LESSON 1

Choose Your Genre

“The writer was at sea and so was the reader… there was more ease in the writing tasks when the right film genre or genre hybrid was embraced.”

Jule Selbo
Film Genre for the Screenwriter

What kind of film do you want to write?

If you already have the beginnings of an idea, which films can you compare it to?

We’re going to ask you to choose a genre for your screenplay, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change it later.

Choosing a genre early helps you to get started and stay focused.

What is genre?

Genre is originally a French word meaning “type” or “kind.” It’s how movies get classified or categorized. Popular genres include action, adventure, drama, comedy, fantasy, science fiction (sci-fi), thriller, horror, and romantic comedy.

Each genre has recognizable qualities called conventions. These elements of similarity conform to audience expectations. They are types of settings, characters, plots, themes, mood, and tone.

Like our culture, genre conventions aren’t carved in stone. They evolve, grow, adapt, and change.

As you develop your screenplay, you’ll benefit from knowing the expectations that go with your chosen genre. Its conventions are like a roadmap or list of check boxes for what you could include in your screenplay.

The earlier you establish and meet the expectations, the better.

For example, in the first pages of a horror screenplay, the screenwriter introduces danger, eeriness, or a glimpse of the terror that’s about to get unleashed. Action screenplays have an early fast-paced, high-energy sequence that might include stunts, a fight scene, or a frantic chase. Comedy screenwriters inject humor into their opening pages.

You might think, wait, isn’t that going to limit my creativity?

Not at all. The principle of creative limitations allows the creative freedom to invent and improvise within a space bigger than you realize.

Titanic, Pride and Prejudice, and Notting Hill all fall under the romance genre. Yet each is distinct (and loved by audiences worldwide).

Part of the creative trick behind these films is to mix genres. If done right, merging different genres in one story allows for fresh and exciting storytelling.

Consider the first of the Alien franchise, which was released in 1979. You could call it a hybrid genre or a subgenre of either sci-fi or horror. Whatever the case, it has conventions from both sci-fi and horror.

Its spaceship and distant moon are settings typical of sci-fi. Most scenes take place in the spaceship — an enclosed space reminiscent of a haunted house. The latter, of course, is a familiar setting found in horror.

The characters are mainly scientists and space transportation personnel (sci-fi) who get preyed upon by a monster (horror).

Thematic elements include discovering a new species (sci-fi) and facing a threat to the human species (horror).

Embracing genre helps us figure out where to start and how to proceed. We can create something fresh and new while also giving the reader and audience what they’ll recognize and understand.

You’ll have to choose a genre, hybrid, or subgenre at some point because whoever wants to assess or buy your screenplay will want to know the genre it’s written in.

Choosing early on makes the screenwriting process a lot more efficient.


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Which films do you admire?

Is there a recurring genre or hybrid?

What kind of film do you want to write? Which films are similar to what you have in mind?


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Look up the films’ genres on IMDb and read their interpretations of genre.

Note down your own interpretations of what kind of film you want to write.

Explore the following resources for more on genre:

For more in-depth reading, try these books:

An Introduction to Film Genres by Lester Friedman, David Desser, Sarah Kozloff, Martha Nochimson, and Stephen Prince

Film Genre for the Screenwriter by Jule Selbo


Ready for the first exercise?

EXERCISE 1
Choose Your Genre

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