Thursday, April 05, 2012

Is It a Genre That Starts With F? Breaking Down Genres

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Bookstores group books according to genre for easy shelving and categorization. Agents and editors do it so they can tell writers what they like and are looking for. As helpful as this is to the business and the reader, this can seriously mess a writer up--especially if they aren't sure what genre they fall into (or if they span more than one).

I can't tell you how often I see "what genre is this?" posts on the writers' boards. I always feel for the writer, because it's frustrating to be unsure about what you're writing. But here's a tip:

Not every book falls into a genre. Sometimes it's just fiction.

"Genre" is a term that refers to the books that have some strong element in them that defines them as a particular type of book. There are required tropes, and if you don't have those, you're not that genre. Readers expect to see those tropes and are disappointed if they're not there.

Having two people who fall in love in your story doesn't necessarily make it a romance novel. Having technology doesn't make it science fiction. A murder doesn't make it a murder mystery. With all the cross-over and combined genres these days (like paranormal romance and romantic fantasy) it's ever harder to know where your book stands.

What makes something genre is when the main point of the story revolves around a trope of the genre. The story would fall apart if you took that element out.

Here's a breakdown of some of the things that define the traditional genres. Almost all of these have sub-categories that differentiate the genres even further. Please note, this list is ever evolving and additions are always welcome.

The love story is the primary focus of the book, and there is a happily ever after. Getting two people together is what the book is all about. Subgenres include (taken from the Romance Writers of America site):

Contemporary Series Romance
Series romance novels that focus primarily on the romantic relationship and typically set after 1945.

Contemporary-Single Title Romance
Romance novels that focus primarily on the romantic relationship, released as individual titles, not as part of a series and set after 1945.

Historical Romance
Romance novels set in any time period prior to 1945, and taking place in any location.

Inspirational Romance
Romance novels in which religious or spiritual beliefs (in the context of any religion or spiritual belief system) are a major part of the romantic relationship.

Novels with Strong Romantic Elements
A work of fiction in which a romance plays a significant part in the story, but other themes or elements take the plot beyond the traditional romance boundaries.

Paranormal Romance
Romance novels in which the future, a fantasy world, or paranormal happenings are an integral part of the plot.

Regency Romance
Romance novels in which the majority of the story is set against the Regency period of the British Empire.

Romantic Suspense
Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

Young Adult Romance
Novels with a strong romantic theme geared toward young adult readers.

Science Fiction
The science aspect is central to the plot. If you took out the science, you couldn't have the story. It's also frequently defined as exploring the things that could plausibly be, but aren't yet. Subgenres include:

Hard SF
Hard science fiction, or "hard SF", is characterized by rigorous attention to accurate detail in quantitative sciences, especially physics, astrophysics, and chemistry, or on accurately depicting worlds that more advanced technology may make possible.

Soft and Social SF
The description "soft" science fiction may describe works based on social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology.

The time frame is usually near-future and the settings are often dystopian. Common themes in cyberpunk include advances in information technology and especially the Internet (visually abstracted as cyberspace), artificial intelligence and prosthetics and post-democratic societal control where corporations have more influence than governments. Nihilism, post-modernism, and film noir techniques are common elements, and the protagonists may be disaffected or reluctant anti-heroes.

Time Travel
Stories of this type are complicated by logical problems such as the grandfather paradox.

Alternate History
Alternate history stories are based on the premise that historical events might have turned out differently.

Military SF
Military science fiction is set in the context of conflict between national, interplanetary, or interstellar armed forces; the primary viewpoint characters are usually soldiers.

Apocalyptic fiction is concerned with the end of civilization through war, pandemic, astronomic impact, ecological disaster, or mankind's self-destruction, or some other general disaster or with a world or civilization after such a disaster.

Stories that portray a bleak future world.

Space Opera
Space opera is adventure science fiction set in outer space or on distant planets, where the emphasis is on action rather than either science or characterization. The conflict is heroic, and typically on a large scale.

Space Western
Space Western could be considered a sub-genre of space opera that transposes themes of the American Western books and film to a backdrop of futuristic space frontiers. These stories typically involve "frontier" colony worlds serving as stand-ins for the backdrop of lawlessness and economic expansion that were predominant in the American west.

Contains a fantastical element of some type that is central to the plot. It often involves made up worlds. It explores things that could not possibly be. A reader must suspend disbelief for the book to work. Subgenres include:

Arthurian Fantasy
Stories that in some way reflect the legend of King Arthur.

Alternate World Fantasy
Involves different worlds hidden within or parallel to our own.

Contemporary Fantasy
Fantasy set in the real modern world.

Dark Fantasy
A fantasy story with a pronounced horror elements.

Epic or High Fantasy
What most people think of when they hear “fantasy.” Epic stories and landscapes, often involving magic and a struggle of good vs. evil.

Fairy Tales and Mythology
Stories that tell or retell classic folklore or myths.

Historical Fantasy
Stories set in our past world, combining magical or supernatural elements with authentic history and settings.

Magic Realism
Stories that use magical elements to create a realistic atmosphere that accesses a deeper understanding of reality. The story explains these magical elements as normal occurrences, presented in a straightforward manner that places the "real" and the "fantastic" in the same stream of thought.

Urban Fantasy
Stories set in contemporary times and containing supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.


The point of the book is to horrify or scare the reader. To explore something that makes the flesh crawl, plausible or implausible. Subgenres include:

Erotic Horror
Stories contain a strong sexual element. Sex can be explicit, but it's often far from pleasurable.

Explicit violence and bloody gore are heaped on, often from start to finish. Often these stories incorporate technology.

Gothic Horror
Stories are often written in a literary style. Many of these tales involve an evil from the past, as with haunted mansions; and/or encroaching personal insanity.

Stories rooted in the pioneering fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. The originals and newer works have a distinct style, with florid prose and an overwhelming pessimism.

Noir Horror
Stories that invoke a gritty urban setting, much like its counterparts in other major genres. Weary, cynical characters populate these tales.

Psychological Horror
Stories are usually written from a tight viewpoint. Is the protagonist really seeing terrible things, perhaps battling against demonic possession -- or is he (less often, she) going insane?

Supernatural Horror
These stories focus on various types of monster from 'beyond,' persistently ruining the lives of a suffering humanity. Often the setting is an isolated village, where the protagonist becomes stranded.

Suspense or Dark Suspense
These stories depict few if any supernatural elements, but rather, a continual (usually unknown and growing) menace.


Set in the American west, or encompasses the frontier or pioneer resilience and spirit of the Old West. (If anyone knows of a good breakdown of subgenres please let me know.)


It thrills. The point of the novel is usually to stop something terrible from happening on a large scale, with regular people caught up in events much bigger than they. Subgenres include:

Medical Thriller
Stories where something in medicine is behind the terrible thing happening.

Techno Thriller
Stories where technology drives the plot and is at the core of the problem.

Something bad is happening and the goal is to survive it. Often, there's a mystery accompanying it. Very similar to thrillers, though the stakes are more personal. Subgenres include:

Stories where the hero battles a large, powerful group whose true extent only he recognizes.

A story focused on the commission of a crime, often from the point of view of the criminals.

Police Procedural
Stories that follows the police as they work their way through a case.


The story revolves around a puzzle that needs to be solved, with the protagonist spending the book trying to figure it out along with the reader. Finding out "whodunnit" is key. Subgenres include:

Amateur Detective
A mystery solved by an amateur, who generally has some profession or affiliation that provides ready access to information about the crime.

A mystery that takes place in a small town—sometimes in a single home—where all the suspects are present and familiar with one another, except the detective, who is usually an eccentric outsider.

Courtroom Drama
A mystery that takes place through the justice system—often the efforts of a defense attorney to prove the innocence of his client by finding the real culprit.

The international spy novel—here based less on action than on solving the "puzzle"—is today less focused on the traditional enemy spies than on terrorists.

Heists and Capers
An "antihero" genre which focuses on the planning and execution of a crime, told from the criminal's perspective.

Generally involving a medical threat (e.g., a viral epidemic), or the illegitimate use of medical technology.

Police Procedural
A crime solved from the perspective of the police, following detailed, real-life procedures.

Private Detective
Focused on the independent snoop-for-hire, these have evolved from tough-guy "hard-boiled" detectives to the more professional operators of today.

Psychological Suspense
Mysteries focused on the intricacies of the crime and what motivated the perpetrator to commit them.


Takes place during a real period of history and deals with real events and details, even though the story is fictional.

Literary Fiction

Where the focus is more on the quality of the writing, often lyrical, and the plots are more internal than external. Frequently about the inner journey of a character.

Women's Fiction

Stories aimed at women readers, with female characters dealing with women's issues. Much of the old "chick lit" novels have grown into this. Often heavy on relationships, from family dynamics to romance.

Young Adult

Stories that have a teen protagonist dealing with teen issues. There's a sense of immediacy and "in the moment" driving the story. YA fiction includes all the other genres same as adult fiction (except erotica).

General or Mainstream Fiction

Everything else. A plain "story" fits here. If it isn't governed by a genre trope, it's just fiction.

One effective way of figuring out where your novel fits, it to look for other books similar to it in plot and see where they're shelved.

One thing you don't want to do, is call it too many things. A fantasy adventure romance. A paranormal science fiction thriller. Take a clue from the paranormal genre. If you can use one of the other genres as an adjective, and that word pairing is a category (romantic fantasy, paranormal mystery, science fiction thriller) then you're probably fine in calling it that.

And of course, if a reputable agent is looking for a particular genre and calls it that, you can feel confident that it is indeed a marketable genre.

Here's a great link with a genre chart that also covers things pretty well.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. The genre lines seem to be blurring quite a bit, at least between some notable examples. When I first saw those 'what genre is this?' thread I was pretty surprised, but now I'm more used to it. As you said, it must be a real pain to write a novel and then not be able to categorise it along traditional genre lines.

  2. Nice post! Another one that I've been learning more about is magical realism, which I've discovered is quite different from fantasy.

    Sometimes a book can be called multiple things. I was calling mine sci-fi, but then an agent called it a "high-tech thriller." Which I actually think suits it better. (Plus it just sounds cool!)

  3. I forgot about magical realism! Good reminder. High-tech thriller does sound cool :)

    I think a lot of the confusion comes because new writers (or writers unsure of market breakdowns) think every novel has to have a genre. So if they're general fiction, they look for any genre detail to classify it.

  4. I still grumble at this definition: Romantic Suspense
    Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

    Because "suspense" is in the title of the genre, there's reader expectation that it's going to be a suspense-centered book, and if you check the other genres, you'll see there's a big difference between a mystery and a suspense.

    I write "Mysteries With Relationships" but there's no box for that.

    Indie publishing has allowed authors AND readers access to books that cross/combine/blur these lines.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. I think a lot of the problem comes from trying to reduce a multidimensional problem down to one or two dimensions. For example, the level of romance, the level of science/technology and the time frame (historical, contemporary, future), are all independent dimensions. The genre is whatever one or two dimensions have the highest values.

    I don't know how helpful it is, but the Book Industry Study Group has a classification scheme online

  6. Terry, would that just fall under mysteries? Or is the relationship a major part of the core conflict? Or just plain fiction?

    Is will be interesting to see how genre develops over the next few years as e-books and indie publishing grows.

    And I just realized Women's Fiction is missing!

  7. This clarified a lot for me. Thanks!

  8. This is incredibly helpful; thanks for reviving the post. :) Now I won't feel so completely out of place in forums/conversations where people debate endlessly about whether a certain book is "hard" enough for Hard SF or whether it has enough magic in it to be considered fantasy instead of magical realism. :P Bleh. I've always thought that the lines blur, but at least now I'll know what the heck people are talking about, lol...

  9. Your definition of cyberpunk sounds an awful lot like the evening news, actually. Scary stuff.

  10. This is such a comprehensive and helpful list. Thank you!

  11. Such a great list. Thanks for posting again. Genre always freaks me out a little. -cat

  12. I'm a little late to this party, but I'd like to get everyone's opinion. There is a small--but growing--market for fiction that is spiritually oriented but not religious. Classic examples include "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," "Celestine Prophecy," "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and the like. Newer examples include "Threads--The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn," "Enlightenment for Idiots," "First Rule of Ten," the Deepak Chopra novels, and a slew of others.

    Authors apply various categories such as Spiritual, Metaphysical, Visionary, New Age, and other variations, but there is no consensus on what those tags mean.

    Note that I am not talking about novels that employ a spiritual concept as a trope, such as the many reincarnation novels on the market now. This category would use spiritual/metaphysical principles as a major theme that drives character development and plot.

    Is it time that this category be recognized as a legitimate genre?

  13. PJ, It appears to me, that the categories develop because readers are looking for a certain type of book and vendors want to be able to sell that type to them. For example, children's books used to all be lumped together, they then start splitting them out, not they have an entire section of paranormal romance (and YA never separated by genre until recently)

    There's got to be a tipping point where it turns into a common category. Like VHS vs Beta. Blu-Ray vs HD. The most people will start referring to it as X and then that will spread. Maybe it happens when you get a mega-bestseller.

    With the increase of ebooks though, I suspect the genres will start getting more specific and more varied (despite that contradiction) and you'll probably start seeing more metaphysical type categories appearing.

  14. Hi Janice--thank you for linking to our Genre Map! So glad it's useful to writers and readers out there!
    Lucy Silag
    Book Country Director

    1. Most welcome! I try to share the good stuff :)

  15. Lora Mitchell4/10/2019 6:36 PM

    Janice...Thank you for this link. Even though it's now 2019 I find this list comprehensive and helpful. It may help me to decide which category fits my novel.