What Does Your Genre’s Theme Promise to Readers?
Theme is one of those concepts that can be hard to understand. We probably all learned in school that theme is a story’s “message”—the ideas that readers are supposed to take away from the story—but even that definition doesn’t clarify the answer enough.
We often repeat themes in our stories. Why? We want to come up with unique characters and plots, so why are themes different? If we understand why we repeat themes, we might gain a better understanding of what themes really are.
Our uncertainty about what themes are also isn’t helped by the fact that many of us encountered teachers during our school years who tried to tell us that the theme they identified was the theme—the important theme, the theme that mattered—and whatever we came up with was wrong. However, a story can (and probably will) have multiple themes.
More importantly, by understanding themes, we’ll do a better job of satisfying our readers. Trust me. *smile*
There’s been a big debate lately about readers being unhappy with some books being called romances, and believe it or not, the controversy comes down to themes. Let’s explore…
Why Do We Repeat Themes in Our Stories?
Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, certain ideas and beliefs resonate deep inside us. Our view of the world—optimistic or pessimistic, God does or doesn’t exist, true love is possible or not, people are basically good or selfish, technology will help us or kill us, etc.—is deeply a part of us.
More often than not, our stories will reflect that worldview.
While we can write characters with opposite beliefs, we’d likely find it difficult to write a whole story where the point was to “prove” a worldview that we don’t believe in. For example, if we believe people are basically good at their core, we’re not likely to write a story that “proves” all people are selfish or evil.
In other words, our story’s themes reflect our worldview. Therefore, unless we go through a massive psychological change that affects our worldview, our themes will repeat.
How Do Themes Affect Readers?
Our story’s messages or themes try to convince readers to consider another view of the world:
- what to value,
- what to believe,
- what to hope for,
- what to aim for, etc.
But we don’t just come out and say those messages. Instead, themes play in the subtext of our story.
Subtext can be powerful, however. A message that readers might reject if written out in a spoon-feeding or you-should-believe-this way might get through their defenses when presented in subtext.
Subtext is especially powerful as the clues add up over the course of the story. During revisions, we can make our theme more powerful by weaving our message through all the different elements of our story.
The plot arc can reinforce our character arc, which coordinates with the villain’s tragic flaw, etc. Each of those elements can create a theme, and hopefully those themes will work together to create a stronger, deeper message.
What Are Some of the Types of Themes?
The job of convincing readers to consider the world through a different perspective comes down to story elements. With that in mind, we can identify a list of the most common elements creating our themes:
- Story Themes: What is the premise of the story? Who’s supposed to win or lose—and why?
Making Our Case: Story Themes aim to convince readers by presenting a premise and resolution that match the values and beliefs of the worldview.
- Character Themes: How does the character change over the course of the story? What does the character learn?
Making Our Case: Character Themes aim to convince readers by presenting a character who learns the lesson for them.
- Plot Themes: During the turning points of the story, what do the characters attempt? Do they succeed or fail—and why?
Making Our Case: Plot Themes aim to convince readers by presenting evidence that reinforces Story Themes.
- Choices Themes: What choices are the characters making? Do the results match the Story or Character Themes (choices that agree with the themes should succeed and vice versa)?
Making Our Case: Choices Themes aim to convince readers by presenting evidence that reinforces Story or Character Themes.
- Villain Themes: What are the villain’s beliefs? Are they reinforced or disproved by plot events?
Making Our Case: Villain Themes aim to convince readers by presenting evidence that reinforces Story or Character Themes.
But Wait—One More Theme to Add to the List!
Since writing the post referenced above that delves into those different types of themes, I’ve realized there’s one more element that creates a theme for most stories.
This element is so high-level that we probably aren’t consciously aware of it. Yet it might be responsible for why we write the genre we do. *smile*
- Genre Themes: What is the promise to the reader from our genre? Does the story deliver?
People often talk about genre stories being formulaic, but what they really mean is that genres make promises to the reader—and that promise is inflexible. Yet the reason the promise is inflexible is because that’s why readers of the genre pick up the story.
When thriller readers pick up a story marketed as a thriller, they expect to find a story with a nail-biting race to a satisfying confrontation with the villain. Just as a slow-moving story with low stakes wouldn’t cut it for the thriller reader, neither would a story where the villain wins and the world is destroyed.
The implicit Genre Theme for thrillers might be along the lines of:
Survival is possible.
When mystery readers pick up a story marketed as a mystery, they expect to find a story with a crime that’s solved in a satisfying way. Just as a story without a mystery or crime to solve wouldn’t cut it for the mystery reader, neither would a story where the criminal isn’t caught and the mystery isn’t solved.
The implicit Genre Theme for mysteries might be along the lines of:
Justice is possible.
When romance readers pick up a story marketed as a romance, they expect to find a story with a central love story building to a satisfying and happy relationship. Just as a story without a love or romance plot wouldn’t cut it for the romance reader, neither would a story where the relationship doesn’t have a happy ending.
The implicit Genre Theme for romances is:
Happiness is possible.
Don’t Break the Genre’s Promise to the Reader
Most readers read many different genres, but when they pick a thriller over a mystery, they’re likely in the mood for a high-stakes story. When a reader picks a romance over science fiction, they’re often specifically in the mood for a happy ending.
Authors who mess with the promise of the genre are risking very unhappy readers. No matter how much they might like or enjoy the story under other circumstances, the broken promise—the unfulfilled theme—is not what they were in the mood for.
As Kristin Bailey hilariously tweeted to me yesterday, a broken promise is like:
“I wrote a science fiction novel!”
“What is it about?”
“Aging siblings remembering their dead mother’s pie recipe…”
“That’s not Science Fiction.”
“But it takes place 20 years from now! That’s the future!!!”
Obviously, every kind of story is possible, but the genre categories have meaning. Not every book set in the future is science fiction. Not every “thrilling” story belongs in the thriller genre. Not every love-focused or romantic story belongs in the romance genre.
There are plenty of stories where the villain wins. Just don’t call those thrillers. Likewise, don’t call stories where the crime isn’t solved mysteries. And don’t call stories without a “happily ever after” or a “happily for now” ending romances.
Readers who pick up those books expect the genre’s theme to be fulfilled. That’s why they read the story.
Those implicit themes match the reader’s worldview—or at least their current mood. The readers of those genres hope they can believe in survival, justice, or happiness, etc.
If the story doesn’t deliver on the theme, their worldview—their hope for the world—is attacked. No matter how good the story is, the reader will feel tricked and will not be happy with the author.
As romance author Maisey Yates tweeted yesterday:
“I might like an oatmeal raisin cookie … but I would not if I were expecting chocolate.”
Disappointed readers are not happy readers. Take it from one of the millions who have trust issues because of oatmeal raisin cookies posing as chocolate chip cookies. *smile*
The Romance Genre “Controversy”
Recently, there have been many books marketed as part of the romance genre that don’t fulfill the genre’s promise. The romance genre is huge and money-making.
It’s the latter aspect that’s bringing out the greedy, the authors who want part of the romance genre money-pie but don’t actually want to write it. So they get it into their head to rationalize their non-happy ending to romance readers:
- “It’s edgy!” — Not really. Shakespeare did it with Romeo and Juliet hundreds of years ago.
- “It’s just like Romeo and Juliet!” (or any other non-happy-ending love story *cough* Nicholas Sparks) — Yes, but those aren’t romances.
- “It’s gritty and more realistic!” — Happiness isn’t realistic? The hope for happiness is part of the romance worldview. To push anything else is a disrespectful attack on readers’ beliefs and hopes. Attacks and rudeness won’t win over readers.
- “The genre should change!” — Are there also calls for science fiction, thrillers, mysteries, etc. to change their essence? That mysteries should be “more realistic” and not solve crimes to reflect the reality of cold cases? No? Didn’t think so. Stop acting like romance readers are too stupid to know what they want.
Unfortunately, success and opportunity always bring out the greedy. So the problem of false marketing for monetary gain won’t go away.
As Nicholas Sparks’s success proves, there’s nothing wrong with love-focused or romantic stories without happy endings. Many of his readers are also romance readers, so it’s not like the greedy have to choose one type of reader or the other. But his books are not marketed as part of the romance genre, and his readers know that.
That’s the difference. That’s the bait-and-switch. That’s the money grab.
Just because some people want to trick readers doesn’t mean the definition has changed. Thinkpieces about the “changing” nature of the romance genre don’t understand the genre, as the dozens of comments on that post—all of which disagree with the premise—can attest. (Yes, this is one time to read the comments. *smile*)
Genres are about the promise, the theme, the expectation, the worldview. Stories with internal themes that don’t match the genre’s implicit themes don’t fit.
Those who don’t understand try to say that the romance genre is about love and romance, and therefore any story with love or romance should fit. But that’s not the case…
Romance is—and always will be—about happiness at its core.
Anyone who disagrees with that also doesn’t understand the drive behind the “we need diverse romance” movement. Diversity matters in the romance genre because people of all stripes want to believe that someone like them can find happiness.
That’s why representation—good representation—matters so much in the genre. Everyone wants to see that someone like them—someone who’s darker-skinned, non-Christian, disabled, LGBTQIA, older, heavier, neurodivergent, divorced, a parent, a rape victim, in debt, or whatever, whatever, whatever—deserves to be happy too. That even those who don’t fit society’s idea of “perfect” can hope for happiness.
The point of the romance genre is the hope for happiness. Period.
Themes matter. Stories with broken themes don’t work. It’s far better to learn the themes of our stories and our genres to keep the readers happy. *smile*
Have you ever thought about the expectations for a genre as being a theme? Do you disagree with my take on themes? Do you have other suggestions for the themes of genres? Is the theme of your genre part of what makes it appealing to you? What’s your opinion on the romance genre debate?Pin It
Oh gosh, yeah, I hate how some people believe that sadness equals realistic and happiness equals unrealistic and idealistic. That’s not true. There is so much diversity in life, where both happy and sad endings can happen. In fact, I have reason to believe that the vast majority of marriages are happy–but this will be a long discussion that I won’t go into here, haha. Hmmm I would say that a lot of people (readers and writers) don’t know that the romance genre requires a happy ending, though. I didn’t know this either until you told me, lol. In the past, I really thought “romance” simply meant a story centered on romantic love between the protagonists, and that those with a sad ending would be called a “tragic romance”, even though I don’t think Amazon has that category. After talking to you, I learned that stories focused on romantic love would be called “love stories”, which include both romances and love stories with sad endings. Anyway, just saying that some writers may simply be uninformed about what “romance” means as a genre, rather than that they’re greedy. 😉 Looking at actual books, I see that for a certain John Green book, one of the categories it’s in is contemporary romance on Amazon, but it has a tragic ending. I won’t post the link here or mention which book it was, in case I spoil it for someone who hasn’t read it! So maybe even traditional publishers aren’t 100% clear on… — Read More »
Hi Serena, I have a whole ‘nother rant building about that happiness/realistic issue. LOL! As for your observation, I don’t necessarily disagree when it comes to casual readers who read romance occasionally. 🙂 But the readers who click on the top-level romance category at Amazon might read 1-10 romances a week. LOL! They might not know “the rules,” but they know what to expect. They share names of which authors can be trusted to deliver on a happy ending and which can’t. They give a heads up when a romantic story has a tragic ending, etc. And if authors don’t deliver on their promise, the reviews won’t be kind. As for authors, if someone is writing in a genre and marketing to a target audience, I’m going to say that they should know what the “rules” or expectations of their genre are. Otherwise, they can’t do a very good job of targeting. 😉 All that said, publishers and shelving and tagging all play a part in what it means to market something as a romance. As you pointed out, there isn’t an Amazon category for tragic romance, but their Women’s Fiction category does have a Romance subcategory. That’s where most of these stories would belong. The “Women’s Fiction” aspect communicates that it’s not genre romance (i.e., no guaranteed happy ending), and the “Romance” subcategory communicates that the love story is a major plot aspect. Many of Amazon’s categories include a Romance subcategory for this reason. Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mystery, Suspense,… — Read More »
Lol! No worries! I just wish that more people know that the romance genre (as the main category rather than a sub-category), needs happy endings. But this is like me hoping that more people will know what asexuality really means. Lol sorry, what a weird analogy. And sorry for the short replies and comments recently! The books I’ve been reading lately are just terrific and made me spend less time on the internet, haha. Which could be a good thing.
LOL! Yes, there are many things that I wish people knew and understood as “common sense.” 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Jami, I’m going to disagree with you about something. Nicholas Sparks does write romance. In the story, “The Note Book”, the couple do die. Sparks’ theme is that there’s hope for happiness after death. The couple wanted to die together in hopes of being together in the afterlife. It is a happy ending depending on how you look at death.
I loved this post. I’ve had a terrible time trying to pinpoint what ‘theme’ is. The post has given me some clarification. I have the same problem with ‘premise’. Both are such elusive concepts and they drive me bonkers at times.
Nicholas Sparks does write stories that have romance, but they aren’t genre romance. Genre romance requires Happily Ever After or Happy For Now—that’s part of the definition of the genre.
Romeo and Juliet has a romance, but genre-wise, it’s a tragedy + love story.
Exactly! Thanks for jumping in and clarifying that, Carradee! 🙂
According to Nicholas Sparks himself, he writes love stories, and he’s very adamant–to the point of being rude to the romance genre by saying that his stories are better than that–that his stories are not romances. I could probably find a dozen quotes confirming this if needed. LOL!
However, over the years, tagging and algorithms have inched some of his books into the romance category. That’s not intentional on his part, believe me. 🙂
(That said, the one Sparks novel I’ve read ended with them both living! The ex is the only one who died. LOL! But he’s still bound and determined to not be labeled a romance author. Whatever. *shrug*)
Yes, premise can be a nebulous concept too. 🙂 Especially as it often gets wrapped up in logline-type applications as well. Thanks for the comment!
Okay, ngl but I teared up in those last few paragraphs. I think you completely nailed the current issue with the romance genre. Instead of looking for diversity within, they are grasping at themes that don’t fit. Instead of being open to *true* diversity, they pretend at it with mismatched themes and ‘edgy’ plots. Instead of educating themselves and being open-minded they settle for staying ignorant and perpetuating stereotypes.
Thank you for addressing this and thank you for promoting all kinds of diversity.
So true! And most of the authors who think they’re being edgy just haven’t done enough research to understand the big picture–whether that refers to diversity issues or thinking they’re inventing a new kind of story. *sigh* Thanks for the comment! 🙂
Any book, of any genre, can have a romance in it. But for a book to qualify as genre romance, it has to end with “Happily Ever After” or “Happy For Now”—that’s what readers are looking for when they pick up a genre romance. These definitions have been around for years. They’re built in customer expectations, and they exist for good reason. When someone picks up a genre romance, they want the warm fuzzies of knowing the MCs are safe. They may go through hell, but at least they’ll come out of it alive. When and if a reader wants a more nebulous ending, they’ll look for something that has romantic elements without being genre romance. It isn’t a matter of not wanting to face reality. It’s a matter of “This is what’s to my taste, right now.” There’s a reason I don’t describe any of my released series as genre romance—because they aren’t genre romance, though character relationships are often important in them. One issue with genre definitions, though, is that some parts of the definition differ depending on your reader. For example, my Chronicles of Marsdenfel is definitely a fantasy series, but it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the potential subcategories of “epic” or “heroic” or “sword and sorcery”. Readers have called ’em “traditional fantasy” or “classic fantasy” or “the most different fantasy story I’ve ever read”. The books are also first person, present tense, and have far less description and scenery than is normal for that… — Read More »
The definitions and rules aren’t something coming down from some on-high authority that we should ignore because we’re going through a rebellious phase. They’re coming from the readers based on their expectations, so the cost of screwing with the “rules” is risking pissing them off.
A quick look through the comments on that post I linked to at the end show that for many people, the expectations of genre (in this case, romance) create their “safe space.” Reader after reader shared how they need the security of a guaranteed happy ending because in their real life they’re the caregiver for their dying mother, etc., etc. These are not people a smart marketer would want to piss off. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your examples! As you pointed out, our descriptions in blurbs, etc. can also help readers know what to expect so they’re not disappointed. Thanks for sharing those insights!
Great post. I would add for mystery writers that the genre promises a puzzle. My reading group just read “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” which is marketed as mystery/crime (at least in some places). Though some of us enjoyed it as a book, all of us were disappointed that we were able to identify the killers about a third of the way through/as soon as they were introduced, respectively. If it’s obvious who the killer is, it’s not a mystery!!! We all agreed that it would have been better categorized as “literary fiction” against the backdrop of a crime.
Thanks for sharing that example! Yes, for mysteries, readers often want to feel like they’re trying to solve the case right along with the characters. 🙂 Great insight!
Bravo. Love this post. Thank you for bringing theme out of the clouds and down to earth. 🙂
It’s a tricky concept, so I’m happy if I can help. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!
I read your blog hoping you’d name the “promise” for paranormal. What do you think is the promise for paranormal fiction? Does the promise change if the paranormal creatures are the “good guys and gals” or if a romantic subplot is included? Thanks!
Ooo, great question! “Paranormal” can encompass so many aspects–pretty much everything that’s not normal. LOL! Even in the paranormal romance genre, there are shapeshifters, vampires, ghosts, witches, faeries, time travel, etc.
When we get out into paranormal fiction in general, some have a horror leaning and others are mysterious. So I think we’d have to narrow down “paranormal fiction” a bit to look at which of the main genres it’s closest too.
For example, in paranormal romance, most contest descriptions for the sub-genre describe it as a romance where paranormal characters or events play a significant role in the story. So the genre promise would be similar to the romance promise with an add-on of “paranormal elements.”
Likewise, a paranormal fiction story leaning toward horror would take the promise of horror and evoke those emotions through the paranormal elements. Some literary fiction includes paranormal elements (I’m thinking of some magical realism stories or time-travel stories), and their promise would be to deliver literary fictions’ character insights with a side of paranormal.
So yes, I think the promise would change depending on the type of paranormal story it is. 🙂 I hope that helps! Thanks for stopping by!
I found this very useful. I am writing a romance novel and its is essentially about finding happiness after a quest. I will refer to this article a lot I think. Thanks. Colleen
I’m happy to help. 🙂 Good luck with your story, and thanks for the comment!
Jami, Thank you thank you thank you!!! If one more person tells me that the romance I’m writing shouldn’t have a happy ending, I’m going to shoot them. The first book I wrote, which will be published this summer, is an HFN, JUST because it’s a novella and it’s just the beginning of their relationship. The remaining books follow other characters, but continue to grow the initial relationship, which will end with a marriage proposal in another novella and a marriage in the last book of the series. Why? Because HAPPY. I neither want nor need to read books that don’t make me happy. As one of the commenters on the other post said, I can just watch the news if I want “realistic.” Besides, the conflation of “misery” with “realistic” is mind-bogglingly cynical. Romances aren’t without strife, angst, even death (just not to a main character or one who had an HEA in another book, because who does that?!), it just means that the characters make the conscious decision to work on it, move through it, and stay or strengthen their relationship because of it. And thank you for mentioning diversity. I’m amazed at the number of people who say that race is irrelevant. I mention that one particularly because I rarely hear people say that other types of diversity aren’t RELEVANT, even if they’re grossly-underrepresented. Disability isn’t discussed in romance (or, I assume, in other genres, but I don’t read or write those) nearly enough, though I’m glad… — Read More »
Actually, I do come across people who say that in mystery novels the crime sometimes shouldn’t be solved, or the bad guy should get away with it, because that’s more realistic. (These are usually the people who like their detectives to be so dysfunctional it’s a miracle they make it to work at all.) I couldn’t disagree with them more! Leave realistic to reality; it does it better 🙂
A bleak ‘there is no justice’ ending might work in a crime novel, but if it’s going to be genre:mystery, you have to solve the mystery and see justice done. Otherwise it’s unsatisfying.
Who says these things?!! If I read a mystery that isn’t solved, I feel like I’ve wasted those hours. I would be furious.
Generally, the kind of people who look down on romance, ‘cosies’ and anything that suggests that this life is not necessarily “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbes put it.
I entirely agree with you: an unsolved mystery is like those long-winded jokes that turn out to have no punchline, i.e. an annoying waste of time.
Hey Jami, One of the issues that annoys with LGBTQIA romance in all forms of media (including books, of course) is there’s a major double standard in terms of explicitness in that all gay stories are more risqué than the straight ones. Granted, I’ve no shame in having a voracious sexual appetite in what I read, and what I live (as those who know me will tell you-LOL) but the idea that we’re abnormal simply because we have the same depth, range, and stages of lust as straight folks, is absurd. A gay couple can kiss, just kiss, and it’s automatically deemed inappropriate for kids under 13 to see. But straight couples doing the EXACT. SAME. THING. Are seen with a more nuanced filter. One of me and my fiance’s favorite shows “Steven Universe”, which is aimed at tweens, but has broad HP-esque appeal, faced challenges with censorship in the UK. I think from what I’ve heard this issue was later resolved and is no longer censored, but the fact it happened in the first place is a reminder we have a ways to go, while more three-dimensional LGTBQ characters has improved overall, the fact that kids and tweens can’t see themselves, their same gender parents, aunts, uncles, or grandparents in stories on their level is a glaring oversight. Kids should see their family dynamics in media long before they’re old enough to have families of their own. Why does ALL gay romance have to be rated “R” or “TV… — Read More »
Your fiance should totally write the prom story. I would absolutely read that. If I wrote YA, I’d write it, but I can barely stand to read it, let alone write it. I would totally read that story though.
You’re so right in your assessment though. I wrote an m/m romance for NaNo (that’s what I write anyway) and was telling a friend about it. His response: “so what’s in the story? And then they f***, and then they f***, and then they f***?” Because, even though one of our best friends is lesbian, all LGBTQ couples do, especially men, is have sex. When I told him the actual premise he said it was really intriguing and he’d like to read it. It hurts my head how much there is to overcome.
I know what you mean, Jayce, My fiance never went to his prom, and high school is a difficult topic for him, so he’s not ready to tread on his school years, and won’t go there for awhile, but he’s not against the idea, one day… I certainly agree we shouldn’t be solely defined by sex or sexual orientation, but conversely we should in no way be ashamed of our sexuality. My main point is that we should put more nuance and thought in the media in how LGBTQIA couples are portrayed. We need to see M/M and F/F couples as normal, decent people, who are both MORE than the sexuality and identity, but also not be ashamed of it, and that kids with same-sex parents and/or same-sex relatives can positively see themselves in media before they’re 18+. Why does sex, whenever and however it’s portrayed amongst LGBTQIA couples have to be explicit to the highest order, when our straight counterparts doing the same things aren’t seen with the same level of concern, or scrutiny? Why can’t a gay teen couple kiss, JUST KISS, without being seen as smut, but how M/F teen couples who kiss and isn’t perceived as XXX explicit. So, while I agree dead on we shouldn’t only be defined solely by our sexuality, but we also shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed of it, and it doesn’t help there is a double standard in how LGBTQIA people are portrayed in the media in regards to sexuality. That… — Read More »
I recently read an edgy romance, it was excellent…until the heroine died. Yes, this had been foreshadowed, but I had hope of a HEA. Alas, that was not to be. I’m still traumatised. I will never read another book by that writer because I feel cheated! (The fact I feel so strongly is testament to how superbly the rom promise was kept–until the heroine bloody died)
Ugh. I’m so sorry. And you bring up a great point about how our story makes promises as well.
We’ve talked here on my blog about the First Plot Point at the 25% mark being the turning point where the full story question (and thus the promise of what readers expect to happen by the end and are rooting for) is established. As you said, an author looking to write a non-HEA romantic story outside the genre could foreshadow a less-than-happy ending at that point to set up different expectations, but readers might still hope for a different outcome. 🙁 Thanks for chiming in!
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Excellent points. The genre you work in, like your first few paragraphs, create a bond between you and your readers. If you fail the reader by not delivering what was promised or simply implied, it’s the writer who’s failed.
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Unfortunately, cozy mystery is going through the same growing pains. Someone once mentioned that all we need for this genre is to stick a cupcake on the cover to make sales. I cringed when I read this. But then, there are plenty of writers who don’t read (as in no time for reading in any genre because they are writing). I think contributes to the “edgy” or “dark” labeling.
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