Genre Conventions: To Go Along With Or Subvert? 4 Answers.

Posted on May 22, 2023

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Written by Sarah Rexford

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Genre conventions are often referred to as the building blocks of literature. They are similar to the exits and on ramps in a journey or the key spices in a recipe: with them everything feels as it should, and without them there’s a sense of upheaval. 

But what exactly are genre conventions and should you use them or ignore them? In this article, I show you what they are, when to obey them, when to subvert them (any rule breakers reading?), and provide concrete examples of each. Let’s dive right in!

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Genre conventions: what are they?

Genre conventions are the various themes, plot points, specific characters, etc., that make up a genre. For instance, romance includes at least two characters who eventually fall in love. Romance also often includes a third character that creates tension through a love triangle.

Thrillers include an evil villain, often some type of time element, and in many cases, scenes that take place in dark, scary settings. 

Adventure books usually have an unlikely hero, the trope of a mentor figure, and some form of quest for the protagonist to succeed in. Genre conventions (you may have also heard them referred to as genre expectations) are the foundation to genre, but what happens when we can’t decide whether to go along with them or defy these expectations?  

When to obey them

It’s likely a good choice to adhere to genre conventions if you want to plunge your reader into the specific genre in a fully-immersive experience. Let’s say you are writing a thriller for the first time. Your protagonist is serious, smart, and well-credentialed.

She reaches the scene of the crime and is deep into finding her clues when her ex-boyfriend appears outside the yellow tape. How you choose to write his character is determined by whether you want to maintain genre conventions or break them.

If you’re new to the thriller genre, writing his character as a stalker would contribute to the genre conventions we are familiar with. But imagine if you wrote him as a funny, comic relief character? 

While thrillers can definitely include comedy, doing it well can be difficult, especially in a conventionally serious genre. If you can’t do it well, you risk pulling your reader out of the story via the distraction of his character’s actions.

A second instance in which you may want to obey genre conventions is to help the reader feel that they can close the book satisfied, without feeling gypped. 

For instance, Romance often has a happy ending. Adventure stories typically end with the hero completing the quest. To break from these genre conventions is to risk dissatisfied readers.   

When to subvert them

But what if risking a few unhappy readers is worth trying something new? There are several cases where it may be worth it to subvert genre conventions and create your own rules. You are a creative writer after all. 

Option 1

The first example of subverting genre conventions is when you want to blend genres. Let’s say you want to write a thriller but with a hint of science fiction. Consider the TV show Fringe. Set on the fringes of reality, this show is classified as science fiction but also includes the FBI. 

Mixing genres is a great excuse to defy the conventions of your genre. It seems the writers followed Picasso’s advice to “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Option 2

You may also want to ignore genre conventions when it feels like the cliché answer or an easy way out. For instance, if you’re writing a mystery and feel you’ve written yourself into a corner, it may feel easy to include one of the following conventions: 

  • Red herring
  • Plot twist
  • A new clue

Instead, choose to make your protagonist even more of a proactive hero by forcing him to work out the answer on his own.

Option 3

If you really feel like pushing yourself as a writer, consider subverting genre conventions to do so. Consider these options:

For Romance: What if the one your protagonist ends up with on the last page was never a major character? How would this impact the nuance with which you write peripheral characters? 

For Fantasy: What if your hero actually doesn’t use magic or special powers or to succeed in the end? What if at the last moment, every fantastical element is taken away and they must succeed based on pure grit?

For Adventure: What if there is no mentor figure trope or any outside form of guidance from the first page to the last? How could this spotlight your protagonist’s ingenuity and dedication to the quest? 

If these situations seem difficult, you’re right on track. It’s not necessarily simple to subvert genre conventions, but it can be a powerful tool. 

Examples of each approach  

This may all seem a bit nebulous so let’s dive into a few concrete examples. First up, a romantic comedy via film. *Spoilers ahead.

500 Days of Summer

I don’t know about you but even knowing Summer’s intentions didn’t help me love the ending any more. I felt bad for Tom, strongly disliked the way Summer treated him, but was strangely impressed by this break from the norm. 

While I usually expect to laugh when watching a romantic comedy, this one added a new twist to the genre by subverting the convention of the happily ever after. 

The Lady Or The Tiger?

An iconic short story, this one will leave you hanging, and likely conversing, with your friends for weeks after. In fact, what you believe to be behind the door he finally opened will likely reveal quite a bit about how you analyze a character and even your view on love.

Little Women

This coming-of-age novel includes twists and turns, both in love and in grief, but in the end the conventions of its genre are followed and readers are left satisfied. A classic, there’s a reason it’s been made into film several times over and is still beloved since its original publication in 1868.

Fable

Written by New York Times bestselling author, Adrienne Young, this dystopian story includes the expected genre conventions: A distant villain, difficult circumstances, a traumatic past, distrustful characters, and of course, a bit of love. 

While Young takes a unique look at the genre, she follows its typical conventions all the way to the cliffhanger on her last page. 

Deciding what’s best for your story 

If you have time, consider watching one of the film adaptations of Little Women over the weekend. If you have extra time, watch 500 Days of Summer as well. Sometimes it helps to visualize what’s going on and take notes as you watch a film.

You may also want to visit your local library and check out Fabel or search for The Lady Or The Tiger online. Take notes on where the writers obey genre conventions and when they subvert them.

Next up, consider your own genre. Where should you employ the use of stereotypical conventions and where should you risk breaking them? You may want to create a pros and cons list before starting the actual writing. 

One final reminder: whatever you decide to do, do what’s best for the art of your story. Remember, the reader always comes first!

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