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


When you start working on a story idea, categorizing it into a specific genre isn’t typically on your list of things to do. But when you go to craft a query letter, you’ll definitely need to place your work into a genre.

In Part 1 of this post, I defined some of the most common MG and YA genres, as well as a few of the tricky terms under the speculative umbrella. Today, I’ll wrap up with science fiction and its subgenres, as well as dystopian, mysteries, thrillers, and a few other confusing terms.

Let’s get to it!

As a recap, here is the definition for speculative:

Speculative: This broad genre is an umbrella term that includes fantasy, horror, science fiction, and dystopian fiction—essentially, stories focused on speculative elements. Below are definitions for science fiction and dystopian:

Science Fiction: Sci-fi deals with stories that apply the science and technology of the future. Theories are often based in fact and use scientific principles in the realm of possibility, but bend the rules to offer alternate worlds and possibilities (such as time travel or teleportation). The setting is usually in the future, and may be on another planet. Plots are typically about the impact of science and technology on the human experience, but characters might include mutants, aliens, androids, cyborgs, and other techno-based robots, and they may have special abilities, such as telekinesis, mind control, and the like. Like fantasy, there are many subgenres of science fiction, including:

Dystopian: The opposite of utopia, these stories are usually set in a future world with no government, or an authoritarian-type government or ruler that takes away the liberties of the people. Characters are pitted against their circumstances while fighting the problems within their society. Dystopias can serve as warnings about the current state of affairs, but also contain the human element of losing your individual freedoms.

Steampunk: This subgenre of SF is a specific type of alternate history where people of the past, usually in the Victorian era (though it isn’t a rule), are able to use 20th century technology, such as steam-powered and clockwork inventions. Technology may be fictional or real, but it provides characters with access to machinery that did not truly exist during their time. Vivid with description, a lot of time goes into describing machines and fashion, but the plots are often adventure-based.

Magical Realism: This genre isn’t easily categorized, but generally features stories where fantastical happenings are not only possible, but are weaved into everyday occurrences. Miraculous events are treated as matter-of-fact, so events speed along without much explanation because they are positioned as nothing fantastical. You might find yourself asking what just happened because there is no sign of magic or a big character reaction. Magical realism books are meant to invoke a sense of wonder, and contradict what’s possible and impossible.

Mystery: This genre is pretty self-explanatory, but it includes a number of subgenres. First off, a mystery is defined by an event or crime that occurs, and you don’t know the why behind the event, or who the killer/antagonist is until the end. The plot primarily focuses on solving the puzzle and/or figuring out who committed the crime. Mysteries may also include an element of suspense, where you know who committed the crime, but the goal is to experience your protagonist’s struggle to escape danger. While there are upwards of ten to twenty subgenres for mystery, some of the most common include:

Cozy Mystery: A mystery without excessive violence or offensive material, and can be comical as an amateur sleuth solves the crime. The case drives the plot, but also focuses on the protagonist’s life, including family, friends, or their hobby.

Thriller:  A thriller generally includes higher stakes and more danger than a mystery, plus twists and turns to keep you guessing. The pace is fast and the plot must be tight, but evoking emotions in your reader is also a high priority. They want to be thrilled, hence the name of the genre.

Psychological Thriller: This subgenre focuses deeply on the character’s emotions and mental state while also providing mystery and suspense. The conflict puts emotional and psychological stress on the protagonist, who often has to use their mental resources to solve the crime or outwit the antagonist. mind games, deception, and manipulation are key features to the plot.

Lastly, here are a few terms that don’t revolve around genre, but might still guide you in defining your work.

High Concept: High concept is a term that doesn’t represent a genre, but a type of book. Agents typically say they want high-concept work when they’re seeking a book that can be captured in just a title and a brief tagline—and from that description, readers will immediately be interested. In my research, I found this link to a definition from Nathan Bransford, which provides a good overview for further understanding.

Commercial Fiction: Commercial fiction is a term that’s used to describe books that are written with a wide audience in mind, and place plot above all else. Theme and character development aren’t as important as the action; therefore, you won’t get much backstory or emphasis on how a character is changing. The ending is closed and doesn’t open up larger questions about life or humanity. Mysteries, thrillers, and romance novels can be described as commercial fiction.

Literary Fiction: This is another term that doesn’t specifically represent genre (when it comes to YA and MG), but a type of novel. Literary fiction tends to be more thematic and focuses on the inner workings of a character’s mind and their motivation, which puts the emphasis on character arc over plot. The writing style is typically more poetic and lyrical, with a focus on beautifully crafted language and emotions.

Upmarket Fiction: This term is used to represent books that fall between commercial and literary fiction—meaning that they are tightly plotted, but still have a strong voice with emphasis on language and writing, and touch on themes and emotions while making you turn the pages to see what happens next.

If you’d like some examples, this infographic from agent Carly Watters is incredibly helpful to define the differences between commercial, literary, and upmarket.

Thanks for joining me over the last two weeks as we explored genre! I hope you’ll be able to approach your query letter and pitch with more confidence.

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

  1. Brinton Culp says:

    Thank you for putting this altogether! Very helpful information.

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