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Genre Bending

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

In this piece about how not to annoy your audience, I want to touch on a failure I have seen in only a few books, but when it happens, it is a complete shut down for me. Not only did I never finish the series, I never returned to the author.

It seems simple. Don’t confuse your readers about the genre.

We should be very clear about what this means. Any genres can be mixed and in reality, they have been mixed since we have been writing. Is a story a romance or is it a general fiction piece? If there is an element of romance in it, then it is both to some degree. Is the story a mystery or is it a thriller? Why can’t it be both? Is the tale science fiction, or fantasy? Not only can it be both, there is a growing science-fantasy subgenre with elements of both.

The problem is not “don’t mix genres,” the problem is making sure your audience knows what genre they are diving into when picking up your piece.

What are all the genres?


Picture your favorite science fiction book. Think about the tropes that went into that piece, the assumptions you carry into the story with you and what you expect from the story just because it is science fiction. Do the same for romance, drama, thriller, fantasy, mystery, noir, etc. Every genre has assumptions, and expectations. Not only this, they have structures. Let’s contrast fantasy with a pulp thriller.

These don’t make one genre better or worse than another, they make them different. If you do not prepare you audience for the genre they are in, they may be rudely surprised later. If we sign up for a fantasy and suddenly aliens and flying saucers appear we may be confused. If we sign up for a romance and suddenly bullets start to fly, we may be jarred out of the mood to read. If we sign up for a thriller, and the pace drags we may get bored.

So where are these expectations set up? The shelf the book is retrieved from in the bookstore, library or digital category tags certainly help and clear up much of the problem. The next step is the back flap or inside of the dust jacket where the book blurb describes the book. The last and in my opinion the most important piece is the first chapter. The setting, the character and the tone of a book must be reasonably established within the first chapter of the piece. I am not the only person to say so. Writing advice from Steven King, Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal all agree. These things need to be established within the first two thousand words of your story at most. In a short story, Mary Robinette Kowal argues it must be established within the first paragraph.

It’s part of the subset of writing rules that say “Don’t break you promise to the audience.” Writers open story threads, mysteries, questions and plot arcs with the promise of closing them and explaining things to some degree. When you promise a genre, don’t break that promise.

Coldfire Trilogy

As a brief example of a multiple genre example of how you should blend genres, I would like to reference C.S Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy. In the leading novel Black Sun Rising, we learn within the first few thousand words that the book is science-fantasy. A concept that was done excellently well ahead of its time. The world is not earth, but was settled by our colony ships, there is a kind of magic but there is a scientific explanation given. The story’s major beats hinge on it being science fiction, but the day-to-day movement of the tale is fantasy in its elements. Both are familiar, and no promises are broken because we get to know both right up front.

Before you throw a flying saucer at your armored knight, make sure the reader is prepared.

If you have never read the Coldfire Trilogy and you are a fan of science fiction or fantasy, you need to go grab it right now. I reread them every few years and never come away disappointed. If you enjoyed this and want more of this or other content, subscribe here.

Remember, writers write. So, get writing.

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