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This question is about genre and reader expectations. I'm not trying to change my story to fit a mainstream genre. I have already taken steps to broaden it's appeal, but it's too late to create an entirely different type of story.

I'm writing and illustrating a graphic novel. My difficulty is that I have issues communicating what it's about, the "1-minute elevator pitch".

Describe the story in 2 words...

I was fine with calling it Science Fiction, but I noticed non-writers had certain genre expectations which they get from mainstream works that I wouldn't even consider to strictly be sci-fi. My story is character-driven. It lacks melodramatic villains. There are no fantasy races or magic aliens or telepaths. Explaining this, I'd watch people's eyes glaze over. I can't get people excited by saying how it's not all these other things they expect.

In niche communities like Writers and Worldbuilding, genres have a narrower definition. To get around gatekeeping debates with other community members about scientific plausibility, I switched my genre label to Space Opera. It got them to accept my "alternative science" (it's consistent, but based on a specific pseudo-science) as not requiring a deep explanation (not integral to the plot). However, I'm still not providing genre expectations like dogfights in space, laser shootouts, space empires and half-dressed space princesses. I'm not fulfilling the promise-to-the-reader of what I think a Space Opera ought to be. None of the action even takes place in outer space.

Subverting expectations, or genre salad…?

At each phase, I took steps to try to make my story more commercial (in a George R. R. Martin sense) suggesting the implied genre promises but subverting expectations to get back to my story: a "melodrama villain" is taken out early leaving unanswered questions, the "action hero" isn't able to solve problems with a laserpistol, and the "half-dressed space princess" is a social-climbing thot trying to get to another planet. Feminist and social justice themes were subverted in favor of more complicated, frustrating characters who act in their own self-interest. No one's a "hero", no one's a "villain". Characters are imperfect and no one gets exactly what they want.

While this made the drama better, it moved further away from mainstream sci-fi. Looking critically at my full script, it's like I hang a lampshade on some mainstream tropes and then wander away to do something else. To try to be clear, it's not just that I have grey-morality and adult themes, it's more like "is this story even in this genre?"

Wait, it's actually some obscure genre no one has heard of that has zero marketing appeal…

Earlier this year I found the term Planetary Romance, and it fits. My story isn't really a "clash of worlds" so much as it's a clash of individuals from different worlds. The story takes place (mostly) on one planet where the socio-political situation is more important than technology, and the conflicts are small and inter-personal, at first anyway.

For anyone who knows the origins of Planetary Romance, I feel they would accept the story in the spirit it's intended. It's a modern twist on the White Savior goes to a Primitive Planet, rescues a native princess, and sparks a revolution, except the planet is a libertarian slum and all the hero and damsel tropes are subverted.

I know "romance" here is not indicating an actual relationship, as in Romance genre – but to anyone who doesn't know the term (non-writers) it at least gives them the right sense of scale to the conflict. Of course there is more than boy-meets-girl-on-Planet-Z, but if someone came with that expectation I feel they would be happily surprised by a complex character-driven story with some exotic stage dressing. There is a "which guy will she choose" aspect they can read into that carries through.

I'm at the stage where I need to solidify how I discuss this project. The script is finished and the artwork is in production. I can't keep fishing for genre labels. I need to communicate the basic scope of the story quickly so I can turn attention to the individual characters the story is really about.

Can I call my graphic novel a planetary romance?

Does it help me communicate the idea, or is it just too obscure to be useful?

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    Considering that George Lucas revived serial Movies and Space Opera with Star Wars and Serial Pulp Adventure with Indianan Jones, both genres that were long dead in theaters but given new life in the works. There were racial components in those genres as well but it was more product of the times and both works sort of eliminated them... India was not to happy about the Second Indianan Jones movie. – hszmv May 7 at 18:47
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    Market it away, sounds catchy. But if you ask my first impression readin' the title of the quesiton, I saw Jupiter and Saturn making out. Cue in joke when Jupiter complains that Saturn's rings are itchy. @wetcircuit – Mindwin May 7 at 18:50
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    After a day you can protect the question to prevent answers from low-rep users (though they can still comment) and to inform moderators of something you should flag your question with a mod flag and explain it to them. Otherwise they will likely not see your message because there is no such thing as a special mod ping and they don't keep track of every comment thread all the time as long as there is nothing in that thread that needs moderator attention. – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 7 at 21:19
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    For what it's worth. I think this is an excellent question that is well asked. You can flag comments as "unfriendly or unkind" or "no longer needed". Or use a custom flag to give moderators more details. – linksassin May 8 at 0:42
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    Also this is a qualifying entry for this weeks tag challenge. – linksassin May 8 at 1:07
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Considering that George Lucas revived serial Movies and Space Opera with Star Wars and Serial Pulp Adventure with Indianan Jones, both genres that were long dead in theaters but given new life in the works. There were racial components in those genres as well but it was more product of the times and both works sort of eliminated them... India was not to happy about the Second Indianan Jones movie. That said there were some subtle moments that pointed out that Jone's ignorance of Local Cultures to the point of offense wasn't entirely out of character for him.

Others will address the problems of the genres and steer into the skid. In Deep Space 9's episode "Badda Bing, Badda Boom", the show's love letter to heist movies (Oceans 11 wouldn't be remade for the better part of a decade at the time of the original airing.), Captain Sisko (an African American) does not want to anticpate in the holosuite Casino Heist because he has problems with a historical piece set in 1960s Las Vegas, when Casinos weren't always open to African Americans and some discussion is had about the matter, which basically acknowledges that this was a problem then, but we're telling a story that celebrates the good parts of the genre, not the bad. In Archer Dreamland (A season long Parody of 40s Noir genre), one episode has Archer, Ray, and several members of a mostly African American club band (Ray is the only one who isn't black) are forced to sneak out of jail while disguised as as police officer. The uniforms stolen only fit the African Americans and Archer suspects that they'll get caught because the cops are black is a dead give away... only for the characters posing as cops to point out that LAPD was integrated pretty early in it's history and had a number of Black Cops serving at this point in history. To top it off, Archer tries to claim leadership because he had been in the Army during World War II... only for the every member of the band save Ray also having served, and while two were given jobs typical for the time (Cooks for their unit) the third actually outranked Archer and served in a unit that Saved Archer's own unit from defeat in one battle. And they actually make it out the door and are only discovered when one of their decoy cops is stumped on police jargon, which would happen to anyone in such a situation.

In scifi, the use of aliens can substitute for racial relations as a way of discussing it without discussing it. Star Trek was famous for doing this, as most recurring aliens have something in common with exaggerated national stereotypes in the real world. Deep Space 9 again (which is pretty much a Planetary Romance as a bulk of the plot revolves around politics of the space station and the planet nearest to it, Bajor, which was a recently released occupied planet that was under the rule of Nazi-like aliens that used Bajorans for slave labor and target practice. Here, the similarities to real life discussions allow for a mix of various types of racial injustices... while the Bajorans were frequently tied to the Israli's and Jewish people immediately after the Holocaust, they also had common themes with Native Americans and the Catholic Church (both in power abuses and presecutied religions).

  • I didn't think of DS-9 as Planetary Romance, but you are so right! "Romance" as in chivalry, and half the show is Sisko carefully considering what he ought to do, and being uncomfortable in his "savior" role…. I'm glad I asked this question because the genre's name might be lost (and useless for marketing), but those story elements are still developing and growing…. FWIW, my heroine has an axe to grind about all the "occupiers" and it never quite gelled how to present it. You've opened my eyes to other mainstream (semi-current) examples. Thank you! – wetcircuit May 8 at 15:39
  • DS9 is "Pure" Planetary Romance, but it certainly has core elements to it more than usual Star Trek series... It's probably the most political of the Treks in that Sisko is more mayor of a town than he was Captain of a Starship and had to deal with the merchants on main street just as much as the Klingons and the Romulans. Babalyon 5, may be a similar series in this manner especially because, unlike DS9, B5 had money and thus had to manage those things as well. – hszmv May 8 at 17:26
  • I asked you to write an answer because I liked your comments about retro-genre..., but the actual answer shows this isn't really obsolete or such forgotten genre after all. The Planetary Romance continues to evolve, and our commentary on culture and race and colonialism also evolves – Obviously not a marketing term (it was coined in the '70s so it was never a marketing term), but your examples are the sort of idea I'm going for, that language, that concept. Thank you again. – wetcircuit May 10 at 22:59
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This is literary science-fiction. I identified it by taking the genre it definitely must fit in, and then looking for a commonly used, readily understood modifier that subtracts the "gee whiz" elements of the genre, and adds in what for-lack-of-a-better-word we might call more "literary" qualities.

It is a well-known, critically acclaimed, and reasonably popular subgenre.

EDIT: Based on comments from the original poster, I'm amending my answer to science-fiction soap opera. The justification is similar. Since this is set on another planet, the primary genre of "science fiction" is mandated. But the modifier "soap opera" tells you to expect a trashy, fast-paced read, filled with backstabbing interpersonal conflicts.

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    Better than making something up, or bringing something esoteric back from the dead. Thank you! – wetcircuit May 7 at 18:36
  • Borrowing from the terms "High Fantasy"/"Epic Fantasy" (Large-scale fantastical elements or scenarios) and "Low Fantasy" (which has less emphasis on the fantastical elements, and typically more on the characters and relationships), this could also be described as "Low Science-Fiction" – Chronocidal May 8 at 13:43
  • While it's possible that wetcircuit's story may fit as lit-sf; lit-sf and planetary romance are normally very different styles of writing. I don't think we can tell for sure without reading a sample; but as a long time SF reader I think it's very likely that one of you are badly off in which sub-genre the story is in. – Dan Neely May 8 at 13:54
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    Thank you @DanNeely … I'm uncomfortable with "literary" pretensions…. It's not a shoot-em-up adventure because it doesn't flatter that character. I'm aiming for something a little more salacious and back-stabby, with a social-climbing femme fatale as the heroine…. There are lofty messages, but most of the character interaction is sexual tension, manipulation, lying and scamming. The core of the story is a trainwreck relationship… If it's ultimately marketed as "trashy women's sci-fi", like if Barbarella had ambition and a brain, I'd be totally cool with that…. – wetcircuit May 8 at 16:09
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    @wetcircuit Prisoner of Zenda is a fantastically entertaining, quick-paced read. It's definitely mass market fluff, but because it's lasted so long, it has acquired the prestige of literature. – Chris Sunami May 8 at 16:18
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There are two separate issues here:

  1. What do you call your story as you pitch it?
  2. How would your story be marketed?

Although you tag and use the word, you're asking more about the second question, how to pitch the story, so let's not worry about it. Your publisher will choose an appropriate genre and market accordingly. It would be a separate question anyway.

I'll focus on the first question. Of course you can call your story whatever you wish. But, as perfectly as it might fit the genre of planetary romance, you run the risk of your listeners not knowing what you mean. I had to read your whole question before I understood.

So use it, but explain it. Something like:

It's a Planetary Romance novel. A clash of individuals from different worlds. Literally different worlds, since it's a sub-genre of Science Fiction.

Or...

So it's Science Fiction but a character-driven story focused on the politics and cultures across planets. A small genre called Planetary Romance.

Or whatever wording works for you.

The advantage here is you'll be educating people about this genre, which can only work in your favor.

  • I will be publisher, so unless someone approaches me with a bag o' money it will probably be the same question… I feel I'm failing on your second option "Sci-Fi but…", so I will try the first, education. Thank you! – wetcircuit May 7 at 18:20
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    @wetcircuit I just edited it slightly before seeing your comment. See if that works better. Pitching and marketing are still different when you self-publish, though sure, there's a much bigger overlap. – Cyn says make Monica whole May 7 at 18:21
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What did you think the term was supposed to mean when you first came across it?

You only found the term "[e]arlier this year" and you are writing a story in that genre. You are far more knowledgeable about the details of genres close to your story than the average Joe that is supposed to read this. I am a fantasy reader and have read a lot about some obscure genres outside of my usual reading habits, but I have never heard the term you used.

What I first thought when reading the question was that you were making up a new sub-genre. Never heard of planetary-romance being a thing.

And after that I had some very weird thoughts about who the love interests of a planetary-romance might be...

Sure, there may very well be quite a few people out there who know about the genre. And if you find the internet forums these people frequent they will be extremely glad that someone made the effort to understand their genre and further enrich it. They will love you for giving it a precise genre description and you will have quite a few plus points before they even start reading your story.

But I'd bet that those people are not the majority of people.

For everyone else you need to find some genre description that they have heard about and that allows them to understand the very rough things your story will be about. For the average Joe I'd still say that's "Science Fiction". Labelling it "Sci-Fi" will give you access to a whole lot of more readers. And then you will probably have a short blurb or teaser that allows them to judge whether the specifics are what they want to read. Just make sure to hint at some of the most glaring difference between "cookie-cutter sci-fi" and your story.

Different groups have different expectations for genre labels. Use the most generic one for general marketing, the more specific one in forums where people know about it and if someone asks about differences just tell them what you wrote in this question.

For the average population "Sci-Fi" is enough and will give you a wider audience that stumbles across your work. It's easy to market something as "Sci-Fi" because everyone knows something about it. Some more specialised groups, like WorldBuilding.SE, need something a little more specific, like "Space Opera". And then some might love "Planetary Romance". Adapt the specifics to your audience and if someone asks you in an interview why there are so many differences between "Sci-Fi" and your story just tell them all the things you mentioned in your question. It's an interesting discussion, but that is only something people very interested in your story or the sub-genre want to know. For most people the generic label plus a short description of the content is more than enough to judge whether they want to read something or not.

  • When I read the term, I thought: "romance on a planet", like this painting: queensmuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/… – appeals to me more than a noble star captain or comicbook hero…. Although I see the irony in it that many wouldn't. As stated, I didn't write it to fit any genre, I was fine with saying "sci-fi" but then I realized that what I mean by sci-fi and what other people think (comicbooks, pew-pew-pew) isn't at all the same thing. Almost better to go with something that makes you go "wtf is that?" rather than walk back everything I know it isn't. – wetcircuit May 7 at 18:31
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    @wetcircuit Labelling it "Sci-Fi" and having a teaser that tells us about the things your story have will tell everyone everything they need to know. You don't need to mention the differences. In fact that would probably turn away quite a few people. You need to tell the people what's good about your story, not just what is different. Obviously you can call it whatever you want, but whether that's useful to get some eyes on it is a different question. And you could also only target exactly those people that like you know the term - but that is probably a very low number of people – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 7 at 18:35
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Planetary Romance is not about romantic relationships. The romance in the term refers to "a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious" (Merriam-Webster). This sense of the word dates back to the 16th century at least and is largely obsolete today. There are other genre names with the word romance in it, e.g. scientific romance, which is what we call science fiction today. The current predominant meaning of the word romance, that of a love story, has arisen around 1900 and superseded the older meaning of adventure tale to the point where the term planetary romance is no longer understood and leads those who aren't familiar with it, like you, to assume that it refers to a tale of romantic love, which is false.

I would therefore not use the term for marketing purposes, unless you want to decidedly place your work in that forgotten pulp tradition and attract readers who cultivate a nerdy fascination for Edgar Rice Borroughs' John Carter of Mars.

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    I rolled your answer back; please don't use answers for attacking users, whether or not you feel you're justified to do so. – F1Krazy May 7 at 21:10
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    So, "Planetary" as in "Extra-Terrestrial", "Interstellar" or "Space", and "Romance" as in "Adventure", "Embellished Story" or "Opera"? – Chronocidal May 8 at 13:32
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    @Chronocidal, it looks like he's abandoned this account…. I need to test-market "Interstellar Embellished Story", it is utilitarian and literal, but unambiguous.... ;-D – wetcircuit May 8 at 22:36
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Probably not, no.

Planetary Romance is basically a sci-fi isekai sword-and-sorcery story, with ancient alien science standing in for the sorcery. Unless your hero is a man from modern-day Earth running around on an alien planet fighting a dozen bad guys with swords while half-naked women cling to his legs, it probably isn't Planetary Romance - bonus points is if the explanation for why he can do so is "the alien planet has low gravity, so he has super-strength compared to the locals".

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    No one would write a vampire story today as if written by Bram Stoker. Sci-fi isn't very much like HG Wells any more, and even Star Trek is no longer Roddenberry's Star Trek. They update. There is a LOT in common with my story and this old PlaRom idea of "going to the primitive planet" and "being over-powered" – except today it works as a metaphor for white savior (instead of a colonialist fantasy). My hero quite expects to be that kind of awesome guy, that's not how everyone else feels about him though because "primitives" aren't as naive as they use to be…. Thanks for "Isekai" vocabulary! +1 – wetcircuit May 8 at 7:03
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    I suppose you could call it a Planetary Romance Deconstruction, then, though Planetary Romance is a bit of a niche sub genre to deconstruct. – nick012000 May 8 at 10:24
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Trying to put a name and a pigeon hole on your work is probably not going to be productive, unless it's a wide enough pigeon hole to let you breathe.

If you want an elevator pitch, compare it to someone well-known who also used similar themes. Ursula LeGuin would be my top guess. Or if you can find a non-SF touch point, you could say "Captain Corelli's Mandolin but the people are from different planets instead of different countries". You get the idea.

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A well known author to study in terms of setting genre and reader expectations would be Lois McMaster Bujold. Particularly something like 'A Civil Campaign' which looks like a scifi at first glance but is actually a romantic comedy.

  • Thank you for the edit, this is a much better answer now. Welcome to Writing.SE! – F1Krazy May 8 at 23:04

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