In order to sell the story and make a promise to your reader about what kind of story they are settling into, one of the layers must take ascendance.
If you are writing a Historical Romance and the focus is on the historical event that romantic partners are caught up in, it will sit on the Historical shelf. If the focus is on the romance between the two characters, the historical setting is the backdrop and the story ends happily, it will sit on the Romance shelf.
If you are writing a Paranormal Mystery and you want it to end up on the Mystery shelf, you have to fulfill the expectations of the Mystery genre. If you are writing a lyrical “present mystery solves past mystery” and it doesn’t follow the “sleuth solving a crime” formula, it may end up on the Literature shelf rather than the Mystery shelf.
An easy way to get a feel for genre is to look at the “log lines” on your television or cable guide movie section or read book synopses. The log line/synopsis states a protagonist is confronted by an inciting event and has to do something to solve the problem it creates. Most people choose whether to see a movie or read a book based on that sentence or paragraph. Jot down notes about the ones that appeal to you and the ones that don’t. Most of us do this every time we consult the cable guide without thinking about it. We flip until we find something that looks intriguing. We may have passed by ten well-constructed stories, but the premise or the promise didn’t appeal.
You may write a story without a clear idea of genre and it comes to you in the middle or at the end, but it saves a whole lot of time if you know it up front. You may change your mind half-way through because the love story takes over from the meteor hitting the earth story, which is okay. The important thing is to have an idea to work with. If you still can’t answer this question at the end of the draft, you have a lot of revising to do.
There are basic commercial categories of fiction, though stories written in each genre and subgenre differ greatly. Go to a book store and look at the different sections. Romance, Mystery, History, and Science Fiction typically have their own aisles. Then there is the much larger Literature section. There is a Young Adult section which encompasses all genres with a teen focus.
True fans of a genre have certain expectations and are disappointed if you don’t meet them or if you give them information they don’t want. People who are settling down with a breezy Romance don’t want gruesome forensic details. Others who are looking for a good spy Thriller will be bored with the slow pace of literary wording.
The genre provides the overall story problem that needs to be corrected by the end of the story. It serves as the foundation for your story. That doesn’t mean you can’t bend, twist, and contort the structure. Not all buildings are square. Some are pyramids, circles, and triangles. However, at the core of every structure is a solid framework that supports the integrity of the whole. A person renting a four-star hotel room does not want to find themselves in someone’s leaking fishing shack.
A question to ask at the beginning of your planning process (or at the end of your first draft) is: Where would you like your book to be displayed in the book store: the Literature, Romance, or Mystery section? If your story was made into a movie and broadcast on television, would you prefer it to be on the SyFy, Lifetime, or Hallmark channel?
Most writers would prefer that their book be at the very front of the bookstore, prominently displayed on a table as you walk in. However, publishers pay extra for that. Even if they choose your book for that honor, it won’t stay there long. It will eventually have to go “somewhere.” Those are the realities of the traditional publishing game.
With electronic publishing, some of this may change. The lines are blurring. People searching for your book on Amazon will look up Fantasy or Romance or History. If they frequently purchase Romance novels, algorithms will recommend more Romance novels.
E-Books and online bookstores have the advantage of adding “tags” to describe your book that step outside the rigid framework of genre. A Romance set in Scotland might be recommended to someone who buys a different book that is set in Scotland or is about Scotland. With E-publishing you can sometimes choose more than one BISAC code, the numeric code that tells librarians and book stores what category your book fits into.
As of this writing, the lines are still pretty firmly drawn in traditional publishing. If your book bucks all trends, be prepared to publish it yourself, because getting past the query stage will be very difficult, if not impossible. Agents and editors are overworked and underpaid and only have so many hours in the day. They may truly love a story but not be able to place it.
In the end it comes down to what you wish to achieve, whether you wish to write the best book you can write or whether you attempt to placate an inconsistent, ungrateful gorgon. If you wish to produce the best work you are capable of, the Story Building Block method can help you achieve that. It won’t necessarily help you feed the gorgon.