Literary Terms Study Guide for the English Basics

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Literary Genres

Literary genres are categories of writing. When you walk into a bookstore or library, the books are organized by genre: mystery, history, literature, fiction, nonfiction, biography, etc. While there are two main categories of texts, fiction and nonfiction, there are literally hundreds of sub-genres of those two categories. Below is a breakdown of some of the more common types, but in no way is it a complete list.


Fictional texts explore the world of imagination. They are texts that are made up by an author and created by imagination. They may be set in real places and seem realistic, but it is important to distinguish whether the events described actually took place and if the characters ever really existed or if they are simply made up by the author. If they are made up, the work is fiction even if they seem familiar or remind you of actual people, places, or events.


A narrative is simply a sequence of connected events that tell a story. Although listed here under Fiction, there can be nonfiction narratives of people’s personal experiences. Narrative writing generally has a plot, characters, conflict, and the basic elements of a story that lead a reader from beginning, to middle, to end. There is no minimum or maximum length for a narrative and it may be told from a variety of perspectives.


Myths are traditional stories or legends passed down from ancient cultures to explain natural phenomena or events. Myths tend to have supernatural elements and larger-than-life characters who have supernatural powers or abilities beyond those of common man. Myths often have a connection to nature, either set in nature or used to explain elements of nature. Myths were popular among ancient Greek, Roman, and Nordic cultures, but all cultures have myths that they can trace back through their history.


Satire is a style of writing that is meant to expose and bring attention to foolish or even dangerous social behaviors, beliefs, or ideas in order to bring about change. Although satire can be humorous and make an audience laugh, its purpose is not to entertain but to serve as a warning that if society doesn’t address these issues and concerns quickly, we may not be laughing for much longer.

Satire is written to encourage change and to expose the vices that threaten our civilized society. Satire uses irony, humor, ridicule, and exaggeration to make its point and, though fictional characters are used, they often resemble real people and the symbolism is generally not difficult to see.


Written to entertain readers, the humor or comedy genre of fiction presents texts that are light-hearted in nature and intended to make the audience laugh. The plot or characters may be ridiculous or exaggerated to create a funny effect for the reader.

Short Story

Short stories are fully developed narratives that can be read in one sitting. They include all the elements of a story: character, setting, plot, conflict, and theme. But they may develop mood more than plot as there is simply not enough “room” in a short story for lengthy plot or character development. Although there is no rule about the length of a short story, some scholars suggest that once a short story hits 50 pages, it may be considered a novella.


The horror genre describes literature that is shocking, terrifying, or revolting to a reader. Usually containing a “dark” setting, the horror genre can be difficult for readers who are sensitive to scary concepts. It is meant to evoke feelings of dread, anxiety, or terror in the reader.


The genre of drama is generally intended for performance in front of an audience. A drama is another word for a play and while they can certainly be read (think of all the Shakespearean plays students read in school), they are really best appreciated and understood when they can be viewed as dramas are written to express conflict and emotion through dialogue and action.


A novel is a fully developed narrative of book length. It contains all of the elements of a story: character, setting, plot, conflict, and theme, which are completely developed through the course of the text. There is no length requirement for a novel except that it should be longer than a short story and not easily completed in a one-sitting read.


A novella is a fully developed narrative including all of the elements of a story and, in length, falling somewhere between a short story and a novel.


Nonfiction texts are those written about real life. Not made up using an author’s imagination, nonfiction texts use facts about real people, places, events, or experiences. Based on research and reliable sources, nonfiction may be written about history and things or people from the past, as long as the author is not making anything up about those people or events. Nonfiction texts include things like newspaper stories, journals, letters, textbooks, and legal documents. The following are some examples of types of nonfiction writing you may encounter in your reading.


Expository texts explain or inform an audience about a particular topic. They are information-based and get to the point quickly and efficiently. Expository texts tend to be educational and purposeful in tone and structure. They “expose” the reader to an idea or topic and use reliable sources to support claims made about the topic. Popular expository texts include instruction manuals, recipes, and city guides for travelers.


Informational or explanatory texts provide information to an audience or explain a subject to enlighten readers about an aspect of the natural or social world. Informational texts like magazines or textbooks often use visual representations in the form of headers, font style, and graphics to assist readers in understanding the subject matter and help to organize the information in a more easily accessible way.


Argument writing doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer is looking to bully his or her reader or pick a fight with the audience. In argument writing, an author makes a claim about a topic or subject with which not everyone will agree. Since some people will argue with the claim the author makes, the author must also work to support and prove the claim by using well-researched evidence from reliable sources to convince the reader that the author’s claim is, in fact, valid and deserves consideration. As a reader, you may find yourself on the same side as the author and agreeing with the argument he or she makes, or you may find yourself on the opposition, challenging the author to convince you otherwise.


Authors may choose to write about their own personal experiences or outlook on life that are funny or ironic in some way. Since they are writing about actual experiences and not making up events, it is considered nonfiction. Some humor or comedy nonfiction is written by professional comedians or people in the entertainment industry, but anyone with a sense of humor and can tell a story in a funny, entertaining, and engaging way can write comedy nonfiction.


You probably have some experience with essays: your teacher assigns you a writing task to explore the color symbolism in The Great Gatsby or to trace the miscommunication examples in Romeo and Juliet. You are assigned one subject or topic and are expected to present your ideas about that subject, supported with examples, and give your insight about how you see these elements present in a text. That is the formula for any essay. Essays are simply short compositions based on a single subject in which the author does not tell a story, but simply shares ideas or gives his or her personal insight, opinion, or outlook to a reader.

Short Story

Like their fictional counterparts, nonfiction short stories are fully developed narratives that include all the elements of a story (characters, setting, plot, conflict, and theme) but are true stories of actual people and events and are not made up by the author.


There are really two kinds of nonfiction journals. One refers to the personal thoughts, insights, and feelings that one might record about one’s daily life and experiences—a personal record of events. Journals and personal writings kept by people who later become famous (or infamous) can be viewed as primary sources for scholars who study the life and times of these people.

The second kind of journal refers to a scholarly “magazine” or a collection of writings focused on academics or research, like the Journal of American Medicine Association (JAMA).


Letters are written communication addressed to a specific person or organization and sent by a specific person or on behalf of a group of people. Letters may be personal, as from a soldier off at war back home to his family, or business, or from an angry customer writing to a company about a defective product. Letters are generally considered nonfiction because they express ideas or share thoughts about real experiences, events, or emotions.


Biographies are texts written about a person’s life and experiences, usually in chronological order and exploring the subject’s early childhood, family history, education, career, relationships, etc. Using research and interviews with people who knew the subject directly, authors write biographies about a variety of different people from history, pop culture, art, science, and so on.

An autobiography is also a text written about a person’s life and experiences, but it is written by the person him- or herself. Autobiographies also tend to unfold a person’s life in chronological order and cover the major events and experiences the subject feels are most important.


Memoirs are very similar to autobiographies in that they are written by the people who lived the experiences. However, the common distinction between a memoir and an autobiography is that an autobiography follows someone’s life, or the better part of it, while a memoir tends to focus on a specific period of time within someone’s life. For example, after leaving office, many presidents write their memoirs of specific events that took place during their presidency.

Slave Narrative

Slave narratives are the nonfiction accounts of enslaved Africans in the British colonies, America, and the Caribbean. These written accounts were given orally to sympathizers who recorded the stories or were written by fugitive or freed slaves themselves. Written mostly in the 1700s and 1800s, some of the more famous slave narratives include 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. There were also slave narratives written by women including The Narrative of Sojourner Truth and The HIstory of Mary Prince.


A speech is a form of oral communication usually presented to a group of people. Speeches are a nonfiction genre as they are generally about a specific, real-life topic. Speeches may be transcribed into texts, and those who read speech texts should be aware of any liberties the recorder may have taken with the actual words that were spoken. Speeches are usually formal in nature and may serve to lecture, inspire, reassure, or inform an audience.


A memo (short for memorandum) is a brief written message, often used in business to communicate between different departments or employees concerning company business. These days, memos are often sent electronically.

An advertisement is a nonfiction text used in marketing. Advertisements usually use concise text and vivid images to evoke certain feelings in an audience to convince them they must have this product, believe this idea, or travel to this destination, etc. Advertisements are intended to sell a good or product (think about advertisements for food, furniture, tropical vacations, etc.), though there are also advertisements for a person (“Watch your favorite actor in his new upcoming TV show!”) or an idea (“Join the ASPCA today and help save an animal’s life tomorrow.”).

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