When we start out on a writing career, we don't see it like that. Genre is a restriction. Something to at least ignore and probably rebel against. You gotta be unique. You're going to prove yourself by doing something different. The only reason you would ever want to know the rules is so you can break ‘em good.
Weeellll, it's not quite like that. You do need originality but you also need to be professional. There's definitely a place for you to be different, but you also need to be commercially switched on. And it is through understanding the role of Genre that you can know the time and place to be creative and different and the time and place to be compliant and run on the rails of genre.
Every story divides into two 'levels'. One level allows you to show how professional you are and how you have mastered your craft. The other level allows you to be different and show off your creative originality. These levels are firstly, the top level arcs across the whole story (what the story is about) and, secondly, the detailed content of the sequences (how that story is told).
- The top level arcs, defining what your story is about, should be fixed within a genre.
- The detail of the individual scenes/chapters - how you deliver those arcs - can change infinitely with your uniquely different creative brilliance.
For example, if I tell you I'm going to go to Paris, you know exactly what I'm doing overall. The top level arc is a clear message, instantly understood. You will know if I've achieved my aim if I get to Paris. However, the detail of how I get there - the scenes along the way - involving bike, walk, plane, train, hitch, characters, disasters comedy - whatever - how it takes place in the detail is infinitely up for creative originality.
My creative brilliance is separated from a clear genre message. The rules of the genre are obeyed, buy my originality can express itself within that genre.
Why not be different at the top level? Let's say, for example, that I am the most brilliantly amazing talented soccer player the world has ever seen, but I want to show the world just how brilliant and original I am, so I refuse to be limited by the laws of the game and I keep dribbling the ball (brilliantly) over the lines and out of play, then guess what… I'm a useless footballer. Hold on — I thought we agreed I am the very best footballer? (Thank you.) Yes, David, you are. But commercially, you're utterly worthless if you won't accept the genre rules.
I hate that it’s true, but I could barely give you a single piece of better advice if you want commercial success. Become professional and understand your craft within the context of a genre, and then become creatively brilliant and mind-blowingly original within the boundaries of that genre.
Why? Because we, the public, as consumers, like to know what we're getting for our investment of time and money in a story. I don't go and see a film randomly or pick up a book without any pre-commitment evaluation, and neither do you. You read reviews; you look at the marketing material; read the back cover; hear the interviews; look at the trailer, the poster, the title, the star, the character... You want to know if it's the kind of thing that will suit your likings. And that means genre.
But before you get anywhere near getting assessed by the public, you as a writer, have to sell yourself and your material to an agent/publisher/producer. And I promise you, you are dead in the water if you don't have a clear genre. They will only take on a clearly defined genre piece, because they know they can't sell it if they don't. Look at it like this: When your publisher sells a book to a retailer, the first thing the buyer asks is: Which shelf does this go on? If it isn’t COMPLETELY obvious where it goes in the shop, then it’s rejected. Instantly. It could be brilliant but sorry, if the buyer can’t tell what genre it is, then neither can the public and it won’t sell, so he won’t buy it from the publisher.
Don't forget, the retailers/buyers don’t read the content. They look at that top level marketing-by-genre potential and decide 100% on that whether they can sell it. The content is secondary and entirely irrelevant to the sales process. Hand the buyer a Lee Child novel and – boom. No problem. He knows where that goes. He know the public will understand this book and what you get from it. They will be looking at the Crime section in the first place, because that's the kind of thing they like, and if you put the right cover design and title and author and character under their nose... Ka-ching! Lee Child is bang in the middle of a genre and he writes a book a year in that same genre, with an unchanging lead character and has done so for the past 18 years. And that equals commercial success (to the tune of close to 20 million novels sold). He never EVER tries to be clever with genre. And that’s the cleverest thing he can do.
Copy Lee. Set yourself apart from the competition by living exactly in the middle of the mainstream - THAT is genuine originality, because there’s nobody there. They’re all trying to be really clever out on the edges, inventing new genres and trying to be 'different'. Ironically, the middle of the fairway is the place where you find space to define yourself. Living there makes you different. Go to the centre of the mainstream. That will really set you apart.
(My full conversations with Lee Child are featured in The Story Book.)
Of course, if you aren't too bothered about commercial success, fine. Do what you like. But if you want to sell stories and make money, have no doubt about it: the commercial decisions are made firstly by genre, and then by content. Be absolutely clear and down-the-middle with your genre - what kind of story it is. Which shelf you live on. Then be unique and original and brilliant and different in the content - how you deliver that story.