Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 3: Getting To Grips With Genre And Tone

Welcome to week 3 of Anthony Ehlers's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here.

Goal setting
  1. Decide on genre
  2. Rewrite your working synopsis
  3. Exploring the mood of your novel
Breaking it down

Through the lens of genre
You may have wondered when I was going to bring up the topic of genre. I deliberately left it until now, because I think if you focus too much on genre right at the beginning of the novel writing process, it can stifle the natural flow of your story.

Yes, it’s great to have an idea of what type of story you’re telling from the start — but by working on your synopsis and character thumbnails, you’ll probably come up with some great unfettered ideas. Some may even suggest a different genre to what you had in mind.

At the start of my story, I knew I was going to write a suspense novel but I need to sharpen my focus on genre. For me, the psychological element of a suspense is always more exciting that the physical element of it.  I love Eyes Wide Shut, the movie based on the story ‘Traumnovelle’, which explores sexual jealousy and fantasies. So I knew I wanted my story to have an erotic edge. However, I wanted it to play out like a thriller — with an element of pursuit.

What genre most suits your story? How can you align your plot more closely to that genre? My story, at the end of the day, is an erotic thriller — so I felt it was lacking in menace. It needed more tension and suspense. That was something I needed to focus on.  This meant I had to relook at both the storyline and the characters, especially the antagonist.
Bringing the antagonist from the edge … closer to your main character
With this is mind, this week the task is to have another look at your working synopsis. Is there enough in it to satisfy the requirements of your genre?

At this point, try to find three or four key scenes that if someone read just these scenes, they would immediately guess the genre. In the film Fatal Attraction, for example, Alex, the stalker, escalates her obsessive pursuit of a married man after he tries to rebuff her following their one-night stand. She fakes a pregnancy to get his attention, shows up under the guise as a potential buyer of his apartment to meet his wife, and even ‘kidnaps’ his daughter. (Oh, let’s not forget the bunny boiling!).

These three scenes, on their own, show how she’s encroached on his life and is posing a threat to his wife and child — the two people he doesn’t want to lose. There’s a lot at stake for this main character.

Of course, if we use this movie as an example, Alex as an antagonist is superb. Her successful career and casual attitude to sex hide her obsessive and unbalanced nature. She is not a stereotypical ‘vamp’: at times, we even feel empathy for her.

This week look at your antagonist and try to flesh out elements of this character so that they will function better in your chosen genre. Then look at the characters around them — your lead, your love interest, and so forth — and see how you could make them more vulnerable to the antics of the antagonist, and also what strengths (hidden or otherwise) you could give them to stand up to the antagonist.
The ‘feel’ of your story
Every story has its own mood. How an author creates a scene, builds a character, the pace he or she uses to create tension or relief in the reader, their descriptions of setting — all these influence the tone of a novel.

I’ll give you an example from the film world. The film Basic Instinct, a thriller, has a cool Hitchcockian style, with an icy soundtrack and a detached voyeuristic feel. However, if you read Joe Eszterhaz’s original script, he intended it to have a much rougher touch — with a Rolling Stones rock ’n’ roll edge. Not a single word of the dialogue or the plot changed from script to screen, but the director gave the film his own unique treatment.

While plot is about story, genre is more about tone, I believe. This week you may want to write out a ‘treatment’ of your novel, much the way filmmakers do with a movie. What kind of tone do you want to create? What’s the mood or feeling you want to stir in the reader?

Stephenie Meyer, I recall, used to create playlists of music while writing her Twilight series (I think Muse featured heavily). A good idea is to think of what invisible soundtrack you want the reader to ‘hear’ while reading the book — this will influence the tone of your novel.
Timelock — 2-3 hours
  • 1 hour to rewrite your synopsis
  • 1 hour to rewrite your character thumbnails
  • 1 hour to write out the treatment (Optional)
5 Quick Hacks
  1. Read a novel or two and try to isolate the three plot points, or three scenes, that are key to its genre.
  2. Make a list of your favourite baddies or antagonists — next to each name write down one or two characters traits that you remember about them.
  3. Imagine your main character and antagonist in two different locations at exactly the same time — describe how your antagonist would travel to get to your main character and why.
  4. Watch one of your favourite movies — pay attention to the mood or tone of the story. How was this achieved?
  5. Create a playlist of music that you think would suit your story. Listen to it while you write.
Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘Genre is a powerful but dangerous lens. It both clarifies and limits. The writer must be careful not to see life in the stereotyped form — but to look at life with all the possibilities of genre in mind.’ — Donald Murray

Watch out for the fourth instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year next week.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. Please email news@writerswrite.co.za for more details.

 by Anthony Ehlers

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9 responses
Hi Anthony Thanks for your post. Interesting perspective to only narrow down the genre at a later stage. I have definitely struggled with choosing a genre at the start of my novel. I knew who I was writing for - women's fiction, I knew it would include a bit of family drama, a tragedy as well as a love story, but I just can't pinpoint exactly which one it is. The tone I have too, and hopefully this should help me choose the genre. Thank you. Kind regards Alma
Thanks, Alma. I think how we arrive at genre is different for each author. I tried to share honestly what may work for me. I think women's fiction often has elements of a love story or tragedy - so you're probably on track. Wishing you loads of luck.
hi..sir...actually, this is very much advance, to write a novel... as right now, I m focusing on simple writing, as I read editorial pages, something I m unable to comprehend it properly, and the use of comma, exclamation, dash, etc symbols. . so please provide me some notes, so I can go through them, and understand the basis, hope you understand. I shall be highly obliged to you. Thanku sir
If you are looking for help with basic writing, follow this link and read our grammar posts: http://writerswrite.co.za/tag/Grammar
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