Types of Novels and Which One You Should Write

Here you'll find explanations of different types of novels. For more novel-writing tips and ideas, be sure to join our free email group.

Types of novels - overview

The publishing world tends to classify fiction as either commercial, meaning it's built to make money, or as literary, meaning that it's a work of art. There's no reason why art can't also make money, but things often don't work out that way. That's why we talk about starving artists, and that's why commercial fiction and literary fiction are treated as separate categories. Guess which one big publishers prefer.

Types of novels - commercial fiction

Commercial fiction is divided into many genres, or categories. This kind of classification helps readers find the types of novels they like to read. For example, readers who are mainly interested in love stories can go straight to "Romance" section of the bookstore. Each genre also has its own traditions. If you're interested in writing in a particular genre, it's important to read a lot of books in that genre in order to learn more about it and understand what readers will expect.

Some major genres:

  • Mysteries - A mystery is about a crime, usually a murder, and the process of discovering who committed it. The hero(ine) is usually a detective or an amateur doing detective work. Read more about writing mysteries here.

  • Science fiction - Science fiction is fiction that imagines possible alternatives to reality. It is reality + "What-if." For example: What if the world ended? What if there were life on other planets? The imaginary part of science fiction is based on known scientific facts. For example, if there is time travel in a science fiction book, it would be done with technology, not by waving a magic wand. Read more about writing science fiction here.

  • Fantasy - Like science fiction, fantasy is about imaginary worlds. But the imaginary part of fantasy novels usually involves magic, where the imaginary part of science fiction involves science or technology. Read more about writing fantasy here.

  • Westerns - Westerns normally take place in the Western U.S. (although sometimes in other locations), most often during the 19th century. Common elements include cowboys, ranchers, the difficulties of frontier life, frontier justice, and conflicts between natives and settlers.

  • Horror - Horror fiction gets its name because it is focused on creating emotions of terror and dread in the reader. Horror fiction often accomplishes this through the use of scary supernatural elements or gore, but these elements are not required. Read more on the Horror Writers Association website.

  • Thrillers - Like horror, a thriller gets its name because of the feeling it creates in the reader. Thrillers are designed to make the reader's pulse race, to keep him or her turning pages. Often thrillers are about a crime that is going to be committed or a disaster that is going to happen... if the hero(ine) doesn't prevent it. Read more about writing thrillers here.

  • Romance - Romance fiction is about love and passion. Normally, the focus is on two characters who fall in love but have problems or obstacles keeping them apart, and there is a happy ending. Read more about writing romance here.

  • Historical - Historical novels are set in a past time period, normally at least fifty years before they were written. They combine a made-up story with realistic details of that time period. Read more about writing historical fiction here.

These are many other fiction genres in addition to these! And each genre has sub-genres, or sub-categories. For example, the romance genre includes historical romances, erotic romances, young adult romances, and more.

Types of novels - literary fiction

Literary fiction is generally lumped all together in bookstores as "General Fiction" or "Literature." Because the first priority of literary authors is creating works of art, while selling books is only a second consideration, literary authors are less likely to think in terms of writing a specific genre or category of novel and following the customs of that genre.

Some literary authors today write in a realistic way about the daily lives of ordinary people, what is known as contemporary realism. Some choose to introduce an element of magic or a spirit world in an otherwise realistic story, what is known as magical realism. Others create works of art that incorporate the traditions of commercial fiction genres such as mysteries and science fiction. A number of literary authors also innovate with non-traditional approaches to story-telling, such as breaking up the order of events in the story, offering several alternative endings, or treating the reader as a character in the book. In this type of novel, the main point often isn't just the story itself, but also the way the story is told.

Types of novels - which one should you write?

  • If your main goal is to make money, I'd recommend copywriting instead of fiction writing.

  • If your goal is to publish a novel and become as rich as J.K. Rowling, then I'd say, write whatever you want and play the lottery.

  • Otherwise, my advice is to write whatever you like to read. You'll be better at it, will understand your readers (because you are one of them!), and you'll have a lot more fun.

Whatever type of novel you choose, sharpen your basic creative writing skills to create the best fiction you can. Normally, this means creating characters your readers care about, scenes your readers can practically see, hear, feel, and smell, and a story that takes them on an exciting ride from Point A to Point B.

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Types of novels - next steps

Click on the links below to read more about specific types of novels:

cat and bookshelf, illustrating an article on writing different types of novelsPhoto credit: Dave Francis