Welcome to part 2 on genre
Hello and welcome back to the second part. In this part, you’ll read about mystery, tragedy, comedy and drama. These are genres that are the foundation of western fiction. Understand a genre and you will understand what your audience expects of you.
In the final part, I’ll talk about meta-narrative and give you a bare-bones guide to writing a pop song.
Mystery Thriller Genre/ Police Procedural
Oedipus Rex is the foundation of all detective fiction. The play is the basis of the mystery genre. The story of Oedipus is also the infant subconscious. You have a hatred of the father and the lust for the mother. That element doesn’t need incorporated into your plot. Detective fiction needs to have a hero who sets out to the right a wrong only to find out that he is the cause of the wrong.
The extension of this is the police drama.
If detective drama deals with the fault of the self, detective drama is concerned with the fault of the parents. In the detective drama, it usually starts small with the murder of some nobody in a derelict area. Our hero discovers that the corruption doesn’t come from the criminal underworld but within the police department. In LA Confidential and Minority Report, the police chief is revealed as the criminal. In Insomnia Hilary Swank discovers that it was Al Pacino who shot his partner.
I can’t write about mystery thrillers without mentioning Columbo and Jessica Fletcher.
I’ve never understood the appeal of either as there is no progression. Each episode is like a self-contained film that has no relation to one or another. You could watch either show in any order, and it would make no difference.
Let’s talk about Columbo first.
Anyone who has read Homicide by David Simon will know no detective would get away with what Columbo does.
Columbo’s unorthodoxy gave me an idea that he is the manifest guilt of the murderer. The theory doesn’t hold up, but it makes the show more fun to watch. Frank Columbo almost exclusively interacts with the guilty party. Columbo keeps showing up and nags the suspect. Lt Columbo is more like the three Furies from The Eumenides than an actual person, let alone a cop.
Columbo is manifested by the occurrence of the crime. You never get an idea of who Columbo is apart from being a bit of a bumbler and resilient. There are mentions of a wife and some episodes he has a dog, I think. I’m not watching every Columbo for this article. Each episode ends with the criminal either confessing or confronted with irrefutable evidence. You never see the trial; there’s never any follow-on. The episode stops once a confession has been taken from the criminal.
Murder, she kept writing
As for Murder, She Wrote there is a joke about how she’s the real murderer. That would make the show far more enjoyable. The show is camp. It would be enjoyable to see it as an episodic version of Kind Hearts and Coronets, with Jessica as the murderer. Alas, it’s too much of a stretch. Angela Lansbury is a treasure though, and you must cherish her.
You could probably make a lot of money if you wrote a half decent mystery. I am convinced that all you have to do is write a kind of interesting mystery and have it end well for it to be successful.
Look at some of the more popular authors from previous years. There’s John Grisham, legal thrillers, JK Rowling; you think that Harry Potter is a book about magic? Think of the titles of her books; they are mysteries set within wizard world.
Is that why The Cursed Child didn’t quite excite people the way Harry Potter had done? Did switching the focus to time travel spoil the magic?
If you have an idea for a mystery, get it written and make your millions. I’m envious because I never could, nor will I ever have the motivation to write one.
Think about the genre tragedy. Macbeth is a great example of the genre. The character is told a lie and is unable to turn away from his destiny. With a little tweaking, the genre could change from tragedy to comedy. Towards the end of the Scottish play, the two armies are preparing to clash. They’re ready to fight when one of the kings gets a letter saying the witches manipulated the whole thing. They decide to forgive kooky Macbeth, he still gets punished, but there is forgiveness.
Think about Romeo and Juliet. The sleeping potion wears off Juliet right before Romeo poisons himself. The parents come in and say that if their children can set aside differences then so can they, it becomes a comedy.
The same goes for comedy. At the end of Liar Liar, Jim Carrey arrives at the airport to find out that his ex-wife and son took off hours ago. It becomes a tragedy. The misconception about comedy is that because it brings out laughter it must be jovial. Comedy has some of the grimmest subject matter.
One of my favourite sitcoms, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has an episode where they exhume their dead mother. Another great plotline is George Costanza from Seinfeld, his fiancee, died licking envelopes. Furthermore, there is the oppressive atmosphere of The Office UK.
If you want a great example of a comedy plot, I recommend season 5 of The Wire. There is a lie told by one of the characters, that lie builds. More people believe in the lie before the truth is revealed.
Comedy is the lie discovered. The tragedy is the lie discovered too late.
Drama is a less heightened version of tragedy/comedy. If tragedy and comedy deal with justice and forgiveness, a drama is “everyone is a bit shit”. A recent example of a good drama was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
What’s the film’s plot? It’s not a mystery thriller, the identity of the daughters killer is never revealed. Is it about a mother grieving, no, all the grieving seems to be done by the start of the film. Mother and daughter don’t even like each other that much as you are told through flashback. Is it about an asshole sheriff who learns something, sort of. The cumulative effect of the drama is to leave the audience with a sense of nostalgia.
Furthermore, look at some of the greatest plays from the previous century. A Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There’s no real plot, and there’s no real hero. Everyone is kind of awful; everyone is kind of weak all are human. I can’t offer too much advice on drama. Don’t mistake subtle progression for no progression.