I have gotten to know a lot of screenwriters through the years. In talking with or interviewing them, one thing I find they pretty much have in common: They know their genre.
That is a lesson for all of us.
When you write an original screenplay within a specific genre, you really should know the heart, soul and guts of that genre. This will inform every step of your creative and writing process: concept, character development, brainstorming, plotting, tone, style, atmosphere, voice, pace, and so on. There are patterns, tropes, memes and attributes common to certain genres, and you need to know as much about them as possible, if you want to follow, reverse or break those conventions.
If you are an action writer, you need to know the action genre.
If you are a comedy writer, you need to know the comedy genre.
If you are a science fiction writer, you need to know the science fiction genre.
And so forth down the list of genres, sub-genres and cross genres.
There are so many reasons why this is the case. Here are a few:
* Knowing a genre means you will be informed about what has come before which can help you avoid too closely duplicating scenes or key beats in previous movies. An homage is one thing. Unknowingly mimicking a familiar beat not only means you will have to change that bit of business, it will also convey to a Hollywood insider you aren’t steeped all that well in the genre. On the other hand, if you do have extensive awareness of a genre, that can raise the comfort level of a potential buyer.
* Knowing a genre means you can be inspired by other movies in that arena. Think of any Quentin Tarantino movie, each of them standing on the shoulders of dozens of predecessor films, even to the point where he will cast actors from those movies as a way of honoring them. If you are smart, you can refer obliquely to famous bits in previous movies and they can work as an homage, a great way to draft on successful moments in prior films.
* Knowing a genre means you will understand whether you are inclined to write within that genre or not. If you find it easy to watch horror movie after horror movie as part of your personal education, chances are you have the inclination, even the passion to write within that genre. If, however, it is a struggle for you to watch movies or read scripts in a specific genre, that’s probably an indication you should look elsewhere to find what type of stories turn you on creatively.
There’s a whole other aspect of knowing your genre: Hollywood will pigeonhole you.
If you get known as a writer who does sports dramas, you will get offered lots of sports dramas.
If you become known as a writer who does broad physical comedies, you will get offered a lot of broad physical comedies.
If you are known as a writer who does turgid period pieces about bipolar quadrasexual polar bears who speak in Norwegian subtitles… well, you’re probably not working in Hollywood. But you get my point.
Hollywood is a busy damn place and people there tend to operate in shorthand. “That writer is good with dialogue… He’s great with character-oriented projects… That team really gets frustration comedies.”
There are several reasons why this state of affairs exists. First and foremost, a predominant way studio executives look at writers is that we are problem-solvers. The exec has a project that needs a rewrite, a fresh take, a new set of eyes. So if the project is, let’s say, an R-rated adolescent romp in the vein of American Pie, the exec will more than likely look for a writer who has a track record in that area. This is only natural. If the studio is going to commit dollars to a writer, that writer has to hit the studio’s comfort level. Who would they be more comfortable with: A writer with an established set of writing credits in the specific genre of the project in question or a writer with background in some other area?
Contributing to the state of affairs is the attitude of most managers and agents. Whereas execs look at writers as problem-solvers, reps tend to operate on a line of least resistance approach toward their clients. Being both smart and busy, agents and managers tend to slot the writer into projects that are the easiest deals to make happen. If your claim to fame is aggressive action movies with lots of spilled blood, chances are you’re going to have an uphill slog landing that OWA on an adaptation of the YA title “Summer Camp Puppy Love.” Indeed it’s highly dubious your rep would consider putting you up for that, even if expressed an interest in the project. Why? Because they know your chances of landing the gig are minimal given your area of supposed expertise.
Here is an excerpt from an interview with manager-producer Adam Kolbrenner, founder of Madhouse Entertainment:
The real true evaluation of a manager comes down to the ability to help you navigate and ultimately not waste time on scripts and ideas you shouldn’t be writing… What’s your voice, what are the stories you want to tell, and how are we going to get there together… If a writer comes to me and they’re a great thriller writer, an action writer, and they pitch me an interesting comedy idea, okay great. Don’t write that.
Don’t write that. Your rep is thinking not only about your next writing gig, but also your career. While there are some writers who write multiple genres, most focus in one area. That becomes your line of least resistance to continued employment as a writer in Hollywood.
So yet another reason to delve into genres – watching movies, reading scripts – is to surface what specific arena interests you most, where you talent best lies, and what you have the most passion for. Because if you’re going to be put on a Hollywood list noted for writing a certain genre, you want to be sure that is something you can work at with enthusiasm for at least 5-7 years. At that point, you can, if you choose, stretch your creative wings by writing a spec script in another genre, break into TV, become a mime… whatever you want because if you are successful, you should have the funds saved up to bankroll your reinvention.
But the first step in all of this is to know your genre. Here are the big eight: Action, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller.
What’s your genre?