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Genre films

What the movie industry means when it uses the term 'genre'. How genre films are made and the conventions used in the films. A brief introduction to 'tropes' and why as a writer you should know about them and care about them.

What is genre?

If you ask most people what a genre is, they'll try to explain that it means the setting or perhaps 'family' of films that a given movie occupies. They will explain that genres might include war, romantic comedy or western. A dictionary definition would, most likely, concur. So we're done, then, right?

Sadly, no.

Sometimes the industry does use the term genre to mean that, of course. It's rather a matter of context. If someone says:

Then he probably is talking about the definition above. Additionally he's probably not very bright, based on his statement, films that claim to re-invent the genre seem infinitely more common than films that actually do reinvent it.

However, and this is important, sometimes people talk about a 'genre film' or a 'genre festival' or, critically, 'a genre audience'. In that case they mean a specific genre or group of genres, they mean speculative fiction.

Speculative fiction

Speculative fiction is fiction of the imagination. It's fiction that falls into the following categories:

  • Science fiction
  • Horror
  • Fantasy

This is because a genre film is marketed to a genre audience. Genre films have an understood style to their posters, an understood group of festivals, magazines, reviewers and websites where these types of film are reviewed and discussed. From a marketing perspective there's a subset of humanity that will watch these films and a subset that will not. It might not be entirely accurate but it is the industry perception and it means that if you have a genre script you need to make sure it contains the tropes that appeal to a genre audience.


So here's a new concept. Tropes. A film can be seen to possess a thing called grammar. You're already familiar with quite a lot of film grammar, even if you don't realise it. You can recognise an establishing shot, a quick, static shot of a location from the outside to show you where the action is taking place before cutting to the inside for the actual scene with the actors. You recognise that a close-up of a character's face can be used to imply intense thoughts, convey emotions, focus your attention on the important moments. You know that a quick cut to a gun on a table put in the middle of a character close-up implies that the character has noticed the gun. All of this is grammar.

A trope is simply an example of film grammar that is specific to a genre or style of film.

A brief digression

Before we move on to actual examples of tropes it's important we make sure we all understand what they are, so we're going to briefly discuss things that aren't tropes and why they aren't.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most accomplished directors of all time. His films have a great many stylistic commonalities that make them 'Hitchcockian'. For example, in his thrillers he has a definite type of leading actress. He casts elegant, blond, cool actresses to play his female leads. Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, these women are all of a definite physical type in look and in presence. This is not a trope. It's not a trope because it's specific to Hitchcock, not the genre as a whole, and it's not a trope because its use is not part of the grammar of the film, it's just his preference.

Dario Argento is one of the most famous directors of horror films, often stylish, practically operatic, murders. He has several trade-mark choices, perhaps most famously, the shiny black leather gloves often worn by the killers. Again this isn't a trope, it's Argento's personal style, not something that carries across to other horror films.

So one clue here is that the trope is often not something the director brings to the film, it's often put in by the writer.

Argento's films are often considered to be part of a sub-genre called giallo, in fact Argento is probably the most famous and accomplished of the giallo directors.

Just because Argento is the most celebrated exponent of giallo and just because he has a style of presentation it does not mean that giallo in general carries that across as a trope.

Narrative tropes

So let's talk about actual tropes. A few questions for you, can vampires fly? Are werewolves killed by silver? Can zombies fly?

What you'll probably be thinking is 'sometimes', 'mostly' and 'no' in answer to those questions. You see the narrative trope is a common understanding of the nature of a piece of genre based on the source material. We know vampires drink blood, sometimes vampires can fly, but not always. In general vampires don't breathe fire. These are the narrative tropes associated with vampires.

You have to be very careful about messing with these narrative tropes. But think about that for a moment. Why do you have to be careful? Vampires aren't real. Surely you can write them however you want?

Yes, you can. But you shouldn't. People have brought certain tropes into the cinema with them, messing with those concepts is risky because it can alienate your audience and make them stop paying attention to your plot while they try to reassess what your trope-changes actually mean.

People still argue about whether films that depict zombies as fast-moving are 'real' zombie movies. For me, they are, but it's a contentious decision and one that is ultimately unnecessary. Want your monsters to be quick? Then don't call them zombies!

Internal tropes

Within a film you'll find a second type of tropes. These are the 'real' tropes in film-grammar terms. These are plot elements, staging decisions, creative choices that define the genre.

So here we have two possible options. We can follow the trope, revealing our killer or we can subvert the trope. How do we subvert it? We build the music to a threatening crescendo, we delay the cabinet door closing, maybe we let it close on its own, slowly, as our potential victim looks around for a towel. Oh no, now we're going to see the killer but the victim isn't! Such tension! Such a perfect moment to, er, let the cabinet close and reveal there's no killer behind our victim. Oooooh! Gotcha! We can relax. And maybe at that moment, at that very instant, the killer smashes his way through the wall, destroying the cabinet and taking our victim warmly by the throat. Or not. Subvert the trope.

Unlike the narative trope, the internal ones can be cheated all the time. One classic example deserves special mention:

The single best example of an early subversion of a thriller trope, and the one that gives the Lewton Bus its name, is in the wonderful Cat People. A woman, alone at night, feels she's being followed but she can't see anyone when she looks behind her. She walks into a large road-tunnel and the sounds of pursuit are now amplified by the echoes of the tunnel. She hurries on, more and more nervous and as the threat builds we suddenly... Have a loud roar as a bus, going the other way down the tunnel, passes right across the foreground of the shot, as she screams, startled. It's a bus. Not only that, we don't hear it coming even though she can hear water drops falling, soft footsteps following. Lewton plays a trick on us, when the jump comes it's not a threat, it's completely mundane. He has subverted the trope.

These internal tropes are a collaborative process between the witer, director, cinematographer and anyone else who's at the same table in the canteen. The reason they work is because the audience is already tuned in to the trope, they're already waiting to see whether the cabinet door will reveal the killer or not.

A great way to think of a genre audience is that it's the audience that already understands the tropes of the genre.

Your genre audience is looking for you to explore, subvert, deliver and invent tropes. Your director wants you to include some in the script. Your producer wants those moments to pay off for the audience. Learn the tropes and use them well. If you do you'll make a satisfying film that engrosses the audience, each member of which is waiting for those genre tropes. If you know what the tropes are and make the decision not to use them, your job is harder, but it can be rewarding because you may, just may, genuinely come up with a film that redefines the genre. How?

"I don't much care for Hollywood, I'd rather have a nice cup of cocoa."

Noel Coward