The names are found on the shelves in our bookstores: Science fiction. Fantasy. Mystery. Horror. Romance. Broad, familiar indicators, meant to communicate to the reader what it is that they are about to pick up. They know that if they choose a horror book, it will likely try to frighten them. If they pick up a fantasy book, they will probably be transported to an unknown world, or at least dazzled by feats of magic in a familiar one. Some authors have even become synonymous with a genre — for example, Stephen King and J.R.R. Tolkien for horror and fantasy, respectively.
But not all books can be neatly classified, and plenty of well-known works crisscross over traditional genre boundaries. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series enthusiastically mashes up Western, fantasy, and horror elements. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies turns classic literature gory. And The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tosses science fiction and comedy into a blender and makes a smoothie.
There’s something unforgettable, almost decadent, about a well-done genre mash-up. (And it’s becoming increasingly popular, with some genre mixtures having become so recognized and beloved that they’ve spawned their own distinct subgenres, as is the case with steampunk.) It’s this unforgettable factor that can make writing across genres so appealing.
So how can an author go about doing so? With all the genres out there, and all the stories that can be told within them, how is it possible to know what will work and what won’t?
A good first step is to break down and examine what elements and tropes are inherent to the genres that you want to work with. Some genres have a wider range than others. You could probably spend hours listing the commonly used elements in science fiction or fantasy — magic, chosen ones, swords with names, alien invasions, humans with superhuman abilities, time travel, etc etc etc. Others are, generally speaking, a little narrower in scope. For example, the Western, where a handful of elements — gunslingers, outlaws, a revenge plot — tend to be the most universally recognized.
But just because elements are common, doesn’t mean the execution of them needs to be. Nor do they need to be limiting. Shifting to screen media for a moment, take the examples of Firefly, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Event Horizon. All three use elements of science fiction. Two are set in space, two use mind-altering technology, but none of the stories are even remotely similar. Firefly blends science fiction and the Western in a way that was familiar enough to catch the viewer, but fresh enough to keep them hooked. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a romantic comedy at its heart. And, finally, Event Horizon was a movie that started off as solid science fiction, only to veer into pure horror.
Similar genre elements, completely different executions.
Another important thing to keep in mind while writing across genres is hierarchy. Genre-bending is often most effective when one genre has the spotlight. Going back to the example of Firefly, while it has very apparent Western elements, science fiction dominates the world. Another example of this is The Gravekeepers, a contemporary young adult coming-of-age novel that features a spare, but intriguing, ghost story. At first, it isn’t clear what part the ghost plays, but as the plot progresses, that speculative element ends up reaching all corners of the novel in a satisfying manner.
It helps to think of blending genres like cooking — the trick is often finding the right ratio of ingredients. Ever eaten something with truffles? A little bit can create a transcendent flavor. Too much and the flavor of the truffles becomes overpowering, unbalancing, or even outright ruining the whole dish.
Finally, it’s important to understand genres well enough to know whether what is happening in your story falls under the correct classification. Your novel probably isn’t a fantasy romance if it just happens to have a romance present within a swords and sorcery tale. The romance genre has its own set of tropes, beats, etc. that should be present if it is going to be used as a designation. (And it’s worth noting that this is important to keep in mind whether you are writing mixed genres or not. A common complaint of agents is receiving queries for genres they don’t represent, or that aren’t classified correctly. Want to look professional and show that you know your market? Make sure you know what you’ve written before you send it anywhere!)
A note of caution, writing is tricky on the best of days, and blending genres comes with its own set of risks. As much as readers are always looking for something fresh and new, there’s also a tendency to seek out story elements that we are comfortable with. It’s entirely possible, when playing with genre, to push some of those readers too far beyond what they know and enjoy, or simply to create a work that hits with a smaller audience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with its cult following, evolved into a cultural phenomenon after all — but it’s something to keep in mind.
One last thing: the best part of genre-bending is the freedom it allows the writer to explore, play, and experiment with story elements. Sometimes it’s not easy, but then again, what is when it comes to writing? There’s little to be lost, and a lot to be gained, by pushing boundaries in one’s writing, and writing across genre is an excellent place to start.