I’ve always been fascinated by art which is hard to classify: music that hovered between punk and reggae, say, or jazz and alternative rock. For me the blend is itself interesting, forming a new liminal category just outside the realms of the normal and familiar. I love it in writing too, and though it can be hard to pull off, it’s striking and eye-catching when it works.
Sometimes these fringe experiments spawn whole new subgenres. Fantasy used to be notoriously limited as a genre: if it didn’t have elves and dwarves, it wasn’t fantasy. Those days are, thankfully, far behind us, and the genre is all the richer for it, many of the subsets of contemporary fantasy having formed from hybrids: urban fantasy, for instance, at least in some of its forms, might be thought of as a blending of old fantasy with contemporary mystery or thriller, and as such it borrows settings, mood, character types, even narrative style from both genres in ways that make all those old tales of magic and supernatural beings feel alive and fresh.
Authors who blaze these trends can really make a name for themselves, particularly if they get in at the front of a new trend before it gets heavily imitated, or if they acquire a reputation for always being a bit hard to pin down. Neil Gaiman is, for me, a particularly successful example of this. Yes, his stuff borrows from fantasy, sci-fi, magical realism and other genres, but the results always seem to be unique and tough to pigeon-hole. I love this. Partly the appeal is that I never quite know where the story is going to take me, because the book isn’t obviously following narrative conventions with which I am already familiar. This means the story can throw real curves at you which keeps you on your toes.
But there is also something great about a story whose one sentence hook immediately makes you want to know how the story works. American Gods is about gods and mythical beings living in the contemporary United States, but feeling their power fading because no one believes in them anymore. Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett) is a comedy about the end of the world. Neverwhere centers on the parallel universe in the disused stations of the London Underground. The Graveyard Book is about a boy raised by ghosts.
You see how short these mini summaries are? How little they actually tell you about the book, but how the premise piques your curiosity? See how big they are conceptually, what bold splashes of color they are made of, instead of the fiddly sequence of names and events we usually resort to when describing our work? I think this is because whatever Gaiman’s consideable talents as a writer, he has a gift for PREMISE. They are deceptively simple and they exist, to an extent, outside conventional genre boundaries. We might categorize them broadly as fantasy or magical realism or something else, but those categories aren’t tight enough to suit the stories, and that is an indicator of where their power comes from.
We all know when we’re in the realm of formula mystery (or fantasy or romance or whatever), where we can clock the developments in the story according to what page we’re up to. Such books can be perfectly acceptable to genre readers, but they aren’t going to surprise or excite us. Nor will they appeal to readers outside the genre’s most die-hard fans. Gaiman’s high concept approach is premised on a generic slipperiness, and I think it’s part of what makes him both good and successful. I have no idea what his sales numbers look like, or the amount of money he makes, but I’m sure both are considerable. All power to him.
Lately on this site we’ve been talking a lot about how writers think about success and failure, and these debates have continued, I think, in some of our recent conversations about different publishing strategies (traditional press versus self e-pub) and even about quitting entirely. Today I want to forget all the stuff about the market and its various problems and horrors and ask that we think about the one thing we can control: our own writing, and that in large scale terms. Though I’m all for focusing on sentence-level detail, I’m thinking today about the hook: the big idea that helps you wriggle out of the confines of genre and gets you the kind of story people immediately want to read or talk about. I’ve talked about high concept stories before, and this is obviously a closely related post, but I’m particularly interested here in “genre-bending,” in story ideas that exist in the borderlands of categories without having to claim to be “literary fiction.” These are the ideas that draw attention from different reading populations, that become hits at independent booksellers, books that get newspaper and web features written on them because they feel original, and their originality is not in their sentence-level detail but up front in their premise.
So for your next project, try to come up with a hook that really blows the doors off. Thinking up those ideas isn’t easy, but I wonder if we sometimes are so comfortable with our genre work that we stop trying, that we rely on the built in scaffolding that genre gives us instead of fighting to come up with a premise that really pops: a story whose core idea is so strong and original that it transcends genre and its readership, a story that will get you on All Things Considered or Good Morning America. We can all create interesting stories within genre, so that we can say “If you like Jim Butcher (or whoever) you’ll like this.” But I think our chances of success (of various kinds) goes up if our story has a strong and simple premise, one which is less reliant on generic convention.