When we start a new writing project, genre is the first thing we need to figure out. Our choice of genre determines everything about our story. Everything. So as writers, we’ve got to make a firm decision about what the global genre of our story is, and then stick to it.
This is non-negotiable.
Our choice of genre dictates the value at stake, the core emotion and core event, the protagonist’s objects of desire, the obligatory scenes and coventions, and even the theme. Since becoming a Certified Story Grid Editor, I’ve discovered that when it comes to genre, writers tend to sort themselves into two main groups; those who start with a genre and those who start with a story idea.
Those who start with the genre usually have an author they love or a type of book they love, and they want to write like that. For example, you might love Ian Rankin and want to write something like his Inspector Rebus books.
Those who start with the story idea tend to have a much harder time figuring out what their genre is and there’s a couple of reasons for this. Primary among them are that we don’t understand what genre is or why it’s so important, and we don’t read widely and deeply.
Basically, we’re still new at this. We’re still learning how to study story and how to think like a professional author. That’s absolutely fine. It doesn’t matter where we start on this artist’s journey, it only matters that we start.
I believe the first step in figuring out what genre you’re writing in, is realizing that the way a writer thinks about genre is vastly different than the way a reader thinks about it. We all started out as readers and so the word genre makes us think about Amazon book categories, or the various sections of our local bookstore. But now that we’ve come around to the other side of the table and have made the decision to become professional authors, we’ve got to start looking at genre the way a writer does. Over the course of his career, Shawn Coyne developed the Five Leaf Genre Clover to help us understand what it is and how it works.
There’s already a wealth of information in the Story Grid Universe about what genre is and how the Five Leaf Genre Clover works, so there’s no need for me to go into depth here. Instead, I refer you to episodes from the flagship Story Grid podcast on Literary v Commercial Fiction, Diving Deep into Genre and How Genre Affects Your Story. There are also a number of articles including one I wrote called Genre in Writing: The Most Important Thing, as well as a three-part series about internal genre stories that Leslie Watts and Kim Kessler wrote (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Kim continued her study of internal genre stories in Season 4 of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast in our episodes on The Fundamentals of Caring, A Man Called Ove and Puzzle. Editor Rachelle Ramirez also discussed each of the content genres in detail in her Secrets of series. (Action, War, Horror, Crime, Thriller Part 1, Thriller Part 2, Western, Love, Performance, Society, Status, Worldview, Morality)
All those reference links probably overwhelmed you. I can understand that, it’s a lot to take in (and it’s only the tip of the iceberg). Chances are, very few of the people who read this article (a mere one or two percent) will ever take the time to study the information in those resources. I don’t say that to chastise or criticize. Quite the opposite in fact. I say it to highlight the opportunity here. If you’re in the one or two percent who are willing to study story, your ability to write a story that works will grow exponentially.
Once you have a handle on what genre is, you need to start understanding why choosing a genre and sticking with it is crucial. Your genre will impact every aspect of your story. This is what the Editor’s Six Core Questions are all about, and Shawn captures them on the Story Grid Global Foolscap. Again, there’s already several resources in the Story Grid Universe about this including The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know and the Editor’s Six Core Questions Part 1 and Part 2 on the flagship podcast. In the first two seasons of The Story Grid Editors Roundtable Podcast, we applied the E6CQ to each of the twelve content genres. Watch the films we analyzed, listen to the episodes and analyze the movies along with us.
But knowing what the questions are, and understanding how to apply them are different skills. It’s in the application of the skills that people try to cut corners. If only one or two percent of the people reading this article will study work that someone else has already done, how many will take the initiative to conduct their own research and study? Precious few.
And this, right here, is the reason we struggle so much to identify which genre we’re writing in. Most of us are not willing to study. I stopped counting how many people have asked me to analyze their favourite film or novel for them. Those people don’t yet understand that, even if I did do it, I’d be the one learning, not them. Having me do the work will not get them any closer to writing a story that works, and that can be one tough pill to swallow.
We can’t abdicate this responsibility. If we don’t undertake our own study of stories across all genres, we won’t understand what the genres are and how they work. When we get an idea for a story, we won’t know which genre it falls into or which genre might help us tell it best.
Case Study: Hidden Figures
Let’s take the film Hidden Figures as an example. The Roundtable studied it in Season 2 so we know that the global genre is performance, but the screenwriters could have chosen to tell it as a society story (with a focus on civil and women’s rights) or as a love story (with a focus on Katherine’s relationship with Colonel Jim Johnson). Since they wanted to focus on the contribution that Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson made to the American space program, performance is the genre that allowed them to showcase that best.
If we’re going to write our own novels starting with the idea first, then we need a solid understanding of what the 12 content genres are and how they work. That means we need to study stories from each and every one of them. There is no getting around this. There are no short cuts.
The problem is that we are not well read enough and we haven’t developed the habit of studying story. In today’s society we’re trained to want quick fixes. We want lightening strikes. Studying stories is hard work. It’s time-consuming work. But it’s also essential work. Shawn Coyne recently challenged us all to read widely and deeply, and during the editor training session in Nashville (February 2019), the Roundtable team pulled him aside and asked him more about it. Here’s what he had to say.
Once you’ve studied multiple stories from each of the content genres, then you’ll have the tools you need to start figuring out which genre will help you bring your story to life.
Pantsing v Plotting
Allow me to take a quick detour here to comment on the whole pantsting v. plotting debate. In my opinion, this is right up there with the plot-driven v. character-driven discussion. They’re red herrings that distract new or amateur writers from actually writing their novels. Writers will spend more time talking about writing than actually writing. Resistance comes at us from all different directions, and this conversation is one of its favourite tactics to divert us.
Pantsing and plotting are merely two different ways to create first drafts. One is not better than the other. One approach might work better for you most of the time, or you might find yourself switching back and forth from project to project, or within one project.
If you have no idea which genre your story idea falls into, you might genuinely need to start writing it for a while to get a feel for what it’s really about. That’s okay.
As essential as studying the twelve content genres is, don’t let it become a form of Resistance. If your goal is to be a writer then you must keep writing while you’re studying.
Case Study: My Current Work-in-Progress
More often than not, I fall into the category of writer who starts with an idea and then figures out which genre will help me tell it. It would be more convenient, certainly faster, for me to start with a genre but that doesn’t seem to be the way it works for me. The Muse has other plans.
My current WIP started as the merest fragment of an idea that, from my past study of genre, I suspected was either a horror or a thriller. The only way I could figure it out was to find masterworks, pull them apart to see what made them tick.
It took me four solid months of consuming thrillers and horror stories (films and novels), flying across the continent to attend Robert McKee’s genre week seminars, and scribbling out ideas to realize I was writing a thriller. How did I do that? There’s a lot of overlap between horror and thriller and I had a hunch that the story I wanted to write was very close to the dividing line; I suspected that I was either writing a horrifying thriller or a thrilling horror. I waffled a lot between them, one week convinced it was a horror and the next convinced it was a thriller.
Some of the key genre distinctions didn’t help me decide. For example, they share the same global value at stake (life to a fate worse than death). They both tend to be archplot stories and they have very similar obligatory scenes.
The core emotions are different though. Horror incites fear, while thrillers create a sense of excitement. So I had to ask myself how I wanted my reader to feel at the end of the story. Did I want to scare the pants of them and make them sleep with the light on? Or, did I want to make them feel like they just got off the wildest rollercoaster ride of their lives? I knew I could tell my story either way because I knew both would work. But, given the theme I want to explore, I decided that when it comes to core emotion, excitement would be the better option.
Shawn developed some global themes for each of the twelve content genres (they’re all outlined in the first two seasons of the Roundtable podcast, so check out the show notes). I know I want my story to end positively (because I personally have no interest in writing stories that end on a low note), so the positive controlling ideas for horror and thriller are as follows.
Horror: Life is preserved when the protagonist overpowers or outwits the antagonist.
Thriller: Life is preserved when the protagonist unleashes her special gift.
There are only three ways to defeat an antagonist; the protagonist can overpower the antagonist, outwit him, or both. My personal preference is to have the hero outwit the villain, but even more satisfying is when victory comes because a special gift is released. Now in fairness, in a horror story the defeat can also be because the protagonist unleashed a special gift. So there are definitely shades of grey here and these broad controlling ideas didn’t give me a clear vote in favour of one genre or the other.
Obligatory scenes were another grey area because there’s significant overlap. However, there’s a nuance in the core event which makes them very different.
Horror: Victim at the Mercy of the Monster
Thriller: Hero at the Mercy of the Villain
I had to step back and ask myself whether my protagonist is a victim or a hero. Likewise I had to ask if my antagonist is a monster or a villain. This took forever to figure out because I had to zone in on the differences between victim and hero, and monster and villain. Here’s what I came up with.
The word victim implies helplessness and while my character might be significantly outmatched, she’s not helpless. Likewise, the word monster implies a two-dimensional creature that can’t be reasoned with. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re zombies, they could be characters who are hyper focused on their goal. But my antagonist is more than that. He’s a Hannibal Lecter type of villain; shrewd, clever and manipulative. I also really loved the idea that in a thriller, the battle between hero and villain is personal. The villain is out to get that particular hero. That’s a far cry from a story like Jaws where the shark is simply looking for lunch and any swimmer will do.
And so, thriller it is. I’ve made a genre choice and now I have to stick with it. My original idea didn’t adhere to some of the conventions of thriller (I hadn’t thought of having a clock, for example) so I’ll have to work those in. The broad thriller genre has twelve subgenres, so I had to figure out which subgenre I was writing by studying the differences between them. I’ve settled on psychological thriller which means I now have to do a deep dive into those kinds of stories.
Part of my study will be covered in Season 5 of the Roundtable podcast which begins on June 12, 2019. The first episode focusing on psychological thrillers airs June 26, 2019 with a look at Primal Fear.