Sunday, October 7, 2007

Playing with Genre Definitions

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.



Bernita said...

"(Magic Realism is fantasy with its nose in the air;..."


Angie said...

Haven't you ever seen an interview or article or something where someone connected with (writer, publisher, whatever) Magic Realism is trying to vehemently insist that Magic Realism is not fantasy, absolutely not, completely different! I saw some writer on TV once who became quite incensed at the very suggestion. It's like they're trying to distance themselves from the more lowbrow (as they see it) examples of the genre.

I have no problem with the genre -- what I've seen of it I like. It's just that I tend to get eyerolly when someone who's clearly writing genre fiction tries to insist that they're not. Or when someone else insists for them -- I have no idea what Margaret Atwood thinks of science fiction, for example, but I've seen people absolutely insist that she's never written any. Makes me want to rub oatmeal in their hair or something, just for being idiots.


Charles Gramlich said...

I really like your designations, especially your discussion of horror and erotica as "emotion" defined. I think you've hit it exactly.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

These are excellent listings of genres! I think it extremely interested because I had a comment on Bernita's post today about the difference between horror and what is considered dark fantasy.

Very cool.

Angie said...

Charles -- thanks. :) It just seems to make sense, and to me at least, being able to keep different elements organized makes it easier to blend genres.

Ello -- I'm glad you like it, thanks. :) And Bernita's post was interesting too. [nod] I commented earlier as well but I need to go back and check for later comments.


Bernita said...

Hee, I obviously have missed those attempts at secularization.
Howinhell can it NOT be fantasy, no matter how realistic parts of the story are?

Angie said...

Bernita -- you've definitely missed a show, yeah. [eyeroll] It's kind of entertaining to watch them, but it's also insulting to everyone who does write genre and is willing to admit it. Because of course it is fantasy, just as much as The Handmaid's Tale is science fiction. It's ridiculous, but the writers (editors, publishers, etc.) are trying to distance themselves from their trailer-trash neighbors.

Makes me want to throw old tires in their yard or something. :P


Spy Scribbler said...

Wow, great post! Genre definitions drive me crazy. I'm going to bookmark this post. Thanks!

So true about erotica, too. And being aware of what we're doing, as you say, is probably the most important part of being a writer.

Angie said...

SS -- thank you! I'm flattered that you like it enough to save. :D


writtenwyrdd said...

I finally had the chance to read this with my full attention. Great post. I like the breakdown of what defines various genre.

But I especially loved "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." Hah! That would be a great read. When are you writing it?

writtenwyrdd said...

BTW, I'd never heard teh term Magical Realism before, so now I have to check out what the snobbery is about. Do you have specific literary examples?

Angie said...

WW -- thanks, glad you liked it. :) About the demon and his problems, that one's going to have to be pretty far down the list. I have a bunch of other things I'm working on right now that are probably going to occupy me well into next year, and that's not even counting taking November for NaNo. It does sound like fun, though, doesn't it? [grin]

I never saved any references to the people trying to argue that Magic Realism isn't actually fantasy. I just sort of read/see/hear that sort of thing, eyeroll and go on with whatever. If you mean examples of the genre, though, "Like Water for Chocolate" is a good example, which was a movie as well as a book. "Chocolat" is another, and the movie version has Johnny Depp. :)

Basically it's contemporary (or very recent historical -- I don't think a story with a medieval-type setting would qualify as Magic Realism but something from, say, the 1920s might) literary fiction with just a touch of magic which drives the main plot. It has strong characterizations and plotting and layers of meaning like other lit fic, but the key bit of magic makes it fantasy.


the Amateur Book Blogger said...

Hi Angie - this is really helpful. How would you define a thriller? I'm trying to best classify two stories; one is a crime but a twisted love story at the same time, the other is a mystery by your definition, (adventure, kidnapping, strange keys and the reader doesn't know what for) but I've always associated thrillers with very intense action, and mystery with crime - this is an adventure story with those elements - but that genre doesn't seem to feature any more in adult lit - only in YA? What do you think? (PS going to link you over at my site, there's a lot of great stuff here for reference - thanks!)

Angie said...

TABB -- thanks, I'm glad you're finding it helpful. :D

I think a thriller is a subset of the suspense story, with an emphasis on action. So it's defined primarily by the emotional effect it has on readers -- the "Ohmigod! Ohmigod! Ohmigod!" effect that suspense has -- but a thriller is more likely to achieve that with more overt action like gun fire, chases, planes about to crash, that sort of thing, rather than a more low-level but intense flavor of "Ohmigod!" that you might get from a story that plays psychological games.

So classic Hitchcock would be more suspense, like in Rear Window where you realize along with the protag that the guy across the way has murdered his wife and then realize that the killer knows the protag knows and is going to be coming to silence him. "Ohmigod!" No car chases or races to defuse the bomb or anything like that, and most of the "action" takes place with the guy sitting there in his home spying on his neighbors, but you know what's coming and it gets your pulse going.

Whereas a thriller would be more like the opening sequence of Temple of Doom where it's non-stop action, careening from one immediate and deadly peril to the next, with the shoot-out and the crashing plane and the raft ride over the waterfall -- every time you think you can catch your breath, there's another "Ack!"

Note, though, that there's a lot of overlap between the various excitement-evoking genres. You can throw "action" in here, where the emotion being evoked is the visceral "Yeah!!!" one gets (well, some people get) from multi-car crashes and huge fireballs and billions of flying bullets -- lots of death and destruction, with the protag striding through it all more or less unscathed, and probably causing more than half of it. :)

But there really aren't any hard and firm lines between suspense, thriller and action stories or movies, and one movie can have elements of more than one. You can start out with a low-level suspense feeling, where the reader or viewer knows that danger is coming and gets the "Ohmigod!" feeling from its inevitable approach, even though nothing dangerous is happening just yet. Then segue into thriller-level "Ohmigod!" with more overt and physical dangers, and climax with a huge action scene featuring a high body-count and lots of stuff blowing up.

For the sake of genre definition, I see this as a single genre, subdivided by intensity and level of overt action, and by a sliding scale of destruction and mayhem. A psychological thriller might be mostly suspense and anticipation with a relatively low level of overt action in the climactic scene, while an action story (or more likely a movie -- it's doable but more difficult to evoke the same level of spectacle with the written word) might ditch the low-level suspense all together and just go for the huge explosions, chases and gun fights. :)

So you've got this spectrum:

Suspense ==> Thriller ==> Action

and your story can be placed anywhere on that spectrum. Or heck, any given scene from your story might be placed anywhere on that spectrum, although rising action will usually dictate that any shift on the spectrum will genreally tend to be from left to right as the story progresses. You probably could start with the explosions and a motorboat chase and a high body count, and then have the climax of the story be an intense but low-action psychological show-down where the protag and antag are are trying to psych each other out in dialogue, but I wouldn't want to try to make that one work. [wry smile]

The main difference I see between the suspense spectrum type story and a mystery is that in suspense, you often know what's coming -- part of the "Ohmigod!" factor is that the reader or viewer and maybe even the characters do know what's coming but can't stop it, or have a very slim chance of stopping it -- whereas in a mystery they don't know what's coming because the definition of a mystery is that there's a puzzle to solve.

The two genres blend very easily of course. You can write a mystery where someone's trying to kill the protag and she has to figure out who and why and how to stop them while dodging bullets and assorted death traps. :)

From your descriptions it sounds like you've got a couple of blended-genre stories there. What you call them when you submit depends on how you think they'd best be marketed. So if you've got a mystery romance, do you think it'd sell better to mystery fans or romance fans? Or taking a step backwards up the chain, would it sell better to a mystery publisher or a romance publisher? That's pretty much what it comes down to. The other one sounds like a thriller mystery or action mystery -- again, how do you think it would best be marketed? To the thriller/action crowd or to the mystery crowd? Where would it go in the bookstore?

The last consideration is really the bottom line, and it can be frustrating for writers to have to conform to that reality of the marketplace. You can come up with some really neato genre blends, but if your resulting mutant child doesn't fit well into any particular section of the bookstore, you'll probably have a hard time selling it to a publisher in the first place.

Romantic mysteries or mystery romances are pretty popular, though, as are thriller-mystery blends (Da Vinci Code comes immediately to mind, there) so there's no particular reason why you can't make these particular blends and have them be marketable.

Wow, I've read a lot of blog posts that were less than half this long. [duck] Hope there was something helpful in all this verbage. :)


Heather Massey said...

Very thoughtful breakdown. This is a great resource--thanks for the read!

Angie said...

Heather -- thanks for commenting. :) I'm glad you found it helpful.