Monday, July 30, 2012

What's What: Urban Fantasy vs. Paranormal Romance

A conversation at Saturday’s chapter meeting (waves at Mary) led to some lost brain cells last night as I considered the genre dilemma of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, two siblings that, although not identical twins, are often mistaken for one another.

(Although I should say here I stand by my contention that if a book has a woman [usually half-naked] as the primary image on the cover it’s UF and if it has a [usually half-naked] man or a couple, it’s PNR.)

But suppose you’re writing a book and don’t have a handy cover image to consult? I write both urban fantasy with romantic elements and paranormal romance with urban fantasy elements. What makes them different? I took out the print copies of Royal Street (urban fantasy) and Redemption (paranormal romance) and did a few comparisons.

Beginnings. In my urban fantasy, my heroine has a couple of potential love interests. DJ doesn’t meet Alex until page 73; Jake doesn’t show up until page 101, fully a third of the way into the book. In my paranormal romance, hero Aidan meets heroine Krys on page 9. In a PNR, it’s important to get face time between the couple as early in the book as possible. In urban fantasy, where the romance plays a backseat, it doesn’t matter—they meet whenever it works with the plot, because the plot doesn’t revolve around them (see below).

Page Time. In my urban fantasy, there is one point-of-view character, DJ, who filters everything in the book through her consciousness. She’s on literally every one of 336 pages. Even though the PNR has six point-of-view characters. Aidan and Krys each have 22 POV scenes; the reader spends a roughly equal amount of time in each of their heads. (The other POV characters have eight scenes between them—many of which revolve around Aidan or Krys.)

Plot vs. Relationship. In an urban fantasy, plot always trumps relationship. It carries the bulk of the page time. The plot’s resolution is the book’s resolution, regardless of where the romance happens to be. In a paranormal romance—even one with a very strong UF plot line—the romance is the book’s resolution, no matter where the urban fantasy plot happens to be.

In my UF, the book ends when the bad guy who’s been causing trouble for 300 pages gets put down. The romantic relationships remain unresolved. There’s not even a hint of a happily-ever-anything. In my PNR, the book ends when the hero and heroine find their happily-for-now, even though the urban fantasy plot—the driving drama of the book—is not only unresolved, but in worse shape than it was when the book began. (That’s what series are for!)

Immortality. No, I don’t mean like vampires. I mean immortality from a writing standpoint. Who in your book is unkillable? In my UF, the heroine DJ is the only unkillable character. If she dies, there is no series. I love Alex and Jake and Jean Lafitte, but if any of them kicks off, the series can go on. They are not unkillable, in a literary sense.

By contrast, if Aidan or Krys dies a final death (because there’s always that “final death” thing to consider with vampires), there is no book. It’s over. In a paranormal romance, both the hero and heroine are unkillable, at least in any conventional sense of the word.

So, that’s what my late-night rumination on these genres produced. Other ideas on how these genres differ? Do you agree with these ideas?


M.V.Freeman said...

*waves at Suzanne*

This is an outstanding break down...and you know I was going to read both those books in the next week and compare them too...LOL (I still will, because I'm even *more* intrigued)

But it also throws me into a conundrum--because my current book is more UF, but romance---and I say UF because the plot is very important but we will wrap up the romantic element...oh, I am in so much trouble. Hero and heroine don't meet until chapter 3 (in the first book they met in the first chapter)

What do you think about Cross genres getting more popular--for example--stronger romantic elements in the Urban Fantasy? (I think I'm just clutching at straws)

Suzanne Johnson said...

LOL--try the "who's killable" test. I suspect your book is PNR with a strong UF element (which is how I'd categorize my book Redemption). The plot is very, very important to my series, but the book wraps with the resolution of the romance.

The bottom line, though, is how your publisher/editor sees it and plans to market it. It might well be that in revisions, your editor asks you to take it more strongly in one direction or the other. Crimson is a romance publisher, so I'm guessing they see it as paranormal romance as well.

M.V.Freeman said...

You're right... and I'll see what they say when I send in that partial.

But this conversation has lit a fire under me--and that is a good thing! ;)

Melissa Keir said...

Great conversation! I read both types of these stories as well as now the UF/Horror genre. Sometimes they just don't know where to categorize them! :)

I think that the way you break it down makes it certainly more understandable. Thanks!

Lisa Dunick said...

This breakdown is really useful. But where do you put someone like Kelley Armstrong? Bitten seems, to me at least, very much in tone of an UF but the romantic relationship is the center.Of course, in later Otherworld novels, that's not always the case, but it often is.
Do you think there's room for both? Or is that impossible to sell for a first-time author?

Suzanne Johnson said...

Have to admit I haven't read Kelley Armstrong (I know, right?) but she's usually shelved with urban fantasy.

I think having both is a hard sell. My first version of Redemption was sort of half-and-half. I thought it worked, but after the third editor came back with "I don't know which genre it fits in" I broke down and revised it, playing up the romance to drive the story and letting the UF plot play out behind the relationship. Then it sold. So I don't think writers have a problem straddling the fence, and I really doubt readers have a problem with it. But editors, publishers and booksellers need that clarity.

Amanda K. said...

Wonderful article for differentiating between the two genres. I love the "unkillables" test. I had never thought about that aspect before.
The other trend I see frequently in urban fantasy is to end with a cliff hanger (if it's a series). I see the merits as a writer, but as a reader I still hate it.

Suzanne Johnson said...

Ack, Amanda--I'm with you. I HATE cliffhangers. I always leave some issues dangling at the end of the books, but they're not huge ones. Bringing up Jeaniene Frost again, the end of the first Cat and Bones book ended on a monstrous cliffhanger and I literally threw the book at the wall (thank goodness it was a print book and not on my Kindle). And of course, Janet Evanovich had an infamous cliffhanger ending to one of her Stephanie Plum books (was it Joe or Ranger at the door)--her readers almost staged a protest. I do think cliffhangers can backfire.

Lexi said...

Good post, Suzanne, and I agree with your theories. I definitely fall into the PNR category in my writing, but I understand the appeal of writing UF, especially the when it comes to series. Would the Sookie Stackhouse series by RF (Redneck or Rural Fantasy)? :-)

Suzanne Johnson said...

The Sookie series (I love that subgenre, Redneck Urban Fantasy) would be urban fantasy with strong romantic elements, at least according to my definitions. Technically, Sookie's the only unkillable character, which is a good thing since she's slept with half of Bon Temps by now. Anita Blake doesn't have too much on Sookie!

Moriah Densley said...

I like your quick and dirty test (who's half naked on the cover?) hehe.

It's true that fitting one's writing into tidy boundaries defined by genre can be frustrating, but I think you've hit on every vital point. You ought to know, switching back and forth probably every day between UF and PNR. And successfully, at that. (Nanny-nanny, everyone, I got to beta-read Penton #2, and it's smokin' hot!)

You know I'm always in favor of a *little* more romance in the UF...

Suzanne Johnson said...

What Moriah was entirely too nice to say was that as my critique partner she frequently has to remind me when I'm writing paranormal romance, not urban fantasy, and therefore my hero and heroine cannot wait until the middle of the book to meet--and that showing emotion is a good thing! (Thanks, my friend!)

Katherine Bone said...

This really helps to tell the genres apart. Thanks for posting this, Suzanne!

Mary is constantly reminding me that there is a difference and now I hope I'll be able to single those out.

Chris Bailey said...

Late to the conversation--but this has been something I've wondered about, and I truly appreciate your excellent answers. And for once, having read both books, I've got that comprehension thing going.