Writing Clinic: Defining Genre

I have to confess. I am always rather amused when someone posts a thread claiming they have created a new genre when in fact all they have done is write a paranormal romance or urban fantasy. Too often, people get lost in the “gimmicks” in their story instead of focusing on the story’s actual theme. 99% of the time, the issue is not that the author has created a new genre, but has a significant lack of genre literacy and simply does not understand the genres available. The other 1% of the time, I swear the author just wants attention. 😮 This isn’t a problem unique to indies. Big publishers often deliberately mislabel books not because they don’t know any better, but because they want to capitalize on certain demographics.

But the problem with this is that it causes confusion in the marketplace. A reader looking for a good horror novel wants a horror novel. They don’t want to troll through five pages of paranormal romances first. Someone looking for a mystery wants to be able to find a mystery without having to guess whether or not the book they are looking at is a real mystery or a chick lit novel that just happens to have a female detective.

Genres are not defined by the nouns present in a book. Just because a book has a vampire in it, it is not automatically horror. Just because someone falls in love, that doesn’t automatically make it a romance. Genres are defined by their themes and how they present the narrative. What, ultimately, is the goal of the book? What is the message being conveyed? What is it the book is trying to achieve? THIS is how you define genre, not whether or not your protagonist is a half-fairy/half-dragon whose best friend is a robot that is reincarnated from an ancient shaman.

Here is a genre cheat sheet to provide thumbnail descriptions of the most common genres found among indie authors. It is not meant to be all inclusive, but should provide a good launch point for identifying genre. Writers interested in more detailed explanations of the various genre styles can find countless writer guides that provided detailed discussions of genre.

Genre Cheat Sheet:

Chick Lit: Specifically addresses the issues of being a woman. Usually uses lighthearted humor. Though often contains romantic themes, differs from romance in that the protagonist’s primary relationships are more focused on friends and family, not her love interest.

Christian Fiction: Originally a sub-genre of Inspirational fiction, Christian fiction specifically promotes evangelical values and the glorification of God and Jesus. Christian Fiction often takes a strong literalistic view of the Bible and applies that outlook to the narrative. As such, Christian fiction may employ tropes found in speculative works, but from a literalist perspective.

Fantasy: Magic and the supernatural are the primary motivators of the plot, presented within a self-contained world. Such books do not rely on pseudo-science to explain the existence of the supernatural, and tend toward very clear “good versus evil” tropes.

Fantasy Sub-genres:

Epic Fantasy: A Fantasy novel that takes place exclusively in a parallel or invented world. Plots normally involve world-impacting events and grand struggles against supernatural, evil forces.

Sword and Sorcery: Darker, gritter fantasy with a high focus on action/adventure. The Hero’s quests are of a more personal nature instead of world-impacting nature.

Urban Fantasy: A fantasy novel set in an urban environment, usually focused on the conflict between humans and a supernatural force and how this conflict impacts the urban setting.

Horror: Specifically sets out to scare or terrify the reader. Designed to provoke a feeling of dread and fear.

Horror sub-genres:

Gothic Horror: a type of fiction that combines elements of both horror and romance, though it rarely results in a HEA (see Romance). The location of events is often essential to the mood of the book, and usually involves at least some limited isolation from the rest of society (such as a castle).

Gothic Punk:Dystopian story told in the modern era that involves supernatural characters, often as anti-heroes.

Survival Horror: A type of horror in which the characters are faced with dwindling resources and an unrelenting threat. Zombie stories often fall under this category.

Inspirational: Broadly, refers to works of fiction which promotion strong spiritual themes in which the characters’ spirituality is the primary motivator of the narrative. More narrowly, refers to works which promote or encourage a Christian outlook towards life’s problems. Such books generally focus on overcoming adversity through adopting a Christian approach.

Literary Fiction: Literary fiction focuses primarily of form and style, unlike popular (mainstream or general fiction) which focuses more on narrative and plot. Literary is less a genre than a way of writing that relies heavily on the presentation to carry the story.

Mystery: Focuses on the investigation of a crime that has already occurred in order to bring the guilty party to justice. Unlike the thriller, the focus of the mystery is usually on actual police procedures and intuitive deduction instead of high impact tension.

Romance: Specifically focuses is on romantic love between two people, with an emotionally satisfying ending (usually, happily ever after, or HEA). There are dozens of sub-genres in the Romance genre with very specific requirements. The Romance Wiki has a huge listing of the various sub-genres.

Science Fiction: Focuses on fantastic but logically plausible creatures and technological developments while looking at the consequences of such developments. It is generally defined as writing rationally about alternative possibilities. The difference between Hard and Soft Science fiction is defined in terms of how much attention to detail is placed on the science being presented.


Apocalyptic: Focuses on the end of the world, almost always through some form of technology gone horribly wrong (nuclear war, virus, etc).

Cyberpunk: Near future dystopian story primarily focused on the struggles of reluctant anti-heroes.

Space opera: A type of science fiction where the primary focus is more on action and adventure and less on the hard science behind the story.

Steampunk: Defined by the placement of advanced technology in a past time period, usually the 19th century, and how such technology might have changed life in the time.

Thriller: The primary focus of the thriller is to generate tension and excitement in the readers, putting them on the edge of their seats as the plot careens towards its climax. The thriller is identified by its focus on trying to prevent the villain from completing his task, with the hero normally racing against the clock to save the victims or prevent the villain’s plans from achieving fruition.

Thriller Sub-genres

Conspiracy Theory: The main character confronts secret organizations, corrupt government agencies or powerful corporations to unravel a plot only he can see.

Legal The narrative revolves around the hero confronting enemies within the courtroom and in the process being forced into situations in which not only the case, but the hero’s physical well-being or the well-being of those around him is threatened.

Political: Political thrillers involve plots to overthrow or destabilize entire governments.

Psychological: Psychological thrillers are more dependent on mental battles instead of physical confrontation. Characters often find themselves emotionally or psychologically threatened or challenged.

Young Adult: Specifically addresses coming of age issues, told in such a way as to be accessible to readers younger than the protagonists. This differs from the traditional coming of age tale, which is normally told from a nostalgic standpoint and is written with the sensibilities of older readers in mind.

Genre can cover a wide range of styles. To further help readers narrow their search; you can add a descriptor to the genre to alert the reader as to what they can expect. Some genres, particularly romance, have their whole own vocabulary in terms of descriptors. Following, however, are some of the most common descriptors you will come across.

Dark: Added to indicate a book contains a darker, perhaps more morose approach, but otherwise follows the norms of the genre. Example: Dark Fantasy

Erotic: Added to indicate a book contains graphic sex scenes, but otherwise follows the norms of the genre. Example: Erotic Mystery

Futuristic: Added to indicate the book is set in the future of the real world. Unlike science fiction, the technology presented is merely to provide setting structure and not essential to the plot. The book otherwise follows the norms of its genre.

Historical: Added to indicate a book is set in a time period other than the modern era and seeks to accurately portray the time period, but otherwise follows the norms of the genre. Example: Historical Romance

Paranormal/Supernatural: Added to indicate the characters may be supernatural in origin, but otherwise the book follows the norms of the genre. Example: Paranormal thriller.

Young Adult: added to indicate the book is written with the sensibilities of young readers in mind, but otherwise follows the norms of the genre. Unlike the YA genre, the book does not specifically address coming of age issues, but rather is written to be accessible to young readers. Example: Young Adult Inspirational.

Categorizing books

Most of the confusion over genre comes from a concern that someone selecting a genre limits your audience. None of this means that a book cannot have cross over appeal. None of this means a book cannot straddle the line between related genres. All it means is that you are providing a primary indicator to readers so that they have some idea of what to expect from the story. It does you no good to cast a wide net if that net allows the readers you want to swim through it.

Of course, most retail websites do not list every sub-genre option. Most use very broad categories, or even group related categories together. Mysteries and Thrillers, for example, are often grouped together under a single category. Horror often gets lumped under Fantasy. This adds to the confusion.

To help readers who want to read your type of book find it, select the genre closest to your primary objective with the story. If you have written a paranormal mystery, and there is no mystery category available, list the book as a Thriller (not horror or fantasy) because the mystery genre is closer to a Thriller and paranormal is merely a descriptor. Then in your keywords, include “mystery” and “paranormal” so that when people search for those words they can find your book.

Instinct says to also include “fantasy” as a keyword, because fantasy readers might like your book too. Do not follow your instincts in this case. Such marginal keyword usage only clogs up search functionality, particularly when a critical mass of people are mislabeling their books. Your goal as a marketer is not to think about people who “might” like your book. Your goal as a marketer is to get your book in front of people who are looking for books like it.

5 thoughts on “Writing Clinic: Defining Genre

  1. This is an excellent post and one I wish I had come across a lot sooner. There is indeed a lot of confusion about genres and what specifically defines them. I have this problem with my first book – it’s a memoir with some graphic sex scenes, written in a chick lit style. When I came to publish it there was no way I could skim over the adult content, so I branded it memoir/erotica.
    When I first came into the indie world I had no idea of what defined half of these genres. I had never heard of steampunk/cyberpunk before.

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  4. “…your protagonist is a half-fairy/half-dragon whose best friend is a robot that is reincarnated from an ancient shaman.”

    I must insist that you set about writing this book immediately. If you do not, I will submit zombie fiction to you until my dying day.

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