Why do I make a distinction between external and internal content genres?
The reason why is that today’s storytellers, especially long form television writers and series novelists, must have both components of genre content to make their work compelling and sustainable over six or seven years of series television or ten to fifteen series novels. There are exceptions of course, but if you wish to create a story that has the potential to play out over a long period of time, you need to think deeply about having both external and internal components in your work.
Years ago when I was at Doubleday I worked with crime novelist Robert Crais. At the time, he’d written seven novels featuring a wise cracking and brilliant private investigator in Los Angeles named Elvis Cole and his dark compatriot Joe Pike. While the series was a commercial powerhouse, Bob wanted to go deeper. He wanted to stretch himself and I jumped at the opportunity to help him. I’ll not get into the nitty-gritty of how Crais masterfully upped his game in his bestselling breakout novel L.A. REQUIEM, but it had everything to do with the internal wars within his two lead characters. Crais layered in multiple strands of internal genre to pitch perfect effect. So much so that today, most readers of Crais go to him for the internal battles he explores as much for his external plot machinations.
Remember that the external genres concern outside forces aligned against the protagonist…nature, another person or society in general. These are represented by extra-personal and personal conflicts. They keep the protagonist from achieving his conscious desire…saving a victim, marrying his beloved, throwing down on the basketball court etc.
The internal genres concern forces inside the individual aligned against the protagonist’s pursuit of a subconscious object of desire. The subconscious object of desire is the ultimate need within a protagonist whereas the conscious object of desire is the want, his immediate, on-the-surface identifiable goal. So in a thriller, a protagonist’s external conscious object of desire will be to save a victim. But at a deeper level, he may need to sacrifice himself for another person in order to redeem himself from a past moral failing. Or he may need to finally learn the truth of who he is and why he does the things he does.
In the redemption plot, the lead character is conscious of his wanting to save the victim. Beneath that consciousness, though, if the lead character were to sit down with a friend or a therapist and be asked why it was so important for him or her to save this victim beyond “doing their job,” he’d eventually come to understand that his desire is a need to recover from a previous trauma/moral failing in his past. That buried-beneath-the surface need is the hero’s internal object of desire. The redemption plot is just one of a number of possible internal content plot devices. More of those below
So where did I come up with these classifications?
In 1955, Norman Friedman published the seminal internal genre differentiation “Forms of the Plot” in the Journal of General Education (Volume 8, pages 241-253). These internal genres are varieties of the hero’s journey that reflect the quality of internal change at the beginning versus the end of the protagonist’s mission.
Like choosing the global external content genre, choosing the internal content genre is crucial to your story. A poor combination of external and internal will result in an unsatisfying Story experience. A perfect combination will be a work of art. I’ll take a hard look at one of the masterworks of the last fifty years, The Silence of the Lambs, and show you a pitch perfect combination of external and internal content genres down the road.
From Friedman’s work, I’ve adapted three internal sub-genres:
- Worldview, which connotes a change of seeing the world one-way and by story’s end, seeing it differently.
- Morality, which connotes a change in the moral or ethical character of the protagonist.
- Status, which connotes a change in social position of the protagonist.
The choice of global internal genre is driven by your lead character’s unconscious object of desire, your character’s unknown (to them at the beginning) inner quest. Remember that the quest is most often a two front journey. There is the external quest for a conscious object of desire like justice or survival or companionship or a prize of some sort like the rave review or victory. Then there is the internal quest, the one the lead character doesn’t know he is in need of until a critical moment in the telling. The interplay of these two quests for objects of desire is what provides narrative drive of the one hand (the external) and insight into the human condition on the other (the internal).
Each of the three can be broken down further into recognizable sub-genres.
- Worldview: A Change in Perception of Life Experience
- Education; a shift from a view of life from meaninglessness to meaning, Tender Mercies
- Maturation; a shift from naiveté to worldliness, Saturday Night Fever
- Revelation; ignorance to knowing, Oedipus Rex
- Disillusionment; belief to disillusionment, The Great Gatsby
- Morality: A Change in a Character’s Inner Moral Compass
- Punitive; good guy goes bad and is punished, Wall Street
- Redemption; bad guy reforms, Drugstore Cowboy
- Testing; willpower versus temptation, Cool Hand Luke
- Status: A Change in Social Position
- Pathetic; weak protagonist tries to rise and fails, Little Miss Sunshine
- Sentimental; weak succeeds against all odds, Rocky
- Tragic; striver makes mistake that dooms him to failure, American Tragedy
- Admiration; principled person rises without compromise, Gladiator
The Internal Content Genres are crucial to execute for novels or stories in the “Literary” Style, often referred to as those of “character.” Literary novels most often use the Miniplot structure and, for the most part, Miniplot requires that the internal genre drive the global story. That is, it is the change in the inner world of the character that compels interest in the reader/viewer much more so than the external genre’s global value at stake. We read Crime and Punishment not for the external crime but for the internal punishment.
These Miniplot stories are the stuff of the “literary” culture.
So a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird, while it has a wonderful external crime genre within (the courtroom drama with Atticus Finch leading the defense of Tom Robinson), is a maturation plot first and foremost…the preeminent coming of age novel of the twentieth century.
Stories driven by the big set piece extra-personal antagonisms of horror and action, however, are far less dependent on the internal content genres to work. In fact if you add too much internal hemming and hawing and “character development” in the pure action story or horror story, you may completely alienate your audience.
The master Stephen King is that rare novelist who can do both. But it’s interesting to note how he pulls off this trick in his novels like The Shining and Misery. He does it by creating horror elements that can serve as symbols for inner turmoil. In The Shining, alcoholism’s inner abuser takes form as supernatural spirits egging on the protagonist to kill his family. And in Misery, King has recently revealed that he created Annie Wilkes as a stand in of sorts for his personal struggles with cocaine. Cocaine was his #1 fan…pushing and egging him on to furiously complete his pages.
Stephen King knows better than anyone how unchecked internal wars can morph into external horrors.
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