Simplifying genre

In improv/sketch, the “game of the scene” can be loosely defined as the part of the scene that makes things funny. For all the difficulties and abstractions in comedic improv, the genre is iron-clad. Comedic improv can do many things, but overall, it attempts to make the audience laugh.

Comedy is only one of many genres. IMDB breaks down movie genres into these 20 categories:


Let’s say there was a bigger improv market, and a bigger audience for improv work in all genres. The game of a dramatic improv scene would be “that which makes the drama.” The game in a horror movie would be “that which makes the horror.” Romance game would be “that which makes the romance.” This works for those examples, but less so with Western, Scifi and Fantasy.

Given that we don’t always want to be writing comedy, here’s a way to simplify and streamline genre.

Here are a few assumptions:

  1. The main role of scenes, screenplays (and narrative in general) is to create some kind of emotion in the audience.
  2. We want to be specific in terms of the effect. A movie like THE ROOM can create gales of laughter in the audience, but it wasn’t trying to be funny so its success is debateable.
  3. The genre of a movie is a shorthand suggesting the kind of emotional experience an audience will have when watching it. For the purposes of this lesson, we’re going to split genre into two categories:
  4. Genres that suggest the emotional effect they create in an audience: ACTION, ADVENTURE, COMEDY, DRAMA, FAMILY, HORROR, MYSTERY, ROMANCE, THRILLER

Category one is pretty simple. Action creates visceral spectacle, adventure takes us on a journey, comedy makes us laugh, drama illustrates human nature, family reassures, horror scares, mystery puzzles, romance is romantic, thrillers thrill.

Category 2 is more complicated. Animation and musical are styles of storytelling. You can achieve any of other genres through them, but musicals use music and animation uses animation.

CATEGORY ONE suggest how the story will make the audience feel. CATEGORY TWO suggests the specifics or means of how you’re going to accomplish category one.

Again: Category 1 = What you want the audience to feel. Category 2 suggests how.

Another way to look at it: Premise suggests the means by which entertainment will be generated, genre suggests the kind of entertainment that will be generated.

Few writers work work consistently in all genres, just as few athletes go pro in multiple sports. There are complicated rules and nuance to each. Like many things in life, genre is simplified by intent. When writing a movie, ask yourself how you want the audience to feel in experiencing it. When writing a scene, ask the same question. Genre isn’t a straight jacket, it’s a tool. There are funny scenes in some horror movies, romantic scenes in some action, etc. But always understand what you’re trying to convey first, then you can go about trying to convey it.

This post is a distillation of of this earlier post.

The Four Basic Elements of Screenwriting

There are four basic elements in screenwriting. You can use them to achieve any story.

[1] Scene Headings
[2] Scene description/Action
[3] Character attribution
[4] Dialogue

4 Elements

[5] Transitions
[6] Parenthetical
[7] SFX, VFX, etc. (you really don’t need to use these)
[8] Author’s note (again, use sparingly.

More elements

You don’t really need transitions, but they’re nice to have now and then. You can insert lots of stuff into a script, but in point of fact, you could accomplish any storytelling effect with the main four.

Some will argue that a screenplay doesn’t necessarily need dialogue, dialogue attribution or even characters. Someone might argue that you could theoretically convey everything you need to convey in a screenplay with all dialogue and no action (I have actually read a script like that). While these arguments might technically be right, I hope you’ll join me in ignoring them.

So there are four main elements in screenwriting and these “primatives” can be used to accomplish anything in the art form. And it’s easy, too. The .jpg examples cited here are inarguably a screenplay. They have all the parts, and it’s formatted correctly (for a short, anyway).

And yet, it’s a terrible screenplay. It’s boring, nothing happens, and it’s not fun to read. And that’s the fun/horror of screenwriting. The form takes a minute to learn, a lifetime to master. It’s all about doing the basics of screenwriting, but using them to create a story that another person might find entertaining.

But how do we do this? Good question. Read on.

Writing is a lot like cooking. Good writing is entertaining. Good food is delicious. Taste is subjective, but not that subjective.

People often ask a version of, “What’s more important, plot or character?” It’s an understandable question, but like all dichotomies , the answer is a little of both. Both plot and character are means to an overall end – one of entertainment. A script can be intricately plotted, a character can be psychologically real, but if it’s boring, who cares?

I like to ask this question: Okay, I get your premise, but what’s entertaining here? Why would someone pay 14 dollars to see this in the theater? How are you going to make people happy with this?

Sidenote – genre provides a clue to how an idea might be entertaining.

If people don’t have a good answer for that it’s a big red flag. Analogously:

CHEF: Which is more important? Prep or cooking? 
ME: How's the food taste?
CHEF: Oh, I don't care about that.

Actually, writing and cooking have a lot in common. They’re both highly technical art forms that work to a subjective effect. Writing works to make people entertained, cooking works to make people satiated.

Mediocre writing is better than nothing. Mediocre cooking staves off death. But great cooking and great writing transforms, transports, takes us to different places.

Both writing and cooking are more about technique than recipe. When a good chef finds a great piece of halibut, he’s not going to go to and look up the ten best fish recipes. He’s going to think about techniques he wants to use. He might braise, butter poach, steam or sous vide.

Writing is the same way way. People rag on screenwriting books but they miss the nuances. Most screenwriting books supply a recipe. Recipes are boring if slavishly followed. It’s incumbent upon writers to hack the recipe, to find their own techniques to adapt what works.

Writing and cooking are both subjective. There’s no clearcut “best.” That said, people have subjective tastes but it’s not completely random. There’s very little market for balut, haggis, or pickled eggs in American culture, but we do seem to like beef, pork and chicken. It’s the same with writing. We generally know what works, we can make departures from that, but if you’re making an insane departure, you’re cooking a meal that few will want to eat.

So writing is like cooking.  So what? I like this as a thought experiment because it reminds me of what we’re doing. We’re using techniques and skills to communicate an experience to people. Food should be delicious. Writing should be entertaining. If you can’t directly point to what’s entertaining about a sequence and why it belongs on your metaphorical menu, you’ve got more development to do.