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.
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.
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.
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.