Novel Writing Help: Before You Start Writing, Select the Right Genre and Study It

Novel Writing: Selecting a Specific Genre

So many options, so little time... When contemplating your first novel, you will need to make a firm decision as to the specific type (genre) of novel you wish to write.

A. Genre: Considerations

The way to go about this, is to first consider some of the elements previously discussed:

  • The amount of time you will be able to devote to the project, e.g., regular bi-weekly writing sessions, versus random periods throughout the month
  • The nature of the story or subject matter, e.g., coming of age, historical retrospective, murder mystery
  • The type of writer you consider yourself to be, e.g., humorous, satirical, fantasy-driven

While the first two considerations may be somewhat easy to answer, the third tends to be the one that causes newer writers the most headaches. For starters, newbie writers are still finding their voice and personal style. Also, it is hard to be objective when attempting to classify your own handiwork.

B. Genre: Multiple Forms

In order to identify the type of novel you are best suited to write, it may help to first review the many forms that exist.

Because of the wide variety of novels, literary experts chose to group them into specific categories, based upon their historical inception. For example, the earliest known novel type was entitled the "picaresque" novel.

Within this picaresque novel, the central character, a protagonist, is viewed to be a social underdog. The plot line (viewed to be an episodic adventure), follows the lead character along as he/she comments satirically upon the world-at-large.

Another early form of the novel was referred to as "naturalistic," for it focused on the ways in which humans are impacted by factors having to do with heredity and the environment.

In addition to the picaresque and naturalistic novels, other earlier day novels include:

Realistic Novel -- Also called a "novel of manners," its hallmark features are its multi-faceted characters, who harbor conflicting motives stemming from a rigid perspective of social structures. As a whole, the characters realistically interact with one another within everyday, real-life situations.

Prose Romance -- Typically set in the historical past, this type of novel features an adventuresome plot and a fantastical reality. Black and white thinking prevails, as the characters tend to be painted in the extreme: villains or heroes, masters or victims, power players or vulnerable cowards. In turn, the protagonist/central character is cast as solitary and isolated, removed from mainstream society.

Jekyll and Hyde

Novel of Incident -- Action focused, the novel of incident centers upon the actions of the protagonist/central character, and the manner in which all the elements of the story come together.

Novel of Character -- Motive-based, the novel of character focuses on the protagonist's reasoning behind his/her actions, and how, through the course of events, the plot lines will play out in the end.

Epistolary Novel -- Relying heavily upon the documentary style of journalism, the epistolary novel, written in the first-person, takes the form of letters, journals, or diaries.

Regional Novel -- Classified as regional novels, within these types of works, the setting plays the central role in the story.

Nonfiction Novel -- In contrast with works of fiction, nonfiction novels present glimpses of real-life people, who,caught up in past real-life events, are brought together within the framework of a single cohesive theme.

Bildungsroman (fictional autobiography) -- A German term, this is used in reference to literary works depicting periods of growth -- both in terms of years and spiritual/mental capacities. Specifically, the fictional autobiography focuses on the protagonist's development of mind, spirit, and character from childhood to adulthood.

Roman-a-These -- A French term used to indicate groups of novels, written for the purpose of presenting a topic worthy of debate, or with a direct social/political objective.

Roman-a-Clef -- A French term used to classify novels containing pivotal, imaginary events in which real people are disguised as fictional characters.

Roman-Fleuve -- A French term used to label novels composed of thematic narratives, stretching across multiple installments, as part of a series or collection.

C. Genres: Present Day

Continuing to be a popular form of literary work, the novel has evolved from having a singular core, based upon real-life events, to having a patchwork of multiple genres, reflective of both nonfictional and fictional components.

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At present, a good percentage of novels intertwine fictional elements into real-life stories. The result is a glossed over nonfictional account, imbued with fictional elements.

Novels Come in All Shapes and Sizes

Rather than there being one standard template that all novels need to follow, novelists are able to produce works covering a broad array of genres. This may then be the reason why the novel has persisted, over centuries, to become the amalgamated version it is today.

Examples of Modern Day Novel Forms

Allegorical novel -- Interlacing the elements of: characters, settings, and events that come together to present a central thesis, surrounded by a sea of abstract ideas

Science fiction novel -- Steeped heavily in scientific/technological details and ideas, this literary form is commonly used to foreshadow future occurrences, life forms, and uncharted territories.

Historical novel -- Notable moments from previous eras coalesce to present a cohesive idea

Social novel -- Drawn from real-life incidents from previous time periods, the purpose of the social novel is to show the impact pertinent societal and economic impacts have made upon the central characters and plot lines.

Note: Three of the aforementioned novel genres: the science fiction, social, and historical novel, adhere to the didactic approach whereby they present readers with questions that challenge their morality, the meaning of their lives, and the institutions pervasive in society.

D. Contemporary Novel Genres

The regional novel -- Cites evidence of the ways in which a particular geographic locale/ setting has made an impact upon central characters and events
Sherlock Holmes

The detective novel -- A hybrid of the picaresque and psychological novel, the detective novel sets up a central mystery, before going into thorough descriptions of each of the characters, their potential motivations, and the events that lead up to the discovery of a solution.

E. Nonfiction versus Fiction & Cross-Over Novelists

Though the majority of novelists tend to consistently write within a specific genre, there is no rule that forbids them from crossing over to other styles.

Take John Grisham, who has shown his ability to write both legal crime/thrillers, such as The Pelican Brief and Runaway Jury, and creative fiction, Painted House, that served as social commentary about racial inequalities.

The main difference in writing nonfiction and fiction, is the place from where the ideas originate. In nonfiction, the author/novelist is seen as somewhat of a reporter, whereby all the details need to be factual.

The core theme is that the story/central theme of the nonfiction work should be able to stand on its own, without embellishment. In contrast, the fictional story requires a creative undertone, whereby the details are rich and detailed, and sustain the interest of the reader.

Selecting a Point of View (POV)

Question: How important a role does the point of view (POV) play when writing a novel?

Answer: POV, because of its dominance throughout the novel, and significance in shaping the story, may be the most critical element in the entire novel writing process.

A. POV: Four Main Options

In light of the significance of the POV, it is worth taking time to consider your four Point of View (POV) options as a novelist:

First Person T he novelist selects a key character capable of telling the story from an original, memorable perspective. Referred to as the narrator, one of the characters in the story retells the tale via the use of the pronouns "I" and "me". The narrator is limited to only being able to recount his/her own thoughts as opposed to those of the other characters.

Tennessee Williams

While this character usually is the central character, there is no hard and fast rule that says this must be the case. Rather, sometimes it is the least obvious character who provides the most insightful perspective. Take for example, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, in which Laura (who only has three lines of dialogue) is viewed to be the central character, simply because she provides the narrative.

Written with the word "I" scattered throughout, the benefit of using the first person is that it has the power to create a sense of directness and inner connectedness to the story.

Yet, on the flip side, in using the first person POV, the problem that can arise is that the story only reflects the viewpoint of the selected character.

Another issue that often comes up in writing from the first person, ("I" throughout), is that the author may harbor a level of discomfort in writing of incidents, romance, or crime from the perspective of this particular character. In order to make first person work in these situations, the novelist needs to be able to adopt the mindset of the character whose POV is being reflected.

And because the novelist needs to stay in character throughout the entire book, this POV proves to be the most challenging of all the POV techniques.

Third Person Limited Principally told in the past tense, third-person tends to be the most-often used point of view. Reflecting a central character's perspective, the focus should remain on this person throughout the story, or at the very minimum, not shift during a single scene.

Although one of the easiest POVs to master as a novelist, the trouble with writing from a third person perspective is that you can only inform the reader via the character's interactions with other characters, overheard conversations, direct actions, or internal conversations.

You can not apply sensations, thought, or realizations to your central character, unless he/she has direct encounters with it, as opposed to learning them second-hand through other characters.

Third Person Multiple (aka Author Omniscient)

Essentially within this POV, there is a large cast of characters whose actions, motives and, at times, thoughts, are relayed via the use of a narrator. Rather than being a character, the narrator is removed from the story.

Hence, he/she is "all knowing," or omniscient, and, thus, able to relay thoughts and ideas from the perspective of all the characters. The narrator refers to characters in the story using the pronouns, "he", "she" and "they".

Benefits of employing this POV technique, is that it allows the reader to see multiple sides of the story, as well as developments with sub-plots and other characters, prior to the central character gaining wind of it.

Thus, this approach has the ability to unveil future elements of the story that ultimately will have a great impact upon the protagonist. An example of this would be the action thriller, in which you, as the reader, are made privy to the fact that the bad guy is a liar before he lures the good guy into his deceit, and trouble ensues. In this sense, the third person multiple creates suspense, and grants the reader access to "behind-the-scenes" information.

As a novelist, the test is being able to stick to one character's POV for the duration of the entire scene. If you haphazardly alternate between characters, you run the risk of breaking up your narrative, and losing your reader.

Second Person

An uncommon POV in contemporary stories, the second person POV, usually written in present tense, and appears in the form of, "You are." For example, "You are heading home, and someone comes up behind you. When you attempt to turn around, the only thing there is a dark, empty street."

The lack of use of second person is due to the authoritative-sounding voice this POV conveys to readers. When used, the second person POV may seem as if it is trying to tell readers how to feel or think - feeling manufactured or contrived - which can interrupt the story flow.

While a rarity in literature, the second person perspective does still pop up every now and again. Typically, it is used in adventure sagas, and expedition journey-style "how-to" novels.

By and large, the POV you select depends upon three considerations: audience, purpose, and topic. To attain a sense of intimacy and immediacy, first person may be the way to go. However, to achieve a level of separation from your story, then third person (objective/narrative) may be a better fit.

B. Writing exercise: POV examples

Recall the book series, Little House on the Prairie. Written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, these books were originally penned in the first person. Ultimately, she found it failed to offer her the distance she was seeking from both her characters and the overall story.

In consulting with her editor, she redrafted, shifting the POV from the first to the third person. This then gave her the ability to write from an observer's perspective, while offering insights into all of her characters, as opposed to only the storyteller's viewpoint.

Laura Ingalls Wilder
On the other hand, Memoirs of a Geisha was successfully written in first person. Ironically, the semi-fictional account of Japanese girls engaged in a sophisticated form of prostitution and slavery, was written by a man, Arthur Gold. And, though his gender differed from that of his lead character, Chiyo, he integrated those elements he felt would complete her young and innocent perspective, including feelings of abandonment, hatred, admiration and deep emotion.