Here’s a trick question.
What do you think of genres?
Why is it a trick? Because that’s the wrong question. Or we have a wrong perception of what that word is. Because what do we immediately think of? Westerns or rom-coms, which are genres. But stories can be similar but have wildly different settings or partners.
Instead the question should be: what do you think of common narrative structures?
I’m reading Save The Cat Goes to the Movies. Have you heard of this book series? It’s pretty popular for filmmakers and writers. I haven’t read the first one (Save The Cat!) but it talks about how movies have similar components (or ‘beats’) that they typically hit. The one I’m reading dives further into that and outlines the 10 essential stories.
You can see the full list here, but they’re not just “horror” or “mystery.” They’re about searching, escaping and fighting. Their themes are the same, but their genres are different.
I used to believe I hated “genres” but then realized maybe I don’t know how to tell a story. There’s gotta be a balance between formula and art right?
For example, one type of story is the “Golden Fleece” in which there is a quest to achieve some goal, but with obstacles in the way. In Snyder’s book, this could include the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles an 80s comedy with John Candy and Steve Martin, but also Saving Private Ryan–a serious war drama. He outlines the beats that every movie must have (more on that later), which helps to make the comparison between how the two movies are similar.
But it got me thinking–if I can adapt one of these structures, can I actually be more creative in coming up with the story details? I just have to aim for these narratives and then add in the specifics. In some ways, that’s incredibly liberating. I don’t have to reinvent the structures of story and think of a genius concept on top of it. I can just develop my characters, have them follow the story structure which gives me a goal, and see how they can hold the beats.
Maybe outlining isn’t so bad after all.
What do you think?
PS On the Save The Cat website, there are some great “beat sheets” that break down the different types of movies. Here’s one on the new movie, Fury.