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What Is a Novel?
A novel is a work of fiction, loosely defined as clocking in at 50,000 words or more—though that definition has widened to include graphic novels and novellas. Novels usually fall into three categories: literary fiction, genre fiction, and mainstream fiction.
What Is Literary Fiction?
Literary fiction tends to follow non-conventional plot structures while containing embedded symbolism and allegory. With literary fiction, character usually takes precedence over plot, giving more room to the internal musings of characters, their backstory, and the point-of-view of the novel’s main character. The narrative is slowed down in literary fiction in order to explore themes or subtext.
As a general rule, literary fiction writers are often those who studied in English departments at universities and receive careful criticism in journals like The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, and The London Review of Books. Literary fiction can include novels, novellas, and short stories.
7 Examples of Literary Fiction
Examples of literary fiction that are known to most readers include works such as:
- F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920): Fitzgerald’s first book—an examination of greed, morals, ambition, and love in the societal fallout of World War I—launched him to literary stardom.
- James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956): This book is a groundbreaking exploration of homosexuality and bisexuality from the point-of-view of an American man living in Paris.
- Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” (1897): This short story, honored as a stunning work of literary realism, is an adapted narrative based on Crane’s own experience as a survivor of a shipwreck.
- Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter (1986): Ford’s tale of a father’s existential crisis following the death of a son exhibits the kind of free-roaming internal machinations found in much literary fiction.
- Joyce Carol Oates’s Do With Me What You Will (1973): Oates’s short story taps into the mind of a young woman who has lost her identity in her willingness to be who others—mainly men—wish her to be. An affair forces her to contemplate the forms of love and her own life.
- Edward P. Jones’s The Known World (2003): Jones’s examination of the relationship between a former slave and a powerful white man who becomes his tutor. The work is praised for its ability to seamlessly weave many different perspectives together while highlighting the moral complexity of the antebellum South.
- E. Annie Proulx’s Postcards (1992): The wildly-successful predecessor to Proulx’s Shipping News, Postcards explores the idea of fate, industrialization, and isolation as it follows the communications of an unmoored protagonist back to his family as he makes his way across the shifting American West.
9 Types of Genre Fiction
Popular genre fiction relies on familiar templates, character archetypes, and tropes to attract readers, but the best examples use these elements in surprising and creative ways. Here as the primary types of genre fiction:
- Mystery: The mystery genre is defined by an exciting hook—usually a murder—suspenseful pacing, and a satisfying conclusion that answers all of the reader’s outstanding questions. Popular mystery subgenres include cozy mysteries, true crime novels, whodunnits, scientific mysteries, hardboiled detective stories, and police procedurals in the style of English stalwarts Agatha Christie and P.D. James. Learn how to write a mystery novel from bestselling author James Patterson here.
- Thriller: Closely related to mysteries, thrillers and horror ratchet up the suspense and shock of popular genre fiction. Authors like David Baldacci and Dan Brown dominate the bestseller list with their thriller titles, while Stephen King reigns as the master of contemporary horror. Today, the category contains numerous sub-genres, such as espionage, legal, political, crime, psychological, and techno-thrillers. Learn the essential elements of a bestselling thriller novel here.
- Romance: A romance novel is a work of extended prose fiction with a theme of love. A romance novel focuses on the development of a romantic relationship between two people, and contains an emotional throughline with a build toward an optimistic conclusion. Get inspired with romance novel-writing prompts here.
- Science fiction: Often set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, sci-fi novels imagine the worlds of far-flung future or alternate universes. Many sci-fi stories take place in a dystopian past or future. Science fiction books can have a historical setting, but most are set in the future and deal with the ramifications of technological and scientific advancement. Learn some new science fiction-writing tips here.
- Fantasy: You’re probably familiar with the literary giants of fantasy worldbuilding—J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin. Mythological creatures and medieval-style kingdoms spread across imaginary lands are typical elements of fantasy novels. Fantasy subgenres include urban fantasy, steampunk, high fantasy, epic fantasy, dark fantasy, and sword and sorcery. Find some tips on writing fantasy novels here.
- Young adult: YA fiction is geared toward 11- to 15-year-olds, but a huge number of adults now read YA novels—take the massive success of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. These coming-of-age stories differ from their middle-grade predecessors by featuring more sophisticated language and intense themes. Learn how to write a young adult novel in our guide here.
- Historical fiction: Historical novels offer a chance to examine the past from new angles, imagining the inner lives of the characters defined by the historical events of a given time period. Learn more about historical fiction in our overview here.
- Magical realism: Magical realism is a genre of literature that depicts the real world as having an undercurrent of magic or fantasy. Within a work of magical realism, the world is still grounded in the real world, but fantastical elements are considered normal in this world. Like fairy tales, magical realism novels, novellas, and short stories blur the line between fantasy and reality. Discover everything about magical realism in this guide to the genre.
- Speculative fiction: Speculative fiction stories are set in a familiar reality that is twisted in some meaningful way. They may couple the familiar and unfamiliar in an alternate history, or take an idea from current society and move it a little further down the road. Even if humans are short-term thinkers, this kind of fiction anticipates multiple versions of the future. Read more about speculative fiction here.
3 Examples of Mainstream Fiction
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Any type of novel can become mainstream, given the right moment. Here are some hallmark examples:
- J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (1997): The series began as a middle-grade fantasy book, but painted a magical world so engrossing that adults read it too. It eventually became a massive film and theater franchise.
- Stephen King’s The Stand (1978): You don’t necessarily need to consider yourself a fan of horror fiction to know Stephen King’s horror novels. Books like The Shining, Carrie, and It all became part of the pop culture zeitgeist.
- Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2000): This book and its sequels combine elements of historical fiction with a thriller’s pace, drawing in art history lovers and suspense-seekers alike. Learn how to write a thriller novel from bestselling author Dan Brown here.
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