Genre – Story Congruency: “Snow White and the Huntsman” vs “Mirror Mirror”

Do you know what genre – story congruency is?

It’s a term that reflects the importance of meeting the expectations of the audience.

Genre – Story Congruency: Backstory

Snow White and the Huntsman recently opened at #1 and has a sequel is in the works, whereas the competitive Snow White project Mirror Mirror opened at #3 when it was released at the end of March.

There are lots of reasons why certain movies perform better than others, but if we pay attention to how these movies with similar subjects were pitched to the audiences, we can learn a key lesson about pitching.

Here’s how the concept of Snow White and the Huntsman is pitched:

In the epic action-adventure Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White is the only person in the land fairer than the evil queen out to destroy her. But what the wicked ruler never imagined is that the young woman threatening her reign has been training in the art of war with a huntsman dispatched to kill her.

Compare this with how the concept of Mirror Mirror is pitched:

A fresh and funny retelling of the Snow White legend, Mirror Mirror features Snow White as she fights the evil Queen to reclaim her birthright and win her Prince in this magical adventure comedy filled with jealousy, romance, and betrayal.

In my opinion, the pitch for Snow White and the Huntsman is much better because it has something the other pitch doesn’t:  genre-story congruency.

Genre-Story Congruency

For example, a writer I worked with recently has a project that is inherently dramatic but was pitching it as a romantic comedy because he thought it would reach a broader audience and be more attractive to buyers.  In fact, (as I told him) the opposite is true.

When an executive listens to a pitch, one of the things that is easily determined is whether the story fits the specific genre.  Another way to say it is that spy thrillers should be about spies, comedies should have comedic premises and funny characters, and heist movies should involve something valuable being stolen.

In other words:  will the story live up to the genre expectations of the audience?

This notion of genre-story congruency seems obvious but it’s one of the most common pitching mistakes even among established professionals—and I believe one of the reasons Mirror Mirror hasn’t succeeded as the studio intended.

Let’s look at these two Snow White pitches and analyze them for genre-story congruency:

Snow White and the Huntsman

Genre: Epic action-adventure

Story Elements: Snow White gets trained in the art of war by the Huntsman, an assassin dispatched to kill her; Snow White threatens the reign of the evil Queen.

The story elements of being trained in the art of war by an assassin and fighting an evil Queen match the genre. This pitch has genre-story congruency.

Mirror Mirror

Genre: Magical Adventure Comedy

Story Elements: An evil, ruthless Queen; Snow White fighting to reclaim her birthright; jealousy and betrayal.

There’s nothing funny about the story elements. This conflicts with the description of the movie as a comedy.

Consider the Queen

Both movie pitches highlight the “evil Queen.”

Here’s how A.O. Scott describes the Queen in Snow White and the Huntsman: “furious,” “terrorizes her subjects,” “a woman with a legitimate grudge against a male-dominated world of sexual violence….”

Manohla Dargis describes the Queen in Mirror Mirror as “self-amused; a pathological narcissist suffering from possible delusions.”

The Queen of Snow White and The Huntsman is truly an evil Queen. The Queen of Mirror Mirror is not. She’s a narcissistic Queen, a delusional Queen—but hardly evil.  In other words, “evil Queen” works better as the description of the antagonist for an epic action-adventure as opposed to a magical adventure comedy.

What can we learn?

A good pitch has genre-story congruency.

Snow White and the Huntsman mined the source material and created story elements that matched the original tale’s ominous tone.  Mirror Mirror, in contrast, feels like a dark story that is fighting against the comedic elements that are superimposed on the project.

When there isn’t genre-story congruency, potential audience members get the sense that “something feels off.” When there is congruency, a film is more likely to succeed.

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Discussion About Genre – Story Congruency: “Snow White and the Huntsman” vs “Mirror Mirror”

  1. Sang Stutts

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  3. Scott McMahon

    Stephanie! I know this is an older post … but dang is it good. I was helping a client out last night with a marketing plan, but the effort was meaningless if we couldn’t properly identify the theme and hook of the story.

    Funny how the pitch and clarity starts with the things that don’t cost money. Just time and creative problem solving. Once that is in place, everything can be built on top of that foundation to enhance it even more.

    Like always, great stuff here.

  4. NoniB

    This post helped me tighten up the pitch for a film we are developing and plan to shoot this summer. By applying the lesson you shared here, I was able to (finally) rework the top three loglines into much stronger hooks and can now hone the pitch. These processes were as difficult if not more so than writing the script, rewriting, and rewriting ad infinitim. Thanks!

  5. Michael Levine

    Perhaps. But what about 101 Dalmatians?
    Genre: Magical (talking animals) Adventure Comedy
    Story Elements: An evil, ruthless fashionista; 2 dogs fight to reclaim their puppies and discover a massive, murderous conspiracy.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      A good question, Michael.

      I think the issue you’re pointing to is to what extent the word “evil” can be used to describe the antagonist in a comedy.

      Keeping in mind that we’re talking about the pitches, not the movies themselves….

      First, I suspect that the “comedy” aspect in the pitch as you present it is being communicated by the unusual nature of a character being an evil “fashionista” (a funny word).

      That said, if we look at a comparison between the 101 Dalmations from 1961 and 1996 (via IMDB):

      1961 version (rated 7.2): Animation Adventure Comedy

      “When a litter of dalmatian puppies are abducted by the minions of Cruella De Vil, the parents must find them before she uses them for a diabolical fashion statement.”

      1996 version (rated 5.6): Adventure Comedy Family

      “A woman kidnaps puppies to kill them for their fur, but various animals then gang up against her and get their revenge in slapstick fashion.”

      In my opinion, these pitches as written have a key difference in how they talk about the death of the animals.

      To me, “kill them for their fur” is quite a bit harsh, and yet “diabolical fashion statement” has some humor in it for the same reason “evil fashionista” does, and because we’re given the context of the antagonist’s name, Cruella De Ville, which is a funny name.

      Additionally, in the 1961 version, the parents are the heroes (as per the pitch), whereas in the 1996 version, various animals are the heroes (as per the pitch). To me, the 1996 pitch conflicts somewhat with this being a live action genre (i.e., it’s easier to suspend disbelief when animated animals talk or behave like people than real animals).

      Finally, the 1961 pitch makes it clear that the puppies have been kidnapped – but not killed – which means they can be saved. The 1996 pitch is more ambiguous (e.g. the use of the word “revenge” could mean that prior to these particular puppies being kidnapped, other puppies have been killed) and this gives the pitch a much darker flavor which conflicts with the comedic aspect of the genre.

  6. Rachel T.

    Genre-story congruency – Thank you for the term! I keep trying to explain to people that a story idea, and its genre, implies certain things to the audience, and that in order to keep the audience both satisfied and surprised, the writer must be aware of those expectations and how they’ve been used before. Now I have a term for that. Thank you.

  7. Robert ("Blues " Bob) Sturdivant

    I’m currently writing a spec screenplay for a horror film. Your article on Genre-Story Congruency, and the comments, strengthened my faith in my script considerably. I will be much more confident, come pitch time. You clearly know yer beans. Thanks, Stephanie. 🙂

  8. Jon Miles

    The first pitch also has that juicy irony that Blake endorses.

    My recent bedtime reading has been Halliwell’s film guide. It’s amazing at which loglines really just POP and others are simply humdrum.

    The pitch for Snow White and the Huntsmen just jumps off the page and I think the movie reflects that initial clarity.

  9. Jeff Guenther

    Nice. Made me go back and tweak my 22 horror film loglines once more.

    Also, notice how the Huntsman poster promises conflict and intrigue: It has multiple characters; it’s dynamic (the cloud of black birds in flight); weapons are wielded. The Mirror-Mirror poster promises that…that Julia Roberts might chuck the apple at somebody? Her expression is almost a smirk, without even a smidgen of evil. “One bad apple” is merely a cliché and doesn’t work in concert with the image to propel viewers into the theater. It’s wrong at every level, just like the logline.

  10. Amy Bartley

    I’ve been reading a lot about the Huntsman script and how it is used as an example for many things. Personally, I can’t understand the draw. The above pitch sounds much better than the actual film. The evil queen was cool but other than that the script gave me no reason to care about any of the other characters. I was actually rooting for the queen to win. Isn’t that a sign that a story isn’t up to par? Although, I can’t understand the draw to most of the big films out there now-so maybe it’s just me. Can you help me understand? Thanks.:)

    • Stephanie Palmer

      In broad strokes, the draw is that Snow White is a very well-known story, so it has a built-in audience, and the way the story was approached gave it an action-adventure feel, which makes it a viable commercial entity across a wider variety of global “territories.”

  11. Heath Jones

    Thanks again Stephanie for another great post.

  12. Lucinda.Vee

    Genre-story congruency , Thank you for making this clear . I feel that this is very important, it to me is the first impression an audience gets from a film. In the past i could not put my finger on it and just called it genre, but your Genre-story congruency really simplifies the term. Thank you Stephanie

  13. Sunil

    pls tell me how to start story writing

  14. Maxi

    Great tip! Something so easy to overlook, and definitely so important! Thanks, indeed!

  15. Poonam

    This is a wonderful post! I’ve had this discussion with many friends about the two Snow White movies. This makes so much sense! Can’t wait to put this tip to use when I’m ready to pitch my own work. Love your posts and emails, Stephanie! So grateful I found Good in a Room! 🙂

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Appreciate it, Poonam.

  16. alicia aplin

    I have a life story that will hopefully get kids to speak up about the abuse in the homes and bad goverment agencies that let our children down called Child youth and families and how so many cyps kids have died from carers and cyps didnt get charge for there two sisters saliel and olympia were murdered in their sleep by our stepfather and he wasnt only one to blame yes he killed them but it was also our mothers fault n cyps i want to write a book of my life so kids can speak up more we losing them coz there scared to stand life puts out famous movie in nz called once were warriors that movie has nothing on what ive lived most people couldnt even imagine.its been 15years since my sisters died and so many more children since them.could u please contact me and let me know the best way i can get my story out

    • Stephanie Palmer

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Alicia.

  17. David Huggins

    Excellent. Thank you.

    ‘Something feels off’ is a sign of a lack of congruency – in screenplay, film and all presentation: a personality, for example, or a conversation.


    • Stephanie Palmer

      Thanks, David.