Glossary of Common Formal Elements of Literature
The following is a partial list, in alphabetical order of the formal elements of literary works that are often the focus of literary study and essays. Of course, not every essay considers all of these formal elements. Often an essay writer will consider one or some of these elements in relation a work's themes.
- Point of View
A reference, often indirect, inside a work to something outside it, such as a person, place, event, or other work. When making an allusion, the author often assumes that the reader knows something about the external referent and will understand how mentioning it adds to the meaning of the work.
How the characters of the work are presented to the reader or viewer, their actions, their personalities, their thoughts and motivations. A good plot springs from the characters and should help reveal character and show character development.
Both deal with word meaning.
Connotation: the implications, feelings and cultural associations a word has collected through its use over time, for example, the association of red roses with romantic love. Some words have more connotations than others; for example, the word "home" means more than the word "house," or the word "heart" has more connotations than lungs or appendix.
Denotation: the explicit meaning or dictionary definition of a word.
The words and grammatical constructions a writer selects and which may reveal, among other things, the nationality and level of education of the writer or of the literary character given those words by the writer. A writer's diction will affect the "tone" of the text and its meaning, as the writer will make choices alert to denotation and connotation.
This term comes from the French and means "type" or "kind." Literature is divided up into genres or types, which share conventions or similar features. The major literary genres are drama, poetry, and fiction, which can be categorized further by type. For example, fiction can be categorized by length: novels, novellas, short stories, and by content: the realistic novel, romance novel, fantasy novel, mystery novel and so on.
Descriptive language that evokes all the senses and calls to the reader's or viewer's mind sights, sounds, smells, tastes and other physical sensations. Imagery in literature helps the reader or viewer to become more involved in the work by providing concreteness to the setting and characters and helping in the creation of meaning.
The word "imagery" is also used for other kinds of figurative language, such as metaphor and simile.
Plays with the differences between appearances and reality, or between meaning and the words used to convey that meaning. An example of verbal irony would be "Nice hair" to comment on a bad haircut. Dramatic irony occurs when a character says or does something without the knowledge that the other characters and/or the readers/viewers have.
A form of imagery that uses figurative language to compare something to something else without using "like"or "as" or other comparative terms.
"There she weaves by night and day
a magic web with colours gay."
(from "The Lady of Shalott" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson)
The cloth the lady is weaving is compared to a web.
What happens, the chronology of events. If someone asks you what a novel or a movie is about, you probably reply with a summary of the plot, or the series of actions that make up the story.
The perspective from which a story is told. Whose voice is narrating events and how much that narrator knows have great bearing on the impact of a work. The two most common narrative view points are first person, in which the narrator uses "I" and is usually part of the story, and third person, in which the story is told by a narrator who is not part of the story, does not use "I" (usually), and often knows a great deal if not everything about the characters and plot, that is, is an ""omniscient narrator."
A sound device in which identical or very similar sounds are repeated, often at the ends of lines in poems or songs:
"And fare thee weel, my only love,
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my love,
Thou' it were then thousand mile."
(from "A Red, Red Rose" by Robert Burns)
In poetry, the stresses that come at regular intervals to create effect. Poetry is built on a rhythmic pattern, called metre, which also contributes to effect and meaning. A metrical pattern is made up of a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables.
Where and when the plot occurs, the environment in which the characters are described as living. This environment includes the natural environment, the material environment, and the social environment.
A form of imagery that uses figurative language to show similarities between things that are different, using words like "like" or "as."
"My love is like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June:
My love is like the melody
That's sweetly played in tune."
(from "A Red, Red Rose" by Robert Burns)
What we know about a red rose and a melody helps us to understand what the beloved is like.
Structure is anything made with a clear organizational pattern. Every literary work has structure of some sort; sometimes the structure is new and original; often, it follows a known, set format, for example, that of a sonnet or a haiku.
A symbol is a thing that represents another thing that is usually larger and more abstract. For example, the maple leaf is a symbol of Canada. In literature, words, characters, setting, events and situations can all be symbolic.