Labeling Your Story 109-01

To a writer, every story is unique, but words like “unique”, “good”, and “interesting” are almost meaningless by themselves. People need a frame of reference. Publishers need to know what kind of story they’re reading in order to evaluate it properly, and audiences need some way of deciding whether this is the right story for them.

Some authors set out with a specific genre in mind, while others wait until the revision process to discover what they’ve been writing. Whichever method you choose, it’s important to recognize and manage audience expectations, by establishing the type of story you’re writing, and staying within the genres you’ve chosen. A story can be any genre, as long as that is clearly established early on. See 101-01, Establishing the Story, for more information.

Literary vs. Commercial
Literary and commercial is the division between stories that want to create a fun experience for the audience, and stories that want to create a thought provoking dialogue with the audience, often by focusing on a controversial or unpleasant topic.

Commercial stories are like a ride at a park, all the audience has to do is sit back and “watch” as events unfold. The story opens with an easily understood character who uses a combination of luck and skill to overcome a variety of obstacles, steadily building towards a big finale, where the character definitively wins or loses. Many action adventure stories follow this pattern, including James Bond and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Literary stories focus on the character, using internal conflicts to pose questions about the human condition. Popular topics include the struggle between selfish needs and doing what’s right, or sacrificing others for the sake of the greater good. Literary stories feature emotional climaxes, where a character must overcome themselves, instead of an external force. The endings are often ambiguous or bittersweet. Examples include The Great Gatsby, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Great Expectations.

Realistic vs. Romantic Idealism
Another common distinction is how a story compares with real life. Realistic stories feature imperfect characters, heroes with flaws and villains with virtues. The stories are often in an everyday setting, similar to the real life experiences of the audience.

Romantic ideal stories are exaggerated adventures. The heroes and villains become clear symbols of good and evil, with larger than life conflicts that serve as metaphors for real world problems. Romantic ideal stories are often set in exotic or impossible locations.

Many commercial stories are also romantic ideal stories. Superhero comic books are an example of romantic ideals, exaggerating problems like narcissism into characters like the Riddler & Penguin.

Next Time…
Comedy, Tragedy, & Romance

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11 thoughts on “Labeling Your Story 109-01

    • I would say don’t worry about it too much. Labeling and genres mostly cone into play when pitching and marketing. When writing I think it’s best to focus on crafting the story you want to write, without concerning yourself with fitting into a label. Of course sometimes genre conventions can help stir one’s insporation.

  1. Fascinating breakdown. I tried to figure out which category my books fit best, but they seem to be a blend of several. Gives me something to think about as I do my own marketing. I pretty much have to do what a publisher would, but without their budget or resources. 😉

  2. My novel series has been difficult to pigeonhole. Set in the future, in Europe, it has political espionage, a mystery, the action of a thriller at times, and the focus on the main character that can distinguish a literary novel. In the Publishers Marketplace newsletter, it would fall somewhere between sci fi and fantasy, thriller, and “Other.” As a basic overview, this post is most helpful! Isn’t it too bad that marketing keeps up the labeling system? I had agents who where flummoxed by the first book in the series as far as how to sell it. I suggested selling it as “a good story.” Nah. Had to be a LOT fancier than that. LOL

    • Agreed. Do you find the technology is more plausible or or fantastic? I’d be tempted to call it either a political or mystery thriller set in a magical or “pick your adjective” future. The next two posts discuss scifi/fantasy and mystery, so those may prove more helpful. 🙂

      • Because my main character has a dim view of technology, I don’t spend a lot of time on it in the books. Europe has adopted a “pro choice” policy toward technological advances, i.e. people are not forced to upgrade or have technology at all if that’s what they want. If people want the latest gadgets, they are there for them. My main character ends up noting some things that can’t be avoided like self-driving cars (we are just seeing the beginning of them) which are ho-hum commonplace, for example. He’s a musician, comes from a society that restricted tech access, so he doesn’t feel any need. You are welcome to give it a read, if interested. The title is Perceval’s Secret.

  3. Pingback: Revising for Length 108-02 | Write Thoughts

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