By the time someone reads the opening line of a new book, they already have certain expectations. The book’s stated genre and the genre tags used to market it online indicate to the reader what likely awaits them in the story. And since most fans return to their favorite genres for this very reason, you might wonder how far you can safely stray from genre conventions. Which rules should be followed implicitly? Which can be bent? Which can be broken? How can you keep the reader’s experience familiar and satisfying while also offering surprises and doing something new?
Let’s start by expanding on the concept of ‘genre rules’.
Many subgenres exist to tell a very specific type of story. If you’re writing a ‘historical romance’ novel, it has to—by definition—take place in the past and involve a romantic relationship. This isn’t a rule that can be bent or broken. If you shelve a book under this subgenre but don’t include both those things, you’ve miscategorized and misrepresented your writing. Do your research and make sure to tag your stories accurately and precisely.
Genre’s hard rules
The hard rules of a genre exist for a reason: to help the reader find a book they’ll love. Readers don’t want to feel cheated or tricked.
Take romance. (Here we’re talking about the romance genre, not romance as a subplot within your story.) Romance novels have happy endings. They end with love and kisses. That’s why people read them. If an author presents their book as a standard romance, but ends it with a surprise asteroid strike that extinguishes all life on Earth, they’ve lied to their readers. Breaking a hard rule like that isn’t clever, it’s deceptive.
Can an author at least bend the hard rules? Sometimes, but at a cost. For example, recently some romance authors have tossed out the ‘happily ever after’ model for a ‘happy for now’ ending. They can usually get away with it, but even in that case, many hardline romance fans will be upset and may leave bad reviews.
Identifying which rules are ‘hard’ is easier with some genres than with others. Read, read, read. That’s the best thing you can do. Try and establish which aspects are universal to the genre. Separate the hard rules, from the soft guidelines, from the clichés. And if you’re going to break a hard rule, do so deliberately and knowing that you’ll upset some readers.
Often times, seeing that you’ve broken hard rules reveals that you’re actually writing in a different subgenre than you set out to. In this case, you can either change the story or change the marketed genre.
Most of the time we talk about genre rules, this is it. It’s things like the archetypal characters, the themes, the amount of action, and the tone of the ending. It can also be the age of your protagonist or the POV and tense that the story is told in.
You can usually make a list of the conventions for the type of story you’re telling. Look at examples within the genre and write down common settings, character types, relationships, and finale scenes. Fantasy has castles and knights and swords. Space opera has spaceships and laser guns and alien worlds. Westerns have cowboys and saloons and horses chasing trains. Those sorts of things. In order to stay true to your genre and your readers, you’re usually going to want to include some of these, but you never have to use all of them. Giving the story a mix of classic conventions and fresh twists is a good way to both delight and surprise your reader.
Finally, we have tropes, those little clichés that pop up over and over again and are so easily parodied: the hero’s cheesy one-liner just before he defeats the villain, the tumbleweed rolling through town as the cowboys draw their revolvers, or the plain girl taking off her glasses and letting her hair down and... “Oh my god. Jessica, you’re… you’re… you’re beautiful!”
Unless tropes are a major aspect of your subgenre—and for some, they are—you should never feel the need to include them in your writing. Though sometimes breathing new life into an old trope is just what the story requires.
And don’t make the new writer’s mistake of starting a story with lots of tropes only to surprise the reader halfway through by subverting them. Any readers looking for a unique story will give up before they reach the middle twist, and any readers who like the tropes will feel cheated when they do.
How and When to Break the Rules
The good news is that no genre is a monolith. You’ll find huge variety within every section of the bookstore. Readers are constantly demanding new and fresh ideas, and authors are stepping up to push fiction in new directions, hybridize genres, update old tropes and styles, and even create new genres from scratch.
Always strive to find a balance of the expected and unexpected. And recognise that breaking the rules changes the game. When Orson Scott Card wrote his best-selling adult science fiction novel “Ender’s Game”, he made his POV hero a six-year-old boy. That’s a gutsy move, and it only worked because Card knew to make the character an extremely mature six-year-old with a lot of trauma in his past. If he had tried to pull off the adult novel from an average little kid’s POV, it would’ve been too ridiculous to be believable. He knocked a great big dent into a genre convention, but didn’t do so much damage as to bring it crashing down.
The key to making a rule-break work is to preserve the emotions and ideas at the heart of the genre experience.
Let’s look at an example...
Maybe you want to write epic fantasy, which usually draws inspiration from medieval warfare and features massive battles with lots of magic. But let’s say you want to break this rule and not include war at all. Can you still call your story ‘epic fantasy’? I’d say yes, but only if you find something to replace the epic war and give the reader the same feeling. Determine what it is that fantasy battle scenes accomplish. Maybe it’s the big, bold, larger-than-reality conflicts, the sense of wonder, and the cinematic visuals of armies and powerful magics.
So what other inspiration from history, besides the medieval battlefield, could help us make the story epic? How about the mid-20th century space race between the US and USSR? You could tell the story of two fantasy kingdoms, both trying to reach the moons by use of magic. The book could still include epic fantasy conventions that readers love—kingdoms in conflict, unlikely heroes, stand-up-and-cheer moments, mega-awesome magical displays—while delivering a completely fresh take on the genre. (Sidenote: somebody go and write that book because now I want to read it!) Any time you break a rule in this manner, some readers aren’t going to be convinced. That’s okay. That’s how genres evolve.
Length and POV
Readers expect a middle grade book to be shorter than a YA dystopian novel, and a YA dystopian novel shorter than an epic fantasy. Are these rules you can ever break? It’s tricky. The reason books for children and teens are shorter is because younger readers have shorter attention spans. Publishers have calculated the optimal length, and though they may make exceptions when releasing new books from established authors, you can understand why a publisher would be hesitant to take a risk on a new author. If you are going to send out a manuscript way beyond the average word count, it had better be something really special.
It’s fine to experiment with POVs and tenses in most books, regardless of the genre norm, but probably not in middle grade. Writing with a multitude of POV characters will confuse child readers. And any child readers that are advanced enough for a technique like that are probably already picking books marketed toward older readers.
Twist of Genre
More and more these days, it’s common to see books tagged as having multiple genres. Fantasy crime, horror romance, sci-fi western etc. Writing cross-genre fiction isn’t breaking any rules as long as you market honestly. But what about a book that starts out as one genre, then later in the story reveals itself to belong to another? Some examples might be a crime thriller that reveals the villain to be supernatural, or a fantasy novel where the magical land turns out to be a sci-fi future and the ‘magic’ just advanced technology. These sorts of twists will work great for some readers and be hated by others. It’s most troublesome for big publishers who aren’t sure how to market them to a wide audience. With small presses and self-publishing, where a lot of sales are made face to face or through networking online, it’s easier to sell a book that hides its true genre.
The Genre Maternity Ward
Awww. Baby genres! So cute.
Most of the time an author thinks they’ve had a truly ‘original’ idea, a quick google search will reveal that fifty others have had the same thought. But it’s still possible to create your very own genre. If you’re going to try and do this from scratch, or more likely, push an established genre in a new direction, do it knowingly and with care.
The reason steampunk exists is that some writer said, “Hey! I sure do like alternate history sci-fi, but I want to break the rule about how technologies evolve and push history to change. I want a story where the technology is kept purposefully archaic and the world stays like it was in Victorian times!” Bingo. A genre is born. Old rules are broken. New rules are written. And new authors move in and make the genre their own.
Maybe you’ll be the one to jumpstart the next big genre in publishing, like, I dunno, christmaspunk! I’d totally read that. Silver bell-ladened heroes with candy cane monocles ridings sleighs pulled by yulealchemy-powered mechanical reindeer. Just imagine how festive the nerd conventions would be!