I belong to a Facebook group for self-published fiction authors many of whom routinely make thousands or tens of thousands of dollars a month. The key to their success? Pick a genre that readers like, read as many examples of it as you can, and then write to that genre. While some might dismiss this approach as putting formula over art, their ability to sell does highlight the importance of genre to readers. When we read a detective novel, we expect certain things to happen. In a horror novel, there are certain things characters will never do or say. And while the boundaries of genre can be stretched or redefined, they can never be ignored completely. Imagine a romance novel where no one fell in love.
In non-fiction or academic writing genre conventions are arguably even more important. The genre-based approach to writing, popularized by John Swales, among others, demonstrates the importance of writing having certain features in order to be effective. Newspaper articles have very particular structures, starting with the unusual grammar of headlines. Grant proposals, business school case studies, reports on science class experiments, and book reviews all have different features and structures that a writer must be able to understand and employ to make the writing effective.
There are a number of ways to teach students to write in genre and genre-switching is one of the most effective. I was first introduced to this activity by Alan Maley’s wonderful book, Short and Sweet. Maley groups the exercise under “Media Transfer”, one of his generalizable activities that work with almost any text. This activity is also found in Stories Without End by Taylor Sapp, one of our own books in the creative classrooms series.
The basic idea is to have students rewrite a text in a different genre. A fairy-tale can be rewritten as a news story or interview (something that you might remember from Sesame Street News). A poem can be turned into a letter or a play. A serious text can be parodied as a comedy! And genre fiction can be rewritten in different genres.
Benefits of Genre Switching
This activity helps students understand genre conventions because they must separate important details from the text from genre conventions. For example, a mystery story tends to begin with a crime and follow the investigation as the detective discovers clues. It would not be surprising to find characters who lie or keep secrets from each other, descriptions of crimes or even violent acts, or a “twist” that causes the reader to question the events of the book. There may be a romance, but it will not be the focus of the story. The focus of a mystery is the crime and the discovery of clues, leading to the solution, and the capture (or attempted capture) of the “bad guy.”
On the other hand, there are romance novels that include crimes. However, the focus of the story will be on the two main characters falling in love. There may be secrets or twists, but these will be related to the main characters and how their relationship is viewed. So to take a mystery story and rewrite it as a romance, students must understand what features of the story are so important that they must be preserved. And what features cannot be transferred to another genre.
This awareness of genre features can also help students become better readers. When they know what to expect in a story, it helps them focus on the plot. And it helps students chose reading material they like. In fact, I had a student who very much enjoyed love stories, and ended up buying a romance novel without realizing it. He was shocked by the sex scenes. It was very helpful to him to sit down and discuss the hallmarks of a romance novel (including conventions of cover design and titles) so that he could avoid them in the future. This may seem like a trivial example, but we forget how much we glean about a book from its genre, as native speakers and cultural natives. It would be very difficult to read a thriller without knowing what to expect, or to read Dickens and constantly be expecting a vampire to appear!
Changing the Medium: Story to Drama
Students must go through the same process if they are taking a speech and turning it into a newspaper article. And the process gets even more interesting if you ask students to change the media itself. Stories Without End by Taylor Sapp contains more than just 24 open-ended story prompts. It also has an extensive appendix with supplemental activities that can be used with any story, not just the ones in the book. And one of the most popular activities is turning a story into a short drama or film.
But to do that, students will have to reimagine the story entirely. A play or movie requires the actors to think about body language and facial expressions every moment. But the story will probably only describe the most important moves characters make. Short stories often describe inner thoughts, whereas a play has to express those thoughts somehow in dialogue or through body language. What’s more, stories may skip over routine details or parts of conversations, something a film can’t do. But throughout the process of adapting the story to a new medium, the students must preserve the plot, and the main motivations and attitudes of the characters. So turning a short story into a drama forces students to understand what is essential to the story, and to think about different ways to express ideas visually.
One side-effect of this process is that students who enjoy TV or film, may find themselves more engaged in reading. Once they realize that they can visualize a book as a movie, the barriers that made them reluctant readers often fall. And I’ve had students go the other way, writing their favorite films as short stories. In the process, they have gained a wonderful appreciation for what can be done in writing and what cannot. That, in turn, makes them much more effective writers!