Writing stories is like sewing clothing. While we all aspire to bring something new and original to our pieces, there are certain conventions we must follow if we don’t want to produce an odd-looking piece that doesn’t fit in with anybody’s tastes. Just as people look for pants, dresses, shirts, and jackets when they’re out shopping for clothes, they look for romances, thrillers, fantasy stories, and historical dramas when they’re seeking a good book.
Learning the conventions of a genre is essential to being able to write a story that fits well into that genre. The best way to do this is to read five or six (or a dozen, or three dozen) stories in the genre you want to write. As you read, ask yourself some of the following questions:
- What kinds of settings do writers use in this genre? To what extent is the genre defined by the setting?
- What character traits are common to most of the protagonists? What traits do most antagonists share?
- Is there generally a generous cast of characters, or do only two or three named individuals have roles in the stories?
- What kind of events get the plot started? What kind of events create important twists and turns in the plot?
- Is the story driven more by what the characters are doing or how the characters are feeling?
- How do the stories generally end in this genre? What kind of denouement do we see after the climax of the action?
Write down your answers to these questions as you read (perhaps in your commonplace book). Before you know it, you’ll have a set of fairly extensive notes on the conventions of the genre you have chosen. Just as a pattern guides us through the process of sewing a pencil skirt for the first time, these notes will guide you as you craft a work of genre fiction.