Monday, June 30, 2014

How Soon Do We Need to Show Genre in Our Novels?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A reader asked (in reference to a comment I made in a Real Life Diagnostic)...
This is something I'm not sure I understand. If you pick a book off the shelf, you'll know it's sci-fi or fantasy or what have you by the section in the bookstore, the blurb, and possibly the cover. So do we really need to throw obvious genre flags into the first three paragraphs? I get that we want to give a sense of setting right away, but to me it doesn't seem necessary that the setting meet our expectations for genre right off the bat. That in itself would make me want to keep reading.
Short answer: No, you don't need obvious genre flags in the first three paragraphs. Or even the first three pages. Except on those occasions when you do need it.

Long answer: This is one of those "it all depends on the situation" questions.

For many novels, readers are going to know the genre before they start reading since they likely bought it because it was that genre. Or they know the author always writes a certain genre. They won't need to be told it's science fiction or a western or historical fiction.

Others will come across the novel through others means and will have no idea what genre it is. They'll borrow it from a friend, pick it up at a yard sale, find it stuck in an old backpack, or--more common these days--it's just one of hundreds in a long list of e-books on their reader.

These are the folks who most likely need those extra clues about genre, but there are other reasons why you'd want to suggest the genre.

1. The novel could easily be mistaken for another genre

I have a friend who writes science fiction, but if you don't catch the technology and science references, it has a strong fantasy vibe. She has to work extra hard to make sure readers know they're reading science fiction, not fantasy. I can't tell you how many times she received a "a fantasy world wouldn't have this kind of technology" type comment in her critiques due to this. Readers assumed (wrongly) what type of novel it was based on the first few setting clues they discovered.

If your novel has a similar tone or feel to another genre, and there's a decent chance readers will make incorrect assumptions about that novel that could hurt their enjoyment of the story, it's not a bad idea to slip in a few clues at the start to make sure readers know what genre they're reading.

(Here's more on the different genres)

2. The genre element is small

For some novels the genre aspect is a small part of the story. A touch of magic, a bit of sci fi tech, a small step back in time to the not-so-distant past. It can be helpful to slip in a little genre detail or two early on to let readers know this mainstream-feeling story isn't so mainstream. That way, when something happens, readers won't be jarred out of the story.

This can be especially helpful for historical novels set in a near past, where it might not be obvious that the setting is 1980 or even 1950.

(Here's more on grounding readers in your world)

3. The genre element appears later in the story

Dan Wells's I Am Not A Serial Killer is a great example here. For over half the novel, it reads like any other mystery/suspense. Then out of nowhere comes a fantasy element that's key to the core conflict. Nowhere does the cover copy suggest this element (though it's published by Tor, which is a clue if readers know their publishers). I was able to regroup after this shock enjoy the novel, but a friend was so thrown by it, that it ruined the book for her. She said had she known that going in, she would have been able to deal with it. It was the shock that did it.

If the genre element of the novel is going to be a shock to readers, and that might adversely affect how they see the novel, it might be a good idea to drop a few hints early on so the genre reveal is more of an inevitable "I should have seen that coming" surprise than a "Where did that come from?" shock.

4. It's a different genre from what your normally write

I can still remember the anger of my fellow Stephen King fans when The Eyes of the Dragon came out. It wasn't horror. No one knew what to make of it. Some people hated it--not because it was a bad book (it's quite good), but because it wasn't the typical Stephen King novel they loved to read.

If readers are expecting a certain genre from you as an author, it's nice to let them know right away that you've switched things up on them.

Other reasons you might consider adding a genre detail early on:

1. E-books

E-books are changing how people read. Books are bought or downloaded and they sit in e-readers until read. Unless the book provides "cover" copy in the first few pages, readers don't get a refresher on what it's about and many don't remember why they downloaded it in the first place. Things authors used to take for granted (like readers having a basic idea of the story going in) no longer apply.

If you anticipate a lot of e-book readers for your novel, it's not a bad idea to drop a few hints about both the genre and what the book is about early on. (Or add cover copy in the first page or two)

(Here's more on how important genre is in today's e-books)

2. To set reader expectations

How many times have you heard--or said--this phrase: "It was okay, it just wasn't what I expected." Maybe it's about a book, or a movie, or a TV show, but you went into it with expectations and it didn't live up to that. People judge things based on what they expect just as much as what they see. A title and even misleading cover art can set the wrong expectations.

Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet series has great covers that make it look like the hero is a ground soldier (complete with battle armor and a big gun), when he's really the fleet's admiral who never picks up a gun. If you go into the series thinking it's going to be about a space marine on the ground fighting battles, you'll be sorely disappointed. Luckily, Campbell has lots of ship and fleet references right off the bat.

If your story might cause readers to expect a certain genre aspect, a few clues early on can make sure they reevaluate their expectations and read the book your wrote, not the one they thought you were going to write.

(Here's more on reader expectations)

And the most important thing...

If you don't want to add genre details early on, don't. It's your book, and you should write it however you feel is best. And remember, "early on" could mean the first few pages as well as paragraphs, so there's plenty of wiggle room if you want it.

If you feel your novel would be better served by adding a few details to ground the reader in the genre right away, then do it. If not, don't worry about it. There are no rules here, so just go with your instincts.

Have you ever read a book that wasn't the genre you expected? Do you prefer to know the genre right away or do you enjoy the surprise?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Thanks Janice. Feel that I could be misleading my readers if I don't give them some clues early on. My first novel was a mystery/thriller, but I'm now working on a series of shorts that are science fiction with elements of fantasy and steampunk... while my supernatural mystery gets edited. Thanks for the pointers.

  2. I never read a book just on a whim - I do research before reading. So the genre thing isn't likely to surprise me unpleasantly. But I can see where that could happen. Even with e-books, mine always open to the first chapter, so I might miss a cover and preview kind of information. Not I personally, because, as I said, I research fully. But as far as my writing goes, my fantasy novel has obvious fantasy elements from the very beginning (maybe not the first three paragraphs, actually, but definitely within the short prologue, and then all throughout)

  3. Good call, on this. Even if you're not trying to display specific genre queues, it can be important to let the reader know the tone and pace of your book early on. Picking up a book that starts like Urban Fantasy, but halfway through you realise it's become Paranormal Romance, can be jarring.