343. Transcending Genre

A while ago, I asked the local literati gathered in the NaNoWriMo Malaysia group: what separates the writers who are simply “good” or “talented” and elevates them into the “great” territory? What is the mark of distinction of a great writer, rather than just an amateur, or average one? What makes writing, in short, good?

There were a number of responses. But I’d like to immortalize the opinions of the esteemed Calvin Wong here (with his brother Marvin’s comments added in. Neither one of them knows that I’m writing a blog post based on this):

Consistent, disciplined, accepting of his/her own failings, ability to put aside ego, well-read, sensitive, observant, have a wide understand of many subjects of study, a strong sense of love & compassion. And Strong understanding of field/medium.

Talk about a detailed answer.

It’s a question that I have been wrestling with since the beginning of the year. Beyond a basic knowledge of grammar, syntax, and sentence structure that allows one to create readable sentences – what are the things that makes a story good? Is it voice? Imagination? Density? Exploration of theme? What?

These days, I think an essential part of good writing is in the transcendence of genre.

We’re very comfortable with genre. We know pretty much what to expect from a Western: power struggles, intense gun moments, tough-talking cowboys; we know our Romance: personality clashes, learning to see one’s own flaws, learning to see another in a new light; and oh, do we know our Disney: lots of nice songs.

(most of the time, anyway)

We expect it of these movies. We expect an action-thriller to be, well, thrilling. With action. We expect mind screws from our psychological dramas. We expect an examination of the human condition and the ties that holds us all together in indie drama flicks. When we see a superhero movie, we know that things are going to get smashed on an epic scale.

But not always.

Every once in a while, a movie comes along and blows everything we know out of the water. It’s everything we expect of it… and some more. The Dark Knight, while an excellent superhero action-thriller, also explores a Jodi Picoult-esque moral dilemma. Minority report is a high-octane thriller with themes of predestination running through it, but also a subtle jab at the innate selfishness in all of us. Les Misérables (the novel) is a heartwarming tale of redemption and the struggle of grace versus the law… Also a sappy love story, social commentary, a treatise on early 19th century argot within the French underworld, and (the musical) a pretty kickass musical.

After many thousands of years, the power of a great story is still found in the same thing: in its capacity to surprise. To give its audience a little more than what they expect. To transcend beyond the boundaries that people might set up around it, beyond the box that people try to fit it in.

In a word, I think we can call this phenomenon of a story transcending genre as the “breadth” of the story: the grounds it explores, that sometimes go beyond traditional boundaries.

(but that will be for another post – me discussing the length, breadth, and depth of story)

So by all means, if you would write a Film Noir, a Buddy Cop movie, a B-grade SF flick, or a disaster movie, hold nothing back: dish out all the punches you have. Exhaust the list of tropes familiar to the genre. And then, just when your audience and your critics think you’re done, hit them with something straight out of left field.

They’ll never see it coming.


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