Monthly Archives: December 2014

Fusing Genres by Bobby Del Rio

When I was first starting out as a writer, I made the decision to constantly write the opposite of what I had previously written. I won a playwriting award in university, and parlayed that momentum into some media attention as a young playwright in Toronto.

genre word art 2But with the ensuing media attention I received in the next couple years, I realized that there was still an awful lot about writing I didn’t know… I decided that the only way to keep evolving was to start writing the OPPOSITE of what I had built a reputation for. (At the time, since I was in my early 20s, I was known for teen drama.) I also didn’t want to get pigeonholed as being a particular “type” of writer, and the media does have a tendency to want to ‘define’ you (mostly for the benefit of their readership/audience, I think).

With every subsequent script, I started trying my hand at new genres. I didn’t necessarily think of them as genres at the time, but that’s what I was doing. I started out in teen drama, then moved to boisterous comedy, then tried my hand at naturalistic relationship drama, then started experimenting with absurdism, then romantic comedy, then gangster movies, etc.

After about a decade of consciously learning particular genres, I began to combine them.

That’s when my writing career really started to take off.

I’ve had many writing jobs in the last couple years, and I attribute this mostly to my conscious effort to fuse genres. If you really look at today’s most recognized screenplays, many of them could certainly be considered hybrids. Tarantino does it constantly (Django Unchained was Western + comedy + revenge thriller), Christopher Nolan (Inception was film noir + science fiction), Woody Allen (constantly blending comedy + tragedy), Spike Jonze (Her was romantic comedy + dystopian cautionary tale), etc.

We can argue about which specific genre elements were utilized in the above examples, but nobody can deny that those scripts feel fresh, original and DIFFERENT. For me, it’s fairly simple: If you build on the archetypes of the past, you can create something original in the future.

A simple (but effective) entry point for me in recent years has been saying to myself: What genres should I combine next? I just wrote/directed a feature film adaptation of my best play, The Market. When I began writing the play, I purposely set out to combine many tropes from genres I described as “uber male”. I took film noir, crime drama, buddy comedy and Wall Street action movies and combined them into one. The audience reaction (usually male) was unlike anything I had ever experienced as a writer (when we did the play). Many men absolutely loved the script, and I believe it’s because I was literally utilizing recognizable tropes from movies they loved in the past.

Many different people kept telling me my script reminded them of other movies they had seen in the past. That’s because I knew the genres I was fusing extremely well.

I believe there is a real opportunity moving forward as screenwriters to combine genres that people haven’t really seen before. We live in a very complex and deeply integrated world. The internet has made it quite easy for people to become experts on genre. You can watch entire television series from the 80s effortlessly, you can watch every single horror movie online if you have the time (which many people seem to be finding), etc.

People know genre inside and out these days, so I think it’s quite difficult to write a script that plays in only one world. Those scripts tend to feel outdated, like the audience has “seen it before”. Part of the reason my scripts tend to feel original for producers (which I’ve heard again and again) is for the simple reason that I am combining genre elements they haven’t seen before in the same script.

I believe in the notion that there are only 7 original plotlines in the history of the planet. Every script is a variation thereof, so for me, it makes perfect sense to simply start combining elements of those original storylines into one another.

Dialectical idealism is the principle that new things arise from previous incarnations of itself. That is an oversimplification of complex Hegel theory, but the general point remains: What is new is predicated on the perception of things that are old.

While it should be stated that one cannot fuse 2 genres together until one is experienced with the tropes of BOTH genres, it’s an excellent way to create unique combinations of possibilities. Now having written 60 scripts, what keeps me going creatively is that I might hit upon some magical ‘formula’, some new way of writing a script that completely changes the game for me…

But above all, writing should be FUN. While many of us who do this as our job can feel overwhelmed by the consumer politics of it all, I believe that stretching beyond your comfort zone as a writer is the way to achieve the feeling of freedom and creativity. Try combining elements from genres that seem completely unrelated. You might be surprised at how well the puzzle pieces fit together…

In summation, Bob Dylan said it best: The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Bobman

Bobby Del Rio is a published playwright and working screenwriter. He just wrote/directed the feature film The Market, and has many other feature screenplays completed for producers around the world. http://www.bobbydelrio.com

Book Review: The Art of Screenplays by Robin Mukherjee

Screenwriting is a creative process and like all creative things, it’s a bit messy. Not that you’d think it reading some of the screenwriting books out there. Robin Mukherjee’s The Art of Screenplays: A Writer’s Guide is a rare thing – a screenwriting book that talks about story structure but never loses sight of what it’s really like to be a writer, in the middle of that messy, exciting, sometimes bewildering creative process.

book review - the art of screenplays - robin mukherjeeThe book covers the key areas of screenplay development; how to gather, ferment and communicate story, understanding structure through observation, exploring character, developing theme and the art of writing dialogue. It’s all in there and you’ll learn everything you need to know to craft your polished script but in a way that resonates with you.

His section on the early stage of developing a story was particularly helpful because it reflects that very random, bitty part of the process that so many screenwriting books skip over. It’s hugely reassuring to hear that you’re not alone in starting with moments and scenes and ideas and characters and plot beats all in a confused muddle and not necessarily even part of the same piece of work. Yes, the finished screenplay will have a very particular form and shape and there are expectations it probably should meet if it’s to ‘wow’ the industry. But The Art of Screenplays dives in to the swamp of ideas and ‘stuff’ with you and helps you to navigate your own way from the creative muddle to that finished script.

It’s become one of the books I recommended most often to writers. Because it’s written by such an experienced screenwriter, it really speaks to writers. So many screenwriting books are analytical; they are great at dissecting what makes up a successful screenplay, so you know what you’re aiming for. Some even take you through the process, step by step, in a very specific order – first you have your concept, then you add some characters, and so on until, voila – you’ve crafted the perfect script! But none of that has ever felt connected to the experience of actually creating something original.

It is also one of the most beautifully written books about screenwriting that I’ve ever read. So often our screenwriting books are dry, bullet-pointy affairs. This is not. This is a book to immerse yourself in. It’s a book you will learn a lot from whilst, I hope, having actually enjoyed reading it.

Genre: Writing Horror by James Moran

I kill people for money.

Genre - Horror - James Moran - Severance Photo Nick Wall

Severance (2006)

Fake people, obviously. In scripts. But they don’t feel fake to me. I have to breathe life into them, make them full, realistic characters, with hopes, dreams, prospects – and then kill them. It’s sadistic and awful and weird and I love it.

You have to love horror if you want to write it. If you don’t love the genre, if you don’t respect it, it’ll show on the page. Don’t write horror because you think it’ll sell, just write a story YOU want to tell, something you’re dying to get out. Doesn’t matter what is selling now, because the one thing that always sells is a good script.

Horror movies are like romantic comedies – everyone thinks they’re easy to write. But they’re not. You can’t just kill off a bunch of teenagers in a cabin (especially not in a romantic comedy). You need a proper story, strong characters, a believable villain, genuine scares, and a great ending.

Story

Horror is tricky, because you don’t just need one story – you need TWO. There’s the normal story that happens before anything goes wrong – and then there’s the horror story that kicks in and interrupts the first story. Set up the characters, put their stories into motion – and then fuck their shit up.

The normal story should be big and compelling enough to be a movie in itself, even if the horror part never happens. This is crucial. You should be hoping that it doesn’t become a horror movie! Once we’re invested in the characters and their situation, we should be as shocked and horrified as they are when things go wrong.

Ideally, you want the horror part to intersect nicely with the non-horror part – it should have some connection, one of them should help to resolve the other.

Characters

The characters have to be real, you have to believe in them. They aren’t just there to get killed in creative ways. We need to care about them, otherwise we won’t be scared – if they’re just dull cardboard cutouts, we won’t care if they get killed. Make every death hurt, make us yell at the screen and hope they survive.

They don’t have to be flawless angels – they really shouldn’t be – but they need to be people we can relate to. They’re our representatives on screen, and we should root for them to get through it safely.

What would you do in their shoes? Think about all those times you shouted at people in a horror movie, saying “why don’t you just do THIS?” – do that! Let them react in a realistic way. Let them be smart, let them try to get out of the situation. That way it’s scarier – they’re clever, but they’re STILL in danger.

How would YOU get out of each situation in the story? Every character is more or less a part of you, so think how you’d behave if you were feeling brave, if you were scared, if you were angry, sad, selfish, vengeful. Sometimes they’ll surprise you with hidden depths. You never know how anyone will react in a life or death situation.

Villain

You should spend as much time on your villain as you do on your main characters. Whether they’re a human, a ghost, a demon from another dimension, they need a reason to exist. What do they want? Why are they trying to hurt/kill the main characters? What’s their endgame?

They MUST have a believable, consistent plan, it’ll make them easier to write and to understand – even if you never explain their motivation on screen. It’s not enough for them to just be crazy. Why are they doing this? What made them this way? What do they hope to gain? Money, power, vengeance? What would make YOU do the things they do, what would push you over the edge?

If you were trying to do what the villain does, how would you do it? How would you stop the characters escaping? It’s almost a conversation between you, the villain, and the main characters. How would I get out of this? How would I stop me? How would I stop me from stopping me??

Scares

If you’ve set up your story, characters and villain properly, the scares will develop naturally. This is where you have to make yourself worry – think of the worst case scenario. What is the worst possible thing that could happen? Now how do you make it even worse? What would be the LAST thing you’d want to see appear in a darkened corridor? What is worse than being killed?

What might a determined villain do to stop you from foiling their plan? What might THIS villain do, how many people would they kill? What would make you jump out of your seat in the cinema, or when watching at home, alone, in the dark?

Try not to do fake jump scares. If you do, use them sparingly – a little goes a long way. If your horror movie has more fake scares than real ones, something has gone wrong.

Ending

You have several options here. The hero can overcome the threat, or fail and escape, or fail and get killed, or get killed *while* they overcome the threat. It’s horror, you don’t always need any survivors – but don’t cheat, don’t use “they all get killed” to hide the fact that you don’t have an explanation for the mystery!

If your horror and non-horror stories have been developing together, then you could tie them both up at the same time. The characters could use their normal skills to overcome the horror. Or they could overcome the horror another way, and that victory makes their normal life better.

The ending should be surprising, exciting, and satisfying – happy or sad, it should feel *right*. It should be inevitable, but not obvious. Push the characters into an impossible situation, and figure out how they escape. The audience has mere minutes to guess how a scene will end, you have months! Lead the audience down one path, then surprise them with a stealth attack.

It’s a game, a magic trick using misdirection. They’ll be trying to guess the answer, so do the opposite of what they expect. If you’ve done the opposite several times in a row, they’ll start expecting it – so do something else. The ending is like the punchline. Write a great ending, and they’ll forget any bits they didn’t like, they’ll just want to watch it all again.

The great thing about horror is the wide variety of stories you can write – from splattery comedy-horror to brutal slashers to subtle supernatural pieces. You can tell any kind of tale. Funny, scary, gory, tense, shocking, satirical, whatever you like. You can explore the human condition much more easily when people are fighting for their lives. And that’s why I enjoy killing people for money. Fake people. In scripts. Mostly.

Make it real. Make us care. Make it hurt. Make it count. But above all – make it good.

Genre - Writing Horror - James MoranJames Moran wrote ‘Severance’, ‘Cockneys Vs Zombies’, ‘Tower Block’, and episodes of ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Torchwood’, ‘Spooks’, ‘Primeval’, ‘Crusoe’, and ‘Spooks: Code 9’. His other work includes a Highlander audio play, the “TARDIS” Doctor Who Adventure Game, ‘Girl Number 9’, and ‘Crazy For You’, a short film he wrote and directed, starring Arthur Darvill and Hannah Tointon. He can be found on Twitter at @jamesmoran, and his website is www.jamesmoranwriter.com