Genre as Story Engine

On Oulipo, aliens, and short story generation

A couple years ago, I wrote an article for Lit Hub that attempted to explain my own fiction writing process. Like most writers (I think), I do not have a codified writing mathematics but rather a messy and chaotic internal process cobbled together—in my case—from Oulipean constraints, Lishian sentence theory, and my love of genre fiction, among other things.

The gist of the article is that while we mostly talk about stories as either “character-driven” or “plot-driven,” any element of fiction can be used to drive the story. Or, in my metaphor, be the engine:

My interest, as a writer and creative writing professor, is less in how we can analyze stories than in how writers can generate work. I’m interested in what devices—engines let’s call them, since surely the author is always the driver (even when they’re crashing their story into a ditch)—can supply power to the rest of story.

Character and plot are fine, reliable engines. You can put them in your novel draft and, with a good amount of luck, drive it to the bestseller list. But they are only two ways of powering a story. In my own writing, I typically find that plot and character are not enough and that my stories are inert until I find a different kind of engine—a thematic engine perhaps or a structure engine or a linguistic engine—that makes the thing get up and running.

You can read the article if it interests you, but the idea is that we can “rev” different engines when writing to generate the material of the story. If you’re stuck in a story, or just trying to draft ideas, you can use the engine to create the actual plot points, story beats, and other elements. A single story can be written in many different ways depending on the engines used. Deriving your material from a voice engine will produce a different kind of story than a plot engine or a theme engine. And of course you can use multiple engines in tandem. This process, when it works at least, also functions to cohere the story and make it feel rich, mysterious, and rewarding.

Anyway, I won’t repeat the whole thing here. But last week some readers were sharing the article, and it reminded me that I hadn’t discussed one of my favorite story engines: genre.

I’ve always been drawn to both genre fiction (especially SF, surreal fantasy, and horror) and experimental constraint-driven fiction like that practiced by the Oulipos. Oulipo was a group of writers—including most famously Italo Calvino—who believed in using constraints to generate their stories. The classic Oulipo novel is Georges Perec’s A Void which is written entirely without the letter “e”. This is an extreme example, but a similar spirit animates a lot of form-driven literature from Nabokov’s Pale Fire (a novel written in endnotes to a poem) to The Mezzanine (a novel that spans virtually no time and takes place in the humorous digressions in a character’s mind). The constraints put on the story generates the story itself. (I wrote more about this here.)

For a long time I read Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Frank Herbert alongside writers like Calvino and Borges and thought of them as feeding different parts of my brain. But at some point I realized my love of science fiction and horror wasn’t unrelated to my love of form- and constraint-driven. Genre actually functioned in a similar way, at least for my own writing process. Genre is a type of constraint.

Fiction is an infinite machine. It can produce anything, in any form. There are no rules, not universal ones at least. But there are, perhaps, some general principles. One of those is that all (or at least 99%) fiction exists in a tension between expectation and subversion. The reader goes into a story with expectations—born from the genre off the story, the author’s previous work, the framing, and the opening paragraphs—and the writer attempts to varying degrees to subvert those expectations in a clever or satisfying way. Simple enough in theory, if tricky to pull of in practice.

For commercial fiction, this subversion might be minimal but it’s still there. The reader of formulaic detective fiction series doesn’t want radical subversion, but they do want some surprises. No one would read a series where the butler is the murderer every time. For experimental literature, this subversion is more extreme perhaps destabilizing the basic elements of narrative themselves. But in any case, the writer is always balancing what the reader will expect with how to surprise them in a way that will still feel satisfying. You meet some expectations and subvert others.

Genre is a prime way to set up expectations. A reader enters a vampire story or a hardboiled noir story expecting certain things (blood sucking say or a detective character who will move between high and low society) both hoping to experience those story elements and hoping to have them twisted in clever ways.

As a writer, this provides your constraints as well as points of innovation. You know what a reader will expect and you can see where you can twist, remix, and insert. From the story creation point of view, it’s not that dissimilar from writing with a form or Oulipean constraint. If I write a story in, say, the form of an email reply all chain I have elements already given to me (subject lines, angry replies, email language, etc.) that I can use for humor and pathos and story beats. Same goes for a fantasy quest story or anything else.

So how does this work as a story engine? How can genre expectations work to generate your story when writing?

One way is by matching your genre to what I might call your story angle. The twist you are adding to the genre. What is the angle that makes your story unique? If you are writing a fantasy story and your twist is it’s from the dragon-who-will-get-slain’s POV or a haunted house story but the twist is it’s a cruise ship, this can generate your story beats. You take the expectations of those genres and figure out ways to tweak them that relates to your twist.

One could even do this—as a writing exercise—by writing two columns of expectations or associations of your two elements (genre and angle) and pairing them. Let’s take my last example. In a haunted house story I might expect spooky noises, characters going mad, creepy animals, hidden rooms, etc. On a cruise ship I expect buffets, shuffleboard, dolphin sightings, portholes, etc. Simply mix those up randomly—possessed dolphins leaping onto the ship, creepy messages written on the outside of portholes, hidden empty buffet room, a man in a Hawaiian shirt beating himself to death with a shuffleboard cue, etc.—and you are already on your way to writing a story.

That example might be a bit silly (listen I save my good ideas for my own stories!) but I think many authors work this way to varying degrees. You take a genre, and you add some kind of twist and/or mash it up with another genre and then your story spools out form there. I have a story forthcoming in F&SF (September/October issue!) that involves real estate agents selling haunted houses. I more or less did the above exercises to write—albeit organically in my head and not with columns on paper—trying to think up interesting ways to combine haunted house tropes with elements of real estate sales.

 This isn’t just weird experimental fiction stuff. Stephen King, for example, talks about how he tends to come up with a “what if?” question for his novels (e.g. “What if Dracula was in a small New England town?” = Salem’s Lot) and this scenario generates the rest of the story. This “What if?” framing is just another way of thinking of your constraint, or your genre (vampire story) and angle (small New England town).

I was recently reading Stephen Graham Jones’s excellent Mongrels, which perhaps could be framed as “What if werewolves were working class?” The novel has a lot of clever elements that both meet and subvert the werewolf story expectations by this constraint. For example, the werewolves let people shoot at them with silver bullets so that they can find the silver slugs later and sell them for cash. I don’t know how Jones writes of course, but if it was me writing I might I think about werewolf things (silver bullets) and figure out how to match that with something from my story’s angle (cash-strapped characters) in a way that both satisfies and subverts expectations.

Of course, this is just one way to think about story generation. You might find it doesn’t work at all for you. But if you are stuck in a SFF story, you might try the exercise I described above. Make two columns. The left column is the expected elements of your genre (or subgenre), and the right column is whatever ideas you associate with your story angle. Then mix and match and see which ideas stick.