Every story follows a defined structure, and the type of story that you want to tell contains further boundaries. These different types of stories, known as genres, can help you identify your story and stay within that genre’s boundaries so you tell your story as effectively as possible.
The search for a perpetual motion machine is futile simply because friction will always “bleed” energy away from any contraption, making it impossible for any machine to run at 100% efficiency. Similarly, it’s equally futile for any story teller to search for an original tale. Just like perpetual motion, there are no original stories, but there are original ways to tell the same story.
The basic structure of any story is to show a hero with a problem, overcoming obstacles, and striving for a goal. The most satisfying stories not only entertain us, but also teach us a universal truth. We’re entertained on a superficial level by the characters and the situation, but also satisfied on a deeper level by the lesson that the story teaches us so that the end of the story seems inevitable but surprising at the same time.
Although every story shares similar traits of a hero struggling to achieve a goal, stories fall into separate categories or genres where each genre tells a story using specific situations, props, and conventions.
If you want a story to make an audience laugh, your story will fall under the Comedy genre. If you want to frighten an audience with a ghost story, your story will fall under the Horror genre.
Every story genre has certain rules that are rarely violated. For example, a comedy will rarely show people bleeding after being shot, stabbed, or blown up. However, this is perfectly acceptable in a horror or drama. While every genre can exhibit light humor, horror films will rarely have laugh-out loud moments. By knowing the genre of your story, you can stay focused on your telling your story effectively.
Every movie acts as an organic whole that supports the same theme. A comedy is funny because it maintains its light-hearted approach throughout, even in the face of death. In “Ghostbusters,” the three heroes are nearly thrown off the top of a skyscraper. While this death-defying scene should be frightening, it’s comical in this context because the characters manage to climb back to the roof and proceed to yell at each other.
An example of how a bad movie can stray from its genre is in “The Lost World,” the sequel to “Jurassic Park.” In one scene, the heroes are dangling over a pit, clinbing to a cable. At the moment they’re ready to plunge to their deaths, they all find time to ask for help as if they’re at a drive-through window at a fast food restaurant.
“The Lost World” seemed like a thriller with dinosaurs running all over the place, killing people. Yet this one scene tried to make this potentially death defying moment into a comical scene, and it fails miserably as a result.
That’s what happens if you don’t stick to your theme and genre of your story. By knowing your genre, you know the limits of your story and how to tell your story. These limits are restrictions but simply boundaries to keep you on the playing field and in the game. The moment you step out of bounds of your genre, the game ends. In the world of screenwriting, stepping outside the boundaries of your genre kills audience empathy with your story.