I’ve never been a fan of genre categorisation myself. Ostensibly it helps you to find the sort of stories that interest you when you’re browsing a library or book/video store, but often the labels are too narrow, and stories are only ever given either one genre (e.g. steampunk, fantasy, thriller) or two (e.g. science fantasy, romantic comedy, action adventure).
I have this theory about genre – namely, there is no such thing as a story that has only one genre. Every story will combine elements of other genres. Take Star Wars – it’s not just a science fiction. It’s got elements of fantasy (I actually think of it more as a fantasy than a science fiction) and action adventure, and even Western. Or Harry Potter – they’re not just fantasy stories, they’re also school stories and contain mystery elements as well.
If you think about it, a lot of the categories we call “genres” are completely unrelated to one another. For example, the presence of futuristic technology doesn’t preclude the story from featuring action, or comedy or romance.
So, because I have nothing better to be doing with my time, I have sorted various genres into more specific types:
1. Resemblance to real events
Stories are usually categorised by the simple premise, “did this happen in real life?” If not, then it’s fiction. If some of the characters really existed but the story is to a degree invented, it’s historical fiction. If it’s all true, it’s non-fiction. Pretty basic, but I thought it worth mentioning, especially since these are all-encompassing.
2. Possibility of actually occurring (at least in theory)
This is a common one, the main genres being fantasy (including subgenres such as supernatural horror) and science fiction (including subgenres such as cyberpunk). Add to that stories which feature nothing that could not happen in real life, which is not normally considered a genre by itself, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be, since a lot of people prefer those stories. Note that just being set in the future and on another planet doesn’t necessarily mean science fiction; it could just as easily be a fantasy. One thing you’ll notice is that categorising by whether or not magic or super intelligent androids exist in a story tells you pretty much nothing about the actual plot, so stories in these genres pretty much have to belong to at least one other genre. Still, SF and fantasy stories pretty much exist in a kind of geek ghetto anyway, so whether or not they are correctly labelled as action adventure stories or romantic comedies is probably the least of their worries.
3. Emotions provoked
Stories are also grouped by what emotional response they get from the audience. For example, horrors provoke shock, thrillers provoke tension, comedies provoke amusement, and so-called “weepies” provoke, well, weeping. I would also tentatively lump action in with this, since they provoke a “woah, that was awesome!” response. I’ve noticed that these stories seem to get sneered at a lot by critics (there are a number of notable exceptions), because apparently over-reliance on depressing or scary scenes is a cheap way of entertaining the audience. In any case, like fantasy stories, these stories must have other elements to them or else there isn’t a plot.
All stories are set in a specified time and place, be it Renaissance France, America in the early 21st century, or New New York City in the early 31st century. Works set in parallel universes and alternate histories also come under this. Some of these get their own genre names, others don’t; it’s always struck me as a little odd that Westerns count as a genre in themselves, for example, since they’re just a specific type of period setting. In any case, these don’t have anything to do with plot, either.
Of course, stories can be categorised by plot, and in fact often are. This can be adventure, or romance, or drama, or mystery, or any number of other variations. These are still not all encompassing, since many stories are a mixture of multiple plotlines. In any case, the cleverest stories are those that take a recognisable plot and then subvert it, turning it into something totally different.
Stories are also commonly categorised by the format they are presented in: animated, play, telenovella, platform game, graphic novel, rock opera, webcomic, stream of consciousness… the list goes on. Obviously this makes sense in the case of gameplay, since it does not necessarily follow that someone who enjoys FPSes will enjoy RPGs; on the other hand, it doesn’t really tell you anything about what the story involves. I mean, why would someone dislike a story when it’s presented in the form of an anime OVA, but enjoy the exact same story when it’s a live action movie? It’s still got all the same elements, it’s just drawn instead of acted. Of course, these categories are helpful if you’re specifically watching a movie because you like the art style, or because it’s got Orlando Bloom in it, or because you like the songs.
My conclusion from this is that all stories must be in a bare minimum of six genres (one for each type), but that really is the bare minimum; most will incorporate more than one of those. Take Doctor Who:
Type 1: fiction, sometimes historical
Type 2: science fiction (with occasional fantasy elements)
Type 3: pretty much all of them combined
Type 4: anywhere and everywhere, but especially the UK in the near future
Type 5: varies from episode to episode, but drama, mystery and adventure are common.
Type 6: live action TV show
I reckon that could be applied to just about every story ever. Now I just need to persuade libraries and bookstores to use it…