Arts & Entertainment, Writing
Lesson time 13:13 min
Readers’ expectations are intrinsically tied to genre. Neil explains how an understanding of your story’s genre can help you provide delightful surprises to your audience.
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Topics include: Understand Reader Expectations · Learn the Rules in Order to Break Them · Sail Against Expectations · Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
I used to puzzle a lot over what genre was. I knew that I was writing sometimes genre fiction, sometimes not. I knew that I had a huge advantage in that the majority of what I was writing as a young writer was comics, was graphic novels, which is a medium, comics, that looks to the uninitiated like a genre. But because it wasn't a genre, it was just a medium, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. I could write historical fiction. I could write fantasy fiction. I could write high fantasy and low fantasy. I could do science fiction. I could do pure horror. I could do political fiction. I could do it all. And because it was all coming out as comics, people didn't mind. But what genre was baffled me. [MUSIC PLAYING] It wasn't until I read a book by a film professor in California called Linda Williams, who wrote a book called "Hard Core." And it was a film professor's analysis of hardcore pornography. And 3/4 of the way through the book, she compared hardcore pornography films of the 1970s to the musical. And suddenly, the penny dropped for me, because musicals, like 1970s porn films, had certain things that have to happen. You need the opening song by a large chorus of people. You need the heroine singing on her own about what she thinks is going to happen. You need the song that's the first meeting of our heroine and our hero. You need the comic relief song with the three robust people behind him. You need all of those things, ending up with the final song, which the hero and the heroine sing together that indicates they've been brought together. You need the final chorus, and then we're out. And the truth is in a classic musical, the plot exists purely to stop all of the songs from happening at the same time. Just as in a '70s porn film, according to Linda Williams, the plot existed to stop all of the sex happening at the same time. Though actually, that tells me what the difference is between a cowboy novel and a novel set in cowboy times, because you can just look at it from a perspective of reader expectations. What are they coming to this for? What will they feel cheated if they do not get? They're going to expect the cattle stampede. They're going to expect the showdown at high noon. They're going to expect the fight in the saloon. They're going to expect-- you start listing the things. And you go, OK. So the plot actually needs to exist to keep all of these things from happening at the same time. Or you can do a novel set in the Old West, and none of those things need to happen. You can go after completely different things. But you need to understand, at that point, you're writing something that might look like genre, but isn't. And that people may point to it as genre, and it's not. And that if somebody picks up your novel expecting genre, they will be disappointed, just as they would be if they went to see a musical and there were no songs at all. So a lot of what you wind up doing then with genre is...
About the Instructor
Award-winning author Neil Gaiman has spent more than a quarter of a century crafting vivid, absorbing fiction. Now, the author of Stardust, Coraline, and The Sandman teaches his approach to imaginative storytelling in his online writing class. Learn how to find your unique voice, develop original ideas, and breathe life into your characters. Discover Neil’s philosophy on what drives a story—and open new windows to the stories inside you.
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In his first-ever online class, Neil Gaiman teaches you how he conjures up new ideas, convincing characters, and vivid fictional worlds.Explore the Class