Which Came First: The Genre or The Plot?

What is one of the first questions you’re asked when someone finds out you’re a writer? Personally, I’m initially asked what I write. For most of my life as a writer, I’ve responded with a vague “I write a little of everything,” which I feel is pretty true. I may normally identify as a fantasy writer, but I’ve also written some dystopian fiction, some science fiction, and even a suspense novel. Why nail myself down to one particular genre?

Once, in a conversation with a professor that I highly respect, I gave my generic answer when he asked what I write. His immediate response was something like, “Well, that isn’t what you would want to tell an agent or a publisher.” His words stuck with me. For so long, I had to stuck to a philosophy that a writer should not have to be “restricted” by a genre or by identifying as a writer solely enveloped in a certain genre.

But you know that dissonance you experience when someone’s logic makes enough sense that it shakes your preconceived notions about reality? That’s what happened here. As much as I hated to admit it, what this professor said made sense. It’s hard enough to market a new writer. Publishers don’t want a jack of all trades, master of none. They’re more likely to want a master of one because they can sell to that audience. The professor finished by saying something like, “Once publishers trust you enough, once you’ve made a name for yourself, then maybe you can branch out into other genres.”

So let’s get to the point. From a publication standpoint, I understand my professor’s logic. I have to say that I’m still on the fence about this debate, but I think it’s significant enough to discuss.

So which comes first: the genre or the plot?


Image via Flickr by interestedbystandr

In the beginning, there is the idea. An idea so great that it will burst out of your mind and float away into the ether if you don’t get it onto paper. That idea may be as simple as an interesting location, a compelling character, or an engaging theme and message.

After the idea comes the planning. An idea in its early stages is impressionable and even the most seemingly insignificant influences affect the course your idea takes following its embryonic stage. One of the first decisions all writers must make is whether or not they will allow that idea to be first shaped by a genre or a plot.

Naturally, I would argue that plot should always come before genre. The genre should be a means by which the plot is communicated, and whichever genre is chosen to be the vehicle of the plot should be the genre that would most effectively drive the story. In this case, a very basic plot is outlined. This is where a single idea branches out into slightly deeper ideas, but nothing yet deep enough to be called a story.

But this is where it gets fuzzy. This is where it becomes like the whole “chicken and the egg” conundrum. Somewhere early in the process of formulating the plot, the genre seems to manifest itself ex nihilo. Then it starts to seem like the genre was there the whole time and the plot has always been conforming to a genre.

Is that so bad? Should we think of genre as something restrictive? I don’t think so. Early in a writing career, we may feel restricted by a publisher to a certain genre, but does that mean that we’ve lost all creative freedom? No, we just have the chance to do something new, to bring something novel to a type of storytelling. And is a plot weaker if it follows the genre? Again, it likely depends on the situation. A drive to do something different within a genre could lead to the birth of some wonderful ideas.

And in the end, is this discussion completely irrelevant? Does it really matter which comes first? I would say that it is at least worth considering. The only restrictions that can really be placed on an idea can only be placed upon them by the writer themselves. Either way, we would do well to resist thinking of genre as restrictive and instead view it as a means to an end, a vessel carrying the next golden idea.

Now that I’ve yammered on long enough, what are you thoughts? Please feel free to continue this exchange. Should plot or genre come first? Is one more important than the other?

As always, thanks for reading!