Just how do you define certain genres?

DAgent

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jul 26, 2021
Messages
278
So, I was writing a short story on pure impulse a few days ago, 20 minute timer set, and just typed away furiously till the clock ran out.

What I came away with was a tale of revenge as a pair of high school girls seek revenge on their bullies by making use of their physics lab laser. It was all set in the modern day, no Sci Fi or fantasy elements added, except, maybe, the laser. Which didn't strike me as really making this tale Sci Fi.

So I went looking to see if there is a "proper" one size fits all definition of Sci Fi, and of course it turns out there isn't one. Not really. Some people say there is, but these different people all tend to have at least slightly different takes on what counts and what doesn't.

So that got me thinking again, if I made at least one of the girls an alien, repurposed the high school into some of Starfleet Academy on an alien world or even in an O-Neill station, and kept the laser as is, would that really make it Sci Fi?

Or, if I changed the setting to an Unseen University type place, made one of the girls a Dwarf and the other an Elf and the laser became some arcane tool from witch class, would that really make it a Fantasy piece?

I know this comes down to semantics at the end of the day, but it does make me wonder, what does a story really have to feature to be Sci Fi or Fantasy, or any other genre for that matter? Is a Horror story really a Horror story if only one horrific thing happens in the tale? Is a Murder Mystery really that if the detective just ignores the case and gets on with their private life and then stumbles over the solution by sheer chance by the end of the story? Would a Romance tale really be that, if nothing romantic happened at all?
 
Genres are a chicken and egg thing. I think you can write with a target genre "pastry cutter" , but also you can just write what you feel and search for a suitable box afterwards.
I remember Ray Bradbury saying he wrote very little actual sci-fi but got categorised as an sf writer anyway. :(
 
So there's about five different answers to this thread, and that number changes for each genre. There's a real streak of militantism with Romance fans about what a Romance (in the modern relationship sense) contains. It contains a romantic relationship forming and it has a happy ending. Conversely, while it's not hard to find fans of fantasy/sci-fi/horror who have firm ideas of where those genres' definitions lie and can get a bit snotty about it, it's not as loud or consensus.

I think the most practical definition is "what shelf is it going on? what comp is it getting? what is it getting sold as?" which basically means as long as there's enough *genre 1* to qualify and there's not enough *genre 2* to put it there instead, it's genre 1. Even if it contains genre 1 and genre 2, it's going to be known as just one of them, because that makes life simple.

Which leads to all sorts of oddities and amusing stories for publishing. Titus Groan has zero fantastical content but it feels fantastical so in it goes. Conversely, a lot of more obviously fantastical books don't get the nod and stick in Litfic. Both David Gemmell and Shelley Parker-Chan were told by the powers that be to add more fantasy elements to their stories to make it a more obvious genre fit.

In any case, yes, taking that exact story and putting it in a modern high school probably makes it non-sci-fi, putting it in a space station makes it a sci-fi, and putting it in an UU with dwarves makes it fantasy. Just like turning The Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven makes it a western. The reason is those genres are largely sorted by their aesthetic, so changing the aesthetic changes the genre.

But a murder mystery in which the detective ignores the murder, or a romance where the romance never happens, don't fly because they are genres largely sorted by their action type, and you can't promise X action and then not deliver. You can push just how little space the investigation takes a long way, but there is a line for all but a chosen few (if that).

Genres built around a mood or emotion - Horror, Comedy - also need to spend most of the story building around that particular thing. I would argue they're probably the most demanding. You're not really a comedy novel if half the pages don't contain a joke.

While the practical thing would be to describe all books in terms of which genres they hit on setting, action, and vibe, that's not how the world works.

As for books that contain elements of popular publishing genre 1, genre 2, and genre 3, I think most times which genre it gets called goes like this...

Is the setting blatantly fantasy, sci-fi or historical? If yes, it goes into whichever. If not, look at the action/emotion.

That's not 100% watertight, but I think most of us would agree it covers 90% of the market.
 
Excellent answer @The Big Peat . I reviewed a book recently that spanned, what seemed to me three "backdrops" (though the common theme was "action" throughout). It started out as space fiction, but within 30% turned into, basically, a western. That put me off quite a bit, because I thought I was buying into space fiction, but I kept going because the pace was decent, but I wouldn't advise writers to do that, or at least put a warning on the tin, that this mostly isn't blah though it starts out like that.
 
Bookseller hat on - the hardest thing to sell is something that straddles genres and isn't easily defined. Writer's hat on - it's best to be creative and broad, at least in the first application. Reader's head on - I prefer books that aren't defined.

So I guess it's what you want. To sell lots, to write something that sparks your creativity, or something you would like to read yourself.
 
So I went looking to see if there is a "proper" one size fits all definition of Sci Fi, and of course it turns out there isn't one. Not really. Some people say there is, but these different people all tend to have at least slightly different takes on what counts and what doesn't.

So that got me thinking again, if I made at least one of the girls an alien, repurposed the high school into some of Starfleet Academy on an alien world or even in an O-Neill station, and kept the laser as is, would that really make it Sci Fi?

Or, if I changed the setting to an Unseen University type place, made one of the girls a Dwarf and the other an Elf and the laser became some arcane tool from witch class, would that really make it a Fantasy piece?
If you make these changes and the only thing that is different is the genre then I'd say you have weak characters.
My suggestion would be to strengthen the characters and their arc first and maybe when you get done with that you will see what genre they fit in.

Right now they might be the poor, vapid, flat character genre. Also if the story stays the same while changing characters, it suggests that the characters lack agency and are just going with the flow of the story.

Not that that is all bad, just that it doesn't make for interesting story if the characters are mostly reacting to events rather than eventually shaping them in some way consonant with their beliefs, goals, asperations and will.
 
My first novel was published by a speculative fiction publisher because it involves time travel, but as that element was a minor (albeit crucial) part, it would also fit into the seafaring fiction, historical romance, adventure and contemporary action thriller genres, among others. This gave them a few problems regarding how to place the book when it came to marketing, as it didn't fit neatly into one genre, and as the characters came from the past to present day meant it couldn't really be placed into the familiar time slip category.

The publisher ended up stating as part of the blurb on the back cover, A great fan of the grand seafaring adventure fiction of CS Forester, Patrick O'Brien and Alexander Kent, and modern action thriller writers such as Lee Child, Steve Harrison combines several genres in his debut novel.

This summed my thoughts and goals when writing the book, but possibly watered down the impact on readers' choices. It got great reviews, but being hard to define the genre may well have adversely affected sales. However, if we'd picked any one of the those genres to simplify things, it would have been misleading.

Since then I've described myself as genre-fluid.
 
Excellent answer @The Big Peat . I reviewed a book recently that spanned, what seemed to me three "backdrops" (though the common theme was "action" throughout). It started out as space fiction, but within 30% turned into, basically, a western. That put me off quite a bit, because I thought I was buying into space fiction, but I kept going because the pace was decent, but I wouldn't advise writers to do that, or at least put a warning on the tin, that this mostly isn't blah though it starts out like that.

And this is the one time I think an author should think hard about genre other than sales/wanting to - are you inadvertently making promises with the genre you need to consider?

I am mostly okay with books meandering between genres aesthetically, but part of me bailing on Pern was that small switch. I am prone to getting irritable with books that switch action types suddenly a good way through the book.
 
If you make these changes and the only thing that is different is the genre then I'd say you have weak characters.
I came here to fight you on this, but decided I agree with you. There is a (very) high level way to think about stories, where all stories are the same, or there is a small class of types of stories. But this is all abstract and theoretical. In the flesh, as it were, stories are about the details in them.

I reread the OP, and they mentioned changing a school girl into a female alien. Now, all puberty related jokes aside, this _should_ dramatically change the details of the story. The alien should have distinctive abilities/reactions/motives that change their journey through the story, which should change the story itself. The theme/moral/ending might be the same, but I agree that the journey, hence the actual story, should be dramatically different.
 
My first novel was published by a speculative fiction publisher because it involves time travel, but as that element was a minor (albeit crucial) part, it would also fit into the seafaring fiction, historical romance, adventure and contemporary action thriller genres, among others. This gave them a few problems regarding how to place the book when it came to marketing, as it didn't fit neatly into one genre, and as the characters came from the past to present day meant it couldn't really be placed into the familiar time slip category.

The publisher ended up stating as part of the blurb on the back cover, A great fan of the grand seafaring adventure fiction of CS Forester, Patrick O'Brien and Alexander Kent, and modern action thriller writers such as Lee Child, Steve Harrison combines several genres in his debut novel.

This summed my thoughts and goals when writing the book, but possibly watered down the impact on readers' choices. It got great reviews, but being hard to define the genre may well have adversely affected sales. However, if we'd picked any one of the those genres to simplify things, it would have been misleading.

Since then I've described myself as genre-fluid.
This makes me wonder if any publisher has tried taking a book that crosses genres, and asked the booksellers to pit copies of it in different sections of their shops?
 
This makes me wonder if any publisher has tried taking a book that crosses genres, and asked the booksellers to pit copies of it in different sections of their shops?
I've never heard of it being done, that I can remember anyway.

The thing is, publishers can be wary of letting readers know that a book crosses genres, because instead of attracting additional readers, as one might think (readers of genre A plus readers of genre B) it can limit the market to readers who regularly read both genres A and B and put off those who don't like their favored genre tainted by the presence of elements from a genre they avoid.

Nevertheless, there have been some very successful cross-genre books. The Outlander series, for example, which crosses time travel with romance. But from the very beginning the publishers made up their minds to sell the series as romance, because that would bring more sales. But many readers who like both genres managed to find the books via word-of-mouth, which I suppose is what the publishers expected (or at least hoped) might happen, since I met the author once at an SFF convention, shortly before the first book came out.
 
Interestingly, many movies and TV shows are intentionally cross-genre. Firefly was a sci-fi/western for example.
Here is a non-inclusive list from IMDB - List Here

Kurt Vonnegut and HP Lovecraft have both been called Science Fiction writers though neither would ever describe themselves that way.
As Kurt Vonnegut put it: “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled "science fiction" ... and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

As you describe it, your story is a revenge story. And you can add any other description you want. Teenage girls in a high school? Sounds YA to me. Right? But, then again, is your science fictional? Is there something fantastical about the laser. Just because someone uses technology or science, say a car or a smart phone, that isn't necessarily the making of "Science" fiction, but perhaps just entertaining fiction.

Great post!
 
This makes me wonder if any publisher has tried taking a book that crosses genres, and asked the booksellers to pit copies of it in different sections of their shops?

I haven't heard of it either, but I have heard of booksellers independently making that leap (Piranesi for one), and there are books that are put into genre A by one bookseller/library, and genre B by another. Which also suggests publishers can't really direct booksellers here.


I would also add that a ton of books are cross-genre in some way, although often in ways that are so well accepted as to being a genre themselves. Prime examples include Historical Murder Mystery and Paranormal Romance. Hell, go back long enough, and that's what Sword & Sorcery is - a horror-adventure hybrid. Then later you get Dark Fantasy as a horror-fantasy hybrid, and arguably Urban Fantasy as a different flavour of horror-fantasy hybrid, and so on...

But there's plenty of murder mysteries on fantasy shelves, plenty of historical novels (and a few fantasy) on romance, and so on.

The trick is to write a cross-genre where they can just present it as one single genre.
 
Science fiction feels like science fiction. That can be for a very wide variety of reasons. It isn't because some prop was pasted into the plot.
 
A more interesting question might be Why are there Genre's and what purpose do the serve.
I believe, firmly, that at the start Genre were the best way to group books in libraries and bookstores.
Also making it easier for the readers to find what they are looking for.

However, a recent googling of the what wherefore and why of genre has made me think that somehow recently the whole concept is being considered much like a trope, except when referred to in such a way they make it sound like a possitive.

eg:
.
Genres also provide the writer with general organizational patterns that can help them arrange what they say and when they say it. For readers, genres help organize information so that they can more easily make sense of what they are about to read.
genre
1680196228650.png
University of Toledo
https://www.utoledo.edu › pdf › What_is_a_genre


Writing and Genres​

pearsonhighered.com
https://www.pearsonhighered.com › chapter1



The purpose of a genre is to help you figure out how people tend to act, react, and interact in the situation in which you are writing. So if you tell your ...
 

Attachments

  • 1680196252816.png
    1680196252816.png
    646 bytes · Views: 41
A more interesting question might be Why are there Genre's and what purpose do the serve.
I believe, firmly, that at the start Genre were the best way to group books in libraries and bookstores.
Also making it easier for the readers to find what they are looking for.

However, a recent googling of the what wherefore and why of genre has made me think that somehow recently the whole concept is being considered much like a trope, except when referred to in such a way they make it sound like a possitive.

eg:
.
Genres also provide the writer with general organizational patterns that can help them arrange what they say and when they say it. For readers, genres help organize information so that they can more easily make sense of what they are about to read.
genre
View attachment 102007
University of Toledo
https://www.utoledo.edu › pdf › What_is_a_genre

Writing and Genres

pearsonhighered.com
https://www.pearsonhighered.com › chapter1


The purpose of a genre is to help you figure out how people tend to act, react, and interact in the situation in which you are writing. So if you tell your ...
That sounds like academic nonsense.
 
That sounds like academic nonsense.
Yes indeed: still trying to wrap my head around how the genre is going to determine how the characters are going to act.
It seems so Upside-down and backwards.
The characters determine how to act in any setting or else they have no agency.
The point of many Sci-Fi what-ifs is--if this happens in some future how do real people react to it(or at least how does my main character react to it). So yes the setting is important but it doesn't mold the characters. Otherwise you really could just keep changing characters drastically and not change the story.
 

Similar threads


Back
Top