start here

How to Write Popular Genre Fiction

Tropes aren't restrictions – they're guardrails to keep you on the right path for your readers.

“I want to write better books.”

New authors often say some variation of this phrase but few understand that improvement doesn’t follow one path. Yes, there are some general writing techniques anyone can deploy to raise a manuscript to a basic standard, no matter its genre. You can create a developmental editing checklist to help you identify plot holes, for instance, or memorise punctuation rules to fix objective mistakes. Beyond these obvious errors, however, is a lot of nuance. You can’t enhance a romance novel using the same formula you might use to improve a cyber-punk crime series. At some point, you must pass all “rules” through a genre filter and factor in audience taste.

Indeed, there are still best practices you can follow; they just become audience-dependent as you graduate to the upper echelons of novel mastery. As any popular author will tell you, it’s impossible to codify a mass-market bestseller like The Da Vinci Code. All we can do is narrow our focus and appeal to sub-genre superfans. If we do the job well, those fans will then propel that book into the mainstream. But specificity and research are key to begin the process. Don’t think “thriller” or “fantasy.” Think “domestic psychological thriller” or “young adult urban fantasy.” The clearer your vision, the better you can analyse a sub-genre and work out what works.

It’s easy once you have clarity. At that point, you can often break down popular books that are extremely similar to the ones you want to write and use them to devise a genre-specific editorial checklist. This approach won’t produce a formulaic book. On the contrary, the system enables you to explore original ideas and inject your own style into your manuscript. It just provides guardrails you can follow to adapt your ideas so that they’re more likely to prove popular with fans of your sub-genre. Follow the steps in today’s post and you will drastically improve your chances of writing a book that die-hard readers of a sub-genre love without sacrificing creativity.

Set Appropriate Stakes

A good first step for any genre fiction author to take is to read books that are similar to the one they’re trying to write — specifically with a mind to analyse the stakes they contain. Take, for example, chick lit. Often, in this genre, the stakes for the heroine might be her job or relationship status. Should she tell her boss how she feels about him? Could it cost her the position she’s always wanted as editor of the fashion magazine? Likewise, in a space opera, the stakes might be ownership of a galaxy. In epic fantasy, it might be saving the kingdom from a dark lord and his dragon. In a psychological thriller, it could be leaving a marriage with your life intact.

Identifying which stakes are popular with your target readers is a great place to start. However, it also pays to be aware of which stakes aren’t interesting for them. For instance, in a traditional cosy mystery set in a manor house, is there ever a serious threat of an alien invasion? Usually, no. Are the heroes of slashers concerned about the consequences of making dining etiquette faux pas like the characters are in a regency romance? No. The soup spoon dilemma rarely takes centre stage when there’s a killer on the loose. Comparing your book’s stakes to the ones that engage readers in its sub-genre will help you figure out which stakes will appeal to more readers.

Create a Whole World

Benefiting from her contract, JK Rowling had a lot of control over her early Wizarding World movies. Once, she exerted this influence by stopping an executive from creating a scene in which a tiny trumpeter climbed out of the instrument of a larger one in a brass band. Visually, this scene would be fun, but Rowling argued that it didn’t make sense in her world. Her magic system had rules and they didn’t work that way. This might seem like an odd battle to pick in the grand scheme but it was logical: create a world that’s consistent for superfans that pay attention to the details and you will retain their devotion. She was fighting to keep her core readers sweet.

Keeping the mechanics of your setting consistent is important because it maintains the tension for your stakes. Imagine, for example, you disregard physics in a sci-fi book; your battles will lack tension because anything could defeat your villain even when they’re winning. Similarly, if your regency romance society doesn’t have strict etiquette codes, how could your heroine accidentally embarrass herself? If your 1846 historical novel contains a flushing toilet that was invented in 1851, how can your history readers feel immersed? Sub-genre superfans seek out fully furnished worlds that adhere to their interests. Sweat the details and it will keep them invested.

Consider Word Choice

Read a few bestsellers within a single genre and you’ll notice they share a similar feel. It isn’t necessarily that the authors cover the same subject matter but that many use a similar palette of words to paint a picture. The similarities are subtle in some instances and overt in others. Consider the following speech, for example:

“Unhand me, squire!”

“Get off, dude!”

Which one are you more likely to read in The Lord of the Rings and which in Thirteen Reasons Why? These phrases have similar meanings but you can immediately tell which genre they portray. It’s important to consider such word choice differences because selecting appropriate ones will help you appeal to fans of your sub-genre.

This issue doesn’t just apply to speech, either. Make the wrong word choices when it comes to the narrative voice and you could risk breaking the fourth wall for particular readers, as is apparent in the following line:

“The dragon rider pulled at the beast’s reins and it did a loop in the air like fighter jet.”

Out of context, this simile is fine. It works for modern-day urban fantasy like the Percy Jackson books. This is only true, though, because planes exist in that universe. It wouldn’t work in an epic fantasy like The Game of Thrones because that world doesn’t have planes, therefore, a jet shouldn’t even appear in a simile.

Study Archetypes

Have you noticed that epic fantasies contain similar characters? There’s often a hero from a remote village. Then there’s a mentor, a villain, a sidekick, a rival and a love interest. Stereotypically, the protagonist is a teenage boy who needs these other characters to fulfil his potential. In domestic thrillers, meanwhile, the protagonist is more typically an independent, isolated woman in her thirties. Why? It’s because lots of teenage boys read epic fantasy and lots of adult women read domestic thrillers. Yes, exceptions exist, but the trend is prevalent and both groups like relatable characters. If you want to spark imaginations, appeal to key reader demographics.

Many authors write solid genre fiction with appropriate stakes, a fleshed-out world and genre-specific word choices but fail because their heroes don’t reflect their largest potential reader demographic. As a result, those characters fight for unrelatable reasons and react to tropey scenarios in ways that don’t interest the genre’s most avid readers. Those who inhale a specific fiction sub-genre often do so because they enjoy reading particular character arcs. Ignoring their favourite character archetype might make for a more original story but, in doing so, it alienates a large percentage of the reader base and makes it harder to find an audience.

Choose a Point of View

Say you’ve chosen the right hero, stakes, setting details and lexicon. How does the reader experience it all? The answer: point of view. Which characters you choose to follow with a literary camera, so to speak, will greatly influence the feel of your story. Do you hop between characters or stick with one? Often, the “right” answer depends on the story. A police procedural might have chapters written from the perspectives of the most important characters: the detective, the victim and / or the criminal. Meanwhile, children’s fiction might only follow the protagonist and epic fantasy might jump between lots of characters who each play a part in the action.

Where you point your lens as an author dictates how much the reader knows, whether it’s possible to build dramatic irony and what each character is thinking. Equally important is how you point the camera. Do you dive into a character’s head with a first-person narrator? This can be a useful strategy if you’re writing a suspenseful horror because it locks the reader into the victim’s mind and limits what they see, adding to the tension. Or do you go with third person? It’s common for action thrillers that contain elaborate fight scenes. Look at the bestsellers in your sub-genre and you will spot trends you can use to influence your creative decisions.

When it comes to writing genre fiction, there are exceptions. Some successful authors write books that break the proverbial mould on their first attempt but doing so relies on luck. More who succeed often follow a predictable path, aiming to master well-trodden tropes and techniques to build an audience before they change the game. Either strategy is valid. Follow the guidelines in this article, however, and you will build more predictable growth for yourself by writing popular genre fiction, which is useful long-term if you want to become a career author.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.