Why Choose a Genre?
Into every life an avalanche of books fall. Readers have more choices now than they’ve ever had. Endcaps filled with hardcovers, have been replaced by screens filled with thumbnails. What once took up valuable bookshelf real estate, now takes a few measly megabytes. Readers are overwhelmed with options.
Its up to authors to whittle the selection down, to label our own work, to categorize our magnum opuses for the sake of brand recognition. We have to take our ninety-thousand word story and sum it up in one word; the genre.
This isn’t that easy.
Your story traverses the vast expanse of emotional landscape. It’s equal parts horrifying and touching, bitter and sweet. It’s painted in the full spectrum of human experience. Your characters suffer, they lust, and they laugh.
Your story is escapist fantasy, but doesn’t require the mind to travel too far. It explores the heights of the imagination, but its rooted in reality. It takes place on its own world, yet it’s an allegory for the one we live in. It’s universal, but it’s intensely personal. It’s a product of its era, but timeless in its simplicity. It’s not just your story; it’s your legacy.
Now how do you sum all that up in just one word? Can you brand it, pigeon hole it, lump it in with all the others? Can you catalogue it for easy browsing? Can you give us examples of ones just like it? Is it this meets this? Is it pink or blue, a skirt or a cape, a heart or an explosion? Is it a retelling of a reimagined reinvention of a remake, or is it a fresh take on an old-fashioned formula? Is it a beloved cult classic, revived for the twerking generation? Which great myth have you added cellphones too?
Give me the entryway pitch, the fifteen-second spot, the hashtag log line in one-hundred and forty characters or less. Give me a title that says it all; something with a dozen entries on IMDB, something with its own copyright shelf at the library of congress. Sing me a tune I can finish. Evoke my sense of déjà vu.
Give me something original, just like every other idea.
The Problem with Monotone
If the genre lets your audience know what to expect, then the tone reminds them. They’ll tell you to set it early and to keep it consistent. You’ll spoon feed it to your audience. You’ll superimpose it onto every scene until it burns into the screen.
You’ll keep it simple, recognizable; a well known monochrome monotone.
Horror is a genre that turns its tone into a crutch. Scary movies have a habit of laying their mood on thick. The tone is consistent to a fault. They use an ominous sense of doom to overcompensate for dips in the plot. They smear dread over obligatory sequences. Sometimes they have more tone than conflict. They’re more atmospheric than eventful.
The tone doesn’t stop at the setting. It seeps into the characters. They’re painted so thin they’re one dimensional. In slasher films, the victims always have it coming. They go out after dark, drink, do drugs, and have premarital sex. They’re stalked by a killer possessed with the spirits of our disapproving parents.
Although horror is violent and hyper-sexualized, it retains the morals of the 1950s. It’s like Michael Myers watched one too many episodes of Leave it to Beaver, Jason Voorhees cut out one too many strips of Family Circus, and Leatherface sat in front of one too many Norman Rockwell Calendars.
Both the killer and their victims are tailor made to suit the story. They belong there. Their range is limited, and that limits our experience.
Horror movie settings are so consistent, it makes you wonder if the same four city blocks in Vancouver double for every small town in America. Their color palette is so washed out, they might as well be black and white. If the characters aren’t in permanent spring break mode, then they’re brooding in front of photographs of dead loved ones (oh, who am I kidding with the gender neutral pronoun, it’s always their dead wives).
What was once tried and true, has become dated and stale. What was once a safe investment, has yielded a weak return. All the smart moves, have been played out. It’s time to try something new.
Why Contrast is Cool
In my story Playing with Fire, a monster awakens to find that his usual fare have wandered onto his breakfast menu. A group of urban explorers trounce through his cave system. Their hooting and hollering does little to wet his appetite. These college students just aren’t the treat they once were. They’d become the oatmeal of his diet. How he longed for some variety; a sun-dried vagrant or a seasoned junkie, but even they have started to taste like rice cakes in his mouth.
Mr. Soot, the monster, had shuffled through one too many horror stories feeding off of genre clichés. He feared that his palate had become too refined. He’d tasted every kind of miscreant, and it looked like it would be drunken fornicators again.
Mr. Soot yawned through the first kill of the night. The sight of blood was routine. When the rest of his quarry fled, he shrugged. He jogged after his next target at a leisurely pace. Life had cast him in a role, and he was just going through the motions. This changed when he tripped over a red ribbon.
Suddenly Mr. Soot’s R-rated horror story was invaded by a pair of stowaways from a young adult fantasy. These were character types he’d never encountered; Isobel, a girl who wore her princess costume with disdain, and Chester Checkers, a mad hatter who fancied himself a fashionista.
The clash was comically perverse. It had a twisted innocence you wouldn’t see coming. Mr. Soot’s bloody rampage was interrupted by a girl and her imaginary friend on a scavenger hunt.
You could call this a horror story, but you’d be telling a lie of omission.
These are my kinds of favorite stories; the ones where contrast is the conflict. They play to our genre expectations and then they betray them. Their twist isn’t a cheap third-act revelation. Their twist is their very nature.
The big surprise of Evil Dead 2 wasn’t the monster lurking in the cellar. We expected her, just as we expected the book bound in skin and written in blood. Latin incantations just come with the territory, as do trees that wield their roots like tentacles. Disembodied spirits are supposed to tell us to save our souls. Demons are supposed to tell us that they’ll swallow them.
With a titled like Evil Dead 2 we expected to see a couple gallons of kayro syrup. Dismemberment is a foregone-conclusion. Decapitation is old hat.
The film’s gore didn’t come as much of a surprise, but Bruce Campbell’s performance did. Horror movies didn’t usually feature a torn shirt action hero. Yet here comes Bruce with a mouth full of quips and a pocket full of shells. He ran a chainsaw through the film’s ominous dread. He gave us someone to root for. The demons’ threats were met with catch phrases. Even the undead minions were surprised by his antics.
That’s what turned Evil Dead 2 into the infinitely reissued cult classic it is today.
It doesn’t matter how many buckets of blood they spilled in the remake, without this plucky hero, it was just another horror movie, a slave to its genre, drawing within the lines, consistent to a fault.
Consistency might be the standard, but contrast is cool.