Back to Genre

If you’re like me, right now your head is swimming.

You’ve just spent three or four weeks using a microscope to lay out the elements of a novel, all of its scenes and continuity details, turning points, values etc. Moving from minutiae to the view from thirty thousand feet is a very difficult transition. No matter how many books I’ve worked on, the moment I’ve completed The Story Grid Spreadsheet brings great joy and soon thereafter great sorrow. Because inevitably, I’ll have this really cool document and not really know what to do with it.

Don’t panic.

It is in these times that Genre will save you. Remember that Genres manage audience expectations. So if we head back to looking at the big picture by detailing the Genres inherent in our Story, we’ll be able to make sure we hit all of our marks. That is, we can make sure that we abided by the conventions and obligatory scenes of our chosen Genres. And once we’ve made sure we’ve done that, we can then hone them so that they are extraordinary. But if we don’t have a checklist of things to make sure we’ve done, we’ll just get lost in the details of our micro Story Grid Spreadsheet.

The Foolscap Global Story Grid is that checklist. So let’s fill it out and see how Thomas Harris solved all of his Genres requirements.

Let’s go back to those very important half dozen questions that the editor must ask himself of every project that crosses his desk. These are the make or break questions that will give him the definitive answer to that crucial question—Works, Doesn’t Work?

Here they are again:

  1. What’s the Genre?
  2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that Genre?
  3. What’s the Point of View?
  4. What are the protagonist’s objects of desire?7
  5. What’s the controlling idea/theme?
  6. What is the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?

After we’ve answered these six big questions, we’ll be able to build our Foolscap Global Story Grid one page—the single page document that gives us our Big Picture. So let’s take a deep breath and just start out with answering Genre.

After just one read, an experienced Editor would have no problem (with the exception perhaps of the Internal Content Genre) categorizing The Silence of the Lambs’ Genres. (Go back and review GENRE’S FIVE-LEAF CLOVER if necessary.)

Let’s run ‘em down:

  1. TIME: Obviously, the novel is long form Storytelling.
  2. REALITY: From the first page, with its reportorial sensibility and the specificity of its references to a real life law and order institution (FBI) and settings, it’s clear we’re dealing with the realities of contemporary life. So Realism is the Reality Genre.
  3. STYLE: As we are dealing with concrete emotional terrain, the Style Genre is Drama.
  4. STRUCTURE: Structure is classic Arch-plot with a protagonist on a personal quest (Ambitious newbie trying to become FBI agent) and then given an external mission too (interview the craziest killer ever).

A. EXTERNAL: The External Content Genre has all of the markings of the thriller (see the earlier posts, THE UNIVERSAL APPEAL OF THE THRILLER and THE MONSTER MASH-UP) and as it concerns the hunt for a serial killer, the flavor of thriller is serial killer.

B. INTERNAL: I’ll get into the Internal Content Genre and why I categorize it as “disillusionment” later on.

Okay, so we know the Genres. We can now fill in our Foolscap.

For fun, let’s look at the world through Thomas Harris’ eyes and let’s pretend that he uses The Story Grid to help him organize his thoughts.

Let’s pretend it’s 1982 and he has to make some choices.

Again I have no idea how Thomas Harris works nor would I presume to tell him how to work. I’m just looking at the end result and reengineering it through my Story Grid methodology.

He’s already written a great serial killer thriller called Red Dragon, which introduced the piece de resistance of serial killers, Hannibal Lecter.

What’s he going to do next?

Harris is a working pro. That is, he makes his living writing. Red Dragon was successful enough that his agent and his editor probably plead with him to write a sequel. The publisher backs up the notion with a hefty advance. So Harris is tasked with outdoing Red Dragon, the novel that defined the serial killer thriller.

What a nightmare!

Congratulations…you’ve done something very few writers have ever done before…now do it one better!

Harris doesn’t panic. He gets out a legal pad of foolscap paper and writes down what he needs to decide. It will look like this:

Screenshot 2014-11-25 11.48.01

The first question to answer is easy:

External Genre:  Serial Killer Thriller

The second question is easy too, as we know the thriller Genre backwards and forwards. The global value at stake in a thriller is a convention—life/death.

External Value at Stake: Life to Unconsciousness to Death to Damnation

Now, why did I write down Life to Unconsciousness to Death to Damnation? I did so to remind me of the progression of negativity of the LIFE value. It moves from LIFE to UNCONSCIOUSNESS to DEATH. But of course, it goes even further. To the end of the line of human experience.

What is that?

It is the fate worse than death…DAMNATION.

The most compelling thrillers take us to the end of the line…the limit of human experience. Thomas Harris knows that his protagonist for his sequel must move through these stages to reach a fresh and personal hell (just like his protagonist Will Graham did in Red Dragon). His protagonist must face damnation. [Review the post THE POWER OF NEGATIVE THINKING at for further explanation on value progressions.]

We are just two answers into filling out our Foolscap page and already we know just about everything we’ll need to know about the global structure of the new novel. Just by clearly deciding the global Genre and using the value at stake for that Genre as our North Star.

Here’s why.

We have to write a BEGINNING HOOK for the novel, then a MIDDLE BUILD, and finally an ENDING PAYOFF. But we can’t just willy-nilly shift our global Story Genre in mid-stream from serial killer thriller to love Story and throw out our global life value and substitute it with a global love value.

That would be a recipe for disaster.

The reason why we can’t do this is because the major turning points in a Story require turns on the global value of the chosen global Genre. That is, the climax of the Beginning Hook, the climax of the Middle Build and the climax of the Ending Payoff must turn on the Life value for a thriller. For a love Story they must turn on the love value.

Now smaller scenes in the thriller novel (those we fully detailed in our Story Grid Spreadsheet) can certainly turn on other values. But the big moments have to turn on the global value.

Because we know straight off the bat that we’re writing a sequel to a serial killer thriller, we know that we have to abide by the serial killer Genre’s conventions for the major turning points of the Story.

Harris knows that those conventions insist that he move the lead protagonist from a stable LIFE at the beginning of the Story to a state of cluelessness, UNCONSCIOUSNESS, at the end of the Beginning Hook of his Story.

And then Harris knows that he has to take the protagonist from UNCONSCIOUSNESS at the end of his hook to the threat of DEATH in his Middle Build.

And finally he must take his protagonist from the threat of DEATH at the climax of his Middle Build to the threat of DAMNATION to pay off the entire Story.

This is his goal…to take his protagonist to the limits of external human experience.

Some thrillers, most in fact, don’t go this far and that’s okay. But they have to at least have the threat of damnation if not put it in play. Or they’ve gone to the limits of human experience in the Story’s supporting Internal Genre. Or they simply work without going to the end of the line. They may work, but they’d don’t push the envelope of the Genre. If you want to transcend the run of the mill stuff in your chosen Genre, you must take the Story to the end of the line.

Harris went for broke with The Silence of the Lambs. He chose to take his Story as far as it could go.

Because he knows he’s going for broke, Harris moves to the last three quarters of his foolscap page and writes the following in the three blocks designated for his Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff. These notes will remind him of how his scenes must progress.

Partial Foolscap with Global External Value Progression

Partial Foolscap with Global External Value Progression

On his foolscap, he’s reminding himself that the BEGINNING HOOK of his book will move his protagonist from LIFE TO UNCONSCIOUSNESS. Then the MIDDLE BUILD must take the character from UNCONSCIOUSNESS to threat of DEATH. And lastly, the ENDING PAYOFF must deliver the limit of human experience moving from the threat of DEATH to the threat of DAMNATION.

So if and when he gets stuck at any place in his novel, Harris will have a concrete reminder of the most important progressions. He’ll have something to use to evaluate his scenes. No matter how great a scene, if it gets in the way of moving his lead character from one life value to the next, it has to go.

What is so impressive about Harris is that instead of banging out just another book that mirrored the progressions of Red Dragon, he challenged himself to write something completely different. The foolscap he has in hand now is the same as it would have been for Red Dragon at the same stage of construction.

But, what Harris chose to do with The Silence of the Lambs is to do Red Dragon one better. He added a remarkably satisfying Internal Content Genre for his protagonist. Reading Red Dragon and then The Silence of the Lambs back to back is the equivalent of listening to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations recorded in 1955 and then listening to the same pieces he recorded in 1981. They are both astounding works, but for my money Harris in 1988 and Gould in 1981 are examples of creators moving from exuberant geniuses to seasoned artists.

Next up?  I’ll break down The Internal Content Genre of The Silence of the Lambs.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

21 comments on “Back to Genre

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Yes, my head is swimming, but I was able to follow the global external value progression you laid out for us here (head is still swimming however, but you keep telling us not to worry, so I’m taking you at your word). Looking forward to seeing the internal content genre layered in on Thursday. As always, thanks Shawn!

  2. Yes my head is swimming. Moving from the minutiae to the view from thirty thousand feet is a very difficult transition. Thanks for the reminder not to panic, Shawn, and for another awesome post. Can’t wait to see the break down for the Internal Content Genre and how you connect all the final dots!

  3. Jack Price says:

    Hi Shawn, I’ve found your discussions of structure most helpful. The Foolscap Global Story Grid and Story Grid Spreadsheet are wonderful tools. But it is your approach to genre that has been most revealing to me. Like many people who have no understanding of genre, I viewed it as something having more to do with marketing a story — which it is, but so much more. In studying your posts dedicated to genre, I’m developing an appreciation of how critical genre choices are to the planning and execution of a story. Good stuff. Thanks. Jack

  4. Joel D Canfield says:

    “the big moments have to turn on the global value”

    Seems so obvious, yet I wouldn’t necessarily have found that on my own.

    [nerd alert] My brain feels, right now, exactly as it did when I first understood the use of the square root of negative one in differential calculus. [/na]

  5. Jim Starr says:


    Although I’m with Jack on appreciating your approach to genre, whenever I approach I do a Wile E. Coyote screech halt, specifically when it comes to conventions and obligatory scenes for the genres I’m currently writing in (YA and family saga). I just don’t understand what they are, and can’t even seem to Google them. I know that you and others have recommended reading the best in a given genre to learn what they are, but I can’t seem to see the trees for the forest once I’m deep into reading such books. Any thoughts?

    1. I was going to ask the same question. Thanks!

    2. Jack Price says:

      Hi Jim, YA seems like more of an age category (target market) than a genre. That category could include mystery, sci-fi, thriller, etc., so the conventions and obligatory scenes would be those for the genre, not the age category. Family saga seems like it would be perfect for multiple genres in the same long-form piece, including multiple protagonists, antagonists, plot lines, etc. At least that’s how it seems to me, and I hope I’ll be corrected if I’m way off base 🙂 Jack

    3. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Jim,
      My grand plan is to do a series of short books after this one is put to bed (and by the end of the week it will be at the printer) on exactly this kind of stuff. Your question is one I get all of the time and there is no simple list of stuff to just throw at you. I’m a specialist in crime, thriller and to a certain extent horror. And I’ve studied Love Story, but the others I would need to do some deep work to satisfy your question/s. While I think I’m pretty good at this stuff, there is no reason why you can’t teach yourself while you wait for my grand pronouncements…
      I’d suggest that you take your favorite books of your two chosen genres (external and internal) and map out Story Grid Spreadsheets, Foolscap Global Story Grids, and finally Story Grids for both of them. Don’t fuss with the CONVENTIONS AND OBLIGATORY SCENES until you do the same things for your second favorites in each of those genres too. And perhaps your third and fourth and fifth favorites too. Then compare all of the books scene by scene…
      What you’ll find are between five or six or seven or eight or nine scenes that all of them share (those will be the obligatory scenes of that specific genre). And you’ll find other things like characters and sensibilities that they share too (those will be the conventions of that specific genre).
      For example, in a family saga, I’d suspect there is always a scene where the patriarch/matriarch and the rebellious son/daughter has a showdown. EAST OF EDEN has one. So does GIANT. So does LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, so does ORDINARY PEOPLE…
      This if fun stuff to parse out and I’ll have a blast doing it, but one of the things a writer must have is the ability to read other work, analyze it and teach themselves. The toolbox is THE STORY GRID… Apply THE STORY GRID and you will learn… You don’t need me to do this work for you Jim. You can do it. I know it. And when you do the work, share it with all of the other nerds here!
      All the best,

      1. Joel D Canfield says:

        by the end of the week it will be at the printer

        Oh glory day.

        1. Mary Doyle says:


      2. Jim Starr says:

        Thanks, Shawn. Will do.

        And Jack: Sorry, my bad! I meant Coming of Age–I get your point about YA not being a genre.


        1. Tina Goodman says:

          I think the YA books of today specialize in snarky protagonists. SNARKY is key.

  6. Elanor says:

    This is great stuff. I especially like the way you showed how to work the External Genre progression into the Foolscap Grid.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how you breakdown the Internal Content Genre in the next post!

  7. Finished my forth, and using your posts as a check sheet before final edit. Thanks, Ann Still need a title!

  8. Doug says:

    I have a question: Why did Matthew Quirk ( a writer I know you are familiar with) go with a first person narration in his 2 novels? Most thrillers are written in third person.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Doug,
      You’d have to ask Matt that…but others do it too. Lee Child goes between first and third with his Reacher books. I think it’s just a matter of making a choice about how much you want the reader to know and when. I wrote a blog piece about narrative drive over at might help explain the choice. There are pluses and minuses for every writing choice. I think Matt made the right one with his novels because he was introducing readers to a unique world (Washington Insiderdom) and having his lead character be a fish out of water…learning the trade…was a great way of authentically pulling the reader into the world too. That is, the narrator sort of stands in for the reader and there is a tight connection that forms between the protagonist/narrator and the reader. When you do it well of course.
      Hope that helps

      1. That’s what drives my choice: is the reader best served by knowing more than my protagonist, or by being limited to his or her knowledge?

        I can see either working in almost any genre, as long as that rule is respected.

  9. Ron Estrada says:

    When I first learned about story structure, it was an amazing eye-opener. You’ve taken me to another level. This is fantastic information and my head is exploding with ideas. Thank you so much for the time you’ve put into this. Now to transfer it to my YA and middle grade fiction!

  10. Patricia Wilson says:

    Hi Shawn, I’d posted a comment, I thought, but I don’t see it? I’ll try again, but not tonight. I’m too absorbed in the Sequence section of Units of Story.

  11. Patricia Wilson says:

    Shawn, it’s 12:37 a.m. here in Connecticut and I’m about to continue on my sojourn through your Story Grid. What an education! I live in fear that the next time I come back, the entirety will be gone. Please don’t remove the Story Grid from your blog. My husband and I have re-watched “Silence of the Lambs,” “Misery,” just last night and I’ve asked him to put “Chinatown,” up next. He’s enjoying the movies, as I am, but I’m also learning from them I hope. What an amazing writers’ learning tool.

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