Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Dealing with Genre Expectations

Roseanna M. White pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two children, editing for WhiteFire Publishing, designing, and pretending her house will clean itself. Roseanna is the author of a slew of historical novels and novellas. Spies and war and mayhem always seem to make their way into her novels…to offset her real life, which is blessedly boring. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and through her website.

I admit it--I've always been one of those writers who pushes against the box. I want to surprise my readers. I want to keep them guessing. I want to do something other writers before me haven't done. I want to deliver a story that's unique--and that makes people go, "Oh, that's a Roseanna White book."

Good goals, right? Sure. Unless . . .

I still remember working on my second book, during high school, and feeling pretty proud of myself. I started with a character who I then killed off 3 chapters in--readers wouldn't see that coming! Why do books always start with the hero, anyway? That's so boring.

Pleased with myself, I let my mom read the first five chapters or so. The conversation went something like this.

Mom: "You didn't really kill Alex, did you?"
Me: "Yep!"

Mom: "Why would you do that? I was just starting to like him."

Me: "That's the point. It's surprising. And now you get to know Warren and Xia."

Mom: "It's frustrating. Now I don't want to get to know Warren or Xia, because you might kill them off too!"

Me: "You're totally missing the point. I want to do something different."
Mom: "Mm...I'm just afraid what you're really going to do is make your readers mad, and they're not going to want to keep reading."

I disagreed--and I didn't change it. But the more stories I wrote, and read, and edited...the more I realized my mom is a wise, wise woman. Because while it's great to surprise your readers, it always comes down to this:

It's okay to defy your reader's expectations
ONLY when you exceed them.

So now that I've shared my big epiphany, let's break it down.

I happen to write in a genre with very specific "rules." (Romance--historical romance, specifically):

  1. The hero and heroine must meet within the first few chapters
  2. Romance must be one of the central points of the story, without which the story will not stand.
  3. Hero and heroine must have either a promise of marriage or marriage at the end (happily ever after).

This often takes the form of Boy Meets Girl, Boy Gets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back.

Now, this is my genre--yours is likely different, but they all have their expectations, right? Mystery readers expect the sleuth to figure out the mystery at the end, and would be pretty disappointed if it ended with the hero or heroine saying, "Oh well, guess I don't know who did it. Maybe next time." They expect all the clues to be dropped by a certain point in the story. They want a red herring or two, but to be able to figure out whodunit. 

Suspense readers expect high stakes. Fantasy readers expect well-constructed worlds. I could go on, but you get the point.

Readers of every genre expect something--the something that makes them love that genre to begin with. If I read romance, I like a happily ever after, and lemme just tell you that I'm usually pretty upset if I don't get one. If I pick up a book that promises to be suspenseful, and all the action fizzles out five chapters in, my attention's going to fizzle out with it.

Because when we pick up a certain kind of book, it's because we want a certain type of read. Right? We want the feeling that only that author or series or genre can give us.

So how do we, as creatives, work within those confines and yet still flex our creative muscles?

First, it's important to understand the genre we've chosen.

  • Why do we love it?
  • Why do other readers love it?
  • What sets it apart from other genres?
  • What are the most popular books in the genre, both classic and modern? What makes them so?

Now you examine how your story fits into it.

  • Does it have that element you most love about the genre?
  • Does it have the elements others most love about the genre?
  • Does it have what makes it unique from other genres?
  • What does it have in common with other popular titles? What sets it apart?

Now, this is where we get down to how far you stretch that box called genre. If you've checked those bullet points and know you have the things readers are going to love, it's okay to play! Stretch your wings and see how you can shake things up. But only in ways that will leave your readers thinking Wow, that was great! Not in ways that will disappoint them.

One of the best examples I have from my own writing is Whispers from the Shadows. In this book, I don't introduce my hero and heroine to each other until chapter 5 or 6. (Romance conventions say this should happen no later than chapter 3.) But I got around it by having the characters know about each other and be trying to reach each other. Then I have a marriage well before the end of the book--because that way it's even more stressful when the separation occurs. It made the tension higher, not lower.

Whenever you defy conventions--and I'll never say you should avoid this altogether--make sure you're not doing it for the sake of defiance. Make sure you're doing it for the sake of an even better story. 

Ask yourself, "Will my readers like this?" If the answer sounds anything like, "I don't really care, this is how I want to do it," then chances are, this book is for you and not for them. Which is fine if you don't intend to publish it, and can be great for growing and exploring your craft! But if you publish it, you run the risk of ruining what trust you've built with your readers. I've sworn off authors for this exact thing, and I know others who have done the same. You would probably do it with other writers too, right? So don't do to your readers what you don't want your favorite authors to do to you. (The Golden Rule, even in writing!)

Take it from a writer who hates The Box: it exists for a reason. And the only way to ever expand it is to gain your readers' trust by meeting their expectations--and then saying, "Now put your hand in mine and let's try something new. You'll love it."

And if you've done it right, if you've done it to blow them away and not to prove a point, then they will.

What's your favorite genre to write? What draws you to it? When you read books in that same genre, what is it you like most about them?


  1. This was a great post, and I'm sure it'll come in handy when I start a new project. Thanks Roseanna!

  2. Great advice! Thanx so much!!! :D

    1. I love fiction and fantasy! Most of my writing is based on one of the two.

  3. My favorite genre is Realistic Fiction. The real feeling about it draws me in. The feeling that this kind of thing is real and it's not just some fantasy. When I read books in the realistic fiction genre, I like how it sometimes shows you how to focus on certain things that people could be really feeling. It kind of shows you to try and see or figure out what a person's emotions could be. (Don't automatically try to pinpoint someone's emotions because that could get you into a big mess.)
    Thanks Mrs. White for all the wonderful advice! Did you have an editor when you wrote you book? If so, how much did it cost? Did your writing get published? *Sorry for all the questions*

    1. I have 13 books published now and have worked with 4 different publishers. The book I mention in the post was the second in a series with Harvest House, so yes, I had an editor to work with on it--employed by the publisher, so I didn't pay her. =) If you're talking about freelance editors, they usually charge a per word rate, so it depends on how long your book is.

      I haven't really heard of Realistic Fiction as a genre--I would have thought it more a description that could apply to many genres, but I don't claim to know them all. ;-) Could you give an example of a book that's Realistic Fiction?

    2. Eeek. I'd have to pay a lot then. :I
      Gracious. How do you get them all done?
      An example of realistic fiction is Petey by Ben Mikaelsen. Here is the description of the book: In 1922, at the age of two, Petey's distraught parents commit him to the state's insane asylum, unaware that their son is actually suffering from severe cerebral palsy. Bound by his wheelchair and struggling to communicate with the people around him, Petey finds a way to remain kind and generous despite the horrific conditions in his new "home." Through the decades, he befriends several caretakers but is heartbroken when each eventually leaves him. Determined not to be hurt again, he vows to no longer let hope of lifelong friends and family torment him.
      That changes after he is moved into a nursing home and meets a young teen named Trevor Ladd; he sees something in the boy and decides to risk friendship one last time. Trevor, new to town and a bit of a loner, is at first weary of the old man in the wheelchair. But after hearing more of his story, Trevor learns that there is much more to Petey than meets the eye. (I copied this description from Amazon)
      I've always learned that it was a genre. :)
      Is it hard to get someone who will publish you?

    3. Okay, I probably would have called Petey historical fiction. Though "realistic" does describe it too, "realistic" could also apply to contemporary or futuristic, etc. Regardless, it's a definite style!

      As for whether it's hard to find a's usually quite a process and requires a lot of hard work, yes. I know there are a lot of in-depth posts about it here on GTW, so if you haven't checked out the archives yet, that's a fabulous resource for the nitty gritty of finding a publisher!

    4. Thanks for the wonderful advice! You have been REALLY helpful! :)
      Yeah, you're probably right about the book. :)

  4. Wow, this was fascinating!

    Thinking about it, I'm not 100% sure which genre my WIP fits into? It's definitely historical fiction; but I don't think I'd call it historical romance--there IS romance, yes, but it's not the main focus. It's really more of a coming-of-age story (the heroine is only 14 when it starts, after all). So, in that way, I have a little more room to "play" with the romance aspect, because my readers won't be expecting such a well-defined formula as yours are.

    1. Yep, sounds like it would just be termed "historical fiction," so there are definitely fewer rules about your romance thread, or you could even not have one. That's one great thing about historicals--if you don't have the romance, you can just put your book in the main genre. So then you have only to deal with the historical expectations of your readers. =)

    2. I do have romance in my story, but it doesn't really become an important theme until chapter 12 or thereabouts; so yeah, I think it would really be more "historical fiction," period.

      Yep! That's what I'm working on now, trying to make sure I have all the details right and am illustrating historical themes properly (it's set in the Netherlands during WW2 and deals with the Holocaust and the Dutch Resistance). I don't want to make any mistakes with it :-)

    3. Most of my historical novels are in the same situation, with a lot more emphasis on coming-of-age than romance. Do you find that getting a good historical feel is easier than keeping in mind all the rules about romance?

    4. Sophia, great question! I think it's all a matter of what you've trained yourself to do. For someone new to historicals, they often find it tricky to strike the right balance between capturing the sound of the time and still being approachable to modern readers. But as you develop your voice, that becomes easy--the same goes for the rules of the romance genre, though. As you get accustomed to them, they don't feel so hard to abide by...most of the time. ;-) At this point, I wouldn't deem historical any easier or harder than historical romance--it's all just about what fits the story you have to tell!

  5. My favorite to read and write is fantasy, but I kind of read all kinds though I'm picky which sounds weird, but yeah, that's me in a nut shell . . . :P

    I do have one question if anyone wants to give it a shot, how do I show the time period of my fantasy novel without stating a date (since it's a fantasy not a real place and the date is different)? It's medieval, so by just adding certain descriptions of what things look like or choice of words . . . ? Just wondering if anyone had an option on that since I don't show things like swords until the 3rd chapter. Thanks!

    1. Sarah,

      Personally, when reading fantasy, I don't really think of dates, so I don't think you need to state a specific date. However, I think if you want to show what time period your fantasy novel is based off of, incorporating details from the surroundings and maybe even of character descriptions or the differences in dialogue would be a great way to depict the time period!

    2. I just read a book to my kids that did this very well, Sarah--it's called "The Great and Terrible Quest" and is clearly medieval, though it's set in a fictional kingdom. I think the same methodology would apply for medieval fantasy--you can use medieval terminology for clothing, houses, farming equipment or whatever, instruments, cooking utensils. So many everyday things were different and unique back then that it should stamp the general time period quite quickly! =)

    3. One of your characters could hint a little something...
      If you don't want to write any dates all together, you could do what Mrs. White said (clothing, houses, etc.). Well, you're a great writer, so if none of this helps (I can be confusing), then I know you'll find a way.

    4. Thank you, Mrs. White and LHE! I will certainly try some of these, and thank you, LHE, for the compliment. You're a great writer too! ;)

  6. I enjoy fantasy for the people inside and the medieval setting. I love epic tales by master scribes. I am blown away by some of the masterpieces I have read.

    God bless, Anne Marie :)

  7. Hi. I love your post. These questions are great. I've started to use them to inspire my own writing. But I have a question of my own: how does drama create apathy? I thought it made characters more sympathetic. Could you give me an explanation? Other than that, I love this post. I'm sure I will revisit it a lot as I write.

    1. I think you posted your question on the wrong post. =)