Writing Lesson 3.9-Genre: What is it?

Please allow me to introduce today’s guest blogger, Shannon McNear! Shannon has been writing one thing or another since third grade and has completed five novels in genres from Southern fiction to Revolutionary War historical to fantasy. She has eight children–two in college and six still homeschooling–but does her best to steal slivers of writing and reading time when she can. She has lots of great ideas about writing, so without further ado let’s hear Shannon’s thoughts on…


gen·re  (zhän r )


1. A type or class: “Emaciated famine victims … on television focused a new genre of attention on the continent” (Helen Kitchen).

2(a). A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content: “his six String Quartets … the most important works in the genre since Beethoven’s” (Time).

 (The American Heritage Dictionary, via thefreedictionary.com)

When I first started writing, the one thing I knew was that I wanted to write what I love to read. Adventure, romance (well-done, please), some action, but lots of deep thought as well, all woven together with smooth and beautiful writing. I didn’t really pay attention to length or form or anything else. After a while, though, the question was posed, just what kind of story am I writing? Is it romance? Adventure? Suspense or mystery? Contemporary or historical? Science-fiction or fantasy? And why on earth did it matter? I just wanted to WRITE, for crying out loud!

It mattered, I found, because like music and painting, writing is an art form, and the techniques you use to create depend upon what you want your piece to look like.

In painting, are you creating a miniature? Is it a portrait or a landscape? A framed piece or a mural? Are you just trying to cover a wall with color?

For music—a jingle for a 15-second commercial? A praise chorus? The next radio hit, and will that be country, rock, or hip-hop? Maybe a symphony?

So it is in writing. Are you going for less than a thousand words (flash fiction), several pages (short story), a small book (novella), a medium book (novel), or a really long story in one thick volume or maybe several (epic saga, LOL)? The writing, storybuilding, and character-developing techniques you use vary with all of these. If you have a very detailed plot with several characters, don’t be surprised if they don’t fit into a short story. Likewise, if you have a simple story idea with a single point of view, but you want to write a novel, well … don’t be surprised if you find yourself writing about a lot of nothing just to get the page count in. In general, “bigger” stories call for longer page counts, and “smaller” stories for shorter, but … not necessarily.

First, let’s go back and look at what the genres are.  Remember, this is a basic overview, and often the lines are blurred.

ROMANCE:  Your classic “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” story. Sure, it’s sometimes “formula” (no surprise that the couple ends up together), but the fun is in how they get there. There’s a reason why something becomes “formula” … because it works with the readers! Usually has a “HEA” (happily ever after) ending. Can range from sweet (kissing is absent or minimal, maybe handholding) to spicy (or more). Example: anything from Pride and Prejudice and Love Comes Softly to Harlequin “category romance.”

SUSPENSE/THRILLER:  Key words are action, tension, danger. Your character is in peril or must protect someone in peril. With a thriller, the peril is global. Example: John Grisham, Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy … The Bourne Identity.

MYSTERY:  Involves a crime of some kind, usually a murder, where one or more characters must figure out “whodunit.” Example: the Agatha Christie series.

SCIENCE-FICTION:  Can employ any of the above elements, but the setting is either futuristic or on another planet, but with “hard science” details. In other words, “it could happen.” Think Star Trek rather than Star Wars, which is more properly “space opera”—sci-fi which employs elements of the next genre …

FANTASY:  Commonly thought of as anything that contains magic, wizards, witches, elves, dwarves, or hobbits, but the lines have blurred to the point that anything with supernatural elements sometimes gets lumped into this genre. Examples: Lord of the Rings or Watership Down.

PARANORMAL:  The supernatural, usually but not always in our world and time: angels, demons, vampires, werewolves … and usually not from a Christian perspective. Example: Twilight.

HISTORICAL:  Takes place in the past, usually World War II or before. Example: Anne of Green Gables. Subgenre is the western, made famous by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, set in the American West, usually pre-1900 and post-Civil War.

This list is by no means exhaustive. For more lists, and longer explanations, Google the phrase “genre categories.” There’s a good one on the “Dummies” website, and some at Wikipedia.

Next time, I’ll talk about the conventions of genre—what regular readers of the various types of story expect, and how we can give them the experience they’re looking for by how we write the story.


A Bit More Bio–

A transplant from the Midwest, Shannon McNear has lived for the last 20 years in the Lowcountry of South Carolina with her husband and eight children. With two graduated and in college and the younger six still homeschooling, she does her best to steal slivers of writing and reading time in between being ballet and drama mom. She’s served in worship and women’s ministry, in writer’s groups, and as an occasional book reviewer. Mostly she just loves to share the Lord or some tidbit of cool research she’s just found. Glimpses of her life can be found at www.shannonmcnear.com, and you can email her at sdmcnear@gmail.com.


About Lynn Dean

Lynn Dean dictated her first story before she could write and continued to write stories, illustrate them, and bind them into books throughout childhood. As a homeschooling mom, she enjoyed passing a love for writing to her own children and ten years of co-op students.

Read more about Lynn.

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