Photo by @clever_visuals

Photo by @clever_visuals

You probably know what genre you intend to write in. You love contemporary. Or sci-fi. Or fantasy. Thrillers. YA. NA. Historical. But the genre that best fits your story may not be what you think.

It’s unfortunately VERY easy to get confused about this in an early draft. There are some notable (and hilarious) examples throughout pop culture.

My favorite? GOOD WILL HUNTING originally started out as a Coming of Age drama…and then bizarrely switched into an action/adventure set piece with Will narrowly avoiding capture by government agents. We can thank Rob Reiner for getting them back on track.

It’s easy to see where the boys went wrong once we stop to look at the story’s goal, obstacles, and stakes.

So your first task to reevaluate what genre you’re writing in is to answer this:

What GOAL is your character pursuing?

Of course, a goal doesn’t mean anything unless you also put your character against GREAT ODDS. Ideally, these odds are so big that they will take the entire story to overcome. So your next task is to answer this:

What OBSTACLES does your character face?

And finally, a goal and obstacles won’t matter to the reader unless you define why the goal matters to the protagonist. In order words, you need to answer this:

What are the STAKES if your character fails?

These answers don’t need to be (and often shouldn’t be) clear at the start of the story, but at the Break into Act II, readers need you to make these things clear.

Defining your genre

Say you’re writing an edge-of-your-seat story. You want the reader in constant tension. If at the Break into Act II, your protagonist’s goal is to evade capture by the bad guy, that implies there’s going to be a lot of SHUT UP JUST RUN!!! scenes. Welcome to the essence of a thriller.

But if at the Break into Two, the protagonist’s goal is “find out who’s responsible for this,” then there’s going to be a lot of INVESTIGATION scenes. The story is a mystery, a slow burn reveal, which is in part why mysteries can be so satisfying but sometimes struggle to find a larger audience.

Of course, there are all sorts of goals your protagonist can have that form the basis for Act II/the promise of the premise. Let’s look at a few popular stories to see what I mean.

EXAMPLES

Aladdin

After using his first wish to create a false persona, Aladdin must overcome his lies in order to convince the Princess that he’s worthy of her love.

Back to the Future

A well-meaning teenager who accidentally went back in time must now save his own existence by getting his teenage parents to fall in love.

Captain America: The First Avenger

After being transformed into a super soldier, Steve Rogers discovers the true meaning of being a hero by fighting fascism wherever he finds it.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

On the verge of defeating Hydra once and for all, Steve Rogers discovers that the true enemy might be among his closest allies.

Note that while CA1 was a straightforward action/adventure movie, CA2 turns into a political mystery/thriller. The story is as much about finding out who is behind this as evading capture.

Pretty Woman

A wealthy but emotionally isolated businessman struggles to close a deal without falling for the woman he hired to pose as his date.

(Equally illuminating if you write that from Vivian’s POV.)

Toy Story 3

After discovering that their owner Andy may have already moved on without them, the toys must overcome new adversaries in order to define their place in the world.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Now that we’ve gone over how the protagonist’s goal against great odds defines your genre, it’s easy to see how any of these story examples could (and probably did) get lost in the drafting stage.

Imagine Pretty Woman as an action/adventure story with Edward narrowly outwitting enemies trying to sabotage his business deal.

Or Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a romance, with Steve mostly focused on whether to date his neighbor or Black Widow.

These may sound absurd, but they’re no more absurd than Good Will Hunting’s early drafts. And the thing is that any of these altered versions could still be good, even great stories, but they’d be vastly different than the classics we know them as.

The point is less about what would make a great story and more about helping you define what story you’re writing. Once you realize your story is actually a romance, or a thriller, or a satire, or any other genre, your decisions get a lot easier.

closing thoughts

So…do you know what your character wants?

Do you know what great odds they need to overcome?

Do you know what’s at stake if they fail?

Answer these questions and you’ll not only know how to tell your story, you’ll have a clear vision to offer agents and editors. They’re already asking where the story will fit into the market, and you’ll quickly become their favorite writer by showing that you’ve already answered that question.


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WHY GENRE FICTION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER

It was a time when a growing number of people found themselves robbed of their dreams. It was a time when we saw literal fascism on the rise. It was a time when oppression turned to totalitarianism.

I’m not talking about 2018. I’m talking about early 1900 America, when genre fiction—particularly noir—came to great prominence. The people of the 1930s survived the Great Depression and World War I, their spirits already broken, only to then see the rise of literal fascists, totalitarians, and bigots who wore their symbols proudly.

And in the midst of this were genre fiction writers. Fantasy, science fiction, mystery/thriller, romance, even the inklings of what would become the modern YA genre. They told stories that asked the questions few were willing or able to ask.

These writers compelled readers to think CRITICALLY and take action, to recognize and integrate the marginalized, to offer safety and security and above all a RECKONING for those whose only choices were to be abused, forgotten, or erased.

Whereas fantasy and science fiction writers presented their social criticism indirectly, writing about the future or other worlds to represent political and cultural voices that had been removed from public debate, suspense writers discussed “the devastating effects of American capitalism on society's marginal people” through crime thrillers.

Even genre fiction containing more obvious, explicit social and political commentary escaped condemnation because critics dismissed them as vacuous forms of entertainment.

That’s right. According to critics, genre fiction couldn’t inspire dissent because genre fiction had nothing substantial to say.

Sound familiar, writers?

It was here that genre fiction took an extremely dark turn.

***

Mystery/thriller evolved into NOIR. Noir writers didn’t want to offer a single hint of escapism. They subverted reader expectations simply by showing the world at its worst. Hard work and good intentions for damn sure didn’t guarantee success in the real world. Where did that leave us?

What did that mean for main characters? Well, there might be another parallel here. If they saw that being heroic didn’t earn justice, why should they give a damn? If playing by the rules didn’t help, why not play dirty? If being polite meant indulging the worst impulses of their oppressors, why not embrace being rude as hell?

These questions drove noir storytellers to invent the anti-hero, a character who might have noble ambitions but didn’t require noble methods. In a world where value was defined within civility, noir heroes decided that sometimes, the kind thing to do was to fight. To shout. To play dirty. To be rude as hell if that was what was needed.

Evil, you see, can afford to be polite because it assumes full knowledge of the ways it is cruel and how to justify it.

It’s goodness that values kindness, and kindness means standing up for the downtrodden, marginalized, and abused, even when that means making enemies of those who don’t mind doing harm.

Suspense writers create situations where the audience must question the significance of choices reduced to what Kenneth Lincoln describes as “brute survival or massive robbery or corporate slaughter.” James Cain’s classic noir stories, for example, show a world where there is no law but chance. And yet as hopeless as that sounds, it’s in this desperation that genre fiction writers subvert convention and return the possibility of dignity to characters, no matter their end.

Genre fiction doesn’t so much repudiate the ideas of justice, love, and truth, so much as expands them to integrate diverse forms of self-creation. The world will go on its way without regard for human desires and concerns, but an unshakable fate doesn’t deprive our characters from contributing to their destinies with every decision they make.

The early 1900s wasn’t the first time writers weren’t taken seriously, and as we can see clearly today, it won’t be the last. This isn’t the last time that someone will tell you that what makes you different makes you weak. Or worse, that what makes you YOU somehow means you’re broken.

You already know this, but I still like saying it. You’re not broken. You’re not weak. The things that make you different make you YOU, and the things that make you YOU make you strong.

Genre fiction has never been more important, in part because it is still a vital mechanism for change. And most of all because the critics of that change still keep underestimating you.

They want you not just afraid but panicked and reactionary. Panicked people are easy to manipulate. But deliberate acts of bravery inspire others precisely because of the courage they require.

We can’t stop being afraid, and maybe we shouldn’t. But we can choose not to be panicked. We can choose to make choices in the face of terror. Terror, you see, is often the birthplace of true courage.

Now let’s be brave. Keep writing. Keep fighting. We’re in this together.