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Horror Genre

Horror (28 Days Later, Jurassic Park, Nightmare on Elm Street) is about
humans in decline, reduced to animals or machines by an attack of the
Its the narrowest of all the genres, so you may be surprised to know that
horror has more unique story beats 15 than any other form.
Horror is often considered the first genre because it asks the most
fundamental Key Question: what is human and what is inhuman?
Horror occurs because we fear the inhuman entering our world. Or, in
better horror stories, we fear seeing the inhuman in ourselves.
Desire Line:
To Defeat a Monster
Key Question:
What is Human and what is Inhuman?
-Active Hero and Intelligent Monster
-Flip the Human and Inhuman
Must See:
-28 Days Later
-King Kong
-Nightmare on Elm Street
-The Shining

Fantasy Genre
If Horror is about man in decline and society shutting down, Fantasy
(Harry Potter, Enchanted, Big, The Truman Show) is about an individual
discovering the hidden possibilities of life, of society opening up.
The essential fantasy story strategy involves a journey from mundane to
fantastical and back to the mundane again. Therefore, more than any other
form, fantasy is won and lost in the premise set-up.
The Harry Potter stories have shown us what an appealing form this is,
worldwide, in large part because the audience gets to explore an imaginary
new world. But thats also where the challenge lies. Youve got to create a
detailed world the audience has never seen, while maintaining the strong
narrative drive that hit movies require.
Desire Line:
To explore an imaginary world
Key Question:
How do you live with style and freedom?
Heros Weakness:
One way to maintain narrative drive within a world is to establish a deep
psychological weakness in your hero that will be severely tested when the
hero enters the fantasy world. This grounds the story and makes it personally
meaningful to the audience. Also, without the initial character weakness, the
fantasy makes no sense.
Fantasy World solves the need:
Make sure the fantasy world solves the need the hero had in the mundane
world. When he returns home, he has solved his personal problem and the
mundane world is now a playground.
Must See:
-Harry Potter
-Field of Dreams
-Mary Poppins

Sci Fi Genre
Science Fiction (Star Trek, The Matrix, Children of Men) is about human
evolution on the grandest scale, literally the universal epic.
Film is the perfect medium for this genre, which is why Science Fiction
has become a favorite form of mainstream film worldwide.
Science fiction is literally the most creative of all genres.
You create everything the entire world.
Science fiction is closer to social philosophy than any other form.
J.J. Abrams popular re-imagining of Star Trek seems effortless in its
execution. But it masks the fact that Science Fiction scripts often fail,
because telling a personal, emotionally satisfying story on such an epic scale
is very hard.
Key point: science fiction is not about predicting the future. It is about
looking at the present world through different eyes.
The big error: the writer creates a futuristic world that is so weird it has
no one-to-one connection with the real world the writer is commenting on.
The result is that the audience has no emotional connection to the story.
Desire Line:
To deal with tools of the World
Key Question:
How do you create a better world?
Key Point:
Sci-Fi is not about predicting the future, it is about looking at the present
world through different eyes
-Create a recognizable world so the viewer doesnt have a clinical or
intellectual relationship to it
Otherwise you have failed in your first job as a writer, which is to have
an emotional impact on your viewer.
-Make Technology important to the characters and/or the plot
Science fiction puts tremendous emphasis on the crucial technology of a
place and time, and how that technology can change man himself. For

example, the robots in Blade Runner force the audience to ask the central
thematic question: who is more human?
Science fiction is a practical as well as a speculative form.
So you have to ask yourself, is this what you do well?
If it is, this is a great form.
Must See:
-The Matrix
-Blade Runner
-The Empire Strikes Back

Myth Genre

Myth and Action are two genres that rule in the summer months. Myth
(Lord of the Rings, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) is the foundation
genre of more blockbusters than any other form.
Thats because Myth deals with archetypal characters and life moments,
which are recognizable worldwide, regardless of culture or nationality.
The big problem with Myth is that the story tends to be extremely
The hero goes on a journey, encounters a number of opponents and meets
them in succession.
When a story is too episodic, the audience gets bored and the story
Desire Line:
To go on a journey, ultimately leading to oneself
Key Question:
What is your Destiny?
Take the Family along for the ride. With family members on the journey,
the hero has intimate and ongoing opponents to go along with the episodic
Must See:
-Lord of the Rings
-Star Wars
-The Matrix
-Pirates of the Caribbean
-Close Encounters of the Third Kind
-Crocodile Dundee
-Dances with Wolves

Action Genre

Action (Iron Man, the Bourne films, the James Bond movies) is one of
those genres often combined with Myth.
This form was practically invented for the film medium, which is based
on the split-second cut.
In Action stories, the hero must always stand and fight.
A mans got to do what a mans got to do.
And when you have a female action hero, a womans got to do what a
womans got to do.
Desire Line:
To engage in combat
Key Question:
Freedom vs. Life
To Fight or Flee and to live to fight another day.
Key Point:
Key point: a good action story tracks two lines, the action line and the
personal line. Therefore, dont start with the desire, start with the Need.
-Establish your heros big internal Weakness at the beginning.
This sets up the character change that will be matched by the heros
success in the action line.
Getting more Plot in your Action Story
-If Love Story has the trickiest story structure (see below), Action has the
The hero has a clear goal and goes after it with great speed and relentless
energy. But dont be fooled by this.
Action is much harder to execute well than it looks.
Because the form has such a simple desire line, most action scripts lack
You cant just string together a few big action set pieces.
You need a complex opponent and as much information hidden from
your hero as possible.
-The Big Payoff

Action films have been getting faster for 20 years.

So it may surprise you that speed is the enemy of the action writer.
Speed is another element that kills plot.
Average writers make a big mistake: they skip the weakness/need step
and start with the desire line.
This gives a quick start to the story, but it kills the ending.
Must See:
-The Bourne Films
-Casino Royale
-Die Hard
-Lethal Weapon
-Raiders of the Lost Ark
-The Seven Samurai

Detective Genre

Perhaps the most popular family of genres in film and TV is DetectiveCrime-Thriller.

But you have to be careful when choosing one of these forms.
While they all involve a crime, they are different forms with different
Detective Stories (L.A. Confidential, Vertigo, Chinatown) are about
searching for the truth.
So you need lots of suspects who could believably have committed the
In any genre story, always take the key question as far as you can.
A detective taking this question to its logical extreme would challenge
the guilt and innocence even of himself.
Sadly, most detective stories never go that far.
Desire Line:
To find the truth
Key Question:
Who is Guilty and Who is Innocent?
Give the detective a Moral Code
-The detective world is sinister and corrupt.
In better detective stories, the heros moral choice is not between good
vs. evil.
The world is too morally complex for that.
The detective has an internal code that ultimately shows him the right
way in a morally relative world.
Go from a Small Corruption to a Large Corruption
-A good detective story always funnels outward.
The crime the detective uncovers has progressively larger ramifications.
For example, the investigation in Chinatown starts with adultery.
But it moves to murder, incest and a corrupt land deal on which the entire
city of Los Angeles has been built.
Start at the end of the Story
-This form has more reveals than any other.
Many writers have trouble sequencing these reveals, since they normally
occur in reverse chronological order.

Work backwards to see what the insignificant thread will be that unravels
the final massive corruption.
Must See:
-LA Confidential
-The Maltese Falcon
-Murder on the Orient Express

Crime Genre
Within the family of Crime-Detective-Thriller, Thriller (Michael Clayton,

The Sixth Sense, Silence of the Lambs) is the most popular form in movies
(Detective is most popular in TV).
Like the Detective form, Thriller involves detection, but its a story in
which the detective, or just an average hero acting like a detective, becomes
the victim and is in grave danger.
Structurally, the Thriller is a combination of the detective and horror
forms, and depending on your particular story will lean more toward one or
the other.
Desire Line:
To Catch a Criminal
Key Question:
Who is allowed to live Above the Law?
Make the Criminal Right about Certain Things
-Much of the pleasure of a crime story comes from blending the line
between hero and criminal.
They are very similar in a lot of ways.
When you shade the distinction between lawman and outlaw, you shake
up the clean moral vision of the genre, and you make your crime story more
interesting and less predictable.
One of the best ways to blend lawman and outlaw is to make the criminal
right about certain things.
Then, during the course of the story, have the criminal not only attack the
hero physically, but also attack him with what the criminal is right about.
-Make both Characters Great and both Characters Equal
-Because the Crime story has key elements of the Action form, your hero
should be a top cop and your opponent should be a master criminal.
This gives you great punch/counterpunch, which is crucial for building
the difficult middle of the Crime script.
If either character is too strong, the story dies.
For example, in The French Connection, Popeye Doyle is the only cop
smart enough to track the Frenchman into the subway.
But the master criminal, who knows he is being followed, keeps getting
on and off the train, and eventually makes his escape as he waves goodbye
to Popeye.

Must See:
-The Usual Suspects
-Pulp Fiction
-The French Connection

Thriller Genre
Desire Line:
To find the truth and escape attack

Key Question:
Is your Suspicion justified?
Make your Protagonist accomplish 2 tracks:
Give the Protagonist a strong investigative goal, then place him/her under
intense attack.
-A good Thriller is not just about escaping attack.
There are two lines you have to track: the Personal and the Crime.
Key point: you must show how the heros unique Psychological or Moral
Need will be solved by uncovering a crime.
In other words, connect the heros personal need with the crime.
For example, in the classic Thriller, Rear Window, the hero learns to
commit to the Grace Kelly character by solving the murder with her.
By the end of the story he has accomplished 2 tracks: he has solved the
Crime and has fulfilled his Need.
-Thrillers are surprisingly tough to structure because you have to balance
two opposing desire lines: the hero wants to uncover the killer while also
escaping attack.
If you place the hero under too much pressure, you make him/her
Exert too little pressure and you dont have a thriller.
Must See:
-Michael Clayton
-Basic Instinct
-Silence of the Lambs
-The Conversation
-The Sixth Sense

Love Genre
Writers of Love Stories, and particularly Romantic Comedies, are always
surprised, and a little chagrined, when I tell them that they have chosen
probably the most difficult genre to write well.

There are many reasons for this, among them the fact that Love Stories
(Four Weddings and a Funeral, When Harry Met Sally, The 40-Year-Old
Virgin) are highly choreographed, with no less than 12 unique story beats.
But the biggest reason Love is so tricky is that the heros desire and
opponent are the same person.
No other genre has this peculiar structural element.
The hero wants the lover, but the lover is also the first and main
The result is a writer who doesnt know if the story is coming (attraction)
or going (repulsion).
The good news is that the love story, when written in an original way, is
extremely popular with audiences worldwide.
Desire Line:
To find love
Key Question:
How much can you Love?
How much can you Sacrifice?
Severely test how much the two heroes can love
-They must maintain their love in spite of all outside opposition, all
differences between them, and all mistakes that each makes toward the other.
Thats why all good love stories are about trust, which is the belief
that the lover will not harm you, and about forgiveness, which is what you
must do when the lover inevitably does.
-Love Story Logic
-In a good love story, the main character has a unique need that can
only be fulfilled by one other person. In other words the lover must always
be necessary to the main character and vice versa.
Key point: make sure both characters have an intense Need and each will
solve their need through the other character because of the help of the other
-Love stories are about blossoming.
-Make sure both characters start closed.
Must See:

-Leaving Las Vegas

-The Notebook
-Four Weddings and a Funeral
-When Harry Met Sally
-Sleepless in Seattle
-Pretty Woman

Comedy Genre
No booklet on how the major screen genres work would be complete
without looking at Comedy (The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, Little Miss
This perennial favorite is the most under-estimated genre.

Desire Line:
To gain Success or Romance with humorous results
Key Question:
Do you lie or show your true self?
The Clothesline
-Know which kind of comedy youre writing
Must See:
-Wedding Crashers
-The Hangover
-Burn After Reading
-Definitely Maybe
-Forgetting Sarah Marshall
-Knocked Up
-The Devil Wears Prada
-Little Miss Sunshine

Masterpiece Genre
Masterpiece, which involves advanced storytelling techniques, is not a
true genre.
Advanced writing goes beyond genre to where you invent a story
structure unique to your premise and theme.
Youre not using a pre-made story structure.
You are creating your own structure and making your script totally

Desire Line:
To find a deeper reality, contrasting time, perspective or system
Key Question:
How do you live without being enslaved within a system?
Advanced writing always deals with the individuals relationship to the
At the beginning of the writing process, ask yourself this question: What
is the system you are going to express in the story and who will be the
characters that express the different pillars of that system?
Make sure these characters are as different from each other as possible.
Key point: the hero cant fight a system.
Its not dramatic.
Fighting the system is like shadow boxing.
Forces are attacking the hero, but he and the audience cant see them.
Thats why your hero must fight specific characters that represent aspects
of the system.
Must See:
-American Beauty
-Seven Samurai
-Cinema Paradiso
-How Green Was My Valley

Memoir Genre
Writing your memoir (Milk, In Cold Blood, Girl, Interrupted) is the
single best way to create meaning out of your life.
Which is why its something every writer should do, even if you are not
interested in selling your story as a book or a film.
But writing a good memoir-true story is deceptively difficult.
Its not simply a matter of jotting down every event that has happened in

your life.
Instead, its about being highly selective and finding the dramatic arc in
the real life events.
This requires using a number of techniques that can bring your unique
story to life.
Desire Line:
To understand what really happened in this life
Key Question:
How am I unique and why has my life been valuable?
Start by figuring out what your battle scene will be
-One of the biggest restrictions in writing a memoir is that there is often
no natural battle, or climax, in a persons real life.
For example, there probably wasnt a courtroom battle where everything
was decided and you won a multi-million dollar settlement.
Since you cant change the facts of your life, you have to focus on the
frame of your story the beginning and end to make it as dramatic as
-One of the best ways to determine the frame is to start by figuring out
what your battle scene will be.
That gives you the most dramatic event to point to.
Then back up to determine the beginning of your story.
Introduce yourself as the Storyteller in a dramatic situation
-When you write your memoir, you are both the main character and the
Which means you have to justify to the reader why you are telling them
this tale right now.
Avoid introducing yourself as storyteller in a passive way.
Instead you want to begin your story in an active, dramatic situation.
For example, a fight has just occurred, or an important decision must be
This has three major benefits:
1. it places you, the storyteller, within the story.
2. it creates suspense about the storyteller.
3. it gives the tale a running start.

Must See:
-In Cold Blood
-Girl, Interrupted
-Into Thin Air