English 101: Elements of a Story

Anyone that has written a literature analysis paper for a class knows that finding reliable resources that support an argument can be a tedious task in itself. Web articles and blogs throw words around like themes, elements, and characteristics when breaking down a work of fiction, almost as if they’re synonymous to another. This can make the research process even more frustrating. And knowing the difference is important. Understanding the basics to a story is fundamental to writing successful literary analysis papers.

Don’t be embarrassed. Even the best writers go back to the basics, it’s how one refines their skills as a writer!

Which is exactly what we will be exploring. Time for an English 101 Refresher!

Back to the Basics

What is a Literary Element?

In plain terms, a literary element is any essential characteristic to contribute to a work of fiction and it’s purpose. The parts of the story. It is what becomes the foundation of a literary work. This would include characteristics such as plot and subplots, context, voice, style, setting, themes, dialogue,etc. Commonalities between these characteristics make up a genre.

The Breakdown of Literary Elements

Contemporary definitions of each element that makes up a story:

The plot is defined as the major events in story, the focal point. Subplots are minor events that contribute to the overall theme, or central idea of a story. This the ‘what’ as in what’s happening in the story. What the main character is doing? What conflict are they facing?

Defined in Ridl & Schakel’s Approaching Literature (3rd Edition), a theme is “the central idea embodied or explored in a literary work”(p.1486).

Setting can be defined by time, location or circumstances of the story. Writers use techniques of tone, voice, style to paint this picture. For example, a setting found in most works of gothic fiction would be a castle or a haunted house. Like those found in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley or The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

Referring back to our text, Approaching Literature, a conflict is defined as “a confrontation or struggle between opposing characters or forces in literary work, which gives rise to and is a focal point for the action of the plot”(p.1472).

From whose eyes are we seeing the chain of events unfold? It could be from some omniscient being, someone indirectly involved with the conflict or someone who is in the thick of the plot.

What are the characters like in the story? Do they have a complete change of heart by the end of the story or are they exactly the same? Did the conflict resolve or worsen their situation? Are they an unlikely hero or Mr. Popularity? These are details that are important to pay attention to.


All of these elements combined make up a story. These elements are important to identify when reading, as they can be helpful in finding keyword resources to support arguments in literary analysis.

Cited Sources

Schakel, Peter J., and Jack Ridl. Approaching Literature: Reading + Thinking + Writing. Bedford/St. Martins, 2012.


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