Creative screenwriting tips: An Exercise in Believable Genre Writing

Posted on: by Sara Akhteh

Back in my undergrad days we had an amazing “Film Genre” course where, in addition to learning about various genres, we were also taught screenwriting tips for using real life stories and melding them into a specific genre. This is important for having the base of even the most fantastical genres be about human stories. This is how we did it:

A) Various genres were written on a piece of paper and put into a hat, and students were then asked to randomly draw a piece of paper and call out their specific genres. Obviously, for you guys you can skip this step and just go with the genre you want! ☺ My genre was the Western, which along with the Horror genre, might be my favorite.
B) Then you completely disregard the genre and set it aside….for now. Pick one event in your life, or one story that you remember most potently or profoundly – write that down EXACTLY as it unfolded. Don’t even worry about hitting key story beats. I recounted the story of my neighbors’ divorce and their settlement over the family dog – this was most acute in my brain because of the endless middle-of-the-night visits from the dog’s father, as he demanded to see his dog. He was relentless – imagine pounding on the door in the middle of the night for weeks! The dog’s mother equaled him in stubbornness, she used the dog as a weapon to hurt him, deliberately leaving traces of the dog (toys, bowls, etc.) outside the door, expecting her ex to visit and see those articles.
C) So, now that you’ve written out your story EXACTLY as you remember it – write out all the conventions or rules of the genre you’re working with. Mine being the Western: The period and backdrop of the western are important, but keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to have a story take place in the 1920s for it to be considered a Western (think about Brokeback Mountain, which is definitely a Western). Your protagonist is usually a man (sorry, ladies! Though, for those interested in a female Western, check out Johnny Guitar – so amazing!!!), and is often times returning to his homeland after being away for some time. His return is met by a mixture of feelings – some happy, while others view him as a threat to the current way of life.
The Western is also usually rooted in archetypal conflict of good vs. bad – it’s pretty evident for the audience member to know which side they should be rooting for. Additionally, a growth must happen within our main character – he has to learn something, or come away with a new understanding of life…..and along those same lines: a sacrifice must be made by that main character so that honor can be achieved.
D) Now, take your personal story, and take your genre conventions and meld them into one. Very quickly, here’s how I turned my neighbor dog story into a Western:
The dog I switched to the couple’s only child (a son), and the father was coming home after being away at war to reunite with his family. The mother presuming him dead had moved on with her life, raising their child with another man she’d re-married. And their son, being too young to have remembered his father, had adopted his mother’s new husband as a surrogate father. The returning soldier initially uses force to gain his family back, but is met with backlash as other town folk resent him for ruining the peaceful nature of their town (the “town folk” being myself and the other neighbors in our apartment for losing sleep over a Toy Poodle!!). Upon visiting his son at school and seeing him get teased by other students, the soldier realizes that his own behavior is actually hurting his son rather than helping him. So, in an act of sacrifice, the soldier decides to stop disrupting the peace and let his son grow up. He rides off into the sunset.

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Written by Sara Akhteh

Sara Akhteh received her MFA from USC's School of Cinematic Arts, with an emphasis in Production. Since graduating Sara has worked on such films as The Social Network, Water for Elephants, Argo, and much more. She is currently at Sony Pictures working in Studio Finance.

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