It’s sometimes said that genre is a bookseller’s issue, not a writer’s one. Genre exists to group books together so that readers can find something they like. As such, it’s more about the business of writing than the creative side.
While there’s a lot of truth in this, it doesn’t change the fact that genre is important. It affects the way we read and the way we write. It can be a powerful tool for any author.
Understanding Your Genre
It would be hard to over-state the importance of understanding the genre that you’re working in. One reason is that you need to know what has come before. What seems to you like a dazzlingly original science fiction idea may have been written a dozen times before, and it’s only through exploring the genre that you’ll know.
Understanding genre isn’t just about reading books within the genre – you need to explore discussions around the genre and its wider patterns. That might mean reading articles about fantasy on Tor.com, joining the Romance Writers of America, or listening to podcasts by a thriller writer like Joanna Penn.
However you do your research, you should focus on two areas – expectations and tools.
Readers’ expectations of a genre are very important. Like it or not, they will affect how your work is read. You can break expectations – any truly original work will in some way. But there are some expectations you have to meet to satisfy readers.
Take detective novels. These have a specific structure, some of it obvious, some more subtle. The story usually begins with setup, then the crime being revealed (although this may be the start), a series of steps in the investigation, and finally the revelation of who did it. There should be plenty of red herrings, and enough clues to the real culprit so that most readers won’t work it out in advance, but they can look back at the evidence and see how it makes sense. The criminal will usually be caught.
Other genres also have their expectations. Rules of magic in fantasy. A happy ending in romance. Slow pacing and introspection in literary fiction.
Expectations provide a framework to write within, and to help inspire you. They let you take shortcuts, as readers don’t need these structures explained to them. You can break free of expectations, but make sure you know why and how you’re doing it – to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, rules are there so that we think before we break them.
Each genre provides you with a set of tools to enhance your writing.
Take the western. Aside from the obvious elements of time and place, there are other aspects of the genre that can help you. The shootout, as a well-established genre convention, is something you can use to instantly insert tension and action into the story. Because the silent, brooding hero is a familiar part of the genre, you can present a character like this and know that readers will understand a lot about him from the start. They may even come to anticipate your later revelation of what lies behind his character.
In fantasy and science fiction, the tools include the boundless possibilities of imaginary worlds. In literary fiction, they include experimental prose, which readers will accept far more readily in that genre than any other.
Every genre has archetypes of place, character and story that you can play with, creating shortcuts of understanding when you follow them and great surprises when you twist them.
Genres are not clearly separated boxes. Their boundaries are fluid, and a lot of fiction exists in the boundaries between them.
Take The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman’s incredibly successful comic and TV show. Kirkman’s success comes in large part from combining two different genres – zombie survivalist horror and the soap opera. For fans of zombie fiction, this means that there is something familiar and something new to the story. For the much larger audience familiar with soap operas, it creates an emotional hook many zombie stories lack.
Blending a new genre into your work can create new possibilities. As Sarah Pinborough said during a panel at this year’s Edge-Lit convention, fantasy authors often enjoy having the endless possibilities of their genre reined in by the constraints of crime fiction, while crime authors enjoy the wild flamboyance fantasy allows them. Bringing the two together can create new options for either type of author, and leads to interesting works like Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London.
Whatever genres you’re planning on using, make sure that you understand them all. It’s impossible to know everything about how a genre ticks, but if you don’t know the basics then you will waste your effort and disappoint readers by reinventing the obvious. If you know the genres you’re working in then the possibilities are endless.