Literary Form

Often confused with genre, literary form can be hard to define. Literary form is how a text is structured rather than how it is written or the subjects it covers. English literature can be categorised into several primary literary forms forms, each with unique characteristics and conventions. These include:

Literary Form Literary Form

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Table of contents
    • Poetry (using rhythmic and aesthetic qualities of language),
    • Prose (including novels, novellas, and short stories),
    • Drama (scripted works for theatrical performance), and
    • Non-fiction (factual writings such as essays, biographies, and journals).

    Each of these forms has sub-forms that add to the richness of the literary landscape. This article will look at its meaning, examples and types of literary form.

    Literary form: meaning

    Literary form is how a text is structured and its general arrangement. Every literary form has a set structure which helps readers to classify it. Some literary forms are defined by their length, like the novel, novella and short story. Some forms are defined by the number of lines, like the sonnet or haiku. The literary form extends itself to prose fiction, drama, nonfiction and poetry.

    Literary Form, A scene built of lego blocks featuring a character on a ladder while another holds the frame, and two more characters carrying a brick to help build the lego house in the background,StudySmarterFig. 1 - Literary form is how a text is structured and arranged, much like the building blocks of a lego set.

    Literary form in English literature

    Some literary forms can often be incredibly similar. Apart from the number of words, there is little difference between a novel and a novella. Some literary forms have a distinctive structure. The screenplay and play are such forms with an emphasis on dialogue and stage directions.

    During the twentieth century, the lines between literary forms became increasingly blurred. New forms, such as slam poetry, combined dramatic performance with poems. The resurgence of prose poetry meant that it could be hard to distinguish poems from short stories. Another new literary form that developed in the twentieth century was flash fiction.

    Types of literary form

    Some of the overall types of literary forms include fiction, drama, poetry, and non-ficton. Each form has their own sub-genres such as fantasy belonging to fiction and sonnets for poetry.


    Fiction is essentially a story which is imagined and is distinctly separate from fact. Although fiction can be considered across other literary forms (poetry, drama), it is commonly used to describe narrative prose fiction. Forms of narrative prose fiction would include the short story, the novella and the novel. The only difference between these forms is their word count. Despite fiction being imagined, it can involve real characters from history. Some authors even include fictional versions of themselves in auto-fiction.


    Drama is the presentation of a story through performance. The different forms of drama would originally include plays, ballet and opera. Since the twentieth century, new forms have developed, such as radio drama and screenplays for film and television. The term drama comes from the ancient Greek word for 'act'. The origins of Western drama developed in ancient Greece and in Asia. The first known drama was the Indian Sanskrit theatre.

    Literary Form, An image of an empty theatre with a dark stage with red curtains,StudySmarterFig. 2 - Drama is one of the four main types of literary form.


    Poetry is a literary form that is told in verse and traditionally in rhyme and meter. The earliest form of poetry is the epic, 'The Epic of Gilgamesh' (2,500 BCE) is thought to be written over four thousand years ago. There are possibly more varied forms of poetry than any other literary form. Almost every culture across the globe has evidence of early poetry.


    Nonfiction is the attempt to present a factual story in prose form. It encompasses many forms, from autobiography and memoir to journalism and literary criticism. As nonfiction can be seen as an umbrella term for anything that aims to tell a true story, it includes many subjects (science, history etc). Those types of nonfiction are considered different genres rather than forms. In contemporary literature, there was the emergence of creative nonfiction, which used literary techniques to present true stories.

    Contemporary literary forms

    Contemporary literature is generally considered to be any form of literature produced after the second world war. At that time, new literary forms emerged largely through the fusion of existing forms. One example was the rise of creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is the use of narrative literary styles to depict fact. Different types of creative nonfiction include the travelogue, the memoir and the nonfiction novel.

    In poetry, there were similar developments through the merging of existing forms. Despite originating in the nineteenth century, prose poetry saw a resurgence after World War II and can almost be seen as a new form. In 1984 the forms of drama and poetry were combined to create slam poetry. Slam poetry is the performance of poems to an audience which often involved crowd interaction and competition.

    In narrative prose, an even shorter form of the story emerged in flash fiction. Flash fiction is a complete story which often concludes with a surprise ending. Flash fiction is the shortest form of narrative prose fiction and is normally no longer than 1000 words.

    Literary form: examples

    A few examples of texts in certain literary forms are:

    Literary form examples
    Literary formExampleGenreAuthor
    ProsePride and Prejudice (1813)NovelJane Austen
    Poetry'Sonnet 18' (1609)SonnetWilliam Shakespeare
    DramaRomeo and Juliet (1597)PlayWilliam Shakespeare
    Non-FictionIn Cold Blood (1966)True CrimeTruman Capote
    FictionThe Lord of the Rings (1954)Fantasy FictionJ.R.R. Tolkien

    Each type of literary form has its own various genres. Take a look at some examples of the genres below.


    The primary literary forms of fictional narrative prose are the novel, novella, and short stories.

    The novel

    Novels are probably the most widely known example of the fictional literary form. A novel is an imagined narrative that is written in prose. One of the earliest examples of the novel in English was Daniel Defoe's (1660-1731) Robinson Crusoe (1719). However, the Japanese book The Tale of Genji (1021) by Murasaki Shikibu (973-1025) could be considered the first. Any fictional narrative written in prose and over 40,000 words is considered a novel.

    One example of the novel is John Steinbeck's (1902-1968) The Grapes of Wrath (1934). A story set during the American Great Depression that details the struggles faced by migratory workers.

    The novella

    The novella came to prominence in the nineteenth century and remains popular with readers today. Novellas can be known as short novels or long short stories due to their moderate length. The term novella comes from the Italian language for 'short story'. A novella is normally considered between 10,000 to 40,000 words.

    One of the most famous examples of a novella is Franz Kafka's (1883-1924) Metamorphosis (1915). A surreal tale of a salesman who turns into a giant insect.

    The short story

    Short stories are any prose narratives that can usually be read in one sitting. Their length and word count can vary from anything from 6 words to 10,000. The short story is widely thought of to have developed in its modern form in the nineteenth century, but earlier examples date back to the century before. Historically, short stories would often first appear in magazines.

    An early example of a short story is Edgar Allen Poe's(1809-1849) 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1843). The story is told through a narrator who has committed murder.


    Some of the literary forms that can be defined as drama are plays and opera.


    Plays are dramatic works which are written to be performed on stage. As they are designed for performance rather than to be read, plays are often heavy in both dialogue and action. The literary form of plays dates back to ancient Greece, with playwrights such as Sophocles(497-406 BCE) and Euripides(480-406BCE) still having their work performed today.

    Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the play is William Shakespeare's (1564-1616) Romeo and Juliet (1597). A tale of star-crossed lovers divided by a bitter family feud.


    An opera is a similar form to the play. However, all the drama is accompanied by music, and all the characters are played by singers. All dialogue and action are presented in song. The more literary element of the opera is known as the libretto, which is its narrative.

    One example of an opera is Giacomo Puccini's (1858-1924) La Boheme (1896). An opera told in four acts about struggling bohemians living in Paris.


    There are so many varied poetic forms that to go through them all would be exhaustive. Some examples of the literary forms of poetry include sonnets, villanelle, and haikus


    The sonnet is a poem that consists of fourteen lines. The word sonnet comes from the Latin for 'sound'. There are two types of sonnet; the Petrarchan and the Elizabethan. The most famous of those is the Elizabethan, popularised by the playwright William Shakespeare.

    A famous example is William Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 18' (1609), a love poem which opens with the lines, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'


    A villanelle poem consists of nineteen lines which are made up of five tercets and a quatrain. Villanelle poems often depict more intimate subject matters.

    A tercet is a three-lined stanza in a poem.

    A quatrain is a stanza that consists of four lines.

    Dylan Thomas'(1914-1953) 'Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night' (1951) is a popular example of the villanelle poem.


    The haiku is a poetic form that originated in Japan and has a strict stricture. Haiku poems consist of three lines, with each having a specific number of syllables. The first and last lines each have five syllables, while the second has seven.

    'The Old Pond' (1686) by Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is an early example of the haiku form.


    Two different genres of the nonfiction literary form include biography and creative nonfiction.


    The biography is nonfiction prose which details a particular person's life. Biography is thought to be one of the oldest forms of prose literature, with early examples dating back to ancient Rome. An autobiography is a form of biography that the subject themselves write.

    The Long Walk to Freedom (1994) by Nelson Mandela(1918-2013) is a famous example of an autobiography. It covers Mandela's early life and his 27 years in prison.

    Creative nonfiction

    Creative nonfiction is the use of fictional literary techniques to present a true story. Often creative nonfiction is told in a non-linear format to aid the story's narrative.

    Truman Capote's (1924-1984) nonfiction novel In Cold Blood (1965) is an early example of creative nonfiction. The book details the story of a family being murdered in Kansas.

    Literary Form - Key takeaways

    • Literary form is how a text is structured rather than what it is about.
    • The four main types of literary form are; fiction, drama, poetry and nonfiction.
    • Examples of literary forms would include the novel, the sonnet and the play.
    • Contemporary literature saw a blend of literary forms with prose poetry and creative nonfiction.
    • An example of a literary form in nonfiction is creative nonfiction.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Form

    What is literary form?

    Literary form is how a text is structured and arranged rather than its subject.

    What are examples of literary forms?

    Some examples of literary forms include; the novel, the play and the sonnet.

    What are the 10 literary forms?

    The 10 most well-known literary forms are;

    • the novel
    • the short story
    • the novella
    • the sonnet 
    • the villanelle
    • the haiku
    • the play
    • opera
    • biography
    • creative nonfiction

    What are the four types of literary form?

    The four types of literary form are fiction, nonfiction, drama and poetry.

    What are examples of contemporary literary form?

    Slam poetry and flash fiction are examples of contemporary literary form.

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