From a birds-eye view, ‘Genre’ covers quite the range of storytelling elements — ‘western’ denotes setting; ‘romance’ denotes a relationship; ‘musical’ denotes a style and ‘comedy’ denotes a feeling. From this, it would appear that genre is something of a paradox — a collection of separate duties that somehow groups similar stories for audiences. It gets even more complex when you consider that a single genre, e.g. a Western, includes everything from The Searchers to Blazing Saddles — same genres, but VERY different in tone.
The truth is, ‘genre’ only helps writers once a story is completed.
I wrote recently about genre mash-ups, and how one genre must be brought down to balance the tone of the other. This also has value here. The only thing a screenwriter has complete control of is the tone of their writing. If a comedic writer attempts to write a serious horror, and inserts one joke too many, some may view it as a comedy-horror because of the lighter-than-normal tone. Genre doesn’t help writers in the way many assume it does.
There is no ‘kind of story’ inherently ‘conformed’ to a set genre. A simple story can very easily be told in any genre — the story of a young girl trying to survive after the destruction of her home, for example. It could be a western following a young woman who plans to fight back after her family is killed by bandits; a horror flick with a young woman trying to survive after her whole neighborhood is murdered after dark; a war movie following a young woman whose entire town is bombed. All of them very different, and presumably varying tones, but telling the same story.
This is why genre is for an audience, and tone is the duty of the writer. The writer and filmmakers dictate the tone, and the tone influences the genre classification.
Let’s take a look at some other near-identical stories told in very different ways.
Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven
John Sturges’s 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven, an Old-West style adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Samurai Epic Seven Samurai, is like a movie entirely of its own. If you didn't know they were descendants, you'd struggle to see the parallels. Look no further than the tone (and runtime) to see the true difference between the movies. Namely, Seven Samurai is a serious, largely-introspective movie about samurai and their place in changing Japanese society; while The Magnificent Seven is a fun, shoot-‘em-up action flick with a bunch of outlaws that choose to live as criminals. The only clear connection between them is the core plot -- seven heroes fighting bad guys to save a small village.
You could argue that the differing tones are an effect of cultural differences; that mainstream Hollywood releases rarely have a harsh or unforgiving tone (with the exception of recent DC movies, which feel like a steady decline into depression), while international fare is much more introspective and risk-taking. But I think, as a writer, it’s much better to believe this is an intentional choice. Had the writers simply transposed the action of Seven Samurai to a western environment, there would still be an air of seriousness and introspection about it. Here, the writers have changed the genre and the whole atmosphere, while maintaining the original story. And that’s no easy feat.
Seven Samurai achieves a melodramatic, sombre tone by focusing on the introspective nature of the Samurai.
The Magnificent Seven achieves a bombastic, ‘fun’ tone by focusing almost entirely on the action created by the outlaws.
Pride & Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary
Pride & Prejudice is arguably Jane Austen’s most revered work. A love story set against the backdrop of 19th Century social customs, it tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet, a lively woman that struggles against the social norms and pressures to marry. Of course, cinephiles know Elizabeth’s story through a whole other character that appeared almost two centuries later (if this is mathematically wrong, I’d like it to be known that I failed high school math more than four times and less than six). Bridget Jones’s Diary introduced moviegoers to our beloved Bridget; a clumsy woman that struggles against social norms and pressures to marry — all set against the backdrop of contemporary social customs. Like Sturges, Helen Fielding directly took inspiration from the older work, but used it in a completely new way.
Of course, unlike The Magnificent Seven, Bridget Jones's Diary doesn’t change the genre of the story. Much, anyway. It's more of a parody of Pride and Prejudice; a comedic interpretation of Austen's work that welcomes a much lighter touch.
Fielding incorporates Pride and Prejudice into her script. The characters are practically lifted from Austen's world, entire scenes are borrowed and the plot is very similar. But then Fielding embraces the social elements of our modern world, and creates a new context for the classic tale. In her writing, Austen satirized with sharp wit, quietly poking fun at the pressures that comes from self-absorbed family members (not least of which, her mother).
Fielding brings that satire to the forefront, presenting the world as 'smug marrieds vs single people'; and making the family members even more self-absorbed with their marriage pressure. Austen was at the back of the room, sniggering. Fielding was at the front of the room, laughing.
Pride and Prejudice achieves a tone of comedic irony by being quietly satirical and subtly mocking.
Bridget Jones's Diary achieves an outwardly comedic tone by bringing the satire to the forefront.
Die Hard and Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Stick with me here. I didn’t say they were ALL good movies. Die Hard is a modern classic about a police officer stuck in a high-rise with a bunch of terrorists. Paul Blart: Mall Cop is a ‘slapstick romp’ about a security guard stuck in a mall with a bunch of thugs. You see what I’m getting at? I know these movies probably shouldn't be compared. But look at the plot. They’re practically mad libs!
If we look closer, we see that the tone of Die Hard is very serious (even given Bruce’s quips and wise-cracks); as an audience, we’re conditioned to expect the unexpected and to be afraid of Hans Gruber. By comparison, Paul Blart is so broad that you can barely make out the plot through all of the falling over and 'jokes'. With Blart, you never really feel concerned or worried at any point, and that's really the whole purpose. The audience is there to watch and possibly laugh (though I’m not entirely sure), but it’s almost impossible to consider that Kevin James on a segway is a distant cousin of Bruce Willis in the air vents.
But, trust me, it is.
Now, I’m not saying that these movies are comparable in terms of quality (frankly, I can't believe this part of the article is still here). But it’s another example of the importance of tone over genre. In Die Hard, people die. We get serious discussions of broken families and terrorism. It's all very serious. In Paul Blart, nobody dies. At worst, Paul Blart falls over. And we get whole sequences of Paul Blart trying online dating or suffering from comedic bouts of hypoglycemia (a real laugh-a-minute, right?). One could argue that these movies are not the same genre. But they share almost all of the same plot elements. It's like saying Blazing Saddles isn't a western, or Nine Lives isn't Kevin Spacey's greatest performance. Of course it is! It’s just a little different than you expected.
Die Hard gets its tone by showing the very serious stakes (broken family; murderous terrorists; high-rise).
Paul Blart gets its tone by (sigh) showing Paul Blart falling over and/or saying lines like “No one wins with a headbutt” or “Remember me? I set you on fire at the pancake festival.”
Genre and Tone
Genre is an impossibly fickle thing to try and nail down before you’ve written anything. The only thing a writer can control is the tone of their writing. It’s worth remembering that many genres rely upon their tone and don’t have genre cliches (psychological thriller, for example). All of the above movies share near-identical stories, but present them in completely unique ways — one of them changing genre entirely. And there are countless examples of great stories told in different ways. Look at Chicken Run (funny) and The Great Escape (thrilling); or Olympus Has Fallen (overly-serious) and White House Down (goofy fun). You may find that ignoring genre altogether makes a more interesting and ‘not cliched’ story. Writers should ask themselves questions about the tone of their story:
What kind of feeling are you looking to evoke from the reader?
How are you going to use the genre elements to achieve that feeling?
What would Paul Blart do in this moment? Probably fall over.