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MEET THE READER: Generic Thinking - Why Story Genre Matters

Ray Morton discusses the importance of clearly identifying the genre of your screenplay. Believe it or not, some screenwriters purposely misidentify the genre of their work.

Ray Morton discusses the importance of clearly identifying the genre of your screenplay. Believe it or not, some screenwriters purposely misidentify the genre of their work.

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When submitting your screenplay to producers, agents and managers, and screenwriting contests, it is very important that you correctly identify the genre of your screenplay.

Apart from a desire for accuracy, the main reason this is important is expectation. Readers will come to a script with certain expectations. These expectations are based on promises the writer provides via the script’s title, logline, and its identified genre. If you tell your reader that your script is a comedy, the reader will be expecting laughs. If the script then begins with someone dying of cancer or getting their head chopped off, the reader is going to be disappointed, no matter how good the rest of the script is or isn’t. And potential buyers tend not to buy scripts that disappoint them.

It may seem hard to believe that a writer would or could misidentify the genre of his own screenplay, but it happens more often than you might guess.

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Sometimes it’s on purpose. If a writer knows or thinks a producer or a company is looking for a specific genre, he may misidentify his script of being of that genre in the hope that this will increase its chances of getting read and considered. (This ruse might get the script read, but as soon as the potential buyer realizes the genre identification is incorrect, the chances of it receiving serious consideration will drop considerably.) Writers who enter their scripts in screenwriting contests often enter their work in multiple categories in the hope that it will place or win in at least one of them.

Quite frequently, however, writers incorrectly identify their script’s genre simply because they don’t know how to do so correctly. To help these folks, here are some broad descriptions of the major movie genres:

1. Drama

Drama is a catchall identification for any story that treats its subject matter seriously and realistically and that derives most of its dramatic and narrative energy from the interaction between its characters. There are many sub-categories of drama, including Period Drama (dramas set in the past), Romantic Drama (love stories), Issue Drama (stories about social or political matters), Family Drama (tales focused on the challenging dynamics of family life), and so on. Good drama is usually subtle and understated. Drama in which the treatment of the material and the interactions between the characters are broader, more emotionally heightened, and less subtle is known as melodrama.

2. Comedy

Comedy is a catchall identification for any story who treats its subject matter lightly and with humor and whose primary purpose is to generate laughs. As with drama, there are many sub-categories of comedy: Character Comedy (in which the humor is generated primarily by the traits of and interactions between relatively realistic characters), Broad Comedy (a.k.a. Slapstick—stories that derive most of their humor from exaggerated characters and situations as well as physical and visual gags), Parody (comedy generated by making fun of a specific piece of pre-existing work or of an entire category of pre-existing work), Satire (comedy generated by making fun of social or political issues with the intention of making a specific thematic point), and Black Comedy (stories which generate humor from topics that the culture does not usually consider it appropriate to laugh at: e.g. death).

3. Romantic Comedy

As the genre’s name directly spells out, a romantic comedy is a comedic story focused on the meeting and falling in love of two people (usually with very disparate personalities). The structure of romcoms is fairly standardized and rigid and the overall genre has the least internal variations of all the major categories. Even so, it is one of the most consistently popular genres for the writers of spec scripts.

Rescuing the Romantic Comedy

4. Thriller

A thriller is a melodrama that generates most of its dramatic fireworks from sequences of (relatively realistic) action, suspense, surprise, and mystery. Sub-categories of the thriller genre include detective stories, heist films, caper movies, mystery movies, and so on.

5. Adventure

An adventure movie is a melodrama about characters who embark on a high adventure of some sort—a treasure hunt, a journey of exploration or discovery, a military mission, a rescue, a great quest, etc.—and that derives most of its excitement from set pieces full of heightened action—battles, rescues, crossings, overcoming natural obstacles, etc.—and feats of derring-do. Adventure films are sometimes referred to as Action-Adventures.

6. Action Movies

Action movies are a relatively new (in the last thirty years) genre. Action films are essentially thrillers or adventure films in which the action component has been increased (modern action films typically feature ten or more big action set pieces, as opposed to the three or four of a traditional adventure picture or thriller) and heightened (the action in classic thrillers and adventure films is usually reasonably realistic. In action movies, the stunts and gags are usually quite big, often over-the-top, and sometimes completely unrealistic to the point where they border on or even cross into the fantastic.

7. Science Fiction

Science-fiction films are movies that take scientific and technical concepts beyond where they are today and then use that speculation to create premises for their narratives. These stories often take place in the future, although they can also take place in the present or the past as well. Modern sci-fi often involves high-tech run amok or contact with alien life.

Where Story Begins: Genre

8. Fantasy

Fantasy films feature characters (often imaginary) and creatures (often imaginary) with extraordinary powers and abilities not possessed by the people and beasts in our world. These stories can take place in our reality or in imaginary worlds unique to the tale being told. Some sub-categories include superhero movies, sword-and-sorcery films, films based on myths and fairy-tales, etc.

9. Space Opera

Space operas are fantasy or action or action-adventure films dressed up to look like science fiction films—movies set in imaginary worlds located in outer space and/or that feature hi-tech gadgets and weapons (that often utilize lasers) and space-faring vehicles (that can be maneuvered like Earthly cars and planes and boats) but that aren’t much concerned with real science. Most science fiction films made in the U.S. are actually space operas. Star Wars and Star Trek are both prime examples of this genre.

10. Horror

A horror movie is a film whose primary goal is to scare the audience. A successful horror film does this by exploiting primal fears using elements of shock, suspense, and terror in the service of unusual or disturbing subject matter. Most horror films feature an ordinary person confronting some form of monster or evil force either from without or within.

11. Westerns

Westerns aren’t made much anymore, but they were once the dominant American film genre. They’re actually a sub-genre of many other genres—Westerns can be dramas, comedies, thrillers, adventure or action movies. However, they are all set in a very specific time and place—the Western half of the North American continent in territories owned or about to owned by the United States in the second half of the 19th century. They tend to feature familiar settings and iconography, some very specific stock characters (ranchers, rustlers, sheriffs, and gunslingers), and a number of required tropes. The stories are usually constructed around conflicts between cattlemen and homesteaders or between white settlers and cowboys and Native Americans (which explains why they aren’t much made any more). The morality tales once told by Westerns now tend to be told in our science fiction, fantasy, space operas, and action movies. Still, there are quite a few spec writers out there who still find purpose and meaning in the genre.

12. Musicals

Musicals belong to another once-popular genre that is rarely seen any more. Movie musicals grew out of musical theater, adding a scope and a visual sense to the concept that are impossible to realize on stage. It is a very specific way of telling a story—using songs and music-and-dance numbers to advance the narrative. The larger audience no longer relates to this form of storytelling and so the genre is in eclipse. However, this doesn’t stop some hearty spec script writers from giving it a go every once in a while.

Every dramatic narrative falls into one of these genres, so that means yours does too. When submitting your screenplay, it’s important to identify the genre and sub-genre of your screenplay as accurately as possible so that the readers will know what to expect when they crack the cover. And then make sure that your script meets those expectations.

Every genre comes with its own set of requirements, conventions, and tropes. It is vital that your script address the requirements, conventions, and tropes of its identified genre in some creative way so that it will meet expectations.

Sometimes writers attempt to blend genres—to create comedy-dramas, action comedies, horror comedies, sci-fi-horror, sci-fi-Westerns, and so on. The common wisdom is that writers shouldn’t pen hybrid-genre scripts because studios hate them because the movies made from them are too hard to sell. This is not untrue, but there is another reason studios shy away from dual-genre scripts and that is most of them are not very well done. It is hard enough for a writer to meet the demands and expectations of one genre and it is exponentially harder to meet the demands and expectations of two different genres in the same set of pages. When it works, it’s great (e.g. Ghostbusters, Alien), but when it doesn’t, the results can be mushy and unclear and unsatisfying. I’m not saying don’t mix genres, but I am saying if you do do it, you have to be extra doubly certain you have it nailed before you submit your dual-genre screenplay for consideration.

If you decide to identify your script as a dual-genre piece, make certain that it really is a true hybrid. Too many writers identify their scripts as hybrids when they contain only small traces of a second genre. Just because the hero of your comedy spec falls in love in the course of the story doesn’t necessarily make it a romantic comedy. Just because the hero of your action spec makes a few wisecracks while he is blowing up buildings and knocking off bad guys doesn’t necessarily make your script an action-comedy. Just because your thriller contains a car chase doesn’t necessarily make it an action-thriller.

Remember, when it comes to identifying genre, it is the totality of the piece that is the key.

Finally, if you do choose to identify your script as dual-genre, make sure you limit yourself to just two genres. Any more than that and you are signaling to your reader that you don’t have a clear conception of what kind of script you have written, a lack of clarity that will most like be reflected in the script itself. And whatever you do, never identify your script’s genre as Drama/Comedy/Romcom/Thriller/Horror/Sci-fi/Fantasy/Space Opera/Action-Adventure/Action/Western/Musical (don’t laugh – I’ve seen more than a few people do this). Writers who do this think they are increasing their script’s chances by making it seem like their script has something in it for everyone, but they are actually torpedoing their work by suggesting it is incoherent.

When it comes to identifying your script’s genre, specificity is the key, as it is in all other aspects of screenwriting.


Copyright © 2018 by Ray Morton
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