Books and Glasses

Fiction is NOT a Genre…

Recently, I was skimming through a fellow editor’s website (who shall remain nameless) and encountered a page where people were listing the titles of their manuscripts and their respective genres. OMG, the number of people that listed their genre as FICTION…

People, FICTION is NOT a genre. It tells us nothing about your story, except for the fact that it’s made up. And it’s not good enough to tell us the you write Young Adult or Middle-Grade either. All this tells us is who your target audience is.  Let’s face it, a science fiction story is very different to a western. (However, you could have a Western SciFi — Firefly is the perfect example of this sub-genre.) A Young Adult SciFi and a Middle-Grade SciFi, on the other hand, will contain similar elements, all related to the SciFi genre.

In my post Young Adult: A Category or a Genre?, I discussed the differences between Middle-Grade, Young Adult, New Adult and Adult, pointing out how these terms relate only to your target audience age bracket. However, it has become obvious to me that there seems to be even more confusion about this beast known as Genre.

According to Merriam-Webster, a genre is a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content. I suppose one can successfully argue that fiction is a genre, because the content is made up, but it still tells me nothing about your story — it gives me no clue as to whether I might actually be interested in reading it. It gives no indication of what section in the bookstore that it will likely be shelved.

The main genres of fictional literature are as follows:

  • Romance
  • Fantasy
  • Science Fiction
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Mystery / Crime
  • Horror
  • Suspense/Thriller
  • Historical (i.e. Western, Edwardian, Medieval, etc.)

Each of these genres has a list of sub-genres and cross-overs that can seriously do the head in just thinking about it. Below is just a few of the sub-genres.


The main plot of a romance novel focuses on the romantic relationship between the hero and the heroine. The story must finish in a positive and optimistic way, or it can’t be classified a romance. (Romantic stories with a tragic ending are classified Woman’s Fiction.) There are so many sub-genres of romance that I’ve lost count, but here are just a few.

  • Contemporary romance involves any romance that takes place after World War II. However, contemporary settings are more commonly of the modern technological era.
  • Historical romance is a broad category as the historical period can be in any era, ranging from ancient societies through to the 19th century.
  • Romantic suspense is a romantic story that contains elements of mystery. Typically, the heroine is the victim of a crime, and works with the hero to solve the case and bring the real villain to justice.
  • Paranormal romance is a blend of fantasy and romance. Typically elements such as vampires, werewolves or the like are woven into the story.

Fantasy uses magical or other supernatural elements as a main plot element within the story. Many fantasy stories are set in imaginary worlds, but they don’t always have witches, elves, or magical rings. Again, there are many different flavors of fantasy that one can easily get confused.

  • Urban fantasy stories are traditionally set in a contemporary setting, most commonly within a city, but involve elements such as witches, vampires or werewolves. Any supernatural creature in your modern-day story, and you’re looking at this sub-genre. Contemporary fantasy includes stories that are outside of the city.
  • High fantasy (sometimes called epic fantasy) is where the stories are set in a “secondary” world, that may have elements that resemble our own, but for the most part is very different. High fantasy stories commonly involve elves, goblins, dwarfs, demons and other such like creatures.
  • Mystical realism will be a story set in the “real” world, however a small element will contain some magical quality. The magical element within this sub-genre will be subtle.
  • Fairytale retellings are just that. They draw on fairytale elements, twisting them to suit the story.
Science Fiction

As the name suggests, science fiction will contain scientific elements within its main plot. One can be talking about space travel, or virtual reality, or even just internet monsters who goggle up all the data on your computer. There is no need for science fiction to be filled with massive equations or big terms that no one understands, but the science background must be evident.

  • Dystopian is traditionally a post-apocalypse setting, where the characters are trying to build the world again. The science may be soft or hard, and in some dystopian stories, magic will play a role, bringing in the fantasy elements.
  • Steampunk examines worlds where the machines, architecture and clothing designs are based off of the 19-century industrial revolution.
  • Space opera outlines the epic dramatic space stories, often involving many fire fights between ships. (Star Trek and Star Wars are classic space operas.)
  • Time travel novels typically span across multiple time periods, where the main character is travelling through time, just as the name suggests.
  • Near-future science fiction will be all of the stories that talk about internet crimes, virtual reality, hover cars and the like. It will be based on all the technologies that are just around the corner.

Trying to keep track of all the sub-genres I think would give anyone a headache. The trick is to know which of the main genre categories your writing belongs to, and then get your head around the sub-genres of just that category.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Posted in Classification, Random, Writing and Editing and tagged , .


  1. I disagree somewhat. When someone says they write Fiction without the use of a more specific subcategory such as Speculative Fiction (Fantasy / Science Fiction) or something like Horror, Humor, Mystery, Crime, or Thriller, the lack of a preceding description can be equally telling about the contents of the story. When I hear that someone writes non-descript Fiction, I immediately assume that their story is the equivalent to what the film industry would describe as a contemporary drama. In most of these cases I assume that the story will be likely one of either self-discovery or survival; story tropes which have rules just like any other genre.

    • Exactly the point. Saying something is Fiction is not good enough. We need to know more, so we know what element one might expect and where it might be shelved in the book store. Personally, I dislike the term Speculative Fiction for exactly the same reasons that I dislike the term Fiction. However, with that one, I at least have a rough idea where in my local book store to look. (Stores in New Zealand lump all flavours of Fantasy and Science Fiction together on the same shelves and Horror/Mystery/Thriller tend to be together in the next isle over.) I agree that terms like Thriller are also a somewhat vague, which is why as a writer you MUST know your genre and the sub-genres associated with it, and yes, there is a list of sub-genres to Thrillers. The number of sub-genres to Romance alone is enough to do anyone’s head in.

      Please don’t confused story tropes with genres. While some tropes are genre specific, the majority are not.

  2. Pingback: Urban Lite; the Journey Continues | jangled nerves

    • I agree with you, magical realism is not a good name. Mystical realism is better, but not by much, just as you suggest. It’s one of those cross-over genres that someone thought it would be a good idea to give a name to and they did the best they could. Personally, I don’t like the name high fantasy or hard science fiction either. The adjectives high and hard seem to have completely different connotations in my mind, ones that make me laugh every time. “My science fiction is hard and my fantasy makes me high.”

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