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Literary Conventions: (Un)Important

During my senior year of college, I took a couple of classes which began to shape my thinking about literature. Now, sure, plenty of other courses helped mold my literary mind, but my senior year featured some classes which really made me think, and which will likely keep me thinking well beyond 2012. Sometimes, those classes made my brain hurt but, mostly, they made me think more deeply about literature than I ever had before.

One thing that has stayed with me and that I continue to think about now (months after) is conventions. I think the reason it is particularly interesting to me is because I write fiction myself (or attempt to) and I often wonder what might make my stories better (or worse).

It’s a pretty common assumption that nothing is original, nothing is brand-new. There are plenty of cliches and it is difficult to avoid every single one. I’m sure some writers/poets/people think that the way around this is to be “unconventional.” I tend to disagree. There is a reason why conventions exist and why we continue to use them: they work, they are familiar.

I’m making this sound way more simple than it actually is, but the truth is this: conventions are important. They are also unimportant, but I will get to that later.

Here’s what one should think about when considering conventions:

  • Mixing genres is rarely popular. Why? Because someone expecting a sci fi book unconsciously expects a certain number of conventions to be fulfilled. If your sci fi book is actually a sci fi/romance/comedy, it likely mixes too many conventions and readers from each genre will be disappointed when they find that your book doesn’t match their expectations, which is no good for your bottom line.
  • Conventions can help shape your story, keep it together, push it forward…. All of this could even fight writer’s block! Why? Because when you are unsure where to take a story, you can think about where it would conventionally go. That doesn’t mean it HAS to go there, but it gives you an option you didn’t have before…and an opportunity to continue writing, which may break that block.
  • Conventions work. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t see the same story set ups thrown about (think: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. Not the same story, but the plots follow convention. I got this from one of my professors, so I can go into more detail in another blog if anyone is really interested).

But there is so much more to conventions, and, again, I am simplifying too much. I am making it sound like writers need to follow conventions all the time. But what did being conventional ever get anyone?

So, why conventions are unimportant:

  • If everything were an equation, there would be little reason to read or write. Think back to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter…I said each is based on the same formula. They are, but what makes them more interesting are the ways in which the authors broke conventions. It’s the language. The medium, etc. They are all different even though they are all the same.
  • Conventions are unimportant because the ones you break are the ones that make you different. They can also be the ones that make your writing not make sense, but that’s a risk we sometimes have to take.

The issue of breaking conventions becomes sticky when authors cross genre too much. Yes, yes, that makes something different and new, but it also makes it nearly un-marketable and unrecognizable by the people at large. If I want a sci fi book, and I pick up something that claims to be that, but find out it’s romance/comedy/sci fi, I am going to put it down. It doesn’t meet my (unconscious) expectations of conventions.

Conventions are way too complex to fit into a single post, and they are something I will continue to ponder (and perhaps research) now that I have no classroom in which to learn.

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