Internal Genres: Part 1

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A Case Study in Nuance

The number one thing Shawn Coyne says when writers struggle with their story is, “What’s your genre?”

For Story Grid Nerds this is not news. The genre-mantra is a way of life now. But what makes Action distinct from Horror, and Love distinct from Society is typically clear. (Although as we have learned on the Roundtable Podcast this is not always the case.)

External Genres feature concrete elements you can describe with the five senses. Internal Genres, on the other hand, are much more difficult to see. They play out on an internal landscape, with conventions that are often abstract and woven into external set pieces.

As Shawn says: squishy.

It’s kind of like the Waffle Brain vs Spaghetti Brain, an analogy that describes how different people organize information.

In the Waffle Brain, each subject dwells in a separate square: work, family, money, love, sex, past, future, etc. Separate, clear, tidy. In the Spaghetti Brain, each subject is a single noodle—but, guess what, the noodles all touch.

So while the Waffle Brain receives a trigger and knows exactly which square to visit, the Spaghetti Brain receives a trigger, then lands on a noodle, and that leads to all the noodles touching that noodle … then to all the noodles touching those noodles! Everything is woven together and connected. It’s nearly impossible to know which connections are necessary and helpful, and which are just a byproduct of the density of subjects.

One guess which Genres are like the Spaghetti Brain …

And yet Internal Genres are crucial to telling stories with the richness and depth we crave. They are the Need to our Want.

We’ve spent the last several weeks bingeing on Internal Genre Masterworks, following the noodles to see where they lead. It’s been a mind-blowing experience for us and we’re excited to share our findings with you in multiple posts. Today we unravel how to distinguish the key elements that drive the Internal Genres.  

Examining the Squishy: Internal Layers and Patterns

Despite their noodle-y nature, Internal Genres, like their External companions, are not arbitrary. They consist of specific patterns that evoke certain meanings from the collective human unconscious. These patterns have specific characteristics that we can leverage to create more meaningful story experiences. For this we have many Story champions to thank, from Aristotle to Norman Friedman, Robert McKee to Shawn Coyne.

In the Story Grid Universe, we organize the Internal Genres this way:

  • Status
    • Pathetic
    • Sentimental
    • Tragic
    • Admiration
  • Worldview
    • Education
    • Disillusionment
    • Maturation
    • Revelation
  • Morality
    • Redemption
    • Punitive
    • Testing
      • Triumph
      • Submission

The Story Grid Internal Genres are adapted from the work of Norman Friedman, who was the first literary critic to make a distinction between internal and external genres.

Each of the main genre categories focuses a particular element related to the protagonist.

  • Morality (Character) focuses on the protagonist’s behavior and choices driven by the moral compass and strength of will.
  • Worldview (Thought) focuses on the way the protagonist understands their world and circumstances.
  • Status (Fortune) focuses on the protagonist’s ability to deal with misfortune that is independent of their character or thought.

These elements are not just labels and categories, but are both the cause and effect of a protagonist’s inner change. The relationship between these three items creates a clear cause and effect statement that indicates the subgenre.

  • When a protagonist with _____ level of character and motive and _____ state of mind, experiences ______ external forces and changes _________, their outcome will be ______.

First let’s look at the main differences between the three primary Internal Genres.

Status. These stories are derived from the Esteem level of our Human Needs Tanks, and are about moving from one level of social standing and trying to achieve a higher one, and either succeeding or failing. Each subgenre of Status turns on the life values of Success and Failure. Status is the most external of the Internal Genres in that the protagonist herself does not change her moral character or thought, but her external fortune and circumstances change, either because of or in spite of her internal nature.

Worldview. These stories are derived from the Self-Actualization level of the Human Needs Tanks, and are about coming to a new level of understanding about something, in other words uncovering a new layer of truth. Unlike Status, the character’s life experience changes how they think, but may or may not change their external choices. Also, unlike the Status genre, the life values for Worldview are unique for each subgenre. The umbrella values are Understanding and Lack of Understanding, which encompasses Belief, Sophistication, and Knowledge.

Morality. These stories are derived from the Self-Transcendence level of the Human Needs Tanks, and are about testing the protagonist’s inner moral compass, leading to a change in their level of character. This is demonstrated in both thought and action, whether for good or ill. Each subgenre of Morality turns on the life values of Selfishness and Altruism.

Examining the Masterworks

Let’s go even deeper by examining a Masterwork for each subgenre. This is a wonderful way to see the specific elements in action and internalize the pattern. It’s also amazing to recognize the amount of variety that exists (a good lesson for anyone concerned that structure is code for formula).

Status-Pathetic

When a sympathetic protagonist, who has weak character and is too unsophisticated to see the consequences of their actions, experiences misfortune without the guidance of an adequate mentor, they will fail to rise in social standing.

The Masterwork

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a Status-Pathetic story with an external Love-Courtship genre. The 2008 BBC television series was directed by David Blair and adapted by David Nicholls from Thomas Hardy’s 1892 novel of the same name.

Internal Elements

  • Who is the protagonist? Tess is a naive young woman with little experience of the world outside her village, including the way unscrupulous men behave. This means it’s hard for her to foresee the consequences of her actions so she can choose wise ones. Though she has a strong internal sense of right and wrong, her weak will is often overborne, and this combination makes her quite vulnerable to the influence of others.
  • What does the protagonist’s experience? Tess’s misfortune comes through no fault of her own, but through the negligent or malicious actions of others. What her mother knows of the world and of men, she doesn’t share with Tess, in fact her mother uses Tess’s ignorance to pressure her into dangerous circumstances.
  • What is the result of the experience? Tess’s attempts to rise in society by getting away from her parents and marrying Angel ultimately fail with death by hanging as a criminal.
  • How does the audience feel about the result? We feel pity for Tess in the end because she can’t control circumstances that are stacked against her. We sometimes feel hopeful that Tess will escape misfortune, but those hopes are never realized.

Cause and Effect Statement

Tess, a naive woman easily influenced by others and inexperienced in the ways of unscrupulous men, is pursued by an abusive man who leverages her mother’s poverty against her, and in her desperation, Tess kills him and is executed.

Thoughts from Leslie

This is a story that makes me think, Tess never had a chance. Misfortune doesn’t depend on any bad faith on her part or have anything to do with whether she deserves it. Tess makes mistakes when it appears to her that she has no other choice. If it’s meant to be a cautionary tale, who is Thomas Hardy warning? It seems to be a call to potential mentors to do their part to help vulnerable members of society.

Status-Sentimental

When a sympathetic protagonist, with a steadfast will but naive worldview, encounters a challenge or opportunity and has a supportive mentor of high moral character, he can rise in social standing.

The Masterwork

Rocky is a Status-Sentimental story with a Performance-Sports external genre. The 1976 film was directed by John G. Avildsen, with screenplay by Sylvester Stallone.

Internal Elements

  • Who is the protagonist? Rocky is a weak Protagonist who is somewhat sophisticated and sympathetic. He’s not proud of his work for Gazzo the loan shark, but he avoids breaking legs and keeps his friend Paulie out of that line of work. He’s a good guy who looks out for his friends and their sisters. He’s also kind to animals.
  • What does the Protagonist experience? Rocky has a hard life in Philadelphia, where he lives in a small apartment that stinks and doesn’t take risks (he’s never broken his nose in a fight). But when he gets the chance to fight the heavyweight champ on national television (a huge step up from the small-time fights of his career), he accepts the challenge and the help he needs along the way.
  • What’s the result of the Protagonist’s experience? Rocky survives the threat of misfortune, and his life changes for the better by the end of the story. He is no longer a bum, gets the girl, and walks away with $150,000.
  • How does the audience feel about the result? We feel relief as our short-range fears for Rocky are allayed as he rises in status within his community and beyond. Our concerns about Rocky’s future dissolve, and he finally makes good on his talent.

Cause and Effect Statement

When Rocky, a second-rate amateur boxer who has failed to realize his potential, gets an opportunity to fight the heavyweight champ and accepts Mickey’s help as a manager, he proves he’s not a bum by being the first person to go fifteen rounds.

Thoughts from Leslie

It doesn’t take much to save a Sentimental protagonist from misfortune. Rocky isn’t that different from Tess. The key is that he had a strong mentor in Mickey and enough sophistication to overlook the criticism and accept help. Mickey understands the need for a mentor when attempting to rise within society and explains this to Rocky. Though Mickey is respected, he missed his opportunity for greatness as a bantamweight boxer because he had no manager.

Status-Tragic

When a sympathetic protagonist, ambitious and sophisticated enough to see the consequences of their actions, lacks an adequate mentor and makes a serious mistake in their attempt to rise, the result is a tragic fall in social standing, and often death.

The Masterwork

A Place in the Sun is a Status-Tragic story with an external Crime genre. The 1951 film is directed by George Stevens, with screenplay adapted by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown from Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy.

Internal Elements

  • Who is the Protagonist? George is a sympathetic protagonist who is sophisticated enough to see the consequences of his actions and has a strong will to assist him in rising within society. His character is lacking, though, and he cuts corners.
  • What is the Protagonist’s experience? George suffers misfortune, which he is in part responsible for because of his bad choices, but also because his uncle fails to take an active interest in him. He could have married Alice or not, and suffered the consequences. His tragic fall results from compounding his earlier mistakes.
  • What is the result of the Protagonist’s experience? In the end, he admits his culpability and accepts his death.
  • How does the audience feel about the character’s experience? We feel pity mixed with a sense of justice. It’s unfortunate that he died for a crime he didn’t commit, but he had guilty intent when he took Alice on the lake and knew she couldn’t swim.

Cause and Effect Statement

When George, a hard-working striver aware of the world, is ignored by his uncle and seduces Alice, which leads to a series of negative consequences, including a murder conviction and execution.

Thoughts from Leslie

We feel differently about George’s misfortune and the result than we do with Alice, who seems more like the Pathetic protagonist because she is naive and lacks a strong will.  

Like the Pathetic protagonist, George lacks a steadying and positive influence of a strong mentor who could help him avoid his tragic mistakes. His uncle could have helped George, but he is more interested in appearing to help than actually helping.

Status-Admiration

When a sympathetic protagonist with nobility of character and motive, along with a sophisticated worldview, encounters misfortune they will rise in spite of it.

The Masterwork

Gladiator is a Status-Admiration story with an external Society-Political genre. The 2000 film was directed by Ridley Scott with screenplay by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson.

Internal Elements

  • Who is the Protagonist? Maximus is a sympathetic character. He is honorable, does his duty, and is loved by the army and his emperor.
  • What does the Protagonist experience? Maximus goes from being the favorite of the emperor to being a slave and then rises in status to be a favorite among the people of Rome.
  • What is the result of what the Protagonist experiences? Maximus’s fortune changes for the better, even though he is killed. He defeats Commodus, fulfills Marcus Aurelius’s request, and join his family in the afterlife—through strength and honor.
  • What does the audience feel about the Protagonist’s experience? We respect and admire Maximus, a man who outdoes himself and the expectations of others. He could have sought to rise through compromise by pledging loyalty to Commodus. And when his family died, he could have given up on Rome, especially since it was his deep wish to join his family in the afterlife. He persevered, acted honorably, and his sacrifice is rewarded.

Cause and Effect Statement

When Maximus, the honorable general of the Roman army and the emperor’s choice to succeed him, loses everything and is sold into slavery, his dedication to strength and honor allows him to rise and fulfill the emperor’s vision.

Thoughts from Leslie

The Admiration protagonist doesn’t need the continuous support of a strong mentor like the other Status protagonists do. Mentors appear at pivotal moments to offer information that helps the protagonist metabolize cognitive dissonance. In fact, this protagonist often serves as a mentor to others.

Maximus possesses the strength of character to resist compromise, which distinguishes him from the Tragic protagonist. Instead, he begins strong and misfortune does not sway him from the path of honor.

Worldview-Education

When a sympathetic protagonist, with a naive or cynical outlook, experiences an opportunity or challenge that enlightens them to a broader understanding, they find new meaning in their existing actions.

The Masterwork

My Fair Lady is an Worldview-Education story with an external Performance genre. The 1964 film is directed by George Cukor, with screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, based on his musical stage play of the same name, which he adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion.

Internal Elements

  • Who is the Protagonist? Eliza’s is a poor flower girl who works hard. She has a naive concept of the meaning of life. Her greatest wish in the beginning is relief from current hardships, probably because she is unaware of other possibilities that might be open to her.
  • What is the Protagonist’s experience? She accepts Higgins’s challenge to learn to speak like a lady and learns there is more to life than pursuing basic human needs.
  • What is the result of the Protagonist’s experience? Eliza realizes that she deserves respect and doesn’t need someone else’s approval. Meaning doesn’t come from the circumstances of her life, but in how she sees them.
  • How does the audience feel about the Protagonist’s experience? The audience is left feeling relief, satisfaction, and pleasure. Eliza has escaped her former situation, and we trust that with her new understanding of meaning, she will live a happier life and not choose to allow herself to be treated poorly.

Cause and Effect Statement

When Eliza, a poor flower girl who dreams only of relieving her current hardships, is exposed to a challenge that could allow her to gain what she wants, she finds greater meaning in respecting herself, no matter where she was born, or how she speaks.

Thoughts from Leslie

Once again, we see the importance of a strong mentor. Eliza’s father is a poor model for her and gives dodgy advice. Henry Higgins, despite his faults (and with the aid of his own mentors Colonel Pickering and Mrs. Higgins), shows Eliza possibilities that she realizes through her willingness to expand her view of the world, strength of will, and good character. Through the challenge, she finds a deeper meaning in life and is not dependent on someone else’s view. Like the protagonist who seeks to rise within society, one who seeks to work through cognitive dissonance to a deeper understanding of themselves and the world requires the guidance of a strong mentor.

Worldview-Disillusionment

When a sympathetic protagonist, with developed will, positive motives, and wholehearted idealistic beliefs, experiences a loss or trial that forces them to realize the darker truth, they lose their faith entirely.

The Masterwork

The Great Gatsby is a Worldview-Disillusionment story with an external Love-Obsession genre. The 2013 film is directed by Baz Luhrmann with screenplay by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce based on the 1925 novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Internal Elements

  • Who is the protagonist? Jay Gatsby is the protagonist, but the story is told through Nick Carraway’s point of view. Nick finds Gatsby to be a sympathetic and charming protagonist with a strong will and good character. But then, Nick believes the best of everyone.
  • What is the protagonist’s experience? Gatsby believes that Daisy loves, and when she admits that she has loved Tom too, he is at a loss to make sense of what he sees as a contradiction. Nick believes in giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, but loses faith in his belief when he witnesses such atrocious behavior. He metabolizes the loss on Gatsby’s behalf by writing the story.
  • What is the result of the protagonist’s experience? Gatsby’s blind faith in Daisy results in his death, and Nick’s blind faith in people generally results in his disillusionment.
  • How does the audience feel about the protagonist’s experience? We are left feeling pity for Gatsby (in part because of the particular portrayal in this film), but also for Nick who must go on living with the disillusionment.

Cause and Effect Statement

When Gatsby, an ambitious man who believes that his wealth will earn him the love of his life, learns that he is not the love of her life and she will never be his, he sinks into despair. Nick, who previously thought well of everyone he encountered, sees that Gatsby has been murdered for a crime he didn’t commit and loses faith in people entirely.

Thoughts from Leslie

To allow the audience to see what’s going on, but keep Gatsby in the dark about Daisy, Fitzgerald and the filmmakers used Nick as the point of view character. He has a similar arc, but Gatsby dies before he reaches complete disillusionment, and Nick, in essence, picks up the baton and carries it through for the audience.

I continue to be obsessed with the importance of the mentor in guiding protagonists through critical moments in their lives. Nick’s father caused Nick to adopt an unreasonably favorable view of people and sets him up for a greater fall when he learns the truth. He doesn’t have a mentor to help him process his realizations as he goes.

Worldview-Maturation

When a sympathetic protagonist, with naive black-and-white views of the world and mistakenly conceived goals, experiences a loss or trial that shows them the world is multi-layered and imperfect, they embrace better-suited goals and actions.

The Masterwork

Saturday Night Fever, a Worldview-Maturation story with an external Performance-Dance genre. The 1977 film was written by Norman Wexler and directed by John Badham, and based upon a 1976 New York magazine article by British writer Nik Cohn, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night“.

Internal Elements

  • Who is the protagonist? Tony, 19, has a fairly strong will but narrow life experience that cause him to adopt a racist/sexist worldview. He smarts off to his boss about planning for the future.
  • What does the protagonist experience? A series of dramatic experiences that highlight the shallow rottenness of family, friends, and himself.
  • What is the result of that experience? Life in the neighborhood and the way he’s been living no longer appeal to him and he chooses to move.
  • How does the audience feel about this experience? We are relieved and have righteous satisfaction that Tony has seen the light and changed for the better.

Cause and Effect Statement

Tony, a strong-willed young man with racist and sexist views who mocks planning for the future, meets a woman with positive ambition along with witnessing painful events that disrupt his narrow views, leaving him dissatisfied with his life in Brooklyn and ready to grow up beyond Saturday night.

Thoughts from Kim

Full-disclosure, I am not a fan of this movie. The vulgar sexism does not hold up well in 2018, unlike Thelma and Louise where it feels more relevant than ever. But as much as I didn’t care for it, it has stuck with me and continues to yield new insights. A great example of a mini-plot, capturing the various experiences that change Tony’s very narrow views–that Saturday night in Brooklyn is the whole world–to recognizing there is more to life and actively seeking it out.

Maturation has interesting parallels to other Worldview subgenres. It feels a bit like being disillusioned to what you thought was true, and subsequently find meaning in the fact you don’t have it all figured out. It’s a positive ending: our protagonist has changed for the better and has hope, unlike Disillusionment which leaves us feeling scorned.

The Maturation plot is also distinguished in that the protagonists takes action based on their new worldview. Education and Disillusionment will likely end with the character continuing with the same actions as before, but now they hold a different meaning, as in meaningful or meaningless. Tony’s definitions change so drastically he can’t stay where he was, he knows too much now and has to move on.

Worldview-Revelation

When a protagonist, with well-developed will but lacking in essential facts, experiences doubt about their circumstances which leads to a revelation of a shocking truth, they can make wise and appropriate decisions.

The Masterwork

The Sixth Sense is a Worldview-Revelation story with an external Horror-Supernatural genre. The 1999 film was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Internal Elements

  • Who is the protagonist? Malcolm Crowe is an honored child-psychologist dedicated to his patients.
  • What does the protagonist experience? He faces the challenge of helping a child who sees ghosts.
  • What is the result of that experience? Malcolm discovers he is a ghost and is able to make peace with his death and his marriage.
  • How does the audience feel about this experience? We feel shock at finding out he’s been dead this whole time, followed by immense satisfaction because the truth was there the whole time.

Cause and Effect Statement

When Malcolm Crowe, an honored child-psychologist who doesn’t know he’s dead, meets a patient who sees ghosts and discovers the truth about himself, he accepts the shocking truth and finds closure with his wife.

Thoughts from Kim

Worldview-Revelation stories are so much fun. You don’t know you’re in one until the protagonist does. In looking at The Sixth Sense and other Revelation plots (Oedipus Rex, Shutter Island, The Number 23, Roald Dahl’s “Beware of the Dog”), we can see that the protagonist has a clear goal or want that they are actively pursuing (Malcolm wants to help Cole, Oedipus wants to find the King’s murderer, Shutter Island protagonist is trying to solve a missing person case, etc.).

In this process, they find a clue that tips them off: something is not quite right. They experience cognitive dissonance and know they are missing a key piece of information. They believe it relates to their original goal, but the shocking revelation is that it is actually related to the protagonist in a major way. It must be personal (Malcolm is a ghost, Oedipus murdered the king, etc.). It’s not just a twist, it’s a reversal of all the protagonist believed about themselves or their circumstances.

Morality-Redemption

When an unsympathetic protagonist, with strong will and sophisticated state of mind, experiences a seemingly impossible challenge through which they recover their inner moral compass, they make a selfless choice for others and are rewarded.

The Masterwork

Kramer vs. Kramer is a Morality-Redemption story with an external Love-Marriage genre. The 1979 film was written and directed by Robert Benton.

Internal Elements

  • Who is the protagonist? Ted Kramer is an ambitious and talented advertising executive who’s self-obsession has led him to emotionally neglect his family.
  • What does the protagonist experience? His wife Joanna leaves him to raise Billy alone but returns to reclaim him in a custody battle. Ted loses the case.
  • What is the result of that experience? Ted reconnects with his son and finds the true value and meaning of being a parent, and when faced with the chance to appeal the ruling, makes the selfless choice that is best for son.
  • How does the audience feel about this experience? We are proud of Ted for the father he chooses to become, heartbroken and proud of his decision to keep his son from the stand, and overwhelmed with joy when we find out they will get to be together because Ted has proven he’s worthy of the honor.

Cause and Effect Statement

When Ted Kramer, a self-obsessed advertising executive who has neglected his family, is left by his wife to raise his young son, he embraces what it means to be a father and sacrifices what he wants for what best for Billy, inspiring Joanna to grant him custody.

Thoughts from Kim

This story is a Love-Marriage plot about a divorce, but there is also a Buddy Love story between father and son. This is a beautiful support to Ted’s Morality-Redemption arc. His choice not to appeal so Billy doesn’t have to testify fulfills the Proof of Love and his Redemptive Sacrifice. Joanna’s choice to let Billy stay with Ted is another Proof of Love, for Billy and for Ted. Meryl Streep makes this movie–her depiction of Joanna is out of this world, and makes what could be otherwise be a villainous character extremely sympathetic. Try not to cry when you watch it!

Morality-Punitive

When a protagonist with ambition and sophistication, takes advantage of an opportunity and betrays their moral compass, they victimize innocent people and receive due consequences.

The Masterwork

Wall Street is a Morality-Punitive story set in the external Performance-Business genre. The 1987 film was written by Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser and directed by Oliver Stone.

Internal Elements

  • Who is the protagonist? Bud Fox is a law-abiding ambitious junior stockbroker
  • What does the protagonist experience? He lands Gordon Gekko as a client and chooses to conduct insider trading to impress Gekko with more money.
  • What is the result of that experience? He betrays his coworkers and his father, victimizes others, including his friend from college and his father’s airline, until he gets caught and goes to jail.
  • How does the audience feel about this experience? We feel righteous satisfaction that Bud understands the weight of his actions and gracefully accepts his consequences.

Cause and Effect Statement

When Bud Fox, an ambitious junior stock trader, lands the greedy Gordon Gekko and willfully breaks the law to advance, he betrays and victimizes the working class and is arrested.

Thoughts from Kim

Bud’s choices are immoral and selfish, not only because he is breaking the law, but because it’s a betrayal of his fellow traders. They are following the rules. The old guy gets fired, meanwhile Bud gets promoted to the corner office. A senior trader in his office repeatedly offers sage advice about the merits of the honest path.

Bud does save the airline, but it’s too late for him to avoid the consequences. And avoiding the consequences would have likely made for an unsatisfying ending. Bud’s ironic words to the receptionist when he comes into work on his last day, before he knows he’s been caught, is “Smile, Carolyn. There’s justice in the world.” And even though we like Bud, justice is still what we want to see.

Morality-Testing-Triumph

When a protagonist of highly developed will and sophistication experiences a challenge and trial but maintains their inner moral compass and strength of will, they make a selfless choice and earn respect and admiration.

The Masterwork

Cool Hand Luke is a Morality-Testing-Triumph story within an external Society genre. The 1967 film was written by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson.

Internal Elements

  • Who is the protagonist? Cool Hand Luke, a decorated war hero with unwavering tenacity who understands the power and dynamic of a troop of men.
  • What does the protagonist experience? He breaks the law and is sent to a chain gang prison full of subjugating rules that suffocate his inner spirit and will.
  • What is the result of that experience? He refuses to surrender his will and makes a stand against the guards, causing his death, but earning the admiration of his fellow prisoners.
  • How does the audience feel about this experience? We feel sad at his death but proud he makes the choice to not give in.

Cause and Effect Statement

Luke, a decorated war veteran with unwavering tenacity, is subjected to the arbitrary rule of the prison guards that threatens his inner will, but instead of surrendering, he chooses to make a final stand that proves he cannot be broken, even in death, and restores morale to the prisoners.

Thoughts from Kim

The Testing-Triumph is interesting because we might say Luke is doing the wrong thing by disobeying the guards. He’s in prison after all, shouldn’t he just fall in line? But the Testing isn’t necessarily about external laws or rules, it’s about Luke’s inner moral code, staying true to his God-given tenacity for life.

His choice is altruistic because he understands how his actions affect the other men. It’s pointed out more than once that Luke was a decorated war hero–he understands what it means to be a member of a group of men who depend on one another, and the dynamics of morale. It would be easier for him to just fall in line and play it safe, but he remains steadfast, not only for his own sake, but to inspire the men who have little else to hold on to.

Morality-Testing-Surrender

When a protagonist of highly developed will and sophistication experiences an opportunity and ignores their inner moral code, they may be rewarded externally but will suffer internally.

The Masterwork

The Social Network is a Morality-Testing-Surrender story in the external Business-Performance genre. The 2010 film was written Aaron Sorkin, directed by David Fincher, and adapted from Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal

Internal Elements

  • Who is the protagonist? Mark Zuckerberg is an ambitious and talented computer programmer at Harvard, of highly developed will and intelligence, who understands how the world works.
  • What does the protagonist experience? Mark gets an opportunity to build a highly successful website and he betrays his friend Eduardo, who along with others sues him.
  • What is the result of that experience? Mark refuses to acknowledge that his actions were in any way unacceptable. When forced to pay out settlements, he ends up rich anyway, but alone.
  • How does the audience feel about this experience? We feel satisfied that Mark has to pay out, but disappointed by Mark’s refusal to acknowledge his actions were repugnant. The fact that he would rather be alone and right makes us pity him.

Cause and Effect Statement

When Mark, a talented and ambitious college programmer, creates a groundbreaking social networking site and becomes obsessed with his own contribution, he ignores the contributions of others and loses his closest friend, leading to forced payout of large settlements.

Thoughts from Kim

The Testing plot can be very subtle in nature. For Mark, it’s specifically played out with Eduardo, the one close friend he has. In a way, Mark’s surrender begins by getting caught up in success, and by the time of the depositions, he is entrenched his selfish stubbornness.  In Cool Hand Luke, Luke was also entrenched in his will, but it was for the benefit of others. Mark is self-obsessed, refusing to see any other point of view, or acknowledge that his actions were inappropriate at all.

Part of the audience’s experience with a Testing-Surrender story is that all the while we’re hoping he’ll make the right choice. Unlike Punitive, Mark’s actions ride on his ability to redeem himself at any moment. Even if he still had to pay the settlements, we’d be so much prouder of him if he’d just apologize to Eduardo and admit he screwed up. But he never does and fails the test. Like Punitive, he makes the selfish choice, but does not receive the same kind of punishment. His punishment is more internal rather than external.

A Writer’s Worldview-Maturation: Embrace the Squishy

Undoubtedly stories have a lot of layers, which is great because that means you can come at it from any number of angles:

  • What kind of story do you want to tell? Prescriptive or cautionary? Look at which genres have a positive or negative result.
  • What kind of protagonist do you want to write about? Look at the three internal elements.
  • What are your protagonist’s wants and needs? Look at Human Needs Tanks.
  • What kind of experiences do you want to give your audience?

Take the protagonist and their elements, add a challenge, test, or misfortune. Add or subtract a strong mentor, and what result do you get? That is the essence of the character’s internal journey.

The point here is not to merely choose a label, ticking boxes as if they were ingredients, but to truly understand the story you want to tell. From this place, you can find the genre that best expresses that story and execute a pattern that aligns with that message, and resonate with your readers.

Click here to download detailed cheat sheets for identifying Internal Genres:

Internal Genre Elements

Friedman’s Framework

Ready for the craziest and most wonderful part of all of this?

No matter what your intention, each reader brings their own character, worldview, and circumstances with them when they experience your story. Because when you really focus and nail your singular genre choice, readers will follow threads and see the connections, the ones you meant and the ones they need.

This is the rich and rewarding gravitas of Internal Genres.

A Call to Action

The number one thing Shawn Coyne says when writers struggle is, “What’s your genre?”

Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is a Morality-Testing plot … one every creative must face.

Will you do the hard work required to tell your story to the reader waiting to hear it, or will you selfishly stay silent?

News flash: You have a gift, but your gift isn’t for you. It’s for everyone.

Resistance wants to keep you stuck and silent.

This is your Morality-Testing story … do you choose Triumph or Surrender?

One reason we decided to tackle this post was to unravel our own Buffet of Spaghetti Noodles. It’s amazing what a little elbow grease and twelve masterworks can do. For that reason, we wholeheartedly encourage you to grab a big ol’ plate and dig in for yourself.

Watch the movies, read the books. Find your masterwork—the one that will help you nail your novel—and study the daylights out of it. Then reread The Story Grid. And watch more movies …

When you embrace this kind of deep practice, you internalize and make the information real in a whole new way. You will feel the patterns for yourself.

We’ll be back in a few weeks with Internal Genres Part 2: Executing the Arc, where we’ll explore the conventions and obligatory scenes of each of Internal Subgenres.

In the meantime, happy noodling.

Our deep thanks go to fellow Certified Story Grid editor Anne Hawley for her clear and helpful graphics showing the range of life values for the internal genres.

 

About the Author

Kimberly Kessler didn’t finish college. When she was twenty-years-old, she landed an entry-level job at a local credit union which served as her on-the-job education. But after climbing the corporate ladder for ten years, she realized time is truly our most precious commodity and needed to spend hers differently. In October 2014, she quit her corporate job to pursue passion projects—and it has been the best decision of her life. Since that day, she gained a son through open adoption, wrote her first novel, and got to add TEDx speaker to her resume with her talk "I Am A Villain In Disguise." Now Kim is a Certified Story Grid Editor and gets to combine her two favorite things in the world--stories and people--and call it work. Nothing is more rewarding than helping someone else get a breakthrough on their plot and process. But most of all, she hopes to help others realize it’s never too late to live your best story.
Comments (46)
Author Kimberly Kessler

46 Comments

BC says:

Incredibly cool. You are teaching me to dive into the deeper part of the pool and it’s glorious. My stories will have a lot more meaning.

Thank you so very much.

BC

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Mark McGinn says:

This is terrific work and adds huge value to the Story Grid. Well done and many thanks. Much appreciated. Not your fault my head’s squishy!!

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Kimberly Kessler says:

Thanks so much, Mark! It’s been a blast to study. My brain will never be the same!

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Leslie Watts says:

Really happy to share the fruits of our explorations, Mark! I think the more we embrace the squishy, the better we’ll understand what it is we’re really trying to say.

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BC says:

This is astounding stuff.

Would it be possible to do this in depth study of the External Genres as well.

After all, Genre is the most important Storytelling Tool. So we need your help figuring in all out.

BC

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Kimberly Kessler says:

Yes, we absolutely have plans in the works for this! In the meantime, that’s precisely what the call to action is all about – find some books/movies that feel close to what you want to achieve and dig in! 🙂

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Leslie Watts says:

Thanks, BC! I’m so glad this is helpful!

And Kim is spot on, as usual. We’ve studied this topic deeply, but no one knows better the story YOU want to tell and which masterwork is closest to it.

Watching this many movies in a short time brought surprising and useful insights about our own stories (and lives). I highly recommend it. If you want suggestions for the genre you want to write in, let us know!

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Desmond L Kelly says:

Why do you emphasise films over books? It is books we are trying to write.

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Kimberly Kessler says:

Absolutely, Desmond. In this case it’s purely a numbers game. We can take in movies so much more quickly than books, and so can all of you. So for rapid deep practice of something like Genre, it’s definitely our medium of choice. But have no fear! Our Editors are hard at work on their Story Grid Editions for Masterwork Novels (like Shawn’s version of Pride & Prejudice) and I know many of them have posts scheduled with some sneak peek insights. It’s going to be amazing year around here!

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Mark McGinn says:

And they didn’t become films without first becoming screenplays. I Understand the idea of studying films is you get to study the 6 essential editor questions at a speed it wouldn’t be possible with books.

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Leslie Watts says:

Great point, Desmond. As Kim mentioned, we wanted to write a comprehensive post on the internal genres that would shed some light on this squishy topic, but couldn’t do that as quickly with novels.

In the end, storytelling is storytelling, and movies are a rich resource of well-conceived and executed stories. The key is to understand how these two mediums are the same and different. For example, a movie can’t convey a character’s internal experience the same way novel can, but the movie can give us visuals that take a lot of words to deliver. If you use a movie as a masterwork, you can ask yourself, how can I adapt this tool to writing?

We’d be happy to suggest a novel or two in any of the subgenres you’re interested in. Just let us know!

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Peter Adamson says:

‘It’s nearly impossible to know which connections are necessary and helpful, and which are just a byproduct of the density of subjects.’ Well, I think this sentence sums up everything about trying to make sense of The Story Grid … and you have to wait yet another year to be drip-fed the sense you just cannot make out of the book, the podcasts, the resources, etc, etc.

I stand by what I have previously said: My intuition tells me that The Story Grid is a valuable tool to writers, but – really – can Shawn not come down out of the ether and put it all in layman’s terms? which he should have done in the book. By the time anybody unravels all the squishy noodles, or finds the magic wand that will enable to connect them all, they may very well be about ready to expire, or they expired trying.

Admittedly, I do use certain parts of The Story Grid, but this is worse than pulling teeth. As Desmond L. Kelly said, we write books and yet we keep getting movies rammed down our throats. I absolutely give up. I maintain that those who bought the book were short-changed, but I also fear it has been done by design, otherwise we wouldn’t be here and having The Story Grid services rammed down our throats. This has to be the most painstaking learning path I have ever had the misfortune to tread upon … and I’m leaving it. You have to know when enough is enough. However, I sincerely hope the most patent and persistent story-gridders get their Story Grid qualification before they expire. All the very best to you all. I wish I had a lifetime to give the subject that is The Story Grid, but then there is no guarantee it can be achieved in a lifetime. I hate to think what Shawn et al have in store for you all next year, and the next year, and the next … Woe is me.

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Mark McGinn says:

I too, went through this thinking Peter. I felt that mastering the Story Grid, and all that it entails was excruciating. Maybe more so because I’m typically a ‘pantser’ who’s disinclined to a lot of structure and method, relying on the hope that I have the same intuitive skill as the masters in my genre. I write crime stories and I’ll always write more words that have to be thrown away as a result of my approach. I’m pretty certain all my favourite crime authors wouldn’t have a clue about the Story Grid, but their stories work for me as a reader. In fact, as a writer I’m probably now intimidated by their skill. I don’t have the same intuitive skill of the writers I love, but the Story Grid lifts the veil on why these guys do so well and I’m grateful that the giant nerd in Shawn has sat down and figured it out and he’s built a pool of talented people to speed up the process of teaching. So I don’t feel conned (my word, not yours), I still feel inspired.
Anyway, all the best with your writing.

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Leslie Watts says:

Peter, I appreciate your honesty and know from my own experience how frustrating it is when someone seems to have found “the answer” and it doesn’t resonate with me or my work. Not every tool works for every writer. The key is to search until you find what works for you.

We often use movies for the reasons cited above, but you’re not limited by our choice. If you take nothing else from your time grappling with the material, I hope it is this: Find a story you love, one that is closest to the story you want to tell, and study it. Read it multiple times. Focus on the big picture and its parts. Then use it as a guide for working on your story.

Stories are full of choices the writer makes (conscious or unconscious), and you can see and feel those choices in the masterwork. So ask yourself, why did they do it this way? What choices did they reject? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing it this way? What would that look like in my story, with my characters? You might not find a definitive answer about the masterwork, but by intentionally working in this way, you’ll find the answer for your story.

If you need suggestions for novels in a particular genre, we’d be happy to help, and you don’t need to hire us for that. Just let us know.

We do offer services because there are writers who want them. If you don’t, you’re still more than welcome here.

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Chris says:

Leslie and Kimberley, great post.

Following on Peter’s comments and Leslie’s reply, I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum to Peter in that the Story Grid has resurrected my desire to write a novel. I’ve taken multiple writing classes, read multiple books and even worked with a published author as a mentor and had pretty much given up until I stumbled upon the podcast and these articles.

I tried to be a punster and failed miserably, but nothing else has clicked for me in terms of structure etc.until I listened to the podcast where week after week most of Tim’s questions were things that I’ve struggled with over and over again. It’s not perfect (I don’t think any approach is), but, for me, without the Story Grid, I wouldn’t be writing a novel that is actually going somewhere and I haven’t spent any money on the Story Grid to date other than the price of the book. I could go on further her as to why it works for me etc., but I doubt anybody cares. Lol.

Anyway, I would like to take Leslie up on the offer to provide some examples of novels in the Morality – Redemption and Worldview – Education genres (and, if possible, more modern examples). Any suggestions would be very much appreciated!

Thanks.

Chris

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Leslie Watts says:

Thank you for sharing your experience, Chris! I agree! Nothing is perfect, but some things really work for me, and Story Grid is one of them. I’m super-grateful that Shawn took the time and effort to share his gifts in the world in a way that helps me share mine.

Here are some suggestions in your chosen subgenres:

MORALITY REDEMPTION: The Legend of Bagger Vance (Steven Pressfield, 1995) and The Verdict (Barry Reed 1980).

WORLDVIEW EDUCATION: The Accidental Tourist (Anne Tyler 1985) and The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro 1989).

All four novels were adapted as films, but they started as books. Let us know if you have any questions.

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Loretta Rose says:

This is an absolutely superb analysis! I’m zooming back up the page to read it again–and again! Thank you.

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Leslie Watts says:

Loretta Rose, I’m so glad this is useful for you! If you have questions as you continue to study, please let us know!

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L Dalton White says:

Great expansion on the original material in The Story Grid! This I will keep for future and frequent reference.

I remember glazing over when originally reading the related chapters in The Story Grid, rereading, and especially second guessing my choices when assigning plot points scene by scene on my story grid.

This post was hugely helpful and very much appreciated. Looking forward to your future post(s).

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Kimberly Kessler says:

So glad it was helpful to you, Dalton! We are so excited to report where the noodles lead!

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Leslie Watts says:

I’m so glad this feels helpful, Dalton!

I think some of the challenge with the internal genres is in the way we take in and process information. As we worked on this post, Kim and I realized that we approach these patterns of human experience differently. She needed to understand how they were the same before seeing the differences clearly. I needed to understand how they were different before seeing the ways they were connected. The thing that helped us both was consuming several stories in a short period of time, noticing what we noticed, and discussing our findings.

We can’t wait to report on other ways to understand the internal genres and other aspects of the Story Grid!

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Maya Rushing Walker says:

Thank you for this article, Leslie and Kim! It arrived just in time for me and my work, and also the work of my clients…you’ve almost made untangling the spaghetti “fun!” Or at least, much less anxiety-provoking!

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Kimberly Kessler says:

It is fun, right?! Especially when you wade in with a partner. The togetherness of tackling this kind of deep water stuff is the best. Everyone should have a Leslie 🙂 Don’t swim alone!

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Leslie Watts says:

Thanks, Maya! It’s super-duper fun and so helpful to have a partner-in-crime to discuss crazy ideas with–before they see the light of day. Not all of mine are meant for prime time. So far Kim hasn’t gotten tired of my saying, “I have a hunch that …”

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Chris says:

This has really helped me! I’ve had some confusion over the internal genre and this cleared it up – thanks.

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Kimberly Kessler says:

Awesome, Chris. So glad it’s helped. In these moments of clarity, we encourage you to keep digging – not only does it solidify the understanding you’ve found, but you’ll access next-level insights that open things up in a whole new way. Masterworks = Exponential Revelations!

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Sherry Rector says:

Thank you so much for this great information and the beautifully clear, concise, and detailed cheat sheets. They will be put to good use. I usually create a chart for whatever writing skill I am trying to learn and organize in my head, and the Internal Genre Elements chart will save me a lot of time and energy. I am definitely looking forward to Internal Genres Part 2.

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Kimberly Kessler says:

I agree — I love a good chart 🙂 It really helps me to see the elements side by side like that for easy comparison. So glad it’s helpful to you, too, Sherry!

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Daniel J. Stutzman says:

This is outstanding. Thank you so much for this article, the spreadsheet, and the pdf!

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Sanjida Kay says:

Hi, I’m loving the book and the podcast! I’m a psychological thriller writer, published by Corvus Books in the UK. I was wondering if you think the obligatory scenes that Shawn gives for thrillers (using Silence of the Lambs) as a case study, are the same for psychological thrillers?

Since, with this genre, we’re waiting for the bad thing to happen – the crime / violent act has’t necessarily happened at the start, and may not happen at all, or not in the way the reader thinks it will.

For instance, Gone Girl – have you done a story grid break down for this or other pscyh thrillers? Do you have any resources specifically on psychological thrillers? I’m in the domestic noir / child / woman in jeopardy sub-genre.

Many thanks for you help. Best wishes, Sanjida

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Kimberly Kessler says:

Hi Sanjida! Yes, the conventions and obligatory scenes for Thriller apply to all the sub-genres. Thrillers are a combination of Action, Crime, and Horror and the specific story and subgenre may play more heavily to one of those. But all Thrillers will have an inciting crime by a master villain that must have victims.

In Gone Girl, Nick discovers signs of a struggle at his home and his wife is missing — this leads to the investigation. We find out the truth in the end but it was still a crime by a master villain. The inciting crime is often a murder, but doesn’t have to be. If you have a stalker, for example, the inciting crime might not be a death, but still a crime that escalates to life/death/damnation stakes.

We will be covering Gone Girl in a future episode of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable Podcast, but we encourage you to dig into your favorite masterworks and see what you find! Check out fairly recent Die Hard episode of the flagship Story Grid Podcast to see Tim’s spreadsheet of a movie — it’s a thing of beauty! Best of luck with your story!

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Sanjida Kay says:

Thank you so much for your reply, Kimberly. That’s really helpful. I look forward to the Story Grid of Gone Girl – my favourite psychological thriller – and will take a look at Shawn’s Die Hard Story Grid.

Thank you also for your suggestions, Rachelle. I love The Silent Wife, and that book, along with Gone Girl, is one of the ones I want to analyse. I’ll take a look at the other two you suggest, they look brilliant.

I’m stuck on Hero at the mercy of the villain obligatory scene, as it seems like that might be indirect in this genre; i.e., child / someone gets taken, the child / victim is directly at the mercy of the villain, the protagonist is indirectly at the mercy of the villain. Obviously, if anything happens to the victim, the protagonist will live, but is their life worth living?

I’m just about to have my third thriller published and am editing my fourth, but want to keep improving. Thanks so much. This is a fabulous resource!

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

Some great stories like Gone Girl are:

Damage, a novel by Josephine Hart, 1992
A psychological portrait (primary) and psychological thriller (secondary) and marriage story. A politician seems to have everything he could want; A wife. A son. A big house. A seat in Parliament and headed for more success. But for reasons he can’t completely understand, he incites an affair with his son’s fiancee that leads to his downfall. Once passion enters his life, everything — all the superficial success — seems meaningless.

The Silent Wife, a novel by A.S.A. Harrison, 2013
As with the crumbling marriage at the heart of Gone Girl, Harrison paints a picture of a relationship through alternating accounts from a husband and wife in this well-plotted thriller with excellent pacing. Note the pattern of switching protagonist/narrator.

Fates and Furies, a novel by Lauren Groff, 2015
The marriage at the heart of Fates and Furies is a multi-faceted beast. The first half of the novel tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s whirlwind romance and ensuing 20 years of marriage from the perspective of the exuberant, positive, and naive Lotto. Then, halfway through, Mathilde’s voice is heard — and what she has to say will shock you. Groff’s insanely beautiful prose makes the novel’s compelling plot all the better.

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Drew Emery (@InlawsOutlaws) says:

This is fantastic – very impactful on my particular work at the moment. I can hardly wait for Part II! I’m hoping there’s some discussion of how the internal genre’s interact with the external ones.

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Stefan says:

A great post, detail oriented, and a timeless resource.

A detail: I suggest to reconsider the status genre. Genres are linked to values which are either external or internal. Can’t be both. Social status is an external value like life, love, and justice.
It is true that status is about success, but success is experienced internally. The response(!) to our success is external, e.g. praise and a rise in social status, but that is a totally different thing.
Status is about self-respect and that’s what Rocky gained when he stood all rounds. Same for authors: when we finish a good book we feel the success and gain self-respect. We know(!) that we created something special. Whether the book sells or not is an entirely different affair. Same if we make a stand that nobody knows about.
‘Status’ is a misleading name for this genre, and I think that it one reasons why our spaghetti brain mingles it with the external performance genre.

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Leslie Watts says:

Hi Stefan! Sorry I missed your comment here. I totally agree that the Status genre can’t be both internal and external, but like all internal genres, the external world affects our internal experience. I think of the Status genre as exploring (1) the way we define Success (Do we allow outside forces to affect our personal definition, or do we define it from within?) (2) what we’re willing to sacrifice to obtain success and rise within a social setting (e.g., are we willing to compromise our moral code?), and (3) how we make sense of and deal with fortune and misfortune (e.g., can we act with strength and honor, no matter what happens?).

Status and Performance can be confusing because they dwell in the same human needs tank, but also, they appear together often in a powerful crowd pleaser. I LOVE Status mixed with Performance, and Rocky is one of my favorites!

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Dan Eisenberg says:

I was wondering… Maybe we should create a shared document (or database) where we all can add movies and books to each genre? It will become a great resource for all, and will release the burden from the editors. The only problem I see is agreeing on where each should go. Maybe through voting?

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Leslie Watts says:

This is such a great idea, Dan. There is room for disagreement (as we’ve learned on the Roundtable), and sometimes the genre is in the eye of the beholder. Different elements in stories speak to us, and it’s important to notice and honor that. I have a personal collection, but it includes hunches and working hypotheses that may be confusing without explanation. Maybe a Google Sheet that allows for comments and respectful disagreement with an administrator (or two or three) to keep things productive?

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Terry Brennan says:

I agree with your analysis of The Social Network, but I want to note that I didn’t buy movie’s moral conclusion, that Mark was isolated in the end. I thought it had a pat and untrue ending. I was offended that the movie made a morality tale with a moral I questioned about a living person. It was a fantasy that pretended to be factual, and that made me actively dislike it.

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Kimberly Kessler says:

Hey Terry! For some reason I am just seeing this comment and wanted to reply. Interesting thoughts. I remember being surprised when the movie came out for exactly that reason — the character still very much alive — but it certainly makes for a powerful statement. It’s compelling to me to raise this kind of ethical question about a living person, one of the richest and well-known persons for their achievements. “With light comes heat”. It is based on non-fiction research, the deposition records, etc, although the book and screenplay were written simultaneously, the two writers (Aaron Sorkin and Ben Mezrich) did consult one another. I had never watched it until this year, which also has been interesting given the latest Facebook privacy scandal. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Always love a good story discussion. And the fact that a story works does not mean it will resonate with everyone — a great reminder for all of us who write. Cheers.

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Irene Allison says:

This is a wonderful article, Kimberly, thank you so much!

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Larry says:

I think there are two kinds of Redemption plots. Call the kind that you and Shawn describe Redemption I. Redemption II is where the protagonist feels guilt or shame for having wronged or failed someone — or multiple someones — and needs to redeem themselves.

Some examples _The Four Feathers_, with 5 movie adaptions of the book.
A timid British Army officer has quit and burns his last day summons to a war in Egypt. Calling him a coward, his girl friend and 3 officer friends give him a white feather. In redemption, he shadows his friends in war to save their lives.

_They Came to Cordura_
After a cavalry charge during the 1916 U.S. “war against Pancho Villa,” unheroic awards officer Tom Thorn (who is obsessed with the nature of courage) recommends 4 men for the Medal of Honor. He is ordered back to Cordura with them…and prisoner Adelaide Geary, gringo who sheltered the enemy. On the arduous journey, Thorn’s heroes show a different face, and Thorn may have one last chance to prove he’s no coward.

_Seven Pounds_
A man with a fateful secret embarks on an extraordinary journey of redemption by forever changing the lives of seven strangers.

And, I believe that _The Sixth Sense_ falls into this category.
Malcolm Crowe needs to redeem himself from having failed patient Vincent Gray. He does this by successfully helping Cole Sear deal with his gift.

I think of Redemption II as the inverse of a Revenge plot. Imagine Edmond Dantes wronging Mondego, Danglars, and Villefort, then spending the rest of the story trying to make up for it.

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Miles White says:

Amazingly helpful. These three internal genre articles and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Genre” are my Holy Grail articles for understanding how external/internal genres work. Many thanks.

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