Thursday, February 04, 2010

Oh, all right. What is genre?

So now you’ve brainstormed on story ideas and elements, hopefully for pages and pages and pages – this is an exercise that can easily and productively take a whole week or more. In fact, the longer you give yourself to do it, the deeper you are likely to go. In a great way.

I hope you included half-baked ideas and just random things that turn you on. Creatively speaking. Like for me – shapeshifters (both literal and metaphorical), witches, therapists, museums, stairwells, guitarists, love triangles, altered states, New Orleans, Boston, London, champagne, John Cleese, Pre-Raphaelites, cats, labyrinths, minotaurs…. (multiply by ten thousand and you get the drift.)

The idea of this exercise, actually, is to dump EVERYTHING that has ever appealed to you into a notebook.

But what to do with this chaos of intrigues and desires, now?

Where even to start?

Well, I have been putting this post off for – as long as I’ve been writing this blog, actually. Genre could and should be a whole semester’s film class or novel class all on its own. At least. But alas, Debbie’s comment on the last post has made it inescapable. So all right.

What is genre?

I am NOT in any way going to set myself up as an expert.

But come on, people. You KNOW this. I am only speaking about what you know already. We can’t live in the modern world and not know what genre is. Basically, what kind of story is it?

When you and your loved one go out to the movies, what do you go to? Do you have to coax him into THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, with the promise that okay, you’ll go see THE HANGOVER next weekend? Or are you both happily looking to be scared out of your wits by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY? Or wrung out emotionally and socially outraged by PRECIOUS? Or thrilled and amused by IRON MAN? Or mutually mindblown by AVATAR?

You get the difference between all of those genres, I know you do.

As usual, Wikipedia is a good place to start for an overview, although I have to say woefully inadequate on the mystery subgenre front; maybe someone can do some editing, there.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genre

(Don’t forget to make a donation – it’s the right thing to do.).

So now that you have a sense of this, here’s a pop quiz. And I’ll stick to well-known movies, or books with movie adaptations.

I’ll make it even easier and remind you of some possible answers, NOT all-inclusive:

Horror, action, action-adventure, western, comedy, romantic comedy, musical, melodrama., detective mystery, teen comedy, sci-fi, action-adventure-comedy, psychological thriller, caper, Gothic romance, J-horror, romantic comedy/adventure, screwball comedy, satire.

SO -

What genre is DIE HARD?

What genre is THE EXORCIST? Or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY?

THE HANGOVER?

HIGH NOON?

THE MALTESE FALCON?

VERTIGO?

DOUBLE INDEMNITY?

SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE?

OKLAHOMA! - ?

AMERICAN PIE?

LOVE STORY?

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL?

BATMAN – THE DARK KNIGHT?

OCEAN’S ELEVEN?


And now, possibly a little more difficult. What genre is

REBECCA?

GHOSTBUSTERS?

ROMANCING THE STONE?

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?

RINGU?

BRINGING UP BABY?

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA?

ALIEN?

NETWORK?

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN?

AVATAR?

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST?

THE DAVINCI CODE?


And yes, let’s talk about the ones you have trouble classifying. But that wasn’t so hard, was it? See, you know what genre is. It's the section of the video store that you go to to get the kind of movie you want to see that night.

Okay, now take a look at your own list of books and movies. What’s your dominant genre, there? Maybe you could even break your list down into percentages of different genres. If you’re a cross-genre writer at heart, like I am, your list might be confusing and eclectic. That’s okay. We’ll figure it out.

Try looking at that Wikipedia list and and write down every genre listed under in film and literature that you think applies to the story you're writing.

Now, ask yourself – do you write in the genre that you most enjoy watching and reading? If not, and you’re not published or produced yet, is that something you might consider trying?

But I want you to get genre on more than an intellectual level. So for now I’m not even going to get into the idea of genre conventions (although that would be a good post for later). Because more than anything else, maybe, genre is an EXPERIENCE that you promise your reader or audience. Genre gives them an expectation of what they are going to FEEL. And not just an expectation, but a PROMISE. If your book or film is advertised as an action story, you better have made sure that you deliver on the action, repeatedly and successfully, or you’re going to lose that reader. If people aren’t laughing throughout your comedy, at regular intervals, no one’s going to spread that all-important word-of-mouth that’s going to get other people to buy the book or line up at the ticket counter.

And so the big question I want you to be thinking about it – What DO I want my reader/audience to feel?

The way to start to discover that is to be aware of what YOU are looking to feel in a story.

Let’s go deeper into the film/book list. Here’s part of mine, no particular order.

Rosemary’s Baby
Silence of the Lambs
Alice in Wonderland
The Haunting of Hill House (book and film)
The Shining (book and film)
Room with a View (film)
Withnail and I
A Wrinkle in Time
The Witching Hour
Pet Sematery
Hamlet
Arcadia
Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead
The Fountainhead
Atlas Shrugged
Notorious
Vertigo
Suspicion
Rebecca (book and film)
Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None
It (the book)
Bringing Up Baby
The Thin Man
The Little Foxes
The Children’s Hour
Pride and Prejudice
Bridget Jones’ Diary (book and film)
The Wire
Deadwood
Mad Men
I, Claudius
Fawlty Towers
Rome
Philadelphia Story
It’s A Wonderful Life
Groundhog Day
The Breakfast Club
Poltergeist
The Stand (book)
Carrie (book and film)

I included my favorite TV, and I could go into musicals, too, but I’ll spare you. Well, except I have to mention Sweeny Todd. And Phantom of the Opera. And Chicago. And…

And on the myth and fairy tale front:

Ariadne (Theseus and the Minotaur)
East of the Sun and West of the Moon
Eros and Psyche
Beauty and the Beast (all three of those last are the same story, essentially).
The Handless Maiden
The Yellow Dwarf
1001 Nights
Sleeping Beauty

Now, that’s a BIG list, of all-time favorites that I see/read over and over and over again, and it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, but I want to keep this manageable. And on the surface, it seems to have a lot of disparate genres there. But there are underlying commonalities that are very specific to my own taste (and I’m the only one who can truly say what those are, just as you are the only one who can say what your emotional preferences are).

What do I see about that list?

Dark dark dark dark dark…. Except for the romantic comedies and swoony Room With A View.

Lots of horror, but more psychological than gory. Lots of psychological thrillers. Some adventure fantasy and fantasy fantasy. The Stoppard is about trippy extra-dimensional occurrences, plus he’s a genius. Actually that goes for Shakespeare, too, extra-dimensionally. Lots of psychology - the Lillian Hellman plays are dramas, but very dark ones that explore ordinary and completely chilling human evil. I especially like human evil so big it seems almost supernatural (as in Silence of the Lambs and Rebecca). Withnail and I is a flat-out drug movie, and has the British comedy of chaos I so love in Fawlty Towers. Lots of sex, or at least, the sex is part of what I love about a lot of those choices. (The Wire and Deadwood, for example…). Lots of Cary Grant. Oh, right, that would be sex.

What are some of the themes and subthemes of these stories? (For me, personally, I mean, and not trying to be too analytical about it – just spew:)

Good vs. evil (and good usually triumphing, ambiguously). Inability to distinguish the supernatural from reality. Inter-dimensionality. Erotic tension. Loss of control (and that absolutely includes the comedies on there – Fawlty Towers, Bringing Up Baby, Withnail and I, are complete rollercoaster rides of hysteria.) What is reality? Man Must Not Meddle. The deal with the devil. What it means to be a hero or heroine. Unlikely heroes and heroines. Coming to terms (or not) with one’s extraordinary gifts. Disparate people uniting to accomplish something as a team. A man and a woman who don’t trust each other having to work together, discovering they are divinely matched.

And even more importantly, what FEELING am I looking for when I read and watch these stories? What EXPERIENCE am I looking for? Again, this may be the most important indicator of what genre you’re writing in.

I like a lot of sensation in my stories. That is, I want a story to make me experience a lot of sensation. And not easy, light, fun sensations either, for the most part. Fear, thrills, doubt, sex, urgency, loss of control, violent surprise. I love the overwhelming feeling of having something huge, possibly supernatural, going on around me (in the form of the characters I’m projecting myself onto). Something evil, even, but so powerful and mesmerizing I have to explore it, understand it. And that can be a situation, as in Rosemary’s Baby or The Shining, or a person, as in The Children’s Hour. I want a sense of cosmic wonder. I want a sense that good does conquer evil, that good people can make a difference, but without sugar coating. I like a lot of game playing, matching wits (Philadelphia Story, Thin Man, Silence of the Lambs).

So, what I write is psychological horror, or supernatural thriller, or supernatural mystery, or psychological thrillers with an extra-dimensional twist. And while that sometimes makes my books frustratingly hard to categorize (in libraries, for example…) it also has branded me in a way that has been useful to me as an author. We’ll talk more about branding later.

But now it’s your turn – tell me. What are you trying to make your reader or audience FEEL? Horror? Thrills? The glow of romance? The adrenaline and exhilaration of adventure?

- Alex


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16 comments:

N.T. said...

Great post! I love your list of things that turn you on creatively (I'm thinking of champagne leading to altered states, which lead to a love triangle, leading to a confrontation in a museum stairwell, sending the protagonist straight to the therapist's couch...)

Adaddinsane said...

Alexandra I love your blog.

But SF and Fantasy are not genres, they are settings (arenas).

You can have SF Westerns (SF is the setting, Western is the genre - Serenity, of course), Fantasy Detective (the books by Randall Garrett) and so on.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

N.T., I like the way you think! In my universe, the altered state love triangle would take place in a museum stairwell, and the therapist would be the protagonist.

I think writing this new one for Harlequin is starting to get to me.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Adaddin, it's very true you can have SF Westerns, SF Horror (ALIEN being my favorite) all kinds of SF subgenres. But I still think they're subgenres, or cross-genre, of an overall genre called Sci-Fi. That happens to have a whole lot of subgenres.

Same with fantasy.

Greg James said...

Hi Alex,

Using that wikipedia link, I guess my genre position could be best described at the moment as being in between the 'mundanely gruesome' and 'the weird tale'.

In keeping with your post's wide range, I'd say that my favourite video games of all time are the original Splatterhouse and Silent Hill 2 because I like mixing visceral gross-outs in with the mind-fucks.

That said, science fiction was my genre of choice before horror so my ideas owe those roots plenty. Classic Doctor Who, Sapphire & Steel and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are in the mix as are Blade Runner, Robocop, Harlan Ellison - the fiction and the man.

Also, gallows humour, my favourite comedian is Bill Hicks because my own outlook on life has many parallels with his as expressed in his act. Things are bleak but there'll be some laughs along the way.

I think looking at the wide range of things that influence us is a very useful way of pulling together a creative vision. An efficient way of sorting the good stuff from the crap. Though I'm sure citing a ropey 80s arcade game as an influence is a better way than most of burying my literary credibility.
Hooray!
Better keep on diggin' ;-)

Anonymous said...

Brim over I to but I dream the post should acquire more info then it has.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Alex:
I am feeling aweful that I created more work for you and yet again, indebted to you for teaching me how to understand my own MS! Here's where the confusion came in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Literary_genres
Thank you so much for the help. I am having a love hate relationship with your information right now and have spent the day like a duck fishing in the genre pool. Everything I pull out I toss bac. Actually, I feel more like a vulture, circling the duck, waiting to snach the perfect catch once it emerges.
One last metaphore related to my MS: Phoenix. The narritive is almost entirely the brilliant, firey bird but the novel ends in the ashes, with only a hint of movement from within the ruin.
So mood: catharsis/pathos/ambivalence and the vulture? Genre: Tragedy
Maybe domestic or bourgeois tragedy. (There are elements of HardBoil, Noir, Romance and Intrigue, but unlike hard boil, the plot isn't driven forward by sex. It has a fatalistic tone, but we never really get inside the antagonist's thoughts to see that trait).
Why am I telling you this? I'm curious, do you have any book or movie recommendations that might help please?
Debbie

Josie Thames said...

I've been following your blog since before Christmas, and have found it endlessly fascinating. It's one of the most interesting and informative blogs about writing that I've read. Going through these exercises with you has really helped me in countless ways as I bring this idea from mere thought to story.

Here's the thing, though--I'm really stuck in genre. I have no idea how to label my story. I'm writing about a teen girl whose adoption is unwillingly 'outed' in class by her cousin, and causes a major riff between the mother and daughter when her teacher encourages her to search for her birth parents for a school project.

If I go by the Wikipedia list, I'm writing a romance, because really that's the only one that fits. "In modern writing, a story about character's relationships, or engagements (a story about character development, rather than adventures)."

Any help you could give me would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Josie, that doesn't sound like a romance to me. It sounds like the YA version of women's fiction, which I don't have a name for, I'm not sure there is one, but it's very popular. Mainstream YA, maybe.

Are you writing it as Young Adult?

Again, the best way to determine genre is to make a list of popular published books that are similar to yours. Can you give me a couple of examples?

And when all else fails, go to your local library and ask a librarian! They know all...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Josie, as it happens, I was at the library this afternoon and asked, so yes, what you're writing is mainstream YA.

Unless you intend it for an adult audience, but it doesn't sound like it.

Josie Thames said...

Alexandra, thank you so, so much for getting back to me so quickly! I am definitely writing for a YA audience and knew that I didn't fit the parameters set forth by the romance genre, but didn't see anything in the Wiki article about YA.

As far as examples, I have to refer the master of the genre, Judy Blume.

Again, thank you for the advice! (And I do love my local library...those ladies are the best!)

Kyle Virina said...

Hello Alex, I discovered your blog this morning while doing a Wiki on Inception after watching it last night with my son. Hehehe, Mr. Dad had to obviously fill in the gaps for my budding writer... well, for both of us for that matter.

Anyways, just wanted to say "THANK YOU!" for the wonderfully helpful information you have posted. I will be reading it as a vigilant fan (and student) from now on. Cheers to you and your work!

Clarentine said...

As best I can boil it down, I am trying to get readers to feel like the spy who got left out in the cold--to feel his painfully trampled loyalty, his determination to do what's right, to find the one responsible for locking him outside and removing that one. The protag might win...but his own success, or survival, is not what he's in it for. I tend to use the fantasy genre and build my spy/adventure/mysteries on that framework; I suspect a youthful combination of Ian Fleming and Roger Zelazny is to blame. >:-)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kyle, great to have you here! A father-son Inception viewing, how cool is that?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Clarentine, that's a very clear assessment of what you want your reader to experience - it's so KEY to know that about what you're writing. You cross genre the same way I cross genre (slightly different subgenres) - and it sounds like that sprouted from your childhood reading just like my cross-preferences sprouted from mine.