The rules of genre – and which ones count

artisbreakingtherulesAs a reader, I have never been very fond of the way that the book industry divides books up. In book shops. In libraries. Real fiction here. Mysteries, Westerns, Romances, and SF off in their own little ghettos over there. Yes, I know they did it (and some still do) to help readers who have a passion for a particular type of story. I get that.

But I objected for two reasons. First, for myself — as an omniverous reader of all types of fiction. Back before the days of online catalogues, library visits had me scurrying all over the building: sf, mystery, general, romance, young adult… Good exercise, but all the moving around ate into precious lunch break time that could have been spent reading.

Second, for the writers. And now that I am one, I’m finding this argument even more compelling. What if you write historical mysteries with a touch of the paranormal, plus a central mystery and a romance between the two protagonists? What if the book is set in a 19th century western scene on an alternative Earth? What if your protagonists walk away from one another at the end, but three books full of thrilling adventure later finally have their happy ever after? How do you categorise your genre?

Okay. That might be an exaggerated example, but I hope it makes the point.

I don’t have a problem with defining my books as romance, using the definition given by Robyn Reader in a post on Dear Author:

Romance, as a form, has come to be known by three main elements: a) a romantic love story, b) that is central to the narrative, c) and resolves in a happy ending for the lovers. But within that form are many formulae.

And since they are set in history, they are historical romance.

But let’s not use how they are defined to confine them, okay?

Two years ago, when I settled on a series of stories set in late Georgian England, all with a romance that ended in a happy ever after, I started reading craft books. And I met The Rules.

Genres establish certain rules for how books should be written. For example, a romance novel should start with the female perspective, and the male and female protagonists should meet in the first chapter. Romances are also told with the protagonists’ viewpoints alternating.

Now, some of these genre rules can be broken, but stepping out from the established formula can have its consequences. The reader of a particular genre has been trained to expect the formula. Surprising the reader can be a good thing, but most of the time it’s off-putting. [Rachel Kent, The Rules of Genre, Books & Such Literary Management]

Since starting down this path, I’ve been in a lot of discussion about The Rules. I’ve talked with people who are bthered that they’re breaking The Rules (perhaps by having a rape, or introducing too much historical detail, or telling the story from the point-of-view of another character, or keeping the protagonists from meeting early on). I have myself met The Rules in the form of an agent, who told me that my characters couldn’t marry till the end of the book, because marriage was the happy ending; in the form of a reader who wanted me to delete my secondary romance and another who objected to the delay in that all important first meeting; in the form of book snobs, who say they don’t read romance because it is formulaic.

In the Robin Reader post I referenced above, the writer says:

When people call Romance formulaic, it’s generally in a denigrating way, as if to imply predictability, triteness, and staleness. However, both form and formula are important to generic integrity, because while form ensures coherence and definitional consistency, formula provides familiar elements that a reader may like and want to see in particular combinations… The common mistake people make in denigrating genre as formula and formula per se, is the assumption that structural and narrative limits are bad, and that they contravene artistic freedom and creativity.

But here’s the thing: genre itself is about formal limits. Genre is definition, delineation, recognizability, consistency, reliability. Genre is as much about what doesn’t belong as what does, and as with most delineating structures, its boundaries are most easily seen when they’re being tested. Formula is the same way, only on a narrower scale. Formula is like form within form, a further delimitation of narrative within genre. In the same way that all genre is form, all genres contain formulae.

I’ve published a novella that followed The Rules (mostly), and that was, furthermore, classifiable as ‘sweet’. And it has been a success — on several Amazon best-seller lists in the US and the UK, with more than 26,000 downloads in the first five weeks, 4.4 star ratings on Amazon and nearly 40 reviews, all but two positive. My first novel, however, doesn’t follow the rules, and is more gothic than sweet. Should I be worried?

In the Dear Author post, Robyn Reader goes on to discuss how good books test the boundaries of the formula, and concludes:

For me, all these circumstantial discussions about specific books and about what supposedly sells and what is supposedly popular and why, ultimately circle back to the question of what constitutes genre. Without question, readers have strong preferences, although I’ve yet to read one convincing argument about the “rules” of Romance that go beyond the very basic elements of the genre. Inevitably, these conversations about rules and about sales rely first on subjective elements of the genre and perceived reader reactions to them, and then on the belief that what sells must be what readers want…

Still, let’s say that readers want what sells. Let’s accept that as truth for a moment. What does that really mean? Does it mean they won’t like something new? Does it mean they won’t like something different? Does it mean they all like those books for the same reason and dislike other books for the same reason? No, it doesn’t. In fact, I think we know far less about what it means than we know that it means something – or more likely, a bunch of different things that may or may not be relevant as part of an author’s decisions about what to write.

Here’s the thing. I hope to please you in what I write, Dear Reader. Good reviews thrill me, particularly when a reviewer includes a phrase or a sentence that shows they ‘get’ something I particularly liked about a story when I wrote it, such as the lovely person for whom the highlight of Candle’s story was the way his surprise Christmas present affirmed his respect for Min’s talent and independence.

And selling books, while unlikely to be a lucrative career option, is certainly better than not selling books. (Even if I only sell enough to cover the cost of the cover design and the proofreader; breaking even would be nice.)

But I don’t write to please you. How could I? Which one of you would I please? I write to tell the stories of the characters that are frothing up from my brain. I write the kinds of stories I want to read. And I self-publish, so — while I seek the opinion of beta readers, fellow writers, and others whose opinion I respect — I don’t have to negotiate publishing gatekeepers.

As long as my stories fit those three basic elements (a romantic love story, central to the narrative, resolving in a happy ending), I’ll keep calling them romances. If I write mysteries, I’ll happily follow the five rules of the mystery genre:

  1. The solution of some mystery or puzzle must be necessary in order to resolve the central conflict.
  2. The detective must use only their wits and skills to solve the puzzle, and these wits and skills must believable in the context of the story.
  3. No clue that is important to the solution of the puzzle may be concealed from the reader.
  4. Unusual and improbable circumstances, such as super criminals, obscure poisons, crime rings, secret entrances, coincidences and the like, must be used infrequently and skillfully enough to be believable in the context of the story.
  5. Justice must, in one fashion or another, be brought about by the action of the detective.

And if I write sf, I’ll know the question (the ‘what if’) I’m proposing as context, and I’ll ensure my answer conforms to the rules of whatever physical universe I postulate. If you like sf, you might enjoy this list of 10 rules. All of which have been broken by one or more amazing books.

Do those rules make sense to you? Would you add any? Delete some?

I’m not promising to follow any other rules. In fact, being a second child and therefore rules averse, I’ll be going out of my way to see how many others I can find, so I can break them. Do you want to help? Just put the rule of genre that most annoys you into the comments, and we can talk about how we might make breaking it into an palatable and exciting storyline.



9 thoughts on “The rules of genre – and which ones count

  1. The rules mattered more in the era of the Gatekeeper (aka Big Publisher) who worried about the size of their print runs and shelf placement in stores. We live in the land of the long tail, where there is something for every reader’s taste. Your challenge is getting your story noticed, but you’ve already shown you can do that. My rule is: Deliver what you promise (cover and blurb) and don’t deceive the buyer. I do think that first summary definition of romance applies too. You have to make love the center of the plot and have a happy ending. How you get from here to there is your decision.

    • Yes, I agree, Caroline. A romance novel, by definition, has a romance. And I love happy endings, so I’m okay with that requirement, too. But if I need to tell a story that doesn’t have a romance at the centre, or a love story that ends unhappily, I should certainly say so in my blurb. I’m thinking, in fact, that Farewell should come with such a warning for those who’ve read Candle. What do you think? It’s more warm than hot, but certainly not sweet.

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