Skip to main content

The Difference Between Genre and Form in Literature

Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.

Genre and form in literature are the story and stage of the theatre.

Genre and form in literature are the story and stage of the theatre.

Confusing Genre and Form in Literature

In the world of literature, one of the most confusing concepts is genre. What is genre? The word genre is often applied to such literary concepts as fiction, fantasy, poetry, horror, short story, science fiction, flash fiction, and romance. But this list is actually made up of two literary concepts or tools. One is genre, the other is form.

Genre and form are separate but related tools that are utilized by writers. A firm understanding of each will give the writer and the reader a better understanding of the writing process and of the end product of writing.

An Analogy to Explain Genre and Form

Consider the construction of a building. There is equipment which aids in putting up the structure, but never becomes part of the structure. These include such things as scaffolding, cement mixers, forklifts, cranes and concrete forms. When a structure is completed, all of this equipment is taken away. Only the finished structure remains.

Material Which Comprises the Actual Structure

There are things that become part of the building itself such as wood, steel concrete, roofing materials, nails, and glass. These make up the enduring structure, but the equipment that was used to build the structure is taken away.

The substance of the structure being built.

The substance of the structure being built.

Literary Form

Let’s use two items from the descriptions mentioned above; the concrete form and the concrete. These will represent two concepts in the field of literature. The first is form and the second is genre. The distinction between these concepts has been, and probably always will be fuzzy at some points.

A concrete form holds the concrete in place until it can stand on its own. In literature, forms give a particular, identifiable shape to a piece of writing. The following is a list of tools commonly considered to be literary forms.

  • Essay
  • Novel
  • Novella
  • Poem
  • Prose
  • Short Story
  • Flash Fiction
  • Myth
  • Graphic Novel

There are more literary forms than those in the list, but they are examples of common forms. These tools give shape to what is being written. When we see the word novel on the cover of a book, we have a vague idea of what to expect. If it says essay, again, we know a little about what is coming.

If we observe a concrete form without the concrete in it, we can still know something about the wall that will eventually stand in its place. We can see how tall the wall will be as well as how thick. Openings in the form reveal where windows and doorways will be in the wall. The concrete form is a tool that will make the construction of the wall possible, but it is not the wall itself.

The forms in the list above should be seen as tools that give general shape to writing, but are not the writing itself. They are like the blank form or format of a contract without the content and details of the contract.

The cookie and the cookie cutter are not the same.

The cookie and the cookie cutter are not the same.

"I had always wanted to be a writer who confused genre boundaries and who was read in multiple contexts."

— Jonathan Lethem

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

The pieces of candy are substantially different from the molds in which they were made.

The pieces of candy are substantially different from the molds in which they were made.

What Is Genre in Literature?

What is genre? Genre is a concept that says something about the actual piece of writing. As cement is poured into a concrete form and allowed to harden and dry, so too are various kinds of writing poured into the forms of novel, poetry, flash fiction and essay. The following is a list of common, literary genres for the general forms of fiction and non-fiction.


  • Fairy Tales
  • Fantasy
  • Tall Tales
  • Folk Tales
  • Fable
  • Adventure
  • Mystery
  • Historical Fiction
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Science Fiction
  • Drama
  • Comedy
  • Romance
  • Romantic Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Satire


  • Informational
  • Biography
  • Autobiography
  • Essay

Form tells us about the shape of the writing. Genre tells us much more about the content of the writing. As a concrete wall is being poured, we can see that reinforcement bars have been placed within the form so that the wall will have greater strength. We see water being added so that the concrete settles properly. In the same way, the genre of a piece of writing is part of its substance. If a particular book is said to be a novella, we only know something about its length. But if we know that the book is science fiction, we know much more about the actual content.

Novel as an Example of a Literary Form

Is the term novel, for example, genre or form? We must simply ask ourselves what the term tells us about the writing. The term novel tells us about the general length of the story and that it is fictitious. Therefore, novel is a literary form and not a particular genre. In fact it is easy to see how various genres can be written in the form of a novel. One could write a science fiction, romance or fantasy novel. If it is fantasy novel, we know something about both the length of the story and about its content.

Literary forms give a particular shape to writing.

Literary forms give a particular shape to writing.

A Vessel for the Precious Contents

In the photo above, notice the difference between the wine decanter and the wine. They are not synonymous. A decanter is a tool, a vessel which merely holds the wine in which lies the true intrinsic value.

Literary formats are tools, vessels which hold the precious content of genre. The former has practical value, the latter, intrinsic, enduring value.

St Patrick's Cathedral

St Patrick's Cathedral

The novel is not so much a literary genre, but a literary space, like a sea that is filled by many rivers."

— Jose Saramago

What Is Genre? What Is Form? How Do They Relate?

Genre and Form in literature are a confusing pair which are related to one another but are not synonymous. When we admire architecture, such as a cathedral, we are not admiring the equipment that gave form to the structure, but the structure itself, the stone, stained glass, sculptured figures and carved, wooden doors.

In literature, there are classics society has grown to love and appreciate. What is it we admire about these writings? Is it that they are a certain length? A person might prefer a short story over a novel, but this isn't what causes someone to read a piece of literature over and over or purchase a first edition and display it in their home. The content of the novel or short story is what captivates us. This, and only this, is what has enduring and intrinsic value in the world of literature.

A Definition of Form and a Definition of Genre in Literature

Form is the blueprint for the literary structure which includes length and whether it is fiction or nonfiction. Form is the cake pan.

Genre is the story, content, style, theme, and the intended emotional or intellectual effect of a piece of writing. Genre is the cake.

My Other Article on Literature

  • How to Read Very Short Fiction and Enjoy It
    You will find an abundance of articles about how to write long and short fiction, but few regarding how to read short fiction and enjoy it. Here are seven ways for you to learn to enjoy a short story.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is a novel?

Answer: A novel is a work of fiction that is longer than a short story and a novella.

The lengths of these types of fiction is not something that is definite. But a short story might be up to twenty thousand words. A novella would be from there to about fifty or sixty thousand. A novel is beyond that.

Question: What is a form?

Answer: Form is like the format of a letter. If you look this up on Google, you will see things like heading, address, salutation, body, and signature. The format does not tell you what to put in each of these places. It only tells you the kind of information that goes there.

Form in literature is the format of the piece of writing. The word novel gives you information such as the fact that it is fiction. It gives you a relative idea of length. It also tells you that there will be a long, slow build to the climax of the story. The conflict of the story will be resolved, and it will have an ending. The word novel doesn't tell you much more than that. Form is the container the story is poured into. Genre is the story.

Question: What is the debate between genre fiction and literary fiction?

Answer: Literary fiction delves into the mental and emotional state of the main character or characters. This type of fiction is focused on the character. The complexity is not so much in the plot as it is in the presentation of the characters. Often the story wanders far from the plot to give the reader a deep understanding of the character(s). This can create a deeper experience for the reader when the plot and character reunite. But that is not always the effect. Sometimes the descriptions are so long and detailed; the story is simply lost. If a reader becomes bored, they won't finish the book.

Genre or popular fiction focuses on the story, the plot, the action. This can sweep the reader away to another time and place. They might feel they are participating as the plot unfolds. The accusation against this type of fiction is that the descriptions of the characters are weak. A reader might find they not only do not relate to the character; they simply don't care about them. If they are in grave danger, it doesn't matter because there is no emotional investment in the character.

There is a wealth of fine literature in both of these kinds of fiction. There is also a plethora of crap in both camps, and who wants to read crap? The goal of every writer should be to present strong characters in a story that is interesting, entertaining and to varying extents, intellectually stimulating and challenging. The entire debate could be dropped if writers were first and foremost focused on the reading experience of their readers. Of course, the market will decide, and if highbrow (Literary) and lowbrow (Popular/genre) both succeed, then what are we fighting about? This is not about literary snobs (though they do exist) and paperback rednecks (Yes, they exist too). This topic should be focused on two things. First, readers can read what they want. Period. Second, writers should be focused on writing good, high-quality stories that have deep, memorable characters.

Question: What is the difference between fiction and non-fiction?

Answer: Non-fiction is any writing that is about real people, facts, and events. Fiction is writing that has been invented by the writer.

Question: Would you please give us some genres that existed in oral literature?

Answer: It sounds funny, doesn't it, to say, "oral literature"? It seems like it could only be one or the other. But storytelling preceded writing by a very long time. Those people used a variety of genres to do two things. First, they wanted to communicate information. Second, they wanted to communicate information in entertaining and memorable ways. Here are the genres they used.

Epics, ballads, prose tales, ritual and lyric songs, sagas, panegyrics, lyric poems, and genealogies.

Question: What is technical writting?

Answer: I want to direct you to a helpful website that will give you detailed information about technical writing. The following is a quote from the Society of Technical Communication:

Technical writing is broadly defined by the Society of Technical Communication as “any form of communication that shows one of more of the following qualities:

Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations.

Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites.

Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used to create or distribute that communication.”

This writing style covers any type of text that aims to explain detailed information. A technical writer communicates in a way that presents technical information so that the reader can use that information for an intended purpose.

For much more information, go to

© 2013 Chris Mills


Ajakaye Kayode Kevin on November 24, 2019:

It is quite interesting learning through your teaching

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on October 24, 2018:

Feel free to use this article in any way that may assist you in your instruction of other writers. I am glad you found it enlightening and helpful. Please feel free to ask any questions that may cast more light on my approach to the

Loela on October 24, 2018:

Thank you very much. I am enlightened thru your information. Now I know the boundary between a literary genre and a literary from.

May I use this for my self-instructional material for the G 10 students? Rest assured I will give due acknowledgment to you, Sir

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on September 02, 2018:

Muaz, thank you for stopping by. I’m glad to hear the article helped you.

muaz on September 02, 2018:

you help me a lot.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on February 26, 2018:

Thank you. Blessings are always welcome here.

Joana Aboagyewaa on February 26, 2018:

God bless you

Chris Mills on September 12, 2017:

Galo, that is awesome to hear, thank you for coming back and letting me know.

Galo Cevallos on September 12, 2017:

hey man really thankfull you helped me in my exam

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on October 08, 2013:

Your analogy is excellent. Also, this explains genre and form extremely well. Kudos!

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on October 06, 2013:

Martie, you're response to my hub is very humbling. Thank you for reading and for the words you have shared.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on October 06, 2013:

Cam, you have no idea how grateful I am for this explanation, as it is such a controversial topic. Your explanation makes perfect sense; I accept this and will no longer hover over the different opinions of academics.....

Voted up and awesome :)

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on October 03, 2013:

Hi Ann, Thanks for stopping by. Maybe there is a bit of teacher in me. I do enjoy making concepts a little easier to understand.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on October 03, 2013:

retief2000, Thank you for reading and commenting on my article. I hope we can see some writing from you soon. Have a great day.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on October 03, 2013:

Eddy, thanks for reading and commenting. I popped over to your profile and hope to do a bit of reading there.

retief2000 on October 03, 2013:

Nice Hub and thanks for the Tom Clancy dedication.

Ann Carr from SW England on October 03, 2013:

Excellent explanation of form and genre. I knew the difference but wouldn't have thought of such a great way of making it crystal clear. Brilliant!

Eiddwen from Wales on October 03, 2013:

A great lesson and thank you for sharing.


Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on October 02, 2013:

Indeed he did, Eric.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 02, 2013:

PS Major bummer about Tom Clancey he had that knack placing our characters in real stuff that seemed like sci fi.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on October 02, 2013:

Eric, tre' cool indeed :) Thanks once again for your visit and comment. Hope your day has been a good one.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 02, 2013:

Most excellent. I think I got most of it. Tre' cool. Thanks

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on October 02, 2013:

Donna, thanks for reading and commenting. I wrote a Southern Fiction flash fiction story for Billybuc's contest a while back. I can't believe I left it out. I'm already headed for the edit button. Be sure to vote again because when I edit, it will erase your votes. But this time you get to vote for Southern Fiction. Nice to see you here.

Donna Campbell Smith from Central North Carolina on October 02, 2013:

My favorite genre is historical fiction, another is Southern fiction. So I had to vote "other." Good article.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on October 02, 2013:

Thanks Bill. I wrote this as much to clarify the differences for myself as for others. It is a fuzzy line. Thanks for reading and commenting. Hope all is well at your home this day.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 02, 2013:

Nice summary, Cam! You basically covered every known style, form and genre in one nice, neat article. Well done!

Related Articles