Fictionary, Part 1: What Genre Do I Write? by Lori Ann Palma

book-2617231_1280This month’s EasternPennPoints theme is all about submissions, and if you’re getting ready to query your novel, then you’ll need to know where your book fits into the YA or MG market.

First off, YA and MG are categories (the targeted age demographic of the book), and they are followed by a genre, which can be anything from contemporary to science fiction. When an agency’s submission guidelines ask you to state your writing genre in your query letter, this is the identifier you’ll want to include.

Sounds easy, right? Not so fast…

Speculative, high fantasy, high concept—these are just a few terms used to describe genres of MG and YA fiction, but they can leave you scratching your head, wondering exactly what it is you write.

In an effort to clear up the confusion, I’ve developed a “fictionary” below so you can confidently pitch your work. This week, we’ll begin with some of the easier genres, then dive into fantasy and paranormal, plus their major subgenres.

Let’s dig in!

Action/Adventure: The key elements in this story genre are action, risk, and danger. Typically a protagonist battles a clearly defined antagonist (such as a pirate king) while on a journey of discovery for things like buried treasure or a secret place or object. The story often features a quest structure and takes your characters to other worlds, like space, the high seas, or exotic lands. While adventure can be either YA or MG, you typically see MG adventure stories.

Contemporary or Realistic Fiction: Contemporary is a term used for stories that happen in the real world, have a modern-day setting (as opposed to historical), and feature characters that could exist in real life. Plots typically deal with the trials and tribulations of growing up, from crushes and first relationships, to more difficult and complex issues, like bullying, mental illness, death, addiction, injustice, and racism. It’s also worth noting that YA contemporary romance can be considered its own genre, with the main plot focused on a developing relationship. Other themes may appear, but the dramatic question is very focused on whether the love interests will be together by the end of the novel.

Speculative: This broad genre is an umbrella term that includes fantasy, horror, science fiction, and dystopian fiction—essentially, stories focused on speculative elements. Let’s begin with fantasy, horror, and paranormal:

Fantasy: Overall, fantasy includes stories set in imaginary worlds that are completely make-believe, and feature mythical beings and creatures, such as talking animals, dragons, goblins, and fairies. Magic and supernatural elements are important in fantasy stories, and the plot often stars a protagonist who is on an adventure or quest. There are a number of sub-genres in fantasy, including:

Dark Fantasy: Combining elements of fantasy with horror, dark fantasy often includes demonic, supernatural creatures (such as necromancers), and deals with darker themes, emotions, and psychological stresses. While the story may include more violence, it doesn’t intend to scare readers (as horror does; see further down).

High Fantasy, or Epic Fantasy: The classic definition of high, or epic fantasy is a story that takes place in a make-believe, but well-defined world, where the hero must rise above his or her circumstances. The hero themselves may be human with magical or supernatural powers, or not human at all. They are often faced with high stake situations where they must challenge an evil or corrupt antagonist in a good versus evil struggle. High fantasy novels are usually told over a series of books due to the epic, complicated plot that takes place over a longer stretch of time.

Historical Fantasy: Unlike high fantasy, historical fantasy is set in a specific historical time period, but blends in an element of fantasy, such as magic or mythical creatures. These stories may include an alternative version of history where magic and/or supernatural creatures exist, but historical events remain unaltered. The story may also be set in a completely fictional time and place that strongly resembles a specific historical period.

Urban Fantasy (sometimes called Contemporary Fantasy, or Low Fantasy): This type of fantasy is a story in which magical powers and characters appear in what is recognizably our world—a real, contemporary (usually urban/city) setting. Characters are human, or were once human, but have evolved into vampires, werewolves, zombies, or ghosts. While this sounds a lot like paranormal, the difference seems to be the element of magic. Take away the magical qualities and you really have a paranormal story, not an urban fantasy. (See paranormal further down).

Horror:  Horror stories aim to terrify the reader. They may include supernatural elements, where the protagonist is faced with the unknown, or occur in the real world, where the terror comes from the idea that the danger could happen in real life. Either way, these stories must elicit emotions of fear and dread. Horror takes its roots from the Gothic genre, but they are not one in the same.

Gothic: A Gothic novel is dark in tone, and typically refers to novels written during the 18th and 19th centuries when this writing style was fashionable. They feature gloomy settings, stark mansions, and a young female heroine who is dealing with a life-threatening menace that may be natural or supernatural. A classic early gothic novel is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. More contemporary gothic novels combine elements of horror and romance, with or without supernatural elements. Another sub-genre is Southern Gothic, which are stories set in the American South.

Paranormal: Similar to an urban fantasy (or low fantasy), paranormal stories are set in a real, contemporary setting, but feature vampires, shapeshifters, fairies, elves, witches, ghosts, and the like. As stated earlier, the difference between paranormal and urban fantasy is the element of magic. While the supernatural characters may have abilities (like mind reading or predicting the future), they are not magical (such as sorcerers or element manipulators).

Paranormal romance: A paranormal romance is primarily a sub-genre of romance, though I’ve included it here because it has become a major YA category. The romantic relationship between characters is the primary plot focus over paranormal aspects, though they usually influence the story. One or more of the love interest characters can have supernatural abilities, but typically a human falls for a non-human and conflict ensues.


Whew! That was a lot of information!

Next Monday, I’ll continue with Part 2 of this post, providing definitions for the rest of the speculative genres and sub-genres, including dsytopian, science fiction, and magical realism, plus tackle additional terms, such as high concept and literary.

I hope you’ll join me as we delve deeper into the genre fictionary!

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2 Responses to Fictionary, Part 1: What Genre Do I Write? by Lori Ann Palma

  1. Kristen C.S. says:

    Yay! Such a helpful guide. Thanks for tackling this, Lori Ann! =)

  2. Pingback: Fictionary, Part 2: What Genre Do I Write? by Lori Ann Palma | EasternPennPoints

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