How to Write the Same Paragraph in Seven Different Genres
Romance, Erotica, Comedy Romance, Horror, Comedy Horror, Upbeat Sci-fi/Fantasy, and Dark Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Welcome! Just like background music in a movie, your descriptive writing style can let the reader know what they’re in for: no plot required. Here are some tips for different types of writing.
This amazingly boring paragraph is going to be our starting point.
Anne walked into the room to see Carol playing the piano, while a fire burned in the fireplace. Through the window, Anne could see snow falling. A golden retriever trotted in from the hallway.
Let’s begin with Romance
Anne had never seen Carol by firelight. It made her blond hair glow, even as her hands on the piano keys were cast in the blue not-shadow of falling snow. The music went awry when a golden retriever laid its head on Carol’s lap. She tried to continue the piece while petting the dog, and it was unsuccessful, and it was adorable, and Anne didn’t know when she’d started wanting this. Stupid mundane stuff like a fireside in a snowstorm, and Carol laughing.
So for romance, we want to include some flattering stuff about the love interest (Carol is pretty, she can play piano, she likes dogs, and dogs like her). And then we get to the most important bit: Anne’s pining. Pining is bread-and-butter to a romance, but the goal can vary. For regular romance, it’s the happily-ever-after (mundane snowy afternoons with Carol). For erotica, you can put a bit more wanton in your wanting, as shown below.
Erotica (Or just Smuttier Romance)
Anne had never seen Carol by firelight. It made her skin blush red, even as her graceful fingers moved over the keys. The music went awry when a golden retriever laid its head on Carol’s lap. She tried to continue the piece while petting the dog, and it was unsuccessful, and it was adorable, and Anne didn’t know when she’d started wanting this. To feel those hands play a melody on her own skin, to hear Carol’s laughter muffled against her own bared shoulder.
So now the focus is physical and intimate. It’s not Carol’s hair we’re talking about, it’s her skin, and we’re also noticing her fingers and hands. Plus Anne’s pining has the goal of a certain indoor sport. If you want to turn the heat higher, you can spend some quality time on Carol’s low-cut shirt, and/or have Anne full-on fantasizing about fucking, with as much detail as you like.
Comedy smut is my most popular type of fanfiction (Good Omens, Our Flag Means Death), and I recently sold an original piece to the podcast Nobilis Erotica. My formula is to make the leads very attracted to each other and also very stupid.
Anne had thought she was prepared for anything in this snow storm. Power outage? Check. Lack of heat? Of course. Carol playing the piano by the fireside while snow was falling, like some straight-up Hallmark Christmas movie? Fuck no. It shouldn’t have been like this. Carol couldn’t even play the piano. The woman had mallets for hands. But there she was with that golden retriever halfway in her lap, and even with her hair a mess and her glasses askew, Carol looked twice as cuddly as the damn dog. For fuck’s sake. This was going to be a problem.
So here, the scene itself is set up as funny: Carol’s not graceful now, she’s cuddly like a dog, and her piano playing is awful, which makes Anne’s romantic feelings more unexpected. But the language is also punchier, with set-ups that lead to silly, ironic ends. Again, you can turn up the heat here if you want, just put Carol in that low-cut blouse, or to be funnier, have Anne ridiculously sexually attracted to some usually non-erotic body part or physical habit of Carol’s, like her thumb or the way she wrinkles her nose to push her glasses up without using her hands.
The room was lit by flames, burning so quietly you could almost believe a fire in the grate would never hunger for the whole house. Carol was playing the piano, some tune that tried to be familiar but kept going slightly astray. Snow was falling so heavily it seemed like a curtain on the wrong side of the window. Beside Anne, the golden retriever whined at nothing.
For horror, you want to unsettle the reader, and you can do it without any actual scares. We want to remove the inherent comfort of a snowy afternoon by a fireplace with a dog, while someone plays live music. So we focus on what could go wrong in this lovely set-up (house burning down), what is eerie (dog whining at nothing), and IMO the most important part, what is just a little bit wrong (the piano tune, the image of a curtain on the outside the window).
A further example:
The dark out in the country was an amorphous thing, entirely colorless, encompassing something unknowable. There could be stands of trees out there, fencing, gravel drives and overgrown ditches, hills or valleys—you couldn’t tell. The landscape could rearrange itself, or the house begin to float six inches above the land and you would be none the wiser.
I took this from one of my first horror pieces, a Good Omens human AU fanfic about a haunted house. Does the house float in the story? No. Does that matter? Also no, because the reader is (hopefully) creeped out just thinking about it.
Anne walked into the room to see Carol playing the piano, while a fire burned in the fireplace. Through the window, Anne could see snow falling. It was all perfectly lovely and mundane. Except of course, that Carol was dead. The golden retriever at Anne’s side was growling, and Anne wasn’t sure if that was because of the smell or the fact that it was really hard to hit the right notes on the piano when half your fingers had rotted off.
So as in the comedy romance, the language is punchier and more ironic. Rather than unsettle the reader, we’re going for funny, and a bit gross, if you want. In regular horror, Anne would react to seeing a corpse playing the piano with disbelief and terror. In comedy horror, Anne immediately accepts that she is seeing zombie Carol plunking out Heart and Soul, and rather than scream, we just get her wry opinion on it.
Sci-Fi and Fantasy
The different sci-fi and fantasy genres are very much a product of their plot. You need an adventure, a battle, spaceship, dragon, whatever. So I’m going to focus more on tone here, because the way you write your description can give the reader a sense of how upbeat or dark this story will be.
Upbeat (Fantasy example)
The room was lit by flames and the window shrouded in snow, bitter enemies separated by a pane of glass. By the fireside, a golden retriever snorted in its sleep. They were about to leave all this, Anne thought nervously, the crowded tavern, the chaos of overlapping voices, to be swallowed by snow created from some dark and unknowable magic. And yet in the corner, Carol was playing the piano. You could barely hear it in the tavern, but Carol could hear it, that was clear from her expression, whatever few notes she needed to make, whatever beautiful sounds she wanted to remember, she at least could hear them.
So the coming adventure will be a hard one, and we’ve foreshadowed battles in the fire/snow as enemies description. But the spirit among the DnD party is high, and the reality underlying the fantasy is hopeful: there’s something worth fighting for: at the very least, the memory of music.
Dark (Sci-Fi example)
The piano room was nearly deserted. Only Carol was there, plucking out some melody she’d dragged with her all the way up here. The engineers tried to disguise the sounds, of course, but you could still hear it, the way the piano sounded thin and brittle, bouncing off the walls of a metal tube in the cold of space. Shadows made by artificial flames twitched along the wall, and the golden retriever—or something that looked like one—growled at the video of snow falling outside a window.
So now all the beauty in this scene is fake. The room is empty rather than full of fellow adventurers, and the dog is not happily asleep but awake and uneasy, and might not actually be a dog at all. Plus we’ve got a touch of body horror with the word “twitch.” This may be an adventure, but the reality underlying the sci-fi is harsh and full of disappointment. This story will probably focus on the grief and pain of fighting rather than the heartfelt reasons behind it.
Well, I think we can let poor Carol take a break from the piano now. Thanks for reading! Looking for more inspiration? Get some weird writing prompts.