Why do some books “work,” while others don’t? Why do readers ravenously consume one book, while they put down another and forget about it entirely?
If you want to write books that readers love, you’d be wise to find answers to these questions and apply those answers to your work. Thankfully, there’s a resource available to you that provides an insider’s look at what readers want: The Story Grid!
In Part 1 of this Story Grid series, we looked at the six core questions you need to answer in order to know if your book will be good. Now it’s time to zoom in on the first two questions:
- What is the Genre?
- What are the Conventions/Obligatory Moments?
If you want to write a great story with the potential to sell thousands of copies, then the answers are of great importance to you.
Let’s discover how knowing, fulfilling, and innovating your Story Grid Genre can lead to thrilled readers who trust you and come back to your work every time you publish something new!
How to Thrill Your Reader by Innovating Your Genre
As you probably know, Genre is essentially a way of cataloguing types of stories. When browing Amazon, you’ll find many familiar Genres, such as Romance, Science Fiction, War, Horror, Thriller, and Mystery.
Writing within a well-known Genre is essential for achieving popular success as a writer.
Story Grid Genre is all about the reader’s expectations. Readers look for particular stories with particular qualities, and when you fail to deliver on those expectations, you’ll have a disappointed reader on your hands.
Here’s how author-editor Shawn Coyne puts it in The Story Grid:
“Deciding what Genre(s) your Story will inhabit will tell you exactly what you need to do to satisfy your potential audience’s expectations. You must know what your reader is expecting before you can possibly satisfy her.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that writing within a Genre is hackwork or “selling out.” Are coffee roasters hacks because they sell within the coffee Genres of dark, medium, whole bean, ground, and so on?
Story Grid Genre is simply a way of categorizing stories, and for people to take a leap of faith and begin reading your work, trust needs to be established. And you earn that trust by writing within a well-known Genre.
Fulfill the Genre’s Conventions
Every Genre has Conventions that must be fulfilled.
Coyne explains it like this:
“[Genre Conventions] are elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled or so bored out of their skull that no matter how beautiful the sentences, they’ll quit reading.”
In other words, every Mystery has a detective of some kind. Every Romance features two lovers. Required characters are a Genre Convention.
Genre can also have setting requirements. Science Fiction stories usually take place in space or an alternative reality. Westerns take place . . . well . . . you get the idea.
Coyne explains the importance of Story Grid Genre Conventions by comparing a story to a knock-knock joke. Without the words “Knock-knock,” followed by the response “Who’s there?” then you don’t have a Knock-Knock joke. You can’t begin a Knock-Knock joke with, “So a guy walks into a bar. . . .” It’s a completely different Genre of joke, identified by the Convention of the opening line.
“Once we hear ‘Knock-Knock,’ we expect the Convention of the joke form . . . a fun play on words payoff. If we don’t get the play-on-words convention, the listener won’t laugh. The joke will die. It doesn’t work.”
In the same way, your story won’t work if it doesn’t include its Story Grid Genre Conventions. So make sure you know the common Conventions of your chosen Genre. Only that way can you deliver on your reader’s expectations!
Fulfill the Genre’s Obligatory Moments
While Conventions are elements in a story that set up a change in a protagonist, the “Obligatory Moments are the must-have elements to pay off the raised expectations of those conventions.”
In other words, conventions are what ideal readers come to a Genre for, like a dead body in a Mystery/Crime story (more on this in a second). But, obligatory moments are how those conventions are met—they are actual moments in the story that make those conventions work.
For example, a Mystery must have a “discovery of the body scene,” later followed by a “confrontation of the killer” scene. They just have to happen. Without them, the reader will be shaking their head in frustration.
Or in a dystopian Science Fiction story (all the rage in YA literature these days), there must be a scene where the protagonist who sees things differently (a convention of this sub-Genre) makes a decision that rebels against the system. This scene is a non-negotiable. And the consequential scene where they must suffer for that choice is also obligatory.
This may sound simple in theory, but fulfilling Obligatory Moments can be difficult.
“Obligatory moments are the most difficult ones for a writer to crack—the discovery of the dead body scene, the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, the first kiss scene, the attack of the monster scene, etc. The reason is that these moments can easily devolve into cliché. They’ve been done to death. To come up with something fresh and surprising is an extremely difficult task.”
And this is usually where the amateur author decides that writing within a Story Grid Genre isn’t worth it. “I don’t want to write a story full of cliches,” you might think, and then decide to do it on your own.
But this is a deadly mistake and has lead many talented authors, who could have published wildly successful books, into obsolescence.
The trick is to fulfill, yet innovate, your Story Grid Genre. You’re still telling a Knock-Knock joke. But you’re doing it much, much differently.
Innovate Within These Expectations
My four-year-old’s favorite joke goes like this:
“Interrupting cow wh—”
This is the first joke I ever told her. It’s also the only Knock-knock joke I like because it innovates the Genre. I find regular pun-based Knock-knock jokes to be lame (orange you glad I didn’t say “banana”?).
In the same way, I love stories that take a familiar Story Grid Genre and do wild, unexpected things with it.
The centerpiece of Coyne’s analysis in The Story Grid is The Silence of the Lambs. Perhaps the greatest detective thriller ever made, The Silence of the Lambs includes every Convention and Obligatory Scene of its Story Grid Genre.
There’s a detective. A serial killer. Bodies are discovered. A ticking clock ramps up the tension. A speech is delivered in praise of the killer, elevating his menace. A false ending gives the viewer a misplaced sense of peace. And then, at the end, is the terrifying confrontation between detective and villain.
Yet the story innovates in so many wells, primarily through the protagonist, Clarice Starling, and her foil, Dr. Hannibal Lector. To learn more how author Thomas Harris innovates so brilliantly, check out Coyne’s analysis in The Story Grid for yourself.
Don’t Skip Genre
Yes, The Silence of the Lambs is a fantastic novel. But innovation is hard. And with its substantial difficulty are two fatal temptations: to skip the requirements altogether, or to plagiarize.
The first, ditching the Conventions and Obligatory Moments, cannot ever be an option. Your reader matters too much. If you cheap out on her, she’ll never trust you with a story again.
The second, copying what has come before, is similarly toxic to your reader. As Coyne says:
“[Some] writers (some call them hacks) love Genre because they think they can just recycle old scenes from the Genre’s vault to fulfill these obligations. But if you rehash something you saw on a Mannix episode from the 1970s, you will sorely disappoint your reader.”
But writing innovative stories is fun because it’s hard! Few things drive me to the page more than the challenge and thrill of tackling something new. And the challenge isn’t nearly so brutal as it may seem at first.
To illustrate this and comfort his readers, Coyne offers a classic example from one of the best mystery writers of all time:
“Agatha Christie took a tried and true convention (her brilliant sleuth like Hercule Poirot) and freshened it up when she created the amateur sleuth Miss Marple. But you’ll notice that Christie did not eliminate the central clue-hunter from her Story. She just changed the personality and background of the investigator. She abided by the convention, but innovated its execution.”
See? You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
But you do have to add spinners, lights, sparklers, spikes, or something new and fresh to it . . . so long as it’s still a wheel.
Strategies for Writing the Same but Different
Have you ever heard of Brandon Sanderson’s Science Fiction and Fantasy online course at BYU? It’s exceptional, and I highly recommend you spend some hours to check it out on YouTube.
But for a quick idea on how to take your Genre and write the same story but different, I’d like to turn your attention to what Brandon Sanderson says most people can agree happens in a story. Every story has:
And all of these are connected by:
You must have conflict in a story. This is what will call your characters to make decisions (and act) and move the plot forward. But, what will that conflict look like for your story?
Similarly, how does your plot contain Genre conventions and obligatory moments but have a different hook that moves that plot forward?
How are your characters different? What makes them the least unlikely hero for your story?
And where is your story set?
Fiddling with one or more of these story factors can give you some ideas on how to write within your Genre conventions and obligatory moments, but also write your own story. There might not actually be any “original” stories out there, but there can be fresh takes on old ideas that we’ve loved.
Your Story Grid Genre Is a Tool for You
Choosing a Story Grid Genre for your story can feel overwhelming and intimidating. It’s easy to give up early on when you gaze up at the enormous mountain of accomplishment in a Genre, wondering how in the hell you’ll ever get up there with the successful ones.
So here’s what to do.
Whatever story you have in your head: Write it.
Keep writing — perhaps up to 5,000 or 10,000 words — and then pause. Take a step back from it and consider what characters, settings, and scenes you’ve crafted so far, and what you have planned for the future.
Then answer: What kind of story does this look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like?
Find the Genre that is closest to what you’ve written. Study that Genre until you’re an expert on its Conventions and Obligatory Moments.
Then go back to your story and mold it into that Genre.
If you’ve started in the wrong spot, you can easily write a new beginning because you’re only a few thousands words in. If you’ve chosen the wrong protagonist, you can quickly rewrite the early scenes from the right perspective.
And if you need to add/subtract characters, settings, and scenes, you can do so without feeling like you’ve written an entire book, only to realize it was wrong.
And that’s one of Coyne’s main points.
“Knowing Genre is the single best way to avoid doing a helluva lot of work for naught. If you don’t know you are writing a horror novel and you spend four months working on a character’s past history for an epic flashback, you’re wasting your time.”
And no one wants to waste time. Wasted time is wasted energy and passion. And you don’t want to do that.
So how do you write a book that “works?”
How do you write a book that readers can’t put down?
You write within a Story Grid Genre that is known and comfortable, but do so in a way that innovates and surprises here and there. You meet a reader’s expectations but surprise her with little updates or additions that make the Genre feel new and reborn.
To close, consider this wisdom from The Write Practice’s very own Story Grid Certified Editor, Alice Sudlow:
“You can innovate the shape of your house’s doors, or the color, or whether they’re wood or glass or screen, or whether they’re on hinges or in a pocket or on a track like a barn door. But your house has to have doors.”
Start writing. Study what you’ve written. Match it with a Genre. Then get creative.
That’s how to write a story that readers will love, and editors will gladly share with publishers.
That’s how to achieve success as a storyteller.
Do you write with genre in mind? Let us know in the comments.
Think about your current work in progress. What genre are you writing in? What’s an Obligatory Scene from that genre?
Now, free write that Obligatory Scene without worrying about how well it fits into your current draft. Just write, taking the elements of your story and putting them into a well-known and well-read Genre.
Don’t have a work in progress? Try your hand at writing an Obligatory Scene from one of these genres:
Love: The Lovers Meet
Murder Mystery: The Discovery of the Body
Action: The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain
Take fifteen minutes to write. Then share your writing in the comments below! Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers, too. Can you guess what genres they’re writing?