Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Genre: Good Movies, Bad Movies

Richard Walter, a celebrated storytelling guru and longtime chairman of UCLA’s graduate program in screenwriting, has graciously written a guest article for Genre Hacks. His lectures have become legendary among screenwriting professionals, and his advice to genre writers is both humorous and perceptive. His latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, is available in stores now .

By Richard Walter

Not quite twenty years ago my wife and I set off to a multiplex to see the then-latest Woody Allen picture. Upon arriving at the theaters, alas, we realized we had come to the wrong location: the Woody Allen picture wasn’t playing there. (I blamed my wife for making the mistake, but may I confess here and now that the error was mine? Can we keep this among ourselves, dear readers of Sean Hood’s blog?)

There wasn’t sufficient time to get to the proper multiplex in time for the Woody Allen, so we decided to see the least dreadful movie playing at the theaters at hand. That seemed to be The Shawshank Redemption. Shawshank… could be said to be something of a genre picture, couldn’t it? Isn’t it a prison picture? If a genre picture is a certain kind of picture, a particular category, isn’t a prison picture just another genre?

The last thing we wanted to see was a prison picture. For one thing, there were likely to be no women in the picture. My wife was cool with that but not I. For another, there would surely be a lot of the usual prison fare: surly cons, vindictive guards, bars, concrete, shadows, a venal warden, the James Cagne actor de jour growling and spitting, vowing through clenched teeth, “I’m gonna break outta this joint!”

Reluctantly we slipped into the theater playing Shawshank….

We loved it!

Notwithstanding Tim Robbins’ low-volume mumbling--For the fees he’s paid can’t he at least speak up? Does he think he’s the ‘B’ Brando?--The Shawshank Redemption is really rather a splendid film. Somewhat overlong (doesn’t it seem too many movies are too long?) the film nevertheless creates characters worth caring about, sites them in scenes and settings and situations that are saturated with the sweet and subtle stress that is essential to sizzling, scintillating, successful dramatic narratives. There is a well wrought through line, a spine for the story that unifies and integrates all the elements, that intrigues and worries the viewer in the best way and ultimately engenders satisfaction.

I was reminded of one of my own central screenwriting principles: There are only two genres: good movies and bad movies.

I read a book recently treating ‘genre screenwriting.’ Here is some advice the author provides for screenwriters working on Thrillers. Use cliffhangers, exploit secrets, invent twists and turns. Here is advice for the writers of Action-Adventure scripts: give your protagonist a clear goal, make your antagonist three dimensional, give the antagonist a strong goal too. Here’s advice for the writers of Horror-Fantasy: give your protagonist a clear goal, give your antagonist a clear goal Isn’t it clear that all genres have the same rules?

Instead of focusing upon those aspects of so-called genres that are on the surface unique, writers should concentrate upon the commonalities, the shared requirements that confront all writers of all scripts. There needs to be a solid story with a beginning, a middle, and end. There must be characters who are complex and, above all else, human. These characters must speak dialogue that is peppy and precious and perky and punchy and poetic and poignant--and those are just the P’s. The dialogue must be worth listening to all for its own sake, but it cannot be there just for its own sake. It also has to move the story forward and provide for the audience a wider appreciation of the characters. Big budget, little budget, horror-fantasy or romantic comedy, the only thing that really counts is a great story. That’s not where writers should end up but where they should start. Genre writers should forget about genre and think about story. They should set themselves to the task not of fulfilling the purported requirements of a particular genre but struggle instead simply to write a compelling story.

Create a solid story and everything else will more or less fall into line.

When you think about the truly brilliant movies, they seem often to mix genres, don’t they? There is plenty of humor, for example, in Hitchcock’s darkest pictures, like Rear Window and Psycho, and certainly North by Northwest. Isn’t Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove both a bite-your-nails thriller involving nuclear annihilation on one hand and a slapstick, fall-down, pie-in-your-face comedy on the other?

Writers should stop thinking genre and, as I have said, start thinking story. They should stay open to the surprises. Instead of satisfying an audience’s expectations, they should exceed One of my favorite films of the past twenty five years is Terminator II. It has more to say about the nature of life and death, of humanity, of identity, of justice and retribution and more. It achieves this all in the context of a futuristic fantasy action-adventure thriller.

I prefer to think of it as just a really good movie.  

Is your screenplay ready to sell? Enter the Richard Walter Online Review Program to win a chance to find out! 

UCLA Professor Richard Walter asserts that one of the biggest mistakes writers make is to market their scripts before they’re truly ready. If you read Richard’s new book, Essentials of Screenwriting, and post an online review of it on Amazon.com, your own blog, Facebook page or favorite user review site (and send the full review and the link to where it appears online to richardwalterreviews@yahoo.com ), you will be entered into a weekly drawing to win a free read of your script by Richard. If he deems it ready, he’ll refer it to a potential representative or directly to a production company. If he feels it is not ready, he’ll send you a letter in which he cites its essential strengths and identifies those issues that in his view require further consideration.

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