One of the most valuable skills for a writer to have is a command of genre. Whether you choose to specialize in a single genre, or want to platform your talent across several, understanding the conventions of genre can strengthen and deepen your work.
As a simple definition, genres are recognizable classifications of stories that are characterized by pre-established conventions. These conventions can include narrative dynamics, image systems, character archetypes, goals and obstacles, premise and theme, and the story's arena and location.
Genre conventions shouldn't be seen as templates, sets of rules, or a 12-step program for writing the genre piece. Rather, these are patterns that have been well-established over hundreds if not thousands of years of storytelling, by the interplay between storyteller and the audience member. Knowing the dynamics of your target genre can help you form your story's structure, and determine your cast of characters, and the roles they play.
Acknowledging genre dynamics also puts you in the seat of the audience. Audiences will seek a favorite genre, and writers will often write within their favorite genre. Audience members have expectations when experiencing a thriller, a romantic comedy or a horror film. You need to deliver, not just meeting their expectations, but exceeding them with your command of the genre, and your unique perspective as an artist.
Additionally, you can broaden your storytelling and surprise audience expectations, by blending genres. Established genres in Hollywood - the Western, Horror, Romance, to name a handful - can be seen as colors on the artist's palette. By mixing genre, you can draw in the audience expecting the conventions of their favorite genre, and challenge them with new twists due to the infusion from another genre. Some blends may fade as fun experiments, while others become significant genres in their own right.
One genre that illustrates the importance and power of genre and genre-blending is the Adventure Romance (e.g. The African Queen, Romancing the Stone). As indicated by its name, the Adventure Romance is a blend of the Adventure and the Romance genres. This is now a well-established genre that today influences many blockbuster 4-Quadrant films(more on this later).
The Adventure Genre
Using Raiders of the Lost Ark to help illustrate, here are several of the larger brushstrokes of convention in the Adventure or High-Adventure story.
* The Adventure Hero is willing to tackle the adventure
It doesn't take much to convince Indiana Jones to seek the Lost Ark of the Covenant. The stakes are high and he knows it, but he's also confident that he has the skills and the will to overcome the obstacles.
* The Adventure Hero remains focused on the primary physical goal
Despite secondary goals and journeys that can complicate the adventure, the Hero remains dead-set on the larger physical goal at hand. Indy deals with his relationship with Marion, and his own inability to accept the unexplainable forces and "hocus-pocus" in the world. Indeed these secondary problems test Indy, but he must keep focused on getting the Ark.
* The Adventure takes the Hero and the audience to an exotic world
Indy takes us to the majestic and mythic landscape of Egypt.
* The Adventure is set against a backdrop of global crisis
The U.S. Government sends Indy off to find and retrieve the Ark before Hitler.
* In the end, the Hero alone triumphs
The Adventure Hero draws on experience and lessons from the journey to defeat evil. Others may provide support for the Hero, but it's the Hero who must stand above all others to triumph. Indy protects Marion from the Ark's mystical powers, and demands they shut their eyes.
The Romance Genre
For the Romance Genre, consider the classic Casablanca as an example, to appreciate these recurring elements:
* Their love is forbidden
Whether due to class, culture, religion, or social conventions, the love sought is considered forbidden. In Casablanca, Ilsa and Rick had found their perfect love in Paris, but neither knew that Ilsa's husband was still alive.
* The lovers live in a world in crisis
Similar to the Adventure film, these larger global forces can test the will and conviction of our characters and their pursuit of love. Amidst the backdrop of war-torn Europe, Casablanca is a way station that can provide freedom or asylum.
* The lovers are torn between two goals: Love, and the Higher Cause
The pursuit of love frames the emotional journey, while the physical journey focuses on the pursuit of a Higher Cause (this can often be patriotic, professional or family obligation). The larger story question is whether the lovers will choose love or the Higher Cause. Rick has the Letters of Transit and Ilsa needs them to give her husband freedom, and to continue his work for the Resistance (the Higher Cause).
* In the end, Love is sacrificed for the Higher Cause
Many of Hollywood's memorable romances end with the sacrifice of love. A lover dies, or they choose to separate in order to fulfill the global call to action. Rick sacrifices love, putting Ilsa and her husband on the plane departing Casablanca. And Rick walks away to join the French Resistance.
The Adventure Romance
Weaving these two genres, and using The African Queen as an example, we can value the following conventions of the Adventure Romance:
* The Lovers are place in an exotic locale, often with a backdrop of a world in crisis
Rose and Charlie face African jungles, dangerous rapids, and German soldiers trying to keep this a stronghold during the beginning of World War I.
* The Lovers have two goals: Adventure (Higher Cause) and Love, and they eventually need to achieve both
Both lovers initially enter Adventure to pursue the Higher Cause. By facing these ordeals, the two discover their love for each other. Love is their Reward earned. They now have to fight for both goals by journey's end. Rose and Charlie are determined to sink the Louisa. After surviving a string of ordeals, the two kiss realizing their love. In the end they sink the Louisa and survive to tell their grandchildren.
* The Lovers need to accomplish the goals together
Their romance will be tested throughout, and so will the roles of man and woman when placed in a heroic adventure. The man will try to push the woman back and out of harm's way, and the woman will show her strength, patience and ingenuity to step up to the challenge. By journey's end, man and woman have to work together. The relationship between Rose and Charlie is tested throughout the story. But in the end, Rose and Charlie decide to captain the Louisa together on its final leg.
* The Higher Cause and Love triumph in the end
In fact, it's their love that helps them triumph over evil. Without love, they would fail. Rose and Charlie's initial failure to sink the Louisa is turned into triumph due to Charlie's proclamation of love. Charlie convinces the German Captain to marry them, giving the African Queen the needed moments to sink the ship.
Adventure Romance and the 4-Quadrant Film
Genre popularity goes in waves depending upon taste and social influence. Adventure Romance, in its "pure" incarnation, is not commonly seen. The new release Fool's Gold will again test this genre's popularity, although the marketing is pushing almost a Romantic Comedy spin to this genre. However, the ripples of influence from the Adventure Romance can be seen in the 4-Quadrant Film.
The 4Q Film is one that effectively draws an audience from the four major demographics: old, young, male, female. Notable recent 4Q films are Shrek, The Incredibles, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Looking at the 4Q films, we see the following recurring patterns from the Romantic Adventure:
* The pursuit for the Higher Cause (Adventure) reveals and tests Love
* The Heroes, only when bound by love, will triumph in the end.
We see these elements again and again in the 4Q film, when we realize that love doesn't necessarily need to be "romantic." Love can be seen in many forms, as in these notable 4Q examples:
* Romantic Love (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean)
* Friendship (Monsters Inc., The Lion King, Shrek, Star Wars)
* Family (Spy Kids, The Incredibles)
Crafting with Genre
To help build your facility with genre, and develop your eye, explore the following exercises:
1. Take a recent 4Q film (use any of the examples mentioned above) and break it down using the conventions of Adventure, Romance and Adventure Romance to see how these Genre conventions resonate. This will help you appreciate the workings of these blockbusters, and build your command of genre crafting.
2. If you are currently writing or developing one of the genres or hybrids explored above, ask yourself:
a. Are these genre elements in my story?
b. Can they be used to help me build a more satisfying story?
c. Can they be twisted or transformed to break a cliche or bring a unique spin.
3. If you are struggling with a story that falls in another genre, consider ways to blend elements of an additional genre (or two) to give variety, surprise, and perhaps broaden the appeal of your story.