While every story follows the same basic story structure, you also need to be aware of specific conventions in different genres. The most common story genres include:
- Action/Thriller (“Die Hard,” “Mission Impossible,” and every James Bond movie)
- Comedy (“There’s Something About Mary,” “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” and “Little Miss Sunshine”
- Horror (“Halloween,” “The Shining,” and “Alien”)
- Drama (“Titanic,” “The Godfather,” and “The Shawshank Redemption”)
By knowing the genre of your story, you can more effectively fulfill the expectations that audiences expect. When people go to a horror movie, they don’t expect a story about two people falling in love and living happily ever after. When people go to a romantic comedy, they don’t want to see people getting their heads blown off in graphic detail.
Although every story is different, use the guidelines of each genre to help you more effectively design your story. You might later decide to ignore any genre conventions, but you should only do so after you fully understand why certain genre conventions exist in the first place.
Action/thriller movies almost always involve a villain-driven story where a villain has a major goal with Horrible Consequences if he should succeed. The hero is rarely a complete novice but is often someone almost as skilled as the villain.
In James Bond movies, James Bond is a skilled spy, but his opponents are nearly always just as skillful but with more men and power than James Bond. As a result, action/thriller movies tend to include:
- Unusual or exotic locations or situations
- Constant conflict through gunfire and explosions
- A larger than life villain pursuing a larger than life goal with Horrible Consequences
In “Die Hard,” the location of a skyscraper isn’t necessarily exotic, but as Bruce Willis tries to escape through elevator shafts and skyscraper rooftops, some of the settings are definitely unusual enough to grab our attention. Because most of us aren’t familiar with the way elevator shafts work, we find it interesting how someone would use an elevator shaft to hide in.
Action/thriller stories often include almost comic book-like violence where entire buildings blow up, but we rarely see any casualties. Audiences want to see plenty of gunfire and explosions, but they really don’t want to see realistic violence. Action/thrillers are more escapist in nature than trying to depict reality.
Finally, action/thrillers often present a clear cut good guy vs. bad guy situation like a Western such as “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” or “Inglorious Basterds.” War movies, Westerns, organized crime moves, and superhero movies tend to fall in the action/thriller genre where good always triumphs over evil and we never see anyone really getting hurt or suffering in the process.
Common flaws of action/thriller stories are unrealistic solutions that save the hero. Although the story and action may be fantasy, the hero still needs to be grounded in reality. That means setting up every way the hero will use to overcome the villain.
In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis sets up the fact that he’s a cop at the very beginning of the movie. Now he’s believable in handling guns and fighting against the terrorists.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of bad action/thrillers involves too much emphasis on action and not enough on character development to make us feel empathy with the hero. If the hero just seems like an invisible super hero with no emotional problems whatsoever, the hero can’t change for the better. Without change, the hero’s victory will seem meaningless.
In “Skyfall,” James Bond appears vulnerable as an aging spy who is gradually losing his skills. Now when he has to face the villain, James Bond no longer appears invincible.
In “Iron Man 3,” Tony Stark must use a defective prototype armor suit to face a villain who has natural powers. Even the better comic book superhero movies make sure the hero appears as the underdog.
The best comedy movies actually have a serious goal that could easily be used in a dramatic story instead of a comedy. “The 40-Year Old Virgin” is about a man trying to lose his virginity. As a drama, this could be a serious story, but as a comedy, it’s played for laughs.
“Network” is a satirical comedy about a news anchor who threatens to commit suicide on the air. That could be a serious drama, but it’s designed as a dark comedy instead. The basis for comedy always starts with a serious story refocused as a comedy.
“Ghostbusters” could have been a horror story about a being from another dimension trying to take over the world. Yet it’s a comedy because the tone and execution focuses on laughs. It’s easy to get laughs when you have a serious story to begin with because it provides greater contrast.
If you start out with a funny story, the comedy often feels forced. As a result, instead of the comedy stemming from a serious story, it starts with a silly story, which gives it no foundation to work against. Just browse through a list of really bad comedies to see how the premise tries to be funny so the story fails. Always start with a serious story, but write it with a humorous approach.
The best comedies not only tackle a potentially serious story, but also allows the humor to come from the characters and the situation. Comedies work only when we care about the characters, which means that character development is crucial. “Ghostbusters” clearly sets up the the flirting nature of Bill Murray and the goofy nature of Dan Akroyd.
On the other hand, “Ghostbusters 2” fails as a comedy and a story because the characters aren’t developed as much and the humor doesn’t come from the characters’ reaction to situation so the comedy feels forced and stale.
Take a joke from one comedy and see if you can apply it in another one. If the joke doesn’t make sense, then you know it’s a good joke.
For example, in “Ghostbusters,” Dan Akroyd’s character first confronts Gozer, the being from another dimension by reading him his rights and ordering him to leave. The humor comes from Dan Akroyd’s clueless character, which wouldn’t work if Dan Akroyd’s character was somebody else.
Take this same type of joke and see if it would work in another comedy like “Miss Congeniality” or “Little Miss Sunshine.” It won’t because those comedies have characters who are different so they require different types of jokes.
Because comedies rely on serious contrast, you’ll find that many comedies rely on death for their humor. “Harold and Maude” is about a boy who stages fake suicides. “Little Miss Sunshine” gets a big laugh when the grandfather dies and the characters have to smuggle his dead body out of the hospital so they can get the little girl to her beauty pageant. “Miss Congeniality” is about a someone who wants to kill people at a beauty pageant. In comedy, death is something to be laughed at because it’s the ultimate serious topic available.
Comedies are actually serious (and hard) work that need to end with a big punchline. In “Ghostbusters,” the big laugh is seeing a giant Marshmallow Man charging at the Ghostbusters. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the big laugh is seeing the little girl perform in the beauty pageant using a strip tease routine that her grandfather taught her. In “Back to the Future,” the big laugh is when Doc tells Marty that he needs to go into the future because he turns out okay, but it’s his kids that need help.
Comedies need a serious story foundation, humor that derives from the characters and situation, and a big laugh at the end. Because sustaining humor from start to finish can often be difficult, most comedies only last 90 minutes instead of the usual 120 minutes.
Just as comedies need a strong foundation of seriousness to work, horror movies often need a foundation of light heartedness to provide greater contrast to the actual horror about to appear. “The Exorcist” contrasted the horror of demonic possession in a cute little girl. “The Shining” contrasted the horror of ghosts with the beautiful scenery of a winter hotel. “Alien” contrasted the horror of an unstoppable alien with the mystery of outer space.
Besides setting a horror story in a seemingly pleasant environment, horror also needs a sense of claustrophobia to intensive the fear. That’s why most horror films involve isolating or trapping the heroes someplace where they can’t leave. This physical limitation forces the characters to confront the horror against their will because they can’t avoid it.
Horror often presents a morality play where the people who get killed sin in some way. That makes their deaths seem more acceptable. In a typical slasher flick, the teenagers who engage in illicit sex, drinking, or drugs often wind up being the first ones killed.
One trap of horror stories is to engage in what’s called “horror porn,” where the emphasis is solely on torturing and killing people. While this can work, it’s often an easy way out to create horror. True horror is the sudden realization that what appears normal is actually something with terrifying origins.
“The Shining” is considered a horror classic, yet it actually shows very little bloodshed. Most of the horror comes from the tension of expecting something to happen. Setting up horror typically involves three steps:
- Introduce the scene that will create the horror
- Show us the scene a second time to lull us into complacency
- Surprise us with a shocking revelation
Like comedy, horror heavily relies on surprise and requires proper set up early in the story. In “The Shining,” there’s a scene where the little kid rides his tricycle around the hotel. Later, we see the little kid riding his tricycle again throughout the hotel. Finally, we see the kid riding his tricycle through a different part of the hotel and as he rounds the corner, he’s confronted by the haunting images of two girls who had been murdered in that spot.
Horror is less showing actual physical attacks and more the dread that something horrible is about to happen. In “The Blair Witch Project,” we never see the witch, but we hear noises in the dark and see strange items on the ground. In addition, the characters seem to keep wandering in circles no matter which way they go. All of these seemingly innocent actions take on a new meaning when we know they’re being stalked.
Horror is more anticipation than the actual event itself. In “28 Days Later,” the hero wakes up in an abandoned London. He wanders into a church where some zombies suddenly wake up and start approaching him. What makes the zombies horrifying is that we rarely get a good look at them, so our imagination plays a huge role in creating additional terror for us. When we do see the zombies, they’re often brief glimpses of seemingly normal people turned into monsters.
That’s the basis of horror: taking ordinary situations and changing them in unexpected ways.
When we see the first zombie in “28 Days Later,” he’s a priest staggering towards us. Normally we associate a priest with love and kindness, so to see a zombie priest coming at us amplifies the horror since it plays against our expectations.
In “Alien,” we don’t get a good look at the Alien until the end. The brief glimpses we get further excites our imagination to think of the worse.
Horror relies on:
- Turning seemingly normal and happy situations into a darker side
- Setting up the horror through anticipation
- Isolating the characters somewhere they can’t escape
Both horror and comedy films are the least expensive types of movies to make that rely less on stars and more on the actual story itself so your best odds for success, from a financial point of view, is to write a comedy or horror screenplay.
Dramas present a serious story with occasional touches of humor (known as comic relief) and occasional touches of horror. In “The Godfather,” the Godfather orders a man’s favorite horse killed and the head left in the man’s bed. Yet in “Blood Simple,” a man buries another man alive in a cornfield and as he tries to escape, his car momentarily fails to start.
Comic relief in dramas helps relieve tension, while horror in dramas helps intensive the seriousness of the story.
Most dramas try to present a “serious” theme such as encouraging people to live life to its fullest (“Titanic” and “Hugo”), exposing corruption (“Erin Brockovich”), revealing the horrors of war (“Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now”), dramatizing real life events (“Frost/Nixon” and “12 Years a Slave”) or showing people at their worst as they break the law and murder people (“The Godfather” and “The Silence of the Lambs”).
Lighter dramas typically portray an underdog dealing with a seemingly insurmountable goal such as sports dramas (“Rocky” and “Secretariat”), soap opera type dramas (“The Color Purple” and “Moonstruck”), and coming of age stories where the hero grows up and matures (“Breaking Away”).
Dramas typically mix in elements of action, comedy, and horror in a single story. As a result, none of these elements overwhelm or dominate. In “Doubt,” a nun accuses a priest of molesting boys, which is a serious theme and a horrifying element. Yet this same nun teaches a younger nun a trick to watch over her class by hanging a picture in the front of the room so she can watch her students in the reflection, which adds an element of humor to the story.
Drama typically portrays ordinary people in relatively common locations, overcoming problems of everyday life. In “Goodwill Hunting,” the hero is a math genius whip lives in a rough Boston neighborhood and spends his time being arrogant and belligerent to everyone around him, even though he wants to find love.
In dramas, the emphasis is less on exotic locations, over the top action, and outrageous villains. Instead, the stories take ordinary life events and makes them extraordinarily important to both the characters and the audience at the same time.
To learn about drama, study stage plays since theater often relies more on character development and plot rather than special effects, action, and exotic locations. In stage plays, stories must be told with relatively few characters in limited amounts of set locations. The result is that stage plays rely more heavily on drama than typical movies do.
If your story has a tragic ending, it will likely be a drama (or a horror story). In tragedies, the hero often fails by not changing through a character flaw of some kind. Dramatic tragedies often reveal how the hero brings about his or her own downfall such as “Leaving Las Vegas” or “The Death of a Salesman.” Horror tragedies are often morality plays that show how the hero’s fatal mistakes doomed him or her from the beginning such as “The Blair Witch Project.”
Defining Your Story
Villain-driven stories are most often found in action/thrillers (including most espionage, war, science, crime, and mysteries) and horror stories. There’s usually a bad villain who pursues a goal that gives the hero a chance to improve and create a better life for himself.
Hero-driven stories are often found in comedies and dramas where the hero physically goes on an adventure and runs into multiple villains in search of a goal. In most cases, the conflict comes less from a single, dominant villain and more from the internal conflict from within the hero himself as he struggles to overcome problems in search for a goal.
Before writing, decide what genre your story best fits under. Once you choose a particular genre, you can’t suddenly switch to another genre. If your story starts off as a comedy, people expect to laugh all the way through, so you can’t suddenly turn into a drama or a horror story near the end.
Once you know which genre your story best fits under, study movies that fit under the same genre. That way you’ll get a better feel for what works and how other screenwriters presented similar types of problems.
Every time you watch a movie, watch it once for enjoyment and watch it a second time to study its structure. Eventually you’ll start seeing the story structure hidden behind every movie, and then you can see what makes a movie work and what makes another movie fail by what story elements it might be missing.