I was speaking at a book festival once, and one common question among the presenters as we mingled was “what do you write?” For me it’s easy since I write fantasy, but I was shocked at the number of folks who said “fiction.” It seemed so general to me. It wasn’t until later that I realized non-genre folks don’t have a tidy little label to describe what they write, but fiction is a “genre” just like any other. It defines the type of story a reader will find in that book.
I’ve written about the different genres before, so I won’t go into that again (the list has also been updated). But I will answer some common questions about genre and what to know before you begin your story that will hopefully start you off on the right foot.
Do you need to know the genre before you start writing?
No. You can just start writing and see where it leads you. This is especially true if you’re writing fiction, because there are no identifiable traits for it. It’s just a story.
I do, however, feel that knowing your genre will help you in the long run because a genre provides the framework for the type of story you’re writing. You can’t sell a 130,000 word cozy mystery. That’s twice the average size for that genre. I also think that knowing you genre helps to clarify what it is you’re writing. If it’s a romance, the romance plot takes center stage. A mystery, the puzzle. A thriller, stopping the big bad. Certain genres have specific expected elements, and without those elements the novel can be hard to sell.
Of course, if you’re writing to learn or for fun, do whatever you want. The genre distinction is more important for novels you intend to try and sell, since genre is a marketing tool designed to help readers find the types of book they’re looking for.
Where do you start?
For me, it starts with knowing the type of book I want to write. It’s that general one-line description (even if no one gets it but you) that sums up the book concept. The Shifter was “a girl who can shift pain” and the new novel is “a spy thriller in a fantasy setting.” The second one here is an interesting example, because although it’s a spy thriller, it’s totally for the fantasy genre. I’d never try to market it as a spy thriller.
Why not? What makes a book one genre over the other?
What readers expect. Fantasy is all about other worlds that can’t exist, mixed with magic, mysticism, or supernatural elements. These are the defining characteristics of the fantasy genre. Just like spy thrillers have their own characteristics and reader expectation. There were aspects of the spy thriller I wanted to incorporate into my fantasy story, but at its heart, it’s all about the magic and the fantastical world.
When a reader picks up a book in a genre, they want certain traits. Picture your favorite band. Now imagine going to their concert and hearing them play a totally different type of music. Country instead of rock, rap instead of jazz. Even if you like the new type of music, odds are you’d be pretty unhappy at the bait and switch. Genre helps readers find the types of books they want to read. It also helps bookstores know where to shelve books, and what to suggest to their customers. Ditto for libraries.
So how do you pick a genre?
What are the defining characteristics of your novel? Does it have elements of a genre that place it soundly in that genre? Look at the core conflict and problem of the novel. That’s what the book is about and often determines the genre. Lots of books have a romance subplot, but if the goal of the novel isn’t girl and boy live happily ever after, then it’s not a romance novel.
An easy test is to ask where it would be shelved in the bookstore. If it would go in the mystery aisle, it’s mystery. General fiction, it’s fiction. Another tip: look at how online bookstores break down their titles. That’s a pretty good overview of the different genres and subgenres available.
What about subgenres?
This is where it gets harder. Most genres have subgenres that further breakdown the types of stories. Sometimes those subgenres cross over into others, confusing things even more. Paranormal romance – where does it go? It has romance, yet it has supernatural elements like a fantasy. What about urban fantasy? It takes place in the real world, but has fantasy elements as well. The titles give you clues here. The type of romance is paranormal. The type of fantasy is urban. If you use a major category to describe your story, it’s a safe bet that’s the genre it belongs to.
Do you need a subgenre?
No, though if you’re writing for a particular subgenre (cozy mystery, urban fantasy, category romance) you will need to know the specifics for that genre. You can’t write a Regency romance without setting it in the Regency period, for example. But a subgenre might be something you figure out after you’ve written the novel. You might know you’re writing generally in a genre, but discover later it fits into a niche of that genre. And unless the subgenre is big enough to warrant its own category, you're often safe just calling it the general genre.
Quick Questions for Determining Your Genre:
- Where do you see this book on the shelves?
- What is the one defining characteristic of the novel?
- What is the core conflict of the novel?
- What other books are similar to it?
- What do you think you’re writing?
- What are the key elements you use to describe the novel to people?
- What genre are those elements?
Genre is a great tool to help guide your story as you write, but don’t let it become something that bogs you down trying to label it. Don’t look for weird sub-sub-genres to perfectly define your story. (or use too many genres to define it) Plenty of books have elements of plenty of genres. Don’t try to be all things to all people and spread your story too thin. Look at what’s at the heart of your story and then see where it fits. Or, decide where you want it to fit, and make sure you have those fundamental elements in your story. Beyond that, do what the story needs you to do and don’t worry so much about the label on it.
ETA: Commenter Atombaby shared a great link with a genre chart that covers things pretty well.