Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Sub-genre Encyclopedia

While I think everyone has a pretty good idea of what mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction are, it seems that confusion reigns when we start to discuss the various sub-genres. Often I’m asked to explain cozy mysteries, erotic romance, romantic suspense, and paranormal. Authors want to know what the differences are and how they should categorize their own books.

So, to make your lives easier, here’s a sub-genre encyclopedia BookEnds style. Please take note that all of these can be fluid and there are no exact rules. We only hope this “encyclopedia” will give you a better idea and understanding of what publishing professionals are talking about when they mention a specific sub-genre.

Cozy mystery
First made popular by Agatha Christie, cozy mysteries always involve an amateur sleuth: someone who, truthfully, has no business trying to solve a murder. These days the most popular cozies include a sleuth with a very specific hobby—a knitter, collector, or baker, for example. However, an amateur sleuth could also be a priest, a lawyer, or a cab driver. Cozy mysteries must always have a murder (what’s the point of a mystery without a body?), but are not at all gory. They should have very little to no blood and no violence (at least onstage). While cozies often include a romance (most books do), there is no sex or profanity. BookEnds represents a vast number of cozy mysteries. A quick perusal of our list should give you a good idea of what to expect from this genre.

Suspense novels often include a cop, PI, or forensics expert of some sort, but do not necessarily have that “whodunit” element. Suspense novels rely on fear to propel the story. The reader may know who the villain is but will still be surprised to see what they do next. They’re often gorier than cozies, and can tell the story from various points of view, including the killer’s.

Romantic Suspense
This can certainly enter into blurry territory. Romantic suspense is always a romance first, but it’s framed by a very suspenseful storyline. The best way to gauge if your book is a mainstream suspense or romantic suspense is to think about your audience. Is a reader picking up your book because of the intense attraction and relationship between the two characters? Or are they picking it up to be engrossed by the action and creeped out by the bad guys?

With the popularity of erotica and erotic romance and the desire for readers to read books with a higher level of sensuality, the lines seem to be blurring in these categories. So I’ll try my best to clear them up. Erotica is the hottest of the hot. Books with multiple partners, S&M, etc., would fall into the category of erotica. These books, at least the ones I represent, still have a strong storyline and a romance, but the sex is much more graphic and pushes the boundaries.

Erotic Romance
Erotic romance is an incredibly hot romance. The sex scenes are graphic and integral to the storyline, but involve only one man and one woman. While they might experiment a little and are definitely brazen, you won’t find them inviting a third partner in, or participating in group activities. They might, however, use some toys or pleasure themselves.

Paranormal Romance
A romance first, but with paranormal elements. They could be vampires, werewolves, or aliens. It could take place on another planet or involve magic and witchcraft. No matter what it is, though, romance is at the core of these books.

Category Romance
Category romance almost exclusively refers to books published by Harlequin/Silhouette in their lines or categories. These books are almost always shorter than single-title romances and always fit into a very specific series, like Silhouette Desire or Harlequin American. The lines all have very distinct guidelines and a voice. Category romances are sold through bookstores and, primarily, through mail order. They usually only stay on bookshelves for one month.

Chick Lit
Chick lit is almost universally described as Bridget Jones’s Diary, the first in this relatively new genre. What most people fail to realize, or what got lost in the excitement over a hot new trend, was that Bridget Jones’s Diary was not such a smash hit because it was about a twenty-something with failed dating and work experiences and bad habits. It was a success because of its voice. Chick lit is about the voice, not necessarily the subject. It’s funny, irreverent, and a quick read. The subject matter itself can and should vary.

I hope that helps. Please let me know if I’ve missed anything, or feel free to expand on the genres as I’ve described them. For those of you writing in any of these specific genres, I’ll let you take the opportunity to pitch your own books or those you’re a fan of to give readers an idea of what they should be reading in each of these sub-genres.



kris said...

Okay, questions:
1. What, if anything, is the difference between a suspense novel and a thriller?
2. Is there a definition for women's fiction other than "fiction written primarily for women?" said...

Ack! I hate having to describe a novel with movies, but I simply don't know any other novels that fit the bill. My first novel is The Big Chill (or St. Elmo's Fire, if you're younger) meets Ghost. I've been calling it women's fiction / paranormal romance, but there must be something better. Any suggestions?

Unknown said...

I'll go the movie route too. My book is Romancing the Stone crossed with Sahara. It's categorized as a romantic suspense, but it's really a romantic thriller. I guess the difference between a thriller and a suspense is that in a suspense, you have that element of Da Vinci Code, while in a thriller you have that ticking clock Hunt for Red October feel. personal take on "woman's fiction" is that while certain things appeal primarily to women, women read everything, lol.

Anonymous said...

Alien Overnight by Robin L. Rotham is a good example of two subgenres brought together - erotic romance and paranormal. Graphic intimacy between three people, BDSM, takes place on another world. Neither Futuristics nor BDSM are my preferred genres, but this author writes so well, I will read anything she publishes. Definitely a recommended read.

Grace Draven

Spy Scribbler said...

Thank you, Jessica. Like Kris, I've been wanting to know the difference between a suspense and thriller.

MsSnarkyPants said...

Thanks, Jessica. Categorizing gives me fits. It's always nice to have something to steer me in the right direction.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


Of course you have to log on at the break of dawn and ask the hard questions ;)

There really isn't a good definition of women's fiction. It's usually a darker book (although not necessarily) but deals with a loss of some sort--death, divorce, cancer, etc. Think Elizabeth Berg, Anna Quinlin, Jodi Piccoult, Debbie Macomber. NAL has an entire line called Accent devoted to women's fiction. That should hopefully give you an idea.

Suspense and thriller. Why do you all do this to me? We're not quite sure ourselves. I think thriller tends to be more horror connected, in other words darker. While suspense is a darker mystery. A thriller could simply be a cat and mouse sort of chase. Does that make any sense?

See! See how hard it is? Even we don't always know the answers.

So. Writer: I think a Paranormal Women's Fiction is the perfect description. Simple is better. Don't try to get too snappy or clever with genre descriptions.


Michelle said...

Thanks for this -- I'm a published author and even I get confused with the sub genres which I've seen broken down even more finite than this (ie: paranormal romantic suspense!) Huh???? :-)

Angela James said...

With all due respect, I'm going to disagree with your definitions of erotica and erotic romance.

Erotic romance can and does have BDSM and menage in it. The difference is that it's romance--it has a HEA however you find it, whether it ends up being between two people or three. It's hot, it's sexy and it might push boundaries but in the end, it's a romance.

Erotica is about the sexual journey, the heat, the passion and no HEA is required. It can indeed have a romance but it's not the focus of the book.

While I understand these things are somewhat subjective, I think you'll find the definitions I'm stating here are on par with what many authors of erotic romance/erotica will give you.

Some links for you to consider:

And from the RWA erotic romance chapter, Passionate Ink :

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

There is much discussion about the difference between suspense and thriller, but the best way to perhaps separate the two is to figure out: 1. Whether, as the reader, you are sitting in a state of anticipation, turning the pages, waiting to see what happens, without necessarily feeling FEAR, but definitely consumed with, well, suspense. Vs. 2. Being afraid to look under the bed and in the closet after reading, which best describes thriller. Jacky

Kimber Li said...

Hi, Michelle, you sweetie!

Sometimes, this is easy. I knew going in my currant novel-in-revision, the Holy Bennu, was a Paranormal Young Adult.

The one before that, however, still gives me fits and it's been finished and in Queryland for a while now. A mentor-type Blog Buddy assured me the Star Captains' Daughter is a Science Fiction Romance and she should know since that's the sub-genre she's published in. However, SCD has a fully involved third protagonist in addition to the traditional Romance hero and heroine. And that is their teenage daughter. Helllooo, Young Adult factor. I'm telling ya, it's a multi-phasic monkey wrench in the hyperspace engine!

I try to take comfort and learn all I can from the careers of authors like Linnea Sinclair. She managed to successfully cross two genres which are traditionally opposed to each other. Her latest release, Games of Command, is just awesome.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that if you have several genres crossed in a novel, that you simply write a query that highlights the story from each of the genres/sub-genres, then send an appropriately skewed query to the agents that handle that genre.

For instance, my work has equal elements of historical, fantasy, gay and romance. I could be happy with it shelved under any of those categories (though you probably wouldn't find anything with a fantasy element under "historicals"). That means four (or maybe just three) different query letters going out to a whole lot of targeted agents.

Do you agree this is the best way to handle something that doesn't quite fit the mold, but isn't so far out of the mold it isn't saleable?

Linda C. McCabe said...


You asked if there was anything that you missed and I'm wondering about some aspects of the fantasy genre. Should the presence of magic in a novel just automatically put it into the genre of fantasy, and are there sub-genres of fantasy that we should be cognizant?

I'm working on a trilogy of the legends of Charlemagne which is similar in style to Arthurian legend, but it is not as well exploited. It includes a few historical figures such as King Charles the Great(as opposed to the questionable historical figure of King Arthur), but none of the events of the story took place so I hesitate to think of it as historical fiction.

There are magical elements as well as a love story being the center of the plot, however it does not have the guaranteed happy ending so I think it would exclude any consideration as being a genre romance. It is more in line thematically with love stories like Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Arthur and Guenevere.

I have had several of my colleagues suggest that since this story takes place in the ninth century and that since I'm trying to use historically accurate details that I should consider it to be historical fiction, or even historical romance.

I just assume that once it is published it will be shelved next to novels about the legends of King Arthur in a bookstore. Should I spend anymore time thinking on its categorizations for genre?


Kate Douglas said...

I have to agree with Angela James and disagree with Jessica on the definition of erotica vs. erotic romance. I write erotic romance--and I have multiple partners, same sex partners, and occasionally "mixed species" partners--but I'm still writing a romance. In my stories, the sex only happens when there's love involved, there is always a HEA ending. Erotica is more about the sexual journey of the protagonists, which is not necessarily a romantic journey. In Wolf Tales, for all the kinky, graphic and very explicit sex, the stories hang on the romantic journey my characters take. I honestly don't think of them as erotica at all, but they are most definitely erotic romances.

loralee said...

Very helpful encyclopedia, Jessica. Given all the genres in today's fiction, it helps to have some sort of guide, even though the parameters are constantly changing.
The comments have been extremely interesting, too. I really enjoy the subjects you explore in this blog.

Linda Maye Adams said...

From the perspective of someone who writes thrillers ...

I'll disagree with thriller being darker or more like horror. I hate horror novels, but I love thriller. When I realized where I kept gravitating to, I read every thriller I could find and learned as much about the genre as I could.

The first thing everyone thinks when thriller is mentioned is crime fiction, which is probably why the definition of the genre is so muddied. Crime fiction is just one of the subgenres.

If you take the other subgenres and exclude crime fiction, then thriller can be, I believe, defined. There are common elements in all the subgenres, except for the crime one. The stories start out being about paranoia--that someone is out there, plotting to do something that will affect many lives. In a Clive Cussler book, we have a country polluting the ocean, which will cause world extinction; in a Vince Flynn book, terrorists are plotting to disrupt the U.S. economy by detonating a nuclear bomb in DC; in a James' Rollins book I'm reading now, Nazis are using quantum physics to try to create a superior race; in Robin Cook's medical thrillers, scientists take some new development in science and use it for evil purposes.

Story stakes are often very high (something very, very bad will happen if hero doesn't succeed), and there's usually a lot of action. The stories also are fairly fast-paced and tend to be over the top (where else would you find a story about the Elixir of Life or a glass sandstorm?). Conspiracies are also a big staple of thriller.

Yet, with crime thrown in, people start associating it with mystery. I've seen one agent call it a subgenre of mystery while another agent says he takes mystery but not thriller. And when I submit, I have to screen each of the agents carefully to see if they really take thriller or they just take the crime subgenre. Since mine is more like Cussler and Rollins (and has a historical setting), I end up passing on a lot of agents.

Oh, and one thing I have noticed in all my readings of thriller is that none of them have ever had any kind of supernatural elements like horror or suspense might. Thriller tends to stay grounded in science.

Anonymous said...

l.c.mccabe -- from anon 1:45:

Historical fantasy is certainly a respected subgenre of fantasy, and that's what your book sounds like to me since it does deal with an historical time and includes historical figures.

For agents who represent fantasy, that's how I'll be pitching mine, which is set in 4th century Rome and includes several historical figures as well as fantasy elements.

Depending on how much your story relies on magic, historical fiction would probably be a hard sell.

Judith Tarr has some wonderful historical fantasies (which is what she calls them, too): The Hound and the Falcon trilogy and Ars Magica among them.

Anonymous said...

Kris Fletcher - You've asked the same questions that puzzle me . . . and apparently everyone else, including agents.

There have to be some good examples that illustrate the difference between suspense and thriller.

Somebody? Anybody? said...

Thank you, Jessica! That's perfect. Sometimes I get so tangled in trying to get it right, it blinds me to the obvious. Duh.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness, so many questions. Urban fantasy vs paranormal mystery vs paranormal crime?

In query to you I called my novel a "dark romance" I explained why I called it that because I don't even know if that's a real genre. I think it should be. Romeo and Juliet, Natural Born Killers, or just a Angel and Buffy style romance where the love is there, but it just doesn't work out... But the overwelming feel is that "dark" is not welcome in romance, especially if it is a non-HEA. But horror rarely focuses on the horror of tragedy and loss of people one love, unless it's a side thread to serial killers or giant bugs/lizards/gorrillas. So where to put dark romances? Not horror for lack of fear, not romance for lack of HEA?

Okay, one more... What if I write a romance, clean and mostly chaste except for some flirting, keep-the-clothes-on heat, but it's a hero and hero, or heroine and heroine? Does that automatically make it erotica? Because if so I won't pull my punches and keep it squeaky clean ;) But I would really, really like to see more GLB and minority main characters.

Linda Maye Adams said...

-- There have to be some good examples that illustrate the difference between suspense and thriller --

A couple of core differences between the two genres:

Thriller tends to be more violent than suspense. If you read a serial killer thriller, you'll get very graphic descriptions of the crimes and what the guy does to the victims. But if you read a serial killer suspense (usually a romantic suspense), you'll see some violence, but not nearly so much (compare M.J. Rose to Kay Hooper).

Suspense always involves a crime of some kind as the focus of the story; thriller doesn't necessary need a crime, and if there is criminal activity, it's not necessarily the focus of the story.

My impression of suspense is also that it seems to be written more for women. It has many elements women like to read. Thriller, while it also gets a lot of women readers, has a lot of stories with the kinds of details men like to read.

JDuncan said...

I think over at international thriller writers site they make a decent effort to define thriller as apart from suspense. But from what I've gathered in general, thrillers are more action packed than suspense, the stakes are usually higher, i.e. world destruction, presidentail assassination, etc., the heroes are often a bit larger than life whereas you can have all sorts of ordinary types in suspense. Also suspense revolves a great deal around tension, and this can be internal, i.e. psychological suspense stories where you might have a bad guy doing stuff to mess with the mental state of the mc. I think wikipedia has a nice listing of the different types of suspense.

My current completed novel is a paranormal suspense, and does involve an FBI protaganist. I wish I had a good blurb for it because to date, I've experienced query hell trying to explain it in snappy short fashion. Given that, it's a story about death, how the protaganist and the main suspect have dealt (or not in this case) with significant loss in their lives, and how it encumbers them in their effort to catch the real villain. The real villain is a vampire, who turned the suspect decades ago and continues to torment him with an ongoing game of cat and mouse, framing him for a long string of murders. All of the victims have been trapped on the other side, where the villain draws upon their spiritual energy for his powers.

Unlike a mystery, this (like many suspense stories) doesn't involve trying to decipher who the villain is. The suspense comes in if they will be able to catch him before they are themselves killed. Needless to say, they're ability to deal with their own issues plays a role in catching him.

Now if I could only turn this into a decent sounding query, I'd be all set! lol.


Anonymous said...

To Linda Adams and jduncan - Thank you very much for your explanations. NOW the differences are clear.

NL Gassert said...

““Suspense always involves a crime of some kind as the focus of the story; thriller doesn't necessary need a crime, and if there is criminal activity, it's not necessarily the focus of the story.””

I partly disagree. I write suspense novels and criminal activity is not focus of the story. In that, Suspense and Thriller are related: good guys try to prevent bad guys from doing bad things: either by staying ahead and staying alive (the bad thing is directed at the good guy) OR by foiling attempts and apprehending the bad guys (the bad thing is directed toward someone/something else).

In movies, think The Hitchhiker (one person trying to stay ahead of one bad guy; the movie isn’t about the crimes perpetrated, but about the chase).

If you think of romantic suspense, the criminal activity isn’t the focus of the story. Usually eluding the bad guy or apprehending the bad guy is. The actual crime is secondary.

Chances are the higher the stakes, the more sophisticated the weapons/plot/bad guy, the better trained the good guy = thriller.