John Truby stated in The Anatomy of Genres*, “Once we understand that all of human life is a form of story, the next step becomes clear: genres are the portals to this world.” Using The Trellis Method, we will explore how to include the right content with your chosen genres based on the M&M’s principle.
Understanding Genres Is Hard!
Many experts write about genres, but few agree on how to define all the moving parts.
Historically, as the publishing industry and reading audiences grew, the emphasis on genres increased. Although there is no definitive agreement on what makes up a genre, there is consensus readers love them. Satisfying audience’s desire for familiar story worlds with unique twists is why writers should undertake learning genres.
In a Harvard Business Review article from January-February 2017, here’s what Jerry Seinfeld said about doing things the right way.
“If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.”
Seinfeld’s attitude toward the details required to create a winning show also applies to what it takes to choose, understand, and apply genres to your fiction.
Smart people pay attention to the little things that matter. In a Wall Street Journal interview, here’s what Lauren Sánchez said about her partner’s focus on the details.
“Every Sunday morning, Jeff (Bezos) makes pancakes. He wakes up early. He gets the Betty Crocker cookbook out every time, and I’m like, ‘OK, you’re the smartest man in the world; why don’t you have this memorized yet?’ But he opens it up every time: Exact portions make the best pancakes in the world.”
Brown M&M’s Suggest Missing Details
Details can make all the difference to readers and keep in mind they know what they like.
So if some tiny detail is missing, it can foreshadow how the audience will feel about your work. For example, the famous Van Halen rock band required event organizers to sign an extensive contract. It contained a lengthy rider demanding strict adherence to all provisions.
Buried deep in the legal document was this clause:
Potato chips with assorted dips
M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)
Twelve (12) Reese’s peanut butter cups
Twelve (12) assorted Dannon yogurt (on ice)
Sounds like an arrogant rock-star demand, right?
Quite the opposite. In David Lee Roth’s 1997 Crazy from the Heat autobiography**, he explained this provision was all about safety details, not brown M&M’s. The group’s gear filled nine semi-truck trailers, so imagine what might happen without the proper support of speakers and equipment.
Backstage, if Roth found brown M&M’s in the bowl, he knew the event organizer had not read the contract rider, which according to the lead singer, “read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function.”
For instance, the university in Pueblo, Colorado, did not adhere to all the provisions. The band’s equipment “weighed like the business end of a 747,” and sank into the arena’s basketball flooring. Roth wrote, “It came out in the press that I discovered brown M&M’s and did eighty-five thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the backstage area. Well, who am I to get in the way of a good rumor?”
Focus on the details (i.e., the M&M’s principle) of your chosen genres, and give readers what they expect.
Genres: The Secret to Writing Page-turning Fiction
Within the diverse universe we call genres, the secret to creating page-turning fiction is understanding and giving your target audience the details they expect.
Conventions and Key Scenes Are Inseparable Like Wet and Water
Top writers master their chosen genres.
Conventions Define the Audience’s Expectations
In Robert McKee’s Story*, he emphasized the audience knows the conventions associated with particular genres, and thus, they expect to see them fulfilled. For example, a murder mystery creates a puzzle (i.e., who done it?), and readers expect that intellectual stimulation. A writer’s choice of genres plays a big part in what happens within the story, since it needs to consider the audience’s knowledge and expectations.
Key Scenes Deliver What Readers Expect
According to McKee, the audience also expects obligatory scenes based on genres. For example, the buildup in a cozy murder mystery implies a promise the sleuth will strive to catch the killer, obligating the writer to fulfill readers’ expectation with a scene that brings the criminal to justice.
Conventions and Key Scenes Shape the Story Arc
The skillful writer combines genres’ conventions and obligatory scenes to fulfill the audience’s expectations, giving readers what they want by placing actual content at strategic Story Beats along the narrative’s arc.
Scene Reactions Allow Readers to Experience a Character’s Emotions
In the Scene and Sequel Sequence, the POV character’s choice (i.e., beat #7) reveals the true nature of the individual. As the story progresses, readers expect the writer to show essential information about characters, such as their relatable qualities that include flaws.
Using the Character Template, authors can develop a wide range of character types, people who show realistic behaviors and emotions based on plot events and increasing stakes.
Writers develop characters that fit within the context of their chosen genre.
“Really, the novelist has the best casting since he doesn’t have to cope with the actors and all the rest.”
— Alfred Hitchcock
The murder mystery genre includes several subgenres. The chief protagonist differs based on genres, and that influences the shape of the character arc. For example, the main character can range from an amateur sleuth (e.g., cozy mystery), a career professional (e.g., police procedural), or a private investigator (e.g., hard-boiled detective).
- The cozy mystery often includes a well-constructed character arc for an amateur sleuth that starts negative and ends positive.
- The hard-boiled detective’s arc can stay flat throughout the novel (e.g., Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye).
- In some police procedurals, the cop succumbs to job pressures or plot events for a negative character arc.
Story Beats Provide Strategic Places to Show What Happens in the Plot
Readers know the story patterns they prefer even if they can’t name specific genres.
- Story Beats offer writers a strategic structure to show what happens (i.e., the plot).
- The beats free writers to construct tales based on familiar patterns while creating content that surprises and delights readers.
- The genres’ conventions and key scenes jumpstart creative juices, and writers use the premise to connect content strategically across the Story Beats.
Here are the 18 Story Beats for use with your chosen genres.
Story Beats Encourage Answers to Essential Plot Questions:
Story Beats serve as writing prompts.
- Do events take place early that create tension, causing readers to engage as their concerns increase for the lead character?
- Do the events create a story problem that captures readers’ attention?
- Does something dramatic happen to the lead character within the novel’s first page or two?
- Do the emotion-laced events in the initial scenes encourage readers to bond with the lead character, experiencing her emotions?
- Are the stakes becoming clear to both the lead character and readers?
- Do the lead’s efforts focus on solving one escalating problem she can’t avoid and balance the mixture of narrative and action?
- Does the lead’s pursuit of a difficult goal create conflicts and tension?
Plot and Subplots
The main plot gets lots of attention, but top movies and best-selling novels weave into the storyline several subplots.
- The main plot is a thread of crucial events that comprise the narrative of what happens within the story, forcing characters into conflicts.
- Subplots add more events and characters, amplifying and building out the main plot.
- Subplots can have crossover scenes with the main plot, including supporting characters who have their own wants, desires, and arcs.
Here’s a visual of plot and subplots based on Frank L. Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Create the Narrative’s Synopsis from Story Beats
Cozy Mystery Example of Plot and Subplot
For the cozy mystery genre, here’s a high-level example of how the plot and subplot can work together.
- Main Plot: The investigation of the murder and victim serve as the Main Plot.
- Subplot 1: Humorous, quirky characters with intriguing backstories spark conflict and inspire sleuth, serving as the Secondary Character Subplot.
- Subplot 2: Other characters reappear across the series (e.g., family, police chief, friends) and serve as the Community Conflict Subplot.
- Subplot 3: The Sleuth’s Character Arc Subplot shows the lead’s progressive change as she deals with issues (e.g., flaws, needs, wants, emotional wound, relationships).
- Subplot 4: The Setting and Story World Subplot paints a charming and interesting place readers will want to revisit. This world offers opportunities to introduce more characters across the series.
Genres Suggest but Don’t Limit Themes
The theme elements range from simple to complex, and here’s a crime genre example:
Readers expect the crime genre’s external theme to focus on solving the illegal act.
- The crime genre’s external theme gives meaning to the overarching narrative.
- For example, justice rules when the protagonist succeeds, or injustice rules when the criminal succeeds. In a cozy mystery, readers expect the sleuth to bring the killer to justice.
The crime genre’s internal theme can get complicated when you consider the inner character.
- The internal theme gives insight into the protagonist’s life, amplifying conflicts, experiences, discoveries, and emotions, including the change required for the lead character to solve the story problem.
- For example, good (morality) rules when a person sacrifices for the needs of others, or evil (immorality) rules when a person pursues selfish needs ahead of others. In a cozy mystery, a writer could show the sleuth solving the murder after putting the needs of the community ahead of personal needs.
Adding a philosophical theme to the story expands the message.
- The philosophical theme taps into the audience’s collective knowledge of a universal truth, and typically provides the lead character with the motivation to learn the internal theme’s life lesson.
- For example, the character may reflect on how honor results when a person lives values without compromise or how shame results when a person compromises personal values. In a cozy mystery, the philosophical theme could show a friend (foil character) reflecting how the shame of compromised values clouded the sleuth’s mind and hindered the identification of the killer.
Themes are why the story matters to the audience. Even though genres suggest external themes, writers can enhance stories by including an internal theme, a philosophical theme, or both.
Genres Are the Portals to Your Story World
The selection and use of genres is not about emulating others.
The patterns you select and use give readers a sense of familiarity, allowing them to dive into the swirling emotions of your story. It’s your creativity that makes the story stand out from others. In a blog post, Shane Parrish explained why it’s important to write and avoid shortcuts.
A world of common thinking available on demand will tempt people to outsource their thinking and disproportionately reward people who don’t.
Top writers satisfy readers’ expectations by understanding and combining genres.
- Combine your primary genre (e.g., crime) with additional genres (e.g., romance and psychological thriller) to make your story unique.
- Give the audience the genres’ familiar conventions and key scenes, but mix it up to surprise and delight readers.
- Allow the characters to showcase the emotions readers crave.
- Use the plot to set up organic character conflicts, surfacing emotional reactions while increasing the stakes.
- Let the characters and events in the subplots amplify the main plot and protagonist’s problems.
- Scratch the audience’s itch to understand why the story matters by balancing the mix of external, internal, and philosophical themes.
Focus on the details (i.e., the M&M’s principle) of your chosen genres, and give readers what they expect.
The Trellis Method helps you master story structure and write a book readers will love. But there are so many moving parts, especially with genres. We invite your insights and recommendations to continue improving the process.
Join the discussion.
Which genres do you prefer and how do you mix the conventions, scenes, characters, plot, subplots, and themes?
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**Roth, David Lee. Crazy from the Heat.
New York: Hyperion, 1997. ISBN 0-7868-6339-0 (pp. 97-98).
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