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May 7, 2009

Hand, Heart, Mind and Soul

Why do we have genres? Some writers hate genre labels. They believe genres were invented by book stores to shove novels onto the narrow shelves of commercialism.

This is probably true. But it's not the whole truth. I think genres exist because they recognize deep and important differences in novels. It's easy to stop thinking deeply about genre, so here's a different way to look at it.

Is your story a tale of the Hand, Heart, Mind or Soul?

What kind of power does you protagonist need solve his or her problem?

* * *

Hand - Tales of the Hand are action stories. (Perhaps these would be better called Tales of the Foot, but that sounds funny.)  To succeed, the hero needs to run for his life -- or kick ass. Usually a combination of both. The energy in this kind of story is kinetic. Non-stop action. Ticking bombs. Countdowns. Explosions.

The hero of a Hand Tale might not be a brainiac, but he shouldn't be a meathead. Though the problems in this kind of story might come down to a slug fest with the villain in the end, the heroine may also have to be a brilliant problem solver. After all, she has to use all her wits and experience to figure out how to stop the ticking bomb, the enemy spy, the traitor in the government or the shark eating everyone at the beach.

Heart - The heart of the problem in a Heart Tales is a relationship. Romances, of course, are Heart Tales and deal with many permutations: Learning to trust and love, proving worthy to win a love, overcoming misunderstandings to love.

But not all Heart Tales have to be romances. There are other kinds of relationships -- friendships, parent/child and grouchy old man/lovable puppy.

Usually heart stories fall in the romance genre if they involve a love story, into YA if they involve a girl and her horse, chic lit if they involve four feisty female friends and literary if they involve an old man and an acquatic creature.

Just kidding about that last one. Old man and acquatic creature stories probably fall under Soul. See below.

Mind - Stories which make you think are dear to my heart. Most of science fiction and fantasy falls under this catagory, but many mysteries do as well. One way to look at the difference between these genres is to imagine which curriculum would best serve the hero in a story like this. For sf, you'd enroll your hero in physics, chemistry and maybe biology. For fantasy, you'd want her to brush up on your anthropology, history and metaphysics classes. For mystery, your sleuth had better understand psychology. Forensics wouldn't hurt either!

These stories often pose a puzzle, and guide the reader down a path of clues and red herrings until it is solved. But not all Mind stories are genre and not all sf, fantasy or mystery stories are Mind stories.

Soul - What if your story is really a close examination of the human psyche? In a sense, all stories are ultimately a study of humanity, simply because humans are writing the stories, but Soul stories ask not merely what it is to be human (like Mind stories) but what is it like to be this particular human being? I think about it like this sometimes: an Mind wants to know, what does the protaganist have in common with all other human beings? Where as a Soul story wants to know, like the youngest Passover child, how is this human being different from all other human beings?

Soul stories, told well, must have as rich a setting and be as accurate historically as needed to explain the individual life-history of this single soul (or two or three souls). The world built may be on a smaller scale. In a fantasy story, if one shows what the protaganist had for breakfast, the purpose is to show What Elves Eat For Breakfast; in a Soul story, the purpose must be to show how this habit or this meal has gone into shaping an individual. ("I no longer ate eggs at breakfast; even seeing a styrofoam egg container reminded me of my dead wife.") To "solve" a Soul story, the protaganist needs to follow the dictim, "Know Thyself."

All good stories have a bit of Soul, without being Soul stories. The difference is usually one of degree, and of intent. Other stories need compelling characters to keep you interested in the action, setting, relationship or ideas of the story. Soul stories need to have action, setting, relationships and ideas to keep you interested in the characters.

* * *

Of course, it can't be said enough, no book will be wholly one and not the other. Some of my favorite storiese are disguised as one genre, but really something wholly different. Take the spy thriller Dark Star. It appears to be a noir spy story, a class Hand tale of cross and double-cross. It's also a close study of a man crushed by political and personal disillusionment. In fact, however, it is a Mind story with a philosophical historical question at the heart of it: Who was the worse monster, Hitler or Stalin?


Unknown said...

Wow--what a great analysis!! I really love this.

I think, in general, I prefer "Soul" stories, although I like a bit of the other elements predominant. For example, I think Harry Potter fits in with this--plenty of hand, heart, and mind, but ultimately the final battle is one of soul.

Excellent post. I really like this.

Charlie Rice said...

I agree with Beth, that was an excellent post. Hand, Heart, Mind & Soul. Simple and perfect.

I've always been confused which genre my story falls in. The story has many elements of romance but the relationship is severed so it can't be a "romance." (I recently read that all romance books have a "happily-ever-after.) It has obvious science-fiction elements but it's not the main focus. There's a little social commentary but I wouldn't call it Urban or Political. It's not really a thriller. It's a romantic story with elements of science-fiction, I think.

You can see where I had trouble with my original query.

It's the story of the heart and mind spanning eight centuries...

I'll work on it. Thanks Tara.

Scott said...

Great post. Thanks, Tara!

The genre dilemma is my favorite (not) topic. I'm one of the genre haters. Personally, just file the books on the shelf alphabetically and let me browse, browse, and browse some more. I'd be perfectly content. You'd be surprised what treasures I've found while just randomnly browsing the shevles in Borders.

I think that writers (myself mostly) often write multi-genre books. There's not a simple category to categorize the book. We are forced to find a niche for our book to a) attract an agent and b) sell the book. That's all fine and dandy . . .

I like your genre ideas better, but again, I don't see my current projects falling neatly into a single category. I guess the best we can do as writers, is write, and worry about the genre stuff later. Still, thanks for giving me a better perception of where my writing might fit.


Natalie Whipple said...

What a fun way to think of genre. Seems like mine have several elements, but I'm sure one would predominate if I think hard enough.

XiXi said...

There are a lot of Hand and Heart stories. Many action novels involve a bit of romance too. Those are my favorites!

Unknown said...

My writing seems to hit all of them ... I know that's a cop-out answer, but it's all I've got at the moment : )

The breakdown was really neat, though, and I think maybe I need to work on focusing more specifically.

Thank you : )

Traci said...

I think mine is heart and soul. Nice combo. Great post! ;-)

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

I like this breakdown of stories. It reminds me a little of the way Orson Scott Card categorizes stories: Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event.

I'd say my current WIP is Mind/Soul, with Heart and Hand in the background.

Anonymous said...

Interesting categorization. Seems like the return of the four humors from ancient medicine, which probably makes a LOT more sense than some of the straitjackets most works out there get put into...

Davin Malasarn said...

This is a really great post, Tara. Thank you. It touches on something that I've been trying to figure out in my own head about "literary" versus "popular" writing. I think I'm close to having my own definition of it, and what you said here helps me with a lot with clarifying some stuff.

Sara Raasch said...

Ooo this is much nicer than genre classification! Can we use this on queries instead?

Sherrie Petersen said...

I like the catagories. But I agree that some of the best stories have bits of them all.

Ban said...

i'm surprised at how much i'm getting out of posts that tackle the 'how to label my book' problem. thanks for showing me yet another way to look at it :D

Michelle D. Argyle said...

What a great outline of genres! I love it. Thorough and spot on. I like to think that most stories can mix and match these things, but usually one prevails.

Davin, when are you going to do a post on that? Perhaps we could combine on LL. :D

J.L. Johnson said...

I think both of mine that I've completed so far are HAND. They seem to be non-stop action, perhaps with a little bit of MIND thrown in for good measure.