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Why readers need genre

On a writer’s forum awhile back we were having a debate about genre. Let’s face it, the lines have blurred and with everyone and his brother, and his dog, cat, ferret, and goldfish having an opinion on it, chances are that it’s not going to get clearer any time soon. Some writers hate genre. They think it boxes them in and saps their creativity. They look on it with disdain and unabashedly declare “Write what you want.” Truth is no one is stopping you. You can and should write what you want. Problem is, the next step involves something else. Getting people to read what you write, and therein, lies the problem. Far too often “Write what you want” is about the writer, not the reader, yet it is the validation of not just a reader, but hopefully, many, many readers that we all crave.

So, let’s look at some stories and how the EMPHASIS on specific story elements can change things for the reader, who, let’s face it, probably has some definite ideas about what he wants (and maybe even some ideas about what he doesn’t want). Since it’s his money, what he wants matters.

Jane is a woman who has the daunting task of going through her recently deceased great-grandmother’s (also known as Gran) things.

  • The Least Traveled Path

Jane unpacks great-grandmother’s things and discovers that Gran’s life was less than idyllic. This leads Jane to realize that her own life isn’t so bad. In this story, not much happens outside of Jane herself. There’s not a lot of “this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens,” i.e. plot. She may not even leave the house as she’s going through Gran’s things. The entire story may be about her thoughts and feelings, maybe some flashbacks or imaginings or speculation. Chances are it’ll end up in women’s fiction and if it’s heavy on bulky sentences and long paragraphs and the pacing is glacial, it’ll probably also get tagged as big “L” literary.

  • The Most Traveled Path

Among Gran’s things, Jane finds a torn strand of pearls. She takes them to a jeweler for repair. Jane falls in love with said jeweler and they have the mandated Happily Ever After (HEA). This is now a big “R” type of romance.

  • A Fork in the Road: The Most Traveled Path Gone Awry

Instead of an HEA or an HEA for now, the jeweler dies. Now we have a tragedy. I can pretty much guarantee that if you tag this a Romance, you’re going to have a lot of pissed off Romance readers. Why? Because you promised them one thing and you didn’t deliver. Hint: Don’t piss off your readers. Happy readers, good. Mad readers, bad.

  • The Fastest Path:

Instead of diaries or pearls, Jane discovers Gran’s old movies. One of them reveals the secret behind the Kennedy assassination. Now Jane is on the run, fighting for her life because someone wants to kill her. The pacing is fast and even if her jeweler fiance is involved, the focus on plot rather than their relationship has just put Jane into a thriller. She doesn’t have a lot of time to sit around and process her feelings about Gran’s life, or her own, as her main task is staying alive.

Let’s stop here for a bit and look at the differences between Literary, Romance, and thriller. [I’m going to ignore tragedy since it’s just a romance gone wrong; after all, until Romeo and Juliet died, their story was a Romance. That pesky HEA again.]

All three–Literary, Romance, and thriller–will have elements of plot, character, and pacing, but one of those elements will dominate. The Literary and Romance readers will expect character to dominate, while thriller readers will expect plot to. That’s not to say there won’t be some plot in the Romance piece, but Romance is about the relationship, i.e. the characters.

For a better example, let’s look at Die Hard, the best Christmas movie of all time. Despite the relationship aspect, the HEA, it’s a thriller. It’s fast paced. It’s more about the plot than character. Tally up the minutes spent in action sequences versus those that show John McClane struggling with his feelings. There’s a love story, but it’s not a Romance. It’s not speculative fiction, because the setting is not contrary to reality. Despite the thrilling stunts courtesy of Hollywood Physics, it’s not science fiction because the story is not about science or an extrapolation of science.

Back to Jane and Gran’s things.

  • The Speculative Path

Jane finds a diary. If the diary turns out to be a time travel device we have speculative fiction. Now, time travel is sci-fi, right? Well, maybe…

Speculative fiction deals with things that are contrary to reality, but setting is key. Along the Speculative Path, you’ll find not just mud, but fog and booby traps. Those other paths (thriller, romance, etc) were clear and safe. This path, not so much. There’s reasons they drew monsters at the edge of maps.

Time travel is not science and it’s not even an extrapolation of science. The laws of conservation of energy and matter make time travel more of a science fantasy, but it’s usually lumped together with science fiction because it does NOT rely on magic. See, fog, but not utility fog.

  • The Fork into the Past

Gabaldon’s Outlander involves time travel to the past, but I wouldn’t call it science fiction. Where’s the science? How important is the science to the story? Is anything extrapolated from our current knowledge of science? Going back to 18th-century Scotland and making soap from animal fat and ashes is not an extrapolation of current technology. Outlander may be historical fantasy. It may be a Romance. It most definitely is speculative fiction and it is defined by the fact that it takes place in 18th-century Scotland, i.e. the setting. That means that if you move it out of the setting, it changes the characters and plot so much that you don’t have the same story.

  • The Fork into the Future

Back to Jane. The diary is a piece of cleverly disguised advanced technology made of equal parts handwavium and unobtainium, patent pending. It takes Jane forward in time or to a parallel world without magic. It’s speculative fiction because it takes place in a setting that’s contrary to reality. But is it science-fiction? Again, let’s look at setting for guidance. So, lack of magic makes it “not fantasy.” What if it’s a future where there is no advanced technology? It might as well be the middle ages. It’s not historical, because the setting didn’t exist in the past. It is about the science? Since it’s not in the past is it even alternate history? It’ll probably get labeled sci-fi because it’s about the future, and that’s fine, but again, note that it’s the setting that defines its placement. In this case, we have a setting that’s contrary to reality but is NOT set in the past and does NOT involve the use of magic. Sometimes things are easier to classify by what they’re not, rather than by what they are.

Dr. Who is probably the best example of how hard it is to define this genre and why food fights break out among those who really, really, really care. The TARDIS can go into the past, the future, and can travel sideways in time to alternate histories. We meet aliens as well as historical figures. It pays some lip service to the “science” of time travel, handwavium included, but is it about the science? Or is the science mere window dressing? Let’s say we have a Romance set in space. If I can take that Romance, strip it of its sci-fi dressings, and still have the same characters and story, then I’d argue it’s not sci-fi. I’d still enjoy the heck out of it, but let’s not pretend it’s 2001:A Space Odyssey or Jurassic Park.

  • The Magical Fork [no, it’s not a weight-loss plan]

What if Jane’s diary takes her to a setting where magic exists? Regardless of the diary as a magical device rather than some cleverly disguised piece of tech as above, it’s the existence of magic in the setting that makes this a fantasy. It may take place in the past or the future, or an alternate timeline, but if magic is involved, it becomes the defining factor.

  • The Paranormal Fork

What if reading from the diary opens a portal to hell? Why is it paranormal instead of fantasy? Well, magic’s not involved for one. Neither is science. So it’s contrary to reality but outside the realm of both magic and science. See, setting again.

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this is that as a reader, I get frustrated by the cavalier way some people throw genre tags around, as if they meant nothing. Honestly, if they mean nothing and we can mix anything with anything else, why bother with genre at all? We’d just have a big hodge-podge of stuff called fiction. As readers we’d have to wade through rows and rows (digital and physical) of options, maybe organized by author’s last name. Or maybe by title. Doesn’t that sound fantastic? We’d have to read the summaries and hope that the cover and the sales copy don’t lie. Sign me up. Not.

BTW, if you’re interested in really learning about Genre, I highly recommend this Genre Structure Workshop. Scroll down to the Classic Workshop Offerings. It’s a great self-paced, start anytime online course.

  1. Nice breakdown. It reminds me of a comment from ESR–genre is a way of reading as well as a way of writing.

    1. m2foster says:

      Eric Raymond? I’m flattered.

  2. Noel says:

    Great article. I loved it. 🙂

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