(I wrote this in mid-December, but for some reason never got around to posting it.)
In 1996, during my Wanderjahr, I ran a brief roleplaying game for a couple of friends. One of them really wanted to play a character from Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, and although I was dubious about having a non-original character in my game, I decided to allow it.
But I'd never seen the show, so first I had to watch an episode or two to get a sense of what it was like.
My first impression was that it was incredibly unrealistic. I mean, ninjas would show up out of nowhere and attack this guy all the time, and then fight him one-on-one, and then they would flee.
But then something clicked. And I realized that the show was not an inept portrayal of the real world; it was a good portrayal of a world with strong genre conventions.
If you think of the show as taking place in a world in which it's normal for ninjas to show up out of nowhere and attack and so on, then the show makes a lot more sense and is a lot more enjoyable.
These days I talk about genre conventions all the time, and when I run into a particularly implausible element of a published sf story, a little bit of thought sometimes convinces me that it's just a genre convention.
But the aspect of this that I don't seem to have discussed here is the idea that some fictional worlds are more heavily genred than others.
Every genre has its conventions. Romance, mystery, Western, technothriller, science fiction, fantasy--each has conventions, and each subgenre within those genres has conventions. Even mainstream literary fiction and its subgenres have conventions.
But some genre conventions are meant to be more or less mimetic, more or less imitative of things that happen in real life, and others aren't.
I tend to think of works in which the genre conventions are particularly important to the world or the story, and in which those conventions are particularly out of step with the real world, as being "heavily genred." (I sometimes say such a work has a high "genre level.")
This came up the other day when I was telling Kam about the roleplaying game Space: 1889. (In this entry, as usual for me, "roleplaying game" refers to tabletop/pen-and-paper-and-dice roleplaying, not computer games.) For those unfamiliar with it, it's Victorian adventure science fiction--Verne, Haggard, Wells. In my experience, it works well as an introduction to roleplaying, because it's a very heavily genred game, and because most people are familiar, at least in general, with the genre conventions. (Or at least with later pulp versions of those conventions, which are close enough for the purposes of the game.) Lost cities in Africa! Ancient crumbling civilizations by the fabled canals of Mars! Dinosaurs in the steaming jungles of Venus! British explorers keeping a stiff upper lip while wearing pith helmets and carrying the White Man's Burden to the savage heathens! "Ether-flyer" spaceships! Lighter-than-air galleons made of Martian liftwood! The game's tag line pretty much sums it up: "Science-Fiction Role Playing in a More Civilized Time."
And since the genre conventions are so strong as to be practically self-parodies, players end up having a lot of fun with it. And of course you can play a little with the constraints of the genre; for example, one character in a Space:1889 game that I ran appeared to be a dashing young British man who kept to himself a lot, but was really a young woman in disguise.
The original West End Star Wars roleplaying game is another one, perhaps the best example I've seen of a game's mechanics reflecting the genre conventions. I never actually ran the game, but when I was thinking about doing so at one point, Arthur E and I did some sample combat, and it was great--fluid and fast, and the stormtroopers couldn't hit a damn thing.
A lot of roleplaying games are pretty heavily genred--Call of Cthulhu, certainly (where you gradually lose your sanity as you learn Things Man Was Not Meant To Know), and Champions (stun damage vs. body damage, for instance, not to mention knockback), and Justice, Inc., and Toon, and for that matter even D&D. In such games, and in other heavily genred works, you can generally expect the "unrealistic" genre conventions to have a major role in how the story progresses; if you want to take the story on its own terms, it helps to think of the story as taking place in a world where those conventions are the way things work.
Another example: Firefly (specifically the TV show) was a heavily genred show. Lots of it doesn't make any sense at all if you try to think of it as plausible futurism. Six-guns and shotguns in space? Cattle in the spaceship's hold? A train robbery? Dusty desert landscapes? Fights in saloons? Fiddle music? A whorehouse run by a tough madam with a heart of gold? A former Civil War soldier, from the losing side, who still hates the Federales? Wait, hold on--that's not bad projection of the future, it's a Western! In space! If I hadn't known going into it that that's what the series was, I think I would have been really annoyed by it--though to be fair, the train-robbery episode that was the first one to air made it awfully obvious what they were doing.
(And as an aside, one thing I didn't like about the Serenity movie was that they seemed to lose track of what genre it was supposed to be. They discarded a lot of the Western elements, and too much of the movie felt to me more like a zombie movie than a Western.)
And I think that one good way to get readers/viewers into the right frame of mind is to set their genre expectations appropriately from the very start. The new Zorro movie does this (though not quite in the way I'm talking about): the opening title sequence (flaming words, whip-cracks, hoofbeats) is so over-the-top dramatic that Kam and I were laughing with delight even before Banderas appeared onscreen. Similarly, the James Bond movies always open with an over-the-top action sequence that sets not just the mood but the genre expectations. (Though one of them a few years ago backfired in that regard for me--it featured a blatantly unrealistic falling scene, which instead of making me expect that this was a world where gravity doesn't work the way it does in the real world, I just got annoyed. So different members of the audience may react differently to a given "unrealistic" item.)
There are certainly times when you want to mess with or subvert reader expectations. That's fine. But if the world of your story is going to be heavily genred, it's often a good idea to set that up at the beginning; it can save you a lot of trouble later.
P.S.: Space: 1889 appears to be back in print, from Heliograph Games. If you ever want to play it, I recommend ignoring a lot of the game mechanics--I found the character stat system and the combat system nigh-unusable--but it's a lot of fun to play if you apply your own streamlined system to it.
Heliograph was also, as of early 2005, planning a game called Zeppelin Age: Pulp Era Roleplaying: 1900 to 1940. It sounds like fun, but it's apparently been in the planning stages since 2002, so I'm not holding my breath.