Genres—what are they?

Mixed genres in Cowboys and Aliens.
Mixed genres, mixed messaging?

Genres are categories containing stories that share common characteristics. The categories themselves are not inflexible. They absorb novel features from other genres and adapt to suit.

For writers, genres are recipes for concocting tales based on past exemplars. The Western, for example, showcases a number of recurring elements, such as saloons, side-arms, and horses.

For audiences a genre is an indication of a certain sort of story.

“Location, time-period, clothing, props, and language are some important markers that constitute points of difference between genres.“

Yet, a genre is neither set in stone nor used exclusively in telling a story. In the Science Fiction/Western, Cowboys and Aliens, two ‘hard’ genres are juxtaposed unexpectedly, which, in this instance, might explain the film’s failure at the box-office.

Certain genres, however, combine seamlessly. Action/Comedy films such as Bad Boys, or Crime/Comedy/Love Story ones such as Crazy Rich Asians use genres so effortlessly that they almost manage to merge them into one.

Some films are even more prolific in their use of genre-mixing. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a Musical/Comedy/Horror/Science Fiction/Love Story, has achieved cult status, perhaps because it parodies categories of all sorts.

The evolution of genre, much like genetic evolution, involves successful stories passing on their genes to their offspring. Because there is a requirement for novelty and originality, however, the code never stays exactly the same for too long. Mutation creeps in, which, if successful, get passed onto the next iteration.

We see this evolution in the Western, for example, where the protagonist goes from being a tough and decisive man in El Dorado, to an ambivalent and racist one in The Searchers, and finally, to a full blown anti-hero in Unforgiven – a killer of women and children.

The purpose of genre, then, is to guide one’s expectations by referencing existing stories. Genre helps audiences choose which stories to consume by promising more of the same, as much as it helps writers reference and update old tropes.


Genres are story categories that share similar characteristics. Genres not only assist audiences in selecting which stories to consume, they also provide the writer with a blueprint to emulate and adapt.

2 thoughts on “Genres—what are they?

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Genre mixing is a extremely delicate balance . 99 out of a 100 genre mixing films tend not to take them selves too seriously and the one that takes it self seriously is usually the only film that ends up being a box office bomb. The title Cowboys and Aliens sounds more like a Mel Brooks comedy then a J.J Abrams sci-fi flick. This self conscious decision from studio executives often leads to established film producers making use of the opportunity to produce family friendly comedy driven movies . These productions poke fun at pre existing ideas based on a audiences expectations of any genre. Spielberg and Lucas understood that when they produced Indiana Jones that it would become a parody of Lawrence of Arabia. Very very few films are able to make use of genre mixing and not turn into cartoon like parodies. The Matrix is one such film. It turns George Orwell’s 1984 and turns it into a sci-fi. However it is more often then not that genre mixing leads to laugh a minute comedies like the films of Mel Brooks and the Naked gun series or multi million dollar box office disasters like (Will Smith) The Wild Wild West.

    In short : Genre mixing is littered with danger at every turn but if all you are trying to do is make people laugh it is usually effective.


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