Okay everyone, this is it. The big one. I’m going to save you tons of time and money you might have otherwise spent on creative writing workshops, English major programs at university, or self-publishing gurus’ Gumroad course.
Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Great—here it is:
With some skill, planning, and forethought, you can combine any genre with any other genre.
How was that? Was that worth the price of admission (nothing)? Did I blow your mind?
I hope not, because this is some pretty obvious storytelling advice that, unfortunately, gets lost in the check-the-box type of writing methodologies you see all over the place both in prose and in screenwriting.
Screenwriting? Movies, you say?
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Books are not “head movies,” but let’s face it: moving pictures are the dominant form of storytelling entertainment today, and it’s not even close. I guess video games technically make more money, but video games are not primarily storytelling vehicles—I’d argue they’re poor storytelling vehicles, but that’s a post for another day.
But even given the differences between novels and movies, both are still written. And some writing conventions and storytelling concepts transcend medium and are therefore instructive to look at regardless of how they were applied.
My son is old enough that we can watch some of my favorite movies together. A few weeks ago, I decided that Ghostbusters would be a fun one. Not the awful, charmless, unfunny, dumb, and downright boring 2016 reboot, but the original classic from 1984.
My boy loved it. And seeing as how I haven’t watched the entire movie front-to-back since 2002 or so, a few things stood out:
- It was better than I remembered.
- It was funnier than I remembered.
- The plot was surprisingly deep for a comedy.
- For being such an iconic part of the movie, the gigantic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man only had very few minutes of screen time.
Overall, though, I had to wonder if Ghostbusters really was a comedy at all.
Ghostbusters gets described as a “sci-fi/comedy” quite a bit. Director Ivan Rietman says that test audiences simultaneously laughed and screamed at the library ghost near the beginning of the movie, and that’s when he knew they’d nailed the tone they were going for. So I guess comedy was on the mind. I mean, screenwriter/stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis got their starts in comedy, and other actors in the movie like Bill Murray and Rick Moranis certainly come from the world of professional humor.
Still, the movie doesn’t strike me as setting out primarily to make audiences laugh. It clearly sets out to entertain, and there are plenty of laughs, but it’s the way these laughs are delivered that is worth examining.
Before we begin, please spare me the bromides about “There’s nothing more boring than analyzing comedy.” False. This stuff is interesting, and if you don’t understand what you’re doing and just wing it, the chances are that your art will suffer. Art is a craft. Very few, if any, can get by on pure instinct alone.
Humor does belong in stories. It might not be appropriate for every story, but it certainly has its place, whether you are writing a fantasy, a hard-boiled crime-thriller, or even a tale of horror. You can do the “zany, wacky” thing if you want, but there are still important storytelling conventions you need to follow to make the zaniness and wackness engaging and bearable.
The tricky thing with humor and comedy is the inverse relationship between trying to be funny and actually being funny. Ghostbusters falls on the correct side of this equation, because its humor comes from how the characters react to the situations they face. Bill Murray is perfect as the sarcastic and smarmy Peter Venkman, and his nonchalant reactions to the supernatural, as well as his dry, perfectly-timed quips are a part of his character’s personality. They are not forced. And importantly, every character in the movie isn’t a comedian.
Look at how Harold Ramis plays Egon Spengler. “I’m always serious,” he says at one point. And it’s hilarious, because of when and how he says it. He’s not even a comic relief character! “I collect molds, spores, and fungus,” he tells the Ghostbusters’s secretary Janine when she is clearly flirting with him. Stuff like that.
Even more, as Ghostbusters shows, when you put characters with different personalities in the same scene together, like Egon and Peter, the dialogue pretty much writes itself. The humor flows. Throw in Dan Aykroyd’s earnest and somewhat naïve Ray Stantz and Ernie Hudson, Jr.’s streetwise and grounded Winston Zeddemore, and no matter the situation they are speaking like real people would. And oftentimes, real people are funny.
This is a great lesson for any sort of story. In a novel, you can use your character’s personalities to create conflict that might actually elicit a few chuckles. Whether it’s a bit of banter or how a character reacts to a situation, the ideas is to let any humor flow naturally. I’m sure you can think of a few other movies who utilize this sort of naturally integrated humor.
Are there any other good sci-fi/comedies out there? Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series is the only one I can come up with, and that had some actual, legitimate laugh-out-loud moments. Again, a lot of the humor in that came from the dry, straight way that the characters tended to react to the absurd situations facing them, although Arthur Dent sometimes exploded in extremely relatable and understandable fits of outrage and confusion.
That seems to be a commonality: sometimes the more serious a situation is, how the characters react to it can be the source of much humor.
Another is the fact that, in both The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Ghostbusters, there are good, engaging plots the audience wants to see resolved, populated by likeable characters the audience wants to see succeed. Without audience buy-in, I don’t think the humor will hit nearly as hard as if the audience cares.
You can probably combine any genre with another, as long as you nail the plot and the characters. So that’s really storytelling 101 repackaged in a slightly different way. Who says this blog doesn’t deliver the hard-hitting content . . . for free?