The Dos & Don'ts of Combining Genres

Historifiction-YA-Paranormal-Bromance? Yikes. Here’s how to mix elements of different genres in your novel the right way.
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DEAR AGENT,

I have an exciting new story that’s one cup romance, one cup mystery, a pinch of adventure and a dash of magic. This delicious part-memoir, part-fiction novel cake transcends tastes and genres. It will reach all audiences, and it even has crossover appeal for the young adult market. And for those hard-to-reach audiences, I promise … it’s gluten free. How could you pass up an opportunity like this?

Sincerely,
Author of All Trades

Are you laughing? Well, I did too. The first time. As a literary agent, I’ve seen hundreds of these queries—and by trying to reach every possible audience by mashing together numerous genres, these writers end up reaching no audience. But that doesn’t mean that blending genres in a novel never works. In fact, the perfect mixes can create new literary segments all their own, in addition to groundbreaking bestsellers that break out of genre boundaries.

(Cross-Pollination: The Future Is Genre-Blending)

But let’s start at the beginning. Here are the dos and don’ts of blending genres in your fiction.

The Dos & Don'ts of Combining Genres

Understand Why Genre Matters

Blended-genre books are a hot trend in the current marketplace, but in order to successfully pull one-off, you need to first have an understanding of the very nature of genre fiction. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, genre is adopted from the French, meaning “a kind,” from the Latin genus, which in scientific terminology is a category that shares a group of similar attributes. In publishing, a genre is also a category of books sharing a set of common features; just as scientists want to know if they’re dealing with an animal, vegetable or mineral, we classify stories as mystery, romance, fantasy and so on.

“Genre is essentially a marketing tool,” says Diana Fox of Fox Literary. “It’s a category marker that tells us in which section in the bookstore your book will be sold.”

It’s because of this that you need to be aware of who you’re writing for. Where in the bookstore would your target reader go in search of books like yours? As you write, you may not know things like the exact subgenre your story fits into (more on that in a minute) just yet, but you should be able to answer the early questions. In doing so, you’ll be closer to figuring out where your book belongs—and you’ll be closer to getting it there, too.

In its most basic sense, genre is all about audience expectations. By definition, genres, to some extent, follow a formula, and readers often admit to being comforted by knowing what that formula is. Genre fans turn to their books for a particular kind of escape, whether it be solving a mystery, becoming lost in another world, or feeling swept up in a romance. When writing genre fiction, you’re catering to these readers, so it’s important to know the rules. And the best way to do that is to be one of those readers. Reading other books like your own will help you figure out where your story falls, provide you with a good sense of the conventions of the genre, and give you an arsenal of comparison titles to use in your query when the time comes.

Identity Is a Base Genre

Let’s pull from the recipe analogy in the query at the start of this article (a very common tactic, and one I admittedly do not like). When cooking a soup, you add loads of different ingredients. But the soup itself doesn’t taste like everything. With soup, there’s a base flavor, something that the rest of the ingredients are there to enhance. And that’s how you have to go about blending genres: First and foremost, there needs to be a base. The most popular flavors are mystery, romance, fantasy, science fiction, literary, horror, historical, thriller, comedy, and drama. The first thing you need to do is decide where your story fits best.

To pick your base—your focus—start by asking yourself this key question: At its core, what is the plot of your story centered on? Is it based around two characters becoming romantically involved? Is it based around finding a murderer? Is it based around two fantastical creatures battling?

The Dos & Don'ts of Combining Genres

Add Equal Parts of More than One Genre

Any ingredients you add to your base should enrich it, not overpower it. And a good chef knows that not everything tastes good together.

Remember, your story may have elements of a romance, a murder mystery, and a new fantasy world, but that doesn’t mean it falls under all three genres. You have to decide: Which one is the focus? Where are books similar to yours shelved in the bookstore?

Your book can’t be in two places at once—and knowing where it will likely end up can reinforce that critical element of understanding who you’re writing for.

Let Secondary Elements Define Your Subgenre

Ultimately, of course, all stories don’t fit neatly into the primary genres—and that’s why there are subgenres. While some subgenres often grow to be considered their own specific genres (breaking down comedy into satire or parody, for example), for the sake of this article, we’ll focus on those that are born from blended categories. Some of the more popular are romantic suspense, supernatural thriller, historical romance, paranormal mystery, chick-lit, dramedy (or tragicomedy), literary horror, dark drama, magical realism, and so on. In these subgenres, the second word reflects the base genre, and the first is a descriptive term classifying the book within that broader category.

For example, if your plot’s heart is the will-they-won’t-they-get-together hook that keeps romance readers on the edge of their seats, as in J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood or Gena Showalter’s Lords of the Underworld series, the genre is, first and foremost, romance. It’s the other elements that make these books paranormal romances—one of today’s hottest subgenres. Even if the werewolf pack’s escape is essential to your hero and heroine finally getting it on, if the story can’t be considered finished without the lovers becoming one, the book on your computer is a romance. The paranormal elements enhance your base ingredients.

Let’s look at another increasingly popular subgenre: urban fantasy. In Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Kim Harrison’s The Hollows books, and other titles in this category, the world-building and the conflict based around that imagined world are center stage—and the fact that the world happens to be an urban one is secondary, even though the setting may be immeasurably influential to your characters and plot. Likewise, any romance becomes a subplot (though often an important one).

(The Cocktail Genre: Writing With a Twist)

Force a Genre

All of that being said (and this is the part where you curse the publishing industry and its finicky ways!) there still can be many gray areas when it comes to blending genres. Take, for instance, Kelley Armstrong’s bestselling Bitten. The romance—which begins as a subplot—develops into one of the key elements of the resolution of the story. The world-building is certainly more extensive than that of a typical paranormal romance, and at times, Bitten reads like more of a paranormal coming-of-age story than anything else. As with everything in publishing, there are exceptions to every rule.

Generally speaking, though, books with clearly defined genres are easier to sell, simply because publishers know exactly how to evaluate and cater to the market for that book. But if you genuinely aren’t sure where your novel fits in, don’t despair. Just write the best story you can, the best way you know how. When it comes time to pitch editors and agents, if you’re unsure or completely lost, as my mom always said, “When in doubt, leave it out.”

When Patrick Lee, debut author of the bestselling supernatural thriller The Breach, queried Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management, he didn’t categorize his novel. “He didn’t talk to me about genre,” Reid says. “He talked to me about an engaging story.” The genre part came later, and that’s OK. Agents would rather hear about a good story than be pitched a book an author has tried to label as something it’s not. If they feel strongly about your novel, they’ll help determine where it fits when the time comes.

Leave the Ultimate Call to the Professionals

Let’s say you’ve done your work, and you’ve come up with what you believe to be your base genre and subgenre. This may come as a surprise: After you’ve finished and polished the story, signed with an agent, and sold to a publisher, it’s the publisher’s sales and marketing departments that really end up officially classifying your book. (This is the other part where you curse publishing and all its demands!) So why classify it in the first place if someone may change it later? Again, the easier it is to figure out, the better chance it will sell—and that starts with you.

Once your book has been classified, published, and shelved, it’s the publicists and booksellers who are helping you reach your audience. And no one knows audience expectations better than booksellers.

“We still shelve Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books in mystery,” says Maryelizabeth Hart, co-owner and publicity manager for Mysterious Galaxy Books in San Diego—although she agrees that “there are equally viable arguments to shelving them in speculative fiction or paranormal or even in urban fantasy.”

Hart pays attention to the way her customers browse for books, and makes shelving decisions accordingly. “We’ve had a nice response from the mystery reader base to a number of our paranormal books,” she says, “including authors Victoria Laurie and Juliet Blackwell, where the structure of the book is firmly in the mystery genre, but has just added that [paranormal] element.”

This further affirms the idea that picking a base flavor, a focus, is crucial in reaching your core audience.

(Todd Stottlemyre: On Mixing and Bending Genres)

Put the Story First

Blending genres may be a current trend, but the concept is nothing new. And just because a book doesn’t fit neatly into a predetermined genre doesn’t mean it won’t find a publisher. In fact, new subgenres are still being born. I’m lucky enough to work with Nancy Coffey, who essentially helped create the historical romance genre as an editor with Avon in the ’70s. Before that time, there were fewer historicals starring female protagonists than there are now, and with some exceptions, the vast majority of these books were gothic romances. Then came The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. “Back then it was easier to go to your sales department and say, ‘This is something completely new—it’s never been done before,’ and have them jump on board,” Coffey says.

But it’s still possible. And today there are so many subgenres and innovative blends using everything from graphic elements, like in Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, to poetry, like Ellen Hopkins’ Crank, that it can be more confusing than ever to know where you fit in.

With all of this to think about, how do you know when you’ve combined genres successfully?

I’ve signed clients who weren’t sure where their work fit in the market, and I signed them because even without that knowledge, they pitched the stories well. Because as I said earlier, in the end, that’s what matters most: a good story. Without it, your genre and subgenre won’t matter, because your book simply won’t sell.

Don’t try to force your book into any given genre—or subgenre—because it’s the hot new trend. To enhance a story, the introduced elements have to play a part in the story. “Readers want purpose to their cross-genre element,” Hart says.

Be aware of audience expectations, but not so aware that they become the reason you’re writing the story. As much as we agents and editors like you to be knowledgeable of the market and your audience, that isn’t your top priority as the writer. That priority is to create the story you are burning to write.

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