Welcome to the Bite Size Edition of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable Podcast. Here on the Roundtable we’re dedicated to helping you become a better writer, following the Story Grid method developed by Shawn Coyne. In these bite-size episodes, we’ll serve up some shorter discussion on topics that interest us as writers.
On today’s menu we have the internal genres. Internal genres, by their nature, are not bite size. Kim Kessler and Leslie Watts wrote a series of three Fundamental Friday’s posts that grew from a hunger to understand how the heck to distinguish the internal genres from one another.
Leslie: Internal subgenres are more distinct than the subgenres of the external genres.
External Genres feature concrete elements you can describe with the five senses. Internal Genres, on the other hand, are much more difficult to see. They play out on an internal landscape, with conventions that are often abstract and woven into external set pieces.
Kim: As Shawn says: squishy.
It’s kind of like the Waffle Brain vs Spaghetti Brain, an analogy that describes how different people organize information.
In the Waffle Brain, each subject dwells in a separate square: work, family, money, love, sex, past, future, etc. Separate, clear, tidy. In the Spaghetti Brain, each subject is a single noodle—but, guess what, the noodles all touch.
So while the Waffle Brain receives a trigger and knows exactly which square to visit, the Spaghetti Brain receives a trigger, then lands on a noodle, and that leads to all the noodles touching that noodle … then to all the noodles touching those noodles! Everything is woven together and connected. It’s nearly impossible to know which connections are necessary and helpful, and which are just a byproduct of the density of subjects.
One guess which Genres are like the Spaghetti Brain …
Despite their noodle-y nature, Internal Genres, like their External companions, are not arbitrary. They consist of specific patterns that evoke certain meanings from the collective human unconscious. These patterns have specific characteristics that we can leverage to create more meaningful story experiences. For this we have many Story champions to thank, from Aristotle to Norman Friedman, Robert McKee to Shawn Coyne.
Leslie: Each of the main internal genre categories focuses on a particular element related to the protagonist.
- Status focuses on the protagonist’s fortune or misfortune, and more specifically, their willingness to compromise their personal definition of success.
- Worldview focuses on the protagonist’s thought, in other words, how they understand their world and circumstances.
- Morality focuses on the protagonist’s character, meaning their behavior and choices, driven by their moral compass and strength of will.
Kim: These elements are not just labels and categories, but are both the cause and effect of a protagonist’s internal change. The relationship among these three elements creates a clear cause and effect statement that describes the subgenre.
But each genre contains the elements of the other two, like side dishes, but one element is the main course.
Let’s take a closer look …
Leslie: Status stories arise from the Esteem level of our Human Needs Tanks. The protagonist is striving to achieve a higher level of social standing, and must decide what they are willing to compromise (the way they define success or their inner moral code) to gain success. Each subgenre of Status turns on the life value spectrum of Success and Failure, according to their internal definition of success.
Here are some key elements of this genre:
- Mentor – vital component (negative result = mentor absent or flawed)
- Thought – sufficient to accept the advice of the mentor
- Will power – sufficient to follow the advice of the mentor
- Opportunities and misfortune happen
- Climax: definition of success vs. willingness to compromise moral code–one has to give
- The reader might feel pity, a sense of justice being served, relief, or respect and admiration, depending on how the protagonist fares in their quest.
This is how those elements play out in the sugenres:
- Pathetic: Protagonist fails to rise because they lack an adequate mentor, as well as sufficient will and sophistication to avoid compromising their inner moral code.
- Sentimental: Protagonist rises because they have a mentor and are sophisticated enough to take their advice and possess a steadfast will to stay the course.
- Tragic: Protagonist fails to rise because, lacking an adequate mentor, despite a strong will and sophisticated mind, they make a tragic mistake, the result of discarding their inner moral code, that dooms them to failure.
- Admiration: Protagonist rises because they refuse to compromise their inner moral code, relying on their mentor’s advice, their strong will, and sophisticated mind.
Kim: Worldviewstories arise from the Self-Actualization level of the Human Needs Tanks, and are about coming to a new level of understanding about something, in other words uncovering a new layer of truth.
Unlike Status, the what the character experiences in the story changes how they think, but may or may not change their external choices. Also, unlike the Status genre, the life values for Worldview are unique for each subgenre. They all fall under the spectrum of Understanding versus Lack of Understanding, but more specific life values pertaining to Factual Knowledge, Belief, and Sophistication.
The Key elements for worldview stories are:
- The protagonist has a Misunderstanding of their world at the beginning
- Experiences a challenge to this worldview (pos, neg, people, circumstances, etc.) which creates cognitive dissonance.
- Mentor helps them metabolize this cognitive dissonance
- Climax: They cling to the old misunderstanding or embrace the new clearer understanding
- The reader might feel pity, relief, righteous satisfaction, or pleasure, depending on whether the protagonist comes to a more beneficial understanding of their circumstances.
Leslie: This is how those elements play out in the subgenres:
- Education: With the help of a mentor, the protagonist works through challenges to their initial naive or pessimistic view and comes to understand that their life has meaning or significance.
- Disillusionment: The protagonist faces challenges to their naive and overly optimistic worldview and, lacking an adequate mentor, loses faith when they realize the darker truth.
- Maturation: With the help of a mentor, the protagonist faces challenges to their flawed, black-and-white view of the world and comes to accept the world as it is, multi-layered and imperfect, to embrace better suited goals and actions.
- Revelation: The protagonist lacks essential information about themselves or their circumstances and when doubts arise, they employ their strong will and sophisticated thinking to uncover a shocking truth, which prompts their future choices whether wise or unwise.
Kim: Morality stories arise from the Self-Transcendence level of the Human Needs Tanks, and are about testing the protagonist’s inner moral compass, leading to a change in their level of character. This is demonstrated in both thought and action, whether for good or ill. Each subgenre of Morality turns on the life values of Selfishness and Altruism, spanning from the negation of the negation Selfishness Masked as Altruism to Sacrificing Self for All of Humanity, and everything in between.
Here are some key elements of the genre:
- Morality stories require a sophisticated protagonist + Strong will. The mentor may not be present in the story but certainly existed in the past to allow the protagonist to reach this level.
- The protagonist begins at a distinct place on selfishness to altruism scale (high, neutral, low)
- How they respond to external and internal challenges moves the protagonist along the spectrum of life values
- The climax is an active choice by the protagonist, either to remain selfish or choose sacrifice, and therefore experience justified consequences related to the external genre.
This is how these elements play out in the subgenres:
- Redemption: A selfish protagonist is challenged to help others and is redeemed through sacrifice
- Punitive: A neutral or altruistic protagonist succumbs to selfishness (think seven deadly sins) and receives just consequences.
- Testing – Triumph: a neutral or altruistic protagonist faces a challenge or opportunity that tests their strength of will and moral code, but in the end they choose sacrifice.
- Testing – Submission: a neutral or altruistic protagonist faces a challenge or opportunity that tests their strength of will and moral code, but in the end they choose selfishness.
So how do you determine the internal genre of your own story or a masterwork story you are studying? By putting the story through what we’ve dubbed Friedman’s Framework because Norman Friedman was the first to identify the internal genres in his 1955 article “Forms of the Plot.”
Leslie: To distinguish the internal genre in a masterwork or your work in progress, ask yourself these questions …
- Who is the protagonist?
- What is the state of their moral character and will power?
- Are they sufficiently aware of the facts of their situation and sophisticated enough to understand the consequences of their actions?
- What is their position within their society and their fortune or misfortune?
- Which factor undergoes the biggest change?
- How does the reader feel at the end?
Then craft a cause and effect statement like this:
When a protagonist with _____ level of character and will and _____ level of sophistication, experiences ______ external forces and changes [for the better or worse], their outcome will be ______.
Kim: This is just an appetizer—we watched twelve films and analyzed them for cause and effect, life values, and conventions and obligatory scenes in the three Fundamental Fridays posts we wrote, but we also provided delectable resources, including Friedman’s framework for each of the subgenres, internal genre elements, and much more. Find the links in the show notes at Story Grid.com.
One reason we decided to tackle this post was to unravel our own Buffet of Spaghetti Noodles. It’s amazing what a little elbow grease and twelve masterworks can do. For that reason, we wholeheartedly encourage you to grab a big ol’ plate and dig in for yourself.
Watch movies, read books. Find your masterwork—the one that will help you nail your novel—and study the daylights out of it.
When you embrace this kind of deep practice, you internalize and make the information real in a whole new way. You will feel the patterns for yourself.
Here are the links to our three articles on the internal genres:
If you find you need help, you can hire a Story Grid certified editor to sift through and separate your noodles, click here or visit storygrid.com/editing. Want to connect with one of us directly? Click here for Kim Kessler and click here for Leslie Watts.
Next week, we’ll post our teaser trailer in which we share our topics of study and first five films for season 4.