Over the last few years, I’ve been privileged to join many writers on their on-going creative journeys, some who are already published, others who aspire to see their work in print. I’ve been asked to offer editorial advice on plots, to line-edit short stories, and, my favourite task of all, to create reader’s reports for full-length manuscripts. Every new piece of work brings fresh challenges, and every project presents different issues. But, one of the biggest aspects of confusion by far among aspiring writers, is the identification of genre.
Genre fictions (horror, fantasy, romance, crime, sci fi, and many more) all have codes set by the expectations of their readership. These codes have been refined over many years, some being perhaps cast off when books fall out of fashion or print, the stronger ones perpetuating and eventually being developed by each generation of new writers. So, genre fiction has a huge history that can’t, from the writer’s point of view, be ignored or skipped around.
Genre fiction is generally thought to be more approachable than literary fiction, and perhaps less sophisticated. I personally don’t believe this, because I’ve read awful examples of literary fiction and brilliant examples of genre fiction (and, of course, vice versa). I’ve also found that literary authors who decide to dabble in genre fiction often don’t do it anywhere near so well as genre writers who stick with their own favoured specialism. But, as with everything, there are always exceptions to the rule.
Even if you don't think of yourself as a crime novel or science fiction fan, along with everybody else who watches TV dramas, visits the cinema, or reads a canned plot resume of the latest Hollywood release, you will have become familiar with the various conventions of genre fiction without necessarily realising it. Think of film launch posters. The back-lit silhouette of a gun-toting figure on a rainy street, or a blood-spattered surgeon’s mask topped by a pair of dark and sinister-looking eyes, tap into our understanding and expectation of genre, and tell us an awful lot about how a story will unfold – even though we might never have picked up a combat-noir thriller or a slasher horror novel in our lives.
A fantastic example of genre expectation can be seen in the James Bond franchise. Most of us have watched re-runs of the old Bond films at Christmas, or followed Bond’s various incarnations when a new actor is employed to play the lead role. Even before we take a seat at the cinema, we know what to expect – lots of dramatic action supported by international political intrigue, a powerful villain, plenty of smart, beautiful women, and the knowledge that no matter how bad things look, Bond will always win the day. If our expectations weren’t met in these films, if Bond was killed or the villain destroyed an entire continent and fled Earth to live on a base on planet Mars, say, the audience would feel pretty cheated, and doubtless the Bond franchise would crash and burn. Genre expectation for written fiction runs on exactly the same principle. Readers have certain expectations, and as writers, we need always to be sensitive to this.
There are sub-genres, of course, and blends of genres (which is maybe why genre as a concept can seem confusing at times). Dystopian narrative is a sub-genre of science fiction, and apocalyptic dystopia is a sub-genre of dystopia; detective noir can be combined with science fiction (think 'Blade Runner', based on PK Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and historical fiction can be combined with detective fiction (think The Cadfael Chronicles, Ellis Peters). But, rather than feeling overwhelmed by this, in order to understand genre, the best thing an aspiring writer can do is to read widely. This develops an appreciation of how genre works, and how it links with narrative voice, plot, pace, and setting, all of which are essential for the writer to understand in order to build the 'toolkit' needed for the craft.
So, if you want to write, then keep reading. Take yourself out of your comfort zone from time to time (you’ll discover some fantastic fiction alongside novels you just cannot finish), and connect with book reviews, articles and anything else which tells you what readers think of books.
A deeper understanding of narrative foundation helps all writers to appreciate the importance of reader expectation, and to understand how to fulfil it to the best of our ability.