Literary Genres: Definition, Types, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 1:06 Poetry
  • 1:58 Fiction
  • 2:50 Nonfiction
  • 3:56 Drama
  • 4:57 Sub-Genres
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

In this lesson, you will learn what is meant by the term genre. In addition, the main types of literary genres will be described, with examples given for each.

What is a Genre?

Ever have a friend suggest a movie to go see, but you responded, 'I'm not in the mood for that?' What did you mean? Was it a scary movie and you were in the mood to laugh? Was it a sad movie, but you wanted some action? If so, then you already know about genres.

A genre is a broad term that translates from the French to mean 'kind' or 'type.' In entertainment, this can translate to horror, romance, science fiction, etc. In general, these types differ for all sorts of reasons, from the actions in their plots to the feelings they elicit from the audience. However, in literature, there are some more defined genres. It is important to know which genre a piece of work falls into because the reader will already have certain expectations before he even begins to read.

Genre, in broad terms, refers to any works that share certain characteristics. If enough characteristics are in common, then the pieces are said to be in the same genre. In literature, there are four main genres to help the reader focus their expectations for the piece, though these genres can be broken down even further.

Types & Characteristics of Genres: Poetry

A main literary genre is poetry. All poems share specific characteristics. For example, poetry is written in lines and stanzas instead of sentences and paragraphs. Some poems follow strict rules as to the number and length of lines and stanzas, whereas many poems are much more free-flowing.

Most poetry is abundant in figurative language. Using devices like a simile, metaphor, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhyme, and much more, poetry can claim an emphasis on imagination, emotions, and heartfelt ideas.

Poetry is usually shorter than the other genres, but some poems are classified as epic poetry, which is long narrative poetry chronicling heroic deeds and serious subject matter. For example, John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost focuses on Satan's fall from grace and his following pursuit of revenge.

Types & Characteristics of Genres: Fiction

Poetry, however, is not the only genre that can utilize figurative language. Similarly, fiction, which is any work written in prose that is not real, can also use elaborate figurative language. However, fiction is much more structured than poetry. It must be written in sentences and paragraphs with all the proper punctuation and grammar, which makes it prose. Usually, fiction is broken up into chapters, as well.

Since it is based on the imagination, the subject matter in fiction works can be nearly anything. Fiction can take place in the present day, the future, or the past. It can incorporate the most fantastical ideas or follow an everyday life. Some examples of works of fiction are legends, folk tales, fairy tales, short stories, and any novels. For example, the popular Hunger Games and Divergent trilogies are fiction which occurs in a post-apocalyptic future.

Types & Characteristics of Genres: Nonfiction

A third broad literary genre is nonfiction. If fiction is fake, then nonfiction is the opposite: it comes from real life. Works of nonfiction are all based in real-world experiences. When you read the newspaper, you are reading nonfiction. Other examples include journals, diaries, biographies, autobiographies, and essays.

Nonfiction can also use figurative language; however, it is not as abundant as in poetry and even fiction. Figurative language in this genre generally comes through common phrases which are well-known and used on a daily basis by many. These pieces are written in prose, like fiction, and sometimes even in chapters.

For example, the popular book Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl is broken up into her specific diary entries. This book is simply a published diary written by a teenage Jewish girl who hid from the Germans in World War II. The diary was found after the girl perished, and her family published it without changing the written words. What Anne wrote was real. It was her life, and a great example of nonfiction.

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Additional Activities

Literary Genres: Further Exploration

This lesson explained what literary genres are and the four main types: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and drama. Now it's time to challenge yourself with more activities that will make this lesson memorable and useful.

Quiz Yourself

Now that you know the four main literary genres, test yourself to see how much you can remember. Write down the titles of at least five works in each genre (use the examples given or find books in your house). Pull the titles out of a hat and see if you can remember which is which. Come back to this lesson any time you get stuck.

Examples: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, are fiction. ''This Is Just To Say'' by William Carlos Williams, ''The Orange'' by Wendy Cope, and ''Annabel Lee'' by Edgar Allan Poe are poetry. Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You by Marcus Chown is non-fiction. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is drama.

Get Creative: New Genres

New literary sub-genres (like sci-fi, romance, and mystery) get created all the time. A few examples of new genres include weird fiction by writers like China Mieville; Cli-Fi (climate fiction) by writers like Kim Stanley Robinson; and Bizarro, a new kind of absurdism by writers like James Steele. For this lesson, create your own new literary genre. What kinds of stories will be in this genre? What genres is it related to? Will it be best suited to poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or drama? Start your genre off with a piece of creative writing.

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