To a writer, every story is unique, but words like “unique”, “good”, and “interesting” are almost meaningless by themselves. People need a frame of reference. Publishers need to know what kind of story they’re reading in order to evaluate it properly, and audiences need some way of deciding whether this is the right story for them.
Some authors set out with a specific genre in mind, while others wait until the revision process to discover what they’ve been writing. Whichever method you choose, it’s important to recognize and manage audience expectations, by establishing the type of story you’re writing, and staying within the genres you’ve chosen. A story can be any genre, as long as that is clearly established early on. See 101-01, Establishing the Story, for more information.
Literary vs. Commercial
Literary and commercial is the division between stories that want to create a fun experience for the audience, and stories that want to create a thought provoking dialogue with the audience, often by focusing on a controversial or unpleasant topic.
Commercial stories are like a ride at a park, all the audience has to do is sit back and “watch” as events unfold. The story opens with an easily understood character who uses a combination of luck and skill to overcome a variety of obstacles, steadily building towards a big finale, where the character definitively wins or loses. Many action adventure stories follow this pattern, including James Bond and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Literary stories focus on the character, using internal conflicts to pose questions about the human condition. Popular topics include the struggle between selfish needs and doing what’s right, or sacrificing others for the sake of the greater good. Literary stories feature emotional climaxes, where a character must overcome themselves, instead of an external force. The endings are often ambiguous or bittersweet. Examples include The Great Gatsby, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Great Expectations.
Realistic vs. Romantic Idealism
Another common distinction is how a story compares with real life. Realistic stories feature imperfect characters, heroes with flaws and villains with virtues. The stories are often in an everyday setting, similar to the real life experiences of the audience.
Romantic ideal stories are exaggerated adventures. The heroes and villains become clear symbols of good and evil, with larger than life conflicts that serve as metaphors for real world problems. Romantic ideal stories are often set in exotic or impossible locations.
Many commercial stories are also romantic ideal stories. Superhero comic books are an example of romantic ideals, exaggerating problems like narcissism into characters like the Riddler & Penguin.
Comedy, Tragedy, & Romance