“What the hell are you?”
– Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Predator
What kind of story are you telling? What is your screenplay’s film genre? These questions can be hard – a lot harder than many screenwriters think. If you don’t know how to decide on your screenplay’s film genre, don’t worry, this post is here to help.
In this post you will get:
- 3 specific primary reasons why film genre is important
- 2 main approaches to achieving your genre
- a list of the emotions each genre evokes
- some commonly misunderstood genres
- the difference between main genres and subgenres
- 6 questions to help you figure out your film genre
WHY FILM GENRE IS IMPORTANT
When asked about their screenplay’s film genre, it’s surprising how many writers do not know how to clearly express it. Many writers start their answer by saying: ”Well, it’s kind of a…” and then listing a combination of different words, some of which are genres and some that aren’t. “Well, it’s kind of a…” is a phrase that immediately tells the listener that you’re not completely clear on what kind of story your screenplay is. You’re not clear on what you’re selling your audience. Ultimately, you’re not clear on what you’re writing!
In film and television, genres are important because they create expectations. When the audience goes to buy a ticket to your movie or sits down to watch your tv show, they’re opting for a specific experience. Think about it – when someone asks you if you want to see a movie, one of the first questions you will ask is: ”What kind of movie?” You are asking about the film genre.
Here are 3 primary reasons why film genre is important:
Knowing the film genre “primes the pump”
For whatever reason, our brains are wired to better receive a story if we know what kind of story it is in advance. If we are expecting a comedy we subconsciously prepare ourselves to laugh. If we are expecting a horror film we subconsciously prepare ourselves to be scared. This heightens the experience of the story for us and basically puts us in the mood for the story.
Not knowing the film genre can be confusing
Without understanding what kind of story we are seeing, the audience will feel a subconscious questioning of what they are supposed to be watching. “How am I supposed to react?” is one of the most common confusions an audience will feel if they don’t know the genre.
Disappointment when a different genre is delivered
If we are then given a different type of story from the one that’s promised, we are either confused or let down – we expected one experience and got another.
Example: How many times have you seen a comedic trailer for a movie, but when you went it was much more serious of a drama and you were subsequently let down?
GENRES AND OUR OWN SCREENPLAYS
So how do we know what film genre to choose for our screenplays? Another question that we can ask: do we even choose the genre or are we trying to identify one based on our material?
Overall there are two main ways of figuring out the genre for your screenplay:
- Decide the genre early and write material to fulfill it.
- Explore and write ideas and discover the genre along the way.
Either approach is completely valid. It may depend on the writer and their own process, or it can depend on the specific screenplay being written. The important thing is that at some point the writer needs to be able to clearly state what the genre of their screenplay is.
How do I know which film genre is the right one for my screenplay?
The first step is to understand the difference between film genres and what each one entails. Basically, each film genre creates its own emotion and/or set of expectations in the audience’s mind. Knowing the differences in the emotions that the audience expects is a good way of thinking about it and choosing or identifying what your film’s genre is.
Basic emotions each genre creates
Genres are complex and each can have a variety of emotional impact on audiences, but at the risk of oversimplification, each genre can be thought of in broad terms that describe the emotion the audience will feel while watching that genre.
Here is a list of the main film genres and the emotions each one creates:
GENRE – EMOTION
- Drama – serious feelings; usually being “moved” in some way
- Comedy – laughter, lightness, and release of tension
- Suspense – a tension that can be low-energy and a desire to see how story elements play out
- Thriller – a tension that is high-energy and makes the heart beat faster
- Horror – fear, revulsion, disgust
- Action – attention-grabbing, larger-than-life moments that engage the flight-or-fight response
- Adventure – ideas of new places or experiences that are exciting
- Musical – a lightness that comes from hearing music
- Adult– heavy sexual eroticism
- Tragedy – sad or down feelings that usually come from the concept of loss
- Sci-fi – intellectual engagement through ideas that could be theoretically possible through science
- Fantasy – stirring of the imagination through not-of-this-world concepts
- Documentary – something that makes us evaluate our real world or experience and the human condition
- Mystery – piquing our curiosity and desire for knowledge or moments of revelation
- Romance – the warm, nurturing feelings of love and desire and human connection
- Experimental – feelings of surprise through new uses of the film medium or storytelling form
Now that the difference among film genres is understood, then we can move on to applying them to our own material.
Some questions you can ask to help figure out your film genre:
- What kind of emotions do I want to create for the audience?
- Are there certain ideas or tropes that I want to use that are standard to certain genres?
- Does my story already fall into a category or type?
One of the difficulties when determining your film genre is how we’ve seen stories sorted in the past. For years video rental houses, major institutions, journals, online tools, and tv stations have lumped film genres in categories that have ended up being confusing.
Remember Blockbuster Video’s shelves and how they were categorized? They would always lump sci-fi and fantasy films together. But these are two completely different genres with different expectations, and writers don’t often understand the difference because they repeatedly saw these two genres listed together. Same thing with the genres suspense and thriller.
Blended genre screenplays have two genres paired together that carry relatively equal weight in their entertainment value of the material. The three most common pairings of blended genre are:
- Romantic Comedy — we laugh as often as we feel a tug on our heart.
- Action Adventure – not only do we feel the excitement of a new or unfamiliar setting (adventure), we also get wowed by larger than life moments of physicality (action).
- Horror Comedy – fear or disgust is paired with laughter in equal amounts.
The trick of blended genre screenplays is to be sure that you’re delivering on both genres fully. Otherwise, you most likely have a screenplay that has a single main genre with another genre as a smaller part of the story.
Commonly misunderstood genres:
Some genres are often misunderstood as being one thing when they are actually another. This is a function of writers not learning more about what film genres are and what they are not.
The most commonly misinterpreted film genres are:
- Experimental – This does not mean a story that has an experiment in it, it is a completely different genre that does something new with the craft of screenwriting. Many people writing a drama or thriller with an experiment as part of the story misidentify their screenplay as an experimental genre.
- Adult – This does not mean story about adults, this means the film that has explicit sexual content. Again, some dramas are misidentified as “adult” just because there are adults in them.
- Mystery – A mystery genre requires that the story withhold key information from the audience and pique their curiosity. If the story does not revolve around a central question that remains unanswered until the end, it is probably not a mystery genre screenplay.
And while we’re on the topic, here is one subgenre that’s often misidentified:
- Family – Not a story about a family, this is a film that the whole family can watch. Many dramas about family issues are misidentified as having family as a subgenre. Always ask the question: “can children watch this?” If not, it’s not a family subgenre story.
Two genres that can have a range of different emotions or experiences for the audience
Both dramas and comedies share an interesting quality – they can have one of many effects on an audience, depending on the exact nature of the story being told. In other words, there are different kinds of dramas and different kinds of comedies.
Check out these lists of types of dramas and comedies:
- inspirational drama
- heartwarming drama
- bleak drama
- light drama
- instructional drama
- heavy drama
- light comedy
- edgy comedy
- broad comedy
- intellectual comedy
- dark comedy
- tongue-in-cheek comedy
- quirky comedy
Note that the words used above are words that evoke a feeling or emotion. These words are subjective, and therefore speak to the entertainment experience that the audience will feel when watching these types of stories. These words are not subgenres, but they do show how genres like drama and comedy can have a wide range of impact on the audience, depending on what kind of story is being told.
What is the difference between main genre and subgenre?
Confusing, isn’t it? We are constantly exposed to words that are meant to describe the tv shows and films that we watch, and they are often used interchangeably or incorrectly.
The simple answer is this:
Main genres create an emotional response as well as potential expectations of ideas. Subgenres generally create ideas but not emotions.
For example, “comedy” is a main genre and lets us know we will laugh. But “futuristic” does not tell us what we will feel – instead it clues us in that some element(s) of the story will be about or involve the future.
Here is a list of subgenres (which will get their own blog post for further explanation). Note they are different from main genres:
|holiday (any)||martial arts|
Also note that you can take each of these words and pair it with different main genres. Example: the subgenre “war” can be paired with other genres – war drama; war comedy; war romance.
So how do subgenres work?
Subgenre classifications give the viewer an idea of the kinds of moments they will expect to see, but not creating an idea of a specific emotion.
For example, if I say I’m taking you to a comedy you can expect how you will react physically – you will laugh or be amused and smile. But If I say I am taking you to a crime movie, that doesn’t mean anything in terms of how you will feel. It does create ideas of things you can expect to see – criminals, wrongdoings, weapons, theft, etc.
But in terms of feelings, it doesn’t mean anything off the bat. It just so happens that most crime subgenres are paired up with the main film genre “drama,” so you will probably think of crime stories as being serious in some way. But there have also been plenty of crime comedies.
Same thing if I say I’m going to take you to a sports movie – does not create an emotional response, but you can expect to see a sport or moments relating to sports happening on screen. That’s why “sports” is a subgenre and not a main genre.
The general rule of thumb when trying to figure out if the word you were thinking of is a main film genre or subgenre, ask yourself this question:
Can the word be easily paired up with other genres?
If so, it’s probably a subgenre, not a main genre.
What if my movie has two main genres as the primary sources of entertainment?
Do you have a sci-fi thriller? Do you have a dramatic comedy? Or a comedic drama? These can be difficult questions to answer but it is vital to understand which genre will be the prime genre of your screenplay, and which genre is the supporting (or lesser of the two).
A few questions to ask with the primary genre of your film will be:
- Overall, scene-to-scene, what is the entertainment approach and/or the intended emotional impact on the audience?
- Generally, your material will gravitate towards one genre over another, unless you are truly confused about the material and write different genres in different scenes and continually pull the viewer back-and-forth.
- What emotion do you want to be the last moment of the screenplay or storyline?
- What emotion do you want the audience to have when they walk out of the theater or stop watching the episode? The last moment can often indicate what a screenplay is meant to be – does it end on a serious note, a comedic note, a horror moment?
In this post we went over why film genre is important and ways to help you with yours.
While it can be difficult to understand film genres and their nuances, it’s important to learn more about them so that you can effectively give the audience the kind of experience(s) that they are asking for.
But now that you better understand film genre and how to approach it in your screenplays, go and take your audience on a ride… no matter what kind of ride it is.
Have fun! (Or a scare, or a good cry, or…)