By Ian Kennedy, WriteMovies Director of World Wide Development:
Genre is so often key to convincing producers, and audiences, to take an interest in your story. Yet at the same time, I hear lots of writers and viewers complaining about formulaic, predictable, derivative stories that lack originality and interest precisely because of their adherence to a genre. So why does genre matter so much, for better and worse?
The more I’ve explored this subject – in my classes and meetings with writers, and in my own work – the clearer the subject has become to me. To my mind, genre exists – and works – because fundamentally, it tells us what kind of emotion we can expect to feel while we experience a certain story.
Here are a few famous genres, and the emotions that we can expect any good story in that genre to give us. The clearer and stronger the emotion, the more clearly it fits its overall genre – and this is why ‘genre stories’ work and appeal. But if a story belongs to one of these genres, and fails to generate the emotional effect that we expect, audiences will probably say it’s a bad story (even if they’re wrong and the film later goes on to become a cult classic!). Meanwhile, of course, you can blend several of these genres at once, to give audiences a new way of experiencing a familiar emotion – and doing so is often very successful at the box office. In any case, you’ll probably span a few of these emotional effects within any satisfying story, even if you don’t cross genre boundaries (for long).
- COMEDY – should give audiences laughter and humour.
- HORROR – fear.
- ACTION – excitement and danger, leading to elation and triumph.
- THRILLER – excitement, suspense.
- PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER – uncertainty and anticipation.
- SCIENCE FICTION, SUPERHEROES, and FANTASY, and also RELIGIOUS STORIES – awe and wonder – plus any of the other genre effects mentioned here (because more ordinary stories and genres and emotional effects are also present in every scene, within an exotic genre like this).
- DRAMA – is actually about concern (for better or worse) for other people (usually people who we’d like to feel are ‘like us’ in some important way!) and what will happen to them.
- MYSTERY – confusion and revelation.
- CRIME – fascination. Fascination with how other people can do things that we would like to convince ourselves are unthinkable. For audiences, the pleasure (or relief!) comes in the explaining, solving, and punishing, of the crimes we see. This is all true of gangster stories (such as in THE SOPRANOS) because the punishment and consequences for criminals who transgress or get unlucky is often administered internally by other gangsters and criminals rather than by external law enforcers. The automatically high stakes and consequences – for all characters at all times – plays a big role in making this subgenre so compelling.
- ROMANCE – love (even towards a character who isn’t real who we will never meet) and affection (towards the person of our own gender/circumstance who is aspiring towards that love interest).
It might seem counterintuitive at times, when we ask ourselves why audiences are drawn to particular genres that give them emotions which they would avoid in real life. But these questions often miss the point of why human beings are drawn to stories at all. Our own lives are usually quiet and unremarkable – in fact we’ll usually go to lengths to keep them that way. Which is why we rely on stories in order to take us into spaces and feelings that – to our relief – our own lives never will, so that we can still feel like we’re experiencing rounded and emotionally varied lives, even though we probably aren’t.
Endings are particularly interesting ways to play with audience expectations. Because – by that point – a story has already achieved the overall tone and emotion that audiences would expect, the writer has the opportunity to either elate us (with an uplifting ending) or sadden us (with a downbeat ending), or sometimes to challenge us with an indeterminate ending or cliffhanger. Because of the big uplift in audiences’ emotions, most writers and producers play it safe by giving us an upbeat ending. This is another key reason why we get frustrated with predictable happy endings, and feel that writers have stuck too closely to our expectations of the genre; unconvincing or indulgent happy endings feel like an insult to our intelligence. Downbeat endings are often more plausible and intellectually rewarding, but it’s a risk to take with our audience’s feelings – we can end up feeling hurt and betrayed, even bereft, when characters we care about are left to suffer or die.
So writers always need to remember what emotional effect they want to have on their audience – and what emotional effect their audience will be expecting a story of this type to have on them. This is at the heart of making every scene and every sequence work well. You can play with our expectations and surprise us – in fact you will probably need to – but the key to it is to still give us the emotional effect we expect, in a way that we wouldn’t have expected. And if you don’t respect and value the expectations that audiences will bring to your story, you’ll probably find that they soon feel the same way about you and whatever story you’ve arrogantly or complacently tried to palm them off with.
Suggestions for developing this in your work
- Think of other genres or subgenres not yet covered here. What emotional effects are at the heart of these genres?
- Think about the endings of successful stories in each genre. What emotional effect do they leave the audience with, at the moment when the audience leave the story again at the end? Why? What marks out the finest examples of the genre from the disappointing ones?
- Look at your past writing. Try to find the genre and emotional effect you most often try to bring about in your audiences. What does it tell you about your aspirations and priorities as a writer? How can that help you find your own distinctive voice and identity as a writer – the must-have quality that will lead producers to come to you when they want to achieve a certain effect or tone? What do you need to do with the style or genre that you favour, to elevate your writing – and particularly its effect upon the audience – to a level that its genre has never been before?
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© WriteMovies 2017
“This non-linear format could be disorienting for audiences and hence hard to follow, especially seeing as this format is not regularly used. However, each story is distinctly separated from the other with the use of title cards, so any immediate confusion should be dismissed fairly quickly…” Extracts from a script report by our trainee Jamie White, based on a reading of the Quentin Tarantino script PULP FICTION: CLICK HERE
TITLE: PULP FICTION LOCALE: Los Angeles
AUTHOR: Quentin Tarantino SETTING: Urban
GENRE: Primary: Crime
Vincent Vega: (20/30s) White (M). A cocky young mob hitman who works for Marcellus Wallace.
Jules Winnfield: (20/30s) Black (M). Mob hitman for Marcellus Wallace and Vincent’s partner in crime.
Marcellus Wallace: (40s) Black (M). A very big, powerful and intimidating man. A crime Kingpin who has a lot of control in L.A.
Mia: (20/30s) White (F). Mischievous and often doesn’t take things seriously. Almost childish. She is the precious wife of Marcellus Wallace.
Butch: (26) White (M). Professional boxer, a well-built guy, having killed an opponent during a match. He is deep in love with his French paramour, Fabien.
Pumpkin: (20s) British, white (M). A young man from Britain with an ability to sweet-talk. He is over-confident when it comes to robberies but still wary of things that can go wrong. Boyfriend to Honey Bunny.
Honey Bunny: (20s) White (F). An emotional, hysterical at times, young woman. She is madly in love with Pumpkin with whom she robs various establishments with.
Winston Wolf: (50s/60s)(M). A smooth talking, tuxedo wearing gentleman. He is a “fixer.” He solves problems for Marcellus Wallace that require his special set of skills and efficiency.
Logline An anthology of four different stories, told from four different perspectives, set in the crime thriving suburbs of Los Angeles.
PROLOGUE/EPILOGUE: A young couple (HONEY BUNNY(f)/PUMPKIN(f)) are talking in a coffee shop and then, suddenly, they engage in holding the place up. VINCENT and JULES are there. They have recently got back from an apartment where they killed a few men and survived certain death. Jules manages to calmly defuse the situation without killing anyone (he is a changed man after everything that’s happened). Honey Bunny and Pumpkin are let go with what cash they already have and Jules and Vincent promptly leave.
STORY 1, “VINCENT VEGA AND MARCELLUS WALLACE’S WIFE”- Set after the Prologue/Epilogue. Vincent is tasked with looking after MIA, the wife of MARCELLUS WALLACE, a crime kingpin and his boss. Vincent meets Mia at the Wallace house and they leave soon after. They go to a 60s diner for food and dancing. They have a great time and are comfortable around one another. Back at the Wallace residence, Mia finds the heroin Vincent bought at his dealer’s (LANCE) place earlier and sniffs it like cocaine. Vincent then takes her now lifeless body to the Lance’s place. At Lance’s, they find an adrenaline shot and amateurishly inject it into Mia’s heart. She screams but is ok now. Vincent takes her back home and they agree to NEVER tell Marcellus about this.
STORY 2.”THE GOLD WATCH”- A 5 year-old Butch is told a long story about his father from an army friend and is given a watch. Back in the present Butch is eager to leave the area where he just had a boxing match; his opponent is dead and Marcellus is not happy about it. Butch learns of this in a taxi ride. Later he is eager to collect his winnings and run away with FABIEN. Butch arrives at a motel where Fabien is. They’re in love and plan to run away. The next morning they prepare to catch a train but Butch can’t find his watch, which he finds infuriating and scares Fabien. Butch goes back to his seemingly untouched apartment to grab his watch. He finds it but someone is there. Vincent comes out of the bathroom and Butch shoots and kills him with a silenced gun. After leaving, Burch runs into (literally) Marcellus and totals his car. A dazed Marcellus runs after Butch and they enter a pawnshop. The pawnbroker keeps the two of them hostage. The broker has a friend come over and they bring out their pet gimp. The two take Marcellus away. Butch manages to get free and incapacitate the gimp. He then goes to free Marcellus, killing one of the perverts and Marcellus takes care of the other. The two reach a mutual agreement. They’re cool. This allows Butch to leave town with Fabien just as they planned.
STORY 3. ”JULES, VINCENT, JIMMIE AND THE WOLF” – Carrying on from Jules and Vincent’s prologue and their miraculous survival. The have taken one of the young men from the apartment with them, but Vincent accidentally kills him in the car. The car is covered in blood. Jules calls his friend, JIMMIE, for help. Jimmie is not pleased with the situation. They have an hour and a half to sort this out before his wife gets home. Jules calls Marcellus who sends the Wolf, a fixer. He whips Jules and Vincent into shape as they clean the car, move the body to the trunk and change out of their bloody clothes, all before Jimmie’s wife gets home. They take the body to a local tow truck business to dispose of. Mr. Wolf leaves with his girlfriend after Jules and Vincent thank him. The two men then decide to go get breakfast. This leads into the Prologue/Epilogue at the coffee shop.
The linear chronology of the story is as such: JULES/VINCENT PROLOGUE – STORY 3 – PROLOGUE/EPILOGUE (in the coffee shop) – STORY 1 – STORY 2. This non-linear format could be disorienting for audiences and hence hard to follow, especially seeing as this format is not regularly used. However, each story is distinctly separated from the other with the use of title cards, so any immediate confusion should be dismissed fairly quickly.
Character development, even when a non-linear plot is used, must still make sense. For the most part, this applies to Vincent Vega as he appears in each story (although very briefly in some.) He doesn’t develop a huge amount but that is not to say the development is wrong or poor. In fact, it fits in well with his character arc as a whole leading to his ultimate demise.
After Jules and Vincent survive the apartment shooting they act very differently. Jules wants to retire from this business and leave it all behind; he obviously doesn’t want to die this way. Vincent, on the other hand, thinks Jules is making too much out of this and carries on with his work. After the epilogue (chronologically) Jules does not appear again and presumably lives and retires, Vincent carries on with his work and is inevitably killed. This is a nice piece of irony and duality. One man leaves when he can and survives, the other continues and lives. The way in which Vincent dies is also reminiscent from the apartment shooting. He and Jules survive a man shooting at them after coming out of a bathroom, but after he comes out of a bathroom, he is the one who dies…
This anthology style of story-telling has been successfully achieved by the SIN CITY movies, the first of which nearly made quadruple its budget. MOVIE 43 was another anthology film and made over five times what it cost to make. The anthology format allows for an ensemble cast that will only appear for brief portions of the film, allowing for less payment per actor…
This is a very rich story with a great chance of excelling at the box-office and worthy of a recommendation.
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