Identifying Genres - Codes & Expectations

Before we even start to watch a film we are aware of its genre – from the publicity that we have seen, from reviews that we may have read or simply from the way that it has been described by a friend. The genre of a film leads us to have to certain expectations of what we will see.

So, what do we expect from a story in a particular genre?

The Story

There are a limited number of narrative elements in any story, filmic or written. However, these can be broken down into a number of categories for identifying genres:

* Typical plots (beginning / middle / end)
* Typical situations i.e. details from the main story
* Typical characters (do typical male/ female roles exist?)
* Typical body language
* Typical dress
* Typical dialogue
* Typical historical setting
* Typical setting (place)
* Typical objects or equipment
* Typical look or style (lighting or camera)

A combination of any or all these categories in a story creates a formula or pattern. It is this pattern within a story, which results in an identifiable genre.
The ideas / themes / plot etc. that are repeated in different films are called ‘genre conventions’.

As you will already have discovered, each genre has its own conventions; its own set of rules and codes by which it operates. The conventions of some genres are so well known that we can juggle the different elements to produce a number of different basic story lines of that genre e.g. Western:

The gunslinger (baddy) attempts to take over the town. The sheriff (goody), against terrible odds, defeat the gunslinger and his cronies. Whilst fighting the bad guys the Sheriff must choose between two women (the ‘homely’ girl and the fallen woman – the homely girl is chosen). There is a fight in the saloon and a final shoot-out in the main street. (Good defeats evil.)

We are so familiar with these conventions (even if we don’t realise it!) that we can probably guess what will happen in a film even if we know very little about.
It is worth pointing out that not only are there similarities between stories within the same genre, but also similarities between stories of different genres. This is partly to do with the nature of story telling, and the theory that all stories follow the same pattern: we meet the hero / heroine and their world. The normality of their world is disrupted or changed in some way and the hero / heroine has to restore normality.

We can take this idea one stage further. Below is an outline for a story. You will notice that it is the barest outline that could possibly be given. Divide up into groups. Each group should choose one of the major film genres and then write the story in the form of that particular genre. Depending on the genre all sorts of decisions will have to be made. What can be ‘stolen’ within the conventions of the genre? Who or what would the characters be? You will discover that once you have decided on your genre then all the pieces will fall into place.

• Character A has something that character B wants.
• Character B steals it.
• By the end of the story, Character A has regained it.

When all of the groups have completed their stories, they should be read aloud. Having heard all of the stories, you should then discuss the ways in which each genre requires different decisions to be made that advance the story.


Given that a number of films sharing similar plots / stars etc. do exist, what do you suppose is the appeal of seeing more than one film of a similar nature? Why do we pay to see the same type of thing over and over again? How do we enjoy films that are genre films? (Think about the books you read as well – do you tend to read similar types of books? If so, what draws you to these books).

It is possible, for example to predict exactly what will happen at the end of a particular genre film. In a romance, either the couple will live happily ever after or else the story will end tragically. So why do we want to see the film? For most people the answer has something to do with emotions. We like to be sure that what we’re going to see offers a particular kind of emotional experience. On the whole, we go to see a film expecting to sit through a particular type of emotional experience – one that makes us laugh, cry, feel scared etc. As well as this there is the fascination of seeing new ideas blended with old ones. Is this the only pleasure that we get from genre films?

Some Common Film Genres

Comedy: This category includes romantic and screwball comedies, satires, and black comedies. Comedies are meant to amuse. Since it's hard to laugh at someone who is in danger, one of the most important rules of comedy is that no one gets hurt. No matter how many pratfalls a character takes, his reaction is always funnier than the injury is painful. The only exception is black comedy, where the scale often tips toward laughs of discomfort.

Drama: Today, drama remains an umbrella category for a serious portrayal of realistic characters, settings, and situations. In other words, everything that isn't a comedy could be considered a drama. The important distinction here is the emotional charge. Comedies make us smile, laugh, and guffaw; dramas make us reflect, worry, and cry. The category drama has many subsets.

Action/Adventure: Action films are fast-paced, mile-a-minute rides. Explosions, chases, and battles figure prominently. Adventure films usually revolve around some kind of quest, and are often set in exotic locales. Action and adventure are so intertwined that they are often treated as one. Some sub-genres are: disaster/survival films, treasure hunts, swashbucklers, and spy films.

Crime: Here, the main storyline revolves around a crime committed. Among this category's many sub-genres are: murder mystery, detective story, gangster film, film noir, courtroom drama, and the thriller.

Epic/Historical: Grandeur, spectacle, and the sweep of time categorize this genre, which can include costume dramas, war films, and the modern epic. These are films about a historical event (real or imagined) or a fascinating hero set against a lavish backdrop.

Science Fiction: These films give us technologically advanced worlds in hypothetical futures, and are replete with quasi-science, space ships, and imagined societies sharply different from our own. Science fiction heroes battle aliens and monsters, galaxy-destroying villains, unknown forces, or technology itself.

Horror: Designed to scare the living daylights out of us, horror films shock and thrill us at the same time. In his book
Story, screenwriting guru Robert McKee divides horror into three subgenres: The uncanny (the source of horror is subject to rational explanation), the supernatural (the source of horror is irrational or from the spirit world), or the super-uncanny (the audience is kept guessing between the two other possibilities).

War: The plot of a war film revolves around actual combat. War films bring us face to face with the horrors and heartbreak of war and include such themes as brutality, heroism, and loyalty. An anti-war film might emphasize the futility of war, whereas a pro-war film might focus on its gallantry.

Westerns: This genre is defined by its setting—the Wild West of the American frontier. Westerns evoke cowboys, sheriffs, horses, and gun fights. Plots often revolve around personal freedom, integrity, and the maintenance of law and order.