Sunday, October 27, 2013

Genre – What Does It Feel Like, Look Like, Taste Like

I have always had a problem with what makes an individual genre unique.  During a class on horror writing at Screenwriters Expo several years ago, I asked the instructor what makes horror well, horrible.  Her reply was that she had been showing examples of horror films.  Cute, but using examples solely to show the answer are not the answer.

So, what is the answer to the question, “What does genre feel like, look like, taste like?”  Stuart Voytila in his excellent article in The Writer’s Store “Genre Blending: The Romance of Adventure, and the Adventure of Romance (” writes that, “As a simple definition genres are recognizable classifications of stories that are characterized by pre-established conventions.  These conventions can include narrative dynamics, image systems, character archetypes, goals and obstacles, premise and theme, and the story’s arena and location.”  So, what does all this very academic rhetoric mean to the writer person sitting at his or her computer pounding out a story?

Shh, and I will tell you.

The conventions are patterns that have been well-established over hundreds if not thousands of years of storytelling in Western culture.  Each genre has its own particular conventions.  Knowing the conventions of your target genre can help you form your story’s structure, and determine your cast of characters, and the roles they play.

Understanding genre conventions allows you, the writer, to target your story’s audience.  People who attend movies have certain expectations when they watch a thriller, a romantic comedy or a horror film.  You need to not only meet your audiences’ expectation but exceed them.  As you become experienced in writing in your familiar genre, you can start to mix the genres and enlarge your palette.

The following are explanations of some of the major genres.  Your mileage may differ.

The Adventure Genre – The story’s central struggle is for the hero to tackle the adventure and remains focused on the primary physical goal.  Despite secondary goals and journeys that complicate the adventure, the hero remains dead-set on the larger physical goal at hand and in the end the hero alone triumphs.

The Romance Genre – The story’s central struggle is between two people where love is forbidden whether due to class, culture, religion, or social conventions.  The lovers live in a world in crisis and are torn between two goals: their love and the higher cause (patriotic, professional, family obligation, or other) where the question is whether the lovers will choose love or the higher cause.

Detective Story/Courtroom Drama – The story’s central struggle is to find out what really happened and thus to expose the truth.

Epic/Myth – The story’s central struggle plays out in the midst of a clash of great forces or in the sweep of great historical change.

Fantasy/Science Fiction – The story’s central struggle plays out in two worlds - the "real" world and an imaginary world or a world formed from technology and tools of a scientifically imaginable world.

Gangster - Commonly blended with film noir, this genre is where the story’s central struggle is between a criminal and society.

Social Drama - : The story’s central struggle is between the hero and a problem or injustice in society where the hero has a personal stake in the outcome of the struggle.

Have I answered the original question of-“ What does genre feel like, look like, taste like?”  Partly.  You need to answer the rest.  What does genre feel like, look like, taste like to you?  Remember, you as a writer are writing for the mass market.  Therefore, come to an understanding about genre and apply that to your stories.  However, I think you should avoid the horror/gangster/comedy sub-genre for right now.  Get a few more scripts under your belt.  Then, maybe.

3.  Knowledge

In screenwriting, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Meaning, a small amount of knowledge can cause writer folk to think they are more expert than they are and consequently make unwise choices.  Learning about writing in general and screenwriting in particular is an on-going process that requires maintenance and is never complete.  Writers continually struggle against ignorance; while many achieve progress, there is always more to learn.

As writers, we need to experience life.  No, I do not mean a drug and debauchery filled weekend in Vegas.  You need to get out from your echo chamber and engage life.  Have a hobby.  Learn carpentry, bird watching, something.  Spend a couple of years in the Peace Corps.  Join the military for a few years.  Get a life.

As you write more, you can write more.  But sheer writing is only half the equation.  You need to get better at it.  How do you get better at writing?  You learn from others.  You get involved in screenwriting groups.  You take classes at the local university.  You go to various screenwriting events.  You get paid advice from experts.  And, yes you do need to separate the wheat from the chaff.  However, you cannot do this if you do not get out there and participate beyond your own navel.

Knowledge is the end product of learning-a concrete thing you cannot buy off the shelf.  Knowledge comes from assimilating information from various sources whether you agree or no. 

Before anyone starts quoting-

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) - An Essay on Criticism.  “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.

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