Scull mostly enjoys reading the classics and occasionally writes short stories.
Many of us love to settle into an easy chair, open a book from one of our favorite authors, and immerse ourselves into the wonderful world of fiction. We typically allow the author to take us on a journey of discovery, fantasy, and dreams—excursions of mental flight we often remember for the rest of our lives. We especially love when the words of good fiction seem to magically transform themselves into mental images as if we were watching a movie on an old-fashioned silver screen.
In many cases, we do not want to know what concoction of word and imagery alchemy the author has constructed. Instead, we only want to be led into that world of make-believe, living within the pages of the story we are reading. Soon, we find ourselves not only captivated by the story but somehow part of it. When this happens, the author's magic has worked.
However, whether we know it or not, good authors use many literary devices and concepts—tricks of the trade, if you will—in order to create indelible images in our minds . . . images we often replay time and again.
This article does not pretend to instruct the readers on how to write fiction. I will leave that to those English majors who are well-versed in the art of writing. It merely attempts to describe those literary devices and concepts good authors use.
This article will attempt to describe certain writing strategies that represent the effective approaches necessary for the creation of good literature. However, understanding these literary devices will also enhance the reader's enjoyment when deeply engrossed in a favorite book or short story.
In all likelihood, some of the terms described in this article are well-known to many readers. On the other hand, there are some readers that might know little or nothing about some of them. Hence, we’ll start with the simplest terms and devices, working our way from there.
Genres and Sub-Genres
While most people know the meaning of the words "genre" and "sub-genre," it is essential to include them in any list of important literary concepts or devices.
A genre is a category of artistic composition, in art, music, movies, or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. As a category or art, a genre can be written, spoken, in audio form, or visual. Genres can be of an aesthetic, rhetorical, communicative, or of a functional nature. They have been known to change over time as cultures invent new genres and discontinue the use of old ones.
The following table details the four main literary genres and some of their various sub-genres.
Genres and Sub-genres
Songs and Ballads
Protagonist and Antagonist
The protagonist is the main character and the center of any story. The fate of the protagonist is most closely followed by the reader or audience. He or she makes the key decisions and experiences the consequences of any actions taken. The protagonist moves the story forward and is often the one who faces the most significant obstacles. If a story contains a subplot or is a narrative made up of several stories, then each subplot or story may have its own protagonist.
Developing a relatable, dynamic, and multi-dimensional protagonist creates an infinitely more engaging character for an audience, ultimately making any work of fiction more interesting.
There are important rules in creating a strong protagonist. Some of these are:
- Allow the reader to know the character before the story is set in motion. It is important for the reader to understand what the protagonist wants out of life, his or her view of the world, and his or her behavior. In good fiction, this comes before whatever obstacle might get in the way. This connection between the reader and the protagonist represents an important foundation as the story develops.
- Protagonists must be realistic with good characteristics but also with flaws. However, do not give so many flaws to the main character rendering him or her unlikable. It is impossible to root for a character who is so tragically flawed that he or she becomes a crackpot. Protagonists who alienate the readers by being rude, narcissistic, immature, intolerant, and intolerable do not make for good reads.
- Protagonists who communicate their feelings to the readers are highly desirable. Characters that express frustration, thrill, humiliation, anger, lust, or love allow the readers to empathize and identify with them.
- Authors should not shy away from having horrible events happen to the protagonist. The protagonist should not overcome obstacles too easily as the tension can quickly deflate. Characters that face obstacles that seem insurmountable create indelible bonds with the readers.
An antagonist is a character in a story who is presented as the chief enemy of the protagonist. The antagonist usually provides obstacles, complications, and creates conflicts that test the protagonist. Sometimes, revealing the strengths and weaknesses of the main character.
Antagonists are often as important to the story as the protagonist. Alfred Hitchcock once said:
“The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”
The following are suggestions for the creation of good antagonists:
- The antagonist must be a dynamic figure. We see this in the case of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein's Monster," who becomes more human as more is revealed about him. The best antagonists grow and change as much as the protagonists. We often enjoy watching them grow as we subconsciously hope for their redemption or observe their villainy evolve.
- Create a villain who is relatable. It is important for the reader to understand the motives behind all the characters, especially the antagonist. It is often difficult to develop a relationship with a character that is "pure evil." Hence, reading about an antagonist who is not only aware of the reason for his or her actions but can also justify them makes for an infinitely more delightful character to engage emotionally.
- The protagonist and the antagonist must share a deep connection. A deep and mysterious connection between the protagonist and the antagonist allows the readers to invest in the dynamics between the two characters. This dynamic often allows us to learn to love how the villain challenges the hero. A good villain is part and partial of a hero who might be nothing without the antagonist. The readers then have no choice but to fall for the villain.
- Villains should not be born into evil. The best villains do not start their lives as evil. Just like Darth Vader, the best antagonists were created by the world they lived in. These types of villains are much more complete characters and demand the readers to feel pity for them. Creating an antagonist who is the dark reflection of the story's hero is also a good strategy that creates an interesting dichotomy for the reader to visualize. Also, a villain that could have been a hero elicits a powerful emotional connection with the reader.
- The antagonist must be totally committed to his or her mission. In the final analysis, a hero that lays it all on the line (dignity, emotions, even life itself) wins the admiration of the readers. The same applies to the antagonist. Creating villains whose loss will lead to their complete destruction will elicit secret admiration from the reading audience.
Conflict: The Driving Force of the Plot
Conflict is central to building an exciting novel or short story. It can reveal uncomfortable truths about being human. It allows the writer to express his or her views on a specific topic through the characters and actions present in the story. Good writers manage conflict in order to create a lasting impression in readers’ minds.
Conflict can be a disagreement or clash of ideas, values, motivations, or desires. It is what sometimes drives humans to accomplish greatness. In literature, conflict propels the writer’s story forward by creating tension.
Literary conflicts can be divided into two general categories: internal conflict and external conflict.
Internal conflict is when a character struggles with his or her own opposing desires or beliefs. It happens within the character and drives his or her development.
External conflict sets a character against something or someone beyond their control. External forces stand in the way of a character’s motivations and create tension as the characters try to reach their goals.
Including both internal and external conflict is crucial for a good story because life always includes both.
Types of Internal Conflict
Also known as a “character vs. self,” it is a type of conflict in which the opposition the character faces comes from within. This might entail a struggle of moral values or choosing between right or wrong. It could be a struggle of physical or mental endurance. However, it is always a struggle that takes place in the mind of a character, caused by their own emotions, fears, conflicting desires, or mental illnesses. Internal conflict tends to be a battle of reconciling two opposing forces within the same individual.
Internal Conflicts Often Seen in Literature
Authors that manage to describe strong internal conflicts in one or more of the characters they create can almost always be assured of offering readers interesting narratives. The following are internal conflicts we often see in literature:
- Conflicts about religion: Questioning one’s religion or culture. Questioning God after the death of a loved one. Loss of faith.
- Moral conflict: Violating a moral code due to an immediate need. Steal food due to hunger or to feed a family. Succumbing to temptation and then experiencing regret.
- Conflict of self-image: Someone’s actions are not consistent with how they view themselves. Perhaps, a policeman who steals.
- Conflicts of love and sex: Hurting something or someone you love. Struggling with one's own infidelity or sexuality.
- Existential conflicts: A struggle about the meaning of life. For example, an environmentalist might work to save the planet while secretly believing it is doomed.
- Gender conflicts: The battle of the sexes. Men and women act differently, causing problems. Gender identity.
Types of External Conflict
There are five primary types of external conflict:
- Character vs. character: Two characters with conflicting viewpoints or needs. The author must develop each character carefully so that the reader understands the differences between the two. These conflicts can be represented in boxing matches; sports events; cop shows; protagonist vs. antagonist; war films; hero-archetype vs. villain-archetype.
- Character vs. society: It pits the protagonist against broader forces of society. These forces can be cultural, political, governmental, or institutional. The society is usually depicted by one or more specific character representing or symbolizing the larger system. A scientist fighting against government forces; rebel fighting an evil government; civil rights advocate fighting against a racist state government; innovative doctor confronts old-fashion hospital management.
- Character vs. nature: In this type of conflict, characters are threatened or kept apart by a natural force. This can be represented by a powerful animal, a storm, an infectious disease, or some other natural phenomenon. It could be a surfer who fights a great white shark; a fishing boat struggling against hurricane-force winds; a camper facing a grisly bear.
- Character vs. Supernatural: This is when the characters of the story face phenomenon such as ghosts, gods, or monsters. These fictional interactions raise the stakes of a conflict by creating an unequal playing field. However, these conflicts can also occur when a character faces resistance from fate, magical forces, otherworldly beings, religion, or deities.
- Character vs. Technology: This is when a character is in conflict with some kind of technology. This technology can take place in a modern period in which robots, androids, humanoids, or supercomputers are present. However, it can also take place in a past era in which new technology is surfacing. This could include a conflict with steam-engine locomotives or new computer technology of the era.
An archetype is a consistent and typical version of a particular object, person, or set of behaviors. It is a prototype or "first" form. It is the main model that others follow. In essence, a standard or basic example. An archetype must fit into a time-tested mold that embodies a pure form.
In literature, a character archetype possesses the core traits, values, and decision-making patterns of a particular type of person. It is a constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting, or mythology—characters or ideas sharing similar traits throughout different stories.
Archetypes allow the reader or audience to connect certain parts of themselves with the characters, which can help them to become more invested in the story. This experience can help readers to see parts of themselves that maybe they hadn't considered before.
In literature, there are character archetypes and situation or plot archetypes.
The following are the most common character archetypes we see in literature:
- The Hero: This is the character who ultimately restores harmony and justice to the community at large. The hero typically experiences an initiation that transforms him or her into a person who can overcome obstacles to achieve specific goals. Typically, the hero's purpose in life is to improve the world.
- The Villain: The bad guy who comes up with diabolical plots in order to cause harm or ruin. In some of the older fiction, a villain would mostly be a man attempting to harm the damsel-in-distress or helpless female. She, in turn, would need a hero to save her.
- The Innocent: An optimist character who can only see the good in people. They enjoy the simple things in life; they are pure at heart, free of corruption, and seek harmony in the world.
- The Initiates: These are young heroes who must endure strenuous training and rituals in order to take on some sort of quest. They are usually innocent during the early stages of their initiation; however, they become hardened warriors later in the story.
- Mentors: These are teachers or counselors to the initiates, sometimes working as role models or as father or mother figure. They teach the initiates either by example or by actual instructions. Their purpose is to train their pupils in order that they can undertake whatever journey or quest awaits them.
- Companion Group: Loyal companions willing to face any number of perils in order to be together.
- Friendly Beast: These are animals that assist the hero or protagonist, often reflecting the idea that nature is on the side of the good character.
- The Devil Figure: Represents evil incarnate. He or she may offer worldly goods, fame, or knowledge to the protagonist in exchange for possession of his or her soul or integrity. The Devil figure aims to oppose or destroy the hero or protagonist through one of the cardinal sins.
- The Evil Figure With the Ultimately Good Heart: This redeemable devil figure is saved by the hero's nobility, charm, or good heart.
- The Scapegoat: Exactly as the name implies, it is a character who takes the blame for pretty much all wrongdoing or bad occurrences that have happened in a plot. This can happen even if it's completely out of anyone's control. Marie Antoinette is a well known historical figure who is also a great example of a scapegoat.
- The Outcast: This figure is banished from a community for some crime or sin - real or imagined. Often an outcast can become a wanderer. A good example of an outcast is Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.
- The Temptress: A character who may bring the hero's downfall through sexuality and physical attraction.
- The Platonic Ideal: A character that develops an intellectual or spiritual relationship with the protagonist, rather than a physical or sexual one.
- The Unfaithful Wife: A woman who sees her husband as unattractive and dull and searches for excitement in other more virile men.
- The Damsel in Distress: A vulnerable woman who must be rescued by the protagonist. Damsels in distress are often used as traps by other evil figures.
- The Star-Crossed Lovers: Characters engaged in a love affair that is destined to end in tragedy due to the disapproval of society, friends, family, or the gods.
- The Creature of Nightmare: A monster—real or imagined—who is summoned from the deepest and darkest depths of the human psyche in order to threaten the life of the protagonist. A good example of this is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Story or Plot Archetype
Story or plot archetypes are similar to character archetypes in that they represent patterns or molds that repeat themselves in other narratives. They are notable events recurrent across human experience that create a sense of familiarity, allowing the readers or audience to easily comprehend an event. This is mainly due to our instincts and life experiences that allow us to connect each particular type of plot.
Themes such as coming of age, rags to riches, the quest, getting retribution, earning redemption, and battle of the underdog are all archetypal plots representing classic story types readers have come to recognize and even seek out.
In his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004), Christopher Booker says:
“There are indeed a small number of plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any storyteller ever to break away from them.”
The following are the seven basic plot archetypes he provides:
1. Overcoming the Monster
In this plot type, an evil force threatens our hero or heroine, the world, or mankind. The hero must fight and slay this monster in spite of difficulties he or she faces. The hero must emerge triumphant and ultimately receive a great reward, which often isn't easy. Sometimes heroes die or sacrifice their lives in order to save the world.
Some examples include Beowulf, Dracula, The War of the Worlds, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Guns of Navarone.
2. Rags to Riches
This a common and self-explanatory plot. The hero usually is dismissed by others; however, they manage to elevate themself, ultimately revealing outstanding qualities. Some of these plots vary in how the climax of the story is reached; however, the outcome is always the same: The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, or a mate. Sometimes loses it all and gains it all back. In the meantime, they grow as a person.
Some examples include Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, and Great Expectations.
3. The Quest
In this plot archetype, the hero must set out on a long and hazardous journey, battling obstacles along the way, until triumphant. In some variations of this plot, the protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to an important location. On all occasions, the hero or heroes face temptations and other obstacles during their journey.
Some examples are The Pilgrim's Progress, The Lord Of The Rings, King Solomon's Mines, and Six of Crows.
4. Voyage and Return
Different from The Quest, in this plot type, the hero travels out his or her normal world into an overwhelming and unknown setting. Eventually, the hero escapes back to the safety of home. These events in which the hero overcomes threats and danger present important learning experiences unique to that foreign location.
Some examples are Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Time Machine, Peter Rabbit, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Gone with the Wind.
A story made up of comedic events, sometimes involving mistaken identity, misunderstanding, or confusion, all resulting in hilarious chaos. These stories are usually represented by light and humorous characters with a happy or cheerful ending. However, a comedy can also be a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstances, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.
Some of these are A Midsummer Night's Dream, Some Like It Hot, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and The Big Lebowski.
A story without a happy ending. In these stories, the protagonist is a hero with a major character flaw or who makes a great mistake, which ultimately leads to destruction. The hero's unfortunate end evokes pity at the fall of a fundamentally good character.
Some examples include Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Breaking Bad, Bonnie and Clyde, and Carmen.
In this plot type, our hero falls under a dark spell, sleep, sickness, or enchantment. Sometimes the protagonist dies and goes to heaven where he or she is sent back to Earth. Eventually, the hero breaks free from the spell or enchantment and is redeemed.
Sometimes, an event forces the main character to change their ways and eventually to become a better individual.
Some examples include Pride and Prejudice, The Frog Prince, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, The Secret Garden, and Heaven Can Wait.
An anti-hero is a protagonist that doesn’t have the usual “heroic” attributes such as physical strength, attractiveness, idealism, magnetic personality, bravery, courage, conviction, honesty, self-sacrifice, and selflessness. Sometimes, there is a thin line between an antagonist and an anti-hero, as it mostly relies on the intention of the person or character.
Anti-heroes often act primarily out of self-interest, sometimes they perform actions that might be considered morally correct. However, these actions often defy conventional ethical codes.
Anti-heroes can sometimes be a villain we follow as the protagonist. They can be liars, vulgar, violent, angry, incredulous, and sarcastic.
Some well-known anti-heroes are:
- Randal Graves
- Dexter Morgan
- Jackie Peyton
- Ray Donovan
- Jack Sparrow
- Elizabeth Jennings
- Tony Soprano
A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. It allows a character to begin as one sort of person and gradually transform into a different one in response to changing developments in the story.
In some cases, the change in the character can be quite substantial, causing a protagonist or antagonist to transition from one personality type to a diametrically opposed trait. For example, going from greed to benevolence or from hate to love. Although protagonists and antagonists are the ones more likely to undergo a personality change, all characters in the story can change as well.
One reason for an author to cause a character to undergo a severe change can be as simple as creating a way for a protagonist to overcome obstacles in knowledge, resources, or friends. Leading characters can change by learning new skills, arrive at a higher sense of self-awareness or overall capability.
Examples of Character Arcs
The following are three basic types of character arcs:
Change or Transformation Arc
The most common arc in literature is one of change and/or transformation. It is a change that parallels the protagonist's journey. This plot structure is present in most stories that focus on a hero or strong protagonist.
It is a character arc in which we see a change from a regular person to a hero or savior and mostly it is applied to main characters or protagonists. It is mostly seen in a regular person, who at times can be considered an underdog but makes a metamorphic type of change into a hero.
A growth arc is different from a transformation arc in that the character grows without necessarily undergoing a complete change or transformation. By the end of the story, the characters remain the same persons; however, they have been able to overcome various barriers within them. This growth process allows the characters to be a better and more rounded person. A growth arc can also show a character going through various stages of age and maturity. At times it can also show a character changing perspectives, learning something new or different approaches to life.
This particular arc represents a negative and possible catastrophic outcome. It involves the decline, fall or destruction of a character through bad choices or luck. The circumstances that befall the characters can doom them and potentially those near.
At the end of the story, the character has either died, become corrupted, or become insane. Sometimes all three. A character going through this arc will also have ruined the lives of others consequently receiving no redemption or salvation.
Often, a protagonist going through a fall arc starts out as a good, happy, and successful person, only to be completely unrecognizable at the end of the story.
Narrative, Plot, or Story Arc
Narrative arc, also called a “story arc,” a “dramatic arc,” “plot arc,” or just an “arc,” is a literary term for the path a story follows. It provides a framework by showing a clear beginning, middle, and end of the story. It is very similar to a character arc, except it encompasses the entire story. In fact, the rise and fall in a story can be plotted on a graph to form a curve shape line, hence the term arc.
All stories change. Because of this, if there is no rise or fall in a narrative, the story becomes merely a list of events grouped together.
Six Primary Story Arcs in Graphs
Six Primary Story Arcs
The six primary story arcs are as follows:
1. Rags to Riches
In this type of arc, the story moves in a continuous upward trajectory toward a happy ending. Although one of the most common story types, they are typically not as popular among readers as other more complex stories. These stories are analogous to the 'American dream' in which a child grows up in poverty or oppressive conditions but is able to overcome all obstacles in order to end up with wealth, status, and companionship.
2. The Fall or Riches to Rags
As in the case of Rags to Riches, the Fall exhibits a singular trajectory, albeit, in the opposite direction. In these story types, the protagonists start out in a fairly high place in society; however, their lives begin to unravel, devolving until he or she ends in ruin. These stories typically involve addictive behaviors such as alcoholism, drug abuse, or satyriasis. In some narratives, they portray greed, extreme jealousy, or other mental illnesses that develop during the development of the plot, eventually destroying the life of the protagonist.
Sometimes the plot's climax can be a moral or romantic one—a king who abdicates the throne to marry a commoner, or giving up one's wealth in order to save the family unit. However, the common thread is always a rich existence, followed by a fall into destitution, near poverty, destruction, or death.
3. Man in a Hole—Fall, Then Rise
This is one of the most common and popular arcs in literature. These stories contain a double trajectory in the plot. The protagonist experiences a fall during which a bottom is reached, to be followed by a rise in which the main character or group makes it out of the hole.
These stories typically start with the hero on known territory, experiencing happiness and devoid of any meaningful problems. However, the protagonist loses control, has a crisis, and reaches rock bottom. Somehow, through outside help or self-determination, the hero climbs out of the hole. These stories typically end happier than their beginning and with a lesson learned.
4. Icarus / Freytag’s Pyramid—Rise, Then Fall
Eponymously named after its creator Gustav Freytag, it is also called the Icarus arc, named after the Greek story about a boy who escapes an island prison by constructing wings made of wax. However, he ultimately falls into the sea after flying too close to the sun. It is an arc in which a sudden rise is followed by a destructive fall.
5. Cinderella Arc—Rise, Then Fall, Then Rise
The Cinderella arc, as in the case of Rags to Riches, is one of the most common arcs.It is often found in love stories, sports stories, and Disney movies. In a Cinderella arc, the protagonist wants happiness. After much trial and tribulation, the main character finds it, only to lose it after a short period of time. This first period of happiness is elusive, as it was not meant to be. However, other unexpected events happen during which the protagonist finally finds permanent happiness, at which point the story ends.
6. Oedipus—Fall, Then Rise, Then Fall
Although a highly read plot structure, it is said to be one of the most difficult to create in literature.
Born into royalty, Oedipus would have lived a life of opulence and wealth in Thebes, had it not been for his parents consulting an oracle who prophesied doom. Fearing the future, they mutilated his feet and left him to die in a field. A royal couple from Corinth found him, eventually raising him—an action that saved his life.
After growing up, he heard rumors those were not his true parents. He then consulted another oracle, who prophesied that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Believing this to mean his Corinthian parents, he fled to Thebes, where his biological parents ruled. During this time, he quarreled with and killed his real father, not knowing who the man was.
After killing a sphinx who terrorized Thebes, he was rewarded with the marriage of the queen, who was, in reality, his biological mother. Later, in old age, Oedipus learned the truth about his parents, at which time his mother-wife hung herself. He, in turn, gouged out his eyes as self-punishment. He fled to Athens, where he later died.
Any story of doom that starts with bright beginnings, falls to despair, rises once more, then again plummets to despair forever is considered to exhibit an Oedipus Fall arc.
References and Resources
- Literary Terms
- Fiction Writing
- The Five Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes
- Eight Rules for Writing Fiction
- How to Write Character Arcs
- Story Arc
- Protagonist vs. Antagonist
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on September 12, 2020:
Mary, I am glad it is of help.
Mary Grace on September 12, 2020:
This is a very interesting and informative read. I have recently just enrolled for a Creative Writing Course and I think your article just about covers everything. Thanks for sharing.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on September 11, 2020:
Thank you Megha!!
Megha Ginnare from BHOPAL on September 11, 2020:
This artcile has so much information in it that it not only helps us write but also understand the basic idea behind it. A wonderful read.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on September 09, 2020:
Thank you MG.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on September 09, 2020:
Great detailed stuff and wonderful presentation. A very interesting read
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on September 09, 2020:
Thank you Pamela.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on September 09, 2020:
Thank you sowspeak.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 09, 2020:
This article has a wealth of interesting information on writing fiction. Much of this information is new to me. I never thought about breaking down the fiction in this very good manner. I enjoyed reding this article, JC.
sowspeaks from Bengaluru on September 09, 2020:
Hi John, this is such detailed stuff. All the examples you give add that crucial edge. Absolutely enjoyable.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on September 09, 2020:
Thank you Liz!!
Liz Westwood from UK on September 09, 2020:
This is a fascinating article. As a former English literature student, I really appreciate the way that you have analysed and explained these terms in such a detailed manner. I could have done with reading this many years ago.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on September 08, 2020:
Thank you Lorna. Good to hear from you.
Lorna Lamon on September 08, 2020:
This is an interesting and educational article JC and for those who enjoy reading or writing fictional novels, it is a great point of reference. It reminded me of an English Lit class where I had to structure various Shakespearean plays. Hard work. Another enjoyable read.