I’ve recently entered a short story competition sponsored by NYC Midnight. They assign genres, topics and characters as prompts for your story. They have a list of genre definitions that I found extremely helpful. You can find it below and here as well.
A suspenseful story in which a mission involving risk and danger forms the primary storyline. The protagonist, who is typically operating outside the course of his or her daily life, embarks on a journey to confront obstacles and prove worthiness. Action sequences are frequently featured, especially those involving chases, explosions, and attacks. This genre has its roots in Greek and Medieval literature, including Homer’s classic epic poem, the Iliad, which tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles. Common elements: likeable hero, unlikeable antagonist, physical action, fast pace, violence, changeable setting. Action/Adventure books include Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Action/Adventure films include Casino Royale (2006) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
A story that typically maintains a light, satirical, or familiar tone and features amusing characters and situations. Humor is the fundamental driving force. The word “comedy” comes from the Greek word komos, which means revelry or merry-making–and indeed, comedy has its origins in ancient Athens, where it was used in celebrations dedicated to the Greek god of wine and revelry. Subgenres of comedies include screwball comedies, which derive humor from improbable situations and characters, black comedies, which have darker undertones, and romantic comedies, which focus on the antics of lovestruck characters. Common elements: love and sex, stock characters and situations, everyday speech, puns, and cheerful endings. Comedy books include Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man. Comedy films include This is Spinal Tap (1984) and Anchorman (2004).
A lighthearted crime story in which the main characters perpetrate one or more crimes–e.g. thefts, swindles, or kidnappings–in full view of the reader or filmgoer. The plot focuses on the criminals and their attempts at escape or atonement. Scenes often leverage offbeat humor and acts of unusual cleverness or audacity. Common elements: The criminals are the main characters (the investigative team may appear but is not the main focus), complicated plots, flawed protagonists. Crime caper books include Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery and most books by Janet Evanovich. Crime caper films include Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and The Italian Job(2003).
A story that relies on the emotional and relational development of realistic characters. Themes are often drawn from intense, real life issues such as addiction, infidelity, race and class tension, disease, and corruption to name a few. Conflict, which is a central component, may arise internally, within the main character, or may exist among multiple characters. Common elements: realistic characters, emotional themes, depth, moral grappling, conflict. Drama books include John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Drama films include My Left Foot (1989) and The Wrestler (2008).
A narrative that often features folkloric characters such as fairies, elves, trolls, or witches engaged in fantastic or magical events that illuminate universal truths. Fairy tales usually exist in a time-suspended context, with minimal references to actual events, people, and places. They are often short and intended for children, although there are exceptions to that rule. Common elements: conflict between good and evil, talking animals, royalty, archetypes, use of traditional beginnings and endings, i.e., “Once upon a time…” and “…happily ever after.” Fairy Tale books include Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making. Fairy tale films include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Princess Bride (1987).
An imaginative story that typically weaves magic or other supernatural phenomena into a self-coherent plot or setting (e.g. magic spells, mythical creatures, fabled kingdoms, witchcraft, wizardry, medieval universes). Unlike science fiction and horror stories, fantasy stories usually avoid deeply scientific themes or macabre plots. They tend to take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common, and they may serve as a bridge between medievalism and popular culture. Common elements: magic, mythological undertones, internal coherence, adventure. Fantasy books include J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Fantasy films include Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
A frightening story premised on the possibility of ghosts, which may appear by their own volition or through summoning by magic. Ghost stories are usually scary, leveraging suspense, a sense of the uncanny, and supernatural occurrences to elicit feelings of fear and foreboding. Ghosts appear in literature as early as Homer’s Odyssey, which chronicles the hero encountering spirits of the dead during a journey to the underworld. Common elements: hauntings, supernatural intervention, chilling and suspenseful atmospheres. Ghost story books include Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. Ghost story films include The Shining (1980) and The Sixth Sense (1999).
A story that takes place in a setting drawn from history. Historical fiction is usually presented from the perspective of the historical characters, whose behavior is consistent with the manners and social norms of the time. Scenes and dialogue are well researched and imaginatively reconstructed to be as authentic as possible. Common elements: believability, historically-accurate detail, authentic dialogue, historical settings and persons. While there are no rules on how far in the past a story must be set to qualify it as a historical fiction piece, many are in agreement that the story must be set at least 25 years or more in the past. Historical fiction books include Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Historical fiction films include Schindler’s List (1993) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006).
A story intended to provoke an emotional, psychological, or physical fear response in the audience. Horror stories frequently contain supernatural elements, though not always, and the central menace may serve as a metaphor for the fears of society. Common elements: eerie atmosphere, morbid themes, heightened suspense, focus on death and evil, uncanny situations and persons. Horror books include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stephen King’s It. Horror films include The Exorcist (1973) and Poltergeist (1982).
A story that frequently involves a mysterious death or a crime to be solved, though not always. The main character is often a detective who must consider a small group of suspects–each of whom must have a reasonable motive and opportunity for committing the crime. The detective eventually cracks the code by logical deduction from clues presented to the reader or filmgoer. Common elements: overt clues, hidden evidence, inference gaps, suspense, foreshadowing, red herrings. Mystery books include Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Mystery films include Clue (1985) and The Usual Suspects (1995).
A story that uses irony and sarcasm to expose human folly and vice in the political arena. Political satires often critique the status quo and, in doing so, offer alternatives and possibilities for improvements. Solutions are not a requirement of political satire. Instead, satire’s job is to reveal problems and contradictions–it is not obligated to solve them. Common elements: wit, irony, sarcasm, parody, exaggeration, juxtaposition, double entendre. Political satire books include George Orwell’s 1984 and James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. Political satire films include Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Wag the Dog (1997). In addition, most sketches involving actors playing real-world political characters on sketch comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live are considered political satire.
A story that revolves around two people as they develop romantic love for each other and try to build a relationship. Romance stories may explore love at first sight, forbidden love, or love triangles. Common elements: a central love story and a complex and emotionally satisfying ending. Romance books include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. Romance films include Casablanca (1942) and Brokeback Mountain (2005).
A story that combines love and humor. Typically, these are stories with light, funny plotlines centered on romantic ideals such as fate and true love. Romantic comedies often feature couples that are polar opposites in terms of temperament, social status, or situation in life. Common elements: voiceovers, comedy, awkwardness, sexual innuendo, “meet cute” (when one character meets another character in a cute way). Romantic comedy books include E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. Romantic comedy films include Annie Hall (1977) and When Harry Met Sally (1989).
An imaginative story, usually set in the future or in an alternative universe, in which new technology, scientific principles, or political systems are developed or applied. Science fiction frequently explores the potential consequences of scientific, social, or other innovations, and has been called a “literature of ideas.” Common elements: futuristic technologies, outer space, alternative visions of earth and society. Science fiction books include Mike Resnick’s Santiago: a Myth of the Far Future, Iain M. Banks’s Excession and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Science fiction films include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982).
A story that involves espionage, secret agents, or secret service organizations as an important context or plot device. Spy fiction emerged in the early twentieth century, propelled by the establishment of modern intelligence agencies and rivalries between them. Common elements: espionage, secret agents, rogue states, organized crime, fundamentalism, terrorist networks, technological sabotage. Spy fiction books include Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and John le Carré Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Spy fiction films include The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Lives Of Others (2006).
A story that slowly generates feelings of anxiety, anticipation and uncertainty in the audience. Typically the main character becomes aware of danger only gradually, thus exacerbating the audience’s discomfort. Common elements: slower pace, heightened anticipation, audience knows more than main character, dramatic music. Suspense books include Dennis Lehane’s World Gone By and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Suspense films include Rear Window (1954) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
A fast-paced, gripping, plot-centered story that invokes an emotional thrill by mixing intense fear and excitement. Usually the protagonist is in danger from the outset. These fast-paced stories typically involve major threats to the main character and/or wider society and the attempts to prevent something from occurring. Common elements: faster pace, action scenes, plot twists, prominent villain, “ticking clock” timing. Thriller books include Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Thriller films include Se7en (1995), Mission: Impossible (1996), and Black Swan (2010).