PODCAST - DR. STRANGE: Feeding The Genre Monster
Dr. Strange: Feeding the Genre Monster
By Jacob Krueger
This week we’re going to be looking at Doctor Strange. And one thing that is inarguable, whether you loved Doctor Strange or hated Doctor Strange, is that this film is succeeding in a huge way not just at the box office but also critically.
This is pretty amazing when you consider all the incredibly silly things about Doctor Strange!
After all, this is a movie in which the country of Nepal seems to be populated almost entirely with American action heroes, and as far as we can tell only one Tibetan of consequence.
This is a movie whose primary imagery is really just regurgitated Inception.
This is a movie whose main character is essentially just a recycled version of Tony Stark.
This is a movie whose antagonist’s spiritual fall was torn right out of the Obi-Wan Kenobe / Darth Vadar playbook, and whose Dark Dimension is just the dark side of the force all over again.
This is a movie with an extraordinary amount of exposition, which, despite the the sheer volume of the information, still often fails to play by its own rules, or to clearly establish the rules of its universe.
And, despite the film’s extensive very trippy sequences and spiritual components, this is a movie that seems to have very little actual spirituality woven into its structure.
And this is also a movie that’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Which could make you wonder: What is making this movie so successful? What is making this movie so enjoyable for critics and audiences alike?
There’s a thing that happens to us as screenwriters; oftentimes we feel like we have to do everything right.
Whether we’re working on a big Hollywood action movie blockbuster like Doctor Strange, or the tiniest character driven film, we often feel like we have to do all these different things right. And every time we try to fix one thread of the very complex tapestry we’re working on, it’s like another thread changes. It feels like every time we make a choice, we screw up another choice. We make something more exciting and it becomes less believable. We make something more clear and it becomes less exciting.
These are the constant choices we’re making as screenwriters, and although we all strive for that perfect place, the truth is that very few of us ever reach it. And even when we do reach it, there are many brilliant versions that we end up losing along the way.
So the real question is: how you know when your movie is working?
As writers, when you get really deep into the development of your screenplay– as these writers certainly did; Doctor Strange was was in development for decades– when you get really deep into the development of your screenplay, you often reach a point where you’re only seeing the things that don’t work and you stop seeing the things that do.
So learning how to write a successful screenplay is not actually just about learning how to write a good screenplay, it’s learning how to know what compromises you can make and what compromises you cannot. Which imperfections your audience will accept, which imperfections are going to pull them out of the story.
In many ways, the success or failure of your movie all boils down to one really simple concept: Feeding The Genre Monster.
There’s a little monster that exists in your audience. And that monster is hungry. It comes to the movies, to the television, or to digital media because it craves a certain feeling.
If you deliver that feeling, and deliver it consistently, you can get away with just about anything, whether that’s an imperfection in your plot, or that deep mythical-symbolic or political idea that you’ve buried in your movie.
But if you fail to deliver that feeling, the Genre Monster will eat you alive, no matter how perfect every other element may be.
So it’s important to remember that audiences go to see movies for the same reason that you go to see movies. They want to feel a very specific way. If you’re going to see a romantic comedy you might want to feel like love is possible. If you’re going to see an action movie, you want to feel that adrenaline pumping. If you’re going to see a thriller, you want to be scared, and if you’re going to see a comedy you want to laugh your butt off.
There’s a Michael Moore quote that I love that I think is the one of the best explanations of Feeding the Genre monster that I’ve heard. I remember one morning I woke up to NPR and Michael Moore was giving an interview, during which he lamented “I wish that young documentarians would remember that people want to have sex after your movie.”
For most people, a movie is a date. A movie is a night out. And it’s a big investment. It’s not just the 17 bucks a piece for the tickets, it’s the sodas and the popcorn and maybe even dinner before. And people go to the movies because they want to get hot.
What hot is, is different for different audiences. For some audiences, hot might be about a feeling of romance or adventure, for others, hot might be about getting so scared your girlfriend or boyfriend jumps into your lap. For some, hot might be about being intellectually stimulated, politically activated, or even outraged. For some, getting hot is about the comfort of laughter and characters that love each other that makes us feel better about our own lives. And for others, hot is about a good cathartic cry.
So the real question when Feeding the Genre Monster is not about figuring out what makes your audience hot. It’s figuring out what makes you hot, building your script in a way that delivers that feeling to you in the most powerful way possible, and then shaping the story in a way to deliver the feeling you promised to your audience as well.
Do that, and you can get away with anything you want artistically. Fail to do that, and you’re not going to survive. Not because you didn’t sell out, but because you didn’t sell in.
Writing a movie that moves your audience begins with writing a movie that moves yourself. That’s because the craving of the Genre Monster isn’t a fixed thing. Audiences don’t want the same feeling every time they go to a movie. They want different feelings. And you, as a screenwriter or filmmaker, can sway the cravings of that monster, and set yourself up for success (or failure) by the promises you make from the very first page.
The title of your movie, and the first couple of pages of your script make a promise to the audience. They say: this is how you’re gonna feel watching this movie, this is the genre experience that this movie is going to deliver. This is how the Genre Monster is getting fed.
It’s important to understand, when thinking about your screenplay, that genre is something far more profound than just a category.
Remember the old Blockbuster Video days, you’d be searching and searching for a video, and finally you’d ask “okay, where’s First Blood?” They’d tell you “oh, it’s in Drama” and you’d be like “shouldn’t that that be in Action?”
Thinking about your movie in such broad categories can be equally confusing, and equally confining, as you develop your script.
We might sort movies by categories– a Drama, an Action Movie, a Romantic Comedy, a Sci Fi– or even by today’s ridiculously detailed Netflix categories– “Critically acclaimed cerebral comedies popular in Brooklyn”– but the truth of the matter is that these are just categories. They aren’t actually genre.
The genre is the feeling that the movie delivers, the feeling that the audience is searching for. And it’s a primal thing.
The Genre Monster that we have to feed is not something that gets imposed upon the movie, it’s something that grows out of the movie. The Genre Monster we have to feed is the feeling in ourselves that made us want to write the movie, or watch the movie, the feeling in ourselves that we wanted to feel as we experienced the movie. The Genre Monster that we are serving grows directly out of our theme and our personal connection to the material.
That means we can choose which Genre Monster we are going to feed.
Now, depending on which Genre Monster we feed we may end up with an independent film, or we may end up with a big-budget Hollywood popcorn movie, or we might end up with one of those few films that does both. A film like Se7en, a huge budget Hollywood movie based on small budget character driven ideas. A film like The Matrix where we see a kind of deep spirituality– a story about Buddhism– that gets woven into action movie clothing. A film like Guardians of the Galaxy, which is really a character-driven comedy about loss, wrapped up in the wardrobe of a sci-fi action comedy. Or even a movie like Fight Club, another Buddhist spiritual independent film wrapped up in big-budget Hollywood action clothes.
Or, we might end up with something like Doctor Strange, which occupies that special in between place between these very serious action movies like Fight Club or The Matrix and these purely silly action movies like Sherlock Holmes or The Avengers.
The mistake is thinking that the Feeding The Genre Monster means “selling out” to your audience. When actually it means just the opposite. It means “selling in” to the story that you want to tell, and making sure you deliver the feelings that you are looking for in yourself when you sit down to watch the movie. It grows from serving the Genre Monster in yourself.
Does this mean you get to feed any Genre Monster you want on any movie you write? Not exactly. If your movie is going to cost $300 million to make it needs to be the kind of movie that that many million people are likely to see. Which means you may have to amplify certain elements, in order to serve one of those Genre Monsters that a vast number of people have gnawing at them every time they go to see a movie. You may need to beef up your fight sequences, your chases, your infiltration sequences, or your visual spectacle.
So, I’m not suggesting that you don’t need to pay attention to the needs of your audience. What I am suggesting is that, provided you’re serving a Genre Monster that has a wide enough target audience for the size of the movie you’re writing, you can control the expectations of your audience so that they feel fulfilled by what you deliver rather than disappointed. That this is true whether you’re writing a $300 million popcorn blockbuster, or a $20,000 independent film.
It all starts with writing a movie that you like. So if you’ve made the mistake of writing a script that you don’t like because you think it will make you money, just stop right now!
Because the truth of the matter is, if you don’t like it the chances are they’re not going to like it either.
If you’re writing a movie that you don’t like because you think it’s commercial, the chances are it’s not commercial, it’s probably just a hollow shell of a screenplay, regurgitating the kinds of things you’ve already seen in these kinds of movies, without anything of yourself to hold it together.
Write a movie that you like, and write the big-budget version of it if you want to, because you can always turn around and make something smaller. If it turns out the Genre Monster you’re feeding is more of a Williamsburg hipster Genre Monster then a middle-America Genre Monster then you can always turn down the volume, and turn down the size.
I just recently did a podcast about Don’t Breathe, a movie that was made on an $8 million budget that just as easily could have been $100 million movie with more special-effects. We can always turn down the size of our movies. So, in your first draft, write the movie you want to see, exactly the way you want to see it. Write it as big as you need to write it. You can always figure out a way to do a smaller. Similarly if you write something really small you can always figure out a way to do it bigger.
There is a possible version of Fight Club that wouldn’t need to be such a big-budget movie, that could be a little character driven piece between two characters. A movie that might’ve felt more like Bronson than Fight Club.
So, the first thing is: write a movie that you want to write. Because this stuff is too hard to do if you’re not making yourself happy. Make sure every moment in your movie is feeding the Genre Monster in you. If you see elements of your movie that don’t feed that Genre Monster– that don’t give you the feeling that you wanted as you wrote them– if you see elements like that, you need to change them.
That doesn’t mean that every element of your script needs to feed the same Genre Monster. There are some movies that have multiple Genre Monsters that they serving at the same time.
The Matrix is serving the Genre Monster that needs action, excitement and visual spectacle at the same time it feeds the Spiritual Monster in us. If you listened to my podcast on Furious 7, you know how that film is also serving two Genre Monsters: the Genre Monster of high-stakes action sequences, and also the Genre Monster of soap operas for men– telling men the kind of stories that that they want to believe about themselves, about friendship, and about what it is to be a man.
We can serve multiple Genre Monsters, but we need to set the expectations from the very beginning. In fact, those expectations start getting set before anyone even reads your script. Those expectations begin with your title.
Your title is not working unless it feels like your movie.
If you think of the title of Doctor Strange, you can see that the title sets your expectations. The title basically says, “Yes, this is going to be an action movie but it’s going to be a slightly weird one.”
You can see the same thing with The Matrix and you can see the same thing with Fight Club: the title controls our expectations. Because the title is the only thing in your screenplay that every single person is going to see. Your producer is going to see the title on the query letter that you send and on the title page of your script sitting on their desk. If the title doesn’t feel like the genre they want to experience, they’re not going to read it.
Remember those long nights at Blockbuster Video fighting over titles with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Tossing titles back and forth, with each title inspiring a series of feelings in you, and you either said, “Yes, I want that feeling,” or, “No, I don’t.” And you cared about it pretty passionately.
The same thing is true when you have a Netflix-and-chill night. You’re flipping through going, “Do I want to watch this? Do I want watch this? Do I want to watch this?” We’re seeing the title. Or we’re seeing a combination of title and poster. And when we see those two things together, we’re asking ourselves, “Does this give me the feeling that I want tonight?”
If your title doesn’t deliver that feeling, there’s a good chance that your producer never reads the script. There’s a good chance that, even if you target the right producer, they’re going to look at the title of the script and they’re not going to get it.
So the title is the first way that you feed the Genre Monster. For yourself, I highly recommend creating a working title for your film. Even if that’s not the title that you end up with. Begin with a working title, even if it only makes sense to you, because as long as it feels like the movie that you want to write, that working title will guide you.
You can then ask yourself at each step as you write, “Does this feel like Doctor Strange or does this not feel like Doctor Strange?” And if it stops feeling like Doctor Strange, you know you’re going off course, and if it does feel like Doctor Strange, you know it’s working, even if it’s not perfect.
The next element that feeds your Genre Monster is the first image of your script. That first image sets the world of what this movie is going to be. It’s the only thing that you can guarantee that people are going to read once they crack open your script.
A producer, agent, manager, or star, from the moment they read that very first image, is already making a decision: is this for me or is this not for me?
Oftentimes, as screenwriters, we come up with something awesome, and then rather than putting it at the beginning, we save it. We’re afraid that we’ll never come up with something that awesome again.
What I would suggest to you is don’t save the best for last. Save the best for first.
Stick it up front, where everyone is going to see it. Use it to set the expectations of your script. And then push yourself to keep on outdoing it– raising the bar higher and higher with each page, rather than setting the bar low at the beginning to build to that great moment you’re holding on to.
An interesting story, the way Scott Derrickson got to direct this film was by writing a 12 page sequence depicting what he wanted the movie to look and feel like, and spending “an obnoxious amount” of his own money to produce a series of storyboards showing exactly the way it was going to look. Marvel later ended up buying those 12 pages from him– because it was those pages that opened the door to seeing what he could bring to the film as a director– the Genre Monster he was going to feed.
Those 12 pages ended up becoming that incredible hospital fight sequence in Doctor Strange, which takes place in the real world and the astral plane at the same time.
But for the experience of the producers, those 12 pages were the first 12 pages they saw of Derrickson’s work. The pages that set the world and expectations of what we are going to watch.
The final draft of the screenplay, even though it doesn’t begin with those 12 pages, uses the same trick.
You’ll notice that Doctor Strange does not begin in the world of the self-obsessed neurosurgeon who is so great at his job– because that’s not the feeling that Doctor Strange is going to deliver as a film.
Instead of beginning in an American hospital, it begins in Kathmandu, in this mysterious Tibetan library. It begins with the appearance of some scary looking humans from a different dimension, and the beheading of a terrified librarian using magical weapons. It begins with the spiritual twist of The Ancient One’s appearance and warning that the book he’s stealing will only bring Kaecilius misery. And it begins with a wild chase sequence through space and time, culminating in a fight sequence in the mirror dimension, where buildings fold over themselves in an MC Escher, Inception-inspired mash up.
Doctor Strange, in that opening sequence, is already telling us exactly what it is going to be– exactly what feelings it’s going to deliver.
It’s going to deliver a feeling of exoticism and magic. It’s going to deliver visually spectacular action sequences. It is going to play in a language of Inception and MC Escher, of folding buildings moving magically together like puzzle pieces. And it is going to have a slight spiritual flavor to its action.
The execution of that opening sequence also gives the tone of the movie; it’s a movie that is not going to take itself too seriously, despite its spiritual underpinnings and its hallucinogenic set pieces. It tells us that this will be a movie that takes itself a little more lightly, a little bit more in the tone that we’re used to seeing from the Marvel franchises.
And if you think about Doctor Strange, you will realize that from that point forward what the film does is keep on delivering the same thing. It just keeps on pushing that thing a little bit further. That character of Kaecilius, that world of the mirror dimension, the magic of objects that can materialize from thin air, chase sequences that can move from Tibet to New York, the gentle spirituality of The Ancient One– all of this begins in that very first scene and sets our genre expectations. And all the film needs to do from this point forward is to keep feeding that Genre Monster in us every seven pages or so.
In this way action movies are built a lot like musicals.
In a musical you have your book, which is the dramatic story of what’s happening. (Even though it’s called a book, in a stage musical it’s written like a play, and in a film musical it’s written like a screenplay).
Once that book is written, the composers take the most powerful scenes and translate them into musical numbers; they translate them into arias.
And there really just three kinds of arias.
There is the Commentary Aria, in which the character tells you the feeling that they have about what just happened in the previous scene.
There is the Wish Song Aria, in which the character dreams of a different life.
And then there is the Storytelling Aria, in which events are happening inside of the aria– where the Aria itself is actually driving the story forward.
Action movies are built almost exactly the same way.
The truth is the best action movies are built on really good books (not really good novels, really good dramatic books, dramatic storytelling).
They’re built on the on the foundation of really good screenplays, and really good screenplays begin with really good characters who want really specific things.
In the case of Doctor Strange, the action sequences are built like arias.
Just like in a drama, we could think of the arias as those tear wrenching dramatic scenes or in a comedy, we could think of the arias as those belly-busting laugh scenes. In a movie like Doctor Strange, the arias play out as action scenes, in which we create a fabulous set piece and let the aria happen– let the story happen– through visually spectacular fight, chase, and infiltration sequences.
If you could not translate your action movie into a really great dramatic book, the chances are you don’t have a really great action movie.
And similarly, if you’re writing an action movie and you cannot translate your best dramatic sequences into action movie type arias, the truth is your action movie is not going to succeed.
Those arias feed the Genre Monster.
In a musical we are coming for that musical-transcendent experience, and in an action movie we are coming for that adrenaline and visual spectacle. But it’s important to understand that the action sequences must rest upon the structure of the book. Because without the book, we’re going to end up with action sequences that don’t create an emotional response in us. Action sequences that look good, but just don’t make us care.
Allowing us to care begins with characters who really want something.
From the moment we meet Doctor Strange, we know exactly what he wants. Doctor Strange wants to be the best doctor ever. And he, kind-of, is. Doctor Strange wants to wants to be better than everybody else. It’s all about him.
But when he accidentally crashes his sports car and loses his ability to use his hands, Doctor Strange’s desire becomes very clear, he wants to get the use of his hands back. And that one simple desire drives every single choice that he makes. All the way to that spiritual place when he realizes that he can give himself that power again and chooses not to.
So you can see that we have a really strong clear journey for Doctor Strange, driven by a very simple desire, to use his hands again.
In a dramatic story this same desire might be structured like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
In an action movie that same journey of healing is going to be grounded in action movie spectacle.
But here’s the important thing: without that element Doctor Strange is not a relatable story. Because most of us are never going to be in an inter-dimensional war. Most of us are never going to be an inter-dimensional fight sequence. Most of us will never be in Kathmandu and will never get our soul knocked out of our bodies and into the astral plane by a bald-headed Tilda Swinton.
This will not happen for most of us.
But most of us have experienced what it is to be sick and need to get well, the feeling that our body has betrayed us or that it will betray us, through sickness or old age. The fear of not being able to do the thing that makes us who we are.
All of us can feel that fear, that desire. So we have a book that is grounded in something real, a guy who lost his hands who just wants perform surgery again. And we have that dramatic story playing out in action movie terms.
Despite his seen-it-before-in-Star-Wars roots, the same kind of emotionally grounded writing gives a feeling of reality to the character of Kaecilius.
If you listened to my podcast on Sully, you know my thoughts about how these one dimensional mustache twirling villains get created. And we usually see particularly badly drawn villains in action movies.
But in this case, we have a villain who has a really strong, and really relatable, point of view. This is not a guy who wants to destroy the world or take over the world for his own power. This is a guy who felt betrayed by his teacher. And yes, his journey is simply Darth Vader’s journey regurgitated in a slightly different form. And yes, his relationship with The Ancient One is simply the relationship of Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi twisted on its head a little bit. And yes, the dark dimension is simply the dark side of the of the force wearing different clothing.
But the underlying grounding of the character nonetheless works, because it’s grounded in something human– something that once again all of us have felt.
We have all felt the feeling of being betrayed by someone that we loved and trusted. And that’s what happened to Kaecilius.
Kaecilius came to study with The Ancient One, and he was told all these things that weren’t true. He was told that The Ancient One was protecting them from the dark dimension, that certain rituals were barred to him in order to keep him safe and keep the dark dimension at bay, only to discover that The Ancient One, in fact, had been drawing on the power of the dark dimension to keep herself alive.
So, he has come to believe that everything that she told him was false. He’s come to believe that she is not the good guy but the bad guy. That she is not protecting the universe from the dark dimension but instead hoarding the power of the dark dimension for her own self aggrandizement.
He’s not trying to rule the world or destroy the world; he’s trying to save it. He’s just fighting the wrong enemy.
And so we have an antagonist who is grounded in a reasonable worldview, even though it’s a misguided one. And while a more complicated writer could have certainly done a more complicated version of that story, could have dug a little deeper or presented this in such a way where we could actually wonder if Kaecilius was right, we’re still able to connect to Kaecilius’ journey, even though that does not happen here.
We do know from the beginning that Kaecilius is obviously misguided. Even Doctor Strange quips to Kaecilius after hearing his passionate defense of the dark dimension “dude, look at your eyes!” Because, of course, Kaecilius’ eyes deteriorating with blackness from his connection to the dark dimension. Without a doubt this is an idea that could have been driven further, but nonetheless at least we have a villain who actually makes some sense.
Similarly, the character The Ancient One is pretty complicated. And not just because of the kind of daring choice that Derrickson made to cast Tilda Swinton in this role that was originally written for an Asian man. It is a challenging choice because there are already not enough Asians in this movie. And it’s a real problem.
You can read online about some of the compromises that were made because of fears of offending China over the Tibet issue, when China is such a big market for these kinds of movies, and so important to the funding of these films. And you can also read Derrickson’s comments about the fear of Orientalizing, falling into the stereotypical clichés of Asian characters we see in movies. So whether you agree or disagree with the choice Derrickson made politically, the decision to cast Tilda Swinton in this role is a daring choice.
Partly, this pays off because she steals every scene in the show. She’s a really fine actress, who, even when surrounded by Benedict Cumberbatch and and a cast of really impeccable actors, still manages to act circles around all of them with the tremendous level of nuance and specificity of her performance.
But it also pays off because she is given a pretty strong character to work on. And that’s because, even though she is the ultimate good guy and the ultimate spiritual leader, she is also very complicated.
One of the mistakes that we often make when we write good guys is that they are just too good. And when they become too good they stop being human. They stop becoming characters we can really care about.
And this gets complicated even more when we start writing these mentor characters–these characters who come from a purely good place, and do purely good things, and have all the right answers.
How do you take a character like that on any kind of journey whatsoever when already they are transcendent and perfect? When they’re completely incapable of making mistakes?
So what’s great about The Ancient One is that she’s complicated. What’s great about The Ancient One is that she’s both entirely authentic, and entirely not what she seems. Even though she is a “good guy” she is making morally complicated choices, keeping herself alive by tapping into the very force that she’s keeping herself alive to defend against.
You can see the political implications of this. If you really get deep, you can start to think of what is that says about our political system. You start to say something about what are the choices, the compromises that we make in order to do the things that we feel protect ourselves from terrorism, from war, from countries and places that we fear.
There’s a lot of complexity that could be mined there. And again this movie doesn’t fully go there. But it does give us a dramatic character who we can understand. A character who’s making hard choices. A character who is choosing to break her own rules, and both saving the world and paying the consequences.
And what’s great about the structure of that character’s journey and the journeys of the characters around her is that those choices don’t come without consequences. That her choice to break her own rules has led not only to the tragic turn of her own disciple, but also to the disillusionment and loss of her right hand man, Mordo.
On the one hand, by breaking the rules she may have saved the world. But on the other hand, she might also have set in motion the power to destroy it.
And even though Doctor Strange’s choice at the very end of the movie to reverse time and break the rules ends in a happy place, we’re warned that there are consequences to come.
So we end up with a structure for all the major characters of the story: Doctor Strange, Mordo, The Ancient One and even the antagonist Kaecilius- that could take place in a drama. That could take place in a Tibetan monastery with a bunch of students learning from a master who they come to doubt. Or that could take place place in a small town America as frightened voters decide where to cast their votes in light of creeping disillusionment at both sides of the political establishment.
In another genre universe, another genre multiverse– to use Doctor Strange terms– this could be a little character driven drama about leaders and rules and the beauty and horror when we start to live outside the belief systems have been instilled upon us.
So you can see that there’s a version of this movie that could have been done as a little tiny character drama, or a political drama. But instead the movie is built with giant action movie arias. Starting from what I’ll call “the opening number” and driving deeper and deeper as each action sequence unfolds.
And one of the things that’s really cool if you think about those arias, you realize that those arias use the same language, the same visual language, driving it deeper and further each time. The same language Derrickson established in the opening of the film, and in the very first 12 pages he wrote: the language of magical weapons that can be conjured from thin air, the magic of chase sequences that go through portals and different time periods, the language of of buildings that fold over each other in MC Escher madness, and finally the visual language of fights happening on two different planes at the same time ,which we get to see in a really cool way in the fight sequence at the hospital, that takes place both in the human plane and on the astral plane. The visual language of time that can speed up and slow down. That gets played out in that final action sequence where we have time reversing in Hong Kong even as a fight sequence plays out in forward moving time.
So you can see that from the very start, Derrickson and his writers just keep on feeding the Genre Monster– keep on feeding the Visual Language Monster of this piece. And from that point forward, it’s really just about doing variations on the theme.
Just as that first action sequence gives us the world of the movie, the first sequence in which we meet Doctor Strange gives us the world in which Doctor Strange lives, the “who” of the main character, the want, and the problem: Doctor Strange’s need for everything to be about him.
From here, it’s easy to discover the structure from which we need to build his journey: that constant question of when is it about him, and can it ever be about anybody else? When will he follow the rules and when will he break them? How does he learn to be humble and how does he learn to follow his own path?
Writing a genre movie– whether your genre is action-madness or tiny character driven drama– writing a genre movie begins by feeding your own Genre Monster. It begins by writing a title for a movie that you want to see, that feels like the kind of movie that you want to go to. Writing a first image that captivates you and creates a feeling of the story you want to tell. A first 12 pages that captures the world of of the movie you want to explore and the lives of the characters that you want to follow…
And everything from that point forward is about looking at what you already have, and saying “how do I push this farther?” Not looking for answers somewhere out in the ether, but by rooting your characters in real human emotions– emotions that you have actually felt, that you are actually wrestling with in your real-world life.
From that point forward all you have to do is keep serving that Genre Monster in yourself. Building variations of the theme from the place where you started. Drilling down deeper and deeper and deeper to construct the journeys for your characters. Not going out to the future to figure out what happens next, but instead looking at where you’ve been to discover what must happen for your character. Thinking about your story in action movie terms, and then every seven pages or so asking yourself: “Am I feeding the Genre Monster as I promised?”
If it’s an action movie, “have I found an action movie aria?” If it’s if it’s a set piece, asking yourself “how does this set piece grow out of and push further the ideas that I began with?” If it’s a comedy, asking yourself “how do I hit a greater joke density, a greater complexity of the humor?” If it’s a drama asking yourself “how am I going to deliver the emotional stakes at this moment? How am I going to turn up the volume on that?”
Feeding the genre monster is not about selling out; it’s about selling in. It’s about looking at the things that make your writing most beautiful and digging deeper and deeper and deeper, pushing them further and further and further, until you’re singing the aria in your heart on the page.