Lesson 8 of 17
In Progress

Your Genre

What is Your Book’s Genre? Are You Sure?

We are going to start to talk about your book’s structure in the coming lessons.

The first big decision about your book’s structure and organization comes with the choice of book genre.

Most of you have a solid idea of what your book’s genre will be. You’ve decided that the best form for your book idea is a memoir, a nonfiction book, or a novel.

Each of these genre’s has its own conventions and sub-genres, of course.

The form that you choose must fit the story idea and must fit you.

“An organic structure is aligned with who we are and what we have to say. It is not disconnected from ourself. If a form isn’t organic, I think a great struggle ensues — the writer tries to stuff her being into a costume that doesn’t fit.” — writing instructor Natalie Goldberg

Let’s go through each of the basic genres and sub-genres and see how your book fits.


There are lots of ways to categorize fiction into sub-genres. My favorite, unique way comes from Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes A Novel. (Save the Cat! is a bestselling series of books about storytelling structure, in all genres of writing.)

She identifies ten genres:

The Whydunit (mystery/crime): a crime is solved by a hero (examples: Gone Girl, Sherlock Holmes, In the Woods by Tana French, Girl on the Train)

The Rites of Passage: a hero must go through the pain and suffering from life’s challenges (death, divorce, coming of age, illness, etc) (examples: Catcher in the Rye, Kite Runner, Room by Emma Donoghue, About a Boy by Nick Hornby)

Institutionalized: a hero enters (or is already inside) an institution, group, family, or establishment and must choose to leave, destroy, or stay inside it. (examples: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Little Women, Handmaid’s Tale,  Big Little Lies, The Outsiders, The Help by Kathryn Stockett)

SuperHero: a special hero lives in the ordinary world but must come to terms with being different and destined for extraordinary things (examples: Harry Potter, Dune, the Lightening Thief, Matilda by Roald Dahl, Shadow and Bone)

Dude With a Problem: an ordinary hero must rise to a challenge in extraordinary circumstances (Hunger Games, The Hate U Give, Misery by Stephen King, Life of Pi)

Fool Triumphant: an underestimated underdog hero must prove himself worthy (Jane Eyre, Bridget Jones, Oliver Twist, The Other Bolelyn Girl)

Buddy Love: a hero is transformed by meeting someone/something else (true love, a pet, a friend) (The Fault in Our Stars, Me Before You, Eleanor and Park, and Everything, Everything)

Out of the Bottle: a hero is touched by “magic” (a curse or a wish) and learns a lesson (Landline by Rainbow Rowell, Mary Poppins, A Christmas Carol, Midnight Library)

Golden fleece: a hero goes on a “road trip” (even though there might not be an actual road) in search of something and ends up discovering themselves (Wizard of Oz, Hamilton, Heart of Darkness, Game of Thrones)

Monster in the House: A hero (or a group of heroes) have to overcome some kind of literal or figurative monster in an enclosed setting (World War Z, The Shining, The Silence of the Lambs)

You can see how each of these genres correspond to typical genres (horror, crime, love story, fantasy, etc) but I like her emphasis on storytelling basics and understanding the power of core story structure.


Like fiction, there are endless ways to break down memoir into sub-genres. I’ll use Brooke Warner‘s guide (of She Writes Press) and her categories.

Childhood, Adolescent, Coming of Age Memoirs: Running With Scissors, Jesus Land

Life Experience Memoirs (about a specific aspect of life such as motherhood, career, disease, death, incarceration, etc): Year of Magical Thinking, It Sucked and Then I Cried)

Relationships Memoirs (in which the focus is on a specific relationship/type of relationship): Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, It Happens Every Day)

Cultural/Ethnic/Sexuality Memoirs (stories in which coming out, sexuality, or race/ethnicity play a primary role): Bitch Is The New Black, Between the World and Me, and Black, White, and Jewish)

Food Memoirs: Julie and Julia, Fortune Cookie Chronicles

Travel Memoirs: Eat, Pray, Love; Es Cuba

Survivor Memoirs (difficult childhood stories, war stories, abuse stories, trafficking, etc): The Tender Bar, A Piece of Cake

Addiction and Compulsion Memoirs: Beautiful Boy, Drinking: A Love Story, Fat Girl

Emotion Memoirs (about a single emotion, personal interactions with things like time, money): Dancing at the Shame Prom, Money: A Memoir

Spirituality Memoirs (about spiritual development or experiences with religion): Traveling Mercies, Unorthodox, Leaving the Witness by Amber Scorah

Which category (or categories) is your memoir? 


Again, lots of ways to categorize nonfiction. (And, yes, memoir is of course one genre.) The difference here is that a standard nonfiction book is not organized narratively. It does not have a story structure (characters, conflict, narrative arc).

Prescriptive/Instructive: how-to books (Advice, Relationships)

Lifestyle Books: Parenting, Cooking, Diet, Health

Biography: Historical, Autobiography (different than memoir, which focuses on a single theme or type of experience and a “slice” of a person’s life)


Human Nature


True Crime

Pop Culture




Why is it important to think so much about your book’s genre?

You need to be clear about the story you’re telling. Your reader has certain expectations for each genre (whether they understand this explicitly or not), and while lots of authors mix genres successfully, it’s important to know why and how you’re playing with those conventions.

The biggest mistake new authors make (in my opinion) is to try to do too much. Your book cannot do all the things. It cannot be a travel memoir plus a coming of age memoir and also a survival story and how-to book. It cannot be a Golden Fleece novel plus a Horror Story but also a Rites of Passage story. It cannot be a Prescriptive Nonfiction Book that’s also an Autobiography and a Parenting Book and an Addiction Memoir. You need to figure out what your book wants to be — get clear on your idea.

If your idea for a book falls into many different categories (not just one or two or maybe even three), you probably will have too much going on in your book and could overwhelm or confuse your reader.

We’re going to be looking at examples of books in your genre to help us organize your book. But for today, I want you to write for at least 15 minutes about your book’s genre.

Answer one or more of the following questions:

  • What is your book’s genre? Why have you chosen it?
  • Try out your story idea in another genre.
  • Does your book fit in more than one genre?
  • Think back on your premise statement in the last lesson. Does this premise statement work with your chosen genre?