A rejection letter I once got from a literary agent assessed my hopeful first novel thusly: “Sorry, there’s too much going on here and too much mixing of genres.”
This particular book, which I am not re-releasing (it really isn’t very good, trust me), might be best described as a cyberpunk-mystery-thriller-erotic romance. It began as short-story fanfic set in the Cyberspace RPG world and took off from there, becoming the story of an attempt to blow up a corporate board meeting, followed by subsequent betrayals, deaths, and a cross-country chase. To make it less fanfic, I added on a backstory involving the narrator’s tortured history with his wealthy-but-distant father and the somewhat mysterious nanny who takes his virginity. The nanny ultimately turns out to have been a corporate spy, and reappears later in the book to complicate the budding romance between the narrator and the beautiful blonde he meets early in the book. So, yes, there was indeed a lot going on.
This work wasn’t exactly erotica, but it contained some explicit sex in certain drafts that I kept taking in and putting back depending on how I thought it worked. The final—i.e., abandoned—draft had the sex; this is the version I ultimately put up on Ruthie’s Club just to call it done and get rid of it.
The point I’m trying to make here is that breaking genre conventions is something to be done with care. With this book, I basically took a bunch of tropes and conventions and threw them into a blender; the result, not surprisingly, was something of a mess.
But tricky or not, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it from time to time.
Before we go any further, it’s useful to distinguish between conventions, tropes, stereotypes, and cliches, since these terms sometimes get thrown around interchangeably when they’re distinct ideas.
Conventions are essentially the defining elements of a genre—basically, the details of plot, setting, and character that set one genre apart from another. You can spot these by just listing a few and thinking what genre comes to mind:
- Horses, six guns, wide dirt streets, cowboy hats, saloons
- Robots, ray guns, spaceships, aliens
- Viruses, flesh-eating, collapse of civilization
If you thought Western, science fiction, and zombies, then you see what I mean here.
Tropes are related to conventions (and can be considered a type of convention) but are most accurately thought of as commonly recurring plot elements and characters for a genre. For example, a common trope in erotica is a woman forced into sexual promiscuity because of a sudden change in circumstances: this is a plot you tend to see fairly often. It’s important to stress here that the use of a trope is not in itself a bad thing; the romantic trope of the star-crossed lovers was old well before Romeo and Juliet, for example.
A stereotype is a commonly used, well-understood concept, often a character. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad; stereotypes can be useful in moderation, especially if it appears in a scene where those particular details aren’t really important or where crafting something new would serve as a distraction.
A cliche, finally, is any element—convention, trope, or stereotype—that has been so overused that its appearance is a signal to the reader that the author is too lazy or lacking in confidence to come up with his or her own ideas.
All of these things are building blocks for your story. Like real blocks, some fit together better than others, some can support more than others, and some look better than others. I’ll mention only in passing the obvious point that a story built only of cliches and stereotypes is going to collapse of its own weight and focus on the more advanced idea that genre elements need to be assembled with a certain amount of thought and care.
You can build a decent, readable story using nothing but common tropes and conventions for your preferred genre. But just as if you build a house with nothing but square blocks, it isn’t likely to be anything terribly memorable. And, you’re going to need to work harder at characterization and plotting to keep your readers engaged, because you’re giving them a lot of things they’ve read many times before. They’re going to be asking, “Okay, what’s new about this one?”
Again, I don’t want to suggest there’s anything wrong with this. Plenty of readers are happy with familiar tropes as long as the characters are real, interesting people they care about.
But the question I’ve always asked myself is, Why limit your writing to familiar building blocks? Why not see if these blocks can be put together in some new and interesting way? Why not see if a trope from some other genre would work in this one?
Since I brought up Westerns, let’s consider the classic Western film, The Magnificent Seven. As any film buff knows, this was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Seven Samurai. The now widely familiar trope of a band of misfit heroes being assembled to conduct some mission or adventure was largely established by Kurosawa with this film, but it draws on established conventions from classic Japanese literature, particularly the ronin, or masterless samurai.
Sticking with the Western, Stephen King’s masterwork, the Dark Tower series, illustrates another way careful blending of genre conventions can create something highly readable (King also draws on Kurosawa in these books). And since the focus of this blog series is erotica, Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy shows how you can create effective erotica by repurposing conventions from other genres as well. There are of course many other examples.
But the flip side of this is that not all conventions work together so well, and even good ideas can misfire in their execution. The numerous abortive attempts at making sci-fi/Western crossover movies, most of which have been embarrassing failures, are good examples. Sometimes in mixing genres, you get The Magnificent Seven, other times you get Wild Wild West.
Still, I would encourage you to try it. The way to do it though, is to have a plan in mind. Your goal should be trying to create some good narrative possibilities that don’t work with the existing tropes and conventions of your original genre. Trying to mix things together simply because the combination seems cool generally does not work so well (this was the problem with my first novel).
If you made it this far, you’ll see my point here is what I’ve been saying all along: Don’t be lazy. Be bold. Stretch yourself. Your readers want something new, and sometimes you need to reach outside your usual bag of tricks to deliver it.