Editor Roundtable: Pirates of the Caribbean

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For Season Four, Leslie is studying Action subgenre and plot conventions. To start us She has pitched Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. This 2003 film, an improbable hit based on a ride at Disneyland, was directed by Gore Verbinski from a screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.



Kim:  Before we dig into the story principle, we’d like to take a moment to address a sensitive topic: what do you do when the art you love is made by someone who is later revealed to be problematic?

For some reason, until this week, I hadn’t heard about the domestic abuse allegations brought against Johnny Depp back in 2016 by Amber Heard, his wife at that time. It was a blow. Maybe that seems melodramatic but it’s true.

I’ve struggled a lot this year, as I’m sure we all have, with art that I love that turns out to be made by individuals who’ve done reprehensible things, leaving me at war with the ever uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, which I’m convinced is the worst kind of hell, for me at least.

Johnny Depp, Kevin Spacey, the Afflecks. I swear every film I love has Harvey Weinstein’s name attached to it. Every time we see it, my husband and I exchange looks of disgust. He’s a stand-up comic so the actions of Bill Cosby and Louis CK, artists we both deeply admired, have been particularly hard to process. I bring this up not to start a debate but to offer a tool.

I did some more reading this week and found an article written by Constance Grady that was really helpful to me–I immediately shared it with my husband and the podcast group. In it, the writer explores her own disillusionment and struggle with Johnny Depp’s abuse allegations then seeks answers on how to proceed by interviewing art critics. How do they address art by problematic / morally corrupt creators? Do they boycott the art? Do they draw clear lines of separation between the art and the artist? Is it case by case?

Ultimately there is no one-size fits all answer, but the author generously lays out the various schools of thought on this topic and leaves room for us to find our own way. I encourage you to take a look. There are undoubtedly more turning point / crisis question situations like this to come for us all. Well-informed is well-armed.

Leslie: I appreciate Kim’s bringing this to our attention. We have a responsibility to choose stories mindfully, and I thought about whether I should change to a different film to demonstrate the principle. In the end I decided the better course is to contextualize the story and the artists, that is provide the information so that you can make their own decision about watching the film or not, but also, I think we learn more not by banning stories for the behavior of the artists, but by discussing both the behavior and the art.

The Story

  • Beginning Hook – Will sees Elizabeth taken by Barbossa’s crew, who mistakenly believe she is the key to lifting the curse that plagues them, but when Will alerts Commodore Norrington, he refuses to help and Will must decide whether to seek the help of the immoral pirate Captain Jack Sparrow. Will breaks Sparrow out of jail, and the two steal HMS Interceptor to save Elizabeth.
  • Middle Build – Will and Sparrow obtain a crew and travel to Isla de Muerta where Barbossa has learned that Elizabeth can’t help them lift the curse, but when Barbossa takes the Interceptor, Will must decide whether to work with Jack to help Elizabeth (despite his double-crossing). Will sacrifices himself, and Jack and Elizabeth, instead of being saved, are marooned.
  • Ending Payoff – Will is taken into the cave where Barbossa plans to kill him, but when Norrington and his men show up and attack the Black Pearl, Will has to decide whether to trust Jack and his plan to defeat Barbossa. He agrees, and they resolve the curse, enabling them to kill Barbossa. Everyone returns to Port Royal where Will confesses his love for Elizabeth and Jack escapes the noose to join his crew aboard the Black Pearl.

The Principle

This film is a good one to study when looking at conventions because it has so many elements that contribute necessary ingredients. It offers many lenses through which we can examine the story.

What are conventions? What do they do?

Conventions are specific requirements concerning the story’s cast of characters, setting and circumstances, and methods of turning the plot.

You might think of them as the basic ingredients for the genre of your choice, but also the conditions that set in motion a genre-specific life value change that happens across the story and that should be paid off through obligatory scenes. For example, action stories move along the spectrum of life and death. Therefore someone (or something) in the story must threaten the life of the protagonist. We call that force of antagonism the villain. Genre conventions set up the specific life value change, but also set up reader expectations and the emotions the reader can expect to feel.

Your choice of structure, style, reality, and sales category might also contribute conventions to your story. For example, fantasy readers expect the protagonist to face an impossible task, and a nautical story should be set primarily on the sea and focus on the human relationship to the sea and sea voyages, as well as highlight nautical culture in these environments.

You can and should innovate your use of conventions, but if you’re choosing to leave them out, be sure you understand your reasons for doing so, what you hope to gain, and what you lose by failing to meet reader expectations.

Why is it important to study conventions?

Genre conventions are subtextual communication with the reader. These elements create the conditions for the specific experience the reader is looking for. Most readers don’t know they are looking for them, but they are all the same. Omit them at your peril.

Action Genre

Action stories drop a protagonist into a life-threatening situation in which they face a villain and must find a way to overpower or outwit them to save the victim.

Subgenres – Action subgenres are grouped according to the villain or force of antagonism the protagonist faces. Subgenre-specific conventions arise from the nature of the villain.

  • Action Adventure: person against nature
  • Action Duel: person against person
  • Action Epic: person against the state
  • Action Clock: person against time

Plots – Each subgenre includes four “plots,” some of which add conventions to the Action genre and subgenre.  What is a plot? Different writers and critics describe plot differently, but in this context I’ll adopt McKee’s definition: “the internally consistent, interrelated pattern of events that move through time to shape and design the story.”

The action genre includes sixteen plots that can be employed in other genres with action elements. For example, The Fugitive is a thriller with a Hunted Plot; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a War story with a Revenge Plot.

In this episode, I look at action duel plots.

Action Duel Plots

  • Revenge: hero chases villain
  • Hunted: villain chases hero
  • Machiavellian: hero sets two villains against each other
  • Collision: villain sets two heroes against each other

These stories are person against person; in other words, someone attacks and pursues someone else. The villain is an individual or group of individuals with a common interest, but not the environment or the state, for example. In addition to the usual action conventions, you should establish the following:

  • parameters for the chase
  • what’s at stake in the chase for the hero, victim, and villain
  • the motivating incident that kicks off the chase

Hunted Plot

  • Hero pursued by villain,
  • Shifting alliances in which the hero sometimes joins forces with one or more of the antagonists when their interests align
  • Confinement
  • Morality element
Conventions within Pirates of the Caribbean

What are the elements that contribute conventions to Pirates of the Caribbean?

  • Genre: Action-Duel – typical action conventions plus force of antagonism is concentrated in one villain (though they may have henchmen, a crew, etc.)
  • Plot: Hunted – hero is chased by villain, shifting alliances, confinement, and element of morality
  • Love story subplot: typical love story conventions
  • Worldview-maturation (Will and Elizabeth)
  • Reality Genre – fantasy – impossible task to complete   
  • Style and category – nautical, pirate, comedy, pirate-style story must have characters we recognize as pirates, principally set on the sea


  • Well-defined hero, victim, villain (Understand that these are roles, not characters, and that the victim in one scene could be the hero in another scene) (action genre) + Villain pursues and/or confines victim and hero (hunted plot):
  • Barbossa confines and/or pursues Will and Elizabeth at different times and both of whom make heroic sacrifices for the benefit of the other.
  • Shapeshifters, characters who shift allegiances and say one thing but do another (hunted plot):
  • This story is full of shapeshifters from Will and Elizabeth, Jack, Barbossa, and Norton, and Elizabeth’s father.
  • Two lovers (love story subplot): Will and Elizabeth
  • Rival (love story subplot): Commodore Norton
  • Helpers (love story subplot): sometimes Captain Jack
  • Hinderers (love story subplot): sometimes Captain Jack, Norton, Barbossa and crew, Elizabeth’s father
  • Mentor (baked in Worldview Maturation arc for love story subplot): sometimes Captain Jack

Setting and Circumstances

  • The story must unfold in a place in which life-threatening circumstances can arise (action genre): Early 18th century in the Caribbean, a place where dangerous pirates, alive and undead, patrol the sea.
  • Confined space/parameters for the chase (hunted plot): Use of ships to travel the Caribbean between Port Royal and Isla de Muerta, jail in Port Royal

Means of turning the plot:

  • The hero’s goal is to stop the villain and save the victims (action). Will wants to save Elizabeth and see her safely home, but Elizabeth, knowing that the pirates need Will, wants to save him.
  • Motivating incident for the chase (hunted plot): Barbossa takes Elizabeth under mistaken belief that she is the child of Turner, and that her blood could free him and his crew from their curse.
  • The power divide between the hero and the villain is very large (action genre): Barbossa and his crew, while subject to the curse, cannot be killed.
  • Speech in praise of the villain – note this is not an obligatory scene in action stories, the way it is in a thriller (action genre): One example–Jack encounters two royal marines, one of whom describes the Black Pearl as “a ship with black sails that’s crewed by the damned and captained by a man so evil that hell itself spat him back out.”
  • Shifting alliances in which the hero sometimes joins forces with one or more of the antagonists when their interests align (hunted plot): Will and Elizabeth each work with Captain Jack, Barbossa and his crew, or Norton when they have shared interests.
  • Questions of morality—should the hero join forces with the villain where their interests are aligned? (hunted plot): Will has moral concerns about joining forces with pirates.
  • Establish what’s at stake for the hero, victim, villain (hunted plot): Will and Elizabeth both risk their lives for the one they love; Barbossa and crew are in danger of remaining subject to the curse that leaves them undead and eternally unsatisfied; Captain Jack is in danger of losing his life and freedom and of not regaining possession of his beloved ship.
  • Impossible task (fantasy): Will and Elizabeth sometimes with Jack’s help must defeat Barbossa and his crew of undead pirates by keeping them from using Will’s blood the final gold piece of the treasure to lift the curse.

Other Perspectives

Valerie – Action Genre and Narrative Drive

Narrative drive is about how much information the reader has relative to the protagonist. It’s about making the reader so curious that she’s compelled to read on.. The bigger the question, the longer it will take to answer.

In addition to studying narrative on the podcast this season, I’m also writing a 3-part series on the Fundamental Fridays blog. Part 1, which is all about mystery, can be found here.

Narrative drive can be studied and analyzed at every unit of story (yes, even at the beat level) and Pirates does an outstanding job of piquing our curiosity at every turn. This is because it relies on suspense as its primary form of narrative drive. In other words, the audience has the same information as the characters.

For example, when we first meet Jack we wonder if he’ll get safely to shore before the boat sinks. We ask ourselves: What’s wrong with Elizabeth? Will she faint? How will Jack escape the Commodore? How will Jack break the chains? Who will win the sword fight (between Jack and Will)? Will Jack escape the blacksmith’s shop? And on and on it goes.

Smaller questions are answered quickly; sometimes within the same scene. Bigger questions take longer, possibly the whole story to find out the answer to. For example: What is the medallion?

Since I only have a few minutes here today, I’m going to focus on the global story, love story sub-plot and act levels only.

Global Story (Action): Jack’s pursuit of the Black Pearl — Will Jack get the Black Pearl? Primary type of narrative drive is suspense.

Sub-Plot (Love Story): How and when will Elizabeth and Will get together? (There’s really no doubt in anyone’s mind that they will have a HEA) Primary type of narrative drive is suspense.

The obvious exception to this of course is Jack Sparrow; he is a mystery. He always seems to know more than everyone else — the audience and the other characters.

Act 1:

Act-level questions are (1) Who is Jack Sparrow?  (2) Will Elizabeth accept the Commodore’s proposal? (3) Will William confess his love to Elizabeth? The primary form of narrative drive is suspense because on the whole, the audience and the characters know about the same.

However, there is also mystery.

Who is “Mr. Smith” and why won’t he reveal his identity? Jack obviously knows the answers to these questions but doesn’t reveal it. This one question keeps us engaged for the entire beginning hook. Of course at the end of the act, he is revealed to be Jack Sparrow, Pirate.

Further mystery surrounds the medallion. Jack knows what it is but we don’t — and we don’t find out until Act 2 because it’s a key piece of information and the writers chose to reveal it to us only when we need to know.

Jack continues to play his cards close to his chest when he discloses his plan to the two hapless guards on the pier. But, he only tells him part of the plan — the part that is executed in Act 1 of the story. So, we’re in a state of suspense for a while and then it flips back to mystery. After all, Jack knows about the Black Pearl.

Quick aside (if time): For those new to the Story Grid methodology, the sword fight scene between Jack and Will is a great one to analyze to see the Five Commandments in action. Progressively more complicated, stakes being raised, clear tension and conflict, clear Inciting Incident, Turning Point, Crisis, Climax, and Resolution. It also reveals information about both Jack Sparrow and Will Turner. Note: Action scenes in prose can be challenging to write, but they still follow same form as any other scene.

Act 2:

Act-level questions are: (1) Will Jack defeat Barbosa? (2) Will William rescue Elizabeth? (3) Will Elizabeth choose the Commodore or William?

Again, the primary form of narrative is suspense, except with regards to Jack Sparrow. Writers continue to keep us interested in him by using mystery; Jack still knows more than he’s letting on.

He knows who Will really is (son of bootstrap). The question is answered early in act 2 so that Jack isn’t ahead of the audience for too long. The filmmakers bring viewers up to speed quickly so as not to lose or confuse us. But they don’t reveal it hap-hazardly. It’s done strategically. The identity of Will’s father as a pirate is revealed only when the audience needs to know.

Jack always being a step ahead of the audience and other characters is one of the things that makes him interesting …we’re wondering what he’s up to. What information is he keeping to himself? What does he know that we don’t? Repeatedly demonstrating that Jack knows more than he’s letting on, gives the audience a sense of confidence that Jack, toward the end of Act 2, has a plan to save himself, Will and Elizabeth.

Notice how the mystery of the medallion is revealed in act 2 when the information is necessary (exposition as ammunition). Not to say there aren’t a couple of info dumps here … notable exposition passages include: Jack telling Will the tale of the Black Pearl, Mr. Gibbs telling Will the story of Jack’s escape from the island. Even though this is clearly expository information at least it’s given in a plausible way (Will genuinely doesn’t know and therefore fills the audience’s role here) and at a time that it’s relevant. Also part of the “pirate life” … even Pirates have pirate stories. It’s part of the joke.

Mystery: There’s one time when Jack does not have the upper hand, and that’s when he’s stranded on the island with Elizabeth. We realize that Elizabeth has an idea to get off the island or at least deal with Jack, but not what that idea is.

Elizabeth articulates one of the questions that lasts the entire franchise, namely ‘whose side is Jack on?’. Only Jack knows the answer to this, which adds to the mystery.

With a 10-minute running time, Act 3 is quite short. How did the screenwriters sustain the suspense right to the last couple of minutes of the story? Essentially, the final act is one big action scene and the audience is wondering if Jack will escape the hangman’s noose, and if so, how? They’ve left the love story unanswered until Jack’s fate is known. Only then do Elizabeth and Will begin their Happily Ever After.

Jarie: Action Genre and Dialogue

Recall that this season I’m looking at dialogue, which is the yin to the yang of narrative drive. For an action story, it’s dialogue that gives the action the breaks it needs for the reader/viewer to catch up. It’s also used to back up the swagger of the hero or the villian or in some cases, telegraph the amazing prowess that is about to be unleashed (or maybe not).

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl has several wonderful examples of dialogue. Before we get into those nuggets, there is one thing we need to discuss first and that’s how the dialogue is spoken. I’m of course referring to the set and setting of where the Pirates of the Caribbean takes place — namely in the Caribbean in the 17th or 18th-century.

This fact makes it essential for the characters to speak the king’s english since the major naval force in the area were the British since Port Royal, Jamaica was mainly a British fort in the 18th-century after it’s demise, in 1692, when a massive earthquake sank two-thirds of the city within minutes.

There were, and still are, many forms of English, when spoken, will be telling as to where you are from in the hierarchy of society. British soldiers and governors will speak with a formal tone while pirates will be more crude, as you would expect.

The one character that’s the most unique and therefore, the hardest to nail down, in terms of pedigree, is Captain Jack Sparrow.

Johnny Depp plays Sparrow and when asked what Sparrow is based on, he said he was inspired by a drunk Keith Richards. This is apparent in not only what Jack says but how he says it. Take this exchange with Mr. Gibbs, another great character with a great accent and dialogue to match:

[Jack throws water on Mr. Gibbs who is sleeping with pigs]

Mr. Gibbs: Curse you for breathin’ ya slack-jawed idiot. Mother’s love. Jack. You should know better than to wake a man when he’s sleepin’. Its bad luck.

Jack Sparrow: Fortunately, I know how to counter it; the man who did the waking buys the man who was sleeping a drink; the man who was sleeping drinks it while listening to a proposition from the man who did the waking.

Mr. Gibbs: Aye, that’ll about do it.
[Will throws more water on Mr. Gibbs]

Mr. Gibbs: Blast! I’m already awake!

Will Turner: That was for the smell.

Mr. Gibbs is a salty old sailor, you can tell by what he says and how he says it. You also get Sparrow wisdom (one of many) and some comic relief from Will as well. In this short bit of dialogue, you here three different levels of society. If they were all done the same way, you’d never get that contrast.

That’s important for writers to understand. Each and every character will have things they will say and won’t say in ways that make sense to them as people. Give them out of character dialogue and it gets confusing.

Another quick and telling exchange between Jack and Barbossa is only something that Captain Jack Sparrow would say:

Barbossa: [talking to Will Turner] Who are you?

Jack Sparrow: No one. He’s no one. Distant cousin of my aunt’s nephew twice removed. Lovely singing voice. Eunuch.

It’s these fast retorts spoken in drunk Keith Richards with the crazy eyes and head movements that makes the Sparrow character come to life. Without the tight, rapid dialogue, you wouldn’t truly understand who Jack Sparrow really is.

Will Turner: We’re going to steal a ship? That ship?

Jack Sparrow: Commandeer. We’re going to commandeer that ship. Nautical term.

It’s these witty quips of dialogue that make you smile amongst the action and provides some comic relief for an otherwise swashbuckling tale of cursed men, cannon battles, and sword fights.

As writers, we need to understand how our characters will talk the talk and walk the walk. Without a deep understanding of how a character will act, the dialogue will seem fake and/or flat. In an action story, it’s not the end of the world since the action is what we’re craving but if you want to make your actions story stand apart, you need to give your characters quick and witty dialogue that reveals themselves among the action. That way, you give the reader some ability to relate or smile at some line. Savvy?

Valerie – Is it always the case that writers need to give characters quick and witty dialogue to make their action story stand apart? It’s true for Pirates, because this is a comedic action story (style leaf). But what about action stories that are not comedic? For example, The Fugitive.  Tommy Lee Jones’s “I don’t care” response to Harrison Ford’s “I didn’t kill my wife” line isn’t is delivered quickly, and I wouldn’t call it witty. It’s not meant to be witty. It’s delivered with the seriousness needed for the story.  Jones’s character has a job to do; bring in the Fugitive. Whether he killed his wife or not is irrelevant.

Jarie – Excellent question Valerie. Yes, wit and humor needs to be used in context and it’s not always appropriate. In your example from the Fugitive, that tight exchange is more wisdom from the two characters. It’s a pivotal scene that needs the dialogue to give us how these two characters will be moving forward. This wisdom is essential for the movie and a great example of how dialogue can be used to pivot the scene.

Anne: Defying Conventions

Leslie, you’re a hard act to follow, so I’m not going to try. I know you’ll be defining Action story conventions throughout Season 4, and nobody could do a better job.

By now, I think you all know me well enough to be unsurprised that I’m one of those writers who wants to DEFY CONVENTIONS rather than defining them.

Ever since my first Story Grid workshop I’ve been wondering about the difference between this story principle that Shawn Coyne calls “conventions” and things like just setting. Milieu. Tropes. Typical things you find in X-type of story.

I’ve struggled with what constitutes a genre. I’ve struggled with ALL the boundaries and definitions. Some of them seem more fundamental–like the overall Action genre–and some seem more transitory.

Akira Kurosawa took the American Western and set it in feudal Japan, and blended in classical Japanese comedic and dramatic conventions, giving us the brilliant Yojimbo, which we covered in Season Two. Yojimbo in turn spawned the spaghetti western, but it also made it impossible for us to locate the Western genre story in the American west anymore. So now we take what was once the convention of a wild frontier landscape west of the Mississippi after the Civil War and just specify “a wide open landscape” that plays a central role in the story.

But even that’s not unique to the Western. Both War and Society stories have a similar convention–they take place in large landscapes.

And ships! To pick up a thread that Leslie has just set down, a nautical story should obviously take place primarily on the sea. But does being set at sea make a story a nautical one? I wouldn’t call Titanic, for example, a nautical tale. Are sailing vessels a prerequisite? Would The Perfect Storm be a nautical story? Or is naval engagement a requirement? How about Das Boot? No sails, but definitely at sea and involving military engagement. Or are submarine stories their own unique subgenre? What about ships in space?

Similarly, a pirate tale requires pirates, but would we go so far as to say they have to be comical rogues or some other kind of historical-fantasy beings, as they are in Pirates of the Caribbean? Because I think a story of modern piracy on the high seas, involving brutal murder and massive oil tankers and freighters, would not make a good pirate tale.

It seems to me now, based on everything you’ve been saying, Leslie, that when a writer skillfully weaves together established conventions from different genres, there’s a real possibility of creating something fresh and unique, yet still recognizable as a good story. Possible combinations are endless. Whether a particular combo becomes a subgenre of its own will depend on how many later writers take it up and embroider on it. But maybe a better measure of its success is whether it worked for its target audience.

Here we have a story built from a Disneyland ride, swashbuckling adventure stories of yore, a historical romance, a ghost story and a whole bunch of black eyeliner. It has spawned four sequels so far–no musical theater yet that I know of–so it was definitely a financial success. But it hasn’t exactly given rise to a whole pirate-story industry. It’s its own thing.

Another well-known case of defying conventions is George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. You might say Gershwin took some conventions of classical music and wove them together with some conventions of jazz–both forms of which he was intimately familiar with.

Rhapsody in Blue has never really been imitated. It stands alone. Whatever pieces Gershwin borrowed from other genres of music, they didn’t become the conventions of a whole new genre. So in one sense you could say that it “failed.” And yet it’s one of the best-loved of all American musical compositions.

What I’m getting at here is how important it is for writers to dig deeply into the stories they love and discover why. Is a particular convention, rather than an overarching genre, the reason you love this or that story? When you have the answer to that question, start weaving.

For instance, one of the reasons I love (and made you guys all watch the movie of) Cloud Atlas is that it’s a reincarnation story. Is that a genre? Not officially. Is it an established convention under some subgenre? Maybe, way down in a speciality niche of spiritual love stories. But I can think of a couple of good reincarnation stories that were primarily about revenge–not love stories at all. More like some variation of paranormal crime stories. I liked them because they contained the piece–the peculiar convention–that I like: reincarnation, regardless of what external content genre they fell into.

The question, “What if I took this piece that I like from over here, and another piece from there and mixed them together?” lies behind a LOT of story creativity.

“Why not take the rotting, disgusting Dracula (HT Valerie) and make him more attractive?” Anne Rice probably asked herself.

Then I bet Joss Whedon mused, “Why not make him guilt-ridden and cursed with a conscience, fighting his blood addiction?” and turned Horror into morality redemption with his show Angel.

So then, “Why not make him young and sparkly, and give him a high school girlfriend and make it a love story?” Stephenie Meyer seems to have wondered. “With a werewolf!”

That weaving together of borrowed conventions resulted eventually in the “paranormal romance” category, of which Amazon lists 40,000 titles. That category may not appear on the Story Grid genre clover, but you can bet it has its own conventions…and you can bet they’re ever-shifting.

So why couldn’t there be vampires at sea? Vampirates! Why not? (This was actually the plot of an episode of the TV show Supernatural a few years ago. Evidently they stayed below decks during the day.)

Not long ago I met David Levine, the Hugo-award winning author of a novel called Arabella of Mars. It’s a Regency age-of-sail space pirate story. It’s published by Tor, has a 4.5 star average review on Amazon, and has been described in one review as “the delicious love child of Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, and Jules Verne.” Why not?

Will the Regency space-sailing adventure spawn subgenres? Probably not. But is it less creative for being woven out of threads from several established groups of conventions? No.

To the extent that you liked Pirates of the Caribbean, what did you like about it? The naval battles? The ghastly undead pirates? The Caribbean island setting? The historical period costumes? The kickass woman character? Well, give that thread–that slender, might-be convention–to one of your characters, and give a couple of other conventions you like to your other characters, get them to dance around the maypole, and see what kind of story they weave.

That’s what creativity is.

Final Thoughts – Leslie

To figure out the subgenre or plot-specific conventions for the story you want to tell. Study several stories that are similar to yours, in other words, consume lots of masterworks for your specific subgenre or plot. Also, think about any subplots, your style, reality genre, and sales category. Don’t worry about whether a story is critically acclaimed. That’s not what we mean by masterwork. A masterwork for your purposes is a story like yours that works the audience you hope to delight. While you read and watch the stories, make note of what they have in common and what the differences are. My Story Grid Edition is Treasure Island, an action-duel, hunted plot novel that established many of the conventions for pirate stories (which I would identify as a combination of style and sales category).

Recommendations for plots within the Action-Duel subgenre:

  • Revenge: Seven, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  • Hunted: Treasure Island, The Fugitive, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, other movies in the Pirates of the Caribbean series
  • Machiavellian: Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars
  • Collision: Troy, Princess Mononoke

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from John in Salt Lake. John asks for an analysis of a story all the way down to the beat level.

Anne: I’ll take this one. The short answer is, unfortunately, no. That’s outside the purview of this podcast and would take not hours, not days, but WEEKS to cover. But I’d like to make three points about the concept.

First, there’s no need for a writer or an editor to analyze a whole story at the beat level. It might be a useful tool within a single scene that doesn’t seem to be working, and it’s interesting to take a great, classical scene and find its beats. But even Shawn himself gave up on beat-level analysis.

Second, and speaking of Shawn, he did analyze a whole classic love story novel at the scene level, and the result is Pride and Prejudice, the Story Grid Edition. We’ll link to it. It’s a total story nerd geekfest.

Third, most of the Story Grid editors are working on similar scene by scene analyses of masterworks in the other content genres. As I mentioned earlier, I’m supposed to be breaking down the Western genre in True Grit by Charles Portis. Valerie has completed Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the Horror genre. Leslie is working on Action, with Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The plan is for Story Grid to publish these guides for students of Story Grid.

So there will eventually be a treasure trove of five-commandments scene by scene analysis across all the content genres.

Meanwhile, we all agree that the very best thing any student of Story Grid can do is start breaking down your own favorite stories. Because believe me, though reading someone else’s work in this arena can be enormously instructive, NOTHING compares to doing the work yourself.

Thanks, John, for a challenging question.

If you have a question about Action subgenre conventions, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by clicking here and leaving us a voice message.

Join us next time as we help Valerie uncover the secrets of using mystery to create narrative drive by studying the 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.