Genre is an odd animal that throws a lot of newer writers. It’s a classification that really is for all intents and purposes a marketing term. It’s how businesses tell a prospective customer who is looking for a story for entertainment and escape what sort of story is going down. That way, people who really like fantasy can go look for things in a fantasy section instead of shuffling through crime and romance stories in search of a fantasy story, and people who really like crime stories can go look for something in the crime section instead of hunting through stacks of romance and fantasy searching for a fun heist story.
It’s a fast way to tell someone you are pitching just what sort of classification the story falls into too, so they know how they’re going to sell it and whom they’re going to sell it to “marketing” it.
Writers often get genre really really really wrong.
I know this because when I read for competitions, I hit this genre issue a lot.
Me: It’s science fiction.
Contest Peeps: The writer says it’s drama.
Me: Space aliens get off an intergalactic space ship on page 23.
Contest Peeps: There’s nothing in the story description about aliens.
Me: I can’t speak to the writer’s story description or genre tags. I can speak to page 23. Space aliens. Intergalactic space ship. Science fiction.
This happens with horror too.
Me: It’s horror.
Contest Peeps: The writer says it’s family drama.
Me: There’s a vampire on page 15.
Contest Peeps: There’s nothing in the story description about vampires.
Me: Page 15. Blood sucking vampires. Coffins. Crucifixes. Stakes through hearts. Horror.
Okay it happens with every genre. But some genre misses are more pronounced than others in the “whoah missed that one!” zone. For example —
Action/adventure is a multi genre label that people sometimes automatically tag to action stories like action/adventure is one genre. But —
Action and adventure are not one genre. They are separate genres with specific attributes.
Action means action. If ninjas are jumping around scaling sky scrapers and kicking each other and tossing about throwing stars? That’s action. But it’s not “adventure.”
Adventure means characters are traveling, sojourning. Raiders of the Lost ark is adventure. Characters hop on planes and head to foreign and exotic locales. Fellowship of the Rings is adventure. Characters traverse continents and mountains and and plains. They don’t just wrestle or sword fight. They SOJOURN. That’s adventure.
There could be a story about someone in the Bronx fighting Ninjas who never leaves the block. That’s action. But it’s not “adventure,” because no one leaves the block. No one sojourns. There’s no journey. “Adventure” means there is a journey. Not a journey just from the perspective of a protagonist. A shut in agoraphobic protagonist might consider a trip to the bodega across the street a sojourn. But an audience won’t. “Adventure” is a tag for the audience that says “exotic locales, a journey, sojourn!”
Some streamers and film and series outlets will toss tags all over the place trying to stuff titles into as many genre slots as they can to pick up viewers. So. You’ll see Shawn of the Dead in a romance section.
Or SAW in comedy. (WTF?)
The thing is, Netflix can toss around genre tags on the fast and loose. Customers have already paid their fifteen bucks for a monthly subscription and will just think, “Jeez, got that one wrong, Netflix,” but keep browsing. It’s not costing Netflix if customers see one show miscategorized in the Netflix genre menu.
The people writers are pitching? Are not casual Netflix browsers looking for an hour or so of entertainment. They’re filmmakers. Mostly overworked. Mostly with a stack of fifty or so other scripts to read. With business slates and schedules. And they will not be amused if you tell them you’re sending them a family drama and vampires hop out of coffins on page 15.
A Few Genre Reference Points:
The Greeks believed there were only two genres: Comedy and Tragedy. That’s why all the old Greek plays end in people either having a party or dying. That carried on a long time. You can see it in Shakespeare plays too. People have a party or die. Oops.
We have a lot more genres now. A couple touchstone points for those though:
If it’s set in the future it’s science fiction.
If there are aliens from outer space it’s science fiction (unless aliens from outer space land on Earth immediately after I type this — till then, I stand by “science fiction” for outer space aliens).
If it’s set in the past it’s historical.
If there are vampires/werewolves/zombies it’s horror.
“Indy” is not a genre. It’s a financing source. If the actual idea there you are searching for is “no plot,” you may be looking for the genre tag “experimental.”
“Dramedy” is pretty recent, in historic “genre” terms, (Aristotle would churn in his grave ahhh!), and problematic. “Dramedy” usually means someone is just coasting in between comedy and drama, not working hard enough to make something really funny, not working hard enough to make something truly dramatic. Maybe pick a genre lane.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Max Adams is an author and award winning screenwriter. She has written for Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures, Tri-Star Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Universal Pictures – and a couple others to remain unnamed because no one around here wants to get black listed. Max is a former volunteer AFI Alumni reader and WGAw online mentor, has appeared as a speaker at AMPAS, USC, and Film Arts Foundation, is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at University of Utah, is the author of The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide AND The New Screenwriter’s Survival Guide, is the founder of two international online screenwriting workshops, and has the dubious distinction of having been dubbed “Red Hot Adams” by Daily Variety for selling three pitches over a holiday weekend – which made her agents cry. [In a good way.] She answers now to both “Max” and “Red Hot” in crowds and dog parks.