There are two main types of fiction: literary and commercial (more commonly called genre or popular).

Genre fiction is plot driven and attracts a broad audience. It may fall into any category, such as mystery, romance, science fiction, etc. Bestselling genre authors would be John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovich, Danielle Steel, among others.

Literary fiction is character driven and appeals to a smaller, more intellectual audience. A work of literary fiction may fall into any of the genres. However, what sets it apart are such things as excellent writing and originality of thought and style that raise it above ordinary writing. Examples of literary fiction: Cold Mountain, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath. Popular authors of literary fiction would be John LeCarre, Barbara Kingsolver, and Toni Morrison, among others.

Mainstream fiction is a term publishers and booksellers use to describe both commercial and literary works containing a universal theme that attracts a broad audience. Usually set in the 20th or present-day 21st century, these books deal with family issues, coming of age initiations, courtroom dramas, physical and mental disabilities, social pressures, political intrigue, etc. Regardless of genre or category, most of the novels on the bestseller list are considered mainstream, including authors such as Sue Grafton, Michael Crichton, or David Guterson.

The more narrowly defined categories of popular fiction that appeal to specific audiences are classified as genre fiction.

Whatever genre you write, it’s a good idea to read bestselling authors of that genre. This will give you a good indication of what is selling. Study the author’s writing pace, plot, voice, characterization, and descriptive.


Mystery is one of the most popular genres. All mysteries focus on a crime committed, usually murder. One rule of thumb to remember: the dead body should show up within the first three chapters; some publishers like it within the first three pages. The action in a mystery will center on the attempts of a detective or investigator to solve the crime. The mystery is a “puzzle” and engages the brain.


Cozy – takes place usually in one location, is very gentle, and contains a bloodless crime. (Agatha Christie)

Amateur Sleuth – the amateur sleuth tries to solve the murder of someone close; the need for solution is personal.

Professional sleuth – amateur sleuth in a professional setting, where inside information is used and solving the crime returns order to a sheltered environment. (Dick Frances)

Police procedural – emphasizes a law enforcement team’s efforts using factual police operations and techniques. (Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels)

Legal/Medical – lawyer or doctor is the protagonist. These stories are usually written by actual lawyers and doctors. (Robin Cook, John Grisham)

 Suspense – in essence, the protagonist is the one being pursued instead of the criminal.

Romantic suspense (also under romance genre) – Romance and suspense. (Linda Howard, Mary Higgins Clark)

Historical – Mysteries set in the past.

 Mixed Genre – Set in the future, combined with science fiction.

Private Eye – Speaks for itself. Usually a professional investigator with a strong code of honor. (Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone)

Noir – Noir is a mood, gritty, bleak and unforgiving; stories from the other side of the fence. The investigator is usually a flawed, weak character.

Hardboiled – could be grouped with noir, although the investigator is a hard, tough character.

Crime – the suspense comes from wondering whether the plan will work and rooting for the bad guys who are smart, organized, and daring. (The Thomas Crowne Affaire).

Caper – comic crime story with a lovable bungler.

Romance is the most popular genre in terms of sales. A romance novel should contain two basics: (1) a central love story, where the plot and most of the conflict are focused on two people falling in love and their struggles to maintain that love; (2) The “feel good” happy ending – romance readers want to see the lovers come together at last.


Contemporary romance – set in present time, usually contains elements of suspense, humor, and/or drama.

Fantasy romance – takes place on other worlds and contains elements of magic. May include mystical creatures or horror creatures such as vampires and werewolves.

Futuristic or paranormal romance – set in the far future with science fiction or fantastical elements.

Historical romance – set in the past, generally before the World Wars.

Paranormal romance – contains other-worldly elements such as ghosts, spectrals, spirits, devils, demons, or angels. The characters may possess paranormal powers.

Regency romance – set in England in the early 1800s. Generally has a stronger focus on the surrounding society and interplay between characters. This at one time was considered historical romance but has become so popular it has been given its own category.

Romantic suspense – contains mystery and intrigue with a more dramatic tone and is usually in a contemporary setting. (Also under the mystery genre)

Time-travel romance – set across two different time periods with time travel between both by one or more characters.

Western romance – Usually categorized under historical romance, these are stories of romances in the American old West.

Science Fiction was at one time all about science but has evolved into a far-reaching field containing a variety of subgenres.


Apocalyptic, holocaust, and post-apocalyptic – focuses on the end of the world or the world after the end. (On the Beach)

Cross-genre – those that defy easy distinction between science fiction and other genres; may blend science fiction with romance, mystery, suspense, etc.

Cyberpunk – depicts a high-tech, bleak, mechanistic and futuristic universe of computers, hackers, and computer/human hybrids. (The Matrix)

First contact – initial meeting between humans and aliens. (The War of the Worlds)

Hard science fiction – driven more by ideas than characterization. Science and technology are central to the plot. Authors who write in this genre must have a good grasp of the scientific principles involved. (Authors: Asimov and Heinlein)

Light/humorous science fiction – spoofs a subgenre.

Military science fiction – future combat in space or another planet against opponents such as aliens, machines, modified humans with high-tech weaponry.

Near-future science fiction – takes place in the present day or within next the few decades. Setting should be familiar to the reader with current technology or that being developed. Nanotechnology and genetics fall under this subgenre.

Science fantasy/future fantasy – popular in the 1930s and 1940s, ignores known laws or scientific theories.

Slipstream – contains a speculative element although deals with mainstream themes.

Soft/sociological science fiction – Character-driven with emphasis on how technology may affect an individual or social groups.

Space opera – involves good guys against bad guys (aliens, robots, other humans) in space or on a distant place. (Star Wars)

Time travel – characters travel to the past or future. (The Time Machine)

Women’s Fiction includes a focus on relationships with at least one strong female protagonist, women triumphing over unbearable circumstances, and women united in some way. (Barbara Taylor Bradford, Anne Rivers Siddons, Judith Krantz, Anne Tyler).

Suspense/Thriller is tense and exciting with ingenious plotting, swift action, and continual suspense. Dominated by action with a constant threat and a protagonist pitted against an ominous villain. (John LeCarre, Ian Fleming, Clive Cussler, Patricia Cornwell, Tony Hillerman, Lawrence Sanders, Scott Turow, John Grisham, Tom Clancy)

The thriller is all about the chase and engages the senses, unlike the mystery, which is about figuring out the puzzle.

Western – depicts life on America’s western frontier post Civil War and usually involves conflicts between cowboys and outlaws, Native Americans, Easterners, or Westerners. (Zane Grey and Louis Lamour)

Horror – the intention is to frighten the reader by exploiting fears: supernatural forces, aliens, madness, death, dismemberment, etc. (Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Anne Rice)

Young Adult – the protagonist is in the 12-16 age range and speaks to the concerns of teenagers. (J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, Golding’s Lord of the Flies)

Other Genres:

Asian/Asian American
Native American