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Understanding Genre



Genre is a paradigm of shared characteristics conspiring to create a pliable mould that informs the work being poured into it. For a writer, it is a recipe for creating a story based on commonalities. I say commonalities, because stories within a certain genre, say, the Western, contain a number of shared elements, such as characters packing six-guns, riding horses, and drinking in saloons. Location, dress, props, and time period are important indicators of genre. Science fiction stories, for example might entail the use of non-existing gadgets, exotic creatures in equally exotic apparel, and perhaps other worldly locations, or at least, transformed or foreign spaces. I say ‘might’ and ‘pliable’, because none of these characteristics are set in stone. In the Science Fiction Western, Cowboys and Aliens, for example, alien spaceships and cowboys are juxtaposed unexpectedly, dispensing with a typical requirement for a futuristic time-line.

Genres Evolve

The evolution of genre, much like genetic evolution, involves successful stories passing on their genetic code – their characteristics, to future generations. But because there is a requirement of novelty or originality, the code is never exactly the same, but contains new inflections, which, if successful, are added to the existing genre and passed on to the next iteration. We see this evolution in the Western Hero, for example, where the protagonist of old, played by the likes of John Wayne, goes from being a tough but straight-laced man representing conservative values, to the ambivalent and racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, and finally, to the unequivocal anti-hero of Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven – a man with a violent past, a killer of women and children, who, nonetheless, expresses love for his dead wife, and whom we root for by the end of the film.

Mixing Genres

Things become at once more exciting and complicated when we mix Genres. Certain mixtures are common – Action/Comedy films such as Bad Boys, or Crime/Love Stories such as Out of Sight. Some mixtures are even more exotic, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show – a Musical/Comedy/Horror/Science Fiction/Love Story that was concocted decades ago, yet still remains fresh.

The purpose of genre, then, is to guide the expectations of audiences and readers, as much as writers, by referencing past stories of similar ilk. Genre helps audiences and readers choose a story as much as it helps inform the story itself. Good stories inject new and unexpected elements, which help to keep the material fresh.


Genres are a groups of shared characteristics that survive form story to story – albeit with new elements and variations that are intended to keep the material fresh. Genres not only assist the reader or audience in selecting which stories to consume, they also provide the writer with a blue-print to emulate, extend, and adapt.


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