How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: a good look at genres


Welcome to Part Twenty-Three of this popular series. This week, novelist and publisher Lucy McCarraher looks at the main fiction genres and sub-genres … what they entail, and how your fiction should fit in with them.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss


If format is one axis of the fiction matrix, genre is the other. Although, confusingly, “genre fiction” is often used to describe popular, plot-driven, niche fiction (e.g. Romance or Mystery), I am talking about genre in its broader sense, as used by publishers and booksellers to classify all types.

If you want to sell your book into an agent or traditional publisher, you should know your fiction genre, the idioms of that genre, best-selling books and writers within it, and where your story fits in relation to these. Like it or not, purveyors of books like to market their wares under clear categories and if yours doesn’t fit one, it’s an easy reason for them to turn it down. Even self-publishers will need to specify the appropriate genre(s) for their books on Amazon.

small__2431678461Screenwriting guru, Robert McKee, usefully defines genre conventions as the “specific settings, roles, events, and values that define individual genres and their sub-genres.”

The two ϋber-genres of fiction, within one of which your writing should clearly sit, are literary and commercial.

Literary fiction tends to appeal to an educated and intellectually adventurous readership owing to its high quality of writing, original content and developed style. Any of the sub-genres below can be written in literary style, but they will have a different tone to the more popular versions. Literary fiction is what wins awards like the Booker and Orange prizes.

Commercial fiction attracts a broad audience and may also fall into any subject genre or sub-genre. “Blockbuster” authors usually write commercial rather than literary fiction; typical commercial fiction authors are John Grisham, Jilly Cooper, Danielle Steele, E L James and Jackie Collins.

Mainstream fiction is a general term used by publishers and booksellers about both commercial and literary works that don’t fit another genre and are usually set in the present, tell the stories of recognisable characters and have themes relevant to most people’s lives. “Contemporary realism” might be another description of mainstream fiction. Most bestseller novels are considered mainstream, although they include a wide range of authors.

The main fiction sub-genres are:

Mystery fiction generally focuses on a crime, often murder, or if not a crime, a secret that needs exposing. The action centres on the attempts of an actual detective, or character in that role for the purposes of the story, to solve the crime/mystery. The climax happens at the point of unraveling, where all the elements of the detective work neatly come together. The solution, complete with reversals and surprises, is finally delivered to the characters and the reader alike.

Sub-genres of mystery include spy, police, and family stories. Authors in this genre are as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Nicci French, Carl Hiaason and Sophie Hannah.

small_2408535634Romance is a massive genre, with women its main audience. Romance novels include varying elements of fantasy, love, sex and adventure, and always the heroic lover (male or female) overcoming the odds to be with their true love. Sub-genres can be formulaic: gothic romances, for example, follow the formula of a young, inexperienced girl living somewhere remote, being courted or threatened by an evil man and then rescued by a valiant one.

Other sub-genres include historical, holiday, contemporary, erotic, comedy (rom com) and fantasy romance. If historical detail and settings interest you, try writing a Regency or historical romance. Romance is probably the largest, most diverse and most popular of the commercial genres. Some of the best romance writers include Victoria Holt, Judith McNaught, Daphne Du Maurier, Jennifer Greene and Nora Roberts.

Women’s fiction describes stories which focus on relationships and/or family; one or more strong female protagonists; women triumphing over difficult circumstances; and the experiences of women working together in some way. Sub-genres are usually age related, such as chick-lit, hen-lit and, more recently, boomer-lit. There is also cross-over with romance.

Women buy more books than men so this is a strong genre, beloved of publishers, and mostly mainstream. Best-selling women’s writers include Barbara Taylor Bradford, Anne Rivers Siddons, Judith Krantz, Anne Tyler, and Alice Hoffman.

Science fiction/fantasy novels tell stories of imagined worlds in future or parallel time zones with science and technology that may be close to or a million miles from those we know. They are often allegories and discuss contemporary issues from a different perspective. This is a robust genre that goes from strength to strength, and is made ever more popular by big budget films of epic novels from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings.

The range of authors in this genre span Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, J. K Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Historical fiction, by definition, tells a story set in the past. That setting is a real historical period, often during an important event of the era. Sometimes the main characters are historical persons (such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell); in other books they are fictional (e.g. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series). Writers of this genre use in-depth research combined with language and imagination to present the reality of life, political and social conditions of the time. Period detail and authenticity portrayed through invented eyes make a successful piece of historical fiction.

small__7539019786Sub-genres include historical romance, historical thriller, historical mystery and Steampunk (that typically features steam-powered machinery in a 19th century setting with a science fiction element).

Thriller, or Suspense fiction is different from mystery in that these novels are dominated by physical action and a strong sense of threat to the protagonists. Thrillers are tense, exciting, often sensational stories with fast, skillful plotting and continuous suspense. Often a hero (James Bond, George Smilie) is pitted against an evil villain and the cost of losing the battle would cause national or international disaster. This genre includes espionage, police, courtroom, military and now technological thrillers, among others.

Horror continues to be a popular genre with a broad appeal to readers wanting to experience gut-wrenching fright and blood-thirsty action. From a writer’s perspective, the intention is to scare readers by exploiting their fears, whether of ghosts, aliens, violence, madness, death or destruction. Stephen King (also writing as Richard Bachman) is the master of the modern genre, following on from the classics of Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley. Very different horror authors include Roald Dahl, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice.

small__4889126077Young adult stories are aimed at and about young people aged 12 to 18 and address the concerns of that age group. YA fiction can be mainstream or fantasy, even historical or science fiction. This is yet another genre where J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels dominate, and Judy Blume and Louis Sachar have taken over from classic writers like William Golding and J D Salinger.

A new sub-genre called New Adult fiction has recently surfaced, aimed at 18 to 30-year olds and centres on a young adult’s journey into adulthood. These are often coming of age stories and a move from innocence into the more complicated adult world. New adult books can be racier and more violent than young adult books and can also involve a first job, first relationship, first home…

A few other less well known sub-genres

…in which you might usefully place your fiction, are:

  • Adventure fiction – in which characters are involved in dangerous and/or exhilarating exploits
  • Allegory – which uses symbolism to talk about the human condition
  • Black comedy – humorous stories based on the misfortunes of characters, a sub-genre of Comedy, as is Comedy of manners fiction that holds up social attitudes and prejudices to laughter
  • Detective/Police fiction is a more specific sub-genre of mystery
  • Epistolary fiction is written as a series of letters exchanged between characters
  • Fictional autobiography purports to be a first-person account of someone’s life
  • Fictional biography tells a tale as if it were a factual life story
  • Picaresque fiction are (often rambling) stories in which the hero (or antihero) journeys through a series of loosely related episodes
  • Parody is a mocking take-off of a genre style or another author’s work
  • Satire pokes fun at human shortcomings such as arrogance, greed, and vanity
  • Swashbucklers are adventure stories in which the hero accomplishes great feats for noble causes – often in historical settings
  • the plots of Travelogues are centred on a travel or journeys
  • Westerns are a historical sub-genre set in the pioneering days of wild west America.

Next week we will be looking at Tighter Writing.

For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

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