I’ve been wondering lately when the requirements of specific genres in writing slide over into the realm of clichés. Which leads to other questions. How do you keep a reader who loves the genre from getting bored? How do you stay within the confines of a genre and yet write an original piece? How do you keep a genre-specific story from becoming predictable?
I obviously love mysteries. As a mystery reader, I know the basic road map the story will take. I expect a series, a hero’s journey, meaning a protagonist who struggles against self as well as plot, and a climatic ending. What makes me reach for a new author is a setting I haven’t yet visited, a mystery that isn’t based on the discovery of yet another young woman’s body, and an ending that isn’t just the protagonist facing down death. I mean, it’s a series, right? Do we really think the author will kill off the main protagonist? Of course that happens, but it’s rare. So if there’s no chance of killing the golden goose, there’s no tension at the end because you know the character is going to survive. Give me something more to worry about.
The things I look for in mysteries are those things that keep the genre from becoming boring for me. The things I try to avoid are those things that feel like mystery-series clichés.
In apocalyptic genres (think Stephen King’s The Stand) there are always the disparate groups of people who eventually come together. There’s conflict between the characters as well as whatever outside danger is stalking them. You’re always going to find characters like the athlete, the brooding type with a past, the woman from a broken relationship, the overweight nerdy type, etc. You get the idea. The unique twist is usually whatever is out to kill them all. Oh, and who survives. This genre has more freedom to kill characters off.
As an aside, Stephen King is a master at developing characters. His are the only books I read where I flip to the end to see who survives. I don’t want to get emotionally involved with someone who’s going to be killed off mid-story.
Readers of specific genres expect those rules to be in place. They know what they are going to get when they open the book. The only surprises the books should offer up are the unique twists the author adds. The underlying plot structure should be predictable, to a point, so the reader gets what he or she loves out of that genre.
Of course there are always the books that overlap genres, combine genres, are genre-less, or even create a whole new genre. But you get what I’m saying here, I’m sure.
The challenge for a writer within a genre is sticking to the rules while breaking them at the same time. But not breaking so many that the reader is left feeling cheated. And not sticking so closely to the rules that the author is bored.
And avoiding becoming a cliché.
What’s with the random photos not connected to the blog subject, you ask? Maybe an apocalyptic genre story in its infancy, set in the mountains.
5 thoughts on “Genre Originality”
Loved the post, and loved the pictures. I liked the way you balanced the idea what’s needed in a great story. It has to be somewhere in the middle.
You’re so right about being somewhere in the middle. And I also think it has something to do with the writing ability of the author – I look back at my first book and see all the genre cliches!
I don’t tend to think in terms of genre structure as being cliches to be avoided or worried over. I think the cliches that are important to avoid are the ones associated with character, wordsmithing, and situation. When a story lacks certain common structural elements expected in a specific genre, the reader ends up feeling — as you say — cheated. Straying too far from what readers will find “relatable” makes for a boring book. If I, as a reader, can’t relate in some way to the main character(s) then I don’t care what happens to them, and therefore I lose interest in the story (and I really do think the writer has control over that relatableness factor). I think that’s one reason an author needs to understand her genre and her readers. The romance genre is about as formulaic as it gets. That’s what readers expect and woe be to the author who messes with success! The trick there is (I think) the way the author writes the characters, the dialog and the situations. Then, of course, there is always the allure of the writer’s voice. There are authors I read simply because I love the way they turn a phrase, the way they describe a scene, the way they express their world view.
I think there is one more point that pulls in a reader, and that is when the main character wants something more than anything else in their life. It ups the stakes, and that is where we hang on every word written. We desperately want that character (the one we have been made to take to our hearts) to get what they want, and we keep turning the pages to find out how, in the face of all the failures, that is going to happen.
If I had one piece of advice for any writer worried about being original it would be; don’t worry, just write your heart out.
Wise words, as always, Susan. Finding the balance between meeting the expectations of a genre with not slipping into clichés or boredom boils down to a few things that you point out here. The voice of the writer, and the characters.
I think avoiding boredom has a lot to do with raising the stakes for the main character. I recall, some years ago, reading a book I simply hated — the dialog was dumb and cliche, the writing sub-par, etc — however, I could not put it down. I finally figured out why — the main character wanted what she wanted so badly, and kept failing to achieve it, that I couldn’t stop turning the pages! Lesson learned. We readers can forgive a lot if the author can pull us into caring about the main character.
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