Find out the closest fitting sub-genre for your speculative fiction, or troubleshoot your genre in this guide for writers.
- Major Genres
- SFF Sub-genres Used in #SFFpit
- The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy
- What’s the Difference between…
- Setting-Based Sub-genres
- Literary Fantasy
- Fantasy Romance or Romance Fantasy (Order Matters!)
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.
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
- #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?
A 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).
A 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.
A 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.
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 #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.