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Elements of Fiction

Page history last edited by Jayson Yeagley 10 years, 2 months ago


Elements of fiction and elements of story in general can be used by the reader to increase their enjoyment and understanding of different literary pieces. Once students are aware that all stories have elements of character, setting, plot, theme, point of view, style, and tone; they can be encouraged to ask themselves to identify the characteristics of each for a story. The more familiar they become with the different kinds of elements the better they will become at understanding and analyzing stories.




Character is the mental, emotional, and social qualities to distinguish one entity from another (people, animals, spirits, automatons, pieces of furniture, and other animated objects).


Character development is the change that a character undergoes from the beginning of a story to the end. Young children can note this.

The importance of a character to the story determines how fully the character is developed. Characters can be primarysecondary, minor, or main.


Characters are developed by


Actions: In Charlottes' Web , Templeton, creeps up cautiously to the goslings, keeping close to the wall. Later he grins when Wilbur falls trying to spin a web. At the fair he bites Wilbur's tail as hard as he possibly can. His actions portray him as sneaky, ill-tempered, and pleased at others' discomfort.


Speech: In Charlottes' Web ,Templeton after Wilbur asks him to play, frolic or have fun. Replies, "...I never do those things if I can avoid them... I prefer to spend my time eating, gnawing, spying, and hiding... I am a glutton not a merry-maker. Right now I am on my way to your trough to eat your breakfast, since you haven't got sense enough to eat it yourself"


Appearance: In Charlottes' Web ,Templeton after his night at the fair returns swollen to double his usual size. He agrees to fetch the egg sac so that he may eat first every day and grow fatter and bigger than any other known rat.


Other character's comments: Other characters' comments help form judgment of the characters by supporting other characters' actions speech, appearance, and author's comments.


Author's comments: The wording the author uses in the narrative adds to characterization. In Charlottes' Web, White describes Templeton ...had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunction, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything. He would kill a gosling if he could get away with it. These statements certainly develop character.


Unity of character and action: the character must be credible. If the character changes then the change must be shaped by events which the author is obligated to explain how they impacted to create the character's change. Stories with main character change: Meg; A Wrinkle in Time, Claudia; From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the Duck; The Ugly Duckling, Wilbur; Charlotte's Weband Jess; Bridge To Terabithia.


Types of characters


Round characters are those the reader/listener/viewer gets to know well. They have a variety of traits that make them believable. Central characters are well developed in good literature. Meg, Claudia, Duck, Wilbur, and Jess are the central character, or protagonist (hero or heroine).


Flat characters are less well developed and have fewer or limited traits or belong to a group, class, or stereotype. Fern in Charlotte's Web .


character foil are minor characters whose traits contrast with a main character. The lamb is young and naive as Wilbur, but she is smug instead of humble.


Anthropomorphic characterization is the characterization of animals, inanimate objects, or natural phenomena as people. Skilled authors can use this to create fantasy even from stuffed toys (Winnie-the-Pooh). The characterizing of inanimate objects from tiny soldiers to trees and so on is represented in Andersen's works and the ballet The Nutcracker.


Animal characters in realism are best when the animals act only like animals as in The Incredible Journey.


Character Change


Dynamic characters are rounded characters that change. Wilbur as the panicky child. "I can't be quiet," screamed Wilbur, racing up and down. "I don't want to die. It is true... Charlotte. Is it true they are going to kill me when the cold weather comes? Later: "Listen to me? ... Charlotte ... has only a short time to live. She cannot accompany us home, because of her condition. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that I take her egg sac with me. I can't reach it, and I can't climb. You are the only one that can get it. There's not a second to be lost... Please, please, please, Templeton, climb up and get the egg sac. This desperate plea does not come from personal need. Further, he tells Templeton to "stop acting like a spoiled child.", and he who once planned his day around his slops offers Templeton to eat first and take his choice of all the yummies. Other dynamic characters are Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, Jess in Bridge to Terabithia, and Claudia in From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Static (stock) characters are round or flat characters that do not change during the story. Charlotte is the same wise and selfless character at the end of the story as at the beginning. Folktales, fairytales, and other types use static and flat characters whose actions are predictable, so the listener or reader is free to concentrate on the action and theme as it moves along toward an often times universal discovery.




Plot is the order in which things move and happen in a story.

Chronological order is when a story relates events in the order in which they happened.

Flashback is when the story moves back in time. Jean George, Julie of the Wolves or dreams in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Dreams are easier for children to understand because of their experience with them. Flashbacks are more problematic. 

Conflicts occur when the protagonist struggles against an antagonist (villain that goes against the protagonist), or opposing force. Conflict and order make plot. The author creates the conflict by describing one of the following types of interactions.

Person-against-self: Tom Sawyer's fear of Injun Joe and guilt, can't sleep, fear of talking in sleep, ties mouth shut, struggle with moral responsibility even in the face of danger. A Wizard of Earthsea,Ursula K. Le Guin. Ged struggles against the flaws in himself, as the shadow, must make himself whole. "a man who, knows his whole true self cannot be used or possessed by any owner other than himself. He will now live his life for its own sake, not for hatred, pain, ruin, or the darkness of evil.

Person-against-person: Meg and IT in A Wrinkle in Time, Michael and his mother in The Hundred Penny Boy by Sharon Bell Mathis, Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs Vs. the wolves.

Person-against-society: Child will probably call it "will Wilbur live?", but it is really Wilbur Vs. dinner table, Wilbur Vs. good business. Kit Vs. the Puritans in The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.

Person-against-nature: Julie in Julie of the Wolves by Jean George. Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell.

Lack of conflict: A story that lacks struggle, lacks suspense, lacks alternatives, lacks a sense that it had to happen, and therefore, satisfaction. All the reader can say at the conclusion of such a story is "So what does that prove? A Wrinkle in Time shows Meg in a powerful planet saving person-against-person conflict. The author builds the plot, character, ... so well that the reader/listener cares very much what happens to Meg. Even simple stories like Goldilocks, The Three Little Pigs, and The Billy Goats Gruff have conflict and tension. Double Fudge by Judy Blume has a different sense of conflict. There are little incidents that happen throughout the book but nothing of significance to anyone but Fudge and maybe some family members. However the reader's attention is maintained by an attachment to Fudge and his struggle with childhood.

Pattern of action

Rising action builds during the story and reaches a peak at the end. The Borrowers by Mary Norton.

Steady action: maintains the same amount of action through out the story, rising and falling from time to time. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Rise and fall action: the action rises to a climax and then trails off. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

Suspense is what makes us read on. Charlotte's Web : Wilbur's fate. Will he live? Will Charlotte run out of words? Is Templeton too selfish to help? Will Wilbur win at the fair? Can Charlotte go? Lose to Uncle? New category? Dead pig! Templeton bites tail...

Cliffhanger: Trouble River by Betsy Byars, The Borrowers by Mary Norton, and the High King by Lloyd Alexander.

Foreshadowing is the planting of clues to indicate the outcome of the story. Not all readers will be alert to these. Some may notice them subconsciously and describe their inferences as guesses or feelings. Charlotte's Web : When we first meet Charlotte we are told that she eats living things and the friendship looks questionable. But White adds that "she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end. A prophetic statement. Another clue is when Charlotte assures Wilbur, after he learns of the slaughter, with, "I am going to save you."


Sensationalism: the thrilling and the startling. Achieved at the expense of the character and the idea. A writer must be careful with sensationalism, so as not to weaken the character or theme, to balance suspense over action, and then hint at the outcome, as not to overpower small children but provide relief as needed.


Climax: The peak and turning point of the conflict, the point at which we know the outcome of the action. Children call it the most exciting part. In Charlotte's Web when the pig survives. The Borrowerswhen the boy ventilates the fumigation. A Wrinkle in Time when Meg discovers what she has that IT does not.


Resolution: is the falling action after the climax. When the reader is assured that all is well and will continue to be, so the plot has a closed ending. If the reader is left to draw their own conclusions about the final plot then the ending is open. Many adults as well as children are disturbed by open endings.

Inevitably is the property of it had to be. This is high praise for a writer.


Coincidence: events that happen by mere chance. The Incredible Journey has some coincidental events that remove credibility from the plot. First, a handwritten note blows into the fire and leaves the housekeeper baffled. She therefore does not know that the two dogs and cat have struck out on their own, and does not search for them. Later a crumbling beavers' dam gives way at just the right moment to sweep the frightened cat downstream. Later a boy hunting for the first time with his own rifle saves the cat from a lynx with one remarkable shot.

Sentimentality is a natural concern or emotion for another person. The way a soap opera or a tear-jerker plays on its viewers.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is told by the horse and stuffed with sentimentality.

"Poor Ginger" a title of a chapter concludes with these observations. "A short time after this a cart with a dead horse in it passed our cab-stand. The head hung out of the cart-tail, the lifeless tongue was slowly dropping with blood; and the sunken eyes. But I can't speak of them, the sight was too dreadful. It was a chestnut horse with a long, thin neck... I believe it was Ginger; I hoped it was, for then her troubles would be over. O! If men were more merciful they should shoot us before we came to such misery."

Because of the sentimentality, the reader/listener/watcher may sob more soulfully over Ginger's death than over that of a human being, although there is little confusion in some minds as to which misused creature is more deserving of grief.

The rapid pace of folktales does not allow time for tears by false sentiment. We do not anguish over the fate of Rumpelstiltskin, when he stamped his feet and split in two and that was the end of him.

The most destructive element from the over use of sentimentality is not boredom, but the fact that the young reader, faced with continual sentimentality, will not develop the sensitivity essential to recognize what is truly moving and what is merely a play on feelings. If, after all, we regard the death of a pet mouse with the same degree of emotional intensity as the death of a brother, we have no sense of emotional proportion.

By contrast Katherine Paterson in Bridge to Terabithia uses a wide range of emotions that children wrestle with or the genuine sentiment that a small child, reading or being read to, experiences during the relationship with Charlotte and Wilbur. The child fed only on such surface sentimentality as soap operas, the average television program, and Walt Disney, with their sterile and stereotyped pictures of human beings and their distorted sensationalism with simplistic solutions, risks developing emotional shallowness.


Types of plots


Progressive plots: have a central climax followed by denouement. Charlotte's Web and A Wrinkle in Time are examples.


Episodical plots: have one incident or short episode linked to another by a common character or unifying theme (maybe through chapters). Used by authors to explore character personalities, the nature of their existence, and the flavor of a certain time period.




Setting includes time and place.


Backdrop setting is when the setting is unimportant for the story and the story could take place in any setting. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne is an example of a story in which could happen in any setting.


Integral setting is when the action, character, or theme are influenced by the time and place, setting. Controlling setting controls characters. If you confine a character to a certain setting it defines the character. Characters, given these circumstances, in this time and place, behave in this way. The Tail of Peter Rabbit is an example of how the setting is an integral part of Peter's behavior. Charlotte's Web is another example of an integral setting.


Functions of setting: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth Speare creates a setting of Puritanical austerity: hand-rubbed copper, indicating hard work, the heavy fortress-like door, the dim little mirror, the severe wooden bench, the unpainted Meeting House, the whipping post, the pillory, and the stocks. The tasks of a typical day performed by Kit: mixing soap with a stick, the lye fumes stinging her eyes, tiring muscles, with one of the easiest tasks: making corn pudding, which keeps her over a smoky fire with burning and watering eyes. A frightening and uncompromising environment compared to her carefree Barbados upbringing.


Setting as antagonist: Characters must resolve conflict created by the setting: Julie of the Wolves , The Incredible Journey, and Island of the Blue Dolphins .


Setting that illuminates character: The confining setting of the attic in Anne Frank and Flowers in the Attic help the characters find themselves and grow as individuals.


Setting as symbolism: a symbol is a person, place, object, situation, or action which operates on two levels of meaning, the literal and the figurative, or suggestive. Children will understand only obvious symbols. Forest: unknown; garden: natural beauty; sunlight: hope, goodness; darkness: evil, despair. A grouping of symbols may create an image called an allegory. The Narnia books by C. S. Lewis are allegories. In The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Speare uses symbols in the usual way and to create conflict, as when she describes Hannah as a kind and harmless woman who lives in the sunny meadows. When you would expect a witch to live in the deep dark shadowy forest or swamp.




Theme is the main idea that weaves the story together, the why, the underlying ideas of what happens in the piece of literature, often a statement about society or human nature.


Explicit theme is when the writer states the theme openly and clearly. Charlotte's Web: friendship. Primary explicit themes are common in children's literature, as the author wants to be sure the reader finds it.


Implicit themes are implied themes. Charlotte's Web: If two such unlikely animals as a spider and pig can be friends, then so can we. Even a Tempelton can be a friend to a degree. Friendship is giving of ones self, as Wilbur did for the egg sac and devotion to the babies. Best friends can do no wrong. Friendship is reciprocal.


Multiple and secondary themes: Since a story speaks to us on our own individual level of varying experiences, many individual themes will be obtained from a good piece of literature. Charlotte's Websecondary themes could include: People don't give credit where credit is due, Youth and innocence have a unique value, Be what you are, There is beauty in all things, Nature is a miracle, Life is continuous.

Children may not be able to express themes but they are beginning to build an understanding of them, which they need before they can express them.


Didacticism: If we give students stories that are too preachy, they will turn off and nothing is gained.

Students need time to smell the fragrances of plants, compare their colors, feel their textures, and have aesthetic experiences, so they will develop an appreciation of plants before they will participate in a botany lesson. Likewise they must develop a caring relationship with characters in a book before they will accept understanding from the story, good literature does this.

The Tail of Peter Rabbit can be used to illustrate this. Although Peter didn't feel very well the evening that he returned. However, there is no hint that it served him right, or that he was naughty. Peter's mother puts him to bed and gives him a dose of chamomile tea. Potter does not call it punitive medicine, nor describe it as tasting bad. Nor does she call Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail's bread, milk, and blackberries rewards for goodness.

Peter Rabbit can become didactic, however, if some reteller adds a single phrase to Potter's final paragraph, saying that Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, "who were good little bunnies," ate bread and milk and blackberries at supper time. Or when we see another illustrator's picture with an admonitory plaque hanging on the kitchen wall, saying, "Good bunnies obey," or preaching "Obedience is rewarded.

It seems unlikely that didactic messages made Peter Rabbit a childhood favorite and has kept it a much-loved story for generations. A less didactic theme seems more likely. Animals, or people, mature and go into the world to discover. Mother, scared to death about the consequences accepts them because of her love for her children.


Nonsense: seems to say, The world and all its inhabitants, thank heaven, make no sense. Nonsense, in its own way, may develop a theme. If it does not, it will fail.


Point of view


Point of view is determined by the authors' descriptions of characters, setting, and events told to the reader throughout the story.


First-person: told with I, as in Island of the Blue Dolphins, A Ring of Endless Light; Madeleine L'Engle, Dear Mr. Henshaw, Huckleberry Finn, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, It's Like This Cat, Pigman and The Slave Dancer. The first person point of view may present difficulties for small children, because they are learning their own "I" identity, and may have trouble identifying with the strange "I" of the story.

Telling a story from one character also limits the amount of information available to the reader, requiring the reader to add information. Small children may lack enough experience to do this. However, Dr. Seuss wrote several successful books in first person: If I ran the Zoo, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and May I Bring a Friend?.


Omniscient: third person (he, she, they) is all-knowing in every detail of action, thought, and feeling (conscious or unconscious) Charlotte's Web.

Sometimes the author uses limited omniscient point of view (when only a select amount of characters are presented omnisciently), Little House stories where Laura's actions and thoughts are told but not other characters. Laura's understanding of Santa Claus. "Santa Claus did not give grown people presents, but that was not because they had not been good... It was because they were grown up, and grown people must give each other presents.

In Summer of the Swans, Byars tells most of the story from Sara's point of view but there are some parts where she tells what is in the mind of Charlie, her retarded brother. "The whole world seemed to have been turned off when Sara went into the Weicek's house. His ticking watch is his pleasure as he listens to it and watches the red second hand sweep around the dial.


Objective or dramatic point of view: There is no explanation to the reader of what is going on or what the characters think or feel. The camera selects and we see and draw our own conclusions.Incredible Journey, is an example. Since the characters are animals we are not able to know what they think, if indeed they do. We must imagine their actions and movements or other sensory images. The old dog walked gingerly into the shallow water, shivering... turning his head away. Once more the Labrador swam the river, climbed out... shook himself, and barked. There was no mistaking the command. The old dog took another reluctant step forward, whining piteously, his expressive tail tucked under... again the Labrador swam across...




Style is how the author says something, the choice of words and the use of language, sentence construction, imagery... not what the author says. It adds significance and impact to the author's writing.


Exposition: narrator or third person passages to provide background information to explain story events.


Dialogue between characters.


Vocabulary words used. Two kinds of words are combined to add meaning: connotation and denotation:


Connotation: is the associative or emotional meaning of a word. 


Denotation: is the dictionary meaning of a word.


Sentence structure


Imagerywords used to create mental sensory impressions (sights, sounds, textures, smells, and tastes). It creates setting, establishes mood, or describes characters.


Figurative language is language used in a non literal context to add intensity of meaning.


Figure of speech is an expression used in a non literal context to add intensity of meaning.


Personification is a figure of speech that gives human qualities to inanimate objects, nonhuman organisms, or abstractions.


Simile is a figure of speech that makes comparisons using like and as and occasionally than. That describe something in a manner that communicates a deeper understanding with economy of words or beyond a physical or direct description.


Metaphor is a figure of speech that transfers an idea associated with one word to another word.


Hyperbole is a figure of speech that exaggerates or uses an extravagant statement.


Understatement is the opposite of hyperbole.


Allusion is a figure of speech that refers to something in our common understanding, our past or our literature. Allusion is difficult for children since it relies on background information which they often lack.


Symbol is a person, object, situation, or action that operates on two levels of meaning, the literal and the figurative or suggestive. Dove: peace, flag: nationality of a country, handshake or gift: friendship.


Puns or wordplay

Devices of sound


Onomatopoeia is when a word sounds like what it represents.


Alliteration is repetition of initial consonants


Assonance is repetition of similar vowel sounds.


Consonance is the close repetition of consonant sounds.


Rhythm or in music meter, in prose cadence. Rhythm in Greek means flow. Reading aloud is the best test. Often used in picture books, Millions of Cat, by Wanda Gag and Where the Wild 




Tone tells us the author feels about his or her subject. Words express the writer's attitude toward his or her work, subject, and readers. Without vocal inflection to help convey tone, the writer must choose words with great care. We often describe a writer's tone but are not aware of how we discovered the tone. It sort of creeps into our consciousness. Tone can be serious, humorous, satirical, passionate, sensitive, zealous, indifferent, caring, caustic...


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