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What Are the Different Book Genres?

Do you ever struggle to describe a book? Learning about the different publishing genres will help you describe a book so publishers, booksellers, and librarians quickly understand.

By
Diana M. Pho, writing for
4-minute read
Episode #760
A robot representing the sci-fi book genre
The Quick And Dirty

Genre takes into account narrative elements like setting, characters, tropes, and writing style. Properly describing a book's genre can help set the expectations of both readers and the publishing industry.

Writers often struggle with how exactly to describe their stories to other people. They may get asked, “What genre is your book?” and they get stumped trying to give a pithy answer to encompass an entire universe and cast of characters they had built up in their imaginations! Stories come in many different flavors, and some of those flavors are called genres.

The publishing industry finds categorizing books by genre particularly useful. Publishers typically assign a genre to a book: a book may be literary fiction, a mystery, space opera, or something else entirely. When you go into a bookstore, a library, or buy books online, books are often organized by genre. And you may also find it useful to figure out how to label your story this way. But first, let’s talk about what genre actually means.

How to define genre

When it comes to writing, the two common understandings of genre are often conflated. One definition of genre is that it is a writing format: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, play, graphic novel/comics, or screenplay. Genre by this definition doesn’t take into account the actual content of the story, just how a piece of writing is structured. The other definition of genre goes beyond its composition. Merriam-Webster in part defines genre as “characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” Genre is a set of expectations of what the story may be about. Narrative elements that help define a genre include:

  • Setting: Is the story in today’s world? In futuristic space? In 1930s France?
  • Characters: Are the characters “realistic” in the sense that they are people, animals, or things that could exist in our world? Are any of them magical? Are any of them supernatural?
  • Tropes: Tropes are defined as common ideas, character types, or plot elements that occur in a given genre. For example, if your story has space ships, robots, or time travel, it just might be science fiction!
  • Writing Style: This is where “genre as format” and “genre as content” overlap. The writer’s voice and the style of writing may also influence the book’s genre. Think about the difference between the detective mysteries of Raymond Chandler (who wrote “The Big Sleep”) and the literary fiction of Joyce Carol Oates (who wrote “We Were the Mulvaneys”), for instance. Both writers have a very distinguished writing style, but Chandler’s gritty and disillusioned noir voice helped define him as a mystery writer in a way that is dramatically different from Oates, who has a much more sparse and naturalistic voice. Generally, a writer’s voice can shape the story’s atmosphere to make the genre elements standout. A fantasy may imitate the voice of medieval ballads or Victorian novels, for example, to highlight the impression we are not reading about our own world.

Some writers refuse to give their book a genre, worried about creating a “barrier” that could limit its readership. Comics are made for kids! Only women read romances! Non-fiction books are boring! But stereotyping the readers of a genre is unfair, and we need to break down these assumptions. Instead, a book’s genre should be considered a useful tool to help readers who love certain stories find them more easily. Here are some very basic definitions of common genre terms to get you started in defining your story.

What is literary fiction?

Literary fiction is commonly understood to be fiction that doesn’t contain any speculative elements. Sometimes, literary books are also defined by their elevated style of writing.

What is contemporary fiction?

Contemporary fiction is set in our world and time. If your book is set in our world but during a different time period, it may be considered a historical.

What is speculative fiction?

If it isn’t literary or contemporary, it may be described as speculative fiction. This is a more general term for any story that has a fantastical element. Below are some more specific genres that are filed under speculative fiction.

What is science fiction?

Science fiction incorporates a variety of fields in science and technology as part of its imaginative storytelling. Stories that contain “impossible” science (like time travel), or a science field that historically existed (like alchemy) can also count as science fiction.

What is fantasy?

Fantasy is based on the idea of the fantastic. Wizards, magic systems, imaginary creatures, and myths and legends are all common elements in fantasy. Fantasy can take place in our world or in an entirely fictional universe.

What is horror?

Horror is the darker side of fiction. It can draw from fantasy or contemporary elements. Vampires, werewolves, and other monsters can factor into horror, but so can serial killers, kidnappers, and dysfunctional families. Horror can be expansive in its content, but the main point is that it dwells on the things people fear.

What are mysteries?

Mysteries, also known as detective stories, pose a central question as part of the plot that’s resolved in the end. Mysteries come in many forms, but people usually associate them with solving a murder, finding a missing person, or investigating a major problem.

What are sub-genres?

Genres can be broken down even further. “Experimental fiction” blends literary and non-literary writing styles. 

There are also “sub-genres.” Space opera, for example, is science fiction that involves space travel, a large cast of characters, and political intrigue between different planets. 

Magical realism is usually a fantasy set in our world, but the magical elements are used very sparingly and the writing style is quite lyrical. 

There are many types of sub-genres, but these should give you a taste to get starting thinking about your novel or the kind of novels you especially like.

What is cross-genre?

Finally, a book whose readers cross different age demographics is known as cross-genre. Young adult books that appeal to both teen and adult readers, for example, may be considered cross-genre. Cross-genre is a publishing industry term, however, and not commonly used by writers or readers. You may see this word come up in various conversations about books between publishers, agents and editors, though.

While pinpointing your story’s genre can be a tricky process, understanding its use is pretty simple. Genre is only the tip of the iceberg in describing your story, but for readers, genre is one of many tools to help them find books they’ll love.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Diana M. Pho, writing for Grammar Girl

Diana M. Pho is an independent scholar, playwright, and Hugo-Award-nominated book editor. She has a double bachelor’s degree in English and Russian literature from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s in performance studies from New York University. Learn more about her work and editorial services at dianampho.com

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