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Writer's Toolbox: Genres

I'm going to start a new series today that focuses on different aspects that a writer needs - the toolbox. The first part of the toolbox focuses on genres: brief definitions, uses, and some famous books within each genre.


When I was in elementary school, I had monthly book reports due so I learned about genres in books, but not always within fiction. Genre refers to a set of expected characteristics within a story: a mystery always involves some sort of element to be solved; fantasy has magic; science fiction must contain science; romance ends with a kiss.

Under each broad stroke of genre are sub-genres. For example the mystery genre includes: amateur sleuth, hard-boiled and soft-boiled, private eye, political and historical. Today, I'll provide the broad strokes then we'll look into the sub-genres as we proceed through the series. A caveat at the beginning of the series: many of these genres overlap for example one can have a historical romance or a romantic mystery. 
  1. Fantasy involves magic and magical creatures either in a contemporary, historical or otherworld setting. Common characteristics include a good vs. evil theme, wizards and witches, elves, dwarves and other creatures. Some books re-tell fairy tales or explore myth. Classic novels would include The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien and Earthsea by Ursula le Guin. Best used to tell a good vs. evil story.
  2. Science Fiction focuses on science and humanity's pursuit of science. Within this genre, other worlds can be explored as well as the future and past. While there can be a good vs. evil theme, science fiction often focuses on a knowledge quest or a man vs. nature conflict. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle are both science fiction. Best used to explore ethical troubles within the world or to explain a scientific concept to people.
  3. Historical is a tricky genre because of the nature of history. According to the Historical Novelist Society, historical fiction is limited to two aspects (1) 50 years after the event or (2) outside the author's known world. For example, I could write a historical fiction based in the 1970s (I was born in the early 80s) but my mom couldn't; we both could write historical fiction about the Korean War, though. Historical fiction may or may not include historical figures such as Henry IV or Thutmose III. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas and The Vienna Prelude by Bodie and Brock Thoene are both historical novels. Best used to explore opinions of the time period as well as contemporary issues such as ethnic relations.
  4. Mystery comes in a variety of sizes usually with dead bodies and prized artifacts. In the mystery genre elements that remain are: the solving of a puzzle, a investigator and typically a crime of some sort. Most mysteries involve a dead body, but are not necessary. Out of the genres, the mystery genre is the most inclined to a series that follows the primary sleuth. Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh and Gone Missing by Linda Castillo are mysteries. Best used to explore humanity and the reasons people do things; another option for good vs. evil stories.
  5. Romance is often derided, but is also the best-selling genre. (Fantasy is usually second). The romance genre involves a woman and a man who eventually admit that they love each other at the end of the book whether it ends with a kiss, engagement, wedding or another commitment. Like fantasy, this genre often comes in trilogies. Mark of the Lion Trilogy by Francine Rivers and In the Garden Trilogy by Nora Roberts are both romances. Best used to explore unconditional love and the emotional side of humanity.
  6. Contemporary, like historical, is an odd genre. Typically it is limited to the current time period, but many classics are indeed contemporary since the author wrote the novels in her time period. Two examples of the historical contemporary are Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The genre focuses on issues currently happening and is often used as an adjective to another genre such as romance or fantasy. Best used to study current issues or historical issues with contemporary repercussions. Depending on the bent of the novel, this genre can also be classified as literary.  
  7. Adventure is similar to mystery and is often an adjective to describe a mystery. In this genre, the storyline is focused on the adventure such as King Solomon's Mines by Henry Rider Haggard. In an adventure book travel is a necessity as is a man vs. nature subplot. Often the protagonist and antagonist struggle to possess the same item (treasure or property). Best used to explore human nature, but in a subtle aspect. This is the best genre for a good story without anything else added to it.
One could argue that there are more genres or less genres - it depends on how one views a genre. The above list gives you several of the common genres and provides my opinions on how you can utilize each genre. Personally, I rarely write romance or contemporary, but I write almost all of the other ones. As you develop your writing skills, you will discover which genre you prefer to write as well as the ins and outs of that genre.

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