Using Genre to Find Awesome Ideas for Stories

A confession. I’m a genre theory nerd.

I love genre. I love working out where stories fit within genre. I love hybrid genres and get far too excited about subgenres.

Just yesterday, I learned “dieselpunk” is a subgenre and quite literally squealed.

While I’d been aware of the aesthetic of dieselpunk (I’m a long time Mad Max fan), the revelation that the genre had a label suddenly opened up a whole new world of possibilities and new stories and images and fun. Genre rocks!

Another confession. When I hear writers say they avoid genre, I’m secretly rolling my eyes. When I hear writers say genre limits their creativity, I’m tempted to sit them down and give them a crash course in what genre actually is, what it means, and, quite frankly, why they’re wrong.

Genre is not a limitation.

Genre is not a “box”.

Genres are fluid, dynamic systems for understanding stories. And the better you’re able to understand those systems, the better you’re able to tell stories and, for some, the better you’re able to sell those stories.

And there’s one more….

Genres can be a starting place for story ideas.

I can hear those anti-genre writers now. Writing to genre is selling out! Writing to genre is abandoning your true writer’s voice! Writing to genre is not true art!

Cue eye rolling.

Writing to a genre means finding a story system you’d like to work with and writing your own version of that style. It’s not copying The Hunger Games. It’s not writing a thriller with the word “Girl” in the title because that’s hot right now.

Here’s an example from my own writing life.

I was recently challenged to write a pirate fantasy story.

I have pretty much zero interest in any pirates that aren’t the Dread Pirate Roberts. I thought about using ‘pirate’ to mean that other sort of pirate, and write a cyberpunk fantasy, but I knew that would be cheating as that’s not what readers of pirate stories are looking for.

So I jumped onto TV Tropes and read everything I could about pirate tropes. For more on using tropes to write brilliant stories, check out this post.

My short story ended up being a Greek tragedy style of tale about a Japanese sommelier based in part on Dionysus and in part on Narcissus. With underwater ghost pirates.

Unusual right? But still a pirate story.

how to use genre

Using Genre to Find Awesome Ideas for Stories (or how I managed to write a pirate story when I don’t even like pirate stories)

In researching the tropes of the pirate genre, I was able to find a comfortable place to slot myself in and write on my terms.

Here’s how I did it….

1.    Look at Major and Sub Genres than Interest You

For me, that’s fantasy, urban fantasy, and by necessity of the brief, pirates.

2.    Identify a Direction

I wanted a traditional pirate character, but I also wanted to fit it into my series set in a massive, modern city (as part of my Guessing Tales series). The city has a harbour filled with relics. Ergo sunken pirate ship. Ergo ghost pirate (a common trope in pirate fiction).

3.    Brainstorm Possibilities and Concepts

I took up my brainstorming notebook and free wrote about these genres and directions. I even started writing about why I don’t like pirates, which turned into why I don’t like boats, which turned into me thinking about my own troubles with seasickness. My story now seasickness in it.

4.    Find the Thread

Once my character started poking his head up during the brainstorming session (the boyfriend of a character from an earlier story), I knew it had to focus on relationships. The idea of a man falling in love with a ghost pirate came to me. This idea pinged an image of said man looking lovingly into the water and made me think of Narcissus. Are there any pirates in Classical mythology, I wondered? So off I went to my trusty Grimal’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology.

So now we’ve got a sad love, a Classical myth – we’re getting into tragedy here.

By the way, Grimal’s in an essential book for writers. More on that here.

5.    More Brainstorming, Focussing on Character

Grimal’s lead me to the story of Dionysus. My character was a sommelier. The connection was obvious. I made my character more of a hedonist figure to connect him to Dionysus, and that self-indulgence connected nicely to Narcissus.

6.    Develop the Plot Around the Character

Greek tragedy has a defined structure, so I worked my character and situation into that structure, all the while bringing it back to urban fantasy, the main genre I’m working in. It’s another instance of the genre, Greek tragedy, directing the story.

The more you understand the nature of genre, the better you're able to write (and sell) stories.Click To Tweet

Sure, I could’ve written a swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, parrots and peg legs and the rest of it but I’m bored just thinking about it. That’s not me.

You see? Writing to a genre does not mean stifling your creativity. Ever.

That’s the splendid and awe-inspiring thing about genres – you can make a genre do pretty much whatever you want. They’re flexible, fluid, dynamic. The key in using them to work for you is to understand their tropes and conventions.

Always write the story you want to write.

There’s no reason why that story can’t conform to a genre and even start its life from using a genre as inspiration.

Have you ever written a story starting with the genre? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.

Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on
Kate Krake
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