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I've done worldbuilding and extensive plotting for a Book 1 based around a "detective" (not a literal detective but someone who fills that role) who hunts and resolves (neutralizes) occult objects. The character came from a different project – an anthology of oral ghost stories told from an alternative narrator – so I didn't bother to check what else had been previously created in this "space" before I started plotting a stand-alone novel around him. It's not that I was trying to be original, but my personal-genre is sci-fi so I didn't realize that "occult detective" is a well-established genre dating back over a century.

Probably a bad idea but I got curious about how everyone else has treated the subject. I downloaded the OG stories from Project Gutenberg, found tons of examples online from comics to TV, and explored reviews for current novels on Goodreads. It's a wide-genre but the early years are essentially "My stars, Col. Hastings, there are such things as ghosts!" to today's "Mary Sue Wolfenstein is a shapeshifting Wicca werebat lawyer with an alien vampire boyfriend and an undead cyborg partner who is hunting a serialkiller"…. It honestly feels like the whole genre (or at least the popular surface) has jumped the wereshark.

The awkward thing was that I could place my grumpy retired detective within the popular timeline of that genre-evolution, as a character somewhere in the early-to-mid 1970s. I was toying with setting it in the past, but that settled it. I set the story in 1975 so his life could span certain historically relevant events in my alterna-world. (Maybe it's just media I grew up with. He fits that era and the scope of the conflicts do too.)

That doesn't actually solve my issue that this genre (with which admittedly I am not an expert) now seems played out to an absurdist degree. My story is just never going to be the modern cross-genre anything-goes romance-adventure kind of stuff that seems to be commercial and splashy. My story is set in a much smaller world, semi-historic, where not "every mythology" is true.

I feel like I have to do extra worldbuilding just to undo current genre-bloat. I'm also afraid that I'm actually writing an outdated story with a quaint old-timey character that will seem like a throwback to the genre-savy.

How do I ratchet down reader expectations within an existing genre?

~ or, alternately ~

How can I be more confidant about carving my own niche within a genre that has already been widely played?

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You are already carving your own niche by ratcheting down the scale and resulting absurdity of your story. Now fill the void which you've created with in-depth character development, engaging emotional challenges and some reasonable plot twists. Make the story worth reading and it won't matter what genre it fits into.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, there are still great vampire stories waiting to be written; the final word on time travel narratives is not yet in. ...and the world has room for at least one more eldritch detective story, as long as it is a good one.

Good writing compensates for played out genre expectations every time.

Keep Writing!

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You're worried that your own work is similar enough to a popular take on the genre, but substantially different from it -- so readers might be coming to it with the wrong expectations.

That's a very fair thing to be concerned about. There are a few ways to approach this, and they all have to do with setting expectations and with making promises to the reader.

The good news is this: Readers are more than happy to press the reset button. If you tell them "Listen, my story doesn't have that kind of gonzo explosion of supernatural presence," then they will 100% roll with that; for plenty of them, it'll be downright refreshing.

The trick is to make that expectation, that promise, clear to the reader -- and to do so as early on as possible. You don't want them to be going through four books until they finally go "Oh, hey, I guess this world doesn't have fairy zombies in it (yet)". You want them coming in, and learning the rules pretty much right away.

And you do that by portraying a solid, compelling world, that feels like it has ground rules. Lay down the rules, and the reader will pick them up and be glad for them. They make sense of the world; they prevent the feeling that the author can pull some new random magic out of nowhere whenever they get stuck.

Promise the reader that your fantastical elements are specific, limited, well-defined. You can have questions and mysteries and loose ends, but have those questions be well-defined -- not loose, wishy-washy Entities of Broad Rule-Breaking Power, but specific questions with specific details, that need to have an answer that "makes sense."

Here's an exercise for you:

  • Write up your rules. Literally, write down all the rules and limitations you're setting for yourself. "No robot vampires," "The only true mythologies are the Aztec one, and Scientology," etc. etc. Write them down so that you have a strong sense of them.
  • Novelize them. Have a character -- your protagonist, or a colorful side character who's voice you like -- speak a long monologue, explaining all those rules from their own point of view. Use their voice. Speak the rules from their lived experience of them. Let them tell us what burning mysteries still remain.

This whole bit probably won't make it into your story as-is -- that would be a fairly dull infodump -- but it will give you a strong sense of what the world's rules are, and how you can weave them in. Who knows what; how certain details look to the characters experiencing them.

Hope this helps, and all the best!

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I suppose one alternative is to play it as you yourself found the problem: Start your detective out as a great detective but a novice occult detective, that just stumbled into the whole occult side of things, and naturally knows nothing about it. He is certain it is really occult, due to some instigating incident early in the story, but the idea is new to him.

As he investigates he finds this occult detective world is bigger than he imagined, there is competition, people he gets advice from, people that try to thwart him, and he hears crazy stories about Wiccan werebats and zombies.

But he's a grumpy detective, stubborn, and he sets that aside for HIS quest, this one damn occult thing that has to be stopped, no matter what else is out there. In a way, he fits the role of "stranger in a strange land".

You can take what you want from what is written, and write an original story acknowledging the genre. Your character is vaguely aware the occult world is much deeper than he imagined starting out. Readers that DO have any expectations don't think you are uninformed, and it makes room for a sequel in which the next case is something just a little deeper. But instead of exploring this whole forest of genre, your character is yours, trudging a straight line through the forest, seeing glimpses of other weird stuff, but this doesn't discourage him. He continues his single-minded pursuit of the one damned thing (literally) he knows must be neutralized.

  • I have a younger sidekick who takes on most of that discovery role, but great insight into a stubborn old detective who can ignore everything outside his goal, and a skeptical scientific approach (also suggested in Dan Hall's answer) that makes him an outsider in this world. – wetcircuit Jun 19 '18 at 15:42
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    That sounds good; there can be good "puzzling things out" conversations between the MC and sidekick, where neither are clear on what is happening; and for a bit of sidekick growth, nothing beats the sidekick realizing some truth first and rescuing their mentor from a bad guess or misstep (so they are competent helpers and not just an anchor or foil for the MC). – Amadeus Jun 19 '18 at 15:51
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I love this question, and @HenryTaylor's answer (upvote!). Let me add:

The biggest problem here is not:

How do I ratchet down reader expectations within an existing genre?

But rather:

How can I be more confidant about carving my own niche within a genre that has already been widely played?

Write boldly, in your own style, voice, and in a genre you're familiar with. You identify as a sci-fi writer, so write it as a sci-fi. Use the tropes and expectations that come out of you, your story, and your genre. Don't try to consume and metabolize a sub-genre that is new to you while you're in the middle of the story. That leads to genre anxiety, which is more likely to produce tentative and contrived writing than to help you in any way.

You've now read some of it, so it might make it's way through your writing on it's own, but that's the only way it should. Leave it alone and allow it to operate on its own without thinking about it. You've almost certainly already consumed and metabolized a fair number of detective stories (or you wouldn't have arrived at the grumpy retired detective character), so you can be confident that the detective fiction is already operating through you as you write.

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    "Genre anxiety", hahaha that is so perfect. That's exactly what I did to myself. – wetcircuit Jun 18 '18 at 22:21
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If I understand, you're asking how you prepare a genre-saavy reader for a narrative that is neither cutting-edge nor contemporary (for this niche subgenre). From that standpoint, I think setting it in the past helps. A well-read enthusiast of this subgenre will likely recalibrate expectations around other books from the era where the book is set.

It's worth noting, however, that while well-populated, this niche is specialized enough that many of your readers may not be seeking it when they find your book. I've personally read (and enjoyed) more than one occult detective book without ever having specifically sought one out.

At the end, your task is the same as any writer in any established genre --not to lower expectations, but to write a good enough book that people will enjoy it regardless of their prior familiarity with the genre. There was little enough that was new or cutting edge in Harry Potter for a serious fan of the "magical realist British children's fantasy" niche, but she wrote it well enough to win over both fans and non-fans of the subgenre.

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