Writer’s Glossary, Part II: Genres, Subgenres and Supergenres

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Part two of our “Writer’s Glossary” series concerns what we write, specifically genre. The examples given are by no means all-inclusive but are designed to give an overview of genre, subgenre and supergenre. This article is meant to answer general questions about genre and to inspire exploration of new-to-you themes, character motivations, settings and more. If you’d like to talk about additional genres, subgenres or supergenres, join the discussion on Just the Place For A Snark or create a new discussion on our genre board.

The liquidity of genre allows for hybrids of any kind the writer can imagine. Think of genre as banks that guide the river of your story as it goes along, maybe merge with other rivers to create vivid new bodies of work, branching off in new directions or staying a central course. For ideas of melding genre or exploring new-to-you genres, try our A Pen In Each Hand exercises that accompany this article.

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Writer's Glossary, Part II

Background Photo: SpeakingLatino.com/Flickr (CC-by-sa).


Genre: the style, form or content of the work. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Adventure: Physical danger and risk are main themes with strong focus on the hero’s actions.
    • Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers, Hoot
  • Biography: An account of someone’s life (an account of the author’s life is an autobiography).
    • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Theodore Rex, Lulu In Hollywood
  • Comic books: features a story told using art as visual narrative and relying more heavily on dialogue.
    • Seduction of the Innocent, The Killing Joke, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers
  • Creative non-fiction (CNF): Uses literary technique to tell a true story (compare to journalistic writing); when the story follows a fiction-like arc, it is sometimes called “narrative nonfiction.”
    • Coming Into The Country, The Accidental Buddhist
  • Crime: Criminal activity, motive and detection are main themes.
    • The Big Sleep, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Get Shorty
  • Diary / journal / personal weblog writing: Meant as a method of personal reflection, often only available to the author.
    • The Diary of Anne Frank, The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery
  • Epic: Action takes place over a long period of time, centered on a heroic character or group of characters and exceptional events. Compare to epic poetry.
    • The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King), War and Peace
  • Erotica: Uses literary technique to tell a story with action centered on sexual arousal and activity.
    • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Story of O, Delta of Venus
  • Essay: “A literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything, usually on a certain topic. By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece”[1] Essays may be non-literary, such as photo-essays. Narrative essays use literary techniques like arcs and transitions (compare with academic essays).
    • Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim, James Baldwin: Collected Essays
  • Fan fiction (fanfic): Uses established characters to tell original stories not written by the creator of the characters.
    • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
  • Fantasy: Uses magic and supernaturalism as central to the plot and setting. Compare to science fiction and horror.
    • The Wizard of Oz, The Mists of Avalon, The Hobbit, The Earthsea novels
  • Horror: Uses literary techniques to frighten, unsettle or horrify the audience; employs macabre and/or supernatural themes. Compare with fantasy and science fiction.
    • Dracula, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Frankenstein
  • Journalism: Conveys news without opinion. News conveyed with opinion is “editoral journalism” or “op-ed.”
    • The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages: 1851-2008, The Best Newspaper Writing series
  • Literary fiction (lit fic): Character-driven—this story could only happen to the characters in it—often appealing to a narrower readership than mainstream fiction but is not aimed at any specific audience.
    • The Great Gatsby, Beloved, The Corrections
  • Literary realism: Everyday activity and experience are central to the story.
    • Middlemarch, Sister Carrie, The Jungle
  • Mainstream fiction: Closely identified with literary realism, mainstream fiction appeals to a general audience and is plot-driven—the action of the story could happen to any character—as opposed to character-driven (literary fiction). Mainstream fiction may coexist in a single work along with another genre.
    • The DaVinci Code, The Lovely Bones, The Poisonwood Bible
  • Memoir: Differs from autobiography in that autobiography is an overview of the subject’s life whereas memoir is focused on certain aspects of the subjects personality or experience.
    • On Writing, The Glass Castle, Wild Swans, Running With Scissors, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper
  • Romance: Main theme is the growth of romantic love between two main characters, with an upbeat ending. Sexual activity is less graphically described and intrinsic to the plot than in erotica. “Category romances” or “series romances” are shorter and rotate out of print at a faster rate than “single-title romances.” Specific guidelines about word count, shelf life, etc. vary by publisher; generally category romance runs 60,000 words or less.
    • The Flame and the Flower, Daddy, Sweet Starfire, A Knight In Shining Armor
  • Science fiction: Uses imaginary yet possible elements as aspects of the plot or setting, such as space or time travel, alternate timelines or dimensions, psionics or technology. Compare to fantasy and horror.
    • The Handmaid’s Tale, The Time Machine, The Man in the High Castle, Starship Troopers, The Road
  • Speculative fiction (spec fic): Explores new/imagined worlds that are unlike the real world, generally an umbrella genre for sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. Slipstream: combines spec fic and mainstream/lit fic. For examples, see entries for cited genres.

Subgenre: more specific distinction within the genre. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

Action subgenre examples:

  • Western: set in the American frontier (usually west of the Mississippi River), often with an antihero as a main character.
    • Lonesome Dove, The Leatherstocking Tales, Riders of the Purple Sage, No Country For Old Men
  • “Space Westerns” are spec fic pieces that use “western” themes and characters but are set in space or in alternate worlds.
    • Time Enough For Love, the TV shows Star Trek and Firefly
  • Thriller: Uses action and fast pacing to thrill the audience. The hero’s journey climaxes with his defeat of the villain (compare to mystery).
    • The Bourne Identity, Lazarus Strain

Comic book subgenre examples:

  • Graphic novels: a type of comic book using narrative and dialogue more like traditional novels.
    • Watchmen, The Sandman series, Maus, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
  • Manga: Japanese comics, which may be any genre and are often published as serials. Manga outside Japan may be written in any language but the art maintains a strong Japanese aesthetic; manga translates to “whimsical pictures.”
    • Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, Ronin, The Dirty Pair, Oh My Goddess

Erotica or fan fiction subgenre example:

  • Slash: fan fiction that depicts romantic/sexual homosexual relationships. Slash is almost always between two male characters; the terms “femslash” and “saffic” have come into use to distinguish slash fiction about female characters.

Crime subgenre example:

  • Mystery: Plot is a puzzle to be solved by reader and protagonist; climaxes with the solution of the crime (compare to thriller).
    • A is for Alibi, Murder On the Orient Express, the Nancy Drew series, The Maltese Falcon

Horror subgenre examples:

  • Gothic: Combines elements of horror (the supernatural, the grotesque, etc.) and romance to create suspense.
    • Wuthering Heights, The Shining, Rebecca
  • Southern gothic: Uses the same devices to explore social issues rather than to create suspense. The setting is usually (but not always) the American south.
    • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Wise Blood, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Green Mile
  • Paranormal: uses ghosts, hauntings and other supernatural elements.
    • Carrie, Interview With The Vampire, The Shining, The Amityville Horror

Journalism subgenre examples:

  • New journalism: movement in the 1960s for journalism using literary techniques. Compare to “creative nonfiction” today.
    • In Cold Blood, The Right Stuff
  • Gonzo journalism: subjective journalistic reporting using a first person narrator and blends fact and fiction, favoring style over accuracy.
    • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Paper Lion

Sci-fi subgenre examples:

  • Hard SF: emphasizes scientific detail; hard science (chemistry, physics, etc.) is intrinsic to the story.
    • 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Ringworld series
  • Soft SF: emphasizes character, emotion and story; sciences intrinsic to the story are generally social sciences (sociology, economics, etc.).
    • Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Dystopian/utopian: Setting is an alternate society, either ideal (utopia) or nightmarish (dystopia), that serves to reflect elements of contemporary society.
    • Gulliver’s Travels, Brave New World, The Time Machine, V For Vendetta
  • Steampunk: Set in a time when steam power is still used, often in Victorian England; may additionally use alternate history.
    • The Difference Engine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  • Cyberpunk: Combines cybernetics and technology with societal breakdown, often in a “near-future” time period.
    • Necromancer, Blade Runner, Trouble And Her Friends
  • Alternate history: plot concerns a deviation in actual history that creates an alternate society.
    • Men Like Gods, The Man In The High Castle, Night Watch
  • Apocalyptic/post-Apocalyptic: explores “end of the world” scenarios and society.
    • The Last Man, The Road, The Stand, Oryx and Crake

Fantasy subgenre examples:

  • Dark fantasy: combines fantasy and horror.
    • Coraline, Imaro, The Vampire Chronicles
  • High Fantasy: an entire imagined world at stake. Compare to S&S and Epic.
    • His Dark Materials, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Low Fantasy: uses the real world as a setting but adds supernatural elements.
    • The Borrowers, The Indian in the Cupboard, Pippi Longstocking
  • Note: The Harry Potter novels and The Chronicles of Narnia combine low and high fantasy. The “world within a world” of these series is high fantasy, with an entire world at stake, but the frame of the stories is low fantasy; the high fantasy world is entered through a portal in the real world.
  • Sword/sorcery (S&S): combines adventure and personal stakes. Compare to high fantasy.
    • Sword and Sorceress, Conan the Barbarian
  • Urban fantasy: set in real world contemporary urban society; cities may be real or imagined.
    • War For the Oaks, Dreams Underfoot, The Heir Trilogy

Romance subgenre examples: Note: romance has many subgenres, most of which are hybrids with other genres (ex: paranormal romance, mystery romance); these are fairly self-explanatory.

  • Contemporary: set after 1945.
    • A Love Of My Own, Perfect Match, The Trouble With Valentines Day
  • Historical: set before 1945 and includes many subgenres (ex: Regency romance)
    • Dedication, The Ruby Ghost, November of the Heart, Company of Rogues series

Some subgenres can be found under any genre. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Comedy: uses humor to amuse the reader and has an upbeat ending. Dark/black comedy utilizes taboo subjects for humor (ex: death, rape, war, disease). Blue comedy utilizes crude or sexual topics or risqué language.
    • A Confederacy of Dunces, Summer Lightning, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Slaughterhouse Five, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Discworld novels
  • Coming of age (found most often in YA, mainstream and literary fiction): concerns the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
    • The Catcher In The Rye, The Secret Life of Bees, Treasure Island
  • Historical fiction: Attention is paid to historical detail and accuracy and may utilize historical figures or situations.
    • Ivanhoe, A Tale of Two Cities, The Remains of the Day, The Outlander series
  • Pomo: “post-modern”—after 1945—often parodies the “modernist” movement, which employs literary realism. Pomo is likely to use metafiction and magical realism.
    • Howl, Naked Lunch, Catch-22, Fight Club
  • Metafiction: the conscious address of fiction devices within the work.
    • Misery, Wicked, From Hell, Atonement, Slaughterhouse Five
  • Magical realism: illogical action or settings juxtaposed with real world action or settings; originated in Latin American and Spanish literature.
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude, The House of the Spirits
  • Satire: “Artistic form in which human or individual vices, folly, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to bring about improvement.”[2] Satire often employs humor.
    • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, The Discworld series.
  • Tragedy: dramatizes human suffering—which could be avoided by different choices by the characters rather than external influence—with a downbeat ending, often the death of the protagonist and other principal characters.
    • King Lear, Hamlet, Phaedra, Antigone, The Crucible
  • Transgressional: Features characters who live outside the mainstream of normal society and often deals with taboo subjects.
    • American Psycho, Naked Lunch, Trainspotting

Supergenre: based on intended demographic rather than the work itself. This is a relatively new term and not yet widely used. Works in a supergenre may be part of a genre as well, such as horror, biography or sci-fi. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Children’s literature (kid lit): Targeted at readers age 12 or younger, Often divided into the following categories:
    • Picture books (ages 0–5)
      • The Big Red Barn, Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
    • Early Reader Books (age 5–7)
      • The Dick and Jane series, Where The Wild Things Are, The Cat in the Hat
    • Short chapter books (ages 7–9)
      • The Winnie the Pooh series, The Little Bear series, the Fancy Nancy series
    • Longer chapter books (middle grade novels) (ages 9–12)
      • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Heidi, Coraline, the Little House series, the Goosebumps series, the Heir Chronicles, the Harry Potter series
  • Young adult literature (YA): Targeted at teenaged readers.
    • The House On Mango Street, The Outsiders, Forever, the Twilight series, the Uglies series
  • Chick lit: Targeted at women (increasingly including teens), usually light in tone and often humorous.
    • Good In Bed, The Shopaholic series, Trust Me, Bridget Jones’s Diary
  • Christian lit: Targeted at Christian readers, religious faith is intrinsic to the plot, themes and characters.
    • The Left Behind series, The Purpose Driven Life

Societal, political and personal constructs and experience are explored in several genres. In addition to major genres, this fiction may also be subcategorized according to the sex, race, ethnic identity or country of origin of the author. These works are not targeted at any specific audience and are not compromised by the primary genre under which they are categorized. Within the examples cited above, you will find feminist, African-American, Chicano, LGBT and similar subcategorizations.


[1] Aldous Huxley, Collected Essays, “Preface”
[2] Encyclopedia Britannica: Satire

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