Approaching Genre & Subgenre in your Scripts

A little bit about Genre

Genres pretty much define anything from the type of writer you are to the way your characters speak. You’ve a message to write, and genre determines the way in which your message is delivered.

After all, what you do with genre is create a niche which ultimately determines your audience; you’ve got your Western buffs, your Tarantino fanatics, your drama queens, the J-horror aficionados and your rom-com devotees. But whether you’re a noir intellectual who likes to sip warm wine and compare Kafka’s Village Schoolmaster to Haneke’s White Ribbon, or you’re just in it for Borat’s snappy but catchy one-liners, everyone’s tastes fit into a specific genre.

As a scriptwriter, when you begin to break down genre like this, you’ll see that it goes a long way in terms of it defining your characters and settings. You’re obviously going to need dusty towns for a Western or a futuristic spaceship for a dystopian. And let’s face it, a sociopath with a tangent for spilling blood isn’t going to be popping up in the Love Actually sequel anytime soon… and with good reason. We choose different genres because we like to fit films into boxes. We like to be amused, or horrified, or ultimately saddened. It’s how we categorize entertainment, and how we cope with the emotions they inspire.

 

So how do you categorize your script?

This first part’s easy. Even if you’re on the initial story stage, you can pretty much break down your script into one category, even if you’ve only developed your main characters. Do your main characters share undeniable chemistry? You might be leaning towards a romantic journey of self-discovery. But then let’s take a step further. Is it set in harsh Victorian times and there’s a social imbalance between the pair, making it a drama? Or are your characters fighting for their survival and have no time for romance?

Do you want to make your audience laugh? Do you want to pull a Stephen King and do nothing but inspire horror? Defining your script is also about the emotions you want your audience to experience.

There are so many twists and turns that influence the way you choose your genre, so the best advice is to simply experiment, and most importantly of all, don’t chase trends and fads just because they’re all the rage in that moment, but write the sort of thing you like to watch, regardless of popularity. If you do this, you’ll unconsciously be gathering enough research to know what works and what doesn’t (yep, watching the films you enjoy is legitimate research, I promise).

This doesn’t mean that you have to feel pigeonholed as a writer, but it is a smart move to determine one you like and write lots and lots of pieces in that specific genre. This is because practice makes perfect, and there are lots of different elements and story beats you need to know before you can dominate any one kind.

Which story beats fit which genre?

Genre establishes mood. Tone. Style. It’s a selling tool for studios and determines the demographics of the film’s audience. Knowing which genre you’re writing in will also help sell your script or acquire funding because it’s the first thing you’ll need to include in your synopsis, logline or elevator pitch. It immediately helps set the most important scene about your film’s setting and even helps shed light on what sort of budget you’ll be requiring. It is vital.

Down below we’ve helped outline the most common genres, and some of their unconventional sub genres, alongside a list of examples to help you visualise. Whether yours is a noir film, psychological thriller or a western sci-fi, there are certain elements you’ll want to include.

Drama

Dramas rely on exploring real-life issues through realistic and flawed characters, triggering an emotional response in the audience. If you’ve chosen drama, you’ll need to incorporate the ability to tell an honest story of human struggle and perseverance. When developing your character arc, you’ll need to take this into account.

Drama Subgenres:

Biography (Gandhi, the Sea Inside)

Courtroom (Erin Brockovich, 12 Angry Men)

Dramady (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, It’s Kind of a Funny Story)

Historical (Schindler’s List, The King’s Speech)

Melodrama (Brief Encounter)

Period Piece (Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice)

Political (The Ides of March)

Romance (Brokeback Mountain)

Tragedy (Titanic)

Comedy

Comedy films are designed to make the audience laugh, using humour as its staple. An element you’ll need to include in script-writing is reversing the audience’s expectations, by creating scenarios that are the opposite of what they think will happen.

By subverting expectations with amusing–and often ridiculous–situations, the audience will find the humour.

Comedy Subgenres:

Action (Hot Fuzz, 21 Jump Street)

Black-Dark (Burn after Reading)

Parody/Spoof (Scary Movie, Austin Powers)

Rom-Com (Bridget Jones’s Diary)

Slapstick (The Jerk)

Action

Action films are designed to represent the spirit of physical action through chases, stunts, fights, battles and races. In the action genre, the protagonist will find it incredibly difficult to achieve his or her goal, as the action makes up the bulk of the stakes.

Action subgenres:

Adventure (Indiana Jones, The Mummy)

War (Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan)

Disaster Film (Deep Impact, The Day after Tomorrow)

Science Fiction  

Sci-fi films need several elements to make them work, but most importantly you’ll need an advanced, authentic universe, one that is supported by technology and science combined. Science fiction will explore how this world affects the protagonists’ lives.

Science Fiction subgenres:

Fantasy (Blade Runner, The Hunger Games)

Alien (Alien, Prometheus)

Apocalyptic (The Road)

Dystopian (Brave New World)

Time-Travel (Back to the Future)

Horror  

Horror depends on stimulating fear in the audience, so if you’re writing a horror script, make sure to exploit people’s fear of the unknown. The antagonist will often represent protagonists’ fears. You’ll also need to include suspense and the surprise factor. Think about horror films you’ve watched, and how the pacing is often slow before it reaches its climax for maximum impact.

Horror Subgenres:

Comedy (Shaun of the Dead, Gremlins)

Teen (Scream, I know what you did last summer)

Monster (Jaws, Cloverfield)

Slasher (Psycho, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

Supernatural (Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring)

Zombie (28 Days Later)

Thriller

Thrillers aim to keep the audience on the edge of their seats by intertwining suspense and tension into the plotline. If you’re going to write a thriller, you’ll need to focus entirely on plot and your character will be proactive, working to unravel the mysteries of the thriller.

Thriller Subgenres:

Action (The Departed)

Film-Noir (Pulp Fiction)

Psychological (Memento, Shutter Island)

Crime/Heist

Crimes are all about focussing on the antagonist and the makings of a criminal. If you’re writing a crime film, you’ll need to have a real psychological passion for understanding the inner workings of a criminal mastermind.

Crime Subgenres:

Mob/Gangsters (The Godfather)

Neo-Noir (Mulholland Drive)

Crime-Thriller (No Country for Old Men)

Western

Western films portray fictional life in Western settings, and will often explore the lives of cowboys. Main elements will include horseback races, gun shootings, train robberies and sheriffs.

Western Subgenres:

Contemporary (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)

Revisionist (Dances with Wolves)

Spaghetti (For a few dollars more)

 

This doesn’t mean you need to religiously stick to one genre or the other. You can be original and start mixing genres to make your very own hybrid–like HBO’s Westworld, for example, a series that mixes contemporary science fiction within a classic Western setting, by making this setting a virtual game. Whatever you choose, however, just be aware of your genre requisites when it comes to character arcs and setting, particularly as they all form part of an effective selling tool.

 

Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.