Structure Part 7–Genre Matters

For the past several weeks we have been exploring structure and why it is important. If you haven’t yet read the prior posts, I advise you do because each post builds on the previous lesson. All lessons are geared to making you guys master plotters. Write cleaner and faster. I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit right now to get writing. All in due time. Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one.

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.

Ten years ago, when I first got this brilliant idea to start writing fiction, I didn’t do any planning. I knew zip nada about the craft, and, frankly, was too stupid to know I was that dumb. To make matters worse, I tried to write a novel that everyone would love. It was a romantic-thriller-mystery-comedic-inspirational-memoir that would appeal to all ages, both men and women and even their pets and houseplants. I am here to help you learn from my mistakes.

Just as nailing the log-line is vital for plotting, we also 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. For example, last year, I had a student drop out of my critique group because she wanted to basically write a literary thriller. I couldn’t make her understand that there were serious pacing issues with this combination. People who love thrillers like fast, steadily rising action. If we stop to take time to explore feelings and social issues, we will vex the very audience we are trying to entertain. People who read thrillers and people who read literary fiction are two very different audiences.

Granted, there are people who like to read everything, but betting our writing future on entertaining statistical outliers is a serious gamble. It’s like creating tuna ice cream. Sure, there is likely a handful of pregnant women who would love tuna ice cream, but most people would just pass. I didn’t make the rules, but I can help a writer understand those rules and thereby increase his/her chances of publication success.

In writing as in food, some combinations are never meant to go together. Paranormal thriller? Okay. Cool. Popcorn jelly beans. Literary thriller? Tuna ice cream of the writing world. Just my POV.

Understanding your genre will help immensely when it comes to 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 LambsA 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—Guy and girl have to end up together in the end is the only point I will make on this. Romance is all about making the reader believe that love is good and grand and still exists in this crazy world. The hero cannot be your Big Boss Trouble Maker (read Structure Part Three if you want to know what a BBT is). Yes, the guy will likely be an antagonist, but that is different.

Romance, however, is very complex and I cannot do it justice in this short blurb. 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.

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?

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).

Note: Literary fiction is not a free pass to avoid plotting. There still needs to be an overall plot problem that forces the change. People generally don’t wake up one day and just decide to change. There needs to be an outside driving force, a Big Boss Troublemaker, and a tangible physical goal. Again, in The Road, the man and boy have a tangible goal of getting to the ocean.

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 AssociationThe Dark Fiction Guild seemed to have a lot of helpful/fascinating links, so you might want to check them out too.

Young AdultI won’t talk long about YA, since YA beaks into so many subcategories. Often YA will follow the rules of the parent genre (i.e. YA thrillers still have a ticking clock, fast pacing and high stakes just like regular thrillers). The differences, however, is that YA generally will have a younger protagonist (most often a teenager) and will address special challenges particular to a younger age group.

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 romance author who makes her hero the main antagonist (BBT). She will try to query, and, since she didn’t know the rules of her genre, will end up having to totally rewrite/trash her story.

Eventually, once you grow in your craft, you will be able to break rules and conventions. But, to break the rules we have to understand them first.

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. Also, for the sake of brevity, I didn’t address other genres, like children’s or Western. If you have questions or advice, fire away! Any corrections? Additions? Questions? Concerns? Comments? I love hearing from you. What is the biggest hurdle you have to choosing a genre? Do you love your genre? Why? Any advice?

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, 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 October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique is Jodi Aman. Congratulations! Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!


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  1. One characteristic I’ve found with all popular genres (especially the ones on the sheleves of books stores and Walmart/Target) is that character depth is ignored.

    I want to care (love or hate) about a character before I decide to go on some chase or ride or mystery with them.

    Recently you gave me advice on building my protagonist “real world” before having something happen to them. I think every genre, even the most insipid Stephanie Meyer Vampire book, should spend time with their characters before having fantastical things occur.

    Good post.

    1. Normal world has a purpose and many new writers ignore Normal World by trying to “hook” with fantastical events. Yet, as you say, we must care about the protagonist to invest 12 hours reading about him. Also, we cannot see change if we have no basis for comparison. We have no idea how the Inciting Incident “upset” the hero’s world if we never saw what that world looked like to begin with. We needed to see a slice of Luke Skywalker’s life on Tattooine for us to care that his aunt and uncle were senselessly killed. Also, we see this simple moisture farmer and wonder how on earth he is ever going to take out Darth.

  2. Kristen! This is very interesting. I am doing NaNoWriMo this year and I dubbed my story as Thriller/Mystery/Suspense….. buuuuuut….. according to your chart here and my post-it notes…. my story falls into Literary Fiction…. WTH???

    Well, maybe. ugh.

    Thanks for the heads up, Kristen.


  3. Lady Kristen

    Ah, me. That which we call a rose… by any other name, might be a genre. Or a BISAC code. But genre or BISAC – you’d still better watch for those thorns :-P.

    Yes, I know. There’s a step and a few more between the concept of genre and a BISAC code. And in those steps (if I may mix my aphorisms) no few possible slips. For instance, I write (or believe I write – only the reader can know for sure :-P) Comic Fantasy. And according to my (quite probably out of date) BISAC code list, I don’t exist :-).

    Huh? He doesn’t exist? But, um, how’s he doing all this typing then?

    See, it’s like this. If I had more dates (though being a diabetic, I can’t :-P), I could be FIC009030 – FICTION / Fantasy / Historical. If I had more ghosts, I might take a stab at FIC009050 – FICTION / Fantasy / Paranormal. But I haven’t. And even if I have an old ferry man who now drives a truck, while he might qualify as a FIC009060 – FICTION / Fantasy / Urban Life, he can’t qualify as FICTION/ Fantasy/ Comedy. Because there isn’t one. Or at least, not as far as I know :-(.

    But maybe I can pretend that people like Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt, Craig Shaw Gardner, Robert Asprin (and many others) know what they’re talking about. That there really is something more specific than FIC016000 – FICTION / Humorous. And I could indeed ask the SFFWA about it. But the best way to ask the SFFWA (or the Author’s Guild, or other similar organisations) is as a member.

    But that might be a problem.

    you see, the SFFWA don’t want me. Or at least, if they want me (and I’m tempted to quote Grouch Marx, but I won’t 🙂 ), they can’t let themselves have me. Because membership not only hath its privileges (like being able to ask them questions more easily). It has its pre-requisites. And those all have, as essentials, a level of book advance. And even after ‘A Comedy of Terrors’ comes out in July, I still won’t qualify. Because it will be an e-publication. With no advance.

    But it’ll still be a bloody Comic Fantasy. And why?

    BISAC I said so 😛 :-P.

  4. Hi Kristen, love your blog as always. It’s very inspiring and knowledgeable. I’m impressed with your writing style and how you can turn something supposedly complicated and make it simple and easy to understand. Keep up the great work! I learned a lot from reading it.

    1. Thanks Joel. Yeah, I did a lot of grasping around in the dark, myself and a lot of the advice talked over my head. So, I go out of my way to give the advice I would have liked to have had when I was a noob :D. So happy you enjoy the blog!

    • Miranda Hardy on November 14, 2011 at 10:48 am
    • Reply

    This information is so valuable. I’ve learned a lot over the years and my writing has improved, however, I’m still learning the craft. Different genres do pose differing styles.

  5. Fantastic post. I had been wondering how important it was to choose a genre up front because of the possible implications it created. Perfect timing! Thanks Kristen! 🙂

    • the writ and the wrote on November 14, 2011 at 10:50 am
    • Reply

    Excellent post. I had selected a genre for my second novel, but as I’ve been writing it has worked itself into a different genre entirely. It’s important to be willing to let that happen. It’s not a bad thing to have so many major changes, especially in a first draft.

  6. Great post. I have just started my first novel -in my mind-i must confess. Your post has given it a much needed direction. Keep up the good work Kristen. Lots of thanks..

  7. Thank you so much for this clear, concise overview–and for the resources.
    Kristen, would you encourage an emerging author to stick with one genre or give them the freedom to explore? (I’ve written a cozy mystery, thriller and am working on a YA. However, as all my protags are women, I’ve branded myself as a women’s fiction author.)

    1. Social media is allowing much more flexibility with genre. A lot will depend on what kind of publishing the writer is doing. If a writer wants to go traditional publishing, I would recommend staying consistent with one genre. Indie and self-pub offer more flexibility with changing/exploring genres namely because the writer is so steeped in social media. I do think when we are new it is a good thing to explore different genres. Sometimes what we think we want to write is dictated by fear. It is through experience that we gain confidence and can write what we really love.

  8. Hi, Kristen –

    Spot on about knowing one’s genre; that is SO important. Fans of particular genres have certain expectations that are important to adhere to, and if you don’t give it to them, it can get ugly. 😉

    I’d have to disagree, though, about what you said regarding mysteries, IF by “begins with the crime” you meant “opens with the crime.” Unless it’s a private eye or police procedural, the crime shouldn’t be right in the opening of the story, although it needs to be early, of course. The 2nd or even 3rd chapter is where one typically finds the dastardly deed has been done.

    The 1st chapter gives us normal world, along with tension building around the usually-obnoxious-everyone-hates-him-victim (if we’re talking murder). It’s like the sharks/ninjas-circling-the-hero example you’ve used in the past when talking about bad openings. (See, I do pay attention to your earlier posts! 🙂 ). The reader needs a reason to care about the impact of the murder on this world, even if the victim isn’t sympathetic and everyone’s glad he/she is dead. I’ve read some mysteries that start with a dead body, but then the writer has to double back and re-trace some normal world, which I find a bit awkward. But maybe that’s just me.

    Have a great week,

    1. Well, it does get handled differently depending on the writer. I know many of Tess Gerritsen’s books begin in the POV of the killer, so did Linda Castillo’s books but they are more mystery suspense. And yes you are correct that there is some lag time before they discover the body. But, the point of the book is to solve this crime, so it’s close to the beginning. It is the inciting incident. We need to quickly get to the crime, but Normla World is vital. Glad to see ur paying such great attention :D.

  9. This is a great overview of traditional genres, and it’s very important for anybody wanting big six publication to follow them.

    But your comment above is equally important: lines are blurring rapidly because of epubbing. Also, mainstream entertainment is all about cross-genre these days, and where TV goes, books tend to follow (look at how paranormal took off after Buffy)

    On NPR this morning the television critic discussed the new TV shows, and how most of them blend genres–like Grimm, which is police procedural mixed with fairy-tale paranormal, or Pan Am, which is part women’s empowerment, part spy thriller, part MadMen dark satire, and part nostalgic historical drama, and there are all those crime-solvers with perfect recall and other more paranormal powers.

    I noticed in the thread on Nathan B’s blog recently that most of his readers describe their books as hybrids. That may be because they’re mostly newbies, but it also might indicate a major shift back to “general fiction,” which I’m not sure is a bad thing.

  10. Good stuff, Kristen. I am not too worried about my current WIP, it is simply a love story.

    My work typically involves a great deal of self-examination, because I always have a specific point and/or emotion I am trying to convey, and I do it through characters. However, extensive navel-gazing does not a good novel make. So I typically have a lot of action too. I’d like to think that I combine the elements well, but in the end, I cannot worry about “genre”. I need to write the story that I want to write, the way I want it told.

    I have noticed that Nicholas Sparks (whom I am often compared to) is always set simply in the “fiction” section of my local bookstores. I see some bookstores set my last novel right next to his in the Fiction section, and some stores set me in “Romance”. I think my stuff is more fast-paced than Mr. Sparks, and probably less gooey and idealistic. I explore matters of the heart, always, but I think I keep it more simple, more direct.

    We’ll see where my next novel ends up- “The Gypsy Queen”

    should be a hell of a ride, either way.

    Thank you for this series on Structure. It has been helpful.

    • arette on November 14, 2011 at 12:19 pm
    • Reply

    Great post and valuable links, Kristen. All writers benefit from studying the big names of their own genres but with my genre which is fantasy, there aren’t iron-clad expectations about the pacing. Mashing-up another genre’s pacing to a fantasy setting could lead up to something interesting. Or so I hope 😛 It definately has given new ideas and insights to read across the genres.

  11. Great post. The idea that literary fiction still has a plot needs to be driven home. A lot of the people I’ve met looking to write literary fiction seem to feel like they’re just writing everyday life. Like you’ve said before, they need to figure out if they’re writing for therapy or for a craft.

  12. This series has been GREAT….thank you, thank you, thank you, for your easy to understand, concise explanations. I am sending these posts to some aspiring young authors so that that can avoid getting as confused as I have..

  13. Admitting that they can be as long as 150,000 words (or 200,000 for Rothfuss), was an eye-opening experience to fantasy writing for me. Knowing my audience and knowing my goals and themes, this sucker’s too short as is.

  14. Very informative. Kristen, I’m curious as to how you would classify women’s fiction, which as a genre sometimes seems to be an offshoot of romance, but sometimes not, since a happily-ever-after romantic ending is not mandatory, and sometimes seems to be closer to literary fiction, although often without the “literary”, i.e. a character journey but light on symbolism and motif stuff.

  15. Good, concrete descriptions especially for literary fiction. I have same questions as PatriciaW, about women’s fiction.
    Also, what is acceptable word count for YA? I have one completed at 60K and working on one (WIP with NNWM). This is a post I will link back to on my blog–very important & informative.

    1. These are good questions and I have opinions, but I just e-mailed an agent friend of mine to see if she would pop by and answer. I know when it is a good idea to defer to an expert and I think she could do a better job of explaining than I can.

  16. I’m not a big fan of literary fiction because a lot of it seems so slow moving that I lose interest, but one of my favorites is Jamie Langston Turner. She does a great job of keeping reader interest and moving the story forward.

  17. Love the break down of genres. Each paragraph gives an excellent overview and I’m so glad you included horror. For some reason I’ve always been a little unclear on that particular genre’s characteristics, but using Stephen King and Clive Barker as examples made it clear (it was also one of those DUH moments for me. Sometimes the obvious escapes me)
    I guess the reason I had some trouble is because I like to blend genres. My paranormal WIP has a touch of horror, a sprinkle of humor and a dash of fantasy. Hopefully i’ve baked all of those ingredients into a deliscious dish…but I suppose that remains to be seen:)
    Thank you so much for your wisdom.
    Have a lovely evening!

    • Kim Weiss on November 14, 2011 at 4:29 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for a great post. Unfortunately, it explains why I will probably never write a publishable book and why I now mostly read web pages and non-fiction. The genres seem to be so strict that all the books are pretty much the same. I used to want to write chick-lit, but I didn’t know anything about being a secretary at a publishing house and/or designer shoes. That’s what all the books became. I might like to write Amish books, but all Amish series end in proselytizing about the word of Christ, and I’m just not that religious. Most women’s fiction is about a woman with a broken heart moving to an adorable little town and starting over again. Sometimes there is a secret in the town or in her past as well, but it can never take place in a city, suburb, or non-adorable town. All heroes in modern romances have to be wealthy Greeks or shiekhs (one series), vampires (another series), or cowboys/Navy SEALS ( a third series). All the historicals take place in the Civil War, Pride and Prejudice era or the middle ages. I feel that there are so many more interesting books to be read or written that don’t fit so neatly in a genre, it’s a shame, but I guess most other people wouldn’t agree, because it sounds like those books don’t sell.

    1. I so totally hear you on this Kim. Genres have calcified. (This comment would make a great blogpost.) I’ve picked up so many copy-cat books in bookstores, I’m getting a Kindle just so I can read more original stuff.

  18. Thanks for an informative and interesting post. I’m not sure that the word counts are entirely valid. I’m in the middle of my latest book, American Epitaph, which would be categorized as a thriller – building suspense and major consequences is the protagonist fails. It takes place in the year 2025, and the world is a significantly different place. But even with detailed world-building, good character development and building suspense, the word count will be nowhere near 90K words. My feeling is, get the genre right and market to that audience, but tell the story and don’t worry about the word count.

    1. The word counts are mutable and will depend a lot on the genre how much wiggle room is afforded. Usually you run into trouble being longer, not shorter. For instance, a high fantasy could be 90,000 words or 150,000. But a chick-lit is not going to be 150,000 words. That is too far beyond the parameters for the genre. Of course a lot is changing now that books are going digital but those numbers are just the broad parameters.

  19. I’d add ACFW to the must join list as well. American Christian Fiction Writers has been a huge help on my publication journey.

  20. This is a good breakdown. I wish I’d had this years ago. That was when all I had was what was labeled in the bookstore, and nothing of mine fit (I was thriller). It was very frustrating try to figure out where I fit. I kept looking at mystery, which was where I was finding the books, but then I would look at craft books on mystery, and there was this disconnect. It was made even more confusing by one agent who said, “I take mystery, but not thriller,” and another agent who said, “Mystery is a subgenre of thriller.” Yikes!

    When thriller went more gritty and violent a few years back, I plunked action-adventure thriller in contemporary fantasy. It’s magic and monsters, plus a ticking time bomb and about eight major action scenes. But I’ve been disappointed in the craft books, which haven’t caught up with the genre changes. The newer ones mention contemporary fantasy and urban fantasy, but then discuss more standard fantasy as if it applies to all. I often feel like they aren’t writing for me at all. My next book is set in Virginia. Exactly what would I do with discussions on world-building an entire world from scratch?

  21. Great article! I am definitely going to go back to the beginning of the series and read it from the start.

    I have a question for you. I have seen fairy tales like Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales series or, more recently, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus classified as literary fiction. This has always puzzled me. If you look at The Orphan’s Tales series, there is an incredible amount of world building, creatures and events in her books. The Night Circus itself has its own world built within worlds, and has an element of magic throughout the book. My question is how would you classify fairy tails? Are they fantasy, or literature, or do they have a foot in both doors?

  22. Laurie McLean here, genre fiction agent at Larsen Pomada Literary Agents in San Francisco. Kristin is correct, as usual, with most of her points about genre fiction (as opposed to literary or commercial fiction). But I couldn’t stop myself from adding my two cents towards defining genres as I sell them. But please remember that these are rules of thumb and all rules can be bent, if not broken, from time to time. However if you break genre rules consistently with everything you write, perhaps you are writing literary or commercial fiction and not genre fiction. Something to think about.

    Genre fiction is really the opposite of literary fiction. Literary fiction is much more character based, while genre fiction is plot based. Genre fiction has specific rules and literary fiction does not. I think it is CRITICAL that you know what genre of novel you are attempting to write before you begin or you will not fit into a specific niche and will face boatloads of rejection emails. Save cross-genre blending for after you’ve sold your first novel.

    In mysteries, the murder or crime has to occur at the beginning of the book.Then the rest of the book is spent discovering whodunnit.The stakes are low. Usually one corpse or two. But the intensity is very high and very personal for the detective (in a cozy mystery, this protagonist is an amateur sleuth. In thrillers the fate of the world is at stake and the clock is ticking. The pacing is relentless as the good guys try to find the bad guys and prevent Armegeddon. A suspense novel is smack dab in the middle. The stakes are not as high as in a thriller or as personal as in a mystery. But the pacing still rocks and the consequences are nasty. Word count: 80,000-100,000.

    In almost every romance novel out there, it’s the same rules. Boy meets girl. Sparks fly but internal and external conflicts keep them apart. Dramatic tension (and sexual frustration) increase until the climax (most often literally) and then the happily ever after, or HEA, ensues. If your story doesn’t follow these rules, you’ve probably written women’s fiction, which still includes romantic elements, but is not genre romance. Category romance word count: 50,000 words. Single Title romance word count: 80,000-100,000+

    Fantasy/Science Fiction
    Kristen did an excellent job of defining fantasy and science fiction and I suspect it’s because if you write in these two distinct genres, you’ve read and enjoyed a lot of these novels and that’s why you write them yourself. Fantasy consists of many subgenres including urban, paranormal, supernatural, epic, sword and sorcery, role playing, and sometimes magical realism. It almost always includes magic (as opposed to science fiction which eschews magic in favor of hard scientific fact.) Science fiction subgenres include space opera, hard spec fic, cyberpunk, steampunk (and all its offshoots), alternate history, military sci-fi, etc. World building is hugely important in both these genres and while word count is flexible, I would never advise new authors to go over 100,000 words if they expect to sell their novel. Leave that to George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan (may he rest in peace.) Word count: 85,000-100,000.

    Again, Kristen did a great job with her description of horror. Horror doesn’t sell as well in literature as it does in film and television, so horror is a smaller market than the mega-uber-huge romance (more than 50% of the fiction sold in the United States each year is romance), second largest genre mystery/thriller, or even fantasy (with a little sci-fi thrown in for good measure). Horror is meant to scare you either psychologically, viscerally or sometimes physically. Horror had fallen out of favor for the past few decades, so you often see it mixed with other genres (e.g. Stephen King’s dark fantasy horror). Word count: 70,000-90,000 words

    Young Adult
    This is not really a genre, but an age group. A very popular age group, to be sure, but not a genre in and of itself. YA must have a teen protagonist, usually a girl since 80% of YA fiction readers are female. It deals with a time in life filled with emotion and angst and is very present oriented. This is why most YA is written in first person. Word count can range wildly between 60,000-100,000+ words.

    Now, some comments on other folks’ comments. I totally disagree with Lance that genre fiction sacrifices character development for plot advancement. Read the Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time series and tell me there is no character development. I can hardly wait for the next books because these characters are so real and so intense. Same with any romance by Nora Roberts. She is a master of character identification. Readers can’t get enough of her protagonists and secondary characters. I could go on, but then I’d just sound defensive. Great genre fiction includes fantastic plots and deep characters.

    I also disagree with Kathy Owen who said that mysteries don’t have to start with a crime. They do. You can probably find any number of exceptions, but most mysteries have to start with a murder (often in the prologue) so the sleuth (and the reader) can have a fun time trying to solve it!

    And finally, I want to reiterate that women’s fiction is not genre fiction. It can be literary or commercial. But many romance writers who tire of the formulaic rules of genre romance end up writing women’s fiction to spread their wings. Many generational sagas or family dramas are considered women’s fiction.

    Hope that’s helpful to everyone. Now back to your regularly scheduled WANA.

  23. Another quick point. In bookstores, genre fiction is called out: fantasy, romance, westerns, mystery. While commercial and literary fiction are lumped together in the general “fiction” shelves. Nicholas Sparks writes women’s fiction or commercial fiction, not romance.

  24. Just got caught up on 5, 6, 7 on the series. Spent a while on the logline and I found it amazing because the shorter the logline became, the clearer the root of the story.

    I recently changed the starting point of my novel to a point just after a crime happened because my story was becoming a thriller. Then I read this article and I’m happy to learn that thrillers/suspense genres normally start at that point! It seems many novels are a blend of genres, and I’m happy to learn that mine isn’t tuna ice cream. It’s 2 parts YA thriller and 1 part paranormal, yum!

    Great post as always!

  25. Very helpful information as always, Kristen. I am one of those readers who likes a touch of the literary with my mystery and suspense novels. Thinking of some work by Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben. While it’s true that a mystery or suspense novel cannot follow the same structure as books like The Help or The Marriage Plot, some books can spend just a little more time adding depth to a character or exploring some social or philosophical point. I remember that Travis Magee often would ponder some life issue as it connected to the mystery and the people he was involved with in a particular story. That is one of the things I always liked about this character and why I read every John D. MacDonald book that came out..

  26. So you probably don’t think I should work on a nonfiction-fiction hybrid, how to-literary true crime then. Tuna ice cream is disgusting, but I would’ve ate it in college around 3 AM most nights.

    1. Actually there is what is called narrative non-fiction and I really like it. I think a lot of genres do well blended together. There are just some that won’t work no matter how we try to mix them.

  27. Wow Kristen, my head is spinning after this post.

    Someone left a comment about General fiction. Then someone else mentioned Commercial fiction. Huh? What are they and where do they fit in? Are they sub-genres under the literary unbrella?

    One more question. How does one let you know that they’ve mentioned you and linked back to your site? Does the blog fairy let you know or do you stay up all night searching the net or do you want us to leave a message here?

    Thanks for making learning fun. We’re all little sponges soaking up these mouth-watering beads of wisdom!

    1. Listen to Laurie (she left a detailed comment). I get a pingback that tells me who linked and where :D.

    • Yolanda on November 15, 2011 at 2:54 pm
    • Reply

    Great post Kristen. I did s similar post with Speculative Fiction. It helped someone else to figure out that they weren’t writing sci-fi, but paranormal romance. It’s always a good idea to know your genre so you will know your target audience.

  28. Just ordered one of your books – seeing as I’m always stopping by here and sopping up free information. In fact, I oughta just go ahead and order the other while I’m thinking about it 😀

    Love your blog.

    • Grigory on November 16, 2011 at 4:48 am
    • Reply

    What about Stieg Larsson “Girl” trilogy, it’s a thriller, yet there is a lot of character work there. I think it is literary. But that literary part is put in in a way that blends in well with the action bit. My point is literary can be different and, more importantly for te present day reader , concise.

    1. I can’t explain that. I know there are outliers. I, personally, hated them. Twilight is another we could cite, but it is a bad idea to try to write that way. Every once in a while, something like that will take off, but most of the time it dies in the slush pile. It’s poor planning to pattern our writing after anomalies.

        • Grigory on November 17, 2011 at 5:08 am
        • Reply

        I think we should study those anomalies. It tells us something about the reader. Come on, Kristen, where is your research spirit? 🙂 You know that they are many books , quite bad from the technical point of view, managed to captivate the reader. Maybe we should ask the readers why did they like or dislike Stieg Larrson’s novel. I can see why it worked for me. Maybe there are general things form a good mix that appeals to the reader in them , it’s like an oasis in the desert of bad fiction. Brother Karamasov’s is another example of masterpiece being technically a rather badly written novel.

        1. Never said there was anything wrong with studying them. But to an untrained writer who doesn’t understand the basics of craft, it is unlikely that she would be able to detect the essence that was different that captivated the readers. Instead, the untrained writer is more likely to end up with a bad knock-off. Just ask all the agents who have received hundreds of “Twilight” wanna-bes. Studying anomalies works best when we grasp the basics, yet most brand new writers are still struggling to understand the antagonist and narrative structure. This series is all about basics. Think of it like learning guitar. We need to learn to read music and the fingering on the strings before we worry about breaking musical rules. Once people understand the fundamental rules of the craft, THAT is the time to start trying to incorporate techniques used by outliers.

          The Girl books took a HUNDRED pages to get people interested. Most readers are not going to give a book ten, let alone a HUNDRED. So what happens is that new writers believe that they have the leeway of a 100 pages before the story really starts. No, that is a total anomaly and a BAD gamble, especially these days when people download samples of the first pages before they buy. These days it is even MORE important to understand how to hook the reader.

    • Grigory on November 17, 2011 at 8:48 am
    • Reply

    I completely agree with the first 100 pages of “The girl”, I find them interesting, but the dynamics was lacking and I just couldn’t engage with the character, to be honest that journalist character I found the least compelling in that book. That’s why the second book is better, for it focuses on the Girl.
    I agree about the basics, Kristen, and can I just say that i’ve read your latest book on social media and I really enjoyed it. I’m going to use your advice a lot 🙂
    I twa easily the best non-fiction for writers I’ve read in a long time. I admire you for all the hard work that you’ve done and are doing and hopefully will persist doing.

  1. […] Structure Part 7 – Genre Matters by Kristen Lamb: If I could I would include a link to pretty much every blog this fabulous lady writes, but instead I chose one. Her series on writing structure has been fantastic and taught me so much. If you haven’t already, you should check out her latest entry – and then browse the rest of her posts. […]

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