I'm a strong believer in genre being largely a thing that's used for marketing, an easy shorthand for book stores to know where to place your book and sell it better. It's also, unfortunately, a shorthand for critics who are predisposed to hating certain stories for surface traits without going to the effort of complicated things like 'thematic analysis' or 'reading the book'.

I tend to believe that a writer should write what they want to write without heed for genre conventions, simply telling the story of their soul (to the best of their ability and after refinement) and worrying about the genre and the marketing later.

However, I'm open to the idea that this ethos could be wrong. Are there any case that you guys can think of where adherence to a genre can or should affect the creative processes of a writer?


By writing process, yes, I mean the whole shebang. Plotting, characterisation, outlining, thematic elements; anything associated with the process, can or should it be affected by someone shoehorning themselves into a genre? When is this useful? Does doing so have artistic integrity? Do you think Agatha Christie sat down and said 'oh, the readers wouldn't expect this in a mystery, I shouldn't include it' when writing?

  • 2
    Since "every story has been told, every scene has been shot", and you are not unique, "the story of (your) soul" will fall into one genre or another, whether you want it to or not. If it doesn't, it's unreadable dreck. – RonJohn Aug 25 at 3:43
  • There are several different components in the “writing process”: premise and plot, outlining or planning if any, characterization, expression, phrasing … I downvoted because the question seems to lump all those in together and ask simply ‘Should I constrain myself to genre?’ In that case, this is a duplicate of other questions. Could you be more specific, please? – can-ned_food Aug 25 at 12:44
  • I encourage you to define 'creative processes', please. It sounds like you're not including choosing your audience in this, but like you are at the same time. – Shule Aug 25 at 16:06
  • @RonJohn I wasn't asking whether or not a story will fall into a genre, but whether or not, when writing, it's good/right to intentionally play to a certain genre. – Matthew Dave Aug 25 at 16:08
  • @RonJohn Also, there are plenty of genreless stories, but yes, more often than not, things fall into genres. That's not what I was arguing. – Matthew Dave Aug 25 at 16:09

10 Answers 10

up vote 30 down vote accepted

I can think of three specific cases where genre conventions can be an important part of the writing process:

  • You are writing a formulaic book, where the familiarity of it is the core of the appeal. It might not be a book that you or I might want to read or write, but well-written formulaic books have a stable core audience that craves the specific, reliable pleasures of that particular genre.
  • You are writing a book that reinterprets, reimagines or remixes a genre. It's a fairy tale in space (Star Wars). Or a detective noir in cyberspace (Neuromancer). Or a teen mystery at a magical boarding school (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). Whatever it is, it helps to really know the conventions of the genre you're tweaking before you tweak it.
  • You are writing a book that subverts, questions, interrogates or deconstructs a genre. And you can't do that unless you know what the genre conventions are. Whether you're writing Don Quixote (a deconstruction of medieval romances) or The Hero and the Crown (a feminist revision of epic fantasy), you need to know your source material really well.

In the end, however, the main reason to know genre conventions is this. It's easier to avoid cliches if you know what they are. It's often the people who are least familiar with genres that write the books that are the most like every single thing that came before. (Also worth noting: the books/movies cited above don't lack for popularity, critical acclaim, and influence).

  • +1 for presenting specific use-cases for, rather than halting your work to better adhere to genre, instead researching and understanding the genres your work is related to. And most certainly, deconstruction requires a good knowledge of the thing you're deconstructing XD – Matthew Dave Aug 23 at 14:53
  • 3
    It's interesting to me how the Hero and the Crown qualifies as a "feminist revision" merely on the basis of having a female protagonists instead of a male one. – mkbk Aug 23 at 21:54
  • Your second point reminds me of Kit Whitfield's remarks about ungenred vs hyper-genred works, and how booksellers tend to treat both of these the same, even though the process of writing them is completely different. – TRiG Aug 24 at 11:19
  • 1
    To add to these: You are writing a book where similar books also exist, to which your book will be compared. On one level, this may simply be comparing whether the books are equally good. However if the books are very similar, you could well be open to claims of plagiarism, or at the very least unoriginality. Terry Brooks got away with blatantly copying Tolkien when he wrote Sword of Shannara in 1977, but lawyers these days are much sharper. It's good to know what's out there so you can steer clear of accidentally stepping into that territory. – Graham Aug 24 at 11:36
  • 2
    @mkbk It's been a long time since I read "Hero and the Crown," but, as I recall, the protagonist struggles against sexism, rejects the passive role demanded of her, single-handedly kills dragons, and basically sets her own destiny. It was a groundbreaking book for its times --there wasn't anything on the shelves like it back in 1984. It's a bit dismissive to describe the female protagonist as the only thing that qualifies it as feminist. – Chris Sunami Aug 24 at 15:10

You must comply, resistance is futile.

It is precisely because genres are used to sell books that you should be very much aware of what is expected within the genre you write.

You need to tell your agent what you wrote, they expect you to give them a genre, or perhaps a twist on a genre: "Magic in modern high-tech urban setting."

They expect you to define an audience, young adult, new adult, etc.

Although you can write about a third of the story before deciding on these things, you should decide what your genre is, who your audience is, and revise what you've got to match it. If you have an explicit or strongly implied sex scene, you are new adult or adult. You are not young adult. If the rest of your story feels "young adult", delete the sex scene, it doesn't belong here.

Your agent, and your publisher, and bookstores, and online sites, need to know where to shelve your book, to reach your audience.

The agent will read your book, and reject it if you have violated genre norms without very early warning. If she doesn't know how to shelve it, she won't bother trying, there are 99 other people she can represent instead.

The same goes for the publisher; (and likely the agent won't even try a publisher if the book can't be categorized, because she doesn't want to ruin her relationship with them; they are trusting her to bring the good stuff, not problems). The bookstores in this venture don't want to take returns from pissed off customers, but they will and charge them back to the publisher, and eventually to you. And then the bookstore managers aren't dumb, they don't want any more of your books, and make a note that the publisher tried to sneak one past them.

That's the way the world works; when you are a multi-million bestseller, your name alone will sell your books, and you can step off genre as you wish. Agents, publishers, bookstores and your fans will give you some rope.

In the meantime, write what you will, but early on decide how you (or your partners in this venture, the agent, publisher and bookstore) are going to market it to an avid fan section. That, as you already know, means picking a genre. There is plenty of room for creativity and invention within a genre, they are very general, but you have to stick to the general rules. Put on the handcuffs! If you write a Romance, it must have a happy ending, that is what your readers expect, and unless you are a proven bestseller, your agent and publisher won't consider anything else for the Romance section. Period.

You must comply, resistance is futile.

While I get with what you are saying, and I deeply agree, sometimes genre conventions can be useful.

If you want to tell a story - let's say, featuring a distant future and space-travel - you don't have to adhere to sci-fi conventions; mainly because genre conventions are, in a way, like a set of more commonly used "tropes". As a writer, everyone should be able to play around with the tropes he likes freely, and let the marketing people deal with the rest. If you feel like there should be dragons in your story (along with space travel) you should totally add them, even if they don't fall in the sci-fi main scope.

As you mention, genres shouldn't be taken as fixed sets of rules that everyone must follow - that's just plainly wrong. They're more like loosely relevant tags to quickly categorize fiction.

But if you feel that you want to write something of a specific genre, let's say, a romantic story, you may want to look at other works for reference. In this scenario, having a "genre" in mind helps in searching what other writers have done (following the rule that reading is a crucial part of getting a better writer).

  • As a writer, everyone should be able to play around with the tropes he likes freely -- of course. But also make sure you understand those tropes and conventions fully before you decide to throw them away, because there could be something important in there, that would improve your story. I've seen a lot of writers (particularly in online workshops) who think it's good to ignore convention, that it makes you more original, which means you don't need to understand how those conventions work or why they exist.... – Jules Aug 24 at 0:55
  • ... But usually there's a reason, and if you just ignore them, you'll usually end up with a worse story because of it. Always understand a rule before you break, because otherwise you could be breaking it for the wrong reason. – Jules Aug 24 at 0:55
  • 1
    @Amadeus Matthew Dave stated more than once that the question is about the creative process. If it's not and I misunderstood, he's free to edit it or to open a new one about how become popular or successful or profitable (or just ignore everything I'm saying). Until then, I'm free to assume that we are talking about creative acts and I'm gonna help with the creative act. So, your talking about demographics and being marketed is straight-up off topic, and honestly laughable. Again. imho. – Liquid Aug 24 at 21:25
  • 1
    @Amadeus Of course, books can either be divided in "bestsellers" and "things that nobody is going to read". And similarly, readers are all a sheepish mass that will reject anything just a little outside the norm. If you can't recognize the intrinsic and extrinsic value of innovation and trueness in a work of art, I wonder why do you bother with writing at all. But nevermind, I said mine, you said yours. – Liquid Aug 24 at 21:44
  • 1
    @Amadeus And I like giving my answers without someone lunging for my throat, disregarding any further clarification I try to give, and basically doubting my right to give an opinion based on my perspective and interpretation of the facts. I never omitted saying I was talking about my opinion, as biased and wrong it may be: if you're first angry because it differs from yours, and then insulted because I refuse to agree, it's none of my business. – Liquid Aug 24 at 22:12

You seem to be looking at picking a genre as signing up to follow a very tight straight-jacket on your writing. I don't believe that's what genre is at all. Rather, genre is a very loose set of related tropes and expectations, and as long as you don't break too many of those tropes and expectations without good reason, there's a ton of room for innovation.

Harry Potter is an interesting example. In terms of genre, it is an extremely straightforward fantasy young adult series. In fact, by going out of its way to incorporate as many sterotypical depictions of magic as possible, it leans into its genre very heavily. However, within that genre, it still does several things that are innovative and fresh. One major example is that the books start out very light-hearted but become darker and more mature as the series progresses. As a result, as the children who were introduced to the series grew up, the franchise continuously matched their level of maturity. I sometimes hear people talking about the books "growing up" with them as they got older. This is a genuinely artistic and unique structure for the franchise to take on. And it was completely possible even within the limits of following the expectations of genre fiction to a tee.

And no one is requiring you to adhere closely to a genre. There are many stories that don't fit neatly into genres or push their genres' boundaries. Artemis Fowl seemlessly mixes young adult, fantasy, sci-fi, and heist fiction together. Frozen and Kingsman: The Secret Service are strict genre movies that knowingly deconstruct their respective genres. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the Rimworld franchises are deeply irreverent takes on sci-fi and fantasy that avoid the serious gravity that those genres usually strive to attain. Avengers: Infinity War hits every single blockbuster superhero movie trope in the book while still having a genuinely experimental structure that manages a cast of characters so expansive that it would normally be a huge impediment to a story and a plot that thematically treats the antagonist as the hero.


Ultimately, the individual tropes you use are not going to be what makes your story artistic or samey. It's the intelligence and depth of your characters, plot structure, and themes. These elements are what are emotionally resonant - and they are completely independent of genre. Consider that Romeo and Juliet and Westside Story have almost exactly the same characters, plot arc, and theme but wildly different genres.

If you focus on writing an excellent story by getting the narrative elements solidly nailed down, your story will be artistic and powerful whether it strictly adheres to genre or not.


In the end, as with any other element of a story, how you choose to relate to your chosen genre is a decision with no straightforward answer that changes from story to story. I suggest you don't look at it as a straightjacket where you have to fulfill certain reader expectations. Rather, it's a tool where many different approaches are valid, and finding the right approach for your story is the goal. And whatever you ultimately go with, your decision is still largely orthogonal to the other decisions you have to make with your story, leaving you with plenty of artistic freedom regardless of genre.

Minimally, but Don't Ignore Genre

Generally, I believe you are correct that genre should not be at the forefront of the mind during the writing process. I can say, however, that it is usually a good idea to form some idea of the reader you are writing to as you write. If you can get yourself into the mental state where you almost imagine yourself sitting in a comfortable setting with this reader telling them a story, you will find that your writing picks up a lot of energy. To do this, sometimes, you may need to understand genre readers who do expect certain conventions in order to make their understanding of what you are trying to communicate nice and smooth.

Conventions are nothing more or less than how our language actually works, so they are important for communication purposes. Bending language, but not breaking it, is a mark of a great poet, and bending genre conventions without breaking them is often the mark of a great novelist. To do that, you don't want to totally ignore those conventions.

The reason they can be useful is because it saves a huge amount of time to not have to explain from scratch everything that is assumed in order to make your story work. If the reader and writer are going into a story with some basic assumptions already taken care of, it lets you focus more on telling a story and less on explaining why it might be possible for faster than light space travel to be possible, or why a devastatingly handsome billionaire is actually single and also a decent person. If you are picking up a science fiction or a romance book, you are signalling a willingness to suspend disbelief in certain areas for the sake of a solid story. Kudos if you make things like that plausible, but you don't need to be shackled by starting from scratch and explaining literally everything.

So genre conventions can be a tool, just like rules of grammar, which can be bent when necessary, but for the most part serve to facilitate efficient communication. You want efficient communication, because that reduces the friction between your reader's comprehension and the story you want to tell. As I said earlier, genres can also serve to help give you a better picture of your reader. I believe that a lot of writers really suffer by cloistering themselves into writer's groups where they get feedback from (and come to deeply understand) people just like them, but not people who might actually buy and read the stories they want to tell. Understand that your reader is probably not like you. That's a good thing, because a novel is actually novel if it is opening experiences for a reader which they may not have ever had themselves and may never be able to experience outside of a good book. But to get a good picture of your reader, you may need to keep genre in mind at times.

  • +1 for focus on thinking of the reader; it's a good point to make. Some of the best works in existence don't care which audience they're going for, but in this day and age one needs a niche they're aiming for, labels aside. – Matthew Dave Aug 23 at 14:51
  • @MatthewDave Please give an example of "some of the best works" that "don't care which audience they're going for". – user32754 Aug 26 at 16:11
  • @SamuelSnow Trainspotting, Ham on Rye, The Post Office, the Book of Dave, etc, etc. They don't really adhere to genres, they just sort of... do their own thing. – Matthew Dave Aug 26 at 16:30
  • @MatthewDave Will Self, the author of The Book of Dave, is a popular media personality. His fame had a major influence on the success of his book. Trainspotting the book became an international bestseller only after Trainspotting the movie. Another book that didn't sell on its own merit. etc. etc. etc. – user32754 Aug 26 at 16:41
  • @SamuelSnow Enduring Love, the Handmaid's Tale, the Edible Woman... strangely, certain creators actively avoid genre labels even when their works fall into the category (as with Oryx and Crake). Regardless, the point here isn't 'if you want to be regarded by Samuel Snow as worthwhile, should you try to adhere to a genre', it's 'Should genre affect the writing process'. That is, should a writer set out to write a fantasy, and get hung up over their story not being 'fantasy' enough. You seem to be having fun doing what you're doing though, so more power to you. – Matthew Dave Aug 26 at 16:47

Genre should influence process

Taking Wikipedia's information on genres as a general guide, then this is the description:

Writing genres ... are determined by narrative technique, tone, content, and sometimes length

While any part can affect the process of writing, the point I want to emphasize that will in some way surely affect it is content.

Consider these points:

  1. Any non-fictional work is going to be relying more heavily than fictional on actual facts. A writer of a biography as a part of the process has to get the facts right, otherwise people will dismiss the work, but also has to help the reader know the person behind the biography. But a textbook writer, still needing to get facts right, instead has to succinctly and clearly convey information for someone to learn the subject of the textbook. And a lab report needs to just convey information accurately (perhaps in chart or table form).
  2. Any fictional work is going to have "unreal" elements to it, and to some extent, those elements will play a greater or lesser role in relating to "real" elements. So a writer doing fantasy fiction as part of the process is going to have develop the world in which that setting occurs (worldbuilding). You cannot get around it, and the more different the world is from the real world, the more process will be involved in (a) constructing that world and (b) relating that different world to the reader in such a way that they understand it from their real-world perspective. A historical fiction will have a greater need to meet the requirements of the non-fictional genres, as actual facts of history will become increasingly important as the real-world elements are fit into the fictional aspect. Science fiction may have less freedom than fantasy, as many readers will expect some extra "fitting" to actual science theories that are out there.

So at a basic level, the various genres are going to exist on a spectrum of how much the author, in the writing process, must research and communicate accurately about reality and how much (if any) the author needs to build an unreal "place" and communicate that to an audience that has not (and will not) ever have that experience in reality.

Then, the other points of "narrative technique, tone, ... and sometimes length" are really what are going to end up classifying a work into a specific genre (since those are the points that so classify it). Here, those things need only be considered in the process if the author is specifically trying to target an audience group. Regarding these points, if you just "write what [you] want to write without heed for genre conventions," then that is okay, but realize that it will get categorized into a genre by others, and so you are leaving it to others as to who the target audience will be. If you are okay with that, fine.

In addition to the other answers, consider that specific genres may have additional requirements which will impact your storytelling. Not because of tropes, but by their very definition.

An obvious example would be "Play Fair" Mysteries, which have a built-in requirement that the reader has all necessary clues to solve the puzzle before the solution is revealed. So you have to keep that in mind, because if you don't then you're no longer in that genre.

As much as anything else, genre can be a product of your writing.

If you sit down and write a story about a down-on-his-luck deadbeat detective, solving a murder case, and facing his demons, then the same plot can fit into multiple genres, depending on where you put the focus and tone.

Is it a noir thriller with a gritty antihero taking on the seedy underbelly? Is it a murder-mystery with a plucky underdog fighting the rising odds? Is it a redemptional Police-procedural with the beleagured protagonist overcoming his past and finding closure?

You could hit the same basic plot points with all three of those - and the editors will look at it and decide the genre afterwards. You could even start with one, and flow to another as the protagonist's outlook on life changes in response to events. (Of course, with this you run the risk that people who like the start of the book won't like it by the end, and people who would like the end never get there because they don't like the start...)

So - unless you deliberately want to hit a specific target audience - just "write now, genre later."


As an example on this: Before he died, Douglas Adams was trying to write a new Dirk Gently book. He was writing, plot was coming out, but when he read it back to himself it just didn't feel right to him: it was a story, and it was shaping up to be quite an interesting one, but - and this is where it hit him - it wasn't a Dirk Gently story. The genre of the text was "wrong", and it was coming out as a new Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book.

With that, he took it back to basics, and adjusted the plot to fit the genre he was actually writing in. Unfortunately, he died before finishing it, but the work was eventually completeed by Eoin Colfer, as And Another Thing...

The stage at which, I feel, genre is most important to the writing process is not in writing stories, it's in creating the setting. During the worldbuilding phase genre conventions can be very useful to informing choices starting from the very ground up, for example if the setting genre is Science Fiction then I'm building world(s) that, broadly speaking, conform to the planetology rules we know and understand. A Fantasy world need not be so restricted.

If writing with an aim at a particular genre then there are conventions and tropes that one needs to be aware of. Not because you're necessarily going to use them or even mention them yourself but because your audience, whether the general or the critical, will expect some treatment of them. For example if you say "this is a fantasy" convention dictates that you include magic of some kind, to some extent.

There are also words that have a freight of expectations that need to be met, or at least discussed, in genre writing that are not present in other narrative styles. If one uses the word vampire for example one then needs to speak to the actual role of vampires in their world and the kind of vampires they wish to portray.

Rewording other's answers, writers write for different reasons. Some write within a context whereby genre-alignment is appropriate (e.g. writing books for profit, scripts, writing within a genre per-se). And if you have seen tvtropes, you know it is very hard to avoid all genre elements. :-)

  • 1
    This question isn't about what tropes happen to be used, but whether or not a writer consciously thinks to adhere to them when writing. That is, whether genre can affect the writing process. – Matthew Dave Aug 23 at 16:24

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.