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Genre Crisis

Genre. Defined by screenwriters’ salvation as “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form or content.”

The operative words here then?

1. Category.

2. Style.

3. Form.

4. Content.

Category is pretty self-explanatory; it’s the label we afford the types of film that we write. Sci Fi (sorry Good Dog, SF); horror; comedy; romance; drama; thriller; supernatural and countless others. Then there are the genre hybrids – favourites being romantic-comedy, supernatural thriller/horror, horror-comedy. In addition, there are what I call “splinter genres”: examples include the slasher-pic (loner kills everyone, preferably in the woods whilst wearing a mask for an indiscernible reason, yawn, we don’t care, let’s see some guts ripped out with fish hooks); Frat Pack comedies (Ben Stiller and Vince Vaugn in the same movie for the same reasons with some fart jokes and maybe a gross-out sex scene) and maybe the slapstick Rom-Com which has someone like the yummy Ryan Reynolds in, for no other reason than he has good cominc timing and great pecs). Then there are genres that have created themselves over time, because audiences seem to demand it: the teen “body swap” movie is an obvious example, but then parody is another for things like SCARY MOVIE, EPIC MOVIE et al which *possibly* seem more funny to those people who aren’t screenwriters.

Style then is the point of your script. Whilst a film gets the thumbs-down if it copies everything that’s gone before it, there ARE certain things an audience expects when it goes to see, say, a horror movie. You don’t expect fluffy bunnies on a picnic, let’s just put it that way. You want vampires, big monsters, women screaming and/or with big guns (possibly scantily clad? I’m looking at YOU James Moran), excessive blood and yes, guts pulled out with fish hooks. Why not? If you can’t kill a few people on a beer-infested saturday night via the medium of DVD or Cinema, it’s a poor do!

Defining Form and Content is when it starts to get tricky then. According to Wikipedia, “Form is supposed to cover the shape and structure of the work; content its substance, meaning, ideas, or expressive effects.” This is an interesting definition: does it always work out this way? The very fact the word “supposed” is included, even in a Wikipedia definition, suggests that this is not 100% concrete. After all, many genres *appear* to mistake Form for Content in my opinion – and that’s just the produced movies. Considering a film like UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION, I am loathe to think there is a real sense of content; for me, it was more Category, Style and Form, almost as if someone woke up one day and said: “You know what would be cool? A Werewolf/Vampire hybrid” to which someone else replies: “That would be cool. What’s the story?”…”Pardon?” The other screenwriter replies, confused…

Before you Werewolf/Vampire lovers lynch me like the dog I am then, I should point out: I love the idea of a Werewolf/Vampire hybrid. Yet UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION just does not do it for me. Sure there’s the story of those two brothers, one bitten by bat, the other by wolf and then there’s that cool Vampire Librarian with the werewolf watchdogs and yes, there was even a sex scene, always a bonus in my book, but something about that Content just didn’t work for me. It looked cool. I got a little bit excited about all the fighting and the leather. Kate Beckinsale is hot. Ticks all the boxes there, hell yeah. But that content (its story in essence), does not engage me.

Form and Content are often overlooked in my opinion not just by those “big” produced movies, but new writers too. Sometimes a writer is so taken up by the “feel” of their piece, their arena, the audience expectations and so on, that concept is assigned barely any house room. Yet therein lies the problem. Form and Content can turn an idea around. Take 28 DAYS LATER and compare it with RESIDENT EVIL. Both are about mutated-style viruses that turn its victims into vicious monsters. Both its protagonists’ groups are trapped – one lot underground, the other on The British Isles. Both have to deal with far worse than just Zombies: one an apocalypse of mankind, the other (it already having happened), the degeneration of humankind into barbarism and rape. They could, still, be the same the movie. Yet it’s their Form and Content that differ. Resident Evil is packed to the rafters with cool-sounding marines with attitude; they have huge firepower and a big computer, the spookily-named Red Queen, is involved. 28 Days Later follows the fates of a bunch of stragglers, holding on to their wits and their lives by a mix of chance and sheer bloody-mindedness. At the end of the day: one is typical Hollywood: big gore and effects, the other a typical Brit Film – focusing on the minutaie of life and those human moments behind the big, apocalyptic big events: no saving the world or even Private Ryan here… Save yourself and piss off. Sir!

Content is important, but so is Form. I see a lot of ideas that are great, yet its Form is under-developed; similarly, I read a lot of scripts where the Form is fabulous, yet I’ve seen its content before. I can say this with some authority, because this past week, I’ve managed to practice BOTH ends of the scale with rubbish results. My first idea for 25 WOL was crap, but its Form was fine; the exact opposite can be said for the second idea.

It’s harder than it sounds, writing a genre you’ve never attempted before. Whilst I know what goes into SF (I like SF even!), for some reason I cannot summon the enthusiasm to create that “magic 4” of Category, Style, Form and Content. Something always falls down and undermines my story. I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t do SF dah-link. I’m no good at it. I recognise my short-comings: I feel free, I can go into my circle of light, blah-blah-blah. I’ve re-written my 25 WOL as the other brief, The Teen Hitchcock, with its “thematic concerns of suspense and voyeurism”. And you know what? I feel so much better.

Which genre is hardest for you to write? Spill…

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31 thoughts on “Genre Crisis”

  1. Thank you Elinor, you’ll be relieved to hear you have escaped my Voodoo curse, I’m sure you’ll be relieved.

    Well Sci-Fi is “frowned upon”, hence the “SF”. Unsure if “Rom-com” should be “RC”, we’ll have to ask the GD. (That’s Good Dog btw in case anyone’s confused…)

  2. Knackers. Mulitple typos there of you’re wondering about the deleted post (probably not).

    I read ALOT of Rom Coms: a finely crafted Rom-Com with that “magic 4” certainly seems hard to find. Perhaps that’s why people get so excited when the FOUR WEDDINGS etc turn up?

  3. I think you’ll find the quote is from Blackadder and goes some thing like this, “May all your children have small penises, especially the girls.”

  4. Alrighty then, my powers of persuasion are obviously lacking 😉

    In terms of using ‘SF’ instead of ‘sci-fi’, I heard that argument years ago and tried to find why it mattered. I found this debate (still online after 10 years) and stuck with ‘sci-fi’.

  5. I don’t hate rom-com, I hate bad rom-coms. There are plenty of great (albeit not recent) romantic comedies in my collection, but a lack of them on paper or in the cinema.

    I’m a science fiction fan, but obviously not a big enough one as I’ve missed this whole sci-fi/SF debate. Gotta say, I don’t like the SF phrase much. Lacks character. Maybe I’ll just say “science fiction” from now on to be on the safe side. Although I do like sci-fi more, and it’s fun to annoy people who take such things too seriously.

    To come to your original question and stop the rambling, I don’t like police cop dramas. Had to try and write one for uni recently, and I just couldn’t do it. Also not convinced I could write a good violent film, unless it was “science fiction” oriented.

  6. Just re-read my reply, and I still don’t think I answered your question. “Police cop drama” isn’t really a genre. Feels like one.

    Oh well.

  7. Actually Dom I think YOU’LL find it was Richard Curtis who wrote both instances (Jeff Goldblum’s in THE TALL GUY) so we are both right!

    Robin – don’t encourage any weirdoes/weirdo’s/weirdos out there!

    Laura – I don’t see why cop shows aren’t a genre: they have that “magic 4” of category, style, form, content…

  8. Sci fi’s hated as a term because back before there was any decent science fiction on tv and in films (I’m talking way back when here) if you said you liked science fiction, people would look at you funny and say, ‘oh, you mean that sci fi crap. I’ve seen Lost in Space [or whatever] and it’s rubbish’. So then you’d ask them if they’d _read_ any science fiction and they’d inevitably say ‘no, I don’t need to – I’ve seen [whatever it was] and I know it’s all crap.’

    So ‘sci fi’ became synonymous – in the minds readers – not just with bad science fiction on tv and in films but with a whole mindset that held science fiction (and by extension, science fiction readers) in contempt.

    Hence, it’s a no no, if you’re talking to science fiction fans (“People who read/watch science fiction, even a lot” and “science fiction fans” aren’t the same thing, though there’s overlap.)


    But way back then there wasn’t a lot of good sf on tv or in films and now there is. But the term’s stuck and now most people who use it don’t mean it contemptuously. Mostly.

    Science fiction fans call sf in tv and films ‘media sf’, by and large.

    We also have this other term, ‘skiffy’ – which basically means ‘media sf I happen to have a soft spot for, even if I know deep down it’s crap.’

    The neat thing about calling it sf is that you can then say it really stands for speculative fiction, which gets round having to say ‘science fiction/fantasy/horror’ – meaning we get to include Buffy and Angel. (Besides, sf fans took them to their collective hearts even if they are technically horror – even the fans who don’t _do_ horror. So I think their writers count for purposes of ‘do women write sf’?

    Robin – I used to deliver letters to Mary Wollstonecraft’s however-many-great grand-daughter, one year when I was a Christmas postie.

    Sorry for the long post!


  9. Liz

    As you say people don’t really use sci-fi in a insulting way mostly and I just prefer that shortening. I love rom-coms but I’m not going to argue for it be called RC instead because some people insult the genre.

    I’m all for accuracy in terminology but I’m also for inclusivity. I want the likes of Lucy, who loves science-fiction, to feel she can call herself a fan, stop calling us geeks and not have to worry about writing the genre.

    The more people who get into science-fiction the better so maybe the use of the term ‘sci-fi’ can be an acceptable compromise.

  10. Romantic comedy I could handle. I can write jokes, but out and out comedy plots don’t come to me – the rom com has the nice crutch that the plot itself doesn’t have to be funny.

    William Goldman doesn’t think he can write comedy. He’s wrong, but he’s also William Goldman, so he’s instantly forgiven.

    Oh, and sci-fi, not SF. SF is what sci-fi geeks call sci-fi.

  11. I’ve already admitted to being a fan of Science Fiction Robin – some of my fave films, the ones I draw on most for blog posts (Alien, Terminator and Pitch Black), are a major part of the genre. Whilst I would never watch Star Trek or Battlestar Gallactica and don’t have Sky anyway, I do recall being mildly impressed by such shows as Farscape at times when it was on BBC2. You may even like to know I have been to CONVENTIONS from time to time: when I did a bunch of storylining for LEGO a few years back, we had to do some sci-fi stuff. And it was fun.

    I think this debate now is getting away from genre and more into the realms of semantics and personal feelings. Personally, I don’t see how calling something sci-fi/SF/whatever makes any difference. There will always be people who insult various different genres and by proxy, yes the people who like them.

    However I am not one of them. When I say the word “Geek” I just mean those people who BLOODY LOVE SOMETHING – whether it’s science fiction, computers, whatever. I myself am a Geek – a complete, 100% Horror Geek. Lots of people insult horror, saying only those who have half a brain and drag their knuckles along the ground like violence and gore. I don’t concern myself with it. I know I watch it because for me, horror films can often have something very potent to say about the societies we live in.

    Maybe I should use the word “Fanatic” or “Enthusiast”? Probably. Will do from now on! ; )

  12. True, true. And actually I don’t have a problem with being called a Geek, but I can imagine why others do!

    You raise an intriguing point in your comment before last, Oli: is it the plot that’s not funny necessarily, or the “incidentals”, characters etc that are? If we look at FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, none of those 5 events were funny in themselves, especially not the funeral – but rather the Hugh Grant character’s ability to talk his way in – and out- of trouble and lurve IMO. However, this sort of thing seems to have changed of late if you look at something like JUST FRIENDS, it’s farcical from the start. An A&R Guy, with an insane Rock Chick, trying to impress a bar maid, whilst making himself look like a complete PRICK and physically like the guy he was ten years’ previously (the braces).

  13. Exactly. With a trad rom com, the plot does the romance and the dialogue does the jokes.

    Trad farce, which I’m no good at, is often funny without any actual jokes. Accidental Death of an Anarchist is funny because it’s absurd.

    Other side of that coin, the last act of Adaptation was hilarious because it was done so straight.

    Comedy, it has been said before, is hard.

  14. Robin – the difference is that science fiction was called sf first – sci fi came later. (Actually, scientifiction came first, but let’s not go there…)

    Oli – yes, that’s the contemptuous tone I meant.

    Lucy – I think we’re using fan differently. Fandom as I mean it is a community of people, not just people who like science fiction, if that makes any sense. And I’m sorry if I seem to be going on about it but I thought you might be interested in this, if you really want to write science fiction – after all fans are likely to be the people who are most enthusiastic about your work.

  15. Too right Oli, comedy is really difficult. Not too sure I can do it. Been told my scripts are funny, but only yesterday one script that I’ve been told is funny was rejected with “could do with more humour”! Ouch.

    Don’t be sorry Liz, this blog is all for debate! ; ) I never had any idea that genre could stir up such stuff, it’s been very enlightening. Now I think about it, I think I *may* be more concerned with story than genre – for instance, I love stories of survival against the odds and am not too fussed whether they’re through robots from the future coming to kill you (Terminator), creatures IN the future trying to kill you (Alien) or hillbillies/nutters trying to kill you in the present and usually in the woods (Deliverance/Severance et al). I think it may be the general bloodthirstiness that’s key for me when it comes down to it!

  16. General bloodthirstiness… yeah, I can go with that.

    If you think sf/sci fi is bad, try saying ‘kiddy lit’ in a roomful of children’s writers (especially American ones.)

  17. Liz, I hadn’t thought I might be rubbing future fans up the wrong way, I’ll need all the ones I can get and may have to rethink my principles.

    Lucy, I think genre is crucial and it’s been useful to discuss it. I think every single genre is of equal merit and there is good and bad examples in each genre. As you say it’s all about the story. I can’t choose which one of the 25 WOL genre is my favourite so I’m going by whichever one inspires me at this particular moment.

  18. LizH, offence was not meant. I’m writing a script at the minute with some science fiction elements. I like some, admittedly not all, science fiction. I just don’t think anyone outside of the hardcore fanbase calls it SF, that’s all.

    I stand by my geekdom as a badge of honour, and so should the sci-fi geeks. Or SF Geeks, as they make like to be known.

  19. What the living Christ did I set off?

    I wasn’t talking about what “fans” call the frickin’ genre. And “rom-com” is just as bad. It’s romantic comedy. “Rom-com” or any other cut-down isn’t a secret password that gets you into the ‘know what you’re talking about’ club.

    A lot of times these shortened phrases only mean that people with bugger all to say have an extra second or two to spew out more meaningless blather.

    Just don’t use phrases like “sci-fi” amongst actual published writers of the genre. They don’t like it. I could now namedrop like crazy using various lunches and invites to their residences as example but I won’t.

    As for genres, I wouldn’t even think about writing a romantic comedy.

  20. Ah, Good Dog…So nice of you to drop by, even if it is to STIR. And by the way, I have now got people coming to this blog re: Last of The Bloody Mohicans and the words “plot hole” so : P

  21. When people get too goddam geeky, I have to get the hell out.

    Or when people say they were “mildly impressed by Farscape” – I mean, Jesus! It had flipping muppets in it. And was cock.

    But, you want to write science fiction, you need to watch more stuff than farting robots, creatures made of teeth and Vin Diesel mincing around. There’s a whole bunch more than that load of old guff.

    And as for the searchers… there are no plot holes in Last of the Mohicans

  22. GD, don’t be a BITCH! (Like what I did there???) I LOVE muppets. And I liked the pregnant ship. And Vin Diesel. So there.

    Anyway, you can’t get aerated GD, not in your condition. Calm down, think of your health… ; )

  23. Put me down as a Farscape lover.

    Also, Good Dog, put me down as a published sf writer (short stories, not novels, but one day… though my only screen credit is for a short story that was adapted for the US tv show The Hunger) and journalist who is friends with, is acquainted with, has interviewed or profiled, or edited (I used edit a couple of semi-pro sf magazines) a fair proportion of the working sf/f writers in the UK and US. So if you really want to name drop, feel free.

  24. Lizh,

    The season two episode And She Laughed, right?

    For a moment I thought that he had met some years back, but that was a Lisa. My mistake.

    When my first short story was published way back I had the opportunity to meet Angela Carter and Ballard, unfortunately the invite arrived three hours I had left for the airport.

    Still, writers that don’t like “sci-fi”… I’d start with Harlan.

  25. Hey, Good Dog. Yeah, that’s the one. It was kind of interesting – I wrote it as horror, but sold it as crime fiction (to the anthology London Noir) and then it got picked up for that show, sort of taking it back to its roots. As for Angela Carter, she taught the first writing course I ever went on (an Arvon one in Devon) and nearly put me off for life 😉 Actually, a prime case of mainstream writers who are contemptuous of genre sf/f writers…

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