Imagine If Book Genres Were Like Theatrical Genres

When I think of book genres, I think of things like sci fi, fantasy, mystery, western, romance, and horror; when I think of theatrical genres, I think of things like comedy, tragedy, comedy of manners, musicals, dramas, and histories. The book genres tend to be named after the plot’s focus (magic, something scary, a love story, etc.). With theatrical genres, that doesn’t seem to be enough.

For example, a man and woman fall in love, but her father objects and forbids the marriage. The rest of the story is about the conflicts they encounter in their efforts to be together.

In a book, it would be a romance. In a play? I don’t know. How does it end? If one or more of the couple dies, or they end up parted forever, it’s a tragedy. If they marry and get rich, it’s a comedy. If there’s a lot of witty dialogue and mix-ups that lead to them marrying other people but living happily by having an affair, it’s probably a comedy of manners. If they sing and dance, it’s a musical.

This could go on for a while…

Honestly, theatrical genres are alternately vague and oddly specific. With some, it’s all about the ending. Others are more like book genres, and they’re about the focus of the plot. Yet others are defined by how the play is performed.

Can you imagine if books were like that?

I’m picturing a man going up to the librarian for help finding a book. He doesn’t know the author or the title, but he knows it’s in a magical world with dragons. The librarian frowns and ask, “how does it end?” The man frowns back and says he thinks it ends badly for all involved. The librarian leads him to the left side of the library, saying, “It’s in here somewhere. Don’t look on the right side. That’s the comedy section.”

Yeah, I know. No librarian would have a tragedy section without a fantasy tragedy subsection. But it’s a funny image (or not. My humor’s warped). On a more serious note (and partly due to flashbacks of trying to find plays in the library), maybe, we should be more grateful for fiction genres. As a general rule, they’re much better for browsing than theatrical ones.


You Can’t Scare Your Audience Without Suspension of Disbelief

All this talk about horror seems like the perfect time to mention suspension of disbelief – the ability to set aside reality long enough to enjoy the story. As readers or audience members, we have to accept the underlying “lies” of the story (supernatural monsters, magic, amazingly advanced technology, talking animals, or even people bursting out into song and dance), or we won’t like the story at all.

Although people seem to associate suspension of disbelief more with theatre, it is part of any story from movies to stage magic to telling a tale to a friend. Some genres, however, have a more delicate relationship with suspension of disbelief than others. If the goal is to make something seem ridiculous, that doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief. We don’t have to be inside a story to laugh at it. We do have to be inside the story to empathize with the characters.

We have to be deeply inside a story to be frightened by it.

When your disbelief is not suspended, you’re an observer. You’re separated from the story, and instead of focusing on the moment, you’re looking at the whole with a judgmental/analytical view. As a rule, the hardest person to scare is the neutral observer. A person who is not involved and is watching (or reading) analytically will be a hard sell because his or her emotions are not involved.

About the only way to unnerve that reader is to hit his or her sense of what if. If you can make your frightening idea seem plausible, then, you can use the person’s rationality against them (a sneaky, back-handed way to use logic to suspend disbelief). That’s the kind of fright that doesn’t hit in the moment but waits until later – when the reader is lying in bed in the dark, arguing unsuccessfully with his or her own mind.

For immediate scares, the audience has to be pulled into the story.

When we get sucked into the story, when our emotions become involved, that’s when the story starts to have the ability to scare us. And the further we get pulled into the story, the more scared we can get. There is a point where you are so involved that you’re not really aware of your body anymore, and that’s when the movie or book has the full potential to frighten you.

None of that is possible without suspension of disbelief, and the last part requires a really high level of suspension of disbelief.

Most stories want us to suspend our disbelief enough to empathize with the characters, to feel for them and become involved in the plot. Horror wants to scare us. That means that horror has to pull us in more deeply than any other genre1. But pulling us in deeply isn’t enough. As the story goes on, horror has to work even harder to keep us there.

Anything that shakes suspension of disbelief, anything that is hard to believe or accept, makes us less involved and pushes us back towards being observers. That means that successful horror books and movies have to be careful with the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Once it’s broken, it’s hard (if not impossible) to get back.

1Other genres might still suck us in that much, but they don’t necessarily have to.


Recommended Reading: A Little Horror for Your Halloween

Having only recently taken an interest in horror, I don’t have a lot of personal experience with the genre. That’s why when I started research for Bloodletting, I asked friends and family what aspects they liked best and what books/movies were their favorites. In the process, I found out that several good friends of mine are big horror fans. These two sites are ones they recommended I look at as part of my research. What better way to celebrate Halloween than to share them with you?

No Sleep

Reddit has a page called “No Sleep” where anyone can submit single horror stories or serials. According to the moderators, they try to encourage quality work by excluding posts that are only images or videos, and they do monthly “BestOf” awards to showcase great stories. There seem to be a wide variety of styles. Readers will like some better than others, but the variety is great for writers to see what works and what doesn’t – especially in relation to the reddit rankings.


For those who’d rather listen than read, try “Pseudopod” where short horror stories are transformed into podcasts. I’m picky about voice acting and audiobooks, but the little snippets I heard were good enough that I’m still open to listening (when I have time). Since reading stories aloud generally takes longer than reading them on a page, they tend to like flash fiction, so this can be great training for getting a mood and effect across in fewer words.

There you go. Have a great Halloween and many happy frights!


Illusion Or Truth? What Makes It Horror?

What frightens us most? The illusion? Or the Reality?

What frightens us most? The illusion? Or the Reality? And, of course, the biggest question: are you ready for Halloween?