Genres and Subgenres Defined

Agents and editors inevitably ask the following 3 questions: Is your book finished? What’s the word count? What genre? The question of genre seems to cause writers perpetual grief. Despite popular opinion that agents are just trying to trip new writers up to laugh at them, this is a perfectly valid question.

What do you mean I have to categorize my work?

bookstoreNow, I know what you’re thinking. If only agents could get past this genre thing you’re sure they’d love your inspirational paranormal Amish romance. Writers like Ted Dekker or George Martin don’t have to abide by silly genre rules. Well… First, these really big name authors have huge followings that to a certain extent buy books based on their brand. And those writers actually do adhere to genre rules.

Janette Oke didn’t create inspirational fiction, Stephen King wasn’t the first to write horror, Nora Roberts wasn’t the first romance novelist. All of these writers took an old idea and put their own twist on it, but there were still genre rules they had to abide by. If you want to see your book on the shelf at the local bookstore or on Amazon, booksellers have to know where to put your book. Here are a few quick definitions of existing fiction genres:


Romance must focus on the romantic relationship and love between two people, and according to the Romance Writers of America must have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” Period. Those are deal breakers for romance fans. If you kill your hero, your readers are going to hate you.

Subgenres of romance can be divided by time periods – historical (before WW2), contemporary (after WW2), Regency, etc. Other subgenres are defined by content such as erotica, romantica, and inspirational. Other subgenres are defined by sub-plots such as in romantic suspense, or paranormal which would include time travel, futuristic, urban fantasy (werewolves, vampires), etc.


Inspirational stories are written primarily for the evangelical Christian market, and use explicitly Christian themes and are written in combination with a wide variety of other genres. Generally, inspirational novels do not include gratuitous violence, explicit descriptions of sex, promiscuous sexual behavior, swearing, and inherently include the character’s relationship with God.

Science Fiction

Science fiction deals with content that is more or less possible within the current plausibility of our own natural world, or at least, isn’t supernatural. Science fiction includes future settings, plausible science, futuristic technology, extra-sensory or perception abilities, and space travel–alternate realities using rational explanations. Star Trek is one of the most successful science fiction franchises out there. Star Trek writers included futuristic automatic doors on their space ships back when engineers were just beginning to experiment with the idea – and now we encounter them at every Wal-Mart across North America.


Crime fiction focuses on a crime, and the solving of that crime. The crime plot must be the primary plot. Crime fiction has many subgenres that often blurr the lines between other genres. According to the Crime Writers of Canada, “The field of Crime Writing is a broad category that includes crime, detective, espionage, mystery, suspense, and thriller writing, as well as fictional or factual accounts of criminal doings and crime-themed literary works. Cross-over novels and short stories such as romantic suspense and speculative thrillers are also considered part of the genre.”


With a thriller, the main protagonist must foil the antagonist more than solve a crime. So the hero may be the detective assigned to a serial killer case, but the focus isn’t on the crime committed, but in catching the killer. Often the hero is put in imminent and potentially fatal danger, and the scope of the crime is much larger than with a crime novel. The hero isn’t searching to solve the disappearance of Joe the Mechanic, but the man who’s raped and murdered 13 children and now has targeted the hero’s daughter. Think big – like Jack Ryan big: assassinations, government coos, etc.

Subgenres include psychological thrillers, and suspense thrillers. says, “the suspense thriller has been loosely defined as a story in which the audience is waiting for something significant to happen. 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.”


When I think modern horror, I think Freddie Krueger or Scream. But horror has its roots with Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. According to the Horror Writers Association, “horror can deal with the mundane or the supernatural, with the fantastic or the normal. It doesn’t have to be full of ghosts, ghouls, and things to go bump in the night. Its only true requirement is that it elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.”


Fantasy, obviously, deals with some aspect of an alternate reality, an alternate world, and often encompasses myths, folklore and legend. Here is a really great post that outlines the major subgenres of fantasy. The Science Fiction and Fantasy writers association is one of the best writer resources out there, even for those who write outside this genre so be sure to check it out.

What is your favorite genre? What genre are you writing right now?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.


9 comments on “Genres and Subgenres Defined

  1. Lisa,
    I work under the umbrella of Speculative Fiction and allow the subgenre to develop as I’m writing. I focus more on character. I create the characters, the characters shape the plot, and the plot defines the genre (or subgenre). On the whole, I work in horror, but I’ve also written epic fantasy, alternate history, historical fiction, etc… I figure as long as I market myself as a Speculative Fiction writer, I can play around with different subgenres. 🙂

    Thanks for the informative post!
    —Jessica McHugh

  2. Ah, yes, this is a problem for me. If my genre existed, it would be a sort of upmarket ghost fiction–both what I love to read and am currently writing. If my genre existed, it would contain Her Fearful Symmetry, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, A Stir of Echoes, The House Next Door, Heart-Shaped Box, Water Ghosts, A Second Glance. Unfortunately, some of the books I want are in women’s fiction; some are shelved in horror. But the horror genre is full of vampires and demons, which I abhor, so I find myself flitting from shelf to shelf like some tortured ghost.

  3. Yes, many genres blend and blurr. It’s often a marketing decision deciding which genre to market your work in. Fantasy is selling really well, so a lot of people are choosing to come under than umbrella rather than horror or historical for instance which aren’t selling as well. But usually the pendulum swings back. Romance always sells well, that’s why there’s so many subgenres of romance.

  4. I’ve often joked that genre is the reason I can’t finish my memoir. Right now it’s easy to say, “I’m writing a memoir.” What do I write after that? It’s all very confusing sometimes. I am working on a picture book – that genre can get complicated sometimes too. (Not sure how it happened, but I unsubscribed to my GWP email. Thanks to FB, I saw this post and realized the error)

  5. My writing group meets in October. And wouldn’t you know it, the genre is horror. I automatically assumed it had to be about goblins and ghosts and all that’s gory. But reading that horror only has to “elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread,” well… heck, perhaps I can come up with a short story after all.

    I like to read inspirational and crime genres. And my novel falls under the inspirational young adult genre.

    Thanks for another great post.

  6. My MIP is a fantasy. I’m kinda stuck as to subgenre though. It’s set in a pre-industrial time (or maybe in a world that was once advanced and but everyones forgotten…not really crucial to the story) and there’s some horror elements. I just stick with fantasy or dark fantasy when asked. 😀

  7. I don’t specifically aim for a genre in particular. With that said, I gravitate towards fantasy, adventure and literary fiction.

    Sonia, I feel your pain. There does not seem to be any consensus about the difference between high fantasy, epic fantasy, dark fantasy, etc. I wager that branding has an important role in what genre name you use; not just for fantasy, but across the board.

  8. Pingback: Fantasy Sub-Genres | Marcy Kennedy & Lisa Hall-Wilson

  9. Pingback: Inspirational Fiction Genre | Marcy Kennedy & Lisa Hall-Wilson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s