ALL ABOUT

Book Genre guides!

Ever wonder how you can identify if a book classifies as one genre or another? How can you tell them apart? We’ve put together this book genres guides to help you with the basics.

What genre is it?

This seems like an obvious thing, but a lot of times while in conversation about books and genres we often see people have issues with classifying books in certain genres and usually getting them in the wrong ones.  A few genres are repeat offenders. And because sometimes TROPES get confused with GENRES, here’s a quick guide on how to differentiate between those, check out our Book Tropes page.

Book genre definitions

We all know what a contemporary romance is right? And the difference between a contemporary and a new adult romance? Or a paranormal romance and a fantasy? Ummm……It seems like an obvious thing, but we know it isn’t. Different people define the genres in slightly different ways, or are very vague on the details of what each genre contains. In the latter case there are definitely some genres that are repeat offenders.  As this is the case we’ve put together a quick guide on genres and how we will be defining them to help you identify a book:

Contemporary Romance

Contemporary Romance is a love story that occurs in a Contemporary setting, which means takes place in our current world now. It must play by our societal rules.

Essential characteristic of contemporary romance:

  • The main couple must be adults, if they aren’t this is likely to be either young adult or new adult
  • It must be set in this world in contemporary society and contain no paranormal elements.
  • There will be a happily ever after by the end of the book. The main couple will have gotten together and their romance resolved. If this is part of a series this will mean the next book will be about another couple.
  • The hero and heroine will never be in any serious danger and the main focus of the book will be the romance. All other elements will be relatively minor and have the purpose of pushing the hero and heroine together.

A contemporary romance must have all the above characteristics.

This genre is an easy one to identify, are the couple adults? Is it set in a modern setting? Is the main focus the romance and not any suspense elements? Is there a happily ever after by the last page? If you say yes to all of these questions you have yourself a contemporary romance. If you say no to even one of these your book belongs in another genre. 

Erotic Romance

Erotic Romance is a subgenre of Romance that focuses on or emphasizes sex.  There’s an age-old question of how does an erotic romance differ from a contemporary romance.  Many readers have different parameters by which they measure this.  For some is a certain sexual act, if included, crosses over to erotic romance.  Others feel is the amount of sex.  But the rule of thumb is if the sex is integral enough to the plot and that if it is taken out, the story loses some of its allure, then it’s an erotic romance.

Essential characteristic of erotic romance:

  • There will be no fade to black sex scenes.
  • The sex will be integral to the plot and there will be a lot of it.
  • The characters will be adults

An erotic romance must have all the above characteristics.

The definition of erotic romance is some what subjective. But, the general gist is, is that it focuses on sex and, in a lot of cases, the different kinks of the characters, such as BDSM, sex outside, voyeurism, menage, anal…anything above and beyond vanilla normally gets put in this category.

In my essential characteristics, I also put there will be “a lot” of sex. Obviously this is a subjective measure. Maybe two extended and really hot sex scenes seems like a lot in the context of the book, therefore you categorise this as erotic romance where perhaps another person wouldn’t. What seems erotic to one person will not necessarily be the same for another. However, there will be no sweet romances in erotic romance, the emphasis will be on the sexual relationship as much as, if not more, than the romantic one.

Now, I am on the opinion that there are two types of erotic novels: erotic romance and erotica/smut. Erotic romance will have romance in it, by the end of the book the couple will have formed an emotional bond and a happily ever after all whilst having a lot of sexy fun. In an erotica it will just be sex with no pretence of a story nor any attempt at an emotional bond being made between the characters. Often these books will be less than 15o pages (in fact 150 pages would be an epic erotica!). We will accept both erotic and erotic romance for an erotic romance challenge in Romanceopoly.

One last thingthere are various sub genres of erotic romance such as sci fi erotic romance, paranormal erotic romance, historical erotic romance…. it’s not just stuck in a contemporary setting. As this is the case, you can either fit the book into the erotic romance challenges as long as all other conditions are met. Or you can add to the other genre’s challenges, again, as long as all the other conditions of the challenge are met.

Side Note: There can be various sub genres of Erotic Romance such as Sci Fi Erotic Romance and Paranormal Erotic Romance, etc.

Read our in depth guide to erotic romance books

Fantasy

The Fantasy genre consists of the most mythology than any other genre and we find this is the one most commonly mistaken.  Books from one of the two previous genres we mentioned often end up classified as Fantasy. Fantasy novels are typically long and highly descriptive. They are also (but not always) set in an alternate time or universe that are governed by their own rules.  They don’t necessarily feature paranormal creatures of any kind. For a specific difference between High, Low and Epic Fantasy – here’s a video guide

Essential characteristics of fantasy:

  • It set in a different world fabricated from the author imagination. If it is set in this world then it is not a fantasy and is likely an urban fantasy.

A fantasy must have the above characteristic.

We are also including young adult fantasy series and novels in this category.

On a side note…fantasy doesn’t always have to involve magic or elves and dwarves. Although most of them do involve magic in some fashion. The main caveat for a fantasy is that it isn’t set on earth but rather a new land, for example Middle Earth by Tolkien, created from the authors imagination. Which is why often you will find a map at the beginning of a fantasy book. Romance is also not an essential element, although there are plenty of fantastic fantasy romances out there.

So, if you have a romance where the author has created a brand new world, however, it also has a vampire hero this would be a fantasy not a paranormal romance. The new world trumps the vampire hero.

Historical Fiction

This is different from Historical Romance in that the focus of this story is not romance.  There may not even be any.  It is set in the past and it doesn’t have to follow history accurately but it often has a base there.

Essential characteristic of historical fiction:

  • The time period of the book will be before the 1940s
  • It will reflect the technology and historical facts of the time i.e. there has been no concerted effort to change history or technology. If there has, it may be a steampunk.
  • There will be no paranormal elements.
  • The main characters will be adults – although it could have a reflections or sections with memories or thoughts from childhood.

A historical fiction novel must have all the above characteristics.

A historical fiction is similar to a historical romance in that it is set in the past. The difference being that the romance is optional and when it is present it isn’t necessarily the driving force behind the story and you aren’t guaranteed a happily ever after. Instead the story will focus on the main characters(s) journey, which may or not not contain romance.

Historical fiction is also often based on real live historical events and figures – although this isn’t always the case. It will tell the stories of people who have lived through a famous event or been part of them in some way or/and they have a connection to a historical figure. The book itself will always be based in reality, there will be no paranormal elements.

Historical Romance

As you can guess, Historical Romance is set in the past. You’ll find lots of Victorian or Highlander fiction in this genre.

Essential characteristic of historical romance:

  • The time period of the book will be before the 1940s – although most are set at some point in the 1800s.
  • There will be no paranormal elements in the story. If there is this is more likely to be a paranormal romance.
  • It will reflect the technology and historical facts of the time i.e. there has been no concerted effort to change history or technology. If there has, it may be a steampunk.
  • The main couple will be adults.
  • The main couple will never be in any serious danger and the main focus of the book will be the romance. All other elements will be relatively minor and have the purpose of pushing the hero and heroine together.
  • There will be a happily ever after by the end of the book. The main couple will have gotten together and their romance resolved. If this is part of a series this will mean the next book will be about another couple.

A historical romance must have all the above characteristics.

The clue is in the name with historical romance: it must be set in the past and I don’t mean last week, or even the last decade. If the time period is in living human memory it probably wouldn’t qualify as a historical romance, although there is a fuzzy area in the early 20th century.

There must also be a romance, the romance must be the focal point of the story. There may be a minor intrigue or suspense plot but in the end it’s a small part and it’s the romance that is the main story. If it isn’t the case it will be either a historical mystery or historical fiction.

Read our in depth guide to historical romance books

Mystery

Essential characteristic of a mystery:

  • There will be a mystery to solve but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a murder.
  • There will be no paranormal elements.

A mystery must have the above characteristics.

It seems so obvious when you write it down! But, the difficulty comes when separating your mystery books from your thrillers. A mystery will be more light-hearted and less psychological and tense than a thriller. Mystery books are also more likely to have an amateur sleuth as the main character as opposed to a member of law enforcement. In fact if you look for cozy mysteries, they are almost exclusively cute and quirky stories with amateur sleuth heroines.

With the mystery genre you also aren’t restricted to the contemporary, you can have historical mystery as well. A mystery also doesn’t necessarily have a romance in it. However, it may have a romantic thread woven in the story and if it’s a series it might be a relationship that develops over the books. But, the main driver of the story is the mystery, even if it is a romantic mystery, the story will end when the puzzle has been solved.

New Adult

New Adult is the newest genre from this list and it’s most telling characteristic is the age range. Consider this the gap between Young Adult and Adult Fiction. It is often angsty (but not always) and typically features first person point of view, and often set during college.  It’s all about the coming of age, first experiences such as first love, first time living alone, first time going through heartbreak, etc.

Essential characteristic of new adult:

  • The main characters will be in their late teens and early twenties.
  • It will be in a contemporary setting with no paranormal element.
  • The focus of the story will be the transition between being a teenager and being an adult. The story will focus on the hero/heroines first adult experiences of the world, such as going to college, a first job, first love and heart break. If the hero/heroine is in their early twenties and this isn’t the focus and driver of the story, this will be a contemporary romance.
  • There will be a happily ever after by the end of the book. The main couple will have gotten together and their romance resolved. If this is part of a series this will mean the next book will be about another couple.

A new adult must have the above characteristics.

New Adult covers the gap from being a teenager to taking your first independent steps into the adult world. It is almost like the next stage in a coming of age story and usually depicts when the main character has recently left home, either to live alone or start college. 

The romance is the focal point of the story and this can either be a heterosexual romance or LGBT. And although there may be other story threads the book won’t end until the romance has resolved and you have a happily ever after.

Paranormal Romance

Paranormal Romance can be, but not limited to, urban settings. This means that there is such a thing as Historical Paranormal Romance but the most popular ones you read about are usually set in present time. They feature paranormal beings ranging from vampires, fae, werewolves, etc or perhaps a hybrid of all.  Paranormal Romance typically features a different couple in each book and the focus is the HEA and connection between the two characters.

Essential features of a paranormal romance:

  • It’s set in this world. Whether it’s in a historical context or, more likely, in modern day. All paranormal romance will be set in this world. If the story unfolds in a Middle Earthesque type setting, this is more likely a fantasy.
  • Either the hero and/or heroine will be paranormal in some way. This could mean vampires, shifters, witch, mage, gargoyle, fae, mermaid, dragons…or any other paranormal beastie I haven’t listed.
  • The main couple will be adults. If they are in their teens this is a young adult and not a paranormal romance. There are however some that can be classified as new adult paranormal romance (in their early twenties).
  • There will be a happily ever after by the end of the book. The main couple will have gotten together and their romance resolved. If this is part of a series this will mean the next book will be about another couple. If the couple do not get together by the end of the book this is not a paranormal romance, instead it is likely to be an urban fantasy.

A paranormal romance will have all of the above characteristics. Even if it has 3 out of 4 of them, this will not be a paranormal romance.

Romantic Suspense

Romantic Suspense has an emphasis on the action and suspense in the plot. Military books often fit under this category. Fast paced and lethal are words that typically describe this genre.

Essential characteristic of romantic suspense:

  • There will be a strong suspense plot as well as a romance.
  • The hero/heroine will have some kind of military or equivalent training or skills which are essential to the story
  • It will have a contemporary setting in a familiar world with no paranormal elements.
  • There will be a happily ever after by the end of the book. The main couple will have gotten together and their romance resolved. If this is part of a series this will mean the next book will be about another couple.

A romantic suspense must have all the above characteristics.

A romantic suspense book is characterised by it’s action packed romance. A significant portion of the book will be devoted to the suspense plot as well as the romance. When I say suspense plot think kidnappings, espionage, military operations rather than for example, murder investigations. We want explosions and lots of running around. Another characteristic of romantic suspense is the high volume of military heroes and heroines you will find in them. Often an author will get a whole SEAL team and run through each member. 

There is a little bit of crossover between romantic suspense and romantic thrillers here and a lot of books walk the edge. But generally if the book features military rather than law enforcement and has a big action packed and high octane action rather than a more psychological approach, then this is more likely to be a romantic suspense.

Sci Fi Romance

Sci Fi Romance is often bunched together with Fantasy (and if you see the description above they’re quite different) but the most telling characteristic of Sci Fi is that it often deals with futuristic science, space, parallel universes or extraterrestrial life.

Essential characteristic of sci fi:

  • It will need to have one or both of these features:
    • The story will be set in a futuristic world and science
    • If it is set in the present it will have involve a character discovering extraterrestrial life

A sci fi must have one of the above characteristics.

Sci fi is a fairly simple one to define, if it has aliens or is set in space or a futuristic world, it’s sci fi. I say futuristic world rather than strictly “the future” as classics from authors such as Arthur C Clarke are set in times that have already past…but they’re still sci fi.

Romance isn’t an essential element of sci fi, but sci fi romance is a sub genre of romance. In this sub genre you can find alien and cyborg heroes and heroines, romances set on board space ships and alien worlds. Much like in fantasy the author has a lot of scope. But, fantasy and sci fi are separate genres – the difference being that sci fi is set in the future in a universe that does contain Earth, even if the story is not set there.

Usually young adult sci fi would be a separate genre and the age of the main characters would decide what genre this fits. However, for ease the sci fi challenge will allow young adult sci fi as well as sci fi romance and sci fi fiction. 

Steampunk

Steampunk is a sub genre of science fiction that blends together technology and history. It’s most popular characteristic is its steam-powered machinery.

Essential characteristic of steampunk:

  • It will be set in an alternative earth where technology evolved or is evolving from steam-powered technology. If it is set in a different world but has steampunk elements to it, this will probably either a fantasy or young adult.
  • The setting will have a very “Victorian England” theme, although it doesn’t have to be set in Victorian England.

A steampunk must have all the above characteristics.

Steampunk is a form of speculative fiction where the author grab Victorian England packs it full of steam-powered technology and then writes about how they think the world would develop from there. Generally authors don’t move past the Victorian era, so many of the books you will find will be set in the 1800s.

This genre is one that is expanding more and more as time goes on. You can find a huge variety in this genre from romantic and non romantic steampunk and/or steampunk that has paranormal elements. There’s something for everyone.

Thriller

Essential characteristic of a thriller:

  • A crime would have been committed and needs to investigated.
  • It will not contain any paranormal elements.
  • It will be tense and the main characters will be in real danger of being harmed or killed.

A really great thriller will have you on the edge of your seat. It isn’t quite a horror, but parts could be horrific. The main difference between a thriller and a mystery is the amount of tension and danger that’s involved. A thriller had a darker edge. This isn’t the in the realms of anything as cute as a amateur sleuth, instead the main characters are often law enforcement professionals. The people investigating the crime or wrong doing will be in danger.

As with a mystery, this doesn’t need to be set in modern day, it could be set in the past. Also a  thriller may or may not have a romance. If it does have a romance the focal point of the story will still be the solving of the crime and the book can only wrap up when the case is closed, not when there’s a happily ever after.

The line between a thriller and a mystery is a subjective one, although some books are obviously one way or another, there are books that straddle the line. When that is the case it’s a judgement call and I would use factors such as, were the main characters professionals? If so it’s a thriller. Was the story particularly psychological and tense? If not, then pick mystery.

Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy is very similar to Paranormal Romance in that it also features paranormal creatures. However, this has a bigger emphasis on the urban setting. The best indicator of an Urban Fantasy book is when the series follows one or one set of characters throughout the entire series and the focus of the books is not as much on the romance.  Romance is usually a small element of these books but takes a secondary place to the world development and overall story arc. 

Essential characteristics of urban fantasy:

  • It’s set in this world. Whether it’s in a historical context or, more likely, in modern day. All urban fantasy will be set in this world. If the story unfolds in a Middle Earthesque type setting, this is more likely a fantasy.
  • There will be a paranormal element to this world. Perhaps the hero or heroine wields magic or is a vampire/shifter/fae. Perhaps the world itself has paranormal elements in its infrastructure even if the main characters aren’t inherently magical. Either way it will be a world you recognise but with a magical/paranormal twist.
  • The main characters will be adults. If they are in their teens this is a young adult and not an urban fantasy.
  • There won’t be a happily ever after at the end of each book. In fact there isn’t necessarily any romance in an urban fantasy, although this is usually an element of the story. However, the main focus is on the story arc and world development. The story will follow one main hero or heroine throughout the series and not go to different couples in each book.

An urban fantasy will have all of the above characteristics. Even if it has 3 out of 4 of them, this will not be an urban fantasy.

Side Note: There are some series out there that are a hybrid of both Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance like Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series and Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress.

Womens’ Fiction

Essential characteristic of women’s fiction:

  • It will have a contemporary setting, if this isn’t the case, it may be historical fiction
  • There will be no paranormal elements.
  • The main characters will be adults – although it could have a reflections or sections with memories or thoughts from childhood.

A women’s fiction novel must have the above characteristics.

Women’s fiction is much like historical fiction, only instead of being set in the past, it is set in the present. The story will about about a characters journey and may or may not contain any romance. Usually the story will involve some self discovery or the development of familial relationships for the main character.

Young Adult

Young Adult and Teen Fiction are synonymous with one another. These books feature young teens from the age fifteen to eighteen or nineteen. While they are mostly targeted for young readers, you can definitely read them even if you’re older. Again, Young Adult can have many subgenres such as Contemporary or Paranormal.

Essential characteristic of young adult:

  • The main characters will be in their teens – usually between the ages of twelve to eighteen

A young adult must have the above characteristics.

Young adult is the broadest genre on this list, in fact for almost every genre here you have a young adult equivalent. For example, young adult fantasy, young adult paranormal, young adult LGBT, young adult sci fi and so on. The only qualification in making a book young adult fiction is the ages of the characters. There doesn’t have to be any romance involved, or be set in a particular time period or even set on earth.

Latest detailed genre guides

Want to go into more detail about book genres and get all the book recommendations? Check out our beginner guides below to see our genre pages to better understand what to expect from each genre and sub-genre.

What are you in the mood for?

explore book tropes