Today’s post is all about Genre:
The difference between content Genres & market genres
What the content Genres are
How to find the global Genre of your story
How to mix Genres & add subplots
When reading, I’ve noticed that in some stories, the Genre seems slightly fuzzy at first, which can create confusion in the reader. If you find your stories’ Genre and nail it, your readers will have clear expectations and are more likely to stick with the story until the end.
Full disclosure: naturally, the things I will talk about here are things I’ve learned from others. You can find all this information in much more detail in the book: Story Grid: What good editors know by Shawn Coyne, and several articles from the Story Grid website. This article is more of an introduction into Genre and why it is important, in a short and hopefully understandable article.
Why fantasy is not a Genre
First things first: I’m explicitly talking about your content Genre here, not the market genre. What is the difference? Well, I’m glad you ask.
The market genre is all about how to position a book, so it’s clear to potential buyers if the book is something they’d be interested in. So naturally, they would include things like ‘Fantasy YA,’ ‘YA Dystopian,’ ‘Epic Fantasy,’ or ‘Paranormal Romance,’ and I can go on and on. With the exclusion of paranormal romance (romance/love is a content Genre), the other terms tell you very little about what kind of story it is (i.e., they don’t tell you much about the content of the story).
A ‘YA Dystopian’ novel can still be a romance story, an action story, a thriller… you get the point. So, while those terms don’t really give you an idea about the stories’ content, it does give you an idea about the level of realism. By adding the term Fantasy, Dystopian, or Paranormal, the reader will know that they will have to suspend their belief quite far. On the other hand, if the story is grounded in realism, the reader isn’t expecting to encounter things that don’t exist in the real world.
The content Genres in story
So by now, you’ll probably be wondering what these so-called content Genres are. In his book, Shawn identifies a total of 12 genres, of which 9 are external, and 3 are internal. Here they come:
- Action: Life – Death
- Crime: Justice – Injustice
- Horror: Life – Damnation
- Thriller: Life – Death + possibility for Damnation; is a merge between action, crime and horror
- Love: Love – Hate
- Society: Personal Power – Impotence
- Western: Autonomy – Subjugation
- War: Honor – Dishonor
- Performance: Respect – Shame
- Worldview: Sophistication – Dissilusionment
- Status: Success – Failure
- Morality: Altruism – Selfishness
Finding the Global Genre of your story
Alright, so these are the Genres. Your story will have a global Genre; in other words, one Genre your story revolves around. The easiest way to tell which of these is the focus of your story is by asking yourself what is at stake for the protagonist. Is her life threatened continuously? Likely your global Genre is action. Does it go even further, and is there a real chance of Damnation? Then it’s horror. Is it all about love, moving in the domain between love and hate? It’s a love story. Is there a struggle between the individual being free and autonomous or subjugating to society, then it’s a Western.
To clarify: for a story to be classified as a Western, it doesn’t actually have to play out in the Wild West. That is the setting. It’s called the Western genre, because pretty much all the movies set in the Wild West, are about the individual versus society.
While most stories have an external focus, the global Genre can also be internal. These are a bit trickier to pick apart. Think about how your protagonist changes: did he start with a certain worldview and ends with a different one? Does he move from being self-centered and selfish to sacrificing himself for the benefit of others? Or perhaps she wants to rise in status, and the story explores how close she is to either success or failure.
Get an overview
I’ve created a pdf with all the content Genres on there, with the values these Genres revolve around. What’s more, it also includes the Need that is central to each Genre (i.e., physical survival for action, safety for crime, esteem for status), and the Core Emotion they provoke in the reader (such as excitement, fear, pity). Finally, it also includes a list of the subgenres within each Genre, as well as some movie/book examples.
Mixing Genres in your story
I hear you thinking: but stories don’t just have one Genre, do they? Well… some do. But it’s true; most stories include more than one Genre.
For example, The Hunger Games might be a clear action story, but there’s also a romance arc between Katniss and Peeta, next to Katniss’ changing worldview. Yet, here we’re talking about the global Genre, the focus of your story. The Hunger Games is all about survival; thus, it’s global content Genre is action. It is clear from the very beginning, where Katniss and her family struggles to survive. Also, the first key moment (the inciting incident), where Katniss volunteers to be a tribute, revolves around the stakes of life and death. She’s risking certain death by becoming a tribute.
That being said, a story with just one content genre can be a bit flat. That’s why most stories mix an external and internal genre (note that one of these still has to be the focus of the story). The exception of this is action stories (think about the older James Bond movies and the books).
So, after you’ve picked a global Genre, think about which internal or external Genre can complement it. If you’ve chosen an external Genre as your focus, think about how your protagonist changes over the story. This can be tricky; often, they change in more than one regard. However, try to figure out what they change in the most.
For instance, a lot of Young Adult novels have the Worldview internal genre (specifically a sub-genre called ‘maturation’), because they deal with growing up. And in growing up, we often have to adjust our worldview and upgrade it to a more mature one. For instance, Harry Potter is at its core an action story. Still, it also has the internal Worldview genre, as we continuously see Harry gaining a more complex understanding of the world and the people around him as he grows up.
Sub-plot: adding more Genres to your story
As far as sub-plots go: pick wisely & don’t try and do too much. Many stories that don’t have a Love story as a global Genre have it as a sub-genre. Adding a little romance never hurts, but beware that it doesn’t become the focal point of your story (or if it does, re-evaluate whether you’ve chosen the right global Genre for your story). Other subplots are also possible: perhaps your protagonist has a falling out with his family, shifting the power-hierarchy within the family. This would fall under Society (domestic subgenre).
So, by all means, throw in additional sub-plots to give it more depth, but keep in mind: they need to be in service of the global Genre that you chose. How does adding the sub-Genre help escalating the stakes of the global Genre? If they don’t, you should probably examine whether or not it’s really needed. Whenever you’re unsure what needs to happen in your story: go back to your global Genre.
- There’s a difference between the content Genre and the market genre.
- There are a total of 12 content Genres, including 3 internal and 9 external genres.
- Your story should focus on 1 of these Genres: this is your global Genre.
- Except for action stories, you want 1 external and 1 internal Genre to complement each other.
- Other Genres can be added as sub-plots, but always focus on your global Genre.
Now it’s your turn! Find the Genre of your story!
Just give it a try! In your work, think about what is at stake for your protagonist. What is then your global Genre? Is this clear in each of the critical scenes in the story? In other words, do the stakes in that scene relate to the global Genre? What other Genres can you detect in your story? Do they support the global story?
Another fun thing to do: pick a masterwork in the Genre you’re writing in, and try and identify those key moments in the story. What do you think the global Genre is? What is most at stake in these scenes, and does that fit with the global Genre?
I promise, once you get a grasp of this and nail your stories genre, you’ll have a much tighter and cohesive story.
If you have any questions or comments, please let me know in the comments or by sending me an email!
If you thought this was interesting and want to know more, I highly recommend looking at these articles that go more in-depth:
- Genre Five Leaf Clover
- Defining Genre
- Genres of Writing
- Global Genre in Epic Fantasy
- Which Genre am I writing in?
And listening to these podcast episodes:
If you want to get into it even more, I’d also recommend you to get a copy of this book: