One of my current favorite shows on TV is Jane the Virgin, a clever, satirical romance-drama-telenovela hybrid that is one of the smarter shows I’ve seen in the last few years. It breaks down romance and soap opera conventions while still playing within the rules of the category: even as it pokes fun at the rules of the telenovela, it abides by them. The result, while cheesy at first glance, is magnificently self-aware, snarky, and satisfying, because it trusts an audience aware of the conventions it explores.
Without getting spoilery, the first episode of the new season looks at the expectations of the romance reader/viewer, specifically that magic component, the HEA. (That’s Happily Ever After in romance lingo, for those of you who aren’t in the know.) When readers pick up a novel in the romance section of the bookstore, they expect, by and large, a happily ever after, whatever that may look like: a wedding, a baby, a kiss, a couple together forever. When writers break with that convention, it seems to create two primary results: extreme disappointment or flat-out awe at the creator of such a groundbreaking work.
As writers, most of us aren’t lucky enough to land in the second category. It takes a deft hand to write a tragic romance or a sci-fi with magical components, and it takes a truly visionary editor to find a way to sell those genre-bending pieces.
So what makes one of the successful convention-defying pieces work? Often, it’s the tricks that make all great pieces of media stand out, like great characters, compelling conflicts, and gorgeous writing. But I think there’s a secret ingredient that Jane the Virgin has unwittingly revealed: self-awareness.
While Jane the Virgin works within the rules of the telenovela, and would likely alienate its audience if it tried to tell a true tragedy, its self-awareness turns it from a typical soap opera into a deconstruction of a soap opera. By pointing out and exploring the rules of its genre, it tells a deeper story because it looks at why we have certain expectations of genre fiction. The audience becomes a part of the story.
Any time we engage with a work of fiction, we bring to it our own circumstances, our history, and our particular wants and needs. I might pick up a romance novel because I need to see that happily ever after; you might pick up a fantasy novel because you want an escape. If an author denies us the defining characteristic we are expecting from a work we’ve engaged with, they are often denying to meet our needs. But when they find a way to satisfy those needs while still surprising us, that’s when conventions become secondary to story and art is born.
What are your favorite genre-defying stories? How does genre expectation influence your reading of a particular work?