Writing Tip: Literary Elements

Posted January 19, 2017 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Writing

Revised as of:
15 January 2018

Literary elements are the building blocks of fictional writing, of story. They are frequently confused with literary devices — and as some elements are considered devices, it only makes it more confusing.

Now literary devices are a gadget, a tool used in building something, and are used in helping to build that story. Just as you would not use a Robertson screwdriver every time you assemble something, you would not use a literary device in every story.

This means devices are not required, whereas the six major elements of fiction — character, plot, point-of-view, setting, style, and theme — are required every time.

Literary Elements Have…

Being the components of story, these building blocks must be used in every story. And each literary element has a number of devices within that element. But not every device is required.

Story – Plot – Narrative

Elements begin with story, plot, and narrative.

Story: A sequence of events

Plot: Events that happen

Narrative: How those events are told


The sequence of major events (or a character’s actions) that move the action in a story, usually in a cause-effect relation.


Plot is the sequence of events that relate to each other and build the action to its eventual climax. It starts with exposition and flows into the rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. And these will be covered in detail in an upcoming post on plot.

Do note that plot does not have to be chronological.


Narrative deals with how the events are told, the construction of those events into a plot that makes it fun to read. It may affect the sequence of events: set out in chronological order, combined with elements from outside the story, build for dramatic effect, draw attention to things or events the story lacks simply because the contrast is interesting.

Writing is…

…a lot of work…yeah, you already know that one, lol. What the posts on “Writing” are intended to do is explore the various mechanics of writing from plots to points-of-view to structure to character development to genres to voice to target audience to book types to character or story arcs to back stories to plot devices to themes to diction to copyright to flashforwards to flashbacks to framing the story or devices to memes to tropes to pace to perspective to settings to show versus tell to social context to continuity to storyboards to style to language to style sheets to syntax to tone to tropes and more…

It’s an evolving conversation, and sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if it makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone on some aspect of writing with which you struggle or on which you can contribute more understanding.

If you found this post on “Literary Elements” interesting, consider tweeting it to your friends. Subscribe to KD Did It, if you’d like to track this post for future updates.

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Literary Element
Credit to: Aram Zucker-Scharff’s “Story vs Narrative vs Plot
Part of Writing: Narrative
Definition: A literary element is basic to all works of narrative fiction — a necessary feature of verbal storytelling that can be found in any written or spoken narrative. It forms the essential characteristics of all narrative, i.e., plot and character is present in every story.

Aids in the discussion and understanding of a work of literature as basic categories of critical analysis.


Character (has its own post)


Narrative Mode


Story Continuity


A.k.a., narrative element, element of literature

Character Definition: A figure in a literary work (personality, gender, age, etc.)

For an in-depth look, explore the post, “Writing Tip: Creating Memorable Characters“.

Conflict Definition: Involves a struggle between two opposing forces usually a protagonist and an antagonist around which the whole story revolves.

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Two Types of Conflict:

  1. External conflict
  2. Internal conflict
External Conflict Definition: Marked by a characteristic involvement of an action wherein a character finds himself in struggle with outside forces that hamper his progress. The most common type of an external conflict is where a protagonist fights back against the antagonist’s tactics that impede his or her advancement.

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William Golding’s Lord of the Flies pits Ralph against Jack.

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series pits Katniss Everdeen against the dystopian society which subjugates the districts.

Internal Conflict Definition: Develops a unique tension in a storyline marked by a lack of action in which an internal or psychological conflict arises as soon as a character experiences two opposite emotions or desires: virtue or vice, good and evil inside himself.

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This disagreement causes a character to suffer mental agony.

It’s interpersonal conflict (character vs character).

A.k.a., character vs self

Shakespeare’s Hamlet destroys everyone’s life as he searches for proof about his father’s murder.

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is an ambitious man who sells his soul to the devil but later wonders about the deal.

Language Definition: The entire body of words used in a text.

Language includes diction and syntax and are strictly about their use in creating mood and tone.

Language can be formal, clinical, informal, jargon, etc.

And it can be enlivened by “Rhetorical Device“, “Literary Devices“, “Metaphors“, and “”Figures of Speech“.

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Slang: When I told Dad that I had goofed the exam, he blew his top.
Jargon: I had him on the ropes in the fourth and if one of my short rights had connected, he’d have gone down for the count.
Pedantic: A close examination and correlation of the most reliable current economic indexes justifies the conclusion that the next year will witness a continuation of the present, upward market trend.
Satire “‘Yes, I’m a hermit. Mostly I brood,’ Mad Rogan said. ‘Also I’m very good at wallowing in self-pity. I spend my days steeped in melancholy, looking out the window. Occasionally a single tear quietly rolls down my cheek.’

‘Do you also brush a white orchid against your lips?’ Arabella put in.
‘While sad music plays in the background?’ Lina grinned.”
Diction Definition: The words an author chooses to use contribute to the tone and mood.

You may also want to view “Literary Device: Diction“.

Definition and examples courtesy of How to Analyze Tone in Literature.

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Suggestion: Words can be divided into abstract or concrete, general or specific, or formal or informal.
Abstract words – words that can’t be perceived with the senses and tell a story

  • Used to move quickly through events
  • Pleasant is abstract

Concrete words – can be perceived and measured AND they show

  • Places the reader in the scene along with the characters
  • Yellow, Siamese cat, Lamborghini car are concrete, specific

General words – vague but also concrete

  • Allows the reader to imagine whatever they want
  • car or cat can apply to any cars or cats

Formal words – long, technical, or unusual

  • Used by authors who want the reader to see them or the character as highly educated or pompous

Informal words – those almost all readers will be familiar with, including contractions and slang

  • More closely resembles the way most people speak
Suggestion: Specific adjectives illustrate which tone the narrator is using. The more specific these words are, the more insightful your analysis will be.

Use more than one adjective if you think this will make your description more accurate.


“It’s all right, my darling. I’ve got you.”

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The boat metaphor and the alliteration of the letter b also resonate in the broken syntax, evoking the ebb and flow of ocean tides. Elements which contribute to the creation of a distinctively nostalgic and yet epic tone.

Suggestion: What details are included, omitted, or how deeply the author dwells on specific details contributes to tone.
A house with cheery flowers in the front yard suggests that the house is a happy home for happy occupants.

Another author may talk about the peeling paint or dirty windows, suggesting that the house is a depressing place occupied by depressed people.

Suggestion: Choose words using a variety of literary devices, including:
A word beyond its literal definition, think imagery, the images or feeling the word can evoke.

Thinking about the specific connotation of words and why these were picked over others will reveal to the reader the author’s attitude toward the subject.

Words can be chosen for sound. Pleasant-sounding words suggest that the author is writing a story about pleasant things, whereas harsh sounding words suggest that the subject is also harsh or unpleasant.

dog pooch = affectionate cur – hate, fear of dogs
children brats = intense dislike of children rug rats = tolerance
time between sunset and full darkness twilight = may suggest that dawn, which represents a new start, is near or that the sun has just set, signaling the end of a difficult day dusk = darkness, suggests that night is fast approaching, with all the frightening things that happen at night
wind chime mellifluous = musical cacophonous = annoying
Suggestion: Dialogue tags, added to diction, contribute to tone.
“No!” he cried out.

“I don’t think so,” he said with a smile.

“Don’ wanna,” he mumbled and pouted.

“You fuckin’ bitch!” he screamed.

“No. You won’t,” Mary said in a very bossy tone.

Syntax Definition: How individual sentences are constructed. To convey tone and elicit mood from the reader, the author varies his/her sentence structure.

More can be found in the post, “Dialect: Syntax“, “Literary Device: Syntax, and a post on the structures and types of “The Sentence“.

Definition and examples courtesy of How to Analyze Tone in Literature.

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Style Ranges from Standard Written English to Colloquial Slang or Dialect
Formal Informal
Always uses third person POV Any POV may be used
Used in business, academia, white papers, nonfiction, etc. Used in blog posts, fiction
Direct and to the point with no unnecessary words or phrases More casual, conversational
Contractions and abbreviations are minimal Slang, cant, idioms, contractions, and abbreviations are acceptable
Does not include personal opinions Personal opinions are also acceptable
The building inspector says the roof is falling apart, but that was obvious to everyone. Well, anybody could have told him so, but the building inspector now says the roof is falling apart.
The most effective way to be rid of pests is to hire an exterminator. Of course, the best way get rid of pests, though, is to hire an exterminator.

Whether using formal or informal tone, sentences must, for the most part, use proper grammar. Exceptions may occur in dialogue or in certain circumstances, such as sentence fragments.

Suggestion: What comes at the end of a sentence indicates a greater importance, so swapping the word order changes the emphasis.
“John brought flowers” emphasizes what John brought.

“The flowers were brought by John” emphasizes who brought the flowers.

Suggestion: Short sentences are more intense and immediate while short sentence can be seen as flip or disrespectful.

Long sentences create a distance between the reader and the story and can suggest thoughtfulness.

Give me that. I want it. Now.

Okay. That’s it. I’m done.


I don’t understand why you’re saying that. Do you have any idea how much that hurts?

But there’s a time and place for everything, including a longer sentence which can have a thoughtful effect, set distance between reader and story, or drive the reader mad with boredom.

Suggestion: Many authors will break the rules of syntax on purpose in order to achieve a desired effect.
Use anastrophe to add weight to the adjectives and make the sentence more dramatic:

“The day, dark and dull” encourages the reader to pay extra attention to the unusual nature of the day.

Definition: The core structure of the story and how its events are given depth and substance using narrative mode.

Events are almost always connected by a plot, but it doesn’t have to be.

Events may be:

  • Set out in chronological order,
  • Combined with elements from outside the story,
  • Build for dramatic effect, or
  • Draw attention to things or events the story lacks simply because the contrast is interesting

Writing a story means weaving all of the elements of fiction together.
a.k.a., narration

Narrative Mode Definition: Techniques used to tell the story:

Action Definition: A type of imagery that creates the physical movement of the characters, the kinesthesia, the touch, physical movement, temperature, or feelings a character has.

A.k.a., kinesthesia

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Bare feet sinking into wet sand, brushing across freshly cut grass, tiptoeing gingerly across the gravel

Physical movement of running along an asphalt road, jumping over bollards, swinging at someone, running a finger along her downy cheek, cupping his jaw with her hand

A brisk wind on a late fall evening as it kisses his cheek, rain pattering on one’s head, the warmth of sunlight on her face

Feeling the velvety softness of a cat, rubbing the bristle of five o’clock shadow

Feelings of happiness, anger, melancholy, fear, laughter, peacefulness

Dialogue Definition: A verbal exchange between two or more characters that brings a story and the characters to life on the page.

You may want to explore Dialogue as Mood on this page or get into more of the mechanics of dialogue in the post on punctuation.

If there is only one character talking aloud, it is a monologue.

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Larry McMurtry
Narrative Tense Definition: Tense is the when in which you are writing.

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“Shifting occurs when the writer changes time frames inconsistently or for no reason, confusing the reader (Wilson, 126).”

If you don’t know which when to pick, third person, past tense will (usually) be the easiest to work with, especially if you’re writing a mainstream or genre novel. First person could also work IF your main character has a strong or unusual voice.

Any viewpoint — first-, second-, or third-person and either past or present tense can work, if you’re writing literary or experimental fiction, and particularly if you’re writing a short story rather than a novel. BUT, try to have a reason for your choice: don’t go for an unusual viewpoint for the sake of it.

Literary time is:

CAUTION: Always be sure there is a logical reason for any changes in tense, so pay attention to your when tense and don’t switch without good reason, as it is very easy to screw up if you are not paying attention.

You may want to peek in at Verb: Subject-Verb Agreement Exceptions for an example.

Ali’s “Choosing the Right Viewpoint and Tense for Your Fiction [With Examples]; Levi; The Editor’s Blog; Wikipedia; Vanderbilt (Vanderbilt.edu provides an excellent set of examples of variations on Exceptions. It’s mostly common sense, but sometimes I need a refresher myself!)

When writing about… …use
Writers and artists and how they express themselves in their work Present tense
Literary works, paintings, films, and other artistic creations are assumed to exist in an eternal present.

In Michelangelo’s painting…

True historical events

Creation of a literary or artistic work

Past tense
Henry Fielding wrote in the eighteenth century.

Picasso produced a series of sculptures.

Events, fictional or otherwise Present tense
Paul writes about the hardships he has endured.

Christ judges the world.

Commenting on what a writer says Present tense
Dunn begins his work with a view into the lives and motivations of the very first settlers.

Through this anecdote, Richter illustrates common misconceptions about native religion and shows why missionary attempts were less than successful.
Johnson’s characters journey to Cairo.

Plato argues without much conviction.

Describing an author’s work Past tense
In 1966, Driss Chraïbi published La Civilisation, ma Mère!
A speaker is using present tense but actually talking about the past Historical present
So I receive a call from Joe Blow. He offers me a deal I can’t refuse. Of course I accepted without hesitation.
Past Tense
Definition: The most commonly used for the characters in a story, past is based on your characters’ timeline, NOT the real world’s. If you’re writing in 1914 and refer to an event that occurred in 1896, then it’s past. Referring to 1918 would be a future event — in that story

Rule: Often seen as the “natural” storytelling tense, the author is relating something that happened in the past, not something that’s ongoing.

It has the advantage of reading easily and smoothly: if you want readers not to notice your style and to get absorbed in the story, past tense is a good way to go — especially with third person narrative.

When writing about history and historical works, use the past tense.

“Police officers, as a rule, don’t need an excuse to go to the pub, but one of the many non-excuses they have is the traditional end-of-probation booze-up when members of the shift get the brand new full constables completely hammered. To that end, Lesley and me were dragged across the Strand to the Roosevelt Toad and plied with alcohol until we were horizontal. That was the theory, anyway.” – Ben Aaranovitch, Rivers of London

Examples courtesy of Brian Wasko’s “Using the Literary Present.

Present Tense
Definition: In fiction, the events of the book occur in the present, not the past.

More commonly used for first-person POV, present tense is often seen as a more literary choice, although it can also be used for commercial / genre fiction.

For the reader, it can make the story seem more immediate, but it also risks feeling slightly “off”.

Tricky to pull off in a third-person novel.

A.k.a, literary present tense

“She laugh, dance a little happy jig waiting on me to get her out. I give her a good hug. I reckon she don’t get too many good hugs like this after I go home. Ever so often, I come to work and find her bawling in her crib, Miss Leefolt busy on the sewing machine, rolling her eyes like it’s a stray cat stuck in the screen door.” – Kathryn Stockett, The Help

Harry soon realizes that the man he had seen at the train station will become his nemesis.

Sometimes you have to jump around in time when talking about a story in order to make sense.

The sentence is essentially in the present tense (realizes), but the past perfect (had seen) and future (will become) are needed to make the sentence clear. It would be confusing to write, but better than the below:

Harry soon realizes that the man he sees at the train station becomes his nemesis.

Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in 1927, in which the title character struggles to understand her place in society.

It’s also important to differentiate between historical information about the book and the events in the book itself. Use past tense for the former.

Examples courtesy of Brian Wasko’s “Using the Literary Present.

Historical Present Tense
Definition: A speaker using present tense but actually talking about the past.

You may want to explore the historic present in the post on verbs.
A.k.a., dramatic present, narrative present, historic present, historic past

“It is a bright summer day in 1947. My father, a fat, funny man with beautiful eyes and a subversive wit, is trying to decide which of his eight children he will take with him to the county fair. My mother, of course, will not go. She is knocked out from getting most of us ready: I hold my neck stiff against the pressure of her knuckles as she hastily completes the braiding and the beribboning of my hair. . .” – Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose: “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self”

“I’m nine years old, in bed, in the dark. The detail in the room is perfectly clear. I am lying on my back. I have a greeny-gold quilted eiderdown covering me. I have just calculated that I will be 50 years old in 1997.” – Jenny Diski, “Diary”
Future Tense
Definition: A speaker using future tense in speaking about the future.

Future action may be expressed in a variety of ways, including the use of will, shall, is going to, are about to, tomorrow, and other adverbs of time, and a wide range of contextual cues.

Carlos Fuente’s Aura

“By the time Tom notices the doorbell, it will have already rung three times. As usual, he will have been listening to loud music on his stereo. He will turn the stereo down and will stand up to answer the door. An old man will be standing on the steps. The man will begin to speak slowly, asking for directions.”

Definition and examples courtesy of Purdue OWL

Tone (of Voice) Definition: The attitude and responses of the POV character about story events and the story’s other characters. His/her attitude (tone) is used in every scene to deepen the reader’s connections to the events of that scene and to the character.

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“Don’t you take that tone with me, young man.”

Tone, Mood, & Style — The Feel of Fiction

Tone can convey a sassy attitude. One conveyed by a character’s remarks, actions, and facial expressions, i.e., word choices and their order, how the sentences are constructed, and what the narrator has focused on.

It’s the way feelings are expressed and:

  1. the choices the author‘s voice makes to convey how s/he feels about the subject
  2. to create the mood that affects how your reader feels about the story

Rule: Tone has two sides and therefore two different voices in any story:

  1. Author
  2. Point-of-view (Narrator)

Rule: To create tone, writer considers the DIDLS…+:

Paying attention to these details makes it easier to see how the author/POV created this specific tone, the mood it’s intended to provoke, and how tone and mood link to the story’s themes. This attention is also called close reading.

Ohio University; DIDLS: The Key to TONE

The mother in Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl is harsh and judgmental, exposing an urgent and weathered concern for the daughter’s development as she becomes a woman.

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, she has taken an extremely positive, inspiring, and uplifting tone towards the idea of love and devotion.

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” creates a gloomy feeling through his tone with the use of the word “sigh”.

Literary Devices.net: Mood and Tone; The Editor’s Blog

The Difference Between Tone and Mood
Tone and mood seem similar as they both deal with feeling.

However, tone is the author or POV character providing information about the story and how that author or POV feels about the story topic.

The POV character’s perception of and reaction to sights, sounds, odors, touch, and taste add to tone.

What’s absent from a story can affect tone almost as strongly as what is present:

  • Exclude the narrator’s attitude toward someone he loves if you want to portray him as distant and unfeeling
  • Add in this attitude when it’s time to reveal this facet of his personality
  • When you give him a scene with his love interest, it can have a tone far different from those in other scenes featuring the same character

Mood is how the author makes the READER feel about the story. The reader’s response to how the author has written the story, the tone.

A scene describing the first encounter between two old friends after many years will probably use a tone of intimacy to convey the close bond between them. The mood will likely be nostalgic to trigger readers’ emotional response and make them feel connected to the characters’ experience.

The POV character notices his lover’s soft skin or the colors she uses or her smile, things he doesn’t notice or comments on in other scenes. Keeping a tender attitude far from him in scenes when he’s away from his lover will reveal much of who he is and perhaps how much he relies on her to humanize him.
Finding the Correct Tone
Rule: The desired tone can be found by asking yourself:

  • Why am I writing this?
  • Who is my intended audience?
  • What do I want the reader to learn, understand, or think about?
  • What kind of writing am I doing?
    • Formal writing requires a clear, concise, confident, and courteous tone with a sophisticated, but not pretentious, writing level.
    • Creative writing allows for a more subjective tone, but always aim to communicate clearly.
      • Genre sometimes determines the tone.
Get to Know Different Kinds of Tones
Any of the human emotions are possible as tones in a single literary work, changing from scene to scene, passage to passage, etc.; it keeps the reader interested and creates a sense of rhythm in the author’s work.
If the opening line of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway were written with different tones:

Original line: Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Solemn: ‘I shall buy the flowers myself’, Mrs Dalloway announced as she realized nobody else would attend the task.
Suspenseful: Mrs Dalloway knew what she had to do. She could no longer leave it unattended. Only one thing was missing, and nobody could help. She had to buy flowers.
Sarcastic: Whenever Mrs Dalloway felt her life was in need of a thrill, she couldn’t think of anything better to do than heading to where she would have gone anyway on an uneventful morning. However, that particular day her will was enough to convince her that her trip to the florist was a novel exploration.
Tone’s Impact on Readers
Tone influences the mood, themes, and messages the work conveys AND the reader.
A reader may generally like novels set during the American Civil War, but have very different opinions about them based on their tone:

Consider the differing tones — the solemn and nostalgic versus the dull — in the closing line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

  • “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”, versus
  • “We keep being pulled back to our past like boats sailing against the current.”

If you find a book or passage boring, think whether this is due to the lack of a specific tone.

Examples courtesy of How to Analyze Tone in Literature“.

Author’s Tone of Voice Definition: The writing style of an author that is a combination of the author’s attitude + personality.

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Tone = Attitude
Voice = Personality

The author’s voice (what makes your writing sound like you) never changes no matter what you’re writing; the author’s attitude changes to suit the genre, create the reader’s mood, suit the target audience.

Consider the difference between writing a personal email versus an email to apply for a job, whether you’re mad at someone or happy with them.

Create attitude/tone:

  • By being serious, confidential, cynical, ironic, humorous, reverent, ambiguous, detached, etc.
  • Through a combination of diction, imagery, perspective, style, and subject matter
  • The right tone can help readers accurately interpret meaning in a text

As the writer, consider ahead of time how you want to come across: as a know-it-all or knowledgeable.

Wheaton College

Thinking of examples of how you can convey the same message with different kinds of tones will make you understand how authors also choose one tone over many others for a specific reason. Consider the many ways you can ask a friend why she didn’t reply to your calls:

  • “Why the heck didn’t you pick up the phone all afternoon?”
  • “Is everything okay? I called you many times this afternoon”
  • “Were you on a special mission to the moon this afternoon?”
Details Definition: Facts that are included or those that are omitted.

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These details don’t have a strong sensory appeal, but their inclusion or not indicates what the author is providing to support his/her attitude (tone).

It’s the speaker’s perspective that shapes what details are given and which are not.

A character’s name (or lack of one) helps to establish tone for the character. Is he young or old? Is he educated or not? What level of education? What’s his profession? How intelligent is he?

The connotations of word choice will make a difference in the details.

Point-of-View Definition: In fiction, tone is the attitude of the fictional narrator toward story events and the story’s other characters, and is commonly referred to as point-of-view.

Readers “observe the story” through the character’s POV, who is telling the story.

Which point-of-view you choose will affect that narrator’s manner of speaking, word choice, dialect, syntax (as language), and more. Those choices will convey emotion, manipulate the five senses, affect the mood of the story, and reveal the relationship between characters as well as their voices, personalities, and dispositions of these other characters.

These same choices will influence how the reader understands the story.

For greater detail, see the post, “Writing Tip: Point-of-View“.

A.k.a., viewpoint, narrator, narrative voice, narrator’s tone of voice

This is not the same as Active versus Passive Voice.

The Editor’s Blog

Perspective Definition: Used in all points-of-view to show how the characters view and process what’s happening within the story. It helps define the narrator’s attitude and personality, and how he feels about certain experiences or other characters.

For greater detail about perspective, see the post, “Writing: Point-of-View“.

Mood Definition: The emotions and atmosphere the reader feels while reading the story, whether it be eerie, depressing, factual, joyous, etc.

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Mood is entwined with tone, which is all about the choices the author‘s voice makes to convey how s/he feels about the subject.

Mood is achieved using:

A.k.a., atmosphere

Dialogue as Mood
Definition: Create a reality and enhance the mood of any particular scene, using dialogue between characters.
If your characters are in a loud, crowded nightclub, a setting vibrant, pulsing with life, the dialogue will not be the same if those same characters were having tea with their aged aunt.

“‘Look at me,” said Miss Havisham. ‘You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born?’
I regret to state that I was not afraid of telling the enormous lie comprehended in the answer No.
‘Do you know what I touch here?’ she asked, laying her hands, one upon the other, on her left side.
‘Yes, ma’am.’
‘What do I touch?’
‘Your heart.’
She uttered the word with an eager look, and with strong emphasis, and with a weird smile that had a kind of boast in it.” – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

The dialogue continues the dark and Gothic setting of Havisham’s house when Pip finally encounters the eccentric herself with her theatrical, self-indulgent despair.

Diction as Mood
Definition: The choice of words convey feelings as well as events, places, and characters in a story.
“And being no stranger to the art of war, I have him a description of cannons, culverins, muskets, carabines, pistols, bullets, powder, swords, bayonets, battles, sieges, retreats, attacks, undermines, countermines, bombardments, sea-fights…”

Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels creates feelings of disgust in readers for the destructive consequences of war, by using words that are unmelodious, harsh, and jarring.

“You’re a big help!” she said with a smile.

“You’re a big help!” she said as she rolled her eyes.

Literary Devices Set the Mood
Motifs as words and phrases can enhance the scene’s or story’s mood:
Shakespeare’s play Macbeth with its fair is foul, and foul is fair that brings to mind the concept of good versus evil, the imagery of red blood and water that cannot wash away the stain that is repeated, and the central literary device in which Lady Macbeth rubs her hands but can’t get them clean.

The sled in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane

The scars borne by Anita Blake and Jean-Claude in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series

The black worn in so many special ops or vampire stories that indicate characters who are bad ass or require stealth

You may want to explore the depth and range of literary devices in the post, “Literary Device“.
Setting the Mood
Consider an abandoned cabin in the woods and a busy city street.

“The river, reflecting the clear blue of the sky, glistened and sparkled as it flowed noiselessly on.”

Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers creates a calm and peaceful mood with idyllic scenery.

The depressing Wuthering Heights:
“There was no moon, and everything beneath lay in misty darkness: not a light gleamed from any house, far or near all had been extinguished long ago: and those at Wuthering Heights were never visible…”

The calm and peaceful Thrushcross Grange:
“Gimmerton chapel bells were still ringing; and the full, mellow flow of the beck in the valley came soothingly on the ear. It was a sweet substitute for the yet absent murmur of the summer foliage, which drowned that music about the Grange when the trees were in leaf.”

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights creates two contrasting moods through two contrasting settings: Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The contrast also enhances the character development of unsophisticated and refined, respectively.

O. Henry’s “After Twenty Years” creates a mood of mystery and secrecy in its setting.

Examples courtesy of Literary Devices.net.

Theme Can Be Mood
In particular, the use of imagery.
Create Suspense Definition: The intense feeling that an audience goes through while waiting for the outcome of certain events, leaving the reader holding their breath and wanting more information — and a necessary condition for suspenseful drama is a lack of important information.

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The amount of intensity in a suspenseful moment is why it is hard to put a book down. Without suspense, a reader would lose interest quickly in any story because there is nothing that is making the reader ask, “What’s going to happen next?”

In writing, there has to be a series of events that leads to a climax that captivates the audience and makes them tense and anxious to know what is going to happen.

Create that suspense by:

  • Planting questions in the reader’s mind as to what will happen next
  • Use any element of a story — the title, characters, plot, time constraints, and word choice — to contribute
  • If using the objective point-of-view, the reader only knows what the character says or does and not what the character is thinking (that useful POV). So, the reader has no idea if the POV character is keeping a secret that will affect the outcome of the story.
  • Gradually unfold the coming climax

Do NOT, however, trick the reader with a character or clue that was never alluded to before.

Suspense is also a genre.

You hope to find out what happened when the movie, TV show, book is about to end, but are left hanging

  • TV shows that warn you to “Tune In Next Week”
  • Same bat time, same bat place

Complicated Matters:
Problems keep piling themselves onto the protagonist

Dangerous Action:
Place a character in a dangerous, often life-threatening situation

Provide the reader with tantalizing hints of what is to come

High Stakes:
The character has a lot to lose

Likable Character:
Usually the hero

Your reader must want to root for this character

Set the mood by choosing words that convey the character’s facial expressions, body language, tone of voice,
Use a physical setting to create mood

  • During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day…
  • The swap was thickly grown with great, gloomy pines and hemlocks, some of them ninety feet high, which made it dark at noonday and a retreat for all the owls of the neighborhood.

The protagonist is under a lot of pressure

Reader Knows More:
When the reader knows more about a situation than a character

Time Constraints:
The hero is working against a deadline, a timing that seems to be favorable toward the bad guy

Slow down a scene using sensory details to show, not tell

A Great Villain:
A smart villain who is a worthy opponent to the protagonist

Pace Definition: Determines how fast or how slow the story moves. A writer can raise a reader’s heart rate, send her flipping pages madly to find out what happens next, soothe his soul, or bore ’em to tears.

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Mood and emotion are critical in the dialogue, setting, and action.

Pace should vary within the story — give your reader a chance to catch her breath!

Speed it up through fast action with no time between “hits”, little dialogue, few thoughts, and not a lot of description.

Slow it down with lots of detail in describing the scenes, using longer sentences, incorporating longer chapters, throwing in another subplot or fifty-five (just kidding!) will give your reader a chance to catch up.

The Classroom.

Consider the different paces of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love versus Stephen King’s The Shining versus Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Nicolà series.
Plot Definition: The sequence of major events that move the action in a story, usually in a cause-effect relation.

There is a great deal of information on plots, and it has its own post, “Writing: Plot and Its Devices“.

Story Arc Definition: Refers to the chronological construction of plot in a novel or story.

Also see the post on “Plot” for greater detail on story arcs.

A.k.a., arc, narrative arc, , storytelling arc, narrative structure, elements of fiction

Plot Device Definition: Any technique in a narrative that is well-crafted or that emerges naturally from the setting or characters of the story and is used to move the plot forward.

Also see the post on “Plot” for greater detail on plot devices.

CAUTION: A contrived or arbitrary plot device may annoy or confuse the reader, causing a loss of the suspension of disbelief.

A.k.a., plot mechanism

Setting Definition: An environment or surrounding establishing where (physical place) and when (historical time) and under what circumstances (social environment) the story is taking place.

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You’re likely to have a general setting for the main thrust of the story with lots of specific and individual scenes or events, all of which contribute to action and mood.

Settings are part of the context of story’s action and mood, and they should help highlight the theme:

  • Social – parties, bars, daycare, going to the movies, on a date
  • Physical – senses and emotions
  • Natural world – weather and climate, geography, animal life, seasons and conditions
  • Objects of human construction and manufacture: personal effects, interiors and exteriors, possessions, buildings
  • Historical and cultural conditions – perceptions and values of society, assumptions, prevalent ideas or trends, museums, libraries, opera, etc.

There are two main types of settings:

  1. Backdrop Setting
  2. Integral Setting
Backdrop Setting Definition: One that could happen in any setting and is not important for the story.

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A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh series

Tanya Huff’s Gale Women series can take place anywhere

Integral Setting Definition: The place and time influences theme, character, and action of a story.

This setting controls the characters by confining them to a particular environment.

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Peter’s behavior in Beatrix Potter’s “The Tail of Peter Rabbit“, is an example of setting influence.

E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web

Tanya Huff’s Confederation requires a space setting with its spaceship, a junky looking one that emphasizes the “independence” of the fed-up Torin Kerr and space salvager Craig Ryder.

Story Continuity Definition: Particularly necessary in fiction, the author must ensure consistency of the characteristics of people, plot, objects, and places seen by the reader over the period of the story — and follow previously set author rules.

It’s reasonable that any of these things switch up, but there must be a reason for it.

A.k.a., time-scheme

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In one scene, a character adores chocolate, and in another scene, she hates it.

A character is John in one scene, and Jon in another.

Magic works like this, until it suddenly works a different way.

The kingdom is ruled by an elderly woman who suddenly turns into a young teen.

Helen’s hair is red in one scene and blonde in the next.

Style Definition: Style applies to anything written and is how a writer uses language to tell a story:

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  • Diction (choice of words)
    • Any distinctive features of vocabulary
    • Connotation – the emotional atmosphere of words
  • Syntax (arrangement of words and phrasing)
  • Dialogue
  • Other linguistic features of a work used to construct story, including (but not limited to):
  • And, influenced by tone.

There are 4 types of style, which distinguish one author from one another:

  1. Descriptive Style
  2. Expository or Argumentative Style
  3. Narrative Style
  4. Persuasive Style

A.k.a., the story’s voice

This is not the same as narrative technique; see Literary Device instead.

And you should note that style goes through cycles of fashion.

Barbara Kingsolver‘s style is poetic, blending realism with lyricism and interspersed with humor.

P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett are too crazy funny.

Elie Wiesel’s Night is very advanced yet communicative with challenging vocabulary and complex sentences.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series is intense and richly detailed dramatic fiction.

Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl is richly detailed, flowing, and barely controlled.

Raymond Carver‘s early work is described as sparing and minimalist.

Ernest Hemingway direct and simple style.

Virginia Woolf‘s stream of consciousness style.

Descriptive Style Definition: The author focuses on describing an event, a character or a place in detail.

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Sometimes, descriptive writing style is poetic in nature in, where the author specifies an event, an object or a thing rather than merely giving information about an event that has happened.

Usually the description incorporates sensory details.

Anything by Patricia McKillip whose descriptions are poetic jewels.

E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury

Expository or Argumentative Style Definition: A subject-oriented style with the writer’s focus on telling the readers about a specific subject or topic, and in the end, the author leaves out his own opinion about that topic.

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Textbooks, how-to-manuals, technical documents, and recipes.
Narrative Style Definition: Tells a story with the author creating different characters and telling you what happens to them.

Used in most fiction.

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Mark Twain’s The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn

Persuasive Style Definition: Aims to persuade and convince the readers through the writer giving reasons and justification to make the readers believe his/her point-of-view.

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Martin Luther King’s “A Letter from Birmingham Jail

Jonathan Kozo’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools

LaVon Smith’s A Mother Speaks Out on Education: How the Halls of Ivy Have Crumbled

Theme Definition: The central idea, issue, topic, or point of a story, essay, or narrative. In fiction, theme is what the author is saying about life and how people behave, an idea that is examined.

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Do not confuse theme with subject. Theme is the opinion expressed about the subject; subject is the topic that is the foundation for a story.

A writer may choose war as the subject for his/her story. The theme of that story could be the writer’s personal opinion that war is a curse for humanity.

To be a proper story, it must have major ideas (the theme) for the character and reader to experience, think through, and learn from. It may have many major and minor themes, all throughout the story.

There may well be deeper reasons that the story has been written and shared. The author may wish you to draw a conclusion about the issue raised.

Theme answers the question, “What did you learn from this?”

Now combine theme with plot and structure and you have the foundation of the story.

There are two categories of theme:

  1. Thematic Concept
  2. Thematic Statement
The main theme in the play Romeo and Juliet was love with smaller themes of sacrifice, tragedy, struggle, hardship, devotion, and so on.

Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” without understanding that the institution of nineteenth-century marriage robbed Mrs. Mallard of her freedom and identity.

Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” asks several questions: That mothers can try too hard? That oppression leads to oppression? That a parent’s repeated dire predictions have a way of becoming truth?

Donald Barthelme’s City Life: “In the Tolstoy Museum” makes us confront the limitations of traditional processes of establishing meaning and coherence.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World asks if we should live a seemingly better life, at the price of giving up parts of ones humanity.

Theme Can Be Expressed Through:
In fiction, theme comes from the characters, action, and setting that make up the story with the author using general underlying truths for the reader to identify with and be pulled in.

Action Plot choices
Character Scenes
Conflict Social and material conditions within the text
Individuals and their emotional, private or political lives Social or racial justice
Issues or ideas are raised in the story Tone
Reinforce Your Theme By:
Repeating patterns and symbols

  • The theme can be an enduring pattern or motif throughout the literary work, occurring in a complex, long winding manner, or it can be short and succinct and provide a certain insight into the story.

Using allusions throughout the story

Using details and particulars that may have a greater meaning

Questions to Ask Yourself
Are the ideas limited to members of the group represented by the characters (age, class, race, nationality, dominant culture)?

Are these ideas applicable to general conditions of life?

What values are embodied in the idea?

Theme Aids in Controlling
Your theme is your focus point to ensure you aren’t getting sidetracked into other issues. Although, theme can change as you write, as the story evolves in a direction you hand’t anticipated. Sometimes the theme only appears after you’ve been writing.
Thematic Concept Definition: What readers think the work is about, usually an abstract concept, like love or solitude.

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A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel.

Conflict between the individual and society

Coming of age

Humans in conflict with technology


The dangers of unchecked ambition

Various scenes in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are about loneliness.

Imagery Definition: Uses language that reveals what the author or character thinks and feels about what’s happening and is used to create meaning in a story, that:

  • Appeals to our senses — smell, sight, taste, touch, kinesthetic, or hearing
  • The mental and/or emotional disposition of the writer or the narrator to create vivid images in the mind of the reader

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You may want to read more about it in “Figure of Speech: Imagery” where you may also find more on “Figure of Speech: Onomatopoeia: and “Figure of Speech: Personification” or “Metaphor“.
Be serious, funny, witty, wry, dramatic, solemn, critical, grave, terrifying, sweet, etc.

A character swimming in a pond of warm water, like being in a warm bath is suggesting that the pond is inviting, relaxing, and soothing.


A character swimming in a pond of warm water, like simmering in a pot may want to suggest discomfort or a sense of foreboding.

Repeat a scouring wind to evoke a sense of the emptiness of life

Repeat a buzzing sound to echo your character’s inability to fulfill her obligations

Repeat something organic like a sense of fatigue:

  • A worn-out couch
  • Shoes with holes in them
  • A character who can’t get out of bed
  • A town dying
  • A bird floundering in the backyard because it’s too tired to continue on its migration journey

the smell of fresh bread coming out of the oven

freshly cut grass

the creamy smoothness of a chocolate pudding

the sound of uneven footsteps tottering down the hall as ol’ granny makes her way from her bedroom

the rustling of a bush on a dark night

“Ahhh,” she sighed in relief as she sank into the warm bath, the bubbles rising up to tickle her nose.

Motif Definition: Created through the repetition [for its larger symbolic meaning] of a palpable motif of imagery, structural components, stylistic devices, spoken or written phrases, action such as sound or physical movement, and/or other narrative elements.

Contributes to mood as well.

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Each of the chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses has a moralistic motif.

The flute in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a recurrent sound motif that conveys rural and idyllic notions.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby uses a green light.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth uses a variety of elements to create many motifs including imagery (blood and water is continually repeated); the phrase fair is foul, and foul is fair (mixes the concepts of good and evil); and, sound and physical movement (washing the hands).

Thematic Statement Definition: What the work says about the subject in question.

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The statement is usually a sentence highlighting the argument of the piece of literature and often comments on the way the human condition affects or is affected by the abstract concept of the theme.

“The irrationality of human decision-making in times of both war and peace, and the search for the meaning of life in the face of this irrationality.”

The theme of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is stated directly in the title — war and peace.

Thematic Devices Definition: A technique that brings depth to a story by showing the reader and pulling him/her into it.

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A.k.a., thematic technique

Conceit Definition: A fanciful expression, usually in the form of an extended metaphor or surprising analogy between seemingly dissimilar objects.
Irony Explore it in depth in “Figure of Speech: Irony
Repetition in Narrative

Definition: Repetitive designation is the repeated references to some character or object that appears insignificant when first mentioned, but which reappears later to intrude suddenly on the narrative.

Leitwortstil Definition: Purposefully repeats words that usually express a motif or theme important to the story to compel the reader to grasp its meaning within the story.

A.k.a., key word style

Formal Patterning Definition: Organizes events, actions, and gestures and gives shape to a story. It allows your reader the pleasure of anticipating the plot structure as s/he reads, using tropes.

Pinault, 24

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Tales from the Thousand and One Nights: “The Tale of the Hunchback”

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights: “The Tale of the Three Shaykhs”

Thematic Patterning Definition: Inserts repetition in a story — vocabulary, repeated gestures, accumulation of descriptive phrases around selected objects — drawing the reader’s attention, using literary devices, thematic concepts, and motifs among various scenes and frames of a story.

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You might see that you have naturally added two or three pieces to a thematic pattern, but could add a few more for effect. Look for these opportunities to strengthen your theme.

Patterning may be arranged so as to emphasize the unifying argument or salient idea which disparate events and disparate frames have in common.

Pinault, 22; Molly Blaisdell

Some common thematic ideas include good versus evil, freedom, love, friendship, war, fear…:

  • War as a theme may be shown through the grief of widowed mothers, the destruction of people’s homes, the horror of battle, the grisly detail of wounds, etc.
  • Good vs Evil as a theme may be like Shakespeare’s Macbeth with the repeated phrase fair is foul, and foul is fair
  • Freedom as a theme may be depicted through Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Various scenes in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are about loneliness.

Each chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses is a moralistic motif.

Suspension of Disbelief Definition: The reader temporarily accepts the story elements as believable, regardless of how implausible they may be in real life.

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Suspension of disbelief only works to a point. It is important that the story maintains its own form of believability and doesn’t push the limits too far.
Factors to consider, include:

  • The initial premise can be quite outrageous as long as the story maintains consistency within that premise
  • [Movies] The quality of special effects must be believable. It is harder to suspend disbelief in movies where the special effects appear fake.
  • The genre will determine the lengths to which you can push believability. Readers will be willing to believe an action hero can perform super-human feats, but the same feats performed suddenly in a romantic drama would result in confusion and disbelief.
  • Some stories purposely push the suspension of disbelief to the limit. The Indiana Jones movies were a good example, where the audience was expected to find the improbable antics amusing.

One important area of belief is in human actions and emotion. People must act, react, and interact in ways which are believable. In cases where such interactions do require suspension of disbelief, the normal rules of consistency apply. Readers are very unforgiving if they think a character is behaving in an unbelievable fashion.

It is a literary element commonly used in fantasy, paranormal, action, science fiction, comedy, horror genres.

A.k.a., willing suspension of disbelief

Media College; SlideShare

There are many things about the Star Trek universe which are basically impossible in the real world, but because Star Trek makes an effort to work consistently within its own universe, the stories become believable — as long as you’re willing to accept that the galaxy is mostly populated by humanoids, then there is nothing within the series that will break the believability.

Magic acts or circus sideshow acts don’t expected to actually believe that a woman is cut in half or transforms into a gorilla in order to enjoy the performance.

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Resources for Literary Elements

Elements of Literature is excellent with short succinct definitions.

Our English Class has some handy lists for words that indicate mood or tone.

David Pinault’s Story-telling Techniques in The Arabian Nights (1992).

Richard Nordquist’s post, “101 Common Book Themes“, is a long list of examples of subjects and motifs that appear in popular literature.

Pinterest Photo Credits:

Bezoekerscentrum Westfront is Frans90245’s own work under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.