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The Sexy Space Cowboy Mystery Elf Brigade: Crossing Genres Like a Pro

WritersdontcryMixinggenresHorror is scary. Romance is steamy. Westerns are manly. And sci-fi/fantasy is imaginative. But why not slip a little western swagger into that epic fantasy, just to spice things up a bit? Or set the fear of god into some sci-fi fans, by giving your aliens a Lovecraftian twist? Of course, the answers are yes, please and you can; and many have, to great success.

Genres are fickle things. We tend to talk about them as though they were physical enough to be transcended, but genres are far from immutable. They’re really just the shorthand used to help readers find new books they might like. And to that end, it works! But this doesn’t mean that genre should tie the hands of writers looking to tell an amazing story that doesn't quite fit in a genre box. Many of my favorite books take their complex flavors from multiple genres, mixing them together with enough alchemy and skill to turn their words into pure gold.

Crossing genres expands the stories you can tell, as well as the themes you can tackle. It can also lend a freshness to a story it might not otherwise attain, were it to cling too fiercely to the expectations of the genre. Because of this, the very best authors are often those who read widely, and read with open minds. Even if a genre isn’t to your taste, who knows? You might pick up a few tricks. To that end, here are a few tips to get you started.

Western: Rugged Underdogs for Frontier Justice… IN SPACE

Westerns are sexy and enduring. It often centers on the lone vigilante who wanders the rugged edge of the world, bound only by honor and unable to turn his back on those need. The vigilante’s adventures often start in a saloon filled with all manner of dangerous, manly, uncivilized things, which the hero is good at but takes no pride in. From here, the hero usually takes the side of the idealistic underdogs against more organized, almost imperialistic forces in a battle with well-drawn lines between good and evil. Some even take it a step further and deal in moral ambiguity—like the film Unforgiven, or the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, taking into question the kind of man who would take on such a life.

There are so many similarities between sci-fi/fantasy and westerns that it is no surprise they have made for successful genre crossing. After all, space is the final frontier, and how many fantasy stories center on a lone hero’s moral code, or start in a tavern? Star Wars. Firefly. Cowboy Bebop. You could even make an argument that V for Vendetta is a western, with the assertion that a corrupt city can be as wild as the wildest of Wests (welcome to the jungle, baby!).

Why Add Western: Western-influenced fantasy is sexy, edgy, and classic in the tradition of the stories of knights errant. It adds grit without gore, swagger without sex, and idealism without preaching. Western-influenced sci-fi, on the other hand, is a great way to focus in on the human in a genre that has always been about the edge of humanity—from the final frontier of space, to the technological frontiers of cloning and teleportation.

Horror: Upgrade Your Dragon

Traditional fantasy can give the illusion of otherworldly perfection, particularly if it’s heavy on the magic and the faeries. Horror is the perfect note to ground the whimsy and beauty of a fantasy story, making the magic that much more believable for the reflected darkness. Horror in fantasy works best of it is bleak, stark, and gritty, as it is using basic human fear to make the fantastic appear realistic. In The Vampire Chronicles, for instance, the use of horror makes the stories ring eerily true. Darkness that is too similar to the fantasy elements will have the opposite effect, making the whole thing less believable.

Horror also makes a lovely counterpoint to sci-fi. Even though a lot of great horror is rooted in the everyday, the scariest horror stories I have ever experienced have been sci-fi stories. Much of horror is built on the fear of the unknown. And much of sci-fi, while fiction, is built on plausible unknowns. For this reason, sci-fi/horror crossovers, like Alien, are terrifying.

Why Add Horror: Because it deals in a visceral and human emotion like fear, horror adds an element of realism to the otherworldly tales of sci-fi/fantasy, making villains more frightening and heroes more heroic. After all, who has any empathy for a hero struggling to defeat a fluffy bunny (unless, of course, that bunny has big, pointy teeth)?

Mystery: The Dragon with the Human Tattoo

Almost no book is complete without a bit of a mystery. What is a plot, at its heart, but a mystery? But some books take that a bit further, and embrace the themes of the mystery genre on a deeper level. And you can see the appeal. The new hit TV show Grimm is an excellent example of a fantasy detective story. But why stop there? What would a fantasy Sherlock Holmes look like? Or a science fiction And Then There Were None?

The excitement in solving a mystery is in many ways an exercise of logic as the hero (and the reader!) try to figure out the answer to a question given a set of known facts. Sci-fi/fantasy books can add an exciting new element to mysteries, as they push the boundaries of what is possible, making puzzles and mysteries that much more complex. Of course, your fantasy world has to be logical and well-established in the reader’s mind, so as not to prove frustrating when they’re trying to solve the mystery. But with some solid world building, you’ll have boundless new opportunities. For instance, how does it change a murder mystery, if characters can be brought back from the dead?

Why Add Mystery: A good mystery is fascinating, gripping—and grounded solidly in logic. Adding it to sci-fi/fantasy is delightful in the seeming contradiction of being so logical and detailed about things so fantastical. Ask any child why they memorize facts about dragons: it makes it seem so much more real!

More Genre Crossing

Those are just three of the opportunities. The more widely you read, the more you will be able to bring to your writing. So, while I encourage you to read your genre, be sure to step outside it to. You never know what ideas or themes you might find that would help broaden your stories. Here are five more opportunities to explore more on your own:

  1. Romance Crossover. From steamy subplots, to love triangles, to paranormal romance, there are countless ways to tie these genres together. Can you think of a new way?
  2. Military Crossover. What can you take from military fiction that would add to your fantasy or science fiction story? Take a look at The Black Company or the Halo novels for some inspiration.
  3. Heist Crossover. How would you write a fantasy or a science fiction heist or con book?
  4. Thriller Crossover. What would a fantasy thriller look like?
  5. Fairytale Science Fiction. How would you write a fairytale-science fiction crossover?

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