Genres of writing serve multiple purposes. Classifying a book by genre signals to potential readers whether your story fits their reading interests. When a book has an identifiable genre, publishers can also market it to the right readers more effectively. Here are some reasons why you need to identify a genre for your book and some of the most popular fiction genres:
‘But choosing a genre is too formulaic’
Some writers may resist locking their novel into a genre, but choosing a genre doesn’t mean that your book is formulaic or limited. Choosing the right genre makes it easier to get your book into the hands of readers who are likely to enjoy it the most.
Which comes first, writing your novel or choosing a genre? It depends. It may be that you are passionate about romance, for example, and know for a fact that you want to write a book in that genre. You may have a story idea that is unmistakably rooted in a certain genre. For example, if you want to write a police procedural, that is pretty solidly in the crime genre.
On the other hand, your choice of genre may happen while you are writing the book or after you finish the book. Most writers will find it helpful to identify the genre before starting. However, in some cases, you may be unsure what elements of your story you are going to emphasise. On occasion, writers also stumble into genre; they write a book and are told by an agent or an editor that they have written in a certain genre or at least that the book can be marketed in a certain way. This is unusual and is not necessarily ideal, but if you are struggling to identify a genre, you should not get so bogged down in this choice that it hampers your writing. In some cases, you can write first and worry about genre later.
All of the genres discussed below have subgenres and can also be combined with others for multi-genre novels. Cross-genre novels can sometimes be more difficult to market than other types of fiction, but some mixed genres can be very popular. For example, paranormal romance and urban fantasy novels, which may mix elements of romance, fantasy and horror, often hit the bestseller lists.
One thing to keep in mind is that Young Adult is not a genre of fiction; it is a category. Just like adult fiction, YA can be written in any genre. You’ll also need to decide at some stage whether you are writing for adults or younger readers, but that is a separate decision from choosing your story’s genre.
The major genres of writing for novelists
In a romance novel, the relationship between the protagonist and a love interest is the core of the story. If you are more interested in exploring character emotions than keeping your reader on the edge of their seat with nonstop action, then this may be one genre that appeals to you. Romance readers are primarily women, but Maya Rodale at The Huffington Post writes that 16% of romance readers are men.
Crime and mystery
This is a broad category that encompasses everything from the cosy detective novel to hard-boiled crime fiction. These novels might be very violent, or they may have no violence at all. The mystery may be an intricate puzzle for the reader to solve along with the detective, or there may be little to no mystery.
In some cases, the mystery is not who committed the crime but how it was committed or what circumstances led to it. This includes novels such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and the classic Ruth Rendell crime novel A Judgement in Stone. This novel begins with the murder of a family by their housekeeper and then goes on to explore how this event came about. Writers who are interested in careful plotting with lots of twists may enjoy writing in this genre, but crime and mystery fiction may also be very character-driven. It also lends itself well to series.
Thrillers tend to overlap with crime and mystery fiction, such as legal thrillers and spy thrillers, and some authors may be difficult to classify. For example, does best-selling writer James Patterson write mystery novels or thrillers? One distinction is that the focus in thrillers is on keeping the tension high throughout. Other types of thrillers have less connection with the crime and mystery genres, such as technothrillers.
Historical fiction might be set in any time and place. The Palaeolithic period to ancient China or Rome, medieval Europe, the American West, revolutionary-era Russia or any other country can serve as the setting for historical fiction. These tend to be long books, and writers have some latitude regarding their focus.
Some writers prefer to include a great deal of historical detail while others use less. These books may be more plot-based, or they might be character driven. Historical fiction also lends itself well to series. One of the best known and popular series of historical novels are the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brien set on a ship during the Napoleonic Wars.
When many people think of fantasy, the first thing that comes to mind is long books or series set in other worlds, and the enormous popular success in film and TV of works based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series have contributed to this perception. However, this is just one type of fantasy novel. Fantasy might be a short novel based on a fairy tale, or it might be set in our contemporary world with fantastical overtones.
Magical realism, a genre in which stories take place in our world with some magical or fantastical development, overlaps with fantasy. Many magical realist novels (such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) may be published as literary or mainstream fiction.
Science fiction stories may be set in the future, may rely on future technology as the underpinnings of their plot, or may primarily explore “soft” science subjects such as examining the makeup and psychology of future societies. Science fiction has also been called “the literature of ideas,” and writers who are quick to think up innovative plots and situations may feel at home in this genre.
Most people associate science fiction with strong plotting although some science fiction may be character-driven or even experimental in nature such as in the works of Samuel Delany. From space opera set thousands of years in the future to near-future dystopian warnings of where humankind might be headed, science fiction explores who we are and where we are going as a species.
Horror is not just splatter and gore, and horror fiction may range from quiet, subtle ghost stories to explicitly violent stories about monsters and serial killers. If you like writing dark, disturbing stories or trying to scare your readers, this may be the genre for you.
While not as commercially popular as it once was, a few writers such as Joe Hill, Peter Straub and Anne Rice are horror bestsellers, and although this genre thrives more through the small press than through major traditional publishers, horror readers are a passionate and engaged group of readers. Thomas Harris’ suspense/horror Hannibal stories in particular have been hugely successful, spawning numerous film adaptations and a hit TV show.
If you are more interested in refined prose style than plot and structure or you want to experiment with plot and structure, you might want to write literary fiction. Theme and subtext is particularly important in literary fiction. Readers of literary fiction tend to be more interested in language and intellectual elements than in other aspects of storytelling. They are also patient readers who will stay with you through a leisurely buildup more readily than some readers in other genres.
It is sometimes said that literary fiction does not sell, but that is not necessarily true, and when literary fiction sells very well, it often crosses over into the mainstream. Novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which straddles mystery and literary fiction) are good examples of this.
Sometimes, people use the terms ‘mainstream’ and ‘literary’ interchangeably, but the two are not synonymous. Mainstream is harder to define than any of the above genres because mainstream has less to do with the content of the book than how it is perceived and marketed.
When you walk into a bookstore, you will often encounter a large section titled ‘fiction’. Depending on the bookstore, you might encounter a variety of genres there from works by horror writer Stephen King to romance writer Nora Roberts to thriller writer James Patterson. There might be literary fiction there as well. Writers like Jonathan Franzen and Joyce Carol Oates are considered literary writers but they are popular enough that they crossover into mainstream.
Mainstream is composed both of books that are considered to have a broad appeal among general readers and genre writers who are popular enough to have crossover appeal. Sometimes, a genre writer who has been working for some time within a genre will write a book that is appealing to a wider audience, and this is called the “breakout” novel. In these cases, the hope is that the book will be considered mainstream.
The problem with mainstream as a label when you are trying to describe your book to agents, editors or potential readers is that it does not give them a very good idea of what your book is about. Therefore, while it is good to have a sense of what is meant by the term mainstream and it might even be a section of the bookstore to aim for yourself, as a beginning novelist, it may not be helpful to start out describing your book in this way.
A word on blending genres
Some agents and editors might sound a cautionary note that blending genres can make a book difficult to sell, but the fact is that many writers do mix genres of writing. Popular subgenres are essentially genre mixes. Just a few examples would be alternate history, paranormal and urban fantasy, supernatural crime and romantic suspense. There is really no limit to the genres that can be combined. The ghost story The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters might be considered literary, historical, horror or mainstream fiction.
If you do set out to combine genres, one thing you may want to consider is which genre will be predominant. For example, if you want to write a thriller novel that has a romantic storyline, will the main focus of the story be the relationship or the thriller plot? If it is the former, you are writing romantic suspense, but if it is the latter, your book will probably be published as a thriller. A dark contemporary fantasy with romantic elements might be considered paranormal romance if the romance element is foregrounded and urban fantasy if the fantasy element is more important. While you can write a mixed-genre novel without leaning toward one genre, you do run the risk of alienating potential readers who expected one or another generic element to be more prominent.
Mainstream and literary writers may also experiment with genre. For example, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and its sequels are historical novels, but she has won the prestigious literary Man Booker prize twice for the series. The novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel won an Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction in 2015, but it was also nominated for such literary awards as the PEN/Faulkner and the National Book Award.
One approach to writing mixed-genre novels is to take the best of each genre from which you are borrowing. For example, a literary science fiction or speculative fiction novel can combine strong prose and well-developed themes and characters with the strong plot and innovative ideas of science fiction.
Writers who choose a genre before they begin writing their novel may be more focused and have a better idea of what elements of their novel to emphasize in order to best appeal to their chosen readership. However, writers who are passionate about an idea should not let themselves be hampered if they are struggling to decide which genre their work fits into. This is also a decision that can be made after the book is finished.
While it is better to market a book to editors and agents as belonging to a single genre, in some cases, agents or editors may have their own suggestions about which genre would be the best fit for your book. However, in most cases, it is in a writer’s best interest to start with a clear idea of genre and to have a good idea of what readers will expect from that genre. This gives you the freedom to satisfy (or thwart) your readers’ genre expectations.
What genres of writing do you enjoy working in most?
If you want to start writing your novel, find or create a community around your favourite genre in Now Novel Groups.
One reply on “Genres of writing: How to choose your story’s vehicle”
Thank you for the amazing, informative post! I have been blindly self-publishing for a while and been wondering forlornly why my works that has been decribed as “extremely well-written,” and “the most unique novel I’ve ever read” by readers have done so bad in the sales department and overall review rating. I love detailed and elegant, poetic prose, and character-driven plots but I was targeting YA and mixing genres all over the place. This article gives me hope. I now see that I need to narrow down my audience then cater to them. From your generous explainations, I see that I am leaning more toward dark mysteries with romantic elements for OLDER audiences. Thank you a ton.