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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

genre for fun

It's 2008, and we return to our work routine. Kimmie, off for the past 10 days or so, prepares upstairs to return to the office. I too will return to a more "normal" schedule.

Over the holiday I continued to work on my notes, but not directly toward The Mission. Instead I became absorbed in two topics: genre and theology.

Why these? In the case of genre, it's my evolving sense that this elastic concept, which according to some (including Aristotle) is key to being able to execute an artistic work properly, is not well understood. Robert McKee in his text Story emphasizes the importance to the writer of an understanding of genre, especially the genre in which he is trying to write. He provides a list of movie genres, but it is an omnium gatherum of story types ("education plot"; "revenge plot"), settings ("Western"; "historical drama"), and moods ("comedy"; "horror"). To me this is mixing apples and oranges, with a few mangoes and persimmons also thrown in.

Stories, like most things, can be categorized in a number of ways. Which are the ones that matter most to the creative writer?

I'm starting to see it this way: no work is of simply one genre. Rather, each work comprises several. I'm thinking that genre, which comes from the same root as the word gene, functions much like a gene: it is a definite unit of heredity that makes itself manifest by expression. In the body, a gene is responsible for the production of one or more proteins, which are themselves like chemical machines or robots that perform functions. Just as a person's genome is the total suite of his or her genes, what we call genre in a story is actually a genome as well: the total suite of its genre components.

Suppose you're writing a Western romantic comedy. Is your story a Western, a love story, or a comedy? Answer: all of the above. "Western", "love story", and "comedy" are all genres in the genome of that story. It has "inherited" story traits from all those genres.

The mixing and combination of genres in storytelling is much like the mixing of genes in reproduction. The vast possibilities of combination make sure that each individual is a unique expression of traits--and that is true of both organisms and stories.

What are the implications for the writer? One still needs to study genre--but one needs to understand all the genres in the genome of one's story. In this example, you'll need to know something about Westerns, about romances, and about comedies. Of course, each of those is a category with many subcategories--and you will need to know your subcategories.

One interesting task would be to take a story and analyze its genre affinities by comparing it to other stories that have similar traits. When I was explaining this idea to Kimmie over the holiday we had just watched the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life. "Christmas story" is itself a genre, which includes things such as A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It's also (for want of another term) a supernatural fable. Again, here it resembles A Christmas Carol, but also other works such as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (remade as Heaven Can Wait) and Splash. Its actual plot structure follows one of the types of what Robert McKee calls "ironic ascension", one in which the character is

pushed further and further from his goal...only to discover that in fact he's been led right to it.

In this the story resembles Ruthless People. It also falls in the category of story called "education plot", which, in McKee's words, "arcs on a deep change within the protagonist's view of life, people, or self from the negative (naive, distrustful, fatalistic, self-hating) to the positive (wise, trusting, optimistic, self-possessed)", and in this way resembles stories such as Tender Mercies and My Best Friend's Wedding. It's also a domestic drama, and its mood is mainly comedic.

All of these are contributing factors--all are genres in the genome of It's a Wonderful Life.

Over the holiday I was reading and typing notes from works such as Aristotle's Poetics, Propp's Morphology of the Folktale, McKee's Story, and even a bit of Genetics for Dummies in order to dig into my genome metaphor.

That's one way to have holiday fun--and it was fun.

Now: back to work.

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