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On Where Genres Come From and How to Stitch Them Together


Victor Frankenstein had it easy. He had to muck about with viscera and body parts, and though the result was an eight-foot tall, sallow-skinned monster, at least human anatomy provided him with a map to follow. Writers don’t have such guidelines: the scope, direction, and style of our art is only constrained by the scope, direction, and style of our imaginations. And while such a wide-skyed vista might be freeing, our desire to navigate its uncharted expanse is precisely why we create genres.

Mommy, Where Do Genres Come From?

Most of what I’ve read about genres centers on three concerns:

1. Taxonomy What [set of] characteristics determine membership within a particular genre?
2. Interpretation How does a title’s membership within a genre affect the way it is interpreted?
3. Historical Application How do a critic’s views on genre taxonomy and interpretation work when applied retroactively to works that predate them? or When did a genre begin?

All three are interesting concerns, but they fail to address a fourth question that is – to me – just as interesting: for what purpose and by what process are genres created? To say that genres are created by booksellers or by readers puts the cart before the horse: a book has to be written before it can either be shelved somewhere or read. And this suggests to me that writers are the creators of genre: we develop genre as the scaffolding on which to assemble our stories. They are the blueprint that we use to stitch our monsters together.

Why Genre is Helpful to Writers

It is rather silly to look at a piece of writing – any writing – in isolation. All writing, all art, is in dialog with the writing, art, and culture which preceded it. Sometimes, that dialog may be overt and the writer conscious of it. Other times, that dialog may be inadvertent: a consequence of the writer’s subconscious interpretation of and response to their own idiosyncratic stimuli. But communication requires a shared substrate to be functional, and all writing uses words to produce its artistic effects. Our words are the cells in Frankenstein’s monster.

When we assemble those words into particular narrative constructs, when we structure our story in certain ways, we are building the muscles, sinews, and bones of our creation. These components, taken together, constitute the morphology of our story and help to guide the reader’s experience along the route our artistic vision demands. In that, the conventions of genre are a helpful shorthand, a finely-balanced compass that gets the reader to our destination.

Different genres have different strengths: thrillers get the blood pumping, category romance provides an escapist catharsis (note, that’s not a pejorative!), realistic literary fiction excels at intellectual exploration, science fiction produces a sense of wonder, etc. These are the responses that different narrative conventions evoke in the reader. When we understand how the text produces such responses, then we can begin to understand the art of storytelling.

And when we write, we apply – either knowingly or not – the tools and techniques that we have learned from other stories. We might say “That’s a cool trick – let’s play with that” or we might say “That’s an overplayed cliche – let’s subvert it”, but in each case we utilize our inspirations in our own work.

When one of us applies a particular technique, it is an individual act. But when enough of us use the same tool, our individual applications rapidly accrete to create a convention. When enough such conventions have accreted, then we look around and find that we have created a genre, or a style, or an artistic movement. And eventually, these conventions become tropes at which point their subversion becomes another convention, and the cycle repeats. In other words, genre is an emergent property of the act of writing.

Hybrid Monsters: How to Merge Genres

Much as I love readers, much as I respect booksellers, at a general level this process has nothing to do with either: it has everything to do with how writers experience stories and respond to them in our own work. But when we look at individual stories, at a particular writer’s specific application of a set of techniques, the (unknown and unknowable) reader’s experience becomes relevant. Will they be able to interpret it? And will they be able to enjoy it? The answers to these questions are, alas, never discrete. They are always found somewhere on a continuum that varies across readers, from one story to the next, and that are changeable in time. That’s why applying conventions from one genre alongside those from another can both be incredibly rewarding, and incredibly risky.

When done well, our words serve double (or triple) duty, eliciting the responses familiar from each of the genres we endeavor to blend. Consider John Crowley’s Little, Big or Jeffrey Ford’s The Physiognomy: on the one hand, each story clearly employs the narrative conventions of disparate traditions of fantasy (interstitial/wainscot fantasy in one case, and secondary-world fantasy in the other). And yet both incorporate stylistic techniques more common to mainstream literary fiction.

When done poorly, the result is a story that is impossible to interpret or that fails to satisfy its audience. In one sense, this ties to the concept of the author’s contract with their reader: the reader goes into the story with a particular set of expectations, and if the story neither conforms to those expectations nor distracts the reader sufficiently to change them, then the reader will be dissatisfied. One example that comes to mind is the criticism often leveled against Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which in its attempt at existential philosophy broke with the prevailing thematic conventions established by the television series that preceded it while maintaining its aesthetic and structural conventions.

So what, then, is the trick to merging genres? I think the answer is to focus on the core of each genre. Though the creation of genre is an accretive process, at the heart of every genre there lies a kernel of convention so intrinsic to that genre’s function as to be indelible. That kernel is the core of the genre, what makes that genre distinct from its siblings. More often than not, that kernel even forms the root of the genre’s name: thriller, romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, realism, etc.

The narrative devices that comprise the conventions of each genre contribute – in some fashion – to that kernel of genre truth. Identifying what that kernel is, and then determining particular narrative techniques that contribute to it gives us techniques that can be ported across genre lines.

For example: looking for a faster pace and heightened tension in your fantasy? Many commercial thrillers use short chapters, short paragraphs, short sentences, and cliffhanger chapter-endings to contribute to that effect. Looking for a hint of the numinous in your realistic novel? The language of realized metaphor found in fantasy and myth might be just the ticket.

Though these are just two simple examples, the same principle can be adopted at all levels of storytelling: linguistic, structural, thematic, emotional, etc. So long as we focus on techniques that contribute to the genre’s core, I believe those techniques will play well outside of their “original” genre.

Maps Are Not the Journey

While genre conventions provide us with techniques and guidelines for how those techniques interact, they are no substitute for skillful storytelling. I do not advocate turning to genre conventions as a “paint-by-the-numbers” guidebook for aspiring writers. If that’s all you want, then I urge you to check out Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook (which, incidentally, is a fascinating morphological study of classic pulp plots – an interesting theoretical read in its own right, even if one doesn’t take its prescriptions to heart).

No amount of theory can make up for poor execution. The quality of our execution comes from a variety of factors, not least being our own creativity, the vibrancy of our imaginative vision, and our ability to communicate that vision to our audience. Without the skillful application of whatever genre-derived techniques we employ, we risk stories far less interesting than Victor Frankenstein’s eight-foot tall, yellow-skinned monster (though, to be fair, writing stories that interesting is hard!).

It is not the quality of the map – nor even that of the roads – that determines the quality of the journey. It is the skill of the navigator.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. One of the most important things a writer who wants to work with cross genre must do is to respect and understand the genres she uses. Most readers can spot a phony or someone who hasn’t read widely in a genre, and that unfinished book gets tossed against the wall.

    August 28, 2012
    • Absolutely! Without understanding how genre conventions achieve their effects it becomes very difficult to use them effectively. And that kind of understanding only comes with deep and broad familiarity with the genres in question.

      August 28, 2012

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