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Literary Fiction Genres

Fiction Genre Definitions

Here are basic definitions for each major fiction genre, plus some informative links.

We've included subgenre definitions for each of the nine big categories of 'genre' fiction, and some examples of each. We have recently done the same for the 'literary' and smaller genres, plus the wider descriptive categories.

Children's is defined by its own name. These books are for little kids, from toddlers on up to about eleven years of age, and usually feature characters in that age range (and/or childlike animals). They are usually big on pictures, and simple in word and theme. Familiar (if faraway) scenes, and gentle (or not) moral lessons, are paramount.

Children's subgenre definitions (All)

Fantasy is many things to many people. These tales contain at least one 'fantastic' element; something that it's not 'grown up' to believe is real. The setting may be our own Earth or some imaginary realm. Often the characters (humans, and/or elves and more) can do magical things, thanks to some innate 'talent' or arcane secrets. Those of good character usually win through, if only in the long run.

Fantasy subgenre definitions (All)

Horror is the mood this genre seeks to invoke. From subtle anxiety to blood-splattered scenes, in these stories, something is just not right. Candor, teamwork, and chastity often aide the protagonists as they face sickly goo, unwanted penetration, and incipient insanity. In the end, the evil element (whether human or monstrous or paranormal) often wins, or (especially in its modern Hollywood form), is not decisively vanquished.

Horror subgenre definitions (All)

Mystery is what makes this genre interesting. There is a puzzle: an unsolved murder or serious crime, or some unexplained event, and both protagonist and reader get to figure it out, step by careful step. In virtually all cases, they do succeed. (These tales almost never feature a blue-collar type investigator, or a foolish criminal.)

Mystery subgenre definitions (All)

Romance might be between a hunky sailor and a fair maiden, or a cynical vampire and a scrappy werewolf, but after a lot of sparks and trials, that is what they will secure. The settings and intensity may vary, but the overall 'finding happiness together' formula is familiar indeed. (Ideally, careful research has ensured detailed accuracy.)

Romance subgenre definitions (All)

Science Fiction is as big as, nay larger than, all of time and space. The scene might be a distant galaxy, or the far future, or a familiar downtown. (Rarely, a small town.) There is always something new and different; be it a handy invention, an alien visitor, or anything you can imagine -- so long as it's scientifically plausible. (Or, at least, it does not egregiously violate known science and physical laws.)

Science Fiction subgenre definitions (A - F) (G - P) (R - X)

Short Fiction is defined by its length. (Technically, its word count.) Brief yet satisfying tales are a challenge to write, and authors such as O Henry and HH Munro grew famous for their work. There are enough varieties of 'short-short' fiction (with a lower word count than the conventional short story) to justify a special major category.

Short Fiction subgenre definitions (All)

Thrillers (also Suspense), formerly called Action (or Adventure) stories, is a genre defined by extraordinary situations that summon an emotional thrill. The time might be the past or near future, and the setting exotic or familiar. In every case the characters are swept beyond a humdrum life, by their career or some unforeseen circumstance. Perils will surge, and blows are traded, but the hero wins in the end. (Often the author has special 'inside' knowledge -- or if not, as with arcane conspiracies, it sure seems like it.)

Thriller subgenre definitions (All)

Westerns is the only major genre defined by a specific time and place. Almost all are set west of the Missouri River, while some extend into Alaska or Mexico. Usually these take place between about 1800 and 1890. A few depict the early settlement of the Appalachians in the late 1500s, while a handful reach clear back to pre-Columbian (thus, pre-horse) times. The rugged hero (of any gender or ethnic type) will always endure, and face down adversity.

Western subgenre definitions (All)

{The American South, both antebellum and modern, hosts many fine tales, but these have not risen to full genre status.}

Young Adult tales are written for folks from about twelve to eighteen years of age. The protagonist is always of that age, as are most of the characters. He or she can live a bizarre magical life, or a dreary suburban one. There are few limits on the 'issues' dealt with, and readers will identify with the character's inner travails as well. (Adults will enjoy the better ones.)

YA subgenre definitions (All)

{As seen on our List page, each of these has a gazillion 'sub' and 'sub-sub' genres. Science Fiction, with the widest range of possibilities, has by far the most.}

Mainstream (also Blockbuster) (All)
These novels are done in big print runs, and with a large advertising budget. Often they are very long. On the cover, a famous author's name may be in bigger print than the particular story title. (Sometimes, plausibility and careful editing will take a back seat.)

Then we have 'literary,' as opposed to 'genre,' fiction. The distinction is wide and multi-faceted, and yet blurred, perhaps at the same time. It's said that one appeals with a 'quality' writing style, and the other with a common 'grabber' story. (Artistic merit versus cheap thrills?)
In the USA and Europe, this is darned near a social-class distinction!

Literary (All)

This esteemed line of fiction emphasizes the prose itself. The author is recognized as a brilliant wordsmith, regardless of the tale's subject, no matter how mundane. Often the protagonist lives an emotionally intense (if rather unpleasant) life, based upon someone's actual experiences.

Experimental (All)

This type of fiction deliberately goes against convention, concerning style and phrasing, etc. The aim may be to "push the envelope," if not to "shock the bourgeoisie." The number of books actually sold is supposed to be irrelevant.

In researching this topic, one sometimes encounters very obscure or specialized subgenre designations, and we must decide whether to include them. Those featuring a formal-looking capitalized title have often been proposed by an academic specialist. Other subgenre names might be exemplified by one single book. Often this is a judgment call, and we invite input from our readers.
Any other corrections, additions, or great ideas?
Suggestions are welcome. Email us at,
ewriters \at\ aol /dot/ com, and please make your subject line distinct.

The Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science is an exhaustive compilation of literary terms, genres, acronyms, organizations, brief histories, and etc. Better yet, it's freely available.


Editor Shawn Coyne and author Steven Pressfield describe the essential elements of genre.

The Story Grid, Genre

These two web sites have many concise definitions and examples, focused on terms specific to literature.

A Glossary of Literary Terms

Literary Terms and Definitions

This author's site has a short and useful genre list.

35 Genres and Other Varieties of Fiction

Here's a web site with many practical details, focused on writing.

Genre Novel Guidelines

The Huffington Post ran an informative essay by Michael Kardos about the distinction between 'literary' and 'genre' fiction.

The Literary/Genre Fiction Continuum

A column in The New Yorker also discusses what genres are, and how different works fit them, or cross over. Author Joshua Rothman provides a good overview: There are period genres (Victorian literature), subject genres (detective fiction), form genres (the short story), style genres (minimalism), market genres ("chick-lit"), mode genres (satire), and so on.

A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate

Here's a comprehensive series of blog posts about the Horror genre. (With a nod to author Eric J. Guignard for linking back to these pages.)

The Sub Genres of Horror

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Literary Fiction Genres

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