Identifying the where and the when of a film and why it matters.
Introduction To Genre
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, genre is ‘a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.’ In regard to movies and cinema, genre is not only characterized by ‘style, form, or content’ but also by theme.
In other words, genre is a way of categorizing movies. Genre gives audiences an idea of what to expect before watching a movie. Just like genres of music, the preference and taste for the many different genres and sub-genres are completely up to the individual, but the genre forms a collection of songs that all sound similar or share similar styles.
Movie genres work in exactly the same way.
A film’s genre is determined by the plot of the movie, the type of character and their actions, the setting and time period, as well as the theme. All of these elements form cohesive and identifiable categories of films.
Follow The Formula
While it may not be exactly mathematical, there’s actually a formula for determining the genre of a film and that is ‘story + plot + character + setting = genre’. This formula provides an easy way to remember the 4 elements that go into determining a film’s genre.
For example, a film is considered a Western usually if it features cowboys in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, out in the Midwest. There are common plotlines featured in Westerns, although the plots may vary, the characters and story are usually easily identifiable.
Each genre has its own common plotlines, character tropes, and settings that form the basis of that genre and provide the audience with a set of expectations even before they see the movie, but the 4 essential elements of the genre remain the same.
The Film Goer’s Contract
The importance of classification is nothing new. There are many ways to classify art based on its style, medium, and content. In recent times, however, film genre has become an increasingly large dimension of cinema.
‘Genre’ is a French word meaning ‘kind’ or ‘type.’ What started as merely a way to classify movies based on their similarities has turned into a recognizable entity that is just as integral to a movie as the elements that make up the movie.
A film genre creates a sort of contract with the audience. Specific genres have specific expectations and those expectations are ones that directors and filmmakers agree to uphold. This mutual agreement provides comfort to the audience as they come to expect familiar tropes and plotlines.
If a movie that’s advertised as a cute, lighthearted romantic comedy ends in tragedy, the audience is going to feel betrayed. Every past experience they have had with similar films will teach them to expect certain things.
Breaking this contract can be detrimental to a film’s commercial success and can be upsetting to the audience.
The 4 Elements Of Genre: Story And Plot
When determining a movie genre, there are 4 elements of a movie that sort it into its proper genre. These are the story, plot, character, and setting.
Story and plot are often mistakenly used interchangeably, but it’s important to note the distinction between the two.
The story is the action or basic sequence of events in the movie. Usually, there are 3 parts to this element: the beginning, middle, and end. This is the bare bones of the movie or the movie reduced to its simplest form.
The plot on the other hand is how the filmmaker fleshes out the bones of the story or how the story is told. It is composed of the motivations of the characters and their reactions to the events of the story. If the story is the bare bones, the plot is the details that flesh it out.
The story and plot of a film help determine its genre. A movie about 2 characters meeting and falling in love places it in the romance genre whereas a movie about a family moving into a house that turns out to be haunted will place it in the horror genre. The plot and story of these films are major contributing factors to the film’s overall genre.
The 4 Elements Of Genre: Character And Setting
There are 4 main elements of a movie that determine its genre, the story, plot, characters, and setting.
Character is extremely important to the movie because it’s usually what the audience relates to the most. These are the people that the plot revolves around and that are being forced into the series of events that is the story.
Character goes a long way in determining genre because, within each genre, there may be specific character tropes or types of characters that audiences recognize as belonging to that genre. It would be out of place to see a cowboy as the lead character in a movie about a viral zombie outbreak, right?
The setting is one of the most influential elements of genre. The where and the when of the movie can become one of the most recognizable aspects of different genres. Whether it’s the haunted house on the hill or the plains of Wyoming, these specific locations evoke a specific story the audience expects to be told.
The location and time, or setting, of a film, can dictate what stories the audience expects to watch and the genre those stories will fall into.
The Big Genres
A film’s story, plot, characters, and setting go into determining what its genre will be. These 4 elements will place a film in one of the major film genres and help set an expectation for the audience on what they are about to experience in a film.
The main genres of film are Drama, Comedy, Horror, Action, Fantasy, SciFi, Romance, and Western. These are the largest classifications of film genres. Whether or not audiences realize it, each of these genres sets an expectation.
You would probably be surprised to walk into what you thought was a romantic comedy and find high-speed car chases or alien abductions, right? That’s because the film’s genre, and all your experience with films in that same genre, go into setting an expectation of the type of film you are going to see and the story and plot that will be told.
While some movies do subvert the genre and there are smaller, more specific sub-genres within a large genre, most of the time you can comfortably assume with a certain amount of confidence what the film you are about to see will be like based on your prior experience with its genre.
Two Ways To Genre
As we said, there are 8 main genres of film, Drama, Comedy, Horror, Action, Fantasy, SciFi, Romance, and Western ,and most film genres rely heavily on either the story (or subject matter) or the setting for their classification.
Movies that are sorted into genres based on their stories, or the basic sequence of events in the film, are usually more plot or character-driven movies rather than movies sorted into a genre based on their setting.
These films based on stories share characteristics such as an emphasis on exploring the experience and perspective of different characters whether they be historical or modern, biographic or fictional. Some genres of film that are grouped based on their stories are Drama, Comedy, Romance, Crime, and Sports movies.
Sorting a movie into a genre based on its setting is done by considering the setting to be a character itself in the movie. In this way, the time and place of the story become just as important, if not more so, than the movie’s characters or story. The setting is usually what the characters are reacting to or overcoming throughout the plot. Some genres based on the film’s setting are the Western, SciFi, Fantasy, or Horror.
Understanding The Sub-Genre
When determining a movie’s genre, it’s easiest to place it into one of the large categories of genres such as Drama, Horror, Comedy, or Romance. The themes, mood, and plotlines of each of these genres are usually recognizable and provide the audience with a set of expectations before they watch the film.
However, within each genre, there are also sub-genres. These are a smaller, more specific way of categorizing all the movies within a specific genre.
Take, for example, the Romance genre. Within this genre, there are countless sub-genres that give the audience an even greater expectation for the film and plot. For example, there are Historical Romances, Romantic Comedies, Romantic Thrillers, and ‘Chick-flicks’.
The movies within a sub-genre share more specific traits with each other and set an even more specific level of expectation with the audience.
Letting Go Of What You Think You Know
There are some films that purposefully set out to subvert the expectations and tropes associated with their genre. These films walk a tricky line of keeping the audience comfortable in the genre tropes that they know, while also asking them to take a leap of faith in a new direction.
In an interesting example, the film Iron Man subverts the superhero genre. This genre usually features heroes who attempt to live normal lives while living a spectacular, super life in secret. However, Iron Man subverts this expectation when Tony Stark reveals his superhero identity to the world.
Similarly, the popular show Game of Thrones subverts many expectations by continuously killing off main characters throughout its seasons.
Subverting expectations, when done correctly, can intrigue and shock the audience in an entertaining way. It asks the audience to let go of what they think they know and expect to see and experience a familiar story told in a new way.