When broken into their fundamental elements – theme, plot and character – the thousands of novels, movies, short stories and television movies that exist can be grouped into basic, fundamental organisational categories. These categories are called genres. Understanding genre is crucial to crafting a good story. However, there’s an equally important organisational element – some would say a higher form of genre – that is just as crucial to creating a compelling story.
This ‘higher genre’ is a story’s Meta Genre. Put simply, this governs how stories relate to other stories. This idea of novels, myths and movies creating a cultural fabric that governs reader expectations isn’t new – in fact, it’s the basis of genre. What is different about Meta Genre is that it doesn’t concern itself with the minutae of story. It doesn’t set, for example, guidelines for a story’s tone, characters or plot like a genre does. (For example, if you write a Thriller, it’s conventional to have heavy suspense, plot twists and action, compared to a Romance, which emphasises relationships, emotions and characters.)
Now, you’re probably raising an eyebrow, and wondering why I’m trying to sound all sophisticated and literary. Please – let me explain myself. I’m not here to boost my literary ego. I just want to explore an idea I’ve had for a while; an idea that might just be useful to anyone interested in story craft.
My thesis is this: there are only 3 types of Meta Genres, and all stories belong to one Meta Genre. In basic terms, a Meta Genre determines a story’s reaction to existing stories. The three Meta Genres are:
- Path-Following stories;
- Response stories;
- and Path-Forging stories.
1. Path-Following Stories:
These stories follow the conventions established by other similar stories. In that sense they can be considered ‘genre stories’, as they use reader expectations to frame a story that feel familiar, but can still be creative, interesting and different. This Meta Genre is the most common.
- The Harry Potter series – followed the path/genre conventions of a standard school story (and, depending on how much you read into it, the ideas of magical schools explored by other novels). While Rowling’s saga (my personal favourite series) followed a path blazed by other novels, she travelled along this metaphorical path in a way that was sophisticated, accomplished and full of heart.
2. Response Stories:
These stories are designed to respond, critique, parody, satarise or otherwise comment on existing stories or genres. Unable to exist in a vacuum, these tales generally require knowledge of other stories to be fully enjoyed.
- Discworld by Terry Prachet. This humourous fantasy series parodies the works of Tolkein, Lovecraft, Shakespeare and many other myths, cultural ideas and the like. Discworld couldn’t exist in a vacuum – like all Response Stories, it requires an existing body of stories to respond to.
- A non-parodious example is Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. This series responds to the romanticised fantasy worlds of Tolkein and similar authors by crafting a world that is gritty, dark and ruthless.
3. Path-Forging Stories:
The rarest of the three Meta Genres, and for good reason, Path-Forging stories are stories so original, different and trail-blazing that they can truly be described as ‘new.’ True ‘newness’ is of course fraught with complication – all tales are destined to contain traces of older stories,
- Star Wars: A New Hope – this movie forged paths by essentially creating (or at the very least popularising) the Space Opera genre. While Space Operas ‘existed’ before, Star Wars may be treated as a path-forging story for how, to mainstream audiences, the idea of a traditional Hero’s Journey saga in a futuristic galactic setting was unheard of.
- Watchmen, by Alan Moore – this graphic novel is an interesting case, for in deconstructing (i.e. responding to) traditional superhero stories, Watchmen created out a new (sort-of-)sub-genre where heros had flaws, psychological issues and more human-like personalities. While we take the idea of ‘dark and gritty’ superhero stories for granted today (i.e. The Dark Knight), this notion didn’t exist before Watchmen. Thus, it’s possible for revolutionary reactionist stories to become Path-Forging.
So there we have it – the three Meta Genres. I’ll level with you – I’m not sure how useful they’ll be in your writing, beyond obviously being able to identify which Meta Genre your story belongs to. At the very least, however, they’ll let you understand other stories, and help you work out how your story relates to other tales – and better understanding story craft can only help you write better.
What are your thoughts about Meta Genre? Have I lost my mind or am I on to something? Do you thing there are other Meta Genres? Can you come up with a better name than Meta Genres? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially since I’m personally not full bottle on Meta Genres myself!