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.