There are a certain number of things that you need to know about a story before you can expect to bring it to life. One of those is the global genre.
According to Shawn Coyne, “A Genre is a label that tells the reader/audience what to expect. Genres manage audience expectations.”
That said, there are a couple things we, as audience members, expect to know about a story going into it:
- How long it will last
- How far will we need to extend our disbelief
- What will the style be
- How will the story be structured
- And, what will the general content be
A lot of these questions can be answered at the surface level. We are told how long a movie will last. A book’s length is obvious by its thickness or, the page numbers listed on a digital screen. If you’re shopping at a bookstore and you go into the section for biographies, you generally know what you’re going to get, even if you were to pick a book blindfolded. And, if you don’t like fantasy stories, you probably aren’t going to go to a movie that claims a dystopian future due to global warming. Basically, content is made easy to determine because it’s clearly answered for us in the marketing.
But what does that all mean to a writer approaching a new story?
That there are certain things that you should know in order to start a first draft. Some are easier than others. First: how long will your story last? Are you writing a novel? A screenplay? A pilot episode? Or a short story for a competition? All of these come with their own set of rules for length. Knowing how long your story will last will help you figure out your writing pace and process because you’ll know how much you need to write each day in order to finish on time for your deadline.
For example, NaNoWriMo competitors right now are attempting to write a 50,000 word novel in one month’s time. That means that in order to finish on time (it’s this month so there are only 30 days to participate), a writer has to keep up with 1,667 words written each day. If that’s not your thing, that’s alright too. Knowing your length will help you stay on pace, but also give you a better idea of how break down your project into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Second: How far will we need to extend our disbelief? Meaning, are you writing within the rules of our universe or will we have to buy into rules we don’t live with on a daily basis? Realism or Factualism are both set within the confines of rules we know. Realism could happen, but hasn’t necessarily occurred. Factualism refers to something that has actually happened. Stepping away from the rules of physics we know, you reach into Absurdism and Fantasy. Absurdism has very little rules and aren’t even remotely real. Fantasy are stories of wonder and imagination. More often than not, these stories require their own set of rules that need to be followed in order to keep your audience interested.
For example, in The Walking Dead (the show), the characters are supposedly in a dystopian future of our world. Though zombies don’t exist here, we can easily buy into that fact because the rules of zombies are followed in that universe. Compare that to World War Z. If The Walking Dead were to suddenly make a zombie that moved as quickly as the ones in WWZ, viewers would have an issue with that. That is an established rule that must be followed for the show to keep making sense even though it’s not real.
Third: What will the style of your story be? Is it a drama? A comedy? A musical? Literary? That’s up to you, but will set expectations for the audience. If they think they are in for a comedy, they’ll certainly be upset if it turns out to be a drama instead.
Fourth: How will the story be structure? Will you write from one point in time and keep going forward until the series of events are over? Will you play around with time and focus on more than one main character to tell your story? Or, will you throw all the rules (that you have studied and are aware of) out the window? Either way, you’re writing an arch-plot, mini-plot, or anti-plot if you’re writing something.
Audiences are more likely to identify with arch-plot because they story is linear in the same way as our own lives. These stories also follow one main character. That’s not to say the other two (particularly mini-plot) aren’t and can’t be successful. They absolutely can. The next question is tied fairly closely to this one.
Fifth: What will the general content be? This question ties closely to what most people think of when they think of Genre. It means what will actually happen in the story. The reason it ties closely to arch-plot and mini-plot is because the content genres separate into two categories: external and internal. External is typically what you think of when you think of an arch-plot compared to the internal struggles most addressed with mini-plot.
But what are these content Genres?
External content genres: action, horror, crime, western, war, thriller, society, love, and performance stories. They are driven by external values (those outside of a character’s mind). For example, action stories are your typical James Bond-type films. They shift between the values of life and death. Will James Bond be able to survive and defeat the villain? Whereas love stories shift between love/hate/self-hate/hate masquerading as love. You may combine more than one external content genre in a story. It’s very popular to add a love sub-plot, for example.
Oftentimes, more successful is to combine an external content genre with an internal content genre. The internal content genres shift on values that deal with, by nature, the protagonists’s inner conflict. These include status, worldview, and morality. An example of a successful combination of internal and external content genres is The Silence of the Lambs which followed Starling’s worldview disillusionment as well as the serial killer thriller.
Your genre choices will depend on what it is you want to say. What value shifts do you want to make? How will the character change through the events of the story? Whether external or internal, content genre choices are determined by the tone and events that happen in a story. The best way to determine what genre you want to write in is to analyze the stories you, yourself, enjoy.
Together, these questions answer what you should expect a story to contain.
Once they are answered, many things within your story will fall into place. The other 5 questions, beyond the global genre, are as follows and will be answered in future posts.
- What are the conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen genre?
- What’s the point of view/narrative device?
- What are the objects of desire for the protagonist?
- What is the controlling idea/theme of the story?
- And, what is the beginning hook, the middle build, and the ending payoff?