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Ministry of Education.

Visual Language: Genres and Conventions

Visual genres include pictures, picture books, photographs, book jackets, posters, advertising, newspapers, maps, cartoons, comics, plays, computer games, feature films, and television programmes.

These genres can be grouped into more specific genres. For example, feature films can be westerns, thrillers, comedies, or musicals. A play in which the hero and/or heroine dies at the end is usually called a tragedy, whereas a funny play (or television programme or feature film) that has a happy ending is called a comedy. Tragedies and comedies are different kinds, or genres, within the broader genre of plays, and they can be usefully considered in this more specific way.

Such specific genres or subgenres derive from the purpose or purposes of their makers, who have made choices just as writers or speakers make choices. Genre categorisation is based on the experiences and perceptions of audiences, who in the case of visual language are more likely to be viewers than creators of visual language. In fact, most of us, including our students, are much more likely to be experienced writers and speakers than film or television directors. However, it is important that students have as many opportunities as possible to produce visual language, in the same way that they have opportunities to speak and write. The experience of production will in turn help them to understand and "read" visual language in an informed way.

What is the basis of the experiences and perceptions that influence our categorisation of visual genres?

Different genres are not fixed or discrete categories. Rather, what distinguishes them from each other is the distinctive pattern of what we call conventions.

Conventions can be based on what is presented, drawing on the agreed expectations that have already been established within a certain genre. For example, if you open a kitchen drawer, you expect to find kitchen utensils, not underwear. Breaking the expected conventions creates surprise and humour or shock. Monty Python's The Holy Grail is based on the well known search by King Arthur. If a strange creature were to appear, we would expect a dragon or a knight with the strength of ten men, but not a killer rabbit. The arrival of a vicious rabbit instead breaks the expected conventions of the historical film genre and creates the humour.

Feature films such as westerns, thrillers, or musicals, and tragedies and comedies for stage, television, or film - all have their own conventions. So, too, do television news programmes, documentaries, soap operas, and quiz programmes. And so do cartoons, comics, and weather information in our daily newspapers. Although all the conventions of what is presented in one genre may not be exclusive to that genre, the pattern or combination of conventions is what distinguishes examples of one genre from another.

Other conventions are based on how something is presented. Such conventions influence our expectations, how we interpret what we view and read, and what we and our students in turn recreate and present. For example, in a mime or drama, the performer is able to suggest, and we are able to understand, that he or she has come to a wall or is eating or drinking, even though there is no wall or food, knife and fork, or glass. We know this because of our knowledge and understanding of the conventions of mime, which enable us to read, make, and share meaning. We explore, read, and interpret visual language in terms of our understanding of conventions.

Some Conventions Common to Books, Film, and Television

Conventions of narrative

Many teachers and students view and study the feature film in much the same way as they do a novel because the conventions of narrative in the novel and the feature film are similar. Our youngest students come to school with prior knowledge of many of the conventions of narrative, based on considerable experience of books, film, and television.

Both books (especially novels) and films often have a plot and narrative structure shaped into three main movements, similar to a three-act play. The work typically opens with one or more characters in a situation where an incident incites a conflict. This catalyst then sets off complications, often developing through two or three crises or particularly tense moments. The situation reaches a climax and is then resolved.

However, the structure of narratives in books and feature films differs from that in programmes made for television. Television programmes are scripted, made, and shown in segments, the length of the segments being determined by how frequent and how long the advertising breaks are. Feature films made for continuous screening but shown on television with ad breaks inserted are consequently often interrupted at inappropriate times.

Makers of films or television programmes use in-points and out-points to start and end a sequence or narrative in much the same way as writers do. In-points grab our interest, introduce the situation, reveal character conflict, or start the action. Out-points end a sequence of narrative in such a way that the sequence can either be returned to if it is left unresolved or be concluded. If it is concluded, the narrative can be either resolved or left open.


As in written narrative, a subplot is common in feature films and television. A secondary story, connected to the main narrative in some way, keeps viewers interested and may reinforce or provide contrast to important ideas in the main story.


Many films, such as Watership Down, Once Were Warriors, and An Angel at My Table, are journeys of experience for both their characters and their viewing audiences. So, too, are television programmes like The Simpsons or Friends. As in fiction, the structure of a film narrative can be based on a physical as well as a mental and emotional journey: one well known example is Apocalypse Now, which is closely related to Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Symbols and motifs

Narratives can be unified by symbols. Visual symbols, such as bright sunny weather, might suggest happiness, enjoyment, and hope. Narratives can also be unified by the repetition of symbols, called motifs, as in the sea, rain, mud, bush, and trees in The Piano: motifs that reinforce the sense of isolation and entrapment. The same film has several other recurring symbols or motifs: the fingers and hands and, of course, the piano itself. Sound can also unify narrative, providing recurring motifs. The regular, rhythmic, and sinister musical beat in Jaws, signalling that another crisis or attack is imminent, is a good example. Comedy often has a motif of a particular recurring character or action, such as the mice who appear in the corner of the screen singing to introduce each new adventure in Babe.


The structured narratives of feature films and television programmes have central ideas or themes. Our interpretation of the theme is related to the expectations we have, which in turn revolve around the external and internal conflicts of the characters.


The form is the essential structure of the visual language text, including its organisation, style, and sequence. A picture book might be in the form of a series of collages. A film might be structured in flashback or contrasting sequences from plot and subplot.


The setting, including the period in which the action takes place, is important, too. For example, in science fiction, the setting is usually in the future. Other science fiction conventions might include some scientific development or phenomenon that is central to the narrative; there may be extraterrestrial beings, and the world of good characters may be under threat from evil "baddies" trying to gain power. Again, the conflict may be between the good and evil uses of a discovery or a new world. The expectation, or convention, is that at the climax, usually against the odds, the "goodies" win.

The settings of The Piano in the past and Once Were Warriors in the present are significant in the comments they make about the societies they are set in. Sometimes, however, a production will be located in a period or setting different from its original script - Hamlet probably holds the record for different settings. The setting for a particular film will have been chosen to relate the emphasis of the script to the audience, breaking conventions and their usual expectations or demonstrating the timelessness of a theme.

Rites of passage

The conventions of feature films that deal with rites of passage typically include unsympathetic adults who don't understand or sympathetic adults who do but find themselves in conflict with other adults who don't. The teenagers usually rebel, but in the end, they either conform or find some way of accommodating themselves. This is often as a result of some change by some of the initially unsympathetic adults or authorities as well as of the increased understanding the teenagers may have gained.


When we are about to read a book or to view a film or a television programme in any particular genre, we have expectations about what it will contain. In a Western, we expect a gun-slinging hero in the American West, probably in a saloon with a barmaid somewhere and a duel at high noon. In a thriller, we expect a female victim, a male killer or would-be killer, and a male rescuer. But such conventions may also be very effectively broken.

The common characteristics or conventions of any genre, including film, are sometimes called codes. These can include structural codes, which are such features as particular kinds of plot, character, or setting. Stylistic codes include such features as particular lighting, shooting style, or music.

For example, take the romance genre. Structurally, it commonly includes two people who fall in and out of love two or three times during the course of the film. Their difficulties often seem huge, though sometimes simple misunderstandings are the cause. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, they are nevertheless usually completely in love at the end. Stylistically, this genre includes low lighting, soft focus, sometimes beautiful settings, and music that might at times be raunchy and at times soft and romantic.

The different genres, or patterns of various conventions and codes, influence our expectations and help us to read closely and to make and present meanings.

Summary of Terms

genres conventions conventions of narrative
segments in-points out-points
subplot symbols  motifs
themes forms setting codes  structural codes
stylistic codes    

Exploring Language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009