by Jenny Hansen
Over the last few years, I've thought a lot about genre. The differences between them and why and how we choose our preferred genre to write in. Some writers are solidly in a certain genre camp and others straddle two or more genres.
Examples of popular "straddlers" - The Hunger Games series, the Outlander series, books by J.D. Robb.
I believe one of the reasons many authors have moved to genres like young adult (YA) or women's fiction (WF) is that the definitions of those two transcend traditional genres. For example, in addition to the other straddling achieved by the Hunger Games series, it is also classified as YA because of the age of the main character. (YA protags are usually in the 14-21 range.)
Many of us behind the scenes here at WITS have participated in various NYC Midnight contests. One of the most unique factors about their contests is that your genre is assigned to you, along with a character and a story element you must use.
To give you an idea of what these assignments look like, here are the last three assignments I received in their short story contests:
- Genre - Mystery, Element - a collection, Character - a nomad
- Genre - Sci-Fi, Element - a career, Character - a tracker
- Genre - Sci-Fi, Element - a colony, Character - a lumberman
We flock to NYC Midnight's contests, year after year, because it's fun and it makes you stretch (so hard) as a writer. I'd written literary, romance, mainstream and women's fiction, but never mystery or sci-fi, until it was assigned to me through this contest. I would never have imagined I'd enjoy it.
Full-disclosure: Except for mystery. I didn't enjoy the mystery so much.
In trying to learn how to write a mystery (in a week), I learned how damn hard it is to write. In fact, while my finished story had some mystery elements, it really ended up being a literary tale about redemption. I love it to pieces, but it didn't fit the assigned genre.
My Genre Journey
As a baby writer, I fell in with a bunch of romance writers. They were talented and friendly and welcoming, and I still hang out with a lot of them. I love a good romance, so I believed I'd found my forever writing home. But there was a pretty glaring problem...
I don't really write romance.
Sure, I have romantic elements and sexual tension and "happily ever after" types of endings, but romance is a story driven by the love developing between the two main characters. Without the romance at the center, the story simply can't hang together.
My stories can almost always hang together without the romance, but they can't work without the eclectic cast of supporting characters. My books are all about the protagonist's journey, from the life they have to the life they could have. Only before they can have that shiny new life, they must earn it by unpacking their emotional baggage and letting go of the misbeliefs holding them back. Many times my story arcs include a love interest, but not always.
Basically, the closest I get to romance is "mainstream with romantic elements." What I actually write is called women's fiction, and it took me years to figure that out.
(More on women's fiction below.)
Why is genre important?
There are a variety of reasons why genre matters but these two are probably the main two:
Genre helps people find your books. It's how they search and it decides where your books are shelved in a brick and mortar bookstore.
Genre provides authors (and readers) with a roadmap. Every genre is guided by various rules - the couple in the romance will be in love and the mystery will be solved by the time the reader gets to The End. Readers of romance will pick up your book if all indicators tell them your book is a romance. (And they'll be peeved if it isn't.)
Funny story about genre fiction... Many years ago, that group of romance writers I mentioned hosted a day with Dean Koontz. He talked to us for almost three hours and it was incredible. One of the things he said that I never forgot: "Genre fiction is a result of the G.I. Bill." According to Koontz, when Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill into law in June, 1944, more people attended college than ever before. English departments filled, writers were born and the flood of books that resulted had to be organized into some semblance of order...and genre fiction was born.
I don't know if that's true, but I loved hearing the story from Dean Koontz.
About those genres... How do you know which one you write?
The NYC Midnight's genre definitions page is a terrific starting point in understanding the differences between genres. Plus they include examples of books and movies that fall within each genre. The way they have their definitions laid out really opened my mind to different types of stories, and helped me to see that they could be possible for me. I've excerpted short versions below, but I highly recommend a deep read of their genre page (linked in the first sentence).
There are, of course, more genres than those listed below, but this is enough of a start for you to explore various types of story structures in your own writing.
Action/Adventure - 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.
Comedy - A story that typically maintains a light, satirical, or familiar tone and features amusing characters and situations. Humor is the fundamental driving force.
Crime Caper - A lighthearted crime story in which the main characters perpetrate one or more crimes in full view of the reader or filmgoer. The plot focuses on the criminals and their attempts at escape or atonement.
Drama - 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.
Fairy Tale - A narrative that often features folkloric characters such as fairies, elves, trolls, or witches engaged in fantastic or magical events that illuminate universal truths.
Fantasy - 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).
Ghost Story - 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.
Historical Fiction - 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.
Horror - 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.
Mystery - 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.
Political Satire - 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.
Romance - 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.
Romantic Comedy - 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.
Sci-Fi - 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.
Spy - A story that involves espionage, secret agents, or secret service organizations as an important context or plot device.
Suspense - 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.
Thriller - 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.
And my favorite genre, which was not included on the NYC Midnight list:
Women's Fiction - The #1 rule of women's fiction is that the plot is driven by the main character's emotional journey. These layered stories can have suspense, action, fairy tales or whatever, as long as the promise of that first rule is kept.
Women's fiction has been growing over the last decade. There's now a writers group for it (it's awesome!) and next week on June 8th is the third annual Women's Fiction Day. All details are here, but there will be live programming on their Instagram channel with authors and agents all day. The popular hashtags will be #Womensfictionday and #WFWA.
So, as you can see, there are a freaking lot of genres! And yes, each genre has rules that can serve as a framework for both authors and readers. However, at the end of the day, the most important thing is to write a story YOU would love to read.
If you truly have no idea which genre you write (or which one you'd like to jump into), start reading. Browse libraries, Amazon, bookstores and fellow writers for recommendations, so you can make the most of whichever genre you have chosen.
Do you know which genre you prefer to write (or read)? Who is your favorite author to recommend in your preferred genre? Please let me know if covered your niche, and whether there are interesting genres that I missed!
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By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.