Deep Genre: Taking the Thriller Beyond Cheap Thrills—Author Barbara Kyle

Last week author and story coach Barbara Kyle sent me a supportive email about my novel, Eating Bull, and the uphill publishing battle it’s faced given the controversial subject matter (obesity and the food industry’s role in it). She mentioned she’d written an article on “Deep Genre”: thrillers that dive into complex themes. Since that concept is right up Eating Bull’s alley, it made for a perfect—and rare—guest post for my blog. Take it away, Barbara…

Mikhail Petgrave

Deep Genre: Taking the Thriller Beyond Cheap Thrills

by Barbara Kyle

It’s often said that a good thriller is like a roller coaster ride. That’s true enough. The genre is about high stakes, countdowns, and suspense, and every good thriller delivers this kind of excitement. But the best thrillers deliver more – an exciting story that also explores complex themes. This kind of story has something important to say about our world. It takes the reader away from the amusement park and sends them on a voyage – an exhilarating journey into a different way of thinking.

Call it Deep Genre.

I believe that popular fiction delivers the best way to truly understand crucial issues of our time, because we see those issues brought to life by characters we care deeply about, characters thrown into terrible dilemmas where they are forced to take risks and make choices. Characters who illuminate the gripping question we readers end up asking ourselves: If I were in that situation, what would I do? That’s the job of Deep Genre.

We’re all familiar with the conventions of the genre as a roller coaster ride: the life-and-death stakes; the antagonist making the stakes personal for the hero; the hero at the mercy of the villain, then turning the tables and coming out on top; the false ending. But readers want their expectations reversed. In Deep Genre the author leads the reader into thinking they understand the characters, then the story splits that “comfort zone” open and gives them an insight they never saw coming. “Insight” literally means seeing the truth through and under the surface of things. It’s the novelist’s job to crack open not only readers’ expectations, but also their received wisdom, their acceptance of society’s status quo.

Woody Allen was once asked: Is sex dirty? His answer was: Yes, if you’re doing it right. Is Deep Genre subversive? I say: Yes, if the author is doing it right. Deep Genre is always about fighting Power.

Charles Dickens knew this when he wrote his immensely popular novels to hold a mirror up to the horrors that working class people suffered under unfettered capitalism in nineteenth century London. In our time, bestselling author John Grisham has often done the same with thrillers about the “little guy” finally beating some form of corporate bully. In his The Rainmaker it’s the powerful insurance industry, and in The Street Lawyer it’s mega-developers who force homeless people to their death. Like Dickens, Grisham uses the thriller genre – Deep Genre – to say what needs to be said.

Readers welcome this rich experience. We need it. Because it’s not the roller coaster ride that satisfies the soul. It’s the voyage.

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About Barbara Kyle

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Barbara Kyle is the author of ten novels with over 450,000 copies sold in seven countries. Her latest book is The Traitor’s Daughter. Her master classes and manuscript evaluations have launched many writers to published success. Barbara’s “Crafting the Page-Turner” Writers’ Symposium on 17-18 October 2015 will bring top industry professionals to give workshops, seminars, and pitch sessions. For information and to register see BarbaraKyle.com.

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Any books or films you’ve enjoyed that tackle a deeper issue?

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Rubin4Carrie Rubin is the author of The Seneca Scourgea medical thriller. For full bio, click here.

145 Responses to “Deep Genre: Taking the Thriller Beyond Cheap Thrills—Author Barbara Kyle”

  1. earthriderjudyberman

    Barbara Kyle made some excellent points. I love the cross-double cross stories, mysteries that take you one way and then the other. John Grisham and James Patterson are among those who do that very well. Thanks, Carrie, for sharing her post. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you for reading. I don’t read much Patterson, but I’ve read most of Grisham’s stuff. He often has a deeper message, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt his sales!

      Like

      • earthriderjudyberman

        I recently read Patterson’s “Honeymoon.” It is a fast-paced mystery. Grisham’s “Sycamore Row” was definitely a deeper and satisfying. There was a time, though, when I felt his work was formulaic – The Firm, The Rainmaker, Pelican Brief, etc. – all ended with someone entering the equivalent of the Witness Protection Program. 😉

        If you like a deeper read, you might really enjoy Peter Hoeg’s “Smila’s Sense of Snow.” It combines a mystery, science of snow & ice, and a look at the treatment of Greenlanders. I read that just last month – after it’d been sitting on my bookshelf for 18 YEARS! I shouldn’t have waited. 😉

        Like

  2. roughwighting

    Well written, well said Barbara. One of my favorite mystery/suspense authors (because, after all, if it’s a mystery, it’s suspenseful) is Louise Penny. She writes about deep human needs and makes the reader FEEL besides try to solve the mystery. Deep Genre, indeed. The trick is making the reading seem easy, still, despite the author diving deep. Good luck, Carrie, with your novel. It’s gonna be great, I know it!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you! And I agree about Louise Penny. I’ve read a couple of her books and enjoy the way she gets into the characters’ depths. Nothing superficial there.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Britt Skrabanek

    Awesome! Yes, totally agree that we need tough issues delivered through entertainment, whether that be a book, film, music, art, etc.

    That’s why I love good historical fiction. I’ve learned a lot through them that I would have snoozed through if I was attempting a non-fiction book.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I agree–historical fiction is a great way to learn new things. I don’t tend to read the genre much, but my book club often chooses books of that nature, and once I’m reading them, I usually always enjoy them!

      Thanks for the RT. Much appreciated. Hope you have a great holiday today!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Celine Jeanjean

    This is a great post. Commercial fiction can actually do a lot when it comes to tackling serious issues. If it’s done well, those kinds of novels can deliver deeper themes and morals, almost without the reader necessarily realising because it blends into the story so well.
    I remember reading a Terry Pratchett book (obviously quite different to a thriller), but for all the light hearted fun, there was a pretty serious commentary beneath it about slavery, about intolerance, about oppression. I think those books that can weave both serious themes and entertaining stories are the best kinds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie Rubin

      Agreed. And you’re right–doesn’t have to be a thriller. Carl Hiaason’s books are humorous but often have an underlying environmental theme. I’ve read two of his and enjoyed them.

      Like

  5. Kate Johnston

    This is a place where I struggle with my writing — crossing the line into controversy, ticking someone off, speaking out against injustices that have somehow become socially acceptable.

    Inherently, I am a peacekeeper and I avoid confrontation at all costs. Writing is a great place for me to dive deeper, but those pieces are not the ones I send to lit agents or to writing competitions. They’re the ones that I’m most vulnerable about because I’m so worried I’m going to offend the wrong person.

    I keep reminding myself that this is probably why I am a writer — because I feel so strongly about certain issues but don’t have the gumption to hold a rally or a hunger strike or a sit-in. Exploring those issues in stories is a better method for me. I just need to stop being such a scaredy-cat about it!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      One of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve gotten about writing was something Stephen King said in his book “On Writing.” I’m paraphrasing, but he said you have to write honestly and not worry about who you’ll offend. He said as soon as we censor ourselves, we’re not writing honestly. I used that to guide me when I wrote Eating Bull and continue to do so. Obviously, I think there’s a limit on what we should put out there. But he’s not talking about being gratuitous. He’s talking about doing what we need to in order to get the story out. Great advice, I think, and maybe some that will appeal to you based on what you said in your comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Honie Briggs

    Hey there, Carrie. I am currently revisiting short stories that tackle some deeper issues – poverty, racism, addiction – you know, the big three of true grit fiction – Yes, it is the summer of literary analysis of the female fiction writer. Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, et al. So far I’ve written three papers on O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” – I think I’ve analyzed it to death!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I bet! So you’re taking summer courses too? You must be so ready to be done. Nice of you to stop by. I often wonder how things are going for you. Trying to get through school when life is already so full is a challenge for sure!

      Like

  7. Jilanne Hoffmann

    Great post! I agree with Jennifer, that every genre could benefit from going deeper. But I also think it’s important to go deeper without becoming didactic. Readers get a whiff of “oh, the author is trying to teach me a lesson” and put the book down. I think it’s an extremely tough job to do well. I think Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” succeeds hugely in this regard. Humor mixed with suspense mixed with deeper thematic elements. And you really don’t know what that deeper theme is until you’re well into the book.

    Like

  8. aFrankAngle

    Carrie … you might be on the something as a successful blog host … find the person, give the short intro, and away they go. 😉 Meanwhile, any and every topic is deeper than one thinks if one is willing to dig deep … .and doing so to learn is quite the ride.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I think that’s a good point about most things being deeper than they might first appear. Thanks for weighing in, Frank. Hope you’ve got less rain forecasted in Cinci than we do here.

      Like

  9. Inion N. Mathair

    What a great post from Barbara. So glad you had her on your blog, Carrie. Mathair and I always considered popular fiction to be a great way to tackle current events and societal issues because it’s both cathartic and a form of escapism. It’s like feeding someone vegetables slathered in cheese. The escapism of fiction tantalizes the reader’s imagination while they’re subconsciously working through the real-life issues of the characters.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Carrie Rubin

      “It’s like feeding someone vegetables slathered in cheese.”—Ha, I suppose so. Or maybe it’s like dark chocolate–tasty but with more substance and good for you too!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Barbara Kyle

      Very well said, Inion. I wish more writers would harness the power and reach of popular fiction to explore meaningful issues. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Sue Archer

    Great post! I think any genre can go deep, but thrillers in particular have such an opportunity to comment on social and political issues in a thought-provoking way. The best books can be read on those multiple levels. What is story without meaning?

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Very true. I’ve heard from some people that genre fiction should be genre fiction and keep the moral themes out of it. But I think deeper levels can be weaved in as long as the story rings true.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Amy Reese

    I was just reading about Deep POV (I think that’s what it was called) recently, and here we have Deep Genre. But, of course! Great post.

    Like

  12. Jennifer's Journal

    I love the novels that make me think about an issue in a whole new light. I try to incorporate a deeper twist into my own fiction as well. Great post, Barbara and Carrie! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. acflory

    I’d never heard the term ‘Deep Genre’ before, but as I read this post I found myself nodding like crazy. This is the something ‘more’ that I always look for in my reading. Thanks so much for giving it a name! And just for the record, Deep Genre applies equally to science fiction [my pet love]. Heinlein achieved it with Stranger in a Strange Land, as did Frank Herbert with Dune, and Theodore Sturgeon with More than Human and C.J.Cherryh with Cyteen and … -cough-

    Like

  14. jmmcdowell

    I love this concept, and I’m glad you opened your blog for this guest post! I think good authors can turn any genre into a “deep” variety, even a humorous cozy, if they put their minds to it. Education and new insights can be brought about in subtle ways. And what better way to learn than through having fun or taking a thrilling journey?

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Exactly. And I like what she says about fiction being the perfect vehicle to do so because we’re already so vested in the characters. Thanks, JM!

      Like

  15. gerard oosterman

    Daphne Du Maurier was always my choice of deep genre reading. I don’t read thrillers anymore. Some time ago I read a thriller written by a Swedish writer. It had so many people in it that I had to go back often to find out who actually was who. As age creeps up I now want things to be fairly basic and simple. I might go back to re-reading Rin Tin Tin or Eric the Norseman. 😉

    For some reason, the Scandinavians seem to excell in thrillers. Perhaps those long winters and dark forests might have something to do with it.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I love Scandinavian thrillers! They’re some of my favorites. I’m not sure if you’re referring to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, but yes, there were a lot of characters in there. Made my head spin too. 🙂

      Like

  16. Pam Huggins

    Excellent article Barbara. And thank you Carrie for always making your blog entertaining and educational.

    I recently read Dietland by Sarai Walker. While not a thriller- I do think it qualifies as deep genre. It did give me insights I didn’t have before.

    Like

      • Pam Huggins

        I’m still conflicted about the message in Dietland. But I think she hit on some themes that resonated for me… the objectification of women and the unhealthy obsession with size, etc. etc.
        The book left a lot unresolved for me but I hope more authors will explore these topics.
        It’s one of the MAIN reasons I’m so excited about reading your book “Eating Bull”.
        Not having read your entire novel, I believe you tackle the issue in a much different way (I may eat my words though) than Walker did in Dietland. But we, as a society, need many many views. We are a long way from being where we need to be with this entire issue.
        I still remember from my nursing days, these little frail women coming into be weighed for their appointments TAKING THEIR SHOES off so they would weigh LESS!!! (My Mother did that too.)
        I could go on but I’ll spare you for now. 🙂

        Like

        • Carrie Rubin

          I’m not sure what the overall message in Dietland was, so I’m not sure it’s different than mine, but I tried to present the extremes on both sides of the equation–my killer who is the ultimate fat-shamer and my public health nurse who’s bent on suing the food industry. My main protag falls in between which is where I hope most of us will after reading it (no fat-shaming but recognizing that many factors go into the equation, not just the individual alone, not just the food manufacturers alone).

          And I had to laugh because I took my shoes off before they weighed me at my yearly physical earlier this month. Force of habit. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Pam Huggins

            I really can’t wait to read your book!

            You made me laugh about taking off your shoes! They probably do add half a pound. 😉
            Have a great rest of your week Carrie. Always a pleasure reading your blog and comment section.

            Like

  17. Barbara Kyle

    Carrie, I was away all day and just got in and saw all the intriguing comments from your readers here. I’m delighted that the “deep genre” concept touched so many. Big thanks again for hosting me on your terrific blog!

    Like

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