Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Are Genre Conventions Important?


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 FacebookTwitterPinterest, 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. IKing'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?

27 comments:

  1. I actually never knew about genre conventions until this post! I'm writing a YA contemporary fantasy, and I have both a female MC with powers and a quest. I've tried to hit a happy medium between "she masters her powers super fast" and "she can't master her powers at all"--the basis of the magic in my book is energy, so she has to build up her stamina through the book to be able to use more magic. Sort of like training for a marathon, I guess. It prevents her from mastering her abilities in Chapter 1, while still giving her enough power to fight the bad guy at the end.

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    1. Sounds like you're on the right track to fit both the YA and the fantasy genres, Linea. :-)

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  2. Wow, this was an informative post; I never really thought about this before. I'm working on a fantasy/mystery right now, and it's about fairies who have been hiding in the human world and now have to get back to their own world. Unfortunately, they had to turn human in order to hide here, and they never realized how dangerous it is for humans in the fairy world. My protagonist is, mentally, in his late teens, but he's centuries old and a tricky fellow. There's no romance in here, but I love working on familial relationships; i.e., father/son, brother/sister, etc., even if people aren't related.

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    1. Your story sounds very interesting :) I must mention that I too am working on a fantasy/mystery. That includes fairies. Except my story takes place in Sweden around the 1400-1500's and mainly takes place in forests and castles hidden from the humans by the fairies.

      I wish you good luck! :D

      Deborah

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    2. Thanks! Good luck to you too.

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    3. Good job on the genre mashing, guys! Fantasy fairy mysteries sound cool!

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  3. I've been thinking about this a lot and I'm a bit mixed with what genre I'm writing. This is by far one of the strangest stories I've ever written and I've got a small list of what I think works for it. Sci-fi/fantasy/steampunk/YA. Is this too much for people to consider? Would it be turned down because of the clash of genres?

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    1. Definitely not if you mess the genres well. I recently had a book suggested to me (by like eight different people) that was a YA steampunk with vampire and werewolf characters mentioned. It is apparently a popular series.

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    2. If Bookishqueen means the Parasol Protectorate and the Finishing School Books by Gail Carriger, than yes, those are an excellent example of genre mashes. I wish you luck! Although, I'm not quite sure how a story could be both steampunk and sci-fi...unless you add aliens, I guess. Good luck, though; I love genre mashes!

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    3. You're fine! Tone has a lot to do with it too.
      My WIP has several different time periods smashed together. One culture is a mix of Egyptians and the Old West topped off with a modern day military. My genre is however ...
      Fantasy.
      It meets all the genre conventions too, just in a less conventional way.

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    4. Emma D,
      I don't think it would be turned down for genre clashing---unless the rejection was based only on a verbal pitch (because it might have confused the editor/agent). For a verbal pitch, I'd pick the top two genres and not mention the other two. Those will come out in your writing. And a story is purchased based on your writing ability. Just have fun writing it for now.

      Anonymous,
      That sounds like a fun way to make a story unique! :-)

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    5. Thanks so much everybody! :D Oh and to Lily Spinner, it's steampunk in the future with a magical realm. That is how it meshes. And I suppose that I could add aliens. It's a strange enough story that it wouldn't be out of place there. Thanks so much for the feed back. Very helpful :D

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  4. Actually, with the YA tropes, most of those are the reason that YA is loosing steam. A lot of readers are getting really tired of the love triangle and only female leads who don't really want to help the world but have too. If you see the comments in chat groups, you see that those are particularly what readers are tired of seeing in every YA book they pick up.

    I've found from my time volunteering at my library that while YA Dystopians continue to be sold and read with those tropes (not so much the love triangles any more), other YA books are embracing male leads as well as characters who actually want to change the world and they have dropped the soulmate message.

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    1. Yes, the publishing industry always WAY overdoes it when a trend emerges---to the point that readers get sick of it. Which is another way genre conventions change---because they became over-saturated. However, that should be true in the romance genre as well, but it's not. People who love romance tend to love the predictability of it. It's a safe form of entertainment. They know what they're getting into and that's exactly the story they want to get into.

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  5. My current WIP is definitely High Fantasy--there's elves and dragons and mages and (most importantly) Necromancer with a capital N. I didn't really know too much about genre conventions, but know I look I seem to have included a few. My characters are pretty original though and goodness a lot of world building has gone on! Anyway thanks for the post, I hadn't heard of these before!

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    1. Sounds like you're right on track, Chatlotte! :-)

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  6. I kinda knew about genre conventions, but didn't actually know of any until I read this post today. Right now, I'm writing a fantasy story and almost every single tconvention fit into it. Some had to be stretched a bit, but I think they still count.

    I also love the idea of combining different genres and conventions. Or just plain breaking them. Like Bookishqueen said above, a lot of people are getting tired of the love triangle, so it would be really cool to see a twist on that concept. Or maybe just a love triangle in horror or something.

    ~K.A.C.

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    1. I totally agree with you, Katie. We should all try to add twists to the genres to present something unique in our stories. I, too, am tired of the love triangle, though I haven't seen too many where there is one guy and two girls. So maybe someone should try that one! LOL

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    2. That's funny! I'm doing a guy stuck between two girls. He's Norse and one of the girls is an outcast, the other is a homeless girl from a modern day culture. I think it's just easier for girls to write love triangles around girls rather than guys, and I personally hate the stereotypical love triangle. And it's hard to do a guy POV in the first place. It takes practice like everything.

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  7. I read a book where a love pentagon ended with the girl dying, leaving all her lovers to mourn.

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  8. I sorta knew about genre conventions before, almost unknowingly I suppose.

    PS - I've been brainstorming a new story, and I'm sort of stuck. Any tips on thinking of a new, original story?

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    1. What I like to do is write down a bunch of random things on slips of paper in three stacks: people, places, and times. I'll grab two slips of paper from the people stack for my protagonist and antagonist, and however many I need for the setting and time. It ends up being completely random and weird, and usually my brain can come up with something. You could also try adding a stack of basic plot lines and see how adding the different elements will change it.
      Good luck!

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    2. And I would add to Lily's fun idea that if you're going to commit to this new story then it must be something that gets you excited. So whether it's a fun new character or a message you want to convey or a shiny new made up world I hope you find it :)

      Deborah

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    3. Great advice! When I brainstorm new ideas, I'm usually trying to come at it from a high concept idea avenue in hopes that it will be appealing to the masses. Perhaps this post will help: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2014/08/what-is-high-concept-pitch-and-how-do.html

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    4. Thanks so much guys! Lily, I'm gonna try this out as soon as I can. It sounds like pure AWESOMENESS.

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  9. I've actually got a problem with romance. I kind of...hate it. But it seems to be all I can write. It's just that the "boy meets girl" thing doesn't work for me. It ticks me off. Makes me want to close the book and go "Ugh, no, not this." (when it's another genre before romance, I mean.)

    The lenght of a book or movie just seems too short for me to see any couple of characters meeting in it as a romance. Seriously. So I always try to step around it however I can- they already know each other, they used to know each other, they're already a couple... But does a story about a couple overcoming obstacles only to break up and Mister Mister to go back to his ex count as a romance anymore? It DOES kind of follow the "meeting, losing, happy ending" formula...for said ex.

    I tend to do that a lot. Start at the "losing" point. But I digress.

    Am I the only one who wants to be surprised when reading a romance?

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  10. THANK YOU for this post! I've read a number of articles taking a negative spin on genre conventions, but thank you for validating them! Of course an original twist makes all the difference, but after reading some particularly sarcastic posts singling out fantasy tropes like chosen ones and prophecies (both of which I have in my book), I was questioning myself. You've reminded me that these archetypes are common because an audience actually likes them.

    Now let's hope that meshing high fantasy and contemporary, and throwing in a transform-into-dragons element, are enough to keep things interesting and original... ;)

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