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ABCs of Fiction Writing – Genre: Where Do I Belong?

Have you ever noticed that books that are all similar are (usually) grouped together at the library? How do you know which category is which, and where everything belongs? While genre is not necessarily something you keep in mind during the actual process of writing a story, it is definitely something you have to think about when you’re ready to publish. I like to think of genre as a filing system – it’s simply there to organize, not constrict. We will only briefly touch on some of the better known genres, keep in mind this is only a sampling!

Why is genre important?

Genre is necessary on two fronts – for the reader and for the publisher. Certain readers know exactly what types of stories they like to read, and genre helps them find it. I prefer to read fantasy, but I also read Christian, thrillers, romance, paranormal and YA (young adult). With that information, I know exactly where to find whatever book I’m in the mood for at the local library, or in a store. On the publishing front, you absolutely must know what genre your work is in because certain publishers and agents only accept certain genres. Some will take anything, but those entities are few and far between.

What are the different genres?

There are too many different genres and sub-genres to touch on them all, but these are the major genres that everyone is familiar with. Historical fiction used to be it’s own genre, but many publishing companies are now using it as a sub-genre with one of these – historical romance, historical fantasy, etc. There are also questions about what is considered ‘historical’, the best estimates seem to be for stories set approximately 50 years or more in the past.

Romance

Romance is the top selling genre, and it sells fast. Everyone has heard of at least one publishing company that does almost exclusively romance (Harlequin being the first that comes to my mind). The romance genre is dominated by ‘true love’ and ‘happily ever after’ stories.

Example of romance: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Literary

Literary fiction is about the flow of language, and it is character-driven rather than plot-driven. A character-driven novel focuses on the experiences and growth of the characters, rather than the conclusion of a plot. It’s about what the character learns. Some people love literary fiction. To me, it mimics real life too much. If I’m going to read a book, I want an escape! There is some literary fiction that I enjoy, though.

Example of literary fiction: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Despite the fact that these two genres are almost always found stuck together at bookstores and libraries, they are really very different. For the most part, if it has science that has advanced beyond, or is different from, the science and technology we have around us every day, it is probably science fiction. If it has magic, or no science at all, it is probably fantasy. This is a very loose definition, and there is even such a thing as ‘science fantasy’. These two genres probably have the most sub-genres. Terms like military, steam punk, dark, urban and space opera are all tossed about frequently and it can be confusing. Sadly, there is not room here to delve into it all. You may also find these genres stuck together under the title of ‘Speculative Fiction’.

Example of science fiction: Foundation series by Isaac Asimov

Examples of fantasy: The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien.

Mystery

I never liked mystery novels, because I don’t think like a detective. I think like an artist. Mystery novels, though, have a large following because they can almost be interactive. Mystery stories are unique in the sense that a specific event happens (like a crime) that no one knows anything about. The reader is left as much in the dark as the characters in the story until the very end, and they must pick up on the same clues to be able to figure it out before they finish the book. If the guilty party is revealed before the end of the book, it’s probably a thriller rather than a mystery.

Examples of mystery: the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Christian

From the Christian standpoint, there are two dividers before any of these other genres – it is either Christian or secular/mainstream fiction. I grew up reading Christian fiction almost exclusively, not even venturing into mainstream fiction until within the past ten years. The difference between what the Christian market calls Christian fiction or secular fiction is the lifestyle – Christian fiction always attempts to teach and/or exemplify a Christ-like lifestyle. There is a very large market for Christian fiction, and sadly one of the reasons I first started reading mainstream fiction was because there is a very sad lack of good science fiction or fantasy in the Christian market. It also seems, to me, that the Christian publishing houses are sometimes willing to compromise writing quality for content.

Examples of Christian fiction: 9/11 series by Karen Kingsbury

YA (Young Adult)

Young Adult fiction is, for the most part, aimed at 12-18 year-olds, give or take a few years. I enjoy a well-written young adult story every now and then, and have you seen the craze over the Twilight Saga? I wouldn’t be surprised if more middle-age moms read that than teens! Many YA stories have a coming of age theme to them, and the main characters are almost always the age of the target readers. YA is another genre that can (and is) crossed with almost every other genre – paranormal seems to be the most popular lately. The plots in YA fiction can be just as complex as adult fiction, too.

Examples of YA: Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer

Children’s

Who doesn’t enjoy a good picture book every now and then? Have you looked at a children’s book lately? The illustration is fascinating! Sometimes we authors get so caught up in taking the words and/or pictures from our minds and putting them into words for everyone else, we forget the beauty that exists in a good illustration. Children’s books have perfected the art of showing a story. These are always written with very simple plots that can be shown in just a few words on a page, and wrapped up simply.

Example of the children’s genre: Charlie the Ranch Dog by Ree Drummond

What is a sub-genre?

Sub-genre is almost like a doctor that has continued school for a special concentration – like a neurologist. In addition to college and medical school, they have to study in that particular field for several more years because it is so complex. While sub-genre is not quite that complicated, it is almost a specialization within a genre. The two genres that utilize this specialty the most are Science Fiction and Fantasy.See more info of computer home word ideas inĀ Jittery Monks

Fantasy sub-genres include, but are not limited to: Sword and Sorcery, High/Epic Fantasy, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal, etc.

Science Fiction sub-genres include, but are not limited to: Military, Space Opera, Hard Sci-Fi, cyberpunk, etc.

How do I tell what my genre is?

You determine your genre by looking at the setting and content of your story. Most of the stories I write take place in a world that doesn’t really exist, or an altered version of this world. Since I don’t write about science, but rather the supernatural and/or magical, what I have written is fantasy. If there is a romantic story line involved in the main plot, it could be labeled both fantasy and romance. Or, if I was writing a fantasy story that is an allegory of Christianity (like The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis), it could be labeled Christian and fantasy. Writers tend to write in the genre they like to read as well, so look at the books you enjoy the most.

Ultimately, if you can’t figure out what the genre is, have someone you trust read over your story and ask their opinion about what genre they think it belongs in. Don’t be constrained by genre, though – it’s merely a filing system. Things can be moved around and changed. Write your story first, and then worry about genre.

Sources:

Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Seventh Edition by Janet Burro way and Elizabeth Stuckey-French

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