The Fundamental Genre

If your goal is to support yourself as a fiction writer, the most important Genre to master is the Love Story.  In this episode of The Story Grid Podcast Tim and I talk about why that is and how to go about learning the fundamentals of the form.  There was so much content to cover that we’ll be following up with a second part to follow.  I’ll also be doing a series of posts at to support this material.

To listen click the play button below or read the transcript that follows.


[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience.


In this episode, you know we spend all this time talking about my book and my genre of thriller and I just was curious what Shawn thought of as the most important genre, the one that probably has the widest read. And so I asked him that question and that starts to tumble us down this rabbit hole of what that genre is, how you can write that genre, the obligatory scenes, all the things we’re talking about with my story, but on a genre that’s completely different.


So I think you’re really going to enjoy it, it’s really going to be helpful. So let’s jump in and get started.




[0:00:58.5] TG: So Shawn, I’m in the midst of the rewrites of the rewrites of the rewrites of my beginning hook and so this week I just wanted to step back as much as everybody seems to enjoy going over my writing, I also want to acknowledge that not everybody writes young adult thrillers. So I’ve just been thinking a lot about what other genres are out there, what is the best, you know, what do writers need to think about when they think about their career over a long arc?


So if you had to pick just one genre that was like, if you wanted to become a professional, publishable, successful fiction writer and you could only become good at one genre, what would you say that is?


[0:01:53.1] SC: That’s a pretty easy answer and I don’t think I’m going to shock anybody by saying, the biggest and most popular, the most commercially successful genre is the love story. So if I were to give advice to somebody about how to break into the business, how to become a publishable writer, if you were able to apply yourself with deliberate practice and learn all of the fundamental obligatory scenes, conventions and all that sort of thing in the love story genre, it would serve you not only to write love stories but also any other genre.


So for example, well first of all, it’s important to understand the global box office of trade publishing. When I say trade publishing, I’m talking about the books that are in, book stores, Amazon, the books that hit the New York Times best seller list. I’m not talking about text books or specialty books, I’m talking about all of those books that the big six publish and directly market to people who read popular fiction and nonfiction. Okay, of that, that market’s about $28 billion dollars a year. That’s a lot of money, by the way. That’s a really nice market.


All these people who say, “Oh Hollywood is so much cooler, so much better,” when you look at the box office dollars, book publishing has a lot going for it. Also the barriers to entry are so low that, you know, anybody who applies to themselves can write a novel and get it into the marketplace. Few of us have the talent to create a film and get it in the market place. So anyway, of that $28 billion, about 13 to 15% of that are just pure love story and when I say pure love story, I’m talking about the sort of paperback romance novels that Harlequin publishes, that Bantam publishes, that all the major publishers, their major, major divisions where they had the most editorial talent is in, and I say “love story” because love story has a lot of components to it instead of romance. I can get into — yeah, go ahead.


[0:04:14.5] TG: When I think about love story, I think about like romantic comedies, I think about like, you know, we’ve talked about like war stories that have the guy goes off to war love story. I think about like all the Nicolas Sparks books and then I think about just those romance novels with the bare chested man holding the woman on the cover. So it’s kind of a big — are you kind of including all of that in the love story?


[0:04:43.3] SC: I am. I’ll get into kind of, I’ll break it down a little bit more in a second but I think just to go back to the box office involved here, so 15% of 28 billion, that’s around three and a half billion dollars a year just for the bare chested guy on the paperback, right? I’m not including Nicolas Sparks really because Nicolas Sparks is, it’s more of a hard cover phenomenon that he tells very home spun love stories from the male point of view in very sincere way that attracts a lot of women to buy them but also men buy them too.


So anyway, the fact is is that, if you want to learn a genre that you can apply very quickly commercially, that that genre is absolutely without a shadow of a doubt the love story. So one of the things that a lot of people — what I like to do as an editor and what I like to do just as a story nerd is to think about why certain things are. Why is it that the love story is such a popular thing? And I have a theory about it and it’s a pretty simple theory. But love stories I think are so important to people, and men too. Let’s not kid ourselves, men love a great love story too. We all say, “Oh no, I’m a big action guy.” But all the action films that have love sub plots always seem to do a lot better than those that are just blowing up…


[0:06:20.4] TG: You just got to wrap it in some blood and guts and then I can watch a love story.


[0:06:25.4] SC: Exactly, exactly. So one of the things that I think is so important and one of the most difficult things about being even just a human being is relationships, right? How do I form attachments to other people? If you broke the world down into sort of two ways of being around, you’re either alone or you’re with somebody or you’re with a group. So nobody can spend their time alone all of the time. There’s a reason why their solitary confinement is used as a way to get people to behave because you will go crazy if you spend all of your time alone.


So the thing that moves us from being alone into relationships, with not only romantic partners but in general society at large, is love right? Love stories are so important to us because, I always say this, stories are metaphors that help us learn how to behave. So we got to stories and we attach the stories and we fall in love with stories because we use those stories in our own personal lives to form our own philosophies and behavioral modifications and tactics and all those things to learn how to behave in a proper way.


So love stories are so popular because people not only go to them for the entertainment value but subconsciously they’re watching a love story and they’re trying to track ways that they can become more lovable and form bonds and relationships with other people. So this is the primal thing about humanity. People don’t want to be alone. In fact, you will go crazy if you’re alone. So the primary element of survival on the planet is to form relationships with other people. The love story is so crucial to humanity because that is the first thing we have to do after we get our food and our shelter is we have to find a clan, we have to find a tribe, then we have to find ourselves a mate. So love is so primal to us that love stories are always going to be at the top of the commercial heap in terms of popularity.


[0:08:56.4] TG: Well, you know, it’s funny when you’re thinking about that, the movie that popped in my head was Cast Away with Tom Hanks and the love story between Tom Hanks and the soccer ball.


[0:09:10.0] SC: Yes.


[0:09:13.5] TG: Because when you were saying, “no one wants to be alone”, and that’s kind of the broad idea of the love story, the love story is not just between one man and one woman, right? It’s like about not being alone, I remember I cried when he lost Wilson.


[0:09:30.6] SC: Yeah.


[0:09:34.0] TG: You know? For those that haven’t watched it, I should probably explain it real quick. So Tom Hanks gets stranded on the desert island and he finds a few things and one of them is a soccer ball and he starts talking to the soccer ball and names it Wilson and then months go by and he’s having full on conversations with Wilson and then when he finally tries to get off the island, he loses Wilson and Wilson floats away and it’s just this…


[0:10:04.8] SC: It’s devastating.


[0:10:07.0] TG: Yeah. That’s what makes you know it’s a great story because I’ve never cried over somebody losing their soccer ball before. But anyway, so you’re including like that kind of a story.


[0:10:17.5] SC: Not really, no.


[0:10:19.4] TG: Okay.


[0:10:19.8] SC: Okay.


[0:10:21.6] TG: Because that’s all about not being alone.


[0:10:23.1] SC: It is, but that is a story about, that’s a survival life and death action story that has a love story underneath it. But the love story is Wilson, he represents Tom Hank’s id. He represents his internal psychological person. So he just you know anthropomorphized his internal self on that soccer ball. So the love story, the love element there is in his coming to terms with his primal self.


[0:10:59.7] TG: Okay.


[0:11:00.5] SC: So that story is more of an action story that underneath it has a story arc of the character moving from sort of unreliable kind of doughy, Fed-Ex employee to kickass, tough survival man and it’s a very compelling story because of the acting, the way it was directed, but it’s primarily an action story in my opinion. The internal movement is coming to terms with our primal selves.


So I wouldn’t include that as in my big five clover genre thing that I do, I would not include that in the little section that says “love story”. Let me just clarify more about what I mean about love stories. The big genre of love story that I discussed in The Story Grid book, it concerns a relationship between two people that has a romantic element to it and it includes the possibility of sexual intimacy. So there is romance and a possibility of sex.


So a buddy cop movie is, it moves on the value of friendship, right? Friendship and enemy value stake. Usually in a buddy coop movie, the love story, there’s a love between the two cops but there’s never a sexual element, sexual component to it unless somebody will probably make that movie at some point. But the love story is all about a relationship between two people that has a sexual component to it. So in that realm of romance, that the psychologist have been studying this stuff for a long time and the general theory out there is that there’s sort of a triangle of components to romantic love.


When I tell you that the three things involved here, you’ll immediately understand what I’m talking about. Okay, so the first part of romantic love concerns desire, that’s just physical attraction to another person, it’s a biological thing, you see somebody, you go, “Wow, really, A1, A plus person there. Really wanted me then.” That’s a physical thing, desires number one and then the second thing is commitment, right? So once you desire somebody and you start talking to them then if you grow attached to them, you want to make a commitment with them.


So you have desire and then you have commitment and then you have the deepest part of love, which is intimacy. Intimacy is the only part of love that is truly truthful and what I mean by that is the desire part, you know, you’ll say anything in a dark room and a bar room to somebody to get them to be attracted to you. You’ll lie to them, whatever, and I’m not saying I do this anymore. But men and women do the same thing, they exaggerate their triumphs, they say, “I’m heavy weight champion of the world.” They’ll do whatever is necessary to get the other person to pay attention to them. It’s all this little role playing and game playing in the sexual desire kind of arena that truth really does not come into. It’s really about the ends justifying the means.


The second part, the commitment part, again, when people are getting to know one another and they really like somebody else, they really don’t want them to know about the bad fungus they have on their toes, right? They’re not going to talk about all the things that make them unattractive. So there’s a level of white lies and misleading people to see the best part of who you are as opposed to your true authentic self. The commitment element is about courtship, it’s about getting to know one another so that ultimately, you form a relationship and you say, “You know what? I’m going to be monogamous. You’re the only one for me, let’s stay together.”


Then ultimately the most truthful part of love concerns intimacy. Intimacy is that moment when you feel the other person understands who you are at bottom. Your plus is your minus’s, your short temper. They forgive you, they don’t freak out if you have an anxiety attack when you get to the train station or whatever it is. So tThat’s what generally people are going through in a love story. There’s the desire, there’s the commitment and then there’s ultimately the intimacy. So if you had a spectrum of love there, desire’s at the beginning, commitment’s at the middle, and intimacy, ideally, is right at the end.


So within this three things of the components love, now I’m going to tell you about what the sub genres of the love story, as I define it, are. Again, love story is about a romantic relationship between two people, it doesn’t necessarily have to be heterosexual. There’s a great movie called Brokeback Mountain, which is about two cowboys who fall in love and it’s an amazing story, it’s extremely well done. I highly recommend it, but that’s a beautiful love story. Anyway, those three elements of desire, commitment and intimacy, they break down to the three big sub-genres of love story.


[0:17:18.4] TG: Okay, so remind me what a sub-genre is. So we have like big genres and then those encapsulate sub-genres?


[0:17:28.1] SC: Yeah. For example, in the crime genre you have your mystery story, which can feature a master detective, which would be a sub-genre of the mystery. Or it could feature an amateur sleuth, that would be a sub-genre. So a sub-genre is a classification underneath the big, big silo that divides the territory into further refinements. Each of these…

[0:17:59.6] TG: So you have like the action genre and then under here is like, that’s where we have like man against time or man against government or whatever those different sub genres. I don’t have the book in front of me, but that’s kind of what your talking about there.


[0:18:13.1] SC: Yeah exactly, and each of these sub genera is sort of, they come to fore, they become part of our culture at very specific moments of time and they become popular and not popular depending upon the cultural moment of time. A couple of weeks ago we were talking about that question and came, “Why do certain novels become extremely successful when they’re not written all that well?” Line by line they’re not.


And the reason being is that you can’t really tell what the cultural sensibility of the entire western culture is as a writer, all you can do is sort of write your own thing and hope that it hits kind of a certain moment in the culture like a legal thriller during a crisis and legal justice or a religious thriller at a crisis of religious faith, that kind of thing.


[0:19:09.1] TG: That’s why you say like the love story, I mean, that will always be a thing.


[0:19:16.6] SC: Absolutely. It’s the most consistent thing that everybody is constantly worried about their relationships and you know, we all want to know, “Oh do the people at the conference think I was cool?” Or, “Oh my gosh, if I walk into that drug store, I don’t know if anybody’s going to like me in there.” It’s just human nature that we want to manage our relationships in the best possible way so that people will think kindly of us or they will respect us or they will think we’re so great.


So the love story is the primal thing that everybody in our culture and our history and western civilization, love is the magical thing, right? It’s what everybody talks about since you’re a little boy, and we ask our parents, “How did you meet, mommy and daddy?” And they tell you a story and they tell you this beautiful magical story and they explain to you that love is really the primary meaningful thing in life.


If you’re looking for meaning in life, the first place people turn is to love. This is why we have people who are love addicted because we have been pounded with sort of these romantic notions that evolved into romantic era, which is, you know, probably 1,500’s to probably 1978. But the romantic era was really about making love a very magical thing and it became even more and more magical, the more alienating our culture became. So in the industrial age, it all became like, don’t worry about your job working at the coal mine, a long as you have love at home.


This is the thing that we’ve kind of been, biologically we’re programmed to mate. It’s just that’s why we have the desire element, which is kind of to explain desire is to ruin desire because desire is just a natural thing that we all understand. So biologically we’re programmed to mate with people, but it’s this element of saying and bringing in, “Oh love isn’t just about mating and creating a family to tend the farm, because you’ve got a hundred acres that have to be cleared. It’s about a magical relationship where two people come together and they merge as opposed to being separate.”


So it’s almost as if we’re psychologically merging our souls with somebody else. That’s a very, very powerful thing that when we’re taught this from very young, that is what we think about as we grow older. When I was a boy, I thought, “Well when I’m married and I have kids,” and I would concoct a whole story for the way my life would be when everything was perfect, when I had meaning in my life, when I had my own thing, when I had a wife and kids and I was settled, everything would sort of take care of itself.


Now, you and I both know that that’s not true, but it’s a story that’s a very important story. It’s a moral story. It’s something that, there’s no — sociopaths and psychopaths, they don’t have that story guiding them. Morally, they’re corrupt. Ethically and morally, those kinds of people are corrupt. So I do think that there’s great value in the magical story of love and it’s through this sort of evolution from moving from desire to commitment to intimacy where the storytelling can really start to affect the people who consumer them.


[0:23:20.8] TG: Okay so, I got us way off track.


[0:23:21.7] SC: That’s okay.


[0:23:24.1] TG: So back to the sub-genres. You said, we have the desire, the commitment and intimacy and the three sub-genres match those?


[0:23:33.1] SC: Yes, what they do is there’s a story that’s sort of formed around those three components of romantic love. The first one, we’ll just do the down and dirty one first, that’s desire. And stories of desire, I call them a story, obsession stories. These are stories that are the primary value in the obsession story of course is love. Love and hate. People are attracted to and despise one another at the beginning of the story and then they become so sexually attracted to each other that they can’t help themselves.


Usually the obsession story, 99.99% of the time, ends in tragedy. The tragedy is in usually a death. The obsession goes to so far off the negation of the negation as Robert McKee says, it goes so off the rails that one of the lovers ends up dead. The classic obsession love story that comes to mind is the Great Gatsby. Now the great Gatsby, when it was originally published, did not attract a lot of people. It did not attract a lot of readers, it was commercially a major failure for F. Scott Fitzgerald.


[0:25:02.2] TG: Yeah, wasn’t it one of these books that ended up getting shipped out to everybody in the military and that’s how it became popular?


[0:25:08.7] SC: Exactly. Because they could, they had this old thing in the back list, they went to Fitzgerald and said, “Hey, do you mind if we give a million copies away to the troops, you’re not going to make any money off of it,” and he’s like, “Yeah, why not?” What happened was that ‘s what revitalized the story and if you, the global story of the great Gatsby concerns a guy who is obsessed with an old girlfriend. He’s kind of from the other side of the tracks and she’s from high society.


So he has to go to war and he falls in love with her right before he leaves. After he comes back, he finds out that she met and married some other rich guy. So he decides, “I’m going to get her back.” He becomes obsessed with her. If he can get Daisy back in his clutches, his world will be fine. So he becomes a gangster and he makes a ton of money and then he starts doing these big shows and this big parties to impress this woman, who coincidentally he buys a house right across the dock, right across the river or the sound from her so that she can see his big castle.


Eventually he gets her to take a new interest in him and he ends up dead at the end. There’s a lot of social stuff underneath there, it’s a great American novel, it’s all about the obsession of American success and being belonging to a culture that will not have you. Anyway, but it is an obsessive love story at its’ core. It’s the story of one man’s obsession, it’s told from the point of view of his next door neighbor, who is the cousin of the obsession figure. But still globally it’s an obsession love story that ends in a tragedy.


So these kinds of stories can be, come on, the great Gatsby is incredible, right? There are not all that attractive to the big global audience of love story seekers who spend $4 billion dollars a year on mass market paperbacks.


[0:27:29.9] TG: Yeah, what was that story, was it Up in the Air? The one with George Clooney, that movie? Did you see that one?


[0:27:37.9] SC: Yes I did.


[0:27:38.1] TG: I saw this interview with the director and the guy that wrote the movie because I’m going to ruin this so get ready anybody who’s listening. He basically is this loner guy that travels all the time and he finally finds his kindred spirit and they fall in love and but he’s like scared of it, so he runs away then he goes to get her and when she opens the door, we find out that she’s married with a family and he was just a fling. I think she even calls him the footnote in her life.


The director talked about how he was so surprised that whoever was like, I don’t know what it’s called but whatever house was giving him the money to actually make the movie didn’t push him to change the ending and he said something like, “If I had changed the ending, it would have made a lot more money.” So basically if he had made a movie that had a happy ending instead of a sad ending, he would have made a lot more money. That popped in my head when you said that about this obsession and like, we do, we want it. I don’t want a romantic comedy that ends sad.


[0:28:54.0] SC: We always talk about those six story arcs and Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant theory from 1950’s and how it’s been proven correct through data research today. But the thing that you have to remember about story arcs is that we become so emotionally attached to the characters that they become our surrogates and especially in a love story. So when I was watching that movie, I felt like I was George Clooney, you know?


I could relate to being George Clooney and having the fire people but being a nice guy about it and never really wanting to settle down. If things had been a little bit different in my life I could understand being that sort of person and it’s not that that has any truth to it at all. It’s just that we get sucked in and we put ourselves in the position of the protagonists.


So we are so emotionally invested in them getting what they want that when they don’t get it, it devastates us. Because it says to us, “Hey, things aren’t always going to work out for you Shawn, you know? It’s just some things aren’t going to work out.” That’s not a message I want to hear. So even though you admire the art of it and you enjoy it, and I loved that movie, I thought it was terrific. I remember the novel too it was based on. I forget the guy who wrote it but a friend of mine edited the book.


But anyway, my point is that the stories of obsession have difficulty commercially because they have that downer tragic ending, most of them. Another great example is a movie and a novel called Damage with Jeremy Irons and it’s a really, I really enjoyed that movie and I don’t know why I did because it just rips your heart out when you see it.


[0:30:59.1] TG: I feel like this is the basis of like half of the independent movies out there.


[0:31:04.1] SC: Yeah.


[0:31:07.0] TG: Because I kept trying to be the artistic, wholly rounded person, I’m going to start watching any movies. Every time I watch one I’m like, “I am more depressed than when this movies started. I can’t do this to myself.”


[0:31:20.2] SC: Yeah, it’s sort of this reverse snobbery of certain artists who think, “Oh well if I write a love story, I’m certainly not going to let it end well.” That is just snobbery of the worst kind, in my opinion. Because what better challenge is there than to innovate a cliché, right? Everybody knows in a romantic comedy or in a romance novel, “Hey, those two people are going to end up together at the end of this book.” We know it, it’s going to happen.


So what makes people so excited when they do read that is when you innovate the conventions and obligatory scenes of that story in such a way that it zigs when the reader thinks it’s going to zag. So that challenge of understanding the craft in the form of the story and really working so hard to make every little piece innovative and wonderful is really what makes people just — people want the message. If you are a morally righteous person, and you have values and ethics and you seek somebody that you think is a kindred spirit, you’ve got a good chance of getting her or getting him.


That’s what a great love story does, when I’m talking now is the second sub-genre, I sort of transitioned without even formally announcing what I was talking about. The second sub-genre of love stories, the courtship story. Now, the courtship story is the thing that’s 90% of what sells. So if you’re going to write a love story and you’re going to be mercenary about it, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with setting certain goals and having mercenary intentions at the start of something, even a creative thing.


When Bruce Springsteen has to deliver a new album, he’s got to deliver a new album, right? If you’re a writer and you want to have a career and you say to yourself, “Well how can I have a career? What’s the biggest genre, what’s the most popular sub-genre within that genre?” Then this is your sweet spot, it’s the courtship drama.


The courtship drama is all those things that we love, it’s the romantic comedies that we see which make fun of the romantic rituals that are endemic in the usual romance story. The difference, you know, I don’t want to get too technical here but there’s the courtship story has two sub-genres. The one is the romantic comedy and the other is the romance novel. Now, the romantic comedy, you can tell it’s a romantic comedy because it’s funny and it makes fun of stuff and the romance novel is not funny.


[0:34:25.4] TG: I love that, “You could tell it’s a comedy when it’s funny.”


[0:34:28.6] SC: Right. The romance novel is serious, right? Now you can have combinations of you have comedic elements in a romance novel and serious elements in a romantic comedy of course. But globally Wedding Crashers is a romantic comedy, it’s not serious. Pride and Prejudice is a serious courtship drama that has a lot of great comedic elements in it too. I’m not saying it’s either one or the other but you should know that you do come down on one side.


Now, both of the courtship sub-genres, they always send on a high note, meaning they end positively. Sometimes they end with a positive and a frizzon of negative in there too and that’s dramatically ironic. But usually, at the end of those stories, you want to end it positively. You want the couples to come together, you want them to form that commitment. Because you don’t want to make a promise to your reader and say, “Hey, here’s a really great romantic comedy and then deny them the commitment that the two make to each other at the end of the story.


Because that will really, really, really piss off your ear and it will make them never want to read another thing that you write. Because you’re basically saying, “I’m sorry but have contempt for what you like and I’m not going to do it that way.”


[0:36:04.8] TG: Yeah, you know, it was interesting what you said about forcing yourself to recreate a cliché in a new way and it reminded me of, I read or heard about when Pixar was doing Toy Story 3. Pixar just hits home run after home run and they realize the story was not good enough. The reason that they realized it is because they said, “Everybody knows that Woody’s going to make it home at the end. You can’t — it’s a kid’s story, it has to end happy so how are we going to tell the same story again for the third time and make it work?”


So they like, went off in the woods. I think they went on a retreat or something, tore the thing apart, put it back together, it’s still a story of Woody coming home but at the end you were devastated. You know? I was thinking of like, there’s not much harder than something like that but how much work they put into telling the same story for the third time but yet making it work because everything zigs when you think it’s going to zag.


[0:37:24.6] SC: Exactly, that’s exactly right. The other thing that you have to remember about courtship dramas is that as readers and viewers, we’re looking at the story and reading the story from, you know, I always talk about those three ways to create narrative drive and it’s all about how much information the reader has. So with courtship stories, the reader is reading the story or watching the story from a position of dramatic irony. Meaning, they know just by the very definition of the movie poster or the cover on the book, how the thing is going to end. They have information that the characters do not have.


[0:38:11.2] TG: Oh I never thought about it that way.


[0:38:12.9] SC: Yes.


[0:38:15.0] TG: So since the — okay, because, yeah we’re going back to things we’ve talked about often on. But I was always thinking of that as like the author has given the reader information that the characters don’t know but you’re saying just because…


[0:38:34.5] SC: That’s an actual convention of the sub-genre. When I say convention, it’s built into the story form. The writer, they can say whatever they want, if they deny them coming together at the end, then they haven’t written a courtship drama. It’s like saying, “I built a car but it has no carburetor.”


[0:39:01.6] TG: I just want to kind of touch on this again. Because this was like a light bulb went off in my head. Creating that irony isn’t just when the author gives the information that the characters don’t have, but it’s when the genre precludes that they’re going to end up together. So everybody reading already knows that, the characters don’t know that and the author didn’t have to tell me.


[0:39:25.1] SC: That’s correct. The trick for the author is to make the inevitable surprising.


[0:39:35.7] TG: Okay, yeah.


[0:39:37.1] SC: that’s a definition of a story is that it has, you know, it opens with an inciting incident and the payoff is inevitable but surprising. I think that’s in the first couple of pages of The Story Grid. That’s what a story is. So that’s what genres tell us. They tell us what to expect. So when you see, when you read a crime story which is a mystery, you expect a mystery to be solved at the end of the novel or at the end of the movie.


If it’s not solved, you’re angry. But you want to be entertained by the surprise of how it comes together in the end. It’s the same thing with a courtship drama. So I don’t know how we got off on dramatic irony, but it goes to Toy Story 3. What they did is they said, “Okay, we understand that we have to deliver to our audience Woody getting home. All right, now how can we make that surprising?” The way they did it was by adding the negative undertone.


So that’s what you have to think about too, this is the fun, the great thing about the courtship story is that it has, I don’t think we’re going to be able to — maybe we should do another episode on this? But it has so many incredible and specific obligatory scenes and conventions that it’s really a process of really nailing your characters in the sense of place and putting them through this ringer in a very innovative way. It’s like doing a really massive jigsaw puzzle from scratch.


[0:41:33.1] TG: So let’s come back to that because I do want to dive in to the obligatory scenes but we have, you said there were three sub-genres. We’ve talked about obsession, which is desire. We’ve talked about courtship, which is commitment and what’s the last one?


[0:41:47.5] SC: The last one is the marriage story, this all concerns intimacy. Intimacy is the third component of love, you have your desire, your physical longing for somebody, you have the commitment, you nailed them, you get a commitment from them, you’re married now. Now comes the real part. This is the time when you’ve made a commitment, you’re still passionate for the other person but you’re not crazy. We all know how we are when we first meet the people that we fall in love with, and we’re not like that 25 years later physically.


So the important thing of the marriage story is that it’s about, of course it rides on the love, hate spectrum of value. But it also concerns issues of things like fidelity and infidelity, truthfulness and deceit. So what this story is about is coming to a realistic understanding of your partner and loving them anyway. It doesn’t mean unconditional love, it means loving them like if you find out that your spouse is killing people, you don’t unconditionally love somebody like that. If they’re a psychopath, you get them in jail you know?


So this is about understanding the depths of personal stuff of your partner and being empathetic, being able to say to one’s self, “Hey, he just yelled at me because he doesn’t want to take the garbage out. I know it’s not because he doesn’t want to take the garbage out, he doesn’t care about taking out the garbage. This is about something else. Instead of me snapping back at him about the garbage, instead, I’m going to think about what he might be freaking out about that’s making him yell. So I’m going to put myself in his shoes or vice versa and have a real discussion here and talk about what’s really going on with him.”


So that’s intimacy or, for example, it’s the same thing for a man or a woman. My wife is yelling at the kids, she’s not mad at the kids, something else is going on. It’s forming this relationship where you know the particular elements of your other partner in a way that is deep, deep, deep, and it’s the thing that gets you through really difficult external pressures. So usually in terms of a marriage story, one of the great ones is Kramer versus Kramer. I talk about it all the time because it’s like every time I see the movie I just go crazy. It was also a novel too.


It’s the story of a marriage breaking up, the deep dark secret of the entire story is that the husband played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie still loves his wife. He still loves his wife. He’s willing at the very end of the movie, you know, if she said to him, “You know what honey? I made a mistake and I want to come back to you and our son.” He would say, “Absolutely. Come on, let me go get the van and we’ll go pickup your stuff.” But she doesn’t love him anymore and so part of that story, it’s about two people who have a very intimate connection who come to different realizations.


She realizes that for herself sanity, that she can’t be with this guy anymore. But he realizes all the things that I thought were important in my life are not important. The things that I neglected, I did at my own distress. Now I have lost my wife and I almost lost my son and at the end of the movie, he does lose his son. But he has changed, he has arced from a really self-centered piece of shit at the beginning of the movie to somebody who is a really good guy, he self-sacrifices for other people.


That is the beauty of the marriage story is that it really requires the evolution of a character such that they provide an act of love that is not self-centered. They sacrifice themselves for the good of somebody else this is really the big point about the love story. Love stories, the big critical scene in every single love story is what I call the proof of love scene. The proof of love scene is that moment when one of the lovers does an act of self-sacrifice, knowing that they’re never going to get that partner back. But they do it out of pure love for the other person.


So the proof of love scene is really the critical moment in any love story and like in the obsession story, like The Great Gatsby, what does Gatsby do as his proof of love? He says, “I was the one who hit Myrtle Wilson with the car, I was the one who killed her and then Wilson goes and he shoots him and kills him at the end of the estate whereas Daisy was the one who killed Myrtle Wilson. So his proof of love was in taking the wrap for this obsession figure. In Pride and Prejudice, great moment, Mr. Darcy, he sacrifices himself, he goes and he bails out you know, Elizabeth Bennet’s stupid sister gets lured in by this cad and he ends up paying off this cad to stay married to her and he knows Elizabeth Bennet, the woman that he adores, wants nothing to do with him.


But he doesn’t want Elizabeth Bennet to never be able to get married. Her sister’s a slut, her family is destroyed, she will never get married and so what Darcy does, is he says, “I know she doesn’t love me but I cannot stand to see that woman suffer. Even though she doesn’t love me.” That’s his proof of love and what does that do of course? Once she discovers that he did that for her, all bets are off and they come together at the end and it’s a beautiful moment it’s a great —that is really to me Pride and Prejudice is really that big moment, that big book that really brought the courtship love story to a perfect boil. Everything after that has been sort of an imitation of Pride and Prejudice.


[0:49:08.0] TG: Okay, so I’m guessing at this point we’re probably going to have to expand this into two episodes. But before we end this one, can you just touch on those obligatory scenes? Because we’ve talked about them so much and it’s kind of like last week when I said, you know, you say exposition is ammunition and I feel like I know what that means. But then if I had to explain it I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t know what that means.” I feel like that’s this obligatory scenes were like, I can probably watch a movie and pull out like when the new ghostbusters came out, this one scene popped up and I’m like, “Oh, that’s where the villain gives his speech.”


[0:49:55.4] SC: Right.


[0:49:55.7] TG: Okay, I’m starting to recognize them with the love story, I think about like, because I love romantic comedies. One of my favorites is the How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days with Matthew McConaughey and that chick and I forgot her name and like I think about okay, there’s always this scene where like the guy runs after the girl at the end. That’s got to be one of the obligatory scenes and then I’ve heard like the meet cute scene. But we’re also talking about all love stories as a whole, not just courtship or romantic comedy. So what would you say, what are the obligatory scenes of the love story? And we’ll kind of start there and finish it up in the next episode.


[0:50:43.9] SC: Okay, so quickly, there is about six obligatory scenes and when I tell them to, you’re going to say, “Oh yeah, of course.” Okay, there’s the lovers meet scene. So this is the big scene where the first meeting between the two lovers. There’s the confession of love scene. Now the confession of love scene, it can sometimes be in the beginning hook of the story, but often it’s like the climax in the middle build, it’s usually in the, you know?


But the confession of love scene is one person says to the other, I’m sorry, like in that great Moonstruck, when — oh what’s his name? Jeez, I can’t believe I forgot it. It’s Cher and I can’t believe I forget his name. Anyway. He goes up to her and he’s like, “I love you, I love you,” and she’s like, “Snap out of it,” and she slaps him across his face. So the confession of love scene is something to look for in every romantic comedy and in every love story.


Then there is the first kiss scene and sometimes the first kiss scene doesn’t happen until the very end of the movie or the book or they don’t even have it on stage but it’s implied. But first kiss scene is often one of those obligatories that you need depending upon how you’re playing it, in what era you’re setting your love story. People didn’t sit around kissing in 18th century or early 1800’s in England. So you don’t see a first kiss scene in Pride and Prejudice.


Anyway, then you have the lover’s breakup scene. The lovers break up is you’ve got to get them broken up, there’s got to be forces that push them away from each other and they have to say, “There’s no way we can be together.” The lover’s breakup scene then eventually segues into the climactic proof of love scene that I just described with Gatsby and Mr. Darcy. Then you have the resolution, the lovers reunite scene where they come together and they, you know, we know that they’re committed. We know that they’re going to be together at least until the end of the movie or the end of the book.


We know that they’re committed to one another and they kind of look at each other like the end of The Graduate when Dustin Hoffman and, again, I’m getting older. Dustin Hoffman and I think Katharine, I forget Katharine’s last name. They look at each other and they look at each other like, “What are we going to do next?” But you know that they’re committed. So those are the obligatory scenes of love stories. You’ve got lovers meet, confession of love scene, first kiss scene, lovers break up, proof of love and then lover’s reunite.




[0:53:32.3] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at


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9 comments on “The Fundamental Genre

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    I’ve been hoping for this! As much as I’ve learned from the ongoing podcasts about Tim’s book, I am thrilled that you had this discussion on the Love story genre because now you’re in my backyard. It was reassuring to know I’ve correctly identified the obligatory scenes, and I look forward to the next part of this discussion as well as Shawn’s upcoming posts over at Steve Pressfield’s “What It Takes” series. As always, thanks!

  2. Kent Faver says:

    Nicholas Cage (Moonstruck) and Kathryn Ross (The Graduate) 🙂 This will require a second listen – I got fuzzy on the someone knows something that the reader doesn’t know yet, about 75% through. Thanks guys – excellent. BTW – isn’t The Graduate a coming of age story? One of my favorites from that same time period is The Paper Chase – which also appears to be a coming of age story with a romantic backstory. Timothy Bottoms butts heads with John Houseman, his Harvard Law prof – but he is also falling in love with the Prof’s daughter.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Kent,
      The great thing about adding Love Story to another overarching genre is that it amplifies the emotional whallop. Yes THE GRADUATE is a coming of age maturation Story too. But the Love Story subplot is what holds us captive.

  3. NewspaperMan says:

    Great advise at the beginning “If your goal is to support yourself as a fiction writer, the most important Genre to master is the Love Story.” If the higher forms in ” Interstellar” understood that Love as a dimension transcends time – who are we to snigger 🙂 🙂

    “Stories are metaphors that help us learn how to behave”….As a Hindu, my father told me stories of Ramayan / Mahabharta when I was a kid. Now my kid reads comics based on these 2 texts. Hundreds of incidents take an independent existence under these two Banyan trees. It’s fun to discuss pros and cons / moral dilemma of a character’s actions that the incidents illustrate. Ex. one of the character, Karna in Mahabharta, forsakes right to be a king , fights against his brothers because he is obliged to the enemy king. I found these stories fun to listen to while growing up but now marvel at how our ancestors coded subtle lessons in the tapestry of these great tales.

    Comparing the soccer ball to Hank’s id and his anthropomorphized internal self – great
    observation. Thanks!

  4. lcgiroux says:

    Shared on a bunch of different romance writer forums. This (and hopefully the next) are a master class on romantic fiction.

  5. At last–romance! Thanks for this. I’ve been enjoying episodes and applying Story Grid to my work (bought the book, too). There’s always more to learn, isn’t there?

  6. jennyw66 says:

    Thanks for this!! Looking forward to the next episode!!

  7. jennyw66 says:

    Just a further thought… re the romantic suspense sub genre… I think I read somewhere that when the suspense arc in the story zigs the romance should zag… Like if they have a “win” with the bad stuff happening the relationship side of things takes a dive and vice versa… If they have a defeat with the bad guys the romance gets an up or develops in some recognisable way… Am I remembering that right and would you agree?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Jenny,
      I think that’s a pretty good rule of thumb. When you are playing with multiple genres, the ending payoffs of each should play of one another dramatically…that is one should end positively and the other negatively. That’s in keeping with our general sense of life…that things often end ironically. We will the lottery, and end up miserable. Etc. If everything ends magically positive or horrifically negative…we as readers end up losing our ability to believe the plausibility of the storytelling.

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