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Genre Sells Stories

Genre sells- Terminator 3
The lasting popularity of films such as Terminator is proof that genre sells, if attached to name producers, directors, and actors.

If a certain genre sells more than another, what’s the problem? Identify the most popular one and write in that genre.

The problem is that Hollywood sees certain genres as being in flux.

According to screenwriting guru, Michael Hauge, some genres are currently hard to sell. If your story concept falls within one of those, your effort to acquire seed money from a major studio will be that much harder. 

Here are some of the genres in question: 

Musicals in the mold of Oklahoma are almost impossible to sell. Feature-length, MTV-inspired Flashdance type movies, however, are not.

“If you buy into the idea that genre sells, but are sold on writing in a currently unpopular one, your best bet is to self-finance. Who knows? Your story might just help reawaken a sleeping giant.”

Westerns are currently a difficult though not impossible sell, unless a big name director gets behind the project, as are period films, meaning anything pre-1970s, biographies, and science fiction—due to the high budgets associated with this latter genre. Here, again, the attachment of a specific director to the project can make all the difference—as The TerminatorAliens and Avatar directed by James Cameron, has clearly proven. 

Perhaps the most acceptable of these financially-jittery genres is the horror film, especially if independent financing is sought. 

Of course, in saying this, I do not mean to suggest that films belonging to these genres never get made—only that they are not favoured by the big studios, off the bat.

By contrast, genres representing action adventure, suspense thriller, love story, comedy, drama or any combination thereof, tend to be viewed favourably by Hollywood. If your script belongs to any of those genres, its marketability is high.

Summary

Genre sells means that certain genres are easier to market to studios and independent producers. Choosing a poplar genre maximises the chance of a first-time writer achieving success. 

Story Tone and its Relationship to Theme and Plot

Story tone in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Story tone in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

What is story tone? By tone I mean the writer’s imprint of a moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude on the narrative.

In a nutshell, it is the writer’s choice of the genre of the story, and his work within it, that determines the tale’s tone, and not its plot, theme or setting.

If this were not the case a similar setting in a musical, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the classical horror, Frankenstein’s Monster, would produce a similar tone in both cases—not one of levity in the former and one of dread in the latter.

“Story tone can be satirical, comic, serious, or tragic. It is strongly influenced by genre. It does not shift the story’s theme and plot on its own.”

Theme

Does tone help to determine the theme of a story? The short answer is no. If we take theme to be the (moral) lesson delivered at the end of the story as a result of the final conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, then it is clear that a musical or a comedy can produce as serious a theme as drama or tragedy. In this sense, theme tends to be a universal and moral element, floating above the specifics of genre.

Plot

What about plot? Here again, tonal elements are shaped not by plot, but by genre: The events at Frankenstein’s castle, for example, may receive a traditional horror treatment, or may be rendered comedic or satirical, as in a musical, giving rise to a different emotional experience. Again, it is genre, not plot, that creates the tonality of the story.

Summary

Although story tone is deeply rooted in the genre of the tale, it is influenced by the writer’s moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude towards the story and the method of telling it.

Act-1, etc.

Act-1 as the blueprint of Annie Hall
Act-1 and the dramatic structure of Annie Hall

In The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that act-1 of any story is a block of dramatic action, which begins on page one, is developed by the inciting incident within the first half of the act, and ends at the first turning point.

The primary function of act-1 is to set up the dramatic context of the story, introduce the protagonist, as well as other important characters, their world, and the story goal—the things that the protagonist must achieve in order to save the day, restore the balance, fulfill his or her potential.

Dramatic context

Establishing the dramatic context of act-1 means setting up characters, their situation, and the premise of the story: What is at stake for the protagonist? How is the goal defined? What are the initial obstacles in the way of achieving this goal? More concisely, what is the dramatic question of act-1? Indeed, the dramatic question encapsulates these concerns in one precise sentence. 

Syd Field provides us with a powerful example of this in his book. In the film Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells us in a standup monologue, “Annie and I broke up and I..I still can’t get my mind around that. You know, I…I keep shifting the pieces of the relationship through my life and trying to figure out where did the screw up come. You know, a year ago we were…in love…”

“Act-1, and indeed, act-2 and act-3, revolves around a short statement. The story examines the “pieces of the relationship” and tries to answer the question where “did the screw-up come?” 

The Structure of the Dramatic Question

This illustrates an important aspect of the dramatic question. In the first act there are really two questions. The first question quizzes the entire story (how did the screw-up happen). The second question concerns the individual act. For example, when, how, why, and where, did Alvy and Annie fall in love?

The Value of the Dramatic Question for Each Act

Identifying the dramatic question in the first act allows us to hook into the dramatic question of the second and third acts in turn. In the second act of Annie Hall the dramatic question is, when, where, and how did things begin to go increasingly wrong for the couple? The third act’s dramatic question is: what is the final straw that breaks them up? Our task as writers is to answer these questions—a process which involves writing material that addresses each question, scene by scene.

Summary

Tracking act-1 (and indeed, act-2 and act-3) through the dramatic question helps us focus on the progression of our story. It propels us to write material that is purposeful and concise.

Story Templates

Frankenstein as one of many story templates
The Frankenstein tale is one of several story temples writers use to guide their stories.

Much has been written about the number of story templates out there. I do not intend to go into the merits of each offering here. I do, however, want to suggest that most stories fall within nine general types.

What I mean is that although the names, places, and finer grain of each individual story differ from those of the original, the basic structure of the narrative follows a similar pattern. Here are some influential stories that have so captured our imagination that they have created story types:


1. Cinderella

Dreams do come true, despite initial setbacks from wicked or opposing forces: RockyPretty Woman.

2. Romeo and Juliet

Boy meets/wins/has girl, boy looses girl, or boy finds/doesn’t find girl: When Harry Met SallySleepless in Seattle.

3. Faust

Selling your soul may bring short term riches and success, but there’s always a price to be paid, leading to ruin and damnation: Wall StreetFatal Attraction.

“Story templates are narrative and thematic patterns born out of some of the most successful stories of all time.”

4. Circe

The spider and the fly; the victim and the manipulator; the temptress ensnaring the love-struck, or innocent victim, often seen in film noir: Body HeatThe Postman Always Rings Twice.

5. Orpheus

The theft of something precious, either lost, or taken away; the search to redeem it, and the tragedy or success which follows it: Rain Man.

6. Tristan

Stories about love triangles — man loves a woman, but he or she is already spoken for: Fatal Attraction.

7. Candide

The hero who won’t stay down; the innocent on a mission; naive optimism winning the day: Indiana JonesForrest Gump.

8. Achilles

The destruction, or endangerment of an otherwise good person, because of an inherent flaw: SupermanOthello, the protagonist in film noir.

9. Frankenstein

Man’s attempt to rise to the level of God, ending in tragedy and failure: FrankensteinIcarus.

Summary

All stories follow a pattern generated from source material. Mixing such material accounts for the structure of most stories being written today.

Establishing Images — what are they?

Establishing images in Wall Street
The movie Wall Street is awash with establishing images that set the tone for the entire story

The purpose of the establishing images is to provide the context of a story, and to do so early.

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christian Vogler refers to the world in which we first encounter the Hero as the Ordinary World.

By clearly establishing a before and after, a writer is able to emphasise the transforming effect of the Hero’s actions on the world around him. The quality of change that this ‘ordinary‘ world undergoes by the end of the story is precisely the measure of the hero’s success or failure.

But how do we sketch in the main features of this world quickly and efficiently? One way is through the effective use of appropriate images.

“In Advanced Screenwriting Linda Seger suggests that establishing images introduce the tone, time, location, as well as the theme of the story. In other words, they provide the framework of the tale.”

The first minutes of Wall Street, for example, introduce us to the world of business through a series of snapshots of buildings, the morning rush, the energy of those whose pursuit of money defines who they are.

Schindler’s List opens with a black and white closeup of a drawer, and a man putting on elegant cufflinks in preparation for attending an important Nazi party. This immediately sets the tone and time period of the affluent world that Schindler will eventually use to help get Jews out of Germany.

Dead Poets Society, too, begins with the defining sequence of images of a school preparing for its opening day procession—banners boasting the school’s reputation of discipline, excellence, and moral learning.

Such images, however, also help to establish the sense of conformity that will be challanged by Mr. Keating’s creative approach to education, putting him at odds with the school’s hierarchy, and pointing to the central conflict in the story: conformity vs. creativity.

Having established time, place, tone, and theme, through an effective use of starting imagery, then, the writers are now able to create plot and subplot from a solid foundation. It is no coincidence that all three films went on to become huge hits with world audiences.

Summary

Select the right establishing imagery to set the tone, time, place, and theme of your tale. Incidental or irrelevant imagery can mislead the reader or audience and should be purged from your manuscript.

Obstacles and the Foundation of Structure

Obstacles in Source Code
Obstacles as reversals in Source Code

Obstacles in stories. What are they?

In previous posts, I discussed the importance of turning points to the structure of a story, suggesting that their function is to introduce new information, information that ought to be surprising yet inevitable. Surprising, because it keeps the audience or reader guessing, and inevitable because it has the ring of truth about it.

But what specific forms do turning points/obstacles take?

External/Internal

External and internal obstacles flow from the outer and inner journey of the protagonist. In the best stories, they are causally related. A protagonist who is afraid of heights but has to cross a tiny ledge on a skyscraper to save his stranded child has more on his mind than the physical task alone. 

The Specifics of Obstacles

Obstacles may stop the flow of events, forcing the protagonist to start again in a completely new direction, or they may deflect or expand the flow in a related direction, or they may even reverse the flow, resulting in an about-turn.

“One way to view turning points is as obstacles that block the way to the protagonist’s goal and force a change in direction.”

What type of obstacle should you use in your stories? That depends on the type of story you’re telling. Episodic, or biographical stories often stop the current flow in favour of a new option — one episode in one’s life comes to an end and another begins. 

Reversals, on the other hand, have effectively been employed in a type of story called multiform narrative, such as Groundhog DayRun Lola RunVantage Point and Source Code. Such stories replay events from the same starting point but with variations in outcome.

Deflection or expansion is by far the most common form of obstacle. Here the original goal is adjusted, or realigned, but still adheres to the original intent. In Unforgiven, for example, Will Manny’s intention of killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, expands into killing anyone who participated in the murder of his friend, Ned Logan. The original goal, which has already been achieved, has been expanded to include an additional one.

Summary

Turning points are obstacles to the status quo. They introduce major new sections of your story, presenting information that is surprising yet inevitable. There are three main types—dead stop, deflection/expansion, and reversal.

Good Scenes – How to Write Them

Great scenes in Out of sight
Great scenes abound in Out of Sight

Good scenes are comprised of story units involving meaningful dramatic beats.

The general function of any scene, we are reminded, is to provide the reader or audience with essential information in order to follow the story.

The specific purpose of a scene, however, is determined by what sort and how much information to provide. To do so effectively the writer has to understand that scenes are narrative units of the sort referred to on this and other websites as the inciting incident, pinch, turning point, mid-point, climax, resolution, and so on.

The specific purpose of the inciting incident, for example, is to kick-start the story, the first turning point’s function is to turn the story in an unexpected way, and so on.

Identifying scenes in this way highlights their specific function and tells us where they slot into the story. Particular scenes, therefore, allow us to map information in the right place along the story path.

But what about the nuts and bolts of scene construction itself?

“As a general rule good scenes should start late and finish early, meaning that scenes should not contain excess fat. A scene should fulfill its function and end, allowing the next scene to perform its function and end.”

Scenes should also adhere to the genre stylistics of the story. Stylistics inform how the scene delivers its information. The climactic scene in a love story, for example, is very different to the climactic scene in the action genre, in terms of setting, tone, tempo, and protagonist/antagonist interaction. In a love story the antagonist and protagonist might very well end up having sex and getting married; in a thriller, they might end up killing each other,

Out of Sight

In the superb comedy/action/crime/love story movie Out of Sight, Jack Foley (George Clooney), a failed bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) a US Marshall, share an ostensibly antagonistic relationship, which conceals a growing attraction between them — an attraction usually associated with a full-blown love story. The outer journey — the cop chasing the bank robber — neatly echoes the inner journey — the lover’s chase. The accomplished but disjointed time-line adds to the sense of uncertainty in which the viewer is unsure whether Sisco is out to arrest Jack or make love to him. 

Summary

Great scenes correspond to the narrative units discussed in previous posts. Each scene performs a specific task and is located at a specific point within the overall story.

Tension in Stories

Tom Cruise —tension in A Few Good Men
Courtroom tension in A Few Good Men

Tension sucks your readers and audiences into your stories. In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers urges us to keep ramping up the tension of our tales. The tension he is referring to here is different from shoot-outs and car chases – that’s chiefly excitement through action, not tension. 

True tension is coiled up inside difficult moral choices: Which one of her two children does a mother sacrifice to save the other — Sophie’s Choice. Does the father in Mast lower the drawbridge to prevent the train from falling into the river, or does he leave it up and avoid crushing his son who has fallen into the lifting mechanism of the bridge?

Not all choices have to be world changing. They can be small, as long as they are significant to the characters who make them. In Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins keeps the inquisitive Emma Thompson from seeing the title of the book he is reading. It’s a small action in the scene, but the tension in her wanting to know is palpable.

“Tension spring-loads your story. It keeps it taut and delivers a walloping release at the end.”

Higher stakes need higher sacrifices to resolve them. Whether the stakes are world domination as in a James Bond movie, or merely the control of your home, they are still high for the affected characters. If your characters don’t have everything to lose, ratchet up the stakes and keep doing so as the story progresses to keep the tension high.

In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise is trying a big case which will send his client to prison for a long time, if he loses. But later in the story, the stakes rise even more. If Cruise gambles on turning the tables on the Jack Nicholson character, and fails, not only will he lose the case, it will cost him his Navy legal career. For a man living in the shadow of his father, the previous U.S. Attorney General, the stakes are high indeed.

In filling your story with tension, ask yourself the following questions: What are the stakes for my hero and how can I raise them? What is the moral choice he faces, and what does he stand to lose if he makes the wrong one? Correctly structuring the tension in your story will make for a more gripping tale.

Summary

Keep the tension high in your stories by resenting your hero with difficult moral choices.

Story Strands — How To Merge Them

Story strands in Braveheart
William Wallace perfectly merges the story strands in Braveheart


The outer and inner Journeys comprise the two most important strands of a story, which is another way of saying that they relate how the hero acts in the world, and why.

The outer journey, we are reminded, recounts, beat-by-beat, the external events of the Hero struggling against mounting obstacles to achieve the visible goal of the story—preventing the bomb from going off, winning the race, preventing a robbery, and so on. 

The inner journey, by contrast, is the internal path the Hero takes to enlightenment as he initiates or reacts to the outer journey’s challenges, surprises, and setbacks.

“The pivot points merge the story strands, the outer and inner events of the tale, into single actions.”

Lagos Egri, one of the most lucid teachers on the craft of dramatic writing, explains that the inner journey is the “why” to the outer journey’s “what”. In short, the turning points, including your midpoint, describe events that cause the Hero to react in a way that is in keeping with his evolving inner state.

Is it preferable to let the inner state, or, journey, trigger the outer event, or should it be the other way around? There is probably no definitive answer to that question—either will do, as long as both through-lines are tightly interwoven.

In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character accepts his wife’s unborn child—a result of her being raped by an Englishman, because of who he is: a man of immense conviction and inner strength. He manages to kill the fop, an expert English swordsman, despite his being defeated in the actual sword fight, because of this inner strength and conviction.

In Breaveheart, William Wallace accepts his knighthood at the midpoint of the story. This motivates him to move from being an isolationist who merely wants to be left alone to farm with his family, to a national leader who takes up arms against the English. The ceremony is a perfect fusion of an outer and inner event—as a knight he now has a moral obligation to fight for those who fall under his protection. 

Summary

The pivot points are the perfect place for the story strands to merge and ensure that the “why” explains the “what” in the story.

Pantser or Plotter?

James Joyce as a pantser
James Joyce, pantser extraordinaire.

The great Irish writer, James Joyce, a pantser extraordinaire, once said that writing is like climbing a mountain. When ascending the rock-face, all you can see is the surface directly in front and behind you. You can’t see where you’re going or where you’ve come from. Writing is a little like that. All you can see is the page you’re working on.

When we sit down to write a screenplay, novel, or short story we are faced with the daunting challenge of having to fill the blank page or screen in front of us. Having a roadmap helps us orientate ourselves and gets us to our destination sooner.

Some writers like to plan the story meticulously before writing down a single word. Others like to write from the seat of their pants—pantsing, in colloquial speech. But even pantsers ought to have some idea of story direction prior to commencing the journey. Having a sense of the overall story’s structure, knowing how our story ends, for example, allows us to to begin charting the protagonist’s journey from page one.

Even more useful is also knowing where the midpoint or turning points are. This grants us freedom to parachute down to any point in the story and continue from there. If we are feeling sensitive and soppy today, we might write up the love scenes of our tale; if, on the other hand, we are in the mood for action, the confrontational scene between the hero and antagonist might suit us better.

“Most writers fall somewhere inbetween the pantser / plotter spectrum, sometimes running on instinct sometimes drawing on a preconceived plot.”

Writing a story from a structural roadmap, however, changes the roadmap. Turning points, the midpoint, pinches, even endings, shift, breathe. The structure that we outline in the light of day may not work late into the evening. Indeed, this is the most common reason pantsers give against pre-planning a story.

Yet, a changing structure need not be an argument for no structure at all. There is nothing wrong with going back and adjusting/rewriting the midpoint, or second turning point, or pinch, according to some new direction that may suddenly seem more appropriate. This to and fro is part of the writing process. It turns us into more accomplished writers.

Summary

Having a roadmap for our stories (plotter), doesn’t preclude allowing our story to develop as we write (pantser). The two approaches work well together.