“Lessons for the Genres”

As I examined my AWP conference loot, I pulled out a book called Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief by David Starkey. A gentleman at the Bedford/St. Martin’s booth was happy to give me the book for free with the hopes that I might return for more if I use it in the classroom.

The book sets forth a syllabus in which the student delves into four main short-form genres: the short poem, short story, short creative nonfiction and the ten-minute play. The justification for teaching short forms is that “their parameters are more clearly defined, so your goal of completing each assignment will be more easily reached, than with longer forms.” The book also offers some great genre-specific snippets of wisdom, tips on writing in general, and revision checklists for each genre. I’ve already gotten half way through the poetry section and can’t wait to read more.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the book was a little like a snapshot of my MFA experience at Rosemont College. Unlike some MFA programs, writers at Rosemont are encouraged to cross genres, experiment, try new things and even pursue genres such as YA, Horror or Sci-Fi; students are only required to choose a focus when embarking on the thesis project. I entered the program as a poet and came out as one, but I also drafted a (terrible) novel, tried my hand at some short- and flash-length fiction, experimented with creative nonfiction and memoir essays, and wrote a ten-minute play. While I decided poetry was ultimately where I belonged, I am now of the belief that every writer benefits from trying other genres, and that each one has tangible lessons to offer the others.

In Poetry…

  • lyrical language is better at imagery. The best poets employ tools of lyrical language – alliteration, repetition, rhyme, onomatopoeia, assonance, concision, personification and word play – in their descriptions of image. This is what makes a poem come alive and brings it to a higher level of authenticity and evocation. Rita Dove’s poem “Quick” employs many of these: “Wink of fuzz / in the headlights, and gray at that. / Now he peers from the culvert, / all bobble and twitch, vacant eyes: / he’s been through this bait and switch /all night.” The best fiction and nonfiction writers adopt this type of lyrical language in their scene and character descriptions, and the best playwrights in their dialogue.
  • form informs as much as content. The way that words are presented on the page can influence a piece just as much as the content itself. With its rich history of forms, poetry is the leading genre for experimenting with the shape of the text. However, many fiction writers have also experimented with form, from breaking a story into sections and different perspectives, to playing with the presentation of words on a page. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a great example of how far some writers have gone in abandoning formal conventions.
  • concision of language yields the strongest verses. I have referenced this before, but Mary Karr’s insightful essay “Against Decoration” frowns upon the prevalence of unnecessarily flowery or ornate language in poetry. The most skilled poets have learned how The same goes for fiction writers who get too caught up in scene and character description, utilize an abundance of adverbs or adjectives, or fail to vary sentence lengths. Concision matters, and clear, precise language will best ensure that the reader is able to follow and take something away from the story.

In Short Fiction…

  • plots must be logical and satisfying. In fiction, what happens is important. Each event or occurrence must flow from one to the next, informing what happens later. Even though the end of the story might not be happy, it must be “satisfying” in that it ends conclusively and naturally in the context of the story. Despite the importance of lyrical language in poetry, poets must also pay close attention to the “happening” of the poem and its logical progression from beginning to end.
  • characters make or break believability. Authentic characters are at the heart of good fiction. Just as in real life, realistic characters are seldom wholly good or bad and possess unique quirks and traits that bring them to life. Some poets tend to get lost in the use of imprecise pronouns, “her,” “she,” “you,” and can benefit from the specificity of characters in fiction, even if they don’t include names in their poems.
  • everything counts. From something as short as a flash fiction piece to something as long as a novel series, every character, every turn in the plot, and every detail needs to contribute to the story. In first drafts, if you decide to include a type of flower or bird in your poem, it’s helpful to be aware of the symbolism behind it, or for it to be clear why the poem invokes that particular flower or bird.

In Creative Nonfiction…

  • the “truth” matters. Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief talks about a term called “verisimilitude,” or “the realistic portrayal of people and their environments.” Verisimilitude might be most important in nonfiction or memoir, but it’s also incredibly important for every other genre. Even if you are not writing toward factual truth.
  • place and object are just as narrative as plot. In many memoirs, place, landscape, animals or particular objects can carry the symbolic weight of the protagonist’s struggles and triumphs. In the popular memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed writes about her grief through the lens of an 1,100-mile northbound hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The treacherous natural conditions also tell the story of Cheryl’s uphill battle with losing her mother, her struggles with drugs and love, the end of her marriage and her general displacement in life. Like in fiction and poetry, the incorporation of symbolic places and things in creative nonfiction is often more effective at evoking themes and meaning than if the writer overtly states their message or purpose.
  • the self functions as a character, too. In much of today’s popular creative nonfiction and memoir, the writer has two functions – first, as the writer of the story, and second, as a central character in that story. This can, of course, make things complicated when it comes to factual truth versus what is often referred to as “emotional truth.” This was particularly true for Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which was based in large part on Tim O’Brien’s real-life war experience but ultimately labeled “fiction.” A poet often writes poems that derive “emotional truth” from their own experience even if the event never actually occurred to them.

In Plays…

  • dialogue does the heavy lifting. In theatre, dialogue is the driving force of the plot, as the entire story is transpiring between live characters on a stage. Fiction typically relies heavily on plot or character description, but increasing the focus on dialogue can often be a far more effective and organic characterization technique than descriptions of physical appearance or personality.
  • characters must be wild and believable. In the theatre, effective characters strike a balance between believability and idiosyncrasy. One cannot exist without the other; a character who is wild but bears no resemblance to real life will come across at outlandish and often times irritating, and the realistic character with no distinctive quirks comes across as bland and forgettable. (Click this link for an extensive list of memorable characters in musicals and the theatre.) Many theatre-goers are able to see themselves in Death of a Salesman’s sad Willy Loman or the gravely misunderstood Elphaba in Wicked. The same goes for fiction; even though Lolita’s Humbert-Humbert is wildly eccentric and incredibly condemnable for his obsession with a young girl named Lolita, his underlying tendencies toward compulsion and weakness are still very relatable to the average person.
  • subtlety of theme is important. Columnist Jon Gingerich called this “didacticism,” which is “a writer’s proclivity to be overly explanatory, making the work appear as an educational guide instead of a means of enlightenment.” He attributes this to the writer’s distrust in the reader to discover the meaning for themselves, warning that “it can kill an otherwise strong story very quickly.” The tendency to want to evoke specific meanings is strong, particularly in the ten-minute play where the playwright begins a play with a preconceived theme in mind but is given very little time to set up and tie up the story. However, the best plays are those which subtly hint at an underlying meaning without being too forthright or subvert expectation in meaning. A great example of this is Into The Woods which shows what comes after “happily ever after” and how our imperfect endings may still be good outcomes after all. In any genre, it’s important to remember that an audience will not necessarily have a more powerful connection to an overt message – in many cases, the exact opposite is true.

The truth is, the general skills needed to be a good writer are common in all genres, but some genres provide a better framework than others for honing certain skills. Poetry places an emphasis on language, fiction is useful for learning how to form character and plot, creative nonfiction helps a writer distinguish emotional truths from factual truths, and writing short plays is great practice for dialogue. Experimenting with many genres is a powerful tool for becoming a well-rounded writer, regardless of which genre is your focus.


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Kara Cochran

About Kara Cochran

Kara Cochran is a poet, writer, teacher, and editor. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College, and a BA in Creative Writing and German Studies from Denison University. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of Philadelphia Stories, Jr. and the former Managing Editor of Rathalla Review. She is a Fiction Southeast columnist and volunteers with Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia nonprofit dedicated to teaching children “to think and write with clarity.” She writes poetry, fiction, and articles about the craft of writing.