In the First post, I said I think Ty’s talk is an excellent crash course in Genre Writing, sometimes cast as lowbrow, but most popular forms of writing these days tend to conform to clear genre tropes, or making a point of hybridizing those for dramatic novelty.
There’s nothing intrinsically keeping genre stories from being Literary Fiction other than the degree to which they are willing to explore deeper themes in a mature way. That can even happen in a short story, so it’s not about being big thick graphic novels either. You can tell a lot about a character in a great short story.
How do we tell them apart? Do we need to? As writers, we need to be aware of them at least. The first trait used to distinguish work as being one or the other is if the story is plot or character driven.
Genre writing primarily focuses on plot over character development. What makes any story seem more Literary first and foremost, is its writers ability and willingness to spend more time with internal lives and motivations of it’s characters.
This is hard to do well, so it’s not surprising writers with less will to put in the time, or working to meet short deadlines often opt for a more expedient and fast moving plot driven story. The more here, is often about time we put in as writers into developing, editing, and curating our characters and script.
We do one in the form of a one page Tanka constraint in Making Comics at Syn. One can come before the other, you draw them and then come up with a back story. Or come up with that first and then draw them. But both I feel help a great deal in developing a compelling story.
Beyond that, there are many other traits that tend to distinguish Literary fiction from Genre writing. It’s kind of “know it when you see it” thing in some respect but we can definitely list them as the traditional perceived differences in stories that set out to be Literary, vs those built on a Genre foundation and not aspiring to more.
This lists originally created and posted by Jennifer Ellis is I think a good place to start, I like her full post and you should open to read it for sure, as well as some of the articles she links too. These lists are comparisons/contrasts, meant to illustrate at least how people tend to perceive what is called Literary work as different from Genre driven stories.
Traditional differences between genre and literary fiction by Jennifer Ellis:
“These are broad-brush differences that in some cases focus on the extremes of the categories and that disagreements abound. Many genre books have elements of literary fiction and vice versa and there is increasingly a third category of crossover fiction that will be discussed below.”
- Plot/Narrative driven
- Provides entertainment
- Happy/satisfying ending
- Straightforward prose
- Conventional life/current ideology
- Linear narrative that stays in present
- Wide range of readers
- Easy/fast to write
- Real life
- Characters have quirks/clever dialogue
- Focus on exterior life of character
- Reader watches plot unfold
- Climax often big – shootout, love scene
- Good writing
- Character arc/Theme/Language driven
- Not formulaic
- Provides meaning and cultural value
- Unhappy/unclear ending
- Unique and fresh prose
- Darker truths/challenging ideology
- Non-linear narrative with flashbacks
- Specific readers
- Hard/long to write
- Real life
- Characters are fully fleshed out humans
- Focus on interior life of character
- Reader infers some of plot
- Less accessible
- Climax can be small – decision, realization
- Good writing
Note the similarity between Jennifer’s lists and Ty’s description of ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Comedy’?* And in his talk Ty mentions lists of plot types, and genre, and this is really all very fuzzy science at best. But I think seeing patterns is useful in creative work. As artists and storytellers we are well served by exploiting the innate human tendency towards apophenia, patternicity. Both as a source of inspiration and a trait of the audience we can exploit.
Literary stories absolutely uses and utilizes Genre tropes often in the course of telling a story. But if you’re aiming for more nuance, look at when it makes sense to defy those patterns, and when to explore them beyond ‘just so‘.
At its core, the ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Comedy’ model Ty brings up are loosely based on the traditions of Greek Drama most of western fiction is rooted in. Which is really three forms. Tragedy, Comedy, and Satyr.
Tragedy is drama based on human suffering, that invokes in its audience a catharsis, and pleasure in the viewing. Tragedy deals with a big theme approach to love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between humans and our gods, both metaphysical and real.
In its earliest forms, the main protagonist of a tragedy commits some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant he has been. Then, as he slowly realizes his error, the world crumbles around him. Reputedly the three great playwrights of tragedy were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Aristotle is supposed to have argued that tragedy ‘cleansed the heart through pity and terror, purging us of our petty concerns and worries by making us aware that there can be nobility in suffering’. He calling this experience ‘catharsis’.
Tragedy became democratize somewhat, with the advent of Bourgeois tragedy, when for the first time stories depicting ‘Every Man‘ characters who were not gods, kings or classical heroes. And in its modern form Tragedy often depicts the stories of underdogs that never overcome, but the telling of how they get there is made an entertaining spectacle of sorrows.
Comedy I don’t think we need to explain much. That’s interesting inst it? It’s so basic, just like laughter.
But more than just funny ha ha, it’s anything that pleases the audience, and often that is open-ended.
The audience can imagine a story that continues beyond the end of the telling. So not just jokes! Story beats that are built into serialized monthly comics, the cliff hangers and conclusion of the Matrix. These are audience pleasing adventure stories with open endings more often than not.
That’s the modernist twist. In the Greek tradition, comedies were mostly satirical, mocking power for its vanity and foolishness. The first recognized master of comedy according to my reading for the Greeks was playwright Aristophanes. And a later key popular playwright from the Greeks was Menander who wrote about ordinary people. His work has been compared to sit-coms as an analogy for his social references.
The third officially recognized form for the Greeks was Satyr Plays. Eh now? Sounds a bit like Satire but not the same thing, a bit more narrowly defined here. These were short plays performed between the acts of Tragedies. They would provide meta commentary and make fun of the plight of the main characters in the longer tragedies. They don’t really exist anymore, it would be like interrupting the feature Presentation of Schindler’s List with short comedy skits mocking Schindler?
Satyr comes from the mythical half-human, half-goat creatures. Along with the costuming of beasts, actors in these plays additionally wore large phallus for comic effect. The Genre has gone by the wayside, hence why Ty skips mentioning it. But I do think it’s modern inheritor is sketch comedy so i thought it’s worth note.
Beyond the Greeks, there’s Drama, Romance, Epic, Erotic, Nonsense, Lyric, Mythopoeia, Satire, & Tragicomedy. Relatively recently Speculative fiction has been added to the list, and comics have recently embraced, and have been embraced for Biography, Memoir, & Autobiography. A lot there, I do recommend you read those links. But that’s not even the end of it. Genre is a vague concept even when well-defined. This clip talks about Genre in terms of what the goals of the writing is: Descriptive vs Narrative, & etc. Even more ways to slice it.