This isn’t a post where you get to learn all the different genres and all the ways to tell them apart. I don’t think that material would fit into a post, because the more I learn about genres, the more subgenres I come across—and many of them are poorly defined unless you read them, and then they make a lot of sense (or sometimes not, but hey—this isn’t about that).
This is a post about the importance of knowing and understanding the genre you’re writing in. Whether fiction or nonfiction, whether long or short, whether online or off, whether self-published or traditionally published, you’re working within a genre for every piece you write.
Each one has its own rules, expectations, standards and tropes that you defy at your own risk of miserable failure.
Let’s be clear: You can have a great piece, well written, well executed and all around wonderful, but if you’re marketing it under the wrong label you’re going to turn off a lot of readers, simply because you defied their expectations in a bad way. It’ll be small consolation to you that a lot of them were probably the wrong readers to begin with.
Genres are kind of like flavors of ice cream. Different people like different flavors. Some dislike certain flavors. But just about everyone is going to be put off if you promise them mint chip and give them toffee chip instead. The same goes for genres. Some like horror. Some like fantasy. Some like both. But if you promise them fantasy (even dark fantasy) and give them horror, they’re not going to be happy with you. Even if they can’t define the difference, they know there is a difference, they feel it, and they’re dissatisfied, because you “lied” to them.
What’s worse is if you promise them fantasy, follow all the fantasy rules and conventions, but you’re story is really horror. Not only are you going to dissatisfy those who really wanted fantasy, you’re not even going to be able to re-label it and market it to horror readers. Each genre has its own rules and conventions, which you should follow (unless you have very good reasons not to).
You might be thinking that a good story is a good story and the label shouldn’t matter. But you’re wrong. Let’s switch gears to nonfiction and you’ll see why.
Say you’re a parent and you want to learn something about autism, because you suspect your child has autism but you’re not sure. What you need is nonfiction, but more than that, you need parenting nonfiction, and you need an informational piece of parenting nonfiction (versus a how-to or advocacy or political or quirky parenting story piece). So, you find an article that’s printed in a parenting magazine. The title is “What Parents Need to Know About Autism,” and the blurb says “Dr. Lankyhead tells parents how to tell if their child has autism.” Great, right? This piece is exactly what you need.
Except, when you read it, it’s written in medicalese so dense you know it must have been written with researchers in mind. You can’t make heads or tails of it, and you come away even more confused about autism than you started. As a reader, you’d be pretty angry, wouldn’t you? Of course, in the real world this would never happen—rather, if it did happen, chances are the editor would be fired for publishing something so clearly inappropriate for the audience of their magazine.
Genre matters. It matters in nonfiction. It matters in fiction. Genre is a promise. If you break that promise, you lose your readers’ trust and respect. If you lose your readers’ trust and respect, chances are they’re not going to give you another chance—because there are a lot of writers out there vying for their time and they’ll never have enough time to read all the work of all the “good” writers, let alone giving a writer a second chance to break their promise.
This, by the way, doesn’t mean you can’t defy conventions or turn them on their heads. You can, but… 1) You’ve got to be that good, 2) You’ve got to have a good reason, way beyond proving that you can, and 3) You’ve got to know you’re doing it, so you can ensure the payoff is worth breaking the reader’s trust even temporarily. In other words, you have to be good enough at your craft to keep readers reading, even though you gave them something they didn’t expect, so they’ll stick around long enough for you to prove that it was worth it by showing why you did it. Even then, even if you succeed, some readers will hate you for it.