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Classifying Your Story

by Suzanne Vincent

Classifying a story isn’t always a simple matter. So many potential genres to choose from, so many stories to tell that don’t always fit into nice little genre-boxes. Some stories don’t seem to fit anywhere — true genre-benders. What to do?

For help, look over this quick bare-bones guide to genre:

Literary: A genre in which the sophisticated technique of the writing itself prevails over all other elements. We love excellent writing! However, Flash Fiction Online prefers stories with characters and plot (beginning, middle, end — conflict and resolution). If you want to sell us literary fiction, those elements should be present.

Mainstream: This genre probably comprises the bulk of the submissions we receive, and that’s great! We’ve published some fantastic examples of mainstream fiction. It is fiction that appeals to a wide reading audience. It’s more about plot and characters and less about those elements that might classify it as any other genre. It’s generally devoid of speculative fiction elements.

Mystery: Fiction in which a primary story element remains unknown until the end. The goal of mystery is not to surprise the reader with the answer at the end, but to give the reader sufficient clues throughout the story that he/she has a satisfying “Of course!” moment at the end. Mystery should have good character motivation and character construction.

Suspense: in which the primary focus of the story is to build suspense over a potentially frightening of deadly circumstance. Suspense often employs a hero or heroine caught up in a situation beyond his/her control and ends with an edge-of-your-seat resolution. Hitchcock’s Rear Window is an excellent example of suspense.

Thriller: Suspense plus detectives or spies, international espionage, illegal activities and violence. Think of the Bourne series.

Action/Adventure: Action is key, setting is secondary, theme is unnecessary. Action stories often pit man against the elements.

Romance: Relationship is key. Romance uses a basic plot formula — Woman (usually) meets man, falls in love with man, encounters a problem that threatens the relationship, and resolves the conflict. At Flash Fiction Online we like a good romance, but do not want her subgenre, Erotica. What’s the difference? In Romance, the sex is less important than the emotional sensuality, reverse in Erotica. No Erotica, please. No graphic sex scenes, please. If you wouldn’t want your 12-year-old to read it, don’t send it to us.

Western: Fiction about the old American west — generally pre-20th Century. Often involves an element of Romance.

Historical Fiction: A story set in a particular time and place in history, with well-researched facts and plausible situations. The point of historical fiction is to take the reader into the past and, using some real and some fictionalized characters and situations, educate the reader about that time and place. Historical fiction often depends heavily on detailed narration in order to show life in the past. A subgenre, Historical Fantasy, explores a “What if..?” element that changes history dependent upon the question posed, or incorporates fantastical or magical elements into history.

Speculative Fiction: This is a catch-all term for fiction that incorporates elements that are fantastic and/or impossible in our known plane of existence. [Next month, by the way, we’re publishing some tips by Suzanne about writing good Flash Speculative Fiction. — Ed.] Some Speculative Fiction genres include:

Science Fiction: Put quite simply, Science Fiction contains elements of science. Now some science fiction writers will tell you that only stories in which the science is the story’s main point and the characters and story are secondary to it can be classified as “true” science fiction. But the publishing industry doesn’t make that distinction, and neither do we here at Flash Fiction Online. Science Fiction stories should contain speculative elements, meaning the level of technology in the story is not possible at this point in time and space, or the science of today causes unforseen consequences on which the writer speculates in story form.

Horror: While Horror doesn’t always contain speculative elements, it usually does, and therefore is classified with the Speculative Fiction genres. Horror is less about gore and vampires and more about an atmosphere of dread, brought on more by some present but shrouded force than by blood and screaming women. Really good horror makes the hair stand up on the back of our neck, creeps us out, but doesn’t need to make us queasy. As Howard Phillips Lovecraft put it: “...a malign and particular suspension or defeat of the fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguards against the assault of chaos...” Blood and guts horror is categorized by a subgenre called Gore.

Fantasy and its many subgenres: Fantasy is a story featuring fantastical, magical, non-real story elements. Fantasy fiction ranges from the Tolkien-esque (elves, dwarves, dragons, ogres, etc) to Urban Fantasy (magical situations or creatures placed in a modern-day urban setting). We love good fantasy here at Flash Fiction Online, but because Fantasy is such a prolific genre your story has to stand out from the competition in some way. Your dragon has to be different from every other dragon out there.

Slipstream: While Slipstream is a relatively new speculative fiction classification, the concept isn’t new at all. Basically, Slipstream includes elements of more than one subgenre — it ’slips’ around between Horror and High Fantasy, or between Science Fiction and Urban Fantasy. It might even slip around between Speculative Fiction and other genres. Slipstream is, quite simply, hard to classify speculative fiction.

The genre jungle can confuse, it’s true. But don’t sweat it. If you still don’t know where to classify your story, let us worry about it. Just put, “Genre unknown,” on your submission form. That’s cool.

About the Author

Suzanne Vincent joined the staff of Flash Fiction Online after we published her story, “I Speak The Master’s Will”, in our inaugural issue.

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