So I’ve been reading a lot of genre-blending novels lately. And loving them. And my post from last week talks about genre-blending a little bit, but today I want to say a little more. (Apparently, I don’t know when to shut up.) Genre-blending gives us a lot to think about. There’s a reason publishing people will warn you to give it some serious thought before you do it, and not all of it is because it’s hard to shelve mixed genre novels in the bookstore.
Over the years, something I’ve learned about novel writing is that it’s all about focus and balance. Every word, sentence, paragraph, plot thread, and character must have a place in the story, and each element needs to be put in the proper focus. Some elements are vital, and these become the focal points of your novel. Other elements are secondary. They’re not the focus of the story, but they set a tone, give the story weight, and add richness to the novel. They hold the story up. And you have to balance your secondary elements with your focus points, or your story will fall apart.
Genres become elements that need proper focus and balance when you have more than one of them in your story. Think of them as plotlines. Generally speaking, you’re not going to have three main plots in a novel. One will be the main plot, and the other two will be subplots. The reason for this is that things can get overwhelming when all three plots are vying for dominance. I hesitate to give any hard and fast rules, since the rules can very occasionally be broken, but it’s usually better to make one plotline the focus, and the others are there for balance. And my observations lead me to believe it’s the same for genres within a book. If you’re going to write a historical fantasy romance, one of those genres needs to take the lead. Let that be your focal point. Let the historical and romance elements bring the reader more deeply into your fantasy tale. Let them be the weights that balance the main genre in your book.
For some real-world examples, here are three books that serve to illustrate my point. The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, which I read last month, blends mystery and fantasy. Though the book is shelved in the fantasy section (a whole other discussion entirely), the fantasy elements are really just a subgenre holding up the main genre–the book is a mystery novel at heart. In Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, we have history, fantasy, and romance, but romance is the main plot. The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker by Leanna Renee Hieber is also history, fantasy, and romance, but if you take a good look, it is the fantasy aspect of the story which dominates the book.
Conventional wisdom from agents and editors often cautions against too much genre-blending. Is it completely related to trouble figure out where to shelve such a book? Publishing people see more unpublished manuscripts than you or I likely ever will. They must know something. They must know how often fledgling authors botch their genre-blending tales. For genre-blending to work, you need balance, focus. You need to be blending genres because the genres you’re blending have a place in your plot, not just because you think it would be cool to blend genres. After careful analysis of mixed genre books, I’ve come to believe that choosing a dominant genre to center the book around–and relegating others to supporting roles–is a tried and true approach to writing a successful genre-blending novel.
I’m not saying it’s the only way. I’m not saying I’m an expert on such things. Just making an observation.