Guide to SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) Sub-genres

Lara Willard answers genre questions: What's Magical Realism? What's the difference between Science-Fiction and Fantasy? What genre is my novel?

Find out the closest fitting sub-genre for your speculative fiction, or troubleshoot your genre in this guide for writers.

Contents

  1. Major Genres
  2. SFF Sub-genres Used in #SFFpit
  3. The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy
  4. What’s the Difference between…
  5. Setting-Based Sub-genres
  6. Literary Fantasy
  7. Fantasy Romance or Romance Fantasy (Order Matters!)

Major Genres

This post is about the sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy. If you don’t think your story falls into speculative fiction, see my post on commercial, literary, and “general fiction” categorization, or watch my seminar on understanding age categories and genres (>1 hr).

SFF Sub-genres Used in #SFFpit

If you are writing speculative fiction and plan on pitching via #SFFpit, or if you are researching #MSWL, you need to know your sub-genres. The total list, as of December 2014, is below. I’ve divided them based on the requirements of the sub-genre.

This list is what what used for #SFFpit in 2014. For current lists or other contests, please visit the contest host’s website or blog.

By Subject (Genre Depends on Specific Tropes)

  • #FA – fantasy
  • #DF – dark fantasy
  • #EF – epic or high fantasy
  • #MYF – mythic fantasy
  • #PN – paranormal
  • #SF – science fiction
  • #DS – dystopian
  • #ML – military science fiction
  • #PA – post-apocalyptic SF
  • #SP – steampunk

By Setting (Genre Depends on Time or Place)

  • #CF – contemporary fantasy
  • #HF – historical fantasy
  • #SO – space opera
  • #TT – time travel
  • #UF – urban fantasy
  • #WW – weird west

Crossovers

  • #FR – fantasy romance
  • #HF – historical fantasy
  • #AH – alternate history
  • #LF – literary fantasy
  • #MR – magical realism
  • #SFR – sci-fi romance
  • #SFT – sci-fi thriller
  • #SO – space opera
  • #TT – time travel

The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

If the not-in-our-reality elements stem from technology, it’s Science Fiction. If they stem from magic or unknown forces, it’s Fantasy. There is crossover. The Force in Star Wars tied the series to fantasy until the Midi-chlorians debacle of the prequels, which tried to sever any ties with the fantasy genre by explaining the Force with science.

The umbrella term for Science Fiction and Fantasy is Speculative Fiction, which is fiction not limited by real-world settings or physics.

What’s the Difference between…

Contemporary Fantasy & Urban Fantasy?

Answer:  If the urban setting is so experiential that it becomes a living, breathing thing, then it’s Urban Fantasy. You could have a historical UF set in 1930s NYC or a futuristic UF. Contemporary Fantasy is contemporary. Internet age. The fraternal twin of urban fantasy is rural fantasy, but “rural fantasy” is better categorized by its setting in time, not place.

Contemporary = Internet age.

Historical = set in the past.

Contemporary Fantasy & Magical Realism?

In Magical Realism (#MR), the fantastic elements aren’t described as extraordinary. “It is what it is.” Examples of #MR would be One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the film Big Fish. The setting is the “real world.” The difference between magical realism (#MR) and contemporary fantasy (#CF) is that CF treats the fantastic as being weird or extraordinary. It explains the magic or calls it magic (or something similar). Disney loves contemporary fantasy. It’s always calling stuff magic.

In a Magical Realism world, magic is real and ordinary. When something falls at a party, we don’t explain gravity to the whole room. It’s just a part of our reality. We accept it.

Genres with Gods and Goddesses—Paranormal, Mythic, Dark, or…?

These can have some overlap.

If the gods are based off classical or pre-established mythology, it’s a mythical fantasy. If they are interacting with the real world, it’s paranormal (specifically supernatural). If it’s set in an imaginary world (Narnia, Middle Earth, Westeros), then I’d just call it fantasy (#FA). If the tone is dark or evil, it would be dark fantasy.

High Fantasy & Space Opera?

They are quite similar. Epic/High fantasy entails a journey, often with a “fellowship.” Think Lord of the Rings, swords & sorcery. An epic fantasy is epic in characters, in setting, and in scope. Journeys span countries, take time. Space Opera is an epic tale, like epic or high fantasy, except the travel is between worlds, and the travel is usually done via space ship. Space Opera, if it contains spaceships, is Science Fiction. The setting is the main difference.

Post-Apocalyptic or Dystopian?

dystopian novel is about a protagonist in a futuristic setting fighting a corrupt state.

If your “dystopian” lacks technology as part of the setting or corruption, it’s probably epic fantasy. It’s the difference between Big Brother (dystopian) and Dark Lord (epic fantasy).

post-apocalyptic novel is about human survival. The story takes place after some major disaster has affected the world. Usually the disaster is a natural disaster (think Day After Tomorrow and other world-disaster movies), a zombie apocalypse (Warm Bodies, World War Z), World War III, an alien or monster invasion (The Book of Eli), or a disease outbreak (Contagion, Station Eleven). A post-apocalyptic novel may also be science-fiction thriller. Warm Bodies crosses over into paranormal romance. Station Eleven is often considered literary fiction.

Post-apocalyptic = after civilization—humanity vs natural disaster, invasion, or aftermath

Dystopian = against uncivilization—humans vs a corrupt State

PA and DS novels have an interesting cause-and-effect relationship. Take current day, add an apocalypse, have people survive, they end up creating a new government which becomes corrupt. That’s the beginning of The Hunger Games. Take a corrupt government, overthrow it in a major war, and you’ve got people trying to rebuild and survive. That’s Mockingjay.

Dark or Paranormal Fantasy?

To be grievously simplistic, paranormal means “monsters.” If your novel contains ghosts, vampires, were-animals, zombies, Big Foot, or any kind of “spooky” type of creature, it’s paranormal. Paranormal can be romance, adventure, or comedy. Generally it is placed under fantasy, but it could be post-apocalyptic (see Warm Bodies, above). If it’s a romance novel with a paranormal love interest, it’s paranormal romance.

dark fantasy has a dark, ominous tone. It might concern death or criminal behavior. Usually a dark fantasy is considered a fantasy / horror crossover.

Not all paranormal fiction is dark. Twilight isn’t a horror novel, it’s a romance. Shaun of the Dead is more of a comedy adventure than a horror movie. I’d probably call it paranormal comedy. If it weren’t funny, but not particularly dark or ominous, just a paranormal adventure, I’d call it paranormal fantasy.

Setting-Based Sub-genres

If your novel prominently features historical settings or characters, it’s Historical Fantasy, Alternate History, or Time Travel.

  • Historical Fantasy (#HF) is set in the past but contains fantastic elements. It’s the fraternal twin of contemporary fantasy.
  • Alternate History #AH asks “What would happen if [historical event] had a different outcome?” While HF focuses on the past, AH focuses on a new present or future.
  • Time travel is either Science Fiction (if it uses tech or science to travel through time), or it’s a portal fantasy (if it uses a magic portal to travel through time).

If your novel primarily features the geography or heavens of a fantasy world (like Narnia, Middle Earth, Westeros, or Mount Olympus), it’s fantasy or one of its subgenres.

If your novel takes place in outer space or has interplanetary settings (it goes from one planet to the other), then it’s more likely science fiction.

The other setting-based genres, as sorted in the list above, should be pretty straightforward.

Literary Fantasy

Literary Fantasy #LF is a new addition to the #SFFpit hashtags. In LF, more emphasis is placed on theme, the human condition, or the prose. If book stores wouldn’t know whether to shelve you with SFF or with “Fiction” (aka General Fiction aka Literature), you may have written LF. Recent examples of Literary Fantasy—The Ocean at the End of the Lane (also Magical Realism), Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Historical Fantasy), The Magicians.

Genre isn’t about labels, it’s about finding readers. SFF readers look for imagination and adventure that isn’t 100% ground in reality. Literary readers want excellent prose, or to be emotionally or mentally invested in a character or theme. Of course there’s crossover!

For more about the “literary” classification, read my post Literary? Mainstream? Commercial? What Genre Is This Anyway?

Fantasy Romance or Romance Fantasy (Order Matters!)

A Fantasy Romance is a Romance novel with fantastic elements. It takes more after the romance genre than the fantasy genre. That means the novel is primarily about getting two love interests into a relationship.

It’s like the difference between yellow-orange and orange-yellow. Put an “ish” after the first word, and you can tell that yellow(ish) orange is more orange, and orange(ish) yellow is more yellow. If your novel couldn’t stand its own among other romance novels, it’s more likely a romantic fantasy.

Whenever you combine two genres together, the second one is the prominent genre, and the first is the modifying adjective. Which genre readers would be more likely to enjoy your book? That’s your prominent genre.

If you still aren’t sure about genre, leave a question below or tweet your question to @LaraEdits.

Appendix: Am I a reputable resource on this subject?

Well, I think so. I’m a published literature essayist of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Society. I graduated summa cum laude with an interdisciplinary degree in literature, writing, and English (among other things). Since then, I’ve traded in my academic writing for a conversational tone. As a writing coach, freelance editor, and writer, I have experience in the field and have been reading on the subject of speculative fiction genres for years. I’ve taken into account the opinions of literary agents, librarians, publishers, and readers. Collaborative opinions aren’t something you can cite easily, so don’t look for a works cited page or list of references here. If you’re writing a literature paper on the subject of sub-genres, you can cite me using the following information, based on your style guide: C. Lara Willard / “Guide to SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) Sub-genres” / Write Edit Repeat / [link to this post].

Update: Connor Goldsmith, literary agent at Fuse Literary, has shared his definitions on sub-genres, with a section devoted to horror, here.

43 thoughts on “Guide to SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) Sub-genres

      • Lara says:

        For humor, no. But you can include the words comedy / comedic / humorous / humor in your pitches. That way if an agent is looking for comedic fantasy or Sci-Fi, they can search for it. Pitching it as only comedy, though or “fantastic comedy” without “fantasy,” is probably not the best idea. Your humor should come across in your pitches and pages. The humor itself isn’t the pitch. Lots of people think they’re funny. Your pitch is your story. You have to show that you can tell a good story. Humor is frosting.

  1. Rachel H (@Rach_H07) says:

    Would a novel with the main theme being good and evil qualify as dark fantasy? Also, if there are slight hints at a romantic spark, would that push said book away from dark fantasy and into paranormal fantasy? Thanks

    • Lara says:

      “Good and evil” isn’t a theme. A theme can be stated as a sentence. So “The line between good and evil is not always clear” is a theme.
      “Good vs evil” is conflict, and it’s found in all sorts of fantasy.
      I’ll add the distinction between Dark and Paranormal to the main post. Thanks!

  2. tlclark says:

    Reblogged this on Finder's Keeper's and commented:
    this is excellent for those fantasy/sci fi writer’s out there trying to nail down what genre your novel falls under. it is one of the hardest questions. you wrote your novel, and if you are anything like me, you didn’t stop to think … this will be a dark fantasy work of ark … you merely wrote what you loved, what you saw playing out inside your head. I ran across this writer and many others while participating in #pitchmadness … twitter query/pitch parties are an excellent way to meet new people. even if you gain nothing more than acquaintances, you have gained something. a comrade-ary that allows you to feel apart of something larger. now, I am off to edit, and tweet with other #pitchmadness peeps while we all wait for the big reveal …

  3. rmlambie says:

    My WIP isn’t time travel but travel from place to place magically. Primary focus is romance though. What would you use for genre? Very curious. I’m having a hard time with this one.

    • Lara says:

      I’ve seen more than one agent request time travel romances on their MSWL, so I’d call it that 🙂 But I wouldn’t use Outlander as a comp title.

  4. Mike says:

    Lara,

    Is Apocalyptic a subgenre? The majority of my story takes place while the human race is ending. So it’s not Post.

    Also, can you pitch a book using a scifi subgenre?

    Thank you.

    • Lara says:

      There are plenty of apocalyptic stories—I feel like they’re lumped in with post-apocalyptic, but I don’t read a lot of them. If it’s a thriller, I might call it an “apocalyptic thriller.”

      If you’re querying an agent who’s familiar with your genre (and you should be), they should know what the sub-genres are. But you can always pitch a book as science fiction and then use comparative titles to show what sort of audience would like the book.

  5. Athena says:

    Hi there! Thank you for such an informative article!
    You did, however, manage to confuse me so I thought I should ask you.
    My novel is about Witches and Warriors(who have their own type of magic). It’s contemporary -this, I know- so I always thought of my novel as contemporary fantasy with romantic and mythological elements, maybe even urban.
    Have you read the Mythos Academy series by Jennifer Estep, or the Covenant series by Jennifer L. Armentrout? I adapt mythology in a similar manner as they do, but in the NA and A age range. You said, ‘if the Gods interact with the realistic world, then it’s paranormal/supernatural.
    I am now totally torn between: contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal>supernatural.

    PS
    *The books I mentioned have various genres on Amazon and Goodreads; they basically mention every genre that trouble me.
    **Action and drama are more significant than the romantic aspect. Romance is still there, however, and it will get stronger and more complicated.

    Any feedback is more than welcome!!! I’m ready to lose my mind over here!

    • Lara says:

      Hi Athena,

      (If Athena is one of your main characters, I’d be interested in doing a manuscript critique for you!)

      Leave out “with ____ elements” in your genre paragraph. Those elements should come across in your query, otherwise they’re not significant enough to mention. Almost every story has romantic elements, but if your book doesn’t follow romance tropes, don’t call it a romance.

      NA is a difficult sell outside of romance (even inside romance, from what one agent source tells me), so I’d leave that label out of your query, too.

      Your book sounds like contemporary fantasy. If it has supernatural elements, some people will shelve it as paranormal, but in stores, paranormal books are packaged as fantasy. When in doubt, choose the largest tier. If you keep getting rejections, you might consider renaming the witches something else you make up, since the assumption is “witch = paranormal.”

      If your comp titles are listed as contemporary fantasy, then by all means use contemporary fantasy!

      Sorry for the confusion. I hope this helps ease your mind 🙂

      • Athena says:

        Hi, Lara! Oh, thank you for getting back to me!
        Athena is actually my name. haha
        Okay, I put aside the elements (I mentioned –too– much so that you could get a feel for the book) and NA (I’ve come to the same conclusion as you).

        So witches are normally in the paranormal? I don’t have any monsters, etc, -just occasional appearances of Gods and in the future, some type of angel/sacred creature. Think the SECRET CIRCLE(the tv show) characters going to college/ a witch society along with ours, yet little more grounded than Harry Potter that has dragons, for example.

        The problem is that the titles have been categorized by every fantasy sub-genre there is and therefore, I can’t reach any conclusions. I don’t think people have made up their minds yet. It must be hard due to the many elements that aren’t strictly within one genre, or perhaps lack of strict definitions or misinformation in general.

        Then there is the word count. Aren’t paranormal books shorter than fantasy? My word count, for example, is around 110K.

        Thank you, Lara. Truly. It means a lot that you took the time to answer me about my uncategorized witches and warriors.

      • Lara says:

        Well it’s an awesome name. On my list if I ever have a girl, actually!

        Paranormal *romances* might tend to be shorter, but word count varies a TON. Look at the classics: Frankenstein is 75K; Dracula is 160K.

        For a debut, when I see word counts over 100K, that usually tells me that wordiness is a problem. See my Self-Editing Checklist for Overused Words and see if you go overboard with any of those. (https://writelarawrite.wordpress.com/2015/11/17/words-to-delete/). If not, you might be fine. World-building takes words! Check the word counts of your comps and see if you’re within 10-20K of those. If so, you’re probably fine. Still, with a freelance editor, I bet you could cut 10% if you needed to. I’d have to see a sample though!

  6. Athena says:

    haha Thank you!! Lara is pretty awesome, too! (You should see the name of my MC from my YA fantasy novel that I’m currently writing. It’s amazing!)

    Yeah, I know about this assumption/fact about debut authors, and I do understand that. I have, however, self-edited it a few times, and my critique partner has worked on it, too. The book features, however, POVs from three characters ( the one has only 3 or 4 chapters, and the other has 6 or 7, and the rest is from the MC’s POV).

    I was ready to cut the chapters from the one character, but I felt like I was cutting my limb. The book felt different to me, so I just let them be.

    Checking out the word counts from other fantasy novels is an excellent and brilliant idea -one I already had. I have my moments. And I am in the upper ‘safe’ category, but it varies a lot. You’re right about that. Fantasy may be the most subjective genre of all!

    I will check it out again, though.

    Thank you so much!

    PS
    I will stick with contemporary fantasy, by the way. It just feels more right to me.

  7. elle says:

    This was the most thorough write up of this I’ve found, yet I’m still confused about my own MS. I’m leaning towards historical fiction with sci-fi elements, magical realism, or literary fantasy, but nothing seems quite right.

    It’s set in 1926 rural Alabama. The three MCs are immortal, but not specially so. (No vampires, secret societies, special powers, etc). There is some speculation about why they don’t age, and some desire to look for other immortals, but this is really a background element.

    It’s character driven. The first MC starts up a moonshine racket to fund his future travels/searches/research (and he is adamant about staying out of mortal lives), the second MC is on a path to independence and purpose for the first time in her 600 year existence (and she is adamant about making a home with mortals), and the third MC is battling his own violent compulsions while trying to do the right thing.

    The main plot is the moonshine racket. The trio inadvertently start a war with a rival southern gang.

    There is an underlying existential theme/quest for purpose.

    Thoughts on genre? Any help would be MUCH appreciated!!

    • Lara says:

      Hi Elle! I’d call it magical realism set in the 1920s. Reminds me of Tuck Everlasting! 🙂 Thanks for reading, and I hope that helps!

      • Lara says:

        By the way, Elle, if anyone is looking for “Slipstream” on MSWL, that’s what your book is, I would think based on how you describe it. Like Metamorphosis—it’s between literary and speculative fiction. The issue is that slipstream isn’t really universally recognized as a genre right now. But feel free to try it out!

      • elle says:

        Oooo! I like this. I’ve never heard of it before, but from what I’ve read, it seems to fit my novel very well. Thank you again!

  8. warrchick says:

    Hi Lara, is this thread still checked? I’m wondering what to call a MG that’s a fairytale mashup. I’ve been using the #FA for fantasy, but don’t feel that’s a great fit. It’s not ‘Cinderella inspired’ or any other particular fairytale inspired, so I can’t use that. When I can work in a comp, the one I use is Shrek x Dealing with Dragons.

    Thoughts and suggestions? Fabulous post!

    • Lara says:

      Hi! What fairy tales are combined? I’d just do what you did and call it a fairytale mashup, but make sure your pitch focuses on how it’s different from, say, Chris Colfer’s series.

  9. warrchick says:

    Fairytale mashup it is! And, I suppose the specific sub genre is clear from the pitch, anyway. 🙂

    Thanks for your help!

  10. ellaapollodorus says:

    Okay, I’m now confused on my genre again… It’s crossgenre, I know that. It has Greek gods, and they do interact with the world, but I have been calling it Mythic Sci-Fi because humans invent time travel – it’s not a fantasy portal type thing. Even the gods have to use the device the humans invented in order to travel through time. And, my greek goddess mc is a starship captain. Thoughts? It also has a pretty strong romantic element (and humor), but I should probably leave that off the genre tag. 🙂 Mythic Sci-Fi with Romantic Elements just sounds too long…

  11. ellaapollodorus says:

    Thank you! I’ve wondered if “Mythic Sci-fi” wasn’t turning off some people. But, on the other hand, I just need one who likes the idea. 🙂
    Should I keep the “with romantic elements” part?

    • Lara says:

      No. I wouldn’t. Your query should at least hint to the mythic and romance. If you don’t have room to illustrate one, drop it. “Mythic SF” doesn’t really mean anything to me without your pitch. You could call it Science Fiction in cases where you can’t corroborate.

  12. missydegraff says:

    Hi Lara! I see you have Fantasy Romance and Sci-fi Romance listed in the crossover section, but no Paranormal Romance? But then Paranormal Romance is given as an example in the following section. So, what is the abbreviation we should use? I’ve seen both PR and PNR used before. Thanks for your help!

    • Lara says:

      Hi Missy! That’s SFFpit’s list—you’ll have to check individual contests’ rules to see which abbreviation they’d prefer. I’ve seen PNR more often, but hashtags change all the time, unfortunately! ❤

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s