Genre Tropes And Expanding Horizons

By Brian Kaufman

My wife and I carpooled with a friend on the way to a writer’s conference. The conversation turned to our chosen genres. My friend wrote fantasy, so my wife—an ardent reader—began asking about favorite authors. Fantasy was not a genre she often enjoyed, but she knew a fantastic number of writers in the field. My friend seemed confused by the names and eventually explained that he didn’t read fantasy though he wrote fantasy. 

There are two schools of thought. One advises knowing what other authors write so you can understand the genre reader’s expectations (and avoid the mistaken impression that your pet idea is new). As for those pesky genre expectations, breaking rules should be applauded, so long as you understand the reason for the rules in the first place.

The other school doesn’t want to know what other authors have done because they have a story to tell and don’t care what other authors have done.

Given the way I’ve presented this issue, you can easily guess my opinion—if you want to write a genre, you should read the genre. As an unrepentant genre-hopper, I tend to go a little beyond reading. Let me share my obsessive nature by detailing an example.

I had an idea for a noir novel. Noir (French for “black”) is characterized by a focus on a descent into self-inflicted destruction, often in a crime setting. My protagonist would be a private eye. He would have a sardonic, first-person voice. (Sound familiar? It ought to. But wait.)

I began my project by reading. I started with the classic hard-boiled stories, including Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and James Cain. Then I read a dozen Akashic collections, reading the short stories and the introductory essays. I read local noir writers like Michael Pool (Rose City) and Benjamin Whitmer (Pike, Cry Father). Along the way, I discovered terrific prose (Lisa Sandlin, The Do-Right) and brilliant analysis (Dennis Lehane, Introduction to Boston Noir). 

Because so many readers derive their expectations and sense of pacing from movies, I watched noir and neo-noir films. I’d never seen The Maltese Falcon (Bogart’s most menacing role), so I had pleasant surprises in store. I knew some of the directors (Polanski, Altman). Still, I was most interested in European expatriates like Billy Wilder, Jacques Tourneur, and Fritz Lang. These directors took German expressionism from Nosferatu to noir, using style elements that became a staple (wet streets, shadowed faces, flashing neon, and cigarette smoke). I made sure that the imagery transferred to my prose. 

One storytelling element that interested me was the flashback. (An excellent film example comes from Sunset Boulevard, which opens on a dead body and ends with the revelation that the dead body was William Holden, the film’s voice-over narrator.) Flashback and voice-over serve essential purposes—because everything has already happened, events are inevitable. This provides dramatic tension but also ties into the dark philosophy of noir.

This led me to a narrative strategy. First-person narrative begs the question: “When was this written?” Since I envision the story as the first in a series, that question will eventually pay off in surprise. Hints will be dropped about the future—nothing good is coming, and all hope is false hope.

My protagonist’s narration occasionally mixes in a little meta-fun, breaking the fourth wall to make sport of himself, the character. (At one point, my narrator says, “the writer has his little jest with the protagonist. Hopefully, this will evoke sympathy for the poor fellow, who has bad things ahead of him. That’s not a spoiler. It’s a clearly established character arc.”)

I also studied critical analysis of the noir anti-hero, informed by the “Dark Triad”—three damning character traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy). A theme appeared because my noir would be a near-future crime story with dystopian elements. Would the three negative traits (in moderate doses) be a (temporary) advantage to the protagonist? Worth exploring.

The attraction of a noir anti-hero involves the guilty pleasure of watching someone do what others might wish they could do. For example, did you ever think, what I should have said was—. My protagonist indulges in cathartic nonsense that draws applause at the moment (and, hopefully, sheepish regret later). 

I mentioned philosophy. The prevailing philosophy of noir is existentialism, bordering, in some cases, on nihilism. This positioning is similar to the horror genre (a genre I am familiar with). The sense of predetermination implied in flashbacks echoes here. 

I read the work of influential thinkers and was impressed enough to use quotes as chapter headers. A few examples:

“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.” (Jean-Paul Sartre) This dour thought is a suitable windmill for my knucklehead to tilt at.  

“The true man wants two things: danger and play. For that reason, he wants woman, as the most dangerous plaything.” (Friedrich Nietzsche). This results in the noir notion of the femme fatale. For my purposes, this trope became one of the rules I’d break—the only virtuous character in my novel is the female client.

“Stupidity has a knack of getting its way.” (Albert Camus). My protagonist is streetwise but not wise enough to save himself (something the after-the-fact narrator chides him for consistently).

“There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh at.” (Theodor W. Adorno). The fast-paced banter of noir is both a guilty pleasure and a distraction from impending doom. The jokes are funny because they’re not really funny.

Did I mention music? I wrote to dark, moody jazz like John Coltrane’s melancholy sax and some early Miles Davis. Blue elements in the piece called to me, which brings up another point. An author with an emotional connection to his projects maximizes a good idea. The music, the imagery, the philosophy, and the mechanisms of noir fit my frame of mind (informed by current events).

I did not, however, buy a Fedora. There are limits to my obsession. (Full disclosure—I did shop online for one.)

What lessons can you gather from all of this?

  • Genre research helps meet reader expectations and adds informed surprises that set your story apart when you deviate from the tropes. It’s easier to march to your own tune if you’ve listened to the drumming of others.
  • My immersion strategy works for editing. I have a good friend who “calibrates” herself with strategic reading assignments before embarking on editing projects. Different genres have different expectations.
  • Researching genre works when critiquing others for a writing group, mainly when one is unfamiliar with the genre in question. It’s helpful to understand what the writer intends before judging the effectiveness of a piece.
  • Everything here applies to non-genre, literary fiction. 
  • You will increase the enjoyment of writing by digging deeper. You’re an artist. Become obsessed.

I have done similar research for each of my books, which ought to raise questions for those who know me. One might wonder, for example, how I immersed myself in preparation for my zombie novel. 

Please don’t ask.

Don’t Read. Don’t Write.

Writers Need to Read

Listening to Audiobooks IS Reading

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