Using genre and tropes to increase your reach (In-depth guide)
What do we mean when we say "Commercial"?
Wattpad is looking for stories that are Immediate, Engaging, and Commercial. But what do we mean by “Commercial”? On Wattpad, “Commercial” means that we are looking for work that is clearly situated within an established genre, and will appeal to fans of that genre. Work that engages with genre can still be complex, deeply felt, and even challenging. No bland characters or cookie cutter plots required.
What is genre?
Cambridge Dictionary defines genre as "a style, especially in the arts, that involves a particular set of characteristics."
In writing, we can think of genre as a way of categorizing stories based on similarities in writing style, aesthetic, plot, storytelling choices, and other conventions. Genres emerge and change over time—Werewolf Romance, for example, is a relatively recent genre that has emerged as a specific genre in the last 5 or so years. We can call it a genre because it has its own set of distinct conventions and rules that make it distinct from its sister genres like Paranormal Romance or Urban Fantasy.
Genres are shorthands for groupings of characteristics a story might have, and thus are an indicator to the audience of what kind of story they are going to experience.
Genre and format
Genre can overlap across mediums and formats, or be confined to one format. For example, the romance genre spans books and movies, all of which share the characteristics of centring on the development of a central romantic relationship and ending with an optimistic or happy ending (this is distinct from a romantic drama, which centres the development of a romantic relationship, but does not guarantee a happy ending). Based on the structure of TV series, we don’t tend to see romance genre TV, where the show is primarily about the development of a central romantic relationship that ends happily. TV often has romantic subplots in stories that occupy another genre, like drama or sitcom, but we don’t see a ton of TV shows that are primarily romances. This is due in part to the history of TV as a format; television favours serialized plots that can run for a long time with no fixed end point. This is antithetical to the romance format, which is predicated on an ending.
Wattpad stories are their own format. Just as novels, plays, TV shows, and movies are all distinct from one another, Wattpad stories are related to many of these formats but not identical to them. It’s worth noting that any genre can be adapted into the specific format of a Wattpad story.. Wattpad stories share the most similarity with novels. Both novels and Wattpad stories are (broadly speaking) prose fiction that follow plot events based around a main character or characters. Wattpad differs from traditional prose fiction in that it is usually released in installments (rather than being published all at once, as books usually are) and allows for reader/writer interaction via the comments, which changes how the reader experiences the story.
Wattpad stories also share a lot of overlap with the format conventions of fanfiction, which is a form of non-commercial writing that uses established characters and worlds to tell new stories. We see these overlaps between original Wattpad stories and fanfiction in a tendency to focus on romantic and sexual relationships between characters, a tendency to rely on either known characters (e.g. Bucky Barnes in the MCU) or known character types (e.g. the bad boy in original stories), and a tendency to focus on interpersonal relationships moments and slice-of-life structure over big overarching plots and worldbuilding. This is not to say that all Wattpad stories are like this, or that all fanfiction is like this, just that these two formats share certain overlaps in their approach and execution.
Format shapes what expressions of the genre are available. The most obvious version of this is in visual media vs. written media. The way you tell a story in a primarily visual medium like film, and the way you tell a story in a primarily written medium like a novel or a Wattpad story is very different. Let’s return to our romance example. In a romance film, the way the leads look at each other is very important. Staring at each other soulfully is a deeply important part of visual romantic chemistry. It’s how the audience knows that romance is happening. But in a written format, a lot of staring between the leads often reads as kind of weird, or boring, or sometimes creepy (e.g. a common charge levelled at Edward Cullen in Twilight is that he stares at Bella too much). Gazing doesn’t do the same work in a written format as it does in a visual one, so when we’re working in a written format, we need to find other ways of conveying attraction and romantic chemistry beyond gazing.
Format and genre inform each other to create reader expectations for how a story is being told and what kind of story it is. Commercial means using format and genre to best effect in order to understand, shape, and pay off reader expectations.
Tropes, tropes, and more tropes
Wattpad users loooooove tropes. You’re all trope experts! Enemies to lovers, bad boys, only one bed–Wattpad writers and readers know tropes inside out and backwards, and everyone has their favorites. But let’s take a minute just to break down the idea of a trope in a bit more detail.
A trope is just a commonly used convention or story element. It’s a pattern. A trope differs from a genre convention listed above in that a trope is not necessary to the genre in the way a genre convention is. You can have a romance without “only one bed,” but you can’t have a romance novel without a happy ending. The happy ending is definitional to the genre. Similarly, you can have a fantasy novel without a chosen one, but you can’t have a fantasy novel without some form of magic.
Tropes can be pan-genre, or locked into one genre. Enemies to lovers, for example, can show up in any genre of story, but a chosen one requires some form of prophecy or magic that we only see in genres like fantasy and paranormal romance.
Tropes are often predictable, and that’s not a bad thing. The reader should, on some level, be able to predict plot events, because if they can’t predict the plot at all, you probably haven’t given them enough information. Part of the pleasure of reading comes from the interplay between expectation and arrival, setup and payoff, familiarity and novelty. Using tropes is a form of setup and payoff that shows a reader a familiar pattern and then uses that familiarity to illustrate something specific about the characters or the world.
A stereotype is a kind of trope that concerns a marginalized group and has negative connotations. These are narratives about marginalized people made up and perpetuated by dominant groups that serve to strip the humanity and complexity from marginalized people, their histories, and their social locations. Even positive stereotypes (for example, “model minority” stereotypes about Asian people) are ultimately bad things because they deny marginalized people the full spectrum of human experience and gloss over specific histories and dynamics in favour of a reductive viewpoint. Be cautious when engaging stereotypes in your work, and make sure that your marginalized characters are fully fleshed out, with multiple personality traits and their own goals/motivations. For example, writing an Asian character whose only characteristic is being good at math is a stereotype and should be avoided. But writing an Asian character who is second gen Chinese American, good at math, has a cheerful rivalry with their twin brother, and wants to go to culinary school so they can eventually start their own family business as a baker is a character who is well-rounded and situated in a web of relationships and interests, with their own goals that inform their actions, and thus is not a stereotype.
The distinction between tropes and cliches is a bit of a hot-button issue. Sometimes, one person’s favourite trope is another’s unbearable cliche. Like tropes, cliches are a recognizable storytelling convention; cliches are often called "overused tropes", but the true distinction lies in the emotional impact of the story. Usually, something is considered cliche when there is not enough specific, resonant emotional content in the story. If it feels like the characters in the trope could be swapped out for any other character, that’s when you’re getting into cliche territory. In contrast, a well-used trope uses familiar elements to illuminate something specific about the character and the story.
Crucially, a story is more than just a series of tropes strung together. Tropes are tools to create an effect in your story, they are not the whole story. In order to create emotional resonance and reader engagement with your story, you’ll need to create specificity and emotional depth through the characters’ goals, motivations, conflicts, and stakes. Character and theme provide the emotional depth to bring tropes to life, while plot provides the drama that gives context and situational meaning to tropes.
Writing well Commercially is about tantalizing your reader by mixing the familiar, in the form of genre conventions and desired tropes, with the new and specific in the form of well-rounded characters and compelling plots.
Thinking about the reader
You’ll notice that we’ve been talking a lot about reader expectation as a central concept in our understanding of Commercial writing. But what do we mean by this?
Thinking about reader expectation does not mean giving up your creative vision or giving readers exactly what they say they want. You are in control of your story, and maintaining your alignment with your vision, values, and the story you want to tell is always the core of our writing philosophy.
But publishing your work on Wattpad (rather than just keeping it private) is implicitly a conversation with the reader. Art changes in the eye of the observer. Your reader brings their own experiences, preferences, values, and ideas to your art, and as a consequence, derives their own sense of meaning from your work. Art is a dialogue between the creator and the observer; it is the role of the artist (in this case, the writer) to shape and direct this dialogue through their artistic choices.
To that end, one of the most important questions you can ask is, what is the effect I’m trying to achieve with my story? What do I want my reader to feel or think? Once you’ve determined that, you can make artistic choices with the intent to evoke the feeling you’ve landed on. So rather than being railroaded by the reader, thinking about the reader means thinking about how you’re going to steer their experience of the story.
Writing well commercially is about understanding your reader’s expectations for the genre you’re writing in and deciding what you want to do about those expectations. For basic genre expectations, you’ll want to fulfil those. If your story is marked as a mystery but the mystery is never solved, you’ve broken the main rule of the genre and your reader is not going to get the reading experience they were promised in the beginning—and they’ll probably be upset! It’s fun to subvert or delay reader expectations, but make sure you’re giving them something else to fulfil their expectations instead.
Here are some questions that might help when you’re thinking about including common genre elements:
- What does my audience probably expect to happen with this element? Do I want to give them the satisfaction of fulfilling their expectations, or do I want to subvert them?
- What draws me as a writer to including this element? What excites or interests me about it?
- What reaction am I hoping to get out of my reader with the inclusion of this element?
- How often do I fulfil reader expectations in my work, and how often do I subvert or delay them?
For more on approaching your story as a reader, have a look at our worksheet.