The Conventions of Genre Fiction
Quite often members request a workshop about ‘what is the formula for writing specific genres.’ For the next few weeks, I will discuss the basic principles of genre fiction. While there is no step-by-step written formula for writing each genre, the best way is to read…read…read in the genre you plan to write. Go to a used bookstore and load up. Use different colored pens or hi-liters to make notes. For example: use a pink hi-liter to mark each time the heroine has a POV; blue for the hero’s POV; green for the setting; a red pen to underline GMC. Note whether the sentences are long and prosy, or short and snappy. Count the pages of each chapter. Some genres require longer chapters, while others have shorter chapters.
The idea is that, by studying lots of novels similar to the one you plan to write, a picture will emerge of what publishers, literary agents, and readers of these novels expect.
Okay, enough of the dull stuff. Let’s move on to a brief snapshot of the principals for Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, and Romantic Suspense.
Mystery. Think of a mystery novel as a literary jigsaw puzzle that requires the reader to think through the clues that are scattered like breadcrumbs by the author throughout the story. The author uses various methods which requires the reader to guess who committed the crime. A mystery can have a romantic base or not. Be sure to check the publishers’ websites to find out if they are mystery purists (no romance), or allow romantic elements.
Suspense. Suspense stories are fast-paced story lines driven by motives such as revenge, greed, betrayal, anger, love, desire, yearning and more. Think kidnappings, murder, blackmail, deceit, white collar crime, political intrigue, and everything in between. Danger caused by menacing villains. Fear caused by running from an abusive husband. Let your mind get creative.
Romantic Suspense. A romantic suspense mixes both genres fairly equally. One strand (romance or suspense) does not significantly overpower the other. From the beginning of the story, the reader knows the protagonist (either the hero or heroine) will fall in love and solve whatever mystery the writer has set up. With this being said, there is one rule of thumb that is often quoted in the romance world that the blend is about 60% romance and 40% suspense. A story with a higher percentage of suspense crosses the genre boundary into mystery. Again, check the different publisher’s guidelines for the blend.
Thrillers. The story starts with a serious problem, a protagonist (the hero or heroine) who tries to solve the predicament only to find that it escalates. Thrillers usually have a great deal of action, cinematic landscapes or cityscapes or interior “mindscapes.” The plot rises to a dramatic confrontation with the antagonist (bad guy), usually on the bad guy’s territory, and ends with a short denouement (wrap up). Thrillers can be divided into countless categories; e.g., action thrillers, psychological thrillers, military thrillers, spy thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, romantic thrillers, etc. There is a sinister edge to this genre.
In crime novels such as Mystery, Suspense, Romantic Suspense, Thriller, readers expect:
- A body to turn up in the first three chapters (preferably sooner)
- More murders to take place along the way
- The writer to provide clues (but cleverly hidden ones) and several red herrings*
- The guilty to be brought to justice by the end (no downbeat ambiguous endings) through the skills of the detective (and not by some lucky break)
*Red Herring. A red herring is a false clue that leads readers or characters towards a bogus conclusion. The red herring in a story can take the form of characters that the readers suspect, but who turns out be innocent when the real murderer is identified. It aims at keeping the readers guessing at the possibilities until the end and therefore keeps them interested in the story.
In these genres the characters range from:
- Professional policeman/policewoman
- Private investigator
- Amateur sleuth
- Professional sleuth
- Doctors and lawyers
Sometimes the bad-guy can be a rogue cop.
If successfully written, all of these genres lend themselves to a series (because that’s what readers like).
One last word–these type stories do not necessarily have a HEA, but must always have a satisfactory ending. The hero or heroine can suffer a wound that lands them in intensive care–but never allow them to die. Readers won’t like you if you kill off the hero or heroine and may not buy your next book.
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