In the world of fiction, there are a lot of genres, each one a shorthand for a particular set of conventions and language. When you pick up a Western, you expect it to read like a Western. But what does it mean to have “conventions” and “language”?
A genre convention is not the kind with panels and people selling merchandise, it’s something that turns up a lot in that particular genre. It might be a scene, or a stock character, or even a whole plotline. That Western you picked up might have a duel at high noon between a villain in a black hat against a hero in a white hat, all of which are conventions of the genre.
In the same way, genres have their own particular language, which sits on top of the author’s own individual style. Let’s say you have to describe someone: a tall, brutish bad guy who is menacing the protagonist. Depending on your genre, you’d use different language to do so.
Blocking the doorway to the saloon was a square-jawed man the size of a grizzly, and with just about the same disposition and manners.
Standing in the doorway was a rough customer wearing a cheap suit and a scowl, the sort of guy who wouldn’t seem out of place going six rounds bareknuckle in a back room prizefight.
Learning the language and the conventions of a genre is a useful tool for writers, because not only does it allow you to use them the way they’re intended to be used, it also lets you combing them into new and interesting forms. This is called “genre blending” or “genre fusion”, and it’s a fun thing to do.
Some of the genre conventions of noir include the world-weary detective as protagonist, organised crime, treachery and double-crossing, and moral ambiguity. If you take all of those and write a Western, using Western language and an appropriate setting, you might end up with a sort of “cowboy crime thriller” that sees a jaded small-town sheriff battling corruption and his own inner demons with only a revolver and a half-empty bottle of whisky for company.
Compelling stuff, right? Well, possibly. As with all stories, it’s down to the telling of the tale. But so long as you have a sound basis in your fundamentals, you can practice any way you want: by writing genre fiction, by blending genres, or by avoiding genre conventions entirely and trying to forge your own unique narrative.