Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Literature Meaning

What is literature? The definition of literature broadly encompasses written works used to transmit culture. However, literature is not always limited to the written word. The literature meaning can include stories told in the oral tradition and visual literature, such as drama that is intended to be performed before an audience. In addition, literature can be classified into different forms. The term form refers to the writing’s structure or organization. Each literary form can be divided into smaller categories, known as genres. Each genre shares numerous unifying characteristics.

Different Types of Literature

Literature can be classified into different forms or types. Each form shares organizational characteristics and conventions. Several commonly recognized different types of literature are:

  • nonfiction prose
  • fiction prose
  • poetry
  • drama
  • folktale

Each of these forms will be explored in more detail below.

Libraries often shelve books according to their genres (such as biography and mystery), which are subsets of their literary forms (such as nonfiction prose and fiction prose).

Literature can be categorized in different forms and genres.

Understanding Form, Genre, and Meaning in Literature

An active reader selects books by asking questions such as:

  • What kind of book is this?
  • What is this book about?
  • How will I experience this book?

The literary classifications of form, genre, and meaning help readers anticipate the content of a text. The table displays specific definitions for each term.

Classification Definition Examples
Form a classification of writing based on the organization and structure of the text fiction prose, nonfiction prose, poetry, drama, folktale
Genre a subcategory of form; a classification of writings with similar style, topics, and characteristics mystery, fantasy, biography, science fiction
Meaning synonymous with theme; the message an author intends to deliver to an audience Love conquers fear; friendship requires loyalty

One analogy for form and genre is that of a tree. If literature is the forest, a literary form is like the roots and trunk of a tree. The literary genres are the branches because they are a part of the trunk (or form) but have individual differences.

Forms of Literature

Their writing style and content can classify forms of literature. This section will examine the commonly used classifications of nonfiction prose, fiction prose, poetry, and drama, along with their associated genres. In addition, it examines the folktale, which is a part of literature’s oral tradition.

Nonfiction Prose

Nonfiction prose is factual writing written in non-metrical language. The style and prose indicate language that would be similar to spoken or conversational language, rather than language that relies on rhythm, meter, or other poetic devices. The nonfiction form can include opinion-based writing that deals with real-life issues. Some genres within nonfiction prose include:

  • Biography: The true story of an individual’s life, written by another person.
  • Autobiography: An individual’s recount of their own life.
  • Memoir: A text in which an individual recounts their own experiences as a means to share a message or theme.
  • Academic texts: School textbooks, such as science, history, math, and philosophy.
  • Journalism: Event reporting, such as newspapers, periodicals, and online news platforms.
  • Self-help: Texts intended to explain ways to improve one’s life.
  • How-to/Instructional: Any text that explains how to perform an action, from instructional pamphlets to full-length books.
  • Travel Writing: Travel guides, pamphlets, and guidebooks.
  • Philosophy/Religion: Writing discussing people’s thoughts, beliefs, and philosophies.
  • Narratives: Factual accounts of real events intended to preserve information.
  • Persuasive Writing: Editorials, essays, articles, and other works intended to convince the audience of an opinion or course of action.
  • Children’s picture books: Books written for children using simple language and pictures to teach basic concepts.

Each of these genres consists of nonfiction prose.

Fiction Prose

Fiction prose is a style of writing that consists of non-metrical language. Unlike nonfiction prose, however, fiction prose is invented by the author rather than reflecting factual events, people, or circumstances. Fiction is most commonly found in either short stories or novel lengths.

  • Mystery: A crime occurs, and a detective solves the crime.
  • Romance: A story focused on a love connection.
  • Science fiction: A story based on futuristic technology, science, societal structures, space travel, or alternate realities.
  • Fantasy: A story centered in an imagined world, often including magical events, creatures, and places.
  • Fables: A story intended to teach a lesson, often employing talking animals.
  • Fairy tales: A children’s story related to fantasy.
  • Historical fiction: An invented story set in an identifiable historical time and place intended to portray historical details accurately.
  • Horror: A story written to frighten the reader, sometimes involving a mystery.
  • Realistic fiction: A story with characters, places, and events that could occur in everyday life but not based on actual occurrences.
  • Adventure: Characters embark on a quest, overcome challenges, and perform daring acts.
  • Classics: Books that have been read and loved for many years and are still considered essential reading.
  • Children’s picture books: Stories for children accompanied by pictures on every page.
  • Graphic novels: Longer stories presented in comic-book format with drawings and visual dialogue.

Fiction prose represents a large portion of entertainment reading material available in libraries and bookstores.


Poetry is a literary form that employs meter, rhythm, and figurative language. Some poetry rhymes, while other poetry does not. Poetry is often printed differently on a page than nonfiction and fiction prose. Literary devices such as alliteration, metaphor, simile, assonance, dissonance, hyperbole, and personification are also common in poetry. Some genres of poetry include:

  • Epic: a long narrative poem about the adventures of an ancient hero
  • Blank verse: unrhymed poetry written with a strict meter, often iambic pentameter
  • Sonnet: a poem with 14 lines and a regulated rhyme pattern; two rhyme patterns are the Shakespearean sonnet and the Petrarchan sonnet
  • Hymn: a religious poem, often meant to be sung
  • Elegy: a poem about death or loss
  • Lyric: poetry focused on feelings or emotions; many songs use lyric poetry
  • Ode: a tribute poem focused on a person, place, or object
  • Haiku: a three-line poem (five syllables/seven syllables/five syllables) that originated in Japan
  • Pastoral poetry: poems about nature, landscapes, or rural life with examples as far back as Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome
  • Verse novel: a novel that tells a story through a series of poems; the poems may be of different styles

Poetry is a diverse form with many faces.

Drama is one of the major forms of literature. Four genres of drama are comedy, tragedy, tragicomedy, and melodrama.

Drama has four major genres: tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, and melodrama.


Drama is a form of literature intended to be performed for an audience. As such, drama can combine both poetry and prose and may also include stage direction and dialogue prefaced by the character’s name who will speak the dialogue. Four main categories or genres of drama are:

  • Comedy: intended to induce laughter through either fun or satire
  • Tragedy: deals with heavier themes; characters often have a weakness or flaw that leads to their downfall
  • Tragicomedy: a play that combines humorous and tragic elements
  • Melodrama: a play that tells a story using hyperbole and aims to evoke strong emotion

Other types of drama are morality plays, mysteries, interactive plays, and plays that aim to highlight social issues.


By definition, folktales are stories passed down through cultures using the oral tradition. Folktales become incorporated into rhymes, songs, books, and plays. Folktales are related to fairytales, myths, and fables. Most cultures have a set of folktales that are familiar to people of that culture, and some folktales have parallels in more than one cultural tradition.

Lesson Summary

Literature is a body of work that is used to transmit culture. Much of literature is written, but literature can also include oral tradition and visual literature (such as plays). Literature can be classified by form, which is the organization and structure of the literature. Literary forms can be broken down into genres, subcategories that share similar styles, topics, and characteristics. Writing is sometimes further classified by meaning, which is the author’s message.

Major forms of literature are:

  • Nonfiction prose: Factual literature written in non-metrical language. Genres include biography, autobiography, memoir, academic texts, journalism, self-help, how-to/instructional, travel writing, philosophy/religion, narratives, persuasive writing, and children’s picture books.
  • Fiction prose: Invented stories written in non-metrical language. Genres include mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, fables, fairy tales, historical fiction, horror, realistic fiction, adventure, classics, children’s picture books, and graphic novels.
  • Poetry: Employs meter, rhythm, and figurative language. Genres include epic, blank verse, sonnet, hymn, elegy, lyric, ode, haiku, pastoral poetry, and verse novels.
  • Drama: A literary form intended to be performed for an audience. The four main genres are comedy, tragedy, tragicomedy, and melodrama.
  • Folktales: Stories passed down through a specific culture using the oral tradition.

Classifying literature by form and genre helps readers to select reading material and understand the available reading options.

Join the conversation