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Script Mistakes # 3: Abrupt Genre/Tone Change

Imagine you’re a script reader. You’ve just started reading a gritty realist drama about a girl whose family life is pretty rough, maybe somewhere up North or in the boonies down Sarf somewhere. The pace is pretty nice, characterisation’s rounded, dialogue’s okay. Nearly twenty pages in, you’re beginning to understand the focus of this girl: she’s going to run away to London, sure there’s a better life for her there (only you *just know* it’ll be even worse). This is the sort of stuff that would light Ken Loach’s fire, no question.

Then you get to the first turning point… And it completely changes. The girl kills her parents Mickey and Mallory style. She kidnaps a kid from a post office queue when she’s not able to cash in their giros. Maybe she has a shoot out with police on the way out for good measure. Whatever: from gritty realist drama, we’re now in high octane chase-style thriller territory. (You might think I’m exaggerating, but I really have read scripts with genre changes as marked as this, sometimes even more so).

But what’s wrong with changing your genre? After all, it keeps the audience on their toes, yeah? They better pay attention! Anyway, Tarantino and Rodriguez famously did this in Dusk Til Dawn. Right??

First things first, there’s nothing *wrong* with changing genre in a movie – if that is your intention all along: it needs to be a specific, conscious style choice. I know there’s that myth that Tarantino and Rodriguez met for a coffee and literally stuck two different scripts together, but really?? Come on! Whatever you think of Dusk Til Dawn, it was so flagrant all the way through that it gets away with it: we go from one highly implausible story to another with ease because of it. What’s more, characterisation is consistent, even if story isn’t – and that helps ease the transition: Seth accepts the vampires just like he accepts his brother’s rape and murder of the bank clerk – with barely a blink, he just gets on with it. “I don’t believe in vampires,” he says, “Yet I see f***ing vampires.”

Most of the specs change genre and tone accidentally though – it’s not a specific, conscious style choice. What’s more, in my experience both reading and writing it seems always to go drama – and then the genre of choice. Weird huh? Occasionally spec comedies I’ve seen will start incredibly mentally, they cannot “step up” in the second half, they’ve already “shot their load” as an (obviously male) reader friend of mine delightfully put it. Otherwise drama will set up for horror or thriller – making it fall somewhere in-between, neither satisfying nor intriguing to really grab a reader’s heartstrings.

Changing genre is actually surprisingly easy to do; we’ve all done it at least once and we’re sure to do it again. My most recent spec, a woman-in-peril thriller, went through three particular drafts that went horrendously wrong because of various accidental changes in the genre. Where do you draw the line between revealing character, setting up the plot and changing the genre? Sometimes it can be by just a hair’s breadth – when one reader suggested I used a sexy new dream sequence for example, I thought, “Great! That’s a good device for the thriller genre” and I did it. However I lingered a little too long on everything that went WITH it for before you know it, another reader says to me: “Your character is disturbed, so I thought I was dealing with a “Girl, Interrupted” style of film in the first half… Then you’ve got her on the run having kidnapped her own kid. WTF?”

Thrillers and horrors are the worst offenders for specs that go off the rails genre-wise I’ve noticed and I think I know why: writers want to increase plausibility for their characters’ actions or want to have a “lull before the storm”. Before you know it then, we’re in drama territory for the first half and in hardcore genre stuff for the second, just like mine was. The problem with this then is it feels as if the goal posts are moved: you might get past the first ten pages, but if the story keeps changing track, how can you appreciate the whole of it or invest in the character’s arc or the plot? It’s like being on a car journey where the car isn’t breaking down, but it threatens to, put-put-puttering all the way. Frustrating and not usually enjoyable.

Yet abrupt genre change is one of the least “accepted” points from coverage too: whilst writers may write back to me and say they were glad I spotted various points that were bothering them and were unsure what to do about (or other things they HADN’T noticed and can now see), very few seem to agree that the genre needs any attention. They will say that a character *has* to do certain things in the first half that *may seem* “dramery”, but these are necessary to understand what happens in the second half. If that were the case however, all the major genre films we know and love could never have happened: it is perfectly possible to stay within the perimeters AND make things plausible, have a lull before the storm, whatever. It’s like your Mum might tell you when attempting a Sisyphian task: start as you mean to go on. It’s harder than it looks. Drop concentration for a second, give one idea just that bit too much house room and whammo – you’re out of genre land and into the territory of accidental drama. And that’s never good.

So: if you’re writing a drama, stay with drama. If it’s SUPPOSED to be a genre film – find out the conventions, break them, change them, subvert them, build on top of them: do whatever you want – please. Just don’t try an accidental genre-drama hybrid that doesn’t really go anywhere because it has an identity crisis.

What about you – any movies that have made it to screen that seem to abruptly change in some way?

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11 thoughts on “Script Mistakes # 3: Abrupt Genre/Tone Change”

  1. I think a lot of it has to do with the reader. (I’m not disagreeing, completely. I have read plenty of scripts that do the genre flopping that you are talking about. But then again, I’ve read lots of bad scripts. And they usually have more problems than that).

    I think too often readers get confused.

    Some premises seem to be comedies, or thrillers, or coming of age movies, even when that’s not what the writer has in mind.

    For instance, MEET JOE BLACK —

    — could easily be a comedy premise. But it’s not. It could also be a very dark thriller. But it’s not that either.

    It was made into a very straight forward drama.

    I agree, it is the writer’s job to know the genre they are working in — But I really don’t think most readers have a clue about genre.

    Take, AFTER THE SUNSET for example.

    It’s basically a very straight forward heist movie. The audience that wants to see this type of film will be paying money to see action.

    The movie is all talking heads. It’s closer to a drama.

    Even the climax, is explained in dialog about what it meant. The choice the main character had to make is spelled out — why?

    Because it wasn’t set up in the action.

    The pinnacle moment in the screenplay should have been a very visual choice between his wife or the jewel.

    The story works fine.

    But it betrays its action roots, which ultimately is why it failed at the box office.

    I think readers need to be a little more open than they are.

    But that’s just me.

  2. It’s a good point James – some readers can have closed minds, be rushed or don’t spend as long as they should. Sometimes they just plain don’t understand.

    What I’m talking about however are those changes that don’t do justice to the story, it seems illogical or undramatic to do it the way it is on the page when the writer *could* do something else just as easily in keeping with the narrative and what it’s trying to say. But of course that IS a matter of opinion.

  3. I think I’ve mentioned on here before Lucy – but that moment in the second Lara Croft where it goes all creatuire-feature was really weird, didn’t see the pt of it in the story at all.

    Also, was it me or did Alien: Resurrection not really know what genre it was in – one moment it was trying to be like Aliens (war/adventure), the next like the others (horror).

  4. I’ve done my best to erase Alien: R from my mind Anya so couldn’t really say with any authority, but I’ve always thought Aliens was a marked change from the other two, defo. Still worked, though it’s by far my least fave as it goes.

  5. In my own modest scriptreading work, I see a lot of scripts which are tonally all over the place from scene 1. Writers seem to want to subvert genres before they’ve even established what they’re writing. In most cases, it just comes down to bad preparation.


  6. So I’m does that mean I’m going to have to cut the knock about slapstick ended I’ve added to my metlab script?

    Curse You, Vee!

  7. Well, the most famous and most successful example of abrupt change in direction happening well into the story is surely Psycho: the first half is a story about a woman going on the run with her employer’s money, determined to make a new life for herself in California – if she can stay one step ahead of the law etc.
    Eventually she feels safe enough to stop overnight at an out-of-the-way motel…

    Though there’s a difference between deliberately pulling the carpet from under the audience’s feet and having the story drift listlessly over genre lines. Yeah, consistency in tone is the thing. The first part of Psycho may be a thriller and the second a gothic horror, but both Marion Crane and Norman Bates still seem like they exist in the same ‘world’; there’s an evenness there in the tone of how both Marion’s and Norman’s respective halves are told.

    In a script I’m currently bashing out, I’m wrestling with the protags and antags being in two different types of story at the same time. I’m developing a tonal through-line with which the – at the moment – too-brutal baddies and the too-knockabout good guys can stick close to. If that makes any damn sense at all. Anyway, it’s like spinning plates, or something.
    Sheesh – writing!

  8. Martin – ur a div! ;D

    DavidM – Psycho is an excellent example, one of my fave films of all time too. It shows that when done properly *anything* can work. Done intentionally, in order to subvert expectation, genre change can be great. Accidental genre change however does little to excite the reader.

  9. Thoughts From a Thorny Forest

    As someone who worked in a video shop for far too long you got to see that genre is the way people decide on what film to watch. It's often unconscious though, not many people walk in on a Friday saying that they want to see a female focused romantic-comedy or a Jason Statham actioner. They browse and the marketing (presuming it's doing its job) tells them what they're getting.

    Because so many people don't seem to acknowledge their own genre preferences I can well see why new writers plain ignore your good advice. As a newbie myself (pre video shop) I was horrified by the idea of this constraining thing called genre. As I learnt more about it and began to recognise how it sat with my own expectations and reactions to movies (even clicking with childhood memory) I began to get the importance of genre. It's about giving people what they want. Even if they don't appear to know.

    The biggest problem I see is the lack of British working genres. As such I will be very interested to see how "Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snogging" does this weekend as it seems an alternative to tradional British teen movies which are usually set in boarding schools.

  10. Looking for help in this area.
    Wondering what you all think about this-
    Can a murder/mystery have talking animals in it? This was intentionally written to the family pg rated audience. The murder is played down, focus is more on the coming of age for the son who takes over the dead fathers family business.
    Am I crossing two completely diffenent genres unacceptably?

  11. Hi Candy Girls – looked for an email address for you, so hope you look back here.

    There’s no reason you shouldn’t cross ANY genre intentionally. I would imagine the first person to do horror/comedy was thought pretty insane, but it’s a genre in itself now. My only issue is when writers do it by accident, especially when going drama – thriller in the hope of setting up character first (cos you can set up character within the thriller genre, you don’t have to go dramaery to do that!). Hope that helps.

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