Choosing Genre

Genre is not something I had really thought about until it came to the time for publishing my first novel on Amazon. Then I had to categorise the genre and sub-genre of my novel for Amazon’s classification purposes.

Of course, genre is important. It’s one of the first things that influence readers’ choice of books. In a physical bookshop it’s the category of shelves where the book will be displayed. On the internet it’s much the same, except it’s possible to use sub-classificaions and use key words to search for the type of book you want.

Genre offers a promise to the reader that the novel will abide by the expectations of the genre and it’s one of the first filters of readers’ choice. The other key influences of choice are the book cover and title, and the back cover marketing blurb. So if you want the right readers to find your book, it’s quite important to get the genre right.

But it’s not always easy to pigeon-hole a book by genre. For example, my first novel, Collision, has an underlying plot dependent on time travel — a classic sci-fi trope. And time travel is one of Amazon’s 19 sub-categies of Sci-Fi. So you may think it’s easy to catgorise and sub-categorise Collision as Sci-Fi/Time travel. But Collision also has a strong love story theme, and a thiller action plot where the protagonists are trying to escape the clutches of MI6 and the CIA. So Collision might be classified for genre as Romance/Time Travel or even Thriller/Techno.

This got me thinking about just how useful these broad genre categorisations are to readers. To many people, when they think of Sci-Fi they tend to think of strange new futuristic worlds, aliens, and space travel. Collision is a long way removed from those worlds, with most of the action taking place in the current world. It’s technically sci-fi, but not as we know it.

But Collision is not alone with this problem. There are many other examples of popular stories that cross genre. Defining genre by readers’ expectations is therefore quite difficult. Take Star Wars. Not many would disagree that this is from the Sci-Fi genre, but actually the story-line has much in common with fantasy quest stories. Only the swords and magic are replaced by light sabres and the force. Similarly, Alien is quite clearly a Sci-Fi movie, but it follows the typical ‘monster in the house’ story-line used in many horror movies. So the Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror genres can easily overlap, and they do.

Recently, I came across the term ‘Speculative Fiction’, an umbrella term to cover most of the ‘what if’ genres. It’s a term originally attributed to Heinlein for describing the nature of science fiction, but nowadays it’s used in a wider context to embrace not only science fiction and fantasy, but also the fantasy elements of some horror, mystery and history stories. What distinguishes Speculative Fiction from Literary Fiction is that the worlds, people, or technology are different in some important aspect from the real world.

Not everyone likes the term, and some would argue that Science Fiction & Fantasy caption used in most book stores is broad enough to cover most aspects of Speculative Fiction. But for me, the broader caption of Speculative Fiction captures all the types of stories I like to read, and the types of stories I aspire to write. It’s for that reason I have adopted the term in the recent update of my website banner. I hope it doesn’t sound too pretentious.

Theme – the magic ingredient within a story

In my last blog, I tried to define story as:

“ …a tale about a character or characters, set in a particular environment or time, who struggle to deal with an important problem or opportunity that comes into their live(s) and which sets in motion a sequence of events and actions that logically lead to a climatic ending consistent with the theme of the story.”

In my view, a story should all ways have a satisfactory ending consistent with the theme of the story in order to provide the reader with the necessary emotional pay-off that they expect. So what is theme? Basically, theme is what the story is all about. Not the plot itself, but the underlying message that the story is illustrating through the actions of the characters. It is usually a moral message the reader can relate to. For example: good will overcome evil; love conquers everything; family are more important than personal gain; absolute power corrupts; freedom is worth fighting for, etc.

In children’s fairy tales, fables and parables the theme is usually very obvious. In a complex novel the theme or themes might be less obvious. Some writers have said not all stories have a theme. I disagree. All stories have at least one theme. Without a theme a story is just narrative without a sense of purpose.

That doesn’t mean that the main character should be a paragon of virtue. Most main characters have some flaws, and part of the story is how they change as a result of the actions that effect them: the character arc. Some main characters may well go from bad to even worse. They may succeed with their goal; but may lose something more important to them in the process. Even with these types of stories there is a message. The issue is whether the message resonates with the reader. Where the message doesn’t resonate with the reader the impact on the reader may be one of shock. The question is whether the reader wants to shocked like this or not.

What should a writer do to incorporate theme into a story? The answer is that the writer doesn’t incorporate theme directly — it is part of the story already. The writer shouldn’t have to think about it too deeply. And the last thing they should do is to get preachy with the reader. It is what the story is about.