Hit Movies in 2012 Show Why It’s All About Learning Genres

For years I’ve been making the case that the key to becoming a professional screenwriter is to follow the first rule of Hollywood: it buys and sells genres. If you don’t know what Hollywood is buying you have no chance of selling them your script.

Genres are different kinds of stories, like comedy, detective and fantasy. These stories have proven their appeal to worldwide audiences for decades, centuries and sometimes over thousands of years. Each genre has anywhere from 8-15 story beats (story events) that must be present in your story if the script is to have any chance of success.

It would be nice if all you had to do to write a sellable genre script is to learn the story beats of your form and execute them properly. Unfortunately that’s what every other writer is doing. You need to do more.

In the past I’ve emphasized the first strategy for writing a genre script that stands above the crowd, which is to transcend the genre. This means that you not only hit every beat of your form, you twist them in a unique way that no one’s ever seen before.

This year we’ve seen many more films that use the second key strategy for writing a unique genre script: mixing genres. Hollywood here is using the age-old marketing technique of “give ‘em two for the price of one.” Except that now it’s more like three or four for the price of one. Almost all of the hit films of the year are a mix of multiple genres. And they, like 99% of the films that come out of Hollywood year in and year out, choose from these 11 story forms: Action, Comedy, Crime, Detective, Fantasy, Horror, Love, Memoir-True Story, Myth, Science Fiction and Thriller.

The question is: how do you do it? It’s not as easy as it appears. When you combine genres you run the risk of story chaos, because each genre comes with a unique hero, desire, opponent, theme and story beats.

Let’s look at the biggest hits of the year and see which genres the writers combined and how. One strategy for mixing genres used by three of the year’s biggest blockbusters – Hunger Games, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises – is to combine one or two genres with the Myth form. Myth is the most popular genre in the world, which is why it is the foundation for more hit films than any other form. Myth travels the world better than the other forms because it deals with big archetypal characters and life situations, so it transcends cultural boundaries. But Myth is almost always combined with other genres that both update and unify the often-episodic Myth.

Hunger Games combines Myth with Science Fiction. Book author and co-screenwriter, Suzanne Collins, understood the power of this combination right from the premise, which is based on the classic Greek myth, Theseus and the Minotaur. Every year King Aegeus must send seven young men and seven young women to be eaten by the Minotaur in ritual payment for a crime. Collins’ main character, Katniss, is based on one of the major Greek goddesses, Artemis (aka Diana), the huntress. The best beat of the story, when Katniss shoots an arrow through an apple in the mouth of a pig, is right out of the Swiss legend of William Tell.

Collins then uses Science Fiction to create a futuristic world that takes the capitalist foundation of American society to its logical extreme. In this world, competition for show and money has taken on life and death stakes. This mash-up of ancient past with possible future gives the audience the sense that this story isn’t specific to a particular time and place. It is universal; it is today.

The Avengers combines Myth with Action and elements of Fantasy. All superheroes are Myth characters (especially the Norse god Thor), and bringing them together to form a Dream Team is as old as both Greek and Norse mythology. But the structure of this story is taken from Action, in particular a sub-form of Action known as the Suicide Mission story. Suicide Mission, like its cousin, the Heist story in the Crime genre, shows us a collection of all-stars who reluctantly form a team to accomplish an almost impossible goal. Using some excellent techniques from TV Drama, writer Joss Whedon takes these mythical heroes through all the action beats, ending with the definitive beat in the Action story, the final bloody battle.

The first film in the Batman trilogy written by the Nolan brothers, Batman Begins, hits and twists every beat of the Myth genre perfectly. But the second film, The Dark Knight, with its showdown between Batman and The Joker, is really a Fantasy Crime story, with the original Myth elements sitting underneath. The Dark Knight is the greatest superhero film ever made, and that put tremendous pressure on the Nolans to top it with The Dark Knight Rises. Their approach? A Crime Epic, a story of worldwide injustice with story beats right out of the French Revolution. That was probably a bridge too far, because even terrific writers like the Nolans could not inflate the Crime beats to that level. But you have to love their ambition.

This is the time of year when the Oscar contenders show up. The hottest picture right now, with a major shot at actually winning Best Picture, is Argo. Argo uses the strategy of mixing genres that rarely go together, in this case True Story with Political Thriller and Action.

True Stories typically have a gritty reality but lack dramatic shape. Political Thrillers are extremely choreographed and intensely dramatic. But at least when done in film, they usually pit a single hero against a vast organized conspiracy. So they often end badly. Because of the unique facts of this true story, these virtually opposite genres fit perfectly together and each genre’s strength solves the other genre’s weakness.

But the usual beats of the True Story form did require writer Chris Terrio to make a big change in the traditional Thriller beats. In the classic Thriller, the opponent is hidden and plot comes from reveals. Not here. The Iranian security force is the clear opponent from the beginning. So Terrio had to pull from the Action genre to create his plot. He sets up a huge vortex, a crosscut between the hero trying to get the hostages out and the opponents closing in for the kill. Everything will converge at the airport, and the combination of Action and Thriller beats gives the film a knockout ending.

Mixing genres is a dynamite strategy if you want the best chance to write a script that Hollywood might actually buy. But it’s not easy. You have to be able to execute. And that means you have to learn the genre beats of every form you’re mixing, and learn them so well that you can make some major adjustments to handle the unique qualities of your particular story. Each genre is a complex story system. But the good news is you can learn them. You just have to willing to put in the effort and the time.

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6 thoughts on “Hit Movies in 2012 Show Why It’s All About Learning Genres

  1. Kevin D.

    Reply to Caroline – FYI, those are both documentaries. He’s not giving advice on how to make documentaries. He’s giving advice on writing stories for film.

    If you can’t see the difference… well I guess that explains why you’re defining him.

    And “script consultants” are a dime a dozen. They’re usually shams.

    As the idiom goes: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.

    Everyone here would be far better served listening to something like the ScriptNotes podcast. Where people actively writing and selling talk about writing and selling.

  2. John TrubyCaroline

    Reply to Kevin D. — FYI, John Truby’s recent credits include co-writer of the Disney/BBC film, AFRICAN CATS, and story consultant on the Disney film, EARTH. He also regularly consults with studios on their scripts, the latest being Canal Plus.

  3. Kevin D.

    I really have problems taking screenwriting advice from someone who isn’t regularly working. This guy’s main writing credit is 21 Jump Street. The series.

    For having all the answers, he’s surprising doing very little.

    As soon as someone says, “Your story needs X number of beats, and Y event needs to happen by page Z,” I check out. I basically stopped reading by the last sentence of the second paragraph and I looked the guy up.

    Just another guy selling a system that clearly isn’t working for him.

  4. lindamller

    You can make a good argument that Raymond Chandler was doing the same thing by combining the hard-boiled detective story with the tale of the knight-errant. When you compare Chandler with Hammett you can see that Chandler’s approach was much more romantic. I’d even use a word like elegiac.

  5. Daniel Delago

    I never really thought of myth as a separate genre. Most stories follow a standard character arc where the hero must overcome challenges to become a better person. Joseph Campbell explains this eloquently in his seminal book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces.’

    It is interesting most of your examples are adaptations. In actuality, movie studios are buying YA novels like gold to find the next ‘Twilight’ and ‘Hunger Games’ movie franchise. With only about 100 spec scripts optioned per year (according to the Scroggins Report), I’m starting to believe the best way to get your foot in the door in Hollywood, is to write a compelling novel.

  6. Ian

    good article, but would have been nice to see some examples that weren’t adaptations, but rather original stories. Yes, I know… selling one of those is a lot harder, but that’s what most writers start out with. isn’t it?

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