What Is Genre Fiction?

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...

  • a greater emphasis on plot than literary or mainstream fiction, and...
  • less emphasis on characterization, the exploration of theme, and "fine" writing.

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.

The Main Genres (and Sub-Genres) of Fiction

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 Fiction

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...

  • Professional Policeman/woman. In other words, a high-ranking police officer who is officially assigned to the case. They usually have a lower-ranking officer to help them in their investigation (known as a "sidekick") but the majority of the police team investigating the crime will remain more or less in the background.
  • Police Team. Mystery novels involving an entire team's efforts to solve a crime, as opposed to just the principal detective's efforts, are known as "police procedurals." This is the most realistic form of detection a mystery novel can employ (because it's how crimes are investigated in the real world). Due to their emphasis on action, these types of novels are sometimes classified as thrillers.
  • Private Investigator. Not a professional cop, but an investigator-for-hire. This genre of mystery frequently begins with the private eye being hired to investigate a lesser crime than murder – a case involving a cheating spouse, for example. But dead bodies invariably start piling up along the way. These novels also tend to concentrate less on the "puzzle" element and more on action and gritty realism.
  • Amateur Sleuth. These detectives are frequently a local citizen with a personal interest in the investigation. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple is the perfect example. Although this sub-genre of mystery fiction is out of fashion now, there is nothing to stop you bringing it up to date with a little imagination.
  • Professional Sleuth. Not a policeman or woman, but a professional in the arena in which the murder (or other type of crime) occurs. In Dick Francis's novels set in the world of horse racing, for example, the "investigators" are often jockeys or trainers, and they make full use of their insider knowledge to solve the mystery.
  • Doctors and Lawyers. Such professionals are frequently used as detectives in mysteries (think of Quincy on TV solving mysteries with his medical knowledge, or the lawyer Perry Mason). And you're not confined to doctors and lawyers, of course. How about a psychic as a detective? Or an archaeologist investigating ancient crimes?

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!

Crime Fiction

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...

  • a deadly serious tone (as in The Godfather)
  • a comic element (in movie terms, think of Ocean's 11 or The Italian Job – the Michael Caine version)
  • a sinister or psychological edge (for example, Barbara Vine's A Fatal Inversion).

Suspense Novels and Thrillers

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...

  • Action Thrillers (Ian Fleming's James Bond novels)
  • Crime Thrillers (The Godfather)
  • Legal Thrillers (John Grisham)
  • Medical Thrillers (Robin Cook)
  • Political Thrillers (Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal)
  • Eco Thrillers (Nicholas Evans' The Loop)
  • Psychological Thrillers (Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca)
  • Military Thrillers (Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October)

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...

  • Are the legal novels of John Grisham or the police procedurals of Patricia Cornwell mysteries or thrillers?
  • Are the spy novels of John le Carré thrillers?

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).

Confused?

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.

Horror Fiction

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

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...

  • Hard Science Fiction. These novels are characterized by rigorous attention to accurate scientific detail, or on accurately depicting worlds that scientific discoveries might make possible. They are often written by working scientists, and the science is just as important, or more important, than the storytelling. Fascinating, but probably not bestsellers!
  • Soft (or Social) Science Fiction. These novels are not based on science so much as the social sciences, such as psychology and sociology. There is a big emphasis, therefore, on character and emotion.
  • Cyberpunk. These are set in the near-future and depict a high-tech, mechanical future world. In movie terms, think of films like The Matrix and Blade Runner.
  • Alternate History. As the name suggests, these novels are based on the premise that historical events might have turned out differently. Time travel is often used to change the past.
  • Apocalyptic Science Fiction. Another easy one to guess from the name. These novels focus on the end of the world as we know it and/or on what the world is like after the end.
  • First Contact. Contact with aliens, that is. Whereas alien contact has traditionally been adversarial (as in The War Of the Worlds), today it is more likely to be anthropological or sociological in nature.
  • Space Opera. Yup, we're talking Star Wars! Space operas are a kind of romantic adventure featuring good guys against bad guys in spaceships. Everything in them – the settings, the themes, the battles, the characters – tend to be on a very LARGE scale.

Fantasy Fiction

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...

  • Fantasy is distinguished from science fiction by generally steering clear or scientific themes.
  • It's distinguished from horror by generally steering clear of the macabre.

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

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...

  • They feature at their core the love between a man and a woman. (Remember, we're talking "traditional" romantic fiction here.)
  • The bulk of the plot must focus on the man and woman falling in love, and struggling to maintain that love (and not be about a bank robbery, say, that just happens to include a love interest).
  • Fans of the genre demand happy endings. Romantic novels aren't so much about love as a celebration of love – so if you want to write romantic fiction, it's probably better not to be one of life's pessimists!

Now for some of the principal sub-genres...

  • Gothic Romance. The covers of Gothic romances often show a maiden with storm-swept hair. The plots tend to revolve around a young and inexperienced woman living a remote existence – as a visiting relative or new housekeeper in a creepy castle, for example – and being courted or threatened by an evil older man, before being rescued by a valiant hero. There is always an edge of evil in these novels.
  • Historical Romance. Popular locations and periods for historical romances include nineteenth century America, Regency England, and the inter-war years.
  • Contemporary Romance. As the name suggests, these novels are set in the present day and reflect the social mores of the time – hence these stories are more sexually candid than other types of romantic fiction.
  • Romantic Suspense. These novels involve a mystery for the heroine to solve. Typically, the heroine is the victim of a crime, and she works with the hero to solve it (the hero is perhaps a police officer or a bodyguard). The mystery is resolved by the end, and the hero and heroine will become an item. (Don't forget that the relationship itself must be at the heart of the plot, not the mystery.)
  • Fantasy Romance. These take place in other worlds and feature mystical creatures and magical powers. Once again, the romance must always remain to the fore, with the fantasy element coming second.

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

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.

Action and Adventure Novels

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.

Westerns

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!

Children's and Young Adult Fiction

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.

Back to Genre Fiction As a Whole...

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.

  • If it's the horror element, fine.
  • If it's the romance, you are actually writing not a horror novel but a romantic one – a "paranormal romance" or "gothic romance" perhaps.

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...

The Conventions of Genre Fiction

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...

  • A body to turn up in the first three chapters (and preferably sooner).
  • More murders to take place along the way.
  • The writer to provide clues (cleverly hidden ones) and several red herrings.
  • The guilty to be brought to justice by the end (no downbeat or ambiguous endings) through the skills of the detective (not by some lucky break).

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.

Learning the Conventions

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...

  • Do the novels start with a bang, or do they take their time to get going?
  • Where are they generally set?
  • What is the typical hero or heroine like? What is the typical villain like?
  • Are the main characters complicated and contradictory, or more two-dimensional in nature?
  • Do the novels take place over a short time-span or many years?
  • Generally, what is the proportion of dialogue to prose?
  • Is the dialogue in the form of short, sharp lines, or longer speeches?
  • Is there any humor?
  • Are the novels fast-paced all the way through, or are there lots of slower bits in between the action scenes?
  • Do the novels have a romantic sub-plot?
  • Is there any sex? If so, is it graphic or more implied?
  • Is there any swearing? What specific curse words are used? Are they used frequently or just now and again?
  • Are there any other specific characteristics shared by all the novels?

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.

Breaking the Conventions

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...

  • On the one hand, you need to follow the conventions as closely as you can, in order that your novel becomes a recognizable member of its genre and can be marketed as such. (If it isn't recognizable, it will probably sell better if it's marketed as literary or mainstream fiction.)
  • On the other hand, you want your novel to be distinctive within its genre (so it stands out to potential buyers). And the way you do that is by having some element of your novel – the setting, say, or the kind of hero used – be unique, even if it means bending the rules.

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...

  • Make your heroine middle-aged and overweight if you like.
  • Go for an unhappy ending if that's what suits your artistic sensibilities.

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.