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Reading within and across genres | Reading

A genre is a type of story, like fantasy or romance: stories within a genre share similar subject matter, themes, or styles. The more you read within a genre, the more you develop a schema, a set of background knowledge or expectations for that genre. And if an author's clever, they may play with your expectations... Created by David Rheinstrom.

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Video transcript

- [David] Hello, readers. Let's talk about the idea of genre in fiction. Genres are types of stories that share similar themes, styles, or subject matter. So science fiction is a genre, fairy tales are a genre, mysteries are a genre. Each one of these types of stories has certain elements that you gradually come to expect from them. Fantasy stories have magic spells and imaginary creatures. Romance stories have lots of smooching. Mystery stories have a crime and a person who tries to solve it. You can call these tropes, you can call these style elements but certain genres have certain expectations embedded in them. The more you read of a genre, the more your expectations are shaped for that genre. When a story begins with the phrase, "Once upon a time," and ends with "and they lived happily ever after," you know you're looking at a fairy tale. We all carry with us a unique collection of impressions and expectations. It's your background knowledge, your schema. If you think of your brain as a closet, then schema is the hooks and clothes hangers inside that closet. You can put a new shirt on a clothes hanger, you can hang pants or a skirt on a clothes hanger, but if you wanted to hang up a dress, you might need one of those fabric-covered hangers so it doesn't slip. And if you wanna store shoes in your closet, you might need to get a shoe rack or one of those hanging shoe organizers. Just as different clothing items require different, you know, closet infrastructure like hangers or shoe racks, your schema, your background knowledge, informs the sort of literature you know how to read. That's a weird sentiment to express, I think, but it's true. The first time you read a book in a particular genre, you're forming an impression of that genre. And that impression gets refined or revised with every similar book you read after the first. Reading widely across many genres of fiction expands your brain closet. But let's be clear here. Not every book is connected with every other book. And when you try to apply something you learned in one story to another story, it may not work. For example, in 20th century detective fiction, there is a recurring theme or trope that dates to the 1930s: the butler did it, which is to say that if there's a murder that takes place at a fancy manor house, there's a good chance that the butler is the murderer. But if you go into every mystery set at a fancy manor house assuming that the butler is the guilty party, you'll be wrong a lot. Famously, in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, everyone did it. Every suspect in the mystery is responsible in some way for the murder in the title. It's an enormous conspiracy, and Christie plays with the readers' assumptions as we go through the story, knowing that you, as a person who has probably read a mystery before, or who is at least familiar with the form, has an expectation that there are only one or two culprits, only one or two people that did the murder to the guy on the train. And look, I apologize for spoilers for a story from 1934, but you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs, you know what I mean? Anyway, it's neat to look at the way that an author can play with the expectations of genre, how an author might anticipate a reader's schema and play with that. Something that blew my mind when I was in school was the idea that Star Wars was a western, or at least takes many of its cues from classic pulp western movies. Let's draw a little Venn diagram. All right, so over here, we've got Star Wars and over here we've got the western movie genre. Here are some things that Star Wars has that westerns don't have. Space wizards like the Jedi and Sith, magic like the force, or space ships. Here's some things that western movies have that Star Wars movie's don't, by and large, have. Western movies have horses, they tend to have cowboys, and then tend to take place in settings like the western United States and Mexico. But here's our overlap, all right, so both Star Wars and western movies have bar fights, both Star Wars and western movies have bounty hunters, and both the Star Wars films and western films tend to have a lot of desert settings. That could be the desert planet of Tatooine from Star Wars, or Monument Valley in the US state of Texas, or the Mexican state of Durango in western films. Mind you, you could also make a separate Venn diagram between Star Wars and samurai movies because Star Wars also borrows liberally from those. This is a great activity for analysis. Take two stories that you love and compare their theme, settings, and characters, and see if there's something you can find in common between them. You may discover connections you didn't expect. As I've mentioned before, good readers read widely. They read lots of books and they let what they know about one genre, their schema of the genre, help them anticipate and make connections when they read a new book. The more you read, the more schema you build, the easier and more interesting those connections will become. You can learn anything. David out.