Part I: Construction

2. What Is Genre and How Is It Determined?

Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language defines genre as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”5

In other words, genre categorizes movies. Categorizing movies makes it easier for the viewer to discover what he or she likes and will want to see. Putting a movie into a particular genre or category does not diminish the quality of the movie by assuming that if it can be put into a genre, the movie is ordinary and lacks originality and creativity.

Genre consists of four elements or parts: character, story, plot and setting. An equation for remembering the genre is: Story (Action) + Plot + Character + Setting = Genre. This becomes an easy way to remember the elements of a genre.

The above elements of story, plot, setting, and character equal a specific category of movie. These elements are discussed regarding how their variations create a different category of movie.

Some genres may be as general as comedy but do not have sub-genres like comedy. The sub-genres of comedy differ from one another based on the fluctuations of the characters and the story.

Other genres are crime, war, Westerns, spy, adventure, science fiction, horror, fantasy, biography, and mystery. This is why this chapter is longer than the others because of the discussion of these variations.

Drama can be considered a genre, even though some critics do not consider it a genre because it is too general. If the movie elements are serious and cannot fit into a more limited genre, then it can be considered a drama.

Categorizing a movie indirectly assists in shaping the characters and the story of the movie. The shaping determines the plot and best setting to use.

Movies often have genres that overlap, such as adventure in a spy movie, or crime in a science fiction movie. But one genre is predominant.

Other movie labels cannot be considered genres. Film noir, thrillers, and action movies are not actually genres but a director’s style, which will be discussed in a later chapter. They are considered director’s style because their characteristics include cinematography and editing, which are not among the four elements that make up a genre. These labels reflect or accentuate the movie genre rather than defining the genre.

Likewise, musicals and animation are not considered genres but rather “treatments” as to how a particular movie genre is told, even though people, over generations, refer to these types of movies as genres.

You have to be very specific in the discussion of movie terminology, sticking within the particular definition of the terms. Some people will say that genres are labels that are given to stock movies, stating that these movies are routine. Being labeled in a genre is not a negative action.

Movies have their own personalities. Each movie is different. Having a movie labeled in a genre assists people to find a particular movie that they may be interested in watching. Many people like a specific genre or two and will only watch movies in those genres.

What People Like the Most about a Movie

People will state that a particular movie had a good plot or an intriguing story. What people are actually referring to is that they enjoyed the characters, the problems/conflict the characters got into, and how the characters got out of the problems and conflict.

People love a movie because they like to watch characters/people. How many people do you know who like to go to the mall, plaza, or beach and state that they like to people watch? How many people are nosey neighbors because they like to watch what is going on with the people around them?

People may like to watch crime movies or Westerns. They like characters within this particular type of story because of the amount of action or the time period setting. People may like Westerns because they wish they lived in the 19th century because it was considered a simpler time.

Let the Genres Begin

We will begin to discuss the different genres, and even the sub-genres, for certain genre types. I will give a hypothetical example of each so you will begin to see how different genres are formed.

Keep in mind with movie genre, it is the characters that make the movie, and this term is obvious enough that no explanation is needed.

The story is the situation that the characters are in and try to get out of, accomplish, conquer, or overcome. The story has a beginning, middle, and end. More discussion about those will be given in Chapter Three.

The plot is the outline or how the story is told. Remember when people state that they did not like the plot? What they are referring to is that they did not like the story. I will be referring to this concept over and over again throughout the book.

There are only a limited number of plots as the plot is a general outline for a story, like revenge. A particular plot describes how a story will begin, develop, and end. This type of story will have a different format than a plot such as man against nature or man versus the government.

In addition, as we progress through genres, we want to examine how the genre elements change.

You will be able to see that the background and actions of the characters change as the type of stories are different. The setting is dependent upon the story, but the plot remains the same.

I want to stress that we are going through the different genres so character and story development can be seen for each of the genres rather than just giving a general overview of the term genre. I want you to see how only certain elements are contained in a genre, and other elements outside of character, story, plot, and setting are not part of determining a genre.

Comedy Genre

We begin by discussing one of the most popular, general, and complicated genres—comedy.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines comedy simply as “a play, movie, television program, novel, etc., that is meant to make people laugh.”6 We will discuss comedy in a little more detail than that.

Everybody likes a comedy because everybody likes to laugh and feel good. People like to watch a comedy after a bad day, because once the movie has ended, you can deal with the negativity of the day easier. This is why even horrendous comedy movies can end up making a profit.

The characters and story for a comedy hinge on three areas: the unexpected, the unusual, and repetition. These three areas will generally make people laugh. Generally, a comedy will have a happy ending. Even though some people will deny it, everybody likes a happy ending because it makes them feel good. This is why comedies are so popular.

The complicated part of the comedy genre is that there are different types or sub-genres of comedy; depending upon how outrageous and impossible the characters and story are in the movie. Keep in mind that the plot is general, and the setting can be set in any time or any place.

We will discuss the comedy genre in terms of the different sub-genres of comedies and how the characters and story vary per sub-genre.

Comedies run a gamut, ranging from very physical to nonsensical to subtle to dark. We will discuss the sub-genres in that order, using the same hypothetical example but varying it to show how the different comedy sub-genres will change the characters’ personalities and actions and the story.

The sub-genres of comedy are slapstick, farce, satire, and dark. Any other genres are a variation of these four types. Comedy is actually a variation of physical action and ridicule. The only exception is screwball comedy.

Screwball comedy has many different traits that are outside of a genre. Screwball comedy, because it existed during the Great Depression, contains class conflict between the middle and lower classes and the upper class, along with other peculiarities that only existed during that time period.

Finally, “chick flicks” are generally comedy movies that star women. The Urban Dictionary defines chick flicks as “A film that indulges in the hopes and dreams of women and/or girls and has a happy, fuzzy, ridiculously unrealistic ending.” No doubt the concept of chick flicks goes back to what was previously mentioned; people like a particular type of movie because of the characters in the movie.

Slapstick Comedy

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines slapstick as comedy that involves physical action (such as falling down or hitting people).7 Slapstick comedy, because of the physical action, which becomes extreme at times, has unrealistic characters in an unbelievable story or possibly a story linked together by episodes of the main character’s/protagonist’s life.

The plot is an inner conflict that builds and ends with these various comedic episodes. The setting can be any time or place that best exemplifies the comic antics that the characters go through.

Let’s take a look at an example that demonstrates these elements.

Jack is down on his luck. He helps a girl, Suzie, whose car broke down near where Jack works. He helps her, and then she leaves, but he cannot get her out of his mind.

Then he sees her in one of his classes. He is afraid to talk to her though. Every time he tries to go up to her, he either stumbles and falls or gets involved with helping someone with disastrous consequences. The last time someone asked him to hold onto one of the ropes of the theatre rigging system where the backdrops were attached, too many stage weights attached to the rigging resulted in Jack flying into the air because he did not let go of the rope.

As luck always has it in a slapstick comedy, Suzie is still driving the old broken down car. She breaks down again in almost the same locations as last time. Jack swallowed what little pride he had left, and went to help her. He got her car started, but she did not drive away immediately after getting it fixed but stayed to talk to Jack. They talk, kiss, and accidentally turn the outside sprinkler system on, getting soaking wet in the romantic conclusion.

From this example, you can see that slapstick comedy is all about the characters and the episodic situations that they get into, resulting in physical comedy. The plot is inner conflict where Jack, the protagonist, wants to turn his life around. This then becomes the story. The story has a climax between Jack and Suzie. The setting is a college campus.


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines farce as “a funny play or movie about ridiculous situations and events.”8

Plot has more prominence in farce than in slapstick because there is a satirical story. In other words, the story concerns a topic that is ridiculed in an extreme way. We can adjust the last example quite easily to demonstrate this.

Jack and Suzie are college students, and Alec is a well-known actor coming to the campus to play a role in the theatrical production at the college. This event has been arranged so the college theatre department can make money. Jack takes a dislike to Alec, but Suzie finds him fascinating. Alec finds himself fascinating. Slapstick is shown by the over-the-top acting that Alec does.

Jack has a difficult time wondering why Alec is famous. Suzie soon finds disenchantment with Alec because he is only concerned about himself. Jack and Suzie and the other theatre majors decide to take the actions of the play to the extreme to humiliate and humble Alec.

In a water scene, where Alec is supposed to pantomime having water thrown on him, real water is used. This drives Alec into a hysterical rage, and he chases Jack and Suzie on stage, off the stage, around the theatre, and out the theatre doors. Alec winds up accidently knocking himself unconscious. Jack states that the most natural acting that Alec has done is being knocked out.

Next, Jack develops a hair-brained scheme so the theatre department can make money. Jack and Suzie make a list of the wealthiest men and women in the area. They invite as many of these wealthy people in the area to participate in an auction. There will be five male winners and five female winners. The prize is that they win Jack and Suzie for a day to act as their slaves.

You can see that a farce has more of a story than slapstick comedy. The plot has an inner conflict of the protagonists, Jack and Suzie, needing money. This creates a story where college theatre students try outrageous ways to make money to save the theatre department. The story ridicules colleges, actors, and theatres in general. The actions of the characters are very slapstick with physical comedy throughout the movie.


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines satire as “a way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, bad, etc.: humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc.”9

Satire is subtler than farce or slapstick in the actions of the characters. The plot develops an inner conflict, but the story is more realistic and may, at times, not even appear to be a comedy.

In this example, the setting can remain as a college campus.

Jack and Suzie, once again, are college students. Alec, though, is the instructor, who has a drinking problem, and he is directing a class that Jack and Suzie have to take as a requirement of their theatre major. Alec tries to convince the students that there is no right or wrong way to direct, act, or design. In his mind, theatre is all done with emotion. If it feels right, then do it. In order to help them understand and develop their talents as directors, Alec gives the same answer to any question Jack and Suzie ask: “If it feels right, then do it.”

Jack struggles to try and comprehend what Alec’s statement means. He does not understand why he has to go through four years of college if he just has to recognize what feels right. Jack asks Alec for more of a discussion on what feels right. Alec then tells him, “You’ll know.” This frustrates Jack even more because it does not take four years in college to put to use nine words that do not mean anything specific in regard to studying theatre. He questions the college administration as to why they are paying so much for Alec. The college administration retorts that Alec is one of the best in his field. Jack states that Alec teaches absolutely nothing of any value. The administration states, “That shows how good he is; you do not even realize the education you are receiving.”

Defeated, Jack goes to see Suzie, his last hope. Suzie tells him not to be too quick to judge. Suzie states that she believes she understands what Alec is driving at with his ideas. Suzie tries to demonstrate the statements that Alec has mentioned. After a few hours Suzie becomes frustrated and states the both of them must go to see Alec.

After two hours with Alec, Jack and Suzie are delirious. Being delirious, they finally fathom what Alec means. They both run out of Alec’s house and down the street shouting, “We have identified what it is!”

From this discussion of the characters and story, physical actions do not enter as a predominant element that they do in straight slapstick or farce. The satire is an obvious ridicule of theatre as a major and the type of people in theatre.

A more subtle satire would be Jack and Suzie acting as a clique and by being prima donnas. They mock a new theatre major, Alec, who wants to do a good job. Alec starts to develop his talent under strenuous and often humorous situations with consequences to the amazement of Jack and Suzie. But then he realizes what he has to give up for it. He quits for his own self-respect.

The above are two demonstrations of satire.

The first example, depending on the treatment, could become either a farce, if Jack’s, Suzie’s, or Alec’s actions become too outrageous, exaggerated, and over-the-top, or it could become a satire. The line of demarcation between farce and satire are, as with anything that is analytical, left up to an individual’s judgment. When does extreme satire become farce? A good way to judge farce or satire is how much unrealistic physical comedy is in the movie.

Dark Comedy or Black Comedy defines dark humor or black comedy as “in literature and drama, combining the morbid and grotesque with humor and farce to give a disturbing effect and convey the absurdity and cruelty of life.”10 11

Dark humor and black comedy are terms that make fun of or ridicule taboo topics like death. The characters are involved in a story that goes to the point of being grotesque and not being funny.

With this example of a college theatre as the setting, and the plot being the inner conflict of the main character, how can the characters and story become absurd, morbid, and grotesque when discussing the taboo topic of death? Quite easily actually!

Insecure about his acting ability and visibly showing this in public auditions, Jack does not obtain the role on stage that he desires, Henry V or “Hank 5,” which is Jack’s nickname for him. In order to relieve himself of his frustrations, Jack tortures and kills everyone who receives this part in the most brutally visual ways imaginable. He does this in hopes of eventually receiving this specific coveted role. Jack, though, is the only one who believes this role is so desirable and sought after.

Jack kills the first person who is given the role, Alec, by drawing and quartering him before he hangs him.

The second person to be given the role is Suzie, which really angers and infuriates Jack that a woman would get the role before him. This action adds absurdity to the story.

This is a dark humor movie rather than a serious movie because of the reasons, background, and extreme actions in the story. The characters act realistically based on their personalities, which are all unusual. The physical action is real so this scenario cannot be considered slapstick.

Screwball Comedy

This comedy sub-genre is named after a baseball pitch, the screwball, which was perfected by baseball pitcher Carl Hubbell in the 1930s. Screwball comedy only lasted from 1934, when the Great Depression was in full swing, to 1941, when World War II began.

Screwball comedy was based on reverse class snobbery where it is more noble to be poor than rich. The rich were portrayed as eccentric and wasteful fools. Romance is one of the key elements of screwball comedy. With the two classes of upper and lower or middle class working together, screwball comedies can be considered as recommending socialism. The story is a little different, but overall, it can be considered within the realm of satire because the current society was being ridiculed.

Screwball comedy also had the following attributes:

  • The poor and middle class would go to the movies to see the rich get their comeuppance. This is why movies were one of the few industries of the period that made a profit. People felt a passion of hate toward the upper class because of the mess lower classes assumed the upper class made of the economy.
  • Many of the most famous movie stars of the period appeared in screwball comedies.
  • People went to the movies to see the elegant clothes, cars, and furniture, so they could wish they had those items.

Any referral to a movie as a screwball comedy after 1941 is inaccurate, even if it is a re-make of a movie released during the 1934-1941 period. A re-make does not have the same relevancy, power, or passion as the original movie.

A contemporary screwball-type comedy generally is fast paced with an eccentric character, but it does not have the class snobbery. Any class snobbery in the movie does not have the contemptable hatred toward the upper class as it did these movies during the Great Depression. The emotional rage cannot be duplicated.

Romantic Comedy defines romantic comedy as “a light and humorous movie, play, etc., whose central plot is a happy love story.”12

Romantic comedy is contained in most comedies as a sub-story, such as The Front Page, which has an underlying romantic story of Hildy wanting to marry his fiancée and leave newspaper reporting. However, the overriding story of the movie concerns reporters and editors doing anything in order to get the story.

Comic romance is a big element in screwball comedy also, but other story lines are more dominant. Can you think of a movie that has the primary story line as being a romantic relationship? If you can, how did you like the movie?

Comedy Conclusion

Comedy is varied and complex. You can see how the stories, along with the personalities and actions of the characters, change, developing different sub-genres of the comedy being expressed. All comedy stems from either slapstick or satire.

Let’s move on to a new genre.

Crime Genre

Staying with the letter “C,” let’s move on to the crime genre.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines crime as “an act or the commission of an act that is forbidden or the omission of a duty that is commanded by a public law and that makes the offender liable to punishment by that law” or more simply “a grave offense especially against morality.”13 The definition gives us a lot to work with, so we will do our best to bring it into focus.

The first point is that every aspect of the crime genre is dramatic, so the elements are quite different than a comedy. The setting for crime genre can be any location in the world and any year, because crime is something that has always existed in society. We will try to narrow this down for our example.

The plot is an inner conflict for the criminal to succeed or for the “good guy” to succeed. The story is a series of developing incidents where the criminal or the “good guy” is the protagonist and a conflict has to be overcome. The characters develop from the story and plot.

Let’s demonstrate two examples with Jack being the protagonist in both situations. In the first situation, Jack is a criminal and the second one Jack is the “good guy.”

First situation: Jack is a nice, helpful individual at the beginning of the movie. He soon finds that he has to help a friend, Suzie, get out of a jam because she owes a lot of money to a gambling boss, Alec. Jack goes and begins to negotiate honestly in regard to paying Suzie’s debt. Alec laughs at him and is going to throw him out. Jack, even though he is a nice guy, has a very bad temper. This often is the situation in the crime genre. Jack becomes extremely angry with Alec laughing at him, and he kills Alec.

Alec’s men come in and Jack tells them he is their new boss. The men don’t like it, but they reserve any action for a later time. Suzie likes the new Jack and wants to be his girl. Suzie is aroused by the violence in Jack and cannot keep her hands off him.

Jack soon becomes more successful than Alec ever was, but he begins to become too egotistical. With his ego getting in the way, Jack makes a mistake when trying to take over a gambling casino. Jack is killed and the men kill Suzie. The most jealous, vindictive, right-hand man in the gang takes over the gambling empire.

Stories in the crime genre are often about people seeking power. Usually, the criminals want control over the city where the story takes place. Generally, they want to be in charge of the drug trade, gambling, liquor (depending upon the year), or they want to rise up in the family or gang. There are always periods of violent action with the protagonist trying to reach his/her goal.

Second situation: Jack is a police detective in a large city like New York City or Los Angeles. Jack is a hardworking, honest detective. He is dedicated to his job and his partner, Alec. Jack spends most of his free time with Alec and Alec’s family. Alec is murdered. Even though he wasn’t put on the case, because they were partners and friends, Jack spends his free time investigating who murdered Alec. During his investigation he meets Suzie. Suzie knew Alec and considered him a friend. Suzie asks if she can help with looking into the murder. Jack, after some convincing, agrees.

Suzie and Jack start to become close during the investigation, and Jack falls in love with her. This is often a foreshadowing as to how the story is going to end. After a few dead ends and blocked paths in the investigation, Jack picks up some information that leads him down an unsuspected path. Jack finds that Suzie was a little more than a friend to Alec, so Suzie has an ulterior motive for assisting Jack. Jack discovers that Suzie murdered Alec and was going to kill Jack, too. Jack arrests Suzie for Alec’s murder.

These are the elements and formats of the crime genre. The crime can be different than murder. Crimes encompass a wide variety of different actions. The main characters do not have to be crime bosses or police detectives, but they generally have a similar background. Very seldom do they lead a life like a factory worker or office employee. This is one reason why the crime genre is so popular. People want to watch characters that lead exciting lives different from theirs.

The stories in the crime genre are similar to the aforementioned two examples where the crime is more than a speeding ticket and provides an interesting and exciting story. The plot can be an inner conflict, once again, of the protagonist, and the setting is usually in the United States or Europe in modern times.

Western Genre

Because of the similarities between the Western and crime genres, I have included back-to-back discussions of the two genres.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Western simply as “of or relating to the American West.”14 Keeping this in mind, we will begin by discussing the setting.

The setting provides the major difference between the crime genre and the Western genre. Instead of the characters and story occurring in the 1930s or the 1990s, the time for a Western is in the early to late 19th century or anytime through the 1820s to 1890s. Once the 20th century arrives, except for the beginning years, the feeling of the Old West is gone, which brings up the other aspect of the setting that defines the Western genre. The Western genre takes place in the West. Depending upon the year, the West could be Ohio in the 1820s, Missouri in the 1850s, or Nevada in the 1880s.

The main character or protagonist is an individualist, who rides into town for a specific reason, or he may run into trouble while in town, or he may be hired to do something like blaze a trail West. The characters and the stories are straightforward. The interest is the developing story and the action-filled problems that the protagonist faces as he tries to accomplish what he set out to do.

The plot can still be one of inner conflict as the protagonist tries to accomplish the specific goal, quell the trouble in town, or overcome the obstacles of nature as the main character blazes the trail West.

An example of the Western genre has Jack being the individualist, loner riding into town. He has come to town to avenge the death of his partner. Outside of the setting, the same type of character and story could be used in the crime genre. While Jack begins to ask questions about what happened to his partner, he falls into the middle of a range war; a typical Western story, between two ranches over the grazing rights of land. Alec owns the one ranch, and Suzie (a woman) owns the other, which is a rarity in the West.

Jack gets to know Suzie as his inquiries continue. He begins a relationship with her. During the relationship, Jack gives Suzie a helping hand in the range war. Alec is totally evil, underhanded, and despicable in his actions. Westerns, even more contemporary ones, have an outright bad person like Alec. You can see this in crime genre movies also.

Jack defeats Alec in the range war, and in the process, finds that Alec also killed Jack’s partner. In the Old West, there can only be one climax to the story. Jack and Alec shoot it out; Alec is killed, and Jack and Suzie fall in love.

War Genre

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines war as “a state or period of fighting between countries or groups.”15 With this definition being direct, we can discuss the genre in the same manner. The war genre is straightforward because the movie is very limited in its parameters.

The setting and the year is very specific regarding the year and the location. If the movie takes place from the United States’ perspective, World War I would be from 1917 to 1918; World War II would be from 1941 to 1945; and the Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, Desert Storm, and other Middle East conflicts follow the same procedure. The locations would be an area where the war occurred or in the United States to concentrate on how the home front was coping.

The plot is the inner conflict with dealing with war. The characters and story are based on a battle, trying to obtain overall victory at some point of the war, dealing with losing, dealing with death, dealing with fighting, being a prisoner, or coping at the home front or a location where the fighting is not taking place.

World War II encompasses the war genre. Jack is a soldier, who is a married teacher with two children. He is drafted by the United States shortly after World War II started late in 1941. Jack was told by his wife, Suzie, not to volunteer for any extra missions so he could come home alive to his family when the war is over. Of course, this is not going to be true because a war movie has to have a daring mission.

After being in Europe for about a year and losing many battles, Jack becomes frustrated because he knows the war is not going to end soon. Suzie dreads each day because of the emptiness in her life without Jack. To her, each day never appears to end. She is stressed because she has a continuous challenge to make ends meet.

Jack and seven other men are given a chance to go on a dangerous mission to blow up a German stronghold and capture a high-ranking German officer. These men are asked to go on this mission because of their intelligence and personalities. If they succeed in this mission, the war will likely be over quicker than expected, because of the information they will receive from this German officer. Jack remembers that his wife told him never to volunteer, but he knows he only has once choice. He volunteers. Suzie gets a feeling of foreboding and is suddenly afraid something bad is going to happen. She starts to become distant to her friends and even her children.

Jack goes on the mission. Everything is timed perfectly. The fortress is blown up and the German officer is captured. However, the trip back to the Allied lines did not go as planned. Half the men are killed, Jack is wounded, and the German officer is killed.

Suzie’s feeling of foreboding becomes so great that, at one point, she passes out with anxiety. The Christmas holidays are near, and Suzie is persuaded to take the children to church. As the service begins, Jack walks into the church and joins Suzie and the children. The story ends happily, but with a cost. In order to give the story a more realistic feel, the protagonist is not totally successful with what he had set out to do.

Spy Genre

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines spy as “to watch secretly usually for hostile purposes” or “to search or look for intensively.”16 I want to give two short definitions to emphasize the spy genre because it is a combination of watching and searching, but I do not want it to get confused with the next genre of adventure.

The spy genre sounds like it could cross over to the previous genres already discussed. But only the setting and the plot can be standard. The setting could be the same as the war, Western, or crime genres, but it does not make it a war, Western, or crime genre. You have to remember that the story makes the genre because it controls everything else.

In the spy genre, the main character generally works under an assumed identity in order to find something or destroy something of harm controlled by a nemesis. As in past genres, the plot is the inner conflict of the protagonist. In this situation, he or she has a strong inner conflict to succeed at what he or she is assigned to act upon.

Thus, if the movie has any of the aforementioned characteristics but takes place during World War II, the movie is primarily a spy movie rather than a war movie. Remember, the setting does not determine the genre but the story does. The story is interconnected to the characters and the plot. The setting helps add the must-needed background and specificity to the movie, but it is not as interconnected as the other three genres.

In recent times, a male of the strong virile type plays the protagonist spy. So, we will demonstrate that this does not always have to be that way in a movie. We will take a woman, named Suzie, who is the spy protagonist. We will set the example during World War II. Unlike Jack in the war genre discussion, Suzie is chosen because of her background in languages and her photographic memory, giving her the ability to memorize lists of facts immediately. She is requested to go behind enemy lines as a civilian and obtain data that will debilitate the enemy thus giving the Allies the advantage and shortening the war by possibly years.

In order to be able to do this, and to prepare her mentally for the task, she is set to train for three weeks with an Army officer named Jack. Jack is very skeptical that Suzie will be able to pull the task off. Jack states that it is not because she is a woman, but the movie viewers know that her being a woman is exactly the reason.

Jack begins a rigorous training program just to say that he told her so. However, Suzie really masters everything Jack throws at her. After about a week, Jack sees this and starts to admire her strength and fortitude. Jack makes the training less rigorous because he only trains her to get behind enemy lines, get back to the Allied lines, and how to mentally survive torture. By the end of the three weeks, they begin to fall in love with each other, and Jack feels he should accompany her, but his command says that is impossible.

The time has arrived for Suzie to go. The French underground has managed to get her a clerical job where she can do some travelling including going to Normandy. Rather abruptly, Suzie plans a trip to Normandy. She studies the land and is able to secretly catch a glimpse of German maps showing where their military strength is in and around Normandy. Suzie rushes and gets the information off to the Allies before she is captured by the Germans. The Allies receive Suzie’s information, but they cannot help Suzie. The Germans find her guilty of being a spy and she is executed.

Can you see the difference between this example and the war genre example? Both have the same setting of World War II, but the spy genre example has a non-soldier searching for secret information, while the war genre had a group of soldiers going on a mission that was not secret. The war mission was behind enemy lines and in the war zone where the fighting was occurring. The spy genre does not occur in the war zone where there was fighting.

Do you see the differences in the stories?

The spy story has a lot less emotion and love between the main characters. The spy story has more suspense as Suzie is hunting for information. She is becoming involved in several tight situations where she barely misses getting caught by the Nazis. The war genre story has the one climatic battle that the whole conflict was moving toward.

Most of the time these two genres do not become this similar but these two examples make it easier to see the differences in the two genres.

Adventure Genre

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines adventure as “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks” that is “an exciting or remarkable experience.”17 From this definition, you can see that adventure is an action movie that overlaps with the spy genre with danger, risks, and excitement.

Both the adventure and spy genres can have exotic settings. The stories are normally about a person or group of people searching for something. During the journey of searching, dangerous situations are overcome by the main characters. The protagonist may end up getting involved in fighting to overcome social or moral injustices in the exotic location where he or she has journeyed.

The difference between this genre and the spy genre is, once again, the story. The spy genre has a story where something is searched for secretively, and the information itself contains secret information. This story has suspense based on timing and near misses.

The adventure genre’s suspense is found in the action and the chance that the protagonist may get killed without the espionage. The protagonist is an adventurer rather than a government employee.

Being bigger than life, the adventure genre contains a lot of explosive action throughout the movie. Remember that the story treatment, character background, and character development are big differentiations and distinctions that separate genres. The plot and the setting are also different between genres, and are reflective of the story and the types of characters.

Science Fiction Genre

Science fiction is linked to the previous genres of crime, Westerns, war, spy, and adventure by the basic theme. However, the genre elements are totally different.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines science fiction as “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.”18 An example of science fiction is time travel, which has and is a popular topic.

Quite often, science fiction has a setting that takes place in the future. In this way, if the producer wants to comment on a particular problem in current society, the producer can set the problem in the future. The producer appears critical about the problem but not about the current society. The outcome of that problem, if it continues, shows how the future will look.

For science fiction, we can still stay with the plot of inner conflict, which can always be the plot, because a conflict is needed. The characters and the story can be the same as any other genre with variations, as we will demonstrate in the example.

In our example, Jack and Suzie, along with several hundred other people, are fed up with the crime and violence that exists where they live. No specific location is mentioned, so it can be anywhere in the world or universe.

In this movie, many of Jack and Suzies’ group are engineers who work endlessly to build several space ships that to travel to a new galaxy, away from the crime and chaos.  Researchers in this group toil endlessly to find a new galaxy that is livable for humans. Together they all dream of pioneering and developing this new world so there is no violence and everyone can live in harmony.

By seeing the people’s action of building space ships, the audience learns that the time is the future.

The space ships are finally finished and they are sent off. They find and arrive in the new world that is named New Earth. The people set up a colony and draft laws so there is no anarchy. Everything is great for two generations. The people live in harmony and enjoy each day to the utmost.

However, one day, someone is found dead and robbed. Everyone is left shocked. Because so much time has passed without violence, the police are unprepared. But they review the crime scene, and conclude that it was murder.

Since they have never investigated a murder, they  are unsure what should they do to find the murderer and how should they to go about doing it. They arrive at a procedure and find the murderer. The murder was an accident. The murderer was surprised as everyone else. The people realize a murder or accidental death can always happen, so the society has to be prepared and set up to handle it. Even though the story is fantastical in many ways, it can still make comments and raise questions about society and morality.

Science fiction genre, like any genre, can cross over at some point or points to another genre. This example crossed over to the crime genre. However, to determine the main genre, review the story, characters, plot, and setting together. In this situation, these elements are most geared toward the science fiction genre.

Fantasy Genre

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines fantasy as “something that is produced by the imagination: an idea about doing something that is far removed from normal reality.”19

In other words, a fantasy movie has no limits. The setting could be anywhere at any time with characters who appear and act in any way the script writer wants. The story could be about anything. So let’s stick with one constant, the plot. The plot will be inner conflict.

According to Wikipedia, fantasy stays away from scientific and macabre story aspects, so it does not become a piece of science fiction or horror. You can see how all three genres: science fiction, fantasy, and horror are similar but different.

What would a fantasy example be like?

A group of misfits are given a task by a wizard to find the perfect person. They must do this in order to save their friend, who is terminally ill and will die shortly. The wizard tells them that their friend is not terminally ill but under an evil spell that he can break. The perfect person is the wizard’s fee for breaking the spell. The characters are Jack, Suzie, and Alec, who are misfits because they are the outcasts from their home village, which is in a fictional country. The wizard gives them a clue to look where no one has looked or would think of looking.

Jack, Suzie, and Alec think that the perfect place to find the perfect person is in a graveyard because nobody would think of looking there. But how would the perfect person appear in a graveyard? After searching through several cemeteries, they become frustrated because they find nothing unusual and do not know what the wizard was talking about. They finally find a cemetery where they can enter a new world that is built upon their imaginations. Using their imaginations mean, as they discuss a trait or physical appearance, they can build the person using their minds. What they imagine can become reality.

Using their imaginations, they begin to discuss what the perfect person would look like and act. What would the person’s personality be like? They cannot decide because the traits that they imagined as a perfect person are foreign to them. Finally, they start talking about themselves, and what they like and do not like.

After a lengthy conversation that continues for days, Suzie stands up and yells that she has the answer. She states they should make three lists of their best physical and mental traits. That will be the perfect person. The perfect person is within them as it is within all people. They compile the perfect person using their imaginations and take it to the wizard.

Suzie explains to the wizard with the assistance of Jack and Alec that the perfect person was within them as it is within all people. The wizard states that they found the answer to the clue. As such, they are also able to break the spell over their friend. The spell is broken, and the four leave and live happily ever after.

You are only limited by your imagination. A wonderful theme can come from any genre.

Horror Genre

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines horror as “the quality of something that causes feelings of fear, dread, and shock: the horrible or shocking quality or character of something.” A horror show is “something that is difficult to deal with or watch because it is so bad, unpleasant, etc.”20

The setting regarding where the movie takes place can be instrumental in a horror movie. Many times, horror movies take place in a historical area with big, old houses that hold many secrets. Secrets provide the basis of a story as the house is supposedly haunted because something gruesome happened there many years ago. However, the setting may not be unusual, but it can be a typical small town or city just like the one where you live.

The plot, once again, is inner conflict. The main character, Suzie, inherits the house, and she is determined—to the point of becoming obsessed—to prove that there is no such thing as a haunted house. However, she takes her boyfriend, Jack, with her to the house. After they become frightened by unearthly occurrences in the house, Jack asks his friend, Alec, to join them at the house to find a solution to what is going on.

Alec states that in order to make it a clean, healthy house again, they have to discover the problem and solve it. In order to do this, Alec recommends doing a séance. The three of them enter a room late in the evening and try to contact a spirit to identify the problem. They find, at one point, that the house was owned by a slave trader or human trafficker. Down in the basement, many bodies were buried.

Suzie cannot stand thinking that a relative was a human trafficker and nothing can really be done to solve this problem. The house was owned by an evil man who is suffering in the spirit world because of his past actions. Jack thinks that the only cure to these past heinous actions is to burn the house down, which would cremate the bodies that were buried in the basement and possibly put them at peace.

Suzie does not agree with that action, but Alec agrees with Jack in order to find a cure for the haunting. Possibly, after the burning, Suzie can build a different house. Suzie starts to act in an irrational manner, like she is becoming her past relative, who was the slaver. Alec and Jack burn the house. Suzie becomes completely enraged and has to be restrained until the house is completely burned down.

Once the house has finished burning, Suzie no longer acts like she is possessed. The whole area becomes quiet. Suzie speculates that they just need drive away from it. The three of them drive away.

The horror genre brings fear, and fear generally brings thrills and suspense. With a suspenseful scene, people like to scare themselves. The theme can always be “search for the truth,” rather than “do not be afraid of the unknown.”

Drama Genre

If a movie does not fit in one of the aforementioned genre categories, then it is a drama.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines drama as “a play, movie, television show, or radio show that is about a serious subject and is not meant to make the audience laugh” and “a composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue.”21

The four elements of the drama genre have to be serious, portray life, tell a story, and the characters have to have an inner conflict that brings out emotions at different times throughout the story. These are all points that we have been discussing with the other genres. The characters and the story are general, like everyday people and situations.

Somebody is dying, something has to be obtained, or something has to be accomplished are the three common stories for dramas. Jack is an accomplished musician, who is going to be playing at Carnegie Hall, and he finds out that he has a fatal illness after passing out during a rehearsal. Or, Jack lived in the slums and a teacher noticed something in him that could be cultivated. Jack becomes a renowned doctor, scientist, or mathematician. The movie covers Jack’s obstacles to achieve what is necessary for him to being on the road toward a renowned career.

Or, Suzie risks everything to find a cure for a disease that is killing many thousands of people on a Caribbean island. The viewer often knows what is going to happen but often the characters and their development is what makes a drama interesting.

The story is relatively simple, the plot is inner conflict, and the setting is inconsequential because the characters make the movie.

Did you find Cyrano de Bergerac to be a drama? Cyrano de Bergerac had a firm foundation in unrequited love, a very romantic element in the story. But Cyrano’s inner conflict of his feelings of inadequacies in his personal appearance, while being overconfident in other areas, present love in a dramatic genre.

Action, Thriller, Suspense Thriller, Biography, Film Noir, Neo Noir, and Mystery

Action, thriller, suspense-thriller, biography, film noir, neo noir, and mystery are terms that are often referred to as different genres. However, none of these are genres. They do not contain just the four basic elements of a genre—no matter how much people insist that they do. They contain the genre elements and other elements, like cinematography, that are not part of a genre.

Writers, educators, critics, historians, and others have stated that the above terms developed into being named a genre and that they can be accepted as a genre over time. How many of you heard or read the terms action genre, film noir genre, or suspense thriller genre? Just because they have been referred to by these terms, over the years, does not make them honorary genres. These terms, by themselves, still have the same meaning even if they have been named genres.

Most of these terms refer to specific cinematography when shooting the movie, or they refer to the way the movie was edited.

Action, thrillers, and suspense thrillers all have similar types of action in them. Adventure, spy, crime, war, and Westerns could all be action movies or thrillers or suspense thrillers. Action, thrillers, and suspense thrillers do not touch upon the four elements that make up a genre.

Film noir and neo noir are predominantly crime movies that have certain cinematography. They overlap both in the construction and production aspects of making a movie.

Film noir means “black film.” Film noir has many scenes occurring at night with many gritty, seedy city shots. The character types in film noir are loners and schemers, but they are reflective of the types of characters in crime movies.

Detour is a good example of film noir regarding the characters like Al and Vera. The voice-over narration of the protagonist describing the forward action, using black and white film, and many scenes occurring at night are examples of film noir. But voice-over narration, being in black and white, and a lot of the movie occurring at night does not determine the genre. The jaded characters, story, and plot of murder defines the movie as a member of the crime genre. The night scenes and voice-over narration are a directorial style. These decisions are characteristics that distinguish it as film noir.

Neo noir is the new noir for the later 20th and 21st centuries when most movies are made in color. The genres could be crime, science fiction, or drama but the cinematography is dark, gritty, and symbolic, similar in many respects to film noir.

Mystery refers to the way the story is shaped. Most mysteries are concerned with who stole something or who murdered someone. Most mysteries belong to the crime genre where the story and the editing keep the audience guessing until the final minutes of the movie.

Biography refers to a nonfiction movie that is about a historical or living person. The background, character, and setting of the movie may determine what other genre a biography might belong to. If the person is a war hero, the movie would be of the war genre; if the person was a criminal or detective, the movie would fit the crime genre, and so forth.


Documentary, according to, refers to movies and television features based on or re-creating an actual event, era, life story, etc., that purports to be factually accurate and contains no fictional elements.22

Sheila Curran Bernard,23 author of Documentary Storytelling, defines documentaries as:

Documentaries bring viewers into new worlds and experiences through the presentation of factual information about real people, places, and events, generally — but not always — portrayed through the use of actual images and artifacts. But factuality alone does not define documentary films; it’s what the filmmaker does with those factual elements, weaving them into an overall narrative that strives to be as compelling as it is truthful and is often greater than the sum of its parts.

From these two definitions, documentaries are a separate movie entity that is unto itself.

Final Thought

We covered a lot of area in discussing different genres. Even though genres are only considered labels for movies, the four elements of a genre are the basis of any movie. Besides categorizing, genres indirectly shape the movie’s characters and story.

Character, story, plot, and setting are how a movie is constructed. From this construction, the specific theme that is created by the screenwriter and the director can be realized and understood by the viewer.

The other chapters in the construction of a movie go into more detail and dissect these elements in order for a better understanding of the scope of these elements and how the theme of the movie is realized.

Further Viewing

With the completion of this chapter, the movies to watch that that are excellent examples of different genres are:

  • It Happened One Night, 1934, directed by Frank Capra, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. This is an excellent example of screwball comedy. It is considered the first screwball comedy, and it won five Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • They Were Expendable, 1945, directed by John Ford, starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne. This is a good example of the war genre. It is set during the beginning of World War II and demonstrates how the United States lost the war with dignity.
  • All About Eve, 1950, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, and George Sanders. This is an excellent example of the drama genre.
  • Goldfinger, 1964, directed by Guy Hamilton, starring Sean Connery, Gert Fröbe, and Honor Blackman. This is an excellent example of the spy genre that became popular as well as the gadgets that came along with it.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. This is a good example of the adventure genre.


Jack is a school teacher, which is a job he loves. He wants to be the best teacher possible and serve his students well. Because of his desire to serve his students, he has a disdain for the school administration when they want to cut back on the education process while serving themselves with excessive raises. In addition, Jack had a bad family life when growing up. He is rather cold to his mother because of his upbringing. His mother was domineering to him and his father died at an early age. Jack’s bad family life is a big reason why he became a teacher. He wanted to make sure his students were treated better in school than he was at home.

Based on the above introduction, what genre or genres could this movie idea be developed into?


5 Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary, 591.

6 “Comedy,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

7 “Slapstick,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

8 “Farce,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

9 “Satire,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

10 “Dark Humor,”,

11 “Black Comedy,,

12 “Romantic Comedy,”,

13 “Crime,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

14 “Western,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

15 “War,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

16 “Spy,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

17 “Adventure,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

18 “Science Fiction,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, %20fiction.

19 “Fantasy,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

20 “Horror,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

21 “Drama,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

22 “Movies,”,

23 Sheila Curran Bernard, “Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen,” 3rd ed., (Burlington: Taylor & Francis, 2011).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Exploring Movie Construction and Production Copyright © 2017 by John Reich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.