Screenplay Story


"With Westerns you have the landscape, and it's empty, and only you populate it. When you populate it, you can tell any kind of story that Shakespeare told . ."

Your choice of genre can help you structure your story. Especially as a new screenwriter, having a set of accepted plot lines, story elements, and character types can provided much-needed framing for your tale, while you focus on myriad other challenges.

Some genres are more 'standard' in their approach--film noir and Western--while others give you freer reign--science fiction, comedy. Genre defines the bigness or smallness of your story, who does what to whom, length, tempo, the need for hooks and twists, etc. You can also use the expectations the audience has related to your chosen genre then turn them on their head.

Consider a few film genres that can help you structure your story (more found at . .

Film genres that can really help the writer include . .
  • Action-Adventure
  • Science Fiction
  • Romantic Comedy
  • Crime/Gangster

Each of these genres (some mixed) comes with a set of established (and accepted) plotlines, story elements, and character types that help the new screenwriter--who certainly has enough other challenges besettting him in his quest for cinematic success. View a few great examples of movies in each major genre, at least those you're considering writing in. Read books about the genre. See the limits and possibilities offered by a given genre before you set out to tell your tale.

In the same way a genre comes loaded with symbols and icons and character archetypes, it also comes with expectations as to how the story will go. Each is quite different, both in terms of story outline, but also in how flexible these story frameworks are.

Starting with character types . .

Your choice of genre, if chosen well, should give you a list of character types to plug into your story--both to give the people what they want, and to help you make your movie work. As one of the oldest, most enduring, and most flexible genres--and one that draws from mythic origins--the Western serves as a good example for this discussion.

In Westerns, the heroes are often . .

  • local lawmen or enforcement officers
  • ranchers
  • army officers
  • cowboys
  • a skilled, fast-draw gunfighter

The bad guys aren't so tough to figure out, either.

Established genre plot lines . .

Choosing a genre can help you as the storyteller, especially when it comes with a set of plot lines to choose from. Again using Westerns as an example . .

Classic plot lines for the Western film involves the simple goal of maintaining law and order on the frontier in a fast-paced action story. It is normally rooted in archetypal conflict:
  • good vs. bad
  • new arrivals vs. savage Indians
  • humanity vs. nature
  • lawman or sheriff vs. gunslinger
  • rugged individualist vs. the community
  • cultivated East vs. raw West

For many of these a classic series of story events is common--who-does-what-to-whom-and-when. You can lay out a common story in such a genre almost in a connect-the-dots fashion, leaving you to use your creative energies in other ways (like maybe turning everything on its head later).

Genre story elements for you to choose from . .

Having a number of established (and accepted) story elements to choose from when telling your story makes everything easier. Again, using Westerns as an example . .

Typical Western story elements include . .

  • hostile elements (Indians, wildlife)
  • guns and gun fights (sometimes on horseback)
  • trains (and train robberies)
  • bank robberies and holdups
  • runaway stagecoaches
  • shoot-outs and showdowns
  • cattle drives and cattle rustling
  • posses in pursuit
  • barroom brawls

Pick and choose from these, and others you gather as you view classic titles in the genre you've chosen, plug them into your story and voila: Instant movie!!

Other genres may not be as fully-developed, but they too have their archetypes and related expectations. Film noir has a complete story: wife manipulates boyfriend to kill rich husband and runs off to Mexico with the money, leaving boyfriend to die in the gas chamber for their crime. Romantic comedy has storylines that aren't that much more complicated. Biopics give you the option of episodic storytelling, etc.

"In Westerns you were permitted to kiss your horse but never your girl."

Freedom to tell the morality tale . .

The Western and science fiction genres, famously, create an altered universe which allows you to set the rules--with life or death the stakes--and tell a clear morality tale, one you might not be able to tell in more confined genres.

Sub-genres enhance your flexibility . .

Genres like the Western can be mixed with others, enhancing your storytelling flexibility. Of course you will need to consider the 'demands' of the genre you mix with.

Example subgenres of the typical or traditional western . .
  1. the epic Western like THE BIG COUNTRY (1960)
  2. the singing cowboy Western like films of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers
  3. the spaghetti Western like those made by Sergio Leone
  4. the comedy Western like CAT BALLOU (1965) or BLAZING SADDLES (1974)
  5. the science-fiction Western like OUTLAND (1981)

"With a genre like film noir, everyone has these assumptions and expectations. And once all of those things are in place, that's when you can really start to twist it about and mess around with it."

See also . .

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  1. View the classic romantic comedy SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993) with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. What is the objective? What stands in their way? How do they overcome their difficulties? What makes you want to stand up and cheer (if you're a guy) or cry into your hankie (if you're a gal)?
  2. View the remake of THE FLY (1986) starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. In what way is this the classic science-fiction film? In what way does it mess with the genre?
  3. Consider the classic BLUE VELVET (1986) starring Dennis Hopper. How did working from the film noir genre help the writer? How did he depart from the accepted outline?
  4. In what direction does BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) take the Western? What gives it the modern feel? Should it really be called a comedy instead? What freedom does this approach give the storyteller?