Tribal Lays

*And once more, like a champion, I wrote this last night and scheduled it for six PM.  ARGH.*

Okay, I’m going to shock you.  Are you sitting down?  Yes?  Good because I bring shocking news: Different genres have different structures.  They also have different expectations, different “reader cookies” and different just about different everything else.

This seems like a tautology, but it is not immediately obvious to many people.

The number of times people say things like “Romance is not very good.”  Or perhaps “cozy mysteries are not very good.”  Or “Space opera is not very good.”  (Or my absolute favorite recently, which is the notion that the only real science fiction is hard science fiction where everything gravitates around science, and what’s more “known science.”  Which would leave logical extrapolations of the future and future science without a home.  Never mind.  Pet peeve.)

When people say things like this what they’re really saying is “I don’t read very widely and confuse my taste with “quality.”  Other people have this problem, most notably literary writers who confuse the markers of their own subgenre with “quality.”  This is a confusion fostered by schools, since “literary” is a genre created by following the markers that schools attach onto and pound into students’ heads.

However, almost everyone pounds on Romance, for instance, and because it was the last genre I ever started to read.  For various reasons, I didn’t read Romance till my late thirties/early forties, and because Romance’s structure lacks some of the elements that other genres have, and when first reading the genre (let alone writing it) you can find yourself going “this is book about nothing” and “why should I read this.”

Also, since we have been taught from a materialistic and socialistic, or at least collectivist perspective, which has been considered virtuous for most of the last century, it’s easy to sneer at a genre which revolves around the idea of a couple finding a very individual happiness.

But if you read a lot of different genres, and if you aspire to writing in more than one, you’re going to have to put those prejudices aside.

For the purpose of studying the structure of different genres, what you need to do is look at quality from a different angle.  Quality is not a specific genre or a specific set of messages.

Quality is separate from genre.  Or rather, it can exist in each genre. In each genre you can (and should) write the best you know how.  In each genre you should play with reader’s emotions (remember your art is to make the reader live through the story) in the way expected for that particular genre.

The differences between genres are many.  Often they are dictated by the need to tell the type of story that readers are looking for.  Other bits of structure and reader cookies are part of the history of the genre and are designed to increase the cool factor for readers of that genre.

More importantly, once you understand the structure of various genres, you can borrow from one genre to serve the others.  You can put just a pinch of thriller into your science fiction or your romance, to heighten the tension of your book.  Or you can use romance structure to give a back-bone of predictability and emotional interest to your thriller or your urban fantasy or even your science fiction.

So, let’s look at structure.  If you get a chance, read your favorite thriller over the week.  Next week: Thrill me.  How to structure a thriller.

32 Comments

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32 responses to “Tribal Lays

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    I must admit that for a long time I didn’t care for Romance Stories but then my “introduction” to Romance Stories was my sister’s Harlequin books (back in the 70’s), [Wink]

    I still prefer the “romance stories” as a sub-plot to the main plot. [Smile]

    • Harlequin sucked. You’d probably like Georgette Heyer. I’d actually highly recommend An Infamous Army because it’s both war story and romance.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        I don’t know if it was you or not, but I have read her books based on recommendations of others and enjoyed them.

        Mind you, there was one where I stopped reading because I disliked the female character and couldn’t “get into” the male character.

        Of course, as I “grew up” I got into the “YMMV” mindset. IE, because I like/dislike a book doesn’t mean that others should agree with my like/dislike of that book. [Smile]

  2. Wait a minute! Are you telling me that the structure of a book about a secret agent attempting to infiltrate a police state and top steal secret plans is going to be different from a book about a woman whose dream of making it big in New York City fails, sending her back to her tiny hometown and, by chance, the high school boyfriend she thought she outgrew?

    Mind. Blown.

    • yeah, right? No, what I’m telling you is that there are some structures that have become essential to at least know in each genre, even if you’re going to violate them.
      I’m also telling you that neither of those is inherently better than the other. Better for a particular reader, sure, but genre is not quality.

  3. I think it was Dorothy Grant who commented that she read Bujold’s _The Sharing Knife_ as a romance at first, and kept wondering when the “thing that separates the lovers so they can get back together” was going to happen. But it’s not a romance with [plot bits]: it’s a [genre] with romance.

  4. Uncle Lar

    Read the title and naturally assumed you were branching out into primitive erotica. Shoulda knowed better.
    As for hard science, fiddlesticks. I give you a hard time about burners and brooms because as an engineer and gun nut I know that at this time there is no clear path from our current technology that makes either of them practical. But then much the same thing can be said about faster than light travel. So, when pressed I am forced to admit that just about all science fiction must include a measure of handwavium and a dollop of unobtainium. All I ask is that they be folded into the story line with at least a good faith attempt to stick with current laws of physics.
    Besides, your kindly old Uncle Lar does love him some opportunity to tweak his favorite niece.

    • aacid14

      Suspension of disbelief is ignoring that the electrical outlet is cracked or sink dribbles. When they tell you that the pile of 2×4 is a house it’s a little more. Don’t contradict your science first. Have some sorta thread that trails back to “real” science helps. But fantastic science fiction is not implausible.

    • Read the title and naturally assumed you were branching out into primitive erotica. Shoulda knowed better.

      That was Gaguin, wasn’t it? Which led into either the noble primitive or possibly the sexual revolution, depending on how you lifted the lei?

  5. aacid14

    I will admit I had a row with someone over it. Can’t stand people that look down on genre lit. Especially when they try and say that their pretentiousness is a better form of that genre. If you dislike something, fine. But others enjoy it.

  6. aacid14

    On another note, is it possible for someone to change WordPress clock to 24 hr clock…make things easier for our hostess…

  7. Of course everyone rips on Romance, all that hugging and kissing, and happy ever after stuff! The Horror! The very idea that some people might like that!

    • LOL. Actually it IS a true instance of institutionalized sexism. It is mostly despised because it is a thing of women. And since the feminists hate those things, the literary establishment hates it too.

    • Romance!!?! Ackpth! Phut! *gag, cough, typical male reaction*

      If you read that in full on Calvin & Hobbes tone, you got right. *grin* Hating romance is also a trope of, typically, young males. Older men play to this trope, too, even those with wives and girlfriends (not at the same time, for the most part). The reaction is more poking fun at typical gender roles than actually not liking, you know, “kissy stuff.”

      Though I *do* admit some romance subplots have made me want to lock the two characters in a room until sufficient number of awkward pauses build up to a critical mass and they bloody well get on with the rest of the story, happily ever- oh, *fine,* save the world first, then get married already.

      • In one of the backstory books to David Eddings’s Belgariad (I forget whether it was Belgarath or Polgara), the Prophecy demands a union between two warring noble houses. The wars have pretty much wiped out both families but there’s a boy left of one house, and a girl of the other, of the appropriate ages. They despise each other, and are quite willing to let the universe burn rather than marry.

           And so Mayaserana and Korodullin became cell-mates. There was a lot of screaming and yelling at first, but we didn’t really mind that. The yelling proved that they were both still alive, after all.

        A few days later…

           Eldrig leaned back in his chair. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘now that’s taken care of, I guess we can all go home.’
           ‘Not quite yet, your Majesty,’ Wildantor disagreed. ‘There’s still a royal wedding in the works.’
           ‘I’d almost forgotten about that,’ Eldrig said. ‘Are those two still screaming at each other?’
           ‘No,’ Pol told him. ‘The screaming stopped a few days ago. The last time I listened at the door, there was a lot of giggling going on. Evidently Mayaserana’s a bit ticklish.’

    • Jen G.

      To be fair, there is also a lot of really horrendous Romance out there – often on the best seller lists so you can’t easily separate the wheat from the chaff. Romance seems particularly prone to predictable plots (every ‘mystery’ I can guess the villain by the first chapter), unrealistic characters (my favorite are the sexually adventurous 18-year-old regency girls with genius level IQs), and a focus on sex over romance. For me, at it’s best, Romance is about two people overcoming whatever issues they have (personally or situationally) in order to figure out how to become one. Everything else is window dressing.

      • The sex thing is recent. Maybe fifteen years. It was pushed from above, and a lot of the indie romances don’t follow it. There are readers for the other stuff, they just have to find it.

        • Jen G.

          I don’t care one way or the other, but if it is in there I want it to work within the context of the story and the relationship. It’s when it jolts you out of the narrative or is used in lieu of character development that I find it problematic.

    • TomT

      Well you know. … Romance doesn’t do grim dark very well so obviously romance isn’t a real genre.