Incorporating All Genres to Create a Masterpiece
Genres are a tricky topic. On a fundamental level, they are a system for categorizing media. We use this system both for ease of access and for setting up expectations. There are music genres, film genres, literary genres, and many others. Genres help us find more of what we like. If I hear a song and decide that I like it, I can investigate that music genre and discover new treasures.
Sadly, there are also a number of difficulties associated with genres.
What’s going on with genres?
One issue with genres is the concern that people tend to become attached to one or more genres, to the exclusion of others. People sometimes use genre as their primary consideration. “Oh, it’s a sci-fi flick? No thanks, I’ll pass.” “A romance novel? Gross.” “Anime? You mean like kids’ cartoons?”
Another issue is the inconsistency of the genres themselves. Many genres seem to refer to a story’s prevailing story element, such as romance and horror. Others seem to be nothing more than a setting descriptor, such as historical fiction and science fiction. As a system for categorizing stories based on a single trait, this is not very helpful. There is nothing to say that there cannot be a romantic story set on a Mars colony, or that there cannot be a horror story set in 1920’s New York.
Then there are mismatches across types of media. A film set in America’s wild west is typically deemed a “Western”, and a novel set in a similar setting is called “Historical Fiction.” This difference in terms seems to have no current use and creates mild confusion.
Ultimately, we are capable of deciphering this haphazard code for our own purposes. Even if we can’t, it’s relatively simple to decide if a book or film is worth our time. A glance at the back cover teaser of the novel or a viewing of the film’s trailer is usually enough. No, the main problem here exists in the mind of the writer, and their perceptions of how to use genre.
Try genre blending.
I believe the most compelling stories are the ones that incorporate many different themes in the narrative. Stories that focus on one or two tend to do well initially, but are soon forgotten. Every year, there are plethoras of comedy, action, and romance flicks that bank on their box office earnings and nothing more. They have flashy film trailers and well-designed posters. The masses rush to see the latest Fast and Furious film, whoop and holler at the exhilarating car chases, then leave the theater, never to think about the film again until the next one comes out.
Conversely, many cult classics do very poorly in the initial box office earnings, yet have a huge following afterwards. These stories are remembered decades after their release, if not longer. The cult classic television show Firefly by Joss Whedon (best described as sci-fi western drama comedy) saw very little interest during its initial run, but exists today as a fan favorite.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is widely considered the father of modern fantasy. Despite being over sixty-five years old, it is still regarded as one of the most influential works of all time. Much of this could be attributed to its new perspective on the fantastic, but I would argue that it also did well on account of its contrast in themes. Within the text—and to a greater degree in the live-action films—there are elements of horror, romance, comedy, action, and drama.
In my mind, it is this blending of story themes that make our favorite stories so compelling. It exists in a similar vein to rising and falling action. Readers and viewers become frustrated with a piece that has an overabundance of high-stakes action. It eventually becomes draining and boring because there is little opportunity to rest and remember the consequences of all the carnage.
Similarly, a story with not enough action—be it relationship drama, high-speed chases, or gunfights—also becomes dull. It is the subtle balance between rising and falling action that keeps a narrative compelling. And I think the same principle applies to the ideas of romance, horror, comedy, etc.
Give me an example!
Let’s use the Lord of the Rings example again. In the film trilogy, the story begins with some high-stakes action in the form of an exposition-y flashback. Just when the grimness of the situation starts to become overbearing, we find ourselves in a peaceful scene in the Shire. Here we find elements of comedy in the jovial nature of the hobbits. Even though the story itself could never be considered a “comedy,” there are still moments of humor which add flavor. Later on in the narrative, there is romantic tension between Aragorn and Eowyn. And there are many elements of horror when the protagonists are faced with horrific monsters.
Most people’s favored films and novels utilize this concept to great effect. Often, the individual isn’t even totally aware of it. They might claim that they enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean for its humor and Johnny Depp’s excellent performances, but they are also enthralled by the film’s stunning choreography and intriguing subplots.
Most huge hit franchises also follow this idea. The critically acclaimed Harry Potter series grows steadily darker the further into the series you go, but there are still elements of humor, romance, horror, and action throughout. This constant variety makes for a very interesting narrative that can appeal to a very wide audience.
You don’t need to sell your soul to attain the benefits of genre blending. You shouldn’t feel obligated to incorporate a romantic subplot in your spy fiction just because I said so. The point is, variety helps. And catering to a single story theme to the exclusion of others is something that I’ve seen succeed only rarely.
Writing is a constant juggling act in many regards. You need rising and falling action. You need compelling characters without making their actions overbearing. You need to establish what the setting is like without using too much exposition. You need to describe the character’s surroundings without being too flowery and verbose. You need to maintain suspense without frustrating the reader.
All of these balances are important. The balance of incorporating multiple story themes and shifting between them is just another one to add to the list. However, it’s a balance that is often overlooked and deserves more recognition.