The fundamentals of Genre and Genre Plots
Storytelling is genre driven and each genre has demands that must be understood and met… Since there are certain requirements that studio readers and audience members consciously and subconsciously expect to be met, the greater the chance you have of making a sale.
Richard Krevolin, Screenwriting from the Soul
While scholars dispute definitions and systems, the audience is already a genre expert. It enters each film armed with a complex set of anticipations learned through a lifetime of moviegoing. The genre sophistication of filmgoers presents the writer with the critical challenge: He must not only fulfill audience anticipation, or risk their confusion and disappointment, but he must lead their expectations to fresh, unexpected moments, or risk boring them.
Innovative writers are not only contemporary, they are visionary. They have their ear to the wall of history, and as things change, they can sense the way society is leaning towards the future. They can produce works that break convention and take the genre into the next generation.
Robert McKee, Story
Genre is word that often creeps into writing and can be easily misunderstood or misread. Genre is simply the category you choose to write, or the sort of film you will be able to write. This can be a drama, romance, action-adventure, science fiction, comedy, horror, musical, documentary, etc.
You have to be familiar with other films that relate to, or are similar to, the screenplay you want to write.
Each genre imposes certain conventions on the screenplay. The choice of genre sharply determines and limits what’s possible within a story.
There will be:
- Conventional settings: In the crime genre the setting of the murder will have its particular characteristics.
- Conventional events: In the crime genre there must be a crime.
- Conventional roles: In the crime genre there will be a detective character that discovers clues and suspects; in the horror film the character is the victim; the main character in the action film or Western is often the hero.
Genre is a type of story that has a visceral appeal to its audience.
In terms of understanding genres and using dramatic components in writing genres, there are common features of genres.
- The nature of the protagonist: The main character and the character’s goal are the primary focus of the story in any genre. While the main character in the Western is heroic and tends to be romanticised and the main character in the horror film is a victim, the main characters in war films tend to be far more realistic. In the musical, main characters tend to be presented energetically, while in film noir they are typically constricted and desperate. The qualities of the main character within a particular genre tend to be consistent, which makes the shorthand dimensions of that character readily available to the writer.
- The nature of the antagonist: The importance of the antagonist is constant throughout genres, but the nature of the antagonist depends on the level of realism associated within particular genres. Where the presentation of the main character exclusive of realism is heroic (the Adventure film of the Western), the antagonist becomes more evil, more powerful, and sometimes more than human. When the genre is nightmarish (the Horror genre or Film Noir), the antagonist is equally extreme. Only in the realistic genres (War films, melodrama, gangster films) does the antagonist take on more human rather than superhuman qualities. In these genres, the goal of the main character is more understandable, more realistic; consequently, the antagonist, although still important, takes on a more human dimension.
- The shape of the dramatic action: Gangster stories tend to be shaped around the rise and fall of a gangster; crime and police stories are shaped around the perpetration of a crime, its investigation, and its successful resolution. All genre films have a very particular dramatic shape. And all begin with the expected opening: a soldier is inducted into the army to fight in a foreign war; a cowboy dreams of acquiring land and a cattle herd; a poor boy from the Midwest wants to improve his life in the industrial Northeast. In the course of the dramatic action, we will find out if the soldier survives, what personal sacrifices is necessary for the cowboy to improve himself, and what transgressions are necessary for the young Midwesterner to get ahead. In each case, the fate of the character will differ in accordance with genre conventions, and in each case, the characters’ attempts to fulfil their goals will dictate the shape of the dramatic action.
- Catalytic event: Stolen cattle, a friend’s death, the end of the Civil War, and Indian raid – all are catalytic events in different Westerns. Each propels the main character to find and resolve the consequences of the flow of action resulting from the catalytic event. Every genre has its own kind of catalytic event: a crime is the catalytic event of the police story; in a horror film, a young family moves into a reputedly haunted house.. The catalytic event should occur quickly or the dramatic vitality of the genre is dissipated. The audience expects a quick start.
- The Resolution: Dramatic action leads to the resolution. But not every genre leads us to the same kind of resolution. Although the fate of our Midwesterner in the melodrama tends towards the tragic, this is not the case in the classic Western or in the War film. In the Western, although the main character pays a price for his ambition, he does tend to succeed and become a hero in the effort. That effort requires a ritualised demonstration of heroism – the climactic gunfight. In the war film, although there is a climactic battle, the character’s fate is not determined by his individual actions, but by the superior forces of the protagonist’s side; the resolution may come through superior air power, or through a simple, arbitrary act that allows the character to survive the battle. Whatever the reason, resolution does not come from the individual action of the main character; consequently, the sense of the main character as the hero is less apparent than in the Western, where individual action is central to the resolution.
- Narrative Style: Every genre has a particular narrative style that the audience expects and enjoys. Westerns, for example, tend to be punctuated by gunfights, deployment of weaponry, expertise in horsemanship, and survival skills in what is essentially a rural, primitive wilderness. Violence and violent resolution to conflict characterise the genre. This is not the case in the melodrama, where relationships, their evolution and their outcome are central, although there may be a tragic outcome in melodrama, the violence is emotional rather than physical.
- Narrative shape: Different genres exhibit different shapes. Time is critical in action, adventure and thriller films; it is far less important in the situation comedy and the war film. The primary consideration here is the level of intensity the genre requires to be in tune with the goals of the main character. In film noir, the main character is desperate, trying to survive his tragic fate. In the adventure film, the level of threat to the main character has to be constant so that the audience stays interested in the plot. In the Western and the situation comedy, the relationship with the main character is relatively more relaxed; thus, the narrative shape is also more relaxed.
- Tone: Tone can range from the fantastic in the adventure film and the musical, to the realistic in the war film and the melodrama. Tone also ranges from the ironic in the screwball comedy and the satire, to the engrossing in the thriller and the horror film.
* For the full list of Genres and Genre Plots, sign up for our Write Journey course and find out what genre will showcase your story best.
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