While reading some pieces for workshop shortly after my last post, I stumbled into inspiration. The piece which inspired me was a choose-your-own-adventure-style retelling of several fairy-tales with a more mature twist, and it got me thinking about those times when a single, currently named genre is not an adequate descriptor for a piece of fiction. What happens when you want to blend genres, and what are the pitfalls to avoid?
The biggest pitfall that should be avoided is obscuring your story with setting. As I said in an earlier post, a story can only support one fantastical element. If you are writing an urban fantasy/steampunk story, you cannot effectively focus on both the fantastical creatures and the clever steam technology that you’ve come up with. You may try, of course, but your story will suffer as you try to go in too many directions at once. Better, continuing with the uf/sp example, to use the steampunk as nothing more than a backdrop which could, with little effort on your part, be swapped out in favor of a spaceship, an underwater city, an alien planet, or the “real” world. On the other hand, you might wish to focus on the steampunk, using the urban fantasy elements as little more than a backdrop.
The second pitfall to avoid is trying to blend disparate genres. Certain genres lend themselves to being blended with other genres: romance, for instance. In these cases, the one genre is a sort of template which is laid on top of the other. Likewise, there are some genres which take the addition of templates well. Fantasy and science fiction both serve well as bases upon which other genres may be laid. Common sense should tell you when two genres are unlikely to play nice with each other before you have invested too much time with an idea. For instance, it’s unlikely, though not impossible, that you’ll be able to write an effective romance/horror story.
When it comes to the bending of genres, the thing to remember is that you can’t make a genre something that it is not. But that’s the point of genre bending, you say. Not quite, I say. In bending a genre, you are trying to make change the shape of the genre in question to accommodate the story that you’re telling. If you bend the genre too far, though, you’re going to break it. If that happens, then you were trying to use the wrong genre as a foundation, and you would be better served by another genre.
So how does this apply to urban fantasy? Let’s run with the steampunk example I was using earlier. Both genres work well as templates, so it’s a matter of deciding which one will be the base of the story. Since this blog is ostensibly about urban fantasy in Philadelphia, I’ll say that urban fantasy is the base, and that steampunk is the template. What I now have is Philadelphia, circa an alternate 1894, where the Reading Terminal is also a sky platform for airships, and automatons, rather than poor laborers, do menial and dangerous tasks. This forms the backdrop for a story in which werewolves are overrunning the city, and it is the job of a Gentleman Adventurer to stop them.
Throughout this post, I have assumed your familiarity with steampunk, however, if you don’t know anything about the genre/subculture or you want to know more, the Brass Goggles steampunk blog and forums are one of the best places to start.