Ice crusted the parking lot as I slipped my way to the coffee shop. The warm spell we’d experienced over the weekend had turned frosty with the blizzard sweeping across middle America, turning the pavement to a black skating rink.
I should have expected the cold, but the sudden spell of warmth caught me off guard and ignited my hope of spring. Worse, I now nursed a cold because winter hadn’t followed the rules.
Which was exactly what I was going to talk to Sally about today – following genre rules as she writes her first novel.
She waited at our table, beside a crackling fire, reading her Nook.
“Hey,” she said as I slid into the seat. Blessed Kathy walked over with my mug of vanilla latte.
“What are you reading?”
“A romance. Taking notes on why I like it, like you suggested.”
“Perfect. Now, tell me, what do all romances have in common?”
She put down the Nook. Thought for a moment. “A hero and heroine. A common thread that pulls them together. Conflict that pushes them apart. A breakup. And a happy ending.”
I pulled out a tissue. “And if you don’t have one or more of those?”
“Then it’s not a romance. I feel cheated as a reader.”
“Exactly. You’ve just defined the difference between a genre novel and a literary novel. Genre novels come with expectations embedded. A mystery always has a dead body in the beginning and the goal is to find the killer. A thriller always has a catastrophe looming at the end, and what we call a “lit fuse” or ticking clock to heighten the sense of danger. A fantasy has other world attributes that we need to understand, and women’s fiction is a story about relationships and a woman’s journey as she confronts an issue in her life. We expect these things when we open a genre book, and if an author tries to step out of them, instead of being innovative, they are simply breaking the rules.”
“But aren’t we supposed to be innovative? To do something unique?”
“You’re supposed to give a fresh twist to the story by adding in a unique plot element, or character, but when it comes to genre expectations, you have to stick to the rules. Unless you’re writing literary or general fiction. But even they have a standard story arc. The truth is, to be a great writer, you have to adhere to the structure of genre and story. You’re innovation comes in how you deliver the story within those rules.”
“Like, the Super bowl. The Giants play the game one way, the Patriots another, and yet they all have to follow the rules of the sport.”
“Correct. Think if like a building – every building has to have a foundation, walls, a roof. The interior is where the innovation and uniqueness happens. But this works to a novelist’s advantage. Instead of looking at it as confining, consider it as a way to keep you headed in the right direction. When you learn story arc, and then the elements of genre, you have a road map to developing your story. It actually becomes a sort of checklist to make sure you’ve created a powerful story.”
“So, what is standard story arc?”
“I’ll give you a checklist when we get further along, but every story has the same arc. It starts with your character in home world, or their status quo. Then, something happens to change this, called the inciting incident, which has the effect of sending your character on a figurative, or sometimes literal journey we call the Noble Quest. During this quest, he’s forced to make decisions that challenge who he is, and may change him until he comes to the Black Moment – his worst fears coming true. At this point, he has an epiphany, which changes him, and gives him the power to do something at the end that he can’t at the beginning to ‘save the day’. This is the point of the story – to change your character and tell some truth in his life. They end the story in a new home world, a changed person.”
She picked up her Nook. “Yes. I can see how even a romance does that. My hero learns that he needs love in his life.”
“Exactly. All the genre elements build on this main story arc. This week, in your reading, I want you to outline all these steps for every book or movie you read. And then, because you want to write a romance, also identify those elements that create a powerful romance. If you’re looking for a resource, I have a book called Kiss and Tell: How to write a romance that also identifies and teaches you how to do this.”
She pulled out her folder from her bag. “And what about him, my hero? I brought a picture.”
Cute Ben Affleck was pasted to the page. “Did you give him an identity?”
“He’s a healer who lost his best friend. He’s besieged by guilt.”
“So he’s lost his confidence.”
“Okay, that will work. Next week we’ll talk about how to develop a plot around him, by giving him a dark moment in the past. So, your homework this week is to ask him: What was the worst thing that ever happened to you? Write it down, like a journal entry. I promise, you’ll use it in your story. And then, find yourself a heroine, and do the same.”
“And in the meantime, read as many romances as I can find?” She put her nook away. “My family may never eat again.”
Truth: Genre writing is about expectations. Fulfill the expectations and you’ll satisfy your reader. Thus, all great novels have a heroes journey story arc, and all great genre novels follow the rules of genre.
Dare: Does your current WIP follow the rules of story and genre? Discover what they are, work your story into the structure, and then add the innovation and uniqueness.