Deciding Your Story’s Genre

Deciding your story’s genre is one of the first decisions you have to make when writing a novel or short story.  Experienced writers often know the genre before the story is begun, but it’s not unusual for the inexperienced writer to be faced with the decision after the first draft is completed.

Why is a story’s genre so important?  Can’t I just write any story I want?

For a short story, its genre decides which magazines/e-zines you can send your story to, or which anthologies you can submit to.  Therefore, if you have a magazine in mind, you need to write a story that adheres to their genre guidelines if you want to be accepted.

For a novel, the genre most obviously decides where in the bookstore the book will be shelved.  But genre also decides many other things for a novel, including:

    • the audience for your book;
    • often, major plot line requirements;
    • what un-written rules will have to be adhered to;
    • sometimes, the length of the book;
    • which agents you’ll submit to, as they often specialize in their favorite genres;
    • and which publishing houses and imprints you’ll submit to.

Okay, I can see that it’s important, but what is “genre”?

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “genre” as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”  So, for a story, the “genre” of the story is the “category” of the story “characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”

Let’s take the “Romance” genre as an example.  In order for a story to be categorized in the “Romance” genre, a story has to be character-driven (style),  have the hero and heroine’s romance as its most-major plot line (form), and it must have a happy ending (content), plus adhere to a half-a-dozen or so unwritten rules that I won’t go into here.  Other genres have other requirements.

How do I find out a genre’s requirements, both written and unwritten?

Read extensively in the genre, and ponder the commonalities of what you’ve read.

That’s the best was to discover the rules, but there’s also plenty written on the web about each genre’s requirements.

What are the most common genres?

See Genre & Sub-Genre for a fairly complete list.

How do I decide my story’s genre?

Answer the following questions:

    • In which bookstore section do you see this story sitting?
    • What genre do you read most?
    • If your story crosses genre lines (as in Romantic-SF), which plot begins first and ends last (Romance plot or SF plot)?
    • What genre do your beta-readers say the story is?

The genre that appears in the most answers is likely the genre of your story.  Or at least is a close enough starting point to get you going in the right direction.