Writing Excuses 17.1: Genre and Media are Promises
Key points: Romance novels need a happily ever after, or a happy at least for now. Genres, both bookshelf genres and elemental genres, make promises. Cozy mystery needs a murder! Superheroes need an epic fight. Animation is not just for kids. Novels do third person limited really well. Animation uses visual cues to tell part of the story. Lore miners like visual shows, where they can mine the background visuals for added depth. The Kuleshov effect! Remember, use all the tools in your arsenal to set the mood and story.
[Season 17, Episode 1]
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Genre and Media are Promises.
[Kaela] 15 minutes long.
[Sandra] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Megan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Kaela] I’m Kaela.
[Sandra] I’m Sandra.
[Megan] And I’m Meg.
[Howard] I’m here to tell you that if your romance novel doesn’t have happily ever after or happy at least for now, it’s not a romance novel. You’re not actually writing to that genre. It’s a bold stake in the ground, I know, but there are promises that the genres in which we write, the bookshelf genres in which our publishers place our books, the elemental genres in which we determine what’s the thing that makes people turn pages, those make promises. Right from the outset. Let’s talk about some examples. I’ve already spilled the easy one of romance. What are some other examples of genres and the promises those genres make?
[Kaela] Cozy mystery is extremely like… There are very, very strict beats to hit and moments to deliver that if you do not, you will have disappointed your audience. Because they…
[Howard] I don’t know what those are. Can you enumerate a few?
[Sandra] Miss Marple or any… Murder, She Wrote is a cozy mystery. It is basically a very frie… There’s going to be a murder. Somebody’s going to die. But it’s not somebody we…
[Sandra] Like… Yeah. So, like, it’s… Murder, She Wrote. She’s going about her cozy little life and then… Oh, no, there’s a body. We now need to solve it without offending to many people’s worlds. Then, at the end, it’s all okay again. You can see this with a lot of BBC… They’re like Father Brown…
[Sandra] Is one of them. Yeah, Father Brown is one of them. It is very contained and very safe, even though every single book or episode has a couple of murders in it. Yet the audience knows at the end of it, the bad guys are caught, they’re put away, everybody’s safe, it’s all going to be fine. If there’s a cat or a dog, the cat and dog are always going to be safe, and probably will help solve the mystery. So, like, seriously, this is the cozy mystery genre. The people who come to this genre, well, it’s kind of like Meg was talking about in the last episode with Police Procedurals. You are expecting and wanting to get those beats exactly where you expect them. If you don’t, you will actually make the audience anxious and upset with you.
[Megan] I have an example of when I was deeply betrayed by a cozy mystery series. I don’t want to drop the title, because this is a huge spoiler. But there is a main detective character that the audience loves and cares about very much, and about three seasons in, decided he didn’t want to do the show anymore. Instead of having him retire, they killed him. The next person to come in and solve his murder was the new main character. I was like [garbled] No!
[Howard] I’ll go ahead and spoil it. Was that Death in Paradise?
[Howard] BBC? Yeah.
[Megan] I’m still not over it. Yet. [Garbled] But see, that’s… There’s an expectation that just shows up with the genre. I came to a cozy mystery because I wanted a mystery, and I wanted to be able to feel smart and solve the puzzle, but I never want to feel threatened and I never want my favorite characters to feel threatened. I just want to hang out with fun people while we solve puzzles.
[Howard] Yep. Okay. Let’s pick another genre. Kaela, you got something for us?
[Kaela] Yes. Superheroes and how it means fights. Epic fights. Like, you can use all kinds of different structures in superhero movies and comics and things like that. As we have seen through Marvel’s explorations. Everything from a heist through like more of a drama to the classic hero’s journey. But we want epic fights that feel like they have weight. They’re not just… I think that’s one of the things that sets apart, that satisfies…
[Howard] It’s not… We see this in the… Was it 2013 Avengers movie?
[I think it was 2012]
[Howard] It’s not just fights. It’s the fight bracket… The bracketing of we need to see what happens when it’s Thor versus Hulk. We need to see Black Widow versus Hulk. We need to see… Through the series. We get Iron Man versus Hulk, eventually. We bracket so that everybody fights everybody else, even if they’re on the same team. They have to have some sort of reason to fight. Black Widow fought Hawkeye. Hawkeye briefly fought Loki. So, yeah, you look at the superhero genre, and one of the expectations there is, “Man, I’ve got six superheroes here. Well, I want to know what happens if hero three and hero four fight, because that would be cool.” If you solve this by giving villains mirrored powers, then it’s just boring.
[Howard] Then it’s just Iron Man One, which is Iron Man versus a chunkier Iron Man, or the Hulk movie from the same year, which was Hulk versus a spikier, chunkier Hulk.
[Megan] Kind of broke the promise.
[Howard] So, yeah, superheroes and the fighting. What else?
[Megan] Then you even build a whole movie around it with Civil War. Where… I mean, there is an eternal bad guy, of course, but the big scene, the big Act III scene, was everybody in the airport parking lot and how do these powers go against these powers, or these accessories interact with these magical things?
[Kaela] Can I just say that that is the, like, one of the perfect se… Like, ways that audience has helped cultivate or helped shape the genre, as well, the way the audience interacts with it. Because, like, I remember having fights with people about who would beat who, with your favorite superhero. I’m like, “Uhuh. Spider-Man would beat any of them, because of his Spidey sense.”
[Kaela] You end up fighting about it. That’s like you want to see how your favorite superhero is going to fare. Kind of like wrestling, right? Like professional wrestling. You want to see what the matchups look like as well. So it’s a part of the genre, because it’s also part of what the audience wants to know. They want to see how it goes. So you’re like, “Okay. Well, let’s make this interesting. Let’s… I’ll just keep doing this. Let’s keep adding it in.”
[Howard] Hey, let’s do a book of the week. Who’s got that for us?
[Sandra] I believe that I… Yes, I do. The book I was super excited about right now is Mine by Delilah Dawson. We haven’t actually talked about horror as a genre yet, and the implications there. But this is a middle grade horror novel. It does a beautiful job of using horror tropes, pitching them appropriately to a 12 to 13-year-old audience or even just a little bit younger than that, letting it be just scary enough for that age range, and delivering the beats and points. It’s just… It’s a delightful story. I highly recommend it. So, Mine by Delilah Dawson.
[Howard] Very cool.
[Howard] Very cool. So we’ve talked about genre. Let’s talk about mediums, media, a little bit. Because the kinds of stories you tell change dramatically based on what the tools are you’re using to tell them, whether it’s a novel or a comic or a film and TV…
[Sandra] What you got for us, Meg?
[Megan] Hi. My name is Meg, and I want to talk about animation. There is this deep set conviction, especially in American audiences, that if something is animated, it’s just for children. Which can be a problem, because there are many animated projects that are not made for children that some unsuspecting parents may see in the video rental store and say, “Watership Down? Rabbits? Animated? That’s for my four-year-old.”
[Megan] It’s not. What’s been so exciting is in the last few years…
[Howard] Is that why you became an animator? Was to save all the rabbits?
[Megan] No. No. It was to kill all the rabbits and then show the grown-ups [garbled]. No, I became an animator because I think it is every single artform combined into one in the absolute coolest way. But until very recently, most animated productions in the US were either made for kids, kids serialized action adventure, or very raunchy comedy for grown-ups. Because to make sure we know it’s for grown-ups, we have to turn all the grown up content to the extreme. But there’s a lot of international work, particularly anime from Japan, which targets many different audiences. So we’re seeing a lot of creators who grew up watching those kind of stories wanting to branch out and basically get as many different types of stories in animation as you get stories and books in traditional publishing. It’s very fun to be part of that shift.
[Howard] So… Now, part of what you’ve said here is that there is an incorrect expectation in the United States that the animation… Animation as a medium means the story is for kids. Specifically, though, are there promises that animation makes about the way it’s going to tell a story? For instance, like with a novel, there’s a thing that novels can do that almost nobody else can do well. That’s the third person limited point of view, which is that I am narrating the story from the point of view of the character who we are following around right now, and we’re getting their thoughts, we’re getting this internal stuff. You can’t do that in film. Well, Dune, the David Lynch version, tried to do it…
[Howard] With people who kept whispering these voiceovers. That almost worked. That’s all I’m going to say about that.
[Howard] Almost worked. What is it that animation does that other things can’t do that becomes an expectation of animation?
[Megan] How it looks. The actual design of the characters often indicates the type of story you’re going to get. Usually, stuff for kids? Bigger heads, bigger eyes. Stuff for grown-ups. Smaller heads, smaller eyes. That’s a very gross oversimplification. But you’ll see a lot of adult comedies take a lot of design cues from shows like The Simpsons. With large eyes but tiny pupils. Which is, I think… Sandra?
[Sandra] I was going to say, I think it’s on Netflix, Centaurworld.
[Sandra] It actually does some very beautiful things visually to indicate character growth. The visual design of the main character actually changes as the story progresses. So you can actually see how far along their character arc they are by how they look on the screen. That is a beautiful thing that animation can do, and it’s an expectation that I would love to see more animation shows taking advantage of. Obviously, they can’t quite do it in the same way that Centaurworld is set up to do, but this is the kind of expectation, is that with a visual medium, some of the story has to be delivered visually. You see this with picture books as well. I’m doing a lot of learning and writing picture books, and over and over and over again, as a writer of short stories and prose, I’m told, “You’re describing too much, you’re describing too much. You have to let your…”
[Howard] Let the illustrator do their job now.
[Sandra] “Illustrator tell the story in the pictures. You have to trust them.” So that’s an expectation for picture books that the art and the words will interact to create a third thing which is the story.
[Kaela] Yeah. So, I was just thinking about how one of my favorite things in TV shows… What I… Mostly animation, I’ll be honest, because that’s what I do, I like watching it. But that… In all shows, even, one of my favorite things to do… How to interact with that type of media, is lore mining. I love to mine the backgrounds, the little things, the visual cues in the background that aren’t addressed by the story. I’m like, “Ooh. Wait. What does that mean? That nearly matches that one. In [garbled] that’s missing half of this thing. I guess that does mean that they’re long-lost connected. They have to be, right?” I will just like literally talk out loud by myself, putting all of that together, lore mining the background. That’s my favorite thing. But you can’t do that in books. Yes, Megan?
[Megan] I was going to say, are you a Gravity Falls fan?
[Megan] Zero Gravity Falls.
[Howard] Gravity Falls. Here’s the way I described… And I came to Gravity Falls late. Gravity Falls is X-Files for kids and for grown-ups who were righteously disappointed in X-Files.
[I love it. Yeah.]
[Howard] So, well done in that way. One of the things that I want to point out about the differences between some of these genres is… There are things that are pointed up by the recent and now canceled live-action version of Cowboy Bebop, is that in the animation, the Cowboy Bebop anime, the characters are having feelings, but there’s really only so much you can do with an animated face to show us a complex series of emotions without tipping into the uncanny valley or doing something weird. So, often what they do is they’ll cut away from the face in the anime and show us pouring a glass of whiskey. Show us the hand doing something. Show us something else in order to tell the story behind what’s happening on the face. But in live-action, dang it. Cho is a fantastic actor. Just give him his back story, aim the camera at his face, let him say two lines of dialogue and then act, and we’ll have it. That’s not what they did. Meg, you were flailing about. What?
[Megan] Sandra’s had her hand up for such a long time.
[Sandra] That’s fine. That’s fine.
[Megan] So, there is something in film making called the Kuleshov effect. Which is the shot…
[Howard] Kuleshov? Say that again.
[Megan] Sorry. The Kuleshov effect.
[Howard] Okay. Kuleshov.
[Megan] It’s the idea that even if you are presented with a neutral face, the shot that comes after… What the camera looks at exactly after will inform the audience of how the person is feeling.
[Megan] Something that the animated series did, that I felt the live-action did not, was use all of the tools in their arsenal to set their mood and story. Because actor’s face is an incredible tool, actor’s body language, but that’s only one very small part of what you have to consider in any sort of film sequence. You have where the camera’s set, how quickly you cut, what the background noise is, but the background music is, what your lighting cues are. There’s so many different pieces that the original Cowboy Bebop absolutely mastered. That’s one of the best and most solidly animated series that have ever existed. You can’t just take certain pieces of that, certain hallmarks of that, and get the same effect. Because a visual only tribute isn’t a real reproduction.
[Right. Yup. Yeah.]
[Howard] We could clearly keep talking about this and talking about this and talking about this, because genre and media, as things that make promises to the audience… I mean, there’s a million of these.
[Howard] So, I think we need to cut from here straight to the homework. Meg, I think that might be you?
[Megan] All right. That is me. All right. For the homework this week, what do you plan on having your work in progress deliver? Does the genre or medium you’re working in support the promise of that deliverable? If not, write out a one-page outline in which you change the genre or medium to support the promise you’re making.
[Howard] Ooo, I like it. I like it. Hey, this has been Writing Excuses. You have your homework. You are out of excuses. Now go write.