What are Genre Conventions?
Genre conventions are specific requirements for the story’s ALTERNATE WORLD, AVATARS, and catalysts that create conflict and enable solutions. Without specific genre conventions, the reader will be confused, unsettled, or bored and quit reading.
Genre Conventions set up genre audience expectations and create the potential for specific change in the OBLIGATORY MOMENTS of a story. Genre conventions help us focus and filter problems and solutions through two broad categories of constraints: selective constraints and enabling constraints.
What are Selective Constraints?
Selective constraints are elements of the setting, or arena, that help define the problem in a story and put the core need at stake. In the POP (PROPOSITION OF POSSIBILITY) analysis, this is also called the CONTEXT. We call conventions related to the context selective because they narrow the field of potential big-picture problems addressed in our stories.
Every context has the potential for external and internal conflict, but the reach and characteristics of the location impact the scope of the problems explored in a story. For example, an expansive landscape with multiple locations sets up a wider range of external conflict. A less varied setting tends to support multiple layers of similar conflicts. When the story is set in a single location, we can explore the internal landscape of the AVATARS more extensively.
- In ACTION stories, the setting must be a disturbed, unbalanced physical and social environment that gives rise to a threat to life.
- HORROR stories unfold within conventional or mundane settings with fantastical elements and a literal or metaphorical labyrinth.
- SOCIETY and WAR stories are set against a big canvas with either a widescope external setting or internal landscape.
- WESTERN/EASTERN stories take place in a harsh hostile, wide-open landscape.
- LOVE, CRIME, THRILLER, PERFORMANCE, STATUS, MORALITY, and WORLDVIEW stories have no specific convention that defines their context, but the setting must give rise to the other conventions and OBLIGATORY MOMENTS of the genre.
Levels of Conflict
Conflict exists within the setting and arises when two forces pursue their opposing goals or natures. We identify conflict on three levels: inner conflict (internal dilemma), personal conflict (between two or more people with opposing goals), and extrapersonal conflict (conflict between a person and the environment, including institutions). All three levels of conflict are bound to exist in any setting, but your context should emphasize the levels that are most important to your story.
- ACTION stories have dueling hierarchies: power-dominance and growth. Also the power divide between the protagonist and villain is large.
- In WAR Stories, the protagonists are substantially outnumbered by the antagonists.
- CRIME and THRILLER stories require a large power divide between the protagonist and antagonist.
- HORROR stories must mask the power of the monster throughout the story until the monster’s massive power advantage is revealed.
- WESTERN/EASTERN stories require fundamental conflict between the individual and society.
- LOVE stories have many levels of conflict. Love stories must set up an external need beyond love, a moral weight that the AVATARS must carry, and the lovers pursuing ordered and chaotic approaches to love and life.
- In SOCIETY stories, the power divide between those in power and the disenfranchised is large and impacts human needs beyond the core need for Recognition.
- In PERFORMANCE stories, there is a great power divide between the protagonist and antagonist.
- MORALITY stories require a seemingly impossible external conflict forcing the protagonist to choose to share or withhold their gifts.
- STATUS and WORLDVIEW stories feature a social problem as subtext (e.g., racism, misogyny, or poverty). Conflicts between different groups and individuals within the context cause cognitive dissonance to arise within the protagonist.
Examples of Selective Constraints in Genre Conventions
- In Treasure Island, an ACTION story, the setting includes a tropical island, far from authorities in England, where violent pirates with weapons hold the upper hand (personall conflict). The avatars are also susceptible to fatal tropical fevers circulating on the island (extrapersonal conflict). Jim Hawkins, the protagonist, is unsure what strategy he should adopt to defeat the pirates (inner conflict).
- In Murder on the Orient Express, a CRIME story, the setting is a luxury train traveling from Istanbul to Calais in the 1930s. Poirot must discover the truth from a group of people with secrets they don’t want to reveal (personal conflict). The AVATARS are trapped because of a snowstorm (extrapersonal conflict).The greater context of the story includes a justice system incapable of protecting law-abiding people and restoring justice (extrapersonal conflict). Before the events of the current story, Ratchett, a notorious criminal, was wrongly acquitted of kidnapping and killing a young child. Once Poirot uncovers the truth, he faces a dilemma about how to serve justice (inner conflict).
- The setting of Pride and Prejudice, a LOVE story, is Regency era England, a world of rigid class boundaries and strict standards of behavior. Elizabeth and her sisters can’t earn an independent living, so marriage is the only way to avoid being destitute. At least one of the Bennet sisters must marry a husband willing and able to support the rest, but the social rules of the time mean that the behavior of one sister could ruin the prospects of the others (extrapersonal conflict leading to inner conflict).
What are Enabling Constraints?
Enabling constraints are the characters—or AVATARS—and circumstances—or catalysts—that make it possible for the protagonist to solve the problem presented by the inciting incident. The setting or context is there from the start, and enabling constraints arise from it as potential or actual instruments of conflict that force change along the spectrum of the core value. In other words, enabling constraints cause the effects readers expect to see in the story of a particular genre.
Enabling Constraints increase external conflict, which increases internal conflict. Rising conflict leads the protagonist to the global CRISIS in the all-is-lost moment.
Characters or AVATARS are used to fulfill certain roles in stories. The two primary avatars in a story are the protagonist and the antagonist. The antagonist’s OBJECT OF DESIRE is always in direct opposition to the protagonist’s goals and desires. Other avatars act to aid or hinder the protagonist’s goals and desires. These figures can be mentors, shapeshifters, sidekicks, threshold guardians, or tricksters.
Avatars pursuing their goals creates conflict in the story, forcing the protagonist to change, but they need the support of catalysts to create life-altering discord in the arena.
- ACTION and WESTERN/EASTERN stories require a hero, villain, and victim.
- CRIME stories feature a professional or amateur detective, a criminal “who makes it personal,” and the victim(s) of the crime.
- HORROR stories feature an unheroic protagonist and a monster that cannot be reasoned with.
- THRILLER stories require a hero, master villain who targets the protagonist, and victims.
- LOVE stories require lovers, rivals, helpers, and harmers. These are AVATARS that are radically for or against the relationship.
- SOCIETY and WAR stories require one central AVATAR, the protagonist, with offshoots of other AVATARS that embody the characteristics of the protagonist.
- PERFORMANCE stories require a strong mentor figure.
- STATUS stories require a strong mentor figure, shapeshifters, and a herald or threshold guardian.
- MORALITY stories feature a protagonist that is despicable at the beginning of the story and a spiritual mentor or sidekick.
- WORLDVIEW stories require a mentor figure and shapeshifters.
Examples of Avatars in Genre Conventions
- In Treasure Island, an ACTION story, Jim Hawkins is the protagonist-hero, but through most of the book, he and the innocent crew members fulfill the agency-deprived role of victim. The main villain or shadow agent is Long John Silver, who is also a charming shapeshifter and threshold guardian. Dr. Livesey serves as mentor to Jim, and Ben Gunn is a marooned sailor and threshold guardian.
- In Murder on the Orient Express, a CRIME story, Poirot is the protagonist and master detective. To some extent, almost all the other passengers on the train participate in the murder and cover-up, so they are antagonists and shapeshifters, but they seek to restore justice for the victim, Daisy Armstrong, denied by Ratchett and a broken system, the primary villains.
- In Pride and Prejudice, a LOVE story, Elizabeth and Darcy are lovers. George Wickham and Anne de Bourgh are rivals. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a harmer who wants to keep the lovers apart. Georgiana Darcy and Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle serve as helpers, bringing the lovers together.
Catalysts are story elements that force the protagonist to change their tactics to reach their goal. Catalysts can take the form of an AVATAR or an element of the global context.
From the outside, catalysts exert pressure on the protagonist that mimics a kind of push and pull movement. They can’t solve the external problem easily, and they can’t simply quit and go home. This heightened personal or extrapersonal conflict requires the protagonist to stay in the ring long enough to confront their inner conflict about the problem raised by the inciting incident.
- In ACTION stories, the catalysts are a speech in praise of the villain, the deadline, set-piece sequences, and fast paced and exciting plots.
- WAR stories have a point of no return and a sacrifice of the protagonist for kinship moment as catalysts.
- HORROR stories use a sadomasochistic flip-flop where the reader can experience the power of the monster while sympathizing with the villain as the story’s catalyst.
- CRIME, THRILLER, and WESTERN/EASTERN stories require the antagonist’s MacGuffin, red herrings, a clock. the antagonist making the crime personal for the protagonist, and other subgenre specific catalysts.
- LOVE stories feature opposing forces, secrets, and rituals as the catalysts for the story.
- SOCIETY stories have a revolutionary point of no return, a moment where the vanquished are doomed to exile, and an ironic win-but-lose or lose-but-win ending.
- PERFORMANCE stories feature training where the protagonist hones their craft, a moment when the mentor regains their moral compass or betrays the protagonist, and a win-but-lose or lose-but-win ending.
- MORALITY stories include ghosts from the protagonist’s past that come to torment them and aid from unexpected sources that act as catalysts throughout the story.
- STATUS and WORLDVIEW stories feature a point of no return moment and a win-but-lose or lose-but-win ending.
Examples of Catalysts in Genre Conventions
- In Treasure Island, an ACTION story, Long John Silver delivers the speech in praise of the villain. Jim learns that Silver wants the treasure for financial security and that the pirate risks hanging if caught by the English authorities, so he’s planning to kill the honest members of the crew.
- In Murder on the Orient Express, a CRIME story, Poirot must sort through the conflicting clues to solve the crime before the train reaches the station, giving the murderer time to escape (deadline). Poirot discovers twelve stab wounds inflicted by different people, a red herring meant to mislead investigators.
- In Pride and Prejudice, a LOVE story, Elizabeth doesn’t tell Darcy when her feelings toward him change, and Darcy keeps his proof of love secret, even after they reconnect. They keep these secrets until they can each confront their own personal secrets. They must confront the truth about themselves if they are going to have any chance of commitment.
Additional Resources for Genre Conventions:
- Conventions and Obligatory Moments: The Must-Haves To Meet Audience Expectations by Kimberly Kessler and Leslie Watts (Portions of this article have been taken from this book.)
- Four Core Framework: Needs, Life Values, Emotions, and Events in Storytelling by Shawn Coyne
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