On Genre

We screenwrite to produce spec scripts that communicate our talent to a decision-maker who will then pay us to write. To this end, your spec script should be familiar. Familiar means in a recognizable genre. We know genres – if a comedy makes us laugh it works. If a horror movie scares us, it works.

Genres work because they’re familiar, we have the tools to analyze them. But if you say “My script is an experimental piece, very stream of consciousness, a mix of Truffaut and Malick,” I have no way of knowing if you succeeded. The pile of papers you hand me might be brilliant, or it might be a pretentious pile of crap. Lacking a genre, I lack the tools to confidently make that decision, so I’ll cover my ass and I’ll recommend the competent comedy over the potentially brilliant new thing. And that’s the opinion of me, a relatively literate, neurotic writer. The average reader in the studio system is far less kind than I.

Genre can get fairly subjective, so I’m going to cite IMDB: there are 26 genres.

Action Adventure Animation Biography
Comedy Crime Documentary Drama
Family Fantasy Film-Noir Game-Show
History Horror Music Musical
Mystery News Reality-TV Romance
Scifi Sport Talk-Show Thriller
War Western

Six of these aren’t useful to narrative screenwriting, the rest merit further discussion. Again, this is my subjective take, if you have a different opinion, there’s plenty of room for us both to be right. Additionally, please don’t cite Blake Snyder’s theory of 10 genres. Those will apply when Variety announces that Universal just bought a new “Dude with a Problem” script.

History, Fantasy, Scifi, & Western aren’t genres, they’re settings. There’s no such thing as a pure scifi movie – there are scifi dramas, scifi comedies, scifi horror.    Harry Potter and Pan’s Labyrinth are both technically fantasy, but they’re very different.  History pertains to setting, history movies always have a second genre.  Animation is a style generally associated with family entertainment, but as Millenium Actress, Waking Life, and tentacle hentai prove, animation isn’t exclusive to family and can contain any genre.

My thoughts on the remaining genres.
1. Action – if the script is basically action setpieces with connective tissue in between, you’ve got an action.
2. Adventure - incredibly poorly defined, but let’s pretend it’s a viable genre.
3. Biography -Biopics work by taking the highlight moments of a person’s life then assigning a simple Freudian excuse for that behavior. Any historical figure interesting enough to merit a biopic is going to be way more complex and nuanced then their movie makes them seem.
4. Comedy - subgenres include rom-coms, buddy comedies, and unlikely sports comedies.  Please, no more unlikely sports comedies.
5. Crime - includes heist flicks, mob stories, and con artist stories
6. Drama - the section of the video store that lazy video store clerks used as a catchall.  Includes tragedies, coming-of-age tales, etc.  The problem with drama is if you say you’re writing one, I don’t get an idea of what that movie looks like unless you throw in a bunch more adjectives.
7. Family more of a rating than a genre – there are family comedies, family dramas, etc.
8. Film-Noir - also kind of a setting, but I lack the dramaturgical knowledge to argue against it.  Influential in the history of cinema, but there’s a dearth of recent film noir hits.  Pro-tip: Resist your urge to go full-noir, rather steal the best elements of the style and use them in a more viable genre.
9. Horror - always a safe bet.  Like comedy, you know when it’s working.
10. Musical - please don’t write a musical as a first spec.
11. Mystery -  you hear about horror stars and comedy stars, but not mystery stars.  That said, if a writer turns in a good mystery, it’s a very promising sign of their talent..
12. Romance - most movies include a romantic subplot, but romance movies make the romance the stakes of the story.  Sample dialogue: “Wow, it took the battle of Seattle to bring us together!”  Pro-tip: ask yourself if your romance is like Nicholas Sparks’ work.  If not, make it so.
13. Sports - there are enough sports movie cliches that I’m arguing for its genre-icity.  Any Given Sunday was about pro-athletes making money.  It didn’t do very well.  Most successful sports movies tie sports to a larger social issue.  I’m just saying.
14. Thriller – general rule – in an action movie, both guys have guns, only the bad guy gets one in the thriller.
15. War - often includes a bit of the biopic, the historical epic, prison break, etc…

There are hybrids, of course.  Les Miserables is a drama, historical and a musical.  When Harry Met Sally is a romantic comedy.  Robocop is a scifi action movie.  Lord of the Rings is a fantasy war movie (among many other things).  Still, as a newbie, and as a writer who wants to be easily digested by the cynical reader, your safe bet is to write in a strongly defined genre that’s been reasonably commercially successful in the last two years.

In closing, I strongly suggest you pick a genre.  When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with a solid comedy, action, horror or thriller.

5 comments

  1. This makes a lot of sense. I’d add one observation, though. As far as Adventure, I’d say it actually is a pretty well-attested genre, although perhaps not so much in the last two years.

    It descends from 19th century Victorian adventure novels: people going into Darkest Africa and hacking vines with machetes. There were still places on Earth people from the West hadn’t been, so the imagination of the writer could put anything into the dark spaces on maps. This genre was then deconstructed by Heart of Darkness.

    It was revived in the 30′s with serials like Flash Gordon, and ultimately reconstructed with Indiana Jones. Today, the genre takes place mostly in the future (space) or in a fantasized (steampunk) past, because we don’t have frontiers in the modern world.

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