Genre is largely about blueprints: blueprints for language, for narrative structure, for point of view and characterization, for reader expectation and thus how we fulfill or subvert that expectation,. There is a lot of wiggle room, of course; as the contractor, you can alter your blueprint however you want. But the rules are there, and they make an impact on what you’ve built. Novels don’t look like poems, usually.
I write in a lot of different genres—novels, plays, poetry, short fiction. I do this for many reasons—I get bored, is one—but the main reason is that I’m fascinated by the way genre shapes narrative. That is, I love to think about and experiment with the way form and content lie together. A story, assumedly, is a story, but the choice of writing, say, a novel versus a play has a tremendous impact on the way that story is told. You can see this in film adaptations of novels: the difficulty of fully expressing a character’s interiority in a movie means that film adaptations often shift focus away from internal monologues or philosophical musings to external plot (compare the film version of The Remains of the Day with its source material, for instance).
That’s one of the reasons adaptation can be such an instructive process. I’m currently adapting Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla as a stage play. I’ve spent a lot of time with LeFanu’s novella. I edited a scholarly edition of it, and I’ve taught it in various classes for nearly twenty years. But the process of moving it from book to stage has forced me to think about the narrative in ways I never have before. Which parts of the story are dependent on each other? Which settings are integral to the plot and why? How are the characters’ individual arcs related to the movement of the narrative? Which themes get foregrounded if an audience focuses on one scene or character versus another? At a basic level, how do you present a first-person memory narrative as a full-cast stage production?
This works even when you’re not adapting a work across genres, and for me it can give a better understanding of bigger issues of narrative beyond just the story I’m writing. I recently finished writing the first season of an audio drama, a ghost story titled Palimpsest, told in the first person over ten episodes of about twenty minutes apiece. I’ve never written audio drama before, and I had to quickly learn the rules. Twenty minutes of spoken audio, at least the way the actor I work with delivers it, turns out to be around 2500 words. We planned a ten-episode story arc. So I went in knowing I had, more or less, 25,000 words to tell the story. But I also knew it had to be episodic—every 2500 words or so I had to come to a plausible conclusion, hopefully with some element of cliffhanger to make listeners want to come back. And every episode had a “cold open,” a hook that grabbed listeners during the first three minutes or so before the opening credits.
More importantly, we had three narrative elements—the main ghost story, a memory story about the main character’s past that functioned as a sort of psychological mystery, and a series of meditations on the malleability of memory and the way we are haunted by the past. So not only did I have to write in 2500 word bursts ending in a cliffhanger, but I had to advance each one of these elements in each episode, all the while moving towards a (hopefully) satisfying payoff of each one in the final two episodes. Those were the rules.
Writers who regularly work episodically—writers of TV shows or comics, for instance—already think like this. They understand the narrative rhythm of their genre. My experience as a novelist has taught me to play a longer game, so I had a learning curve.
Except not really. I’ve spent a lot of time with the novels of Charles Dickens. Dickens wrote in a very specific structure, dictated by his publishing methods. Most of Dickens’ novels were published serially. They came out in 32-page monthly installments for two years or so. Only after the final installment would the complete, one-volume edition be published. So Dickens wrote the way I needed to—he had to advance his several plots in 32 page bursts, ending in some sort of cliffhanger, all the while working the larger story arc. If you look, you can see these beats in the novels. Even though Bleak House may appear a monolithic narrative masterfully presented—and it is—it was composed in parts, and Dickens held the larger story in his head in tandem with the 32-page mini-arcs that comprised it. This isn’t radically different from what I had to do for the podcast. And bonus, I didn’t have to write 1000 pages.
I learned a lot writing Palimpsest. I learned what you always learn, of course, which is how to tell that particular story. But I also got a bigger picture of one way large narratives can be constructed. And once I made the connection to Dickens’ serial publishing, I not only got a new appreciation of Dickens’ grasp of narrative structure, but also I could see how the skills I learned writing the podcast could inform my longer form writing.
So the demands of the genre itself can offer writers a fresh understanding of a story or character. It’s a good exercise, if you want to gain new insight into what you’re writing. Take something you’re working on and recast it in a different genre. You can do it in small doses. Write a sonnet in the voice of a character from your novel. Take a central scene in your memoir and write it out as a piece of dialogue for the stage. Take an internal monologue and re-imagine it as an imagist poem. What do you have to know about your work to make it survive the transition? What new thing will you learn about your story?