Writing a Book – Tips From An Author
Writing specific Genres
What is a ‘genre’? It’s a fancy French word for ‘type’ or ‘kind’. A ‘Thriller’ is a ‘type’ of story. Thrillers therefore make up a ‘genre’. Some genres have become so ‘reduced to practice’ that they are actually cliches of themselves. The detective story, for example, or the bodice ripper. This is not necessarily a bad thing – a solid framework in which to set your story saves YOU lots of time when writing, and your READER lots of time when reading. After all, if you have both agreed the groundrules upfront by settling on a genre, you don’t need to do it in the plot! The solidity of these conventions can lead some critics to claim certain genres are predictable, and therefore less worthwhile – at www.GetPlotted.com we don’t necessarily agree. For example, a soap opera is entirely predictable, yet runs year in year out, giving pleasure to millions, and making a fortune for it’s creators! The ‘Harry Potter’ series might almost have been written by a machine, it is so predictable. Doesn’t stop it making JK Rowling multimillions every year!
Key to succeeding in a particular genre is to understand the conventions of that genre. In the same way that a well prepared steak dinner consists primarily of steak, not fish, a plot set in a specific genre has a ‘menu’ of sorts to follow. Fantasy stories have their wicked wizards, cuddly hobbits and stern elves, detective novels have their hard bitten private eyes, mysterious motives, and unreasonable station captains. If you stray outside these conventions (unwritten agreements between writer and reader), you may find it hard to sustain your audience’s interest, because… you are making them work. They are having to think. And remember, you want them to devote their thinking power to imagination, filling in the blanks in your narrative, and picturing the scene, NOT trying to guess why on earth your hobbit is lesbian, has a degree in business management, and a hand held laser.
Because you will write much faster and more confidently if you truly understand the conventions of the genre you are tackling, it may help if you ‘spell it out’ explicity. In other words, write down the features that YOU believe make up a good example of the genre. You can use the ‘ScratchPad’ feature at www.GetPlotted.com for this, or even create a plotcard layout, with one card for each salient point. What kind of characters populate these novels – what their typical motivations are, and all the other facts about the genre that make it part of the set. Or you can just jot it down with a pen and paper – the choice is yours. Spelling it out like this will also help you if you intend to ‘upset the genre’ or ‘turn it on its head’. This can be VERY rewarding, but also VERY difficult to pull off. As an example, think ‘Artemis Fowl‘ novels – a set of detective stories featuring an Elf, and riding roughshod over most of the conventions accepted for both the fantasy and detective genres. Most new writers would be well advised to master the genre before trying to subvert it!
Let’s take a look at the most popular genre, the ‘thriller’. This is a catch-all genre that has many sub-genres. Typically (and therefore a convention!) the protagonists, as in all stories, have a problem, BUT, they can’t solve it using conventional measures – they need to step outside the box in order to fix the problem. Also typically, the problem is BIG, it threatens the town, society or even world our characters inhabit. There’s a LOT at stake, and this needs to be introduced early in order to ‘thrill’ the reader. The solution to the problem, being ‘out of bounds’, is usually illegal (or close to legality, although undoubtedly justified!), may be violent, may require technical brilliance and high drama, but shouldn’t require our heros to behave in a ‘superhuman’ fashion – i.e. it should be believable. If you make your established characters behave ‘uncharacteristically’, you will lose your audience fast.
The sub genres include political thrillers, disaster thrillers, crime thrillers etc. Disaster thrillers tend to fall into 2 camps – natural and man made. In natural disasters, (‘giant meteor threatens earth’) either the hero or society tends to risk death if the disaster is not averted. Sometimes both! The basic plotline usually centers around who will survive and how. In a man made disaster (‘evil corporation poisons lake’), on the other hand, the main theme is usually how to prevent the disaster manifesting itself. The job of the protagonist is to save whatever is at stake (the world, the town); as in all good plots, at some point the hero must go from simply reacting to taking charge in order to save the day. Protagonists, even if loners, almost always have sidekicks. Throughout the story, the challenges faced by the hero get more intense, and the solutions become more extreme, leading to a climax where (typically) the job is done. Other genres of course have other rules.
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