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.

Join the Crew

If you liked this post and want more from Writership, join our crew. You'll receive a free copy of cast Your Net with Writership, a collection of 25 exercises to inspire your fiction. 

Name *
Cast Your Net with Writership: 25 Exercises to Inspire Your Fiction by Leslie Watts

Image courtesy of 3000ad/

4 Top Writing & Editing Tools (That Might Surprise You)

4 Top Writing & Editing Tools (That Might Surprise You)  by Leslie Watts at

The right tool can change everything. I remember the first time I used a Pilot Precise V5 pen for writing practice. My words slid onto the page almost effortlessly (at least the mechanical process). I feel the same appreciation for my computer. And the messenger bag I carry everywhere? It’s perfection because it makes all my belongings stay put. 

In this post, I share four practical writing and editing tools you can use right away, no matter where you are in the process. They might surprise you; they aren’t tools in the physical sense, but they fit within Merriam-Webster’s definition: “something that serves as a means to an end: an instrument by which something is effected or accomplished.” These tools will help you write, revise, and even sell or submit your story.

These tools serve as filters to help you make the decisions needed to keep your story on track. They make your efforts more effective and efficient, easier to perform and more consistent. Treat them as your North Star or the values that drive everything you do. Something that’s cool about these filters is that, like a great bit of dialogue in your story, they serve more than one purpose, and I include their bonus functions below. 

My top four writing and editing tools (or filters) are

  1. genre,
  2. purpose,
  3. distillate, and 
  4. ideal reader.

Top Writing Tool # 1: Genre

Your genre is not only the type of story you’re writing, but also a list of ingredients. I know some people cringe when someone talks about structure or conventions; they want to be free to create at will. I agree to a point. Writers should run wild and free and write what they like. 

But if you want to sell to an audience, you must have some way of conveying the experience, themes, conflict, and feelings the reader will encounter. Genre is our culture’s way of communicating what’s inside. 

Even if you can’t name genre conventions or tropes, you probably know them when you see them. Mystery is an easy one: it includes a crime (often murder), a professional or amateur sleuth, and a villain for starters. Mystery subgenre tropes get more specific: A cozy mystery usually has an amateur sleuth, little violence, and the focus is on finding our whodunit. A police procedural has a police officer for a protagonist and the story focuses on the police methods used to discover and catch the villain. 

To explore genres and uncover typical conventions, I suggest reading or watching examples (novels, short stories, movies, and TV shows) and studying them. Two great sources for models are Story by Robert McKee or The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.

It’s good to check in with your genre and its conventions when you finish each new draft because sometimes our writing wanders away from the objective. During the writing phase, we want to get the words down, and evaluating whether they fit too soon can inhibit the creative process. If you’re still on track, then you can keep your list of conventions handy as questions and further decisions come up. If you have strayed from your genre conventions, then assess which story you want to tell. (That discussion is for another day.)

Clarity begets clarity. The better you know your genre, the clearer you can be about your ideal reader; your book cover, categories, and key words if you’re going indie; and where to submit if you’re going the traditional route.


Top Writing Tool # 2: Purpose

Your purpose is your point. Why are you writing what you write? You could choose from the whole universe, so why this story? What are you trying to achieve? What is it that fascinates you? Another angle of approach: What do you want this story to do for your reader? 

It’s okay if you want fame and fortune and to entertain people. Those may be the first answers to arise. I encourage you to dig deeper, below what you’ve heard other people say to what you don’t realize is within you. (Writing practice is great for this purpose. Start with, Why this story? See the mission below for instructions if you’re unfamiliar with writing practice.)

Your purpose will show you how to chip away at the parts of your rough draft that aren’t essential to the story. Does this scene support the purpose? If you can't make a good case for it, then you should kill that darling. The same is true at the level of sentences and words. It gets pickier and harder to discern there, but when your purpose is clear, it will guide you in most questions. This tool helps you gain the perspective that is so difficult when editing our own work. 

Writing a book takes time and effort. Resistance will come up and make you want to quit. Your purpose will help you remember why and help you get your butt in the chair. And don’t forget the other writing you do. Find the purpose for your blog posts, letters, and sales copy.


Top Writing Tool # 3: Distillate

The distillate is your story in concentrated form once you boil away all that isn’t its purest expression. You’ll want to include the protagonist and sometimes the villain, the setting, the problem, and what’s at stake (or why the reader should care). 

Do this in twenty to thirty words. Why so few? This is the story stripped to the core to help you make decisions. If it’s too long, it won’t offer laser focus. If you struggle with this, know you’re not alone. I find this process painful. Start with one hundred or five hundred words (or use writing practice described below). Cut the easy things first: adverbs and hesitant words (in order to, for the purpose of, beginning/starting to, there is/was). Then work deeper. 

The distillate works like the purpose, but is the what to your why. Is this scene included within the universe described by your distillate? Is it vital to this specific story? If your answer is no, you know what to do.

You can use this as your elevator pitch, and it’s great practice for finding words that don’t add meaning. 


Top Writing Tool # 4: Ideal Reader

Identifying your ideal reader is something that can chafe a bit for some authors. It’s hard to know who will buy before you start selling. But this tool starts working for you long before then. 

The ideal reader or customer is used in business and marketing (I heard this first from either Seth Godin or Marie Forleo). It’s not new, but it feels counterintuitive. Why narrow it down to one person (or two if you have a male and female version)? It’s tempting to say you hope to appeal to lots of people and create a long list of ideal readers. I understand the urge, but it’s akin to trying to please too many people. You dilute the focus and may not speak to anyone. 

The more you write to one particular person (gender, age, marital status, work, family, city, etc., someone you can see and understand), the more likely you will be specific and consistent in your writing. When your prose resonates with that one person, it’s as if a special sound wave travels to others who may share a single quality with your ideal reader. 

But what if you’re writing for yourself.  I understand that too. But if you want to send your stories into the world to share what’s in your mind and heart, you need to think beyond what writing the book does for you

How do you find your ideal reader?

Some people are lucky. One author I know has a friend she secretly uses as her ideal reader. If that person hasn’t wandered into your life, try the mission below and ask, Who do I envision buying, reading, and enjoying my book? My hunch is that a part of you knows, but you can’t access the identity with your conscious mind. 

How do you use your ideal reader as a filter?

Ask yourself, would my reader understand this word? How does my reader feel about cussing? Can my reader relate to this character? Will my reader be intrigued by this hook? (If you have any doubts about how to answer these questions, think of your ideal reader as a character. How do you know what your protagonist will say, think, and do?)

Knowing who your ideal reader is can tell you how, when, and where to engage.

Please know that although these all seem simple and straightforward, the process could feel quite challenging and might wake the dragon we call resistance. Use consistent practice to overcome. You’re here because you want to write stories, and so am I. Let’s help each other to move steadily onward.


If you listen to the podcast, you know how I feel about editorial missions. I use missions to break big jobs into smaller tasks. And I enjoy thinking of these tasks as little adventures. Here’s a mission to help you use what I shared above. (If you can’t do this now, schedule some time in your calendar.)

If you don’t have all four of the filters described above, create a draft of each or what your missing this week. If you’ve already created your filters, evaluate whether they still work for you and your story. If not, revise them. 

To create or revise your drafts, try writing practice:

  • Set a timer and start with a topic or prompt (my genre’s conventions are, the purpose of my story is, my story is, my ideal reader is).
  • Keep your pen or fingers moving until the timer stops, no matter how ridiculous it sounds or how loud your resistance screams. 
  • You are no judge of what comes out during this time, so no crossing out or deleting. 
  • If you get stuck, repeat your prompt or write I am stuck, and Leslie is a jerk for suggesting this until it clears. (It’s okay, I can take it.)
  • When the time is up, set it aside and give yourself a suitable reward. (Do not skip this step. I get your wanting to move onto another task and achieve something else. I get a dopamine hit from checking off that box too. But take a moment, reflect, and give yourself a high five.)

Later, come back and cut what isn’t helpful. Save anything interesting but off topic on the last page of your notebook or in a separate document. Don’t obsess or let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Your goal is version 1.0 of all four filters, so do the best you can then move on. 

Write or type your working title and four filters on a single piece of paper and make copies. Post a copy where you write and anyplace where distraction from writing lies in wait. Keep a copy with your writing materials as well if you write away from home. 

As you develop a deeper understanding of your filters, revise and repost. 


Join the Crew

If you liked this post and want more from Writership, join our crew. You’ll receive our newsletter and a free copy of Cast Your Net with Writership, a collection of 25 exercises to inspire your fiction.

Name *
Cast Your Net with Writership: 25 Exercises to Inspire Your Fiction    by Leslie Watts

Photo courtesy of Carlos Santos/