A Chimera is a fantasy lion with a goat head on its back and a snake for a tail. Have you ever been halfway through a story when it suddenly changed gears and became something completely different? I call that a Chimera story and a smell of bad writing.
What is it?
A Chimera is a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be. A love story that turns into a thriller, a thriller that turns into a horror story, or a horror story that turns into a science fiction adventure. None of these genres are bad, but a story pretending to be one type of story, but actually turning out to be something else is a problem, especially if you’ve spent money on it.
I’m not ranting against mixing genres, here, because there is nothing wrong with that. I’m talking a broken promise to the reader. If a story starts out with certain staples, it’s not fair to the reader to suddenly do an about face, unless you make it clear on the outset. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it can’t suddenly have a snake for a tail.
King Kong, the 2005 movie, starts out as a drama about a washed up screenwriter Jack Driscoll, who goes on an expedition to an uncharted island. The drama unfolds slowly, until the giant gorilla King Kong shows up and the movie becomes a fantasy special effects extravaganza. It feels as if they tacked two half of two different movies together.
The same happens in the 2003 Hulk movie, which starts as a thriller, then turns into a superhero action movie halfway through.
One book that comes to mind is the horror story I am not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells. The story starts as a thriller about a boy who might be a serial killer, hunting an actual serial killer. Then, bam, it turns into a horror novel with a demon. Dexter pulls the same trick in Dexter in the Dark, going from thriller/horror to fantasy/horror.
Actually, if you know about the demons, I am not a Serial Killer is a very good book, showing that expectation can affect the perception of a story a lot. Dexter in the Dark, however, wasn’t that great.
How to fix it
Foreshadow. If you’re book is urban fantasy, establish it as such in the first scene. If it is science fiction, make sure people know after reading the first chapter. If that’s too complicated, think about using a prologue. A prologue has its own drawbacks, but it can set the scene and reveal your genre even if you start with something different after.
As a second step, make sure your style and pacing are consistent throughout your story. King Kong starts out slow, than goes full-on action movie. That doesn’t work very well. If your story has a lot of action at the end, but not at the beginning, then you should rebalance your pacing. Add some breathers to the end, and some action to the beginning. If this is not possible, rearrange the scenes. King Kong would have been better if it had intermixed the first half of the film with action scenes from later in the movie. You can easily rearrange a story by working with flash-backs, flash-forwards, or prologues.
Don’t let your story be a Chimera. Chimeras are pretty cool, but not as stories, it’s just sloppy writing.