Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

“Narrative genre”

(four major types or categories of stories)

thanks to

"Genre" is a type, kind, or class of literature or art—for instance a comedy, documentary, hip-hop tune, an epic poem. Such a list is endless . . . .

“Narrative genre” refers to the kind of narrative, story, or plot that various works of literature tell or enact. The source for such literary criticism is . . .

Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), acc. to which there are four basic story lines or patterns (which can overlap, alternate, or combine):

  • Tragedy
  • Comedy
  • Romance
  • Satire

These distinct narratives often work in combination—for instance, romantic comedy, or a tragic romance.

Or an episode of one narrative genre may appear in another narrative genre, e.g. the comic gravedigger’s scene in the tragedy of Hamlet, or the guards or watchmen in Antigone or Agamemnon.

Tragedy. The story begins with a problem that is significant to society, its leaders, or its representatives. The problem may rise from a temptation or error that human beings recognize within themselves, such as greed, pride, or self-righteousness.

The problem is intimate and integral to human identity; it is not "objectified" or displaced to a villain or outside force, as in romance. Good and evil are not split among "good guys and bad guys"; characters are mixed, in imitation of real life.

Action consists of an attempt to discover the truth about the problem, to follow or trace or absorb its consequences, to restore justice (even at cost to oneself), or to regain moral control of the situation.

Tragedy ends with the resolution of the problem and the restoration of justice, often accompanied by the death, banishment, or quieting of the tragic hero.

Comedy. This story-line often begins with a problem or a mistake (as in mistaken identity), but the problem is less significant than tragedy. The problem may involve a recognizable social situation, but unlike tragedy, the problem does not intimately threaten or shake the audience, the state, or the larger world. (Compared to tragedy, comedy doesn't have consequences. When someone falls down, they get back up.

The problem or conflict often takes the form of mistaken or false identity: one person being taken for another, disguises, cross-dressing, dressing up or down, mixed signals. The action consists of characters trying to resolve the conflict or live up to the demands of the false identity, or of other characters trying to reconcile the “new identity” with the “old identity.”

Comedy ends with the problem overcome or the disguise abandoned. Usually the problem was simply “a misunderstanding” rather than a tragic error. The concluding action of a comedy is easy to identify: Characters join in marriage, song, dance, or a party, demonstrating a restoration of unity. (TV "situation comedies" like Friends or How I Met Your Mother end with the characters re-uniting in a living room or some other common space.)

Occasionally, as in slapstick or farce, comic endings are “circular” with the beginning: the comic characters simply “run away,” supposedly to continue the comic action elsewhere, as in the conclusion of some sketches by the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy. 

In “dark comedy,” the conclusion is sometimes one of exhaustion, as in The War of the Roses or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Romance. In popular culture "romance" often signifies a woman's love story, but masculine narratives like westerns, action movies, or science fiction are also typically "romances" in narrative or story form. Along with comedy, romance is the most popular narrative genre, offering tales of heroes, crisis, vengeance, love and other passions, concluding with triumph.

The story may open as though all is well, but action usually begins with a problem of separation.

Characters are separated from each other (as in a true-love romance), or a need arises to rescue someone (a lost-child story; the protagonist will be a rescuer or "savior"); or characters are separated from some object of desire (as with the search for the Holy Grail or Romancing the Stone or a lost lottery ticket).

Action in romance often takes the form of a physical journey or adventure; characters may be captured or threatened and rescued. Episodes in the narrative may involve trials, tests, or ordeals in which the desire or vision or protagonist is tested.

Such action may take the form of a personal transformation or a journey across class lines, as in Cinderella, Pretty Woman, or An Officer and a Gentleman. 

Characters are motivated by desire for fulfillment or a vision of transcendent grace; cf. desire and loss. (Sometimes the hero, as in Hunger Games or a cowboy who has hung up his guns, will initially appear modest and reluctant, but the demands of family or tribe for a savior will spur her or him to action.)

The conclusion of a romance narrative is typically “transcendence”—“getting away from it all” or “rising above it all.” The characters “live happily ever after” or “ride off into the sunset” or “fly away” from the scenes of their difficulties (in contrast with tragedy’s social engagement or comedy’s restored unity).

Characters in romance tend to be starkly good or bad, in contrast with tragedy’s “mixed” characters. The problem that starts the action is usually attributed less to a flaw in the hero than to a villain or some outside force. (The degree to which characters are absolute or mixed is variable—e.g., detective or crime stories are almost always romances, but the detective may have a dark side, or the criminal may have understandable motivations like revenge, family need, etc.)

(Most Hollywood movies and most popular novels are romances, but some “independent movies” involve tragedy.)

Satire. The word “satire” appropriately comes from Greek for “mixed-dish,” as its story-line tends to be extremely episodic and opportunistic, and the genre typically involves elements of other genres including comedy, humor, wit, and fantasy.

  • The satirized topic may be humanity or society in general, or particular classes or pastimes [e.g., Christmas, the Prom, freshman year], but typically the genre satirizes politics, sex, and religion. Since laughter is pleasing and diverting and makes one feel superior, satire may enjoy more liberty than other genres in treating such sensitive subjects.

  • As another disarming device, the narrator or protagonist of satire may be a "naif"--an innocent person (usually young and likeable) who appears to lack any pre-existing attitudes toward right or wrong in what s/he observes, and so makes the object of satire appear more preposterous. Examples: Candide in Voltaire's Candide, Huck in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Austin Powers, etc. Compare deadpan style.

  • As a "mixed dish," the satiric narrative may depend for its narrative integrity on the audience’s knowledge of the original story being satirized. Gulliver's Travels (1726) may begin as a satire not only of European societies but of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1718), published only 8 years earlier.

  • In (fairly) recent instances, the Hot Shots movies may appear to be simply an unconnected series of goofy scenes unless you’ve seen Top Gun and other warrior-hero movies, in which case you know that episodes from the satire spoof or parody episodes from the original films. Young Frankenstein similarly depends on a familiarity with the original Frankenstein or at least with the cliches of old-time horror movies.

  • More recent examples:

    • Scary Movie series spoofs I Saw What you Did Last Summer, Blair Witch Project, Scream (itself a satire), etc.

    • Not Another Teen Movie (2001) parodies Pretty in Pink, She's All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, + references to American Pie, The Breakfast Club, Footloose, The Karate Kid, and other examples of the "Teen Movie" genre, with stock character types like "the Pretty Ugly Girl," "the Popular Jock," "the Cocky Blonde Guy," "the Nasty Cheerleader," and "the Token Black Guy."

Structurally, the satirical narrative will end somewhat like the original narrative, but, in terms of tone, the seriousness or pretensions of the original narrative will be deflated.

As a single-voiced example, an impersonator depends on his audience’s pre-knowledge of a celebrity’s mannerisms and foibles. (E.g., when an actor on Saturday Night Live imitates a U.S. President or candidate, the audience recognizes the candidate's pre-existing quirks and finds pleasure in the quality of their mimesis.)