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  • Foto van schrijverIris Marsh

A Guide to Understanding Fiction Genres

Bijgewerkt op: 16 mei 2023

When you write a book, knowing what genre you’re writing in can make a world of difference.

Preferably, you think about your genre before you write your first draft.

But also once you’ve finished writing, you want to check which genre you’ve written in, so you can further analyze your manuscript.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into genre, discussing the difference between genre and content genre, the global genres you can choose from, and how to find your main genre.

Instead of reading the article below, you can also watch this video for an even more in-depth explanation of genre and a detailed example.

Article overview:

a guide to understanding fiction genres

What is genre?

Before we dive into how you can find out the genre of your story and why this will help you improve your manuscript, we first have to understand better what genre is and how we can use it.

So, what is genre?

“Genre is a label that tells audience members what to expect from our stories.”–

“Genre is the category of artistic musical or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”–Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

As you can see, genre is a classification. It’s like a box to put your story in.

Some people will find this restrictive, but actually, it opens up a lot of possibilities. It will give you clarity on what you need to put in your story to make it work, to make it enjoyable for readers, and to have readers turn pages.

Genre is a very helpful concept for us.

Market genre vs content genre

There’s a bit of a difference between market genre and content genre.

Market genre is, of course, also part of genre. Your market genre would be labels like “historical fantasy” or “YA dystopian.” This gives readers some information about the age group or the setting of the story in terms of realism.

That’s not actually what we’re interested in when we’re writing or analyzing our story.

What we want to know is: what is our content genre?

The content genre defines what is contained within a story. It specifically determines the need and value at stake. Value is the keyword here because you want to understand what’s at stake.

What’s at stake differs depending on the content genre you’re writing in.


External vs internal genres

Content genre is divided into two different sections. You have external content genres and you have internal content genres, which are divided based on the values that are at stake.

External content genres

External content genres are:

  • Action: Life versus death. The protagonist faces a chance of death within the story.

  • War: Dishonor versus honor. In other words, if you act honorably and you serve your country with honor, or if you have to resort to dishonorable practices.

  • Horror: life versus a fate worse than death. It’s a step more compared to the action story. The protagonist’s soul is on the line.

  • Crime: Justice versus injustice. Can the protagonist bring the criminal to justice or take justice into their own hands?

  • Thriller: Life versus fate worse than death. The difference with horror here is that the stakes are more related to justice for the thriller genre. The protagonist wants to defeat the villain to right a wrong they did. Thriller is a combination of action, horror, and crime.

  • Love: Love versus hate. In my opinion, that doesn’t have to be a romantic love, it can also be friendship.

  • Performance: Accomplishment versus failure. These are your sports stories, musical performances, and stories about other types of performances.

  • Western/Eastern: Autonomy/individual versus subjugation/community. The Western/Eastern distinction is more the type of setting. The stakes are similar.

  • Society: Impotence versus power. There’s a tyrannical system in place—at least tyrannical to the protagonists—thus they experience impotence. They need to rise against tyranny and seize power.

Internal content genres

The internal content genres are:

  • Status: Success versus failure. This is about our personal status and moving up in the world. It can be, for instance, moving from lower class to upper class. But it can also be a more internal feeling in how you view your status within society—what your protagonist considers a successful status.

  • Morality: Good/Altruism versus evil/selfishness.

  • Worldview: Immaturity versus sophistication. This is common within coming of age novels.

Difference commercial and literary fiction

With commercial fiction, your main plot is external. With literary fiction, most often the main plot is internal. That’s essentially the difference. One is very plot-focused, while the other is more character-focused.

That doesn’t mean that as a commercial fiction author, you don’t have an internal content genre. Because you definitely pretty much always do want an internal content genre. This is related to your character’s arc throughout the story. However, in this case, the internal genre functions more as a subplot.

There are also stories that are both focused on plot and have an external main content genre but are also heavily character-driven. This is called upmarket fiction. You can see it as a combination of commercial and literary fiction.

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Finding your main content genre

Why is it important to find your main content genre?

As we’ve seen with the definition, genre will help you categorize the main type of your story. And when you know what this is, there will be certain conventions and expectations related to that story.

The values attached to your content genre are also important for your story's theme.

Your content genre will also help you outline your story and later identify whether you’re meeting reader expectations or not.

Because if you’re not meeting reader expectations, it’s likely that they’ll feel that something’s missing in your story, although they won’t be able to pinpoint it exactly.

Figure out what’s at stake

To find your main content genre, figure out what’s at stake.

For this, you can look at the climactic event of your story (or what you want the climactic event to be). This is the most important moment that takes place at the end of your book.

For instance, in my story, the main climactic event was a confrontation between the protagonist and the villain.

Here, if the protagonist would lose, she would literally lose her soul. Thus, a fate worse than death, making the main genre horror (which was unfortunate, as I’d wanted to write a thriller story).

Another example:

In any romantic comedy ever, the climactic moment is when the characters finally decide they belong together and prove it. Here, they risk losing their chance at a romantic relationship. Thus, love is at stake, making it a love story.

When you know what’s at stake, you can find your genre.


Find your genre and start plotting

Have you figured out your main content genre?

Now it’s time to put that knowledge to use. Figure out which elements of the genre you should have within your story. Add that to your outline.

This is also useful information when you’re analyzing your story.

Go back to the conventions and expectations of your main genre and check whether your story fulfills them.

Need any help with your story? Check my editorial services and see what is the right fit for your project. If you’re not sure, please don’t hesitate to email me.

You can always email me with writing-related questions. I’ll do my best to answer them.


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