“Genre” is simply the French for type or kind.
The vast and ancient realm of speculative fiction began as fantasy fiction, since no one telling the stories had actually seen scorpion-men or titanic snakes with eyebrows of lapis lazuli, or even giant one-eyed shepherds.
The things we would recognize as “science fiction,” even hundreds of years before the term was invented in the 1920s, naturally had to wait on the development of science and the scientific way of thinking. That would be the outlier Somnium by Johannes Kepler, but really starting
the genre with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus from 1817.
The whole business of genres, we have to remember, is merely a marketing tool. We could lump everything together as “imaginative fiction” and save a lot of time. But in the end we exist to communicate to our audience, and part of that is helping them find the kind of book they want to read this week.
Genres help readers find the right book, and help bookstores shelve things where the readers can find them, and help the publishers get them to the bookstores. In direct self-publishing, picking the right genre helps the reader find your book, as you act as publisher and bookstore.
What we list here isn’t prescriptive: we aren’t telling you what ought to be the divisions in the best of all logical worlds. We’re just listing divisions that publishers use and readers are used to. It’s like steampunk isn’t a kind of story, or even only scifi or fantasy. It’s both, and points between, and really only a setting or ambiance — but it’s that ambiance the reader is looking for. So you want them to be able to find it by tagging your work properly.
So many works, including perhaps that manuscript of yours, can actually be put into more than one genre. At this point, in revision, genre can become a writing tool, when you decide to emphasize or delete one element or another so as to put your work more firmly in one pigeon-hole. Then again, you may happily straddle the fence and sell to both crowds. But it is a real help to be able to put in your cover-letter “Omegarus is dark futuristic fantasy” and so get it into the right hands.
- Alien POV
- Alternate History (see exceptions below)
- Alternate Universes
- Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction
- Dark Fantasy
- Gentle Fantasy
- Gritty Fantasy
- Hard SF
- Heroic Fantasy or Epic Fantasy or Swords & Sorcery
- Historical Fantasy
- Science Fantasy
- SF and Fantasy Romance
- Soft SF
- Space Opera
- Steam & Other “Punks” (steampunk, gaslamp fantasy, dieselpunk, radiopunk, stone punk, mannerpunk, atompunk, but find Cyperpunk separately)
- Time Travel
- Urban Fantasy
One of the big questions is, “What’s the difference between science fiction and fantasy?”
Whatever it is, it isn’t a hard line. What seems scientifically plausible one decade is right out the window the next, like “poison Mars” with a supposed acidic atmosphere is exploded, which was kind of backlash to the “canals of Mars” earlier vision, which had been approved by Percival Lowell, the great astronomer of his day. So things that were once considered extremely rigorous science fiction look science fantasy a generation later.
It has been said that all speculative fiction bases its plot on a speculation, a “what if,” that changes the world from what we know. The difference is that fantasy is now considered to rely on irrational speculation, things that most people consider to be “not so” but they will accept for the time of the story. Science fiction chooses speculation that is in line with what is believed real or at least theoretically possible or plausible.
As we recently heard it said, science fiction piles up belief in what is presented being possible, while fantasy must convince you to suspend disbelief of what you know is not possible.
In between lies science fantasy. This is where you know your science is iffy, but you don’t want fantasy. It’ll pass with most readers, if not the ones in the basement of the physics building.
But if the speculation is not integral to the plot, what you have is Abbess, Call Home: pasting in some specfi elements to make a mainstream story sell to the specfi markets. At Other Worlds, the workshoppers will call you out for this.
Just to answer a common question on various forums out there …
- Fantasy does not have to have dragons or elves or take place in a medievalesque world.
- Science Fiction does not have to have spaceships/starships or robots.
Read the genres to see how much wider our worlds are. Also, some of those genres can be used for either science fiction or fantasy: they aren’t so much writing genres as setting genres. Sure, it makes a difference to the story if you time travel by magic or positron collider, but both stories have the same problems of making time travel both interesting and complicating.
Around here, it’s good to figure out if what you’re planning to write and submit really belongs at Other Worlds Writers’ Workshop.
We are not really equipped to critique:
- Horror, or supernatural suspense. Yes, this slides close to dark fantasy, but you know whether the purpose is mainly to scare the snot out of the reader or just to lead them along dark paths of the imagination.
- Erotica. Even with fantasy or futuristic setting or characters, the structure and emphasis is different. We’ve tried this, and it doesn’t work. Just like a bunch of mainstream novelists get it all wrong for specfi, we get it all wrong for erotica. You really will be much better off finding an erotica workshop on the Links page.
- Scripts, for movies, games, videos, or anything like that. Script-writing is a very different skill, especially for games or other split fiction, like Choose Your Own Adventure books or otome games.
- Straight Alternate History. If your story includes fantasy or SF elements like magic or time-travel as primary rather than peripheral elements, then we can help you. However, if the only change from our world is in history then you are writing an historical novel for a different universe. Publishers who refuse to touch SF but handle historical novels will sometimes take these sort of “straight alternate history” novels, also called “allohistorical novels” or “counter-factuals.” So you need a workshop that will help a bent historical novel or short story. Frankly, it’s just like running regular historical fiction past people who don’t know the period well. Try IWW on our link page.
- Paranormal Romances, including ghost romances, angel romances, vampire romances, and so on. These do not use the language strategies of speculative fiction. Rather, they are contemporary or historical romances with secondary fantastical elements introduced. Yes, the magic may be pivotal, but a banana peel can be pivotal without being a primary element. Some of these are horror-romances, like werewolf stories. Do check the genres above to see if your story is a science fiction romance, a fantasy romance, or a time-travel romance, or even a dark fantasy. Experience has proven that a romance story written in the spec fi language strategy totally baffles regular romance readers (the audience for paranormal romances), who do not know how to follow it. For your best help before we foul you up, we recommend you try the Romance workshop at IWW on our link page (NOT the IWW Novels workshop — they often openly despise romances), or if you feel you are one step from publication, the special chapter of the Romance Writers of America.