Deciding what genre your book falls in can be a daunting task. There are a LOT of genres out there, and many times (if not most times) your book is going to have elements of more than one genre. It's best to stick to the main one or two when describing your book; but that still leaves you with the problem of deciding where your book would best fit. A good question to ask is, if you went into a bookstore, what section would your book be sitting in?
First of all, what is a genre?
Genre – basic definition – a literary term used to describe a group of works with similar characteristics such as characters, themes, and setting.
Seems easy enough. Until you see the list of genres :) Now, let's take a look at some definitions. There are more genres than you can shake a stick at – really. So this list nowhere near completes the possibilities, but these are the most common.
Action/Adventure: Often, though not always, aimed at a male audience. Contains elements of physical action, violence, danger (physical, global, etc), hazards, travel to exotic locations (jungles, deserts, tropical islands). Storylines often contain use of weapons, technology, martial arts. Can and often do contain elements of humor. Examples include the James Bond films, Indiana Jones, the Die Hard movies, the Rush Hour movies, the Mummy movies.
Chick-Lit: geared toward women, often urban settings, includes elements of romance, humor, professional struggles, relationships. Examples include Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City.
Contemporary: Mostly used to denote the setting. If you have a mystery that is set in present time, on this planet, etc, you could call it a Contemporary Mystery.
Experimental: Usually edgy in style or content. Pulp Fiction would be a good example.
Fantasy: Fantasy stories are set on other worlds or in other realities. You can have vampires or werewolves or fairies, but in general, fantasy creatures tend to be more…fantastic, mythological – dragons, gryphons, three-headed dog beasts. Magic is a huge element of fantasy stories. Here is a little test: if you can take away the “weird” in the story (i.e. the beasts, the magic) and the world you are left with is still not the normal, everyday world you know, it’s a fantasy story. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy.
--Urban Fantasy – this genre is actually closer to a paranormal than a fantasy. These stories deal with magical or paranormal elements in a real world, contemporary (or urban) setting. Many paranormal books could also be classified as Urban Fantasy, including Twilight, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series, and The Dresden Files.
General: This is kind of a blanket genre for anything that doesn’t fit in any of the other categories. On Golden Pond is an example of general fiction.
Historical: Portrays fictionalized accounts of real life historical events or people. In non-fiction and fiction, a story set in the 1940s or 1950s could be considered historical, and definitely anything set early than that. Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Sister and Anchee Min’s The Last Emperor are examples of historical fiction. This does not apply to Historical Romance. For Romance, anything after 1910 is still contemporary (for now…this may change the farther into the 2000s we get).
Horror: The plot usually contains threats to the main characters that often end in death or torture. Horror stories try to create a sense of horror, terror, and revulsion in its readers. This type of story doesn’t have to end happily. One or all of the good guys can lose. Stephen King's The Shining is a great example.
Humor/Comedy: The main goal of this genre is to make the reader laugh. Often combined with other elements such as romance and action/adventure. Austin Powers and Men In Black are examples of humor.
Inspirational: Mostly Christian-based storylines, though points of view of other religions are becoming more popular. Stories contain elements of faith and religion; working through life problems with a focus on a character’s beliefs and religion. An example of inspirational fiction is Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly series.
Literary: This one can be hard to define. Nathan Bransford has an excellent post about this. Literary fiction tends to be more geared to the characters, the inner workings of their minds and hearts. It does need to have a plot, but as Nathan states, the plot is often beneath the surface, whereas in commercial fiction, the plot is on the surface. Examples would be Out of Africa and Gilead.
Middle Grade: Geared toward preteens. Often have a moral message or lesson; the character learn about self-esteem, confidence, friendship, etc. Charlotte’s Web and Nim’s Island are examples.
Mystery: The plot is geared toward the solving of a problem, often, but not always, murder. Subplots are fine (many have a romantic element), but the “problem” (i.e. the mystery) presented at the beginning must be resolved. Murder on the Orient Express is an example.
Niche: This type of book will only appeal to a certain niche of reader. For example, if I wrote a fiction book about frogs that lived in Texas, and that was all the book was about, it would only appeal to those that liked frogs or the state of Texas. So, I would query my hypothetical book Frogs of Texas as Niche Fiction.
Paranormal: Paranormal stories are set in the real world, the world as we know it…with a little extra thrown in. Vampires, shapeshifters, fairies, elves, witches, demons, gargoyles, ghosts, psychics, mediums, telepaths, time travelers…these all belong in the paranormal world. Use the same test as we used for the fantasy worlds…if you can take away the “weird” factors and you are left with our everyday world = paranormal. For example, if you take away the sparkling, gorgeous vampire, or vengeful ghost, or the time portal the main characters travel through, and you are left with everyday Earth – your story is paranormal fiction. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse vampire books are examples of paranormal fiction.
Romance: The plot of a romance centers around a couple that fall in love and have a “happily ever after” ending. This is a must; there are no exceptions. If your couple is not happily in love and together at the end of your book, it’s not a romance. It might be a love story (in which case, it would go under women’s fiction) but a romance has to have a "happily ever after." You can have subplots, but the main plotline must be about the couple’s romance. Now, there are so many subgenres to the Romance genre (many totally unique to romance) that I will do a separate post on these next week, so stay tuned.
Science-Fiction: This one is actually pretty self-explanatory. It’s fiction about science. The plot usually has something to do with science or technology and has to be within the realm of possibility. Stories are often set in the future or on other planets. Star Wars, Stargate and Star Trek fall in this category, as do I, Robot, Starship Troopers, Dune, Ender’s Game, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, A Wrinkle in Time, and Jurassic Park.
Suspense: While often lumped together, suspense novels are generally not as intense as thrillers. The threat is often directed at the main character. Can include many elements but often includes mystery, murder, a little romance, danger, action.
Thriller: More intense than suspense; the threat is often against a larger group than just the main character (threats against the community, a city, a country, the world). Usually about life and death situations where ordinary heroes are up against mastermind villains. Generally lots of action and plot twists. The Da Vinci Code, The Hunt for Red October and Enemy of the State are examples.
Western: These are generally set in the Western United States before 1900. There are also contemporary westerns. An example of a Western is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.
Women's: There are several different sub-genres, but in general this genre is geared toward women; a woman is the main character and her development, life, experiences, etc, are the backbone of the story. Think Fried Green Tomatoes.
Young Adult: These books can include any genre but the main character should be the same age as the readers the story is geared toward (teens, 13-18). There can be romance but this element is usually on the tame side. Examples are the Harry Potter books, Twilight, Vampire Academy, and Wicked Lovely.
Once you have your genre down, you can pick your subgenres if necessary. However, do not list your book with more than three genres. If at all possible, keep it to two. You have to be able to narrow your book down. Remember our question. What shelf should it be on in a bookstore? It can only go in one section, so pick wisely. :) You might have six different elements in your book, but stick to the main two.
Really, the only two instances three genres might be necessary is for historicals and Young Adults. One because it tells the time period and the other because it tells the age the book is geared toward. My current book is YA Urban Fantasy. This isn’t overboard, but querying your book as a Mystery Thriller Urban Fantasy Women’s fiction with romantic and science fiction elements is a bit much. Your book may contain all of those but you don’t need to give it all away.
I do not mean to ignore non-fiction genres, but this list was getting very long and for the most part, they are pretty self-explanatory so I left them out of this post. However, if anyone is interested, please let me know either in the comments or by email (my address is in the list on the right) and I will do a post on non-fiction genres at a later date.