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Monday, October 8, 2007


What are movie conventions? Well, another way of saying that is expectations of a genre. For example - and this is inspired by a funny conversation on a message board recently about horror films – it is a convention of horror films that a group of teenagers arrive at the haunted road/farm/castle/house for some kind of trip and it is they who get picked off one by one. In other words, we have not seen a busload of senior citizens go through this –no, it’s always teens or college kids. It’s a convention. Audiences expect it.

Well, let me waffle a little bit on that one: that a group of strangers (innocents, tourists, somebody random) stumbles into a heretofore cursed or haunted place is a convention. That they are teenagers is a cliche. Do Wavers see the not so subtle difference?

Moving forward with another example, is a convention of horror movies that the cabin is located by a lake. Or that the motel is empty and the guy behind the counter is either creepy or preternaturally cheerful.

It is a convention of romantic comedies that boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. It is a convention of westerns that a bad guy blows into town and the good guy has to take him out and protect the town. It is a convention of action movies that the hero is some kind of outsider or underdog who just happens to be really good at fighting crazy terrorists. Yippy ki yay mother bleepers.

You see the trends here. Now, here’s the tricky thing about conventions. You need to know what they are – and you do, even if subconsciously – but you also need to subvert them so that your script stands out from other scripts.

In other words – think of the Rubik’s Cube. If you have, say, a horror convention like the “pop-out” moment – well, the convention goes like this:

Character hears weird sound or sees something out of corner of their eye.
Character investigates – big, long, scary silence – and – nothing is there.
Audience breathes sigh of relief.
Character turns around and – HOLY BLEEP! THERE IT IS!!

That’s a good old fashioned pop-out moment. Now, if you write a horror script devoid of the pop-out, well, it’s not going to go over very well. Because that is a convention of the genre. People expect it, in other words. But, how about writing a pop-out that honors the convention and then takes it to another level? Making the audience wait through not one but two false alarms isn’t that original. Been there done that. But in the Japanese horror movie JUON (THE GRUDGE was the American remake) there were plenty of pop-out moments but what was fun and unconventional is that some of them were memorably in broad daylight in a public place. Now THAT turned the convention on its head. It met the expectation but then changed it up just enough to be familiar AND different at the same time. And, that, Wavers is the bottom line of what you need to know about convention.

THE RING had some pop-out moments and they weren’t that unconventional but the movie also had a completely unconventional evil creature because she crawled OUT of the television!! I mean, that is one memorable horror monster, right? Nobody had done that before. So THE RING satisfied convention and expectation but it took it to another level completely.

A convention that is a lot of fun to think about is the “cute meet” in romcom. You can gather what cute meet means – it’s right there in the words – but clearly there are thousands of permutations of what constitutes a cute meet. There are thousands of permutations of what a rebellious, down-and-out action picture hero might be like.

You have your movie conventions down cold right now – because you see movies all the time. You consciously and unconsciously know right when the music is going to swell, when the sweeping vista of the family ranch is going to appear, when the bad guy is going to kick the door open and when the madly in love couple is going to have an ugly fight. You know it because you’ve seen these conventions millions of times. We need conventions in movies; they give us the milestones of the story. But as writers, we need to both know them and then use them as jumping off points. Because if you a good enough writer to take convention to the next level – you are a good enough writer to get noticed.

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1 comment:

Margaux Outhred said...

Also, the helpful thing about conventions is that they can help you write your movie. If you know you are writing a rom com, there are a handful of scenes you should automatically include in your movie to make it a rom com. But, the key is what the Waveinatrix is saying, you gotta take the tried and true and make it new again. And that's where real imagination comes into play.