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On Reader Expectations: Genre Conventions

Last week I started reviewing some of the novels we read in my Category Fiction class with a pretty brutal panning of our Women’s Fiction samples. Along the way, I mentioned a startling similarity in their plots — not just in those two books, but in all Women’s Fiction novels.

I was genuinely surprised to learn about some of the expectations Women’s Fiction readers bring to the genre. When the professor spelled out the required plot structure in stark detail, it rang shallow and soulless, but that’s the world’s most profitable category by far. They’re clearly doing something right.

Catering to Reader Expectations

That “something” is simple enough, too: they’re catering to reader expectations. When that’s done poorly we sometimes call it “pandering,” (and I called it that in at least one of my papers for the class), but the rest of the time we call it by a more generous name: audience analysis.

That’s something I’ve talked about often. It’s something I recommend to every new writer I talk with, and it’s critical to any kind of effective communication.

A good writer absolutely must spend some time considering where his or her readers are coming from, understand what expectations readers bring with them to the book, and write with those expectations in mind.

Practicing What I Preach

As I said, that’s a principle I preach pretty vociferously, but this course was an education in just how little I practice it. Every book I picked up opened my eyes to unexpected reader expectations concerning at least one of my active writing projects.

I’m not writing any romance novels (and wouldn’t even consider trying), but studying Women’s Fiction shed remarkable light on the romantic subplots I’m deliberately weaving through all four of my series in progress.

In the same way, listing out the specific elements that create tension in mysteries and thrillers — and discussing in class why readers respond to those the way they do — offered a ton of insight for my own suspense novels.

2 Responses to “On Reader Expectations: Genre Conventions”

  1. So, what were some reader expectations that you discovered you weren’t considering? Or is that fodder for a future blog post, and I should just be more patient and quit trying to get ahead of the game? 😉

    It’s funny that once again, we’ve both got articles in the same week about the same topic, without having coordinated it beforehand. I love synchronicity.

  2. Wish I could have been a fly on the wall when you were discussing how readers respond and what they are looking for…that sounds facinating.