Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
This article is part of Writing Essentials, in-depth coverage
of the elements of fiction and writing basics.
This is part 1 of Defining Genre.
Part 2 provides a Breakdown of the Genres.
Every story won’t please every reader. We’re too different to all get excited about the same plot or same character quirk or imaginary world.
Some do like it hot. But some like it cool. Some like to solve mysteries, others want adventure that doesn’t quit until the final page.
Some readers love the agitation and fear from thrillers or horror or suspense stories.
Some like a leisurely read with a payoff that pierces the heart.
Some like their hearts caressed rather than pierced.
Some want a story’s tone to linger. They like basking in the feel of a story, as if they’ve bathed in the emotions poured out by the writer’s words. Others want a quick fix—an adrenaline high or a theme park ride through emotions both high and low before they’re off to the next story adventure.
Some readers want to fall in love. Some want to kick butt. Some want to solve problems. Others want to escape their own problems.
Fiction has something for each of these readers.
Fiction offers the fix for every emotional craving. If you want to be frightened, unable to sleep alone for fear of aliens or maniacs or killer diseases breaking down the door, there’s a story and a genre for that. If you want to discover love, pit your mind against a diabolical murderer, or explore an alien world, there’s a genre for that.
Many readers pick up the same kinds of books again and again. Romance readers, mystery lovers, and sci-fi fans are eager for a new book from their favorite authors and seek out new authors who can give them the same kind of punch that their favorites can. Readers know what they want and what they want is often a story in a particular genre.
What is genre? Simply a fancy way of saying category or style. In fiction, genre allows us to group similar stories so they can be put into a category recognized by both readers and the industry. Genre identifies the type of story, in necessarily broad terms, and does so through a one- or two-word description of what the story is about.
Some genres have their own sub-categories and some stories have become so successful at blending elements of multiple genres that new categories are recognized by readers. Romantic suspense is one such genre. It’s typically listed under romance, but the suspense element is as equally strong as the romance.
My intent in this two-part article is to identify the genres and give you enough information to know what they are and what readers are looking for when they pick up a book in a particular genre.
Note: Reader expectations regarding genre elements should not be undervalued by writers. Readers expect certain elements in their books. Today’s romances require a happily ever after (HEA). A murder mystery must be solved and the clues must not have been so difficult that the reader could never have guessed whodunit.
Readers read in the same genre because they know what to expect. Not in plot terms, necessarily, but in terms of the feel or the setup or the resolution. If a writer messes with the genre, readers notice. And no matter how great the story, messing with genre expectations can leave readers grossly disappointed.
Remember that readers come to a story with expectations. If you disturb those expectations, you get them thinking not about what’s happening on the page to Dan and Dora, but to what you, the writer, are trying to do.
Readers expect to believe the lies you’re telling them. They expect to believe in the imaginary world where your story takes place. They expect to believe that the events unfolding did actually happen the way you said they did—on March 4, 2069, the UN was blown up by terrorists; aliens from a galaxy never imagined have been living on Earth for 200 years; Rollie fell in love with and married Marta in spite of his fear that she’d die some horrible death just as his first wife had.
When you tweak—or maybe you’re really bold and you implode—the elements of genre that are dear to the reader, you may face a backlash. Readers might not like your book for the simple reason that you messed with their expectations.
This doesn’t mean you can’t be bold and try something new. Plenty of writers do just that and do it successfully. But not all readers are going to love your innovation. If you can live with that, be as creative and daring and genre-defying as you like.
Just don’t expect readers to instantly rave and accept your offering.
The truth is that genres thrive because readers are attracted to certain types of stories. They like political thrillers. They like mysteries. They like literary novels or westerns or horror. The like stories that give them what they’re looking for. If you want to appeal to some of those readers, follow the conventions of the genre.
We are different. No matter how much alike we might be on some issues, we differ from our friends, family members, coworkers, and the neighbors on other issues. There are plenty of genres for every reader. And there are plenty of readers for every genre.
Readers aren’t necessarily locked into one genre; many read in a variety of genres.
Writers can also write in a variety of genres. You are not restricted to a certain category, though your agent or publisher may try to steer you down a particular path. That issue is between you and them, but if a genre appeals to you, there’s little else to prevent you from writing in different genres. You may be naturally better at one than another, but as readers are not restricted to one genre, neither are you.
Yet, if you’ve been successful at one genre, don’t assume that readers will automatically follow you to a new genre. As I’ve mentioned, readers have genre preferences. They may not be willing to read books in your new genre. They may, of course. But you can’t count on it.
Warning: Don’t try to appeal to all readers by blending genres in a single novel. A successful story will not be all things to all readers. It’s impossible to successfully combine all genres into one story; you’ll simply create a mess. What you include in order to appeal to readers of sci-fi might turn off readers of literary novels. What entices western lovers might have fantasy fans cringing. My advice here is that you write story for a single genre. (There are exceptions, of course.)
Where to start
Either begin your story with a genre in mind or write your story and then use your rewrites to highlight genre norms and expectations. However I’ll tell you upfront that it’s easier and more efficient to begin with the genre in mind.
I’m guessing that most writers have a favorite genre. Maybe two or three. Pick one and declare that your story is a mystery or thriller or romance. But don’t claim that it doesn’t have to fit a genre or that it’s a story that will appeal to everyone or that you don’t want to be restricted to one genre. If you don’t know what you’re creating, it’s likely you’ll only create a mess that others can’t identify either.
Readers typically don’t read just any kind of story; they want stories that give them the thrill they’re looking for or that take them on an emotional roller coaster. Or maybe they want a book that challenges their mind. They read what appeals to them. And if you can’t make your stories appeal in an identifiable way, readers are likely to stay far, far away.
I know what I’m saying here rubs some writers raw; they want to write what they want to write. And you can. Yes, write what you want to write. But recognize that readers want to read what they like to read. And they like to read books that promise a particular adventure and a familiar payoff. And if your stories can’t satisfy the itch that drives them to fiction, you won’t have readers.
It’s true that some readers will give a new style of story a chance; readers can be adventurous, and they’re not locked into only one genre. As their lives changes, reading tastes can change as well. But recognizable genres help them choose from the thousands and thousands of titles available. And you can make readers more likely to choose your books by giving them something identifiable and welcome and reliably appealing to their tastes.
Also, keep in mind that readers don’t come to stories only to be entertained. They come to have their worldview and opinions verified. They come to learn how others handle tough situations so they can in turn handle the problems in their worlds. They see regular folks handle out-of-this-world problems and take the chance that they can take care of their much smaller problems.
No, fiction isn’t some cure for every reader’s life issues, but character actions and reactions do inform our own responses. Hey, if it works for Sally Sue against a monster, might it not work for me against my boss? And with fiction separated into categories, readers know exactly where to find what they’re looking for.
If they want to know a relationship can work out, readers can turn to romance. If a woman wants to know how other women react to divorce, wants to know if her own feelings are common and acceptable, she might read women’s fiction.
Readers might come to mysteries to test their observation or deductive skills. Historicals allow readers to pretend, just for an hour or two, that they live in an era or country that calls to their souls. Reading adventure stories may be as close as some people get to travel and excitement and fun.
Fiction allows readers to be different from who they are in their daily worlds, maybe more skilled or talented, maybe sexier or more intuitive or bolder. A follower can become a leader. A bitter woman can become a lover. A teen frightened about the future can learn coping skills. Fiction lets us be something other than the person we see every day in our mirrors, the one who handles routine but wants to experience the unexpected.
Fiction allows us to put on the clothes and personality and skills of characters who succeed, who accomplish, who feel strong emotions and don’t fear showing and sharing those emotions. Stories help us dream and plan and imagine and experience what we’d never known.
Stories show us that men and women, no matter what their limitations or the situation, can overcome and succeed.
But not every story will have the answer to the reader’s question; we use genre to identify which stories have what the reader seeks. Fiction is wish fulfillment between the pages of a book; genre categories make it easy to find that fulfillment.
A writer who keeps to genre norms gives her story internal consistency and cohesion. She keeps the story elements corralled. Genre helps not only the reader but the writer as well—genre norms and conventions help a writer know what fits, what works for a story, and what doesn’t. Certain words or character responses or settings or situations may belong in one story, but not in a story of another genre.
When a writer knows the particulars of a genre, she’ll find it easier to know which elements are missing and which, while present, strike discordant notes.
Now, after counseling you to maintain a recognizable genre for your stories, I’m going to point out that some stories will naturally fit into multiple genres and that what we consider a genre on the one hand might be considered more than a genre on the other hand.
For example, young adult (YA) is an accepted genre of its own. But within young adult stories you’ll find romance and horror and mystery and so on, any of the other traditional genres. So in the big picture of genres, YA is just one of the listings. But each of the other genres in the list can be found again under YA.
I know, nothing like trying to make a bulleted list that turns in upon itself like an Escher print.
While I’m going to leave some issues regarding genre for another article, I do want to mention a few.
The choice of genre will affect the other fiction elements of your story. Or, stated another way, the fiction elements should reflect the genre you’ve chosen.
As an example, the setting in literary novels may be lush and expressed in great detail. Setting may even take on the importance of a character in the story. In a political thriller, however, setting may show up only in the sketchiest of details. After all, characters pulled from one crisis and one city to another literally don’t have time to stop and smell the roses, much less examine the tiny bugs on them to determine what they are and what their migration pattern has been.
Pace will widely vary from genre to genre. The number and intricacy of sub-plots will be a direct result of genre. Even the way characters are portrayed and introduced is different for each genre.
The fiction elements need to be adjusted for genre. One size and one degree of depth and one approach does not fit all when we’re considering genre. What makes the genres different is often rooted in the treatment of the fiction elements. We’re talking the major fiction elements of plot, character, and setting, of course, but we’re also talking dialogue, theme, point of view, conflict, style, tone, and so forth.
Genre and the elements of fiction need to work together to produce satisfying stories.
Genre is integral to fiction, but I don’t often see it addressed as a concern for writers. Yet knowledge of the components of individual genres can help writers bring depth and richness to their stories.
When a writer writes with not only attention to detail but with attention to genre, his stories may find a wider audience. His stories may connect at a deeper level with readers, even if readers doesn’t know why. But if the writer addresses a need, gives a reader what she wants or seeks from fiction, why wouldn’t that reader come back to the same writer again and again, knowing that he’d provide what she was seeking?
If you’re looking for a way to write a more satisfying story, knowing and adhering to genre norms may be the place to start.
The second part of this article gives information on what makes the genres different and what readers expect from each genre.