Skip to content

78 Screenplay Genres Explored: An In-Depth Guide

an illustration featuring a diverse group of characters from different film genres

Disclosure: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links, which can provide compensation to us at no cost to you. You can read our full affiliate disclosure in our privacy policy.

Screenplays are the blueprints for films, and just like any other form of writing, they come in different genres.

Each genre has its own unique characteristics and writing techniques that make it stand out. In this article, we’ll explore the different screenplay genres and what sets them apart.

In this guide we’ll cover:

  • Understanding genre traditions helps writers utilize familiar narrative tools.
  • A list of 78 major film genres and subgenres
  • Choose genres suited to your writing strengths and target demographic.
  • Blending genres creates unique hybrids like sci-fi comedy or fantasy thriller.
  • The right genre resonates with audiences, inspires the writer creatively, and plays to writing strengths.

Understanding movie genres is a crucial first step for any aspiring screenwriter. Genre classification provides a framework for both writing and analyzing scripts by identifying common themes, motifs, character archetypes, and plot structures.

What is a Screenplay Genre?

In simple terms, a screenplay genre refers to a category or type of film characterized by certain shared traits. Genres provide a set of stylistic and narrative conventions that give viewers a sense of familiarity and allow films to be classified together.

Some key elements that define genre include:

  • Theme – The main ideas, messages or motifs explored in the film. For example, the theme of good vs evil in action films.
  • Setting – The time period and location. Such as the frontier towns of the old West in Westerns.
  • Character archetypes – Recurring character roles like the hero, villain, and damsel in distress.
  • Plot – The storyline structure and devices employed to tell the story. A common plot device is the hero’s quest in fantasy films.
  • Iconography – Recognizable images and symbols associated with the genre. Like the menacing mask of a slasher villain in horror films.
  • Tone and mood – The overall feeling created through techniques like music, lighting and pace. Such as an ominous, creepy mood in thrillers.

While some genres, like comedy or horror, are easily identifiable, genres can also blend together. A film can have elements of multiple genres, creating hybrids like romantic comedy or science fiction thriller.

Why is Genre Analysis Important?

Understanding screenplay genre conventions serves several important purposes for screenwriters:

  • Gives direction and focus to the writing process when developing stories, characters, and structure. Writers can lean on established genre ingredients that work rather than starting from scratch.
  • Allows writers to meet audience expectations while also putting their own spin on genre traditions. Viewers approach genres with certain anticipations that writers can subvert.
  • Provides a blueprint for the crucial basics of storytelling, like plot points, character motivations, and settings. Genres have proven narrative frameworks.
  • Helps writers position and market their scripts based on comparable films that producers and audiences are familiar with. Genre is a critical factor in the pitching process.
  • Gives writers creative boundaries that paradoxically inspire greater innovation. Constraints force writers to come up with fresh takes within genre conventions.

Genre awareness empowers screenwriters to write more audience-focused, structured, and marketable scripts while allowing room for unique vision and style. With the basics of why genre matters covered, we’ll now survey the spectrum of major genre categories and their associated subgenres.

Types of Film Genres and Sub-Genres

Now, we’ll do a deep dive into the major genre categories and their associated subgenres. Understanding the spectrum of genres available can spark ideas and help writers narrow their focus.

Many of these genres and subgenres can fit within one another and or be merged, such as a crime drama or western comedy.

This list is presented alphabetically; no one genre or subgenre is more important than another.

Action

an illustration depicting a car driving fast in an action film

The action genre focuses on physical feats, conflict, and daring adventures. Subgenres include:

Adventure

Adventure films journey to exotic locations filled with trials for heroes to overcome. Indiana Jones is a classic example.

Buddy Cop

A partnership between two mismatched police officers, often one straight-laced and one more unorthodox, takes center stage in buddy cop films like Lethal Weapon.

Comic Book/Superhero

Superhero films bring comic book characters like Spiderman and their extraordinary powers to life. Good vs evil clashes feature heavily.

Disaster

Disaster films showcase crisis events like natural disasters, pandemics or attacks to drive suspense and action sequences. The Poseidon Adventure is one example.

Martial Arts

Martial arts films spotlight specialized fighting skills like kung fu or karate, as seen in classic Bruce Lee films.

Military/War

Military and war films focus on conflict situations, often based on actual historical battles. Saving Private Ryan epitomizes the genre.

Swashbuckler

Swashbucklers feature sword fighting and adventurous heroes in period-piece settings, as in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Comedy

an illustration of a scared man standing on railroad tracks

Comedy films aim primarily to elicit laughter and amusement from viewers. Some key comedy genres include:

Parody

Parody films satirize other films or genres by exaggerating their characteristics for comedic effect. Examples include Scary Movie spoofing horror films.

Black Comedy

Black comedies present disturbing or taboo subject matter in a humorous way. Films like Fargo display the genre’s dark, ironic tone.

Slapstick

Slapstick films contain broad physical comedy and absurd situations for outrageous hilarity. The Three Stooges exemplified classic slapstick.

Fish Out of Water

In Fish Out of Water films, characters find themselves in unfamiliar environments far outside their comfort zone, like in Coming to America. Humor arises from their disorientation.

Mockumentary

Presented in documentary style, mockumentaries use improvisation and deadpan humor to skewer real-life subjects, as in This Is Spinal Tap.

Comedy is highly subjective, so subgenres run the gamut in tone from silly to satirical.

Crime

an illustration featuring a gangster from a crime drama

The crime genre covers stories revolving around illegal activities and the institutions and people that respond to them. Major subgenres include:

Courtroom

Courtroom dramas center around legal proceedings and attorneys arguing cases, as seen in A Few Good Men. Moral dilemmas and theatrical confrontations drive these films.

Detective

Detective films follow investigations into mysteries and crimes by either professional or amateur sleuths like Sherlock Holmes or The Usual Suspects. The search for truth propels the plot.

Gangster

Gangster films focus on organized crime operations and power struggles within them, as in Goodfellas. Antiheroes often lead these films.

Heist

Heist or caper films detail elaborate robberies from planning to execution and getaway, like Ocean’s Eleven. Outwitting formidable security systems is key.

Police Procedural

Police procedurals showcase the step-by-step processes used by police squads to solve crimes, such as in Law & Order. Meticulous detective work is highlighted.

The crime genre offers writers many angles into the world of lawbreakers, law enforcers, and justice.

Drama

an illustration of a man and woman walking in the rain

Dramas focus on human emotional journeys and character growth. Some key subgenres include:

Biopic

Biopics dramatize the real lives of notable historical figures like musicians, politicians, or athletes, as seen in Lincoln.

Epic

Epic films present grand-scale stories of human struggle and destiny through lavish production, as in Lawrence of Arabia.

Historical

Historical dramas recreate past time periods and showcase defining events, as in Gladiator. Period detail and accuracy are crucial.

Legal

Legal dramas center on trial lawyers and cases while examining the flaws of the justice system, like A Civil Action. Tense courtroom scenes feature heavily.

Melodrama

Melodramas employ plot elements like tragedy, emotional appeals, and moral polarization to maximize dramatic sentiment. Terms of Endearment exemplifies the genre.

Period

Period films are set in specific historical eras beyond living memory, like the Victorian era in Sense and Sensibility. The historical atmosphere is key.

Political

Political dramas focus on government institutions and power dynamics, as seen in All the President’s Men. Corruption and cover-ups often factor in.

Teen/Coming of Age

Coming-of-age stories follow young characters as they transition from childhood to adulthood and grapple with identity issues. The Breakfast Club captures this genre.

Tragedy

Tragedies chronicle the downfall of a protagonist(s) through flaws and circumstances beyond their control, as in Hamlet. Grief and despair color these narratives.

This covers some of the most salient dramatic subgenres that dig deep into human struggles.

Experimental Genres

an illustration of 3 bizarre men with small hats on their heads

Experimental films break from mainstream conventions to offer more avant-garde cinematic experiences. Key genres include:

Absurdist

Absurdist films feature illogical, surreal storylines aiming to upend meaning itself, as in Being John Malkovich. Bizarre imagery and dark humor characterize many movies in the genre.

Surrealist

Surrealist films use dream logic, nonlinearity, and strange visuals to evoke the unconscious mind and imagination, like in Un Chien Andalou. Disjointed narratives push viewers out of their comfort zone.

By rebelling against tradition, experimental genres give writers creative freedom to challenge audiences. But difficulty connecting with viewers can be a trade-off.

Fantasy

an illustration of a medieval castle

Fantasy films transport viewers to magical realms outside the bounds of reality. Major subgenres include:

Bangsian

Bangsian fantasies are set in the afterlife, like Heaven and Hell, and feature deceased characters from history and myth interacting as in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

Dark Fantasy

Dark fantasies blend fantasy tropes with horror elements to create grim, brooding worlds, as seen in Pan’s Labyrinth. Moral ambiguity features prominently.

Fairy Tale

Fairy tale films adapt classic folkloric stories featuring magical beings and spells like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Whimsy and wonder define these family-friendly tales.

High Fantasy

High fantasy shows sweeping battles between good and evil in fully realized magical worlds like Lord of the Rings. Detailed mythologies and lore shape the grand-scale adventures.

Magic Realism

Magic realism films incorporate minor fantastical flourishes into otherwise realistic settings, as in Midnight in Paris. The magical elements subtly expand storytelling possibilities.

Steampunk

Steampunk fantasy combines futuristic technology with 19th-century Victorian aesthetics and steam power, as seen in The Golden Compass. Retro-futurism abounds.

Sword and Sorcery

Sword and sorcery films follow mighty warriors in medieval-esque realms who wield swords and magic against supernatural foes like in Conan the Barbarian. Action and quests feature heavily.

Fantasy realms empower screenwriters to push boundaries and fully engage the audience’s imagination.

Horror

an illustration of a monster from a horror film

Horror films aim to frighten and disturb viewers through suspense, gore, and the supernatural. Major types include:

Monster

Monster horror pits human characters against classic monsters like vampires, werewolves, mummies, or mutated beasts as seen in Dracula.

Found Footage

Found footage horror mimics raw amateur video from sources like surveillance cameras to create a mockumentary feel, as in The Blair Witch Project. The homemade look enhances scares.

Ghost

Ghost horror revolves around vengeful spirits and haunted places like in The Ring. Creepy atmosphere and psychological tension take precedence over gore.

Gothic

Gothic horror employs dark medieval settings, doomed romance, and eerie supernatural occurrences, as in Crimson Peak. Lavish gothic architecture towers over victims.

Occult

Occult horror explores demonic or satanic forces, possession, and black magic, like in The Exorcist. Ancient evil rituals drive the disturbing storylines.

Slasher

Slasher films pit human killers against victims, often teens, using bladed weapons, as seen in Halloween. Creative murder sequences punctuate these violent thrillers.

Splatter

Splatter horror showcases graphic, gory kills for visceral shock value, like in Saw. Gruesome practical effects push boundaries of taste and decency.

Horror’s visceral thrills make it perennially popular.

Romance

an illustration of a happy couple drinking coffee in a cafe

Romance films chronicle love stories and the quest to find connection. Major subgenres include:

Adult

Adult romance explores sexual relationships and erotic themes intended for mature audiences, as in Fifty Shades of Grey or X-rated films. Taboo desires often feature.

Epic

Epic romances use lavish backdrops like Titanic and grand societal forces to raise the stakes of private passions. Sweeping stories span years or generations.

Musical

Musical romances express emotions through elaborate song and dance numbers, as in La La Land. Upbeat energy carries the story between musical interludes.

Supernatural

Supernatural romances involve mortal-immortal love between humans and vampires, angels, ghosts, or other paranormal beings, like in Twilight. Danger and forbidden desires fuel excitement.

Romantic Comedy

Romantic comedies blend lighthearted humor with romantic plots, as in When Harry Met Sally. Witty banter and hijinks lead to emotional fulfillment.

Romance empowers writers to tap into universally relatable emotions.

Science Fiction

an illustration of a young man in a futuristic environment

Science fiction films extrapolate imaginative futures and possibilities through technology and science. Modern classic films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind have helped to define this genre. Major types include:

Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk focuses on dystopian futures dependent on advanced technology, as in The Matrix. Rogue hackers feature prominently.

Dystopian

Dystopian science fiction depicts dark, regimented futures like 1984. Totalitarian governments and loss of free will create ominous worlds.

Future Noir

Future noir blends sci-fi with film noir style and cyberpunk settings as seen in Blade Runner. Moody, philosophical questions about humanity arise.

Post-Apocalyptic

Post-apocalyptic science fiction chronicles the aftermath of cataclysmic events that devastate society, like in Mad Max. Raw survival tales play out.

Space Opera

Space operas showcase interplanetary adventures across vast distances of space featuring advanced technology, as in Star Wars. Operatic stakes and spectacle drive exotic stories.

Time Travel

Time travel science fiction involves characters traveling to different eras and the resulting Butterfly Effect. Logical paradoxes often fuel mind-bending plots. Examples include Back to the Future, Looper, and Primer.

Utopian

Utopian science fiction portrays idealized advanced civilizations with artificial intelligence that have solved major social problems, like in Star Trek. Technology improves life for all.

Science fiction’s imaginative scope empowers writers to pose big “what if?” questions through creative worlds.

Thriller

an illustration of a film noir detective

Thrillers build suspense and create tension and excitement through danger, action, and mystery. Major subgenres include:

Film Noir

Film noir thrillers feature cynical attitudes and moral ambiguity in gloomy, shadowy settings, as seen in Chinatown. Hardboiled detectives navigate corrupt underworlds.

Mystery

Mystery thrillers focus on solving puzzling crimes or events, often with red herrings, plot twists, and whodunit tension, as in Gone Girl. Cerebral detective work unfolds clues.

Psychological

Psychological thrillers build intrigue and tension through the warped psyches of unstable antagonists, like in Silence of the Lambs. Mind games and paranoia feature prominently.

Spy

Spy thrillers follow espionage activities and global political intrigue, as in the James Bond series. Secret agent action and gadgetry propel dangerous missions.

Suspense

Suspense thrillers build nail-biting anticipation through ominous threats, as seen in Jaws foreboding atmosphere, and high stakes place victims in peril.

Thrillers allow writers to ratchet up stakes and adrenaline.

Western

an illustration of a cowboy in the wild west aiming his gun

Westerns portray life on the American frontier with recurring cowboys, outlaws, and rugged individualism. Subgenres include:

Australian Western

Australian Westerns transplant Wild West themes to the Australian outback rather than the American West, as seen in Quigly Down Under, for example. The harsh bush serves as a mythic frontier.

Comedy Western

Comedy Westerns blend action with slapstick humor and fish-out-of-water scenarios like in Blazing Saddles. Subversive satire often pokes fun at Western tropes.

Contemporary Western

Contemporary Westerns modernize the setting with familiar Western character archetypes and themes, as in No Country For Old Men. Isolation and lawlessness permeate modern frontiers.

Epic Western

Epic Westerns employ high production values to capture grand frontier struggles, as in Dances with Wolves. Historical accuracy grounds the big-budget spectacle.

Marshal

Marshal Westerns follow U.S. Marshals enforcing law and order in frontier towns, as seen in True Grit. Moral authority clashes with wild outlaws.

Outlaw

Outlaw Westerns adopt the perspective of charismatic brigands as protagonists like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Heists and banditry are romanticized.

Spaghetti Western

Spaghetti Westerns are Italian-made Westerns known for violence, cynicism, and experimental scores, as seen in classic Clint Eastwood films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Revisionist Western

Revisionist Westerns subvert romantic Western myths to portray more morally complex heroes and antiheroes as in Unforgiven. Flawed human nature comes to the fore.

This completes our survey of major film genres and subgenres. Understanding genre conventions and possibilities can inform and inspire new films.

How to Choose the Right Genre for Your Screenplay

With so many genres and subgenres to choose from, settling on the right one for your particular story can feel daunting. However, there are strategies writers can use to select the genre that best fits their vision, skills, and audience appeal.

Know Your Strengths

Think about genres that play to your natural storytelling strengths and interests as a writer. For example, if you excel at clever dialogue, a genre centered around relationships like romantic comedy or buddy cop films, may be a good fit. Or, if you love immersing yourself in historical details, the historical drama could be a genre where you thrive. Don’t fight your instincts – lean into genres that energize your creativity.

Consider Your Audience

Research genres that resonate with your target demographic. While fantasy films attract younger audiences, war films often appeal more to older males, for instance. If you have a specific audience in mind, explore what genre conventions and themes excite them. The more you can align with audience expectations within a genre, the greater your chance of connecting.

Research Successful Films in Your Chosen Genre

Study well-executed films in your chosen genre to understand what qualities lead to success. Notice what story beats, and character archetypes they employ. Examine ratings and reviews to see what audiences responded to. Then, brainstorm ways to put your own spin on those genre ingredients while retaining familiar elements audiences enjoy.

Choosing a genre is all about finding the best fit between your own distinctive voice as a writer and the expectations of your audience. Lean into your strengths while giving viewers genre traditions they crave, then innovate within those parameters. With deliberate genre choices, you can craft screenplays with wide appeal.

Conclusion

In this exploration of screenplay genres, we’ve covered the key characteristics, conventions and subgenres across the genre spectrum. Understanding the possibilities and audience expectations of different genres provides a strong starting point for crafting compelling stories. But genres are not rigid boxes—the most effective films often blend genres or subvert traditions.

Some key takeaways:

  • Genre conventions form a vocabulary writers can use to communicate with audiences and meet their expectations in fresh ways.
  • Subgenres help writers narrow their vision and choose specific genres suitable for their story ideas, interests, and strengths.
  • Genre hybrids fuse the styles and conventions of multiple genres, allowing for innovative stories like sci-fi romantic comedies or dark fantasy thrillers.
  • Subverting genre clichés and tropes create unpredictable stories that engage audiences, but genre foundations anchor the subversions.

Ultimately, there are no definitive rules—writers should feel empowered to evolve genres into something new. This overview aims to provide context, spark ideas, and equip writers to make informed genre choices. The possibilities are endless when building on what’s come before. Genre is a tool, not a restriction.

So, choose a genre that fits your vision, excites you creatively, and engages audiences. Then, put your own distinctive spin on it through bold characters, fresh worlds, unique perspective, and compelling stories. Know the traditions, but don’t be afraid to break new ground.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What is genre in screenplay writing?

Genre refers to categories of films based on shared traits like settings, themes, character types and plot structures. Genres establish conventions and styles that help audiences understand the type of story they can expect.

What are the best genres in which to write a spec script?

Comedy, drama, and thriller specs tend to attract the most attention as they focus more on character than high concept. Avoid niche genres like musicals or Westerns for spec scripts.

Why is writing an action film easier than writing other genres?

Action provides a clear external goal to drive events forward. Writers can rely on kinetic plot progression rather than complex character development or motivations.

What kind of screenplays sell?

Original, high-concept scripts in popular genres like comedy, drama, sci-fi, and horror have the most commercial appeal. Great writing and characters are still key.

Share this post on social