If you hang around movie Twitter at all, you’ve undoubtedly seen it blow up with what was one of the most rousingly harmless opinions of the year. It started with an innocent poll put forward by Elle Hunt, a freelance features writer for The Guardian: “Settle an argument: is Alien a horror film?” followed swiftly by her reasoning: “My argument: horror cannot be set in space.”
Six thousand people immediately reacted, starting a fight that’s still going now, rife with spin-off jokes like “You can’t set horror in Texas, that’d make it a Western,” and “You can’t send elves in space, that’d make them Vulcans.” But now that the fires have nearly died down, it’s time to have a look at some of the important screenwriting lessons we can draw from this debate—aside from “don’t annoy the horror community.”
You’d think the obvious answer to whether Alien is horror or sci-fi would be “both,” so why did so many people on both sides insist on one or the other? It has to do with assumptions we make about the very meaning and purpose of “genre” when talking about any piece of art.
“Genre” is defined as “a category of artistic composition”, which is staggeringly unhelpful if you’re trying to figure out what the rules of adhering to genres are when watching a film or writing a script—or engaging in Twitter debate.
More helpfully, it’s good to keep in mind that genre in any form of storytelling is a marketing tool. It answers the vital question “In which Netflix category is this movie going to sit” and “What words are we going to use on the poster”. It serves as a shorthand for a broad target audience, telling us that fans of certain other films are likely to also enjoy this one. But here’s the kicker: genres don’t all mean the same thing.
Because nobody sat down at the beginning of screenwriting and came up with every possible genre in a neat and orderly way, the end result isn’t neat and orderly. Genre evolved over time, morphing from one thing to the next as new films became hits and inspired the generations beyond them.
So what does that look like in practical terms?
One example of the differences between them is that some genres are settings, and some are emotions. Think of a genre like “Western.” That’s telling you where the film is set, and a few things about the general themes you can expect. But what does Romance tell you about the location? Nothing. Instead, it says “you’re going to experience hope and tragedy and finally the joy of a happy ever after.” It talks about the character’s journey, and what you can expect from their character arcs.
It’s perfectly possible to unite a setting-genre with an emotion-genre and turn them into something new. Classic well-established examples include things like Historical Romance; or Sci-Fi Adventure. Other times, people include categories under the broad umbrella of genre that have nothing to do with genre at all, like target audience (adult, kids) or delivery method (animation, live-action). Which means that whenever we, the end-user, talk about genre — it’s going to be complicated.
It’s hard to transmit nuance in tweets, but there’s a good chance that what Elle was trying to say is that any movie set in space is automatically going to be sci-fi—and she’s not wrong, as long as you add an “also.” Because science-fiction is a setting; It tells us we’re going to be speculating about science and technology we don’t currently have available. We may be in space, we may be in the future, whatever the case, science plays an important role.
But what does that tell us about the feelings we can expect to experience throughout the movie Alien? Nothing at all. That is why being clear on the mix of genres and subgenres from the very first page of your script is not only normal but vital. If an agent says, “I’m looking for things that will appeal to the fanbase of Lost in Space,” and you try to pitch Alien, you might not be welcome to pitch again.
So while it’s true that Alien is also a science-fiction film, the horror component is inextricable and undeniable. That is why attempting to deny it made a lot of horror fans angry. If nothing else, that alone serves as proof that the film did reach its ideal audience—and they’re horror fans.
Another great example of a film that straddles horror and sci-fi is The Thing. Fun fact; if you look these two movies up you’ll notice that Alien is classed under sci-fi/horror; whereas The Thing is horror/sci-fi. That’s because The Thing relies far less on any sort of scientific speculation. We’re not out in space, nor are we in the far future, but we do still interact with a creature of scientific speculation: intelligent life from outer space. The science is clearly there; but it only serves as a backdrop to the real main star: the horror.
Studio marketing teams would love to place a movie as specifically as possible with its ideal target audience. Many forward-thinking screenwriters consider this before they even start writing a script they intend to sell. Not only would they like it to be a comedy, but they’d also like it to be a holiday-themed romantic comedy that storms the world like a modern-day Love Actually.
Other times, what ends up selling a script is the fact that it uniquely straddles two or more genres. The very fact that it’s not like anything else and would be hard to compare to anything current. It’s a gamble, but when that gamble pays off, the movie industry breaks into whole new territory and opens doors for future screenplays.
That’s what happened with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on a mass-market level. While romance within a science fiction film was often a key theme, most average viewers had never seen a truly accessible sci-fi romance that even someone who never watched sci-fi could enjoy.
This is another great example of a film where extricating either the romance by itself or the speculative science by itself would alter the plot beyond all recognition.
Every genre has its own tropes and tone, and even though the word “trope” is often used negatively, they’re vital parts of any story and can be used (or re-invented!) to great effect. Part of your job as a screenwriter is to make sure that when an audience sits down to watch a comedy, they are satisfied. That satisfaction comes through two main avenues: meeting their expectations through genre tropes, and at the same time, surprising them.
It sounds like those two avenues are contradictory, but they’re not. When your audience chooses a comedy film, they want to be amused. It’s that easy; make them laugh no matter what. Which setting and means you choose to achieve that is up to you. Now, comedy is notoriously reliant on the element of surprise—and what better way to surprise the audience than by giving them a laugh in a setting where they don’t expect it? That’s what makes comedy one of the most blendable genres there is.
Enter horror. Another genre that relies heavily on the element of surprise and dramatic tension, horror is such a successful blend with comedy that we now have a panoply of titles catering to that specific sub-genre. Tucker and Dale vs Evil, Zombieland, and Shaun of the Dead are some of the most popular examples.
What often ends up happening in horror-comedy is that you will get the backdrop of monsters, murderers, and madness; but you’ll get something else you don’t normally expect in horror scripts: phenomenally sharp, witty, and well-written dialogue, often set to surreal or surprising situations. It’s a match made in heaven and bound to satisfy.
“Alright, alright, Alex,” you’re all saying by now. “We get it, genres are complicated and wibbly-wobbly. Who cares? Sit down. Have a cookie.”
It’s true, they are complicated, and they do matter. Writers of every ilk, be they screenwriters, novelists, or haiku masters, should absolutely care about genres and cultivate their open-mindedness. Analyzing the stories you admire and are inspired by is a huge part of becoming a better writer, and will help you be able to position yourself on the market successfully.
If you’re shouting about how Alien needs to be only one thing, you’re inevitably ignoring a wealth of tools and genre tropes that Dan O’Bannon used to create a surprising and captivating masterwork still haunting us today.
So here’s my proposal to you: every time you read a script or watch a film, rather than try to box it into one category, make an active effort to find as many as you possibly can.
It’s like a game of Where’s Waldo? Except every character is Waldo. Every script contains multitudes of moments from other genres. Keep your mind open to find the fantasy inside the horror, the comedy inside the drama, the western inside the sci-fi. Find a moment that borrows a trope from something entirely different and pat yourself on the back for the variety you can acknowledge and embrace, rather than all the options you can reject with one broad statement.
Do you know any strange off-genre moments in your favorite films? Drop a comment below and let us know about it.