Form and Genre


Every story has a natural shape based on its length and genre. Some stories require a thousand pages, while others require only a one page poem. Knowing your genre and carefully selecting a proper form help your story’s appeal.

Form-Fitting

A form describes the published format of a story. There are many forms, but one is usually “best” for a given story.

Format Strengths Weaknesses
Poem Emotions, language, and loved by children. Epics are out of style. Poetry has limited appeal.
Short Story Action-driven. Great for beginning and experienced writers. Teaches word conservation. Varied markets. Limited space for emotional exploration.
Novel Space for character development and action. Great for internal conflicts and exposing thoughts. Tough first-market. “Trendy” topics.
Play Dialogue-driven. Good practice with dialogue and writing emotional conflicts. Actions and events are often unseen.
Feature Film Visuals and action. Good for concise dialogue. Film is cooperative, with the writer less important than others.

Most forms can be used for a story, but an epic science-fiction poem might not be appropriate for today’s market. A writer must consider market trends, as well as his or her preference for a form. Children’s books are often written in verse, so if you want to write for children, practice your poetic skills.

  • What is my broad genre?
    • Prose
    • Poetry
    • Drama
  • What is my form?
    • Novel
    • Short Story
    • Rhyming Verse
    • Play
    • Screenplay
    • Et Cetera…

Selecting a Genre

Once you have recongized the broad genre and form, the sub-genre or category is the next choice. Most people use the term genre to describe the category of a work. From this point on, think of a genre as a section within the local bookstore, with our apologies to purists.

Technically “genre” describes one of the three major forms: poetry, prose, or drama. However, writers, editors, the book industry, and the film industry now use “genre” to refer to categories within the major genres. We are “misusing” terms but using them as the industries use them.

Every genre can and does include elements of other genres. A romance might be set in the West, but is it a Western or a Romance story? We categorize stories by their major elements. If the plot is “Two aging gunslingers meet one last time” the story is likely a Western with a romantic sub-plot. Write as a movie with comic elements, and it might be a comedy with a Western setting and romantic sub-plot. You can see how categories mix and overlap.

The following represent popular genres; it is not an exhaustive list. In terms of current popularity, romance and fantasy constitute the greatest number of titles sold.

Romance

The easy way to define a romance is two people falling in love. In some stories, the love conquers all, while in others the love results in a sacrifice. Romance novels and short stories remain the most popular forms of published fiction. You might wonder where the romance books are sold. Grocery stores, drug stores, Wal-Mart, and other “non-traditional” outlets sell more books than dedicated bookstores. A romance writer’s dream should be to have a book at the checkout stand.

While series romances remain popular, larger novels by “big name” writers have eclipsed the standard 128-page format.

  • Contemporary: Set in the current time, dealing with “modern” issues.
  • Fantasy: Who doesn’t like knights in shining armor?
  • Historical: Nothing like a revolution or sinking ship for romance.
  • Regency: A specific form of historical romance. Set 1811–1820, George III King of England and his son, George IV, ruled as Regent, hence the term “Regency.”
  • Romantic Suspense: Is the man of her dreams a killer? What’s his dark secret?
  • Time Travel: Men from the past knew how to court properly. (It’s fiction.)
  • Supernatural: Vampires, ghosts, and other strange phenomena mixed with love.
  • Religious: Romance with morals.
  • Multicultural: Either people from different cultures or a romance within a “minority” culture.

Mystery

Everyone loves a mystery, the saying claims. Since the appearance of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, readers have tried to solve mysteries before police or kindly old women do. Poe set the basic structure with his slueth C. Auguste Dupin, a gifted amateur who used logic to solve mysteries. Poe’s detective was quickly overshadowed by Sherlock Holmes, who appeared in a short story during 1887.

During the Jazz Age, or Roaring 20s, an American style of mystery appeared. In these stories, the detective was tough, if not the smartest of men. (Nero Wolfe being an exception — he was a genuis while his sidekick Archie Goodwin who assumed the streetwise role.) Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are among the best known authors of American Noir, or “hard-boiled” mysteries. (“Noir” refers to a style of movie in which the action was usually filmed in black and wihite, with lots of shadows.)

  • Police Procedural: The work of the police, in their language.
  • Crime Lab / M.E.: Think Quincy or CSI.
  • American Noir: Mike Hammer stories fit this genre, in which the private eye is offending cops and melting hearts. The style is first person, with plenty of action.
  • Cozy: A simple setting, often a quiet English village, where crime is rare. Agatha Christie was the queen of this form.

True Crime

For those wanting more realism in mysteries, true crime novelizations are as real as it gets. Written in novel form, these are true stories. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood introduced the genre and it has been popular ever since. Unlike the objective style of nonfiction history, the true crime novel exposes thoughts of characters and makes use of literary devices. Some critics contend that such recreations play with historical facts.

Mystery novels generally follow the exploits of an investigator, often through the eyes of a third person. True crime has to follow the experiences of real people — you cannot invent a Dr. Watson or Archie Goodwin to tell the tale.

  • Criminal’s Persective: Tells the story of the crime, from planning through punishment, from the perspective of the perpetrator.
  • Detective’s Perspective: Starts after the crime, working towards a solution from the perspective of an actual investigator.
  • Media Accounts: Uses actual media sources to advance the plot.
  • Traditional Omniscient: Standard narrative conveys the story.

Fantasy

Fantasy stories are associated with the elements of medieval myths and legends. There are dragons, knights, wizards, and usually a prince or princess along the way. Good kingdoms are threatened by absolute evil, with few shades of gray. From Lord of the Rings through Harry Potter, fantasy stories are known for both the magic within and their enormous page counts.

  • Classical: No, not old, but in a “pure” medieval setting.
  • Contemporary: A modern setting, but with magic and mythical creatures.

Science Fiction

Combine some scientific realism with “what if” and you have science fiction. Science fiction’s draw is that it ranges from the almost believable to the wildly fantastic. Unfortunately, that can also leave science fiction dated after several years. The risk is higher in screenwriting, since a film’s visual style and interpretations of technology are based on the present.

Sometimes science fiction is influenced by fantasy, while often it seems to border on horror. Frankenstein is science fiction, written at a time when people were first questioning the dangers of science without ethics. The doctor was hoping for a “good” — but created a monster during his tests of reanimation. Science fiction often deals with the consequences of inventions and technology.

  • Other Worlds: Science fiction based on the notion of life on other planets. A great place for fantasy to enter the genre.
  • Mad Scientists: A well-meaning science experiment goes bad. Very bad.
  • Morality Plays: The Twilight Zone often used science fiction to ask moral questions.

Contemporary

A contemporary story is set roughly in the present, with an emphasis on current issues in society. A lot of contemporary stories deal with the evolution of families and the roles of women and minorities in culture. There are sub-categories, but they change as events and trends merit.

Comic

While associated with stage and screen, comic stories were once a dominant genre. Comedy was seldom “just for fun” before film. Instead, comedy in it’s various forms was used to critique social establishments without angering authorities. (Then again, parody or satire could result in arrest if you weren’t careful.)

Comedy is a great weapon, and normally that’s its purpose. However, there are times when the humor is simply meant to entertain. Many screenplays fall into this category — simple fun. Unfortunately, a lot of film doesn’t rise to the level of comedy. (Sophomoric humor is still humor, but at some point things are merely disgusting or shocking.)

  • Comedy of Manners: Pokes fun at the upper-class way of life, without being ill-willed.
  • Comedy of Character: The characters are the stars. Known for “catch phrases” and “running gags.”
  • Satire: Uses irony and sarcasm to critique human nature. Often a critique of a particular group.
  • Parody: Mocking an existing work, historical event, or popular culture.
  • Farce: So ridiculous, it’s funny.
  • Dark Comedy: Laughing at pain and misery. Less “hopeful” than satire.

Western

It’s been said that Westerns are American… and Australian. These stories are about conquering a frontier, something the two nations have in common. The setting of a rugged West or Outback takes on the role of a character, contributing to the plot. The stories depict strong, isolated individuals and communities as they face desolate wild land, violent weather, and native Americans. Westerns include the novels of Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour, and Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, 1985).

Films often deal with the conflict between outlaws and the need for law and order in the frontier. The first important motion picture, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western. It’s hard to think of a genre that had a greater influence on early screenwriting.

  • Stories of Honor: A hero is a hero; he always was and always will be a man of honor. Think High Noon.
  • Redemption: The gunslinger decides to help someone else, or the robber is more “Robin Hood” than “hood.”
  • The Elements: The heat, the isolation, the Desert Southwest versus the people.
  • Bildungsroman: The main character leaves the big city for self-discovery.

Historical

Historical fiction ranges from the “what if” to detailed stories set against famous events. James Michener was the master of massive regional histories and historical collections. His works are enormous volumes, featuring detailed research mixed loosely with the stories of individuals.

  • Histories: Huge books about specific nations or regions.
  • Alternate History: What if Hitler had defeated the Allies?
  • Historical Thrillers: Espionage against the background of various wars and revolutions.

Horror / Thriller

If you want to sleep with the lights on, horror stories and thrillers are for you. Horror is based on violence or the threat of violence, while thrillers tend to be “beat the clock” stories in which failure means death for someone — and seldom the main character.

  • Medical Thriller: Mad scientists meet the modern age. These stories are plausible, making them truly scary.
  • Gothic Horror: Set 1700–1845, these stories feature death, the supernatural, and creepy settings.
  • Techno-Thriller: The world as we know it is threatend by evil governments or terrorists. Realism leaves you wondering…

Bildungsroman

A Bildungsroman is a story about personal growth and self-discovery. The term is German, where the form was quite popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Novels of self-discovery affirm the “human spirit” for many readers.

Picaresque

The picaresque novel originated in sixteenth century Spain. This story is a social criticism, using a “picaro” (rogue) as the main character satire or moral commentary. The earliest picaresque novel is thought to have been Lazarillo de Tormes, published in 1554. An American example is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which uses a troublesome young narrator to reveal complex social issues.

Transgressive

Transgressive stories follow a handful of characters through the worst of humanity. The characters seem to be hopeless, immoral, and lost within society. Short novels in this genre were popular during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Drug culture, pornography, sociopaths, and random violence permeate these works.

Specialized Techniques

A story can make use of special techniques to complement form and genre.

Epistolary

An epistolary technique uses letters (or email in today’s world) to tell the story. Some books include sections of letters in every chapter, while other stories are nothing but letters sent among characters.

Roman à Clef

A fictional work based loosely on real people, the roman à clef leaves clues to the identities of the characters.



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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 27-May-2014
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach