Wednesday, March 15, 2006


If you think about it, Jaws is just a monster movie. And, like a lot of monster movies, incidental characters are picked off as our hero tries to stop the creature. But, somehow, the film transcends genre. It’s because it has an armature and a character of change.

Lots of films came out after Jaws which tried to repeat its success. One film used an orca whale in place of a shark, and another used a mutated bear.

None of these films went below the surface to understand why Jaws had resonance.

Terminator and Aliens are also just monster movies on the outside; what sets them apart are their strong armatures.

This happens in literature as well. No one ever says that 1984 is just a science fiction novel. Or that Animal Farm is a kid’s book because it has talking animals. Nor do they say the same of Gulliver’s Travels because its world is fantastic.

Is Star Wars sci-fi or is it fantasy or is it action? If it is sci-fi, does it have anything in common with Alien? What do E.T. and 2001 have in common? What are the similarities between Terminator 2 and Galaxy Quest? Indeed there is little these films share in common.

We have also prescribed a hierarchy to genre stories: “This is a costume drama; it must have more to say than a sci-fi story.” This, of course, is not the truth.

When Clint Eastwood made UNFORGIVEN, it felt like few westerns before it because it was more concerned with theme than with props, setting, costumes and stereotypes. It transcended genre.

Fed-up with the restrictions enforced on him by networks and advertisers, Rod Serling stopped writing the prestigious teleplays for live television for which he was famous. When he announced that he would be doing a fantasy show, many thought he had given up on doing “serious work” for television.

Mr. Serling knew something the executives didn’t. “I knew I could have Martians say things that Democrats and Republicans couldn’t,” he said. He was able to use the prejudice of genre hierarchy to his advantage. He wrote fantastical stories about real human issues without any flack from advertisers, and audiences always knew what he was saying.

We all have a fondness for a particular motif. I like the clothes and cars from the mid-twentieth century. I have a visceral response to those things when I see them in movies. That doesn’t make the film good.

More importantly, other people may not share my appreciation for these things, so as a storyteller, I must speak to them on a deeper level. The armature must be so strong that it makes the story universal and makes the genre inconsequential.

As a storyteller, you should be aware in which genre your story will, more than likely, be viewed. Outwardly, it should be in a recognized genre.
That will make it much easier to sell and to market. Only you need to know you’ve transcended the genre. Your audience will know it too, they just won’t know they know.


Jamie Baker said...

BRIAN>> I like that point you make that certain genres allow more freedom in dealing with certain powerful issues, and the irony being that they are often the "fantasy" or "fairy tale" genres. That observation certainly hits home with me.

People often comment on what the SIMPSON's is able to get away with in terms of pointed social critique VS a live action show.

I have to confess that when I go to see an IMPORTANT film my shields are up and my bullshit detectors are turned to 11. As a consequence i often don't enjoy those films in the way I might. But if some tricky storyteller hides some profound obserevations in a children's story or a fantasy tale, it gets under my guard and stays with me for a long time.

Not much different than hiding a child's medicine inside a cherry flavoured candy...

Perhaps that is why, even though you point out that "genre" is illusion, we each of us, have noticed that certain genres have had a resonance for us? Those are the particular candy coatings over the medicine that work for us.

BKO said...

Well put Jamie!! Genre trappings were battled over at Jamie's blog just recently. It makes me crazy when people say I don't like westerns ,sci fi or kids movies. What they are really saying is " I don't like bad stories told badly!!" Now that statement I can get behind!! Oh and the candy coating of a good car exploding!! Yum!!! POW! POW! POW!

I think after we all go through our teenage years we become resistant to "messages" but socially we need to hear and see stories. It gives us ques on how to behave to/with each other and situations as well as giving us a way to channel our emotions and vent them safely.

I worked in a digital features group for awhile and at every meeting with studio execs, genre was one of the first things to come up!" Do you have any fractured fairy tales, talking animals, pirates, Pirates are big right now!" The list changed week to week. Alot of the really good stories we had didn't fit in with the current genre flavors so they didn't want to hear them or felt they were too risky!! Dark days indeed. Either it has to get worse or better before they start looking deeper to the story. Thanks Brian for your blog!! I love this stuff and the images really work!

Rocco said...

Regarding the idea of "candy coating" a message:

I think it goes deeper than merely tricking the audience into receiving a message by putting a friendly wrapper on it. I think it's more about the story targeting the message in a direction that doesn't hit too close to home with the audience.

If your story yells in the face of the audience, "You're a racist!" You're not going to be warmly received, you're not going to provoke any thought. The defenses go up and the audience is lost. But if you make an engaging story about a butterfly that can't become friends with a dung beetle because, "They're not our kind," you can get the audience to sympathize with the characters. They don't immediately see themselves in the story so the defenses are down, and after the lights come up they can internalize the message.

The use of genre also helps give an easily understandable context for those messages, because the audience of a given genre already understands certain ground rules that you don't have to spend too much time establishing. In the superhero genre it's a given that heros are super, now you can get right down to what it is about your hero's character that makes him or her special, besides the ability to fly.

Thanks for this blog. I really enjoy going to blogs about story and art that get me thinking again! I look forward to coming back and reading through the other articles.

Brian McD said...

What you say is true. I made a short film about racism where I did just what you say. The film does quite well.

But I beg to differ with the idea that you can take for granted the audience knows anything. Take your example of super heroes, for instance. Go pick up a Jack Kirby comic book like a Fantastic Four. On that first page you’ll see the F.F. using their powers. You’ll see Johnny Storm welding something with his fiery body as The Thing holds up the piece of heavy equipment and Reed Richards stretches his body to work on the equipment. Kirby didn’t take anything for granted. I find now that people don’t communicate as clearly as they could because they make assumptions about what the audience already knows. I just don’t think you can make those assumptions. A given genre gives you no guarantees that the audience knows anything. Again, what do E.T and Star Trek have in common? If your idea of Sci-fi is Star Trek than you have nothing to go on when you sit down to watch E.T. I think one must always assume that the reader/viewer knows nothing about the world you have created.

Thanks for reading the blog!

d said...


LOVE YOUR BLOG. I got your book too.

When talking about genre, I think what we confuse it with is setting. A science fiction film or western film is merely a setting. Star Wars is a movie that transcends it's setting. We could retell the story of Luke Skywalker and the Death Star in other genres. (settings.)

Luke could be a young farm boy from Kansas who sees a need to fight a band of outlaws in a fortress in Utah.

Thinking along the lines of Star Wars, we can see that prequel trilogy fails while the original trilogy succeeds and still resonates years later.

The original trilogy had heart. We cared about the characters. We cared if Luke failed or succeeded. We cared if Han and Leia hooked up. We even cared when a robot got blasted.

In the prequels, we don't care what happens to who. The prequel trilogy is all about spectacle. It does have great effects. Awesome at times, actually. However, the prequels lack an emotional core.

It's simple to get to why. Ask who the main character is in any of the films and the answer is obvious. There is no main character in any of the prequel films. (Maybe, kinda sorta Annakin in Episode III. Sort of.)

Looking at the original trilogy, we see that the main character in all three films is Luke Skywalker.

Star Wars has some simple and complex themes, but the structure of the films is simple and dramatic.

We can thank George Lucas for giving us two examples of what to do and not to do in films in two sets of trilogies.

Genre is merely setting. Drama is thematic. Someone or something is what we the viewer/reader need to care about otherwise, we're just creating so much fluff.

Keep up the great work, Brian.

Brian McD said...

Thanks D,

I agree completely with what you say about genre.

Thanks for taking the time to write and thanks for visiting the blog -- and also for getting the book.

Hope you enjoy the book.

-- Brian