Choosing Our Path–Genre Matters


For the past several weeks we have been exploring the antagonist, and how he/she/it affects so many aspects of your writing. No antagonist, no story. The antagonist is responsible for the event/agenda that turns the protagonist’s life upside down. The story isn’t over until our protag grows up and becomes a hero, because only heroes can set things right.

Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one. Genre will play a large part in the kind of antagonist you choose for your story, and will also have a major impact on structure and pacing. A lot of new authors don’t fully understand the differences and this can cause a lot of problems, especially when it comes time to find an agent or market the book.

Understanding what genre you are writing will help guide you when it comes to plotting your novel. How? Each genre has its own set of general rules and expectations. Think of this like stocking your cabinet with spices. If you like to cook Mexican food, then you will want to have a lot of cumin, chili powder and paprika on hand. Like cooking Italian food? Then basil and oregano are staple spices.

In cooking we can break rules … but only to a certain point. We can add flavors of other cultures into our dish, but must be wary that if we deviate too far from expectations, or add too many competing flavors, we will have a culinary disaster. Writing is much the same. We must choose a genre, but then can feel free to add flavors of other genres into our work.

We must be able to classify what genre our novel will be in. Now, understand that some genres are fairly close. Think Mexican Food and Tex Mex. An agent at a later date might, for business reasons, decide to slot a Women’s Fiction into Romance.  Yet, you likely will NEVER see an agent slot a literary fiction as a thriller. They are too different. That is like trying to put enchiladas on the menu at a French restaurant.

Part of why I stress picking a genre is that genres have rules and standards. Can we break the rules? Sure. But learn the rules, first. Breaking rules without understanding them is ignorance, not genius.

Understanding your genre will help immensely when it comes to casting characters and plotting. It will also help you get an idea of the word count specific to that genre. I am going to attempt to give a very basic overview of the most popular genres. Please understand that all of these break down into subcategories, but I have provided links to help you learn more so this blog wasn’t 10,000 words long.

Mystery—often begins with the crime as the inciting incident (murder, theft, etc.), and the plot involves the protagonist uncovering the party responsible by the end. The crime has already happened and thus your goal in plotting is to drive toward the Big Boss Battle—the unveiling of the real culprit. Mysteries have a lot more leeway to develop characters simply because, if you choose, they can be slower in pacing because the crime has already happened. Mysteries run roughly  75-100,000 words. Mysteries on the cozy side that are often in a series commonly are shorter. 60,000-ish. I’d recommend that you consult the Mystery Writers of America of more information.

Thriller/Suspense—generally involve trying to stop some bad thing from happening at the end. Thrillers have broad consequences if the protagonist fails—I.e. the terrorists will launch a nuclear weapon and destroy Washington D.C. Suspense novels have smaller/more intimate consequences. I.e. The serial killer will keep butchering young blonde co-eds. It is easy to see how thriller, suspense and mystery are kissing cousins and keep company. The key here is that there is a ticking clock and some disastrous event will happen if the protagonist fails.

So when plotting, all actions are geared to prevention of the horrible thing at the end. Thrillers can run 90-100,000 words (loosely) and sometimes a little longer. Why? Because some thrillers need to do world-building. Most of us have never been on a nuclear sub, so Tom Clancy had to recreate it for us in The Hunt for Red October (Clancy invented a sub-class of thriller known as the techno-thriller).

Pick up the pacing and you can have a Mystery-Suspense. Think Silence of the Lambs. A murder happens at the beginning, and the goal is to uncover the identity of the serial killer Buffalo Bill (mystery), but what makes this mystery-suspense is the presence of a ticking clock. Not only is the body count rising the longer Buffalo Bill remains free, but a senator’s daughter is next on Bill’s butcher block.

When plotting, there will often be a crime (murder) at the beginning, but the plot involves a rising “body count” and a perpetrator who must be stopped before an even bigger crime can occur (Big Boss Battle). These stories are plot-driven. Characters often do not have enough down-time to make sweeping inner arc changes like in a literary piece.

Pick up the pacing and raise the stakes and you have a Mystery-Thriller. Think Killing Floor by Lee Childs. The book begins with a murder of two unidentified people at a warehouse, but if the killers are not found, what the killers are trying to cover up will have global consequences. And I am not telling you what those consequences are b/c it would ruin the book :D.

When plotting, again, there is often a crime at the beginning with rising stakes, and the protagonist must stop a world-changing event from happening (Big Boss Battle). The focus of your plot will be solving the mystery and stopping the bad guy.

For more information on this genre, consult the International Thriller Writers site.

Romance Romance is very complex and I cannot do it justice in this short blurb. There are simply too many sub-classifications ranging from a sweet love story with a kiss at the end to visceral erotica. If you desire to write romance, I highly recommend you go to the Romance Writers of America site for more information and that you join a chapter near you immediately. This is one of the most amazing writing organizations around and a great investment in a successful romance-writing career.

Word count will depend on the type of romance you desire to write. Again, look to RWA for guidance.

Literary Fiction-is character driven. The importance is placed on the inner change, and the plot is the mechanism for driving that change. Literary fiction has more emphasis on prose, symbol and motif. The events that happen must drive an inner transformation.

Please understand that there is an external plot. A character waxing rhapsotic and contemplating his belly button for 200 pages is not fiction. It isn’t even literary fiction. There is an external event that is driving the inner change. It is just that the character arc is the primary consideration and the plot arc here is secondary.

Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road is a good example. The world has been destroyed and only a few humans have survived. The question isn’t as much whether the man and the boy will survive as much as it is about how they will survive. Will they endure with their humanity in tact? Or will they resort to being animals? Thus, the goal in The Road is less about boy and man completing their journey to the ocean, and more about how they make it. Can they carry the torch of humanity?

The external plot is not terribly complex: Make it to the ocen. But note, there is an external goal. It is just that the inner arc is more important. Will the man and boy remain human despite the horrible circumstances?

When plotting for the literary fiction, one needs to consider plot-points for the inner changes occurring. There need to be cross-roads of choice. One choice ends the story. The character failed to change. The other path leads closer to the end. The darkest moment is when that character faces that inner weakness at its strongest, yet triumphs.

For instance, in The Road, there are multiple times the man and boy face literally starving to death. Will they resort to cannibalism as many other have? Or will they press on and hope? Word count can vary, but you should be safe with 60-85,000 words (The Road was technically a novella).

Fantasy and Science Fiction will involve some degree of world-building and extraordinary events, creatures, locations. In plotting, world-building is an essential additional step. How much world-building is necessary will depend on what sub-class of fantasy or sci-fi you’re writing. Word count will also be affected. The more world-building, the longer your book will be. Some books, especially in high-fantasy can run as long as 150,000 words and are often serialized.

Consult the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for more information.

Horror—This is another genre that breaks down into many sub-classifications and runs the gambit. It can be as simple as a basic Monster in the House story where the protagonist’s main goal is SERE-Survive Evade, Rescue, and Escape. The protag has only one goal…survive. These books tend to be on the shorter side, roughly 60,000 words.

Horror, however can blend with fantasy and require all kinds of complex world-building. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a good example. Stephen King’s horror often relies heavily on the psychological and there is weighty focus on an inner change/arc. For instance, The Shining chronicles Jack’s descent into madness and how his family deals with his change and ultimately tries to escape the very literal Monster in the House.

Horror will most always involve a Monster in the House scenario. It is just that the definitions of “monster” and “house” are mutable. Word count is contingent upon what type of horror you are writing. Again, I recommend you consult the experts, so here is a link to the Horror Writers Association. The Dark Fiction Guild seemed to have a lot of helpful/fascinating links, so you might want to check them out too.

Young Adult is a relatively new categorization and also has its own unique standards and rules. For more information, I recommend this article for the standards and rules.

Picking a genre is actually quite liberating. Each genre has unique guideposts and expectations, and, once you gain a clear view of these, then plotting becomes far easier and much faster. You will understand the critical elements that must be in place—ticking clock, inner arc, world-building—before you begin. This will save loads of time not only in writing, but in revision. Think of the author who tries to blend a women’s fiction with a thriller. The pacing will be all wrong and thus not appeal to fans of either genre. This will be a nightmare of a book to market, thus most agents will likely pass…leaving the author with a book that needs to be totally rewritten or junked.

I have done my best to give you guys a general overview of the most popular genres and links to know more. If you have some resources or links that you’d like to add, please put them in the comments section. If you have questions or advice, fire away! Any corrections? Additions? Questions? Concerns? Comments? What is the biggest hurdle you have to choosing a genre? Do you love your genre? Why? Any advice?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Happy writing!

Until next time….

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

Make sure you tune in for Wednesday’s blog where I continue walking you through blogging for platform :D. What do we blog about to gain a fan base?

Happy writing!

Until next time….


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  1. This post couldn’t have come at a better time. I know what my story is: it’s about a woman who must defeat her past inner demons while a stalker circles her, waiting to snatch her up for reasons unknown. She finds an ally along the way and a little romance … IMO, that’s suspense/thriller, right? The consequences are more intimate – it’s about saving her own life, not the world, but I don’t think it fits the mystery category.

    1. You can’t mix those two. She can have a character arc (conquering inner demons) but that isn’t the main focus. In “Silence of the Lambs” Agent Starling must overcome her fears to find the killer, but that is just one element of the story.

      Also, “avoiding” is not a plot goal. Your protagonist needs to find the identity of her stalker and stop him/her before bads things happen. She needs an active goal. Help?

    2. Right now her active goal until the end of part 2 is getting through the flashbacks from the hostage situation and trying to sort through them in order to figure out who her stalker is, where she may have seen him, etc. At the second plot point, something major happens that sends her into actively seeking out who he is.

      1. No flashbacks. Weak writing. Everything needs to move forward. I highly recommend you read my structure series. Everything needs to be framed on a narrative structure. When we have a lot of flashbacks it jars the reader and interrupts the flow of the story.

        Start here and see if these posts can help clear things up.

        Anatomy of a Best-Selling Novel
        Plot Problems–Falcor the Luck Dragon and the Purple Tornado
        Introducing the Opposition

        Also make sure you pick up a copy of Larry Brooks’ “Story Engineering” asap.

      2. I read the book and just read those articles. I’m not sure I’m being clear about the story. The entire first part is the normal world, then inciting incident (hostage situation), getting thru that until first plot point, which is the discovery of exactly what the antag is going to do with her and how he escaped. The second part is her dealing with the trauma, which is where the flashbacks come in. There are only 3-4, and the fourth sends her into a panic attack and causes her to remember where she originally met the antag. I thought they were in the narrative structure because they are at a part of the story where she is at her weakest and struggling to cope. The hostage situation brings out her inner demons, etc. At the end of part 2, something major happens which sends her on a plan of action.
        Does that make more sense?

  2. This post is very helpful for the decision process.

  3. Great post, and, as I usually do, it will be up on my FB page.
    I have a question for you. I think some of these rules were created so editors and publishers knew where to classify the books so they could position them properly on the bookshelf. For instance, if something is called a romance but everyone dies in the end, readers are going to be disappointed, and feel they didn’t get their money’s worth.

    So do you think with the now opportunities in indie publishing, that these rules are going to be relaxed more than say the last 5 years? Independent writers are able to connect with the readers directly, and hopefully build a fan base of people who love their writing, regardless of what category it is in.

    Or, is this just another great fiction in my head?

    1. To a degree, yes. The problem with getting too weird is we can risk losing a large readership. Think enchiladas with curry mango chutney and teriyaki glaze. That just kind of make my stomach heave, but there is probably some person out there who will love this dish. Will a lot of people like it? Probably not. So what is the point of writing something that only a handful of people will like? That’s a lot of work for no real benefit. I hate to bring up money, but most of us would like to at least make enough money to eat.

      If we mix genres that are too different, we risk losing both audiences. For instance, mixing a thriller with a literary women’s fiction. Two opposing goals. One is fast-paced and plot-driven. Readerships for this genre don’t care about touchy-feely emotive stuff. They want body count and a thrilling ride that picks up pace like a roller-coaster. On the other end? Literary folk like lingering in the moment, absorbing all the emotional detail. To try to mix both stands a better chance of alienating both fan groups than merging them.

      This said, though. Yes, I think it will be easier to come up with genre variations. Yet, this needs to be done deliberatley and with a good understanding of our genre. Like mixing rock with elements of opera. It can work, but we need to undeerstand the craft enough to make it work well. That help?

    • Dean Lampman on April 25, 2011 at 2:20 pm
    • Reply

    Great post. Nice to know some of the rules for the genres. What about non-fiction? Any suggestions on rules for that category?

  4. haha, this is exactly why I decided at the last minute to change my story before starting Warrior Writer Boot Camp. I had no idea of the genre of the story I had originally planned to write, so I decided to go with another idea. Oh and thanks for linking that mystery web site, I’d actually never seen it before. I’ll def be checking it out. Thanks Kristen!

  5. Yes, this does help. I once wrote something and an editor said, “No, No, No! She can’t be married!” I thought it would be okay if the marriage was essentially over due to his serial infidelity. But she said, no, when you you think “husband” you think of (sorry guys, I know YOU aren’t like this) snoring, boring, hairy armpits, and that isn’t sexy. Since mine was supposed to be a sensual paranormal romance, that line couldn’t be crossed. And, BTW, I agreed with the editor’s comments and changed my WIP. Killed me, but I did it, keeping some of the original elements, and think it was the right choice.

    Her comment was, “You are going to p*** off 3/4 of the women readers if she goes outside her marriage. She has to be divorced, the marriage DOA BEFORE she meets the hero.

    So, yes, writing commercially viable romance is my goal. You justly put my little wandering mind, looking for a way to rebel, back in its place, where it belongs. I agree with you completely.

    And yes, we have to know the rules before we break them. But we should try to be sorta good. Ah! my life’s story.

  6. Great overview–and I second your suggestion to check out International Thriller Writers. Their Craftfest and Thrillerfest is held in July each year with great seminars on the craft, and panels with authors (and this year 60 agents to pitch).

    Yep, I’m going (again!) and waiting for my panel assignment . . .it’s a great place to ask successful thriller authors and others how they do it. Oh, and I was fascinated to learn how when genres go out of fashion they can be reinvented by creative writers…”horror” was hot with Stephen king, became overdone and was dead. And then was re-packaged as “thriller” and more recently as “urban fantasy/vampire romance” etc.

    I think in the past genre (sort of a “tag word”) has been a way to sell books to the sales force who get ’em into stores. With “virtual” shelves some of that has changed or will change. But it’s still very important to know what readers expect from a given label.

    1. Thanks for the information and assessment of the International Thriller Fest – I’m hoping to go next year, since I’m a member of ITW. I somehow missed the memo about Craftfest – time to google. 🙂

      1. Craftfest is Tues-Weds-Thurs (July 5-7 this year), Thrillerfest starts Thurs evening thru Sat night. I’ve attended 3-4 years now, and it’s great fun. I mean, you get to attend sessions with legends, then go have drinks in the bar with ’em. You’ll love it! Since you’re a member, the “early” registration cuts a hunk off the pricetag.

  7. Great information and I promise to use it as I write my current WIP. Now, I have to figure out what to do with my current masterpiece – my first, which I wrote before I figured out the rules. I’m convinced that it’s women’s contemporary fiction, but the protagonist is a male senior citizen and the antagonist is the over-the-top retirement resort his kids have dumped him into. I’m finding agents who want to look at the manuscript – but then I get the ‘enjoyed reading, but doesn’t fit my list’ rejection.

  8. Excellent post, Kristen. Great definitions and resources. I wish I’d had them 7 years ago when I was trying to figure out exactly what it was I was writing. : ) Knowing what to call my genre was my biggest struggle when I was querying initially.
    I love how you break Mystery, Suspense and Thriller down. You are providing invaluable information to the writing community. Thank you!

  9. This is great information. When I wrote Serendipity, I wrote it for the romance market even though it has a male protagonist. I found a lot of agents interested enough in the premise–What if you made a New Year’s resolution, then were forced to keep it– to read the entire manuscript. But ultimately they passed because a male protagonist would be a hard sale in romance. I finally did find an agent who shopped it around, and Serendipity had the same reaction from editors. They’d read the entire manuscript, but ultimately turn it down. Recently I made it available on Kindle and Nook where it’s finally finding a readership, so I do think that the rules are a bit more lax now that e-book readers are becoming so popular. Readers apparently aren’t quite as particular about genre rules being followed. But it did teach me to stick to the rules if I wanted to sell books.

  10. Interesting breakdown. As a nonfic guy my choices are pretty limited. But I like the way you explain things. I feel like Forrest Gump. “Kristen always had a way of explaining things so I could understand them.”

  11. As usual, great post! I’ll have to search through your links to find out more information regarding the genre’s I haven’t had much exposure to.

  12. Kristen, thanks so much for posting this! I’m no longer confused–I write historical fiction, which I see falls under the category of Literary fiction. I do love my genre, because I love 19th and 20th century history. For me it gives a setting that is rich with cultural differences when comared to contempory settings, which in turn gives me great ideas to insert a fictional character into a historical event and see how he/she handles his/her problem in a period when prudence was the order of the day or when wartime issues rival her personal issues, etc.

  13. Very nicely put. I wish I’d known this stuff when I was starting out. Like so many writers brought up on “literature” I thought I could apply the same rules to genre writing. Wasted a lot of years.

  14. Great post! Most of my writing is inspirational, but when I write fiction “inspirational is not necessariy is a genre perse and I’ve struggle to define which one was it. Now I know that it is literary fiction. Thanks for your nuggets of wisdom!! =)

  15. Great post, Kristen! I like the concrete differences you mentioned between mystery, suspense, and thriller. Very helpful. 🙂

  16. Thank-you for all your posts…first time novelist and I eagerly look forward to my next lesson! I have more followers on my twitter(SusetteSoparia) vs. blog so I gave you a shout-out! (I’m going for the chapter critique drawing.)

    Cheers, Susette

  17. Great info on the distinctions of the various mystery/thriller categories. When I first started writing a book, people would ask me what genre it was. I had no idea. I told them I didn’t want to be tied down by a category. Feel free to laugh. I do. Figuring out my genre was a crucial piece of my writer identity and gave me a place to start in convincing myself I’m not an aspiring anything. I’m an author who still has a lot to learn, but an author, nonetheless. Thanks for a great post.

  18. You can use elements of other like genres in your genre, especially with the larger genres like romance and mystery because not only are they genres, but they also act as basic story blocks as well–you can find strong romance threads or strong mystery threads across other genres. There’s an excellent lecture series by author Cathy Clamp on genres and subgenres over at the Absolute Write forums that takes the genre discussion further, and gets into weighting genres and subgenres. It’s several years old, but still very relevant.

    Choosing a genre is something I struggle with. In my favorite genres I’m very familiar with “the rules” and I find that seeing “the rules” in action will just as often turn me off the story as it will turn me on to it. As a reader, it makes me sad. As a writer, it makes me want to break the rules for all the other readers out there who may be frustrated with them.

    • Tamara LeBlanc on April 25, 2011 at 6:34 pm
    • Reply

    Totally LOVED how you compared genre to cooking!!! What a great way to get your message across.
    I’m a romance gal, so I know how varied our genre can be. I’m published in contemporary, but I’m writing a paranormal right now. The thing is, I’m not sure how to clasify it because it’s more than paranormal. I’ve been secretly calling it a paranormal, dystopian, urban fantasy, sexy romance…um, yeah, not very catchy. Don’t worry, I haven’t been submitting it with that ridiculous title.
    I’ve tried to come up with my own term, kind of like Ellora’sCave coined Romantica, but I’m not having too much luck with that.
    Maybe at some point during my journey with this story (which I LOVE writing by the way) I’ll come up with something that fits.

    Excellent post!
    Have a great afternoon,

  19. Terrific post, as usual, Kristen! Thank you for clarify the differences among the various mystery, suspense, thriller genres. Though I’ve written several, the nuances confuse me (in marketing). Now I know how to phrase it in my bio. I LOVE “We are Not Alone,” and am gradually implementing all the things you recommend.


  20. Such perfect timing, and I’ve never seen a blog covering this! Thank you!

  21. This is a terrific post. One of the members of my crit group needs to have the paragraph about the characteristics of a a literary novel tattooed on her forehead. We’ve been doing flashbacks and navel-gazing for 28 chapters now. *sigh* Every time one of us suggests that she might want to include a little plot, she just looks at us and says, “But you don’t understand. This is a literary novel.”

    • Terrell Mims on April 26, 2011 at 2:29 am
    • Reply

    Good blog. I would love it if you did a series on the different genre types and the rules that go along with it. I know I love YA and the rules that go along with it. One great thing about YA is that you can incorporate other genres into it.

  22. I love how this breaks down the horror genres too. When reading it seems that genres have been blurring lately, but this clears up what I’m seeing. Thank you.

  23. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the different genres explained so succinctly (<— my word of the day). I always wondered what the difference between thriller and suspense was. It gets so confusing sometimes. But I'm curious. Once you move to YA, do the genres still apply, just within YA perimeters?

  24. Wonderful breakdown of genre. Especially the differences between mystery/suspense/thriller. Great blog (as usual).

  25. I had no idea what genre I was writing until I went to a writer’s conference last year. I learned so much! YA urban fantasy according to them. I keep hearing about this WWBC from Peter..I think I need in on that. 🙂

    I want to win that blog diagnostic SO BAD! Thanks for another great post.

  26. We were just having a discussion about genre on the ACFW loop today. I’d love to see you unpack Women’s Fiction vs. Contemporary Fiction for us. Pwetty Pwease?

    Like Jennifer up there, I’m really hoping I win one of your critiques. But I want one for my manuscript, not my blog. Sigh. You are so wise. Help me slice out the bad lines weighing down my beautiful prose.

    Thanks, Kristin–have a great day!

  27. Thanks for explaining it. Sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other because they with other genre.

  28. Thanks for a great post. Like others above have asked, I’m curious how this would apply to YA. I would think YA, in and of itself, is a genre, but there are sub genres within YA which actually parallel the genres of an adult novel. Does that sound about right?

    1. Check out that link I gave. It was a really great resource that did a good job explaining the requirements of Y.A.

  29. Excellent break down Kristen! Harder is to hunt the “sub-genres” but then in within some genres that seems almost endless, although that would make a blog series. Have a great day!

    • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter on April 30, 2011 at 6:01 pm
    • Reply

    Genre is liberating. But there’s an unlimited range of options in each genre. You just have to be imaginative enough.

    I like your list. Nice, and to the point.


  30. Great writers advice. We loved having you on Everything Internet.

  31. This is one huge plus point of self publishing. There are so many successful SP books out there with no specific genre. Only the other day I read a blog about a full time lawyer set 400,000 copies of her debut novel which she insisted had no specific genre, and that’s why she couldn’t get it published the traditional way.
    My first book also has this problem – I agonised for months what to call it. I finally decided it was a memoir with an erotic theme to it, written in a chick lit style. I’ve got it on the Kindle now and I am pleased with its progress.

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