Genre choices are the most important decisions you need to make. –Shawn Coyne
Distinguishing sub-genres is important when you’re trying to pin down the genre of your own work. On the importance of genre choices, Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, says:
“Those choices will tell the reader what they are in for if they pick up your book… Deciding what Genre(s) your story will inhabit will also tell you exactly what you need to do to satisfy your potential audience’s expectations. Genre will tell you the crucial conventions and obligatory scenes you must have in your novel. …If you fail to abide by your Genre’s requirements, you will not write a story that works.” (45-46, emphasis mine)
Anybody can slap together a readable story. But to write a story that is satisfying (and, Coyne would add, commercially successful) an author has to know their genre and stick to its conventions. Miss one element and your readers will notice even if only on a subconscious level.
Writers must know mandatory scenes of their genre:
- If a detective novel starts with anything other than a dead body, it will flop.
- If a superhero doesn’t battle an equally super villain, the story will fizzle.
- Skip the torture-laden face-off between the antagonist and the hero in a thriller and readers won’t be thrilled—they’ll be miffed
- A Gothic romance better have an ingenue, a sprawling manor (or equally impressive architecture) and a rampant lunatic or it just won’t work.
Writers must know the conventions of their genre. For example, murder mysteries include the following conventions:
- A dead body
- A sleuth of some permutation
- A cast of extras, including a prime suspect, a ‘Watson,’ a witness, etc.
- Clues and ‘red herrings.
It would be handy if every genre and sub-genre had its own bible of conventions and obligatory scenes. Until that happens, writers are advised to read widely. The more intimately you know a genre, the better the feel you will have for its requirements.
Here are a couple of wonderful resources I’ve dipped into through the years–or that I’ve found and earmarked for future use. I hope you find these books and online resources helpful.
- The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shaun Coyne and Stephen Pressfield
- TV Tropes is another good resource. Self-described as the ‘all-devouring pop culture wiki,’ it covers a lot more than TV
- Joanna Penn’s interview of genre-crossing author Libbie Hawker on writing Genre and Literary Fiction
- Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer
Fantasy and Science Fiction
Narrowing this list down was really hard. I’ve included a few titles from the masters…
- Best Fantasy Books (website) breaks down sub-genres, analysing things like level of magic, grand ideas, plot complexity, and more
- A Tough Guide to Fantasyland (book) by Dianna Wynne Jones is described as, “…both a hilarious send-up of the clichés of the genre and an indispensable guide for writers.”
- What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank by Krista D Ball
- The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference (book) by Terry Brooks et al
- The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (book) by A Manguel and G Guadalupi
- Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy: How to Create Out-of-this-World Novels and Short Stories by Orson Scott Card
- Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitch’s Guide to Romance Novels (book) by Sarah Wendell
- Everything of Interest to a Romance Writer (website)
- Historical Research Companion of Everything of Interest to a Romance Writer (book) by Melissa Johnson
- The Sherlock Holmes Book (DK Books) includes flowcharts of Holmes’s process of deduction
- The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing a Modern Whodunnit (book) by William Tappley
- The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide (book) by Martin Roth
- Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities: A Book of the Sea by Terry Breverton includes historical and fantastical information…
Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths by Susan Alleyn
KateTattersall.com is a website dedicated to a YA series about a Victorian girl spy. Author RS Flemming offers an mind-blowing range of information about the Victorian era and more. I returned to the site a number of times while writing my Gaslamp Fantasy.
Superhero | Comics
- The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios. This cool resource is helpful for crafting villains and heroes that fly (rather than flop).
Maybe you have a favourite genre resource! If so, do tell! Please leave a comment.
Book Covers from GoodReads, Fair Use
Cuppa-Sunshine Photo Montage by Mystic Art Design, CC0, Public Domain