A guide to English literary genres

If you want a fun and challenging way to test your English then reading English literary works is a great way to start.

English books cover every subject you can imagine, from strictly factual historical reports to imaginative fantasy poetry. From comic books to Shakespeare, whatever you’re in the mood for reading you’ll find an English literary genre to match.

What is a genre?

A genre is a broad term that translates from the French to mean kind or type. Literary, or written, works are classified as being part of a particular genre based on a number of things:

  • The tone of the writing
  • The writing style
  • Narrative technique
  • Length
  • Content – what the written work is about – for example: war, history or romance

Written works that share a lot of the same characteristics are said to be in the same genre. This helps readers understand what to expect when they pick up a written work to read.

In this article we’re going to take a look at some of the main genres within English literature.

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Fictional novel

A novel is a long story told in prose. Fiction is a type of literature that is ‘made-up’, not real, written using the imagination. There are lots of different types of fictional novel, spanning a range of styles and themes, including crime, history, horror, romance and more.

Fictional novels usually describe fictional characters and events.

There is no particular writing style – authors can be as imaginative as they want when writing a novel; they can experiment and even make up words and break traditional grammar rules.

Most novels are divided into shorter chapters that are either numbered or titled.

english novels

Non-fiction

If fiction is fake, then non-fiction is the opposite – it comes from real life. Works of non-fiction are all based on real world experiences. These include:

  • Newspapers
  • Journals
  • Diaries
  • Academic textbooks

Most of the time the purpose of non-fiction is to pass on information and educate the reader about certain facts, ideas, or issues.

While fictional works can use a lot of figurative and creative language, non-fiction tends to be more straightforward. Non-fiction pieces are also written in prose and can be divided into chapters too.

Biography/autobiography

Biographical books tell the story of a real person’s life. The word biography comes from the Greek word bios meaning life.

A biography is a book written by an author about another person

An autobiography is written by the author about him or herself

Lots of notable people and celebrities have written books about their own lives or have had biographies written about them.

However, some ‘everyday’ people have written important autobiographical works too. These books give us an insight into what life was like for everyday people during a particular point in time – for example: The Diary of Anne Frank. You can find a list of other notable autobiographies, from as early as 175 AD to the present day.

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Drama

A drama is a work of fiction designed to be performed in some way. Dramatic works include plays for the theatre, radio, television and film. Shakespeare’s plays are some of the most well known English language dramas in the world.

Drama also refers to a story or play that is more serious than a comedy.

Because dramas usually include a cast of characters who talk and interact with each other, this literary genre uses a lot of direct speech.

Pick up a play and you’ll instantly see that it’s very different from a novel. Dramas involve the use of:

  • Acts – the name given to each ‘chapter’ of the drama
  • A lot of direct speech (dialogue spoken by each character in inverted commas “like this”)
  • Stage directions for the actors – this can include instructions on how to pronounce the dialogue, such as spoken quietly or shouted loudly. It can also let the actor know where to stand on the stage, or actions to carry out

Poetry

Poetry is a type of literature that uses the aesthetic qualities and the sound of words to evoke meaning and emotions. Poets use imaginative language to express feelings and ideas. Poetry is more expressive and less ‘plain’ than ordinary English prose. It commonly includes the use of:

  • Similes – describes something by comparing it to something else using like or as, for example: the snake moved like a ripple on a pond. Or, it was as light as a feather.
  • Metaphors – a word or a phrase used to describe something as if it were something else, for example: a wave of terror washed over him. The terror isn’t actually a wave, but a wave is a good way of describing the feeling of terror.
  • Alliteration – this is when words start with the same sound, for example: the slippery snake came sliding
  • Rhyme – this is where words with the same sounds are used, for example: hickory, dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock. Many poems rhyme, but not all do.

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