Genre is Not a Four-Letter Word

When we hear a book or movie described as “genre,” the speaker is usually denigrating the story. The designation connotes cheesy slasher films, lame mysteries, Ed Wood-esque science fiction, and bargain-bin romances.

When all of the above can be categorized as one of a particular kind of Genre, Genre is not limited to pulp fiction.

Genre’s an incredibly broad way of cataloguing all Stories. Like the category Coffee includes all varieties from Sumatra to Folgers, Genre includes War and Peace as well as the pedestrian (to some people) entertainments described above.

Genre choices are the most important decisions you need to make.

Those choices will tell the reader what they are in for if they pick up your book. They will direct all efforts from your publisher from the front cover art to the publicity tour. If you are not writing in “genre,” you’re lost. Every Story ever told has genre classifications.

The Corrections is a Realistic, Long form, Mini-plot, Society, Domestic, Drama.

Moby Dick is a Realistic, Long form, Archplot, Action, Adventure, Monster, Drama.

The Iliad is a Fantastic, Long form, Archplot, War/Education, Literary Story.

Deciding what Genre/s your Story will inhabit will also tell you exactly what you need to do to satisfy your potential audiences expectations. Genre will tell you what you the crucial conventions and obligatory scenes that you must have in your novel. Knowing Genre is the single best way to avoid doing a helluva lot of work for naught. If you don’t know you are writing a horror novel and you spend four months working on a character’s past history for an epic flashback, you’re wasting your time. Better to know up front what genre best fits the idea or theme you want to convey to your audience before setting off on the work, no?

Most importantly, if you fail to abide by your genre’s requirements, you will not write a Story that works.

The only way to write a Story that works is to know exactly what genre/s you are exploring and delivering exactly what is required from those genres. You must know what your reader is expecting before you can possibly satisfy her. And yes, if you are writing a Story, you must think of your audience. A Story means nothing if it is not experienced. If you do the work exceptionally well, you do that thing that we all dream of, you’ll over deliver on audience expectations. You won’t just satisfy them, you’ll shock and invigorate them. And the reader will have an experience that they will never forget.

So the first question we need to ask ourselves is What are the Genres of our Story and what will I have to do to meet those genres expectations?

Genre craft demands innovation. And that innovation is found in the way a writer handles audience expectations…the obligatory scenes and conventions of your chosen genres. [In my next post, I’ll discuss the difference between conventions and obligatory scenes].

This requirement is exactly the same thing that Steve Jobs and Apple faced when they decided to create a new cellphone. Jobs knew that the iPhone had to be compatible with cellular networks, at least one of them. He knew that it had to “ring.” He knew that the connections between callers had to be clear. And tens of other obligations and conventions (a North/South hearing and speaking convention) had to be met. So the question Jobs asked himself was not “How do I make something completely unique and change the way people speak to each other?” but “How do I build on and reinvent those things that phone users demand while also giving them an intoxicating original experience?” Jobs worked inside the phone “genre,” and then moved the genre forward.

As you’ll remember, the first generation of iPhones had a tendency to disconnect in the middle of calls. The obligatory antenna required in the phone did not deliver. It wasn’t until Apple fixed that problem that the iPhone moved from Apple baseline cult first generation adopters (its genre experts) to middle managers abandoning their Blackberrys. The core fanatics cut Apple some slack on the first iteration of the iPhone, but they didn’t evangelize to non-cult members until all of the bugs were out of it.

It’s the very same thing for books.

Win over the experts and keep banging away at the keyboard. When you’ve knocked out something extraordinary, the experts will beat down their neighbors’ doors to get them to read your book.

I think one thing is for sure. Apple opened up every single cell phone they could find to see what they all did and how they did it before they started working on the prototype of the iPhone. Shouldn’t writers do the same thing?

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

34 comments on “Genre is Not a Four-Letter Word

  1. Oh, I so want to understand genre at that level. It’s like the time I spent getting to know all the spices in the kitchen: now, when I throw a meal together, the cooking genre is obvious from the start and everything I do has to fit.

    1. Regina says:

      Dandelions: weed or superfood?
      I’m thick headed on genre but I’m still listening.

  2. Clark N. Riley says:

    Shawn, I love the Story Grid so far, and I love the way you’re teaching it. Thanks for another terrific post.

    The thing I’m by far most curious about at this point–and have been since you shared the Story Grid diagram for TSOTL–is the nature of two terms that seem to play a fundamental role in the structure of the diagram: External Genre and Internal Genre.

    The examples you gave in this post express a usefully nuanced understanding of genre, and I love the possibilities that they suggest for developing a broader and deeper mastery of crafting stories.

    That said, this post uses the term “genre” in a way that’s familiar to me.

    How do you define External Genre and Internal Genre?

    I wonder if the examples you’ve given above are examples of External Genre, but I don’t want to jump to any conclusions.

    Also, I’m temped to assume that Internal Genre refers to a set of conventions regarding a character’s interior psychic/emotional/spiritual journey. Again though, I don’t want to make any assumptions that will get me off track moving forward.

    In addition to defining External Genre and Internal Genre, can you provide a couple of quick examples, especially of Internal Genre?

    Also, if what I’ve asked already isn’t too much: Do the corresponding red and blue curves of the diagram always have the same sine-wave shapes and mirrored orientation?

    Looking at those curves, I can’t help but think of the Hero’s Journey, and the terms External Genre and Internal Genre make me think of what Joseph Campbell described as the “Two Worlds” that the hero masters–the world of matter and the world of spirit/soul/imagination–but I’m sure I’ve gone on long enough already.

    The diagram is so intriguing, and those terms are driving me a bit nuts. I feel like a kid who received a wonderful, unexpected gift, but it didn’t come with batteries, and Mom won’t go to the store fast enough.


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I will not hold back. I promise. I will answer these questions…far more exhaustively than you may want to know…in the next few weeks.
      One theory of learning is to bring the student along with just enough to keep them interested and then close the book for the day. It allows the student to digest and anticipate the next lesson.
      I may be going overboard with that theory, but if you stick with the site, I’m positive you’ll get answers to all of your questions.
      All the best

      1. Jeremy says:

        Shawn, I’ve heard method this referred to as Coyote Teaching:
        “A coyote teacher never gives direct answers, and answers questions with questions, inspiring the student to dig deeper into the lessons and search for embedded or connected lessons. A successful coyote teacher inspires the student to learn on his/her own until the student no longer depends on the coyote teacher. Naturally, when a student is trained by a coyote teacher, the student becomes adept at the style of teaching and can, in turn, mentor more students in this method.”

        I love this approach you’re taking. It’s a conversation, not a lecture, and it inspires me to fill in the blanks between posts.

        1. Clark N. Riley says:


          Thank you for mentioning coyote teaching. I haven’t heard that term before, but it’s very relevant for my work in the business world, as well as in my creative work.

          My dad and I have a family business in which we go into large companies (usually 5,000+ employees), put managers together in small groups (4-6 people), and facilitate weekly group phone calls over the course of a year. We provide materials to support the weekly discussions. The materials teach useful business- and people-management skills, and the discussions focus on applying the skills to what’s actually happening on the job.

          (This is going somewhere about writing, I promise, and I’m describing the business to provide context, not to advertise anything. I’m here as an author, not as a business person.)

          The group work pays off well for the companies, but best of all, it frequently has a strong, positive impact on the participants as individuals, both in their careers and in other parts of their lives.

          The whole approach is based on sharing stories, and we state that directly. In fact, the first session is called “Story, Purpose and Value.” The goal is to help people to use their stories wisely through questioning, reflection, evaluation, revision, application, etc.

          This might sound mundane and “business-y” from one perspective, but it’s fascinating what happens when people start using stories consciously and deliberately. I won’t go so far as to suggest that all stories are practical tools, although part of me believes that. Putting storytelling in any kind of a box seems unwise to me, because, as writers know better than anyone else, the nature of storytelling is, beneath it all, suffused with mystery and paradox.

          From reading the Wikipedia page you shared, I don’t see any practical differences between the approach we use in our business and what Tom Brown and Jon Young call “coyote teaching”. The approach entered our work most directly through my dad’s experience (years ago) of being in small groups as a minister-in-training—experience he then applied to working with people in the business world.

          On a more literary note, I wonder if all good writing—both fiction and non-fiction—isn’t based on the same principles: honoring and appreciating the other’s humanity, inviting vs. commanding, assuming that people are smart and curious, showing vs. telling, evoking and focusing the other’s authentic desires, gaining wisdom through experience, etc.

          Anyway, thanks for sharing the term. I’m glad to know it.


          1. Jeremy says:

            That is fantastic Clark, I’m glad we connected on this. Great storytelling in any form, especially in person (*gasp*) is a tremendous asset and still the best way to convey information and insight when the story resonates.

          2. Joel D Canfield says:

            The Socratic method: questions, rather than answers.

            Somewhere out there is a great transcription of a math teacher helping a class room arrive at a fairly complex solution without ever making a single statement; all he does is ask questions.

            There’s a place in teaching for lecture, but not nearly so large a place as it has now.

  3. Jeff says:


    Had a similar question to Clark about internal vs. external genre. When you first mentioned the two I thought about Harry Potter: externally it’s a fantasy novel / bildungsroman, but internaly it’s really a mystery novel. But I’m not so sure that’s what you mean by that.

    I also thought of the book series “Save The Cat” by the late Blake Snyder, who had an interesting take on genre, which in reflection could have been more of an internal genre than external. For instance, he did not \ characterize Aliens as a sci fi movie, he characterized it as a “Monster In The House” movie, making it fit into the same “genre” (as he defined the term) as Jaws and same story genre as Beowulf. So the conventions that had to be met had nothing to do with sci fi, but everything to do with Monster In The House Movies. So one such conventionally for that story is for the people in the movie/ house to do something to “invite” or let the monster into the house.

    Can you, either in a future blog post or a reply, talk a bit about that?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I’m so glad you like this stuff, because I’ve written so much about it and have a full circle GLOBAL GENRE THEORY to share in the weeks to come. Hang in there!
      I’ll stick something up on the Resources section on Thursday that will open up a whole truckload full of cans of worms!
      All the best,

      1. Ah luv worms.

        When a teacher allows students time to come up with as many good questions as I’m seeing in all the comments here at Story Grid, I’m thinking the pace is just about right for the balance between hunger and satiation. Or something like that.

      2. Jule Kucera says:

        Joel may luv worms but I don’t. I do love the teaser, GLOBAL GENRE THEORY. Can’t wait. The bell has rung again and I am drooling. This is going to be a mighty fine ride–thank you.

        Note to self: Go to the Resources section on Thursday to open the new present. (I do love presents!)

        1. Joel D Canfield says:

          May have to do with who’s been opening cans of ’em of late . . .

          Are you working on some fiction these days, Jule?

        2. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Jule,
          I just finished loading my GLOBAL GENRE THEORY and I think it’s live on the Resources Page now if you want to check it out.

  4. Clark,
    I agree! Reading this blog is like being on a first date with someone really interesting. I want to stay up all night talking, but I know that our “date” has to slowly reveal himself and build up momentum for the book launch.

  5. Nik says:

    No matter how many fantasy and science fiction movies break box office records, no matter how many shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead become part of popular culture, it seems like genre books specifically get tainted with a label that somehow denotes they’re “less” than non-genre books. And if a literary writer dabbles in genre fiction…oh man.

    Look at Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One.” There was initial disbelief (Seriously? This celebrated literary novelist is wring about ZOMBIES?!?), then the book was treated differently in reviews. You’d think that Whitehead would get some love from genre fans in return, but nah — apparently the horror fans didn’t think there was enough zombie-killing and gore sandwiched between the “boring” parts in which the antagonist contemplates the similarities between life before and after the apocalypse.

    The thing is, genre is supposed to be a category where we can explore wacky ideas with impunity, without it getting dismissed as kid’s stuff. This idea that genre is somehow “less” is outdated, but somehow it won’t go away. That’s a shame.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Amen to that Nik! I was at Doubleday when THE INTUITIONIST was published. It was a thrill to see someone so familiar with the tropes of so many genres bend them to his will and deliver.

      1. Jeff says:

        OK, so here’s a question that’s more “state of the industry” and genre based: do you think authors who come into genre fiction from another medium get a break that regular genre authors don’t? For example, Neil Gaiman is considered a “serious author” even though he writes in the fantasy genre. Why? Presumabley because he got his “serious” cred by writing the sandman comic books series. Comic books was a medium waiting for an auture and Gaiman was it. So when he transfered from comics to novels, his credibility as a “serious” writer transfered with him, regardless of the genre. Whereas someone who started writing novels as a fantasy novelist would never escape the “genre” stigma. Am I reading this right, or is that a bunch of BS?

        Thanks, as always, for your insight, Shawn. You are a treasure.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Here’s the thing. It all breaks down to MFA/3RD PARTY UNIVERSITY VALIDATION versus the WORKING STIFF/BLUE COLLAR ETHOS WRITER.
          I think you can tell which side of the chasm I live on… Writers like George Saunders or David Mitchell are definitely working in the Fantasy realm, but because they came from academic backgrounds and/or were “discovered” as bright young writers their aren’t lumped in with the unwashed Hacks who write for Sci/Fi Fantasy imprints. This is why Stephen King will always be downgraded as a “serious” writer…no matter how accomplished his work. The guy is the first one to tell people that he’s just a mook from Maine who was living in a trailer park when he wrote Carrie. Having mastered the Horror novel, King simply did what any other serious writer would do. He blew the genre apart. THE SHINING is a tremendous work of art as is MISERY. My two personal favorites.
          But trust me, Stephen King will never be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned critical darlings. I think this used to bother King. But now, he just does what he does….writes and writes and writes.
          One major thing that sets writers back is worrying about this kind of stuff. When it comes down to it, the writer works for himself and then the reader (in that order) and no one else.
          The writer is satisfied when he crafts a story that moves a single reader to tears and/or catharsis. That’s really the only thing that matters. In his youth I suspect Stephen King didn’t listen all that much to the weirdo fans who came up to him and told him he changed their view of life. He was probably too busy trying to get critical attention, obsessed with it. And then one day he understood his job. It wasn’t to get accolades from Michiko Kakutani, it was to put what was inside his head onto the page in the best way possible.
          That’s it. Simple but almost impossible to remember. Especially when your book is about to be published.
          All the best,

          1. One major thing that sets writers back is worrying about this kind of stuff.

            It only cost me 30 years.

            John Fogerty is not a great guitarist. But for what he does he’s as good as he needs to be. (Musical analogy seems to stick in my head.)

            I’ll take a properly executed light comedy over poorly done High Art.

          2. Jeff says:

            Thanks for that Shawn. Cool that you mentioned Stephen King, too. I grew up in Bangor, Maine and always admired the man as a role model of how a famous, wealthy writer ought to act. It’s hard to describe how much he invested back into the local community and how human and approachable he was and remains. A real mensch. Similar to Steven Pressfield in a lot of ways. Definitely a writers writer.

          3. Shawn Coyne says:

            Quick story. When I was just breaking in as an editor, I threw caution to the wind and sent a galley of a book I’d edited to King’s P.O. Box in Bangor. I stuck in a self addressed postcard and asked him if he’d read the book and give me a quote. A week later, a postcard comes in the mail with a complete RAVE for the book. Which jump started the entire publishing program for it and was really responsible for it becoming a bestseller and landing on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. It jump started my career too! The book was called THE MISBEGOTTEN SON by Jack Olsen and it’s a classic true crime story.
            I’ll never forget that generosity and I confess it’s actions like his that inspire me to do the work that I do and to share it freely. A writer’s writer of course. What’s better is that he’s a great human being on top of it.
            All the best,
            P.S. I just posted the Genre thing on the resources page if you want to check it out.

  6. Mary Doyle says:

    I’m with Joel in wanting to understand genre at this level. I like his spice analogy too, but I sure hope I turn out to be a better writer than I am a cook. Looking forward to more of this Shawn!

  7. Lea Page says:

    I’m following the conversation. I am interested in how the genre issue overlaps with memoir. I have just finished one memoir about raising my family in rural Montana, and am now beginning a second about a trip to rural Greece, gypsies and the ancient Greek custom of hospitality, but I don’t know where I am going with that one. Is memoir all hero’s journey? I actually have a parenting book coming out from a small press in April– and even though it is a how-to of sorts, I still think it follows the hero’s journey model. But I may be confused. I know I am confused. Can’t wait for the Story Grid.

  8. Gary Dennis says:

    Thanks for fixing the click button so we don’t have to cut and paste!!

    It’s the little things!!


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I’m learning… Sorry for the previous irritations.

  9. PJ Reece says:

    Was at a “Crime Fiction” panel discussion last week… and my question to them was: “Do you keep the parameters of the genre in mind as you write?” Three of the four panelists looked dazed. One said, what’s he talking about?” The fourth, when it was her turn to speak, said: “I love the rules! I love breaking them.” Thank heavens one of those writers knows what she’s doing.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi PJ,
      In my years attending Bouchercon and innumerable other crime writer conferences, I can tell you this is not a fluke. This speaks to my “works, doesn’t work” theory of book publishing in that editors will let novels that do not abide conventions or obligatory scenes into the marketplace just based on a solid level of narrative drive. Some people can inherently tell a story with narrative drive that in end is extremely disappointing, but get published anyway. I don’t think they get away with it forever though. There’s a phenomenon called SECOND NOVEL-ITIS, which represents when a writer’s second novel does not Work even though it’s similar in quality to the first.
      All the best,

  10. Faith Watson says:

    Oh wow you are really speaking my language now, with the doodley grid and the mapped out clover chart. Thank you! Sadly my clover is missing leave selections on the right side — I am such a novice I don’t know how to label my Plot, Structure or Style. I would instantly guess Anti-Plot, because that sounds like me. But I don’t know what that is.

    Does it make sense to land squarely on Epic, Long Form and Alternate History (I saw no mention of the word Biblical but can I throw that in there or will that make my clover too freaky?), and then wait to learn how the other contenders are further defined before deciding? I’m not that far along at this point and haven’t written too much in a linear fashion. I’m thinking Theatrical or Cinematic, but prefer to consider what that means for the obligations and convention. Is that bad? I mean, I might be better suited to Literary…but Literary might not work well with some other cloverleaf.

    Are we supposed to decide on genre aspects like an arty collage, or is there a way to make matches that help us fashion a stronger foundation, both suited to our own voice/skills/interests (as we write for ourselves), and also to better align the clover leaves with each other (as we write for the reader)?

    1. Faith Watson says:

      *leaf selections

      and sorry for any other typos…
      I literally just typed “worry for any other types” and had to do over.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hang in their Faith. I promise your questions will be answered, but I can’t answer them with a quick reply. I’ve got posts scheduled for the next few weeks that really dive into the genres exhaustively. It should all become much more clear. The clover drawing is just a preview… It means little without the backup stuff. Which is forthcoming.

      1. Faith Watson says:

        Shawn, I know you’re giving so much, whether here or in your book, the answers will come. Really I was just wondering out loud. I suppose I shouldn’t talk to myself in the comments section. But then again it might feed you some stuff to address as you develop this site. 🙂 As for getting my questions about genre or anything else answered for my budding novel: the damn thing sat in a drawer for the past two years–I guess I can wait!

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Got it Faith. And I think you’re right about your questions…they do goose me to tweak and edit as I go along. Go nuts!

        2. Joel D Canfield says:

          I’ll make you a deal, Faith: when you’re talking to yourself here, pretend you’re having a conversation with me, and I’ll do the same. Pretending to talk to you will be a break from the voices in my head.

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