How do you write a bestselling novel or an award winning screenplay? You might say: great writing or unique characters or well done conflict. But so much of writing a great story is knowing and mastering the type of story you’re trying to tell.
What are the types of stories? And how do you use them to tell a great story?
In this article, we’re going to cover the ten types of stories, share which tend to become bestsellers, and share the hidden values that help you master each type.
But first, what do I mean by “types of stories”?
Definition of Story Types
As stories have evolved for thousands of years, they began to fall into patterns called story types. These types tend to operate on the same underlying values. They also share similar structures, characters, and what Robert McKee calls, obligatory scenes.
Story Types Are Defined by Values In Conflict
Bestselling stories are about values, and it is the conflict between these values that generate the movement and change that makes the story work.
Every human value can be distilled to six essential human values, as found in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. These values are as follows (credit to Robert McKee and Shawn Coyne for introducing me to these concepts):
- Survival from Nature. The value of life. Because if you don’t have your life, you don’t have much.
- Survival from Others. Surviving crime, other people, even monsters, you could say.
- Love/Community. The value of human connection.
- Esteem. The value of your status and hierarchy within a community.
- Personal Growth. The value of reaching your potential.
- Transcendence. The value of going beyond yourself to discover a larger purpose.
Once you distill these values, you can turn these values into scales, because these values are usually in conflict with their opposite.
- Survival from Nature > Life vs. Death
- Survival from Others > Life vs. a Fate Worse than Death
- Love/Community > Love vs. Hate
- Esteem > Accomplishment vs. Failure
- Personal Growth > Maturity vs. Naiveté
- Transcendence > Good vs. Evil
Interestingly, these are the same values that drive good storytelling.
And if you take them a step further you can take this value scales and map them to different types of stories. Here’s how it works:
- Life vs. Death: Action, Adventure Stories
- Life vs. a Fate Worse than Death: Thriller, Horror, Mystery Stories
- Love vs. Hate: Romance, Love Stories
- Accomplishment vs. Failure: Performance, Sports Stories
- Maturity vs. Naiveté: Coming of Age stories
- Good vs. Evil: Temptation, Morality Stories
How does that work practically? Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Adventure Story Type Example
Let’s look at an example from The Hobbit, one of the bestselling novels of all time, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
When you’re trying to understand the type of story you’re trying to tell, the first question to ask is, “What value scale do a majority of the scenes move on?”
The question constantly coming up in The Hobbit is this: “Is Bilbo Baggins going to survive the run-ins with the spiders and trolls and orcs, or is he not going to survive?”
The Hobbit, at its core, is an adventure story, and that means that a majority of the scenes move on the Life vs. Death Scale.
While there are certainly scenes that fall on the Good vs. Evil and Maturity vs. Naïveté scales, it is the Life vs. Death scale that most of the scenes move on.
Bestselling Stories Are About Values In Conflict
You’ve heard your stories need conflict, but that doesn’t mean more arguments and car chases.
The kind of conflict your stories need more of is between values, and the way to master any type of story is to put the story’s main value in conflict with its opposite.
If you’re writing an adventure story, that means you need to have life and death moments.
If you’re writing a thriller, you need to have moments of life vs. a fate worse than death.
If you’re writing a love story, you need to have as many moments of negative love, of anger, disillusion, and even hatred, as you do love.
If you’re writing a sports story, there have to be as many moments of near failure, or actual failure, as there are of success.
If you’re writing a coming of age story, then you need to include moments where the growing maturity of the character is put into conflict with its opposite, naïveté.
And finally if you’re writing a temptation or morality story, then you need moments of temptation, where the character genuinely considers whether to take actions they know are wrong because of how it might benefit them or solve a greater problem.
Bad Stories Have No Values or Too Many Values
Bad books? Stories that don’t work, they don’t know what their values are.
Or they’re trying to have every single value possible.
You can’t do that if you want to tell a great story. You have to choose! If you want to master the type of story you’re trying to tell, start with finding the story’s value.
So how about you? What type of story are you trying to tell? Let us know in the comments.
Put the types of story to use now with the following creative writing exercise.
First, choose one of the story scales above.
Then, outline a scene in which a character is faced with the negative value in that scale.
Finally, set a time for fifteen minutes, and write as much of your scene as you can.
When your time is up, post your scene in the comments section.