This can be seen as splitting hairs a bit, but there do exist massive differences between fairy tales and fables, fantasy and science fiction. These differences are a bigger deal with people in academic circles (like teachers) than with regular friends. But an important part of being a writer is knowing what exactly it is that you write. A story about fairies isn't always a fairy tale. Fairy tales frequently have no fairies in them. Science fiction is not determined by the technology a writer throws into the story.
And belonging to one genre does not always exclude a story from others.
Below is a list of genres. It is by no means complete. As long as there are writers and people who read, there will be differences in opinion about where lines are drawn. This just happens to be where my lines are drawn--based on a lifetime love of books and words, with a few sensible pieces of advice from professors and mentors thrown in for good measure.
PLEASE NOTE: The list below is divided into academic categories and bookseller categories. If you walk into your local bookstore and ask a salesperson about fairy tales, she will point you to the fantasy section (between science fiction and manga) and say “Give me an author’s name, or find it yourself.” If you walk into a school library and ask the reference librarian about fairy tales, she will ask if you’re reading them or studying them, and then want specifics on origins and intentions before handing you a couple collections and a shelf of reference books. When I say “fairy tale”—think librarian instead of bookseller.
ACADEMIC (or LITERARY) GENRES
Often considered in terms of Biblical references (but not always). Allegories are stories that are supposed to represent another story. Usually, the reason a writer will do this is to make a physical representation of a more nebulous theme. For example, The Pilgrim’s Progress is an old, famous allegory about a man who leaves the sinful world he knows and goes on a journey to the home of his king. The writer, John Bunyan, used the long walk to teach about temptation, diligence, patience, sacrifice, obedience, and love. These concepts have hands and feet and voices, so they are more obvious to the reader.
Look for symbols. Allegories are deep but not always subtle, so names are often transparently obvious and characters are usually static and prone to lectures. This isn’t a bad thing (sometimes unavoidable if a character is only a cameo in your story), but writing around it can be difficult.
Animal sightings are frequent. Not every fable stars talking animals, but the presence of a talking animal (even in Narnia!) begs for instant pigeon-holing. Fables come with a very specific, pointed moral at the end of the story. “Cheaters never prosper.” “Newer doesn’t equal better.” “Always eat your vegetables.” “It would have worked with a glass spring.” The characters may change in the course of the story, but they will certainly learn the author’s lesson. An unusual example of a fable is The Dot and the Line—a romance in the lower mathematics. It chronicles the rocky love triangle of a faithful line, the dot at the center of his existence, and a squiggle with whom she cavorts. At the end of this little book, the author prints the moral very clearly: “To the vector goes the spoils.” It’s funniest to math nerds.
Fables are generally consigned to children’s literature, because they are teaching tools. Some “fairy tales” are better described as fables, because they are so pointed in their preaching. Again, this isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes a reader needs a point to be poked in her nose repeatedly.
Almost always an adventure. On rare occasions, the characters don’t travel, but these are rare indeed. Fairy tales are not as formulaic as people often assume. The characters in fairy tales rarely change (i.e., they are often static rather than dynamic characters), but again this does not mean the story came out of a can. What fairy tales do frequently do is to place a character in a situation, and then see what happens. (If a good girl is forced into servitude by her family, how will she handle her one chance to get out?) Fairy tales also aren’t particularly preachy—though they do convey the values and the virtues of the storyteller’s culture. (German fairy tales, for example, always bless industrious girls. For centuries, one of the core pillars of German virtue has been their willingness to work hard, and this is reflected in the stories they passed on. Louis L’Amour wrote fairy tales for boys—westerns and adventure stories. These were American fairy tales, so the heroes are always quick to seize their one chance to change their lives. The “American Dream”—that a new life was just over the horizon—is always present in his books.) If something is labeled a fairy tale, but it lectures the reader more than it moves along with the story, chances are that it isn’t a fairy tale.
To sum up, what fairy tales do do: Tell adventures. Tell the story of a person or group of people (fairies or witches may put in an appearance, but they do not dominate the story). Follow a person’s adventures, instead of following a personality changing.
What fairy tales don’t do: Focus on fairies or other mythical creatures. Preach to the reader. Give the hero/heroine an easy way out.
Best described as “wish fulfillment.” This is a broad term that covers a lot of different wishes for a lot of different people. (Escaping from what we find “dull” is different for the old, the young, the guys, and the dolls.) Fantasies are usually adventure stories (for people who want to go away), but there are other clues available. The protagonist of the story will fall into one of two categories: either he will be a very ordinary person who overcomes extraordinary adversaries, or he will discover he is an extraordinarily powerful savior—usually with prophecies. The same applies of the protagonist is a girl, but fantasies often vary by gender. This is why the majority of romance readers are girls, and the majority of “speculative fiction” readers (see the bookstore categories) are boys. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s a reasonable stereotype.
In places like the publishing world or your local library, the label “fantasy” usually refers to a genre of stories that focus on settings (sometimes broadly referred to as “universes”) where magic and/or mythical creatures are normal. Elves, unicorns, dragons, mages—these kinds of characters frequently populate the modern fantasy genre. But even in a story with a mundane setting, you can still find wish fulfillment.
One of my favorite “academically correct” fantasy stories is the movie Return to Me. A young woman and her family have been waiting for years for her to have a heart transplant—because they want her life to be beautiful, valuable, and filled with meaning. After she finally receives this transplant, her adventures in life and in love begin. This movie takes place in the real world, so there are no fantastical elements, but the wish fulfillment is abundant.
Examines a “what if...” question. Science fiction does not have to take place in space, or have robots or aliens. Most science fiction does, because the writers of science fiction like to explore a moral problem in a way that makes the reader think. The story may not explicitly state a question, but the writer must either examine a “what if” scenario or leave the reader asking a question of herself.
If a story has spaceships, aliens, cyborgs, or other elements of futuristic storytelling (see “speculative fiction” below) but does not address a moral or philosophical question, then it isn’t science fiction. The story may have fictional science in it, but the setting isn’t enough to label it in this genre, so it’s often referred to as “space opera.” (The original Star Trek television series, for example, had some episodes that qualified as science fiction, and some space opera versions of Shakespearian plots. Who knew?)
One (old school) science fiction story is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” This story has no unusual technology or futuristic setting to label it science fiction. But it has a powerful “what if” problem that comes with a huge moral dilemma and no easy solutions. (So do many of his stories, come to think of it.) The “science” of the story is enough to make this one stand out from his other short stories, but it also asks the question of what happens when man tries to take God’s place? Oh, and it also asks whether goodness is innate, whether free will is truly free, and whether the use of that free will is enough to save or condemn someone? Old Nat was a busy, busy bee...
Slightly more than “all about the gods” and slightly less than “in the past.” Myths don’t always include gods (or demigods), but they do explain something about the past that has become part of someone’s faith. Now, this could be a fictional past—or at least an exaggerated one—and the faith in question could be a religion that has become defunct. Regardless, a myth is man’s attempt to give relevant meaning to either a past event or a current mystery. (According to Greek mythology, for example, the ancient Minoans had a terrifying beast who ate people and lived in a great underground maze. The reasoning behind this minotaur was because when “more modern” Greeks came to visit Crete—the island where the Minoan empire was once centered—they found old frescos of bulls and bull dancers, as well as the remains of a man-made stone rabbit-warren that had been underneath an arena. The Greeks invented the minotaur and the reason behind the labyrinth because no one remembered the hows or whys anymore. Though why weird and disturbing stories about half-human monsters made them feel better is anybody’s guess...)
Outside of the literary genre of “the gods who once were”, the term mythology is also used to describe the fictional history of a story. When discussing the mythology of a story, this always refers to the specific, relevant past of a story. If a character has superpowers imbued by a radioactive spider, that mythology stays within that story unless imported by another story. Radioactive spiders don’t automatically become part of the canon of all fictional worlds.
Models are stories that represent larger stories. One character can be used to represent a large group of people. The novel Across Five Aprils, for example, is about an American family during the Civil War. Some brothers fight for the Union, some for the Confederacy. At the end of the war, no matter who wins, no matter who survives, the family can still be considered “American.” Like any model, this book is the small-scale version of a bigger tale. Models usually contain a lot of archetypes, though a model is more of an explanation of an archetype than a story that uses one to further its plot.
Watch for characters or circumstances that illustrate larger ideas. In this sense, models are like allegories or parables. However, models fold up like origami into simple forms when broken down, whereas allegories and parables usually expand outward the more they are studied.
Illustration stories, these are smaller than allegories or models. Pocket-sized, even. BUT, parables don’t carry their explanations, like fables or fairy tales. Parables have a code that is known or explained outside of the story. If all you know is the story, it’s memorable. But without that code, it’s only a story. Instead of the six words that will change your life. Because parables hide powerful truth deep inside them. As mentioned under Model (see above), parables unfold into much bigger ideas and stories the more you ponder them.
A modern parable would be the movie Bella. From the outside, it’s a small film about a waitress and a cook who approach a serious question from different sides. It’s edited in such a way that there’s room for interpretation as to the order in which certain events happen (or if they even really do happen). But it’s a story that grows when you sit down and pick it apart. The simple truth it exposes doesn’t change, but it is a story that changes the viewer.
Best typified by the presence of traditional villains as protagonists. Vampires, werewolves—even witchcraft isn’t unwelcome in this genre, either. This isn’t a wholesome genre, so no positive examples will ever be used from this category. (With sincere apologies to writers—especially of the last decade—who have looted the English-speaking populace with their addictive, popular stories.) Good writers should be able to confidently defend what they know and where they stand, though, so this should be taken seriously. Even if you never write or read anything like this.
Within this genre is a whole subset of moral questions that young writers (and readers) should be very careful about. Questions like “what do I really believe about immortality” or “where exactly do fallen angels fall to” are good to ponder, but thinking about them in story form seems to open up a reader’s mind to a lot of very dangerous roads. A few of these roads loop back around to a deeper understanding of goodness, some of these roads peter out in the wilderness, and most of these roads will shackle your feet in eternal bondage to walk where you never intended to go. Guides are recommended. With strong cables that attach back to the source of all things good and clean. Dark fantasy can be interesting and entertaining, but it can also leave permanent stains on the soul. Tread wisely.
This is included because “the supernatural” falls under this category. Rather than split hairs or choose religious sides, booksellers will include anything mystical under this broad umbrella. If the story in question has another genre label that trumps this (such as Religious, or Romance, or True Crime), it will be filed by that genre first.
This is the general umbrella under which fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales, fables, and alternative history are lumped for writers. For readers, things are broken down better.