Being a Better Writer: Blending Different Genres

Hey readers! Welcome back to the start of another week! I hope you all had a pretty good weekend! Mine went well. In fact, I’ve got some good news for you.

For starters, Frigid-Reviews asked me to do a special spotlight on how I worldbuild. You can find it over on their site, as well as a number of book reviews—including reviews for Shadow of an Empire and Colony!

Second, Unusual Events: A “Short” Story Collection is on sale today for 99 cents! This price will slowly climb back to the original price over the course of the week, so grab it while it’s cheap!

That’s it for news! Plus, there’s a lot for me to do today, so let’s just dive right in to today’s topic. This topic is … well, it’s a bit of a broad one. I’ve noticed that with these request topics things seem to go one of two ways, broad or extremely specific, so in the future I think I’ll scale back the amount of requests a little to hit some more traditional writing topics as well.

But that aside, this topic is a bit broad because the question behind it concerns genres and how to use them. Specifically, how to mix them together. To get even more specific, the initial question wanted to know how to mix genres that didn’t mesh together, but … Well, I disagree with that. Almost. But since I can’t explain that without a whole lot of other context …

Yeah, let’s just dive in.

So, to start, what is a genre? Simply put: It’s a category that explains to the prospective audience what sort of elements to expect from something. Or what other works it might be similar to. For example, The Lord of the Rings is a classic series of the Fantasy genre, a genre that is codified by things like supernatural or magical elements, mythical beings, and often worlds that are not our own in a technological setting hundreds of years behind the modern era. Meanwhile, something like The Icarus Hunt is firmly Science-Fiction, a genre that is based on imagined future technologies and their effects, which include space-travel and mankind branching out across the stars.

Now, we’re not going to list all the possible genres here simply because that would take an inordinate amount of time, and that’s without even getting into sub-genres that can make up each larger genre (at least for the sake of definitions) such as Cyberpunk or Urban Fantasy (and yes, if you’re not familiar with those, they’re sub-genres of Sci-Fi and Fantasy). If you’re curious about what sort of sub-genres there are out there, just be rest assured that there are many of them (and more of them the more detailed you want to get) and a helpful Google can get you started. But rather, let’s talk about why we use genres.

It’s for a couple of reasons, first and foremost to help identify books (or other mediums) by lumping them together with other, similar books that readers already like. For example, a lot of bookstores lump books together by genre. You have mysteries and thrillers in one section of shelves, historical fiction in another. You have Fantasy in one section, Science-Fiction in another (well, unless you’re in Barnes & Noble, which seems to lump them together next to Manga, or sometimes with, and call it a day; is it any surprise they’re going out of business?).

Simply put, genre is a informative, categorical element. When I tell someone that Shadow of an Empire is an Epic Fantasy-Western, using those genre terms tells them several things. “Epic” says that the scope is large, vast. That the story stretches large distances, and the events happening in it carry weight on a grand scale (as opposed to just small and personal). “Fantasy” tells them that there’s an element of the fantastic to it. Magic, strange creatures, etc etc (and in this case, it’s the magic that really stands out). Last, “Western” tells them that the story will involve elements of encroaching civilization, struggles against nature, and likely gunfire and a desert (the last one isn’t technically a requirement of the genre, but for most it’s ubiquitous with it).

See how useful that is? Genres exist for a reason: They offer an overarching view of the “type” of story that they are to the audience. Someone who enjoys Harry Potter can, with knowledge that Harry Potter is a Fantasy, walk into the Fantasy section of a bookstore and start looking around, and in a short amount of time find something similar like Fantasy books by Diana Wynne Jones or The Wheel of Time.

But genre can work from the other direction as well, by which I mean the creator’s perspective. Genre can be a useful tool for “codifying” some of the attributes of a story that you’re working on. Deciding early on that a story is “Fantasy” or “Supernatural” (yup, that’s a genre) can help you decide what sort of elements may work best with a story or might not be suited to it.

Which is where we get into a bit of a pickle, as genre is very important to some readers. Crud, some readers will only read certain genres, to the degree that they’ll omit books of other genres by their favorite authors (I’m really not exaggerating on this one; I was reading comments from folks about this just the other day). Which is why many book publishers “lock down” their authors to only write in one genre, or require them to switch to a pen name for entries in another genre. They’re banking on the idea that once an author writes one genre, their fans won’t follow them over to another (cross-pollination is bad in the publisher’s mind, I guess).

The thing is that they’re not entirely wrong, either. Speaking from my own experience, Colony is my stand-out seller, but there are quite a few readers of it who haven’t picked up Shadow of an Empire because they “don’t do” Fantasy. Just Sci-Fi.

But we’re getting off topic (that’s something for an Op-Ed post). The point is that genre is important. Genre is used to categorize everything that you write in order to give a prospective reader an idea of what sort of “trends” a book will follow. Genre can also be used by the creator to “cement” some of their own concepts for their next project.

Which, in turn, leads us to the question/request that started this whole post, as well as the topic at hand: Blending genres.

Specifically, blending together genres that don’t fit together. Which was the original prompt, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, while a valid question, it wasn’t an accurate one.

Why? Because any mix of genres can be blended together on some level. Which is why we have Science-Fiction Westerns, Romantic Fantasy, Paranormal Science-Fiction, Horror Historical … I could go on. Even genres with elements that disagree with one another on the surface aren’t opposed to blending together. After all, the root of every story is conflict, and if you’re planning on merging two genres that seem strange together, then you’ve got your conflict!

Really, when it comes down it, all genres can be blended together as long as the creator is willing to think “outside the box.” For example, a few weeks ago I ended up on a Science-Fiction discussion thread where a poster was talking about the difficulty of blending sub-genres of Sci-Fi. They pointed out, for example, that Cyberpunk was effectively “impossible” to mesh with the more realistic and optimistic Sci-Fi that was coming out now. They went deep into it as well; this wasn’t just some broad out-of-nowhere statement. They talked about how a lot of modern Sci-Fi deals with elements like automation and FTL travel, which makes resources and living space plentiful and how one of the key elements of Cyberpunk was the constrained world and resources (which often leads to characters seeking refuge in a digital world).

I replied that I didn’t see it as an impossibility, but rather and obstacle for a clever writer to overcome. A “modern” Sci-Fi setting with FTL travel and automation? You can still find ways to limit that. I ended up writing out several examples to demonstrate my perspective, such as a setting the story on a decrepit space station that had been built to be the “pinnacle” of some system or location, but ended up being a bad investment, just not enough of one that it wasn’t hanging on. Flash of immigrants, then the economy collapses? You end up with a setting of modern Sci-Fi, but a situation where resources and living space are constrained. The station is run-down, overpopulated, etc, and you’ve got both the elements of modern Sci-Fi and Cyberpunk.

The second example I gave was similar to the first, only a space-freighter ship that was too old to bother overhauling but still used to ship things from place to place—just slowly. The protagonist was stuck onboard, with little to do but wander the ship or better yet its virtual systems, which at least gave a relief from the drudgery of the beat-down freighter they were stuck on.

Sure, there would be more details to work out if one were to turn any of those into an actual story, but the core elements? They’re there from both genre and sub-genre. And, as I stated earlier, some of them bring conflict with them, which is beneficial to the story. Modern Sci-Fi has resources not being as much of a problem while Cyberpunk does? Meshing the two together, therefore, gives you an immediate conflict. Why then, if this is a Modern Sci-Fi without resource problems, are resources a problem? Boom! Conflict!

Now, this doesn’t mean that all genres will merge with equal ease. Some genre combinations simply go together about as well as chocolate and peanut-butter, while others are much harder to combine, sort of like … oh, sesame oil with meat. It can work … and it can’t.

A real-life example? Horror-Romantic-Comedy. Think it sounds impossible? Most would … unless they’d seen Tucker and Dale VS Evil, which nails all three in hilarious fashion. Sure, it wasn’t easy—the fact that there are horror-comedies which fail to be either, and then horror stories that are comedic for all the wrong reasons stand as a testament to that—but it can be done. It just requires a lot of knowledge and creativity.

Which brings us to the final bit of this post: What you can do. After all, this is Being a Better Writer! So how can you blend genres in your writing?

Well, to start, you’re going to need to know said genres. What they embody, what their common elements are, the works. Not backwards-forwards, but pretty close. And you’re going to need to know how those elements are used in respective stories that are standout examples of each genre. What makes a Noir-Mystery Noir? What makes a Historical Romance different from a Supernatural Romance? Or from a Sci-Fi epic?

Once you know what the various attributes of these genres are, you can try “blending” them together and seeing what elements mesh while others conflict or cause problems. The aforementioned Modern Sci-Fi/Cyberpunk blend, for example, is an example of blending the two in a way that makes both work, even if it introduces some conflict (which can then be used to further the story).

And really … that’s all there is to it. Be creative! Be clever! Understand the elements that make-up different genres, and then see how they fit together. If they don’t fit together, find a reason that suits the story to pick one or the other, or have them conflict! It won’t always be easy, in fact sometimes it may be downright hard. But it can be done with enough time and enough patience.

All right, one final warning, harking back to that earlier topic that I said would be better suited for an Op-Ed: Understand that audiences can put a lot of power-of-appeal in a genre, and if your appeal as an author isn’t stronger than that genre, they’re not going to read what you create. Cut and dry. Some people don’t like fantasy, but love Sci-Fi, or vice-versa. Or hate mystery. Or will refuse to read Epics. Point being, you may create something that a lot of fans will refuse to read on premise of genre alone, even if they probably would enjoy it (which leads us back into publishers locking authors into set genres).

There’s no way around this. You can’t think “Well, I’ll be the exception to the rule” because … You won’t be. Jumping genres just has that effect, and you’ll want to be ready for it.

Which is why blending genres can be even riskier. Shadow of an Empire, for example, is a Fantasy-Western. But this means that it really only appeals to those who tend to enjoy both of those genres. Those that like Fantasy but not Westerns, or Westerns but not Fantasy? They’re not going to give it a shot, because one of the two things the book is doesn’t appeal to them.

That’s the risk of genre-blending. It’s fun, sure, and you can do a lot with it. But it also comes with concerns over finding an audience. The more esoteric your blend, the greater risk you have of making it difficult to find readers from both camps willing to give it a chance.

But that’s it. Want to mix genres? Know them and study them. Identify their component elements so that you know what makes a genre that genre. Then take those elements and put them with/against other elements from another.

Good luck. Now get writing

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