How important is genre?


[0:00:00.2] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience. 

In this episode, as I continue to work towards finishing off the draft of the threshing, we decided we would go back and look at some of the basic ideas of Story Grid, and especially just go through the book again. This is how we started the podcast. We’ve tried to do it here and there where we just go back and look at the basics, and it was funny. I’ve been doing this podcast for three and half years, and when I opened up the book this morning to prepare for the podcast, I just noticed something interesting that once I saw it, it was obvious, but it’s one of those things I just never noticed before. 

So you might listen to me talk and be like, “Oh, yeah! Of course, Tim, you should’ve known that,” but maybe you’re like me, sometimes seeing something from a new angle is really helpful. So it’s all about genre. I think it’s a really fun episode, and let’s jump in and get started. 

[EPISODE]

[00:01:15] TG: So Shawn, I’ve been continuing to work on my draft and fixing it, and it’s been really fun. I’m probably about a third of the way through the middle build now. So I’m making progress, and it’s been fun, because like this more – So I have a recurring alarm in the morning at 5 AM to wake me up, and I always snooze it until about 5:30, 5:35, because I have to get the kids up at 6. So I get up and make coffee and all that. 

This morning it went off at 5 and my eyes popped open and I thought, “Ooh! I want to work on the book.” So I jumped out of bed at 5 and I got like an extra 35-40 minutes to like – I got through a couple of scenes and I had – It doesn’t matter, but it’s been really fun to kind of work through it, and I ended up having to like cut out half a scene, because it just didn’t work with the whole story anymore. So I rewrote that this morning. 

It’s just like it’s continued to be fun weaving everything together. I feel like having a story that we feel works in general from front to back has released me this load off my shoulders of just now I can get down into the nitty-gritty, which that’s the part that I really enjoy. So it’s been good. 

So as I’m working on this though, when we’re talking about this and I was thinking back, we’ve been doing the podcast now for about 3-1/2 years, and right at the beginning when we had only agreed to do 10 episodes and we’re like, “This may not work,” the first thing we did was kind of walk through the Story Grid book. So we are thinking as I’m working on this stuff, I don’t have stuff to send you every week. So I thought, “Let’s go back and look at some of the principles of Story Grid from the beginning,” because I feel like a lot of times, especially when we’re down in the weeds, if you’re just coming into the podcast or you’ve been listening for a while even, maybe having that foundational knowledge. 

So this morning I pulled open the book and was just flipping through it, and one of the things that stood out to me that I hadn’t really noticed before. I think I kind of knew, but hadn’t noticed before, was that if you look at other stuff on writing, it’s kind of like character development, or plot development, or the three acts, or it’s dialogue, or its writing the hero’s journey, or all these kind of things. 

Yeah, so looking at the book, you give a little history of Story Grid in your story and then the first thing you really dive into is genre. We talk so much about genre on here, but I never really noticed that before you – Because I was thinking, “Okay, we’re going to talk about the foolcap today or maybe the five commandments,” I’m trying to think like where we should go into this. Then I’m like, “Wait. The first thing you talk about before you talk about inciting incidents, before you talk of acts, or sequences, or scenes, or plotting out the story, or any of that kind of stuff, you talk about genre first.” So talk a little bit about why genre is so important that before you talk about character development – Or again, inciting incidents, or your three acts, or any of these things that you start with genre. 

[00:04:51] SC: Sure. There’re two ways for this discussion to sort of start, and the first way is what’s the practical reason why genre is so important and what is sort of the philosophical reason why genre is so important in terms of storytelling. 

So the practical reason came from my experience in book publishing. So what I discovered was that if you did not understand the concept of genres, be they traditional story genres like I talk about, or even marketing genres like young adult, pre-k – Or whatever, you’re going to have a lot of trouble in book publishing convincing your publisher or your sales department that a particular story would have an audience. 

So the practicalities of genre are obvious. If you don’t know what kind of story you’re trying to sell or who would like that story, then you can’t even begin. So genre as a practical tool for the writer to understand exactly who they are writing for and why they should care about the people that t’ey’re writing for is a really important practical concept. 

Now, philosophically, genre is certainly primal, right? It’s about what kind of story do I want to tell to change people’s behavior or minds? So Seth Godin talks about this a lot, and marketing is about getting people to change. So how do you get people to change? You tell great stories. 

So genre is the place to begin when you say to yourself, “What is the best story I can use to change people’s minds or to get them to change their behavior?” So this is why storytelling is so important across all walks of life. If you want to convince someone to go out with you, you sort of have to figure out what kind of story they want to hear about who you are, and then you kind of put on the persona, right? 

If you’re trying to date a cheerleader, then you’re going to tell her the story about what a great athlete you are. If you want to date a woman who is a wonderful piano player, you’re going to tell a story about how much you love Rachmaninoff, right? So storytelling is so primal that we need to understand, first off, what genre we need to consider to tell the story that we want people to change their lives. 

So it’s a wonderful thing when the science and practicality of book publishing, meaning finding the market, the target market that would want to buy your book. When that also is this same arena that you must think about in terms of, “Why am I writing this thing in the first place? What do I really want to say? What’s the point of my spending, pounding my head against the desk for 3-1/2 years to write a book?”

So the genre for me is the perfect place to begin, and I’ll tell you little story about Steve, Steve Pressfield, is that when he was writing screenplays, he had a writing partner named Ron Shusett, who’d a terrific writer. He was the one who wrote the original screenplay I believe for Alien. Anyway, so Steve and Ron used to get together. They had sold a screenplay and the next day they would get together for coffee and the first thing they would say each other was, “What kind of movie do we want to see? What movie is really, really sort of tugging at your unconscious in a way that you want to write it? Is it film war movie? Is it a Western? Is a thriller? Is it a love story? Is it a performance plot? What kind of story is it that’s going to really get us excited so that we can spend the next 15 months cranking out a screenplay and not get bored and want to rip our hair out?” 

So then they would start saying, “Well, I’m really been thinking about war stories,” and then, “Well, I’m not sure, but I think love story is what I want to see,” and then somehow they would negotiate an arena where they could have a war and a love story. Ultimately though, they would have to choose one. They would have to choose one very clear genre before they could begin work. 

Now, why would they do that? Well, as you start plowing through the Story Grid book, the genre decision from all questions always lead back to the genre choice. Genres are very, very specific stories that involve a single value, and the value for, say, a thriller is life-and-death. So everything revolves around the various gradients of life-and-death across time. 

So when you start thinking about things and values across time, for me, with a science background while I was in book publishing, I thought, “Wow! I bet you could graph something like that.” If you had shifting values across a time span, then that is actually a recipe for a graph, an X, Y, you could have time on the X-axis versus the movements of the gradient shifts of a value. So if you look at life and death, there’s all kinds a gradients of value in between life-and-death. There’s positive, where you’re still on the planet breathing air, and then there’re the things underneath that approach death and damnation.”

So that’s generally the global reason how Story Grid came about was that I was an editor looking at genre, specifically the crime mystery genre, and I had to say, “How can I distinguish which of the manuscripts that are coming on to my desk are abiding that are going to satisfy the readerships of mystery and crime the best?” That’s how I started thinking about, “Well, they’re in crime, justice is at stake,” and there’s all sorts of gradients in between justice, injustice, tyranny. Tyranny is the negation of the negation as Robert McKee would say. It’s the thing worse than what you think is the worst. 

So we think injustice is the worst, but actually to tyranny is the worst, because there are no rules. It’s just one person making it up as he or she choose. So there’s no conception of justice in a tyranny, because justice is whatever the tyrant believes that very second. So it’s an absence of any given conception of justice and injustice. 

Anyway, I’m getting into the specifics of it, but the genre, whenever one of our Story Grid editors gets in trouble and they call me or they email me and say, “I don’t know exactly how to help my client.” I’ll always say, “Well, have they clearly, clearly chosen a global genre yet?” and usually they haven’t. So when the writer refuses to choose a genre, it’s very, very difficult to edit them, because it’s sort of – They can play a game with you that is excruciating. 

So you’ll say, “Well, what kind of story you want to tell?” “Well, I want to tell the story about my great grandmother.” “Okay, that sounds pretty cool. What about your great-grandmother?” “Well, she was an immigrant who came from Yugoslavia and she was an indentured servant.” “Okay, that’s good to know. So what happened to her as an indentured servant or was there something incredible that happened on the voyage?” “Well, I’m not really sure.” “Okay. Well, what about your grandmother is so interesting?” “Well, she’s just very, very stoic. Nothing ever sort of changes her ability to function even under very difficult circumstances.” “Oh! That’s interesting. So what sort of story do you think we could tell about that kind of person? What genre would fit the stoic?” “I don’t know.” “Well, what about a story like Gladiator? Gladiator is about a stoic who gets imprisoned and has to fight his way out of all kinds of incredible circumstances.” “No, I don’t really like that. What I want to tell is a story about how it’s really important to love each other,” and so you can see how this can get excruciating for an editor, because the writer does not want to, as they say, pen themselves in. They want freedom. They don’t want to be honed in on one specific genre, because they think that their storytelling abilities are so remarkable that they don’t need to classify their particular work. So some of the greatest literary novels of all time are very specific genres. What’s war and peace, but a war story, right? So genres, for me, are really the place to begin and the place to go back to whenever you get stuck. 

[00:15:12] TG: So when you’re thinking about genre, you are talking about the value side of things. I just see that so much in working on my own of like every time I would get stuck, it’s like we come to, “Okay, writing an action story, which means life-and-death, and so you have to have life-and-death going back and forth.” 

So when it comes to these genres, can you talk a little bit about like what kind of thing – So once you choose a genre, you now know the value at stake, and then what does that help you do once you know the value at stake? What’s the next step as far as how a genre can help you tell your story?

[00:16:00] SC: Will, the value at stake is particular to each individual genre. So as you said, an action story is about life-and-death, and I don’t want to get into the variance of the 12 core genres that I’ve defined. When we’re talking about genre right now, what we’re talking about is the content leave of the five leave clover of genre that I created for the Story Grid. 

So the content leave is the thing that most people think about when they think about genre. So these are the core stories that have evolved through the 150 million years of life on earth for Homo sapiens. So the first one is action, because action concerns life-and-death, and that was the primal story for Homo sapiens just coming out of caves. How do we live today so that we can prosper tomorrow, etc. Then you have the love story. The love stories also a universal story that has lasted for millions and millions of years. You have horror, which is life-and-death that takes into –The value moves from life all the way to damnation. Damnation is the negation of the negation of death. It’s the fate worse than death. It’s sort of knowing you’ve done something horrifically selfish that has caused the death of another, or you caused incredible suffering. It’s literally being damned. That is worse than actual just dying peacefully. 

So horror stories are usually external. They are external villains who are just the embodiment of evil. They’re monsters. They’re the alien in alien. They’re these things that could care less about humanity. They just want what they want and they actually get some sort of sustenance or pleasure out of human suffering. 

So horror stories are externally driven, and then you have thrillers, and thrillers or more realistic. They’re usually sociopaths, psychopaths, and these are, again, thriller horror and action all concern life-and-death. So knowing that, it’s extremely important, because all stories break down into beginnings, middles, and ends, right? So the major, major moments in your story, and those I define as sort of these 15 core scenes, they must move on the global value of your genre choice. 

So if you’re transitioning your thriller from the beginning into the middle of the story, and that scene does not turn on life-and-death, meaning somebody’s life is not threatened, then it won’t feel like thriller and you will confuse your audience. So it’s really important to know what the value at stake is in your global genre so that you have the answer to the questions that come up as you’re writing, “Well, gees! I’ve get these 15 scenes that Shawn Coyne talks about. There’re five in the beginning, five in the middle and five in the end. Each one of those scenes must turn on the global value.” 

Now, you can certainly have other scenes that build to those moments that don’t turn on the global value. I’m getting a little bit into the weeds here, but the value – First of all, understanding the concept of value is a critical stage in a writer’s life, because – Go ahead.

[00:20:02] TG: Yeah. I mean, I just – As you were talking, I was thinking back to the first time I did NaNoWriMo and wrote the whole draft in a month, and I remember like I used this system for plotting. It was called the snowflake method or something. So I plotted out this whole thing before the month started so I was ready to write through the month, but it was funny, because now looking back, I realize like, “How did I plot a story when I didn’t know what the story was about as far as the value at stake?” and which is why at the end it’s like this complete mess. 

I just think that’s so interesting, because so many times when I talk to writers or we talk about their book, they have made all these decisions about what they want to be in their book and who their characters are, but they’re still not sure what the value of the story is. 

So that’s just what, again, like I feel like I’ve looked and red Story Grid so many times, but this morning when I was looking at it to prepare for this, for the first time really noticing what it means to think about genre first and how many times I’ve like got the cart before the horse when I started thinking about like what the end of the book I wanted to be when I don’t even know what kind of story I’m telling. 

[00:21:27] SC: Right. Right. 

[00:21:29] TG: Yeah. So that’s what’s – And then it did drop home for me to when we are going through the draft of the threshing and you had me go back through and identify the 15 scenes and I had to make sure that each of those 15 scenes was turning on life-and-death, and if they weren’t, that was a problem. It’s just these things that we talk almost every week. You tell me these things almost every week and still like sometimes I’m like, “Oh! Now I understand what he’s saying.” It’s just so interesting. 

[00:22:06] SC: Well, let me just define value again, because it’s always a good thing to remind yourself what it is, and I actually just pulled out my copy of my book, because I don’t remember specifically how I put it, and I think it’s pretty good. It says a story value is simply a human experience, a judgment of reality that can change from positive to negative or negative to positive. 

So alive-dead, truth-lie, love-hate, justice-injustice, hope-despair, good-evil, right-wrong, happy-sad, naïve-experienced, informed-uninformed, honor-shame, freedom-slavery, rich-poor, you get it. So it’s all of those things in our lives that have a positive and a negative value and they can be placed on a gradient or spectrum of value that will explain to – It was Valerie and Kim Kessler, I think, who wrote a wonderful post the other day on Story Grid, which was about the gradients of value. The more you know about these different shades of, say, honor or shame, or good and evil, the better you will be able to construct your scenes, because I also talk about Russian Dolls a lot, but the structure of storytelling is so brilliant. It’s almost like deoxyribonucleic acid and that there are so many repeatable nested structural elements from beat, to scene, to sequence, to act, to global story that once you understand the concept of value, then you start to be able to parse out what it means for a scene to turn, and that means the moment when the value shifts, right? When the scene is starting out someone and someone is very excited about asking someone out for a coffee and the scene begins where they’re very, very nervous about it and then it reaches a turning point and whether or not the other person accepts, or declines, or blows off the person, that shifts the value. 

So hope would move to despair if the person asked someone out for coffee and they decline. So that’s absolutely a scene. Something happened. Somebody wants something from somebody else in the scene that may or may not be in line with what the other person wants. So the turning on the value is so crucial for every individual scene, but it’s even more crucial in terms of the global genre. The great thing about genre is it answers a lot of questions, most of them, probably all of them, that we find ourselves asking ourselves as we’re working. 

So, you’re right. When we’re going through the threshing, what was one on my checklist? I said, “Tim, you got to go back. First of all, identify the 15 must have scenes in the threshing. So I want you to find the five scenes in the beginning hook, the five scenes in the middle build and the five scenes in the ending pay off.” Okay, so you’ve identified those. Great. Now, check the value. Look at the scene. Is the scene turning on the global value of life-and-death? If it’s not, then we have to revise the scene so that it does. 

The reason why – That’s another thing that upsets people, is that they’re like, “That sounds like a formula. I don’t want to write a formulaic book.” Well, is a chair a formula? Yes. Are there different varieties of chairs in the world? Yes. Is a boat of formula? Can you build a boat based upon the formula and the principles of buoyancy? Yes. Are there different kinds of boats? Absolutely. Same with cars, and on and on and on and on. 

So the innovation and the brilliance of your creation comes through the twist on the structural elements of the thing that you’re trying to create. If I want to create a building and I don’t want to deal with gravity, my building is going to collapse. So if I want to write out an action story, but I don’t want my 15 course scenes to turn on the life-and-death value, then I haven’t written an action story. It might have a cover that looks like an action story. It might have Bruce Willis in the movie, but if it doesn’t turn on those – On that core value for the genre, then people aren’t going to go see the movie, because they’ll be confuses. 

So knowing the global genre you want to work in is such an important decision that it can answer questions that your editor is going to help you with, but you can – I truly believe that you can self-edit to the point where when the book actually does go to your editor, they’ll be helping you with nuance as opposed to teaching you these very, very fundamental principles of storytelling. 

So the Story Grid is a way of grounding people in the fundamental first principles of storytelling so that they can use those principles whenever they get lost, and instead of saying to themselves, “I’m never going to figure this out. This is terrible. I don’t even know what I’m doing.” They can just go back and say, “Okay, let’s go back to first principles,” and this is what we did. This is what we’ve been doing for 3-1/2 years in the podcast, right? Whenever we get in trouble or my concentration lags, because I’m a human being like everyone else, and sometimes I’ve forgotten what you’ve done. So I’ll say, “Well, let’s go back. What is this?” “Oh, this is an action story.” “Okay.” “In an action story, what’s the particular kind of flavor of action story?” “Well, it’s a labyrinth plot.” “Great. We know that.” So that means that our character is navigating a labyrinth, and at the beginning of the story, it’s going to start somewhere. It’s going to move to somewhere else that the end. Okay. So then what are our 15 course scenes? Are they turning on the life-and-death value? Yes, they are, but I’m still not sure about this one. Okay, well, let’s just keep working our checklist, and then we bring in other elements to flavor the story so that it’s completely yours and unique, although there is nothing wrong. In fact, I think I had this conversation with Steve the other day. I think it’s crucial that you have a masterwork in mind, right? 

If someone were to say to you, and this is a game I like to play with a lot of people is, “If an angel came down from heaven and said, “You have one opportunity to change a novel or a story that was written by someone else, and you can put your name on that story. What story would it be?” Now, that would be the first question I would ask anyone who wants to be a writer, “What if you could put your name on one novel or one short story or whatever?” Maybe it’s a television series, right? it doesn’t have to be high-end literature if someone could say to you, “All right, I can take JK Rowling’s name off of Harry Potter. Would you like your name on that?” “Oh, yeah. I would.” “Okay. Is there anything else?” 

[00:30:12] TG: Yeah, I’m assuming you’re meaning more than just dollar figures, because I think most people would pick that one. 

[00:30:17] SC: Yeah. What I mean is that – Oh, yeah. The masterwork that changed your life. What’s the masterwork in your life that was so monumental to you that you dream in the schema of that world? For me it’s The Great Gatsby. It changed my life. 

Now that’s not very original and a lot of people would say, “Oh, I don’t even really like that one.” It doesn’t matter what other people think. It’s what you think. 

[00:30:46] TG: Yeah, because when you said that, the first thing that came to my mind was The Matrix. I feel like that was like the movie that when I saw it, it just became like, “Well, that’s the movie. That’s the movie.” Then now going back, because I just watched it again last month, and I hadn’t watched it in a while, and now looking at it from this new lens of Story Grid, I’m like, “This is a perfect story.” I mean, it just – 

[00:31:16] SC: It is.

[00:31:17] TG: It’s just so good, but like – Yeah, it’s funny. So, of course, I’m basically trying to write a version of that. 

[00:31:27] SC: That’s true, you are, but you’re also bringing so much different ammunition to your story and your own point of view that there’re elements of the Hunger Games in your story. There’re all kinds of really nice references to the culture and the social world that you’ve been living in your entire life. 

So I think a lot of people get very intimidated by writing stories, because they believe that they need to bring something to the page that has never been done before. You know what? No. That’s not the way to approach it. 

I think the way to approach it is to say, “What’s my favorite story?” So if you say that, then you can back into, “What genre is that? Because obviously I’d really like that genre if that’s my favorite story.” So the Great Gatsby some people would say it’s a literary novel. Well, actually, no. It is, yeah. That’s the style, but what kind of story is it? It’s a love story and it’s also has some crime elements in it to and it has some society stuff in it too. 

But for me, for Shawn Coyne, the Great Gatsby is a love story. Now, maybe for you, for Tim Grahl, it’s a society novel. Now, does that mean you’re wrong or I’m wrong? No, it doesn’t. What it means is that each one of us brings our own subjective truthful world to the experience of reading the novel. 

So a lot of times people want me to give them the answers, and they asked me for the answer key, “Could you give me the answer key to the Great Gatsby?” and I refuse to do it, because my answer key is perfectly valid for me. It’s changed my life, but my answer key might not work for you, because the answer key is as much the experiencer as the story itself. This is why we all love stories, because everybody brings their own life experience to a work. If I were to read the Great Gatsby today, it’s a completely different experience than when I read it when I was 14, and this is the amazing part about literature and stories, is that the story can affect you at different times in your life depending upon the state of your psyche. 

So when you watch the Matrix the other night, I’m sure it was completely different than the first time you saw it, which was just a remarkable action story. Now, you watch the Matrix and you say, “Oh my gosh! This was like 1984. The brilliance of this, the social commentary is just off the charts, and the choices that these writers made and its director are just so deep.” But when you first saw you it, you’re like, “Oh men! It was awesome, and there’s all kinds of stuff, and there’s the guns, and the blah.”

So just to go back to genre again – Okay, so people often say to me, “Well, if what you say is true, Shawn, and different people bring different things to each story that they read, then I don’t really have to make a choice, do I? Because I’ll just let the reader pull out of the story what they want, right?” No. No, I’m afraid not. That’s not true, because – And I say this all the time too, universality comes from specificity. So the writers choices of their specificity are the thing that will help them create the work.

Now, when Steve wrote Gates of Fire, it’s a war story, and I ended up saying like it has a subgenre of love story between the men who fight in the battle, and Steve was like, “I didn’t really – I just wanted to write a really great thing that had great action at the end. I didn’t really think of it in terms of love story until you actually said that.” That’s great. That means that Steve was so focused on building to that incredible battle at the end of Gates of Fire, at Battle of Thermopylae, that he was given these wonderful, incredible images from what he calls the muse as he was writing his blood and guts war story. That actually added so many different elements into it that other people can pick up when they read the book. 

So the point is, is that Steve clearly knew he was writing a war story, and he’s set out to abide by the conventions and obligatory scenes of a war story, which is a life-and-death value at stake, all the major points in his story turned on life-and-death. In the end, at the end of the story, a lot of people can come and read Gates of Fire, and depending upon their own worldview, they can pull even more out of that than just a war story. 

But the point is, is that it’s like when you first saw the Matrix, right? You said, “Wow! That was a great action story. What a great action flick.” You didn’t go in and say, “What a great commentary on society.” You pull that out on your fifth viewing probably. I think it’s the Wachoskis siblings – Yeah. So they wrote it and I know their first thing was like, “We want to write a great sci-fi action story,” and they did. While they were doing that and they were hitting the obligatory scenes and conventions, the muse came to them and said, “Hey, why not add a red pill and a blue?” “Yeah! That’s cool.” Well, that’s actually a metaphor for cognition and not cognition might sort of being numb, but they didn’t really probably think of that like, “Oh! We’re going to have this these pills representative of being self-aware and not self-aware.” No! They’re like, “Red pill, blue pill. Yeah, next scene.” 

[00:37:57] TG: I think this sometimes when I think about people working on screenplays or I’ve listened to some podcast episodes recently with like writer, like TV show writers. So I was – Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I was listening to some stuff about this. What goes on – So when I think about like a movie like the Matrix or something else, it just really works, or a television series that really works, right? Because I’ve been really into The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel, the Amazon Prime show. Have you heard of this?

[00:38:33] SC: Yes.

[00:38:33] TG: Have you seen this at all? Yeah, and it’s really good and it’s one – What is so fascinating to me about a good TV season is how like they’re constantly having to deal with the ark of the season and the ark of the episode. 

Anyway, so when they’re in here, because, for instance, when we looked at my book, you’re like, “Okay, you need a trickster, you need allies.” We kind of went through the threshold guardian. Is this the same type of terminology, like if I sat in on a great drama series in the writer room, or if I was looking over Steve and his buddy Shoulder as they were working on their next screenplay. Are these the type of things they’re thinking about? It’s kind of like when we’ve talked about somebody that’s like a Stephen King who’s been writing for 60 years. He’s not thinking like, “Oh, I’m now finishing up the beginning hook and entering into the middle build.” He does it all by feel is my assumption. I mean, I’ve never asked him, but it’s like this stuff where like it’s so ingrained that he doesn’t think about it. 

I’m just curious, because as writers of books, most of us are writing them as a singular person writing a book, unless you have a co-author, where TV shows especially have writer rooms where there’s like a lot of people working on it and they’ll come up with the theme of the season and say, “Okay, you and you get this episode. You and you get this episode,” but like do they think in these terms too? Do they understand like that they’re telling a genre, an action genre and so everything’s going to turn on life-and-death and we need to make sure we have these characters in it? We need to make sure we had these kind of scene? Are they thinking that way too? Because – Anyway, I’m curious. Like if I sat in on a room like that, would I feel at home based on what I know now? 

[00:40:36] SC: Well, I really can’t answer that, but I do know that some people in Hollywood who do the television series and everything, they do rely upon these principles and they use the language that I use, like inciting incidents and turning points, and they all came from Robert McKee, who’s been teaching story course for decades. I think McKee is really probably the one responsible for shared terminology, shared understanding of global story structure to such a degree. 

The point of having a shared language is that it eliminates a lot of explanations, right? So if you say, “Oh boy, I don’t know. It’s pretty weak inciting incident.” Bang! The other person, if they know what an inciting incident is, will go, “Well, how do you mean?” or, “Yeah, I see what you mean.” At least they can start with a discussion that they share the same story structural knowledge. 

Now, a lot of writers would swear off knowing this stuff, and they don’t speak in these terms, and they – I don’t know that they’re threatened by it, but they believe so deeply in their craft for, say, writing for 25 years and reaching a level of success. They trust their craft such that they will say, “No. I don’t think that scene works. Why don’t we try this?” 

So what they’re doing is they’re using the same principles of story structure, but they don’t like to label it, and that’s okay too. Although, I think in writer’s rooms, probably the majority of people in the room can speak in larger global concepts than, “I’m not sure if that scene was right. I’m not sure why.” Because what happens is that it becomes a one person coming up with a concept and then throwing it out in the room and then it going back and forth instead of saying, “Well, I just don’t think the value at stake is very interesting here. Why don’t we switch the value to move from hope to despair?” Then their inspiration for writing the scene is all focused on that value, right? 

So whatever scene they come up with, man walks into a store to buy a wedding ring to propose to his girlfriend, or woman goes into apply for a coaching position for a football team. If both of those scenes turn on hope and despair, you’ve got something that is in the same arena. 

Anyway, this is a long way of saying, “I think the language of story structure is reaching a place where I would say, 40% to 50% of people will know what you’re talking about when you say resolution, climax, crisis, turning point, value, act, beginning, middle, end, ending payoff. I think the language – I think it’s helpful and I think the more people who start to think in terms of these abstractions, because all those that abstractions are is just informed crafts people. So an informed boat builder will be able to have a discussion with another informed boat builder without them having to cut one single piece of wood that will create something unique, right? 

[00:44:25] TG: When you start talking about the shared language, it made me think back to why you came up with the Story Grid stuff anyway was because you needed to be able to give specific feedback on the stories that you’re working on. 

Yeah, I think the shared language is interesting, because it is that thing of like as soon as – Well, just what just were you’re saying. As soon as you’re in the room with somebody that shares the language and shares the expertise, you guys can then shorthand your way to more in-depth conversations instead of starting with like, “What’s an inciting incident?” 

[00:44:59] SC: Yeah, right. So when we go back to first principles and start talking about genre, it’s all to re-formulate what is required in this story, and it’s a checkbox, like are we delivering what we’re promising? So if you don’t even know what you’re promising, you’re in trouble. 

[00:45:20] TG: Yeah.

[00:45:21] SC: Know what you’re promising. 

[00:45:21] TG: Well, I just think it’s – because like this is so in my head now. So when I think about the fact that like my action story has to have these types of obligatory scenes, I have to have a speech and praise of the villain. I have to have an all lost moment. I’m thinking of this, but then I’d like read a great action book or watch a great action movie, and those are in there, but I’m like, “Was there somebody in a room somewhere thinking I have to have a speech in praise of the villain scene, or were they just putting it in because they intuitively know, because they’ve consumed so many action stories?” 

So I’m lost in that like – 

[00:46:01] SC: There’s both. 

[00:46:02] TG: Yeah. Okay. Okay. Because that’s just – As we’ve looked at drama or a genre, it’s just been – I think that’s what, because in so many episodes when I’m dealing with a problem and you’re just like, “Okay, let’s go back to what genre you’re doing, an action labyrinth plot,” and even like when early on, we are kind of still soft on is it a thriller? Is it an action? Is it an action like this? Then we’re like, “No, we made the decision. It’s an action labyrinth,” which then like completely changed the whole thing about Marcus and when he showed up in the story. So it’s just like – 

[00:46:46] SC: And you went and you looked at Diehard, which is the masterwork of an action labyrinth plot. Then you picked it apart, and then that enabled you to restructure your work so that it abided by that story structure. 

[00:47:01] TG: Yeah, because it was the thing of like the whole thing was the villain didn’t even know he existed. So we can’t have my villain know that she existed. So it’s just been – Again, as I was looking at it this morning, it just struck me again, because even just as we’re talking and you brought up the genre. five leaf clover, I just Googled it so I could look at it while you’re talking about it, and this thing popped up. That was a novel in one year and it’s like a breakdown of task and weeks. I looked and like the first – It never gets you to think about –. It’s like the first thing you do is figure out the story skeleton, and then you have to develop the characters, and then you come up the synopsis, then you plot the whole thing out. I’m like, “But you don’t even know what the story is about yet. How are you doing all of these?” 

So it’s just been – Because it got me again thinking back to when I was trying to write stories without this and I would plot out these stories that just kind of petered out and never went anywhere, because I didn’t know why I was telling the story. 

So anyway, it’s just been – I feel like it’s been good for me even just today to really look at the fact that like the genre – As I say these things out loud, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. He said this to me at least four dozen times,” but it’s like the genre drives everything. The genre drives the characters. The genre drives what the characters are going to do in this instance. The genre drives like what it’s going to turn on. 

Then looking at your book and seeing like, “Oh! Because, honestly, if you would asked me yesterday, “What’s the first thing I teach in Story Grid?” I probably would’ve said the five commandments. So I kind of came in today thinking, “Okay. We’ll probably talk about the five commandments,” and then I looked at it and I’m like, “Wait. No, he started with genre.” I’m like, “Oh, of course he started with genre, because I can’t even do the five commandments without genre.” Anyway, these are those moments where I get overwhelmed on behalf of everybody else, because I’m like, “I’ve had you drilling it into me weekly for 3-1/2 years and I still – I’m like, “Oh! Right! Genre’s first.”

[00:49:22] SC: Well, the other thing is that genre has connotations of hack, right? So a lot of people like to not use the word genre, and in fact when they’re pitching their story to someone they’ll say, “Well, it’s about this murder, but is not really genre.” What I’m trying to do with the Story Grid is to resurrect genre doesn’t mean hack work. It’s not a four letter word. It’s not shit. It’s just clear, a clear decision that you have to make that will be your Bible. Every time you get in trouble, just go back to your genre, and then it’s the greatest first principle in storytelling that you could possibly come up with. 

You’re right, once you know the genre, the five commandments start to have real resonance. So I can explain the five commandments in terms of a Western genre pretty quickly, or a love story, or – So you have to make the abstractions specific in order for them to gel in your mind. So until you know what –Genre just literally means what kind of story you want to tell? What kind of story? You have lots of options, but they’re limited right now. What do I have? I have nine external genres and three internal genres, and these are the content. This is the content leaf. It’s not the time structure style or reality parts of the leaf. This is purely the content. 

Believe it or not, science fiction and fantasy, that is not part of content. Science fiction and fantasy is a reality-based genre. Anyway, I can’t – If I were to tell the primal thing to learn about story, it’s definitely start with genre and end with genre and always go back to genre.

[END OF INTERVIEW]

[00:51:26] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. 

If you like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, as always, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review. 

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[END]

About the Author

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. She’s been a Story Grid junkie since 2015 and became a certified editor so that she can help fellow authors, in all genres, become better storytellers. To learn more, visit valeriefrancis.ca
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