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What Is Drama? A Working Definition For Your Screenplay

AVATAR is still the #1 movie of all time … and no, it ain’t drama.

Genre: A Definition

What is the definition of genre in filmmaking? Well, it essentially means “category”, so going on this basis alone, the notion of “drama” makes it a genre.

However, the key here is not so much in the LITERAL words “drama” or “genre” but how the industry uses them.

Genre film generally describes *those* categories like Horror, Thriller, Comedy, Action, Science Fiction. This may include cross-genres (Rom-Com, Horror-Comedy) or sub-genres (slasher horror, creature feature, body-swap comedy and the many, many others).

Below are some keywords when it comes to genre:

  • Event-driven with high stakes
  • stylised/ hyper-real story worlds
  • larger than life
  • often highly commercial with large audience appeal

Genre film often uses conventions and tropes audiences actively want and expect, but with enough surprises that it doesn’t get cheesy. As Iain Smith, the producer of MAD MAX FURY ROAD says: ‘You have to give audiences what they want … In a way they don’t expect.’ 

Dramas like TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE might win big at awards ceremonies, but they don’t make the same $$$ as even lower-performing genre movies.

Drama: A Definition

In contrast then, “drama” encapsulates just about everything else that’s NOT the above!

Drama films are often highly personal and very emotional. Drama films are frequently about the things such as the private moments or tragedies of relationships between individuals.

They may also be true stories and/or encapsulate particular issues or problems. This leads to some to call drama ‘worthy’ (both in admiration and cynically). Some keywords …

As mentioned above, often dramas are for niche audiences. Though many award-winning films (particularly Oscars, BAFTAs and Golden Globes) are dramas, critical acclaim is not always indicative of commercial success.

Crucially, many dramas are producer-led, or even written on spec. Yes, even when the team involved is A List! This is why I ended up writing an entire book on this subject, Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays.

Step Back, Snobs

It’s important to note NEITHER drama or genre is “better” than the other. Both have their challenges. A good genre film is MUCH harder than it looks … Just as a satisfying drama is difficult to achieve without alienating your audience.

The biggest difference however between drama and genre at the moment is the marketplace. In short, genre sells better than drama. That’s just a fact.

Of course, the market-place is subject to change, so this may turn on its head in the next few years. Even if it does though, you can bet the most commercially successful dramas STILL aren’t going to out-perform the likes of AVATAR.



Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays 

Summing up then, next time you hear …

“Genre” – think, “BIG stories; event-driven with high stakes; stylised storytelling; larger than life; often highly commercial with large audience appeal.


“Drama” – think, “SMALL stories; individuals; relationships; private moments; tragedies; relationships; personal; emotional; often niche audience.”

‘Cos you can bet your bottom dollar that’s how the industry person you want to target sees them.

Good Luck!

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2 thoughts on “What Is Drama? A Working Definition For Your Screenplay”

  1. Genres have a bad rap as being slower paced, but the bigger difference is like you mentioned, they tend to be more on the interpersonal level and sometimes don’t fit the other categories well.

    However, more people have come to want or expect that same level of character in the other genres. So the tough job now, is that we need to fit stronger character inbetween all the genre conventions.

    It’s hard to get character in there when we are dispatching bad guys or hords of nameless ghouls or zombies or assassins. But when it’s in there we’ve get an amazing movie.

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