What Are Genre Conventions?

Jacob Queen

Genre conventions are all the little elements, from archetypal characters to repeating plot points, that separate one genre of fiction from another. Most genres have a set of very particular elements that readers or moviegoers expect, and artists often try to make sure their works include enough of these to keep the audience happy. Genre conventions tend to evolve over time as artists work to break out of the typical mold and create fresh new content. Sometimes people eventually get tired of certain genre conventions, at which point these conventions might even be labeled as cliché.

Books in the same genre typically share similar elements.
Books in the same genre typically share similar elements.

Essentially, genre conventions are the defining aspects of any genre or sub-genre. There are tons of these conventions for each genre, and any given work doesn't necessarily have to include more than a handful of them; if there aren't any at all, the work may not ultimately fall into the intended genre. For example, a horror movie without a few recognizable elements — things like monsters, creepy settings, isolation, or darkness — wouldn't necessarily be considered a "horror" film anymore by most fans and critics.

Genre conventions have carried over into movies, including emotional chick flicks and fast-paced action films.
Genre conventions have carried over into movies, including emotional chick flicks and fast-paced action films.

In many cases, genre conventions begin through repetition. A writer, moviemaker, or playwright will create a famous work that the public loves, and other artists will try create something similar. Over time, all the artists borrowing from the original writer will use certain elements again and again, to the point where they spread across the whole genre and become conventions. For example, Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula" created a host of genre conventions about how vampire fiction should work, and many of these have persisted to this day in works like "Interview with a Vampire" by Anne Rice and "Salem's Lot" by Stephen King. These conventions have also continued into many famous vampire films over the years, and at this point, almost any vampire story will include at least a few ideas that go all the way back to Stoker's original novel.

A convention of horror films is isolating characters during dangerous situations.
A convention of horror films is isolating characters during dangerous situations.

Genre conventions also tend to evolve over time. As new artists provide their contributions to the genre, they will often experiment with new things, and their more popular works will lead to the creation of new conventions. Sometimes a work will be created that drastically changes a genre in one fell swoop by bringing in many new elements. For example, fantasy author Robert E. Howard's Conan character wasn't the first fantasy hero ever created, and fantasy fiction was already popular when the Conan stories were written, but the popularity and success of the character had a huge impact on the genre. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy had a similar impact on the fantasy genre later on, and more recently, works by writers like George R. R. Martin might have the potential to change the genre by bringing a new style and focus.

Invisibility is a theme explored in the horror and science fiction genres.
Invisibility is a theme explored in the horror and science fiction genres.
Images of death are a convention of horror stories.
Images of death are a convention of horror stories.
Genre is an important concept in any college-level English course.
Genre is an important concept in any college-level English course.
Intense and passionate relationships are commonly found in romance stories.
Intense and passionate relationships are commonly found in romance stories.

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Discussion Comments

MrsPramm

I think people consider genres and conventions and tropes to just more restricting than they have to be. There might not be anything new under the sun, but you can recombine elements in so many different ways that it will feel new.

Ana1234

@clintflint - I can see your point and I agree to some extent, but as it says in the article, those conventions are always going to be changing. No one would have called the vampire fiction of today "vampire fiction" if they read it back in the 1980s. Replace the word vampire with the word elf and it would make more sense to them. But there is no denying that people consider sparkly, gentle vampires to be a legitimate genre convention these days.

Fiction genre is really just about marketing anyway. It's got more to do with where your book will be placed in the bookstore than it does with conventions that can't be broken.

clintflint

I think a lot of new writers think that in order to separate themselves from the pack they need to do away with genre conventions and come up with something fresh and interesting.

The problem is that those conventions are usually there for a reason. One of the big ones in romance novels is that the ending needs to be happy. Yes, it's entirely possible to write a novel with a romantic plot that doesn't have a happy ending, but if you do that, it isn't a romance novel. It will be classified as something else.

The conventions of a genre are what classifies a book as a particular genre. You might end up writing something that doesn't fit into a particular genre, and that's awesome, but it's not a whole new way of seeing a particular genre if it doesn't fit into the established conventions.

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