Is Genre just a matter of Stage Dressing?

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Is Genre just a matter of Stage Dressing?

Mar 14, 2020, 4:48pm

So some time back an author whose blog I occasionally follow encountered some writing system that explained that setting is the last thing you should worry about, because your plot and characters are the most important, and you can decide on whether they will be running around in space, or the wild west, or Middle Earth or what have you after you've decided on the stuff that really matters. The blogger, a fantasy author was not amused, and complained that this made it seem like genre was just window dressing.

But, recently I had a discussion with my daughter studying technical theatre, in which we had to admit that just changing the scenery often does seem to work in plays. I've seen Shakespeare set in all sorts of times and places not originally intended by the playwright, many quite successfully. And in novels there is always the perennial popularity of fairytale retellings, many of which are set in modern day.

So how much does setting really matter?
And is there more to genre than just picking the right backdrops, costumes and plots?

Mar 14, 2020, 10:04pm

Settings matter as tools. The heart of the story is always the relationships/mystery/conflict. I find it hard to call things "just" windrow dressing. You have the ability to re-write almost any story into any genre and some authors make a living doing just that. Though that gets trickier if you want to devolve a fantasy or science fiction story into a modern day one as the tools often become deeply intertwined with the story through plot threads and fulcrums to plot points.

It is easier to add window dressing than to remove bits of a frame holding up a house.

I would say there is more to genre than picking the right backdrops, costumes and plots. Like with any other piece of fiction when you include something in the story it should be relevant to it even as a red herring or dangling plot thread. Because of that those backdrops, costumes, and plots often become fixtures that are difficult to remove without damaging a story's stability.

Mar 15, 2020, 11:04am

It totally depends on the story. Sometimes it really is all about the world-building, the atmosphere, or the context. Science fiction intended to communicate speculative ideas about social and technological change (and the human consequences of it) can't be shoehorned into other genres where there is no allowance for such change.

Also, genre means something different when approached in the critical sense, such as that delineated by Northrop Frye, as opposed to the popular-commercial sense of today's vernacular. The former has to do with fundamental purposes and forms of literature, while the latter is more an issue of the exploitation of tropes and packaging.

My favorite books tend to be difficult of genre categorization in the popular sense. I'm not usually the kind of reader who wants to leverage a bunch of pre-formed ideas so that a narrative can slide through my mind like a television show. I'd rather be challenged to new imaginings and ideas.

Mar 15, 2020, 11:30am

LShelby -
My understanding of genres is far different than the setting. I can write a love story but not a romance. There's a different structure and set of rules for romance.
YA has to be about young people issues, not just making the MCs young. New adult needs to be about millennial issues, not just the age. Same goes for woman's fiction, etc.
I write whatever story marinates in my head, then I decide later what genre that is. Sometimes I get stuck in some serious cross-genre limbo. Got a 3 part series I'm still working on that will probably be a story without a genre. No idea how good/bad that will affect it.

Mar 17, 2020, 5:46am

From a reader/buyer's perspective, genre is a short-hand for marketing expectations. What does a reader expect when they open the covers. There are common tropes in Fantasy not present in SF or Crime and vice versa (see the discussion on rules). So it's more than just a setting, you can (by some definitions) have fantasy set in space - eg anything goes technology more akin to magic than physics, and it's not always clear under which is the best genre to file a book. But if you mess about with it too much you'll just confuse the readers, and it's hard to love a book when you don't understand why events happen as they do.

Mar 17, 2020, 2:58pm

So what the consensus seems to be is that

A) genre is based on more than just setting

B) sometimes the setting isn't that important, but it can be very important. (I liked >2 KitFalbo: 's metaphor of the window dressing and the house frame)

C) The reader expectations that come with the various genres go far beyond setting, and can be pretty important if part of your goal is not confusing the readers.

When my daughter and I had the discussion, I proposed that the reason Shakespeares plays can change their settings as gracefully as they sometimes do, is because they don't have a lot of setting there in the first-place. Shakespeare wrote stories designed to played out on a bare stage, with minimal props. Also, no matter what setting they nominally had, the actors used contemporary language and wore contemporary clothing.

Likewise, (although for Shakespeare I hate to say it) the characters as they exist on stage, are more complete than the characters as they exist in the script, because an actor infuses the character with a whole lot of humanity. In books, where we often get to see characters from the inside out, it seems likely that someone would be much less recognizably the same person when torn out of their original culture and altered to fit new one.

And possibly also because the language of Shakespeare is so outdated that for most viewers it is equally uncomfortable no matter where it is set, it doesn't bother us how out of place it would actually be in some of the more fanciful settings I've seen/heard of. (Macbeth set in Feudal Japan, for example... although, actually, since in translation, why not Shakespearian? It always really bothers me when serious Chinese historicals get translated using modern slang. I want to go in and clean them up. No, my lovely young translators, a gently brought up girl in a noble household from way back when would not be saying, "Watch the kid, while Ling Fei and I go hang out, okay?")

Even with these caveats it is clearly possible to go too far:
One show that didn't work for anyone in our household was a modern setting of Romeo and Juliet, where the characters were talking about swords, and but actually using guns. Our willingness to make allowances for the linguistic mismatch died there.

So the reason fairy tales are so popular a choice for retelling may be because as stories intended for a verbal medium, they are quite minimalist. The characters are types, the structures are simple, the settings vague and generic. Cinderella is maybe still Cinderella when it is set in a futuristic Japan ravaged by plague, but is The Hobbit really still the Hobbit, once I have transformed it into a regency romance?

(I wrote up a plot summary for that once. Amused my writers' group no end. My son wanted me to do Dune as a regency romance next, but that would entail me re-reading Dune, which I haven't gotten around to doing.)

So, here is my next question:

I'm sure we've all read stories that were marketed as being in a genre that they just didn't feel like they properly fit into.

Since genre is more than setting, what pitfalls would an author need to watch out for if they were going to switch a story from one genre to another?

Or to put it another way, what parts of our favorite genres, *aren't* just stage dressing?


Personally, I recently made the mistake of picking up a steampunk book at the library. (Why do I never learn?) Most of the steampunk books that come out nowadays look really appealing, but when I try read them they don't work for me, because they are written by authors who have fallen in love with the "look" and appear to know absolutely nothing about machines.

I put the book down at the second page when I learned that our heroine had invented for herself a sword with a revolving blade because as a slightly built female she couldn't use as big a sword as she wanted to. The sword was powered by batteries "charged by steam".

I imagined the batteries, the electric motor they ran, the housing and gears necessary to make it turn, and how solid the construction would have to be to use the result as a weapon.

Her invention, as I imagined it, would easily outweigh the average claymore.

... But in this case my expectations for the genre clearly are at a mismatch with those of the general readership.

Abr 7, 2020, 10:44am

This seems like the best place to post this one, and I kinda wanted to share, so...

DOONE: A Recycled Regency Romance Synopsis
(With apologies to Frank Herbert)

Prologue: Paul Atteridge, Viscount Callander (son and heir to the Duke of Arackley) has been taking advantage of Bonaparte's exile to Elba to do a grand tour of the continent. Upon reaching LeHavre, his tutor, Reverend Yurburgh, finds a letter waiting for him. Paul is curious, but unsuspecting, and when his tutor later attacks him he is taken by surprise, and knocked unconscious. He wakes to find himself tied up and being carried out to sea in a small skip, operated by his tutor, who keeps muttering, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Your Grace". But another ship approaches--it is a vessel owned by a couple free traders, led on a resue mission by Paul's french valet, Guernet. The smugglers leap aboard, and tussle with Reverend Yurburgh, while Guernet cuts Paul free of his bonds. But just as it seems the day is won, Reverend Yurburg, in a desperate attempt to escape, lunges away from the smugglers and knocks Paul into the water. "Your Grace!" he gasps in horror, and that's the last thing Paul hears before the water swallows him.

Paul has been skulking about the village of Arackley in disguise, for a couple days. He has learned that, as he feared, his father is dead. But the news is worse than that, his mother and little sister Alicia, (described by the villagers as 'that witch and her changeling child') have disappeared also, and he himself has been declared dead. The Dukedom has been usurped by his second cousin, Baron Harkenton. The villagers have also spoken in uneasy whispers about 'that business going on at the home farm'. As Paul is pondering the strangeness of the situation and the villager's inexplicable behavior (his mother's interest in herbal remedies had always been welcomed by his father's tenants, and although his sister is a little odd, she is harmless), he spots a blue-eyed girl who looks hauntingly familiar, although he can't quite place where he has seen her before. Intrigued, he follows her out onto the moors, only to lose track of her. But just as he is about to give up and return to town, he hears his mother calling out to him. She and Alicia have been hiding out on the moors. They are too terrified to return home, his mother informing him that she believes his father's death was not really a riding accident, but Paul insists on finding them shelter, and they end up taking refuge in the home of Steven Ferman, a shepherd. Ferman is inhospitable, and a bit mysterious, but the hate in his voice when he speaks of Baron Harkenton convinces Paul that his family will be safe with him.

Paul wants to discover what has been happening on the home farm, so he sets out alone, and discovers to his bewilderment that it has been entirely replanted with flowers. The Baron's guards almost catch him, and as he is fleeing he is assisted by the blue-eyed girl he has seen before. Once again he follows her out over the moors. Each time he thinks he has lost her track he spots her again, until finally he realizes she is playing with him. The game eventually leads him to a small cottage, which like the girl herself, gives him a haunting sense of familiarity. He sets himself to luring the girl, clearly very shy, out of hiding, and eventually manages to make friends with her. Her name is Rosemary Doone, and from her he learns the truth of what has been happening. Her father, Elijah Doone, was a scientist who worked for his father. During a duty-call on the family head, the Baron had accidentally discovered one of Doone's experiments, a strain of poppy that had been adapted to the local climate, and an excellent source of opiates. Greedy for position, power and wealth, the Baron had seen the monetary benefits of the new strain, and had conspired with one of the Grand Dukes, to take over the dukedom, and to sell the opium to wounded soldiers and bored aristocrats alike. Doone himself had died a suspicious death, just as had the former duke. Rosemary also explains that her father had never intended the poppies to be used for anything but dire medical necessity, her father and the late Duke's true plan to improve the lives of the people was a new, improved strain of sheep, and an innovative plan for setting up weaving workshops. The Ferman family had been put in charge of the actual process of breeding and rearing the new sheep.

Now that Paul understands the situation, he has no trouble convincing Steven Ferman and his family to support him in court, so that he can oust the Baron, and return Paul to his rightful inheritance. A chance encounter with free traders reunites Paul with his faithful vallet Geurnet, and now that the villagers have had a chance to learn what life will really be like under the Baron, they too have become disillusioned, and when Paul spreads among them the news that they had been tricked into distrusting the Duchess by the Baron's deliberate rumormongering, they are ready to support Paul. But the Baron has his own plans. Frustrated by the limited supplies of seed, and lack of understanding found in his hired managers that has led to problems in production, he has gone questing for answers and discovered that Doone had a secret workshop, and a daughter.

Just as Paul is about to reveal his existence to the legal authorities and formally request that his title be restored, he discovers that the Baron has captured Rosemary and plans to force her to reveal the location of her father's hidden notes and equipment. Convinced that going the proper legal route will not allow him to succeed in time to save her, Paul plans an assault on Arackley Castle, undeterred by the news that a royal prince is visiting, and that the place is completely overrun by guards. Conscripting shepherds, townsmen and even smugglers, he carries out a raid that involves taking advantage of a storm for cover, and blowing up the curtainwall with huge amounts of gunpowder. Once inside, he captures the Baron, and blackmails the Grand Duke to prevent him from interfering.

Now that Paul will be restored to his rightful title, his mother immediately announces that she plans to find him a bride, but Paul refuses, insisting that he can never leave Rosemary Doone. Later, when they are alone, he asks Rosemary if they didn't perhaps meet as children. She insists that they did not, and Paul is left pondering the marvel of the strange sense of familiarity that he had with her and her father's cottage workshop. Perhaps the faded memory of a prophetic dream?

Abr 7, 2020, 1:33pm

>7 LShelby: Brava! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

Abr 7, 2020, 4:28pm