Boundaries and creativity 2 – building better genre conventions

Posted: July 30, 2013 in cultural commentary, writing
Tags: , , , , ,

No sooner had I posted about boundaries and creativity than I found this excellent article by Richard Rosenbaum on game-changing use of genre conventions. It sharpened my understanding of how boundaries lead to new boundaries, and thus not only support but drive creativity.

Genre conventions are among the most important creative boundaries. They let you know what your audience expects, and so are important in satisfying your audience. They are shortcuts for audience understanding – if your genre has a convention that orange women are always villains, then your audience gains a lot of information just from you saying ‘she was orange’.

This also applies to conventions of your medium, for example the use of chapter breaks and brightly coloured covers in printed novels, or particular edits in film.

The flawed hero - going past convention into compulsory

The flawed hero – going past convention into compulsory

Rosenbaum’s article discusses genre conventions used in unusual ways to create great storytelling. The examples he uses – primarily an episode of House and the film The Cabin In The Woods – don’t break the conventions of their genre and medium, but instead explore them, working out their logical implications or applying them in new ways. This creates new rules – in the House case the appearance of memory gaps at particular points, in Cabin a meta-narrative about the nature of horror films – that others can play with. New boundaries and structures emerge not by breaking the old rules, but by following them in a way no-one has before.

Stunned into silence by my wisdom. Or maybe the monster at the door.

Stunned into silence by my wisdom. Or maybe the monster at the door.

This doesn’t just apply to story-telling. Nick responded to my last post by saying that the benefits of boundaries apply in design work. And following rules to create new ones applies there too. Manned flight started out pretty crudely, but with a series of boundaries, rules for what would make a flying machine. By following those rules, and trying out different ways of following them, engineers refined them and varied them, discovering even better ways to build a flying machine. Sure, we still don’t have our Marty McFly hoverboards, but we’ve moved on a long way from the Wright Brothers.

Wilbur Wright's propeller design was inspired by his brother's moustahce

Wilbur Wright’s propeller design was inspired by his brother’s moustahce

Boundaries aren’t just structures that support creativity. A lot of the time they are creativity. They are the structures we create, within our stories, our genres, our world, that allow us to create greater things. Through those boundaries, creativity becomes self-perpetuating.


Or does it? Let me know what you think below, whether it’s about boundaries, creativity, or The Cabin In The Woods – seriously, I could talk about that film all day.

  1. John Moley says:


    You’re prompting me to revisit an awkward thought: Why do I think CitW is good, but not great?
    It’s Whedon, it’s Lovecraftian and it deconstructs a genre; I ought to love it!

    I think the answer is that it came too late. Even if they’d met the planned release date in 2009, this movie would have completely missed its opportunity to contribute to the discussion. It seemed to run up to me in 2012 and whisper conspiratorially “you know how several horror movies could exist in the same world?”
    “Yes,” I replied, smiling indulgently while thinking that this is an idea addressed in 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason and 1990’s Predator 2, not to mention films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and (for goodness sake) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “I also had that conversation when I was a student.”
    “Well,” it hissed with a sly grin, “what if they did?”
    “Wait, wait…” it urged, “that’s not all! You know the idea that apocalyptic evil could be a corporate endeavour? And that those who work in law and order do so in the service of demonic forces?”
    “Uh-huh?” I’m thinking of 1997’s Devil’s Advocate, 1987’s Angel Heart, Charmed and (for the love of sanity) Angel!
    “What if that were also true?” The movie grinned proudly.
    “Why aren’t you impressed?” It demanded, “I’ve woven pretty much all of twentieth century horror fiction into a reasonably seamless whole, and…”
    “The vast majority of twentieth century horror fiction blossomed from the garden grown by H.P. Lovecraft, so that’s hardly a revolutionary achievement,” I interrupted.
    “… the twist is that it’s all about a Lovecraftian Elder God,” the movie tailed off disheartened.
    “Cheer up,” I said, “you can still combine memorable comedy, genuine scares and satisfying character arcs.”
    The movie broke down in tears, “no I can’t! I was too busy congratulating myself to give much thought to those things. My revelatory, subversive sub-plot annihilates the tension in the main narrative and, once you know the twists, I have very little to offer!”
    “Oh, that’s unexpectedly disappointing,” at this point I started to feel sorry for it. “Don’t worry, though, you found a very pretty way to communicate your message, even if it is something we all know already.”
    “Thanks,” the movie sniffled. “I did spend a lot of money.”

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