Genre Breakdown: Romance


It’s the best-selling genre in the North American paperback market. These novels are perfect to grab for an easy beach read or to carry you through that awkward time of night between the halt of productivity and the exhaustion that immediately precedes sleep. Romance is all around us anyway: it makes sense that reading about it is a popular pastime, too.

But what does it take to write a romance novel? Is it really as easy as it seems?

What makes a romance novel a romance novel? 

There’s a major difference between a romantic storyline within a larger plot and a romantic plot with secondary storyline woven underneath it. A romance novel puts the developing relationship between two people above everything else. In a romance novel, if you take out the romance, well, the significance of all other events that occur just crumbles. 

Romance novels are short and simple; while the story itself might seem complicated, for dramatic effect, the storytelling isn’t. They’re meant to be consumed quickly, but writing them isn’t quite as simple. Forget the myth that there has to be a formula: be original. Make your romance unique. 

Recent books and their authors 

Don’t Tell the Brides-to-Be by Anna Bell

The Cake Therapist by Judith Fertig

Myth and Magic by Mae Clair

How to write successfully in this genre

If you take away only one thing from this post, let it be this: amidst all your focus on the love story in front of you, do not forget to include a plot.

Without a plot, a love story is just snippets of people in love, and as interesting as that might sound on the surface, that’s all you’re going to have as a result: a shallow puddle of meaningless fragments of what could have been a pretty great book, if you hadn’t forgotten to write an actual story.

Yes, focus on the romance, the characters, the tension, everything that makes a romance novel different from a book that just so happens to have a romantic sub-plot. But don’t think you can get away with pulling off a romantic masterpiece just by using colorful language and copious amounts of adjectives and metaphors. You’re not fooling anybody. Sorry.

Of course, you still have to tie your romantic themes into each element of your story, but please, make it count.

Don’t write in the romance genre if you just want to be successful in the publishing market. Getting published, and then getting published again, is a challenge no matter your chosen genre. If you’re going to write romance, literally, put your heart into it. Make it what you want it to be, not necessarily what someone else might be expecting. 

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Genre Breakdown: Thriller


Every now and then, everyone needs a healthy dose of suspense. Add in some characters you just can’t seem to figure out, tension you almost can’t stand and a little bit of mystery looming in the margins, and you’ve found yourself a pretty decent thriller.

As always, reading them is, well, a thrill. Writing them, though challenging, can be a journey just as twisted and amusing. 

What makes a thriller novel a thriller novel? 

The main ingredients of a well-constructed thriller novel involve some tension, a little excitement and a few heaping spoonfuls of suspense. There will always be a question unanswered; a suspicious person wandering closer and closer into another character’s personal space. Thriller novels are thrilling because they are always in motion. With every answered question, three more questions leap off the page.

What makes a thriller different from mystery is the amount of action. In a mystery novel, there is a large focus on clues, solving something that has already occurred. In a thriller, that ‘something’ may not have even happened yet—but oh, it’s coming. And when the reader (and sometimes the writer) least expects it.

Recent books and their authors

Zeroes by Chuck Wendig

Power Surge by Ben Bova

Trust No One by Paul Cleave 

How to write successfully in this genre

A large cast of simple characters and black-and-white issues isn’t going to get you very far in a genre that requires stories to move at a constant, rapid-fire pace. Your characters not only have to be diverse; they need to be complicated. Not every person is all good or all bad. And everybody has baggage—use that to your advantage.

Also don’t forget to send a reasonable message through whatever thriller you’re thinking up. Even the best thriller novels wouldn’t be worth much if they didn’t have a good story, and an important message, to go along with them. You should always have a reason for writing a particular story, especially in this case.

You can find a more detailed list of thriller novel essentials here.

You know you’ve always wanted to try one of these. So what are you waiting for? Start your character sketches and outlines. Go where no novelist has ever gone before. Or, do—but dare to take that turn no one else ever saw.

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Genre Breakdown: Mystery


Writing mysteries can be a blast. But with fun comes a challenge: how can you, the writer, work backwards from a crime’s resolution to its occurrence? How can you break it down into clues your protagonist, and your reader, won’t be able to piece together within the first chapter?

Weaving together a mystery is a challenge worth taking on if you know how to do it right. But first you need to know what the mystery genre is all about, and what makes a mystery different from all the other genres.

What makes a novel a mystery novel?

Mystery novels have a specific crime at the center of their plots, surrounded by all secondary events that usually lead to solving it. This crime, more often than not a murder, is confronted and resolved by the story’s protagonist, an investigator or detective. The reader follows the book’s protagonist along as various clues move the story from point A to point B.

We’ll cover the thriller genre a bit later, but the biggest difference you need to know to differentiate between a mystery and a thriller is that mysteries never reveal the “bad guy” right away. The whole point of a mystery novel is to put together pieces of a puzzle that lead to discovering, and hopefully capturing, who the “bad guy” (or gal) is.

Recent books and their authors 

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen

The Stockholm Castle Mystery by Joyce Elson Moore

Shooting for the Stars by R.G. Belsky

How to write successfully in this genre

What makes writing a straight mystery very different from writing a straight YA novel is that writing a mystery will require a lot of planning. What keeps readers interested in a mystery is wanting to see if they can figure out “whodunit” before the protagonist. Ironically, like the killer in your murder mystery, you have to plan carefully or you’ll end up, er, unsuccessful.

To really give your reader something to praise, you have to tap into the deepest, darkest depths of your creativity. More so than you usually do. Your protagonist’s back story, her reason for taking on the case, the logistics of the murder itself … you have to go where no mystery novelist has gone before. As long as it’s believable, to a certain extent. If it could never happen in real life, the excitement gets crushed underneath the obvious façade. 

If you know who killed whom but are up for the challenge of figuring out how—and how not to make it too obvious—grab your laptop and start outlining! Reading a mystery book is one thing: what can be confusing about the mystery vs. thriller explanation is that reading a mystery is, well, a major thrill.

Writing one will be quite an adventure. We wish you luck, and hope you’ll keep us updated on your progress in the comments. Just don’t give away the ending!

 Want more genres? Check out Genre Breakdown: Fantasy.

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Genre Breakdown: Fantasy


Perhaps what we love most about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter (just a few examples, there are plenty more) is that they tell stories that sweep us completely out of reality. That is, of course, what fantasy is supposed to do: we don’t imagine what the world will be like when these kinds of things happen. Our imaginations allow us to wonder what life would be like if, for example, magic were real.

Possibilities are literally endless for fantasy writers, but making your fantasy story stand out—or even making sure that’s the genre you’re most comfortable writing in—is where a lot of the decision-making comes in.

What makes a novel a fantasy novel? 

Fantasy (isn’t calling it fantasy fiction kind of redundant?) is the genre in which you can, quite literally, break all the rules. It is potentially a complete break from reality: characters may have magical powers, fly with dragons, walk with elves, live in an environment or world completely built from the author’s imagination. Yes, though we often wish we could live in these fictional words, unlike sci-fi, which is a bit more believable and realistic, we never can.

Magic of the unexplainable variety is common in fantasy novels (think Hogwarts; Middle Earth; any Disney classic featuring a fairy or witch). Many settings are more medieval, but it’s not necessarily a requirement. Basically, if you don’t want your story to abide by any laws of physics or realism, fantasy is the genre for you.

Recent books and their authors 

Starborn by Lucy Hounsom

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

A Crown For Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

How to write successfully in this genre 

Probably the most important thing to note about writing a good fantasy novel: you have to let your imagination take the story where it wants to go. Don’t hold yourself back. At least, that’s what Game of Thrones mastermind George R. R. Martin advises. In other genres, you have to limit yourself to what might realistically happen to your characters in a familiar setting. Writing fantasy, anything can happen.

However, it’s also important to remember that you still have to make your fantasy characters believable: they still somehow need to be able to relate to your readers, especially when they have a tough obstacle to overcome. Also don’t be afraid to throw in twists on fantasy clichés—good and evil are not always black-and-white; there is not always just one hero.

Play off of myths and legends, but craft them into something new, something we’ve never seen before. Be creative. World-build until you get lost and have to find your way back again. Go as far as your mind will take you. Write something your readers will wish they could escape to, mixing in just enough relatable character traits to make them feel represented in the world they must navigate on their own.

Want more genres? Check out Genre Breakdown: Science Fiction.

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Genre Breakdown: Science Fiction


It doesn’t matter who you are or what genre you write in: everyone wonders what it would be like to write their own science fiction novel. It doesn’t seem all that difficult on the surface: it’s literally all made up, after all (but don’t, please, confuse sci-fi with fantasy; they are not the same thing—yes, fantasy comes next in our Genre Breakdown series, so hold on).

Writing in this genre does require a lot of thought and creativity though, because you have to not only be able to create a good story with intriguing conflict and dynamic characters: you have to set it up during a time and place that does not exist.

You have all the power to do what you want with your science-y story idea. But you need to know how to use it wisely.

What makes a novel a science fiction novel?

Science fiction is a genre portraying futuristic, fictional (duh) scientific and technological advances that bring major social and environmental changes upon featured societies and characters. Sometimes sci-fi involves time and space travel and interplanetary life, but not always. What makes a science fiction story a science fiction story is its ability to send its reader on a journey—not to answer questions they already had, but to discover questions they never even knew needed answering.

Most will tell you a book can’t be a science fiction story if it features a society or circumstance too similar to the ones your readers will recognize. It can feature similar themes—maybe one species of alien is discriminatory against another, starting a galactic civil war of some kind. But that’s the key: these are virtually unknown species. Which could technically exist out there somewhere, but to our definite knowledge, don’t.

Recent books and their authors

Armada by Ernest Cline

Alien invasions are terrifying enough. Try battling being a teenager at the same time (been there, conquered that. The teenage thing, not the aliens).

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

When it comes to the end of the world, there’s only one thing to do: leave. If you knew you were descended from one of those lucky ones who got off a planet before it was too late, would you be curious enough to go scope out where you came from?

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Exploring new planets sounds fun. What happens when you get to this new world and you’re the only one who can see? If everyone else around you is blind, what are you to them? 

How to write successfully in this genre 

To succeed in this genre, you need to be willing to do what all of us are drastically afraid to do—dive into all the other ideas that have already been used. Read books (see above). Watch movies. Familiarize yourself with what’s already been done—and yes, you can technically classify watching Star Trek as research—so you can do one of two things: dig deep enough that you find a small stand of something that hasn’t been done, or the better of the two options, figure out which questions have been raised and pull from those an entirely new set of questions you want your readers to ask.

Sci-fi is not a new genre, so you won’t have trouble finding all kinds of weird and amazing stuff out there to explore. You’ll have to use your creativity to spin those old ideas into completely new stories because, sorry, unless you’re a sci-fi mastermind, you’re not going to write your way into the official Star Wars universe right at your start. Take today’s biggest social challenges, launch them thousands of years into the future, shift around the circumstances to fit your new universe, and you’re on your way.

Oh, and just so you’re warned: world building is hard. It is time-consuming, and you will get sucked in, addicted and drained. But it is so, so worth it. And if that’s where you want to start—go for it. As long as you can come up with a good plot to go along with it.

Yes, nonexistent technologies, aliens and epic space battles are, well, epic. But good writing still matters, so while you’re building up your action-packed, futuristic masterpiece, let the writing carry it along, not just the EXPLOSIONS.

Want more genres? Genre Breakdown: Young Adult Fiction is here.

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Genre Breakdown: Young Adult Fiction


Young adult fiction is known for its big successes: The Hunger Games trilogy, Divergent, The Fault In Our Stars and The Book Thief all fall into this literary genre, and there’s a good reason why these books resonate so well with the majority of their audiences. But first, let’s define what makes a young adult story different than a story for kids or older adults. 

What makes a novel a young adult novel? 

Young adult fiction features characters generally between the ages of 12 and 18, and following that age bracket, deals with situations and themes these individuals would typically face in real life (first love, growing up, changing friendships, relationships between teens and their parents, conflicting emotions).

Some make the argument that YA stories are usually written in first person to make the narrator more relatable to the reader, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. What makes a YA novel appealing to the typical teen reader is giving the narrator or main character some means of overcoming the tough situations they’re put in, maybe in cases similar to what readers might be struggling with themselves.

Recent books and their authors

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

What if, every time you thought about giving up, something good came along to stop you? That’s what keeps happening to Theodore, whose thoughts of suicide always seem to lead to more reasons to keep living. And then there’s Violet, who counts the passing days but forgets to enjoy them. When the two meet, all the bright places suddenly seem a little bit brighter. For now.

Emily & Oliver by Robin Benway

What do you do when your best friend, who has been missing from your life for a whole decade, shows up again? Ten years is a long time to be apart, but Emily and Oliver don’t seem to have too much trouble picking up where they left off. They aren’t kids anymore, though. Which means love is a possibility they’ve never seen before.

Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story by David Levithan

Those who have read Will Grayson, Will Grayson will remember Tiny from the book co-authored by John Green and Levithan, published in 2010. Now it’s Tiny’s turn to tell his story, and we bet you’re anxious to hear more about his childhood and what it’s really like to wander through a small Illinois high school with a Tiny personality. 

How to write successfully in this genre

How do you appeal to young adult fiction readers, and make your stories stand out? Basically, The Atlantic reinforces what we’ve been telling you all along: know who your audience is and what they want to read. Preteens, teenagers and even young adults over the age of 18 pick up YA novels, so while it’s okay to go deep with themes, it’s important to know which ones your potential readers want to spend hours immersed in.

It’s a misconception that books written about and for teens have to lack maturity and have to be written simply, even poorly. Don’t insult your readers. You’re not writing a dissertation, for goodness sake, but don’t change the way you write to help your younger audience understand it. Those who do read your stories will appreciate that you’re recognizing they are intelligent.

Maybe you’ll be challenging some of them a little if you tend to weave in more motifs and other techniques, but that’s a good thing, especially if they’re unknowingly learning how to pick out and analyze more complex themes and ideas on their own, outside the English class setting.

If you’re a writer who belongs in this diverse genre, you’ll be interested to know some of the sub-genres within YA fiction to further classify your stories. We’ll cover those a little later this month, so keep checking back!

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