This weekend I went to see CRIMSON PEAK. Yes, I love Guillermo del Toro, and yes, I was looking forward to being scared. The trailer looked amazing and was clearly selling a genre I love– Gothic Horror. Mia Wasikowska with a long blond flowing wig, wearing a white nightgown with gossamer sleeves, runs through a house of hell carrying a candelabra and screaming.
For me, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Part of the deliciousness of loving a particular genre is the expectation of seeing all the elements and conventions that come with this kind of story. With Gothic Horror, we expect many of the things I just mentioned. A young virgin, coming to a dark and creepy haunted house. Ghosts. A romance. Dread. In fact, during the period that gothic books peaked in popularity, they were called “Pleasing Terrors.” The genre combines the sensations of romantic pleasure with total abject fear (paging Dr. Freud!)
Whether you’re writing a novel or screenplay, it’s important to know your genre. Even if you’re writing a quirky story that defies most conventions, don’t kid yourself. You’re in the “quirky indie” genre.
Here are some things to consider as you write your book or movie…
Know your genre. If it’s clearly chick lit, or a romantic comedy, or action adventure, great, it’s clear cut. If it’s harder to pin down, think about it. Does it combine elements of different genres? If so, which genres does it touch?
Figure out the conventions of your genre. What are the things the reader/viewer will expect in your story based on its genre? How can you give them these conventions and still make them feel fresh and new? del Toro TOTALLY leans into the conventions of gothic horror. I appreciated that Mia’s wig looked like it was from a sixties Castle Horror film. I loved that her sleeves were so puffy she looked like a gossamer insect inside the dark tomb of a house where she was trapped. Instead of just an old haunted house, Del Toro gives us a house that is so decrepit that snow is falling in through the broken roof. If you are writing in a clear cut genre (i.e. rom com) it’s important to know what the audience expects, and to either consciously tweak these expectations or use these conventions in a way that feels original.
How can you lift your genre? If you are writing in a genre that’s typically viewed as second class (horror, for example) how can you elevate the theme or characters or visuals so it feels smarter than most of the stories in that genre? del Toro goes nuts with the visuals. Beautiful yellow and orange butterflies at the beginning of the movie are contrasted with skeletal creepy black moths later on. The costumes are dramatic, lush, and the production design is incredible. CRIMSON PEAK is truly one of the most sumptuous, insanely beautiful horror films I’ve ever seen.
If you’re doing a multi-genre story (combining more than one genre in your narrative) does it work? This is a toughie. There are terrific films and books that combine more than one genre– ALIEN (sci-fi and horror), SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE (sci-fi and war,) SHAUN OF THE DEAD (horror and comedy.) Somehow, the creators of these books and movies found just the right balance between the genres they are mixing and they actually strengthen each other. However, sometimes things can go awry.
Although I really enjoyed CRIMSON PEAK when it stayed close to the more subtle nuances of gothic, when Del Toro went into the gross out horror stuff (scary blood dripping skeletons with meat cleavers coming out of their heads, a CRAZY climax where people stab each other in the face,) I was thrown out of the movie. And I wasn’t alone. At the screening I attended, everyone was simultaneously groaning at the coarse violence and laughing. Not good for the film’s big finale. The genres were bumping against each other in a way that was jarring.
Take Action! Know your genre. Figure out the conventions that go along with that genre and embrace them. Deliver these conventions in a way that feels fresh and original. If you’re writing in one of the less ‘admired’ genres, can you lift your story up through its theme or characters? If you’re combining genres, make sure they enhance each other and don’t create dissonance.
I really wanted to love the ending of CRIMSON PEAK where our heroine faces the bad guy (and man, is she bad,) but instead, all the tension that had pulled me in and held me there, was lost as too much blood and gore obliterated the more subtle psychological horror I expected.
Genre can be your best friend. Misused, it can also undermine all the great “tone” pipe you’ve laid in your story.
Know your genre! And beware of handsome young baronets promising you love and riches through the crimson colored clay beneath his family’s ancestral home….
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Here’s the CRIMSON PEAK trailer!