Writing and Editing

The Thing About Genres

I recently finished reading a novel by Tess Thompson, entitled Caramel and Magnolias. I met Ms. Thompson after taking a dialogue-writing workshop from her at a writer’s conference. I was impressed with Ms. Thompson, her advice, anecdotes, and general attitude toward the craft. So I thought I should read some of her work.

It was funny. When I asked her which novel I should read (she had seven published at the time in at least two series) she wasn’t sure which to recommend because she doesn’t write for a male audience. In short, she writes chick-lit.

I have always been of the mind that if a story is good and the author tells it well that it doesn’t matter what genre it is. (Though, to be honest, I do prefer some genres over others. Without some outside reason like many recommendations from trusted friends or a personal relationship with the author, I probably wouldn’t pick up a romance.) But hey, I read Love Story all on my own.

So I dove into Caramel and Magnolias, which is considered romantic suspense, and read it in something like three days. My impression? It was good. Not great, but an entertaining read. I never felt the need to skip over a passage; never wanted to just walk away. Her characters were rendered well enough that I cared about them and what happened to them. It was good.

But my strongest impression had to do with the manner in which she chose to write the story. In short, she chose this novel exactly opposite of how I would have written it.

Let me explain. There are four basic plots in the novel: one follows a detective’s investigation of a shady adoption agency; the second follows a young woman who has given up on love for ten years and whether she will allow it into her life again; the third involves the first woman’s best friend, who is in a loveless marriage and an unsuccessful quest for motherhood; the fourth involves a male bartender friend of the two women and his unrequited love for the married friend. All are interesting. All are very human.

The way Ms. Thompson chose to write the novel, the two love stories—the loveless woman and the detective, and the friend/mother and the bartender—were the primary plots, while the investigation was pretty much a minor subplot.

If I had written this novel, using the same basic plot elements, I would have concentrated mostly on the detective’s investigation, with his affair with the loveless woman as a major subplot. Everything else would have fallen back to minor subplots.

Now I’m not saying my way would be better, or worse. It would just be different. Ms. Thompson wrote the novel the way she did and it is romantic suspense. If I had written in the way I prefer, it would have been a detective novel, possibly a mystery.

The only real difference between the genres is in what the author chooses to emphasize.

To take it another step, add scenes showing the bad guy’s thoughts and motivations to my version of the novel could turn it from a detective novel into a thriller. Add a lot of gunplay, it becomes action/adventure.

My point here is to point out that the sole difference between many genres is simply a matter of what the author chooses to emphasize.


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