Unfortunately, like everything else in this series, the definition is fuzzy…
“Genre” can be defined by a movie’s setting (western), type of action (kung fu), type of concept (sci-fi), type of situation
(thriller), the presence of a certain type of scene (musical) or its overall
feeling (comedy and drama). As a
result, almost every movie falls into more than one genre, and yet the fine
folks at Blockbuster Video, back in the day, had no problem sorting each box
into only one slot. How did they
When thinking about genre, you need to put yourself in the
shoes of that Blockbuster clerk, which will remind you that “genre” is all
about marketing: it’s a way of connecting you to the customers who are
interested in the story you want to tell.
First a foremost a genre is a set of pre-established
expectations that lives in the head of an audience. When you choose to associate your story with a certain genre
(and almost everybody does), then you’re implicitly promising that you will
fulfill most of those expectations.
Many writers falsely assume that the audience always wants
to see a movie where “anything can happen”, but audiences actually fear and
shun those movies. We select a
genre for the same reason that we select a type of restaurant: to limit the
menu. We want to be re-assured
that only a certain number of things can happen.
Curry, for some reason, makes my stomach lurch, so I have to
order carefully at Indian restaurants.
At every other type of restaurant, I don’t worry about it: I can simply
presume that my favorite Italian place will never use curry. Likewise, if you don’t like
song-and-dance numbers, then you’ll carefully avoid musicals, but you won’t even
worry when you watch a thriller, comfortable that you’re in safe hands.
More than that, most genres lend themselves to certain
thematic dilemmas: westerns tend to be about individualism vs. societal needs,
sci-fi is often about innovation vs. tradition, comedies are about fun vs.
responsibility, while dramas pit two incompatible responsibilities
against each other. These also
become part of what an audience expects when they choose that genre.
Genres also establish how the characters will act. In most
genres, we expect the behavior of the characters to reflect human nature, but
there are exceptions. As I pointed out before, nobody in the real world
has ever said, “a serial killer is obsessed with me, so I’ll kill him myself
without going to the cops”, but it happens all the time in thrillers. At the end of Strangers on a Train, it’s ridiculous for Guy to go after Bruno
himself, except for the fact that thriller fans would be disappointed if he
Mixing genres can be done, but there’s always a danger that
you’ll lose the metaphor. Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slater” masterfully
combined realistic coming-of-age stories with outlandish horror by using each
to comment on the other: in one
the world feels like it’s ending, and in the other it actually is. But Whedon had less success with his
next two shows, both of which combined two outlandish genres. “Angel” was Horror / Private Eye, and
“Firefly” was Western / Sci-Fi.
Both shows had a lot of neat stuff on the screen, but neither resonated
with me. Those genres work well as metaphors, but mixing the genres just mixed those metaphors, until lost any connection to real emotions in my life.
Most importantly, if you’re going to mix genres, you have to
do it from the beginning. Nothing
kills a movie faster than switching genres later on in the process. Both “Lost”
and “Battleship Galactica” appealed primarily to science fiction fans, but
after the writers lost control of those stories they decided to end them with
some version of, “Well, there is no plausible explanation for what’s happened
at this point, so let’s just say God was responsible for all the weirdness for
some reason that we cannot divine.”
In both cases, the fans were not
Every genre is a trade off: you agree to write within
certain pre-established expectations, and in return you get a pre-selected
audience. It’s a great power that
comes with great responsibility.
Up next: Subgenre.