Erik Bork on Finding the Right Genre
Guest blogger Erik Bork is best known for his work as a writer-producer on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon – for which he won two Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards. He has also written pilots and screenplays on assignment for many of the major networks and studios, as well as teaching, consulting, and blogging about writing with a strong Save the Cat! perspective. His keen thinking is on display at www.flyingwrestler.com. Towards the end of the blog, there’s a link to Eric’s modified list of Blake’s Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies genre categories. Do you agree with his additions?
Blake Snyder’s 10 “genres” and 50 “subgenres” in his Save the Cat!® books are my single favorite tool for screenwriters. I have long believed that studying this system of story types, and making sure each script you write clearly fits within one of them, is one of the most important and helpful decisions a writer can make.
It seems to me that pretty much every good and successful movie does have the key elements of one of these 10 genres, and really squarely fits within one of them. When I see movie trailers, or read loglines of scripts that sold, or just go to the movies, I constantly see endless new variations on these. And it’s usually crystal clear which type of story is on offer.
When I read scripts that I think have significant conceptual issues (which is pretty normal), one of the key problems is virtually always that there is not a clear, compelling, and difficult enough story problem and goal for the audience to get behind. And that’s what these 10 genres offer — 10 specific types of viable story problems and goals which have worked over and over again, in all the best movies, with near infinite potential variations.
We writers tend to resist “formulas,” and rightly so. But we also know that some stories work and some don’t — meaning, some basic story concepts seem to be able to engage an audience enthusiastically, and some don’t. To me, understanding the reasons for this is key to learning how to create ones that do. And I know of no other, handier system for thinking about what kind of story you’re really trying to tell, and what great movies from the past also fit the same tradition. (I know it probably sounds like the Save the Cat! people are paying me to say this, but I swear they aren’t!)
On this website, there’s a handy chart breaking down each of the genres and subgenres, with lists of titles that Blake felt fit within each type, plus the three main criteria for a story in each genre. For instance, the genre he calls “Dude with a Problem” always focuses on an “Innocent Hero,” who, after a “Sudden Event,” finds themselves engaged in a “Live and Death Battle” — that takes the whole rest of the movie to resolve. As in Die Hard, The Bourne Identity or, in a very different subgenre, Apollo 13.
For the top listed title under each subgenre, Blake also offered a full “beat sheet” for the movie in his great reference book Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies.
Since Mr. Snyder is no longer with us, I have taken the liberty of adding more titles to this master chart, as they occur to me — including newer movies that have come out since his passing, such as Bridesmaids, The Hangover, Twilight, Enchanted, An Education, Temple Grandin, and Up.
So check out my modified version of this pdf, where you’ll see little “sticky notes” under most of the subgenres, containing additional titles that to me, show how these genres continue to power the most popular and best-loved stories that make it to theaters. (Hovering over the sticky note icons should be enough to reveal the additional titles.)
And of course, feel free to comment if you disagree on where I place certain titles!
- Paul Yoshida
Thanks, Erik. Where do you think a revenge movie, like Kill Bill, fits?
- Erik Bork
I would say KILL BILL is a Golden Fleece, though I think it’s rare that “revenge-only” motivations really work for a mass audience. Usually there’s also some other “prize” like in THE STING or OCEANS 11 (both “Caper Fleeces”). Or else a larger cause that serves others, as in the Superhero genre…
- Jeff McMahon
Very comprehensive – but you realise you have made me consider a re-write, AGAIN!. Ah well, isn’t that the name of the game?
- Marcio de Lemos
Indeed, genre should be at the base of every scriptwriters decision on what story he/she wants to tell. Now, some films are difficult to fit within the 10 genres and 50 subgenres. As for example, Lost in Translation. A simple and very successful story at the time, mostly because of the cast as everyone talked about then. But where do you think it would fit? I like to say Rites of Passage, but since the story is so subtle there isn’t much growth through pain there. What do you think?
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Right on bro. Thanks for the additions and clarifications.