Monday, March 31

Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre

Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre

Every story has a unique structure; no one structure fits them all. That would be boring. Good writing, good stories, may be a lot of things--thought provoking, exciting, uncomfortable--but they aren't boring. 

That said, stories of the same genre have a structure in common. Which really is just another way to say that all stories within a certain genre follow certain broad, general, rules. That is, after all, an important part of what makes a genre story a genre story! 


I know it's obvious, but for a story to be a murder mystery it must have both a mystery and a murder. There will also be various clues as well as a sleuth who investigates them. Certain characters will be suspects and there will be at least one murderer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the sleuth will, at the end, reveal not only the solution of the mystery but how he winnowed away the lies and subterfuge to arrive, finally, at the truth. As a result, order is restored.

But there are different kinds of murder mysteries, each with a more particular, more exact, set of requirements.[5] A cosy or whodunit (think Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers) should have all the above plus a logical, rational, solution. No hocus pocus, no unfounded intuitions, are allowed. Also, the focus is on the mystery of the murder (it seems impossible that the person was murdered yet they were) as well as how the sleuth goes about solving the crime. In these stories it is crucial that the storyteller play fair with the reader and tell them everything the sleuth learns as he (or she) learns it.[7]

A hardboiled detective story, on the other hand, often focuses less on the mystery and it's solution and more on action and gritty realism. Thrillers are different. Though they generally crank up the suspense, thrillers have about as much mystery as any other kind of story. 

Another popular genre is romance. Breaking that down further, there's contemporary romance, fantasy, erotica, gothic, historical, military, paranormal, regency, and more. 

The thriller genre, on the other hand, breaks down into legal, military, political, (my favorite) psychological, suspense and techno-thrillers. And many, many, more.

My point is that each genre--mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, horror, etc.--breaks down into sub-genres and each of these sub-genres have their own conventions, their own requirements. Their own structure.

If one writes a book and then markets it as a psychological thriller but doesn't talk about their characters' psychological states, if they don't do a study of their characters emotions and how they change over time in response to the (multiple) tensions in their environment (as exemplars of this see William Golding's Lord of the Flies or Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club), then while they may have written a thriller there really wouldn't be anything uniquely psychological about it. As a result, anyone who bought the book who wanted to read a psychological thriller would be disappointed no matter how good the book was.

As Lorenzo Semple Jr. said in his interview with Lee Goldberg, if he sat down in a restaurant and ordered fish but the server brought him, instead, a beautifully cooked steak he'd be upset no matter how good the steak was. Why? Because he wanted fish! He'd feel deceived. Ripped off.

If a reader feels mislead about the kind of books they've bought then they aren't going to be happy with the book or, most likely, the author. Personally, I think that's the reason for the lion's share of one star reviews: a reader's expectations were not only disappointed, they were taken out behind the barn and shot. 

Since there are so many different genres and sub-genres I won't even try to talk about a typical structure for every one. Though, that said, I do talk in some length about mysteries--whodunits in particular--and what the requirements of that form are.

Further Reading/Links/References

1. Write Your Own Murder Mystery, by Lindsay Price over at
2. List of literary genres, Wikipedia.
3. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James.
4. Mystery Fiction, Wikipedia.
5. It is often said that the primary distinction between genre and literature is that genre is plot/structure driven while literature is not (mainstream is often viewed as moodily occupying a no-man's-land between the two). Humbug! Literary stories simply don't have as rigid, or as much, of a structure, but they do have a structure. I love reading Ursula K. Le Guin on this subject and agree with her completely:

- Le Guin’s Hypothesis, by Ursula K. Le Guin over at Book View Cafe. In part she writes: "Plot is not the reason I turn to novels and is often the least interesting element to me in them. Story is what matters. Plot complicates and extends story; plot is indeed pure artifice. But Mr Krystal seems to say that only genre writers are aware that a certain level of artificiality must prevail in fiction. Does he mean that literary writers don’t use artifice? That they don’t know, just as as surely as genre writers, the absolute, imperative, marvelous artificiality of their art?" Yes. That. Exactly.
- On Serious Literature, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I found this gem on Ms. Le Guin's website ( It is a piece of flash fiction (only 577 words). Marvelous. 

6. Storyville: What is Literary Fiction? by Richard Thomas over at


  1. Hi Karen,

    I've just discovered your blog since you tweeted my recent post on archetypes at I have to say that your posts are well written with thought behind them. I totally agree with your assessment of one star reviews. Even when an established creator--whether writer, artist, musician--changes their style from what their audience expects, the results are shown as a number of one star reviews. In which case, even the tried and true professional doing high-quality work can be shot down by change.

    And this, possibly above all else, supports your view. People are creatures of habit. Yet what does that say about the growing artist who embraces change for the good of their craft? Or doesn't want to get stuck writing one particular genre for the duration?

    Writing under a pseudonym is an idea that's always been on the table for those who wish to experiment. Tougher to do for writers who already have become a brand name. Yet this is something to be aware of in all avenues of the entertainment world...becoming pigeon-holed is all too easy. It happened to me in my past career as a graphic artist. Once those lines are drawn around you--not just by the people who buy your work, but by those who publish it--this becomes an impossible road to find your way back from.

    Like yourself, I love murder mysteries, but I also love literary fiction. I think every story is a bit of a mystery in that there are always questions in need of answers and an ultimate solution at the end of the heroes quest. I've thought about dividing my time between the two type of stories, then decided to fuse the two into literary mysteries instead of traditional whodunits. But what if I want to write a fantasy, or horror novel down the line?

    After reading your current post, however, I was wondering what your thoughts were on how NOT to allow oneself to become pigeon-holed? You might say I am collecting the common denominators from writers I have read who discussed this. Mainly from those who have self published, as there would seem to be greater leeway in this area. Traditional publishers rarely allow people to switch, especially if they are making money in one particular genre. However, the opinions are few because most self-published authors haven't worked in any part of the traditional publishing world and have neither experienced, nor thought a lot about this subject. It's simply enough for some to get published and feel the thrill, believing they can do exactly whatever they please. It usually doesn't work out that way, at least not without some degree of planning ahead for such things.

    Here's to planning a brave new world for authors!

    1. Hi Robert,

      Thank you for your kind words, it thrills me that you liked my post. Your article on Archetypes was the sort I love, detailed and thought-provoking.

      "... then decided to fuse the two into literary mysteries instead of traditional whodunits."

      Sounds like the kind of books I'd love to read!

      You asked my opinion about pen names. For what it's worth, I think pen names are wonderful tools that can give a writer a safety net if they want to stretch themselves and experiment with various styles of writing.

      You mention concerns about becoming pigeon-holed. That is a multifaceted issue. Lee Child _wants_ to be pigeon-holed. Categorized. He has turned himself--that is, the Lee Child pen name--into a brand. He made a calculated decision to only write one series; not even two different series in the same genre, just the _one_ series. As a result his fans are unusually loyal; if I remember correctly, around 70% of them will buy his next book without knowing anything about it. Because, of course, they do! It'll be a Jack Reacher book and that's all they need to know.

      On the other hand, it took Child a long time to build up his readership to the point it's at. Many writers (Jim Butcher and Kim Harrison among others) have decided to end their popular series and move on to other things (JB has a few books left to write in the Dresden Files series, so I'm not panicking ... yet.). I suppose their hope is that their fans, most of them, will make the transition. I think they're right.

      It is a tradeoff. Writing with a pen name gives one the freedom to be adventurous but hampers one's ability to build a readership.

      That said, I suspect that a few literary authors self publish under a pen name.

      By the way, I couldn't agree more that every story contains a bit of mystery; that's what makes reading such fun! ;)


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