Movie Critiques
Top 20 Problems
Human Condition
What Kind World?
Read for Fun
Home Page
Reference Shelf
Story Ideas
Choosing A Genre

From Writers Workshop Script Doctor  

Copyright © 1994, 1996, 1998
Dorian Scott Cole

Genre Is Perspective, Mood, and Style

What mood are you in today? Feeling a little mysterious, devilish, wanting to intrigue those around you? Or perhaps adventurous, just throw caution to the wind and dive into some new adventure. Or maybe rough, tough, brawling, hard driving, hard drinking - daring to ride any wild stallion. Or fun, full of life, ready to laugh. Or maudlin, crying in your beer, in the depths of despair. Or hungry for experience, ready to feel life in its broadest depths, wanting your soul to be stirred. These feelings can be translated directly into a genre.

Genres are simply the classifications of literature. The broader classification includes drama, comedy and action-adventure. These are artificial lines and all genres can overlap. Drama often has comic moments. Action-adventure often has drama and comedy, etc. These three may be pure, or may have one or more of the following genres within them: horror, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, suspense (or thriller), western, romance, spy (mystery/intrigue). For example, horror and westerns are usually drama, but could be action-adventure, or even comedy. Classifying stories by genre helps people select movies and helps them define their expectations for the movie. 

The most important thing is not to confuse people. If people go to see a mystery, they will be confused by seeing fantasy. If they go to see a spy story, expecting a huge dose of international intrigue and action-adventure, they don't want to see what is primarily a love story about a woman dying of cancer. The spy can fall in love, and she can die of cancer, but it has to be a subplot and a very limited one at that. 

In general, when you choose a genre you should choose the ones you like best because you will probably be more familiar with the types of stories that work well in that genre and with the rhythm of the writing. But when you want to be different, when you're in a "mood," use this as a guide.

The genre you choose - drama, comedy, action-adventure - will most likely reflect an attitude and perspective about the story you write, but not necessarily your own perspective. Any topic and any situation can be delivered in any of these formats. For example, a plane about to crash can have many aspects. It might be written as a very dramatic and insightful event that makes people dig deep within themselves. It may have a humorous side - humor in the face of impending death - that may reflect in a light way what is deep inside, before they get planted deep within the earth. Or it could involve a lot of action-adventure: perilous circumstances and people who boldly face death together. Each one of these approaches is able to make the same points, it's just a matter of emphasis. And each genre will usually have elements of the other genres in them, it's just a matter of emphasis.

Every story, even science fiction and far-out comedy are about life. They tell us something about the human condition. In comedy we laugh at ourselves or the silly and unexpected. In science fiction we ponder the blanks in our knowledge. In horror we confront our fears. In action, we enjoy life and explore our fantasies. In drama we see various dimensions of ourselves. All stories, even if just for entertainment or escapism, talk about life - it's a matter of the attitude they are presented with. And if it entertains or informs, it affects our attitude.

Every genre has a unique set of characteristics influenced even by the medium it will appear in. For example, comedy may include many types, but for TV is largely situation comedy. The TV sitcom is not like a feature film situation comedy. Episodic TV uses the same characters every week and everything is resolved in a short time frame - a week or so for the story period, and a half-hour for the show. But feature film may develop several situations, one after another, in a comedy that covers several months or years, and you have ninety to one-hundred-twenty minutes to work with. Plus the subjects in feature film are usually bigger, and the scenes include more settings, especially outside. Following are a few tips about various genres. 

Comedy: Highest Art

I used to be very serious, never smiled, thought everything had to be serious and relevant. Comedy was for the feeble minded who only ignored reality. Then I met my future wife. She called my sister a "conversation piece." I smiled, and married her. Later she told me I was twenty-eight going on eighty-two. I smiled again and liked it. She had changed me. Life doesn't have to be all serious. When people lose their sense of humor, they pick up their guns. Make them laugh, they put their guns down. Humor makes the toughest medicine a little easier to swallow. I think comedy is the highest art. It allows us to peek in our darkest corners without fear, and without picking up a gun. 

Comedy has two categories which often overlap. One style leans toward farce. There is nothing important going on, except poking fun at some target. With one liners and humorous situations and maybe some slapstick, the bungling continuous uproariously to the end. The laughs often come from the special talents of character actors. Farce often contains the elements of neurotic reactions and insane situations. 

Situation comedy, on the other hand, takes a serious theme and portrays it in a humorous light. Many stories, like the TV series Mash, use both types of humor; and farce usually has some serious target, like the absurdities of bureaucracy. 

Characterization is different for the two types of comedy. In situation comedy, the central character drives the story forward and changes during the story. He will usually be a fairly normal person in situations that are close to reality, but treated with humor. For example, Charles may be a "no account" who is compelled by his attraction to a sophisticated banker to improve himself. He's a lovable guy who is easy to identify with, even if he has no past accomplishments. So we watch him stumble all over himself trying to learn social graces and win the lady. In another comedy, Chuck may be a bungling nitwit whom others use. But he is a nice guy and in the end his goodness defeats the people who are using him, giving him the last laugh.

In a farce, character motivations are likely to be irrational, such as compulsive decisions driven by strange fetishes and eccentric tastes, or even neurotic behavior. We laugh at the unexpected, but in farce the unexpected is totally divorced from reality. For example, a character might be so frightened by water that he will only drink it through a straw from a covered cup. He lives in the desert and takes baths with sand. He takes his dates on boat cruises in the sand, paddling around in a sailboat on wheels. The lady who likes him has a clean fetish and her principal desire is to take a bath with him. The chemistry is explosive. In The Pink Panther, Inspector Cluseau (Peter Sellers) subjects himself to unexpected martial arts attacks which happen even when he is making love. 

Audiences typically expect one type of comedy or the other, but some films successfully blend them. In the film Three Fugitives, Martin Short plays a man who desperately wants his daughter back, something very human and very important to him. But he gets in one zany situation after another trying to reach his goal, and little Martin is whipped around like a puppet in the hands of massive Nick Nolte. However, I think it is easier for a farce to have situation comedy elements, than for situation comedy to use farce. 

The pace of comedy is usually fast, unlike drama where the viewer is allowed to dwell on lines and scenes. Comedy works when it moves crisply along, in most scenes, so events happen more frequently than in slower genres and dialogue lines are crisp (short and focused). But comedy can be just as revealing about the human condition as drama, if meanings are more obvious. 

Romantic Comedy: Always Good

A comedy division that is a genre of its own is romantic comedy. This is comedy that is primarily about the relationship between men and women. Love is the primary element of the plot, not the subplot. Romantic comedy always sells well.

Action/Adventure: Best Seller

Action-adventure is the genre that sells best. On one hand, it might be James Bond, the archetypical macho good guy who does one daring thing after another, and attracts women like fleas to a furry cat - pure escapism. On the other, it might be a real father in a real situation saving his family by fleeing terrorists deep in a hostile jungle. During the drama, his teenage daughter may succumb to a terrifying attack of killer zits and refuse to be seen by her boyfriend, who happens to be with them, bringing cooperation to an all-time low and death a step closer.

Although action-adventure needs strong characters with convincing motivation, the emphasis is on the situation, not character depth. However, conquering the situation will still usually cause character change (but not Bond, who is an archetype).

The pace in action-adventure is fast, with events coming quickly. Dialogue is usually very direct and obvious. Emotions are explored much more selectively. For example there are few scenes which drag by mourning some tragedy, but plenty celebrating accomplishment, discovery, victory, etc.

Mystery, Suspense Thrillers

Mystery and suspense are often lumped together, but they are very different styles. When I was seven, some friends in the small town where I lived would walk uptown to watch the current movie, which was often a horror movie. For the character, it was usually a mystery. He wanted to get to the bottom of some mysterious occurrence - figure out "who done it." But for the audience it was pure suspense. We knew the monster had done it, and were waiting for the heroine to fall into his waiting hands. As the monster lurked in the shadows, the heroine would open the door. I would stand up in the theater seat and tell the heroine not to go in - the suspense was that gripping.

The walk back, late at night, was filled with mystery and suspense. We knew the monster waited for us somewhere. The mystery was in knowing where he lurked. The suspense was in anticipating his appearance. Downtown, old buildings loomed over us, staring vacant eyes hungry for young blood. What evil lurked therein? The old library peered menacingly down the hill at us, friend in the daytime, Mr. Hyde at night. The sidewalk stretched ominously across devil's canyon, which was so deep no one had ever fully explored it and several people were lost in it - a mystery almost too dark to contemplate. We always ran past the graveyard, shadows hiding mysteries we dared not allow in our minds, tree branches from great old trees groped the darkness for us as we ran. And finally, in a state of mindless terror, we walked the last stretch of dark streets with no sidewalks and few houses, anticipating the certain appearance of the monster who must be hiding in the weeds or the ditch.

The pace of mystery and suspense is usually average. The emotional focus is on discovery and tension. For thrillers, the pace may be fast at times and slow at times, depending on the focus, but tension remains high.

Setting the stage for horror. First you need to establish a good myth, or superstition, at the beginning. This "loads the motif and symbols," so the audience is primed to be terrorized. Mystery and suspense are elements which can be added to heighten interest. With suspense, the audience is often aware of the danger, but the character is not.

Plot dramatic tension. In a horror thriller, the tension should be present at the first, and like the increasing speed of a steam engine, mount with each puff until the train is hurtling along as if fleeing the gates of Hell. 

Subplot tension: The subplot should increase tension by interfering with the character's attempts to avoid the horror. This should help land them all in jeopardy.

Symbols & motifs. Horror is a natural symbol and motif arena. But to make it scary, you need to load the symbols and load the motif. That means, a scary wolf is a scary wolf until you load it with a supernatural aura that means something specific - like it used to belong to a witch who hated little girls. Then when we see the wolf approach a little girl, it's a terrifying wolf. Same with the motif. It's only a scary forest until we give it a horrifying past. 

An evil myth, or superstition, is the best way to do the loading. For example, a house where someone died is a relatively normal house. But make it the home of a cannibalistic ax murderer who buried his victims in the basement, and there are secret passages in the house, and the man was never found - just grew uglier and meaner - no one will ever want to go in.

Settings. Horrifying things are probably most frightening in broad daylight in normal daily surroundings; which means there is no escape from the horror. However, much can be done through settings. Removed from his normal environment, and put in an unknown environment, especially one filled with evil symbols and motifs, like an old haunted house with a dark and dank basement, next to a cemetery filled with tilted headstones and crypts, the character and audience are transported into a very suggestible state. 

Imagination. Developing suspense in horror is effectively done by showing very little and leaving a lot to the imagination. Hollywood special effects, overdone, can literally take the fear out of horror. Hollywood magic makes a creature come to life before our eyes where we can see and know our enemy, instead of allowing it to lurk in the shadows where we only snatch glimpses of it and fear it. As soon as we begin to know something, we begin to conquer it. The less shown of the unknown, the better. When you have to show something, let it be the most fearful part of the creature, like a steel claw or the damage it does, while leaving its full destructive potential to the imagination.

The chase. Each battle in horror should include the following elements: 1) Fear: frightened by surroundings, noises, etc. 2) Isolation from help, whether from people or weapons 3) Mystery: what is going to get me? 4) Suspense: anticipating when is it going to get me. 5) Duration: The battle should go on for some time. 6) Limited access to escape or weapons. 7) Mounting tension: Most battles should have several rounds that get worse, with the previous elements repeating. 


Tragedy is the genre to be wary of. The ancient Greeks may have written all the tragedy the world needs. In the classical definition of tragedy, the character has a tragic flaw, a character defect that will most certainly lead him to a fatal end. In real life, it definitely happens. Juliets kill themselves because their love is dead. People battle alcohol and depression and lose. People are too daring and lose their lives. Others are too careless and cause others to suffer. People make wrong choices and end up murdering someone. 

These stories are in the papers every day. But what people want to see is the victories. How does Juliet get beyond her addiction to Romeo so her life isn't dependent on his? How do people triumph over alcoholism and depression? How do daring people learn to control the odds - calculated risks? How do people who can't comprehend cause and consequence learn to be safe? How do people stirred to the brink of taking another's life learn to resolve problems? The tragedy of tragedy is that it doesn't have to be.

Tragic elements are often used very successfully in movies even though tragic themes donít sell. For example, in thrillers, the maniac doing the killing is a person with a tragic flaw - he will kill until he is killed. To wit: Fatal Attraction.

Page URL: