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Creative Writing Genres: Their Driving Force and Impact

March 1, 2020
March 1, 2020

Literary genres are decisive when you’re writing fiction. In fact, your literary genre should be one of the first things you consider. It is the first thing an agent assesses on your submissions letter as they decide whether this is what they are looking for, and which editor to call for lunch.

They’ll be checking whether you’ve used the right ingredients for the literary genre you’ve placed yourself in.

Why? Well, publishers acquire novels according to their literary genres. Their departments are divided into specialists in each literary genre. Why? Because book stores are also divided into literary genre sections. Why? Because readers buy books based on their reading preferences. Why? Because readers know what they like, and like what they know. Not always, but often.

Your creative writing needn’t be hemmed into one literary genre

Two authors who have taken leaps from genre to genre, Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro were in conversation for the New Statesman.

They spoke of the matter of literary genre, and the importance of satisfying your readers’ expectations. At the same time, they discussed how creative writing allows us to balance this, to do something new, for you, the writer; to bring your own personality to the book you’re writing.

Neil Gaiman: I thought, “That’s actually a way to view all literary genres,” because there are things that people who like a genre are looking for in their fiction: the things that titillate, the things that satisfy. If it was a cowboy novel, we’d need the fight in the saloon; we’d need the bad guy to come riding into town and the good guy to be waiting for him. A novel that happens to be set in the Old West doesn’t actually need to deliver any of those things – though it would leave readers of genre cowboy fiction feeling peculiarly disappointed, because they have not got the moments of specific satisfaction.

Kazuo Ishiguro:
So we have to distinguish between something that’s part of the essence of the genre and things that are merely characteristic of it. Gunfights are characteristic of a western, but may not be essential to making the story arresting.

You can, of course, combine genres – knowingly. But you don’t want to do so unknowingly, and by writing for everyone and anyone, fail to please anybody!

You need to know from the outset what you’re writing and why. It’s perfectly okay to say this is ‘crossover’ and name your mash-up (ideally of no more than two genres).

Genre is important: start here

You’ve probably researched genres of fiction. You likely have a reading preference that’s guided your choice. But you can look at genre in a different way. We’ll explain!

Fiction genres can be individually defined by the particular nature of the key driving force behind your story.

Each genre has its own secret agent of story, and that’s how genres can be defined. Make sure you’ve got the right one in the driving seat of your moving vehicle! Shall we peel back the disguise? It might be that the commonly held drivers of genre are in fact wearing a mask.

You can find all our hero books here to see what we think makes magical prose writing, but let’s dig into some of them to work out what makes each genre tick. Of course, we won’t be thinking specifically about genre when it comes to creative nonfiction, but historical events and even scientific theories are often much more engaging when devices and drivers of literary prose are brought into play!


Driving force: the antagonist

Example: Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

An interesting twist on what you might expect at play here. The plot is driven by the ‘bad guy’ (the rapist) but also the unknowability of Mr X who, by dint of ‘joint enterprise’, apparently assists our heroine in the management of the conflict vis-à-vis ‘the bad guy’.

The addition of untrustworthy characters gives authors the bonus point of the addition of the adjective ‘psychological’ to their genre. The first-person treatment from the perspective of an unreliable narrator is another key component for +psychological. (+Psychological = unreliability)

The purpose of the antagonist is to reveal the true nature of the hero. (In a psychological thriller, who’s good and who’s bad is much more up for grabs. How about an antagonist who is a nuisance, but a goodly person, who reveals our hero as not so noble... ah, yes, because that’s concerned with morality, it’s literary. See below.)

Note, too, that the distinction between Thriller and Crime is that the crime has not yet taken place.


Driving force: murder and morality

Example: The Godfather by Mario Puzo

Example: The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

In both of these novels which depend upon the wanton – almost callow – disposability of human life, there is nonetheless sympathy for the devil. The likeable face of the killer. The Godfather, Don Corleone, and his son Michael, have values. Their values are such that they consider these to be a higher purpose than the accident of life. In The Talented Mr Ripley, Tom Ripley has values too.

It’s a classic story of someone who starts off down on his luck and disregarded, but who, through force of personality, hard work and sheer determination, manages to make something of himself. (He is)... polite, self-effacing, hard working. He is endearingly shy in company and worried about the impression he makes on others. He is always assessing himself, always trying to improve. He can do wonderful imitations. He escapes from horrible scrapes with flair and elan. He has a brave taste for adventure, for putting himself in difficult situations and foreign landscapes. Oh, and he is a very good tipper. Good old Tom – what’s not to like? Well, I suppose there is the fact that he is a cold-blooded killer. It isn’t very nice when he batters Greenleaf Jr to death. Truth be told, it’s rather an awkward moment.
— Sam Jordison, The Guardian

The driving force here is the likeable killer. If you think about it, in all whodunnits, the killer is not the foul-mouthed uncouth swine, but the pleasing, amenable character.

And that’s not just a device to trick the reader. It’s more than that. It’s because the likeability of the murderer drives a long-form story more surely than his or her hatefulness. That would be an awfully short story.

The detective crime novel, mystery fiction, cosy crime or police procedural

Driving force: natural justice and order prevail

Example: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

The crime novel was described by Dorothy Sayers as ‘the literature of escape’. Sophie Hannah told our writers that its popularity is derived from one of the most fundamental aspects of the meaning of life, and a key driving force for staying alive. We don’t know what will happen next.

But that’s really the milieu of plot and the story ideas authors dream up. The pedestrian high street of a crime novel has alleyways out of which anything might jump. That’s a given of the genre. I am not sure if it’s the driving force.

The driving force of a detective crime fiction falls in the heroism of the detective against the background of a life in which we don't know what will happen next.

Here’s Raymond Chandler on the detective novel:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. (...) If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.
— Raymond Chandler

So, the paradox afoot here is that an unsafe world has as its driving force a safe pair of hands. Try to compose one without this stoic hero? Not possible.

(Cosy crime is a sub-genre in which the victim ‘deserves’ it – a rotten egg – and the sleuth is an amateur.)

Historical fiction

Driving force: a contemporary or timeless social question

Example: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Example: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

An author writing historical fiction is akin to one writing speculative fiction: they are finding a way to say something about our current condition without writing non-fiction.

Historical fiction presents a ready-made world, and is selected as a locale in time and place as much for what is missing as what is there. In other words, the setting allows the author to present a parallel of a current situation in more stark relief, even when they draw on actual historical figures.

Thus, paradoxically, a historical novel (with the exception of a historical romance) is driven by events or conditions of the present time, despite the use of historical settings. An author may have something to say about the ways in which we discriminate and segregate groups, as did Victor Hugo and Margaret Atwood, and has no need to contrive a new or alternative world to present these recurrent themes as a simpler format pre-exists.

Science fiction

Driving force: inhumanity

Example: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Example: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (also Dystopian.)

Anything is better than the way we live now, says the science fiction writer. As with historical fiction, yet a shriller protest in the sense that science fiction demands imagining, and enacting, the future now.

The author’s intention is clairvoyance. What lies ahead of us – beware – a warning shot.

The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.
— Albert Camus

Literary fiction

Driving force: the moral or spiritual quest

Example: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Example: Everyman by Philip Roth

Example: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

As I mentioned above, a literary novel is concerned with a laser-sharp focus on the moral enterprise of the hero. It examines a person’s life, and how he or she becomes reconciled to their true place in the world.

They can be completely abased, as much as exalted as a servant to the death of dogs, a recently-buried body, or a cuckolded and humiliated husband. The imaginary characters are yours to create.

The paradox here is that the driving force of the story is the spiritual standing gained as a result of worldly loss. Think A Christmas Carol. The loss confers a supreme blessing.

(The Quest genre is driven by a material quest.)

fiction genres for writers
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Up Lit

Driving force: wellbeing (happiness) driven by community action

Example: A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backmann

Example: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

From sad face to happy face with a major kick up the butt delivered to our moping and miserable heroine or hero thanks to a comely cast.

Impossible to imagine without good relations with humankind. A testament to community action, with plenty of comedic elements. Reveals human behavior needn’t be such a cause for despair.


Driving force: a value choice

Example: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

As with Up Lit, the heroine or hero has given up on change, and yet it happens to them through the conduit of another person.

In Brooklyn, Eilis meets a handsome Italian-American man who speaks of marriage. A death summons her back to Ireland, where she finds that America has made her glamorous and desirable, and she faces a choice between the old life and the new.

Thus Eliza Bennett had to choose between her pride and prejudice and broader-minded possibilities for true communion with another person. The romantic relationship represents much more.

A romantic novel has as its paradox that stability and peace are afforded by choice and change.


Driving force: the disappointment of adulthood

Example: The Curious Adventure of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

The novel explores, as does Bonjour Tristesse, a coming of age in which one’s hopes for the noblesse of the adult kind are dashed.

Although the bildungsroman can take many forms, the paradox at the heart of this genre is that the more mature human being is immature and hardly grown up at all. The author of this kind of literature warns the reader to go back, go back and retreat into the better and more benevolent state of innocence.


Driving force: violent conflict

Example: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

When push comes to shove, as it must in fantasy, there will be blood.

Sure, there are plenty of imagined elements along the way, with each fantasy author developing their own style and often dreaming up fantastical magical creatures in the way only only a writer’s imagination can. Conflict between good and evil may be delayed by foul, fair or magical elements.

But eventually, there will be a fleshy sacrifice. Nobility bows its head on the battlefield and takes the fatal blow.

But don’t worry, the swaggering heroes will be there for the sequel, as will the ‘real’ bad guys.


Concerned with the home, so a novel like Little Fires Everywhere might sit here. Consider it in light of what is outside the home and how that threatens what’s inside.

Women’s fiction

For women by women. (As are most novels. Yes, we don’t like the term either but it is a commercially recognised genre).

Driven by what it is to not be a man! Common elements include a positive result for the main character or characters who are women at the end of the narrative.

Reading group or book club fiction

Upmarket fiction (the old ‘literary fiction’!) that addresses universal, elevated themes while remaining accessible to the general public.

It often deals with controversial or emotionally charged issues which may provoke conversation, or become a ‘talking piece’. (Often considered preferable in marketing terms to ‘women’s fiction’.)


What agents sometimes refer to as ‘breakthrough’ novels are those which creatively combine genres. Think of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – mystery, romance, crime. Or Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller which is given as literary, psychological and even comedy!

The key ingredients that I look for in a fully formed breakout premise are (1) plausibility, (2) inherent conflict, (3) originality and (4) gut emotional appeal.
— Donald Maas

Take your genre seriously

Consider what’s driving your story before you start, and you won’t go too far wrong.

When you start writing a novel you need to know two things:

  1. What the reader’s reading your book to discover (the question you’re raising.)
  2. The driving force of your story, as appropriate to your genre.

Nail them, and you are well begun! Next, writing the novel. We can help you write a first draft of your novel with our famous Novel Kickstarter Course.

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Members of The Novelry team