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

Epithalamion

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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Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris , a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

proust questionnaire

So how big does an other-genre element need to get before you call your book “cross-genre”? Right now, I’m writing a superhero team saga (which is already a challenge for platforms that don’t recognize “superhero” as a genre, since my team’s powers lie in that fuzzy land where the distinction between science and magic gets more than a little blurry), so it obviously has action/adventure in it, but it’s also sprouting thriller and mystery elements. I’m wondering if they’re big enough to plug the series to those genres.

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Introduction

You’ve been assigned a literary analysis paper—what does that even mean? Is it like a book report that you used to write in high school? Well, not really.

A literary analysis essay asks you to make an original argument about a poem, play, or work of fiction and support that argument with research and evidence from your careful reading of the text.

It can take many forms, such as a close reading of a text, critiquing the text through a particular literary theory, comparing one text to another, or criticizing another critic’s interpretation of the text. While there are many ways to structure a literary essay, writing this kind of essay follows generally follows a similar process for everyone

Crafting a good literary analysis essay begins with good close reading of the text, in which you have kept notes and observations as you read. This will help you with the first step, which is selecting a topic to write about—what jumped out as you read, what are you genuinely interested in? The next step is to focus your topic, developing it into an argument—why is this subject or observation important? Why should your reader care about it as much as you do? The third step is to gather evidence to support your argument, for literary analysis, support comes in the form of evidence from the text and from your research on what other literary critics have said about your topic. Only after you have performed these steps, are you ready to begin actually writing your essay.

Writing a Literary Analysis Essay

How to create a topic and conduct research:.

Writing an Analysis of a Poem, Story, or Play

If you are taking a literature course, it is important that you know how to write an analysis—sometimes called an interpretation or a literary analysis or a critical reading or a critical analysis—of a story, a poem, and a play. Your instructor will probably assign such an analysis as part of the course assessment. On your mid-term or final exam, you might have to write an analysis of one or more of the poems and/or stories on your reading list. Or the dreaded “sight poem or story” might appear on an exam, a work that is not on the reading list, that you have not read before, but one your instructor includes on the exam to examine your ability to apply the active reading skills you have learned in class to produce, independently, an effective literary analysis.You might be asked to write instead or, or in addition to an analysis of a literary work, a more sophisticated essay in which you compare and contrast the protagonists of two stories, or the use of form and metaphor in two poems, or the tragic heroes in two plays.

You might learn some literary theory in your course and be asked to apply theory—feminist, Marxist, reader-response, psychoanalytic, new historicist, for example—to one or more of the works on your reading list. But the seminal assignment in a literature course is the analysis of the single poem, story, novel, or play, and, even if you do not have to complete this assignment specifically, it will form the basis of most of the other writing assignments you will be required to undertake in your literature class. There are several ways of structuring a literary analysis, and your instructor might issue specific instructions on how he or she wants this assignment done. The method presented here might not be identical to the one your instructor wants you to follow, but it will be easy enough to modify, if your instructor expects something a bit different, and it is a good default method, if your instructor does not issue more specific guidelines.You want to begin your analysis with a paragraph that provides the context of the work you are analyzing and a brief account of what you believe to be the poem or story or play’s main theme. At a minimum, your account of the work’s context will include the name of the author, the title of the work, its genre, and the date and place of publication. If there is an important biographical or historical context to the work, you should include that, as well.Try to express the work’s theme in one or two sentences. Theme, you will recall, is that insight into human experience the author offers to readers, usually revealed as the content, the drama, the plot of the poem, story, or play unfolds and the characters interact. Assessing theme can be a complex task. Authors usually show the theme; they don’t tell it. They rarely say, at the end of the story, words to this effect: “and the moral of my story is…” They tell their story, develop their characters, provide some kind of conflict—and from all of this theme emerges. Because identifying theme can be challenging and subjective, it is often a good idea to work through the rest of the analysis, then return to the beginning and assess theme in light of your analysis of the work’s other literary elements.Here is a good example of an introductory paragraph from Ben’s analysis of William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Among School Children.”

“Among School Children” was published in Yeats’ 1928 collection of poems The Tower. It was inspired by a visit Yeats made in 1926 to school in Waterford, an official visit in his capacity as a senator of the Irish Free State. In the course of the tour, Yeats reflects upon his own youth and the experiences that shaped the “sixty-year old, smiling public man” (line 8) he has become. Through his reflection, the theme of the poem emerges: a life has meaning when connections among apparently disparate experiences are forged into a unified whole.

In the body of your literature analysis, you want to guide your readers through a tour of the poem, story, or play, pausing along the way to comment on, analyze, interpret, and explain key incidents, descriptions, dialogue, symbols, the writer’s use of figurative language—any of the elements of literature that are relevant to a sound analysis of this particular work. Your main goal is to explain how the elements of literature work to elucidate, augment, and develop the theme. The elements of literature are common across genres: a story, a narrative poem, and a play all have a plot and characters. But certain genres privilege certain literary elements. In a poem, for example, form, imagery and metaphor might be especially important; in a story, setting and point-of-view might be more important than they are in a poem; in a play, dialogue, stage directions, lighting serve functions rarely relevant in the analysis of a story or poem.

The length of the body of an analysis of a literary work will usually depend upon the length of work being analyzed—the longer the work, the longer the analysis—though your instructor will likely establish a word limit for this assignment. Make certain that you do not simply paraphrase the plot of the story or play or the content of the poem. This is a common weakness in student literary analyses, especially when the analysis is of a poem or a play.

Here is a good example of two body paragraphs from Amelia’s analysis of “Araby” by James Joyce.

Within the story’s first few paragraphs occur several religious references which will accumulate as the story progresses. The narrator is a student at the Christian Brothers’ School; the former tenant of his house was a priest; he left behind books called The Abbot and The Devout Communicant. Near the end of the story’s second paragraph the narrator describes a “central apple tree” in the garden, under which is “the late tenant’s rusty bicycle pump.” We may begin to suspect the tree symbolizes the apple tree in the Garden of Eden and the bicycle pump, the snake which corrupted Eve, a stretch, perhaps, until Joyce’s fall-of-innocence theme becomes more apparent.

The narrator must continue to help his aunt with her errands, but, even when he is so occupied, his mind is on Mangan’s sister, as he tries to sort out his feelings for her. Here Joyce provides vivid insight into the mind of an adolescent boy at once elated and bewildered by his first crush. He wants to tell her of his “confused adoration,” but he does not know if he will ever have the chance. Joyce’s description of the pleasant tension consuming the narrator is conveyed in a striking simile, which continues to develop the narrator’s character, while echoing the religious imagery, so important to the story’s theme: “But my body was like a harp, and her words and gestures were like fingers, running along the wires.”

The concluding paragraph of your analysis should realize two goals. First, it should present your own opinion on the quality of the poem or story or play about which you have been writing. And, second, it should comment on the current relevance of the work. You should certainly comment on the enduring social relevance of the work you are explicating. You may comment, though you should never be obliged to do so, on the personal relevance of the work. Here is the concluding paragraph from Dao-Ming’s analysis of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

First performed in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest has been made into a film, as recently as 2002 and is regularly revived by professional and amateur theatre companies. It endures not only because of the comic brilliance of its characters and their dialogue, but also because its satire still resonates with contemporary audiences. I am still amazed that I see in my own Asian mother a shadow of Lady Bracknell, with her obsession with finding for her daughter a husband who will maintain, if not, ideally, increase the family’s social status. We might like to think we are more liberated and socially sophisticated than our Victorian ancestors, but the starlets and eligible bachelors who star in current reality television programs illustrate the extent to which superficial concerns still influence decisions about love and even marriage. Even now, we can turn to Oscar Wilde to help us understand and laugh at those who are earnest in name only.

Dao-Ming’s conclusion is brief, but she does manage to praise the play, reaffirm its main theme, and explain its enduring appeal. And note how her last sentence cleverly establishes that sense of closure that is also a feature of an effective analysis.

You may, of course, modify the template that is presented here. Your instructor might favour a somewhat different approach to literary analysis. Its essence, though, will be your understanding and interpretation of the theme of the poem, story, or play and the skill with which the author shapes the elements of literature—plot, character, form, diction, setting, point of view—to support the theme.

Academic Writing Tips : How to Write a Literary Analysis Paper. Authored by: eHow. Located at: https://youtu.be/8adKfLwIrVk. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license

BC Open Textbooks: English Literature Victorians and Moderns: https://opentextbc.ca/englishliterature/back-matter/appendix-5-writing-an-analysis-of-a-poem-story-and-play/

Literary Analysis

The challenges of writing about english literature.

Writing begins with the act of reading . While this statement is true for most college papers, strong English papers tend to be the product of highly attentive reading (and rereading). When your instructors ask you to do a “close reading,” they are asking you to read not only for content, but also for structures and patterns. When you perform a close reading, then, you observe how form and content interact. In some cases, form reinforces content: for example, in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, where the speaker invites God’s “force” “to break, blow, burn and make [him] new.” Here, the stressed monosyllables of the verbs “break,” “blow” and “burn” evoke aurally the force that the speaker invites from God. In other cases, form raises questions about content: for example, a repeated denial of guilt will likely raise questions about the speaker’s professed innocence. When you close read, take an inductive approach. Start by observing particular details in the text, such as a repeated image or word, an unexpected development, or even a contradiction. Often, a detail–such as a repeated image–can help you to identify a question about the text that warrants further examination. So annotate details that strike you as you read. Some of those details will eventually help you to work towards a thesis. And don’t worry if a detail seems trivial. If you can make a case about how an apparently trivial detail reveals something significant about the text, then your paper will have a thought-provoking thesis to argue.

Common Types of English Papers Many assignments will ask you to analyze a single text. Others, however, will ask you to read two or more texts in relation to each other, or to consider a text in light of claims made by other scholars and critics. For most assignments, close reading will be central to your paper. While some assignment guidelines will suggest topics and spell out expectations in detail, others will offer little more than a page limit. Approaching the writing process in the absence of assigned topics can be daunting, but remember that you have resources: in section, you will probably have encountered some examples of close reading; in lecture, you will have encountered some of the course’s central questions and claims. The paper is a chance for you to extend a claim offered in lecture, or to analyze a passage neglected in lecture. In either case, your analysis should do more than recapitulate claims aired in lecture and section. Because different instructors have different goals for an assignment, you should always ask your professor or TF if you have questions. These general guidelines should apply in most cases:

  • A close reading of a single text: Depending on the length of the text, you will need to be more or less selective about what you choose to consider. In the case of a sonnet, you will probably have enough room to analyze the text more thoroughly than you would in the case of a novel, for example, though even here you will probably not analyze every single detail. By contrast, in the case of a novel, you might analyze a repeated scene, image, or object (for example, scenes of train travel, images of decay, or objects such as or typewriters). Alternately, you might analyze a perplexing scene (such as a novel’s ending, albeit probably in relation to an earlier moment in the novel). But even when analyzing shorter works, you will need to be selective. Although you might notice numerous interesting details as you read, not all of those details will help you to organize a focused argument about the text. For example, if you are focusing on depictions of sensory experience in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” you probably do not need to analyze the image of a homeless Ruth in stanza 7, unless this image helps you to develop your case about sensory experience in the poem.
  • A theoretically-informed close reading. In some courses, you will be asked to analyze a poem, a play, or a novel by using a critical theory (psychoanalytic, postcolonial, gender, etc). For example, you might use Kristeva’s theory of abjection to analyze mother-daughter relations in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Critical theories provide focus for your analysis; if “abjection” is the guiding concept for your paper, you should focus on the scenes in the novel that are most relevant to the concept.
  • A historically-informed close reading. In courses with a historicist orientation, you might use less self-consciously literary documents, such as newspapers or devotional manuals, to develop your analysis of a literary work. For example, to analyze how Robinson Crusoe makes sense of his island experiences, you might use Puritan tracts that narrate events in terms of how God organizes them. The tracts could help you to show not only how Robinson Crusoe draws on Puritan narrative conventions, but also—more significantly—how the novel revises those conventions.
  • A comparison of two texts When analyzing two texts, you might look for unexpected contrasts between apparently similar texts, or unexpected similarities between apparently dissimilar texts, or for how one text revises or transforms the other. Keep in mind that not all of the similarities, differences, and transformations you identify will be relevant to an argument about the relationship between the two texts. As you work towards a thesis, you will need to decide which of those similarities, differences, or transformations to focus on. Moreover, unless instructed otherwise, you do not need to allot equal space to each text (unless this 50/50 allocation serves your thesis well, of course). Often you will find that one text helps to develop your analysis of another text. For example, you might analyze the transformation of Ariel’s song from The Tempest in T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. Insofar as this analysis is interested in the afterlife of Ariel’s song in a later poem, you would likely allot more space to analyzing allusions to Ariel’s song in The Waste Land (after initially establishing the song’s significance in Shakespeare’s play, of course).
  • A response paper A response paper is a great opportunity to practice your close reading skills without having to develop an entire argument. In most cases, a solid approach is to select a rich passage that rewards analysis (for example, one that depicts an important scene or a recurring image) and close read it. While response papers are a flexible genre, they are not invitations for impressionistic accounts of whether you liked the work or a particular character. Instead, you might use your close reading to raise a question about the text—to open up further investigation, rather than to supply a solution.
  • A research paper. In most cases, you will receive guidance from the professor on the scope of the research paper. It is likely that you will be expected to consult sources other than the assigned readings. Hollis is your best bet for book titles, and the MLA bibliography (available through e-resources) for articles. When reading articles, make sure that they have been peer reviewed; you might also ask your TF to recommend reputable journals in the field.

Harvard College Writing Program: https://writingproject.fas.harvard.edu/files/hwp/files/bg_writing_english.pdf

In the same way that we talk with our friends about the latest episode of Game of Thrones or newest Marvel movie, scholars communicate their ideas and interpretations of literature through written literary analysis essays. Literary analysis essays make us better readers of literature.

Only through careful reading and well-argued analysis can we reach new understandings and interpretations of texts that are sometimes hundreds of years old. Literary analysis brings new meaning and can shed new light on texts. Building from careful reading and selecting a topic that you are genuinely interested in, your argument supports how you read and understand a text. Using examples from the text you are discussing in the form of textual evidence further supports your reading. Well-researched literary analysis also includes information about what other scholars have written about a specific text or topic.

Literary analysis helps us to refine our ideas, question what we think we know, and often generates new knowledge about literature. Literary analysis essays allow you to discuss your own interpretation of a given text through careful examination of the choices the original author made in the text.

ENG134 – Literary Genres Copyright © by The American Women's College and Jessica Egan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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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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  • How to write a literary analysis essay | A step-by-step guide

How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay | A Step-by-Step Guide

Published on January 30, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on August 14, 2023.

Literary analysis means closely studying a text, interpreting its meanings, and exploring why the author made certain choices. It can be applied to novels, short stories, plays, poems, or any other form of literary writing.

A literary analysis essay is not a rhetorical analysis , nor is it just a summary of the plot or a book review. Instead, it is a type of argumentative essay where you need to analyze elements such as the language, perspective, and structure of the text, and explain how the author uses literary devices to create effects and convey ideas.

Before beginning a literary analysis essay, it’s essential to carefully read the text and c ome up with a thesis statement to keep your essay focused. As you write, follow the standard structure of an academic essay :

  • An introduction that tells the reader what your essay will focus on.
  • A main body, divided into paragraphs , that builds an argument using evidence from the text.
  • A conclusion that clearly states the main point that you have shown with your analysis.

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Table of contents

Step 1: reading the text and identifying literary devices, step 2: coming up with a thesis, step 3: writing a title and introduction, step 4: writing the body of the essay, step 5: writing a conclusion, other interesting articles.

The first step is to carefully read the text(s) and take initial notes. As you read, pay attention to the things that are most intriguing, surprising, or even confusing in the writing—these are things you can dig into in your analysis.

Your goal in literary analysis is not simply to explain the events described in the text, but to analyze the writing itself and discuss how the text works on a deeper level. Primarily, you’re looking out for literary devices —textual elements that writers use to convey meaning and create effects. If you’re comparing and contrasting multiple texts, you can also look for connections between different texts.

To get started with your analysis, there are several key areas that you can focus on. As you analyze each aspect of the text, try to think about how they all relate to each other. You can use highlights or notes to keep track of important passages and quotes.

Language choices

Consider what style of language the author uses. Are the sentences short and simple or more complex and poetic?

What word choices stand out as interesting or unusual? Are words used figuratively to mean something other than their literal definition? Figurative language includes things like metaphor (e.g. “her eyes were oceans”) and simile (e.g. “her eyes were like oceans”).

Also keep an eye out for imagery in the text—recurring images that create a certain atmosphere or symbolize something important. Remember that language is used in literary texts to say more than it means on the surface.

Narrative voice

Ask yourself:

  • Who is telling the story?
  • How are they telling it?

Is it a first-person narrator (“I”) who is personally involved in the story, or a third-person narrator who tells us about the characters from a distance?

Consider the narrator’s perspective . Is the narrator omniscient (where they know everything about all the characters and events), or do they only have partial knowledge? Are they an unreliable narrator who we are not supposed to take at face value? Authors often hint that their narrator might be giving us a distorted or dishonest version of events.

The tone of the text is also worth considering. Is the story intended to be comic, tragic, or something else? Are usually serious topics treated as funny, or vice versa ? Is the story realistic or fantastical (or somewhere in between)?

Consider how the text is structured, and how the structure relates to the story being told.

  • Novels are often divided into chapters and parts.
  • Poems are divided into lines, stanzas, and sometime cantos.
  • Plays are divided into scenes and acts.

Think about why the author chose to divide the different parts of the text in the way they did.

There are also less formal structural elements to take into account. Does the story unfold in chronological order, or does it jump back and forth in time? Does it begin in medias res —in the middle of the action? Does the plot advance towards a clearly defined climax?

With poetry, consider how the rhyme and meter shape your understanding of the text and your impression of the tone. Try reading the poem aloud to get a sense of this.

In a play, you might consider how relationships between characters are built up through different scenes, and how the setting relates to the action. Watch out for  dramatic irony , where the audience knows some detail that the characters don’t, creating a double meaning in their words, thoughts, or actions.

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write a brief essay on the genres of literature

Your thesis in a literary analysis essay is the point you want to make about the text. It’s the core argument that gives your essay direction and prevents it from just being a collection of random observations about a text.

If you’re given a prompt for your essay, your thesis must answer or relate to the prompt. For example:

Essay question example

Is Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” a religious parable?

Your thesis statement should be an answer to this question—not a simple yes or no, but a statement of why this is or isn’t the case:

Thesis statement example

Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” is not a religious parable, but a story about bureaucratic alienation.

Sometimes you’ll be given freedom to choose your own topic; in this case, you’ll have to come up with an original thesis. Consider what stood out to you in the text; ask yourself questions about the elements that interested you, and consider how you might answer them.

Your thesis should be something arguable—that is, something that you think is true about the text, but which is not a simple matter of fact. It must be complex enough to develop through evidence and arguments across the course of your essay.

Say you’re analyzing the novel Frankenstein . You could start by asking yourself:

Your initial answer might be a surface-level description:

The character Frankenstein is portrayed negatively in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein .

However, this statement is too simple to be an interesting thesis. After reading the text and analyzing its narrative voice and structure, you can develop the answer into a more nuanced and arguable thesis statement:

Mary Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to portray Frankenstein in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as.

Remember that you can revise your thesis statement throughout the writing process , so it doesn’t need to be perfectly formulated at this stage. The aim is to keep you focused as you analyze the text.

Finding textual evidence

To support your thesis statement, your essay will build an argument using textual evidence —specific parts of the text that demonstrate your point. This evidence is quoted and analyzed throughout your essay to explain your argument to the reader.

It can be useful to comb through the text in search of relevant quotations before you start writing. You might not end up using everything you find, and you may have to return to the text for more evidence as you write, but collecting textual evidence from the beginning will help you to structure your arguments and assess whether they’re convincing.

To start your literary analysis paper, you’ll need two things: a good title, and an introduction.

Your title should clearly indicate what your analysis will focus on. It usually contains the name of the author and text(s) you’re analyzing. Keep it as concise and engaging as possible.

A common approach to the title is to use a relevant quote from the text, followed by a colon and then the rest of your title.

If you struggle to come up with a good title at first, don’t worry—this will be easier once you’ve begun writing the essay and have a better sense of your arguments.

“Fearful symmetry” : The violence of creation in William Blake’s “The Tyger”

The introduction

The essay introduction provides a quick overview of where your argument is going. It should include your thesis statement and a summary of the essay’s structure.

A typical structure for an introduction is to begin with a general statement about the text and author, using this to lead into your thesis statement. You might refer to a commonly held idea about the text and show how your thesis will contradict it, or zoom in on a particular device you intend to focus on.

Then you can end with a brief indication of what’s coming up in the main body of the essay. This is called signposting. It will be more elaborate in longer essays, but in a short five-paragraph essay structure, it shouldn’t be more than one sentence.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often read as a crude cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific advancement unrestrained by ethical considerations. In this reading, protagonist Victor Frankenstein is a stable representation of the callous ambition of modern science throughout the novel. This essay, however, argues that far from providing a stable image of the character, Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to portray Frankenstein in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as. This essay begins by exploring the positive portrayal of Frankenstein in the first volume, then moves on to the creature’s perception of him, and finally discusses the third volume’s narrative shift toward viewing Frankenstein as the creature views him.

Some students prefer to write the introduction later in the process, and it’s not a bad idea. After all, you’ll have a clearer idea of the overall shape of your arguments once you’ve begun writing them!

If you do write the introduction first, you should still return to it later to make sure it lines up with what you ended up writing, and edit as necessary.

The body of your essay is everything between the introduction and conclusion. It contains your arguments and the textual evidence that supports them.

Paragraph structure

A typical structure for a high school literary analysis essay consists of five paragraphs : the three paragraphs of the body, plus the introduction and conclusion.

Each paragraph in the main body should focus on one topic. In the five-paragraph model, try to divide your argument into three main areas of analysis, all linked to your thesis. Don’t try to include everything you can think of to say about the text—only analysis that drives your argument.

In longer essays, the same principle applies on a broader scale. For example, you might have two or three sections in your main body, each with multiple paragraphs. Within these sections, you still want to begin new paragraphs at logical moments—a turn in the argument or the introduction of a new idea.

Robert’s first encounter with Gil-Martin suggests something of his sinister power. Robert feels “a sort of invisible power that drew me towards him.” He identifies the moment of their meeting as “the beginning of a series of adventures which has puzzled myself, and will puzzle the world when I am no more in it” (p. 89). Gil-Martin’s “invisible power” seems to be at work even at this distance from the moment described; before continuing the story, Robert feels compelled to anticipate at length what readers will make of his narrative after his approaching death. With this interjection, Hogg emphasizes the fatal influence Gil-Martin exercises from his first appearance.

Topic sentences

To keep your points focused, it’s important to use a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph.

A good topic sentence allows a reader to see at a glance what the paragraph is about. It can introduce a new line of argument and connect or contrast it with the previous paragraph. Transition words like “however” or “moreover” are useful for creating smooth transitions:

… The story’s focus, therefore, is not upon the divine revelation that may be waiting beyond the door, but upon the mundane process of aging undergone by the man as he waits.

Nevertheless, the “radiance” that appears to stream from the door is typically treated as religious symbolism.

This topic sentence signals that the paragraph will address the question of religious symbolism, while the linking word “nevertheless” points out a contrast with the previous paragraph’s conclusion.

Using textual evidence

A key part of literary analysis is backing up your arguments with relevant evidence from the text. This involves introducing quotes from the text and explaining their significance to your point.

It’s important to contextualize quotes and explain why you’re using them; they should be properly introduced and analyzed, not treated as self-explanatory:

It isn’t always necessary to use a quote. Quoting is useful when you’re discussing the author’s language, but sometimes you’ll have to refer to plot points or structural elements that can’t be captured in a short quote.

In these cases, it’s more appropriate to paraphrase or summarize parts of the text—that is, to describe the relevant part in your own words:

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The conclusion of your analysis shouldn’t introduce any new quotations or arguments. Instead, it’s about wrapping up the essay. Here, you summarize your key points and try to emphasize their significance to the reader.

A good way to approach this is to briefly summarize your key arguments, and then stress the conclusion they’ve led you to, highlighting the new perspective your thesis provides on the text as a whole:

If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

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By tracing the depiction of Frankenstein through the novel’s three volumes, I have demonstrated how the narrative structure shifts our perception of the character. While the Frankenstein of the first volume is depicted as having innocent intentions, the second and third volumes—first in the creature’s accusatory voice, and then in his own voice—increasingly undermine him, causing him to appear alternately ridiculous and vindictive. Far from the one-dimensional villain he is often taken to be, the character of Frankenstein is compelling because of the dynamic narrative frame in which he is placed. In this frame, Frankenstein’s narrative self-presentation responds to the images of him we see from others’ perspectives. This conclusion sheds new light on the novel, foregrounding Shelley’s unique layering of narrative perspectives and its importance for the depiction of character.

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Caulfield, J. (2023, August 14). How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay | A Step-by-Step Guide. Scribbr. Retrieved April 2, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/academic-essay/literary-analysis/

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Humanities LibreTexts

12.14: Sample Student Literary Analysis Essays

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  • Page ID 40514

  • Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap
  • City College of San Francisco via ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative

The following examples are essays where student writers focused on close-reading a literary work.

While reading these examples, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the essay's thesis statement, and how do you know it is the thesis statement?
  • What is the main idea or topic sentence of each body paragraph, and how does it relate back to the thesis statement?
  • Where and how does each essay use evidence (quotes or paraphrase from the literature)?
  • What are some of the literary devices or structures the essays analyze or discuss?
  • How does each author structure their conclusion, and how does their conclusion differ from their introduction?

Example 1: Poetry

Victoria Morillo

Instructor Heather Ringo

3 August 2022

How Nguyen’s Structure Solidifies the Impact of Sexual Violence in “The Study”

Stripped of innocence, your body taken from you. No matter how much you try to block out the instance in which these two things occurred, memories surface and come back to haunt you. How does a person, a young boy , cope with an event that forever changes his life? Hieu Minh Nguyen deconstructs this very way in which an act of sexual violence affects a survivor. In his poem, “The Study,” the poem's speaker recounts the year in which his molestation took place, describing how his memory filters in and out. Throughout the poem, Nguyen writes in free verse, permitting a structural liberation to become the foundation for his message to shine through. While he moves the readers with this poignant narrative, Nguyen effectively conveys the resulting internal struggles of feeling alone and unseen.

The speaker recalls his experience with such painful memory through the use of specific punctuation choices. Just by looking at the poem, we see that the first period doesn’t appear until line 14. It finally comes after the speaker reveals to his readers the possible, central purpose for writing this poem: the speaker's molestation. In the first half, the poem makes use of commas, em dashes, and colons, which lends itself to the idea of the speaker stringing along all of these details to make sense of this time in his life. If reading the poem following the conventions of punctuation, a sense of urgency is present here, as well. This is exemplified by the lack of periods to finalize a thought; and instead, Nguyen uses other punctuation marks to connect them. Serving as another connector of thoughts, the two em dashes give emphasis to the role memory plays when the speaker discusses how “no one [had] a face” during that time (Nguyen 9-11). He speaks in this urgent manner until the 14th line, and when he finally gets it off his chest, the pace of the poem changes, as does the more frequent use of the period. This stream-of-consciousness-like section when juxtaposed with the latter half of the poem, causes readers to slow down and pay attention to the details. It also splits the poem in two: a section that talks of the fogginess of memory then transitions into one that remembers it all.

In tandem with the fluctuating nature of memory, the utilization of line breaks and word choice help reflect the damage the molestation has had. Within the first couple of lines of the poem, the poem demands the readers’ attention when the line breaks from “floating” to “dead” as the speaker describes his memory of Little Billy (Nguyen 1-4). This line break averts the readers’ expectation of the direction of the narrative and immediately shifts the tone of the poem. The break also speaks to the effect his trauma has ingrained in him and how “[f]or the longest time,” his only memory of that year revolves around an image of a boy’s death. In a way, the speaker sees himself in Little Billy; or perhaps, he’s representative of the tragic death of his boyhood, how the speaker felt so “dead” after enduring such a traumatic experience, even referring to himself as a “ghost” that he tries to evict from his conscience (Nguyen 24). The feeling that a part of him has died is solidified at the very end of the poem when the speaker describes himself as a nine-year-old boy who’s been “fossilized,” forever changed by this act (Nguyen 29). By choosing words associated with permanence and death, the speaker tries to recreate the atmosphere (for which he felt trapped in) in order for readers to understand the loneliness that came as a result of his trauma. With the assistance of line breaks, more attention is drawn to the speaker's words, intensifying their importance, and demanding to be felt by the readers.

Most importantly, the speaker expresses eloquently, and so heartbreakingly, about the effect sexual violence has on a person. Perhaps what seems to be the most frustrating are the people who fail to believe survivors of these types of crimes. This is evident when he describes “how angry” the tenants were when they filled the pool with cement (Nguyen 4). They seem to represent how people in the speaker's life were dismissive of his assault and who viewed his tragedy as a nuisance of some sorts. This sentiment is bookended when he says, “They say, give us details , so I give them my body. / They say, give us proof , so I give them my body,” (Nguyen 25-26). The repetition of these two lines reinforces the feeling many feel in these scenarios, as they’re often left to deal with trying to make people believe them, or to even see them.

It’s important to recognize how the structure of this poem gives the speaker space to express the pain he’s had to carry for so long. As a characteristic of free verse, the poem doesn’t follow any structured rhyme scheme or meter; which in turn, allows him to not have any constraints in telling his story the way he wants to. The speaker has the freedom to display his experience in a way that evades predictability and engenders authenticity of a story very personal to him. As readers, we abandon anticipating the next rhyme, and instead focus our attention to the other ways, like his punctuation or word choice, in which he effectively tells his story. The speaker recognizes that some part of him no longer belongs to himself, but by writing “The Study,” he shows other survivors that they’re not alone and encourages hope that eventually, they will be freed from the shackles of sexual violence.

Works Cited

Nguyen, Hieu Minh. “The Study” Poets.Org. Academy of American Poets, Coffee House Press, 2018, https://poets.org/poem/study-0 .

Example 2: Fiction

Todd Goodwin

Professor Stan Matyshak

Advanced Expository Writing

Sept. 17, 20—

Poe’s “Usher”: A Mirror of the Fall of the House of Humanity

Right from the outset of the grim story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe enmeshes us in a dark, gloomy, hopeless world, alienating his characters and the reader from any sort of physical or psychological norm where such values as hope and happiness could possibly exist. He fatalistically tells the story of how a man (the narrator) comes from the outside world of hope, religion, and everyday society and tries to bring some kind of redeeming happiness to his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, who not only has physically and psychologically wasted away but is entrapped in a dilapidated house of ever-looming terror with an emaciated and deranged twin sister. Roderick Usher embodies the wasting away of what once was vibrant and alive, and his house of “insufferable gloom” (273), which contains his morbid sister, seems to mirror or reflect this fear of death and annihilation that he most horribly endures. A close reading of the story reveals that Poe uses mirror images, or reflections, to contribute to the fatalistic theme of “Usher”: each reflection serves to intensify an already prevalent tone of hopelessness, darkness, and fatalism.

It could be argued that the house of Roderick Usher is a “house of mirrors,” whose unpleasant and grim reflections create a dark and hopeless setting. For example, the narrator first approaches “the melancholy house of Usher on a dark and soundless day,” and finds a building which causes him a “sense of insufferable gloom,” which “pervades his spirit and causes an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart, an undiscerned dreariness of thought” (273). The narrator then optimistically states: “I reflected that a mere different arrangement of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression” (274). But the narrator then sees the reflection of the house in the tarn and experiences a “shudder even more thrilling than before” (274). Thus the reader begins to realize that the narrator cannot change or stop the impending doom that will befall the house of Usher, and maybe humanity. The story cleverly plays with the word reflection : the narrator sees a physical reflection that leads him to a mental reflection about Usher’s surroundings.

The narrator’s disillusionment by such grim reflection continues in the story. For example, he describes Roderick Usher’s face as distinct with signs of old strength but lost vigor: the remains of what used to be. He describes the house as a once happy and vibrant place, which, like Roderick, lost its vitality. Also, the narrator describes Usher’s hair as growing wild on his rather obtrusive head, which directly mirrors the eerie moss and straw covering the outside of the house. The narrator continually longs to see these bleak reflections as a dream, for he states: “Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building” (276). He does not want to face the reality that Usher and his home are doomed to fall, regardless of what he does.

Although there are almost countless examples of these mirror images, two others stand out as important. First, Roderick and his sister, Madeline, are twins. The narrator aptly states just as he and Roderick are entombing Madeline that there is “a striking similitude between brother and sister” (288). Indeed, they are mirror images of each other. Madeline is fading away psychologically and physically, and Roderick is not too far behind! The reflection of “doom” that these two share helps intensify and symbolize the hopelessness of the entire situation; thus, they further develop the fatalistic theme. Second, in the climactic scene where Madeline has been mistakenly entombed alive, there is a pairing of images and sounds as the narrator tries to calm Roderick by reading him a romance story. Events in the story simultaneously unfold with events of the sister escaping her tomb. In the story, the hero breaks out of the coffin. Then, in the story, the dragon’s shriek as he is slain parallels Madeline’s shriek. Finally, the story tells of the clangor of a shield, matched by the sister’s clanging along a metal passageway. As the suspense reaches its climax, Roderick shrieks his last words to his “friend,” the narrator: “Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door” (296).

Roderick, who slowly falls into insanity, ironically calls the narrator the “Madman.” We are left to reflect on what Poe means by this ironic twist. Poe’s bleak and dark imagery, and his use of mirror reflections, seem only to intensify the hopelessness of “Usher.” We can plausibly conclude that, indeed, the narrator is the “Madman,” for he comes from everyday society, which is a place where hope and faith exist. Poe would probably argue that such a place is opposite to the world of Usher because a world where death is inevitable could not possibly hold such positive values. Therefore, just as Roderick mirrors his sister, the reflection in the tarn mirrors the dilapidation of the house, and the story mirrors the final actions before the death of Usher. “The Fall of the House of Usher” reflects Poe’s view that humanity is hopelessly doomed.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” 1839. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library . 1995. Web. 1 July 2012. < http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/PoeFall.html >.

Example 3: Poetry

Amy Chisnell

Professor Laura Neary

Writing and Literature

April 17, 20—

Don’t Listen to the Egg!: A Close Reading of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”

“You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir,” said Alice. “Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem called ‘Jabberwocky’?”

“Let’s hear it,” said Humpty Dumpty. “I can explain all the poems that ever were invented—and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” (Carroll 164)

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass , Humpty Dumpty confidently translates (to a not so confident Alice) the complicated language of the poem “Jabberwocky.” The words of the poem, though nonsense, aptly tell the story of the slaying of the Jabberwock. Upon finding “Jabberwocky” on a table in the looking-glass room, Alice is confused by the strange words. She is quite certain that “ somebody killed something ,” but she does not understand much more than that. When later she encounters Humpty Dumpty, she seizes the opportunity at having the knowledgeable egg interpret—or translate—the poem. Since Humpty Dumpty professes to be able to “make a word work” for him, he is quick to agree. Thus he acts like a New Critic who interprets the poem by performing a close reading of it. Through Humpty’s interpretation of the first stanza, however, we see the poem’s deeper comment concerning the practice of interpreting poetry and literature in general—that strict analytical translation destroys the beauty of a poem. In fact, Humpty Dumpty commits the “heresy of paraphrase,” for he fails to understand that meaning cannot be separated from the form or structure of the literary work.

Of the 71 words found in “Jabberwocky,” 43 have no known meaning. They are simply nonsense. Yet through this nonsensical language, the poem manages not only to tell a story but also gives the reader a sense of setting and characterization. One feels, rather than concretely knows, that the setting is dark, wooded, and frightening. The characters, such as the Jubjub bird, the Bandersnatch, and the doomed Jabberwock, also appear in the reader’s head, even though they will not be found in the local zoo. Even though most of the words are not real, the reader is able to understand what goes on because he or she is given free license to imagine what the words denote and connote. Simply, the poem’s nonsense words are the meaning.

Therefore, when Humpty interprets “Jabberwocky” for Alice, he is not doing her any favors, for he actually misreads the poem. Although the poem in its original is constructed from nonsense words, by the time Humpty is done interpreting it, it truly does not make any sense. The first stanza of the original poem is as follows:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogroves,

An the mome raths outgrabe. (Carroll 164)

If we replace, however, the nonsense words of “Jabberwocky” with Humpty’s translated words, the effect would be something like this:

’Twas four o’clock in the afternoon, and the lithe and slimy badger-lizard-corkscrew creatures

Did go round and round and make holes in the grass-plot round the sun-dial:

All flimsy and miserable were the shabby-looking birds

with mop feathers,

And the lost green pigs bellowed-sneezed-whistled.

By translating the poem in such a way, Humpty removes the charm or essence—and the beauty, grace, and rhythm—from the poem. The poetry is sacrificed for meaning. Humpty Dumpty commits the heresy of paraphrase. As Cleanth Brooks argues, “The structure of a poem resembles that of a ballet or musical composition. It is a pattern of resolutions and balances and harmonizations” (203). When the poem is left as nonsense, the reader can easily imagine what a “slithy tove” might be, but when Humpty tells us what it is, he takes that imaginative license away from the reader. The beauty (if that is the proper word) of “Jabberwocky” is in not knowing what the words mean, and yet understanding. By translating the poem, Humpty takes that privilege from the reader. In addition, Humpty fails to recognize that meaning cannot be separated from the structure itself: the nonsense poem reflects this literally—it means “nothing” and achieves this meaning by using “nonsense” words.

Furthermore, the nonsense words Carroll chooses to use in “Jabberwocky” have a magical effect upon the reader; the shadowy sound of the words create the atmosphere, which may be described as a trance-like mood. When Alice first reads the poem, she says it seems to fill her head “with ideas.” The strange-sounding words in the original poem do give one ideas. Why is this? Even though the reader has never heard these words before, he or she is instantly aware of the murky, mysterious mood they set. In other words, diction operates not on the denotative level (the dictionary meaning) but on the connotative level (the emotion(s) they evoke). Thus “Jabberwocky” creates a shadowy mood, and the nonsense words are instrumental in creating this mood. Carroll could not have simply used any nonsense words.

For example, let us change the “dark,” “ominous” words of the first stanza to “lighter,” more “comic” words:

’Twas mearly, and the churly pells

Did bimble and ringle in the tink;

All timpy were the brimbledimps,

And the bip plips outlink.

Shifting the sounds of the words from dark to light merely takes a shift in thought. To create a specific mood using nonsense words, one must create new words from old words that convey the desired mood. In “Jabberwocky,” Carroll mixes “slimy,” a grim idea, “lithe,” a pliable image, to get a new adjective: “slithy” (a portmanteau word). In this translation, brighter words were used to get a lighter effect. “Mearly” is a combination of “morning” and “early,” and “ringle” is a blend of “ring” and "dingle.” The point is that “Jabberwocky’s” nonsense words are created specifically to convey this shadowy or mysterious mood and are integral to the “meaning.”

Consequently, Humpty’s rendering of the poem leaves the reader with a completely different feeling than does the original poem, which provided us with a sense of ethereal mystery, of a dark and foreign land with exotic creatures and fantastic settings. The mysteriousness is destroyed by Humpty’s literal paraphrase of the creatures and the setting; by doing so, he has taken the beauty away from the poem in his attempt to understand it. He has committed the heresy of paraphrase: “If we allow ourselves to be misled by it [this heresy], we distort the relation of the poem to its ‘truth’… we split the poem between its ‘form’ and its ‘content’” (Brooks 201). Humpty Dumpty’s ultimate demise might be seen to symbolize the heretical split between form and content: as a literary creation, Humpty Dumpty is an egg, a well-wrought urn of nonsense. His fall from the wall cracks him and separates the contents from the container, and not even all the King’s men can put the scrambled egg back together again!

Through the odd characters of a little girl and a foolish egg, “Jabberwocky” suggests a bit of sage advice about reading poetry, advice that the New Critics built their theories on. The importance lies not solely within strict analytical translation or interpretation, but in the overall effect of the imagery and word choice that evokes a meaning inseparable from those literary devices. As Archibald MacLeish so aptly writes: “A poem should not mean / But be.” Sometimes it takes a little nonsense to show us the sense in something.

Brooks, Cleanth. The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry . 1942. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1956. Print.

Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass. Alice in Wonderland . 2nd ed. Ed. Donald J. Gray. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.

MacLeish, Archibald. “Ars Poetica.” The Oxford Book of American Poetry . Ed. David Lehman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. 385–86. Print.

Attribution

  • Sample Essay 1 received permission from Victoria Morillo to publish, licensed Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International ( CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
  • Sample Essays 2 and 3 adapted from Cordell, Ryan and John Pennington. "2.5: Student Sample Papers" from Creating Literary Analysis. 2012. Licensed Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported ( CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 )

Storyboard That

  • My Storyboards

Literary Genres

Types of genres are categories of literature that are generally determined by technique, length, tone, and content. When we list literary forms 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 literature genres? Though we may think there are several types of written art forms, 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 narrative types of literature in English for most of what they read and write about in school. Therefore, they must be able to identify examples of literary artistic expressions, know their key characteristics, and list the genres of literature.

Literary Genres - types of literature

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 forms examples for you to check out. Different types of genres have different purposes. As you read through these examples, notice how the techniques, lengths, tones, and contents change.

Literary forms 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 the different classifications of literary expression in English 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.

Among the different genre examples, 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. Poetic writing uses beautiful language to express deep thoughts and feelings. Poetic expressions 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 - forms of literature

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.

It contains dialogue, and actors impersonate the characters. Imaginary characters are frequently introduced to its narratives, allowing the playwright to explore complex human emotions and conflicts through both real-life and fantastical figures. Characters often encounter conflict, whether internal or external, as it serves as a driving force for character development and narrative tension. It is usually divided into acts or scenes and relies on props or imaginative dialogue to create a visual experience for the audience. Dramatic literary works are 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 - different types of genre

This form of literary expression 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. Prose is an example of literary text that 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

A literature genres list would include categories like fiction, non-fiction, and folklore, but may also cover specialized types such as science fiction, romance, mystery, and historical fiction, offering a comprehensive overview of the literary landscape.

Genre types subcategories can be explained as the following:

Different types of literature being classified by genres and subgenres help people better understand the diversity of literary styles, themes, and techniques employed by authors. 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 narrative types, the best place to begin is with the three primary genres: prose, drama, and poetry. These genres are the foundation for all other types of literature, so it’s crucial to have a strong understanding of them before moving on to anything else. Each genre will approach plot development, conflict resolution, and the art of delivering a satisfying conclusion in unique and captivating ways, reflecting the rich tapestry of literary expression.

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 different types of narratives, so there’s no need to rush. If you enjoy literature with comedic elements, begin by exploring the comedy genre.

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
  • Elements of an Epic
  • 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 is a literary genre.

A literary genre is a category or type of literature characterized by common themes, styles, and narrative conventions. It serves as a way to classify and categorize literary works based on shared characteristics and elements. Common literary forms include fiction, non-fiction, and various subgenres within these categories, such as science fiction, romance or love stories, mystery, and historical fiction. This literary genre definition encapsulates the essence of storytelling, providing a framework for understanding and appreciating the various forms, themes, and styles that contribute to the rich tapestry of literature.

What are some examples of different types of fiction genres?

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

What are some examples of different types of nonfiction?

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

What are the 3 forms of literature?

The three main forms of literature are prose, poetry, and drama. Prose encompasses written or spoken language without a metrical structure and includes written forms like novels, short stories, essays, and articles. Poetry employs heightened and imaginative language, often with rhyme and meter, to evoke emotions and convey complex ideas. Drama is written for performance and includes plays, scripts, and screenplays intended for actors to act out on stage or screen. These three forms represent the foundational structure of literary expression, offering diverse avenues for storytelling, creativity, and artistic communication.

What are the five main genres?

  • Fiction: This genre includes works of imaginative storytelling that are not based on real events. It encompasses various subgenres such as science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and mystery.
  • Non-fiction: Non-fiction literature is based on real events, facts, and information. This genre includes biographies, autobiographies, essays, memoirs, and other works that present factual content.
  • Poetry: Poetry is a form of literary expression that uses rhythmic and metaphorical language to evoke emotions and convey ideas. It often relies on heightened language and various poetic devices.
  • Drama: Drama involves the portrayal of characters in conflict, usually in a play format. It explores human emotions and relationships through dialogue and performance. Classic examples include works by playwrights like William Shakespeare.
  • Mystery/Thriller: This genre revolves around suspenseful and puzzling narratives. Mystery literature often involves solving a crime or uncovering hidden truths, while thrillers aim to keep readers on the edge of their seats with tension and excitement.

What are the categories of literature?

Here are some common categories used to classify literature:

  • Genre: Fiction: Includes novels, short stories, and novellas. This category encompasses a wide range of genres, such as science fiction, fantasy, romance, historical fiction, and more. Non-fiction: Involves works based on real events, facts, and information. This category includes biographies, autobiographies, essays, memoirs, and journalistic works.
  • Form: Poetry: Characterized by the use of rhythmic and metaphorical language. Poetry often focuses on emotional expression and aesthetic qualities of language. Drama: Consists of plays and scripts written for performance. It includes tragedies, comedies, and other theatrical forms.
  • Period or Movement: Classical Literature: Refers to works from ancient Greece and Rome. Medieval Literature: Covers works from the Middle Ages. Renaissance Literature: Encompasses the revival of arts and learning in Europe during the Renaissance. Modern Literature: Includes works from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. Contemporary Literature: Encompasses works from the mid-20th century to the present.
  • Nationality or Cultural Identity: American Literature, British Literature, World Literature: Literature can be classified based on the nationality or cultural identity of the author or the setting of the work.
  • Literary Movements: Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, Postmodernism: Literature can be categorized based on the dominant artistic and intellectual movements of a particular time.
  • Themes or Topics: Social Issues: Literature that addresses and explores societal problems, inequalities, and issues. Historical Fiction: Works set in a specific historical period, often incorporating historical events and figures.
  • Age Group: Children's Literature, Young Adult Literature, Adult Literature: Works are sometimes categorized based on the target age group of the readers.

What are subgenres?

Subgenres in literature refer to more specific categories or classifications within the broader genres. They help to further define and categorize works based on shared characteristics, themes, or stylistic elements.

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An overview of literary genres, introduction.

What are the main literary genres? Under which genre does your literary composition fall? Before answering these questions, it is important to clarify the meaning of the word "genre". "Genre" comes from an old French word, "gender" – or "gender" as we know it. "Genre" has since been used to describe the style or category of art, literature, music, or any other type of discourse, written or spoken.

A literary genre therefore means a category of literary composition or endeavor: a category meant to describe the writing style, technique, tone, length, and content of certain literary forms. While literary genres are flexibly and loosely defined, it's important to note that a literary genre is different from the format of a literary composition or endeavor. (Comic books, graphic novels, and coffee table books are therefore not considered genres, since these describe only the format in which the literary content is made.) One kind of literary genre can also be used along with another, different literary genre (cross-genres); or have more specific sub genres under it.

The most common types of literary genres include:

  • Children's literature
  • Young adult fiction
  • Comic / Humor (Black comedy, Parody, Satire)
  • Erotic fiction
  • Fantasy (books and stories of a type of fiction that contain elements such as characters or settings that could not exist in life as we know it today – examples include stories with characters such as dragons or animals with human characteristics, and settings which may be magical or of the other-world)
  • Folk Tales and Fairy Tales
  • Historical fiction (fiction based on historical events or people, but with most of the story fictionalized)
  • Literary fiction
  • Metafiction
  • Mystery / Suspense / Thriller (books and stories that involve a suspenseful event, often a crime of some type, with the reader using clues from the story to gradually discover what has actually happened)
  • Myth and Legend
  • Occupational fiction (Hollywood, legal, medical, musical, sports)
  • Pulp fiction
  • Religious fiction
  • Science fiction / speculative fiction
  • Short story
  • Women's fiction (Romance novels, Chick lit

Non-fiction

  • Biography (a biography is a non-fictional account of someone's life, often written by someone other than the subject of the biography)
  • Autobiography
  • Creative non-fiction
  • Narrative non-fiction

As mentioned, the literary genre can be determined by the writing style, technique, tone, length, and content of the composition. Examples of literary genres determined by:

  • Style and technique: poetry, drama
  • Tone: religious, children's literature, women's fiction
  • Length: short story, novel
  • Content: science fiction (sci-fi), fantasy, comic / humor

It is obvious that the fiction categories or genres cover a wide range of works, and that's why sub genres have been introduced: to narrow down the difference between what might appear in one story and what might not appear in another, similar one. So, while legal dramas and sports fiction may both fall under occupational fiction, one does not expect to read about arenas and athletes in the former, or courtrooms and attorneys in the latter.

Therefore, the further down or the narrower one goes with categorizing from the broadest genre, the more specific the sub genre / cross-genre becomes. Not only does this allow for a more effective organization of books and literary compositions (in libraries and bookstores, for example); it also enables fairer, more accurate comparisons of writers and authors with similar styles or content.

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