Enough With The Genres Already

Okay, okay, three posts in a row about genres and maybe now I can lighten up about it a little.  In my defense, at least they’ve had different perspectives!  And it’s cool learning things and expanding your horizons, so there’s that.

But on top of all that, it’s good to be able to home in on just the right description of what you write, or at least what you want to write, for those of us who are a little too hesitant or slow or procrastinating…or whatever adjective makes you feel better about not writing enough.  Homing in on that description can help you focus your intent enough to get you going, or it can help you explain your project to that agent/editor/publisher you’re about to talk into a great publishing arrangement.

So here’s an article by Michael J. Vaughn, who is a novelist, poet, painter, drummer, and many things…so many things he needs two different author pages on Facebook to handle them all.  He’s also a contributor to Writer’s Digest, where I found this, and where I end up finding a lot of good stuff.  So it would be a great idea to subscribe to their newsletter if you don’t already, and you can find even more good stuff.   This particular good stuff is a very, very thorough explanation of a whole slew of genres and sub-genres, and it can at least be an interesting analysis of the business even if you are already firmly convinced of your particular position in the literary firmament.  And some decent food for thought if you wobble a little about it.  Or a lot.

114 Fiction Sub-Genre Descriptions for Writers

Here’s a breakdown of some of your favorite fiction genres, including romance, horror, thriller/suspense, science fiction/fantasy, and mystery/crime. Find more than 100 fiction sub-genre descriptions for writers.

Michael J. Vaughn
Updated:Mar 16, 2021 – Original:Mar 19, 2008

Editor’s Note: One of the most important things a writer can do when trying to pitch their novel is to identify the correct genre for their book. Knowing the correct sub-genre only improves a writer’s chances, because it shows an understanding of the market that not every writer has. 

As such, enjoy this listing of sub-genre descriptions for several popular fiction genres, including romance, horror, thriller/suspense, science fiction/fantasy, and mystery/crime.


  • “A story that, at its core, is about a couple coming together to form a family unit.”
    —Steven Axelrod, agent
  • “If you can take the love interest out and it’s still a story, it’s not a romance.”
    —Jayne Ann Krentz, author

Chick-Lit: often humorous romantic adventures geared toward single working women in their twenties and thirties.

Christian: romances in which both hero and heroine are devout Christians, typically focused on a chaste courtship, and mentioning sex only after marriage.

Contemporary: a romance using modern characters and true-to-life settings.

Erotica: also called “romantica,” a romance in which the bedroom doors have been flung open and sexual scenes are described in candid language.

Glitz/Glamor: focused on the jet-set elite and celebrity-like characters.

Historical: a romance taking place in a recognizable historical period.

Multicultural: a romance centered on non-Caucasian characters, largely African-American or Hispanic.

Paranormal: involving some sort of supernatural element, ranging widely to include science fiction/fantasy aspects such as time travel, monsters or psychic abilities.

Romantic Comedy: a romance focused on humor, ranging from screwball antics to witty interplay.

Romantic Suspense: a novel in which an admirable heroine is pitted against some evil force (but in which the romantic aspect still maintains priority).

Sensual: based on the sensual tension between hero and heroine, including sizzling sex scenes.

Spicy: a romance in which married characters work to resolve their problems.

Sweet: a romance centered on a virgin heroine, with a storyline containing little or no sex.

Young Adult: written with the teenage audience in mind, with a suitably lower level of sexual content.

Tighten the Genre Focus

Last week I posted a discussion about classifying your writing into the right genre in order to target the crafting of your manuscript, the agents you query, and the market you focus on.  Here’s a little follow-up on that with a blog post by very-wise-literary-agent Jessica Faust of BookEnds Literary.

A very important point to remember in all similar discussions is that the information is there to enlighten you and help you form your own thoughts about the subject.  Not every piece of advice is right for everybody.  Not every writing rule is set in stone.  Not every work of art, including that masterpiece you just might be working on right now, fits neatly into a genre compartment.  But all the advice and rules have been wrung out and verified as helpful by the blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of writers and agents and editors before you, so it’s wise to go ahead and listen, ponder, and evaluate what it all means to your own career and potential masterpieces.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”  Considering his fame and success, it’s probably a good idea to listen just a little harder.

I’m not exactly sure what I think about such a tight focus on your audience.  I’m hard-headed, I know.  I have a huge urge to try to appeal to as wide a fan base as possible.  But there’s a balance somewhere between reaching a wide audience shallowly and reaching a narrow audience deeply, and I’m not sure where that balance is.  I’d love to hear more thoughts on that, so please let me know what you think.

And it would do you good to wander around Ms. Faust’s blog and website a little and see what other good nuggets she has to offer.

Stop Writing for Everyone

Agent Jessica Faust
Apr 1, 2021

I’m not everyone’s cup of tea and neither are you and neither is your book. So stop trying to write for all readers.

Write Your Genre

I think one of the biggest mistakes authors make, especially early on, is worrying too much about what will make their book appealing to everyone. You won’t. You can’t. Even today’s biggest selling books have their detractors. Heck, they have haters as much as they have lovers.

Your book is YA or it’s adult. It’s not both. If you’re super lucky you’ll have some crazy breakout book that will sell to all audiences, but when writing and querying the book you are appealing only to one. Harry Potter was not written for adults, neither was Twilight or Hunger Games. They were read by adults, but the authors never wrote them trying to make them appeal to everyone. They just did.

Your book can’t be a romance and a mystery and SFF and a memoir. It is one of those things. It might absolutely have elements of the others, but at the end of the day you’re writing a book with an eye toward one of the audiences above.

Writing Your Book

The same holds true of writing the book itself. Too often I see writers confined by the so-called rules (often passed along in writing groups) that keep them from really just writing a great book.

Even when choosing a genre, you will still not appeal to every reader within the genre. Not every romance reader likes romantic comedy, or bad boy heroes, or historical. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them, that just means your book won’t be every romance reader’s cup of tea.

Choose Your Agent

The same holds true when choosing agents. I am not the agent for every writer. I don’t represent SFF or middle grade and I wouldn’t know where to start, I’m not great at hand-holding, and, whether you want it or not, you’re going to get (potentially) tough editorial feedback from me. Some of you might think all of those things are great. Others would rather find someone else. Either choice is great and perfect.

When searching for an agent I can’t stress enough how important it is to find the right fit for you. That’s not necessarily your best friend’s agent, your sister’s agent, or your professor’s agent. It’s your agent. Your business partner.

I would give the same advice to any reader choosing the only book they get to take along on a deserted island. Find the book that’s right for you. It’s not your friend’s, your mom’s, or your sister’s. Its the one you can happily read many times and love.

Honestly, I long ago embraced that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. I long ago embraced the idea that not everyone likes me. I’m good with that. I can’t please everyone and if I did, I think I’d be doing it wrong.

Crime, Mystery, or Thriller?

Just the thought of classifying your beloved novel into a specific genre can throw your brain into a psychic maelstrom. I tripped all over myself trying to classify my first novel, and ended up sending queries to a few agents with it tagged as an action-adventure-mystery-suspense-thriller. Even that didn’t seem to excite them, but it did seem to cover most of the bases. I probably should have prefaced it with “cozy.”

It turns out that most agents and publishers…and, strangely enough, your readers…want to know pretty much what it is you’re peddling to them. Not everything fits into neat little boxes, and that’s as it should be. However, knowing what niche you’re shooting for and where your end result might best be marketed can give you a lot of help in the best way to craft the nuances of your tale.

So here’s a helpful article by former-private-investigator-turned-award-winning-novelist, writing guru, and contributing editor for Writer’s Digest (from which I snagged this post), David Corbett. It’s a little guide on wending your way through the labyrinth and coming out with a clear idea of how to construct and properly market your novel. A little perspective from someone who’s been there and was quite successful at it. Worth a look!

The Differences Between a Crime, Mystery, and Thriller Novel

To pitch the right agents, you first need to know exactly what it is you’re pitching. Learn the subtle differences among the many subgenres of suspense—and how to meet and exceed expectations in every one.

MAR 13, 2019

One of the first things to consider when setting out, therefore, is what kinds of expectations your story creates, so you can go about gratifying readers in surprising ways.

This is particularly true of writing in a genre, where conventions can seem ironclad—or all too often degrade into formula. And formula, by definition, surprises no one.

The suspense genres in particular have a number of seemingly hard and fast rules that a writer defies at his peril. And yet the most satisfying mysteries, thrillers, and crime stories find a way to create a new take on those rules to fashion something fresh, interesting, original. In other words, while you don’t want to mistakenly pitch your cozy mystery to an agent who wants only high-octane thrillers, you also want to make sure that when you connect with that cozy-loving agent, she’ll be jumping to sign you because your cozy stands out from the rest.

Here’s a map to help you navigate subgenre subtleties.

Mystery Novels

A crime is committed—almost always a murder—and the action of the story is the solution of that crime: determining who did it and why, and obtaining some form of justice. The best mystery stories often explore man’s unique capacity for deceit—especially self-deceit—and demonstrate a humble respect for the limits of human understanding. This is usually considered the most cerebral (and least violent) of the suspense genres.

Thematic emphasis: How can we come to know the truth? (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)

Structural distinctions: The basic plot elements of the mystery form are:

  1. The baffling crime
  2. The singularly motivated investigator
  3. The hidden killer
  4. The cover-up (often more important than the crime itself, as the cover-up is what conceals the killer)
  5. Discovery and elimination of suspects (in which creating false suspects is often part of the killer’s plan)
  6. Evaluation of clues (sifting the true from the untrue)
  7. Identification and apprehension of the killer.

Additional Reader Expectations:

The Hero: Whether a cop, a private eye, a reporter, or an amateur sleuth, the hero must possess a strong will to see justice served, often embodied in a code (for example, Harry Bosch’s “Everyone matters or no one matters” in the popular Michael Connelly series). He also often possesses not just a great mind but great empathy—a fascination not with crime, per se, but with human nature.

The Villain: The crime may be a hapless accident or an elaborately staged ritual; it’s the cover-up that unifies all villains in the act of deceit. The attempt to escape justice, therefore, often best personifies the killer’s malevolence. The mystery villain is often a great deceiver, or trickster, and succeeds because she knows how to get others to believe that what’s false is true.

Setting: Although mysteries can take place anywhere, they often thematically work well in tranquil settings—with the crime peeling back the mask of civility to reveal the more troubling reality beneath the surface.

Reveals: Given its emphasis on determining the true from the untrue, the mystery genre has more reveals than any other—the more shocking and unexpected, the better.

Mystery Subgenres

➤ Cozy: One of the ironic strengths of this subgenre is the fact that, by creating a world in which violence is rare, a bloody act resonates far more viscerally than it would in a more urban or disordered setting. Reader Expectations: A unique and engaging protagonist: Father Brown, Miss Marple, Kinsey Millhone. The crime should be clever, requiring ingenuity or even brilliance on the hero’s part to solve. Secondary characters can be coarse, but never the hero—or the author. Justice triumphs in the end, and the world returns to its original tranquility.

➤ Hard-boiled: The hero is a cop or PI, tough and capable. The moral view is often that of hard-won experience in the service of innocence or decency. The hero tends to be more world-weary than bitter—but that ice can get slippery. Reader Expectations: A strong hero who can “walk the mean streets but who is not himself mean,” as Raymond Chandler once put it. A realistic portrayal of crime and its milieu, with detailed knowledge of criminal methods and investigative techniques. The style is often brisk and simple, reflecting the unpretentious nature of the hero, who is intelligent but not necessarily learned. Although the hero almost always sees that justice prevails, there is usually a bittersweet resolution. The streets remain mean; such is the human condition.

➤ Police Procedural: A cousin to the hard-boiled subgenre, with the unit or precinct taking over for the lone cop. Reader Expectations: Much like the hard-boiled detective story, but with a larger cast and special focus on police tactics, squad-room psychology, station-house politics, and the tensions between the police and politicians, the media, and the citizenry.

➤ Medical, Scientific, or Forensic Mystery: A refinement of the police procedural in which the protagonists—doctors, medical examiners, forensic pathologists, or other technical experts—use intelligence and expertise, not guns, as their weapons. Reader Expectations: Similar to the police procedural, with extra emphasis on the physical details of analyzing unusual evidence.

➤ Legal or Courtroom Drama: The crime is seen through the eyes of the lawyers prosecuting or defending the case. Reader Expectations: A meticulous rendering of criminal court procedure and politics, along with how police and prosecutors work together (or don’t).