Definition of Genre

Genre originates from the French word meaning kind or type. As a literary device, genre refers to a form, class, or type of literary work. The primary genres in literature are poetry, drama / play , essay , short story , and novel . The term genre is used quite often to denote literary sub-classifications or specific types of literature such as comedy , tragedy , epic poetry, thriller , science fiction , romance , etc.

It’s important to note that, as a literary device, the genre is closely tied to the expectations of readers. This is especially true for literary sub-classifications. For example, Jane Austen ’s work is classified by most as part of the romance fiction genre, as demonstrated by this quote from her novel Sense and Sensibility :

When I fall in love, it will be forever.

Though Austen’s work is more complex than most formulaic romance novels, readers of Austen’s work have a set of expectations that it will feature a love story of some kind. If a reader found space aliens or graphic violence in a Jane Austen novel, this would undoubtedly violate their expectations of the romantic fiction genre.

Difference Between Style and Genre

Although both seem similar, the style is different from the genre. In simple terms, style means the characters or features of the work of a single person or individual. However, the genre is the classification of those words into broader categories such as modernist, postmodernist or short fiction and novels, and so on. Genres also have sub-genre, but the style does not have sub-styles. Style usually have further features and characteristics.

Common Examples of Genre

Genres could be divided into four major categories which also have further sub-categories. The four major categories are given below.

  • Poetry: It could be categorized into further sub-categories such as epic, lyrical poetry, odes , sonnets , quatrains , free verse poems, etc.
  • Fiction : It could be categorized into further sub-categories such as short stories, novels, skits, postmodern fiction, modern fiction, formal fiction, and so on.
  • Prose : It could be further categorized into sub-genres or sub-categories such as essays, narrative essays, descriptive essays, autobiography , biographical writings, and so on.
  • Drama: It could be categorized into tragedy, comedy, romantic comedy, absurd theatre, modern play, and so on.

Common Examples of Fiction Genre

In terms of literature, fiction refers to the prose of short stories, novellas , and novels in which the story originates from the writer’s imagination. These fictional literary forms are often categorized by genre, each of which features a particular style, tone , and storytelling devices and elements.

Here are some common examples of genre fiction and their characteristics:

  • Literary Fiction : a work with artistic value and literary merit.
  • Thriller : features dark, mysterious, and suspenseful plots.
  • Horror : intended to scare and shock the reader while eliciting a sense of terror or dread; may feature scary entities such as ghosts, zombies, evil spirits, etc.
  • Mystery : generally features a detective solving a case with a suspenseful plot and slowly revealing information for the reader to piece together.
  • Romance : features a love story or romantic relationship; generally lighthearted, optimistic, and emotionally satisfying.
  • Historical : plot takes place in the past with balanced realism and creativity; can feature actual historical figures, events, and settings.
  • Western : generally features cowboys, settlers, or outlaws of the American Old West with themes of the frontier.
  • Bildungsroman : story of a character passing from youth to adulthood with psychological and/or moral growth; the character becomes “educated” through loss, a journey, conflict , and maturation.
  • Science Fiction : speculative stories derived and/or inspired by natural and social sciences; generally features futuristic civilizations, time travel, or space exploration.
  • Dystopian : sub-genre of science fiction in which the story portrays a setting that may appear utopian but has a darker, underlying presence that is problematic.
  • Fantasy : speculative stories with imaginary characters in imaginary settings; can be inspired by mythology or folklore and generally include magical elements.
  • Magical Realism : realistic depiction of a story with magical elements that are accepted as “normal” in the universe of the story.
  • Realism : depiction of real settings, people, and plots as a means of approaching the truth of everyday life and laws of nature.

Examples of Writers Associated with Specific Genre Fiction

Writers are often associated with a specific genre of fictional literature when they achieve critical acclaim, public notoriety, and/or commercial success with readers for a particular work or series of works. Of course, this association doesn’t limit the writer to that particular genre of fiction. However, being paired with a certain type of literature can last for an author’s entire career and beyond.

Here are some examples of writers that have become associated with specific fiction genre:

  • Stephen King: horror
  • Ray Bradbury : science fiction
  • Jackie Collins: romance
  • Toni Morrison: black feminism
  • John le Carré: espionage
  • Philippa Gregory: historical fiction
  • Jacqueline Woodson: racial identity fiction
  • Philip Pullman: fantasy
  • Flannery O’Connor: Southern Gothic
  • Shel Silverstein: children’s poetry
  • Jonathan Swift : satire
  • Larry McMurtry: western
  • Virginia Woolf: feminism
  • Raymond Chandler: detective fiction
  • Colson Whitehead: Afrofuturism
  • Gabriel García Márquez : magical realism
  • Madeleine L’Engle: children’s fantasy fiction
  • Agatha Christie : mystery
  • John Green : young adult fiction
  • Margaret Atwood: dystopian

Famous Examples of Genre in Other Art Forms

Most art forms feature genre as a means of identifying, differentiating, and categorizing the many forms and styles within a particular type of art. Though there are many crossovers when it comes to genre and no finite boundaries, most artistic works within a particular genre feature shared patterns , characteristics, and conventions.

Here are some famous examples of genres in other art forms:

  • Music : rock, country, hip hop, folk, classical, heavy metal, jazz, blues
  • Visual Art : portrait, landscape, still life, classical, modern, impressionism, expressionism
  • Drama : comedy, tragedy, tragicomedy , melodrama , performance, musical theater, illusion
  • Cinema : action, horror, drama, romantic comedy, western, adventure , musical, documentary, short, biopic, fantasy, superhero, sports

Examples of Genre in Literature

As a literary device, the genre is like an implied social contract between writers and their readers. This does not mean that writers must abide by all conventions associated with a specific genre. However, there are organizational patterns within a genre that readers tend to expect. Genre expectations allow readers to feel familiar with the literary work and help them to organize the information presented by the writer. In addition, keeping with genre conventions can establish a writer’s relationship with their readers and a framework for their literature.

Here are some examples of genres in literature and the conventions they represent:

Example 1: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow , Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out , brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

The formal genre of this well-known literary work is Shakespearean drama or play. Macbeth can be sub-categorized as a literary tragedy in that the play features the elements of a classical tragic work. For example, Macbeth’s character aligns with the traits and path of a tragic hero –a protagonist whose tragic flaw brings about his downfall from power to ruin. This tragic arc of the protagonist often results in catharsis (emotional release) and potential empathy among readers and members of the audience .

In addition to featuring classical characteristics and conventions of the tragic genre, Shakespeare’s play also resonates with modern readers and audiences as a tragedy. In this passage, one of Macbeth’s soliloquies , his disillusionment, and suffering is made clear in that, for all his attempts and reprehensible actions at gaining power, his life has come to nothing. Macbeth realizes that death is inevitable, and no amount of power can change that truth. As Macbeth’s character confronts his mortality and the virtual meaninglessness of his life, readers and audiences are called to do the same. Without affirmation or positive resolution , Macbeth’s words are as tragic for readers and audiences as they are for his own character.

Like  M a cbeth , Shakespeare’s tragedies are as currently relevant as they were when they were written. The themes of power, ambition, death, love, and fate incorporated in his tragic literary works are universal and timeless. This allows tragedy as a genre to remain relatable to modern and future readers and audiences.

Example 2: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy . I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house. She let out her breath. I loves Harpo, she say. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me.

The formal genre of this literary work is novel. Walker’s novel can be sub-categorized within many fictional genres. This passage represents and validates its sub-classification within the genre of feminist fiction. Sofia’s character, at the outset, is assertive as a black woman who has been systematically marginalized in her community and family, and she expresses her independence from the dominance and control of men. Sofia is a foil character for Celie, the protagonist, who often submits to the power, control, and brutality of her husband. The juxtaposition of these characters indicates the limited options and harsh consequences faced by women with feminist ideals in the novel.

Unfortunately, Sofia’s determination to fight for herself leads her to be beaten close to death and sent to prison when she asserts herself in front of the white mayor’s wife. However, Sofia’s strong feminist traits have a significant impact on the other characters in the novel, and though she is not able to alter the systemic racism and subjugation she faces as a black woman, she does maintain her dignity as a feminist character in the novel.

Example 3: A Word to Husbands by Ogden Nash

To keep your marriage brimming With love in the loving cup, Whenever you’re wrong, admit it; Whenever you’re right, shut up.

The formal genre of this literary work is poetry. Nash’s poem would be sub-categorized within the genre of humor . The poet’s message to what is presumably his fellow husbands is witty, clear, and direct–through the wording and message of the last poetic line may be unexpected for many readers. In addition, the structure of the poem sets up the “punchline” at the end. The piece begins with poetic wording that appears to romanticize love and marriage, which makes the contrasting “base” language of the final line a satisfying surprise and ironic twist for the reader. The poet’s tone is humorous and light-hearted which also appeals to the characteristics and conventions of this genre.

Synonyms of Genre

Genre doesn’t have direct synonyms . A few close meanings are category, class, group, classification, grouping, head, heading, list, set, listing, and categorization. Some other words such as species, variety, family, school, and division also fall in the category of its synonyms.

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The Write Practice

Literary Genres: Definition and Examples of the 4 Essential Genres and 100+ Subgenres

by Joe Bunting | 1 comment

What are literary genres? Do they actually matter to readers? How about to writers? What types of literary genres exist? And if you're a writer, how do you decide which genre to write in?

Literary Genres: Definition and Examples of the 4 Essential Genres and 100+ Subgenres

To begin to think about literary genres, let's start with an example.

Let's say want to read something. You go to a bookstore or hop onto a store online or go to a library.

But instead of a nice person wearing reading glasses and a cardigan asking you what books you like and then thinking through every book ever written to find you the next perfect read (if that person existed, for the record, they would be my favorite person), you're faced with this: rows and rows of books with labels on the shelves like “Literary Fiction,” “Travel,” “Reference,” “Science Fiction,” and so on.

You stop at the edge of the bookstore and just stand there for a while, stumped. “What do all of these labels even mean?!” And then you walk out of the store.

Or maybe you're writing a book , and someone asks you a question like this: “What kind of book are you writing? What genre  is it?”

And you stare at them in frustration thinking, “My book transcends genre, convention, and even reality, obviously. Don't you dare put my genius in a box!”

What are literary genres? In this article, we'll share the definition and different types of literary genres (there are four main ones but thousands of subgenres). Then, we'll talk about why genre matters to both readers and writers. We'll look at some of the components that people use to categorize writing into genres. Finally, we'll give you a chance to put genre into practice with an exercise .

Table of Contents

Introduction Literary Genres Definition Why Genre Matters (to Readers, to Writers) The 4 Essential Genres 100+ Genres and Subgenres The 7 Components of Genre Practice Exercise

Ready to get started? Let's get into it.

What Are Literary Genres? Literary Genre Definition

Let's begin with a basic definition of literary genres:

Literary genres are categories, types, or collections of literature. They often share characteristics, such as their subject matter or topic, style, form, purpose, or audience.

That's our formal definition. But here's a simpler way of thinking about it:

Genre is a way of categorizing readers' tastes.

That's a good basic definition of genre. But does genre really matter?

Why Literary Genres Matter

Literary genres matter. They matter to readers but they also matter to writers. Here's why:

Why Literary Genres Matter to Readers

Think about it. You like to read (or watch) different things than your parents.

You probably also like to read different things at different times of the day. For example, maybe you read the news in the morning, listen to an audiobook of a nonfiction book related to your studies or career in the afternoon, and read a novel or watch a TV show in the evening.

Even more, you probably read different things now than you did as a child or than you will want to read twenty years from now.

Everyone has different tastes.

Genre is one way we match what readers want to what writers want to write and what publishers are publishing.

It's also not a new thing. We've been categorizing literature like this for thousands of years. Some of the oldest forms of writing, including religious texts, were tied directly into this idea of genre.

For example, forty percent of the Old Testament in the Bible is actually poetry, one of the four essential literary genres. Much of the New Testament is in the form of epistle, a subgenre that's basically a public letter.

Genre matters, and by understanding how genre works, you not only can find more things you want to read, you can also better understand what the writer (or publisher) is trying to do.

Why Literary Genres Matter to Writers

Genre isn't just important to readers. It's extremely important to writers too.

In the same way the literary genres better help readers find things they want to read and better understand a writer's intentions, genres inform writers of readers' expectations and also help writers find an audience.

If you know that there are  a lot  of readers of satirical political punditry (e.g. The Onion ), then you can write more of that kind of writing and thus find more readers and hopefully make more money. Genre can help you find an audience.

At the same time, great writers have always played with and pressed the boundaries of genre, sometimes even subverting it for the sake of their art.

Another way to think about genre is a set of expectations from the reader. While it's important to meet  some  of those expectations, if you meet too many, the reader will get bored and feel like they know exactly what's going to happen next. So great writers will always play to the readers' expectations and then change a few things completely to give readers a sense of novelty in the midst of familiarity.

This is not unique to writers, by the way. The great apparel designer Virgil Abloh, who was an artistic director at Louis Vuitton until he passed away tragically in 2021, had a creative template called the “3% Rule,” where he would take an existing design, like a pair of Nike Air Jordans, and make a three percent change to it, transforming it into something completely new. His designs were incredibly successful, often selling for thousands of dollars.

This process of taking something familiar and turning it into something new with a slight change is something artists have done throughout history, including writers, and it's a great way to think about how to use genre for your own writing.

What Literary Genre is NOT: Story Type vs. Literary Genres

Before we talk more about the types of genre, let's discuss what genre is  not .

Genre is  not  the same as story type (or for nonfiction, types of nonfiction structure). There are ten (or so) types of stories, including adventure, love story, mystery, and coming of age, but there are hundreds, even thousands of genres.

Story type and nonfiction book structure are about how the work is structured.

Genre is about how the work is perceived and marketed.

These are related but  not  the same.

For example, one popular subgenre of literature is science fiction. Probably the most common type of science fiction story is adventure, but you can also have mystery sci-fi stories, love story sci-fi, and even morality sci-fi. Story type transcends genre.

You can learn more about this in my book  The Write Structure , which teaches writers the simple process to structure great stories. Click to check out  The Write Structure .

This is true for non-fiction as well in different ways. More on this in my post on the seven types of nonfiction books .

Now that we've addressed why genre matters and what genre doesn't  include, let's get into the different literary genres that exist (there are a lot of them!).

How Many Literary Genres Are There? The 4 Essential Genres, and 100+ Genres and Subgenres

Just as everyone has different tastes, so there are genres to fit every kind of specific reader.

There are four essential literary genres, and all are driven by essential questions. Then, within each of those essential genres are genres and subgenres. We will look at all of these in turn, below, as well as several examples of each.

An important note: There are individual works that fit within the gaps of these four essential genres or even cross over into multiple genres.

As with anything, the edges of these categories can become blurry, for example narrative poetry or fictional reference books.

A general rule: You know it when you see it (except, of course, when the author is trying to trick you!).

1. Nonfiction: Is it true?

The core question for nonfiction is, “Is it true?”

Nonfiction deals with facts, instruction, opinion/argument reference, narrative nonfiction, or a combination.

A few examples of nonfiction (more below): reference, news, memoir, manuals, religious inspirational books, self-help, business, and many more.

2. Fiction: Is it, at some level, imagined?

The core question for fiction is, “Is it, at some level, imagined?”

Fiction is almost always story or narrative. However, satire is a form of “fiction” that's structured like nonfiction opinion/essays or news. And one of the biggest insults you can give to a journalist, reporter, or academic researcher is to suggest that their work is “fiction.”

3. Drama: Is it performed?

Drama is a genre of literature that has some kind of performance component. This includes theater, film, and audio plays.

The core question that defines drama is, “Is it performed?”

As always, there are genres within this essential genre, including horror films, thrillers, true crime podcasts, and more.

4. Poetry: Is it verse?

Poetry is in some ways the most challenging literary genre to define because while poetry is usually based on form, i.e. lines intentionally broken into verse, sometimes including rhyme or other poetic devices, there are some “poems” that are written completely in prose called prose poetry. These are only considered poems because the author and/or literary scholars  said  they were poems.

To confuse things even more, you also have narrative poetry, which combines fiction and poetry, and song which combines poetry and performance (or drama) with music.

Which is all to say, poetry is challenging to classify, but again, you usually know it when you see it.

Next, let's talk about the genres and subgenres within those four essential literary genres.

The 100+ Literary Genres and Subgenres with Definitions

Genre is, at its core, subjective. It's literally based on the tastes of readers, tastes that change over time, within markets, and across cultures.

Thus, there are essentially an infinite number of genres.

Even more, genres are constantly shifting. What is considered contemporary fiction today will change a decade from now.

So take the lists below (and any  list of genres you see) as an incomplete, likely outdated, small sample size of genre with definitions.

1. Fiction Genres

Sorted alphabetically.

Action/Adventure. An action/adventure story has adventure elements in its plot line. This type of story often involves some kind of conflict between good and evil, and features characters who must overcome obstacles to achieve their goals .

Chick Lit. Chick Lit stories are usually written for women who interested in lighthearted stories that still have some depth. They often include romance, humor, and drama in their plots.

Comedy. This typically refers to historical stories and plays (e.g. Shakespeare, Greek Literature, etc) that contain a happy ending, often with a wedding.

Commercial. Commercial stories have been written for the sole purpose of making money, often in an attempt to cash in on the success of another book, film, or genre.

Crime/Police/Detective Fiction. Crime and police stories feature a detective, whether amateur or professional, who solves crimes using their wits and knowledge of criminal psychology.

Drama or Tragedy. This typically refers to historical stories or plays (e.g. Shakespeare, Greek Literature, etc) that contain a sad or tragic ending, often with one or more deaths.

Erotica. Erotic stories contain explicit sexual descriptions in their narratives.

Espionage. Espionage stories focus on international intrigue, usually involving governments, spies, secret agents, and/or terrorist organizations. They often involve political conflict, military action, sabotage, terrorism, assassination, kidnapping, and other forms of covert operations.

Family Saga. Family sagas focus on the lives of an extended family, sometimes over several generations. Rather than having an individual protagonist, the family saga tells the stories of multiple main characters or of the family as a whole.

Fantasy. Fantasy stories are set in imaginary worlds that often feature magic, mythical creatures, and fantastic elements. They may be based on mythology, folklore, religion, legend, history, or science fiction.

General Fiction. General fiction novels are those that deal with individuals and relationships in an ordinary setting. They may be set in any time period, but usually take place in modern times.

Graphic Novel. Graphic novels are a hybrid between comics and prose fiction that often includes elements of both.

Historical Fiction. Historical stories are written about imagined or actual events that occurred in history. They usually take place during specific periods of time and often include real or imaginary characters who lived at those times.

Horror Genre. Horror stories focus on the psychological terror experienced by their characters. They often feature supernatural elements, such as ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons, monsters, and aliens.

Humor/Satire. This category includes stories that have been written using satire or contain comedic elements. Satirical novels tend to focus on some aspect of society in a critical way.

LGBTQ+. LGBTQ+ novels are those that feature characters who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or otherwise non-heterosexual.

Literary Fiction. Literary fiction novels or stories have a high degree of artistic merit, a unique or experimental style of writing , and often deal with serious themes.

Military. Military stories deal with war, conflict, combat, or similar themes and often have strong action elements. They may be set in a contemporary or a historical period.

Multicultural. Multicultural stories are written by and about people who have different cultural backgrounds, including those that may be considered ethnic minorities.

Mystery G enre. Mystery stories feature an investigation into a crime.

Offbeat/Quirky. An offbeat story has an unusual plot, characters, setting, style, tone, or point of view. Quirkiness can be found in any aspect of a story, but often comes into play when the author uses unexpected settings, time periods, or characters.

Picture Book. Picture book novels are usually written for children and feature simple plots and colorful illustrations . They often have a moral or educational purpose.

Religious/Inspirational. Religious/ inspirational stories describe events in the life of a person who was inspired by God or another supernatural being to do something extraordinary. They usually have a moral lesson at their core.

Romance Genre. Romance novels  or stories are those that focus on love between two people, often in an ideal setting. There are many subgenres in romance, including historical, contemporary, paranormal, and others.

Science Fiction. Science fiction stories are usually set in an imaginary future world, often involving advanced technology. They may be based on scientific facts but they are not always.

Short Story Collection . Short story collections contain several short stories written by the same or different authors.

Suspense or Thriller Genre. Thrillers/ suspense stories are usually about people in danger, often involving crimes, natural disasters, or terrorism.

Upmarket. Upmarket stories are often written for and/or focus on upper class people who live in an upscale environment.

Western Genre. Western stories are those that take place in the west during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Characters include cowboys, outlaws, native Americans, and settlers.

2. Nonfiction Genres

From the BISAC categories, a globally accepted system for coding and categorizing books by the Book Industry Standards And Communications group.

Antiques & Collectibles. Nonfiction books about antiques and collectibles include those that focus on topics such as collecting, appraising, restoring, and marketing antiques and collectibles. These books may be written for both collectors and dealers in antique and collectible items. They can range from how-to guides to detailed histories of specific types of objects.

Architecture. Architecture books focus on the design, construction, use, and history of buildings and structures. This includes the study of architecture in general, but also the specific designs of individual buildings or styles of architecture.

Art. Art books focus on visual arts, music, literature, dance, film, theater, architecture, design, fashion, food, and other art forms. They may include essays, memoirs, biographies, interviews, criticism, and reviews.

Bibles. Bibles are religious books, almost exclusively Christian, that contain the traditional Bible in various translations, often with commentary or historical context.

Biography & Autobiography. Biography is an account of a person's life, often a historical or otherwise famous person. Autobiographies are personal accounts of people's lives written by themselves.

Body, Mind & Spirt. These books focus on topics related to human health, wellness, nutrition, fitness, or spirituality.

Business & Economics. Business & economics books are about how businesses work. They tend to focus on topics that interest people who run their own companies, lead or manage others, or want to understand how the economy works.

Computers. The computer genre of nonfiction books includes any topics that deal with computers in some way. They can be about general use, about how they affect our lives, or about specific technical areas related to hardware or software.

Cooking. Cookbooks contain recipes or cooking techniques.

Crafts & Hobbies.  How-to guides for crafts and hobbies, including sewing, knitting, painting, baking, woodworking, jewelry making, scrapbooking, photography, gardening, home improvement projects, and others.

Design. Design books are written about topics that include design in some way. They can be about any aspect of design including graphic design, industrial design, product design, fashion, furniture, interior design, or others.

Education. Education books focus on topics related to teaching and learning in schools. They can be used for students or as a resource for teachers.

Family & Relationships. These books focus on family relationships, including parenting, marriage, divorce, adoption, and more.

Foreign Language Study. Books that act as a reference or guide to learning a foreign language.

Games & Activities. Games & activities books may be published for children or adults, may contain learning activities or entertaining word or puzzle games. They range from joke books to crossword puzzle books to coloring books and more.

Gardening. Gardening books include those that focus on aspects of gardening, how to prepare for and grow vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, trees, shrubs, grasses, and other plants in an indoor or outdoor garden setting.

Health & Fitness. Health and fitness books focus on topics like dieting, exercise, nutrition, weight loss, health issues, medical conditions, diseases, medications, herbs, supplements, vitamins, minerals, and more.

History. History books focus on historical events and people, and may be written for entertainment or educational purposes.

House & Home. House & home books focus on topics like interior design, decorating, entertaining, and DIY projects.

Humor. Humor books are contain humorous elements but do not have any fictional elements.

Juvenile Nonfiction. These are nonfiction books written for children between six and twelve years old.

Language Arts & Disciplines. These books focus on teaching language arts and disciplines. They may be used for elementary school students in grades K-5.

Law. Law books include legal treatises, casebooks, and collections of statutes.

Literary Criticism. Literary criticism books discuss literary works, primarily key works of fiction or memoir. They may include biographies of authors, critical essays on specific works, or studies of the history of literature.

Mathematics. Mathematics books either teach mathematical concepts and methods or explore the history of mathematics.

Medical. Medical books include textbooks, reference books, guides, encyclopedias, and handbooks that focus on fields of medicine, including general practice, internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology, and more.

Music. Music books are books that focus on the history, culture, and development of music in various countries around the world. They often include biographies, interviews, reviews, essays, and other related material. However, they may also include sheet music or instruction on playing a specific instrument.

Nature. Nature books focus on the natural world or environment, including natural history, ecology, or natural experiences like hiking, bird watching, or conservation.

Performing Arts. Books about the performing arts in general, including specific types of performance art like dance, music, and theater.

Pets. Pet books include any book that deals with animals in some way, including dog training, cat care, animal behavior, pet nutrition, bird care, and more.

Philosophy. Philosophy books deal with philosophical issues, and may be written for a general audience or specifically for scholars.

Photography. Photography books use photographs as an essential part of their content. They may be about any subject.

Political Science. Political science books deal with politics in some way. They can be about current events, historical figures, or theoretical concepts.

Psychology. Psychology books are about the scientific study of mental processes, emotion, and behavior.

Reference. Reference books are about any subject, topic, or field and contain useful information about that subject, topic or field.

Religion. These books deal with religion in some way, including religious history, theology, philosophy, and spirituality.

Science. Science books focus on topics within scientific fields, including geology, biology, physics, and more.

Self-Help. Self-help books are written for people who want to improve their lives in some way. They may be about health, relationships, finances, career, parenting, spirituality, or any number of topics that can help readers achieve personal goals.

Social Science. Focus on social science topics.

Sports & Recreation. Sports & Recreation books focus on sports either from a reporting, historical, or instructional perspective.

Study Aids. Study aids are books that provide information about a particular subject area for students who want to learn more about that topic. These books can be used in conjunction with classroom instruction or on their own.

Technology & Engineering. Technology & engineering nonfiction books describe how technology has changed our lives and how we can use that knowledge to improve ourselves and society.

Transportation. Focus on transportation topics including those about vehicles, routes, or techniques.

Travel. Travel books are those that focus on travel experiences, whether from a guide perspective or from the author's personal experiences.

True Crime. True Crime books focus on true stories about crimes. These books may be about famous cases, unsolved crimes, or specific criminals.

Young Adult Nonfiction.  Young adult nonfiction books are written for children and teenagers.

3. Drama Genres

These include genres for theater, film, television serials, or audio plays.

As a writer, I find some of these genres particularly eye-roll worthy. And yet, this is the way most films, television shows, and even theater productions are classified.

Action. Action genre dramas involve fast-paced, high-energy sequences in which characters fight against each other. They often have large-scale battles, chase scenes, or other high-intensity, high-conflict scenes.

Horror.  Horror dramas focus on the psychological terror experienced by their characters. They often feature supernatural elements, such as ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons, monsters, and aliens.

Adventure. Adventure films are movies that have an adventurous theme. They may be set in exotic locations, feature action sequences, and/or contain elements of fantasy.

Musicals (Dance). Musicals are dramas that use music in their plot and/or soundtrack. They may be comedies, dramas, or any combination.

Comedy (& Black Comedy). Comedy dramas feature humor in their plots, characters, dialogue, or situations. It sometimes refers to historical dramas (e.g. Shakespeare, Greek drama, etc) that contain a happy ending, often with a wedding.

Science Fiction. Science fiction dramas are usually set in an imaginary future world, often involving advanced technology. They may be based on scientific facts but do not have to be.

Crime & Gangster. Crime & Gangster dramas deal with criminals, detectives, or organized crime groups. They often feature action sequences, violence, and mystery elements.

War (Anti-War). War (or anti-war) dramas focus on contemporary or historical wars. They may also contain action, adventure, mystery, or romance elements.

Drama. Dramas focus on human emotions in conflict situations. They often have complex plots and characters, and deal with serious themes. This may also refer to historical stories (e.g. Shakespeare, Greek Literature, etc) that contain a sad or tragic ending, often with one or more deaths.

Westerns. Westerns are a genre of American film that originated in the early 20th century and take place in the west during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Characters include cowboys, outlaws, native Americans, and settlers.

Epics/Historical/Period. These are dramas based on historical events or periods but do not necessarily involve any real people.

Biographical (“Biopics”). Biopics films are movies that focus on real people in history.

Melodramas, Women's or “Weeper” Films, Tearjerkers. A type of narrative drama that focuses on emotional issues, usually involving love, loss, tragedy, and redemption.

“Chick” Flicks. Chick flicks usually feature romantic relationships and tend to be lighthearted and comedic in nature.

Road Stories. Dramas involving a journey of some kind, usually taking place in contemporary setting, and involving relationships between one or more people, not necessarily romantic.

Courtroom Dramas. Courtroom dramas depict legal cases set in courtrooms. They usually have a dramatic plot line with an interesting twist at the end.

Romance. Romance dramas feature love stories between two people. Romance dramas tend to be more serious, even tragic, in nature, while romantic comedies tend to be more lighthearted.

Detective & Mystery. These dramas feature amateur or professional investigators solving crimes and catching criminals.

Sports. Sports dramas focus on athletic competition in its many forms and usually involve some kind of climactic tournament or championship.

Disaster. Disaster dramas are adventure or action dramas that include natural disasters, usually involving earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, or other disasters.

Superhero. Superhero dramas are action/adventure dramas that feature characters with supernatural powers. They usually have an origin story, the rise of a villain, and a climactic battle at the end.

Fantasy. Fantasy dramas films are typically adventure dramas that feature fantastical elements in their plot or setting, whether magic, folklore, supernatural creatures, or other fantasy elements.

Supernatural. Supernatural dramas feature paranormal phenomena in their plots, including ghosts, mythical creatures, and mysterious or extraordinary elements. This genre may overlap with horror, fantasy, thriller, action and other genres.

Film Noir. Film noir refers to a style of American crime drama that emerged in the 1940s. These dramas often featured cynical characters who struggled, often fruitlessly, against corruption and injustice.

Thriller/Suspense. Thriller/suspense dramas have elements of suspense and mystery in their plot. They usually feature a character protagonist who must overcome obstacles while trying to solve a crime or prevent a catastrophe.

Guy Stories. Guy dramas feature men in various situations, usually humorous or comedic in nature.

Zombie . Zombie dramas are usually action/adventure dramas that involve zombies.

Animated Stories . Dramas that are depicted with drawings, photographs, stop-motion, CGI, or other animation techniques.

Documentary . Documentaries are non-fiction performances that attempt to describe actual events, topics, or people.

“Foreign.”  Any drama not in the language of or involving characters/topics in your country of origin. They can also have any of the other genres listed here.

Childrens – Kids – Family-Oriented . Dramas with children of various ages as the intended audience.

Sexual – Erotic . These dramas feature explicit sexual acts but also have some kind of plot or narrative (i.e. not pornography).

Classic . Classic dramas refer to dramas performed before 1950.

Silent . Silent dramas were an early form of film that used no recorded sound.

Cult . Cult dramas are usually small-scale, independent productions with an offbeat plot, unusual characters, and/or unconventional style that have nevertheless gained popularity among a specific audience.

4. Poetry Genres

This list is from Harvard's Glossary of Poetic Genres  who also has definitions for each genre.

Dramatic monologue


Light verse

Occasional verse

Verse epistle

What Are the Components of Genre In Literature? The 7 Elements of Genre

Now that we've looked, somewhat exhaustively, at examples of literary genres, let's consider how these genres are created.

What are the elements of literary genre? How are they formed?

Here are seven components that make up genre.

  • Form . Length is the main component of form (e.g. a novel is 200+ pages , films are at least an hour, serialized episodes are about 20 minutes, etc), but may also be determined by how many acts or plot lines they have. You might be asking, what about short stories? Short stories are a genre defined by their length but not their content.
  • Intended Audience . Is the story meant for adults, children, teenagers, etc?
  • Conventions and Tropes . Conventions and tropes describe patterns or predictable events that have developed within genres. For example, a sports story may have a big tournament at the climax, or a fantasy story may have a mentor character who instructs the protagonist on the use of their abilities.
  • Characters and Archetypes. Genre will often have characters who serve similar functions, like the best friend sidekick, the evil villain , the anti-hero , and other character archetypes .
  • Common Settings and Time Periods . Genre may be defined by the setting or time period. For example, stories set in the future tend to be labelled science fiction, stories involving the past tend to be labelled historical or period, etc.
  • Common Story Arcs . While every story type may use each of the six main story arcs , genre tends to be defined by specific story arcs. For example, comedy almost always has a story arc that ends positively, same with kids or family genres. However, dramas often (and when referring to historical drama, always) have stories that end tragically.
  • Common Elements (such as supernatural elements, technology, mythical creatures, monsters, etc) . Some genres center themselves on specific elements, like supernatural creatures, magic, monsters, gore, and so on. Genre can be determined by these common elements.

As you consider these elements, keep in mind that genre all comes back to taste, to what readers want to consume and how to match the unlimited variations of story with the infinite variety of tastes.

Read What You Want, Write What You Want

In the end, both readers and writers should use genre for what it is, a tool, not as something that defines you.

Writers can embrace genre, can use genre, without being controlled by it.

Readers can use genre to find stories or books they enjoy while also exploring works outside of that genre.

Genre can be incredibly fun! But only if you hold it in tension with your own work of telling (or finding) a great story.

What are your favorite genres to read in? to write in?  Let us know in the comments!

Now that we understand everything there is to know about literary genres, let's put our knowledge to use with an exercise. I have two variations for you today, one for readers and one for writers.

Readers : Think of one of your favorite stories. What is the literary genre of that story? Does it have multiple? What expectations do you have about stories within that genre? Finally, how does the author of your favorite story use those expectations, and how do they subvert them?

Writers : Choose a literary genre from the list above and spend fifteen minutes writing a story using the elements of genre: form, audience, conventions and tropes, characters and archetypes, setting and time periods, story arcs, and common elements.

When you’re finished, share your work in the Pro Practice Workshop here .  Not a member yet? Join us here !

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Definition of genre

Did you know.

Genre , as you might guess from the way it sounds, comes straight from French, a language based on Latin. It's closely related to genus , a word you may have encountered in biology class. Both words contain the gen- root because they indicate that everything in a particular category (a genre or a genus) belongs to the same "family" and thus has the same origins. So the main genres of classical music would include symphonies, sonatas, and opera, and the major genres of literature would include novels, short stories, poetry, and drama. But within the category of novels, we could also say that detective novels, sci-fi novels, romance novels, and young-adult novels are separate genres.

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Examples of genre in a Sentence

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'genre.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

French, from Middle French, kind, gender — more at gender

1770, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Phrases Containing genre

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“Genre.” Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, Accessed 27 Nov. 2023.

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What is a Genre? Definition, Examples of Genres in Literature

Home » The Writer’s Dictionary » What is a Genre? Definition, Examples of Genres in Literature

Genre definition: Genre is the organization and classification of writing.

What is Genre in Literature?

What does genre mean? Genre is the organization of literature into categories based on the type of writing the piece exemplifies through its content, form, or style.

Example of Literary Genre

The poem “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke fits under the genre of poetry because its written with lines that meter and rhythm and is divided into stanzas.

It does not follow the traditional sentence-paragraph format that is seen in other genres

Types of Literary Genre

There are a few different types of genre in literature. Let’s examine a few of them.

Poetry : Poetry is a major literary genre that can take many forms. Some common characteristics that poetry shares are that it is written in lines that have meter and rhythm. These lines are put together to form stanza in contrast to other writings that utilize sentences that are divided into paragraphs. Poetry often relies heavily on figurative language such as metaphors and similes in order to convey meanings and create images for the reader.

  • “Sonnet 18” is a poem by William Shakespeare that falls within this category of literature. It is a structured poem that consists of 14 lines that follow a meter (iambic pentameter) and a rhyme scheme that is consist with Shakespearean Sonnets.

Drama : This literary genre is often also referred to as a play and is performed in front of an audience. Dramas are written through dialogue and include stage directions for the actors to follow.

  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde would be considered a drama because it is written through dialogue in the form of a script that includes stage directions to aid the actors in the performance of the play.

Prose : Prose is a type of writing that is written through the use of sentences. These sentences are combined to form paragraphs. This type of writing is broad and includes both fiction and non-fiction.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is an example of fictional prose. It is written in complete sentences and divided through paragraphs.

Fiction : Fiction is a type of prose that is not real. Authors have the freedom to create a story based on characters or events that are products of their imaginations. While fiction can be based on true events, the stories they tell are imaginative in nature.

Like poetry, this genre also uses figurative language; however, it is more structural in nature and more closely follows grammatical conventions. Fiction often follows Freytag’s plot pyramid that includes an exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and dénouement.

  • The novel Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut is an example of a fictional story about the main character’s experience with his self-acclaimed ability to time travel.

Nonfiction : Nonfiction is another type of prose that is factual rather than imaginative in nature. Because it is more factual and less imaginative, it may use less figurative language. Nonfiction varies however from piece to piece. It may tell a story through a memoir or it could be strictly factual in nature like a history textbook.

  • The memoir Night by Elie Wiesel is a memoir telling the story of Wiesel’s experience as a young Jewish boy during the Holocaust.

The Function of Genre

Genre is important in order to be able to organize writings based on their form, content, and style.

For example, this allows readers to discern whether or not the events being written about in a piece are factual or imaginative. Genre also distinguishes the purpose of the piece and the way in which it is to be delivered. In other words, plays are meant to be performed and speeches are meant to be delivered orally whereas novels and memoirs are meant to be read.

Summary: What Are Literary Genres?

Define genre in literature: Genre is the classification and organization of literary works into the following categories: poetry, drama, prose, fiction, and nonfiction. The works are divided based on their form, content, and style. While there are subcategories to each of these genres, these are the main categories in which literature is divided.

Final Example:

The short story “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe is a fictional short story that is written in prose. It fits under the prose category because it is written using complete sentences that follow conventional grammar rules that are then formed into paragraphs.

The story is also identified as fictional because it is an imagined story that follows the plot structure.

Literary Devices

Literary devices, terms, and elements, definition of genre.

A genre is any stylistic category in literature that follows specific conventions. Examples of genre in literature include historical fiction, satire , zombie romantic comedies (zom-rom-com), and so on. Many stories fit into more than one genre. The conventions that works follow to be a part of a certain genre change over time, and many genres appear and disappear throughout the ages.

The word genre comes from French, in which it means “kind” or “sort.” Originally, the word came from the Greek word γένος ( génos ) in which it has the same meaning. The Ancient Greeks created the definition of genre in order to classify their literature into the three categories of prose , poetry, and performance. From this early classification, more genres arose, such as the split between comedy and tragedy .

Types of Genre

There is wide proliferation of genre examples in the field of literature. Genre can be split by tone, content, length of novel, and literary technique. Note that genre is not defined by age (children’s literature, young adult, etc), nor by format (graphic novel, picture book, novel). Here is a short and non-exhaustive list of different genre examples in literature:

Common Examples of Genre

Genre is a term used in many different forms of entertainment, including movies, music, and television. Here is a list of different genres in film with examples of each genre:

  • Romantic comedy : Love, Actually; When Harry Met Sally; Pretty Woman
  • Musical : West Side Story; Hello, Dolly!; Fiddler on the Roof
  • Crime : The Godfather; Goodfellas; Pulp Fiction
  • Horror : Scream; I Know What You Did Last Summer; Saw
  • War : Saving Private Ryan; Platoon; Schindler’s List
  • Western : The Great Train Robbery; True Grit; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
  • Documentary : An Inconvenient Truth; The Cove; Super Size Me

Significance of Genre in Literature

Genre conventions began to be defined in Ancient Greece to classify the theme of each work of literature. Greek playwrights agreed that some speech patterns were more suited to tragedy, while others were better for comedies, and indeed the themes of plays were divided by genre as well. In fact, genre was so important in Ancient Greek drama that actors were allowed only to perform only in one genre. Comedic actors did not perform in tragedies, and tragic actors did not perform in comedies.

Since the time of Ancient Greece the variety of genre examples has widened considerably, so that no list could be all-encompassing. There are many subcategories of each drama as well. For example, in the genre of science fiction we could find stories classified as apocalyptic ( War of the Worlds ), space opera ( Star Wars ), future noir ( Blade Runner ) and techno-thriller ( The Hunt for Red October ), to name just a few. Every work of literature can fit into a genre, and more than one genre can often be applied to a work. Genre shapes the reader’s expectations for that work, while authors also usually try to play with and push against the conventions in new ways.

Examples of Genre in Literature

PRINCE: A glooming peace this morning with it brings; The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head: Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things: Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished: For never was a story of more woe Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

( Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare’s plays are split into three genres: comedy, tragedy, and history. Each type of play had its own conventions. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as Romeo and Juliet , always end with the death of one or more characters. Comedies, on the other hand, end with one or more marriages. There was also frequent cross-dressing in Shakespearean comedies for humorous purposes, which was not a part of his tragedies. There are also more examples of foolish characters in Shakespeare’s comedies, whereas in his tragedies and histories this stereotypical character was not as prevalent.

At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

( One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)

Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is an example of the genre of magical realism. This is a genre that was created in the mid-20th century in Latin America, and involves supernatural events and characters. García Márquez sets up the expectations of this example of genre by showing that the fictive world in which the action takes place is different from the normal world, and has magical elements to it. The above paragraph shows that the village of Macondo is prelapsarian (e.g., before “Original Sin”) and thus there is a supernatural quality to the setting .

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

( The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of narrative that can be described with more than one genre. It can be called a dystopian thriller, feminist science fiction, or post-apocalyptic. There are obvious indications that things are quite different in this world than in the modern United States, as the social norms have changed. However, there is a chilling dystopian aspect to it, as the character of Aunt Lydia notes that women now are free from men (yet they are enslaved in other ways).

As someone who had spent his life exploring the hidden interconnectivity of disparate emblems and ideologies, Langdon viewed the world as a web of profoundly intertwined histories and events. The connections may be invisible, he often preached to his symbology classes at Harvard, but they are always there, buried just beneath the surface.

( The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown)

Dan Brown’s popular novel The Da Vinci Code includes some aspects of mystery and thriller. The protagonist of the novel, Robert Langdon, is supposed to be a “symbologist” at Harvard University, and uses the study of ancient symbols, especially in religion, to solve a modern-day mystery. Many thrillers, such as The Da Vinci Code , put an emphasis on plot over character development and using twists in the narrative to keep the readers excited.

“But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” “For him?” shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum!” From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe: She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window.

( Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling)

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an example of the fantasy genre. It is categorized as young adult fiction, but again, this is not the genre of the novel. Indeed, while it is suggested as a good series for young adults and children, people of all ages enjoy these novels. The fantasy genre is represented by many different aspects of the series. In the above excerpt we can see fantastical and magical elements such as the use of spells and wands. J.K. Rowling also uses other conventions of the fantasy genre, such as the fight between good and evil, epic quests, and an alternate world in which different rules are possible.

Test Your Knowledge of Genre

1. Which of the following statements is the best genre definition? A. A category of literature that follows certain conventions. B. A way of classifying the appropriate age range of a work of literature. C. A system of differentiating literature from film and music.

2. Which of the following labels is an example of genre in literature? A. Young adult novel B. Graphic novel C. True crime thriller

3. Which of the following events usually concludes a Shakespearean comedy? A. One or more deaths B. One or more weddings C. A humorous epilogue

Genres in Literature

  • Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
  • M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
  • B.A., English, State University of New York

In literature, every piece of writing falls under a general category, also known as a genre. We experience genres is other parts of our daily lives, such as movies and music, and in each case, the individual genres typically have distinctive styles in terms of how they are composed. At the most basic level, there are essentially three main genres for literature - poetry, prose and drama - and each can be broken down even further, resulting in dozens of subgenres for each. Some resources will cite only two genres: fiction and non-fiction, though many classics will argue that fiction and non-fiction can, and do, both fall under poetry, drama or prose.  

While there is much debate over what constitutes a genre in literature, for the purposes of this article, we will break down the classic three. From there, we will outline some of the subgenres for each, including those that some believe should be classified as main genres.

Poetry is a style of writing that tends to be written in verses, and typically employs a rhythmic and measured approach to composition. It characteristically is known for evoking emotional responses from readers through its melodic tone and use of creative language that is often imaginative and symbolic in nature. The word “poetry” comes from the Greek word “poiesis” which essentially means, making, which is translated into the making of poetry. Poetry is typically divided into two main subgenres, narrative and lyric, which each have additional types that fall under their respective umbrellas. For example, narrative poetry includes ballads and epic tales, while lyric poetry includes sonnets, psalms and even folk songs. Poetry can be fiction or nonfiction.

Prose is essentially identified as written text that aligns with the flow of conversation in sentence and paragraph form, as opposed to verses and stanzas in poetry . Writing of prose employs common grammatical structure and a natural flow of speech, not a specific tempo or rhythm as is seen in traditional poetry. Prose as a genre can be broken down into a number of subgenres including both fiction and non-fiction works. Examples of prose can range from news, biographies and essays to novels, short stories, plays and fables. The subject matter, if it is fiction versus nonfiction and length of the work, are not taken into consideration when classifying it as prose, but rather the style of writing that is conversational is what lands works in this genre.

Drama is defined as theatrical dialogue that is performed on stage and traditionally is comprised of five acts. It is generally broken down into four subgenres including comedy, melodrama, tragedy and farce. In many cases, dramas will actually overlap with poetry and prose, depending on the writing style of the author. Some dramatic pieces are written in a poetic style, while others employ a more casual writing style seen in prose, to better relate to the audience. Like both poetry and prose, dramas can be fiction or nonfiction, though most are fictional or inspired by real life, but not completely accurate.

The Genre and Subgenre Debate

Beyond these three basic genres, if you conduct an online search for “genres of literature,” you will find dozens of conflicting reports that claim any number of main genres that exist. There is often debate over what constitutes genre, but in most cases, there is a misunderstanding of the difference between genre and subject matter. It’s common for subject matter to be considered a genre in not only literature, but also in movies and even games, both of which are often based on or inspired by books . These subjects can include biography, business, fiction, history, mystery, comedy, romance and thrillers. Subjects may also include cooking, self help, diet and fitness, religion and many many more.  

Subjects and subgenres, however, can often be intermixed. Though, it can be a challenge to determine how many subgenres or subjects actually exist, as there are differing opinions on each, and new ones are created regularly. For example, young adult writing has become increasingly popular, and some would classify it as a subgenre of prose.

The difference between genre and subject is often blurred by the world around us. Think of a time when you last visited a bookstore or library. Most likely, the books were divided into sections - fiction and non-fiction for sure - and further categorized based on the type of books, such as self-help, historic, science fiction and others. Many people assume that these categorizations of subject matter are genre, and as a result, common language today has adopted a casual use of genre to mean subject.

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What is Genre in Literature? Definition, Examples of Literary Genres

Genre is a category of art that can be identified by form, content, and style. In literature, genre is the classification of a work of writing by the type of writing and/or content.

What is Genre?

Genre is the classification of a literary work by its form, content, and style into categories such as poetry, drama, fiction, and non-fiction. From there, literature can be further classified into subgenres. Each genre varies in its features and functions and understanding what major genre category a work of literature falls into will help to bring deeper understanding to that work.

Types of Literary Genre

Poetry – this genre consists of writing that follows meter and rhythm for every line written. Another feature of the poetry genre is that writing is organized into schemes such as stanzas, meter, and/or rhyme. Subgenres of poetry include epic poem, narrative, romantic, dramatic, and lyric.

  • Paradise Lost by John Milton is an epic poem

Drama – this is a type of literature that is meant to be performed in front of an audience. Subgenres of drama include comedy, tragedy, and tragicomedy.

  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is a drama. Specifically, it is a tragedy.

Prose – the prose genre of literature consists of complete sentences organized into paragraphs. Prose writing is focused around telling a story consisting of characters and a plot. Prose subgenres include fiction and non-fiction.

  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is an example of prose. Being a memoir, it would be considered non-fiction prose.

Fiction – this literary genre consists of writing that is not real. Often, fiction writers rely on the complexity of figurative language in order to create completely untrue events, characters, and settings which stimulate readers’ imaginations.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a fictional novel with a narrative plot structure.

Nonfiction – the nonfiction category is a genre in which writing ranges from academic papers to creative works. Nonfiction can be used to inform and it can also be used to tell a narrative story, like in an autobiography or memoir.

  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Franke is nonfiction, given that it is nothing more than a historical figure’s preserved diary.

The Purpose of Genre

Genres are important because they give structure to what types of writing can be worked with. For authors, they can choose what type of genre they write best in and specialize in that genre. However, many writers choose to publish in and experiment with several different genres from poetry to nonfiction.

Ultimately, what genres do for readers is to classify literature into categories. This can be for the purpose of study, work, or pleasure. Within genres, scholars at large tend to analyze the importance of particular works within the context of the genre in which it is published. This adds to discussions about literary canons as a whole. This type of framework for analyzing literature is incredibly important in terms of the impact that writing has on people.

This framework that genres provides also allows us to keep up with contemporary and emerging genres such as website media and television. In turn, greater understanding of literature as a whole results from continuing genre developments and studies.

Recap: What is Genre in Literature?

Genres allow forms of literature to be classified according to form, content, and style. Major genres include poetry, drama, prose, fiction, and nonfiction and each of these categories can be further broken down into subgenres. Classifying literature by genre helps foster the study and understanding of literature as a whole.

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What is Genre? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Genre definition.

A  genre  (ZHAWN-ruh) is a category of literature in which different works share certain accepted conventions. Ancient Greek writers identified three main literary genres— poetry ,  prose , and  drama —as a way of categorizing the written word. But, over the subsequent centuries, evolving literary customs required the addition of numerous genres and subgenres to this list; naturally, some genres virtually disappeared as their popularity dwindled. Today, the four main literary genres are fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry.

The word  genre  comes from the French for “kind, sort, or style.”

Characteristics of Genre

Every genre shares certain overarching characteristics, though how these characteristics present themselves differ.

Form describes how a writer constructs, structures, and organizes a written work. Form in poetry consists of  meter ,  rhythm , line length, and number of  stanzas , among other factors. Form in fiction and drama follows generally agreed-upon ideas of  plot : a beginning, rising action, a climax, falling action, a resolution, and a conclusion. Nonfiction form can vary greatly depending on the type of work, but it still usually adheres to a basic plot structure.

Style is the way a writer uses words and language to convey meaning,  mood , and story. Style in poetry typically involves intensely descriptive language to paint a vivid mental picture, while style in fiction focuses on plot and character development through certain literary techniques and word choices. Nonfiction style can be more emotionally detached and journalistic, like in a  biography  of a political figure, or it can be very personal and intimate, as is the case in most  memoirs . Dramatic style is the approach a playwright takes to tell their story and explore the themes of the work; for example, they might employ farcical elements and plenty of jokes in a comedy, and serious dialogue and ominous  settings  in a drama.

A subject is the topic the genre centers on. Broad subjects appear across multiple genres, such as the struggle of good versus evil, quests and adventures, and the eternal mysteries of life, love, and death. Narrower subjects, however, tend to fall into specific genres; you would likely classify an epic quest about futuristic space exploration as a work in the  science fiction  genre.

Technique and style share similarities, but technique is more formal in nature. It consists of the methods a writer uses to construct language and present their story.  Metaphors  and  imagery  are common poetic techniques.  Foreshadowing  and  exposition  are popular among writers of fiction and nonfiction. Playwrights often use techniques of symbolism and  allegory  to make larger statements about human nature.

Tone  is the attitude of the writer. Poetic tone is philosophical, engaged, and observant. In fiction and nonfiction, tone is the writer’s viewpoint and  perspective  on the story. In drama, tone is the overall way the playwright presents the work and the mood they set; for example, you probably wouldn’t mistake a  Shakespearean tragedy  for a bedroom sex  farce , as the former would have a serious tone and the latter would have a lighter, sillier one.

Major Genres and Subgenres

Beyond the four basic genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama), there are narrower subsets of each, called subgenres. The difference between genres and subgenres is somewhat malleable, as most people think of common subgenres as genres in and of themselves.

Take, for example, romance novels. Technically, romance novels are a subgenre of fiction. However, many people consider romance as a distinct genre because it contains so many subgenres: historical romance, contemporary romance, supernatural romance, romantic mysteries, romantic science fiction, etc.

Other fiction subgenres that often stand on their own include fantasy, science fiction,  mysteries  and suspense novels, thrillers, and  children’s  and young adult fiction. Of course, you can easily break these down into further subgenres: high and low fantasy and sword-and-sorcery; space operas, cyberpunk, and dystopias; noir, cozy mysteries, and police procedurals; horror, psychological thrillers, and legal thrillers; and picture books, “social problem” novels, and coming-of-age novels.

Autobiographies , biographies, creative nonfiction, memoirs, journalism, and science writing are popular nonfiction subgenres. Poetry subgenres include contemporary poetry, classic poetry, confessional poetry, and slam poetry. Comedies, tragedies, farces,  satires , comedies of manners, family dramas, and musicals are subgenres of drama.

All these subgenres can function as standalone genres and can be further divided into even smaller subgenres. Also, note that a genre is a system of classification, while categories are divisions within a system of classification. So, this makes the terms  subgenre  and  category  interchangeable.

The Function of Genre

Genre establishes a general code for writers to follow based on the accepted standards. This code also inspires many writers to challenge the conventions of genre and create works that defy them; for instance, Truman Capote’s classic  In Cold Blood  is often classified as a nonfiction novel, thereby spanning two genres.

Individual genres serve specific functions. Fiction and poetry spark the reader’s imagination, provide entertainment, and encourage new ways of experiencing the world. Nonfiction is primarily educational, introducing readers to subjects and ideas and sharing valuable insights. Drama is entertaining and stirs readers/viewers to think about the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, the foibles of human nature, and the points in communion we all share, as well those areas of divergence that divide us.

The end goal of genre is to set the reader’s expectation of the work. For example, you have a general idea of the type of work you’re going to read when you pick up a book of poetry; you wouldn’t mistake it for a novel or play.

Genres Outside of Literature

Genre classifications outside of literature serve the same purpose: to shape one’s expectations of the work and appeal to a specific audience by following a basic set of standards.

Film and television genres include drama, comedy, action/adventure, mystery, horror, and documentary. Pop, country, hip-hop, R&B, classical, and dance are all genres of music. The gaming world consists of many genres as well, such as role-playing, simulations, and shooter games.

Examples of Genre in Literature

1. William Shakespeare,  Hamlet

Shakespeare’s plays are all dramas that are further classified as comedies, tragedies, or histories.  Hamlet  is a tragedy because, in the end, nearly all the major characters are dead. The ghost of the King of Denmark instructs his son, Hamlet, to avenge his murder by killing the new king, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. Hamlet pretends to be mad so he can seek revenge, while a suspicious Claudius also plots to kill Hamlet. The final scene culminates in a duel, in which the King, Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s opponent, and Hamlet all die.

2. Rachel Carson,  Silent Spring

Carson’s 1962 environmental science book is a classic work of nonfiction. She documents the dangers of pesticides, the malfeasance of the chemical industry, and the failure of elected officials to protect the public and the environment. Aspects of the book speak to humankind’s relationship to the natural world and how, in recent years, humans have developed the power to destroy nature in major, irreversible ways.

3. James Baldwin,  If Beale Street Could Talk

Baldwin’s 1974 novel is a work of fiction. It also falls into several subgenres, including romance/love story, African American literature, and social novel. Set in Harlem, New York, in the 1970s, it chronicles the relationship between 19-year-old Tish and 22-year-old Fonny. After they become engaged, Tish discovers she is pregnant. Then, police arrest Fonny after another woman accuses him of rape. The inequities of the criminal justice system keep Tish and Fonny apart, forcing them to fashion their own version of marriage and family with Fonny behind bars.

Further Resources on Genre

An English teacher provides an overview of genres and subgenres in  an informative YouTube video .

Writers Write looks at  the 17 most popular genres/subgenres and why they matter .

Owlcation delves into the differences between  genre and form .

Electric Lit has  a list of books  that they think proves that genre distinctions are bogus.

On the other end of the spectrum, Oxford University Press discusses  why literary genres are essential .

Related Terms

  • Autobiography
  • Dramatic Monologue
  • Figurative Language
  • Narrative Poem
  • Point of View
  • Rhyme Scheme
  • Science Fiction

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Literary genres are categories of literature that are generally determined by technique, length, tone, and content. When we list literary genres in broader terms, they can be more abstract, flexible, and loosely defined. However, as we get more specific and into subcategories, the distinctions and rules of the genre become crystal clear.

What are the different literary genres? Though we may think there are several types of literary genres, there are actually only 3 genres of literature. You may be wondering, what are the three genres of literature? Poetry, drama, and prose. That’s right. All the other genre types fit into one of these three categories. Students will typically encounter these genres of literature in English for most of what they read and write about in school. Therefore, they must be able to identify examples of genres in literature, know their key characteristics, and list the genres of literature.

Literary Genres

Keep reading to learn more about the different literary genres examples, along with ways for students and teachers to storyboard their forms of literature examples. In the genres of literature chart below, each of the storyboards and examples can be copied and used in an assignment with your students.

Literary Genres Examples

Here are some literary genres examples for you to check out. Different literary genres have various purposes. As you read through these examples, notice how the techniques, lengths, tones, and contents change.

The genre of literature can be classified in many ways. In this section, we will take a closer look at 3 genres of literature: poetry, drama, and prose. Understanding literary genres in English literature will not only enhance your students’ reading experience but improve their writing skills too.

Types of Literary Genres

Poetry is a genre of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre — to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the literal or mundane meaning. Poetry has a very long history, dating back to prehistoric times with the creation of hunting chants and burial songs.

Poetry is considered by many to be the most intense literature genre. It allows a writer to express their deepest emotions and thoughts in a very personal way. It relies heavily on figurative language, rhythm, and imagery to relay its message to readers. Poetry is a type of writing that uses beautiful language to express deep thoughts and feelings. Poetry can help you understand your emotions and thoughts better, and it also helps you learn how to write more expressively.

Sub-Genres of Poetry

  • Songs and Ballads

Sub-genres of Poetry

Drama is a mode of fictional representation through dialogue and performance. It is one of the kinds of literature which includes epic poetry, lyric poetry, and novel. Aristotle’s Poetics defines drama as “a representation of an action that is whole and complete and has a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

Drama is often performed on stage in front of a live audience, but it can also be presented in other forms, such as radio, film, and television. It is usually written by a playwright, although it can be adapted from other sources, such as novels, short stories, poems, or even real-life events. Or it can be read silently by individuals too.

It contains dialogue, and actors impersonate the characters. It is usually divided into acts or scenes and relies on props or imaginative dialogue to create a visual experience for the audience. Drama is a good place to start, as they are usually pretty easy to understand at face value and captivates the audience with cliffhangers and mind-capitulating events.

Sub-Genres of Drama

Sub-genres of Drama

The prose is a form of language that has no formal metrical structure. It applies a natural flow of speech, and ordinary grammatical structure, rather than rhythmic structure, such as in the case of traditional poetry. The prose is typically written in paragraphs, although there are some exceptions, such as in the case of drama or fiction.

Prose can be found in books, magazines, newspapers, online articles, blogs, etc. It is the most common form of writing. Examples of famous works of prose include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee & Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. The prose is simple, straightforward language. It can be either fiction or nonfiction . The prose is typically divided into paragraphs, and it uses regular grammar. It can be either serious or funny.

Fiction is narrative writing that originates from the author’s imagination. It is designed to entertain, but it can also inspire, inform, or persuade.

Sub-Genres of Fiction

  • Short Story
  • Myths and Legends
  • Historical Fiction

Prose: Sub-genres of Fiction

Nonfiction is writing that is based on true events, people, places, and facts. It is designed to inform, and sometimes to entertain.

Sub-Genres of Nonfiction

  • Autobiography
  • Diaries and Journals
  • Narrative Nonfiction

Prose: Sub-genres of Nonfiction

What Are the Three Genres of Literature?

The main examples of genres in literature are poetry, drama, and prose. Poetry is a genre in literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning. Drama is a mode of fictional representation through dialogue and performance. The prose is a form of language that has no formal metrical structure. It applies a natural flow of speech and ordinary grammatical structure, rather than rhythmic structure, such as in the case of traditional poetry. Genres of literature in English then fall into subcategories, which make up the three genres of literature.

Forms of literature examples are:

  • Poetry: Ballads, Lyric, Epic, Dramatic, Narrative
  • Drama: Tragedy, Comedy, History, Melodrama, Musical
  • Prose: Fiction (Novel, Novella, Short Story), Nonfiction (Autobiography, Biography, Essay)

Genres of Literature Chart

Genre types subcategories can be explained as the following:

Literature types and genres are essential to know to understand all the different types of written works available. Each type has its own purpose and style. Whether you’re looking for a light read or something more heavy and informative, there’s definitely a literary genre out there for you.

A Note About Speeches...

While not one of the primary genres of literature, speeches are important historical documents or moments and literature, and they don’t always fit neatly into one of the three primary genre categories. A speech is a formal address given to an audience. Speeches can be found in prose, drama, and poetry, and their primary goals are to persuade, inform, demonstrate, or entertain a reader, an audience, or other characters. They can also be used in nonfiction or fiction, depending on their purpose and use.

Sub-genres of Speeches

Why Use Storyboarding to Learn About Literary Genres Types?

Storyboarding is the perfect way to learn and remember the different genres of literature. When you storyboard, you can visually see how each literary genre differs from the next. You can also track and compare the subcategories within genres, identify key characteristics of each, and even explore the relationships between genres. All of this will help you better understand and remember the genres of literature, making it easier to identify them when you encounter them in your reading.

How Can Storyboard That Enhance the Learning Experience of the Three Genres of Literature?

Storyboard That can help students better understand the three genres of literature by providing a visual representation of each one. By storyboarding, students can identify key characteristics of each genre and see how they differ from one another. Additionally, Storyboard That is a great way to compare and contrast genres, as well as explore the relationships between them. All of this will help students better remember the genres of literature and be able to identify them when they encounter them in their reading.

Looking to add a little creative flair to your literature class? Check out Storyboard That’s easy-to-use, online storyboard creator! With our drag-and-drop software, you can create engaging, visually appealing graphic organizers to help your students learn about the different genres of literature. Plus, our easy-to-use tools make it simple to add text, images, and multimedia content to your storyboards, so you can really bring your lessons to life.

Where to Start When Learning About Literary Genres

If you’re just starting to learn about literary genres, the best place to begin is with the three primary genres: prose, drama, and poetry. These genres are the foundation for all other genres of literature, so it’s crucial to have a strong understanding of them before moving on to anything else.

In terms of choosing between the three, poetry tends to be the most complicated to understand as it can go against the usual laws of grammar. There are a lot of deeper meanings within poetry, so it can be hard to break down as a newbie. Start with some short, simple prose articles such as newspaper pieces and short novels.

When you start to get the underlying meanings behind the prose, you can then start to dive into some simple drama. Look into Greek tragedies and Shakespearean plays, as they are a great starting point. These genres will give you a better understanding of the basics before progressing on to more.

When you’re ready to go deeper, poetry is the next stepping stone. Children’s poetry is a great starting point to give you a good foundation of poetic structure and meaning. Then you can go further into complicated poetry, such as that of the Elizabethans and Victorians.

Once you feel comfortable with the three primary genres, you can start exploring the many subgenres that exist within each one. There are endless possibilities when it comes to literary genres, so there’s no need to rush.

Related Activities

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin - Elements of Mystery

Reading Material to Start With

Start with article number one and work your way down the list. When you are happy you understand each article within the genre, move on to the next set of articles.

  • A Washington Post Newspaper Report of Hurricane Ian
  • The short story called "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The historical fiction novel by Christopher Paul Curtis: Bud, Not Buddy .
  • "The Miracle Worker" by William Gibson
  • The famous play by the one and only William Shakespeare, “Romeo & Juliet”
  • "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller
  • "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost
  • "A Poison Tree" by William Blake
  • "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou

How to Get a Deeper Understanding

To get a deeper meaning of each genre, get your pen and paper ready and start to highlight the key ideas throughout. It can help to get your understanding of the writings by doing a summary for each one. Once you have done this, start to think about the following key things for each genre:

  • What is the author’s purpose?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What are the main ideas?
  • How does the structure help to emphasize the purpose?
  • What literary devices are used and why?
  • How does the author’s style contribute to the meaning of the text?

Plays can be trickier as you cannot always rely on the written word to give you all the information. This is where watching a performance of the play can come in handy, as it will give you a much better understanding. In addition to the above, when watching a play, you should also be thinking about:

  • How does the stagecraft contribute to the meaning of the play?
  • What do the costumes and makeup tell us about the characters?
  • How does the lighting help to create mood and atmosphere?
  • What do the sound effects and music add to the play?

When reading poetry, it is essential to think about both the literal and figurative meanings of the words. This can be difficult at first, but there are some helpful strategies that you can use. For example, you can try reading the poem aloud or reading it multiple times. You can also look up words you don’t understand and try to break the poem down into smaller chunks. In addition to the above, when reading poetry, you should also be thinking about:

  • What is the speaker’s tone?
  • What is the poem's mood?
  • What are the main themes of the poem?
  • How does the poet use literary devices to create meaning?
  • What is the poem’s form, and how does it contribute to the meaning?

Using a storyboard exercise like StoryBoard That can be helpful when trying to understand the genres. You can map out the key ideas and events for each one, as well as the literary devices that are used. This is a great way to see the genres side-by-side, compare and contrast them and visualize things better.

Related Resources

  • Picture Encyclopedia of Literary Genres
  • Picture Encyclopedia of Literary Elements
  • The Five Act Play Structure

How To Incorporate Multicultural Perspectives Into The Study Of Literary Genres

Select texts from diverse authors and cultures.

Choose texts that represent a variety of cultures and perspectives, and that offer insights into different literary traditions and styles. This might involve reading and researching texts from authors and cultures that are different from your own and seeking out recommendations from colleagues, libraries, or online resources.

Discuss Cultural Context and Historical Background

Provide background information and historical context for each text, including information about the author and the cultural and historical context in which the text was written. This can help students understand the unique perspectives and literary traditions represented in each text.

Explore Themes and Literary Devices From Multicultural Perspectives

Encourage students to explore themes and literary devices from a variety of cultural perspectives, such as examining the role of family or community in different cultures, or analyzing how language and storytelling are used in different literary traditions.

Foster Discussion and Collaboration

Encourage open discussion and collaboration among students, and create opportunities for them to share their own perspectives and experiences. This can help students build empathy and understanding for different cultures and perspectives.

Encourage Independent Research and Exploration

Encourage students to research and explore additional texts and authors from different cultures and perspectives on their own. Provide resources and recommendations for students to pursue independent reading and research.

Integrate Multimedia and Other Resources

Integrate multimedia and other resources, such as videos, podcasts, or guest speakers, to enhance students' understanding of different cultures and perspectives. This can help bring the text to life and make it more relevant and engaging for students.

Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Genres

What are the main types of literary genres.

The three main types of literary genres are prose, drama, and poetry. Believe it or not, all types of literature fall into one of these categories, including fiction and nonfiction!

What are some examples of different types of fiction?

Some well known types of fiction are: mystery, realistic fiction, historical fiction, fables and fairy tales, poetry, adventure, and science fiction.

What are some examples of different types of nonfiction?

Some common types of nonfiction are biographies, autobiographies, speeches, letters, and informational texts.

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Queer Cultures 101

Queer Cultures 101


Genre is a term that categorizes and classifies the type of writings, art pieces, music and other forms of literature by its style, content or forms.


A literature’s genre remains important because it provides the writer with general organizations that help them to arrange what they want to say. The genre helps the writers to best locate their audience who had the expectation for the kinds of story that fits in. The genre of literature also helps readers to easily understand what they are about to read. By exploring different genres, readers can gain insight into the different ways writers use language and storytelling to express their ideas. Under different genres, there’re also branches of genres that also gives great opportunities for both writers and readers to select that they preferred, like detective, fiction romance, historical, science fiction, children’s literature and so on.

Example 1: Classic Literature

Works that are considered timeless and have had a significant impact on literature and culture. Examples include the works of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens.

Example of Romeo and Juliet is a classic literature but also a tragedy written by William Shakespeare about the romance between two Italian youths from feuding families. It was among Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his lifetime.

in literary genre meaning

Example 2: Novel

A brief work of fiction that often focuses on a single character or incident. Example of the Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin is also a type of romance and historical texts. Romance is texts that focus on romantic relationships and often have a central love story as their main plot.

Example 3 : Short Story A story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel. The example of Robot and The Last Question are short story but also type of science fiction and fantasy that that explores speculative and imaginative themes, often set in futuristic or fantastical worlds. Authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Isaac Asimov are notable in this genre.

in literary genre meaning

Example 4: Biography and Autobiography

Both autobiography  and a  biography  tell the story of someone’s life, but the difference is that a biography is the life history of an individual, written by someone else. An autobiography is the story of a person’s life, written by that person. It could be about a person who is still alive, someone who lived centuries ago, someone who is globally famous, an unsung hero forgotten by history, or even a unique group of people.

Mingke Tian

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Culture 25th Elia Barbieri

The big idea: should we abolish literary genres?

Categorising fiction may help to sell books, but it says little about how writers write or readers read

I n her Reith lecture of 2017, recently published for the first time in a posthumous collection of nonfiction, A Memoir of My Former Self , Hilary Mantel recalled the beginnings of her career as a novelist. It was the 1970s. “In those days historical fiction wasn’t respectable or respected,” she recalled. “It meant historical romance. If you read a brilliant novel like I, Claudius, you didn’t taint it with the genre label, you just thought of it as literature. So, I was shy about naming what I was doing. All the same, I began. I wanted to find a novel I liked, about the French Revolution. I couldn’t, so I started making one.”

She made A Place of Greater Safety, an exceptional ensemble portrayal of the revolutionaries Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins, but although the novel was completed in 1979, it wasn’t published until 1992 – widely rejected, as she later explained, because although she thought the French Revolution was the most interesting thing in the world, the reading public didn’t agree, or publishers had concluded they didn’t. She decided to write a contemporary novel – Every Day Is Mother’s Day – purely to get published; A Place of Greater Safety emerged only when she contributed to a Guardian piece about writers’ unpublished first novels.

Genre is a confining madness; it says nothing about how writers write or readers read, and everything about how publishers, retailers and commentators would like them to. This is not to criticise the many talented personnel in those areas, who valiantly swim against the labels their industry has alighted on to shift units as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Consider the worst offender: not crime, horror, thriller, science fiction, espionage or romance, but “literary fiction”. It can and does contain many of the elements of the others, but is ultimately meaningless except as a confused shorthand: for what is thought clever or ambitious or beyond the comprehension of readers more suited to “mass market” or “commercial” fiction. What would happen if we dispensed with this non-category category altogether? Very little, except that we might meet a book on its own terms.

Is last year’s Booker prize winner, Shehan Karunatilaka ’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida , a ghost story because its central character is dead, or a thriller because he has to work out who has murdered him? A historical novel because it is set during the Sri Lankan civil war, or speculative fiction because it contains scenes of the afterlife? And where do we place previous winners such as Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders or A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James?

Finding ways to describe narratives is not itself the problem, and nor is genre in the wider sense. An understanding of literary traditions that have formed over centuries and across cultures is not essential to the enjoyment of an individual book, but helpful to a broader appreciation of how texts interact with one another through recurring styles and motifs. The urge to categorise has had a deadening effect, reinforcing hierarchies that rely on an idea of what is “serious” and what is not, and by the genuinely liberating understanding of literature, in all its forms, as a playful, thoughtful, experimental tussle with words and ideas.

None of that means one mightn’t enjoy wandering down the forking paths of the literary woods. During the lockdowns, I found great comfort in psychological thrillers of a particular cast: a form of domestic noir in which the usually female protagonist’s apparently enviable life was undermined by a combination of unresolved dissatisfactions (a distant or otherwise problematic husband, a house renovation gone wrong, bills piling up, recalcitrant or troubled children) and an interloper, often in the form of a glamorous new neighbour. I was fascinated by the way these novels articulated a set of contemporary bourgeois anxieties – property values, long-term monogamy, school places, stalled careers – and then imagined how they might be alleviated by the arrival of a disruptor, only to discover that the status quo isn’t all that bad. Often set in smartish London suburbs, these books occasionally packed their casts off on holiday to a rented villa that not every participant could comfortably afford, and in which a body would quickly turn up amid the abandoned plates of tzatziki and glasses of retsina. I began to imagine that if I had the wit and skill to write a parodic mashup, I might call it Kitchen Island. But I don’t, because these efficient entertainments were also, at their most successful, impressively executed feats of plotting and atmosphere.

That I might feel these novels were, in that grimly joyless phrase, “guilty pleasures” because I read them more quickly than I might read the work of Jon Fosse or James Baldwin or Isabel Waidner is to misunderstand the potential of variousness. They were simply another facet of my reading life, speaking to a different impulse, yielding a different reward. I might eat a boiled egg for lunch and immerse myself in a complicated recipe of unfamiliar ingredients at dinner time; finish a cheerful romcom and then turn to a painstakingly detailed documentary. These are not perceived as contradictions, but as perfectly reasonable options available to those of us lucky enough to have them.

I’m returning now to a new novel, Orbital by Samantha Harvey , one of my favourite contemporary novelists. It is set in space, on board a craft circling the Earth, filled with astronauts from different countries and cultures, undergoing physical, mental and emotional changes. Her last novel, The Western Wind , was set in 1491, and she has also written about Alzheimer’s disease, Socrates, infidelity and insomnia. Categorise that.

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Further reading

A Memoir of My Former Self , Hilary Mantel (John Murray, £25)

Orbital by Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, £10.99)

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How to Kill a Literary Genre

in literary genre meaning

The Novelist: A Novel by jordan castro soft skull, 208 pages, $24

J ordan Castro’s The Novelist: A Novel describes a morning during which an unnamed writer struggles to resume work on an autobiographical novel. He can’t stop himself from checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or his email; his progress is further impeded by anxiety, self-doubt, and the sheer variety of impressions and memories that flood his internal monologue. Perhaps he has good reason to avoid writing: His novel confronts his past as a heroin addict. 

In the first-person past tense, the narrator agonizes about whether to tell his story in the third-person present tense, or some other, more “literary” manner. Really, he’s worried about how much distance to place between himself and his narrative. The author of The Novelist has evidently wrestled with similar questions; yet the narrator, whatever his name is, turns out not to be Jordan Castro himself. In fact, he admires (a fictionalized) Castro from a distance, and has defended his work against hostile detractors, although he hasn’t yet read Castro’s controversial new book. 

At first glance, The Novelist appears to be an “autofiction,” a literary form less than half a century old. Autofictionists prefer to distinguish their work from both the old-fashioned autobiographical novel, as practiced by every major “serious” novelist from Goethe to Thomas Mann, and the “non-fiction novel” that was pioneered by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer in the 1960s. 

No novelist can fully escape or transcend what he has lived, no matter how successfully he manages to transform his perceptions into art. Autofiction is an attempt to destroy the illusion that writers might discover truth through artifice, and to cultivate instead the illusion of radical honesty. Their work often feels like an attempt to transfer the writer’s undigested consciousness into the mind of the reader. 

The most distinguished autofictionist in America is Ben Lerner, whose artfully artless 2011 novel Leaving the Atocha Station tells the story of a poet who wastes a year in Madrid on a fellowship and ends up as a not-quite witness to the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004. This is a self-portrait of the artist, “warts and all,” with a special emphasis on the warts, perhaps at the expense of any obviously admirable or redeeming qualities. In less capable hands, this would degenerate into a self-defeating exercise in narcissistic self-loathing. Yet Lerner writes so vividly that he gets away with the conceit. 

Alas, Leaving the Atocha Station spawned legions of imitators. Jordan Castro turns out not to be one of these; indeed, one can’t help but suspect that The Novelist is a cunningly malicious send-up of the very idea of autofiction.

The Novelist begins at 8:14 a.m. on a Friday, when the unnamed narrator opens his laptop to start his day. First he checks his correspondence, and finds only three unopened emails: one from a writer friend, another from his boss, and a third notifying him that his copy of the latest Jordan Castro novel has shipped. He tells himself that he doesn’t want to check Twitter before getting down to work. The spirit is willing; but the flesh is weak. 

He has tried to set a rule for himself: No Twitter before noon. But the more he clicks on Twitter, the more he feels compelled to continue. When he sees he has a new follower, his awareness of wasting time is defeated by vanity, which he misinterprets as good manners: He feels that he has to follow his new follower back. He loses interest in social media etiquette when he sees how awful other people’s tweets are and realizes that he should be thinking of novels—not the one he’s trying to read at the moment (Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine ), but the one he should be writing.

The reference to The Mezzanine , Baker’s first book, is telling. This is not an autofiction, but a plotless stream-of-consciousness description of an office worker’s stray thoughts during his lunch hour. When this novel was first published in 1988, reviewers praised Baker’s powers of observation and ability to get inside the mind of “the common man.” But the author took for granted that his readers lived in the same world he did. Now The Mezzanine seems trite and dated; readers under twenty-five will need footnotes to understand Baker’s riffs on defunct technologies, quaint-sounding 1980s consumer products, and out-of-date brand names. 

Castro has learned from Baker’s mistakes as well as Lerner’s: He concentrates on capturing the effect of a mind wrestling with itself in real time. He has too much tact to spell out what he believes. “Addiction is a memory disease,” the narrator tells himself. He turns out to be quoting a line from a memoir by an academic. Then he shamefacedly remembers the lie he told the academic in an unsuccessful attempt to impress him. “Writing is a memory disease,” he thinks—and instantly realizes how fatuous the idea is. He is self-aware as well as self-conscious; but he’s not nearly as canny as Castro himself.

Castro can’t resist reminding the reader of his presence. This is most glaring when his narrator begins gushing over Jordan Castro’s interesting tweets and claims to find the man himself beautiful. But he rarely overdoes the provocation, even when he makes himself sound like a cross between Jordan Peterson and Bronze Age Pervert. For the most part, “Jordan Castro” is glimpsed indirectly, as when the narrator recalls an argument he had about Castro with a pretentious hipster-communist art gallery owner, then fantasizes having dominated the encounter. 

Over the course of The Novelist , the narrator reveals his reluctance to come to terms with his past. He has replaced an addiction to drugs with a compulsive social media habit that is merely another means of distracting himself from reality. This is Castro’s way of exploring free will: not through essayistic rumination, but by means of actively demonstrating how we consistently fail to do what we know to be right.

Artistically, The Novelist has a few weak spots. The passage in which the narrator searches for Jordan Castro on YouTube, then tries to watch a music video that someone has made using clips from an interview with Castro, is implausible, and too high-concept; the whole scene is impossible for the reader to visualize. Certain other passages, by contrast, are far too easy to visualize, such as Castro’s many graphic discussions of defecation. As a means of mocking the conventions of autofiction, this is brilliant. But after the point is proven, the toilet humor becomes as tiresome as constipation.

Happily, there is much more to The Novelist than this. Castro has a light touch, and a knack for deftly evoking not just atmosphere, but the passage of time. He can make the simple act of brewing tea into something dramatic, pregnant with meaning. The narrator’s inability to find a favorite coffee mug, and the agitation he feels until hot tea and Facebook help him forget about it, ring true, as does his vague guilt about snooping through photos on social media of people he hasn’t seen since high school.

Autofiction is ultimately a self-defeating exercise—a futile act of defiance in the face of death, as practiced by writers who equate death with annihilation. Castro is more hopeful than this; he tacitly acknowledges that there might be such a thing as eternal, absolute truth that exists outside his mind. This alone makes him stand out from most of his literary peers. 

Without getting bogged down in theorizing or abstract speculation, Castro has written a novel about the soul, and the challenges we encounter in trying to save our souls in a world that seems engineered deliberately to endanger them. He has learnt the hard way that there is such a thing as the natural law.

God willing, The Novelist will help kill off autofiction as a literary form. Castro has made its internal contradictions impossible to ignore, and in doing so he has revealed that he has any number of potentially interesting stories to tell about the world outside the writer’s mind, as it exists beyond the confines of the room in which he writes. Castro’s next task will be to settle on a subject ambitious enough for his range of talents, which is generous indeed. Now it’s time to stop procrastinating and get to work.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic.

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