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What's My Genre?

By John Truby

I've spoken before in this column about the fact that 95% of writers fail in the premise. You may come up with a terrific one-line idea for a movie, but if you don't develop it the right way, the best scene writing in the world won't make a difference.

The single most important decision you must make when developing your premise is: what genre should I use? Genre is a particular type of story, like detective, comedy, thriller or action. The reason genre is so important is that the entire entertainment business is based on it.

That sounds like a pretty extreme statement until you look at how Hollywood has set itself apart from the rest of the world. The rest of the world has always emphasized the original artistic vision in their filmmaking. Which is great for art, but bad for commerce, because for each film, the audience has to re-invent the wheel. They have to guess whether they want to enter the theater. And they have to work hard to figure out the unique story patterns that make that film work.

Hollywood realized a long time ago that it is not in the business of selling original artistic vision (though it sometimes happens anyway). It is in the business of buying and selling story forms. Genres tell the audience up front what to expect from the product they are buying. If they like a particular kind of story, chances are they will like this particular film, especially if the writer and director give the expectations a little twist.

For years, Hollywood films were only one genre apiece; say western, detective or family comedy. Then someone had the brilliant idea: hey, let's give them two for the price of one. That's why virtually every film made now is a combination of two or three genres.

The implications for you as a writer in Hollywood are huge. First, you have to figure out what genres are best for your idea. Second, you have to know those genres better than everyone else writing in those forms. Third, you have to know how to transcend the forms so you can give the audience a sense of originality and surprise.

The problem with genre is that each one is a complex system of story, with its own unique hero, opponent, story beats, structures and themes. Fortunately, this information, though complex, is knowable. You just have to put in the time and effort to learn it.

When I first start developing a story, I look at a number of elements to help me choose which genres would get the most out of the idea. The first element is the hero's role in the story. When you look at your premise, you can usually imagine a basic action that the hero would take throughout the story. For example, is the hero essentially a fighter (Action), a lover (Love), an enforcer or criminal (Crime), an endangered investigator (Thriller) or a victim (Horror)?

A second element to look at is your hero's desire line. The desire, one of the seven basic story structure steps, is your hero's particular goal over the course of the story. It provides the spine of the story, so every hero should have one. It just so happens that each of the major genres is associated with a desire line. One way to get a sense of the best genre for your idea is to match the probable desire line of your hero to the key desire line of each genre. For example, the desire in a fantasy is to explore an imaginary world. In myth, it's to go on a journey, ultimately leading to one's self. In sitcoms, the hero wants to escape from an impossible predicament. In thrillers, the hero's desire is to escape attack. In masterpiece, the hero wants to find a deeper reality, which contrasts time, perspective or system. In detective stories, the hero wants to find the truth.

An opponent who fights the hero and tries to prevent him or her from reaching the goal is another important element that helps determine your genre. The relationship between hero and opponent is the most important relationship in your story. A good opponent must be a unique individual but also fulfill a crucial story function. For example, in television drama, the main opponents are usually other family members. In comedy, the opponents tend to be various expressions of society at large. In the masterpiece, the opponent is some kind of system in which the hero is trapped. In love stories, the main opponent is the lover.

Another way that the various genres set themselves apart from one another is that they each ask a different central question or force the hero to make a crucial decision. The key question in thrillers: Is your suspicion justified? In comedy: do you lie or show your true self? In action: do you choose freedom or life? In fantasy: how do you live with style and freedom? In detective stories: who is guilty and who is innocent?

Part of exploring your premise line has to do with discovering the deepest question your hero must confront in playing out the drama. How your hero answers this deep question is the real stakes of the story; it's what makes the audience want to watch this character all the way to the end. One of the benefits of genre is that a framework for these deep questions has already been worked out. You provide the details and the variations.

Keep in mind that when you explore your premise, you are at the very beginning of the writing process. So you may not know the key question your story will ask. The important thing is to make a guess now. It will help you extend and focus your idea, as well as lead you to the best genre for carrying the story.

Genres aren't just systems for expressing certain themes. They are also strategies for storytelling. Action stories set up a kind of heavyweight fight with an intense punch/counter-punch between hero and opponent. Science fiction sends the hero to a unique technological future that highlights strengths and weaknesses in the present world. Thriller places a weakened hero in a tight box and shows him or her struggling to escape. Crime pits a criminal who thinks he is above society against a defender of society's rules and values.

The above elements, though helpful, only tell you which genres are probably best for your idea. They don't tell you how to write them.

Writers typically underestimate the difficulty in mastering a genre. Each one is filled with story beats and themes that are highly choreographed. That's why I always recommend that writers give genres intense study and specialize in no more than three. I know a lot of talented writers, but I know no one who has mastered more than three or four.

One final caution: don't look down your nose at genre writing. First, because it's a bad business decision. The entire entertainment industry is based on them. Second, because genres can actually make you a better writer. Most writers go their whole lives without finding their voice. Learning which genres are best for you often crystallizes what is uniquely you and lets you write from your strengths.

You still have to do each genre story in an original way. But harnessing the power of genre will take you a long way toward your goal of being a top professional writer.

Meet the Author: John Truby

John Truby is Hollywood’s premiere story consultant and founder of Truby’s Writers Studio. He has worked as a story consultant and script doctor for Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, FOX, and HBO, among others, and has taught his 22-Step Great Screenwriting and Genre classes to over 20,000 students worldwide.