Do you want to write a story that’s a sure crowd pleaser? Want to innovate on a classic story that almost everyone can relate to? Want to take your protagonist through a life changing moment of intense pressure, where they must perform to gain respect or suffer mortifying embarrassment? Then welcome to the Performance Genre, a world of heroes and villains, winners and losers, and the battleground between shame and honor.
In this post, we’ll review what you need to know to create and edit a Performance story that will meet or exceed the expectations of your audience. At the Story Grid, we do this by focusing on the building blocks of genre.
Need to get familiar with the Story Grid’s categorization of genres first? A refresher is here.
What exactly is the Performance Genre?
A Performance story is an external genre with either an arch-plot (Hero’s Journey/Virgin’s Promise with single protagonist) or mini-plot (multiple characters) with a climactic event where the heroes are forced to display all their gifts under duress and society’s critical eye.
“The performance story is a big crowd pleaser because it concerns a life changing pressure cooker moment…when we must perform on demand and either attain respect or live with ignominious shame.”— Shawn Coyne
Characters in a Performance story WANT validation from others because they NEED esteem and self-respect. In short, their external object of desire is different from their internal need.
As we see in the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need, a Performance story arises from the need for esteem. The Performance protagonist’s primary goal isn’t survival, safety, or love (though Love is often a secondary genre in Performance stories). Their goal is esteem, standing, third-party validation. They want the success of their performance to be a direct reflection of who they are.
And take a look at the position of the Performance Genre in the Gas Gauge. It’s right in the gray area where the external genres begin to overlap with the internal genres. Love is an external genre many writers confuse with the internal genres (I’ll go over this in a future post on The Secrets of the Love Genre). Performance shares the classification of Esteem with one external genre (Society) and one internal genre (Status). This is why we sometimes struggle in determining what type of story we’re writing.
Aren’t all stories about performers
categorized in the Performance Genre?
No. Not every story involving a musician, a dancer, or an athlete necessarily has Performance as its global genre.
For example, a story with a cast of dancers might not be a primary Performance story at all. It could have Status (Memoirs of a Geisha, Cabaret), Worldview (Saturday Night Fever, The Black Swan), or even a Society (The Turning Point, Footloose).as its Global genre.
The Performance genre has its own Core Emotion, Core Value, and Controlling Idea. It has its own unique Obligatory Scenes and Conventions.
Let’s take a look at each of these.
The Core Emotion is what a reader wants to feel–the reason they choose a particular type of story.
In a Performance story, the Core Emotion is Triumph.
People choose Performance stories to experience the rewards of great effort and the triumph of expressing extraordinary gifts, without making the effort themselves or experiencing real-life consequences.
What’s the Global Value at stake in a Performance story?
The Global Value at stake describes the protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end. It’s the primary arc you’ll keep your protagonist moving along throughout your story. There are no exceptions to this guideline. It’s the heart of what makes a story a story.
The Global Values of the Performance story slide between shame and honor. And unlike most other genres, conflict in a Performance story must be expressed on three different levels:
External Conflict arises from social and/ or environmental pressure. The protagonist is motivated by the expectations and limitations of a group of others.
Interpersonal Conflict is between antagonist and protagonists. The antagonist of a performance story is usually the primary rival character in the big climactic performance, but can be a force such as class, misogyny, or racism. Even then, that force should be embodied in an antagonistic character who at least attends the performance event with the intent to see the protagonist fail.
Internal Conflict is a war within the protagonist. This often follows a Worldview trajectory and culminates in a shift in thinking that allows the protagonist to display all their gifts while performing in the Big Event.
The Values of the genre slide on the scale between shame and honor on all three levels. Confusing? Let’s take a look at the infographic.
What’s the Controlling Idea of the Performance story?
The Controlling Idea of a story is the “lesson” your reader comes away with, the meaning they apply to your story. Also called a Theme, it’s the single sentence summing up the argument your story attempts to prove through narrative.
It’s made up of the big value change at the climax of your story, plus the specific cause of that change. Each of the main content genres has a generic pair of controlling ideas, one for the positive outcome and one for the negative. (For everything about Controlling Idea, see Chapter 34 in The Story Grid book, or The Big Takeaway on the blog.)
The Controlling Idea of the Performance story can be either positive or negative, depending upon which story you are telling.
If your story is positive, your Controlling Idea might look something like this: We gain respect when we commit to expressing our gifts unconditionally.
If your story is negative, your Controlling Idea might look something like this: Shame results when we hold our gifts back for fear of criticism and/or reprisal.
Why tell a Performance story?
Most of us can relate to a Performance story because the pressure to perform, at some level (see subgenres) is interwoven in our societal structure, perhaps even in our biology as social animals. The constructs of heroes and villains, winners and losers, shame and honor are issues we and our characters contend with every day. This is a gift to writers and readers.
Performance stories can be Prescriptive Tales (positive), showing us how to avoid shame and gain honor…how to triumph.
Or they can be Cautionary Tales (negative) that tell us what choices and actions will result in a loss of honor and a burden of shame…in failure.
We tell Performance because the experience we’re providing the reader helps answer their questions via themes. We don’t like to box ourselves in but, like the characters we create, we have themes, values, and principles that help determine our objects of desire (external character goals), and what we think it takes to obtain them (plot drivers). We encounter and create barriers (character faults and external antagonists) we must overcome to obtain those goals (identifies character’s actual need which is to change) and our actions (reveals characterization) determine whether or not we succeed or fail. The appeal and how much your story adds to the lives of your readers depends on your attention to all of these.
Performance Stories help us create a narrative around our possibilities, limitations, and decisions. They help us navigate our world and learn to express our gifts. That leads to a better social world for all.
What are the Conventions of the Performance Genre?
Here’s how Coyne explains Conventions: “They are elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused…Conventions are not obligatory scenes…they are specific requirements in terms of the Story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward.” The Performance Genre includes these:
- The story follows a cause and effect trajectory as the protagonist pursues their object of desire from beginning to end.
- The power divide between the antagonist (usually a competitor) and protagonist is wide and deep. The protagonist is an underdog.
- Protagonist must practice to gain or recover the skills necessary to perform. There is a training phase.
- There is a strong mentor figure participating in the protagonist’s training. This can be a coach, a retired performer, a parent, etc.
- The mentor recovers their moral compass or betrays the protagonist in order to act out their perceived victimhood.
- The protagonist reaches an explicit All is Lost Moment. The protagonist must believe there is no way to avoid their imminent performance failure.
- Through character action, the protagonist is forced to change in order to get what they need. This change results from conflict. A critical flaw of the protagonist must be remedied
- A Paradoxical, win-but-lose, lose-but-win ending. The protagonist gains something and loses something. There is a clear sacrifice for the win or a need is met in light of a loss.
What are the Obligatory Scenes of the Performance Genre?
According to Coyne, Obligatory Scenes are “must-have scenes for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre.” If you leave out a scene, you’ll have a story that doesn’t work. The Performance Genre includes these:
- There is an Inciting performance opportunity where the protagonist is introduced to the event they will later train to complete.
- The protagonist avoids their responsibility to perform. They rely on old habits and resist change.
- Forced to perform by story events, the protagonist lashes out.
- The protagonist discovers and understands the antagonist’s (usually a competitor) object of desire.
- The protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails due to the protagonist’s approach to training.
- The protagonist alternates between learning, performing, and becoming a better version of themselves. In other words, the protagonist must change in order to become more of the same.
- Protagonist, realizing they must change their approach in order to salvage some form of honor, reaches an All Is Lost moment.
- The Big Event/Performance Scene is the climactic scene. It is the central event of the Performance story when the Protagonist’s gift is expressed. For example: The Big Fight, Play, Recital, or competition they’ve been training for.
- The protagonist is rewarded at one or more levels of satisfaction: external, interpersonal, and/or internal.
What are the subgenres of the Performance Genre?
I’ve seen some writers and story critics list subgenres for the Performance Genre but I argue that there are no subgenres, that what others call subgenres are simply changes of setting. There is no clear distinction between the building blocks of the different settings. The Conventions and Obligatory Scenes change only as needed to accommodate the setting, e.g., the Mentor might be a coach, a boss, or a retired performer.
Sports: Examples of the Sports setting are Rocky, The Natural, Breaking Away, and Bring it On.
Business: Examples of the Business setting are Big Night, Trading Places, and Hidden Figures.
Art:Examples of the Art setting are Mr. Turner, The Agony and the Ecstasy, and Art School Confidential.
Performing Arts: Examples of the Performing Arts setting are Topsy Turvy, Whiplash, Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, and Step Up.
What about characterization in a Performance story?
Coyne has said, “Character is Action.”
It’s not what they’re thinking or saying that defines your characters, but how they choose to act and what they do. How your characters and act and react to story events demonstrates character.
We’ll examine this more in the upcoming Secrets of the Performance Genre, Part Two, blog post.
Putting It All Together
Now you have the basic keys to the Performance Genre and many of the tools you’ll need to write better Performance stories. To put this all together, read and watch widely within the genre and compare the masterworks to one another and your own work. Check your work with The Story Grid Book and against the Performance Genre secrets here. Use what you learn to edit your work and finish that story.
Your readers, like me, are waiting for stories that will help us win the battle against shame and move us toward gaining honor. We’re counting on you to finish that story and share it with the world. Are you ready?
Please comment below with your questions for the upcoming blog post, Secrets of the Performance Genre, Part Two. I can’t wait to hear from you.
*Special thanks to Anne Hawley, Certified Story Grid Editor, for editing this post, providing the Value Infographic, and for updating the Gas Gauge of Need Infographic.