How to write a great film script by understanding genre

If 1968 final shot

Understanding genre has nothing to do with wanting to write something commercial; it is about acknowledging what the audience expectations are from this type of story and realising how useful this information can be for your work.

There are three things your script needs:

  •       Theme
  •       Emotional resonance
  •       Entertainment

Your audience will extract the theme without even realising; this is what will give the film meaning for them. What is your story actually about when you distil it down to its purest essence? Examples of some common themes are:

The loss of innocence.

Triumph over adversity.

The fragility of relationships.

Love conquers all.

The emotional resonance of the piece will come from an audience’s connection with your characters. Is your main character shown to be struggling in some way – make this explicitly clear.

Look at how Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) manages to hold our heart-strings in the palm of her hand in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996). How does this character manage this? She is struggling in life; she has no money; she is lonely; she lives in a fraught situation with her daughter Roxanne; she exists on the edge of an emotional precipice the whole time, frequently close to tears. We bond with her emotionally through her hardships and feel invested in the story by the time the daughter she gave away for adoption at birth gets in touch and wants to get to know her.

The audience must also feel entertained by the story you are telling; this doesn’t have to be high-octane car chases and seat-of-your-pants casino raids but there do have to be thrills of one kind or another.

Again, do not try to be commercial. This will be the death of your story. You must simply write from the heart; if you do this well, others will respond to it and your work will find an audience.

When an audience knows something that the main character doesn’t, this is a good source of dramatic tension. Exploit this until it is resolved – and resolve it in the most effective way you can.

Hitchcock was fond of illustrating this point: ‘There’s two people having breakfast and there’s a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that’s a surprise. But if it doesn’t…’

When an audience stands shoulder to shoulder with the main character and learns about events alongside him or her as they occur, this can be just as satisfying dramatically too, so don’t feel that you have to keep your characters in the dark.

When the audience knows less than the main character, this is boring however, so try to avoid this.


How can genre help you write a great script?

The genre is the type of film you are writing; once you know this, you know what the audience expectations of that genre are.

For instance, if you are writing a Romantic Comedy, this is what is expected:

  •       Two characters – nearly always contemporary – who the audience want to be together;
  •       Neither character needs necessarily to have any psychological depth; they can be defined simply by their current situation and circumstances;
  •       The pivotal moment, which takes place during the first act, is when one falls for the other;
  •       The second act will be full of near-misses, trials and tribulations as they fail to get it together – all invested with humour, because this is a comedy;
  •       The question the audience will ask themselves throughout is: will these two end up together?
  •       The answer is always yes. In a romantic comedy, there is always a happy ending.

So once you are comfortable with the conventions of the genre in which you are writing, they can become a form of guide for you as you map out your story.

What genre are you working within at the moment? Think about a similar film and consider how that film was structured.

Try to distance yourself from your writerly, emotional reasons for writing this story. Think of it in more disciplined, dispassionate terms:

  •       Who is my audience?
  •       What are their expectations?

There are very few pure genre films made anymore, but it is worth looking briefly at the different genres in which your story could be taking place.

Here are some classic film genres:

Film Noir                       Action/Adventure                        Comedy                    Myth/Epic

Gangster                                 Fantasy                                   Thriller                 Romantic Comedy

Historical Drama                 Musical                                  Western                          Sci-Fi

Courtroom                               Crime                                       Heist                      Coming of age

Social Drama                      Romance                                   Horror                       Ghost Story

We will look at these genres in more detail in future articles, but, for the moment, try to work out which genre you enjoy exploring the most.

Drama is by far the broadest genre; in fact, it is unhelpful to label a film as a drama without qualifying it further.

Is it a rites of passage or coming of age drama, for example, like Stand By Me or The Kings of Summer or The Perks of Being a Wallflower? All these films have comic elements too, so perhaps we should call them rites of passage comedy-dramas, to be strictly accurate.

In a rites of passage story, the main character has to be taken out of his or her environment, for example by moving to a new area, going to war, starting at a new school. There has to be a steep learning curve in the second act, where they are in charge or have responsibilities that they didn’t previously have. By the end of the story, they have learnt a great deal about themselves and matured through their experiences of having to overcome a great obstacle, be it surviving in the woods over the summer, passing their exams, searching for a body, surviving the war.

If you are writing a rites of passage story, complicate your main character’s passage; create something about them – a flaw – that they are trying to hide; make sure that it is only when they deal with this flaw that they are able to overcome the challenges they are facing.

If you are writing a character piece, which is what I call a certain type of drama that addresses explicitly issues of character – sometimes referred to as a ‘character study’ or ‘slice of life’ drama – your film will very likely be about a connection between two people. Who are these two people and why do we care about them? Have you brought them together in the most interesting, involving, dramatic manner?

American Beauty 1999

How do we define genre?

Firstly, let’s take a look at your protagonist. You could be writing an ensemble drama, in which case you will need to consider your film to have multiple protagonists, but let us presume for the moment that you have just one main character.

How would you describe your protagonist?

  •       Is he or she a hero?
  •       Is he or she a victim?
  •       Is he or she just an ordinary ‘everyman’ type of person going about their business?
  •       Is the main conflict internal or external?
  •       What kind of journey are they on?
  •       Where do they begin their journey and where do they end up?

Now let’s take a look at your antagonist.

You need to create your antagonist out of your protagonist’s obstacles.

The more realistic the antagonist, the more realistic the main dramatic conflict of your story.

Don’t let them be an overly simplistic stereotypical ‘baddie’; make sure they have a clearly defined want and need and that they are on a journey of their own.

Do they have any kind of an existence outside of your protagonist’s journey? If the answer is no, go back and work out what kind of life they are leading; what are their fears; who do they love; what aspects of their character make us care about them?

Drama is the one genre that doesn’t demand a resolution. Of course, you need to resolve your tale but you can do so simply by showing the change that has taken place in the world of your protagonist or in their character. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a resolution to the story itself. Without giving any spoilers away, consider the endings of The Ice Storm or The Fabulous Baker Boys or Good Will Hunting.

So have a think about the story you are working on and the character at the heart of it and ask yourselves these questions:

  •       Can you define the genre?
  •       What kind of emotional experience is the audience expecting? How are they supposed to feel by the end?
  •       What kind of protagonist do you have? (hero, victim, everyman)
  •       What actually happens? Can you define the catalytic moment – or point of no return – for your protagonist, that takes place in the first act?
  •       Now describe the main conflict of the piece in no more than a few words. If you aren’t able to, go back to the themes and your character’s want and need and think about what they need to learn about themselves to achieve their goal.

The most important thing to remember is that genre conventions are not rules with which to tie yourself up in knots; they are simply an acknowledgement that audiences watch most films and television shows with expectations and we, as writers, must never lose sight of what those expectations are.

Once you have accomplished this, it will be clear if you have a great story on your hands and a reason to tell it – but also, crucially, you will have the freedom of knowing in what terms this type of story should be told.



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