Friday, June 5, 2009

Michelle McLean on Genre Definitions

This week The Literary Lab presents a series of guest posts exploring the conventions of different genres and what writers love and loath about each of them. We're continuing with Michelle McLean on...

Genre Definitions

Genre – basic definition – a literary term used to describe a group of works with similar characteristics such as characters, themes, and setting.

There are more genres than you can shake a stick at – really. So this list is nowhere near completes the possibilities, but these are the most common.

Action/Adventure: Often, though not always, aimed at a male audience. Contains elements of physical action, violence, danger (physical, global, etc), hazards, travel to exotic locations (jungles, deserts, tropical islands). Storylines often contain use of weapons, technology, martial arts. Can and often do contain elements of humor. Examples include the James Bond films, Indiana Jones, the Die Hard movies, the Rush Hour movies, The Mummy movies.

Chick-Lit: geared toward women, often urban settings, includes elements of romance, humor, professional struggles, relationships. Examples include Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City.

Contemporary: Mostly used to denote the setting. If you have a mystery that is set in present time, on this planet, etc, you could call it a Contemporary Mystery.

Experimental: Usually edgy in style or content. Pulp Fiction would be a good example.

Fantasy: Fantasy stories are set on other worlds or in other realities. You can have vampires or werewolves or fairies, but in general, fantasy creatures tend to be more…fantastic, mythological – dragons, gryphons, three-headed dog beasts. Magic is a huge element of fantasy stories. Here is a little test: if you can take away the “weird” in the story (i.e. the beasts, the magic) and the world you are left with is still not the normal, everyday world you know, it’s a fantasy story. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy.

--Urban Fantasy – this genre is actually closer to a paranormal than a fantasy. These stories deal with magical or paranormal elements in a real world, contemporary (or urban) setting. Many paranormal books could also be classified as Urban Fantasy, including Twilight, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series, and The Dresden Files.

General: This is kind of a blanket genre for anything that doesn’t fit in any of the other categories. On Golden Pond is an example of general fiction.

Historical: Portrays fictionalized accounts of real life historical events or people. In non-fiction and fiction, a story set in the 1940s or 1950s could be considered historical, and definitely anything set early than that. Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Sister and Anchee Min’s The Last Emperor are examples of historical fiction. This does not apply to Historical Romance. For Romance, anything after 1910 is still contemporary (for now…this may change the farther into the 2000s we get).

Horror: The plot usually contains threats to the main characters that include things like death, mutilation and torture. Horror stories try to create a sense of horror, terror, and revulsion in its readers and have a tendency to be gory. The hero doesn’t always make it out alive in a horror story. Stephen King's The Shining is a great example. Well, any of Stephen King’s books.

Humor/Comedy: The purpose of this genre, as you can probably guess, is to make the reader laugh. Often combined with other elements such as romance and action/adventure. Fletch, Men In Black and Get Smart are examples of humor.

Inspirational: Mostly Christian-based storylines, though points of view of other religions are becoming more popular. Stories contain elements of faith and religion; working through life problems with a focus on a character’s beliefs and religion. An example of inspirational fiction is Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly series.

Literary: This one can be hard to define. Nathan Bransford has an excellent post about this. Literary fiction tends to be more geared to the characters, the inner workings of their minds and hearts. It does need to have a plot, but as Nathan states, the plot is often beneath the surface, whereas in commercial fiction, the plot is on the surface. Examples would be Out of Africa and Gilead.

Middle Grade: Geared toward preteens. Often have a moral message or lesson; the character learn about self-esteem, confidence, friendship, etc. Charlotte’s Web and Nim’s Island are examples.

Mystery: The plot is geared toward the solving of a problem, often, but not always, murder. Subplots are fine (many have a romantic element), but the “problem” (i.e. the mystery) presented at the beginning must be resolved. The Sherlock Holmes stories are an example.

Niche: This type of book will only appeal to a certain niche of reader. For example, if I wrote a fiction book about frogs that lived in Texas, and that was all the book was about, it would only appeal to those that liked frogs or the state of Texas. So, I would query my hypothetical book Frogs of Texas as Niche Fiction.

Paranormal: Paranormal stories are set in the real world, the world as we know it…with a little extra thrown in. Vampires, shapeshifters, fairies, elves, witches, demons, gargoyles, ghosts, psychics, mediums, telepaths, time travelers…these all belong in the paranormal world. Use the same test as we used for the fantasy worlds…if you can take away the “weird” factors and you are left with our everyday world = paranormal. For example, if you take away the sparkling, gorgeous vampire, or vengeful ghost, or the time portal the main characters travel through, and you are left with everyday Earth – your story is paranormal fiction. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse vampire books are examples of paranormal fiction.

Romance: The plot of a romance centers around a couple that fall in love and have a “happily ever after” ending. This is a must; there are no exceptions. If your couple is not happily in love and together at the end of your book, it’s not a romance. It might be a love story (in which case, it would go under women’s fiction) but a romance has to have a HEA. You can have subplots, but the main plotline must be about the couple’s romance. Now, there are so many subgenres to the Romance genre (many totally unique to romance) that I will do a separate post on these next week, so stay tuned.

Science-Fiction: This one is actually pretty self-explanatory. It’s fiction about science. The plot usually has something to do with science or technology and has to be within the realm of possibility. Stories are often set in the future or on other planets. Star Wars, Stargate and Star Trek fall in this category, as do I, Robot, Starship Troopers, Dune, Ender’s Game, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, A Wrinkle in Time, and Jurassic Park.

Suspense: While often lumped together, suspense novels are generally not as intense as thrillers. The threat is often directed at the main character. Can include many elements but often includes mystery, murder, a little romance, danger, action.

Thriller: More intense than suspense; the threat is often against a larger group than just the main character (threats against the community, a city, a country, the world). Usually about life and death situations where ordinary heroes are up against mastermind villains. Generally lots of action and plot twists. The Da Vinci Code, The Hunt for Red October and Enemy of the State are examples.

Western: These are generally set in the Western United States before 1900. There are also contemporary westerns. An example of a Western is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

Women's: There are several different sub-genres, but in general this genre is geared toward women; a woman is the main character and her development, life, experiences, etc, are the backbone of the story. Think Fried Green Tomatoes or The First Wives Club.

Young Adult: These books can include any genre but the main character should be the same age as the readers the story is geared toward (teens, 13-18). There can be romance but this element is usually on the tame side. Examples are the Harry Potter books, Twilight, Vampire Academy, and Wicked Lovely.

Once you have your genre down, you can pick your subgenres if necessary. However, do not list your book with more than three genres. If at all possible, keep it to two. You have to be able to narrow your book down. What shelf should it be on in a bookstore? You might have six different elements in your book, but stick to the main two.

Really the only two instances three genres might be necessary is for historicals and Young Adults. One because it tells the time period and the other because it tells the age the book is geared toward. My current book is YA Urban Fantasy. This isn’t overboard, but querying your book as a Mystery Thriller Urban Women’s fiction with romantic and science fiction elements is a bit much. Your book may contain all of those but you don’t need to give it all away.


  1. I still love this post. So much work has gone into it. Thanks Michelle!

  2. Wow! These def. are wonderful! What I thought was SF may not be! Crazy! Thanks so much for the post!

  3. Another great post. This stuff is always so helpful.

  4. Nice detailed breakdown, thanks Michelle.

  5. This is incredibly helpful! Thanks for posting. I wonder - do these definitions fall under fiction only or non-fiction also?

  6. Great, just great! Now I'm not sure what genre my book is! Thanks Michelle!

    Seriously, thank you. Unless a story is firmly within a specific genre, classifying it can be confusing. What I thought was a sci-fi/romance might just be a paranormal/urban fantasy story.

  7. Michelle: Thanks for putting this together. I don't know if everyone realizes how important it is for them to know how to classify their own book by genre. Querying an agent and calling your historical fiction novel a romance (or the other way around) will give them a reason to think you don't know enough about the marketplace to have written a book that can be sold to a publisher, or they'll think you haven't researched agents at all and have sent them your query at random, which is another reason they won't look at the brilliant pages you've attached. It's some tricky. I call all my stuff "literary fiction," so it's easy for me.

  8. This was a tough bear to tackle and you did it well! Great info here, thanks.

  9. This entire week was pretty eye-opening for me. I hungry to read books other than the literary work I've been reading. At the same time, I want to be careful where I shop because, as has been mentioned a couple of times, every genre has it's duds.

    I consider my book to be literary fiction, but since it takes place in Thailand, I sometimes wonder if I should call it multi-cultural, and it that's even a genre on its own. I'll probably stick with literary.

  10. This was sooo helpful to me! I have been struggling with seeing the difference between chick lit, contemporary, romance, and women's fiction! Aaarrrgghhh! Too many!

  11. Thanks--this was helpful. My novel seems to cross genres, but this has helped me to identify the prevailing genre.

  12. Michelle, this is such a great list. Not comprehensive by any means, but a fantastic gathering of information to start our own journey in deciding what we like, and what we're writing. Thank you!

  13. When I started writing, I had a hard time also, finding that specific spot where my book would fall. It's one of the reasons I started digging around and finding as many definitions on genres as I could :)

    Shorty - some of these might be able to overlap into non-fiction (esp if you are talking about narrative non-fiction) but for the most part, non-fiction has a whole huge list of genres on its own :) I'll probably do a post on non-fiction genres in the next month or so as I also write non-fiction.

    And David - yep, multi-cultural is its very own genre (one of the many I didn't include). Your book could be literary multi-cultural, if you want to classify it that way.

    Thanks for all the comments guys! It was an honor to be asked to be a guest blogger here - it's such an awesome site! I'm glad my list could help :)

  14. Thanks for the post, I always have trouble in telling one style from another, and now I know I'll manage...

    Cool blog! Check out mine:

  15. Thanks for sharing this wonderful list, it is amazing and very helpful. You certainly put a lot of time and effort into it, great job!

  16. Thank you for the list; it's exactly what I need for my daily flash fiction project.

  17. For me, this was very informative -- thanks!

  18. Thanks for putting this list together! I find it amazing how no matter how many times a genre is defined, it can still be incredibly confusing when figuring out which genre to put your MS under. I'm sorta, kinda facing this problem now.

    I was a little disappointed to see you didn't define mainstream fiction, but could that be because it's not a particularly common genre? I've blogged before about mainstream being the genre of my book, but sometimes I wonder if I'm wrong. Another thing I wonder is...what is the difference between mainstream and commercial fiction? My plot is definitely on the surface and I wouldn't call it literary by any means. It's sort of one of those popular trends sorta things with a whole lot of stuff mixed in...sigh. So complicated.

    I've been told women's fiction (but there's too much guy input for that), erotica (??? UM NO), and contemporary romance (but that's not true either...there's no happy couple ending here).

    I just hope I have it right by the time I query.

  19. Thanks for sharing this great list! I especially like the women's fiction definition. I completely agree that there are sub-genre categories. For example, I just finished reading a book by Linda Overman called Letters Between Us. It is a book about two women's friendship. I really enjoyed it!

  20. I love this post and have just referenced it in my current post, What Is Multicultural Fiction?


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