what is genre

What is Genre?

So … what genre is it?

That’s as necessary a question for us to answer in our story studio as it is for you at home. 

We question our genre with every story we tell, even if it goes unspoken. My darkest writing partner never has to define his genre — everyone in the studio knows that Dave will write some variant of children in jeopardy.

Starting our story with a firm understanding of the genre we’re trying to hit before we even get to Once upon a time, helps us to define what we’re ultimately trying to say, gives us the knowledge to shape our story, and inform our marketing once the narrative is finished. 

I’m fortunate to have our studio. You probably don’t have a room full of storytellers ready to bounce all of your questions and ideas off of. That’s what this page is for. I’ve written this to help answer your questions about genre so that your writing projects can go faster, stay on-point, and ultimately perform well in the marketplace. 

Let’s get the bad news out of the way: genre isn’t easy to define. People have been arguing over exactly what it means since the concept was first applied to books. You’re here for the broad strokes, because you need a working understanding of how your tastes can amplify rather than hamper your efforts. 

That’s how I use it as well. I have no opinion as to the superiority of one genre over another, and I’m not in this for the arguments. I use genre as a framework to hold my story. 

“My book doesn’t really have a genre” is not an acceptable statement. Our storytellers are required to define this before they start writing. One of our authors — whom we met at a genre therapy event back in the days when we did more than publish books — had declared herself “genreless.” I’ve read her work and can see what she means, but I still disagree. 

I’ve been working with this author for a while, and she now understands that she writes a lot like Dean Koontz — her work all features everyday people who experience a touch of the mystical — so her future catalogue is more clearly defined before she starts writing. The work is easier to conceptualize, execute, and sell. 

This author is seventy-two years old and has been writing all her life. Yet, she’s never felt more confident or more efficient in her craft. 

The reason is simple: Understanding genre means understanding yourself. 

And understanding yourself is the key to unlocking your brilliance as an artist. 

That’s where we find most of the fun. And sometimes, if you’re a little lucky and work really hard over a consistent period of time, that’s where the money is as well. 

This is a big topic, but I’ll cover it like Rowling rather than Clancy. We don’t need all the unnecessary details. I want you to leave this page energized, with a deeper understanding of story. That’s not a diss on Tom, but we know you don’t need the literary equivalent of serial numbers on bullet casings. 

You can always add art to your genre, but only after you understand how genre applies to your art.

So … what is genre? 

This might not be an easy answer, and that might be frustrating. 

In order to determine a book’s genre, you must know something about the story itself and what other books it resembles. For you, the most useful angle of genre is to develop an understanding of audience expectations, so you can meet or preferably exceed them. 

A person who reads psychological thrillers with a fast pace and high stakes, looking for an experience that threatens an outcome worse than death for its heroes would probably get ticked if a sweet romantic comedy tried to “defy his expectations.” 

Those expectations matter. They are a threshold, not a wall. 

Genre is ultimately a construct of marketing — another example of human nature needing categorization and labels. We find two things that are similar in some way, place them into a pile with each other, then give that pile a name.

It’s important to understand what genre you’re writing in because it’s the salt, sugar, and fat of reader expectations. Someone looking for essays won’t be pleased to find themselves with epic fantasy, and people seeking an escape from a crappy day with a fluffy romance likely won’t care for heady sci-fi.

People can and should read and write across multiple genres. Fans of The Kardashians can appreciate Charlie Rose. We like what we like, and each of us has our reasons. There is no better or worse. There is only understanding or not. 

If you can articulate the conventions and reader expectations of a particular genre, then you are more likely to write stories that reach and satisfy your ideal readers. 

The ones who will love you, and tell you so — in emails, reviews, or adoring shout outs on social media — and keep returning for every new story you write. 

Let’s start with the biggest division there is.

Fiction Or Nonfiction?

This isn’t just the biggest division, it’s the most easily-definable split. 

Fiction is made up; nonfiction is not. 

Of course, even here there are blurred lines. Fiction can be (and often is) based on some semblance of reality — it can be set in the real world and must therefore adhere to real-world physics, geography, cultures, and histories — while nonfiction can (and often does) include fictional storytelling techniques — characters, scenes, settings, dialogue, narrative flow — to engage the reader while conveying its information or message.

For the purposes of helping you to figure out your genre, I’ll keep it simple:

Did you make up the story? 

If yes, you wrote fiction.

Did you tell a story or convey information that was not made up? 

Then that sounds like nonfiction to me. 

Now let’s hit some of the trickier bits. 

Nonfiction Genres

There aren’t nearly as many nonfiction genres as there are in fiction, and the divisions are more readily apparent. 

Narrative Or Informational?

The major differences between nonfiction genres is primarily what the book is meant to do, and how it goes about doing that thing. Narrative nonfiction tells a (true) story — e.g. the life of Steve Jobs or the rise of the Walt Disney Company. 

Major narrative nonfiction genres can often be categorized by who wrote them.

  • Biographies: The story of a person’s life as told by someone else. Biographies are usually written around figures of historical or cultural import. 
  • Autobiographies: The story of a person’s life as told by that person, also usually a person of some significance to the world at large.
  • Memoirs: Scenes of an individual’s life as told by that person. This type of narrative is different from an autobiography because it’s not meant to cover an entire lifetime. Vignettes and moments make the story. You can also find memoirs of average people. One of our studio favorites is about a lounge pianist and all the wackiness she dealt with during her years playing in restaurants. 

Some of the more popular narrative nonfiction books are Hidden Figures, Unbroken, In Cold Blood, The Blind Side, The Right Stuff, 127 Hours, Moneyball, The Big Short, and The Devil in the White City

You’ll probably notice those choices have all been turned into movies, except that last one, which needs to be and I have a strong sense that it will be someday (or maybe a limited series on TV). That’s because great narrative non-fiction translates well to the sort of powerfully emotive and highly human stories Hollywood loves to invest in. 

This is a great space for a writer to thrive in, assuming there’s a deep passion for any given project. Interest is always important. This genre requires an enormous amount of research. Time is a heavy investment. You’re allowed to color the details, but not outside the lines of truth. 

Informational nonfiction is less about telling a story as it is  — as the name suggests — informing the reader and imparting them with a specific desired information. Storytelling and other writing techniques such as author voice are obviously used to make the information engaging and memorable where possible. This is where you will find genres like:

  • Essays: Short(ish) pieces of writing meant to persuade the reader to thinking a certain way or opening their eyes to an experience they may never have had.
  • Self-help: Books intended to solve a problem in a person’s personal life — how to build confidence, how to attract love, how to be effective. We’ve all read, or know someone who regularly reads in this genre. 
  • Science/Technology/Politics/Business/Etc.: You just read the label. These books are meant to educate, inform, and perhaps persuade readers of the topics covered. 
  • Reference: Titles that might not fit anywhere else. Encyclopedias, textbooks, dictionaries, human anatomy coloring books — the sorts of books you look through more than read when you’re searching for a fact. Books you might refer to.

Nonfiction is an easier target to hit, both for writers wanting to find an audience and readers seeking answers, inspiration, or a specific style of narrative truth.

Fiction, no twist in this part of the story, is much more complicated. 

Fiction Genres

Nonfiction genres are relatively well-defined, with most nonfiction having a clear goal and purpose. But fiction is slippery, and subject to the whims of personal taste. You couldn’t name all the fiction genres if I gave you all day, and there are some genres — I’m looking at you, Romance — with more sub-genres and niches than items on a menu from The Cheesecake Factory. Genres where reader tastes get extremely, even bizarrely, specific. 

Dinosaur porn. Is. Real.

Let’s wade through it. But first, a short digression. 

About Classics

This is a category of fiction (well, if it’s a fiction classic; there are nonfiction classics, too) that isn’t one you can slot your book into. A book must stand the test of time in some way, or be considered important over the course of years and decades before it can be declared a recognizable classic. 

This isn’t to say your book won’t make it there. I hope it does. Write a book that means something to its readers, and who knows, in a half-century or so your book might have earned a spot on that shelf. 

I’d love to write a classic one day, and that’s an ambition I share with every author in our studio. But our readers will decide that. Never us. The same is true for you. Aim for a classic, and be proud that you published at all. 

Is it Literary Or Commercial?

This is the often first distinction in fiction genres, and necessarily so. It’s also the first question an author should ask themselves if they expect to elevate their odds of success. 

Literary fiction is usually prose-focused and character-studying, while “commercial” (or, confusingly, “genre”) fiction tends to focus more on plot and story. That’s not to say that character doesn’t matter, because of course it does. 

As with every arbitrary distinction ever made, there’s an awful lot of overlap. Literary fiction can and should have story. Same as commercial fiction can and should have deep, interesting characters and intelligent, flowing, error free writing. The distinction here is focus.

Did you write a book for the joy of the words, or to take a long, hard look at the humanity’s nature, or your place in it? You probably wrote a literary book.

Were you itching to tell a story? To push your characters through events, hooking the reader with a chain of exciting scenes and twisting events? You probably wrote commercial fiction.

The Great Gatsby, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Corrections are all examples of popular literary fiction. Commercial examples include, The Da Vinci Code, Gone Girl, and Crazy Rich Asians

Children Or Adult?

Your target audience matters in fiction just as much as it does in nonfiction. One of the most fundamental things you can determine about your target audience is their age. It would be an unforgivable publishing mistake to label your X-rated dinosaur porn as Middle Grade, and there are probably a lot of people who would be annoyed to find a picture book in their search results.

What age is your audience?

  • Kids: The younger the child, the more specific your book will likely need to be in prose and content. There is tremendous difference between books intended for toddlers and those meant for 2nd graders, mostly because there is also an absurd amount of development that happens, very quickly, in both the child’s brain and their reading abilities throughout those elementary-and-earlier years. Books for young kids (usually 3rd grade and below) are often labeled for specific ages, reading levels, and grades.
  • Independent Reader/Middle Grade (MG): For your 3rd through 7th grade children. Here we’ll find chapters and more complex narratives, as appropriate for the target ages. This is also where the concept of genre becomes more broadly applicable (we’ll cover those broader genres in a moment). You could have an action/adventure, or a mystery. Middle Grade is the literary equivalent of a G or PG rating.
  • Young Adult (YA): A fairly new division in the book world, YA is targeted primarily at teenagers/high schoolers. This is a diverse category that ranges many genres. Often what distinguishes YA from NA (below) or MG (above) is tone and the hero’s age: if your protagonist is between 14 and 18, your book will probably be considered YA, in addition to its broader genre. YA books can be darker and more explicit than MG because they are intended for an older audience. This is your PG-13 story where you’re allowed the occasional curse word or more adult situation. 
  • New Adult (NA): Even newer than YA as a category, it’s still relatively unknown and without a lot to define it as a particular genre. Still mostly distinguished from YA and adult by college-aged characters. As of this writing, the category is dominated by steamy romances. As it matures, the genre will likely branch into various other genres, same as MG and YA before it. 
  • Adult: Everything else, including every genre, sub-genre, and dino-porn niche your heart could ever desire.

Speculative Or Realistic?

We’re making this distinction because it’s a solid way to separate sci-fi and fantasy (SFF) from everything else. This is essential to indicate when it comes to finding your ideal readers, so they can keep finding you, again and again. 

People who read westerns generally don’t want unicorns in their books.

What Is SFF?

Science fiction/fantasy (SFF, or sometimes SF/F if you’re feeling pretentious) is the “speculative fiction” genre, meaning there is some question being asked about the story world itself.

What if technology …? 

What if magic …? 

What if ghosts …?

This is a MASSIVE genre, and a container for much of our popular entertainment and cultural touchstones. It’s also a genre that can get very, almost alarmingly, specific. To complicate things further, the distinction between sci-fi and fantasy can be slippery at best. Stories like Star Wars are full of both future tech and magical Forces can be “science fantasy.” 

But broadly speaking, if technology (or aliens) is important to your book, that’s sci-fi. If there is magic or Tolkienesque creatures in your worlds, then you’re dealing in fantasy. 

Are there ghosts, angels, demons, shapeshifters, psychics, or other spiritual — but not exactly, necessarily, magical — forces in your world? You’ve probably gone paranormal.

Yet again, there are no hard-and-fast rules. The important thing to remember here is that marketing conventions help to manage reader expectations, and genre-blending is a fun way to surprise your reader. Urban fantasy, for example, is a blending of realistic and speculative, tossing magical/paranormal elements into a (usually) real setting.

And, if you’re still searching for your genre, it’s time to look at the realistic ones.

Realistic Genres

The best way to figure out where your book fits is to know a genre’s expectations and tropes before you write. Do your research. Your future marketing self will thank you for not having to figure this out after your story is finished. 

In case you need a place to start, here’s a rundown of the most significant genres that are, in some sense, realistic (as opposed to speculative).

  • Romance: A ginormous genre, the biggest out there, and full of notoriously specific and voracious readers. A romance (as opposed to a mystery or other genre with a romance) is that the couple coming together is the story’s primary focus. Given its significance to the human condition, this genre pairs well with just about every other one out there. It comes in all varieties, from sweet and chaste to pornographic. If you ever need to giggle at the surprising things out there, go ahead and look into dinosaur porn.

    NOTE: If the couple doesn’t end up happily together (at least for now), under no circumstances should you call your book a romance. Find another genre. There aren’t many hard rules, but this is one of them. Romances must have a happy ending, or they aren’t romances — they are mysteries or thrillers or whatever with a romantic subplot.
  • Mystery: A crime has been committed. Someone must figure out who, and bring the perpetrator to justice. Another broad genre that can range from cozy mystery (an amateur sleuth caught up in hijinks) to police procedurals and cop dramas.
  • Western: John Wayne. But in books. And never with unicorns.
  • Historical: What it says on the box, historical fiction that takes place in a real place and time somewhere in the past.
  • Thriller: A genre meant to get the reader’s heart racing and pages flipping fast. Someone is in danger and they must escape or survive. Psychological Thriller is a dominant sub-genre, where the danger is primarily to the person’s psyche rather than their body.
  • Horror: Meant to evoke a sense of dread, terror, or repulsion in the reader, as opposed to thrillers, which are more about suspense and general excitement. This genre is often sprinkled with speculative (particularly paranormal) elements. Stephen King in shorthand.
  • Action/Adventure: A book where the story is primarily focused on the plot, and all the exciting places and interesting occurrences exist to fuel the narrative. This is another genre that’s easy to pair. Like romance, most of us wish we had at least a little more action and adventure in our lives.

Where Does This Leave You?

Experimentation is the best way to figure out what genre(s) you like most. Read widely. Write a lot. Eventually you’ll find something that tickles your creative self more than anything else. 

Never forget that genre is a marketing convention, and marketing is all about understanding what the customer wants. 

Know your genre, know your reader, and know yourself. 

The rest is just telling a story.