Genre is a Lot Simpler Than You Think

...once you realize the truth about genre.

I discovered the truth about genre by trying desperately to kill genre. This seems like an increasingly common sentiment among creators and audiences alike.

“It’s a fantasy series, but really it’s more of a cleverly disguised historical drama.”

“It’s a superhero movie, but actually it’s a political thriller with a cast of super heroes.”

“It’s a hilarious sitcom, but also a brutally honest memoir.”

And so on.

Here’s the paradox: the more we try to kill genre, the more important genre becomes.

And this is your problem—not the audience’s problem. Everyone is in the audience is an expert on what they think and feel when they engage with your work. They are experts on the works they enjoyed before, the works they didn’t enjoy, and the works that changed their lives.

In other words, they don’t need you to decide the genre for them. Assuming you’ve done your job, they’ll know the genre immediately.

Ah, but what is genre, and what is your job?

A genre is a set of audience expectations. When a collection of works and artists share the same the genre, it simply means they engage with the same set of audience expectations.

So, for example, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Andy Weir’s The Martian are both science fiction stories. They’re genre cousins.

They are NOT genre cousins because they both involve space travel, or because their plots both heavily feature technology. Those are related, but they are ultimately stylistic elements.

While we’re at it…

Style, which includes imagery, tone, emotional cues, is not genre.

Sure, each genre will naturally lead into certain stylistic elements. Romantic comedies have, on balance, a light, uplifting tone. Horror stories include a lot of dimly lit spaces and grotesque creatures doing awful things to people.

But again, style is not genre.

In fact, the more you understand your genre and hone your ability to deliver on it, the more freedom you have for stylistic expression.

Let’s go back to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Andy Weir’s The Martian. (Full disclosure: I’ll be working from Ridley Scott’s film version of The Martian here, since I’ve heard it mostly matches the book.)

For a pair of genre cousins, they could hardly be more different stylistically.

BE WARNED: SPOILERS FOLLOW!

Slaughterhouse-Five, like most of Vonnegut’s science fiction, bounces wildly from one topic to the next, to the point where some critics (both as a compliment and as an insult) argue that it isn’t really science fiction.

The novel includes everything from a starkly realistic portrait of the firebombing of Dresden to a borderline pulpy subplot wherein the protagonist is kidnapped by aliens and encouraged to mate with a beautiful movie star. The tone rubbernecks accordingly.

The novel is also an urgent philosophical investigation. Vonnegut is trying to figure out what to do with human suffering in a universe that seems to afford us so little control, and he’s asking the reader to consider these questions seriously, even as he admits that he has few answers himself.

The Martian, meanwhile, is a lean, no-nonsense work of hard science fiction. It’s a straightforward survival story that earns its stripes by presenting a meticulously researched depiction of how a real astronaut could survive on Mars using existing technology.

The novel’s tone is similarly neat: it presents a steadily growing curve of white-knuckle tension which climaxes in a satisfying moment of triumph when Mark Watney escapes Mars.

For all the drama in the plot, the story underscores a fundamentally optimistic outlook: human beings have solved problems before, and we’ll keep solving whatever problems we encounter next.

This is why it’s so important for us to separate style from genre. A purely stylistic analysis could never tell you why these two works share the same genre, and might even lead to you suspect they belong to separate genres altogether.

So what are the fundamental expectations of science fiction?

In science fiction, the audience expects to see scientific ideas and technologies, potential or existing, play out in a story which shows how these ideas or technologies might alter human life.

With that in mind, the genre connection between Slaughterhouse-Five and The Martian becomes clear:

The Martian shows, literally, how cutting edge technology could allow a human being to survive on Mars. On a deeper level, it celebrates our fundamental ingenuity and drive for exploration—the very forces that produce new technologies and ideas to begin with.

Slaughterhouse-Five, meanwhile, investigates what it means for human beings to fully embrace the fourth dimensionality of time.

Billy Pilgrim is literally “unstuck in time,” forcing him and the reader both to witness his life out of order, but even the alien Tralfamadorians present a vision of what human behavior and culture might look like if we could directly perceive time in it’s true state: as a fourth dimension of space.

Now like I said, critics may debate what genre these works fall into (or sub-genre, for that matter) but readers know at first blush—especially if they are fans of science fiction already.

Your readers will do the same for you, as long as you take the time to understand your own genre and present your work to the right readers.

This is why some works successfully include multiple genres: they craft stories which satisfy (or cleverly subvert) multiple sets of expectations.

So instead of worrying about “genre,” start with this commitment:

“I will figure out what expectations my story fulfills, and I will work to satisfy those expectations as best I can. After that, I’ll seek out the people who expect what my story delivers and I’ll share it with them.”

It still won’t be easy (because writing never is) but it will, quite simply, work.