Genre is important. Start here, if you will. As I mentioned in our blog 'Get Published', and as we cover in our online creative writing courses, its the first thing an agent assesses on your submissions letter as they start to consider whether to read on and which editor to call for lunch. They'll be looking to check you've used the right ingredients for the genre.
Genres can be individually defined by the particular nature of the key driving force behind your story.
Each genre has its own secret agent of story, and that's how genres can be defined. Make sure you've got the right secret one in the driving seat of your moving vehicle! shall we peel back the disguise? It might be that the commonly held 'drivers' of genre are in fact wearing a mask. (My writers know how much I like a paradox for all its springy and deceitful energy, and you'll find some below.)
Let's take a look behind the scenes of genre by examining the range via the hero books we recommend to our novelists at The Novelry.
What's a 'hero book'? A key element of our writing method is the use of a hero book during the writing of your first draft in a season or ninety days. We advocate that you rely on a 'hero book' which is a book which has been recognized - beyond dispute - to be a major player, garnering great reviews and sales, and which conforms to the perfect novel structure which we teach at The Novelry. Our writers lean on these books. They read them first for sheer delight in the story, to grasp as an overview, how stories work. Then, when they're in the thick of the writing they're reading the novel again to look at how it works technically. Knowing a book in depth is a way of getting under the hood of how the engine works. It's all part of our many-layered unique method to get your novel done. You can find our hero books here.
Driving Force: the antagonist.
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty.
An interesting twist on what you might expect at play here. The plot is driven by the 'bad guy' (the rapist) but also the unknowability of 'Mr X' who by dint of 'joint enterprise' apparently assists our heroine in the management of the conflict via a vis 'the bad guy'. The addition of untrustworthy characters gives authors the bonus point of the addition of the adjective 'psychological' to their genre. The first person treatment from the perspective of an unreliable narrator is another key component for +psychological. (+Psychological = unreliability)
The purpose of the antagonist is to reveal the true nature of the hero. (In a psychological thriller, who's good and who's bad is much more up for grabs. How about an antagonist who is a nuisance, but goodly person, who reveals our hero as not so noble...ah, yes, because that's concerned with morality, it's literary. See below.)
Note too that the distinction between Thriller and Crime is that the crime has not yet taken place.
Driving Force: murder with a friendly face.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
And yet, in both of these novels which depend upon the wanton almost callow disposability of human life, there is sympathy for the devil. The likeable face of the killer. The Godfather, Don Corleone, and his son Michael, have values. Their values are such that they consider these to be higher purpose than the accident of life. In The Talented Mr Ripley, Tom Ripley has values too.
'It’s a classic story of someone who starts off down on his luck and disregarded, but who, through force of personality, hard work and sheer determination, manages to make something of himself. (He is)...polite, self-effacing, hard working. He is endearingly shy in company and worried about the impression he makes on others. He is always assessing himself, always trying to improve. He can do wonderful imitations. He escapes from horrible scrapes with flair and elan. He has a brave taste for adventure, for putting himself in difficult situations and foreign landscapes. Oh, and he is a very good tipper. Good old Tom - what’s not to like? Well, I suppose there is the fact that he is a cold-blooded killer. It isn’t very nice when he batters Greenleaf Jr to death. Truth be told, it’s rather an awkward moment.' Sam Jordison, The Guardian.
The driving force here is the likeable killer. If you think about it, in all whodunnits, the killer is not the foul-mouthed uncouth swine, but the pleasing, amenable character. And that's not just a device to trick the reader. it's more than that. It's because the likeability of the murderer drives a long-form story more surely than his or her hatefulness. That would be an awfully short story.
The Detective Crime Novel, Mystery or Police Procedural.
Driving Force: the hero detective.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
The crime novel was described by Dorothy Sayers as 'the literature of escape.' Sophie Hannah told our writers a few weeks back that its popularity is derived from one of the most fundamental aspects of the meaning of life and a key driving force for staying alive. We don't know what will happen next.
But that's really the milieu of plot, the pedestrian high street of a crime novel has alleyways out of which anything might jump. That's a given of the genre. I am not sure if it's the driving force.
The driving force of a detective crime novel is the heroism of the detective against the background of a life in which we don't know what will happen next.
Here's Raymond Chandler on the detective novel:
'In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. (.. ) If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in."
So, the paradox afoot here is that an unsafe world has as its driving force a safe pair of hands. Try to compose one without this stoic hero? Not possible.
Driving Force: a contemporary or timeless social question or political situation.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
An author writing historical fiction is akin to a speculative fiction writing in that they are finding a way to say something about our current condition without writing non-fiction. Historical fiction presents a ready-made world, and is selected as a locale in time and place as much for what is missing as what is there. In other words, the setting allows the author to present a parallel of a current situation in more stark relief. Thus, paradoxically, a historical novel (with the exception of a historical romance) is driven by events or conditions of the present time. An author may have something to say about the ways in which we discriminate and segregate groups, as did Victor Hugo and Margaret Atwood, and has no need to contrive a new or alternative world to present these recurrent themes as a simpler format pre-exists.
Driving Force: inhumanity.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
1984 by George Orwell (also Dystopian.)
Anything is better than the way we live now, says the Sci-Fi writer. As with historical fiction, yet a shriller protest in the sense that sci-fi demands imagining, and enacting, the future now. The author's intention is clairvoyance. What lies ahead of us - beware - a warning shot.
“The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” Albert Camus.
Driving Force: the moral or spiritual quest.
Disgrace by J.M Coetzee
Everyman by Philip Roth
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
As I mentioned above, a literary novel is concerned with a laser-sharp focus on the moral enterprise of the hero, and how he or she becomes reconciled to their true place in the world. They can be completely abased as much as exalted as a servant to the death of dogs, a recently-buried body, or a cuckolded and humiliated husband.
The paradox here is that the driving force of the story is the spiritual standing gained as a result of worldly loss. Think The Christmas Carol. The loss confers a supreme blessing.
(The Quest genre is driven by a material quest.)
Driving Force: physical/psychological improvement driven by community action.
A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backmann
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
From sad face to happy face with a major kick up the butt delivered to our moping and miserable heroine or hero thanks to a comely cast. Impossible to imagine without good relations with humankind. A testament to community action.
Driving Force: choice.
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
As with Up Lit, the heroine or hero has given up on change, and yet it happens to them through the conduit of another person In Brooklyn, Eilis meets a handsome Italian-American man who speaks of marriage. When a death summons her back to Ireland, where she finds that America has made her glamorous and desirable, and faces a choice between the old life and the new. Thus Eliza Bennett had to choose between her pride and prejudice and broader-minded possibilities for true communion with another person. A romantic novel has as its paradox that stability and peace are afforded by choice and change.
Driving Force: the disappointment of adulthood.
The Curious Adventure of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
The novel explores, as does Bonjour Tristesse, a coming of age in which ones hopes for the noblesse of the adult kind are dashed. The paradox at the heart of this genre is that the more mature human being is immature and hardly grown up at all. The author warns the reader to go back, go back and retreat into the better and more benevolent state of innocence.
Driving Force: violence/sacrifice.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
When push comes to shove, as it must in Fantasy, there will be blood. Conflict between good and evil may be delayed by means foul, fair or magical but eventually, there will be a fleshy sacrifice. Nobility bows its head on the battlefield and takes the fatal blow. But don't worry, the hero will be there for the sequel, as will the 'real' bad guy.
What agents sometimes refer to as 'breakthrough' novels are those which creatively combine genres. Think of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier - mystery, romance, crime. Or Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller which is given as literary, psychological and even comedy!
“The key ingredients that I look for in a fully formed breakout premise are (1) plausibility, (2) inherent conflict, (3) originality and (4) gut emotional appeal." Donald Maas
Take your genre seriously.
It's the cloak or dagger you're donning to articulate your entertainment, protest or desires.
Consider what's driving your story before you start and you won't go too far wrong. When you start writing a novel you need to know two things:
1. what the reader's reading your book to discover (the question you're raising.)
2. the driving force of your story.
Luckily you have two eyes, and two hands, so you can handle both.
When in doubt, call me. If you're not one of my writers, with a co-pilot on speed dial, you can book a free 15-minute session New Customer Chat with me here.
The Firestarter 2020.
Our annual competition for the best opening to a novel, as voted by our members, has its deadline for entry at midnight tonight. Tomorrow the reading fortnight begins! read all about it here.
If you’re just starting out, you’d be wise to start with The Classic Course which will help you nail the big idea here. If you would like guidance all the way from an idea through to completing a book to publishing standard then our Book in a Year plan is best for you here. If you’d like to get stuck in and start writing an idea you have, then our Ninety Day Novel course would be the jumpstart for you here. You’ll be able to choose your own tutor from our award-winning and bestselling authors, and as a member you’ll have access to our regular writing classes. You’ll enjoy the worldwide community of writers like you in every time zone. It’s a happy place and you’ll find a warm welcome whether you're an old hand or a complete beginner. Discover why so many writers describe The Novelry as 'life-changing' (it's the phrase we hear most!) Happy writing starts here.