The 67 Different Sub Genres
Two decades and a century since the dawn of cinema, it is safe to say the medium has by now produced a colossal variety of films. This can be almost overwhelming at times. So, different categories help guide us through this. Whether it’s in choosing a script to write, read or just finding the Netflix pick for the day, sub genres help audiences navigate the cinematic landscape.
Screenplays can be better identified with the help of sub genres. Here we can learn instantly the potential style, tone, subject matter and overall feel of the movie or TV show we are about to watch, read or write.
Sub genres and their meanings can be useful to help define your screenplay. Moreover, a sub genre will not just help you give clarity to your script’s definition but also help in guiding it.
You might not want to fulfil genre expectations to the point of cliche. However, having a strong idea of genre expectations will help you subvert them as well as fulfil them, giving the audience what they expect whilst also providing them with the unexpected.
Sub genres can of course overlap and often a screenplay will fall into multiple categories. But the categories’ usefulness remains. Indeed, the more sub genres a screenplay fits into, the more potentially versatile it proves.
So we’ve compiled a list of sub genres and their meaning. These might help you better understand the tone, themes or even plot of the story you are seeking to write.
What are the key elements of these sub-genres? And how do they manifest in the cinematic landscape? Let’s take a look:
Action indicates a portrayal of threat. This could be because of altruistic, evil or supernatural causes and will likely involve fighting or battle sequences.
Furthermore, ‘Action’ usually speaks to the pace and structure of the story, centred around set-pieces and building to a climactic finale.
This will involve one singular heroic figure with special or supernatural abilities. Or a group of such characters banded together. They will become the supernatural representatives of human concerns – saving the world, stopping an evil presence, preserving humanity.
Furthermore, a common theme in superhero screenplays is the clear hero and villain distinction among characters. There’s often little ambiguity, a clear evil obstacle for the good guys to overcome. A clear example are the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
They might be carrying out their mission on behalf of a state or for their own personal reasons.
3. Martial Arts
This sub genre of screenplay usually includes fighting sequences and set-pieces for major chunks of the plot. These scenes are the jewels in the crown of these kinds of movies. Karate and Kung-fu are some of the popular martial arts styles used in film.
So the action sequences in these screenplays are based on evasion of danger caused by the disaster.
5. Buddy Cop
This sub genre will include two police officers as protagonists. Often the plot usually revolves around the development of their relationship while the two characters work together to survive the dangers in the story.
Screenplays like The Pirates of the Carribean franchise and The Three Musketeers share a plot portraying heroic bloodshed. This sub genre is usually set in historic times and often comprises of sword fighting action sequences.
Furthermore, the fighting elements are usually set to protect the vulnerable and hence, entail less violence. There is often a theme of the ‘little guy’ fighting against the powers that be.
‘Swash’ comes from ‘to swagger with a sword’ whilst ‘buckler’ is a small shield. Therefore a ‘Swashbuckler’ denotes a fighter with relative small means but swagger and skill to make up for it.
Thriller screenplays aim to create a strong connection with the audience. This is accomplished with the help of an exciting and engaging plot and tone. They will keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
Psychological thrillers involve intense emotional elements in the story. The plot often includes a threatening situation confronting the protagonist as a result of psychological instability.
Mystery thrillers are the movies that make you bite your nails while sitting on the edge of your seat. In fact, these screenplays thrive on the plot twists and unpredictability of the story. The story will keep you guessing right till the very end and that is its main purpose.
Techno thriller films like The Circle have a high engagement with the technological resources within the plot. Moreover, the plot will includes suspense whilst upholding the subtlety of the technical aspects of the story.
Conspiracy thriller screenplays build on the unravelling of an unexpected consequence triggered by the protagonist. This will be an unexpected discovery or a quest for knowledge of an unexpected event.
5. Film Noir
Screenplays like The Black Dahlia and Sin City portray the sub genre fittingly. Often film noir screenplays will contain a highly specific dark, black and white visual theme. But this colour is not just visual, it is tonal, suggesting a world where the colour has been taken out and danger lurks in the shadows.
As suggested by its name, this sub genre includes dark and cynical attributes in the construct of the plot and characters. However, the protagonist is usually depicted as a victim of circumstance and associated with the investigation of a crime, holding some authority (i.e police detective).
The comical aspects can be the mannerisms of characters or the situations that they encounter.
1. Comedy of Manners
This sub genre entails comedic segments delivered through the witty interactions of the characters, often of a particular section of society.
It’s a comedy that will satirize manners and affectations and seeks to question the supposed standards and rules of a society. Interactions that some would see as completely normal will suddenly seem strange, alien and funny.
Popular films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Lost in Translation are some examples of this sub genre. Both seek to highlight the strangeness and comedy of social interactions and norms, albeit in very different ways.
Parodies may draw on other screenplays and genres for the comedic structure of the screenplay. This can include sarcasm and mockery of the obvious elements of the original screenplay/ genre. A parody will point out and make fun of the expectations audiences have of the subject at hand.
This is evident in the Scary Movie franchise, which uses mockery of horror films as its primary motivation.
3. Black Comedy
Black comedy is the sub genre of comedy which makes use of dark humour. The Death of Stalin illustrates this sub genre well. It’s a very serious subject matter but told with the paintbrush of comedy.
In Bruges is another great example of a black comedy. The context and action flirts with murder, suicide, depression and violence. But the characters are funny and the juxtaposition of this darkness and comedy is what makes the tone darkly humorous.
Often it’s the irony of comedy in such dark situations that is funny in itself.
Slapstick comedies incorporate mannerisms and exuberant actions. Often, traditionally, the screenplays in this sub genre would contain little or no dialogue. However, more contemporary examples do contain dialogue and still use slapstick as the main source of comedy.
Mr Bean, Tom and Jerry Tales and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective are examples of this sub genre. Often it’s a genre of comedy that a particular actor will specialise in and make a big part of their work, such as Rowan Atkinson or Jim Carrey.
5. Fish Out of Water
This sub genre thrives on comedic situations that the characters encounter in the plot.
That is to say that often the protagonist in these screenplays faces unfamiliar situations. The main source of comedy will be the bumps in the road the protagonist has in navigating this new environment. They’re learning new rules and we laugh at the missteps they make and the clashes they have with this new world.
However, usually the protagonist will win out in the end, navigating the world successfully but proving they don’t have to change everything about themselves.
Sitcom refers to situational comedy. This sub genre incorporates characters who discover unusual situations resulting in confusion and chaos acting as the funny bone of the plot.
These situations will be placed in a consistent and familiar setting. The setting stays the same but the situations are always different and seemingly unending.
The Simpsons, Seinfeld and Friends are some of the most famous sitcom examples. All have the same settings throughout their many series. The characters in The Simpsons don’t even change their clothes. But each episode has a different conundrum to deal with.
This sub genre uses the design of another genre as the drive of comedy and the structure of the plot. It is specifically aping a documentary format in order to make the characters and situation seem believable. This believability is often intended to make the subject feel more real and therefore the comedy more acute and effective.
Sometimes the format feels perfect in how it makes the comedy more effective. Whilst sometimes it feels like a stylistic affectation. Always question the exact comedic function of a Mokumentary format before potentially employing one in your own screenplay.
The screenplays of this genre consist of stirring stories of criminal gangs, investigations and criminal legislative conflicts.
Crime in film and TV may not always illustrate protagonists as heroic or morally correct. The line of distinction between good and bad often merges to show crime from different viewpoints.
Heist movies and narratives are popular by dint of the tense development of the plot. The characters are involved in executing theft of a valuable item or large amounts of money. The tension is usually inherent in whether or not they will pull this off.
This sub genre is usually preoccupied with criminal legal cases for the majority of the screenplay.
Moreover, the story often consists of all major instances situated in a court room. The primary focus is often the specifics of the case as it is worked out in court.
3. Police Procedural
This sub genre focuses on the different stages of a crime and its investigation. The story usually consists of police officers navigating through the criminal act committed and the actions taken by the legislative system.
The crowd puller of screenplays of this sub genre is the representation of organised crime. This is often centred from the viewpoint of a member of a gang.
Not only does this sub genre recognise gangs as dangerous but it also represents the characters as relatable to the audience. It doesn’t just seek to represent gangs as menacing but seeks to represent the characters as human, often trapped within the downfalls of gang life.
Detective screenplays can often be confused with the Police Procedural sub genre. However, a key difference is that private or government investigators carry out the investigation instead of cops.
This sub genre will often paint the detective as a complicated individual, a protagonist who the audience is on the side of because of their flaws as much as their strengths.
The focus is often on the characters, or on complex themes as much as it is on the literal mechanics of the crime at hand. It’s not just about finding out what happened in this crime, it’s about the journey of discovery.
This genre pivots around emotion. Dramatic screenplays gain insight from real human experiences and situations.
Indeed this genre intends to engage with audiences by using an intense, subtle plot instead of comedic or adventurous segments.
The Melodramatic sub genre in film and TV uses intense social situations among characters. The plot usually builds over events that are relatively common in real life.
But the drama is intended to appeal to the emotions, rather than going in heavy on characterisation. Melodramas often concentrate on over the top or excessively sentimental dialogue, rather than on internal conflict.
Medical dramas are based on the lives of medical professionals. The plot pivots around the relationship among the medical staff at hospitals and the emotional rollercoaster that their jobs take them on.
3. Teen/Coming of Age
Teen dramas usually occupy high school setting to present the lives of teenagers. These screenplays depict the challenges that adolescents face and the differences in each character’s situation.
This drama could also be called ‘Coming of Age’. However, the difference is that a ‘Coming of Age’ drama isn’t always necessarily focused around teenagers.
A legal drama pivots around the characters working within the legislative system. However, legal dramas differ from courtroom crime screenplays due to the deflection of emphasis from the crime.
Docudramas use a suitably dramatised plot to depict real life events. Akin to documentaries, the stories depicted in docudramas are true but recreated.
Period dramas include emotional circumstances and relationships shown in historical settings. Although, this sub genre often uses fictional plots, it may be influenced by events and people in real life.
Political dramas are based on events that take place in political environments. The plot revolves around the decisions and implications of the people in authority in different levels of governments.
A film like The Ides of March depict this sub genre fittingly.
This genre consists of fictional plots with supernatural elements. The characters may draw from people in real life encountering relatively relatable situations.
However, the use of magical and mystical elements in fantasy screenplays is what makes the genre.
Contemporary fantasy screenplays usually include a supernatural plotline based in a modern time period.
2. High Fantasy
High fantasy screenplays are based in mystical settings within a medieval time period. The plot usually includes magical creatures and other supernatural elements.
Furthermore, there is usually a clear good and evil distinction among characters. The Lord of the Rings film series fittingly reflects the features of this sub genre.
Bangsian fantasy screenplays are set in the after life. The plot pivots around characters meeting in the afterlife.
This often includes religious experiences from the character’s perspective. These characters will also often be well-known historical or literary figures.
4. Sword and Sorcery
This sub genre can be confused with high fantasy. However, sword and sorcery screenplays are more plot driven and less character and theme driven. They will often be relatively simplistic in their drive, the protagonist seeking to overthrow an evil overlord by defeating them in battle, for example.
Dark fantasy screenplays are known to include frightening supernatural elements. This sub genre builds around a dark and gloomy tone. Moreover, this tone will often be suggestive of a sophisticated subtext.
This genre draws from challenges and experiences faced in romantic relationships. These screenplays are usually constructed on the ideas of love and intimacy.
Romantic screenplays majorly emphasise the emotional experiences of the characters.
Epic romances refer to romantic screenplays based in a historical period. Consequently, these screenplays incorporate the struggles in the relationship of the lead characters. This may include war and tragedy as a challenging aspect to the romance.
A paranormal romance includes the supernatural alongside human emotion. This sub genre presents an unusual romantic tale between two characters.
A fitting example of this sub genre is the Twilight Saga which presents romantic relationships consisting of humans, vampires and werewolves. Furthermore, The Time Traveller’s Wife uses time travel to amp up the stakes of a romantic relationship.
4. Romantic Thriller
Romantic thrillers include screenplays that majorly build around a romantic story but include engaging, action based sequences. This comprises of suspenseful and intense segments occurring within and around a romantic relationship.
5. Romantic Drama
Romantic dramas portray the complex emotions occurring in a romantic context. This sounds straightforward. But of course it rarely is.
The focus of this sub genre is squarely on the trials and tribulations of a romantic relationship. This can include obstacles and hardships that the characters face in their relationship.
The experimental genre refers to screenplays which do not follow the demarcation lines of tradition in terms of form or genre. Experimental screenplays can vary in motives and are known to have unconventional designs.
Absurdist screenplays accommodate a theme and characters that suggest no clear purpose to life. This may include dark humour and indulging in existential questions. An example of an absurdist screenplay is Zelig.
A surrealist film is intended to be boundless. Moreover, the plotlines and segments in this sub genre are often construed as irrational and unusual in a way that challenges reality.
Horror screenplays comprise of frightening and gory segments and have the characters in constant peril. This genre intends to have a heart pounding impact on the audience too. No one is safe.
This sub genre includes vivid imagery of slaughter and gore. Consequently, these screenplays depict scenes of torture and the vulnerability the characters have to the horrifying events.
The appeal of this sub genre often feels perverse. The audience wants to see the characters suffer in imaginative and gruesome ways.
Monster horror screenplays consist of horrifying creatures and beasts. However, the fright among the audience is induced by the gory appearance and colossal violent damage caused by the monstrous creature.
These screenplays use witchcraft, spiritualism and voodoo as the elements evoking horror. Consequently, this sub genre comprises of the theme of hidden knowledge and power in these supernatural elements.
5. Found Footage
This sub genre consists of preexisting footage containing usually paranormal or supernatural episodes. It will be presented as footage found by an unseen objective perspective.
The supposed reality of the events in these films is in large part what is so terrifying.
This sub genre consists of unsettling and horrifying elements by means of mental and emotional unrest. Moreover, these screenplays manipulate the psychological vulnerabilities of the audience to evoke a fearful reaction.
This sub genre includes the spirits and of souls of the dead. Jump scares, mysterious presences, terrifying briefly glimpsed figures – these are some common features of this sub genre.
Ghosts in movies can manifest in a hugely varying number of ways. But the dead are haunting the living. This is is the basic and consistent premise.
This genre consists of stories based in a historical setting. However, historical films and TV shows can depict historical events in a real or fictional storyline. There can be stories with a fictional theme and plot but with actual historical events catalysing the unfolding of the plot.
A biopic tells the life story of a historically relevant, often famous person. Moreover, the detailed account about the subject is usually not given directly by them. The real name and life events of the central character is used.
Some of the action may be fictional but the beats hit tell the story of the character’s life.
2. Alternate History
This sub genre depicts alternative outcomes from popular historical events. This often enables the liberal manipulation of details in the plot.
Biblical screenplays incorporate plotlines set in biblical times. Despite the influence of the Bible for the historical structure, the use of scriptures may not be translated to the rest of the plot. The Bible serves as inspiration if not always directly.
A historical epic contains an account of a major historical event. These films include wars and events which had long term effects and consequences, often including famous historical figures.
They will tell a sweeping tale in terms of time covered, history covered and events depicted.
5. Historical Fiction
Screenplays of this sub genre take place in a specific historical time period. However, there is a flexibility towards the accuracy of the historical details. The broad strokes may be right but often characters will be fictional, amalgamated from real figures or placed in fictional situations.
Science fiction screenplays largely incorporate extrapolation of scientific advancement. However, this genre may include plotlines with either the downfall or upliftment of mankind due to technological sophistication.
This could consist of biological, mechanical or outer space elements.
1. Space Opera
Space operas incorporate screenplays with a dramatic setting in space. This includes interstellar travel and adventure. In fact, many space operas contain wars and romantic segments occurring in space.
This sub genre consists of the journey and consequences faced by characters in and after an apocalyptic event. The protagonists in these landscapes are usually survivors of the apocalypse.
3. Future Noir
Future noir screenplays usually revolve around the downfall of mankind and society, with technology as the central cause.
Unlike the majority of the sub genres in science fiction, these screenplays emphasise the establishment of peace and accord in the world. Furthermore, the plotlines in this sub genre can vary according to the screenwriter’s view of an ideal society. Examples of utopian screenplays include Tomorrowland and The Giver.
Military science fiction comprises of characters in the armed forces facing a technologically advanced time and enemy. Consequently, this sub genre depicts the struggles of the soldiers in combat with an advanced race or technology.
This sub genre features technological advancement in a dystopian world. The tech might have advanced but the society has not. The styles of this sub genre can be differentiated according to the aspect of technological progress.
These may include Steampunk with industrial headway, Cyberpunk with cybernetic enhancement or Biopunk with biotechnological sophistication. Design will play a crucial part in the look and feel of this future world.
The Western genre is typically structured within the Old West setting. This refers to a screenplay set in the 19th century American West.
Furthermore, the plot emphasises the struggles of living and surviving the harsh landscape of the American West. Hence the plot may include crime, war and survival in a wild frontier.
Epic Westerns take the basic genre elements and tell them on a large scale. This will usually include a plotline based on events occurring over a long period of time or in a turbulent era, such as that of a war.
In contradiction to outlaw Western screenplays, this sub genre focuses on a lawful protagonist. In fact, a running theme in marshal western films is the story of a marshal attempting to punish an outlaw or find justice.
Am example of this sub genre would be The Lone Ranger.
Empire Western screenplays consist of the building of a business empire despite challenges from external factors. Hence this sub genre revolves around a rags to riches narrative arc.
This is uniquely tied to the context in the way it portrays this part of American history – frontiersman venturing into new territory in new ways to discover new wealth.
There Will Be Blood fittingly illustrates this sub genre.
As suggested by the title, the plotlines in these screenplays revolve around seeking vengeance. The plot is relatively simple in this regard, following the protagonist‘s attempt to enact (or perhaps evade) vengeance.
This sub genre emphasises heritage. Spaghetti Western screenplays were typically produced by Italian filmmakers, spearheaded by Sergio Leone in the 1960’s. Hence, the name of the sub genre is explained by its foundation.
Revisionist Westerns present a challenging tone towards the traditional Western narrative. Furthermore, the characters in this sub genre consist of a sardonic attitude and attempt to contradict the aims and agendas of traditional Westerns.
There is a moral ambiguity to the characters and a cynical eye cast on the traditional heroic depictions of the typical Western setting and characters.
This sub genre is centred around the crimes and lives of characters living outside the law. Outlaw Western films often depict these characters in a sympathetic light.
Whilst they might be criminals, outlaws often have a moral compass that makes them more sympathetic than the supposed straight laced characters they go up against, who in reality are often in fact more deceitful.
An example of this sub genre would be The Magnificent Seven.
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This article was written by Jahnvi Saluja and edited by IS Staff.