Writing Smarter Radio, a Podcast About Writing for Creative Writers
Topic: Understanding Story Genre
Let’s talk about genre and sub-genre, and how to define it or break down where your book belongs. Are you struggling with what’s the difference between them, where should your book fit, and what if it straddles two or three topics? And you’re confused about which one to put it in?
Knowing the type of story that you want to tell can help you create a framework or blueprint of what’s expected to happen in the story.
The reason we need to know this is because there are reader expectations. When a reader picks a book up off the shelf at the library, or buys a book online, and they’re buying a certain genre of book, there’s an expectation that certain things will happen in the book.
For example, in a romance story, they’re expecting a happy ending. If there’s not a happy ending, they don’t consider it romance. They’re going to be disappointed. With mysteries, people look for clues and red herrings. They want justice to be resolved at the end. If you choose a thriller, you want that heart-pounding action and a fantasy, you probably want magical elements. And in Sci-Fi you really want to know more about the technology and all the nitty gritty details.
There are things that people expect in certain genres. Knowing what type of story and what genre you want to fall in can help give you goalposts to work toward.
It doesn’t mean you have to follow some stiff formula. It just gives you basic outline or idea so that you know you’re heading in the right direction. Now, once you have an idea of what genre you want to write in, you can break it down even further. So, say with romance, you want to go a little different. What type of romance do you want to write? Do you want to write a historical romance? Do you want to write romantic suspense?
Just like mysteries. Do you want to write police procedurals or cozy mysteries with thrillers? Do you want it to be action or do you want it to be more psychological suspense? And with fantasy? Are we talking sword and sorcery or mystical creatures? Sci-Fi, are you leaning in between military space operas or steam punk?
The more you granulize it as you go and the deeper you go, the more detailed, even when you’re figuring things out, it’s going to help you get a feel of the type of story you want to tell. And by breaking it down smaller and smaller, you’ll start to get a feel of what would be right for your story and what wouldn’t really fit.
For example, you could go even further or deeper. If you were looking at doing a historical romance, are you talking about a Western frontier or Regency? Once you’ve decided what genre and sub-genre of a category you’re interested in writing, there’s a couple of things you can do. What I would suggest first is read a lot of stories in that genre that you want to write about and then read reviews of books that are already out.
You can look at things like Facebook groups, good reads message boards and forums, or Amazon book reviews. What did people love about the stories in that genre or that sub-genre and what do they hate? What do they wish there was more of? They’re very revealing in their reviews. You can really see the way that people describe the book. You’ll see if there’s a common denominator. If it’s just one person’s opinion, it shouldn’t rule the roost. Don’t get caught up on one thing that one person said, look for repetitive phrases and common denominators. What do people really like? What kept coming up? Then I want you to take this information as guidance. What do you want to gain? And the biggest part of this is learning to understand reader expectations.
Now, the reason I’m telling you this is because when I first started, I made a really big mistake and that was not anticipating reader expectations for the end of my story. It was kind of open-ended and people didn’t like that. I had to learn from my mistake. I learned it because it came up over and over.
In my brain because I’ve been writing this story. I knew what happened in my head. I was like, oh yeah, it’s all resolved. But it wasn’t. I needed to spell it out. I learned that through reviews. And from that point on, I knew when I wrote my endings, I need to do it this way so that my readers are satisfied with the ending.
That’s how you learn by reading the different things in responses. Now that doesn’t mean to take every criticism and every problem and think this is some horrible thing. It just shows you little areas where you can grow and learn. And that’s up to you—how you choose to look at it. I like to learn from those things and see if there’s common denominators.
Another thing you want to know is that it’s important to understand your genre. What’s current? What’s trending? A lot of people make the mistake of saying my book is for everyone, or it crosses over into a lot of genres, or I’m writing for all women. I hate to break it to you, but your audience is too broad.
It’s important to know who you’re writing to understand your audience. This is going to be critical to success. When you know who you’re writing to, you will fit that so much tighter.
Think about a movie or a book you read, or a movie you saw that you had different opinions. Like for example, Lord of the Rings, to me, it was like torture to watch this movie that was never ending. People love that movie. My brother-in-law’s family loves…I’m talking, loves that movie. Me. I was like, oh my gosh, if this fight scene goes on any longer, I’m going to fall asleep. This is torture. I absolutely can’t stand this, but I’m going to keep watching it anyway, because people are raving about it. So, I’m invested.
Another example is Moulin Rouge, the movie. Oh, people loved that and raved about it. I walked out on and after like, I don’t know, 20 minutes, I was like, what is going on here? Not for me. I’m out. And yet other people were loving it. And that’s just how it is. Titanic. Another massive movie people loved. I was like, really? This is what everybody was excited about was talked up for so long. It did nothing for me.
Now I have things I get really excited about. I remember the first time I read Carl Hiaasen and “Stormy Weather” which is, I found the book, I don’t know, 20 some years ago at the library when my boys were small. I loved it.
I love the quirky characters and the craziness of everything intertwining. And I told my sister, “Oh, you have to read this book. It is so funny. It’s awesome. I love it.”
And she reads it and she’s like, “Yeah, okay Deb, if this is what you love?”
We’re all different. And that’s the thing. There’s an audience for everyone. Think about things you love and things you don’t love. You probably know somebody, who went, oh this was awesome. You’ve got to hear this. You’ve got to see this… and their reaction wasn’t the same as yours. We all like something different.
It’s important to know the genre and sub-genre well. I can’t overstate this. Let’s talk about when people feel like their book could fit in multiple genres. Here’s where the problem comes in…
People will write a mystery and there’s a love story in it. So, they’re not sure if it’s a romance or a mystery. The question to ask yourself is which part could you take out, and the book would still stand alone? If you write a mystery that has a love story, but you take the love story out of it, could you still solve the mystery? Now, if you took the clues out of it, obviously you wouldn’t be able to. You want your beginning, middle and end—was there a crime? Are they solving it? Is there a resolution?
It’s a mystery, take it down to the most basic level that’s going to help you decide.
Now there’s an important part of the process so that when you’re writing the easiest way to figure out what genre is right for you, when you feel like you’re straddling a couple of them is to take it down to the most basic level.
Describe your story in one sentence. I know you’re thinking “impossible.” Right? Too much going on…but think about it like this. That’s how you look at your hook or high concept, when you can take it down to the most basic level. Boil it down to one sentence.
What genre are you talking about? Are you saying it’s a mystery where a detective solves something? Or are you saying it’s a love story. This is going to help you separate the genres so that you know which is the genre and which just happens to be an element in the story.
I hope this helps you figure out the differences between genres and sub-genres. We’ll go a little deeper into them at another time, but I wanted to give you an overarching umbrella view of the different ideas there. I hope you have a clear picture of where your book might fit in, and hope you join me next week.
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