All literary works fall into one of two major categories: fiction or nonfiction. Fiction refers to a broad category of literature that contains imaginary elements. Works of fiction can be completely or just partially untrue. While some fictional stories combine made-up characters, fantastical settings, and implausible plot events, others are quite realistic and rely on factually accurate details to add verisimilitude to their work.

What is Fiction?

Fiction is as old as literature itself; many of the most ancient texts in existence are fictional. Consider The Odyssey, Aesop's Fables, or Beowulf, for example. Like all literature, fiction has its roots in folklore and the oral tradition. Over the centuries, as more forms of literary expression developed, the various forms of fiction multiplied. The great variety in fictional works is reflected in the many subgenres contained under the umbrella of fiction. Genres of fiction include myths, fairy tales, historical fiction, science fiction, realistic fiction, and fantasy. Other categories of literature may be adapted to either fictional or true stories. Drama, short stories, mysteries, and narrative poetry, for example, can depict true events as well as fantastical ones.

One of the most significant developments in fiction was the rise of the novel in the 17th and 18th centuries. Don Quixote, Moll Flanders, and Robinson Crusoe are frequently cited as three of the first modern novels. This literary format distinguished itself by its unified plot, prose style, and lengthy page count. Literary elements essential to the modern novel include plot, setting, characterization, theme, and style.

While most fictional stories are readily identified as such, some books walk the line between fiction and nonfiction. These are referred to as fictionalized stories. This means that a true story has been embellished and altered to fit the dramatic needs of the author's structural, thematic, or personal preferences. It may also be the result of gaps in the real historical record, which an author might fill using imagined characters or events. As its many forms suggest, variety within fictional literature is as wide as the human capacity for imagination.

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Student Presenting a Storyboard

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Learn more about genres of literature in our Picture Encyclopedia of Genres!
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