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Screenwriting Basics: Genre

One of the most sweeping and common mistakes I see in about 30% of the scripts I read is confusion of genre. And, by “genre,” I don’t mean “horror.” There are a variety of genres, and each specific genre and genre sub-set has its own conventions. By convention, I am not talking about overall structure. The overall structure (3 acts, act breaks, etc.) remains consistent. Genre convention has more to do with properly establishing and paying off audience expectation.

What I mean by audience expectation is if you open a script with 10 minute fighter plane action sequence, this is an action movie. If you suddenly at page 12 take me into a police department or courtroom, and by page 25 there is no more action, I will be confused and annoyed – because that breaks the action convention. Either the beginning (action) or what follows (thriller) need to be tweaked to properly fit the other. Or, if you are writing action, don’t open with your characters sitting around chatting. Open with a huge action sequence. If you open with chatting and then at page 20 start huge action sequences, the reader will be confused.

It is very important that the genre you establish in act 1 is carried throughout. If you start in one genre and then suddenly change genres at some point later on, it will only confuse the reader.

Some of the genres that have their own very specific conventions include the following:

  • Broad comedy
  • Romantic comedy
  • Dark comedy
  • Horror
  • Action
  • Thrillers
  • Psychological thrillers
  • Paranormal thrillers
  • Political thrillers
  • Drama
  • Family drama
  • Romantic drama
  • * Please note that “Romance” is not a proper filmic genre as it is in publishing. I read a very odd script recently that was a cinematic interpretation of what I thought was probably very close to a romance novel.

    Be Consistent Throughout
    More often than not, where genre is a problem, I see a script that opens with one genre in the first act and then morphs into another genre later on in the script.

    I read a script recently that opened with a 17 page straight horror sequence wherein a group of teens were slaughtered in a really bloody, gruesome attack by a psycho. This clearly sets a script in the realm of “Friday the 13th.” In reading this, my expectation is absolutely clear: I am reading a horror movie, and the psycho will hunt down the young female protagonist and kill everyone along the way, but she will magically survive for one reason and one reason only: it’s the convention of a horror movie. However, with this project, on page 18, the script suddenly morphed into “Law and Order” and it became about the NYPD and the FBI. There was no blood. No guts. No gore. No female protagonist on the run, peeking into dark corners. There was, however, a lot of legalese about jurisdiction.

    Where’s the Protagonist?
    I am a firm believer that the best way to introduce the reader into the protagonist’s world is to follow that protagonist. We should see and experience his/her world as that character does. This way, we have something to grasp onto, something to track. Sometimes the genre confusion is rooted in the fact that the writer doesn’t track the protagonist. The writer is trying to do something fancy that ends up failing and is hopelessly confusing. With the above project, we were tracking the escape of a teen female, but then at page 18 it turned out the protagonist was actually the NYPD guy and not this girl. I suppose the writer thought he was doing a great job with an action-packed opening, however, this opening should have been tracked by and motivated through the protagonist’s perception of these incidents – because that is where the protagonist’s story begins. To write 20% of your script and not have clearly established who the protagonist is, what the genre is, and what type of story world we’re in – that’s a losing combo. Hone the story and get into the meat of the protagonist’s journey as quickly as possible.

    The Love Story is the B Story
    Another fairly common mistake I see is scripts written where the A story – and only story – is some light flirtation that leads to a “girl gets the guy” type of relationship. In stories that work, the love story is never the A story – it’s always the B story. As many American stories represent an interpretation of the hero’s journey, within our cinematic conventions, the romantic journey is the B story. The filmic journey should be that the man or woman falls in love while trying to accomplish the A story objective (i.e., getting the green card, getting the job, keeping the job, winning the competition). If the love story is your A story, it’s likely you haven’t created enough story to float your project. Reading a project where the A story is the love story is like pulling teeth. There just isn’t anything to motivate turning the page.

    Study Genre Conventions
    The best way to learn about genre is to study it and then write it. Choose five to seven films within your specific genre and genre sub-set, watch them, beat them out (do a scene by scene breakdown with the story beat of the scene), and then look carefully at how they’re structured, which elements fall at which breaks, how they layer the stories. This process can be done for any genre, and in fact should be done before you embark upon crafting your beat sheet for your own story.

    The best way to learn about genre and structure is by beating out TV shows – both sitcoms and dramas. If you want to learn how to write a great mystery or thriller, beat out a couple of episodes of “Law and Order” and “CSI.” Study exactly how they build the stories, how they layer in the red herrings, what the story and character arcs are. Then, compare and contrast these with your seven film beat sheets of thrillers, mysteries or legal thrillers, and you will start to get a very good idea of how story is crafted.

    Once you have mastered the basic conventions within a genre, you can play with those conventions (go non-linear, have the guy not get the girl, etc.). However, if you mess around with the standard genre conventions without first having a basic mastery, the reader will primarily be confused (annoyed), and then will assume you didn’t do your homework (and can’t write).

    I will post more information about genre conventions as the blog develops, and go into more detail about each genre, but please pay attention where genre is concerned.

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