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Convention in Literature

A convention in literature is a genre’s defining characteristics. Every genre has its go-to ideas, images, and characters. 

Depending on which genre a reader is engaged with, they will find different conventions. For a novel to successfully fit into a genre, it will likely have to meet specific characteristics. If it doesn’t, the reader may have a hard time appreciating the written work in the way the author intended. 

For example, a detective novel should conform to conventions of foreshadowing, mystery, investigative leads, classic hero vs. villain scenarios, and more. These conventions and others are discussed in more detail below.

Convention in Literature Definition and Examples


Convention in Literature Definition

A convention in literature is an element that a story or poem needs to have to be characterized in a specific genre. 

For example, an epic poem needs to have traditional heroes who use their strength and bravery for the good of the many. Or, a romantic nature poem needs to include contemplation of the natural world, God, and humanity’s place in it. 

Literary Genres and Convention Examples 

  • Detective Stories: hero vs. villain dynamic, a mystery to be solved, clues gathered throughout the story, the main character is a detective, various suspects and motives that are analyzed, misdirection and twists, and hidden evidence is revealed. 
  • Horror: scary scenes, images, villains, jump scares, dark and foreboding setting, mysterious deaths or crimes, confusion, and unsettling atmosphere. The reader is on edge throughout the story. 
  • Romantic Comedy: a romantic connection between two unique people, something comes in-between them (class differences, previous relationships), young main characters who are likable, and they reconcile their differences over the course of the novel. 
  • Fantasy: otherworldly well-developed setting, magical characters and creatures, the conflict between heroes and villains, and breaks traditional rules of reader’s everyday life. 
  • Science Fiction: explores futuristic scientific advances, set in the future, may have time travel, teleportation, space exploration, aliens, and parallel universes.
  • True Crime: a crime occurs, and an investigation follows based on real-life events, which may include one or more murders or other terrible crimes. It could include first-person accounts of harrowing events. 


Examples of Literary Conventions 

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven’ is a classic horror poem that utilizes many of the conventions listed above. These include: 

  • Mysterious setting
  • A dark tone and atmosphere 
  • Scary imagery and mysterious circumstances 
  • The narrator struggles to understand what’s going on

Here are a few of the best-known lines from the poem that demonstrates the poem’s adherence to the horror genre’s literary conventions: 

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

            Only this and nothing more.”

Discover more Edgar Allan Poe Poems

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

This unusual, nonsense fantasy poem adheres to some of the many fantasy conventions that are more common in short stories, novels, and films. For example: 

  • Features strange and incredible creatures from another world. 
  • Includes a hero and villain battle. 
  • The setting is otherworldly. 

Here are a few of the best-known lines from this fantasy poem that show its adherence to some of the classic conventions of the genre: 

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Read more Lewis Carroll poems

The Iliad by Homer 

Homer’s Iliad is a classic example of an epic poem. It conforms to (and defined to authors to come) many of the conventions used within epic and heroic poetry. For example: 

  • Characters are representative of a set of values
  • Larger-than-life battlers and personalities 
  • Features historical heroes
  • Characters show extreme courage and bravery
  • Epic poems were originally told orally

Here are a few lines of ‘The Iliad’ that shows its epic qualities: 

Ye kings and warriors! may your vows be crown’d, 

And Troy’s proud walls lie level with the ground.

May Jove restore you when your toils are o’er 

Safe to the pleasures of your native shore. 

But, oh! relieve a wretched parent’s pain, 

And give Chryseis to these arms again; 

If mercy fail, yet let my presents move, 

And dread avenging Phoebus, son of Jove.


FAQs 

What is a convention in literature? 

A convention is an element of a genre that a novel, poem, short story, or other literary work uses that helps readers understand the genre it’s in. For example, a fantasy novel uses otherworldly characters, magic, battles, and classic hero vs. villain dynamics. 

What are the conventional literary genres? 

Conventional literary genres are most commonly used by writers throughout time. These include romance, mystery, horror/gothic, epics, and more. 

What is a convention in a story?

A convention is an element of a story that defines it as belonging to a speck genre. All stories use conventional elements. If they didn’t, readers wouldn’t know what kind of story they were reading. For example, a horror story without mystery, suspense, dark scenes and images, scary characters or events, and foreboding examples of foreshadowing wouldn’t be a horror story.

What are four literary conventions?

In literature, authors often engage with specific conventions. These go beyond genre requirements and get to the heart of what stories are and do. They include conflict, dialogue, setting, and conclusions. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other. 
  • Rising Action: comes after the exposition and before the climax. It includes the complicating or inciting incident.
  • Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
  • Short Story: a piece of writing with a narrative shorter than a novel. These stories usually only take one sitting to read.
  • Resolution: the parts of the narrative that bring the story to a close.
  • Setting: when and where a story takes place. This could be a real place or someone completely fictional. 


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