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GENRES IN SCREENWRITING: Determining the Right Story Forms For Your Screenplay

GENRES IN SCREENWRITING: Determining the Right Story Forms For Your Screenplay

A story’s genre is one of the first things that you should determine before writing a screenplay. Therefore, it’s important that you know your genres and when you can use them.

What are genres? Are they loose terms to describe a kind of movie that has certain narrative elements? Do movies about guns and car chases automatically qualify as action movies? How about movies with twisted psychopaths – are they instant horror movies? While certain narrative elements help in forming genres, it’s much more than that.

What genres are, at their core, are story forms. Because they are story forms, they have their respective story beats, or “requirements” if you will, which are achievable through the narrative elements that are common in their respective genres. A horror movie, for example, has to have the scares and mounting suspense that escalate and build to a climax. These “requirements” – the scares and suspense – can be achieved through the use of characters such as monsters, ghosts, zombies or psychopaths, or narrative devices like red herrings and mysteries.

Because of these requirements, genres also set expectations for audiences. They expect to laugh at comedies, get emotional in dramas, be amazed at fantasy or sci-fi, get their adrenaline pumping in action movies and scream while watching horror. So as a writer, you’ll want to make sure that you satisfy their expectations whenever you pick a genre. However, you can’t randomly pick a genre because that’s what’s hot in the market right now, or just because. It has to work for your story and your main character’s journey.

So let’s take a quick look at some of the most common screenwriting genres that you can use for your screenplay:

DRAMA

Every story has conflict at its center, and as we all know, conflict is drama. Therefore, every story is drama, right? Well, yes, but what I’m referring here are low concept stories with heavy focus on characters and their interpersonal relationships. (more on low concept stories here.) The conflicts come from these relationships, if not the main character’s inner struggles. Think of these movies as slice-of-life stories rooted in realism with emotional storylines.

Sub-genres: Drama-comedy, drama-thriller, coming-of-age, historical dramas

Examples: Paris, Texas, Good Will Hunting, Manchester By The Sea, 12 Years A Slave

ACTION

Action movies rely on thrilling chases, big explosions, gunfights and combat to take audiences for an exhilarating ride! These movies usually thrive on high concept premises which allow them to go bananas with their action scenes. To merit these scenes, action movie plots have high stakes and a strong sense of urgency. If you’re looking to write something that has a boatload of spectacular, adrenaline rush sequences, this is the genre for you!

Sub-genres: Action-thriller, action-comedy, buddy cop, superhero movies

Examples: Die Hard, The Terminator, Bad Boys, The Bourne Series, movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe

COMEDY

Comedies are pretty straightforward: they are meant to make you laugh. They do this through amusing, sometimes ridiculous premises, quirky characters and scenarios where the characters are put in situations that call for hilarious solutions. Though they may be light-hearted in nature, comedies can also be emotionally resonant and have poignant themes.

Sub-genres: Action-comedy, romantic comedy, drama-comedy, buddy movies, black comedy, satirical comedy

Examples: The Hangover, Tropic Thunder, Happy Gilmore, Bruce Almighty

CRIME

Movies that focus on the lives of criminals, gangsters, mafia or triad members and so on, belong to the crime genre. These movies present the glamorous or gritty lifestyles behind the characters they focus on. They usually offer sympathetic views of these characters and at times portray them as anti-heroes; characters forced to do the dirty work to achieve their goals.

Sub-genres: Gangster films, heist films, serial killer movies, hood films

Examples: The Godfather, Goodfellas, City of God, Ocean’s Series

FANTASY

These are the movies that bring viewers into whole new worlds with their own laws of nature. Monsters, human-beast hybrids, talking animals, magic powers and mystical elements are commonplace in this genre.

Sub-genres: Science fantasy, fairy tales, magical realism, epic fantasy

Examples: Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride, Pan’s Labyrinth

HORROR

One of the most popular genres out there, horror movies exist to make audiences scream in terror and shock. Death, ghosts, malevolent creatures and demons are staples of the genre because of their ability to scare the daylights out of viewers. Many times, the tropes found in horror movies also serve themes that address the actual horrors of real life.

Sub-genres: Horror thriller, zombie movies, supernatural horror, slasher movies, vampire movies

Examples: Halloween, The Conjuring, Scream, Get Out, Train to Busan

ROMANCE

Love is in the air every time these movies come along! Romance movies, of course, deal with various aspects of romantic relationships – from puppy love to the highs of falling madly in love and the lows of heartbreak. From a writing standpoint, romance movies (especially rom-coms) can have formulaic structures, making them highly recommendable for first-time writers.

Sub-genres: Romantic comedy, romantic drama, erotic films

Examples: Pretty Woman, Titanic, Chungking Express, The Notebook, A Star Is Born

THRILLER

These movies focus on intricate plots that are carried by suspense, mystery and escalating tension. Main characters are presented with a problem that they have to solve, and as they go, they encounter more information, twists and obstacles that threaten their goal, if not their life. Thus, thrillers can be complex and perhaps more challenging to write. However, the best thrillers end up as engrossing movies that have audiences at the edge of their seats.

Sub-genres: Action thriller, horror thriller, psychological thriller, film noir

Examples: Se7en, Uncut Gems, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Nightcrawler

SCI-FI

Science fiction, or sci-fi for short, can perhaps be considered as a close relative of the fantasy genre. They both feature worlds and possibilities that come from stretched imaginations. But whereas fantasy movies feature magic, beasts and supernatural elements, sci-fi features robots, time and space travel, aliens and anything else that is tied to current or speculative scientific knowledge. Because of this, sci-fi can also feature introspective themes about humanity and our future.

Sub-genres: Sci-fi thrillers, horror and action, post-apocalyptic movies, space opera

Examples: Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, The Matrix, Back to the Future


Genres provide writers a template to use for structuring screenplays. Still, it’s important to note that genres are not set-in-stone “laws” when it comes to story development. Like anything else in screenwriting, you can flip it, manipulate it and merge it with other genres. Whatever genres you choose, always remember that it should be deliberate, depending on what will work best for your story and your themes.

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