Fabulous or Formulaic? Understanding Literary Genres
Word on the street is that you can’t succeed as an author without a firm grasp of genre.
You’ve probably heard that, though. Maybe that’s why you’re here, reading this article, trying to decide which category your work fits into, why you even need to define it, and what it means for your approach to storytelling.
For a lot of writers, this can be a prickly topic. They start to feel boxed in creatively, irritated that they have to define their art. What if you don’t want to only write romance novels or thrillers or epic poetry? What if you contain multitudes?
Let me reassure you that this whole genre thing is a lot less restrictive than it sounds. There’s room for you to experiment, genre hop, and live a life of boundless creativity even in a market that would like you to please define your work in one to three words.
Join me as we explore:
- What genre is and why it matters
- The different types of literary genres
- The hidden versatility of fiction categories
- How to choose your category
- How to branch out to different literary genres
- What this all means for storytelling
Let’s dive into this how-to nonfiction article, shall we? (Look at that. We’re learning already.)
What Are Literary Genres?
A genre is a category of literature defined by the tone, content, and style of literary works.
This categorization matters for a few reasons, but one of the most significant is that it tells readers what to expect.
If you’re in the mood for warm fuzzies and a happy ending, you probably won’t reach for a thriller. If you want a heart-racing, fast-paced read, you’re not likely to hit up the literary fiction section at your local library.
The categorization of your novel is essentially a promise to your reader that they’ll have a specific type of emotional experience if they read your book.
Do You Have to Pick a Literary Genre?
For the most part, yes. Or at least, you have to pick a genre for each work of literature you create.
If you plan to self-publish, you’ll need to select a genre so readers can find your book and recognize it as the kind of story they’ll love.
If you hope to land a deal with a traditional publisher, you need to know your genre so you can pitch your book to gatekeepers. An agent who gets paid on commission is unlikely to leap at the chance to sell a book they can’t define.
None of this means you have to write hollow, formulaic novels in order to succeed. We’ll get into it more later, but if you’re stressed about it, scroll down to the “Versatility of Genre” section.
Now, if you’re wondering if you as an author have to commit to one category, the answer is no. It will help your career to obsess over one literary genre and write several books in that category before you start genre hopping. But many authors can and do play the literary field. We’ll discuss that more in-depth later, too.
Types of Literary Genres
So what are your options when it comes to literary genres?
The list is pretty long—even longer than the one you’re about to read (or, more likely, skim). These categories can get pretty niche, so to keep things simple, we’re going to focus on the main literary genres.
The word “fiction” describes any story that involves imaginary people and/or events. When we talk about fiction genres, we’re talking specifically about prose, though poetry and drama can also be fictional.
Before we start listing categories, I’d like to clarify that some people also define genre by the length of a work. I personally find this more confusing than helpful. While you want your readers to know whether your work of fiction is a short story or a novel, it would be vague to simply say you write in the “short story genre.”
So just to make sure we cover this part:
- Flash fiction is typically under 500 words
- Short stories run about 5,000 - 10,000 words
- Novellas are 10,000 - 40,000 words
- Novels are over 40,000 words, usually in the range of 80,000 - 100,000 (or more in the case of many fantasy novels)
You can pair these word counts with any of the genres below except children’s literature and middle grade fiction. That is to say, you could write a horror short story, a romance novella, a mystery novel… whatever you want. Live your best life.
Just be aware that once you get into novel-length works, there are often word count expectations for each fiction genre. For example, romance and thrillers often max out at about 90,000 words, while fantasy can get up to 150,000 or even more.
Children’s literature covers all books for young readers, including picture books, early reader books, middle grade fiction, and young adult fiction. We’ll explore those last two in their own sections, however, because they each represent a huge step forward in terms of story complexity and theme.
If you write children’s literature, you want to keep your stories brief, positive, focused on a small cast of characters, and age-appropriate.
You can learn more about how to write children’s fiction here.
Middle grade (MG) fiction caters to readers between the ages of eight and twelve with simple sentence structure, easy vocabulary, and external conflict. Like all children’s fiction, MG takes an optimistic approach even as it tackles heavier topics that its readers struggle with, like bullying, divorce, and belonging.
Learn more about writing middle grade fiction here.
The target young adult (YA) fiction audience includes readers between the ages of twelve and eighteen. YA is different from MG in that its characters wrestle with heavier themes and there’s more internal conflict. But even though YA fiction can be a bit darker, you still want to end on a hopeful note.
Learn more about young adult fiction here.
Science fiction (sci-fi) is a form of speculative fiction that imagines a different existence influenced by scientific advancements that have not emerged in our current world (as far as we know).
Sci-fi often takes place in the future, but it’s also possible to write science fiction that reimagines our present or even offers alternative versions of historical events.
Learn more about sci-fi here.
Like science fiction, fantasy explores imaginary worlds and/or societies, but while sci-fi uses real scientific concepts to explain the extraordinary, fantasy inspires wonder with magical, mythological, or supernatural elements.
Learn more about the fantasy genre here.
In a mystery novel, a sleuth sets out to solve a crime. There are red herrings, multiple suspects, and enough clues for the reader to feel like they’ve been given an opportunity to solve the case before the protagonist does.
Learn more about the mystery genre here.
Romances center on love stories, as you probably guessed. This fiction genre should always deliver a ton of sighs and swoons. A Happily Ever After (HEA) ending is mandatory… or at least a Happy for Now (HFN).
Learn more about romance here.
A work of historical fiction centers on a historical event, figure(s), or society. It requires a lot of research and a deliberate blend of fact and fabrication.
Learn more about historical fiction here.
The horror genre aims to disturb or terrify readers. A horror story might tap into psychological fears, shock with gory imagery, and/or alarm the reader with supernatural elements. This fiction genre is all about creating an atmosphere of danger and menace.
Learn more about horror here.
Learn more about the thriller genre here.
Literary fiction is sometimes considered a category separate from genre fiction, due to its less commercial nature and fewer rules about tropes, structure, and the intended reader experience.
Nonfiction literature tells the truth… or tries to anyway. All the genres under this heading deal with real experiences and real people in our very real world.
A biography tells the story of a (usually famous) person’s life. In an autobiography, the author tells the story of their own life.
A memoir is a book-length work of literature in which the author shares a personal experience. Unlike an autobiography, however, a memoir centers on one specific theme or event, not their entire life. Memoirs also tend to be more literary in nature, with heavy emphasis on writing style and internal conflict.
An essay is a short work of nonfiction literature in which the author expresses their perspective on literally anything. You could write an essay about your favorite sock or the implications of AI-generated art. The main thing is that you share a clear point of view and back it up with concrete details.
If you write journalism, you gather and present factual information objectively. This occurs in a wide range of formats: magazine writing, newspaper reporting, television writing, and more.
Nonfiction books intended to help readers enrich their lives with new strategies and perspectives fall under the self-help category.
In the travel writing genre, the author recounts their experience traveling to a specific location. This includes practical guides as well as travel-focused memoirs and essays.
Academic writing seeks to inform fellow scholars or explore ideas within a specific area of study. Dissertations, criticism, and research writing all fall under this genre.
In creative nonfiction, you get to have fun with literary devices while sharing factual information. There’s a heavy emphasis on narratives and themes, as well as plenty of room to play with structure and storytelling.
When it comes to poetry, it’s easy to form and genre confused.
Form refers to the structure and rhythm of a poem. Haiku, sonnet, and free verse all describe poetic forms.
Genre, as we’ve discussed, indicates style, tone, and content. You can check out a huge list of poetic genres here. For now, we’ll just touch on some of the most popular.
Epic poetry tells a super long story about a big adventure and feats of heroism. It typically centers on one protagonist.
This is the most playful of the poetic genres. Light verse can take the form of folk songs, nonsensical poems, and jokes as poetry.
An ode addresses a specific subject, glorifying it in lyrical and often elevated verse.
Narrative poems tell a story. They include at least one character, a setting, conflict, and a beginning, middle, and end. Epic poetry falls under this umbrella, though not all narrative poems have to be quite that lengthy and grand.
Dramatic literature includes anything written to be performed, like plays, screenplays (film), and teleplays (television).
Tragedies never end well, especially not for the protagonist. Often, it’s the protagonist’s fatal flaw that ruins everything.
Comedies contain comedic elements. Go figure. A comedy might use biting satire to comment on serious topics, lighthearted humor to delight an audience, or go over-the-top with absurd characters and situations, like in a farce.
Melodramas blow things out of proportion. A melodrama will feature a sensational plot, exaggerated characters, and extreme emotions.
As you probably guessed, historical dramas recount historical events. How closely they stick to the facts is up to the writer, but you can assume there’s at least some fictionalizing.
The Versatility of Genre
I promised to explain why adhering to a specific genre doesn’t mean stifling originality. So let’s explore all the fun ways you can play with your chosen genre.
All literary genres have their own litters of adorable little subgenres. While subgenres might seem even more restrictive because they bring ultra-specific expectations, that specificity actually helps you create something less generic.
When I use the phrase “romance novels,” you might immediately picture an ultra-femme heroine and a broad-chested hero doing a lot of yearning.
But what about paranormal romance? Time-travel romance? Regency romance? Sapphic romantic comedy?
If a literary genre interests you, explore its subgenres. You’re bound to find that there’s more than one way to be a genre writer.
Don’t tell anyone I told you, but there’s no law saying you can’t mix different literary genres. If you want to write a sci-fi mystery, go for it. Historical fantasy? Have at it.
Just decide which genre is your primary genre so you can write it for the correct audience and market or pitch it accordingly. Make sure you fulfill the essential beats of that genre and incorporate tropes that make sense.
That way, you offer readers something different without taking away the conventions they’ve come to love.
The Evolution of Literary Genres
Genre conventions evolve with changing trends, experimentation, and even societal shifts. New tropes emerge and sometimes certain stories within a category become so popular they inspire entirely new subgenres.
Cozy mystery developed in the late 20th century as a call-back to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (the Agatha Christie days, basically). Paranormal romance has roots in gothic romance, but the subgenre as we know it is only a few decades old. And here in the 21st century, enthusiastic consent is an increasingly common ingredient in spicy romance novels.
All this to say, you can honor your genre and let your life experiences, worldview, and individuality influence the way you work within the confines of the category.
Choosing Your Genre
So how do you know which of the many literary genres out there is right for you?
Start with what you love to read. In order to write any fiction category well, you need to study the heck out of it. You also need to genuinely love it. If you’ve got a passion for science fiction but heard romance is where the money is, stick with sci-fi, anyway. That’s where the money is for you.
Do a little research to understand the conventions of the literary genres that interest you most. Will you enjoy the unique challenges involved? For example, if you want to write historical fiction, you’d better enjoy doing research. If you want to write fantasy, you should know there’s a ton of worldbuilding involved.
When you find the genre you think might be right for you, try writing it and see how it goes.
Quick tip: DabbleU has a bunch of free articles that can provide more clarity on what it takes to write each genre.
How to Write in Different Genres
So let’s say you’ve been writing in one genre for a while but now you want to branch out. How do you jump into a different fiction genre?
Here are a few tips:
Have good reasons for making the switch - An example of a good reason is that you love another genre and want to try it. As previously discussed, it’s not a good idea to switch genres because just one more seems more lucrative.
Get to know your new genre better - Read current bestsellers and check out their reviews. Hang out in forums to see what readers are saying. Look for books, articles, or even classes that explore the genre in depth. Join a writing group dedicated to the category. Learn everything you can.
Consider using a pen name for your new genre - Or don’t. Many authors create pen names for different literary genres so they can brand their author personas accordingly. And if an author is famously associated with a specific category of fiction, a pseudonym can prevent that reputation from screwing up their marketability in a different genre.
Others write in genres that have some crossover in terms of audience. They might choose to write under one name so fans who love both genres can find and devour all their books.
How Genre Impacts Your Storytelling
Once you’ve chosen your category of fiction, how should that genre influence the way you tell a story?
Pay close attention to these elements:
Tone - Do readers of this genre expect something playful and humorous? Eerie and menacing? Pensive and profound?
Content - What types of characters, settings, and conflicts are common in stories like these? What tropes might your readers be hoping to see?
Writing style - Is this fiction genre known for short, to-the-point sentences and concrete details? Or is there room for figurative language, rich scene descriptions, and thematic reflection?
Pacing - How quickly do readers expect the action to move forward? Are they looking for a page turner or something they can savor slowly?
Emotion - When readers of this fiction genre pick up a book like this, what are they hoping to feel? How can you create that emotion through conflict, characterization, and setting?
Ending - This is a big one. How will your readers expect this book to end? Do they want a happy conclusion? A devastating one? Something shocking?
Get these details right, and you’ll cultivate a solid following of happy readers.
Want to Go Deeper on Literary Genres? Dabble Can Help!
Not only does DabbleU contain great information to help you nail your genre, the Dabble newsletter delivers genre-specific writing prompts right to your inbox every week. These prompts are a great way to experiment with new literary genres and spark ideas for your next book.
Sign up for the newsletter here and get ready to be inspired.
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