Genre Tips: How to Write Literary Fiction

What exactly is literary fiction? Although the term often means many different things to different people, the general consensus is that literary fiction encompasses dramatic stories that consciously focus on existential themes and artistic prose. Naturally, these elements can appear in any type of story, so deciding you want to learn how to write literary fiction can be helpful not only in writing stories that specifically fit this category, but in raising the vibration on any type of story.

Ironically, the term literary fiction is often used in opposition to the term “genre,” which I guess means we have the “literary genre” and the “genre genre.” (And now that I think about it that way, it cracks me up. #sorrynotsorry :p ) Literary fiction is a somewhat contested term, used by some writers to indicate a “higher level” of writing and by others as a crack at elitism. Back in the day when what is properly considered “genre fiction” was classed only as lowbrow pop fiction for the masses, literary fiction was the domain of the “serious” writer. These days, however, when so many “genre” entries are themselves high art, the borders of what is literary fiction and what is not have become a bit mistier.

It also used to be (and still is to some degree) considered a rule that genre fiction focuses on plot (i.e., events happening to the protagonist), whilst literary fiction focuses more on character and theme (i.e., how the protagonist reacts to events). Although each of these approaches create significantly different reading experiences (both of which are legitimate and wonderful in their own right), this argument between “plot and character” has been largely responsible for creating the dualistic idea that story must be one or the other—and that one must be better than the other. Of course, the truth is story requires both plot and character. You can’t have one without the other. All stories have plot except perhaps the most wildly experimental novels (which, honestly, I would class as a genre of its own).

So if we can’t narrow down the strict definition of literary fiction as fiction that…

  • focuses on drama
  • offers existential themes
  • is artistic
  • emphasizes beautiful prose
  • crosses over into no other genre
  • values character over plot

…then how can we determine what is literary fiction—and what is not?

5 Tips for How to Write Literary Fiction

Unlike genres such as romance and mystery, literary fiction is not defined by its beats. Nor is it strictly a milieu backdrop like fantasy and historical fiction. It can be set anywhere, anytime. It can focus on love stories, on murder investigations, on supernatural evil, on presidential assassinations, on slices of life. It can feature characters who are human, animal, or even inanimate.

It’s kind of like that old saw: “You know it when you see it.” For my money, literary fiction is primarily defined by attitude and perspective. Any story could be told as literary fiction; what makes it so is how it is told.

Although literary fiction contains all the same structural pieces as any other type of story, it is more intent on the journey than the destination. It looks around. It wants to see and observe; it wants to stop and ask questions. Usually, it does so from a slightly distanced perspective. Even if it utilizes a deep POV that puts readers right there in the characters’ heads, what is evoked is the sense of being one step back from the action, observing, commenting, noticing the deeper meaning.

Sound interesting? Then let’s take a quick overview of how to write literary fiction.

Story Structure in Literary Fiction: Understanding How to Intertwine Inner and Outer Conflict

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

The notion that “literary fiction” is synonymous with “plot-less fiction” is a misconception. What’s true is that literary fiction is not as dependent upon or hemmed in by specific beats as are genres like romance and mystery. However, the basic structural arc underlying a story’s plot becomes all the more important in supporting and unifying the often sprawling and sometimes abstract events and motifs within a literary story.

What’s also true is that the plot in literary fiction is often less concerned with its story’s external conflict (even if it’s rip-roaring) and more concerned with the characters’ internal conflict. You might say literary fiction is more interested in character arc than structure. But (surprise!) that, too, is a false paradigm. Why? Because the mechanics of character arc are inherently structural.

Plot structure can be viewed as the emergent of character arc. The entire arc of what we recognize as story is merely the externalized structure of the natural and inevitable pattern of human transformation. In short, if a literary story creates a magnificent character arc, you can be sure it is also well structured.

The structural beats in any story will tell you what it is about. In a literary story, those beats will focus intently on the inner conflict and evolution of the characters. Even if you’re writing your story with a relatively loose focus on structure, just double-checking that the ten major structural moments are all focused on your character’s internal journey will help you ensure both plot and character are powerfully aligned.

Those structural elements are:

For Example: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved classic The Great Gatsby is a pitch-perfect example of how external conflict (of which there is plenty, as Gatsby jets around NYC, causing and enduring all manner of havoc) can play out primarily through the lens of a character’s internal conflict (in this instance, through the observations of narrator Nick Carraway, who stands at a remove from the relational machinations of Gatsby and the other characters and who undergoes a Disillusionment Arc as a result).

>>Click here for examples of Nick’s Disillusionment Arc used in the series “How to Write a Negative Character Arc”

Character in Literary Fiction: Backstory As the Origin of Motivation

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Genre fiction asks, “What will happen?” Literary fiction, however, is often more concerned with, “What did happen?” Its most urgent question is, “Why?”

Although sometimes this exploration may offer an external plot that is intent on uncovering revelations new to the main characters, it just as often focuses on diving deep into an exploration of the characters’ own pasts. Memories, feelings, events, old hurts, lost loves, delusions, and dreams—all are excavated and reexamined in the characters’ search for meaning.

Backstory and its motivating “Ghosts” are important catalysts for the character arc in any type of story, but in literary fiction the uncovering of how the past has affected the future is often of primary importance. Alternate timelines are a popular device in literary fiction, allowing backstory to be explored side by side with the characters’ current dilemmas. Even when a story is told in a linear fashion, it is understood that much of what we see is context for a final realization.

This emphasis on the causal effects within a character’s personal development doesn’t necessarily require a huge or shocking event in the character’s backstory. Rather, the emphasis is on the why of how characters ended up where they did or are making the choices they are currently faced with.

For Example: Toni Morrison’s finely-wrought Beloved drops a horrifyingly shocking backstory bomb halfway through when it reveals what happened to main character Sethe’s “almost crawling” baby girl. In a different type of story, this revelation might have been played for all the drama it was worth. In this quiet exploration of the effects of slavery, the revelation is equally quiet, made all the more horrifying by its unflinching deliberateness in examining the reasons for and effects of Sethe’s choices. Although it is a huge plot moment, it is chiefly utilized as an exploration of character.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (affiliate link)

Theme in Literary Fiction: Theme as Message vs. Theme as Question

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

Although theme will emerge from any well-constructed plot and/or character arc, literary fiction is noted for its conscious exploration and execution of its themes. Heavy-handed themes that present themselves as “answers” to their readers are not welcome in any type of story, and this becomes all the more true in a literary story that very likely will be exploring its themes “on purpose.”

For example, a genre action story about a brave naval admiral may express themes of courage, duty, and honor merely through the external actions and outcomes in the plot. A literary story will go deeper in examining the character’s interiority, as he struggles literally with these questions in his own mind.

Ironically, this means literary fiction can easily come across as far more moralistic and “on the nose” than most genre fiction. The key to any successful exploration of theme is focusing less on the answers or “lessons” and more on the questions that are inherent within the character’s struggles. There is never any need to spell out a thematic premise for audiences; the outcome of the plot events will always present the author’s thesis on how certain causes lead to certain effects.

Particularly in literary fiction, which can sometimes be more open-ended than other types of stories, thematic emphasis should be less on proving a certain point and more on an honest exploration of how certain thematic questions affect the characters’ outlooks and choices. Arguably more than in any other genre, allowing characters to choose wrong and then showing the effects of those choices in the end can be especially powerful in literary fiction.

For Example: The Remains of Day by Kazuo Ishiguro utilizes flashbacks to explore the choices of its protagonist, lifetime butler Stevens, who chose to remain loyal to his Nazi-sympathizing employer, not because he agreed with the politics but because he was so identified with his work. This raises questions he must explore in his present as he seeks to reunite with a woman he might have married, had he made different choices.

Scene Structure in Literary Fiction: Controlling Pacing via Action and Reaction

That certain “attitude” of literary fiction, its focus on the interiority of is characters, and its leisurely pacing can be tricky to define, much less evoke in one’s own writing. One of the best hacks can be found in scene structure.

Scenes can be divided into two basic parts: action and reaction. These two parts are sometimes referred to as “scene” (action) and “sequel” (reaction), which can then be divided down further into three parts apiece:

Scene (Action):

  1. Goal (character wants something)
  2. Conflict (an obstacle is introduced)
  3. Outcome (the initial goal is either obstructed or leads to a new goal)

Sequel (Reaction):

  1. Reaction (character reacts emotionally to the previous outcome)
  2. Dilemma (previous outcome has created a new problem)
  3. Decision (character decides upon new goal)

Stories that emphasize external action usually put more weight upon the action half of the scene. In these stories, sometimes the reaction half may be summarized rather than dramatized to allow the narrative to return to the action as quickly as possible.

Literary stories, however, flip the script. In literary fiction, the reaction or “sequel” is usually more markedly emphasized. The action still happens, just as in any story. Indeed, literary stories can be just as full of war-time explosions, psychopathic murderers, and passionate trysts in the rain as any other type of story. The difference is that the action portion of the scene will not always be heavily dramatized. In some instances, the action may not be dramatized in the story’s “real time” at all, but rather looked back upon from the character’s reaction phase.

For Example: I first noticed the use of this technique when reading Kathryn Magendie’s Sweetie, about a timid young girl who befriends a feral mountain child. The book’s leisurely emphasis of sequels over scenes takes nothing away from its potency or urgency.

Prose in Literary Fiction: When Beauty Is Truth and Truth Is Beauty

Those who love to read literary fiction or want to write it often return to the genre again and again simply for the beautiful artistry of its prose. Although beautiful prose can be found in any genre, it is a necessity in literary fiction. Not only does it help pull readers into a story in which it’s possible that, strictly speaking, not much is happening, it is also an important tool for deepening the story’s thematic exploration.

Readers of literary fiction expect more from the genre than just a good story (although they expect that too). They expect a kind of truth from the prose that is found nowhere more strongly than in poetry. Literary novels are, in their way, like beautiful prose poems. Their word choices are exquisite—every syllable chosen not just for its efficacy, but for its symbolic effect. More than that, the prose creates a mirror that is held up to both our darkest and most beautiful parts. Those mirrors are only clear when the wordcraft has been honed to communicate not just to the readers’ conscious mind, but to the parts of them that exist beyond the words.

For Example: One of the most gorgeous books ever written, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern evokes its fantasy worldscape through prose that is, as one reviewer put it, “seductive and mysterious.” This is also a wonderful example of a “genre” story that crosses over into literary fiction.


More than anything else, literary fiction is a style. It evokes an effect that allows it to explore life itself with a magnifying glass—to go deep in observing the tiniest details and the most tempestuous human experiences. It is a beautiful genre that can be melded with almost any other style to create unforgettable stories that appeal to many different types of readers.

Stay Tuned: Next week, guest poster Oliver Fox will close out the series by talking about Horror!

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your thoughts on how to write literary fiction? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Thanks for another wonderful post! This entire series has been helpful to me. I especially appreciate your clear and concise description of “Literary” fiction – a classification that has baffled and, at times, irritated me in the past.

  2. I typically don’t read or write literary fiction, but I do recall reading some of Patricia MacLachlan’s books when I was eleven or twelve. Her writing style was full of prose, and it inspired me to use more literary elements in my own writing.

  3. This article has helped me to see that the elements of my two novels fit into this genre of literary fiction. I appreciate your clarification, despite the “misty” nature of the concept.

  4. Colleen F Janik says

    Profound, thought-provoking, memorable. Wouldn’t these words all describe literary fiction? We all have our writing goals, and I think most of us want to write exciting best sellers. But I wonder which type of novels are read over and over and treasured on our book shelves, in our minds, and in our hearts? Which novels have we read over and over and passed on to friends and family? In my life there are few such novels. Personally, I think the literary novels create a world where you look forward to visiting everyday in your easy chair. To me, that’s something even better than excitement. That’s enchantment.

  5. Nick Shears says

    Thank you for your well thought out, detailed post. When asked what genre I’m writing in I say ‘literary fiction’ but until now I couldn’t have provided a succinct description of what that is. Now I can. 🙂
    More importantly, you’ve given me a couple things to contemplate in depth and to use as I work on my novel. Many thanks.

  6. Charlotte says

    This is the best article on literary fiction that I’ve found on the web. Seriously. I’m finally certain what “genre” to use when I query. Thanks.

  7. Grace Clay says

    While I was reading your description of literary fiction, with the strong character focus, and the emphasis on `why’ they act as they do, I thought to myself `hey, maybe this is secretly my genre, and I never knew!’ Then I got to the bit about beautiful prose… Nope, my prose is strictly utilitarian. But I do have a deep appreciation for beautiful writing, and I love a strong focus on characters inner lives, the `why’ behind the `what,’ if you will.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This isn’t to say that only literary fiction emphasizes character. Any genre can choose to spend a lot of exploration on the “why” of things.

  8. Beth Farmer says

    I didn’t write anything last week, but I meant to. I found your description of the various types of mysteries succinct and edifying. I am finding all of this series to be interesting and helpful. I usually try not to read literary fiction because in my experience (which I have to admit is limited) it leaves me feeling let down in the end. Maybe it’s way to close to reality. It’s usually ‘haunting’. In my opinion, literary fiction changes you, in a way that commonly called genre fiction does not. Having said that, I think that Daphne du Maurier borders on literary fiction, and I’ve read ‘Rebecca’ many times. I still find it haunting. I consider Anita Shreve to be literary, and her prose is beautiful, and I have re-read some of her books. I’m still angry with Donna Tartt over ‘The Little Friend’. I enjoyed the book, but I am still frustrated by not having a difinitive answer about how Robin died. You get my drift…

  9. Dennis Fleming says

    Terrific essay, as are most you write. Writers toss around the term literary fiction, claiming that’s what they write, when it’s clear they aren’t. This essay puts it in perspective. I’ve always thought the genre is more concerned with the beauty of prose, the paradoxes in life, the humanity of people with their flaws and near perfections than it is concerned with sales or fitting into a specific genre. A book on what constitutes literary fiction would make a great addition to my reference shelf. Any ideas Ms. Weiland? And don’t tell me to try it. I’m not up to it.

  10. Thank you so much for this post! I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what genre my WIP is because it mainly focuses on character, theme, and ‘stop and think’ moments though it has plenty of plot too. I now realize that it fits perfectly into the literary fiction category! You did an excellent job in laying everything out so clearly, thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Literary is such a beautiful genre. It can also be one of the toughest to write, because there are so fewer places to hide than in genre fiction. But when it’s done well, it’s simply magic.

  11. The more I listen to these genre essays, the more I realize that, at least for me, writing is more a continuum than a particular genre. Writing can, and probably should, have elements of many of them. Maybe not all at once, but over the course of a career I think a writer should touch all these bases. That’s the adventure of writing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, that’s my preferred experience as well. As I mentioned at the top of the series, I haven’t written much about specific genres in the past, mostly because I don’t really experience stories *as* genres. Genres are, of course, useful when you’re hunting down a particular type of book. But good storytelling is just good storytelling.

  12. Joseph Merboth says

    I think it was Matt Bird who said literary fiction is about “the workings of fate,” compared to genre stories that are about the hero’s agency. I don’t think this is a hard and fast rule, but an interesting insight nonetheless.

    I’ve always loved stories that blend literary theme and style with genre plotting. It’s a spectrum in the sense that stories aren’t just one or the other, but it’s also a tug-of-war because pushing a story in one direction necessarily pulls it away from the other.

    Nobody asked for books suggestions but here they are anyway: anything and everything written by Michel Faber (my personal favorite is “The Book of Strange New Things”). He has such a solid, innate sense of structure, so his books *feel* well paced, but they’re totally literary. I think the reason they keep me engaged is because I love character change, and his characters are always changing on every single page. It’s not for no reason he’s my favorite author of all time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I appreciate that insight as well! I think there is a lot more blurring of the lines between those two approaches these days, and those stories are often some of my favorites.

  13. I went through a phase of reading literary fiction, which I loved. This article describes it so well, everything I appreciated about it but didn’t know how to say. I’m interested in character interiors, and in the truth and beauty aspect of literary fiction. Thanks for this wonderful series.

  14. Mikiel M Ottmar says

    Thanks again for a most helpful and interesting post. I can now reevaluate my stories which didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. It’s now another new beginning for me. mikiel

  15. Robert Siegel says

    What makes a work “literature” has always been a bit of a mystery. You made it so clear that I now can’t believe that “what makes a work literature” was ever a question. Your books on writing and this podcast are great! Thank you!

  16. Wow, what a great post! I’ve been struggling to nail down the genre of my current project. It’s heavy on character, theme, and those “stop and think” moments, but it’s got a solid plot too. After reading this, it’s finally clear to me that it fits perfectly into the literary fiction

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