Understanding Genre: How to Write Better Stories
How do you start writing a book?
Is there something you should do first, second, and third?
As a developmental editor and book coach, I get asked questions like this all the time. And each time someone asks me what to do first, my answer is the same – first, you need to figure out your story's global genre.
In today's post, I'm going to explain what genre is, why it's important, and give you a few exercises to help you choose the right genre for your story.
But first, let's go over some basics.
What is Genre and Why is it Important?
When you hear the word “genre,” you might think of the shelves in a bookstore or the categories on Amazon. But, genre is more than just a way to sort and classify stories according to their shared elements.
It’s a way to communicate with your reader and tell them what they can expect to feel and experience when they read your novel.
For example, if a reader chooses a murder mystery, they’ll expect to feel intrigued as they work to solve the puzzle right alongside the sleuth or the cop. They’ll also expect to see certain scenes and conventions. For example, in the beginning of a murder mystery, readers will expect a scene where the dead body is found. Throughout the middle, they’ll expect to uncover clues and learn new information. Toward the end, they’ll expect to see a scene where the identity of the murderer is revealed. By the last page, they’ll expect to know whether the murderer is brought to justice or not.
Consumer-Facing Genres vs. Content Genres
- Consumer-facing genres are sales categories that dictate where a book is placed, or how it’s sold, in a bookstore or online. For example, “Young Adult Fantasy” would be a sales category or a consumer-facing genre with a target age range attached. Same with “Adult Science Fiction.”
- Content genres refer to the type of content in a story. Each content genre has obligatory scenes and conventions that work to evoke a certain emotional experience in the reader. Stories will either have an external content genre, an internal content genre, or both (more on this below).
Of course, there is some overlap between content genres and consumer-facing genres. For example, romance is both a content genre and a sales category, but not every sales category relates to a specific content genre. Something like Twilight might be shelved in the Young Adult section of the store, but the content genre is romance.
This might seem obvious, or like splitting hairs, but it’s an important distinction -- especially for us writers.
As writers, we have to understand our story's consumer-facing genre -- especially when it comes time to pitch agents or self-publish. But more importantly, we have to understand our story's content genre in order to write a story that works.
When you know your story’s main content genre, you can automatically get a sense of things like:
- The overall shape of your entire story
- The primary change that will take place from the beginning of the story to the end
- The objects of desire (wants and needs) your protagonist will be chasing throughout the story
- The scenes and conventions that need to be present in your story
- The controlling idea or theme of your story
Now, let’s take a look at the difference between internal content genres and external content genres – plus which genres fall under each category.
External vs. Internal Genres
A story will either have an external genre, an internal genre, or both.
Plot-driven stories make up the external genres and are primarily driven by extra personal and/or personal conflict. For example, the villain in action stories, the monster in horror stories, or the potential love interest in a romance stands in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal.
Character-driven stories make up the internal genres and are primarily driven by inner conflict. For example, crippling self-doubt, a wound from the past, or some kind of fear that stands in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal.
Now, let’s take a look at the 12 content genres (as defined by Shawn Coyne, creator of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know). As you read through the next section, ask—What genre does my story fit into? Will my story have an external AND an internal genre?
The external content genres are:
- Action - like Star Wars, The Hunger Games, or Jurassic Park
- Horror - like The Shining, Alien, or Halloween
- Crime - like Murder on the Orient Express, The Godfather, or Sexy Beast
- Western - like Lonesome Dove, True Grit, or Tombstone
- War - like The Hurt Locker, Platoon, or Black Hawk Down)
- Thriller - like Silence of the Lambs, Gone Girl, or Misery
- Society - like Animal Farm, Thelma and Louise, or Anna Karenina
- Love - like Pride and Prejudice, Twilight, or Bridget Jones Diary
- Performance - like Rocky, The Karate Kid, or Cool Runnings
The internal content genres are:
- Worldview - like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Juno, or The 40-Year-Old Virgin
- Status - like Oliver Twist, Milk, or Gladiator
- Morality - like Wallstreet, Manchester by the Sea, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Stories can contain BOTH an external genre and an internal genre, but they don’t have to.
If you decide to include both an internal and external genre in your story, you must choose ONE to be the primary (or global) genre. If you don’t, you won’t know what to focus on.
So, now that we know what the twelve content genres are let's talk about why people read genre fiction in the first place.
Why do people read genre fiction?
When you understand what readers are looking for in a story like yours, you'll be better equipped to write a story that delivers on those expectations. So, let's take a minute to talk about why people genre fiction.
People read genre fiction because they want to:
- experience certain types of characters, settings, or events
- feel a certain kind of way while reading the story
- get help making sense of the changes in their lives
- escape reality and become someone else for a few hours
You might be thinking -- okay, yes. That all makes sense to me in theory. But how do you go about making sure you're delivering those things to the reader when you sit down to write or edit your novel?
It's actually easier than you think.
Once you know your story's global genre, you'll essentially have a "blueprint" for how to deliver on your reader's expectations.
Each of the content genres:
- works to evoke a certain feeling in the reader
- works to show a specific change in the protagonist or their circumstances
- has a set of obligatory scenes and conventions that the reader expects to see in a work of genre fiction whether they consciously realize it or not.
Cool, right? Let’s take a look at an example…
Let's say you're writing a murder mystery. What kinds of things might your reader expect to see, feel, or experience while reading your novel?
Perhaps they would expect to feel a sense of mystery and intrigue as they work to solve the puzzle right alongside the detective or cop. That's your core emotion.
At the beginning of your story, the reader would probably expect to see a scene where the dead body is found. Throughout the middle, they'd expect a sequence of scenes where they're uncovering clues and learning new information. Toward the end, they’ll expect to see a scene where the identity of the murderer is revealed. Those are your obligatory scenes and conventions.
By the last page of your novel, they'd expect to know whether the murderer is brought to justice or not. Did the detective or cop succeed in bringing the murderer to justice? That's the specific change (or core value shift) they're expecting to see.
If you don't include these obligatory scenes and conventions of the genre you're writing in, your story just won't work. You won't evoke the core emotion of your genre in the reader, and they'll walk away from your story feeling disappointed instead.
Nobody wants that, right?
So, now that we know what genre is, and how it can help you write a story that works, let's talk about how to choose the right genre for your story.
Hopefully, you can see that understanding the genre you're writing in is incredibly important.
How to Figure out the Genre of Your Story
Some writers automatically know the genre they want to write in. For others, the decision isn't always so easy. To figure out the genre of your story, you can start by asking questions like:
#1. What kind of role will my protagonist play in this story?
Can you imagine some basic actions your protagonist might take? Will your protagonist be an endangered investigator (thriller)? Will he or she be a law enforcer or a criminal (mystery, thriller, or crime)? Will your story center around two individuals in a romantic relationship (romance)? A victim being pursued by a monster (horror)? A youth entering the next phase of life (worldview)?
You can also ask, what does my protagonist want and why? Your hero's desire line will provide the spine of your story, and each genre has an associated desire line. Is your protagonist on a journey that leads to their true self (worldview)? Or do they want to survive some kind of attack (thriller, horror, action)?
#2. Who or what is the antagonistic force in your story?
Your protagonist's relationship with the antagonist is the most important relationship in the story. If you know who your antagonist is, and what he or she wants, this can help you pick the right genre for your story.
Stories in the external genres are driven primarily by extra personal and/or personal conflict. The sources of antagonism in the external genres are straightforward and easy to identify -- it’s the villains in action stories, the monsters in horror stories, the criminal or murderer in crime stories, and the potential love interest in romances.
Stories in the internal genres are driven primarily by inner conflict. The sources of antagonism in the internal genres come from within the protagonist and are aligned against his or her pursuit of their conscious object of desire. For example, in a morality story, the inner conflict would come from the external events of the story, and other characters, testing or challenging the protagonist’s morals.
#3. What central question is your story asking?
Every story asks a question that will be answered by the story’s end. So, another way to find your story’s global genre is to think about what question your story will evoke in the reader. For example, your story might ask some version of:
- Will these two individuals get together in a romantic relationship? (Romance)
- Will this protagonist survive this life and death situation? (Horror, Action, Thriller)
- Will this criminal be caught and brought to justice? (Mystery, Crime, Thriller)
- Will this protagonist mature or find some meaning in their life? (Worldview)
Another way to think about this is -- what crucial decision does your protagonist have to make toward the end of the story? Will the protagonist have to decide between doing the right or wrong thing? (Morality) Or sacrificing himself so that others can survive? (Action, Thriller) Or sticking to her beliefs and values or selling out? (Status)
#4. What topic or universal theme is your story exploring?
Another way to figure out your story’s global genre is to ask -- what themes do you like to explore or read about? What topic gets you fired up? What do you wish you could prove or disprove to the world?
Each genre has its own controlling idea or theme. If you can identify the topic or theme you want to write about, then you can identify your global genre. So, for example, If you want to explore the power of love, you're probably writing a romance. If you want to talk about justice, you might be writing a thriller, mystery, or crime novel. If you want to talk about a person's morals or moral decisions, you might be writing a morality tale.
#5. What are your comp titles? What stories in the market are the most like yours?
If you haven’t been able to identify your genre by answering the questions above, you can look to your comp titles for answers.
Comp titles are “comparative titles.” They represent the stories in the market that are the most like the story you want to write.
For example, if Twilight or Outlander was an inspiration for your story or if they are comp titles of yours, you’re probably writing a romance. If you’re writing a novel like the Marvel movies, then you’re probably writing an action story. If Alien is more up your alley, then you’re probably writing a horror story. If your story is more like The Handmaids Tale or The Giver, then maybe you’re writing a society story.
If you haven’t identified your comp titles yet, try to pick 3-5 stories that are most like the one you want to write. Re-watch or re-read them to see if you can pick out the global genre of each title. That should point you in the general direction of your story’s global genre. Plus, you’ll be able to see all the obligatory scenes and conventions in action as you watch or read!
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Why aren't science fiction and fantasy on the list of genres? Surely readers have expectations for these stories, too?
A. Fantasy and science fiction are consumer-facing genre labels. These labels tell the reader that there will be fantastic, magical, scientific, or futuristic elements in a novel, but it doesn’t really tell the reader what the story will be about. These labels address the "reality" leaf of the Genre Clover, but do not promise to evoke a core emotion in the reader, nor do they have a core value at stake.
Fantasy and science fiction stories need to include at least one of the content genres in order to work -- sometimes one external genre and one internal genre. For example, you could write an action story that takes place in a futuristic setting or a romance that takes place in a made-up world full of magic. In other words, your story would include the obligatory scenes and conventions for the external and internal content genres that take place in a particular setting that’s not in the real world.
When you're writing speculative fiction, there's already so much stuff to remember and keep track of. You have to build believable worlds, create whole magic systems, make up new technology, and maybe even figure out how space travel works. With all of that on your plate, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and maybe even give up on your story. But if you can nail down your story's global genre, you'll gain a sense of clarity and focus that will enable you to finish your draft and write a story that works.
Q. Can my story have both an external and an internal genre?
A. Yes! Stories can definitely contain both an external and an internal genre, but they don’t have to. For example, in Agatha Christie’s stories, we don’t really care if Hercule Poirot changes as a human being from beginning to end. What we want is to follow the master detective as he works on solving the mystery. In contrast, Silence of the Lambs has both an external (thriller) genre and an internal (worldview) genre. Clarice Starling changes as a result of her experiences with both Dr. Lecter and Buffalo Bill.
If you choose to write a story with both an internal and external genre, you must pick one to be your primary genre (or “global genre”). One genre must take priority over the other. Otherwise, your reader will get confused. For example, if a reader picks up a book expecting a crime novel and is faced with a detective who spends more time mulling over his high school girlfriend than solving the crime, your reader will be disappointed.
Q. Won't all these "rules" like including the obligatory scenes and conventions of my genre stifle my creativity? I don't want to write a formulaic novel.
No! Figuring out how to present the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre in new and innovative ways REQUIRES creativity and imagination. Take Agatha Christie for example—she took a tried and true convention of the mystery genre (her brilliant master sleuth, Hercule Poirot) and innovated it when she created the amateur sleuth, Miss Marple. She didn’t eliminate the central clue-hunter from her story—she just changed the personality and background of the investigator. She abides by the convention but delivers it in a new way.
So, learn the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre and use them as a framework for your story. Inside that framework, you can take what you need from the traditional “rules” of the genre and innovate them by adding your own preferences, experiences, values, worldview, etc.
Q. What if I’m writing a series? Do I need to pick individual genres for each book? And an overarching series genre?
A. Yes, if you’re writing a series, you’ll need a global genre for your series as well as a global genre for each book in your series. Once you’ve identified the global genre for your series, you can loosely map out the obligatory scenes and conventions for your series’ genre. Then, when you choose a genre for each individual book, you can loosely map out the obligatory scenes and conventions for each book.
If you don’t do the work to understand your genre, you’ll have a hard time getting your books into the hands of your audience. And without an audience, your story will never be experienced.
So, know your audience and give them what they’re expecting in a new and exciting way. Give them the powerful emotional experience they’re looking for. Do that, and you’ll earn fans forever. Nothing else matters more!
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Are there any areas where you struggle when it comes to the genre of your story? Do you write in the same genre you read? What was your biggest takeaway from this post?