What is genre?

Dreams and night­mares are the emotional baselines for storytelling in the genre approach”.

Cooper and Dancyger, Altern­ative Scriptwriting

A genre film belongs to a partic­ular group of films that are similar in their subject matter, them­atic concerns, char­ac­ter­isa­tions, plot formulas and visual settings. Genre then is a term loosely used to describe a method of clas­si­fic­a­tion. Most films have some connec­tion with an existing genre. The main ingredi­ents of a genre are:

Formula: a plot based around a familiar conflict. What happens in a strongly generic film is often predict­able; we don’t so much get surprises as small doses of suspense as the plot works itself out.

Conven­tions: the way in which a formula plot is trans­lated into specific visu­al­ised units of action within a partic­ular genre (ie. a gunfight in a western, a love duet in a musical)

Icon­o­graphy: a short-hand use of visual symbols or icons that instantly commu­nicate meaning to an audi­ence familiar with the genre (ie. cruci­fixes and penta­grams in horror films.)

Genre is a complex subject and the methods of categor­isa­tion have become highly refined as the film industry has developed. As well as instantly recog­nis­able genres like the war film, the thriller and the love story, a host of other categories have developed:

A Sub-Genre describes a specific vari­ation on a well known genre; for example, the Spaghetti Western; which has estab­lished its own set of sub-conventions

A Cross-Genre film combines two different genres to create an original combin­a­tion. (“Star Trek” was once provi­sion­ally entitled “Wagon Train to the Stars”.)

Genre conven­tions may also be subverted for comic effect to create a spoof like “Blazing Saddles”, “Scream” and “Airport”.


Why is genre useful?

The exist­ence and popularity of genres under­lines an important prin­ciple of screen­writing: audi­ence appeal.

What is an audi­ence hoping for when they go to see a film? Some­thing familiar, a point of refer­ence with their own lives that connects them to the action, combined with some­thing unfa­miliar; a unique or surprising insight on their world. It is the balance between these two that makes a successful film; not just in terms of novelty or enter­tain­ment value but also power and truthfulness.

I asked myself — why is the first work of a writer or a screen­writer, or of a play­wright almost always a success? Because he still belongs to an audi­ence. The more he goes away from the audi­ence, the more he loses contact, and what I tried to do my whole life long was I tried not to lose contact with the audience.”

Fritz Lang

Accept that your film idea, however original, belongs to a genre or a sub-genre of some kind and exploit the fact if you can. The expect­a­tions that an audi­ence will bring to your film should be a resource rather than a handicap.

Strategies for using genre

Shakespeare is considered a genius capable of the most profound contem­pla­tion of the human condi­tion but he took care also to be a popu­list writer. Hamlet is a murder mystery, Othello a revenge story, Macbeth and Titus Andronicus both have strong scenes of horror and viol­ence. Shakespeare wrote rom-coms, farces and histor­ical pot-boilers.

Take another look at that great idea you have for an epic drama about bird­watchers or that love story you’re plan­ning to write about two Samar­itans volun­teers who are agoraphobics.

Is there a way of turning it into a detective thriller? A science fiction fantasy perhaps?  Or what would happen if you switched the setting to the old west, or made it happen a hundred years ago?

A lot of genre films are serious films in disguise.

They may have some quite deep and mean­ingful things to say  – like Shakespeare’s Hamlet – but the writer has been canny enough to parcel them up in a story with the recog­nis­able attrib­utes of a genre that the audi­ence likes.

More to the point, by doing so, the writer has made the job of telling his or her story much easier for themselves.

Genre films are not only more fun to write, they are also a hell of a lot easier to sell!


Keep It Simple, Stupid

David Mamet’s acronym K.I.S.S. should be taken liter­ally here. If your story idea is in any way ethereal in its themes; if it’s intro­spective and involves lost love or exist­en­tial angst or personal growth; then a good rule of thumb is to build your story on top of a strong source of conflict.

A lot of the stuff that we writers want to write about comes from our personal history, and it would be strange if it didn’t. The creative urge is very much tied up in our emotions, the things that have happened to us which were of signi­fic­ance and maybe changed us as indi­viduals. It’s important to remember though that these may not be intrins­ic­ally inter­esting in them­selves or suit­able for dram­at­isa­tion in their raw form.

Often it’s better to find a distance, to find a vehicle or a form for all this raw emotion that’s been to some extent ‘stress tested’ by popular culture. This is where Genre is not only your friend – it makes basic common sense.

Choose a premise that is simple, even brutally simple, and instantly compre­hens­ible to even the stupidest member of your audi­ence: a murder, a court case, a kidnap­ping, a robbery – anything that gener­ates conflict that can be resolved by a concrete outcome that will satisfy the audience’s itch for resolution.

Use this core conflict as a found­a­tion for your fine ideas and it will give you a wonderful sense of security.  Shakespeare’s plays deal with complex philo­soph­ical and moral dilemmas but they often have a very simple premise at their heart:

Should a son avenge the murder of his father?
What is the price for killing a king?
Is a faithful wife not as faithful as she seems?

Fight Club 1999 is a good example; a film that starts off as a ‘therapy story’ but goes on to be about the most basic and visceral form of conflict there is.

Outside the box

Genre has almost destroyed cinema. The audi­ence is bored. It can predict the exhausted UCLA film-school formulae – acts, arcs and personal jour­neys – from the moment that they start cranking. It’s angry and insulted by being offered so much Jung-for-Beginners, cour­tesy of Joseph Camp­bell. All great work is now outside genre”

David Hare

Being aware of a Genre doesn’t mean that you have to stick to its conven­tions; on the contrary, it can enable you to get away from them. Often that is neces­sary to find your own voice – or a different way of telling a story.

Writing against a Genre can give you the oppor­tunity to use these conven­tions as a stra­tegic method of leverage to get an audi­ence to accept a fresh idea. This is well explained in Cooper & Dancyger’s great book on altern­ative approaches to scriptwriting.

Further reading

In Rush and Dancyger’s Altern­ative Scriptwriting 2006 there is a valu­able chapter on writing against genres.

Genre and the zeitgeist

robovampBecause Genre is some­thing that is constantly adapting and responding to changes in society and culture, it can reflect the preoc­cu­pa­tions, fears and obses­sions of the public imagin­a­tion. Genres come in, and go out, of fashion according to shifts in conscious­ness, to world events, and other factors that are even harder to pin down.

It is useful to be aware of these trends.  Genres that are currently in vogue will always be sexier and more sale­able in the marketplace.

At the time of writing this, for example, there has been a spate of Amer­ican tv series based on fairy stories (Grimm, Once Upon A Time, Lost Girl). Why has this partic­ular genre captured the public’s imagin­a­tion at this time? It’s an inter­esting ques­tion and by no means coincidental.

Again, take a look at your project, and ask if there is some way that you can forge a connec­tion of this type without distorting the original idea. Often genre is one way of achieving this.

© David Clough 1995

Buffy The Vampire Slayer 1997

Joss Whedon’s declared ambi­tion when he wrote this tv series was to delib­er­ately subvert the conven­tions of the vampire genre. His heroine, for example, is the pretty blonde who is usually the first to become a victim. In this opening sequence of the first episode in the series, we have a great example of Whedon exploiting the audi­ence expect­a­tions. It sets the tone for most of what follows.

Buffy was hugely successful not only because of its ingredi­ents (martial arts, teen-angst and the super­nat­ural) but because it decon­structed the genre affec­tion­ately and with a great sense of humour; never patron­ising its audience.

(Expand clip to full size by clicking on the icon bottom right)

The Black and Blue Lamp 1988

This original tv play by Arthur Ellis uses two contrasting examples of the same genre, a police drama, for dramatic effect. The contrast between mono­chrome (black and white) and colour is clev­erly employed here as an alleg­or­ical device many years before the idea recurred in films like Pleas­antville.

It begins by picking up from the end of a classic British film The Blue Lamp (1950), star­ring Dirk Bogarde, which first featured the archetypal ‘British Bobby” char­acter PC Dixon, played by Jack Warner, who was later to have his own tv series: Dixon of Dock Green. In the film, Dirk Bogarde shoots PC Dixon dead but is later captured by the Police. (The Black and Blue Lamp begins as The Blue Lamp ends, with Bogarde’s character’s arrest).


The same again … but different

In this recent inter­view, Michael Rosen, the current British Poet Laur­eate for Chil­dren, talks about the need chil­dren have to hear the same story read to them repeatedly; and, in the process, nails many of the traits that attract adults to a genre.

It may be that childish pleasure we took in tracing a familiar storyline through to its not-unexpected ending is some­thing that we never quite lose.

Inter­viewer: Why do kids like to hear the same book again and again (and again!)?

ROSEN: I think it’s about two things: mastery and danger. We forget that books are a complex system of words. signs and images. The system needs to be learned to extract pleasure from it. Chil­dren very quickly get to the point where books are pleas­ur­able if they’re full of interest and drama and emotion and fun.

However, that doesn’t mean that they ‘get’ the whole system straight­away. There are hundreds of different bits of the process that they are putting together: the flow, the sequen­cing, the fact that it’s the same every time.

Along­side this, most stories involve some kind of risk, chal­lenge, test or danger. Even the most simple of stories. So, the child will want to know whether he or she, in the company of the leading char­acter in the story, will get through it.

The first time it’s an abso­lute mystery whether the char­acter will get through. The second time it’s less of a mystery but a great comfort that the char­acter does it again. Each time, that drama is played out in a slightly different way: “I know that the mouse will trick the Gruf­falo … but what if it fails this time?” or “I love it when the mouse tricks the Gruf­falo because I’m scared of the Gruf­falo and I wish I could be as clever as the mouse” – and so on.

Then, when the child knows and learns the story, he or she has in a way, mastered the Gruf­falo! That is incred­ibly satis­fying for a child

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