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.
Same story, different genre
Genre is important in the telling of your story. This narrative decision determines how we experience the story.
EXAMPLE: Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr, Ripley has been filmed twice, in 1962 by Rene Clement and in 2000 by Anthony Minghella. The first version was called Purple Noon; the second appeared as The Talented Mr. Ripley.The two versions are intriguing because they provide very different versions of the same source material.
The story: Tom Ripley is a young man from the wrong side of the tracks. His talent is his ambition and his amorality. His initial assignment was to convince Dick Greenleaf (Philip in the first version), a spoiled, rich young man travelling in Europe, to return home. He fails, falling under the spell of the money and the aesthetic opportunity wealth offers. There are no rules for the rich. Ripley likes that. He kills Greenleaf and assumes his identity. He develops a friendship with his girlfriend. He taps his bank account. Will he be found out? Will he get away with it?
Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) is presented as a thriller with a character layer. It follows the thriller structure: in Act One, Ripley is supposed to encourage Phillip to return home. He admires Phillip, but he is very much a parasite. He tries on his clothes but is caught. He watches Phillip make love to his girlfriend and imagines what it would be like for him. Phillip has a sadistic personality. He torments Tom, eventually putting him in a small boat attached to the larger sailboat. Tom suffers burns and dehydration. The abusiveness ends when Tom kills his idol. The killing marks the end of Act One. The narrative turns to plot. Tom returns to shore and begins to create the illusion that he is Phillip. To the girlfriend he remains an empathetic friend. Will Tom be caught? When a friend shows up who9 can give Tom away, Tom has to kill him. Acts Two and Three follow Tom’s effort to get away with murder and the narrative ends with Tom being caught. The body has washed up on shore. The mystery is solved. The plot dominates.
Talented Mr. Ripley is presented as a melodrama with a plot layer. Minghella makes one element of the earlier narrative more overt – that Ripley’s attraction to Dick Greenleaf is not entirely based on class distinction or on privilege. In this version, Ripley is gay and clearly has a homoerotic attraction to Dick. Act One concerns itself with the melodrama frame of the powerless Ripley wanting power. He is not abused by Dick Greenleaf but rather admires the young man so much that he wants to be at one with him. The killing is more an assertive action of the desire rather than retribution. Consequently, the desire to become Dick Greenleaf is far more a character issue than a plot issue. It is more psychological than material. As a result, it is the relationships that Minghella explores – the girlfriend in the version is very suspicious Ripley, rather than trusting. And in this version, the second killing, is an act of self-defence, a protection from a predator, rather than an act to preserve material well being. Indeed, at each step, murder is an act of self defense. By framing the story as a melodrama, Minghella has told the story as a reaction to being a gay, poor man, marginalised because of his sexual preferences and his economic circumstances. Plot becomes secondary.
Popular Genres (Listed Alphabetically)
This often borrows aspects from other genres such as War or Political Drama to use as motivation for explosive action. Action-adventure encompasses several genres – Westerns, war films, crime and even comedies. The style is associated with non-stop action – dramatic chases, shoot-outs, and explosions – often centred around a hero struggling against terrible odds. The central character, most often male, rather than trying to survive, plays a messianic character whose role is to save either the nation or the world. The central character is thoroughly capable in terms of mastery of the tools and weaponry of salvation. The main character exhibits a playfulness that can be childlike or childish. The challenges to the main character as considerable and numerous – this is a more plot-intensive genre. The antagonist is often imbued with almost superhuman intelligence, strengths, or other powers – whether it be the Joker or the Shark, the more formidable the antagonist, the greater the success of the central character. Humour and self-depreciation are often characteristics of this genre. Relationships are superficial – there is no time for intimate relationships. Ritual and mythology are more important that realism and complexity – the genre readily embraces less realistic actions and modes; farce and technology coexist in this genre. Stereotypes abound in the adventure genre.
Sub genres: High adventure if it incorporates ideas such as destiny, or the spiritual (The Man Who Would Be King) ; Disaster/ survival film if Mother Nature is the source of antagonism (The Day After Tomorrow, Alive, Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, 2012)
What to Watch: The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Seven murai (1954), Top Gun (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987), Mission Impossible (1996/ 2011).
The law of universal metamorphism rules: Anything can become something else. It leans towards cartoon Farce (Bugs Bunny), High Adventure (The Sword in The Stone), Maturation Plots (The Lion King, The Little Mermaid).
Sub-genres: Anime, a form of animation originating from Japan. Anime gained popularity in East and Southeast Asia, before becoming popular throughout the world. This sub-genre can consist of both hand drawn or computer generated animation. These films are usually based on a successful television series or video games. Many fans consider Anime an art form, as it emphasizes stylized visual cues. The influence of Japanese painting and calligraphy can often be throughout these films. Examples: Ponyo, Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky.
Adult Animation: A sub-genre that uses animation to appeal to an older audience. The storyline of the film may be more sophisticated than a traditional animated film. It may be considered an Adult Animated film because of the portrayal of adult topics- such as drugs, sex, and violence. Adult Animation is usually considered cutting edge and risqué. Many of the more famous Adult Animated films are part animated and part live-action. Examples: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters.
Animated Children: It caters to a young and specific age demographic. This sub-genre usually explores a fantastical world with vivid animation. The tone of these films is light and fun, and musical numbers are often incorporated into the plot. The story usually centers on a protagonist who must battle in a “good-over-evil” scenario. Examples: Aladdin, Fern Gully, Beauty and the Beast.
Animated Musical: It incorporates large musical numbers into the narrative. These films usually appeal to children and families. This sub-genre has been dominated by Disney productions, especially with the surge of Animated Disney Musicals in the 1950s and 1990s. Like children’s animation, these stories usually show the battle of good defeating evil with likable protagonists of moral fibre. Examples: Snow White, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast.
Animated Family: A sub-genre that has a large target audience. Many classic Animated Family films incorporate musical numbers to engage younger audiences, but more contemporary Animated Family films have developed a dual sided form of humor – appealing to children and adults. Examples: Toy Story, Despicable Me, Cars.
The Difference Between Live-Action and Animation Writing
What to Watch: Snow White and the Seven Dwarf (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Bambi (1942), Toy Story (1995), Chicken Run (2000), Shrek (2001) Spirited Away (2001), Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), The Incredibles (2004); Beowulf (2007); Ratatouille (2007); Kung Fu Panda (2008), Wall-E (2008), The Legend of the Guardian: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010), Puss in Boots (2011) The Adventures of Tintin (2011), Frozen (2014)
It is a celebration of the cerebral and favours the intellect by smothering strong emotion under a blanket of mood, while through enigma, symbolism, or unresolved tensions it invites interpretation and analysis in the post-film ritual of cafe criticism. Conventionalised by a number of external practises the absence of stars, production outside the Hollywood system, and it is generally in a language other than English. It embraces other basic genres.
Sub genres: Minimalist, Antistructure
What to Watch: Central Station, Mistress of Spices (2006), Junebug (2205), Little Fish (2005), Dear Frankie (2004),Shooting Dogs (2005); As It Is In Heaven (2007), Incendies (2010)
A term applied to any experimental movement in the arts that is in opposition to conventional forms. In cinema, it specifically refers to a group of influential and radical filmmakers who were active throughout Europe from the end of World War I. The spirit of the avant-garde movement lived on in the American Underground and in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and Chris Marker. These films disturbed the accepted continuity of chronological development and attempted new ways of tracing the flow of character’s thoughts. Collages of fragmentary images, complex allusions, and multiple points of view replaced logical explanation of meaning.
What to Watch: L’Inhumaine (Marcel L’Herbier, France, 1924); Un Chien Andalou (Luis Bunuel, France, 1928); and L’Age d’Or (Bunuel, 1930).
An important genre in prose, film and drama. What are our leaders, authority figures, great artists really like? We are fascinated with their greatness and talent. We want to know all about them. This genre focuses on a person rather than an era. The writer must interpret facts as if they were fiction, find the meaning of the subject’s life, and then cast him as the protagonist of his life’s genre. It exists in all genres. It offers a fanciful dramatised portrayal of the life of a famous figure. There are certain narrative principles that govern the conventional biopic: the protagonist risks all for success, endures a period of neglect, then achieves success, before experiencing personal conflict or becoming afflicted in some way. Typically, the protagonist falls from the height of fame and makes triumphant comeback. German-born William Dieterle set the patterns with numerous biopics in the 30s: The Story of Louis Pasteur, and The Life of Emile Zola. The characteristics of the biographical film are: the central character has a particular talent and a nonconformist personality; the central character’s talent develops in conflict with the conventions of society. The antagonist is not physical; rather it can be a time (The Life of Louis Psteur), ignorance (The Life of Emile Zola), or conventional thinking (Patton). The psychological makeup of the central character allows her to overcome the tragedy of life and succeed. Although Van Gogh dies at the end of Lust for Life, his success is evident in his life’s work. There is a sense of mission that is religious in its overtone (Patton is a zealous, in his way, as Gandhi. Personal relationships often fail. The critical moment, whether it is a discovery or a religious or political conversion, is the most important point in the story, far more important than the public acknowledgement of the character’s achievement. The tragic aspect of the character’s life is also important in this genre.
Subgenre: Autobiography (this idiom is popular with filmmakers who feel that they should write a film about a subject they know). See Annie LeibovitzL Life Through a lens (2006)
What to Watch: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Gandhi (1982), The Aviator (2004), Frida (2001), Pollock (2001), Walk The Line (2005), Ray (2004), Nixon (1995), Bafana, Bafana (2002), The Queen (2005), Frost/ Nixon (2008), Downfall (2003), Valkyrie (2008). J. Edgar (2011)
Comedy should have the view of a “comic spirit” and is physical and energetic. It is tied up in rebirth and renewal, this is the reason most comedy end in weddings, which suggest a union of a couple and the expected birth of children. In comedy there is absence of pain and emotional reactions, as with tragedy, and a replaced use of mans intellect. The behavior of the characters presented in comedy is ludicrous and sometimes absurd and the result in the audience is one of correction of behaviors. This correction of behaviors is the didactic element of comedy that acts as a mirror for society , by which the audience learns “don’t behave in ludicrous and absurd ways.” The types of comedies can vary greatly; there are situation comedies, romantic comedies, sentimental comedies, dark comedies, comedy of manners, and pure farce. The comic devices used by playwrights of comedy are: exaggeration, incongruity, surprise, repetition, wisecracks, and sarcasm.
Comedy is the oldest of theatrical genres. Originally derived from the commedia dell’arte and the burlesque, circus and vaudeville traditions, comedy found a more natural home in silent cinema than tragedy, the reverse mask. Slapstick features visual gags. Screwball comedy was a unique creation of Hollywood in the 30s, its main elements were irreverent humour, fast-paced action and dialogue, eccentric characters, and the improbable plot commonly focuses on the battle of the sexes (It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby). The battle of the sexes comedy evolved into romantic comedy (When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, As Good As It Gets, Four Weddings and a Funeral). Parralel to Hollywood’s romantic comedies were black satires, such as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). The more genial genre spoofs of Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein), the wacky humour of Him Abrahams and the Zucker brothers (Airplane and the Naked Gun series), the deliciously silly Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers parodies of James Bond films; the naughty French comedies (La Cage aux Folles (1978), Three Man and A Cradle (which became Three Men and a Baby).
This genre divides into several Sub genres, all differing by the focus of comic attack
Sub genres: Parody, satire, sitcom, romantic, screwball, farce, black comedy
What to Watch: The Pink Panther (1963), Annie Hall (1977), The Full Monty (1997), Meet the Parents (2000); Borat (2006), Bruno (2008)
Also known as period films, derives from literary sources. The genre is typified by lavish costumes and design, which captures the ambience of the particular era in which they are set in meticulous detail.
What to Watch: Jezebel (1938), Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), Barry Lyndon (1975), Senso (1954), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Howards End (1992), Sense and Sensibility (1995), Pride and Prejudice (2005), Vanity Fair (2004), The Age of Innocence (1993); Goya’s Ghosts (2007); Atonement (2008)
Sub genres vary chiefly by the answer to this question: From whose point of view (POV) do we regard the crime?
Sub genres: Murder mystery (master detective’s POV); Caper (cop’s POV); Gangster (crook’s POV); Thriller or revenge tale (victim’s POV); Courtroom (lawyer’s POV); Newspaper (reporter’s POV); Espionage (spy’s POV); Prison drama (inmate’s POV); Film noir (POV of a protagonist who may be part criminal, part detective, part victim of femme fatale).
The term denotes any film that, for a reason unallied to its intrinsic artistic quality, has attracted obsessive devotion from a group of fans. The expression “so bad it’s good” is often used to describe many cult films. Cult filmmakers include Edward D. Wood (Plan 9 from Outer Space), Russ Meyer (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), John Waters (Pink Flamingos)
What to Watch: Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Withnail and I (1987), This is Spinal Tap (1984)
The heyday of the disaster film was the 70s, the decade in which the sub-genre of action movies reached its zenith (Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno). These films formed a second wave of disaster films from the 30s (San Francisco, The Rains Came). A revival of disaster films surfaced in the mid 90s (Independence Day, Titanic, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow (2004)), all benefiting from the arrival of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI).
The documentary, or non-fiction film, goes back to the beginning of cinema history (Nanook of the North (1922). Since undergoing a renaissance and becoming more popular than ever at the beginning of the 21st Century, the genre could be considered the most enduring of all film forms and now compete with fiction films at the box office.
What to Watch: The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Bowling for Columbine (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), An Inconvenient truth (2005), March of the Penguins (2004).
A non-fiction film where events are dramatised.
What to watch: More than Just A Game (2008), Ingrid Jonker, her lives and times (2006)
See HISTORICAL DRAMA, MELODRAMA, SOCIAL DRAMA
Narratives in the epic tradition surpass the ordinary in scale, and are of heroic proportions. Epic films typically feature vast panoramas with hundreds of extras, and are likely to be historical or biblical stories containing spectacular scenes. The struggle of the main character is heroic, but realistic. The main character may be a historical figure whose exploits have been memorialised in print or in literature and may be biographical or historical, but its main appeal is the moral or ethical dilemma (the personal issue) tested against a larger panorama – war (Patton) or colonialism (Gandhi). The central character is charismatic. The antagonist is so powerful that the efforts of the central character elevate the central character to a heroic position. There is a historical crisis, such as World War I. The moral struggle by the protagonist is so overwhelming that success seems impossible. There is a depiction of the real world, rather than fantasy – therefore, when violence is displayed, it is all the more shocking. There is often poetic subtext. There is a sense of mission in the central character that is rarely exhibited by central characters in other genres. The complex storyline blends two stories – the personal story of the central character and the historical incident. The central character is tested; as a result of the test, he is challenged to pursue a course of action. The central character meets a tragic fate. The epic film story is closer to the melodrama than to the adventure film.
What to Watch: The Birth of a nation (1915), The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Ben Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Kagemusha (1980), Spartacus (1960), Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Bounty (1984), Gladiator (2000), Heaven’s Gate (1980), Troy (2004), Braveheart (1995). The Passion of the Christ, Australia (2008). The modern epic features the individual versus the state: (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The People vs. Larry Flint),
A term that French critics originally applied to the dark, doom-laden, black-and-white Hollywood crime dramas of the 40s (Maltese Falcon). The roots can be seen in the German expressionistic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), and were influenced by certain French films of the 30s (Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) and La Bete Humaine (1931) which were both remade by Fritz Lang as noirs in Hollywood (Scarlet Street (1945), Human Desire (1954). Film Noir developed during and after World War II in the context of post-war anxiety and cynicism, featuring male anti-heroes who were disillusioned loners moving through dark alleyways, rundown hotels, cheerless bars, and gaudy nightclubs; the police and the villains were all corrupt and mercenary. Film Noir could be subtitled “the genre of betrayal” – personal betrayal, national betrayal, and international betrayal. The central character lives on the edge; the character thinks his chance at a better, richer, more vital life can only be found in another character; the relationship between the central character and his savior is a highly charged, sexual relationship; the central character will be betrayed in this relationship; there are no children in film noir; sexuality and violence coexist, and seem to be cause and effect; and the sense of aloneness in the central character is palpable, it represents an existential state.
What to Watch: This Gun for Hire (1942), The Big Sleep (1946)Touch of Evil (1958), The Long Goodbye (1973), Chinatown (1974), Body Heat (1981), Blood Simple (1983), L .A. Confidential (1997), The Black Dahlia (2005)
This genre came into being as a distinct genre in Prohibition America of the 20s, when alcohol was banned and racketeers flourished. The crime films of the late 20s (Underworld, The Racket, The Dragnet, Thunderbolt) and the 30s (Little Caesar, Public Enemy, Scarface, Dead end, Angels With Dirty Faces), were updated with dramatic effect in the 70s and 90s mob films. The classic gangster film concerns itself with a very particular story – the rise and fall of a man who has no patience to progress through the ranks. The gangster is a man in a hurry; his time is running out. The hero has low status but desires a higher status; power comes from the willingness to take power; the antagonist is the society that cannor tolerate the law of the jungle; getting ahead is everything, and the ends justify the means.
What to Watch: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), Mean Streets (1973), The Untouchables (1987), GoodFellas (1990), Gangs of New York (2002), Once Upon A Time in America (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994); American Gangster (2007)
History is an inexhaustible source of story material. It polishes the past into a mirror of the present, making clear the painful problems of racism in Glory, religious strife in Michael Collins, or violence of all kinds, especially against women, in Unforgiven.
Horror films tap into our deepest fears and anxieties, and what is suggested is often more frightening than what is revealed. The German expressionistic films of the 20s (Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), inlfuenced by the English Gothic novel, were among the first examples of the Genre. The central character is a victim, rather than a hero; the antagonist is often manifested from a technological aberration (such as Frankenstein’s monster) or a social aberration (such as Jason, Freddy or Michael Meyers); unbridled aggression and sexuality play an important role; technology, science, and scientific activity often unleash the antagonist – fears about the future are as important as are our fears about the past; children have special powers in this genre – children exhibit vision, insight, and tolerance; adults exhibit the opposite traits; the location (house, village, ruins) has a special significance that influences the outcome of events; the supernatural has a significant role in the horror film genre; the genre dwells on the irrational.
Sub genres: The uncanny: The source of horror is astounding but subject to ‘rational’ explanation, such as beings from outer space, science-made monsters, or a maniac (Signs, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jeepers Creepers); The supernatural: The source of horror is an irrational phenomenon from the spirit of the realm (Poltergeist); The super-uncanny: The audience is kept guessing between the other two possibilities: (The Tenant, The Shining) ; and splatter films: Gore and blood dominate: (Bad Taste, Dead Alive, Freddy vs Jason)
What to Watch: The Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre( 1974 and 2003), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Ring (2002), Friday the 13th (2008).
LOVE STORY/ ROMANCE
A genre that could be successfully blended with any other genre, ranging from the musical genre with Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, to horror in Wolf or Dracula, action-adventure with Speed and Twister, or even documentary in The Last Days.
Sub genre: Buddy salvation: Substitutes friendship for romantic love: (Mean Streets, Passion Fish, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion)
The popularity of martial arts films grew in the early 70s due to a growing interest in the west in Eastern philosophy, and the star presence of Bruce Lee (Fists of Fury, Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon). In recent years the genre has been discovered again through films such as Hero (2002). These films include a series of brilliantly choreographed fights in which the hero is outnumbered by enemies, armed with knives and clubs, and defeats them with bare hands. The plots are usually simple affairs of good versus evil.
What to Watch: The Karate Kid (1984), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Kill Bill Volume One (2003); Forbidden Kingdom (2008)
MELODRAMA Also see THE PROBLEM DRAMA
Melodrama is drama of disaster and differs from tragedy significantly, in that; forces outside of the protagonist cause all of the significant events of the plot. All of the aspects of related guilt or responsibility of the protagonist are removed. The protagonist is usually a victim of circumstance. He is acted upon by the antagonist or anti-hero and suffers without having to accept responsibility and inevitability of fate. In melodrama we have clearly defined character types with good guys and bad guys identified. Melodrama has a sense of strict moral judgment. All issues presented in the plays are resolved in a well-defined way. The good characters are rewarded and the bad characters are punished in a means that fits the crime.
In between the male-oriented war films, Westerns, and action films that Hollywood turned out in the 30s and 40s, there was what was called ‘the women’s film’. The genre continued with success into the 50s and 60s, with a slightly more feminist slant. It is frequently associated with soap operas. As a genre, melodrama is the closest to the people, issues and events of our times. The central character of more often female; the presence of a distinct social order is a barrier to the central character and indicates the power structure in the city, region, town, or country; the central character transgresses the power structure – this is usually through a relationship with someone from within the power struggle; the conviction of the central character is fuelled by the belief that life must be and can be improved; Idealism, cynicism, sexuality and aggression reflect the attitudes of the character and, more important, support the central characteristic of the melodrama – a story of power and powerlessness set against an inflexible social and political structure.
What to Watch: Dark Victory (1939), Magnificent Obsession (1935), Mildred Pierce (1945), Far From Heaven (2002), Now Voyager (1942).
Pretends to be rooted in actuality or memory, behaves like documentary or autobiography, but is utter fiction. It subverts fact-based filmmaking to satirise hypocritical institutions; the Catholic Church in Roma; middle-class mores in Zelig; TV journalism in Man Bites Dog and The Truman Show; politics in Bob Roberts; crass American values in To Die For.
Born with the coming of sound, the film musical had its base in vaudeville and in opera. With its brazen blending of fantasy and reality, the musical provided audiences with an accessible and immediate escape from the life in the Great Depression, and then beyond. This genre presents a reality in which characters sing and dance their stories.
What to Watch: 42 Street (1933), The Merry Widow (1934), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), West Side Story (1961), Cabaret (1972), Oliver! (1968), Evita (1996), Chicago (2002), The Producers (2005), Moulin Rouge (2001), Rent (2005), Happy Feet (2006); Across the Universe (2007)
A single, mostly unstructured, intense, emotional journey linked to music.
THE PROBLEM DRAMA
A melodrama cleansed of contraptions questions: “How do we cure spousal abuse, AIDS, deafness, religious or racial intolerance?” The Problem Play offers offense. Heroes or heroines undergo a test over which they have complete control. They have chosen the test and they are going to succeed. The audiences goes along on the same journey because it makes the audience feel good about themselves; it’s the fulfillment of an adolescent fantasy; we know that at the end of this fantasy good will prevail. We know the hero will discover that deaf people are also people, that blind people are also people. The villain will be vanquished. The hero will come in and save the damsel in distress. The audience indulges in a fantasy of power over the adult world.
Produced with the intention of persuading viewers of a particular belief or ideology, propaganda films have been used by governments around the world since the early 20th Century. Though documentary is the most popular form, drama is also used to convey a ‘message’.
What to watch: The Triumph of the Will (1935), The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943).
A relatively new TV genre, combining the elements of game shows and documentaries, placing real people in dangerous, exciting and adventurous constructed realities.
Satire is a special form of genre. The central conflict relates to a crucial social or political issue of the day. The environment, health care, the power of film and television, and nuclear war are all examples. The film has a distinct point of view about the issue. Humour mixes freely with aggression. The central character is a vehicle to promote an issue. Fantasy and unreality are acceptable in this free-form genre. This is a vigorous, energetic genre and is not at all tied to realism, like the melodrama or film noir. The genre succeeds when we see ourselves as victims of the danger and threat of society.
What to watch: The Player (1992), Grand Canyon (1991), Short Cuts (1993), Pleasantville, the series Entourage.
SCIENCE FICTION/ FANTASY
In hypothetical futures that are typically technological imaginary worlds of tyranny and chaos: Blade Runner, Minority Report. In Fantasy the screenwriter plays with time, space, and the physical, bending and mixing the laws of nature and the supernatural. Imaginary worlds and scenarios are constructed – often with the aid of special effects – to enable the improbable to become possible. Themes within these films include alien life forms, space and time travel, and futuristic technology. The science fiction film is to society what the horror film is to the person – a tale of catastrophe, a story of our worst nightmares. The central character is an innocent bystander who is victimised by a technological accident or an unnatural phenomenon or another world; the central character may or may not overcome the challenge of the antagonist; the antagonist may be a scientist or the product of science or nature – the scale of the antagonist is so great (giants ants as an example) that the central character is reminded not only of mortality, but also of humanity; the outcome is often more hopeful; the story line if often plot intensive and presents a specific threat to the natural order – the plot outlines the central character’s response to the threat.
What to Watch: Metropolis (1926), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Time Machine (1960), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (Russian, 1972), Star Wars (1977), The Matrix (1999), Blade Runner (1982), Minority Report (2002), Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1984), The Terminator (1984), Back to the Future (1985), A.I: Artificial Intelligence (2001), War of the World (2004).
The extra realities of Fantasy attract the Action genres but also welcome others such as the Love Story (Somewhere in Time), Political Drama/ Allegory (Animal Farm), Social Drama (IF…), the Maturation Plot (Alice in Wonderland)
A multi-episode, usually action adventure, film. It is the only obsolete cinematic genre, though some of its features are evident in television soap operas, and mini-series.
What to Watch: The Perils of Pauline (1914) Flash Gordon (1936), The Lone Ranger (1938).
Series can be sequels (The Godfather), prequels (the Star Wars Saga, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning), or films with different plots but the same characters (the Harry Potter cycle). The convention of putting numerals after film titles, as in Spider-Man 2 (2004), did not begin until the 70s
What to Watch: Charlie Chan film, Don Camillo films, James Bond films.
Includes educational, instructional and informational films. It deals with short subjects covering a broad array of topics, and ranges from 2 minutes to 70 minutes in length.
This genre identifies problems in society – poverty, the education system, communicable diseases, the disadvantaged, antisocial rebellion, and the like – then conducts a story demonstrating a cure.
Sub genres: Domestic drama (problems within the family); Women’s film (dilemmas such as career versus family, lover versus children); Political drama (corruption in politics); Eco-drama (battles to save the environment); Medical drama (struggles with physical illness); Psychodrama (struggles with mental illness)
The sports film is a particular sort of adventure film. Sport is a crucible for character change. It is a natural for the Maturation Plot (North Dallas Forty), the Redemption Plot (Somebody up there likes me), the Education Plot (Bull Durham) , the Punitive Plot (Raging Bull), the Testing Plot (Chariots of Fire), the Disillusionment Plot (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), Buddy Salvation (White Men Can’t Jump), and Social Drama (A League of their Own). It can be real (Champions), cynical (Raging Bull), or fantastic (Field of Dreams). Unlike the adventure film, the focal point can be personal (Bang the Drum Slowly), rather than apocalyptic. The characteristics of the sports film are: the central character is a gifted athlete who tests himself within the parameters of a particular sport; only sports that have a broad appeal to society make a good background for this genre. Boxing, football, and baseball have been the sports of choice. The apparent antagonist – the other team, the manager, or the owner – is not as important as is the interior struggle for the central character; he is his own worst enemy. Relationships, whether they be male-female or male-male, are crucial to the emotional well being of the central character. A mentor )a father, coach, or another professional) plays a key role. Family is an important component in this genre. The ritual – in this case, the big game or the big fight – plays a central role in the sports genre.
What to Watch: Raging Bull (1980), Chariots of Fire (1981), American Flyers (1985), the Rocky series, Hansie (2007)
In the 50s, producers first recognised a market for youth-orientated films, the number of which grew steadily until a dramatic increase in the 80s. Often set in a school, these films invariably show teens trying to attract the opposite sex and attempting to escape adult control.
What to Watch: Rebel Without a Cause (1055), American Grafitti (1973), The Breakfast Club (1985)
Gripping yarns of suspense, where the tension is created by placing one or more characters in a threatening situation from which they have to escape. The type of film can cross several genres to produce action, science fiction, and even Western thrillers. Alfred Hitchcock, ‘The Master of Suspense’, perfected one of the fundamental thriller types in North and Northwest (1959). The mystery usually involves spies or terrorists, in which the protagonist is the pursued or the pursuer, attempting to solve a crime or prevent a disaster. Another popular Hitchcockian theme is the ‘woman-in-peril’ psychological thriller as epitomised in (Psycho (1960). Other potent examples include Gaslight (1940/ 44), Wait Until Dark (1967), and Dead Calm (1989). The conspiracy thriller reappeared in the 90s with Patriot Games (1992), and continued with The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Constant Gardener (2005).
What to Watch: The Third Man (1949), The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
It will arouse pity and fear in the audience as it witnesses the action. It allows for an arousal of this pity and fear and creates an affect of purgation or catharsis of these strong emotions by the audience. Tragedy is serious by nature in its theme and deals with profound problems. These profound problems are universal when applied to the human experience. In classical tragedy we find a protagonist at the center of the drama that is a great person, usually of upper class birth. He is a good man that can be admired, but he has a tragic flaw, a hamartia, that will be the ultimate cause of his down fall. This tragic flaw can take on many characteristics but it is most often too much pride or hubris. The protagonist always learns, usually too late, the nature of his flaw and his mistakes that have caused his downfall. He becomes self-aware and accepts the inevitability of his fate and takes full responsibility for his actions. We must have this element of inevitability in tragedy. There must be a cause and effect relationship from the beginning through the middle to the end or final catastrophe. It must be logical in the conclusion of the necessary outcome. Tragedy will involve the audience in the action and create tension and expectation. With the climax and final end the audience will have learned a lesson and will leave the theatre not depressed or sullen, but uplifted and enlightened.
It celebrates the individual’s subjugation and his or her release from the burden of repression and its attendant anxiety. When remedy is exhausted, so is grief. The hero of the tragedy has to fight the world, though powerless – and with no tools whatsoever except his will. Like Hamlet or Odysseus or Oedipus or Othello. All hands are turned against these heroes, and they are unfit for the journey they must take. The strength of these heroes comes from the power to resist. They resist the desire to manipulate, the desire the ‘help’. Tragedy is a celebration not of our eventual triumph, but of the truth – it is not a victory, but a resignation. Much of its calmative power comes, again, from that action described by Shakespeare: when remedy is exhausted, so is grief.
Tragicomedy is the most life like of all of the genres. It is non-judgmental and ends with no absolutes. It focuses on character relationships and shows society in a state of continuous flux. There is a mix of comedy and tragedy side by side in these types of plays.
The term originated in the US towards the end of the 50s and applied to US experimental filmmaking, which was rooted in the European Avant-Garde but was strongly connected to the American Beat movement that emerged at that time. Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon (1943) was one of the first independent underground films. The mode of campness was exploited by Andy Warhol films such as Flesh (1968) and Blow Job (1963).
These films are about transgression and power. How does the individual survive intact, physically and mentally? How are we, the audience, to feel about a particular was or about war in general? Battle scenes and war have been the subject of films since the beginning of cinema, but as a genre, war films came of age during World War I. Often they take an anti-war stance, but equally they can be made to stir up popular support and even serve as propaganda. War is often the setting for another genre, such as the Love Story. It is specifically about combat. In this genre the film you write may be pro-war, or anti war: Platoon, Windtalkers. The war genre could even be blended with the musical genre and result in a film such as Milos Forman’s brilliant anti-war drama Hair. The central character has one primary goal: survival – this may mean personal survival, national survival, or the survival of the personal or political values he believes in. The character’s values are tested. The polarities of human behaviour (altruism and barbarism) coexist and are as much in combat as are the combatants. Violence plays a central role in this genre. Each film carries a particular political perspective of war. The antagonist is often never seen (Full Metal Jacket)
What to Watch: Paths of Glory (1957), Apocalypse Now (1979), Das Boot (1981), Full metal Jacket (1987), Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Thin Red Line (1998), Three Kings (1999), Flags of Our Fathers (2006).
The western began as morality plays set in the “Old West”, a mythical golden age for allegories of good versus evil. In the 70s the genre became dated and stale. In the 80s the Western modulated into quasi-social drama, a corrective to racism and violence in Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven and Posse. In the 90s John Carpenter moulded his Vampyres in the tradition of the Western.
What to Watch: Stagecoach (1939), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Wild Bunch (1969), Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Dances With Wolves (1990)
Different Genre Plots
In Ronald B. Tobias’ book 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, he gives an interesting outline of twenty different genre plots that the writer can use in telling a story.
The Quest Plot
The protagonist searches for a specific person, place or thing, tangible or intangible, for something that the character hopes will significantly change their life. This search is not for an object (like the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark); the object of the quest is wisdom, when the hero returns at the end of the story he or she is wiser and has gone through a meaningful change. The plot will include a motivating incident (inciting incident or catalytic event), which launches the character’s journey. The plot is character driven; it is a plot of the mind. Example: Don Quixote, The Grapes of Wrath, Seven Years in Tibet
The Adventure Plot
Here, the focus from beginning to end is the character making a journey; it is the story of a character going out into the world in search of adventure, new and strange places and events, and fortune. The character doesn’t necessarily go through a meaningful change. It often includes romance and the character is motivated by someone or something. Example: Robinson Crusoe, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, The Time Machine, Raiders of the Lost ark
The Pursuit Plot
It involves the literary version of hide-and-seek; once character chases another. It is a physical plot where the chase is more important than the characters. There is a real danger of the pursued being caught. The race starts with the motivating incident. Example: Jaws, The French Connection, The Terminator, Alien, Romancing the Stone, Halloween.
The Rescue Plot
The character will go into the world, in search for someone of something, and will chase the antagonist. The plot depends on action; it is a physical plot. It relies strongly on a triangle: the protagonist, the victim and a great antagonist or antagonistic force. The hero wants to rescue the victim from the antagonist (or villain); the antagonist will interfere with the hero’s progress. The victim is usually the weakest of the three characters. Example: The Magnificent Seven, The Golden Child.
The Escape Plot
It is a physical plot; it concentrates its energy on the mechanics of capture and escape. The protagonist is confined against the character’s will and wants to escape. The antagonist has control of the hero during the first and second act of the story; the hero gains control during the resolution of the story. Example: The Prisoner of Zena, Papillon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The Revenge Plot
The dominant motive for this plot is loud and clear: retaliation by the protagonist against the antagonist for real or imagined injury. The first rule of revenge is that the punishment must equal the crime; it is the concept of “getting even”. The hero’s justice is ‘wild’, vigilante justice that usually goes outside the limits of the law. It manipulates the feelings of its audience by avenging the injustices of the world by a man or woman of action who is forced to act by events when the institution that normally deals with these problems prove inadequate. The hero should have moral justification for vengeance, and the vengeance may be equal but may not exceed the offence perpetrated against the hero. Example: Hamlet, Four Brothers,
The Riddle Plot
The core of the riddle should be cleverness and the tension of the riddle should come from the conflict between what happens as opposed to what seems to have happened. This plot often involves conspiracies and mysteries that need to be resolved. The riddle challenges the viewer to solve it before the protagonist does. The answer to the riddle should always be in plain view without being obvious. Example: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chinatown
The Rivalry Plot
A rival is a person who competes for the same object or goal as another. Two people may have the same goal – whether it is to win the hand of another or to conquer each other’s armies or to win a chess game – and each has its own motivations. The rival is a person who disputes the prominence or superiority of another. The nature of the rivalry should be the struggle for power between the protagonist and the antagonist. Example: the Odd Couple, Mutiny on the Bounty, Ben-Hur.
The Underdog Plot
The protagonist is at a disadvantage and is faced with overwhelming odds. In some ways this plot is predictable, the underdog usually succeeds usually (but not always) overcomes his opposition. Example: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Joan of Arc, Cinderella.
The Temptation Plot
To be tempted is to be induced or persuaded to do something that is unwise, wrong or immoral. The story of temptation started in the Garden of Eden; it is the story of the frailty of human nature. The plot examines the motives, needs and impulses of human character. The plot depends largely on morality and the effect of giving in to temptation; by the end of the story, the character should have moved from a lower moral plane (in which the character gives in to temptation) to a higher moral plane as a result of learning sometimes harsh lessons of giving in to temptation. The protagonist will often rationalise decisions to yield to temptation and may go through a period of denial after yielding to the temptation. The plot often ends with atonement, reconciliation and forgiveness. Example: Bedazzled.
The Metamorphosis Plot
The plot is about change; it’s as much physical as it is emotional. The metamorphosis is usually the result of a curse and the cure for the curse is generally love (parent for a child, people for each other, the love of God). The metamorph is usually the protagonist, and the plot usually shows thr process of transformation. It is a character driven plot, we care more about the nature of the protagonist than his actions. The audience learn reasons for the curse and its root cause. Example: The Wolfman, Dracula, Beauty and the Beast
The Transformation Plot
The plot deals with the process of change in the protagonist as the character journeys through one of the many stages of life. The plot isolates a portion of the protagonist’s life that represents the period of change, moving from one significant character state to another. One of the tests of character plots in general is the change the main character makes in his or her personality as a result of the action. The person is usually a different person at the end of the story than at the start of it. The plot examines the process of life and its effect on people. Example: Ordinary People, Pygmalion (My Fair Lady)
The Maturation Plot
The plot is about growing up; there are lessons to learn, and those lessons may be difficult, but at the end the character becomes (or will become) a better person for it. Whereas the transformation plot focuses on adults who are in the process of changing, the maturation plot focuses on children who are in the process of becoming adults. In this ‘coming-of-age-story’ the protagonist is usually a sympathetic young person whose goals are either confused or not yet quite formed. Example: The Killers, Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, Stand by Me
The Love Plot
The lovers are usually ill-suited in some way, they may come from different social classes or they may be physical unequal (blindness or handicapped). Love stories don’t need to have happy endings. Emotion is an important element in writing about love; a full range of feelings should be developed (fear’ loathing, attraction, disappointment, consummation, rejection, etc). The lovers should be taken through the full ordeal of love and should be tested (individually and collectively) and finally deserve the love they seek. Examples: The African Queen, Love Story, La Boheme, La Traviata, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Forbidden Love Plot
In this plot the love affair violates some social taboo, such as race, incest, adultery, and homosexual love. It is love that goes against the conventions of society; there is usually either an explicit or implicit force exerted against the lovers. The lovers ignore social conventions and pursue their hearts, usually with disastrous results. Example: Guess who’s coming to dinner; Lolita, Harold and Maude, L.I.E
The Sacrifice Plot
In this plot characters sacrifice themselves for an ideal. They subscribe to the belief that the needs of many outweigh the needs of the individual. The sacrifice should come at a great personal cost; the protagonist plays for high stakes, either physical or mental. The protagonist should undergo a major transformation during the course of the story, moving from a lower moral state to a higher one. Example: Norma Rae, High Noon.
The Discovery Plot
This plot dedicates itself to the pursuit of learning about the self rather than uncovering an assassination conspiracy or figuring out a mystery. It is a character driven plot, about people and their quest to understand who they are. Example: Portrait of a Lady
The Wretched Excess Plot
The plot deals with the psychological decline of a character. The decline is usually based on a character flaw. Characters are pushed to the extremes. The battleground can be alcoholism, greed, ambition, war, or any number of difficulties. Example: Requiem for a Dream, Leaving Las Vegas, Wall Street
Ascension And Descension Plot
These two plots occupy different positions in the same cycle of success and failure; the one deals with the rise of the protagonist, and the other deals with the fall of the protagonist. It is character driven, where a strong protagonist carries the entire story from beginning to end. Apocalypse Now is about a man’s journey into the blackness that is central to the heart and soul. , The Elephant Man is about the rise and fall of John Merrick. At the heart of the story is a moral dilemma; this dilemma tests the character of the protagonist/ antagonist, and it is the foundation for the catalyst of change in the character.
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