Finding the Global Genre in Epic Fantasy Stories

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In my post on “The Long Night,” about an episode from the HBO series A Game of Thrones, a reader wondered how to apply the Story Grid Methodology to epic fantasy stories like A Game of ThronesThe Name of the Wind, and The Way of Kings. The suggestion is that the Story Grid seems to work in older and simpler stories like The Lord of the Rings, but not in these relatively newer and more complex stories because there is no clear villain attacking in the very beginning of the story, and there is no climactic event when the protagonist is at the mercy of the villain where they have to express their gift to save the victim. 

These stories are extraordinarily complex. They have lots of characters, many of whom have internal arcs, multiple forces of antagonism and sources of conflict, and multiple subplots that are well developed. As you suggest, this makes them trickier to unpack than simpler stories. Each book within a series could have their own global genre that is different from, though connected to, the central global genre of the series. 

Can these stories be analyzed using the Story Grid Methodology? Yes, but you have to adjust the lens through which you view the story to focus on what the story is really about, and realize the more you study the story, the more your understanding may change—and that’s a good thing.  

I’m going to unpack how I would approach these stories by talking about A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). Here are my caveats. First, I am not Shawn Coyne, and he might see this story differently. Second, I’ve read all the published ASOIAF books and watched the HBO series, but I haven’t done the detailed study that I would do if this were my chosen masterwork. I’m spit balling a bit here to give you a feel for how this works. For these purposes, I assume the book series will end more or less the way the HBO series did.

To find the global genre of a story, you have to figure out what the story is about on a fundamental level and filter out the rest—at least temporarily. Some stories are simple and more transparent, which doesn’t make them better or worse than complex stories, it just makes it easier to detect. 

Fundamentally, the way I look at a complex story is the same way I look at a simpler one, by asking some questions:

  • What’s the basic human need at stake?
  • What’s the primary life value that changes from the beginning of the story to the end? 
  • What is the nature of the force of antagonism?

Basic Human Needs

In the Story Grid Community, we use Maslow’s Hierarchy of human needs as the model for the exploration of needs threatened or at stake within a story. These needs include Survival, Security, Love and Belonging, Respect and Esteem, Self-Actualization, and Self-Transcendence. Stories allow us to explore the pursuit of these human needs without the risk. We go to stories for entertainment, of course, but stories arose before humans had time and space for that luxury. 

The basic human need at stake in ASOIAF is Survival for the people of Westeros. Now there are a lot of human needs at stake in this story, but if we think about the big open question from the opening of the story, it’s, will the people of Westeros survive the threats from within and without? But why do we care? Again, we might care for a lot of reasons, but at bottom, we’re interested because the person who sits the throne has an incredible amount of power to affect the lives of ordinary citizens. And because the vast majority of us are people who are similarly subjected to the whims of people in power, we can relate. 

In book one (ch.45), A Game of Thrones, Cersei says, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” but what she doesn’t mention is that there is a lot of collateral damage for people who have no say. We follow the big players because that’s where Martin directs our attention, but the real victims are the people who are always at the mercy of the ruler.

Life Value Shift

Stories are not just about our pursuit of basic human needs, but also changes in the state or condition of those needs. We try to make sense of a chaotic world where cause and effect isn’t always clear. 

The people of Westeros experience plenty of change over the course of the story. But if we think about the change related to the primary human need at stake, we see that we begin with a Passive Threat to the lives of the people of Westeros, and over the course of the story, we move into an Active Threat to society with a high risk of complete Annihilation. By the end of the HBO series, the people of Westeros are safe and Striving, if not yet Thriving again (for a deeper understanding of the life values at stake in an Action story, check out this article by Valerie Francis and Kim Kessler). 

The human needs at stake and the life value shift indicate that Action is the global genre, but what is the subgenre and primary plot?

Forces of Antagonism

I find it useful to look at the primary force of antagonism and the nature of the power divide between the force of antagonism and the hero(es). (For more on the topic, check out Valerie Francis’s article about “Great Villains” and stay tuned for episodes of season 6 of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable Podcast when she explores this subject even more deeply.)

One thing to keep in mind is that, although we must establish the hero, victim, and villain in an Action story, these are roles that can shift. More than one character can occupy a role, and a character can occupy more than one role. If you think of roles as functions, rather than characters, it helps a great deal.

  • The hero wants to save the victim and defeat the villain, and they make a heroic sacrifice for the good of others. 
  • The victim is always at the mercy of the villain. In some way, the victim stands in the way of the villain’s getting what they want. 
  • The villain wants something badly, and they are willing to go to the end of the line to get it, no matter the consequences, including the deaths of the victims or hero. 

With a complex story like ASOIAF, these roles shift around quite a bit, especially if the writer wants to deliver a surprising but inevitable ending. In some scenes and books, the same character will make heroic sacrifices to save victims, but later inhabit the role of victim or villain. Even in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is sometimes a hero and sometimes a victim. And when he sides with Gollum and sends Sam away because he’s worried about losing the ring, I’d argue he’s acting as the villain. 

Daenerys is a great example of a character who shifts roles. In ASOIAF in A Game of Thrones (AGOT), she mostly occupies the role of victim. In A Storm of Swords, she occupies the role of hero as she liberates the slaves across the Narrow Sea, and in the final season of the series, we see her occupy the role of both hero (when she helps save the people of the North from the Others [White Walkers in the television series]) and villain (when she destroys King’s Landing).    

But who or what is the primary force of antagonism in ASOIAF? And what is the nature of the power divide between the primary force of antagonism and the hero? We have to look at the big picture and who presents the biggest threat to the people of Westeros. Reasonable minds may disagree, but I would nominate three possibilities right away: The Others, Cersei, and Daenerys. Each is bent on conquering Westeros no matter the cost. Let’s see how the roles operate in each instance. 

The Others

The Others can easily kill and convert their dead enemies to fight for them, and they acquire an undead dragon. The living people of Westeros are the victims. I would say Daenerys and Jon are heroes supported by the gifts expressed by a lot of other characters (Arya figures prominently). If we were only looking at this story line alone, I would call this Action-Epic-Savior (because the villain is intent on social destruction), but it might be Action-Adventure-Monster, depending on how you see the Others. The Core Event or Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene is “The Long Night” in the HBO series.  

Cersei

But, when the heroes of the Long Night defeat the Others, they face another villain: Cersei in King’s Landing. She controls the fresh forces of the Golden Company and Euron’s people, but she also possesses dragon-killing ballistae. The victims, again, are the people of Westeros. Cersei is willing to sacrifice anyone, including her citizens, to maintain power. The heroes who defeat Cersei are the forces led by Jon and Daenerys. If Daenerys hadn’t gone overboard in the battle for King’s Landing, we might conclude this is an Action-Epic-Rebellion story with Cersei as a visible tyrant crushing all dissent. The Core Event or Hero at the Mercy of the Villain is the battle at King’s Landing presented in “The Bells.”

Daenerys

But Daenerys does go too far and destroys King’s Landing, killing loads of innocent people and justifying her action on the basis that she is liberating them. What’s the nature of the power divide? Daenerys has one dragon left, as well as the loyalty of the remaining Unsullied and Dothraki. That’s a powerful force, though their numbers have decreased. The victims are the people of Westeros. The hero is Jon Snow, who doesn’t want to kill Daenerys, but understands (thanks to Tyrion) that his duty is to save Westeros (“The Iron Throne”). 

Plenty of viewers were upset about this result and said Daenerys’s attack on King’s Landing was out of character. The truth is she seeks the Iron Throne from the time when Viserys is killed in AGOT. Westeros belongs to her, as far as she is concerned, and she plans to take the Dothraki across the narrow sea to claim it, killing anyone who stands against her. She faces plenty of obstacles on the way to King’s Landing, and sometimes it is in her best interest to make heroic sacrifices for victims (e.g., to free the Unsullied), but her conscious Object of Desire never changes. She’s a shapeshifting tyrant who is able to defeat the villains who remain once she reaches Westeros. Jon is the hero who saves the people of Westeros by killing her. I would call this Action-Epic-Rebellion with the core event being an unconventional one, when Jon and Daenerys are alone, but for Drogon, and Jon stabs her. 

The Iron Throne

Now here’s a wildcard, since we’re spit balling: What if the villain or force of antagonism is the Iron Throne? Stay with me here. Its victims are both the characters obsessed with it and the people of Westeros. Certain members of the aristocracy spend their time playing the Game of Thrones while an existential threat looms in the North. After Daenerys is defeated, the hero who saves the leaders from beginning the game anew is Drogon. Once the throne has been destroyed, the leaders of Westeros can make a wise decision about governance. If this is the case, consider what the throne represents: The human quest for power for its own sake, rather than responsible governance for the good of society. Drogon might represent a more pragmatic part of human nature that is disgusted with such ambitions. In this case, we might say that the global genre is Action-Adventure-Environment because the true villain is human nature. 

It’s important to look at what the story is really about, as opposed to the context in which it’s presented. The prologue of AGOT sets up the entire scenario in the micro:

Lord Mormont of the Night’s Watch sends a party north of the Wall to find a group of Wildlings. Ser Royce, an inexperienced young aristocrat from the south on his first mission, leads the party. Will, a young but experienced tracker reports that the Wildlings are dead and under strange circumstances. Gared, an experienced older ranger says they should return to the Wall. But when Royce disregards Will’s information and Gared’s advice and tells them to return to where the Wildlings were spotted, Will must decide whether to follow or disobey orders. Honor (and an unmentioned risk of execution) dictates that he follow orders, so he leads them to the camp where the dead have by then disappeared. In the end, Gared runs away, Royce is attacked by the Others who appear, and when he’s turned into a wight, he attacks Will.

From this prologue, we get a basic controlling idea: Members of the ruling class who are obsessed with power and success put common people at risk when they ignore real dangers from the environment.  

As I mentioned, there are loads of subplots and internal genres operating across the series as well (for example, pretty much every character who seeks the Iron Throne goes through a Status-Tragic arc, which we see in micro for Royce in the prologue). If I were to review the books or HBO series more closely, I might adjust my conclusions. But if we look at the big picture and the biggest threat, it looks like the global genre for the series is Action-Adventure-Environment with a hero facing the consequences of human ambition that goes unchecked. 

So what’s the takeaway here? You can use the Story Grid Methodology to sort out a complex story, but it takes a lot of time and effort to unpack a complex story like ASOIAF.

You can’t look at your masterwork as the reader does when they are fully immersed in the story, and this is definitely not a situation when you read it once and you’re done. When we read as a typical reader does, we get lost in the narrative dream the writer created for us and we look where they direct us. Instead you must read the story as a craftsperson and interrogate the story to get it to give up the goods: How exactly does the writer create this experience? 

Writers create a particular story experience through the decisions they make, consciously and unconsciously. When you study those decisions, which is really an exercise of studying the mind of the writer, you begin to understand how they accomplish the full effect.

Which brings me to another point: The Story Grid Methodology is based in part on the idea that to tell a story that works, one that satisfies reader expectations, we study the work of other writers who have successfully done what we want to do. So you find a story you love and you read it, not just once but several times. You take it apart and inspect the ingredients and the way they work together. You look at the decisions the writer made and ask yourself, why might they have chosen to do it this way, given all the options that are available? You look at other similar stories and see what they have in common and how they are different. Then you come back to your masterwork and read it again with these insights to deepen your understanding.The Story Grid Methodology gives us objective tools, but there is an element of the subjective in story as well. It matters what we as individuals bring to the story. We won’t always agree. But we use the objective tools to help us unpack the story. And we can discuss our findings to help everyone in the Community gain a greater understanding of how to write a great story. 

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About the Author

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 www.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.
Comments
Author Leslie Watts

8 Comments

Doug says:

The Iron Throne is the McGuffin for the story. All the good and bad characters are trying to get it.
The first book, the first King, can’t even remember his name now. He had the throne, and did not want it. It made him an administrator, and a drunk.
They all kill each other for something that will not make them happy. The hero realizes and refuses the McGuffin, or takes it on as a duty. I don’t really know how it ends. I dropped out about season 4 when it all became too complicated, and not surprising when the character I liked was killed.

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Rianne says:

A few days ago I was also thinking about the controlling idea for Game of Thrones. I came out differently, though I like yours as well. Mine was: “Power is gained when you assure that the loyalty of others lies with you.” (I’m not a native English speaker, so I hope that I translated that correctly.)
I think there is a case to be made for both of the controlling ideas. Yours (Members of the ruling class who are obsessed with power and success put common people at risk when they ignore real dangers from the environment) applies better to the White Walkers, who don’t really fit in my controlling idea. Jon Snow’s story also fits quite well in your controlling idea.
On the other hand, I think that the stories of Tyrion and Tywin, Ned Stark and Robb Stark don’t deal so much with the dangers from the environment as with loyalty and power. Ned Stark trusted the wrong people in King’s Landing (Littlefinger), who didn’t go along with his plans, and got killed, thereby losing his power. But the people in the North were so loyal to him, thanks to his honour, that they made his son their king. In that sense Ned still had some power. Robb Stark in the end was betrayed, the negation of loyalty, and could have done things to keep the people who were thinking about betraying him loyal to him.
Tyrion, because he is a dwarf, can never win the loyalty of the people and become king, but he did do a rather good job as Hand of the King during Joffrey’s reign, checking who on the Small Council was on his side and who on Cersei’s, and all the time looking for what people wanted, so that he could use that to make them do something for him. Then Tywin came back and took on his office as Hand of the King, which he did also well. He used among other things his ruthlessness (Rains of Castamere) as a way to keep people in line and he ruled quite well overall, so he had a lot of power. In the end Tyrion was his undoing, who killed him after Tywin had sentenced him to die. So perhaps you could say that Tywin didn’t make sure that Tyrion was loyal to him?
Anyway, maybe you could see Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire as a way of exploring this theme considering the groups whose loyalty is important (advisers, subjects, other people with power) and the ways to assure that their loyalty is with you: honour (Starks), ruthlessness (Tywin), lineage (a lot of people), faith (Stannis and the Red Woman), armies (Renly and Robert), ideology (Daenerys), tradition (Greyjoys) and perhaps a threat from outside (the White Walkers).
I am also “spit balling” a bit here, but I am curious what your perspective on this is. I haven’t yet formulated a lot of controlling ideas, so criticism is completely welcome.

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Leslie Watts says:

Thanks for your comment and for joining the conversation, Rianne! By looking at a different aspect of the relationship between rulers and citizens, you’ve crafted another valid interpretation of what the story is about. As you’ve shown here, different characters embody different expressions of loyalty, what it means, and how it affects power. It reminds me how valuable it is not just to read and study stories in isolation but to discuss them because it helps us see things we wouldn’t otherwise see. Thanks again for sharing your take on the story!

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larryinla says:

This is a fascinating literary forensic examination of Game of Thrones. I can’t make up my mind if I totally agree with all the assumptions or projected outcomes, but it is a very helpful exercise to have and apply a toolset to make the examination. Thank you so much for the effort, Leslie, you are an intrepid explorer and the use of the Storygrid continues to inspire me.

Reply
Leslie Watts says:

Thanks, Larry! I’m so glad the work is inspiring and useful to you! You’ve highlighted something that is really important. My purpose isn’t to tell you what to think or to declare “this is the official global genre of ASOIAF.” It’s far more useful, I think, to show the process I used to consider what the global genre *could* be so you can experiment with the Story Grid tools and see what you come up with.

I’ll proudly wear the intrepid explorer badge! Thanks again, Larry!

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Elissa McColl says:

Great article Leslie!
I’m still working my way through, but I think there’s a typo in this sentence:
“The victim is always at the mercy of the villain. In some way, the victim stands in the way of the victim getting what they want.”
Is it supposed to be that “In some way, the victim stands in the way of the VILLAIN getting what they want.” ?

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