by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Ask any story guru, and they will tell you that very few writers ever develop the skills to master multiple genres. In recent years, however, finding your storytelling niche has become trickier as the traditional genres such as drama, comedy, and horror are often combined into hybrids with other genres to create entirely new families of stories. While it might be tempting to write whatever type of material strikes your fancy when you sit down at the computer, learning what works within a family of stories can help a writer hone their skills and get better at their craft.
A number of story experts have suggested new genres that you can explore if that approach is helpful to you. For example, Blake Snyder’s “Monster in the House” genre encompasses scripts from Panic Room to Jaws to Saw. Finding a family of stories to work within may be helpful if you wish to avoid a specific beat structure associated with a certain type of film, as a family of stories has more to do with the emotional core of the story than its structure. Here are three ways to find the family of stories you should be working in.
1. Find Your Themes
Make a list of twenty of your favorite films. Go back and try to determine the big themes in each film. Did it deal with the theme of returning home? Fathers and sons? Appreciating what you have? After listing the themes you remember for each film, begin looking for patterns. Are there themes that appear again and again? Are some themes similar to others? Try to find three key themes that are your themes. These will likely be the themes that you should be writing about, as they are clues to your values and worldview. The recently released film, Marshall, is in my own family of stories. I gravitate towards narratives about underdogs and risk takers. Precious, Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forester are all in my family of stories, though they are all very different in execution.
2. Check Your Stubs
What films do you care enough about to actually go to the theaters for? In an age of streaming services, one must really want to see a film in order to leave the comforts of home and not wait for it to hit Netflix. Sometimes, it’s just because we want to be part of the cultural conversation, but often when we actually spend money to go see a film as soon as it comes out, it’s a clue that film may belong in our family of stories. Saving your movie stubs can be an easy way to learn a lot about your own story interests. Getting to know more about who we are as writers will always be helpful in crafting the type of work we aspire to.
3. Get Out and Explore
So many writers think they know what their family of stories are, but have not exposed themselves to enough different types of storytelling to really be sure. While we all enjoy watching the same “comfort” movies over and over again, getting outside of our comfort zone can expose us to films and TV shows we might not usually encounter. The Florida Project is a story I wouldn’t have sought out when I first began writing. However, a friend invited me to see an independent film a few years into my work that showed me how stories that revolve around children in tough situations could also have a great deal to say to adults. These stories have slowly morphed into my family. You might be surprised how exposing yourself to new types of stories can keep your work fresh and constantly evolving and expanding.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.