Discovering the Necessary Elements of Your Story's Genre

Discovering the necessary elements of your story's genre by Leslie Watts at

After my post on Why I love Story Grid, one writer asked about applying the Story Grid to science fiction or fantasy stories. My answer was too long to include in a comment, and I figured others might have this question, so I’ve shared my thoughts here.

The commenter said that the Story Grid is a bit frustrating because Shawn Coyne says you need to include the conventions and obligatory scenes for your genre, but he doesn’t provide them for all the genres he identifies in his book, especially not fantasy and science fiction. She wondered if I have any advice for her. I do!

Two caveats before I answer: First, no single tool will work for every writer. So, while I recommend that you experiment with the Story Grid as a resource, I can’t say that this will work for you. If it doesn’t feel right, keep looking and experimenting. I’m a huge fan of the Story Grid for lots of reasons, but my favorite is that the spreadsheet and global story foolscap help me filter out personal preferences and mental noise when reviewing a story. Other writers might need something different.

Second, this is my understanding of the Story Grid, not an official explanation from the creator. Shawn might disagree with my answer. It’s a complex system, and he mentioned in a recent episode of the podcast that the book is Story Grid 101. Shawn has ninja levels of SG that I haven’t learned—yet.

I've separated my response into two parts. I address science fiction and fantasy and where they fit within the Story Grid separately from my thoughts about finding the obligatory scenes and conventions not included in book.

What do we mean by genre?

Some of the confusion around genre comes from how we sometimes use the same word to describe different things. What Shawn calls content genre could be confused with sales categories.

Sales categories relate to how you label your book for sale. You pick categories and keywords so that your reader can find your book through their favorite retailer. Think about it like where you would want to shelve your book at the book store.

The Content genre is the type of story you have and is akin to a recipe or a checklist. Content genres have obligatory scenes and conventions that work to evoke core emotions related to the core values at stake in the story. These core emotions and values relate to human needs as represented in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Humans have basic survival needs that affect life and death, and action and war genres explore circumstances when life is at stake. People also need love, connection, and to feel respected, and genres where these values are at stake include romance, society, and performance.

The content genre is your promise to the reader that your story will contain certain elements. Most stories have an external content genre (related to changes in the protagonist’s world) and internal content genre (related to changes within the protagonist).

There is some overlap: a cozy mystery is a content genre and sales category, but not every sales category correlates with a specific content genre. A book might be shelved in the fantasy or science fiction section of a store, but the content genre could be a thriller or an action or love story. This might seem like splitting hairs, but it’s an important distinction.

Sales categories seem infinite; content genres are limited. From Shawn’s studies and experience, he has identified nine external content genres (action, horror, crime, thriller, love, war, society, western, performance) and three internal content genres (worldview, status, and morality). Each genre includes subgenres. For example crime stories include cozy mysteries, police procedurals, and noir. Worldview stories include maturation and disillusionment plots.

Where do science fiction and fantasy fit? Readers of science fiction and fantasy have certain expectations, but they are related to the reality genre and setting; these stories do not promise a core emotion or value at stake in the story.

I don’t wander too far from the original question, so I will refer you to this post on the site that explains five different aspects of genre, which Shawn shows in an infographic that looks like a five-leaf clover. In addition to content and reality, Shawn’s genre clover includes time, style, and structure. These are outside the scope of this discussion, but if you’re curious, I recommend checking out the resources on the Story Grid site. (You can download a copy of Shawn’s genre clover infographic here.)

Science fiction and fantasy stories are included within the reality genre “leaf.” Of course, fiction stories aren’t real, but some fiction stories could (or could have) happened, and some are more speculative. For example, the Horatio Hornblower stories by C.S. Forester were based on Royal Navy officers and historical events, and they fall within “realism.” As far as we know, there are no Hobbits in our world, so J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories from Middle Earth are “fantasy.” The same is true for Orson Scott Card’s science fiction stories.

Another aspect of fantasy or science fiction stories related to reader expectation is the setting. That is, science fiction tends to happen in a future time and include technology that doesn’t currently exist in our world and has an impact on life. Fantasy stories often occur in a time of more primitive technology, though the boundaries of this category are expanding to include urban fantasy, which can be set in contemporary time. Regardless, the content genre for these stories could be an action-adventure, thriller, crime story, love story, etc.

But isn’t that true of westerns as well? Westerns often take place in a particular setting, but what sets these stories apart are the core values (e.g., individual vs. society or wilderness and civilization) and core event (the big showdown between the hero and villain). If these are not present, the reader will go away disappointed. These stories can be set in the second half of the nineteenth century in western North America, but you could also set a western story in a science fiction universe, for example, the television series Firefly.

So, a science fiction or fantasy story would include the obligatory scenes and conventions for the external and internal content genres of the story that happens in a particular setting that is not the real world. Robert McKee calls these supra-genres that arise from “settings, performance styles, and filmmaking techniques.” In other words, what Shawn calls style and reality genres in his five-leaf clover system.

Obligatory scenes and conventions for different genres

The writer who commented on my earlier post found it frustrating that Shawn says writers should include the obligatory scenes and conventions for stories but doesn’t list them for all genres.

In the book Story Grid: What Good Editors Know and on the site, Shawn shows us how he did the Story Grid analysis for Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris; this is a serial killer thriller (external content genre) and worldview disillusionment (internal content genre) plot. In his latest book, The Story Grid Edition of Pride and Prejudice, he performs the analysis on the quintessential romance, a courtship love story (external content genre) and morality (internal content genre) plot. On the site, you can find the global story foolscap with obligatory scenes and conventions for other stories: a redemption-performance plot (e.g., The Legend of Bagger Vance by Steven Pressfield), redemption-supernatural horror plot (A Christmas Carol), and an action-adventure/man against nature plot (The Martian).

The variety that’s possible when you consider the nine external content genres and three internal content genres with all their subgenres is a bit overwhelming. It would be hard for any one person to create the list for each. The good news is you can put together the list for your content combination from a close read (or watch) of exemplars of stories from your genres.

If you don’t have a list already, I recommend looking articles on the site (including the comments) and in the book. The commenter asked about a Savior or Rebellion plot. These are two external content subgenres within the Action genre: Epic/Man Against State stories. I’ll show you where I would start to collect the obligatory conventions and scenes for these subgenres.

Shawn listed the core value (life and death), the core emotion (excitement), and the most important scene (the hero at the mercy of the villain) for action stories generally. From this, you can conclude that you need a hero and a villain, and since there’s no villain without a victim, that’s an obligatory convention as well.

Within man against state stories, “a hero must confront societal institutions or tyrants.” The villain therefore is an institution or its representative or a tyrant.

Shawn’s example of a Rebellion plot is Star Wars, in which Darth Vader is a visible tyrant. The Savior plot example is The Dark Knight, in which the villain, the Joker, wants to destroy society.

I suggest watching those films then looking for other films, shows, and books that are similar. Watching movies is a faster way to digest stories, but don’t neglect important stories within the genre that haven’t been made into films. Use the Story Grid to analyze the scenes and follow the value changes to get a feel for how they work. Discuss the stories with other writers in your genre. Consider these questions:

  • What do the stories have in common?

  • How are they different? (This should help you rule out some elements.)

  • In which scenes does the core value move drastically?

I recommend this for writers whether they use the Story Grid to plan and revise their stories or not. To write within a genre, you need to be familiar with the reader’s expectations. That doesn’t mean you should delay writing your story until you’ve read a hundred books in the genre (that would be resistance), but reserving time to study and understand these stories is important. Starting with a list of obligatory scenes and conventions is helpful, but the depth of knowledge you gain from studying your genre can't help but give you a better understanding of how to craft your stories.

I hope this gives you some insight into the Story Grid and how it can help you plan and revise your stories. I’ve been preparing a list of obligatory scenes and conventions for adventure stories in a nautical setting, and I’ll share that with you when I’ve completed it. If you get stuck with a particular genre, leave a comment here and we can help each other uncover the necessary elements in the stories.

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