An editor friend of mine was at a writing conference not too long ago, and he came back with a horror story about genre fiction (no, not a horror genre story.) There’s two basic reminders for writing genre fiction that good writers follow.
Know the Tropes
If you’re going to write genre fiction, you have to know the tropes. If it’s a hardboiled detective story, you need a detective, usually a gruff one. If it’s space opera, it better be set in space. Romance? There better be a romantic relationship front and center.
Now, understand that this doesn’t mean you’ve got to spend a lot of time researching every possible thing that needs to be there. Some of this comes with practice, some from having good beta readers (or editors). Some can even come from natural talent. If you’re the type of author that tends to skimp on research, maybe do a little more than you normally would. If you’re the type that immerses yourself into the research so deeply that you could probably write a doctoral thesis about the genre, maybe stop short of that.
The point is that you have to hit the proverbial target. You’ve got to nail enough of the tropes down that a reader can say without thinking too hard, “Yep, this is a <insert whatever genre> because it has <insert trope here>”
Subvert the Tropes
Now, the fun part. You know the tropes, now you have to subvert them. You heard me: change something; invert something. That detective in your hardboiled tale? It’s a woman. Space opera? Yeah, but it’s underwater.
I won’t lie to you. Deciding which of the tropes (and how many) to subvert is even harder than knowing them. It’s okay; I believe in you. If you’re just starting out, pick just one trope to change. You’d be surprised how much bang for your buck you can get from subverting just one.
Which one? What’s the one thing that annoys you about the genre? That military sci-fi that always seems to have a white male dudebro protagonist? What if he’s not a decorated war hero? Maybe he’s scared shitless and pukes before every battle, but that’s part of what makes him an effective leader.
What would bring you the most joy to change? Maybe you’ve always wanted to tell a stroy about a romantic comedy where the two potential lovers are androids. Or an alien and a human. Or it’s actually a love quadrangle.
Subverting tropes is where you as a writer get to separate yourself as a genre author. It’s an opportunity to be different, to put your unique spin on things. Take advantage of it; have fun with it! You are doing this (writing genre fiction) because you want to, right?
Readers Don’t Care If It’s Cliché as Long as It’s Done Well
Surprise! It’s a third rule! (We editors are sneaky like this, sometimes.)
Clichés are familiar; they’re comfortable. Used properly, they’re like signposts for a reader, taking them from unfamiliar territory onto home turf before casting them back into the unknown. As long as you do it well, they (mostly) won’t mind.
Ever read a horror story where you could see the ending coming but you didn’t care because how the story got there was so good? That’s you not caring about cliché. Murder mysteries where the butler did it? Still effective, if done well (possibly by leading the reader towards the butler as the killer and then away before turning back in the third act for the final reveal).
What are you doing still reading this post? Get out there and write!