Erik Bork has gone through several of 2013’s best films and has pinpointed which of Blake Snyder’s ten genres each film fits into (the genres are from the books Save the Cat and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies). The movies run the gamut, ranging from Dude with a Problem to Buddy Love.
The point isn’t to say that any genre is better than any other, but to note that they all do fall into set story types.
Try going through some of your favorite films and figure out which of the ten genres they fit best. You might be surprised how clearly each film falls into one category. Then look at your own scripts. If they don’t fall neatly into one genre, you probably have some structural issues that you need to work on.
Here’s what Erik has to say:
12 Years a Slave: “Golden Fleece”. The original Golden Fleece, Homer’s Odyssey, established the basic criteria: there’s a long road which some sort of team travels down (usually with a single main character at the center of it), in pursuit of a life-changing prize. The key here is that the audience really cares that they reach the prize – life will be unthinkably bad if they don’t, and so much better if they do. And there are a lot of trials and costs along the way of trying to reach it. What could be a more compelling prize than what this main character is chasing, which is freedom from being unjustly enslaved? And this is what he constantly pursues, throughout the movie. (Great central problems require the main character to continuously push toward their goal, which leads to loads of complications that only increase the problem – until it’s finally resolved at its climax.) Other “Fleeces” include Finding Nemo, The Hangoverand Saving Private Ryan.
American Hustle: Also a “Golden Fleece,” subgenre “Caper Fleece”, where a group of somewhat damaged people try to outwit an (arguably) less sympathetic opponent through a complicated mission, as in The Sting or Oceans 11. I personally wasn’t sure I loved the hero(es) enough, or understood what they were trying to pull off, but wow, great performances, and great hair!
Captain Phillips: “Dude with a Problem”, meaning, an innocent hero, through a sudden event, faces a life and death battle that takes the whole movie to resolve. As in Die Hard or The Bourne Identity.
Gravity: Yup, same thing. “Dude with a Problem” – in this case, a “Nature Problem” since there is no bad guy behind it (just like Apollo 13).
Dallas Buyers Club: starts out very “Dude with a Problem”-esque, in that he’s got a life-and-death problem, but “Dudes” are always more action oriented, so diseases usually don’t work as the threat. And things quickly shift in this movie into a “Real-life Superhero” genre (like Erin Brockovich or Lincoln), where a unique individual with a special power (but also a flaw) fights a nemesis of sorts, on behalf of others. Something hugely impactful for others has to be at stake in a “Superhero” script. And it certainly is here (although for a while, it seemed to me like he was only in it for the money).
Her: “Rite of Passage”. This is the kind of movie where the main character adopts a wrong way of dealing with a relatable life problem (like a romantic “Separation,” in this case), and embarks on an ill-advised quest after some goal that we know probably won’t end well, but we can still sympathize with them trying it. In this case, the “wrong way” involves a relationship with a human-like female operating system. Ultimately, the main character wakes up from this fool’s errand, and adopt some sort of acceptance of life as it is. Other examples: The War of the Roses, The First Wives Club and An Education (the latter is in the “Adolescent” subgenre).
Nebraska: Since it’s told from the son’s point-of-view, I’d call it a “Golden Fleece” (“Buddy Fleece” subgenre), where the “prize” is the eventual arrival at the sweepstakes office to make his aging father stop his ridiculous quest for a supposed million dollar prize. If it were told more from the father’s perspective, it might feel more like a “Rite of Passage” (subgenre “Death Passage”), where the money chase is a relatable, sympathetic “wrong way” of dealing with impending death.
Philomena: Also a “Golden Fleece”/“Buddy Fleece”, where this duo is chasing a really important prize, where it’s really not okay to fail (the stakes seem huge). “Fleeces” require that.
Before Midnight: “Buddy Love” – which is the type of story where the central problem and question the audience is concerned about is “will these two end up together”? You have an incomplete hero, a seemingly perfect counterpart, and a big complication.
Inside Llewyn Davis: “Institutionalized” (subgenre “Business Institution”) – where the main problem is about an individual’s relationship to a group (the folk music business), where they have to make a choice in the end about their relationship to it, which involves a sacrifice (as in The Godfather, Wall Street or The Devil Wears Prada).
August: Osage County: “Institutionalized,” as well, this time in the “Family Institution” subgenre.
Saving Mr. Banks: “Buddy Love” (subgenre “Professional Love”) – where the real question is whether the two leads will end up “together”. You could say Emma Thompson’s demons going back to her childhood — which are seen to drive her current behavior — amount to something of a “Death Passage” (a wrong way of dealing with her father’s death, which ultimately ends in her finding acceptance).