Inspirations Scrapbook · Writer basics 101

One song to the tune of another – dos and don’ts of mash-ups and juxtaposition

Mash-ups or juxtapositions are a good way to get new story ideas. ‘This-meets- that…’ But flinging random ideas together is more likely to result in a mess than a good tale. Here’s how to do it well

One of my favourite party games is One Song to the Tune of Another, from the BBC Radio 4 panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. The best combinations deserve to live and breathe on their own, but if you try the game at home (and I do, frequently), you’ll find it takes a lot of stabs in the dark to find two songs that are made for each other.

There seems to be a rash of mash-up fiction at the moment, usually involving zombies. No, I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Robin Hood vs The Plague Undead – and I don’t want to. Why? Because the title seems to be the only joke and I can’t see where else it would go. Maybe I’m much too serious, but it’s not even a very good joke.

Juxtaposition rule 1: be surprising

If you’re going to juxtapose two elements, do something original. Phil South wrote this week on his blog Going Down Writing about taking two random ideas and making a story out of them. His result, Jurassic Submarine, is rather good.

Juxtaposition rule 2: not just a one-liner

A good mash-up has to be more than a one-liner. So although you may start with ‘this meets that’, you need to go a lot further.

Consider Deadwood.  That’s Shakespearean drama meets the Western – and the two together create something new, deeply right, with legs that will go on for miles.

A lot of great stories have originated in mash-ups, either in ideas or broader concepts. ‘Jaws in space’ gives you Alien. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke        is Jane Austen meets Jack Vance. Blood-Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick is Arthur Ransome meets John Le Carre. The whole genre of cyberpunk is film noir meets science fiction. Steampunk is sci-fi meets alternate history. If you’re going to mash two ideas together, they have to truly complement and highlight each other. It’s anything but random.

In my WIP Life Form 3, I’m mashing two ideas together, but I’ve spent a long time thinking about what they bring out in each other. There are ways in which the two ideas are compatible and ways in which they are interestingly jarring. Much of the story is generating itself from the fizz when they collide. (And I can’t tell you too much more about it at the moment without giving far too much away, which is why I’ve been very coy about details…)

If you’re going to mash two ideas together, they need to fit in some way. And preferably cause as much tension as harmony.

Most random stabs don’t work beyond the initial surprise, as I found when challenged to sing The Sound of Music to the tune of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The first few bars are amusing, but after that there is no coherence that makes it worth continuing.

You have to experiment a lot to find genuine show-stoppers, but here’s one: sing the words of Greensleeves to the tune of The Stripper. Try it now.


What mash-ups and juxtapositions, literary or filmic, do you think have genuine mileage?

For a bonus point, give me a good song lyric to sing to the tune of another.


22 thoughts on “One song to the tune of another – dos and don’ts of mash-ups and juxtaposition

  1. My favourite mashups are those in which a beautiful setting sadly lacking in plots I care about is mashed up with something more exciting but lacking in richness.

    Any historical setting plus science fiction, for example.

    1. Hi Dom! That’s an interesting point, about us caring about plots in some genres but not about others. It’s all personal taste of course, but I fine western films rather off-putting (despite the presence of horses, which I adore). I had to be dragged to Unforgiven, and was very glad I was.

      Genre is a powerful draw for readers. Perhaps the snap decision a reader makes isn’t based on a book’s cover so much as its genre.

  2. Great post!! This is really exciting stuff, because in this day and age when agents/publishers are TIRED of seeing the same old thing, this is a way to be fresh and unique, to add that special twist. (But you’re right–it has to be done carefully.) I like the general idea of steampunk, really. And not a book, but that Cowboys and Aliens movie with Daniel Craig is going to be really cool–meshing the Wild West with a bit of alien technology. 🙂

    Hey! Never tried that song game; sounds fun. My daughters and I used to play one where we’d say a line from a movie and guess the movie.

    1. Hi Carol
      Yes, we’re all trying to find the way to be unique. But for the big publishers, it’s easy to be (forgive what I am about to do linguistically) TOO unique. Mash-ups are the safer way to do it as they combine known quantities, at least from a marketing point of view.

      But inspired ideas don’t come from cynical combinations done for their own sake. They’re from writers who couldn’t resist the experiment.

  3. It seems the easiest way to do this would be to choose two genres with at least one substantial difference and one substantial commonality, and then write one track of your two-track plot in one and the other in the other. This would ‘fizz’ them at the conflict points until they collide and smush at the Climax. And that makes the mash-up part of the point of your whole novel.

    Novels with romance elements do this all the time.

    1. Excellent recipe, Victoria – quite perfect.

      I’d never considered that novels with romance elements could be thought of as mash-ups, but that’s an interesting way to see it. Certainly it makes the most of the tension and conflict.

  4. My favorite mashup was Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly — cowboys in space (no aliens). The writing and characterization were amazing, but like many intelligent efforts, the network cancelled it before the end of the first season.

    I’ll have to give some thought to lyrics for other songs — never heard of that game but it sounds like it’s a scream!

  5. Hi Roz — Very interesting post! I haven’t read the two zombie books you mentioned yet, but must admit that I am curious — I’m a sucker for unusual titles. I wonder if they’re worth my time?

    I like the idea of mash-ups…definitely a way to give some of my misfit ideas new life.

  6. Love it! What you said about musical mashups reminded me of a YouTube video I saw once which mixed the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ with the tune of ‘GhostBusters’. And if it sounds like it can’t be done, here it is:

    So, do I get a point? 🙂

  7. One of the best genre mash-ups is “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson – horror and sci-fi! The book was written in 1958! So good that three dodgy movie adaptations have not diminished its power.

  8. I read about 50 pages of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and got tired of it. I did like the script of The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski.
    The play went beyond the “one liner” point. A great example on youtube with a dramatic reading. I think it is as almost funny as the original, but if you don’t like either Shakespeare or the Cohen Brothers, you might not get the humor.

    Which is another point to bring up. If you want a wide appeal, stay general. Cowboys and Aliens will appear to a wider audience than say the Crow retold by Checkov

    1. Hi Mari! The rug… Yes, it’s very good. I like the Cohens sometimes (they’re a little too superior about their characters for my liking, but that’s a different story), and Shakespeare lots,

      Wide appeal…. you’re right. With mash-ups, the audience has to ‘get it’ immediately.

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