Mixing Genres

A friend of mine emailed me over the weekend asking about a coming of age/maturation story he’s working on. He’s read the recent posts about the redemption story and wanted more information about “mixing genres.”

He knows for certain that his global story is driven by his lead character’s progression from naivete to worldliness but I suspect my covering the redemption story last week may have caused something of a panic for him. He recognized that one of his secondary characters was actually on a redemption arc while his lead was on the maturation curve.

Geez, why don’t I just let him speak for himself? Here’s a part of his email:

I read your Redemption obligatories and conventions on Storygrid. Great stuff and I love the examples you chose. I’m doing a coming of age story right now with a supporting character (The Mentor) that has a redemptive arc. If that’s the case do all the major obligatory scenes for the Redemptive arc have to happen on screen for the supporting character? I think Mick in Rocky has a Redemptive arc but I get the feeling his Truth Will Out/Abyss scenes probably happen off-screen before he goes and asks Rocky to be his trainer. Or maybe I’m totally wrong there. Would love to know what you think.

What I love about The Story Grid beyond the fact that it never fails to calm me down when an exceedingly onerous task presents itself is that it gives the writer a whole slew of ways to work through problems.

Granted my friend has followed The Story Grid from the start. He’s read the book and he’s a primo Story Nerd…a guy who gets a thrill out of burning his 10,000 hours of Story immersion on these sorts of conundrums.

And here’s the great news. Because he thinks so deeply about Story craft, he doesn’t need me at all.

He’s answered his own question within his question. More on that in a moment.

Mixing genres is a natural act. That is, if you are full bore on your core focus—executing your global Story spine—you won’t be able to not layer in other external and/or internal genre elements into your work. It’ll just happen.

This is why interpretation/analysis of Stories is so much fun.

A Story that I think is all about Disillusionment could, for someone else, be all about Maturation or Education or a Tragic Status plot.

When people argue about what your Story is really all about with passion and specificity, you should feel great satisfaction.

Especially if they are convincingly arguing things that you never intended to actually put in your Story!

Come on? How is that even possible?

This phenomenon speaks to the jaw-dropping mysteries of creation…that great mystery that Steve Pressfield writes about in The War of Art. He devotes the most controversial section of his book—the third part called “The Higher Realm”—to it, specifically the Muse.  It’s the ending payoff for a very practical approach to getting one’s ass in one’s work chair.

Don’t get too confused by the mystery. Just remember that the work is all we are entitled to. Not the fruits of the work. Thomas Harris had no idea that a Story Nerd Editor would devote hundreds of hours to microscopically analyzing The Silence of the Lambs to help him lay out his editing methodology.  He just did the best work he could and let his readers take from it whatever they wished.

As long as you just keep measuring those boards, cutting those 2 x4s and drilling those pilot holes, let the mystery take care of itself. Admire its presence after it’s a fait accomplis.

Don’t try to forcibly mash it in. You’ll lose your mind and never finish a project.

Instead be so focused on your global love or global maturation story or global whatever genre…working so hard to innovate its conventions and obligatory scenes that you’ll come up with something like “what if the lovers are an undead vampire and a teenaged girl?” Or “what if my naïve hero is sent away to a distant relative to protect him from the truth of his parentage? Not like to Indiana, but like an entirely different solar system?”

Stephenie Meyer and George Lucas created two of the most popular mixed genre epics by holding true to those two global genre ideas. The Twilight novels are first and foremost Love Stories and Star Wars is all about the maturation of Luke Skywalker. Simple stuff.

The byproduct of a Macro commitment to your global genre–an unwavering search for innovative big ideas–will organically lead you to Micro genre mixology. That development is not only “OK,” it’s a great sign that you are growing creatively.

Macro focus begets Micro complexity.

If that’s true, what does Micro obsession beget?

Here’s a Story:

In the late 1950s, electronics geeks Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor were simultaneously focused on figuring out a way to get more transistors into a smaller space. The Micro problem at hand, having to re-wire computers that were the size of the reading room at The New York Public Library, was bedeviling their industry.

They probably thought and thought about the materials necessary to create a transistor, the things that made the computer work.

Was there a way to make a smaller bulb? A thinner filament?

But deep inside their cerebral cortices, the fundamental craft they’d both layered into their neurons was also at work. They both knew physics and electronics and thermodynamics from all of those boring-ass courses from college and graduate school.

They knew it so well, they could forget about it.

So as they tinkered with the transistors, the notion that a computer was just made up of a mass of identical “on” and “off” switches wired to one another came to them.  And the idea of the global integrated circuit soon dawned on them. (I often think of scenes as transistors…one must be wired to the next which is wired to the next etc., moving positive and negative value current from one to the next  etc. And the integrated circuit is the entire Story.)

Kilby and Noyce both moved their focus from a MICRO problem (more transistors into smaller spaces) to a MACRO phenomenon (all of those linked units can be viewed as a single unit too) and the exponential innovation of the integrated circuit arose.

Kilby came up with a three-dimensional prototype of an integrated circuit, which still required lots of micro-wiring for Texas Instruments. For Fairchild, Noyce took the Macro one step further by mapping out a planer model—using a thin film of metal oxide to connect the little transistors on a single chip instead of using all that copper wire.

Two guys trying to solve the Micro transistor riddle came up with a revolutionary Macro innovation—one that led to our ever-expanding digital universe today.

The laser focus on the Micro problems led to a Macro innovation.

Micro detailing begat Macro simplicity.

That’s nice, but what about my friend’s question? What the hell is he supposed to do after he realizes that he’s got two internal genres at play in his Story? What does he put on stage and what does he leave off?

He’s got a maturation/coming of age story for his lead character and a redemption arc for a secondary (mentor) character. Should he drop in all of those conventions and obligatory scenes I outlined in my previous redemption posts into his coming of age story too?

Well, no.  But perhaps some secondary scenes can serve the primary.

Here’s what he should do.

Stay MACRO, and then tweak MICRO:

Focus on the lead character. Work the global Story Spine…the movement of the lead character from naïve/myopic thinker to worldly/capable of holding two opposing ideas in his mind at the same time.

Okay. He’s got a plan to abide the conventions and obligatory scenes of his maturation/coming of age story in his Foolscap Global Story Grid that he’s using to outline his new project. And he’s got a mentor character (a very important part of maturation/coming of age) that my writer friend suspects/knows is going to have a redemption arc too.

Once you recognize an additional genre at play in your work, don’t run from it. Think about how you can best use it to amplify (like a transistor) your global genre.

Remember how I said my friend answered his question in his question? Well he did with his reference to the Mick character in Rocky.

Here’s what he wrote again:

I think Mick in Rocky has a Redemptive arc but I get the feeling his Truth Will Out/Abyss scenes probably happen off-screen before he goes and asks Rocky to be his trainer.

Yes, this is correct. Mick’s arc happens “off-screen.” What that means is that Sylvester Stallone intuitively knew that he didn’t have to write a separate “Mick confronts the fact that he sold out his own fighting career for the security of owning his own gym” scene. That realization is inherent in Mick’s actions on screen.

That is, Mick comes to beg Rocky to let him train him because Mick understands that Rocky is his last chance to prove that he (Mick, not Rocky) is not a bum. Mick swallows his pride and redeems himself as an artist when he goes to see Rocky.

So what Stallone did was combine the climax of Mick’s off stage Redemption arc (acting on Truth after contemplating the abyss) with Rocky’s Beginning Hook Crisis…To fight or not to fight?

Stallone amplified the global Sentimental/Redemption/Education/Testing Story (It can be argued that Rocky arcs in all four ways…there’s that mystery at work) by using another character’s Redemption arc as conflict. When Mick comes to see Rocky, the last thing Rocky wants to do is fight Apollo Creed. But Mick’s presence and request makes Rocky reconsider. What Rocky wants at the beginning of that scene is an out, a way to save face.

Instead, Mick’s supplication makes him fight…just by serving as a cautionary figure to Rocky. The scene works beautifully.

See how using the Micro analysis simplifies the Macro?

The simple truth is that Rocky is a story about the inner war (like all of the global internal genres). On the face of it (just like fighting Apollo Creed) fighting the inner war is absurd. You’ll will never “win” the inner war.  Sorry, that’s just the human condition.

And every day brings fresh opportunity to surrender. Lots of stuff to distract you, to make you settle for the bum’s life…be it muscling for the mob like Rocky to pay for your refrigerator six-packs or a blogger wasting his days search engine optimizing third party validation.  All that stuff is about avoiding the real battle…the one with Resistance keeping you from doing what you should be doing.

The internal boxing ring is an often unpleasant quadrant, but when you get in there consistently, you discover that you’re not alone.  The Mystery is in your corner, feeding you tips.  She knows when to throw in the white towel for the day.  She’s got your stool ready with water to rehydrate you and ice to keep down your swelling.

She’ll be there for you tomorrow too.  Just don’t be late.

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


9 comments on “Mixing Genres

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    “Let the mystery take care of itself.” Thanks for the reminder Shawn!

  2. Jack Price says:

    “… settle for the bum’s life…”


  3. Hi Shawn. I’m beginning to see how fluid a lot of this is. Fluid, that is, if you learn the form.

    You take your lump of clay (your first draft), you story grid it (your 2nd draft), then you shape it with every new draft and that’s when fluidity sets in (unless you are a pro and you nailed it in your 1st draft).

    If you understand form, you can (and need to) get really fluid with form and that’s what makes outstanding stories outstanding.

    There’s another reason why the Story Grid is not a formula. Formulas aren’t fluid!

  4. Talmage says:

    “I often think of scenes as transistors…one must be wired to the next which is wired to the next etc., moving positive and negative value current from one to the next etc. And the integrated circuit is the entire Story.”

    I find this analogy useful and brilliant. I tend to ignore my outline, get OCDish about new ideas from non-fiction, and produce “experimental” story that lacks conflict and plot because it’s driven by my protagonist’s fascination with new knowledge and ideas. Reading your book is helping me get my feet on the ground and heading in a direction that’s less boring. I really appreciate your willingness to share your knowledge.

  5. Shawn says:

    Been following you and Stephen for months trying to beat back my own resistance and get back in the ring to work on my second non-fiction book. Thanks for the reminder that the Mystery will be there to help me; I just need to show up. And thanks for sharing the Tipping Point storygridding posts. I feel late to the party on mastering the craft but gearing up to do my best with it. And you both are playing a big role in education and inspiration.

  6. Patrick Maher says:

    This story made me think of a bunch of outstanding TED talks – mostly by Social Psychologists. I found them to be inspirational and they also got me thinking about characters on story arcs and the authors who illuminate those characters and the trajectory of their insights.
    Firstly, people who are happy know these five principles:
    1) Who are you?
    2) What do you do?
    3) Who do you do it for?
    4) What is it that these people need?
    5) What do they get out of it? How do they change as a result?

    1. Talmage says:

      Thank you for listing all these videos. I just finished listening to all of them and sharing them with my family. Wonderful advice.

  7. MAGGY SIMONY says:

    Dear Shaun – your emails are so motivating, as we await your creation of a micro for The Tipping Point. I used that last 6 Word GPS article to write a one-page GPS for my book project, but added to the Why? a Why me? Why am I uniquely able to write this book?

    Printed it out and have it pasted on the wall near where I make coffee first thing every day, and there’s a file tray where I drop in your emails as they arrive, so I can read them carefully first thing in the morning.

    Thank you so much — I’m really beginning to think I’m going to get this one last book done before I die!


  8. Lots of lightbulbs going on in my head today! Thank you, Shawn.

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