Choosing a genre is the starting point in all fiction writing. I cannot stress this enough. Please do not start your book until you are 100% clear on where your book will sit on the shelf. Genre is also a place that many writers get stuck. I found this list about 10 years ago somewhere and I have added to it and adapted it over the years.
I update this list regularly.
CRIME / MYSTERY
Crime fiction is one of the biggest selling genres today. In crime there is always a body and the story revolves around finding out "whodunit." The main character is generally a police officer, an amateur detective, or a private eye, although some stories feature journalists or other civilians.
A mystery must be solved by the end of the book.
Readers expect to be able to solve the mystery along with the main character.
False clues are common, but true clues must be mixed in and logically clear by the end of the book.
A mystery is a novel of revelation, with action more mental than physical. A significant event, usually a murder, has just occurred, and the protagonist’s job is to discover who committed the crime, and why.
Often the villain and the details of the crime must remain unidentified, breaking Hitchcock’s rule of keeping the audience informed.
Child in Peril: a mystery involving the abduction or persecution of a child.
Classic Whodunit: a crime that is solved by a detective, from the detective’s point of view, with all clues available to the reader.
Comic (Bumbling Detective): a mystery played for laughs, often featuring a detective who is grossly unskilled (but often solves the crime anyway, owing to tremendous good luck).
Cozy: a mystery that takes place in a small town—sometimes in a single home—where all the suspects are present and familiar with one another, except the detective, who is usually an eccentric outsider.
Courtroom Drama: a mystery that takes place through the justice system—often the efforts of a defense attorney to prove the innocence of his client by finding the real culprit.
Dark Thriller: a mystery that ventures into the fear factor and graphic violence of the horror genre.
Espionage: the international spy novel—here based less on action than on solving the “puzzle”—is today less focused on the traditional enemy spies than on terrorists.
Forensic: a mystery solved through the forensics lab, featuring much detail and scientific procedure.
Heists and Capers: an “antihero” genre which focuses on the planning and execution of a crime, told from the criminal’s perspective.
Historical: a mystery that takes place in a specific, recognizable period of history, with much emphasis on the details of the setting.
Inverted: stories in which the reader knows “whodunit,” but the suspense arises from watching the detective figure it out.
Locked Room: a mystery in which the crime is apparently committed under impossible circumstances (but eventually elicits a rational explanation).
Medical: generally involving a medical threat (e.g., a viral epidemic), or the illegitimate use of medical technology.
Police Procedural: a crime solved from the perspective of the police, following detailed, real-life procedures.
Private Detective: Focused on the independent snoop-for-hire, these have evolved from tough-guy “hard-boiled” detectives to the more professional operators of today.
Psychological Suspense: mysteries focused on the intricacies of the crime and what motivated the perpetrator to commit them.
Romantic: a mystery in which the crime-solvers fall in love.
Techno thriller: a spinoff from the traditional thriller mystery, with an emphasis on high technology.
Thriller: a suspense mystery with a wider—often-international—scope and more action.
Woman in Jeopardy: focuses on a woman put into peril by a crime, and her struggles to overcome or outwit the perpetrator.
Young Adult: a story aimed at a teenage audience, with a hero detective generally the same age or slightly older than the reader, pursuing criminals who are generally less violent—but often just as scary—as those in adult mysteries.
THINK ..... John Harvey, Ian Rankin, Stella Duffy, Nicholas Blincoe, Lauren Henderson, Mike Phillips and Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Carl Hiaasen, Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, Patricia Cornwell (queen of the forensics genre), Walter Mosley, Andrew Vachss and James Patterson. Dexter could fit into either the thriller or horror subgenre of crime — as he’s a serial killer and a detective.
Thrillers can be set in any time and can be combined with other genres such as science fiction or romance, and can focus in specific areas such as the courtroom (think John Grisham) or the hospital (as in Robin Cook and Michael Crichton in some of their books).
Thriller implies suspense and action. It needs to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. It’s a race against time. There is always a threat to the lead character, and usually to their life (or the lives of their family) . The protagonist’s job is to prevent the speeding bus from exploding, or the aliens from eating the crew. The reader experiences a vicarious thrill by identifying with the hero and the danger he faces, becoming a participant in the chase. Often it involves ‘insider’ knowledge of the sub-genre.
The mystery in a thriller is not necessarily the who, but instead, the why and the how, building suspense as the protagonists race against time to catch the criminal before they strike again – who cares if it’s the Russians or the Chinese – they are going to blow up New York for heaven’s sake!
AUTHORS: Tom Clancy, David Balducci, Ian Flemming, John le Carre,
Action: a story that often features a race against the clock, lots of violence, and an obvious antagonist.
Comic: a thriller played for laughs, whether through a spoof of the genre or wisecracking interplay between the protagonists.
Conspiracy: a thriller in which the hero battles a large, powerful group whose true extent only he recognizes.
Crime: a story focused on the commission of a crime, often from the point of view of the criminals.
Disaster: a story in which Mother Nature herself is the antagonist, in the form of a hurricane, earthquake or some other natural menace.
Eco-Thriller: a story in which the hero battles some ecological calamity Ð and often has to also fight the people responsible for creating that calamity.
Erotic: a thriller in which sex plays a major role.
Espionage: the classic international spy novel, which is enjoying a resurgence with one important change: where spies used to battle enemy spies, they now battle terrorists.
Forensic: a thriller featuring the work of forensic experts, whose involvement often puts their own lives at risk.
Historical: a thriller taking place in a specific and recognizable historic period.
Horror: a story—generally featuring some monstrous villain Ð in which fear and violence play a major part, complete with graphic descriptions.
Legal: a thriller in which a lawyer confronts enemies outside as well as inside the courtroom, generally putting his own life at risk.
Medical: a thriller featuring medical personnel, whether battling a legitimate medical threat such as a world-wide virus, or the illegal or immoral use of medical technology.
Military: a thriller featuring a military protagonist, often working behind enemy lines or as part of a specialized force.
Police Procedural: a crime thriller that follows the police as they work their way through a case.
Political Intrigue: a thriller in which the hero must ensure the stability of the government that employs him.
Psychological: a suspenseful thriller in which the conflict between the characters is mental and emotional rather than physical—until an often violent resolution.
Romantic: a thriller in which the protagonists are romantically involved.
Supernatural: a thriller in which the hero, the antagonist, or both have supernatural powers.
Technological: a thriller in which technology Ð usually run amok Ð is central to the plot.
ACTION / ADVENTURE NOVELS
Action-adventure fiction, traditionally (but not exclusively) aimed at male readers, features physical action and violence, often around a quest or military-style mission that can be set in exotic or forbidding locales such as jungles, deserts, or mountains.
Authors... Wilbur Smith, Lee Child, George R Martin Game of Thrones, Clive Cussler, Jules Verne, Walter Scott, Jack London, David Baldacci, JK Rowling's Harry Potter (although technically a Young Adult Action), Michael Crichton (action or also thriller), Dan Brown, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Traditional romance novels focus on the relationship between the female main character and a male love interest. They usually (but not always) have scenes from both characters’ points of view. A romance can take place in the present, in the past, or in the future. The most important thing for a romance writer to keep in mind is that no other part of the plot can overshadow the romance. The book should have a happy or optimistic ending and the usual goal is marriage or engagement. As the Aomance Writers of America put it ’Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending’
“If you can take the love interest out and it’s still a story, it’s not a romance.”
–Jayne Ann Krentz, author
50 Shades of Gray, EL James, Danielle Steel, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Margaret Mitchell, Nicholas Sparks, The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Nora Roberts
Chick-Lit: often humorous romantic adventures geared toward single working women in their twenties and thirties.
Christian: romances in which both hero and heroine are devout Christians, typically focused on a chaste courtship, and mentioning sex only after marriage.
Contemporary: a romance using modern characters and true-to-life settings.
Erotica: also called “romantica,” a romance in which the bedroom doors have been flung open and sexual scenes are described in candid language.
Glitz/Glamor: focused on the jet-set elite and celebrity-like characters.
Historical: a romance taking place in a recognizable historical period.
Multicultural: a romance centered on non-Caucasian characters, largely African-American or Hispanic.
Paranormal: involving some sort of supernatural element, ranging widely to include science fiction/fantasy aspects such as time travel, monsters or psychic abilities.
Romantic Comedy: a romance focused on humor, ranging from screwball antics to witty interplay.
Romantic Suspense: a novel in which an admirable heroine is pitted against some evil force (but in which the romantic aspect still maintains priority).
Sensual: based on the sensual tension between hero and heroine, including sizzling sex scenes.
Spicy: a romance in which married characters work to resolve their problems.
Sweet: a romance centered on a virgin heroine, with a storyline containing little or no sex.
Young Adult: written with the teenage audience in mind, with a suitably lower level of sexual content.
FANTASY and SCIENCE FICION / SCI-FI
Fantasy can be set in any time period. Most fantasies start with the assumption that magic exists and work from there. The magic can be an active element or can be incidental to the plot. J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a classic example of a fantasy. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is a modern fantasy. Holly Lisle’s World Gates series is also fantasy.
Science fiction generally focuses on technological advances and their impact on characters and civilizations. The science in these books is expected to follow existing scientific theories and principles or to deviate from them logically. A scientific system that is different from what we know is still expected to be consistent and logical. In science fiction, science is the star, but it’s still important to have interesting characters.
“Science fiction is potentially real; fantasy is not.”
–Marlene Stringer, agent
Alternate History: speculative fiction that changes the accepted account of actual historical events, often featuring a profound “what if?” premise.
Arthurian Fantasy: reworkings of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Bangsian Fantasy: stories speculating on the afterlives of famous people.
Biopunk: a blend of film noir, Japanese anime and post-modern elements used to describe an underground, nihilistic biotech society.
Children’s Fantasy: a kinder, gentler style of fantasy aimed at very young readers.
Comic: fantasy or science fiction that spoofs the conventions of the genre, or the conventions of society.
Cyberpunk: stories featuring tough outsiders in a high-tech near-future where computers have produced major changes in society.
Dark Fantasy: tales that focus on the nightmarish underbelly of magic, venturing into the violence of horror novels.
Dystopian: stories that portray a bleak future world.
Erotic: SF or fantasy tales that focus on sexuality.
Game-Related Fantasy: tales with plots and characters similar to high fantasy, but based on a specific role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons.
Hard Science Fiction: tales in which real present-day science is logically extrapolated to the future.
Heroic Fantasy: stories of war and its heroes, the fantasy equivalent of military science fiction.
High/Epic Fantasy: tales with an emphasis on the fate of an entire race or nation, often featuring a young “nobody” hero battling an ultimate evil.
Historical: speculative fiction taking place in a recognizable historical period.
Mundane SF: a movement that spurns fanciful conceits like warp drives, wormholes and faster-than-light travel for stories based on scientific knowledge as it actually exists.
Military SF: war stories that extrapolate existing military technology and tactics into the future.
Mystery SF: a cross-genre blend that can be either an SF tale with a central mystery or a classic whodunit with SF elements.
Mythic Fiction: stories inspired, or modeled on, classic myths, legends and fairy tales.
New Age: a category of speculative fiction that deals with occult subjects such as astrology, psychic phenomena, spiritual healing, UFOs and mysticism.
Post-Apocalyptic: stories of life on Earth after an apocalypse, focusing on the struggle to survive.
Romance: speculative fiction in which romance plays a key part.
Religious: centering on theological ideas, and heroes who are ruled by their religious beliefs.
Science Fantasy: a blend in which fantasy is supported by scientific or pseudo-scientific explanations.
Social SF: tales that focus on how characters react to their environments Ð including social satire.
Soft SF: tales based on the more subjective, “softer” sciences: psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.
Space Opera: a traditional good guys/bad guys faceoff with lots of action and larger-than-life characters.
Spy-Fi: tales of espionage with SF elements, especially the use of high-tech gadgetry.
Steampunk: a specific type of alternate history in which characters in Victorian England have access to 20th century technology.
Superheroes: stories featuring characters endowed with superhuman strengths or abilities.
Sword and Sorcery: a classic genre often set in the medieval period, and more concerned with immediate physical threats than high or heroic fantasy.
Thriller SF: an SF story that takes on the classic world-at-risk, cliffhanger elements of a thriller.
Time-Travel: stories based on the concept of moving forward or backward in time, often delving into the existence of parallel worlds.
Urban Fantasy: a fantasy tale in which magical powers and characters appear in an otherwise normal modern context, similar to Latin American magical realism.
Vampire: variations on the classic vampire legend, recently taking on many sexual and romantic variations.
Wuxia: fantasy tales set within the martial arts traditions and philosophies of China.
Young Adult: speculative fiction aimed at a teenage audience, often featuring a hero the same age or slightly older than the reader.
Horror plays on the fear of the unknown, the supernatural, the monsters that we still secretly believe hide under our beds. This genre can also include the supernatural thriller. Medical thrillers can also be included in this genre, especially if they focus on horrors created by medical intervention or tampering. Stephen King is the master of the horror genre. John Saul, Dean Koontz, and Robin Cook are other stars of the genre. There are now also sub-genres of horror such as books that feature vampires.
AUTHORS: Steven King, Dean Koontz, William Peter Blatty, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas Harris.
Child in Peril: involving the abduction and/or persecution of a child.
Comic Horror: horror stories that either spoof horror conventions or that mix the gore with dark humor.
Creepy Kids: horror tale in which children Ð often under the influence of dark forces Ð begin to turn against the adults.
Dark Fantasy: a horror story with supernatural and fantasy elements.
Dark Mystery/Noir: inspired by hardboiled detective tales, set in an urban underworld of crime and moral ambiguity.
Erotic Vampire: a horror tale making the newly trendy link between sexuality and vampires, but with more emphasis on graphic description and violence.
Fabulist: derived from “fable,” an ancient tradition in which objects, animals or forces of nature are anthropomorphized in order to deliver a moral lesson.
Gothic: a traditional form depicting the encroachment of the Middle Ages upon the 18th century Enlightenment, filled with images of decay and ruin, and episodes of imprisonment and persecution.
Hauntings: a classic form centering on possession by ghosts, demons or poltergeists, particularly of some sort of structure.
Historical: horror tales set in a specific and recognizable period of history.
Magical Realism: a genre inspired by Latin-American authors, in which extraordinary forces or creatures pop into otherwise normal, real-life settings.
Psychological: a story based on the disturbed human psyche, often exploring insane, altered realities and featuring a human monster with horrific, but not supernatural, aspects.
Quiet Horror: subtly written horror that uses atmosphere and mood, rather than graphic description, to create fear and suspense.
Religious: horror that makes use of religious icons and mythology, especially the angels and demons derived from Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Science-Fiction Horror: SF with a darker, more violent twist, often revolving around alien invasions, mad scientists, or experiments gone wrong.
Splatter: a fairly new, extreme style of horror that cuts right to the gore.
Supernatural Menace: a horror tale in which the rules of normal existence don’t apply, often featuring ghosts, demons, vampires and werewolves.
Technology: stories featuring technology that has run amok, venturing increasingly into the expanding domain of computers, cyberspace, and genetic engineering.
Weird Tales: inspired by the magazine of the same name, a more traditional form featuring strange and uncanny events (Twilight Zone).
Young Adult: horror aimed at a teen market, often with heroes the same age, or slightly older than, the reader.
Zombie: tales featuring dead people who return to commit mayhem on the living.
MIDDLE GRADE FICTION (MGF)
“Middle grade and 'young adult' describe audiences, not genres, because a tremendous variety of books fall in each category. The core audience for middle grade is 8 to 12-year-olds (tweens), and young adult is 12 to 18. Most readers in MGF have moved out of needing pictures, but a few illustrations can be included for the younger bracket of reader. The word count for these books is from 10,000 to 50,000 as the reader (and your hero) moves up in age.
AUTHORS: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson, Skulduggery, Louis Sachar, Rick Riordan’s The Lightening Thief.
YOUNG ADULT FICTION (YA)
For readers ages 12-18
Plots can be complex with several major characters, though one character should emerge as the focus of the book. Themes should be relevant to the problems and struggles of today’s teenagers, regardless of the genre. The lead character is always a teen but, beyond that, YA stories span the spectrum of fiction genres. Themes in YA stories often focus on the challenges of youth, sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming-of-age novels.
Some break down YA further into two fuzzy categories, young YA and edgy/older YA. Young YA usually features characters not much older than middle grade characters (though they might be older if it’s a ‘clean read’) and the plot/content will be a little more mature than that found in MG but still shy away from graphic depiction of edgy subjects, even if it tackles them in theme (children tend to read up, so a 12- or 13-year-old will likely be a middle-grade character while a 14-year-old in a somewhat tame tale might be a YA character). Edgier YA won’t shy away from more graphic depiction of sex, won’t shy away from using strong language, and will sometimes be gory in violence. Edgier YA characters will often be older teens, but not necessarily.”
AUTHORS: JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games, Divergent, Hunger Games.
NEW ADULT FICTION (NA)
New Adult fiction is more recent genre and it bridges the gap between Young Adult and Adult genres. It typically features protagonists between the ages of 18 and 24 (some say it can go up to 30). Any story applies and heat level / violence can be high. These can be complex plots and advanced books, just keep your protagonist’s age in line with the reader’s.
AUTHORS: The Magicians by Lev Grossman, A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowel
Some readers and writers believe “literary” and “mainstream” are interchangeable, but there is a difference when it comes to marketing a novel. Literary novels do not necessarily have to be lucrative. At one time publishing houses published literary novels because they added class to the catalog. Literary novels are usually published in smaller numbers. They sometimes focus on word usage over plot. Sometimes literary novels do not have an active, obvious plot. They tend to be “informed” by previously acknowledged classics, or they self-consciously try to break the mold and create their own literary form. Also, some will insist that literary works are not in a genre, but ask any publisher and you will learn that these meet the definition.
AUTHORS: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, JM Coetzee, Ernest Hemmingway, Harper Lee, Andre Brink, Arundahai Roy, Margaret Atwood.
CHIC LIT / LAD LIT
Women’s fiction, also known as "Chick Lit," is sometimes considered a sub-genre of romance. It borrows some elements of romance, yet does not necessarily focus on the pursuit of one relationship or the happily ever after ending. Chick Lit tends to feature sophisticated, savvy women in their 20s and 30s, although characters can be older or younger. The characters might bounce from man to man in search of the perfect relationship, or they might focus more on their friends and jobs. They are generally looking for a perfect something, whether it’s a perfect man, a perfect figure, a perfect job, or a perfect pair of shoes. "Mommy Lit" is a spin off from Chick Lit.
AUTHORS: The most famous example of Chick Lit is Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding. Paige Nick, Gwen Cooper, Janet Evanovitch.
This grouping includes its own set of extensive sub genres, including toddlers, picture books, baby books, early picture books, easy readers, transition books. It spans from baby to 11 years old. It is essential if you are writing a children's book to clearly know your age bracket and the level of book and word count required.