Another one of the Standard Topics came up a few days back on a romance blog, that being the "Isn't it outrageous how people diss us and sneer about how formulaic our stories are?!" topic. I've seen this one come around over and over since I first started hanging out on RomEx in the eighties (anyone who knows what RomEx was gets a cookie, and anyone who used to hang out there too gets a brownie and a wave) so it wasn't really all that interesting. It got me thinking about genre definitions, though, and how they contribute to this sort of brangle, and some other neat things you can do with them.
You can sort out a lot of genres by how they're defined. I've come up with three standard types of definitions: by plot, by setting, and by emotional impact.
Some genres are defined by their plot. They have a specific kind of story to tell. The setting and tone are irrelevant; only the plot is important when it comes to deciding whether a story belongs in one of these genres or not.
Since romances are defined by their plot, there's actually a molecule of truth to the "formulaic" sneer. A romance is defined by a main plotline consisting of two (or more) characters getting together and overcoming obstacles to form a stable romantic relationship. There you go -- that's your formula. Anyone who can't riff a hundred different detailed plotlines off of that needs to concentrate on their day job, though, 'cause that's open pretty wide.
Mysteries are also defined by their plot. The main character has some sort of puzzle to solve; the solution to the puzzle is the goal and the puzzle itself is the main obstacle. Usually they involve crime but they don't have to. Sometimes the main character knows part of the answer -- they might know who committed the murder, for example -- but they have to figure out some other part -- like how they did it, or how to prove it. I've heard mysteries dismissed as formulaic too, by the way.
The YA "problem story" also fits in here. The teenager has a problem, usually something typical of adolescence and growing up, and works to solve it. So long as the plot fits, the rest of the story can do whatever the writer wants.
Some genres are defined by their setting. So long as the story takes place in a certain type of place, it qualifies, no matter what kind of plot it might have. Note that setting includes social setting as well as physical, and different kinds of props.
Historicals (including Westerns, which are their own genre for whatever reason) are defined by their setting. If the story takes place in a reasonably realistic version of the past -- that is, if it looks like the writer was making an effort, even if they trip here and there -- the story's a historical.
Science Fiction is defined by its setting, although it doesn't have to be set in the future. Rather, science fiction is a setting which includes some sort of speculative continuation from a baseline. So a story set in the future where humankind has colonized other star systems and has all sorts of neato-cool high tech to play with is SF, but so is a story set in a future where everything collapsed and the remnants of humanity are grubbing in the dirt and eating each other. Both represent a continuation -- one a social and technical advance and the other a retreat -- from the baseline of the here and now.
But one can establish a different baseline and end up with science fiction set in the past; the steampunk subgenre makes great use of this idea, starting (generally) from Victorian England and using "advanced technology" based on the huge, complex mechanics of the early Industrial Age. An example for anyone unfamiliar with the genre is The Wild Wild West, especially the movie, but even the older TV show qualified when Artemus got out some of his wilder inventions. The point being, though, that your "advancement" can vary quite a lot depending on where you draw your baseline.
Fantasy is defined by a magical setting, whether the pseudo-historical setting of classical fantasy or the grittier contemporary setting of urban fantasy or anything else the writer cares to use, so long as there are magical elements to it. (Magic Realism is fantasy with its nose in the air; the difference only matters to the marketing department.) These can include magical items, magical creatures, magical places, or a system of workable magic used by one or more characters.
Paranormal hovers between SF and fantasy. Paranormal deals with unscientific things and phenomena in a pseudo-scientific way. It can have a science fictional feel to it (although not always), but it deals with plot and setting elements which have more of the magical about them, leaning it toward fantasy. Exactly where it is on the spectrum and which way it leans more strongly is up to the writer.
Some genres are defined by their emotional effect on the reader. Different writers will use different tactics to achieve their desired effect, but they tend to sort out in accordance with just how they hope the readers will feel while they're reading.
Horror is a good example here. The purpose of a horror story is to scare the reader. Many people will immediately think of ghosts and vampires and zombies and demons and other classic monsters when they hear "horror," but those things don't define a story as being part of the horror genre. A romance writer can create a romantic vampire and have him get the girl in the end, a science fiction writer can come up with a logical sounding explanation for what ghosts are and some sort of gadget for communicating with them to work out a peaceful coexistence, and a mystery writer could come up with a humorous demon who's desperate to figure out who killed Satan's favorite succubus before the Boss gets back from Tahiti. None of these stories would necessarily qualify as horror, despite using classic monsters.
The horror writer is free to use whatever comes to mind so far as settings, gimmicks, characters and plots go, so long as the reader ends up frightened and the story as a whole is either frightening or setting up for the fright. It's the effect that's important, not the method used to achieve it.
Suspense is another effect, that edge of the seat "Omigod, omigod, omigod!" that keeps the reader chewing their nails down to the elbow. And if they actually know in advance what's going to happen, so much the better. However a writer gets the reader into that state is fine; it doesn't have to be a chase or a murder threat or whatever.
Erotica is in this group too. One might think this would be a plot-defined genre, as in "Characters want to have sex, climax occurs when they get it" [cough] but you can write an incredibly erotic story that doesn't actually have any sex in it. Unfulfilled yearning can be extremely erotic, as can displacement activities such as eating. The point isn't the specific activity, even though certain activities are extremely common in the genre. The point is how the reader feels about what's going on -- whether the reader thinks what's going on is sexy and arousing. That "Mmmmm..." effect is what it's all about.
Note that these are definitions, not standards of excellence. Someone can follow the puzzle-story rule and end up with a story which qualifies as a mystery and still have it be a really bad mystery. A clunky science fiction story, with the "science" based on errors and fallacies and cliches so old they creak, can still qualify as science fiction, however awful. An erotic story which completely fails to push any of its readers' buttons is still erotica if it's clear the writer was trying. What makes a good romance or historical or horror story is way beyond the scope of this piece.
Once you know how to define your genres, though, you're more likely to be able to blend them successfully. If you know exactly what defines science fiction and romance, you can write a romance plot in an SF setting and make both work. (This is harder than it sounds, as any number of romance writers have discovered.) You can write a historical mystery or an erotic western or a suspenseful fantasy.
Note that it's easier to blend two genres if they're from different groups. Historical romances have been a thriving subgenre for ages, but you have to work harder for an erotic suspense. Piers Anthony wrote a science fiction fantasy by having the protag pop back and forth between universes, one science fictional and the other fantasy, but even as well as he did it, it feels a bit awkward.
Mystery romances have also been around for a while, but the writer has to juggle two different plotlines and it's easy for one or the other to feel shortchanged. Horror erotica is also very difficult. (And note that I don't consider an erotic story where one of the main characters is a werewolf to be actual horror, unless the story is intended to be bona fide scary.) Manipulating the reader's emotions takes skill and excellent craftsmanship, and manipulating them in two completely different directions within the same story is tough. Doable, but tough.
Being aware of what you're doing can help, though. Knowing exactly what needs to go into your story and where all the parts belong -- this to the plot, that to the setting, this other to the tone -- make it more likely that a story will succeed. Having well-defined goals is always a good starting point.