Return to 2. paths & problems in screenplay studies

2.4. genre studies

“In short, to talk about the ‘Western’ (arbitrary definitions apart) is to appeal to a common set of meanings in our culture. From a very early age most of us have built up a picture of a ‘Western’. We feel that we know a ‘Western’ when we see one, though the edges may be rather blurred. Thus in calling a film a ‘Western’ the critic is implying more than the simple statement, ‘This film is a member of a class of films (“Westerns”) having in common x, y, z’. He is also suggesting that such a film would be universally recognized as such in our culture.” — Andrew Tudor1

2.4.1. Overview.

A Genre is a loose set of formal, tonal, or thematic conventions used for categorizing narrative works of art, including screenplays. Genres are particularly relevant at the Property Stage of screenplay readership, as they hold implications for the marketplace potential of a particular feature film. Some genres are more popular with audiences than others, so it follows that screenwriters working in the most popular genres are more likely to see their scripts produced. This creates a kind of politics of genre, where screenplays that adhere to certain genre principles are privileged over those that embrace a genre of the lower caste or those that buck conventions altogether.

In this section, we will explore the concept of genre and its implications for the marketplace.

Page Topics:

2.4.2. The Purpose of Genre for Writers & Critics. [Back to Page Topics]

Heta Pyrhönen outlines the four-pronged purpose of genre as follows: First, genre describes in order to classify; Second, it directs interpretation; Third, genre prescribes a normative path for writers to follow; Fourth, genre offers a rubric of evaluation for critics.2 In short, genres help us to classify, interpret, prescribe, and evaluate. Robert McKee dedicates a whole chapter of his Story to the prescriptive importance of genre conventions in the craft of screenwriting, framing genre as a set of creative limitations that must be simultaneously obeyed and overcome by the writer.3 “The genre sophistication of filmgoers presents the writer with this critical challenge: He must not only fulfill audience anticipations, or risk their confusion and disappointment, but he must lead their expectations to fresh, unexpected moments, or risk boring them.”4 These functions of genre — as “(1) a model, which becomes a formula of production; (2) a structure, which exists as a textual system [. . .]; (3) an etiquette, [. . .] used by distributors and exhibitors; and (4) a contract, which is an agreement with spectators on how to read a film”5 — make clear the pressures screenwriters face as they navigate genre conventions. As for classification, interpretation, and evaluation, we can take these on separately.

2.4.3. Genre as Classification. [Back to Page Topics]

The essence of genre is to classify. The very term stems from the Latin genus, meaning to sort. But if a genre is meant to classify a set of texts, a method of classification must be determined, and the problem of methodology is not without its own controversies. Janet Staiger, paraphrasing from the earlier work of Andrew Tudor, has outlined four potential methodologies for determining the genre of a given text, each with its own problems:

“(1) find a film and judge other films against the pattern and conventions in that film (the idealist method); (2) determine from empirical observation the necessary and sufficient characteristics to include a film in the category (the empiricist method); (3) make an a priori declaration of the characteristics of the group (the a priori method); and (4) use cultural expectations to categorize the text (the social convention method).”6

These methods all suffer from relativism or circular reasoning. While they effectively describe the real ways people work with genre every day, they also succeed in highlighting the inherent problems of genre as a concept. As Tudor notes, “Until we have a clear, if speculative, notion of the connotations of a genre class, it is difficult to see how the critic, already besieged by imponderables, could usefully use the term, certainly not as a special term at the root of his analysis.”7

Tudor also observes how genre classifications have been ascribed based either on attributes or intentions,8 where Westerns are deemed as such based on certain attributes they possess, while Horror films or Thrillers are deemed as such based on their intention to horrify or thrill (what narratologists have called the form of interest, or the form that the reader’s interest takes in reaction to the text).9 Both attributes and intentions, however, pertain to issues of structure, and to be sure, structure has dictated genre formulations ever since Aristotle first described the kinds of tragic plot.

More recently, Norman Friedman offers a detailed account of plot-types as genre, working within R.S. Crane’s Plots of Fortune, Plots of Character, and Plots of Thought categories as follows:10

Plots of Fortune — in which there is a classic, Aristotelian Reversal of the Situation.

  • The Action Plot — A narrative that, in the vein of the Hero’s Journey, centers around a protagonist who must solve a problem or obtain a prize through action. Examples include Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Star Wars.
  • The Pathetic Plot — A narrative in which an attractive, albeit weak, protagonist fails. A classic example would be Glengarry Glenn Ross. A variant of this structure is more often found in comedy, particularly on television (think Chandler and Ross on Friends, who often end an episode in humiliation).
  • The Tragic Plot — A narrative in which an attractive, strong protagonist nevertheless meets a harsh fate as a result of a miscalculation. Examples include 12 Monkeys and No Country for Old Men.
  • The Punitive Plot — A narrative in which the audience identifies with an evil protagonist who meets a just end. Examples include Scarface (both the 1932 and 1983 versions) and Bonnie and Clyde.
  • The Sentimental Plot — A weak character succeeds, often by accident. Examples include Being There and Forrest Gump.
  • The Admiration Plot — Where an attractive, responsible protagonist succeeds based on his or her integrity and moral goodness. Disney’s The Princess and the Frog is a particularly blatant recent example of this type, with its frequent invocations of the importance of Tiana’s work ethic.

Plots of Character — in which the narrative’s protagonist undergoes a change of moral character.

  • The Maturing Plot — The classic coming-of-age tale in which the protagonist passes into adulthood, either literally or on some figurative level. Examples include Sixteen Candles, Stand by Me, and Almost Famous.
  • The Reform Plot — A narrative in which an attractive protagonist chooses the wrong path but learns his or her lesson before it is too late. If viewed as a whole, the entire Star Wars saga is an example with Darth Vader’s fall to the dark side and ultimate redemption. Goodfellas is another example.
  • The Testing Plot — A narrative in which a good protagonist’s will power is tested to the limits. Examples include Cool Hand Luke, Carlito’s Way, and The Last Temptation of Christ.
  • The Degeneration Plot — A narrative in which a good protagonist degenerates into evil. The classic example is obviously Michael Corleone’s fall in The Godfather.

Plots of Thought — in which the protagonist gains new knowledge or changes his or her mind or feelings about something.

  • The Education Plot — A narrative in which the protagonist holds unattractive ideas or possesses and unlikable emotional disposition but evolves his or her thinking/feeling over time. Examples include Rushmore, Gross Pointe Blank, and Gran Torino.
  • The Revelation Plot — A narrative in which an initially ignorant protagonist acquires new knowledge and must cope with what has been kept secret from them. Examples include The Village, L.A. Confidential, The Firm, and Unfaithful.
  • The Affective Plot — A narrative in which the protagonist’s feelings are changed, usually with regard to a romantic suitor. Examples include Pride & Prejudice, 10 Things I Hate About You, and When Harry Met Sally.
  • The Disillusionment Plot — A narrative in which an idealist protagonist becomes a cynic, or in which the adherent to one worldview rejects it and embraces its opposite. Examples include Casualties of War, Wall Street, and Avatar.

While Friedman’s system of genre classification by plot may offer more objective criteria than our traditional conceptions, it is unlikely that our culture will abandon such descriptors as “the Western,” or “Horror” anytime soon, however ambiguous their boundaries.

2.4.4. The Politics of Genre in Valuating and Evaluating Screenplays. [Back to Page Topics]

A cursory review of market share and award-season accolades as distributed between the various mainstream genres reveals a clear politics of genre in America. According to, the top grossing genres from 1995-2010 are as follows:11

Genres Movies Total Gross Average Gross Market Share
1 Comedy 1,573 $40,069,839,128 $25,473,515 24.21%
2 Adventure 441 $32,265,018,818 $73,163,308 19.49%
3 Drama 2,720 $30,508,610,558 $11,216,401 18.43%
4 Action 499 $28,379,499,345 $56,872,744 17.14%
5 Thriller/Suspense 449 $11,272,302,758 $25,105,351 6.81%
6 Romantic Comedy 347 $9,879,163,740 $28,470,213 5.97%
7 Horror 280 $7,883,063,400 $28,153,798 4.76%
8 Documentary 842 $1,839,861,653 $2,185,109 1.11%
9 Musical 100 $1,616,923,463 $16,169,235 0.98%
10 Black Comedy 68 $707,665,935 $10,406,852 0.43%

This table demonstrates a tremendous gap in popularity between the top four grossing genres and all other comers. Clearly, there is an economic incentive for producers to green-light mainstream Comedy, Adventure, Drama, and Action scripts before considering Musicals and riskier Black Comedies. This financial reality puts numerous screenwriters and screenplays at an immediate disadvantage in the marketplace.

On the other hand, critical acclaim does not necessarily align with box office popularity, as the following table of Best Picture Oscar Nominated/Winning Movies from 1927 to 2001 by Tim Dirks illustrates 12:

Genre 358 Nominees 74 Winners Total: 432 films
1. Drama 49% 39% 47%
2. Comedy 18% 14% 17%
3. Historical/Epic 10% 16% 11%
4. Musical 8% 11% 8%
5. Action-Adventure 6% 5% 6%
6. War 5% 8% 5%
7. Suspense 3% 3% 3%
8. Western 2% 4% 2%

It must of course be acknowledged that the two tables are not directly comparable, since the time periods covered are not identical. Nevertheless, it is interesting to observe that here Musicals rank fourth, both in terms of Academy Award nominations and wins, hinting that while the profit incentive of producing a Musical may be minimal, such productions may carry with them a certain amount of prestige. More telling, however, is the position of the Western genre on the second table. Westerns did not make the top ten of our first table, though they would have been listed in the 11th position if it had been included, with a market share of only .29%.13 Given the low probability of a Western meeting with either financial or award-season success, one wonders why any producer would ever green-light a Western script, and indeed, Westerns are rarely made any more. (In early 2011, the Coen brothers’ True Grit became the first Western since the Oscar-winning Unforgiven in 1992 to break the $100,000,000 box office mark, but experts doubt this outlier will revive the Western genre.)14

It is hard to understand why a film genre so central to the American identity and mythology as the Western became so marginalized. Somewhere along the way, tastes changed, and as a result, screenwriters working in the Western genre are at a distinct disadvantage in getting their works produced. Fortunately, great Western scripts still get produced occasionally (Craig Storper’s Open Range and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford being two relatively recent standouts), but they are few and far between. This is a loss for both the craft and the culture at large.

2.4.5. Genre & Interpretation: A Case Study of Western Genre Ideals in Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. [Back to Page Topics]

What is a quintessential Western, anyway? We can certainly infer some basic traits commonly associated with the genre. For instance, Westerns are typically set geographically in the American frontier lands west of the Mississippi River and temporally between the close of the Civil War and the end of the 19th century. In terms of plot matter, they typically tend to center on violent men and loner anti-heroes, in dead serious plots that focus on revenge and feature confrontations between good and evil and wicked men meeting their bloody end. We can list off a long series of film titles that meet these qualifying characteristics, so it seems a good place to start. To be sure, one of the most successful and acclaimed Westerns in recent memory, Unforgiven (written by David Webb Peoples and directed by Clint Eastwood), easily meets all of these criteria.

If we wanted to take Staiger’s idealist method of genre definition, we’d be hard pressed to find a more ideal Western screenplay than Peoples’ Unforgiven. There’s just one problem with this approach: using Unforgiven as the ideal by which we judge all other Westerns would likely cause us to exclude the most successful and popular Western in film history — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, written by William Goldman.

Goldman’s script bucks most of the conventions we’ve just described: while the action begins in the American frontier, a good portion of the plot takes place in Bolivia; the story begins in the early 20th century; the protagonists are not loners but buddies attached at the hip, and they’re not violent; the plot is actually quite comical with romance and musical interludes included. The protagonists do meet a bloody end, but their deaths are not framed as a consequence of evil (their bank-robbing villainy) but of time (their inability to adapt to the new order of the industrial age).

Even before being adjusted for inflation, Butch was slightly more successful than Unforgiven at the box office, and when adjusted for inflation, it out-performed the latter film by a factor of three. While Unforgiven received more Academy Award nominations than Butch, both films won four Oscars, and only Goldman’s script won for best writing. Which, then, is the quintessential Western screenplay and can a single genre possibly succeed in encapsulating both? Given these disparities, is the concept of genre even a useful tool in interpreting screenplay texts?

One approach to answering this problem is to ask why each screenwriter chose to situate his script within the genre tradition of Westerns in the first place. It may be that each screenwriter has done so with different aims in mind. With Unforgiven, Peoples “uses a genre as a way to study human nature,” writes Roger Ebert.

“After he is fatally wounded, Little Bill says, ‘I don’t deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house.’ And Munny says, ‘Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.’ Actually, deserve has everything to do with it, and although Ned Logan and Delilah do not get what they deserve, William Munny sees that the others do. That implacable moral balance, in which good eventually silences evil, is at the heart of the Western . . .”15

If that “implacable moral balance” is at the heart of the Western, what has it to do with two lovable thieves like Butch and Sundance? The Western credentials of Goldman’s screenplay have never been widely questioned, but how does its relationship to genre shape its meaning?

One could argue that if Peoples uses genre to study human nature, Goldman uses it to study human events. Goldman confounds genre expectations because his thesis is that history has no room for tradition. The Mythical Old West in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is merely the stage for the last act of a play that’s outlived its welcome. Butch and Sundance are criminals who belong in a traditional Western but find themselves drifting into the 20th century, into a new era with new rules. “Meet the future,” Butch tells Etta optimistically upon introducing her to his shiny new bicycle early on in the script. One super-posse chase later, however, and Butch is shoving the bicycle into the dirt and yelling, “The future’s all yours, ya lousy bicycles!”16 Unlike Munny, who is haunted by the wickedness of his past, Butch and Sundance are plagued by a future that has rejected them as relics, as evolutionary leftovers.

Unforgiven works because it fulfills the form of the Western, while Butch Cassidy succeeds because it deconstructs the form of the Western. Both, however, need the form of the Western as a reference point in order to create their meaning.

2.4.6. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]

The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.

Key Terms:

  • Genre
  • Classify
  • Interpret
  • Prescribe
  • Evaluate
  • Idealist Method
  • Empiricist Method
  • A Priori Method
  • Social Conventions Method
  • Attributes
  • Intentions
  • Form of Interest
  • Plots of Fortune
  • Plots of Character
  • Plots of Thought
  • Politics of Genre


  • Why are genres important or useful?
  • Why are genres problematic?
  • How should screenplays be classified, by attributes, intentions, or plot structures?
  • By what criteria do we classify a screenplay within a particular genre?
  • How do the politics of genre affect a screenplay’s commercial success?
  • Do all screenwriters use genre for the same purpose?

2.4.7. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]

  1. Tudor, Andrew. “Genre and Critical Methodology.” Movies and Methods. Edited by Bill Nichols. Berkley: U of California P, 1976. Pgs. 121-122.
  2. Pyrhönen, Heta. “Genre.” The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Edited by David Herman. NY: Cambridge UP, 2009. Pg. 109-110.
  3. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 79-99.
  4. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 80.
  5. Staiger, Janet. “Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History.” Film Genre Reader III. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 2003. Pg. 188.
  6. Staiger, Janet. “Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History.” Film Genre Reader III. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 2003. Pg. 187.
  7. Tudor, Andrew. “Genre and Critical Methodology.” Movies and Methods. Edited by Bill Nichols. Berkley: U of California P, 1976. Pgs. 122.
  8. Tudor, Andrew. “Genre and Critical Methodology.” Movies and Methods. Edited by Bill Nichols. Berkley: U of California P, 1976. Pgs. 120.
  9. Pyrhönen, Heta. “Genre.” The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Edited by David Herman. NY: Cambridge UP, 2009. Pg. 120.
  11. Accessed 08 August 2010. © 1997-2010 Nash Information Services, LLC. All rights reserved.
  12. Accessed 08 August 2010. © Copyright 2010 American Movie Classics Company LLC. All rights reserved.
  13. Accessed 08 August 2010. © Copyright 1997-2010 Nash Information Services, LLC. All rights reserved.
  14. Accessed on 13 January 2011
  15. Accessed 10 October 2010. © Copyright 2010
  16. Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. NY: Warner Books, 1983. Pgs. 336 & 392.

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  1. […] lot of amateur writers might think they can write outside of genre. In reality, it is unavoidable. Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Helsinki, Heta Pyrhönen, says that genre […]

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