Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction
The world of fiction writing can be split into two categories: literary fiction vs. genre fiction. Literary fiction (lit fic) generally describes work that’s character-driven and realistic, whereas genre fiction generally describes work that’s plot-driven and based on specific tropes.
That said, these kinds of reductive definitions are unfair to both genres. Literary fiction can absolutely be unrealistic, trope-y, and plot-heavy, and genre fiction can certainly include well-developed characters in real-world settings.
Part of the issue with these definitions is that literary fiction vs. genre fiction describes a binary. Sure, every piece of fiction can be categorized in one of two ways, but there’s a wide variety of fiction out there, and very little of it falls neatly in a particular box. If our human experiences are widely variegated, our fiction should be, too.
So, let’s break down this binary a bit further. What are the elements of literary fiction vs. genre fiction, how can we better define these categories, and what elements can you apply in your own fiction writing?
Along the way, we’ll take a look at some literary fiction examples, the different types of fiction genres, and some writing tips for each group. But first, let’s dissect the differences between literary fiction vs. genre fiction. (They’re not as different as you might think!)
Before we describe these two categories, it’s important to note their origins. The distinction between literary fiction vs. genre fiction is recent: book publishers had no need to make these categories until the 20th century, when genre labels became a marketing tool for mass publication.
For example, many consider Edgar Allan Poe to be the first modern mystery writer, as his 1841 story “ The Murders in the Rue Morgue ” was one of the first detective stories. But when he published this story, it was just that—a story. Terms like “mystery,” “thriller,” or “detective” wouldn’t start describing literature until the 1900s, particularly when these genre tags helped distinguish and market new works.
Nonetheless, literary fiction and genre fiction help describe today’s literary landscape. So, what do they mean?
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Literary Fiction Definition
In general, literary fiction describes work that aims to resemble real life. (Of course, genre fiction can do this too, but we’ll get there in a moment.)
Literary fiction aims to resemble real life.
In order to transcribe real life, lit fic authors rely on the use of realistic characters , real-life settings , and complex themes , as well as the use of literary devices and experimental writing techniques.
Now, if you ask 100 different writers about what makes literary fiction “literary,” you could easily get 100 different answers. You might hear that, opposed to genre fiction, lit fic is:
- Character-driven (instead of plot driven).
- Complex and thematic.
- Based on real-life situations.
- Focused on life lessons and deeper meanings.
These distinctions are all well and good—except, genre fiction can be those things, too. Additionally, some examples of lit fic involve scenarios that would never happen in real life. For example, time travel and visions of the future occur in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five , but the novel is distinctly literary in its focus on war.
Perhaps the best way to think about literary fiction is that it’s uncategorizable . Unlike genre fiction, which can be broken down even further into different types of fiction genres, lit fic doesn’t fall neatly into any of the genre boxes. Some literary fiction examples include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
Unlike genre fiction, literary fiction can’t be subcategorized; it doesn’t break down further into genres.
Genre fiction, by contrast, provides us with neat categories that we can assign to different literary works. Let’s take a closer look at some of those categories.
Genre Fiction Definition
The primary feature of genre fiction is that it follows certain formulas and tropes. There are rules in genre fiction that don’t apply to literary fiction: tropes, structures, and archetypes that make for successful genre work.
There are rules in genre fiction that don’t apply to literary fiction: tropes, structures, and archetypes that make for successful genre work.
So, genre fiction is any piece of literature that follows a certain formula to advance the story. It’s important for genre writers to immerse themselves in the genre they’re writing, because even if they don’t want to follow a precise formula, they need to know how to break the rules . We’ll take a look at some of those conventions when we explore the types of fiction genres.
If literary fiction started borrowing from genre tropes, it would then become genre fiction. However, both categories can share similar themes and ideas, without being in the same camp.
Take, for example, the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita falls firmly in the category of lit fic, even though the novel centers around love, lust, and relationships.
If Lolita is about love, then why is it not considered a romance novel, which falls under genre fiction? Because Lolita doesn’t use any of the romance genre’s tropes. For starters, the novel is about a professor (Humbert Humbert) who falls in love with the adolescent Dolores, makes Dolores his step-daughter, and then molests her. Thankfully, you don’t see that often in romance novels.
More to the point, Lolita doesn’t use any of the romance genre’s conventions. There’s no exciting first encounter—no meet cute, no chance interaction, no love at first sight (though there is lust at first sight).
Neither does anything complicate the relationship between Humbert and Dolores—there’s no relationship to be had. The novel charts the power imbalance between a middle aged man and a girl who’s barely old enough to understand consent, much less old enough to enforce it. Romance genre conventions—like love triangles or meeting at the wrong time—simply don’t apply. Yes, many plot points do make it harder for Humbert to pursue Dolores, but those plot points aren’t conventions of the romance genre.
Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction: A Summary
To summarize, each category abides by the following definitions:
Literary Fiction : Fiction that cannot be categorized by any specific genre conventions, and which seeks to describe real-life reactions to complex events using well-developed characters, themes, literary devices, and experimentations in prose.
Genre Fiction : Fiction that follows specific genre conventions, using tropes, structures, plot points, and archetypes to tell a story.
Additionally, literary fiction may borrow from certain genre tropes, but never enough to fall into a specific genre camp. Genre fiction can also have complex characters, themes, and literary devices, and it can certainly reproduce real life situations, as long as it also follows genre conventions.
The differences between literary fiction vs. genre fiction have been mapped out below.
Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction Venn Diagram
More About Literary Fiction
Without the use of genre conventions, lit fic writers often struggle to tell a complete, compelling story. So, how do they do it?
Let’s take a look at some contemporary literary fiction books. We’ll briefly explore each example, taking a look at its themes and what makes the work “literary”.
Literary Fiction Books
All of the literary fiction examples below were published in the 21st century, to reflect the type of work that contemporary novelists write.
1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko follows three generations of a Korean family that moves to Japan, during and after Japan’s occupation of Korea. The novel examines this family’s culture shock, their experiences with oppression and poverty, the enduring legacy of occupation.
The core theme of Pachinko is family: the value of family, the struggle to protect it, and the lengths one will go to make their family survive. These struggles are magnified in their juxtaposition to colonization, the other core theme of this novel. How did the Japanese occupation permanently affect the lives of Koreans?
What Makes This “Literary”?
Pachinko attempts to tell realistic stories, based on the lived experiences of many Korean families that endured Japan’s occupation. Additionally, the novel doesn’t follow a specific formula or set of plot points. Pachinko is organized in three parts, with each part focusing on the next generation of the same family, as well as their reaction to a different global event.
2. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore follows two separate, yet metaphysically intertwined narratives. One story is about Kafka, a 15-year old boy who runs away from home after (unwittingly) murdering his father. In search of his lost mother and sister, Kafka ends up living in a library, where he meets the intelligent Oshima and begins his journey of healing.
The other narrative follows Nakata, an old man who became intellectually disabled in his youth following a mysterious accident. Nakata lost his ability to read and think abstractly, but he gained an ability to talk to cats. Nakata rescues a cat, and in doing so, begins his own path, which involves hitchhiking with a random truck driver and assassinating a cat killer.
On a metaphysical realm, Nakata’s actions are essential for Kafka to complete his own journey of spiritual healing. Though they never meet in person, their fates intertwine through spiritual means.
A recurring theme in Kafka on the Shore is the communicative power of music, which accompanies both Kafka and Nakata on their journeys. Additionally, questions of self-reliance, dreams versus reality, Shintoism, and the power of fate permeate the novel.
Murakami borrows from many different genres, including magical realism, absurdism, and fantasy. Yet the novel never leans too far into one genre. By combining these elements with his own brand of wit, mundanity, pop culture, spiritualism, and sexuality, Murakami creates an interconnected narrative about two equally unique protagonists. While Kafka on the Shore’s plot points are baffling and mysterious, it is the protagonists’ spiritual journeys which the novel focuses on.
3. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of five individuals before, during, and after the Nigerian Civil War. The short-lived state of Biafra forces each character to make impossible decisions. A village boy is forcibly conscripted in the army; a university professor follows a dark path of alcoholism; the daughter of a war profiteer becomes the runner of a refugee camp, and her twin sister adopts her husband’s child, who was born out of wedlock. Finally, a British writer becomes obsessed with telling Biafra’s story, only to realize it isn’t his story to tell.
War, and everything about war, colors this novel’s thematic landscape. The novel dwells on the relationship between power and the people, especially since all of Biafra’s supporters—including its powerful supporters—are squashed under occupation. War also makes the novel’s characters contend with ideas of Socialism, Tribalism, Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Capitalism, among others. Other themes of this novel include family, power & corruption, and survival.
Although Half of a Yellow Sun centers around war, it’s not a “war story”. The novel is wholly unconcerned with war’s genre conventions, dwelling little on things like battle strategies or building suspense. Rather, the novel focuses on the human impact of war. The Nigerian Civil War displaces each main character, forcing them to confront awful truths and make heart-wrenching decisions as a result. Half of a Yellow Sun concerns itself with the consequences of war and political strife, especially given the ideal nature of the Biafran nation.
More About Genre Fiction
In many ways, genre fiction is no easier to summarize than literary fiction. Each genre has its own rules, tropes , character types, plot structures, and goals.
Mystery novels, for example, should present an uncrackable whodunnit that builds suspense and intrigue, whereas Romance novels should create tension between two characters who are meant for each other, but keep encountering setbacks in their relationship. Since each novel has different goals, they take drastically different paths to achieve those goals.
Below, we’ve summarized the rules, tropes, and goals for 8 popular fiction genres. Links and further readings are provided for writers who want to dive deeper into a specific type of genre fiction.
Types of Fiction Genres
Science Fiction, or Sci-Fi, explores fictional societies that are shaped by new and different technologies. Aliens might visit Earth, wars might take place across galaxies, humans might have bionic arms, or scientists might discover human immortality. The goal of most Sci-Fi is to explore man’s relationship to technology, as well as technology’s relationship to society, power, and reality.
Many of the technological innovations in Sci-Fi can double as themes. For example, the gene-editing technology in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake represents man’s hubris in trying to command nature, the result of which is a dystopian society that hastens its own apocalypse.
Prominent Science Fiction writers include Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, H. G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, Ted Chiang, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Octavia E. Butler. Here’s a list of common tropes in Science Fiction .
Thriller novels attempt to tell engaging, suspenseful stories, often based on a complex protagonist undergoing a Hero’s Journey . A spy might chase down an international assassin, a boy might fake his own death, or a lawyer might have to prove she’s been framed for murder. In thriller novels, the protagonist faces a journey that’s long, dark, and arduous.
Thrillers often blend into other types of fiction genres. It’s common for a thriller to also be categorized as mystery, Sci-Fi, or horror, and even some romance thrillers exist. While the best thrillers have complicated protagonists, authors of thriller novels prioritize making each plot point juicy, compelling, and suspenseful.
Prominent thriller novelists include John Grisham, Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, Dean Koontz, Megan Abbott, and Lisa Under. This article explains the key elements of thrillers .
The mystery genre typically revolves around murder. (If not murder, then some other high-profile and complicated crime.) Usually told from the perspective of a detective or medical examiner, mystery novels present a host of clues, suspects, and possibilities—including red herrings and misleading info.
Because mystery revolves around crime, many novels delve deep into their characters’ psyches. A mystery novel might string you along with clues and plot points, but it’s the complicated characters and their unknown desires that make a mystery juicy.
Prominent mystery novelists include Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Walter Mosley, Patricia Highsmith, Anthony Horowitz, and Louise Penny. Here are some considerations for writing mystery novels , and here are 5 mistakes to avoid when writing mystery .
Ah, l’amour. Romance novels follow the complicated relationships of lovers who, despite everything, are meant to be together. As they explore their relationship, each lover must embark on their own journey of growth and self-discovery.
The relationships in romance novels are never simple, but always satisfying. Lovers often meet under unique circumstances, they may be forbidden from loving each other, and they always mess things up a few times before they get it right. Alongside thriller, romance is often the bestselling genre, though it has its humble roots in the Gothic fiction of the 19th century.
Prominent romance novelists include Carolyn Brown, Nicholas Sparks, Catherine Bybee, Alyssa Cole, Beverly Jenkins, and Julia Quinn. Here’s a list of common tropes in the romance genre .
Fantasy novels require tons of worldbuilding and imagination. Wizards might go to battle, a man might chase after a unicorn, men and Gods might go to war with each other, or a hero might go on a mystical quest. What is impossible in real life is quotidian in fantasy.
Many works of fantasy borrow from mythology, folklore, and urban legend. Like Sci-Fi, many of the magical elements in fantasy novels can double as symbols or themes. The line between Sci-Fi and fantasy is often unclear: for example, an alien invasion is categorized as Sci-Fi, but the journey to defeat those aliens can easily resemble a fantasy novel.
Prominent fantasy novelists include J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Andre Norton, Rick Riordan, C. S. Lewis, Zen Cho, and Erin Morgenstern. Here are some tropes in the fantasy genre , as well as our exploration of urban fantasy .
Magical Realism blends the fantastical with the everyday. There won’t be grandwizards, alternate universes, or potions with unicorn tears, but there might be a man whose head is tied to his body, or a woman who cries tears of fabric.
In other words, fantasy slips into everyday life, but the characters don’t have magic at their disposal—they react as only mortals know how to react to magic. Because it is a relatively young genre, and because it often focuses on characters instead of plot points, magical realism is often seen as a more “literary” genre of genre fiction. Magical realism has its roots in the storytelling of Central and South American novelists.
Prominent authors of magical realism include Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carmen Maria Machado, Haruki Murakami, Samanta Schweblin, Jorge Louis Borges, and Salman Rushdie. Learn more about magical realism here .
Horror writers are masters of invoking fear in the reader. Through a combination of tone , atmosphere, plotting, the introduction of ambiguous (and unambiguous) threats, and the author’s own imagination, horror novels push their characters to the brink of survival.
Most horror novels involve supernatural elements, including monsters, ghosts, god-like figures, satanic rituals, or Sci-Fi creatures. Sometimes the protagonists are armed and ready, but usually, the protagonists are trapped and trying to escape some unfathomable danger.
Prominents horror writers include Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and Ray Bradbury. Here are some common tropes for horror writers .
“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” —Madeleine L’Engle
Children’s fiction is technically its own category of fiction, but the genre does have its own tropes and conventions. With many similarities to the fable, children’s fiction teaches important life lessons through the journeys of memorable characters, who are often the same age as the novel’s intended reader.
Writing for children is much harder than commonly believed. Whether you’re writing a picture book or a YA novel, you have to balance your book’s core themes and ideas with the reading level of your audience—without “talking down to” the reader.
Prominent children’s writers include A. A. Milne, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Anne Fine, and Peggy Parish. Here are 10 tips for picture book writers , and here is advice for YA novelists .
Explore Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction at Writers.com
With so many works being published in both literary fiction and genre fiction, it helps to have people read your work before you submit it somewhere . That’s what Writers.com is here for. From our upcoming fiction courses to our Facebook group , we help writers of all stripes master the conventions of their genre.
Great example using Lolita for why the book doesn’t fall under the ‘romance’ category (due to the way it does not use romance tropes – indeed, it is almost an ‘anti-romance’). There’s a great line where Nabokov was asked about its inspirations and he said he read a story about a chimpanzee that was taught to paint and it’s great masterwork turned out to be a painting of the bars of its cage (perhaps he was implying that his protagonist similarly represents the limits of his own awareness, since he doesn’t seem able to empathize with or consider Lolita’s subjective experience).
I wasn’t sure about the definition of literary fiction (as being that which resembles real life), since so much literary fiction is surreal (e.g. Kafka) or upends realist modes (e.g. when an author uses second person to make the reader an active participant in the story, e.g. Italo Calvino in ‘If on a winter’s night a traveler’). So I’m curious about that definition.
Thank you for mentioning Now Novel, too.
Hi Jordan, thanks for your comment!
You make a good point, and I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve emended our definition to say that literary fiction describes “real-life reactions to complex events.” When magic and sci-fi are out of the question, what can people do in their limited power against terrible things–like, say, waking up as a bug?
As for Calvino’s experimentations with prose and POV, it’s hard to summarize that into any meaningful definition–he is, in several ways, his own category. That said, I think his ability to cast the reader as the protagonist helps build the type of empathy that lit fic is best suited for, and experimentations in prose are one of the many tools at the disposal of both literary and genre novelists.
Nabokov’s anecdote about the chimpanzee fascinates me–I haven’t heard that story, but it reveals so much about Nabokov’s psyche. His empathy for the chimpanzee in a cage is striking.
I loved Now Novel’s advice for writing YA! Thanks for sharing it, and thanks again for your comment!
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144 Genres and Subgenres for Fiction Writing
From fantasy to western—and everything in between—we cover the major genres and subgenres available to readers today. We also included a few links to books within that subgenre if you find one that catches your interest in particular. Happy reading!
Thriller and suspense.
This subgenre of fantasy offers a fictional account set within a real historical period, often with actual historical events included although rewritten to include some element of magic or fantasy. There are often "what if" scenarios that occur at important points in history and present outcomes that are different than what's on the historical record. Literary Examples: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell , Wild Cards I , His Majesty's Dragon
This subgenre of fantasy often offers a child protagonist who faces a struggle or possesses some unique ability. There are often mythical/fantastical creatures who both help and hinder the young protagonist. In these stories, which are intended for an audience that is not yet classified as Young Adult (YA), the themes are often life lessons such as overcoming adversity, working with others, finding allies, learning from your elders, or facing one's fear. Literary Examples: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , A Wrinkle in Time , The Phantom Tollbooth
These stories are humorous and often set in fantasy worlds, and might include parodies of other more serious works. It is considered part of low fantasy (as opposed to high fantasy) but not all low fantasy is comedic in nature. Literary Examples: The Princess Bride , Small Gods , The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
This subgenre of fantasy is a fantasy story in a modern-day setting (or one that resembles contemporary times). It often contains magic but it is not obvious, or perhaps able to be explained logically. There is often an intersect between the "real world" and the fantastical one that includes magic or characters with paranormal abilities. Literary Examples: American Gods , Hounded , The Raven Boys
This subgenre is the darker side of fantasy, with added elements of horror, mystery, and/or an overall feeling of dread or gloom. A common element is supernatural occurrences with a dark and brooding tone. It is often contemporary Fantasy, with the major difference being horror elements included. Literary Examples: The Sandman: Book of Dreams , Gardens of the Moon , The Blade Itself
This subgenre of fantasy is for stories told like fairy tales for adults or that are modern retellings of classic fairy tales. There is heavy use of motifs from fairy tale stories, particularly tropes from Grimm's fairy tales. Literary Examples: Uprooted , Cinder , Ella Enchanted
Fantasy of Manners
This subgenre contains stories that rely heavily on the Comedy of Manners, which focuses on social commentary. Often taking place in an urban setting, this type of story will contain very little magic or fantastical creatures. Rather, it will focus on morality and social structures, particularly for women, sacrificing an elaborate plot in some cases to do so. Literary Examples: Shades of Milk and Honey , The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent , An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors
This subgenre of fantasy contains heroic adventures in imaginary places. You will often find intricate plots and lineages in this subgenre, along with a protagonist who is often reluctant to be a champion and from humble beginnings. Literary Examples: The Legend of Deathwalker , The Crimson Queen , The Wolf of the North
This subgenre contains fantasy set in a fictional world, with a focus on epic characters or settings. The distinction between high fantasy and low fantasy involves the world in which it takes place (the "real" world with magical elements for low fantasy). Literary Examples: The Fellowship of the Ring , A Game of Thrones , Crown of Midnight
Fantasy set in a historical period, generally before the 20th century, with an added element of magic. Fantasy stories from legends focusing on Arthurian, Celtic, or Dark Ages historical timelines generally fall within this subgenre. Literary Examples: On Stranger Tides , Grave Mercy , The Golem and the Jinni
A subgenre of fantasy depicting a realistic world, where magic is often present but not necessarily so. This is in contrast to High Fantasy, which occurs in a fictional world with magical elements present. The word "low" is in reference to the prominence of traditional fantasy elements within the work, rather than being a remark on the work's quality. Literary Examples: The Indian in the Cupboard , Lies Ripped Open , Tiger's Dream
This subgenre presents a world in which the mundane and magical exist together without conflict. It refers to magic or the supernatural that is presented in an otherwise real-world or mundane setting. Literary Examples: One Hundred Years of Solitude , The House of the Spirits , The Night Circus
This subgenre of fantasy draws heavily from myth to create a unique blend of fantasy and folklore. It often includes gods or goddesses as characters or could be a retelling of older myths set in a fantasy world or the real world. Mythic fantasy and urban fantasy often overlap, but Mythic fantasy includes many contemporary works in non-urban settings. Literary Examples: The Lightning Thief , The Mists of Avalon , The Sacred Band
This subgenre includes characters who have superhuman abilities. Characteristics tropes are secret identities and crime fighting. The protagonist often displays superhuman strength or special abilities, creating a juxtaposition between "normal" humans and those with "superhuman" traits. Literary Examples: Steelheart , Renegades , Vengeful
Sword and Sorcery
This subgenre contains medieval-type adventures, with an element of romance that is often part of the story. You're also likely to find magical characters or supernatural factors involved in the plot. Common tropes are sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent adventures, along with elements of magic and the supernatural. Distinct from high fantasy, Sword and Sorcery tales focus mainly on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters. Literary Examples: The Hour of the Dragon , Reign of Madness , The Disappearance of Winter's Daughter
This subgenre of fantasy involves magical elements that take place in an urban setting. Books in the subgenre of Urban Fantasy are set primarily in the real world and contain aspects of fantasy, such as the discovery of earthbound mythological creatures, coexistence or conflict between humans and paranormal beings, and other changes to city life. Settings are not necessarily futuristic—they could also be historical settings, actual or imagined. Literary Examples: Moon Called , City of Bones , Vampire Academy
In this subgenre of fantasy, a teenager is often the protagonist. There is usually magic involved, as well as companions to help the protagonist defeat a magical foe. Common tropes are dramatic character growth, magic elements, and unexpected interactions between magical elements and the real world that influence the protagonist to become an adult. Literary Examples: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone , Six of Crows , The Wicked King
This subgenre of horror focuses on graphic, disturbing violations to the human body, including disfigurement and mutation. There are often themes of biological horror, organic horror or visceral horror in which there is unnatural graphic transformation, degeneration or destruction of the physical body. Literary Examples: Annihilation , The Girl With All the Gifts , The Troop
A subgenre that is a spoof or satire based on the typical conventions of horror. In such, it mixes horror/gore with dark humor. Comedy Horror is typically categorized into three types: black comedy, parody, and spoof. Literary Examples: John Dies at the End , Bloodsucking Fiends , Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
A subgenre where the children are often under the spell of evil or are born inherently evil, and turn against the adults in the story. They then become the antagonist of the story and often must be stopped by other children or adults in order for lives to be saved. Literary Examples: The Other , The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea , Such Small Hands
A subgenre showing extreme and bloody violence, while focusing on gore and death. Also known as hardcore horror or splatterpunk, this genre contains stories that are the most violent, goriest, scariest ones on the market. Gore is highly detailed and nothing is left to the imagination of the reader. Literary Examples: The Angel of Vengeance: An Extreme Horror Novel , Teratologist , The Girl Next Door
Gothic horror is a subgenre involving mystery, castle ruins, the fall of the aristocracy, spirits/hauntings, and madness. The varying locations in the house tend to be symbolic of the mental and emotional facets of its occupants. It often combines horror, death, and romance in the same tale. Literary Examples: Dracula , The Picture of Dorian Gray , Wuthering Heights
A subgenre within horror in which ghosts or demons haunt a particular house or another setting, such as the woods or near an ancient burial ground. The focus is often on righting some wrong that was committed in order to set the spirits free. Literary Examples: The Woman in Black , Ghost Story , The Haunting of Hill House
A story that takes place in a historical setting that includes elements of horror. These stories are often based on real-life events or historical eras, sometimes including fictional retellings of real historical figures or atrocities that occurred. The protagonist offers an alternative point of view to known history. Literary Examples: Twelve , The Terror , The Edinburgh Dead
A subgenre in which it is assumed aliens or otherworldly beings originally ruled our planet and will someday return to destroy all of humanity. It is fiction that emphasizes the cosmic horror of the unknown (or unknowable) more than gore or other elements of shock, and is named after American author H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937), who was one of the first authors to explore the genre. Literary Examples: A Study in Emerald , Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows , The Rhesus Chart
A subgenre of horror in which man-made creations become a source of terror. In these stories, you'll often find apocalyptic wastelands and mad scientists, with common tropes like terrible disease, rampant pollution, and mutated animals. Literary Examples: Feed , The Shrinking Man , Swan Song
A subgenre in which non-human creatures hunt, kill and otherwise prey on humans. These creatures could come in the form of classic monsters/ mythological monsters, neo-monsters, small creatures, aliens, giant monsters, werewolves, vampires, or zombies. Literary Examples: The Mongrel , The Sorrows , Little Black Spots
A subgenre in which ancient mythology and folklore play a large role in the story, particularly the darker, terrifying elements of it. One way in which mythic horror is distinguished from fantasy is that mythic horror often takes place in the human world as opposed to a fantastical realm. Literary Examples: The Selkie , The Djinn , The Queen of the Damned
A subgenre of horror involving witchcraft, wizardry, esoteric brotherhoods, and communication with spirits. Other common themes and tropes are spiritualism, psychic phenomena, Voodoo, and characters who have mysterious or secret knowledge and power supposedly attainable only through magical or supernatural means. Literary Examples: A Discovery of Witches , The Mark , The Witches of New York
A subgenre in which humans have psychic abilities. These could include reading minds, speaking with the dead, seeing the past or future, or being able to move objects telepathically. This subgenre is often referred to as paranormal horror and shares crossover tropes with science fiction. However, in science fiction, these psychic abilities are generally explored in ways that are good, while in psychic abilities horror, psychic powers are a source of terror. Literary Examples: Carrie , A Stir of Echoes , Horns
In this subgenre, the character's mind becomes his or her own undoing, such as a serial killer. These stories often involve human fears, mental instability, and emotional insecurities. Psychological horror is often similar to supernatural and haunting subgenres, because the protagonist may be confusing the horrors plaguing their mind with something supernatural. You will often encounter an unreliable narrator in this genre. Literary Examples: American Psycho , Haunted , Diary Of A Madman
This subgenre of horror offers a subtler form of fear, rather than explicit gore or violence. Also known as soft horror, quiet horror most often contains a creeping sense of dread in which much of the violence is left to the reader's imagination. Much of the horror presented is cerebral instead of gory. Literary Examples: The Yellow Wallpaper , The Hour of the Oxrun Dead , The Nameless
A subgenre that does not have excessive gore and usually has a teenager protagonist. It could involve monsters, violent deaths, disturbing creatures, or slight gore. There are often coming-of-age issues present, such as autonomy from adults, friendships, young romance/sexuality, and rebellion. Literary Examples: Anna Dressed in Blood , Asylum , Rot & Ruin
This subgenre usually involves a non-law enforcement character without ties to a detective or sleuthing agency who tries to solve a crime that has been committed against someone close to him or her. It is a subgenre of cozy mystery. Literary Examples: A Willing Murder , Small Town Spin , Prose and Cons
A subgenre in which a character makes a lot of mistakes in solving a mystery, but manages to solve it anyway. There is usually a lot of comedy involved in the process and the protagonist misses important clues, making the process of solving the crime more difficult than it should be. Often, the plot is intricate. Literary Examples: The Spellman Files: Document #1 , The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery , Heat Wave
A subgenre in which the protagonist(s) perpetrate the crime(s). There is usually humor and cleverness involved, along with a sense of adventure. The typical caper story involves thefts, swindles, or kidnappings perpetrated by the main characters and "seen" by the reader. The police investigation attempting to prevent or solve the crimes may also be chronicled, but it is not the primary focus of the story. Literary Examples: The Lies of Locke Lamora , Heist Society , The Hot Rock
Child in Peril
A subgenre of mystery in which a child is kidnapped or disappears. Often, it is the child's parents (or other guardians) who come to the child's rescue. There is often great focus on the parents' anguish and loss as they play a role in finding their child. While there may be violence, it is rarely seen or very understated if toward the child. Literary Examples: Home , The Couple Next Door , The Boy in the Suitcase
A subgenre of mystery intended for a young audience who are not yet classified as young adult (typically 6 – 12 years old). There is usually a child protagonist who solves a mystery, often with the help of his/her friends. Violence is minimal if it exists at all, and there are often life lessons learned. Literary Examples: Three Times Lucky , The Secret of the Old Clock: Nancy Drew #1 , The Westing Game
A subgenre often containing a bloodless crime and a victim that the audience has not developed empathy towards. The detective is almost always amateur, while sex and violence are downplayed. Often, the crime takes place in a small community where everyone knows each other. Literary Examples: The Golden Tresses of the Dead , Crewel and Unusual , Death by Committee
A subgenre in which a professional chef is involved, usually as the protagonist. Murder and/or other elements of crime are often combined with food and recipes. Common settings or themes include bakery/dessert, barbeque, chef, coffee/tea, cooking class, farm/orchard, cheese, chocolate, food clubs/critics, organic food, pizza, restaurants, and wine/vineyards. Literary Examples: Catering to Nobody , Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder , Prime Cut
A subgenre in which the detective has a disability that helps him/her solve a crime. For example, he or she might be blind, deaf, or unable to walk, but the disability helps the main character see things from a different perspective in order to solve the mystery. Literary Examples: The Question of the Dead Mistress , For Whom the Minivan Rolls , The Question of the Felonious Friend
A subgenre of mystery in which a physician plays the role of a detective to solve a murder or crime. In these stories, physicians apply their own specialized scientific knowledge to solve crimes that cannot otherwise be solved by police officers or detectives. Literary Examples: Diagnosis Murder: The Dead Letter , The Doctor Digs a Grave , Blood Dancing
A subgenre in which a dog or cat investigates a crime. It is most often told from the animal's point of view, depicting them as fully intelligent and able to communicate with each other. Most books that qualify as furry sleuth mysteries are subgenres of cozy mysteries in their tone. Literary Examples: Tail Gait , Downton Tabby , The Bark Before Christmas
A subgenre of mystery that usually contains overtly graphic violence and sex, and is often set in an urban setting that is gritty. Slang is often used and credit for the invention of the genre is often given to Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961), a former contributor to pulp magazines. Literary Examples: The Big Sleep , The Maltese Falcon , The Black Dahlia
In this subgenre, the detective is in a historical setting and must solve a crime there. Many authors of historical mysteries focus on particular eras or periods, such as Elizabethan England or Ancient China. Literary Examples: The Lost Girls of Paris , The Paragon Hotel , The Golden Tresses of the Dead
This subgenre of mystery leaves no doubt "who" the perpetrator is. Rather, the story revolves around "how" the criminal is caught. These novels begin with the reader witnessing the murder, thus the plot revolves around how the perpetrator will be caught. Literary Examples: The Demolished Man , The Crossing , A Kiss Before Dying
A subgenre of mystery in which the protagonist is usually an attorney who solves the case on his/her own, while the police are unable to do so or are corrupt. The protagonist's life is often at peril, as is the lives of his significant others or family. This subgenre also includes courtroom dramas. Literary Examples: The Runaway Jury , The Lincoln Lawyer , The Gods of Guilt
Also known as puzzle mysteries, this is a subgenre of mystery in which a crime is committed in a location that seems impossible to enter/exit without being noticed. The protagonist must use careful observation and extraordinary logic to solve the mystery. Edgar Allen Poe is considered to be the first writer in this subgenre with his 1841 short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Literary Examples: And Then There Were None , The Sign of Four , The Mystery of the Yellow Room
Multicultural and Diverse
While typically heavy on characterization, this subgenre of mystery shows a unique, foreign culture with culturally diverse characters. These stories can range from cozy to hardboiled, where the clues and action stem from the differences in the cultures. Literary Examples: Murder in Mesopotamia: A Hercule Poirot Mystery , The Perfect Murder , The Gigolo Murder
Often overlapping with fantasy, these stories contain traditional mystery tropes, with a strange crime or murder. However, a ghost or otherwise supernatural being is responsible for a crime. They are often part of the cozy mystery subgenre, without extensive gore or violence. Literary Examples: Final Shadows , Secondhand Spirits: A Witchcraft Mystery , Better Read Than Dead
A subgenre of mystery in which police detectives (or a detective and team of technicians) catch a criminal. The point of view in this type of subgenre often switches back and forth between that of the detective(s) and that of the criminal(s). Serial killer mysteries are often included in this subgenre, as are forensic mysteries. Literary Examples: The Black Echo , Rules of Prey , Faceless Killers
A subgenre in which a private investigator—whether professional or amateur—solves a crime or locates a missing person. This subgenre began around the same time as speculative fiction in the mid-nineteenth century and has remained extremely popular for mystery novels as a genre. Literary Examples: Career of Evil , G Is for Gumshoe , Maisie Dobbs
A subgenre in which the perpetrator of the crime or murder is discovered at the end to be one of the least likely characters. These stories are often complex and plot driven, allowing the audience the opportunity to engage in the same process of deduction as the protagonist throughout the investigation of a crime. Literary Examples: The Sentence is Death , Dead Girl Running , The Cabin
Woman in Peril
A subgenre of mystery in which a woman is kidnapped (or in some other kind of trouble) and needs to be saved. A newer, feminist, and more modern take on this subgenre is a story that involves a woman being kidnapped (or becoming the victim of a crime) and saving herself through her own wit and action. Literary Examples: The Shining Girls , Kiss the Girls , Room
A subgenre in which a teenager is the protagonist and solves a crime or murder. Adults in these stories are generally unable to be of much help, corrupt, or ignore the help offered by the protagonist. There are often "coming of age" themes and violence is sometimes downplayed. Literary Examples: One of Us Is Lying , Pretty Little Liars , A Study in Charlotte
Steadily growing in popularity, this is a subgenre of romance focusing on a relationship with a wealthy and/or powerful lover. There is often an aspect of being a "Cinderella story," and the woman is often of a lower socioeconomic class than the man.
Writing Prompts: Billionaires Literary Examples: Fifty Shades of Grey , The Marriage Bargain , Bared to You
A subgenre of romance in which laughter and fun helps the couple overcome all emotional obstacles to finding love. There is often the theme of strangers who are perfect for each other finding love, or childhood sweethearts coming back together after heartbreak and loss.
Writing Prompts: Comedy Literary Examples: Wallbanger , Can You Keep a Secret? , Perfection
In this subgenre, the story takes place in the present (post 1950) and is focused on complex plots and realistic situations of the time. For example, women in the contemporary romances written prior to 1970 usually quit working when they married or had children, while the female protagonists of contemporary novels written after 1970 usually maintain their career after marriage and children.
Writing Prompts: Contemporary Literary Examples: We Shouldn't , Unmarriageable , Faking It
A subgenre in which the relationship between lovers occurs in a fantasy world that contains magic (and/or magic creatures). There is often adventure that occurs and common tropes such as time travel or superhuman abilities.
Writing Prompts: Fantasy Romance Literary Examples: Sin & Magic , White Stag , Nightchaser
A subgenre of romance set in an old house or castle that is haunted, with some light horror/mystery elements present. Common tropes are family secrets, insanity, incest, and secrets hidden within the home. There is also often a woman in peril theme that is prevalent in this subgenre.
Writing Prompts: Gothic Literary Examples: House of Shadows , Nocturne for a Widow , Mist of Midnight
A subgenre set before 1950 with realistic situations occurring between lovers (based on the time period). Many stories in this subgenre are set amongst real historical events, offering a parallel viewpoint to famous historical characters from the past. Common tropes are relationships across socioeconomic statuses and within feuding families. This subgenre has also been known as "bodice rippers," famed for the female protagonists wearing corsets.
Writing Prompts: Historical Literary Examples: The Parisians , Duchess By Deception , Tempt Me with Diamonds
A subgenre of romance in which lovers meet or unite during the Christmas or Hanukkah season. Common tropes are family, restoring past heartache, and returning to holiday tradition, as it was experienced in childhood.
Writing Prompts: Holidays Literary Examples: Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor , Unwrapping Her Perfect Match: A London Legends Christmas Romance , Baby, It's Cold Outside
A subgenre of romance in which a religious or spiritual connection is an important part of a relationship. In these novels, there is a spiritual journey that the characters take that is an inherent part of their connection and romance. They can be set in any context or belief system.
Writing Prompts: Inspirational Literary Examples: What the Wind Knows , LASS: A Friends to Lovers Standalone Romance , Down a Country Road
A subgenre of romance featuring military personnel. These novels usually include some action and/or suspense, and the hero or heroine (or both) are active duty or former military personnel. The subgenre also includes stories that are set on military bases or vessels.
Writing Prompts: Military Literary Examples: The Darkest Hour , The Unsung Hero , Whispers in the Dark
In this subgenre of romance, there is often a relationship with a supernatural being, such as a vampire, werewolf, demon, shapeshifter, angel, ghost, witch or other entity. This subgenre can also include settings that are science fiction or fantasy, or any world with extraordinary elements that are magical.
Writing Prompts: Paranormal Literary Examples: Summoned to Thirteenth Grave , Vengeance Road , Alpha's Secret: A Bear Shifter MMA Romance
A subgenre set during the period of the British Regency (1811–1820) or early 19th century. They have their own unique plot and stylistic conventions, such as much intelligent, fast-paced dialogue between the protagonists without explicit sex. The plots often involve social activities such as carriage rides, morning calls, dinner parties, plays, operas, and balls, and marriages of convenience is a common trope.
Writing Prompts: Regency Literary Examples: Not the Duke's Darling , Beauty and the Baron: A Regency Fairy Tale Retelling , Ten Kisses to Scandal
A subgenre involving suspense or mystery elements that add to the romantic plot. While the focus of these stories is on the romance itself, they contain common tropes to mystery novels such as stalkers, crimes to be solved, kidnapping, or even murder.
Writing Prompts: Romantic Suspense Literary Examples: A Merciful Fate , Moonlight Scandals: A de Vincent Novel , You Will Suffer
Science Fiction Romance
A subgenre that is set in the future and often involves aliens. In many cases, there is a romantic relationship between humans and aliens. There are also common tropes that are shared with science fiction, such as technological innovation, space exploration, and living on other planets/worlds.
Writing Prompts: Science Fiction Romance Literary Examples: Nightchaser , Angie's Gladiator: A SciFi Alien Romance , Rising From the Depths
A subgenre of romance in which one or both of the lovers is involved with sports, such as a football player or race car driver. Much of the romantic interaction takes place during practicing or performing this sport, and there are often elements of action combined with romance.
Writing Prompts: Sports Literary Examples: Ruthless King , Overnight Sensation , Fired Up
A subgenre of romance in which a character travels through time to encounter his or her love interest. A recurring theme in this subgenre is the conflict of falling in love and making the decision to stay in the alternate time or return to the time the protagonist came from. Some time travel romance settings are set in present day, and the character travels to the past. In others, the character travels to the future.
Writing Prompts: Time Travel Literary Examples: Outlander , The Time Traveler's Wife , A Knight in Shining Armor
A subgenre of romance set in the Wild West (or West, if contemporary) and often with a cowboy/cowgirl as a main character. This subgenre contains both historical western romance and contemporary western romance novels. Historical western romance contains common tropes such as a wagon train journey, a bank robbery, a land war, a cattle drive, a saloon brawl, or a gunfight. Contemporary western romance novels are generally set near small towns with ranches, ranges, rodeos, and honky-tonks, and the protagonist rides a truck (in addition to a horse).
Writing Prompts: Western Romance Literary Examples: The Texan's Wager , Comanche Moon , Texas Glory
A subgenre focusing on young adult or adolescent love interests. A common theme is the exploration of sexuality and the obstacles of young love, such as family/socioeconomic class pressure, academic pursuits, and/or competition. There is also a broad spectrum of relationship types in these novels, such as LGBTQ relationships.
Writing Prompts: Young Adult Literary Examples: King of Scars , Be The Girl , Even if I Fall
A subgenre of science fiction in which extraterrestrial beings are encountered by humans. These encounters can range from romantic to traumatic, and common themes are communication, fear of the "other," intergalactic war, and a greater sense of one's place in the universe.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Galactic Pot-Healer , Foreigner: 10th Anniversary Edition , The Mount
In this subgenre of science fiction, the world as we know it is different due to alternate events taking place in history. There is often "what if" scenarios that occur at important points in history and present outcomes that are different than what's on historical record.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: The Man in the High Castle , 11/22/63 , The Red Garden
A subgenre in which there is another reality co-existing with the present reality. These stories are typically about traveling to parallel worlds or universes that are either vastly different from our own, or very recognizable. There is a connection with this subgenre and the time travel subgenre, as well.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Zero World , The Gods Themselves , The Long Earth
A subgenre in which a world disaster has occurred, such as a pandemic virus or nuclear holocaust. Common themes in this subgenre are community, destruction of ecosystems, pandemic viruses, survival, human nature, and dystopian societies.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Wool , CyberStorm , The Road
A subgenre of science fiction in which there is use of biotechnology, genetic manipulation, and/or eugenics that occur in the near future. The subgenre stems from cyberpunk but focuses on the implications of biotechnology rather than information technology. Common themes are bio-hackers, biotech mega-corporations, and oppressive government agencies that manipulate human DNA. The examination of bio-engineering is often a dark one.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Unwind , The Dervish House , Leviathan
A subgenre of science fiction written for younger audiences, with protagonists who are early adolescents or younger. "Coming of age" scenarios are often present. Science fiction themes such as aliens, advanced technology, and dystopian societies are often common, but violence and other "adult" themes are downplayed.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet , Aliens for Breakfast: A Stepping Stone Book , Whales on Stilts!
A subgenre in which humans (or other lifeforms) move to a distant area or world and create a new settlement. Humans may start a colony for various reasons such as the Earth's overpopulation, an uninhabitable Earth, the discovery of other worlds, acquisition of resources, or threat of human extinction.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Last and First Men: A Story of the near and far future , The Word for World is Forest , The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
This subgenre contains a lot of humor and satirization of science fiction tropes, with a tendency toward a pessimistic view of humanity. There is often mockery of social conventions. This is a rather small subgenre of science fiction that is more common in short stories than novels and frequently seen in movies.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Stainless Steel Rat Omnibus , The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy , Finders Keepers: The Definitive Edition
A subgenre of science fiction in which man and machine are combined, either literally or metaphorically, and there are multiple forms of virtual reality. The Earth is typically the setting for cyberpunk stories, but it is immersed in a cyber world. Common themes are the exploration of the relationship between humans and computers, often in a dark and bleak world, as well as cybernetics, prosthetics, cyborgs, and the internet.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Neuromancer , Snow Crash , Software
A subgenre in which the Earth is dying. Stories in this subgenre often take place at the end of the Earth's existence, thus occurring in the future. Common themes are fatality, reflection, lost innocence, idealism, entropy, exhaustion of resources, and hope. Settings in these stories are often barren and sterile, with a fading sun. There is overlap with this subgenre and apocalyptic fiction.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: The Time Machine , Zothique , Tales of the Dying Earth
A subgenre of science fiction in which the world has become the opposite of a utopia and the protagonist must liberate himself/herself (or an entire community) from it. Common themes are a police state, overwhelming poverty, government control, and lack of personal freedom. Stories in this subgenre often include deep social control and exploration of what we fear will happen in the future of humanity.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Fahrenheit 451 , Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , A Clockwork Orange
In this subgenre, there is an empire that spans galaxies. The story usually takes place in the capital of the empire and often includes elements of dystopian science fiction. The protagonist is often a member of the empire's military forces.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Constitution: Book 1 of The Legacy Fleet Series , Bloodline: Star Wars , Darkest Hour: Liberation War Book 1
A subgenre of science fiction in which there is a prolonged voyage on a spaceship and the original occupants have passed away, leaving their descendants to remain or find another place to live. As the ship journeys across the universe, generations have lived and died onboard, and social change often occurs. There is often an advanced ecosystem onboard and usually, the ship will have a destination, such as a distant planet to colonize.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Orphans of the Sky , Captive Universe , Promised Land
Hard Science Fiction
A subgenre in which there is extreme scientific details, and less focus on characters or settings. This is a subgenre that concentrates on relating stories from a correct scientific perspective with great attention to technological detail. These stories often include details from hard sciences, with some speculative technology incorporated.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Ringworld , The Martian , Dragon's Egg
A subgenre in which there are beings who have lived (and continue to live) infinitely. The focus of this subgenre is eternal life, either as a blessing that is full of limitless opportunity, or the end of change that is full of boredom and stagnation.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: After Many a Summer Dies the Swan , The Boat of a Million Years , Methuselah's Children
A subgenre of science fiction in which there is a voyage to unknown or isolated places such as islands, continents, jungles, or worlds, resulting in a discovery of some wonder or ancient technology. These stories usually contain elements of adventure, and the worlds visited are usually isolated from our own world, containing their own history and unique geography.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Journey to the Center of the Earth , A Princess of Mars , Lost Horizon
A subgenre in which there is interstellar or interplanetary armed conflict. Military values such as bravery, sacrifice, duty, and camaraderie are common themes, and the protagonist is typically a soldier. Military science fiction often features futuristic technology and weapons, with the setting being outer space or on a different planet.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Ender's Game , Starship Troopers , Old Man's War
A subgenre of science fiction in which a human consciousness is downloaded into a computer or transferred to another human brain. This can occur in several ways: via computer, some kind of psychic power, alien technology, physical brain transplantation, etc., and the transfer can be temporary or permanent. Often, the process destroys the original or copies are made.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: The World of Null-A , Kiln People , Lord of Light
Mundane Science Fiction
A subgenre that is set in the very near future, with believable use of technology that is currently available or could realistically be available in the near future. These stories favor scientific realities, such as biotechnology and environmental change, and are set on Earth.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Interzone , Schismatrix Plus , The Beast With Nine Billion Feet
A subgenre of science fiction in which the story is inspired by, or closely imitates, myth and folklore. The story may be a complete retelling of a popular myth or could just draw from tropes and themes that are common in mythology. There is a variable level of real science, since myth has fantastical elements.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Rendezvous with Rama , The Queen of Air and Darkness , Perelandra
A subgenre similar to cyberpunk in which the use of nanotechnology is explored, along with its effects on human lives. The nanopunk world is one in which the theoretical premise of nanotech is a reality, and it is well integrated with our world and human existence.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Tech Heaven , The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer , Prey
A subgenre in which there are robotics and AI. This subgenre is generally focused on one of three mentalities: pro-robot, anti-robot, or ambivalence. In a pro-robot plot, robots are benevolent. In an anti-robot plot, there is generally confrontation with robots, androids or AI. In an ambivalent plot, robots are useful but there is some anxiety about them.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Tik-Tok , The Silver Eggheads , Men, Martians and Machines
In this subgenre, there are elements of fantasy, but with the use of advanced technology (making it lean more toward science fiction). These stories show a magical futuristic world, leaning toward soft science. These stories can also contain science that is so well develop that it appears to be magic, and/or characters who possess abilities through scientific technology that seem to be magical.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: A Game of Universe , The Family Tree , The Dragonriders of Pern
A subgenre of science fiction in which there are also elements of horror. Often, these stories include themes such as medical research resulting in new diseases, aliens attempting to kill humans, artificial intelligence that revolts against its maker(s), or atomic bombs and technology that results in human destruction.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Infected , The Hunger , The Sandman
A subgenre with elements of the surreal and postmodern themes. It crosses the genres of literary fiction and speculative fiction, including science fiction, fantasy or both. Slipstream is often defined as fantastical, illogical, surreal, and jarring.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: The Bridge , Breakfast of Champions , White Noise
Soft Science Fiction
A subgenre with less focus on science and more focus on characters. These stories usually deal with the soft sciences and social sciences, and are more concerned with human activity and affairs than scientific detail.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Babel-17 , Riverworld , The Left Hand of Darkness
A subgenre of science fiction in which there is exploration of outer space, and great detail is given concerning the voyage. Some of these stories pose space exploration to be a logical step for humanity, while others use it as a necessity for the survival of the species. In general, these stories focus on the faults and frailties of humanity.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Constitution: Book 1 of the Legacy Fleet Trilogy , Titanborn , Rift: The Resistance Book One
A subgenre of science fiction in which there is swashbuckling action and epic, panoramic settings. These stories often contain over-the-top characters, themes, and plots. There is usually a romantic and/or melodramatic approach to storytelling, and the plot contains a lot of adventure. The plot doesn't always stay true to the accepted laws of science, mathematics, or the nature of space as we know it.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: The Foundation Series , Hyperion , The Ender Quartet
A subgenre of science fiction in which there is espionage, high-tech duels, and over-the-top gadgets. There is less focus on the science behind the gadgets as what can be done with them. The plot often focuses on the glamour, adventure, and daring attitude of spies (think, James Bond), including romantic interludes with beautiful women.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: The Baroness: Sonic Slave , Crown of Slaves , Call for the Dead: A George Smiley Novel
A subgenre of that is generally set in Victorian times, with the use of steam power as advanced technology. There is minimal scientific detail and the gadgets are often best described as retro-futuristic. These stories contain a sort of reimagining of the capabilities of modern technology through a Victorian lens, and create an alternate history.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: The Anubis Gates , Homunculus: The Adventures of Langdon St Ives , The Difference Engine
In this subgenre of science fiction, the main characters travel through time. Sometimes, this can mean the character(s) move to a point in time that is in the future; sometimes, they can travel to a point in time that is the past. There is also a trend in these novels for characters to move to travel to parallel or alternate universes in an unknown time.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: A Sound of Thunder , Guardians of Time , The Time Machine
A subgenre in which humanity lives in a utopia and technology has removed society's problems. In many of these stories, war and sickness have been done away with, often through advanced technology. There is often much discussion of social implications and exploration of social sciences, approaching topics such as: What does a Utopia look like? Is one person's Utopia the same as another's?
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: The Giver , The Dispossessed , Childhood's End
A subgenre of science fiction created for an adolescent or young adult audience in which the protagonist is of the same age range. There is often budding romance within a dystopian society, and the protagonist faces coming-of-age issues such as autonomy, rebellion, survival without adults, etc.
Writing Prompts: Watch the video or read them Literary Examples: Dragon Pearl , The Similars , The Disasters
A subgenre in which there is much physical action, and the protagonist must fight for his or her survival or to save the victim of a crime or kidnapping. In many cases, the protagonist is a current or former member of the armed forces, special forces, or other government agency. Villains are often internationally located and the hunt for them often occurs across borders. Literary Examples: The Killer Collective , The Cleaner , Freedom Road
A subgenre of thriller & suspense in which there is dark humor surrounding espionage and organize crime. Protagonists often having biting wit while being involved in adventurous activities related to solving a crime or thwarting the evil plans of secret societies. Literary Examples: The Rook , Horrorstör , Crocodile on the Sandbank
A subgenre of thriller & suspense in which a protagonist must face (and defeat) a large, powerful organization or entity to stop a killer or halt a destructive plot. These stories often have protagonists who are scholars, journalists or amateur investigators who play a role in toppling secret societies or conspiracies. Common themes are rumors, lies, propaganda, secret histories, and counter-propaganda. Literary Examples: Betrayal , Mosaic: Breakthrough , The Atlantis Gene: A Thriller
In this subgenre, the protagonist confronts a major crime plot, such as a murder, kidnapping, or theft. These stories often begin with a protagonist, who is going about his or her daily life, before becoming involved in a crime (either as a victim or helping the victim). He or she then uses wit and specialty knowledge to help solve the crime, with or without the help of authorities. Literary Examples: Connections in Death: An Eve Dallas Novel , The Wedding Guest: An Alex Delaware Novel , A Merciful Fate
A subgenre of thriller & suspense in which the protagonist is up against a major natural disaster that he or she must escape or stop. Disasters could include natural disasters, such as earthquakes, meteor strikes or tsunamis; or man-made disasters, such as nuclear explosions, cyber-attacks closing down infrastructure, or a biological weapon. Literary Examples: The Virus , The Last Tribe , Quake
A subgenre in which there are secret agents. These stories are often set during war time. Often, the agent goes rogue to uncover corruption among his or her peers. Common themes include rivalries and intrigues between the major powers, corruption within modern intelligence agencies, rogue states, international criminal organizations, global terrorist networks, maritime piracy and technological sabotage. Literary Examples: The Killer Collective , Betrayal , The Cleaner
A subgenre in which forensic scientists play a major role in solving a crime. Common themes include finding evidence at a crime scene, blood splatter, DNA, bones, fingerprints, or other forensic details. There is usually a race against the clock to catch the perpetrator before someone else dies or another major crime is committed. Literary Examples: Scarpetta , Body of Evidence , Break No Bones
A subgenre of thriller & suspense set in a historical time period that includes details about the era. Real historical figures are often included in the plot, or encountered through a fictional character's point of view. These stories often concern real historical mysteries, documents, or conspiracies but offer an alternate reality connected to them. Some novels in this genre go back and forth between present-day characters and the historical events or documents they are discovering/researching. Literary Examples: A Discovery of Witches , Crucible: A Thriller , The Road Beyond Ruin
In this subgenre, the plot centers on legal dilemmas or courtroom dramas. The protagonist is usually an attorney who encounters danger and solves the crime, while the police are unable to do so or are corrupt. The protagonist's life is often at peril, as is the lives of his significant others or family. Literary Examples: An Innocent Client , The Rule of Law , In Good Faith
A subgenre of thriller & suspense in which the protagonist is in the medical field (or closely tied to it) and must use his or her knowledge of medicine to solve a mystery, cure a virus, halt or pandemic, or catch the perpetrator of a medical-related crime. Often, the story takes place among medical settings and the details that eventually bring the perpetrator to justice (or lead to a cure for a deadly virus) involve medical research or specific medical knowledge. Literary Examples: Blow Fly: A Scarpetta Novel , A Case of Need: A Suspense Thriller , Phantom Limb
A subgenre in which the protagonist is in the military (or former military) and must use his or her training to solve a mystery or crime. The subgenre also includes stories that are set on military bases or vessels. Common themes are brotherhood, avenging wrongs, protecting family members of servicemembers or former servicemembers, cartel interaction, and rogue militias. Literary Examples: The Trident Deception , The Karma Booth , Persuader
A subgenre of thriller & suspense and mystery, in which there is a "ticking clock" or mystery that the protagonist must solve before time runs out. This subgenre is different than a regular mystery in that it is fast-paced and the protagonist is generally on the run or racing against the clock to solve the crime or find a solution. Literary Examples: An Anonymous Girl , Two Can Keep a Secret , The Au Pair
A subgenre of thriller & suspense in which there are elements of the paranormal and some characters display supernatural abilities. Otherworldly elements that are introduced are usually as an antagonistic force, but the plot line and feel are distinctly that of a thriller. Literary Examples: Daughters of the Lake , The Rise of Magicks: Chronicles of The One , The Shining
A subgenre in which the protagonist is connected with the government (usually low-level at the beginning) and must solve a crime or dilemma involving international relations. These stories are usually about a political power struggle, and can involve national or international political scenarios. Common themes are political corruption, terrorism, and warfare. This subgenre often overlaps with the conspiracy thriller subgenre. Literary Examples: Justice Redeemed , Duty and Honor , Target: Alex Cross
A subgenre of thriller & suspense in which the protagonist becomes involved in a situation that threatens his/her sanity or mental state. These stories often emphasize the unstable or delusional psychological states of its characters, and is told through the viewpoint of psychologically stressed characters. There is a combination of tropes from mystery, drama, and action. Literary Examples: The Girl on the Train , Gone Girl , Behind Closed Doors
A subgenre of thriller & suspense in which a religious artifact or sect-held secret is discovered, and different groups (some secret) vie for control. These stories utilize the history and myths of religion, and the protagonist generally has an in-depth knowledge or experience with religious training and/or upbringing. Literary Examples: The Da Vinci Code , The Blood Gospel: The Order of the Sanguines Series , Sanctus
A subgenre in which there is cutting-edge technology that either empowers or threatens the protagonist. This is a hybrid genre drawing on tropes from science fiction, thrillers, spy fiction, and action novels. There are technical details concerning technology and the mechanics of various disciplines (espionage, martial arts, politics). There is often a focus on military action. Literary Examples: Jurassic Park , Daemon , The Martian
A subgenre of thriller & suspense in which the protagonist is a young adult or adolescent. There are often "coming of age" lessons to be learned, such as loneliness, romantic interactions, and survival without adults. Friends, companions, and/or romantic interests often help the protagonist solve the problem or escape the villain, and adventurous, nail-biting chase scenes are the norm. Literary Examples: One of Us is Lying , There's Someone Inside Your House , I Hunt Killers
A subgenre of western in which there is a morally ambiguous protagonist who hunts criminals to receive a bounty. Common themes include the construction of a railroad or a telegraph line on the wild frontier, ranchers protecting their family ranch from rustlers or large landowners or who build a ranch empire, revenge stories, and outlaw gang plots. Literary Examples: The Bounty Hunters: A Classic Tale of Frontier Law , Bounty Hunter , Broadway Bounty
A subgenre in which there a long journey the protagonist must make to move a herd of cattle. There are often life lessons learned along the way and friendships formed, as well as potential for romance. Literary Examples: The Chuckwagon Trail , The Daybreakers: The Sacketts , The Last Cattle Drive
A subgenre created for children that contains western tropes. The typical audience of these stories are children, ages 7 through 12, and western tropes are present but presented in an acceptable form for younger children to read. Common themes are friendships, autonomy, adventure, and relationships with wildlife and nature. Literary Examples: Leroy Ninker Saddles Up: Tales from Deckawoo Drive , By The Great Horn Spoon! , Old Yeller
A subgenre of western in which there is humor, satire, or parody of traditional Western tropes. Common themes include cowboys or "sharpshooters" who don't know how to shoot or ride a horse, or drunken cowboys whose antics are entertaining to their compatriots. Literary Examples: Anything For Billy , Hey, Cowboy, Wanna Get Lucky? , How the West Was Lost
A subgenre in which the protagonist is on a quest for riches, usually in the form of found gold. These protagonists and plotlines were immortalized in the 1860s by authors Bret Harte and Mark Twain, while the California gold rush was in full swing. Literary Examples: Calico Palace , Daughter of Fortune , Walk On Earth a Stranger
A subgenre of western in which the protagonist must go up against an antagonist in gun battle. The protagonist and antagonist are often experts in pistols, and each tends to own a special weapon whose reputation precedes it. The climax of these stories is a final gun battle with specific "sportsman" rules, usually taking place in an agreed-upon setting and with a crowd watching. Literary Examples: Shane , The Autumn of the Gun , The Dawn of Fury
A subgenre of western in which settlers must travel to and claim land that is available for homesteading, usually in Oklahoma or surrounding states. Common themes are survival within harsh elements, wild animals, benevolent and unfriendly natives, competing/feuding families or gangs, and making the land hospitable to growing food and sustaining life. Literary Examples: Joline's Redemption , Gabriel's Atonement , Sarah's Surrender
A subgenre of western in which the protagonist is a lawman who must help bring order to a town on the frontier. The protagonist is often escaping a violent or tragic past and has often lost family or loved ones to frontier violence. Common themes are saloon brawls, gambling, outsiders, outlaws, and romance with a local resident. Literary Examples: Lonesome Dove , Deadman's Fury , Bowdrie
A subgenre in which the stalwart, lonely protagonist roams the mountain ranges of the West. Common themes are survival against harsh elements of nature, loneliness, civilization vs. the wilderness, and feuding families. Literary Examples: Power of the Mountain Man , The Last Mountain Man , Revenge of the Mountain Man
A subgenre of western in which there are colorful villains. It usually involves train robberies, bank robberies, or some other form of criminal activity taking place in the West. There is a certain moral ambiguity to protagonists, making them "loveable bad guys" or villains with a heart. There is generally a romantic interest who is in a likewise unsavory career, such as a prostitute or barmaid. Literary Examples: Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West , Three-Ten to Yuma and Other Stories , I Rode With Jesse James
In this subgenre, the protagonist must play a role in settling on the vast plains of the Midwest, usually facing harsh weather and circumstances. Common themes are benevolent or unfriendly natives, surviving harsh winters, finding sustenance in difficult conditions, and a budding romance with other settlers (particularly widows or widowers who are on their own). Literary Examples: Prarie Justice , Prairie Crossing: A Novel of the West , West Winds of Wyoming
A subgenre of western in which a protagonist endures and survives a massacre or some other horrible event, and must find those who are responsible for it to achieve justice. In many cases, the protagonist is seeking justice for loved ones or family members who have been murdered. There is a sense of righteous anger and common themes are retribution, justice, personal peace, and loyalty. Literary Examples: Cade's Revenge , Montana Revenge , The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge
A subgenre of western in which there is a journey taken by pioneers from the East looking to settle in the West. These tales are of an epic nature and often include drama such as budding romance and feuds between travelers. Literary Examples: Raveled Ends of Sky: Women of the West Novels , A Long Way to Go , Sawbones
A subgenre in which the protagonist is an adolescent or young adult, and comes of age as the story progresses. These stories are intended for an adolescent or young adult audience and contain themes such as friendship, young love, escape from adult or responsible influence, and rebellion. Literary Examples: Vengeance Road , Under a Painted Sky , Gunslinger Girl
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The 17 Most Popular Genres In Fiction – And Why They Matter
We have put together a list of the 17 most popular genres in fiction to help you with your writing.
What Is Genre?
Genre is a style or category of art, music, or literature. As an author, genre controls what you write and how you write it. It describes the style and focus of the novel you write. Genres give you blueprints for different types of stories.
There are general rules to follow, for example, manuscript length , character types , settings , themes , viewpoint choices, and plots . Certain settings suit specific genres. These will vary in type, details, intensity, and length of description .
The tone employed by the author, and the mood created for the reader, must also suit the genre.
There are often sub-genres within genres, for example, a fantasy story with sinister, frightening elements would belong to the dark fantasy sub-genre.
Why Does Genre Matter?
Genres are great because they fulfil reader expectations . We buy certain books because we have enjoyed similar stories in the past. Reading these novels gives us a sense of belonging , of sitting down with an old friend and knowing we’re on familiar ground . There is also a camaraderie between readers who follow the same genres.
Writers can use this to their advantage because their boundaries are models on which to base stories. Genres reflect trends in society and they evolve when writers push the boundaries. Readers ultimately decide if the experiment has worked by buying these books.
The most important part of genre fiction, though, is that it fulfils our human need for good, old-fashioned storytelling . We sometimes need stories we can rely on to blunt the harsh realities of life.
The 17 Most Popular Genres In Fiction
- Romance . These stories are about a romantic relationship between two people. They are characterised by sensual tension, desire, and idealism. The author keeps the two apart for most of the novel, but they do eventually end up together. There are many sub-genres, including paranormal, historical, contemporary, category, fantasy, and Gothic. There are also many tropes in the genre: 101 Romance Tropes For Writers
- Action-Adventure . Any story that puts the protagonist in physical danger, characterised by thrilling near misses, and courageous and daring feats, belongs to this genre. It is fast paced, the tension mounting as the clock ticks. There is always a climax that offers the reader some relief.
- Science Fiction . This genre incorporates any story set in the future, the past, or other dimensions. The story features scientific ideas and advanced technological concepts. Writers must be prepared to spend time building new worlds and using genre-specific words . The setting should define the plot. There are many science fiction sub-genres . There are also many tropes in the genre: 101 Sci-Fi Tropes For Writers
- Fantasy . These stories deal with kingdoms as opposed to sci-fi, which deals with universes. Writers must spend plenty of time on world building. Myths, otherworldly magic-based concepts, and ideas characterise these books. They frequently take cues from historical settings like The Dark Ages. There are also plenty of sub-genres here. There is also a specific terminology and many tropes in the genre: 101 Fantasy Tropes For Writers
- Speculative Fiction . These stories are created in worlds unlike our real world in certain important ways. This genre usually overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history.
- Suspense/Thriller . A character in jeopardy dominates these stories. This genre involves pursuit and escape. It is filled with cliffhangers and there are one or more ‘dark’ characters that the protagonist must escape from, fight against, or best in the story. The threats to the protagonist can be physical or psychological, or both. The setting is integral to the plot. This is often described as a gripping read . A Techno Thriller is a sub-genre.
- Young Adult . Young Adult (YA) books are written, published, and marketed to adolescents and young adults. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) defines a young adult as someone between the ages of 12 and 18, but adults also read these books. These are generally coming-of-age stories, and often cross into the fantasy and science fiction genres. YA novels feature diverse protagonists facing changes and challenges. This genre has become more popular with the success of novels like The Hunger Games , The Fault in Our Stars , and Twilight .
- New Adult . New Adult (NA) books feature college, rather than school-aged, characters and plotlines. It is the next age-category up from YA. It explores the challenges and uncertainties of leaving home and living independently for the first time. Many NA books focus on sex, blurring the boundary between romance and erotica.
- Horror /Paranormal/ Ghost . These are high-pitched scary stories involving pursuit and escape. The protagonist must overcome supernatural or demonic beings. Occult is a sub-genre that always uses satanic-type antagonists. There are also many tropes in the genre: 101 Horror Tropes For Writers
- Mystery/Crime . These are also known as ‘whodunits’. The central issue is a question that must be answered, an identity revealed, a crime solved. This novel is characterised by clues leading to rising tension as the answer to the mystery is approached. There are many sub-genres in this category.
- Police Procedurals are mysteries that involve a police officer or detective solving the crime. The emphasis rests heavily on technological or forensic aspects of police work, sorting and collecting evidence, as well as the legal aspects of criminology.
- Historical. These fictional stories take place against factual historical backdrops. Important historical figures are portrayed as fictional characters. Historical Romance is a sub-genre that involves a conflicted love relationship in a factual historical setting .
- Westerns . These books are specifically set in the old American West. Plotlines include survival, romance, and adventures with characters of the time, for example, cowboys, frontiersmen, Indians, mountain men, and miners.
- Family Saga . This genre is about on-going stories of two or more generations of a family. Plots revolve around things like businesses, acquisition, properties, adventures, and family curses. By their nature, these are primarily historical, often bringing the resolution in contemporary settings. There is usually a timeline involved in these books.
- Women’s Fiction. These plot lines are characterised by female characters who face challenges, difficulties, and crises that have a direct relationship to gender. This is inclusive of woman’s conflict with man, though not limited to that. It can include conflict with things such as the economy, family, society, art, politics, and religion.
- Literary Fiction . This genre focuses on the human condition and it is more concerned with the inner lives of characters and themes than plot. Literary fiction is difficult to sell and continues to decline in popularity.
Writing For Children
Writing for children is not really a genre, but a way of writing.
Please read these posts:
- Writing For Children – 12 Practical Tips To Get You Started
- 10 Powerful Recurring Themes In Children’s Stories
- Everything You Need To Know About Creating Characters For Children’s Book
Changes In Genres
With the advent of self-publishing and ebooks, these genre guidelines have become less strict. This is because a publisher does not have to produce thousands of physical copies of the book. However, if you want to publish traditionally, you should still consider genre requirements.
How To Become Generic
Isolate your target market, research it, and adapt your story if necessary. Look in bookshops – they are generic, sorting books into categories to make it easier for their busy readers to choose and buy whatever will guarantee them a good read. Read: How To Choose Your Genre .
TIP: If you want help with your elements of fiction writing, buy The Novel Writing Exercises Workbook .
If you enjoyed this post, read:
- The 5 Essential Elements Of A Perfect Ending
- 5 Really Good Reasons To Outline Your Novel
- How To Resuscitate A Lifeless Scene
- The 7 Critical Elements Of A Great Book
- 12 Crucial Things To Remember About Setting
- 9 Literary Terms You Need To Know
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It’s Genre. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It!
By Arthur Krystal
Last May, a piece I wrote for the magazine about genre fiction’s new-found respectability caused the digital highway to buckle ever so slightly. Despite my professed admiration for many genre writers, I was blasted for thinking that literary fiction is superior to genre fiction, and for not noticing that the zeitgeist had come and gone while I was presumably immersed in “The Golden Bowl.” Apparently, the dichotomy between genre fiction and literary fiction isn’t just old news—it’s no news, it’s finis, or so the critics on Slate’s Culture Gabfest and the folks who run other literary Web sites informed me. The science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, announced that literature “is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.” Is that so? A novel by definition is “written art”? You know, I wrote a novel once, and I’m pretty sure that Le Guin would change her mind if she read it.
Le Guin isn’t alone in her generous estimate of literature’s estate. Time magazine’s book critic Lev Grossman also rushed to genre fiction’s defense with an agile piece, “ Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology ,” which I heartily recommend, even if he disagrees with much of what I said. Unlike Le Guin, Grossman sees a qualitative difference between certain kinds of fiction while also insisting that good genre fiction is by any literary standard no worse than so-called straight fiction. Literature, Grossman believes, is undergoing a revolution: high-voltage plotting is replacing the more refined intellection associated with modernism. Modernism and postmodernism, in fact, are ausgespielt , and the next new thing in fiction isn’t issuing from an élitist perch but, rather, is geysering upward from the supermarket shelves. In short, there’s a new literary sheriff in town, able to bend time, jump universes, solve crime, fight zombies, perform magic, and generally save mankind from itself.
Grossman invites us to survey “a vast blurry middle ground in between genre fiction and literary fiction” inhabited by the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, and Jennifer Egan, whose books don’t so much transcend genres as simply collapse them. He argues persuasively that Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, and Neil Gaiman have succeeded in “grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction …They’re forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century.”
There’s no question that genre enthusiasts have found an eloquent spokesman in Lev Grossman, whose own novel “The Magicians” was hailed as “a postadolescent Harry Potter.” Like many readers, Grossman is fed up with benighted critics who seem unaware that contemporary fiction has bloomed into “a new breed of novel” in which “plot and literary intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive.” He’s quite rhapsodic on the subject, declaiming that “plot is an extraordinarily powerful tool for creating emotion in readers … capable of fine nuance and even intellectual power.” Apparently, we’re returning to the good old days of good old-fashioned story-telling, disdained by the modernists (who Grossman grants were “the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen”), who had more high-falutin concerns. A quick side note: Graduate-school wonks may see Grossman’s admiring but grudging view of modernism as a neat reversal of Dryden’s poem to Mr. Congreve, in which the poet contends, “The present age of wit obscures the past… Our age was cultivated thus at length; / But what we gained in skill we lost in strength.”
If Grossman is correct, strength in the form of story has returned to the novel. And, in truth, a few of the writers he mentions have constructed broad canvases, crowded with colorful characters engaged on meaningful quests and journeys. But I have to disagree with Grossman: it’s not plotting that distinguishes literary from genre fiction. After all, literary fiction can be plotted just as vigorously as genre fiction (though it doesn’t have to be). There’s no narrative energy lacking in Richard Russo, Richard Powers, Jonathan Franzen, David Mitchell, Denis Johnson, Annie Proulx, Gish Jen, Jhumpa Lahiri, and so on. A good mystery or thriller isn’t set off from an accomplished literary novel by plotting, but by the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose. There may be a struggle to express what’s difficult to convey, and perhaps we’ll struggle a bit to understand what we’re reading.
No such difficulty informs true genre fiction; and the fact that some genre writers write better than some of their literary counterparts doesn’t automatically consecrate their books. Although a simile by Raymond Chandler and one by the legion of his imitators is the difference between a live wire and a wet noodle, Chandler’s novels are not quite literature. The assessment is Chandler’s own, tendered precisely because he was literary: “To accept a mediocre form and make something like literature out of it is in itself rather an accomplishment.” So it is. And there are any number of such accomplishments by the likes of Patricia Highsmith, Charles McCarry, Ruth Rendell, P. D. James, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, and dozens of others.
Genre, served straight up, has its limitations, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise. Indeed, it’s these very limitations that attract us. When we open a mystery, we expect certain themes to be addressed and we enjoy intelligent variations on these themes. But one of the things we don’t expect is excellence in writing, although if you believe, as Grossman does, that the opening of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is an example of “masterly” writing, then you and I are not splashing in the same shoals of language. Grossman’s more powerful point derives from an article he wrote three years ago for the Wall Street Journal , in which he argued: “Genres are hybridizing…. Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century.” Fair enough, but how does this reify the claims of genre-loving people everywhere? It seems to me that Chabon, Egan, and Ishiguro don’t so much work in genre as with genre. “All the Pretty Horses” is no more a western than “1984” is science fiction. Nor can we in good conscience call John Le Carré’s “The Honorable Schoolboy” or Richard Price’s “Lush Life” genre novels.
Hybridization has been around since Shakespeare, and doesn’t really erase the line between genre and literary fiction. Nor should it. Ain’t nothing wrong with genre, and when literary novelists take a stab at it, they relish its conventions and their ability to modulate them. Cecil Day-Lewis, the Poet Laureate of Great Britain, happened to write mystery stories as Nicholas Blake, and the Booker Prize-winner John Banville doubles as the mystery writer Benjamin Black. Sure, their books are escapist, but their plots don’t excuse or cover for bad prose. In fact, their books can actually be better than much of what passes for literary fiction, and yet still not qualify as great literature.
Quality comes in different forms: there is Cole Porter and there is Prokofiev; the Beatles and Bach; Savion Glover and Mikhail Baryshnikov—the difference between them is not one of talent or proficiency but of sensibility. When I pick up a novel with a semi-lupine protagonist, like Glen Duncan’s “The Last Werewolf,” I’m expecting darkness, but not “Heart of Darkness.” And I’m not disappointed. Matter of fact, Duncan’s foray into horror is so intelligently and exuberantly rendered that the snootiest of readers might forgive himself for letting Robert Musil and W. G. Sebald languish on the shelves.
What I’m trying to say is that “genre” is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply “commercial.” Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it. Commercial novels, in general, whether they’re thrillers or romance or science fiction, employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious. Which is not to say that some literary novels, as more than a few readers pointed out to me, do not contain a surfeit of decorative description, elaborate psychologizing, and gleams of self-conscious irony. To which I say: so what?
One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals. Why say otherwise? Elmore Leonard, Ross Thomas, and the wonderful George MacDonald Fraser craft stories that every discerning reader can enjoy to the hilt—but make no mistake: good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction in the same way that Santa Claus is inferior to Wotan. One brings us fun or frightening gifts, the other requires—and repays—observance.
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What is Literary Fiction?
What type of fiction do you write?
Depending on who you ask, fiction can be broken into two categories: Genre and literary. However, not everyone supports the idea of literary fiction. For this group, fiction can be separated into two camps: Good fiction and bad fiction which, of course, relies on the reader’s opinion.
You’ll find that’s also the case when it comes to literary fiction. Although we’ll attempt to break down the differences between genre and literary fiction in this post, keep in mind that the lines between the two can and often do blur.
Let’s kick things off by defining the characteristics of genre fiction and then literary fiction.
Here’s a list of ways that genre fiction writers can benefit from the methods used in literary fiction. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.
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What are the Characteristics of Genre Fiction?
Genre fiction appeals to the masses.
Genre fiction is also known as popular fiction— and that’s for a good reason. Genre fiction is more appealing to a wider audience. It’s written for the mainstream reader, especially those who are already fans of a specific subset of fiction (a.k.a. genre). Many readers gravitate to a particular genre, such as mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, young adult, action, history, and so on. Genre fiction gives the fan access to their favorite type of storytelling.
Genre Fiction Follows a Specific Formula
Books that belong to a genre must follow the rules of that specific drama. A sci-fi story must contain advanced technology. Young adult must focus on a coming of age story and often uses a protagonist aged between 12 to 18. Romances must feature a love story.
Of course, as the writer, you can do whatever you choose, but just know that the reader of that genre comes in with basic expectations, and it wouldn’t be the best idea to ignore those expectations. If you do, then congratulations! You’re venturing into literary fiction (but more on that later).
Genre Fiction Uses Conventional Storytelling
Piggybacking off the last point, genre fiction keeps to a loose script. It also follows the predictable ebb and flow of conventional storytelling. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.
Another way to think about it is to remember the basic plot diagram of a story:
Genre fiction stories start off with exposition that is interrupted by conflict. Rising action follows until the climax of the story followed by falling action and a satisfying resolution.
Genre Fiction is Entertaining
While not all genre fiction stories can be deemed as such, most of them fall into the category of fun escapism. That is, they provide an entertaining adventure that helps the reader forget about their own cares.
Genre Fiction is Plot-Driven
Because they must abide by a certain formula, most genre fiction stories are hopelessly plot-driven. Sure, they contain interesting characters, some of which the reader may fall in love with or hate to the core, but the plot is always in the driver’s seat. That plot, dictated by the genre, might be a love story, or it may be a whodunit, but it’s always the most important factor in the story.
Genre Fiction Often Features a Happy Ending
And they lived happily ever after… Or at least until the next book in the series comes out.
One of the most poignant characteristics of genre fiction is a tidy ending where burning questions are answered and the characters relax into their new normal. Most popular fiction resolves with a happy ending because the readers demand such.
Genre Fiction is Easier to Sell
It’s called popular fiction for a reason. Genre fiction is an easier sell. Fans of a specific genre are often drawn to reading more books that tell the same type of story. They’re always on the lookout for different interpretations of that basic story.
To Sum It Up
In a nutshell, genre fiction is considered popcorn for the soul. It may not be earth-shattering literature, but at the same time, the stories presented in genre fiction can be inventive, spellbinding, and beautifully done.
Does genre fiction have merit? Certainly! However, genre fiction is less likely to win prestigious literary awards or appeal to book snobs.
What are the Characteristics of Literary Fiction
Literary fiction doesn't follow a formula.
Unlike genre fiction, which follows a loose but predictable narrative, literary fiction doesn’t adhere to any rules. Anything can happen which can be both exciting and unnerving for the reader. Sometimes, literary fiction takes a common theme in genre fiction and turns it on its head. For example, the idea of good overcoming evil is challenged in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four .
As a side note , Nineteen Eighty-Four walks a fine line between literary fiction and genre fiction as David Barnett points on in this article for the Guardian . What we now consider classic literary fiction was often viewed as genre fiction by its contemporary critics.
Literary Fiction Uses Creative Storytelling
Because literary fiction isn’t bound to the strict standards of a specific sub-genre, every author is free to make up their own rules as they go along. The reader is never quite sure where the adventure will take them.
Free from rules, the literary fiction writer is able to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable and sometimes the results are extraordinary. See Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler . Written in the second person, this postmodernist metafiction is about your attempt to read a novel. However, you’re constantly prevented from doing so. It’s not very often that you can read a novel about you reading a novel.
Literary Fiction Explores the Human Condition
While genre fiction (as a whole) seeks to distract the reader through light entertainment, literary fiction is much more introspective in its objective. Literary fiction as a whole wants to make sense of the world around us by exploring the human condition.
An example of this is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance , which is a haunting tale of India in the 1970s and 1980s. Through the lives of four principal characters, Mistry explores the simple hopes and palpable misery that we teeter between in this life. Although I read the book years ago, those characters are still with me, and that’s one of the hallmarks of literary fiction— the ability to create memorable characters. Because genre fiction is so focused on plot, it can’t compete with the intense character studies contained within a work of literary fiction.
Image Courtesy of Amazon.com
Literary Fiction May Be Difficult to Read
Stories that explore the human condition aren’t exactly fun reads. By nature, they have to deal with a difficult subject matter with unflinching honesty. It can be a tad uncomfortable to think about these issues when you, as the reader, simply want to escape.
Literary fiction may rely on symbolism or allegory to convey a deeper meaning. There’s almost always a deeper takeaway than the story itself reveals.
Literary Fiction is Character-Focused
While genre fiction is inextricably tied to the plot, literary fiction has the same relationship with the character. The characters must be explored and defined and the impetus that moves the story forward. Literary fiction doesn’t just show the characters in action, it also shows how every action changes the character.
Literary Fiction Often Has an Ambiguous Ending
In literary fiction, endings are usually sad, abrupt, or left up to your interpretation. Sometimes, nothing is resolved, which leaves the reader desperate to find meaning in it all.
Literary Fiction is Award-Friendly
You know how those artsy movies (that no one’s ever heard of) end up getting awards and accolades? Then, because it’s so celebrated, you end up seeing the movie, only to realize that you would’ve preferred watching the latest Thor movie?
That describes a lot of literary fiction. Because it often pushes boundaries and employs a unique perspective, works of literary fiction get more awards. Critics love that kind of thing. However, receiving an award doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is worth your time or money. As with all things art, creative genius is in the eye of the beholder.
To Sum it Up
If genre fiction is popcorn, does that make literary fiction more serious and substantive?
Not necessarily. Literary fiction provides a fresh way to tell stories and it ignores standard formulas. It stands alone and is not scared.
The term "literary fiction" is controversial and for good reason. As more “literary” writers venture into genre fiction, the lines of distinction have blurred. Sometimes, it’s not always clear. Perhaps, it is genre fiction that’s just pushing its own boundaries.
Or, maybe literary fiction is a genre all its own.
What are your thoughts? Do you write literary fiction? Or do you write genre fiction? Let us know in the comments below!
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Genre Fiction: The Definition and How It Helps Your Writing
By Shawn Coyne
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When we hear a book or movie described as “genre fiction,” the speaker is usually denigrating the story. The designation connotes cheesy slasher films, lame mysteries, Ed Wood-esque science fiction, and bargain-bin romances.
When all of the above can be categorized as one of a particular kind of Genre, Genre is not limited to pulp fiction.
Genre is a Categorization
Genre’s an incredibly broad way of cataloging all Stories. Like the category Coffee includes all varieties from Sumatra to Folgers.
Genre Fiction includes War and Peace as well as the pedestrian (to some people) entertainments described above.
Genre is the Most Important Decision
Those choices will tell the reader what they are in for if they pick up your book. They will direct all efforts from your publisher from the front cover art to the publicity tour. If you are not writing in “genre,” you’re lost. Every Story ever told has genre classifications.
Examples of Genre Classifications of Fiction
- The Corrections is a Realistic, Long form, Mini-plot, Society, Domestic, Drama.
- Moby Dick is a Realistic, Long form, Archplot, Action, Adventure, Monster, Drama.
- The Iliad is a Fantastic, Long form, Archplot, War/Education, Literary Story.
Deciding what Genre/s your Story will inhabit will also tell you exactly what you need to do to satisfy your potential audience’s expectations.
Genre will tell you what you the crucial conventions and obligatory scenes that you must have in your novel. Knowing Genre is the single best way to avoid doing a helluva lot of work for naught . If you don’t know you are writing a horror novel and you spend four months working on a character’s past history for an epic flashback, you’re wasting your time.
Better to know up front what genre best fits the idea or theme you want to convey to your audience before setting off on the work, no?
Most importantly, if you fail to abide by your genre’s requirements, you will not write a Story that works.
Genre is the Path to a Working Story
The only way to write a Story that works is to know exactly what genre/s you are exploring and delivering exactly what is required from those genres.
You must know what your reader is expecting before you can possibly satisfy her.
And yes, if you are writing a Story, you must think of your audience. A Story means nothing if it is not experienced. If you do the work exceptionally well, you do that thing that we all dream of, you’ll over deliver on audience expectations.
You won’t just satisfy them, you’ll shock and invigorate them. And the reader will have an experience that they will never forget.
Start with Genre
So the first question we need to ask ourselves is What are the Genres of our Story and what will I have to do to meet those genres expectations?
Genre craft demands innovation. And that innovation is found in the way a writer handles audience expectations… the obligatory scenes and conventions of your chosen genres.
This requirement is exactly the same thing that Steve Jobs and Apple faced when they decided to create a new cellphone.
Jobs knew that the iPhone had to be compatible with cellular networks, at least one of them. He knew that it had to “ring.” He knew that the connections between callers had to be clear. And tens of other obligations and conventions (a North/South hearing and speaking convention) had to be met. So the question Jobs asked himself was not “How do I make something completely unique and change the way people speak to each other?” but “How do I build on and reinvent those things that phone users demand while also giving them an intoxicating original experience?”
Jobs worked inside the phone “genre,” and then moved the genre forward.
As you’ll remember, the first generation of iPhones had a tendency to disconnect in the middle of calls. The obligatory antenna required in the phone did not deliver. It wasn’t until Apple fixed that problem that the iPhone moved from Apple baseline cult first-generation adopters (its genre experts) to middle managers abandoning their Blackberrys. The core fanatics cut Apple some slack on the first iteration of the iPhone, but they didn’t evangelize to non-cult members until all of the bugs were out of it.
Genre Works the Same for Books
Win over the experts and keep banging away at the keyboard. When you’ve knocked out something extraordinary, the experts will beat down their neighbors’ doors to get them to read your book.
I think one thing is for sure. Apple opened up every single cell phone they could find to see what they all did and how they did it before they started working on the prototype of the iPhone. Shouldn’t writers do the same thing?
The Definition of Genre Fiction
Genre fiction is a way of categorizing your story so you will deliver a story that your reader loves while innovating on the obligatory scenes and conventions they have come to expect.
Dig Deeper into Genre
Here are some more article to dig deeper into your understanding of genre fiction:
- Genres of Writing
- Action Genre
- Horror Genre
- Crime Genre
- Western Genre
- Thriller Genre
- Society Genre
- Performance Genre
- Fantasy Genre
- Internal Genre
- Worldview Genre
- Status Genre
- Morality Genre
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After all, literary fiction can be plotted just as vigorously as genre fiction (though it doesn't have to be). There's no narrative energy
While genre fiction is inextricably tied to the plot, literary fiction has the same relationship with the character. The characters must be explored and defined
Genre fiction is a way of categorizing your story so you will deliver a story that your reader loves while innovating on the obligatory scenes and conventions