Genre is one of the most important concepts in storytelling. At its core, genre refers to the category or type of story being told. Whether that be: crime, romance, sci-fi, horror, comedy, western – no doubt you’ve got your own preferences of what you enjoy watching or writing.
But genre is more than just a label. It shapes audience expectations about the kind of experience they will have. This is why understanding genre is so crucial for storytellers. The genre sets the tone, mood and emotional palette for the story. It lets the audience know if they should expect to laugh or cry…
History of Genre
Genre conventions have evolved drastically over film and TV history as audience tastes and social climates shift. Tracing these changes reveals how genres stay relevant by reinventing themselves.
The Western galloped through Hollywood’s Golden Age. Films like “Stagecoach” followed tried-and-true traditions: gritty outlaw protagonists, shootouts, saloon brawls, cowboy hats everywhere. But the 1960s saw Western morality tales give way to graphic, morally ambiguous fare in Spaghetti Westerns like “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”. Westerns lost some of their charm in the 1980s most likely because of their stereotypical portray of native Americans and similar storytelling conventions. But by the 1990s there was a revival when films like “Unforgiven” commented on the genre’s worn tropes and brought it to a modern audience.
Horror movies have shifted dramatically too. Early horror relied on gothic atmosphere and monsters like in the classic horror film “Nosferatu”. The 1930s turned to more supernatural threats in films like “Dracula”. The Cold War bred atomic age monsters and sci-fi twists. Psycho revolutionized the slasher genre by bringing horror into everyday settings. Films like “Scream”, “Halloween” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” are largely considered cult classics beloved by horror fans old and new. Decades later, new subgenres such as found footage terrorized audiences. From “The Blair Witch project” to “Paranormal activity” these realistic documentary styles were cheap to make and made a fortune in revenue as a result. In the last ten years elevated horror films like “Get Out” have fused scares with social commentary.
So, what causes this genre evolution? Cultural moods shift what resonates with audiences. Post-war unease bred atomic monsters while 70s cynicism spawned gritty anti-heroes. Controversial films that shock and subvert, like “Psycho”, create new genre templates. Technological advances like CGI and surveillance camera aesthetics enable more creative expansion of a genre.
But for all their reinventions, beloved genres never disappear fully. The contemporary superhero boom echoes 1930s Superman as audiences again seek aspirational figures amid uncertainty. Reboots rekindle nostalgia for classics as we see sequels, prequels and adaptations galore tapping into existing audiences and new ones.
Genres thrive by striking a delicate balance between the comforting familiarity of tradition and the audacious leaps into originality.
Aspiring screenwriters in pursuit of originality should take a retrospective glance at the archives of genre history.
The magic lies in infusing the age-old conventions with a dash of revolutionary novelty. For a genre to transform, it must first forge a profound connection with the hearts and minds of its audience through its traditional roots, laying the foundation for the subsequent explosion of conventions.
Genres are the lifeblood of cinema, offering filmmakers a boundless canvas to paint an array of narratives. As genres undergo constant evolution, let’s take a moment to delve into some of the most common genres of cinema.
Pulse-pounding, stunt-filled movies centred on physical feats and heroics. Subgenres include martial arts, superheroes, disaster films, spy thrillers, and war movies. Often feature one-liners like “I’ll be back” and exhilarating chase sequences, fight scenes, and daring rescues. Audiences who love action films want all out entertainment.
Fun escapist stories involving exploration, exotic locations, quests, and bold characters who must survive perilous situations. Indiana Jones defined this genre. Subgenres include swashbuckler, survival, and treasure hunt films. Emphasize plot and action over characters. These stories are usually identifiable by a quest to get something and thwart the bad guys before they get the ‘holy grail’.
Light-hearted stories crafted to amuse, satirise and get audiences to laugh out loud. Subgenres include slapstick, spoof, romantic comedy, satire and teen comedies. Features eccentric characters, witty dialogue, humorous situations. Comedies are feel good favourites that audiences love to watch and re-watch.
Dramas delve into the lives of authentic characters navigating emotional challenges and complex relationships. Within this genre, you’ll find subcategories like romantic dramas, biopics, slice-of-life tales, and films addressing significant societal issues. These stories are more about character than plot. The beauty of dramas lies in their versatility, with narratives that span a wide spectrum of human experiences.
Centring on lawbreakers and the justice system, offering thrilling tales laced with danger. Subgenres include detective stories, heists, gangster films, and courtroom dramas. Crime films build tension through mysteries, shady underworlds, and high-stakes. These stories often have ambiguous endings or even unexpected endings so remember to keep your audience guessing!
Horror encompasses various subgenres, such as slashers, psychological thrillers, supernatural, monster movies, and gruesome gore-fests. With an arsenal of chilling atmospheres, disturbing imagery, sudden jump scares, and jarring violence; horror films are sure to get your heart racing as they frequently venture into the darkest recesses of the human psyche.
Musicals transport audiences to fantastical realms where song, dance, and performance take centre stage. This vibrant genre encompasses subcategories, including backstage tales and musician biopics. Musicals are often feel good family films that drive the narrative to convey emotions that words alone can’t express.
Science fiction or ‘Sci-Fi’ boldly explores futuristic ideas and technologies while providing insightful commentary on contemporary societal concerns.
Subgenres within this expansive genre span space adventures, time travel escapades, and dystopian dystopias. Often, these narratives are adorned with spaceships, robots, alien worlds, and the consequences of scientific experimentation gone awry.
Transporting us to the untamed Wild West frontier, Westerns weave a rich tapestry of myth around cowboy culture, featuring vast, sweeping landscapes and iconic outlaws.
Subgenres within this genre offer epic gunfights, tales of brave cavalry soldiers, and revisionist Westerns that dig into the gritty aspects of the era. Westerns often celebrate the enduring spirit of rugged outlaws who live on the open range.
Mastering the traditions and innovations within this genre empowers screenwriters to craft their distinctive narratives, all while staying true to a framework that resonates with audiences.
Animation requires a bit more explanation as a genre as it’s a versatile medium that transcends its own boundaries by embracing a mix of other genre archetypes.
Created by talented animators, there are a number of styles that define animation, such as hand-drawn artistry, CGI, stop-motion or even of Claymation. Each method creates a unique aesthetic, serving as a powerful tool to enrich the essence of a particular subgenre.
Animation isn’t a genre that is limited by age, as it effortlessly caters to a wide demographic spectrum. From heart-warming family classics like “The Little Mermaid” to edgier content that resonates with older audiences, including hits like “Family Guy” and “Rick and Morty.”
Also, let’s not forget about the “Anime” genre, appealing to adults and children alike stories like ‘Dragon Ball’, ‘One Piece’ and even ‘Pokémon’ have all cemented themselves in television history with huge global fanbases.
Check out Studiobinder’s Ultimate Guide to Movie Genres for more examples.
Audiences love the familiarity of their favourite genres. A rom-com promises light-hearted comedy with a bit of romance. A superhero film assures big action spectacles showing good vs evil. But sometimes stories that zig when you expect them to zag end up leaving the biggest impression. By blending genres, writers create works that surprise audiences and subvert expectations.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” blends elements of science fiction, romance, and drama to tell a heartfelt and mind-bending story. On the surface it’s a love film but peel back the layers and you will see conventions from a variety of different genres.
The film “Get Out” cannily uses horror conventions to comment on racism. It lulls audiences in with tropes like an isolated haunted house and creepy characters. But the familiar gives way to biting social satire, allowing a window into insidious real-world horror.
These works show that sticking too closely to genre rules can hold back creativity. Combining genres lets writers explore new themes and emotions, escaping the limits of just one genre.
Want witty romance but with an edgy twist? Throw in satire. Need to sweeten a plot’s darker moments? Add comedy as a counterpoint. Historical drama feeling leaden? Inject it with a bit of swashbuckling adventure!
For more genre-bending examples, check out this article.
Of course, balance is key. Veer too far from audiences’ expectations, and confusion sets in. But just a novel sprinkle from an unexpected genre can be just the thing your story needs.
Studying examples of genre blends also expands your storytelling toolkit. Why not try brainstorming what surprising genre mashups would complement your story?
Genres may have distinct flavours, but they can complement each other. By playing genre mixologist, screenwriters can concoct the ultimate cocktail: an original story that keeps audiences savouring each unexpected twist. If you’re looking to dig more into genre tropes why not take a look at our article “What is a Trope in Movies? Recognizing Common Themes”.
The Power of Genre Shorthand
Before viewers have pressed play, genre has already primed them for the story. The label “rom-com” sets expectations of light laughs and a destined couple overcoming obstacles. “Horror” promises shocking frights via disturbing visuals and menacing villains. Genre clues cue audiences on core elements like tone, theme, characters and settings.
This shorthand allows creators to skip lengthy setup and drop viewers right into the meat of the story. A western? No need to slowly introduce the saloon, tumbleweeds and standoffs—the genre imprints that world instantly. Sci-fi? Futuristic tech and spaceships are assumed. Sitcom? A dysfunctional-but-lovable family anchors the hijinks.
Genres immediately telegraph core character types too. The word “superhero” evokes righteous, caped crusaders. “Fantasy” prepares us for wizards, dragon slayers and dark lords. Iconic archetypes flow from genres’ overarching themes.
Of course, nuance comes as creators’ colour inside genre lines. The western anti-hero subverts the white-hatted stereotype. “The Final Girl” trope upends the disposable scream queen trope. But even playful spins on convention still use genre foundations as touchstones.
Genre speaks volumes without a single line. Like a movie trailer, that one-word label sets the scene, tones the lighting, casts the leads. Equipped with genre knowledge, writers can harness these built-in signals, letting the shorthand set the stage so their story can sweep into view unencumbered. Wordlessly, genre gives creators momentum out the gate.
In the end genres are a dynamic creative framework. They provide a shared language between storytellers and their audience, but they should not be shackles that force all stories into the same box.
Genre history shows conventions are made to be stretched, twisted and reimagined. It is by innovating within and between genres that writers create their most compelling works.
Just as genres evolve with the times, so must writers continually reinvent genre ingredients to cook up fresh stories, while still honouring the fundamental recipes audiences crave.
For screenwriters, genres provide the foundational building blocks, but it is the zest of originality that truly seasons the narrative feast, creating stories that are as timeless as they are fresh and exciting.
Looking to start your own journey into screenwriting? You may enjoy “How to Become a Screenwriter” on our blog.