Thursday, September 16, 2010



What is genre fiction? Examples of genres in fiction are westerns, romance, thrillers, fantasy, science fiction, action-adventure, horror, and mysteries. If you’re writing a novel and want to get it published by a traditional publisher, it’s important to know which category it will most easily fall into. It’s more likely to be accepted by agents and publishers that way, as then they can package it to highlight the genre, and the bookstores will know which section to display it in. So if you’re writing a historical western romance with mysterious elements, you’ll probably have trouble getting it published. It’s important to make sure one genre predominates over the others, so publishers and booksellers will know how to market and shelve it.

According to Wikipedia, “All fiction is essentially generic, but genre fiction is overtly and intentionally so, signaling its generic identity in the clearest possible terms. A horror novel, for example, makes it clear through its cover design, its blurb, the comments printed on the cover from other novelists, and so on, that it is a horror novel; and it will be shelved in the appropriate place in bookstores.”

Genre fiction is often used interchangeably with the term “popular fiction,” and generally distinguished from “literary fiction.”

Most fiction writing, especially of novel length, does not conform exactly to the conventions of a genre. In fact, there’s actually no consensus as to the exact definitions or conventions of any of the genres of fiction. As Wikipedia states, “Writers, publishers, marketers, booksellers, libraries, academics, critics, and even readers all may have different ways of classifying fiction, and any of these classifications might be termed a genre. […] …the term genre remains amorphous, and the assigning of works to genres is to some extent arbitrary and subjective.”

Genre and the marketing of fiction

In the publishing industry, the term “category fiction” is often used as a synonym for genre fiction, with the categories serving as the familiar shelf headings within the fiction section of a bookstore, such as romance, western, sci-fi, or mystery.

“The uncategorized section [in bookstores] is known in the industry as ‘general fiction,’ but in fact many of the titles in this usually large section are often themselves genre novels that have been placed in the general section because booksellers believe they will appeal, due to their high quality or other special characteristics, to a wider audience than merely the readers of that genre.” (Wikipedia)

Genre fiction and literary fiction

According to Wikipedia, “the term ‘genre fiction’ is sometimes used as a pejorative antonym of literary fiction, which is presumed to have greater artistic merit and higher cultural value. In this view, by comparison with literary fiction, genre fiction is thought to be formulaic, commercial, sensational, melodramatic, and sentimental. By extension, the readers of genre fiction—the mass audience—are supposed to have less educated taste in literature than readers of literary fiction. Genre fiction is then, essentially, thought to be the literature that appeals to the mass market.

“But from another point of view, literary fiction itself is simply another category or genre. That is, it can be thought of as having conventions of its own, such as use of an elevated, poetic, or idiosyncratic prose style; or defying readers’ plot expectations; or making use of particular theoretical or philosophical ideas as well as having a niche audience, ‘generic’ packaging and ‘superstar’ authors. The publishing industry itself treats literary fiction as one category among others.

“In addition, it can be argued that all novels, no matter how ‘literary,’ also fall within the bounds of one or more genres. Thus Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a romance; Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a psychological thriller; and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a coming-of-age story. These novels would usually be stocked in the general or possibly the classics section of a bookstore. Indeed, many works now regarded as literary classics were originally written as genre novels.”


As noted, there are many different ways of labeling and defining fiction genres. Following are some of the main genres as they are used in contemporary publishing. Note that these genres also exist within other age categories besides adults, such as young adult (YA) fiction, middle-school fiction and children’s fiction.

Romance – Romance is currently the largest and best-selling fiction genre in North America. It has produced a wide array of subgenres, the majority of which feature the mutual attraction and love of a man and a woman as the main plot, and have a happy ending. This genre, much like fantasy fiction, is broad enough in definition that it is easily and commonly seen combined with other genres, such as comedy, fantasy fiction, realistic fiction, or action-adventure. Publishers of romance novels have their own series or categories, such as contemporary romance, historical romance, inspirational romance, romantic suspense, western romance, erotic romance, paranormal romance, etc.

Action-adventure – Action-adventure fiction, traditionally (but not exclusively) aimed at male readers, features physical action and violence, often around a quest or military-style mission set in exotic or forbidding locales such as jungles, deserts, or mountains.

Crime – Crime fiction stories, centered on criminal enterprise, are told from the point of view of the perpetrators. They range in tone from lighthearted "caper" stories to darker plots involving organized crime or incarcerated convicts.

Mystery/Detective – Detective fiction has become synonymous with Mystery. These stories relate the solving of a crime, usually one or more murders, by a protagonist who may or may not be a professional investigator. This large, popular genre has many subgenres, reflecting differences in tone, character, and it always contains criminal and detective settings.

Mystery fiction involves stories in which characters try to discover a vital piece of information which is kept hidden until the climax. The standard novel stocked in the mystery section of bookstores is a whodunit. A few other types of mystery novels are Cozy Mysteries (where a group of people who are very unlikely to be mixed up in a crime become involved – these are usually not gory) or Hard-Boiled Mysteries (where the detective/private eye is very tough and unsentimental).

Suspense/Thrillers - use suspense, tension and excitement as the main elements. The primary subgenres of thrillers are: mystery, crime and psychological thrillers, as well as romantic suspense. “Thrillers are mostly characterized by an atmosphere of menace, violence, crime and murder by showing society as dark, corrupt and dangerous, though they often feature a happy ending in which the villains are killed or arrested. …A thriller is villain-driven plot, whereby he presents obstacles that the hero must overcome.” (Wikipedia)

Horror –Horror fiction aims to evoke some combination of fear, fascination, and revulsion in its readers. This genre, like others, continues to develop, recently moving away from stories with a religious or supernatural basis to ones making use of medical or psychological ideologies.

Fantasy – Fantasy fiction features stories set in fanciful, invented worlds, an alternate and more fanciful version of our own world, or in a legendary, mythic past. Fantasy fiction stories generally involve magic, mystical elements, or supernatural creatures. The genre's relatively loose definition means it includes a large number of works in styles ranging from pseudo-mythological epics to more deliberately modern works, and includes works which also fall under other genres, such as horror fiction, comedy, action-adventure or romance. Some works generally classified as fantasy fiction also include elements of science fiction, and with many works revolving around psychics, ghosts, etc. being easily classified as either, some bookstores and critics tend to categorize the two genres together as “speculative fiction.”

Science fiction – Science fiction is defined more by setting details than by other story elements. Science fiction by definition includes extrapolated or theoretical future science and technology as a major component, and is often set on other planets, in outer space, or on a future version of Earth. Within these setting details, however, the conventions of almost any other genre may be used, including comedy, action-adventure and mystery. A sub-genre of science fiction is alternate history where, for some specific reason, the history of the novel deviates from the history of our world. Both alternate history and science fiction are often referred to alongside fantasy fiction, magical realism and some horror fiction under the umbrella term “speculative fiction.”

Paranormal/Supernatural – Books like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series have made this genre (sub-genre?) very popular in recent years. Paranormal romance has definitely become a huge seller, with its hunky vampires and werewolves. This sub-genre could fit under fantasy or romance.

According to Wikipedia, “Paranormal romance is a literary subgenre of the romance novel. A type of speculative fiction, paranormal romance focuses on romance and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from the genres of traditional fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Paranormal romance may range from traditional category romances with a paranormal setting to stories where the main emphasis is on a science fiction or fantasy-based plot with a romantic subplot. Common hallmarks are romantic relationships between humans and vampires, shapeshifters, or fantastical beings (the Fae, Elves, etc.). …paranormal romances can also include characters with psychic abilities, like telekinesis or telepathy.

“Paranormal romance has its roots in Gothic fiction. Its most recent revival has been spurred by turn-of-the-century technology, e.g. the internet and electronic publishing. Paranormal romances are one of the fastest growing trends in the romance genre.” (Wikipedia)

Erotica – "A development in contemporary erotica has been that, contrary to some previous views that it was mainly a male interest, many women readers are aroused by it, whether it be traditional or tailor-made women's erotica. Romantic novels are sometimes marketed as erotica—-or vice versa—-as "mainstream" romance in recent decades has begun to exhibit blatant descriptions of sex. Erotic Romance is a relatively new genre of romance with an erotic theme and very explicit love scenes, but with a romance at the heart of the story. Erotic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction and utilizes erotica in a fantasy setting. These stories can essentially cover any of the other subgenres of fantasy, such as high fantasy, contemporary fantasy, or even historical fantasy." (Wikipedia)

"Online bookstores purvey a range of erotic writing. Whereas once access to online erotic fiction was largely restricted to membership or pay sites, in recent years a marked increase in the number of community based, not-for-profit or free access websites has led to an explosion in the level of popularity of this genre." (Wikipedia)

Western – Western fiction is defined primarily by being set in the American West in the second half of the 19th century, and secondarily by featuring heroes who are rugged, individualistic horsemen (cowboys). Other genres, such as romance, have subgenres that make use of the Western setting. You can, for example, have a romantic western or a western (American) romance.

Literary fiction – Literary fiction is a term in common usage since around 1970 to distinguish so-called “serious” fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from other types of genre fiction. In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the “page-turner”) focuses more on narrative and plot.

by Jodie Renner,


  1. Hi Jodie,

    I enjoy reading the articles on your blog. You are making it so easy for me to improve my writing. I look forward to the information you post. There is always something here for me.

    Please keep it up!


    Ruth L.

  2. Thanks, Ruth. Glad to be of help! And the readers of your novels will reap the benefits!

  3. Your blog posts are very helpful, Jodie. I wish I would have had you as a source years ago. Thanks!
    Robyn P.