5 Ways to Use Genre to Solve Story Problems
August 30, 2019
“I’m struggling to solve story problems in my screenplay, can you help?”
When you’re stuck trying to figure out your story structure, including specific beats, turn to genre. Your genre choice guides a significant number of story decisions, including where to innovate and where you might want to break convention. When you rely on your genre, you’re much better equipped to fully deliver on your story’s promise.
Here’s how you can put genre to work in your screenplay.
- Orient your audience
Signal genre to your audience through world building, setting, tone, and more. Movie goers are clued into genre from the moment they see a movie poster, read the logline, or glance at a film’s categories. Genre helps studios market your movie and helps an audience decide whether they want to see it. It’s also a part of what helps you pitch your story.
As a writer, when you know your genre, you know where you are and what you’re doing. It’s easier for you to stay oriented, as well. Oddly enough, it isn’t always easy to pinpoint your genre however, so putting in some study and research time can help you clarify.
- Meet audience expectations
Genre helps your audience know what to expect from a story. It’s your promise to them. When your readers and viewers enter a story world oriented to a specific genre, but you don’t fulfill your promise, that’s a recipe for frustration, disappointment and bad reviews. Give your audience what they signed up for, so they feel satisfied by your story.
A sci-fi story without proper demonstrations of the world’s technology and setting, for instance, will annoy an audience and break their suspension of disbelief. A mystery without an intriguing red herring or a chance for your audience to try to figure out the clues before your protagonist, will similarly let your audience down.
Knowing what expectations you’re implicitly promising to fulfill by writing a certain kind of genre better equips you to solve story challenges as you write.
- Design and structure your story
Your genre also offers a tremendous amount of guidance about what happens at each point along your protagonist’s journey. When you’re not clear on the midpoint or climax of your story, for example, your genre can guide you to insights about how your story can turn or end.
For example, at the midpoint of a story, new information is revealed that changes the protagonist’s perspective of their world, ups the stakes, and reinforces the story’s goals.
When you look at midpoint in the context of genre, what happens? In a mystery, new information might be uncovered about the true nature of the crime that’s been committed. In a romance, this is when the lovers often make love for the first time, or when they discover something about each other they wished they didn’t know.
My favorite midpoint shift example in sci-fi is the moment in Edge of Tomorrow where Major Cage (Tom Cruise’s character) opts out of repeating the time loop and heads into the city, only to see first-hand how the aliens destroy it and exactly what will happen to the world if he doesn’t get back in the game. It’s enough to spur him back into action.
Use genre to identify natural turning points that make sense for your characters and your story.
- Discover opportunities for innovation
Despite the focus on fulfilling expectations, the beauty of genre conventions is the way they guide you to the best places to break convention with your story. Your audience wants to be surprised and delighted by your movie, so when you do something interesting and unexpected, they’ll be thrilled.
Shawn Coyne, in his book “The Story Grid”, describes this process perfectly with an example about the typical—or “obligatory” as Coyne calls them—scene in a thriller where the “hero [is] at the mercy of the villain.” We’ve seen this moment so many times that it’s easy for a writer to fall into repeating what’s been done before. But that’s how clichés are created and reinforced. So, when you’re writing something with a strong cinematic pattern of repetition, that’s the place to brainstorm the heck out of your story ideas and come up with something startling and fresh.
A terrific example of this is the “dance off” moment in Guardians of the Galaxy; a clever and character-driven way for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) to “battle” Ronan in the climactic battle scene for the film. It’s a fun, different and innovative way to turn your standard battle scene on its head.
- Integrate genre mashups
Sometimes, you’ll work with multiple genres in one story. You’ll still need to identify the primary genre you’re working with, so you don’t miss delivering on audience expectations or opportunities to innovate.
You’ll also want to understand the genre conventions for each of the sub-genres you’re working with to ensure you’re not missing anything important. The movie Passengers is a combination of romance, sci-fi and action, and it hits the primary genre beats for all of them.
When you work closely with genre and study its conventions, you’ll have an arsenal to help you unravel tough story problems and make sure you’re delivering the best script you possibly can.
Your Weekend Writer’s Assignment
This weekend, write about this: What’s the primary genre of your script? What are the conventions for that genre, and are you meeting them with your story? Study comparable films and identify the conventions they’re relying on to help inspire yours. Remember, you won’t be copying, you’ll be understanding what’s come before so you can experiment and innovate to delight your audience
Two of my favorite resources for identifying and studying genre are Shawn Coyne’s book “The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know” and Cathy Yardley’s “Painless Promotion: Genre & Voice”.
Have Questions You Want Answered?
After working with hundreds of writers over the last seven years, writing coach and Called to Write Founder Jenna Avery has answers for you about how to balance your life and your screenwriting, trust yourself more as writer, fulfill your call to write, and more. Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or via Jenna’s online form at https://calledtowrite.com/final-draft and she may choose your question to answer anonymously in a future article.
Written by: Jenna AveryJenna Avery is a screenwriter, columnist, and blogger who redesigned her life and career to support her calling to write. She specializes in sci-fi action and space fantasy, and her most recent project is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story for a Canadian producer. Jenna is also a writing coach and the founder of Called to Write, where she has helped hundreds of writers overcome procrastination, perfectionism, and resistance so they can get their writing onto the page and into the world where it belongs. Jenna writes about writing, creativity, and calling at calledtowrite.com, for ScriptMag, for Final Draft, and teaches for Screenwriter’s University. Download Jenna’s free guidebooks for writers when you join her mailing list at https://www.calledtowrite.com/mailing-list