Definition of Genre

A genre is any stylistic category in literature that follows specific conventions. Examples of genre in literature include historical fiction, satire, zombie romantic comedies (zom-rom-com), and so on. Many stories fit into more than one genre. The conventions that works follow to be a part of a certain genre change over time, and many genres appear and disappear throughout the ages.

The word genre comes from French, in which it means “kind” or “sort.” Originally, the word came from the Greek word γένος (génos) in which it has the same meaning. The Ancient Greeks created the definition of genre in order to classify their literature into the three categories of prose, poetry, and performance. From this early classification, more genres arose, such as the split between comedy and tragedy.

Types of Genre

There is wide proliferation of genre examples in the field of literature. Genre can be split by tone, content, length of novel, and literary technique. Note that genre is not defined by age (children’s literature, young adult, etc), nor by format (graphic novel, picture book, novel). Here is a short and non-exhaustive list of different genre examples in literature:

Common Examples of Genre

Genre is a term used in many different forms of entertainment, including movies, music, and television. Here is a list of different genres in film with examples of each genre:

  • Romantic comedy: Love, Actually; When Harry Met Sally; Pretty Woman
  • Musical: West Side Story; Hello, Dolly!; Fiddler on the Roof
  • Crime: The Godfather; Goodfellas; Pulp Fiction
  • Horror: Scream; I Know What You Did Last Summer; Saw
  • War: Saving Private Ryan; Platoon; Schindler’s List
  • Western: The Great Train Robbery; True Grit; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
  • Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth; The Cove; Super Size Me

Significance of Genre in Literature

Genre conventions began to be defined in Ancient Greece to classify the theme of each work of literature. Greek playwrights agreed that some speech patterns were more suited to tragedy, while others were better for comedies, and indeed the themes of plays were divided by genre as well. In fact, genre was so important in Ancient Greek drama that actors were allowed only to perform only in one genre. Comedic actors did not perform in tragedies, and tragic actors did not perform in comedies.

Since the time of Ancient Greece the variety of genre examples has widened considerably, so that no list could be all-encompassing. There are many subcategories of each drama as well. For example, in the genre of science fiction we could find stories classified as apocalyptic (War of the Worlds), space opera (Star Wars), future noir (Blade Runner) and techno-thriller (The Hunt for Red October), to name just a few. Every work of literature can fit into a genre, and more than one genre can often be applied to a work. Genre shapes the reader’s expectations for that work, while authors also usually try to play with and push against the conventions in new ways.

Examples of Genre in Literature

Example #1

PRINCE: A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things:
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare’s plays are split into three genres: comedy, tragedy, and history. Each type of play had its own conventions. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as Romeo and Juliet, always end with the death of one or more characters. Comedies, on the other hand, end with one or more marriages. There was also frequent cross-dressing in Shakespearean comedies for humorous purposes, which was not a part of his tragedies. There are also more examples of foolish characters in Shakespeare’s comedies, whereas in his tragedies and histories this stereotypical character was not as prevalent.

Example #2

At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

(One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)

Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is an example of the genre of magical realism. This is a genre that was created in the mid-20th century in Latin America, and involves supernatural events and characters. García Márquez sets up the expectations of this example of genre by showing that the fictive world in which the action takes place is different from the normal world, and has magical elements to it. The above paragraph shows that the village of Macondo is prelapsarian (e.g., before “Original Sin”) and thus there is a supernatural quality to the setting.

Example #3

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

(The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of narrative that can be described with more than one genre. It can be called a dystopian thriller, feminist science fiction, or post-apocalyptic. There are obvious indications that things are quite different in this world than in the modern United States, as the social norms have changed. However, there is a chilling dystopian aspect to it, as the character of Aunt Lydia notes that women now are free from men (yet they are enslaved in other ways).

Example #4

As someone who had spent his life exploring the hidden interconnectivity of disparate emblems and ideologies, Langdon viewed the world as a web of profoundly intertwined histories and events. The connections may be invisible, he often preached to his symbology classes at Harvard, but they are always there, buried just beneath the surface.

(The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown)

Dan Brown’s popular novel The Da Vinci Code includes some aspects of mystery and thriller. The protagonist of the novel, Robert Langdon, is supposed to be a “symbologist” at Harvard University, and uses the study of ancient symbols, especially in religion, to solve a modern-day mystery. Many thrillers, such as The Da Vinci Code, put an emphasis on plot over character development and using twists in the narrative to keep the readers excited.

Example #5

“But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?”
“For him?” shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum!”
From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe: She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window.

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling)

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an example of the fantasy genre. It is categorized as young adult fiction, but again, this is not the genre of the novel. Indeed, while it is suggested as a good series for young adults and children, people of all ages enjoy these novels. The fantasy genre is represented by many different aspects of the series. In the above excerpt we can see fantastical and magical elements such as the use of spells and wands. J.K. Rowling also uses other conventions of the fantasy genre, such as the fight between good and evil, epic quests, and an alternate world in which different rules are possible.

Test Your Knowledge of Genre

1. Which of the following statements is the best genre definition?
A. A category of literature that follows certain conventions.
B. A way of classifying the appropriate age range of a work of literature.
C. A system of differentiating literature from film and music.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following labels is an example of genre in literature?
A. Young adult novel
B. Graphic novel
C. True crime thriller

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following events usually concludes a Shakespearean comedy?
A. One or more deaths
B. One or more weddings
C. A humorous epilogue

Answer to Question #3 Show

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