Genre fiction is also known as popular, commercial or category fiction. It's usually sold in the form of mass-market paperbacks, with only the bestselling authors being published in hardcover first.
Broadly speaking, genre fiction places...
That isn't to say that commercial fiction can't contain three-dimensional characters, a strong theme and high-quality prose – because it can and does. But fans of genre novels are first and foremost after a good, entertaining read. And to achieve that, the novelist must always put the story first.
Ask anybody in the business of fiction what the genres are and you probably won't get the same answer twice. And these are people whose job it is to know!
Sure, they'll agree on the main genres (horror, romance, etc.), but not on the dozens of sub-genres (and sub-sub-genres). Why?
Partly because there are just so many of these sub-genres. And partly because they're forever changing as more new books hit the market and readers' tastes change.
Because every writer is unique, there are as many categories of novels as there are novelists. But it's possible, of course, to lump writers into similar groups.
Two of those groups are literary and mainstream writers. Genre novelists are a third group. In turn, they can be broken down into countless groups and sub-groups, some of which I've covered below.
Only some? If I covered every conceivable category, this article would be a book by itself. I've covered most of the biggies, but apologies if I've missed out your favorite niche.
Also note that genres change all the time (as readers' tastes change), so the only way to keep up to date with what is hot (and what is not) is to spend an unhealthy amount of time hanging out in bookstores, real or online. But then you probably do that anyway!
Here we go...
Mystery novels revolve around the investigation of a crime, usually murder, by some form of amateur or professional detective. The body tends to be discovered very close to the beginning of the novel, and the bulk of the action then concerns the detective's attempts to discover the identity of the murderer.
There will be several twists and turns along the way, usually in the form of more murders and principal suspects turning out to be innocent, but the detective will solve the mystery eventually and bring the guilty to justice.
The key point to remember is that mystery novels are precisely that: a mystery (or a puzzle), and fans of this genre of fiction delight in trying to solve the puzzle before the investigator does.
It is the mystery novelist's responsibility, therefore, to play fair with his or her audience, and this means providing clues (cleverly hidden ones, of course) for the reader to discover along the way.
The thing that often differentiates one sub-genre of mystery writing from the next is the variety of investigator used. Here are some of the possibilities...
Another element which separates one genre of mystery fiction from another is the setting. If your detective is a doctor or a lawyer, you'll obviously employ a medical or legal setting. If your detective is Miss Marple (or a modern version of her), you might choose a sleepy English village.
And setting doesn't just mean profession or place. For example, you can define your novels equally well by setting them in the past: Victorian London or Ancient Rome or Medieval France perhaps.
If your setting is distinctive enough, and if no writer has used it before, you could well carve out a new genre of mystery fiction all of your own!
Although "crime" and "mystery" are often used interchangeably, mysteries are technically about the solving of a crime by some form of detective, while crime novels are told from the viewpoint of the criminals themselves.
Traditionally, it's the police who are the "goodies" and the criminals who are the "baddies," but all that is turned on its head in crime fiction. Although we, as readers, don't altogether sympathize with the criminals' plans, we nevertheless find ourselves rooting for them.
The crime can be murder or any criminal activity that you choose, though typically it involves a bank heist. Mafia novels are also crime novels, with Mario Puzo's The Godfather being the most famous example.
Crime novels can have...
There is a difference between suspense fiction and thrillers (which I'll talk about lower down), but for now think of them as being the same.
They are both characterized by tension and excitement, and a sense of impending tragedy if the hero should fail in their quest. They are much more dependent on action than mystery fiction, and are usually densely plotted with many clever twists and turns along the way.
Typically, these novels feature a protagonist, male or female, battling a villainous enemy, and their own safety, and perhaps the safety of society as a whole, depends on their success.
Thrillers and suspense novels tend to be longer than mysteries and feature more involved and complex storylines, often told from the viewpoints of several characters. They frequently take place in exotic settings, such as foreign cities or the high seas.
Some of the many sub-genres include...
You'll notice that some of the examples were ones I mentioned as being crime or mystery novels. That's because thrillers are notorious for overlapping with other genres of fiction. For example...
Grisham and Cornwell are usually categorized as thriller writers, but not le Carré. Why? Essentially because of their mood or tone – Grisham and Cornwell place great emphasis on action, le Carré less so.
If a novel's overriding purpose is to thrill and excite, it is probably a suspense novel or a thriller. If the pace is more sedate and there is an important puzzle element, it is mystery fiction.
So are suspense novels the same as thrillers?
Suspense is usually mentioned in the same breath as thrillers, though the pace in suspense fiction tends to be less intense, and the threat or danger tends to be directed solely at the protagonist, and not to the wider community.
In some ways, suspense novels are closer in style to mysteries than thrillers – and indeed, many mysteries are tagged as suspense novels ("psychological suspense," for example).
Mystery fiction, crime fiction, thrillers, suspense novels – if you plan to write a novel somewhere in this field, you'll probably find that your book contains elements of them all...
Most crime novels contain an element of suspense and a few thrills along the way. Many thrillers have a mystery or a puzzle somewhere at the heart of the plot.
If that leaves you unsure how to market yourself, then here are some rules of thumb...
If your novel contains a puzzle to be solved, usually a murder, you are writing mystery fiction. This is the classic whodunit. But if the puzzle element ("whodunit?") takes second place to a fast-paced plot, it is straying into thriller territory. Here, the plot isn't so much about "whodunit" as "howcatchthem."
If the story is told from the point of view of the criminal or criminals, it's a crime novel. Then, depending on the tone of the novel, you might label it a crime thriller, a suspense novel, or even a crime caper if the mood is comic.
Bottom line? Don't worry too much about precise labels. The easiest thing is to take a novel similar to the one you plan to write and see how it is categorized in bookstores.
The defining characteristic of horror fiction is simply the intention to frighten readers by exploiting their fears. It aims to evoke a combination of fear, fascination and revulsion in readers.
Essentially, this genre is about the battle between good and evil. Even more essentially, it's about the things that scare us, and a way of giving form to the more amorphous fears of our lives.
Over the years, as readers' tastes have shifted, horror fiction has moved from stories with a religious or supernatural basis to more psychological stories. The novels often begin with the real and the commonplace, but the main characters are soon under threat from an evil force.
Here is a definition from Robert McCammon, one of the founders of the Horror Writers Association...
Horror fiction upsets apple carts, burns old buildings, and stampedes the horses; it questions and yearns for answers, and it takes nothing for granted. It's not safe, and it probably rots your teeth, too. Horror fiction can be a guide through a nightmare world, entered freely and by the reader's own will. And since horror can be many, many things and go in many, many directions, that guided nightmare ride can shock, educate, illuminate, threaten, shriek, and whisper before it lets the readers loose.
Make of that what you will!
My best tip? If writing a horror novel appeals to you, figure out what scares you the most – perhaps something tangible, perhaps something psychological – then put a name or a face to it.
Science fiction concerns things that could conceivably be possible. Fantasy fiction (which we'll look at next) concerns the inherently impossible.
Science fiction is defined more by its setting than by other story elements (such as plot or characters). The novels might be set in a future version of earth, in a past version of earth that contradicts known history, in outer space, or under the ocean.
Science and technology always lays at the core of these novels – not science and technology as we know it, but a theoretical version of it, such as time travel, which goes against the known laws of nature (at least at the time of writing!)
It goes without saying, therefore, that you need to be just as interested in science and technology as you are in creative writing.
Science fiction is sometimes referred to as "speculative fiction," simply because it speculates about what might be. (And, incidentally, it's often proved right. There were novels about man landing on the moon long before man actually landed on the moon!)
Here are some of the sub-genres to consider...
Like I said above, fantasy fiction deals with the inherently impossible. It is usually set in fanciful, invented worlds or alternate realities, or in a legendary and mythic past.
The fantasy world will be a scientifically impossible one, but will nevertheless have its own internal logic and "laws." Magic, mysticism and the supernatural all play a large part.
Fantasy fiction frequently overlaps with science fiction and horror fiction, although there are clear differences...
When writing a fantasy novel (or probably a whole series of them), your novel's protagonists might start in the real world and be drawn into the fantasy world, or the story might occur totally in the fantasy setting.
Alternatively, the novel might be set in an ostensibly ordinary world into which the fantasy element leaks.
If you aspire to write fantasy fiction, you are limited only by your imagination and your ability to create an entire world, including the rules that govern it and the creatures that populate it. Check out these tips from the author of Game of Thrones.
Romantic fiction is currently the largest and bestselling genre of fiction. It's also the most diverse category, in terms of the sheer number of sub-genres that it contains. Identify the sub-genre that most appeals to you and then familiarize yourself with its demands through reading and analysis.
Some fiction genres are stricter than others in terms of the "conventions," or rules, of that genre (more on this lower down), and romantic fiction is the strictest of them all.
Each publishing house has very specific requirements as to preferred length, the type of heroine and hero favored, the degree of acceptable sexual content, and so on. And it's your job to learn these conventions.
Even if you go down the self-publishing route, you'll still need to learn the "formulas" that fans of romantic fiction love.
Although romantic fiction has many, many sub-genres, they all tend to have the following "conventions" in common...
Now for some of the principal sub-genres...
If romance is kind of your thing but you want to create a novel that's a little edgier, you might also consider what publishers call "women's fiction."
Women's fiction isn't actually one of the fiction genres at all, in the sense that it is governed by no strict conventions and will be shelved with all the general literary and mainstream fiction. But it's worth mentioning here because it is a term you may see used.
The reason it has a sub-category all to itself is that, well, women are the biggest book buyers, and they therefore have novels marketed directly at them (though I for one am a big fan of many so-called women's writers like Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman and Fannie Flagg).
What defines women's fiction? It's essentially mainstream fiction – meaning the focus is on the commonplace dramas of our everyday lives. It tends to have one or more female protagonists at the core of the novel, often triumphing over tough circumstances.
And the subject matter tends to be something women will relate to more than men, so they are more likely to be about relationships, for example, than cars or football. Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistlestop Café is a perfect example of this type of novel.
Historical fiction isn't actually one of the fiction genres at all, though it's frequently called one.
Its principal characteristic is obviously the fact that it is set in the past, but the best way to categorize these novels is by whatever element lays at the novel's core – crime, romance, and so on. The best way to label your book, therefore, is not as an historical novel, but as an "historical romance" or an "historical murder-mystery" (or whatever).
The exception is if you write a non-genre historical novel – in that case, you'll have written a pure historical novel, one that will be categorized as either mainstream or literary fiction.
All historical novels take place during a notable period in history, and often during a significant event within that period. The protagonist might be an historical figure, or they might be an ordinary person (with the odd famous historical figure appearing in the background).
You will be permitted a certain degree of artistic licence, though you can't deviate significantly from the historical facts. Accurate period details are paramount, meaning research is a vital part of the novel writing process.
If romantic fiction is largely aimed at women, action and adventure novels are the most "macho" of the fiction genres.
Simply put, the action and adventure genre is escapist, undemanding and fantasy-fulfilling entertainment. Deep characterization is not at a premium, which is probably why this genre isn't held in particularly high regard (except by its thousands of fans, of course).
Action/adventure novels have a fast-paced plot full of physical action and violence. They are usually based around a quest, where the hero (or group of heroes) must achieve some specific goal in the face of extreme danger – to himself/themselves and, quite possibly, to the wider community.
They are often set in places like jungles or deserts or tropical islands.
Action and adventure novels frequently overlap with other genres, such as historical novels and thrillers.
Western fiction is about life on America's post civil war western frontier (that is, west of the Mississippi).
The conflicts are usually between cowboys and natives ("Indians," to be politically incorrect) or cowboys and outlaws, and revolve around issues such as land, cattle, and mines.
Westerns were once very popular, with writers like Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour leading the way. Their popularity began to decline in the 1970s (for movies, too), and it's declining still. But there is nothing to stop you, and other like-minded writers, from reviving it!
I'm not an expert on all of the genres of fiction (nobody possibly can be), and with fiction for young readers I am seriously stepping out of my comfort zone – more so the younger the readers are. Now, don't get me wrong...
All of the advice at Novel Writing Help is still totally relevant to you if you decide to specialize in non-adult fiction.
My job is to teach folks how to write any novel – and, yes, the "rules" of novel writing apply to all novels. But each of the categories (and sub-categories) of genre fiction comes with some very specific demands and requirements, and you will need to do further research on these. (More on this lower down.)
Children will read picture books up to the age of 5, "early reader" books from 5-7, and "chapter books" from 7-12 (they increase in complexity the older the target audience).
Fiction aimed at teenage children is called young adult fiction.
Writing for children and young adults is a very specialized area of fiction, even more so than for all of the other genres I've been talking about, and there really is no substitute for selecting your target age-range and then studying novels aimed at that range in great depth.
What if your novel spans several genres?
Then you must decide what the principal focus of your novel is. So if you write a horror novel with a large dose of romance thrown in, you need to decide if the central thrust of your plot is the horror element or the romance.
The reason it is important to know your specific genre is that all novels within a genre will share similar characteristics, or elements that fans of that category will expect your novel to contain. Your novel must also contain these elements if you want to keep the fans happy.
These characteristics are known as a genre's "conventions." Let's look at them in more detail...
Conventions are those elements of a particular category of fiction that fans expect all novels within that category to contain. So in a traditional detective novel, for example, fans will expect...
And so on and so forth...
What's the purpose of all the different conventions in all the different fiction genres? It all boils down to business...
If there is an established group of readers who buy medieval murder mysteries, for example, publishing a new medieval murder mystery which follows the same basic pattern as all the others (but is still original) makes great commercial sense.
If there is a ready-made market already there, why risk losing that market by changing the "formula" too much?
Indeed, where the conventions of a particular fiction category are extremely tight – like in some sub-genres of romantic fiction, for example – it is known as "formula" fiction.
How do you discover the conventions of your chosen genre? By reading as many novels from within that genre, especially recently-published ones, as you can.
If you've been reading your favorite category of fiction for years, you will already have absorbed most of the "rules" of what is and is not permissible. If you are new to your genre, there is no time like now to start reading!
What should you look out for as you read? Basically, elements which all of the novels on your reading list have in common. Here's an idea of the sorts of things to look out for...
The idea is that, by studying lots of novels similar to the one you plan to write, a picture will emerge of what readers of these novels expect.
Just remember that some fiction conventions are far stricter than others (notably, for romantic novels). If you come up with a very specific list of common elements, you have chosen a strict genre. If you have only a few common denominators on your list, you will have much more freedom.
There really is no substitute for studying the market you intend to enter in considerable detail. Besides reading, though, there are a couple of other ways to find out what is permissible, and what isn't, in your intended category...
First, you can contact the publishers of the novels you've been reading for research to ask if they have any "writers' guidelines" or "tip sheets" for your particular category (do this even if you plan to self-publish).
The stricter the conventions of the genre, the more likely it is that publishers will have them (romance publishers certainly do).
Second, you can read "how to" books dedicated to your chosen category and written by experts in their field. These specialist books will contain a lot of general novel writing advice (the kind you get from me and that applies to all novels, of whatever genre). But there will be enough genre-specific information to make tracking down a copy worthwhile.
My best tip? Hop on over to Amazon and search for "How to write [your category]" in the books department. Then buy a title or two. Favor those that have been published most recently and have a ton of positive reviews.
Okay, so having chosen which of the genres most appeals to you, and having studied published novels to learn the conventions, the next step is to decide how closely (or not) you will follow the conventions.
You'll be walking a very thin line here...
In short, you need to push the boundaries to make your novel stand out. (Get it right and you might even succeed in creating a brand new sub-genre all of your own, one which future novel writers will mimic.) But you don't want to push the boundaries so far that you alienate fans of the genre.
The only other thing to say is that you're free to ignore the conventions totally if you wish. But remember, do that and you are no longer writing genre fiction.
If you write romantic fiction, for example, but you find all the conventions too restrictive, write your novel any way you choose...
But when you sell the novel, market it as mainstream or literary fiction.
This is bad in the sense that you'll be turning your back on a ready-made genre audience, but good in the sense that your book will potentially appeal to a much wider, more general audience.
Just don't fall between the gaps...
If your novel is not conventional enough to appeal to fans of the genre, but too much like a conventional genre novel to attract a mainstream or literary audience, your novel may not find an audience at all.