The Story Grid
A Five Part Video Series on the Craft of Story Editing
Part Two: The Five-Leaf Genre Clover
By: Shawn Coyne
Featuring: Steven Pressfield

You want to write a Story.  Where do you begin?  One word.  GENRE.  This episode is a deep dive into why you need to know exactly what GENRES you wish to explore.  You’ll learn about my Five-Leaf Genre Clover, which will give you the tools necessary to laser focus on what you want to write and how you will write it. 

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Resources from Video
Buy the Book: The Story Grid
PDF Download: The Five-Leaf Genre Clover

Read Video Transcript

Shawn Coyne: So what’s the very first thing an editor or a writer needs to do? Well the very, very, very first thing they need to do is to figure out what genres their story is going to be a part of. What is a genre? A genre is a very fancy word classifying every story ever told since the beginning of time. That’s really all it is. The classifications are all about managing audience expectations. This is just a fancy way of saying what exactly is it that you’re going to want to know before you read a book or watch a television show? These are all the things that marketers and advertising people put on covers of books and movie posters. And the classic genres are things like the crime genre, the mystery genre, the love story, the science fiction story. These are all those things that a lot of literary people kind of turn their nose up at. Every single story has a genre.

The way to really wrap your mind around it is to figure out what do I need to explain and deliver to an audience? And there are five major categories of genre. Time. We’re going to want to know how long am I going to have to sit through this movie? Or how long am I going to have to read this book? There’s structure. Are we going to see the hero’s journey, which is called an archplot? Or are we going to see a miniplot or an antiplot? The third is style. Is it going to be a drama? Is it going to be a comedy? Is it going to be literary? The fourth is reality. How much am I going to have to suspend my disbelief? Is this going to be like The Lord of the Rings where there are magical creatures, or is this going to be very realistic like a biography? And the fifth category of genre is called content. Now content is the one that we all think of when we think of genre. When we say crime story, we know exactly what we’re talking about. When we say love story, we know what that is, too.

Now there are two kinds of content genres—the external genres and the internal genre. The external genres are all those things that I just mentioned: crime, horror, thriller, action. The internal content genres are those that are more literary. The coming of age story, the worldview, the morality, the punitive story, the redemption story.

You don’t necessarily need both external and internal in your content choice. There are plenty of murder mysteries that don’t have any internal genres whatsoever. For example Agatha Christie stories. We read those stories because we want to be in the presence of a master detective. We don’t really care if he changes as a human being from the beginning of the story to the end. But for a story like The Silence of the Lambs, that’s a critical story that has both the external thriller category and it also has the internal disillusionment plot of the lead character.

So just to take a step back. What I’ve done is I’ve created something called The Five-Leaf Genre Clover so that it can remind me whenever I need to look at a story and help a writer discover the problems. I need to categorize all the genres they’re working in. So I created this clover that has all five of the genre subcategories and it’s important to remember that you have to make one choice, at least one choice, from each of these categories.

So for example The Silence of the Lambs. Let’s take that example.

The time genre is long. It’s a long novel.

The structure is archplot, which is what Joseph Campbell calls the hero’s journey. Which is basically the arching of a story where the character moves from one place and ends up another.

The style is drama. It’s not comedic in every way. Real emotional terrain is on display. It’s very chilling and thrilling.

The reality structure is realism in that we believe exactly in the institution of the FBI in this story from beginning to end. Now Thomas Harris was a journalist, so he puts all the details and it’s richly layered. So we believe that the FBI is exactly as he discusses in the novel itself. So that’s realism and that’s the reality genre.

Now the content genres are serial killer thriller as the external genre and worldview disillusionment as the internal genre. And I can get into those much later on in The Story Grid. The important thing is you have to make at least one choice in each of the five categories.

So a question I get a lot is: Why do I have to make these choices of these genres? What will they do for me as a writer? Why do I have to be so specific about what category I’m using? And all that.

And the reason is, as I said at the beginning, genres manage your audience's expectations of your story. What that means is that if I say to you, “Hey I’ve got this great new mystery novel that I’ve written, and there’s no body at the beginning of the story,” that’s going to disappoint you. Because in a mystery, there are conventions and obligatory elements that you have to have in there or people aren’t going to enjoy the story.

Now, what is a convention and obligatory scene?

For example, in a thriller, there are about five to seven must haves in your story. You must have a Speech in Praise of the Villain and a Hero at the Mercy of the Villain. You must have what’s called a MacGuffin, which is the thing that the villain wants above all things. It could be the nuclear codes. It could be, in the case of The Silence of the Lambs, a suit. A woman suit for a very deranged man to wear. That’s a MacGuffin. It also has to have a Clock, meaning there has to be a moment of time where if the hero does not win, all bets are off and the villain wins. It also has to have what are called Red Herrings. A Red Herring is a clue that misdirects the hero from finding out the truth about what’s going on. There’s one more: Clues. It also has to have very, very specific clues that are usually put in and seeded at the very beginning of the story and don’t pay off until much later on.

So those are things you must have in a thriller and if you don’t have them, the audience isn’t going to like your story. 

Steven Pressfield: Genres do have conventions, but the question is how does a writer, how do you know what those conventions are? So here’s one way I found out one convention. I was working on the Steven Seagal movie Above the Law. And while we were shooting the movie, Steven went to see Lethal Weapon‚ the first Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson. And there’s a scene in that movie where Mel Gibson was being tortured by the bad guys. So Steve came in the next day and said, “Write me a torture scene. I’ve got to have a torture scene.” And I remember at the time thinking this is the dumbest most derivative thing I’ve ever heard, but we wrote it and it just played like gangbusters. And then later, when Shawn…the first time I ever heard it was The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene, I realized, oh my god that’s a convention of the genre and you have to have it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t work.

Shawn Coyne: So a lot of people say obligatory scenes and conventions, isn’t that kind of cheesy? Isn’t that kind of y’know, like episodes of old Mannix reruns from the 1920s? Well the reality is, you need to have a map and your obligatory scenes and conventions are so crucial because you’re not going to be able to get to the end of your story unless you hit those specific points.

For example in The Silence of the Lambs, somebody says to me well there’s no Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene in The Silence of the Lambs. Well that’s absolutely untrue. It is brilliantly, brilliantly created by Thomas Harris and it’s the climax of the entire novel. And if you’ve seen the movie, in the moment when Clarice Starling has to go into that basement and it’s completely dark. That bad guy, Buffalo Bill, has on the goggles so he can see in the dark. That is the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene. He can see her. She can’t see him. Now that was a brilliant way of delivering an obligatory scene in a very unique way. Now what separates the pros from the amateurs as writers is being able to use these conventions and obligatory scenes in new and unique ways that nobody has done before. So the challenge isn’t, no I’m not going to do it. The challenge is to do those obligatory scenes and conventions in ways that have never been done before, so the audience is completely surprised and captivated by the way you handled what you must have in your story.

So now that we have a handle on Genre let’s take a look at The Foolscap Global Story Grid and the macro editorial point of view in the next video.