Writing Excuses 11.3: Layering the Elemental Genres
Key points: Borrow elemental genres (ideas, emotions) from other stories and inject them into your stories as subplots, character arcs, or mashups. Layer your elemental genres to create sequels that are the same, but different. Let each character’s arc be a different elemental genre. You can use design elements, set dressing, to keep the story together, and mix-and-match elemental genres underneath that to tell different stories. Check your underpinnings — what is the feeling you like? Drill down into the elemental genre behind the design elements. Turn your wall into a trench, or darkness, or… with a great unknown hidden behind it.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode Three.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Layering Genres.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] We’re continuing on theme this month, introducing to you the idea of elemental genres. The primary reason we want to teach you to start looking at the elemental genre is so that you will be aware of how to take genres and ideas and emotions from different stories that you experience and inject them into your own stories. Often times, you’ll do this as the subplots or the sort of some story of a subplot or what not…
[Howard] Character arc.
[Brandon] Character arc and all of these things. We want to talk today just about the general idea of how to accomplish this and make it work for you.
[Dan] Yeah. In the book I’m writing right now, as an example, it’s the second Mirador book. That is a heist story combined with a sports movie story. So in our terms, I guess that would be an ensemble story, and a… Some other kind of st…
[Dan] Two different ensemble stories?
[Brandon] Yeah, you’re doing two different ensemble types. It’s really like an ensemble, probably an ensemble thriller and an ensemble like relationship group or overcoming issue.
[Dan] Yeah, the heist is much more of a thriller. Anyway, the point that we’re trying to make is that you can use this to add a lot more kind of richness and texture to it.
[Brandon] This is something that I started doing as a writer without realizing it. I think it’s become a major strength of my writing. People come to me and they say, “You write so many different things and they’re all so distinctive.” I get that a lot. “How can you write so many fantasy books where there also distinctive?” They think it’s the magic systems. To an extent, it kind of is. But it’s really not. The tone is what’s getting them.
[Mary] Yeah. That was something that I deliberately decided to do with the Shad… The Glamorous History books, is the first one is pretty much a straight up romance. It’s Jane Austen with magic. So it’s romance with a wonder subplot. A relationship with a wonder. Then with each of them, I switched up what one of my layers was. So I would say my second book is a spy novel disguised as a Regency romance. The third book… Or the fourth book is a heist novel disguised as a Regency romance. So all of them have this… I’m using this other structure to kind of guide everything. Actually, as we get deeper into this series, that heist structure in Valor and Vanity is actually the major structure. The romance structure is my subplot.
[Dan] It’s a subplot.
[Brandon] Now I do like how in each of those books the romance remains as a con… As a theme throughout the whole of it. If you look at the packaging, your publisher is not packaging any of them as different genres. In order to maintain continuity and not confuse the reader, they all look like they are Regency romances with people on the cover that probably aren’t actually even Jane or Vincent most of the time. Just people in pretty Regency clothing.
[Mary] Yes, yes. The woman on the cover of book 2 is the woman who sells my book.
[Dan] The… One of the problems people have with sequels all the time is that they have to be the same thing we loved in the first one, but they also have to be super different. Layering genres like this is a fantastic way of achieving that very simply.
[Mary] This also… This trick also works with short fiction, in addition to long fiction. So the idea of if you want to write more than one story in a world, switching up your subgenre is going to be a useful tool for you.
[Howard] A couple of years ago, as I was working on the second Runewright piece for Space Eldritch, I said, “I need to write this horror piece, so I’ve got to find ways to make this character helpless.” Mary said, “No, no, no, no. You need to make her super competent, but her competence doesn’t matter. Her competence is not how this works. Because that’s how horror works.” That, while hugely simple, is also hugely effective because it’s hugely simple. If you want to layer horror as a subgenre, as an elemental genre, in the thing you are doing, let’s say as part of a character arc, you can take that character and you can make them super competent, and for their piece of the story, the thing that they are best that doesn’t help. They move from disaster to disaster, where they can’t accomplish things and where things get worse even while the main story can be doing something else. So in practice, I look at this and it feels… It feels very obvious to me that once you have a toolbox for making a certain elemental genre work for you, making it work as a subplot, making it work as a character arc is… It’s almost cookbook.
[Mary] Yeah. Basically, what Howard is saying is that you can actually apply these subgenres to each character’s arc. Which is… So that each character is experiencing their own story, and then when you are… Especially when you are working with something with multiple points of view, you can give the readers a different sense each chapter that they go into. While your overarching genre is maintaining consistency of tone, so that it feels coherent, and as if they’re in one solid book.
[Brandon] I think that is one of the best ways to use this. In fact, during the Writing Excuses cruise last year, we frequently… I frequently got the questions of “how do I make sure that my side characters or that my subplots feel distinctive? It feels as if they’re all blending together.” Well, if each of them is a different elemental genre, your reader is very naturally going to be able to distinguish, “Oh, yeah, this is the person who is in a story where they were highly competent and forced to not be able to use their competence. This is the story where the person who doesn’t know anything about the magic while everyone else does is experiencing it for the first time, just like the reader is, and introducing it to the reader.” Those different tones are great.
[Mary] I mean, in a lot of ways, you can say that… We talk about everybody is the hero of their own story. The villain is experiencing a horror genre subplot.
[Mary] While everyone else is experiencing an ensemble or a heist.
[Brandon] I am so capable. Why is everything I do falling apart?
[Howard] Oh, it’s because my trusted lieutenant has betrayed me. Meanwhile, the trusted lieutenant is having a romantic subplot in which…
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which is actually a very cool book called Word Puppets.
[Mary] That’s right. I have a short story collection, Word Puppets. It’s narrated by Kate Baker, who is one of my favorite narrators. She’s the voice of Clarkesworld. Word Puppets is roughly… Not completely, roughly based in chronological order, so you can see my progression as a writer.
[Brandon] That’s a clever way to do it.
[Mary] That’s one of the reasons we did it. Also, it means that we don’t have the first and weakest story at the end. But the other thing is that it contains one brand-new story and that is set in the same universe as Lady Astronaut of Mars. It… So there’s actually three stories in the Lady Astronaut of Mars universe. This is a really good example for you guys when you listen to these, because the first one of those is… The subgenre is horror. The second one, the subgenre is very much kind of relationship. The third one, the subgenre is… The third one, the driving piece is relationship and the subgenre is kind of… Whoof. I’m forgetting our own proprietary terms.
[Howard] The elemental genre of…
[Mary] It’s the exploration…
[Mary] Yeah. The third one is idea. So they each have a very different feel, while being in the same universe.
[Brandon] I love Lady Astronaut of Mars, specifically because of that retro futurism that I don’t think enough people are telling stories about. They’re very fun. It’s an awesome story. Your short stories are all awesome.
[Mary] Well, thank you.
[Brandon] I’ve read, I would hope, most of the stories in this piece, but hopefully not all of them because you have a new one. So if you guys want to listen… Oh, go ahead.
[Mary] I forgot, Patrick Rothfuss does the introduction.
[Brandon] If you want to get a copy of Word Puppets, narrated by Kate Baker, written by Mary Robinette Kowal, go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial, support the podcast, and get a free book.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s keep talking about genre as subplot, because I… Often, as we’re moving forward, we’re going to be talking about blending these and it’s even for your main plot, like you were talking about here. It’s going to become a mix-and-match for things for you readers. For instance, it may not be related directly to character, but Dan’s story is a heist mixed with relationship or heist mixed with thriller, and heist is our ensemble elemental genre. The idea being that your books don’t have to have a major genre and a subgenre. Your major genre can be just a mashup of two of these together. You can start to see that we’ve identified 11 of these. You may come up with more yourself as you’re listening.
[Brandon] That 11 factorial is a lot of different options for creating genres. This is again what we’ve noticed that the Marvel movies are often doing, is that they’re having this sort of… They’ve created their elemental subgenre of superhero. It has origin story and it has all of this stuff, and they mash it up with another main genre and that’s your film.
[Mary] Yeah. The other thing that they’re doing is something that we’ve talked about before, is that they’re… They have used the design elements of superhero films to convince you that you’re watching a superhero film even while they’re doing other things.
[Dan] [garbled — even though they’re not]
[Mary] That is the joy of being able to play with these elements is that you can… It’s like if you are in love with one style of thing, you can totally play with it in another realm.
[Brandon] So let me ask you, how should people go about doing this? Like, they’re saying, “Okay, Brandon, I get this idea. How do I use it?”
[Dan] So what Mary just talked about with the design elements of the superhero genre. I think it’s those design elements, like the set dressing almost, that initially attracts a lot of us to a particular thing. I want to tell fantasy because I love dragons, because I love magic. So you take those design elements and then think, “Well, okay, what kind of story am I going to tell about dragons and magic?” Then you can take a look at these elemental genres and see what will fit in there.
[Howard] I think that… I like the word elemental because it’s… It strips away the combinations of things, and it forces us to look all the way at the underpinnings. So when you say, “I like dragons and I like magic,” the first question I would ask is, “How do dragons and magic make me feel? What is it about that that makes me love this?” Because if I am trying to elicit the feeling that I get from reading a dragons and magic book by writing my own dragons and magic book, I may end up disappointed because I have not identified what it is that makes me feel the way I liked feeling when I read that.
[Brandon] Dan, what was that story from the cruise, where there was a student who wanted to have a book that had the wall in it?
[Dan] Oh, that was Mary’s…
[Howard] One of Mary’s students?
[Mary] That was me. So we had a student, and he said that he had trouble coming up with something that he felt was original. I asked him what were the things that he got excited about when he was reading.. He loved the idea of a wall.
[Brandon] Like in George RR Martin’s world?
[Mary] Like in George RR Martin. He specifically said the wall in George RR Martin. I said, “Well, okay, why is the wall interesting to you? What is it that is exciting?” What it was, was the idea of there being a barrier and beyond which, there was just this great unknown. The great unknown, that sense of danger and possibility of exploration and curiosity and all of that was actually what excited him. The wall itself was less exciting. So what we then started to do in the brainstorming was focus on ways to create a space where there was an unknown territory and things that were not walls that would act as a barrier. So this is what Howard gets… Is talking about, when you’re looking and trying to come up with an original idea, really drilling down into that feeling that it gives you and how you can… We’ve used this term before, how you can hack your brain or hack your reader’s brain to produce that same feeling in a different way. It’s a… He wound up brainstorming a whole bunch of different ideas. I won’t tell you the one he wound up with, but…
[Brandon] I’ll tell you the one I came up with. Because you were telling this story at the cruise, and I thought, “I love walls.”
[Brandon] I love that scary thing is out there and we have civilization inside and not outside. That was interesting to me. Civilization inside and beyond that is danger. It’s the Great Wall of China, right? Beyond this are barbarians. I thought, “Well, let’s just invert the wall into a giant trench, and there are dark things in the trench that come out and we have to keep them in there.” That was a story… I’m like, “I’m going to write that story someday. I am going to write the wall that is a big hole in the ground.”
[Howard] For me, the very literal sort of interpretation of that… We were in this giant floating city of comfort…
[Brandon] Right, on a cruise.
[Howard] And unlimited food. There were a couple of times when, at night, I would walk to the rail and I would look out this vast expanse of darkness. I had been told this is the depth here, this is the distance to these other places. So, sure, we kind of have a map of this. But from where I am sitting, I am literally 6 inches and one really bad decision from…
[Dan] Never being seen again.
[Howard] Death. From never being seen again. It’s… Then when we would pull into port, the realization that okay, I have my city here. We will venture outside of the city and go collect whatever and then hurry back before… It was… So as you were talking about the wall, that sense of there’s stuff outside, let’s go explore, but then hurry back before it gets dark. That was our ship. Which, by the way, I never really got off of.
[Mary] You explored the darkness.
[Dan] Certainly not after that realization.
[Mary] It’s funny, because the idea that I came up with was darkness. That there was just the spot of complete darkness, like no light penetrated. The thing that I want you guys to notice is that we’ve all come up with very, very different ideas from the central elemental thing of exploration and fear…
[Brandon] Mixed with horror. It’s exploration and horror together.
[Mary] Mixed with horror. Yeah. So this is exploration and horror. This is how you can play with these subgenres. Calling those subgenres is not quite the right term, but play with this layering effect to get something that is new and fun. I mean, I… Layering romance and relationship and horror. That’s going to be an interesting [inaudible]
[Brandon] Well, layering comedy and horror has made some really great films over the last years.
[Mary] That’s true.
[Dan] Oh, my yes.
[Brandon] So you can see just… I am so excited about this idea and presenting it to you. Even talking about it for just a few minutes drives us all into creating new stories. We’re hoping it will do the same for you and kind of just keep you creating stories, keep you excited about your writing, and hopefully make the writing that you do a little bit better.
[Brandon] We’re going to leave you with some homework. Mary’s got the homework for us, and it relates to the homework we gave you last time.
[Mary] All right. So last time we asked you to identify the major driving emotion of the story that you are interested in working on. What I want you to do now is I want you to think of a contrasting emotion. So essentially what you’re doing is you’re creating a foil plot, a foil emotion for your primary emotion. Because this is going to allow you to showcase ever… Or do a contrast between the darkness of one and the happy emotions of the other. So think about not the design elements, but think about the emotional elements and think about… You don’t have to worry about our proprietary vocabulary yet. I just want you to identify the emotion that you want to elicit in yourself if you were hacking your brain.
[Brandon] Now by this point, we will have all 11 of the ideas we’ve come up with put on our website and we will post them such… We will put them in a place that they are easy to find each week, if you want to come glance over them again. As you can tell from this episode, we’re still getting used to this terminology ourselves.
[Brandon] Hopefully, across the course of the year, we’ll all start really using the same terminology. This is the purpose…
[Howard] I’m going to put a stake in the ground and say that by the end of the season, we will have altered some of the terminology and changed the list, because it just makes more sense.
[Mary] Yep. You guys will probably be better versed in it that we will, because we just talked about it once.
[Brandon] All right. Well, this has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.