As much as we’d probably not like to admit it, our works will get categorized into genres. Often times people will seek out books of certain genres because that’s what they like. People expect certain experiences from the genres they like, and they choose that genre because it promises to provide their expected experience. When it fails to deliver, this can leave them feeling disappointed, annoyed, regretful, and sometimes even anger. This can be even more pronounced in the genres of speculative fiction such as science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Why is this? Jule Selbo, explains in the essay “Choosing Your Speculative Genre:”
“Because these three genres attract specific audiences that tend to be knowledgeable and demanding and very, very picky—not to say prickly—if their expectations are not met. That’s a lot of pressure for a “genre”—a French-based word that original meant to simply denote “type” or “category,” but one that has now taken on a much, more important place in the lexicon of narrative fiction.”
This means that sometimes it can be useful to know what genre your story is, and how it informs your storyline and writing in general. A book or movie or even TV show is never solely one genre only, there is often a supporting genre that also influences the characters and plot. So for this exploration, we’ll take a look at genres and how to identify the primary and supporting genres in your piece of fiction. To do so, let’s discuss the three main speculative genres and how the supporting genres can lend development to the story. Jule Selbo goes on to explain some of the basics of these three genres:
“I suggest we think of science fiction, fantasy, and horror for a moment as “world” genres, for there are few inherent story components in these genres (genres that have stronger narrative dictates include mystery, romance, and crime). Their main feature is that they invite the audience into a specific world—and there are many fans enthralled with these worlds.”
For Science fiction:
Science fiction genre stories have their roots in science. The writer’s imagination can extrapolate and vamp on the chosen scientific nugget, and the fun of the sci-fi genre is its proximity to some scientific truth or hypotheses.”
“The fantasy genre allows the author to create an imaginary world, often using supernatural elements as primary inspirations for plot and characters. The world may be dreamlike, it may at times feel real, but it is always illusory. Think Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings novels and films.
Environments can be otherworldly but at the same time must be clearly drawn; rules of the society and more and beliefs of the characters must be clear. Without such as societal expectations, rules of conduct, limitations on power,etc., it is very hard to create conflict.”
“The horror genre features plots where evil forces (events or characters) invade the everyday world and upset the social order. There is narrative dictate in horror, which makes it different from the science fiction and fantasy genres; the horror genre calls for a writer to create a space or situation for the evil entity to show itself and, in most cases, make life miserable for those who inhabit the story.”
Now that we have basic definitions for each of the primary speculative genres, what about supporting genres?
Supporting genres tend to include adventure, action, mystery, romance, buddy, coming-of-age, comedy, drama, and probably a few more I’m forgetting. These tend to have narrative dictates that influence the plot and characters arcs more directly than the over-arching world genre. These provide more of the beef of the story, and all stories, no matter the medium, tend toward a mixture of some of these supportive genres along with an overarching world genre. Each of these supporting genres have a narrative dictate that is often used, and is what defines that particularly supporting genre. They also provide an expectation of what to expect in the story itself, and help provide it with a more structurally sound and interesting narrative. It can help flesh out characters, worlds, and plot points.
Here is a list of definitions for some supporting genres:
- Adventure (a goal is set and the hero, against all odds, must strive to reach that goal for the betterment of community or all of humanity)
- Action (a heck of a lot of action, where there is less dialogue and more movement and doing things.)
- romance (two or more people interested romantically and sexually with someone else or with each other)
- coming-of-age (character matures and comes to understand something about themselves)
- buddy (character arc toward bonding and friendship)
- comedy (humorous scenarios, incongruity)
- drama (suspenseful series of unexpected events or set of circumstances that happens at a crucial moment in a characters’ life, focuses on emotional conflict generally, those sub-genres can include conflicts such as war, political conflict, crime, tragedy)
- mystery (plot points structured so that a puzzle is slowly put together by figuring out the meaning of clues)
- Any other genres I missed or better definitions for the ones above? Drop them in a comment!
As a tool, this can be very useful, especially if you are struggling with a story idea. I find that I often struggle more toward the middle of the story rather than the beginning and the end of the tale. By thinking about the different supporting genres, what I expect when I hear about those genres, and what are some common themes and plot points I often see in those genres, it helps me develop ideas for my own work. Its like I’m jump-starting the idea section of my brain. I wish I’d thought of this earlier to be honest, but it’s only recently that I started thinking about the use of genres and their effect on my writing.
Here is an exercise to help us jump-start this process:
1. In choosing to write in one of the speculative genres, consider making it clear to your audience from the outset that they are going to “get what they paid for.” Construct a scene or situation set in the overriding genre to open your narrative. Just keep in mind that the goal should be to create a scene or situation that makes the genre clear as well as includes a way to get to know one of your main characters so that the audience begins to understand/care for him/her. If you want to start your story with an event that does not feature your main character, best to keep it relatively short. Audience members are quick to understand a “setting the genre/world” scene and are waiting to engage in characters, so don’t tax their patience.
2. List possible supporting genres. Decide which may lend a sense of originality to your piece. Which will illuminate characters and which will help raise conflicts between characters? Consider which supporting genres will help complicate/raise the stakes in your plot. Write a scene that exemplifies this supporting genre, but still has the over-arching world field of your primary genre.
Feel free to discuss this further in the comments, and if you have more resources regarding genres, definitely drop it in a comment!