Anyone who knows enough about Greek mythology has a kind of “a-ha” moment when they first see Blake Snyder’s 10 Genres. Of course! The Legend of the Minotaur is a ‘Monster in the House’, Hercules is a pre-Marvel ‘Superhero’ and The Golden Fleece – that’s a Golden Fleece. This is unwavering product of a deep-seated psychology. Storytelling DNA.
The trouble is: when you take a critical view of things, a lot of Blake’s genres are just too vague. Take his first genre, Monster in the House, as outlined in Goes to the Movies. The ingredients of such a genre are:
- A “monster,” supernatural in its powers – even if its strength derives from insanity – and “evil” at its core.
- A “house,” meaning an enclosed space that can include a family unit, an entire town, or “the world.”
- A “sin.” Someone is guilty of bringing the monster in the house… A transgression that can include ignorance.
Doesn’t (2) feel like a necessary condition for all films – much like saying that a story must take place in a place? Okay, maybe it’s more specific than that, stating that the characters must be trapped with the monster. But all that really says is that the story has to make sense. If we were watching a haunted house film in which all the gonnabe victims were free to leave at any point, we’d lose faith in story, thanks to its lack of logic.
The notion of a ‘sin’ also seems to be quite a flimsy one. It’s this factor which really separates Monster in the House from Dude with a Problem, as the latter involves an innocent hero whereas the former does not. However, I ask you, which genre does No Country for Old Men fall into? When laconic everyman, Llewelyn Moss, stumbles upon $2.4m in the desert, he elects himself to be target of the truly monstrous, Anton Chigurh. Is ‘stealing’ his sin, albeit from a drug-dealing syndicate? Or is he just the innocent opportunist? You could say his crimes are cockiness and carelessness – but, by that reckoning, almost any action could be condemned. And suddenly the Bourne trilogy’s about the sin of forgetfulness.
Speaking of the Bourne films, which of the ten genres would you place them in? I’m assuming you picked Superhero (as I did) – however, Blake lists it as a Dude with a Problem. This is one problem with the genre chapter. It urges you to box your story into one of his categories, when – in actuality – a lot of great films belong to many. Most of my favourite films, The Talented Mr Ripley, In Bruges, Fight Club, are trans-genred.
Worse still, there are films which don’t fit any of the genres. I think American Psycho is a good example of this. Blake labels it a MITH but it seems grossly different to most stories in that category. To me, this genre is exemplified by the standard B-movie kind of horror, where the hero and a bunch of his cannon-fodder mates are picked off by a largely anonymous, daemonic figure. These are the sort of films you’d make as a kid, like my debut Camp Death (which, now that I’ve written it, sounds more like it’s about a gay grim reaper.)
However, American Psycho’s monster in the house, Patrick Bateman, is the hero (albeit a particularly un-heroic one.) Furthermore, Patrick’s victims belong to a number of different demographics; there doesn’t seem to be any underlying sin. So – as vague as Blake’s genres are – they still can’t account for every film.
Then what do I suggest instead? I suggest that you think of your story as a bundle of “tags”: categories your audience may use to group your film with others, consciously or subconsciously. Say you’re planning on writing Camp Death II. Naturally, this invites tags like “horror” or “thriller” – but I’d argue it should also invite other, more obscure ones: “low budget”, “British”, “anonymous antagonist”, “slasher”, “island setting”. The trick is to deduce a list of features integral to your movie, the sort of stuff you’d expect to see in a three-sentence summary.
Once you’ve done this, you can watch tonnes of films with similar tags to yours, get a good feel for the trends and tropes within each genre, then subvert them. And tags aren’t just useful for working out your audience’s expectations; they also help you create something new. If genre is storytelling DNA, why not try selective breeding – introducing two films with no mutual features and splicing their tags together to produce something previously unseen?
So that’s all genre really is: a collection of features associated with a particular tag. Right, bye!
I couldn’t agree more with this. I’m currently writing a “monster in the house” story, but it’s clearly also “dude with a problem”. I felt like following the former was preventing me from reaching my final destination and when I finally thought outside the “house” I felt somewhat unshackled! This however was a truly great description of how Snyder can get it wrong and how following his book as law can really hold you back.
Ha, I didn’t expect anyone to read this post ever again, never mind comment on it.
Yeah, I’m not sure what Snyder was really trying to achieve with his whole genre chapter. He seems to be saying that your story must fit into one of those categories – then makes a point of how all stories basically do anyway. Then he says that all films effectively have the same structure, which makes you wonder why he bothered to divide them into ten categories.
It’s part of a much broader issue I have with screenwriting books in general though, and why I stopped reading them. They seem far more interested in telling people “your story should obey these arbitrary rules” than identifying common problems in writing and coming up with a range of methods to get around them.
I think i know what he was trying to achieve… $$$$$!
If you haven’t already read Yorke’s book “Into the woods” I highly recommend it. I certainly believe understanding structure and genre is key and there are certain boxes you really need to tick, or beats that need to be hit, or flaws, needs, weaknesses etc that need to be addressed of you’re to create a concise story, but after spending almost five years studying story before setting off on a quest to create my next one I can’t help but feel that you just sneeze out whatever’s in your heart onto the pad, ignore the fact that what you’ve written probably doesn’t work, step back and figure out what it is you’re trying to say and then look at the technicalities that help you create some order out of your chaos! Anyway, I’ll be following you with interest, and will send you my piece when it’s done … without the end! Ciao for now.
Oh, I don’t actually think it was about the money – not with the first book anyway. I actually met Blake back in 2007 and what strikes me is that he seemed like someone who totally believed in his work. I think you see that in the first book as well, how he talks about Memento as if it’s an objectively bad film because it didn’t make that much money. I guess with his background he had ideas like that drilled into him from an early age.
I think understanding ‘audience expectation’ is key, which ties in with your points about genre and structure. I feel a good story is like a good essay: you know what the writer is trying to achieve, but it’s how they get there that’s the important part. So all stories are lessons in conflict resolution, but that’s an idea I need to play around with a lot more…