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What Is Fiction? - Definition & Types

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  • 0:25 What Is Fiction?
  • 1:15 Types Of Fiction
  • 3:40 Literary Fiction And…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about fiction. We'll take a close look at its definitions and its types and explore the difference between literary and commercial fiction.

What Is Fiction?

It's late in the evening, and you're ready to snuggle in with a good book. As you make yourself comfortable in your favorite chair, you consider the books stacked on the nearby end table. Let's see, you think. Algebra? Definitely not! How about a biography of George Washington? Well, maybe; that could be interesting. Then you notice the latest mystery novel from one of your favorite authors. Perfect! You are definitely in the mood for a good story. You'll read the fiction book.

A work of fiction is created in the imagination of its author. The author invents the story and makes up the characters, the plot or storyline, the dialogue and sometimes even the setting. A fictional work does not claim to tell a true story. Instead, it immerses us in experiences that we may never have in real life, introduces us to types of people we may never otherwise meet and takes us to places we may never visit in any other way. Fiction can inspire us, intrigue us, scare us and engage us in new ideas. It can help us see ourselves and our world in new and interesting ways. What's more, it's often just plain fun!

Types of Fiction

There are three main types of fiction: the short story, the novella and the novel. Let's explore each of these.

First, we have the short story. According to the famous short story writer Edgar Allan Poe, a short story is a piece of fiction that can be read in one sitting of about a half hour to about two hours. Short stories contain between 1,000 and 20,000 words and typically run no more than 25 or 30 pages. Because of their limited length, short stories generally focus on one major plot or storyline and a few characters.

Do you remember all those assignments you read in your elementary and high school readers? The ones that were imaginary were probably short stories. You may even have read and enjoyed stories by Washington Irving ('The Legend of Sleepy Hollow') or by Edgar Allan Poe himself (if you've never read Poe's 'A Tell-Tale Heart,' give it a try; you're in for a scary, shivery treat).

Next up, we have the novella. Novellas are longer than short stories and tend to run about 20,000 to 50,000 words, usually between 60 and 120 pages. Because novellas have more room to work with, they typically have a more complex plot or storyline and more characters than short stories. Famous novellas include Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Jack London's The Call of the Wild.

Finally, a novel is a work of fiction that contains over 50,000 words or 120 pages. Novels are even more complex than novellas, and they usually have more than one plot or storyline and many well-developed characters. Novels can be as long as their authors want them to be. There is no outer limit to their length. In fact, the longest novel ever written is a 17th century work that contains over two million words and more than 13,000 pages. Believe it or not, the book was very popular with the readers of its day.

The fiction sections in bookstores and libraries are full of novels, long and short. The books in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series, for instance, are novels, as are the many works of Mark Twain (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) and Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist).

Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction

We can classify works of fiction in another way, too, by dividing them into literary fiction or genre fiction.

Literary fiction is labeled as 'serious fiction' and focuses on literary merit. Authors of this kind of fiction concentrate especially on their writing styles, the complexity of their storylines, the depth of their characters and the high level of their language choices. You've probably read works of literary fiction in English classes. Edgar Allan Poe's stories fall into this category as do the novels of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the works of fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien and books by modern authors like Toni Morrison and Philip Roth.

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