Using Literary Genres to Affect Meaning in Narratives

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores literary techniques that appear in different genres. We will look at examples from crime stories, fables, and Realist literature. Then, we will compare and contrast the effects of particular techniques.

Why Do Genres Matter?

When you think about it, all stories are really about the same thing. They are ways of representing the world in order to make sense of human interaction. But at the same time, there is an immense amount of variability between stories. Given enough time, a monkey at a typewriter would come up with Shakespeare. If that's true, there are an infinite number of ways in which stories can be told. Just how an author decides to craft their story will depend on a number of factors, including the traits and personalities of their characters, the feelings they want to evoke in their readers, the type of world they hope to represent, or the statement they wish to make about the state of the world.

Authors and readers both rely on genres, or recognizable story types and categories. Genres provide writers with time-tested conventions, or established practices, techniques, styles, and structures, and subject matter associated with certain types of stories. Genres also help readers identify the kinds of stories they like and don't like.

Crime and detective stories in the noir genre, for example, are associated with the tough guy characters in the Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett novels of the 1920s and 1930s. They speak in a hardboiled style of dialogue, an unsentimental, cynical tone that reflects the genre's dark themes. Crime and detective stories might convey a different sense of morality and human behavior, however, when the author is making use of the psychological complexity of the realist novel or the symbolic imagery of the fable.

Still from the 1945 Noir film Detour

Allegory and Symbolism in Fables

Fables are a genre of fiction that resemble the tales that children read in storybooks. Like fairy tales, they're cautionary tales full of talking rabbits and magic mirrors. But unlike fairy tales, fables come to a clear conclusion intended to instruct the reader about a moral decision.

George Orwell's Animal Farm offers the textbook example of the modern fable. Using the technique of allegory, or a story whose meaning extends beyond the literal level, Orwell populates his barnyard with talking pigs and horses who represent Soviet revolutionaries. On the literal level, Animal Farm tells a story about a community of talking barnyard animals. But as an allegory, it tracks the rise and fall of Socialism in Russia. Dressing political figures up as barnyard animals removes the historical, real world connotations in order to get down to the roots of political and ethical issues such as common ownership of property, sovereignty, and justice.

Authors use symbolism as a storytelling technique in fables to convey moral lessons and abstract concepts by associating these values with a concrete story element. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City has symbolic meaning that extends beyond its existence as a magic metropolis. L. Frank Baum associates the color green with the value of wealth and the color of money to make a statement about capitalism. In similar fashion, characters like the tinman, who represents the industrial worker, and the scarecrow, who represents the everyman farmer, personify whole social classes.

L. Frank Baum, The Emerald City of Oz, 1910, the sixth book in the Oz series.
Wizard of Oz

Realism and the Psychological Novel

Realism became a popular mode of artistic expression in the mid-nineteenth century. Writers and visual artists strove to represent the world as it truly was. Realist literature is concerned with representing the truth of everyday life, the hard, desperate conditions of modern life. These novelists move away from escapist and idealistic tendencies. Instead of instructing a moral lesson or coming to a clear conclusion, they embrace ambiguity, or events and actions with unclear meaning.

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