Genre Review

Story Grid Mini-Course Two

Story Grid Mini-Course Two

The first question we have to ask ourselves when we sit down to begin a new project is “What kind of Story do I want to tell?”  The best way to answer is to begin with a review of Genre and what I call the Five-Leaf Genre Clover.

For those of you who prefer to read than watch, here’s the transcript:

Part 2 of 5: The Five-Leaf Genre Clover

Shawn Coyne: So what’s the very first thing an editor or a writer needs to do? Well the very, very, very first thing they need to do is to figure out what genres their story is going to be a part of. What is a genre? A genre is a very fancy word classifying every story ever told since the beginning of time. That’s really all it is. The classifications are all about managing audience expectations. This is just a fancy way of saying what exactly is it that you’re going to want to know before you read a book or watch a television show? These are all the things that marketers and advertising people put on covers of books and movie posters. And the classic genres are things like the crime genre, the mystery genre, the love story, the science fiction story. These are all those things that a lot of literary people kind of turn their nose up at. Every single story has a genre.

The way to really wrap your mind around it is to figure out what do I need to explain and deliver to an audience? And there are five major categories of genre. Time. We’re going to want to know how long am I going to have to sit through this movie? Or how long am I going to have to read this book? There’s structure. Are we going to see the hero’s journey, which is called an archplot? Or are we going to see a miniplot or an antiplot? The third is style. Is it going to be a drama? Is it going to be a comedy? Is it going to be literary? The fourth is reality. How much am I going to have to suspend my disbelief? Is this going to be like The Lord of the Rings where there are magical creatures, or is this going to be very realistic like a biography? And the fifth category of genre is called content. Now content is the one that we all think of when we think of genre. When we say crime story, we know exactly what we’re talking about. When we say love story, we know what that is, too.

Now there are two kinds of content genres—the external genres and the internal genre. The external genres are all those things that I just mentioned: crime, horror, thriller, action. The internal content genres are those that are more literary. The coming of age story, the worldview, the morality, the punitive story, the redemption story.

You don’t necessarily need both external and internal in your content choice. There are plenty of murder mysteries that don’t have any internal genres whatsoever. For example Agatha Christie stories. We read those stories because we want to be in the presence of a master detective. We don’t really care if he changes as a human being from the beginning of the story to the end. But for a story like The Silence of the Lambs, that’s a critical story that has both the external thriller category and it also has the internal disillusionment plot of the lead character.

So just to take a step back. What I’ve done is I’ve created something called The Five-Leaf Genre Clover so that it can remind me whenever I need to look at a story and help a writer discover the problems. I need to categorize all the genres they’re working in. So I created this clover that has all five of the genre subcategories and it’s important to remember that you have to make one choice, at least one choice, from each of these categories.

So for example The Silence of the Lambs. Let’s take that example.

The time genre is long. It’s a long novel.

The structure is archplot, which is what Joseph Campbell calls the hero’s journey. Which is basically the arching of a story where the character moves from one place and ends up another.

The style is drama. It’s not comedic in every way. Real emotional terrain is on display. It’s very chilling and thrilling.

The reality structure is realism in that we believe exactly in the institution of the FBI in this story from beginning to end. Now Thomas Harris was a journalist, so he puts all the details and it’s richly layered. So we believe that the FBI is exactly as he discusses in the novel itself. So that’s realism and that’s the reality genre.

Now the content genres are serial killer thriller as the external genre and worldview disillusionment as the internal genre. And I can get into those much later on in The Story Grid. The important thing is you have to make at least one choice in each of the five categories.

So a question I get a lot is: Why do I have to make these choices of these genres? What will they do for me as a writer? Why do I have to be so specific about what category I’m using? And all that.

And the reason is, as I said at the beginning, genres manage your audience’s expectations of your story. What that means is that if I say to you, “Hey I’ve got this great new mystery novel that I’ve written, and there’s no body at the beginning of the story,” that’s going to disappoint you. Because in a mystery, there are conventions and obligatory elements that you have to have in there or people aren’t going to enjoy the story.

Now, what is a convention and obligatory scene?

For example, in a thriller, there are about five to seven must haves in your story. You must have a Speech in Praise of the Villain and a Hero at the Mercy of the Villain. You must have what’s called a MacGuffin, which is the thing that the villain wants above all things. It could be the nuclear codes. It could be, in the case of The Silence of the Lambs, a suit. A woman suit for a very deranged man to wear. That’s a MacGuffin. It also has to have a Clock, meaning there has to be a moment of time where if the hero does not win, all bets are off and the villain wins. It also has to have what are called Red Herrings. A Red Herring is a clue that misdirects the hero from finding out the truth about what’s going on. There’s one more: Clues. It also has to have very, very specific clues that are usually put in and seeded at the very beginning of the story and don’t pay off until much later on.

So those are things you must have in a thriller and if you don’t have them, the audience isn’t going to like your story.

Steven Pressfield: Genres do have conventions, but the question is how does a writer, how do you know what those conventions are? So here’s one way I found out one convention. I was working on the Steven Seagal movie Above the Law. And while we were shooting the movie, Steven went to see Lethal Weapon‚ the first Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson. And there’s a scene in that movie where Mel Gibson was being tortured by the bad guys. So Steve came in the next day and said, “Write me a torture scene. I’ve got to have a torture scene.” And I remember at the time thinking this is the dumbest most derivative thing I’ve ever heard, but we wrote it and it just played like gangbusters. And then later, when Shawn…the first time I ever heard it was The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene, I realized, oh my god that’s a convention of the genre and you have to have it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t work.

Shawn Coyne: So a lot of people say obligatory scenes and conventions, isn’t that kind of cheesy? Isn’t that kind of y’know, like episodes of old Mannix reruns from the 1920s? Well the reality is, you need to have a map and your obligatory scenes and conventions are so crucial because you’re not going to be able to get to the end of your story unless you hit those specific points.

For example in The Silence of the Lambs, somebody says to me well there’s no Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene in The Silence of the Lambs. Well that’s absolutely untrue. It is brilliantly, brilliantly created by Thomas Harris and it’s the climax of the entire novel. And if you’ve seen the movie, in the moment when Clarice Starling has to go into that basement and it’s completely dark. That bad guy, Buffalo Bill, has on the goggles so he can see in the dark. That is the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene. He can see her. She can’t see him. Now that was a brilliant way of delivering an obligatory scene in a very unique way. Now what separates the pros from the amateurs as writers is being able to use these conventions and obligatory scenes in new and unique ways that nobody has done before. So the challenge isn’t, no I’m not going to do it. The challenge is to do those obligatory scenes and conventions in ways that have never been done before, so the audience is completely surprised and captivated by the way you handled what you must have in your story.

So now that we have a handle on Genre let’s take a look at The Foolscap Global Story Grid and the macro editorial point of view in the next video.


23 comments on “Genre Review

  1. Alec Graf says:

    Great recap Shawn.

    It’s interesting how when most people — even the pros — talk about genre, they mean the bookshelf sections: fantasy, mystery, romance, horror, etc. But a full genre description goes way deeper than that….

    “Episodes of old Mannix reruns from the 1920s”! ROTFL! Either your age or mine is showing…. or both….

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Alec,
      Ugh, I meant the 1970s! Oh well.
      All the best

      1. Alec Graf says:

        No, really, 1920s made for LOL hyperbole…!

      2. Mary Doyle says:

        Not to beat a dead horse, but I heard 1970’s when I listened…?

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    I’m enjoying my second viewing of these Shawn. Jeff did a fantastic job on the graphics – first-rate production on this series!

  3. Eldritch says:

    These videos are a really nice addition to what is already a fantastically detailed book. Thank you so much for making them!

  4. Robert Scanlon says:

    Hi Shawn – I’m a buyer of your book directly from you, and didn’t get these 5 videos before. I did reply to an email re this hoping it would reach you, but seems like it did not.

    Can I get that re-sent, or is there a specific url for previous purchasers?

    Thanks (and sorry this is not a real comment on the content yet!)


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Robert. Must confess in an idiot when it comes to this. A few of you for some reason didn’t get the full set. I’ll ask Jeff about a URL.

      1. Robert Scanlon says:

        No worries, Shawn! I should have thought about sending a support request to Jeff. Let me see if I have his contact details somewhere in my inbox 😉

        I’ll stop derailing the thread now (which is fascinating of course!).

  5. I suspect most writers have the biggest problem with the “content” genre. The others seem to be straightforward choices that are made at the beginning of the writing process. For example, although some short stories turn into novels, usually when a writer sits down to write a short story, the length restrictions are part of the reason for the choice. The same applies to style. Conscious or unconscious, it’s a choice that a writer makes or he’ll have slop on the page. Etc.
    When it comes to the content genre, however, the writer has to do more than decide what kind of story it will be – thriller (which I don’t like), mystery (which I do), romance, etc. The writer also has to know what are the conventions and obligatory scenes. For some Contents, this can easily devolve into formula. (Hence the unwarranted contempt for some genres – it’s not the genre, it’s the formulaic reduction of the genre. Perhaps that’s why some only have the external content. But is Christie really formulaic? On the other side, I think that some professional SF writers would say there are no obligatory scenes in SF. But wouldn’t that be putting SF in the wrong leaf? There can be romance SF, thriller SF, etc.) I suspect most people, and that includes writers, aren’t familiar with the obligatory scenes of a literary content genre. (Hence the sense of (unwarranted) superiority – literary “only” has internal content. Yeah, right).
    Even if one has a list of obligatory scenes at one’s disposal, these are external conventions. Then the writer also has to choose an internal content, though I suspect in the best cases this is formulated in the Foolscap theme, which many don’t necessarily articulate until well into the novel. (I’ve read cases where a writer gets stuck halfway through the novel because he doesn’t realize what it’s about. Once he rethinks in terms of “theme,” the plot knot unravels itself. Stephen King mentions this, as does J.K. Rowling, though she doesn’t phrase it this way.) In other words, what you list as internal content (morality, etc.), writers express as the theme. If it’s a well formulated, that is, well-worded, theme, it may appear in the book. If not, good writers keep the formulation to themselves, because it can easily be read as a cliche.
    I think that’s why there’s been such a clamor for a list of obligatory scenes, because people mistakenly think it’s as easy or as known as the larger leafs in the clover. But knowledge of them only emerges from reading in the genre.
    By the way, I was surprised that, knowing a 4-leaf clover to be lucky, you didn’t say anything about a 5-leaf (genre) clover must be more than lucky.

  6. Mel Jacob says:

    Thanks Shawn! Road to Damascus stuff. The scales have fallen from my eyes. I must say though, I am finding if far easier to story grid completed masterworks and much harder to grid my own work. Do you have any advice specifically on Memoir? I am having trouble seeing the breakdown as clearly as some other works and their obligatory scenes as slotted into a the five leaf clover. Within a memoir, do you need to decide what the content is? Eg, love story and the obligatory scenes follow or does the fact that it is a memoir make it different?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mel,
      The memoir is very much about figuring out your controlling idea. Once you figure that out, the content genres will come together for you. But one piece of advice is that memoir is best when it is all about the Internal Content. For example, I edited a book called SOLITARY. The external genre would be positioned as “War,” because it is a Story about a prisoner of war who has to rebuild his life and fight again. The writer, Giora Romm, has led a remarkable life. He had to figure out what part of that life he should focus on in his book and he had to figure out what his story could mean for someone else. What did he learn in a particular period of his life that could benefit others?
      So he intuitively (Romm is Israel’s first fighter pilot Ace and the first one to tell you he’s not a writer) decided that his Story had to focus on the literal events of being shot down over Egypt…what happened to him in captivity…and what that experience did to him. How it changed his worldview. Those simple thoughts guided him. The book takes place in a very specific (and short) time period. It’s 18 months in his life that changed him from being “a fearless fighter pilot” to a guy who has deep self knowledge. The Internal Content Genre is REVELATION (from ignorance to KNOWLEDGE). Most memoir use the REVELATION plot. Or MATURATION or REDEMPTION or TESTING. It’s your choice. What will guide you in making it is being extremely specific about the STORY you want to tell. Don’t give us DAVID COPPERFIELD. We only want a slice of your life…the slice that took you from a bumbling fool to one with a deeper understanding…a person with a true weltanschauung.
      I guarantee you that if you just figure out that traumatic event, you’ll be okay. Don’t worry about the conventions and obligatory scenes. You can figure out what they are after you’ve just told the Story. Then you can polish them. It must have intense conflict… external (the Arabs are going to torture you), personal conflict (not just any Arab, but this guy right across the table) and most importantly multi-dimensional internal conflict (if they find out I’m Giora Romm they won’t just beat me, they’ll use me as propaganda. If I crumble, what will become of my family? How can I keep myself together?)
      SOLITARY has so much conflict but it is not what one expects from a WAR memoir. The external conflict (the Arab/Israeli conflict) takes a backseat. We don’t get incredible external combat action. It’s about the internal war we all face every single day of our lives…how do we muster the courage to keep fighting…in a war that we will never survive.
      Hope that helps

      1. Mel Jacob says:

        Thanks Shawn/Sensei. That’s helpful. My memoir, targets the period when my white collar, teetotalist husband breaks the law and goes to prison for two years. It’s about my survival as I struggle to run his business, raise our children and put my career as a writer/journalist on for the sake of our family. I think the controlling idea is Love conquers all?? I’ve finished the first draft and realise how true it is that Ernest Hemingway said, ‘The first draft of everything is shit.’

  7. Dick Yaeger says:

    I understand what you’re saying, Schawn, but I gotta tell you, it sounds a lot like making love with a sheet of instructions tacked to the headboard. Shouldn’t there be a little more inspiration and passion to start with?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Dick,
      I get it. All of this Story Grid stuff can come off as mind-numbingly specific and more than a tad boring. It’s not for everyone and I’m totally cool with that. There are a lot of days I want nothing to do with it myself.
      But to play off of your metaphor… If you don’t have the passion to tell the Story in the first place, my Five Leaf Genre Clover will do absolutely nothing for you. But if you are deeply in love with Story and you care enough to invest the time to explore all of its intricacies, then what I offer are the tools necessary to transform yourself from an over-stimulated teenager in a hurry to a more seasoned craftsman who actually knows what he’s doing. The teenager does it for himself. The seasoned guy does it for his partner…what he gets out of it is fantastic, but a bonus nevertheless. Bow down and service the Muse by learning the craft and what you’ll discover is a satisfaction I have no way to describe.
      All the best,

    2. Alec Graf says:

      What Shawn’s doing, you see, is writing the Kama Sutra of Story.

  8. Eric says:

    I’ve been mulling this over, and I wonder if there’s another bit to this that’s something like “wrapping” or “background.” This comes out often in discussions about the distinction between science fiction and fantasy, which often devolves into an argument about how “plausible” the technology or magic is.

    I think Orson Scott Card (or maybe it was his agent) hit the nail on the head when he said, “SF has rivets, fantasy has trees.” If I use the language of magic and religion to explain the wondrous and otherwise-implausible things in my story, it’s a fantasy. If I use the language of science, it’s SF. Thus, although I could unquestionably spin a “scientific” explanation for the longevity of Elves or the existence of Ents or the true nature of the “straight path” out of Middle Earth that is a plausible as anything used to justify warp drive, we know that “Lord of the Rings” is fantasy because Tolkien uses the language of magic to explain them.

    Steampunk is a prime example of this. As far as I can tell, there are no “obligatory scenes” in steampunk. There are, however, obligatory elements of the setting — Victorian manners and mores; elaborate, steam-powered machinery with exposed mechanisms made of brass, wood and leather; and goggles. (Airships may not be obligatory, but they’re easily accepted.) Within that setting the story may be a thriller, a mystery, an adventure, or whatever.

    Shawn, do you think there is anything to this, or is this veering away from the fundamental nature of the story?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Eric,
      I confess I’m not an expert on SF or Fantasy, but with that said, I think you’ve nailed it.
      All the best,

    2. Robert says:

      Hi Eric, I was wondering about this myself and find we are in agreement. Much like “The Magnificent Seven” is western clothing draped over “The Seven Samurai,” it strikes me that SF is really just the particular frame of reference for the audience. Any Story told in a contemporary setting can be transposed into a SF setting. Therefore what we have is obligation of environment rather than obligation of scene.

  9. Roberrt Doucette says:

    This is very appealing to me as it helps me think strategically about my writing. I’m not talking about the business side or the selling aspect of writing but the creation of the novel itself.

    The clover leaves help me define what I want to accomplish in this novel. Making a choice in each leaf puts limits on what the final novel will look like. Some may not like this idea of limits but without them there is no focus.

    Once the book is defined as a long, realistic thriller with a character arc showing growth, I know there are many element that must be included and many more that must be excluded. This is powerful stuff.

    Making these decisions is not necessary for writing a novel, but they are usually necessary for writing one people will buy.

  10. prueitt says:

    On the obligatory story points in genre, I think Shawn does a good job of explaining the need for them, they are expected. Got a murder, ya’ need a body or the reader will feel cheated, then stop reading. When he points out finding new ways to employ plot points in ways no one has thought of is the goal, not throwing in stale reused old ones.

    I started learning about writing two years ago, late in life, and the just read more genre is hooey, It’s like writers who deny that they use plot points. “Oh I just write until the story is finished because I instinctively have an in with my muse…” I have read bunches of books and trying to map out something that in a good story is subtle is near impossible. However, knowing what to expect out of a cozy, thriller, romance etc. makes it all the more enjoyable, for me anyway as both reader and fledgling writer. I was jazzed to know it’s called a McGuffin.
    Thanks Shawn & Steve

  11. jim calocci says:

    great to hear the comments , the interaction , the civility , thanks

  12. Evelyn says:

    I am reading your book, The Story Grid (on page 65) and I’m captivated. I am almost done with a first draft of my memoir about my son defying the odds and surviving a lethal form of dwarfism. I believe the time is long form, reality is factualism and the style is documentary. Am I on the correct path so far? I am writing in present tense. I have 80k + words of first draft so far. What obligatory scenes do I need to address? Thanks in advance for any direction you can offer.

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