18 July 2013

Sorting Out Genres and Modes

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are overstuffed (sometimes literally). Fellow fantasist Bruce Coville credited her, especially at the start of the series, with putting more neat stuff into every chapter than anyone else. But the books also hit all the buttons for several storytelling genres at once.

There’s the genre of the British school story, itself a subsection of coming-of-age narratives. There’s the mystery genre, as Ken Jennings noted. In some books there’s the sports-book genre, where conflicts get worked out on the playing field. And of course there’s the chosen-one-battles-against-evil genre, which many people mistake for all fantasy.

In fact, I don’t think fantasy is a genre at all. It’s what I call a mode. Genres are defined by the plots readers expect: detective solves puzzling crime, couple gets together, gang pulls off heist (or not), soldiers carry out mission, chosen one defeats evil, and so on.

In contrast, modes are defined by their settings and what is possible in those fictional worlds. The major modes I see are:

  • contemporary realistic—stories set in the world that readers recognize as like their own.
  • historic, and thus constrained to some extent by past events.
  • fantastic, breaking the currently known laws and limits of physics. This mode could be defined through science (science fiction) or magic (fantasy). 
  • heightened, in which coincidences, emotions, and stakes are turned up a couple of notches above the realistic. When played for laughs, this produces farce. When played seriously, it’s melodrama.   

Genre stories can be told within each of those modes. Thus, there are mysteries set in a fantasy world, romances told in the historical mode, sports stories with extraterrestrials, crime novels either farcical and melodramatic, and so on.

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