Genre (pronounced ‘jonrah’ – and I’ve seen it written that way!) is a useful concept that identifies the different categories that different entertainment media fall into. Most people will be familiar with library categories for books that include crime, mainstream, horror, science fiction, non-fiction, etc. But the list goes much further, especially if one takes into account music, film, television and the many different ‘sub-genres’ contained within the major genres. We’ll be focussing here on the genres of film, television and novels.
Individual genres are usually identified by the codes and conventions that make them unique. For example, westerns usually contain elements like cowboys, horses, shootouts at mid-day, school marms and stories that revolve around justice, revenge or pioneering. They also tend to be set in a specific time period – usually somewhere between 1850 to 1900 – and are usually set in the western part of the United States (hence – ‘westerns’). But genres can be flexible, and these elements are subject to change, and even cross-fertilisation. Consider a film like Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Ostensibly a western, but due to its irreverent treatment of that genre it must be considered more of a comedy or satire. And the Alien films are a combination of horror and science fiction.
Let’s take a closer look at genre. The following list of entertainment genres is one of the most comprehensive I’ve found. It comes from a book on screenwriting called Story by Robert McKee, and it’s very helpful in mapping out the kinds of genres and story archetypes to be found in most modern entertainments, especially film. Some examples are cited, but see if you can think of other films and books that fit into each genre.
Most chick flicks, anything based on Nicholas Sparks novels, though these would be ‘love tragedies’ mostly.
Divides into three sub-genres. Uncanny, where horror elements are subject to rational explanation, such as murderers or aliens. Supernatural, where horror elements are subject to irrational explanations, such as ghosts. And Super-Uncanny, where the reader or the audience is kept guessing between both possibilities, such as movies and books like The Shining.
Most concisely explained as ‘the individual versus the state’. Films like The Truman Show, Spartacus, Mr Smith Goes To Washington, and the novel The Power of One.
From dime novels to Italian Spaghetti westerns, this is a perennial genre.
Although it can contain other genres, such as a love story, it’s mostly about combat. Some are pro-war, some are anti-war, some try to sit on the fence.
Splits into many sub-genres, including Parody, Satire, Sitcom, Romantic, Screwball, Farce and Black Comedy. Varies with the focus of comic attack and the degree of ridicule.
McKee makes important distinctions with the following questions. From whose point of view do we regard the crime? If it’s the master detective’s POV it’s a Murder Mystery. If criminal’s POV then it’s a Caper. Cop’s POV is a Detective, crook’s POV is a Gangster. Victim’s POV is a Thriller or Revenge Tale. Lawyer’s POV makes for a Courtroom. Spy’s POV is an Espionage. Many combinations can be found within Film Noir.
Identifies problems in society and suggests a cure. Some sub-genres are Domestic Drama (problems within the family), Political Drama (corruption in politics), Eco-Drama (battle to save the environment) and Psycho Drama (struggles with mental illness).
Often borrows aspects of other genres, such as War or Political Drama. If Mother Nature is the problem, it’s a Disaster/Survival sub-genre.
Historicals can embrace almost every story imaginable, but it usually contains some element of relevance to the present. Often used as a distancing lens to present issues such as racism, failed wars and scandals, and religious intolerance that may still be too controversial to deal with directly in contemporary stories.
Biography (and Autobiography)
Similar to Historical drama, but focussed on an individual rather than an era. McKee has this to say about Autobiographies. “(They) often lack the very virtue they promise: self-knowledge. For while it’s true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s also the case that the unlived life isn’t worth examining.” He then cites here the film Big Wednesday, which raises my hackles because I love that film!
Presents a ‘reality’ in which characters sing and dance their stories. Can work in any genre, which can in turn be satirized as Musical Comedy.
Most often portrayed within ‘future societies’, but can also be stories that are simply ‘out of the ordinary’. Usually at play is some element, like a scientific breakthrough, that does not yet exist today. A good term is ‘speculative fiction’. This is my favourite genre, in case you didn’t know!
No scientific elements (where it becomes Science Fiction), but magical elements usually abound wherein the laws of nature are broken in some way. Close in spirit to Fairy Stories and Supernatural.
Realistic Drama (or ‘mainstream’)
This one’s a special genre in that it can encompass elements of almost any other genre (and visa versa) – very much in the sense that every story, no matter what the genre, contains a drama of some sort. These dramas, or ‘plots’, can be broken down into different plot types and applied within any or all of the existing genres.
A coming of age story, such as Stand By Me, or even Bambi.
The story turns on a moral change within a main character from bad to good.
Sort of the opposite of Redemption Plot. Good guy turns bad and is punished.
Stories of willpower versus temptation to surrender, such as Forrest Gump and Cool Hand Luke (which borrows significantly from the life of Christ – another Testing Plot story!).
Similar to Redemption Plot. This story turns on a deep change within a character and their view of life, people or the self from negative to positive. A favourite of this type is the film Harold and Maude.
Opposite to Education Plot. A deep change of worldview from positive to negative.
McKee gives some nice examples of how these plots fit into the genre of the Sports Genre, which he highlights as “a crucible for character change”. He calls it a natural home for the Maturation Plot (North Dallas Forty); the Redemption Plot (Somebody Up There Likes Me); the Education Plot (Bull Durham – an especial favourite of mine); the Punitive Plot (Raging Bull); the Testing Plot (Chariots of Fire); the Disillusionment Plot (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner); and Social Drama (A League of Their Own).
Plots can be broken down into even more elemental or mythical forms, such The Journey, or The Hero (some boffins say there are really only about ten such stories we humans tell), but let’s not get too arty-farty. Think of some of your favourite films, books or tv shows. What genres are they in? What genre is your favourite? What are the best examples of each genre?
Here’s my list of some of my favourite science fiction films.
- The Empire Strikes Back
- The Time Machine (George Pal version)
- The Day the Earth Stood Still
- Forbidden Planet
- The Man From Earth
- Silent Running
- Planet of the Apes
- Edge of Tomorrow
And science fiction novels…
- The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin
- Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonegutt
- Martian Time-slip – Philip K Dick
- Timescape – Gregory Benford
- Rendezvous With Rama – Arthur C Clarke
- The Gods Themselves – Isaac Asimov
- An Alien Heat – Michael Moorcock
- Neuromancer – William Gibson
- Tau Zero – Poul Anderson
- Gateway – Frederick Poul
- A Canticle For Liebowitz – Walter Miller Jr
- Earth Abides – George Stewart
- War of the Worlds – HG Wells