A screenplay is a puzzle made up of pieces you cut yourself that you fit together to form a picture you make up as you go. And if a screenplay is a puzzle, think of genre as the box it came in. It has to be accommodating and accurate to the structure and picture of the story, otherwise, you make it hard on your audience. In an enlightening article, Raindance lists 10 techniques that sell scripts, 8 of which has something to do with genre. So, let's take a look at genre from the perspective of both a buyer and a screenwriter, figure out how it can help or hinder your story, and finally, ways to add or change characteristics of your chosen genre in order to not only write a story that is fresh and original, but one that works well with audiences.
Establishing the genre of your screenplay should be done right at the beginning, because it helps you set up the scope and tone of your story before you're too far in. This article from Raindance is a definitely must-read, because it reveals not only the financial implications of choosing one genre from another, but how important it is to your story to focus your screenwriting energy on a single (or combination of) genre(s).
Here are a few of the tips below:
Find the right genre for the story idea
It may seem like a strange exercise to do at the beginning stages of screenwriting -- or at all. "Doesn't my story kind of decide the genre?" Yes -- kind of, but not really. Choosing one genre over another will eventually meet pretty significant changes in the story later. I mean, you can't exactly take Titanic and attribute to it a different genre, like horror for instance (or even a romantic comedy), and still end up with something that will later go on to make boatload of cash. The love story between a man and woman from opposite ends of the socio-economic poles probably wouldn't work as well if it were a horror film -- and in that same regard, aboard the Unsinkable Titanic? Forget about it.
The single biggest decision you make in the entire writing process occurs right at the beginning, when you are developing your premise, or story idea. The decision is: which genres should I use for this idea? Here’s a shocking but eye-opening fact: 99% of scripts fail at the premise. And why? It’s not because their original story ideas weren’t good. They fail because the writers didn’t know the best genres to use to go from a 1-line idea to 2-hour, 120-page script.
Hit all the genre beats
Again, genres are the packaging that hold these puzzle piece stories, and although these "puzzles" are being made by different people, they start to look similar and contain certain "beats" so they fit inside the packaging more easily. It makes for a streamlined writing experience, but, sure, at times it can feel constricting. However, people have become accustomed to these narrative norms, and expect to see them whenever they see a certain genre (including you), so studying the genre you're working in is absolutely crucial, even if it's just to know which rules you're breaking.
Writers of blockbuster movies always know their genres so well that they hit every one of the story beats unique to their form. In genre writing, this is known as “paying the dues.” And it’s absolutely essential or the audience feels cheated. Remember, they are there to see the story forms they love, so you have to know your genres better than anyone else and give the audience what they crave.
Be original, transcend the genre
If you study genre enough, it's easy to work yourself into a groove that is hard to get yourself out of. Of course, genre films follow a certain structure -- well, not necessarily a structure, more of a series of beats or characteristics that are so prevalent that it would be noticeable to not include them in your story. For example, if you had a horror film, it'd be absolutely unacceptable to tease your audience with getting the full view of the monster throughout the entire film, only to deny them the final satisfaction in the end. But guess what, people who buy scripts don't necessarily want "more of the same," which should be an exciting call to arms for screenwriters to go out and try something new, to push the boundaries of genre by getting creative.
It may surprise you that the biggest reason a reader turns down a script is because it’s “derivative.” That’s a fancy way of saying that the writer hit all the beats of the genre, but nothing more. Readers have read scripts from every genre hundreds of times. So you can’t stand out from the crowd just by “paying the dues.”
I don't think that a commercially viable screenplay necessarily means that it is a good one (or vice versa), but gaining that perspective can only help you. Be sure to read the rest of the Raindance article, since there are a bunch of other great pieces of information about how to treat genre in screenwriting to set yourself up for success as best you can when it comes time to sell your story.
What do you think? How much thought do you put into selecting a genre for your screenplay? Let us known the comments below.