Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or on her author website.
Genre Conventions are story elements such as archetypes, formulas, or structures common to specific genres. These factors not only define each genre or subgenre, then define reader expectations. If a reader picks up a romance novel, she will have different expectations for the story than she would have for a horror novel.
No genre-specific story must include every genre convention within its pages, but leaving out too many can be a risk, especially when the author identifies the story as fitting a specific genre.
This is important. I know, there are many writers out there who feel that genre conventions are cliché, predictable, and stifling to creativity. And, yeah, they kind of are. But there's a reason for it. Like it or not—genre fiction is popular because that is what the majority of readers like. If you write a book that breaks too many tropes of a reader’s beloved genre, yet call your book that specific genre, you will annoy readers. And readers don’t tend to buy books from authors who annoy them.
Now, some genre conventions do evolve over time for various reasons, which I will discuss later. But for the most part, if you’ve chosen to write genre fiction, you need to follow most of the tropes of your chosen genre. And if you really don’t want to follow any of them, that’s okay. But in that case, I recommend you write literary fiction instead of genre fiction.
The following is a list of popular genres and some of their conventions. I don’t claim to have listed all the genre conventions in each category. But this should give you an idea of how certain elements should appear in certain genres. If you are writing a book in one of the genres listed below, you’d better have several of the genre conventions in your story.
Young Adult – a female protagonist (oftentimes with powers, which she harnesses faster than anyone ever OR that she is far too inept to harness properly) • a reluctant protagonist (she’s not sure about any of this, she’s often naive) • a threesome (often with two boys and one girl, often a love triangle) • lots of angst • soulmates/romance • few adults • danger • trouble at the home of one of the members of the threesome • and it’s usually a series that ends with the hero saving the world (or if the genre is YA romance, getting the guy).
Fantasy – a make-believe world • a sense of wonder • good vs. evil • a quest • a hero • magic/supernatural powers (with peoples or objects) • high stakes • myths or legends • weapons • important history • mythical creatures or races • kings, wizards, or other powerful minor characters.
Romance – Two unhappy people (life sucks as is) • boy meets girl (often from different social classes, worlds, temperaments, life situations, etc) • a quirky friend or family • boy and girl become good friends • obstacles arise (parental disapproval, social classes, current “wrong” love interest, or internal issues like self-doubt, or uncertainty) • embarking on a change to make it work (both protagonists try to transform themselves or the obstacles against the relationship, oftentimes a sidekick character steps in to help) • all is lost (they are separated for some reason: misunderstanding, life situation, a bad guy’s machinations, etc) • the happily ever after (they work it out in the end).
Mystery – a (believable) crime is committed • hero arrives to solve crime • villain introduced early on (but the reader doesn’t know who it is) • the hero seeks out clues (rational, scientific ones, don’t rely too much on hunches, psychics, divine revelation, feminine Intuition, or coincidences) • interrogating witnesses • tracking down someone in particular who has important information • another death or two happens as the hero comes closer to solving the crime • villain often makes a slight mistake that the hero picks up on • criminal is always caught near the end of the story
Horror – dark settings • a curious character • a vulnerable character • a brave character • a killer or evil creature (antagonist) • a mystery/confusion surrounding what the killer/creature wants • often completely unrealistic scenarios • someone has a relationship with/knows something about the killer/creature • separating the characters from one another so that they are alone • deaths • one character makes it out alive.
Where did genre conventions come from?
Genres formed when authors emulated certain classic stories. Think of how The Lord of the Rings trilogy sparked a generation of similar fantasy novels like Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara series or The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. Or consider how Dracula by Bram Stoker (published in 1897) was the classic that inspired decades of vampire stories until Anne Rice published Interview with a Vampire in 1976. Then authors began to emulate her vampires until Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight came out in 2005. This goes to show you that genre conventions can change, though they change slowly and rarely.
Do you have to use genre conventions?
That depends. If you’re writing romance and you’re not going to give readers a happily ever after, you’re not really writing a true genre romance. But some of the other elements in a romance could be changed or maybe even be left out. It's good to play with these conventions and see what interesting ideas you can come up with.
Many new writers seek to set themselves apart from the crowd by doing away with too many conventions from their chosen genre. And while they might write a fresh and interesting story, if they change too much, they're no longer writing in the same genre. These tropes are there for a reason—because they work!—and on the whole, readers like them.
How can one create new genre conventions?
On the opposite spectrum of the writers who buck genre conventions all together are the people who make these tropes far more restricting than they need to be. Don't follow every rule in the book. Don't let your writing get too formulaic or you risk writing something boring. People often say that every plot has already been written, but that doesn't mean you can't write something old in a fresh way that will feel totally new. If you want to break the mold for a genre, here are some things to try.
Tweak part of the formula
Play around with genre conventions. Take one genre and mash it with another. In King's Folly, I combined the disaster movie plot with the epic fantasy genre. Look at old plots and add completely different characters, like writing Romeo and Juliet with dragons. The Disney show Once Upon a Time is fun because it brought every well-known fairy tale into a modern-day American setting. You can also play with character tropes. Instead of elves, why not golems? I put fire-breathing bears in my fantasy novel rather than dragons. Your goal should be to make your story similar enough to sell, but different enough that it will stand out from every other same-old-same-old book.
Find a new target audience
This is much harder to do, but the immense popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight changed target audiences for the young adult genre. Before Twilight came out, few adult women read YA novels. It wasn't much of a genre at all. And after Twilight, not only did grown women start devouring YA romance novels, former contemporary romance readers became willing to give the paranormal romance genre a try.
Other things that affect genre conventions
Also consider things like changes in technology (invention of cell phones), changes in society’s values (Hitler had convinced much of Germany that his ideas were good), censorship, values shifts, and pop culture influences (breakout success novels like The Hunger Games that set new trends/celebrities who spark an interest in new things from socialites like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian to the Duck Dynasty guys), trends in entertainment (the reality TV craze), and current events.
What genre are you writing? What do you think of genre conventions? What are some interesting ways you've tried to tweak genre conventions? Can you list some genre conventions for a genre I didn't talk about?