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.

WATCH, or: Where to Start and End your Novel

This post explains the acronym WATCH, asks what kind of novel you’re writing, and then teaches you where/how to begin and end your novel. Short fiction writers—don’t fret. You can learn about beginning and ending your stories effectively, too.

I’ve been reading Characters and Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card and learning so much about point of view and types of novels that I’ve not read anywhere else. So of course I’m going to share what I’m learning with all of you!

One thing that really interested me was Card’s “MICE Quotient.” He says there are four types of stories. Each story has all four elements, but stories will emphasize one more than the others. MICE stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event.

I hope Mr. Card will forgive me, but I think his use of “Idea” is a bit misleading, and I’d probably have to look up “milieu” again every time I saw it in the future. So I’m creating my own mnemonic device that works well in the context of my time-traveling historical fantasy.

W.A.T.CH.: Which will you focus on in your writing?

WATCH

  1. World
  2. Answer
  3. Time
  4. CHaracter

Okay, I know the H in “character” is silent. Nobody’s perfect.

World

This is Card’s “Milieu,” but “world” is far less pretentious and more memorable, in my humble opinion. You’ve probably heard of “world building” if you are familiar with Sci-Fi and fantasy, or the broader term “universe.” World concerns itself with setting, place, time, culture, customs, manners, and the like. Every novel has some degree of its own world. In some stories, though, the world-building is so central to the book, it almost becomes a character itself.

Westerns, epic fantasy, and historical fiction tend to focus on World.

Answer

This is what Card refers to as “idea,” but I think “Idea” has connotations of “theme” and not much else. An Answer story poses a question or a problem that needs to be answered or solved by the end. The question could be obvious—”Who murdered Mr. Boddy?”—or it could be figurative. If it’s figurative, the answer might very well be the theme of the story. Take The Great Gatsby, for example. While the World (1920s), Time (events), and Characters (Gatsby, Carraway, Tom, Daisy, etc.) are all important and well-developed, they are all used to illustrate the themes (money, power, time, etc.). An allegorical story like Pilgrim’s Progress has universal, and thereby flat, characters, but it can get away with it, because the story is about finding answers. What is Christian’s purpose? To get to the Celestial City.

Mysteries, capers, allegory, and some sci-fi and classical fiction focus on Answers or theme.

Examples: Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Ocean’s Eleven, Pilgrim’s Progress, The Great Gatsby

Time

Time deals with events. Cause and effect. The plot. What happens. If you’re trying to get a writing degree at a respectable university, they will tell you that Character must always trump plot. And while that’s true for literary fiction, it’s not true for all fiction. Anne Lamott, whom many of us regard as one of the finest writing instructors alive, urges writers to think about characters and their motivations, hang the plot. But in Bird by Bird, she confesses that she had to rewrite one of her novels countless times, because the plot made no sense, and her editor kept telling her it didn’t work. So she learned how to do a plot treatment, and she fixed it. Plot gets thrown under the bus by respectable writers, but it’s definitely important.

I really enjoy character-driven short fiction, but if I pick up a novel in which nothing actually happens, I’ll throw it across the room and rage about it to my poor, unsuspecting husband. Popular fiction, the kind that is nearly impossible to put down, focuses on Time and what happens in the book. Hopefully the characters will change by the end of the book, but that isn’t always the case. Katniss Everdeen isn’t the deepest character on the shelf, but she sure does a lot.

Time novels start with something amiss that needs to be fixed. They right a wrong; they “save” women from spinsterhood. Or at least they try to fix the problem. They primarily try to change what happens, though the people in the story are usually changed, too.

Because they deal with problems, the line between Time stories and Answer stories can be a blurry one. The difference is that in an Answer story, something is learned or realized, resulting in an understood truth. But in a Time story, something happens, resulting in a shift in circumstance. Answer stories have an intellectual conclusion, whereas Time stories have a physical one.

Dystopian, disaster, justice/revenge, thriller, horror, sci-fi and romance are generally Time- or event-focused.

Examples: The Hunger Games, Jurassic Park, The Count of Monte Christo, The Da Vinci Code, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Doctor Who, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Character

A character-driven novel is one in which the most important factor isn’t what happens, when and where it happens, or the author’s intent. The important thing in a character-driven story is growth. The character should change for the better or for the worse. If the character doesn’t change, the reader grows in understanding of why that character will never change.

Contemporary literary fiction concerns itself primarily with character. American readers especially want to know who a character is and why he or she acts the way he/she does. Motivation, motivation, motivation.

General fiction, literary fiction, and the bildungsroman (that’s fancy talk for a coming-of-age story) depend primarily on character.

Examples: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Things They Carried, Huckleberry Finn

How to begin and end the story

Bilbos-Birthday-Party

World

When the world in your story is the focus, you begin by introducing the world. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien created a gigantic universe that is Middle Earth. His stories begin by showing what life is like. Then things begin to shake that world up a bit. Orson Scott Card gave the example of The Lord of the Rings. Why does the story not end when the One Ring is destroyed? Because the story isn’t just about Frodo Baggins and his Fellowship; it’s about how Middle-Earth completely changed. So the story ends not at Mount Doom, or at Aragorn’s coronation, or after the scouring of the Shire. It ends when the last of the elves leave Middle Earth. The world has changed. It’s changed for Frodo, too, so he leaves with the elves.

Grey Havens

Where are my tissues?

Answer

If you’ve read or watched many mysteries, you know they all start the same. They might have a couple of lines or minutes introducing the protagonist as a person capable of solving a mystery, but they really start when someone’s been murdered or another crime has been committed. They start with a mystery or a question. Why do you think some people call mysteries “Whodunits”? The story ends when you find out who did it.

study-in-pink

In theme stories, the story begins with theme and ends with theme. The Great Gatsby begins with advice (given in the past) about considering someone else’s history against your own, and how those histories have affected your presents:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”

It ends with the message that even though we make effort to change our futures, we will always be pulled back to our past:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

You end the story once the characters or the reader has a new understanding.

In a series of Answers stories, they might end on a new question. Readers read the next book to have the new question answered. That’s usually how seasons of Castle end. And if you watch Sherlock, you really know what I mean about ending on a question!

Time

Time stories begin by showing you what’s wrong. There might be a quick introduction of characters, but then we see what sort of circumstance the characters are in, and they realize they’ve got to do something about it. Or they reject it but end up doing something anyway.

Lizzie Bennet Diaries

My mom gave me this shirt.

The Hunger Games begins with the Reaping. Pride and Prejudice begins with a woman who, according to her mother, needs a husband (preferably a rich one). Doctor Who episodes usually begin with the discovery of aliens bent on the destruction of the universe.

Time stories end when circumstances change. The woman gets married; the world is saved. Justice is had; someone is avenged. They basically end when there’s nothing else to tell—nothing else happens to change the circumstance of the world or of the protagonist. At least not until the sequel. If a time story is part of a series, one story might end when the circumstances change in order to create a new story. The Hunger Games ends after circumstances change for Katniss and Peeta. They’ve hit a new normal. But Haymitch assures them that more change is to come. Catching Fire is notorious for its cliffhanger ending.

Pride & Prejudice wedding

The story ends here when it’s one about finding romance. Achievement unlocked.

Character

Character stories begin with the character living a normal life.

500 Days of Summer Todd Hanson

Everything that happens in the story affects the character somehow, and by the end of the story, the character has grown. Character stories end with the change or growth in character. A new life for the character has begun.

(500) Days of Summer is not a love story, it’s a character story. It doesn’t end with a relationship, it ends when Tom finally gets a life. (I adore this movie.)

Chris Oatley has a great post on “How to Write Great Character Introductions” over at Paper Wings Podcast. If you’re writing a character-driven story (and even if you aren’t), be sure to read it.

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Take some time and think about your favorite books and movies. What kinds of stories are they? Where do they begin? How do they end?

Be sure to check out WATCH Part Two—a quiz on where you should begin and end YOUR novel.

Once I get through my notes and finish Characters and Viewpoint, I’ll be starting a new series on Point of View. Subscribe or follow me on Facebook to stay in the loop!

beginning & ending your novel: a lesson in genre