Why Writers Need Genres (And How To Exploit Them!)

If you want to write a particular kind of novel, you must dive deep into the history of the genre itself…find the best books, read them, study them and understand intellectually how each of the conventions and obligatory scenes of the genre were satisfied.

— Shawn Coyne

Honestly: I always avoided genres. I knew they existed but thought they were just commercial sections in bookshops — or a tool to describe movies?

I was wrong. So wrong! I discovered a whole other world that writers should know about.


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Why And How Genres Matter

I feel like my eyes have finally opened, and if I had to blame someone for this, I’d point my finger at Shawn Coyne and his incredible Genre’s Five Leaf Clover.

Game-changer! — Shawn spent 25 years grinding on it.

I’ll report here everything I got about it: 99% of what you’re about to read comes from this website and the book The STORY GRID, What Good Editors Know (the breakfast of writers and editors should always include cereal, juice, coffee and at least one chapter of this book read aloud!).

Understanding the importance of genre in writing is the key to success. Get it wrong and it will cost us, as writers, a small fortune in book sales and advertising dollars. Why? Because genre is all about reader expectations, and if a Story doesn’t meet them, it’s finished. Even the most beautiful turn of phrase can’t save it.

Valerie Francis, here.

Here’s the thing: writing a novel is pretty hard work, and genres provide writers with structure, guidelines, and a foundation on which to build and get creative. Choosing a genre will practically save your ass!

When approaching a new story, we all tend to have concrete expectations. It’s natural: we’ve been exposed to hundreds of stories in ours lives. Genre conventions basically exist to help the writer satisfy those expectations. Also, consider that, while readers may not be able to pinpoint what exactly it is they want from a story, they immediately know it when it’s not there.

Our job as writers is to know and understand these story requirements consciously and deliberately. After all:

  1. we were readers before we were writers;

  2. we’re used to looking at genre as a reader does, or as a scholar does;

  3. now we have to look at it as a writer does!

Genre in writing refers to the kind of Story that is being told. It’s about audience expectation. It’s that simple. For a book to be successful the author, marketer and reader must all have the same understanding of what kind of Story is being told. Choose Only One Genre. A writer must make a definite choice about which genre she’s writing in. Pick one. Only one. This is non-negotiable.”

Valerie Francis

“I Don’t Need Genres! I Don’t Like Them! I Don’t Care.”

Do you have the impression that genres are just rigid moulds limiting your creativity? Well, it’s exactly the opposite. The best writers take what they need from the genre form and then innovate — they leverage it as a source of dynamism.

I see genres as maps of what writers before me have already seen work in their stories. When I identify the genre of my stories, I get in return giant sources of wisdom from my ‘peers’ inside that genre, all at my disposal to perform better and faster. I don't feel bound.

Still feel you’re writing something ‘above genre’?

Don’t Think Yourself Above Them. A lot of writers have contempt for obligatory moments. They don’t want to write them because they find them cheesy. A few even insist that their work is so intellectually challenging and above “genre,” that their revolutionary technique frees them from having to fulfill these obligations. They’ll tell you that their work is more of homage to a genre, not really part of the genre, etc. Which is complete Bullshit. Whether their book is an homage or “above genre” matters little. If their global inciting incident is one associated with a particular genre and they don’t innovatively pay it off in the way that the genre demands, the book won’t work. People won’t buy it. And those that make the mistake of buying it will tell all of their friends not to make the same mistake they did.

— From this blog post

How To Define The Genre Of Your Story

The Genre’s Five Leaf Clover has five leaves:

  1. Time - how long is the story?

  2. Reality - how much readers have to suspend their disbelief?

  3. Style - how is the story told?

  4. Structure - what is the overall storyline?

  5. Content (divided into ‘External’ and ‘Internal’) - What happens in the story?

[Watch this quick video about how they do work]

To determine your story genre means to make a choice about each of the five leaves. Ideally, this kind of analysis is the very first thing writers want to do (it certainly is the first thing editors do when receiving your work).

The whole point of defining the genre of your story is understanding what should (and shouldn’t) be in the story — what readers expect and need! — hence, more precisely, how to utilise Conventions and Obligatory Moments.

Conventions are elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled or so bored out of their skull that no matter how beautiful the sentences, they’ll quit reading.

They are specific requirements that characterise your selected genre, impacting the story’s cast of characters and how the plot moves forward. We’re talking about minor revelatory turning points that just let the whole story work.

As a natural consequence, you should include in your story some Obligatory Moments, those indispensable elements that ‘payoff’ the expectations raised by our adopted Conventions.

Better explained…

In a mystery novel, what obligatory moments would you expect if I told you I’d written one? 

  • You’d expect a “discover of the body” moment.

  • You’d expect an eventual confrontation between the investigator and the murderer—what I call the “J’accuse” moment.

  • You’d expect an ending moment that clearly results in justice (the murderer pays for his crime), injustice (the murderer gets away) or irony (the investigator gets his man, but loses someone or something in the process or the investigator does not get his man, but the loss results in a greater good).

So what happens if I fail to deliver even just one of these obligatory moments from the above list?

I haven’t written a mystery novel. I’ve written a book that doesn’t work.

Shawn Coyne

Writing novels ‘like the pros’ begins with knowing the Conventions and Obligatory Moments of your chosen genre. It follows that the best way to start is by reading the top novels in the selected genre and understanding what they all have in common.

You want to answer the question: ‘how were each of the genre conventions and obligatory scenes satisfied by successful authors?’. Many elements are often (or even always) there for good reasons!

Once you know what’s your genre is all about, it’s time to insert the related obligatory moments in your own story — scenes like: ‘the discovery of the dead body moment’, ‘the hero at the mercy of the villain moment’, ‘the first kiss moment’, ‘the attack of the monster moment’.

As I am sure you’ve already guessed, the incumbent danger here is to devolve into horrible clichés: writers have historically used these moments over and over (and over!), and this makes the task of being creative a tough one. But if you can make it, well, you will surprise the readers — positively.

Quick Focus On The ‘Content’ Leaf

The ‘Content’ leaf is the most complex and certainly deserves further explanation. As you can see in the picture below, it’s divided into yellow and blue sections, ‘External’ and ‘Internal’ content, respectively.

External Content Genres define your protagonists’ external objects of desire, answering the question ‘What do they want?’. On the other hand, Internal Content Genres define your protagonists’ internal objects of desire, answering the question ‘What do they need?’.

You know all the conversations authors have about whether they write plot-driven or character-driven novels? What they’re talking about is this content leaf. Plot-driven books fall into the external content genres (the yellow). Character-driven books fall into the internal content genres (the blue). Stories do not have to contain both internal and external content genres, but they can. When Stories contain both internal and external genres, one of them must take priority. Otherwise your reader will get confused. He picked up your book expecting a spy thriller and got a spy who spends more time agonizing over his abusive childhood than solving the crime.

How does the plot evolve, and what the characters do? The study of this leaf — applied to your work — basically clarifies your stories' whole point, what are you conveying to your readers.

Classic examples are:

In A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens) the global genre is internal (Morality > Redemption) and the secondary genre is external (Horror > Supernatural). Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) also contains both genres however its global genre is external (Love Story > Courtship) and its secondary genre is internal (Worldview > Maturation).

Mind that it’s absolutely ok to have both External and Internal Genres. You just want to consciously pick the right ones (more on the topic here).

5 Important Genres - Briefly Explained

Here are 5 External Content Genres that we are all familiar with. There’s, of course, a lot to say, but I’ve tried to be as brief as possible — just to give you an idea of how significant (and useful to the writer) each particular element is.

1. Action

The core value at stake in an action story is Life/Death, the core emotion is excitement and the most important event in the book is “the hero at the mercy of the villain” scene. The key element to remember about Action is that the villain is the driving force.

Action can be broken down into four sub-genres of ‘extra-personal’ conflict.

  1. Action Adventure/Man Against Nature Stories: stories that use the natural world or a specific setting as the villain/force of conflict.

  2. Action Epic/Man Against the State Stories: stories where the hero must confront societal institutions or tyrants.

  3. Action Duel/Man Against Man Stories.

  4. Action Clock/Man Against Time.

2. Horror

The core value in Horror, like Action, is also life/death, but here it is taken to the very end of the line…the fate worst than death. When dying would be a mercy. The core emotion is fear and the core event is the ‘Victim at the Mercy of the Monster’ scene. The element to remember about Horror, like Action, is that the forces of antagonism are key. Generically, horror stories concern survival, and for those that go to the limits of human experience.

There are three sub-genres of horror, and they divide along the lines of explaining the monster.

  1. Uncanny: the force of evil is explainable (a man made monster, aliens, or a possessed maniac.

  2. Supernatural: the monster isn’t ‘real’ and cannot be explained.

  3. Ambiguous: the reader is kept in the dark about the source of evil. The protagonist's sanity often comes into doubt (the novel ‘The Shining’ is a great example.

3. Crime

The core value in crime is justice/injustice, and the core event is “the exposure of the criminal”.

The type of protagonist and their points of view are what create the many sub-genres in crime, like Murder Mystery, Organized Crime, Courtroom (from the point of view of a lawyer), Newsroom (reporters), Espionage, Prison.

4. Thriller

What would happen if you mashed up the Action, Horror and Crime genres of writing? You’d get the modern thriller. Thrillers take the core values of Action and Horror (Life and Death) and adapt them to a very realistic human extreme. The thriller explores the horrors of real life, real monsters who prey in our everyday world. What distinguishes Thrillers from Action, Crime and Horror is that they require a supporting Internal Content Genre to drive the protagonist’s “B” Story. The external threats and how the protagonist deals with them have a deep impact on his/her inner conflicts. The thriller is very malleable. It can be used as a sort of honey to attract readers and then be circumvented by its underlying Internal Content Genre to become a much more symbolic treatise on contemporary life than one would expect on a first read.

Thrillers usually feature heroic protagonists who are willing to sacrifice their lives for others and face personal conflicts by adding a new layer.

Well-written thrillers are extremely powerful stories: entertaining as actions, horrors and crimes and, in addition, presenting a layer of internal struggle protagonists have to deal with. Villains again play a key role (contrast is what sustains stories!): what happens in thrillers is that the antagonism must be personal to the protagonist.

The protagonist of the Story must be revealed, usually by the middle of the novel or the end of the second act, as the victim. The victim in horror is the everyman protagonist. But in the thriller, he’s a hero.

The variety inside this genre is usually determined by the setting and the protagonist's point of view. Here are 12 sub-genres (I stole from this blog post):

  1. Serial Killer - Red Dragon by Thomas Harris - (police/FBI/PI as hero/victim)

  2. Legal - Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow - (lawyer/judge as hero/victim)

  3. Medical - Coma by Robin Cook - (doctor/nurse/researcher as hero/victim)

  4. Military - Seven Days In May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey - (soldier as hero/victim)

  5. Political - Marathon Man by William Goldman - (everyman/politician/gangster as hero/victim)

  6. Journalism - The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly - (journalist as hero/victim)

  7. Psychological - Primal Fear by William Diehl - (The core question is he/she crazy? drives the story)

  8. Financial - Numbered Account by Christopher Reich - (setting is the financial world and how it works)

  9. Espionage - The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (spy as hero/victim)

  10. Woman in Jeopardy - Sleeping with the Enemy by Nancy Price - (woman as hero/victim)

  11. Child in Jeopardy - The Client by John Grisham - (child as hero/victim)

  12. Hitchcock - A Coffin For Dimitrios by Eric Ambler - (Wrong man as hero/victim)

5. Love

There are three sub-genres of the Love Story: Stories of Courtship, Stories of Marriage, and Stories of Obsession. The core value of course is love/hate and the core event is “the proof of love” of one character for another.

Courtship is about people meeting and committing (or not) to each other. Marriage stories, instead, talk about committed relationships going deeper into true intimacy or breaking apart. Obsession stories are about desire and passion (most often sexual).

And this is all I managed to squeeze into this week's newsletter about genres. Intense! I’d suggest studying how they work but then keeping it simple.

“There is only one plot — things are not what they seem.”

— Jim Thompson

See you next Wednesday,

Lorenzo Di Brino