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:

ACTION, ADVENTURE, ANIMATION, BIOGRAPHY, COMEDY, CRIME, DRAMA, FAMILY, FANTASY, FILM NOIR, HISTORY, HORROR, MUSICAL, MYSTERY, ROMANCE, SCIFI, SPORT, THRILLER, WAR, WESTERN

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
  5. Genres that don’t: ANIMATION, BIOGRAPHY, CRIME, FANTASY, FILM NOIR, HISTORY, MUSICAL, SCIFI, SPORT, WAR, WESTERN

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.

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