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Defining Genre Part 2 (Writing Essentials)

October 29, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified October 31, 2012

This article is part of Writing Essentials, in-depth coverage
of the elements of fiction and writing basics.

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This is part 2 of Defining Genre, a Breakdown of the Genres.
Part 1 is an Intro to Fiction Genres.

The introduction to Defining Genre covered the basics of genre and the reasons why writers should know their genres. This article lays out the major genres and their sub-genres.

I’ve not covered every genre, nor have I included every peculiarity of each genre. To enrich your own stories, I suggest you learn as much about the genre you write in as you can. Learn what readers expect and what might turn them away from a book purported to be of a particular genre. Understand what the genre promises.

Do keep in mind, however, that we’re not talking about clichés. We’re talking about what makes a story fit a genre, the elements that make a mystery a mystery and a romance a romance and so forth. Think in terms of the foundational elements of genre and not necessarily the set decorations.

The Breakdown

The following are the typically accepted fiction genres. In some lists you might find two of these combined and presented as one—sci-fi/fantasy or suspense/thriller.

Sub-genres may change over time and there may be disagreement over names for sub-genres. My intention is to give you the broadest possible base of information for each genre and to provide the highlights of each. This list doesn’t include all sub-genres.

Mystery

Mysteries focus on making a discovery, typically regarding a crime. In the traditional whodunit, the emphasis is figuring out who committed a crime. In a howdunit, the emphasis is on determining how the crime was committed—the culprit might be revealed quite early in the story. In a whydunit, the discovery centers on motive—why was the crime committed?

Discovery of the unknown is the point of mysteries. Readers may come to them to see if they can outsmart the lead character and the writer. The lead character may be a professional detective—private or affiliated with the police—paid to discover whodunit or an amateur who gets caught up in solving the crime.

Writers include clues so both the lead character and the reader can try to solve the mystery. Readers are satisfied when who-, why-, or howdunit can’t be easily guessed but seems inevitable at the story’s conclusion.

The story is over when the mystery is solved. And the mystery must be solved.

Differences between sub-genres have a lot to do with the feel or tone of the story and the type of character who’s the protagonist. The main character, except in unusual stories in which a sidekick might actually prove to be the greater sleuth, needs to be the one to solve the mystery.

Famous fictional detectives include Sherlock Holmes, Adam Dalgliesh, Hercule Poirot, Kay Scarpetta, Charlie Chan, Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, Travis McGee, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Lew Archer, Mike Hammer, and many, many more. (Please pardon me if I skipped your favorite.)

The appeal for the reader here is figuring out who the culprit is and how the crime was committed before the detective does and before the big reveal. Mysteries make readers think.

Mystery sub-genres

Cozy. Think Miss Marple from books and Jessica Fletcher from TV. Often an older woman, not a detective by profession, the protagonist accidentally or nosily gets involved in a crime, usually murder, and attempts to solve it. Cozies typically take place in a small town where the main character knows most of the other citizens. Depictions of violence, even the murder, are rare.

Private Eye. Think Spenser or Kinsey Milhone or Thomas Magnum from TV. The main character is a professional investigator, paid by someone to solve the crime. He or she may have once been a police officer or in the military. The private detective may have friends (secondary and recurring characters) on the police force who help him with his investigation (and he may help them in return), but he may also be on the bad side of some police officials, forever rubbing them the wrong way. Private eyes are predominantly American.

Amateur sleuth. The amateur is not hired to solve a crime but becomes involved perhaps because he knew the victim. The amateur sleuth needs to get to the bottom of the crime, often because the police are getting nowhere, have declared a homicide a suicide, or they’ve pinned the crime on a friend of the sleuth’s, someone he knows to be innocent. Cozies may feature an amateur sleuth, but the amateur isn’t confined to cozies.

Hard-boiled. Think Sam Spade. The hard-boiled detective is a professional private eye, but often an uncaring one. He talks tough and acts tougher. He’s concerned about solving the crime, less concerned about the people involved and their grief or loss. He adheres to his own personal code to solve crimes. The narrative style may be terse. The lead is probably a loner.

Noir. Noir deals with the darkest of characters or situations. While the cozy keeps violence off the page, noir highlights the violence. The hard-boiled detective may appear in noir, but as a distinction, noir features unrelenting emphasis on darker elements. Graphic sex and violence may be depicted as commonplace, as the norm. The main character, while he solves the crime, may not be a stereotypical good guy. In fact, he may be a mobster or gang member who’s an enforcer for his group.

Caper. The caper deals with crime in a comic way. The main character or characters are the bad guys. But they’re inept or forces conspire against them so that they have trouble succeeding with their crime. Think bungling or ill-prepared. Capers often feature a heist gone wrong. Not a whodunit, a caper is a how-are-they-gonna-pull-this-off mystery. Readers root for the bad guy in these stories.

Police procedural. This type of mystery puts the accent on how the law professionals solve the crime. From TV, think Law and Order and Inspector Morse and any other show featuring detectives catching the bad guy. The professional is often a high-ranking detective, but doesn’t have to be. He may work for Scotland Yard, the Sûreté du Québec, the Security Bureau of Hong Kong, or a metro American police force. The accent here is on how the bad guys are caught and on the evidence needed to arrest and convict them. Besides the primary detective, characters may include specialists such as forensic experts and medical examiners. Relationships and conflicts between the main character and other officials, especially those in the same department or a superior officer, feature in the story.

Historical. Historical mysteries take advantage of the possibilities of crime and mayhem happening in the past. The setting is important for flavor, but the sleuthing is still the key and may be seen to by an amateur or a professional. Think of the Brother Cadfael mysteries as well as the stories of Anne Perry (both William Monk and Thomas Pitt) and Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody). The story’s sleuth may be wholly imaginary or a person from history.

Other. I could list other sub-genres, but most would fall under the categories listed here. Many of the other sub-genres get their category designation from the primary career of the sleuth—medical, legal, culinary.

Thriller

The keyword for thrillers is thrill. Thrillers are fast-paced and keep readers on edge, anticipating the next event. Think fear and anxiety for both main characters and readers.

While the focus of mysteries is on solving a crime that’s already taken place, thrillers are all about what might happen and what can be done to prevent a catastrophe. Thrillers feature action, with a greater emphasis on event than character. A hallmark of the genre is that the main character(s) face danger, often right from the start. Much of that danger, and many of the lead character’s problems, are the direct result of actions orchestrated by the antagonist.

In thrillers, the accent is on preventing something—a death, the takeover of a country, the destruction of the world. The issues, the characters, and the story itself may seem larger than life. If the protagonist fails, the consequences could be literally world-changing. The clock is ticking.

The protagonist, while he may be skilled, is typically not a professional or if he is, there’s a reason he’s unable to use his buddies and professional resources to defeat the antagonist. The protagonist is often compelled to act because his personal moral code says he must do what’s right, even if it costs him.

The appeal of thrillers is the danger and seeing the bad guy thwarted. Thrillers make readers feel anxious, allow us to test our responses to danger.

Thriller sub-genres

Political. Think spy stories and Cold War stories.  The antagonist may be out to destroy or take over a country or  direct its policies toward a certain end.

Historical. Thrillers, like stories in most genres, can be set in the past. When the focus includes a recognizable time period necessary for the thriller’s plot, you’ve got a historical thriller. Writers of historical thrillers use setting (era, place details, political climate, social mores) to add to the suspense. Stories must do more than be simply set in the past—they must make use of that setting to enfold readers in the feel of an era. Think of thrillers that feature the murders of Jack the Ripper or other real-world villains, though historicals don’t have to feature recognizable individuals.

Crime. Crime thrillers may focus on kidnappings or revenge plots. But as with other thrillers, the stakes are high and the potential consequences widespread. So rather than feature the kidnapping of a five-year-old girl from suburban Dallas, a crime thriller might focus on the kidnappings of the children of the American Secretaries of State and Defense or of the British Home Secretary. An ex-employee of a company might kidnap the CEO’s wife because the CEO caused the death of the other man’s wife. The former employee, perhaps originally a partner with the CEO, offers to trade the life of the wife for a technology the company decided not to pursue because of the instability of the technology. The ex-employee may intend to hurt others with it, thus the dilemma for the CEO. As with all thrillers, the stakes are high. Some crime thrillers focus on the bad guys rather than on the efforts of the police.

Psychological. Psychological thrillers deal with mind games. The antagonist could be messing with the protagonist’s head and the writer could be messing with the readers’ heads. What seems real may not be, may be only a character’s imagination or fears. Think a battle of wits. The antagonist works to deceive the main character or drive him crazy. Psychological thrillers can be dark, twisted, and driven by emotion.

Legal. The protagonist in a legal thriller is often a lawyer, though a judge would work as well. Problems can arise when a case goes wrong or even if it goes right—which means it went wrong for someone on the other side. Or characters may seek to influence a case.

Medical. The protagonist here is a doctor, medical examiner, or a medical or scientific researcher. The lead character may have to prevent a health disaster such as an Ebola outbreak. The antagonist may get unexpected help from a disease or pathogen, something that takes on a life of its own and goes beyond even what the antagonist had planned.

Supernatural. When the paranormal is involved, you’ve got a supernatural thriller. Think of stories that feature psychics, ghosts, or witches either causing problems or solving them.

Technological. Thrillers with cool new gadgets and hardware playing major roles are techno-thrillers. Think robots and computers and machines that either seek to take over the world or can be used to do so. Think too of gadgets that can defeat those other machines.

Suspense

Suspense and thrillers share elements, but there are differences between the genres. Danger may not be as apparent or may not be present right away in a suspense novel. As the story builds, so does the danger. Suspense stories tend to be less focused on action, action, action and more concerned with anticipation—what’s going to happen next? Suspense gets the reader both thinking and feeling. Action is not absent, however. But while action scene follows action scene in a thriller and while there might be lulls between strong and thrilling moments, suspense is more a steady build, a build toward a big climax. There will be high points along the way, of course. But the reader knows that it, that one moment, will be bigger still.

Suspense stories are appealing because we like being scared and on edge, but in a safe way. We like the gradual build toward something we fear or anticipate. Suspense makes the reader use his imagination.

Science Fiction or SF or Sci-fi

When you think sci-fi, you probably also think future and strange new worlds, typical elements of the science fiction genre. You could just as easily think of space travel, aliens, parallel worlds and alternate history. And you shouldn’t forget steampunk.

Science fiction deals with possibilities that don’t yet exist but one day might. So warp speed and travel through worm holes and terra-forming are all legitimate plot concerns for sci-fi. Sci-fi deals with advancements in science and technology and their effects on humanity.

The particulars of societies and worlds in science fiction may be the direct result of the practices of an earlier era. So you may find a post-apocalyptic Earth or space travelers looking for a new planet if Earth was destroyed by man’s greed or stupidity. Or exploration might have led to contact with aliens, bringing several species into relationships, good and bad. World building can be quite complex and detailed in science fiction.

Sci-fi takes readers to other worlds, worlds that haven’t yet been destroyed by man. They give us hope that we can yet get it right or that we can fix what we did wrong. Sci-fi also lets us push our imaginations beyond the boundaries of what we can see in front of us. Sci-fi tells readers it’s okay to dream. And dream about the impossible.

Sci-fi sub-genres

Aliens. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. If the novel features creatures or beings from another planet or world, the sub-genre is aliens. The presence of aliens can be helpful or harmful to other characters.

Time Travel. In sci-fi time travel, characters typically use some kind of machine to travel either backward or forward in time. Characters may be stuck where they end up, or they may be able to travel at will.

Alternate History. Alternate history explores what might have been had people developed differently or had an event happened in a different way or not have happened at all. These stories feature worlds or lands that developed in a noticeably different way from our own world. Think what if. What if Hitler hadn’t killed himself? What if Julius Caesar wasn’t killed? What if the Chinese had settled in North America before the Europeans? What if a great world or religious leader had not been born? What if a particularly nasty person from history hadn’t been defeated or had escaped to another land?

Parallel History. Parallel history imagines multiple versions of the same world. In this sub-genre, there could be two (or more) of the same world, where characters have made different decisions and so those worlds are filled with the same people but different events and reactions.

Space Opera. The term space opera once had negative connotations—as a reference to poorly written sci-fi—but it has become an accepted term that refers to adventure stories that take place in space or on distant worlds. Think big—large casts and large events and big battles.

Space Western. A type of space opera, the space western simply moves the elements of American Westerns to space. Gunslingers in space.

Hard SF. Hard science fiction novels include elements of the natural sciences: astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics. Technology in books of the genre is based on what we know of these natural science fields and must be accurate. Think mathematics and the scientific method.

Soft SF. Soft science fiction is based on the social sciences—anthropology, history, psychology, and sociology, among others. These stories focus more on the people and their relationships than does hard SF. Think relationships—their causes and what makes them work or not work.

Steampunk. Steampunk can be alternate history, showing what might have happened had steam and not electricity powered much of the world’s innovations. Steampunk features steam-powered machines of every kind, not merely those that were originally run on steam. Think mechanized props and settings. Fantasy worlds, where steam developed on its own in place of other technologies, can also figure in this sub-genre. Stories may use a Victorian setting or Victorian trappings in a different world. Some steampunk is set in the American West. Think dirigibles and goggles (protective eyewear) and gears and yes, steam. Clothing fashions are distinctive, as are architectural styles. Steampunk has a look and a feel different from other science fiction, and both play major roles in the stories. A lot of the flavor for steampunk comes from the setting details.

Fantasy

Fantasy is often paired with science fiction, but it is different. Fantasy features creatures or beings that don’t exist in our real world and/or includes magic or the supernatural. In some stories the supernatural is hidden in the real world, and the presence of mythical creatures or the use of magic is a surprise to real-world characters. In other novels, the entire world is a fantasy world, with characters accepting magic as a matter of course. Think mythological creatures come to life. Think dragons or faeries, unicorns or elves. Think sword and sorcery. Think vampires and werewolves and shape shifters as major characters, even as protagonists.

Many fantasy novels feature elements from the medieval world, even if they don’t take place in a true medieval setting. The protagonist may prove to be a true hero, the savior of her family line or her people or her world. The supernatural or paranormal or the magic plays a major role in a fantasy, affecting setting, character and plot.

Like sci-fi, fantasy encourages readers to imagine new worlds and creatures. It also shows us ways to get along with those different from us.

Fantasy sub-genres

Urban Fiction. These stories take place in cities and often feature the supernatural or paranormal hidden among those who are unaware. Urban fantasy can take place in the present, the past, or the future. Stories may feature butt-kicking heroines who protect their city from all supernatural creatures or may feature one race of creatures who protect their world, including mostly clueless humans, from another race of creatures.

Arthurian. These stories feature characters from King Arthur’s world, including the knights of the Round Table, Merlin, Guinevere, and Arthur himself. The setting may or may not include Camelot.

Quest. The protagonist is on a quest to find something or reach a place or save someone/something.

Medieval. These stories feature medieval settings and sensibilities. You’re likely to encounter dragons and swords—magic or natural—and characters who can cast spells.

Horror

Horror is often paired with sci-fi though, like fantasy, it is a recognizable genre of its own. The accent of horror stories is on the emotions—fear, dread, terror, and horror—of both characters and readers. Horror novels can feature monsters or psychological terrors. The monsters can be human, evil men and women, or supernatural creatures. A key element is the story’s tone, which is often dark, although a story may not begin that way. Readers read horror novels to be frightened.

Horror hits our emotions in a strong way, shaking us. It makes us feel. Readers can be terrified and yet walk away safely. Horror helps us face our fears and gives us ways to conquer them or at least shows us that those fears might not be as debilitating as we’d thought them to be.

Western

Westerns are typically set in the American West of the late 19th century, after the Civil War. Features include Western towns, frontier lawmen, and hard living. Characters may include townspeople, ranchers, Civil War soldiers, saloon keepers, prostitutes, the schoolmarm, preachers, marshals, bandits, gunslinger, cowboys, and native Americans from any number of tribes. The protagonist is often a loner.

Plots may center on westward expansion or crimes—train and stagecoach robberies—or on lifestyle practices—preacher vs. saloon owner—or on different outlooks for use of the land—ranching, farming, mining, railroads. The emphasis is often on the swift application of frontier justice. Settings may be frontier towns, military forts, or Native American villages. Westerns often feature a showdown—protagonist against antagonist—as the climax. Endings are usually unambiguous—readers know who walks away and who does not.

There are a few Western sub-genres, but space Westerns may be one of the most recognizable. Think of these stories as cowboys or gunslingers in space. The setting is different, but the major elements of the Western are included, especially a strong sense of justice, of making things right or dealing with bad guys in the here and now.

Readers can come to Westerns for the era and the feel of the setting, but they like to see justice done, often immediately, at the hands of the protagonist.

Literary

Literary fiction is often contrasted to genre fiction, but it can be considered a genre of its own. Many types of novels are included under the literary fiction umbrella, but one description of them is that literary novels are those not included in the other genre categories. While that’s not a definition, it can be a useful starting place.

Literary novels, with their focus on character emotion and growth and concerns, stand in contrast to much of genre fiction and its emphasis on plot and action.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no character growth in genre fiction and no plot events in literary fiction. It does mean that, in general, the balance of these elements is different between the two types of stories.

The pace in literary fiction is often slower than in genre fiction and more time/emphasis/page space is given to psychological issues and the thoughts, emotions, and insights of the major character. Think journey of self-discovery. Think of a character coming to terms with himself and his world.

When the word literature is used, the reference is often toward literary rather than genre novels. These are more likely the stories considered classics and those studied in college and high school literature and English classes. One major focus is on style—elegant writing, whether sparse or lush. A second focus is on what’s happening within the main character’s mind. The story is less about what’s happening in the character’s outer world and more about what’s happening in his inner world—his responses and growth and his understanding of his own motivations.

The purpose of literary novels is not only to entertain, but to bring characters and readers to an understanding of a universal truth. We read these stories for the beauty of the language and to learn, or verify, something about ourselves. Literary novels appeal to our psyches. They can make us both think and feel and help us draw connections between feelings and thoughts.

Romance

Modern romances feature the relationship between the main characters. The stories may be sweet depictions of young love or hard-core sex romps or stories at any level in between the extremes.

Romances are typically the story of how two lovers meet, woo, and finally decide to stay together. While traditional romances up to the very recent past featured a hero and heroine as co-protagonists and most stories still follow that format, romances can now include same-sex couples and multiple partners of either sex.

While romances may have secondary plots, the main thrust is the romantic relationship of the lead characters. Modern romances almost always have a happily ever after (HEA)—there are few exceptions to this rule. Even if the couple does not marry by the end of the book, the ending is upbeat and hopeful. The emphasis is on love—finding it, recognizing it, keeping it.

Levels of sex vary across the genre, even within sub-genres. In some romances, sex may not even be implied. In other books, the reader may be stopped at the bedroom door. In other stories, the sex is shown, but the  tone is romantic. In still other stories, the sex is graphically portrayed.

Romance encourages readers, shows us that love is possible and powerful. Readers come to romance to see problems overcome by love. Romances allow readers to see possibilities. And yes, readers come for the sex.

Romance sub-genres

Inspirational. The hero and heroine are people whose religious faith is part of the story line. That faith may keep them apart at the beginning, yet bring them together at the end of the story, or it may be a unifier for the length of the story. Inspirationals typically have limited sexual talk or situations, though there are exceptions.

Suspense. In romantic suspense, the suspense is integral to the story, but the romance still comes first. So even though hero and heroine may face danger, that danger leads to love. Or at least it doesn’t stop it. Think romance with mystery or intrigue—spy stories or stories in which the heroine must be protected by a man with the skills to do so—a policeman or special forces operative or spy.

Erotic. In terms of sex, erotic romance is the opposite of the inspirational; sex plays a major role in the story. Sexual positions, novel locations for sex, multiple partners, and different sexual practices all may feature in erotic romance. A novel may feature one couple in many sexual situations or show hero(es) or heroine(s) with multiple sex partners. The sex is not hidden—no closed doors here. Sex is a major component of the story, yet since the novel is a romance, love and relationships are still key. Erotic romances may include fetishism, BDSM, sexual fantasies, masturbation, the use of sex toys, sex clubs, and sex in public. The language may be graphic, but it doesn’t have to be. A major intent of erotic romance is to titillate the reader.

Paranormal. Paranormal romance features supernatural creatures in major roles. Vampires, werewolves, shape shifters, ghosts, the Fae, Greek (or Roman Hindu, or Norse) gods,  and mythological creatures can be hero, heroine, antagonist, and secondary characters. Magic and supernatural abilities may also be a major element, so you might find witches and warlocks, sorcerers, psychics, and other mystics in a paranormal romance as well.

Contemporary. Contemporary romances take place within a few years of today. They feature characters dealing with a world close to ours. The era is the current one and settings feature places at least somewhat familiar to readers, though the locale may be a foreign country. Characters can hold any job or position available in our real world, and some contemporary romance series feature heroes (or heroines) from one occupation or group—firefighters, police officers, race car drivers, Navy Seals, and so forth.

Historical. Historicals are romances placed in a recognizable era/setting prior to World War II. Historicals are noted for attention to detail, but the best historicals don’t dwell on the differences between the story’s setting and our own time—characters are as at home in their world as we are in ours. What’s unusual to us—objects in their homes, modes of transportation, social mores—are common to them. Historicals may feature famous people from history in either major or minor roles, or they may not mention real people even by reference. Readers are typically drawn by the era. There are many sub-genres of historical romance; if you can imagine featuring a particular age in a romance, there’s probably a sub-genre for it.

Regency. The Regency romance is a sub-genre of historical romance, but since it’s a major category of its own, I’ve included it here.

Britain’s Regency was the period from 1811 until 1820, when the Prince of Wales ruled in his father’s stead. Mad King George III suffered from mental illness and was pronounced unfit to rule. His son served as Regent until George died. Some Regencies extend the period to beyond 1820, even up to 1837 when Victoria became queen. Regencies are characterized by character adherence to society rules and typically feature members of the British upper class, often titled men and women. Genre conventions are well known by readers and include era-specific dress and grooming styles, proper social address, society rules, Parliament’s schedule, and the highlights and rules of the social season.

Sex can be explicit or can take place behind closed doors. Stories typically take place in London or other locations in Great Britain but may also be set in other locales, as long as other elements of the Regency era are included.

Adventure

Adventure novels feature action and danger. They may be quest stories, and they’re fast moving. Think of stories where the protagonist is actively involved and in motion. The main character may be on a long quest, but he’s also involved in event after event after event in the short term. Adventures can be not only dangerous but fun and exciting. The main character is actively and physically involved in his story world, a world often quite different from his everyday world.

Little attention or page time is given to character introspection. These are stories about going and doing.

Adventure stories allow readers to do and see—experience—what they could never see in the course of their normal days. They let readers experience what it’s like to lead others into action. They let readers play the hero.

Women’s fiction

Woman’s fiction is distinct from romance. These are books written specifically for women, feature a female protagonist, and don’t necessarily fall into one of the other categories. Think chick-lit on the humor side or books that feature a female protagonist dealing with an issue rather than events. So novels that feature a woman’s experience with divorce or a disease or her relationship with a best friend, child, or sister might well be women’s fiction.

The stories can be serious or light-hearted, can include romantic elements, though typically as seen through the eyes of the woman only, and may delve into a woman’s insights or growth. Women’s fiction could be spiritual or humorous or even a work of satire. The accent is typically on what the female character thinks, feels, intuits, or discovers rather than on external story events, though those are often the trigger for her insights and discoveries.

With women’s fiction, readers can laugh about serious issues and be assured that others have encountered the same problems and overcome them.

True crime

True crime is not technically fiction, but true crime stories bolster real events with supposed or imagined or probable events that can’t be proved or disproved. Dialogue and some events are often, by necessity, made up. True crime reads like a novel, with all the elements of fiction, to keep readers involved. They feature sensational or unusual or well-publicized crimes, typically murders.

Young adult or YA

Young adult fiction is written specifically for readers 12 to 18 (some say 21 or 25). Stories of any genre find their way into YA. The protagonist is usually a teen dealing with life-changing issues, issues that may overwhelm the character. The action and challenges to the character often need immediate attention—at least the character thinks so—and he or she likely has trouble solving the problem.

YA protagonists may seek others to help with their issues or they may allow embarrassment to drive them to solve their problems on their own.

Young adult stories feature teens and young adults finding their way through what is essentially a changing and unfamiliar world. Issues include school, jobs, friendships, family, sex, separation from parents, fear of the future, and death.

Young adult novels reflect the reality of a child’s transition to an adult world, which includes making decisions when faced with a variety of choices. Characters still carry the self-centeredness of children, at least in the beginning of the book, and may slowly (or quickly) learn the often shocking lesson that the world does not revolve around them. The focus is on how the main character fits into the bigger world, on the moments when the character notices that larger world—and its beauty and danger and possibilities and scope—for the first time.

Because characters may feel the impact from many issues—because their eyes are now open to those many issues—stories can be layered and complex.

Middle Reader

Middle readers are books for kids ages 8 to 12, children who are beyond the chapter books used by beginning readers (although some consider chapter books as middle readers). Stories typically focus on the people and places close to the main character—home life, school, and friends. Because children of this age are more concerned with only what directly has an impact on them (they’re still protected by parents and other authority figures), the characters in middle readers will not be aware of a lot of external issues. Thus the stories are not overly complex, with layers of issues, but focus primarily on one issue.

Children’s Fiction

Fiction for younger children includes picture books, early readers, and chapter books. Specifics for children’s books  are well beyond the scope of this article. If you intend to write books for young children and those first learning to read, you’d do well to study what’s available now and research how children learn.

Writing novels for young readers is much more than a matter of choosing age-appropriate words.

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These are the major fiction genres and sub-genres. There are variations, but it’s likely your novels will fit in one of these categories. My advice is that you learn the peculiarities of the genre you want to write in. Learn, too, what doesn’t fit a genre. And then get writing. Write the story that only you can tell.

Read Part 1, the intro to Defining Genre.

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Tags: ,     Posted in: Definitions, Writing Essentials

13 Responses to “Defining Genre Part 2 (Writing Essentials)”

  1. Beth – GREAT breakdown. When I saw your first post in this series, I was holding my breath for this one. Thank you for taking the time to hash these definitions and delineations out!

    Have a great week.

  2. Vero says:

    I love your posts, Beth, and this is one of the most comprehensive lists of genre definitions I’ve ever read.

    Thank you so much for the hard work of bringing these classifications together in a single place, and in such a way as to offer a great point of future reference. Great job!

  3. You’re welcome, Becky. I would’ve posted them back to back, but didn’t want subscribers getting multiple e-mail notices on the same day. I hope the breakdowns prove useful.

  4. This is, hands-down, THE most informative blogpost on writing I’ve read in months (maybe years!). I’m working on a mystery that might be categorized as cozy mystery or suspense…trying to figure it out! Thanks for the breakdown!

  5. Vero, thank you very much.

    Some of my articles are quite long for blog posts, but sometimes you really want more than the barest of basics. Here’s hoping writers and editors and teachers and students can find what they need here.

  6. Heather, how nice of you to say so. Thanks.

    If you want your story to open with the discovery of a body and then your amateur sleuth is a busybody who gets into everyone’s business, then you probably want to gear your story toward a cozy. Cozies can have suspense, but they could also be humorous.

    If there’s been no murder but there’s the possibility of it or of something else dire, then consider steering your story toward suspense. (Though there might well be a murder in a suspense story.) In a cozy the accent is on solving the mystery that opens the story. In suspense the accent is on the anticipation and being on edge.

  7. Heather, you are welcome. I’m glad to have you here; I hope you’ll find what you need for your writing.

  8. Denise Baer says:

    This is great! Thanks so much for this breakdown. I had no idea what genre my current WIP is but reading over what you posted, I’m going to have to say Women’s Fiction.

  9. Denise, knowing the genre will not only help when you approach publishers but it should also help as you rewrite and self-edit. I’m glad the article was helpful.

  10. Ron says:

    I found your description of a literary novel very helpful. I also see that you did not include a historical novel category. Question: Discounting the fact that it was written by Herman Wouk, how would you categorize The Caine Mutiny? It seems to fit your description of a literary novel with ‘focus on character emotion and growth and concerns . . . in contrast to emphasis on plot and action.’

    • Ron, I’ll have to answer your question as one who knows a little about The Caine Mutiny but who hasn’t read it.

      To start with, it doesn’t fit the traditional definition for a historical (and thanks for pointing out I’d skipped that category; I’ll add it to the article). While we might look at it from our perspective as being historical, when Wouk wrote it, the war was just over. The book’s setting was nearly in the present for Wouk. Historicals usually feature a story set at least 50 years in the past at the time of the writing. (While this has commonly been part of the definition of historicals, apparently some people today consider any story set in a recognizable period from the past to be a historical, even if it was a contemporary story at the time it was written.)

      Historicals also draw more from necessary research than from the experience of the writer. Wouk used his experiences with minesweepers from the war and his experiences with military men for his story. He wasn’t writing a historical, but a war story from the perspective of a man who’d lived it.

      If the book was written today, it would be considered a historical novel.

      It can definitely be considered a war novel or military fiction. Military fiction is a different kind of category in that military thrillers, military historic fiction, and military literary novels might all be military fiction but some would be considered literary and some considered genre novels.

      I can’t say from personal experience that The Caine Mutiny is literary fiction, but given its Pulitzer, it’s a good bet that it is.

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