October 10, 2017

Genre -Is- Worldbuilding

Blueprint of a house with text: Building Our Story World with Genre

Between my health issues and packed to-do list, I’m constantly behind on the latest movies. For example, I think this past summer I saw only Wonder Woman and Dunkirk, even though several more were on my “want to see” list.

(At least that list isn’t as overwhelming as my to-be-read pile of books. That numbers in the hundreds…maybe thousands. Um, yay for Kindles? *grin*)

So it’s unfortunately not a surprise that this past weekend, I finally saw the movie Arrival. I know, I know. Why did I wait so long to see such a great movie? That’s my life.

If you’ve seen it, you know it’s a big thinking kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie that inspires people to search for articles to dig deeper. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to compare notes with others. It’s the kind of movie that if you type something along the lines of “what does arri…” into Google, the top auto-suggestion is “what does arrival movie mean?”

I was no exception, and one of the first articles I came across was one that compares the movie to the short story that inspired it. (Warning: Major spoilers at that post, but I’ll be avoiding them here.)

What I found interesting about that article was how it triggered me to see genre a different way. In short, I realized that our story’s underlying meaning—what it’s about—could often be told in almost any genre.

Our story’s genre is simply the worldbuilding “lens” that we’ve chosen to use for exploring that meaning. Let’s take a closer look to see what I mean…

What Genre Is Arrival?

The Arrival movie is rightfully called a science-fiction story. Just for starters, we have aliens, technology, math, explorations of time and reality, and scientists leading the way.

However, that article linked above pointed out that what the film is actually about—its underlying theme, meaning, and purpose—are questions about free will and personal responsibility:

“The theme rests on a line Louise utters in one of Arrival‘s closing scenes. “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?””

In comparing the short story inspiration, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, which makes this idea the central focus, to how the movie handled it, the article then mentions:

“This message exists in Arrival, but it’s hidden under broader plot movements, big drama, and more visible Hollywood layers.”

The word layers in that quote triggered me to see the bigger picture about genre. The plot events, the conflicts, and even the sci-fi elements are all just layers used to explore the question at the center of the story. It’s all about layers.

Layers? Yes, Everything Is a Layer—Even Our Plot

I’ve written before about the difference between plot and story, and this is another way of looking at the question. As I said in that post, story isn’t the same as plot.

Many authors struggle with revisions and think the answer is to change plot events. But too often the author doesn’t understand the core of the issue, so a different plot event won’t help—because the problem actually lies in the underlying story.

That said, whenever it does work—whenever a different plot event fixes too-low of stakes, etc.—we’re proving time and again that the plot is not the story. If plot were the same as story, every time we changed a plot event, the essence of our story would change as well, and that’s obviously not the case.

As I said in my post about plot vs. story:

For character-focused stories, we often hear that plot reveals character, and that’s true. But even for non-character-focused stories, the plot creates the struggle for the character.

In other words, the plot isn’t the point of a story. …

Plot is a tool to reveal the character or the struggle.

The same goes for genre.

Genre Is Simply a Layer of Our Worldbuilding

Exploring the ideas of free will and personality responsibility—such as in the Arrival movie—could happen in almost any (every?) genre. Virtually every story centers on characters making choices, and that fact alone creates a layer of a “free will and personal responsibility” element within our story.

Our story's theme is a broad foundation we build upon with our genre. Click To TweetEvery time our characters face a dilemma, we’re revealing whether they recognize the choices they could make, what they value, what they fear, what power they think they have to change their situation, what responsibilities or obligations they feel, etc.

It just so happens that the original author, Ted Chiang, and Arrival‘s director, Denis Villeneuve, decided to explore the main character’s choices, what they meant, and her views of free will and personal responsibility through the lens of the science fiction genre. (As a romance author, I feel like I should point out that with only a few minor tweaks, the movie could have been a sci-fi romance. Just sayin’. *smile*)

Another story could create the same choice for the same character by using the setup of a different genre. Genre is simply a layer.

Genre Is Worldbuilding? A Few Examples…

Let’s say that we want our heroine to confront her mixed feelings toward her elderly parent. That’s the story.

In a literary story, we might explore those mixed feelings in a straight dramatic arc. In different genres, our heroine can be exactly the same, but we’d create different worlds, different plots, to force that confrontation:

  • In a romance story, our heroine might meet a love interest at her parent’s care facility, and the growth of their relationship would expose her unresolved issues toward her parent.
    Romance Worldbuilding: Circumstances for romantic characters to spend time together and tying the parent subplot to her internal arc, as well as to the romance arc.
  • In a cozy mystery story, our heroine might witness a crime while at her parent’s care facility, and her investigations into the perpetrator’s motives would expose her unresolved issues toward her parent.
    Mystery Worldbuilding: Circumstances for heroine to be involved in the mystery and tying the parent subplot to the mystery plot.
  • In a science fiction story, our heroine might have the opportunity to use brand new technologies to extend her parent’s life, and the debate about the risks would expose her unresolved issues toward her parent.
    Science Fiction Worldbuilding: Circumstances for heroine to push the envelope of science and tying the parent subplot to the futuristic plot.

Three different genres. Three different plots. Three different circumstances.

One character. One underlying situation. One exploration of theme.

At its essence, one story.

Of course different genres have different expectations. But those genre expectations are another aspect of worldbuilding.

For example, a love story isn’t a romance unless it has a happy ending. So the worldbuilding for a story in the romance genre must include the circumstances to allow for a happily ever after. *smile*

Can This Understanding Help Us Choose a Genre?

Our stories consist of many layers: characters, plot, conflicts, stakes, motivations, goals, emotions, internalizations, mood, tone, external arcs, internal arcs, romance arcs, subplots, worldview, dialogue, action, humor, etc. Genre is just another layer of our story, one focused on worldbuilding.

Not sure what genre to write? Ok! Genre is just one layer of our stories. Click To TweetAs writers, we might struggle to know what genre to write in, or we might feel the urge to explore different genres throughout our career. Some hop subgenres, like from historical romance to contemporary romance. Others hop from major genre to major genre, like from horror to thriller.

We might be able to make sense of these uncertainties and urges—and have an easier time making adjustments—if we understand that genre is mostly about the world we build for our characters while they explore the story. Maybe thinking about the worldbuilding we most enjoy could help us decide on a genre, or maybe we want to play in different styles of worlds or have fun with different circumstances than we have before.

Or we might know better how to avoid the temptations of genre-hopping and stick to our brand if we understand how story ideas—at their essence—can be translated from one genre to another. Just because we got a shiny story idea for a different genre doesn’t mean we have to write it in that genre.

If we get a story idea for X genre but we usually write in Y genre, we can ask ourselves: What makes this story idea appeal to us?

  • Is it the story itself? The theme, the conflict, the confrontation?
    If so, the genre might not be important, and we might be able to translate the idea to our usual genre.
  • Is it the world we’d get to create? The settings and surroundings, the appropriate plot events, the expectations?
    If so, it might be the change of genre that appeals to us, and our urge might not be about the story idea at all.

Or if we don’t get urges to change genres, this understanding might help us grasp why not. Maybe we’re most comfortable in building the types of worlds found in our chosen genre. Or maybe those worlds resonate the most strongly with what we find interesting.

Personally, I write paranormal romance because I explore themes about the power of love and I enjoy creating paranormal worlds. I like coming up with the worldbuilding of magic systems or whatever not-normal aspects my stories require. I’d be bored by building a world without any fantastical elements.

Whatever our situation, thinking about genre as worldbuilding might help us have a better grasp on our story—and future story ideas. And that’s good for all of us, as well as good for our career, our branding, and our happiness while writing. *smile*

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Have you thought of genre as being worldbuilding before? Or do you disagree, and if so, why? Have you debated which genre to write in before? What reasons did you have (or did this help you understand your reasons)? If you haven’t switched, what appeals to you about your genre?

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June Randolph
June Randolph

Good insight, well expressed.

A. Peter Perdian

Right on . . . and so very true!

As for the movie itself, it was excellent. IMO, the movie is better than the story. But occasionally that happens. I also prefer the Blade Runner movies over Phillip K. Dick’s story.


Oh, my eyes are so terrible now that I literally can’t watch movies anymore. :/ So I get what you mean by missing a lot of movies that many people are talking about.

Hmm I don’t feel the urge to switch genres completely, but I’ve recently become interested in incorporating elements from the horror genre into my stories. Lol! Just to give my story a bit of an eerie feeling. I realized too that some of my stories involve so much bending of the reader’s mind, that it could be seen as a psychological thriller—I know that my stories don’t quite fit the definition of “psychological thriller,” but they still feel like psychological thrillers to me…

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

I see Hugh Howey’s Wool is being filmed by Ridley Scott. Should be fun!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

I write in a few genres and there is crossover, crime usually features in all of them except YA.


I love this!

Also, I feel you about the huge pile of books to be read! I keep reading them, but I acquire them a lot faster than I can keep up…


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