Today’s lesson was produced by scriptwriter (and former Lecturer in Scriptwriting) Matthew White. He can be found on IMDb or twitter, and his latest movie is Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunchbreak, starring Katherine Parkinson, Tom Meetan, Jonny Vegas and Kriss Marshall.
Look at these basic story ideas, and decide on the various genres that each of them falls under.
- A plucky group of buddies goes on an epic mission to find or destroy something or someone important.
- A seemingly happy relationship is threatened when a charismatic individual comes between our couple.
- A lone voice of reason tries to warn a community about a terrible threat but is ignored – with terrifying results.
Possible answers include:
- Sci-fi (eg Star Wars)
Or Fantasy (The Lord of the Rings)
Or War (Saving Private Ryan)
- Domestic Drama (Indecent Proposal)
Or Thriller (Fatal Attraction)
- Thriller (Jaws)
Or Horror (Alien)
Or Disaster (almost every disaster film ever made).
The simplest definition of genre is… a class or type of literature, music etc. Yet in the world of creative writing, genre is anything but simple. Genre is endlessly mutable, and can come from a huge variety of sources, including:
- A setting or world, eg Western, Space Opera, War Movie
- An audience, eg Family, Young Adult
- The tools used to tell the story, eg Literary Fiction, Art-House movie
- The audience response, eg Horror, Comedy
Genres can be crossed, mixed, sub-divided, transgressed … it’s maddeningly complex, and definitions are the subject of much debate – not all of it reasonable.
But there’s also a simple truth at the heart of it all: genre, from a writer’s perspective, is all about expectations.
When a reader or viewer engages with a story, they will have certain expectations set by who is telling it, how it is presented to them … and what genre it claims to be in.
If it’s comedy, they’re expecting funny. If it’s family, they WON’T want to be offended. If it’s a Western, they’ll expect a locale, a period and a story in some kind of frontier world. And note how a lot of those Western tropes quickly became the norm in space operas too.
Although the purist in you might want to fight against the demands of genre, you’ll be wasting your time and energy in doing so. If you don’t identify a genre by which to categorise your work, your publisher, producer or bookseller most definitely will.
And your reader will too.
So, the two key lessons you should learn are:
- You need to know your genre. If you are writing a tense, Cold-War era thriller, read or watch ALL the Cold-War thrillers you can get your hands on.
- You need to know the expectations you’re raising. If you are writing a comedy-horror, it had better be both funny and scary/horrific. If you’re dabbling in psychological thriller, then you should know that people will expect a very different experience from that of, say, an action thriller. That way, if you want to do something clever or challenging, at least you know what the expectations or “rules” are, before you start playing with them.
Not convinced you need to learn those lessons? Well, here are two examples to consider:
- Steven Spielberg is a master of making films that fit squarely within a particular genre. He’s very successful at that – not least because when he’s not making films, he’s watching films, and watching more films, and discussing them and analysing them.
- Kazuo Ishigura has written two novels which combine literary fiction and sci-fi or fantasy. And they were very successful, because he knew his sci fi and he knew his fantasy.
- Lucy Hay, on her website com, has a lot to say about genre – and it’s great.
- Blake Snyder, the US scriptwriter-turned-guru, has an interesting take on story genre. Check out Save the Cat Goes to the Movies (it applies to books too).
Look at the following logline for a supernatural horror script I’m working on.
A modernising young vicar moves to an isolated rural parish to dismantle its “backward” traditions – only to release a vengeful spirit that is intent on destroying the descendants of its tormentors.
Now re-write it, and turn it into:
(a) an excellent comedy, and
(b) an excellent love story!
If you’d like me to look at how successful your attempt has been, please do feel free to email me (Adam, in lieu of Matthew): adz_d2003 @ yahoo.co.uk – deleting the two spaces either side of the @ sign.
I’ll be posting a new lesson every day (Monday-Friday), to help people who are stuck at home because of the coronavirus situation. These mini-lessons will give you a useful daily routine, and might just keep you sane! Stay safe.
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