Fiction writers balance their work on a creative tightrope. On one hand, we create books that fit within one or more categories defined by the public and the creators who came before us. At the same time, we are expected to create stories that transcend the limits of previous tales and break new ground with our craft. If we stray too much on one side, our work becomes derivative. Too far the other way and we run the risk that no one will understand what we are talking about. How do we deal with this balancing act and produce art? I have a theory, but before I explain that, it might be helpful to start with some definitions.
Genre Definitions and Examples
Genre: Broadly speaking, genre is a category of art formed by specific conventions. Fictional genres include traditional categories like mystery and romance and newer concepts like YA and slasher horror. There are also sub-genres within most of the major genres. For example, thriller is a very large genre that includes legal thrillers, spy thrillers, medical thrillers and many others.
Convention: The conventions in genre fiction are certain standards of storytelling. They can be defined by location (westerns), levels of activity (action adventure vs. cozy mystery), expected emotional impact (romance or horror), type of protagonist (crime or YA), or definition of reality itself within the story (fantasy and science fiction). Within each genre, the interpretation of the conventions can vary wildly. For example, Ian Fleming, John Le Carre and Tom Clancy are all pillars of the spy thriller genre, but each one approached the conventions from very different perspectives with very different results.
Cliché: is an expression, idea, or element which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning to become trite or irritating. You are probably all too familiar with the clichés within your genre. The unearthly beauty of the vampire, the maverick FBI/ CIA/ former SEAL of the thriller and the naïve young girl of the historical romance can all fall into cliché because some writers have abused the convention and robbed it of its vitality.
From my perspective, the dilemma lies in how we play with and manipulate the conventions of genre without slipping into cliché. It would be hard to set a western story in modern day Manhattan or have a vampire story where no one sucked blood (or anything else), but how do we differentiate our work from all the other books, TV shows, movies and other stories in our genre that came before us?
I have two ideas. They aren’t really original, but I believe they can help us create work that is.
The idea behind creative combinations is that unique concepts can come from the blending of different genres. The resulting work contains more of a unique flavor because the conventions of one genre play off and against the conventions of the other. Examples that I’m familiar with include the criminal fantasy of Thieves World, alternative historical psychological thrillers like The Alienist, criminal horror like Grendel and sci-fi cop stories like Blade Runner and Alien Nation. My latest novel A Taste of Honey is an attempt to combine the crime and spy genres in the tradition of The Usual Suspects, The Way of the Gun and Miami Vice.
The good news about this method is that it allows the writer to combine whichever genres appeal to her, so she doesn’t have to sacrifice her interests for her craft. The bad news is that even with the broad number of combinations that are possible, most of them have already been explored in one form or another, so creative combinations serve as a stop gap measure at best.
Evolution of the Art
The best use of genre is to transcend the conventions to bring the craft into a new era. Writers who understand their genre completely have the chance to redefine the conventions and the genre itself.
Star Wars is the example that comes to mind first. The film at its heart is a monomyth that blends elements of fantasy and science fiction. I’m sure that has already been done before, but I don’t think it’s been done to a level this potent. Star Wars played on standard tropes to become synonymous with space opera. The knights of fantasy stories became Jedi and Sith. The science fiction trope of lasers became lightsabers. The fantasy concept of good and evil itself became personified in the Force. If you want an idea of how successful genre manipulation can be, look no further than Darth Vader and his friends.
Robert McKee said that genres are useful to writers because they help shape and define our creations into “knowable worlds”. A story that tries to contain too many concepts, too many characters and too many conventions is quickly overcome by cliché. Our job then is to know our genre conventions through research and practice. Our goal can then be breaking from the convention to take our genres into unexplored territory or to create a new genre altogether.
So how do you use genre in your work? Please leave a comment and let me know.
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