This is the second post covering our five partners in prewriting for NaNoWriMo. In the first I wrote about Character, and Premise and here are GENRE, STORY, and SETTING.
Typically, the first question people pose when they find out you’re a writer is “What genre do you write?” They mean the categories publishers use to market your book like, romance, sci-fi, mystery, women’s lit, horror. The labels you’ll find on the shelves of your local bookstore.
Since you haven’t started writing your book yet you needn’t worry about how Barnes and Noble is going to be shelving your epic five-part series on the life and times of your eccentric neighbor Jebediah: the Gerbil Herder.
You have to delve deeper.
What I know about genre, and the need to fulfill its convention, and obligatory scenes comes from Shawn Coyne. If I could only pick one book to recommend to you, it would be his. Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.
Barring you reading that in the next few weeks, here’s an overview and links to the specific articles on StoryGrid that are relative to this post. Better yet, skip everything I’ve written and listen to Shawn’s podcast The Story Grid for NaNoWriMo.
Still here? I shall soldier on, though you may regret this. There are five distinct categories that together explain the type of writing you are undertaking that collectively add up to genre. Determining these will guide your decisions as you write. If you are a confirmed pantser and find this story structure too fiddly – feel free skip all this.
The categories of genre are, Time, Reality, Style, Structure, and Content. A detailed explanation can be found here, Genre’s Five Leaf Clover. Shawn’s work applies to other creative writing like film and plays but I’m not going to reference them since our focus is on novels.
Time: This is the length of your work, ie, Short (short stories), Medium (novellas), Long (novels).
Reality: Factualism (refers to facts of history or biography, implying “This Story Did Happen”), Realism (stories that could happen but are imagined), Absurdism (stories that are not remotely real, satire, or dark-humor…see this list), Fantasy (stories of wonder and imagination that require a suspension of disbelief, the type of which is delineated by three subgenres: human, magical, sci-fi).
Style: the ways we experience a story. Drama, Comedy, Documentary, Musical, Dance, Literary (under which you’ll find poetry, Minimilism, Meta, and Post-Modern), Theatrical, Cinematic, Epistolary (qualities of letters…see this list).Cartoons (anthropomorphized silliness).
Structure: Archplot (classic story structure we all recognize, a hero’s journey, action movies,), Miniplot (often multiple protagonist, stories concern the inner lives, rather than the external of Archplots, most literary works), Antiplot (breaks all the rules).
Content: This is what you think of as genre in general, but deeper and more specific. Content Genre is broken into two categories, internal and external.
Bear with me. I know this is getting long.
External: These stories are driven by a global external value and its positive and negative charge.
- Horror—Life/Fate Worse than Death (Damnation),
- Western—Individual/Society, Freedom/Civilization,
- Thriller—Life/Death…possibility of Damnation with a combination of Justice/Injustice (a merging of Action, Horror and Crime),
- Society—the value at stake determines the subgenre, for example the Domestic story is about the Individual/Family dynamic,
- Love—Love/Hate/Self-Hate/Hate masquerading as Love,
Internal: These are stories driven by the nature of the protagonist/s inner conflict.
- Status—Success/Failure moving from one ladder of society to another.
- Worldview—a change in life experience from one value charge to its opposite,
- Morality—a change/revolution of the protagonist’s inner moral compass
When I first read StoryGrid this is where I got terrified and my brain stopped working. It has taken me well over a year to fully grasp all this and I’m still a bit fuzzy on some details, especially the internal stuff. No worries if this seems overwhelming. There is no test. You only need some of this to get going, not all of it. And there is a hell of lot more info on the website than I could possibly cover. If this interests you, have fun going down that rabbit hole.
The Saga Begins
That’s a Weird Al Yankovic remake of American Pie about Star Wars.
Grab a whiskey or rye, we’re going to pick something from every category.
As an example, my novel The Illusion of Marriage, it is Long-Form (novel), Realism (it’s a family drama about marriage), Literary (character driven), Miniplot (I have multiple protagonist and plot lines), Content is External:Love, Internal:Worldview/Disillusionment…I think.
I’m still fiddling around with internal content genre. It could be Worldview or Morality, I haven’t narrowed it down (I haven’t decided!). I still have more listening to do of the Editor’s Roundtable discussions and rereading these articles, part 1 and part 2 and part 3.
And that’s okay. We start off in one direction and end somewhere else, where it evolves into a completely different story. Point being it wasn’t until I had the whole story down that I could revise it into a better told story following these guidelines. For now, you are just trying to give yourself some parameters, not hold your story telling hostage to conform.
However, I believe if you are blindingly writing without knowing your story’s genre and its obligatory scenes and conventions then ultimately your story will be incongruent with the expectation your reader has for it. Not to mention wasting precious time and energy producing writing that will need to be edited out. What you can aim for is knowing enough about what you’re going to write to avoid that happening.
Let’s say you are a blank slate. Look at the Genre’s Five Leaf Clover, choose the easy things first.
TIME: Long (we know we’re writing novels).
Reality: Reality? What to you read the most of? Science fiction? How about a Fantasy.
Style: Perhaps you have a funny bone? Comedy it is.
Structure: You’ll have a single protagonist, the hero of the story, that’s Archplot.
Content: Pull up that link to the Genre’s Five Leaf Clover.
Try this exercise: Read through the genres and decide what kind of story would you like to tell. We’ve chosen a comedic sci-fi already, where can you go from there? Pick a category from the yellow section (external) of the content leaf.
- Horror: Supernatural – a poltergeist slapstick?
- Love: Testing – an amnesiac time lord keeps forgetting where he leaves his wife?
- Thriller: Political – Wrong species of president is elected, a farce for sure (I know where you can get some material for that one).
- Crime: Courtroom – Earth is issued an interplanetary injunction for crime abasing nature?
- Crime: Murder Mystery – Alien rewritten as a cozy mystery? There’s already a cat.
- Performance: Sports – a human competes for the first time in the Multi-Universe Olympics? I could play this game all day. Try it, see what you come up with.
Once you decide on genre, you can figure out what the conventions and obligatory scenes are for that genre. Unfortunately, it is way too broad a topic to delve into here, but if you have specific questions, ask in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer. Or you can search Shawn’s site Genres have Conventions and Obligatory Scenes.
P.S. Something else I want to mention, but doesn’t require much thought from you at this point – if you endeavoring to pitch your novel to a traditional publishing house – read this article, The AutoDidact’s Dilemma.
If you are intimidated by all that genre stuff, start here. Where do ideas come from? Everywhere, and anywhere. They appear while you are reading other things, writing a grocery list, driving to the dentist. While you were doing the exercise above?
Get in to the habit of jotting down the things you observe everyday. The way someone walks, the color of a flower, a scene taking place before you. The people in line at the grocery store. Extrapolate information from the little quirks, mannerism, word choices, that you see and hear. Turn them into character sketches. I insist…you must have the means of capturing your thoughts at all times.
Record a message on your phone, or have a small notebook in your purse or pocket. I have them everywhere. I’m serious about this being a must. You will forget that crucial and inspiring plot point the second it leaves your consciousness…except for knowing that you had it. That will drive you crazy. Write it down.
There are different elements of story you can start with.
1. Primary Event
2. Story Arc, Beginning, Middle and End,
3. Intriguing Situation that Immediately Suggests Cast of Characters in Conflict.
5. Genre: Type of Story You Want to Write (Yay…WE COVERED THIS ONE!)
It doesn’t matter what comes first, so long as it inspires you to ask, “And then what happens?”
The Illusion of Marriage first played out like a movie, just the last scene, for years before I wrote the whole story. I had a backstory for the male main character, and partially plotted out a another novel about his mother before I ever wrote the central story.
I’ve written fully fleshed out characters inspired by photographs of homeless people, from random observations (a woman running with her dog that was carrying a dirt old shoe prompted a profile of a killer who happens to see them and knows the shoe is a clue to where he buried the body. What is he going to do about that?) Ideas are everywhere. You just have to keep asking the question, AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED?
Did you do the genre exercise? Try one of those ideas and apply it to one of the other five elements of story above. I’ll do Crime: Murder Mystery – Alien rewritten as a cozy mystery, and Primary Event. First, I look up cozy mystery and I make a list of the obligatory scenes and convention of the genre.
A reader would expect these things: it takes place in a small town/community/village where everyone has know each other for generations, at least socially. The sleuth is always an amateur, typically a woman who works a job that brings her in contact with many people and places. She’ll have a friend/relative who is a police officer. She’ll be intuitive, nosy, and smart. Those around her will be eccentric, quirky, comical, and clueless.
The antagonist will be a community member, hidden in plain sight. There is little violence, the murder happens off the page to another community member. The murderer will have a rational, long-term reasons for the act. There is little sex, or profanity. It will be part of a series which will have a theme, ie, hobbies, cats, dogs, food, games, etc.
Then I’d refresh my memory by looking up the plot of Alien. And I’d watch the movie again.
After I read Alien’s plot I started thinking about the movie Hot Fuzz. Hot Fuzz is basically a cozy mystery but with violence and hilarity (just found Storygrid editor’s Roundtable Podcast about Hot Fuzz. It’s actually a thriller…learn why here). The primary event for Alien is when they land on the moon and find the eggs. In my cozy mystery, their ship is much like the town in Hot Fuzz which is heralded as “The safest ship in the Universe.” It’s very clean and bright. The crew is sunny, mild, and inane, save the one intellectual crew member, Ripley. They respond to the distress signal on the deserted moon and find…?
It’s thread you just keep pulling and reknit back together to make something else. Rather than remake the that whole movie, maybe I pull Ripley out and put her in Hot Fuzz. Or I put PC Nicholas Angel in Alien see what he makes of those shenanigans.
Last one, we’re almost done!
Sometimes, it is a time or place that captures our heart and inspires us. Do you love history and think you should have been born in another era? Use that. Wish you were a fly on the wall during a seminal music session of your favorite band? Start with that witness character. Have a passion for Japan in the 1920’s? Do you imagine being present at The First Women’s Rights Convention? The beginnings of the sexual revolution? These are all types of setting you can place you story and characters.
Shawn describes setting as four dimensions.
- Period: where the story’s place is in time (present, future, historical past). The details of ones dress, the manner in which they speak, these are all determined by the period of time the characters inhabit.
- Duration: the story’s length and time. How long is this character undergoing these changes? Does it take place in a week, months, years, decades? You don’t have to put in dates, but clues to what is happening in the world will frame it for your reader.
- Location: Where is the story taking place? What space does it take up, the geography, the town, the street, the building, the room? Adding in geographical elements places the reader exactly where on earth this story takes place.
- Levels of Conflict: “The reason why this is part of the setting is because it gives us a sense of what environment, the social environment the character is under — is being influenced by.”
The three levels of conflict can be utilized in any combination, one, two or all three. I think all three are in Hunger Games
Internal: It’s what is going on inside your characters. Their struggle to achieve their desire is the state they are in (Peeta’s desire for Katniss is what drives him and all his decisions).
Personal: Level of conflict is negotiating one-on-one relationships (Katniss and Peeta, Katniss and the other team members).
Extrapersonal: The struggle against institutions or environments (Katniss against the Capitol).
Time to buy me a drink!
I hope you found something to write for NaNoWriMo 2018. If not, and you need further inspiration or guidance try one of these links.
Storyist, Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo.
Now Novel, Writing a Novel in a Month
NaNoWriMo, NaNo Prep
Shoot me question in the comment or our FB page if you need more help.