What Is Genre Fiction?
Genre fiction is also known as popular, commercial or category fiction. It is usually sold in the form of mass-market paperbacks, with only the big boys and girls (the Stephen Kings and Ruth Rendells of this world) being published in hardback first.
I'm speaking generally here, but genre fiction places a greater emphasis on plot than literary fiction or mainstream fiction...
And it places less emphasis on characterization, the exploration of theme, and "fine" writing.
This isn't to say that commercial fiction can't contain three-dimensional characters, an undercurrent of meaning in the form of a 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 novel writer must always keep his or her readers in mind and put the story first.
Ask anybody who is anybody in the world of writing what the fiction genres are and you probably won't get the same answer twice. And these are people whose job it is to know.
Sure, they will agree on the main genres of fiction, but not on the dozens of sub-genres (and sub-sub-genres) within each of the principal genres. Why?
- Partly because there are so many of these sub-genres of fiction.
- And partly because the genres and sub-genres are forever changing as more new books hit the market and readers' tastes change.
The Main Genres of Fiction
In order not to make this article unnecessarily bulky, I will talk about the various genres in detail elsewhere on this site (In me Guide to the Fiction Genres.)
Here, though, is a very brief snapshot of the principal categories you will find in a typical bookstore...
- Crime and Mystery Fiction. Although these terms 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.
- Suspense Novels and Thrillers. If your novel is characterized by action, it is probably a thriller. If it is quieter and more brooding in nature, it's probably a suspense novel. Like I said, though, publishers themselves are not always clear on the categories, so don't lose too much sleep over what to call your novel.
- Horror Fiction. Horror is simply fiction that is designed to frighten readers by playing on their fears. A good technique is to work out what scares you, the writer, and then somehow put a face or a form to it.
- Romantic Fiction. This is one of the strictest genres of fiction, in that you will have to stick closely to what publishers require (more on following the "conventions" later).
- Science Fiction and Fantasy. Again, these are often grouped together, but there is a clear difference. Science fiction deals with things that might someday be possible, while fantasy novels deal with the inherently impossible.
- Historical Fiction. This is obviously fiction that is set in the past, and technically it isn't a genre at all. If your own novel is set in the past, it is better to define it by whatever lies at the novel's core - romance, crime, and so on.
- Action/Adventure Novels. This category is often referred to, somewhat snobbishly, as the male equivalent of romance fiction. The novels are often set in jungles or deserts or war zones, and feature heroes putting themselves in extreme danger. If this is your thing, ignore the snobs and stand up proud!
- Westerns. Sadly, western novels (and movies, too) are rare nowadays. Although they are set in the past (the post-Civil War era), there is nothing to stop you and other writers from making them popular again in the twenty-first century.
- Children's and Young Adult Fiction. Writing for children and young adults is a very specialized area of fiction - even more so than all of the other genres I have mentioned. There really is no substitute for selecting your target age-range (this is critical) and then studying novels aimed at that range in great depth.
Like I said, within each of the principal fictional genres are dozens of sub-genres which are constantly evolving as readers' tastes change over the years. So within the crime genre, for example, you have (to name just three)...
- Detective Fiction
- Private Eye Novels
- Police Procedurals
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 is the horror element, fine.
- If it is 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 - and your novel must also contain these elements if you want to keep the fans happy.
These characteristics are known as a genre's "conventions," and the next article discusses these in more detail: The Conventions of Genre Fiction...