Writing

Genre

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 13:16 min

Readers’ expectations are intrinsically tied to genre. Neil explains how an understanding of your story’s genre can help you provide delightful surprises to your audience.

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I used to puzzle a lot over what genre was. I knew that I was writing sometimes genre fiction, sometimes not. I knew that I had a huge advantage in that the majority of what I was writing as a young writer was comics, was graphic novels, which is a medium, comics, that looks to the uninitiated like a genre. But because it wasn't a genre, it was just a medium, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. I could write historical fiction. I could write fantasy fiction. I could write high fantasy and low fantasy. I could do science fiction. I could do pure horror. I could do political fiction. I could do it all. And because it was all coming out as comics, people didn't mind. But what genre was baffled me. [MUSIC PLAYING] It wasn't until I read a book by a film professor in California called Linda Williams, who wrote a book called "Hard Core." And it was a film professor's analysis of hardcore pornography. And 3/4 of the way through the book, she compared hardcore pornography films of the 1970s to the musical. And suddenly, the penny dropped for me, because musicals, like 1970s porn films, had certain things that have to happen. You need the opening song by a large chorus of people. You need the heroine singing on her own about what she thinks is going to happen. You need the song that's the first meeting of our heroine and our hero. You need the comic relief song with the three robust people behind him. You need all of those things, ending up with the final song, which the hero and the heroine sing together that indicates they've been brought together. You need the final chorus, and then we're out. And the truth is in a classic musical, the plot exists purely to stop all of the songs from happening at the same time. Just as in a '70s porn film, according to Linda Williams, the plot existed to stop all of the sex happening at the same time. Though actually, that tells me what the difference is between a cowboy novel and a novel set in cowboy times, because you can just look at it from a perspective of reader expectations. What are they coming to this for? What will they feel cheated if they do not get? They're going to expect the cattle stampede. They're going to expect the showdown at high noon. They're going to expect the fight in the saloon. They're going to expect-- you start listing the things. And you go, OK. So the plot actually needs to exist to keep all of these things from happening at the same time. Or you can do a novel set in the Old West, and none of those things need to happen. You can go after completely different things. But you need to understand, at that point, you're writing something that might look like genre, but isn't. And that people may point to it as genre, and it's not. And that if somebody picks up your novel expecting genre, they will be disappointed, just as they would be if they went to see a musical and there were no songs at all. So a lot of what you wind up doing then with genre is...


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Award-winning author Neil Gaiman has spent more than a quarter of a century crafting vivid, absorbing fiction. Now, the author of Stardust, Coraline, and The Sandman teaches his approach to imaginative storytelling in his online writing class. Learn how to find your unique voice, develop original ideas, and breathe life into your characters. Discover Neil’s philosophy on what drives a story—and open new windows to the stories inside you.



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Comments

Brennen L.

I'm slightly confused by the last bit there, the "Getting out of your comfort zone" bit. Is Neil saying to try out different genres we're unfamiliar with to get a better grasp on those we know? That when you're starting out, dip your toes in stuff that interests you but not as well versed in to find your voice? I know he's not saying "You're a big fan of horror or fantasy? Good! Never write those stories, focus on what you don't like & don't know a thing about, such as Young Adult stuff", I'm just a bit unclear is all.

Sam

Genre has always been a tricky thing for me and even now I'm still confused about it, but I think I have to really sit down and do my own research into it. However, this lesson has helped make it a more tangible topic to look into.

A fellow student

Please aspire to be more than a good copy. Know the rules and learn how to dance with them.

A fellow student

Now I understand the link between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett...this particular technique was common to both

Aaron B.

I haven't watched these in a while and that's because I've been busy finishing my first book and getting ready to publish it. Now, after about 2 and a half months I'm finally finished Goodnight, Little Slayer. It's going to be self-published on Amazon and B&N tomorrow. Now, this isn't a promotion for my book. If you want to check it out feel free that's the name, Goodnight, Little Slayer. Here's my thoughts on this lesson. I actually didn't know what to call Goodnight, Little Slayer and I actually drifted so far away from all of the genres that I can't really call it anything. I can call it crime but it has crime elements without truly delving into the criminal element of the crime genre. I can call it family, because it does have a family at the center of the story but that's the majority of novels, movies, and television shows out there these days. So, I don't really know what to call it. It's about eighty-six pages and it all take place over the course of about four hours in terms of the actual storyline, excluding the memories which takes place over the course of several years. But, it was an interesting story because I managed to get into the headspace of another and tell his story. I guess the genre would be general short fiction and that's all right. It's a story that focuses more on bringing this person to life than actually fitting into the mold of some other field that may or may not be right for me. And that's ok, to me.

Alexandria S.

With the 4 novels I have in development, I will definitely try to get out of the comfort zone for each of them. I am also going to try on defying expectations a reader wants. For one of my stories, it’s about a French girl who lived in a jewelry store all her life and at around 14, she goes to see Paris in the late hours (the story takes place in Paris, France) supposedly this would seem like the typical romantic cliche where she bumps into a boy, but instead of a boy she bumps into a girl.

Ekin Ö.

What Neil describes in the first of this lesson reminded me of one of the masterpiece books in the software development industry: Design Patterns (by the Gang of Four, 1994). In the book, it says: "Novelists and playwrights rarely design their plots from scratch. Instead, they follow patterns like “Tragically Flawed Hero” (Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.) or “The Romantic Novel” (countless romance novels)." My comment may seem too far away from storytelling, but I believe they are similar. Genre is much like a design pattern.

STEVEN B.

Adding to Niel's comment, a good example of a difference in a cowboy movie and a film set in the cowboy times is the 2018 film Sisters Brothers. I and my brother went to see this film in the cinema and were both lightly surprised at the drama of the film and lack of violent action. Most other people in the cinema found the realistic drama of the film as boring and flat.

A fellow student

I found this the most useful and thought-provoking lesson yet. One of the things that it did was make me do some research into the genre of the novel that I am planning and to look at how I might learn from common elements in the genre. I found this website about the genres in Fantasy Fiction helpful: https://thoughtsonfantasy.com/2015/12/07/17-common-fantasy-sub-genres/

Carolyn S.

I love this lesson Neil. It is so great to be able to clearly identify different genre's and the expectations of the readers for those genres ... I am now identifying the current project I am working on as Magical Realism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_realism Now i know what the rules are and I am ready to break them. Attached is an illustration from our book.