What We Talk About When We Talk About Genre

As we’ve reviewed over the last few weeks, the Structure and the Content genres in our Five-Leaf Genre Clover are intimately entwined. No matter how you slice it, Archplots and Miniplots require foundational quests. In turn, these quests require External conscious and/or Internal subconscious objects of desire. The ways in which the writer reveals those external and internal objects of desire is by making crucial choices.

These choices begin and end in the last genre category, the CONTENT GENRES.

I’ve divided CONTENT GENRES into two distinct types.

  1. EXTERNAL CONTENT GENRES define your protagonist/s external objects of desire.

What they want.

  1. INTERNAL CONTENT GENRES define your protagonist/s internal objects of desire.

What they need.

Let’s begin with WANTS.

The External Content Genres are what we think of when we hear the word genre—Action, Horror, Crime, Western, Thriller, War, Love etc. We know one from the other because each has its particular characteristics and because each has very straightforward forces of conflict at play.

The External Content Genres are driven primarily by extra-personal and/or personal conflict. These forces of antagonism are direct and easy to identify: the villains in crime and action stories, the potential mates in love stories, the monsters in horror stories, or the environment in a action man against nature stories.

External conflict is the sizzle that gets bottoms in movie seats and books on bestseller lists.

As consumers, we have concrete expectations of these genres as we’ve all been exposed to thousands of them since birth. Again, genre conventions and obligatory scenes satisfy those expectations. While a reader/viewer may not be able to pinpoint what exactly it is they want from a story, they know it when it’s not there. Immediately.

Anyone who has ever been to a mind-numbingly bad play can tell you that. The writer needs to know and understand these story requirements consciously and deliberately. If he doesn’t know them, how can he possibly set them up and pay them off?

The External Content Genres are driven by Archplot quests to attain your lead character’s conscious object of desire. The conscious object of desire is the tangible thing that the protagonist wants and actively pursues from the inciting incident of the story forward. What’s extremely helpful when considering whether or not to drive your entire story by an external content genre is in the fact that these objects of desire are conventions particular to each of the genres.

That is, your protagonist’s conscious object of desire is predetermined based upon your choice of external content genre.

The pursuit of the subconscious object of desire, however, drives the Internal Content Genres. We’ll dive into those in the next post.

Perhaps you’re working on an Action Story or want to write an Action Story. The conscious external object of desire in an Action Story is a convention. The hero/protagonist (another convention in an Action Story is that the protagonist must be a hero, someone who sacrifices himself to save others) wants to stop the story’s villain/s and save the life of a victim or victims.

Perhaps you’ve written a Love Story or want to write a Love Story. The conscious external object of desire in a Love Story is a convention. The protagonist pursues or runs away from an intimate bond with another human being—that’s her object of desire, an intimate relationship.

Perhaps you’ve written a Crime Story or want to write a Crime Story. The conscious external object of desire in a Crime Story is a convention. The protagonist wants to bring a criminal to justice.

Obviously the choice you make about your global external content genre is critical. It will drive the literal narrative of your Story.

Remember that readers don’t have the capacity to read a man against time action thriller, and then tell their friends not to bother with it because it didn’t innovate “the hero at the mercy of the villain” scene. Instead, readers tell their friends that the book didn’t work. It was missing something. It seemed thin. Don’t buy it.

If you don’t study the conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen content genre and don’t know how writers before you satisfied them, how can you be sure that you’ve written anything remotely original? Just as to be a bodybuilder, you need to be a weightlifter first, to be a writer, you need to be a reader first.

If you want to write a particular kind of novel, you must dive deep into the history of the genre itself…find the best books, read them, study them and understand intellectually how each of the conventions and obligatory scenes of the genre were satisfied. The Story Grid is the perfect way to map out just how each writer did so. And having multiple Story Grids for your chosen genre at hand will be an invaluable reference kit for your future work.

I’ll show you how to create your own Story Grids later on when I put together The Story Grid for the thriller, The Silence of the Lambs. The thriller combines the conventions and obligatory scenes of three external genres, Action, Horror and Crime. So when I do analyze the conventions and obligatory scenes of the thriller, you’ll also get a foundation in Action, Horror, and Crime. I plan to offer analysis for the other genres as well, but I just haven’t written those works yet.

But with all of the above said, Genres are fluid.

They morph and combine and adapt to the tenor of time. That is, genres shift and change to reflect the anxieties of the particular historical period. I’ll make a case later on that the Thriller is the dominant story form today because it serves the largest segment of society, those overwhelmed by the threats of modern life.

I label the following External Content Genres because they concern primarily external forces of antagonism—other people or societal or natural forces—on a single protagonist. They primarily have closed endings, are causal, and happen in linear time in a consistent reality. Archplots. I write “primarily” because there are a number of works within these large genres that move down the curve and approach Miniplot.

These Archplot/Miniplot stories still have an external content genre, but they have shifted the emphasis of the Global storytelling to the subconscious object of desire. In these, the global story is driven by the internal content genre. The external one in these cases are usually used to grab the reader early on, only to shift later to deal with deeper internal issues within the lead character.

That is part and parcel of genre fluidity.

Every once and a while, a writer like Thomas Harris comes along and abides most of the conventions of a particular external genre, but tweaks them by morphing them with another genre. In Harris’s case, he melded the action story with the crime story and added horror to create the modern serial killer thriller with his second novel, Red Dragon.

Or, the writer places greater emphasis on an underlying internal genre beneath the external, like a crime novel laced with an overriding redemption plot, like one of my favorites, BAIT by Kenneth Abel. Obviously, the more intimately you know more than one particular genre, the better your chances of creating something fresh and unique by combining elements of both.

Here is an overview of the EXTERNAL CONTENT GENRES, along with a bit more description of each. These descriptions are by no means exhaustive. Each and every one of these could have an entire book devoted to its conventions and nuances.

EXTERNAL CONTENT GENRES are stories driven by a global external value (justice/injustice, life/death, love/hate) and its positive and negative charge.

The Action Genre

The core value at stake in an action story is Life/Death, the core emotion is excitement and the most important event in the book is “the hero at the mercy of the villain” scene. Action is the primal Genre, the stuff of Gilgamesh, Homer’s canon and Beowulf.

For more on this genre, I highly recommend Robert Mckee and Bassim El-Wakil’s upcoming book Action: The Art of Excitement from which the sub-genres below reference. The key element to remember about Action is that the villain is the driving force. He/she/it is the source of all conflict and antagonism in the story and thus Action can be broken down into the four sub-genres of extra-personal conflict.

Not to confuse you too much, but these four extra-personal varieties of conflict and their particular plot devices listed below can also be applied to the other external genres. That is, you could create a horror story that uses the Labyrinth Plot device, a Crime Story that uses the Conspiracy Plot device, a Thriller that uses the Savior Plot device etc. The Action Genre is primal and its plot devices can easily be used to drive the other genres.

  1. Action Adventure/Man Against Nature Stories: These are stories that use the natural world or a specific setting as the villain/force of conflict. They can be further delineated by four kinds of plot devices:
  • The Labyrinth Plot: The object of desire is to save victim/s and get out of a maze-like edifice. (Die Hard)
  • The Monster Plot: The villain is an animal. (Jaws)
  • The Environment Plot: The villain is the actual global setting. (Gravity)
  • The Doomsday Plot: The victim is the environment. The hero must save the environment from disaster. (Independence Day)
  1. Action Epic/Man Against the State Stories: These are stories where the hero must confront societal institutions or tyrants.
  • Rebellion Plot: The hero is pitted against a visible tyrant like a Darth Vadar from Star Wars.
  • Conspiracy Plot: The hero is up against an invisible tyrant. Enemy of the State, The Bourne Identity.
  • Vigilante Plot: The hero is up against a criminal organization. Above the Law.
  • Savior Plot: The hero is up against someone who wants to destroy society. The Dark Knight.
  1. Action Duel/Man Against Man Stories:
  • Revenge Plot: Hero chases the Villain.
  • Hunted Plot: Villain chases the Hero.
  • Machiavellian Plot: Hero sets two villains against each other A Fistful of Dollars
  • Collision Plot: Villain sets two heroes against each other. Troy
  1. Action Clock/Man Against Time
  • Ransom Plot: A deadline imposed by the villain.
  • Countdown Plot: A deadline superimposed by circumstance. Andromeda Strain.
  • Holdout Plot: Hero has to holdout until others can rally. The 300.
  • Fate Plot: Time is the villain. Back to the Future.

The Horror Genre

The core value in Horror, like Action, is also life/death, but here it is taken to the very end of the line…the fate worst than death. When dying would be a mercy. The core emotion is fear and the core event is the Victim at the Mercy of the Monster scene. The element to remember about Horror, like Action, is that the forces of antagonism (the Monster/s) are key.

Generically, horror stories concern survival, and for those that go to the limits of human experience. They are by definition unrealistic and live inside the Fantasy Reality Genre leaf. An inciting incident featuring an attack by a monster of some kind throws a single non-heroic protagonist out of stasis in such a way that he must actively pursue a conscious object of desire, saving his own life.

One very important convention within the horror genre is that the antagonist/s are possessed by “evil.” The antagonists cannot be reasoned with. They have no interest in anything other than annihilation. There are three sub-genres of horror and they divide along the lines of explaining the monster. Again, I must pay a debt to Robert McKee for these definitions. And remember that the Action plot devices can be used for each of these subgenres.

  1. Uncanny: These are stories where the force of evil is explainable—a man made monster, aliens, or a possessed maniac like Jason in the Friday the 13th movies. There is no way to convince these monsters to do anything but slaughter.
  2. Supernatural: The monster in these stories isn’t “real.” That is, the force of antagonism is from the spirit realm and cannot be explained like a man made monster, alien beings from outer space, or an axe wielding freak. Rather there are of the zombies, vampires, Freddie Kruger variety. The Amityville Horror is a good example, as the father from the family becomes “possessed” by spirits in his home, which push him to slaughter his family.
  3. Ambiguous: In these stories, the reader/viewer is kept in the dark about the source of evil. The sanity of the protagonist/victim comes into doubt. The Shining is a great example, one of my all time favorite novels. Just a brilliant and beautifully written Story that mixes alcoholism, egotism, and despair into one Hellish stew.

 The Crime Genre

The core value in crime is justice/injustice, and the core event is the exposure of the criminal.

An unjust inciting incident (the compelling What if? Event) throws a single protagonist out of stasis in such that he must actively pursue a conscious object of desire (a criminal) to restore justice. The type of protagonist and his point of view is what creates the many subgenres in crime.

  1. Murder Mystery

The Murder Mystery is the most obvious sub-genre of Crime. The Inciting Incident is the discovery of a dead body. For the most part, the end of the Story is the revelation of the murderer. Conventions of the Murder Mystery include false clues (red herrings), a crafty killer who has constructed the perfect crime, lots of interviews, lots of secrets, and an intrepid investigator, usually underestimated, who proves more capable than the villain. There are numerous sub-sub genres of the murder mystery and they divide along the point of view of the protagonist, as well as the category of investigator. Each sub-sub genre has its own additional conventions and obligatory scenes.

  • Master Detective: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Columbo… The core event is also the climax of the Story where the master detective lays out how the murder occurred and who perpetrated it. The murderer usually tries to escape, but is thwarted by the intrepid investigator to resolution. Justice is restored by story’s end.
  • Cozy: Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schulz etc. These stories are told from the point of view of the amateur sleuth, who usually has some expertise that others lack which enables them to figure out the mystery. Readers love cozies because they learn quite a bit about an alien discipline while enjoying the standard investigation. Mysteries with recipes are quite popular. And of course there is that sub sub sub genre that will never go away, the Cat mystery where a cat is instrumental in solving the crime.
  • Historical: These either feature historical figures as amateur sleuths, Eleanor Roosevelt, or they feature interesting professionals from earlier times like the monk investigator in The Name of the Rose. And like the cozy, the reader learns a whole lot about a particular time period while getting the honey of a perfectly crafted mystery.
  • Noir/Hard-Boiled: These are a very specific mash up from a very specific time. The lead character is usually a good guy detective or lawyer or someone with skills that can be used for evil deeds. He gets seduced by a very specific character called a femme fatale, a woman who uses all of her feminine wiles to get the man to do as she pleases. She’s a sort of modern day succubus. The innocent man decides to do the woman’s bidding, commits a crime of some sort (most often murder) and then she sets him up to take the fall for it, escaping with some kind of treasure that only the innocent man can help her attain. The convention is that the story is told from the schmucks’ point of view, often in flashback. Double Indemnity by James M. Cain is a textbook example. The movie Body Heat is a nice update to it.
  • Paranormal: These mysteries combine elements of the supernatural with the classic murder mystery plot. Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse mysteries/horror novels that began with Dead Until Dark are a great example. HBO adapted the books into the series True Blood.
  • Police Procedural: These are the classic cop point of view books. Law and Order kind of stuff, but just the first half of the show. There is a long list of these. Ed McBain/Evan Hunter’s 87th Precinct series of books epitomize the form. Another one of my personal favorites was a book I worked on years ago called Eleven Days by Donald Harstad. It was a terrific mash up of Police Procedural and Paranormal.
  1. Organized Crime, is a crime (not necessarily murder) from the criminal point of view. The reader roots for the criminal to get away with it. The Godfather is an example of a crime novel combined with a political society drama. There is an amateur variety too where the good guy goes bad for good reason. Breaking Bad is the perfect example. The main thrust of the narrative is Will he get caught?
  2. Caper: this is an offshoot of the Organized Crime sub genre that has been done enough to earn its out distinction. This is a story from the master criminal’s point of view, a movie like Rififi or Sexy Beast are two great examples.
  3. Courtroom: These are crime stories from the point of view of a lawyer. One of my favorites is The Verdict, which meshes an internal redemption story with the external crime genre.
  4. Newsroom: These feature reporters as protagonists. Ron Howard’s movie The Paper and the nonfiction All The President’s Men are prime examples.
  5. Espionage: A spy is the lead character. These often walk the razor’s edge between crime and thriller, depending on the presence of a hero at the mercy of the villain scene. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy come to mind.
  6. Prison: These are from the point of view of a prisoner. Will they find solve the riddle of how they were set up?

The Western Genre

The core values in the western concern the individual inside and outside of society, good/evil, strong/weak, and wilderness/civilization. The core event is the showdown between the hero and the villain. I recommend Will Wright’s book Sixguns and Society if you really want the grand tour of this genre, which had a very long run of popularity in the 20th Century.

  1. Classical A stranger comes in to a small town, reveals that he has a special talent and is then tasked with saving the town from the influence of villains. By the end, the hero is welcomed into the fold. Even though he does not stay amongst the people at the end of the Story, Shane is the prototype. From the Classical come three subgenres.
  2. Vengeance The Stranger is intent on righting a wrong. He’s outside of society at the beginning, inside society at the end. Marlon Brando’s One-eyed Jacks is a perfect example.
  3. Transition The hero is inside society at the start, outside of society by the end. High Noon
  4. Professional The heroes are not out to save society. They’re just doing a job, making a living outside of the law. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The Thriller Genre

What would happen if you mashed up the Action, Horror and Crime genres? You’d get the modern thriller. Thrillers take the core values of Action and Horror (Life and Death) and adapt them to a very realistic human extreme. The Life/Death value escalates to what Robert McKee calls the Fate Worse than Death, but not just the external Fate Worse than Death that is present in Horror, but all the way to include the internal Fate worse than death…Damnation. The core emotion escalates from the intrigue inherent in crime stories, to the excitement level of action and then to horror’s fear and ultimately terror. The force of conflict, the antagonist, is far worse than the single dimensional action villain, but just a shade less than the inexplicable horror monster.

The thriller explores the horrors of real life, real monsters who prey in our everyday world.

What distinguishes Thrillers from Action, Crime and Horror is that they require a supporting Internal Content Genre to drive the protagonist’s “B” Story. The external threats and how the protagonist deals with them have a deep impact on his/her inner conflicts. James Bond doesn’t think twice after he’s killed a bad guy. The thriller protagonist, no matter his outward bravado, does. But more on that when we go over The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs.

The thriller is very malleable. It can be used as a sort of honey to attract readers and then be circumvented by its underlying Internal Content Genre to become a much more symbolic treatise on contemporary life than one would expect on a first read. As such, it is embraced by both the commercial and literary publishing cultures. You’ll often find books positioned and sold as “literary thrillers,” promising such a deep experience. I’m going to examine the thriller at greater length later on when I go through The Story Grid column by column for The Silence of the Lambs. For now, let’s examine the genre broadly.

The thriller features a heroic protagonist (someone willing to sacrifice his own life for others) facing personal conflict just a hair’s breath short of the omnipotent horror antagonist. These are realistic threats of the highest order, crime antagonists at the peak of their strength. With outstanding action set pieces filled with derring-do to thwart the plans of the villain, the thriller must make the antagonism personal. That is, the protagonist of the Story must be revealed, usually by the middle of the novel or the end of the second act, as the victim. The victim in horror is the everyman protagonist. But in the thriller, he’s a hero.

A sociopath has singled out the hero for the most extreme of the life/death values, the end of the line, what Robert McKee calls The Negation of the Negation, the fate worse than death…damnation. While Horror stories also take the lead character to the fate worse than death, the thriller does so in a terrifyingly realistic way. Plus, the lead character has a deep inner life, filled with all three levels of individual conflict, inner, personal and extra-personal.

When done well, thrillers push all of our buttons. They entertain us in a way that action/adventure, horror and crime stories do, but in addition, they add on a deep layer of internal struggle that protagonists in literary Miniplots contend with as their greatest challenge.

As you can use one or more of the sixteen plot devices in horror as you do in action, so can you use the same sixteen for the thriller. As most thrillers adhere to realism genre within the REALITY leaf of our genre five-leaf clover, the variety of thriller is often determined by the setting. The setting is often referred in Hollywood as the “world.” The point of view of the hero/victim protagonist is also a determining factor.

  1. Serial Killer, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, (police/FBI/PI as hero/victim)
  2. Legal, Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, (lawyer/judge as hero/victim)
  3. Medical, Coma by Robin Cook (doctor/nurse/researcher as hero/victim)
  4. Military, Seven Days In May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, (soldier as hero/victim)
  5. Political, Marathon Man by William Goldman (everyman/politician/gangster as hero/victim)
  6. Journalism, The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly, (journalist as hero/victim)
  7. Psychological, Primal Fear by William Diehl, (The core question is he/she crazy? drives the story)
  8. Financial, Numbered Account by Christopher Reich, (setting is financial world and how it works)
  9. Espionage, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlumm (spy as hero/victim)
  10. Woman in Jeopardy, Sleeping with the Enemy by Nancy Price, (woman as hero/victim)
  11. Child in Jeopardy, The Client by John Grisham, (child as hero/victim)
  12. Hitchcock, A Coffin For Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, (Wrong man as hero/victim)

The War Genre

                The core value of the War Story is Victory/Defeat for straightforward pro or anti-war propaganda Stories. These epics usually use Factualism as their REALTY genre. The Longest Day and The Battle of the Bulge are prime examples. Another subgenre of the War story is what I call the Brotherhood variation, which has a core value of Honor/Disgrace and would include Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield and Oliver Stone’s Platoon. The core emotion can be anything from excitement to fear to intrigue. And of course the core event is the big battle.

Love Stories are often subplots within War Stories, Atonement by Ian McEwan is a wonderful example of the use of love to ground the War Story.

The Society Genre

These are stories that are most driven by big ideas. That is they are often used to present a particular point of view/argument for political purposes. There are a number of varieties that hinge on the core values inherent in their choice of setting or character. They are often referred to as Social Dramas, but as we’ve defined Drama as a particular category of the Style leaf of genre, I prefer to reference these as just the Society genre. As society has many different strata, these stories usually have multiple protagonists. The core values at stake are dependent upon the subgenre and the core events are also sub-genre specific.

  1. Domestic concerns the family dynamic and the core value is the health of the individual versus the bond of the family. The core event is what I call the “showdown” between the central force of control (father, mother, etc.) and the rebellious member/s of the family. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the masterwork of the form. All members of the family are both perpetrators of repression and victims of repression stuck in inescapable torment. But they are in it together.
  2. Woman’s concerns the struggle of the independent woman versus an overbearing patriarchy. The value is feminism/patriarchy and or similar to the political, power/impotence. The core event is the rebellion and or submission of the protagonist. Anna Karenina is a prime example.
  3. Political is the struggle for power. Its core value is power/impotence and the core event is the revolution where power is either lost or gained. The Godfather while squarely in the crime genre, is also a political drama too. We root for the gangster Michael Corleone to take down the five families and regain the power lost with the death of his father Vito.
  4. Biographical—The value at stake in the Biographical Story is dependent upon the figure as is the core event. Often Biography takes on the dynamic of the Performance genre and/or one of the other external content genres to ground the narrative of a particular life story.
  5. Historical—The value at stake in the Historical is also dependent upon the time period chosen. As is the core event. What’s important to remember is that when choosing the historical period to explore, it should be applicable to the present day dynamic. That is, the controlling idea of the story should be applicable to contemporary life. Using historical details enables the writer to comment on a particular taboo or highly charged moment in contemporary life through the prism of the past. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow has multiple protagonists as do the big epic novels of Edward Rutherfurd and Ken Follett.

The Love Genre

There are three sub genres of the Love Story: Stories of Courtship, Stories of Marriage, and Stories of Obsession. The core value of course is love/hate and the core event is the proof of love of one character for another.

  1. Courtship concerns the process of two people meeting and committing or not committing to each other. Beyond the core value of Love/Hate, they often concern Dependence/Independence, Communication/Misunderstanding, Morality/Immorality, Social approval/disapproval, and Togetherness/Loneliness.
  2. Marriage—these are stories about committed relationships going deeper into true intimacy or breaking apart. Beyond the global value of Love/Hate, they deal with notions of Loyalty/Betrayal, Truth/Lie, Fidelity/Infidelity, and Self/Other.
  3. Obsession—these are stories about desire and passion, most often sexual. The core value beyond Love/Hate can often take a turn to survival/death. The core emotion can begin at romance/arousal and move to fear pretty quickly.

There are numerous popular sub-sub-sub genes of Love Stories, including Erotic, Gothic, Historical, Paranormal, Regency, Romantic Suspense, Western and a very popular form in Crime, Thriller and Horror…Buddy Salvation. Love stories are extremely effective as sub-plots in the other popular external content genres.

The Performance Genre

These stories are very popular because they concern the core value dynamic of respect versus shame. Will the big fight, performance, or presentation go well or will it result in dishonor? The core event, of course, is the big game or big performance.

  1. Sports The Natural by Bernard Malamud
  2. Music, The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
  3. Business, Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet
  4. Art, The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone


Next up…the Internal Content Genres.

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.

66 comments on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Genre

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    These posts are the equivalent to being handed the keys to the (writing) kingdom – can’t thank you enough, Shawn, and can’t wait for the Internal Content Genres post. I’ll be first in line to buy The Story Grid when it comes out in the spring.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mary,
      Talking with Steve Pressfield about doing something special for First Look Members at http://www.stevenpressfield.com and members of The Story Grid Editorial Department so that you won’t have to wait that long. Obviously, you and the rest of the crew here and at sp.com care the most about this stuff, so whatever we can do to reward you for your dedication, we’ll do. You’ll definitely get a price break and some other kind of Thank You. Stay tuned.
      All the best,

      1. This is great news, can’t wait! Thanks Shawn!

  2. 5,000 words? That’s not a blog post, it’s a minibook. Whew!

    I keep thinking I have a handle on this stuff, and you keep showing me entire rooms I thought were just closets. Amazing depth.

    Nearly giddy at the thought of creating a story grid for all my Chandler, Francis, and Stout so I can graft them onto my writing brain.

    Stupendous amount of information. Thank you.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Joel,
      Twenty plus years requires a lot of words to download. So glad I found the other Story Nerds to appreciate what I’ve jammed into my head. I realize this is a challenging blog. Thanks for hanging in there.
      All the best,

      1. When I look for a restaurant, I’m the guy who’s looking to be challenged. Not bizarre stuff, just edgy, new, deeper than I’ve yet seen.

        Your writing, your knowledge, is that divine dish. Challenging? Yeah. But also refreshing and satisfying.

        (Any good Peruvian places near you?)

      2. Us story nerds thank you, Shawn. This post will definitely take a few reads/reviews to internalize, but it’s a Master Class that we’re eager to take. Keep it coming!

  3. Marvin Waschke says:

    Impressive. Very impressive. Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism knocked me over decades ago with its consistent logical analysis of literature. Your analysis is similarly logical and consistent. Frye was academic, you are more helpful to a working writer. Did Frye influence you? Or is it the convergence of great minds?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Gotta confess…I haven’t read Frye. I’ll put it on the bedside stack of books to read!
      All the best,

  4. Kent Faver says:

    I almost feel guilty asking a question after this epicness. Can there be an action western? I’ve just started reading Cormac McCarthy – I guess he’s western. Tough to pin down. Wiki says he writes Southern gothic, Western, and post-apocalyptic. Many sincere thanks.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Kent,
      Yes. The Action Genre can mix and match with just about anything. It’s the primal genre of Homer etc. Cormac McCarthy has written in a number of genres so you’d have to look at each individual book to come to some conclusions about all of his genre choices. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN combines ACTION with CRIME with a dollop of WESTERN. The trick is to start with the five leaf clover, pick the most obvious of the choices from each leaf and then add on as needed.
      All the best,

    2. Tina Goodman says:

      I’d put Blood Meridian as Western, Adventure, maybe Horror? (metaphor of Judge as Satan)
      The Road takes place in a Post-Apocalyptic world Archplot quest for survival against extra-personal

    3. Tina Goodman says:

      BLOOD MERIDIAN is Adventure, Western, Horror (the Judge is probably a metaphor for evil or Satan)
      THE ROAD is the Post-Apocalyptic story with Extra-Personal conflict.

  5. Micky Wolf says:

    Awesome. So impressive. Such a (good) kick in the seat of the writing pants. Worth repeating the others’ aforementioned adjectives. Great stuff, Shawn.

  6. julia says:

    Have to say: one of the best and most useful blogs out there. How experience and true knowledge shows!

  7. As the others are saying, this is just delicious.

    I have a novel idea I’ve been kicking around for a while, but some of the parts weren’t clicking. I kept thinking of it as a Action Adventure story, but the protagonist kept wanting to have an inner struggle as well, and I just couldn’t see how make the two parts fit together. Reading this I realized I was actually looking at a Thriller. Now that I know what I’m aiming for, the ideas are sparking.

    I cannot thank you enough.

  8. Barbara Saunders says:

    This is really wonderful. I started and abandoned a project last year. Its characters have been popping up in my free writing. Your posts are helping me realize why I was stumped, and why certain patterns are emerging that match my reading experiences.

  9. Tim says:

    Shawn, I find your genre breakdowns fascinating and informative. I have never read in depth analysis of genre and their scenes before. Most of the literature I’ve pursued previously focuses on Archplot, so it’s great to get more into the nitty gritty. Thanks.

  10. Jule Kucera says:

    Echoing the superlatives, especially “epicness.” Totally.

  11. Bob Conroy says:

    Shawn, you should be charging for this stuff. I’d have happily paid for it. You’re leaving cash on the table – but THANKS!

    1. I think he’s gonna make it back when he sells us the book by the pound. At, say, five bucks a pound . . . yeah, he’ll make his money.

      Champing at the bit for that monster to land on my doorstep.

  12. Tricia says:

    Thank you for this. Long nights of study ahead.

  13. Herbert Exner says:

    I’m not a writer. I’m not even a native English speaker (obviously). I’m the marketer of a quant finance technology.

    I read and reread each of your posts.

    But, not to learn writing stories – as the marketing gurus suggest now. I read them to understand our products and offers.

    I’m a mathematician and I like structuring. Your methodology is amazing.

    Thank you!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Herbert,
      I worked with my client Scott Patterson on his two bestsellers, THE QUANTS and DARK POOLS, which were both remarkable stories about the rise of Quant Technology on Wall Street. So cool to have a quant following my stuff and to get the compliment about my methodology. I used to be a science guy.
      All the best,

  14. Have often seen a book or movie called “off beat.” Is that another way of describing something that has broken the expectations for the genre?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Steve,
      My bet would be that it is a reflection of the author pulling a great maneuver. That is, he sucks the reader in with wonderful EXTERNAL genre candy as the lure to get the reader/viewer hooked…and then about midpoint or near the end of what I call “the middle build,” he turns the tables.
      At this point (usually a place called “the point of no return”) the EXTERNAL genre candy is no longer the centerpiece of the Story, rather an INTERNAL genre has overtaken it.
      For example, the writer may begin a story with a dead body…making the reader/viewer believe that he is going to get a nice murder mystery and then about midpoint the writer reveals that the lead protagonist is actually incapable of going on…he’s afflicted with an internal redemption plot that undermines his ability to solve the case. So while the reader/viewer at the beginning anticipates the big reveal of who the killer is, at midpoint “whodunnit?” hook takes a backseat. Now the reader/viewer just wants the protagonist just to make it through the damn case without killing himself or going crazy.

      That is how you make things “off beat.”
      All the best,

      1. And then, you’re Raymond Chandler.

  15. Judy Potocki says:

    Well done, sir.

  16. Trudee says:

    Hi! I’m poring over your posts slowly, trying to read them at least a title faster than you can write them so I’ll get caught up! I just wrote a “performance” genre novel and am drafting an outline for another. These are more theatre performance than music or art. I’ll track down The Commitments and the Agony and the Ecstasy (neither of which my local library has — grr) but do you have any recommendations of stage-performance stories? Thanks for all of the extremely insightful information, and the organization that makes it so accessible!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Topsy-turvey. Mike Leigh movie. Brilliant

      1. Trudee says:

        Okay, thank you!

  17. Michael Beverly says:

    Hey Shawn, just getting caught up, almost up to date, thank you.

    I was wondering if you had a list, or were considering making a list, of say ten great books for the major categories you’ve listed?

    I know you’ve given one or two great examples, but one of the pieces of advice you’ve given is to read the top books in a specific genre, I was thinking that at any given time the “best selling” list may deviate, but overall there must be some clear cut books that really highlight the conventions of a genre.

    It’s also confusing sometimes to know or peg exactly what genre a book really fits into, as you’ve written; there is a lot of cross over in many popular books.

    If wanted to write any of the following: man v. nature, man v. town, man v. lonely marriage, man v. his own insecurities, man v. shark you could say “read Jaws”.

    But except for man v. shark, it might not be the best example, even though it works for the others too.

    As a buyer of writing books I can say a comprehesive list like this would be a huge help (I really liked King’s On Writing appendix, for instance).

    Thanks again.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      Yes. A pantheon of the top titles in each genre is definitely something I’m planning to create. Stay tuned.
      All the best,

    2. Tina Goodman says:

      If you want to read something that is like JAWS you should read ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE by Ibsen. Instead of the shark, there is bad water.

  18. DC Harrell says:

    I almost passed out, but this is good stuff and worth it. Thanks.

  19. Doug Walsh says:

    Fabulous stuff, Shawn. Thanks a ton.

  20. I’m rapidly working my way through these posts (which have all been brilliant) – and I just wanted to quickly comment on my love for how you approach the Western genre. The vox pop obviously categorise Westerns by their setting, but I am more enamoured by this philosophical bent – individual/society, stranger/citizen, us/other. Very interesting and lots of food for thought…

  21. Elanor says:

    Hmm… I’m wondering… Where do quest stories fit in? I would think they’d be under Action, but I don’t see them. Is that because the nature of a quest story changes depending upon what the objective of the quest is? So one quest might be a Ransom Plot and another might be a Doomsday Plot? Or is a quest story the result of the combination of External and Internal genres?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Elanor,
      What many refer to as the QUEST PLOT, I see as Joseph Campbell’s HERO’S JOURNEY. No matter the Story, the protagonist must have objects of desire (quests). Those object of desire are often determined by the external content genre (crime = discovering bad guy and bringing him to justice…Love story is a companion etc.) So I see the QUEST PLOT as inherent in the two major structural genres ARCH-PLOT and MINI-PLOT and not a specific content genre in and of itself. That is, all stories (with the exception of ANTI-PLOT which is not really relevant in my Story Grid universe and is very much an intellectual construct more than an emotional story) have a QUEST PLOT. They are represented by the character/s objects of desire…either external and/or internal and they are in every single content genre, both external and internal.

      1. Elanor says:

        I see. Interesting.

        This actually completely makes sense to me when I think about it in terms of movies. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a quest story, but it’s an action-adventure movie.

        It gets murkier when I try to apply it to written stories though. The Lord of the Rings is something I’d consider a quest story. In the Story Grid system, Frodo might have a Hunted Plot with Maturation or Disillusionment Internal genres, and Aragorn might have a Holdout plot with an Admiration Internal genre… And the story as a whole might be something like a Savior plot with Maturation Internal genre…

        Am I understanding this right?

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Elanor,
          I’ll put LORD OF THE RINGS on my Story Grid to do list. Can’t really answer your questions without putting on my thinking cap four about 100 (more like 1000) hours. Lots of people have asked about LOTR so it’s obviously something I should tackle. I am very confident though that it would absolutely make for a compelling Story Grid.

          1. I’ll come to your house and cook for you while you’re working on the LOTR story grid. Don’t want you distracted er nothin’

          2. Elanor says:

            Wow! That would be great!

            Take as long as you need to get to it. I know you must be swamped with a bajillion things to do. You’ve given me tons to think about already, and I haven’t even read all of your posts yet!


  22. Wow. These posts just keep getting better and better. I’ve read some of the emails through the list with Stephen, but this is absolutely spectacular. So excited to grid out my past stories (one of which worked and was foolscapped Stephen’s way), the two I’m currently editing, and as I plot out the next in the series. Thank you so much.

  23. Stephen says:

    Thank you for all the resources. I’m reading sequentially, so this is as far as I’ve gotten so far.

    I’m staring at your listing of all the different variations on sub-genre and thinking that despite your best efforts, these are not exhaustive lists. Or I’m blind — I’m writing a paranormal thriller and don’t see where I belong. I can kind of sidle up against a few of your action variants, but there’s no mistaking that my story is driven by internal conflict as well as external.

    Paranormal hero(ine)s primarily come in two varieties — private investigators (Rachel Morgan, Harry Dresden) and professional slayers (Anita Blake, Vicky Vaughn), but occasionally they fall outside those ranks. Where would you classify Kate Daniels, Mercy Thompson, Kitty Norville, etc., where the protag is a vigilante or a normal member of society, fighting back against evil of various stripes? It’s neither espionage nor serial killer, though I suspect some middle ground between the two might apply.

    1. Stephen,

      Yes, of course Shawn’s list is not exhaustive, it’s too big of a world.
      Which is why we created a forum to discuss this nitty-gritty stuff.
      I have a Mercy Thompson paperback sitting in my TBR list, my favorite used book store owner told me it was a paranormal romance…
      Obviously it’s a mash-up.
      If you to discuss this deeper, I’d love to do so, come over to the forum.
      I’ll try to read about Mercy when I can.
      I love Dresden (I’m either caught up or only one behind) and I enjoy Rachel Morgan (only have 3 under my belt in this series).

  24. Mari says:

    Hi Shawn, thank you so much for this amazing content. I am gobbling it up. My WIP is a modern fantasy and I am struggling to figure out it’s external content genre. I am torn between action – hunted, horror – uncanny/supernatural, and thriller but none of the sub categories fit. My protagonist’s internal conflict is hugely effected by the external conflict. So that doesn’t fit with action. But it is a fantasy so that doesn’t fit with thriller. Does that automatically put it in horror? How do I figure out what category is right?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mari,
      I’d recommend Action. There are 16 sub-genres of action that will take you where you want to go. It’s fine to have an internal genre to compliment the external. Fantasy stories are for the most part derived from the Action external. As fantasy is an extrapolation of the subconscious, which has very open story settings and systems, it’s very much in the tradition of myth. And Action share’s myth’s high life/death stakes.
      Hope that helps.

      1. It’s a special kind of crazy…
        Monitoring comments in an 18 month old post.

        So, I suppose this particular posting is on the “should-it- be-a-book” radar.


        Yes, the indie community is going insanely manically crazy over this idea of Write To Market and anyone that could write a book that lists specific and actionable OS&C’s (or what many indies are calling tropes) in a form that is as exhaustive as possible and clear/easy to understand, will sell 10,000 copies in week one.

        I think people believe it’s magic.

        Perhaps, but, yeah, it seems good writing is still in order.

        That said, I’m currently reading an indie writers first book. Let’s just say it’s, ummm, rough…

        He nailed something people wanted (he hit those spinning wheels, 7 7 7, and by book four, released only a few months later, he was already making $20,000 a month.

        2016 will be a half a million or so.

        Go figure…

  25. Harper says:

    Hi Shawn,
    Thanks so much for an excellent blog and podcast! I’m getting started in my writing career at the moment, and have a real fondness for genre-crossing / slipstream fiction.

    One of my favorites is “Declare” by Tim Powers, which if I had to classify it, would be a secret history / supernatural thriller / spy story. What are your thoughts on these kinds of mashup genres? Are they new genres with new obligatory scenes, etc, or must the author cherry pick from the available genres that they are composed of?


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Harper,
      Tim and I are playing around with the relatively new mashup genre LITRPG now. My instinct with mashup genres is to mashup the external genres as you think works best, but really hone and focus on an internal as your global genre to give your story ballast. Star Wars is a great example…the story is really a maturation/coming of age plot for Luke Skywalker. The other stuff is a mixture of science fiction/fantasy/crime/action/supernatural etc. that came together to form what many call “space opera.” Anyway, mashups are fantastic. The trick is to ground them with a very very strong internal genre to give the reader/audience a handhold on the core story spine…
      All the best,

      1. Harper says:

        Thanks for that Shawn! The more I write in this mashup genre space, the more I think you’re 100% correct. Stories that reference multiple external genres just don’t work without strong internal stuff happening.

        As an aside, the more I write and work on my writing, the more I start to see the structure of stories as you describe them in your book. Thanks again!

      2. The trick is to ground them with a very very strong internal genre

        I wish I’d asked this years ago. The past 4 months would have been just hard work instead of the 4th level of artistic hell.

        1. michael777stephen says:

          What doesn’t kill you, brother, makes you stronger.

          1. I’ll take that under advisement.

          2. Harper says:

            To Shawn’s point earlier, I think it might be helpful to share: I’ve begun to understand that if you’re writing slipstream or cross-genre fiction, you still have to decide what the primary genre is that you’re working in, otherwise conventions and obligatory scenes become a problem. Since I’ve done that, my stories are definitely making more sense.

            Sure, new genres are creating their own conventions and scenes, but they can be a bit thin to hang a story on. Also, if you throw all the genres together in equal proportions, they can become messy and mutually contradicting.

          3. Agreed.

            My challenge has been that I’ve had the emphasis on the wrong genre. Recognizing that new, I need to reshuffle OS&Cs and rethink my marketing.

          4. michael777stephen says:

            I was going to say something about packaging and marketing, but Joel beat me to it. The “newer” genres don’t work as well without a strong internal timeless genre. No doubt. But either to the old ones.
            But there are plenty of indie writers killing it with pure external genre novels in a series that lovers of those genres buy and gobble up like children eating candy on Halloween.
            And some of the big names, too, like the Jack Reacher kind of stuff, they are straight broiler plate genre pulp fiction, no bells, no whistles.
            I love mash up stories, I try to write this way myself, but you have to understand your goals and desires. If you want to make a living, it’s wise to have the uber fans of your chosen genre in mind, whether that’s a mash up, or straight whatever…
            Please the uber fans, and you’ve raised a golden goose.
            Trying to create fans is a very tough road.

          5. Shawn Coyne says:

            I absolutely agree with you.
            Tim and I are working on something extremely difficult and it may not work. But the process by which we go about it is instructive to amateur and pro writers alike I think.
            Writing great genre fiction is extremely difficult too don’t get me wrong, but I think what makes people want to write deep down is an internal longing more than a “this is an easy way to make a living” opportunity. There is nothing wrong with looking for a living and using that as motivation to write. I commend you for stripping away all of the drama inherent in becoming a “writer” and instead focusing on your audience. Treat them with respect and work your tail off to surprise and delight them and you’ll be a-ok.

  26. Matthew says:

    Hi Shawn

    I have your book, enjoy your podcast and I tell all my writer friends about it at every opportunity. I am writing a MG book and can’t be sure what genre I am in. It’s probably one of the sub categories of action. To help, could you identify external and internal genres for similar MG books? – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Coraline, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book.

    It seems unlikely you will reply given how old this post is, you couldn’t possibly respond to every question you get! But I am sending this on the chance.

    1. michael777stephen says:

      Not knowing your genre (intimately) before you start writing is a Story Grid sin. MG or YA for that matter, are often called “genres” but this is a mistake, they are not genres, just an age level of the writing (and even that is just a subjective opinion sometimes).

      So, the question to ask yourself is what genre do you want to write in?

      If you pick action-adventure with a coming-of-age subplot, then the obligations, conventions, tropes, etc., are not going to change just because a book is MG, YA, NA, or straight adult, it’s only the word choices, sentence structure, and how graphic the work is that changes.

      I think the common theme in the books you listed is coming-of-age/maturation although I haven’t read them all.

      Anyway, I know Shawn sometimes answers questions on old posts, but in cases like this he’ll usually suggest reading those works and figuring out for yourself what the common conventions/obligations are.

      You can also try asking the question on the forum.

      1. Matthew says:

        Thank you for your reply. I am planning the story now, so haven’t committed a sin just yet. I believe my story will have an external genre of adventure and coming of age as internal, as you say. It just seems difficult to work out the external genres for some existing stories as it doesn’t always seem clear cut.

        Even if Shawn had the time to list the conventions for all the genres, I wonder if he would. The whole point is probably to work it out for yourself by reading stories you think are similar. That will probably give me much more than just being given the answers. Best of luck with your own work, thanks again for the reply.

        1. michael777stephen says:

          The very best stories are a mix of things; so nailing down the exact components of any individual sub-genre is nearly impossible.

          If you read two stories with similar a premise/concept, say Ready Player One and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, both coming-of-age stories about a young man finding/seeking fame/riches, you’ll find the similar conventions buried in to entirely different worlds.

          Entirely different settings: industrial age factory town vs. future dsytopian world where people spent vast amounts of time in virtual reality, yet the human emotions are the same and I’d imagine the books share many conventions about the maturation of the MC.

          I think unless you’re writing a broiler plate romance or mystery, you can beg, borrow, and steal tropes, I’ve always thought reading across many genres was a good way to grow.

          I know Shawn has talked about creating a reading list for genre discovery, which in my opinion would be more helpful than just listing out conventions and obligatory scenes.

          I tried to start a list on the forum, but sadly most of us want things given, so I don’t think the project has legs as a group thing, but there is some good stuff there if you want to check it out.

          I also started a list of what I call “universal” conventions, things you can add to any genre that readers dig. I think it’s a good start, but just a drop in the bucket. If I had the inclination, I’d write a non-fiction book about them, as I haven’t seen anything out there, but I don’t have the motivation as I’m knee deep in fiction.

          1. Matthew says:

            Thanks! I’ve just registered and once approved I will check out those forums!

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