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Using Genre Conventions and Reader Expectations to Write a Killer Story

Bijgewerkt op: 31 aug. 2023

You want readers to love your story.

Genre conventions and reader expectations play a big role to fulfill that desire. When you know the right notes to hit, your readers will love what you’ve written.

When you play the wrong ones… it can leave readers feeling confused or bored, leading them to put down your book.

You don’t want that, of course.

So, in this article, we’ll dive deeper into genre conventions and reader expectations to help you write a killer story readers won’t be able to put down.

If you’d like to watch the video instead (with additional examples), you can do so below.

Within this article, you'll find:

using genre conventions & reader expectations to write a killer story

What are genre conventions?

“Genre conventions are specific requirements for the story’s alternate world, avatars, and catalysts that create conflicts and enable solutions. Without specific genre conventions, the reader will be confused. unsettled, or bored and quit reading.” ---

In other words, conventions are:

  • Specific elements within the story’s world, such as a threatening atmosphere;

  • Types of characters such as shapeshifters;

  • Catalysts for conflict and solutions, such as red herrings.

And these above elements are specific to a certain content genre.

What are reader expectations?

“Obligatory moments (i.e. expectations, red.) are the key events in every story that change the human value and pay off reader expectations in a story. The value shifts are the most pronounced in these moments of the story and readers tend to recognize and appreciate these moments more than other moments of the story. Obligatory moments are set up by the genre conventions in a story.” –

In other words, the story contains moments within a story that are expected by the reader based on the content genre, which is cued by the conventions. These moments are the most impactful on the story’s value, and readers often recognize them, for instance, as tropes.

Within the article about fiction genre, we also talked about the genre values. These are specific values that are associated with a certain genre, such as life-death values with an action genre or success-failure with a performance genre.

How do you find your conventions & expectations?

Now that you know what conventions and expectations are, how do you actually find the ones that you need in your story?

The best way to find which conventions your story needs is to read books and watch movies in your content genre.

As you may notice, it’s very important to understand what your content genre is because you will need it to understand which conventions and expectations you need in your story.

For instance, my content genre is thriller. I can narrow it down more because, specifically, I write young adult fantasy thriller. I can mostly look for stories that also target this age group and has fantasy elements.

I can also keep it more general. For instance, I could also just look at normal thriller stories or specify psychological thriller stories.

You can also use a mix of the two when you pick out your stories. So have a few that are very specific, more targeted to your age group and your realism setting.

And have one or two that are more general. These aren’t necessarily related to the specific type of story you’re writing. This can give you some different ideas for your conventions and expectations.


Finding your genre conventions

It’s one thing to know which stories you want to read; it’s another thing to know how to actually find these conventions and expectations.

What do you look for when you’re looking for conventions within your genre?

When you’re reading the story—or when watching a movie or TV show—just note down anything you notice on the following things:

  • Location, such as dangerous terrains, societal conflicts, or other more specific settings;

  • The levels of conflict, such as the conflict between groups of people, between protagonists and the environment or certain institutions, between the protagonists and other characters, or some internal conflicts. Also pay attention to specific power imbalances;

  • Character roles, such as hero, villain, victims, sidekicks, tricksters, threshold guardians, and so on. The hero’s journey archetypes can really be helpful here;

  • Catalysts. These are events that force a change within the story, such as a certain deadline or ticking clock. For instance, they only have a specific amount of time to stop the villain from doing something or this horrible event will happen. Other examples are a sacrifice of the protagonists, red herrings, and the McGuffin.

Find your reader expectations

To find the expected moments within a story, you can look for the following elements:

  • Unexpected events. These arise from conflict. They can appear in the inciting incident, the turning point, or the resolution of the story;

  • Revelations. These arise from information gained from another character or the environment or revelations happen because the protagonist gains a new perspective on the information they already possessed;

  • Decisions and actions. These arise from the unexpected events and the revelations as climax moments. Protagonists perform them to change themselves and their circumstances.

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You’ve found them, then what?

Once you’ve jotted down the conventions and expectations you found in each of the stories you’ve read or watched, you can compare them.

What do these different things have in common?

How can you make these points more abstract?

Write down these abstract versions, and you’ll have a list of the conventions and expectations.

Of course, it’s not that cut and dry. It can be difficult to find them. If you want a starting point for your conventions and expectations, the has lists for each genre that have some of the conventions and expectations.

I would still encourage you to do this exercise, however. Read books, watch movies, and find out your conventions and expectations within the more specific genre as well.

Sometimes there are differences in the execution of the conventions and expectations.

For instance, in a crime story, the crime itself is very different depending on whether you’re doing a detective story or whether you’re doing a heist story. It’s very important that you also look at the more specific conventions and expectations within the story you’re writing.


Use the conventions & expectations to analyze your story

You can use your list of genre conventions and reader expectations to help you brainstorm your story.

However, you can also use this list as a tool to analyze your story.

When you have your list of conventions and expectations, you can then check them against your story.

Do I have this convention?

If so, what is it? How did I fill this in?

Be honest. Is this strong enough? Is it really there? Can I do it differently?

Because you’ve found these examples from the stories you’ve read, you can compare it with those and find ideas that could make your conventions and expectations stronger.

Once you’ve checked your story, you can do one of two things.

You can instantly brainstorm new or improved conventions and expectations right after you’ve analyzed them.

Or you can go ahead with your story and analysis and brainstorm later.

I always prefer the latter option, so that I have a full overview of all the issues that I found in my story. Then I can brainstorm more fully.


Need help finding your genre conventions and expectations?

If you feel stuck with your story and need some help to determine how to continue, a developmental edit or manuscript critique could be a great option for you.

Within those services, I will lay out your genre conventions and reader expectations (and whether your story fulfilled them).

Often, this can be all the inspiration you need to brainstorm different ideas and come up with a way to fix your story.


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