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Genre: There Can Be Only One

February 4, 2012

OK, actually there can be more than one. But what there can’t be is, like, twenty.

Genre is a really useful tool. It tells you at a glance what kind of things are going to be in your book or film (and what gameplay you can expect from your video game), without going into loads of detail and ‘you really just have to read it to know’. Fans of specific genres have expectations, which means writers can use shorthand – science fiction fans tend to be familiar with the concept of hyperspace, so authors don’t have to waste plot time explaining how it ‘works’.

It means you can recommend books to friends, and build little communities of book-lovers of certain types of book.

What it is not, is a list of every single element in your novel. If you list your work as Literary Romance Science Fiction Thriller Fantasy Teen Fiction, you are doing it wrong. And I wish that example was made-up. I really do.

Many novels include a love-interest subplot, or have the lead characters get together in the ending, but this doesn’t make it A Romance. Similarly, your novel hopefully has some tense parts, some mystery, some conflict, but it is not automatically A Thriller. It’s thrilling, sure. (There’s argument on whether novels set in space are always science fiction, so I’ll leave that alone because I’ve not really made up my mind. Let me know what you think in the comments).

Tell me in one sentence what your novel is about. That is your genre.

A group of survivors battle their way out of the city during a zombie attack. A woman has to choose between her high-stress career and the man of her dreams. A computer programmer discovers a secret conspiracy in the company he works for. Seahorses invade. Whatever.

If you follow it up with ‘but also this happens, and they fall in love, and there’s this epic history between the seahorses and the sea cucumbers’, those are your subplots. And you should probably learn to streamline your pitch so you can deliver it in one sentence. Also, I really want a novel about battle-hardened sea cucumbers.

I’m not having a dig at ‘mash-up fiction’. That stuff is awesome. That has an awareness of the genres being used, and (usually) isn’t too cluttered. And of course, genres like fantasy, horror, and science fiction seem to go hand-in-hand whenever they want. There’s also those crazy subgenres and niches and hybrids which bewilder me, but I wish them the best of luck.

I mean, there’s this thing called Science Fiction Romance. Which is obvious when you think about it, but relatively new to me. And it’s totally necessary. If I’m settling down for a tale of alien-splattering gore and suddenly find it’s an epic love story, my expectations are betrayed a little. It might be an awesome story, but it’s not what I thought I was buying. And the reverse is true, not every romance fan is going to be cool with ‘oh, so, we’re on a space ship and people are psychic…what?’

Any fiction you think of as having no genre/ALL THE GENRES? Those novels you were forced to read in school/college that seemed to be about nothing were probably literary fiction.

Sandman is exempt from this question because…you know. We’ve kind of covered that it Wins At Everything Forever.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2012 9:45 pm

    I want to read the story of the epic war between the Seahorses and Sea Cucumbers. So. Freakin’. Badly.

    And Sandman works in every genre because its framing device of Dream is the literal embodiment of story, and he has existed before sentient life. The most basic elements of the premise means it can be anything because the only thing it’s about. ultimately, is stories.

    • February 4, 2012 10:25 pm

      I think the world needs to hear it.

      I knew that even if I wrote Sandman as my One Thing Not To Mention, you would still mention it.

      But yes, I agree – it’s a story about stories and where they come from, so by definition it has to follow multiple genres.

  2. February 4, 2012 9:53 pm

    I’d always wondered how to pick a specific labelling genre (mostly with DIAOK) and now I see, it’s obvious. What are the signifiers of the main plot, duh? You explained it clearly and I wish those on YWO would also read this post XD

    I wouldn’t say that all space novels are science fiction, but it’s definitely a touchy subject. Star Wars, for instance, now you’ve pointed out that it’s more of a Fantasy set in space, I can’t think of it as anything else when I watch it. It’s no longer Sci-Fi and is blatantly rescue-the-Princess-and-defeat-the-tyrant-ruler. For me, if mostly depends on how much guff there is compared to the actual illusion of science – even if it’s ‘fake science’, which needs to stop being condemned. Genre tick-boxes, I guess. What ratio of elements are there compared to those that make a Sci-Fi space story. I’m babbling now.


    • February 4, 2012 10:39 pm

      That example did come from YWO, yes. I just. Ugh.

      But do you think (if Star Wars wasn’t known by everybody) you showed it to a fantasy fan they’d be like ‘dude why are there space ships and where is the magic?’
      I suppose that’s hard to know because it’s quite rare that people only enjoy sci fi or fantasy.

      I would agree – if everything else is clearly from another genre except LULZ IT’S SET IN SPACE then it probably doesn’t need to be called a science fiction. But I also think that people either love it or hate it. They could be a murder mystery fan and be like ‘but…in space?’

      Then again, stuff like In Time and Repo Men are bringing some of those barriers down I think.

  3. February 4, 2012 10:00 pm

    WordPress deleted two important words due to the use of this symbol: <

    Also: DIABOK* fucking keyboard fucking fully depress when I click on …

    What ratio of elements are there compared to those that make a Sci-Fi space story.

  4. February 4, 2012 10:01 pm



  5. February 7, 2012 2:14 am

    You make a valid point Mitch, although personally I’m a follower of the being set in space does not make it sci-fi, (same as time travel, I always get annoyed when people describe the time travellers wife as sci-fi, it’s not it’s romance) although Willow’s example of Star Wars is poorly chosen (i feel) yes it is very ‘save princess, defeat tyrant’ but that doesn’t make it fantasy. You forget that Star Wars has it’s own set of technology and (albeit poorly) set of rules for example Jedi powers come having an over abundance of hyperchlorians. In other words Star Wars does try to offer a scientific explanation of it’s universe, a key difference between Sci-fi and fantasy. Also the whole save princess save world, isn’t a fantasy monopoly. In many ways most literature is save princess, save world. Hell, the main character of 1984 is, in his own way, trying to save the princess to save the world, because when you look atttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt fuck it i’m tired and taking throw away comment way too seriously, this entire reply is OTT and riddled with grammar issues. Blah, nice, concise post Mitch, unlike this reply. lnhbs

    • February 7, 2012 12:00 pm


      (The Foce is totally magic)

    • February 7, 2012 12:46 pm

      Yeah – I would agree there’s a lot of novels that use sci-fi elements just as plot device (i.e. time travel in the Time Traveller’s Wife). And your average sci fi fan would go ‘er, that’s a romance’, I think a lot of mainstream would be like TIME TRAVEL? THAT’S SOUNDS LIKE SCIENCE FICTION. GOODBYE.

      I’d also argue that Star Wars doesn’t really introduce any tech (and certainly no rules) until the prequel trilogy and the Extended Universe when it starts to really market itself as science fiction. (Agreed that ‘saving the princess’ is effectively the goal of all protagonists, regardless of genre, though).

  6. Sam Kearns permalink
    February 7, 2012 9:48 am

    I would PAY you for the Seahorse novel.


  1. Taking a Meat-Axe to the Plot (Pitches, Synopses, and Treatments) « Type A Little Faster

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