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?"
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):
- The hero and heroine must meet within the first few chapters
- Romance must be one of the central points of the story, without which the story will not stand.
- 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?