Everyone has favorite genres that they fill shelf after shelf and hour after hour with. One of mine is contemporary fantasy. Yours might be romance and historical fiction. But, outside of binging and overspending on those, you probably read more eclectically. You don’t mind picking up a mystery or fairy-tale retelling when the blurb draws you in. After all, you’ve heard over and over again that diversifying your reading material increases your creativity and understanding of story craft.
Reading outside your comfort zone, however, is not nearly as challenging as writing outside your comfort zone. The former stretches your perceptions of the world while the latter stretches your proficiency on paper.
I’m not suggesting that you abandon your dystopian work-in-progress and publish a children’s book instead. Committing yourself to a single genre keeps your branding and marketing consistent. But experimenting with less familiar genres as a writing exercise will expose you to a host of techniques that you wouldn’t have an opportunity to practice otherwise. Every genre comes with its own standards and expectations, and learning to follow those will prepare you for the task of engaging your target audience.
Skill #1: Tone and Pacing
One of the most obvious distinctions between genres is the mood the prose conveys. Thrillers feel ominous, adventure feels invigorating, and literary fiction feels introspective. When you limit your writing to one genre, you also limit your ability to adapt your voice for each scene and POV character. Fluctuations in a story’s flow signal the intensity of the action, and borrowing from other genres’ specialties can help you achieve the right balance.
At first, changing the vibe that’s become second nature to you will be difficult. You might slip into your usual habits, a problem writing team member Lori Z. Scott struggled with recently. She was revising a romantic short story and realized that she’d overdone the humor because that’s her trademark: “When I imagined the conversations between the two characters, the dialogue and internal thoughts kept turning playful. The banter made the characters likable and gave them chemistry, but I knew I needed more tension to develop the relationship and provide a satisfying ending. So I replaced a few of the ha-ha’s with ahhhs.”
Despite her moments of frustration, Lori saw the overlap between her preferred genre and the new one she was trying, which highlighted the strengths she already had as well as the areas where she needed to grow. Comparing your unique style to other authors’ (and imitating aspects of theirs) will equip you to address a wider array of emotions and themes.
Skill #2: Complex Characters
Each genre relies on a set of archetypes that fans enjoy rooting for. Fantasy features the hero, the mentor, and the villain. Romance revolves around a love interest who either takes the form of the bad girl/boy, the cinnamon roll, or the “just a friend.” And suspense combines a sleuth, a sidekick, and a criminal. All of these archetypes can show up in other genres, but they’re most common in their own, allowing the authors to easily fill essential roles.
Writers of all genres agree that characters should be authentic and relatable, but the specific traits that make them lifelike will vary based on the story. When you explore another genre, you’ll discover facets of being human that you haven’t noticed before and brainstorming strategies that will deepen your characterization at the micro level.
After attempting romance, Lori began focusing more on how characters influence and respond to each other. “Since romance centers on relationship, I started with a flawed protagonist, jotted down a list of her deficiencies, and created a partner prototype who would have a magnetic pull on her because he met her needs.”
Writing in foreign territory may feel awkward (and even futile) because you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing. Spend as much time reading the genre as possible, seek advice from writers who have expertise in it, and give yourself grace. Most importantly, believe in yourself. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the genre, you’ll experience a confidence boost.
Lori’s biggest takeaway from her foray into romance was that she shouldn’t let fear and insecurity box her in. “I’d shrugged off the genre as not my thing. But by the end of my short story, I’d gained new insights I could incorporate into my work-in-progress. Not to mention the gratification of succeeding at my goal!”
You can transfer all of your improved skills to your main genre too. So don’t stop before you’ve started. In the end, you’ll become a much more competent and creative writer.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.