Structure Part 7-Understanding Genre


For the past several weeks we have been exploring structure and why it is important. If you haven’t yet read the prior posts, I advise you do because each post builds on the previous lesson. All lessons are geared to making you guys master plotters. Write cleaner and faster. I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit right now to get writing. All in due time. Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one.

Understanding what genre you are writing will help guide you when it comes to plotting your novel. How? Each genre has its own set of general rules and expectations. Think of this like stocking your cabinet with spices. If you like to cook Mexican food, then you will want to have a lot of cumin, chili powder and paprika on hand. Like cooking Italian food? Then basil and oregano are staple spices. In cooking we can break rules … but only to a certain point. We can add flavors of other cultures into our dish, but must be wary that if we deviate too far from expectations, or add too many competing flavors, we will have a culinary disaster. Writing is much the same. We must choose a genre, but then can feel free to add flavors of other genres into our work.

Ten years ago, when I first got this brilliant idea to start writing fiction, I didn’t do any planning. I knew zip nada about the craft, and, frankly, was too stupid to know I was that dumb. To make matters worse, I tried to write a novel that everyone would love. It was a romantic-thriller-mystery-comedic-memoir that would appeal to all ages, both men and women and even their pets and houseplants. I am here to help you learn from my mistakes.

I believe there are three kinds of writers. One type of writer is the Born Genre Author. This type of writer knows the genre he wants to write from day one. He is a born horror author or fantasy author, or whatever. This type does not start on a horror novel and then suddenly start thinking that YA is more his stride…or maybe sci-fi…or literary fiction. This author’s laser-focus is a tremendous asset, but tunnel-vision can get him in trouble. The greatest weakness I see with this type of writer is that they often don’t read outside their genre and so their work can lack that je ne sais quoi that makes their writing stand apart from others in their genre. Of course, this is easily remedied if this type of author can make a conscious effort to diversify.

Another type of author is like I used to be (and still have to fight). Meet The Dabbler. We love everything and have a hard time making up our minds. We love all kinds of writing, but this lack of focus can hurt our platform and spread us too thinly to be effective. Dabblers also are bad about making the mistake of trying to write a book that is all genres and what they end up with is an unpalatable mess. On the flip-side, though. Dabblers who can finally choose a genre usually are very innovative creatures because they have the knack and ability to draw flavors of other genres into their writing. The trick is getting them to pay attention and focus long enough.

Then there is the third kind of writer, The Profiteer. These writers are in the business for all the wrong reasons, and, because of that, usually never end up finishing, let alone publishing. They are writing for the money and fame and often are genre-hos. They keep a finger in the wind searching for what is currently hot. Vampires? Chick-lit? Whatever is flying off shelves, that is The Profiteer’s  new love. Of course what this writer doesn’t understand is that by the time they finish the novel, land an agent and that book makes it to print, the trends will have changed. But most Profiteers fall by the wayside, so that’s all I will say about them.

Just as nailing the log-line is vital for plotting, we also must be able to classify what genre our novel will be in. Now, understand that some genres are fairly close. Think Mexican Food and Tex Mex. An agent at a later date might, for business reasons, decide to slot a Women’s Fiction into Romance.  Yet, you likely will NEVER see an agent slot a literary fiction as a thriller. They are too different. That is like trying to put enchiladas on the menu at a French restaurant.

Part of why I stress picking a genre is that genres have rules and standards. For example, I had a student drop out of my Warrior Writer Boot Camp because I told her that her hero could not be the Big Boss Troublemaker (main antagonist) in her romance novel. I advised her that the hero could be an antagonistic force, but that she had to choose another person to be the BBT. Why? Because the genre of romance has rules, and guy and gal MUST come together at the end and live happily ever after. This cannot happen if the heroine defeats the hero.  Great love stories generally do not involve the hero being beaten up by a girl. I didn’t make the rules, but I can help a writer understand those rules and thereby increase his/her chances of publication success.

Understanding your genre will help immensely when it comes to plotting. It will also help you get an idea of the word count specific to that genre. I am going to attempt to give a very basic overview of the most popular genres. Please understand that all of these break down into subcategories, but I have provided links to help you learn more so this blog wasn’t 10,000 words long.

Mystery—often begins with the crime as the inciting incident (murder, theft, etc.), and the plot involves the protagonist uncovering the party responsible by the end. The crime has already happened and thus your goal in plotting is to drive toward the Big Boss Battle—the unveiling of the real culprit. Mysteries have a lot more leeway to develop characters simply because, if you choose, they can be slower in pacing because the crime has already happened. Mysteries run roughly  75-100,000 words. Mysteries on the cozy side that are often in a series commonly are shorter. 60,000-ish. I’d recommend that you consult the Mystery Writers of America of more information.

Thriller/Suspense—generally involve trying to stop some bad thing from happening at the end. Thrillers have broad consequences if the protagonist fails—I.e. the terrorists will launch a nuclear weapon and destroy Washington D.C. Suspense novels have smaller/more intimate consequences. I.e. The serial killer will keep butchering young blonde co-eds. It is easy to see how thriller, suspense and mystery are kissing cousins and keep company. The key here is that there is a ticking clock and some disastrous event will happen if the protagonist fails.

So when plotting, all actions are geared to prevention of the horrible thing at the end. Thrillers can run 90-100,000 words (loosely) and sometimes a little longer. Why? Because some thrillers need to do world-building. Most of us have never been on a nuclear sub, so Tom Clancy had to recreate it for us in The Hunt for Red October (Clancy invented a sub-class of thriller known as the techno-thriller).

Pick up the pacing and you can have a Mystery-Suspense. Think Silence of the Lambs. A murder happens at the beginning, and the goal is to uncover the identity of the serial killer Buffalo Bill (mystery), but what makes this mystery-suspense is the presence of a ticking clock. Not only is the body count rising the longer Buffalo Bill remains free, but a senator’s daughter is next on Bill’s butcher block.

When plotting, there will often be a crime (murder) at the beginning, but the plot involves a rising “body count” and a perpetrator who must be stopped before an even bigger crime can occur (Big Boss Battle). These stories are plot-driven. Characters often do not have enough down-time to make sweeping inner arc changes like in a literary piece.

Pick up the pacing and raise the stakes and you have a Mystery-Thriller. Think Killing Floor by Lee Childs. The book begins with a murder of two unidentified people at a warehouse, but if the killers are not found, what the killers are trying to cover up will have global consequences. And I am not telling you what those consequences are b/c it would ruin the book :D.

When plotting, again, there is often a crime at the beginning with rising stakes, and the protagonist must stop a world-changing event from happening (Big Boss Battle). The focus of your plot will be solving the mystery and stopping the bad guy.

For more information on this genre, consult the International Thriller Writers site.

Romance—Guy and girl have to end up together in the end is the only point I will make on this. Romance is all about making the reader believe that love is good and grand and still exists in this crazy world. The hero cannot be your main antagonist.  Romance, however, is very complex and I cannot do it justice in this short blurb. If you desire to write romance, I highly recommend you go to the Romance Writers of America site for more information and that you join a chapter near you immediately. This is one of the most amazing writing organizations around and a great investment in a successful romance-writing career.

Word count will depend on the type of romance you desire to write. Again, look to RWA for guidance.

Literary Fiction-is character driven. The importance is placed on the inner change, and the plot is the mechanism for driving that change. Literary fiction has more emphasis on prose, symbol and motif. The events that happen must drive an inner transformation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road is a good example. The world has been destroyed and only a few humans have survived. The question isn’t as much whether the man and the boy will survive as much as it is about how they will survive. Will they endure with their humanity in tact? Or will they resort to being animals? Thus, the goal in The Road is less about boy and man completing their journey to the ocean, and more about how they make it. Can they carry the torch of humanity?

When plotting for the literary fiction, one needs to consider plot-points for the inner changes occurring. There need to be cross-roads of choice. One choice ends the story. The character failed to change. The other path leads closer to the end. The darkest moment is when that character faces that inner weakness at its strongest, yet triumphs.

For instance, in The Road, there are multiple times the man and boy face literally starving to death. Will they resort to cannibalism as many other have? Or will they press on and hope? Word count can vary, but you should be safe with 60-85,000 words (The Road was technically a novella).

Fantasy and Science Fiction will involve some degree of world-building and extraordinary events, creatures, locations. In plotting, world-building is an essential additional step. How much world-building is necessary will depend on what sub-class of fantasy or sci-fi you’re writing. Word count will also be affected. The more world-building, the longer your book will be. Some books, especially in high-fantasy can run as long as 150,000 words and are often serialized.

Consult the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for more information.

Horror—This is another genre that breaks down into many sub-classifications and runs the gambit. It can be as simple as a basic Monster in the House story where the protagonist’s main goal is SERE-Survive Evade, Rescue, and Escape. The protag has only one goal…survive. These books tend to be on the shorter side, roughly 60,000 words.

Horror, however can blend with fantasy and require all kinds of complex world-building. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a good example. Stephen King’s horror often relies heavily on the psychological and there is weighty focus on an inner change/arc. For instance, The Shining chronicles Jack’s descent into madness and how his family deals with his change and ultimately tries to escape the very literal Monster in the House.

Horror will most always involve a Monster in the House scenario. It is just that the definitions of “monster” and “house” are mutable. Word count is contingent upon what type of horror you are writing. Again, I recommend you consult the experts, so here is a link to the Horror Writers Association. The Dark Fiction Guild seemed to have a lot of helpful/fascinating links, so you might want to check them out too.

Picking a genre is actually quite liberating. Each genre has unique guideposts and expectations, and, once you gain a clear view of these, then plotting becomes far easier and much faster. You will understand the critical elements that must be in place—ticking clock, inner arc, world-building—before you begin. This will save loads of time not only in writing, but in revision. Think of the romance author who makes her hero the main antagonist (BBT). She will try to query, and, since she didn’t know the rules of her genre, will end up having to totally rewrite/trash her story.

Eventually, once you grow in your craft, you will be able to break rules and conventions. But, to break the rules we have to understand them first.

I have done my best to give you guys a general overview of the most popular genres and links to know more. If you have some resources or links that you’d like to add, please put them in the comments section. Also, for the sake of brevity, I didn’t address other genres, like YA or Western. If you have questions or advice, fire away! Any corrections? Additions? Questions? Concerns? Comments? I love hearing from you. What is the biggest hurdle you have to choosing a genre? Do you love your genre? Why? Any advice?

Make sure you tune in for Wednesday’s blog where I continue walking you through blogging for platform :D. What do we blog about to gain a fan base?

Happy writing!

Until next time….

Give yourself the gift of success for the coming year. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books! Enter to win a FREE copy. Check out Author Susan Bischoff’s blog.


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  1. Eye-opening and very useful post! Thank you.

  2. Great definitions! I think my first novel belongs in the “horror” category, but there’s no overt gore- it’s more psychological. My second novel- perhaps “probable futuristic / satire.” I guess genre divisions confuse me. Must I choose between these 2 genres for future novels? Thanks.

    1. Really just one genre will be your core and then feel free to flavor it with other elements. Picking a genre is just a good foundation for your story and helps you stay focused. A lot of writers will ask, “Well how long does a book need to be?” Genre often will answer that question.

  3. So, YA or MG is not a genre? We must pick a basic and then write for the readers? YA and MG would be considered audience, and not a genre?

    1. I had to limit the genres so that this blog wasn’t horribly long. Yes, YA is a genre, but so is Children’s and Westerns and Mainstream…. That was why I started with the caveat that I could only address the main components of the market. I didn’t want the blog to get any longer than it already was. If you guys have questions about a genre I didn’t mention, please feel free to ask in the comments :D.

  4. Your examples are excellent. I love how you teach using an example of a specific book or movie for each point which makes it so much easier to understand…and your sense of humor makes it all the more entertaining. Thanks for taking the time. I really enjoy your blog posts.

    • Thaddeus Dombrowski on December 13, 2010 at 4:03 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for the post. Other writers from my group have asked me what genre I am writing in. Initially I had a hard time pinning it down. But, I guess I am writing a literary book with elements of mystery and horror.

    I didn’t set out to combine the genres in this way. I just set out to tell the story that I imagined. That’s just how it breaks down within these categories.

  5. Your definition of literary works is interesting to me, since, after studying Randy Ingermason’s Snowflake Method, I’ve start writing very character driven plots with plenty of choice involved. But I also write Fantasy or Science Fiction more than anything. Even more most mundane ‘worlds’ have some element of the fantastic to them. So I guess you could say I’m a ‘born Genre author’ except I occasionally write in other genres for practice, which really does help in the long run.

    1. I have a couple craft books I need to finish first, but I will check him out. Thanks for the information 😀

      1. What craft books are you reading?

  6. Thanks again for the wonderful post. I’m definitely a dabbler. I can’t stick on one genre when I started writing. Now, I seem to cut it in two. 😉 The definitions are helpful. I am writing something right now that I cannot put into category (surprise surprise it’s literary fiction) and now I know where to place my new creation. 🙂

  7. Dear Kristen,
    Your blog is a literary masterpiece!
    Thanks for the illuminating insight!

  8. I constantly read your posts and think, “Wow. This lady is giving away gold for free.”

    A couple of years ago someone asked me what MY genre was, and I didn’t even know what A genre was. There were just books I liked, books I didn’t like, and the book I wrote. I wasn’t defined by a genre so why should my book be? Ha. Haha. Hahahahahahahahahaha. As always, you’re giving great advice here. Thanks so much for your post.

  9. I’m thinking literary fiction… what do you think?

    “Tonya moves back to her hometown after earning her master’s degree because she can only find work at the mall she worked at during high school, and despite all her academic achievement she is struggling to decide what she wants to be “when she grows up.””

  10. I’m the born fantasy writer. This post has made me realise that there are downsides to being so closed in my reading material. I’m definitely going to be reading into other genres.

    Thank you!

    1. You are welcome and fortunate to know what you want to write. That has really been the only weakness i have seen in a “Born Genre Writer.” They start sounding like everyone e;lse because they lack outside material to freshen up the text ;).

        • A.J. Zaethe on December 16, 2010 at 8:54 am
        • Reply

        I recently began to reach out to other genres myself, I am the the born fantasy writer. I learned in my class, with Jennifer Holbrook-Talty, the importance of learning from other novels and writers concerning point of view alone. Since then, I have picked up novels I never would have even glanced at twice before and it has really impacted my writing. In fact, I just picked up another novel today at work. (they have a book shelf there for you to leave or take books from) It covers alternative religious history, an undertone/overtone in my novels. So, outside genres can be a huge help.

        As for the above post, Kristen, the link concerning the Fantasy Writers of America wasn’t exactly what I expected it to be, and the site can use ten face lifts and a tummy tuck, but it does have some helpful information. Thanks.

  11. Great blog as usual. I just feel the need to point out one little thing ref Romance. There are really on two stead fast rules with Romance. 1) The main plot is centered around falling in love and the struggles involved to make the relationships work and 2) it must have a satisfying and optimistic ending. I got these from RWA. There are a lot of other so called other rules depending on whether you are writing single-title or category. And in those categories are rules that go with each line.

    However, there is no rule in romance that the hero or heroine can’t be the antagonist. There are many romances where this is the case. A movie that did this was You’ve Got Mail. I love to hate it. Personally, I don’t like it when the hero or heroine is the Antag, but in romance, it happens from time to time.

    1. Technically the big chain book store was the main antagonist, and the hero (Tom Hanks’s e-mail persona) joined forces with the feroine to defeat it…and then failed, and I want to see what their first fight sounds like as Bob always says. That’s why I added the caveat that we had to know the rules to break the rules. Nothing is set in stone, of course, but there are general guidelines that can help. Thanks for adding those two points! 😀

    • Terrell Mims on December 14, 2010 at 2:03 am
    • Reply

    I am a born YA Author. I love YA because it normally is a coming of age story, but can be horror, suspense, romance, etc. Therefore, most YA is slightly literary. BBTs are usually someone that a teenager would consider a villain in real life: an abusive parent, a cruel teacher, a mean boss, or the ever popular bully.
    They usually run at 80,000 words, but as this genre is becoming more mainstream, more are being printed around 100,000 words. I love YA.

  12. I have no genere anymore. It use to be romance but went into literary and got stuck in between cuae I lost the keys to my new home. XD I indroduced my friend to you. She loves your advice. See you next week.

  13. As a beginner … thank you! I’m slowly making my way … I hope.

  14. Maybe I missed something … what is YA?

    1. YA ia Young Adult. Young adult usually will follow the rules of the adult version of the genre, but language, length and word count will be modified to target a younger reading audience.

  15. I understand you’re writing from a standpoint of marketability, but what if the books I really enjoy are the kinds of works that don’t fit in the mainstream genre brackets. For instance, House of Leaves affected me deeply and profoundly, much more than any mainstream novel I’ve ever read, but I know that in spite of a fairly strong cult following it’s not much of a mainstream seller. Another book I read and loved this year was The Beasts of New York, a book that was released for free online at first, because the author couldn’t get an agent to pick up a book for adults that was framed as a book for children.
    I guess the core of my question is, how can I write marketable books, if I don’t much enjoy reading marketable books?

    1. That’s a good question. Marketable just means that there is a frame of reference. For instance, you open a restaurant, what is the type of cuisine? If you can’t quantify that, you are going to already have a bugger of a time marketing. Just because you pick a genre doesn’t mean that you have to write stale, formulaic writing, but it will give you guideposts for that genre. If you write 150,000 word YA, that is a tough sell. Agents know teens already have a short attention span, so they know 150,000 word book would be a bad investment.

      A lot goes back to why are you writing? If you want a career as a best-selling author? You generally need to write genre books. Like if I want to make a zillion dollars owning a restaurant, it is a good idea to open a pizza parlor. Why? Appeals to the most people. But, if you are writing to be considered literature or win the Pulitzer, then not as important to write genre stories. Genre books sell more simply because they have existing followings/fans.

    • Erin Roberts on December 14, 2010 at 7:52 pm
    • Reply

    An incredible post, as always, Kristen. I look forward to each one knowing I’m going to learn a lot. 🙂 I think my #1 problem right now is figuring out what my genre is! I wouldn’t call myself a “dabbler” per se since, when I write a book, the book itself sticks to a particular genre. I can’t seem to stay within a genre from book to book. I’m trying to decide if that’s a good or bad thing.

    For example, book 1 is suspense/psychological. Well, after the rewrite it will be anyway. It sort of flopped around like a dead fish at first. The second is literary fiction, and the third is Christian fantasy. See what I mean? I’m not sure if going all over the place like that is normal or if I’m in a weird, and painfully long, hunt for my niche.

    Oh, well. I’ve fought with myself over this for some time now. I am attempting to relax and enjoy the ride. It’s sort of fun trying to write all of the different genres. I’m sure one will ‘float’ to the top as my strong point. Maybe. I hope. 😉

    Keep the posts coming! I look forward to each one.

    1. First of all THANKS! Yeah, I hear you. I finally had to just pick one. When you’re a new writer I do recommend experimenting with genres and see which one you like. The problem is that if ur a Dabbler like me…you love them ALL. Just pick one and stick to it. Bob Mayer is an AMAZING author. He has hit the NY Times best-selling list in 5 genres. But, because he has genre-hopped, he isn’t a household name like Clancy or King, and who knows? If he’d stuck with one genre he might have been. Can you genre hop? Sure. But you likely will spread yourself too thinly. Bob is brilliant and a feak of nature…so ignore him for the most part. Most of us don’t have brains that big, LOL 😀

  16. “To make matters worse, I tried to write a novel that everyone would love. It was a romantic-thriller-mystery-comedic-memoir that would appeal to all ages, both men and women and even their pets and houseplants.”

    lol. By the way, have we met because you seem to know me…

    1. LOL…glad you enjoyed. I share my pain so others might learn :D.

  17. Wow Kristen! Such a thorough post! I’m STILL catching up on many of your older posts because they’re excellent. I mean it when I say your blog has for sure been one of my favorite finds of 2010.

    Nina 🙂

  18. Howdy, thanks for all you post to your blog. It’s appreciated. (I just found you last week & I actually copy&pasted ten of your posts to send to my kindle so my family didn’t whine for me to get off the computer while i was reading! lol)

    Anyway, I’m a born YA writer… I read it, I write it and love it. I don’t feel boxed into this genre becuase YA can have any variety of secondary genres in there. Is there a YA guild or something out there? I’m new to the field.

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