This article was written to support ‘Voice & Style’ month, April 2023, the international UNWC (Jericho Writers).
Genre is a terrific tool for labelling fiction. It’s vital to publishers’ marketing strategies, and it also helps us writers understand what to deliver in terms of reader expectation. Genre is also, in the words of Ursula Le Guin, ‘a pernicious tool of prejudice’. David Mitchell put this in a nutshell when he observed, ‘It’s a bizarre act of self-mutilation to say that ‘I don’t get on with science fiction and fantasy, therefore I’m never going to read any’. What a shame. All those great books that you’re cutting yourself off from.’ I can’t be the only SFF writer who’s baffled as to why friends and family won’t read SFF books, yet love watching SFF on film. So, genre is a double-edged sword: on the one hand we need it to evaluate (as a useful kind of shorthand) the core essence of books we’re reading or writing at any given time, yet on the other, it can be marginalizing. It makes sense for all us writers to at least be aware of this.
I’ve blogged about genre in brief before, here, but this article goes a little bit deeper in excavating how understanding genre can help an aspiring debut novelist approach the commercial goal of mainstream publication.
Why is identifying genre an essential tool for an aspiring debut novelist?
- It helps you the writer decide where you might sit, commercially, on a bookshelf;
- This helps when searching out literary agents who are interested in the kind of work you’re writing. If you send out to the wrong agent, you may find your approach email and sample chapters summarily deleted;
- If you self-publish on-line, you can choose from a list of genres and subgenres to catalogue your work, which will promote your e-book when readers use those search terms;
- Identifying genre helps a writer to spot the story elements which need to be honored, and to carefully select the things which might be played with, adapted, or perhaps ignored.
Word Choices, and How they Relate to Genre
Consider the tone of ghost stories, horror, or gothic thrillers. Creating darkness is often best achieved by using imagery relating to things a reader will already associate with hauntings, suspense and fear. Below, are some short examples taken from Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s gothic real-world fantasy The Shadow of the Wind (2001), and Adam Nevill’s horror novel The Vessel (2022). Each of these books relies heavily on painting a dark landscape to increase suspense, and to enhance the reader's sense of dread. Word choices are paramount in achieving this.
P 123 – The Shadow of the Wind - ‘The door gave way like a tombstone, with a sudden groan, exhaling dank, foul-smelling air… Spiraling threads of grime and dust hung from the ceiling like white hair. The broken floor tiles were covered by what looked like a layer of ash.’
P 9 – The Vessel – ‘A stillness profound enough to be uncanny hushes a woodland glade. Trees encircle the placid water of a circular pond therein, the surface a black mirror reflecting a sombre sky.’
P 171 - The Shadow of the Wind - ‘Nuria Monfort lived adrift in shadows… The entire apartment was sunk in perpetual gloom, like a block of darkness propped up between peeling walls. It smelled of black tobacco, cold, and absence.’
P 23 – The Vessel – ‘Dirty crockery litters countertops and fills the sink. An accumulation of grime on each side of the kitchen windows strains the sunlight a dusty brown and adds decades to the already dated cabinets and appliances.’
P 182 - The Shadow of the Wind - ‘Dusk fell almost surreptitiously, with a cold breeze and a mantle of purple light that slid between the gaps in the streets.’
P 87 – The Vessel – ‘Face strained and hair mussed, Jess dips her hand inside the murky shade inside the last light fitting on the ground floor, inside the porch. She drops the exhausted bulb, its glass a musty brown, into the bag at the front of the collapsible steps…’
None of these extracts refer to horrific things actually happening, yet they’re all terrific examples of how word usage in scene-setting can still exploit inherent darkness to color the expectations of the reader, even before anything bad happens. Zafon and Nevill trade on our previous associations with dark, gothic imagery by -
- Using storms and/or night-time to set pivotal scenes (which induce the reader’s fear of the dark, and of wild natural elements such as thunder, lightning, deep water, and lonely places);
- Trading on the reader’s ingrained knowledge of the gothic tradition, by repeating images which have widely understood messages - stone statues, candlelight, big old creaky doors, darkness, shadows, the sense of threat from an unknown, unquantifiable or mysterious source;
- Using abandoned or decrepit buildings as a setting. Old buildings are famously linked with hauntings (and to strange and frightening events which unfolded long before the current story begins);
- By excavating human unhappiness – when the characters are described in these extracts, they’re clearly not in a good place. Both Jess and Nuria appear in these snapshots as people almost trapped in a world which isn’t of their own making.
- Word choices in these extracts: tombstone, dank, grime, broken, uncanny, black mirror, sombre, gloom, peeling, absence, dirty, dusty brown, dust, surreptitiously, murky, exhausted, musty brown. Each of these promotes a sense of darkness, decay, and of the past somehow pushing its way into the present (and not in a good way).
In an interview about his writing process, Zafon said of The Shadow of the Wind, ‘The idea is to write stories around… the cemetery of forgotten books, exploring this gothic, mysterious universe through different characters and storylines… perhaps it would have been more commercially advisable to… write a straight sequel and pick up the story where we left it, but it was never my idea to do so and I think it is more interesting to play around with the narrative spaces and lines to pull the reader into a fictional universe that plays by its own rules.’ Three Monkeys Online, ‘Books Hold No Passport – Carlos Ruiz Zafon discusses The Shadow of The Wind,’ by Steve Porter, article undated. Read the full article here.
In a similar craft interview, Neville said: ‘I read the best in my field, study how they create certain effects. I put myself there imaginatively, make the scenes multi-sensory, immediate. On language, I strive not to overwrite, watch adjectives; strive to be precise with nouns and verbs. Strive for clarity – not easy. And begin to find a sentence’s rhythm, a paragraphs internal rhythm, as I rewrite. Same every time. My first drafts are appalling. Unless I continually revisit scenes with fresh eyes – 4 to 6 weeks between drafts – I cannot possibly see what is wrong with my writing. Some descriptive writing just appears formed, most has to be revised several times.’ AutoCrit, ‘Ask the Author: Adam Nevill,’ article undated. Read the full article here.
What these author interviews reveal doesn’t just relate to working practices like the art of redrafting and the use of verbs, it relates to how understanding genre itself maps into a writer’s daily work. Nevill consciously learns from other writers in the horror genre; Zafon, despite the novel being set in the ‘real’ world of 1950’s Spain, acknowledges both the fantastical and the gothic aspects of his story-world, which he showcases with language drawn from these story/genre traditions. Connecting with how authors describe their process is a great example of how reading widely around the craft can benefit all us writers, because if we stick to reading only the same kind of fiction we want to write, and if we never connect with what writers have to say about their own work and why/how they do what they do, we’re only getting half the story. Digging further underneath the craft itself is the reason why my weekly resources for this month’s UNWC don’t just focus on that particular week’s topic. I’ve included author interviews, craft articles, book reviews, recordings and seemingly unrelated resources to illustrate that the more widely us writers read around the craft itself, the more we get to open our minds to the different ways authors do what they do. The more we can do this, the more it filters into our own understanding, and brings depth and subtlety to our own work.
Subgenre sits below the main catch-all term genre. It gives an extra layer of definition to a work which might otherwise be only broadly defined. A useful example is fantasy. ‘Fantasy’ is a wide umbrella term; fantasy fiction includes epic fantasy, urban fantasy, alternate history, magical realism, steampunk, and various other incarnations. I’d describe each of these as subgenres to the overarching genre of fantasy (some readers may choose a different way to express this, but as a writing coach, I need to make things as logical and uncluttered as possible when explaining subgenre to clients who might only have previously considered it in the broadest terms). Not all agents deal in all fantasy subgenres (some will love urban fantasy but won’t represent epic, for example), so it’s important to understand how these subgenres are delineated, at the very least so that you don’t send your MS to the wrong person.
If fantasy writing is your main genre, there are other things worth bearing in mind, too: the old-style journey story favored by Tolkien, where a gang of friends navigate a new and dangerous landscape in sequential adventures (rather than one main narrator steering the reader through a story with one overarching plot), is considered quite dated today. As an editor, I receive a significant number of Tolkienesque novels for assessment each year, with many writers citing that because Tolkien is an all-time best seller, he’s still a useful blueprint to emulate. If you’re heavily influenced by Tolkien, or those later writers whose work was informed by Tolkien’s, or if you find yourself writing an old-style epic adventure journey, I’d recommend reading widely enough around your genre (including newly published voices) to understand what’s fresh, and why Tolkien can’t be done again in terms of style and content. All us writers need to write for today’s readership rather than yesterday’s, which means keeping up with genre developments.
World Building Versus the Immersion Technique
'World-building’ and ‘immersion technique’ are two styles of writing notable in the fantasy genre, but which also apply to other genres of fiction. ‘World-building’ is shorthand for the detailed and perhaps more traditional way of creating your novel’s environment. It relies on lots of explanation and exposition (otherwise known as ‘telling’, which I’ve blogged about here, and here). Not surprisingly, world-building is particularly prevalent in some fantasy and SF landscapes (notably in older novels, but also in the work of bestselling writers who get to break the rules in ways an aspiring debut can’t). World-building also often tells stories within stories, including sequential adventures designed to show off various elements of a new fantasy world and its history. ‘Immersion technique’ does the opposite, because it relies on very little detailed explanation and instead literally parachutes the reader into an adventure which is often already unfolding as we hit the first page. We’re expected to catch up and to keep up, so there’s no time for worldbuilding as such, only the lightest of touches to sketch the landscape. Readers get the chance to join the dots for themselves, or perhaps wait until the story reveals further clues (on a need-to-know only basis); eventually, we’ll get a full picture of what’s happening in terms of understanding any backstory, but this very rarely includes aspects of religions, legends, different countries, customs or beliefs in this new landscape, unless these are directly relevant to what happens in the plot’s core heartbeat. It’s fair to say that the immersion technique is generally the most popular way to unfold any story for readers today, but it’s particularly relevant to fantasy. Perhaps this is because society has changed so much since Tolkien’s day. People’s lives are lived faster than ever today, with a wide variety of options for spending free time, more than were available to previous generations. Modern readers can escape into a fictional environment within moments, by switching on a film or by gaming. In the past, this wasn’t possible, so readers had much more patience (the alternatives just didn’t exist). The huge amount of effort it takes to map out a large and colorful new book-world (which may span several publications) isn’t necessarily the most appealing option for many readers today. There are always exceptions to the rule, and it’s true that epic fantasy is still being read, written and signed, but it’s also fair to say that if you’re an aspiring debut fantasy author, you’d statistically have a better chance of publication with a non-epic fantasy novel which follows a more up-to-date blueprint.
With regards to world-building in real-world (non-fantasy) novels, it can still happen. Anywhere a writer labors over the environment or explores the minutiae in unnecessary detail, it’s probably down to excessive world-building. This can happen in any genre of fiction, including corporate thrillers, say, where too many scenes unfold in office environments and meetings, and where the input of an unnecessarily large cast is evolved in detail. It can also happen in historical novels set in relatively recent years, such as the 1970’s rock scene, say, if a writer has just as much fun describing the lifestyle and backdrop as they do unfolding a story set in that era. These are things that most MS assessors come across quite often in aspiring debut novels; fixing these issues demands a slight change of mindset so that the ‘real’ story is allowed to shine out, but it’s doable with some cutting and reworking.
What are Genre Tropes?
Tropes are the conventions of a genre. They’re elements which recur in story, over and again. Tropes are therefore the aspects of genre which help to define it. Tropes can be obvious in some genres: ghost stories depend on a ghost and tend to have a haunted house of sorts; crime thrillers have a crime (often a murder), which the reader (mostly) expects to be solved by the investigative protagonist. Not all genre tropes are so clearly cut, though. Dystopian fiction is one example. It’s easy to fall into writing dystopian fiction almost by accident (plenty of clients admit that this has happened to them), thanks to its current popularity in film and YA novels, without necessarily pinpointing the key genre tropes which serve as useful ground-rules for this kind of story. I’ve previously blogged about dystopian fiction tropes here. As an editor and MS assessor, I often receive novels labelled ‘dystopian’ which omit vital tropes, which basically prevents the novel from working to its optimum. If, as writers, we can identify the elements needed as early as possible, even at the planning stage before putting pen to paper, it can save us time and energy, and can help to make plot and character more solid.
Below, as an example of how tropes are fundamental to genre, I’ve listed the major tropes of the classic ghost story. These are quite easy to understand, because everybody has previous knowledge of ghost stories, thanks to the aural tradition (you don’t need to be a literature buff to understand a haunting, or a curse which lasts beyond the grave):
- The ghost story deals with a disturbed soul who has unfinished business on the earthly plane;
- The origins of the ghost story are set long ago. Certain facts may be uncovered by our modern-day narrator, but the truth remains at a sufficient distance to be a mystery throughout much of the story;
- A protagonist/narrator finds him or herself caught up in the ghost’s activity in the here-and-now;
- A detective thread appears as the protagonist sleuths and discovers elements of what happened long ago - this mystery helps to keep the pages turning;
- Our narrator must find the ghost’s secret, then lay it to rest by carrying out a restorative action. This might be discovering a grave, burning a book, burying an artefact, or anything which the restless spirit needs doing in order to be at peace;
- Ghost stories have a ‘locus’, a place where events are situated. In most cases, this is a (haunted) house;
- True ghost stories don’t need to step into horror, but they may do.
All this seems fairly logical, but problems can arise if us writers aren’t fully aware of these things when we set out to write a novel. At the end of the process, during self-editorial we might spot that the story doesn’t seem to hold together properly, or we might feel it begins to wander. The next section, troubleshooting, deals with reviewing a work-in-progress through an editorial eye, with regards to aspects of genre - what problems are common, and can be easily identified and therefore avoided or fixed?
Troubleshooting your novel-in-progress with regards to Genre, Subgenre, and Tropes
It’s absolutely true that all us writers should be able to write exactly what we want, from genre mashups to new incarnations of old forms. But, it’s also true that being aware of genre and its tropes will help us to streamline our genre-bending with an awareness which ensures we don’t let elements pull against each other. So, you might’ve set off writing by instinct, and now you’re fretting that all your hard work could’ve been for nothing. You might have reached an impasse towards the end of every novel you’ve attempted, and not understand why (this happened to me for many years until I took coaching, which I’ve blogged about here, and here). If you’re worried that you might not have paid enough attention to genre, subgenre or its associated tropes, panic not. First of all, know that this is normal. All us writers have done exactly the same thing – it’s almost a rite of passage! The next step is to troubleshoot how genre relates to your own story. Here are some trends I’ve noticed, as a MS assessor:
- Literary fiction: writers have read somewhere that plot doesn’t matter in literary fiction, because character growth takes precedence. The story therefore wanders and there’s lots of internal rumination (always slow for a reader). Plot always matters, irrespective of whether a novel is literary or is proudly genre. Read John Yorke’s Into the Woods to learn why.
- The ghost story: the locus changes – it starts as a haunted house and ends up randomly on an island at the other side of the world, or on a boat out to sea. If these things aren’t linked in the story, the reader will struggle to understand the connection, which will undermine the drama. Know your tropes. It will always help.
- Dystopian fiction: the narrator isn’t an underdog and doesn’t have a clearly defined quest to change an aspect of his/her unfair society. The narrator might live a too-comfortable life, or have too much autonomy in this grim futuristic world – both of these things pull against major tropes of dystopian fiction, and will lessen the drama in the story.
- The Horror novel: the antagonist is based on special effects from film, and is drawn from a dozen different horror sources which are unconnected. We need a logical link between every horrific incarnation of your antagonist and what it actually is (a primaeval force? A werewolf with shapeshifting powers? A society of zombies? A ghost with the power of solidity during the full moon?). Keep everything streamlined (remembering that the full backstory rationale is mostly for you, the writer, in an author-eyes-only document which will help keep you on track).
- Literary fiction: novels labelled as literary by their authors, when they’re clearly a young adult LGBTIA+ romance or a punchy trope-heavy spy thriller. Never shy away from genre if you write genre fiction, because labelling it ‘literary’ won’t suddenly make it more appealing to an agent. If you’ve used the genre tropes of a supernatural romance (eg, vampire falls in love with human), present it to an agent as just that, and embrace that you’re writing genre fiction. You can be as sophisticated as you like with sentence structure, word choices and theme/motif, but you’re still writing genre fiction.
- Genre elements which pull against each other as the story unfolds: it might be SF romance in which the worldbuilding knocks the characters out of the way and changes the focus of the story; it might be too much erotica in a novel which is billed as urban fantasy (erotica is a genre of its own for a good reason); it might be a child’s adventure story in which the adults (usually grandparents) push the child protagonist out of the way to steer the story on his or her behalf. Read widely enough around new voices in your chosen genre to understand the popular tropes of that genre in today’s market. Read older fiction through the wider and wiser lens of history, being aware of changes in the market since it was written.
- Genre series fiction: for eg, fantasy, crime/investigative novels which don’t have a proper conclusion at the end. All novels need to be standalone and to be concluded properly. Readers will only return to read the rest of the series if the writer has done a good job with the first book. They won’t want to read more if the story is simply unfinished, because that’s not the way good series fiction works.
- Chronicling the world: stories which excavate the world rather than tell a story particular to that narrator within that world – this applies equally to real-world as to fantasy fiction. To avoid using your characters to unfold the environment rather than the real story, keep the cast small, and give the lead narrator a proper purpose. S/he must want to achieve something, and this should remain central to the unfolding narrative (and should come with great risk attached) – it’s the suspense which keeps readers reading, across all genres (including literary fiction).
- Thrillers: stories in which the thriller element is submerged beneath a comfortable lifestyle and effortless sleuthing – our protagonist is never truly in danger, and is rarely uncomfortable or challenged. ‘Cosy crime’ novels exist, so if you acknowledge that you’re writing a cosy crime thriller, read widely within this subgenre so that you can assess the level of darkness and threat generally required. Mainstream thrillers need to feel dark, tense and to put the narrator at risk.
- Superhero novels: Marvel-influenced stories which the author has based on film without truly exploring the tropes of the superhero genre (or the differences between film and written fiction, which I’ve blogged about here). Origin myths exist for a reason (find out more about them here – they’re backstory to many adventures, but they’re vital to inform the motivations of the character). The superhero’s costume has a huge history and various genre associations which go much deeper than simply donning a pair of tights and a mask. Read more about this here. Accept that it’s unlikely you’ll have a superhero novel signed by a mainstream publisher, because the comic/graphic novel/film incarnations of superhero fiction have been fairly much bagged already. However, fan-fic and self-publishing projects are certainly doable. If you’d like to know more about fan-fic, see this article. If you want to know more about self-publishing, click here.
The troubleshooting above isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a useful thought-provoker, as well as being a general barometer for the kind of things professional readers encounter, and the kind of mistakes or omissions all us writers make at some point. The important thing is to keep putting one foot in front of the other: these things are a regular part of the ongoing writer’s journey. Every mistake is still a step in the right direction, because everything we get wrong can still be learned from. No writing is ever truly wasted.
This article was written as a resource to accompany my lead tutor month (‘Voice & Style’) for the international Unlimited Novel Writing Course. Jericho Writers UNWC runs for a year, during which time students work on their own projects, helped by industry experts and a wide array of resources. Find out more about Jericho Writers here. Find out more about the UK/Europe UNWC here. Find out more about the international UNWC here.