Home » Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice » Why is Genre Important to Success?

Why is Genre Important to Success?

30 November 2013

From story development consultant David Baboulene:

Genre is a real tricky devil… and absolutely key to your success.

When we start out on a writing career, we don’t see it like that. Genre is a restriction. Something to at least ignore and probably rebel against. You gotta be unique. You’re going to prove yourself by doing something different. The only reason you would ever want to know the rules is so you can break ‘em good.

Weeellll, it’s not quite like that. You do need originality but you also need to be professional. There’s definitely a place for you to be different, but you also need to be commercially switched on. And it is through understanding the role of Genre that you can know the time and place to be creative and different and the time and place to be compliant and run on the rails of genre.

Every story divides into two ‘levels’. One level allows you to show how professional you are and how you have mastered your craft. The other level allows you to be different and show off your creative originality. These levels are firstly, the top level arcs across the whole story (what the story is about) and, secondly, the detailed content of the sequences (how that story is told).

. . . .

I hate that it’s true, but I could barely give you a single piece of better advice if you want commercial success. Become professional and understand your craft within the context of a genre, and then become creatively brilliant and mind-blowingly original within the boundaries of that genre.

Why? Because we, the public, as consumers, like to know what we’re getting for our investment of time and money in a story. I don’t go and see a film randomly or pick up a book without any pre-commitment evaluation, and neither do you. You read reviews; you look at the marketing material; read the back cover; hear the interviews; look at the trailer, the poster, the title, the star, the character… You want to know if it’s the kind of thing that will suit your likings. And that means genre.

Link to the rest at The Science of Story

Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

43 Comments to “Why is Genre Important to Success?”

  1. I think the key is not to ignore genre, but to transcend it. Make your book the biggest, best version of that genre’s tropes. Bend the rules as far as you can without breaking them.

  2. Apropos of nothing: Since I’ve purchased previous books by G.G. Vandagriff, Amazon just popped up with a new release, “A Timeless Romance Anthology: European Collection” which includes a story of hers. The Amazon marketing engine strikes again. Purchased.

  3. So, this guy is giving out-dated advice. This:

    “But before you get anywhere near getting assessed by the public, you as a writer, have to sell yourself and your material to an agent/publisher/producer. And I promise you, you are dead in the water if you don’t have a clear genre. They will only take on a clearly defined genre piece, because they know they can’t sell it if they don’t. Look at it like this: When your publisher sells a book to a retailer, the first thing the buyer asks is: Which shelf does this go on?”

    Which shelf will this go on? Um. I don’t think Amazon has shelves.

    This guy seems like a nice, smart consultant type of guy, but he really needs to update to the Publishing world as it is with indies, e-books and Amazon. One of the amazing things happening now is books no longer need to be squished into one small genre. They can be multiple genres and cross-genre.

    Which is a good thing. It means a bigger audience may find the book interesting. If you write a thriller romance set on an alien planet, you can market to those who like thrillers, those who like romances and those who like aliens. As well as those who like thriller alien romances. People need to think more expansively. It’s a bigger world out there. More shelf space, for one thing.

    • I agree. It seems that it’s also the biggest argument against bookstores. They’re forcing books to be of a certain type! Talk about tsunami of….

    • This is one of the subtle and powerful changes to the very way readers look at books: bookstores have shelves, and once a book is put on one shelf, it will not be found on any other shelf. (Unless you pay extra for co-op space at the front.) By its very system, it excludes as it categorizes.

      Amazon tags, instead. The limit of the number of tags is the limit set by a programmer, not by physical space – so a book that exists in science fiction can also exist in romance, and Agatha Christie can be in historical fiction – british and in mysteries & thrillers – female detective at the same time.

      Is Lovecraft’s work horror? science fiction? fantasy? fiction set in New England? Why yes, all of the above, and now no matter where you look in a tagging system, you can find him – where in the library, you may have to search three or four sections to find him.

      • While I completely agree with the point being made here–it is important that we also keep up with the rapid changes in Amazon and terms they used.

        Amazon no longer has tags. But what it does have is keywords that can be used in searches, and categories.

        You have at least 7 keywords you can designate when you upload your book (and more if you count using key words in your title or product description), and you get at least 2 categories (but this includes numerous categories and sub-categories).

        In addition, Amazon has added new “filters” like setting, time, period, mood, etc to certain categories–which again adds to the ways in which a book can be marketed. And the result is that we do have more and more ways to reach different audiences.

        Some of my readers find my books through historical fiction, others through mysteries and still others through romance. I don’t care how they find my books, just that there are lots more ways for them to find the books than in a book store where the only place the books would be shelved is mystery (for the nano second before they were returned–even if they ever got there in the first place.)

        M. Louisa

        • M.Louisa, thank you for pointing out that Amazon took away our ability to tag. I don’t think I’ve gotten a sale since that happened. And I’m glad *I* (the prime Amazon basher here) didn’t have to post that. I might have been savaged. LOL!

  4. I wish I could refute the premise of this article, but I can’t. And it saddens me. Yes, genre has won. And the reading public is poorer for it.

    Despite encouragement to be creative within the boundaries of genre, it’s difficult — because if you’re too creative it’s not genre anymore. But how many romances can you read in which the “hot” hero liberates a naive innocent. Or a “maverick cop” chases a villain “on the wrong side of the tracks”. And don’t tell me these are just cliches, because if genre is about anything it’s about embracing cliches, to a greater or lesser extent.

    I do understand that most people just want an easy read at the end of the day. And I can see that a lot of literary fiction is pretentious twaddle. But I can foresee a time when, with book critics probably on the road to extinction, the only show in town will be called genre. And the future Philip Roths or Ernest Hemingways will not get any attention at all.

    • This. I agree with some points that the article makes… and as a writer starting out I think many people know that writing to fit in a genre will result in better hits. After all, as you said, there are expectations that readers want fulfilled (re Romance, apparently that’s the story that works, right?).
      That being said, some of us can’t write in certain ways. I enjoy some thrillers, but after being in the military I see a lot of it as trope. So I write as real and exciting as I can. The few who like that, love it.

    • Actually, literary fiction is considered its own genre and it includes the work of Roth and Hemingway, along with thousands of other writers, most of whom are unknown to the general public. Literary fiction generally sells fewer books to a more select audience than other genres, but it’s unlikely to disappear.

      After all, very few literary fiction writers have ever made a living from writing in this genre, but they still write and publish novels that can only be categorized as literary fiction. Neither obscurity nor poverty seem to deter them.

      • It’s not a genre in the sense that crime or romance are genre. The difference is that literary fiction doesn’t have rules. In fact, it eschews rules

        • B. R. Myers would argue that literary fiction does indeed have rules: It must not be plot-driven (ideally it hasn’t even got a plot), it should be written in an opaque and ‘writerly’ style, and it should keep the reader continually focused on the sentence-level details of the text instead of engaging with the story. He’s got a pretty strong case.

          • I think B. R. Myers has a point in that many works of literary fiction do have those attributes. But to say that literary fiction shouldn’t have a plot is plain nonsense. That would rule out some of the greatest works of literature in history. My own idea of literary fiction is fiction written for its own sake, without rules, without tropes, taking us wherever the author’s creativity wants to take us.

            • Litfic is like porn: you know it when you see the review. 🙂

            • True, but BR Meyers is mainly talking about modern writing, not the classics (he usually makes a point of saying this). I found him very informative especially after not liking so many current styles. But yes no plot is a part of that (though that isn’t so bad, in my POV).

            • Historical “literary fiction,” especially that which has survived for centuries, is almost inevitably genre fiction which has been put into the lit-fit category in modern times because our schools don’t produce people who are willing to read stuff written in pre-modern idiom. As any number of experiments have shown, you can quite easily take “historical” lit-fic, update the language and the setting, and create a smashing modern genre piece. You can’t do it with modern lit-fic. It’s boooooooooring.

  5. Write the story you want to write.

    Then figure out how to market it.

    Your story might turn out to be smack in the middle of a genre. Maybe it’s cross-genre. Or maybe it’s edgy. But there are audiences for all those.

    Many readers want something fresh, new, unique. Be that new voice! Be yourself.

    • Well…
      Genre is marketing.
      But genre is also a toolkit for building stories. Each genre brings certain elements and conventions that experienced readers are comfortable with and often come to expect.
      As a reader, genre tags bring a promise of certain narrative elements and my evaluation of the book will be colored by those expectations.

      A book that presents itself as science fiction had better bring a sense of wonder and a central idea, a scientific concept, without which the story could not happen.
      A romance had better involve unique and interesting relationships.

      Genre tags had better be more than just a thin veneer of marketing or there will be a backlash from readers. Which is what makes cross-genre a bigger challenge–and something frowned upon by traditional publishing–as it has to conform to two (or more) sets of expectations and conventions. And thus has more ways to fail.

      So yes: write as you will and label afterwards. But be very careful what genre you wrap yourself in. Not all genres mix easily.

  6. Actually the real reason genre is a key to success is that it’s a short cut:

    Without it, people have to know YOU and your work, to predict if they will like your book.

    The closer you adhere to genre with your work and marketing, the less they have to know of you.

    It’s really that simple.

    The down side is that the less they need to know of you, the less loyalty you have once they’ve read you. They’re more loyal to their genre than to the author.

    • Generally true.
      Genre gets you an audition; your story buys you a following. Do the story well enough, often enough, and you’ll have a True Fan. Get enough of those and you’ll have a brand.

      • But very often, if you’re relying on genre to get that “audition”, those fans aren’t your fans. Most of them love you because of what you do with the genre.

        The breakout artists (the ones who become famous for pushing genre boundaries) may write within a genre, but they usually break the rules before they get those loyal fans, not the other way around. (Note: they might have some financial success before they break boundaries, but that’s different from having loyal fans.)

        It’s a conundrum: do you take the shortcut and maybe trap yourself, or do you take the slow path and maybe not succeed as well?

        Neither path is superior. Both have a price and both have creative rewards. Best to choose based on what the muse actually pushes you to write, not based on what someone says is better.

        • There is usually a price to pay regardless of the path you take.
          The question always comes down to goals and values; how important audience size and self-expression are to you. One advantage of self-publishing is that authors are free to bet on their own vision without regard to established genre boundaries or reader expectations. There is nobody to naysay them. Except, maybe, readers.
          In the new age of publishing there are no mandatory rules, just judgment calls and bets. Some will produce satisfactory results, some won’t.

          “You place your bets, you take your chances…”

  7. Genre is a tool. In some cases, genre is just a setting or component of a story. Genre does more than anything else to inform readers what to expect from the story and to prepare them mentally for what will come. Why is this important?

    Suspension of disbelief. Fantasy certainly suspends a lot of disbelief, but even a typical romance novel does this. Do we really believe that every promising relationship turns out Happily Ever After? Certain readers can’t or don’t want to suspend certain aspects of reality or beliefs.

    Genre is also a promise. If you read my book, you will see magic, or space travel, or sweet romance, or graphic sex, or cute talking bears. What genre label I choose promises a certain kind of content.

    Think of genre as a description, not a formula. Both Dr. Seuss and the Berenstain Bears are in the same genre. How similar are they?

  8. The advice to “steer down the middle of your genre” is completely wrong nowadays–especially if you aren’t stuck playing the legacy publishing game and worrying about agents and publishers and what shelf you should be limited to.

    There’s a big risk in taking this kind of outdated, formulaic advice too seriously: you will end up writing stories that people might vaguely enjoy, but they’ll forget them as soon as they finish them and never bother to tell anyone else. Why? Because they’ve read the same story before. Many times.

    Think about your favorite books. I’m willing to bet they are the ones that blend genres. The ones that surprised you and took you on a journey you couldn’t predict in advance.

    I’m not saying that we can just write whatever we want. We still have to nail the story structure perfectly. We still need our act-break tent-pole scenes and set pieces all mapped out. They have to happen in a proper sequence with the correct pacing, and have to drive conflict all the way through to the end, and carry the story’s theme. And our characters need to have agency and yearnings and fears, and they have to suffer, and the story’s stakes need to be death–literal or figurative. Otherwise the story is boring, whatever the genre or genres. But if we nail the above–really nail it–then genre provides nothing more than a set of reader expectations and story tropes that we can play with, and often subvert, to tell the best, most satisfying story possible.

    The best part about writing a genre-blender? You can tour the genre categories with it, marketing it in turn as a thriller, a mystery, a sci-fi novel, and a horror novel, and collecting new True Fans in each genre who will go on to read whatever else you write, no matter the genre label.

    • But if you look at the bestseller charts you’ll see that readers still love their formulas.

      • Yes and no. Good storytelling follows “formulas” that are hardwired into our DNA–the same story patterns and themes that our ancestors loved to hear while crouching around a fire. That’s not the same thing as “genre,” which are marketing categories cooked up because of the limitations of physical bookstore shelves.

        What genre is Raiders of the Lost Ark: Action/Adventure? Thriller? Horror? Christian Fiction? Paranormal? Romance?

        • Action/Adventure, with a little gross-out scene.

          • It has zip-all of the real tropes of Romance (Action/Adventure has a certain amount of Win The Girl Who Comes Along, which is not Romance);
          • very little Horror (the only “horrific” scene is, well, one scene, and not interwoven through the whole thing like, say, in Poltergeist); further, Indy is not the Average Person In Over His Head (though he may be an Action Hero Supposedly In Over His Head);
          • definitely not Christian Fiction, because while the MacGuffin is the Ark, the values espoused are not Christian, nor does Indy survive/win by praying to the Lord and trusting in faith.

          It has Paranormal elements, but honestly, “Paranormal” as a genre… Well, it’s generally Paranormal Romance and/or Urban Fantasy. Urban Fantasy started a bit more broadly; what happens when you drop Magic into Modern Day, without alternate universes? The Lackey SERRAted Edge series would be one version. Early Laurell K. Hamilton would be another. Tanya Huff’s series with Henry the Vampire and the cop-turned-PI is yet another. These days, “Paranormal” seems to be a sub-set of fantasy that requires snarky, first-person narrators (often attractive and female), and frequently draws from Noir’s “mean streets” to some extent.

          Thriller might be closer, in that there are Enemies Pursuing, but the tone of Lost Ark is not constant tension. There’s too much humor here and there. The focus is on the action, not on the Escaping/Foiling the Greater Threat. As I understand Thrillers to tend to have; they’re not a genre I’m fond of, so I am probably off on what their tropes are.

          …you asked!

          Genre is powerful. Genre is the collection of tropes with which readers can be expected to be familiar, and playing to, with, and against those tropes enhances the story for the “in-group” who are steeped in the genre or just simply resonate to it for unknown reasons. Genre sets expectations — which can be restricting, or freeing. (E.g., in children’s cartoons, you can put kid protagonists in horrible danger — but unlike the news, they will get out of it with a scare and a vow not to do that again. Depending on what story you want to tell, accepting the genre conventions can mean being able to say, “The kid doesn’t get eaten by a dragon because that can’t happen in this genre, and I don’t have to explain why the dragons didn’t see the kid. They just didn’t.”)

          (And when you try to blend genres… Generally they will favor one or the other. Bujold’s first two Sharing Knife books, for instance, are trying to blend the tropes of Romance and Fantasy. A fair number of readers went, “…there’s too much romance in my fantasy,” while some others went, “…why is there all this worldbuilding in my romance?” It’s not that it can’t be done, but that people read for different reasons, and sometimes the intersections can be an acquired taste.)

          • Hi ABeth,

            Thanks for the detailed breakdown of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Just for fun, I have to poke a few holes 🙂

            I can definitely find a few Romance Tropes (per http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RomanceNovelPlots). And in the end, Indy decides to sacrifice the Ark to the Nazis to free Marion.

            And horror? Trapped in the well of souls had pure-horror sequences with snakes and mummies. The final supernatural destruction of the Nazis was straight-up horror.

            Christian fiction? Well, Indy fights and loses when using only earthly powers. He doesn’t defeat the Nazis. God does, after Indy finally shows faith and believes and calls to Marion to “close her eyes, whatever happens” because he knows seeing the power of God will kill them.

            If Raiders had been just another Action/Adventure treasure hunter film, it would have been forgotten, no matter how much fun it was. I think part of its enduring success stems from the fact that it refused to be only one “genre,” and in the process it invented a new one.

            I think the same is true of all of the stories we remember most fondly.

            • …just another Action/Adventure…film

              No one said it was. But it is AN Action/Adventure film. It’s not defined by its genre, but it is situated squarely within it.

  9. “But how many romances can you read in which the “hot” hero liberates a naive innocent.”

    Mark Capell–you really need to read some romances. The real thing, not what you think they are.

    • I’ve read a lot of romances, else I wouldn’t have commented. Of course they’re not all exactly like that. But a lot are, and cliches abound. How many times can the word “hot” be used? Take a look at the Amazon romance charts.

      Here’s part of the blurb from what is number 2 in the Amazon romance charts.

      “…because let’s face it–any guy that hot has got to be naughty.”

      Number 4 in the Amazon charts:

      “A whole bunch of dirty hotness…”

      Number 9 in the Amazon charts:

      “…when she’s almost run over by a red hot rock musician.”

      Hot, hot, hot.

      • well, that’s the hype on the cover copy. Every genre has tons of room for original and well written books.

        • But I’m guessing that inside the covers there will be just as many references to “hot”. I’m not criticising these authors. They’re obviously writing books that people want to read. And that’s a skill in itself.

          And of course there are well-written genre books. But let’s not pretend that there aren’t limits to creativity when writing genre. Let’s not swallow the marketing creed without acknowledging at least a little touch of indigestion.

          • I disagree on this point: there is no limit to creativity within a genre. I have read romances that fit nowhere close to your bill, seeing as almost ALL Christian fiction is now romance, something I gripe about all too frequently. I’ve read stories that are otherwise nothing alike except that they had a romantic arc that ended happily, but they were still romances.

      • You seem to have stereotypes about genres, without actually reading in them. You had narrow ideas about mysteries last time, and I supplied you with prominent examples that were nothing at all like your stereotype of them. Maybe you should read the genres–more than two or three books–before you complain about them; you clearly have no idea what’s a trope, or cliche, and what’s a “rule.”

  10. every story is based on the archetype of ‘the return.’ That’s the biggest genre I know. Some call it archetype of transformation. Go to heaven, or get a peek, drop down into hell, find one’s way back. All genres, I think come from the larger one, like seedlings of the mother plant.

    There are in the leitmotif encyclopedias of fairytales [by stith thompson for instance] about, I dont know, literally 2 million+ motifs of fairytales identified. The ways of stories are many many. In mythos and fairytales, they are identified, as I mentioned by the millions…. and I think writing in genre is never pure in the sense of only sense of genre.

    Red Riding Hood, is about the color red, which has an ancient significance. It is about a naive girl. It is about the power of seduction. It is about a hunter who is human, and a hunter who is a wolf. It is about an elder. It is about illness and medicine. It is about sexuality [in its original nonbowlderized form /sp?] What genre ought it go into? YA, children’s story books, AARP, wolves, sport hunting, granola, sexual memoir, the psychology of color.

    I agree with what several others here said better than I could say it: write what youre called to first, then pack it into that black leather or silk or battle jacket, and off to market. Wait, there’s a fairytale about that too… To market, to market, my little red hen… lol

    • I regularly write stories that have nothing to do with returning and I regularly READ stories by others that also do not fit this archetype. But yes, write first; label later.

      • It is endlessly hilarious to me that people often point out metaphors in my stories that aren’t there. They’re erotic adventure stories, and as close as I get to bigger-picture stuff is to throw in references to Greek philosophy (which is only in there to lead to a throwaway joke about sodomy.) “Oh, I see where you meant this dialogue to evoke criticism of the feminist movement.” No, I meant it to show that that lady’s kind of a jerk and she more or less got what she had coming to her. This other lady, who’s not a jerk – even though she’s both more aggressive and more powerful than the first lady – didn’t.

        I often think of this when I read discussions about literary criticism, which of course reaches its ultimate zenith in the school which tells us that the author’s actual intent is totally irrelevant. While that is a bit much even for most reasonably intellectual people, it’s funny to me how much the idea that every artistic work has to have deeper meaning has worked its way into the modern understanding. It’s a story. Read it. Enjoy it. If it makes you think, fine, but mostly I just wanted you to have fun.

        • There are hundreds of varieties of ‘having fun’ fairytales that are ancient. Youre onto something. lol.

          I love your “author’s actual intent is totally irrelevant.” We hear that so much in analysis of culture nowadays, not just c crit lit.

  11. As a reader, I really appreciate genre. I will admit that I am a person who only reads in a couple genres at most and only certain types of stories in those genres. If there were no genres or even no subgenres I would have to wade through daunting amounts of books to find the ones that would appeal to me. I’m grateful for those labels that help me pinpoint the books I want to read with greater ease.

    As a writer, I think that genres and the tropes that frequently accompany them serve certain needs and longings in readers. If a writer can peer through the labels and tropes and see the needs and longings behind them, the writer can figure out his own ways of fulfilling them, especially if they are needs and longings that the writer shares.

  12. There seems to be an element missing here.

    Genre in the older sense told you primarily about the form of the work, with a bit of information about the content mixed in — whether it’s a romance (old sense), a novel (old sense), or poetry.

    Genre in the modern sense tells you primarily about the content of the work. And the modern genres were almost all created by a story that broke the molds available at the time.

    People read the genre-makers, and didn’t want to stop reading them when they hit the back covers. Writers were inspired to create more works with similar elements.

    It’s fine to write within a genre.

    It’s also fine to write outside the existing categories. If a story that fails to fit existing genres is sufficiently compelling, it might inspire a new one.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.