Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

Writing Excuses 11.1: Introduction to Elemental Genre

The word “genre” has a lot of weight to it. Arguments about whether a particular work is, or is not, part of a given genre are long, and tedious. Season Eleven will not be engaging in those arguments. We’re giving all that a wide miss by adding an adjective, and defining a new term: Elemental Genre.

During 2016 we are going to explore what we write, why we write, and how we write in much the same way as previous seasons have, but our guidepost this year will be this concept of Elemental Genres. In January we’ll stay high-level and firm up the framework. Starting in February we’ll drill down on each of the Elemental Genres, and explore the writing process.

Here’s what the year will look like, month-by-month:

WX-11-Cover-PaleGradient4January: Introduction
February: Wonder
March: Idea
April: Adventure
May: Horror
June: Mystery
July: Thriller
August: Humor
September: Relationship
October: Drama
November: Issue
December: Ensemble

We’re really excited about this year’s format, and we’re confident that by examining our writing in this way we’ll learn (and perhaps even teach!) some new things.

Note: 2016 is a leap year, but this episode was recorded in 2015. When we said “it’s not a leap year” we were confused. 

Homework: Take three stories (books, films, whatever) you love, and explore the emotional impact those stories have on you. Strip away the “bookshelf” genre, and try to identify for yourself the core elements that make those stories work.

Thing of the week: Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray, narrated by Pierce Cravens.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Season 11 is going to be different! Elemental genres. Each month, expect the first week to be an elemental drill down, second week to be a wild card, third week to be using the elemental genre in subplots, and the fourth week will be Q&A. Elemental genres are the things that make you read, the emotional resonance that drives a story. Not bookshelf genres, but elemental genres. The 11 elemental genres planned are wonder, idea, adventure, horror, mystery, thriller, humor, relationship, drama, issue, and ensemble. This is a framework for talking about what makes readers turn the page and have emotional responses, not a hard-and-fast set of categories or rules. Elemental genres let you mix-and-match underneath the veneer of the bookshelf categories.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode One.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Introduction to Elemental Genre.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary] Welcome to Season 11.
[Mary] So this season, we thought that we would try something a little different. Last season, what we worked on was taking a story from start to finish. This time, we’re going to be looking at the kind of elemental genre aspects and what these can do for you. The first episode is going to be sort of an elemental drill down, where we’ll really get into the nitty-gritty of what these different pieces are. The second one’s going to be a wildcard, sort of a classic Writing Excuses episode. The third one, we’re going to talk about elemental subplots. Taking some of the ideas we’ve already been talking about and talking about how to use them in a subplot. Then the fourth one will be a Q&A, except for this month.
[Brandon] Yes. This month we’re going to do two wildcards, just because… To let you get used to this idea. We really loved how Season 10 turned out. We liked having more structure. We liked how it provided this kind of ongoing commentary for you. So when it…
[Howard] We heard good things from you about Season 10. Sounds like you liked it.
[Mary] So if you lied to us, sorry!
[Dan] If you lied to us, then Season 11 is your fault.
[Brandon] So the podcasters, we started an email chain where we’re like, “What are we doing for Season 11? How do we top Season 10?” So I came up with several pitches to them. This was my favorite to them, and it turned out to be the favorite of the podcasters. This idea was for me to kind of start drilling down into the genres that make us read. Now, genre is a weird word, right? Because I learned in college, like playwriting versus fiction writing versus nonfiction writing are genres. Yet genre fiction refers to a different definition of genre. That means science fiction, Western, that sort of stuff as a genre that incorporates setting and also plot tropes. We are not talking about these genres that way. That’s why we defined this term, elemental genre. Our definition for these elemental genre is are the things that make you read. The things that make you turn the page. The emotional resonance you are shooting for as a writer in your books for the readers to have.
[Howard] The type of element, if you will, that is driving the story forward.
[Dan] Exactly.
[Mary] One other way of to look at this is that any time you pick up a book or a piece of fiction or a piece of media, what you’re doing is you’re hacking your brain. You’re trying to produce a specific emotional reaction in your brain. So when we’re talking about this, we’re talking about how to go about that and what these specific emotions are that we are producing. Basically, this season is going to be talking about how to hack people’s brains.
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Dan] [chuckling]
[Brandon] When we were talking about this, Dan I think made the perfect pitch for it. Do you remember this, where you said the difference between a mystery…
[Dan] I do. We were talking about mystery?
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Dan] Okay. So you can get a sense of what we mean by this, mystery as we typically think of it, that’s a genre about a bunch of people in a house trying to figure out who killed one of them.
[Brandon] Yep.
[Dan] For our purposes, the elemental genre of mystery is about solving a puzzle.
[Brandon] Yep.
[Dan] Whether that is somebody’s dead, or maybe it’s a science thing about how do I build this thing or what does this object do…
[Brandon] Or it’s a fantasy novel about our magic stopped working, how do we make it start working again? That’s a mystery in an elemental sense for us.
[Dan] A story driven by trying to solve a problem or puzzle is a mystery.
[Howard] A helpful way to… Another helpful way to unburden the term genre for you is to think of the way you’ve been using it as bookshelf genres, that you will see in a bookstore. The science fiction section, the fantasy section, and so forth. What we’re talking about is the things that are in those books that span those sections in ways that cannot be indicated by the bookstore. You don’t find a shelf that is about wonder. Or a shelf that is about the kind of mystery that Dan and Brandon described to you.
[Brandon] That’s a perfect segue for Dan listing them.

[Dan] Let’s tell you, we’ve got 12 months this year. That tends to be how it goes.
[Brandon] Mary described…
[Howard] So it’s not a leap year.
[Dan] Next year is, though. We’re going to have to really work on that one. So, our first month, January, will be an introduction, like Mary described. Then the rest of the genres we’re going to go through in order rela… More or less, wonder, idea, adventure, horror, mystery, thriller, humor, relationship, drama, issue, and ensemble.
[Brandon] Now we will post these on our liner notes and we will start defining for you even as… In that post, why some of these are different. The distinction between drama and relationship, for instance, as we are looking at it. Now I want to make it very clear, this is not some sort of hard rule… Hard fast rule we’re coming up with. In fact, you could probably in your own writing, you might come up with different… A different 12 than us, or a different 11 in this case. That’s okay. We are just using this as a framework to start talking about what makes readers turn the page and what hacks their brain to have certain responses, that you can then use as a writer in your writing.
[Dan] Exactly.
[Brandon] I would like to also point out if this idea is just abhorrent to you, we will have the wildcards…
[Brandon] Every month and things like that. But I think it’s going to turn out to be a really, really fun thing to do.

[Brandon] So before we go on with this, let’s go stop and do our book of the week. Then we’ll come back and discuss this idea some more. Dan’s actually going to talk about our book of the week.
[Dan] Yeah. Our book of the week, we chose Lost Stars by Claudia Gray because it is a perfect example of what we want to talk about this year. Lost Stars is a Star Wars novel, part of the new wave they are doing to prepare for the new movies. It is about two characters who become fighter pilots in the… In outer space.
[Dan] But it is also secretly a… And I guess not so secretly, it’s a romance novel. It is a romance novel disguised as a Star Wars novel. So it combines these two ideas wonderfully well. They work flawlessly together. It’s a new take on Star Wars that you haven’t seen very much before. Anyway, I loved the book. Very briefly, it’s about two kids on this backwater planet who are so delighted when the corrupt Old Republic falls and the Imperial Navy comes in to provide order to the Galaxy. They grow up, they become… They joined the Imperial Academy, they become pilots exactly like Luke wanted to back when he was on Tattoine. One of them kind of gets disillusioned, realizes the Empire’s not all sunshine and unicorns, and he leaves and joins the rebellion. But the two of them are still intensely in love with each other. It’s just a fantastic story.
[Brandon] Wow. That sounds really, really awesome.
[Mary] I’m like, I would like to read this.
[Brandon] If you want to have that read to you, you can go to, do a 30-day free trial. It’s read by Pierce Cravens and…
[Dan] Written by Claudia Gray.
[Brandon] Written by Claudia Gray.

[Brandon] So let’s talk about this. In fact, this book of the week really launches into this discussion. One of the reasons why I wanted to talk about elemental genres, because a lot of times, books, television, movies are faking it like this. This Star Wars… It’s not really they’re faking it, it’s that they present you a large-scale thing, but they realize the core story is going to be a different elemental genre than you might expect. There’s a reason why we don’t… Didn’t list like science fiction as an elemental genre. Because we tried to drill down to what different science fiction books were trying to do, and kind of give you that emotion. This is a great example.
[Dan] Yeah. Another great example is what Marvel has been doing with their cinematic universe. Antman was a superhero movie, but was also a heist movie. For our terms…
[Howard] Winter Soldier was a superhero movie, but was also a political intrigue conspiracy thriller.
[Brandon] Exactly.
[Dan] The first Avengers was a perfect example of the ensemble elemental genre that we’re going to be talking about at the end of the year.
[Mary] This is… What we’re basically talking about is a lot of the times, the way people often use… Talk about science fiction or fantasy, these are the design elements. We aren’t going to be talking about the design elements. We’ve talked about those in previous episodes.
[Brandon] Quite a bit.
[Mary] So we aren’t going to talk about those. What we’re going to talk about is the underlying structure, the things that, as we been saying, drive those. You can… One of the things that is great is you can do all of this mixing and matching. A lot of times, you can get really subversive. Like, I write historical fantasy. But Valor and Vanity is a heist novel disguised as a Regency romance. The Regency romance is my design, but all of the elements that go into it, the element at the… The base element, that is a heist novel.
[Brandon] I would really like, by the end of this year, for you listeners to really be able to look at some of these things in their elemental form. It kind of hopefully will mirror some of the transition I made as a writer as I started to see beyond the veneer and really start to hack at what made certain stories work. I’ve talked about on the podcast before, the idea that most of your romance stories and most of your buddy cop stories are following the exact same story beats as one another. They’re the same story. The idea that Ender’s Game, The Way of Kings, and Hoosiers all use the same…
[Howard] Those are all sports teams.
[Brandon] All use the same underlying underdog sports team sort of metaphor for driving their plot forward means that if you can start identifying why that plot works, what the underlying elemental genre of a story is, then you can apply it to anything.
[Dan] Yeah. Once you know how to do this, you can have so much fun with it. My Partials trilogy, the first… It is ostensibly dystopian. The first one’s a dystopian novel. The second one’s a quest novel. The third one’s a war novel. All three different flavors based around this same central concept.
[Howard] During one of my one-on-one’s here in the Writing Excuses cruise… Yes, we’re recording this on a cruise ship, which is kind of awesome. In one of my one-on-one’s, the student asked, and I love this question because it exemplifies the need for elemental genre. He said, “So I wanted to talk to you, because you write a lot of science fiction. I want to write science fiction. I’m having a hard time coming up with a villain who isn’t just another take on the Empire or whatever.” I realized, “Oh. You are equating science fiction with adventure fiction in which somebody is striving against a larger force.” That is… That is a very limited view of what science fiction can be. I started talking to him about science fiction novels that can be romances, science fiction novels that are man versus nature adventure, man versus nature puzzle. You can do so much with this. It frees you from the things that you see as restrictive tropes by showing you the options that you never would have considered until you started looking at the elements.

[Mary] Absolutely. Now, we’re not saying that you have to ignore the marketing bookshelf categories…
[Howard] Of course not.
[Mary] Because those do provide readers with certain expectations and they are a useful framework. What we are saying is that there is stuff that works underneath those. Which is why, when you’re in one of those bookshelves, there is such a wide variety. That’s why you get so frustrated when you’re talking to someone about your love for science fiction and fantasy, and they have this really narrow idea of what it is. So really, this is something that’s supposed to work in tandem and in parallel with everything else that you’ve learned about writing science fiction or fantasy or whatever genre in the marketing bookshelf sense you like to do.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s a really good point, because you still want to make good on your promises of a fantasy book, the things that they’re going to be expecting. What we don’t want you to feel like is that you’re constrained by a certain type of story in a certain genre. I almost fell out of love with the fantasy genre during the late 90s because there was only one type of story I felt being told. Now I just wasn’t finding them. I’m sure there were lots. But everyone was like, “I want to tell quest stories. I want to tell quest stories.” It wasn’t until I ended up with what actually is kind of more of a teen problem novel in the Robin Hobb books instead and read that and realized, “Wow. This is so different and fresh.” Well, it was just transposing from a… Or not even really transposing. Taking one of these elemental genres and using it with all the things I love in fantasy, and giving me what I love and a new and interesting story.
[Mary] That is exactly why I wrote Shades of Milk and Honey. Because I love the design element of fantasy. I love magic, I love all of that. But I wanted the intimate family drama. I wanted the elemental relationship story. I wasn’t getting it in ways that I wanted it.
[Howard] I follow the Writing Excuses twitter feed. From time to time, I hear people telling their friends, “Oh, you should totally listen to Writing Excuses. It’s good for what you’re doing, even if you don’t like science fiction and fantasy.” So in the interest of outreach, let me tell you that if ever a season could speak to you who do not want to write to the bookshelf genres of sci-fi, fantasy, or horror, this is the season that will speak to you, because we’re going to strip away those covers and show you the things that will make all stories work.
[Brandon] That’s why the structure… We chose this structure. So now, you maybe better understand what we mean when we say will talk about an elemental genre the first week and then the third week, we’re going to talk about weaving those in as subplots to beneath the veneer of a larger story, whatever your larger story is.
[Mary] Much like in previous seasons, when you’ve heard us talk about the MICE quotient, where every story is made up of a milieu and an idea and a character and an event, this is something where we’re going to be talking also about how to mix and match things. Because stories are not nearly as interesting when they consist of only one flavor.
[Brandon] That’s right. Well, I certainly hope that you listeners are going to love this season, because we are really excited to bring it to you. Like last season, we’re going to try to give you homework on the first and third episodes. Will try to maybe more give you the standard writing prompts on the second episode of a month or of a cycle that we’re doing. There will be extra episodes when we have fifth weeks, weeks with five Mondays in them and things like that. So… But…
[Mary] Basically, we have this structure, but the element is we’re going to try to teach you some stop.
[Brandon] Yeah. We’re going to teach you some stuff.

[Brandon] But I am going to give you some homework today. Your homework is actually to take some of the films and books that you love, and I want you to try and drill down to… You don’t have to really define the elemental genre, because we haven’t defined all of these for you yet. But what I really want you to do is start looking at what the emotional impact of that story is. What the people who made the story are doing to you. How they’re hacking your brain. Try to relate… Try to strip away the veneer and dig down at it for yourself. Pick three of those, books and films that you love, and see if you can do it. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.