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Thread: Genre Rules?

  1. #1
    Greymane Wilson Geiger's Avatar
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    Genre Rules?

    Read an interesting blog post earlier about genre rules that readers will expect to be followed. I'm curious to hear anyone's thoughts on this. As a reader, what rules do you expect an author to follow for epic fantasy? For cyberpunk? Hard science fiction? Dramatic science fiction? Steampunk? Horror?

    What rules do you think can be tossed, if any? What promises do we, as writers, make to a reader if we are writing in a particular genre?

    I have ideas, but it took me by surprise, which maybe it shouldn't have, but I've never put any rules I have into words. So I'm curious if any of you have.

  2. #2
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Why do you do this to me? Why? You just wanted a holiday rant, didn't you? Sneaky werewolf.

    There aren't any genre rules. There have never been any rules and there never will be any rules. Readers expectations are based on personal preferences and vary widely. Some readers want dark, others to avoid it. Some readers can't abide romantic sub-plots, others seek them out. Some readers insist on lots of battle action, others are bored by battle action. Some readers read nothing but epic, pre-industrial secondary world fantasy, others read only contemporary fantasy, others read everything.

    The most common form of story in SFFH is a structure utilizing suspense elements. Suspense elements have distinctive forms but they are not rules. They are tools that can be used. Form is being confused with function. It's an effective threat -- a person can say that if you don't write the story the way he thinks best then readers will be angry. And he's right. Some readers will be angry -- about however you write the story, including the way being touted as a rule. I've had friend authors told that Asian fantasy doesn't sell, dark fantasy doesn't sell, violent fantasy doesn't sell, non-violent fantasy doesn't sell, SFFH with a female protagonist doesn't sell, anything that doesn't have vampires in it doesn't sell, hard SF doesn't sell, comic SF doesn't sell, historical fantasy doesn't sell, steampunk doesn't sell, and on and on. You should kill off main characters, you shouldn't kill off main characters, you should have a very detailed magic system, you should not have a very detailed magic system, you should have psychological horror instead of gore, you should have gore instead of psychological horror. You should have aliens, you should avoid aliens, etc. As always, these pronouncements (and yes, sometimes they come from industry people who are guessing or relying on anecdotes from booksellers -- we have the notorious let's whitewash YA fantasy covers because having non-white kids on the covers doesn't sell idea for instance,) are directed outwards to imaginary visions of readers as one concentrated and monochrome mass. If you look at the actual market, the variance is clearly visible. If you talk to enough readers outside a small community and your own circle, the variance is clearly visible. You can as an individual author target specific personal preferences of one type and say that you are going for that audience and build the story to that preference. But the categories and sub-categories are not constrained by such things.

    As for our own personal preferences as readers on inner content, I don't have any. I do, though, gravitate to some forms of stories more frequently than others. I'm more likely to read comic material than straight horror, for instance, but I do read horror. And I don't expect those stories to have certain content for me. And in either case, I don't come in with a shopping list that I expect the author to provide. One of the things that has always struck me as strange is SFFH readers who do have very specific personal preferences, voluntarily choose books that clearly before even being read are not going to be able to satisfy those personal preferences, and then get upset that their personal preferences aren't met as if it's a surprise. And yet, that's readers.

    But authors do not make a promise to readers that their individual personal preferences are going to be satisfied. Authors make a story. The story hopefully connects with a number of people, but again, can't connect with all the people, or even reliably with a majority of potential buyers. The search for formulas that will ensure that the story will do this impossible thing is a result of anxiety and not accepting how people actually interact with and process written fictional stories in the full marketplace, IMO.

    So there, you got my usual rant. And you don't get to growl at me about it, either, because you used the evil pretend words genre rules right in the thread title. You knew what would happen. You knew my personal preferences would be to not resist the evil words. You made me dent my forehead! Howl in shame. (Just kidding -- I've had an awful day and am high on sugar.)

  3. #3
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    Interesting. KatG does have red hair. (and sorry for your bad day. Tomorrow will be better!)

    Wulfen, I think the different subgenres of SFFH are good ways for booksellers and publishers to inform readers of the sort of things they can expect from a story that has been classified as being of that subgenre. But, does that mean there are rules for the subgenre? No, I don't think so.

    As a reader, I do use the subgenre classifications to help me find what I am in the mood for at that time. The best stories, however, are those which make be believe they are one thing and then show me they are not. For instance, I recently finished Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff. While it is a thoroughly Steampunk novel I was very, very happy to see that it did not fit the "mold" of other Steampunk works I have read. Many of those other works have lacked in descriptions of the (in that world) common items, races, etc. as well as had a distinct flavor to societal and even interpersonal interactions that I find distasteful and cringe-worthy at best. Kristoff's Steampunk was the kind of Steampunk I've been looking for with lots of detail for the reader but no bogging down of the story or character, characterization that remained true throughout the story, and a society (Japanese) that was strange and fascinating to me as a Westerner. It was pure Steampunk, fitting many of what some might call 'rules' for the subgenre, but it was also more than that and different from that. Still, you can't call it anything but Steampunk because those Steampunk elements are the dominant factor in the aspect that the Steampunk subgenre is classified by (eg. period of historical technological and economic development in human history).

    For my own writing, I don't try to follow any rules. But nor am I purposefully trying to 'break the mold'. Not that I won't ever do that. I am just at the moment taken with telling a story that I would like to read, wherever that might lead. I will say I am writing a contemporary fantasy series with a modern day component and another set in the Great Depression/WWII era. For the Great Depression/WWII stories I do have to keep in mind the technology, politics, economics, societal and all those other aspects of that period because the stories are set in our real world, though with a strong fantasy element. That does not mean rules. It just means being true to the period.

    I'm not sure what else to say so I will just end it there.

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    Greymane Wilson Geiger's Avatar
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    I wouldn't growl at you, Kat, promise!

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    @PeteMC666 PeteMC's Avatar
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    I like being surprised when someone breaks the so-called "rules" in a clever way. One of the most enjoyable fantasies I've read this year was Prince of Thorns. Apparently it was so heavily marketed to the GRRM fanbase that it was being given away free with Game of Thrones at one point. Towards the end of the book, the protag
    Spoiler:
    lets off a freaking nuclear bomb!
    Didn't see that coming when I read the blurb in the shop...

  6. #6
    Greymane Wilson Geiger's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by PeteMC View Post
    I like being surprised when someone breaks the so-called "rules" in a clever way. One of the most enjoyable fantasies I've read this year was Prince of Thorns. Apparently it was so heavily marketed to the GRRM fanbase that it was being given away free with Game of Thrones at one point. Towards the end of the book, the protag
    Spoiler:
    lets off a freaking nuclear bomb!
    Didn't see that coming when I read the blurb in the shop...
    Excellent book, as is the follow-up!

    I wouldn't have even brought the topic up, as I don't really think too hard about 'rules', but a published author did say that they existed, so I thought I'd ask for thoughts. And thanks for them!

  7. #7
    KMTolan kmtolan's Avatar
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    I would say "rules" apply when you are aiming specifically for a particular audience. If you are writing for the My Little Pony crowd, you'd damn well better cough up some cute ponies, right? I don't think that steam punk elves in space will work a lot for the Hard SF crowd either. So, rules do make sense, but only if your intentions are to cater to an eclectic audience. I'd rather say the hell with it and just write a story I'm interested in telling. I'm working a fantasy with steam locomotives and such right now in my current WIP, but it most certainly isn't steam punk. I'll let my publisher sweat over the genre and stick to telling a good yarn.

    Kerry

  8. #8
    bingley bingley beep kissmequick's Avatar
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    There are no "rules" for genre. There are conventions, which you can bypass if you so desire depending (as said above) what audience you are aiming for, or what you personally want to write.

    But rules there are not except VERY broadly (ie for fantasy, it must include a fantastical element. Which could be anything.)

  9. #9
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Wulfen
    I wouldn't growl at you, Kat, promise!
    I've annoyed you numerous times, so I'm being pre-defensive. *smiley*

    Quote Originally Posted by PeteMC View Post
    Didn't see that coming when I read the blurb in the shop...
    1950's style! So no, not really breaking "rules," just walking a different heritage line, but fun. I also liked very much what Ken Scholes did in Lamentation, which was more of a 1960's and 1980's style approach to it.

    Quote Originally Posted by Wulfen
    but a published author did say that they existed,
    And a number of published authors believed that there was a YA Mafia of authors who forced their publishers to harm them over bad reviews, which meant these authors knew very little about fiction publishing even though they were publishing in it. (Still my favorite Whatever column of John Scalzi to link to: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2011/03/0...-to-crush-you/)

    Authors have a lot of people coming at them, telling them things, especially readers of many different stripes. They ask other authors for advice and information. And it's scary out there, so declaring there to be rules, which can be codified and understood, is our default mode, rather than accepting that fiction publishing is chaotic, crowded, and based on opinions that differ widely from individual to individual and involves luck, unpredictable word of mouth, and non-exciting business issues like store rents, consolidation and truck distribution systems rather than great social psychological movements. Rules are formed by several people grouping a small group of (usually prominent) books together, say four, that they've recently read (but not necessarily titles that are recently published,) that share various elements and declaring those the rules or tropes or, for that matter, conventions. And let's just ignore all those titles over there that don't fit, or say that they break the rules that we just made up. It's a fragmentation technique -- build a model on limited data, declare it the standard.

    The imaginary readers always work together as a mob under these scenarios -- wanting the same things, thinking the same way, becoming one hypothetical reader in aggregate. Let's call the reader Dale. Dale is invoked like Santa Claus. Authors are either defying Dale (naughty) or attempting to satisfy Dale (nice.) Publishers -- all of them together into one aggregate hypothetical big publisher, let's call it Big Books -- are reportedly obsessed with Dale. Sometimes professionals of "Big Books" pronounce exactly what Dale wants or will want in the near future, and therefore what all the Big Books publishers want. They make a guess. And so Dale continues to be the standard. Except that Dale doesn't exist and few agree about what Dale wants, so as a standard, Dale is constantly changing. As we know from our own discussions, we're not Dale. We don't agree. And the styles we're being offered in the marketplace aren't the same. There are lineages -- connections, resemblances, thematic explorations from older books to younger books, but that's part of the wider range of story. They are forms authors try on, not rules they follow or demands from Dale.

    If an author wants to follow a set of techniques, prose stylistic devices and thematic elements, they can do that, and that's their style, not rules. It becomes their personal rule book, not everybody's rule book. Authors are not Dale either. (Herding authors is like herding cats.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pk7yqlTMvp8

  10. #10
    Where have I been? Moderator JRMurdock's Avatar
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    This is my opinion and my opinion only.

    It all depends on what you're trying to accomplish.

    That being said, it also depends on what type of readers you're trying to attract. What do you enjoy writing? Do you like being in a box with fixed rules or do you want to explore other possibilities?

    When you're done with a book you will run into three camps.

    1) Those that love that you've done (stayed within the lines of crossed over to the dark side)
    2) Those that really don't care and just enjoyed the book for what it was
    3) Those that hate your soul and want to carve out your eyes with a spoon (because you stayed in the lines or you chose to blur those lines)

    So it's all up to what you to accomplish with your writing. All other advice you can conveniently ignore

  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by Wulfen View Post
    Read an interesting blog post earlier about genre rules that readers will expect to be followed. I'm curious to hear anyone's thoughts on this. As a reader, what rules do you expect an author to follow for epic fantasy? For cyberpunk? Hard science fiction? Dramatic science fiction? Steampunk? Horror?

    What rules do you think can be tossed, if any? What promises do we, as writers, make to a reader if we are writing in a particular genre?

    I have ideas, but it took me by surprise, which maybe it shouldn't have, but I've never put any rules I have into words. So I'm curious if any of you have.
    Be careful with genre.

    A love story set in 1850 is a western.

    A love story set in 2150 is science fiction.

  12. #12
    Star Gawker ebusinesstutor's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AndrewT View Post
    Be careful with genre.

    A love story set in 1850 is a western.

    A love story set in 2150 is science fiction.
    Except in Back to the Future where Emmett goes back in time to western days and meets and falls in love with a new school teacher!

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