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Writing a Global Internal Genre Story that Works

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It’s become clear to me that I have a problem–I am an Internal Genre junkie.

Status, Worldview, Morality, prescriptive, cautionary … I love them all!

For me, these arcs of change within characters are the most fascinating and fulfilling part of storytelling. Each one teaches me so much about myself and the world around me. It’s a wonderfully fun problem to have.

And the best news?

Internal Genres can happen anywhere!

Alongside Action, Love, or Crime.

In Ancient Rome, Los Angeles, or Tatooine.

Within Kings, and children, and even robots.

The range available for telling meaningful stories about authentic internal changes are like a never-ending gobstopper of fulfilling hearty flavor. Which is precisely why they are the kind of stories I write and the kind I have chosen to specialize in as an editor.

While all stories are about change, crafting Internal Genres can be tricky because the change is, well, internal. It’s a change of intangible things within a character, like motives, beliefs and moral code. How do you show-not-tell something like that?

Readers who love Internal Genre stories crave full immersion in a character’s authentic emotional change, along with enough room to still bring their own experiences to the page. Quite the tall order.

Writers will often depict these squishy elements with over-the-top on-the-nose dramatics, or chuck the pendulum the other way with elements so abstract they are altogether undetectable. Either way, the resulting reading experience is a far cry from satisfying.

A great Internal Genre story will have a balance of saturation and subtext, precision and nuance. If you can deliver an experience like that, I’ll preorder all your books for life.

So how do we write a great Global Internal Genre story?

This is precisely what I set out to study in Season Four of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable Podcast.

Let’s Look Closer

I wanted to investigate four things:

1) Using Friedman’s Framework, how to determine the genre if more than one of the internal elements changes.

2) How the life values are established in the BH and how they are demonstrated to change over the story spine, including a satisfying ending.

3) Which External Genres are used—are there any recurring patterns or strong pairings we can identify?

4) And finally, as with all stories, I want to step back to the meta-meta story and ask myself what this story means, for me and the world. What is the controlling idea/theme that transcends genre to just being human?

Leslie and I had previously plunged down the rabbit hole of internal genres with our three part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. For my Roundtable studies, these are the tools and methods I leaned on, as well as some new insights I gained about Life Values from my Simply Irreversible: Quantifying Progressive Complications post with Valerie.

For Season Four, since I had the option, I specifically chose to look at the kinds of stories that I write: humorous and heartfelt prescriptive tales that deliver a redemptive perspective on pain. This led me to The Fundamentals of Caring, A Man Called Ove, and Puzzle. Along with the picks of my fellow Roundtablers, this made for a varied curriculum indeed!

Here are all the stories we examined in Season Four, and the genres we identified. If you don’t usually read the show notes from the show, I highly recommend taking a look. So much fabulous in-depth content was generated.

FilmExternal GenreInternal Genre
Cloud AtlasYep. Yep.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black PearlAction-Duel-HuntedWorldview-Maturation
Murder on the Orient ExpressCrime-Master DetectiveSlight Worldview? Maybe?
The Shawshank RedemptionCrime-PrisonStatus-Admiration
The Fundamentals of CaringLove & Action-AdventureWorldview-Education
Black Mirror: BandersnatchPerformance-BusinessStatus-Pathetic
The Spy Who Dumped MeAction-Epic-ConspiracyWorldview-Maturation
FargoCrime-CaperMorality-Punitive
Rear WindowThriller-PsychologicalWorldview-Maturation
A Man Called OveLove & SocietyMorality-Redemption
Love, ActuallyLoveYep.
The Hunger GamesAction-Adventure-LabyrinthStatus-Admiration
A Fish Called WandaCrime-CaperStatus-Sentimental
The QueenSociety-PoliticalWorldview-Revelation
PuzzleLove & PerformanceStatus-Sentimental

Let’s take a look at the larger principles that surfaced for crafting Internal Genres.

Principle 1: Don’t End The Same Way You Begin

All stories are about change, but each genre demonstrates a particular type of change. Global Internal Genres center on the internal change of the protagonist, so if your protagonist doesn’t change in some way (either in fortune, thought, or character) over the course of the story … well, it’s not a Global Internal Genre.

This may seem obvious, but the number one thing to remember when crafting a Global Internal Genre is that your protagonist must change.

To identify this change we use … drum roll please … Friedman’s Framework. I hope by now you’ve come to better understand how to apply this method in action–it’s such a fabulous tool!

Step one: identify your protagonist. That is the character who undergoes the most change, the one whose welfare is our chief focus and interest, the one whom all else in the plot revolves. This will not necessarily be the Point-of-View character. For example, in The Great Gatsby the Point-of-View character is Nick Caraway but the protagonist of the story is Jay Gatsby. Similarly, in The Shawshank Redemption, Red is the Point-of-View character but Andy Dufresne is the protagonist.

Step two: determine the protagonist’s situation at the beginning of the story. This specifically refers to the three elements that drive the internal genres:

  • Character (Morality) – the protagonist’s willpower and motives, and whether or not we find them sympathetic
  • Thought (Worldview) – the protagonist’s knowledge, level of sophistication, and belief systems.
  • Fortune (Status) –  the protagonist’s external circumstances, access to resources, and social standing. Do we fear it will get worse or hope it will get better?

Step three: determine the protagonist’s situation at the end of the story. Evaluate these same elements.  

Step four: identify what element has changed. Then ask yourself, what does the audience experience in light of this change? The way the audience feels about the change is significant, because the audience is ultimately who the story is for. We take in stories because we are seeking a specific experience–a core emotion–promised by the genre. And if the story does not deliver on that promise, the audience will not be satisfied.

Also, more than one of the elements may change (sometimes all three!) but one will (or should) be a specific main change for the protagonist, which is WHAT the story is about. Often the changes in the other two support that main change or are a result of the main change. If the main change is not identifiably clear, this would be a red flag for a muddled arc.

Step five: express this change as a cause and effect statement. What’s great about this exercise is that it forces you to look at how the change takes place–the obstacles or opportunities that prompt the change, and the global crisis dilemma the protagonist has to face.

To see the generic framework for each Internal Genre’s cause & effect statement, check out the Internal Elements spreadsheet.

Examining Masterworks. To best apply Friedman’s Framework to your own work in progress, I suggest first finding a Masterwork where the protagonist changes in a similar way to the change you want to show. If you don’t know the kind of change you want, then study lots of Masterworks until you do!

One major thing I’ve gained from this investigation is a lens to recognize the concrete details the writer used to communicate the protagonist’s change: the beginning state, the one-step-forward and two-steps-back over the story spine, and the ending state.

This leads to the next major takeaway.

Principle 2: Allow The Abstract To Become Concrete

As we’ve seen, internal change can be hard to demonstrate well because the changes (and Genres) are so interconnected. In order to make these stories satisfying, they need to be clear, and the best way to be is clear is by being specific.

Once we know the kind of change (genre) we need to demonstrate in our story, we can can translate the abstract elements (character, thought, and fortune) into concrete items (actions, dialogue, setting). These items become tangible representations of the Life Value present at any given moment in the story.

To do this, let’s walk through a little Life Value rhyme:

Define

Refine

Translate in Time

Across the Story Spine

Define the Life Values for Your Genre. Because we are #Blessed with Story Grid resources, we don’t have to start from scratch on coming up with the Life Values for each of our Internal Content Genres. (Check out Season 1 & 2 of the Roundtable Podcast for episodes that cover each content genre.)

We start with the Core Four: the positive value, contrary value, negative value, and negation of the negation.

Here’s the Core Four for Morality

  • Altruism
  • Self-Preservation
  • Selfishness
  • Selfishness Masked as Altruism

Then we expand to a Full Spectrum of possibility that provides additional pit-stops, both positive and negative.

Here’s the Full Spectrum for Morality

  • Sacrificing Self for All of Humanity
  • Putting Needs of Tribe Above Self
  • Putting Needs of One Person Above Self
  • Self-Interest Aligns with Needs of Others
  • Self-Preservation / Self-Interest
  • Selfishness / Self-Obsession
  • Selfishness Masked as Altruism

Then we narrow to the Constrained Range for the story and sub-genre.

For example the Constrained Range of a Morality-Redemption story will go as low as the Negation of the Negation but one story might go as high as Sacrificing Self for All of Humanity, or it may only rise as high as Putting Needs of One Person Above Self.

This is another area where studying Masterworks comes in extremely handy. The more you study and the closer you look, the more these principles work their way into your instincts. The knowledge shifts from slow thinking to fast thinking and you can’t not see the arc at play. (I’m going to say some version of this sentiment several more times in this post, just so you know.)

Once we know the highest and lowest Life Values for your Global Internal Genre, we can hone in on how to make these abstract notions specific for your protagonist.

Refine the Life Values for Your Protagonist. This is the point where we start getting into the nitty gritty details of the story, shifting from abstract values to story specific aspects. The Constrained Range becomes a Refined Range.

If Life Values were made of H2O molecules, the abstract Life Values would be gaseous steam: hard to grasp or pin down.

Creating the Refined Range of Life Values would be like condensing that steam into liquid water, something we can contain to a degree but can’t pinpoint with precision. (Stay tuned–solid ice is coming soon.)

To create this condensation effect, we’ll want to cross-pollinate the Constrained Range with other story elements like Conventions and Objects of Desire.

Remember, as Leslie has so fabulously taught us, Conventions are the ingredients we need to set up reader expectations (and satisfaction). They include the cast of characters, the setting/circumstances, and the means of turning the plot.

Objects of Desire are the protagonist’s specific external Want and internal Need.

This cross-pollination process is … fluid. Like our protagonist, it may feel like one step forward and two steps back. (Yes, I’m mixing all the metaphors. Back off haterrrz).

Once again, this is where studying a Masterwork comes in because you can see how the abstract and the concrete are connected. Your brain can shift from Gas to Liquid (to Solid)  and back with A LOT more clarity. (Have I convinced you yet? Are you mad-dashing to find your Masterwork? Don’t worry—more to come.)

To truly execute the arc of change, we’ll need to get even more concrete and in sequence.

Translate into Specific Moments Across the Spine. It’s time for ice.

Ice forms by dripping your protagonist’s liquid water Wants & Needs across the specific moments of the story spine. This creates a Freeze Frame–a concrete representation of the abstract Life Values molecules.

To help with this, consider your Knowns:

  • Opening & Closing Values. Think back to Friedman’s Framework: how will your protagonist begin? How will they end?
  • Highest and Lowest Value. Think about your Constrained Range: what highs and lows will they traverse?
  • Specific Elements. Think about your Refined Range: what specific conventions and objects of desire are you working with?

Using these three guides, you can triangulate your solid ice with concrete actions, dialogue, objects, and archetypes. Think about the various units of story—global, act, sequence, and scene—and how your character will change from beginning to end of each unit.

Here are some questions I like to ask myself

  • What sequence of Life Values will most effectively demonstrate my protagonist’s change?
  • What Life Value shift do I need to show in the Core Event? Where along the Global Spine will that Core Event be?
  • What is my protagonist like in the beginning? In the middle? In the end?
  • How can I establish the opening Life Value for my character’s arc in the Beginning Hook?
  • How will my protagonist be challenged in the Opening Sequence (aka the first five scenes or so that often cover the status quo, inciting incident, and first phere progressive complication)?
  • Where does my protagonist’s arc need to be at the end of the BH?
  • At the midpoint?
  • At the All-is-Lost moment?
  • At the beginning of the EP?
  • At the Climax?
  • At the Resolution?
  • What actions, dialogue, objects, settings, progressive complications would demonstrate these moments to my reader?

This is a great time to investigate the Obligatory Scenes which are a powerful combination of Life Values, Conventions, and Commandments.

Another tool that is useful is to list the Progressive Complications in each unit of story, eventually down to each scene: the tools, obstacles, irrelevancies that are actually set ups. This is a great way to identify the specific and concrete that is actually “on the page” to determine if your story really is conveying what you want. You can identify things that are working, missing, or distracting from what you want the reader to focus on.

It’s a good idea to give special consideration to your ending, not only the life value you need to demonstrate but the kind of emotional experience you want to leave the reader with. How do you want them to feel when they read the final line? What techniques can you use to emphasize this feeling?

  • Clear Cut Ending
  • Resolution Moments
  • Epilogue
  • Cliff Hanger
  • Open Ending

Again, it cannot be said enough, how insanely helpful it is to do these exercises with a Masterwork. Investigating at this depth will help you realize that it’s not a magical mystery why a story rocks our socks off and stands the test of time–it’s specific details delivered at specific times in a specific sequence. And by observing this craft, we can model and modify to create something extraordinarily our own.

As mentioned, one way you can get specific with your protagonist’s internal arc is by leveraging the external genre(s) in your story. And through examining Masterworks, we can see some particularly potent pairings.

Principle 3: Mindfully Create Powerful Pairings

External Genres are an essential part of writing Global Internal Genre stories that work. They bring all sorts of concrete details to the creative table: additional cast, setting/external circumstances, and means of turning the plot (Conventions), not to mention their own defined and refined Life Values that translate over time through Obligatory Scenes.

Choosing a specific External Genre brings in additional constraints which, though it may come as a surprise, will boost creativity as you craft your story.

When an Internal Genre is global, there are a couple common scenarios we’ve observed for External Genres. There is often

  • a single strong External Genre that acts like a copilot directing the path of the Internal Genre
  • or multiple more equally balanced External Genres that interweave to create a kind of setting of subplots for the Internal Genre change to take place

And you’ll never guess what will help you decide which method, and which genre(s), is the right fit for your Global Internal Genre story … examining Masterworks!

In fact, using all the films we analyzed so far on the Roundtable Podcast and the Internal Genre Blog Series (for a total of 66 stories!), I was able to make some observations.

Now I am not a data scientist so I can’t tell you all the factors that skew this data, but certainly our personal tastes of the films we’ve chosen don’t make for equal representation of every genre. But I still think there is beneficial information we can glean. And if you’re so inclined, can nerd out on the source material here: Genre Pairings Spreadsheet.

Explore and mix and match and play to find the most compelling combination for the story (and the meaning) you want to communicate.

This leads us to our final principle for writing Global Internal Genres that work, and that’s the Controlling Idea/Theme–a meaning that transcends genre to just being human.

Principle 4: Embrace The Big Meta Why

Stories inherently have baked-in meaning and humans are hardwired to find it. This is why stories are arguably the most powerful thing on the planet. Every content genre exists for a reason because each one is a distinct pattern that serves a distinct purpose. The meaning of this pattern is so important that humanity as a whole has ensured its continuation.

Where to Look for Meaning

So how to do we know what a genre is all about?

We look at it’s Life Values.

Every genre is defined by its Life Values, and every story (and unit of story) is defined by its Turning Point, or Phere Moment. This is the moment when Chaos invades and the Life Values shift.

Stories are about change and answering the question “what happens when this change happens?” We hook readers with a question in the beginning and pay them off with an answer in the end. The reader interprets meaning based on what that answer is.

The biggest change and the biggest question comes at the moment the Life Values shift the most: the Global Turning Point/Phere Moment which prompts the Global Crisis. This is a defining moment of the genre and points to what the story is all about. The Global Climax is the answer to this question and closes the loop on the meaning of the story.

  • Status – Success vs Failure. The big questions: will you compromise your moral code to achieve success or change your definition of success?
  • Worldview – Understanding vs Misunderstanding. The big question: will you accept the truth presented to you or cling to your false beliefs?
  • Morality – Altruism vs Selfishness. The big question: will you choose to put the needs of others before first or choose your own wants/needs?

Each Internal Subgenre answers this question through a unique circumstance and provides a paradoxically unique and universal answer.

Exploring and understanding the Why behind each genre is a fabulous tool that can help you make all kinds of decisions.

Consider how your meta-meaning pairs with the various external genres and how that combination colors your story arc. This combination creates the Controlling Idea/Theme cause and effect statement. And whaddaya know? We are back to Friedman’s Framework, a cause and effect statement that is a concrete representation of the abstract Big Meta Why.

Personal Failing (or Victory in Disguise?)

I have so many more thoughts about the meaning behind the content genres, but as I tried to condense everything I learned in Season Four into a single post I realized that the Big Meta Why of story is too big and meta to cover in a mere section of an article.

So I’m changing my definition of success and will be back with the bigger, deeper, even-more-meta insights in a future post.

Tools of the Trade, Anytime.

Writing a story is hard, but oh-so worth it. Whenever you get stuck, step back, take a breath, and ask yourself “What is the problem I am trying to solve?” Then apply the best tool for the job.

It might be Friedman’s Framework, Studying a Masterwork, Mapping out your arc with Life Values (Define + Refine + Translate in Time!), Studying a Masterwork, Exploring Powerful Pairings, Studying a Masterwork, or Finding Your Big Meta Why. Or Studying a Masterwork.

What I love most is that these tools and principles can be applied at any point in the lifecycle of your story—in your eleventh draft or your outline. And in any order! This is precisely why I am constantly seeking to understand how everything is connected. Then no matter what the Muse delivers first–a place, a protagonist, a premise–and no matter when I am in the process, I can always find my way to everything else I need.

So whether you are a Plotter, Pantser, Plantser (Plotser?), you can use these–and all the Story Grid tools–to help your craft a meaningful Global Internal Genre story that works.

I can’t wait to for Roundtable Season Five to begin so I can put our fabulous Story Grid tools to work, as I examine stories that don’t work. But have no fear, my obsession with Global Internal Genre stories is lifelong, so if you’d like to share in the obsession, come connect with me at www.kimberkessler.com.

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About the Author

Kim is obsessed with the internal genres and specializes in helping writers craft authentic character arcs in any setting. Her favorite clients are hungry to learn and bring their full authentic selves to the collaborative process. Nothing is more rewarding than digging in together to uncover the breakthroughs they need. As a novelist and filmmaker, she intersects trauma and grief with humor and love, believing somewhere in the dark is a redemptive perspective on the pain. Bring. On. All. The. Feels. She lives in Washington state with her stand-up comedian husband and three "think they're a comedian" kids. Connect with her at www.kimberkessler.com

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