Genre mashups, also known as cross-genres or hybrid genres, are commonly found in many art forms – film, music or literature. It’s when an artist combines two or more genres in which elements from each are blended into a cohesive piece.
Star Wars, Parasite, The Blues Brothers, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, 13 Going on 30. What do these very different movies have in common? They’re all genre mashups. From romantic comedies to sci-fi adventure, the technique of combining genres has been around for some time. And it’s how you utilise this method that can make all the difference to your screenplay.
In screenwriting, using multiple genres to tell your story is one of the best ways to bring originality to your work. It’s no secret that everything’s been done before, but approaching your story from the many different angles of different genres can present familiar ideas in a new light.
Table of Contents
- 1. Understanding Genre
- 2. The Difference In Sub-Genres
- 3. Elements of a Genre Mashup
- 4. Identify Audience
- 5. Balancing a Genre Mashup
- 6. Consistency in a Genre Mashup
- 7. Using Genre Tropes to Your Advantage
- 8. Write the Story Not the Genre
- 9. Individualized Style
- 10. Defy Expectations
- In Summary
1. Understanding Genre
Genre is used to characterize a film based on similar and shared conventions. This includes story, character, setting, audio-visual elements, themes, emotional impact, motifs and morals.
Before you begin to write your screenplay, identifying what genre best suits your idea is key. Let’s just quickly assess the key components of each core genre.
Drama is associated with a serious and realistic tone. The conflict can be internal or external. Moreover, dramas tend to focus on emotional character development and are inspired by real-life human struggles. Dramatic themes pull from topical issues that are experienced in everyday life.
Comedy takes a humorous approach to dramatic themes and storylines. The tone is comical and amusing and exaggerated elements are often used to add to the humor. The main goal is to make the audience laugh. There are different types of comedy, including satire, deadpan, slapstick, situational and dark.
Action is high energy and physical. You have a clear hero (protagonist) and villain (antagonist). The heroes are put in high stakes, life or death situations with the odds stacked against them. There’s guaranteed to be violence and at least one climactic battle. Action sequences are the bread and butter of this genre. They often require professional stunts, pyrotechnics, special effects or CGI.
Horror is meant to incite fear and terror. The adrenaline keeps the audience hooked even if the tropes and the storylines are often predictable. Again, the situations are life and death with the protagonists up against an evil force of some kind. The wide variety of sub-genres (gothic horror/slasher horror/teen horror) that fall under this category provide a scare for everyone.
The Western is a time-period piece that is set in the late 19th century in the American West. The primary conflict is often rooted in good vs. bad, with elements of action as shoot-offs are common. The visual aspect alone is enough to identify a western. Settings include deserts, up and coming civilizations, stables, saloons and ranch houses.
Moreover, Westerns will often include a protagonist that is somewhat of an outcast, fighting independently against corruption.
Science Fiction uses a fantastical twist of science to explain the thoughtful world-building that makes up the genre. Technology is a key factor and has a major effect on the plot. Therefore, writing a science fiction screenplay requires attention to detail and thorough research.
Other core genres include:
- Thriller shares similarities with drama, horror and action. The tone is tense and the themes are dark. It keeps audiences on the edge of their seat, anticipating with suspense. Examples: Still of the Night, The Sixth Sense, Nightcrawler.
- Romance is the telling of a love story. They focus on the relationships of the main character with the conflict often centered around a “will they, won’t they” situation. These stories are emotionally driven and usually end in a happily ever after. Examples: The Notebook, Love Actually, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
- Musical relies on the aspect of music to drive the story forward. Many musicals are adapted from the stage. However, there are also ones written originally for the screen. Depending on the story, music styles may vary. Examples: Annie, Footloose, Les Miserables.
- Adventure is when the protagonist is sent on a journey where conflict ensues. They must overcome obstacles that take them out of their comfort zone. Examples: The Goonies, Jumanji, Life of Pi.
- Fantasy tells a story of magic or make-believe. Different from the reasonable science of sci-fi, this genre explores the imagination with elements of myth and wonder. Examples: The NeverEnding Story, Alice in Wonderland, Pan’s Labyrinth.
Now that you’re familiar with your core genres, let’s explore sub-genres.
2. The Difference In Sub-Genres
Sub-genres narrow down and add specifics to each core genre. Almost every film falls under a sub-genre and includes elements from more than one.
Don’t confuse sub-genres with genre mashups. Although a film pulls elements from multiple genres, it isn’t considered a genre mashup until it utilizes each genre to its fullest potential. Sub-genres are used because audiences would prefer to know if they’re about to watch a monster flick or a slasher. Both fall under the horror genre, but their subject matter and context varies greatly.
Speaking of horror…sub-genres include psychological, survival, paranormal, gore, found footage, monster and slasher. Each of these examples uses specific elements to incite fear and suspense in different ways.
Every core genre has an extensive list of sub-genres associated with them.
A common sub-genre that can cross into the realm of hybrid genre is the romantic comedy. For the most part, rom-coms fall under the category of a sub-genre. This is because the theme will focus in on the romantic aspects and use comedy as a secondary device to add to the mood.
In a romantic-comedy hybrid, however, comedy and romance are balanced into equal parts that both contribute to the theme and storyline. An example of this would be Easy A. It takes the idea of romance and twists it with a comedic, more realistic approach.
3. Elements of a Genre Mashup
It’s time to pick from the list of genres and sub-genres to create your genre mashup. If you thought that there were a lot of sub-genres, try not to get overwhelmed by the number of genre mashups. The number is almost infinite with the amount of combinations a writer can make.
Be forewarned, your mix of genres must be intentional and deliberate. Unless your goal is to write the next Sharknado series (power to you if it is), you want to pick genres with elements that best tell your story and aren’t just superficial mashups.
The purpose of mixing genres is to add complexity and excitement to your screenplay. It could even turn a one-dimensional, predictable story into something new and engaging.
Let’s go over a couple of examples of how notable films use hybrid genres.
Shaun of the Dead
Shaun of the Dead uses a combination of comedy, horror and romance. Also categorized as a zombie romantic comedy or a zom-rom-com, if you will. This movie is a comedic nod to the 1979 film, Dawn of the Dead as the title implies.
The success of the film sparked a revamp of the niche zombie comedy genre as many more movies of its kind followed shortly after. These include: Zombieland, Warm Bodies, Life After Beth, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, and Little Monsters.
Edgar Wright’s witty writing and stylized direction makes Shaun of the Dead stand out from its predecessors. But it’s mainly in the way in which a comedy uses the zombie film formula that gives it a whole new level. The three genres (comedy, horror and romance) evolve in tandem with each other, combining to make a wholly new (at the time) experience.
As with any comedy, the humor adds a lighthearted element to the story. But the horror also adds genuine peril to an initially lighthearted situation. The comedy and horror contrast each other in an invigorating way as they play off of one another.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind uses a combination of drama, romantic comedy and sci-fi. The beginning of the film is set up as a typical romantic comedy. The depressed male protagonist meets a quirky woman whose whole existence seems to be based solely on making his life better.
The genre sets up the audience’s expectations. However, those expectations flip when soon after, the sci-fi genre is introduced. It’s revealed that the events unfolding are non-linear and the initial idea of the film is not what it seems. The sci-fi twist gives a new look at an overdone concept – the perfect outcome of a genre mashup.
4. Identify Audience
Think about your idea and what kind of audience will be drawn to it. Knowing your demographic will give you a better idea of what elements of genre you need to write in order to appeal to them.
The big appeal behind genre mashups from a business point of view is to cater to a broader audience. However, if your audience is too broad, you might miss the mark and lose the interest of many. A smarter move might be to write for a niche audience who will guarantee their loyalty. Your genre mashup could be the next cult classic.
‘Cult Classic: Something, typically a movie or book, that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.’– The Oxford English Dictionary definition of cult classic
Many cult classics branch outside of the normal filmmaking formula. They do this by pushing the boundaries of components taken from multiple genres (story, character, setting, audio, technical and themes).
An example of a cult classic that uses a genre mashup in a revolutionary way is Brazil. The film is a dark satirical comedy/dystopian science-fiction drama. Writer & director Terry Gilliam explores themes of bureaucracy, technology, social isolation and escapism. Brazil shows how two genres can work in tandem with each other to make one another better. The dystopia is heightened by the comedy and the comedy is heightened by the dystopia.
Furthermore, Brazil caters to an audience craving for commentary on contemporary society in a humorous way. With a clearly defined audience, your writing will stay balanced and consistent, two of the most valuable traits of a genre mashup.
5. Balancing a Genre Mashup
A genre mashup cannot exist without balance. Without it, the writing can feel off-putting and involuntary. A true genre mashup uses an equal balance of each genre’s components.
If a movie throws in a few jokes to cut the tension in a drama, it doesn’t make it a comedy-drama hybrid. However, if the humor blends with the drama in a meaningful way, then you’ve got yourself a balanced hybrid. Using multiple elements from multiple genres can elevate your screenplay as long as it adds to the deeper meaning of your story.
A great rule of thumb is to choose genres that work well together. Action and adventure are two separate genres, but go hand in hand with each other. They share very similar conventions, which is why this genre mashup is so common.
This can also work the other way too. Two opposing genres like drama and comedy contrast nicely with each other. The comedy can relieve the seriousness of a drama. In reality, humor is often present even in the darkest moments and is sometimes used as a coping mechanism. Therefore, it feels that comedy and drama being a part of the same story (and the way it is told) is natural.
Despite these techniques, don’t be afraid to experiment with other genres that might not work at first glance. If your story falls under certain combating genres, work with them until it feels right.
6. Consistency in a Genre Mashup
Another important factor is consistency. If you establish your film as a certain genre mashup, don’t unexpectedly introduce a new unrelated genre halfway through your story. Although that might seem obvious, staying consistent with your chosen genres also relies on your audience’s expectations.
You want to keep your promises to the viewer. That doesn’t mean you can’t have mind-blowing concepts and twists. But you do have to keep them in the realm of what is believable for the genres you are choosing.
Both the writer and the viewer approach each genre in different ways. The way you prepare yourself mentally to write a certain genre is a similar experience to how the viewer prepares themselves.
Ultimately, this is about making consistent and meaningful choices. A genre mashup could be a breeding ground for half-baked ideas, a lack of commitment to one genre in particular leading to a general lack of discipline. So make sure you are making your genre choices for valid reasons in relation to your story. Audiences will see through added elements of a different genre merely for superficial reasons.
7. Using Genre Tropes to Your Advantage
Let’s take a look at another genre mashup as an example of how to use genre tropes to your advantage…
The ensemble ‘whodunit’ murder mystery, Knives Out uses a combination of comedy, drama, crime and mystery. It’s a film that celebrates the murder mystery genre. This is a genre built primarily on tropes. In fact, the character, Harlan Thrombey, whose murder is the one in question, is a murder mystery author himself.
A simple yet innovative approach to a familiar trope of the genre is the characterization of Detective Benoit Blanc. An empathetic do-gooder replaces the soulless detective trope. This isn’t a random choice. It benefits the real story behind the whodunit, one of class and privilege. Detective Blanc is a voice of reason instead of an added self-absorbed character tied to the Thrombey family.
Now for the big twist, a staple to any murder mystery. The satisfaction of watching a movie like this is knowing that we’ll figure out the mystery at the end. As for the twist in Knives Out, it’s effective, subtle, thoughtful and truthful.
Most people won’t pick up on the hint drops throughout the film. It’s the type of experience that offers something new with every watch. Even without picking up on the hints, the twist feels surprising, yet earned. This is because it stays truthful to its character’s behavior and personalities, both in spite of and because of the genres it is in thrall to.
8. Write the Story Not the Genre
One of the most important things to remember when writing your genre mashup is to write the story, not the genre. What exactly does that mean? Well, getting caught up in which devices and elements you have to use in a specific genre can make it hard to focus on the story you’re trying to tell.
All decisions you make when it comes to genre should be in service to your story. Making a drama more comedic? Only if it helps convey the story and its themes. Adding horror to action? Only if it helps accentuate the thrills and makes sense within the context of the story.
Ideas are personal and so is the experience of writing your screenplay. That aspect alone is what sets stories apart from each other. It’s the individual writing the story and what their personal experience brings to it.
Genre is relevant to categorize a film. Story comes first, genre will follow.
9. Individualized Style
Your style and voice can be hard to find if you’re new to screenwriting. Sometimes, even long-time screenwriters can lose their voice. Staying true to yourself is something all writers struggle with. Everyone is constantly evolving and figuring out who they are.
That’s where genre can come in handy. Look back at the different elements of genre, and find which ones resonate with you and the story you’re writing. Combining genres is a great way to get out of your comfort zone and look at your writing style in a new way. After all, genre is not concrete.
Genre mashups can help give a screenwriter structure to bounce off and play with. If you’re discovering your voice, having confines to your writing can help clarify your style, tone of voice and what you ultimately want to say. Genre is a guide and genre mashups can give you more freedom than just one genre can.
10. Defy Expectations
If misused, genre can potentially hinder your screenplay in a way that makes it predictable and cookie-cutter. It’s your job as a writer to break out of these stereotypes and use genre to your advantage. With the help of genre mixing, you can defy expectations and keep audiences engaged while showing them a familiar story from a new point of view.
The modern screenwriter has to be someone who understands the language of cinema. Decades of films piling up on each other and the easy access to almost any film in history means that audiences, filmmakers and writers alike are well-versed in the history and trappings of genre.
And so a way around these familiarities is to pursue genre mashups. Audiences want to be surprised by what they see as well as understanding the language they see it within. The genre mashup represents how this can be achieved. As a screenwriter, you’re presenting an audience with an unfamiliar concept, in the guise of familiar trappings.
A genre mashup isn’t, for example, a drama with a few jokes thrown in. It is a blending of different genres into one experience, where the different elements of different genres feel inextricably linked, rather than opposing forces.
A genre mashup takes familiar trappings and expectations and pairs them with elements that end up defying those familiar trappings and expectations and creating what feels like a new experience for the audience.
1. Understand Genre
2. Understand Sub-Genres
3. Bring Together Elements in Your Genre Mashup
4. Know Your Audience
5 Balance Your Genres
6. Keep Your Genre Mashup Consistent
7. Use Genre Tropes to Your Advantage
8. Write the Story Not the Genre
9. Find Your Voice
10. Defy Expectations
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This article was written by Madison Kemeny and edited by IS Staff.