Genre conventions are established rules, traits, characteristics, and elements that are commonly associated with and accepted within a particular genre of art, literature, film, or other forms of media.
A simple definition comes from Christine Nord (2018):
“Genre conventions are the result of the standardization of communication practices. As certain kinds of text are used repeatedly in certain situations with more or less the same function or functions, these texts acquire conventional forms.” (Nord, 2018)
These conventions help both creators and audiences identify and categorize a work within its specific genre. Conventions might include specific themes, styles, structures, or motifs that are often repeated within works of the same genre.
10 Elements of Genre Conventions
There are many elements of a genre that combine to create conventional forms and tropes within cultural texts. These can include theme, setting, character, iconography, tone, and so on.
Below are just a few of the many elements of genre:
- Themes and Topics: This refers to the central ideas or subjects that are recurrent within a specific genre. For example, redemption is a common theme in Western films, the overwhelming power of love is recurrent in romances, and moral dilemmas are common in science fiction films.
- Setting: This refers to the time and place in which the story occurs. Fantasy genres often employ a medieval Europe setting, and science fiction films often take place in space.
- Characters: This refers to the specific types and archetypes of protagonists, antagonists, and supporting roles commonly found in a particular genre. For instance, detective noir films often have a hard-boiled private investigator, while fairy tales might have a damsel in distress and a gallant knight.
- Plot Structure: This pertains to the way the narrative is constructed and unfolds. Mystery genres often have complex plots with unexpected twists, while hero’s journey narratives are structured around a character’s personal growth and challenges.
- Tone and Mood: This refers to the emotional atmosphere of the story. Horror films create a mood of suspense and dread, while comedies aim for a light-hearted, humorous tone.
- Narrative Voice: This relates to the perspective from which the story is told. First-person narratives are common in memoirs and autobiographies, while omniscient narrators might be found in epic fantasies.
- Iconography: This pertains to the recurring symbolic images that represent certain themes or ideas within a genre. Gothic novels, for example, might use dark castles and stormy nights to symbolize danger and the unknown.
- Conflict and Resolution: This refers to the challenges faced by the protagonists and how they overcome them. Adventure genres may focus on physical challenges and battles, while dramas may center on emotional or relational conflicts.
- Style and Pacing: This relates to how the story is presented in terms of language, cinematography, or other artistic choices. Action films often have fast pacing with quick cuts, while period dramas might be slower and more focused on detailed settings and dialogues.
- Moral and Philosophical Underpinnings: This refers to the deeper messages or lessons that a genre might aim to convey. Dystopian novels often question societal norms and values, while parables convey moral lessons through allegorical tales.
The Purpose of Genre Conventions
While genre conventions are oftentimes arbitrary social constructs, they also serve important purposes, which is why societies have developed them.
According to Gina Macdonald, genre conventions serve two purposes:
1. A framework for writers
Writers often appreciate genre convention because they help guide the writers on their journey.
As Macdonald (1997) notes: “they provide writers a ready-made framework of plot schemes, conflicts, values, and patterns on which to build their individual concerns.”
Similarly, Nord (2018) notes that writers can benefit from genre-conventions because it allows them to communicate their meaning in an agreed-upon fashion that readers can quickly understand: “authors have to comply with the conventions if they want to carry out their communicative intentions” (Nord, 2018).
Take an essay, for example. It is conventional to have an introduction that signposts the author’s thesis. This helps the writer remember to include helpful elements at the beginning of the text, which the writer knows their audience will be expecting.
2. Guidance and comfort for readers
Readers often enjoy when texts follow genre forms because genre conventions provide readers with “the security and pleasure of familiar patterns” (Macdonald, 1997).
When readers consume a text that contains genre conventions, they will be able to infer familiar plotlines, character relationships, and so on, which make the readers feel well-oriented and clear about what the text is doing.
As Ornia (2016) argues: “Genre conventions are signs for the reader, which allow for distinctions between different genres and trigger users’ expectations, helping them to understand a text” (Ornia, 2016).
To take the previous example about an essay, the inclusion of an introduction that signposts the author’s thesis helps the reader to understand what the essay is about from the outset, which makes them feel oriented and fends off potential confusion.
Genre Conventions Examples
1. Gothic Fiction
Gothic fiction, sometimes referred to as Gothic horror, is a genre that combines elements of horror and romance, and it emerged in the late 18th century.
Here are some of its conventions:
- Setting: Gothic fiction predominantly takes place in isolated, decrepit, and often antiquated settings. Common locales include old castles, mansions, and abbeys that carry a haunting, mysterious atmosphere. These settings frequently feature labyrinths, secret passages, and dungeons.
- Atmosphere: The mood in Gothic fiction is one of brooding and melancholy. There’s a prevalent sense of foreboding, heightened by elements such as inclement weather, darkness, or eerie landscapes.
- Characters: Central characters in Gothic fiction often include a virtuous heroine, a Byronic hero with a dark past, and malevolent villains. Supernatural entities, like ghosts, vampires, or otherworldly creatures, are also commonplace.
- Themes: Themes of confinement, persecution, and the supernatural are recurrent. There’s often a blurring line between reality and the supernatural, leading to ambiguity about whether supernatural occurrences are real or imagined.
2. Film Noir
Film noir is a cinematic genre that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, known for its dark and moody atmosphere.
Here are four of its conventions:
- Visual Style: One of the most distinctive features of film noir is its high-contrast lighting, known as chiaroscuro. Scenes are often drenched in shadows, with sharp angles and interplays of light and dark, creating a sense of mystery and foreboding. This technique is used to emphasize the moral ambiguity and the dual nature of characters.
- Femme Fatale: A recurring character in film noir is the femme fatale, a seductive and mysterious woman. She often leads the protagonist into danger or acts as an antagonist. She is characterized by her wit, allure, and often duplicitous nature, representing both desire and danger.
- Themes of Fate and Moral Ambiguity: Film noir frequently delves into themes of destiny, existentialism, and the inescapability of fate. Characters often find themselves in situations beyond their control, trapped by circumstances or past decisions. The line between right and wrong is blurred, with characters making morally ambiguous choices, reflecting the complexities of human nature.
3. Epic Fantasy
Epic fantasy, often simply referred to as “high fantasy,” is a subgenre of fantasy fiction characterized by grand scale, intricate plots, and a vast, often invented, world.
Here are four of its conventions:
- Expansive World-Building: One of the hallmarks of epic fantasy is its vast and detailed world-building. The setting often includes multiple kingdoms or realms, each with its own history, culture, languages, and politics. These worlds are frequently enriched with detailed maps, ancient prophecies, and complex mythologies.
- Grand Quests: Central to many epic fantasy narratives is a grand quest or mission. This quest, often undertaken by a group of diverse characters, is of paramount importance, with the fate of the world or its inhabitants hanging in the balance. It’s not uncommon for this journey to span continents and face numerous challenges, from deadly creatures to intricate riddles.
- Moral Dichotomy: Epic fantasy often portrays a clear distinction between good and evil. While there may be morally ambiguous characters, there’s usually a discernible difference between the forces of light and darkness. This dichotomy is often embodied in epic battles, magical artifacts, or prophesied heroes and villains.
Selective and Enabling Constraints for Genre Writers
In the context of genre conventions, “Selective Constraints” and “Enabling Constraints” refer to the limitations and possibilities that are inherent in a specific genre.
Both types of constraints play a role in guiding and shaping the creation of works within a genre.
1. Selective Constraints
Selective constraints are the specific rules, conventions, and expectations that a creator must adhere to when working within a particular genre (Kessler & Watts, 2020).
They help in defining and maintaining the identity of the genre. By adhering to these constraints, creators ensure that their work is recognizable and categorizable within the specific genre.
- In a classic detective mystery, the crime (often a murder) must be solved by the end of the story.
- In a traditional romance novel, there’s an expectation of a happy ending for the main characters.
- In a western film, settings like the American frontier and character archetypes like cowboys and outlaws are expected.
2. Enabling Constraints
While they may seem like limitations at first, enabling constraints are elements that open up possibilities for creativity and innovation within the boundaries of the genre (Kessler & Watts, 2020).
Enabling constraints provide a framework or structure that creators can play with, subvert, or reinterpret to bring freshness to the genre (Kessler & Watts, 2020). They challenge creators to think innovatively and offer unique contributions while still staying true to the essence of the genre.
Enabling constraints can lead to the evolution of a genre or the creation of subgenres.
- The fixed structure of a sonnet in poetry can be seen as an enabling constraint. While poets must adhere to a specific rhyme scheme and meter, they have the freedom to explore diverse themes and expressions within that structure.
- The foundational rules of a fairy tale (e.g., the presence of magic, clear delineation of good vs. evil) can be played with to create retellings, parodies, or darker interpretations.
- The setting of a confined spaceship in science fiction can be an enabling constraint, pushing writers to delve deeply into character dynamics and psychological tensions.
Overall, while selective constraints help maintain the identity and consistency of a genre, enabling constraints offer avenues for exploration, innovation, and growth within the genre’s framework.
Playing with Genre: How Authors Undermine our Expectations
The rise of postmodernism since the 1980s has been accompanied with a push to challenge and undermine genre-convention in order to shock consumers and ask them to re-imagine the metanarratives in their minds.
The postmodern perspective highlights that genres are there to be broken and changed over time:
“Genre conventions are not totally stable throughout time; on the contrary, they evolve and change. So translators need to be aware of this possible evolution both in time and space” (Jimenez-Crespo, 2013)
Postmodern literature and art often embraces a fragmented narrative structure as a way to challenge the idea of the “grand metanarrative”. Post-modernists reject the idea that one coherent narrative can explain the world and instead embraces plurality and contradiction.
As a result, you may find postmodern literature to be active in attempting to play with new genre forms and undermine consumers’ expectations. For some examples, see my article: examples of postmodernism.
Jimenez-Crespo, M. A. (2013). Translation and Web Localization. Taylor & Francis.
Kessler, K., & Watts, L. (2020). Conventions and Obligatory Moments: The Must-Haves to Meet Audience Expectations. Story Grid Publishing LLC.
Macdonald, G. (1997). Robert Ludlum: A Critical Companion. Bloomsbury Academic.
Nord, C. (2018). Translating as a Purposeful Activity: Functionalist Approaches Explained. Taylor & Francis.
Ornia, G. F. (2016). Medical brochure as a textual genre. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]