Outline on Literary Elements

The literary quality of a fictional book is based not upon its popularity or the ease with which it can be read, but upon the quality of the literary elements found in the book. Students who are unfamiliar with the literary elements or who need a greater understanding of literary quality than is presented here and in the text should read A Critical Handbook of Children's Literature, by Rebecca J. Lukens. Any edition will do, since basically she changes the books used as examples and adds a new chapter. In editions 1-5, use chapters 3-9. In edition 6, use chapters 4-10.

The following bold-faced terms are ones which should be understood and used in discussing the literary elements. They should be used in the Critical Analysis Paper.

Please note that these elements apply only to fiction books.


Character can be revealed through the character's actions, speech, and appearance. It also can be revealed by the comments of other characters and of the author.

Certain types of characters appear in many stories. Describe the following types if they appear in your book:

Character development is showing the multitude of traits and behaviors that give the literary character the complexity of a human being. The amount of character development affects the quality of the story:

The amount of change in a character over the course of the story also affects its quality:

The following table summarizes how the development and change in characters interact:

Character Dynamic Static
Round Considered the best type of character development. Usually the protagonist. Development is considered well-done. Often found in protagonists in books for younger children.
Flat Characters cannot be dynamic and flat, because in a flat character we do not know enough about them for them to recognize a change. If a flat character seems to change, it is usually due to poor writing. In very simple books, or in fairy tales, the protagonist may be flat and static. Also appropriate for minor characters in other books.


Plot is the sequence of events which involves the characters in conflict.

See the outline about Types of Plots in Modern Literature on the Web to learn about types of plot.

The sequence of events is called the narrative order:

Conflict is the struggle between the protagonist and an opposing force. There are several types of conflict:

Most plots have certain common elements:

Other elements which may be found in plots include:


Setting includes the place and the time period in which the story takes place.

Setting may or may not have an important influence on the story:

Setting can clarify conflict, illuminate character, affect the mood, and act as a symbol. The setting itself can be an antagonist in a person-against-nature conflict.


Theme is the underlying meaning of the story, a universal truth, a significant statement the story is making about society, human nature, or the human condition.

A book's theme must be described in universal terms, not in terms of the plot. The plot is the way the universal theme is carried out in that particular book. Themes can be applied to the reader's own life or to other literature.

Although themes can convey important messages, they should never be overtly didactic. Didacticism is preaching and teaching so explicitly that children lose pleasure in the story and reject its message.

The primary theme is most important theme in the story; children's books usually have one primary theme. There may be other secondary themes as well.

Types of themes:

Themes must be clearly stated; one word is not usually enough. To say that a book's theme is "friendship" is not clear. It may mean, "Friends are a person's most valuable possession." It may also mean, "Friends can never be trusted if their own interests are opposed to yours."

An understanding of theme is dependent upon one's previous experience of life and literature. At the same time, theme in literature can enlarge one's understanding of life.

Not every good book has a significant theme; some books' value lies in the pleasure they give, rather than the message they bring. Books of humor, for instance, may or may not have a significant theme.


Style is the language used in a book, the way the words are put together to create the story.

Writers use many devices of style to make stories interesting.

Qualities which should be avoided in style include triteness (dull, stale, overused expressions), condescension (talking down to children, making them feel unintelligent or immature), didacticism, sensationalism, and sentimentality. In poetry, avoid a too regular meter which can become a sing-song rhythm.

Point of View

Point of view depends upon who the narrator is and how much he or she knows.

Point of view may be:


Tone is the author's attitude toward what he or she writes, but it may be easier to understand if you think of it as the attitude that you (the reader) get from the author's words. It is the hardest literary element to discuss; often we can recognize it but not put it into words. The easiest tone to recognize is humor. In describing tone, use adjectives: humorous, mysterious, creepy, straight-forward, matter-of-fact, exciting, boring, etc.
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This page created and maintained by Dr. Marilyn H. Stauffer.
Last Updated March 4, 1999
Contents Copyright 1991, Marilyn H. Stauffer