As we’ve reviewed over the last few weeks, the Structure and the Content genres in our Five-Leaf Genre Clover are intimately entwined. No matter how you slice it, Archplots and Miniplots require foundational quests. In turn, these quests require External conscious and/or Internal subconscious objects of desire. The ways in which the writer reveals those external and internal objects of desire is by making crucial choices.
These choices begin and end in the last genre category, the CONTENT GENRES.
I’ve divided CONTENT GENRES into two distinct types.
- EXTERNAL CONTENT GENRES define your protagonist/s external objects of desire.
What they want.
- INTERNAL CONTENT GENRES define your protagonist/s internal objects of desire.
What they need.
Let’s begin with WANTS.
The External Content Genres are what we think of when we hear the word genre—Action, Horror, Crime, Western, Thriller, War, Love etc. We know one from the other because each has its particular characteristics and because each has very straightforward forces of conflict at play.
The External Content Genres are driven primarily by extra-personal and/or personal conflict. These forces of antagonism are direct and easy to identify: the villains in crime and action stories, the potential mates in love stories, the monsters in horror stories, or the environment in a action man against nature stories.
External conflict is the sizzle that gets bottoms in movie seats and books on bestseller lists.
As consumers, we have concrete expectations of these genres as we’ve all been exposed to thousands of them since birth. Again, genre conventions and obligatory scenes satisfy those expectations. While a reader/viewer may not be able to pinpoint what exactly it is they want from a story, they know it when it’s not there. Immediately.
Anyone who has ever been to a mind-numbingly bad play can tell you that. The writer needs to know and understand these story requirements consciously and deliberately. If he doesn’t know them, how can he possibly set them up and pay them off?
The External Content Genres are driven by Archplot quests to attain your lead character’s conscious object of desire. The conscious object of desire is the tangible thing that the protagonist wants and actively pursues from the inciting incident of the story forward. What’s extremely helpful when considering whether or not to drive your entire story by an external content genre is in the fact that these objects of desire are conventions particular to each of the genres.
That is, your protagonist’s conscious object of desire is predetermined based upon your choice of external content genre.
The pursuit of the subconscious object of desire, however, drives the Internal Content Genres. We’ll dive into those in the next post.
Perhaps you’re working on an Action Story or want to write an Action Story. The conscious external object of desire in an Action Story is a convention. The hero/protagonist (another convention in an Action Story is that the protagonist must be a hero, someone who sacrifices himself to save others) wants to stop the story’s villain/s and save the life of a victim or victims.
Perhaps you’ve written a Love Story or want to write a Love Story. The conscious external object of desire in a Love Story is a convention. The protagonist pursues or runs away from an intimate bond with another human being—that’s her object of desire, an intimate relationship.
Perhaps you’ve written a Crime Story or want to write a Crime Story. The conscious external object of desire in a Crime Story is a convention. The protagonist wants to bring a criminal to justice.
Obviously the choice you make about your global external content genre is critical. It will drive the literal narrative of your Story.
Remember that readers don’t have the capacity to read a man against time action thriller, and then tell their friends not to bother with it because it didn’t innovate “the hero at the mercy of the villain” scene. Instead, readers tell their friends that the book didn’t work. It was missing something. It seemed thin. Don’t buy it.
If you don’t study the conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen content genre and don’t know how writers before you satisfied them, how can you be sure that you’ve written anything remotely original? Just as to be a bodybuilder, you need to be a weightlifter first, to be a writer, you need to be a reader first.
If you want to write a particular kind of novel, you must dive deep into the history of the genre itself…find the best books, read them, study them and understand intellectually how each of the conventions and obligatory scenes of the genre were satisfied. The Story Grid is the perfect way to map out just how each writer did so. And having multiple Story Grids for your chosen genre at hand will be an invaluable reference kit for your future work.
I’ll show you how to create your own Story Grids later on when I put together The Story Grid for the thriller, The Silence of the Lambs. The thriller combines the conventions and obligatory scenes of three external genres, Action, Horror and Crime. So when I do analyze the conventions and obligatory scenes of the thriller, you’ll also get a foundation in Action, Horror, and Crime. I plan to offer analysis for the other genres as well, but I just haven’t written those works yet.
But with all of the above said, Genres are fluid.
They morph and combine and adapt to the tenor of time. That is, genres shift and change to reflect the anxieties of the particular historical period. I’ll make a case later on that the Thriller is the dominant story form today because it serves the largest segment of society, those overwhelmed by the threats of modern life.
I label the following External Content Genres because they concern primarily external forces of antagonism—other people or societal or natural forces—on a single protagonist. They primarily have closed endings, are causal, and happen in linear time in a consistent reality. Archplots. I write “primarily” because there are a number of works within these large genres that move down the curve and approach Miniplot.
These Archplot/Miniplot stories still have an external content genre, but they have shifted the emphasis of the Global storytelling to the subconscious object of desire. In these, the global story is driven by the internal content genre. The external one in these cases are usually used to grab the reader early on, only to shift later to deal with deeper internal issues within the lead character.
That is part and parcel of genre fluidity.
Every once and a while, a writer like Thomas Harris comes along and abides most of the conventions of a particular external genre, but tweaks them by morphing them with another genre. In Harris’s case, he melded the action story with the crime story and added horror to create the modern serial killer thriller with his second novel, Red Dragon.
Or, the writer places greater emphasis on an underlying internal genre beneath the external, like a crime novel laced with an overriding redemption plot, like one of my favorites, BAIT by Kenneth Abel. Obviously, the more intimately you know more than one particular genre, the better your chances of creating something fresh and unique by combining elements of both.
Here is an overview of the EXTERNAL CONTENT GENRES, along with a bit more description of each. These descriptions are by no means exhaustive. Each and every one of these could have an entire book devoted to its conventions and nuances.
EXTERNAL CONTENT GENRES are stories driven by a global external value (justice/injustice, life/death, love/hate) and its positive and negative charge.
The Action Genre
The core value at stake in an action story is Life/Death, the core emotion is excitement and the most important event in the book is “the hero at the mercy of the villain” scene. Action is the primal Genre, the stuff of Gilgamesh, Homer’s canon and Beowulf.
For more on this genre, I highly recommend Robert Mckee and Bassim El-Wakil’s upcoming book Action: The Art of Excitement from which the sub-genres below reference. The key element to remember about Action is that the villain is the driving force. He/she/it is the source of all conflict and antagonism in the story and thus Action can be broken down into the four sub-genres of extra-personal conflict.
Not to confuse you too much, but these four extra-personal varieties of conflict and their particular plot devices listed below can also be applied to the other external genres. That is, you could create a horror story that uses the Labyrinth Plot device, a Crime Story that uses the Conspiracy Plot device, a Thriller that uses the Savior Plot device etc. The Action Genre is primal and its plot devices can easily be used to drive the other genres.
- Action Adventure/Man Against Nature Stories: These are stories that use the natural world or a specific setting as the villain/force of conflict. They can be further delineated by four kinds of plot devices:
- The Labyrinth Plot: The object of desire is to save victim/s and get out of a maze-like edifice. (Die Hard)
- The Monster Plot: The villain is an animal. (Jaws)
- The Environment Plot: The villain is the actual global setting. (Gravity)
- The Doomsday Plot: The victim is the environment. The hero must save the environment from disaster. (Independence Day)
- Action Epic/Man Against the State Stories: These are stories where the hero must confront societal institutions or tyrants.
- Rebellion Plot: The hero is pitted against a visible tyrant like a Darth Vadar from Star Wars.
- Conspiracy Plot: The hero is up against an invisible tyrant. Enemy of the State, The Bourne Identity.
- Vigilante Plot: The hero is up against a criminal organization. Above the Law.
- Savior Plot: The hero is up against someone who wants to destroy society. The Dark Knight.
- Action Duel/Man Against Man Stories:
- Revenge Plot: Hero chases the Villain.
- Hunted Plot: Villain chases the Hero.
- Machiavellian Plot: Hero sets two villains against each other A Fistful of Dollars
- Collision Plot: Villain sets two heroes against each other. Troy
- Action Clock/Man Against Time
- Ransom Plot: A deadline imposed by the villain.
- Countdown Plot: A deadline superimposed by circumstance. Andromeda Strain.
- Holdout Plot: Hero has to holdout until others can rally. The 300.
- Fate Plot: Time is the villain. Back to the Future.
The Horror Genre
The core value in Horror, like Action, is also life/death, but here it is taken to the very end of the line…the fate worst than death. When dying would be a mercy. The core emotion is fear and the core event is the Victim at the Mercy of the Monster scene. The element to remember about Horror, like Action, is that the forces of antagonism (the Monster/s) are key.
Generically, horror stories concern survival, and for those that go to the limits of human experience. They are by definition unrealistic and live inside the Fantasy Reality Genre leaf. An inciting incident featuring an attack by a monster of some kind throws a single non-heroic protagonist out of stasis in such a way that he must actively pursue a conscious object of desire, saving his own life.
One very important convention within the horror genre is that the antagonist/s are possessed by “evil.” The antagonists cannot be reasoned with. They have no interest in anything other than annihilation. There are three sub-genres of horror and they divide along the lines of explaining the monster. Again, I must pay a debt to Robert McKee for these definitions. And remember that the Action plot devices can be used for each of these subgenres.
- Uncanny: These are stories where the force of evil is explainable—a man made monster, aliens, or a possessed maniac like Jason in the Friday the 13th movies. There is no way to convince these monsters to do anything but slaughter.
- Supernatural: The monster in these stories isn’t “real.” That is, the force of antagonism is from the spirit realm and cannot be explained like a man made monster, alien beings from outer space, or an axe wielding freak. Rather there are of the zombies, vampires, Freddie Kruger variety. The Amityville Horror is a good example, as the father from the family becomes “possessed” by spirits in his home, which push him to slaughter his family.
- Ambiguous: In these stories, the reader/viewer is kept in the dark about the source of evil. The sanity of the protagonist/victim comes into doubt. The Shining is a great example, one of my all time favorite novels. Just a brilliant and beautifully written Story that mixes alcoholism, egotism, and despair into one Hellish stew.
The Crime Genre
The core value in crime is justice/injustice, and the core event is the exposure of the criminal.
An unjust inciting incident (the compelling What if? Event) throws a single protagonist out of stasis in such that he must actively pursue a conscious object of desire (a criminal) to restore justice. The type of protagonist and his point of view is what creates the many subgenres in crime.
- Murder Mystery
The Murder Mystery is the most obvious sub-genre of Crime. The Inciting Incident is the discovery of a dead body. For the most part, the end of the Story is the revelation of the murderer. Conventions of the Murder Mystery include false clues (red herrings), a crafty killer who has constructed the perfect crime, lots of interviews, lots of secrets, and an intrepid investigator, usually underestimated, who proves more capable than the villain. There are numerous sub-sub genres of the murder mystery and they divide along the point of view of the protagonist, as well as the category of investigator. Each sub-sub genre has its own additional conventions and obligatory scenes.
- Master Detective: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Columbo… The core event is also the climax of the Story where the master detective lays out how the murder occurred and who perpetrated it. The murderer usually tries to escape, but is thwarted by the intrepid investigator to resolution. Justice is restored by story’s end.
- Cozy: Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schulz etc. These stories are told from the point of view of the amateur sleuth, who usually has some expertise that others lack which enables them to figure out the mystery. Readers love cozies because they learn quite a bit about an alien discipline while enjoying the standard investigation. Mysteries with recipes are quite popular. And of course there is that sub sub sub genre that will never go away, the Cat mystery where a cat is instrumental in solving the crime.
- Historical: These either feature historical figures as amateur sleuths, Eleanor Roosevelt, or they feature interesting professionals from earlier times like the monk investigator in The Name of the Rose. And like the cozy, the reader learns a whole lot about a particular time period while getting the honey of a perfectly crafted mystery.
- Noir/Hard-Boiled: These are a very specific mash up from a very specific time. The lead character is usually a good guy detective or lawyer or someone with skills that can be used for evil deeds. He gets seduced by a very specific character called a femme fatale, a woman who uses all of her feminine wiles to get the man to do as she pleases. She’s a sort of modern day succubus. The innocent man decides to do the woman’s bidding, commits a crime of some sort (most often murder) and then she sets him up to take the fall for it, escaping with some kind of treasure that only the innocent man can help her attain. The convention is that the story is told from the schmucks’ point of view, often in flashback. Double Indemnity by James M. Cain is a textbook example. The movie Body Heat is a nice update to it.
- Paranormal: These mysteries combine elements of the supernatural with the classic murder mystery plot. Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse mysteries/horror novels that began with Dead Until Dark are a great example. HBO adapted the books into the series True Blood.
- Police Procedural: These are the classic cop point of view books. Law and Order kind of stuff, but just the first half of the show. There is a long list of these. Ed McBain/Evan Hunter’s 87th Precinct series of books epitomize the form. Another one of my personal favorites was a book I worked on years ago called Eleven Days by Donald Harstad. It was a terrific mash up of Police Procedural and Paranormal.
- Organized Crime, is a crime (not necessarily murder) from the criminal point of view. The reader roots for the criminal to get away with it. The Godfather is an example of a crime novel combined with a political society drama. There is an amateur variety too where the good guy goes bad for good reason. Breaking Bad is the perfect example. The main thrust of the narrative is Will he get caught?
- Caper: this is an offshoot of the Organized Crime sub genre that has been done enough to earn its out distinction. This is a story from the master criminal’s point of view, a movie like Rififi or Sexy Beast are two great examples.
- Courtroom: These are crime stories from the point of view of a lawyer. One of my favorites is The Verdict, which meshes an internal redemption story with the external crime genre.
- Newsroom: These feature reporters as protagonists. Ron Howard’s movie The Paper and the nonfiction All The President’s Men are prime examples.
- Espionage: A spy is the lead character. These often walk the razor’s edge between crime and thriller, depending on the presence of a hero at the mercy of the villain scene. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy come to mind.
- Prison: These are from the point of view of a prisoner. Will they find solve the riddle of how they were set up?
The Western Genre
The core values in the western concern the individual inside and outside of society, good/evil, strong/weak, and wilderness/civilization. The core event is the showdown between the hero and the villain. I recommend Will Wright’s book Sixguns and Society if you really want the grand tour of this genre, which had a very long run of popularity in the 20th Century.
- Classical A stranger comes in to a small town, reveals that he has a special talent and is then tasked with saving the town from the influence of villains. By the end, the hero is welcomed into the fold. Even though he does not stay amongst the people at the end of the Story, Shane is the prototype. From the Classical come three subgenres.
- Vengeance The Stranger is intent on righting a wrong. He’s outside of society at the beginning, inside society at the end. Marlon Brando’s One-eyed Jacks is a perfect example.
- Transition The hero is inside society at the start, outside of society by the end. High Noon
- Professional The heroes are not out to save society. They’re just doing a job, making a living outside of the law. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The Thriller Genre
What would happen if you mashed up the Action, Horror and Crime genres? You’d get the modern thriller. Thrillers take the core values of Action and Horror (Life and Death) and adapt them to a very realistic human extreme. The Life/Death value escalates to what Robert McKee calls the Fate Worse than Death, but not just the external Fate Worse than Death that is present in Horror, but all the way to include the internal Fate worse than death…Damnation. The core emotion escalates from the intrigue inherent in crime stories, to the excitement level of action and then to horror’s fear and ultimately terror. The force of conflict, the antagonist, is far worse than the single dimensional action villain, but just a shade less than the inexplicable horror monster.
The thriller explores the horrors of real life, real monsters who prey in our everyday world.
What distinguishes Thrillers from Action, Crime and Horror is that they require a supporting Internal Content Genre to drive the protagonist’s “B” Story. The external threats and how the protagonist deals with them have a deep impact on his/her inner conflicts. James Bond doesn’t think twice after he’s killed a bad guy. The thriller protagonist, no matter his outward bravado, does. But more on that when we go over The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs.
The thriller is very malleable. It can be used as a sort of honey to attract readers and then be circumvented by its underlying Internal Content Genre to become a much more symbolic treatise on contemporary life than one would expect on a first read. As such, it is embraced by both the commercial and literary publishing cultures. You’ll often find books positioned and sold as “literary thrillers,” promising such a deep experience. I’m going to examine the thriller at greater length later on when I go through The Story Grid column by column for The Silence of the Lambs. For now, let’s examine the genre broadly.
The thriller features a heroic protagonist (someone willing to sacrifice his own life for others) facing personal conflict just a hair’s breath short of the omnipotent horror antagonist. These are realistic threats of the highest order, crime antagonists at the peak of their strength. With outstanding action set pieces filled with derring-do to thwart the plans of the villain, the thriller must make the antagonism personal. That is, the protagonist of the Story must be revealed, usually by the middle of the novel or the end of the second act, as the victim. The victim in horror is the everyman protagonist. But in the thriller, he’s a hero.
A sociopath has singled out the hero for the most extreme of the life/death values, the end of the line, what Robert McKee calls The Negation of the Negation, the fate worse than death…damnation. While Horror stories also take the lead character to the fate worse than death, the thriller does so in a terrifyingly realistic way. Plus, the lead character has a deep inner life, filled with all three levels of individual conflict, inner, personal and extra-personal.
When done well, thrillers push all of our buttons. They entertain us in a way that action/adventure, horror and crime stories do, but in addition, they add on a deep layer of internal struggle that protagonists in literary Miniplots contend with as their greatest challenge.
As you can use one or more of the sixteen plot devices in horror as you do in action, so can you use the same sixteen for the thriller. As most thrillers adhere to realism genre within the REALITY leaf of our genre five-leaf clover, the variety of thriller is often determined by the setting. The setting is often referred in Hollywood as the “world.” The point of view of the hero/victim protagonist is also a determining factor.
- Serial Killer, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, (police/FBI/PI as hero/victim)
- Legal, Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, (lawyer/judge as hero/victim)
- Medical, Coma by Robin Cook (doctor/nurse/researcher as hero/victim)
- Military, Seven Days In May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, (soldier as hero/victim)
- Political, Marathon Man by William Goldman (everyman/politician/gangster as hero/victim)
- Journalism, The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly, (journalist as hero/victim)
- Psychological, Primal Fear by William Diehl, (The core question is he/she crazy? drives the story)
- Financial, Numbered Account by Christopher Reich, (setting is financial world and how it works)
- Espionage, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlumm (spy as hero/victim)
- Woman in Jeopardy, Sleeping with the Enemy by Nancy Price, (woman as hero/victim)
- Child in Jeopardy, The Client by John Grisham, (child as hero/victim)
- Hitchcock, A Coffin For Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, (Wrong man as hero/victim)
The War Genre
The core value of the War Story is Victory/Defeat for straightforward pro or anti-war propaganda Stories. These epics usually use Factualism as their REALTY genre. The Longest Day and The Battle of the Bulge are prime examples. Another subgenre of the War story is what I call the Brotherhood variation, which has a core value of Honor/Disgrace and would include Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield and Oliver Stone’s Platoon. The core emotion can be anything from excitement to fear to intrigue. And of course the core event is the big battle.
Love Stories are often subplots within War Stories, Atonement by Ian McEwan is a wonderful example of the use of love to ground the War Story.
The Society Genre
These are stories that are most driven by big ideas. That is they are often used to present a particular point of view/argument for political purposes. There are a number of varieties that hinge on the core values inherent in their choice of setting or character. They are often referred to as Social Dramas, but as we’ve defined Drama as a particular category of the Style leaf of genre, I prefer to reference these as just the Society genre. As society has many different strata, these stories usually have multiple protagonists. The core values at stake are dependent upon the subgenre and the core events are also sub-genre specific.
- Domestic concerns the family dynamic and the core value is the health of the individual versus the bond of the family. The core event is what I call the “showdown” between the central force of control (father, mother, etc.) and the rebellious member/s of the family. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the masterwork of the form. All members of the family are both perpetrators of repression and victims of repression stuck in inescapable torment. But they are in it together.
- Woman’s concerns the struggle of the independent woman versus an overbearing patriarchy. The value is feminism/patriarchy and or similar to the political, power/impotence. The core event is the rebellion and or submission of the protagonist. Anna Karenina is a prime example.
- Political is the struggle for power. Its core value is power/impotence and the core event is the revolution where power is either lost or gained. The Godfather while squarely in the crime genre, is also a political drama too. We root for the gangster Michael Corleone to take down the five families and regain the power lost with the death of his father Vito.
- Biographical—The value at stake in the Biographical Story is dependent upon the figure as is the core event. Often Biography takes on the dynamic of the Performance genre and/or one of the other external content genres to ground the narrative of a particular life story.
- Historical—The value at stake in the Historical is also dependent upon the time period chosen. As is the core event. What’s important to remember is that when choosing the historical period to explore, it should be applicable to the present day dynamic. That is, the controlling idea of the story should be applicable to contemporary life. Using historical details enables the writer to comment on a particular taboo or highly charged moment in contemporary life through the prism of the past. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow has multiple protagonists as do the big epic novels of Edward Rutherfurd and Ken Follett.
The Love Genre
There are three sub genres of the Love Story: Stories of Courtship, Stories of Marriage, and Stories of Obsession. The core value of course is love/hate and the core event is the proof of love of one character for another.
- Courtship concerns the process of two people meeting and committing or not committing to each other. Beyond the core value of Love/Hate, they often concern Dependence/Independence, Communication/Misunderstanding, Morality/Immorality, Social approval/disapproval, and Togetherness/Loneliness.
- Marriage—these are stories about committed relationships going deeper into true intimacy or breaking apart. Beyond the global value of Love/Hate, they deal with notions of Loyalty/Betrayal, Truth/Lie, Fidelity/Infidelity, and Self/Other.
- Obsession—these are stories about desire and passion, most often sexual. The core value beyond Love/Hate can often take a turn to survival/death. The core emotion can begin at romance/arousal and move to fear pretty quickly.
There are numerous popular sub-sub-sub genes of Love Stories, including Erotic, Gothic, Historical, Paranormal, Regency, Romantic Suspense, Western and a very popular form in Crime, Thriller and Horror…Buddy Salvation. Love stories are extremely effective as sub-plots in the other popular external content genres.
The Performance Genre
These stories are very popular because they concern the core value dynamic of respect versus shame. Will the big fight, performance, or presentation go well or will it result in dishonor? The core event, of course, is the big game or big performance.
- Sports The Natural by Bernard Malamud
- Music, The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
- Business, Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet
- Art, The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
Next up…the Internal Content Genres.
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