Genre and Reader Expectations

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April 17, 2021

Genre is a literary term used to describe categories of fiction. You'll recognize the popular ones, which turn up as special sections at your favorite bookstore: science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, and horror. It's is a handy way to group similar types of stories, but genre is often misunderstood. For example, many authors and readers assume that genres are fixed and inflexible; there's also a misconception that every work of fiction must adhere to one.  

Type of Genres

I find it helps to think of genres in two forms: those defining the way a story is told (structural genres, such as romance or mystery) and where a story is told (environmental genres, often found in science fiction and fantasy).  Both types can be useful, supplying formats that help you find your audience and play around within your writing. 

And for all they seem like clearly defined categories, genres are kind of tricky. Genres can help writers by providing them with a given framework for their stories, but they can also be merged, subverted, or deconstructed.  I'll write more about how genres are defined and how they break down this way in later posts.

Reader's Expectations

From a reader's perspective, genre might define their expectations when approaching your work. Genre is a good way to quickly signal to your reader the sort of story they're about to experience. In some cases, genre can predefine the tone, atmosphere, or even the type of characters they will find in your story.. 

But genre should not be an end-all be-all set of rules that determine how you tell a story. As I mentioned above, genre can guide your writing and give structure to your story, while breaking the rules can add excitement, narrative tension, or challenge your readers. However, it's important to acknowledge that readers will carry expectations into your work based on their experience with your designated genre. This can be a disadvantage when dealing with readers who have fixed expectations and don't take kindly to writing that doesn't conform to their preconceived ideas. On the other hand, playing with reader expectations, undermining them, reinventing them, or combining characteristics from different genres can make your story so much more interesting, and these are all tools you should include in your writing toolbox. 


What genre category does your current writing project fall into? Think about some of the typical characteristics that define your genre. Now, take one of those characteristics and think about what would happen in your story if you changed it up. Does the main character usually get their love interest at the end? What would happen if they didn't? Does the babysitter always go outside to investigate that strange noise? What happens if they do and find nothing? Experiment and play with several options and see if any of them improve your story. 

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