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.