There is a tendency in screenwriting to limit writers to genre. I think it is a huge mistake; I’m not a big fan of how genres are commercially typed. How, for example, can science fiction be considered a singular genre? There are action-based SciFi stories (Terminator franchise, Aliens, Battleship), drama-based SciFi stories (District 9, Metropolis, Silent Running), crime-drama SciFi stories (BladeRunner, Outland, Caves of Steel), comedy SciFi (The Man With Two Brains, Innerspace, Men in Black), mind benders (Matrix, Inception, Twelve Monkeys) and more.
Write what you know is the basic adage, and so, many of us drink the Kool-Aid and limit ourselves to a manufactured genre. We’re told that if you are good with something, stick with it. Perhaps it’s not that you are good at writing Rom-Coms; perhaps, it is that you are good at understanding the complexities of the very human illness that plagues us all – romantic love.
Of course, I’m influenced by Blake’s system of identifying genre; I’m also a fan of Stephen King. He is considered the iconic voice of modern horror; and yet, in my opinion, does not write horror. He writes about ordinary men and women (and sometimes children) placed under extraordinary circumstances. It’s just that sometimes, where the stories take place is where things go bump in the night.
Perhaps the answer is not to define your work by the label of what you write, but perhaps it is to define your work by why you write. No, I’m not talking about that moment when your beloved Sparky was hit by a car, and the subsequent trauma drove you to pour your feelings out into your trusty Big Chief writing tablet, or “issues” with family members. That can only lead to therapy screenwriting, and that is not great storytelling. I’m talking about what got you. What really got you. What hooked you, drew you into the world that you want to write about.
For me, it was a combination of things: 1) seeing Metropolis at age 9; 2) being introduced to the entire works of Shakespeare at 13; 3) Lovecraft, Star Trek, Asimov, Philip K. Dick, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, William Castle and Dark Shadows; 4) James Bond and space – my brother built the Goldfinger car when he was 16 and flew in fighter jets as a passenger and my Dad had a hang out with Chuck Yeager; and 4) an unquenchable imagination that at times almost tricked me into believing I was Nancy Drew.
If you look at that, you’ve a pulp mash of scifi/gothic drama/crime drama occasionally peppered with speed, action and horror.
When I first moved out here, I worked my rear end off, writing commercial scripts driven by market sale. What’s going to be hot; what’s not. Now, as a screenwriter, I do need to keep that in mind… and yet, I find that the more I turn to my roots, the more I can shape my stories into worlds that feed my muse, while also tapping into the cultural consciousness.
I wrote about a story that was sent to me that I had penned as a child. Seeing that again was a revelation; I remembered that I shot my first film at 14. It was a post-apocalyptic drama about a family unit barricaded in a shelter after a war has raged. A plague sprang from the events, and our group has isolated themselves, planning to ride out the storm, forever if necessary, willing to do anything to survive. And then, a stranger comes to the door. He seems to be healthy… he is in need of shelter, for there are ice storms and bands of cannibals and Bad People… but do they trust that he is healthy? Do they let him in?
Interestingly enough, about two decades later I wrote a stage play, a one-act, that took place in a post-plague world. An insecure Walter Mitty-esque man has saved a shallow actress, both of them immune to the illness. Things are fine, until a third-party enters (three is always a crowd), and suddenly the story becomes a life and death game of witches broom about patriarchy and survival of the species. Hmm. I never made the connection between the two until just now.
So perhaps, next time you say to yourself I think I’ll write a comedy, you should ask yourself why? Is it because comedies are hot? That’s not enough to drive you to excellence. Your pocketbook will remain empty if your words are not inspired – and by that I do not mean that if you are not inspired every day to sit down and write, your story is not enough, for writing is work and sometimes that work consists of just sitting down and Doing It. What I mean is that each story you write should be a piece of your soul. Jenna Marbles knows this. As do Judd Apatow, William Goldman, Jane Campion, Callie Khouri, Susannah Grant and countless others. They know where it all came from, and with each new tale, they step onto that springboard again.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
I enjoyed this.
Anna Lee invited Jim and Carol Briscoe to join her for dinner this evening, and they asked her to include me. We had a lovely time together. I learned things about Jim’s life that I never knew. He has lived an amazing live so far. So interesting. Love,
I completely agree. I have a bunch of different stories I want to write but then I read about how you need to stick with one genre as a screenwriter because it takes a long time to get good at that one genre. I also read that you need to stick with a genre so an agent can look for projects for you. Yet, there are screenwriters out there who write in different genres. It’s very confusing. I listened to an interview from an agent saying that if you have 3 scripts in 3 different genres, then you don’t know who you are as a writer. What do you think of that statement?
I think it is less about genre and more about voice. The term “genre” is bandied about rather carelessly. Like I said, within the genre of SciFi, there’s comedy, drama, action, thriller, horror and so on and so on and so on. Voice is a different matter – you do need to know your voice… but that doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to write just one thing over and over. Some writers do, of course. It’s possible that it’s their comfort zone, or like the old adage says “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” but I suppose I like to constantly challenge myself, spread my wings and step outside of that comfort zone over and over again.
Thanks for the explanation. I feel that voice is sometimes overlooked.