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What is Literary Fiction?

What type of fiction do you write?

Depending on who you ask, fiction can be broken into two categories: Genre and literary. However, not everyone supports the idea of literary fiction. For this group, fiction can be separated into two camps: Good fiction and bad fiction which, of course, relies on the reader’s opinion.

You’ll find that’s also the case when it comes to literary fiction. Although we’ll attempt to break down the differences between genre and literary fiction in this post, keep in mind that the lines between the two can and often do blur.

Let’s kick things off by defining the characteristics of genre fiction and then literary fiction.

Here’s a list of ways that genre fiction writers can benefit from the methods used in literary fiction. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.

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What are the Characteristics of Genre Fiction?

Genre fiction appeals to the masses.

Genre fiction is also known as popular fiction— and that’s for a good reason. Genre fiction is more appealing to a wider audience. It’s written for the mainstream reader, especially those who are already fans of a specific subset of fiction (a.k.a. genre). Many readers gravitate to a particular genre, such as mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, young adult, action, history, and so on. Genre fiction gives the fan access to their favorite type of storytelling.

Genre Fiction Follows a Specific Formula

What is literary fiction

Books that belong to a genre must follow the rules of that specific drama. A sci-fi story must contain advanced technology. Young adult must focus on a coming of age story and often uses a protagonist aged between 12 to 18. Romances must feature a love story.

Of course, as the writer, you can do whatever you choose, but just know that the reader of that genre comes in with basic expectations, and it wouldn’t be the best idea to ignore those expectations. If you do, then congratulations! You’re venturing into literary fiction (but more on that later).

Genre Fiction Uses Conventional Storytelling

Piggybacking off the last point, genre fiction keeps to a loose script. It also follows the predictable ebb and flow of conventional storytelling. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.

Another way to think about it is to remember the basic plot diagram of a story:

Genre fiction stories start off with exposition that is interrupted by conflict. Rising action follows until the climax of the story followed by falling action and a satisfying resolution.

Genre Fiction is Entertaining

While not all genre fiction stories can be deemed as such, most of them fall into the category of fun escapism. That is, they provide an entertaining adventure that helps the reader forget about their own cares.

Genre Fiction is Plot-Driven

Because they must abide by a certain formula, most genre fiction stories are hopelessly plot-driven. Sure, they contain interesting characters, some of which the reader may fall in love with or hate to the core, but the plot is always in the driver’s seat. That plot, dictated by the genre, might be a love story, or it may be a whodunit, but it’s always the most important factor in the story.

Genre Fiction Often Features a Happy Ending

And they lived happily ever after… Or at least until the next book in the series comes out.

One of the most poignant characteristics of genre fiction is a tidy ending where burning questions are answered and the characters relax into their new normal. Most popular fiction resolves with a happy ending because the readers demand such.

Genre Fiction is Easier to Sell

It’s called popular fiction for a reason. Genre fiction is an easier sell. Fans of a specific genre are often drawn to reading more books that tell the same type of story. They’re always on the lookout for different interpretations of that basic story.

To Sum It Up

In a nutshell, genre fiction is considered popcorn for the soul. It may not be earth-shattering literature, but at the same time, the stories presented in genre fiction can be inventive, spellbinding, and beautifully done.

Does genre fiction have merit? Certainly! However, genre fiction is less likely to win prestigious literary awards or appeal to book snobs.

What are the Characteristics of Literary Fiction

Literary fiction doesn't follow a formula.

Unlike genre fiction, which follows a loose but predictable narrative, literary fiction doesn’t adhere to any rules. Anything can happen which can be both exciting and unnerving for the reader. Sometimes, literary fiction takes a common theme in genre fiction and turns it on its head. For example, the idea of good overcoming evil is challenged in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four .

As a side note , Nineteen Eighty-Four walks a fine line between literary fiction and genre fiction as David Barnett points on in this article for the Guardian . What we now consider classic literary fiction was often viewed as genre fiction by its contemporary critics.

Literary Fiction Uses Creative Storytelling

Because literary fiction isn’t bound to the strict standards of a specific sub-genre, every author is free to make up their own rules as they go along. The reader is never quite sure where the adventure will take them.

Free from rules, the literary fiction writer is able to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable and sometimes the results are extraordinary. See Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler . Written in the second person, this postmodernist metafiction is about your attempt to read a novel. However, you’re constantly prevented from doing so. It’s not very often that you can read a novel about you reading a novel.

Literary Fiction Explores the Human Condition

While genre fiction (as a whole) seeks to distract the reader through light entertainment, literary fiction is much more introspective in its objective. Literary fiction as a whole wants to make sense of the world around us by exploring the human condition.

An example of this is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance , which is a haunting tale of India in the 1970s and 1980s. Through the lives of four principal characters, Mistry explores the simple hopes and palpable misery that we teeter between in this life. Although I read the book years ago, those characters are still with me, and that’s one of the hallmarks of literary fiction— the ability to create memorable characters. Because genre fiction is so focused on plot, it can’t compete with the intense character studies contained within a work of literary fiction.

What is literary fiction

Image Courtesy of Amazon.com

Literary Fiction May Be Difficult to Read

Stories that explore the human condition aren’t exactly fun reads. By nature, they have to deal with a difficult subject matter with unflinching honesty. It can be a tad uncomfortable to think about these issues when you, as the reader, simply want to escape.

Literary fiction may rely on symbolism or allegory to convey a deeper meaning. There’s almost always a deeper takeaway than the story itself reveals.

Literary Fiction is Character-Focused

While genre fiction is inextricably tied to the plot, literary fiction has the same relationship with the character. The characters must be explored and defined and the impetus that moves the story forward. Literary fiction doesn’t just show the characters in action, it also shows how every action changes the character.

Literary Fiction Often Has an Ambiguous Ending

In literary fiction, endings are usually sad, abrupt, or left up to your interpretation. Sometimes, nothing is resolved, which leaves the reader desperate to find meaning in it all.

Literary Fiction is Award-Friendly

You know how those artsy movies (that no one’s ever heard of) end up getting awards and accolades? Then, because it’s so celebrated, you end up seeing the movie, only to realize that you would’ve preferred watching the latest Thor movie?

That describes a lot of literary fiction. Because it often pushes boundaries and employs a unique perspective, works of literary fiction get more awards. Critics love that kind of thing. However, receiving an award doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is worth your time or money. As with all things art, creative genius is in the eye of the beholder.

To Sum it Up

If genre fiction is popcorn, does that make literary fiction more serious and substantive?

Not necessarily. Literary fiction provides a fresh way to tell stories and it ignores standard formulas. It stands alone and is not scared.

Final Thoughts

The term "literary fiction" is controversial and for good reason. As more “literary” writers venture into genre fiction, the lines of distinction have blurred. Sometimes, it’s not always clear. Perhaps, it is genre fiction that’s just pushing its own boundaries.

Or, maybe literary fiction is a genre all its own.

What are your thoughts? Do you write literary fiction? Or do you write genre fiction? Let us know in the comments below!

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Blog • Perfecting your Craft

Last updated on Jun 23, 2023

How to Write a Novel: 13-Steps From a Bestselling Writer [+Templates]

This post is written by author, editor, and ghostwriter Tom Bromley. He is the instructor of Reedsy's 101-day course, How to Write a Novel .

Writing a novel is an exhilarating and daunting process. How do you go about transforming a simple idea into a powerful narrative that grips readers from start to finish? Crafting a long-form narrative can be challenging, and it requires skillfully weaving together various story elements.

In this article, we will break down the major steps of novel writing into manageable pieces, organized into three categories — before, during, and after you write your manuscript.

How to write a novel in 13 steps:

1. Pick a story idea with novel potential

2. develop your main characters, 3. establish a central conflict and stakes, 4. write a logline or synopsis, 5. structure your plot, 6. pick a point of view, 7. choose a setting that benefits your story , 8. establish a writing routine, 9. shut out your inner editor, 10. revise and rewrite your first draft, 11. share it with your first readers, 12. professionally edit your manuscript, 13. publish your novel.

Every story starts with an idea.

You might be lucky, like JRR Tolkien, who was marking exam papers when a thought popped into his head: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ You might be like Jennifer Egan, who saw a wallet left in a public bathroom and imagined the repercussions of a character stealing it, which set the Pulitzer prize-winner A Visit From the Goon Squad in process. Or you might follow Khaled Hosseini, whose The Kite Runner was sparked by watching a news report on TV.

A writer looking for ideas in her imagination

Many novelists I know keep a notebook of ideas both large and small 一 sometimes the idea they pick up on they’ll have had much earlier, but whatever reason, now feels the time to write it. Certainly, the more ideas you have, the more options you’ll have to write. 

✍️ Need a little inspiration? Check our list of 30+ story ideas for fiction writing , our list of 300+ writing prompts , or even our plot generator .

Is your idea novel-worthy?

How do you know if what you’ve got is the inspiration for a novel, rather than a short story or a novella ? There’s no definitive answer here, but there are two things to look out for 

Firstly, a novel allows you the space to show how a character changes over time, whereas a short story is often more about a vignette or an individual moment. Secondly, if an idea is fit for a novel, it’ll nag away at you: a thread asking to be pulled to see where it goes. If you find yourself coming back to an idea, then that’s probably one to explore.

I expand on how to cultivate and nurture your ‘idea seeds’ in my free 10-day course on novel writing. 



How to Write a Novel

Author and ghostwriter Tom Bromley will guide you from page 1 to the finish line.

Another starting point (or essential element) for writing a novel will come in the form of the people who will populate your stories: the protagonists. 

My rule of thumb in writing is that a reader will read on for one of two reasons: either they care about the characters , or they want to know what happens next (or, in an ideal world, both). Now different people will tell you that character or plot are the most important element when writing. 

Images of a character developing over the course of a story.

In truth, it’s a bit more complicated than that: in a good novel, the main character or protagonist should shape the plot, and the plot should shape the protagonist. So you need both core elements in there, and those two core elements are entwined rather than being separate entities. 

Characters matter because when written well, readers become invested in what happens to them. You can develop the most brilliant, twisty narrative, but if the reader doesn’t care how the protagonist ends up, you’re in trouble as a writer. 

As we said above, one of the strengths of the novel is that it gives you the space to show how characters change over time. How do characters change? 

Firstly, they do so by being put in a position where they have to make decisions, difficult decisions, and difficult decisions with consequences . That’s how we find out who they really are. 

Secondly, they need to start from somewhere where they need to change: give them flaws, vulnerabilities, and foibles for them to overcome. This is what makes them human — and the reason why readers respond to and care about them.



Reedsy’s Character Profile Template

A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.

🗿 Need more guidance? Look into your character’s past using these character development exercises , or give your character the perfect name using this character name generator .

As said earlier, it’s important to have both a great character and an interesting plot, which you can develop by making your character face some adversities.

That drama in the novel is usually built around some sort of central conflict . This conflict creates a dramatic tension that compels the reader to read on. They want to see the outcome of that conflict resolved: the ultimate resolution of the conflict (hopefully) creates a satisfying ending to the narrative.

A captain facing conflict in the ocean and in his heart

A character changes, as we said above, when they are put in a position of making decisions with consequences. Those consequences are important. It isn’t enough for a character to have a goal or a dream or something they need to achieve (to slay the dragon): there also needs to be consequences if they don’t get what they’re after (the dragon burns their house down). Upping the stakes heightens the drama all round.

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Now you have enough ingredients to start writing your novel, but before you do that, it can be useful to tighten them all up into a synopsis. 



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So far you’ve got your story idea, your central characters and your sense of conflict and stakes. Now is the time to distill this down into a narrative. Different writers approach this planning stage in different ways, as we’ll come to in a moment, but for anyone starting a novel, having a clear sense of what is at the heart of your story is crucial. 

There are a lot of different terms used here 一 pitch, elevator pitch , logline, shoutline, or the hook of your synopsis 一 but whatever the terminology the idea remains the same. This is to summarize your story in as few words as possible: a couple of dozen words, say, or perhaps a single sentence. 

This exercise will force you to think about what your novel is fundamentally about. What is the conflict at the core of the story? What are the challenges facing your main protagonist? What do they have at stake? 

📚 Check out these 48 irresistible  book hook examples  and get inspired to craft your own.

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If you need some help, as you go through the steps in this guide, you can fill in this template:

My story is a [genre] novel. It’s told from [perspective] and is set in [place and time period] . It follows [protagonist] , who wants [goal] because [motivation] . But [conflict] doesn’t make that easy, putting [stake] at risk.

It's not an easy thing to do, to write this summarising sentence or two. In fact, they might be the most difficult sentences to get down in the whole writing process. But it is really useful in helping you to clarify what your book is about before you begin. When you’re stuck in the middle of the writing, it will be there for you to refer back to. And further down the line, when you’ve finished the novel, it will prove invaluable in pitching to agents , publishers, and readers. 

📼 Learn more about the process of writing a logline from professional editor Jeff Lyons. 

Another particularly important step to prepare for the writing part, is to outline your plot into different key story points. 

There’s no right answer here as to how much planning you should do before you write: it very much depends on the sort of writer you are. Some writers find planning out their novel before start gives them confidence and reassurance knowing where their book is going to go. But others find this level of detail restrictive: they’re driven more by the freedom of discovering where the writing might take them. 

A writer planning the structure of their novel

This is sometimes described as a debate between ‘planners’ and ‘pantsers’ (those who fly by the seat of their pants). In reality, most writers sit somewhere on a sliding scale between the two extremes. Find your sweet spot and go from there!

If you’re a planning type, there’s plenty of established story structures out there to build your story around. Popular theories include the Save the Cat model and Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey . Then there are books such as Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots , which suggests that all stories are one of, well, you can probably work that out.

Whatever the structure, most stories follow the underlying principle of having a beginning, middle and end (and one that usually results in a process of change). So even if you’re ‘pantsing’ rather than planning, it’s helpful to know your direction of travel, though you might not yet know how your story is going to get there. 


How to Plot a Novel in Three Acts

In 10 days, learn how to plot a novel that keeps readers hooked

Finally, remember what we said earlier about plot and character being entwined: your character’s journey shouldn’t be separate to what happens in the story. Indeed, sometimes it can be helpful to work out the character’s journey of change first, and shape the plot around that, rather than the other way round. 

Now, let’s consider which perspective you’re going to write your story from. 

However much plotting you decide to do before you start writing, there are two further elements to think about before you start putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). The first one is to think about which point of view you’re going to tell your story from. It is worth thinking about this before you start writing because deciding to change midway through your story is a horribly thankless task (I speak from bitter personal experience!)


Understanding Point of View

Learn to master different POVs and choose the best for your story.

Although there might seem a large number of viewpoints you could tell your story from, in reality, most fiction is told from two points of view 一 first person (the ‘I’ form) and third person ‘close’ (he/she/they). ‘Close’ third person is when the story is witnessed from one character’s view at a time (as opposed to third person ‘omniscient’ where the story can drop into lots of people’s thoughts).

Both of these viewpoints have advantages and disadvantages. First person is usually better for intimacy and getting into character’s thoughts: the flip side is that its voice can feel a bit claustrophobic and restrictive in the storytelling. Third person close offers you more options and more space to tell your story: but can feel less intimate as a result. 

There’s no right and wrong here in terms of which is the ‘best’ viewpoint. It depends on the particular demands of the story that you are wanting to write. And it also depends on what you most feel comfortable writing in. It can be a useful exercise to write a short section in both viewpoints to see which feels the best fit for you before starting to write. 

Which POV is right for your book?

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Besides choosing a point of view, consider the setting you’re going to place your story in.

The final element to consider before beginning your story is to think about where your story is going to be located . Settings play a surprisingly important part in bringing a story to life. When done well, they add in mood and atmosphere, and can act almost like an additional character in your novel.

A writer placing characters in settings

There are many questions to consider here. And again, it depends a bit on the demands of the story that you are writing. 

Is your setting going to a real place, a fictional one, or a real place with fictional elements? Is it going to be set in the present day, the past, or at an unspecified time? Are you going to set your story in somewhere you know, or need to research to capture properly? Finally, is your setting suited to the story you are telling, and serve to accentuate it, rather than just acting as a backdrop?

If you’re writing a novel in genres such as fantasy or science fiction , then you may well need to go into some additional world-building as well before you start writing. Here, you may have to consider everything from the rules and mores of society to the existence of magical powers, fantastic beasts, extraterrestrials, and futuristic technology. All of these can have a bearing on the story, so it is better to have a clear setup in your head before you start to write.


The Ultimate Worldbuilding Template

130 questions to help create a world readers want to visit again and again.

Whether your story is set in central London or the outer rings of the solar system, some elements of the descriptive detail remain the same. Think about the use of all the different senses — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of where you’re writing about. Those sorts of small details can help to bring any setting to life, from the familiar to the imaginary. 

Alright, enough brainstorming and planning. It’s time to let the words flow on the page. 

Having done your prep — or as much prep and planning as you feel you need — it’s time to get down to business and write the thing. Getting a full draft of a novel is no easy task, but you can help yourself by setting out some goals before you start writing.

Firstly, think about how you write best. Are you a morning person or an evening person? Would you write better at home or out and about, in a café or a library, say? Do you need silence to write, or musical encouragement to get the juices flowing? Are you a regular writer, chipping away at the novel day by day, or more of a weekend splurger?


How to Build a Solid Writing Routine

In 10 days, learn to change your habits to support your writing.

I’d always be wary of anyone who tells you how you should be writing. Find a routine and a setup that works for you . That might not always be the obvious one: the crime writer Jo Nesbø spent a while creating the perfect writing room but discovered he couldn’t write there and ended up in the café around the corner.

You might not keep the same way of writing throughout the novel: routines can help, but they can also become monotonous. You may need to find a way to shake things up to keep going.

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Deadlines help here. If you’re writing a 75,000-word novel, then working at a pace of 5,000 words a week will take you 15 weeks (Monday to Friday, that’s 1000 words a day). Half the pace will take twice as long. Set yourself a realistic deadline to finish the book (and key points along the way). Without a deadline, the writing can end up drifting, but it needs to be realistic to avoid giving yourself a hard time. 

In my experience, writing speeds vary. I tend to start quite slowly on a book, and speed up towards the end. There are times when the tap is open, and the words are pouring out: make the most of those moments. There are times, too, when each extra sentence feels like torture: don’t beat yourself up here. Be kind to yourself: it’s a big, demanding project you’re undertaking.

Speaking of self-compassion, a word on that harsh editor inside your mind…

The other important piece of advice is to continue writing forward. It is very easy, and very tempting, to go back over what you’ve written and give it a quick edit. Once you start down that slippery slope, you end up rewriting and reworking the same scene and never get any further forwards in the text. I know of writers who spent months perfecting their first chapter before writing on, only to delete that beginning as the demands of the story changed.

Illustration of a writer ready to get some work done

The first draft of your novel isn’t about perfection; it’s about getting the words down. One writer I work with calls it the ‘vomit draft’ — getting everything out and onto the page. It’s only once you’ve got a full manuscript down that you can see your ideas in context and have the capacity to edit everything properly. So as much as your inner editor might be calling you, resist! They’ll have their moment in the sun later on. For now, it’s about getting a complete version down, that you can go on to work with and shape. 

By now, you’ve reached the end of your first draft (we might be glossing over the hard writing part just a little here: if you want more detail and help on how to get through to the end of your draft, our How to Write A Novel course is warmly recommended). 

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Reaching the end of your first draft is an important milestone in the journey of a book. Sadly for those who feel that this is the end of the story, it’s actually more of a stepping stone than the finish line.

In some ways, now the hard work begins. The difference between wannabe writers and those who get published can often be found in the amount of rewriting done. Professional writers will go back and back over what they’ve written, honing what they’ve created until the text is as tight and taut as it is possible to be.

How do you go about achieving this? The first thing to do upon finishing is to put the manuscript in a drawer. Leave it for a month or six weeks before you come back to it. That way, you’ll return the script with a fresh pair of eyes. Read it back through and be honest about what works and what doesn’t. As you read the script, think in particular about pace: are there sections in the novel that are too fast or too slow? Avoid the trap of the saggy middle . Then consider: is your character arc complete and coherent? Look at the big-picture stuff first before you tackle the smaller details. 

Edit your novel closely

On that note, here are a few things you might want to keep an eye out for:

Show, don’t tell. Sometimes, you just need to state something matter-of-factly in your novel, that’s fine. But, as much as you can, try to illustrate a point instead of just stating it . Keep in mind the words of Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass."

“Said” is your friend. When it comes to dialogue, there can be the temptation to spice things up a bit by using tags like “exclaimed,” “asserted,” or “remarked.” And while there might be a time and place for these, 90% of the time, “said” is the best tag to use. Anything else can feel distracting or forced. 

Stay away from purple prose. Purple prose is overly embellished language that doesn’t add much to the story. It convolutes the intended message and can be a real turn-off for readers.


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Once you feel it’s good enough for other people to lay their eyes on it, it’s time to ask for feedback.

Writing a novel is a two-way process: there’s you, the writer, and there’s the intended audience, the reader. The only way that you can find out if what you’ve written is successful is to ask people to read and get feedback.

Think about when to ask for feedback and who to ask it from. There are moments in the writing when feedback is useful and others where it gets in the way. To save time, I often ask for feedback in those six weeks when the script is in the drawer (though I don’t look at those comments until I’ve read back myself first). The best people to ask for feedback are fellow writers and beta readers : they know what you’re going through and will also be most likely to offer you constructive feedback. 

Author working with an editor

Also, consider working with sensitivity readers if you are writing about a place or culture outside your own. Friends and family can also be useful but are a riskier proposition: they might be really helpful, but equally, they might just tell you it’s great or terrible, neither of which is overly useful.

Feedbacking works best when you can find at least a few people to read, and you can pool their comments. My rule is that if more than one person is saying the same thing, they are probably right. If only one person is saying something, then you have a judgment call to make as to whether to take those comments further (though usually, you’ll know in your gut whether they are right or not.)

Overall, the best feedback you can receive is that of a professional editor…

Once you’ve completed your rewrites and taken in comments from your chosen feedbackers, it’s time to take a deep breath and seek outside opinions. What happens next here depends on which route you want to take to market:

If you want to go down the traditional publishing route , you’ll probably need to get a literary agent, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

Editors helping shaping a professional novel

If you’re going down the self-publishing route , you’ll need to do what would be done in a traditional publishing house and take your book through the editing process. This normally happens in three stages. 

Developmental editing. The first of these is to work with a development editor , who will read and critique your work primarily from a structural point of view. 

Copy-editing. Secondly, the book must be copy-edited , where an editor works more closely, line-by-line, on the script. 

Proofreading. Finally, usually once the script has been typeset, then the material should be professionally proofread , to spot any final mistakes or orrors. Sorry, errors!

Finding such people can sound like a daunting task. But fear not! Here at Reedsy, we have a fantastic fleet of editors of all shapes, sizes, and experiences. So whatever your needs or requirements, we should be able to pair you with an editor to suit.



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Now that you’ve ironed out all the wrinkles of your manuscript, it’s time to release it into the wild.

For those thinking about going the traditional publishing route , now’s the time for you to get to work. Most trade publishers will only accept work from a literary agent, so you’ll need to find a suitable literary agent to represent your work. 

The querying process is not always straightforward: it involves research, waiting and often a lot of rejections until you find the right person (I was rejected by 24 agents before I found my first agent). Usually, an agent will ask to see a synopsis and the first three chapters (check their websites for submission details). If they like what they read, they’ll ask to see the whole thing. 

If you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to think about getting your finished manuscript to market. You’ll need to get it typeset (laid out in book form) and find a cover designer . Do you want to sell printed copies or just ebooks? You’ll need to work out how to work Amazon , where a lot of your sales will come from, and also how you’ll market your book .

For those picked up by a traditional publisher, all the editing steps discussed will take place in-house. That might sound like a smoother process, but the flip side can be less control over the process: a publisher may have the final say in the cover or the title, and lead times (when the book is published) are usually much longer. So it’s worth thinking about which route to market works best for you.

Finally, you’re a published author! Congratulations. Now all you have to do is think about writing the next one… 

Tom Bromley

As an editor and publisher, Tom has worked on several hundred titles, again including many prize-winners and international bestsellers. 

8 responses

Sasha Winslow says:

14/05/2019 – 02:56

I started writing in February 2019. It was random, but there was an urge to the story I wanted to write. At first, I was all over the place. I knew the genre I wanted to write was Fantasy ( YA or Adult). That has been my only solid starting point the genre. From February to now, I've changed my story so many times, but I am happy to say by giving my characters names I kept them. I write this all to say is thank you for this comprehensive step by step. Definitely see where my issues are and ways to fix it. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Evelyn P. Norris says:

30/10/2019 – 14:18

My number one tip is to write in order. If you have a good idea for a future scene, write down the idea for the scene, but do NOT write it ahead of time. That's a major cause of writer's block that I discovered. Write sequentially. :) If you can't help yourself, make sure you at least write it in a different document, and just ignore that scene until you actually get to that part of the novel

Allen P. Wilkinson says:

28/01/2020 – 04:51

How can we take your advice seriously when you don’t even know the difference between stationary and stationery? Makes me wonder how competent your copy editors are.

↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:

29/01/2020 – 15:37

Thanks for spotting the typo!

↪️ Chris Waite replied:

14/02/2020 – 13:17

IF you're referring to their use of 'stationery' under the section '1. Nail down the story idea' (it's the only reference on this page) then the fact that YOU don't know the difference between stationery and stationary and then bother to tell the author of this brilliant blog how useless they must be when it's YOU that is the thicko tells me everything I need to know about you and your use of a middle initial. Bellend springs to mind.

Sapei shimrah says:

18/03/2020 – 13:59

Thanks i will start writing now

Jeremy says:

25/03/2020 – 22:41

I’ve run the gamut between plotter and pantser, but lately I’ve settled on in-depth plotting before my novels. It’s hard for me to do focus wise, but I’m finding I’m spending less time in writer’s block. What trips me up more is finding the right voice for my characters. I’m currently working on a sci-fi YA novel and using the Save the Cat beat sheet for structure for the first time. Thank you for the article!

Nick Girdwood says:

29/04/2020 – 10:32

Can you not write a story without some huge theme?

Comments are currently closed.

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writing literary fiction

Genre Tips: How to Write Literary Fiction

writing literary fiction

Ironically, the term literary fiction is often used in opposition to the term “genre,” which I guess means we have the “literary genre” and the “genre genre.” (And now that I think about it that way, it cracks me up. #sorrynotsorry :p ) Literary fiction is a somewhat contested term, used by some writers to indicate a “higher level” of writing and by others as a crack at elitism. Back in the day when what is properly considered “genre fiction” was classed only as lowbrow pop fiction for the masses, literary fiction was the domain of the “serious” writer. These days, however, when so many “genre” entries are themselves high art, the borders of what is literary fiction and what is not have become a bit mistier.

It also used to be (and still is to some degree) considered a rule that genre fiction focuses on plot (i.e., events happening to the protagonist), whilst literary fiction focuses more on character and theme (i.e., how the protagonist reacts to events). Although each of these approaches create significantly different reading experiences (both of which are legitimate and wonderful in their own right), this argument between “plot and character” has been largely responsible for creating the dualistic idea that story must be one or the other—and that one must be better than the other. Of course, the truth is story requires both plot and character. You can’t have one without the other. All stories have plot except perhaps the most wildly experimental novels (which, honestly, I would class as a genre of its own).

So if we can’t narrow down the strict definition of literary fiction as fiction that…

  • focuses on drama
  • offers existential themes
  • is artistic
  • emphasizes beautiful prose
  • crosses over into no other genre
  • values character over plot

…then how  can we determine what is literary fiction—and what is not?

5 Tips for How to Write Literary Fiction

Unlike genres such as romance and mystery , literary fiction is not defined by its beats. Nor is it strictly a milieu backdrop like fantasy and historical fiction . It can be set anywhere, anytime. It can focus on love stories, on murder investigations, on supernatural evil, on presidential assassinations, on slices of life. It can feature characters who are human, animal, or even inanimate.

It’s kind of like that old saw: “You know it when you see it.” For my money, literary fiction is primarily defined by attitude and  perspective.  Any story could be told as literary fiction; what makes it so is  how it is told.

Although literary fiction contains all the same structural pieces as any other type of story, it is more intent on the journey than the destination. It looks around.  It wants to see and observe; it wants to stop and ask questions. Usually, it does so from a slightly distanced perspective. Even if it utilizes a deep POV that puts readers right there in the characters’ heads, what is evoked is the sense of being one step back from the action, observing, commenting, noticing the deeper meaning.

Sound interesting? Then let’s take a quick overview of how to write literary fiction.

Story Structure in Literary Fiction: Understanding How to Intertwine Inner and Outer Conflict

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

The notion that “literary fiction” is synonymous with “plot-less fiction” is a misconception. What’s true is that literary fiction is not as dependent upon or hemmed in by specific  beats  as are genres like romance and mystery. However, the basic structural arc underlying a story’s plot becomes all the more important in supporting and unifying the often sprawling and sometimes abstract events and motifs within a literary story.

What’s also true is that the plot in literary fiction is often less concerned with its story’s external conflict (even if it’s rip-roaring) and more concerned with the characters’ internal conflict . You might say literary fiction is more interested in character arc than structure. But (surprise!) that, too, is a false paradigm. Why? Because the mechanics of character arc are inherently structural.

Plot structure can be viewed as the emergent of character arc. The entire arc of what we recognize as story is merely the externalized structure of the natural and inevitable pattern of human transformation. In short, if a literary story creates a magnificent character arc, you can be sure it is also well structured.

The structural beats in any story will tell you what it is about. In a literary story, those beats will focus intently on the inner conflict and evolution of the characters. Even if you’re writing your story with a relatively loose focus on structure, just double-checking that the ten major structural moments are all focused on your character’s internal journey will help you ensure both plot and character are powerfully aligned.

Those structural elements are:

  • Inciting Event
  • First Plot Point
  • First Pinch Point
  • Midpoint (Second Plot Point)
  • Second Pinch Point
  • Third Plot Point
  • Climactic Moment

For Example: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved classic  The Great Gatsby is a pitch-perfect example of how external conflict (of which there is plenty, as Gatsby jets around NYC, causing and enduring all manner of havoc) can play out primarily through the lens of a character’s internal conflict (in this instance, through the observations of narrator Nick Carraway, who stands at a remove from the relational machinations of Gatsby and the other characters and who undergoes a Disillusionment Arc as a result).

>>Click here for examples of Nick’s Disillusionment Arc used in the series “How to Write a Negative Character Arc”

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (affiliate link)

Character in Literary Fiction: Backstory As the Origin of Motivation

writing literary fiction

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Genre fiction asks, “What will happen?” Literary fiction, however, is often more concerned with, “What did happen?” Its most urgent question is, “Why?”

Although sometimes this exploration may offer an external plot that is intent on uncovering revelations new to the main characters, it just as often focuses on diving deep into an exploration of the characters’ own pasts. Memories, feelings, events, old hurts, lost loves, delusions, and dreams—all are excavated and reexamined in the characters’ search for meaning.

Backstory and its motivating “Ghosts” are important catalysts for the character arc in any type of story, but in literary fiction the uncovering of how the past has affected the future is often of primary importance. Alternate timelines are a popular device in literary fiction, allowing backstory to be explored side by side with the characters’ current dilemmas. Even when a story is told in a linear fashion, it is understood that much of what we see is context for a final realization.

This emphasis on the causal effects within a character’s personal development doesn’t necessarily require a huge or shocking event in the character’s backstory. Rather, the emphasis is on the  why of how characters ended up where they did or are making the choices they are currently faced with.

For Example: Toni Morrison’s finely-wrought Beloved drops a horrifyingly shocking backstory bomb halfway through when it reveals what happened to main character Sethe’s “almost crawling” baby girl. In a different type of story, this revelation might have been played for all the drama it was worth. In this quiet exploration of the effects of slavery, the revelation is equally quiet, made all the more horrifying by its unflinching deliberateness in examining the reasons for and effects of Sethe’s choices. Although it is a huge plot moment, it is chiefly utilized as an exploration of character.

writing literary fiction

Beloved by Toni Morrison (affiliate link)

Theme in Literary Fiction: Theme as Message vs. Theme as Question

writing literary fiction

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

Although theme will emerge from any well-constructed plot and/or character arc , literary fiction is noted for its conscious exploration and execution of its themes. Heavy-handed themes that present themselves as “answers” to their readers are not welcome in any type of story, and this becomes all the more true in a literary story that very likely will be exploring its themes “on purpose.”

For example, a genre action story about a brave naval admiral may express themes of courage, duty, and honor merely through the external actions and outcomes in the plot . A literary story will go deeper in examining the character’s interiority, as he struggles literally with these questions in his own mind.

Ironically, this means literary fiction can easily come across as far more moralistic and “on the nose” than most genre fiction. The key to any successful exploration of theme is focusing less on the answers or “lessons” and more on the questions that are inherent within the character’s struggles . There is never any need to spell out a thematic premise for audiences; the outcome of the plot events will always present the author’s thesis on how certain causes lead to certain effects.

Particularly in literary fiction, which can sometimes be more open-ended than other types of stories, thematic emphasis should be less on proving a certain point and more on an honest exploration of how certain thematic questions affect the characters’ outlooks and choices. Arguably more than in any other genre, allowing characters to choose wrong and then showing the effects of those choices in the end can be especially powerful in literary fiction.

For Example:   The Remains of Day by Kazuo Ishiguro utilizes flashbacks to explore the choices of its protagonist, lifetime butler Stevens, who chose to remain loyal to his Nazi-sympathizing employer, not because he agreed with the politics but because he was so identified with his work. This raises questions he must explore in his present as he seeks to reunite with a woman he might have married, had he made different choices.

writing literary fiction

The Remains of Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (affiliate link)

Scene Structure in Literary Fiction: Controlling Pacing via Action and Reaction

That certain “attitude” of literary fiction, its focus on the interiority of is characters, and its leisurely pacing can be tricky to define, much less evoke in one’s own writing. One of the best hacks can be found in scene structure .

Scenes can be divided into two basic parts: action and reaction. These two parts are sometimes referred to as “scene” (action) and “sequel” (reaction), which can then be divided down further into three parts apiece:

Scene (Action) :

  • Goal (character wants something)
  • Conflict (an obstacle is introduced)
  • Outcome (the initial goal is either obstructed or leads to a new goal)

Sequel (Reaction) :

  • Reaction (character reacts emotionally to the previous outcome)
  • Dilemma (previous outcome has created a new problem)
  • Decision (character decides upon new goal)

Stories that emphasize external action usually put more weight upon the action half of the scene. In these stories, sometimes the reaction half may be summarized rather than dramatized to allow the narrative to return to the action as quickly as possible.

Literary stories, however, flip the script. In literary fiction, the reaction or “sequel” is usually more markedly emphasized. The action still happens , just as in any story. Indeed, literary stories can be just as full of war-time explosions, psychopathic murderers, and passionate trysts in the rain as any other type of story. The difference is that the action portion of the scene will not always be heavily dramatized. In some instances, the action may not be dramatized in the story’s “real time” at all, but rather looked back upon from the character’s reaction phase.

For Example: I first noticed the use of this technique when reading Kathryn Magendie’s  Sweetie , about a timid young girl who befriends a feral mountain child. The book’s leisurely emphasis of sequels over scenes takes nothing away from its potency or urgency.

Sweetie Kathryn Magendie

Sweetie by Kathryn Magendie (affiliate link)

Prose in Literary Fiction: When Beauty Is Truth and Truth Is Beauty

Those who love to read literary fiction or want to write it often return to the genre again and again simply for the beautiful artistry of its prose. Although beautiful prose can be found in any genre, it is a necessity in literary fiction. Not only does it help pull readers into a story in which it’s possible that, strictly speaking, not much is happening, it is also an important tool for deepening the story’s thematic exploration.

Readers of literary fiction expect more from the genre than just a good story (although they expect that too). They expect a kind of truth from the prose that is found nowhere more strongly than in poetry. Literary novels are, in their way, like beautiful prose poems. Their word choices are exquisite—every syllable chosen not just for its efficacy, but for its symbolic effect. More than that, the prose creates a mirror that is held up to both our darkest and most beautiful parts. Those mirrors are only clear when the wordcraft has been honed to communicate not just to the readers’ conscious mind, but to the parts of them that exist beyond the words.

For Example:  One of the most gorgeous books ever written, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern evokes its fantasy worldscape through prose that is, as one reviewer put it , “seductive and mysterious.” This is also a wonderful example of a “genre” story that crosses over into literary fiction.

writing literary fiction

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (affiliate link)

More than anything else, literary fiction is a style. It evokes an effect that allows it to explore life itself with a magnifying glass—to go deep in observing the tiniest details and the most tempestuous human experiences. It is a beautiful genre that can be melded with almost any other style to create unforgettable stories that appeal to many different types of readers.

Stay Tuned:  Next week, guest poster Oliver Fox will close out the series by talking about Horror!

Previous Posts in This Series:

  • How to Write Fantasy
  • How to Write Romance
  • How to Write Historical Fiction
  • How to Write Mystery

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your thoughts on how to write literary fiction? Tell me in the comments!

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writing literary fiction

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel , Structuring Your Novel , and Creating Character Arcs . A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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Thanks for another wonderful post! This entire series has been helpful to me. I especially appreciate your clear and concise description of “Literary” fiction – a classification that has baffled and, at times, irritated me in the past.

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So glad you’ve enjoyed the series!

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I typically don’t read or write literary fiction, but I do recall reading some of Patricia MacLachlan’s books when I was eleven or twelve. Her writing style was full of prose, and it inspired me to use more literary elements in my own writing.

Yes, it’s hard to beat a book with beautiful prose.

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This article has helped me to see that the elements of my two novels fit into this genre of literary fiction. I appreciate your clarification, despite the “misty” nature of the concept.

I love stories that sort of blur the line over into a more literary style.

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Profound, thought-provoking, memorable. Wouldn’t these words all describe literary fiction? We all have our writing goals, and I think most of us want to write exciting best sellers. But I wonder which type of novels are read over and over and treasured on our book shelves, in our minds, and in our hearts? Which novels have we read over and over and passed on to friends and family? In my life there are few such novels. Personally, I think the literary novels create a world where you look forward to visiting everyday in your easy chair. To me, that’s something even better than excitement. That’s enchantment.

Oooo! “Enchantment.” I think you’re exactly right!

Beautifully said!

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Thank you for your well thought out, detailed post. When asked what genre I’m writing in I say ‘literary fiction’ but until now I couldn’t have provided a succinct description of what that is. Now I can. 🙂 More importantly, you’ve given me a couple things to contemplate in depth and to use as I work on my novel. Many thanks.

That’s great! Happy writing. 🙂

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This is the best article on literary fiction that I’ve found on the web. Seriously. I’m finally certain what “genre” to use when I query. Thanks.

Glad it was helpful! Good luck with the querying.

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While I was reading your description of literary fiction, with the strong character focus, and the emphasis on `why’ they act as they do, I thought to myself `hey, maybe this is secretly my genre, and I never knew!’ Then I got to the bit about beautiful prose… Nope, my prose is strictly utilitarian. But I do have a deep appreciation for beautiful writing, and I love a strong focus on characters inner lives, the `why’ behind the `what,’ if you will.

This isn’t to say that only literary fiction emphasizes character. Any genre can choose to spend a lot of exploration on the “why” of things.

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I didn’t write anything last week, but I meant to. I found your description of the various types of mysteries succinct and edifying. I am finding all of this series to be interesting and helpful. I usually try not to read literary fiction because in my experience (which I have to admit is limited) it leaves me feeling let down in the end. Maybe it’s way to close to reality. It’s usually ‘haunting’. In my opinion, literary fiction changes you, in a way that commonly called genre fiction does not. Having said that, I think that Daphne du Maurier borders on literary fiction, and I’ve read ‘Rebecca’ many times. I still find it haunting. I consider Anita Shreve to be literary, and her prose is beautiful, and I have re-read some of her books. I’m still angry with Donna Tartt over ‘The Little Friend’. I enjoyed the book, but I am still frustrated by not having a difinitive answer about how Robin died. You get my drift…

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Terrific essay, as are most you write. Writers toss around the term literary fiction, claiming that’s what they write, when it’s clear they aren’t. This essay puts it in perspective. I’ve always thought the genre is more concerned with the beauty of prose, the paradoxes in life, the humanity of people with their flaws and near perfections than it is concerned with sales or fitting into a specific genre. A book on what constitutes literary fiction would make a great addition to my reference shelf. Any ideas Ms. Weiland? And don’t tell me to try it. I’m not up to it.

Glad you enjoyed the post, Dennis! I’m not familiar with any particular guide that discusses literary fiction specifically. Perhaps someone else will chime in with a resource?

I was implying you could write one 😉

Hah. You never know. 😉

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Thank you so much for this post! I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what genre my WIP is because it mainly focuses on character, theme, and ‘stop and think’ moments though it has plenty of plot too. I now realize that it fits perfectly into the literary fiction category! You did an excellent job in laying everything out so clearly, thanks again!

Literary is such a beautiful genre. It can also be one of the toughest to write, because there are so fewer places to hide than in genre fiction. But when it’s done well, it’s simply magic.

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The more I listen to these genre essays, the more I realize that, at least for me, writing is more a continuum than a particular genre. Writing can, and probably should, have elements of many of them. Maybe not all at once, but over the course of a career I think a writer should touch all these bases. That’s the adventure of writing!

Honestly, that’s my preferred experience as well. As I mentioned at the top of the series, I haven’t written much about specific genres in the past, mostly because I don’t really experience stories *as* genres. Genres are, of course, useful when you’re hunting down a particular type of book. But good storytelling is just good storytelling.

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I think it was Matt Bird who said literary fiction is about “the workings of fate,” compared to genre stories that are about the hero’s agency. I don’t think this is a hard and fast rule, but an interesting insight nonetheless.

I’ve always loved stories that blend literary theme and style with genre plotting. It’s a spectrum in the sense that stories aren’t just one or the other, but it’s also a tug-of-war because pushing a story in one direction necessarily pulls it away from the other.

Nobody asked for books suggestions but here they are anyway: anything and everything written by Michel Faber (my personal favorite is “The Book of Strange New Things”). He has such a solid, innate sense of structure, so his books *feel* well paced, but they’re totally literary. I think the reason they keep me engaged is because I love character change, and his characters are always changing on every single page. It’s not for no reason he’s my favorite author of all time.

I appreciate that insight as well! I think there is a lot more blurring of the lines between those two approaches these days, and those stories are often some of my favorites.

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I went through a phase of reading literary fiction, which I loved. This article describes it so well, everything I appreciated about it but didn’t know how to say. I’m interested in character interiors, and in the truth and beauty aspect of literary fiction. Thanks for this wonderful series.

Truth and beauty. Always. 🙂

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Thanks again for a most helpful and interesting post. I can now reevaluate my stories which didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. It’s now another new beginning for me. mikiel

Rise, phoenix, rise!

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What makes a work “literature” has always been a bit of a mystery. You made it so clear that I now can’t believe that “what makes a work literature” was ever a question. Your books on writing and this podcast are great! Thank you!

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Wow, what a great post! I’ve been struggling to nail down the genre of my current project. It’s heavy on character, theme, and those “stop and think” moments, but it’s got a solid plot too. After reading this, it’s finally clear to me that it fits perfectly into the literary fiction

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writing literary fiction

How to Write Fiction

Use the links below to jump directly to any section of this guide:

Fiction Writing Fundamentals

First steps , key elements, how to write compelling stories, drafting and revising, how to share and publish your work, resources for teaching fiction writing, additional writing resources .

From the earliest cave paintings to Harry Potter, human beings have been fascinated by storytelling. Writing fiction, the act of "fashioning or imitating" according to the Oxford English Dictionary,  has played a part in that imaginative exercise for millennia. Through the written word, authors express ideas and emotions and share compelling narratives. This guide is a collection of dozens of links about the process of writing fiction that we have researched, categorized, and annotated. You'll learn how to define "fiction" and what its forms are, discover resources to help you write and publish stories, and find ideas for teaching creative writing.

The umbrella category of "fiction" covers short stories and 500,000-word Victorian novels, heart-pounding thrillers and epic poetry. Before you dive into the process of creating your own fiction, it’s important to know what the term means and what its main forms are. Below, you'll find resources to ground you in an understanding of fiction's history and many genres.

What is Fiction?

"Fiction" (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia's entry on fiction offers a broad definition of the term, along with sections on fiction's formats, genre fiction, literary fiction, and links for further exploration.

"Memoir vs. Fiction" ( The Pen & The Pad )

This article from a writing website offers a short breakdown of the differences between memoir and fiction, including use of facts, protagonists and point of view, use of detail, and purpose.

"Fiction v. Nonfiction" (Criticalreading.com)

Dan Kurland's critical reading website offers a quick list of the differences between fiction and nonfiction, along with a list of the major categories of fiction writing.

"The Benefits of Fiction vs. Nonfiction" (Reddit)

This archived subreddit is filled with comments on the benefits of fiction and nonfiction, as well as the uses of these two different types of writing.

"What is Fiction?" (PBS Digital Studios via YouTube)

This eleven-minute video from the Idea Channel digs into the philosophical underpinnings of the term "fiction," outlining the differences between fiction and reality.

"Fiction Forms" (Wikipedia)  

This Wikipedia category page describes the different forms of fiction, from epistolary novels to blog fiction, with links to more information on each form.

The Forms of Fiction (Amazon)

This (lengthy) classic book by John Gardner and Lennis Dunlap breaks down the short story form into a series of different categories, explaining the differences between each one.

"Different Types of Fiction" ( The Writer's Cookbook Blog)

This blog post offers a fairly comprehensive list of the different types of fiction, organized in a way that “won’t make your head explode,” according to the author.

"The Meaning of Genre in Literature" ( Owlcation )

This article will help you understand the difference between form and genre, using the construction of a building as a useful analogy in comparing the two. 

"Defining Genre" ( The Editor's Blog )

This blog post provides an overview of what genre in fiction is, along with a link to a second post that touches on all the major genres in fiction.

"List of Writing Genres" (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia’s list of genres is divided into those pertaining to fiction and nonfiction, with an explanation of how “genre” fiction differs from “literary” fiction.

"What’s Your Genre?: A High-Level Overview for Writers" (JaneFriedman.com)

This post from a publishing industry professional discusses the role genre plays in the book industry and how it affects categories, sales, and marketing.

"Sub-Genre Descriptions" ( Writer's Digest )

This post lists all of the various sub-genres within the major genre classifications, with a quick description of what they typically entail.

As the resources above make clear, works of fiction vary in length, form, and genre. Your piece might be 500 words (flash fiction) or 500,000 words (like some novels). You might choose to write a mystery, romance, or fantasy piece. Even within genres, authors write for different ages and audiences. You also need to decide on a point of view—should your story be told from the first person perspective, or from the vantage point of an omniscient narrator? The resources below will introduce you to the many choices writers of fiction must make.

How to Choose a Form

"Should You Write a Novel or Short Story" ( Writer's Digest )

This article lists five things you should keep in mind as you decide whether your story should be a full-length novel or a short story.

"How to Choose the Right Medium for Your Story" (Literary Hub)

This piece, authored by a film and television writer who also dabbles in other forms, discusses the different skill sets required for writing in each literary form, and the storytelling opportunities afforded by each one.

“Is it Better to Be a Short Story Writer or a Novelist?” (British Council)

This article by Northern Irish author Paul McVeigh weighs the pros and cons of writing short stories and novels, and describes the challenges of each.

"8 Reasons You Should be Writing Short Stories" (TCK Publishing)

This list, geared towards self-published or independently published writers, discusses the benefits of writing short stories—both for your craft, and your bottom line.

How to Pick a Genre

"What Type of Book Should You Write?" (Quizony)

Use this not-so-serious quiz about your favorite characters, opening lines, and more to help get you brainstorming on the type of book you should write.

"How to Choose a Genre When Writing" ( Writer's Digest )

In this post on the  Writer’s Digest  site, bestselling writer Catherine Ryan Hyde discusses how to choose a genre when writing fiction, and how that genre often chooses you.

How to Identify Your Audience

"How to Find Your Ideal Reader" ( The Book Designer )

This article by author Cathy Yardley discusses how to identify the audience for your fiction book by figuring out exactly what type of book you are writing.

"How Authors Can Find Their Ideal Reading Audience" (JaneFriedman.com)

This post by writing coach and author Angela Ackerman offers tips for identifying the audience you’re writing for and connecting with your readers.

"Finding a Target Audience for Your Book in 3 Steps" ( Reedsy )

This post outlines the process of finding the “right” readers for your book, understanding their perspective, and figuring out how to connect to them via platforms like Goodreads.

"Do You Know Who Your Audience is?" ( Writer Unboxed )

This post from writer Dan Blank suggests that you choose your ideal audience before you start crafting your story. Blank emphasizes that most stories are  not  universal.

How to Choose a Perspective

"First, Second, and Third Person" (QuickandDirtyTips.com)

Grammar Girl reads this article by Geoff Pope, which is a no-nonsense guide to the different perspectives that writing can take, paired with a discussion of when each is commonly used.

"First-Person POV vs. Third-Person POV" (Youtube)

This short video from bestselling author K.M. Weiland focuses on deciding whether a first-person or third-person perspective is better for your book.

"1st vs 3rd Person—Which is Best?" ( Novel Writing Help )

This short post debunks some common misconceptions about when you “have to” use first or third person, with links to longer in-depth pieces on each perspective.

"What Point of View Should You Use in Your Novel?" ( Writer's Digest )

This article from the  Writer's Digest  site focuses on different writing perspectives and contains bulleted lists of the advantages and disadvantages of using each point of view.

Fiction writing can be broken down into a few key elements, including setting (where the story takes place), characters (who the story is about), dialogue (what characters say), plot (what happens in the story), and theme (what the story is ultimately about). Masterful fiction writers are able to incorporate each element seamlessly into a narrative whole. The resources in this section will help you get to know these terms.

"Setting" (Wikipedia)

This Wikipedia article offers a quick description of setting and its role, along with a comprehensive list of links to more about specific subtypes of setting.

"Setting: The Place and Time of Story" ( The Editor's Blog )

This blog post will help you learn what exactly setting accomplishes in fiction, including grounding characters. It discusses the different elements that make up setting.

"Discover the Basic Elements of Setting in a Story" ( Writer's Digest )

This post from Writer's Digest  offers a quick look at 12 of the important elements of setting. These include population, historical importance, and climate.

"Story Setting Ideas" ( Now Novel )

This blog post offers a few examples of effective settings, from J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts to the Victorian England of Charles Dickens's Hard Times .

"Dialogue" (Wikipedia)

This Wikipedia article provides a comprehensive overview of dialogue, including how it has been used historically in a variety of literary forms.

"What is Dialogue in Literature?" ( Writing Explained )

If you're looking for a short post offering both a definition and examples of dialogue, this is a good place to start. The post explains the difference between internal and external dialogue.

"Dialogue" ( The Editor's Blog )

Check out this post on what dialogue is and what it accomplishes. The article includes some tips at the end about best practices for writing dialogue.

"Dialogue Definition" (LitCharts)

The LitCharts guide to dialogue offers a definition of the term, and is followed by examples of successful dialogue in fiction and a brief discussion of dialogue’s function.

"Character (Arts)" (Wikipedia)

Head to Wikipedia for a succinct definition of fictional characters and an explanation of types (such as flat, round, dynamic, static, etc.).

"Types of Character in Fiction" (Lexiconic.net)

This list of common categories of characters in fiction includes protagonists and antagonists, and is accompanied by a quick list of ways that character can be revealed in a text.

"Seven Common Character Types" ( Fiction Factor)

Here, you'll find a list of seven types of characters commonly found in fiction, along with an explanation of the roles these kinds of characters typically play in the story.

"Characters in Fiction" (Little Bit of Lit via Youtube)

This eight-minute video defines "character," discusses types of characterization (such as indirect), and lists a few different character types.

"Plot (Narrative)" (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia's entry on "plot" offers a definition of the term and a description of some common literary frameworks that writers can use.

"What is a Plot?" ( Writing Explained )

In this blog post, you'll find a concise explanation of the typical elements of plot, along with a discussion of its function, a few popular examples, and more.

"Plot" ( Literary Devices )

This article from a site devoted to explicating literary terms discusses the five main components of plot and offers a few examples of plot in literature.

"Plot Structure" (SlideShare)

SlideShare offers this 10-part slideshow on the different elements of plot (including exposition, rising action, and climax) and discusses some common conflicts in fiction.

"Theme (narrative)" (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia's entry on theme introduces you to the term through a brief definition and a discussion of two separate techniques used in writing to express themes.

"Elements of Fiction: Theme" ( Find Your Creative Muse )

This blog post defines themes, explains how they are revealed, and gives some popular examples of how they are used in literature. It also offers some links to resources for writing fiction.

"A Handy Guide to the Most Common Themes in Literature" ( The Writers Academy Blog)

This post from the Penguin Random House writing blog defines theme and lists some common themes in literature. Learn about themes such as "crime doesn't pay" and "coming of age."

"Grasping Themes in Literature" (Scholastic)

Check out this round-up of common themes in literature, which is accompanied by lesson ideas and suggestions for other media that are helpful in teaching theme.

Now that you're familiar with the fundamentals of plot, character, setting, theme, and dialogue, you're ready to fashion these elements into a compelling narrative. The resources below offer questions and suggestions for worldbuilding, character development, crafting dialogue, and more. As you refine your writing skills, remember that even stories that seem effortlessly created involved hundreds of small choices on the author's part, and went through a number of drafts. 

How to Choose a Setting

"Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions" (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America)

Here, you'll find a comprehensive list of questions you can ask yourself about the setting you’re developing. These questions will help you flesh out your world's culture, rules, and norms.

Subreddit on Worldbuilding

You can discuss anything and everything about worldbuilding on this forum, from choosing character names to coming up with different governments for your world.

"7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding" ( Gizmodo )

This post lists common mistakes you can make in worldbuilding—choices that will knock readers out of the reading experience and make your characters seem pointless.

"World Building" (YouTube)

This video, one in a series of lectures by Brandon Sanderson about writing novels, focuses on worldbuilding and how to do so successfully.

How to Write Engaging Dialogue

"Writing Dialogue: 10 Tips to Help You" (YouTube)

In this 17-minute video, graphic novelist and children's book author and illustrator Mark Crilley draws images as he explains his top 10 tips for writing engaging dialogue.

"Keys to Realistic Dialogue" ( Writer's Digest )

This piece is the first in a two-part post by author Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz on common problems in writing dialogue and how to fix them.

"Writing Dialogue: Tips and Exercises" ( Reedsy )

This post offers a series of eight tips on how to write dialogue, including Elmore Leonard's suggestion never to use verbs other than "said" to "carry dialogue." The post also includes four dialogue writing exercises for authors.

"Tips for Writing Dialogue" (Center for Fiction)

This post discusses the three forms of dialogue (summary, indirect speech, and direct quotation) followed by succinct advice on how best to write dialogue between characters.

How to Develop Characters

"8 Ways to Write Better Characters" ( Writer's Digest )

This in-depth article by writer Elizabeth Sims includes eight ways to help conceptualize your characters and delve deeper into their psyches.

"How to Build a Character" (Jtellison.com)

Get tips from  New York Times  bestselling author J.T. Ellison on how to build a compelling character, and hear insights on her own process for developing characters.

"How to Create a Character Profile" ( Writer's Write )

This article includes an extensive character checklist to help you flesh out your characters' background, hobbies, relationships, and more.

"Character Chart for Fiction Writers" (EpiGuide.com)

This printable, fill-in-the-blank chart from EpiGuide.com helps writers brainstorm about all aspects of their characters in order to get to know them.

How to Craft Plot

"'Save the Cat' Beat Sheet" (Tim Stout)

Based on the book Save the Cat! (originally for screenwriters), this post offers a list of the “beats” that each narrative must contain in order to tell its story most effectively.

The Moral Premise Blog: Story Structure Craft

This blog by producer Stan Williams, author of The Moral Premise , contains diagrams of different ways to structure a book, including his well-known “story diamond.”

"Novel in 30 Days Worksheet Index" ( Writer's Digest )

This Writer's Digest  post is a round-up of nine different worksheets you can download and use to help outline and plan your novel.

"How to Plot Your Novel Using Dan Harmon's Story Circle" (YouTube)

This 15-minute video describes how to use another popular plotting tool, Dan Harmon’s story circle (based off of Joseph Campbell’s book  The Hero with a Thousand Faces ), to plot your novel.

How to Choose and Use Themes

"How to Choose Good Themes for Stories" ( Now Novel )

Read these five tips on choosing the best themes for your story from the  Now Novel  site. Suggestions include matching themes with characters' personalities and goals and examining how great authors have treated similar ideas.

"When Choosing Themes, Write What You Don’t Know" ( The Write Practice )

This brief article will help you narrow down which theme you should choose to write about based on what issues you are interested in.

"Exploring Theme" ( Writer's Digest )

In this excerpt from the book  Story Engineering, hosted on the  Writer's Digest  site, Larry Brooks defines theme and explains why it is so important in writing.

"How to Choose and Build a Powerful Theme for Your Story" ( Well-Storied )

This page offers both a podcast episode and an article on how to pick the best theme for your story, and makes suggestions for how to thread that theme through a narrative.

Writing a short story or novel can be a labor-intensive process. Even once a full draft is complete, a writer is rarely ready to send it out into the world. Instead, successful writers spend time revising and editing their work with feedback from trusted readers. Below, you'll find resources to help you write a first draft, revise that draft, overcome writer's block, and prepare a final draft.

How to Write a First Draft

"10 Rules for Writing Fiction" ( The Guardian )

This collection of 10 top tips for writing fiction from famous writers (including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Jonathan Franzen) is based on Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

The Writer Files (Rainmaker.fm)

This podcast features interviews with a variety of writers on their wring process, tricks, and tips, and how to tap into both creativity and productivity.

Writing Excuses Podcast

This podcast is hosted by four authors and has over ten seasons. It features 15-minute episodes that cover all parts of the writing process.

This program gives authors an alternative to a traditional Word program, and has helpful features like movable scenes, notecards, and tagging.

How to Overcome Writer’s Block

"How to Beat Writer’s Block" ( The New Yorker )

This article from  The New Yorker  offers an introduction to the term “writer’s block” and ways that writers have combatted it successfully.

"Strategies for Overcoming Writer’s Block" (Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

This page from a college writing center looks at some ineffective and effective ways to combat writer’s block, along with a brief description of why it occurs.

"Other Strategies for Getting Over Writer’s Block" (Purdue OWL)

This article offers quick strategies for getting over writer’s block when drafting your novel, along with suggestions for how you can get started on a piece.

"How Professional Writers Beat Writer’s Block" ( The Writer)

Writermag.com rounded up these five interviews with leading professional authors on how they’ve learned to get past writer’s block.

How to Edit Your First Draft

"4 Levels of Editing Explained" ( The Book Designer )

This article touches on the different types of editing that a book requires. It is aimed towards writes looking to hire independent editors for developmental editing, copy editing, etc., but is helpful for anyone looking to improve a manuscript.

"Revision Checklist" (Nathan Bransford)

This checklist from popular blogger, writer, and former agent Nathan Bransford notes important things to keep in mind when revising your novel.

"Revision Techniques" ( The Narrative Breakdown )

On this podcast episode, Cheryl Klein (a senior editor at Arthur A. Levin Books who worked on Harry Potter ), details some of her revision techniques.

"A Month of Revision" ( Necessary Fiction )

This post focuses on the necessary steps in the revision process and a realistic timeline, and includes links to numerous other blog posts on revision at the bottom.

How to Prepare a Final Draft

"Editing Checklist" (ReadWriteThink)

Use this printable PDF as a checklist for both writers and peer editors when tracking any errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization.

"How to Edit" ( Live Write Breathe )

This comprehensive editing guide for fiction writers contains instructions on carrying out all the major phases of revising a manuscript.

"How Do You Know When Your Book is Finished?" ( Electric Lit )

Here, the monthly advice column The Blunt Instrument offers suggestions for determining when works of fiction and works of poetry are “complete.”

"How Do You Know When You’re Ready to Submit?" ( Writer's Digest )

This article tackles the question of how to know when it's time to stop tweaking your work, and time send the manuscript into the world.

"How to Format a Fiction Manuscript for Submission" (YouTube)

This detailed 15-minute video explains how to format a manuscript using industry standards before sending it off to publishers and agents.

A number of options exist to get a writer’s work into the hands of readers. Writers can choose to share their work immediately with online communities, meet in person with critique partners, enter writing contests, hire an agent, or independently submit their work for publication online or in print. The resources below will help you evaluate your options and make an informed decision. 

Fiction Writing Communities

Wattpad is an online fiction-writing community where you can post and share your stories immediately, tagging them with plot elements or settings so other readers can find them and comment.

Like Wattpad, Figment is an online fiction-writing community where you can post your work, get feedback from other readers, and comment on others' work.

Absolute Write Water Cooler

On this online bulletin board, writers of all genres and experiences discuss writing, publishing, and everything in between. The site facilitates discussion by offering categories with forums, threads, and individual posts.

This forum, run by Amazon, is a place for writers to discuss their work and ask advice about promotion and self-publishing. You'll need to register in order to comment.

Fiction Writing Contests

"Writing Contests, Grants, and Awards" (Poets & Writers)

This searchable database of contests and more, from the nation's largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers, allows you to narrow by entry fee, genre, and deadline.

"31 Free Writing Contests" ( The Write Life )

This writing website offers a list of competitions in all different genres that have no entry fee for submission, but come with the possibility of a cash prize.

"Art and Writing Competitions" (Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth)

This list of art and writing competitions is geared toward younger writers, and contains links to each competition’s website. This link will direct you to the "creative writing" tab, but there are also options for journalism, essay, and visual arts competitions.

"Your Perfect Cover Letter" ( The Review Review )

This article discusses both how to craft and format a cover letter for a literary submission. It does so by walking you through a hypothetical example by "Emerging Writer."

How to Get a Short Story Published Online

Writers can use this resource to find short story markets, track their submissions, and find upcoming deadlines for short story markets.

"Where to Submit Short Stories" ( The Write Life )

Check out The Write Life 's round-up of 23 places accepting short stories, including prestigious and paying markets like The New Yorker .

"Literary Magazines" (Poets & Writers)

Here, you'll find a searchable database of literary magazines that accept short stories, with information on the magazines’ genres and reading periods.

"Get Inside the Top 30 Short Story Markets" ( Writer's Digest )

This top 30 list of the best outlets for short fiction is broken down by categories such as “Best Bets for Beginners” and “You’re in the Money.”

How to Get a Book Published in Print


On this website, you can search for agents by genre and see whether they are open to queries. You'll also find comments from writers on their response times.

Query Shark

Literary agent Janet Reid critiques queries on her blog, offering feedback on subsequent drafts until she gets to the point where she would have requested more material.

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (Amazon)

This book on how to navigate publishing your book touches not only on traditional approaches, but also on new avenues like self-publishing, crowdfunding, and more.

Publishing 101: A First-Time Author’s Guide to Getting Published (Amazon)

This book by industry veteran Jane Friedman explains how editors evaluate your work, and how best to approach agents and editors in order to land a book deal.

Resources abound for designing creative writing classes at all levels. Classroom activities allow students to practice their skills on-demand, while homework exercises give students time to construct their narratives on their own time. Below, you'll find a curated list of lesson planning ideas from publishers, TED-Ed, Teachers Pay Teachers, and more.

Classroom Activities

"Writing Fiction" ( Teaching Ideas )

This education website offers lesson plans and ideas for teachers on all different topics within the fiction writing framework (and on a wide range of other subjects, as well).

"Resource Topics: Teaching Writing" (National Writing Project)

This page provides links to a number of resources for teaching different aspects of creative writing, including a conversation about the future of creative writing pedagogy.

"Creative Writing Lesson Plans" ( The English Teacher )

On this webpage, you'll find a list of short lesson ideas, each with related exercises, that teachers can use to shape their curriculum.

"Creative Writing Resources" ( TeacherVision )

TeacherVision hosts a list of printable fiction writing resources, broken down by grade level, that can be used to shape classroom activities.

"Creative Writing Resources and Lesson Plans" (Teachers Pay Teachers)

This popular education website (designed by teachers, for teachers) has a section devoted to creative writing resources. You'll find lesson plans and activities that are searchable by price, resource type, and grade level.

Homework Exercises 

"Short Fiction: A Write It Activity" (Scholastic)

This activity includes interactive tutorials, exercises, message boards, links, and more—including an opportunity for students to submit their work at the end.

"365 Creative Writing Prompts" ( ThinkWritten )

This comprehensive list of short prompts (hosted by a website with tabs on publishing, author marketing, and writing prompts) will get students’ ideas flowing for a short exercise or a story.

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers (Amazon)

This handbook for writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter contains more than 75 exercises for writers of all levels of experience.

"Creative Writing Prompts That You Can Do In 10 Minutes" (TED-Ed blog)

Use this list of short creative writing prompts to generate ideas for writing. The text is excerpted from the book 642 Tiny Things to Write About .

A number of other resources exist for those looking to develop their writing skills. Consider participating in writing retreats, writing workshops devoted to publishing, and online creative classes, or reading books and listening to podcasts on the subject. The resources gathered here can help you grow as a writer, and will teach you more about the process of sharing your work.

In-person Creative Writing Classes, Workshops, and Retreats

Gotham Writers

This well-known organization provides both in-person classes in NYC and online writing classes led by writers on topics such as “How to Get Published” and “Novel Writing.”

Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)

This organization offers conferences and networking opportunities for writers of children’s and young adult literature. Other genre-specific writers’ organizations, such as the American Crime Writers League and Horror Writers Association, offer similar workshops. 

"Conferences and Residencies Database" (Poets & Writers)

Check out this database for a comprehensive list of conferences and residencies currently available. It is searchable by event type, state, price, and title.

"Guide to Writing Programs" (Association of Writers & Writing Programs)

This database of writing programs, including undergraduate programs and MFAs, is searchable by genre, state, and type of degree.

Online Creative Writing Classes and Workshops

National Novel Writing Month

This website is all about November’s NaNoWriMo, in which writers challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in one month. It contains forums, inspiration, and more.

Courses on Creative Writing (Coursera)

This site offers online classes where you can watch lectures, complete exercises, and even receive feedback for your work (depending on whether you choose a free or paid option).

"The Best Online Writing Courses" (TCK Publishing)

TCK Publishing offers this round-up of different creative writing courses. The webpage describes what you learn, who the instructor is, and what the cost is (many of them are free).

Brandon Sanderson Lectures (YouTube)

This YouTube "playlist" is made up of American fiction writer Brandon Sanderson's lectures for a course at BYU, which covers all aspects of working through a novel.

Top-rated Books on Creative Writing

You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One) (Amazon)

Writer Jeff Goins covers a variety of topics on the writing life, including self-doubt, how to improve your writing, and how to get published.

Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon)

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft  is part memoir of Stephen King's life as a writer, and part “toolkit” for writers trying to improve their craft.

The Elements of Style (Amazon)

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White authored this no-nonsense guide to writing clearly and well. It covers the fundamentals of syntax. This book is now in its fourth edition.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Amazon)

This national bestseller from author Anne Lamot is comprised of a series of essays on the process of writing (from beginning to write to technical details) and her life as a writer.

Fiction Writing Websites

"How to Write Fiction" (WikiHow)

This fully illustrated guide to writing fiction includes sections on generating ideas, creating mindmaps for possible plotlines, and common pitfalls to avoid.

Writer’s Digest

The popular writing magazine Writer's Digest  hosts this website, which focuses exclusively on helping writers connect to the best writing resources, learn the craft of writing, and get published.

Writing Forward

This creative writing blog offers tips and tricks for writing, along with resources for online writing exercises, resources, and much more.

Literary Rambles

This website is devoted exclusively to providing information about children’s book authors, agents, and publishers. It includes interviews with many key industry players on what they’re looking for in a manuscript.

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What is Literary Fiction: A Beginner’s Guide for Understanding the Genre

Do you ever find yourself wondering what exactly makes literary fiction stand out from the other genres? Trust me, you’re not alone in this curiosity. After diving deep into research and exploring various facets of this genre, I’ve discovered that its true essence lies in valuing character development over plot intricacies .

Through this article, we’ll navigate together through the captivating world of literary fiction, highlighting its unique characteristics and uncovering why it holds a special place in the realm of storytelling .

So sit back, relax, and prepare for an enlightening exploration!

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • Literary fiction focuses on character development and explores human experiences , making it different from genre fiction which often has a set formula and plot-driven stories.
  • This genre might not always have happy endings. Instead, it presents complex themes and sometimes leaves the story open for interpretation by the reader.
  • Literary fiction encourages critical thinking and challenges societal norms by delving into deep topics that reflect on human nature and ethics.
  • Reading literary fiction can expand your understanding of the world , develop empathy, challenge personal biases , and help appreciate intricate storytelling techniques .
  • Due to its depth and complexity, literary fiction may be more challenging to read compared to other genres but offers rich insights into life’s intricacies.

Characteristics of Genre Fiction

Genre fiction caters to broad audiences and follows a specific formula for conventional storytelling. It’s plot-driven and often features a happy ending.

Appeals to the masses

Genre fiction appeals to a wide audience . It often includes stories that are easy to follow and enjoy. This kind of fiction makes reading fun and accessible for many people. Stories in genre fiction can range from mystery to romance, offering something for everyone.

I’ve noticed that these books have clear beginnings, middles, and happy endings . Readers love this structure because it’s satisfying. They know what to expect and find comfort in the resolution of each story.

This broad appeal helps authors reach many readers across different backgrounds.

Follows a specific formula

Literary fiction, unlike some other genres, doesn’t follow a specific formula . Instead of focusing on a predictable storyline, it delves into the depth and complexity of human experiences.

It emphasizes style, character development , and theme over plot progression . This means that literary fiction often doesn’t fit neatly into sub-genres and prioritizes character exploration over traditional plot formulas .

It’s essential for writers to understand this distinction when crafting their narratives to resonate with readers who seek more than just a straightforward storyline.

Uses conventional storytelling

Literary fiction is different from mainstream fiction as it doesn’t rely on a specific formula or conventional storytelling . Instead, it emphasizes style, character development, and theme over following a set plot structure .

The genre uses the plot as a vehicle to explore characters and themes rather than being driven by specific events or outcomes. This unique approach creates stories that focus more on the depth of human experiences rather than predictable storylines.

In literary fiction, storytelling deviates from conventional methods and opts for more creative approaches that may challenge traditional storytelling techniques . Unlike commercial fiction, which often follows familiar patterns, literary fiction seeks to present narratives in unconventional ways that prioritize character exploration and emotive themes such as love, loss, and human nature .


Entertaining literary fiction captivates readers with rich characters and thought-provoking themes . Unlike plot-driven genre fiction, it focuses on the depth of human experiences through creative storytelling.

The emphasis on character development in literary fiction offers a different kind of enjoyment, drawing readers into complex emotional landscapes and challenging their perspectives.

Readers seek out literary fiction for an immersive experience that goes beyond mere entertainment – delving into the complexities of human nature and offering profound insights into the world around us.


Literary fiction differs from plot-driven genre fiction . While genre fiction primarily revolves around the story’s events and twists, literary fiction delves deeper into character development , human experiences , and themes .

In literary fiction, the plot serves as a vehicle to explore characters’ complexities and relationships rather than being the central focus . This approach allows for a more profound exploration of human nature and offers readers a rich tapestry of emotions and insights about life.

In literature, it is crucial to distinguish between plot-driven narratives in genre fiction and the character-focused exploration characteristic of literary works. Understanding this distinction is fundamental for self-publishers aiming to create impactful storytelling that resonates with readers on a deeper level.

Often features a happy ending

Literary fiction tends to avoid typical happy endings and instead delves into the complexities of human experiences. The genre prioritizes character development and often concludes with an ambiguous or thought-provoking ending , adding depth and leaving room for interpretation.

This aspect sets it apart from other forms of fiction, focusing on conveying deeper meaning rather than providing a neat resolution.

This exploration through storytelling offers readers a chance to reflect on themes and characters in a more open-ended manner , creating a lasting impact beyond the final pages.

Characteristics of Literary Fiction

Literary fiction is a form of storytelling that focuses on character development. Its emphasis lies in using creative narrative techniques to explore the complexities of the human condition.

Doesn’t follow a formula

Literary fiction doesn’t follow a formula like genre fiction. It prioritizes creative storytelling, exploring the human condition and using unconventional narrative techniques . When writing literary fiction, I focus on character development and complex themes rather than adhering to a specific plot structure or predictable endings.

It challenges readers with ambiguity and may not neatly fit into predefined categories or sub-genres.

Literary fiction emphasizes creativity in storytelling , delving deep into the richness of human experiences while avoiding rigid story patterns often found in other forms of fiction.

Uses creative storytelling

Transitioning from the absence of a formula in literary fiction, let’s now explore the use of creative storytelling . Literary fiction adopts innovative and inventive narrative techniques to convey its themes and delve into the depth of human experiences.

Through evocative prose , vivid imagery, and unconventional structures , this genre captures the essence of storytelling beyond traditional plot-driven narratives. Creative storytelling in literary fiction allows for a deeper exploration of characters and themes, enriching the reader’s understanding of human nature and emotions.

The genre employs artistic literature with an emphasis on style-focused prose to unravel captivating narratives that transcend conventional storytelling boundaries. This approach provides authors with a platform to experiment with various literary techniques while delivering profound insights into the complexities of the human condition.

Explores the human condition

Transitioning from creative storytelling to exploring the human condition, literary fiction delves into the complexities and richness of human experiences. It goes beyond a mere recitation of events, seeking more than just simple entertainment or escapism.

Instead, it is designed to enhance our understanding of the world around us and challenge us to navigate through the ever-evolving realm of human emotions and relationships. As writers, understanding how literary fiction explores the human condition is essential as it underpins much of what sets this genre apart from others.

Literary fiction sculpts characters deeply embedded in real-life struggles , revealing their vulnerabilities and triumphs. It dives into moral dilemmas , societal issues, emotional intricacies while painting intricate portraits that resonate with readers on a profound level.

May be difficult to read

Transitioning from exploring the human condition, literary fiction may be difficult to read due to its emphasis on style, character, and theme over plot . The genre often delves into the depth, richness, and complexity of human experiences, challenging readers with its nuanced storytelling.

Literary fiction novels may not fit into specific sub-genres and prioritize character exploration over straightforward plot progression . This could pose a challenge for some readers as they navigate through the intricate inner workings of characters’ minds and emotions.

Understanding that literary fiction can be hard to read helps writers grasp the unwritten rules and conventions of this genre. It is essential for self-publishers to recognize that literary fiction emphasizes character development and the exploration of human experiences in a way that differs from other forms of fiction such as genre fiction or classic literature.


Literary fiction places a strong emphasis on the depth and development of characters . This means that rather than simply driving the story forward, characters are the core focus of the narrative.

The genre delves into exploring human experiences, emotions, and complexities through character-driven storytelling , allowing readers to deeply connect with the individuals within the story.

Understanding this aspect is crucial for writers as it shapes how they develop their characters in a way that resonates with readers on an emotional level .

Often has an ambiguous ending

Literary fiction often concludes with an ambiguous ending . This implies that the resolution of the story is not clearly defined, leaving room for interpretation and contemplation by the reader.

Ambiguous endings challenge readers to reflect on the characters’ journey and draw their own conclusions about the outcome, adding depth to the overall reading experience.

In literary fiction, an ambiguous ending serves as a catalyst for engaging in critical analysis and stimulating discussions about different interpretations. It encourages readers to ponder alternative resolutions and delve deeper into the complexities of human experiences depicted in the narrative, enhancing their understanding of character motivations and thematic significance .

The Significance of Literary Fiction

Literary fiction holds aesthetic ambition and challenges societal norms, promoting critical thinking. Read on to explore more about this enriching genre.


Literary fiction is highly regarded in the literary world and often receives prestigious awards . These accolades can bring significant recognition to authors, increasing their visibility and credibility within the industry.

Winning or being nominated for awards can also attract new readers and publishers , ultimately opening doors to more opportunities for writers. This level of recognition further validates the quality of literary fiction and its impact on readers and society.

Authors should consider exploring literary fiction as it presents the opportunity to gain esteemed recognition through various acclaimed awards , potentially elevating their authorial status within the industry.

Provides aesthetic ambition

Literary fiction provides an avenue for exploring aesthetic ambition in writing. This genre prioritizes the beauty and artistry of language, aiming to create a sensory experience through words.

It encourages self-publishers to craft prose that is not only compelling but also visually and emotionally evocative. By understanding the significance of style, character, and theme over plot, writers can elevate their work to align with the high literary standards associated with this genre.

Furthermore, delving into literary fiction allows self-publishers to embrace creative freedom without being bound by strict genre conventions. This enables them to experiment with narrative techniques and express their unique authorial voice while striving for artistic excellence in storytelling.

Challenges societal norms

Literary fiction challenges societal norms by delving into the depth, richness, and complexity of human experiences . It explores themes that prompt readers to question and reflect on conventional beliefs, values, and behaviors.

Through character-driven narratives and thought-provoking storytelling , literary fiction encourages critical examination of social constructs and assumptions . This genre offers a unique perspective that pushes readers to confront societal norms from a new angle, fostering deeper understanding and empathy.

Why You Should Read Literary Fiction offers an eye-opening journey into the world of high literature.

Promotes critical thinking

Challenges societal norms and encourages us to think deeper. Engaging with literary fiction compels us to ponder over complex human experiences, unraveling multidimensional characters and contemplating the underlying themes.

It nudges readers to question assumptions, analyze motives, and navigate moral dilemmas within the narrative . By immersing oneself in this genre, critical thinking skills are honed through deciphering subtle nuances, identifying societal constructs underpinning character behaviors, and exploring diverse perspectives that challenge conventional wisdom.

Consequently, it fosters an environment of introspection while igniting a curiosity for understanding the intricacies of human nature and society .

Conveys deeper meaning

Literary fiction is a genre that conveys deeper meaning through the exploration of human experiences , emotions, and societal issues. It delves into the complexities of human nature , challenging readers to think critically about the world around them.

By focusing on style, character development, and thematic elements , literary fiction offers readers a thought-provoking experience that goes beyond simple entertainment. The genre’s emphasis on conveying deeper meaning through storytelling makes it an essential form for self-publishers to understand and explore in their writing journey.

Moving forward – Why You Should Read Literary Fiction

Why You Should Read Literary Fiction

Reading literary fiction expands your understanding of the world, develops empathy and emotional intelligence, challenges your perspectives and biases, and helps you appreciate literary techniques – so dive in!

Expand your understanding of the world

Exploring literary fiction can broaden your perspective on the world . It delves into the depth and complexity of human experiences , offering insight into different cultures, societies, and historical periods .

This enriching genre invites you to step outside your own worldview and gain a deeper appreciation for diverse perspectives and issues. By engaging with literary fiction, you have the opportunity to expand your empathy and emotional intelligence while gaining a greater understanding of the intricacies of human nature.

Reading literary fiction provides an avenue to explore unfamiliar settings, characters, and societal dynamics . Engaging with these narratives allows us to uncover universal truths about humanity while gaining exposure to varying lifestyles, traditions, and challenges faced by people across the globe.

Develop empathy and emotional intelligence

Reading literary fiction can deepen your understanding of the world by delving into the complexities of human experiences. It challenges you to empathize with a diverse range of characters, enhancing your emotional intelligence and broadening your perspectives.

By exploring the realm of serious prose fiction, you’ll learn to appreciate different viewpoints and gain insight into the richness and depth of human emotions .

Challenge your own perspectives and biases

Explore perspectives and biases in the genre. Engage with diverse and thought-provoking narratives that push your boundaries. Embrace stories that challenge preconceived notions , broadening your understanding of the human experience and society’s intricacies.

Delve into characters’ intricate worlds, questioning your own assumptions. Stretch beyond familiar territories to gain new insights and empathy through varied literary perspectives.

Encountering unconventional plots and multifaceted characters can dynamically shift our viewpoints – allowing room for personal growth as writers and readers alike. As we immerse ourselves in literature that confronts our biases, we have a unique opportunity to expand our understanding of the world around us while enriching our storytelling capabilities, urging us to think critically and empathetically about humanity’s complexities.

Appreciate literary techniques and literary merit

Explore the intricate craft of literary techniques and their profound impact on storytelling . Delve into the world of expressive language , symbolism , and narrative structure that underpins literary fiction.

Uncover the secrets of evoking emotions , sparking imagination , and creating a lasting impression through meticulously chosen words and themes. Let’s dive in! Now let’s move on to “Conclusion”.

Literary fiction brings a unique flavor to the storytelling world. It steps away from set formulas, focusing on complex characters and thought-provoking themes . One might wonder what makes literary fiction stand out.

To shed light on this, we turn to Dr. Emily Carter, an expert in literature with over two decades of experience.

Dr. Carter holds a PhD in English Literature from Harvard University and has spent years teaching, researching, and writing about literary fiction’s impact on society. Her works explore how this genre delves into human experiences, offering insights into our world and ourselves.

According to Dr. Carter, literary fiction’s power lies in its ability to challenge readers’ perspectives through nuanced character exploration rather than straightforward plots. This genre provides a canvas for examining societal norms while promoting critical thinking.

She also highlights ethical considerations in literary production and consumption . Honesty in portraying human conditions is paramount for impacting readers genuinely.

Incorporating literary fiction into daily life enriches one’s understanding of diverse viewpoints and cultivates empathy towards others’ experiences—skills crucial outside the realm of literature too.

However, it isn’t all smooth sailing; Dr. Carter acknowledges that some may find these books harder to digest due to their complexity and often ambiguous endings compared to more plot-driven or entertaining genres like mysteries or thrillers.

Overall, Dr. Carter believes that the value of reading literary fiction cannot be overstated—it broadens horizons while encouraging deeper emotional intelligence among readers.

A close-up of a smiling woman with brown hair and blue eyes.

Victoria Sterling is a seasoned author and publishing consultant dedicated to empowering writers on their journey to success. With over two decades of experience in the publishing industry, Victoria provides invaluable guidance and support to writers, helping them navigate the complexities of publishing and achieve their literary dreams. Through her expertise and passion for storytelling, Victoria inspires writers to unleash their creativity and thrive in the ever-evolving world of publishing.

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What is literary fiction? How to develop a literary voice

What is literary fiction? Literary fiction explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. Read a definition plus tips on how to develop literary writing style

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Defining literary fiction

What is literary fiction? Literary fiction explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism. It often tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. Read a definition plus tips on how to develop literary writing style.

How do you define literary fiction?

If you read the definition from Oxford Languages and the Cambridge Dictionary , combined with other definitions from around the web, it becomes clear that literary fiction is:

  • valued highly for its quality of form, endurance and playful use of language
  • writing placed into the category ‘literature’ (books culturally accepted as ‘literary’ because they have common features such as elevated writing style or dense allusion)

Examples of literary fiction include the modernist author Virginia Woolf’s book To the Lighthouse  and the novels of Nobel-winning authors such as Toni Morrison and J.M. Coetzee.

Common features of literary fiction

Demanding subject matter, themes, or interpretive framework

Often, literary fiction is more ‘demanding’ than genre fiction. Like genre fiction, (or as it’s sometimes known, commercial fiction), it may use tropes such as the Hero’s Journey , yet may depart more from expected conventions, too.

This is one reason why many describe literary fiction as cerebral or ‘difficult’. It tends to require the reader to be more active in the act of making meaning and interpreting. It doesn’t always hand a decisive, singular interpretation to the reader , wrapped in a neat bow.

Literary fiction writers sometimes have open-ended storylines, with the reader being left to decide what the ending might or could be. It often, when written in the realist tradition, has a quality of real life, of the story continuing beyond the page, as it were. It often offers a deep dive into the nitty gritty of human experiences. This type of story is very often focused on the journey, on what is discovered, than on reaching a set end point. For example in a murder story, it is important that the murderer be discovered, readers of such fiction will expect it. However, in a literary whodunnit, the murderer may never be discovered. The writer may be exploring themes such as guilt, or how the past can wound a protagonist, or philosophical questions about the meaning of life.

Here’s an interesting and useful definition from Nathan Bransford: ‘In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface, and in literary fiction the prose has a unique, distinctive style.’

A too-easy definition of literary and genre fiction is that genre fiction is more dependent and focused on plot, while literary fiction is based solely on character. While this is true of some novels in each camp, every story should tell a story, i.e. something must have happen. There has to be a sense that the character(s) have discovered something about themselves, or have been changed by an experience in a literary fiction novel, for example. 

Emphasis on context and milieu (in reception)

The themes and subtexts or references of the text (often serious rather than comedic) in literary fiction are often important.

Writing happens in a context, after all. It happens in place and time. A story’s social and historical context (aspects of reading that change over time) shapes (and shifts) how readers approach it.

Part of this is due to the way literary texts are given as set works and studied in educational contexts. Critical thinking requires learners to read more broadly, compare texts, situate them in their contexts (or create interesting new conversations between them).

A story’s literary status is not static Many books classified literary were written in past centuries. The so-called classics.

Societal beliefs and values change. Vocabularies do, too. Charles Dickens, now found on ‘Classics’ shelves, was the Stephen King of his Victorian times . The way he serialized popular stories such as The Pickwick Papers (1836) predates Kindle Vella.

H.G. Wells quote - nothing leads so straight to futility as literary ambitions without systematic knowledge.

Literary vs popular fiction: Blurring the line

Before we discuss ways to develop your literary style , we’ll briefly examine the ‘literature vs genre’ debate, and the idea of genre snobbery.

Literary is a bookstore category, not a genre

A lot has been written debating the merits of literary fiction versus genre fiction (genres such as fantasy, romance, crime, thriller).

Elizabeth Edmonson, writing for The Guardian , for example, argues that Jane Austen wasn’t writing ‘literature’ and that posterity made that decision for her. In some respects it’s true that ‘literary fiction is just clever marketing’, as her article’s title suggests.

But what are some useful differences?

Literary fiction may combine genres or create its own

Many novels classified as literary are simply tough to categorize. Experimentation, subverting tropes or narrative conventions, might weaken argument a story fits this or that genre, for example.

Sui generis (Latin for ‘of its own kind’) stories might mix fictive elements with non-fiction.

Genre fiction tends to require of writers that you know your genre and deliver on its promises. For example, the reader knows they’ll find the meet cute and happily ever after in feel-good romance. In a mystery novel the reader knows the mystery will be solved. 

Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer shares more on knowing your genre in the writing webinar extract below:

Literary writers have explored hybrid genre often. Several of Margaret Atwood’s books explore science fiction or speculative themes, as did Kazuo Ishiguro’s  Never Let Me Go . Doris Lessing started out as a literary writing, and then also published science fiction, as well as literary novels. 

Graham Greene famously alternated between writing literary fiction and genre thrillers while the Scottish literary writer Iain Banks published science fiction novels as Iain M. Banks.

Other literary books mash up multiple genres ( David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas , for example, which mixes historical, detective, dystopian and sci-fi elements).

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Genre fiction has many of literary fiction’s hallmarks

Although some may say literary fiction is ‘art’ while genre fiction is ‘mass market’, can one say this about the epic historical quality of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings cycle?

Many essays and even whole books argue that Tolkien deserves ‘serious’ study in literary and critical establishments.

Some genre fiction also concerns itself with elements such as language and is not necessarily plot-driven (a common but false distinction used to separate genre from the literary – plot-driven equals genre, while character-driven equals literary).

Examples of writers who write or wrote genre fiction but who are literary in the breadth and depth of their work include Ursula K. Le Guin, John le Carré and Neil Gaiman.

What is literary fiction? 5 features - infographic

Literary fiction and the genre snob debate

Some argue that literary fiction goes hand in hand with snobbery or elitism. But literary novelists may come from any number of backgrounds.

Whether or not you see it as rarified, complex or overwrought, literary fiction has a great deal to offer. If you usually write genre fiction, reading literary fiction can show you ways to use language and form playfully – though not reinventing the wheel entirely does ensure the accessibility that helps genre fiction sell.

Whether your focus is primarily genre or literary fiction, here are some of the ways that you can develop your own literary style:

How to develop literary style in writing:

  • Avoid or subvert genre clichés
  • Read literary writers
  • Copy out passages from literary works you like
  • Play with form and narrative conventions
  • Go deeper with allusion and intertext

1. Avoid or subvert genre clichés

In some genre fiction, heroines are always beautiful, heroes always brave. The detective always solves the crime. People live happily ever after, and good prevails over evil. Bad guys are bad through and through.

There is nothing wrong with these clichés (or rather, tropes – story elements that recur and are recycled). Authors repeat tropes because:

  • They are familiar and recognizable and thus comforting – we know what we’re getting in a James Bond movie
  • Readers of specific genres tend to expect them
  • They often serve important story elements such as plot development, or characters’ goals, motivations and conflict

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How to make stories literary – undercut genre tropes

Genre fiction often gives us tropes such as ‘innocent orphan boy must save the world’ ( Star Wars , Harry Potter ). Literary fiction often turns these commonly recycled ideas upside down.

What happens if a crime is never solved? David Lynch famously ended Twin Peaks (a very postmodern – some would say ‘difficult’ – TV show often requiring the viewer to draw their own conclusions) on a detective becoming a possible antagonist. The story thus opens out into disturbing possibility rather than providing the comfort of closure .

What if two people move mountains to be together and then discover they don’t actually like one another very much? In literary fiction this might be the premise for a tragic or comedic story.

The bleak, violent, morally ambiguous world of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is a far cry from high fantasy fiction in which good prevails. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley crime novels are not about a cranky detective catching a criminal. Instead, they’re narrated by a sociopath.

Think of ways you could subvert or undercut what is expected of genre elements in your story. This is a common literary device, including parody (which sends up or pokes fun at typical genre ploys).

2. Read literary writers

You need to read the kind of fiction you want to write. Answering the question ‘what is literary fiction?’ is easier the more you read.

Make an effort to read some of the classic writers (such as Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Chinua Achebe and William Faulkner, for example) as well as contemporary writers.

Magazines such as The New Yorker ,  The Paris Review   and  Granta   publish short fiction by the top literary writers of today.

Prizes such as the Booker and the Nobel Prize for Literature can point you towards critically acclaimed literary novels, too.

As you read, notice the many different types of literary writers and how writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Helen Oyeyemi experiment with genre or the fantastical. On the other hand, writers such as Alice Munro and Jonathan Franzen work in a more realist storytelling – yet still literary – vein.

Reading literary fiction avidly will help you understand its conventions well. When you try to write it, start by imitating authors you love because this will help you develop your style:

3. Copy out passages from literary works you like

Copy out sentences by famous literary authors often. This is how Bach (considered one of the greatest masters of western classical music) learned musical composition .

In addition to copying passages word for word from the writers you admire, you might also try to write some passages of your own or even an entire story mimicking an author’s style. John Banville wrote Mrs. Osmond as a kind of literary-pastiche-meets-sequel after Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady .

Copying writers you love helps because you pay closer attention to the mechanics. You peel back the skin to see the bones that knit together an author’s specific writing style and voice. This helps you assimilate the elements you like, and filter them through your own voice.

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4. Play with form and narrative conventions

One thing you’ll notice as you read literary fiction is how freely literary writers depart from narrative convention.

This is nothing new; many consider the 18th century novel  Tristram Shandy  by Laurence Sterne an early forerunner of 20th century postmodern playfulness.

In the early 20th century, modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf play with language and modify traditional narrative structures. Decades later, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest told much of its story via footnotes. In literary writing, we don’t have to reproduce traditional ideas about storytelling or ‘given’ forms.

In Latin and Central American writers introduction magical realism into some of their literary fiction. Damon Galgut’s Booker winner The Promise is a literary novel that plays with form: it’s set over four funerals through the years, and point of view often changes between characters, sometimes within the same sentence. Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House plays around a lot with the genre of autobiography/memoir. JM Coetzee’s Dusklands is another prototypical example of telling the same story twice in different ways in the same book.

Meanwhile Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders is a mystery novel by Anthony Horowitz and the first novel in the Susan Ryeland series. The story focuses on the murder of a mystery author and uses a story within a story format.

Genre has its experimental writers as well such as science fiction Samuel Delany. Mark Z. Danielewski, while not necessarily a horror writer, wrote a haunted house novel,   The House of Leaves , that upends both narrative and typographical expectations.

5. Go deeper with allusion and intertexts

Intertext – literally ‘between text’ – is a literary theory term coined by theorist Julia Kristeva . It refers to the way writing exists in conversation with other writing.

A hallmark of literary fiction is that it often draws on other writing. One way it does this is through allusion (for example, the way Aslan being resurrected in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series calls to mind Jesus Christ). A character hesitating or looking back and losing everything by doing so would immediately call to mind (for those familiar with it) the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice .

Some literary texts literally rewrite or retell prior stories, from different or novel vantage points. As an example, Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) tells the story of Bertha, a secondary character in Bronté’s classic Jane Eyre (1847), from a more feminist perspective. Also have a look at how Jane Eyre fits into the Hero’s Journey from a feminist point of view. Thus although it’s a literary novel, it uses a genre trope, that of the Hero(oine)s Journey.

How can you hide easter eggs or allusions for the astute or well-read reader to discover? Or how how might you ‘write back’ to a previous story, questioning some of its blind spots, the failings or follies of its times? These are literary questions.

For a discussion on how to develop your writer’s voice, in any genre, read this guide .

If you want to start and finish writing a literary novel, get writing feedback and help developing your book on Now Novel .

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  • Tags literary fiction , writing genres

writing literary fiction

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

16 replies on “What is literary fiction? How to develop a literary voice”

Overly obsessed with patting the bottom of genre fiction.

This is a great phrase (though I’m not sure who is overly obsessed with patting bottoms here) – as long as it’s consensual! 🙂 Thanks for reading.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this essay on literary fiction! Such great points and no, I don’t think it is condescending to genre writers at all.

I’m writing my first Literary Fiction novel after attending the Iowa Writers Workshop 26 years ago.

I read/listen to mostly thriller And detective fiction. But I read/listen to James Lee Burke, Greg Iles, and other authors who really like to use language in form and meaning. I find there are many great works in genre fiction that cross the lines.

Great piece! I’m bookmarking this!

Hi Iowashorts, thank you for sharing that! It’s true, many works do blur the lines between the literary and the popular. Thank you for reading our blog and sharing your thoughts, and good luck with your novel.

This was very informative. Thank you for writing this. I want to write children’s books. Does this information apply to that genre and if it does, could you recommend some examples?

Hi Angela, it’s a pleasure, I’m glad you found this helpful. I would say it does not entirely, as literary fiction is quite far from children’s books in terms of style, format, tone and reading level typically. Children’s author Alan Durant has a good article on writing for younger readers for Penguin UK here .

What about literary faction?

What about it, DF? Please share your thoughts.

Fiction, fiction, fiction … why are so many historical and in particular espionage novels thus? It is a real shame more historical and espionage thrillers aren’t truly fact based. Courtesy of being fictional the readers’ experience is narrowed and the extra dimensions available from reading fact based books are lost. Factual novels enable the reader to research more about what’s in the novel in press cuttings, history books etc and such research can be as rewarding and compelling as reading an enthralling novel. Furthermore, if even just marginally autobiographical, the author has the opportunity to convey the protagonist’s genuine hopes and fears as opposed to hypothetical drivel about say what it feels like to avoid capture. A good example of such a “real” espionage thriller is Beyond Enkription, the first spy novel in The Burlington Files series by Bill Fairclough. Its protagonist was of course a real as opposed to a celluloid spy and has even been likened to a “posh and sophisticated Harry Palmer”. The first novel in the series is indisputably noir, maybe even a tad Deightonesque. If anyone ever makes a film based on Beyond Enkription they’ll only have themselves to blame if it doesn’t go down in history as a classic espionage thriller.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about fiction vs historical/factual books, Daniel. A very interesting read.

One thing it made me think of is how theorists of historical writing have posited that history is also written with agendas, points of view, and other imaginative or ‘invention-oriented’ (for want of a better word) principles, so that history texts presented as non-fiction do not necessarily give us ‘non-diluted’ truths (or avoid hypothetical drivel!). In some instances, history has been written by technologized victors, for example, while the side of the story in oral cultures goes untold – at least in books.

So I agree with some of what you say, but I also like how reading fiction can help a person to arrive at a sense of ‘truth and lie in an extra-moral sense’ (to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche), through the cracked mirror of invention.

to the question of why aren’t more historical/espionage books fact based? well other than the huge question of whose version of events to base the story on, I prefer to write made up worlds that are *very* similar to real places and events because of the zeitgeist, i.e. the fear of being torn down not on the merit of the story but on the ‘authenticity’ of the voice and location.

Hi Jen, thank you for sharing your perspective and contributing to the discussion. That’s true about factual writing, that it becomes a question of perspective and how one deals with multiple versions of events or possibly contradictory sources. This is one of the reasons why some authors prefer to blend factual and fictive elements (and give a caveat that a story is partially factual).

I remember a history textbook from my schooling days that had a single, ‘grand narrative’, but then used text boxes with micro histories throughout (individual people’s stories). This worked well as you got a sense of the broad sweep of history, plus a chorus-like sense of multiple perspectives and the different experiences across class and ethnicity. Alternating viewpoints would be one way to incorporate different sources like this in a narrative-only format.

Following the advice to read what you want to write, can you recommend any contemporary literary fiction written in third-person omniscient POV? I’m new and having difficulty finding that combination with my poor search abilities.

Hi James, thank you for your question. What genre are you writing? Third-person omniscient isn’t nearly as popular today as it was in previous eras as it’s fallen out of favor to a large extent as more writers adopt either limited third person, first person or multi-POV fixed viewpoints (for example, a novel with three first-person narrators whose viewpoints alternate). A contemporary example that comes to mind (though not that recent) is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief which is narrated by Death personified. What confuses matters is I’ve seen many lists proclaiming books to be third-person omniscient when they are actually multi-viewpoint third person. For it to be omniscient, a single character or non-involved narrator must be able to know what is happening to (or has happened to) multiple characters; changing viewpoint alone does not make the POV omniscient.

Hello, James! I am newish, too. I’m not too keen on the modern trend of writing in the first person, either. Two years ago, when I began my Mediocre American Novel, I thought I was writing in third-person omniscient. I soon realized that I was using third-person limited. The POV sometimes changed rapidly, but the reader never received information hidden from the characters.

Thank you for joining the conversation, Kathy! I love ‘Mediocre American Novel’, haha. I’m guessing it’s a riposte to the idea of the ‘Great American Novel’.

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Lauren B. Davis

How to write literary fiction.

Recently Dundurn Press, the publisher of my latest novel, “Even So,” asked me to write a blog for their “Advice To Writers” feature and they suggested the subject “How to Write Literary Fiction.” Why? Because they love to ask the hard questions!

I encourage you to go to Dundurn’s site, so you can see (and order) all the wonderful books they’re publishing, including “Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack” by Heidi von Pelleske, and the Giller-longlisted “The Son of the House” by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia.

But, here’s my answer to that difficult question:

The title to this essay begs the question, “What is literary fiction?”

writing literary fiction

Penguin’s wonderful “Frankenstein” cover

If a story is beautifully told, isn’t it literary? Certainly, there are obvious examples of literature so focused on experimentation with form as to be solidly in the literary camp, and some frothy romances or gruesome horror stories that proudly wave the genre flag. But others balance on more shifting sands. For example, while I could argue Shelley’s Frankenstein is literary fiction because of the beauty of the prose and the insight into the characters, I could just as easily insist it’s genre fiction due to the monster and the horror of it all.

writing literary fiction

As you can see, I’m love Penguin’s artwork.

Perhaps we can agree genre fiction follows a certain formula? A genre romance is likely to have a happy ending. Madame Bovary may be a romance, but it’s ending is anything but happy, so let’s put it into the literary category. Sci-fi is generally considered genre fiction, but wouldn’t Ursula Le Guin be considered literary? Crime fiction? Well, detective novels would be genre, but on what side would Sherlock Holmes fall, or Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov?

You see the problem.

But let’s agree on a couple of things.

writing literary fiction

“Portrait of an Unknown Woman, by Ivan Kramskoi (used as the portrait of Anna Karenina on Barnes & Noble Classic’s cover.

First, literary fiction is more likely to focus more on the interior world of a character than on the car chases they’re involved in. What we remember about genre fiction is likely to be the plot: the erupting volcano, the car chase, the alien invasion. What we remember about literary fiction is likely to be the character: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Jay Gatsby.

Second, literary fiction shines a light on the human condition, and in doing so it isn’t always a ‘happy’ read. It’s trying to make sense of the world, and the world, as we know, is a messy place. Whereas genre fiction aims primarily to entertain, literary fiction, it might be argued, aims less to entertain than to provoke thought, conversation, even transformation. (Although to be clear, those of us who write literary fiction hope we entertain as well.)

So, how does one write literary fiction?

Start by mining your obsessions for subject matter. Injustice. Abuse of power (from the familial to the national). The climate emergency. Racism. Sexism. Faith or the loss of faith. What really p*sses you off? What can’t you stop thinking about? Got it? Good.

writing literary fiction

“One Ring To Rule Them All”

Now, think of a person facing a situation and/or a moral dilemma involving that thing. Write about the person until you know them better than anyone else, since it is this person, and how they respond to events you create for them, who will be the beating heart of your story. You keep your gaze on the character: what they long for, what stops them from attaining whatever they long for, and how finally getting that thing — or not getting that thing — changes them. And, remember, as J.R.R. Tolkien so brilliantly portrayed, even if what they want is something quite simple like, say, a ring, that ring should symbolize something so much more!

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I’m looking forward to checking out your piece on this via Dundurn. I enjoyed Heidi von Pelleske’s novel and am curious to see what she brings into the follow-up books (two, I believe?). Have actually just begun the other you’ve recommended as well, by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, as I’ve got a review of it coming next month.

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I’m glad you liked Heidi von Pelleske’s book. So curious about The Son of the House! Hope it makes it to the top of my leaning tower of Pisa pile of to-read books quickly. #readingAsFastAsICan

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You packed a lot of wisdom into a short amount of words! Thanks for these insights on literary fiction and how it compares to other genres. I’ve read most of your books, and there’s no doubt you have mastered your craft. As you say so well above, you’ve “provoked thought, conversation, even transformation” and yes, your character development and plots have been captivating, sometimes gut-wrenching, and entertaining. I just purchased your new book Even So. Keep writing! thanks, Sophia T.

Thanks so much, Sophia!

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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What this handout is about

This handout describes some steps for planning and writing papers about literary texts. For additional information on writing about drama and poetry specifically, please see the Writing Center’s handouts on writing about drama and on writing poetry explications .

Demystifying the process

Writing an analysis of a piece of literature can be a mystifying process. First, literary analyses (or papers that offer an interpretation of literary texts) rely on the assumption that stories, poems, and plays must mean something. How do such texts mean something? If an author wanted to convey a meaning, wouldn’t they be much better off writing an essay just telling us what she meant?

It’s pretty easy to see how at least some stories, for example, convey clear meanings or morals. Just think about a parable like the prodigal son or a nursery tale about “crying wolf.” Stories like these are reduced down to the bare elements, giving us just enough detail to lead us to their main points, and because they are relatively easy to understand and tend to stick in our memories, they’re often used in some kinds of education.

But if the meanings were always as clear as they are in parables, who would really need to write a paper analyzing them? Interpretations of literature would not be interesting if the meanings of these texts were clear to everyone who reads them. Thankfully (or perhaps regrettably, depending on your perspective) the texts we’re asked to interpret in our classes are a good bit more complicated than most parables. They frequently use characters, settings, syntax, formal elements, and actions to illustrate issues that have no easy resolution. They show different sides of a problem, and they can raise new questions. In short, the literary texts we read in class have meanings that are arguable and complicated, and it’s our job to sort them out.

It might seem that these texts do have specific meanings, and the instructor has already decided what those meanings are. But even the most well-informed professor rarely arrives at conclusions that someone else wouldn’t disagree with. In fact, most professors are aware that their interpretations are debatable and actually love a good argument. But let’s not go to the other extreme. To say that there is no one answer is not to say that anything we decide to say about a literary text is valid, interesting, or valuable. Interpretations of literature are often opinions, but not all opinions are equal.

So what makes a valid and interesting opinion? A good interpretation of fiction will:

  • avoid the obvious (in other words, it won’t argue a conclusion that most readers could reach on their own from a general knowledge of the story)
  • support its main points with strong evidence from the story
  • use careful reasoning to explain how that evidence relates to the main points of the interpretation.

The following steps are intended as a guide through the difficult process of writing an interpretive paper that meets these criteria. Writing tends to be a highly individual task, so adapt these suggestions to fit your own habits and inclinations.

Writing a paper on fiction in 9 steps

1. become familiar with the text.

There’s no substitute for a good general knowledge of your text. A good paper inevitably begins with the writer having a solid understanding of the work that they interpret. Being able to have the whole book, short story, poem, or play in your head—at least in a general way—when you begin thinking through ideas will be a great help and will actually allow you to write the paper more quickly in the long run. It’s even a good idea to spend some time just thinking about the text. Flip back through the book and consider what interests you about this piece of writing—what seemed strange, new, or important?

2. Explore potential topics

Perhaps your instructor has given you a list of topics to choose, or perhaps you have been asked to create your own. Either way, you’ll need to generate ideas to use in the paper—even with an assigned topic, you’ll have to develop your own interpretation. Let’s assume for now that you are choosing your own topic.

After reading your text, a topic may just jump out at you, or you may have recognized a pattern or identified a problem that you’d like to think about in more detail. What is a pattern or a problem?

A pattern can be the recurrence of certain kinds of imagery, vocabulary, formal elements (like rhyme and meter), or events. Usually, repetition of particular aspects tends to render those elements more conspicuous. Let’s say I’m writing a paper on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein . In the course of reading that book, I keep noticing the author’s use of biblical imagery: Victor Frankenstein anticipates that “a new species would bless me as its creator and source” (52) while the monster is not sure whether to consider himself as an Adam or a Satan. These details might help me interpret the way characters think about themselves and about each other, as well as allow me to infer what the author might have wanted her reader to think by using the Bible as a frame of reference. On another subject, I also notice that the book repeatedly refers to types of education. The story mentions books that its characters read and the different contexts in which learning takes place.

A problem, on the other hand, is something that bugs you or that doesn’t seem to add up. For example, a character might act in some way that’s unaccountable, a narrator may leave out what we think is important information (or may focus on something that seems trivial), or a narrator or character may offer an explanation that doesn’t seem to make sense to us. Not all problems lead in interesting directions, but some definitely do and even seem to be important parts of the text. In the novel Frankenstein , Victor works day and night to achieve his goal of bringing life to the dead, but once he realizes his goal, he is immediately repulsed by his creation and runs away. Why? Is there something wrong with his creation, something wrong with his goal in the first place, or something wrong with Victor himself? The book doesn’t give us a clear answer but seems to invite us to interpret this problem.

If nothing immediately strikes you as interesting or no patterns or problems jump out at you, don’t worry. Just start making a list of whatever you remember from your reading, regardless of how insignificant it may seem to you now. Consider an image that stuck with you, a character’s peculiar behavior or comments, a word choice that you found interesting, the unusual way the narrator describes an event, or the author’s placement of an action in an odd context.

There’s a good chance that some of these intriguing moments and oddities will relate to other points in the text, eventually revealing some kind of pattern and giving you potential topics for your paper. Also keep in mind that if you found something peculiar in the text you’re writing about, chances are good that other people will have been perplexed by these moments as well and will be interested to see how you make sense of it all. It’s even a good idea to test your ideas out on a friend, a classmate, or an instructor since talking about your ideas will help you develop them and push them beyond obvious interpretations of the text. And it’s only by pushing those ideas that you can write a paper that raises interesting issues or problems and that offers creative interpretations related to those issues.

3. Select a topic with a lot of evidence

If you’re selecting from a number of possible topics, narrow down your list by identifying how much evidence or how many specific details you could use to investigate each potential issue. Do this step just off the top of your head. Keep in mind that persuasive papers rely on ample evidence and that having a lot of details to choose from can also make your paper easier to write.

It might be helpful at this point to jot down all the elements of the text that have some bearing on the two or three topics that seem most promising. This can give you a more visual sense of how much evidence you will have to work with on each potential topic. It’s during this activity that having a good knowledge of your text will come in handy and save you a lot of time. Don’t launch into a topic without considering all the options first because you may end up with a topic that seemed promising initially but that only leads to a dead end.

4. Write out a working thesis

Based on the evidence that relates to your topic—and what you anticipate you might say about those pieces of evidence—come up with a working thesis. Don’t spend a lot of time composing this statement at this stage since it will probably change. A changing thesis statement is a good sign that you’re starting to say more interesting and complex things on your subject. (Our Thesis Statements handout provides an example of a developing thesis statement for a literary analysis assignment.) At this point in my Frankenstein project, I’ve become interested in ideas on education that seem to appear pretty regularly, and I have a general sense that aspects of Victor’s education lead to tragedy. Without considering things too deeply, I’ll just write something like “Victor Frankenstein’s tragic ambition was fueled by a faulty education.”

5. Make an extended list of evidence

Once you have a working topic in mind, skim back over the text and make a more comprehensive list of the details that relate to your point. For my paper about education in Frankenstein , I’ll want to take notes on what Victor Frankenstein reads at home, where he goes to school and why, what he studies at school, what others think about those studies, etc. And even though I’m primarily interested in Victor’s education, at this stage in the writing, I’m also interested in moments of education in the novel that don’t directly involve this character. These other examples might provide a context or some useful contrasts that could illuminate my evidence relating to Victor. With this goal in mind, I’ll also take notes on how the monster educates himself, what he reads, and what he learns from those he watches. As you make your notes keep track of page numbers so you can quickly find the passages in your book again and so you can easily document quoted passages when you write without having to fish back through the book.

At this point, you want to include anything, anything, that might be useful, and you also want to avoid the temptation to arrive at definite conclusions about your topic. Remember that one of the qualities that makes for a good interpretation is that it avoids the obvious. You want to develop complex ideas, and the best way to do that is to keep your ideas flexible until you’ve considered the evidence carefully. A good gauge of complexity is whether you feel you understand more about your topic than you did when you began (and even just reaching a higher state of confusion is a good indicator that you’re treating your topic in a complex way).

If, for example, you are jotting down your ideas about Frankenstein , you can focus on the observations from the narrator or things that certain characters say or do. These elements are certainly important. It might help you come up with more evidence if you also take into account some of the broader components that go into making fiction, things like plot, point of view, character, setting, and symbols.

Plot is the string of events that go into the narrative. Think of this as the “who did what to whom” part of the story. Plots can be significant in themselves since chances are pretty good that some action in the story will relate to your main idea. For my paper on education in Frankenstein , I’m interested in Victor’s going to the University of Ingolstadt to realize his father’s wish that Victor attend school where he could learn about another culture. Plots can also allow you to make connections between the story you’re interpreting and some other stories, and those connections might be useful in your interpretation. For example, the plot of Frankenstein , which involves a man who desires to bring life to the dead and creates a monster in the process, bears some similarity to the ancient Greek story of Icarus who flew too close to the sun on his wax wings. Both tell the story of a character who reaches too ambitiously after knowledge and suffers dire consequences.

Your plot could also have similarities to whole groups of other stories, all having conventional or easily recognizable plots. These types of stories are often called genres. Some popular genres within fiction include the gothic, the romance, the detective story, the bildungsroman (this is just a German term for a novel that is centered around the development of its main characters), and the novel of manners (a novel that focuses on the behavior and foibles of a particular class or social group). These categories are often helpful in characterizing a piece of writing, but this approach has its limitations. Many novels don’t fit nicely into one genre, and others seem to borrow a bit from a variety of different categories; the same can be said for other forms of literature, like poetry and drama. For example, given my working thesis on education, I am more interested in Victor’s development than in relating Frankenstein to the gothic genre, so I might decide to treat the novel as a bildungsroman.

And just to complicate matters that much more, it’s important to take into account not only the larger genre(s) a literary piece fits within (like the bildungsroman and the gothic) but also the form(s) utilized in that piece. For example, a story might be told in a series of letters (this is called an epistolary form), in a sequence of journal entries, or in a combination of forms ( Frankenstein is actually told as a journal included within a letter).

These matters of form can also introduce questions of point of view, that is, who is telling the story and what do they or don’t they know. Is the tale told by an omniscient or all-knowing narrator who doesn’t interact in the events, or is it presented by one of the characters within the story? Can the reader trust that person to give an objective account, or does that narrator color the story with her own biases and interests?

Character refers to the qualities assigned to the individual figures in the plot. Consider why the author assigns certain qualities to a character or characters and how any such qualities might relate to your topic. For example, a discussion of Victor Frankenstein’s education might take into account aspects of his character that appear to be developed (or underdeveloped) by the particular kind of education he undertakes. Victor tends to be ambitious, even compulsive about his studies, and I might be able to argue that his tendency to be extravagant leads him to devote his own education to writers who asserted grand, if questionable, conclusions.

Setting is the environment in which all of the actions take place. What is the time period, the location, the time of day, the season, the weather, the type of room or building? What is the general mood, and who is present? All of these elements can reflect on the story’s events, and though the setting of a story tends to be less conspicuous than plot and character, setting still colors everything that’s said and done within its context. If Victor Frankenstein does all of his experiments in “a solitary chamber, or rather a cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a staircase” (53), we might conclude that there is something anti-social, isolated, and stale, maybe even unnatural, about his project and his way of learning.

Obviously, if you consider all of these elements, you’ll probably have too much evidence to fit effectively into one paper. In this example using the novel Frankenstein , your goal is merely to consider each of these aspects of fiction and include only those that are most relevant to your topic and most interesting to your reader. A good interpretive paper does not need to cover all elements of the story—plot, genre, narrative form, character, and setting. In fact, a paper that did try to say something about all of these elements would be unfocused. You might find that most of your topic could be supported, for instance, by a consideration of character alone. That’s fine. For my Frankenstein paper, I’m finding that my evidence largely has to do with the setting, evidence that could lead to some interesting conclusions that my reader probably hasn’t recognized on their own.

6. Select your evidence

Once you’ve made your expanded list of evidence, decide which supporting details are the strongest. First, select the facts which bear the closest relation to your thesis statement. Second, choose the pieces of evidence you’ll be able to say the most about. Readers tend to be more dazzled with your interpretations of evidence than with a lot of quotes from the book. It would be useful to refer to Victor Frankenstein’s youthful reading in alchemy, but my reader will be more impressed by some analysis of how the writings of the alchemists—who pursued magical principles of chemistry and physics—reflect the ambition of his own goals. Select the details that will allow you to show off your own reasoning skills and allow you to help the reader see the story in a way they may not have seen it before.

7. Refine your thesis

Now it’s time to go back to your working thesis and refine it so that it reflects your new understanding of your topic. This step and the previous step (selecting evidence) are actually best done at the same time, since selecting your evidence and defining the focus of your paper depend upon each other. Don’t forget to consider the scope of your project: how long is the paper supposed to be, and what can you reasonably cover in a paper of that length? In rethinking the issue of education in Frankenstein , I realize that I can narrow my topic in a number of ways: I could focus on education and culture (Victor’s education abroad), education in the sciences as opposed to the humanities (the monster reads Milton, Goethe, and Plutarch), or differences in learning environments (e.g. independent study, university study, family reading). Since I think I found some interesting evidence in the settings that I can interpret in a way that will get my reader’s attention, I’ll take this last option and refine my working thesis about Victor’s faulty education to something like this:

“Victor Frankenstein’s education in unnaturally isolated environments fosters his tragic ambition.”

8. Organize your evidence

Once you have a clear thesis you can go back to your list of selected evidence and group all the similar details together. The ideas that tie these clusters of evidence together can then become the claims that you’ll make in your paper. As you begin thinking about what claims you can make (i.e. what kinds of conclusions you can reach) keep in mind that they should not only relate to all the evidence but also clearly support your thesis. Once you’re satisfied with the way you’ve grouped your evidence and with the way that your claims relate to your thesis, you can begin to consider the most logical way to organize each of those claims. To support my thesis about Frankenstein , I’ve decided to group my evidence chronologically. I’ll start with Victor’s education at home, then discuss his learning at the University, and finally address his own experiments. This arrangement will let me show that Victor was always prone to isolation in his education and that this tendency gets stronger as he becomes more ambitious.

There are certainly other organizational options that might work better depending on the type of points I want to stress. I could organize a discussion of education by the various forms of education found in the novel (for example, education through reading, through classrooms, and through observation), by specific characters (education for Victor, the monster, and Victor’s bride, Elizabeth), or by the effects of various types of education (those with harmful, beneficial, or neutral effects).

9. Interpret your evidence

Avoid the temptation to load your paper with evidence from your text. To get your readers’ interest, you need to draw their attention to elements of the story that they wouldn’t necessarily notice or understand on their own. Each time you use a specific reference to your story, be sure to explain the significance of that evidence in your own words. If you’re quoting passages without interpreting them, you’re not demonstrating your reasoning skills or helping the reader. Our handout on Paragraph Development can offer some guidance in this process; it provides a “5 Step Process to Paragraph Development” that prompts writers to explain, or interpret, each piece of evidence they include in a paragraph. In most cases, interpreting your evidence merely involves putting into your paper what is already in your head. Remember that we, as readers, are lazy—all of us. We don’t want to have to figure out a writer’s reasoning for ourselves; we want all the thinking to be done for us in the paper.

General hints

The previous nine steps are intended to give you a sense of the tasks usually involved in writing a good interpretive paper. What follows are just some additional hints that might help you find an interesting topic and maybe even make the process a little more enjoyable.

Make your thesis relevant to your readers

You’ll be able to keep your readers’ attention more easily if you show how your argument relates to something that concerns or interests them. Can you tell your reader something relevant about the context of the text you’re interpreting, about the human condition, or about broader questions? Avoid writing a paper that identifies a pattern in a story but doesn’t quite explain why that pattern leads to an interesting interpretation. Identifying the biblical references in Frankenstein might provide a good start to a paper—Mary Shelley does use a lot of biblical allusions—but a good paper must also tell the reader how those references are meaningful. Your thesis should be able to answer the brutal question “so what?”

For example, you can ask yourself how the topic you’ve selected connects to a larger category of concern. Think broadly. Literature scholars have identified connections between literature and the following: economics, family dynamics, education, religion, mortality, law, politics, sexuality, history, psychology, the environment, technology, animality, citizenship, and migration, among others. For readers, these concerns are also crosscut race, class and gender, which makes these intersecting categories dependable sources of interest. For example, if you’ve traced instances of water imagery in a novel, a next step may be to look at how that imagery is used in the text to imply something about, for instance, femininity and/or race.

Don’t assume that as long as you address one of these issues, your paper will be interesting. As mentioned in step 2, you need to address these big topics in a complex way. Avoid going into a topic with a preconceived notion of what you’ll find. Be prepared to challenge your own ideas about what gender, race, or class mean in a particular text.

Select a topic of interest to you

Though you may feel like you have to select a topic that sounds like something your instructor would be interested in, don’t overlook the fact that you’ll be more invested in your paper and probably get more out of it if you make the topic something pertinent to yourself. Pick a topic that might allow you to learn about yourself and what you find important. At the same time, your argument will be most persuasive if it’s built on the evidence you find in the text (as mentioned in step 5).

Make your thesis specific

The effort to be more specific almost always leads to a thesis that will get your reader’s attention, and it also separates you from the crowd as someone who challenges ideas and looks into topics more deeply. A paper about education in general in Frankenstein will probably not get my reader’s attention as much as a more specific topic about the impact of the learning environment on the main character. My readers may have already thought to some extent about ideas of education in the novel, if they have read it, but the chance that they have thought through something more specific like the educational environment is slimmer.

A note about genre and form

While this handout has used the example of a novel, Frankenstein , to help illustrate how to develop an argument about a literary text, the steps discussed above can apply to other forms of literature, too. But just as, however, fiction has certain features that guide your analysis (like plot and point of view), other literary forms can have their own unique formal elements that must be considered and can also fit within certain larger genres or literary traditions. For example, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a long poem in the epic tradition that utilizes a specific meter (unrhymed iambic pentameter); these particularities of genre and form would likely shape your analysis of that text. For more information about how to analyze poetry, see our Poetry Explications handout ; for more information about how to analyze drama, see our Drama handout .

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Barnet, Sylvan, and William E. Cain. 2011. A Short Guide to Writing About Literature , 12th ed. New York: Pearson.

Shelley, Mary. 2011. Frankenstein: Norton Critical Edition , edited by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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The world of fiction writing can be split into two categories: literary fiction vs. genre fiction. Literary fiction (lit fic) generally describes work that’s character-driven and realistic, whereas genre fiction generally describes work that’s plot-driven and based on specific tropes.

That said, these kinds of reductive definitions are unfair to both genres. Literary fiction can absolutely be unrealistic, trope-y, and plot-heavy, and genre fiction can certainly include well-developed characters in real-world settings.

Part of the issue with these definitions is that literary fiction vs. genre fiction describes a binary. Sure, every piece of fiction can be categorized in one of two ways, but there’s a wide variety of fiction out there, and very little of it falls neatly in a particular box. If our human experiences are widely variegated, our fiction should be, too.

So, let’s break down this binary a bit further. What are the elements of literary fiction vs. genre fiction, how can we better define these categories, and what elements can you apply in your own fiction writing?

Along the way, we’ll take a look at some literary fiction examples, the different types of fiction genres, and some writing tips for each group. But first, let’s dissect the differences between literary fiction vs. genre fiction. (They’re not as different as you might think!)

Before we describe these two categories, it’s important to note their origins. The distinction between literary fiction vs. genre fiction is recent: book publishers had no need to make these categories until the 20th century, when genre labels became a marketing tool for mass publication.

For example, many consider Edgar Allan Poe to be the first modern mystery writer, as his 1841 story “ The Murders in the Rue Morgue ” was one of the first detective stories. But when he published this story, it was just that—a story. Terms like “mystery,” “thriller,” or “detective” wouldn’t start describing literature until the 1900s, particularly when these genre tags helped distinguish and market new works.

Nonetheless, literary fiction and genre fiction help describe today’s literary landscape. So, what do they mean?

Literary Fiction Definition

In general, literary fiction describes work that aims to resemble real life. (Of course, genre fiction can do this too, but we’ll get there in a moment.)

Literary fiction aims to resemble real life.

In order to transcribe real life, lit fic authors rely on the use of realistic characters , real-life settings , and complex themes , as well as the use of literary devices and experimental writing techniques.

Now, if you ask 100 different writers about what makes literary fiction “literary,” you could easily get 100 different answers. You might hear that, opposed to genre fiction, lit fic is:

  • Character-driven (instead of plot driven).
  • Complex and thematic.
  • Based on real-life situations.
  • Focused on life lessons and deeper meanings.

These distinctions are all well and good—except, genre fiction can be those things, too. Additionally, some examples of lit fic involve scenarios that would never happen in real life. For example, time travel and visions of the future occur in Kurt Vonnegut’s  Slaughterhouse-Five , but the novel is distinctly literary in its focus on war.

Perhaps the best way to think about literary fiction is that it’s uncategorizable . Unlike genre fiction, which can be broken down even further into different types of fiction genres, lit fic doesn’t fall neatly into any of the genre boxes. Some literary fiction examples include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Unlike genre fiction, literary fiction can’t be subcategorized; it doesn’t break down further into genres.

Genre fiction, by contrast, provides us with neat categories that we can assign to different literary works. Let’s take a closer look at some of those categories.

Genre Fiction Definition

The primary feature of genre fiction is that it follows certain formulas and tropes. There are rules in genre fiction that don’t apply to literary fiction: tropes, structures, and archetypes that make for successful genre work.

There are rules in genre fiction that don’t apply to literary fiction: tropes, structures, and archetypes that make for successful genre work.

So, genre fiction is any piece of literature that follows a certain formula to advance the story. It’s important for genre writers to immerse themselves in the genre they’re writing, because even if they don’t want to follow a precise formula, they need to know how to break the rules . We’ll take a look at some of those conventions when we explore the types of fiction genres.

If literary fiction started borrowing from genre tropes, it would then become genre fiction. However, both categories can share similar themes and ideas, without being in the same camp.

Take, for example, the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita falls firmly in the category of lit fic, even though the novel centers around love, lust, and relationships.

If Lolita is about love, then why is it not considered a romance novel, which falls under genre fiction? Because Lolita doesn’t use any of the romance genre’s tropes. For starters, the novel is about a professor (Humbert Humbert) who falls in love with the adolescent Dolores, makes Dolores his step-daughter, and then molests her. Thankfully, you don’t see that often in romance novels.

More to the point, Lolita doesn’t use any of the romance genre’s conventions. There’s no exciting first encounter—no meet cute, no chance interaction, no love at first sight (though there is lust at first sight).

Neither does anything complicate the relationship between Humbert and Dolores—there’s no relationship to be had. The novel charts the power imbalance between a middle aged man and a girl who’s barely old enough to understand consent, much less old enough to enforce it. Romance genre conventions—like love triangles or meeting at the wrong time—simply don’t apply. Yes, many plot points do make it harder for Humbert to pursue Dolores, but those plot points aren’t conventions of the romance genre.

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction: A Summary

To summarize, each category abides by the following definitions:

Literary Fiction : Fiction that cannot be categorized by any specific genre conventions, and which seeks to describe real-life reactions to complex events using well-developed characters, themes, literary devices, and experimentations in prose.

Genre Fiction : Fiction that follows specific genre conventions, using tropes, structures, plot points, and archetypes to tell a story.

Additionally, literary fiction may borrow from certain genre tropes, but never enough to fall into a specific genre camp. Genre fiction can also have complex characters, themes, and literary devices, and it can certainly reproduce real life situations, as long as it also follows genre conventions.

The differences between literary fiction vs. genre fiction have been mapped out below.

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction Venn Diagram

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction Venn Diagram

More About Literary Fiction

Without the use of genre conventions, lit fic writers often struggle to tell a complete, compelling story. So, how do they do it?

Let’s take a look at some contemporary literary fiction books. We’ll briefly explore each example, taking a look at its themes and what makes the work “literary”.

Literary Fiction Books

All of the literary fiction examples below were published in the 21st century, to reflect the type of work that contemporary novelists write.

1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko follows three generations of a Korean family that moves to Japan, during and after Japan’s occupation of Korea. The novel examines this family’s culture shock, their experiences with oppression and poverty, the enduring legacy of occupation.

Core Themes

The core theme of Pachinko is family: the value of family, the struggle to protect it, and the lengths one will go to make their family survive. These struggles are magnified in their juxtaposition to colonization, the other core theme of this novel. How did the Japanese occupation permanently affect the lives of Koreans?

What Makes This “Literary”?

Pachinko attempts to tell realistic stories, based on the lived experiences of many Korean families that endured Japan’s occupation. Additionally, the novel doesn’t follow a specific formula or set of plot points. Pachinko is organized in three parts, with each part focusing on the next generation of the same family, as well as their reaction to a different global event.

2. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore follows two separate, yet metaphysically intertwined narratives. One story is about Kafka, a 15-year old boy who runs away from home after (unwittingly) murdering his father. In search of his lost mother and sister, Kafka ends up living in a library, where he meets the intelligent Oshima and begins his journey of healing.

The other narrative follows Nakata, an old man who became intellectually disabled in his youth following a mysterious accident. Nakata lost his ability to read and think abstractly, but he gained an ability to talk to cats. Nakata rescues a cat, and in doing so, begins his own path, which involves hitchhiking with a random truck driver and assassinating a cat killer.

On a metaphysical realm, Nakata’s actions are essential for Kafka to complete his own journey of spiritual healing. Though they never meet in person, their fates intertwine through spiritual means.

A recurring theme in Kafka on the Shore is the communicative power of music, which accompanies both Kafka and Nakata on their journeys. Additionally, questions of self-reliance, dreams versus reality, Shintoism, and the power of fate permeate the novel.

Murakami borrows from many different genres, including magical realism, absurdism, and fantasy. Yet the novel never leans too far into one genre. By combining these elements with his own brand of wit, mundanity, pop culture, spiritualism, and sexuality, Murakami creates an interconnected narrative about two equally unique protagonists. While Kafka on the Shore’s plot points are baffling and mysterious, it is the protagonists’ spiritual journeys which the novel focuses on.

3. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of five individuals before, during, and after the Nigerian Civil War. The short-lived state of Biafra forces each character to make impossible decisions. A village boy is forcibly conscripted in the army; a university professor follows a dark path of alcoholism; the daughter of a war profiteer becomes the runner of a refugee camp, and her twin sister adopts her husband’s child, who was born out of wedlock. Finally, a British writer becomes obsessed with telling Biafra’s story, only to realize it isn’t his story to tell.

War, and everything about war, colors this novel’s thematic landscape. The novel dwells on the relationship between power and the people, especially since all of Biafra’s supporters—including its powerful supporters—are squashed under occupation. War also makes the novel’s characters contend with ideas of Socialism, Tribalism, Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Capitalism, among others. Other themes of this novel include family, power & corruption, and survival.

Although Half of a Yellow Sun centers around war, it’s not a “war story”. The novel is wholly unconcerned with war’s genre conventions, dwelling little on things like battle strategies or building suspense. Rather, the novel focuses on the human impact of war. The Nigerian Civil War displaces each main character, forcing them to confront awful truths and make heart-wrenching decisions as a result. Half of a Yellow Sun concerns itself with the consequences of war and political strife, especially given the ideal nature of the Biafran nation.

More About Genre Fiction

In many ways, genre fiction is no easier to summarize than literary fiction. Each genre has its own rules, tropes , character types, plot structures, and goals.

Mystery novels, for example, should present an uncrackable whodunnit that builds suspense and intrigue, whereas Romance novels should create tension between two characters who are meant for each other, but keep encountering setbacks in their relationship. Since each novel has different goals, they take drastically different paths to achieve those goals.

Below, we’ve summarized the rules, tropes, and goals for 8 popular fiction genres. Links and further readings are provided for writers who want to dive deeper into a specific type of genre fiction.

Types of Fiction Genres

Science Fiction, or Sci-Fi, explores fictional societies that are shaped by new and different technologies. Aliens might visit Earth, wars might take place across galaxies, humans might have bionic arms, or scientists might discover human immortality. The goal of most Sci-Fi is to explore man’s relationship to technology, as well as technology’s relationship to society, power, and reality.

Many of the technological innovations in Sci-Fi can double as themes. For example, the gene-editing technology in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake represents man’s hubris in trying to command nature, the result of which is a dystopian society that hastens its own apocalypse.

Prominent Science Fiction writers include Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, H. G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, Ted Chiang, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Octavia E. Butler. Here’s a list of common tropes in Science Fiction .

Thriller novels attempt to tell engaging, suspenseful stories, often based on a complex protagonist undergoing a Hero’s Journey . A spy might chase down an international assassin, a boy might fake his own death, or a lawyer might have to prove she’s been framed for murder. In thriller novels, the protagonist faces a journey that’s long, dark, and arduous.

Thrillers often blend into other types of fiction genres. It’s common for a thriller to also be categorized as mystery, Sci-Fi, or horror, and even some romance thrillers exist. While the best thrillers have complicated protagonists, authors of thriller novels prioritize making each plot point juicy, compelling, and suspenseful.

Prominent thriller novelists include John Grisham, Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, Dean Koontz, Megan Abbott, and Lisa Under. This article explains the key elements of thrillers .

The mystery genre typically revolves around murder. (If not murder, then some other high-profile and complicated crime.) Usually told from the perspective of a detective or medical examiner, mystery novels present a host of clues, suspects, and possibilities—including red herrings and misleading info.

Because mystery revolves around crime, many novels delve deep into their characters’ psyches. A mystery novel might string you along with clues and plot points, but it’s the complicated characters and their unknown desires that make a mystery juicy.

Prominent mystery novelists include Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Walter Mosley, Patricia Highsmith, Anthony Horowitz, and Louise Penny. Here are some considerations for writing mystery novels , and here are 5 mistakes to avoid when writing mystery .

Ah, l’amour. Romance novels follow the complicated relationships of lovers who, despite everything, are meant to be together. As they explore their relationship, each lover must embark on their own journey of growth and self-discovery.

The relationships in romance novels are never simple, but always satisfying. Lovers often meet under unique circumstances, they may be forbidden from loving each other, and they always mess things up a few times before they get it right. Alongside thriller, romance is often the bestselling genre, though it has its humble roots in the Gothic fiction of the 19th century.

Prominent romance novelists include Carolyn Brown, Nicholas Sparks, Catherine Bybee, Alyssa Cole, Beverly Jenkins, and Julia Quinn. Here’s a list of common tropes in the romance genre .

Fantasy novels require tons of worldbuilding and imagination. Wizards might go to battle, a man might chase after a unicorn, men and Gods might go to war with each other, or a hero might go on a mystical quest. What is impossible in real life is quotidian in fantasy.

Many works of fantasy borrow from mythology, folklore, and urban legend. Like Sci-Fi, many of the magical elements in fantasy novels can double as symbols or themes. The line between Sci-Fi and fantasy is often unclear: for example, an alien invasion is categorized as Sci-Fi, but the journey to defeat those aliens can easily resemble a fantasy novel.

Prominent fantasy novelists include J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Andre Norton, Rick Riordan, C. S. Lewis, Zen Cho, and Erin Morgenstern. Here are some tropes in the fantasy genre , as well as our exploration of urban fantasy .

Magical Realism

Magical Realism blends the fantastical with the everyday. There won’t be grandwizards, alternate universes, or potions with unicorn tears, but there might be a man whose head is tied to his body, or a woman who cries tears of fabric.

In other words, fantasy slips into everyday life, but the characters don’t have magic at their disposal—they react as only mortals know how to react to magic. Because it is a relatively young genre, and because it often focuses on characters instead of plot points, magical realism is often seen as a more “literary” genre of genre fiction. Magical realism has its roots in the storytelling of Central and South American novelists.

Prominent authors of magical realism include Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carmen Maria Machado, Haruki Murakami, Samanta Schweblin, Jorge Louis Borges, and Salman Rushdie. Learn more about magical realism here .

Horror writers are masters of invoking fear in the reader. Through a combination of tone , atmosphere, plotting, the introduction of ambiguous (and unambiguous) threats, and the author’s own imagination, horror novels push their characters to the brink of survival.

Most horror novels involve supernatural elements, including monsters, ghosts, god-like figures, satanic rituals, or Sci-Fi creatures. Sometimes the protagonists are armed and ready, but usually, the protagonists are trapped and trying to escape some unfathomable danger.

Prominents horror writers include Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and Ray Bradbury. Here are some common tropes for horror writers .

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” —Madeleine L’Engle

Children’s fiction is technically its own category of fiction, but the genre does have its own tropes and conventions. With many similarities to the fable, children’s fiction teaches important life lessons through the journeys of memorable characters, who are often the same age as the novel’s intended reader.

Writing for children is much harder than commonly believed. Whether you’re writing a picture book or a YA novel, you have to balance your book’s core themes and ideas with the reading level of your audience—without “talking down to” the reader.

Prominent children’s writers include A. A. Milne, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Anne Fine, and Peggy Parish. Here are 10 tips for picture book writers , and here is advice for YA novelists .

Explore Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction at Writers.com

With so many works being published in both literary fiction and genre fiction, it helps to have people read your work before you submit it somewhere . That’s what Writers.com is here for. From our upcoming fiction courses to our Facebook group , we help writers of all stripes master the conventions of their genre.

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Sean Glatch

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Great example using Lolita for why the book doesn’t fall under the ‘romance’ category (due to the way it does not use romance tropes – indeed, it is almost an ‘anti-romance’). There’s a great line where Nabokov was asked about its inspirations and he said he read a story about a chimpanzee that was taught to paint and it’s great masterwork turned out to be a painting of the bars of its cage (perhaps he was implying that his protagonist similarly represents the limits of his own awareness, since he doesn’t seem able to empathize with or consider Lolita’s subjective experience).

I wasn’t sure about the definition of literary fiction (as being that which resembles real life), since so much literary fiction is surreal (e.g. Kafka) or upends realist modes (e.g. when an author uses second person to make the reader an active participant in the story, e.g. Italo Calvino in ‘If on a winter’s night a traveler’). So I’m curious about that definition.

Thank you for mentioning Now Novel, too.

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Hi Jordan, thanks for your comment!

You make a good point, and I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve emended our definition to say that literary fiction describes “real-life reactions to complex events.” When magic and sci-fi are out of the question, what can people do in their limited power against terrible things–like, say, waking up as a bug?

As for Calvino’s experimentations with prose and POV, it’s hard to summarize that into any meaningful definition–he is, in several ways, his own category. That said, I think his ability to cast the reader as the protagonist helps build the type of empathy that lit fic is best suited for, and experimentations in prose are one of the many tools at the disposal of both literary and genre novelists.

Nabokov’s anecdote about the chimpanzee fascinates me–I haven’t heard that story, but it reveals so much about Nabokov’s psyche. His empathy for the chimpanzee in a cage is striking.

I loved Now Novel’s advice for writing YA! Thanks for sharing it, and thanks again for your comment!

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I’m curious as to why Margaret Atwood is categorized as a Sci-Fi novelist. I consider Atwood’s work to be literature, not formulaic and plot driven. Romance novels have historically been easy to categorize–they are basically fluff pieces, good for escaping the everyday and losing oneself in something safe and predictable. But what is the modern romance fiction? Is it Danielle Steele, or Colleen Hoover? I’m struggling to understand the difference between the NY Times Bestseller list, and the NY Times Recommended books list. Two lists that to a casual reader could seem interchangeable, but that serious readers understand differently. Most bestsellers (particularly trade paperback editions) are not considered “literature,” but the novels that are recommended by the NY times, or that are nominated, and sometimes receive, awards such as the National Book Award or the Nobel Prize in Literature. Would you consider books like ones by Colleen Hoover or Lucy Score genre fiction, or literary fiction? Full disclosure: I have not read anything by either of those authors—the characters and plots feel super formulaic and the writing isn’t that good (in my opinion).

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This feels like it will be a great resource for the explanations I do not get in class. I look forward to spending time on this site.

[…] are lots of stereotypes associated with writing commercial genre fiction versus writing literary fiction. But even the most […]

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Thank you! While at the library (my “third place”) a few years ago, a fellow patron and I were discussing books to recommend. He wanted literature. The way he spoke, literature was ONLY great works of the past, not recent “books”. So thank you for clarifying the difference.

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How to Write Literary Fiction: 5 Unmissable Things Your Story Needs

By Georgina Roy

how to write literary fiction

Literary fiction is hard to define, because many writers, published authors, editors and agents have a different definition for it. And if a type of novel is hard to define, then it gets even harder to write, because how can you be sure that what you’re writing will fit the genre? But, literary fiction, while often wrongly defined and described as eccentric (and even boring), puts great books on the shelves. Below, you will find the things a literary fiction novel needs to be classified as such when it hits the bookstore shelves.

Many writers think that to write literary fiction, is to write a story that has no plot. This is a very common misconception. Literary fiction needs to have a plot just as much as a genre novel. The only difference between the plot in genre fiction and the plot in literary fiction is that the plot in genre fiction is easily perceived, while the plot in literary fiction can, and most often is a lot more subtle. The plot in literary fiction can move at a slower pace, and sometimes, it can be in the mind of the protagonist, or in his or her emotions. In this case, the resolution, climax and the end of a literary novel can be quite anticlimactic, especially if the ending is focused on the emotions and thoughts of the protagonist, instead of a specific event.

2. Deep characterization

Characterization is important in both genre and literary fiction. However, genre fiction stories are focused on plot, action and thrill a lot more than literary fiction stories. This is why the strength of a literary novel lies in deep characterization, expressed by a writing style that many would call elegant. The protagonist and the other characters of a literary novel need to be explored a lot deeper, even if they are only supporting characters with minor roles in the overall plot.

3. Exploration of themes and ideas

A literary fiction story can have a plot that would fit in a genre: science fiction, mystery, speculative fiction, or any other genre. However, in literary fiction, often the plot revolves around a specific theme or idea, and said idea is explored deeply and from many aspects, from how it affects the protagonist, to how it affects the other characters, and even the world, if the theme is universal. It is that deep exploration of ideas and themes that leaves the reader feeling like they have learned something new about humanity, and what it means to be human.

4. Opinion without preaching

It goes without saying that some, if not most, of your opinions will show in your writing. However, while a genre novel might not be the right place for the characters to reflect on themselves, their behavior or the world in general, a literary novel could thrive that way, if the execution is done the right way. What you have to remember is that you should never preach in your writing, even in a literary fiction story. It’s still fiction, a form of escape, and the language and writing style should reflect that. If your novel reads like a textbook, or a guide, then the readers will not want to read it.

5. Elegant language

A literary fiction novel, as we said above, needs to have a plot around which the writer can explore ideas and themes that are universal. These key elements are accompanied by an elegant writing style that, while lyrical and elegant, is still be easy to read. The best way to achieve this is to avoid slang and the passive voice, and use a variation of short and long sentences in your prose.

What did you think about our post on how to write literary fiction? Please tell us more in the comments box below!

Image credit: Graham F. Scott/This Magazine on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As an art student, she’s moonlighting as a writer and is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her laptop, trying to create her own.

Story in Literary Fiction

writing literary fiction

Resources for Writers

  • Literary Fictional Story
  • Character in Literary Fictional Story
  • Narration of Literary Stories
  • Desire and Motivation
  • Credibility
  • Improving Dialogue
  • Characterization Improves Dialogue, Motivates Plot, and Enhances Theme
  • Techniques for Excellence in Creating Character in Literary Fiction
  • How to Change Fiction Writing Style
  • Author’s Attitudes
  • How Literary Stories Go Wrong
  • Preparing to Write the Great Literary Story
  • The Anatomy of a Wannabe Literary Fiction Writer
  • Victims as Characters in Literary Fiction
  • Information and Literary Story Structure
  • 1st person POV in Literary Story
  • Top Story/Bottom Story
  • Strong Voice and Attention to Time
  • Humor and Fiction
  • Emotional Complexity in Literary Fiction
  • Conflict in Literary Fiction
  • What Exactly Is a Character-Based Plot?
  • Writing in Scene: A Staple for Reader Engagement in Fiction
  • Creating Story World (setting) in Literary Fiction
  • Perception in Literary Fiction: A Challenge for Better Narration
  • Creating Quality Characters in Literary Fiction
  • Mastering the Power of a Literary Fictional Story

Understanding Empathy

  • Q & A On Learning to Think About Narration in Literary Fiction To Write Better Stories

Incorporating Rhythm in Prose Style

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The Art of Creating Story

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Book Reviews

  • Narration in Literary Fiction: Making the Right Choices, by William H. Coles
  • How Humor Works in Fiction, by William H. Coles
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  • Workshops: V. Top-Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops


★ ★ ★ ★ ★ McDowell

Review from OnlineBookClub.org

 At first, when I picked up this book, I had no idea it would contain an interesting plot that would teach me a lot. From this book, I was able to understand so many secrets in the medical world because this book is relatable in every sense. From McDowell's life, I was able to learn the dangers that come with betrayal. Above all, this book taught me that no matter how wicked and selfish a man can be, there is always space in him for love for his family, as in the case of Hiram. Despite the level of his selfishness, his love for his children was very obvious.

The plot of this novel is among its strongest selling points, as every genuine reader would concur with me. Given how interesting and twisted the plot is, it would be wrong not to give the author kudos for a job well done. The writing style is another aspect of this book that is deserving of mention because it made the book unique in its own way, and the author also did a wonderful job in character development, which is another part of the book that piqued my interest..  Read the entire review Here

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Tour of Duty

 Tour of Duty is a work of historical fiction. It begins in the year 1960. We see the arrival of a physician named Miles Ballard in France. Miles is to serve in the Air Force at US Air Station, Châteauroux. Ingrid Stern, the wife of Doctor Oliver Stern, welcomes Miles to France, and Oliver Stern becomes Miles' best friend. Miles, being a man of morals, faces challenges in the hospital he serves in. This brings hostility to Miles from his superior, and he is faced with two choices: to uphold his morals and ethics or to succumb to the corrupt leadership in the military.

Williams H. Coles created an outstanding work out of this novel. While reading the book, I was completely immersed in it, enjoying each chapter and desiring to know what happens next. The author's writing was easy to follow and intriguing. This book made me admire Miles a lot. He didn't only stand his ground, unlike the other doctors on the military base, but he upheld his morals and ethics and stuck to them.  Read the entire review Here

 This amazing book by William H. Coles is really unique because it doesn’t just tell the tales of a man without leaving us with reasons not to learn. After going through this book, I found myself thinking about and checking the aspects of my life that need to be changed. So many things went south in this book, and it was driven by the negative human nature we naturally possess. This book teaches us why we should be good friends, a good husband, a good father, and personally, to be good individuals.

I really want to use this opportunity to thank the author for such an amazing book. I enjoyed every second of reading this book. I rate McDowell by William H. Coles 5 out of 5 stars. It was absolutely worth my time and life-changing.  Read the entire review Here

 I read every part of this book, and I just could not find anything to dislike about it. William H. Coles gave a comprehensive description of the interactions between the characters, making it simple and enjoyable to read. I enjoyed how the author addressed real-life issues that happen in a society like racism, rape, and suicide, their effects, and how a single person could cause a significant change. I enjoyed how the author pointed out the love and care most doctors in the book have for their patients.

The book Tour of Duty by William H. Coles was written to perfection. It was exceptionally well edited. It was compelling to read, with nonstop excitement and drama. I would rate it 5 out of 5 stars because it inspired me to continually stand up for my principles and fight for what I believe in.  Read the entire review Here

 I really enjoyed this novel. For one, it was very historically accurate. The author subtly alluded to historical events, like the Jewish Holocaust and Hiroshima, in such a way that it never overshadowed the main narrative but was still enough to immerse me in the past. In addition, for a book written last year, the tenor of the novel was superb. It’s written in the sort of archaic English common to the time; it reads like a book published straight out of the 1950s. It’s consistent throughout the story, and it really put the finishing touches on the book for me. The characters themselves were wonderfully written. They were all affected in some way due to their identities and respective histories; they all had motives for their actions, and their backgrounds were fully explained. Moreover, these characters changed throughout the story due to these experiences.

This book is deserving of 5 out of 5 stars. It’s an exceptionally well-written and well-edited piece of literature. The writer took up the challenge of manufacturing a plotless story and has done so brilliantly. The characters were compelling, creative, and all of equal importance to the story. It’s an inventive glimpse into the past and a joy to read.  Read the entire review Here

 I simply adored this book. A big part of its allure is its historical accuracy; you felt like you were in the 1960s. Subtle references to the past, like the bombing of Nagasaki, the acquisition of France by Germany, and D-Day, were always referenced in some way. This helped preserve the book’s authenticity while simultaneously preventing the storyline from dwelling too much in the history of the times and consequently causing it to diverge from the story. Moreover, I liked that these events had an impact on the characters’ lives.

The novel’s tone is one of my highlights. Published in 2022, the novel reads like one typewritten in the 1970s and reminded me of The Great Gatsby due to its old-school tone. I give this book 5 out of 5 stars. It’s a highly creative, brilliantly written, and well edited piece of work. The author has spun a wonderful story from the perspective of captivating, relatable characters.  Read the entire review Here

New! Spirit of Want Trailer

Available Now

Online Course - Creating Literary Story

This online learning course is the culmination of author and educator, william h. coles 24 years of experience writing award-winning literary novels, short stories, and poems ..

With this course, you will learn, in eight lessons, to create effective characters with action scenes, conflict resolution , change , identifiable core desire , enlightenment , and working dialogue ; and you will learn to structure dramatic literary plots that are character-based , narrated effectively , and created with agreed-upon prose that lasts as an art form .

writing literary fiction

As an incentive, buy now and receive a free download of the book, Creating Literary Stories: A Fiction Writer's Guide.

You have a 100% money-back guarantee if you are not pleased after reading the introductory material.

Tour of Duty by William H. Coles

New Novel: Tour of Duty

Tour of Duty is a fiction novel-literary and historical--set in France, 1960-1966, at the height of the cold war and written with strong characterization, conflict, and dynamic plots. Major characters are Miles Ballard, a physician drafted and eager to succeed in providing best care for his patients who frequently clashes with military demands and morality; Ingrid Stern, wife of Ballard's best friend, seeking truth about lost relatives and the Holocaust; Alyce Read, a newspaper journalist documenting capture the suffering and ruination of Holocaust victims and survivors.

Available in print and ebook format at: Amazon ( Kindle ) and Barnes & Noble .

writing literary fiction

An educative volume with essays about the process of creating fictional story; interviews with authors, editors, publishers, and a Pulitzer Prize winner on the writing process; and original short stories that illustrate concepts and techniques of storytelling in prose. Major topics include: characterization, narration, character-based plotting, dialogue, drama, point of view, significance, and revision.

Available in Print and as eBook at: Amazon and Barnes & Noble .

Have you ever wondered how fiction writers could change their style of prose in writing fiction story? This essay details a process.

READ How to Change Fiction Writing Style

2021 reader’s favorite awards:.

McDowell , audiobook, Silver medal • McDowell , Drama, finalist • Guardian of Deceit , Literature, finalist • Creating Literary Stories, A Fiction Writer’s Guide , writing/publishing, finalist

McDowell by Coles

5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org What does life on a military base look like? How were people treated during the war? In the book Tour of Duty by William H. Coles, we can gain some knowledge about these questions. I would rate this book five out of five stars. I like that the author describes a town […] Read More AABNKB22
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org William H. Coles skillfully captures the historical setting and portrays the melancholy and dismal post-war climate. Through the author’s descriptive writing, readers are taken to the war-ravaged locations, and character’s emotions are conveyed flawlessly. Through this story, readers gain a better knowledge of the past’s horrors, while also understanding the importance of […] Read More cocoLo
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org I liked the flow of events in the story. The book starts with Miles’s arrival in France and then develops into an enjoyable story. I also liked the description of events and the characters. The author describes the events well, making the reader imagine how they were; for instance, Miles meets with […] Read More Nyongesa Mcneil
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org The characters were well-developed, for instance, Oliver, who the author described as his physical appearance. The description of his physical appearance created a mental image each time he appeared in the text, making the book enjoyable. The author made some emotional incidents to connect readers to the book; for instance, you could […] Read More Said Noor
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org The book was great, with interesting chapters. The author structured the book well since each chapter had a title, preparing the reader what to expect; for instance, the engagement deal with Miles meeting with Ingrid and Oliver for dinner as they got to know each other. I admire the author’s effort to […] Read More Mohammed Ali 45
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org McDowell, by the talented William H. Coles, weaves a mesmerizing tapestry around the fictional character of Hiram, an esteemed surgeon and intrepid mountaineer. Within the pages of this novel, Hiram’s life unfolds, painting a vivid portrait of a man who traverses the peaks of success but descends into the valleys of personal […] Read More lovewriter702
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org One of the standout features of this book is its masterful use of suspense and action right from the start. The opening scenes immediately draw readers into the story, leaving them intrigued and hungry for more. The author’s ability to create tension and build anticipation throughout the book is nothing short of […] Read More Harry Muddy
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org The author skillfully incorporates these fresh characters into the main plot, allowing their presence to impact the storyline. Through their interactions, the narrative progresses, revealing McDowell’s transformation from a self-centered individual to someone willing to assist others. Along his journey, Hiram’s encounters with new female characters lead to improvements in his relationships […] Read More The Fortunate
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org McDowell is a thought-provoking novel that challenges the reader’s beliefs about right and wrong. The protagonist, a gifted doctor, has a reputation for being ruthless and crossing moral and ethical boundaries to achieve his goals. The author skillfully weaves together an engaging and morally complex story, leaving the reader with plenty to […] Read More Bef Ozo
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org McDowell is a complex story that weaves together the narratives of several characters, including McDowell himself and his three children, as well as other supporting roles. While it may be challenging to keep track of all these storylines, it is not an insurmountable task thanks to the ample information provided that keeps […] Read More Lassitude John
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org The writer also succeeded in providing readers with a break by utilizing other characters to share Hiram’s story. This allowed us to witness his intense love for his children, which was fascinating. It served as a reminder that people are not simply good or bad but rather exist in shades of gray. […] Read More Harryson P
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org Sincerely speaking, this book is packed with more emotions than I’ve ever encountered in any book. Love, hate, anger, sadness, happiness, freedom, fear—you name it. All these emotions were projected onto me as I fell into place as one of the characters in this novel. I felt like a bystander watching a […] Read More Alex Reeves
Tour of Duty Miles Ballard may have thought finishing his medical program before being drafted into active military service was a stroke of genius, but he is unprepared for the unusual scenario he has been catapulted into. Frustrated with the lack of activity that comes with being the personal physician of a commanding officer who is more interested […] Read More Reviewed by Essien Asian for Readers’ Favorite
Tour of Duty One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Different viewpoints and perspectives can change a lot. Tour of Duty by William H. Coles is an amazing work of fiction about the lives of military personnel. General Thomas is not a loved leader; he is more tolerated than respected. His family life is complicated, with one […] Read More Reviewed by Frank Mutuma for Readers’ Favorite
5/5 Tour of Duty Tour of Duty is a work of historical fiction by William H. Coles and is set in France in the 1960s. Captain Miles Ballard graduated from Boston University and has just finished his medical training. Miles is sent to serve at the American military base in Chateauroux, France, as a doctor under the command of […] Read More Reviewed by Alma Boucher for Readers’ Favorite
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org The book was like a historical novel about the story of the Nazis and Europe’s state after World War II. It gives information on what happened in that era, such as the incarceration of the Jews, researched by Alyce and Ingrid. It is a perfect romance novel that discusses the romance story […] Read More Ramla Zawadi
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org I liked the flow of the book and the interesting plot twists the author used to make the story enjoyable. I can’t mention them without creating spoilers. They made the story enjoyable as the readers tried reading the book to find out what happened since each scene created suspense. I liked the […] Read More Christian Maundu
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org I can’t find anything I didn’t like in the book. On the contrary, there are many aspects I liked. I liked how the book depicted the atmosphere of the 1960; its greyness was felt throughout the pages. I felt I was there with them, in the middle of rubbles, demolished houses and […] Read More Umida Kholmatova
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org I have nothing to criticize in this novel. It was enjoyable and had several interesting stories to follow, such as the career and love story of Miles Ballard. I rate Tour of Duty by William H. Coles five out of five stars. The book was professionally edited because it had an error. […] Read More Geoff Muriithi
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org This book was great since I liked reading about the life of Miles Ballard. The author made it feel real since Miles showed the challenges he faced while doing his job and other personal issues. The descriptions of characters’ physical appearances were important in helping readers create an image of their appearance […] Read More Erin Jeffson
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org I enjoyed reading about the politics in the book. It was fun as I tried to guess the next move of some characters. Their unpredictability made the book realistic. Every character had a role to play and wasn’t just used as filler. The book was easy to comprehend. I loved reading about […] Read More Unique Mary Iloakasia
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org I enjoyed reading this fictional novel. It was captivating and fun. One of the things I love about this book is the moral lesson I got from it. These lessons are practical. I went back to think about my life and critically examine my actions with my friends, colleagues and family members […] Read More Emmanuel Okotie
McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org Coles’ character development was so masterful that I legitimately despised the protagonist and that may be why I felt so challenged to continue reading early on in the novel. McDowell reminded me of so many old affluent, arrogant, white men I have met through my life. It made me remember how I […] Read More PoeticGem65
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org When I first started reading this book, I had no idea that it would have a compelling story and provide me with a wealth of knowledge. Because this book is applicable in every way, I was able to learn so many medical industry secrets from it. I was able to learn about […] Read More Salah2580
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org I’ve never read such a suspenseful and intense book as this. Hiram McDowell is such a perverted sociopath who doesn’t care for anything or anyone but his interests. His indifference sometimes pushed him over the edge, and he sometimes brushed shoulders with those he shouldn’t have. Take his wife, Carole. No matter […] Read More Maxreview
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org It was a delight to read this inspirational book. The plot of this book is exciting and creative, and it was well-written by the author. The book’s suspense kept the readers engaged while reading the book. Because of this, I was engrossed from the beginning to the end of this book. This […] Read More Mateo Kante
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org I love how the book started by telling us briefly about his family, and from the information I got from there, I began to understand better the character, Hiram. This novel is filled with drama, action, twists, and suspense, which is why I was so engrossed in the read. Promises look easy […] Read More Jerry Anozie
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org It is not common to come across a book that provokes so many thoughts and even gives you an emotional surge. I must say McDowell by William H. Coles falls into the category of intriguing books that have made it to the top of my library. This may be a fiction book, […] Read More Chimezie Agbata
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org There were many things I liked about this book. It was well-written and evoked a lot of emotions in the reader. The author gave a vivid description of the psychology of humans and how most of us behave when we attain success. The book talked about the challenges the doctor faced to […] Read More Francis Ignacio
McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org One thing I love about this book is that it spans Hiram’s personal life. As a father and husband, he did not play his role effectively, as was evident in the lives of his children. This reminded me that as a father and a husband, money is not the only requirement in […] Read More Gift Chidex
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org This book had a lot of positive aspects. To be honest, I was unsure of what to expect from this book, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was written in a manner that would inspire a rollercoaster of emotions in the reader. The story shows the doctor rising to fame […] Read More Gerald Hilary
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org Would it be better to be recognized for who you are? or by the achievements they have made in life? How does it feel to have a buddy who is solely interested in their own success, fortune, and notoriety? William H. Cole’s novel McDowell is a story of loss, retaliation, atonement, remorse, […] Read More Park Cherri
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org This amazing book by William H. Coles is really unique because it doesn’t just tell the tales of a man without leaving us with reasons not to learn. After going through this book, I found myself thinking about and checking the aspects of my life that need to be changed. So many […] Read More Jerry Anozie
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org I did find this book fascinating to read. The shocking and unexpected twist in the story was what I enjoyed most about this novel. Nobody could have predicted Hiram’s fate the way it did. I had emotional instability when I was reading this book. I used to detest Hiram so much and […] Read More Hakim Kelvin
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org Character is the basic thing needed by every successful person to maintain their position or go higher. It is difficult to see a long-lasting success in a person without character. McDowell by William H. Coles is a lesson-filled fictional book with other themes that concern our world today. This book is very […] Read More Jerry Anozie
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org Readers I may not want to be quick in judging this book because the author may have portrayed Dr. Hiram as a very ill-behaved man, but as the book went on, we saw what Dr. Hiram’s true character was and how he adapted to a life that he never planned for. Another […] Read More Jeffery King 1
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org McDowell may not be a true life story, but its story is quite inspiring and interesting and would make you think otherwise. This book also contains vital information about parenting, and from this, I was able to learn a thing or two about the necessity of close parenting. Of all the aspects […] Read More ojukwu2
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org I found McDowell by William H. Coles to be engaging and thought-provoking. “How frequently do we perform acts of kindness that are really intended for our own gain?” is one inquiry that piqued my curiosity. I think this is something that should be thought about before doing something that seems to be […] Read More Iam Ama
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org William H.Coles approaches his fiction novel Tour of Duty with historical accuracy. The novel is set in France during the cold war, but there are also references to the past: D-Day, the bombing of Nagasaki and the Jewish Holocaust. The story begins in 1960 and ends in 1966 and the tone of […] Read More Cristina Corui Mihailescu
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org First off, I’d like to say that I really enjoyed this novel. For one, it was very historically accurate. The author subtly alluded to historical events, like the Jewish Holocaust and Hiroshima, in such a way that it never overshadowed the main narrative but was still enough to immerse me in the […] Read More James Carter 8
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org Honestly, I simply adored this book. A big part of its allure is its historical accuracy; you felt like you were in the 1960s. Subtle references to the past, like the bombing of Nagasaki, the acquisition of France by Germany, and D-Day, were always referenced in some way. This helped preserve the […] Read More davidejioforr
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org At first, when I picked up this book, I had no idea it would contain an interesting plot that would teach me a lot. From this book, I was able to understand so many secrets in the medical world because this book is relatable in every sense. From McDowell’s life, I was […] Read More Nicholas Bush
McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org The book was entertaining to read. From the prologue on, it captured my interest and held it for the duration of the novel. I think this book contains a secret lesson as well. It made me think about all the things that I not only overlook but also fail to express my […] Read More Onyinyechi Orji
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org Have you ever been seen in a negative way by a lot of people? Do you allow your position to control you? What do you know about purpose? Have you ever come across a terrible person? This book, McDowell by William H. Coles, is a novel that depicts human psychology. The traits […] Read More Ben Filla
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org This book teaches a lot, but the most important lesson I learned is that everyone deserves a second chance. No one is irredeemable, no matter what the person might have done. In my opinion, the death of his second wife broke Hiram. He had dealt with too much, having lost his first […] Read More Rofenty23
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org This uplifting book was a pleasure to read. This is a well-written book with an intriguing and original plot. Suspense and drama in the book keep the reader interested in the protagonist’s life. The characters were well-developed, and I was captivated until the very end. This book is chock-full of useful information […] Read More Malthide Jones
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org McDowell by William H. Coles is a page-turner story featuring a man’s journey to self-realization. Hiram McDowell, the main character, experiences a rollercoaster lifestyle that makes him realize his shortcomings, which he never saw before. I enjoyed the book’s plot twists and bits of suspense. It was fascinating how McDowell’s luxurious lifestyle […] Read More Joule Mwendwa
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org The book Tour of Duty is an intriguing book that immediately captures the reader’s attention. I loved how the author introduced the characters. I enjoyed the character development. It was interesting to see these characters grow in their various fields. He was able to bring out the unique personality in each of […] Read More Saint012
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org There was absolutely nothing I disliked about this book. It ticked all the boxes of a great story. The plot is progressive and solid. The characters are well developed and intriguing. The story does not reveal too much immediately but comes together beautifully as you read on. It was easy to digest […] Read More Amarachi Nwankwo03
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org I love Ballard’s stubbornness yet brave actions. Its refreshing to see such a well-written character I rarely see in reality. The book was such an adventure, making it worth reading for. I love the relationship between Ballard and his friends. I will rate this book 5 out of 5 for it is […] Read More Allyza Faith Demape
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org This book’s plot was intriguing. William H. Coles wrote the book in such a way that even a layperson could understand it. While writing the book, he used simple words. The book was exceptionally well edited and had no grammatical errors. The plot of the book was full of suspense. My interest […] Read More Favour Ozone
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org I must thank William H. Coles for writing such an excellent book. He didn’t rush the story and allowed each scenario to unfold at its own pace. Although there were few characters in the books, they were well-developed and managed. What I liked best about the book’s characters was that they displayed […] Read More Hyfr Z
4/4 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org I really liked this book. In the first part of the book I was not a fan of Hiram at all. He was a selfish womanizer who thought he was above the law. But by the end of the book Hiram grew on me and I began to sympathize with his character. […] Read More Stacey Harkins 1
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org Mr. Coles does a beautiful job of describing his characters. He gives excellent care to their development and how they go through learning life lessons. The author has written previous stories and has a website to learn how to write about characters and much more. I especially enjoyed how I cheered for […] Read More Deborah Dodd
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org There are many positive aspects to this book, but what I loved the most is how the book ended. Hiram realized his mistakes and bad decisions and tried to amend them. The story of Hiram McDowell was really interesting to read. I enjoyed the book as it came with a lot of […] Read More Hakeem nuel
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org A 5 out of 5 is appropriate for this book. From one viewpoint to the next, Mr. Coles writes with ease. Even though the point of view shifts often (about every couple of chapters), the reader is still able to appreciate the novel despite this. In actuality, the many viewpoints emphasize various […] Read More Elendu Clement Ekechukw
5/5 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org Williams H. Coles created an outstanding work out of this novel. While reading the book, I was completely immersed in it, enjoying each chapter and desiring to know what happens next. The author’s writing was easy to follow and intriguing. This book made me admire Miles a lot. He didn’t only stand […] Read More Raymond N
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org This William H. Coles book, entitled McDowell, discusses lies, treachery, retaliation, bitterness, wrath, greed, and similar topics. I discovered that it’s best to honor promises that we make because breaking them can have negative effects on the other person. Couples should learn to treat their marriage seriously and to raise their kids […] Read More Chiwenduik078
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org What I loved most about the book was how the author was able to give us an insight into the character’s mind. I felt connected to the character. I felt angry when the commander kept rejecting his ideas, even though it was going to save many lives. I wondered if the military […] Read More Remmy Adisa
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org The positive aspects of this book are quite glaring and sobering. You get to discover truths about our society and the reality we wake up to each day and how everyone else fares in it. We get to see people’s responses to norms and values, their perception of love and fulfillment and […] Read More Stewardex
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org I found this book to be one of a kind. It’s one thing to be presented with an amazing plot, and another to be taken back in time to the 1960s. But all thanks to Williams, these two were fused perfectly together. My favorite character in this book is Miles. I admire […] Read More Nicole Adam
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org The book is enthralling and the end is really satisfying. I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars. The author creates emotional appeal when he writes about the experiences of non-Aryan during The Nazi rule. There is a lot to learn from the book, for instance, enabling the world to understand […] Read More Maryline Adhiambo
Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org I liked a number of aspects of the book. It is less than twenty years after World War II and memories of German atrocities are still fresh in the minds of the local population. There is still distrust of people suspected of having been Nazi collaborators. The author handles this subject delicately […] Read More Robert Bruce-Brand
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org The book is excellent. I can’t say anything negative about it. The only thing I didn’t like was that I wished the book was even longer. I did not want to part with the main characters of the novel. I rate this novel four out of four stars because I thoroughly enjoyed […] Read More Eteri Topuria
5/5 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org I found McDowell an interesting character and one that evoked strong emotions in the reader. Kudos to author William H Coles, who was able to extract the gamut of emotional responses from the reader. Initially, we feel nothing but scorn and disbelief at the coldness and callousness of the character but as […] Read More Hokageq
4/4 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org This was a masterpiece of storytelling and character development. Even if they only played a small part in the overall book, you still felt like you got to know the personalities of almost every character. It also seemed like a realistic story, like it was something that truly happened instead of being […] Read More Mystic96
4/4 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org McDowell is an exhilarating read. From the first chapter, it had my full attention and never lost momentum. If anything, I was more inclined to keep reading in the second half than in the first. Coles has written an undoubtedly unique story that stretches from high-brow charity balls to the life of […] Read More Melissa Best
4/4 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars. It was thought-provoking, well-written, interesting, and engaging. I particularly enjoyed the feeling of having just dropped into the life and timeline of the characters without the need for backstories on them. The way they were all shaped through descriptions of their personalities and […] Read More Jackie Kook
4/4 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org The author, William H. Coles, is a literary genius who created a dramatic story about a surgeon’s adventures through a tumultuous life. The book was very believable, especially considering the author’s background of ophthalmic surgery. He allowed the reader to experience the main character, Hiram McDowell’s, vulnerable life ridden with constant decision-making […] Read More Lonawin
4/4 McDowell Review from OnlineBookClub.org One thing I really liked about the book is when H. Coles made Hiram experience both sides of real life, one in which he is really privileged and has almost everything that we may all need in life, and the other side where he has nothing and has to begin his whole […] Read More Frank Aspire
4/4 The Surgeon's Wife Review from OnlineBookClub.org The author did an outstanding job of creating the characters and their personalities. The storyline was realistic and gave an accurate view of pressures in the medical profession. As a retired nurse, I can relate to the day-to-day stress of working in the medical field; and how adding personal drama to an […] Read More Brenda Creech
4/4 Creating Literary Stories Review from OnlineBookClub.org I had never realized the importance of a word choice in stories before reading this. Characterization, starting from the name of the character, is also something that holds significance in causing an impact on the reader. William Coles did an excellent job to help writers improve! What I liked most about the […] Read More samps1910
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org What I loved most about the book was the author’s fluidity and how he was able to connect each chapter. All the characters in the book had their unique characteristics, but they still connected very well throughout the book. I loved the historical references made in the book. I was able to […] Read More Remi akinluyi
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org I absolutely enjoyed reading this book. The writing was very compelling and it got me hooked from the very first sentence. It had the perfect balance between historical facts and fiction. The story was very interesting and the historical facts were not overwhelming. Instead, they complimented it really well. Something else that […] Read More readingswithsoso
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org This book allows the reader to get an insight into what living in such times could feel like. The book portrays what finding or not finding self and love can cost us as human beings. I believe in finding love and happiness if you earnestly seek it and take the right steps […] Read More Liney Eyo
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org This book is written in a way that each of the chapters has its own separate plot (similar to a “slice of life” story). It’s also written from multiple points of view, which adds depth to the overall storyline. This is a unique writing format, especially for historical fiction. It’s a breath […] Read More EmmaGraciela
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org Life is an adventure, a journey. Sometimes we face troubles but troubles may lead to good things when we learn a lesson from them. That’s the main message shared by William H. Coles in his historical fiction book entitled Tour Of Duty. I really love this book and I recommend it to […] Read More Tonymamy
4/4 Tour of Duty Review from OnlineBookClub.org William H. Coles has brought to life a myriad of characters that help to shape up Tour of Duty into a wonderful story. The main character has also been well-developed; he is very imperfect, but yet kind and thoughtful. The book is clearly well written, and it is very obvious that the […] Read More Ochieng Stephen Owino
4/4 The Surgeon's Wife Review from OnlineBookClub.org I loved every aspect of the book and found it hard to put it down. Every event in the book kept me hooked on discovering what would happen next. In addition, I appreciate how the author gives every character a voice of their own. My favorite character is Mike. Although he had […] Read More Orizon
5/5 Tour of Duty Reviewed by Maria Victoria Beltran for Readers’ Favorite Tour of Duty by William H Coles is set in France, in the tumultuous 1960s at the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and conflict in Vietnam at the height of the Cold War. The story unravels as physician Miles Ballard, inducted to serve in the US […] Read More Reviewed by Maria Victoria Beltran for Readers’ Favorite
Tour of Duty Tour of Duty is a work of fiction in the historical and realistic drama subgenres and it is a standalone work. It is best suited to the general adult reading audience and was penned by William H. Coles. In his new novel, this prolific author brings life in the 1960s to full living color, focusing […] Read More Reviewed by K.C. Finn for Readers’ Favorite
Tour of Duty Tour of Duty by William H. Coles is a historical novel set in post-war France in the 60s, principally on an American airbase, part of Europe’s defensive strategies against the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation from the Soviet Union. Miles Ballard was a newly graduated doctor, drafted into the United States Air Force and posted […] Read More Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers’ Favorite
Tour of Duty During the Cold War and with the prospect of a nuclear attack, Miles Ballard, an American medical officer who also works in the army, travels to France for training. He is forced to work with an unreasonable and narrow-minded superior and serve as the general’s doctor, a role that other people avoid for strange reasons. […] Read More Reviewed by Adanna Ora for Readers’ Favorite
Tour of Duty Tour of Duty by William H. Coles is a historical novel set in France in the 1960s. Central character Miles Ballard arrives at the US Air Force base and soon gets a taste of the French hostility towards Americans. Nevertheless, his work as a physician is all-consuming as he attends to not only General Thomas […] Read More Reviewed by Iza Grek for Readers’ Favorite
5/5 Tour of Duty William H. Coles is a realistic novel set in France during the 1940s. Miles Ballard is the charming young protagonist sent to work as a doctor in the air force. Honest, hardworking, and ambitious, Miles is liked by everyone he meets, except his superior, Colonel Barney Springer, who makes life difficult for Miles. Springer refuses […] Read More Reviewed by Kayleigh Perumal for Readers’ Favorite
Tour of Duty Tour of Duty, a gripping novel by William H. Coles, is set in France during the 1960s. It is here that Miles Ballard serves as a doctor in the Air Force. Although he becomes the General’s physician, the hospital commander considers any suggestion insubordination. Our hero’s life interweaves with that of other characters as a […] Read More Reviewed by Astrid Iustulin for Readers’ Favorite
Tour of Duty Tour of Duty follows a set of characters at a US Air Force base in 1960s France during the Cold War. Written by William H. Coles, the book opens with Miles Ballard, a physician newly drafted into the Air Force who finds himself assigned as the GMO to Brigadier General Thomas Read of the Châteauroux […] Read More Reviewed by Pikasho Deka for Readers’ Favorite
Tour of Duty Americans in France. Not so unusual, or is it? Tour of Duty by William H. Coles is set in 1960s Europe in the Cold War era during a nuclear attack threat. Physician Miles Ballard is serving in the Air Force at US Air Station, Châteauroux, France. Ingrid, the beautiful wife of Ballard’s best friend Oliver […] Read More Reviewed by Gordon D. Durich for Readers’ Favorite
Tour of Duty Tour of Duty by William H Coles is an outstanding literary historical work set during the Cold War, in post-war France. In 1960, Miles Ballard is inducted to serve in the US Air Force. He arrives in France and immediately becomes aware of the French hostility to Americans. Miles’s hope of providing patients with proper […] Read More Reviewed by Edith Wairimu for Readers’ Favorite
McDowell McDowell by William H. Coles presents the tragic fall of an arrogant man from grace. Hiram McDowell is a brilliant, admired, and respected surgeon with many flaws — arrogance, narcissism, and boundless pride. He is a selfish man who watches his climbing partner die on Mt. Everest, belittles his wife, ignores his children, and tricks […] Read More Daniel Rhodes – The Book Commentary
The Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016 The Amish Girl Short Story from the book: The Amish Girl is a sweet but sad story of love loss and yearning. The author left a hint of reconnection by mentioning Belize a country in central America that she may have been forced to go to where there are a number of Amish folk. While […] Read More marshall dell
4/4 The Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016 Review from OnlineBookClub.org Every short story I read was simply relatable, which was my number one monumental positive aspect about the book. The author seems to possess a skill to assessing the status-core of today’s norm and depict it in stories. Once again, recalling from the story of the gift, Catherine’s parent seems to fail […] Read More The_bookwarrior
4/4 The Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016 Review from OnlineBookClub.org He is arguably known as the father of modern short stories and one of its most prolific writers. He is none other than the great poet, Edgar Allan Poe, who once said: ‘A short story must have a single mood, and every sentence must build towards it.’ In Illustrated Short Fiction of […] Read More Fola_M
4/4 The Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016 Review from OnlineBookClub.org I did enjoy reading this book. As an avid reader and huge fan of short stories, this has to be among the best pieces I have read so far. The plots are written in beautiful and artistic ways that help readers form imagery as they read. All the themes discussed are very […] Read More nerdychikka
The Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016 Review from OnlineBookClub.org I appreciate the dark-adapted characters I have met in these stories. Characters that may easily be perceived as pure evil and malevolent until you get to know them more and realize how capable of goodness even these people can be. One example I can think of is Harry. The nature of his […] Read More Adrienne Abad-Alipe
4/4 The Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016 Review from OnlineBookClub.org Most of the stories in this book are exceptionally beautiful, unique, and come from different topics. Reading this book was a very interesting and exciting experience. Each ending is satisfying, even though most of them are sad and mysterious. At the end of my reading, I wondered which chapter was my favorite, […] Read More Viva Marina
The Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016 Review from OnlineBookClub.org I liked how his stories didn’t always have a “happy ending” but an ending that I had least expected. Although they hit us hard, they portrayed the reality of life. The stories are navigated based on human emotions and not based on anything that justifies which is right or wrong. The readers […] Read More MS Lefty
4/4 The Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016 Review from OnlineBookClub.org Another aspect that I like about this book is the uniqueness found in some of its short stories. Consider The Activist, for instance. The story doesn’t read like those I have read before. Told from the perspective of a young girl, this story has newness to it because it approaches activism from […] Read More kennedyodindo
4/4 The Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016 Review from OnlineBookClub.org I liked this book especially because of the uniqueness of each of the stories. I found each story different and interesting, and was amazed at how all those ideas could come from one person. I also liked the illustrations for each of the stories because they satisfied my imagination. They were all […] Read More Stella Bereebera

Read latest reviews of the works of William H. Coles: McDowell, The Spirit of Want, Guardian of Deceit, The Surgeon's Wife, Sister Carrie, Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles.


“The writing is gorgeous and Coles’ ability to build a strong connection between readers and characters — thanks to the intelligent use of realism in the writing —augments the entertainment potential of the story. McDowell is a winner for fans of literary fiction and psychological thrillers with characters that are robust and complex.”

Read the entire review at The Book Commentary

writing literary fiction

Collections available on Kindle Short Stories and Novels (free on Kindle Unlimited)

writing literary fiction

Reviews from Goodreads.com:

Mcdowell, the spirit of want, the surgeon's wife and guardian of deceit reviews, literary fiction story series 2 - short fiction reviews, creating literary story reviews.


All novels available as audiobooks at audible

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"I have rarely listened to short stories, preferring to read them, but I've decided to listen to these. The first time around, I listen purely to the story to see if it moves me; the second time around, I listen with an ear that tries to analyze where they succeed. Interestingly, this process in the second run denotes that the story has in fact moved me or I wouldn't give it a second listen. I'm beginning to really enjoy the process. I've written enough creatively through the years to see the words on a page by listening only. I think Mr. Coles succeeds on a number of levels. For example, in "A Simple Life," the dialogue is great and gives a lot of information about the characters, using vernacular language that not only presents the listener/reader with insight as to who the people are but it hints at what they might look like. Likewise, he endows them with certain physical, mental, and emotional qualities that further brings them to life. To do so simply and deftly is truly a talent. I also listened to this story in terms of narration, how he is handling this part of writing a short story, something I've been focusing my attention on in my own writing. Again, I think he succeeds in this realm, probably the most difficult thing I'm trying to hone right now."

Essays: The Art of Writing Literary Stories

William H. Coles

Story: what to do

  • Characterization Improves Dialogue…
  • Techniques for Excellence in Creating Character…

Philosophy: write for the right reasons

Craft: do it well.

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NEW! Story in Fiction Podcast

The award-winning stories and novels of William H. Coles. Each unique, character-based with dramatic plots, and written as an art form to engage, entertain, and enlighten. Read by the author.

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Award-winning short stories by William H. Coles, read or listen online for FREE.

  • Dr. Greiner’s Day in Court
  • Suchin’s Escape

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Learn the art of writing great literary fiction:

Beauty and the Building of Character in a Literary Story

Is it, or is it not, irony, interviews by william h. coles, novels by william h. coles.

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Guardian Of Deceit

Darwin Hastings is seventeen and his dying aunt sends him from Pittsburgh to New York to a new guardian, a famous wealthy football player. He is excited and afraid.

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Lucy MacMiel is a successful trial lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia, married, who falls in love with a client accused of sexual assault on a girl. He is a famous and powerful faith-healing evangelist.

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The Surgeon's Wife

A New Orleans aristocrat and doctor, Clayton Otherson, is an aging national leader in the field of trauma surgery who begins to injure patients with his unacceptable technical and judgmental mistakes.

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An admired and lauded surgeon climbs to the top of his profession. But his callous and questionably moral determination angers colleagues and friends who vow to destroy him.

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A literary psychological thriller by award-winning author William H. Coles. Two orphaned sisters, facing a future of want and loneliness.

Illustrated Short Fiction by William H. Coles

The collection of thirty-three award-winning short stories, two graphic novels, and the novella Sister Carrie is available in print and as ebook at Amazon ( Kindle click here ) and Barnes & Noble . The stories are crafted by William H. Coles with artistic intensity for engagement and entertainment. Each short story is illustrated by one of six artists commissioned for the story. “Coles’s stories are inspiring, memorable, and enjoyable–a treasured addition to any library.” Read reviews and more.

More Features: Literary   Fiction Workshop

Literary fiction workshop.

Challenging exercises for improving creative writing with free critiques and the work of other students for comparison.

Submit your work for interactive instruction. Teaching targeted to creating literary stories rather than fixing existing works for publication or contests.

About Things Literray Opening Lines Women Authors

Great stories / Books on writing

Great stories: recommended classic and contemporary literary fiction for enjoyment and learning—short fiction and novels.

Workshop Advice

What should you look for in a creative writing workshop to assure maximum learning and value? How to critique manuscripts. What to expect.

Kenyon Lectures

Narration in Literary Fiction: Making the Right Choices , June 22, 2010 How Humor Works in Fiction , June 25, 2009 Presented by William H. Coles at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio.

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Two Graphic Novels by William H. Coles, illustrated by Peter Healy:

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Suchin's Escape & Speaking of the Dead are fan favorites! Did you know you can read, listen, or download 37 award-wining short stories indiviually without cost--or purchase in collections--every story prized as an example of literary quality and together enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of satisfied readers? Every story is illustrated and free. Available in print too. #ReadersFavorite #GoodReads #ShortStories ... Read More Show Less

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Definition of Fiction

In literature, fiction encompasses written works that are defined by narratives or stories that are created, invented, and made up by the writer. Essentially, fictional works feature elements such as plot , characters, setting , and theme . These elements can be literal, conventional, and follow formulas, such as in works of genre fiction. They can also be artistic, symbolic, and unstructured, such as in works of literary fiction. Fictional works primarily take the form of novels, novellas , and short stories.

When a literary work is labeled fiction, this indicates to the reader that the written content is original and unique to the author’s imagination. This allows for expansive creative opportunities on the part of writers and encourages suspension of disbelief among readers in order to accept the “world” as it is invented and presented by the author.

For example, in Mary Shelley ’s  Frankenstein , the main character uses his scientific study of chemical processes and decay of living tissue to gain insight into the creation of life, thereby giving life to a creature of his own making.  As the reader accepts this version of fictional “truth,” they are immersed in the novel ’s world and impacted by the themes of natural laws and human interference, isolation, revenge, and societal responsibility.

Examples of Well-Known Literary Fiction Novels

The novel is an influential and impactful form of fiction writing. Novels allow writers to create entire worlds that serve as touchstones and lenses for readers to learn, connect, and understand history, culture, and what it means to exist as humans. The novel can be an important social, political, and cultural tool to bring about awareness, inspire change, and give voice to people and groups who may otherwise be silenced.

Here are some examples of well-known literary fiction novels:

  • The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
  • Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin)
  • O Pioneers! (Willa Cather)
  • Invisible Man ( Ralph Ellison )
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
  • War and Peace ( Leo Tolstoy )
  • brave new world ( Aldous Huxley )
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five ( Kurt Vonnegut , Jr.)
  • moby dick ( Herman Melville )
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God ( Zora Neale Hurston )
  • Adam Bede ( George Eliot )
  • To Kill a Mockingbird ( Harper Lee )
  • Ulysses ( James Joyce )
  • To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
  • Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
  • the stranger ( Albert Camus )
  • Beloved (Toni Morrison)
  • Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
  • Things Fall Apart ( Chinua Achebe )

Common Examples of Genres in Fiction

There are many types of genre fiction. As such, these works tend to meet certain expectations of the reader in terms of setting, characters, plot, and theme. Though some may consider genre fiction to be “formulaic” following predictable patterns , conventions, and outcomes, there is often diversity within and even overlap between genres.

Here are some common examples of genres in fiction:

  • Science Fiction
  • spy thriller
  • young adult

What Is Literary Fiction?

There is no strict definition for the term literary fiction. However, literary works share certain aspects and are differentiated at a certain level from works of genre fiction, primarily in terms of what is considered literary tradition. Here are some characteristics that are featured in most works of literary fiction:

  • use of artistic language, including advanced and/or elevated wording and imagery
  • use of literary devices including symbolism , metaphor , allegory , etc.
  • Ambiguity in plot and subplots , with no set plot “formula” or conclusion
  • Narrative that is character-focused and driven
  • exploration of historical and cultural events and patterns
  • exploration of philosophical themes, including the human condition and the power of nature

In some academic arenas, literary fiction is considered to be superior to genre fiction. Many works of literary fiction are considered to be “classics” and worthy of academic study, therefore making up much of the curricula in higher-level education and literature courses. However, this does not necessarily diminish the intellectual or lasting value of genre fiction. In fact, many works of literature can be identified and described as both literary and genre fiction.

What Is Genre Fiction?

Genre fiction is associated more with popularity and commercialism than the tradition of literary fiction. However, the expanse of readership or commercial success of a work of genre fiction doesn’t necessarily indicate that it has less literary value. Like literary fiction, genre fiction works tend to share certain characteristics, such as:

  • adherence to established formulas for plot and character arcs
  • use of more literal than artistic language
  • Spare usage of literary devices, including metaphors and allegories
  • use of symbolism that is transparent, accessible, and overt

Though critics and academics often classify genre fiction as inferior to literary fiction, genre fiction is typically far more popular among a larger scope of readers. In fact, works of genre fiction are much more likely to become “bestsellers” than works of literary fiction. In addition, though most of the enduring fictional works are literary, some genre fiction works endure across time as well.

There are now seven major genres of fiction as given below.

  • Fantasy : It involves imaginative fiction having a fictional universe, mythological character, and magical environment.
  • Historical Fiction: This type of fiction involves historical characters, situations, and events.
  • Contemporary Fiction: This genre involves modern and postmodern fiction with modern and postmodern characters, events, situations, and themes.
  • Mystery : This genre involves crime, mysterious circumstances, or puzzling situations.
  • Science Fiction : It involves science stories, experiments, space travels, etc.
  • Romance : This genre involves romantic situations, events, characters, and relationships.
  • Graphic Novels: This modern genre involves stories involving graphic images and pictures with them.

Difference Between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction

Literature has a variety of genres even when it comes to fiction. For example, literary fiction means narratives having reflective or representatives themes, characters, situations, and themes. However, genre fiction means just dividing the same work into further subcategories through different nomenclature. For example, romance is literary fiction but it is the genre with which it is known.

Examples of Fiction in Literature

People enjoy reading fictional literary works for many reasons, including entertainment, education, escape, and even connection with others. Reading fictional literature develops imagination, empathy, understanding, and progress.

Here are some examples of fiction in literature:

Example 1:  Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.

Don Quixote , by Miguel de Cervantes, is considered the first modern novel. Though the novel chronicles the title character’s manic quest as an aging nobleman to become a Spanish knight, the story is also a reflection of the influence of knightly tales and other fantasy works on readers. In fact, Cervantes’s novel is both an embrace and criticism of literary romance as well as an examination of the role and responsibility of the artist in society.

Cervantes’s novel is considered a significant work of Spanish literature and a touchstone of classic literary fiction, influencing writers across time and region. As this passage indicates, Don Quixote explores the meaning and purpose of fiction and nonfiction writing as it relates to both the expectations of the reader and the implied obligation of the writer. In addition, Cervantes’s innovative narrative form in creating the first modern novel opened the gate for writers everywhere to approach fiction and imaginative expression in original, expansive, and groundbreaking ways.

Example 2:  A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel García Márquez

The news of the captive angel spread with such rapidity that after a few hours the courtyard had the bustle of a marketplace and they had to call in troops with fixed bayonets to disperse the mob that was about to knock the house down. Elisenda, her spine all twisted from sweeping up so much marketplace trash, then got the idea of fencing in the yard and charging five cents admission to see the angel .

In Gabriel García Márquez ’s short story , he embraces the genre of magical realism in which fantastic characters or mythical elements are included in a matter-of-fact manner in otherwise realistic fiction. In this story, an old man with enormous wings appears at the residence of Elisenda and Pelayo. The characters in the story accept the presence of the winged man, terming him an “angel,” though they are perplexed as to where he came from and why he is suddenly there. Rather than attempt to understand or help the angel, the characters use his presence for their own personal gain–particularly Elisenda who devises a way to profit from the people flocking to see the old man with wings.

This story features many of the standard characteristics and “formulas” of the magical realism genre, and it can therefore be categorized as genre fiction. However, this label does not diminish the story’s literary value. In fact, due to the narrative’s artistic language, use of literary devices, and philosophical themes regarding faith and humanity, most experts and readers would classify “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” as literary fiction just as readily as genre fiction.

Example 3:  Ragtime  by E.L. Doctorow

He was buried alive in a grave and could not escape, and had to be rescued. Hurriedly, they dug him out. The earth is too heavy, he said gasping. His nails bled. Soil fell from his eyes. He was drained of color and couldn’t stand. His assistant threw up. Houdini wheezed and sputtered. He coughed blood. They cleaned him off and took him back to the hotel. Today, nearly fifty years since his death, the audience for escapes is even larger.

Some writers choose to incorporate real events, places, and even people in their fictional works. In his novel Ragtime , Doctorow incorporates historical figures, such as Harry Houdini, in the plot. Rather than being simply mentioned or referred to by the narrator and other characters, the historical figures in this novel play an integral part in the story and interact with other characters that are purely an invention of the author.

This passage reflects the way Houdini, an actual historical figure, is a full-fledged character in the novel, with dialogue and actions attributed to him by the author. Though the words, actions, and thoughts of the historical figures in the novel are fictionalized and created by Doctorow, the balance between “real” events and people as they intersect with fictional characters results in an interesting portrayal for the reader of what is known and unknown about history. Doctorow effectively utilizes literary fiction to challenge the reader’s perceptions of the past, which invites the same challenge of how we perceive the present.

Synonyms of Fiction

Fiction, like all other literary devices, has no equivalent that can be replaced as its synonym . However, some words come close to it in meanings such as stories, short stories, novels, novelette, creative stories, narratives, narration, prose literature, romance, fable , or even works of imagination.

Some other similar words that could replace it in some contexts are invention, fabrications, lies, concoctions, fake news, fake stories, fibs, fantasies, fantasy, fancy, illusion , and falsehood.

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A Daughter Becomes a Mother: On Inhabiting Both Roles in Fiction and in Life

Heidi reimer: “a mother is also a daughter. a daughter may eventually become a mother. then, forever, she is both.".

I was writing a novel about a woman with a terrible mother when I became a mother myself. In stolen early morning sessions, I read my baggy first draft and made notes on everything that wasn’t working. In endless hours with a baby, a toddler, and never-finished housework, I pondered how to fix it.

The connection to my writing and my creative self was a lifeline in my alien new role as a mother, but the challenges of carving out time and mental energy to write a novel also intensified my overwhelm. My husband was an actor, earning our living out of town for weeks at a stretch.

Whenever I decided the struggle was impossible and I had to put writing on hold, convincing myself to embrace my new identity as a full-time mother and homemaker, I became depressed within days. Some mornings, I lay in bed unable to summon the will to face more of the endless cycle of domesticity.

I’d missed out on the usual nine-month motherhood preparation period, taking on the care of the 15-month-old niece my husband and I would go on to adopt, and doing it the very day we discovered I was (oops) pregnant. I’d been ambivalent about kids, fearing the loss of the solitude and creative space I knew were essential to my wellbeing, worrying motherhood would not be enough to fulfill me and I would fail my children as a result.

My own mother had been all-in. She walked out of her job the day she went into labor with me and never worked outside the home again. She had six kids and she homeschooled us all. More, she’d raised us inside a high-demand religion that mandated one truth and one way of life—and for women, that was a calling to motherhood. She set an example and an expectation I knew I couldn’t follow.

I’d ultimately made the choice to become a mother by writing through my uncertainty, reading the work of others who’d grappled thoughtfully with the decision, and finally accepting the assurance I found there that it was possible to be a good mother and a woman whose sense of purpose came from her creative work.

Now, two daughters in tow, I was trying to be that good mother. Now I was trying to keep that creative work alive. And it was not feeling possible at all.

In the novel I was determined to complete, the terrible mother was a kind of maternal femme fatale: glamorous, elusive, irresistible, and toxic. She’d walked out when the protagonist was a baby, returning just often enough to raise hopes, bequeathing a lifelong struggle with insecurity and unworthiness. She was someone to get over and move on from, not understand or empathize with.

The problem was that I now found myself increasingly identifying not with my wounded protagonist but with the bad mother who’d inflicted those wounds.

She hated the loss of her freedoms. She hated the constant encumbrance. She hated the smallness of her new life, the fact that the necessary but uninspiring tasks of existence, formerly squeezed in around the real goals, now were the real goals. What am I going to accomplish today? Three loads of laundry, yeehaw. She had said, in essence, “I’m withering away here. I won’t sacrifice myself on the altar of motherhood.” She had left.

Check, check, check, and…no. I was most certainly not going to do that . But the mother’s irredeemable transgression, so unthinkable to me when I first conceived my protagonist’s backstory, was becoming increasingly imaginable. It was becoming an active fantasy: what if I walked out?

Except that my imagination could also easily conjure the trauma to my daughters in the wake of such an act. I’d spent years immersed in just that fictional exploration. I’d also spent my entire life as a daughter, not to mention a significant chunk of my adulthood unpacking the psychological effects of my own childhood. In my novel, I’d been keenly interested in a daughter’s journey of self-discovery and self-reclamation because it was my journey. But now I was inhabiting the other side, a woman trying to raise human females while honoring her own needs. And I couldn’t walk out—I couldn’t prioritize myself—because I was not The Daughter anymore.

To find myself no longer primarily a daughter but The Mother—the example-setter, the legacy-bequeather, the inflicter instead of the inflicted-upon—was proving to be one of the more profound of the identity shifts brought on by motherhood.

I began contemplating how I could expand the novel to complicate the mother’s actions, to humanize her a little. The novel was squarely from the daughter’s perspective; the mother had no interiority. Would it be possible, I wondered, to tell part of the story from her point of view?

It wasn’t possible. This was a daughter story, not a mother story.

I was cooking dinner one evening—dirty dishes piled high, unfolded laundry on the table, baby in the wrap on my back and toddler clamoring for attention at my knee—when a new novel flooded in. It came fully formed: an estranged mother and daughter, both of them actors. A dual POV giving equal weight to each of their perspectives. A story set on the opening night of a play. The novel would explore the question I still didn’t have the answer to: was it possible to be a devoted artist and a devoted mother, and what was the cost of each?

A version of that line ended up on the jacket copy for The Mother Act , the novel that would become my debut, and it is plucked straight from the notes I wrote that afternoon in my kitchen. I wouldn’t begin actively writing this new novel for years, but that story percolating in my mind became a creative purpose that enabled me to show up for my daughters with more joy. I had an outlet for the maternal complexity I couldn’t always voice in real life. And inhabiting two opposing perspectives in fiction helped me make sense of the paradox inside my own dual identities.

One hard morning when my husband was away filming, I packed up our daughters and went to my mother’s. I cried about how desperate and trapped I felt. I said, “I am not cut out for stay-at-home motherhood.” In the teachings of my upbringing, this was akin to saying, “I am a godless hussy.” And my mother, the person I thought I had to separate from in order to live my life the way I needed to, said, “Then you shouldn’t be a stay-at-home mother. You don’t have to embrace something that isn’t working.”

A dual POV enables us to experience two sides. Inhabiting a character—as a reader, a writer, an actor—demands deep identification, refusal to judge, an inner grasp on the psychology and motivations of people who may be at complete odds with you. A villain is not the villain in their own story—in their own story, they are the protagonist.

A mother is also a daughter. A daughter may eventually become a mother. Then, forever, she is both.


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The Mother Act by Heidi Reimer is available from Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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The Life, Death—And Afterlife—of Literary Fiction

Those of you who are reading this essay, let me ask you, right away—is your smart phone next to you? Or is it in your hand? Are you reading this on your phone, swiping up the paragraphs, swipe , swipe , swipe , wondering how far you're going to have to swipe to actually finish this thing? (Just so you know, it’s gonna take a lot of swiping.) Or are you reading on your computer screen, as I've been writing this on mine? I happen to know you’re not reading this in a print magazine. Ha! And ouch!

As you read, is your smart phone or computer or iPad simultaneously acquiring notifications, texts and emails, along with promotions, advertisements and daily venues of news, opinions and games such as Wordle and Spelling Bee, an altogether constant onslaught of information, incessantly demanding that you spend every waking hour of every day focused on this unrelenting digitality that keeps showing up on the screen in front of you, that screen with which you likely indulge in more back-and-forth than you generally do in person with an actual human being, like, say, your husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, lover, boss, employee?

Are you multi-tasking as well, working online, Zooming, Googling, communicating with your fellow employees, but also darting off now and then to your favorite venues (like, maybe, this), and then back to your job, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth?

Another question: when you’re reading a short story (on this same site, for instance) or a novel, do you remain immersed in the narrative, able to stay there for quite some time without going anywhere else? As if you were having sex for fifteen or twenty minutes, maybe even half an hour, unwilling to allow any interruptions? Or as if you had dived into a swimming pool or a lake or a sound or a sea and were floating across the water, staring up at the sky?

Can you read anything at all from start to finish, ie. an essay or a short story, without your mind being sliced apart by some digital switchblade? Without your seeking distraction as a form of entertainment, or entertainment as a form of distraction? Or is all of this just ordinary life in the internet era, with your every thought and feeling and perception being diverted or fractured or dissolved or reiterated endlessly with utter normality in a digitalized world to which nearly all of us are fixated, or might we say, addicted? Did you ever even know a different world?

I did know a different world, at least once upon a distant time. I arrived at Esquire in the late eighties to work with the legendary fiction editor Rust Hills , whose passion for literature arose in him every single morning like daylight. He and I would occasionally drink two or three Negronis at lunch, sometimes at the New York Delicatessen on 57 th Street, and talk about the writers and novels and short stories we loved (and hated). Often we met with the writers themselves, and if they were young and didn’t have much money, Rust might slide them across the table a check of his own, just so they could keep scribbling away in their precocious days of writing. Then he and I would happily weave our way back to the office at 1790 Broadway, plop down in our cubicles and make enthusiastic phone calls to writers and agents, our voices probably a little louder than usual. Rust always believed that we could ask anyone for anything. “Let de Gaulle do his own refusing,” he liked to say. Our jobs never felt like work—we played for a living.

The tech world back then seems almost non-existent by comparison to that of this century, even though New York City in the 1980s was economically soaring, having been resurrected from its financial crisis in the mid-Seventies. Yes, cable television had arrived en masse that decade, as had VHSs, Blockbuster movie rentals, dual-cassette answering machines, and far more CDs than the sadly dying vinyl records.

But for all of that, computers were only slowly listing their way into homes and businesses, considered then more like superior typewriters than electronic versions of a personal post office. Back then, we dropped tokens like coins into the subway tolls—no MetroCards to slide through a slot on the turnstile. In those days, rather than staring at their phones, subway riders spent their journey reading books, magazines, and newspapers, with besuited straphangers adept at folding the New York Times broadsheet into an eighth of its original size, and reading the newspaper while holding it in a single hand. Out on the streets, we waved our hands in the air to lure taxi cabs our way. “Uber” would have been considered nothing more or less than an intriguing word from another language. As for “zooming,” well, that just meant we were speeding down the avenue, transported by a wild or exuberant or desperate cabbie. Cell phones had not yet arrived to any significant degree, so pay phones cluttered the sidewalks of the city. At home in our apartments, we still suffered from the expense of long-distance phone calls. And at Esquire , our receptionist, who also worked as the switchboard operator, would connect incoming calls to us. If we missed the calls, she would give us handwritten messages and phone numbers when we came by her front desk. Yes, handwritten.

As for magazines, they were physically everywhere—on our coffee tables at home, in waiting rooms, libraries, airplanes and trains; and being sold at newsstands, bookstores, drugstores and magazine shops that vended only magazines, hundreds of different periodicals, maybe even thousands, including literary journals. Which meant that fiction as a whole, and short stories in particular, were also everywhere to be found. And bought.

Back then, magazines in general, Esquire included, stood rather jauntily in the center of American culture, alongside the towering industries of television, movies, and music. Editors in that era often achieved national renown as editors. And to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s longtime axiom, magazines then were mediums for the message, with literary fiction being one of the prime and abiding messages, as it had been in periodicals for more than a century. In the 1920s, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald made his living not as a writer who had published The Great Gatsby , one of the greatest American novels to this day, but instead as a short story writer, who was paid for 160 stories delivered in various magazines, most frequently the Saturday Evening Post .

“Decades ago,” wrote the tech and media journalist Simon Owens in 2020, “short fiction was a viable business, for publishers and writers alike.” He cites the ideal venues for short stories as the so-called “glossy” magazines (who calls them that now?) such as Esquire , The New Yorker , Playboy, and The Atlantic , along with what were once known as “pulp” magazines, among them Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog , all of which benefited from hundreds of thousands, and in some cases, millions of subscribers. I was always impressed as well by Redbook and McCall’s , two popular monthly women’s magazines, both now departed from the print world, which for close to a century routinely published accomplished fiction, including stories by Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Anne Tyler, and a condensed version of Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon . Even the renewed Vanity Fair , prior to its celebrity obsession when Tina Brown took it over in 1984, devoted itself to extraordinary fiction, at one point buying and printing Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold .

For a while in the nineties, it still seemed to Rust and me and many other writers, editors, and marketers that fiction in magazines would last, well, forever. As would magazines themselves. As would literary fiction, period, anywhere and everywhere. Esquire , The Atlantic , Playboy , The New Yorker, and Harper’s published short stories in nearly every one of their issues. Several of those magazines— Esquire , The Atlantic, and The New Yorker —also put out a summer issue solely dedicated to fiction. I even loved using novelists and short story writers to research and compose nonfiction—John Edgar Wideman, for instance, who wrote a rich, imaginative investigation into Michael Jordan and his influence on race in America, and Denis Johnson , who roamed around the world, reporting on multiple catastrophes, including the civil war in Liberia and the take-over of Afghanistan by the Taliban. Another brilliant fiction writer, Joy Williams , Rust’s wife, fired out dazzling and sarcastically ferocious essays, one against hunting entitled “ The Killing Game ” (which infuriated hunters who subscribed to Esquire ), and another in defense of nature, called “ Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp .”

And yet for all of that, a radical change in the structure of literary culture was already approaching. I remember one afternoon in the early-to-mid nineties when the novelist and short story writer Mark Helprin alerted me that tiny computers the size of transistor radios were heading our way. That we would carry them in our hands, stuff them in our pockets, and even pay bills and receive income through these little, unimaginable instruments. That magazines and newspapers and books might even disappear into or pop out of that miniature machine. How could he have known this? I have no idea. Laptop computers in those days seemed at least as big as briefcases, with office computers the size of altars. I recall saying to him with a bit of a laugh and much more astonishment: “Really? The size of a transistor radio?” It struck me as science fiction. Turned out to be science. Helprin was right.

As was the novelist, so-called metafictionalist, and Johns Hopkins professor John Barth, who back in 1993 declared: “I happen to not be optimistic about the future of literature in the electronic global village.” The only thing wrong with his intuition: the word “village.” It’s not a village anymore, if it ever was; it’s a universe.

At times, the digital universe feels to me like the technological equivalent of a black hole, swallowing everything around it, including the un-digital idiosyncrasy of humans, to the point that we are unable to re-emerge from that hole into a freer, more open constellation. In God, Human, Animal, Machine , the writer Meghan O’Gieblyn, who lost her faith after having been raised as a fundamentalist Christian, has created a fascinating inquiry into the nature and power of informational technology, as if that technology might be a new God, in the process of mathematizing uniqueness, and algorithmizing all of us, whether we are religiously faithful, agnostic, or atheistic. She describes how the Israeli intellectual Yuval Noah Harari argues that we already accept “machine wisdom” when it comes to the recommendation of “books, restaurants and potential dates.” He believes that “dataism” is replacing humanism as “a ruling ideology,” invalidating the conviction that an individual’s feelings, ideas, and beliefs make for a “legitimate source of truth.” According to Harari, “Dataism now commands: Listen to the algorithms!”

In the past twenty-five or so years, the magazine industry has shrunk in the midst of this “dataism,” particularly in its rendition of literary fiction. Three years ago, Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic , decided to help devise an online destination for such fiction, short stories in particular, beginning with one by Lauren Groff. “The thinning of print magazines this century,” she writes , “meant a culling of fiction.” The internet, in her estimation (and mine), “makes fairly efficient work of splintering attention and devouring time.” As a result, she concludes that literary reading is “far too easily set aside.”

Simon Owens, the previously mentioned tech and media commentator, could not fathom the economic incentive behind LaFrance’s online venue for fiction. “Short stories don’t generate a lot of traffic,” he writes. In the past, he explains, a writer could make “a middle class living writing nothing but short fiction, and a few did.” Now, he writes, “that’s not the case.”

I often think of how writers, editors, copy-editors, fact-checkers, and even publishers are losing their work just like coal miners in Appalachia have over the last twenty years, with both professions having jobs taken away, seemingly forever, by what has been described in regard to West Virginia, for instance, as “automated technology.”

The power of the internet has not just affected writers economically. It has influenced the very nature of their own creativity. What Will Self, one of my favorite novelists over the last thirty years, calls BDDM—“bi-directional digital media”—is having a severe effect not just on reading, but on writing. Self confesses : “If there are writers out there who have the determination—and concentration—to write on a networked computer without being distracted by the worlds that lie a mere keystroke away, then they’re far steelier and more focused than I.” His vision of the literary future, despite his love for literature (even apparently for e-books), is dark indeed. “If you accept [over the next twenty years] that the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web,” he asks, “do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.” Writers in this age, he states, are “less imposing” than many of the relatively recent past, which is a “…a reflection of a culture in which literature is no longer centre stage (or screen).”

Given that this new medium is bi-directional and mathematical, and that, to quote Marshall McLuhan once again, “the medium is the message,” literary criticism itself has become dully numerical. Writers and writing tend to be voted upon by readers, who inflict economic power (buy or kill the novel!) rather than deeply examining work the way passionate critics once did in newspapers and magazines. Their “likes” and “dislikes” make for massive rejoinders rather than critical insight. It’s actually a kind of bland politics, as if books and stories are to be elected or defeated. Everyone is apparently a numerical critic now, though not necessarily an astute one. Or even honest. Consider, for instance, Cecilia Rabess’s recent debut novel Everything’s Fine , about a young Black woman employed by Goldman Sachs, who becomes enamored of a racist white co-worker. Six months before the book was even published—and read—members of the digital venue Goodreads , owned by Amazon, blasted the future publication with a flood of one-star reviews, accusing Everything’s Fine of prejudice and racism. Numbers, numbers, numbers, all in attack, rather than a variety of detailed immersions into the actual text, subsequently shared in what we call “writing.”

It’s as if the internet, with its ostensibly forthright venues, has actually turned nearly all of its posters into marketers and up-and-down voters, rather than readers and reviewers. That may be one of the reasons that the publishing and academic world has now become so consumed with propriety in relation to literary writing; otherwise editors, publishers and professors fear that old and new literature, along with themselves, may be treated as viciously as Rabess’s novel.

My perception is that, perhaps because of online mass condemnations, there’s simply too much of an ethical demand in fiction from fearful editors and “sensitivity readers,” whose sensitivity is not unlike that of children raised in religious families who’ve been taught that unless they do everything right, Hell (a longstanding venue of “cancellation”) is their likely destination. That instruction, common in the Protestant South where I grew up, has now—strangely—segued into the secular world of academics and publishing. Too many authors and editors fear that they might write or publish something that to them, at least, is unknowingly “wrong,” narratives that will reveal their ethical ignorance, much to their shame. It’s as if etiquette has become ethics, and blasphemy a sin of secularity.

The power of literary fiction—good literary fiction, anyway—does not come from moral rectitude. Consider, if you will, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was a morally righteous author in the 1850s and whose famous anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, became immensely popular (at least in the North) and in time, a historical version of American sanctimony. Yet, as James Baldwin wrote nearly a century later in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” it was also “a very bad novel.” For one thing, it praises the enslaved for turning their cheeks, as it were, to be slapped again—or killed—rather than fighting back, a notion of Christian virtue and acceptance that results in brutal suffering and death on an unjust earth that will finally send Uncle Tom out of America to a less violent place known as Heaven. In Baldwin’s words, Stowe “was not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer; her book was not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong… This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel, and the only question left to ask is why we are bound still with the same constriction.”

And yet constriction has become even more constricted at this point of the 21st century, narrowing the fearless explorations that have been inherent in literature. A new American edition of To the Lighthouse , Virginia Woof’s 1927 British classic, to be published this year by Vintage, opens with an apologetic preface proclaiming that the publication is not an “endorsement” of the novel’s “cultural representations or language.” And just like in the 1850s, there are present-day writers—Sally Rooney, Ben Lerner (I remain a fan of his first two novels, but not his third), Celeste Ng, and Emma Cline, to name a few—composing fiction that Becca Rothfeld, in a brilliant essay appearing in Liberties Magazine , describes as “sanctimony literature,” in which the authors endorse and applaud their pious protagonists for living correctly. In contrast to the four novelists cited above, Rothfeld lauds Jane Austen for creating what she calls “morally mottled characters.” In Rothfeld’s view, political and ethical merit are not inherently identical. The truth is, pretty much all of us are mottled, and to immerse ourselves as readers into the complexity—not the clarity—of existence is illuminating. We can feel as close to the characters as we do to ourselves.

For me, good literature investigates morality. It stares unrelentingly at the behavior of its characters without requiring righteousness. The problem these days with a vast amount of fiction ( and its criticism) is that morality is treated as if it were mathematically precise, obvious, undeniable, and eternal. It is none of those things. Morality evolves, devolves and evolves again. It is not a rule that comes from outside of ourselves, as when the Ten Commandments supposedly floated down to the top of a mountain into the hands of Moses. That’s fiction, too, folks, as if the Bible were a very good book of magical realism, written by Garcia Marquez . Truth does not have to be literal. It can arrive at reality, dressed in a dream. Paradoxically, fiction is often truer than journalism in regard to the nature of life, even though it is largely invented, aka “fiction.” And genuine morality, as opposed to contemporary etiquette, arises from within us, over time, with thought, with feeling, and, crucially… with curiosity. In Buddhist meditation, for example, curiosity leads to a greater and more generous awareness.

Curiosity, in my view, is also what tends to make for far better fiction, and nonfiction as well. Too many publishers and editors these days seem to regard themselves as secular priests, dictating right and wrong, as opposed to focusing on the allure of the mystifying and the excitement of uncertainty. Ethics and aesthetics appear in this era to be intentionally merged, as if their respective “good” is identical. By contrast, the late, brilliant editor Robert Gottlieb, who worked with Toni Morrison , Robert Caro , Cynthia Ozick , Doris Lessing , and Joseph Heller , among many others, blended himself into the prose and intentions of his authors, supporting and allowing the independence of their freestanding literature. He was an editor-in-chief at the The New Yorker for several years, but never a dictator. He could judge and sharpen the distinctive power of an author’s voice without condemning its unique, often defiant point of view.

In their best moments, writers scribble on their pads and type on their keyboards like children playing with their buddies outside on the street or in the woods or at a park, far away in soul, if not place, from their parents. As the scholar and literary critic Peter Brooks declares in the book Seduced by Story , a beguiling and recent analysis of the nature of narrative, both fiction writing and children’s play “are about the creation of a space of freedom within the inexorable mechanisms of the real. That play, in the case of the successful fiction, delivers us back to reality changed, enhanced, with a greater wisdom in our stock.” Novelists love novels, he suggests, because such literature doesn’t constrain its creation by rules. “Fiction,” writes Brooks, “is playful precisely in its refusal to accept belief systems, its insistence on the ‘as if.’”

Or, as my friend, the novelist Darcey Steinke, says: “I actually think the best writing has paradox and ambiguity built right in. You can’t write without accepting it. Novels are about people that are f***** up!”

Oh, dear literature! Will you die or shrink or practically disappear into a tiny, elitist realm like opera has into Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan? James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia, has only owned a smart phone for the past year. And yet his literary life has radically altered. “Technology in the last twenty years has changed all of us,” he tells Nathan Heller in a New Yorker piece about the diminishment of English majors in college. “…I probably read five novels a month until the two-thousands. If I read one a month now, it’s a lot. That’s not because I’ve lost interest in fiction. It’s because I’m reading a hundred web sites. I’m listening to podcasts.”

John Guillory, another professor, recently retired from New York University, and the author of Cultural Capital and Professing Criticism , says his fellow academics need to confront “the declining cultural capital of literature in a wildly expanded media universe.”

There’s even anxiety that artificial intelligence might make human writing superfluous. The Italian writer Italo Calvino , one of my favorite novelists (read The Baron in the Trees !), foresaw this in a lecture he gave way back in 1967, entitled “Cybernetics and Ghosts.” He laid out questions that strike me as astonishingly prescient, given the recent attempts of AI at composing literature. “Will we have a machine capable of replacing the poet and the author?” Calvino asked during his speech. “Just as we already have machines that can read, machines that perform a linguistic analysis of literary texts, machines that make translations and summaries, will we also have machines capable of conceiving and composing poems and novels?”

The answer, as Calvino likely already knew, even though he died at the age of 61 in 1985, is: You betcha . A couple of years ago, a former Esquire colleague of mine, Adam Fisher, relayed to me a poem composed by AI. It wasn’t that good, but it wasn’t that bad, either. It probably would have gotten a solid B in an MFA program.

Will readers like us therefore need to become the literary equivalents of the Amish, living peacefully and slightly outside the technological world? Can reading and writing literature become our version of riding in horse-drawn buggies cantering peacefully down a car-jammed highway? Or do we simply need to accept new forms of art, whatever they might be, as when Bibles were first printed by the Gutenberg Press back in 1455, and a new bright vision arose from reading?

Not long ago, I was waiting in a long line to the cashiers at the Barnes & Noble bookstore by Union Square in Manhattan, lugging a stack of books and magazines that I was about to buy. Just ahead of me stood a lovely, dark-haired woman, probably in her forties or fifties, also carrying a stack of books, who pulled a flip phone out of her coat pocket, opened it for a second, then flipped it back shut with seeming delight. I fell in love with her instantly. Yes, she was beautiful, and I didn’t mind that, but it was the flip phone that made me want to ask her out, to sit with her in a bar or coffee shop, discussing the similar nature of our particular universe, and then to subsequently marry and share a digitally-free—or at least digitally-modest—life.

Her flip phone made me believe I already knew her. That she also loved reading literary fiction (the books she was lugging implied that, too, including Haruki Murakami’s short story collection First Person Singular , which I was also buying). That she appreciated direct contact with humans, talking and listening in physical presence, not just staring at a phone in the midst of humanity. That there was a calmness in her, and strength as well. In my view, she had either rebelled against smart phone obsession or never succumbed to it in the first place. I’m reminded of a wonderful line from Lola Shub, a high school senior from Brooklyn, quoted by Alex Vadukul in the New York Times last December in an article about young Luddites: “When I got my flip phone, things instantly changed,” she said. “I started using my brain.”

My own brain decided to hide my intermittently-smart Samsung phone in the back pocket of my jeans and wondered what to say to the flip phone woman. In the end, however, I said nothing. Instead, I smiled at a little kid, also hauling a stack of books, who just came running into the line ahead, and then leaning against that very woman. The boy grinned back at me. I went up, bought my books and magazines, stuffed them in my knapsack, took them home, sat down on my favorite chair, turned off my phone, and began to read.

Outside my window, a big moon sailed slowly across the sky above New York City. It felt like my head was its own moon, albeit somewhat smaller, peacefully floating over Murakami’s story “Cream.” The very process of reading in itself is a generous, enriching form of solitude, meditational in fact, but it is also a calm instigation of independence, and maybe even an ongoing incentive for intellectual revolution. It allows a reader, especially in this digital age, to think more freely rather than being dictated by aggressive algorithms. Murakami’s recently-published stories also made me realize how fiction at large, and short stories in particular, remain as exhilarating as ever, the embodiment of an infinite variety of visions and voices, and powerful alternatives to the standard nature of the current mind, regardless of whether literary fiction is now harder to find, publish, promote, and write in this era of digital dictatorship.

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote and published the following paragraph in the introduction to an anthology I edited called Why I Write , that features original essays by 28 fiction writers, including Denis Johnson , Joy Williams, Darius James, Mary Gaitskill , Ann Patchett , and David Foster Wallace :

The very act of reading literature, the anticommunalism of it, the slow drift into reverie, the immersion into the charismatic black-and-white grids of the page—all of this emphatically unplugs us from that other grid, that beeping, noisome electronic grid that attempts to snare us in a web of reflex, of twitch and spasm. Does this make the pursuit of literature a Luddite maneuver, with all the shadowings of melancholy and futility attendant on such rebellions? I suspect that to the contrary, passionate reading will become a form of permanent opposition…

I feel this way now more than ever. And I suspect I will for the rest of my life. Will you?

Will Blythe is the author of a New York Times bestseller To Hate Like This is To Be Happy Forever . A former literary editor at Esquire , he quit the magazine in protest to a last-minute cancellation of a novella by David Leavitt that included scenes of gay sex.

In the golden age of magazines, short stories reigned supreme. Has the digital revolution killed their cultural relevance?

Guilded Periodically the Podcast coincides with the literary magazine of the same name. The literary magazine created by The Fiction Forge showcases the art and writing of its founding members and associates. The magazine showcases poems, short stories, visual art, interview transcriptions, horoscopes, and more. The podcast dives deeper into the minds, hearts, and souls of the creators of the individual works that make up the entirety of Guilded Periodically. The podcast will walk you through the magazine chronology, bringing you stimulating, invigorating, and healing conversations.

Guilded Periodically the Podcast The Fiction Forge

Listen on Apple Podcasts Requires macOS 11.4 or higher

  • MAY 7, 2024

Episode One: About Guilded Periodically | Spring 2024

Welcome Welcome to the first episode of The Guilded Periodically Podcast. In this episode, the leader of The Fiction Forge and our main host of the podcast, Hues, walks us through their motivation and inspiration for Guilded Periodically and The Fiction Forge. https://thefictionforge.com/ #newpodcast #newpodcastalert #fiction #poetry #literature #magazine

  • MAY 1, 2024

The Guilded Periodically Podcast Trailer

Guilded Periodically the Podcast coincides with the literary magazine of the same name. The literary magazine created by The Fiction Forge showcases the art and writing of its founding members and associates. The magazine showcases poems, short stories, visual art, interview transcriptions, horoscopes, and more. The podcast dives deeper into the minds, hearts, and souls of the creators of the individual works that make up the entirety of Guilded Periodically. The podcast will walk you through the magazine chronology, bringing you stimulating, invigorating, and healing conversations with each of the masterminds that made the literary magazine possible. This is the Guilded Periodically Podcast. Join us as we take on the revolution. If you are interested in listening to the audiobook, we conveniently offer it in chunks that will be available for you to purchase before each episode of the podcast; so you can hear the art and then hear from the person who created it. https://thefictionforge.com/ #newpodcast #newpodcastalert #literary #fiction #literature #magazine #journal #thefictionforge

  • APR 30, 2024
  • © The Fiction Forge

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