Fear in Writing: Genre Boundaries (Comment-driven post series)

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Friday, June 25, 2010

Genre Boundaries (Comment-driven post series)

Before my recent traveling absence, I posted a 'comment-driven post series' article titled 'Do you write yourself?'  This is the next in my comment-driven post series...This one stems from a comment made by Elizabeth Spann Craig on my Touching the Rain post.  Here's what she had to say:

Oh, I have a LOT of boundaries I need to let go! :) I'm not quite ready to with my writing, but that's okay...I'm writing a genre with some boundaries of its own.

- Elizabeth Spann Craig
Elizabeth mentions writing in a genre that has boundaries.  In case you don't know, she writes Cozy Mysteries.  Mystery writing, of course, has its own basic boundaries...or does it?

In 1929, priest, English theologian, and crime writer Ronald Knox created the Ten Commandments for detective fiction in his 'Decalogue.'  Here they are:

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

2. All supernaural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Needless to say, the rules have been broken.  In fact, in Josef Svoresky wrote a book in the eighties titled The Sins of Father Knox, in which he attempted to break all of these rules.   But Knox had set them up specifically for writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, which speaks specifically to those writers of the 1920s and 30s.  These authors include Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, John Dickerson Carr and Ellery Queen.

According to Knox, a detective story "must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end."  I think we can agree on that!

What defines your genre?


  1. ha ha ha... number 5 "No Chinaman must figure in the story." made me laugh! Now, I'm going to have to scrap all my books!

    How do I define my genre? I don't know that I do. I'd like to think that all rules can be broken but I guess for the most part, I find out what my readers want and hopefully make them happy.


  2. I write mostly horror where we have one basic rule: bad things must happen to good people. If this doesn't happen you are doing something seriously wrong. I have to start writing cozy mysteries from now on. That sounds like fun.

  3. Clarissa- All of these rules HAVE been broken. Are there even rules anymore? I don't know.

    Jamie- These are detective fiction rules, but Elizabeth's cozies are pretty fun to read.

  4. What a knock on the head with those rules! hank goodness some rules are made to be broken. Svoresky's book was probably entertaining.
    The post does leave much room for pondering.

    Giggles and Guns

  5. Great post Michele - thank you.
    Agatha Christie broke a few of these rules for a start. :-)
    My work is a bit hard to slot in any genre. Thriller would be the best fit - so I guess the best definition would be building suspense and putting in cliff hangers.

  6. I guess mine's rather simple. I would guess that science fiction only needs to contain some element that cannot be found in the here and now.

  7. Mary- I wonder what prompted Knox to write them down in the first place?

    Al- Good for you, rule breaker! Suspense is the backbone of a good mystery (or thriller).

    Alex- True, though some definitely take it farther than others.

  8. Interesting set of rules for the time (5 is especially eyebrow raising :-)). I can think of quite a few examples where one or two of these rules are broken, but I think most of them hold true for majority of the mysteries I've read.

    I like Knox's definition, especially the last phrase about "curiosity which is gratified at the end". To me, that's one of the most important elements of a mystery. Both the detective and the reader share a need to know the truth about what happened, even when justice is not or cannot be done.

    I suspect that most of his genre rules come out of the fact that the outcome of the mystery is not gratifying for the reader if they feel cheated by a trick solution or that the detective has solved the mystery unfairly. I know I really resent reading a mystery if the solution isn't convincing or feels like a cheat no matter how enjoyable or well-written the rest of the book.

  9. I love those ten commandments, especially #9. I don't think Watson would appreciate that.

  10. Ha! I'm just discovering your post in my reader. Thanks for the mention. :) I love the mystery writing rules...some of them make me chuckle. Sometimes we can skirt some of the rules--as long as everything is fair for the reader. The mystery reader definitely has an expectation that they'll be able to solve the crime along with the sleuth...that's the fun of the genre, for sure.

    I think if I read a modern book where the *detective* committed the crime, I'd be so shocked I wouldn't know what to do... :)

  11. Har! No Chinaman!?

    My genre is historical fiction. I won't say what defines it as that is evident (history.)

    What I try to watch out for is how much I let history guide the story. The people are the story; the history is the background.

    HOWEVER, the history, just like setting, can add to the conflict. I try to pick a period that starts off calm in the novel and takes a conflicting turn, adding layers to the conflict already happening with the characters.

    - Corra

    The Victorian Heroine