Mystery or Romance? Sci-Fi or Fantasy? Literary or Non-sense?

The single most important question asked is, “What’s my genre?”

This can be a confusing topic for most contemporary writers. Your story is set in the future, contains a murder, and the protagonist gets married at the end. There’s no way it can fit anywhere, so how the heck do you market it?

Since you’re here and already understand the importance of defining genre, you’re probably asking how to make sure your story is one or the other.

Genres are defined by several elements. One being their conventions. The other, and the foundation I’d argue, are the Essential Scenes.

These are so important that I include them with every coaching package.

Essential scenes are the very specific must-have scenes that each genre has particular to it.

You have a crime novel. Okay, that means it must include a crime or the planning of a crime. It can be anything from a cat that goes missing to a serial killer that picks off women who are 26 ½ years old with college degrees from universities that start with the letter N.

As you can see, the term “crime” is pretty broad and called the Content Genre. (Coyne, Shawn. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC., 2015). 

The Content Genre only gets you so far. Some readers want a cozy mystery. Others want a hard-boiled, noir type. A popular choice for readers is the serial murder series. All in the crime genre.

They can’t all include the same scenes. A cozy mystery aficionado would be sore if they ended up reading a gruesome triple murder.

The specific scenes that it takes to differentiate the cozy mystery from the serial killer are essential to differentiating those genres. Hence: Essential Scenes.

These scenes are necessary to define that genre and sub-genre. For a great example of a thriller, check out this article on the television series Dexter.

On occasion, I get a client that comes to me with a wildly different idea of what their genre is. Instead of going by the seat of my pants or relying on what they want it to be, I look closely at the Essential Scenes already present.

I always keep the intended genre in mind, I don’t want to change that, after all, but I do go by what the manuscript tells me.

First and foremost, I look at the Five Requirements of Story. Several of these requirements, specifically the Inciting Incident and Climax, rely on the Essential Scenes. They overlap, which makes the author’s job easier.

Once I see those are in place, and what they do for the story (is the inciting incident when two people meet, or when death is discovered), I move on to the other essentials.

Again, all the while, keeping the intended genre in mind. Just because a first draft doesn’t include an Essential Scene as a requirement, doesn’t mean the rest is bust.

Whatever the story contains the most of or has the strongest scenes of, is what I designate as the genre and sub-genre.

Sometimes this is different than what the author had in mind, but it’s what the story told them it needed to be (that is a bit on the woo-woo side, which I’ll get into on a future post). It depends on the author if they want to go with what is already there or if they want to change it to their original intent.

Honestly, most writers go with what the story tells them. Rarely do they want to force the story into something different, which takes a lot of rewriting.

Once those scenes are identified, I work with the author to strengthen the scenes that are present and add essentials that are missing.

It’s not often I ask a writer to delete scenes based on genre alone; B plots are important for sub-text, conflict, and readers identifying with a character.

Try the essentials of a murder mystery:

  1. Crime: murder (Inciting Incident, 1st Requirement of Story)
  2. Speech in praise of the antagonist
  3. The detective discovers and understands antagonist’s want
  4. Initial strategy fails (Conflict, 2nd Requirement of Story)
  5. Resolution (5th Requirement of Story)

Nine times out of ten, authors include essential scenes inherently. One or two may be missing or need to be strengthened, speech in praise is a big one (nobody wants to admit that the bad guy is smarter than them!).

Knowing the essentials of your chosen genre, or what the story tells you, helps in two major ways.

It satisfies readers. They picked up your book with certain expectations, and to garner good reviews, those expectations should be met. It’s a balancing act between what they expect and giving them something new.

It’s also easier to market. When you know your genre you know your audience. When you know your audience, you know how to talk to them so they’ll read your book.

Do you have a mix of genres that you’re concerned with? Let’s discuss it! Leave a comment below and we’ll see what the community can come up with.

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