Genre, Tropes and Conventions


S.C. Farrow

12/8/20239 min read

an old manual typewriter
an old manual typewriter

Everybody knows what genre is, right? That genre determines a text or manuscript's category and, to some degree, its overall style. But what exactly does genre mean in the literary world?

Wikipedia describes genre this way:

Genre is the term for any category of literature, as well as various other forms of art or culture e.g. music, based on some loose set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones [is] discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions.


Each and every genre has different requirements that writers need to meet in order to meet readers’ expectations for a text or manuscript. For example, if a reader goes into a bookstore looking for a sweet story about a woman who falls happily in love with the man of her dreams but walks out with a book about spies and international politics, they are not going to be a happy reader or a happy customer.

Genre classifications help everyone from the writer to the reader. For example, it helps:

  • Writers so they include everything that readers expect to read.

  • Editors so they can help writers to create better content.

  • Publishers so they know how to market and promote the book sellers.

  • Booksellers so they also know where to put your book on their bookshelves and how to market and promote a book to their customers.

  • Readers so they know what they’re getting when they purchase a book.

There are five main literary categories. They are:

  • Poetry: songs, ballads, epic, dramatic, and narrative.

  • Drama (theatre and film scripts): tragedy, comedy, history, melodrama musical.

  • Non-fiction: autobiography, biography, essay, diaries and journals, narrative non-fiction, speech.

  • Media: website, blog, advertising, radio program.

  • Prose (fiction): novella, novel, short story, myth and legend, fable.


Prose fiction is commonly divided into three categories. All three categories have their own appeal and while the lines between them are becoming increasingly blurred, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with them before knocking on the door to the literary world.

Prose fiction is categorised like this:

Literary fiction

Many writers wrongly assume that if their short story or novel is not genre fiction then it must be literary fiction, but this simply isn’t the case. Literary fiction is regarded as a niche market and is often considered to be art. It is a highly specialised form of writing and is difficult to do well. It often requires having a formal education. At the very least, you should have read a lot of modern literary fiction before writing it. If you want to write literary fiction, it’s a good idea to have some publication credits in literary journals.

Mainstream or contemporary fiction

There is a lot of crossover between literary fiction and mainstream fiction; however, there are differences that you should be aware of…

Mainstream fiction describes stories that can’t be categorised as any other genre. Much like literary fiction, it can cover any topic or time period, and can be of any length. However, unlike literary fiction, mainstream fiction tends to focus on story, usually with a greater depth of characterisation. The primary goal of mainstream fiction is entertaining the reader. Secondarily, it might touch on some philosophical or sociological issue or issues.

Popular, commercial, or genre fiction

There are many different categories of genre fiction, and many of these categories have devoted readers who will only read that type of fiction… Popular fiction aims to entertain, thrill, and sometimes comfort. These stories tend to be driven by plot rather than character development or philosophy and are generally described as being easy to read.

Genre fiction categories

As we know, there are dozens of different ‘genre fiction’ categories. It’s important to understand what they are because they help us to fulfil reader expectations. Readers often return to the genres that they like and expect to read the tropes and conventions associated with them.

Some of the most popular genres are:

  • Horror

  • Romance

  • Mystery/Crime

  • Thriller

  • Horror

  • Speculative fiction (fantasy, supernatural, sci-fi)

  • Women’s fiction

  • Magic Realism

  • Young adult

  • New adult

  • Literary fiction

So, what is a trope and what is a convention? Are all conventions tropes? Are all tropes conventions? What’s the difference? These are all good questions. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably, but they’re actually two different things.


Genre conventions are story elements such as setting, character archetypes, and key events that are commonly found in a popular genre text. Conventions define a specific genre. They also define readers’ expectations for a story written in that genre. Every genre has a specific set of conventions and obligatory scenes that make it work.

Here’s some examples:


In a romance story the plot revolves around a couple who are trying to make things work despite the odds being against them. It essentially boils down to boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again course (variations include girl meets boy/girl meets girl/boy meets boy).

  • A love triangle.

  • Opposing forces outside of the couple’s control which is keeping them apart.

  • Opposing forces within the couple’s control which is keeping them apart.

  • A happy ending, referred to in the romance writing sphere as a HEA (happy ever after), or at the very least a happy for now ending (referred to as an HFN). If your romance story doesn’t have a HEA or HFN ending, your story probably doesn’t belong in the romance genre, i.e., it’s more likely to be a love story which can have a variety of different endings.

Interestingly, romance is the only major genre that has two protagonists. (The ‘buddy’ story, which is a sub-genre of romance [and comedy] can also have two protagonists.) Love stories can also have two protagonists.

Despite this, the story is generally only driven by one character, the male character, as the male character is pursuing the female character. However, this doesn’t mean to say your love story can’t be driven by the female character, it certainly can be – and often is!

Romance sub-genres include:

  • Contemporary

  • Erotic

  • Historical

  • Paranormal

  • Suspense

  • Spiritual

  • Young adult


Mystery stories are all about the chase. They include suspense, tension, and the raising of stakes for the protagonist. They are essentially crime stories or detective stories which revolve around a mysterious death or crime that needs to be solved.

The protagonist doesn’t need to be an actual detective, but rather behaves as a detective would in order to solve the crime.

Mystery sub-genres include:

  • Thriller

  • Psychological thriller

  • Crime thriller

  • Detective

  • Noir

  • Hardboiled

  • Cosy mystery

  • Police procedural

  • Suspense

  • Action thriller

  • Contemporary

  • Erotic

  • Historical

  • Paranormal

  • Spiritual

  • Young adult


Horror stories are all about fear and terror and a monster that can’t be reasoned with. All horror story monsters are driven by motivations that are beyond normal human rationale and behaviour. The monster could be an otherworldly creature trying to survive in an unfamiliar environment, an evil spirit, or an insane psychopath.

Horror sub-genres include:

  • Zombie Horror

  • Vampires/Zombies/Werewolves

  • Witches/Wizards

  • Ghosts

  • Aliens

  • Cannibals

  • Ecological or man-made disasters

  • Slasher

  • Gore

Speculative fiction

Somewhere in the course of your writing journey, you might have come across the term ‘speculative fiction’ and you might have been confused about what it means. defines it as:

a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements.

The Speculative Literature Foundation describes it as a ‘catch-all term’ that is:

[M]eant to inclusively span the breadth of fantastic literature, encompassing literature ranging from hard science fiction to epic fantasy to ghost stories to horror to folk and fairy tales to slipstream to magical realism to modern myth-making — and more.

Essentially, speculative fiction is an umbrella term for genre fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into the sci-fi or fantasy genres. Sometimes called ‘what-if’ stories, speculative fiction changes the laws of what’s real or possible as current society understands it, and then speculates on the outcome.

Speculative fiction genres include:

  • Dystopian

  • Science fiction

  • Sci-fi fantasy

  • Supernatural

  • Space opera

  • Urban fantasy

  • Utopian

  • Dystopian

  • Apocalyptic

  • Post-apocalyptic

  • Alternative history

  • Superhero


The hallmark of drama fiction is that it is like ‘real life’. Drama presents realistic characters in realistic settings, dealing with real life situations. The purpose of a drama story is to move the reader emotionally.

Conflict is the beating heart of drama stories. Conflict arises from inner and/or outer struggles depicting hardship, difficulty, or emotional pain. Drama stories are populated by ‘ordinary’ characters. Readers can relate to the ‘ordinary’ characters who are swept up in see-sawing tension which steadily increases towards the climax.


Now that we’ve talked about conventions, let’s talk about tropes. First and foremost, what is a trope?

In literary terms, a trope refers to a recurring motif, theme, or conventional device used in storytelling or writing. These are recognisable patterns, themes, or narrative structures that audiences often encounter across different works of literature. Tropes can include familiar plot devices, character archetypes, or symbolic elements that convey certain ideas or evoke specific emotions within a narrative. They serve as building blocks for storytelling, offering writers established frameworks that can be utilised, subverted, or reimagined to create engaging and relatable narratives.

Essentially, it is the specific way in which a convention or obligatory scene is presented in your story. Let’s take an example from the horror genre…

CONVENTION: there’s some kind of sin or past mistake for which the protagonist (main character) is being punished.

TROPE: the ghost of a girl who was bullied and killed by her high school friends, returns to the world on the twentieth anniversary of her death in order to exact revenge on her friends, whether or not they were directly responsible for her murder.

Let’s take a different one from the romance genre…

CONVENTION: the love triangle.

TROPE: the bad boy son of a wealthy industrialist and the good boy son of a high school custodian vie for the affections of a beautiful girl they have both just met.

Both of these tropes have been used many times in literature and in movies. When that happens, the trope becomes a cliché. Some readers don’t care about clichés, they love the convention and the love trope, and could read it over and over again. However, some readers hate seeing the same old tired clichés.

The biggest mistake you can make is to ignore conventions altogether because you believe they are all tropes and clichés. You must remember that conventions are what make a genre. As such, they must be included in your work.

If you choose to ignore the conventions of your genre, you risk writing a story that doesn’t work and that doesn’t fit comfortably in any category. And if it can’t be categorised, it can’t be marketed or sold.

Romance stories are often denigrated because of their well-known conventions, especially the ‘happy ever after ending’. The reality is that publishers and readers expect to see this convention in a romance story. If you believe that it’s a cliché and fail to include it in your story, publishers and readers will feel cheated and disappointed that it wasn’t there.

Does that mean you have to include every single convention and trope in your story, after all, some genres have a lot of them? Good question.

You might have researched and found a list of obligatory scenes and conventions for the dystopian short story that you want to write. You might have found another list of tropes. And you might also have a diagram of the hero’s journey. Now, you’re sitting at your desk wondering how on earth you’re going to cram all of those things into a three-thousand-word short story.

The answer is you’re not going to do that because you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to include every single convention or trope in your story. Some of them simply won’t serve your story. Having said that, you should discern the ones that will serve your story and include them.

Genre conventions and tropes can make things easier for you as a writer. For example, conventions and obligatory scenes can suggest ‘natural’ beginnings, middles, and endings, as well as settings, characters, and the all-important conflict.

Then again, you might resent the ‘painting by numbers’ feel of using these common conventions. You might have a vision for your story that deviates somewhat from the genre norms, but not so much that your story could not then be categorised as a different genre. The skill is in presenting these conventions and tropes in fresh and interesting ways.

Conventions are the reason why certain types of stories evolved into a ‘genre’. If you fail to include them in your story, you could be doing yourself and your readers a great disservice.


Crafting a compelling narrative often relies on the interplay of genre, tropes, and conventions. Genre provides the scaffolding within which stories take shape, offering a roadmap that guides both writers and readers through familiar territories while allowing room for innovation.

Tropes and conventions, though sometimes seen as constraints, serve as the building blocks that connect audiences to the essence of storytelling. They offer a shared language, a collective understanding that bridges the gap between the writer's intent and the reader's reception. Embracing, subverting, or redefining these elements allows writers to engage with their audience on multiple levels, eliciting emotions, sparking imagination, and ultimately fostering a deeper appreciation for the art of storytelling.

In essence, while genre, tropes, and conventions may seem like boundaries, they are the very threads that weave the fabric of literary creativity, enabling stories to transcend time and resonate across diverse audiences.

  • Genre

  • Tropes

  • Conventions