What are literary genres? Do they actually matter to readers? How about to writers? What types of literary genres exist? And if you're a writer, how do you decide which genre to write in?
To begin to think about literary genres, let's start with an example.
Let's say want to read something. You go to a bookstore or hop onto a store online or go to a library.
But instead of a nice person wearing reading glasses and a cardigan asking you what books you like and then thinking through every book ever written to find you the next perfect read (if that person existed, for the record, they would be my favorite person), you're faced with this: rows and rows of books with labels on the shelves like “Literary Fiction,” “Travel,” “Reference,” “Science Fiction,” and so on.
You stop at the edge of the bookstore and just stand there for a while, stumped. “What do all of these labels even mean?!” And then you walk out of the store.
Or maybe you're writing a book, and someone asks you a question like this: “What kind of book are you writing? What genre is it?”
And you stare at them in frustration thinking, “My book transcends genre, convention, and even reality, obviously. Don't you dare put my genius in a box!”
What are literary genres? In this article, we'll share the definition and different types of literary genres (there are four main ones but thousands of subgenres). Then, we'll talk about why genre matters to both readers and writers. We'll look at some of the components that people use to categorize writing into genres. Finally, we'll give you a chance to put genre into practice with an exercise.
Table of Contents
Ready to get started? Let's get into it.
What Are Literary Genres? Literary Genre Definition
Let's begin with a basic definition of literary genres:
Literary genres are categories, types, or collections of literature. They often share characteristics, such as their subject matter or topic, style, form, purpose, or audience.
That's our formal definition. But here's a simpler way of thinking about it:
Genre is a way of categorizing readers' tastes.
That's a good basic definition of genre. But does genre really matter?
Why Literary Genres Matter
Literary genres matter. They matter to readers but they also matter to writers. Here's why:
Why Literary Genres Matter to Readers
Think about it. You like to read (or watch) different things than your parents.
You probably also like to read different things at different times of the day. For example, maybe you read the news in the morning, listen to an audiobook of a nonfiction book related to your studies or career in the afternoon, and read a novel or watch a TV show in the evening.
Even more, you probably read different things now than you did as a child or than you will want to read twenty years from now.
Everyone has different tastes.
Genre is one way we match what readers want to what writers want to write and what publishers are publishing.
It's also not a new thing. We've been categorizing literature like this for thousands of years. Some of the oldest forms of writing, including religious texts, were tied directly into this idea of genre.
For example, forty percent of the Old Testament in the Bible is actually poetry, one of the four essential literary genres. Much of the New Testament is in the form of epistle, a subgenre that's basically a public letter.
Genre matters, and by understanding how genre works, you not only can find more things you want to read, you can also better understand what the writer (or publisher) is trying to do.
Why Literary Genres Matter to Writers
Genre isn't just important to readers. It's extremely important to writers too.
In the same way the literary genres better help readers find things they want to read and better understand a writer's intentions, genres inform writers of readers' expectations and also help writers find an audience.
If you know that there are a lot of readers of satirical political punditry (e.g. The Onion), then you can write more of that kind of writing and thus find more readers and hopefully make more money. Genre can help you find an audience.
At the same time, great writers have always played with and pressed the boundaries of genre, sometimes even subverting it for the sake of their art.
Another way to think about genre is a set of expectations from the reader. While it's important to meet some of those expectations, if you meet too many, the reader will get bored and feel like they know exactly what's going to happen next. So great writers will always play to the readers' expectations and then change a few things completely to give readers a sense of novelty in the midst of familiarity.
This is not unique to writers, by the way. The great apparel designer Virgil Abloh, who was an artistic director at Louis Vuitton until he passed away tragically in 2021, had a creative template called the “3% Rule,” where he would take an existing design, like a pair of Nike Air Jordans, and make a three percent change to it, transforming it into something completely new. His designs were incredibly successful, often selling for thousands of dollars.
This process of taking something familiar and turning it into something new with a slight change is something artists have done throughout history, including writers, and it's a great way to think about how to use genre for your own writing.
What Literary Genre is NOT: Story Type vs. Literary Genres
Before we talk more about the types of genre, let's discuss what genre is not.
Genre is not the same as story type (or for nonfiction, types of nonfiction structure). There are ten (or so) types of stories, including adventure, love story, mystery, and coming of age, but there are hundreds, even thousands of genres.
Genre is about how the work is perceived and marketed.
These are related but not the same.
For example, one popular subgenre of literature is science fiction. Probably the most common type of science fiction story is adventure, but you can also have mystery sci-fi stories, love story sci-fi, and even morality sci-fi. Story type transcends genre.
This is true for non-fiction as well in different ways. More on this in my post on the seven types of nonfiction books.
Now that we've addressed why genre matters and what genre doesn't include, let's get into the different literary genres that exist (there are a lot of them!).
How Many Literary Genres Are There? The 4 Essential Genres, and 100+ Genres and Subgenres
Just as everyone has different tastes, so there are genres to fit every kind of specific reader.
There are four essential literary genres, and all are driven by essential questions. Then, within each of those essential genres are genres and subgenres. We will look at all of these in turn, below, as well as several examples of each.
An important note: There are individual works that fit within the gaps of these four essential genres or even cross over into multiple genres.
As with anything, the edges of these categories can become blurry, for example narrative poetry or fictional reference books.
A general rule: You know it when you see it (except, of course, when the author is trying to trick you!).
1. Nonfiction: Is it true?
The core question for nonfiction is, “Is it true?”
Nonfiction deals with facts, instruction, opinion/argument reference, narrative nonfiction, or a combination.
A few examples of nonfiction (more below): reference, news, memoir, manuals, religious inspirational books, self-help, business, and many more.
2. Fiction: Is it, at some level, imagined?
The core question for fiction is, “Is it, at some level, imagined?”
Fiction is almost always story or narrative. However, satire is a form of “fiction” that's structured like nonfiction opinion/essays or news. And one of the biggest insults you can give to a journalist, reporter, or academic researcher is to suggest that their work is “fiction.”
3. Drama: Is it performed?
Drama is a genre of literature that has some kind of performance component. This includes theater, film, and audio plays.
The core question that defines drama is, “Is it performed?”
As always, there are genres within this essential genre, including horror films, thrillers, true crime podcasts, and more.
4. Poetry: Is it verse?
Poetry is in some ways the most challenging literary genre to define because while poetry is usually based on form, i.e. lines intentionally broken into verse, sometimes including rhyme or other poetic devices, there are some “poems” that are written completely in prose called prose poetry. These are only considered poems because the author and/or literary scholars said they were poems.
To confuse things even more, you also have narrative poetry, which combines fiction and poetry, and song which combines poetry and performance (or drama) with music.
Which is all to say, poetry is challenging to classify, but again, you usually know it when you see it.
Next, let's talk about the genres and subgenres within those four essential literary genres.
The 100+ Literary Genres and Subgenres with Definitions
Genre is, at its core, subjective. It's literally based on the tastes of readers, tastes that change over time, within markets, and across cultures.
Thus, there are essentially an infinite number of genres.
Even more, genres are constantly shifting. What is considered contemporary fiction today will change a decade from now.
So take the lists below (and any list of genres you see) as an incomplete, likely outdated, small sample size of genre with definitions.
1. Fiction Genres
Action/Adventure. An action/adventure story has adventure elements in its plot line. This type of story often involves some kind of conflict between good and evil, and features characters who must overcome obstacles to achieve their goals.
Chick Lit. Chick Lit stories are usually written for women who interested in lighthearted stories that still have some depth. They often include romance, humor, and drama in their plots.
Comedy. This typically refers to historical stories and plays (e.g. Shakespeare, Greek Literature, etc) that contain a happy ending, often with a wedding.
Commercial. Commercial stories have been written for the sole purpose of making money, often in an attempt to cash in on the success of another book, film, or genre.
Crime/Police/Detective Fiction. Crime and police stories feature a detective, whether amateur or professional, who solves crimes using their wits and knowledge of criminal psychology.
Drama or Tragedy. This typically refers to historical stories or plays (e.g. Shakespeare, Greek Literature, etc) that contain a sad or tragic ending, often with one or more deaths.
Erotica. Erotic stories contain explicit sexual descriptions in their narratives.
Espionage. Espionage stories focus on international intrigue, usually involving governments, spies, secret agents, and/or terrorist organizations. They often involve political conflict, military action, sabotage, terrorism, assassination, kidnapping, and other forms of covert operations.
Family Saga. Family sagas focus on the lives of an extended family, sometimes over several generations. Rather than having an individual protagonist, the family saga tells the stories of multiple main characters or of the family as a whole.
Fantasy. Fantasy stories are set in imaginary worlds that often feature magic, mythical creatures, and fantastic elements. They may be based on mythology, folklore, religion, legend, history, or science fiction.
General Fiction. General fiction novels are those that deal with individuals and relationships in an ordinary setting. They may be set in any time period, but usually take place in modern times.
Graphic Novel. Graphic novels are a hybrid between comics and prose fiction that often includes elements of both.
Historical Fiction. Historical stories are written about imagined or actual events that occurred in history. They usually take place during specific periods of time and often include real or imaginary characters who lived at those times.
Horror Genre. Horror stories focus on the psychological terror experienced by their characters. They often feature supernatural elements, such as ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons, monsters, and aliens.
Humor/Satire. This category includes stories that have been written using satire or contain comedic elements. Satirical novels tend to focus on some aspect of society in a critical way.
LGBTQ+. LGBTQ+ novels are those that feature characters who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or otherwise non-heterosexual.
Literary Fiction. Literary fiction novels or stories have a high degree of artistic merit, a unique or experimental style of writing, and often deal with serious themes.
Military. Military stories deal with war, conflict, combat, or similar themes and often have strong action elements. They may be set in a contemporary or a historical period.
Multicultural. Multicultural stories are written by and about people who have different cultural backgrounds, including those that may be considered ethnic minorities.
Mystery Genre. Mystery stories feature an investigation into a crime.
Offbeat/Quirky. An offbeat story has an unusual plot, characters, setting, style, tone, or point of view. Quirkiness can be found in any aspect of a story, but often comes into play when the author uses unexpected settings, time periods, or characters.
Picture Book. Picture book novels are usually written for children and feature simple plots and colorful illustrations. They often have a moral or educational purpose.
Religious/Inspirational. Religious/inspirational stories describe events in the life of a person who was inspired by God or another supernatural being to do something extraordinary. They usually have a moral lesson at their core.
Romance Genre. Romance novels or stories are those that focus on love between two people, often in an ideal setting. There are many subgenres in romance, including historical, contemporary, paranormal, and others.
Science Fiction. Science fiction stories are usually set in an imaginary future world, often involving advanced technology. They may be based on scientific facts but they are not always.
Short Story Collection. Short story collections contain several short stories written by the same or different authors.
Suspense or Thriller Genre. Thrillers/suspense stories are usually about people in danger, often involving crimes, natural disasters, or terrorism.
Upmarket. Upmarket stories are often written for and/or focus on upper class people who live in an upscale environment.
Western Genre. Western stories are those that take place in the west during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Characters include cowboys, outlaws, native Americans, and settlers.
2. Nonfiction Genres
From the BISAC categories, a globally accepted system for coding and categorizing books by the Book Industry Standards And Communications group.
Antiques & Collectibles. Nonfiction books about antiques and collectibles include those that focus on topics such as collecting, appraising, restoring, and marketing antiques and collectibles. These books may be written for both collectors and dealers in antique and collectible items. They can range from how-to guides to detailed histories of specific types of objects.
Architecture. Architecture books focus on the design, construction, use, and history of buildings and structures. This includes the study of architecture in general, but also the specific designs of individual buildings or styles of architecture.
Art. Art books focus on visual arts, music, literature, dance, film, theater, architecture, design, fashion, food, and other art forms. They may include essays, memoirs, biographies, interviews, criticism, and reviews.
Bibles. Bibles are religious books, almost exclusively Christian, that contain the traditional Bible in various translations, often with commentary or historical context.
Biography & Autobiography. Biography is an account of a person's life, often a historical or otherwise famous person. Autobiographies are personal accounts of people's lives written by themselves.
Body, Mind & Spirt. These books focus on topics related to human health, wellness, nutrition, fitness, or spirituality.
Business & Economics. Business & economics books are about how businesses work. They tend to focus on topics that interest people who run their own companies, lead or manage others, or want to understand how the economy works.
Computers. The computer genre of nonfiction books includes any topics that deal with computers in some way. They can be about general use, about how they affect our lives, or about specific technical areas related to hardware or software.
Cooking. Cookbooks contain recipes or cooking techniques.
Crafts & Hobbies. How-to guides for crafts and hobbies, including sewing, knitting, painting, baking, woodworking, jewelry making, scrapbooking, photography, gardening, home improvement projects, and others.
Design. Design books are written about topics that include design in some way. They can be about any aspect of design including graphic design, industrial design, product design, fashion, furniture, interior design, or others.
Education. Education books focus on topics related to teaching and learning in schools. They can be used for students or as a resource for teachers.
Family & Relationships. These books focus on family relationships, including parenting, marriage, divorce, adoption, and more.
Foreign Language Study. Books that act as a reference or guide to learning a foreign language.
Games & Activities. Games & activities books may be published for children or adults, may contain learning activities or entertaining word or puzzle games. They range from joke books to crossword puzzle books to coloring books and more.
Gardening. Gardening books include those that focus on aspects of gardening, how to prepare for and grow vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, trees, shrubs, grasses, and other plants in an indoor or outdoor garden setting.
Health & Fitness. Health and fitness books focus on topics like dieting, exercise, nutrition, weight loss, health issues, medical conditions, diseases, medications, herbs, supplements, vitamins, minerals, and more.
History. History books focus on historical events and people, and may be written for entertainment or educational purposes.
House & Home. House & home books focus on topics like interior design, decorating, entertaining, and DIY projects.
Humor. Humor books are contain humorous elements but do not have any fictional elements.
Juvenile Nonfiction. These are nonfiction books written for children between six and twelve years old.
Language Arts & Disciplines. These books focus on teaching language arts and disciplines. They may be used for elementary school students in grades K-5.
Law. Law books include legal treatises, casebooks, and collections of statutes.
Literary Criticism. Literary criticism books discuss literary works, primarily key works of fiction or memoir. They may include biographies of authors, critical essays on specific works, or studies of the history of literature.
Mathematics. Mathematics books either teach mathematical concepts and methods or explore the history of mathematics.
Medical. Medical books include textbooks, reference books, guides, encyclopedias, and handbooks that focus on fields of medicine, including general practice, internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology, and more.
Music. Music books are books that focus on the history, culture, and development of music in various countries around the world. They often include biographies, interviews, reviews, essays, and other related material. However, they may also include sheet music or instruction on playing a specific instrument.
Nature. Nature books focus on the natural world or environment, including natural history, ecology, or natural experiences like hiking, bird watching, or conservation.
Performing Arts. Books about the performing arts in general, including specific types of performance art like dance, music, and theater.
Pets. Pet books include any book that deals with animals in some way, including dog training, cat care, animal behavior, pet nutrition, bird care, and more.
Philosophy. Philosophy books deal with philosophical issues, and may be written for a general audience or specifically for scholars.
Photography. Photography books use photographs as an essential part of their content. They may be about any subject.
Political Science. Political science books deal with politics in some way. They can be about current events, historical figures, or theoretical concepts.
Psychology. Psychology books are about the scientific study of mental processes, emotion, and behavior.
Reference. Reference books are about any subject, topic, or field and contain useful information about that subject, topic or field.
Religion. These books deal with religion in some way, including religious history, theology, philosophy, and spirituality.
Science. Science books focus on topics within scientific fields, including geology, biology, physics, and more.
Self-Help. Self-help books are written for people who want to improve their lives in some way. They may be about health, relationships, finances, career, parenting, spirituality, or any number of topics that can help readers achieve personal goals.
Social Science. Focus on social science topics.
Sports & Recreation. Sports & Recreation books focus on sports either from a reporting, historical, or instructional perspective.
Study Aids. Study aids are books that provide information about a particular subject area for students who want to learn more about that topic. These books can be used in conjunction with classroom instruction or on their own.
Technology & Engineering. Technology & engineering nonfiction books describe how technology has changed our lives and how we can use that knowledge to improve ourselves and society.
Transportation. Focus on transportation topics including those about vehicles, routes, or techniques.
Travel. Travel books are those that focus on travel experiences, whether from a guide perspective or from the author's personal experiences.
True Crime. True Crime books focus on true stories about crimes. These books may be about famous cases, unsolved crimes, or specific criminals.
Young Adult Nonfiction. Young adult nonfiction books are written for children and teenagers.
3. Drama Genres
These include genres for theater, film, television serials, or audio plays.
As a writer, I find some of these genres particularly eye-roll worthy. And yet, this is the way most films, television shows, and even theater productions are classified.
Action. Action genre dramas involve fast-paced, high-energy sequences in which characters fight against each other. They often have large-scale battles, chase scenes, or other high-intensity, high-conflict scenes.
Horror. Horror dramas focus on the psychological terror experienced by their characters. They often feature supernatural elements, such as ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons, monsters, and aliens.
Adventure. Adventure films are movies that have an adventurous theme. They may be set in exotic locations, feature action sequences, and/or contain elements of fantasy.
Musicals (Dance). Musicals are dramas that use music in their plot and/or soundtrack. They may be comedies, dramas, or any combination.
Comedy (& Black Comedy). Comedy dramas feature humor in their plots, characters, dialogue, or situations. It sometimes refers to historical dramas (e.g. Shakespeare, Greek drama, etc) that contain a happy ending, often with a wedding.
Science Fiction. Science fiction dramas are usually set in an imaginary future world, often involving advanced technology. They may be based on scientific facts but do not have to be.
Crime & Gangster. Crime & Gangster dramas deal with criminals, detectives, or organized crime groups. They often feature action sequences, violence, and mystery elements.
War (Anti-War). War (or anti-war) dramas focus on contemporary or historical wars. They may also contain action, adventure, mystery, or romance elements.
Drama. Dramas focus on human emotions in conflict situations. They often have complex plots and characters, and deal with serious themes. This may also refer to historical stories (e.g. Shakespeare, Greek Literature, etc) that contain a sad or tragic ending, often with one or more deaths.
Westerns. Westerns are a genre of American film that originated in the early 20th century and take place in the west during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Characters include cowboys, outlaws, native Americans, and settlers.
Epics/Historical/Period. These are dramas based on historical events or periods but do not necessarily involve any real people.
Biographical (“Biopics”). Biopics films are movies that focus on real people in history.
Melodramas, Women's or “Weeper” Films, Tearjerkers. A type of narrative drama that focuses on emotional issues, usually involving love, loss, tragedy, and redemption.
“Chick” Flicks. Chick flicks usually feature romantic relationships and tend to be lighthearted and comedic in nature.
Road Stories. Dramas involving a journey of some kind, usually taking place in contemporary setting, and involving relationships between one or more people, not necessarily romantic.
Courtroom Dramas. Courtroom dramas depict legal cases set in courtrooms. They usually have a dramatic plot line with an interesting twist at the end.
Romance. Romance dramas feature love stories between two people. Romance dramas tend to be more serious, even tragic, in nature, while romantic comedies tend to be more lighthearted.
Detective & Mystery. These dramas feature amateur or professional investigators solving crimes and catching criminals.
Sports. Sports dramas focus on athletic competition in its many forms and usually involve some kind of climactic tournament or championship.
Disaster. Disaster dramas are adventure or action dramas that include natural disasters, usually involving earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, or other disasters.
Superhero. Superhero dramas are action/adventure dramas that feature characters with supernatural powers. They usually have an origin story, the rise of a villain, and a climactic battle at the end.
Fantasy. Fantasy dramas films are typically adventure dramas that feature fantastical elements in their plot or setting, whether magic, folklore, supernatural creatures, or other fantasy elements.
Supernatural. Supernatural dramas feature paranormal phenomena in their plots, including ghosts, mythical creatures, and mysterious or extraordinary elements. This genre may overlap with horror, fantasy, thriller, action and other genres.
Film Noir. Film noir refers to a style of American crime drama that emerged in the 1940s. These dramas often featured cynical characters who struggled, often fruitlessly, against corruption and injustice.
Thriller/Suspense. Thriller/suspense dramas have elements of suspense and mystery in their plot. They usually feature a character protagonist who must overcome obstacles while trying to solve a crime or prevent a catastrophe.
Guy Stories. Guy dramas feature men in various situations, usually humorous or comedic in nature.
Zombie. Zombie dramas are usually action/adventure dramas that involve zombies.
Animated Stories. Dramas that are depicted with drawings, photographs, stop-motion, CGI, or other animation techniques.
Documentary. Documentaries are non-fiction performances that attempt to describe actual events, topics, or people.
“Foreign.” Any drama not in the language of or involving characters/topics in your country of origin. They can also have any of the other genres listed here.
Childrens – Kids – Family-Oriented. Dramas with children of various ages as the intended audience.
Sexual – Erotic. These dramas feature explicit sexual acts but also have some kind of plot or narrative (i.e. not pornography).
Classic. Classic dramas refer to dramas performed before 1950.
Silent. Silent dramas were an early form of film that used no recorded sound.
Cult. Cult dramas are usually small-scale, independent productions with an offbeat plot, unusual characters, and/or unconventional style that have nevertheless gained popularity among a specific audience.
4. Poetry Genres
This list is from Harvard's Glossary of Poetic Genres who also has definitions for each genre.
What Are the Components of Genre In Literature? The 7 Elements of Genre
Now that we've looked, somewhat exhaustively, at examples of literary genres, let's consider how these genres are created.
What are the elements of literary genre? How are they formed?
Here are seven components that make up genre.
- Form. Length is the main component of form (e.g. a novel is 200+ pages, films are at least an hour, serialized episodes are about 20 minutes, etc), but may also be determined by how many acts or plot lines they have. You might be asking, what about short stories? Short stories are a genre defined by their length but not their content.
- Intended Audience. Is the story meant for adults, children, teenagers, etc?
- Conventions and Tropes. Conventions and tropes describe patterns or predictable events that have developed within genres. For example, a sports story may have a big tournament at the climax, or a fantasy story may have a mentor character who instructs the protagonist on the use of their abilities.
- Characters and Archetypes. Genre will often have characters who serve similar functions, like the best friend sidekick, the evil villain, the anti-hero, and other character archetypes.
- Common Settings and Time Periods. Genre may be defined by the setting or time period. For example, stories set in the future tend to be labelled science fiction, stories involving the past tend to be labelled historical or period, etc.
- Common Story Arcs. While every story type may use each of the six main story arcs, genre tends to be defined by specific story arcs. For example, comedy almost always has a story arc that ends positively, same with kids or family genres. However, dramas often (and when referring to historical drama, always) have stories that end tragically.
- Common Elements (such as supernatural elements, technology, mythical creatures, monsters, etc). Some genres center themselves on specific elements, like supernatural creatures, magic, monsters, gore, and so on. Genre can be determined by these common elements.
As you consider these elements, keep in mind that genre all comes back to taste, to what readers want to consume and how to match the unlimited variations of story with the infinite variety of tastes.
Read What You Want, Write What You Want
In the end, both readers and writers should use genre for what it is, a tool, not as something that defines you.
Writers can embrace genre, can use genre, without being controlled by it.
Readers can use genre to find stories or books they enjoy while also exploring works outside of that genre.
Genre can be incredibly fun! But only if you hold it in tension with your own work of telling (or finding) a great story.
What are your favorite genres to read in? to write in? Let us know in the comments!
Now that we understand everything there is to know about literary genres, let's put our knowledge to use with an exercise. I have two variations for you today, one for readers and one for writers.
Readers: Think of one of your favorite stories. What is the literary genre of that story? Does it have multiple? What expectations do you have about stories within that genre? Finally, how does the author of your favorite story use those expectations, and how do they subvert them?
Writers: Choose a literary genre from the list above and spend fifteen minutes writing a story using the elements of genre: form, audience, conventions and tropes, characters and archetypes, setting and time periods, story arcs, and common elements.