I am going to propose a new meta-genre of storytelling. Consider the following:
The story starts as a strange-looking stone falls out of the sky into downtown Seattle. We cut to two men, standing over the corpse of another man. A bloody wound is visible on the corpse’s chest. One of the men hold a stained knife. The two assailants laugh to themselves as they divide the contents of their victim’s wallet between them. Suddenly the corpse grabs one of the men, and he shrieks. The corpse uses the man’s body to hoist itself up to its feet. The other assailant runs away as his friend screams for help.
Cut to a news story, The mayor of Seattle announces to the public that the rumors are true. The dead have arisen, and they are walking the earth. Several outbreaks have been identified throughout the greater Seattle metropolitan area. Police have quarantined the block around Pioneer Square, and are patrolling the perimeter. The mayor warns citizens to evacuate the region if they possibly can, and not to go out on foot unless they absolutely have to. The exact threat level has not been determined, but she wants to warn everyone not to panic. The situation is being handled. A team of specialists is en route as we speak.
Cut to the team of specialists. They are dressed all in black next-gen combat attire and outfitted with equally next-gen equipment and weaponry. They toss banter back and forth as they helicopter into Seattle. They laugh about how people keep predicting a zombie outbreak, and here we are. What’s next, superheroes show up? There is a strong but understated sexual tension between the lead tech and the head of the strike team.
As they land, the lead tech explains that the zombies are giving off a specific electromagnetic signature: a wavelength of radiation that may be involved in whatever is animating the corpses. Everyone in the team is armed with a locator designed to track this signature. The team lands. By this point, a great swath of downtown Seattle is under quarantine. They head towards the direction indicated by the signal. Soon enough, they find a horde of zombies, and the firefight begins. During the fight, the tech notices that something is interfering with their communicators. She determines that it is the radiation being given off by the zombies. She attempts to recalibrate the communicators.
She does so, and picks up a signal, in English. The signal announces that they are the Protechron people, from the star system we call Tau Ceti. They launched a communications beacon that was supposed to contact human beings directly, but it turns out the human brain provides too much interference for psychic communication. That may be why they have never developed it, when most other sentient races had. However, the communications beacon is equipped with learning protocols (difficult to predict all of the parameters of a first contact scenario, after all), and so it did the next best thing. It took a human brain that did not produce that level of interference and attempted to use it to communicate: that of the recently deceased. Since it did not provide its own animating force, the beacon supplied that as well. The story goes on to describe in greater detail the first and subsequent contacts between humanity and the Protechrons. The main theme of the story is the fundamental barriers to communication that would likely emerge between two utterly alien races, and the great deal of potential misunderstandings inherent to the process.
The reason this final direction of the story is unexpected, assuming it is set up properly, is not just because it came out of left field. Something fell from space at the beginning of the story. Normally, this would lead readers to suspect alien involvement as a potential explanation. Nothing in the story explicitly contradicts this interpretation. However, it is implicitly undermined over and over because of convention standards and genre-awareness. This is clearly a zombie story. Zombie stories are everywhere these days, and they follow many of the same beats. Anyone reading a zombie story is likely to have certain expectations about it, since most of them are more-or-less the same. The revelation that it was never really a zombie story to begin with defies expectations that were set up not by the writer, by the readers themselves, because of their awareness of the specific elements that tell us “this is a zombie story”.
Zombie stories are by no means alone.
We live in an age of meta-culture. So much of the content out there is full of references to elements that are themselves references to elements. A great deal of science fiction and fantasy is high parody of the classics we all grew up with. Crossovers of genre, which used to be a rarity, are increasingly the norm, as are actual crossovers of characters or words from established works. As I took a moment to procrastinate from writing this to look at Facebook, two different people posted a drag race between the 1966 and 1989 Batmobiles. The meme where Patrick Stewart tells Harry Potter to use the force and the whole thing is attributed to Gandalf assumes casual and instant knowledge of all of those things. Nothing like that existed ten years ago.
Readers and watchers of entertainment bring more baggage and more expectations than ever before into every piece of media they experience. Some might argue that this makes it more difficult to be original. That is sort of true. People are more likely to see works as derivative of earlier works. On the other hand, they are also less likely to have a problem with this. People want works to be derivative to a certain extent, while still being creative and engaging on their own merits. This opens the avenue to a new kind of storytelling, one that takes into account both genre-awareness and the expectation of conventions. I call it perceptual subgenre shift, even though that is a lot of words.
Perceptual subgenre shift is the technique whereby a story presents itself as a part of a specific subgenre. This can be anything. It can present as detective noir, space opera, romantic comedy, Star Trek knockoff, whatever. During the beginning of the story, it follows the conventions of that subgenre, without fully committing itself and while also leaving seeds for what it is to become. Then, at some point, it changes directions and reveals itself to be something else entirely. This is different than a classical twist ending for two reasons. One, it happens in the middle of the story rather than the end. Two, it is not as fundamental a paradigm shift as much as a change in genre and a subversion of genre-conventions.
To be perfectly honest, this technique actually isn’t new at all. Here are a number of examples. Some of them are recent, and some of them very much are not. These examples contain minor spoilers, so be wary.
- From Dusk Till Dawn is an action movie about criminals until, smack dab in the middle, it transforms into a vampire film.
- Solarium is an interactive fiction game which presents as being about a government military research team after a nuclear apocalypse. The story takes an alchemical twist that is both foreshadowed and unexpected.
- Oldboy is a Korean film that strongly presents as a typical revenge flick before subverting that into something very different.
- Cabin in the Woods starts out as typical people-stuck-together style horror movie before it reveals itself as meta-horror instead.
- Miracleman is a comic book that appears to be about a standard transforming Superman-style hero, but turns out to be a something darker and more complicated.
- Cat’s Cradle is a novel that begins as a story about a writer researching a book about the Hiroshima bombing which eventually sets off in a strange and powerful science fiction direction.
- Romeo and Juliet was a fairly typical Elizabethan sex-comedy before the primary comedic character, Mercutio, is killed, which launches the play into a tragedy of revenge and suicide.
If this technique is not utilized properly, the reader can feel cheated. In all of these examples, the transition does not feel like a bait and switch, but rather like a satisfying plot twist. At its best, it delivers the same mind-warping impact as the classic twist ending without the accompanying feeling that the twist was the entire point of the story. It helps makes plotlines less predictable as well. Genre-awareness contains within it not only embedded assumptions about setting and character, but also about narrative structure. For example, an action adventure story about a male hero and a rescued female will almost always end with the two characters romantically involved. Readers expect in a way that makes them feel safe and unprepared for surprises. If you violate that convention –by for example, killing the female character– some readers will feel betrayed, like you pulled the wool out from under them. It can be done effectively, but it is tricky. However, if the story shifts in the middle from action-adventure into hard-boiled noir, those expectations are tossed aside. In noir, the girl doesn’t always survive, is often not who she appears to be, and certainly doesn’t always end up with the hero. The readers now know that they aren’t safe, that anything can happen, and the writer now has many more viable opportunities.
Like all experimental literary techniques that play with fundamental narrative structure, the perceptual subgenre shift is difficult to pull off successfully. But the climate has never been better suited to its implementation. It requires the audience be fully aware of the genre conventions the writer utilizes, and people are more aware of genre conventions than ever. We are so aware of them, in fact, that genre conventions as a convention are at risk of going stale. How long before the very use of recognizable collections of tropes that signify the presence of sub-genres begins to feel overwrought, the way that the telegraphed gag-based comedy of the early 20th century does to modern audiences?
Perhaps it is time for us to move past the mere meta-awareness of genre and trope that grips our media today, and move into a new era where that very awareness is a strength rather than a crutch. I for one would welcome a world in which I cannot trust that my predictions about genre will come true, and where fiction is forced to be more original.
It could happen.