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understanding literary form—continued

Form is a way of classifying literature by its structure and framework. Compared with other ways of classifying literature, such as genres, period, or place, there are relatively few literary forms. Perhaps there are dozens of literary genres and dozens more of literary periods or literary places, but literary forms are relatively few.

Today, this situation is being ameliorated somewhat because of all the vitality and imagination being poured into writing. A recent development, for example, is so-called 55 Fiction. The form of a literary work is 55 Fiction if it is written in fifty-five words or less, has a setting, has one or more characters, a tad of conflict, and a resolution.

By way of example, The Muse offers the names and definitions of a few of the most prominent literary forms. You are probably familiar with all of them:

  • Drama – A literary work that centers on the actions of characters; written to be performed on a stage.  (one-act plays, five-act plays)
  • Essay – An analytic or interpretive literary composition written from the author’s point of view.
  • Novel – A fictional prose narrative of considerable length and complexity in which the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters serve to unfold the plot; usually over 50,000 words.
  • Novella – A fictional prose narrative longer than a short story and shorter than a novel; usually between 20,000 and 50,000 words.
  • Poetry - Text in rhythmic or metric form, often employing rhyme; usually shorter and more concentrated in language and ideas than either prose or drama; poetic language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to its meaning.
  • Prose - Ordinary writing, without metrical structure, expressed in a commonplace manner.
  • Short Story - A brief fictional work that usually contains only one major conflict and at least one main character.
  • See other examples of literary forms at The Muse Of Literature's page called Literary Forms & SchemasExamples: click here.

problems with the notion of literary form

The form of a literary work is one of its most important characteristics; together with its its genre, title, author, and publication date, its form tells us as much about a work as we can reasonably expect to know without looking under its cover. Is a cited work a novel? A short Story? Fiction or nonfiction? When we inspect a library index card or read a critical review or publisher's promotional ad for a new work, we naturally look first to discover its form.

Many literary forms—epic poetry, lyric poetry, biography, philosophy, drama and dramatic poetry, song, and others—have been with us for at least two or three thousand years. Yet, despite all this time and attention forms have received, today neither experts nor laymen can always reach agreement on these aspects of form:

  • The precise definition of the notion of literary form—what literary form is.
  • How the concept we call literary form differs from other literary concepts, such as genre or period.
  • The membership of the canonic body of literary forms—what forms are in the list.
  • The names to give the literary forms that are members of the canon.
  • The way canonical forms and subforms relate to one another (see the section titled Forms, Subforms, and Classification Schemes, above on this page).
  • The precise definition of the characteristics that a literary work must possess before we can decide what form it is written in.
  • Whether a specific work is written in a specific form.

Problems with the notion of form are similar to problems with the notion of genre described by The Muse Of Literature on The Muse's page called More About Literary Genre, except that confusion over the notion of form is not as rampant as it is over the notion of genre. There are probably two chief reasons why there is less confusion about form than about genre: 1) there are fewer forms than genres, and 2) forms are more concrete concepts.

Nevertheless, differences of opinion over the meaning of form and the classification specific literary works into form, genre, and period continue to exist among commentators.

  • To give you insight into other points of view about how to organize literature, The Muse Of Literature recommends that you explore the description of literature at the Wikipedia page called Literature: click here.


problems with the notion of form

Problems with the notion of Form are similar to problems with the notion of Genre. To further explore the problems with Form, The Muse recommends that you explore the section on the page called Understanding Literary Genre titled, Are Literary Genres Real Things Or Only Mental Constructs?—The Fallacy Of Genre.

  • The section is located on The Muse's page called Literary Genre: click here.

To translate from genre to form as you read, most of the time you can substitute the word form for the word genre. If you want to get the whole picture, be sure to read the pages that follow the Fallacy Of Genre section by clicking on More at the end of relevant sections.

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