As I venture into talking about the writing craft, I struggled to find a good place to start. As many of you know, writing is a beast of many faces. Whether it’s thinking about plot, characters, settings, scenes, perspectives, ect. Yet, while all have these faces, not all look alike, and can depend entirely on what kind of beast we are talking about. The importance of understanding and identifying these differences gave me a good starting point for what I wanted to talk about. Something that will dictate, in a variety of ways big and small, what these faces will look like. So, I figured something that can affect everything that comes after it would be a good place to begin. That something is ‘genre’.
I’ll preface this post by acknowledge the internal groan a lot of you reading this may have just had. The idea of putting our books in boxes, as writers, is such an oppressive and stifling thought. So many new writers (myself at one point included) feel that their stories should (or do) defy genre, and that labelling is just an invention of marketing, and to stand out amongst the others you need to write outside such meaningless things. But it need not be that way, and I will explain why, as well as explain what genre, conventions and clichés are, and the differences between them, with examples. Most importantly though, I’ll explain why they aren’t something to avoid and why no one is above them.
It’s interesting, a lot of writers will avoid labelling their books with a genre, yet you ask them what kind of books they read and what answer do most people give? A list a genres. Because we as readers know exactly what we enjoy in books, and it’s easy to find those things because they are labelled with genres, and so we have a good idea what to expect, and that’s what conventions really boil down to; managing a reader’s expectations. Conventions (also known as tropes) are obligatory scenes, character archtypes, settings, events, and even narrative structure. If you don’t consider what the conventions are for the genre (or mix of genres) you are writing for, you will miss your mark nine times out of ten, no matter how good the book is overall, because the readers will expect (usually subconsciously) certain things to happen. If those conventions are not present, people will feel something is not quite right. Most people won’t even know what, but they’ll just know something is missing and it will impact their overall enjoyment of your book.
At this point you are probably thinking how following conventions will just fill your book with clichés, and a lot of people tend to not make a distinction between the two. I’m sure most of you have heard someone say that, “clichés are clichés because they work”, which is absolutely true. We as a species have been telling stories since our early ancestors started drawing on cave walls, and the method of telling those stories has hardly changed, so of course there will be things that are used over and over again to the point where they become cliché. The difference between a cliché and a convention is how you write it.
Take the ‘crime’ genre, specifically the cop procedural sub-genre. How many books have you read, or episodes have you watched where there is a point where the main investigator has all but given up, and then something like this happens:
Jenny walked in the door, little Jeremy in hand. ‘The kids had such fun at the playground today,’ she beamed. ‘Little one here really loved the ball pit.’ Arthur masked his defeat with his best genuine smile. ‘That’s lovely, honey,’ he said. ‘What should we have for dinner?’ ‘Well I was th-’ Jenny started but was cut short by Arthur. ‘Wait! That’s it!’ he exclaimed, slamming his fist down on the table. ‘The ball pit!’ With a quick apology to his wife, Arthur rushed out the door and raced back to the station. He had cracked the case wide open.
This is a (very quickly thrown together) example of an obligatory scene. I don’t write crime novels, so I am not sure what the correct term for it is, but I’d call it the ‘moment of realization’ scene. Done this way, it’s a cliché, because you could swap out ‘ball pit’ for anything and it’s pretty much the same scene that’s been done so many times basically the same way. However, the convention here is a moment of realization that follows a lull in the case’s progress. That in and of itself can be done a variety of different ways, and often is. Very rarely do we see a team of investigators slowly work out a case from start to finish and then just easily put all the pieces together, there is almost always that moment of realization that helps them crack the case. Because if it was that linear, we’d feel like it was missing something. Following this example in the procedural vein is the tv show House. If the doctors diagnosed the patient in the first go, we’d feel like something was off with the episode and probably wouldn’t enjoy it. So, what’s the convention there?
One more example is romance. Romance has a lot of sub-genres, and so a lot of conventions, but one in particular is in almost all of them, right near the end. Take a moment and have a think about what it might be. The convention I am thinking of is the ‘proof of love’ scene. The cliché among this convention is the scene where one of the pair (usually the man) rushes to the airport after an argument and wins them back just as they are boarding their flight. But inside the cliché is a must have scene where after all the couple has been through, it all gets put to the test at the end, often causing an argument for which one must make a grand gesture to prove their love.
The trick to sticking to conventions and structuring your story in such a way that meets reader’s expectations, while not littering your story with clichés, is first being able to identify what those conventions are, figuring out what purpose they are meant to serve within the story, and then putting a twist on them.
With all that said, I am not saying it is impossible to write outside of genre conventions, because of course it is. But it’s important to know what those conventions are before you break them in a way that still makes your story work. Most people do this instinctively because most writers write within the genres they enjoy reading and so, subconsciously, most actually write with the proper conventions. That’s why the art of storytelling hasn’t changed, because if there is one thing we as a species have mastered, it’s how to tell a story and it is so engrained in us and our many cultures.
Conventions are also a great tool to help structure your story and help to plot your narrative with important milestones and certain scenes you may have not thought to include that could improve your book. But, I’ll get into that in a future post.
Ultimately what I’d like to get across is, don’t be afraid to use clichés, in fact they are a must, just dress them up to suit your own style so they aren’t recognizable to the average reader. Also, do your research, become more aware of the awesome things you are already writing so they can be even better.
“The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.” ― Terry Pratchett