WGA writer Michael Tabb has written for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, comic book icon Stan Lee, and other industry players. Michael's new book, Prewriting Your Screenplay: a Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories, is available now. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelTabb and Instagram @michaeltabbwga.
STORY BUILDING: PHASE II:
What is genre?
Genre is how films are categorized through establishing one of three popular constants:
- Setting (example: westerns or road trip films)
- Topic (example: coming-of-age or crime)
- Mood/Tone (example: comedy or thriller)
Genre allows us to identify, classify, and segregate the styles of storytelling before going into the complexities and details of genre classifications and what they mean.
Genre says a lot about the writer
Once I have selected a premise (the hypothesis I want my script to communicate) and brainstormed situations to argue it, it’s time to start imagining how it might look in different genres. While some premises might fit better into a specific genre, other heartfelt premises can be told through any genre lens. Only the writer can figure out which mood best makes their case and how they wish to make it. For example, the story of western colonization unjustly eradicating indigenous cultures can be seen through a historical genre like Dances with Wolves or science fiction as seen in Avatar. Both films tell the tale of a soldier from an invading force with superior weaponry expanding into an epic, new frontier. During the second act, a female of that indigenous tribe, against her own initial personal wishes, is ordered to serve as liaison to the soldier and educates him in their ways. The outsider falls in love with the woman as he also falls in love with her culture and its people. Eventually, he protects them against his own kind. These are the same exact stories.
It's intoxicating to watch visually imaginative films, which make it easier to absorb profound concepts presented in an entertaining context that feels further removed from our reality. Allegories like Avatar are a great way to reach the hearts of viewers without looking like you are lecturing your audience from a soapbox. This is one way to make a deeply meaningful premise into something commercial. Meanwhile, showing this in a historical context holds a very different but equally cinematic and compelling version of this same narrative. Dances with Wolves won a slew of Academy Awards for the power of this vision, including their highest honor, Best Picture of the Year, and Avatar shattered a slew of box office records. Both versions are equally valid choices. So, it stands to reason that genre selection speaks volumes about the writer. It is one of most significant ways in which writers convey their voice as artists to buyers and reveals how each writer tackles subject matter.
Therefore, think hard about the kind of movies you want to write when picking the genre, because genre is often used to define the writer. I would be remiss if I didn’t remind writers that when selecting a genre for a script, it might determine the types of writing opportunities for which one might be considered. This is why genre is more important than ever to a writer's career.
Addressing the argument, "But I don't wanna write only one genre!"
Many screenwriters want to know why Hollywood needs to define them by genre. Now, I know those of us that studied screenwriting in college can write in any genre; it’s just a matter of tool selection. A screwdriver is still a screwdriver, whether Phillips or flathead. Screenplays are all written in the same structure, and all flawed characters can be created the same way regardless of a story’s tone. I don’t disagree with this argument some writers make, but it will not change how executives think. It's like asking, "Why do they keep putting people like Jim Carrey, Will Farrell, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Adam Sandler in comedies?" The answer is, "Because they have proven they're good at it. Therefore, it makes sense and is smart business."
If feeling pigeonholed ever bothers a writer, writers can write their way into new territory at any time. It's not the same for actors or directors who wish to change direction. For them, it requires a significant investment. For us, we just put a little time aside and do what we do best.
I should also mention that once in a long while, this common genre-specific hiring practice is broken. If it wasn't, Steve Kloves wouldn’t have been selected to write seven of the eight Harry Potter films. Now, I’m sure it didn’t hurt that JK Rowling was a huge fan of his film The Fabulous Baker Boys, and it likely helped that he was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the WGA, Golden Globes, and Academy Awards for Wonder Boys just prior. That said, it’s illogical for even WGA writers to get that kind of latitude from Hollywood executives. A lot of stars need to align to make it happen.
So, write something different if that's what you want to do. Nobody in the world is stopping you. I do this all the time between writing gigs and drafts. I have writing samples now in most genres.
Why is genre important?
Premise provides the film's purpose. It fills a story with passion and meaning. Meanwhile, genre allows the writer to choose how to relay that message. It takes that light of inspiration from the premise and allows the writer to shine it through a specific lens. Think of it as sunshine through a kaleidoscope. Genre establishes a mood, color, and tone for the reader (audience) of that story. It conveys more than just the style of the film. Most important to those who finance movies, the exact genre tells studios how to sell the movie and helps determine to whom (through demographics). How you turn a feeling and a statement into a movie is through the marketing tool of genre. Genre tells a studio how they will sell your idea. It’s important to note that it wasn’t always that way.
In Shakespeare’s time, stories were divided into only three major categories: comedy, tragedy, and histories. Comedy didn’t mean funny back in Elizabethan times. Tragedy meant a sad story traditionally ending in the death of the central character(s). Comedy meant it did not end in tragedy (happy endings featuring love and marriage), and histories meant it was “inspired” by real people or events. Later, tragedy started to be called drama because comedy started to be associated with humor and not all dramatic stories ended in tragedy.
Through the centuries, perception and greater clarification is constantly being sought to quantify stories. It helps audiences enter the theater in the right mindset, and it helps producers market the story to their customers. The smarter mankind has become about buying and selling entertainment, the more clarity they want. People want to know what they are buying. Therefore, the number of different genres has expanded quite a bit.
Nowadays, you would still call Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It comedies, but modern producers would call The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream fantasy. King Lear and Hamlet could still be called a tragedy or drama, but Macbeth would really be considered a psychological thriller, Romeo and Juliet would be called a romantic tragedy, and Titus Andronicus might even be considered horror. The KingHenry and Richard plays were dubbed histories, which in the film business today, we’d call biopics, but each would likely include a supporting genre as well. The Henry stories are war stories set with the conflict either within England’s hierarchy or France, while Richard III is really more of a thriller as the title character murders his way to the throne.
Genre has gone from a form of simplification to a strict pinpointing of demographic and market appeal. Production companies specialize in specific genres, be it comedy, horror, or action. So many inexperienced people in our industry think artists are the only people who get pigeonholed. They’re dead wrong. Producers can get the same treatment. Studios want to buy product and put behind the scenes people who have worked successfully in that type of product before, so even producers get typecast.
Then there are genres most companies don’t even want to consider, the principal of which tend to be historical pieces, and they all have their reasons. Everything in a period piece runs up the cost of production, including: hunting down or creating suitable locations, appropriate transportation in the film, costuming… It’s even harder to write because dialogue cannot break the illusion of the period or setting. It all becomes stylized. Nowadays, it’s more difficult to get anyone to read westerns than it is to write them. Believe it or not, even comedy is a niche market because the comedic sensibilities are different all over the globe.
Meanwhile, thrillers are popular internationally because the stakes (life and death) are a universally understood set of circumstances. Like it or not, those are the facts. Writers need to understand this so they know the challenges before selecting a genre.
Hollywood insiders follow genre trends and popularity. Spec scripts that sell are often broken up in marketplace analysis and categorized by genre. When people talk about current trends in movies, they don’t talk about whether it was character versus plot-driven or premise versus concept-driven. They will sometimes look at whether star-driven films are hitting or whether original or previously existing intellectual properties are trending, but, more than anything, it’s almost always measured by genre. Even the subgenre trends are debated. As audiences have gotten savvier, so have the genre classifications. The measuring of even the most detailed subgenre trends is very common. It’s no longer just movies about monsters in general that are selling, but they pinpoint which type of monster, be it vampires, werewolves or zombies.
It's important for writers to understand that this is how the industry works outside of our creative bubble. There are so many moving variables; you might be wondering one thing...
"How should genre trends affect my decision-making as a writer?"
As much as genre is a huge part of the picture for buyers and sellers, all of that trend thinking actually has very little to do with what genre a writer chooses to write. I never chase trends because by the time a decent writer pens and edits a great spec for a hip trend, chances are the trend has already passed. Writers need to know what’s going on because we all have our little treasure chests of unsubmitted scripts waiting for the right time to see the light. When it comes to what we are starting to write in the present, genre boils down to two things: the writer’s personal voice and what speaks best to the subject matter (premise). Trend has nothing to do with it. We write what we write and understand market fluctuations are just a part of the game. It's simply something to understand; do not worry about it. These are the fads and phases of our industry, but unlike real trends that don't always come back into popularity, genres do every so many years. Besides, I have always held the belief that when a script is amazing, great writers make trends, not follow them.
Of all the reasons genre is important, this is the most important...
Genre creates certain expectations within the viewer and opens a door for the writer to deliver upon them. Each genre promises to elicit certain responses or feelings inside the audience member based on their prior experience from having seen those types of stories. Screenwriters use the audience's ingrained knowledge of the genre to affect them with familiar tropes in original ways. It’s a backdoor way of sneaking under the skin of the audience before the lights even dim in the movie theater. When audiences go to see a comedy, they are ready to laugh. When they pay for a suspenseful thriller, something as simple as a slow walk down a long hallway can put viewers on the edges of their seats, creating expectation because they know something can pop out at any moment.
Yes, it is a form of emotional manipulation, but it's voluntary. In fact, it’s why they’re paying to see the movie. Genre is the unspoken agreement between the writer and the audience for the experience they promise to give. We use what the audience already knows about the genres so that we don’t have to start fresh on page one of the script. We use expectation to seduce and affect them, playing the strings inside the human instrument… Inside the viewer.
There are so many great metaphors for this. It's like writers have an inside man deep undercover already inside the audience’s brain. Genre is our secret agent behind enemy lines. It's the I.V. already stuck in their vein when they sit in the theater. Genre makes sure that the viewers are predisposed to affect them when we want to get their blood pumping. We use genre as a tool to reach an audience more effectively, queued into their receptivity. It’s the open door into the subconscious, full of preexisting, preprogrammed, conditioned responses planted there from their earliest memories of entertainment. Genre is exploiting their Pavlovian training, if the writer is skilled enough to correctly play upon those tropes.
A movie can sometimes be poorly told, but audiences will still enjoy it because it delivered on the promises made by the genre in advertising. When done perfectly, without speaking to one another, the writer is working in tandem with the marketing team that handles all the P&A (print and advertising) for the film. Because of this, the viewer comes to the movie prepared by the advertising in the right frame of mind to hear the writer's story.
The misnomers of genre
I never think of genre as something I have to use. Instead, I would consider myself foolish if I didn't take advantage of its attributes. I would never deprive myself of the opportunity to affect my audience in whatever particular manner I wish. Genre guides the context for my premise into an effective delivery mechanism, offering a proven method of distribution of my hypothesis. It gives story a clear and linear path, never all over the place. All the same, not all writers see it that way.
Defining a film’s genre can be very restrictive to writers, making them feel painted into a corner with an obligation to quantify their work. Inexperienced writers often don’t feel deft and agile enough within a genre’s toolbox to do everything they want to with their story. It takes time and patience. Directors have told me that when they are forced to make something work within certain conditions, the limitations sometimes allows them to focus and find the specific solutions they need that are simple and most meaningful. Genre can be that way for the writer. We know to explore the mood and tone set forth by the genre, so we can feel our way forward with clarity and focus. Personally, I find utilizing genre liberating and helpful. In fact it doesn’t restrict my choices, but it tells me where I need to break new ground.
Inexperienced writers feel like genre selection makes their scripts predictable and confined. I never feel confined because my goal is always to take the genre to places we have never seen it. In an action script, I focus on writing action sequences with acts that are brave, original, and heart-pounding, whether it’s putting it in a wild location or how the character physically handles confrontation. In science fiction, I want to use technology in a way no other movie has. In comedy, I want to laugh at things people haven’t laughed at in that way. It’s all about perception and innovation… Breaking new ground with fresh ideas. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy making something the same but different, yet that’s our job as artists. The writer can’t blame the genre if he or she can’t do something new with it any more than a painter can blame his or her brush.
Though there is a little fluidity between genres, there should be one constant tone throughout the script. When describing a script of mine, I never pitch it as more than a mash-up of two dominant genres. Two is the maximum. Listing too many genres is like wearing a neon sign around your neck that reads amateur writer. Some of the below films are mash-ups of more than one genre, but I list them under the primary genre.
If your screenplay is going to catch the eye of the studios, it should be written for the buyers but still speak from the heart with its premise. Now, you don't pitch a premise to others. If anyone does ask you for the premise of your story, chances are they are asking for the story's basic situation. They are using the word as it's found in any dictionary, not the technical term explained in my last article. Meanwhile, you always pinpoint the genre for them. It shows buyers you know your audience and through what cinematic and visual devises they can sell your idea to the masses. You will notice that in many genres, the world in which it is set has scope that fits the tone.
There are a lot of different articles and breakdowns of what makes something a specific genre. I'll lay out my very simple definitions for each. Ask yourself which singular genre can best convey your premise in the most entertaining way. Here are your choices:
- Drama – The exploration of a serious, deeply moving situations or issues
- Comedy – Stories centering on characters and situations designed to make people laugh
- Adventure – Stories of off-road, epic quests and journeys
- Action – Stories with constant, fast-paced, physical movement and fighting
- Science Fiction – Involving major plot elements that stem from foreseeable science fact
- Fantasy – This contains characters and plot devises that are impossible in the world as we know it, usually containing more mystical elements commonly associated with fairy tales
- Supernatural – Like fantasy, a film where the circumstances and situations cannot be explained by modern or theoretical science, and it contains some type of paranormal or unnatural phenomena
- Horror – Primarily about extreme physical violence, exploring a terrifying, human fear to scare audiences
- Mystery – When the entire outer journey and plot focuses on trying to out “Who done it and why?”
- Thriller – Edge-of-your-seat suspense based stories
- Crime/Heist – Told from the point of view of investigators or criminals where a protagonist’s outer journey in the story centers on criminal activities.
- Western – Set in the Western United States prior to 1912 (most commonly the Wild West era between the American Civil War and the turn of the century), traditionally featuring frontiersman, cowboys, and/or Native Americans.
- War – Set during wartime in a war-torn land
- Family – Stories and execution that is appropriate for all audiences of all ages, including small children
- Musical – When characters sing numerous songs as part of the story, and it traditionally (but not necessarily) has at least one big dance number
- Historical - Based on true events in world history
- Biopic - Based on and inspired by one real person and that person's accomplishment(s)
- Romance – When the main plot and protagonist’s outer journey focuses on the pursuit of romantic love
- Erotic – Sexually explicit main story
- Disaster – Stories where a large, catastrophic, or even cataclysmic size event threatens a large number of people
- Sports – Set in a specific sport integral to the characters, story or plot
- Road - The majority of the second act of a film is spent traveling a great distance where an emotional, inner journey reflects the physical one
- Coming of Age – A story traditionally set somewhere between middle school to college where the central characters “grow up,” with emphasis on strong inner journeys for the central character(s)
Here are examples of successful films in those specific genres:
- Drama (The Shawshank Redemption, Boyz N The Hood, A Few Good Men, American Beauty, Deliverance, Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, Network, Do the Right Thing, Ben Hur, Good Will Hunting, Gone With The Wind, City of God, Crash, Requiem for a Dream, East of Eden, Boogie Nights, The Big Chill, 12 Angry Men, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Taxi Driver, Muriel’s Wedding, The Competition, The Great Santini, An Officer and a Gentleman, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Escape from Alcatraz, Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, Wall Street, Cool Hand Luke, The Defiant Ones, Swimming with Sharks, My Own Private Idaho, To Kill A Mockingbird, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Forrest Gump, The Help, Whiplash, The Hunt For Red October)
- Comedy (Liar Liar, Groundhog Day, Tootsie, Anchorman, Some Like it Hot, Down & Out In Beverly Hills, Real Genius, Van Wilder, Austin Powers, Wayne’s World, City Slickers, 50 First Dates, Happy Gillmore, Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously, The Apartment, Zoolander, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Naked Gun, Stir Crazy, Arthur, Legally Blonde, The Blues Brothers, The Hangover, Top Secret, Trading Places, Three Men and a Baby, The Jerk, Airplane!, The Nutty Professor, 40-year-old Virgin, Uncle Buck, Bridesmaids, Shallow Hal, The Wedding Crashers, Sister Act, Son in Law, Max Dugan Returns, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Born Yesterday, City Lights, Duck Soup, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, History of the World: Part 1, Bananas, Back to School, Vacation, Stripes, My Blue Heaven, Father of the Bride, Rush Hour, Kindergarten Cop, Twins, Junior, Raising Arizona, Baseketball, The Court Jester, Roxanne, Clueless, Caddyshack, Old School, 9 to 5)
- Adventure (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Princess Bride, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Goonies, Romancing The Stone, The Three Musketeers, The Mask of Zorro, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), Around the World in Eighty Days, Laura Croft: Tomb Raider, National Treasure, Apocalypto, Life of Pi, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Hercules, Tarzan, Crocodile Dundee, Sahara, Hidalgo, The Mummy)
- Action (Die Hard, True Lies, Skyfall, The Rock, The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Kick Ass, Air Force One, Commando, Top Gun, Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Iron-Man, The Last Boy Scout, Bullitt, Goldfinger, Smokey and the Bandit, Desperado, Borne Identity, Conan The Barbarian, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Point Break, Speed, Mission Impossible III, Charlie’s Angels, xXx, The Expendables, Hard Boiled, Enter the Dragon, The Trasporter, The Raid, Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Seven Samurai, Battle Royale, 13 Assassins)Fantasy (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Lord of the Rings, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Wizard of Oz, Maleficent, Splash, Avatar, The Abyss, Dune, It’s a Wonderful Life, Weird Science, Pirates of the Caribbean, Plant of the Apes, Willow, King Kong, Clash of the Titans, Jason & the Argonauts, Mysterious Island, Sinbad, Jumanji, Edward Scissorhands, Beauty and the Beast, Gremlins, Dark City, Night At The Museum, Ladyhawk, Pleasantville, Time Bandits, Ella Enchanted, Enchanted, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Stardust, The Watchmen, The Mask, Hook, X-Men)
- Science Fiction (Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Star Trek, Galaxy Quest, Children of Men, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Back to the Future, The Terminator, The Matrix, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, The Last Starfighter, Transformers, THX 1138, Fahrenheit 451, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, The Blob, The Black Hole, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Race to Witch Mountain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, West World, Enemy Mine, Gravity, RoboCop, Independence Day, Escape from New York, Hunger Games, Men in Black, Interstellar, Tron, Serenity, Jumper, The Martian, Edge of Tomorrow)
- Supernatural (The Exorcist, Flatliners, The Dead Zone, The Sixth Sense, Ghostbusters, Donnie Darko, Sleepy Hallow, The Mummy, Frankenstein, Scrooged, Blade, Ghost Rider, The Crow, Constantine, Final Destination, Paranormal Activity, The Ring, The Blair Witch Project, Insidious, The Others, Thirteen Ghosts, Amityville Horror, Sinister, What Lies Beneath, Carrie, Ten Commandments, Poltergeist, Carrie, Ring, Christine, The Car, The SIxth Sense)
- Horror (Psycho, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Jaws, Cujo, Dracula, The Omen, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Evil Dead 2, The Conjuring, Lost Boys, Saw, The Strangers, Friday the 13th, Children of the Corn, An American Werewolf in London, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 28 Days Later, Cabin in the Woods, The Descent, The Thing, The Fly, The Wolfman, The Howling, Hellraiser, Christine, Cabin Fever)
- Mystery (Seven, Manchurian Candidate, Arlington Road, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Clue, The Player, The Constant Gardener, Day of the Jackal, The Silence of the Lambs, Scream, Silver Streak, Momento, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Rope, No Way Out, The Osterman Weekend, Dead Again, Eyes of Laura Mars, The Mighty Quinn, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Third Man, Laura, Ten Little Indians, In The Heat of the Night, Mystic River, The Fugitive, The Game, Deep Red, An Inspector Calls, Shattered (1991), D.O.A., and most Sherlock Holmes films)
- Thriller (Marathon Man, Deathtrap, The Shining, Man on Fire, In the Line of Fire, Rear Window, Misery, Alien, The Birds, A Clockwork Orange, Dial M For Murder, Buried, The Night of the Hunter, Wait Until Dark, No Country for Old Men, Cape Fear, Blood Simple, The Edge, Gaslight, Diabolique (1955), Black Christmas, Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Three Days of the Condor)
- Crime (The Godfather, The Untouchables, Fish Called Wanda, 48 Hours, Scarface, Goodfellas, Ocean’s Eleven, Bonnie & Clyde, The Sting, Magnum Force, Chinatown, Maltese Falcon, L.A. Confidential, Double Indemnity, The Big Lebowski, Sunset Blvd., The Usual Suspects, Sid & Nancy, Internal Affairs, The Departed, Mystic River, Touch of Evil, American Gangster, The French Connection, Kiss Me Deadly, Set It Off, Brick, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Klute, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, At Close Range, Sin City, Dog Day Afternoon, Primal Fear)
- Western (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Frisco Kid, 3:10 To Yuma (2007), Unforgiven, My Name is Nobody, Django Unchained, Young Guns, Silverado, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Fist Full of Dollars, Few Dollars More, Shane, High Noon, High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, Tombstone, The Shootist, The Searchers, Winchester ’73, The Hired Hand, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Dances with Wolves, The Magnificent Seven, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, My Darling Clementine, True Grit, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Lone Ranger, Maverick)
- War (Bridge over the River Kwai, Braveheart, Glory, Gettysburg, Gods and Monsters, Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam, Sparticus, Gladiator, Apocalypse Now, A Bridge Too Far, Midway, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Red Dawn, Lawrence of Arabia, Battleship Patemkin, Saving Private Ryan, Dirty Dozen, Wings, The Deer Hunter, Generation Kill, Ride with the Devil, The Pianist, Guns of the Navarone, One Day in September, The Last of the Mohicans, Three Kings, Victory, Lone Survivor, Unbroken, The Imitation Game)
- Coming of Age (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Breakfast Club, Boyhood, St. Elmo’s Fire, Rebel Without a Cause, Some Kind of Wonderful, Farris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, Home Alone, Fast Times at Ridgemount High, Almost Famous, Risky Business, Saturday night Fever, My Bodyguard, Breaking Away, The Last American Virgin, Animal House, Stand by Me, The Outsiders, Heathers, Footloose, Superbad, Juno, Diner, Foxes, WarGames, School Ties, With Honors, Reality Bites, Flamingo Kid, American Pie, Less than Zero, Little Manhattan, Dead Poet’s Society, Can’t Buy Me Love, The Karate Kid, Ten Things I Hate About You, The Girl Next Door, Accepted)
- Family (Fly Away Home, Spy Kids, Babe, Benji, Lassie, Flipper, The Black Stallion, Old Yeller, Turner and Hooch, Cloak and Dagger, Muppet Movie, Miracle on 34th Street, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, Candleshoe, Mrs. Doubtfire, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Freaky Friday, Pollyanna, Matilda, Bright Eyes, Apple Dumpling Gang, Curse of the Cat People, Children of Heaven, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Hot Lead and Cold Feet, The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Herbie the Love Bug, The Prize Fighter, Dick Tracy, Millions, Holes, Gus, Elf, The Indian in the Cupboard, The Grinch That Stole Christmas, The Parent Trap, Are We There Yet?)
- Musical (Pitch Perfect, Mary Poppins, West Side Story, All That Jazz, Singing in the Rain, Moulin Rouge, Little Shop of Horrors (1986), The King & I, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Rent, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Sweeney Todd, Fiddler on the Roof, Fame, 42nd Street, The Commitments, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, An American in Paris, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Hair, Annie, Grease, Chicago, Into the Woods, Cabaret, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Showboat, My Fair Lady, Kiss Me Kate, A Chorus Line, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Sweet Charity, The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie, Tommy, Jail House Rock, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Oliver! and Hello, Dolly!)
- Historical (event based) or biopic (character based): (Trumbo, The Sound of Music, Patton, Erin Brokovich, Ed Wood, The Elephant Man, Schindler’s List, All The President’s Men, Amadeus, Lincoln, Argo, Hotel Rwanda, The Blind Side, Gandhi, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, Malcolm X, Rudy, Raging Bull, Milk, Selma, Ray, Walk The Line, The Last Emperor, American Splendor, The Coal Miner’s Daughter, Frida, The Aviator, Donnie Brasco, My Left Foot, A Beautiful Mind, The Pianist, The Doors, Serpico, Into the Wild, GoodFellas, Catch Me If You Can, Moneyball, 127 Hours, The Pursuit of Happyness, Casino, The Last King of Scotland, The Insider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Blow, Monster, Sparticus, The Queen, Papillon, Bonnie and Clyde, Awakenings, In the Name of the Father, Boys Don’t Cry, Elizabeth, The Big Short, Ed Wood, The People Versus Larry Flynt, A Dangerous Method, Born on the Fourth of July, Basketball Diaries, Thirteen, Spotlight)
- Romance (The Fault in our Stars, The Notebook, Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Her, When Harry Met Sally, Shakespeare In Love, Love Actually, Pretty Woman, Notting Hill, While You Were Sleeping, Love Story, Working Girl, Annie Hall, Somewhere in Time, Casablanca, From Here to Eternity, Sabrina, Dangerous Liaisons, The Artist, Bridget Jones’ Diary, An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle, Warm Bodies, Love Story, Roman Holiday, The Red Shoes, Sideways, Sense and Sensibility, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Midnight in Paris, Knocked Up, Moonstruck, Brokeback Mountain, Much Ado About Nothing, The Theory of Everything, Crazy Stupid Love, Romeo & Juliet, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Dirty Dancing, Now Voyager, Moonrise Kingdom)
- Disaster (Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, The Hindenburg, Earthquake, Twister, Day After Tomorrow, Dante’s Peak, Volcano, Cloverfield, Day After, War of the Worlds, The Core, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Outbreak, The Omega Man, Avalanche, Daylight, Last Night, Perfect Storm, Deep Impact, The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), The Mist, 2012, The Happening, The Crazies, Daylight, Pompeii, Apollo 13, Godzilla, I Am Legend, World War Z, Independance Day, On The Beach, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Avalanche, The Swarm, Titanic, Alive, Flood, The Core, Mars Attacks!)
- Erotic (Nine and a Half Weeks, Body Heat, Eyes Wide Shut, Secretary, Wild at Heart, The Hunger, The Last Seduction, Fifty Shades of Grey, Lolita, The Piano, Risky Business, Marat/Sade, The Story of O, Putney Swope, Nymphomaniac, Last Tango in Paris, Nine Songs, the Emmanuelle films)
- Road (Thelma and Louise, The Blues Brothers, Y Tu Mamá También, Mad Max: Fury Road, Cannonball Run, Death Race, The Hitcher, Easy Rider, Rain Man, Midnight Run, Paper Moon, Sullivan's Travels, The Sure Thing, Spielberg's early films Duel and The Sugarland Express)
- Sports (Rocky, Hoosiers, The Champ, On the Waterfront, The Hustler, North Dallas Forty, Slap Shot, Any Given Sunday, Wimbledon, Bull Durham, Victory, Raging Bull, The Cutting Edge, Major League, Angels in the Outfield, Field of Dreams, Goon, Miracle, Chariots of Fire, Rudy, Million Dollar Baby, The Endless Summer, Murderball, Rush, Senna, Tin Cup, The Bad News Bears, Brian's Song, Vision Quest, Seabiscuit, National Velvet, The Sandlot, The Fighter, Remember the Titans)
If you’re a writer, whichever genre you select for your story, you should have seen all those movies listed for that genre.
Important things to consider when selecting genre
There's a saying in the industry -- if the story does not require it to be animated due to the vast need of special effects and wild visuals like talking animals and miraculous things... Then it shouldn't be one. Some might say the same thing goes for science fiction, fantasy, supernatural, musical, etc. If the concept, plot, and story do not involve the necessity of those budget-burdensome elements... Why use them? It makes your film harder to produce. Most writers who have written anything set in a previous time period has heard from some producer, "If you had just set this today..." In short, people reject work simply based on the genre and era in which the writer sets it. Don't let that dissuade you. There's a great lesson in this.
Once a writer selects a genre, it's important to infuse that story with constant, visual elements and plot developments that specifically fit that genre in particular. The entire story needs to feel like the genre you selected and be hard to imagine done any other way. The genre should be inseparable from the plot. Gravity must be science fiction because it's about someone stranded in outer space. Pitch Perfect is all about an acappella singing group trying to win a performance competition, so how could it not be a musical? There's no way to tell the story of a boy going to wizard school without Harry Potter being fantasy. This means that picking a genre is the beginning of integrating traditional, cinematic concepts to the hypothesis of the story, your premise.
Selecting the genre has to do with how you plan on telling the story. Let's say you want to tell a story about aging. If it's a science fiction, the plot could focus on characters dealing with new scientific methods of dealing with aging like the film In Time or how older people are disregarded by society, see Logan's Run. If you want to talk about it as an innately supernatural story, consider the concept of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. If it's a drama, the person could be battling Alzheimer's like Still Alice and Away From Her. In a disaster film, the frail body of an elder protagonist should make everything the character has to do in order to survive harder, from outrunning to climbing the cataclysm.
A script should not include or force superfluous things into it just to throw in bits of genre here and there. You do not just throw in a bunch of cool ideas for genre-specific beats and elements that do not relate to the major turning points within the plot. The key is to nestle the premise so deep within the genre that they become inseparable. It's part of the blueprint for the story, where everything in it should be a necessity of telling that specific story.
Now, genres even have subgenres. Here are a few examples of subgenre:
- Broadway, concert, dance, Bollywood, or rock musicals
- Tragedy, art house, courtroom, prison, malody, and social justice dramas
- Gothic, splatter, slasher, and monster horror
- Slapstick, satire, parody, sex, screwball, or black comedies
- Psychological, revenge, or political thrillers
- Detective, gangster and heist crime films
- Swashbuckling or globe trotting adventures
- Sword-and-sandal, POW, Civil War, Vietnam, WWII war movies
- Sword-and-sorcery, fairy tale, magical realism fantasy
- Chase, superhero, vigilante, or martial arts action films
- Adolescent, teen, or college coming-of-age stories
Subgenres narrow the framework of the story for more direct targeting, giving the script a hook on which to market the film. Some subgenres can slip into more than one genre, like spy thriller, action or comedy films, buddy comedy, action or (b)romance, noir crime, thriller or mystery. It's the details within the details.
The more clearly defined the story is, the clearer the picture of what you hope to write becomes. This is a large part of unfogging the mist within the crystal ball so that the writer can get a clear view of the future story. Once you select a genre, this informs how your script should be consistently written in tone and mood. It pilots the script into the world in which the writer will set his or her story.
PICK YOUR GENRE
Before deciding which genre you want to use for your story, start asking yourself how would you tell your premise in each genre. How would it be interpreted in an action versus adventure story. Is there someone in history that made you feel the way you do about the hypothesis you have made and would that person be well known enough to prove a worthy topic of a biopic? What war or sport would you set it in and why? Can the hypothesis work as a mystery, thriller, or crime film? How would a fantasy, supernatural and science fiction version of that premise be explored, each in a unique way? Play with it. Considering where and when would be the best place to set that premise might lead you toward one genre or another. You may find yourself with more than one viable way to tell the story. Then you get to do the very best part of the writer's job, and that is keep the best and cut the rest. Just because you pick one genre now doesn't mean you can't tell this premise again in a totally different genre at another time.
After exploring your options, which way of making the point you want to make gets you 1) thinking most visually about how the genre serves your statement, and 2) it's the genre that gets you the most excited to write, regardless of the specific visuals that come with your premise. Use those two qualifiers to narrow down that decision.
Pick a genre for each premise that:
- Is a genre you know well enough to honor that style and reproduce that mood throughout the script.
- Would be a very cool way to approach your core statements.
- Helps prove your premise and does so in a unique way.
- Qualifies as the type of scripts you would be interested writing in the future.
This brings me to an important classification of writers. Some scribes are thematic writers, while others are what I call genre writers. Thematic writers hop around from genre to genre, and the thing that gets those writers going is what they want to say to the world with their core premise. Others aren't tied to a specific message or personal truth at all. They are storytellers of a specific genre, and they can say anything within it.
The writers that get the most work establish themselves as an expert in a single genre. Having a specialty helps sell the writer to buyers on specific projects. So, if there is a specific genre you love and want to develop a name for yourself in, start doing so now. Again, it's not enough to be a fan of that genre; the genre writer needs to become an expert in it. They would have seen every movie listed above next to their main genre. Young writers should give serious thought to a specialty. You don't want your ears, nose and throat doctor in charge of your open-heart surgery, would you? It's the same concept. Having a specialty of genre works in all mediums, not just film. So, if that's how you work, this step in the process was easy as hell; the genre is chosen.
We work in a visual medium, and, therefore, the best and most cinematic ideas stem from the pictures in our heads. For each genre I write in, I brainstorm a laundry list of specific, physical visuals, including: images, items, props, sets, actions, situations, scenes, tense moments, and characters that come to mind when you think of the genre. When I write a screenplay, I try to assemble hundreds of visual ideas (little nuggets of inspiration) before I start using it to plot my film. Think of the kinds of locations and settings that cinematically fit a genre, like vineyards and long walks on tropical beaches... Tahiti, Paris, Prague, Martha's Vineyard, Kyoto, Dubrovnik, Quebec, Bruges, the Swiss Alps, Venice or Tuscany. I picture the world and put my head in it. It's the beginning part of the process we call, "World building."
You will notice that the world in which any story is set has a heightened level of stakes. There are only two things the world can agree are worth truly fighting for, which is why those are the two stakes films focus on 99.9% of the time; they are death and love. This explains from whence the cliché of films being all about sex and violence originates. So, when visualizing the world, remember to consider all the different ways in which love and death make sense within the genre.
Even the traditional lower budget dramas listed are set behind the closed doors of: the Mafia, prison, military life, world politics, bikers, Wall Street, insane asylums, war zones, internment camps, the ghetto, and criminal trials... The violence is palpable; the stakes are exceptionally high. Measures taken are extreme. It's very hard to sell screenplays (and movies as whole) to anyone without such palpable conflict at the center of it. People don't often pay to see a movie about everyday life. If they wanted that, they'd save their money and stay home. So, I explore the extremes. Movies are exceptional stories about characters in exceptional circumstances. The worlds and situations of these films only get more visual, wild, daunting and cinematic for characters in other genres. For example, here is the start of a list for Science Fiction:
- Outer space
- Inner space
- Space station
- Space travel
- Alien ambassadors
- Alien rulers
- More highly evolved species
- Stuck in an airlock
- Jettisoning into space
- Punctured space suit
- Planetary domination
- Broken Moons
- Vast emptiness
- Buzz Armstrong
- Space cowboy
- Space janitor
- Space pilot
- Space mechanic
- Interplanetary cruise ship
- Light speed
- Black holes
- The link between time and space
- Stranded or marooned
- Dead planet
- People cannot breathe in space
- Sun kills all
- Dimensional travel
- Time travel
- Rift on space
- Endlessly adrift in space
- Space collision
- A tear in time
- Space tides
- Space surfing
- Space invaders
- Beings from other worlds
- Judgment of our history
- Those who put man on Earth
- Sun burns out
- A cure turned plague
- Losing gravity
- Running out of oxygen
- Losing oxygen tanks
- Oxygen poisoning
- The chill in deep space
- Buzz Aldrin
- Worlds that no human has ever seen or been
- Reversing physics
- Use of polarity and magnetic fields in space
- Naturally occurring phenomena
- Hull breach
- Generic manipulation
- Genetic enhancements
- Genetic mutation
- Gene theft
- Genetic cloning
- Miracle cures
- Artificial intelligence
- Amazing technology
- Flying cars
- Hover trams
- Rocket packs
- Bio weapons
- Manufactured utopia
- Programs designed to love us
- Technology comes between humans and connectivity
- Bringing back people from the dead using their DNA
- Bringing back lost species and plants
- Harvesting organic foods inside enormous genetic plant generators
- Toxic sun rays
- Cities in space
- Cities under the surface of the earth
- Colonies on other planets or celestial bodies
- Never seeing the sky
- Atomic fusion gone wrong
- Fertility lost
- Space capsule
- Something gets into the ship from outside it
- Being locked outside of your own ship
- Dwarf stars
- Burnt out stars
- Ever-expanding, universe-consuming stars
- Constellations and what makes them hold still
- Galactic road trip
- Infinite space
- Hibernation storage of an alien world life-forms unrealized until it's on Earth
- Treaties and trade with alien species
- The end of civilization
- M-class planets
- Discovering what is at the center of the sun
- Mankind uses technology to create its own destroyer...
The list will keep going and going...
These visuals stem from the subconscious part of genre. I'll come up with a pretty cool idea every now and then, but I don't stop when I do. I just keep expanding. It's a list hundreds of visuals long for different genres. I work off of it because it helps me picture the mood. Pages of images and ideas for each genre that I never throw away or diminish. I will build upon the list my entire life.
Brainstorm of the genre(s) you select for your premise. Each genre listed above should have its own list, even if they are describing the same concepts and conceits. There may be some overlap in your lists; there are no rules limiting you. The contradictory irony of writing is that it's about breaking down the walls within each framework, expanding the outer walls into new ideas. So, the best writers are breaking new ground while keeping the superstructure of genre intact.
If you intend on making one genre your specialty as a writer, you will eventually have a master list of hundreds, maybe thousands of visuals. I've never counted mine. The more, the better. This is a list from which you can begin to manufacture a script's potential conflicts, situations and characters. 120-150 per genre is a great start for fueling ideas. It gives the writer hints and ideas for characters, scenes, locations, actions, stakes... It paints a vivid, visual picture from which a writer may draw from like a well. I would keep such a genre list as a file on your computer and add to it throughout your life as a writer.
The list should not include things that are specific to a preexisting franchise or intellectual property. For example, Darth Vader, the Death Star and Jedi Knights are not on my list. Instead, let such ideas inspire you to come up with something original. Create ideas for your own supernatural-infused aliens, space stations, and alien samurai telekinetic empaths. Okay, that last one is a little too close to Star Wars, but you get what I'm saying.
Genre-based, visualization brainstorming lists contain actual, tangible visuals a person can see and see happen. Vivid pictures specific to the mood, tone, location and the highest possible stakes. This is how you tell visual-medium-based stories... Through physical actions and images. If you have an idea that's not visual, ask yourself what might be the most dynamic way to see that thing in your head. Unpack the concept into situations, characters, scenes, objects, imagery, and actions. Nobody else ever looks at this list. There are no bad ideas, only steppingstones to good ones. It should not simply be a list of objects.
Mix in your list of premise-brainstormed situations with these genre visuals and see what wild concepts and ideas spawn from it. To help assess the story, I like to make a brainstorm list with the core premise to help flesh out the potential scenes and situations for and against the story's hypothesis. Then I put the ideas for interactive scenes and best in order of lowest-to-highest stakes so that my script's conflict is always escalating from sequence to sequence.
Have fun fleshing out these ideas. You are breathing life into the kind of story you want to be writing, in a genre of your choosing with a message that says everything you want it to say. Let your creative mind fly free without restrictions of logical censorship. The ideas do not have to fit together yet. You won't use them all in your final script. It's just free-association play. This is stretching out before doing creative gymnastics.
Most importantly, I want to end by saying that this chief of writing tools can be implemented and built upon during any point in the writing process. Genre is used to explore tangible precepts of storytelling. The imagery that stems from its exploration can be used to identify specific characters, tropes, and major obstacles. This list is where writers can go if they ever write themselves into a corner. It can be used to tune up a script rewrite if it feels like it hasn't maximized the manipulative power of its genre in the latest draft. When asked to make script changes, the genre is the hinge guiding you where and when to set revised beats of your story. I return to this list throughout the writing and rewriting process. It's a great, constant exploration tool I go back to if I ever want to reconsider the possibilities of any plot moment in the script. That's why I start thinking about genre so early in the writing process, right after premise, even if I don't have a story yet. Obviously, it's perfectly common to explore genre selection after the story is conceived, but not everyone knows it can work in the other direction. Genre is the one thing that writers use so diversely and constantly that its gifts can be applied at any time in the writing process, from before characters are created to after the script has been rewritten. It's truly the gift that keeps on giving.
In my next article, I will delve into genre gone wrong, exploring the ways in which genre can be used to either ruin the script or its marketability.
Learn to build a strong premise in our upcoming SU course, Basic Premise and Story Development for Screenwriters