Genre is a term that defines a category of work with similar elements. In the writing profession, there are dozens of genres – many of which are also divided into sub-genres. To know how to write for our audience, we have to know in which writing genre we’re working.
Occasionally, a prolific writer comes along and invents an entirely new genre. H. P. Lovecraft (whose birthday is tomorrow!) was such a man. His subgenre of horror explores the scary, dark spaces of the Universe.
Let’s explore a few common genres in fiction to get a feel for this categorization system:
Comedy: This genre is exactly what it sounds like — writing intended to make us laugh. Comedy has numerous sub-genres, like parody or romantic fiction. It can also merge into the territory of other genres. A good example is Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The book is a comedy, set within a science fiction tale, that later became a hit film.
Adventure: An adventure story usually features a hero who is sent on a harrowing journey – typically to save another character. Adventure is a common genre for fiction because the excitement of the journey becomes a way to ensnare a reader. Lewis Carroll’s classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is a perfect example.
Action: Action is a genre by itself, but it usually mixes with others. Without action, a narrative can get dull very quickly. Pure action stories often typified the pulp fiction magazines of the early 1900s. These stories provided a paying market for struggling writers, but the stories themselves were usually thin on plot. Writers are now more refined in their approach to such writing. Action became a way to propel a story, rather than the story itself.
Historical: Historical fiction is based on human history. Sometimes an author will change specific details of certain events to suit his or her purpose within a plotline, but there are usually familiar elements included in the story that mimic actual events. Philippa Gregory’s novels, based on the Elizabethan Tudor family, beautifully illustrate the skill that historians can bring to such fiction.
Mystery/Crime: These two genres are typically linked. Generally, mystery novels relate to some aspect of a crime. They often focus on the intimate details of detectives, forensics, or the criminals themselves. Action and adventure genres often make an appearance in mystery/crime novels to make the telling of the story more compelling and exciting. Agatha Christie is a classic mystery writer whose work has stood the test of time.
Romance: From writing about lost love, unrequited love, forbidden love, or endangered love, the possibilities within the romance genre are limitless. Romance authors usually add some steam to the tale to make it racy and exciting for their readers. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is a young adult romance. It fits into other genres, as well, but it’s primarily a story of two unconventional lovers.
Science Fiction: The realms of outer space, technology, aliens, and the future are all concerns of science fiction stories. Sometimes the elements of fantasy and science fiction mix, as in the written work of Frank Herbert. Science fiction can also contain deep elements of mysticism, and usually includes elements of action and adventure stories as well.
Fantasy: Pure fantasy involves the use of magic, often in a world completely invented by the author. Old fairy tales and folklore fall into this genre. Modern fantasy takes its cue from the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, who created another world to stage an epic battle between the forces of evil and the forces of good.
Horror: Writers of horror stories love to chill readers with ghosts, scare us with ax-wielding murderers, and twist our sanity by making our worst fears come true. Often mixed with the genres of action, adventure, and romance, horror stories work to explore the depths of human fear.
Lovecraftian (Subgenre of Horror): Lovecraft’s tales explored a dark reality that involved a race of powerful, evil gods who were exiled from our Universe. Those same entities work tirelessly to return to our world, wreaking all sorts of physical and psychological havoc in the process.
Beginning in the pulp markets of the 1920s, Lovecraft’s writing inspired a whole new generation of horror writers, and they began to expand away from the same, tired “movie monster” fiction. The writer’s exploration of mind-shattering evil, from which there was no escape, secured him a place as a unique genre subcategory.
Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, all writing is divided into genres. The categories evolve, as new writers add their unique perspectives.
Discovering which genre your writing speaks from will help you to direct your work to the correct audience.