Episode 48: Genres, Expectations, and the Limits of Creativity


Consider the blog format. When people read a blog, they have certain expectations that must be fulfilled. Sure, there are many variations on the theme, but for the most part, we expect episodic snippets of advice, images, videos, podcasts, or other interesting fare—likely with the ability to interact.

The same is true with books. When we shop for books of any sort, we know—generally—what to expect from a genre. Self-help books provide steps and ideas to reach some goal; technology books tell us how to use a program or how to configure hardware; fantasy novels mean we’re getting a fantastic world with extraordinary characters.

The struggle for writers, however, is figuring out how creative we can be. Where are the limits to creativity?

It would be great to say that writers have free rein to explore the reaches of their imaginations, but that’s not completely true. When we write, we can bring fresh ideas—within borders. We have to deliver marketing copy that fits with current consumer expectations; we have to make our novel structure follow the classic conflict expectations. Some people do push beyond those constraints—and they can find success—but it’s not always an option.

And I’m okay with that.

What’s great about writing is that the structure means we can explore endless variation within the limits and find ways to twist what people think is coming. This isn’t a creativity stifler; it’s a creativity inducer.

Bring original ideas to a genre. Throw in the unexpected. But don’t dismiss the boundaries simply for the sake of artistic license. In my mind, the greater challenge is in finding new ways to rejuvenate an old idea.

The reason that genres and formats exist is because people like them. And, if we’re honest, it’s because there’s comfort in knowing what to expect. Is that laziness? Perhaps—but the real iconoclastic action is not in throwing out history; it’s in transforming from the inside out.

I love exploring boundaries, but I also want to make my readers feel like they’re pulling out a familiar, cozy blanket and sitting in front of the fire. The fun part is keeping them hooked long after the fire has turned to embers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and struggles about meeting expectations—while still finding ways to make your writing stand out.

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3 thoughts on “Episode 48: Genres, Expectations, and the Limits of Creativity

  1. I think you’re absolutely right. When you’re faced with infinite choices, restrictions become a framework to build on, not a damper on creativity. Look what poets have done with the very strict framework of a sonnet, for instance, or composers with the structural requirements of a symphony.

  2. On my blog, it’s all about the post titles. If my content is good enough (read: entertaining to me), then I should be able to pull a post title that fallsinto one of two categories:

    1. The WTF? title. It’s just quirky enough to make me click and read the first paragraph. When I write these, I really need to bring the sauce in that first paragraph and hook the reader.

    Examples:
    A Question Twice The Size Of My Large Intestine
    God and Darwin and Me on One Knee
    How My Brain Was Washed By Christians
    That Day I Exorcised Demons. At Burger King.
    Me and My Freakish Uvula
    The Dishwasher and the Jerkhole
    My Wife Gave Birth to an Uncarved Block

    2. The Bait and Switch Title. This title is borderline offensive or expresses an opinion contrary to my target readers. I really need to make sure that by the time they get to the end, I’ve given them something of value to chew on or they will ignore future posts of this nature. If done right, however, they will start thinking, “I can’t wait to find out where he’s going with THIS one.”

    Examples:
    The Atheists Have It Right
    F*ck All N*gers
    I Wrote The Constitution
    Rape and Coffee

  3. Pingback: Episode 50: That Which Kills Good Writing « More Novel by the Week

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