I don’t think about genre too much when I get a story idea (or even when I’m writing). I typically just outline the story within an inch of its life until I have a pretty good handle on all the big picture stuff. In fact, it didn’t dawn on me that my last novel, The New Mrs. Collins, was a “scary” story until a reader pointed it out.
“I had to put it down before bed because, you know.”
“Because it’s scary.”
“Really?” I asked.
I was shocked! In all honesty, I had not even thought about “writing a scary story.” When I initially got the idea for the book, I saw this image in my head of a mysterious woman next to a lake (ringing out a towel) and I wanted to explore who she was and what kind of secrets she had. Incorporating certain genre conventions never crossed my mind—until one of my readers suggested that I include a dog dying at the beginning of the story (to prepare the reader for all the scary stuff that happens later in the book). I gave this idea a great matter of thought.
Should I? I mean, readers do have certain expectations when it comes to particular genres: romance novels typically have a happily ever after. Mysteries generally involve an overworked sleuth, her hilarious sidekick, and a dead body. And horror books often feature something ominous in the opening pages to set the tone: a wolf howling. A hunched back gate keeper who warns the main character not to go into that house. A single sparrow on a telephone line, and right after that, miles and miles of darkness before the character reaches a farmhouse, where the light coming through a cracked window illuminates a very…odd looking figure.
I felt that going back and including something gloomy at the beginning of the story was synonymous to the tail wagging the dog. The beginning of the book is somewhat comical in tone, and the characters are likeable, regular folk who just so happen to discover that there are strange, inexplicable things happening around them. So instead of focusing on genre conventions, I felt my job as an author was to get the readers so invested in the characters that no matter what course the novel took, they’d be along for the ride because they cared.
And readers did! I got many comments like, “I don’t normally read this kind of story but I really enjoyed your book.” I also got many comments from readers about how they were really rooting for the main character, and I think that’s the key, no matter the genre: creating sympathetic characters.
Of course, the most wonderful thing about writing is also the most frustrating thing; there aren’t really any hard-and-fast rules. What works for one story may not work for another, and as authors, sometimes we just have to employ the “try it and see” method. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, then that’s what revisions are for.
To any authors out there struggling with whether or not to buck genre conventions, my advice is this: focus most of your energy on creating characters that your readers will care about. If you get too caught up in incorporating tropes just for the sake of it, you might end up with a serious case of the tail wagging the dog—and a story that readers find trite.