, however, that much of twentieth-century fiction does not exhibit such strict formality of design.
Point of view
refers to who tells the story and how it is told. The possible ways of telling a story are many, and more than one point of view can be worked into a single story. However, the various points of view that storytellers draw upon can be grouped into two broad categories:
Third-Person Narrator (uses pronouns he, she, or they):
1. Omniscient: The narrator is all-knowing and takes the reader inside the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and motives, as well as shows what the characters say and do.
2. Limited omniscient: The narrator takes the reader inside one (or at most very few characters) but neither the reader nor the character(s) has access to the inner lives of any of the other characters in the story.
3. Objective: The narrator does not see into the mind of any character; rather he or she reports the action and dialogue without telling the reader directly what the characters feel and think.
First-Person Narrator (uses pronoun I):
The narrator presents the point of view of only one character’s consciousness, which limits the narrative to what the first-person narrator knows, experiences, infers, or can find out by talking to other characters.
Setting is the physical and social context in which the action of a story occurs. The major elements of setting are the time, the place, and the social environment that frames the characters. These elements establish the world in which the characters act. Sometimes the setting is lightly sketched, presented only because the story has to take place somewhere and at some time. Often, however, the setting is more important, giving the reader the feel of the people who move through it. Setting can be used to evoke a mood or atmosphere that will prepare the reader for what is to come.
Style is the way a writer chooses words (diction), arranges them in sentences and longer units of discourse (syntax) and exploits their significance. Style is the verbal identity of a writer, as unmistakable as his or her face or voice. Reflecting their individuality, writers’ styles convey their unique ways of seeing the world.
A symbol is a person, object, image, word, ore vent that evokes a range of additional meanings beyond and usually more abstract than its literal significance. Symbols are devices for evoking complex ideas without having to resort to painstaking explanations. Conventional symbols have meanings that are widely recognized by a society or culture, i.e., the Christian cross, the Star of David, a swastika, a nation’s flag. A literary or contextual symbol can be a setting, a character, action, object, name, or anything else in a specific work that maintains its literal significance while suggesting other meanings. For example, the white whale in Melville’s Moby Dick takes on multiple symbolic meanings in the work, but these meanings do not automatically carry over into other stories about whales.
Theme is the central idea or meaning of a story. Theme in fiction is rarely presented at all; it is abstracted from the details of character and action that compose the story. It provides a unifying point around which the plot, characters, setting, point of view, symbols, and other elements of a story are organized. Be careful to distinguish theme from plot – the story’s sequence of actions – and from subject – what the story is generally about.
Tone is the author’s implicit attitude toward the reader, subject, and/or the people, places, and events in a work as revealed by the elements of the author’s style. Tone may be characterized as serious or ironic, sad or happy, private of public, angry or affectionate, bitter or nostalgic, or any other attitudes and feelings that human beings experience.
2- Elements of Poetry
Alliteration is a repetition of the same consonant sounds in a sequence of words, usually at the beginning of a word or stressed syllable: “descending dew drops;” “luscious lemons.” Alliteration is based on the sounds of letters, rather than the spelling of words; for example, “keen” and “car” alliterate, but “car” and “cite” do not.
Assonance is the repetition of similar internal vowel sounds in a sentence or a line of poetry, as in “I rose and told him of my woe.”
Figurative language is a form of language use in which the writers and speakers mean something other than the literal meaning of their words. Two figures of speech that are particularly important for poetry are simile and metaphor. A simile involves a comparison between unlike things using like or as. For instance, “My love is like a red, red rose.” A metaphor is a comparison between essentially unlike things without a word such as like or as. For example, “My love is a red, red rose.” Synecdoche is a type of metaphor in which part of something is used to signify the whole, as when a gossip is called a “wagging tongue.” Metonymy is a type of metaphor in which something closely associated with a subject is substituted for it, such as saying the “silver screen” to mean motion pictures.
Imagery is the concrete representation of a sense impression, feeling, or idea that triggers our imaginative ere-enactment of a sensory experience. Images may be visual (something seen), aural (something heard), tactile (something felt), olfactory (something smelled), or gustatory (something tasted). Imagery may also refer to a pattern of related details in a poem.
Rhyme is the repetition of identical or similar concluding syllables in different words, most often at the ends of lines. Rhyme is predominantly a function of sound rather than spelling; thus, words that end with the same vowel sounds rhyme, for instance, day, prey, bouquet, weigh, and words with the same consonant ending rhyme, for instance vain, rein, lane. The rhyme scheme of a poem, describes the pattern of end rhymes. Rhyme schemes are mapped out by noting patterns of rhyme with small letters: the first rhyme sound is designated a, the second becomes b, the third c, and so on.
Rhythm is the term used to refer to the recurrence of stressed and unstressed sounds in poetry. Poets rely heavily on rhythm to express meaning and convey feeling. Caesura is a strong pause within a line of poetry that contributes to the rhythm of the line. When a line has a pause at its end, it is called an end-stopped line. Such pauses reflect normal speech patterns and are often marked by punctuation. A line that ends without a pause and continues into the next line for its meaning is called a run-on line or enjambment.
Stanza is a grouping of lines, set off by a space, which usually has a set pattern of meter and rhyme.
Tone conveys the speaker’s implied attitude toward the poem’s subject. Tone is an abstraction we make from the details of a poem’s language: the use of meter and rhyme (or lack of them); the inclusion of certain kinds of details and exclusion of other kinds; particular choices of words and sentence pattern, or imagery and figurative language (diction). Another important element of tone is the order of words in sentences, phrases, or clauses (syntax).
3- Elements of Drama
Dialogue, the verbal exchanges between characters in a play, typically has three major functions: to advance the plot, to establish setting (time and place of the action), and to reveal characters’ thoughts, responses and emotional states – its most important and consistent function.
Plot, character, and theme, in terms of drama, are generally defined the same as they are for fiction. See your Elements of Fiction handout.
Stage directions are a playwright’s written instructions about how the actors are to move and behave in a play. They explain in which direction characters should move, what facial expressions they should assume, how they should speak a line, etc.
Staging is a play’s visual detail. This includes such things are the positions of actors on-stage (sometimes referred to as blocking), their nonverbal gestures and movements (also called stage business), the scenic background, the props and costumes, lighting, and sound effects.
NOTE: Although plays can certainly be read and enjoyed as literature, always remember that drama is a staged art. Plays are written to be performed by actors before an audience.