Craft Editorials Genre

Conquering Genre: A Consummate Rebel’s Argument for Convention in Order to be a More Innovative Author

As a writer improves their craft, they are inevitably going to hear about genre — those dreaded categories of fiction we’re forced to shape our story to fit. Some authors find them limiting, others blend them together to create sub-genres. As an author who already knew her genre was SFF, I have not taken any time to read about genre, at all. I didn’t have to decide anything. I wanted to write what I read. What more did I have to worry about? So I didn’t, and I moved on to areas I deemed far more important to honing my craft.

Then, searching for new writing podcasts, I stumbled upon a podcast that had a bunch of episodes featuring “Story Grid Editors.” Upon Googling story grid, discovering they also had a podcast, I made my way to the work of Shawn Coyne, and summarily fell down the rabbit hole of his articles on his website,

And, his take on genre has fundamentally changed the way I think about writing fiction.

I printed out eight of his articles, then read and annotated all of them like a reading assignment for one of my old college classes. I consumed them. They blew my mind because they approached the concept of genre in a way that redefined its meaning for me in the writing process, and delivered it as framework to lay the foundations of my stories. More than anything, it appealed to my anxiety riddled OCD nature to categorize and organize everything.

Step 1: Stop thinking about genre as simply a label that determines which section in the store this book will be shelved. As Coyne describes genre, it should be used to manage reader expectations.

Many authors set out to break the mold with their writing. Despite our favorite bard’s claim that there is nothing new under the sun, writers will spend years plotting out and a building a story that doesn’t fit expectations. In other words, they avoid cliches. Obviously some writers embrace cliches. They find their niche and realize that no matter how many versions of the same story they write, readers will still buy and read the book. Their critics would see this as the pinnacle of hackery. They learn the cliches only so that they can thwart them. For every author who puts into their story a swooning damsel in distress, there will be an irate author who is so offended by that concept that will write a badass warrior woman…. Who then becomes another cliche, and the cycle repeats.

There is nothing wrong with writing a story that exceeds expectations, but the majority of readers will hold some level of expectations whether they realize it or not. When readers have a preference for a particular genre, it is because that type of story satisfies a particular intrinsic need. No matter how much we strive to break the conventions of genre, we’re fighting a battle between readers and the critics.

If you write a story that can’t be categorized, that doesn’t meet reader expectations, you may win acclaim, rewards, and shiny foil stickers that emblazon your dust jacket, extolling the enlightened and cerebral virtues of your seminal work… but that doesn’t mean readers will want to read it.

As a writer, we aspire for acclaim. The stories we write are products of our brain. We literally create substance from nothing. They are intangible. They are out intellectual property. They would not exist without us. That is why writers see their stories as extensions of themselves. When our stories are criticized or rejected, we see that personal criticism or rejection — a complete dismissal of everything we are. When a reader scans the jacket of a book and puts it back on the shelf they might as well be standing in front of us, taking us in from head to toe, and saying “Nope. Next.”

I know that acknowledgement of my stories satisfies my need for validation, and that the escapism readers seek in another form of validation. In the article about meeting your needs as an author, I discussed Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Avid readers are seeking something, and they have found that something in the conventions their favorite genre. Because of that, tweaking the conventions of genre too much creates the risk of turning away readers.

You don’t throw out a particularly delicious recipe just because you’ve eaten it a dozen times. You just add in different ingredients.

Writers who aspire to write the next literary masterpiece are seeking intellectual validation. They are the student who wanted an A for the sense of accomplishment that came with knowing not everyone was capable of it, and they were singular for doing so. Thy are intrinsically motivated — internally driven based on meeting their own personal expectations of accomplishment.

Other writers, myself included, are writing a story to share. They are writing a personal message that speaks of our own experience, and they seek to share it with others they believe also need to hear it. They are the student who wanted an A because a good GPA meant the difference between acceptance and rejection at their first choice college. They are extrinsically motivated — driven by the positive reward of meeting others’ expectations. In this example, readers are the college board of admissions, reviewing applications for acceptance. They have requirements. For them to read your story, you must meet their demands. The expectations of their preferred genre are a dealbreaker.

This does not mean you are pandering to your audience. Expectations are broader than you think. Most readers aren’t looking for cookie cutter stories. They also don’t have mega-specific demands. It’s not that they wanted a story about XYZ and you gave them one about ZYX, or even ABC. It’s that they have been conditioned to expect certain elements of story in their genre. If they pick up a fantasy story, they probably won’t put it back just because the protagonist isn’t the cliched orphaned farm boy who finds out from his secret wizard mentor he’d actually the royal heir, and the only one capable of saving the kingdom. But, if you write a protagonist that doesn’t follow some semblance of the Hero’s/Heroine’s/Fool’s Journey, or fail to write in some form of personal and physical questline, that might land your book right back on the shelf. The fun is trying to take the conventions, and put an original spin on them What if the old farmer next door tells the youngest child from a large, loving family that he’s actually magic, and he’s the only one who can stop the royal heir from destroying the kingdom? Still fits the journey and quest expectations, but without telling the same story that has been written a hundred times before.

If you are an extrinsically motivated writer, you are writing for an audience in a specific genre, and it’s fair to say it’s the same one that resonated with you as a reader too. Think about what you love about that genre — what elements of that type of story satisfy you. Furthermore, what elements of that type of story have become obligatory, as in, they have become a fundamental aspect of that type of story? A mystery story isn’t a mystery without a few red herrings, but it will become exhausting if you write it the length of an epic fantasy. Then again, a mystery is usually a form of realism, and doesn’t require the type of worldbuilding that fantasy novels must establish for the reader to their suspend belief. These are the types of things that are dictated by genre convention. While conventions and expectations can be flipped, inverted, or altered, they cannot be ignored, eliminated, or abandoned. At least, not if you want to write a story that connects with readers.

When I get the craving for a romantic story, go-to being period/historical romance, it usually stems from the fact that my husband and I have been on opposite schedules and he is working a lot of overtime, preventing us from spending time together. This creates a void, a need… not that kind of need, you degenerates. Your brain is smart, and it knows how to meet your needs, physically and emotionally. When I haven’t taken in enough salt, I crave chips, chicken noodle soup, crackers, anything with high sodium. When I’m feeling lonely, I crave period romance.

I choose that sub-genre, rather than say a rom-com, for very specific reasons, and I have been conditioned to know it will meet my needs. First, I’m a history major, and I enjoy period pieces in general. Second, historical romances have established the convention of forbidden love. In most period romances, the two lovers are going to struggle to be together because of the culture of their times. They will be kept apart for various reasons. The ebb and flow of almost getting to be together and then unmercifully torn apart tugs at my heartstrings and excites my inner Sally Sparrow.


Sally Sparrow, Doctor Who (Steven Moffat)

So, if I get thirty minutes into a period romance and the couple has already gotten together, well, I’m out. I expect that struggle. I crave it. Unless the story turns, the couple falls out of love, and the heroine meets her soulmate. Perhaps she is prevented from leaving the marriage because her husband saved her family financially, or she does not have the means or access to divorce him, if it’s even permitted at the time. Maybe she married him as part of a contract or for power or… it doesn’t matter as long as it creates an obstacle the two lovers now have to overcome.

That’s a convention, and it’s what I’m needing at that moment when I search Netflix for a particular story. I miss my husband, we are prevented from being together because we don’t have a choice in our schedules thanks to seniority and chosen profession, and this helps me overcome that sadness because I see that going through hardship and isolation makes it better when we can be together. And, I see that in the characters’ struggle. It’s the will they/won’t they, the doubt, the pain when they are separated, the joy when reunited, that I want. And in my opinion, dear merciful universe, there is nothing more seductive than a secret, hidden hand touch, eyes locking in that shared expression of I know in a crowded room, simultaneously surrounded and ignored by everyone.

As Coyne says, “While a reader or viewer may not be able to pinpoint what they want in a story, they know when it is not there. Immediately.” As a writer, I know what elements of genre I am seeking, but your average reader won’t. They just know when the story doesn’t feel right.

Anyone who questions this, simply look at the popularity of fanfiction. There is a reason that the primary category in FF is romance, usually with a specific tag, like “missing moments,” “fluff, and “one shot.” (Yes, I know that in reality that 99.999998% of romance themed fanfiction is just PWP — I’m trying to make a point here.) Those categories are either trying to create scenes that incorporate the established conventions that the original work lacked, or that takes characters that fans already relate to and puts them in circumstances that make them more relatable.

For those of you reading this who are ready to smash your monitor out of frustration, screaming the F word “formulaic,” you’re correct. That’s why it works. You don’t throw out a particularly delicious recipe just because you’ve eaten it a dozen times. You just add in different ingredients.

Humans crave order and are designed to see patterns. Coyne calls it our “superpower” in an episode of the Story Grid Podcast (that I forgot to write down the name and number of and am too lazy to go back and listen to all my downloaded episodes to find… sorry not sorry). That’s why we’re able to so easily identify when an element of story is missing. Whether we like it or not, the conventions of genre have been established because readers have responded to them for centuries. They were satisfied with stories that “worked” and rejected stories that didn’t. Readers may say they want something that looks and feels different, but this only works if it’s built on the foundations of familiarity. Readers don’t want an author to reinvent the concept of story, they just don’t want to read a story they’ve already read before.

I like to think of it as the aesthetics of story and medium. When I buy my next car, I want to upgrade to a much more energy efficient model. I have driven a regular old gasoline fed, internal combustion engine car as long as I have driven. Most of us have. It gets me where I’m going, and I’m comfortable with how it operates. But, its design is antiquated — it isn’t efficient and it creates too much pollution in my opinion. I’d love to get an electric car, especially if I could charge it with solar panels on my roof. I’m not the only person craving a newer version of the car — that’s why manufacturers responded by innovating their models. I can get anything from a hybrid to a fully electric car, but no matter what I get it will still operate like a car — it will get me where I am going and I understand how it operates. We could create pneumatic tubes or a rocket packs to get people around, which might be more efficient or greener, but I want a car. I don’t want to learn how to work a new form of transportation when I can just get a better version of what I know and like.

In essence, that is what a reader wants. A better version of a story. That is paramount to understanding the importance of reader expectations. As Coyne says, “if you don’t study the conventions and obligatory scenes in your chosen genre, and don’t know how writer’s satisfied them before, how can you be sure that you’ve written anything original? You can’t innovate if you don’t understand the basics, and what the consumer wants and needs.” This is even more important for writers of blended genres to create new versions based on the classic areas. “Obviously,” Coyne argues, “the more intimately you know one particular genre, the better your chances of creating something fresh and unique by embracing elements of both.”

If you write a story that can’t be categorized, that doesn’t meet reader expectations, you may win acclaim, rewards, and shiny foil stickers that emblazon your dust jacket, extolling the enlightened and cerebral virtues of your seminal work… but that doesn’t mean readers will want to read it.

There will always be a sub-set of writers who view this mindset as plebeian. They are not writing for with the general audience in mind. It is the experimental challenge to create something new that drives them — the intrinsic motivation of proving the depths of their talents and intellectual capacity. Good for them. I respect their desire to fight against the current. But, while I am usually the first person to stand up and ask “Why do we do this?” or “How can we make this broken thing better?,” I am not one of those writers.

My brain is wired for finding patterns, and thanks to OCD, programmed for organization, routine, and anything that takes the uncertainty out of my day. That is why I appreciate this as a framework. It’s like one of my sewing patterns. When I find a skirt pattern that is flattering, I’ll make the same skirt a couple of times, but I will change the fabric. Even if I use the same type of fabric, I’ll choose different designs. But, regardless of choosing polka dots or stripes or floral, I know that the skirt if going to work as long as I base it on the pattern. If you make the skirt well, nobody is even going to notice you made the same skirt three times — they will be to busy complimenting how good it looks on you or how well you made it.

I want to innovate when I write, specifically striving to break stereotypes and write with inclusivity, but I can’t do that without understanding the limitations of stories that came before. It’s important to me that I do this well because I also read for escapism — to fill a void that otherwise will go unsatisfied. I know what a good story does for people. Because of this, I feel that I have a responsibility as a writer. I am extrinsically motivated to please readers. The type of praise I want to hear isn’t that “This story is revolutionary!,” it’s “That story was just what I needed to get me through that point in my life.” As Coyne puts it, “Stories fuel our courage and offer the cautions that we believe will help guide our own path.”

There is nothing wrong with writing for intrinsic motivation — it’s just not why I write, nor why most people write. So, as a writer who wants to satisfy reader expectations, learning to identify and modify these conventions is incredibly important to my success as an author. If you are an extrinsically motivated author, then it needs to be important for you too.

For more information about Shawn Coyne and the Story Grid process, you can check out his website at

For more information about genre, conventions, obligatory scenes, and how to satisfy them, have fun falling down this rabbit hole, Alice.

Meanwhile, I’ll be diving head first into the deep end with Coyne’s book, The Story Grid.

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