Going Deep

Why do I make a distinction between external and internal content genres?

The reason why is that today’s storytellers, especially long form television writers and series novelists, must have both components of genre content to make their work compelling and sustainable over six or seven years of series television or ten to fifteen series novels. There are exceptions of course, but if you wish to create a story that has the potential to play out over a long period of time, you need to think deeply about having both external and internal components in your work.

Years ago when I was at Doubleday I worked with crime novelist Robert Crais. At the time, he’d written seven novels featuring a wise cracking and brilliant private investigator in Los Angeles named Elvis Cole and his dark compatriot Joe Pike. While the series was a commercial powerhouse, Bob wanted to go deeper. He wanted to stretch himself and I jumped at the opportunity to help him. I’ll not get into the nitty-gritty of how Crais masterfully upped his game in his bestselling breakout novel L.A. REQUIEM, but it had everything to do with the internal wars within his two lead characters. Crais layered in multiple strands of internal genre to pitch perfect effect. So much so that today, most readers of Crais go to him for the internal battles he explores as much for his external plot machinations.

Remember that the external genres concern outside forces aligned against the protagonist…nature, another person or society in general. These are represented by extra-personal and personal conflicts. They keep the protagonist from achieving his conscious desire…saving a victim, marrying his beloved, throwing down on the basketball court etc.

The internal genres concern forces inside the individual aligned against the protagonist’s pursuit of a subconscious object of desire. The subconscious object of desire is the ultimate need within a protagonist whereas the conscious object of desire is the want, his immediate, on-the-surface identifiable goal. So in a thriller, a protagonist’s external conscious object of desire will be to save a victim. But at a deeper level, he may need to sacrifice himself for another person in order to redeem himself from a past moral failing. Or he may need to finally learn the truth of who he is and why he does the things he does.

In the redemption plot, the lead character is conscious of his wanting to save the victim. Beneath that consciousness, though, if the lead character were to sit down with a friend or a therapist and be asked why it was so important for him or her to save this victim beyond “doing their job,” he’d eventually come to understand that his desire is a need to recover from a previous trauma/moral failing in his past. That buried-beneath-the surface need is the hero’s internal object of desire. The redemption plot is just one of a number of possible internal content plot devices. More of those below

So where did I come up with these classifications?

In 1955, Norman Friedman published the seminal internal genre differentiation “Forms of the Plot” in the Journal of General Education (Volume 8, pages 241-253). These internal genres are varieties of the hero’s journey that reflect the quality of internal change at the beginning versus the end of the protagonist’s mission.

Like choosing the global external content genre, choosing the internal content genre is crucial to your story. A poor combination of external and internal will result in an unsatisfying Story experience. A perfect combination will be a work of art. I’ll take a hard look at one of the masterworks of the last fifty years, The Silence of the Lambs, and show you a pitch perfect combination of external and internal content genres down the road.

From Friedman’s work, I’ve adapted three internal sub-genres:

  1. Worldview, which connotes a change of seeing the world one-way and by story’s end, seeing it differently.
  2. Morality, which connotes a change in the moral or ethical character of the protagonist.
  3. Status, which connotes a change in social position of the protagonist.

The choice of global internal genre is driven by your lead character’s unconscious object of desire, your character’s unknown (to them at the beginning) inner quest. Remember that the quest is most often a two front journey. There is the external quest for a conscious object of desire like justice or survival or companionship or a prize of some sort like the rave review or victory. Then there is the internal quest, the one the lead character doesn’t know he is in need of until a critical moment in the telling. The interplay of these two quests for objects of desire is what provides narrative drive of the one hand (the external) and insight into the human condition on the other (the internal).

Each of the three can be broken down further into recognizable sub-genres.

  1. Worldview: A Change in Perception of Life Experience
  • Education; a shift from a view of life from meaninglessness to meaning, Tender Mercies
  • Maturation; a shift from naiveté to worldliness, Saturday Night Fever
  • Revelation; ignorance to knowing, Oedipus Rex
  • Disillusionment; belief to disillusionment, The Great Gatsby
  1. Morality: A Change in a Character’s Inner Moral Compass
  • Punitive; good guy goes bad and is punished, Wall Street
  • Redemption; bad guy reforms, Drugstore Cowboy
  • Testing; willpower versus temptation, Cool Hand Luke
  1. Status: A Change in Social Position
  • Pathetic; weak protagonist tries to rise and fails, Little Miss Sunshine
  • Sentimental; weak succeeds against all odds, Rocky
  • Tragic; striver makes mistake that dooms him to failure, American Tragedy
  • Admiration; principled person rises without compromise, Gladiator

The Internal Content Genres are crucial to execute for novels or stories in the “Literary” Style, often referred to as those of “character.” Literary novels most often use the Miniplot structure and, for the most part, Miniplot requires that the internal genre drive the global story. That is, it is the change in the inner world of the character that compels interest in the reader/viewer much more so than the external genre’s global value at stake. We read Crime and Punishment not for the external crime but for the internal punishment.

These Miniplot stories are the stuff of the “literary” culture.

So a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird, while it has a wonderful external crime genre within (the courtroom drama with Atticus Finch leading the defense of Tom Robinson), is a maturation plot first and foremost…the preeminent coming of age novel of the twentieth century.

Stories driven by the big set piece extra-personal antagonisms of horror and action, however, are far less dependent on the internal content genres to work. In fact if you add too much internal hemming and hawing and “character development” in the pure action story or horror story, you may completely alienate your audience.

The master Stephen King is that rare novelist who can do both. But it’s interesting to note how he pulls off this trick in his novels like The Shining and Misery. He does it by creating horror elements that can serve as symbols for inner turmoil. In The Shining, alcoholism’s inner abuser takes form as supernatural spirits egging on the protagonist to kill his family. And in Misery, King has recently revealed that he created Annie Wilkes as a stand in of sorts for his personal struggles with cocaine. Cocaine was his #1 fan…pushing and egging him on to furiously complete his pages.

Stephen King knows better than anyone how unchecked internal wars can morph into external horrors.

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.



27 comments on “Going Deep

  1. I love that now I can call my non-mystery stuff things like “a worldview maturation story” which is far more accurate than coming-of-age.

    Is Friedman’s article worth tracking down, or are you sharing the valuable parts? The deeper you dive, the more I see is in there and it’s fascinating.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Joel,
      Yeah, it’s definitely worth reading Friedman’s piece. I pulled it up after a longish google search a while back or maybe I read it in the library. Don’t remember which, but I think he broke it down to Plots of Character, Plots of Action, Plots of Fortune and something else, so he had four categories instead of three. I just look at it as the progression of change in the lead character/s and thus boiled it down a little to just three.
      The value of all this is to home in on what it is we are trying to accomplish after we’ve got a draft (or before) and to evaluate in the most accurate way if we were successful or not.

  2. Kent Faver says:

    I’m by no means a movie buff, so I find it interesting that I’ve seen Little Miss Sunshine, Cool Hand Luke and Gladiator upwards of 5 times each, and would gladly watch them all again many more times. Conversely, I fell asleep every time I tried to watch Citizen Kane but I would suppose Mr. Welles would be tragic.

  3. Mary Doyle says:

    I noticed last week in your reply to one of the comments that you said you “used to be a science guy.” That explains a lot. The way you have been systematically breaking down the components of Story and Genre is the equivalent to showing up each week with a higher-resolution microscope than the week before. I have a forty-plus-year old English Lit degree and have learned (way, way!) more from you on Story Grid than I ever did from the academics. Thanks for bringing in the science Shawn!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks Mary. Believe it or not…this is just the surface scratch.

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        Btw, we are working on this stuff here:


        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          This is great Michael! Really a great way of having everyone contribute. I’ll definitely check it out.

  4. Fawn says:

    Interesting concepts & delineation. Thanks for this. Haven’t seen this treatment anywhere else.

  5. Jeff says:

    Hey, Shawn,

    Can’t believe you mentioned Robert Crais and that it brough to mind this very old review I bookmarked about 5 years ago after stumbling onto it via some random web search or another:


    Very interesting reading the author compare Crais and Pelecanos, and now it’s no mystery why he eventually found Crais to be the more substantive read despite Pelecanos’ gift for creating a compelling ensemble cast of characters.

    Anyway, to echo Joel & Mary, thanks again for sharing this. The amount of wisdom and condensed experience in each post is just staggering.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Jeff,
      Thanks for the link. One of these days, I’ll put up a year by year list of all the books I’ve worked on. L.A. REQUIEM is one of my favorites.
      All the best,

      1. I would love to see the list of books you’ve touched. There’s gotta be a thread of awesome and joy and some evidence of where you come from, literarily speaking.

  6. SPE says:


    I absolutely concur with Mary in saying that I’ve learned far more about story mechanics in this blog than I did in 3 years of a BA in creative writing!

    Love your work, can’t wait to read more.

    All the best from the UK,

  7. Herbert Exner says:

    It’s fantastic. It concludes my picture…

    Again, it’s not about writing stories, it’s about programming in declarative, task oriented languages, like a “financial language for derivative and risk analytics”.

    If we forget correct algorithmic representations at the moment…

    …we position our technologies in the categories client-user-transformation-worldview-protagonist/owner-environment/competitive arena (external content is quite clear).

    But with your genres you help me to refine this…focus and impute better.

    Maybe I’m too much an “abstractonaut”…

  8. Shaun: Is it okay to mix 1. worldview and 2. morality together in the same book? I write historical fiction and science fiction. Could that mixture work in those genres?
    Thank you

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Steve,
      The simple answer is yes. Remember the genres are guideposts. They are not ironclad recipes. And what you’ll find too is that one man’s Morality tale is another’s Worldview. That is, the story experience is an individual one. What someone “gets” out of a particular story is personal to them. All of this is to say that the use of Genre and form is a means for the writer to make sure that they are moving the story forward from one place to another. Having a worldview change could definitely require a morality shift too. The trick is to really home in on what it is you want to do.

  9. Thai says:

    Wow. Really insightful and helpful article Shawn.

    Would it be too confusing to embody an internal sub-genre in another person? Similar to an allegorical Wizard of Oz/Tin-Man effect?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Thai,
      A little confused by your question as Internal Genre’s are all “subconscious.” That is, we don’t as audience members don’t realize that the lead and/or secondary characters are having their worldview changed or change their status or change their moral/ethical character “blatantly.” Rather we come to the arc of the character/s realization just after or just before the Story concludes. It is the combination of external and internal objects of desire begin met and/or denied at the climax of the story that yields catharsis for the audience. I know this answer is a little too theoretical. For example, think about the ending of Chinatown. The hero won the external, he “found the girl,” but his internal failure “redemption for a past failure” is horrifically dramatized. The woman he was trying to protect is killed and an innocent girl will be victimized by the same evil man who hurt the woman he tried to save. The catharsis for the audience is an epically tragic one…no matter how we try, we’ll never beat evil… There are some uplifting ones too, like Kramer versus Kramer. The lead character loses his son to his ex-wife, but the ex-wife recognizes the true love between the father and his boy and yields to that purity of partnership. Love conquers all. People recognize pure love and will not come between it.
      Anyway, hope this makes sense.

      1. Thai says:

        No, it makes a lot of sense; tying in internal with what’s dealt with at a subconscious level. Thanks for responding Shawn.

  10. Tina Goodman says:

    Hello. Have you watched STONE starring Robert De Niro and Edward Norton? I can’t tell if it’s got a change in World View or Morality. It starts out like an Archplot but ends up in the Miniplot arena, I think.

  11. Tina Goodman says:

    According to the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you WANT but you just might get what you NEED.

  12. Sajidah says:

    Shawn, I’ve been reading your book, “Story Grid” and I’m more than just impressed. I’m relieved that someone can make practical sense of something that most people assume is intuitive. However, I can’t help but think that there is much more to say about the internal genre. I would like to see it covered with the depth and scope with which you have covered the external genre. Perhaps it would make a great deal of difference if you would cover more thoughtful or “women’s” types of stories (The Secret of Bees, The Help, The Station Manager, visionary fiction or the like, etc. etc.). I found myself groaning at your example after example of yet another male oriented movie/story with no room for stories that have more delicacy of feeling or thought. Don’t get me wrong. What you did was wonderful. I just feel there is something missing in the analysis of internal genre.

    1. Michael Beverly says:

      For more in depth study of this stuff, join the forum.
      The forum can be joined by clicking the link up on the top right.

      I am currently working on setting up threads with obligatory scenes and conventions for each content genre and also trying to get people to help list specific works that are good examples of each.

      For Shawn to do this all, he’d have to be immortal and god-like, which, as nice as he is, well, it’s too much to ask.

      “I found myself groaning at your example after example of yet another male oriented movie/story with no room for stories that have more delicacy of feeling or thought.”

      Well, all I can say is that everyone has a limited amount of time to experience and remember novels and movies…and everyone has specific genres they like and watch or read over and over.

      SOOOOO…..if anyone wants to help, join the forum.

      There is room for every style and taste.

      1. PenPuppy says:

        I’ve been trying to join the forum for nearly two days. As far as I can tell it’s a pretend forum set up to frustrate hapless wannabe writers. Won’t let me log in. Says it’s sent activation emails (it hasn’t) and has rotating quips in in the top righthand corner. Also, a bizarre field asking how much time I want to log in for.

        1. Howdy, PenPuppy. I see a registration for you. Can you confirm that the first part of your email is “womwoman” ? If the first “wom” is extra that would explain why you haven’t received the emails.

          Let me know and we’ll get your registration done asap.

          1. PenPuppy says:

            Ahh! Thanks Joel, sorry, that’s wonwomanbusiness@gmail.com. ‘won’ not ‘wom’ … no wonder :/

          2. Or perhaps “no womder” ?

            Yes, I crack me up.

            I edited your email for your account and re-sent the reminder email. You should be able to finish the registration process. If not, please email me directly at joel@spinhead.com so I can jump on it promptly.

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