Explicitly or subtly, writers are always building on the stories that came before us. For a couple of years now, I’ve been teaching a class on retellings at Cat Rambo’s Academy. It’s always a good time to see what people come up with.
Here’s an excerpt from the class, on one of the many strategies for retelling stories — the mash-up.
Craving some hard science fiction spaceships, or some Western cowboy hats? You don’t have to move your story into space or a ghost town and write completely in that new genre—you can do both at once. Sometimes you have to get that chocolate into that peanut butter. Mix things because you love them, or because they go together, or because they should never go together, or because they went together in that weird dream you had the other night.
Some combinations play up the contradictions. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is funny because it makes you imagine all those staid regency ladies juxtaposed with B-horror movie makeup. The retelling thrives because the combination is both ridiculous and delightful.
Other match-ups are about synergy instead of clash. A common blend is fairy tale characters who are under criminal investigation. Fairy tale characters have made many appearances in court room dramas. These days, I mostly see the combination as fairy tales written in a Noir style. Although the genres don’t pair well to me, they appeal to many readers. Perhaps it’s a way to tease out the motivations and complexities of the original, simple stories. The author wants to know “why did this happen?” and poses a fictional detective to find out.
You can mash up whole genres–but you can also just mash individual stories. When superhero comics have big crossover arcs where characters from different parts of the universe all interact, they aren’t changing genre. They’re still superhero comics, just ones without their normally distinct lines.
It’s entirely possible to mash together as many genres and stories as you want. More doesn’t usually mean better–but it can.