Romance, Horror, and Ice Cream

I was thinking yesterday about genres of fiction: romance, horror, mystery, etc. It’s easy to think of genres as being like ice cream flavors – just different varieties of the same thing, no more than a matter of taste. But in fact, genres differ in more fundamental ways.

Here’s a (non-exhaustive) look at how various genres stack up.

Romance is the most restrictive of the major genres, enforcing both a plot and a reader emotion. The plot is that two people are attracted to each other, go through a rocky courting process, and finally end up together. The emotion is a happy ending (and a general warm-fuzzy throughout, despite some turbulence). It doesn’t matter how much romance a novel may contain – if it doesn’t have both of those things, the plot and the emotion, then it is by definition not a romance novel.

Mystery is also restrictive, but not as much as romance. Mystery enforces a plot – a crime happens, usually a murder, someone spends the book gathering clues, and finally solves it – but not an emotion. A mystery can feel any way the author likes and still be a mystery.

By contrast, horror enforces an emotion (fear) but not a plot, which I would argue is even less restrictive. You can write about anything you want as long as it produces that feeling.

Science fiction has no restrictions on plot or feeling. A sci fi story can be any type of story at all, as long as it contains the right elements: advanced technology, aliens, futuristic stuff, whatever. If that sounds broad and vague, well, it is. Stories as wildly divergent in tone and structure and theme as Dune and Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are all considered sci fi, just because they have the right elements.

Then you’ve got historical fiction, which doesn’t enforce plot, feeling or particular elements, but only setting: it has to evoke a distinct sense of time and place. The Western is a curious animal, a proper subset of historical fiction which likewise has a setting requirement.

Finally, you’ve got fantasy, which vies with mainstream (non-genre?) fiction as the most inclusive branch in existence. Fantasy makes no demands on plot, emotion, particular story elements, or even setting. The only thing fantasy requires – the only thing – is that you think outside the box of what’s physically possible. In effect, the restriction is that you’re not allowed to restrict yourself. (The subgenre of sword-and-sorcery fantasy – which is what many people think about when they hear “fantasy” – is more restrictive.)

Obviously, most of these genres can and do overlap.

You can like or hate any genre you want. That’s fine. But you should understand that saying “I like mysteries” is fundamentally different from saying “I like fantasy.” The former is saying “I like to hear a particular story type retold in a new way.” The latter is saying “Let’s see what kind of crazy this author has cooked up.” The sky is not even close to the limit.

And I do like me some crazy.

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4 responses to “Romance, Horror, and Ice Cream

  1. and then there’s fanFic, the best of them all.

  2. Well, yes and no. I’m always hesitant to get into broad generalizations about genres that I don’t work in (or at least read very extensively). Like the Tardis, they may be a lot larger on the inside than they appear from the outside. I wrote about that on my blog a while ago: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=2259.

    Mystery (the one genre I do know something about — though I’ve read a lot of science fiction, too) is simply a structure, and you can build whatever you want inside that structure. For one example, it’s very good for social commentary. Inherent Vice, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gosford Park are very different in tone, subject matter, and audience, but all three are classically constructed mystery stories where the mystery is secondary to the observations about the world, through the lens of a specific culture and era.

    I wrote a book of mystery stories where the individual stories, when taken together, told the story of the building of a family — as various mysteries were solved along the way. This is why mystery combines well with any other genre, including literary. It’s just a framework.

    Romance may be just as versatile, though I admit it doesn’t look that way from the outside.

    • I think we’re saying about the same thing. I’m not arguing that mystery isn’t versatile – I’m saying that it has requirements for the plot, whereas science fiction (for instance) does not, and hence is more restrictive. A lot of possibilities within a consistent framework – “a particular story type retold in a new way.”

      I also agree that romance is more restrictive than mystery, because it has plot *and* emotional requirements.

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