Sub-Genre Descriptions

(Note: For a market breakdown and focus on current trends, read our Popular Fiction Report by clicking here.)


“A story that, at its core, is about a couple coming together to form a family unit.”
–Steven Axelrod, agent

“If you can take the love interest out and it’s still a story, it’s not a romance.”
–Jayne Ann Krentz, author

Chick-Lit: often humorous romantic adventures geared toward single working women in their twenties and thirties.

Christian: romances in which both hero and heroine are devout Christians, typically focused on a chaste courtship, and mentioning sex only after marriage.

Contemporary: a romance using modern characters and true-to-life settings.

Erotica: also called “romantica,” a romance in which the bedroom doors have been flung open and sexual scenes are described in candid language.

Glitz/Glamor: focused on the jet-set elite and celebrity-like characters.

Historical: a romance taking place in a recognizable historical period.

Multicultural: a romance centered on non-Caucasian characters, largely African-American or Hispanic.

Paranormal: involving some sort of supernatural element, ranging widely to include science fiction/fantasy aspects such as time travel, monsters or psychic abilities.

Romantic Comedy: a romance focused on humor, ranging from screwball antics to witty interplay.

Romantic Suspense: a novel in which an admirable heroine is pitted against some evil force (but in which the romantic aspect still maintains priority).

Sensual: based on the sensual tension between hero and heroine, including sizzling sex scenes.

Spicy: a romance in which married characters work to resolve their problems.

Sweet: a romance centered on a virgin heroine, with a storyline containing little or no sex.

Young Adult: written with the teenage audience in mind, with a suitably lower level of sexual content.


“Horror, for me, is the compelling Ôdon’t want to look/must look’ sense of awe we feel under the breastbone.”
–Mort Castle, author

Child in Peril: involving the abduction and/or persecution of a child.

Comic Horror: horror stories that either spoof horror conventions or that mix the gore with dark humor.

Creepy Kids: horror tale in which children Ð often under the influence of dark forces Ð begin to turn against the adults.

Dark Fantasy: a horror story with supernatural and fantasy elements.

Dark Mystery/Noir: inspired by hardboiled detective tales, set in an urban underworld of crime and moral ambiguity.

Erotic Vampire: a horror tale making the newly trendy link between sexuality and vampires, but with more emphasis on graphic description and violence.

Fabulist: derived from “fable,” an ancient tradition in which objects, animals or forces of nature are anthropomorphized in order to deliver a moral lesson.

Gothic: a traditional form depicting the encroachment of the Middle Ages upon the 18th century Enlightenment, filled with images of decay and ruin, and episodes of imprisonment and persecution.

Hauntings: a classic form centering on possession by ghosts, demons or poltergeists, particularly of some sort of structure.

Historical: horror tales set in a specific and recognizable period of history.

Magical Realism: a genre inspired by Latin-American authors, in which extraordinary forces or creatures pop into otherwise normal, real-life settings.

Psychological: a story based on the disturbed human psyche, often exploring insane, altered realities and featuring a human monster with horrific, but not supernatural, aspects.

Quiet Horror: subtly written horror that uses atmosphere and mood, rather than graphic description, to create fear and suspense.

Religious: horror that makes use of religious icons and mythology, especially the angels and demons derived from Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Science-Fiction Horror: SF with a darker, more violent twist, often revolving around alien invasions, mad scientists, or experiments gone wrong.

Splatter: a fairly new, extreme style of horror that cuts right to the gore.

Supernatural Menace: a horror tale in which the rules of normal existence don’t apply, often featuring ghosts, demons, vampires and werewolves.

Technology: stories featuring technology that has run amok, venturing increasingly into the expanding domain of computers, cyberspace, and genetic engineering.

Weird Tales: inspired by the magazine of the same name, a more traditional form featuring strange and uncanny events (Twilight Zone).

Young Adult: horror aimed at a teen market, often with heroes the same age, or slightly older than, the reader.

Zombie: tales featuring dead people who return to commit mayhem on the living.


“One element to it may be that something bigger’s at stake Ð if (the hero is) not successful, there will be a nuclear war.”
–David Baldacci, author

“Any story that keeps you on the edge of your seat and, likely, up all night.”
–Robert S. Levinson, author

Action: a story that often features a race against the clock, lots of violence, and an obvious antagonist.

Comic: a thriller played for laughs, whether through a spoof of the genre or wisecracking interplay between the protagonists.

Conspiracy: a thriller in which the hero battles a large, powerful group whose true extent only he recognizes.

Crime: a story focused on the commission of a crime, often from the point of view of the criminals.

Disaster: a story in which Mother Nature herself is the antagonist, in the form of a hurricane, earthquake or some other natural menace.

Eco-Thriller: a story in which the hero battles some ecological calamity Ð and often has to also fight the people responsible for creating that calamity.

Erotic: a thriller in which sex plays a major role.

Espionage: the classic international spy novel, which is enjoying a resurgence with one important change: where spies used to battle enemy spies, they now battle terrorists.

Forensic: a thriller featuring the work of forensic experts, whose involvement often puts their own lives at risk.

Historical: a thriller taking place in a specific and recognizable historic period.

Horror: a story—generally featuring some monstrous villain Ð in which fear and violence play a major part, complete with graphic descriptions.

Legal: a thriller in which a lawyer confronts enemies outside as well as inside the courtroom, generally putting his own life at risk.

Medical: a thriller featuring medical personnel, whether battling a legitimate medical threat such as a world-wide virus, or the illegal or immoral use of medical technology.

Military: a thriller featuring a military protagonist, often working behind enemy lines or as part of a specialized force.

Police Procedural: a crime thriller that follows the police as they work their way through a case.

Political Intrigue: a thriller in which the hero must ensure the stability of the government that employs him.

Psychological: a suspenseful thriller in which the conflict between the characters is mental and emotional rather than physical—until an often violent resolution.

Romantic: a thriller in which the protagonists are romantically involved.

Supernatural: a thriller in which the hero, the antagonist, or both have supernatural powers.

Technological: a thriller in which technology Ð usually run amok Ð is central to the plot.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

“‘Imaginative fiction’ is still my preferred term, which covers most things out of the ordinary.”
–Jane Johnson (aka Jude Fisher), author/publisher

“Science fiction is potentially real; fantasy is not.”
–Marlene Stringer, agent

Alternate History: speculative fiction that changes the accepted account of actual historical events, often featuring a profound “what if?” premise.

Arthurian Fantasy: reworkings of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Bangsian Fantasy: stories speculating on the afterlives of famous people.

Biopunk: a blend of film noir, Japanese anime and post-modern elements used to describe an underground, nihilistic biotech society.

Children’s Fantasy: a kinder, gentler style of fantasy aimed at very young readers.

Comic: fantasy or science fiction that spoofs the conventions of the genre, or the conventions of society.

Cyberpunk: stories featuring tough outsiders in a high-tech near-future where computers have produced major changes in society.

Dark Fantasy: tales that focus on the nightmarish underbelly of magic, venturing into the violence of horror novels.

Dystopian: stories that portray a bleak future world.

Erotic: SF or fantasy tales that focus on sexuality.

Game-Related Fantasy: tales with plots and characters similar to high fantasy, but based on a specific role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons.

Hard Science Fiction: tales in which real present-day science is logically extrapolated to the future.

Heroic Fantasy: stories of war and its heroes, the fantasy equivalent of military science fiction.

High/Epic Fantasy: tales with an emphasis on the fate of an entire race or nation, often featuring a young “nobody” hero battling an ultimate evil.

Historical: speculative fiction taking place in a recognizable historical period.

Mundane SF: a movement that spurns fanciful conceits like warp drives, wormholes and faster-than-light travel for stories based on scientific knowledge as it actually exists.

Military SF: war stories that extrapolate existing military technology and tactics into the future.

Mystery SF: a cross-genre blend that can be either an SF tale with a central mystery or a classic whodunit with SF elements.

Mythic Fiction: stories inspired, or modeled on, classic myths, legends and fairy tales.

New Age: a category of speculative fiction that deals with occult subjects such as astrology, psychic phenomena, spiritual healing, UFOs and mysticism.

Post-Apocalyptic: stories of life on Earth after an apocalypse, focusing on the struggle to survive.

Romance: speculative fiction in which romance plays a key part.

Religious: centering on theological ideas, and heroes who are ruled by their religious beliefs.

Science Fantasy: a blend in which fantasy is supported by scientific or pseudo-scientific explanations.

Social SF: tales that focus on how characters react to their environments Ð including social satire.

Soft SF: tales based on the more subjective, “softer” sciences: psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.

Space Opera: a traditional good guys/bad guys faceoff with lots of action and larger-than-life characters.

Spy-Fi: tales of espionage with SF elements, especially the use of high-tech gadgetry.

Steampunk: a specific type of alternate history in which characters in Victorian England have access to 20th century technology.

Superheroes: stories featuring characters endowed with superhuman strengths or abilities.

Sword and Sorcery: a classic genre often set in the medieval period, and more concerned with immediate physical threats than high or heroic fantasy.

Thriller SF: an SF story that takes on the classic world-at-risk, cliffhanger elements of a thriller.

Time-Travel: stories based on the concept of moving forward or backward in time, often delving into the existence of parallel worlds.

Urban Fantasy: a fantasy tale in which magical powers and characters appear in an otherwise normal modern context, similar to Latin American magical realism.

Vampire: variations on the classic vampire legend, recently taking on many sexual and romantic variations.

Wuxia: fantasy tales set within the martial arts traditions and philosophies of China.

Young Adult: speculative fiction aimed at a teenage audience, often featuring a hero the same age or slightly older than the reader.


“The difference between thrillers and mysteries that there’s a puzzle in the mystery. If you can disentangle it, it will lead you to the answer.”
–Jean V. Naggar, agent

Amateur Detective: a mystery solved by an amateur, who generally has some profession or affiliation that provides ready access to information about the crime.

Child in Peril: a mystery involving the abduction or persecution of a child.

Classic Whodunit: a crime that is solved by a detective, from the detective’s point of view, with all clues available to the reader.

Comic (Bumbling Detective): a mystery played for laughs, often featuring a detective who is grossly unskilled (but often solves the crime anyway, owing to tremendous good luck).

Cozy: a mystery that takes place in a small town—sometimes in a single home—where all the suspects are present and familiar with one another, except the detective, who is usually an eccentric outsider.

Courtroom Drama: a mystery that takes place through the justice system—often the efforts of a defense attorney to prove the innocence of his client by finding the real culprit.

Dark Thriller: a mystery that ventures into the fear factor and graphic violence of the horror genre.

Espionage: the international spy novel—here based less on action than on solving the “puzzle”—is today less focused on the traditional enemy spies than on terrorists.

Forensic: a mystery solved through the forensics lab, featuring much detail and scientific procedure.

Heists and Capers: an “antihero” genre which focuses on the planning and execution of a crime, told from the criminal’s perspective.

Historical: a mystery that takes place in a specific, recognizable period of history, with much emphasis on the details of the setting.

Inverted: a story in which the reader knows “whodunit,” but the suspense arises from watching the detective figure it out.

Locked Room: a mystery in which the crime is apparently committed under impossible circumstances (but eventually elicits a rational explanation).

Medical: generally involving a medical threat (e.g., a viral epidemic), or the illegitimate use of medical technology.

Police Procedural: a crime solved from the perspective of the police, following detailed, real-life procedures.

Private Detective: Focused on the independent snoop-for-hire, these have evolved from tough-guy “hard-boiled” detectives to the more professional operators of today.

Psychological Suspense: mysteries focused on the intricacies of the crime and what motivated the perpetrator to commit them.

Romantic: a mystery in which the crime-solvers fall in love.

Technothriller: a spinoff from the traditional thriller mystery, with an emphasis on high technology.

Thriller: a suspense mystery with a wider—often international—scope and more action.

Woman in Jeopardy: focuses on a woman put into peril by a crime, and her struggles to overcome or outwit the perpetrator.

Young Adult: a story aimed at a teenage audience, with a hero detective generally the same age or slightly older than the reader, pursuing criminals who are generally less violent—but often just as scary—as those in adult mysteries.

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3 thoughts on “Sub-Genre Descriptions

  1. albert le mousquetaire

    Your classification of the horror genres is interesting because it features some subgenres I really never heard about before such as Technological horror or Child in Peril or again Fabulism…yet, they are described well enough so that one can understand what you mean. I am very interested in the subject too, here is one reference that you might find useful: