Of The Giving Of Cues

Sarah’s been talking about mystery (and other) plot structures. If you’re going to market to a genre where there’s an expected structure to the story, you need to know these things. Similarly, if you’re going to market to any genre, you need to know how to give the right cues to your readers.

Some genre readers are more willing than others to accept structures that break their rules. To a certain extent, anyway. But miscue something, and you’ll have disappointed readers who’ll avoid you from then on.

Let me give an example without naming names. A few years back I was asked to give an opinion on a novel someone was trying to sell. It was an extremely well-written fantasy that used elements of epic fantasy and quest fantasy, the pacing was close to perfect, and the characters were easy to identify with. But the overall result was disappointing. It felt wrong.

It took me a while to realize: the relationship between the primary character and the hidden prince (secondary character) had all the cues of romance, but there wasn’t one. The relationship that evolved was somewhere between friendly and sibling.

The cues I saw and subconsciously noted were:

  • Female protagonist, and the first character other than the protagonist introduced is the secondary character.
  • Immediate chemistry between first and second character.
  • Subplots that are typical of romance subplots (misunderstandings between the characters causing tension, jealousy/rivalry when other characters are introduced).
  • Tension between the two characters increases over the course of the book.
  • Characters clearly like and respect each other even when they are disagreeing and/or arguing.
  • Much of the action and interaction is between the two characters.

Those of you who are familiar with any form of romance would be nodding along here and agreeing that if the book wasn’t primarily romance it damn well ought to have a secondary romantic plot line. Except that it didn’t: the author wasn’t aware that these cues pointed to a strong romance plot structure, so didn’t know why the novel wasn’t getting traction.

(Incidentally, if you think you recognize yourself in this deliberately vague description, don’t worry too much. I’ve done the exact same thing with miscuing, and then had to go and clean out all the bad cues to make the piece work. Think “learning experience”.)

The way to avoid this and make sure you’re giving the right cues in your work is to read widely. Especially read outside your main genre. You need to be aware that if you’ve got a strong mystery plot, you should be putting in the cues for the red herrings and the real culprit and all the other little goodies mystery authors tease their readers with. Similarly, if your epic fantasy does not have a strong romance subplot, take the time to make sure you aren’t throwing romance cues at your readers. That will just make the more romance-oriented ones unhappy. It could well make the non-romance readers unhappy too, because these cues are deeply embedded in our culture (yes, they do differ across cultures. The USA and other primarily English-speaking nations are similar enough that we don’t miscue each other too often, but it does happen. An Australian romance is not likely to include much if any of the really sappy hearts and flowers stuff, particularly compared to an American one. A Brit romance is more likely to include class-based differences as potential relationship block – and yes, that’s even in a fantasy or SF context).

So read a lot, work out what the heck you’re setting your readers up for, then go out and give it heaps.

24 thoughts on “Of The Giving Of Cues

  1. IIRC you, Kate, or maybe Amanda mentioned a book a few years ago that managed to split the difference and go splat. The author was calling it sci fi, because “aliens and SPAAAAAACCCEEEEEE!” but all the cues were romance and so was the plot. So Romance readers were irked about the aliens-n-junk, and sci-fi readers hit the kissing and bailed. Sort of the opposite of a Reeses (TM) peanutbutter cup.

    1. Lois McMaster Bujold has done some with this. “Komarr” and “A Civil Campaign” are SF, but also a romance in two parts. She has written in some detail about the different genre conventions and the pitfalls of navigating reader expectations. As expected, the SF readers who liked Miles Vorkosigan’s youthful military exploits objected vociferously to the romance cooties, while the romance readers didn’t care for the SF elements.

      The “Sharing Knife” was an even more explicit attempt to marry the Fantasy and Romance genres, and also managed to draw dislike from both sides.

      1. Considering the “none of them will come home with me!” romantic subplots in all those adventures, is kind of funny.

  2. …hit the kissing… I am reminded of an SF novel of some decades ago, of won the Hugo award level, in which I applied my usual ‘another obligatory fornication scene, skip two pages’ rule, and discovered I had skipped a large part of the book, so far as I could tell without missing anything. Some SF readers will hit the kissing and bail; others demonstrably like the stuff.

    1. I always skip love scenes. Romance is cool, love scenes, no. Great, towering romances are very cool, I’m thinking Beren and Luthien kind of towering. But I can’t be bothered with tab A/slot B for several pages.

      Hilariously, my misbehaving characters can’t keep their sticky fingers off each other for two seconds. I am hoist by my own petard/brain. And, more hilariously, I can’t write tab A/slot B for sour apples. It comes out -so- stupid.

      1. Obligatory reminder that your premise has gotten me intrigued and I want to know when your books are available to purchase on Amazon, and/or borrow on Kindle Unlimited. (If a book is on Kindle Unlimited, I borrow it first, then if I’ve read it to the end and want to read it again, I buy it so that the author gets paid twice).

        1. That is much appreciated Robin. The book is in Cover Limbo right now, I’m struggling with the ripout/renovate of a bathroom here at Phantom Command. Ripout done, marble tile down on the floor, and now the fun that is plumbing. Followed by drywall, more tile, more plumbing, and so forth.

          So the cover keeps getting pushed back. On the bright side, If I don’t get this shit done by September I lose my free workman.

          But if you’re dying for something to read, drop a line to thephantom_pi at yahoo dot com and I can fix you up. If you give me a review, you will be the FIRST ONE to do so. (That was me unsubtly poking other people with a stick. Y’all know who you are 😉

  3. Cues are very much culture dependent. There was a story which gave hints in American that a character was the tyrant at the root of the problem and gonna get killed. Very foreign author. Find out that the apparent friendly meeting between the tyrant and the protagonists was really just that, that the author wrote it as man versus environment, and head desk.

  4. Ok, what book was that? I’m interested.

    What? There’s way too little friendship and way too much romance in most stories nowadays.

    1. I agree. (And it’s funny that my book *does* have a romance of sorts in it… but the only kiss in the entire book is a joke, and not between the couple. It’s definitely a friendship-based romance.)

  5. There was a book several years back that was marketed as sci-fi, and which I read to find that it was literati. I thought it was from someone from the literature side dabbling in science fiction and thinking that they were original, but it turns out that it was very well-regarded in certain circles. (This was well before the Hugo stuff, so I hadn’t realized, but you know the drill.)

    The thought I had was “there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere.”

    I should also note that when I read The Time Traveler’s Wife, I was under the impression that it was being sold under the Literature banner. Most places put it in sci-fi now, but the cues it gives are more towards lit.

    1. What is a “lit” cue? When the reader is dying for something to happen? Or when they start cheering for the bad guy to annihilazer the mopey main character?

      1. I’d say yes, plus lots and lots of verbiage and language tricks that don’t really add to the story but that are oh, soooo cool and were written with the pinkie finger sticking out.

        (For me, literary cues are like academic signalling. I know them when I see them, and I’ve written a few [academic cues] myself, but I can’t really do more than point and say “this is one.”)

      2. In this case, it was multiple fruitless ruminations on how life was kind of pointless and memories of his father. You know, angst.

        1. Life IS pointless. You’re born, you live, and then you die. When you finally figure that out and move on, is the moment you become an adult.

          So lit is the whinging of overaged teens about how everything is so unfair and pointless?

          No wonder I don’t like it.

  6. My probably-next-book, as the cover is likely to take less long than the drafts between co-authors, does have a romance in it. The couple, at least on-screen, are not seen to kiss until the last few paragraphs.of the book. Of course, he does then agree to marry her.

    1. In A Diabolical Bargain, the romance subplot concludes with the heroine’s guardian asking her to put off a betrothal for a couple of years until she completes her studies.

      Though said guardian is letting the hero stay at her house for a time just when she asks.

  7. Was musing about clues or cues with a WIP. It’s an action story with weak hints of romantic notions, but it wasn’t working as an action story. In this case the solution was simple: Move the division between chapters to cliffhangers or hints of action to come.

    Right now I’m fighting the urge to go back and revise clues and cues in order to finish the rough draft. Maybe should note needed changes as I go on for the first revision.

    There’s another aspect that’s not working: it’s also a buddy story. Think Lethal Weapon, but it’s not a crime story. Well, think somewhere between Lethal Weapon and Cheech and Chong. The problem is lack of clue and cues in that direction. This is going to be harder to do than going back with the others, but it really wants to be a buddy story.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: