Six impossible things

Crossovers

“Crossover” is one of those writing terms that has multiple meanings, depending on to whom you’re talking and what you’re talking about. In fanfiction, for instance, it refers to a story that includes characters from totally different series or settings – Superman shows up in “Romeo and Juliet,” for instance, or Harry Potter does Star Wars. Since you can’t do that kind of thing in professional publishing without permission from all the rights holders, “crossover” in professional terms means either 1) a book that you could easily sell in several different genres (Fritz Lieber’s Conjure Wife is the classic example; over the years, it was published as SF, fantasy, horror, mainstream, mystery, and romance – pretty much every possible genre of its time except Western), or 2) a book that deliberately mixes common tropes from two very different types of category fiction, which hopefully means it will appeal to both (Sorcery and Cecelia, co-written by myself and Caroline Stevermer, falls into this category).

The Conjure Wife sort of crossover, that just happens to be a story with multiple possible markets, is seldom, if ever, written deliberately for that purpose. When people say “the market changes,” they mean all parts of the market; if a writer consciously tries to aim at all possible current market genres, the result may sell to one of those markets, but by the time the rights have reverted, all the other markets will have moved on to something else. So I’m going to look at the other two.

Yes, two, because apart from the problems of copyright permissions, the sorts of stuff that can go right and wrong with a fanfiction-type crossover (where it’s the characters and/or worlds that are being mixed) and with the more general two-or-more-genres type of crossover are pretty similar.

Advantages first: done well, a good crossover potentially doubles one’s audience by enhancing the fun and appeal of both the elements of the cross. It can also be a huge lot of fun for the writer (and if it isn’t, you grabbed the wrong things for the wrong reasons).

The disadvantage is that one has the possibility of significantly reducing one’s audience (instead of all readers who like X, plus all readers who like Y, one can end up with something that appeals only to those readers who like both X and Y). In extreme cases, one can completely alienate an entire segment of one’s potential readership, possibly permanently. Also, finding a publisher who appreciates and understand both sides of one’s crossover (and who knows how to market to both of them) is not always easy.

The first step, though, is writing one. In order to get the kind that’s fun and has potential for double the audience, the first requirement is that the author has to really know and understand both parts of the source material. This doesn’t mean that if you want to do a science fiction-mystery crossover, you can read two or three detective novels (if you’re an SF fan) or two or three science fiction novels (if your first love is mysteries) and call it good. It means that you know both genres, settings, and/or sets of characters well enough to recognize what readers expect and don’t expect, what the genre conventions are with regard to pacing and filling in background as well as plot and characterization.

Knowing both genres isn’t quite enough, in my opinion; the writer also needs to love them enough to write them. I read a lot of mysteries, and I think I have a pretty good idea of how that genre works, but I’ve never been moved to write a fantasy-mystery crossover. Our fantasy-Regency-Romance, on the other hand, practically wrote itself.

A writer who loves and understands both of the genres that they’re crossing is far more likely to avoid the sort of wall-flinging mistakes one commonly sees in books that are marketed as crossovers, but which are actually primarily one genre with a few token nods to the other. I’ve read SF-Romance “crossovers” where the Romance author couldn’t be bothered to get things like the speed of light right, or made plot-critical mistakes in basic science (they apparently felt that as long as they used skiffy-sounding doubletalk, it didn’t matter that genetics doesn’t work that way, or that a galaxy is composed of a lot of star systems, rather than the other way around). I’ve also read ones where the “romance” was nothing more than a subplot in a typical space opera adventure – fine for an SF audience, but totally unsatisfying for a Romance reader.

If you’re writing a crossover, you have two sets of source material, and you have to respect both of them or it’s not really a crossover. You also have to satisfy both sets of readers on some level, or it isn’t likely to be a particularly successful crossover.

The next major trap is the “insider” one, in which the writer fills the story with plot-critical things that the reader has to be a long time fan of one genre or the other to understand. As a result, the only people who really appreciate the story are folks who are already fans of both genres. There isn’t anything actually wrong with this, as long as the writer a) knows what he/she is doing and b) accepts the fact that the audience is going to be much smaller than the audience for either genre.

There is a way around this potential problem, however, and it is to a) make sure that one does not need familiarity with a particular trope or convention to understand the story, the plot, or the characters’ actions, and b) make sure that one does not highlight the insider information in such a way that anyone who doesn’t have it realizes they are missing something. This allows readers familiar with one genre to smile in recognition of a particular stock character or plot twist, while readers of the other genre can marvel at the author’s originality in those areas and recognize other things from the books they love, and nobody feels stupid or slighted.

Ideally, a good crossover will not only appeal to readers of both genres, it will permanently expand the audience for both of them as some of the readers discover that they like whichever part of the crossover they don’t normally read. The Harry Potter books got a lot of adult fantasy readers to read YA and children’s books for the first time since they were kids themselves, and introduced a lot of readers (librarians and teachers and parents, largely) who did read YA to fantasy. (As well as getting a lot of kids hooked on reading and fantasy for the long term.) More readers is something of which I, as a writer, heartily approve.

13 Comments
  1. I read a supposed romance-fantasy crossover last year that produced a wall-flinging reaction in me. (It was a library book, so I didn’t really fling it; just wanted to.)

    It’s always the books that are good, but get something critically wrong, that generate the most irritation in me. This one had a really cool setting, involving secret centers of political power and dragons, nicely done and intriguing. But the romance was central to the plot.

    And the author seemed to think that because she got the romance to a satisfactory happily-ever-after, the story was done. Never mind that there were all kinds of political threads hanging fire, as well as the survival of the secret culture at stake, and a new enemy on the horizon.

    Even if there had been a sequel planned, I would have been irritated, because nothing but the romantic plot was resolved in this book. It was obvious that the author merely wanted an interesting, dramatic setting for her romance, but didn’t really care about the fate of the culture she created. Grrr! And here I am, still simmering over it more than a year later! 😉

  2. White did a cross-over in The Sword in the Stone: Robin Hood and King Arthur.

    Bowdlerized it to “Robin of the Wood” in The Once and Future King, to be sure.

  3. I generally like crossovers, but not when I feel like the elements are just thrown in like an afterthought. I was reading one that was supposed to be romance/paranormal/steampunk, but the steampunk wasn’t necessary at all. I thought it just muddled things up and would have been better without, but I saw a lot of reviews that thought it was a great steampunk. To each their own, I guess.

    You mentioned rights holders (things like Superman meets Star Wars) when discussing the other type of crossovers. I’m curious, if something is in the public domain, then is it okay in professional publishing? I know a lot of authors have done “remakes” of things like Cinderella or fairy tales, but what if it was something more recent but still in public domain? Like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, or others? Could you do a crossover with those stories?

  4. For an illustration of the big downside of cross-over novels, George R. R. Martin keeps telling the story of how The Armageddon Rag nearly killed his career. What he doesn’t say is that it was a cross-over novel. I really liked it, but apparently it didn’t appeal to many readers. It’s a combination of a realistic fiction novel asking the question “what went wrong with the sixties?” and a horror fantasy novel, with rock-and-roll music gluing the two halves together.

  5. Tianna,

    You can. People do. They’re published based on the same criteria as any other book [short version: will it make money for the publisher ;)]

    Any number of people have mucked about in Oz, for example, although I can’t think of any true crossovers ATM.

  6. My favorite professionally published crossover (as opposed to fanfic where it’s rather common) is Barbara Hambly’s Ishmael which crosses Star Trek with Here Comes the Brides and she makes it work beautifully.

  7. Like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, or others? Could you do a crossover with those stories?

    Yes. Namesakecomic.com is doing it. (The Oz part is tricky; not all the books have quite fallen out of copyright, so they’re being extra-sure to only use characters that have — and original characters, of course.)

    Another pitfall of crossovers, in the genre sense, is when the author has grown up in one genre… and can’t even see some of the deep tropes that are embedded in the narrative. *cough*beentheredonethat*cough* On the other hand, for someone who wants that genre primary, and the other genre layered over it, it apparently can really scratch the itch — it can be hard to find one’s specific crossover joy, sometimes. (I just read a short story that was primarily Cyberpunk Noir Detective, but with a layer of additional “insider joke” for a very few select (which I happen to be), and it. was. awesome.)

  8. I really enjoy reading crossovers, especially if they do a good job with it.

  9. Shakatany: Oh, yes! That was an excellent book.

    Some fanfic crossovers are just so over the top that they have a “charm” of their own. I like Harry Potter and the Sun Source () which crosses Harry Potter and The Destroyer ().

  10. Any recommendations for fantasy/mystery crossovers? (Besides the Sam Vimes books, which I’ve already read.). Thanks!

  11. Kate,

    Have you met Lord Darcy? if not, you’re in for a treat: there’s where you’ll find the archetypal fantastic detectives. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough of the stories – and even worse, they seem to be out of print again 🙁

    Look for the omnibus Lord Darcy or for Murder & Magic, Lord Darcy Investigates and Too Many Magicians, by Randall Garrett.

  12. Kate, this may not be your cup of tea, but a lot of urban fantasy has mystery elements. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books do it quite deliberately, but someone like Patricia Briggs also includes a fair amount of mystery structure. (Actually, I haven’t read all of her fantasy-fantasy books, but my impression is that some of those are mystery-ish, too.)

    In more traditional fantasies, some of Hilari Bell’s books are fantasy mysteries. The most mystery one I’m thinking of at the moment is A Matter of Profit, which is actually sci-fi, but I think some of her others do, too.

  13. Thanks Louis and Miriam! Luckily I’ve got some free time coming up. 🙂

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