Genre, or the category in which a story is classified, isn’t something I think about much with my writing. The actual story is more important to me. In fact, the only time I really focused on it was during my Film Studies courses. But I wanted to cover it here as I do get asked about how to write in certain genres, what certain genres are, specifically, what the “rules” are….And so on.
There are no “rules” for writing, remember. While I talked about your personal writing process in that particular post, I want to extend it to genres as well. I bring this up as I’ve run into writers who think they must know, ahead of time, sometimes before a single word is written, that they need to know what the (exact!) genre their story is.
Meaning, they believe they have to know how to classify their story before they even have a story written. It’s the literary version of a cart before the horse. After all, how can you know what genre (or mixture of genres) your story is if you haven’t written it?
But, first, what exactly is a “genre”?
According to Dictionary.com:
“Genre” originated from the French word for “gender”, le genre.
Interestingly, the birth of film occurred right around the time the dime novel (or a “penny dreadful”as they’re called in Britain) became popular—the late 1800s and early 1900s. (Yes, film existed that early!) And the most popular format of the dime novel (all over the world) was the Western.
A new genre was born, though, for another decade or so, it essentially remained classified under “Drama” or “Adventure”. Until then, there were really only a few ways to classify literature: Comedy and Tragedy, thanks to ancient Grecian theater, and perhaps Drama and Adventure.
In truth, the Western’s roots can be traced back to James Fennimore Cooper’s writings. Especially so with his beloved novel The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (published in 1826). However, the Western Expansion was relatively new, as the “Wild West” and the “frontier” barley existed past the borders of Wisconsin in the north and Mississippi to the south, even with The Louisiana Purchase doubling the United States in 1803.
So while we did have a literary fascination with the wilds of the frontier in Cooper’s lifetime, classifying literary works into types/styles/genera/classes was still a relatively simple matter.
Comedy, Tragedy, Drama, Adventure.
Nowadays, walk into any (still standing) brick-and-mortar bookstore and there’s dozens of genres and sub-genres. (We do love our literary taxonomy!) Films have broken down those genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres. Interestingly, Netflix is credited with creating “micro-genres” after gathering data on the way we search for movies. (I recently noticed that all of the Star Trek shows Netflix has are each classified under at least five categories, including “Alien TV”.)
With the onset of “literary taxonomy”, there are now a multitude of choices; many of these could also be classified as sub-genres. For the examples below, the “parent genus” is Fiction (imagined/made up stories):
- Fairy Tale
- Romantic Comedy
- Tall Tale
- Western (I still say this is one of the first “new” genres as it created its own formula and a new setting for stories; prior to that the American West didn’t exist as an inspiration, beyond James Fennimore Cooper’s writing.)
And by no means is the above list necessarily complete.
“Historical Fiction” is something of a gray-area genre; while the plot is made up, the story itself could be true; meaning, you could take four characters and relate their experiences in the midst of something that actually happened—perhaps they were members of the French Resistance during World War II (this would absolutely create a need for copious amounts of research on the author’s part!)
Coming Home can be classified as “Historical Fiction” because my characters do exactly that: have fictional experiences in the midst of events that actually happened during the eras in which the story takes place. And it could also carry the classification of Romance (just not “bodice-ripping” Romance). Drama.
You can also absolutely mix genres together to create your story and plot. This is why we have terms like “Rom-Com” or “Dramedy”; no one work is necessarily classified into one (and only one) genre.
Joss Whedon’s tragically short-lived Firefly series, and its sequel movie Serenity, is a Science-Fiction Western. Gene Roddenberry’s pitch for Star Trek was “Wagon Train to the stars”. There’s the recent (satire?) of Cowboys & Aliens, a movie in which a town in the Old West must fight an alien invasion. The Alien franchise is Science-Fiction/Suspense/Thriller and even Horror. Stephen King’s books could easily be classified under Horror, Suspense/Thriller, Mystery, with a dash of Tall Tale.
Then you have films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
As you can see, your story may definitely land more squarely in one genre more than another. Perhaps it’s in the Mystery category, with some comedic romance thrown in. Or maybe it’s more like a Film Noir—a mystery heavy on the grittty thrills and suspense.
(A terrific example of a story that encompasses pretty much every single genre and sub-genre listed above is the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And, you could argue The Blues Brothers encompasses many of them as well. There’s something for everyone in that film. Including terrific music.)
So, as you can see, trying to decide what (specific) genre your story is early on isn’t necessary. Sure, you may have an idea of the main one it basically fits into, but by no means must you then write your story so that it’s constricted to that genre and only that genre.
I once read an article where some “writing expert” said that if you choose to write a Western, you must to stick to a very exact outline of storytelling. Same with a Romance novel. Mystery. You couldn’t stray. You couldn’t mix in other genres. I had a college professor (the same one who became personally insulted and angry with me when I refused to change the ending to my short story) who thought this as well.
Meaning, both the fellow in the article and this “teacher” I had believed you had to stick, and always stick, to a very specific formula. Period.
Apparently, they both believed that genre meant mandated formula.
To me, that means formulaic. And formulaic generally equals boring. (Can you imagine either of those people working within the Netflix environment of all their “micro genres”?)
The only “formula” every writer follows is having a beginning, a middle and an end. Act 1, 2 and 3. There’s no mandated way you must tell a Mystery story, a Comedy, a Romance. Well, yes, obviously…Mystery has to have mystery, the Comedy humor and the Romance romance.
But believing that those genres are the equivalent of products coming from an automated factory is constricting and even patronizing. Not to mention ridiculous.
This isn’t ancient Greece where you’re stuck with either a Tragedy or a Comedy. If you want to write a Rom-Com Western with facets of Horror and Crime…have at it. You can even satirize the heck out of it. And you most certainly do not have to follow a specific outline of storytelling “rules”.
The point of writing is to have fun.
Yes, yes. It’s arduous (at best!) much of the time, but getting caught up in how you “must” write a specific story within a genre, or that you must stick to a specific formula (or that you must follow someone else’s writing process) will only serve to kill your creative spirit.
My suggestion is to forget about typing your story, and simply type it out, and classify that as a success.
1) Choose three favorite books and/or movies. In a new document or in a journal, write out their titles. Under each one, put as many genres (and sub-genres) as you can think of that each book/film can fit into. Get as “micro-genre”-oriented as you want (e.g. character personality types, their experiences, etc.)
2) Choose two of the above titles. Pretend you have to market them on Instagram or Twitter. What hashtags would you use? (Hashtags are a form of categorizing, as you know, and even a form of “genre-izing” your posts.)
Write a short scene using these five words or phrases: Yo-yo, baseball mitt, sled, trapeze, pogo stick. DIFFICULTY: Your character has created a brand new Olympic sport. How is it played and what are the rules?
Questions? Comments? Do you like to classify your stories in a specific genre or two, or do you just go with the flow? Leave a comment below, or email me using the “Contact” link, or at heather (at) heathercurryselfbooks (dot) com. You can also follow me on my Facebook page and on Twitter (@HCSBooks). I’m also on Instagram (heathercurryself). Also, do leave me feedback about this post!