The Structure of Genre
Analyzing story structure by genre
Welcome to my substack!
I’ve been on a journey of sorts over the past decade. I wanted to understand--intellectually, but also on a blood and bone level--the elements of a good story. Why is one book unputdownable while another is a cure for insomnia?
I have a blog over at blog.KarenWoodward.org that I began in 2010 where I explore this issue as well as others like it. That blog is, and continues to be, a chronicle of my journey.
Then I heard about Substack and I thought I’d try it out. I’m not sure what this will become, so I thought I would take the opportunity to explore one question in greater depth: What are the specific story structures for each genre?
Kinds of Story Structures
As the readers of my blog know--and, by the way, I appreciate each and every one of you!--I’ve written quite a bit about the hero’s journey and the general, mythic structure that all stories embody in one way or another.
That said, each genre has specific requirements. Which is another way of saying that readers of specific genres have specific expectations.
For example, a cozy murder mystery is going to be different from a thriller and a thriller is going to be different from a romance, and so on. Of course all genre books are likely going to have elements of the hero’s journey in them, but they will also have additional requirements.
In order for a story to be a good Story it does not have to include a romance, but if I’m writing a romance then, well, yes, it really does. But things can get more specific than that! If I’m writing an HEA romance (Happily Ever After) then the lovers--the protagonist and antagonist--absolutely cannot die or break up. And those are just two examples of many.
You might wonder: is it good or bad that we have genre? Is it good or bad that we have these categories of books--science fiction, romance, thriller, mystery, and so on--each with its own requirements. Predictably, it's both.
It’s good because, for example, if you write a cozy murder mystery, you know a lot about what kind of story your potential readers want to read: the detective is a small town personality, often an older woman who is single and, each book, has a romantic interest, etc. As a result of these very specific specifications you don’t have to guess what sort of story your prospective readers want. And that’s good!
But, at the same time, it can be easy to let the story structure take over, to let plot drive characterization and not vice versa. Which brings us to…
The Universal versus The Particular
It can be difficult to give readers what they expect and to also make the events surprising.
Why is surprise important? Unless the story contains surprises, contains the unexpected, then it will be boring. We don’t want to read about the same thing a hundred times, we want to read a hundred different stories about the same thing (e.g., a detective solving a murder).
Of course this dilemma exists in all writing, it is the problem of the universal and the particular. A story must be both about something universal and something unique. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say some version of: Give me something the same as <insert book title> only different.
The good news is that we can do this because each of us is unique. For instance, each of us, if we’ve lived any amount of time, has lost someone we loved. That’s how I can empathize with others who have experienced this loss. But, at the same time, my experience of loss is unique. Even if my friend and I both lost a spouse, our pain would not be the same, our experience would not be the same. BUT they would be similar enough that we could empathize with one another.
Therein lies the solution. We need to bring ourselves, our experiences, to our characters. We need to use our experiences, our reactions (as well as the reactions of our friends and neighbours) to shape the lives of our characters. That will give our stories particularity. And, what’s more, if we do it well--this is the icing on the cake--your writer’s voice will shine through.
In my next article I will start off this series of posts by looking at the horror genre. I will publish at least one post per week for the next month and then I’ll see how things are going.
I welcome your feedback! Would you rather that I posted all my articles on my blog over at blog.karenwoodward.org, or would you rather that I posted all my posts over here on substack, or are you okay with me experimenting?
I’ll talk to you again soon. In the meantime, good writing!