Genres don't have to be comfortable old pairs of socks. Genre storytelling can be thrilling and unexpected — and one major way to seize the element of surprise is to bust out of genre boundaries, like a rocket sled crashing through the walls of dreamland. Drop some nanotech into that literary story. Nuke the fairy kingdom. Or screw mash-ups — just create something that nobody can taxonomize.
Here are nine totally exhilarating ways to shatter genre boxes, and dance on the pieces.
Before we get started, let's first acknowledge that of course, there's something immensely satisfying about a well done example of a particular genre. There's nothing wrong with a book or movie or comic that does things you've seen before, but brings new life to them. But at the same time, creative destruction is the way that genres thrive and grow.
1. Find the unquestioned assumption at the heart of your favorite story — and then explode it
Every story makes assumptions and builds on ideas that you're not supposed to think about or notice. This is just as true for big, genre-defining works as it is for everything else — maybe even more so. Sometimes, authors are aware they're making certain unwarranted assumptions, sometimes they're not. But either way, if you want to find a fresh take on a type of story that you love, try and find the thing you're not supposed to be looking at, and stare at it. To some extent, this is what Alan Moore and friends did to superheroes back in the 1980s. To celebrate your favorite subegenre, find all the ways it doesn't make sense, and exploit them. Expose what the magician is doing with the other hand.
2. Tap into the yearning that created a genre, and follow it a different direction.
Siegel and Schuster didn't set out to invent an archetype that would spawn (no pun intended) a million imitators. They were a couple of nerdy guys who just fantasized about being ridiculously powerful, strong enough to stand up to bullies. Over time, the original reason why someone might dream about a boy wizard or a Civil War veteran on Mars tends to fade away, leaving just a shiny archetype that everybody recognizes. But if you can ignore the final result for a bit, and try to tap into the emotion, the ideas, that originally gave rise to those icons, you can come up with something totally different and yet connected to the source.
3. Create characters who don't know they're in a genre story.
This is harder than it looks, because in real life, most of us are aware when we're living inside a particular genre. Like if you fall in love, and suddenly it feels like you're in a chick flick. Or when you're taking a shower at a spooky motel, and you feel like you could be in a slasher movie. (Looper director Rian Johnson explained this to us back in 2008.) In real life, we're all absurdly genre-conscious — and yet, the more powerfully we're in the grip of something, the less that awareness of genre is likely to come to the fore. Not only that, but being unaware of what genre of story you're in also means you're less likely to behave like a genre character. In real life, if you find out a family secret, you probably won't go on a road trip — that's just something that happens in a lot of literary stories. In real life, you'd probably just obsess over it and maybe go clubbing.
4. Be a tease.
A murder mystery is just like any other type of story, until someone is murdered. An erotic story is just like any other, until it gets overtly sexy. You can play with expectations by teasing that something is going to happen that will cast your story in a particular genre mold — and then not having it happen, or having it happen in a very different way than people expect. Pull a bait and switch. Not necessarily by misleading the reader, or by building up to something that doesn't happen — that would just be sloppy and boring. But if you introduce a character who seems like a dashing rogue and smuggler, you can reveal a few pages later that she's actually a solidly reliable landscape gardener. You can have your characters notice things in their surroundings, in a way that reveals something about how paranoid your characters are — while also setting up an unwarranted expectation in your readers' heads.
5. Genre can be a setting rather than a plot
Something can be set in the future, without being about any futuristic elements to the core story. You can have a love story after the apocalypse. Treating your genre elements as a backdrop for the story you're actually telling might feel like you're demoting or belittling them at first — but a great setting is worth just as much as a great plot. Maybe more. The best stories are often ones in which the setting feels like a character in the story. Which brings us to...
6. Make a particular genre element into a character in your story.
Have a detective wandering around, even if nobody gets murdered. Have a cyborg randomly show up, even if your story isn't about cybernetics. This might sound like a gimmick — but these characters will have a very different perspective on the events in your story than other people would, and that can add an extra dimension. And sometimes the easiest way to do a genre mash-up is to bring together characters who belong in different types of stories.
7. Have A.D.D.
Genre is in the details. Obsessive attention to detail is often the hallmark of a particular genre — you know you're reading a military thriller when there is careful description of every piece of hardware, even down to the brand of coffee the guy who last repaired the big honking gun drinks. You know you're reading a particular sort of fantasy story when there are lengthy descriptions of rituals — or of sumptuous banquets, dish after dish. So one easy way to break out of genre expectations is just to have A.D.D.: describe something just enough so the reader gets it, and then move on. Or spend three paragraphs describing someone's shoes and then one paragraph describing their handheld antimatter gun. Like a lot of the other things on this list, this requires a certain amount of skill and care, but if you pull it off, you can have a really fun, oddball take on a well-worn genre.
8. Write a story where nothing happens to anybody.
Instead, every event in your story is something your characters instigate. Instead of witnessing a murder, your characters murder someone. Instead of having her baby stolen by fairies, your main character tries to foist her baby onto some fairies (only to find that they already have enough babies, thanks anyway.) And so on. If every genre element in your plot arises out of your characters' honest motivations, you'll very quickly find yourself driving off the map into the unknown. Sure, in real life, stuff happens to people — but you're not writing real life, you're writing stories.
9. Totally commit to a genre trope, to the point of madness
The Avengers didn't feel like a superhero movie — because it committed to the superhero thing in a way that nobody else had before. Part of the "old sock" comfort of genre is that you don't have to commit to something 1000 percent, because everybody already knows and understands superheroes. I've lost count of how many novels and comics I've read where there's a Batman analogue, and the writer just throws in a few little touches so the reader knows, "Oh, they're doing Batman." And then the story can go on. But what if you go to the opposite extreme, and commit to the tropes of the genre with all your heart and soul, until they burst open with the force of your conviction? Feed them until they explode.