Writing Excuses 17.24: Ensembles and Genre
Key points: The genre may have trappings and expectations about your ensemble cast. Compare a heist and a superheroes movie. The superheroes will test their powers against each other, but the heist does not do that. Spy and espionage movies. Detective stories and thrillers often are single-point, one POV. Fantasy, epics with multiple POVs, may be an ensemble, or just multiple POVs. Ensembles are found family, with family dynamics. What kind of tone do you want? Tense, frightening adventures may need to reduce the safety or comfort of the ensemble. Or threaten the ensemble to raise the tension? Learn the genre, and the expectations for that genre, to make your story work. Understanding the expectations of the genre helps you turn them on their head and create something unexpected.
[Season 17, Episode 24]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Ensembles and Genre.
[Zoraida] 15 minutes long.
[Kaela] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Zoraida] I’m Zoraida.
[Kaela] I’m Kaela.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] What we’re going to talk about this week is what I think is a really interesting take on this that I had not considered until Zoraida pointed it out.But the genre that you choose, the genre in which you’re telling your story, can greatly affect what kinds of ensembles you have and what kinds of groups of characters you have. So, Zoraida, what do you mean by this?
[Zoraida] So, I think that what I was gearing toward was the idea that, yes, science fiction and fantasy can be told through a single hero’s journey lens. I am still trash for this format. But we understand, we know the trappings and the genre expectations of ensemble casts when we enter something that’s fantasy and something that is… Or even a sitcom, right? Like, we’ve been talking a lot about sitcoms the last couple months, so… But then you get something like a more quiet contemporary, a thriller, where you have a single point of view and it’s like one person working alone. Right? Jason Bourne, to me, is not an ensemble cast. It’s just like a woman who’s tragically dying along the way as he moves from European city to European city. I binge watched all Jason Bourne and all Daniel Craig James Bond, and I could pinpoint like the moment somebody was going to die after watching them for so long.
[Howard] How long ago did you do that? Because we may have been challenging each other.
[Zoraida] I did it a month ago. I did that a month ago.
[Howard] It was like March. It was March. We did all the Daniel Craig Bond’s…
[Zoraida] Oh, my God.
[Howard] And we did all the Jason Bourne movies.
[Zoraida] I feel like we’re in sync then. But… It is like those genres, I feel like you sort of expect them to be about one person. I feel like it’s a challenge, and it’s a good challenge. I feel like readers, listeners who are working on their own stuff, like, you can think about, well, how does my genre now change the expectations that somebody might have as they’re coming into my story. It all boils down to the promise of the premise when we’re offering up any kind of story [garbled].
[Howard] I think one of the… Two things. One, season 11 of Writing Excuses where we talk about the elemental genres is a perfect place to touch on this, because one of the genres that we identified as elemental was the ensemble. This large relationship. Then there was the idea that you could take that large relationship and blend it with any of the other elemental genres. Sense of wonder, or suspense/thriller, whatever. I don’t remember what they were. I just remember that they were. A good example of this is comparing the Oceans movies to the Avengers movies. The Oceans movies are an ensemble with a heist. There are things about a heist that are going to happen you see, obviously, with that cast. One of the superheroes conventions in the Avengers movies, those are superhero genre. This genre requires that at some point, every hero… Not hero and villain, every hero will test their powers against every other hero. They have to fight each other. In the Oceans movies, Danny Ocean doesn’t go fighting every member of his team. That’s just not part of the genre. In the Avengers movies, we get Thor versus Iron Man, we get Thor versus Hulk, we get Thor versus… Or, we get Hulk versus Black Widow, we… That matrix, once you’re familiar with that aspect of the genre, you look at the Avengers movies and say, “They were mapping this by the numbers. They knew that this needed to happen because it’s something that the fans of superheroes expect.” So when you’re building on ensemble, you have to keep the genre in mind because there are going to be elements of that genre that are hard and fast requirements, but if you don’t deliver on, people will say, “Well, yeah, I liked your cast, but you weren’t really telling ensemble, or you weren’t really telling a superhero movie. Or you weren’t really doing a heist movie. Why did this guy have to box every single one of his fellow heisters?”
[Howard] “There’s no reason for that.”
[Dan] Well, now I want to write a heist story about like old timey boxers. But… No.
[Dan] I want to get back to the espionage thing. This is a little early for book of the week, but I’m going to lead into book of the week. Because, Zoraida, you brought up James Bond. I think this is a really interesting thing to point out, that the Bond movies are not ensemble casts. There is a recurring cast of important side characters. By the time you get to No Time To Die, we’re even going to… Doing things like we go to Q’s house. We get to meet… We know M so well, then she dies, and they get a new M. These are important characters who are integral to the story, but it is still very much a Bond story. He is the main character. It is not an ensemble, because the story is not about how do these characters relate to each other. The story is about Bond, and these other characters will help him now and then. Compare that to our book of the week, which is actually a TV show. This is a show called Slow Horses on AppleTV. It is ensemble spy story…
[Dan] Set in modern-day London. Stars Gary Oldman and a bunch of other people who you won’t recognize.
[Dan] Seth Thomas is in it. Like, there’s definitely some known people. But, Gary Oldman is the boss of a group of spies who have all failed. They’ve flunked out of something. They call it Slough House. They are the misfits, they are the losers, they are the people who screwed up and they got somebody killed or they lost some important intel. They haven’t been fired, they’ve just been kind of put out to pasture, as the slow horses. They stumble onto this big, really kind of fraught espionage story. There isn’t really one of them, not even Gary Oldman, that you can pull out as the main character. Because they as a group are working together to solve this problem. Really… That pitch makes it sound like it’s a comedy, and there’s definitely some really funny lines in it, but it is a tense drama that is an ensemble spy story. So…
[Dan] Slow Horses on AppleTV.
[Zoraida] That sounds really great. Like, you really had me at that…
[Dan] It’s so good.
[Zoraida] It actually made me think of… Would you consider Man from UNCLE an ensemble cast? Like an ensemble spy thing?
[Dan] I wouldn’t. I was about to say that I would consider Man from UNCLE a buddy comedy, but…
[Zoraida] Yes. Right.
[Zoraida] But then there’s [garbled]
[Dan] The movie added the third spy. It added… What’s her name?
[Zoraida] [Brie Larse]
[Howard] No, it was…
[Dan] I don’t know, there’s…
[Howard] She was in [garbled] as well.
[Dan] The American guy and the Russian guy, and then they add…
[Zoraida] The American…
[Dan] The British lady.
[Zoraida] She’s British? Okay.
[Dan] So, yeah. It’s a buddy comedy with three buddies instead of two. Which maybe tips it over into ensemble style.
[Zoraida] Maybe. Well, they all… Each one…
[Kaela] Like tickling the line.
[Zoraida] They all intersect, right? I feel like there’s something to say about what is an ensemble cast and also what is a love triangle. Right, like, because in order to be a true love triangle, all three points, to me, have to intersect. Otherwise you just have a love tense, right, where there’s a person who is the object of affection and then two little dots for the other people are related to her.
[Zoraida] Yes. Two sitters. Then, if it’s a true love triangle, all of them have relationships with each other. So I guess the thing that separates, that doesn’t make Man from UNCLE… But Man from UNCLE does have them all interacting, and each one has their own goal and they’re supposedly working together. I don’t know.
[Dan] I will…
[Zoraida] It’s a gray area.
[Dan] Apropos of nothing, one of my greatest sentences of the last several years has been that Man from UNCLE did not turn into a franchise. Because I love that movie.
[Zoraida] It was so…
[Dan] So much.
[Dan] It is Henry Cavill at his most charming.
[Zoraida] He’s so…
[Dan] It is Army Hammer pre-public meltdown…
[Dan] Yeah. Such a… Wonderful set up. We didn’t get more. I’m a big fan of spy stuff. Anyway…
[Zoraida] I do love spy stuff, too.
[Dan] So let’s talk about some other genres. What are the genre expectations we get into with different things and how does that affect the cast? So, for example, we’ve talked about detective stories and thrillers, which often are very single-point. One POV, they’ll have some helpers, James Bond style, but they aren’t necessarily ensembles. Fantasy, on the other hand, tends to be big sprawling epics with multiple POVs. Sometimes that’s an ensemble, like Fellowship of the Ring, and sometimes it is just a bunch of different POVs. How do… How does the expectations of genre change the way that you write your story? Kaela, you haven’t said anything yet…
[Dan] So I want you to answer the question first.
[Kaela] [garbled unfortunately?] I’ve never heard of the things you were talking about, so I was just like sitting in the background, twiddling my thumbs, trusting… But, yes, so I actually was just thinking about the relationship between genre and ensembles. I think a lot of it has to do on what kind of tone overall you want, because ensembles in some form is family. Found family. It’s like family dynamics on some level inevitably. So, like in a thriller, detective mysteries, things like that, you actually want to cut out a lot of that. If you want a tense, frightening sort of adventure. Because in ensembles, there’s also some form of safety or some form of I’m not in this alone. Where if you take out people’s support system, you get, naturally, a very natural form of tension, of fear, of heightened things, because being alone in a frightening situation is always more frightening. The reverse, though, of course, is if you wanted to take a twist on that, you can take the… Use the ensemble to make it more frightening. Like, you can grab the person, the people who matter to you and you put them in danger and you can get the fear that way. So I was just thinking that there’s a lot to offer from that. Like, a fantasy often is about adventure. At least, for me, the ones I write particularly are about adventure. I like to use my ensemble to explore different options. Like, I love fight scene. Again, that’s probably the anime influence in my life. All of like the Shonan fight shows. I love to see the different ways you will fight when you’re with the people you love. The more you get… The more you understand each other or know how to work with each other, the longer you’ve been working with each other, the different… That will definitely affect the way you fight, for example. Like, you will get more natural, there’ll be less screaming of, like, “Oh, get over here. Here!” Because you’ll know how to work with each other. So I think that a lot of it can come down to tone. What do you want to execute in the story? Do you want high tension? You’ve got to use your ensemble differently depending on that.
[Howard] Yeah. That understanding… Understanding that distinction is why people will often say that The Incredibles is the best Fantastic Four movie ever.
[Howard] Because The Incredibles got it. The Incredibles got it, and none of the Fantastic Four movies did. In writing the Shafter’s Shifters series… Yes, it’s going to be a series, assuming people buy it. One of the things that I realized was that what I was aiming for was Guardians of the Galaxy meets Murder, She Wrote.
[Dan] That’s a great pitch.
[Howard] Now, Murder, She Wrote is a cozy and there are rules for the cozy genre. I actually… I went and read these. As I read the rules, I was like, “Oh. Oh. Oh, that’s why so many of these scenes I’d written in my first draft didn’t work.” In a cozy, the detective is never actually threatened. We don’t actually see violence committed. So I had to change my approach in order to fit the genre. Once I changed the approach, I realized, oh, this is exactly Guardians of the Galaxy meets Murder, She Wrote because I’m not actually threatening the guardians, I’m not blowing stuff up. I’m having the fun banter and the fun aliens and I’m solving a mystery in a quote unquote safe way. I just… I hold this forth as an example because for me, learning the genre and actually googling and reading what the expectations were for this genre is what made the story work. [Garbled]
[Dan] Yeah. I want to add, too, that a lot of this comes down not just to genre but to culture. Look at a Western action movie and it often comes down to a one-on-one showdown. No, don’t come with me, I have to do this myself kind of thing. Compare that to a lot of Hong Kong action movies, and, no. They’re like, “Yeah. This guy’s really tough. We’re going to need all of us working together to beat him.” Obviously there are exceptions on both sides, but the different cultures can influence whether you’re using on ensemble or not as well.
[Zoraida] I think understanding the expectations of the genre really helps us to turn them on their heads and create something that might be a little unexpected.
[Dan] Absolutely. That is what our homework is this week. We want you to look at something that you’re working on, your work in progress or something you’ve done in the past, and imagine it as a different genre. Change the genre completely, and then consider, would you cast need to change? Would your ensemble need to change? Would you need to create an ensemble? Would side characters need to be promoted to main characters or vice versa? Just as a thought experiment to look at your own work. Anyway, this has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.
[Mary Robinette] One more thing. The 2022 Writing Excuses Cruise is happening this September. All the regular hosts will be in the Caribbean along with a few special guests for a week of workshops, community, and, of course, writing. We’d love to see you there.