Literary Elements in Short Stories

by Katie Austin


A plot is the main events of a story. It is used to make a story interesting to read. The plot of Desiree's Baby, by Kate Chopin, was that Desiree was abandoned as a child, and was discovered and adopted by the Valmondés. She ended up marrying Armand, a respected French Creole. They had a child together. Something about the child always seemed off- and then they realized that it was the same color as a quadroon slave boy, which would create serious social problems. Armand immediately accuses Desiree of being of African-American descent since she was abandoned as a child and her true biological lineage is unknown. Madame Valmondé urged Desiree to return to her estate, and she does. Armand burns all of Desiree's belongings. It is then revealed that Armand is the one who is really part black, through his mother's ancestry. The plot is what makes a story flow and make sense.


Setting is used to give the reader background information on the story, so they can better understand the events taking place. Setting includes time period, place, and other details of where the story is happening. For example, the setting of Desiree's Baby, by Kate Hurst, is in the South during the time of slavery. This helps the reader better understand why it was so bad for Armand to think Desiree was part black- it was completely socially unacceptable for a white and one of even partial black heritage to marry. If the audience didn't know the setting as this time period and location, then the readers would be confused as to why it would matter at all the she might be partially African-American.


Characterization is used so that the reader better understands who they are reading about, what the character looks like, why they make certain decisions, what their morals are, etc. There are two types of characterization. The first is direct characterization. This is when the author explicitly states something about a character. This may be used when an author really wants to make a point about a character. The second type is indirect characterization. This is when aspects about a character are revealed through their speech, choices, or other things. Though the author doesn't outright say what they mean about the character, the reader still gets a better understanding of the character. There are also a few types of characters that the author may characterize the characters as. There are confidantes, which are characters that another confides in, which helps reveal a main character's personality through what they confide. There are also flat characters, who only have a few traits that remain the same throughout the whole story. There are foil characters as well, which are used to bring out the best in other characters by contrast. Another type of character is a round character, which is a well-developed character with many different traits. Yet another type of character is a static character, one that remains the same throughout an entire story. Another type is a stock character, a character that is not necessarily extremely important to a story, and usually falls into some sort of stereotype, like the "promiscuous, rude cheerleader," or, the "shy, sweet nerd." The last type of character is a round character. A round character changes throughout a story, usually becoming a better person. This makes a story more interesting. A great example of a character that is characterized as a round character is Brother in The Scarlet Ibis, by James Hurst. In the beginning of the story, Brother is irritated by his brother, and seems to have little compassion for him. He admits that he "was embarrassed at having a brother." But, by the end of the story, he changes. He loves his brother. When Doodle dies, he "...weeps," and "threw [his] body to the earth over[Doodle's]," (Hurst.) and, "lay there crying, sheltering [his] fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of the rain," (Hurst.) which is obviously something you'd only do for someone you love. Brother grows to love his brother by the end of the story, and did not in the beginning, and is therefore characterized as a round character.


Conflict is what is used to make a story interesting and worth reading. There are four major types of Conflict. The first is Man vs. Nature. This is when the protagonist must defeat a force of nature to meet their goal. The next is Man vs. Society. The main character must overcome a societal norm to change the world for the better. The third type is Man vs. Self. This is when a character must overcome a flaw within themselves. The last, and perhaps most common, is Man vs. Man. This is when two characters are pitted against each other. A great example of this is in the short story The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell. This story is about a man named Rainsford who falls off his boat and lands on a remote island. Rainsford is a prolific hunter, and has written books about his hunting expeditions. Because of this, the man who inhabits the island, General Zaroff, knows who he is. General Zaroff is also a well-experienced hunter. The two have dinner, and General Zaroff talks about how he's grown tired of hunting animals, and eventually reveals that now he hunts people. Rainsford refuses to participate in this, but later, the General tells him that he can either be hunted, or he can be tortured by the General's servant, Ivan. Rainsford decides to be hunted. The rest of the story is about how Rainsford tries to elude the General during the hunt. They are pitted against each other, two characters working for opposite goals- which makes the conflict in this story a Man vs. Man conflict.


Theme is in stories to teach readers a lesson. An example of a story with a theme is The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry. One of the themes in this story is that love can sometimes lead to people doing irrational, stupid things for each other. In this story, Della wants to get something for her husband for Christmas, but doesn't have enough money. She decides to sell one of her household's most prized possessions: her hair. She has beautiful hair, but cuts it and sells it, and uses the money to buy her husband a platinum watch chain. When her husband gets home, he gives her a gift of beautiful hair combs. However, she can no longer use them because her hair is too short. She tries to give him the watch chain she bought, but he sold his watch to buy her the combs. Neither of them can use the gifts they bought for each other. Their love for each other moved them to sell their most prized possessions, and in the end, it turned out to be bad. Their love made them foollish. At the end of the story, the author calls them, "two foolish children," (O. Henry.) who "unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house," (O. Henry). He's saying that their love made them act unintelligently, which was the theme of the story.


Irony is used to give a story a slightly humorous quality. There are three types of irony: verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony. Verbal irony is when someone says the opposite of what they mean. Situational irony is when something happens that is the opposite to what is expected. A good example of situational irony can be found in Lamb to the Slaughter by Raold Dahl. In this story, a man tells his wife, Mary Maloney, that he wants to divorce her. She is so upset that she hits him over the head with a frozen leg of lamb and kills him. She leaves her home to go the grocer's. When she comes back to her house, she calls out ""Patrick!"..."How are you, darling?"" (Dahl.) She, "went to the phone," (Dahl.) and called the police. This is an example of situational irony because she killed her husband, and obviously knew she did it. When she came back home, she called to him as if he was still alive, the opposite of what the audience would expect. She also calls the police on herself, which is something most readers would not expect a murderer to do. The last type of irony is

Literary Devices


Personification is used in literature for emphasis. Personification makes the nonliving, living. It exaggerates certain qualities. An example of this can be found in Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. In the very beginning of the story, the narrator is talking about the handicaps put on people. One of these handicaps is an earpiece that emits sound to interrupt the listener's train of thought. One man with a handicap is George, Harrison's father. George is watching TV, and thinking about it. All of a sudden, "A buzzer sounded in George's head." (Vonnegut.) This is the buzzer. The author wants to emphasize how quickly these buzzers interrupt the victims' thoughts, so he personifies George's thoughts and says, "His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm," (Vonnegut.) to show how the buzzers affect thinking exaggeratedly.


Simile is also used in literature for emphasis. An example of this can be found again in Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. The author wants to emphasize how graceful Harrison and a ballerina are while dancing, and how high they can jump without their handicaps. He says that, "They leaped like deer on the moon," (Vonnegut.) to show just how high they really are jumping.


Symbolism is used in literature to show ideas without explicitly stating them. Harrison Begeron, in the story Harrison Begeron, by Kurt Vonnegut. He is a symbol for how individuality is becoming less and less common in society. In the story, people are handicapped so that everyone is equal, and nobody is strong, smart, intelligent, or beautiful. Harrison is all of these things. Harrison is the only one is the story who is confident and outspoken. He goes on national television to show off how he is different, and individual, and to claim power for himself. He dances with a ballerina to show off himself. Then, a government official comes in with a shotgun to kill them. She "fired twice, and [Harrison] and [the ballerina] were dead before they hit the floor," (Vonnegut.) They are killed for being different. They are symbols for how in society, individuality is becoming less and less common, and is dying out because other people want a uniform society. They died, and their individuality did with them, leaving a more uniform society behind. They are meant to show us that soon, nobody will be different because everyone will be discouraged from being different from one another.

Point of View

There are three types of point of view: first person, second person, and third person. (Second person is very uncommon, but it uses the pronoun "you" very often.) First person is used to give the reader better insight into the mind of the main character. It uses words like "I", "my", and "we." An example of a story that uses this is The Scarlet Ibis, by James Hurst. In this story, Brother is inadvertently the cause of the death of his brother, Doodle. It is told from the point of view of Brother. It is told from his point of view so that you can really understand Brother's grief over Doodle's death. Third person is told from the point of view of a viewer of all the character, someone not involved in their situation. It uses words like "he", "she", "it", and "they." An example of a story told like this is The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry. The story is about a couple in which both partners sell their most prized possessions to give a gift to the other. This point of view is used so that you can understand the emotions of both Della and her husband (though not as in depth as it would be in first person).

Tone and Mood

Tone and mood are used to make the reader feel a certain way while reading a story. For example, the tone of the short story The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell, is suspenseful, so that the reader will not want to stop reading. The author uses phrases like "an apprehensive night," and "took up his flight." He uses words like "pursuer," and "hunted," to create an aura of apprehension and worry. All these words have connotations that create anxiety and make the reader nervous. The reader is constantly waiting in suspense to see what will happen to Rainsford. The mood is always suspenseful.