Ever since ancient Greek literature began classifying stories by their themes and styles, writers have been defined and cursed by their labels.
This was compounded in 1840, when the French word, genre, meaning 'independent style' was first incorporated into the English language.
Henceforth the publishing industry adopted the word to label their story classification system.
Manuscripts had always been categorised, but now a single word became the reason. What genre is the story? What genre does the writer work in? "I am sorry I do not represent that genre."
It remains one of the most influential words in publishing, to such an extent, that new genres are created to reflect the zeitgeist.
Today, genre, is so entrenched in the psyche of most writers that they will specialise their reading to understand how to compete against published examples. They will only query literary agents who represent their genre, and approach publishing houses who have an imprint dedicated to it.
But for those just starting out on their writing journey, the categories can seem daunting. How do they know what their style is when they have yet to develop a style?
- Literary - With the focus on the intricate inner stories of its characters, who drive the plot, it has a much slower pace to other genres. Elegantly written with poetic prose, and often dealing with serious adult issues and a darker tone, it is the genre most awarded by the major literary prizes.
- Commercial - It is exactly what it purports to be: written to make the most money. It does this by grabbing the publishing professional and reader with a high-concept hook. This is then delivered with short snappy sentences to produce a much faster read. There is no room for convoluted words, or ambiguity, Instead, the prose needs to be short and to the point, with each chapter leaving the reader on edge. The protagonist is also seen as a hero figure, someone every reader will root for. The story itself can use elements from any of the other genres, but where it differs is that it needs to appeal to every demographic. In essence: think blockbuster movie on paper.
- Women's - Encompassing other genres, it has two very distinct qualities: female protagonist/s, and entirely geared towards women readers. It can still be written by a male author, but it must focus on themes relevant to the lives of women today. However, the branding of the story is often determined by the publishing house who will decide to market it as women's fiction to reach a wider readership.
- Romance - A romantic story between two characters, which must have a happy ending. This does not mean they have to become a couple, but that the climax of the story must have an optimistic and emotionally satisfying ending. Furthermore, the two characters, and their evolving relationship remains the focus of the story throughout. Whereas other genres allow for supporting characters to play an equal part, romance does not. The heart of the story is two people that readers want to see together. If the writer gives the reader a happy ending it is romantic fiction. If the ending has a pessimistic or ambiguous ending, then it tends to be classified as women's fiction. However, a variety of sub-genres are specifically requested by literary agents who may only represent one of them:
Contemporary Romance - Set after World War II, but mainly focused on the present period, these modern day love stories are the biggest selling sub-genre of romance by far, with over 50% of the market share.
Historical Romance - Set before World War II the pre-war romance stories are less common today as society shifts away from the war generation.
Regency Romance - Defined by the reign of the British Regency from 1811 to 1820, these stories have a style all their own. With a diligent obedience to manners and etiquette, they are often associated and compared to the most famous exponent of the genre: Jane Austen.
Paranormal Romance - Using elements of the supernatural and manifestations of the paranormal, most commonly through vampires, demons, ghosts, witches, werewolves, creatures of the underworld, or humans with special abilities, this genre has seen a huge surge in sales due to the success of the Twilight series. Since the stories are not restricted by time, or worlds, they allow for a creative interpretation of a fictional past or future.
Romantic Suspense - The budding romance of the two protagonists remains the focus as they join forces to solve a mystery. These plot driven stories devoid of profanity are actually better known for their cinematic examples: the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Multicultural Romance - Only officially launched as a genre in 1994, they focus on multicultural and interracial love stories. The option to layer them with the experiences of race issues makes them a deeper read than mainstream romance.
Science-Fiction Romance - A love story between two beings set on a futuristic world.
Fantasy Romance - The dividing line between this and its Fantasy sub-genre equivalent, Romantic Fantasy (see Fantasy genre), has blurred in recent years, with the marketing of its stories often labelled by the publisher rather than the writer. But the latter has become the prominent sub-genre and as such its definition is outlined in the Fantasy genre below.
- Historical - Using a real historical event as its basis, the story is told through the eyes of fictional characters, or actual historical ones but in a fictional context. Sometimes the event is the core of the story itself, but often its unfolding runs concurrent with the main story of the fictional protagonists. Writers embrace artistic licence to weave the two story strands together to give new meaning to the real historical event.
- Crime - First published in 1829, but not taken seriously as a genre until the early 1900s, it is now one of the most popular in the entire spectrum of literature. The fictional crimes portrayed frequently put a detective at the centre of the story and in recent years the trend has been for a writer to produce a series of their investigative protagonist.
- Thrillers - Fast paced stories with cliff-hanging chapters to quite literally thrill the reader. The heightened tension of the plot and its many twists focus on a race against time towards a thrilling climax. Putting a hero / heroine at the centre of a corrupt world their life is often in danger through a series of chases and action scenes. Consequently they are written with concise prose to produce a page-turning read. The speed of this fiction comes from a ticking clock as the protagonist/s must complete their quest before a pre-determined time. It is this ticking clock element which separates it from crime-fiction where the crime is solved when the protagonist finally works it out. In a thriller, there is always a time limit on when the mystery must be solved by. Put simply: crime-fiction focuses on an investigation into a crime that has already happened, a thriller is a race against time to prevent a crime taking place. This does not mean the genres cannot be combined, because many writers do merge them into a sub-genre. There are also a number of best-selling sub-genres where differentials apply, that some literary agents choose to specialise in:
Crime Thriller - Incorporating a ticking clock element throughout as the police protagonist is pitted in a race against time to prevent more crimes after the opening one. To aid the speed of these stories, the crimes chosen are more often than not, serial killings or heists.
Spy Thriller - The protagonist is a spy working directly, or indirectly, for a government and must use their wits to solve an international story of espionage. The adversary changes throughout literature history as the real world discovers a new enemy of the state. The WWII or Cold War backdrops are now less common, as writers strive to make their fiction relevant to the world the reader lives in. This has seen the emergence of terrorists, especially those operating across international borders, as the most common antagonists in this fiction.
Psychological Thriller - The conflict between the characters is not a physical one, but is instead a battle of minds. Deception is at the forefront of this fiction as an adversary uses a series of mind games to prey on a character's way of thinking in order to manipulate their thought processes to achieve a certain goal. Many writers choose to reveal the goal during the climax, while others have been known to make it clear to the reader from the get-go and then watch as the protagonist's mind slowly unravels.
Supernatural Thriller - The supernatural thread to these stories comes from either the world in which they are set, or one of the main characters having special powers. This enables the fiction itself to focus on non-human capabilities creating dramatic tension between its characters in a thrill ride towards a dramatic twist.
Legal Thriller - The protagonist/s work in the judicial system and must use the full arm of the law to resolve the case. As a result the dialogue and procedures adhered to throughout require meticulous research by the writer to ensure this fiction is very much grounded in reality.
Political Thriller - A political power struggle in which the protagonist works directly for the government. The struggle can cross international borders, but it is frequently focused within, as the policies of the protagonist's government creates the tension which must be resolved by the climax.
Erotic Thriller - The sexual tension between the characters culminates in a series of graphic sexual encounters which are used by one character over the other to manipulate them towards their goal. In some cases a killer is using sex to convince the investigator of their innocence and get closer to the case. There is also a trend for the encounters to involve an entire family as the antagonist uses sex as a tool to turn members of the family against one another. The key to this fiction is that sex is the mechanism used to manipulate the motivations and fate of the characters.
Techno Thriller - New technology is either explored or invented by the writer as the characters grapple with the implications of it on a larger scale. Opposing characters fight against the pros and cons of the technology in a quest to contain it or introduce it into the global society. Keeping this fiction fresh and original for future readers is a challenge for writers as the speed of technological advancement increases with each generation.
Medical Thriller - A medical condition or disease infects a growing number of people as the protagonists race against time to contain it. Since these stories deal with human infection, they frequently resonate with readers long after the final page.
Conspiracy Thriller - The protagonist goes against a large organisation to expose their lies to society. Such is the scale of these stories and their implications that they are often marketed as commercial fiction. However, if a writer chooses to keep the conspiracy on a smaller scale, without an impact on a country or the world itself, then publishing houses will sell the book as this sub-genre alone.
- Mysteries - Only in use since the early 1800s, the stories focus on an unsolved mystery which the protagonist strives to resolve by the climax. The mystery itself can relate to anything which is where the genre differs from crime. But that is not where the separation ends, for mysteries are not painted with the same dark brush as crime fiction is. The tone can be lighter, the mystery can even be comedic, yet the core of the story is still a whodunit. The genre is commonly blended with others, but also has its own sub-genre:
Cozy Mysteries (Cozies) - Set in a small community and featuring an amateur or retired character who uses their experience to solve their town's mystery. Supporting characters frequently dismiss the protagonist's beliefs that there is more to the mystery than the community believes. When they do resolve the mystery it is without incident, violence, or profanity. The small town feel-good tone is written to induce a warm glow in the reader so that these cozy stories are ones they can cuddle up with. Consequently it is a popular genre for afternoon television movies and shows.
- Suspense - To create the suspense the writer continues to feed elements of the story to the reader before the main protagonists are made aware of them. The reader knows who is behind the door, what is in the box, who is calling, where the bomb is etc. This purposeful structure of giving the reader the information before any character is what separates this genre. In other genres story can slowly unravel for the reader as the protagonists go on their quest. But in suspense, the reader knows exactly what dangers lie ahead. Suspense will be used by a writer working in any genre, but when they choose to make it the sole driving force of every scene, then the book is deemed a suspense novel.
- Science - Exploring the impact of a fictional science or one grounded in reality, on a society living in a parallel or futuristic universe. The stories vary greatly, but not in their central theme of how scientific innovations alter the lives of its protagonists. This change can come through a war with another species or machines, a genetic alteration, or the discovery and growing bond between two separate species. As with the universe portrayed in its pages, the canvas for the story is vast:
Hard Science-Fiction - Focusing on the hard sciences they are explained in great detail to produce a concept heavy story often to the detriment of character development. The meticulous attention is used to give an authenticity because the rules of physics are not allowed to be fictionalised within these stories. The science must be real.
Soft Science-Fiction - The soft sciences are used as a backdrop for stories where character development is the driving force of the story, instead of the science. Consequently the technicalities of science need not be explained. They simply exist and the protagonists must utilise them throughout in their quest to achieve their goal.
Space Opera - An epic story set in outer space where the conflict ensues with spaceships in an heroic battle between good and evil. Light speed travel, robots, ray-guns, a variety of alien beings,and advanced machinery, are just some of the recurring elements of these stories. Since the hero's quest is paramount, the science is constantly fictionalised and most of the rules of physics are broken to advance the story which at times can be melodramatic, hence why the 'opera' takes its influence from soap opera. Furthermore, the multiple story arcs can be spread across an entire series to create a saga. The most famous of these epics was actually first seen in cinema and such was its worldwide success that a string of books based on the movies have been written ever since: Star Wars.
Space Western - Using the Old West themes, especially that of The Final Frontier, the stories transpose American Westerns into an outer space setting. Back when Westerns were a popular genre of their own, this sub-genre of Science-Fiction was a common way for publishers to make a separate genre appeal to another readership. Sometimes it can be hard to differentiate these stories from Space Opera which uses most of the same elements. But where they can differ is in scale. Space Westerns need not be epic or told across a broad canvas. The stories can be much smaller and focus on a more manageable cast of characters.
Western Science-Fiction - The opposite of the Space Western because the Science-Fiction story takes place on Earth in an Old West setting. The use of futuristic technology in the past can be used for serious or comedic purposes, but both remain a hard sell for publishers.
Time Travel - The ability to travel into the future or past thrusts the protagonist through time in order to accomplish their quest. As such, they are often merged with other sub-genres, especially alternative history, where the time travelling has created a parallel universe.
Superheroes - The main protagonist of the story has superhuman powers or uses advanced technology to transform themselves into a superhero. Their quest is often to save a city or the world itself. Predominately seen in comics since their inception, their huge popularity as a genre of cinema, makes the novels attractive acquisitions for production companies.
Mundane Science-Fiction - Unlike most sci-fi stories, these are not set in other galaxies but instead are restricted within the boundaries of our own solar system, often completely based on Earth. Furthermore, the very notion of alternative worlds or advanced alien technology is seen as far-fetched. By grounding the stories in reality it enables them to focus on concrete scientific proof and explore the science in a setting familiar to the reader.
Alternative History Science-Fiction - Each of the stories seeks to portray a world where a key historical event has taken a different course, causing quite literally an alternative history. The stories do not have to take place on Earth, yet frequently do. What they do share regardless of the world itself, is how that world would have a very different future if a particular event had not occurred. This exploration can blend with time-travel, but can also start by changing the outcome of an historical event and then showing how bad or good things would be with this alternative history.
Apocalyptic Science-Fiction - A catastrophic disaster, whether it be war, disease, or nature, causes the end of civilisation. These stories focus on the build-up to that doomsday. Consequently, they are very much race against time stories as the protagonist/s seek to avert disaster and save their planet.
Post-Apocalyptic Science-Fiction - Dealing with the aftermath of a doomsday event, they can either focus on the immediate after effects, or long into the future where remnants of the past have almost been forgotten in a world now devoid of any technology. In all forms of media, there has been a tendency to blend these stories with other sub-genres of science-fiction as visitors from other worlds discover what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world when in fact it is anything but.
Utopian Science-Fiction - Set on a perfect world where the inhabitants live in an harmonious state.
Dystopian Science-Fiction - A nightmare world ruled by the forces of evil. In this setting the protagonist/s must battle to break free from the shackles, sometimes on their own, but often by leading a revolt against the ruling powers.
Military Science-Fiction - Conflict fought out in an interstellar or interplanetary setting between two opposing military powers, either human against alien, or a human among aliens. In the latter, a sole protagonist leads others towards a major climatic conflict. In essence a war story set in space.
Steampunk - Set in the Victorian era where steam power is still prevalent and used as a basis to merge with futuristic machines and gadgets. Incorporating modern or mostly advanced technologies in an older era has been a common sub-genre for both books and movies.
Biopunk - The abuse of biotechnology by either a totalitarian government or corporation for profit or as a means to control society itself. The characters join forces to fight against these powers and expose them for their wrong doings.
Nanopunk - The use of biotechnology is limited and barely mentioned as the society is instead dominated by nanotechnology. Frequently exploring the psychological impacts of this technology on the protagonist/s the sub-genre is becoming increasingly popular as the implications and possibilities of nanotechnology develop.
First Contact - A story focused on the meeting between one race and another, often humans meeting aliens for the first time. But occasionally one species of alien encountering another. The story structure is built towards the meeting and the importance of this first contact. A common sub-genre for movies and when done well a lucrative one for the writer.
Theological - Combining the strands of science with religion to explore how important the latter is to the former. Religion is the key ingredient to the story and how it gives meaning to everything being experienced.
- Fantasy - Blending elements of the fantastic with the supernatural, these stories set in magical imaginary worlds, have always been popular with the masses across all media forms. Intertwined with the story threads is a foundation that the driving force for the characters is that of folklore and mythology, unique to each story. This enables a writer to create their own set of rules for how the elements must be used by the characters to complete their quest.
Sword and Sorcery - Conflicts are battled out with either sword fights or / and the use of sorcery throughout. Both elements allow for lots of action, making it a popular choice for writers in film and television, as well as books.
Comic Fantasy - Humorous plots and characters in a fantasy setting. The humour itself is the key as the characters often make fun of their surroundings and predicaments. This allows writers to take elements of the fantastical and have fun with them.
High or Epic - Stories told across a broad canvas, frequently featuring a large number of characters and multiple settings. These epic battles between good and evil have been popular for centuries in works from J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin.
Romantic Fantasy - The quest can be shared, or one that the two protagonists battle against each other to achieve, but their developing romantic relationship becomes the focus, not the quest itself. As a result, the love between them is a hook which keeps the reader involved. At no point is this relationship taken further with explicit scenes of any kind. The focus throughout is the romance, not the acts of expression.
Medieval - Focusing on the period of history between the 5th century and 15th century, in which the Medieval era flourished. As a result, it features many of the elements associated with the fantasy genre itself: knights; dragons, wizards, taverns, and castles.
Urban Fantasy - The stories and central quest are set entirely in one city. There is a tendency to give them a contemporary setting, but the stories can take place during any period of history. It is the urban city setting of the story that defines the sub-genre.
Modern - Encompassing any of the elements of the fantasy genre, but keeping the story itself in a modern setting. The popularity of this sub-genre is best demonstrated by the huge success of the Harry Potter and Twilight series of books.
- Paranormal - A story featuring events and / or characters that cannot be explained by science. The supernatural elements are most commonly rooted in the present day to allow them to be portrayed as not of this world. It is also a genre which is frequently combined with other genres to create new sub-genres.
- Erotic - The emphasis is always on the sexual relationship between the characters rather than one of love. The extremities of these encounters are graphically described to arouse the reader as the writer tests the boundaries of taboo subjects. Consequently, throughout history governments have banned publishers from printing certain manuscripts, most notably, Lady Chatterley's Lover which was prosecuted in the UK under the Obscene Publications Act in 1959. Many other countries monitor the fiction in this genre and relentlessly enforce bans on those works which exploit taboo themes. As a result, the most successful books in the genre remain those which are closer to the mainstream of sexual fantasy, as demonstrated in the phenomenal publishing success of Fifty Shades of Grey.
- LGBT - Any strand of literature which explores lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender themes and characters. This in itself causes great consternation in some quarters as to why fiction should be categorised by the sexuality of its writer and / or reader.
- Western - Stories set in the American Old West between 1850 and 1890. During the subsequent century, these stories were hugely popular in publishing and especially in film and TV. However, the popularity has since waned and unless blended with other genres, these stories are a very hard sell within the industry.
- Horror - Written to provoke a psychological or emotional fear of the unknown, it is one of the oldest genres in existence. Tapping into the dread which terrorises its readers enables the fiction to leave an indelible mark. However, the popularity of horror films has challenged many writers to find innovative new ways to scare their readers.
- Graphic Novel - First coined in 1964, the fictional story is illustrated as a comic-strip throughout its pages. The advent of technology has brought it to the masses with interactive elements added within the story to immerse the reader further.
- New Adult - Coined by the publishers St. Martin's Press in 2009, the genre has steadily grown into a lucrative one for the industry. Focused on the 18-30 demographic, but predominately concerned with the lives of those in their early twenties, these coming-of-age reads deal with characters reflecting on their younger years as they strive to discover their place in the world as new adults.
- Young Adult (YA) - Dating back to the early 1800s, the term 'young adulthood' has been applied to some of the most successful books in publishing history. When it was fully immersed into the classification system in the 1950s its popularity grew both in print and onscreen. Although a high percentage of its fiction is read by those over 18, the stories themselves mainly centre around characters aged 12-18, dealing with external conflicts. As the voice of the protagonist is so important in this genre, many authors choose to use the first person narrative to tell their story.
- Middle Grade (MG) - Stories for the 8-12 age bracket and as such the main protagonist is always under 12-years-old. This emphasis on younger readers who themselves are just discovering their own voices, is reflected in the stories of the genre. Most of the conflict within these stories is internal, especially in how characters are coping inside their own head. The key to this fiction, is to give readers someone who is going through the same internal conflicts as themselves.
- Picture Books - The words are important, but generally not as important as the illustrations. Some writers are capable of combining both, making them desirable clients for literary agents. But often, a writer will join forces with an illustrator to create a book primarily for the under 8 age bracket.