Writing Within Genre

On the surface, movies all have a similar structure. Regardless of whether you use three act structure, five act structure, ‘Save the Cat’, ‘The Hero’s Journey’ – it could be argued that it’s all different names for the same formula. People understanding the elements of the same concept in different ways. No particular way is right or wrong, it just is how each individual writer uses it.

Genre, however, is another definition that will dictate the way your story will go. Romantic comedies will be different from action films, which will have different beats to horror movies, which will be different again to a film for children. A cookie cutter, write-by-numbers approach to structure could also lead to a similar attitude to genre. The thing about genre is that if you take the time to understand it and analyse it, it will really help you as a writer and a filmmaker. If you ‘kind of’ know what film you want to write, genre can destroy you.

How often have you watched a film and known exactly what’s going to happen next? To predict the next move of the protagonist? My special skill these days – which often gets me booted out of the room – is to say the next line of dialogue before the character does. When I’m word for word perfect, that’s when I get a cushion thrown at me. But the thing is that predictability comes from a creator not understanding genre, either on a script or directorial level.

Genre does more than define which category the movie slots into on Netflix. Genre demands certain expectations when it frames a film. What’s an action flick without explosions? A romantic comedy without a couple of interest at the heart of it? A horror movie without a scare? But as we now consume such a high level of story on a television and film medium, genre can now seem more and more difficult to master. You can’t reinvent genre. You have to work within the limits of it and use it to create something new.

That scene in a romantic comedy we’ve all seen a million times before – the scene towards the end of the film where the couple split apart, seemingly forever. We all know what it feels like when it’s done badly, when you just know that in the next few scenes they’ll be back together again after a chase and a declaration of love. So avoid that. Split the couple up, but use the rest of your film to set up why this is irreconcilable. What have they done to each other that means that, seriously, these two are not getting back together. At all. Do you need a chase? The chase brings a sense of urgency, yes, but is there another way you can do it? If you need a chase, that’s fine, but how can you do it in an original way that an audience won’t have seen before? Do you need the immortal ‘When Harry Met Sally’ style speech that Nora Ephron nailed and consequentially made sure that no writer would ever be able to recreate it after her? Or can you do it in a different way?

Think about the things that your audience expects from genre and how you can tell the story differently. Perhaps instead of following the chaser, we follow the chasee and see what they’re going through, hoping against hope that their partner will show up and make it right. Or maybe their partner doesn’t show up at all – what happens if they miss each other? What then?

Chances are that the things that make you scream at the screen (‘CALL HER! YOU HAVE A PHONE IN YOUR POCKET!’ ‘FOLLOW HER WHEN SHE LEAVES, FOR GOODNESS SAKE!’) will also clang loudly as cliche and naff for a more general audience. How would you write the moment before the protagonist kills the villain in an action movie? Would you nail a cheesy, Bond-esque line or do you just shoot them in the chest? Does the protagonist’s accomplice shoot instead? How could you do it in a way that hasn’t been seen before?

Keep in mind that you might not be able to ditch certain genre conventions entirely. There has to be a stand off between the hero and villain in an action movie. There has to be a final committal to the relationship in a romantic comedy. There has to be at least one casualty in a horror movie. You can’t drop these things to make it ‘original’. Chances are, the story has been told that way for a reason and when you begin to pull pieces out of the puzzle, it becomes something else entirely.

Know your genre. Know what’s expected of it. Then subvert the expectations of your audience by twisting your genre and giving them something new that they wouldn’t have expected.

If you’re looking for some thoughts on your script, I’ve only got a few script reading slots available for January! Get in touch now to secure your spot and nail your script over the festive season!

Comedy VS. Drama

Genre is a tricky beast to tackle. Each genre has its own pros and cons; its own rules and regulations. Genre writing is difficult enough for a 90 page feature film, let alone condensing those elements down into a 5 to 9 minute short film.

To be honest, when I write, I don’t think too much about genre. For me, it’s all about character. Story, genre, location – that all comes AFTER I have a character in my head who whispers their story into my ear.

However, genre in short film is something that I have thought about at length.

Writing a short film isn’t like writing a feature. There are similarities, of course, but there are a whole range of different conventions that I find useful when writing a short film. There will be a blog post on short film structure coming up soon, but I wanted to talk about genre in short film for now.

In 2008, I was watching the graduate screening for my university. All the films made by the graduate students of that year, up there on the screen, showing to a real audience for the first time. There were some fantastic films, there were some not so fantastic films. But you always get a mixed bag in collections of shorts like that – it’s part of the deal. One of the things I did notice that night was that almost all the films were deeply dramatic, dark and depressing. Guns were a regular fixture, intense loneliness in children, night shoots – the tone was so similar that they’ve blurred together in the past few years. Some that I do remember were really well made, my own, or comedies. It didn’t even matter if the comedy fell flat – the fact was it stuck out because it was different. The only relief in an oppressing flood of drama.

I went to another screening shortly after and EVERY SINGLE FILM was a dark drama or a gloomy abstract film. I’m not saying the films were badly made – on the contrary, some were incredibly well put together, but the fact remains that drama dominates short film.

I realised that to make my film memorable, I’d have to make it different.

So I decided to write a comedy for my graduate film in 2009.

It was one of the best experiences of my life. I’m not going to talk too much about that short film (called ‘Operation: Playstation’, if you were interested), but I learnt a lot from it. The script needed a lot more work than it got, but it was a fantastic experience and I loved doing it.

And it was the first comedic anything I’d written seriously.

I’ve been writing for most of my life. And I don’t say that lightly – I have memories of writing stories in my Grade 5 notebook. That makes me about 10 years old. I’ve been reading since I was 3. I’ve always loved stories. And even those half-written stories, scribbled in a primary school notebook, tell me something.

I’ve always written drama.

It makes sense. The market is so saturated with drama that it’s easy to pick up on it and channel it onto the page. From ‘real-life’ drama (I use the term ‘real-life’ very loosely), I moved on to fantasy drama. My first serious short film script was a police drama. Scribbled ideas in notebooks or scenes saved on to my computer were always dramatic.

So to challenge myself to write comedy was slightly daunting.

And writing comedy is hard. It is a really difficult thing. A person’s sense of humour is entirely relative. Whilst you’re crying with laughter at something you could find hilarious, the person sitting next to you can be impatiently waiting for the joke.

The single hardest part about writing comedy is getting the jokes to leap off the page and make the reader laugh.

I’m still working on it. I’m not pretending like I have all the answers, because I don’t. At the end of the day, I think that ‘With A Little Help From Our Friends’ is a funny script. It makes me giggle like mad. I sent it off to some writers for critical feedback and they commented on some parts positively and other parts they thought fell flat. But that was okay. I tweaked the jokes and tried again.

The easiest way to figure it out is to try. ‘With A Little Help From Our Friends’ isn’t a script filled with belly laughs (on the page. Once you bring actors into the equation, magic can happen). I wrote another drama/comedy script for a competition recently and the bit of feedback that made me grin the most was that the readers were coming back to me and consistently telling me that the same part of the script was funny. They were laughing aloud as they read it.

That’s no mean feat. It’s something I’m really proud of.

If you can make a reader laugh aloud from black words on a white page, you can get an audience to roar with laughter in the cinema.

And, at the end of the day, the audience is the most important part of the equation.