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Writing: Choosing Theme And Genre

Writing: Choosing Theme and Genre

In a reprise of recent lectures he has given on the subject of Theme and Genre, Irish hybrid author Laurence O'Bryan welcomes the new freedom offered by the indie publishing movement for authors to write what they want to write and what readers truly want to read.

Headshot of Laurence O'Bryan

Irish hybrid author Laurence O'Bryan

Why do some books sell, and others don't? This is a serious question, especially if you hope to make a living as a writer.

Some of us are compelled to tell a story. If that is the case, we can do nothing else but give in to the urge. After the novel or memoir has wound its way out of us, we often get an urge to write something else. I know I do. I see stories of injustice or mysterious secrets, and I want to place them in a novel. But which of these stories should I choose for my next series?

I recently presented on the subject of Theme & Genre at a university, a writers' centre and a writers' conference. This subject interests me, because, about ten years ago I made a conscious decision to use genre as a route to achieve an audience for my writing. Previously, I spent five years writing a literary novel which went nowhere.

How Do We Choose Genres?

When each of us thinks about our journey as a writer, we must also think about our journey to find readers and what we have to change to do that.

The first question I asked in the sessions earlier this year was what genre the writers in the group liked to read. Skipping from one genre to another is possible, but for many of us our journeys are to the genre that we like most.

William Faulkner used the occasion of his Nobel Prize winning speech in 1950 – linked here on YouTube – to tell aspiring writers:

“The pre-eminent theme of great literature is the human heart in conflict with itself.”

The themes we think we choose are often chosen for us, by our childhood, the traumas we went through or by our character.

If I think back to traumatic moments, I find it easy to understand my allegiance to themes of injustice and secrets, which inspire my work.

Which Themes Appeal to Readers?

Themes are the little things that compel readers to buy a book, not knowing the writer or the writing. I know this is true, because I will buy a book and wade through mountains of prose, if it’s about a theme that I’m interested in.

I wonder if I reordered my bookshelf or Kindle by theme, would I find it mirroring my interests?

Wordle made up of words about theme


Popular vs Literary Fiction

Hugh Howey, the grand master of hybrid publishing, is right to point out that the majority of books sold in English speaking countries are either:

  • romance (including erotica, representing over 50% of book sales) or
  • mystery (we call it crime in the UK & Ireland), thrillers, YA & Sci-Fi (perhaps another 35% for these 4 genres)

This leaves about 15% for literary fiction, which is probably a little generous.

Yet still most prizes, newspaper reviews and academic writing programs focus on that 15%. Elitism, group thinking and snobbery inspire this wilful ignoring of the themes that most of want to read about and write about.

Novels about romance, sex, violence, crime, adventure, mystery and the future probably pay for the traditional publication of most literary novels too.

The Rules of Genre

Anyone who thinks genre is a straightjacket is wrong too. The rules of each genre provide a positive energy as well as a negative one. Formula works, because it is proven to attract and satisfy. If we wish to do both as storytellers, we must use the rules of genre and stretch them.

In The Writer’s Journey, Christoper Vogler states that theme must inspire every word of a novel. I found this idea daft on first reading it, but later came to the conclusion that Vogler was right.

This also made me wonder why theme and genre are not considered more widely when we take up our keyboards. If we are about to set off on a long journey, aiming for a place we do not know much about, at least if we understand our themes, we have a chance to navigate and keep our work true to the direction we aim for.

If we deal in universal themes, our writing is likely to appeal more widely than we think.

But what are the universal themes? I believe the term genre is another way of saying universal theme. I believe that romance, sex, violence, crime, adventure, mystery and wonder at the future are the themes of our age.

Theme also provides a spine for our stories. Themes give purpose to our characters and provide the twists we need for our stories to end with a satisfying climax.

New Opportunities within Indie Publishing

I hope that as independent authors we do not take on the snobbery of the industry we are leaving behind. I hope that we are open to all genres, without prejudice, because they reflect the universal themes of our age.

It appears likely that a great exodus will occur from publishing companies at some point as the process of self publishing and marketing becomes ever more simplified. For the vast majority of traditionally-published authors, the income they generate from publishing is so small, and the potential upside so great, that most will, I believe, forsake the ever more limited benefits of being with a traditional publisher.

I hope this new independent publishing world will provide a non-discriminatory environment, open to the telling of every type of story. I hope also that as you look around for what to write about next, that you will consider what drove you to write, what stories line your bookcase, and what appeals most to readers: universal themes.

Suggested tweet to share this post: 

“How #selfpublishing offers indie authors greater choice of theme and genre by @LPOBryan https://selfpublishingadvice.org/theme-and-genre-choices/ via @IndieAuthorALLi”

Author: Laurence O'Bryan

Laurence O’Bryan has been training authors in digital marketing since 2012 and is also a published author. Three of his mystery novels were published by HarperCollins and translated into ten languages. He also self-published Social Media is Dynamite For Writers, and two other novels in the puzzle series. He started BooksGoSocial.comto help other authors get discovered. The service has helped promote over 7,500 international authors. He also founded the Dublin Writers Conference.


This Post Has 8 Comments
  1. Hello Laurence:

    I have studied screenwriting, and I refer to Theme as the Premise and then develop a Logline. A short, 35 -45 word sentence or two that congeals the essence of the Theme/Premise and future storyline. It’s difficult and requires much practice and effort. This is what the film producers call “High-Concept”. I use the same technique for my e-novels. It’s a basic map, and may be the most inciting incident, that leads to the rest of the story’s conflict and tensions for the Hero, and of course, for the stronger villain. More than one Genre may be written in the same storyline.

    Best of Success…


  2. Excellent post, Laurence. I agree writers must choose genres carefully. I am having trouble wrapping my head around what you define as themes of the day. Your list seems more like topics. A theme is the central idea explored in a work of fiction. Let’s take one of your themes: violence. That word alone is not a theme. Violence begets violence is a theme. Violence leads to totalitarianism is a theme. I’m not sure one word constitute a theme. Nitpicking aside, thanks for an insightful post.

  3. I agree with every word written by Xena. At last someone has voiced what has been in the back of my mind ever since joining Alli. The rage for sales and publicity that one is met with in almost every post is really quite sickening. There is nothing snobbish about writing or reading a literary novel. – it is the heart and soul of the novel, even though it may account for only 15% of sales. One of the obligations of Alli as I see it is to support literary fiction, but sad to say this duty is rarely undertaken. This is one reason why I have promoted the Quagga Prize, in an attempt to redress the balance between genre and mainstream or literary fiction. As for the notion of starting a novel with the idea of promoting ‘themes’, that to me is nonsensical. Themes emerge rather than being thought about in advance. I doubt if Dicken when he began to write Great Expectations thought ‘Now I want to show what happens when a boy is corrupted by wanting to become a gentleman.’

    By the way, if there are any writers out there who have written a mainstream novel that they believe has been unrecognised by traditional publishers or agents, may I suggest they enter their work for The Quagga Prize? The closing date for this year is June 30 and details of how to enter may be found on http://www.quaggabooks.net

    1. Hi David, let’s be clear here – ALLi was founded by a writer of literary fiction (Orna Ross) who had turned author-publisher because she wanted to continue to write literary fiction rather than be turned into something she was not by a comnmercial trade publisher. ALLi exists to help all self-published authors, no matter what they write, but there are plenty of prominent members of ALLi who do write literary fiction, and I hope they’d agree that they are in no way squeezed out by those who write commercial genre fiction.

      Most self-published authors are keen to learn as much as they can about publicity and marketing, not least because that is the part of the process that comes least naturally to them, and as blog editor here I am keen to cater for that need. But I also welcome and include posts about literary fiction. If you would like to write a guest post in response to this one, that would be great – just let me know.

      Alternatively if you’d like to write a post about the Quagga Prize, to run in the next couple of weeks – what it is, how and why you set it up, etc – that would also be welcome. (I know it’s already been profiled in the Members’ Showcase, but I’m happy to raise its profile further in a stand-alone post.)

      Meanwhile, a top tip to avoid the marketing advice on the ALLi blog, if that’s what you wish to do: don’t read the Saturday posts which are all on the Reaching Readers theme!

      Best wishes, Debbie

  4. I’m afraid genre fiction, which is for the most part unchallenging, sells better simply because there are many more uneducated people than educated ones; many more people who don’t want to make an effort and think, than those who do. This is a simple truth. That’s where ‘themes’ are coming from – ignorance. What you basically did was to make a conscious decision to feed this ignorance. It’s all well if your aim is to make money. But if you want to achieve an audience for YOUR writing, you have to write about what you want to write, not about what they want to read. To be accessible all you have to do is to be accommodating to the reader, nothing more. You have to be clear in structure as well as in the message you carry. Snobbery begins when an author stops to care whether his writing makes any sense or not, not when he decides to write about matters that matter to him.

  5. I really like your line about the theme choosing the author rather than the author choosing the theme, Laurence – that’s definitely true for me. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before.

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