When You Promise Genre, What Do You Promise?

The first rule of Writing Club is that a rule that doesn’t suggest how to successfully break itself is a boring rule.  No, I lie.  That’s the second rule of Writing Club.  The first rule is “don’t be boring.”

I’ve been playing around with the idea that genre means making certain promises to the reader–setting up certain reader expectations–and that everything else about the story will revolve around that.  I’ve been using romance (as a genre) as an example a lot lately in personal conversations.  It’s great: I’m approaching the genre with fresh eyes (I’ve only been reading it seriously for about six months), and everyone in the genre is so very, very clear about what it’s about.  It’s about the feeling of falling in love, and the risks that you take in love.  The reader expectation of a romance is that you’re going to watch people falling in love,  and that the story will be about falling in love, and that the characters will feel the feelings of falling in love and share them so effectively with the reader that they feel like they’re falling in love too.

Romance is pretty easy to work out that way.  But other genres aren’t, necessarily.  I’m going to make some preliminary guesses about genres here, and see whether I end up with “rules” that encourage clarity and play.

Here’s how I’m splitting these out: main genres are the main types of stories, age categories arethe age of your audience, and meta-genres are analagous to Dean Wesley Smith’s “umbrella genres.”  I just like “meta” better…the rules of meta-genres seem to me to have rules about how you’re going to tell the main types of stories.  Like a Christian romance…you tell a romance story, but you have to follow the rules of Christian fiction in order to do so.  You can’t really have a meta-genre story without a main genre.  It might look like you have a standalone meta-genre story, but you don’t really.  For example, you might have a thriller, and that’s all you call it, but what is the main story about? It’s a mystery, usually.  Hidden somewhere in any story is usually going to be one of the main genres; it might not have the trappings of setting that the genre itself has (like SF)–you can write a story about your fears of society without having a single futuristic or alternate or science-oriented element about the story.

So here are some preliminary guesses about the main genres:

Romance – falling in love/feeling unloved

SF – hopes for society/fears for or of society

Fantasy – mastery of society/lack of mastery

Mystery – increasing order in the world/increasing chaos

Western – what has value/what does not have value (usually expressed in terms of justice)

Horror is an interesting case.  Dean Wesley Smith argues that horror, as a genre, is going away.  I had my doubts, but I’ve been watching the bookstores that I go to, and they’re starting to break up the horror shelves, King into fiction or bestsellers or thriller, anything heavy on an alternate setting into SF/F, and anything with a relatively normal setting into suspense/thriller.  So what was horror about, emotionally?  My guess is being hurt/hurting someone else.  I want to stay away from fear as a description of horror, because all genres rely on fear.  Romance, for example, can deal with the fear of falling in love, the fear of feeling unloved.  And horror doesn’t really contain any hope, or if it does, it’s not the point.  If you go with “hurt” as the continuum there, then you can explain things like Cabin in the Woods, which isn’t a book, but comes to its unusual conclusion after weighing the balance of pain in the world, and what you’re willing to do to make the hurters stop hurting you.  Notice that it’s easier for me to find a recent horror movie that we’re likely to have read, versus a recent horror novel that isn’t one of Stephen King’s.  He’s broken out of genre, and I don’t know that he can single-handedly count as the justification for independent sets of shelves in bookstores.

And on the age categories:

Children’s (picture book) – Questions of sorting, establishing the basic categories of life.  At the earliest level, it’s about sorting out things like colors, numbers, and what sound goes with what animal.  You can crack up a little kid by pointing to a red ball and saying, “What a pretty yellow duck!” “No!” says the little one, extremely proud of being able to sort that out.  You can also get things like, “What is a family?  What are the roles in a family?  How do you know when it’s a good family or not a good family?  What is real?  What is imaginary?”

Chapter book – Sadly, I don’t think there’s a really good idea of what a chapter book (for Kindergarteners to, say, eight or nine) should do for kids.  I have some pretty strong opinions about this, but I’m not really clear on what I would have a chapter book actually do, so I’ll reserve spouting off on this one too much.  I do know that Ray never really got into chapter books, because they were SO boring.  She stuck with picture books for a long time, until she was ready to get into MG.

Middle Grade – fear of independence/longing for independence

Young Adult – asserting identity/fear of not fitting in

New Adult – I haven’t really gotten into these, and can’t really talk to them.

Adult – longing for the good life/trapped by the less-than-good or ordinary life

I also know there’s an emerging age category called “geezer lit.”  I haven’t read in it yet, but I’d predict that you’d see something along the lines of resisting change/accepting change in it.

And on the meta-genres:

Christian – Christian/unchristian.  I think how people define “what is Christian” is diverse enough, and I don’t read the genre enough, that I’ll leave it at that.

Erotica – sexually compulsive/sexually repulsive.  Another genre that I don’t read, so I’m just guessing.

Literary – ugly/beautiful.  This is a question of writing style.  You can have this elegant style writing about something horribly ugly – and it’s a great fit for literary fiction.  I don’t feel like I’ve really hit the nail on the head here yet.

Fiction – I list this here, but I think this is really just “adult genre, not overwhelmed by other genres, or approachable and popular enough that nobody cares.”  For example, women’s fiction is the longing for independence as a woman/fear of being trapped as a woman.

Historical – This isn’t really a genre anymore, but a subgenre you can apply to any other genre.  Hm…I may have to talk about the emotions involved in settings at some point.  With SF, you imbue your setting with your opinions about society so strongly that they’re impossible to miss.  With historical…you try to be accurate, yet exotic.   More thought will be required here.

Thriller – inevitable collapse/impossible victory.  There’s so much at stake, so many impossible odds, that there’s this constant feeling that there’s no way to succeed, and that if you do succeed, it’s not for very long, or something else will go wrong very soon.  If you stop a murderer, there will be another one, usually in the same book.

I’m going to invitingly add “Pulp” as a meta-genre.  It’s been coming up a lot lately in discussions I’ve been having, and I want to say that the range of emotion in pulp deals not with good or bad (and is almost negated, as a genre, by transformation of character, precluding use of that kind of structure, like the Joseph Campbell stuff).  It deals with the poles of strength and weakness: physical, mental, emotional, what have you.  I know “pulp” isn’t a genre on the shelf – but I think it should be.  (Pulp – strength/weakness.)

Each genre has its own subgenres.  Each subgenre has its own specialization of emotion.  There are many fertile areas of cross-pollenization.

So.  You have to pick one main genre and one age category.  You may or may not pick a meta-genre.  You can specialize into a subgenre (I may go there later; we’ll see).  You can pick pieces of one genre and use them in another (like science fantasy or Star Wars).  This is a toolbox, not a straightjacket.  However – when you start playing fast and loose with your genres, how do you know what genre to put things into?  What are the unavoidable constraints?  The answer I hear is usually, “Just pick one.”  Bleah.  I hate that answer.  It’s boring, confusing, and belittling.  Because the answer is really, “Just pick one, stupid.”

Let me pick something at random, build a story out of these categories.

  • Western – what has value/what does not have value (usually expressed in terms of justice)
  • Romance – falling in love/feeling unloved
  • Adult – longing for the good life/trapped by the less-than-good or ordinary life
  • Erotica – sexually compulsive/sexually repulsive.  Another genre that I don’t read, so I’m just guessing.
  • Christian – Christian/unchristian.  I think how people define “what is Christian” is diverse enough, and I don’t read the genre enough, that I’ll leave it at that.

And a tentative flow for sorting:

  1. Is the age other than “adult” or older?  If yes, then that is your main category (children’s, middle grade, etc.).
  2. Is there a meta-genre?  If yes, then it’s your genre, unless 1 applies, in which case it’s a subgenre.  2a.  If there is more than one meta-genre, then research both metas to find out whether that combination exists as a subgenre to one of the two, and where.  Is there a Christian erotica subgenre?  Or Erotic Christian subgenre?  I’ve heard the first exists.  If the genre is Christian and the subgenre is Christian erotica, then the polarity of Christian/unchristian emotions must be more important than questions of sexually compusion/repulsion.  If it’s Erotic Christian, then the question of sexual compulsion/repulsion has to be more important than the Christian aspects.  Or whatever.
  3. Is the setting the most important part of the book (ignore any historical aspects for now)?  Then sort the book into the appropriate genre for the setting.  3a.  If there is more than one possible place to sort the book by setting, then the heirarchy of settings goes like this: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Western.  If a book is a SF Western (e.g., Firefly), then it’s SF, with a Western subgenre. 3b. If you have aspects of SF, F, or Western but they aren’t the main genre, then list them as part of the subgenres.
  4. If there is a more or less accurate historical aspect, then the subgenre is Historical.
  5. If the story is about falling in love and has a happy ending, it’s a romance.  5a. If the most important thing about the story is falling in love with a happy ending, then all other main genre aspects are subgenres. 5b.  If the romantic aspect isn’t the most important one, then the book has a romantic subplot, and you usually won’t have to mention it.
  6. If the story is about a crime and the resolution thereof, it’s a mystery.  6a.  If the most important thing about the book is the crime and its resolution (bringing it to order, although not necessarily justice or truth), then all other main genre aspects become subgenres.  6b.  If the crime/order aspect isn’t the most important one in the book, then the book has a mystery subplot, and you usually won’t have to mention it.
  7. If you don’t know your genre yet, it’s fiction.

So here, we go:

  1. The age is adult or older, no determination of genre.
  2. There is a meta-genre (two).  2a.  There’s a Christian Erotica genre, so this book is a Christian Erotica, with the most important aspect of the book being questions of Christianity.
  3. The setting is not the most important part of the book, but there is a Western aspect.  I’m going to say the question of value/justice is stronger than the Erotica here.
  4. The setting’s in the Old West, but Western is more specific than Historical, and there’s the emotional aspects of a Western, so I’m going to stick with Western as a subgenre.
  5. The story is a romance, but there are meta-genres, so they win out.
  6. N/A.
  7. N/A.

Our genre is Christian Western Erotica, or possibly even Christian Western Erotic Romance.  The emotions in the story should be (from most to least important):

  1. Questions of Christian/unchristian behavior.
  2. Questions of value and justice (set in the Old West or something like it).
  3. Questions of sexual compulsion/repulsion.
  4. (And/0r) Questions of love and romance.

A likely plot might be something like, “A former preacher and now mercenary gun in the Old West is hired to eliminate a brothel.  But when he meets the madame, he finds her irresistable and falls in love with her.  Can he save this woman from a life of sin–and should he carry out what he was hired to do?”  With a plot like that, you satisfy all the emotional promises that you’ve made to the reader, in the priority order that you’ve made them.

I think writing the book first and then figuring out the genre, if you don’t know genre, is going to make it really, really easy to screw up the promises that you make to the reader, because you have specific promises that you’ve made, and they have to have specific priorities (you can play with the priorities, of course, but you have to be specific about them).  I’m probably off about more than a couple of these emotional promises that you’re making to the reader, but I think the idea as a whole is useful.

I don’t actually read either Christian or Erotica, so I’m going to play this one again:

  • Fantasy – mastery of society/lack of mastery
  • Western – what has value/what does not have value (usually expressed in terms of justice)
  • Middle Grade – fear of independence/longing for independence
  • Pulp – strength/weakness.
  1. Middle-grade is the genre.
  2. Pulp is a subgenre.
  3. Settings are Western and Fantasy.  Fantasy takes precedence over Western.
  4. Western beats Historical, so Western.
  5. N/A.
  6. N/A.
  7. N/A.

My genre is MG Fantasy Western Pulp.  My emotions should be:

  1. Fear of/longing for independence.
  2. Mastery of society/lack of mastery.
  3. Value/Justice.
  4. Strength/Weakness.

A likely plot: “An eleven-year-old boy sets off on a quest to get revenge against an evil wizard who runs his backwater town and who turned his sister into a gibbering idiot for breaking a minor law, after his parents reveal they’re too afraid to act on their own.  He finds and hires a famous outlaw to murder the wizard…but the outlaw only makes things worse.”  The boy has to act independently, and live with the consequences of his actions.  He gets the wizard killed, and then has to deal with the outlaw.   I should probably give the kid a magic power in there to help him accomplish this.  He’s going to be wondering about whether he should have tried to get the wizard killed or not the entire time: whether it was right for his parents to accept the wizard, or whether they should have fought back.  And this isn’t a situation that’s going to be resolved by talking things out, but by sticking it to the wall, a strength of determination.

Right.  And now I’m going to try to write that, to see how well my ideas are working out 🙂

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2 Comments

  1. Wow. What looks like an interesting academic exercise suddenly becomes the jumping off point for two very interesting stories. Neat!

  2. De

    “Now…will I use this power for good or evil?!?”

    Sadly, with every new way I find of looking at things, I feel exhausted at the work I suspect will be involved at mastering it.

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