Friday, March 2, 2018

Genre Conventions and Reader Expectations

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

We are just trucking through our Grow an Author series--a series where we hope to show you that when you write a novel, you're not just writing a book, you're growing into a author. 

If you've missed a few Fridays, here are my February links to catch you up.

Now that we've spent oodles of time focusing on what I look for when I'm discovery writing my early scenes, I want to talk to you about genre conventions and reader expectations.

You may have thought about this before setting out to pen your novel, but discovery writers (read: pantsers), like myself, are notorious for neglecting to consider this aspect of noveling early in the process. I hear questions like this one here a lot (in fact, I've asked it myself):

"So . . . uh . . . my book has angels and demons and people, but, like, the people don't fall in love with the angels or the demons . . . so . . . but also there is romance . . . what genre would YOU say that is?"

Ever had this moment? It's like we're begging someone to define our story for us, a responsibility we should routinely shoulder as part of our writing process. I should clarify: you only need to worry about genre conventions if you're hoping to have your book published. If you're just writing for you, write, be free. Do it however you want. But if you're hoping your book will end up on a store shelf somewhere, you need to consider where it would be shelved and what readers who buy that type of book will be expecting.

There is nothing, NOTHING, quite so miserable as selecting a book from a shelf marked 'Mystery', taking it home, and finding out there isn't a mystery to solve at all. 

As a reader, I expect books in the 'Mystery' section to contain certain things. I'm hoping for a mystery and some sort of detective. A guilty party and plenty of red herrings to distract both me and the detective from discovering who it is too quickly. There should be plenty of twists and turns and, at the end, I expect the mystery to be solved.

Every genre (category) has its own expectations. Here's a list of the main genres (yes, I'll miss a few) you'll find shelves for in major booksellers. I've noted several of the conventions that are typical of each group:


-A love story is central
-Plot focuses on the two people falling in love
-Traditional romance: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back
-Happy endings are expected

The 'Romance' genre is the most popular genre and has more subgenres than we can reasonably name. Some of them include historical romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense, fantasy romance, paranormal romance. Truly, the list could go on and on. 

The traditional genre is so popular and the reading audience so defined that some publishers have very strict guidelines for submissions. So strict it could be called formulaic. But these publishers have learned precisely what their readers want and if you're wanting to publish with them, be sure to look up their guidelines and tips. Such requirements can be as specific as "Main characters must meet before the second page." If you're good at following a tried and true formula, consider writing formula romance.


-Features unique, fictional story worlds or alternate versions of worlds we know
-Often set in an era long past where legend and myth play a role
-Features magic systems or mystical power sources
-Magical creatures are commonplace

Subgenres include urban fantasy, epic fantasy, high fantasy, among others.

Science Fiction

-An outrageous but plausible setting (maybe future earth, alternate version of earth, outer space, deep ocean)
-Science and technology play a key role (not necessarily science and tech as it currently exists, but a conceivably possible version of it)
-Often explores the consequences of scientific endeavors, inventions, and innovative ideas

Subgenres of science fiction include space opera, first contact, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk. And there are many, many more.


-Faith-based fiction, often Christian

This is such a broad generalization for a category, you can imagine the possibilities for subgenres are wide-spreading: inspirational romance, inspirational thriller, inspirational fantasy, and so it goes.


-Intentionally instills fear, fascination, and/or revulsion in readers 
-A battle of good versus evil
-Supernatural or psychological forces are often at work
-Draws on the fears of the reader 

Mystery (Crime/Suspense/Thriller)

-A mystery to solve (maybe a crime)
-A detective (professional or amateur) or team of detectives
-A responsible party (often a guilty party)
-Red herrings (multiple suspects or distractions to keep you and the detective from solving the case too early)

I chose to categorize 'Mystery', 'Crime', 'Suspense' and 'Thriller' novels together. I did that because Barnes and Noble shelves them in the same section. When you walk into their stores, you won't find a 'Thriller' shelf, but you will find several 'Mystery' shelves housing all four of these genres. HOWEVER, they are specialized, they each have subgenres, and there are distinct differences. If you suspect you might be writing any one of these four genres, you'll want to read up on what makes them each unique.

Children's and Young Adult

-Marked by the target age of the reader
-Distinctions within this broad category: Picture Books (targeting up to age 5), Early Reader (targeting ages 5-7), Chapter Books (targeting ages 7-12), Young Adult (teenagers)

Within the category of 'Children's Literature' you can find nearly every genre of fiction. Most bookstores shelve these books by reader age, but publishers who specialize in this space often excel in specific genres. It's always good to research those who sell what you write.

Literary Fiction

Some fiction works do not easily fit into a genre and we often classify those books as 'Literary Fiction'. While category fiction can absolutely provoke deep thought and cause us to examine the world around us in profound ways, 'Literary Fiction' is often defined by this feature and does not easily provide an escape from our world. Instead it thrusts our thought life deeper into it. 

I've given you a handful of the genres category fiction is divided into. There are others and not every bookstore or publisher defines them in precisely the same way, but it's important to know what your potential readers expect of you. Part of being an author is taking the necessary steps to learn, understand, and be able to intelligently explain why your novel would be a good fit for a particular publisher or reader. 

And at this point in the writing process, it's important to understand the expectations. It brings clarity and direction to my writing sessions. I know it will do the same for yours.

Tell me, as you look at the list I've left you, can you find your project in there somewhere? Is it perhaps a subgenre or a mash-up of more than one of these main groupings? If you were to open your own bookstore, is there a category you would add?


  1. I know my book is fantasy. My books tend to fit into nice genre categories, but it's the mixing and matching that makes things difficult. For example: Christian YA dystopian? Christian YA alternate history? Middle grade alternate history??? I like to mix up subgenres and that's a problem. XD I've come to the realization that I probably write for serious niche markets....

    1. In truth, most category books these days include more than one genre and many are flat out mash-ups. Good job thinking it through!

    2. Hmmm... I actually never considered those genres to be mash-ups. I guess I kind of categorized the target audience to be separate from the genre; the genre would describe the storyworld, and the audience would define some other aspects of the story. Am I wrong about that?

    3. I was specifically addressing her comment about liking to mix up subgenres. Depending on what your subgenres are, if they fall under different main genres, then yes, they could be considered mash-ups. The only time we're really distinguishing between the age of the reader is when the book falls into Children's and YA categories. In fact, many people dislike referring to Children's and YA as it's own genre because so many of the adult genres are included within that larger category. How you differentiate these categories or genres is going to vary some but the goal is to understand what is expected of your writing based on where you see it shelved (or how it's marketed, which in an ebook era is just as important).

  2. I just recently figured out that the novel I have been working on for five-plus years is alternate reality! Not knowing for all that time definitely bothered me, since I have always planned on getting published, so it is a huge relief to have settled on something that finally feels right. From here, I plan to branch out into science fiction, historical superhero, and maybe supernatural and dystopian. And of course I'll come back to alternate reality, because I'm seriously in love with that world and its characters. XD All are Christian YA, also.
    Thank you for addressing genres, Mrs. Dittemore! It is definitely a very complicated topic and very important for writers.

    1. It can be very complicated and we all use certain terms interchangeably which muddies the waters further. Keeping it simple, understanding what's expected so you can adhere to or intentionally ignore expectations is very important.

  3. I'm sort of wondering what sort of fantasy I write. Originally I thought Christian Fantasy, but in the same spirit that Tolkien said he didn't want to write allegories because they were distasteful to him, I say that I don't want to write Christian Fantasy because so often it is distasteful to me in the sense that the modern writers have made it cheap and often very weird. I prefer the beautiful and insightful metaphors and symbolism that C. S. Lewis and Tolkien used, because they are very well done, and I have been encouraged in my faith by them. My books would be close to what Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings. Is this epic fantasy, high fantasy, etc? Thanks!

    1. Anything similar to The Lord of the Rings in scope, scale, number of characters, and intricacy of plot is epic fantasy. Tolkien essentially defined that subgenre single-handedly. I write epic fantasy and your work sounds mildly similar to mine, so I think it's safe to say you're also writing epic fantasy. It could also be heroic fantasy, which is basically epic fantasy toned down--fewer characters, more focus on them than on the plot, and a not-as-sweeping plot line. I don't really know what high fantasy would be, but I expect it has something to do with a plethora of fantastical elements and a plot that is largely dependent upon them.

    2. O.K. Thanks!!! I would guess that I am epic fantasy from that, which is helpful to know how to tell people what I'm really writing.

    3. Love that you're helping one another! I answered this question further down and I'll cut and paste my answer here as well. Happy writing, friends: I've heard it explained several ways (some with contradiction). I think the easiest way to distinguish between the two is that an Epic Fantasy is a fantasy of epic proportions, in that there is a risk or threat to the entire story world. The term "High Fantasy" is used when the story focuses more on the characters and their individual journeys. Both types of fantasy can involve a quest, but High Fantasy is earmarked by the individual choices of the characters and Epic Fantasy focuses more on the threat to the entire world.

  4. Right now, I'm thinking my novel is a mash up of fantasy and science fiction, though now I'm think it's more toward the fantasy genre than Sci-Fi. Thanks for the post, this was really helpful and helped me organize my genre :)

    1. Fun! Common mash-ups of Fantasy and Science Fiction often fall into other subgenres like Steampunk. Or, they could be Fantasy with sci fi elements. As you continue forward, consider reading similar books. In Leigh Bardugo's Grisha YA fantasy books (she has a couple series), she introduces interesting steampunky devices here and there. Reading books that are similar to yours in genre might help you pitch them appropriately and will give you an idea of what your readers expect.

  5. I write contemporary (or maybe inspirational?) YA with a Christian thread. Not a very popular choice right now, but I love to write it. Someday I might try my hand at historical, specifically Regency. I'm obsessed with that time period!!

    1. ME TOO! Love historicals! A work can be both Inspirational and Contemporary. If you use the word 'Inspirational' you don't need to say it has a Christian thread. That would be understood, especially by a CBA publisher.

  6. This is a great post! I love reading about genres and genre conventions for some reason. Most of my books are fantasy, since I'm either obsessed with writing it or just have a knack for it (or both). My main work right now is pretty clearly epic fantasy, and my secondary work is heroic fantasy. Some of my other story ideas aren't quite so clear, but I expect that when I start writing them I'll also begin categorizing them into genres.
    As for something I might add to the list... I've been trying to determine for a while if "adventure" is a legitimate genre or a subgenre of fantasy. Books like The Three Musketeers (of which I haven't found many) don't really fit in any of the other categories--they could arguably be fit under historical fiction, though the history isn't really the crux of the plot. The focus seems to be more on, well, general adventure, and there aren't fantastical elements. Are there enough books like that to even make it a category, I wonder?

    1. A friend of mine likes to call that Kingdom Adventure! It's not an official title for it, but it would be neat if it would catch on. She describes it here really well:

    2. Action/Adventure is definitely a legit category. As is Western (think Louis L'Amour) Both are often featured in major booksellers.

  7. Hm...I have trouble with this, lol. My book is (I think) YA, except there is no romance thread. It's definitely Inspirational Christian and it's set in modern day. Does that make my book a YA Inspirational Christian Contemporary? Seems like quite a mouthful!

    1. Yes! That's exactly what it is. If your character is a teenager and your intended audience is teenagers, you can categorize it as YA (YA is pretty particular about that).

  8. What is the difference between epic and high fantasy?

    1. I've heard it explained several ways (some with contradiction). I think the easiest way to distinguish between the two is that an Epic Fantasy is a fantasy of epic proportions, in that there is a risk or threat to the entire story world. The term "High Fantasy" is used when the story focuses more on the characters and their individual journeys. Both types of fantasy can involve a quest, but High Fantasy is earmarked by the individual choices of the characters and Epic Fantasy focuses more on the threat to the entire world.