The lines separating genres in fiction writing can be hard to identify. Not everyone agrees where to draw them, and as trends in genre fiction evolve, they’re constantly changing anyway.
What’s more, the cross-pollination of hallmarks and themes from different genres makes boxes and boundaries even trickier to establish.
As writers, it is important to know the genre of your story. Without understanding the conventions of a genre, there can be little hope of either paying homage to them, subverting them, or escaping them.
Understanding genre can also help writers better understand their audiences and deliver a story a reader expects and desires, while still remaining original. It helps with marketing, too, as well as answering the eternally stressful question, ‘So what do you write, anyway?’
Without further ado, here is a list of the most commonly recognised genres in adult fiction, along with their conventions, their recent trends, and areas in which they have the potential to expand.
Literary fiction is known for containing political and social commentary, and a focus on the human condition. Like most works deemed to have ‘literary merit’ (perilous term though this is), books classified within this genre tend to be more character-driven than plot-driven.
They are also generally serious or dark in tone, slower-paced than books branded as commercial fiction, and possess a strong emphasis on stylistic quality and form.
Much Ado About Nothing?
At its best, literary fiction provides enduring, though-provoking stories. At its worst, however, the genre risks slipping into melodrama.
Consider: does your suburban angst have something to offer beyond its gritty realism? And is your sprawling saga about disconnected families doing anything new, or is it simply another example of the ever-trendy ‘hysterical realism’?
There’s nothing wrong with wishing to convey some deeper meaning or message through one’s words. The best way of doing this, however, is potentially to assess one’s work as though reading with the eyes of a worst enemy; judging honestly whether the idea is pretentious or unoriginal; and resolving to write a story with as much substance as style.
If you have something worth saying, the style will come.
Final thoughts: a book’s literary merit does not necessarily correlate with how many tragic events occur within its pages. Be careful when exploring disillusionment, and tread carefully with mental illness – it’s not a gimmick.
Furthermore, disenchantment has been done a lot, suburbs can be painfully dull on paper, and the dog doesn’t always have to die.
Crime and mystery
With their focus on deaths and detectives, crime and mystery have similar hallmarks, but slightly different styles.
Crime tends to be grittier and more action-based, while mystery often revolves around puzzles and suspense rather than a rapidly developing action plotline. Mystery can also move into the realms of the supernatural, while crime is more likely to focus on hard facts and cold courtrooms.
The abundance of crime and mystery shows on TV as well as in print has made writing an original story within this genre difficult. That said, there exist ways of standing out from the crowd.
How can I make a crime or mystery story more compelling?
Try investing more in characterisation. Crime began with lots of men in hats, cigarettes smoked in dark alleyways, and repressed emotions, and while the trappings of the genre have changed with technology, the characters haven’t necessarily evolved.
The mystery genre, meanwhile, generally features fewer hardboiled, antihero detectives; perhaps this is where we should be seeking inspiration.
Essentially, both crime and mystery need fresher, more believable characters – ones that shake up conventions, as Miss Marple did back in the 1930s.
We’ve seen the cynical secret agent and the traumatised ex-policeman over and over again. As for the ‘crime-solving duo’ formula, though always popular, it could benefit from being broadened.
Sherlock Holmes, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, True Detective, Death In Paradise, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, The Bridge… With even Doctor Who potentially qualifying, this trend is definitely a trope, even if each reincarnation tweaks the model slightly.
So be sure to question what your character brings to both your story and the genre. Don’t write a character who melds easily (perhaps too easily) into the background with their long swishy coat, simply because they seem to fit with tradition and the washed-out tones set by TV. Give us something new.
Magical realism, also known as fabulism, is a genre that portrays the world realistically for the most part, but with a few magical elements interwoven into the story’s fabric.
Imagine an unmapped forest where clocks hang from trees, or a story underpinned by local myths and legends that ripple through characters’ lives.
It’s a genre often associated with South American authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and Paulo Coelho, or Indian author Salman Rushdie. It's through such associations, however, that our understanding of the genre can begin to narrow.
We have to talk about magical realism
At its best and broadest, magical realism is a medium through which to tell stories of the real world that are almost believable, but that sit in opposition to gritty – and often modern and urban – realism.
If the term’s meaning is reduced to ‘genre of stories set in "mystical" South American landscapes’, however, the person defining it is showing their bias.
Perceptions and interpretations of books within this genre are often tainted by exoticism: indeed, the most famous of these books are set in places historically ‘othered’ by Anglosphere readers.
Nevertheless, this is ultimately a problem less with the books themselves, and rather with our understanding of the magical realism genre.
What writers can do
As long as it is understood as a genre for realism with a touch of magic, magical realism is an inventive and creative field. It’s simply important to remember a book doesn’t have to be set on a little-known island or in a Third World country in order to qualify for the category.
With this in mind, go forth and write beautiful, lyrical works of magical realism. Just don’t exoticise ‘foreign’ lands, or write superficially about myths and folklore of a culture with which you’re unfamiliar.
Aside from anything else, your story doesn’t have to be set in a place Westerners might consider ‘exotic’ for you to uncover a little magic in the real world.
Ah, fantasy. Mocked, maligned, and with a higher dragons-per-page count than any other genre.
Thanks to the success of J. R. R. Tolkien, who paved the way for authors such as George R. R. Martin and Robert Jordan, fantasy is a genre known in popular culture primarily for its ‘high fantasy’, medievalist form.
Yet the genre needn’t be limited to vertically-challenged heroes on epic quests – consider the work of authors like Neil Gaiman, Naomi Novik, and Brandon Sanderson. Fantasy doesn’t always deserve derision, either.
An Oliphaunt in the room?
The trappings and clichés of stereotypical fantasy – swords, quests, fair maidens, dragons, kingdoms – have admittedly worn thin.
If you’re going to write any such elements into your story, you must consider whether you're doing so primarily because someone else did it inspirationally well, or because you're telling a story truly of your own making.
The good news, however, is that the magic of fantasy comes at least as much from theme and symbolism as it does from magic’s physical manifestations in a story. World-building is important, but fantasy’s true power arguably arises from its tendency to use an imaginary world to hold up a mirror to real issues, both personal and political.
It’s a genre that is looked down upon for traditionally sidestepping psychological interiority in favour of plot; yet if inner turmoil is represented in symbolic form, is the genre any less deep?
Ditching the highway
Skip the trends and be a trailblazer. You can write a fantasy story that is excellent in its own right, without it having to be a direct homage to the works that made you fall in love with the genre in the first place.
If you’re looking for originality, maybe focus on character, too; drop the archetypes and surprise your reader. Create real people with real problems, and allow their worlds to expand beyond the hallmarks of the genre.
Historical fiction is a genre in which the story takes place in a past era. This makes it exciting in that it portrays a way of life unfamiliar to modern audiences, often elucidating the experiences of famous historical figures or events.
Yet while writing historical fiction can appear an excellent means of exploring another world without needing to include dragons, it’s not all fun and games: being an author within the genre comes with considerable responsibility.
Telling it as it is
Perhaps more so than in any other genre, authors of historical fiction are expected to tell the truth. If you’re a fiction writer, this can be difficult: how do you write a reimagining of somebody’s life, for example, without filling in gaps with pieces from your own imagination?
It can be hard knowing where to draw lines between presenting the truth, extrapolating your own interpretation of the truth, and fabricating missing pieces of history. Moreover, whatever you do is likely to be scrutinised by clever and critical readers who know a lot about history – you’ve been warned.
This isn’t to discourage people from writing historical fiction: it’s a wonderful genre. Nevertheless, if you're to retain authorial credibility and the respect of readers, it’s essential to research well, whether you're writing about someone famous like Genghis Khan or the life of a chimneysweep in 17th century London.
Furthermore, especially considering the valid questions surrounding voice and who gets to tell whose story – brought to the fore by 2016’s literary drama Shrivergate – it’s equally important to question whether you are the right person to tell a story or not.
Just look at the accusations of cultural appropriation levelled at Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha. Tread carefully.
In what concerns recent trends and potential within the genre, however, there is much about which to rejoice.
Futures for Histories – this time with added women!
Historical fiction about women hasn’t always met with much respect – indeed, as with any subgenre, not all of it is well-written.
Moreover, it certainly hasn’t been marketed in a varied manner: it would seem many publishers believe stories about women in history are simply excellent opportunities to sell books with vintage dresses and ballgowns on the cover.
Yet historical fiction focusing on women is arguably undergoing a revival. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites was a global bestseller and has already led to stylistically similar novels such as Kate Mildenhall’s Skylarking being published in Australia.
Perhaps there will be an increase in well-researched fiction exploring ‘herstory’ as opposed to history, and giving voice to those who were typically excluded from the history books – including people from minority groups beyond those of gender. That doesn’t sound too bad.
Romance (and erotica)
Romance is a broad genre typically featuring books ranging from Pride and Prejudice to Fifty Shades of Grey. The genre’s hallmark is, unsurprisingly, the presence of a romantic relationship. This relationship is either central to the novel (e.g. Nicholas Sparks novels), or perceived and marketed that way (e.g. sometimes Jane Eyre).
It’s a genre with enduring popularity, presumably owing to the universality of messy human love lives. It’s also a genre noteworthy for being mocked and maligned – ‘trash’ is a word that comes to mind, particularly in what concerns the sub-genre of erotic fiction.
Why so shy?
It's worth considering how much the aforementioned perception is due to gendered views of books’ values.
Perhaps due to being largely read by women and marketed towards them, romance is automatically derided, as is erotic fiction – unsurprising, seeing as it deals with female desire.
Or perhaps we’re all a little embarrassed by our own feelings, and books written to explore these feelings make us feel uncomfortable, so we laugh at them and shove them deeper into our bags.
Writing good romance
There are several ways romance novels can be strengthened and made to stand out amongst their kind. For example, don’t neglect the story beyond the romance: people’s real lives are a tangle of subplots, so why should novels be any different?
Moreover, show us why the characters love each other. Endless affirmations of love aren’t enough to convince readers who’ve read all such fine words before, cynical creatures that we are. Give us real people with believable personalities.
And lastly, be careful about your story’s subtext. People absorb their values in part through media, so your words could be exerting real influence over your readers’ perceptions.
(Are you still peeved about Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey?)
With genres like romance, in which unhealthy and abusive relationships sometimes masquerade as normal and desirable, it’s important to consider what your story is actually saying.
That’s not to preach at you: nobody’s claiming all your characters have to be exemplary in their relationships. Nevertheless, as an author, you should be aware of what your plot implies about your own beliefs regarding romance, before you impart these views to others.
Are you someone who thinks the brooding and obsessive Heathcliff, for example – or his modern equivalent, Edward Cullen – is deeply romantic? Do your stories repeatedly feature nasty people who get away with behaving like sociopaths, simply because their cheekbones are devastatingly well-defined? Have a think about it.
Where to from here?
Regarding areas into which romance could expand, the current social drive to acknowledge a greater variety of genders and sexualities could lead to some fantastic new fiction. The human emotional experience in love is so broad, and mainstream literature – at present – so very under-representative of this.
Why not tell a story that hasn’t been told before (or at least not much), and that reveals the complexities and opportunities of changing social norms surrounding love?
Besides, polyamory could be a beautiful solution to the dreaded love triangle.
Horror and thriller
Horror is written with the intention or capacity to scare, disgust, or unsettle its audience. The thriller genre deals in similar emotions, seeking to elicit anxiety and feelings of suspense in the reader, often through a villain-driven plot.
Brunettes with poor personal hygiene and dirty nightgowns, lurking outside the window? You’ve come to the right place.
Despite lending themselves well to the screen and expanding effectively into that medium, the horror and thriller genres arguably remain more narrowly developed than they have the potential to be.
Indeed, they are so firmly defined by their purpose of scaring their audiences that there’s practically an obligation to default to a set tone of ‘unnerving’, through which surprises are rendered ever less surprising due to audiences’ expectations of seeing them.
Tropes that are dead to me
Tired tropes can be revamped (pun unintended, but embraced), but nevertheless risk keeping contemporary horror and thriller genres in stagnancy, not unlike the state of quest-laden fantasy stories of the 80s, or the old ‘sci-fi means aliens’ mentality.
This could read as a harsh assessment, particularly were it followed by predictable, well-worn advice like ‘steer clear of stereotypes – no creepy dolls’. Yet I believe there’s plenty of hope for both horror and thriller, and not least because there are many talented authors in those (monochrome, small-town) fields.
Owing to the rise of television and the consequent desensitisation to screen violence and gore, writers can be hard-pressed to both scare and surprise readers with a good old corpse-in-the-basement plot twist.
Therefore, perhaps we should aim to draw back to what makes horror, and thriller in particular, so frightening: the unsettling atmosphere and emotions.
Making the genres scary
Personally, I find horror and thriller genres most confronting when they force me to consider my own greatest or most instinctive fears, and to scrape the murkiest depths of my own psyche. What am I capable of? Are my suspicions exaggerated or real?
Relish in your unreliable narrators and shaky-camera writing style, particularly if you use them to explore some universal emotional dread, or to pick apart a contemporary societal issue using disturbing metaphors. I’ll be hiding behind the couch.
Science fiction and speculative fiction
Speculative fiction is a genre featuring supernatural or futuristic elements, and while it can spread to encompass other genres such as horror or alternative history, it is strongly associated with science fiction.
Futuristic science and technology – hallmarks of science fiction – are also prominent in speculative fiction, as are explorations of potential consequences of scientific innovations and societal developments.
Indeed, the science fiction and speculative fiction genres often contain stories founded on ethical quandaries and cultural malaise.
For all its attempts to engage with serious social anxieties, however, science fiction in particular remains regularly derided; it is often perceived as speculative fiction’s less intellectual cousin, and a genre that is no more than ‘talking squids in outer space’.
The two genres’ differences are fewer than their similarities, however, and how accepted each is within the literary canon arguably reflects stereotypical expectations of such books rather than their quality.
No longer the part of the bookstore smelling of loneliness
In what concerns recent trends, the speculative fiction sub-genre of dystopian fiction has experienced a huge surge in popularity. The Hunger Games is a global phenomenon, as is political unrest; therefore, stories of alternative realities and complex futures are presently very popular.
As with all trends, however, tropes soon emerge and what once seemed fresh can come to be scorned. With this in mind, don’t feel as though you have to write a story that fits the formula of successful speculative, dystopian, or science fiction from the past.
Where no man has gone before?
This genre’s very existence depends upon imagining possibilities for how the future might be, so any lack of imagination here becomes especially evident to the genre’s readers.
If you’re seeking ideas when writing within this genre, the best strategy could be to look further afield for inspiration within speculative fiction’s wide umbrella.
How about exploring the genre smörgåsbord that is steampunk? Why not take a look at the varied and trail-blazing world-building of authors such as Ursula Le Guin, Philip Pullman, and Margaret Atwood?
This broad, curious genre has so much more to offer than love triangles against a backdrop of crumbling buildings and inexplicable ‘last man standing’ competitions. So unleash your imagination. You could even find a creative way of including squids.
Comedy and satire
The wonderful thing about comedy and satire is that it’s almost more a state of mind than a fixed genre.
Indeed, humorous writing can be applied to nearly all genres by retaining certain hallmarks that keep these genres recognisable, and simultaneously subverting their tones. It also possesses the capacity to make audiences take themselves and the world less seriously, especially when satire is involved.
At the risk of sounding as though I’ve been interrupted while knitting a cardigan for my cat, however, I do wonder whether the variety embodied by this genre is under threat as a result of ‘newfangled’ communications technology and mass media.
Should we be concerned?
Consider the quick cheap laughs flitting around social media, and the potential for humour to homogenise. If we all consume similar entertainment and speak the same language of pithy self-deprecation, is our environment fertile for producing truly original works of comic genius?
There's no need to be unduly pessimistic: there will always be talented writers with exciting ideas out in the world. That said, however, the borderline predictable humour evident in the average Twitter status and sitcom script may not delight readers for hundreds of pages.
Sarcasm, swearing liberally, and the overuse of capital letters and exclamation marks is like the junk food of humour: funny at first, yes, but grating if not accompanied by some further wit.
That’s not to say memes aren’t fun (please, I’m not a total killjoy); however, if we’re to write humour that endures and entertains multiple generations, perhaps we need to examine what sets comic geniuses – such as P. G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and even screenwriter Richard Curtis – apart.
Namely: none of these creatives succeeded by adopting other people’s voices or imitating the humour of the masses. Each possesses a unique wit. Each has a masterful understanding of the language in which they write. And each writes about a particular world with its own distinctive, colourful cast.
‘How to be funny’
Delineating a set of rules to write comedy and satire sounds like a sober venture doomed to fail. Nevertheless, if you are seeking advice, there are a few points that can be kept in mind.
Seek out the quirks of ordinary people and the peculiarities of mundane environments. Not only can this engender excellent satire, but it can also foster familiarity with the reader, and make them feel as though they're in on the author’s jokes.
Other than that, just try to develop your own comic voice as best you can. After all, even if you do successfully imitate the style of an author you admire, the odds of imitation surpassing a distinctive and original style are slim.
Lastly, have fun – make note of when you are enjoying yourself while writing, and carry on doing whatever elicits that emotion.
Readers can usually tell when authors are filling in blank pages word by painful word as opposed to when they're having fun writing. If you’re cackling to yourself while penning your scathing satire, you could be onto a winner.
Not everyone will agree with what has been written in the points above. Indeed, the boundaries of genre are so vague it would be impossible to adhere to everybody’s vision of where one genre begins and another ends, let alone define them to perfection. Besides, no book or genre exists in isolation.
Yet perhaps this should be taken less as a shortcoming in factual accuracy, and more as a reminder that one person’s understanding of a genre may be different to that of somebody else, thanks to a mixture of content consumed, marketing, and biases.
Genres and subgenres are arbitrary. While understanding how your work might be interpreted and marketed is important, focusing on fitting within a genre is unnecessary, and potentially even detrimental through the mental constraints it could place on a writer.
Hopefully this interpretation encourages people to look beyond what they perceive to be the boundaries of their writing’s genre. Fiction is a tapestry of story threads, not a genre archipelago. Outside of marketing circles, boundaries exist primarily within your own mind.
So get out there and venture beyond the lines drawn in shifting sands. Who knows where you might end up?