Literary Genres – NDLA

Learn about various types of literary genre in this article.

Image: Aen Tan. CC BY-SA.

The word genre is originally French and means kind or type. In this connection genre is used to classify literary forms. There are a number of genres and subgenres that will identify a literary work by certain criteria. In literary science and criticism this is a handy tool for defining a literary work. This brief introduction will present the most common genres used in literary theory.

Epic Literature

In epic literature there is a narrative that unfolds a plot of some kind. Simply put one can say that it is a story which is told. There are many kinds of stories with different characteristics – a tale, a legend, a saga, a short-story and a novel, to mention some. For tools for analysis check related link, this [article] will only list some of the most common criteria of some subgenres of epic literature.

The Novel

In literary history the novel is a fairly new form; scholars count Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes (1605) as the first narrative that fits modern criteria of a novel. Usually a novel is defined by its length, or more precisely – the extension of its plot, which can span over longer time than e.g. a short-story. But that is not always the case; there are many famous (and long) novels where the narrative evolves over a very short span of time, for example a couple of hours or a day. In addition, a novel often has an extensive cast of characters, and the plot may take place in many different settings. There are a number of subcategories that will identify a novel more specifically.

The Short-Story

Like the novel, the length of the narrative is a common characteristic; however, some short-stories can be quite long – even longer than a short novel. Hence there are other characteristics that are more adequate to define a short-story. Firstly, the plot usually stretches over a relatively short time span, and will involve fewer characters than a novel. Secondly, a short story will have a certain structure with a turning point or climax which brings the plot in an unexpected direction. In most short stories there will also be a twist in the ending, which is supposed to sum up the theme and make the reader reflect.

Epic Poetry

In ancient Greece and Rome it was common to write a narrative as a long poem. This was seen as a particularly artful way to tell a story; The Odyssey (Homer) is an example, the long narrative is divided into 24 songs. During the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance heroic poems, often of a considerable length, were the dominating literary form. Not surprisingly the Enlightenment writers turned to other genres, but during the Romanticism the long epic poem was again seen as an adequate literary form. This genre is not so common in modern literature.


Drama is the literary form designed for theatre. The setting is created on a stage and a curtain separates the stage and the audience. Actors take the roles of the characters and act out the plot and lines in direct speech. A drama is structured in acts and scenes. In classic drama there were certain rules to be observed of how a drama should be composed, and many of these classic plays were written in verse or blank verse. There are many subgenres of dramatic literature – tragedy, comedy, melodrama, historical etc. A drama will be analysed using the same basic tools as epic literature (plot, setting, characters, and theme). It stands to reason that a drama is theatrical; the character often will think loudly to himself (soliloquy) or even address the audience directly.

Lyric Literature

A lyric text will often be in the form of a poem, but not necessarily. Line structure, meter and rhythm are after all just technical devices. So whether it is poetry or prose – it is the language and the mood of the text that classifies it as a lyric text. The text must have a certain poetic element that will evoke feelings in the reader. It is like a pastoral and idyllic painting that touches you emotionally. The language of a lyric text will usually have some of the characteristics of a poem – like symbols and a metaphors, but the form of the text does not define it as lyric.

Written by: Jan-Louis Nagel.


This article is an excerpt from Engelskspråklig litteratur og kultur (English Language Literature and Culture), from the Norwegian Digital Learning Arena (NDLA).


  • Originator: Writer Jan-Louis Nagel
  • Last revised date: 05/28/2018

Text in brackets added by EIL Editor.

Read the original article and see related content at: