Conversations: In defense of Genre

Ice crusted the parking lot as I slipped my way to the coffee shop. The warm spell we’d experienced over the weekend had turned frosty with the blizzard sweeping across middle America, turning the pavement to a black skating rink.

I should have expected the cold, but the sudden spell of warmth caught me off guard and ignited my hope of spring. Worse, I now nursed a cold because winter hadn’t followed the rules.

Which was exactly what I was going to talk to Sally about today – following genre rules as she writes her first novel.

She waited at our table, beside a crackling fire, reading her Nook.

“Hey,” she said as I slid into the seat. Blessed Kathy walked over with my mug of vanilla latte.

“What are you reading?”

“A romance. Taking notes on why I like it, like you suggested.”

“Perfect. Now, tell me, what do all romances have in common?”

She put down the Nook. Thought for a moment. “A hero and heroine. A common thread that pulls them together. Conflict that pushes them apart. A breakup. And a happy ending.”

I pulled out a tissue. “And if you don’t have one or more of those?”

“Then it’s not a romance. I feel cheated as a reader.”

“Exactly. You’ve just defined the difference between a genre novel and a literary novel. Genre novels come with expectations embedded. A mystery always has a dead body in the beginning and the goal is to find the killer. A thriller always has a catastrophe looming at the end, and what we call a “lit fuse” or ticking clock to heighten the sense of danger. A fantasy has other world attributes that we need to understand, and women’s fiction is a story about relationships and a woman’s journey as she confronts an issue in her life. We expect these things when we open a genre book, and if an author tries to step out of them, instead of being innovative, they are simply breaking the rules.”

“But aren’t we supposed to be innovative? To do something unique?”

“You’re supposed to give a fresh twist to the story by adding in a unique plot element, or character, but when it comes to genre expectations, you have to stick to the rules. Unless you’re writing literary or general fiction. But even they have a standard story arc. The truth is, to be a great writer, you have to adhere to the structure of genre and story. You’re innovation comes in how you deliver the story within those rules.”

“Like, the Super bowl. The Giants play the game one way, the Patriots another, and yet they all have to follow the rules of the sport.”

“Correct. Think if like a building – every building has to have a foundation, walls, a roof. The interior is where the innovation and uniqueness happens. But this works to a novelist’s advantage. Instead of looking at it as confining, consider it as a way to keep you headed in the right direction. When you learn story arc, and then the elements of genre, you have a road map to developing your story. It actually becomes a sort of checklist to make sure you’ve created a powerful story.”

“So, what is standard story arc?”

“I’ll give you a checklist when we get further along, but every story has the same arc. It starts with your character in home world, or their status quo. Then, something happens to change this, called the inciting incident, which has the effect of sending your character on a figurative, or sometimes literal journey we call the Noble Quest. During this quest, he’s forced to make decisions that challenge who he is, and may change him until he comes to the Black Moment – his worst fears coming true. At this point, he has an epiphany, which changes him, and gives him the power to do something at the end that he can’t at the beginning to ‘save the day’. This is the point of the story – to change your character and tell some truth in his life. They end the story in a new home world, a changed person.”

She picked up her Nook. “Yes. I can see how even a romance does that. My hero learns that he needs love in his life.”

“Exactly. All the genre elements build on this main story arc. This week, in your reading, I want you to outline all these steps for every book or movie you read. And then, because you want to write a romance, also identify those elements that create a powerful romance. If you’re looking for a resource, I have a book called Kiss and Tell: How to write a romance that also identifies and teaches you how to do this.”

She pulled out her folder from her bag. “And what about him, my hero? I brought a picture.”

Cute Ben Affleck was pasted to the page. “Did you give him an identity?”

“He’s a healer who lost his best friend. He’s besieged by guilt.”

“So he’s lost his confidence.”

She nodded.

“Okay, that will work. Next week we’ll talk about how to develop a plot around him, by giving him a dark moment in the past. So, your homework this week is to ask him: What was the worst thing that ever happened to you? Write it down, like a journal entry. I promise, you’ll use it in your story. And then, find yourself a heroine, and do the same.”

“And in the meantime, read as many romances as I can find?” She put her nook away. “My family may never eat again.”

Truth: Genre writing is about expectations. Fulfill the expectations and you’ll satisfy your reader. Thus, all great novels have a heroes journey story arc, and all great genre novels follow the rules of genre.

Dare: Does your current WIP follow the rules of story and genre? Discover what they are, work your story into the structure, and then add the innovation and uniqueness.

Still trying to pick a genre?

Maybe this will help:

I asked the wise and brilliant Chip MacGregor  (  what genre was the hottest right now…

” The fastest growing category in publishing right now is YA, but that’s only because of TWILIGHT. Aside from that, romance is definitely the strongest category.


Next fastest growing? Probably thrillers. What genre sold the most? In terms of numbers of books, it was romance.”


and the illustrious and also wise Steve Laube ( said, “If I were to be held down and forced into an answer I would have to say “romance.” That category, while always evergreen, continues to be the staple of the fiction industry.” 


(Thanks, guys, for your help!) 


so, there you go…


Every voice counts!  


High concept? Low concept? I’m so confused…

BookTherapyGal : Hey Rach! Are you as excited as I am about our new Blog-A-Book Project at MBT?

heartlikemary : Yes, I love this idea.

BookTherapyGal: I can’t wait to see what the MBT Voices help us come up with.  But, we’ve been hearing all this talk lately about High concept and Low concept books.  What do you think of when you hear those terms?

heartlikemary : I think “oh brother, more marketing schmaltz.”  haha


BookTherapyGal: Good point! I mean a good book is a good book, right?  But, maybe there are two types of good books.

heartlikemary : yes, a good book is a good book. But high concept to me is a story with high stakes, ones that are easily explained.  

BookTherapyGal: High stakes…like global stakes?   The takeover of the world?  Or,like…a WW2 movie?  heartlikemary : Maybe not that high. More like the protagonist life is impacted as well as the world around him.

BookTherapyGal: Oh, more like Erin Brockovich?  Where she takes on a big company that is killing people?  : Or like the Pelican Brief, about the Supreme Court?

heartlikemary : Sure, Erin Brockovich is a great example, or the Pelican Brief, any Grisham book.: Movies like Die Hard are high concept

BookTherapyGal: So, maybe it’s something that affects society at large….Eagle Eye is a recent example I’ve seen.

heartlikemary : Even a story where perhaps hundreds of people are not at risk can be high concept.  It has to be a story where the protagonist has a lot to lose, where there is a force against them, has an ironic twist, and where the premise of the story can be said in roughly one or two sentences.

BookTherapyGal: Like the Patriot?  Where he’s losing his children…but there is also the stake of a nation winning its freedom?

heartlikemary : Patriot is a great example and it can be said in a sentence or two. If the story has to be described or explained, it’s probably not high concept

BookTherapyGal: But, going back to Die Hard…it also has something personal at stake…John wants to reconcile with his wife. So, a high concept can have personal stakes as well.

heartlikemary : Absolutely. A high concept book has stakes that are both private and public, but the stakes have to be universal with a fresh twist and idea.

And low concept has less public stakes, perhaps even the personal stakes are minimized.  But we love the characters and their lives.

BookTherapyGal: So, it’s really where the majority of the focus of the book is at — deep, or wide. 

BookTherapyGal : So, what about Low concept….maybe that’s a story that goes deep, rather than wide?

heartlikemary : I like how you said that

BookTherapyGal: LIke…your recent favorite, About a Boy?

BookTherapyGal : Or the one I saw recently, Martian Child?

heartlikemary : Both great examples. Low concept is a story more feeling or character driven, and the strength of the story comes out in execution, rather than pitch.

heartlikemary :

BookTherapyGal : So, could a funny one, like How to Lose a Guy,or even Marley and Me be a low concept story?

heartlikemary : Certainly. Though Marley and Me has high concept elements

heartlikemary : A man and his dog. We see in a few words what it’s about, but the strength of it comes in how the story is executed, rather than some amazing twist, or powerful force.  It’s a heartwarming story – thus, low concept.

BookTherapyGal : Ah…so a low concept book CAN have high concept elements.  It’s just that its concept can’t be explained in a dynamic pitch.

heartlikemary Star Wars  is a great example.  BIG movie, low concept —: you have to explain it to really understand it.

BookTherapyGal Okay, so high concept films are easily to get excited about from one line….an asteriod is going to blow up the earth, and a ragtag group of scientists are the only chance we have to stop it.  The world has stopped spinning, and Argonauts must tunnel inside to restart it.

heartlikemary : Yes. Let’s think of some low concept books or movies. How about Lars and the Real Girl.

BookTherapyGal : Pride and Prejudice would be low concept, with high concept elements.. Deep, but rippling out into wide….

heartlikemary : Rippling into the constructs of society of Jane Austin’s day

BookTherapyGal : And women’s fiction may tend toward would be low concept, with ripples toward high (because they tend toward social issues, and the story strength is in the execution of the relationships.)

heartlikemary : exactly

BookTherapyGal : So, just so I understand this – low concept doesn’t mean BAD concept, or “less money” concept, just a different direction in focus, and how it’s pitched?

heartlikemary : No, low concept is not a bad concept at all.

BookTherapyGal : So, perhaps suspense and thrillers tend toward high concept, since they are usually a story about fighting a great universal foe, often with a twist, and romances tend toward low concept, because their charm is in the telling of the story.  (ie: When Harry met Sally…low concept, big movie.) But they can have elements of both. 

BookTherapyGal : Whereas a Romantic Suspense could be more high concept with ripples toward low.

heartlikemary : Certainly. But be careful not to label or “make a rule.” There can be low concept thrillers. Slasher movies – low concept.

BookTherapyGal : Good point

BookTherapyGal : So, when we’re looking at a story, we need to ask, is it a wider story – a story about a powerful force, maybe affecting society, with an ironic twist that can be concisely explained, …or deeper, more about relationships, with the strength in the execution?   And that will help us determine if it is low concept or high concept?

heartlikemary :  Start with: can you state your premise in a sentence or two?

Can you communicate your idea in twenty words or less, in a compelling way?: That’s the beginning of high concept. Working out the wide and deep of it must come next.

BookTherapyGal So it IS about marketing. Or at least about the thirty seconds you spend in the elevator with an agent or editor. 

heartlikemary (1:52:58 PM): lol, yes

BookTherapyGal (1:52:47 PM):  So, I’m thinking that as we’re deciding what genre to write, we can be thinking about whether we want something with high stakes, wide global appeal and problem, or maybe deeper, about relationships, etc.  And that’ll help us choose our genre.  Good Stuff, Rach! Thanks for your input, and don’t forget to vote!

heartlikemary (1:52:57 PM): I’m good for some things

BookTherapyGal (1:53:02 PM): yes, you are. *g*

heartlikemary (1:53:04 PM): I’ll vote!

BookTherapyGal (1:53:09 PM): ttyl!

heartlikemary (1:53:13 PM): ttyl



Vote! Every voice counts!

What kind of book should we write?

 What kind of book do you like to read?  I usually start with this question when I’m teaching students how to write.  Because, the things you are reading will usually determine the genre that you are most equipped and most interested in writing in.  I read a lot of different genres – historical romance, romantic comedy, women’s fiction…but the genre most represented on my shelf is romantic suspense and thrillers. 


So, that’s what I tend to write.  Have I written the others?  Yes.  But my strengths, the genre I am honing is the one I love the most.  Romantic Suspense. 


Whenever you start a book, you need to begin with the TYPE of book you’re writing…the GENRE.   So, go take a look at your bookshelf, and then come back here, and consider…what genre of book shall we write together? 


Here’s the deal – we’ve streamlined this process by creating polls…so we’ll log your preferences in by poll. BUT, if you’d like to add to your vote, go over to VOICES where we’ll have a discussion about this week’s voting topic, and you can add your two, (or more!) cents. 


If you want to think about it for a day or so, tomorrow Rach and I will be discussing High Concept and Low Concept, how they fit into Story Stakes, and how they apply to different genres.  Maybe that will help. 


Also, because, well, we need to write this book, as well as the OTHER books we’re writing this year, Rach and I have chosen genres we know how to write.  Probably you could write many others, but we feel confident that you’ll learn lots about how to write books in general, regardless of the genre we write.  (in other words, we can only think so hard, and have room in our brains for so much information.  This is it, folks!)


Vote!  Every voice counts!