Immersion Class with Margie Lawson, I am totally excited - once again - for another awesome guest post about world-building! And this one comes to us with some insight into mixing genres and reader expectations! This is something I know everyone can relate to and has possibly struggled with at one point or another in their writing career.
So without further ado, I’d like to introduce our guest blogger today, Jami Gold! Jami is one of the very first bloggers I had the pleasure of meeting when I first ventured into to blogosphere/Twitterverse. There are many, many, many amazing things that I can say about Jami, but I shall limit myself to only this: If you are not following her blog – in which a new post is up every Tuesday and Thursday – you should be. I couldn’t tell you how many story-saving, save-the-character, thought-provoking, inspiring, fun posts I’ve had the pleasure of reading and learning from by this amazing author. Her blog is a must-read in my world (as in I pull up her site at 8am every Tuesday and Thursday morning at work. Religiously. Seriously.)! Jami was also recently given the honor as a Writing Hero by The Bookshelf Muse blog (another must-read blog, by the way), and it was well deserved!
I do hope you enjoy her post as much as I do!
Mixing Genres? In-Depth Worldbuilding? How to Manage Reader Expectations
Thanks for having me here, Melinda! Today I want to talk about worldbuilding, genre, and expectations.
When we read a vampire book, we have certain expectations about the rules of the world. At the very least, we expect there'll be blood involved.
The same goes with werewolf stories (where we expect shape shifting), dragon stories (where we expect flames), and mermaid stories (where we expect tail fins). We also see this in other genres, such as romantic suspense, where we expect a bad guy to chase the characters, or thrillers, where we expect the good guy to save the world from the bad guy.
Some readers have very particular expectations about certain genres or story worlds. If we read a book without the expected elements, we might be disappointed and possibly give the story a bad review.
So how do writers balance coming up with unique stories and yet fulfill reader expectations? And how can writers come up with new worlds or mix genres and still give readers the best understanding of what they’ll find in the story so they're not dissatisfied?
1: Start with the Right Labels
We can partly head off issues by making sure we’re using the right labels in the description of our story. When we’re dealing with the publishing industry—sending queries to agents or editors—we have to use their labels because they want to know what shelf the story would sit on in a bookstore. These descriptions are very broad: romance, science fiction/fantasy, mystery, fiction, nonfiction.
However, when we’re writing a description blurb for our story (whether for the body of our query/pitch, synopsis, or a back-of-the-book description), we can use whatever labels we want. Our goal should be to give readers a sense of the type of story it is—and possibly, what type of story it’s not.
We want to attract readers who want to read that kind of story. And the first place we can head off disappointment is before the reader ever opens the book, by using the right labels in the description.
2: Use Worldbuilding to Direct Reader Expectations
The other main technique we can use to manage reader expectations is within the story itself. The details we select for our worldbuilding, the aspects we focus on, the “rules” we explain, all help to lead the reader down a path of understanding our unique story world.
Just as Stephenie Meyer convinced her readers that in her world vampires sparkled, we can convince readers that our vampire (werewolf, dragon, mermaid, kidnapper, terrorist, etc.) rules are a bit different from usual as well. The opening line of George Orwell’s 1984 (“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”) told us this world was different from ours. They still had clocks, but they “bonged” thirteen times.
Word choice (one of my opening lines includes the words “hornet’s snuggery”), internalization (thoughts reflecting that the point-of-view character is not human), setting details (starship bridge), etc. can all be used to give readers the heads up that the story world is not the same as the world around them. The story world should be hinted at as soon as possible to anchor the reader. If you’ve seen the movie From Dusk Till Dawn, you know how disconcerting it can be to have the normal world yanked out from under us halfway through the movie.
By using small building blocks of worldbuilding details, we can gradually build up a strong sense of this world for the reader. And even if our story veers left when the reader expected it to veer right, if the new direction makes sense for what the reader knows of this story world, they’ll be more likely to accept it.
A Case Study with a Mixed Genre Story
I’ve been struggling with this issue for my novella. I originally described my story as a dystopian romance with steampunk elements. However, some readers—who love the idea of steampunk—latched onto that aspect and were disappointed by the fact that “steampunk elements” meant the steam engine technology wasn’t the main focus of the story. Also, some readers thought the story premise was too dark for a romance.
Er, yeah, the world the heroine lives in is misogynistic to the extreme with sexual slavery and alluded-to rapes, so those readers have a point. But it has a happily ever after ending. Yay! Um, so how do I get that across?
I’ll probably mess with the description more in the future, but I’m currently thinking of this story as a post-apocalyptic fairytale. Disney has trained us to think of fairytales as colorful and musical, but the original fairytales were often quite dark. I’ve lost count of how many of the Grimm fairytales end with the main characters eaten alive by a wolf and (if they’re lucky) cut out from their stomach. As for the romance aspect, the storyline is quite Cinderella-ish—without the shoes. *smile*
Does that work? I honestly don’t know yet—I didn’t run the idea by anyone before this post. However, I think a description of “post-apocalyptic fairytale” does a better job of capturing the tone of the story. As far as what genre label I’d use in a query, one editor suggested I look at science fiction publishers.
Coming up with the right labels and worldbuilding details isn’t an exact science by any means, but being aware of how our choices influence the expectations of readers can help us experiment until we find the right approach.
Do you write stories that mix genres? Do you struggle with how to describe your stories? Can you think of worldbuilding details you’ve read that helped immerse you into a story world? What hasn’t worked for you? What do you think of “post-apocalyptic fairytale” for a description? What type of story would you expect from that?
After dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight—and accidentally tripping him—Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in making her sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas. Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.
Find Jami at her blog, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Goodreads.
Melinda here! Similar to last week’s post on worldbuilding by Teresa Frohock, I had one of those moments where it was like, “Hmm…. well no wonder I got those types of comments back!” Similar to Jami, I had one of those moments where I ‘marketed’ my story as a paranormal romance. But come to find out, it’s not that at all. It’s actually an urban fantasy with romantic elements. And that makes a world of difference! Because when I told someone paranormal romance at first, they then wanted to compare my book, and my main character, to the Sookie Stackhouse books, and that’s not at all what my story’s like, nor my main character. So I had to go back and tell them, “Well, it’s more like A Discovery of Witches meets Black Dagger Brotherhood meets 1984…but with a dragon and a few other creatures.” So now I know how I should classify the story for agents and the publishing world, and what I need to do to ensure I’m not misguiding and possibly disappointing my readers. ;)
I really do hope that you take advantage of this opportunity to pick Jami’s brain! She’s such a watering hole of writerly information!