The Rules of Genre

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

Location: Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers’ Conference; Philadelphia, PA

Genres establish certain rules for how books should be written. For example, a romance novel should start with the female perspective, and the male and female protagonists should meet in the first chapter. Romances are also told with the protagonists’ viewpoints alternating.

Now, some of these genre rules can be broken, but stepping out from the established formula can have its consequences. The reader of a particular genre has been trained to expect the formula. Surprising the reader can be a good thing, but most of the time it’s off-putting. We’ll be talking about the pros and cons of breaking out of the formula tomorrow.

There’s no way I can cover all of the genre rules, but I’d like to point out some others that I’ve spotted in my reading:

Teen fiction: Teen books focus on feelings more than plot. These books are primarily character-driven.

Teen nonfiction: Again, the focus is on feelings. These books mostly will cover topics involving inner struggles and relationships.

Historical novels: The era and setting must be established on the first page.

Fantasy: Strong character development is necessary in the first chapter, especially if the story is set in a new world. The interesting character or characters give the reader motivation to continue to learn the new environment.

Horror/Thriller: Starts out with a mundane day in a character’s life (allowing the reader to connect with the character), but by the end of the first chapter, something foreshadows the horrors to come. Interestingly, horror movies tend to follow the same pattern. One that comes to mind is “Dark Water.” The mother and young girl spend the first part of the movie apartment hunting, but when they move into the new place, an ominous spot of water is revealed on the bedroom ceiling. I don’t read a lot of horror, but I do know that Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker usually follow this formula.

I know many different categories of nonfiction exist as well (memoir, self-help, parenting, etc.), but to be perfectly honest, I’m not familiar with genre-specific rules. Do you know of any? Also, can you think of any other genre rules (fiction and nonfiction)? Please feel free to give book examples.

8 Responses

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  1. I find it interesting that for fantasy you say you need strong character development for the first chapter. I think I agree. The character is going to be the only familiar thing to help a reader navigate a new world. So its important to attach the reader to the main character as soon as possible.

  2. Jill Kemerer says:

    First, congratulations on getting married! I just went back through the week and saw your picture–beautiful! How exciting!

    This is a great post. In fiction, it’s so important to set the tone up front. My personal preference for reading non-fiction is for authors to include bullets, keep the chapters short, and highlight examples in a separate box or sidebar.

    What can I say? I’m a typical, busy woman who doesn’t always want page-long paragraphs. The easier to read, the better!

  3. Usually, romance – happily ever after. I have to admit, this is one genre rule I don’t like to see broken. I can handle novels without HEA’s, but romances without HEA’s bum me out!

  4. Fun post! Hmmm… In memoir, I notice a strong, distinct voice that carries the work and lingers after I’ve finished reading.

  5. Linda Strawn says:

    Enjoyed this article. I’ve recently talked about genres in my blog, so I’m going to add a link to this article. Thanks for posting this,

  6. Rachel Zurakowski says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Linda, thanks for the link.

    I totally agree with you, Katie. Romances must have HEA endings.

    Jill, great points about fiction and nonfiction.

    Thanks, Samantha, for the help on the rules of memoir.

  7. Terry Odell says:

    As a romance writer, I disagree with the “start with the heroine” and “must meet in chapter 1”. Unless perhaps you’re talking about category romance, rather than all the single title sub-genres. The HEA is a must (or the promise thereof) however–that’s what puts a romance on the romance shelf and not in general fiction.

    Likewise, a mystery must have the crime solved by the end.

    My best advice: make sure you’re meeting the publisher’s “rules.” Those are the ones that count.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  8. mo says:

    I love it! I do have to offer a different take on horror, though. Thrillers often start with a picture into daily life, but horror is more likely to start with characters making a change. In “Dark Water,” we find a newly divorced woman moving into a new apartment–lots of change!

    Minor change (eg. a road trip) is popular for teen slasher flicks. Characters are punished for breaking the rules and stepping out of the everyday into the big, scary world outside.

    For major life changes, the horror often parallels or reflects major personal problems. This format lends itself to families dealing with a nasty divorce (“Panic Room,” “Dark Water”), rebellious kids (“The Messengers”), even new family members (“It’s Alive,” “Amityville Horror”). As a general rule, the mundane drama plays up the horror: rebellious kid’s ghost sighting is disbelieved, new husband is possessed and taking his frustration out on the stepkids. In these stories, you could remove the horror entirely and still have a nice personal drama.

    Foreign filmmakers often flip this on its head and use the horror to explore the mundane drama–“Dark Water” would have been a very different film if it weren’t a remake of a Japanese story. 🙂