Form, Genre, and Meaning
Have you ever thought of literature as a great big happy family? It might seem like a strange image, but it is quite effective for describing the relationships between form, genre, and meaning. In this lesson, we're going to meet some of the members of the literary family tree and see how they function in the literary world.
First, let's define some terms. The form of a piece of writing is simply its structure, how it is constructed and organized. Literary forms are like the roots of the literary family tree. Genres, in turn, are like the branches of the family tree. A genre is a specific style or category of writing. Genres make use of the various literary forms as foundations from which to stretch out in many directions of expression. Forms and genres join with content to create the meaning of a piece of writing. Meaning is basically the writer's message to the reader. Writers choose various forms and genres to help them express their meaning. For instance, a poem about the tragedy of the Civil War would send a very different message than a nonfiction history book.
Major Literary Forms
Now let's meet some of the members of the literary family tree. We'll begin at the roots with the four major literary forms: nonfiction prose, fiction prose, poetry, and drama.
Nonfiction prose is literature that is written in ordinary, non-metrical language and communicates facts or opinions about reality. Every time you read a science textbook or a how-to article, you are reading nonfiction prose. Nonfiction meanings are usually pretty straightforward because the writer's primary purpose is to convey information or persuade readers.
Fiction prose is also written in ordinary, non-metrical language, but it is the product of the writer's imagination. You've probably been reading novels and short stories for years; if so, you already know a lot about fiction prose. The meaning of fictional works can stretch all the way from obscure and difficult to clear and direct.
Poetry, on the other hand, uses metrical language with lots of rhythm and rhyme to create word pictures. Poetry employs all kinds of word play, figurative language, and imagery to send its messages, which are often rather obscure and need to be dug out with some effort on the part of the reader.
Drama combines elements of prose and poetry into plays that are usually intended to be performed on stage. Drama joins monologues and dialogues by characters with stage directions and occasionally narrative sections that explain the action. Like poetry, drama can feature hidden meanings and messages that take some work to decipher.
These four literary forms are like the roots of the literary family tree, and they branch off into many different genres. We can't meet all these genres within the scope of this lesson, but we'll look at a few of the most common for each literary form.
You probably already know many genres of nonfiction prose. Some of the most common include biographies, autobiographies, history texts, science books, how-to manuals, dictionaries, encyclopedias, argumentative essays, self-help books, law volumes, newspapers, and pamphlets. They all present information and/or try to persuade the reader to adopt a particular point of view.
You are also probably well aware of many of the genres of fiction prose. Remember those fairy tales and fables you heard as a child? They represent fiction genres. Whenever you visit your favorite bookstore or library, you certainly notice that the books are organized into categories like mystery, historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror, adventure, romance, and classics. These are all fiction genres, too.
The genres of poetry might be a bit more unfamiliar to you. This section will introduce you to a few of the most common.
- Epics are long poems that tell the action-packed stories of great heroes.
- Elegies are thoughtful, sad poems that reflect on someone's death.
- Lyrics tend to be quite short poems and focus on the speaker's emotions.
- Sonnets are 14 lines long and follow strict patterns of rhyme.
- Odes are formal poems that usually celebrate someone or something.
- Hymns offer praise to God.
Finally, let's meet a few of the primary genres of drama. Plays may be comedies with much humor and happy endings or tragedies, which are much more serious and usually don't end on a positive note. Some drama combines elements of the two to create tragicomedies. Still other plays are farces that are silly, fast-paced comedies; morality plays that deal with ethical questions of right and wrong; mystery plays that present dramatized Bible stories; or problem plays that wrestle with social issues.
Now that you've become acquainted with so many members of the literary family tree, let's review. The form of a piece of writing is simply its structure, how it is constructed and organized. Literary forms are like the roots of the literary family tree. A genre, which is a specific style or category of writing, is like a branch of the family tree. Forms and genres join with content to create a text's meaning, which is the writer's message to the reader.
There are four major literary forms. Nonfiction prose is literature that is written in ordinary, non-metrical language and communicates facts or opinions about reality. Its meaning is usually pretty straightforward, as it is designed to inform and/or persuade. Fiction prose is also written in ordinary, non-metrical language but is the product of the writer's imagination. Its meaning can stretch all the way from obscure and difficult to clear and direct.
Poetry uses the metrical language of rhythm and rhyme as well as word play, figurative language, and imagery to send its messages, which are often rather obscure and require some effort from the reader to understand. Drama combines elements of prose and poetry into plays that are usually intended to be performed on stage. It joins monologues and dialogues by characters with stage directions and can feature obscure meanings.
We've also explored several genres that branch off of each of these literary forms, including history texts and how-to manuals for nonfiction prose; mysteries and romances for fiction prose; epics and lyrics for poetry; and tragedies and comedies for drama.
Have you enjoyed climbing through the literary family tree? Next time you pick up a piece of literature, take a moment to think about which root and which branch of the tree you are about to read.
Thoroughly explore the topics above in order to subsequently:
- Point out the relationship between form, genre, and meaning
- Name and describe the four main literary forms
- Discuss the major genres of literature
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Form, Genre, and Meaning: Further Exploration
This lesson introduced you to three important and connected elements of literature: form, genre, and meaning. Use the following activities to explore these concepts in more depth based on your own areas of interest.
The Family Tree
As this lesson explained, it is possible to think of genre, form, and meaning as parts of a tree. See if you can draw this tree for yourself. Write in the forms and genres that this lesson mentioned, as well as other ones that you can think of. In order to explore how meaning is related to these concepts, try to add examples of the forms and genres you have listed as the tree's leaves. Consider whether this way of visualizing the relationship between form and meaning is helpful for you.
Exploring Other Genres
This lesson gave you an overview of just a few different genres in different literary forms. Can you think of any others? List at least three more genres of poetry, fiction prose, nonfiction prose, and drama. Be creative! There are many emerging and less common genres, as well as genres that are in use only in some countries or languages, or ones that are not used much anymore.
Examples: Other kinds of drama include absurdism and musical theatre; poems can be imagist or acrostic; fiction has other genres like weird fiction and mythopoeia.
In Your Own Words
Understanding the relationship between form, genre, and meaning is of paramount importance in this lesson. Write a paragraph explaining the three concepts and their relationships to one another in your own words. Use examples wherever you can and refer back to this lesson as needed.
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