Breaking Free of Genre

Genre is a much discussed, often little understood, idea.

What genre essentially means to you, the writer, is a set of conventions and tropes that define a particular kind of story and storytelling format.

For screenwriters, genre can either be a blessing or a torturous curse. I continually advise new writers to steer clear of genre pieces for their early works, because the conventions of genre can completely bog them down in a mire of external expectations that can distort their creative vision to the point of utter narrative paralysis. The trick to really making genre work for you, rather than against you, is to learn to use its conventions in the service of your own ideas, and as a springboard for new twists on old themes. If you let the dictates of genre rule your script, the result will be an unintentional self-parody of clichés and predictable situations that will fall flat on its face.

Because many of the cinematic standards of genre were defined long ago, a writer must rely upon a few tricks in order to take the form into a new direction.

The Standard Ingredients

A great example of a genre-defining standard is the film noir classic, Double Indemnity. What marks this as noir are a combination of visual stylizations (such as stark lighting to enhance a mood of paranoia and impending tragedy), and narrative tropes. In this film, a few of these tropes are:

  • The doomed protagonist.
  • The femme fatale.
  • The hard-boiled first-person voiceover narration.
  • The snappy, tough-talking dialogue.
  • The double-cross.

If you write a story that were to include all of these elements, you might have something that looked like noir, sounded like noir, and may even have a lot in common with noir, but might also be quite unintentionally laughable.

Not only have all of these elements been done to death, but Double Indemnity was written by two of the greatest masters of the form, Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. How can you compete with those factors hanging over your head?

You can’t. And you shouldn’t try.

Instead, you need to utilize these old forms as springboards for new ideas. This can best be accomplished in two ways; undermining expectation, and synergetic fusion.

Undermining Expectation

The expectations created by genre are so ingrained into audiences, that many films have parodied genre tropes. Think of the way the Naked Gun series both deconstructs and exaggerates the conventions of the crime and suspense genres for our amusement. You, too, can utilize this kind of departure from convention — not necessarily just for comedic effect, but for surprising, strong dramatic effect.

A great example is the use of many of the same tropes used in Double Indemnity were used in Blade Runner, yet were metamorphosed into something new.

  • The doomed protagonist: Deckard is a cop, yet once we understand that the replicants are fighting for their lives, it seems that Deckard’s job may not be as noble as we thought. As Deckard comes to understand the replicants’ point of view, partially via his love for Rachael, he finally achieves redemption instead of facing the kind of untimely end he might have met in standard noir.
  • The femme fatale: Rachael seems cool and aloof at first, yet when she learns that she is a replicant, she becomes scared and vulnerable. Yet her role is really that of love interest temporarily clothed as femme fatale. A better candidate might be Pris, the pleasure-model replicant, who does actually use her powers of seduction to convince J. F. Sebastian to let her stay with him. Yet she does not spin a web of allure and deceit around the main character as would a real femme fatale. The narrative essentially splits the role between the three women in the film; Rachael, Pris, and Zhora — this last one possibly the most archetypal combination of seductiveness and deadliness, or as Captain Bryant says of her, “Talk about beauty and the beast — she’s both.” The story has an unusual position on women, in that all of the females in the story are replicants. Only Rachael, who has been in a sense “domesticated” by her memory implants (including one of a loving mother), is the one whom with it is safe for Deckard to associate.
  • The hard-boiled first-person voiceover narration: This trope was not significantly undermined, but its presence shows that not every element needs to be changed. Significantly, the narration was added to the film after the fact, and is not part of the original screenplay or the superior director’s cut.
  • The snappy, tough-talking dialogue: The difference in Blade Runner‘s dialogue is that it is loaded with the technical language and unusual expectations of a science fiction universe, thus it undermines expectation as the product of the fusion of two genres (more detail below).
  • The double-cross: Deckard goes against his official orders when he goes away with Rachael instead of killing her. This is unusual in that is is a double-cross for love, rather than greed, lust, or self-preservation as seen in typical noir.

Synergetic Fusion

The idea of synergy is very important, and is usually described as a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The way in which this applies to genres is that a fantastic way to revive stale genres is to fuse them with other genres.

Again, Blade Runner is a valuable example. It fuses the elements of detective and noir films with that of a science fiction meditation on the nature of humanity. The result is an astonishing blend of the two that redefines both of the genres in new and unexpected ways. Each genre, in fact, helps redefine and subvert the expectations of the other.

The detective genre aspects of Blade Runner are completely transformed by the demands of its science fiction genre aspects, and vice versa. The detective, Deckard, is really a paid assassin; thus a traditional good guy is now, in one respect, a bad guy (which defines him as an anti-hero). The science fiction story is given all the trappings of a detective story, which provides an archetypal quest framework for the film’s deep meditations about humanity and morality. Together, the two genres reinforce and enrich each other in order to create an intriguing tapestry of old ideas explored in brand new ways.

This idea of fusion of genres has become more and more common as writers look for new ways to expand their storytelling style and repertoire, while at the same time paying homage to the genres they love. Not only are such films fusions of genres, but also these fusions are often between a film’s disparate plotlines. Some recent examples:

  • Witness: Plotwise a thriller, subplotwise a love story.
  • The People vs. Larry Flynt: The plot is basically Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (a man against the state), subplot A is a Horatio Alger success story, subplot B is a tragic love story. And while all of these genres are typically associated with noble characters, the big twist here is that the main character is a notorious publicity-seeking smut-peddler.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey: Plotwise a fusion of both science fiction and thriller genres, subplotwise an exploration of the evolution of consciousness. The result is almost a fusion of mainstream and experimental film.
  • Blade Runner: The plot is Deckard’s detective story, subplot A is the love story between Deckard and Rachael, and subplot B is another detective story — the replicants’ search for more life.

Fusion of genres not only revives stale story elements by creating mutant hybrids with other genre tropes, but gives you a chance as a writer to cram so much more into your narratives. You can:

  • Use one genre to comment upon the other: The love story in Witness, set in context of the pacifist Amish community, comments upon the violence inherent in the genre-world of the thriller.
  • Draw parallels between the genres to illustrate your theme: In Romancing the Stone, main character Joan Wilder’s life is somehow lacking. Once she is drawn into the adventure of the film, it brings new, unexpected excitement to her life, and allows the romantic comedy between Joan and Jack to come to life. The story posits that love is like an adventure — even the jewel that they find is called El Corazon (“the heart”) and is a symbol for their discovery of love.
  • Undermine the expectations of one genre by allowing another genre to provide resolutions to story problems: A straightforward example occurs in Star Wars IV: A New Hope during Luke’s attempt to destroy the Death Star. He needs to precisely hit a tiny vent with a bomb, essentially a technical demand of the science fiction side of the story. Yet in order to do this, he needs to give in to the fantasy demand of giving in to the higher power of the Force.

There are many more examples of the ways in which you can mix and match genres and their demands in order to create the new and unexpected. Always be on the lookout for new ways to accomplish this task; such inventiveness is a writer’s bread and butter.

Mix ‘n’ Match

Here is a short list of basic genres. Which combinations have never been done? Not many. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com) lists dozens of genre and trope-related keywords, including such specifics as “nunsploitation” and “dying during sex.” This also proves that genre designations are sometimes fairly arbitrary, and genres cannot always be clearly defined. In addition, my list is very small — given the unlimited number of possibilities.

The two meta-genres are simply comedy and drama. All other genres can be fused with these two, to produce what are usually considered to be individual genres, rather than fusions, such as romantic comedy. Typically, drama is assumed unless a work is designated as comedy.

  • Western: Common Sub-categories
    traditional western: The Searchers, High Noon
    western comedy: Blazing Saddles, A Million Ways to Die in the West
    spaghetti western: A Fistful of Dollars, Hang ‘Em High
  • Romance: Common sub-categories
    romantic comedy: Four Weddings & A Funeral, The Breakup
    romantic tragedy: Romeo & Juliet, Love Story
    romantic adventure: African Queen, Romancing the Stone
  • Detective/Noir: Common Sub-categories
    hard-boiled: LA Confidential, The Big Sleep
    gangland: White Heat, The Untouchables
    psychological: D.O.A., Vertigo
    neo-noir: The Last Seduction, Body Heat
  • Science Fiction: Common Sub-categories
    sci-fi action: Demolition Man, Total Recall
    sci-fi adventure: Star Wars and Star Trek films
    sci-fi horror: Alien, The Thing
  • Horror: Common Sub-categories
    slasher flick: the Halloween and Friday the 13th series
    gothic horror: The Shining, Crimson Peak
    monster movie: Godzilla, Jaws
  • Thriller/Suspense: Common Sub-categories
    legal thriller: Suspect, Presumed Innocent
    political/conspiracy thriller: 3 Days of the Condor, Conspiracy Theory
    technothriller: Crimson Tide, Air Force One
  • Action: Common Sub-categories
    action/adventure: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pirates of the Caribbean
    martial arts: Enter the Dragon; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    disaster film: San Andreas, Armageddon
    testosterone poisoning: Commando, Cobra

In order to really revitalize a genre and make it your own, it is important that you really understand its conventions and forms inside and out. Then you can convert these forms to your own purposes, instead of merely regurgitating them and letting them dictate your story to you.

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