Secrets of the Morality Genre

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Do you want to write a story that satisfies your audience by delivering a righteous outcome? Or what about a story that evokes pity from the audience for a flawed protagonist? Or maybe you want your audience to experience contempt for a corrupt character and feel satisfaction when they are punished? If any of these ideas appeal to you as a writer, welcome to the Morality Genre, where selfishness is pitted against altruism and self-sacrifice competes with personal gain. Examining the teachings of Shawn Coyne, Norman Friedman, Abraham Maslow, and Robert McKee has brought me fresh insights into the Morality Genre, and I’ll share them with you here. As a Story Grid Editor, I believe we write better stories when we understand and meet the expectations of genre. Need to get familiar with the Story Grid’s genre categories first? You’ll find a refresher here.

What is a Morality Story?

The Morality story is an arch-plot (Hero’s Journey or Virgin’s Promise) internal genre with a single protagonist whose inner moral compass actively changes (or actively refuses to change) along a spectrum that runs from selfishness to altruism. 

Why write a Morality Story?

According to Shawn Coyne, “We all fall. We all have moments in our lives when we know in our heart of hearts that what we’re doing or have chosen to do is morally corrupt. [Morality] stories inspire us to change course and get back to our better natures.” Audiences are fascinated with the hero-villain. Maybe the hero-villain lets us experience our own politically incorrect fantasies with impunity, effectively liberating us by expressing the dark side we suppress. Maybe seeing wickedness played out triggers moral outrage in us. Morality stories teach us how to make critical evaluations about the trustworthiness of others. They teach us how to improve ourselves, reach a higher level of evolvement, move closer to self-transcendence, be a “good” person, or at least be perceived as such. Writing in the morality genre can be the catalyst to change and to preserving the ideas we hold in esteem. Writers are the most powerful people in the world. We shape how audiences think and what they say. We point audiences in specific directions and, through entertainment or presentation of facts, we occupy their time and thoughts. The world needs a unifying force and Morality stories remind of what we share in common, what we’re here to uphold: do good or suffer the consequences.

How do I write a Morality story?

We might brainstorm an entire first draft or outline and then revisit the genre. Or we might construct the first draft by working directly toward meeting the audience’s expectations of genre and then find ways to innovate upon the tried and tested stories. You can engineer a story with the ideas put forth here or you can use these ideas to examine an improve an already existing story. Either way, if you are careful to integrate the concepts I’m presenting, you’ll have a story structure that works. While it is not necessary to do so, writers often begin with a Controlling Idea. A story’s Controlling Idea (sometimes called the theme) is the lesson you want your reader to come away with. It’s the meaning they will assign to your story. Each of the main content genres has a generic pair of controlling ideas, one if the story is prescriptive–that is a positive story that shows the reader what to do–and one if it’s cautionary–that is a negative story that warns the reader about what not to do. (For everything about Controlling Ideas, see Chapter 34 in The Story Grid book, or The Big Takeaway)

What’s the Controlling Idea of a Morality Story?

If your story is prescriptive, your Controlling Idea is positive. It might look like this: Good triumphs when the Protagonist sacrifices worldly, selfish values in favor of the needs of others. If your story is cautionary, your Controlling Idea is negative. It might look like this: Evil reigns when the Protagonist pursues selfish needs ahead of the needs of others.

The Morality Genre elicits Core Emotions.

Controlling Ideas help the writer elicit Core Emotions from the audience. The Core Emotions of a Morality story are satisfaction, pity, and contempt. Audiences choose Morality stories to experience righteous satisfaction at the proper outcome for the protagonist, whether negative or positive. They want to feel pity for the tested and contempt for the unrepentant but righteous satisfaction when the punishment comes. (See Subgenres) As we see in the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need, a Morality story arises from the protagonist’s need for self-transcendence. In the words of Abraham Maslow, “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos. Rainbow pyramid depicting Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs with labels The Morality protagonist’s primary goal isn’t safety, love, or esteem. Their want may be power, riches, control, etc. (status attained or maintained by acts of dominance) but their need is self-transcendence, a shift from corruption and selfishness to altruism and self-sacrifice for others.

Here is how Coyne describes the shift:

Selfishness Masked as Altruism to

Selfishness to

Putting a Single Person’s Wants/Needs Ahead of the Self to

Putting a Group’s/Tribe’s Needs Ahead fo the Self to

Sacrificing the Self to Benefit All of Humanity

Notice that there’s something worse than selfishness in our value shift list. In a Morality story, the “negation of the negation” is Selfishness Masked as Altruism. Being selfish and calling it altruism in pursuit of one’s goal is worse than simply being selfish. It’s the Morality equivalent of damnation.

Genres have Obligatory Scenes.

Coyne describes obligatory scenes as “must-have scenes for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre.” If you leave out an obligatory scene, you’ll have a story that probably doesn’t work.

What are the Obligatory Scenes

of the Morality Genre?

Each subgenre has its own Obligatory Scenes but here is what they all have in common:
  • A shock (negative or positive) upsets the hibernating authentic self of the protagonist. Every story has an inciting incident that disrupts the protagonist’s ordinary life. What that incident disrupts depends on the genre. The inciting incident of a Morality story is a challenge to the morals of the protagonist. It must put them under pressure.
  • In overtly refusing the Hero’s Journey call to change, the protagonist expresses inner darkness.
  • The protagonist’s refusal of the call complicates the story and the call comes a second time but in a different form.
  • The protagonist faces an All Is Lost Moment and either discovers their inner moral code or chooses the immoral path. Whether or not the protagonist ultimately accepts the call depends upon the subgenre, the kind of story you want to tell.
  • The big event (climax) of the story is when the protagonist actively sacrifices self in service of an individual, a group, or humanity (positive) or consciously chooses to remain selfish (negative). This Core Event is your main determinant of the subgenre.
  • The protagonist faces literal or metaphorical death and either loses the battle but gains self-respect, meaning, and peace; or wins the battle but loses those things at great sacrifice. In all internal genres, there is a paradoxical ending.

Genres have Conventions.

Coyne explains Conventions as, “elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled or so bored out of their skull that no matter how beautiful the sentences, they’ll quit reading. Conventions are not obligatory scenes…they are specific requirements in terms of the Story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward (minor revelatory turning points that must be there but can be woven into the story at the writer’s discretion).”

What are the Conventions of the Morality Genre?

Each subgenre has its own Conventions but here is what they all have in common:
  • The protagonist has a spiritual mentor or sidekick, for better or worse. This character may lead the protagonist astray or encourage moral behavior.
  • There is a seemingly impossible external conflict. A strong Morality story can generate an external secondary genre naturally by simply meeting this convention.
  • The protagonist is tormented by ghosts/memories/events of their past. Whether they are able to overcome these and make the right choices, in the end, depends upon your subgenre.
  • There is a foil for your protagonist. This is the character who embodies the ideals and attributes opposite of your character. This character exists to show the reader the other path your protagonist could have taken.
  • The protagonist receives assistance from unexpected sources. Some examples are the characters who tell the protagonist “the truth” such as the ghosts in A Christmas Carol and Hamlet, Eldridge calling out James in The Hurt Locker. They can also be the characters who enable the protagonist, like Harling (the protagonist’s drug dealer) in Flight. Note: If you are having trouble writing this one, again look to your secondary external genre and see if you can meet this one through the needs of that story and integrate. It’s always a good idea when you can overlap your Obligatory Scenes and Conventions from your primary with your secondary.

What are the Subgenres of the Morality Genre?


The Redemption story is probably the story you think of when you think of the Morality Genre. When written well, audiences love it. This story stands the test of time. The protagonist starts low and ends high. The protagonist begins by knowingly doing wrong and choosing to mask their weakness with respectability, but ends by making a better choice (becoming virtuous: generous, merciful, honest, faithful, etc.). The protagonist begins in “damnation.” The story can culminate in an internal win, an external win, or both. Other examples of this story are The Scarlet Letter, A Christmas Carol, Casablanca, Kramer vs. Kramer, Terms of Endearment, Rocky, Good Will Hunting, Cars, True Grit, A Slant of Light, American History X, The Hustler, Drugstore Cowboy, and Schindler’s List. I propose there is a second type of Redemption story, where the protagonist doesn’t slide from selfishness to altruism, but where they’re attempting to make amends for a single action for which they feel guilt, shame, and remorse. In this case, the protagonist starts “in the middle” and ends high. An example of this story is the novel and movies The Four Feathers where we meet a British officer, Faversham, at the point where he quits the army instead of going into battle. Once willing to fight for his country, he is disgraced in the eyes of four characters close to him. In the end, he sacrifices himself to save them, proves his altruism, and restores his honor. Other examples of this story are They Came to Cordura, Slingblade, and Seven Pounds.


The protagonist starts either high or low, ends low, and is punished for it. The protagonist begins as the bad guy (cynical, deceptive, complicit, unethical) you’re likely rooting for. An excellent example is The Crying Game where Fergus, a lackluster terrorist with more heart than the other members of his gang, kidnaps a soldier but ends up sacrificing his freedom for the girlfriend of the hostage. The protagonist is essentially an unsympathetic character with repugnant goals (like upholding effectual truth or world domination), admirable only for their strength of will and sophistication (the “Machiavellian” hero-villain), and they suffer a well-deserved misfortune. The protagonist might believe that, in a world filled with bad people, one must learn to be bad. They might believe that our commonly held virtues (secular and/or religious) are incompatible with the skills one must demonstrate to protect those virtues, like a “good soldier” who must kill to protect the freedoms back home. They believe one must be strong and clever in order to succeed. They might believe it is better to be feared than loved. They frame all their choices as the best bad choice rather than irreconcilable goods. The audience follows these scoundrels with interest as they exploit unsuspecting fools, the naive, and overzealous moralists. Most Punitive stories rely on our investment in the shared morals of our current social structure. The protagonist eventually gets what the audience thinks they deserve: being exposed, imprisoned, injured, banished, or killed. The final punishment of the protagonist then returns the audience to a morally acceptable position. Our belief that justice will be done is restored. Examples of this story are Hedda Gabler, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Wall Street, Scarface, and Bonnie and ClydeYou’ll also hear this subgenre in many rap and hip-hop lyrics. Need insight into your punitive character’s thinking? Read The Prince.


There are two types of Testing stories. I like to refer to them as the temptation stories. The plot provides many tests to the willpower and tenacity of the protagonist who has a number of progressively complicating opportunities to uphold their morals or give in to corruption. Here, a moral character is tested to the extreme.


The protagonist starts high and ends high. A moral protagonist is pressured to compromise their principles. Whether by outright corruption or factors such as poverty, misogyny, racial inequality, etc., the protagonist wavers on the edge of the best bad choice decision but ultimately remains steadfast. They understand that compromising their ideals would be easy but it would the wrong choice. Consequently, the character loses significantly in some other way, such as financial, socially, or romantically. Examples of this story are For Whom The Bell Tolls, Goodfellas, and Cool Hand Luke.  Alternatively, the moral but flawed protagonist may choose the wrong path but learns their lesson before it is too late. Friedman calls this the Reform Plot. Examples of this story are The Last Temptation of Christ, Fatal Attraction, and The Scarlet Letter.


The protagonist starts high and ends low. Also known as the Degeneration Plot or the Tragic Plot, this is the story where the good guy goes bad, where a strong protagonist suffers a loss, can’t recover, and finally resigns themself to weakness. This is not a common story. We may think this is an old tale, maybe even a stale one better left to Biblical times, but there are fresh ways to innovate this subgenre. For example, The Surrender story of The Crime of Father Amaro is one of the top grossing films of all time in Mexico. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is considered one of the greatest American films of all time. In more recent times, the act of surrendering is often to some form of addiction or crime ring. Some other examples include The Hurt Locker, Tender Is The Night, Carlito’s Way, and The Godfather.

What about Characterization in a Morality Story?

This is a tough one for many writers. We ask, “How can I write a likable character who has substandard morals?” and “Can a reader have empathy for the bad guy?” Make your protagonist cunning, interesting, charming, intelligent, and/or funny and we’ll follow along. One of my favorite examples of a writer investing us in a character is the film The Crime of Father Amaro. The opening scene is of a young man embarking on a long bus ride into the jungle when suddenly the passengers are robbed by bandits. After the criminals escape, the young man comforts an older man suffering greatly at his loss. The young man gives the sufferer all the money in his wallet, asking nothing in return. We like this guy. We think he’s overly naive and worry something bad is going to happen to him on this dangerous journey. As it turns out, he’s a new priest assigned to an area where his mentor is a jerk and corruption runs deep. Spoiler Alert! By the end of the film, our protagonist has impregnated a young woman, forced her into an illegal abortion that kills her, blamed the tragedy on her ex-boyfriend, shamed him in front of the church, and seized control of the church region from his debilitated mentor. We feel pity and outrage. (Testing/Surrender). Note: In this film, the bad guy gets away with it. Except for possible eternal damnation, he’s not punished. General American audiences hated the ending of this film. It broke from the genre. Another example is the Jack Nicholson character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He’s quick-witted, charming, and he does his best to encourage his fellow patients to be their best selves and look toward freedom. He’s also a pedophile.

What are some companion genres?

At the Story Grid, we suggest pairing the Morality Genre with an external genre. The Morality Genre isn’t a common genre today and perhaps that’s because a majority of audiences tend to prefer more external stories (Love, Action, Crime, etc). Used as a paired genre, you can counter and support an external genre and create some really dynamic plots with more depth, interest, and innovation than writing in only the internal or external genre. Here are some examples: Performance: Rocky, Trading Places, and Whiplash Action: Gran Torino, Cars, American History X Thriller: The Verdict, Slingblade, Fatal Attraction Crime: Gloria, The Godfather, Carlito’s Way, Wall Street, Goodfellas War: The Hurt Locker, The Four Feathers Western: True Grit, They Came to Cordura Love: Seven Pounds, Kramer vs. Kramer, Terms of Endearment

Putting it all together:

Now you know the basics of the Morality Genre and are armed with the tools you need to write better Morality stories. You can meet the expectations of the genre and engineer (or reverse engineer for editing) your story. You can write the narratives that better prepare your audience for the challenges of a well-lived life. Don’t forget to test your protagonist for values of selfishness and altruism and to compare your story to the masterworks (other successful stories in the genre). Check your story against The Story Grid book and the Morality Genre secrets I’ve given here. Use what you learn to edit your work and finish that work-in-progress. The world needs your story. We need hope. Need some extra help completing your manuscript? Grab a spot on my calendar for a free half-hour consultation so we can determine how I can best help you meet your story goals. Interested in other articles I’ve written on genre? Check out these links: Secrets of the Performance Genre, Secrets of the Status GenreSecrets of the Society GenreSecrets of Writing MemoirSecrets of the Crime GenreSecrets of the Worldview GenreSecrets of the War GenreSecrets of the Action GenreSecrets of the Thriller, Part One and TwoSecrets of the Horror Genre , Secrets of the Western Genre, and Secrets of the Love Genre, Secrets of the Big Idea Book, Part One, and Part Two. I wish you the best of luck and hard work with your story.

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About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez is a developmental editor for award-winning and bestselling authors but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and narrative nonfiction writers. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family, ridiculous dogs, and a few too many urban chickens. You can see more at her website
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Jordan McCollum says:

Hi, Rachelle! Great article! Let met see if I’ve got this straight: a morality story, especially a redemption story, might look similar to a worldview > maturation story, but in a maturation story, the protagonist doesn’t realize they’re living life wrong or making bad/unhealthy choices, and in a redemption story, they’re aware they’re living life wrong initially. Is that about right?

Irene Allison says:

Rachelle, this is a wonderful article. Thank you so much! I especially appreciated your thoughts on weaving an external genre into the Morality Global Genre (and some great advice on how to do it). Also very helpful is the breakdown of each of the morality sub-genres and their particular nuances. Thanks too for all the film and novel examples you shared of the different pairings. This is really very helpful.

Recently I’ve seen 2 films on Netflix that focus on the Internal Global Morality Punitive Genre, both with an external “buddy bonding” sub-genre.

One, the Irish film, “A Patch of Fog”, has the protagonist gets his just deserts (and we enjoy the fun and irony of it).

The other, a Scottish film, “Calibre”, has a decent protagonist lose his moral compass and spiral horribly downward.

Both films are brilliantly acted, shot, scripted, and directed. But I must admit that “Calibre” was hard to take, especially seeing this once decent character fall into damnation. It struck me that that might be one of the reasons that the Morality Punitive Genre (with protagonist starting High and finishing Low) is less popular today (we just keep hoping he’ll do better and we feel awful when he doesn’t).

Don’t know if you’ve seen the wonderful film, “A Good Year”. It’s billed as a Romantic Comedy, but I think it’s a Global Genre Morality Redemption story with a secondary external Love genre. The reason I think this is that the protagonist starts out a real crook, gets shaken up and tested in every way, and only after he “sacrifices” everything does he win love. It’s a little gem of a film, extremely well crafted. And this combo of genres really raises the romantic comedy aspects in a very effective way.

Thanks again for you article. I loved it!

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Hello Irene, I have not seen the film, A Good Year. Trust your gut about what story stays on top. I hope you;re moving forward on your work.

cap10voodoo says:

Thanks for the great insights into the Morality genre. Learned some important keys.

After reading The Story Grid and going over genre, I’m a bit confused on what a thriller really is. Is the movie Sling Blade a thriller? In The Story Grid, the focus on crime thriller throws me for a loop. There are a lot of obligatory scenes like ‘hero at the mercy of the villian’ that are mentioned, so my guess is some of these scenes are crime specific. If this is the case, what are the strictly obligatory scenes for a thriller without the sub-genre Crime? It almost seems like any genre could have thriller elements.

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Interesting that you should ask this question. I’ve been poking the Thriller Genre myself. It’s a mash-up between crime, horror, and action. Sometimes I think it shouldn’t be a genre in and of itself and should be a subgenre of Crime. I’ll upset Thriller writers with that idea and I don’t want to negate the role these great stories play, it’s just that the obligatory scenes, conventions,value shifts, etc are pretty similar in each genre. I’ll work on a Secrets of the Thriller Genre for an upcoming post. Yes, Slingblade is a Morality (internal genre) story and a Thriller (external genre). They work great together. Is that what you are writing?

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Check out my new blog post on the Crime Genre.

And here are some ideas of how the Crime Genre differs from the Thriller Genre:

Crime’s core emotions are intrigue and security. Values range from tyranny to injustice to justice.

Thriller’s core emotions are excitement and fear. Values range from life to death to damnation.

The Obligatory Scenes of Crime differ from that of the Thriller.

The core event of the Crime story is the criminal is exposed, brought to justice, or gets away with the crime (caper,/heist). The core event of the Thriller, is the “Hero at the Mercy of the Villain.” It’s the All is Lost Moment when the protagonist unleashes their inner gift.

Unlike Crime stories, the Thriller has a False Ending. There must be two endings in the Thriller.

In the Thriller, there is an All-Is-Lost scene in which the protagonist sees the antagonist as unbeatable. In a Crime story, there may be a speech in praise of the antagonist but they are not necessarily viewed as unbeatable.

In the Thriller, there is a clear “point of no return;” the moment when the protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be with a precise moment when the protagonist’s world is knocked out of alignment. In Crime, the protagonist might not meet this convention.

The core event of the Thriller is the victim at the mercy of the villain scene rather than the exposure of the criminal or the solving of the puzzle.

In the Thriller, there is a scene where the protagonist becomes the final Victim. They may or may not stay alive. Not necessarily the case in Crime.

How do Crime Conventions differ from those of the Thriller?

In the Thriller, the atmosphere is portrayed in considerable detail, becoming alive and immediately threatening meant to create excitement and fear. Not always the case in a Crime story. In a Crime story, the setting is often what determines the subgenre rather than the mood of the story.

In the Thriller, the protagonist is actively trying to stay alive by rendering the antagonist useless, rather than in Crime, where the protagonist is trying to solve or pull-off a crime.

In a Thriller, lives depend on the protagonist’s defeat of the villain. A Crime story is about bringing the antagonist to justice for a crime already committed or getting away with a crime. In Crime, justice being served may or may not overtly prevent future crimes.

While a Crime story contains elements of suspense (suspense is a form of narrative drive where the audience and the character know the same amount at the same time), The Thriller centers around suspense and the audience is kept in perpetual discomfort because the villain seems to attack randomly and never rests. Crime stories rely more on tension (tension results from the unresolved story events and unfulfilled wants and needs of the protagonist as the result of conflict.)

Editor Tip: For creating tension, create a protagonist who can’t refuse to act due to the cost of inaction (internal or external) and consequences for acting. This is the “best bad choice” challenge that forms the crisis of scenes, sequences, acts, and the global story.

In a Thriller, the antagonist can’t be reasoned with. They are intent on annihilation, devastation, or power at the expense of others. In a Crime story, an antagonist’s reasoning ability is irrelevant. They may even admit to their crimes and express remorse after being exposed.

The protagonist is the final victim in the Thriller. In Crime, the protagonist doesn’t necessarily become a life and death victim. They only need be manipulated by the antagonist.

In a Thriller, the villain must make their actions personal for the protagonist. The villain needs the protagonist to get the MacGuffin and thus must victimize the protagonist to get what they want. In Crime, the protagonist doesn’t necessarily become a victim.

In the Crime story, the antagonist must be brought to justice or the protagonist must complete their attempt at committing a caper/heist. In a Thriller, justice can mean death, banishment, or imprisonment rather than exposure of the criminal. In a Thriller, the antagonist can get away (injustice), especially in a series, but the protagonist must be out of immediate danger with some sense of victory (win but lose, win for now).

Faith Nelson says:

Thank you Rachel. I came to this article quite late but I am so stoked. We (Beth Mitchell, Kara Veeder and I) just foolscapped the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid for the kid lit group in LUYC. We were split on the internal genre. I was pretty sure the internal genre was Society Worldview Maturation. Kara and Beth thought we really needed to look at Morality Testing as well. Wow. After your article, I am revising my opinion. At least, there is a strong case for both internal genres – Worldview Maturation and Morality Testing. The story has the foil you just talked about, the numerous failed morality tests, the torment around the cheese on the basketball court, the funny protagonist aspiring to be ‘cunning’ and famous and so on. The only thing that isn’t nicely wrapped up is whether it’s Morality Testing Triumph or Morality Testing Surrender. Do you read kid lit at all? If yes, have your read the first in the Wimpy Kid series? I am trying to fit our foolscap over this article. That’s the only area where it’s a bit off. Thanks for the wonderful article. Story Grid editors Rock!!!

Rachelle Ramirez says:

I haven’t read all of the books but here is my take. Diary of a Whimpy Kid, book one, is a genre meld and this is why it’s confusing. It begins as a Status/Sentimental story, transitions to a Worldview/Maturation story, dives into a Morality story, floats back to the first two and ends on both Morality and Worldview/Maturation. The chaotic feel you get from the book is partially created by this. The rest is pacing and the tropes the writer borrowed from the Action Genre. Almost every story for this age group has a structural framework of Worldview. So, if my life depended on it and I had to pick a genre I’d still have a tough time with the first book. I’d say the overall series is a primary Worldview/Maturation plot with a secondary Status/Sentimental Genre. Why? The story uses the tropes of an action story without the threat of actual death. The threat is social death (pretty much the same to a tween or teen) which is from Status. You can read more about the Status story in my blog at
Let’s keep in mind that every book in this series is different. Some lean more toward morality (book one) and some lean more toward Status or even Love/Courtship (buddy love included). I can’t imagine a series being a Morality series because we’d just lose patience with the rotten kid and we need to see him redeemed. Greg is moving up the hierarchy of needs in each book, 2 steps forward and one step back. Morality is a kid knowing his choices are wrong but demonstrating the behavior anyway. Greg doesn’t fit this picture throughout the series. He keeps making mistakes. He doesn’t do what we want him to do so that he moves toward meeting his need and he keeps working toward his want. He needs to grow up. Here is my post on the Worldview Genre: I’d look specifically at the inciting incident and the climax and compare the two for the character’s change. Best of luck in your group.

brainnoms says:

Hi Rachelle,

Thank you so much for such a great article! I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of story mine is for a while now, and after reading this, I think I’ve hit the mark (Morality-Redemption tied with Action-Rebellion/clock).

One question I had about the obligatory scenes above is how the second call to change correlates to things like the all is lost and final climax. You mention that the call comes in a different form, but I’m not sure what that means. For example, if the first time they have a chance to help someone, they don’t, would the second time being able to help the same person in a different way or would it be another chance to help someone else in a similarly unselfish manner? Does the second call align more with crossing the threshold, or is it closer to the All is Lost moment, or even climax? I’m going to get Gran Torino and Good Will Hunting from the library, but was hoping you might be able to provide some examples/dive in a little more.

Again, thank you so much for such a thorough article. I only started working with the Story Grid within the last couple months and it has already changed my writing life in a significant, all positive, and irrevocable manner.

Thank you!


Rachelle Ramirez says:

Hello Abby, It’s great to hear the article was helpful. You’re on the right track. After the protagonist refuses the first call, something progressively more complicated happens (2nd call) and forces them to accept the challenge/adventure. The acceptance if this call launches the middle build. It is how they cross the threshold. Welcome to the Story Grid tribe.

damian frizzell says:

Hi Rachelle, thanks for your great article. I was all firmly fixed on my first draft being a Status Genre story (your other informative article) but now I’ve been reading this I’m not sure. Am I correct that they have many similarities? Is it just case of me perhaps picking one and sticking to it? Could these too genres (Morality and Status) be weaved together as companion genres – and if so, should one be more dominant than the other?
Thanks! Damian

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Hello Damian. Yes. There are a lot of similarities and they can overlap. But choosing one as the internal is important. If you’d like to get on the phone and chat about your story, I’d be happy to do so for a free half-hour consultation. We should be able to clearly determine your genre and the overlap in that call. You could also ask specific questions here and I will respond within 24 hours. I’d be happy to help.

Damian Frizzell says:

a call would be great thanks! I assume I just specify I want to speak to you on the )‘schedule a call’ form? (Also I’m in the UK…does that matter? Thanks

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Most of the Story Grid Editors do a free half-hour consultation. You can go through Story Grid or shortcut to our individual websites. I am at We do Zoomchat or Skype for international calls.

Gordon pelton says:

I am working on a nonfiction story, a memoir written as narrative nonfiction. The Primary genre, I believe, is Worldview-Revelation. The Protagonist (me) needs to gain self-respect and confidence in his own capabilities. He will accomplish this over the next three years. Secondary genre is Performance.

Protagonist, believing himself to be a dumb kid when he graduates from high school in 1951, badly wants to avoid having to enroll in college, his father’s long-standing wish for him. Protagonist admires his father and credits his father’s opinions but believes himself not intelligent enough for college; he fears college would lead to humiliation when he flunks out, so he badly wants to avoid that fate. He declines to reveal that fear. The Korean War had begun the year before. He reasons that he has an obligation to help defend his country. So, as a cop-out solution to his perceived problem, and against his father’s wishes, he takes an easy off-ramp and enlists in the Navy.

My question is about the handling of genre for each of two sub-plots. 1) Protagonist is colorblind, but manages to conceal this from the Navy. The complications of that lead to serious trouble for him and for the Navy. Hence, I think, a Morality-Redemption genre for this subplot. He ultimately fails in the Performance “Big Event” due to his colorblindness — but gains respect for himself. 2) At story start, the protagonist is engaged to be married, but once in Boot Camp he receives the dreaded ‘Dear John’ letter. She marries the other guy. However, the protagonist does not give up on his former fiancé as she encourages his continued attention. Hence, a second Morality-Redemption subplot genre,

My question is whether the inclusion of two Morality-Redemption subplot genres is okay and whether that can help or hurt the story.

Gordon Pelton

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Hello Gordon, I’d be happy to help you with your story. The first challenge may be to line-up your primary genre. The arc of the character and plot is unclear to me based on this mini-synopsis. So, whether your subplots work with the primary story you are telling would depend on the framework of the first. The character’s morality arcs you mention seem to be more about overcoming ignorance and naivete (Worldview) than in overcoming selfishness (Morality). And your primary arc just might be more Status than Worldview. I also don’t see the Performance aspect in this mini-preview, one more reason to consider Status as a Performance arc is usually a Status arc combined with a secondary Action Genre. I offer free half-hour consultations on stories. If you are interested in discussing, I think I could help you line this up to represent the story you want to tell within that time frame. You can grab a spot on my calendar if you are interested.

Gordon Pelton says:

I want to thank you and all the Story Grid crew for your work to help those of out here writing our stories. What you are doing seems really important and a great help to us. Please keep doing it.
Below I have included a fairly detailed summary of the story. When I finish writing this memo I will get on your website and try to signup for a half-hour session with you.
First, I would like to ask a question. Would you agree that the following is true? Because I am writing a nonfiction story (as narrative nonfiction by the way), I cannot invent scenes just to make my story fit a genre’s conventions or obligatory scenes. Rather, I must find the genres whose obligatory scenes and conventions most closely fit the facts of the story.
I mentioned in a previous post that I think my story is Worldview-Revelation and Performance-Business. I studied other genres and thought only these two fit my story and my protagonist (me). At the start the protagonist’s worldview was badly flawed: he thought and believed he was nothing more than a dumb kid, too dumb to succeed in college. Through his experiences over three years in the Korean War (mostly aboard a warship), the reality of his own capabilities were revealed to him little by little; his view of himself had changed so that he understood his capability and was able to make that knowledge work for him.
The Performance external genre did sound a bit off at first, but I think it is the best fit; nothing else, as I see it, even comes close. However, I am eager to talk with you about that because I am only just now learning about these things and you are the professional. I will listen to you and learn from you. I had considered Performance and was searching around for an example when I came across your writing on Hidden Features. I worked up two spreadsheets, one for obligatory scenes and one for conventions. I was able to fit the facts of my story item by item into every element of both spreadsheets. I can provide those to you if you want.
I had already written about forty percent of my story when I happened on Story Grid. I had taken Robert McKees Story Seminar about twenty years ago, so I immediately saw the value in Story Grid. And here we are. With my first nonfiction book in the early ‘90s I started with query letters; so I did the same some weeks ago with this one (before Story Grid). I sent out some queries and got three proposal requests. Two have already declined but the third sent me what appears to be a very thorough eight-page contract. I will decline that contract for reasons I will speak with you about in private. I now plan to complete the writing then start again with query letters. (BTW, with that first book, I got offers from two publishers and went with the one from McGraw-Hill. The book came out in 1994.)
I also have a complete screenplay that I wrote about twenty years ago. I had some Hollywood people hire a reader who wrote a rather negative report about it. So I dropped it. I wouldn’t mind reworking it and trying to do something with it. Do you work on screenplays?
The longer summary follows.
Gordon Pelton
July 27, 2020


It had always been understood in the Pelton family that after high school, Gordie would go to college to, in the words if his father, “become a lawyer, a doctor or a dentist.” Three friends from his high school have decided to enlist in the Navy. They convince Gordie to enlist with them.
Gordie informs his father and mother that he intends to join the US Navy after high school graduation instead of going to college. His mother is okay with that but his father becomes very angry. A loud argument ensues.
Gordie’s father had missed out on college because of his decision after high school to wait a year before enrolling. After that first year, he so appreciated the income he was earning that he gave up on pursuing a college education — even though he had almost a straight A average in high school. So, Gordie’s father tries to pressure him not to join the Navy but instead to enroll at the University of California at Berkeley, only twelve miles from home. He did not want Gordie to make the same mistake he had made.
Unbeknownst to Gordie’s family, he’s convinced he is not smart, that he is not smart enough for a college education, that he is nothing more than a dumb kid. He fears he would flunk out of college and humiliate himself, especially in the eyes of his father. He has a strong need to be seen by his father in a favorable light.
Gordie, at almost at any cost, is determined to avoid having to go to college. He is ‘certain’ that enrolling in college would lead to him flunking out. He justifies his decision to enlist in the Navy because the Korean War had started one year before his high school graduation and, he argues, every young man owes a debt to his country. This is not exactly an altruistic choice of Gordie’s. Since World War Two (which had ended a scant six years before), Gordie had been fascinated with the idea of joining the Navy and going to sea.
Enlisting before his eighteenth birthday would enable him to commit to the Navy only until the day before his twenty-first birthday – otherwise it’s four years. But that would require his parents’ permission because he has not turned eighteen; he does want to avoid committing for four years. They sign, but father is strongly against it (he signs because not signing would only delay Gordie’s enlistment by three weeks but would delay his opportunity to start college by a whole year).
Against his father’s wishes, Gordie does enlist. He takes a pre-enlistment physical, during which it is discovered that ‘Gordie is colorblind (the family had known about that since Gordie was a child). Gordie tries to erase the colorblindness finding but is caught be the Recruiting Officer.
In an IQ Test administered during the physical, Gordie scores high enough that he is offered his choice of any technical School the Navy teaches. He wants to work in electronics so chooses an Electronic Technician School only twenty miles from home but is told that one is out because of his colorblindness. He is advised to choose another school that involves a lot of electronics training but does not have the colorblindness restriction. He does so and heads for Boot Camp in San Diego.
At Boot Camp, Gordie is appointed to the post of ARCPO, Assistant Recruit Chief Petty Officer. This makes him second in command of his ninety-man company when the Company Commander/Drill-Instructor is not present. This is an honor, especially for Gordie who is still seventeen and the youngest person in the company. This event helps convince Gordie that his decision to join the Navy was the correct one. He is now seriously considering making the Navy a career. That would obviate his need to ever be humiliated by flunking out of college.
He finishes Boot and progresses to the ten-month FT School (Fire Control Technician School). One week he fails the Friday test due to his colorblindness. He is called to the Captain’s office to explain. Fearing he might be removed from the school if they discover their error in not excluding colorblind people, he does not tell them he failed the test because of a color vision problem. They believed he was part of a ring that was just-discovered swiping mimeograph sheets from the trash and selling test results to students. Gordie was warned that they would be watching him.
At the end of ten months, Gordie learns he finished First-in-Class at FT School. This fact reinforces his conviction that joining the Navy was the correct decision and that a twenty or thirty year career in the Navy would be good for him.
Home on leave, Gordie’s father again pressures him to commit to enrolling in college after his Navy hitch is complete. Gordie refuses, citing his high school grades. He focuses on his one D grade that he received in a history class that met at 1 PM every day. Gordie’s desk abutted the front of the teacher’s desk and he frequently fell asleep at his desk. He had PE at 11 AM and lunch at noon, so it was natural for him to feel sleepy for a while after lunch.
Gordie’s appointment to ARCPO in Boot and his first-place finish in FT School, he argued, were nothing. There were only twelve people in the FT Class and he was appointed ARCPO only because he had previously learned to march.
Father receives letter of congratulation from the FT School Commandant regarding Gordie’s FT School First Place finish. That letter has reenergized Gordie’s father in his quest to get Gordie to commit to college. Also, Gordie was promoted one rank. His father reminds him of that and the fact he scored high on the Navy’s IQ test. These facts strengthened his father’s belief that Gordie could and should commit to enter college after his three-year enlistment is over.
Should Gordie give in to his father’s desire and commit to entering college after his discharge (now less than two years away) or deny his father’s wishes and plan for a career in the Navy?
Gordie, unconvinced, refuses. He does not see that his successes contradict his belief that he is not college material. He is yet to be convinced that his best chance for a self-directed, full life would be for him to get a college education and embark upon a professional career.
Gordie’s father is angry. In a showdown, Gordie states flatly that he plans to make the Navy a career and that he will definitely not attend college after discharge.
Gordie and father part at odds. He reports aboard the USS Twining DD-540 with high expectation and great anticipation. He soon learns that a career in the Navy, especially for a Fire Control Technician, will mean mostly sea duty. This news does disappoint Gordie a bit.
With the McCarthyism hysteria infecting America and war overtaking Korea, Twining leaves America to join the war. She proceeds via Hawaii to Korea. Gordie is at first excited by Twining’s war exploits and these encourage him in his intention to make the Navy a career. He has done well so far in the Navy, he gets much positive reinforcement and it all feels good to him.
These war experiences, though, give the first indication that Gordie will ultimately turn against war in general.
Aboard Twining, Gordie is promoted again. Every success that brings him praise convinces him more and more that the Navy decision is the right one for him. The reader though, sees that his abilities qualify him for more than a Navy career. And each time he reinforces his Navy decision, he gets more pressure from his mentors, father and others aboard Twining, to commit to college.
Soon, Gordie is having issues related to his colorblindness hindering his job performance. He realizes that having to depend on others for color advice can lead to trouble, errors. He is also experiencing a slight dissatisfaction over the lack of challenge in the Navy.
Should Gordie reconsider his decision not to go to college or, should he just settle for a Navy career as an enlisted man.
He is still not convinced college is the right thing for him. Officers aboard Twining are ‘selling’ Navy as a career to him – everyone except the electronics officer, who sees Gordie’s potential and urges him toward college.
The electronics officer asks Gordie to consider taking on the task of installing an upgrade to the Mark 25 Radar. He apparently considers Gordie the best person for the task. Gordie takes this as a sign of the officer’s confidence in him and that, again, tends to reinforce his belief in the Navy.
While Gordie considers the pros/cons of doing the upgrade (he’s still worried about whether his colorblindness would hamper his ability to complete this two-week task), Twining continues her primary duties in the Korean War.
Twining cruises as submarine screen for a large Navy task force. In the black of night, a sailor walks off the USS Essex flight deck and is lost at sea. In another incident that takes place before Gordie’s eyes, a cook slips on grease on a ladder, falls, and is horribly burned. Gordie is knocked down by 440 volts of electricity while working on a 20 mm machine gun. The electric shock should have killed him.
In Wonsan Harbor, a hundred miles north into enemy territory, Twining shoots at enemy trucks and troop concentrations, kills the crew of a Russian-made tank, steams into mined waters to rescue a downed pilot and attacks enemy sampans placing mines in Twining’s path. A sailor on the cruiser USS Bremerton is injured when his ship is hit in Wonsan Harbor by an enemy shell. Outside the harbor she tracks Russian submarines and drops depth charges on them. Gordie sits sometimes on deck and watches the very dangerous operations of planes landing on or taking off from the carriers. Sometimes the planes do not make it.
These events begin to dampen Gordie’s outlook.
The MK25 upgrade task is delayed a week while Twining works her hectic way through a fierce Typhoon at sea. Every man aboard must struggle mightily every minute just to remain upright. The upgrade is delayed another week when Twining is ordered again into the enemy’s Wonsan Harbor, this time as a decoy to draw enemy fire on herself so the Cruisers and Battleships in the harbor with Twining can locate and destroy the enemy gun positions ashore.
Gordie agrees to do the upgrade to the Mark 25 Radar even though he’s concerned about his colorblindness. He reveals his concern to no one besides his best friend on Twining, Sonny. It is an important task that will require diligence; the safety of every man aboard Twining will benefit from its successful completion. He knows he can, as has been his usual strategy, ask other sailors to tell him the colors on the electronic components.
Gordie proceeds and performs the Mk 25 Radar upgrade.
Gordie is called to a meeting with the Electronics officer. In that meeting, he learns his upgrade of the MK25 radar failed. The reason must be discovered. But that will be done by others, not by Gordie. This fact jolts Gordie.
The Electronics Officer also counsels Gordie on his upcoming discharge. He advises Gordie to leave the Navy and head for college. They discuss the pros and cons of his go/no go decision. Gordie is also told that because he entered the Navy before turning eighteen, he is still required to register for the draft and he has only ten days after discharge to do so.
Gordie reviews the process he used on the upgrade and realizes that having had to ask someone the colors on a resistor was the weak link in his procedure. He finally gets that his colorblindness is, and will continue to be, a hindrance to any career in the Navy.
He rethinks his ideas about his future. He begins to think of himself as a fraud. He has had to conceal his colorblindness out of fear that he might be ousted from his electronics job. He is already a petty officer as an FT – too late to change that now. He’s wavering. Here’s the question: If he cannot do the work, what would that mean for his future in the Navy?
Gordie sends an inquiry to the University of California, includes his high school transcript. A month later he receives a reply. He’s told he will be accepted as a full-time student in the fall of ’54, if and after he completes an English class and two Math classes.
After much consideration, conversations with Sonny, his best friend, and an extensive self-evaluation, he takes steps to enroll for a correspondence course in Advanced Algebra and applies for summer school for an English course and a course in Analytic Geometry. He finds the correspondence Math course easy.
Gordie experiences a sadness knowing he will be leaving the Navy. He is also excited about starting life in a more enriching direction.
After his discharge from the Navy, Gordie gets out of a car parked at the curb. He turns and smiles at his father, who is sitting proudly behind the wheel. Gordie takes a few steps toward a huge gate, pauses, looks up a long while at the big sign over the entrance, it reads UNIVERSITY of CALIFORNIA, Berkeley. Straight and upright, he turns again and strolls confidently onto the campus. His first day of summer school.

Rebecca says:

I’m writing a fantasy that is a combination of The Seven Ravens (Grimm), The Wild Swans (Andersen), The Twelve Wild Ducks, and other fairy and folk tales that are similar. The basic premise in these stories is that the villain turns the protagonist’s brothers into ravens. The only way the protagonist can save her brothers is for her to sew shirts for them out of a plant that burns her hands, and all the while she has to remain silent, or else her brothers will die. I’m thinking this will mainly be a Morality/Testing story, since she has to retain her silence through horrible challenges, even the threat of losing her life. But I can’t figure out what the external genre is. There is a Life/Death value at stake, but it’s not exciting enough to be an action story, especially since the protagonist never physically fights the villain. Then I thought maybe it was a Society/Domestic story, since the villain is the evil stepmother and the brothers are the victims, but there’s not a revolution. There is a romantic sub-plot, but it doesn’t have anything to do with her external want of saving her brothers, so I don’t think that can be it. Any advice here?

Rachelle Ramirez says:

The primary genre sounds like Status/Admiration, as in Rocky, Gladiator, or A Little Princess. She sacrifices because she is a true hero. If she must learn not to be selfish and to become altruistic to save others, then it would fall into Morality. If she is young, she probably isn’t sophisticated enough to be a Morality protagonist. The secondary genre sounds like Action, with stakes of life, death, and danger. A secondary Action story does not have to be exciting (I’m thinking of most any fable or folk tale. Most of them have a moral message but they are usually about teaching values.) Your story is not a Society story because the Society story is a story of rebellion and revolution in which a subjugated group of people stand up against a system of oppression to overthrow a tyrant. See Secrets of the Society Genre, Part Two. You can also download my Introduction to Genre book for free. You can attend my free masterclass on Story Types (perhaps the biggest help here). In addition, you might want to purchase Shawn Coyne’s book on Action. In the back of that book, it list the 20 essential movements of an Action story. Happy to discuss your story if you’d like to grab a consultation spot on my calendar.

Rebecca says:

Thank you so much! I read your article on the Status genre and I definitely see what you mean! Also, it’s good to know a story with a secondary Action doesn’t have to be exciting. I’ve thought more about it and I’ve started to come up with a pretty good Action/Epic/Conspiracy sub-plot that I’ll work on more.

Also, your article “Secrets of the Worldview Genre Part 2” was amazing! Are you planning on doing anything like that for the other Internal Genres?


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The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.