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!

Writing Comedy: My Process

Everyone writes differently. There are definitely no right or wrong ways to get words down on the page – there are certain standards and formats that you can use to your advantage, to present yourself as knowledgable and professional. The most important thing you can do is figure out what works for you – then stick to it. There’s no point in forcing yourself to write the way someone else does it, just because they do it that way. Try new ways to set up structure or pull out story, sure, but if it doesn’t work for you, don’t be afraid to say that it doesn’t work for you and go back to what you’ve always done.

I write comedy. It’s a bit of a beast, comedy, because there are so many different types. There’s romantic comedies, action comedies, balls out comedies, sitcoms, sketches, radio, television, film – it goes on and on and on. My style isn’t about having a huge belly laugh every minute, mine is about making people laugh with a touch of humanity – something to think about at the end.

As a result, my first drafts aren’t always so funny. I have to resist the urge to go back and tear everything apart in my early drafts – but this gets easier the more I write, as I know that I’ll probably tear it all apart in rewrites anyway. The first few drafts are all about getting the story right. The comedy comes later – there are always a handful of jokes in the early drafts but I’m more concerned about character arcs and plots instead of making people laugh. If jokes are there, it’s because they’ve happened naturally when I’ve written them.

The key thing I’ve found for me is to give myself permission for my work to not be bang on the first time around. It’s okay if it’s not perfect – that’s what multiple drafts are for. I can do a lot of work beforehand – outlines, scene by scene breakdowns – to make sure that the structure will do what it’s supposed to in the early drafts (and, I say ‘a lot of work’ but I know that I, personally, do less figuring out everything beforehand and let a lot of things happen on the page), but I need to remember that writing is a process, not a science. It’s part of the process to change, shape and mould things as you go along.

Another key thing I’ve learnt about myself as I write is that you have to trust yourself to be ruthless. You need to trust your instinct. Where does your script begin to soar? That’s most likely your strongest part. Where, when you re-read, do you feel like it’s still a bit of a slog? That’s likely a part that needs work. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge this. I find that looking back over my core idea for the scene and simplifying is a great way to cut extra weight. Likewise, getting out of scenes early and starting them late. The more scripts I read, the more I realise that this is really vital.

Once I’ve got the structure locked, the story strong, that’s when I start to do passes on the jokes. There will always be some in my early drafts – some I’ve worked out in an outline or a breakdown, some have happened on the page as I wrote. But they’re probably not the greatest jokes. Sometimes they are and they make me laugh like mad, so I’ll leave them in. Other times, they’re not working for the comedy as well as they should and so I analyse the scene, the character, the line and see what I can do to up the laughs and ramp up the hilarity.

I’m lucky in that I have a great co-writer who has a nose for comedy. That means that we can talk about scenes together and we’ll always end up throwing around new jokes, ideas, trying to keep the ball rolling until we hit the wall and then come up with a few more. Even on our individual projects, we work together in feedback on drafts, to try and bring the best out of the script.

Right now, I’m doing a first draft of our sitcom pilot. It’s been planned, written, torn apart, re-written. We’ve hit character problems, created new backstory, found new running jokes, developed new storylines. We’ve tried different structure formats to make the spine strong, started outlining and hit problems. Now, we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve an outline we feel good about and I’ve started the new first draft this week. And I just wanted to note this somewhere – that it’s okay for this draft not to be particularly hilarious; I trust Anton and I to enhance the comedy in later drafts. These early drafts are all about structure, story and character. Without those three, you’ve only got ink on a page or pixels on a computer screen. And that’s not all writing is. Writing is about emotion. Emotion comes out of characters you can relate to and a story you enjoy. And you can’t have either of those things without a solid story structure.

Right. Good little pep talk. Back to it.