Story

Genre And Why It Matters

Genre is a key element I look at when I am feeding back on a story.

“Huh,” you may say. “Well, I am a Literary Writer. I do not “do” Genre.”

Uhhh, well, yes and no. Genre matters. Your work may well not fit into any of the main genre categories. It may be a more literary version of one of them – and there are plenty of big-name literary writers who lean towards certain genres. Or it might be a “pure” literary story. If that’s the case, the story will still have enough hallmarks of being literary for your readers to know that this is the type of story they are reading . From that, we can surmise some of the expectations both for and from the reader, and from that,  if anything in your story feels “off”.

Genre Is About More Than Marketing

Why do human beings tell stories? We’ve done so now for thousands and thousands of years.

When I talk about genre and kinds  of story, I don’t necessarily mean “templated” or “formulaic” or even highly commercial. Genre in practice is far more than a matter of the marketing categories that are used by commercial publishers or film producers.

That said, the lasting commercial categories – Romance, Horror, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Thriller, Mystery, Fantasy, Sci Fi, Crime, and all their subcategories –  have lasted because people like them. And people like them because they have strong emotions at their core.

Some readers want a story that reminds them true love exists, and to invest in the will-they won’t-they of a couple. Or to have their deepest terrors presented to them, where they can safely experience the adrenaline of fear. Perhaps they like to accompany a protagonist on some wild adventure, or explore the wonder of alternate worlds. To experience where our current world may take us in future, or to imagine what our own lives in a past one might have been. Readers might enjoy working alongside a detective in solving a murder. Relating to a family saga, or laughing at familiar absurdities in life.

Other readers enjoy “difficult” books which make them think. Complex stories that that involve challenging assumptions, thinking deeply about philosophical questions, or exploring universal human truths. They might want a story told in a way that’s as structurally satisfying as the words are beautiful; they may experience what they read as a form of art.

Genre Tells Us How You Want The Reader To Feel

It’s worth asking yourself the following questions:

  • What kind of story am I telling?
  • Why have I decided to tell it this way?
  • What impact do I want this to have on my reader?
  • How would I like them to respond?

There’s a link between your work as it appears on the page and the reader you are hoping to engage. Your story is is a two-way interaction between you and them

Clear intent here is crucial. What do we want our story to do? Do we want to delight our readers with our cleverness and artistry? Skewer them with our insight and the beauty of our prose? Fool them with our dastardly red herrings? Make them cry or fill them with terror? Double them up with laughter? What?

Genre Sets Up Reader Expectations

It’s important to understand the expectations our readers might have when they read our work and if there is anything that will jar or spoil the experience we want them to have. All types of stories have expectations attached and certain conventions. We live in a world where we are surrounded by stories – we all know a lot about them, even if we don’t write them ourselves. We tend to know if something doesn’t quite work.

It can be good to subvert expectations where you can to avoid making your story boring or predictable. But some reader expectations based on our genre must be fulfilled for the story to work fully. Also our genres should be internally consistent. Vampire Horror Romance is fine. A vampire horror romance that turns into a crime caper halfway through, not so much.

A lot of the expectations are about how the reader should be feeling – a horror story should be scary, a thriller thrilling, and so on – but there are other elements at play.

Such As?

There has to be a point in a crime mystery where the villain is revealed, or all our guessing as readers will be in vain. We need to know if our adventure’s fighter wins or loses in the end, or returns home triumphant with their treasure. The lovers need obstacles between them and we want to know if they get together at the end. We must build up our glimpses of the monster in our horror and reveal it somehow in the end.  With regard to endings,  I would expect the more commercial stories to be tied up clearly in their closing scenes. With literary stories, that’s not the case. The key here is often to raise the right questions with the reader, not necessarily to give them answers. You want people to be thinking long after they’ve reached the end.

It’s worth studying the wider examples of the genre of stories you most like writing. Which conventions appear in your favourites time and time again?

Genre Affects Key Writing Decisions 

The genre we choose, including hybrids and sub-genres, impacts every story decision. The story’s style, its narrative point of view. The characters – right down to character names. (Did you ever notice how many lead male protagonists in films are called Jack? Nigel doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? Why is that?)  The dialogue, the settings, the way the story is structured. The conventional plot points that your reader will expect – or that you might  purposely subvert to lead your reader astray.

Take a ghost story, for example:

  • It is often most effective to tell the story from the point of view of the haunting’s victim. It quite often connects with something about their character psychology or something in their past. However, there’s also another entire story running in the background – that of the ghost themselves and how they came to be. You may only give brief glimpses of that second story – but to make the story effective, as the writer, you need to know it. That way, you can drop those glimpses or clues in for the scares and to make sure they lead to the reveal at the end.
  • A ghost story should be scary, or at the very least unsettling for the reader, as otherwise it will fail. You might use suspense techniques when you structure it in order to achieve this.
  • It’s best not to make it gory –  because grossing out your reader in a story like this is probably not your intended effect.
  • You may well focus on a universal fear likely to be familiar to your reader, and will probably try to make your setting somehow off-kilter.
  • Some of your characters might be odd, so we can’t be sure if our protagonist can trust them.
  • You’ll probably build up the clues and tension until your reader finds out towards the end in the most dreadful way possible, what the ghost was all about.
  • The protagonist might win or lose the battle. There needs to be a sense of peril and for the stakes to be high. You want these readers’ hearts to be thumping. You want to leave them lying awake at night.

 

Know Your Genre, Know Where Your Work Will Fit

No, it’s not all about the market – but some of it certainly is. Once you’re done, it’s good to know just where your work might fit in terms of getting it published.

Genres and particularly sub-genres and hybrids get added to and adapt all the time, depending on what’s going on in wider culture. Remember the crazes for YA Vampire Romances? BDSM erotica? Psychological domestic noirs with female protagonists and “Girl” in the title? Suspenseful mysteries with memory-addled protagonists? Trends change of course, and I wouldn’t advocate writing to a trend, but it helps to be aware of the work that is or isn’t similar to your own. That way you’ll know where to target your submissions and queries.

Over at writer subbing tracker Duotrope, for instance, there’s a huge range of genres you can filter by when you’re choosing where to send your work. I may not agree with all of the categories – I personally find a category of “Women’s Fiction” patronising – but it gives you a good idea of possibilities. For example, under the category of General Fiction, we have sub-genres like Bizarro, Gothic, Urban and Magical Realism. The Horror genre includes a huge list of sub-genres, like Vampire, Shapeshifter, Serial Killer and Supernatural, among many many others.

 

I hope I’ve convinced you that I consider a story’s genre for good reason. It tells me a heap of things when I’m thinking about how well a story’s working and what the cause of some problems may be. That said, I don’t believe in writers shoe-horning what they do naturally into overly rigid frameworks or writing in ways that are over formulaic. Balance is always needed. And make sure any genre you choose is the one that showcases your strengths as a writer. Any genre you write in should be mixed with your own personal quirks and ways of writing so you make sure you produce something truly unique.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Into The Woods – John Yorke

Into The Woods  A Five-Act Journey Into Story

The author of this relatively recent and increasingly popular book is TV producer John Yorke, ex-Head of Drama at Channel 4 as well as former Controller of Drama at the BBC. So it’s fair to assume that Yorke is a guy who knows his stuff with regard to story and narrative structure.

Throughout the book, Yorke seeks to uncover the universal patterns underlying story. He argues that these – like Jung’s archetypes – are universal because such narratives are an intrinsic expression of our human nature. Yorke explores the way that narrative patterns pleasingly echo those that occur in nature. He gives the example of fractals (patterns in nature that exists at the smallest unit level and are repeated in larger units.)

Then we get to his in-depth examination of story structure. Essentially, he concludes that all stories follow a distinct pattern. Yes, even when their writers are adamant they are not doing so! Yorke believes this pattern can almost always be mapped to a five-act, rather than the classic three-act, structure. He then breaks this down in detail for the reader.

One thing that I loved about Into The Woods was the chart at the end  listing all the main screenwriting gurus and methods (yep, so there we have our Truby, Save The Cat, Linda Aronson, Vogler, Syd Field etc etc). He shows how all their separate “methods” and structures are just different terms for what is essentially the same pattern. By doing so, Yorke clearly seeks to set himself above all those pesky cowboy screenwriting gurus. I have to say, however, that I’ve personally found that each “guru” does in fact have a little something different to bring to the party in terms of practical approach and application, all of which I’ve found useful in my writing.

Another thing Yorke does far better than most is offer plenty of salient examples from recent TV shows and movies, examples with which all readers should be familiar. It takes away the element of snobbishness that we sometimes see in theoretical discussions of this sort. I also liked his chapter on repeated patterns at the beginnings and endings of stories.

I did however feel that the book was overly repetitious and muddled in places. It came across more to me as an academic thesis and personal labour of love for the author than a practical guide for other writers. I found its ideas interesting but not especially new. And I’m afraid that when I tried to apply them practically and incorporate them step-by-step into methods I already use, I found myself oddly frustrated. It feels rather that Yorke goes very in-depth on some elements and skims over others. That said, Into The Woods has fast become a modern classic for students of writing, story and structure. If you are unfamiliar with the underlying theories of these, I can see why it could be considered a key addition to your writing-book collection.

 Useful if you are:

  • After a detailed analysis and overview of story structure
  • Looking for the whys and hows of story and narrative
  • Interested in storytelling theory and philosophy
  • A fan of psychoanalytic theory
  • Wanting lots of recent examples and are happy to have them from film and TV

Less Useful if you are:

  • Seeking a step by step guide to storytelling
  • After examples from novels and short stories, not film
  • Looking for a guide that will help you unpick story problems
  • In need of a practical guide to story-building
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5 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Screenwriters

 Fiction writers and screenwriters; totally different animals, right?

Screenwriters and fiction authors. One group writing to meet the often harsh demands of the film and TV industries, the other striving to create Booker-winning literary masterpieces. Different markets and forms, different audience. In other words – with about as much in common as cats and dogs. Or so you might think. What could one group of writers possibly have to teach the other?

Different Forms, Different Requirements

The difference in form certainly makes an impact on focus. Since film is a visual medium, screenwriters deal primarily in visual imagery and dialogue. This is then translated onto screen and into the final creation by directors and actors. Fiction writers, however, get to invoke all five senses in the imagination of the reader, using just words on a page. Because it is relatively free-form, fiction also has far more structural possibilities. Prose fiction allows, I think, for much more playfulness and a wider range of styles when telling a story.

So what’s the problem? Is there one?

Having worked in both forms, I was very surprised when I came to fiction groups, books, and classes and realised few of us seemed to be being taught the basics of Story and Story Structure. Or not in the way that most screenwriters would view as pretty fundamental. There is nothing about writing prose that should mean the story is less important than it would be in a script. But in  the fiction-writing world, there seems to be an over-reliance on the idea that once you have the characters and a few scenes, structure and story will just magically emerge by itself. As if even talking about it will destroy some sort of mystique.

I’m not sure why that is.

Maybe it’s arisen out of a certain snobbery about books versus films.. Indeed, choosing your “genre” is far more of a necessity in film which I guess aligns it in many people’s minds with commercial fiction.

Perhaps it is a misunderstanding of the distinction between Plot – the series of events that happen in a story – and Story itself In other words, the combination of multiple elements to create a complete piece that is meaningful and says what we want it to say. That the art of something as ethereal and poetic as “literary” fiction could not possibly be subject to the more workaday structural approach screenwriters take to achieve this.

And yes, I have noticed this cultural difference between working fiction writers and screenwriters many times in person. I’ve often found it frustrating that tools that could be made available to budding fiction authors rarely seem to be, and that they’re essentially left to muddle through alone.

 

5 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Screenwriters

 

1. It’s All About The STORY

I get why sometimes the kinds of “systems” advocated by some of the screenwriting gurus can seem frustratingly restrictive, dictatorial and “uncreative”. I get that overanalysis, overplanning and picking work apart can sometimes be destructive to creative flow. And I get the fear of producing generic work, or a seeming over-reliance on plot over character – although, as I said above, I don’t believe that “Plot” is what “Story” is all about.

Here’s the thing. I’ve seen far more instances where a greater understanding of overall story and the elements that pull them togethe  would have been useful for the prose writer. I believe that whichever form you choose to write in, you are using it primarily for the purpose of conveying meaning to your reader or audience. And that, for me, is what “Story” is all about.  I’m unsure how new writers are meant to create great stories without getting to grips with ways to build them and the materials needed to do so. For screenwriters, Story is everything. Its principles tend to be taught and discussed quite overtly. This is rarely the case with fiction writing. Everything I’ve learned about the fundamentals of story, I’ve learned from screenwriting. And screenwriting teaching is streets ahead on this front.

(If you’re interested in learning more, you might want to check out my review of screenwriting guru John Truby’s Anatomy of Story here)

 

2. Tell A Story in Scenes

Remember “show, don’t tell”? That basic rule we’re all told to abide by in fiction-writing? Screenwriters have it way easier than fiction writers in this respect. The restrictions of the form means they can’t do anything else. Unless they make extensive use of voiceover (not cool), what they write is what the audience will see and hear. Visuals. Dialogue. And when you think that way, it’s easier to start thinking about what scenes you’ll need to use to get your characters and story across.

When you’re writing fiction, how easy is it to slip into an authorial narrative voice? Telling us for paragraph after paragraph about a character’s history and so on. Now imagine you no longer have that option. If you were writing this character for the screen, if you were going to move this part of their story along, what scenes would you use to show it?

You’ll often find thinking this way forces you into a more effective method of conveying what you want to say.

 

3. Structure Is Not A Dirty Word…

In fact, it’s crucial. Structure is the foundation on which the successful telling of the story rests. Your building blocks. The way you choose to structure a piece of writing feeds directly into how well you are able to convey your story’s meaning. Rather like someone building their own home – it helps to know what you’re doing. An understanding of what story structure is and does, rather than just bumbling along blindly hoping it will work, can make the process of writing a lot easier

That isn’t to say that there is only one structure possible. Not all will stories follow the classic Three Act Structure, at least not overtly. That said,  I find it is often helpful to understand such a longstanding structural form and its rules and conventions before you try to break them. Sometimes it helps to know what works and why or why not, and Three-Act is a classic dramatic structure for a reason. You will often also find that even those who encourage the breaking of the old Three-Act stranglehold recognise the debt their structural analyses owe to classical structural forms.

I think fiction writers have far more options in terms of overt structures to play with than screenwriters. But it’s important that you have a grasp of the basic principles that underly these. If a key structural element is missing from your story, you will often find that the story as a whole fails as a result.

 

4. …And Neither Is Genre

Which is not to say that all stories have to be old-school generic, or even plot-driven, which I suspect is at the heart of much snobbery about any discussion at all of genre and its many forms.

But if you think that, say, literary fiction isn’t a “genre” of sorts, with its own conventions and expectations (and no-no’s), then you are very much mistaken. It is true that commercial fiction tends more towards the old-school genre conventions used by the film industry, and that publishers often reflect that in their marketing. But that isn’t the complete picture. (See my more detailed post  Genre and Why It Matters here.)

Genre isn’t just the old-school categories. It’s more about the fundamentals of type of story – the expectations of the reader,the reasons you are telling it, the tone, whether something “fits” or not, even if the writer is consciously using a specific genre to subvert expectations. You’d be surprised at just how often I’ve fed back on a draft story that doesn’t “work” precisely because there are significant issues in the story with the muddling of genres. Or the writer doesn’t quite seem to have control of the type of story they are telling or a grasp on its conventions. Genre in its widest sense, is about “the type of story you want to tell” and why. A clear understanding of genre and the purposes and history of different types of story can be a powerful tool.

 

5. Writing Is Not Some Mystical Thing. It’s Work.

If I had a pound for every time someone has inferred to me that Fiction Writing is somehow analogous to Relaxation, I’d be a rich woman. It’s not a hobby , it’s not painting watercolours, and frankly, if I want relaxing Me-Time, I’ll go to a spa or just run myself a bubble bath or something.

I’d certainly agree that creativity and the act of being creative is pleasurable, can be profoundly satisfying. And that sometimes we make it harder for ourselves than it needs to be. But creating a satisfying piece of work, telling the story we want to tell in a way that others will want to read, is not all lounging around in scarves on chaise-longues, being poetic and getting some minion to feed us grapes, I can assure you.

If you want to finish your short story, or publish your novel, you’re going to have to work at it. Exercise some discipline to get it done. This can be a long hard slog, especially on longer projects.

A lot of people dream of writing a book; far more, I suspect than those who dream of writing a screenplay. It’s always one of the top fantasies, isn’t it? Yet very few achieve it. Why? Because ultimately, it’s such hard work, that’s why. Drafting, editing, painstakingly rewriting, over months or even years.  Many screenwriters I know, including those who are budding, seem to take a far more pragmatic approach to their writing than those who just dream of being fiction writers. This is possibly because those who dream of screenwriting tend to be closer to the realities of the industry – they know people, they get involved, get their hands dirty. I think as fiction writers,  we have to be prepared to do the same.

 

So what are your thoughts? Have I missed anything off my list? Are the forms so different that they can never meet? Feel free to leave any thoughts and comments below.

 

 

 

 

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Review: The Anatomy of Story – John Truby

The Anatomy of Story     John Truby


Screenwriting guru and script consultant John Truby goes in-depth about how to build a satisfying story, level by level. The book is designed primarily for screenwriters, and I have used it for screenplays, but I have found the exercises invaluable when writing prose fiction too.

Highly practical, the book focuses on getting the writer to build a coherent story that works at all levels – including working out its particular  “designing principle”. This is the overall strategy you’ll use for telling the story, a concept which takes the whole thing into deep structural territory.  Truby focuses on more than just the basic three-act structure approach. Chapters cover key elements such as how to find your premise, the seven crucial steps of story structure, character, moral/thematic argument, the world of the story and its symbols and how these all work together to create a coherent whole. The book then takes you through Truby’s screenwriting  plotting method (The 22 Steps) which brings everything together step by step.

Although readers will find many of his movie examples outdated (he bangs on about Tootsie, for example) I have  certainly found his story exercises some of the most useful in my arsenal, particularly when I am planning a story or when I am stuck. As a result, The Anatomy of Story has turned out to be of the most well-thumbed and practical writing books in my  collection.

Use if you:

  • Are struggling to isolate the premise of your story
  • Want a step by step process to help you build your story
  • Like getting analytical with practical exercises at the same time
  • Are looking for practical ways to pull your story into a coherent whole
  • Would like to really go deeply into your story

Don’t use if you:

  • Can’t bear screenwriting gurus or writing “systems”
  • Prefer to be a pantser and work without outlines or too much analysis
  • Need your movie references to be modern
  • Are already a master plotter
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The 5 Key Components of a Strong Story Premise

5 Key Components of Story Premise Header

Will your idea make a good story?

What do we mean by a good story? And what factors make up the story premise?

A premise is ideally a one-sentence summary of your entire story. Would you be able to distill your idea into one or two sentences?

Be aware that nearly all unsuccessful stories fail at the premise. Premise is the foundation of your story, on which all the decisions you make during the writing should be based. Within your story premise are a number of key elements you need to be able to “hit” so your story is strong enough to be able to fly. Having a weak premise at the outset will lead to an even weaker story in execution, so it’s worth taking the time to ensure all the following are present.

The 5 Key Components of a Strong Story Premise

1. Protagonist

Who is your main character? What can you tell us about them? It’s important to make sure that you actually have the right “main protagonist” – it’s the one who the themes and conflicts of the story are really about. You’d be surprised how often final stories turn out to really about someone other than whom you might think at first.  NB even at the premise level, make sure you are specific about who your main protagonist is and their role in the story – just a name on its own won’t be enough or tell you what you need to know.

Do we have to like our protagonists? No, I don’t think we do, although some other writers would disagree with me. I do think we need to be able to relate to them in some way, though. And we need to make life hard for them. Think about the worst possible thing that can happen to this character – and then make sure you throw it at them!

2. Conflict  – with stakes that a reader can identify with, and that your main protagonist is living out throughout the course of the story.

Story is conflict – without conflict, you simply have a list of events. What are the internal conflicts your character is battling with? The environmental ones? The situational ones? What are the choices that your protagonist is torn between? Are they choices that are universal in some way, that would be relatable to your readers? Make sure that the conflict matters, that your reader has a reason to care, regardless of genre.  What is it that your protagonist stands to gain or lose once a choice is made? What exactly is it that they are fighting about at core – and who are they fighting?

 3. Desire/goal that the protagonist has

What does your protagonist want to achieve at the outset? How does that relate to what they need? Will they achieve it or not by the end of the story?

Often, what protagonists want is directly in conflict with what they need to make life better by the end of the story. It’s always worth thinking about, not only their desires, but the things that are preventing them understanding or realising what they actually need if you want to deepen your story.

4. Antagonist or Force of Antagonism

Remember, sometimes what can seem to be an antagonist for the protagonist at the outset of the story, turns out not to be “the real enemy’” at all. Think about all the things that are stopping your characters get what they need as well as what they want – or what they think they do. Who or what is the real enemy? How does that relate to the overall themes and message of your story?

5. A set up that will illustrate the conflict

You need a place, a time, a scenario that makes sense. Where are you going to place your characters to best illustrate the premise you have? What about that set up will accentuate the conflicts and themes you have identified?

 

 EXAMPLE PREMISE BREAKDOWN:

 Story: Don’t Look Now (Daphne Du Maurier)

Premise:

In Venice with his wife hoping to help her get over the death of their young daughter, a father ignores the pleas of two apparently psychic elderly sisters who claim the spirit of their dead child is warning him to leave.

Set up: A married couple away in Venice, who happen to meet two strange sisters at dinner

Protagonist: John, loving husband, rationalist, and recently bereaved father of a dead girl

Conflict: Wanting things to be normal again versus the reality of grief, reality vs false hope, life versus death, ignore the warning or be taken in by it?

Desire: John wants his wife to be her old self again, he wants things to be ‘back to normal’ and the Venice trip is supposed to be part of that

Antagonist: Grief, death, the fact life can never be the same again, seemingly the sisters, their idea of the ghost and John’s wife’s reaction, but in reality, something much darker entirely. John wants to stay in Venice, but he needs to leave.

 

How To Isolate Your Story Premise

 Personally, I’ve always found the following specific questions the most useful when really trying to get to the bottom of my premise:

  • Who is my protagonist and where/when are they?
  • What do they want?
  • What is stopping them getting that?
  • What do they need to realise or understand?
  • Why aren’t they able to realise or understand that thing?
  • Is there a main event that changes everything? What?
  • Where will we find them at the end of the story compared with the beginning?
  • What does that ending imply about life in general?

 

 It’s worth referring back to your basic premise often, while you are in the process of writing. Finding you need to tweak it is fine, but remember if you do, to you rework any key elements so they are all tying in together. You could even keep the premise visible to you as you write; I recently was given the tip of putting it in the header of your piece, so it comes up on every page, and you always have it as reference.

Taking the time at the start of a project to hone a strong premise is time well spent. It will make sure that the story you are writing stays on track and says what you want and need it to say.

 

Looking for feedback on your story? Check out my reader’s reports here!

 

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