What is literary genre

Literary genres

Literary texts are usually one of the three literary genres assigned. The three great genres of literature are epic, lyric and drama. Literary genres always describe literature from the outside. This means that the attempt is made to bring literary texts into order and to summarize and differentiate them from one another based on their similarities or also peculiarities. This distinction is not always clear, as there are many borderline cases.

In German lessons we do learn - This is also asserted in the introduction to this text - that literature is in Epic, Poetry and Drama can be divided. However, there is a problem with this: most authors are completely indifferent to this classification. Therefore, some of the terms have to be redefined or the definitions stretched and expanded afterwards, as otherwise they cannot include all types of text, genres and sub-genres.

That meansthat German studies and literary studies are much more interested in dividing written products into genres than the writers themselves. This is not a problem, but it can make it difficult for students to find a literary text in exactly one of the three to be assigned to major genera.

Genres: epic, lyric, drama

In the 18th century, the well-known classification of literary genres crystallized for the first time, referring to sources from ancient times.

Aristotle made a distinction between two types of texts: dramatic and non-dramatic texts. The triple division of the generic term, which we know, only became popular in the 18th century and was borne primarily by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Goethe differentiated between the so-called natural forms of poetry and assumed that all three forms represented a mood or attitude of the person. He therefore concluded that the literary genres have a timeless character and must therefore always be valid.

“There are only three real natural forms of poetry: the clearly narrative, the enthusiastically excited and the personally acting: epic, lyric and drama. These three modes of poetry can work together or separately. "(Taken from: Goethe, West-Eastern Divan)

These Division into epic, lyric and drama has held up, at least in German lessons, and it is only during our studies that we get to know other forms of literary genres and extensions of the term.


The word Epic comes from the Greek and roughly means "word", "story" or "story". It includes almost all texts in narrative literature.

Most of the text types and forms of the three literary genres certainly fall into the field of epic. So the area includes Novels, Autobiographies, Criminal and Adventure novels, but also short forms such as Short stories, fairy tale, Novellas and the Sway, the fable as well as the anecdote.

Of course, numerous genres and subgenres would have to be listed at this point, but the most important thing is that we can identify an epic text as such on the basis of certain characteristics and properties.

Brief overview: Epic
  • The epic reproduces events of the outer (description, statements, etc.) and inner world (feelings, thoughts, etc.) from the point of view of a narrator.
  • Epic texts therefore have one tellerwho tells the story. This narrator is usually very easy to recognize (see: authorial, personal, neutral narrator)
  • Epic texts are presented in verse or prose form. Variations are possible, but epic texts are usually limited to these forms.

Example of an epic text
When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from restless dreams, he found himself transformed into a monstrous vermin in his bed. He lay on his armor-like hard back and, when he lifted his head a little, saw his arched, brown belly, divided by arched stiffeners, at the level of which the bedspread, ready to slide down completely, could hardly be preserved. His many legs, pitifully thin compared to his normal size, flickered helplessly in front of his eyes.(Franz Kafka, The transformation)


Poetry derives from the lyre, a plucked instrument, and originally meant a song that was accompanied by the lyre (lyre). Nowadays we use it to capture poems of all kinds.

Poetry is known to us mainly as a literary genre of poetry. This means that all forms of the poem can be encompassed under this generic term, such as the ode, the ballad, the sonnet or the elf.

But even with this literary genre there are of course innumerable variations and sub-forms, all of which do not have to be listed if we look at the most important characteristics of poetry.

Brief overview: poetry
  • The lyric appears to us fundamentally in the form of rhythmically bound speech, i.e. in Verse form. These verses are basically laid out in stanzas. → Verse, stanza
  • Furthermore, we find a rhythm in the poetry that we can use with the Meter (Meter) can specify. Although this does not always correspond to a certain pattern, it can be observed and structure a poem. → meter
  • We often find the in poetry rhyme. However, this does not have to be the case, especially in modern forms of poetry. There are many examples that do without rhyme. → rhyme scheme
  • The lyric can also be used as a monological representation of a state. This means that a lyrical self represents a situation or occurrence alone.
  • Since this literary genre has very few features that appear in each subspecies and can always be changed or expanded, the lyric is considered to be Most versatile form of the three genres of literature.

In order to clarify the characteristics of the lyric poetry mentioned, it makes sense to look at an example that illustrates what is being written quite nicely. For this we take a stanza from Heinrich HeinesThe brown rats. Here you can find bound speech in verse form, stanzas, rhymes (pair rhymes).

There are two types of rats:
The hungry and full.
The full stay happy at home,
But the hungry emigrate.


The drama we know from the theater and means “plot” when translated. Consequently, this literary genre means everything that has been thought and written for the stage.

Accordingly, all stage plays fall into this area. In particular, these are opera, plays and the sub-genres tragedies and, of course, comedies. But here, too, there are numerous subdivisions, which is why it makes sense to look at the characteristics of the genus.

Brief overview: drama
  • A characteristic of the drama is that the plot is mainly through the Dialogue between the actors (Protagonist, deuteragonist) is worn, so there is no narrator instance.
  • Lyrical (chorus), epic (messenger report) and dramatic elements can already be found in the ancient theater. But the dramatic always predominates, even if all genres are present.
  • According to modern understanding are Dramas written for actorsto be shown to an audience. As a result, there are numerous instructions in the dramatic text, which are primarily aimed at the actors themselves.
Example of a dramatic text

Host. Good morning, Mr. Just, good morning! Oh, up so early? Or should I say: up so late?

Just. Tell Him what He wants.

Host. I say nothing but "good morning"; and surely it deserves that Herr Just says "Thank you very much"?

Just. Great thanks!

Host. One is annoyed when one cannot have his proper rest. What is the matter, the Major didn't come home and he was waiting for him here?

Just. What the man can't guess!

Host. I guess I guess.

Just (turns around and wants to go). His servant!
(Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Minna von Barnhelm)