Are you writing a Western, or a mystery, or thriller? Are you working on a horror story or romantic comedy? Sometimes, in both film and fiction, these are unfairly considered “lesser” genres. I’m not sure why, but it probably has something to do with the fact that these types of books and movies come with a set of conventions that the reader/viewer expects.
For example, in a western, we expect a big shoot out in the climax between the hero and the bad guy. In a romantic comedy, there’s usually some kind of kiss or wedding at the end. In a mystery, there’s a killer on the loose and the main character must take them down. Horror stories often involve dark basements. The problem with these conventions is that they become predictable, and this can make these stories feel generic.
Last year, I read a terrific novel that was described on Amazon as a “literary thriller.” This description intrigued me. Really? A thriller that was “literary?”
Here was the headlining quote on the Amazon sales page– “A dark, riveting, beautifully written book—by ‘a brilliant novelist,’ according to Richard Bausch—that combines noir and the gothic in a story about two families entwined in their own unhappiness, with, at its heart, a gruesome and unsolved murder.”
Of course, they had me at ‘gruesome’ and ‘unsolved murder.’ I bought the book, All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, and devoured it.
As I read, what I discovered was that Brundage took what was essentially a Dateline NBC episode set in a decrepit farmhouse and elevated the hell out of it. Through a gorgeous literary writing style, and by including elements from other genres and subverting traditional murder plot conventions, suddenly a very familiar story came to life in a totally new and exciting way.
Here are the conventions of a traditional murder mystery…
— Writing style is direct and simple
— A single hero tracks the killer and in so doing, takes them down and resolves some personal issue
— There is a clearly marked bad guy and good guy
— The crime is solved and the killer must pay
Here’s what Brundage did to elevate and play with this genre…
— The writing style is distinctly literary. For example, she doesn’t use quotes to mark dialogue, and employs lots of poetic imagery.
— We experience the story through the equally weighted points of view of multiple characters.
— A character who is removed from most of the action discovers the truth, years later. This character doesn’t bring the killer down.
— Brundage pulls from other genres. She adds ghosts (which gives it a gothic flavor) and uses noir thematic conventions (the futility of good triumphing over evil.)
— She picks the most banal of crimes and makes it feel like epic tragedy. She’s really playing with our perception and expectations by making the small and mundane feel huge and Shakespearean.
Take Action! Are you writing in a genre that has clear conventions and is viewed as “less than?” Can you elevate your story by writing in an unexpected style, or spinning a single protagonist convention into multiple points of view? Can you give us access to the thoughts and motivations of a character we normally wouldn’t get access to? Can you (carefully!) try to add an element from ANOTHER genre to deepen the themes and make the story feel larger? Could you deliver on the expectations of the story’s resolution in an unexpected fresh way?
While All Things Cease to Appear is an example of elevated genre writing in fiction, for screenwriters, look no further than THE REVENANT. This film is a classic B revenge story boosted through character depth, and the epic visual treatment by its writer/director Alejandro Inarritu.
Just because you’re writing in a familiar genre, doesn’t mean your story can’t be lifted up by your approach.
Know your genre. Play with it.
Give it wings.
Sign up here for my free weekly writing tips and inspiration!