Writers and readers alike seem confused by all the different genres available in fiction. Readers may like one kind of book and not another - but they're not sure why. Writers may create stories that blur the genre lines. Most publishers want stories that follow specific genre guidelines. So, let's talk about genres - what they are and how you can identify them.
Romance: A romance usually emphasizes the heroine's perspective, and the reader should be drawn into the love story. Romances end with a happily ever after of some kind although the key to an effective romance novel must be conflict. For example, the heroine is separated from her love by an event or misunderstanding. Perhaps they are separated by war. Let’s look at some examples of romantic books and movies:
In Jane Austen’s novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are separated by a series of misunderstandings. Conflict comes from these misunderstandings until the end of the novel when the smoke clears and they are finally able to confess their love for each other.
In one of the most romantic movies of all time, “An Affair to Remember” with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, the lovers are separated by an accident.
Let’s look at a more contemporary example. In the movie, “Sleepless in Seattle,” the main characters are separated by miles – and by their fear of taking a chance on love.
Romantic novels must follow all regular plotting procedures – but the thing that binds the characters together isn’t an event, although you can use an event to launch your story. In the end, the reason your key characters don’t walk away is because of love.
A stand-alone romance novel is normally between 80,000 and 100,000 words. A category romance novel (like those published by Harlequin) is generally shorter, and each "imprint" will have its own criteria. Be sure you know what imprint you're targeting before you start writing.
Subgenres of romance include: women's fiction, Regency, historical, fantasy/science fiction, contemporary, inspirational, time travel, paranormal, and more.
Historical Fiction: Research and attention to detail are of top importance in historical fiction. Characters must behave in accordance with the times. Plots can be "big" (featuring many strong characters and tackling big or complex issues). Some historicals are part of a saga (a series of books that covers generations within a family or many characters).
A stand-alone historical book may be 85,000 to 100,000 words. Publishing a book longer than 100,000 words is difficult (especially for first-timers), but historical novels are sometimes longer.
Speculative Fiction: Speculative fiction is generally about world building. (Creating alternative worlds.) Avoid clichés in your characterization, and let your major themes be strong yet subtle. Always research publisher guidelines: One publishing house states caveats such as "no time machines, please." Sub-genres of speculation include fantasy, science fiction, time travel, alternate history, paranormal, post-apocalyptic, vampire, horror, supernatural thriller, spiritual warfare, End Time, and steampunk.
Speculative fiction novels can contain between 80,000 and 150,000 words (approximately). These stories can be a little longer than other novels, and they are sometimes serialized.
Mystery: Mysteries pay special attention to plot and pacing. The crime should be revealed quickly and the rest of the story is spent solving it. Good mystery is also rich in characters that could have “dunnit” and “red herrings” abound. A “red herring” is a clue that leads readers in the wrong direction – but it must make sense! A good mystery author never lets a clue dangle for no reason.
Researching forensics, criminal justice, and detective procedures lend credibility to a good mystery. Note that clues must be used to bring the plotline to a satisfying conclusion. The reader should have a chance to “solve” the mystery as they read. Mystery readers are very particular readers and don’t like novels that “hide” the truth from them. No fair using visions, dreams, angels or “Ah ha!” moments that don’t make sense. These rules apply to inspirational mystery as well. God can’t reveal the truth. The sleuth must solve the puzzle using the clues presented.
Mysteries vary in length. Stand-alone mysteries (which may have some overlap with thrillers) may be between 75,000 and 100,000 words. Cozy mysteries, like those in a series, are often on the shorter side.
Subgenres of mystery include: crime, hardboiled, true crime, cozy, amateur sleuth, supernatural, police procedural, and more.
Suspense/Thriller: Emphasis in suspense/thrillers is on strong characters, action, and fast pacing. Thrillers often show clear antagonists and protagonists. Thrillers can be graphic and gritty or somewhat tamer. Focus is always on suspense. While a mystery uses clues to bring the story to a conclusion, suspense/thriller novels use action. Sometimes, the reader will even know “who the bad guy is” at the beginning of the novel. (Think “Die Hard”.)
Suspense/Thriller novels generally run between 85,000 to 100,000 words (loosely), but they can be a little longer as well.
Subgenres of suspense include: conspiracy, crime, action, political, disaster, legal, romance, and more.
Romantic Suspense is a very popular genre. Romantic suspense combines suspense with a romantic theme. Suspense should take first chair, however, with romance playing second chair.
As with all other genres, something must happen to plunge your main character through a doorway of no return. In a romance novel, this event might be purely emotional. But in romantic suspense, the “inciting incident” needs to be something beyond emotion, and it should throw the main character and his or her love interest through the doorway together. The resolution to the situation must be resolved for both of them. They are in it as a couple whether one of them is the suspect and the other is the person who must solve the crime, whatever that might be. They might be on good terms throughout your story, or there may be an incident that breaks them apart. However, by the end, they must be together so the call for romance is fulfilled.
Suspense, like thrillers, should be a roller-coaster ride of events and emotions that lead to an exciting climax. The reader may know who the bad guy is, or you can hide him until the end. Either way, it is up to the couple to fight their way through the difficult situation you give them until they reach a conclusion.
Horror: Fears and phobias play into the reader's emotions in this genre. There is often a supernatural and paranormal element, but as always, steer clear of clichés. Horror allows a writer to dip into ingredients of suspense, mystery, thrillers, and speculative fiction. The most important thing to remember is that your job is to scare the pants off your readers!
Horror will start off with a frightening event. The rest of the story is spent trying to catch the evil antagonist (human or whatever) or uncover the truth. This is one genre where “the end” may not always be “the end.” You can leave a loose end, but as a writer, you must still play fair and bring your story to a conclusion. A vague threat might remain, but YOUR plot must be resolved.
Horror novels vary in length and are generally between 80,000 and 100,000 words.
Subgenres of horror include: ghost, psychological, weird menace, occult detective, and more.
Young Adult (YA) Genre Novels Young adult (YA) fiction targets boys and girls between the ages of 12-18. The tone, style, and content of YA novels changes depending on the specific age of the target audience. The genre can tackle G-rated issues or it can be very edgy.
Generally, YA books run between 40,000 and 75,000 words, depending on the target age group.
"Edgy" YA tackles controversial or difficult topics. Otherwise, subgenres of YA are the same as subgenres of adult fiction.
Western: Westerns should be set west of the Mississippi River and before the year 1900. Historical details must be accurate. Westerns are very specific and specialized, but be sure that you're not relying on clichés!
Westerns tend to be on the shorter side, anywhere from 45,000 to 75,000 words.
Women’s Fiction: Key elements should evoke emotion, include strong characterizations for writing a close/deep point of view, explore relationships, and use social issues to deepen your plot.
Definition by Deborah Raney: Women’s Fiction as a genre is contemporary fiction, often with a mild literary bent, that explores issues and themes ranging far beyond romance. Relationships are at the core of the plot, and not necessarily a love interest. It could involve relationships with siblings, parents, friends, society, etc. It may have a strong romantic thread, but the ending is not always happily-ever-after. It may be bittersweet or even tragic (though in the CBA it should be redemptive and satisfying).
What is your favorite genre and why? Tell me in a comment for a chance to win a copy of the first book in my new Sanctuary series, Gathering Shadows, debuting early next year! Don't forget to leave your contact information!