Different genres in fiction: knowing the genre of your book sets the expectations of the reader
Updated: May 2
Understanding what genre your book falls into will help you describe it to agents, publishers and booksellers. It sounds simple enough, but many authors aren’t sure of which genre they are writing in.
Genre is a subheading to fiction; it includes tone, style, elements, setting, characters, tropes, and storytelling devices.
Knowing the genre of your book sets the expectations of the reader and the publisher.
Defining genre can lead to misconceptions: it’s not just whether your book is fiction, non-fiction, poetry, a screenplay, graphic novel or autobiographical (genre-format). By defining your work under one of these headings alone, you’re overlooking the content of the story itself.
We need to delve deeper – beyond the format. To do this, we look at different elements of the story’s content (genre-content).
Setting: Where is the story set? Is it in the past, present or future? Where’s it set in the world or universe? Is it in a made-up land or based in a real town or city?
Characters: Who are they? Are they realistic, magical, superhuman or historical? Are they even human?
Tropes: A trope is a common idea, like a character type that fits within a certain genre. Were we writing about time travel, would we have the eccentric professor or the time-travelling machine? If we did, the story would be likely to fit into science fiction. I say ‘likely’ because there are always exceptions to the rule, and sometimes books cross genres.
Writing Style: The writer’s voice (click to read a blog on the subject) influences the genre just as much as the above elements because it’s their writing style. It’s here that genre-format and genre-content overlap. An example of this is how writers write about love. We wouldn’t be wrong to assume that the subject of love would primarily fall within the genre of Romance.
Classics such as Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë) and Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) or contemporary titles such as One Day (David Nicholls) and Bridgerton (Julia Quinn) have love as their main theme. But a different writer with a different voice will use love in a way that takes their work into a completely different genre entirely.
Behind Her Eyes (Sarah Pinborough) is a recent example of this – love is a driver – albeit a twisted love. I won’t say anymore, so I don’t have to declare a **spoiler alert** but it certainly doesn’t sit within the Romance genre. Another example is Outlander (Diana Gabaldon); love is the theme within the story, yet the book crosses into several genres because of the writer’s style and voice.
Most popular genres
Mystery – Mysteries, or detective stories, pose a question within the plot, e.g., who killed the woman at the dinner club? Or what happened to the missing girl? The question is usually answered by the end of the story. Clues are dropped and dripped throughout the story, and the writer uses hooks to keep the reader interested.
Horror – Horrors draw on the darker things in life, like serial killers, vampires, monsters, torture, and all the things we deeply fear. They scare and shock and sometimes repulse the reader.
Fantasy – Fantasies can be magical – full of wizards, imaginary worlds and cultures, myths, legends, and anything our imaginations can explode with.
Science Fiction – Science fiction focuses on more technical elements such as time travel or scientific fields like alchemy. Whether they focus on hard or soft science, they are usually speculative with imagined elements that don’t exist in our world.
Thriller – Thrillers are dark, mysterious and full of suspense. Rarely do they include humour. They are written to keep the reader engaged and on their toes with plot twists, cliff-hangers and lots of red-herrings.
Historical Fiction – Historical fiction always takes place in the past and is written with a careful balance between creativity and research. Their intention is to transport the reader to another time and place, whether real or imagined, and to involve historical characters and events in the fictitious world they create.
Romance – Romance novels focus on love. They are generally light-hearted and optimistic. The endings in romance novels are positive and satisfying.
Literary Fiction – Literary fiction is work with literary merit and artistic value. It is considered not to contain any speculative elements and follows the inner story of its characters.
Dystopian – Dystopian fiction is part of the science fiction genre but based more on a society we view as worse than the one we are living in.
What is cross-genre?
Knowing the genre of your story is important, but it’s not wrong for your story to cross genres either. In fact, many publishers are interested in stories that do just this.
If you look at the books on a seller’s bookshelf, you’ll notice that the traditionally compartmentalised genre-lines are blurring.
The important thing to take away from this article was said at the beginning: understanding what genre your book falls into will help you describe it to agents, publishers and booksellers.
If your books crosses genres, know which ones it crosses into so you can include these when talking about it.
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Julie Pinborough | Proofreader & Copyeditor