June 2nd, 2021

The Why and How of Choosing a Genre

by Jenny Hansen

Over the last few years, I've thought a lot about genre. The differences between them and why and how we choose our preferred genre to write in. Some writers are solidly in a certain genre camp and others straddle two or more genres.

Examples of popular "straddlers" - The Hunger Games series, the Outlander series, books by J.D. Robb.

I believe one of the reasons many authors have moved to genres like young adult (YA) or women's fiction (WF) is that the definitions of those two transcend traditional genres. For example, in addition to the other straddling achieved by the Hunger Games series, it is also classified as YA because of the age of the main character. (YA protags are usually in the 14-21 range.)

Many of us behind the scenes here at WITS have participated in various NYC Midnight contests. One of the most unique factors about their contests is that your genre is assigned to you, along with a character and a story element you must use.

To give you an idea of what these assignments look like, here are the last three assignments I received in their short story contests:

  • Genre - Mystery, Element - a collection, Character - a nomad
  • Genre - Sci-Fi, Element - a career, Character - a tracker
  • Genre - Sci-Fi, Element - a colony, Character - a lumberman

We flock to NYC Midnight's contests, year after year, because it's fun and it makes you stretch (so hard) as a writer. I'd written literary, romance, mainstream and women's fiction, but never mystery or sci-fi, until it was assigned to me through this contest. I would never have imagined I'd enjoy it.

Full-disclosure: Except for mystery. I didn't enjoy the mystery so much.

In trying to learn how to write a mystery (in a week), I learned how damn hard it is to write. In fact, while my finished story had some mystery elements, it really ended up being a literary tale about redemption. I love it to pieces, but it didn't fit the assigned genre.

My Genre Journey

As a baby writer, I fell in with a bunch of romance writers. They were talented and friendly and welcoming, and I still hang out with a lot of them. I love a good romance, so I believed I'd found my forever writing home. But there was a pretty glaring problem...

I don't really write romance.

Sure, I have romantic elements and sexual tension and "happily ever after" types of endings, but romance is a story driven by the love developing between the two main characters. Without the romance at the center, the story simply can't hang together.

My stories can almost always hang together without the romance, but they can't work without the eclectic cast of supporting characters. My books are all about the protagonist's journey, from the life they have to the life they could have. Only before they can have that shiny new life, they must earn it by unpacking their emotional baggage and letting go of the misbeliefs holding them back. Many times my story arcs include a love interest, but not always.

Basically, the closest I get to romance is "mainstream with romantic elements." What I actually write is called women's fiction, and it took me years to figure that out.

(More on women's fiction below.)

Why is genre important?

There are a variety of reasons why genre matters but these two are probably the main two:

Genre helps people find your books. It's how they search and it decides where your books are shelved in a brick and mortar bookstore.

Genre provides authors (and readers) with a roadmap. Every genre is guided by various rules - the couple in the romance will be in love and the mystery will be solved by the time the reader gets to The End. Readers of romance will pick up your book if all indicators tell them your book is a romance. (And they'll be peeved if it isn't.)

Funny story about genre fiction... Many years ago, that group of romance writers I mentioned hosted a day with Dean Koontz. He talked to us for almost three hours and it was incredible. One of the things he said that I never forgot: "Genre fiction is a result of the G.I. Bill." According to Koontz, when Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill into law in June, 1944, more people attended college than ever before. English departments filled, writers were born and the flood of books that resulted had to be organized into some semblance of order...and genre fiction was born.

I don't know if that's true, but I loved hearing the story from Dean Koontz.

Genre Definitions

About those genres... How do you know which one you write?

The NYC Midnight's genre definitions page is a terrific starting point in understanding the differences between genres. Plus they include examples of books and movies that fall within each genre. The way they have their definitions laid out really opened my mind to different types of stories, and helped me to see that they could be possible for me. I've excerpted short versions below, but I highly recommend a deep read of their genre page (linked in the first sentence).

There are, of course, more genres than those listed below, but this is enough of a start for you to explore various types of story structures in your own writing.

Action/Adventure - A suspenseful story in which a mission involving risk and danger forms the primary storyline. The protagonist, who is typically operating outside the course of his or her daily life, embarks on a journey to confront obstacles and prove worthiness.

Comedy - A story that typically maintains a light, satirical, or familiar tone and features amusing characters and situations. Humor is the fundamental driving force.

Crime Caper - A lighthearted crime story in which the main characters perpetrate one or more crimes in full view of the reader or filmgoer. The plot focuses on the criminals and their attempts at escape or atonement.

Drama - A story that relies on the emotional and relational development of realistic characters. Themes are often drawn from intense, real life issues such as addiction, infidelity, race and class tension, disease, and corruption.

Fairy Tale - A narrative that often features folkloric characters such as fairies, elves, trolls, or witches engaged in fantastic or magical events that illuminate universal truths.

Fantasy - An imaginative story that typically weaves magic or other supernatural phenomena into a self-coherent plot or setting (e.g. magic spells, mythical creatures, fabled kingdoms, witchcraft, wizardry, medieval universes).

Ghost Story - A frightening story premised on the possibility of ghosts, which may appear by their own volition or through summoning by magic. Ghost stories are usually scary, leveraging suspense, a sense of the uncanny, and supernatural occurrences to elicit feelings of fear and foreboding.

Historical Fiction - A story that takes place in a setting drawn from history. Historical fiction is usually presented from the perspective of the historical characters, whose behavior is consistent with the manners and social norms of the time.

Horror - A story intended to provoke an emotional, psychological, or physical fear response in the audience. Horror stories frequently contain supernatural elements, though not always, and the central menace may serve as a metaphor for the fears of society.

Mystery - A story that frequently involves a mysterious death or a crime to be solved, though not always. The main character is often a detective who must consider a small group of suspects--each of whom must have a reasonable motive and opportunity for committing the crime.

Political Satire - A story that uses irony and sarcasm to expose human folly and vice in the political arena. Political satires often critique the status quo and, in doing so, offer alternatives and possibilities for improvements.

Romance - A story that revolves around two people as they develop romantic love for each other and try to build a relationship. Romance stories may explore love at first sight, forbidden love, or love triangles.

Romantic Comedy - A story that combines love and humor. Typically, these are stories with light, funny plotlines centered on romantic ideals such as fate and true love. Romantic comedies often feature couples that are polar opposites in terms of temperament, social status, or situation in life.

Sci-Fi - An imaginative story, usually set in the future or in an alternative universe, in which new technology, scientific principles, or political systems are developed or applied.

Spy - A story that involves espionage, secret agents, or secret service organizations as an important context or plot device.

Suspense - A story that slowly generates feelings of anxiety, anticipation and uncertainty in the audience. Typically the main character becomes aware of danger only gradually, thus exacerbating the audience’s discomfort.

Thriller - A fast-paced, gripping, plot-centered story that invokes an emotional thrill by mixing intense fear and excitement. Usually the protagonist is in danger from the outset.

And my favorite genre, which was not included on the NYC Midnight list:

Women's Fiction - The #1 rule of women's fiction is that the plot is driven by the main character's emotional journey. These layered stories can have suspense, action, fairy tales or whatever, as long as the promise of that first rule is kept.

Women's fiction has been growing over the last decade. There's now a writers group for it (it's awesome!) and next week on June 8th is the third annual Women's Fiction Day. All details are here, but there will be live programming on their Instagram channel with authors and agents all day. The popular hashtags will be #Womensfictionday and #WFWA.

Final Thoughts

So, as you can see, there are a freaking lot of genres! And yes, each genre has rules that can serve as a framework for both authors and readers. However, at the end of the day, the most important thing is to write a story YOU would love to read.

If you truly have no idea which genre you write (or which one you'd like to jump into), start reading. Browse libraries, Amazon, bookstores and fellow writers for recommendations, so you can make the most of whichever genre you have chosen.

Do you know which genre you prefer to write (or read)? Who is your favorite author to recommend in your preferred genre? Please let me know if covered your niche, and whether there are interesting genres that I missed!

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Jenny

By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.

24 responses to “The Why and How of Choosing a Genre”

  1. Hey Jenny! Like you, romance writers scooped me up and nurtured me. They taught me everything they knew with great generosity and sincerity. I published what I thought was romance, but I've learned since that there are seeds (perhaps seedlings in a pony pack like from Home Depot) of historical fiction. Also, like you, what I'm doing now is sliding over to women's fiction.

    As a business owner (which we all are as writers), my brain fully embraces the need for genres to attract and retain readers/buyers. But my heart wants to write what it wants to write. Yes, I think my heart writes more than my brain. And I hope that comes through in my stories.

    The point is this: My goal is to write the books I would want to buy, buzz about to friends, and pass on to readers who want a great escape. To do that, I have to write the best book possible each and every time. So, each book should be better than the last.

    My current project--a WWII love story set against the bombing of Hiroshima--it could be showcased on several store shelves: romance, historical fiction and women's fiction. However, that brief description doesn't capture HOW the story is told. This two-book series is becoming more and more women's fiction in my brain. That means my brain and my heart are working as a team. Yay!

    That's much clearer in the draft (and there will be many more) of the back-cover blurb for Under the Survivor Tree (or one of the other hundred or so working titles: The Hiroshima Seamstress):

    A story about the deceptions we hide behind, the passions we surrender to and the lengths we’ll go to capture the truth. A tale of love and hope and forgiveness that’s a perfect read for fans of Memoirs of a Geisha and The Bridges of Madison County. (sub-headline)

    Pearl Beaumont knows how to keep a secret. She survived the Hiroshima bombing and spilled her secrets and passions into a diary that’s lain hidden from prying eyes for 75 years.

    Vivienne Sheridan can’t keep a secret. She’s been hurt by life one too many times. She hides behind her on-camera vlog series: The Ups and Downs of the Pasadena Pin-Up Girl. But even that isn’t holding back her distrust and pain anymore. When she uncovers Pearl’s precious diary, Vivienne clings to the thought that walking in the steps of her great-grandmother’s life in Hiroshima would be a better choice. But there’s a clock ticking: she has just 14 days to complete her task.

    When Vivienne arrives in Japan she meets Kent Ito, a fascinating museum curator who’s enthralled with Pearl’s diary…and Vivienne. The pair try to piece together everything that’s been left unsaid by Pearl. But Vivienne finds out Kent isn’t the man she thought. Dazed as truth after truth is uncovered, can Vivienne possibly find the courage to trust again? Will she listen to the words Pearl has written and risk putting her heart in someone else’s care?

    Jenny, sorry to go on and on, but your blog hit me at just the right time. The genre "thing" can be clear-cut or muddy waters. Thanks for bringing clarity to us!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You are ALWAYS welcome, Chris! And you might consider joining WFWA - it's inexpensive, welcoming, and the learning opportunities are amazing. There are several male members and the activities are mostly online.

      I'm so happy to see that Vivienne's story has become so wonderfully layered.

    • This story sounds great, Chris, thanks for your really thoughtful outline and comment!

  2. Thank you for this, Jenny. Oh how I struggled to locate where I fit for years (okay, maybe decades). I probably shouldn't do this, but I refer to my writing most of the time as fantasy because it takes place in a fantasy world. Thing is, although there are a lot of magical elements to the stories, it's actually Women's Fiction (I've belonged to WFWA for a few years) with elements of mystery and romance. Always, though, it's the character's emotional journey that's vital.

  3. Virginia says:

    Such a helpful post. I didn't know how to categorize the novel I'm currently editing. My beta reader said it was romance, though there was no happily ever after, and that women's fiction had to be about women's issues.After reading this, I've decided it and the last one I wrote are women's fiction. Not my only genre, but it fits these.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Virginia! I'm glad it was helpful. Romance can end in a happy-for-now place but the couple must be happy TOGETHER. The interesting thing about women's fiction is that it is about the protagonist's emotional journey but that protag doesn't necessarily have to be female. However, most people will categorize that type of book (with a male protag) as mainstream fiction.

  4. Barb DeLong says:

    Shout out to Chris Lentz! Your WWII story sounds fantastic! I've been questioning genres ever since I delved into the paranormal realm a few years ago with a contemporary witch story. I was happy to call that a plain old paranormal romance, the umbrella genre title. Then I began writing a contemporary romance witch series where the main events happen in New York City and an estate in Connecticut, and a fantasy realm (origin of the witches). I thought urban fantasy romance (under the paranormal umbrella), but maybe not because of the other realm thing. Okay, just fantasy romance. Then I discovered there are over 50 sub-genres of fantasy. Yikes! Who knew? I'm still sorting through them all, some with creative names like arcanepunk fantasy, Bangsian fantasy, steampunk. Mine might be a portal fantasy. It's been fun reading through several fantasy romances to see if mine compares--I'd like a couple of comps for my query letter. Thanks for this discussion of genres, Jenny!

  5. Of the NYC categories, the only one that fits is Drama: "...story that relies on the emotional and relational development of realistic characters. Themes are often drawn from intense, real life issues such as ... infidelity, ..., disease, ... [add love, greed] to name a few. Conflict, which is a central component, may arise internally, within the main character[s], ... among [three] multiple characters. Common elements: realistic characters, emotional themes, depth, moral grappling, conflict."

    I write mainstream literary fiction, intended and designed to reach adult men and women. My favorite reviews come from older men, who often say "I usually don't read this kind of fiction, but..." and proceed to leave amazing reviews.

    The 'literary' part is the writing - as many genre novels are elevated by their writing quality, I aim to have the quality without the plotlessness sometimes associated with literary novels. Plot and character (and theme) are equally important to me.

    It is at heart a love story; in fact I tag it "The Great American Love Story," but I really can't call it women's fiction when I create to attract women AND men, can I?

    I guess there are just not enough of us for Amazon to have a category I call 'mainstream.' What used to be published as 'A novel.'

    'Drama' brings up a disturbing list of novels that I would call more psychological horror on Amazon; obviously, that isn't the right Category.

    It's a conundrum. I want Amazon to have the category 'Mainstream,' but it doesn't.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I like mainstream fiction quite a bit, and I like that your book straddles genres. And interesting fact - women's fiction isn't always about women. There are a lot of male readers and some male writers of WF. It's fascinating.

  6. Kris says:

    Hi Jenny,
    As a NYC buddy, I agree on how tackling a new genre can make you grow as a writer.

    I wasn't aware of the specifics around women's fiction (and thought it was more general, like YA). Thanks for those insights!
    Kris

  7. Eldred Bird says:

    Oh, Jenny, I remember how much trouble you had with the whole mystery assignment from NYC. Your writer voice is so emotion driven that it can't help but become the driving force of what ever story you tell. You were focusing more the characters than you were on following a chain of clues. But the good news is you ended up with the bones of a great redemption story!

    I love using short stories to explore other genres. One thing it's taught me is that I will feel the same way about romance as you do about mystery. It's the one genre I will never have the tools to conquer.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      That mystery about killed me, Bob! I had a week and, while I understood the story, I simply couldn't understand the genre. I have gone back and tinkered with that story several times because I feel like it needs to be more. Not more of a mystery -- definitely not that -- but more emotional and fleshed out.

      And I'll bet you could totally write a romance if you wanted to. 🙂

  8. dholcomb1 says:

    I'm primarily a romance writer and a romance reader.

    I use the RWA definition of romance:

    The Basics
    Romance fiction is smart, fresh and diverse. Whether you enjoy contemporary dialogue, historical settings, mystery, thrillers or any number of other themes, there's a romance novel waiting for you!

    Definition
    Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

    A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

    An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

    Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.

    Romance Novel Formats
    There are two formats for romance fiction:
    Series or "category" romances: books issued under a common imprint/series name that are usually numbered sequentially and released at regular intervals, usually monthly, with the same number of releases each time. These books are most commonly published by Harlequin/Silhouette.
    Single-title romances: longer romances released individually and not as part of a numbered series. Single-title romances may be released in hard cover, trade paperback, or mass-market paperback sizes.

    Romance Subgenres
    All romance novels have a central love story and an emotionally satisfying ending. Beyond that, however, romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. Romance fiction may be classified into various subgenres depending on setting and plot elements. These subgenres include:

    Contemporary Romance: Romance novels that are set from 1950 to the present that focus primarily on the romantic relationship

    Erotic Romance: Romance novels in which strong, often explicit, sexual interaction is an inherent part of the love story, character growth and relationship development and could not be removed without damaging the storyline. These novels may contain elements of other romance subgenres (such as paranormal, historical, etc.).

    Historical Romance: Romance novels that are set prior to 1950.

    Paranormal Romance: Romance novels in which fantasy worlds or paranormal or science fiction elements are an integral part of the plot.

    Romance with Spiritual Elements: Romance novels in which spiritual beliefs are an inherent part of the love story, character growth or relationship development, and could not be removed without damaging the storyline. These novels may be set in the context of any religious or spiritual belief system of any culture.

    Romantic Suspense: Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

    Young Adult Romance: Romance novels in which young adult life is an integral part of the plot.

    denise

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, Denise, and pasting this in here! I am absolutely a romance reader - I love a great HEA, and I adore what I call "escape reading" because life has enough downer stuff without me having to add to it with my reading choices!

  9. jamesr403 says:

    Great post, Jenny! I started out writing science fiction, but realized my sf was really a thinly-disguised mystery. Sometimes your genre chooses you. And you are absolutely right -- you need to pick a genre that you love to read.

  10. raynayday says:

    I really enjoyed this article and think it all true. As a thirty year editor (and occasional contributor) of well known sci-fi and horror magazines. I decided to try my hand at novels. Of course I started with a horror, easier to write than sci-fi and little research required but my characters would not really do what I wished of them. The completed novel ending up an historical romance with fantasy elements. Luckily it was successful and so I followed it up with a couple of others which also did pretty well.

    Anyway with a little success behind me "going back to my roots" (Odyssey-if anyone couldn't remember the song) I wrote, in tandem, a Sci-fi novel and a Horror. Both great (in my opinion) but notable only by the fact that no one wanted to read them.

    Bitterly disappointed I gave up with novels and returned to writing short tales but I had this other rather twee fantasy running around in my head and eventually wrote it. My publisher grabbed it with both hands (despite my earlier failure) and it became my bestselling novel to date. More incredible still, the cuttings and off shots from the novel became a collection of short tales and it also sold well (very unusual for a collection of short stories).

    The reason I tell you this rather sad tale is partly to echo many of the other comments where they mention "the genre chooses you" but also to agree with the initial point of the article where it is suggested that we can and should write in all genres until we find what suits our writing and imagination.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Ray. It's astonishing the travails we go through to bring our stories to the readers. Good for you for sticking with it, and congratulations on your success!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


2014-2020

Subscribe to WITS

Categories

Archives