Bedford/St. Martin's virtuaLit Interactive Fiction Tutorial Notebook VIEW SEND
Fiction in Depth Approaches and Contexts
Select a StoryElements of FictionCultural ContextsCritical Approaches
Plot
Character
Setting
Point of View
Style, Tone, and Language
Theme
Symbolism, Allegory, and Image

The Formal Elements of Fiction

In the same way that a painter uses shape, color, perspective, and other aspects of visual art to create a painting, a fiction writer uses character, setting, plot, point of view, theme, and various kinds of symbolism and language to create artistic effect in fiction. These aspects of fiction are known as the formal elements. An understanding of the formal elements will enhance the reader’s appreciation of any piece of fiction, as well as his or her ability to share perceptions with others. For example, the concept of setting helps a reader of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” to recognize and discuss the significance of the “deep dusk of the forest” and the “uncertain light” encountered by Brown as he begins his dreamlike encounter with the devil.

While the list of formal elements encourages us to divide a story into parts, in the story itself these elements blend to create a whole. At some level, or perhaps in the first reading of a piece, readers should read without applying these divisions in order to experience the story's unique effect. Nevertheless, knowledge of the formal elements is necessary for most critical discussions of fiction. These elements provide a basic vocabulary and set of critical tools that can be used in conjunction with many other critical approaches.

For definitions of literary elements, click on one of the choices on the left. There are interactive exercises following each description, as well as examples of how each element functions in the context of a story.

Contributing author: Gary Parks, Shoreline Community College

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