What is Genre?

I have been in so many arguments about genre: what it is, how to define it, what books are which is, it important, etc ad naseum.

I have an explanation to end all arguments. (Except the ones from the people who disagree with me.) Genre is a big comlicated word used to define two completely different elements. Those elements are (drumroll please): Plot and Setting.

Setting: Where is your novel set? Using what genre conventions?

Plot: What traditional genre sequence does your novel follow?

So, technically, your novel should have two genres. Here I’ve borrowed a list from Wikipedia and broken them down:


An action novel is a plot. Traditionally the genre refers to a contemporary setting, but everyone writes action packed novels. Right?


Again, a plot.  From Wikipedia: “An adventure story is about a protagonist who journeys to epic or distant places to accomplish something.”


A plot. A comedy is anything that’s written with intent to amuse, regardless of who is in it, where, why, or how.


A setting! What makes a novel fantasy? The inclusion of common elements recognizable as fantastical in nature: IE, not occurring in the real universe. This includes fictional countries, mythical creatures, and magic. You can write any sort of plot in this setting, but if you have a dragon it’s probably fantasy.


Set in the past. Plain as nails. History is a setting.


Horror is a plot genre.  Like comedy, it refers to a story with intent to terrify, or horrify. You can have many different settings for horror films, and sometimes even crossover with a different plot genre. So I suppose horror is really more of an “atmosphere” but for simplicities sake we’ll just class it as a plot.


You can guess this one! That’s right, it’s a plot genre. You can have historical mysteries, fantasy mysteries… I won’t give away the rest of the list.


Romance is a plot. Often crossed over with other plots (we’ll get to that in a second) it can be set in any genre, and is, on a regular basis.

Science Fiction

Science Fiction is the most argued about genre in the universe, and when you get into sub-genres it gets even worse. But Scifi si most like Fantasy, and it’s a setting. Scifi is a story that includes aliens, space travel, robots, laser guns, etc. You can have any plot set among those elements. Bonus points if the elements are the plot, as so many argue.


Thriller is a plot genre! When Thriller meets Scifi is when everyone starts bickering the hardest, but ultimately a thriller novel can be set anywhere.

So there you have it! Obviously that’s a basic list, but it gives you the overview. So which genre is your novel/story?

It’s like playing rock/paper/scissors. It’s a trump game. Let’s take a look at the rules.

Suppose you have a story that’s Fantasy Adventure. Which genre should you classify it under? Well, fantasy typically implies adventure, so just go with the setting.

Romance trumps all genre. If you wrote a romance, it’s a romance. Sub-categorize the setting. If you didn’t write a romance then leave that genre off. If you don’t know if it counts as a “Romance” then it’s not a romance. If you’re writing romance novels then you’ll know. That’s a whole other article.

What about mystery? Like romance, mystery tends to trump setting. Ditto to horror and thriller.

In the case of Science Fiction… think carefully. What is your plot about? Is it a political thriller involving a scientist working on a rocket for NASA? Then it’s most likely not scifi. It’s a political thriller. Is your book a political thriller set on a distant planet that’s being threatened with elimination from the galaxy? Then it’s Science Fiction.

When picking whether or not to go with setting or plot ask yourself which question: which is more central to the story? Which one is a bigger selling point? Which one could you change and still have the same novel? (Star Wars with a different plot would still be Star Wars. The Patriot with a different setting would still be The Patriot. Star Wars with a different setting would be something else entirely.)

When writing my supervillain series I toyed with genres for a long time. Superhero fiction is commonly considered a sub-genre of science fiction, due to the usage of other planets, races, and outlandish technology and science. It is also considered Action and Adventure, because that’s what comic books are. And to top off the confusion, supervillains is comedy.

How did I choose between scifi and adventure? Well, at it’s core Supervillains is about a policeman and a reporter runnign around in contemporary London chasing down bad guys, solving mysteries, and helping people. There is very little in the setting (other than Supervillains) to make it a science fiction genre, while the entire plot screams Adventure. Adventure also appeals to a wide group of people, while Science Fiction targets Scifi people specifically. And Supervillains is nothing if not broad in scope.

So do a similar analysis on your story and see whether the setting or plot is more integral to your genre. And the next time you feel a genre war coming on remember that there are two correct answers to any question.


What is Genre? — 1 Comment

  1. Arguing about genre is fun–especially for people who plain like to argue about anything, period.

    I usually break it down into two genres, based on setting, I guess you could say.

    Realistic (does not contain magic or currently uninvented technology)
    Fantasy/Sci-Fi (contains these specific devices)
    Historical is a branch of “realistic” which is set in the past

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *