Genre Definitions: A Partial but Practical List

By Glen C. Strathy

Below are brief genre definitions arranged to help clarify what sets different types of stories apart.

The overall scheme for genre definitions is one I have borrowed from The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction by Joyce G. Saricks, as it is the most sensible I have seen to date.

Please note...

1. The list is not complete. So many small subgenres and crossover genres exist that it would be impossible to list them all. I've tried to stick to the most common genres and subgenres that you will come across.

2. Crossover and subgenres usually have a multi-part label. That is, they may be simultaneously labeled by...

a. Audience (e.g. YA, LGBTQ)

b. Setting or milieux (e.g. Historical, Futuristic, Military, Paranormal)

c. Reader Experience (e.g. Romance, Mystery, Adventure)

For the purpose of this list, I have omitted audience labels.

3. While I generally see the setting label as less important than Reader Experience, readers don't necessarily see it that way. So I have tried to put subgenre definitions under the genres most people associate them with.

Adrenaline Genre Definitions

Adrenaline Genres are distinct in the way they take the reader on an exciting, page-turning, roller coaster of a journey

Adventure

A story in which a hero or group of heroes overcome obstacles and dangers to accomplish a worthy objective. Usually involves a journey through a terrain or world previously unknown to the hero(es).

Adventure stories may take the form of a quest to obtain or be rid of a powerful object, perform a rescue, defeat a monster, win a place in society, or simply survive in a hostile natural environment.

Sometimes Adventure is called Male Romance due to the traditional shortage of female characters.

Subgenre Definitions for Adventure

Military Adventure

As above, but the team of heroes consists of professional soldiers, who pursue an often military objective.

Historical Adventure

An Adventure story set in a historical period.

Chivalric Romance

An adventure story set in Medieval times, usually concerning a quest undertaken by a knight in armour.

Thriller

A story in which the hero uses the specialized skills and knowledge of his profession to defeat a power-hungry villain and/or successfully deal with a threat.

Subgenre Definitions for Thriller

Thriller subgenres are distinguished by the hero's particular area of expertise. Common areas include espionage, law, medicine, finance, science, military, history, information technology, politics, or crime.

Crime Thrillers vs. Capers

Unlike Mystery, which is told from the point of view of someone investigating a crime that has been committed, Capers and Crime Thrillers are told from the point of view of professional criminals and concern their commission of a crime. Of the two, Crime Thrillers are generally darker in tone, while Capers are lighter and may involve humour.

Suspense

A story in which a villain stalks or lays a trap for the main character who is unaware of the villain's identity until the climax, at which point the main character manages to escape. Suspense is created by the fact that the reader sees the trap closing long before the main character does.

Subgenre Definitions for Suspense

Suspense stories may be either hard or soft-edged. Hard-edged suspense has more graphic content and a focus on police procedure. The main character may be a police officer or former police officer. Soft-edged suspense has little graphic content or policework.

Romantic Suspense

A story in which the main character, generally a woman, is placed in a perilous situation which she overcomes in part by learning to trust someone with whom she develops a romantic relationship. For most of the story, the heroine has good reason to suspect her love interest is untrustworthy, but he (or perhaps she) turns out to be trustworthy by the end.

Subgenre Definitions for Romantic Suspense

Traditional vs. Contemporary

In traditional Romantic Suspense, the heroine must correctly choose between two love interests, one of which is trustworthy while the other is the villain. Of course, she has no idea which is which until the climax. In contemporary Romantic Suspense, the heroine has only one love interest.

Gothic Romance

Gothic Romances are the forerunner of traditional Romantic Suspense and Horror. They generally involve an innocent young woman in an isolated old setting (such as a castle or mansion full of secret passages) with a dark atmosphere. There is typically a mystery, an ancient curse or supernatural evil that threatens the young woman, who must be rescued by her male love interest. The villain is often an older man. Hence, these stories are often metaphors for sexual relationships, with the villain representing a father figure with incestuous desires and the rescuer offering a healthy relationship.

Popular crossovers of Romantic Suspense include...

Historical Romantic Suspense

Paranormal Romantic Suspense (e.g. the love interest is a monster, such as a vampire or werewolf)

Emotion Genre Definitions

Emotion genres attempt to elicit a particular emotional response which their fans love to experience.

Horror

A story in which the main character faces a supernatural threat (often a monster). The story produces fear in the reader.

Subgenre Definitions for Horror

Visceral vs Slow Build.

Slow build describes Horror stories in which violence or graphic content may only appear toward the end and there is a slow build from normality to the horrific. Visceral Horror may be written from the monster's point of view and introduces graphic violence from the outset.

Splatterpunk:

Visceral Horror stories notable for the prominent spilling of blood.

Romance

A story about how the main character (almost always a woman) develops a romantic relationship that culminates in true love.

Subgenre Definitions for Romance

Historical Romance

Set in a historical period such as Regency, Victorian, Medieval, etc. May include elements of Adventure, Mystery, or Espionage Thrillers as ways to bring the couple together.

Alternate Reality Romance

May incorporate elements of Fantasy (magic), Paranormal characters (e.g. vampires), Time Travel, or futuristic settings.

Women's Fiction

A story in which a woman overcomes life's challenges to achieve fulfillment. Generally, these feature contemporary settings and concern problems such as career, family, or friendship.

Unlike other genres, the kinds of challenges the protagonists in Women's Fiction face are those which the majority of female readers will likely experience in their own lives. Hence the challenges seem more realistic.

Unlike Romance, these stories are not "love stories," though relationships can play a role.

Subgenres of Women's Fiction

Chicklit

Like Women's Fiction, but especially featuring younger women (in their 20s and 30s), who are struggling with typical challenges such as career and relationships. Often these feature wit and attitude.

Intellect Genre Definitions

Intellect genres offer readers a more intellectual experience. They are genres that focus on ideas or analysis. 

Mystery

A story in which the main character investigates a crime, usually murder, and succeeds in discovering who committed it, how, and why.

Subgenre Definitions for Mystery

Amateur Detective Stories

Mysteries in which the detective is not a professional investigator. The crime is usually solved through deductive reasoning, amateur psychology, or specialized knowledge rather than criminology or forensic science.

Cozies

Amateur Detective Stories which are not overly disturbing for the reader. Violence is minimal. Settings are usually not big cities. Murderers are usually not psychopaths.

Police Procedurals

Mysteries in which the detective is a police officer, or a team of officers. Like the name suggests, these stories feature an authentic portrayal of police work. May include more forensic science and more lower class characters than Amateur Detective Mysteries.

Hard Boiled PI Stories

Mystery stories in which the detective is a private investigator. Often the main character is a jaded loner who employs wise cracks and a tough exterior as a defense. These stories are usually set in big cities and involve lower, criminal classes as characters. Privileged characters, the city, and institutions in general are usually portrayed as corrupt and corrupting. Generally, these stories contain more graphic sex, violence, and language than other Mysteries.

Psychological Suspense

A story about the unfolding of a character's inner nightmare which may involve madness, obsession, guilt, or the loss of the character's sense of identity or reality.

Unlike the external puzzles offered by Mystery, Psychological Suspense offers readers a close look at an internal puzzle.

This genre also goes by other names such as psychological thriller and psychological horror and is sometimes seen as a subgenre of either Suspense, Thriller, Horror, or Crime Fiction.

Science Fiction (SF)

A story about how human beings might cope with a plausible future. To be considered plausible, the future should be scientifically valid. The setting is usually based on an extrapolation of current trends in science, technology, or society.

Subgenre Definitions for Science Fiction

Science Fiction comes in many subgenres, not all of which fit into the above definition. However, all subgenres that feature futuristic settings tend to get labelled Science Fiction in the absence of a better classification.

Hard vs. Soft SF

Hard SF describes stories that are more focused on an extrapolation of trends in the hard sciences. Soft SF is more focused on speculation regarding the future evolution of human society and culture. However, most Science Fiction stories include  both hard and soft traits.

Science Fiction Adventure

Adventure stories in a futuristic setting. Often Military Adventure in a futuristic setting. Should probably be considered a subgenre of Adventure, but is usually cataloged with Science Fiction.

Space Opera

Science Fiction Adventure stories involving space travel.

Alternative History

Stories set in a world whose history diverged from the real world at some point, leading to a very different present or future. For example, a world in which Germany won World War II or in which the Roman Empire never fell.

Humanist

Literary or mainstream stories with a futuristic setting. Emphasis is on characterization and other literary qualities rather than technology.

Slipstream

Strange stories that mess with the reader's ideas of reality in order to create surrealistic effects. Not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy, but definitely speculative ("what if...").

Dystopian

Stories set in a future that is worse than present day, at least for the main character. This may be due to a decline in the social-political environment, resource scarcity, or other cause.

Apocalyptic vs. Post-Apocalyptic

Apocalyptic stories are about a future in which the world ends (by nuclear war, environmental collapse, plague, or other cause). Post-Apocalyptic stories are set in a future after an apocalypse has occurred.

Cyberpunk

Stories set in a bleak future with an emphasis on information technology. Often the particular setting is a metropolis where most power is held by corporations. Characters are often members of a disempowered underclass who engage in morally questionable activity to survive.

Biopunk

Like Cyberpunk, but the emphasis is on biotechnology rather than information technology.

Historical Punk

Various Science Fiction subgenres feature worlds that resemble a historical period, but with futuristic and anachronistic technology. These include...

  • Stonepunk: set in the Stoneage
  • Clockpunk: set in the Renaissance
  • Steampunk: set in the 19th century
  • Dieselpunk: set roughly between World Wars I and II
  • Atompunk: set in the Atomic Age, between 1945 and 1965.

Cli-fi

Science fiction with climate change as a subject matter or theme.

Sci-fi

A somewhat derogatory term for Science Fiction (the standard short form being SF). Sci-fi is usually used to refer to science fiction film and television dramas, rather than literature. May also refer to Space Opera or other stories that feature futuristic elements but involve less serious extrapolation.

Landscape Genre Definitions

Landscape Genres give readers the experience of immersing themselves in a particular setting or type of setting.

Historical Fiction

A story that takes place before the author was born that is designed to educate the reader about history as well as entertain.

While many genres may take place in a historical setting, what sets Historical Fiction apart is the wealth of accurate information it includes about the chosen era, a feature that usually makes for long novels.

Subgenres of Historical Fiction

Historical novels and stories are usually divided into subgenres according to the historical period they are set in.

Fantasy

A story set in an imaginary world that could never exist, due to the presence of magic or some other violation of physical laws. May include imaginary species or places. Often involves a struggle of good vs. evil.

These are often long stories, because of the extensive details describing the story world.

Apart from the setting, the story itself is often an Adventure or other genre.

Subgenre Definitions for Fantasy

High Fantasy

Fantasy stories set in worlds which are separate from and have no intercourse with the real world (though sometimes a few characters can journey to them). The fantasy world may be similar to the real world or drastically different. As with other landscape genres, the fantasy world may be quite detailed.

Low Fantasy

Fantasy stories with settings that closely resemble the real world but with some magical elements added such as magicians, magic objects, hidden magical places, or magical creatures.

Sword and Sorcery

Fantasy stories that resemble medieval adventure stories. Settings feature technology that is pre-industrial revolution and usually magic and/or magical creatures. Combat is a dominant feature and the heroes may have less noble aims than in High Fantasy.

Epic Fantasy

High Fantasy stories that depict the transition to a new age or world order, and possibly the end of the previous age.

Mythological

Fantasy stories based on myths and legends. E.g. Arthurian Fantasy, which is based on the tales of King Arthur.

Fairy Tale

Fantasy stories that retell popular fairy tales, often twisting them in new ways.

Paranormal Fantasy

Low fantasy involving fantasy monsters or supernatural elements commonly found in Horror. However, unlike Horror, Paranormal Fantasy does not use these elements solely to create fear. In some cases, the monsters are the heroes or love interests.

Urban Fantasy

Low Fantasy stories set in contemporary cities. Often the settings resemble those of Hard Boiled PI stories (large, dark, and corrupt cities), but with a magic or magical creature component.

Dark Fantasy

Fantasy stories that are darker in tone. In these stories, characters often suffer higher costs and humour is rare.

Magical Realism

Literary or mainstream stories in which an element of the unreal or magical is added to an otherwise realistic setting in order to create a surrealistic atmosphere.

Alternative Reality

Like Alternative History (see above), this subgenre posits a world similar to the real world but in which history unfolded differently.  However, it includes fantasy elements such as magic, fantasy species, or a departure from the laws of physics.

Western

A story set in the American West in the years following the Civil War (roughly 1865-1900), though more often it is an idealized version of this setting. Present day Westerns are now becoming more common, set in cattle ranching areas or small towns. Generally, Westerns depict the uncivilized West as virtuous (the home of such values as self-reliance, personal moral codes, redemption, etc.) while civilization and the East are portrayed as corrupt.

Subgenre Definitions for Westerns

Novels of the West

Historical Fiction set in the American Old West. Similar in setting to Westerns, but more historically accurate, less romanticized, and may not adhere to the same thematic arguments. Should probably be considered a subgenre of Historical Fiction.


More about Genres


Home Page





New! Comments

What do you think about this page? Leave me a comment in the box below.

Proud to be one of the...


 Step-by-Step Novel Planning Workbook


NEW! Make Money Writing Nonfiction Articles


"I've read more than fifty books on writing, writing novels, etc., but your website has the most useful and practical guidance. Now that I understand how a novel is structured, I will rewrite mine, confident that it will be a more interesting novel." - Lloyd Edwards



"Thanks to your "Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps," I was able to take a story that I simply just fooled around with and went willy nilly all over, into a clearly defined, intriguing battle where two characters fight to keep their relationship intact, and try to find a balance in control of themselves and their lives. Thanks to you, I'm not ashamed of the poor organization of my writing." - Nommanic Ragus

"I am so glad I found your site. It has helped me in so many ways, and has given me more confidence about myself and my work. Thank you for making this valuable resource, for me and my fellow writers. Perhaps you'll hear about me someday...I'll owe it to you." - Ruth, Milton, U.S.A.

"I never knew what to do with all the characters in my head, but since discovering Dramatica I am writing again in my spare time. Thank you for making this available. Yes, it is a bit complex, and it does take time, but I love it because it works." - Colin Shoeman

"I came across your website by chance. It is a plethora of knowledge, written in a simplistic way to help aspiring writers. I truly appreciate all of the information you have provided to help me successfully (relative term) write my novel. Thank you very much!" - Leo T. Rollins

"I can honestly say that this is the first website that is really helpful. You manage to answer complex questions in relatively short articles and with really intelligent answers. Thank you for taking the time to write these articles and sharing them so generously." - Chrystelle Nash

"...had no idea that a simple click would give me such a wealth of valuable information. The site not only offered extremely clear and helpful instructions but was a very enjoyable read as well. The education from your wonderful site has made me a better writer and your words have inspired me to get back to work on my novel. I wish to give you a heartfelt thanks for How to Write a Book Now, sir." -- Mike Chiero