The fact is that every story tends to fit into at least one genre. Yes, even “literary” stories often fall into one genre or another (eg: Margaret Atwood has written dystopic sci-fi stories, A.S. Byatt and Salman Rushdie have written
fantasy magical realist stories etc…] and quite a few “genre fiction” stories often have a rather “literary” quality to them [seriously, if you ever want to read some intelligent and poetic 1980s splatterpunk horror fiction, then check out Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood”].
Intentional or unintentional, genre is a fact of creativity – even if you try to create something which doesn’t fit into any particular genre, your readers will probably still insist on assigning it a genre.
I’m not really that good at chemistry – I got a reasonably decent GCSE grade in it, but it was always the most confusing of the three sciences. Like maths, it was one of those annoying compulsory subjects at school which I dropped as quickly as I could when I finished year 11.
Still, chemistry serves as a brilliant metaphor for how you (as a writer and/or artist) should think of the subject of genre.
Everything is made out of elements. These are substances which cannot be broken down into any other substances and consist of only one type of atom. Looking on Wikipedia, 118 of them have been discovered so far – although about 38 of them are unstable and/or radioactive [and all the newly-discovered elements seem to fit into this category]. Everything on the planet consists of various mixtures of these 118 elements (although, obviously, some elements are much more common than other elements).
Just look at yourself and everything around you – it’s all made up of only 118 possible ingredients. All in various intricate combinations.
Anyway, genres are at their best and most useful when you mix them together in interesting ways. You can’t really go wrong with this, although some genres tend to go better with some genres than others. For example: comedy and horror seem to be the perfect genres for mixing with other genres. “Sci-fi” and “Western” often just describe the setting of a story.
In fact, these days, most stories will usually consist of at least two genres (eg: military sci-fi, sci-fi horror, romantic comedy, spy thriller, historical zombie fiction etc…) and there are usually very good reasons for it.
But, whilst it’s surprisingly difficult to invent a new genre (the last new genre seems to have been either cyberpunk, biopunk, steampunk or splatterpunk in the 1980s), it’s surprisingly easy to mix other genres. The trick is (and I really need to follow my own advice about this) to mix them in new and interesting ways [eg: a cyberpunk splatterpunk story]. But, even if you stick to the more well-known genre combinations, then there are still quite a few advantages to mixing genres:
1) It’s less predictable: Every genre has it’s own conventions and cliches which you can end up following without realising it. If you combine genres (the more the merrier…) then this becomes less of an issue and your stories become less predictable. People might still know what kinds of things to expect, but they won’t know exactly how they will be combined.
If your story is less predictable, then both you and your readers will feel curious about it and curiosity is an essential quality of good writing. Plus, if something is unpredictable and surprising, then your readers are more likely to both remember it and talk about it more. They’ll either introduce your story to other readers and/or it’ll inspire them to write a story of their own.
2) It appeals to a wider group of people: If you combine two genres, then you’ll make something that will appeal to fans of both genres. For example, both sci-fi and horror fans often like the “Alien” films. Yes, these days, they’re probably not that scary or that innvoative – but that’s only because they’ve inspired countless other sci-fi and/or horror films in various ways (and I wish I’d been around in 1979 to see it in the cinema for the first time….)
For example: the famous scene with the chestburster in the first “Alien” film is the perfect combination of the best of both the sci-fi and horror genres. It’s something shocking and gruesome which had never been seen before, but it also happened on a spaceship and involved mysterious aliens. The aliens, of course, also doubled up as the main monsters in the film and the isolated spaceship may as well have been a cabin or a mansion in the middle of nowhere. In short, the best parts of the sci-fi and horror genres were combined in “Alien” in a way which makes it impossible to really put it into either genre. As such, it appeals to fans of both genres.
Also, writing things in multiple genres is a way of ensuring that you can appeal to more people without reducing your work to the most mainstream lowest-common-denominator thing than you can. Honestly, don’t go down the “mainstream” route if you can help it.
3) Most people like more than one genre: There are probably very few people on this planet who only like one particular genre of stories. Now, if you find a story which contains all of your favourite genres – then it’s really something! If it’s at least slightly good, then you’ll probably be a massive fan of it.
Well, guess what? If you combine your favourite genres in your stories, then you’ll probably be a massive fan of your own work. And, being a massive fan of your own work is absolutely essential for creativity.
4) You might invent a new genre : It’s unlikely, but if you combine genres in an unusual way, then it might just happen. In short, inventing a genre can be a path to lasting fame and recognition – most of the time anyway.
I mean, technically speaking, Bruce Bethke actually invented the cyberpunk genre – but William Gibson is often incorrectly seen as the founding father of cyberpunk fiction, mainly due to the popularity of “Neuromancer” (it’s a very very very good book, although the ending is slightly confusing).
Still, even if you don’t become famous for inventing a new genre, then your work will still be fairly unique and distinctive. Well… At least until your new genre becomes popular and everyone else starts writing stuff in it….
Even then, you’ll have the smug satisfaction of knowing that all of these other stories couldn’t have existed if you hadn’t invented a new genre. Either way, you still win.
5) It’ll stretch your imagination: Combining genres requires you to be a lot more imaginative than if you just stick to one genre, since you need to read a lot more widely in order to understand the genres which you’re combining. Plus, you have to think of a way to combine two different types of stories into a single story which works on it’s own. In short, it gives your imagination a good workout and it’s a very good way to experiment creatively.
Even if your experiments with combining genres don’t really work that well, then it’s still good practice and it could come in handy later….
Ok, so all of this was probably just stating the obvious and – of course – most writers tend to mix genres in their stories and/or comics anyway. But, even so, I hope that this article was useful.