QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Defining Genres: Where Does Your Book Fit?

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?

– 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.


Amanda Bonilla said...

Great post Michelle!
When I first started querying I wasn't sure what genre to list. I even did some research but what I eventually chose, what not the genre that my novel fit into.

I used Fantasy/Romance or Sci-Fi/Romance at first and even in some top-notch books for writers there was no mention of Paranormal as a genre.

It wasn't until an agent pointed it out to me that I realized my novel was not Science Fiction, it wasn't Fantasy, it was Paranormal. Mislabeling your genre can really hurt a query and I'm sure I was shot down a few times because of it.

I have to say, your post filled me in on a few more genre things I didn't know about! Keep up the good work. The better informed we are, the better the chances we'll get that request for a partial, full or better!

Anonymous said...

What a great post. Well thought out and explained. Thank you so much!

Stina said...

Great post Michelle. So I shouldn't list my novel as YA urban fantasy romance with a chick lit voice, huh?

By the way, loved all four YA examples you gave. Do you have a camera on my bookshelf or what? ;)

Anonymous said...

if you have time, i'd love to see a list of sub-genres, since i happen to work in the noir, or more accurately, the neo-noir world, as well as transgressive

would those align under thriller, or would you consider them their own genre, or niche?

some categories to consider that are rather popular today:

punk (cyber- and steam-)



Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks for the breakdown.

Unknown said...

I have a hard time because really the only genre my book really fits into is fantasy. However, I hate classifying it as fantasy. UGH

Michelle D. Argyle said...

This is SOOO helpful, you have no idea! Thank you! I definitely write Suspense. :)

Scott said...

Thanks for the post.

An agent definied my work as chick lit w/a gay narrator. My problem: do I market it as chick lit even though the characters are gay males? Do I market as literary fiction since it is ultimately the decision of the mind/heart that drive the story? Commercial fiction since it appeals to a broader audience than just chick lit and gay lit? What if because of society's attitude, all gay lit gets shoved off to a small sub-section in a bookstore . . . unless you're Armistead Maupin or Toni Morrison, of course?

I initially queried as 'gay fiction', but have since tried the 'commerical fiction' route. The next step is to try 'chick lit' and see what happens. : )

Thanks again for the post. It definitely helps.


Stina said...

Question: can we use paranormal and fantasy interchangeably? My books tends to contain elements of myths, but there's also a supernatural component. Does that mean if an agent is only interested in paranormal then I can label it as that? Who knew this would all be so confusing.

Michelle McLean said...

Stina - I'd say no on using paranormal and fantasy interchangeably. Now, Urban Fantasy and paranormal are similar, but not straight fantasy.

Does your book have magic in it? If so, I'd go for fantasy. What type of world is it set in? If you take out all the mythological stuff and other "weird" elements, are you left with our regular, everyday world, or something else?

Think of Twilight vs. Lord of the Rings. In Twilight, if you take out the sparkly vampires and hormonal teenage wolves, you are left with the world as we know it. So it's paranormal or Urban Fantasy. If you take out all the "weirdness" in Lord of the Rings, you are still left with a world that is vastly different than our own. So it's fantasy.

Does that help at all? :D

Stina said...

Oops! I meant paranormal and urban fantasy. You take the fantasy out of mine and it's a regular day world. I'm just not sure which way to go. There's stuff based on Norse myths and Vikings, but there's also the supernatural element. See my problem?

Rebecca Knight said...

Thanks for the great post, Michelle! I'd been on the fence about whether or not my work in progress was "fantasy" or "soft sci-fi," and now I know it's leaning more toward fantasy.

Thanks for the help! I'd also love to know more about those wacky sub-genres that Richard mentioned ;).

Stilton Jarlsberg said...

By the (much appreciated) genre definitions, I guess my current manuscript would be "Experimental." But I wish there was another classification, as it's far less descriptive than the other genres. Plus, there's something about "Experimental" that seems to imply half-baked or a lack of certainty.

Then again, when I created a protagonist with no head, I knew there would be some marketing challenges (grin).

Ian said...

I'm curious about superhero fiction. I see them in the science fiction/fantasy section of bookstores, but they don't really seem to fall into either one, nor as paranormal as you defined those three genres. How would you label a book set on our world, but with "traditional" costumed and superpowered superheroes?

Michelle McLean said...

Stina - there are probably many differing opinions on this, but I'd say you could use either genre. Your editor can narrow it down for you better if needed when it comes time to put it on that shelf ;-)

Stilton Jarlsberg - you could probably also classify your book as "speculative" if you like that term better. Speculative is sort of used as an umbrella term to cover all less than normal stories. A main character with no head fits that description for me :D

As for those wacky sub-genres Richard listed :) they are a little more obscure, though I wouldn't call them niche :) I don't have a great deal of experience with these, but here is my understanding of them.

Transgressive usually deals with things like searching for knowledge through intense experiences and "taboo" subjects like incest, mutilation, extreme dysfunctional family situations, that sort of thing.

Neo-noir usually goes under Thrillers, Mysteries, and Crime Stories. (Richard, if your story is Neo-noir I'd probably query it as a Neo-noir Thriller, etc.)

Cyberpunk usually goes along with science fiction - stories with hackers, AI, futuristic worlds with lots of technology (Frank Herbert's stuff) and dystopian societies.

Steampunk is similar but usually deals with settings that still use steam power - think Jules Verne. They can also deal with alternate history and futuristic settings though the dystopian factor isn't as prominent.

Splatterpunk is uber gory horror type stories.

And to be honest, slipstream isn't one I've heard of before, so I won't be much help on that one :)

Michelle McLean said...

Ian - superhero fiction is an actual sub genre that usually falls under that wonderful umbrella term of Speculative fiction. But I don't think most bookstores have a section for that yet :)

If we are talking queries, the sub genre is distinct enough that I'd just go ahead and call it Superhero fiction, though I suppose you could say Superhero Speculative Fiction (or Speculative Superhero) :)

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

HOLY AMAZING -- Michelle, this post totally, like, rocks!

Katie Salidas said...

Great post!

Thanks for defining these all for us.

I struggled with where to place my manuscript. So many genre's overlap. I've decided it's Urban Fantasy.

Elana Johnson said...

Holy-isn't-Michelle-awesome?? I declare it Michelle McLean day! Woot! Great post and great answers to the follow-up comments. :D

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

You are the perfect person to tackle this topic. Well done, Michelle.

JPM said...

Thanks Michelle, you helped me actually nail the genre (genre combo) that defines my novel...and it was not what I was originally billing it as in my head. Thanks again!

Carol Doane #pearlofcarol said...

Okay, just REPEATING everyone else, but awesome post. Really. This is must have info. Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!

Bert Johnston said...

Michelle, this is just the subject I need some help on. How would you define "Mainstream" fiction?

Also, how would you describe a novel that has a church setting and characters, but is not meant to be inspirational?

Michelle McLean said...

Bert - mainstream is another one of those kind of hard to define genres :)

I usually define mainstream fiction as something that the majority of the general public would like and understand. It can and probably will have elements of several other genres, but it won't fit under romance or thriller or mystery.

You'll notice I used a lot of movie examples in my definitions - I'm kind of a visual person, so movie examples help me. So this is how I determine if something could be called mainstream or not...think of it as a movie. If your book were a movie, would the majority of the general public enjoy it?

Movies like The Princess Diaries would fit under mainstream. That show has something for almost everyone. Even my husband likes it.

I hope that helps a bit.

As for how to describe a novel that has a church setting and characters, but is not meant to be inspirational - well that could be almost anything.

What is the plot of the story? What are the churchgoers doing in the church setting? It could be mystery, thriller, horror, romance, sci/fi, fantasy (hey, aliens and vampires might want to go to church too!) - the defining genre usually has more to do with the plot than the setting and characters, so look at what is going on in the story for direction on describing it.

The Newlons said...

Do I have an awesome sis our what!! Whoot, whoot!! Good job! Love you!

Kim Hruba said...

Michelle, is it possible to simply identify my novel as a romantic comedy, or am I expected to choose a camp: Chick Lit, Women's Fiction, Mainstream Fiction? Thanks!

Michelle McLean said...

Kim, romantic comedy would work great! (and is one of my favorite genres) ;-) Comedy is a genre (or sub genre) in its own right, so identifying your Romance as a comedy is no different than saying it's a Romantic Suspense, etc.

Anonymous said...

I've been struggling with this idea for weeks as I start to send out queries. I think mine falls under urban fantasy, but how would you describe a work that includes aliens (who just so happen to look like humans) but doesn't really include a lot of science fiction?

I'm worried that my hook sounds more like science fiction but the work reads more like urban fantasy and I don't want automatic rejects because an agent thinks I've queried the wrong type of angecy.


MandyB said...

I am linking back to this post on my blog tomorrow - www.mandyevebarnett.com


Unknown said...

I love this post! Thank you ! Can you possibly tell me what a book that is set in today's world with Hoodoo added in would be considered? It's magic, but not quite the same as fantastical magic. So I'm not sure if my book would be paranormal or urban fantasy. Any advice? Thanks so much for any suggestions!

Unknown said...

So useful! Thank you.

Unknown said...

Clarifying, to say the least. I've got my two unfinished novels pegged. One is Women's Mystery/Suspense, which I distilled down to Mystery. The other if YA Historical. Thanks!