As well as screenwriting being as much an art, it is also a science. The constant values found in successful stories are quantifiable. As films have a beginning, middle and resolution, stories also have certain architecture and rules that not only must be understood, but be respected. Just as a house needs foundations, the main building walls and a roof, so does it require certain materials in its construction otherwise the house will crumble and erode over time. Well the same goes for stories, they are kinetic vehicles with movement, and moving parts, therefore it’s a matter of physics. A story constructed with a poor understanding of genre and story architecture, will also crumble in the screenplay format and will never see the screen.
One of the biggest reasons why movies fail in the screenplay format is because enough writers don’t understand genre. We all know that a horror has terror as a major component and a comedy has humor, a thriller has suspense and danger and an action movie has lots of movement and interrogation with physical things in that story world, but does that mean that’s simply it? Is that understanding genre truly? The answer is definitely no. Famous words of John Truby are that “most writers don’t understand genre well enough” and he’s absolutely right. This is why the results are shocking, and one of the reasons why 95% of all screenwriters never make it, and never have a single script produced.
This article will include the culmination of a decades worth of learning of genres, concepts, premise and elements of the story. The concepts, ideas and components of the story must enhance the genre vehicle that you are writing with. A lot of new writers just write their material and expect it to fit into a genre afterwards. This is alright for the first draft, but if you want your material to stand out from the rest, you must understand the conventions and rules of genre from the outset. The genre must be part of your story plan and map. A good story uplifted with the right elements of its genre is a great story, an oscar winning screenplay and also one that will sell.
To be a great screenwriter you must be highly versed in language, you must have higher than normal knowledge about the matters you wish to write and equally important, you must understand stories and genre. Can you name 10 classic movies in your preferred genre? If the answer is no, you have some serious work to do. There are 13 main genres in total, and I as a screenwriter understand at least 6 of them in great detail and with complexity. These are the genres that I write. A film and screenplay blueprint culminates sometimes three or four genres. In this category we are going to delve into most common writing genres.
Here’s a look at genres in the last 100 years.
What is Genre?
Genres and their conventions are a creative limitation that forces a writers imagination to rise to the occasion. It a sort of cup that you fill with your ideas. You wouldn’t put Coffee into a wine glass, or even a nice green herbal tea into a pint glass would you? The correct genre as a cup needs to model the appropriate drink, if that’s your story as an analogy and the right type of drink needs to match the appropriate cup. Choosing the correct genre vehicle for your story will only enhance the telling, and only by understanding genre and its architecture can you place your story into the right cup. You must fill the convention in a unique way to lift your story above anything but ordinary. This way you can create mood and resonate meaning and emotion.
Innovative writers are not only contemporary but visionaries and the lense of genre changes the focus of reality and its varied perspectives. Breaking these old time conventions, takes the genre into the next generation and inspires a whole array of new never before seen films. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid written by William Goldman was one of the first buddy movies in its time, it was also an adventure type movie and typical golden fleece, which I will discuss later. It inspired movies such as The Magnificent Seven and many others. Just think when The Lord of The Rings swept every oscar and set the cinema stage on fire, we seen a whole array of Fantasy Films with their extensive amazing world and landscape shots, of journeys and adventure. Such movies were born, one of them being The Missing 2001.
If we really look at genre and break it down, it is made of META – Mood, Emotion, Tone and Atmosphere. And story convention is my very own FETMA – Feeling, Emotion, Thought, Meaning and Association. What are the thoughts, feelings, emotions and metaphor or meaning you take from the story and what association does that have with you in your life. It is the weight and value of that which will resonate with you. What’s conveyed in this area of mood and emotion, tone and atmosphere, will determine which movie you are watching. Therefore genre and story have a perfect marriage, the two halves make a whole.
Now the structure, we’ll look at deeper in another article, but genre and structure are married to one another, the same way a wine glass is structured differently to a mug for example to present a different drink altogether. From my days of working for a high ticket maker of wine, the bouquet of wine would be destroyed in a cylindrical mug, therefore the base of the glass must be curved. There is method to the madness. Essentially there are 2 Marriages to a Great Film and these must first be found in the screenplay.
Genre is Married to Story
Story is Married to Structure
Therefore the three elements connect to one another, just as earth, water and fire in the unity of three.
As an exercise, go onto Netflix and just search in alphabetic letter for a movie. Pick a movie you’ve never watched before and see if you can determine within the first five minutes from the META, which genre movie this is. Do it for several movies and then go back to see how close you were by reading the movie genre. Usually you can tell just from the cinematography what genre film you are watching. Turning the volume down and focusing only on the visuals will make you really perceptive.
The great thing about genre is that you don’t have to invent the entire world of your movie, you can use the rules of the existing genre to craft the story world and elements together. You’ll naturally get the META when you get good at this, but you won’t get the FETMA until you watch the movie, and watch it in great detail. Therefore genre is the cup which can easily be identified from the outside, but the story is the drink, and they only way to experience that, is to drink it. When these two things happen in perfect symbiosis, you have a script that everybody wants to buy, even an oscar winner, even a classic.
Great writers typically focus tightly on one idea. The first thing I ever written at the age of 16 was riddled with a tragic storyline, then Belora, The Lost Book of Teaching, although it’s a Fantasy setting, is all about heroism. Subject Six focuses again on the tragic and heroic story setting in an unreal world. Grizzly Summer favours the adventure plot with amazing natural beauty of the world but has villains that are anything but natural. Faceless is peppered with irony and tragedy in layered conventions of the thriller genre. My films and stories will always be about family and relationships, that inner look at character dimension and character dilemma. This is drama. See the previous article for more details about Character. I have written nine screenplays to date and will likely have written fifty by the time I am done.
You often hear people saying do what you love, therefore you should not only write what you know, but you should write the genre that you love. My stories and films are purely told from an entertainment perspective and driven this way, why? Because that’s how I fell in love with story and film, through watching them and being entertained by great movies during my childhood. After this comes adding meaning and metaphor. You don’t expect a great character driven dramatic storyline from someone like Tarantino. Especially in his early works. His movies are about action, violence and character entertainment within the nexus of that story is drama.
What do you write? Horror? Drama? Action? Sci-Fi? Why do you write these genres and do you fully understand the architecture of genre? What’s the metaphor and message of the story? With my movies in screenplay format I like to surprise, startle and shock the audience into seeing something revealed on screen that is totally new. Have you looked at your story deeply with a magnifying glass? We are going to explore three movies and the genre and story beats of those. Then you need to analyse the genre for the script that you’re currently working on.
Essentially There are Three Genre Story types – The Tragic, The Comic and The Heroic. We’ll look at all three. The lense or perspective these can be told in, also comes in three – the magical number of the universe. The three perspectives are the optimistic, the pessimistic and the ironic. See the another article also about tone.
From the time of the ancient Greeks and before, stories were told that foreshadowed the tragic lives of those times. It was often told with a dramatic lense, and most often dramatic irony and tragedy. The first rule is the genre and the world of your story and the pre-existing rules of the genre story. The second rule is the difference of that world relating to the story and the cascading actions that lead to a tragic ending.
Let’s look at the story beats of A Simple Plan, this is exactly a two hour movie or 120 page screenplay. I also suggest you watch the movie at some point.
A Simple Plan
The opening credits show a carrion crow as a motif. The crow is around the dead bodies of the deceased inside the aeroplane. This is a powerful motif as it symbolizes entrapy and decay. The same way that greed causes a decay of values and material breaks down and decomposes like the corpse inside the plane.
The next sequence shows Bill Paxton as the main character working hard in a farm surrounded by animals. Again, there is a symbolism of a fox who is hunting the chickens in the farm, the same way that Bill will eventually hunt and kill those in his life for his idea of survival or a false belief of wealth and livelihood. Bill then goes home, greets the Sheriff and children in the area. A friendly neighbour in his ordinary world. He returns home to his wife who’s pregnant and everything seems to be going good for him. It’s simple, and maybe that’s the way human life should be.
Bill’s brother, played by Billy Bob Thornton enters the story and the story world and genre rules are established. This is a drama used in the nexus of story and a thriller in the nexus of actions.
Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton go to pay respects to the cemetery and in the dialogue it’s revealed that Billy, the older brother visits his fathers grave more than his younger brother. Later it’s revealed that their father tragically killed himself working hard and maintaining college payments for Bill Paxton and mortgage repayments. Bill has been sheltered and protected more than Billy- the older brother who’s jaded and quite subdued.
Bill is the prosperous accountant with a nice home and family and Billy is portrayed as a sort of bum. Billy has a friend who is also like a jobless bum and they are drinking partners. They find the money inside an aeroplane with a dead body (inciting incident) eleven minutes into the film and the story unfolds.
Because Bill is an accountant, he takes it upon himself to keep the money and distribute it out once police find the plane and the body. Tragically this plan, a simple plan, never plays out. And there we have the controlling idea, irony and tragedy. “Don’t assume or pre-judge the complexity of fate and the human conscience. It’s not simple”.
Bill’s wife played by Bridget Fonda takes on a role of almost Lady Macbeth by fueling Bill- her husband into stealing the money. Once she shares how she feels, Bill’s mind is made up and they seem to become poisoned by the idea. Now if they wanted, they could of just taken a share of the money each and enjoyed themselves and potentially burnt the rest, but that would have been another movie. Instead, they wait, Bill holds onto most of the money and doesn’t distribute everyone’s share out, and this is when the idea festers and grows, building with it more karma and weight as time goes on. It’s here where the tragic story unfolds.
For Act 2 they return to the scene to return some of the money, and like a curse it insnares them. It’s here when they kill a friend who’s passing by. Billy strikes him because he thinks their secret may be discovered. At the same time he’s protecting his younger brother and an admiration for Billy’s character starts.
It’s at around forty minutes into the movie when the controlling idea and substance of story is revealed. Billy wants to rebuild his fathers farm with his share of the money, and Bill almost laughs at him. It’s here where it’s revealed that Bill didn’t respect his father because he thought his father struggled financially and working hard on a farm is beneath him. Billy’s response echo’s this shock, that his younger brother has pity for who they are as farmers. Bill patronizes his older brother saying he doesn’t really know anything about farming. He says “you’ll end up just like dad”. It’s here when the audience discover Bill’s father struggled paying his college tuition so that he could become an accountant. After these insults and a stained tragic relationship between brothers, Billy says in the end of this sequence “this is my home Michael”. Bill looks at him with pity and doesn’t understand this, not until the tragic ending.
It’s all or nothing, how the dialogue in Act 2 represents Bill and his wife having to struggle all their lives just to be happy. A powerful inner belief that wealth will make them happy. Greed and Obsession are the major themes here. Bill becomes a father at this point and the stakes are even higher now. Bridget tells Bill to get a taped confession from his brothers friend Luke. And she tells him to get Jacob, his older brother to do it.
The meaning of wealth is now all the more important. At the same time the guilt of the murder, where Bill and Billy were present, starts to eat away at Billy. Ultimately Bill smothered his neighbour to end his life due to the fear that he’ll expose their secret and the location of the aeroplane. Their neighbour could have been led to the money and plane on purpose and they would have had a witness that the money was already missing from the plane, but that wouldn’t be a story, but a day dream. Tragedy and irony were woven so well together in this story.
Bill cheats his older brother into saying he’ll buy back the farm for him, he says “I’ll help you buy back the farm, but you have to help me first”…and invites him to dinner to get Jacob on his side. A plan that Bill and Bridget made earlier. They fear that Luke may start bribing them because he knows both brothers killed their neighbor.
For the Midpoint (60th minute) we have the dinner scene, Bill says to his older brother “you remember everything”… a sort of taunt. It’s here that Bill discovers for the first time that their father killed himself. It wasn’t a natural death or accident of the car falling into the river. We have double loaded irony here because we now understand why Billy is jaded and hasn’t made a family or life for himself. We also discover that Billy also has a conscience. Bill on the other hand has it all planned out, the family, the house, the career, but little conscience. He’s a regular guy, but almost cold. Bill’s mouth gapes when his older brother tells him.
In the next sequence and the second part of Act 2 Bill and Billy plan to trap Luke by getting a taped confession from him. By now he wants his share of the money and they need something on him to blackmail him. The motif of crows and scavengers, as well as the predatory fox killing the innocent chickens becomes clear. This scene is cleverly done and is full of suspense and intrigue because Billy berates his younger brother for the first time, but at the same time traps his only friend. Billy plays dumb throughout the whole movie but here we discover that he’s quite intelligent and playing dumb is his way of being a conversation starter. Bill insults him back by saying “what’s the plan big brother now, you trying to teach me how to drink my whiskey”. Billy replies with “I don’t drink like that, my dad didn’t drink like that” echoing how different Bill is from the family, which is loaded with inner conflict.
It’s within this seqeunce and for the Act 2 climax that there is heated talk about the money and Billy kills his freind Luke to protect his younger brother from being shot. Another tragic death and even more guilt and even bigger burden for their secret. Bill then kills Luke’s girlfriend in self defence. A death toll of three innocent people and both brothers are murderers with blood on their hands for a false belief that money will make them happy.
Most of Act 3 is the Dark Night of the Soul and All is Lost for Billy, who’s riddled with guilt. His best freind is dead and he never had a real desire for wealth anyway. An FBI agent appears who’s really the brother of dead corpse in the plane and he’s looking for the money. There’s more threat now for Bill’s family as he has to decide what to do. The audience is mislead here as Bill’s wife pleads with him not to go to with the Sheriff to the location of the plane. Billy doesn’t sit this one out even though he’s sick and comes to support his brother for the final scenes.
The fake FBI agent kills the Sheriff and Bill kills him in cold blood as he puts his gun down. Bill has come into essence and he’s no longer that nice family man Accountant, he’s evil or the greed has turned him this way. Billy runs to his brother to see the body of a dead Sheriff and what he thought was an FBI agent. There’s more irony here. This film could have been written in a way that Bill accidently shoots his brother, but accidents don’t have tragic mood and meaning. Instead, Billy has seen enough, he tells his brother to kill him. This way Bill’s story will make sense and Billy can no longer live with the guilt. The audience holds its breath as Bill tragically shoots his only brother and kills him.
In the Aftermath, it’s revealed the this is stolen money and the FBI has recorded most of the serial numbers on the money bills. Nobody can spend the money anyway and Bill takes the step to do what they should have done first, burn the money. Now Bill has to live on the way he was with his wife and family, but now with all of the burden and guilt that will likely destroy him.
In the final image of the movie, Bill stands and looks at his fathers farm with hate. He now understands why his father chose “a simple life”. Greed and desire for wealth will only lead a man to corruption.
Now we’ve gone through the main story arc, beats and elements of the architecture, we’ve discovered its irony and tragedy, let’s list the main genre principles.
- The aeroplane and dead body invokes mystery and intrigue.
- When the Sheriff rides out to their pickup once they’ve taken the money, it’s done at night to create a sense of threat and suspense.
- The images of the crows creates an eerie mystery.
- The first murder creates suspense and intrigue and a sense of danger, what’s going to happen next.
- The fact that Michael, Bill Paxton’s character smothered the old man, there’s a sense of threat. He’ll lose everything if he’s caught. Extra weight is added when his pregnant wife is introduced.
- Bill’s a family man and the stakes are high as anyone can turn on each other over the money.
- Billy’s guilt creates more intrigue as this propels his younger brother to make different choices.
- The police start an investigation when Billy’s friend and partner are killed in their home.
- Bill due to his wife’s greed and fear, is poisoned by the idea that Luke will confess and he’ll go to jail for killing the old man.
- Billy’s wife creates plans and desires for the wealth and plants them into her husband – that they keep the money that they’ve found. As the ideas fester and grow, Bill becomes darker and more evil. He has no remorse and things are spiraling out of control.
- Bill’s relationship with his older brother Billy creates high intrigue- we see his character flaws and weakness, but still want him to succeed.
- The money they’ve found is connected to crime, which creates more threat and higher stakes.
- The criminal who is pretending to be an FBI agent wants to find the money which creates danger for Billy and Bill.
- The Sheriff starts to suspect something which raises the stakes for Bill’s wife and new baby child.
- Bill gets the perfect story in the end, ” a simple plan”, that wasn’t so simple – and is no longer a suspect but still has blood on his hands and has now lost his brother.
- Bill has been involved in three murders, four to include his brother, the relationship with his wife has tarnished and he’s also lost his soul. All over a false belief and idea that several million dollars will make them live a happier prosporous life. It’s blood money.
Let’s Break Out The Three Genres that encompass this movie.
Thriller – Mystery, Intrigue, Suspense, Danger and high Stakes are usually the main components of a great thriller. Mystery and Intrigue is handled between the relationship of the two brothers and the people they interact with. Suspense is around the money and greed, danger and high stakes are the consequences of what they’ll do to fulfill their goal or be caught in this secret. And also what they’ll do to each other.
Crime – The story as the tone of justice and crime and being punished for doing wrong through the role of the Sheriff and being questioned by the law. Older classical movies had to show that crime paid, by someone being arrested or shot by a Sheriff in a typical western for example.
Drama – Here, Bill has already paid the price, not by being caught or arrested, or even killed, as in some tragic tales, but it’s been handled in a more subtle way, because Bill has lost everything ironically, all over a false belief. His life will never be the same, in his outer world and also in his inner world.
On the deeper preface, it’s a fundamental story about good and evil, right and wrong. If we think of the corpse inside the plane for a moment again- It’s life and the soul that animates that same corpse and brings it to its majesty and vibrancy that we call life. A play of spirit (god) and matter (illusion) and this is a major idea in the film. It’s almost biblical and an ancient story that has been told over and over again. This story and film has a strong theme and message and it’s these films that mature and become tastier over time. That’s art and the fabric of reality is just like the invisible metaphor of story. It’s intangible.
I talked earlier about three lenses, the optimistic, pessimistic and ironic. Well, which one’s this? It’s been portrayed with the ironic. It’s clear as the cognitive effect in the final Act.
For ‘A Simple Plan‘ The stakes, suspense, mystery and intrigue, along with the tragic circumstances woven into irony create an emotional rollercoaster, which makes this a fantastic thriller that’s very entertaining with an underlying dramatic story. Let’s now look at something also tragic, but shown with a comical lense because the tragedy in this story is more subtle, that’s just how life is and this story is not about murder.
Like tragedy, comedy also comes in multiple flavors and subgenres, the most popular being romantic comedy and these going back to ancient times of the Romans and before. The world of the Comedy genre maybe a kin to the world of a Horror movie, the tone and style that it’s told with, is totally different however. Musical horrors have subtle aspects of terror along with musical comedy sometimes and here you have the combination of three genres- horror, musical and comedy.
Combining genres is an artform and certain genres when combined create art films. The musical horror is a perfect example and has the freedom to bend away from so called reality as we understand it. With most movies being about conflict, even comedies, the resolution of conflict in the final acts may vary depending on the genre. For the comic story, we are going to look at one of my greats, and a true story – Catch Me if You Can. I am not a huge fan of Comedy or Romantic comedies for that matter, but they are all in fact buddy movies (more on that later).
This true story of Frank Abagnale combines the Drama genre, Biography, Romance and Comedy. It is also a tale of tragedy and irony and irony is usually told with the lense of a comical perspective. Frank’s personality in youth essentially is shown that he’s a carismatic young man that looks at the funny side of life, and the variables of his tragic circumstances mould him to have a comical look on life. If he didn’t he’d probably end up insane, and therefore humour is a sort of medicine, something that heals us, even from a physiological study.
Before we explore the beats of ‘Catch Me If You Can‘ and how the scenes and acts turn on irony, lets consider that Romantic Comedies usually resolve the conflict in the final stages with a happy ending. You’ll also find this in various Adventure and Fantasy genres. For a Western or Action, this may be different. The main conflict marks the beginning and the end of a story. In the beginning, it starts the action by providing the catalyst, and in the end it concludes the causal sequentiality with the climax and the height of dramatic tension. Usually, the conflict is resolved favourably, the main character gets what he or she wants, or unfavourably, the character fails. The ending also provides story meaning. In a world which is highly fictitious or innocent, bending away from the lens of reality the ending may resolve the conflict in a happy way. In a world of realism, the downward movement may be tragic.
If Catch Me If You Can was about something threatening and primal such as death or killing, it would likely combine with the Thriller genre, but it’s not- therefore comedy has been a perfect choice and vehicle for this story and it’s taken the focus of no other than Steven Spielberg to pull it off. The story still pertains to something primal doesn’t it? Themes of ambition and success. We’re talking about wealth, but unlike greed and obsession as the beats of A Simple Plan, the story is very different. Throughout it all, De Capri’s character still has that innocence, he’s young and he has a conscience. Let’s look at the beats of Catch Me If You Can to see how a true story told with the lense of comedy plays out.
Catch Me If You Can
The opening image shows Leanardo Di Caprio, playing Frank introduce himself onto a game show. How fitting, they are trying to discover from three men, who is the real Frank Abagnale. The story starts with Tom Hanks, playing the detective Carl who’s explaining his name to French police in a comical way. He then finds Frank and shows sympathy seeing him in a French jail cell. Frank appears to be sick and Carl falls for it, saying “don’t sweat it Frank, we’re going to get you to a doctor”. This sets the mood and tone for the story and also the genre of a comedy within the cup of the drama.
Frank evades and escapes for a few moments, the game of cat and mouse (theme stated) between him and Carl, which is funny, but then the scene turns on the the opposite charge of humour when a gun points to his dead and Leo looks up to Hanks and says “okay Carl, let’s go home”. A line filled with irony as we’ll discover at the end of the story. Frank didn’t really have a true home when the marriage between his mother and father fails. Let’s look at this for a moment- to cut to the chase, no pun intended Frank discovers his mother is cheating and that his father is a beaten fighter, who fought for the love of his life- his wife and Franks mother. The people around Frank are corrupt, the system is corrupt and those wearing a suit and a label get what they want. This is about popularity. No other story could be loaded with enough truth and irony in the unfolding.
We see Frank Senior played by the infamous Christopher Walken up on stage with an award and he dedicates his speech to his wife and son as Frank junior is pulling off a label from an expensive bottle of wine. Habits of a lifetime die hard. Frank has high respect for his father and an admiration which is the opposite charge for A Simple Plan. Frank goes on to tell the story of “two little mice fell into a bucket of cream, the first mouse gave up and drowned, the second mouse wouldn’t give up and struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream up into butter and crawled out”. He then follows to say “gentlemen at this moment, I am the second mouse”. The words “at this moment” create an anticipation for what’s going to happen in the story and it has a comical view of irony when we look at the sum total of actions and values.
There’s a happy and memorable sequence of Frank at home with his mother and father on Christmas, he has loving parents and a home and his future is full of promise. The next sequence turns when Walken bribes a lady into loaning him a suit with what looks like a gold chain. We discover that Frank’s father is a conman and he’s going to get a loan from the bank. At the same time and to make the sequence more interesting, Frank senior is teaching junior the ropes in how to negotiate with people and also how to drive a car. It’s handled in a comical way, but when they get to the bank the loan is rejected. This shows how a father is trying to set an example for his son, but is burnt out himself. The comical scene starts funny, but turns on a sad truth, that the American dream only favours the guy who is at the top.
For the inciting incident on the 16th minute, Frank senior’s car is taken and they have to return the loaned suits. The man is broke but he still tries to give his son hope, only knowing that banks are corrupt. Frank senior is a medal of honour winner and can’t get a loan from a country he risked his life for. They have to move out of their home into a small apartment and the story takes a downwards spiral. Frank’s mother is not happy with how things are turning out.
It’s now Frank’s 16th birthday and Walken has opened a cheque clearing bank account for his son telling him that “banks have all the money in the world and now you’re in their little club”… It the next sequence Frank is nudged by a big bully and then impersonates a French teacher, not for a day, but for a whole week. We now discover that Frank is a chip off the old block and the lessons from his father are paying off. Again it’s a scene of comedy, even when Frank’s parents are called into the school, Walken shrugs the matter off with a laugh. He understands the irony of reality and doesn’t want his son to be jaded by it, like he has become. His son has carisma and everyone likes this quality. What’s an interesting take from this scene is that Frank is an intelligent kid, and naturally it’s the bright people that rebel against the system. This story is unfolding to have a pessimists view of life in America in the narrative. This has contrast because Frank Junior is full of optimism.
In the next sequence Frank brings home his driving licence to show his mother only to discover she’s having an affair with his father’s friend. Everything is beginning to break down. Their home is no longer a home, and when Frank pulls the cigarette out of her fingers saying “you said you were going to quite”, it has a double meaning that his mother is an addict and that she’s stressed, and also that Frank still cares and believes things will get better for his family. There is no emotion of humour in this scene, only irony and empathy for Frank’s character and his situation.
The next event after the car and home going is the divorce of his parents and this occurs as the Act 1 climax as we head into Act 2 on the 28th minute of the film. Act 2 starts with Frank asking if he can write a cheque for his train ticket out of town as he flees at the news of his parents breaking up.
In the next sequence Frank is trying to cash a cheque and changes his date of birth on the cheque, after being called a “kid”. He then changes his name and manages to cash the cheque out. He’s then rejected by the bank and see’s the perfect life- being a pilot for an airline. This is Act 2 and the fun and games sequence and Frank impersonates a college student who’s working on a project to learn about Pan Am airline and pilots. We’ve seen he’s done this before as a French teacher as the setup and this is the payoff. This sequence has dramatic comedy when Frank suits up as a pilot and gains respect from everyone he meets. This scene is also full of irony, because Frank’s father told him in the beginning of the scene that “the yankees always win because the other team can’t stop staring at those damn pin stripes”. Frank starts forging Pan Am pay cheques and starts making a lot of money quickly. There’s also a sex scene here as Frank is flirting with the girls and this symbolizes the “games” in the fun and games beat.
After the next few sequences of Frank getting his way and being on a role, he meets up with his father in a fancy restaurant for a meal. Frank senior is browbeaten as things are going from bad to worse for him as his store has closed down. Frank reminds his father that it was him who took his mother home- again being an optimist, at which point Walken becomes emotional. The scene turns on Frank junior getting his father a car and the opposite charge of sadness with a toast of champagne… “To the best god damn pilot in the sky”… comical and ironic.
Around the 55th minute (the Midpoint) Frank evades Carl by pretending to be a Secret Service Agent in a hotel room where Frank has been staying. Carl falls for it again and Frank gets away. However now, Carl has seen Frank and can identify him. By seeing Frank already caught by Carl in the beginning of the story, and a story almost being told, it sets anticipation as to how Frank will be eventually caught and what will happen to him.
For the second part of Act 2, the complications and stakes rise as per Michael Hauge’s system, and this is all about the conflict with Carl- the FBI Agent and his developing relationship with Frank. From a waiter in a Diner, Carl discovers Frank is just a kid, as he reads comic books due to a name that Frank dropped and it being of a comic character. This gives further insight into Frank’s character and the genre cup of the film. This also indicates how the real Frank Abagnale must have looked much older than his real age. The scene also reflects on how Carl is drawing closer in his chase to catch Frank.
To contrast the previous beats and sequences that are loaded with irony and sad emotion of a tragic story wrapped in comedy, the next sequence is humourous with Hanks paying a visit to Frank’s mother, and the FBI agent being more interested in eating cheesecake. Frank’s mother is shocked to discover Frank has stolen over a million dollars at this point in bank fraud. In the next sequence Frank realizes he’s going to have to impersonate a doctor as the FBI have built a lot of information on Frank regarding him working for Pan Am and being a pilot. It’s also towards the final parts of Act 2 that Frank starts to fall in love with Amy Adams’s character. He starts of this way by wanting to marry her to change the dynamics of identity, the FBI is looking for a single kid but it becomes apparent that Frank really wants to marry her.
For Act 3, Frank returns to his father to tell him he’s getting married and that he wants to return all the things that his father lost, the jewellry, house, the car and this way Frank’s parents can reunite. He’s still optimistic. Frank learns in this scene when his father tells him that his mother has married again and it turns good news of Frank getting married, into sour news for his father. The first blow for Frank was that his parents were getting divorced, and now this is a second bigger blow. Frank’s father also tells him that he’s learned that the government are now chasing Frank because of all of the money he has stolen and Frank is facing a long jail sentence. For the first time in the film Frank reveals to his father that he wants to stop running, not because he’s now a bigger criminal, but because of what’s happening to his family. The scene turns with Frank running again just when he was going to settle down.
Frank flees from his to be in-laws home and becomes an airline pilot again by recruiting air hostesses. Some sequences with Hanks on the chase echo more comedy and humour and we have scenes reminiscent to the fun and games of Act 2 to create contrast. Around the 1 hour 56 minute mark Frank is caught by Carl where he’s printing cheques in bulk. He hands himself in because this time he believes that Carl is telling the truth when he tells him that the police will kill him. Throughout the entire chase Frank and Carl have lied to one another to get their way, but now they have a mutual trust. Frank has learned about Carl and Carl has learned about Frank and this is the moment that both characters are coming into essence. This is known as a double reversal.
In the Climax of Act 3, before the Aftermath, which is on the 2 hour mark, Frank learns that his father has died. It’s clear at this point that Carl has grown to like Frank and has sympathy with him as does the audience. Once again Frank tries to escape through the toilet of the aeroplane, which is original and funny. The scene turns when Frank visits his mother at home on Christmas. He likely wanted to grieve his father’s loss with her. Instead she is happy with her new family and it’s likely Frank Senior died some time ago and Frank didn’t know. When Frank learns he’s been forgotten by the only parent who’s alive, he turns himself in, again. Finally, he stops running.
For the Aftermath sequence, which lasts a good 15 minutes, Carl is visiting Frank in jail. Frank checks a cheque that has been forged and tells the FBI how the cheques are being forged. In the next scene Frank is offered a job to work for the FBI outside of serving his jail sentence in the custody of Carl. It’s apparent that Frank doesn’t like the job and tries to escape one last time, before finally coming into essence and discovering he doesn’t have to run anymore.
The tale couldn’t be more about the irony of reality. In Greek times stories were first about Tragedy, then Comedy was born, or a view from the comedic perspective. This movie is great, because both the tragic and the comic has been handled excellently. From a distance a comedy, from close up, a tragedy, but with a sort of happy ending even though the story ventures on the real life drama. Our brains are wired for pain or pleasure and this is why such stories are intriguing. Just as fantasy was born out of tragedy during the ancient Greek times, because real life problems such as war, famine or corruption could not be solved in the real world, the imagination was used to solve the problem by building a city in the clouds or to grow a pair of wings to become king of the gods, as in ‘Birds’. Euphorea both in comedy and fantasy was used as the cognitive effect in the final Acts.
Let’s have a look at the comedy conventions within the beats of this movie.
- The first scene is an encapsulation for the whole movie, but the comedy elements are introduced with Tom Hanks, and FBI agent Carl Hanratty when he’s trying to communicate with French police. The Theme is stated and so is the genre.
- Frank evades Carl, and the tone of an FBI agent who tries to be taken seriously is again pinned with a comical look. He’s an FBI agent trying to solve an important case, but keeps being outsmarted by a kid.
- Frank Abagnale senior is introduced and there’s another comical perspective when Frank offers the lady a gold chain to loan out the two suits. If this was done with a serious tone, it would have destroyed the genre. Each genre has it’s own desire line, and whenever the story foreshadows greed, or corruption, irony or the whole idea around wealth and money, it’s pinned with a comical tone.
- Frank impersonates a French teacher and the headteacher explains that Frank has held a teachers conference and organised a field trip during that time as well as sending the real substitute teacher home. I am not sure if this really happened in true life, but it’s certainly a funny scene and provides insight into Frank’s character. When he’s taken back by the complexities and sad truths of life, he humours himself by doing something outrageous. This is at the heart of all great comedy and this is also the pulse of the film.
- In the fun and games sequence of the film Frank impersonates a pilot for the first time, and starts flirting with girls. It’s done with a comical lense with slow motion and music, almost like pantomime, which is symbolic in America and that illusion called “The American Dream”. We know here that Frank’s rise is only temporary.
- Carl’s FBI associates tell jokes in the car, and tell Carl he’s always serious. He concludes by telling them a joke, where the punchline is “go fuck yourself”. Hanks laughs at his own joke whilst his colleagues are stunned.
- Frank bribes a girl into having sex with a fake gold chain, a prank his father used to pull.
- Frank meets Carl for the first time and lies telling him that he’s a Secret Service Agent. Carl falls for it and with Hank’s acting, it comes off as funny.
- Carl buys comic books, and we see them in a comical way when Hank’s discovers that Frank is just a kid. An FBI agent using comic books as evidence.
- Carl pays a visit to Frank’s mother and his colleague only wants to eat Cheesecake.
- Frank is going to impersonate a doctor and now meets his love interest. More humour is injected into the story here.
- Frank has to learn a few things about doctors by watching videos and he’s definitely not cut out to handle blood and guts. More comedy.
- Frank meet’s the parents of Amy Adam’s character, and Martin Sheen is shocked when Frank tells the story of “two mice” for a prayer at the dinner table.
- Frank has to become a pilot again and recruits air hostess’s. This is handled in the same way as the fun and games part of the movie and Frank is on the run again.
- Frank and Carl start working together and solving fraud cases, and some of this sequence at the end of the movie has a comical lense.
To mirror Frank’s character, this story has been portrayed with an optimistic view, because in the end and still now, Frank Abagnale is leading a happy life.
So far we’ve looked at the tragic and comical story types, that form the genre. In these two, the rules of the story world have created causal change to both characters, both Bill from ‘A Simple Plan’ and Frank from ‘Catch Me if You Can’. In the heroic story, the opposite happens. The hero causes change to the story world. Remember the genre is the cup, a mug, tall glass, tea cup, tumbler, pint glass, shot glass, wine glass and so on would be thought of as action, comedy, drama, thriller, adventure, sci-fi, fantasy and so on, and the three forms of story can be thought of as the drink, so tragic, comic and heroic could be thought of as tea, coffee and drinking chocolate. You could, but you wouldn’t drink hot chocolate from a wine glass, the same way you may not tell a super hero story with a tragic desire line or in the thriller genre. But it’s happened, in film and in real life. Genre conventions and rules are there to be broken.
Let’s break out the Four Genres That Encompass This Movie
Comedy – The gap between the nexus of tragedy and irony is often shown with a comical lense in this movie usually through the character of Carl or the father. Frank’s father plays the mentor role and Carl plays the role of antagonism or the FBI drawing closer to Frank.
Drama – Character Dialogue, Emotions, Inner nature and Actions are showed subtle and slow as the acts turn. It has the slow tempo and tone of great drama. It’s in the slow movements that story meaning is found.
Romance – The story shows Franks interaction with three different women. To start with it’s all about Frank’s plan, to be successful, but as it plays out he falls in love with Brenda.
Biography – The Main Beats of the story are a biography of Frank’s adventure. It’s a Dude With a Problem and a Golden Fleece, what am I talking about? More on this later.. The comedic lense has likely fictionalized the telling and story elements because ancient stories were first tragic, then comical, then these story types were combined. It’s very fitting because mans quest for success and ambition in story is also an ancient thing.
Rather than focusing on a typical archetypal hero, such as Aragorn in Lord of The Rings, who starts out as heroic in the story, or a hero from the super hero genre, whom may have abilities or powers. I am going to focus on a different type of movie and character to delve into the beats of this story type. At the same time, I’d also like to look at the narrative structure of the Action and Adventure beats of the story architecture.
The Adventure genre in western narrative history has contained three feature types, the exploration of an exotic environment, an episodic structure or one of physical conflict. The adventure story can encompass all three, Belora, The Lost Book of Teaching, which has chapters that could be broken down into episodes for example- you’d have a typical Golden Fleece story (which we’ll get into later), like Jason and the Argonautes, one of a long journey in an exotic environment, both heroic in manner with a desire line of physical conflict.
Each genre also has its own type of desire line. Within A Simple Plan, the thriller genre requires threat, death and blood, therefore any narrative around arousal of wealth, greed and obsession, resulted in a tragic loss and death as we looked at the tragic story lense. Bill starts in the story with it all, he pursues a false belief to obtain it all, with a desire of greed, and in the end, ends up with nothing, and worse of than he was in the start. Drama has correctly been chosen to tell this story. The story has a perfect marriage of thriller and drama with the third genre element being crime.
Within ‘Catch Me If You Can’, the comedy genre requires humour, whether ironic or not, note this was not handled without irony in the narrative, but a wholistic focal range that was both tragic and funny. Any time the movie was set to delve into a serious crime matter, or an FBI investigation- we seen a comical look and humour. It doesn’t matter if you out fraud millions against the banks, they are the biggest fraudsters– and that was the thinking it seems of the Abagnale family. Even the Arc was funny because Frank is now working for the banks. The comedy married to drama has told a happy ending in the end, with the third element being romance as the story also has elements of buddy love. I watched a backstage film of the actors in this movie and the real life Frank Abagnale said it was the woman he married who changed his life for the better who he met when working for the FBI. There was nothing heroic about anyone in ‘A Simple Plan’ and the only thing brave Frank did in ‘Catch Me If You Can’, was to hand himself in. Hero’s usually don’t run from their problems.
Whilst bordering on complexity, I’d also like to keep this simple by focusing on a one of my up there movies that leans towards Joseph Campbell’s A Hero’s Journey format, and an underrated Ron Howard Movie – ‘The Missing‘. This also carries a theme of Father and child, just like ‘A Simple Plan’ and ‘Catch Me if You Can’. Now unlike most Westerns, which don’t feature hero’s at all, but antihero’s- those who are dark inside and don’t hesitate to kill, just like the bad guys- for example most Clint Eastwood movies and ‘The Unforgiven’ as a classic example of an antihero. he anti-hero’s are just not as bad as the bad guys. We’ll debate whilst discovering the beats of this movie, how the genre elements of adventure, western, action and heroism combine and why Lee-Jones’s character is NOT an antihero. This is another two hour movie and we’ll also look at the 12 beats of the Hero’s Journey in more detail at the end.
The Opening Image shows Magdalena, played by Kate Blanchett as a mother doing what she can to put food onto the table for her two children, both daughters. What’s more heroic than a parent putting their children before themselves. This is a strong theme in the movie, that of parent and child relationships, those who are present, and those who are missing, hence the title.
Maggy has to hold an old woman down to remove her tooth that may cause infection and doesn’t even get paid for it at the end. The world we are introduced to has the grittiness of a typical western and this makes an interesting contrast from a typical hero movie, one with flying men in latex suits bordering into the fantasy genre.
Within this opening sequence of hunting animals as livestock, and that carnal tone of death and survival, a strange native Indian looking man, played by Tommy Lee Jones rides towards Maggy’s ranch. The dialogue sets the story “he’s Indian, some kind of an apache son of a bitch”… Inferring us to ask the question, what kind of Indian is he? In fact, what kind of man is he? He asks Maggy’s partner Brake “is that the healers ranch?”, then silently rides towards it.
There’s a sense of threat in the opening sequence when the Indian- Jones, is granted to stay the night before getting doctoring. This also sets up conflict before the inciting incident. The tone of teenager girls, Maggy’s daughter who is rebelling against her mother and a stranger Indian coming to the ranch, brings a sense of danger. Maggy asks Brake “What Indian?” in a state of shock when her younger daughter Dot states, “I didn’t do it, It’s that old Indian’s dumb old mule…”. Maggy is startled when she sees him and Brake asks her later, who he is after she turns Jones down for supper. The sequence concludes on the night with Maggy saying “he’s bad and I do not want him near my children”…. This is a diversion but creates anticipation.
In the next sequence, Jones interrogates Brake as though he’s come to him for his blessing, The scene starts with them having a mutual understanding, man to man, and ends with Jones giving Brake a threat. This raises intrigue, and a distraction or diversion for when he’s later killed by Indians. Brake drops Jones’s plate of food beside him and walks away likely embarrassed or outraged. The scene ends with Jones sketching an image of a horse, revealing his true nature, no matter whether Native American or modern American, it’s the personality of a man and one who admires nature and beauty.
In the morning Jones is reciting an Indian prayer which appears to acknowledge and value nature as being the greatest creative force. Jones walks into Maggy’s house on the 16th minute, who’s waiting, a heap of frustration and nerves. He tries to make up for lost time but Maggy’s not interested. She bandages him up for having a torn muscle and says “you’ll live”. The scene then turns when she refuses money he offers her and tells him to use it for his funeral. Then a fight breaks out and Brake threatens to shoot Jones and tells him to get off the ranch pointing a shotgun towards him. Jones just gives him that stare.
In the next sequence and for the 23rd minute, Maggy is waiting for her family to return home who’ve gone out to the town. She waits up all night until she heads out to find them, only to run into Brake who’s been killed and disfigured by native Indians. This is around the 26th minute and is the inciting incident. Maggy suspects her father may have something to do with this. Later, she learns by Dot that the her older sister Lilly has been abducted by the men. On the 30th minute Maggy discovers her father in jail, he’s been drinking on the night. Dot is telling her grandfather that Indians did it. Jones looks deeply saddened to hear this. The Sheriff asks what should be done with Jones and Maggy tells him to let him go, then she acts the line “I don’t care” to follow after. The narrative is already showing a story portrayed with a pessimistic lense… “The Missing”.
For the Act 2 Break into the 32nd minute Maggy is telling her younger daughter Dot to go and stay with the neighbours. She argues with her mother that she’s going with her. It’s at this point that Maggy sees her father Jones coming back to the ranch. She looks relieved for a moment. Later, Jones tells her that the army are heading their chase in the wrong direction. Jones has used his native Indian abilities to track the exact number of horses and where they are heading. Stubborn Maggy turns her face away into the wilderness but listens carefully to her father. When she hears that her daughter Lilly may be sold at the Mexican border, she asks her father to help her. He takes the call to action immediately like a true hero.
On their way, Jones asks about his daughter and her children and gets to know her a little more, the scene turns by Maggy telling her father “What you’re doin, your doing for your own soul. Because what you’ve done, can’t be undone”.
In this sequence we meet the villain and like any heroic stories bady guy is someone terrible, well this villain is anyway. He kills his victims and pulls out their hearts, putting them into the earth. He uses the poison of snakes, and the claws of birds to poison those he murders to kidnap and abduct women for trafficking, using nature against nature. In this sequence they strike a town and abduct a young woman and her baby, by killing her husband.
In a cave the women are having their pictures taken so that they can be sold. The ring leader and antagonist mocks the photographer who insists they have a photo taken. The photographer takes a heroic step and tries to leave evidence after Lilly pleads to him for help. Maggy and her father Jones in the next scene venture into a town where many people have been killed. A native Indian man is dressed in a confederates outfit and Jones mocks him because of the way he’s dressed. The native man mocks Jones in return. A crisis of identity?
Just a side note, and this isn’t a typical superhero movie, but don’t most hero’s have a way of wearing a costume or disguising their identity in some way… One thing is clear in the narrative, Jone’s heart is native to the land, he believes in natural order and is trying to heal his soul. He also respects nature, therefore unlike most Westerns, Jones is not an anti-hero.
The army arrives and suspect Jones who looks Indian for killing the people in that town, ironically he doesn’t know the name of his grand daughter and they try to shoot him. Despite several men shooting towards Jones, he doesn’t fire back. Even when he has two shotguns pointing at them. Maggy runs out in attempt to save him and tells the Captain – “he’s no Indian, he’s my father”. Jones regrets the years he’s missed with her.
The cavalry start to loot the homes of the dead, they also have some Apache Indians chained up. Jones tells Maggy that he’s going to camp down by the river, that he may misbehave and somebody may have to kill him, interestingly not that he may have to kill someone. He naturally doesn’t like the ethics of this army. Maggy wants to ride with the army instead of her father. They refuse the burden that may hold and she looks into her daughters eyes, and sees herself. She was around the same age as Dot when Jones left her. Dot naturally wants to get to know her grandfather, and she seems to resemble his personality and character and like him. This is a good mirror that has been used.
When Maggy gets to his camp, Jones tells her that he may be able to buy Lilly back in the morning if they catch up to them. This is around the 50th minute mark. Maggy is relieved.
In the next scene the photographer is developing photos and he’s buried some of the pictures of girls outside in the soil. Another heroic thing. The witch man doesn’t approve of any of his photos and kills him in a gruesome way. The witch man doesn’t like the photo because of a light shown on the film. When the photographer is killed, Lilly takes an arrow from a deer she is skinning. The witchman, almost with dark abilities, looks at her as though he knows what she’s just done. This villain has similar abilities to Jones. He senses things.
In the next scene, Jones discovers the man who’s captured Lilly is a witch. At this point he wants Maggy and Lilly to wear a beaded necklace that will protect them from the spell or dark magic. Jones understands the dark nature of the witch man and wants to protect his family.
For the midpoint, Jones and Maggy reach a canyon that they have to cross. The story cascades into a montage of visual pieces of action and adventure. A storm is blowing in and Maggy and Dot are trying to cross the water. Dot’s horse bolts and she falls into the river. Maggy’s now on the brink of losing her second daughter and there’s danger. Heroically, Jones goes into the turbulent water after her. Her foot is caught on a rock. After a struggle Jones finds her and cuts the boot loose and saves her. At the same time, Lilly is trying to break loose at the witches camp. The sequence turns from negative to positive back to negative as a man attempts to rape Lilly. An Indian man helps Lilly creating more story dimension.
Back at Jones’s camp fire, he’s shivering and almost lost his life. Maggy is just looking at her father. She then tells him she’s glad he was there. The scene then turns from a positive beat to negative as he concludes to tell her that he was bitten by a rattle snake and a Shaman told him to do something good for his soul. Maggy’s feelings go from positive to negative as she learns her father may be helping her because of what he’s been told to do by the Shaman.
For the start of the second part of Act 2, Jones, Maggy and Dot make a stand and attempt to shoot some of the men in attempt to free Lilly as they cross by. Dot decides to use binoculars which reflect the sunlight and now Jones and his family have to flee. The Indians chase after them. Maggy leaves a hair brush behind in a rush. Jones and his family are chased by Indians, it turns out that they are helping them for horses. One of the Indian’s is Jones’s old friend. Jones negotiates in the native tongue and Maggy treats his friends son’s shoulder. They now have an extra two guns. At Jones’s camp, where Maggy left her brush- the witch finds it and takes her hair. The sequence turns by Maggy helping the Indian boy who’s got an arrow cut in his shoulder.
For the Act 2 Climax Maggy is sick, it’s inferred that the Indian boy may be carrying a disease earlier, but the witch is performing a dark spell on Maggy’s hair which is making her spirit restless. What’s interesting is that Jones recognises this, and he continues to put the beads around Maggy’s neck asking her if she left anything behind. The scene resembles a priest helping a possessed woman in the Christian faith. Jones’s new Indian friend burns some sage and they all start reciting prayers to help Maggy. The witch from a distance competes with them, by using dark forces and swinging Maggy’s hair in what appears to be the skin of a rattle snake. After some time, good prevails and the spell is broken.
For the start of Act 3, Jones decides to walk into the witches camp and ask if he can buy some girls. He’s trying to buy back Lilly. The witch doesn’t like Jones from the start and declines his offer. Villains never like a hero. He then asks him in the native tongue, “there are two dogs inside of you, one is good and one is bad and they are both tearing away at each other”. The witch knows that Jones’s soul is restless. He then blinds Jones and they kick him down the hill of the canyon. In the mean time Jones’s Indian friend recovers his wife and is trying to find who Lilly is by showing her a crucifix, she starts to scream asking what’s happened to her mother and gives it away. The witch and his men capture the Cherikowa Indian and they slaughter him.
Jones is now virtually blind and follows a hawk that comes beside him, like an old spirit to guide him. Jones asks the hawk to guide him. Jones miraculously returns to his daughter and tells her to go home whilst she still has one daughter still alive. She tells him she can’t leave her, and then Maggy asks her father if he can just leave her. The question carries the same burden and value of him leaving Maggy all those years ago. He owes Maggy this much and that old bond of blood between father and daughter is building. Jones musters up his strength and energy for one more last time in an attempt to recover Lilly. Now they are one man down.
Back at the witch camp the women are being dressed up to be sold. Jones uses Dot as a distraction as the body of the dead Indian rides around in circles whilst Maggy and Jones take aim to kill some men. Maggy and Jones with the Indian boy take a offensive stand and kill several men with a well thought out plan. The girls get away and the witch has been defeated. The scene turns and the villain now has no girls to sell and needs horses. He kills the men who have come to buy the girls and takes their money and horses.
For the final climax of the movie, Maggy asks her father why he left them. Jones tells her that he was bored with the everyday life and his soul wanted to search to see what else there was to life. That it was difficult for him to stay around and he protected his family from himself. He also says that he’s hurt his family for the things he’s done and things he has not done. Maggy tells him she’s not forgiving him and then gives her father the crucifix his mother gave him. Jones says “I really like this, your mother gave it to me. I never meant to leave it behind.” This offers insight into Jones and his troubled soul.
In the final battle with the witch climbing the peak of the plateau with his men to kill Jones’s family. Jones does the most heroic thing possible and gives his own life by pushing the witch off, and himself to save his daughter and his family. The cognitive effect and thoughts for the finale are “a father will always be a father and you can’t judge a man’s whole life by some of his past actions”. In a way, isn’t every good father a super hero in their own right? It’s certainly not easy. This movie has a pessimists narrative, because the glass is half empty. There’s always something trying to change what’s normal or natural. Even the title “The Missing” is pessimistic.
Let’s look at the break down of why this is a heroic story,
- Jones is an old man that’s been bitten by a rattle snake and is sick. When he learns his grandaughter has been taken whilst in jail, he returns home to see his daughter, even though she pretty much humiliated him and caused him to get into a fight and then drink all night.
- When Dot asks Jones if she’s half Indian or if her grandmother was Indian, he tells her the truth immediately and respects the childs question.
- Jones accepts the call to action immediately and sets out to help his daughter
- When Jones is being fired at by the army soldiers in the town where people have been killed, he doesn’t fire back. They falsly accuse him of killing the people but he wants them to learn the truth.
- Jones can’t stand it when the army soldiers are looting homes of the dead and are mistreating native Indians, even though by birth, he’s a white American he’s adpoted the native Indian way of thinking. To him, race doesn’t matter.
- In a sad and sardistic world, Jones appreciates nature and balance. He tells Maggy and Dot to protect themselves with healing beads when he learns they are dealing with a witch.
- Jones from several beats discovered, is like a free spirit. He loves to live off the land and in nature and respects the indigenous way of life.
- For the midpoint Jones saves his granddaughter Dot from drowning in a river and goes in after her during a storm. Like all hero’s, Jones is fearless.
- After the midpoint around a camp fire Jones is honest and tells his daughter that the Shaman told him to look after his family. This also shows character dimension.
- For Act 3 Jones tries to buy back Lilly and heads into a very dangerous situation where he is almost killed. Using the symbiosis and understanding of nature and the good forces around him, he finds his way back to Maggy when a hawk spirit guides him.
- After all that has happened, Jones musters up his courage and tries again. They set out, outnumbered to get Lilly back.
- Jones helps rescue Lilly from the men and returns her safely to her mother, including all of the other girls.
- Jones tells Maggy in the final minutes of the last Act that he left to protect his family from himself. Regrettably, that he didn’t do the things he should have for those people he loved.
- Jones gives his own life to save his daughter and family.
Here are the beats of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Jones’s return to Elixir, is him being reunited with his wife no doubt, in the spirit world.
- The Hero begins in their ORDINARY WORLD
- They then receive a CALL TO ADVENTURE
- The Hero may be RELUCTANT or REFUSE THE CALL
- Then they meet their MENTOR, whom helps guide them
- Enters a new world, CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD
- Where they face TEST, ALLIES & ENEMIES
- The Hero cross a second threshold as they APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE
- Experiences the ORDEAL, of their most difficult challenge
- Receive a REWARD
- Finally are on route to THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World
- Cross their third and finally threshold, experiencing RESURRECTION
- They RETURN TO ELIXIR
Here Maggy is the Protagonist, but the Hero is Jones. Maggy’s mentor is her father- Jones and the story is about dual protagonists as a single unit.
Let’s Break Out the Three Genres that Encompass this movie
Action – Various Fight Scenes, Rescuing Dot From the River, Riding On Horseback and Recovering Lilly From the Wilderness. The interaction with the world and land.
Adventure – The Golden Fleece Element That Jones and Maggy head out into the Wilderness to Track Down Lilly and go through several inner changes.
Western – Sub Genre of Cowboys and Indians work well within the Main Genre and Story Architecture because it gives a background of historical conflict which justifies the stories main conflict of those times and the lack of value for life in the wild west.
So to summarise the first part of this article, we’ve looked at three movies in detail. I suggest you watch these movies if you haven’t already.
- We’ve looked at a Thriller – A Simple Plan in the Tragic story setting and looked at the various elements and components of the thriller genre, i.e. mystery, intrigue, threat, danger and suspense in the air of death and killing.
- We’ve looked at a True Life Drama story – Catch Me if You Can, not exactly a true comedy, but with a comical view and we’ve looked at the elements of humour that pertain to that story type in the nexus of great Drama.
- We’ve looked at an Action Adventure golden fleece type movie, ‘The Missing‘, about a journey and discovery in the heroic story setting, looking at all of the various elements of a hero’s journey.
Story Architecture Categories
Now that we understand what genre is in a little more detail, and how it can work in stories, we’re going to simplify a few things and put everything regarding genre into another perspective. Firstly there is a story type, is it tragic, comical or heroic? Has the narrative portrayed optimistic, pesamistic or ironic? What genres will the this story have or to recall the analogy, what drink will taste the nicest. Which cup will it be presented in so it cannot be resisted? We’ve sort of got all that in the bag, now we need to look at the substance of genre and its movements. Each genre has a desire line, shape and form. Each genre has a category.
Is your genre design squashable? If you squash a can of your favourite drink, you can still see with your eyes and visual memory whether it’s still a can of Ice Tea for example? Well, you have to be able to do the same thing with your stories genre model. So what do we mean by squashable? Before We look at that, you need to understand that there are 10 movies categories in Blake Snyder’s system:
Monster in The House
Out of The Bottle
Dude With a Problem
Rites of Passage
Why Done It
The Fool Triumphant
Well Arachnophobia is a typical Monster In The House movie, but the rules of Monster In the House have been ignored. That’s why by the midpoint we switch off when watching the movie. It doesn’t work because those rules of monster in house are no longer a house, the monster too can be stepped on and the little spider has gone. Soon the spiders are in the whole town and that’s when we lose interest because the problem and conflict have been diluted. Our brains need demographics and Arachnophobia is a mishmash, it starts off like a thriller, in the jungle, there’s threat, and it’s about the fear of spiders, then it turns into a comedy.
Unlike Catch Me If You Can, the comedy in the spider movie is just events. In the prior, it’s complexly woven into the beats of the story of tragedy and drama like a perfect tapestry. Mixing thriller and comedy is therefore definitely a bad idea. All the weight, tension and threat of the thriller has gone. Mixing drama and comedy, a perfect match.
A musical horror of comical horror on the other hand, is tasty. Are we supposed to be afraid of the spiders? That are easily exterminated? Or did the writer have Arachnophobia himself? I think the best thing about that movie is John Goodman’s role…. The comedy element of John Goodman in Arachnophobia certainly works better in ‘Cloverfield Lane’ another Monster In The House Sci-Fi, which is also a thriller. The comedy element here is limited. This is naturally used to create contrast, that settling of nerves before we are jolted into supposedly terror, but combining elements has to be understood before executed. Certain ingredients just don’t mix. If you do, you better be an alchemist!
Whilst staying true to genre and the various story forms we’ve seen, how do you avoid cliches? The best way is to give your genre and story a twist. Putting a fresh spin on things and happens every day. Aren’t most cars, just the same model, just the bumpers and light designs change every four to five years. Otherwise how much would it cost to redesign each vehicle and how much money do people waste wanting the next big things. It’s time to rant, it’s time to go into Blake Snyder mode…
What is your movie most like?
When you go off to the cinema, you generally have an idea of what type of movie you like, it goes the same when you chose your clothes, your furniture, your house and your car. So why should movies be different. If you haven’t written an effective genre model and blueprint for your story, it likely will never be made, unless you do it yourself ofcourse, but even then you’ll face challenges. So get it right the first time… This is about measuring, measuring, measuring, then cut! I mean cut that scene that does nothing for the story…
Monster in The House
This is one of the most common films, it’s also primal, about survival, “don’t be eaten”, life and death. The works of great thriller movies such a Psycho, Jaws, Aliens and Jurassic Park to haunted house and horror movies such as The Shining, Poltergeist and many others. Just as in the name, there are two components, a monster and a house, or a confined area such as ‘Panic Room’ or even a space ship, such as Subject Six or ‘Event Horizon’. Of course, didn’t you know, Subject Six is monster in the house! And Jenny only leaves the ship until the very end of the movie.
Other Monster in the House movies are The Exorcist, Burning Bright, Mothers Day and Misery. They all happen in a house, just like Cabin In The Woods for the horror genre. Can you think of three other Monster In the House movies? I only have to say “Monster In the House” and you get the idea for several movies. Their genres and various sub genres may differ, but they are all Monster in The House. Jaws is a Thriller, Whilst The Exorcist is a Horror, two very different genre movies, but essentially a similar architecture and terrifying and a similar META- Mood, Emotion, Tone and Atmosphere. One film is supernatural, whilst the other is about a big fish with big teeth just as the ancient Minotaur myth as the Monster.
Other more recent monster in the house thriller movies are ‘The Invitation’, ‘A Quiet Place’ and ‘Hush’. All of these movies pertain to the rules of Monster In the House and that’s why they are on screen today enjoyed by millions of people.
These are typical quest or journey based movies, movies that have some type of quest or mission, such as Jason and the Argonauts, Star Wars, The Missing which we’ve studied, Back to The Future, Wizard of Oz, Belora, The Lost Book of Teaching, soon to be an adventure animation and even movies like Heist movies such as Oceans 11, and rescue adventure movies such as Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen to name a few. The modern father of such movies is likely to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and we’ll talk more about this movie later. These fleecy movies are usually about going on a journey or quest to obtain something, such as a Golden Fleece, but then the hero winds up with something else.
Can you name three or four Golden Fleece movies?
Out of The Bottle
Out of The Bottle indicates summoning a genie, wish or spirit, or even a spell or a magic formulae. These are typically comedies such as Flubber, The Mask, Bruce Almighty, Liar, Liar and Freaky Friday to name a few. Someone has made a wish and it has been granted. Here’s a debate, what’s Home Alone, he wishes for his family to go away, but the story is about self discovery and a message to be learned. It’s not exactly a Golden Fleece, but I would categorize it as Monster In The House, especially for the final Act. So ‘Home Alone’ is Out Of the Bottle, and Monster in the House. You’ll find that most movies can fit into two categories and the bad ones, sometimes three as the genre rules has been diluted or distorted.
Name an Out of The Bottle, that’s not a comedy…
Dude With a Problem
These movies may vary in style and tone and atmosphere and here you may have the most variation. Movies like Breakdown and Die Hard, to Castaway and The Terminator and not to forget the hit Catch Me if You Can. Another very contained Dude with a Problem that’s not exactly an Action genre movie is ‘Buried’. Again, two components, a guy or girl with a big problem to solve.
Can you name three? That should be easy…
Rites of Passage
Every change of life story, growing pains, coping with death, old age, comeuppance tales, life transition are those movies such as Kramer vs Kramer, Ordinary People, Tender Mercies and even those with a comical look such as Tootsie. Hoffman is a guy with a problem who can’t get a job, but ultimately it’s about mid-life crisis. Mrs Doubtfire is a classic midlife crisis movie as Robin’s character copes with divorce. Can you see a pattern, similar movies, similar blueprints? Both hits…
These are movies about friends, partners, lovers, buddy cops and even comedy doubles such as Laurel and Hardy. As well as Buddy cop movies such as Rush Hour, Lethal Weapon to movies about friends such as Dumb and Dumber, Wayne’s World and Finding Nemo.
Why Done It
Why Done It’s are the detective or crime movies, where we probe into the dark pits of the human mind to see Why something was done. We often ask a person question also during or towards the end of these movies about ourselves, could it be possible for us to do something like this? Would we be tempted. Great Why Done It movies are those such as Seven, Mystic River, A Simple Plan, Chinatown, JFK and The Insider.
There’s many of these, how many can you think of?
The Fool Triumphant
These movies are when there’s an underdog who is constantly told or reminded that they cannot do something and they succeed. The fool could be stupid, underprivileged in some way, special with an inability or disability. The phrase “fool triumphant” was coined because initially they may do everything wrong. It’s a bit of a Golden Fleece also and could involve some type of journey. These story types are found in movies like Forrest Gump, Armadaous, Rudy, Cool Runnings and Shrek.
How many can you think of?
Large organisations, groups of people, uniforms, politics or institutionalized groups of people is what this story is about. The main character is usually part of these groups or a group of people where this may pose some type of conflict. These movies are One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, American Beauty, The Godfather, Breakfast Club and Police Academy to name a few.
This one’s difficult, can you think of another two or three?
Need I say anymore? You’ll be surprised to learn that Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, Gandhi and The Man Who Knew Infinity are all within this category. Unlike A Dude With A Problem, the superhero usually is extraordinary in an ordinary world. The world or rules of the word do not change them, but they change it. Some of these are true stories such as those of Mohandas Gandhi, John Nash, Ramanujan and Ed Snowden…. These movies can also be viewed as a Dude With A Problem, who doesn’t fit into that world, or rules of that world.
There are many other examples. You should be able to name at least five…
To make things easier. I have created a PDF Cheat Sheet that lists 60 movies that fall into the story type of Tragic, Comic and Heroic. Look at the genres and as an exercise for each one list whether this has been shown through an optimistic, pessimistic or ironic lense. So let’s go back to my original question about being squashable…
Everyone has seen a can of coke, if you smash a can of coke, you can still see that it’s a coke can- even though it’s out of it’s form. If you can crush your story, will the genre and concept lose its form? Look at the movies in the cheat sheet, they are all squashable, in the story form and genre. If your screenplay loses form by squashing the scenes and sequences, or even blanking some out, then you haven’t designed an effective genre story. This is not about the structure of the movie, but more about the types of bricks and colour schemes, more the tone and style of the movie. The META and the FETMA.
For those of you interested in some more advanced reading, see this paper on William Goldman and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and how the Adventure Plot and Genre is explored in classic movies exploring older genre conventions that have now evolved into newer story architecture and conventionality.
Genre Conventions and Sub Genres
We haven’t explored the Horror genre so far, so let’s do a little of that now and also get specific. We’ll look at conventions and the different narratives and lenses. Firstly, in a movie you have – ACTION – LOCATION – ROLES. Naturally, the same for the blueprint – the screenplay.
Let’s look at a Classic Horror Thriller – Psyscho from Alfred Hitchcock and that infamous shower murder scene.
A Woman is slashed to death
[danger and threat]
The main protagonist (we thought) is killed. And we’re propelled with intrigue into asking what’s going to happen next.
Witin a few minutes and likely one page on the screenplay FOUR main components of a thriller movie – danger, threat, suspense and intrigue are encapsulated into one scene.
Now Psyscho is a typical Monster In the House, perhaps one of the original ones. I have to tell you that the lense of Monster In The House may be vague or more of an entertainment value. Shit just happens and most Monster movies just offer an exploration into that action. The Halloween franchise being a typical example although some of the more recent movies have become more sophisticated. This is typical to Horror movies upto around the 1980’s, apart from the intense drama’s, there’s nothing cerebral about them. The Exorcist is not as cerebral as ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ for example, similar stories, two completely different lenses. That’s because the narrative is different. Emily Rose is based on true events and this delves more into belief and religion within that movie.
Now Psyscho is still a horror, but the possible possession of Norman Bates is shown in a more subtle way and likely for the first time in Cinema. This is how the conventions of genre has changed for the Horror industry. It’s become more naked, in focus, graphic and violent. The Exorcist apitamizes blunt obscenity and vulgarity with some of the most horrific and graphic scenes ever recorded even for today’s standard for the genre.
There are several more recent horror movies that do this, and if that’s the genre that you wish to write, I suggest you study them. If you write horror, what’s the message? Is it a vague Monster In the House for entertainment value, some vampires teeth and a hint of blood which is what Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were doing almost 100 years ago? Is it constant terror and suffering which there’s nothing wrong with, it’s still highly marketable today. The teenagers still flee to the cinema to be terrified and then flee out of it when they’re done and as you get older, looking after that ticker becomes more important.
With a Simple Plan naturally we have a Why Done It, not a Monster In the House. Now the location of A Simple Plan is contained, not as contained as the shower scene is Physco, but it’s all within a town, just like Jaws but the Monster is not the focus in ‘A Simple Plan’. The focus of that movie is more cerebral into the nature of a human, their temptations and why they will commit such crimes when under pressure, where real or illusion. This is a metaphysical monster i.e. greed and desire.
Although Crime happens in Psycho, it’s not a Sub Genre in this movie. If we look at A Simple Plan, CRIME is a Sub Genre, and you also have TWO further components – secrets and mystery in the Crime genre or Sub Genre. I can’t believe that Oceans 11 is listed as a CRIME genre movie. Robbing the casino in that movie has been portrayed as a beautiful thing carried out by beautiful people. There’s no threat of the law for the protagonists to my recollection, or a lense into justice therefore it’s incorrectly listed. Did you notice that on the cheat sheet?
Now movies that do highlight the Crime genre from a justice perspective, and some greats to study if that’s what you write are Double Jeopardy, High Crimes, Twisted, A Time To Kill, Insomnia, LA Confidential, The Usual Suspects, Silence of The Lambs, The Fugitive and The Negotiator. Which ones have I missed? That’s a good starting point. Personally, I like to delve into secrets and mystery and another “up there” Gary Tao movie is The Da Vinci Code and we’ll explore that in a moment in the Thriller genre.
Binding Premise Ideas, Story Architecture and Genre
Can you bind premise, idea, emotion and story into the working engine of its genre? For this article let’s focus more on the thriller genre, as that’s the genre I am most proficient with. I likely have the equivalent of a PhD in film, partilary the Thriller genre and I am studying a Masters Degree material in screenwriting. I have a long list of favourite and iconic movies in the thriller genre which we’ll cover in another article compared to any other genre type and lense. I have also written several screenplays in the Thriller genre.
A THRILLER creates the “thrilling” experience for the audience by pitting an unknowing/unwitting, but resourceful Hero against a dangerous villain who is committed to destroy anyone who gets in their way. And the job is to stack as much suspense, mystery, intrigue, betrayal, tension, and twists as possible to keep increasing that thrilled state.
Let’s look at one of my favourite Dan Brown films- The Da Vinci Code and Reverse Engineer it because to know how to bind something, is to first break it out.
Unwitting but Resourceful Hero:
Professor Robert Langdon
Sir Leigh Teabing / Priory of Sion
Revealing / Concealing the alleged truth behind the bloodline of Christ (holy grail)
Life and Death Situations:
1 – Death of Jacques Sauniere, 2 – Escaping Fache and French intelligence after the inciting incident, 3 – Sibilas, Opus Dei chasing Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, 4 – Leigh Teabing and Priory of Sion attempting to kill Robert Langdon, 5 – Local authorities searching for the two renegades on the quest for truth
This movie is Thrilling because?
It intertwines the huge biblical mystery based in historical fact and lore across all cultures, but it perfectly balances the theme of mystery, crime and a quest for the truth, led by a Professor and a woman who wants to know why her uncle was killed. It’s cleverly done, the mystery of the Mona Lisa and Da Vinci’s dedication brings us from the historical to the present- the desire of Sophie wanting to know why her uncle was murdered, turns out to be linked to the very conspiracy of the holy grail.
- What is the BIG Mystery, Intrigue, and Suspense of this story? Mystery:
The very truth behind the source of god’s creation and the bloodline of the son of man and Christ’s divine bloodline, was married and had a child. Intrigue:
How Professor Langdon will uncover the truth- using historical data, his ability as a cryptographer and simply good fortune as they conquer the very odds that are against them and the religious organisations. Suspense:
The sequence of events, the fact that a Professor and an intelligent man is on the run from the powers that be, along with the innocence of a harmless woman. You don’t want the two of them to fail- for Christ’s sake!
Life and Death situations:
1 – Death of Jacques Sauniere
2 – Escaping Fache and French intelligence after the inciting incident
3 – Sibilas, Opus Dei chasing Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu
4 – Leigh Teabing and Priory of Sion attempting to kill Robert Langdon
5 – Local authorities searching for the two renegades on the quest for truth
6 – Overall confusion of truth and circumstance of Protagonists in the movie becomes an invisible Antagonist
7 – Sibilas kills an innocent Nun who’s trying to help him.
8 – Leigh Teabing being the teacher and now attempting to kill Langdon and Sophie Neveu to protect the secret of the Holy Grail.
Understanding the binding of genre elements within your story’s architecture is to first note down all of the ingredients and elements that form your story. You can use the same above model for a horror or comedy. You would replace Mystery, Intrigue and Suspense in a Comedy with Comedy, Humour and Irony. The comedy would be in the sequence of scenes, a sort of short story in itself, with the revealing of something humerous. Within that tone you could have irony with some further insight into the characters situation. Where as a Thriller is more mysterious and cryptic or secretive, a comedy is more candid and revealing. It’s within this that we find the humour and potentially irony and like we’ve seen with Catch Me If You Can even tragedy.
For a Horror movie you would replace the MIS – Mystery Intrigue and Suspense with TDS – Terror, Danger and Shock. Darker and more violent thrillers have these elements too such as the ‘SAW’ franchise. A more supernatural horror such as ‘The Ring’ would have more suspense and mystery also.
For Fantasy or Sci-Fi the world or rules of that world would be different, there could still be mystery and intrigue for either of these. For a typical Sci-Fi, not about another world or aliens, such as AI – ‘Artificial Intelligence‘ you’d replace TDS with PWI – PWI – Phenomena, Wonder and Intrigue. For any alien type movie such as ‘Predator’ , there would naturally be Suspense, Danger and Threat – suiting the Action genre more. It’s about knowing your story first, and its message and then picking the various flavours, elements and ingredients that would uplift that story. You would start by studying several films in the genre you wish to write.
A Sci-Fi doesn’t necessarily have to be about space or aliens from another planet, it can be about simple concepts- such as intelligent primates- ‘Planet of the Apes’ , or a super intelligent young man, who has an incredible memory and can withstand electricity – ‘Powder‘ . There is nothing much science “fiction” about this and most science fiction, including aliens, is actually science fact. Trust me… I know.
I have created another General Genre Cheat Sheet with more movies on it. As a task I suggest that you study the movies listed here for the Genre that you wish to write or improve. Reach out to me via firstname.lastname@example.org as I’d like to hear how you get on.
Hopefully this in depth article has helped you understand Genre and the Conventions in more detail.
If you want to take an in depth look at conventions for each genre type and a study of Sub Genres, which includes an analysis from me on how well your script works with the genre architecture of your story, take the Genre Course listed in the Courses Page.