Using The Story Grid Tools 1: Defining Genre

Many things distinguish Story Grid from other models of writing and editing stories, but I’ll just mention two: it encourages (demands?) more precision and objectivity in analyzing a story; it provides a number of tools for you to use.

A large number of tools.

Whether you’re new to Story Grid or have been studying and using it since Shawn Coyne’s first blog post, it can be a challenge to keep all of the tools straight in your head, or to know when to use which. This is the first in a series of articles to help you with that.

The First Tool: The Five-Leaf Genre Clover

The most fundamental tool in the Story Grid toolchest is the one that presents the different story Genres. Without that one, none of the other tools will be helpful, or even useable.

 This emphasis on Genre can be misunderstood by a newcomer to Story Grid, so let’s clear up what we mean by “Genre”. I’ll distinguish between capital-G Genre as a Story Grid term of art and lower case-g genre, which is a marketing term. The latter tells book stores where to shelve a book, libraries what stickers to put on, and Amazon what category tags to add. It also informs the cover art. And, for those who want to “write to market”, what genre is hot right now.

But “genre” has only tenuous points of contact with capital-G Genre.  The Genre of a story informs the way it is told, how it is built. Story Grid gives you an understanding of what a reader expects from a certain type of story so you can meet those expectations—in an unexpected and creative way.

Let’s get a little more specific.

Story Grid distinguishes among five kinds of Genres: Time; Style; Reality; Structure; Content. These are depicted in the Five-Leaf Genre Clover. Here’s a simplified version of it.

The Five Leaf Clover — High Level Overview

Each of these five Genre clover leaves affects a reader’s or viewer’s expectations. Let’s examine them individually. To avoid getting lost in detail at this point, we’ll do this at a fairly high level of abstraction. 

The Time Genres

If you’re writing a script or stage play, then it’s clear what Time means: how long is the play/movie/TV episode? How many minutes of running time? If you’re writing a novel or short story, then Length might seem a more appropriate title. (Hey, we even asked how long the movie is.) We think of stories we read in terms of how many pages it has. But if you stop and think about it, what we’re really interested in is how much time we’re going to devote to reading it. And with audiobooks, we’re back to running time again.

There’s nothing complicated about the three Genres of Time: Long, Medium, and Short. Which one your story is in should be apparent to the audience up front, so they know what to expect—remember, the Genres are all about the audience’s expectations. With a printed book, that’s easy—how thick is it? Movies and audiobooks generally list their runtimes. Digital books are a little trickier. Each device or app seems to have its own way of counting pages. Add to that the fact that you have control over the font and font size, which will affect the page count. 

One thing to bear in mind is that, while Length and Time are generally correlated, they aren’t always. It will take more time to read a novella by Joseph Conrad than a novel by E.L. James.

The Style Genres

Depending on whether you’re writing for the page, stage, or screen, some styles will be more relevant than others. Epistolary (narrative in the form of letters, a diary, news clippings, etc.) generally can’t be sustained through an entire movie or play—although epistolary novels, such as Bridget Jones’ Diary, 84 Charing Cross Road, and Dracula have been successfully adapted to those media by judiciously incorporating an occasional letter or diary entry. Conversely, other than The Crying of Lot 49, you probably won’t find many novels where the characters spontaneously break out into song.

Of all the Style Genres, the Comedy and Drama Styles will be relevant to your work, no matter which medium you’re writing for.

The Reality Genres

The Reality Genres let the audience know how close or far they  can expect the story to be from normal consensual reality. Will it be:

  • based on actual events (Factualism);
  • something that could happen in real life, though it didn’t (Realism);
  • a story that couldn’t actually happen, because it involves technology that doesn’t exist, or it violates the laws of nature (Fantasy)*;
  • something completely off the wall (Absurdism)?

Again, which kind of reality the story takes place in should be apparent to the reader/audience from the get-go. For instance, even though Cowboys and Aliens starts out looking like a Realism-type Western, the title lets you know that it’s not going to stay that way.

*The usual distinction between Fantasy and Science Fiction doesn’t apply at this level; both fall under the definition of the Fantasy Reality Genre. I know that will make some of you cringe; if it does, just think of it by another name, e.g., “Speculative” or “Hypothetical”.

The Structure Genres

The best way to describe the Structure leaf is to differentiate among the Genres inside it.

The Archplot

Perhaps 85-90% of stories have an Archplot Structure. It’s the basic storyline we know instinctively: a single protagonist faces an external challenge, which causes them to actively pursue a goal; the story is told from the Beginning though the Middle to the End (with perhaps an occasional well-delineated flashback); the ending answers all questions and resolves all conflicts (Closed Ending). Throughout the story, the Reality in which the action takes place remains consistent, and events, for the most part, are Causal, rather than Coincidental in nature.

The Mini (or Minimalist) Plot

The biggest differences between this Structure and the Achplot are that the protagonist’s challenges are mostly internal, they respond passively to external challenges, and there are still some open questions at the end. In addition, there may be multiple protagonists. The story is still told more or less linearly within a consistent Reality

The Antiplot

As the name implies, this Structure will tend to break most, or even all of the rules of the Archplot. The story may jump around in a seemingly haphazard way throughout the timeline. There may be one or two scenes that don’t conform to the Reality of the rest of the story. There may not even be any clear Protagonists.


Content

All the Genres that we’ve looked at so far can be thought of as story ”containers”. We’ve identified the different sizes, colors, materials, and shapes that these containers can have. But we’ve said nothing about the contents inside those story containers: the characters, the plot, the things that are at stake in a story.

Those are all addressed in the final leaf, called, appropriately, Content.

Because the Content Genres address things like character and plot, and because most of the other Story Grid tools work with them, Story Grid editors (and other Story Grid nerds) will often speak of the Content Genre as the Genre of a story. It’s not that the other leaves of the Genre clover aren’t important; they are. It’s just that the Genres within them are easier to identify and more straightforward to work with. 

Story Grid provides many tools to help you identify and work with Content Genres. I’ll talk about most of them—Core values, Objects of Desire, Conventions and Obligatory Scenes, etc.—in later posts. (Don’t worry if you don’t know what those are; one step at a time). Right now, we’ll only talk about one: the Value at Stake.

The fundamental way in which Story Grid distinguishes among Content Genres is by asking the question, “What’s at stake; What are the potential and actual consequences of the principal characters’ actions”, and then assessing the answers in terms of universal core values: Life/Death; Victory/Defeat; Freedom/Subjugation; Justice/Injustice; and so on.

If you go back to the Five Leaf Clover, you’ll see that the Content Genres are divided into External and Internal. We’ll look at the External Content Genres in this post, and the Internal Genres in a later post.

The External Content Genres

As you see, Story Grid identifies nine External Genres. Each of these has several subGenres, and some even have sub-subGenres. That’s a lot of room for creativity, but also a lot to take in. So let’s just take a step back and look at these Genres at this level.

Take a moment and look at these names: Action; Love; Crime; etc. Think about stories you’ve read or movies you’ve watched and decide which External Genre you’d put each one in. Make a list with nine columns and write them down. If you’ve been studying Story Grid for a while, put everything you’ve learned aside for a moment. If there were no Story Grid to guide you, how would you define the different Content Genres? 

Look at the list you’ve made. What do all the books/movies that you decide are Action have in common? What do they not have in common with, say, Love stories or Crime stories? What do they have in common with these other Genres? I’ll be providing some of the higher-level distinctions that Story Grid defines, but always remember that, in Shawn Coyne’s words, the purpose of Story Grid is to provide “a form, not a formula”.

The Action Genre

What’s at stake in an Action story? Generally, life itself. Although the protagonists’ goal (their Object of Desire in Story Grid terms) may not be survival, they will be putting their lives at risk in order to achieve that goal. Even if the protagonists’ goal isn’t their own survival, it is often someone else’s.

(Note, as fellow Story Grid Editor Parul Bavishi has observed, most Children’s and some Young Adult’s Action stories will temper the stakes to Well-Being/Harm, rather than Life/Death).

As you can see, Story Grid identifies sixteen types of Action stories. Don’t panic, I won’t be going into detail about them here. For now, just look at the names of the subGenres (Adventure, Clock, Epic, Duel) and the sub-subGenres within them, and again, if you’re familiar with Story Grid, put all that knowledge aside and just look at the names. Take a look at the stories you classify as Action, and take a stab at further classifying them by subGenre. 

The Love Genre

What’s at stake in a Love story? Yes, you got it in one: Love and its fulfillment.

Story Grid defines a Love story strictly as one that “concerns a relationship between two people that has a romantic element to it and it includes the possibility of sexual intimacy”, and the subGenres reflect that definition. So, if you identified a story as belonging to the Love Genre because it’s about the love of friends or family, look at the other eight External Content Genres and think about what other Genre you might classify it as. Can you find one that works?

The Crime Genre

The Crime story turns on Justice/Injustice. There may be characters whose life is at risk, but in a Crime story, that serves to up the ante of the Justice/Injustice value. The various subGenres are about how one pursues justice: through finding the criminal; exposing the crime; preventing a crime; committing a crime; using the justice system.

Not all Crime stories involve a crime, strictly speaking. For instance, in courtroom stories about civil suits (e.g., The Verdict, The Rainmaker) no illegality takes place, but Justice is at stake.

The Horror Genre

Just as in the Action story, the Horror story deals with Life and Death, and it generally involves a lot of action and violence. So what distinguishes it from the Action story? Put another way, why isn’t it a subGenre of the Action Genre?

There are a number of reasons for giving Horror its own Content Genre.

  • While some Action stories may hint at a Fate Worse than Death (or Damnation), Horror stories will have this as a definite possibility.
  • Horror stories are “spooky”;  the Antagonist is a Monster.
  • The Protagonist is an ordinary person (though they may have some special skill), not someone heroic.

There are other things that you will find in a Horror story, but those are the key differences.

Here’s a brief description of the three subGenres:

Uncanny: The Monster is outside the realm of normal experience, but still explainable in terms of the known laws of nature. Think Alien.

Supernatural: As the name implies, the Monster doesn’t obey natural laws. “Ghosties and Ghoulies and things that go Bump in the night.”

Ambiguous: The Monster may be an external supernatural entity, or a psychological manifestation. The question remains unresolved.

How would you distinguish between Action/Monster and Horror? By the difference between being told there’s a tiger in the next room or a werewolf. 

The War Genre

The first thing we need to do is distinguish between the War story proper and stories in other Genres that use war as a setting. The War story is about the war; it’s about preparing for battles, fighting battles, the aftermath of battles. Also—and this is probably obvious—stories about the military that take place during peacetime (The General’s Daughter, A Few Good Men) are not War stories.

There are two possible values at stake in a war story: Victory/Defeat and Honor/Disgrace. These depend on the subGenre: Propaganda (pro- or anti-war) turns on Victory/Defeat or perhaps Victory/Pyrrhic Victory, and stories about the bonds that form between men under arms will turn on Honor/Disgrace.

The Western Genre

As with the War Genre, it’s easy to confuse a Western story with a story that takes place in a Western setting.

To decide if a story is a Western, we look at the values at stake for the Genre. The Western is about the individual and society, with a value of Freedom/Subjugation, created by Law/Chaos. Will the farmer/rancher be subjugated to Law tending toward Tyranny? Will they (or the town) be oppressed by the  Chaos of the Outlaw? 

The Thriller Genre

The Thriller story has attributes of Action, Horror, and Crime. 

As in Action, Life and Death are at stake, and, as in Horror, this stretches to a Fate Worse than Death. The Villain of a Thriller story is monstrous; though not supernatural,  their skills, their savagery, their very demeanor lie outside the bounds of what we think of as human. This Villain is a criminal, having committed murders and/or kidnappings (the Villain is never just a thief). At some point, the threat becomes a personal one for the Protagonist. As in the Horror, the monster must be, not just defeated, but destroyed or put permanently out of commission.

The Society Genre

The Society story is about a group that’s On Top using its power to subjugate a group that’s On The Bottom, and the way in which the subjugated group deals with it. The value here is Power/Impotence. The Powerful and the Powerless will either  overtly or covertly represent actual groups in the author’s world.

These groups will be personified by a number of individual Protagonists and Antagonists. In the Domestic subGenre they can be focused down to a single individual; an oppressive Matriarch or Patriarch that subjugates the rest of the family, or a child that controls the parents, or a sibling that everyone else dumps on.

The Performance Genre

The Performance Genre has much in common with the War Genre. Will the Protagonist succeed in winning the Big Game? Will they freeze up at the solo recital? Win by unfair means? These can all be characterized as Victory/Defeat or Honor/Shame. 

Unlike the War story, however, Performance stories often have a single Protagonist who is not part of a team. Even with a team, the story’s focus is more on a single Protagonist (Roy Hobbs in The Natural, Coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers) than is the case in a War Story.


More Resources about Genre

Now that you’ve seen how detailed this Genre Clover really is, you’re ready to see it in full bloom

For a look at the Content Genres one level deeper than I did in this article, you can look here: https://storygrid.com/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-genre/

Fellow Story Grid Editor Rachelle Ramirez has posted a series of articles that give her take on the various Content Genres in great detail, using tools I’ll present later in this series. Here are the links to her articles on the External Genres:

 Secrets of the Action Genre
Secrets of the Crime Genre
Secrets of the Horror Genre
Secrets of the Thriller Genre, Part One and Part Two
Secrets of the Love Genre
Secrets of the War Genre
Secrets of the Western Genre
Secrets of the Performance Genre
Secrets of the Society Genre

Learning to Work with the Genres

As I noted at the beginning, Genre is the central concept in the Story Grid framework, so it’s important to have a firm grasp of the Five Leaf Clover and especially the Content leaf. With that in mind, here are some exercises for you

Remember those lists I asked you to create, identifying the External Content Genres of books and movies? It’s time to get them out.
     Look at the stories you identified as Action. Do they involve stakes of Life or Death? If not, ask yourself whether, simply as a reader/viewer, you thought the story was good or bad? Would you watch or read it again? Recommend it to a friend? Going back to the nine External Content Genres, is there another one that you could say it fits in? If it does involve Life or Death stakes, ask the same questions: does the story work for you? Would it fit another Genre?
     If the Value at Stake was Life/Death and it still didn’t work for you, that means it didn’t meet your expectations for an Action story. Other Story Grid tools will tell you why. We’ll be looking at those tools in later articles in this series.
     Now go back and do the same exercise for the other eight columns on your list.
     Wait! You’re still not done. Remember, Content is only one leaf of the clover. For each item on your list, identify its Genre in each of the other four leaves. Now you’re done.

With this exercise.

Next, look at some of the stories you’ve abandoned. Dig out the shoebox, the thumb drive, or or whatever it is you’ve buried them away in. Pick one or two that you got fairly far into before stopping. Leaf by leaf, see if you can identify its Genres.
     If you find that you can’t, that’s probably a reason you instinctively stopped working on it. You didn’t know what kind of story it was. If you like, take some time and think about what kind of story you’d like it to be, even if you don’t want to start working on it again.

Last, look at your current work in progress, if you have one. If you’ve been working with the Story Grid tools for a while and have a pretty good idea of the story’s Genres, then don’t pick at it. Do the exercise for another story idea you have, even if you don’t intend to write it.
     Write down your best guess at this point of which Genres your story lives in. Most likely you’ll know the Time, Structure, and Reality, and Style Genres (reread the sections for those leaves if you’re not sure), but you may get stuck on the External Content Genre. Reread the descriptions of those Genres. If those high-level descriptions aren’t enough, go to Shawn Coyne’s post. 
     You may be having trouble because your story is more of an internal one. That’s fine; I’ll be discussing the Internal Genres in the next post of this series. But every story, even if it’s mostly concerned with what’s going on inside the characters, still has an External Genre, so spend some time with it.

If you just can’t seem to find a Genre that fits your story, or if you keep changing your mind, it’s not you. Trust me. We’ve all been there. You can book some time with me by going to https://www.larrypass.com/, and clicking on the “Schedule a Free Call Button” or with one of the other Story Grid Certified editors here.

In the next post in this series I’ll look at the Internal Genres, “Friedman’s Framework”, and Maslow’s Hierarchy. See you then.

About the Author

Larry Pass started reading at the age of three and has been reading ever since. Larry earned a B.A. Summa Cum Laude in mathematics and went on to graduate work at M.I.T. where his studies were funded by the National Science Foundation. Larry's passion for learning is complemented by an equal passion to help others learn and grow. He has immersed himself in the Story Grid methodology since 2015 and is a Story Grid Certified Editor. He is currently working on a Story Grid Masterwork Guide to Hamlet. You can contact Larry for a free consultation call at LarryPass.com
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