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Specs & The City: Mixing Genres and 'Romancing the Stone' (and 'Cowboys and Aliens')

Every reader is looking for a script that exemplifies that oft-quoted phrase, “the same, but different.” And every writer is striving to find a way to achieve it in their next screenplay. There are lots of ways to try and achieve this, but for my money, the method that’s the most fun is mixing genres.

Does your romantic drama feel too familiar? Make it a science-fiction film and set it on the moon.

Have a great gangster story but can’t find that hook? Add a supernatural monster, and you’ve got a horror-gangster yarn.

These kinds of twists on story expectations, when executed properly, can give your script that little something extra it needs to stand out. But what exactly is proper execution? To me, is boils down to four main points:

  • Respect the key aspects of each genre you’re mixing in your script (if you don’t like westerns, don’t try to mix it in just for the sake of doing something different);
  • Incorporate each genre into the story in a manner that allows them to complement one another rather than butting heads;
  • Deliver what you promise; and
  • Don’t feel pressured to give each genre equal time in your script.

These guidelines may seem simple enough, but it’s really quite difficult to pull off. To bring home the point, let’s take a look at two films; one that mixed genres to create a highly enjoyable (and successful) film, and one that…well…not so much.

Mixing Genres, ‘Romancing the Stone’, and ‘Cowboys and Aliens’

Romancing the Ston

Romancing the Stone

Romancing the Stone (Diane Thomas) tells the story of Joan Charles, successful romance novelist, who finds herself embroiled in a real-life adventure filled with the tropes of the novels she’s always writing. It mainly mixes action and comedy, and though it pokes fun at romance films, there’s nothing mean about it. It does what it does in an affectionate manner that shows an appreciation for the genre.

Do Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford even know HOW to smile?

Do Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford even know HOW to smile?

And then there’s Cowboys and Aliens (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof). Critics panned it and (even worse) audiences just didn’t care; they couldn’t connect with the story, and the reasons are pretty straightforward. The problems start with the title (we could do a whole other column on the importance of a good title for your script). – Cowboys and Aliens sounds vaguely silly. It’s sounds like a film that should be fun, and one that should have some sort of comedic aspect to it, but the story they decided to tell is a grim one that takes itself very seriously. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what the title, and the premise, seems to promise.

Once you get into the script itself, the genre problem compounds itself. Rather than being a mixture of sci-fi and western elements, it leans heavily to the sci-fi side. The western aspect was lip service only, and the same story could have easily been told in a straight sci-fi setting. In other words, they didn’t deliver on their promise (of a two-genre films) on anything more than a superficial level, and in doing so, didn’t show respect for their own premise. The final product felt like it had been meshed together for no reason, and it’s never a good thing to make your audience feel like they’ve been tricked.

So the next time you’re looking for a way to reach that “same but different” bar with your script, think about mixing genres. And the next time you think about mixing genres, make sure you’re doing it for the right reason – for story reasons.

Until next time, keep writing.

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