Every genre has a formula. Many writers pride themselves on breaking formula, but are later disappointed that not many people seemed to like their changes. Those writers who don’t understand why, need to understand that consumers don’t like to buy “Soup Surprise.”
Imagine you have the biggest craving for chocolate cake. And not just any cake, either—your mouth is watering for the cake that is served at your favorite restaurant. So you go to that restaurant and order chocolate cake. After waiting patiently, you get your cake. You pick up a huge forkful of chocolatey goodness and put it in your mouth, only to discover…
They changed the recipe, and no one told you. It is now Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake.
Assuming you have no potential anaphylactic shock from any possible peanut allergies, you would still be very put out. Yes, at any other time, you might actually have enjoyed trying some Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake. But this was not expected, so your tastebuds revolt, and you have to spit it out.
Or, you go to that restaurant to have some soup. Every day, they always have your favorite soup, so you plan on having the same soup. But that day, they tell you, they are out of your soup. Now, they only have “Soup Surprise” – AND you have to order the soup to find out what it is.
Even with this warning, even if a customer did not have any possible food allergies, most people are not likely to order it.
Yes, there are the people who like an adventure and who will try anything, but most people go to their favorite place to have their favorite flavors.
The same is true for books. Most people go to their favorite genres and sub-genres to have their favorite characters and stories. It’s the reason that book and TV series are so popular: people ENJOY the familiar and the comfortable.
For example, I had been a long-time reader of a certain Cozy Tea Mystery series. I enjoyed the characters, the concepts, the pacing, and everything. For eight books, I was comfortable in that town, with that heroine, watching her gradually develop as a character, enjoying that she was gradually developing a romantic interest in the last three. Then, on book number nine… BAM!
The author changed the recipe on my beloved chocolate cake to add mint and peanut butter. For some reason, the heroine had amnesia. All of the regular characters, plus the romantic interest that the author had developed over the last few books, were now gone. Another male character was thrown in the story to take his place. The previously G-rated series now had multiple sex scenes that were written mildly X-Rated, there was more profanity, and the violence of the crime was more graphically described. None of the characters, not even the heroine, seemed familiar. I felt as disoriented as the amnesic heroine of the story claimed to be.
Ordinarily, I know I would have enjoyed this story. The mystery itself was well-conceived, the storytelling in general was very good. But the fact that my favorite chocolate cake now had peanut-butter-and-mint in it left me with a bitter taste in my literary mouth, and I have not picked up that series again.
I also enjoy some Science Fiction. There have been more than a few books over the years that people have suggested that I read, because they know I like Science Fiction. But SciFi is a strange animal, and has some very specific rules and formulas. It has many sub-genres that are very unique, including Time Travel, Alternate Universe, Hard Science Tech, Dystopian, and so on. Someone who is not familiar with the distinctions of these sub-genres is quick to assume that because I like some SciFi, that I like all of it. But any SciFi nerd knows that being a Trekkie does not automatically mean you will “go gaga” over Star Wars, or vice versa.
So, when I get these recommendations, I go in knowing that I am ordering the “Soup Surprise”—I merely know it’s soup, and I have no idea if I’ll really enjoy it. The way they describe the book sounds like something I might like, but I just have to read it to find out if it really is the flavor they claim it is. They have read a few SciFi books, so they are just sure this is one of the same kinds of stories that I like.
But that’s like saying, “Hey, I know you like Chicken Noodle Soup. You’re gonna love this. It has chicken in it, too.” (They think it’s the chicken that I like, when I actually enjoy the noodles the most.)
Sometimes I get lucky and they really did recommend a good SciFi story. But Science Fiction, like many genres that encompass a large variety of sub-categories, is not something you can have just a few tastes of, then assume you can make for yourself and mess with the recipe at the same time. As an editor, I have read stories by writers who were trying very hard to write stories from a genre that they had not read sufficiently, or for which they had only seen movies on screen. Their lack of experience with the formulas and “rules” for that kind of book was always apparent.
You might think that they had a right to experiment with that formula, and you would be right. But before changing around a recipe, you need to know the basics – that Chicken Noodle Soup needs to at least have chicken, noodles, and broth. Changing out a basic ingredient in the soup (genre) changes the kind of soup (genre) you are making (writing).
Before you as a writer want to get creative with a genre, be sure you have read enough of that genre to know its sub-genres and formula (“recipe”). Be sure to know what the basic ingredients are, before you end up serving your readers with a literary version of “Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake” or “Soup Surprise.”
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