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What ‘Knives Out’ Teaches Us About Genre

Genre is integral to stories and a huge factor when picking one out to read or watch or listen to. Thus, it’s something that writers need to understand.

Knives Out is a prime example of utilizing genre to its fullest potential. Not only does it hold true to the tropes of its genre, but it also expands upon them and weaponizes the genre’s tropes to create one of the most original films in recent years. So let’s examine Knives Out.

What Is Genre?

Listing genres is easy. Fantasy, science-fiction, romance, mystery, thriller…the list winds on and on before you even broach the idea of subgenres. But what is genre?

According to Brandon Sanderson, acclaimed fantasy author of the Mistborn Trilogy and The Stormlight Archives, genre is simply a marketing tool that the publisher uses to sell the story to consumers who enjoyed similar books. This is absolutely correct; in my personal experience, I tend to gravitate towards similar veins of science-fiction and fantasy.

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak allows us to see this in action. The movie opened to less than ideal numbers. While many factors can be responsible for this movie’s lackluster response, one of the most glaring is a confusing advertising campaign. While the film is a Gothic romance with a smattering of ghosts, the movie was primarily marketed as a supernatural horror — to the point that del Toro himself contradicted the film’s marketing. This example shows genre as marketing in action. The trailers drew in horror fans hoping for a scary flick but failed to deliver, creating a sense of dissatisfaction.

This disappointment demonstrates the other side of genre. It’s not just a marketing tool but a promise between creator and audience. The people coming to see Crimson Peak had been promised a horror movie, with all the tropes and stories that brings with it. With the promise (created by misguided marketing) broken, audiences didn’t get the story they were expecting. Knives Out delivers on its promised genre but it does so in a wholly unique manner by playing with the tropes of the murder-mystery genre.

Tropes Vs Cliches

There’s a difference between a trope and a cliché. Not a wide one, but a noticeable one. While cliches lend themselves to poor writing, tropes are not inherently bad and are in fact quite useful.

A trope is a recurring idea or plot device. For example, The Chosen One, the knight in shining armor, the absolute genius at X who is incapable of social interaction (though the latter arguably leans towards a cliché). These tropes become cliches after repeated overuse. It’s not just story archetypes either; lines such as “now it’s personal,” or when the villain says, “we’re not so different you and I” fall into cliché. These tropes have been used, recycled, and reduced to an eye-rolling bit of dialogue.

Genre tropes help keep a story centered. For example, the detective or whodunit genre populated by authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie has several tropes that are expected, if not required, by the genre: The story will begin with a murder or other crime, there will be a group of suspects, and there will be a detective, often quite the gifted one ala Hercule Poirot. The main conflict of the story is the detective chasing clues to determine which suspect is responsible, and the story concludes with the detective laying out exactly how the elaborate crime was conducted, often in a dramatic manner.

Knives Out uses these tropes, but they aren’t simply there to hold the genre in place. They are inverted and twisted in a manner that keeps them fresh, yet recognizable. Subverting the tropes is what gives Knives Out such an engaging story. Johnson crafted a script that was both recognizable and amazingly fresh.

The Flip of A Coin

Knives Out opens as you would expect a whodunit to begin. Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc investigates the suicide of famed crime novelist Harlen Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) as a possible murder, interviewing an eclectic group of suspects composed of Harlan’s own family (which manages to make it personal without the cursed line). But when Blanc gets to Harlen’s in-home nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), we learn the truth of the “suicide.” Marta mistakenly gave Harlen an overdose of morphine and he orchestrated an elaborate plot to protect her and her immigrant family from the mistake.

Blanc’s interview with Marta comes at the end of Act I and transforms the story. In a standard whodunit, the “who” is concealed until the very end, as is the “how.” Knives Out ignores this trope in favor of giving us everything here, right at the beginning of Act II, and changes the story dramatically, primarily by giving the audience a new perspective. In a typical whodunit, the audience is rooting for the detective. In Knives Out, we actively don’t want Benoit Blanc to succeed. We understand that Marta is, if not innocent, undeserving of the consequences that would come from exposing the truth.

But another trope of the genre is that the detective always cracks the case. No matter how elaborate the plot is, no matter how carefully the perpetrator conceals their tracks and hides their guilt beneath a web of lies or red herrings, they are always caught. This trope is Johnson’s greatest weapon in creating a growing sense of dread throughout the second act as Blanc slowly but steadily closes in on the truth.

Knives Out embraces the tropes of its genre but isn’t afraid to twist them around its own unique story and characters to deliver a story that delivers on its promise of a murder mystery, but also makes it so much more. The story of Knives Out is centered around deep, honest characters and a deeper understanding of what makes the whodunit genre tick.

Perhaps the greatest part of this story is the final twist that reveals Ransom Thrombey (Chris Evans) is the true criminal, framing Marta for Harlen’s death. It ultimately allows Knives Out to strike every single one of its genre tropes by giving Blanc space to reveal the truth in an appropriately dramatic fashion at the end of the story, preserving the ‘rule’ that the perpetrator’s identity is saved for the story’s final moments. It saves Marta from Blanc’s inevitability without marring the story before or making the ending feel contrived.

The lesson from Knives Out is to play around with your genre’s tropes. You’re making a promise with your genre, but this doesn’t mean your story needs to be predictable. Consider why you want to set this story in this genre. How do the genre’s tropes lend themselves to your characters and theme? How can you play around with these tropes and make them your own, while retaining their recognizable forms? If you’re uncertain, perhaps you should give Knives Out a viewing or five and see how Rian Johnson pulls it off.

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