Genres are different kinds of stories, like Action, Detective, Love and Thriller. More importantly, genres are really good stories, the all-stars of the story world that have been popular with audiences for decades and sometimes centuries. That’s why Hollywood buys and sells them, and why you need to know not only which genres you’re using in your script but also how to write them well. Many writers wrongly believe that they are competing against the 100,000 scripts written every year. In fact, they are competing against the other scripts in their genre. Which is why you have to know your genres cold.
Mastering your genre seems like it should be easy, since these are forms we have all seen at the movies since we were kids. Unfortunately, each genre is a complex story system where all the crucial elements exist under the surface in the structure. Each genre has a unique hero, desire line and opponent, asks a key question, uses a specialized storytelling strategy and expresses a highly detailed set of themes. Most importantly, each genre has anywhere from 8-15 unique story beats that must be in your script or your script will fail. What’s more, you have to twist each story beat, write each in an original way so your script stands above all the others in your form.
But here’s the good news: all the techniques required for a great genre script are very precise and can be learned. There’s no reason you can’t become a master of your form and write a script that presents your genre to the Hollywood buyers in a fresh new way.
I’d like to give you a brief look at some of the most popular genres in the entertainment business, that make up, individually or in combination, 99% of Hollywood films and television. Of course this won’t begin to cover all the techniques you need to know to master your form. I teach an all-day class in each genre, and even that doesn’t cover everything. But this will give you a sense of what form you’re probably working in.
Perhaps the most popular family of genres in film and TV is Detective, Crime and Thriller. But you have to be careful when choosing one of these forms. While they all involve a crime, they are very different forms with very different structures. DetectiveStories (L.A. Confidential, Chinatown) are about searching for the truth, so you need lots of suspects who could believably have committed the crime. This form also has more reveals than any other, and many writers have trouble sequencing these reveals, since they normally occur in reverse chronological order.
Crime (The Usual Suspects, No Country for Old Men) is a genre that places less emphasis on detecting the criminal and more on the cat-and-mouse beats of catching him. This pushes Crime toward the Action genre, and means that the opponent is best when he is some form of master criminal.
Thriller (Michael Clayton, The Sixth Sense, Silence of the Lambs) is the most popular of this family of genres in movies (detective is most popular in TV). Like Detective, Thriller involves detection, but there are typically far fewer suspects, and emphasis shifts to the detective being an average person who enters extreme danger. Thrillers are surprisingly tough to structure because you have to coordinate two opposing desire lines: the hero wants to uncover the killer while also escaping intense attack.
Writers of Love Stories, and particularly Romantic Comedies, are always surprised, and a little chagrined, when I tell them that they have chosen probably the most difficult genre to write well. There are many reasons for this, among them the fact that LoveStories (Four Weddings and a Funeral, When Harry Met Sally, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) are highly choreographed, with no less than 12 unique story beats. But the biggest reason Love is so tricky is that the hero’s desire and opponent are the same person. No other genre has this peculiar structural element. The hero wants the lover, but the lover is also the first and main opponent. The result is a writer who doesn’t know if the story is coming (attraction) or going (repulsion). The good news is that the love story, when written in an original way, is extremely popular with audiences worldwide.
Myth and Action are two genres that rule in the summer months. Myth (Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight) is the foundation genre of more blockbusters than any other form. That’s because Myth deals with archetypal characters and life moments, which are recognizable worldwide regardless of culture or nationality. The big problem with Myth is that the story, which usually involves a journey, tends to be extremely episodic. To fix that, Hollywood almost always combines myth with one or two other genres that update and unify the Myth story.
Action (Ironman, the Bourne films, the James Bond movies) is one of those genres often combined with Myth. This form was practically invented for the film medium, which is based on the split-second cut. If Love Story has the trickiest story structure, Action has the simplest. The hero has a clear goal and goes after it with great speed and relentless energy. But don’t be fooled by this. Action is much harder to execute well than it looks. Because the form has such a simple desire line, most action scripts lack plot. You can’t just string together a few big action set pieces. You need a complex opponent and as much information hidden from your hero as possible.
The second major family of genres is Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction. Horror (28 Days Later, Jurassic Park, Nightmare on Elm Street) is about humans in decline, reduced to animals or machines by an attack of the inhuman. It’s the narrowest of all the genres, so you may be surprised to know that it has more unique story beats –15 – than any other form. Horror scripts are often very predictable, with a reactive hero and a monster who is just a killing machine. So one of the best ways to set your Horror story apart from the crowd is to make your hero active and force him or her to go up against the most intelligent monster possible.
If Horror is about man in decline and society shutting down,Fantasy (Enchanted, Big, The Truman Show) is about an individual discovering the hidden possibilities of life, of society opening up. The Harry Potter stories have shown us what an appealing form this is, worldwide, partly because the audience gets to explore an imaginary new world. But that’s also where the challenge lies. You’ve got to create a detailed world the audience has never seen, while maintaining the strong narrative drive that Hollywood requires. One way to do that is to establish a deep psychological weakness in your hero that will be severely tested when the hero enters the fantasy world. This grounds the story and makes it personally meaningful to the audience.
Science Fiction (The Matrix, Children of Men) is about human evolution on the grandest scale, literally the universal epic. Film is the perfect medium for this genre, which is why Science Fiction has become a favorite form of Hollywood. J.J. Abrams popular re-imagining of Star Trek seems effortless in its execution. But it masks the fact that Science Fiction scripts often fail, because telling a personal, emotionally satisfying story on such an epic scale is very hard.
No article on how the major screen genres work would be complete without a mention of Comedy (The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, Little Miss Sunshine). This perennial favorite is the most under-estimated genre. Whenever someone tells me they’re writing a comedy, I always ask, What kind? There are seven major movie Comedy forms – action, buddy, traveling angel, romantic, farce, black, and satire – and each has a totally unique set of story beats. Failing to know which comedy form you’re writing is the single biggest error comedy writers make.
But many writers also mistakenly believe that a Comedy screenplay is all about the jokes. They jam the gags in from page one, and don’t understand when the script hits the wall about fifteen minutes in. Why does the script suddenly stop being funny? The writer forgot the storyline. You don’t start with the jokes and tell a story. You start with a comic story structure and let the jokes emerge naturally and build from the storyline.
So what’s the recipe for success in a world that’s all about buying and selling genres? Choose the two or three genres that are right for your story idea. Learn their unique story beats so you can hit every one. Transcend your genre by giving each story beat an original twist. There are no guarantees in screenwriting. But this 3-step recipe is as close as they come.
This 3-step recipe is as close as you can get to guaranteed success as a screenwriter, but you still have to apply the recipe to your own writing. That’s why the Blockbuster story development software was created. The Genre screen in the main Blockbuster program shows you which genres are best for your original story idea. Each Genre Add-on explains the 8-15 story beats unique to your form and tells you exactly where they should happen in your story structure. There are also a number of Genre maps, which are screens specially designed to help you navigate the problem areas of your form.
The Help section in each Genre Add-on not only tells you how to transcend your genre for a truly unique script, it tells you all the story beats of the different versions of your genre, like the seven different forms of Movie Comedy. And each Add-on includes four movie examples that show you the specific techniques story masters used to write classics in your form.
Genres are a big mystery to most writers, but you can use them as a secret weapon to stand above the crowd.