purple spiral
Ellington fractal courtesy of
Janet Preslar, FrActivity

Thematic Elements: Fiction

The tools an author uses to tell a story and get his or her message across are called Thematic Elements. Used alone or in conjunction with others, these literary terms refer to the devices which help the author to keep the story entertaining while adding depth and meaning to the work. The following are a list of common thematic elements used in literature. [Video] indicates there is a Video presentation on the subject on this web site.

  • ALLEGORY: An extended symbol that often encompasses major scenes or even the entire story, an allegory allows the writer to reiterate prevailing theme, such as suffering, struggle and the like, such as a tale of a journey symbolizing the main character's entire life. For example, "A Worn Path" by Eudora Welty is an allegory for Phoenix Jackson's life, as well as for the experience of African Americans in the United States (see SYMBOLISM presentation).

  • ANTAGONIST: Also called a "foil," this is the character at odds with the protagonist of a story (often labeled as the "bad guy," but not necessarily) (see CHARACTER).

  • ARGUMENT: Any essay in which an opinion or stance on an issue is taken. Argument does not refer to disagreement per se; it is the development of a logical presentation of an issue, whether one presents both sides or just the side he or she favors.

  • CHARACTER: A player in the story. It is an actor in the play. [POWERPOINT]

  • CONFLICT: The discord, antagonism or contention between the protagonist and his or her fellow characters (man vs. man), surroundings or society (man vs nature or society), or within him or her self (man vs. self). [POWERPOINT]

  • CRITICAL ANALYSIS: This is a paper that requires discussion of a work from various critical points of view, usually narrowly defined (see CRITICAL APPROACHES presentation). The purpose is to look beyond the thematic analysis…this requires a response from the reader (see THEMATIC APPROACHES, LITERARY ANALYSIS).

  • DIALOGUE: Dialogue is the words spoken by characters, usually indicated by quotation marks. Often dialogue reveals factors in the story that were not evident in the narration (see NARRATION), sometimes showing the truth that other factors such as narration may be hiding.

  • ENDING: The cease of action in a plot. See PLOT

  • FICTION: A narrative that is not based on actual occurrences (see NARRATIVE, NON-FICTION).

  • FOIL: See Antagonist

  • HUBRIS: Overreaching pride in a character, usually a fatal flaw for a tragic hero in classical plays and fiction. Hubris is often characterized in dismissal of power of society, seers of the future, or the gods. This inevitably results in loss of power, physical strength or life.

  • IRONY: The discrepancy between appearance and reality, between what is and what should be, between expectation and outcome (Arp). [POWERPOINT]

  • LITERARY ANALYSIS: This type of critical essay is common in transfer classes and focuses on fiction, where simple plot retelling or reviewing of story is not enough. Literary analysis usually focuses on a thematic approach to explain the relevance of a work. It is not an evaluation as to whether one liked or disliked a work (see MODES presentation, BOOK REPORT, REVIEW).

  • METAPHOR: The description of one object by giving it the attributes of an other object that is literally different (My love is a rose).

  • NARRATIVE/NARRATION: Narration (or Narrative) is the non-quoted part of the story. Who tells the story is important, whether it is a character or not (see CHARACTER). The narrative may be all-knowing or limited in its knowledge (see POINT OF VIEW).

  • NARRATIVE VOICE: See Point of View.

  • PLOT: What happens in a story. It is the series of events that make up the action. It is what the characters do and what happens to them. [POWERPOINT]

  • POINT OF VIEW: Who tells a story, and how a story is told. [POWERPOINT]
    • First person: narrator includes him - or herself in the story. There is a reference to "I" by the narrator, and is either an active participant or a direct observer. Usually is limited to only what he or she knows, as he or she cannot read minds.
    • Third person: a person who tells the story who is not a player. Rarely makes reference to self. Will often be privy to thoughts and intent of one or more of the characters.

  • PROTAGONIST: The primary or main character of a story, upon whom the author focuses most attention. Might clearly be designated the hero or "good guy" of the story, but is not necessarily a likable or heroic character. (see CHARACTER)

  • SETTING: Where and when a story takes place. [POWERPOINT]

  • SIMILE: Comparison of two unlike items using "like" or "as" (Her voice was like liquid sunshine).

  • SYMBOLISM: The use of a concrete object, character or action to represent a concept or idea. [POWERPOINT]

  • SARCASM: Spoken irony designed to make the listener feel or look bad. See IRONY

  • THEME: The underlying idea that runs throughout a work, often supported through symbols, irony and/or other thematic elements. [POWERPOINT]

© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: March 30, 2000