Genre Writing

vampire shutterstock_114757591.jpg
“Sleep well, darling?”

Some look down on ‘genre novels’ as low-brow pot-boilers. Well, some are, but we can do better. Many of the greatest books ever written have been shameless crowd-pleasers. More please.

 

In this article we’ll look at:

  • What is genre?​

  • How do I write to a formula?

  • ​Why write for a genre?

  • Genre mash-ups

  • Genre fiction reference

  • Genre groups

  • Writing for teenagers/young adults

  • Tips on writing for teenagers

What is 'genre'?

The term ‘genre’ is most commonly used in the context of books, the opposite of a genre novel being one that is considered to be ‘literary’ (i.e. one that is, according to most dictionary definitions, of superior or lasting artistic merit). However, once we start to define the term we soon see that it can apply to any form of fiction whether it’s portrayed through the written word or on film. 

Essentially a genre creation is anything produced to a formula — a set of narrative conventions that delivers the reader or viewer an entertainment experience that they can, to an extent, anticipate in advance. The key word here is ‘entertainment’. A genre production is focused on satisfying an itch that the audience wants scratched in a familiar way. In contrast, creations that fall outside of the genre experience (such as the ‘literary’ novels mentioned above) are often more challenging, unusual and provocative. Nice if you like that kind of thing, but sometimes you just want to sit down, relax your mental muscles and enjoy a story.

As you can imagine, you will encounter little black and white and a whole lot of grey when trying to establish the dividing line between genre and non-genre. Sometimes the best you can say is that you’ll know it when you see it. A novel such as No Country For Old Men may, on the face of it, be a gritty crime thriller, but the work delves into some deep philosophical questions that are untypical of genre novels dealing with the same subject. In contrast, a noir classic such as The Big Sleep provides us with a hard-boiled mystery to which it eventually delivers a satisfying solution. In the same way, Sense and Sensibility delivers everything we’d expect from a modern genre romance. These books might be classics, but still fall within the definition of a genre novel. Genre isn’t a dirty word.

How do I write to a formula?

Most genre works stick closely to a formula that we’ve already discussed in the chapter on Basic Story Structure — the Beginning-Middle-End framework of the classic plotline. However, the key element in a genre work is the ending. The ‘ideal’ outcome should be identified early on and the plot should reliably lead us there, not necessarily in a straight line (that would be very boring) but we should get there eventually. Take a generic sports story. Typically these revolve around an underdog striving for the big win. In this case, the objective of the protagonist should be clearly laid out, as should that nature of some of the obstacles (both internal and external) that are standing in the way of their triumph. However, at the end of the day we need to see the win, or at least something approaching it. But our ending needn’t be completely predictable and good writers will often throw their audience a curveball. Take, for example, Tin Cup a romantic movie about a feckless golfing prodigy who tries to win the US Open to impress his would-be girlfriend. His goal here is clear and our protagonist almost reaches it, but his repeated efforts to pull off a difficult shot ultimately lead to a loss. It doesn’t matter though, his refusal to give up makes him the star of the show, he discovers he automatically qualifies for next year’s event... and, he gets the girl. 

This is the key to the genre formula — reaching a predictable outcome in an unpredictable way. Whether it’s a mystery story, romance or crime caper, we need a resolution. It needn’t necessarily be the one we expect, but it has to be one that’s satisfying and fulfills our expectations for the protagonist. One possible exception to this is the horror story, where the protagonist frequently comes to a sticky end, often at the last minute when we’d thought they were in the clear. It’s a horrifying way to end our tale  —  but that’s kind of what we were after. Actually this type of reversal is now so common it pretty much is the formula. We’d often be more surprised if they made it out in one piece.

Why write for a genre?

There are a number of genres, the best known being:

  • Thriller

  • Horror

  • Historical

  • Science Fiction

  • Fantasy

  • Romance

  • Crime

  • Western

Some genres also have numerous subgenres. In Science Fiction traditional subgenres include Alternate Histories, First Encounters and Post-Apocalyptic. But we also have more contemporary new-wave ‘punk’ subgenres such as Biopunk, Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Nanopunk. Crime subgenres include Police Procedural, Noir, Hard-Boiled and Courtroom. Romance novels can be Contemporary, Historic, Erotic, Paranormal etc.

One of the advantages of writing for a particular genre or subgenre is that your work will slot into a market that’s already well defined and has a loyal audience. If  someone likes Medieval detective stories they’re likely to be interested in your novel about ‘Stumpy Radwold’ the 13th-century mystery-solving leper even if they’ve never heard of him before. As long as the front-cover design and the back-cover blurb clearly brand your book as a Medieval mystery the chances are you’ll get a sale. In the same way, a large and dedicated horror fan-base supports the production of many short-story anthologies, novels and low-budget horror movies, and these projects have been the first step of many new writers breaking into these creative fields.

However, it’s not advisable to write for a genre unless you’re already a connoisseur or are prepared to spend some time immersing yourself in the culture. Dedicated fans will be quick to call out what they consider to be a ‘fake’ and unless you’re aware of what’s already on the market there’s a chance your project might just appear to be a rip-off of someone else’s work.

 

Fan or not the first step of the would-be genre writer should be to study the market. What’s popular? Can you spot any trends? If you’re into horror, zombies are quite the rage. The Zombie Horror subgenre has been going strong since the days of Night of the Living Dead, but the more recent popularity of The Walking Dead launched it into the mainstream and spawned dozens of zombie movies and television series and thousands of books. Exploiting the latest fad can be a successful strategy, but remember that it can take years to turn a manuscript into a book and longer to get a movie into production, so your idea based on a red-hot trend might have grown a little cold by the time it reaches the desk of a publisher or producer.

Another tack is to anticipate a new trend. Are there any gaps in the market? Which subjects been done to death? We’ve already mentioned the ongoing popularity of zombies, and to this we could add vampires. The success of Interview With The Vampire and, later, the Twilight series encouraged many creatives to jump onto the vampire bandwagon. Hundreds of novels and films with a vampire theme have been produced since Interview and Twilight, a tiny proportion of the many thousands of vampire manuscripts and movie scripts that must have landed on the desks of publishers and producers. In fact there have been so many they’ve spawned a brand new horror/romance genre known as Dark Fiction. Although vampires remain popular (particularly in the teen market) most industry professionals are now likely sick to death of them. What other horror themes have been ignored during the vampire frenzy? If you found a new angle on classics such as ghouls or poltergeists some might consider it a refreshing change.

Genre mash-ups

Many genre works will happily fall into more than one category. The movie Alien is obviously Science Fiction, but could also be filed under Horror, while Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are Comedy-Fantasy, and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is a combination of Western, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. 

Other combinations are more self-conscious, these are the so-called ‘mash-ups’ that deliberately bolt together unlikely genre pairings to create something new. One example is the novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (it seems we’re not tired of vampires just yet). Another is Android Karenina by Ben H. Winters that mashes Russian literature with Steampunk Science Fiction.

An imaginative mash-up is a good way of broadening the appeal of your work, so it bears thinking about. Why not come up with a draft for Hamlet with Flying Saucers or Oliver Twist and Werewolves?

Sources of genre fiction reference

Many books have been written to help writers interested in specific genres. If you want to write a crime story you can buy reference works that tell you about police procedures, forensic medicine and the actions of poisons. If you’re writing a historical work there are books that will give you a basic grounding in how people lived in a particular age. However, while these generic references are a good starting place don’t depend on them for all your research. If every writer read the same reference books things would get a mite dull. Do as much original research as you can, it always pays dividends and might lead you to some interesting storylines. 

For example, for historical works set in the recent past (1750s onwards) newspapers are a good source of background information, not only on the events of the day but also on peoples’ manners and lifestyles (advertisements can be particularly interesting in this respect). In the USA the Library of Congress maintains an online newspaper library, while in the UK the British Library has a pay-per-view newspaper archive with a free search function. Other underused reference sources for modern historical works are archives that specialise in documentary-style films and shorts. One example is Periscope Film, a commercial archive company that has free-to-view footage from the 1920s onwards on a wide variety of topics.

Yet another source of genre advice is the specialist publisher. If you’re interested in romance, Harlequin has a Facebook group dedicated to encouraging would-be romantic novelists.

Writing for teenagers and young adults

Teenage novels are often less demanding to write than those aimed at older audiences. Teen novels tend to be shorter (30-40,000 words) than those for adults (which start at 70,000), and usually have simpler plots. However, this is by no means a hard and fast rule. The first Harry Potter novel clocked in at 77,000 words while the Order of the Phoenix reached over a quarter of a million.

Some teenage novels appear in series written by more than one author. Many have a strong love interest (for example, the Sweet Valley High books) and are aimed at a female readership. Others deal in mystery, adventure and horror (Goosebumps and Point Horror). If there’s an existing series you’d like to contribute to contact the publisher. If they’re prepared to consider unsolicited submissions they’ll send you guidelines telling you what they want.

Tips on writing for teenagers

  • Don’t be too topical. Fashions change fast. If you make too many references to current trends and celebrities your book will date quickly. If you want to make musical references make up your own band names.

  • Avoid slang. Slang, like fashion, also changes quickly and it can be more regional that you think. Words and phrases used regularly in your home town might be a mystery to anyone living 50 miles away.

  • Avoid controversial subjects. These might put off many publishers as they don’t want to be accused of corrupting their readership. This isn’t to say that controversial subjects can’t be dealt with in teen books, but a publisher is more likely to accept controversy from an established writer with a proven track record.

  • Remember your readership is younger than you think. In the same way that many teenagers read adult books, many books aimed at older teens are actually bought by 11 to 13 year olds. Don’t dumb-down your writing, but keep it simple and straightforward.

  • Avoid ambiguous endings. Most teenagers (in fact most people) prefer a story with a happy ending. Make a clear distinction between good and bad characters and ensure your villain gets their just deserts or sees the error of their ways.

  • Don’t limit yourself to fiction. Many factual books are written for the teenage market, The Teenage Worrier series for example. These books are often light-hearted and aim to entertain as much as inform. Is there a factual series you’d enjoy contributing to?

Main image © Kiselev Andrey Valerevich c/o Shutterstock

Back to the Index page.