Genre refers to the specific type of story you’ll be telling. It’s one of the first things you’ll want to decide about your life. Because this is an odd concept, hang tight while we take you on a short diversion into genre and what it means in the book and movie world.
In a physical bookstore, genre decides what shelf a book is placed on. Online — where there’s no need to make actual room for shelves, hence categories can be infinite — genre means the same but is often far more granular. In a brick and mortar Barnes & Noble, a romance novel is lucky if it can sit on a dedicated “Romance” shelf rather than that least helpful of catch-alls: Fiction and Literature. But on Amazon, that same book might be in the nested subcategory of Romance > Paranormal > Shapeshifters > Werewolves.
If you didn’t know already, YES, there are a lot of werewolf romance out there.
But genre isn’t just a bucket into which stories get placed. Declaring your genre makes a promise about what kind of story you’re going to tell and how it will unfold.
Genre is a Promise
Let’s stick with romance as an example. In that genre, there are both rules and reader expectations a story must fulfill to earn its rightful place on the shelf.
Violate the rules and readers will eviscerate you because you’ve broken a promise made by saying “this is a romance.” A few of those rules, which can only be defied in extremely rare cases and even then with an up-front disclaimer, are:
1. In the end, the couple must live happily ever after (or a shorter term variant, called “happy for now.”
2. The couple can’t cheat on each other after their relationship is established.
Not all genres have rules, and romances are relatively black and white. But it’s something an author should know. And disobey at their peril.
In addition to the hard-and-fast rules, all genres have reader expectations that include standard elements called “tropes” and often a few “obligatory scenes.” It’s your promise to give the reader a familiar, anticipated experience. If you’re telling a zombie story, you probably want to include a scene of a horde advancing on a city or that old standby of uninfected people trapped, boarding the exit to bar the undead.
Or, returning to romance, you want to include:
- A thoughtless mistake by one of the people who are supposed to be falling in love.
- A big fight to follow.
- A “dark night of the soul” wherein the one who screwed up realizes just how badly they failed and how much they miss the other.
- A “grand gesture” scene to fix it all.
We all know this scene, right? It’s Robbie (and Billy Idol) singing to Julia on the plane at the end of The Wedding Singer. It’s Jack running to catch Kate at the airport in The Family Man. Phil carving Rita out of snow in Groundhog Day. Patrick singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to Julia over the PA system in 10 Things I Hate About You.
If you want to fall down an amusing rabbit hole, check out TVTropes.org and explore the billion tropes you will then immediately begin to see in every TV show, movie, and book in the known universe.
So what does any of this have to do with you?
Well, think about which “genres” you’ve decided to put yourself into — intentionally or by default — through the choices you’ve made. A really obvious type of “life genre” is your career, but there are plenty of others. If you’re married, you belong in the married genre instead of the swinging singles genre. If you joined certain organizations, moved to certain neighborhoods, bought or rented a certain kind of house or apartment, eschewed home-base living and instead opted to travel and live only in a series of Airbnbs or hostels around the world, those were all genre choices.
People might see you at the office or around the block and think “drama” or “feelgood” or “horror,” all of which are genres of books we might decide to write. Are you the dramatic person who’s always got something intense and troublesome to complain about, legit or not? Or are you always biting everyone’s head off?
How people see you determines how you behave and the choices you make, which in turn defines even more deeply how people see you. It’s a loop.
Have you ever felt pigeonholed, like someone stuck you in a box and now everyone refuses to think of you in any other way? That’s just one more example of genre. You got categorized one way in the Amazon.com of life, and now nobody’s willing to shelve you somewhere else.
What’s more, life genres come with rules and tropes just the same as books. Not surprisingly, my college job as a bagel deli clerk had a lot more dick jokes than my fruit fly job in grad school. Dick jokes just aren’t a trope in most academic or professional environments. That may sound trivial, but guess what. I need my dick jokes, people. Or really any jokes. Without that “genre convention” in place, I’m going to feel seriously mis-shelved.
I need to know that I can say something dumb and the people around me will laugh instead of looking at me like I’m an idiot, and I need the people around me to say dumb and funny things, too. If I can’t laugh, I’m in trouble. Yet just as readers of zombie horror expect scenes of roving undead hordes, lab folks expect a fairly serious environment. Writers — at least the ones I hang out with — very much don’t. Our robot series has an army of sexbot characters who say the most absurd things. If you don’t think that’s funny, we can be friends but we probably shouldn’t work together. We’ll only annoy each other.
So while your mind ponders the genres you’ve ended up in — and those you’re starting to believe you should have chosen instead — be sure to consider all the rules and tropes that genre implies to get the full picture. In the “office job” genre, the rules probably include things like “show up on time and don’t leave early,” “dress appropriately,” “don’t use the copy machine for personal projects,” and all those conduct guidelines handed down by HR. Tropes might include “water cooler discussions,” “workplace gossip,” “office politics/nepotism/favoritism,” and sometimes “power plays and backstabbing,” depending on your environment and its ratio of knives to backs.
Are you okay with those rules and do you like (or can you roll with) the incumbent tropes?
You May be on the Wrong Shelf
No? Well, then you’re probably on the wrong shelf.
This is a very human mistake to make. One of the things we’ve discovered as we’ve worked with more and more authors is that a whole lot of writers are telling the wrong types of stories.
That should sound familiar. It’s something we’ve already covered. The idea that many of the stories running around in our heads, dictating our choices and feelings as we cycle through our days, are actually stories we think we should be telling rather than the stories we’d actually like to tell.
It happens with writers all the time. They’ll hear about a genre where books are selling well and writers are making a lot of money and they’ll decide to chase the cash even though the genre is a poor fit for their style, strengths, and preferences. Or they’ll assume they know their genre when they don’t — and often, that happens because it’s always been that way. Or because they enjoy a genre as a reader and therefore assume it’d be right when they’re in the storyteller’s shoes.
That happened with one of our authors with sci-fi. She loves Star Trek: The Next Generation, so she assumed she should write books like it. Turns out, her best fit (which she also loves) is writing young adult fantasy. She used to flail, but now her stories come smoothly. She’s happier and accomplishes more.
Just like wayward authors, there’s a decent chance that your life is trying to fit a genre that you’d never have consciously chosen with your full wits about you. In later sections, we’ll talk about how to choose your goals, craft yourself a character arc, and aim for your plot’s defining moments. But we need to align our big picture before we can do any of that stuff.
If you’re not even in the right part of the bookstore, how can you expect to find the book you need? Or worse, if you don’t even know what kinds of books you enjoy? Same goes for the story of your life.
So to kick things off, let’s talk about what we call “Genre Therapy.” Our authors go through it to learn which stories they should be telling, and so should you.
Next Week Genre Therapy Part 2
This excerpt was taken out of the book The Story Solution by Sean M. Platt & Johnny Truant.