Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is the story limited to compatible subgenres, without mixing metaphors?

As with genre, subgenres can be defined by subject matter (time travel), point of view (satire), source material (docudrama), etc. Stories aren’t strictly marketed by subgenre (subgenres never got their own sections at Blockbuster), but there are usually a lot of clues from the book cover, poster, trailer, or tagline to let you know which one you’ve got. Audiences don’t limit their buying habits quite as strictly by subgenre, (most time travel fans also like space operas, and most fans of romantic comedies also like coming-of-age stories), but everybody has their preferences, which incline them more toward one than another. 

Combining subgenres can be tricky. As with genres, you can mix one or two if you do it right from the beginning, but you can’t switch back and forth at will, and you can’t have it all. Here are just some of the subgenres for major genres:
  • Comedy: romantic comedy, comedy of manners, farce, spoof, satire, dramedy, coming-of-age 
  • Drama: melodrama, soap opera, character study, slice of life, biopic, docudrama, ensemble, romance, coming-of-age 
  • Thriller: noir, procedural, contained, detective, police, spy, revenge, manhunt 
  • Horror: grindhouse, slasher, sexualized monster, gruesome monster, transformation, psychological, black comedy, zombie 
  • Action: superhero, historical adventure, superspy, supercop, martial arts 
  • Science Fiction: dystopian, space opera, space exploration, robot, one step beyond, alien invasion, time travel 
  • Fantasy: fairy tale, magical realism, sword and sorcery, medieval, crossover into fantasy world 
  • Western: spaghetti, elegiac, modern day, cattle drive, lawless town, frontier, revenge 
  • War: biopic, black comedy, men on a mission, heist, docudrama, front lines, coming-of-age 
You can find at least one story that has combined every possible pairing of these subgenres, but some work a lot better than others. It doesn’t make much sense to do a zombie-romance movie (though they have tried it), but it doesn’t make sense to do a zombie-slasher movie, either, since they tap into different fear centers in our brains.

One problem is, as with combined genres, you run into mixed metaphors. It would be ridiculous if, in the middle of Terminator 6, a wizard showed up or a vampire or a singing cowboy, but it would be almost as bad if an alien invasion occurred. That’s a different subgenre, and, most important, a different metaphor, so what would it all mean?

Indeed, there have been several attempts to do World War II-zombie movies or western-zombie movies with no commercial success. As a writer, these are very tempting: “I can’t believe nobody has done this before! It writes itself! And everybody who hears about it says it sounds so cool!” But nobody is ever going to say, “Those two subgenres have different built-in metaphors, so that would be meaningless.” Instead they’ll just watch it and say, “Eh, this isn’t as cool as I thought it was going to be, though I don’t know why.” Or, more likely, they won’t watch it, because the advance word has been so lukewarm.

Each subgenre imposes some subtler restrictions as well. Let’s look at high school movies that are representative of each comedy subgenre:
  • Romantic comedy: Sixteen Candles 
  • Comedy of manners: Clueless 
  • Farce: American Pie 
  • Spoof: Not Another Teen Movie 
  • Satire: Election 
  • Coming-of-age: Gregory’s Girl 
  • Dramedy: Fast Times at Ridgemont High 
These movies are all funny, and they have similar settings and characters, but it would be hard to move any scene from one to another. It would be jarring for Fast Times at Ridgemont High to have a scene that spoofs another movie, just as it wouldn’t work for Not Another Teen Movie to have a sensitively observed moment of truth.

Another reason to stick to one subgenre is point of view. The audience sympathizes with Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, but they also look down on her as a tone-deaf exemplar of a certain type. The comedy of manners is a rather unique subgenre in that it allows the audience to have that sort of limited identification yet still root for the hero. On the other hand, they fully identify with Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, who is on their level. Once you’ve chosen one of those two perspectives, it would be too jarring to jump back and forth between them.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, it combines a very atypical coming-of-age story (in that the man coming of age is 40) with the rising genre of “bro-comedy”


YES, the creature feature, the haunted house movie and the “ten little Indians” thriller.

An Education

YES. The period coming-of-age story.

The Babadook

YES. Possession/grief

Blazing Saddles

YES. On the Western side, it’s a classic “frontier marshall” / railroad scheme.  On the comedy side, it’s a combination of spoof and satire, which is very hard to pull off (Brooks wouldn’t master it again after “Young Frankenstein”) but it works beautifully.

Blue Velvet

YES. the voyeur, crooked small-town movie.

The Bourne Identity

YES.  The CIA dirty tricks conspiracy movie.


YES. The wedding comedy.


YES. the World War 2 resistance movie


YES. Detective, period piece.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Undercover fed.

Do the Right Thing

YES. “Urban”, the day-in-the-life-of-a-city genre. 

The Farewell

YES. Big-lie family gathering

The Fighter

YES. Boxing, addiction, romance, family drama


YES. The princess-marriage plot and the magical curse tale.

The Fugitive

YES. Manhunt and whodunit

Get Out

YES. The “Get out of that house, you idiot!” sub-genre

Groundhog Day

NO. It keeps jumping sub-genres: romantic comedy, black comedy, religious parable, etc. It’s extremely ambitious, and pulls it off.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Boot camp / coming-of-age

In a Lonely Place

YES. the Hollywood movie.

Iron Man

YES. Super-hero and terrorism-thriller, mixed well.

Lady Bird

YES. No sub-genres.

Raising Arizona

YES. A minor sub-genre of noir that the Coens revived from, the fictional film that mimics the absurdities of true-crime stories at their strangest.   


YES. No subgenres.


YES. Civil rights.

The Shining

YES. haunted house, “Gaslight”-type story, and ax murderer.


YES. Also somewhat awkwardly: the bachelor party movie / the food-porn movie (wine-porn in this version)

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Serial killer, FBI

Star Wars

YES. Space opera, sword and sorcery.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. It’s an odd mix of elements, noir, haunted house (the wheezing organ), etc., but it works. 


Brian McLachlan said...

I really like the measurement tool, of "do the metaphors overlap in a successful way?"

But I can't be 100% on board with the writing around it, which suggests that people don't prefer bold mixtures of genres, unless you qualify it as "Traditional American audiences". There aren't the same expectations everywhere, and those types of stories are coming here. Last year EEAAO (not foreign, but heavily influenced by Chinese cinema) and RRR captured people's attention in a way that formulaic Hollywood fare hasn't been. What rubbed some people the wrong way, and excited others could well be because of the genre blending. EEAAO was a sci fi, wire-fu, romance, drama, blue slapstick comedy, art house, melodrama and more. RRR was a period piece, melodrama, bromance, musical, high octane action, revenge thriller (and more). So what may seem out of place to one person, might not feel that way to another, and maybe less so as we are exposed to more diverse stories? Just something to think about if you're working this into a book or something.

Matt Bird said...

This was all already in my book "The Secrets of Story", so too late to change it, but you're right that, in the years since I first wrote it, wild genre mix-ups are more common, but I would argue that you still need to make sure your metaphors all interlock together well, and don't contradict each other.

Nathaniel Webb said...

You could write a whole book on genre, though, hint hint

Matt Bird said...

I totally should. I have a lot to say about genre.