Fiction Style Guide Part 1: Literary or Genre Fiction

Amongst the droves of more exciting decisions that must be made when tackling any writing project are a few key, somewhat minor seeming, but all important things that need to be fleshed out first. Probably the most basic of these questions that every writer should be asking themselves is….Am I looking to write a work of literary, or genre fiction? To tackle this question, we will first define them both, and then move on to some of the key benefits of each. Hopefully by the end, you’ll know exactly which path you intend to follow!

Photo by Flickr user Kate Skegg

Photo by Flickr user Kate Skegg

Genre Fiction: The word genre itself is defined at it’s most basic as any grouping of work, literary, musical, or artistic, which follows similar form, style and content. For instance, Romance, Horror, Mystery and Science Fiction are all forms of genre fiction. The most aspect for a work of genre fiction is that it does it’s best to follow the normal structure of other works in it’s genre. While there is some give and take for variations, it is the basic structure which almost always stands. Plot is king in works of genre fiction. Nearly all aspects of any well-written genre story work together as cogs in a well-oiled machine whose sole purpose is to drive the plot forward towards its conclusion.

Photo by Flickr user Angelskiss31

Photo by Flickr user Angelskiss31

Literary Fiction: Literary fiction is a littler harder to define and is often debated heavily throughout the authorial community. In fact, it wasn’t until taking a creative writing course in college, that I really noticed that there was a distinction being made, and that all work was not in fact genre fiction. Looking back now, I see this was a little naive, but hey, we’ve all been somewhere naive before. Literary fiction, rather than focusing on a predefined structure and plot, as genre fiction does, focuses more on relatable stories and ideas, experimentation, and above all else, character. Literary fiction isn’t focused on plot, it puts the emphasis on the development of characters that have incredible depth, often takes a slower pace, more serious tone and is thought of to be more elegantly written. More often than not, we are treated to a roller coaster of emotions and understanding that pulls us through the characters life, occasionally ending with what may in hindsight resemble some form of conclusion in plot.

Really, the only way you’ll be able to  decide which route you’re taking, is to examine the ideas you’ve come up with for a possible work of fiction, and break them down to their simplest forms. Literary fiction tends to focus on real life situations and understandings rather than the fantastical and often completely unrelatable narratives of any specific genre. Knowing this can very easily lead you to your conclusion.

If you’ve decided you want to write a who-dun-it in which the events that lead up to the discovery of the killer are just as important as the man who finds the clues, you are writing genre fiction. If you are writing about of a band of reckless thieves who stumble across an artifact that leads them on a wild, cross-continental goose chase to save the world, this is also genre fiction. In both of these examples, it is the plot which drives the story. In the first example it is the series of clues which moves the story along and in the second example, the need to save the world. While these are both interesting and story worthy ideas, they lack the depth of character and strength of relatable emotion that any literary fiction work needs. I believe the most obvious benefit that genre fiction provides is escape. Readers of genre fiction look to enter a world in which they’ve never seen, a world where they are surprised at every turn and therefore have to do little thinking on their own. Of course this can be deviated from, but in general, it is the escapist attitude that drives a person to read genre fiction. We read horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and many of these other similar genres for those exact reasons; to be exposed to a world that is nothing like ours. This makes genre fiction one of the best selling forms of fiction in the world, and that fact alone may lead you to lean in the direction of composing a work of genre fiction.

Conversley, if you’ve decided that you want to tell the inner struggle of an often bullied and mentally abused teenage wallflower as she finds her true path in life, you are writing literary fiction. If your story is about the subtle movement from angry sociopath to loving father and family man, realized through the every day experiences he finds himself faced with, you’re writing literary fiction. In these two examples, the focus of your reader is the character. You want them to relate. You want it to be the depth and emotion that this character has to shine through no matter the actual situation they are faced with. Of course, the situations in which they find themselves, will have their place in the story as well, but it is the characters reactions and handling of those situation that drive the point of the story home, not the situations themselves. While genre fiction often finds the largest audience in the short term, it is literary fiction that has proven itself, over the years, to hold the staying power. Jane Austen’s Emma, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, are all excellent examples of literary fiction, and likely works that you have heard of many times over the years. It isn’t to say that genre fiction doesn’t have the power to stick around, but it wasn’t until the last thirty or so years, that genre fiction has begun to captivate readers as literary fiction always has. Again, it is the importance of character and internal development that keeps these stories at the forefront of our minds and on the curriculum of every English or similar class you’ll attend.

Photo by Flickr user Robert Burdock

Photo by Flickr user Robert Burdock

Despite the distinctions between these fiction types, it is important to note that there is certainly room for a mix of both literary and genre fiction. Some of the better works of genre fiction are in fact literary as well. Take, for example, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This is one of the more obvious accounts that I couldn’t resist pointing out. Grahame-Smith literally took the book Pride and Prejudice and added zombies, keeping the depth of the original, but adding that genre flair. I have yet to read it, but I’ve heard it worked out quite well! As a more subtle example however, we can examine Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  On it’s surface, without ever having read it, you can easily classify this as a work of horror fiction. Having some knowledge of its conception, I can tell you that it was in fact written in a competition of sorts in which Mary, her husband Percy and Lord Byron had decided to see who could create the better work of horror fiction. So, from it’s very beginning stages, Frankenstein was conceived as a way to scare it’s readers through the horror genre structure and the actions of both Frankenstein and the monster. Here is where the lines of literary and genre start to blur. While it fits many of the conventional lines of genre (especially since arguably it was integral in the actual creation of the genre), the story itself is an in-depth study of the psychosis of Dr. Frankenstein, the struggles of human understanding and acceptance, and just what it means to be a living, breathing human being. Because Frankenstein uses such deep character analysis and is driven forward through such an intense fog of actual human emotional realities, it is still considered a literary work, even while tackling the unrealistic aspects of reanimation of the dead. This is just one example of the countless fiction stories which can play both the literary and genre game successfully. In the end, to weave them both into a story that is coherent and powerful, simply requires the inclusion of rich and powerful character driven movement towards an unrealistic and possibly unrelatable conclusion.

So, now that you have an understanding of both forms of fiction, and a slight idea of how each can benefit your writing, it’s time to go off and decide just where your next best story falls. Do you want to explore deep relatable meanings and understanding, or do you want to tell a story that follows a more concrete structural path. Perhaps you want to do a little of both. You’re now armed with the knowledge to make the decision yourself! Go now, write a little bit and see what comes out! BUT, before you go too far, make sure you take the next logical step and read my Fiction Style Guide Part 2: Story Length. In this next part of the series we will discuss the differences between Flash and Short Fiction, Novels and Novellas, and help you decide which style will suit your story best!

Write on Writers!

Questions or comments? Have something important to add that I may have missed, please, leave a comment!

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2 responses to “Fiction Style Guide Part 1: Literary or Genre Fiction

  1. Pingback: Fiction Style Guide Part 2: Story Length | The Write Subject·

  2. Pingback: Fiction Style Guide Part 3: Point of View | The Write Subject·

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