Monday, February 15, 2010

Hey, some of my best stories are mixed

The Thing From Another World. John Carter of Mars. Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. The Lost World.

Classic fiction. And great examples of mixing genres.

After all, what is Forbidden Planet but bringing Shakespeare’s Tempest into the future? Star Wars is really nothing more than a mix of Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress with westerns and science fiction.

Horror and science fiction have been mixing genres from nearly their inception. Action. Adventure. Mystery. Thrills. Romance. They all figure into horror and science fiction.

In fact, I submit that you can’t help but mix genres when you write. There is even a mixed genre unto itself -- action/adventure. And look at science fiction. It is often lumped together with horror and for good reason. The two are almost inseparable.

Case in point, take John W. Campbell’s 1938 classic “Who Goes There?” (in film form, you know it better as The Thing from Another World and the 1982 remake The Thing). It involves an isolated research post that happens upon a crashed alien ship. They thaw it out but accidentally destroy it when the magnesium hull ignites. They do, however, save the alien pilot, a being that can take on the physical and emotional essences of whatever it touches. Soon, it is taking over bodies as the scientists try to stop it. They’re picked off one by one.

As it reads, it sounds a bit like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, though it was written eight years earlier. It has claustrophobic tendencies that have   turned up in films like It! Terror from Beyond Space and Alien. The UFO fulfills the science fiction plot. And there you have it -- science fiction, horror and mystery all rolled up into one classic story.

I mean, the mere mention of aliens or even Big Brother-type governments invokes our deepest fears. Invasion of the Body Snatchers certainly couldn't have succeeded if it hadn't played on the horror we feel at losing our individuality.

I can’t speak for other genres, but I find that science fiction gains the most from incorporating other genres into its matrix. Just look at James Cameron’s treatment of Alien. Remember the terror when the alien burst through Kane’s chest. Then, there was the action of hunting the creature, the thrill as Ripley raced through the ship trying to stop the self-destruct sequence, the horror as she tried to get into the EVA suit inside the escape pod without alerting the alien. One could feel the tension and frustration. Action, adventure, terror, horror, science fiction, all brought together.

Now, how do you incorporate another genre into your writing? I can’t personally say, just say I let the words come to me. When I flesh out my plot, I often don’t notice the other genre until I go back and look at it. That’s because science fiction and horror have always incorporated other genres. I mean hunting down and killing a vampire automatically involves suspense. Throw King Kong and Godzilla into man’s world and you automatically have to have action.

One thing I can say is don't force the issue. I wrote a book called Slow Boat to China. At the urging of friends, I decided to throw some sex and romance into the mix. BIG mistake. I went through the story, adding in romance and sex and it just mucked up things. For instance, some of the heroes went to a casino/brothel to investigate smuggling. Upon rereading, I saw that I had just thrown the brothel scenes in as an excuse for the sex. It was like a porn flick where a road crew goes to a house to use the bathroom only to discover all the women inside are strippers with nothing to do. Yeah, like that really happens.

For a more visual example, try a run-of-the-mill sci-fi flick called Monolith Monsters. In this movie, the villains are mysterious rocks from space that absorb water and grow into monstrous stalagmites that become unstable, fall over and shatter into thousands of smaller pieces that begin to grow into their own stalagmites. Anyone touching a piece is leeched of silica (the substance that makes our limbs flexible) and turned literally into stone.

If you've ever seen the movie, you'll know that the monoliths take a back seat to the forced love story between Grant Williams (star of the classic The Incredible Shrinking Man) and Lola Albright (Peter Gunn). These two create enough syrup to keep Denny's and IHOP in business for a year. Add in their campy struggle to save a little girl and you end up wishing the monolith monsters would crush them. That is not the feeling you want your readers or intended audience to have.

I have to admit that, if I have a major failing in writing (and I do have some), it is with romance. I have trouble creating believable romance. Therefore, you may find the romance genre non-existent in my books. Lord knows how much trouble I had building the romance between Anna Velasquez and Maria Red Horse in Land of the Blind.

Instead, for a better example of mixing genres, look back in history at the first half of the 20th century. You’ll get the clearest sign of genres mixing by examining early pulp fiction to the Golden Age of Science Fiction to the New Wave of Science Fiction. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World. L. Ron Hubbard's Buckskin Brigades and the classic Final Blackout. H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. The Golden Age of Science Fiction with A.E. van Vogt (Slan), Theodore Sturgeon ("Killdozer"), Phillip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale), Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers, Puppet Masters), Isaac Asimov (Foundation, Nightfall), Walter Miller (A Canticle for Leibowitz). Heinlein's classic Stranger in a Strange Land successfully mixed romance, sex, science fiction and counterculture drama.

Some of the best names in science fiction came during this period: Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, John W. Campbell (father of space opera), Heinlein, Lester Del Rey, Arthur C. Clarke, L. Sprague de Camp. They all mixed genres freely.

Or, if you don't like sci-fi, try Daphne du Maurier's classic works such as The Birds, Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and Don't Look Now. Agatha Christie mixed mystery and suspense with thrills in the aforementioned Ten Little Indians (also known as Ten Little Soldiers and the original title that I won't mention here, save to say it used the N-word in place of "Indian"). More recently, we see Stephanie Meyers mixing supernatural elements with teen angst and romance for her Twilight novels. Laurell K. Hamilton has done the same with her Meredith Gentry and Anita Blake novels.

See how they all mixed everything together and came out with popular fiction. One thing I can say is that all of those writers planned ahead. They didn’t stick things in just to stick them in. If an editor said a story needed romance, they went back to the beginning and added romance; they didn’t just pick and choose spots.

So my advice is to go back and read. Then, feel free to copy from the masters, like James Cameron freely admitted he did with Alien.

Who knows, maybe mixing genres will make you the next Heinlein, Clarke,  Hamilton or Meyer.

If anything, it will give you license to experiment. Who knows what classics may come of it.


  1. Hello Greg! I was watching a documentary on Star Wars and actually, it parallels the Athurian legend pretty closely -- the young novice, trained by the old sage, with the princess and the rebel knight in tow, fighting the black knight... Of course, the fact that the princess is his sister (eeeeewwwww!) doesn't come out until later, but that was quite common in Ancient Egypt....

    My mom absolutely positively loves The Thing From Another World, and I'm a huge fan of the Kurt Russell remake. I think it's quite common for novels to cross genres these days, after all, Tanya Huff's Blood Ties mixed murder mysteries with paranormal, and there are many mystery novels that take place in earlier times (Laura Joh Rowland, Tasha Alexander, and Anne Perry).

    I think it is said that many of the classics are hard to categorize into one genre, and that's what makes them so good. Hopefully someone will feel that way about my own mixed-genre novel, anyway! ;-)

  2. Thanks for the comments, Nicole. I grew up watching science fiction, but it wasn't until years later that I really saw all the other genres slipped into those flicks.

    I'll have to check out your mixed-genre novel.

  3. [...] Greg Marshall Smith, Hey, Some of My Best Stories are Mixed [...]