Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Your Genre is Your Taskmaster

This is possibly the number one mistake I see in the manuscripts I read.

You’re written forty pages of great relationship drama and you know that it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. You’ve created deep and rich three-dimensional characters, you’ve imbued them with your own history and pain, and you’ve put them on a collision course, forcing them to deal with their issues and with each other.

But your manuscript begins with an action sequence, has intermittent action sequences throughout, and ends with blowing up an underground lair. Your genre, inescapably, is action, and that forty pages of relationship drama has no action, which means that it has to go, or be significantly transformed.

Your genre is your taskmaster. Action needs action every twenty pages or so. Comedy needs frequent laughs, etc. So what do you do with all that great relationship drama? If you don’t want to lose it, you have to find a way for it to serve the action. The relationship confrontations need to be inextricable from the life-and-death confrontations. The interpersonal breakthroughs need to result in plot breakthroughs. Clocks must always be ticking.

Great writing that violates your genre isn’t great writing. Everything must serve your genre. You either have to jettison a lot of the relationship drama, or you have to jettison the action elements. Good Will Hunting started out as an action script, until they realized that they were doing a better job with the backstory than the frontstory, so they just got rid of the frontstory. Nobody missed it.


Paul Worthington said...

While I certainly see your point -- what about stories that mix genres, as so many do these days, some quite successfully?
My own series is inspired by Twin Peaks, which was a wild mix of murder mystery, comedy, soap opera, and supernatural.
Of course many people hated TP for that reason -- but for the significant number of enthusiastic fans, that mix was a large part of the appeal. It also created an edginess for each scene as it unfolds: is it a scary scene, a funny one, or relationship drama? Will it change unexpectedly from one to the other?
If the writer of the action script in your example cut the relationship, cut the comedy, etc. -- wouldn't it just be a straightforward unsurprising action story? Yes, that would satisfy the many people who want exactly that -- but that doesn't have to be your only goal.

James Kennedy said...

Yes, I second Paul's comment. And you don't have to be a genius like David Lynch to get away with it either. This seems to be one of those pieces of advice that throttles creativity and discourages risk-taking.

Matt Bird said...

I disagree. Twin Peaks, when it was good, was very disciplined in service to its murder mystery. The supernatural element worked because it turned out to be key to the mystery. The tone was sometimes comedic, but there were rarely comedy scenes that didn't serve the mystery. At first there were no purely soap operatic elements that didn't serve the mystery, but the first exception was Lucy's pregnancy, and I remember thinking "What is this shit?" when that scene first aired. Unfortunately, once Lynch was gone, the soap operatic elements overwhelmed the mystery element and the show lost its way (until the finale). If the show had had an episode that never mentioned the mystery before it was solved, that would have been a major misstep, and that's the sort of thing I'm talking about.

Steve Bird said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Annie Hall start out its life as Bullets Over Broadway? Allen eventually resurrected the excised plot and made his originally intended movie years later.