Originality vs Genre Expectations

Those of you in the writing and publishing community might have heard the phrase “Writing to Market.”  If you’re heard the phrase, you’re probably having one or two reactions:  Either you think it’s super smart or you think it’s selling out.  Most of the time, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of nuance to the argument.  

If you haven’t heard of “writing to market”, you may still have a strong reaction, because it sounds a lot like selling out.  It sounds a lot like being unoriginal, like following the trends.  You can find other articles with the meaning, but honestly you don’t need it right now.  

I’m here to give this whole thing some nuance.  Let’s do this step by step.

First, acknowledge that, as a writer (and as a human being) you’re never going to please everyone because there’s some people that flat out don’t like your genre. I write science fiction and fantasy–I’ve met people that only read literary fiction and others that only read nonfiction.  Some people only read science fiction and not fantasy.  Others rarely stray from a particular subgenre.  

I think there’s this delusion that newbie authors have that they can write some version of The Great American Novel that is beloved by all readers and that’s just not the case.  There’s some people that flat out don’t read!  They won’t read your book until it’s been made into a movie (but we won’t talk about these people).

So, not everyone reads our genre.  That leaves us with the readers that do read our genre.  If this seems trivial, it’s not.  

Before we really get rolling there’s two other things I want to bring to the table:  Tropes and Genre Expectations.  For our purposes, these two things are basically the same thing.  From here on out I’m going to use them interchangeably.  

When we sit down to read, we have certain expectations about the book we’ve chosen.  If it’s a mystery, then we expect to find out whodunnit at the end and maybe sort out a few red herrings along the way.  If it’s a romance story, then we expect a happily-ever-after that won’t come until the end of the story.  If the main characters get together early on, then we expect they’ll have a false break up or something to keep us reading.  

Really, the idea of expectations is present in every form of entertainment.  If I turn on a metal song, I expect to hear a badass guitar riff somewhere in there.  Conversely, if I turn on lofi and want to chill out, then I will be pissed if I find a heavy metal riff in there.  If I watch an action movie, then I expect that most of the movie will be action-packed.  If I get on a roller coaster, I expect to go upside down, etc.  

This is where the idea of “Writing to Market” generally comes in.  I believe the term was made popular by Chris Fox in his book titled the same.  

If you’re paying attention, some genre expectations are absolutely critical to satisfying a majority of readers in a particular genre.  

In the book, Chris brings up Military Space Opera (a subgenre of Sci Fi).  Basically, through doing some research on the best selling titles, he found that a couple tropes popped up again and again.  For Military Space Opera, the big tropes/expectations were:  An aging, maverick captain.  An equally aging warship.  A threat from outside the star-system/galaxy.  There might have been more, but those were the big ones.  

What this meant was that if you had tried to write a Military Space Opera where the captain was a young up and coming ruffian, their ship was a top-of-the-line war machine, and the main threat was the military bureaucracy… well, your book probably didn’t sell well.  Was it original?  Maybe… but it might have been too original for most readers of that subgenre.  

Some readers looked past those deviations.  Most readers won’t.  The more you deviate from expectations–the more original you try to be–the less people will buy your book.  

Just try to write a romance story without a happily-ever-after or  a mystery story where nothing is explained at the end.  

I’m not telling you to be unoriginal, I’m just making you aware that originality comes at a cost.  

If you write something completely original, some mix of sci fi, half-thriller, half-romance that suddenly turns into surreal fantasy at the end, but to really know the ending you have to play this cooperative board game… then some people might like it, maybe even pay for it… but most won’t finish it and they probably won’t even pay for it to begin with.  Good luck trying to shelve it or advertise it.  

If you throw out too many tropes and expectations for the sake of originality, then your genre becomes unrecognizable and the book becomes uncategorizable.  

So that’s where we’re left as writers and as creatives:  We have to strike a balance between adhering to enough genre expectations that readers feel comfortable and being original while not throwing out too many of those expectations.  

I guess I should’ve prefaced that I’m speaking commercially about these things.  How many readers (buyers) are you willing to alienate from a genre in your quest for originality?  Because that question directly correlates with how many readers will buy your book.  If you’re writing for the sake of writing and not selling your book to anyone, then be as original as you want!  Just don’t be surprised if no one outside of your family or immediate friends takes a chance on reading it.  

By contrast, you can’t write something that’s a complete rehash of other stuff.  You do need some originality to stand out from the crowd.  Once again, the key is balance.  There is no such thing as a single correct answer because originality and expectations exist on a sliding scale.  Just be aware of those golden tropes for certain genres, like the HEA at the end of a romance and the answer at the end of a mystery.  

Maybe what we should end with is understanding our own expectations when we sit down to read (or watch TV, etc), and that we respect our potential reader’s expectations as well.  If you write in a genre you love (and you should), then you probably understand these expectations pretty well.  Just remember that a little market research can’t hurt either, especially if you’re trying to make a living at this writing thing

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