Genre Definition – Folk Tales – Poetry – Drama – Nonfiction – Fiction
Hello Lovelies, and welcome back to the blog. I’ve been talking this year all about genre and about the major and minor genre categories that we see and can use as writers. We’re coming to the end of the year and I wanted to give a giant recap of all the things I’ve taught about this year. If you are looking for a more in depth explanation, please search the blog for the specific post you are looking for, as all of these topics have been previously covered. Let’s get started.
I talked more in-depth about this in an early post from this year called, What Is Genre?, so if you need a more specific introduction, please check that first one out. When we talk about genre, what we are trying to describe is the category in which our books are put into. These categories can and do set certain expectations for the reader, whether we want them to do so or not. And this is important because the better you know the genre of book you’re writing, the better you can meet those expectations in new and interesting ways that readers will love and keep coming back for more.
Wikipedia defines a folktale or folk tale as “a folklore genre that typically consists of a story passed down from generation to generation orally.” This simple definition may seem too simple at first glance, but is actually exactly what the folktale genre is about. Folktales are usually passed down by mouth, and what makes them different from one another is sometimes difficult to discern. The main thing that categorizes a folk tale subgenre is how the story is being told, and the level of belief the person listening has upon receiving the tale.
To elaborate on this further, folk tales are all the little stories that we are told throughout our journey in this life. They are the ones that teach us where we came from as people. They are the ones that caution us on how to behave and give us morals and values. They can be based in reality, or totally made up. They can be someone’s boastful account of how an event happened, or unquestionably accurate. Whether you believe it or not is entirely up to you.
Tall tales are stories that are told, usually by an unreliable narrator, in that they have unbelievable elements but are told as if factual and true. When a person exaggerates their story a little, it is usually still believable. It is when they exaggerate it to unbelievable lengths that the story stretches into tall tale category.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Paul Bunyan the massive lumberjack who eats 50 pancakes in one minute and who dug the grand canyon with his axe, and has a blue ox named Babe who made the Mississippi River? Or maybe you’ve heard of Davy Crockett, the so-called “King of the Wild Frontier” as the song might suggest? These are two examples of tall tales where one person was real and one was completely fictional, but both told unbelievable stories as if they were true.
Fables are the short stories where anthropomorphized creatures feature prominently and come together to tell a story with a moral at the end. While the creatures are largely what makes up this genre, other things like inanimate objects, plants, or forces of nature, could also play a major role in the story, turning these things into their own characters, as a sort.
If your first thought, like mine, was The Tortoise and the Hare, you’d be exactly correct. A similar story I loved as a child, called The Name of the Tree, featured a tortoise who set out on a mission to bring back the fruit from the tree across the desert, a fruit of which he could only harvest by saying the name of the tree so that it would bend its branches down and allow the tortoise to collect the fruit from lowered branches. Though his progress was slow, he called out the tree’s name with every step closer so that he would not forget the tree’s name, thereby collecting the fruit at the end.
A traditional story, usually concerning the early history of a people or otherwise explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events is considered a myth. When we say supernatural being, it generally means a higher power, but can also include other supernatural creatures. Generally, myths might involve humans, but do not feature them prominently in their stories.
Myths also have the bad connotation of being entirely made up or falsified. As this is a second definition of the word that doesn’t relate to the genre, it is easy to see how one might equate such a story with being entirely untrue. I want to point out that we cannot always know where any folk tale comes from, or the extent of the truth of such a tale, as by definition, they are handed down orally from generation to generation, and the oral tradition has been notoriously difficult to record accurately until quite recently. Many religions have their own stories based in myths, and this is not going to be the place to discuss the validity of one against another. Each person must come to their own conclusions about the truthfulness of the religion to which they do or do not subscribe.
Legends are the stories that are told about real people in human history that are believed to have taken place. Often, we can’t prove or disprove a legend to be true, but we don’t outright disbelieve it either, as it seems fairly plausible to have occurred. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t false, simply that we generally believe it for a truth upon hearing its telling.
Johnny Appleseed is a legendary figure who is said to have planted apple trees all around the new territory in America. There is historical evidence of a John Chapman who did travel west and planted nurseries of apple trees as he traveled. As another example, there is historical evidence of King Arthur who led the British against invaders. However, the details of the Arthurian legend-the knights of the round table, Camelot, and Queen Guinevere-are likely made up and exaggerated.
At the risk of oversimplifying the definition, a fairy tale is a story that is usually meant for children and involves any kind of faerie or magical creature. While you may have thought Elves were the only fae, the list of faerie creatures is actually quite vast, including pixies, gnomes, trolls, dwarfs, dragons, elves, fairies, giants, goblins, griffins, mermaids, talking animals, unicorns, or even witches. And of course there are many, many more.
The Grimm’s Brothers might have popularized the corner market on the fairy tales most people will think of first, such as Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty. Other stories, like Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, and Puss in Boots all also fall under this fairy tale category.
Again starting with a definition, this time from book-genres.com, “Books in the poetry genre contain words that follow a rhythm or structure, and sometimes rhyme, that are designed [to] evoke emotion and thought. Books can be, but aren’t often written entirely in poetic form.” To this I would add that you can also write a single poem, or a collection of poems that are compiled into a book.
Often, putting any definition on poetry is actually limiting its potential. The form itself sometimes matters and sometimes doesn’t. Sometimes the structure is rigid, sometimes it breaks off in the last few lines and does something else, and sometimes poetry is completely fluid. One of my most favorite analogies comes from the Writing Excuses podcast where writing is likened to speaking whereas poetry is likened to singing. If someone starts singing to you instead of casually conversing, you pay attention. Somehow the act of singing the words rather than speaking them focuses the attention on them more specifically, and in poetry, if nowhere else, the specific words matter.
Narrative poetry is going to be the type of poetry that most people are familiar with. In fact, when I took poetry in high school, it was the only type of poetry they taught. This type of poetry is the poetry that holds the most shape and form and is a story told in the form of a verse. If, when we opened, you thought about Shakespearean sonnets, haiku, or anything with a hard structure, you thought first and foremost of narrative poetry.
Like Beowulf and other less daunting narrative poems, narrative poetry has a specific form it follows, and, as its name suggests, it tries to tell a completely self-contained story. Whether using a beginning, middle, end ideation like three-act structure, or something like a four act ideation following introduction, development, twist, conclusion, narrative poetry is going to be paired with a style of poetic verse for full effect.
Dramatic poetry is going to sound, at first, a little like narrative poetry. Dramatic poetry is narrative, in that it absolutely does tell a story in lines of verse, but that story is specifically meant to be spoken aloud orally. Dramatic poetry is actually older than narrative poetry, as the oral tradition is older than the written one. Still, dramatic poetry can be found in many places, even still today.
Let me just ask–have you ever been to a slam poetry competition? Because even though I don’t often write poetry myself, I am an absolute fiend for going to slam poetry competitions. I remember the first time a friend brought me to this art gallery after hours that had a stage set up in the main room, most of the lights dimmed, and a slam poetry competition that went on with contestants for several hours before a winner was finally announced. There’s something incredible about an evocative and often emotional piece of poetry being read, not in the stillness and comfort of your home, but in front of a crowd of strangers that are giving you a rapt, and very specific attention.
Lyric poetry is, perhaps, the most distinctive of all the poetic styles. While you may have heard the word lyric and thought that this must refer to music, you would have only been half correct. Lyric poetry is a style that has lyrical, almost sing-song qualities, and was born out of the Greek tradition and set to a stringed instrument called a lyre.
Lyrical poetry is arguably the most common type of poetry there is as it has evolved and has been modernized the most from its original form. Many things fall under the lyric poetry because lyric poetry encompasses a wide range of forms and approaches, and lyric poetry is virtually without a prescribed form or style. If it deals with large emotions, or is personal in nature, it is most often going to be a form of lyric poetry.
Literarydevices.net says that “Drama is a mode of fictional representation through dialogue and performance. It is one of the literary genres, which is an imitation of some action. Drama is also a type of play written for theater, television, radio, and film.” I personally think this is the most accurate definition thus far, though I assure you that I’ve done my best to find decent definitions up until now. Simply put, drama is anything you write with the intention that it is meant to be performed.
Even someone as prolific as Lin Manuel Miranda didn’t jump on stage and randomly burst into song for Hamilton. All of your favorite television shows, Netflix films, musicals, and music have to be written and composed in advance. Whether teams of people are storyboarding an idea, you’re collabing on your song, or you largely work on your screenplay alone, all the writing that results in an end product that is not a traditional book is likely to fall under this drama category.
A literary tragedy is a written piece that consists of courageous, noble characters who must confront powerful obstacles, external or from within. These characters are the epitome of bravery. They show the depth of the human spirit in the face of danger, defeat, and even death. If you thought Romeo and Juliet was the greatest love story ever told, it’s considered one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Why? Because, spoiler alert, almost everyone dies in the end.
And while Shakespeare is a fairly criticized modern example, the Greeks have many famous tragedies, including Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, The Iliad by Homer, and Medea by Euripides.
Comedy is any work that is intended to incite laughter and amusement, especially in theatre, television, film, stand-up comedy or any other entertainment medium. It dates back to the Ancient Greeks, originating from the comedy literary definition which refers to a medieval story or narrative involving an amusing character that triumphs over poor circumstances, creating comic effects. The tone here is light and satirical and the story always ends well.
Two things come immediately to mind when I think of comedy examples, and that is Deadpool and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Someone had to write the humor into each of those things and the comedic value is unmistakable.
A farce is a literary genre and type of comedy that makes use of highly exaggerated and funny situations aimed at entertaining the audience. Farce is different from other forms of comedy as it only aims at making the audience laugh. It uses elements like physical humor, deliberate absurdity, bawdy jokes, and drunkenness just to make people laugh. We often see one-dimensional characters in ludicrous situations in farces.
I’m honestly thinking of sitcoms here like Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory. Stand-up comedians perform farce, especially in shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? Things that make fun of themselves for the joy of doing it, like Monty Python’s History of the World Part I, of which there was never a Part II made or intended, and old shows like The Three Stooges that perform gimmick after gimmick for the bawdy entertainment aspect. These things are all farce as they are over the top and intended for one purpose only; to make people laugh.
Straight from the Masterclass of Malcolm Gladwell, “Nonfiction is a broad genre of writing that encompasses all books that aren’t rooted in a fictional narrative.” I love this definition in its simplicity, because ultimately, nonfiction tends to be prose writing with a focus on factual events and real people.
Textbooks, self-help books, autobiographies, and many more things fall under this category of nonfiction. While it may seem like it has a pretty wide range of books that this might encompass, each style of books has its own structure that lends to the way that the writing comes across and is told. Any time a book is trying to teach you something specific, recollect past events as truthfully as possible, or convince you of something, it is most likely a nonfiction book.
Also called creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction is just like the name suggests. It is nonfiction that is written in a narrative style that mirrors fiction writing. The writing is still factually correct, however, the style is told in story form.
Expository Nonfiction are books that attempt to explain or inform the reader about a certain topic, including what something is, who someone is, what something means, how something works, and why something is important.
Descriptive Nonfiction, also called Creative Nonfiction, is a type of nonfiction that uses all five senses to help the reader get a visual of what the writer is trying to describe. Sensory details, rich imagery, and figurative language, while also attempting, in good faith, to provide accurate information regarding a real-world topic, are methods used to achieve descriptive nonfiction.
Persuasive Nonfiction is nonfiction books in which the author intends to convince readers to believe in an idea or opinion and to do an action. Keep in mind that many writings that aren’t books, such as criticisms, reviews, reaction papers, editorials, proposals, advertisements, and brochures, also use different ways of persuasion to influence readers.
Fiction is the big one. According to dictionary.com, fiction is “the class of literature comprising works of imaginative narration, especially in prose form.” Just about everything we’ve covered other than non-fiction is technically fiction, but there’s a super special category broken out for any other fiction that has not already been covered.
This encompasses so many subgenres that it took up a lot of the year just in talking about them all. Westerns, romances, science fiction, historical fictions, fantasy, crime, horror, and more all fit into this major category of general fiction. While most of these are novel format, fiction can be written in novella length or even shorter.
The romance genre in literature focuses on the idea of love and relationships of the characters. While it may absolutely have mystery, adventure, and other elements, it is the romantic plot that runs the strongest through the piece and is the most heavily focused upon.
Crime fiction is the genre of fiction that deals with crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. The same as romance, crime novels may take place in fantastical settings, or they can have magical elements, or mix any number of other things into the mix, but the crime and the solving of the crime are the primary drivers of the novel’s plot.
The historical fiction definition in literature is a story that blends true historical facts with fictional characters and events. This definition is almost too broad in its scope because the historical fiction genre can be nearly anything based in history.
Inspirational fiction is a brand of fiction that is largely uplifting, often with characters who enact positive change in their lives. As with all of these, the inspirational fiction genre can cross genres sometimes, and have many other elements, but I’ve personally read many contemporary novels that seemed inspirational to me at the time.
Books in the western genre are made up of stories that take place in the American Old West, typically during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The westerns explore various moral ambiguities and topical problems by means of dramatic allegories set in the Old West.
Science fiction, often called “sci-fi,” is a genre of fiction literature whose content is imaginative, but based in science. It relies heavily on scientific facts, theories, and principles as support for its settings, characters, themes, and plot-lines, which is what makes it different from fantasy. So, while the storylines and elements of science fiction stories are imaginary, they are at least scientifically plausible.
Horror stories are designed to evoke fear, fascination, or revulsion in the reader. This is done either through supernatural elements or psychological circumstances.
Fantasy is a genre of literature that features magical and supernatural elements that do not exist in the real world. Although some writers juxtapose a real-world setting with fantastical elements, many create entirely imaginary universes with their own physical laws and logic and populations of imaginary races and creatures. Speculative in nature, fantasy is not tied to reality or scientific fact.
Next week, we are going to begin closing out the year with my goal post recaps for 2022, and on the
- What is your favorite pillar of genre we’ve gone over this year?
- Do you think microgenres help or hurt book marketing and sales? Why or why not?
- What genre is your favorite to read in, and do you write in the same genre or a different one?
- What is the most important reason writers should be aware of genre and its conventions?
- What questions would you like to see me answer in a blog post or podcast episode?
Leave your answers in the comments section for this post!