Premise: I believe that breaking genre expectations can alienate readers. If you go into a book expecting one thing and get another thing out of it - especially if that other thing is the complete opposite of what you were expecting - then you didn't get what you signed up for. Readers generally don't like this.

Example: As an example, I think this was a major contributor to the fan displeasure over A Phantom Menace. People wanted action, battles, force powers, all that. They got some, but they also got a lot of political intrigue and debate, which they weren't counting on and therefore didn't appreciate.

I think the same thing can happen in fiction. If you write what is technically a fantasy book, readers go into it assuming you have elves, dragons, knights, battles, etc. You can of course control their expectations with things like the title, but the general idea remains. If your book then turns out to be, say, a tale of two aged farmers living their last days, and there are no elves, dragons, or battles to be found (even though the setting is definitely fantastical), the readers will feel cheated and generally dislike the book, no matter how well it was written. (If this was indeed the case, you would obviously re-brand the book. This is an extreme example.)

Assumption: What I'm trying to say is: readers want what they are promised.

My Problem: Here's my problem: what if, out of necessity, you are writing a book (or series) which contains aspects of TWO genres. What if, for example, you write a fantasy book about two aged farmers, but there's also a side plot involving dragons battling knights in the next town over? Or to use Star Wars again, what if you have a movie which contains both political intrigue and gripping space battles/lightsaber duels?

Question: Is there a way to both prepare the reader for everything in your story, and keep them interested in both 'genres'?

  • 1
    Sounds ok in theory, but I'm cringing at the examples. We all saw The Phantom Menace, if that's the results of merging 2 genre then I think you know the answer.
    – wetcircuit
    Mar 7, 2019 at 23:59

2 Answers 2


I don't think readers are as conservative regarding genre as you make them out to be. Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber is one very well known example of fantasy, with no elves, no dragons, and a rather unique approach to magic.

I believe the problem is rather with subverting the expectations you yourself have established, either within the first part of your novel, or within the first book/movie of a series. The Phantom Menace came after three other Star Wars movies - after a trend has been established, and audiences had reason to expect "more of the same". Notably, since I've mentioned Amber before, the Merlin cycle is often criticised for being too different from the Corwin cycle: same issue - expectation established, and then broken.

It follows that if you intend to have different elements in your story, you need to establish all of them early on. Ken Liu's Grace of Kings is a story of politics and war, with few magical elements, except when the gods interfere. The gods appear very early on, to observe and comment. They do nothing yet, but their presence foreshadows their future interference. Similarly, G.R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones starts off as political intrigue. What foreshadows the future presence of more magical elements in the series is the prologue with the Others, and a few passing mentions of magic "no longer working". It's mentioned that there used to be dragons, so when in the end of the book we see dragons, it's a moment of awesome, not "where did that come from".

For your examples, if you have both two elderly farmers and something with knights and dragons, you would need to present us with both from the start: show the farmers, mention, perhaps in a conversation between them, that there are knights and dragons, and those might affect the crops. If you want both space battles and political intrigues, you can show, from the start, that your character is capable of both, or maybe you have two different characters each engaged in one of the two - introduce them both. You don't need to be specific, but you need to provide some hint to the reader of the varied elements that will be present. You don't want a major story element to come out of left field.

If you are working on a series, and have already established some expectations that you now need to subvert, that is harder. As mentioned above, Zelazny received criticism for this. Here I would recommend a balancing act - on the one hand, maintain enough familiar elements that the story doesn't feel completely different. Remember your readers expect "more of the same". On the other hand, tell the reader, in no ambiguous terms, that "more of the same" isn't going to happen.

For example, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series started out as a series about a wizard who is also a private investigator. Every book, there was a case to solve. Then came Changes - a book the very title of which suggests change. (Major spoilers ahead)

In Changes, Dresden's apartment, office and car get completely and irrevocably destroyed, and he himself dies. After this, you know there can be no going back to the way the series worked before. And indeed, when Dresden comes back, it is as a powerful entity's hitman.

Despite the major change, the characters in the series remain the same, providing enough of an anchor so the series doesn't feel like it's an entirely different story now.

Other combinations of familiar/new are possible. For instance, a character might "pass the torch" to someone new, but the series would remain the same in its premise, in what the audience could expect to happen. Consider the transfer from Star Trek to Star Trek - the Next Generation: different characters, same premise. Again, there was enough familiar that the story didn't feel entirely unexpected, but the change to a new series and a new century let the audience expect some change.


What you are looking for is a Madoka Magica situation.

People went in wanting a magical girl series where it's cute girls getting magic powers to save the world from terrible monsters. What they got was...

Depression, heartbreak, and so many tragic feels that most people were not prepared for.

Despite the expectations being for a standard mindless magical girl series, the show became a

Philosophical and Psychological Action Horror series that happened to have Magical Girls in it.

Madoka Magica, to this day, is considered a resounding success and, despite being the opposite of your standard Magical Girl series, is considered one of the best (if not THE best) magical girl anime.

You want to know if you can break genre expectations successfully? The answer is yes. You just have to know what you're doing.

It's worth noting, Phantom Menace was a bad movie. It being unenjoyable stems more from that than it does the fact it failed to meet full genre expectations. The problem stems in part from Jar-Jar (ironically my favorite part of the movie). If we assume he was meant to be the secret Sith Lord behind everything like is theorized, then George Lucas displayed that poorly by using too many OVERLY subtle details that 90% of viewers would miss no matter how many times they watched it. If he isn't, then his overall goofiness is overdone and distracts from the main story and the end goal. There is a reason why Jar-Jar is commonly blamed for ruining PM. If you take a look at the plot, he appears very frequently and is a common factor for a LOT of the other non-Binks complaints as well. It was Lucas being experimental, and it backfired.

What if, for example, you write a fantasy book about two aged farmers, but there's also a side plot involving dragons battling knights in the next town over?

The following response to this question refers exclusively to the Light Novel versions as opposed to the anime adaptations.

In a way, this can be characterized by Goblin Slayer. While the titular character is still fighting monsters, he only concerns himself with Goblins. When he is told about the Demon Lord, his response is for others to deal with that because Goblins are more dangerous in his eyes, despite goblins being... well... goblins.

Alternatively, you could look at Rising of the Shield Hero where the Shield Hero is supposed to be fighting monsters, but...

he becomes a traveling merchant who travels the countryside instead.

Not that the Shield Hero doesn't also fight monsters, because he does, but he prioritizes other things over just fighting because he knows his limits and how weak he really is. (Alongside other spoiler reasons.)

Then there's That Time I was Reincarnated as a Slime which is an action adventure... as well as a city/nation-building story.

Or to use Star Wars again, what if you have a movie which contains both political intrigue and gripping space battles/lightsaber duels?

Look at Star Trek. Series like Enterprise and Voyager do just this quite frequently. Additionally, you can look at Doctor Who for this as well. The Doctor abhors violence when he can avoid it, but on more than one occasion he has been forced to actively fight and be involved in many high-pressure action sequences.

You don't need to stick to confined characteristics. You can branch out. You just need to be a good enough writer to make certain combinations work.

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