How Writing Craft Determines Genre



         Readers all have preferences for certain story genres over others and are equally inclined to disparage the genres they have no personal interest in. When evaluating the craft of writing it is very important to focus not upon the story itself but upon how the story is being told.

The basic categories of genre literature are defined by the ways a story conforms to a certain set of conventions. More often than not, this is determined by what has been excluded from a story as well as what remains. The mythic tale of Theseaus and Ariadne, for example, becomes an adventure, mystery, or caste story simply by beginning or ending it at different points in the span of their lives. 

The basic premise of Male adventure stories is that the hero must “save the world.” Theseaus’ adventure begins when he, heir to the King of Athens, persuades his father to include him in a group of young men and women sent to Crete every year as a tithe to be fed to King Minos’ monster, the Minator, that lives at the center of an inescapable maze. Theseaus’ goal is to kill the monster and therefore protect “his people” from the tithe. When he achieves this his heroic adventure ends.

In a female adventure the heroine must “save her family.” Ariadne’s story therefore begins when she, the eldest daughter of the mentally unstable King Minos, recognizes in Theseaus a powerful protector. In exchange for marrying her and taking part of her family to Athens she reveals to the hero how he can kill the Minator and escape its maze. When her advice proves successful Theseaus rescues Ariadne and her younger sibling(s) and they all sail for Athens. Once her family is safe her romantic adventure ends.

In a mystery there is a crime that needs solving so this time the story begins when Ariadne is murdered or abandoned by Theseaus on their way back to Athens. Though the betrayal goes unacknowledged his heroic mantle has been tarnished. He then “forgets” to change his black sail for a white one as he had promised his father he would do if he survived the Minator. His father, seeing the black sail, assumes his son is dead and in despair he jumps, falls, or is pushed off a cliff. This act makes Theseaus a king but yet another crime goes unlitigated and the mystery remains. 

A Caste story relates the trials of living in or changing your social niche. Since the conventions of this genre usually require an unhappy ending the story is about the price someone pays for crossing social boundaries. When Theseaus weds Ariadne’s much younger sister Phaedra he already has a handsome son, Hippolytus, who is approximately his stepmother’s age. Phaedra falls in love with her stepson but when he refuses her advances she accuses him of rape and then kills herself. After Theseaus banishes Hippolytus the boy drowns in a sea storm. Early Greek stories are rife with familial murder and sacrifice but someone always pays a price (sins of the father etc) and that is where caste stories end. 

The final commercial genre I refer to as WONDER stories but they are sold as myths, science fictions, fantasies, horrors, fairy tales etc. What unites them is they all require a significant amount of “world-building”, so much so that I often refer to this as the Construction genre. Basically the writer creates a world in which certain rules about our consensus reality are stretched or changed to create an internally consistent new world. The dilemma of the story then has to be one that could only occur within in this new hypothetical environment. The whole of Theseaus and Ariadne takes place within the shared constructed reality of the old Greek religion in which the many gods often visited the human world. 

When evaluating the crafting of a particular story we must separate the genre effects from the crafting effects so we can attempt to focus our attention entirely upon the latter; otherwise, we risk believing our personal tastes are laws. If we set aside any questions about whether a story was worth telling and focus entirely upon how it was told we provide ourselves with opportunities to hone the tools we’ll need to not just tell our own tales but to move our audiences beyond the shores of habit.


“Theseus” painted by Andre Durand in 2003