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!