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Genre and the Overall Story Problem

Last week, we talked about the importance of selecting a genre story skeleton.

This week, we will look at the broad skeletons explored in Story Building Blocks that make up popular fiction. It is easy to choose a broad category for your story skeleton by looking at the overall story problem.

1) Romance: the overall story problem focuses on a relationship.

2) Mystery: the overall story problem focuses on a crime or puzzle that needs to be solved.

3) Thriller & Suspense: the overall story problem focuses on catastrophic danger to one or many that must be averted.

4) Con, Heist & Prison Break: in which the overall story problem focuses on a person or group that wishes to escape from somewhere, steal something, or set someone up to fail. A vendetta is enacted or an injustice needs to be righted.

5) Gothic: the overall story problem focuses on a secret that lies buried and must be unearthed or a puzzle that needs to be solved. Suspense and setting are crucial.

6) Horror: the overall story problem focuses on a mortal threat to an individual or group.

7) Science Fiction: the overall story problem focuses on good versus cosmic evil.

8) Fantasy: the overall story problem focuses on good versus paranormal evil.

9) Western: the overall story problem focuses on man fighting against self, other men, or nature to survive in an unsettled land. The conflicts weigh the morality and challenges of survival.

10) Historical: the overall story problem focuses on an event from the past. It can involve historical characters in a historical situation, historical characters in fictional situations, or fictional characters in historical situations. There can be elements of Thriller & Suspense, Con, Romance, or Mystery, but the focus is the historical situation.

11) Team Victory: the overall story problem focuses on an underdog who needs to win.

12) The Road Trip: the overall story problem focuses on a lesson that needs to be learned or a secret that needs to be revealed. Two or more people are forced to travel together. The friction between the characters and the obstacles they encounter lead to the lesson learned or truth revealed.

13) The Comedy makes your reader laugh while subtly focusing on ideas, ethnicity, relationships, prejudices, social practices, politics, religion, or manners. It uses humor to explore topics without having to be “politically correct.” A Comedy can range from mindless farce to dark satire. It can follow the pattern of other genres as long as it is funny.

14) Literary in which the overall story problem focuses on a wrenching, life altering, personal decision or life event. Literary can have a specific plot or be a slice of life vignette.
I realize some are insulted by suggesting "literary" is a genre. All I mean by this is that the heavy focus is on character, mood, and theme rather than a genre-specific set of expectations. I am not defining "literature" this way. That is an entirely different thematic argument.

In the upcoming months, we will explore each genre in detail.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Why Pick Genre First?

There are many books, websites, and articles that define genre, subgenres, and mixed genres. You can write a  Paranormal Mystery or Historical Romance.

In order to sell the story and make a promise to your reader about what kind of story they are settling into, one of the layers must take ascendance.

If you are writing a Historical Romance and the focus is on the historical event that romantic partners are caught up in, it will sit on the Historical shelf. If the focus is on the romance between the two characters, the historical setting is the backdrop and the story ends happily, it will sit on the Romance shelf.

If you are writing a Paranormal Mystery and you want it to end up on the Mystery shelf, you have to fulfill the expectations of the Mystery genre. If you are writing a lyrical “present mystery solves past mystery” and it doesn’t follow the “sleuth solving a crime” formula, it may end up on the Literature shelf rather than the Mystery shelf.

An easy way to get a feel for genre is to look at the “log lines” on your television or cable guide movie section or read book synopses. The log line/synopsis states a protagonist is confronted by an inciting event and has to do something to solve the problem it creates. Most people choose whether to see a movie or read a book based on that sentence or paragraph. Jot down notes about the ones that appeal to you and the ones that don’t. Most of us do this every time we consult the cable guide without thinking about it. We flip until we find something that looks intriguing. We may have passed by ten well-constructed stories, but the premise or the promise didn’t appeal.

You may write a story without a clear idea of genre and it comes to you in the middle or at the end, but it saves a whole lot of time if you know it up front. You may change your mind half-way through because the love story takes over from the meteor hitting the earth story, which is okay. The important thing is to have an idea to work with. If you still can’t answer this question at the end of the draft, you have a lot of revising to do.

There are basic commercial categories of fiction, though stories written in each genre and subgenre differ greatly. Go to a book store and look at the different sections. Romance, Mystery, History, and Science Fiction typically have their own aisles. Then there is the much larger Literature section. There is a Young Adult section which encompasses all genres with a teen focus.

True fans of a genre have certain expectations and are disappointed if you don’t meet them or if you give them information they don’t want. People who are settling down with a breezy Romance don’t want gruesome forensic details. Others who are looking for a good spy Thriller will be bored with the slow pace of literary wording.

The genre provides the overall story problem that needs to be corrected by the end of the story. It serves as the foundation for your story. That doesn’t mean you can’t bend, twist, and contort the structure. Not all buildings are square. Some are pyramids, circles, and triangles. However, at the core of every structure is a solid framework that supports the integrity of the whole. A person renting a four-star hotel room does not want to find themselves in someone’s leaking fishing shack.

A question to ask at the beginning of your planning process (or at the end of your first draft) is: Where would you like your book to be displayed in the book store: the Literature, Romance, or Mystery section? If your story was made into a movie and broadcast on television, would you prefer it to be on the SyFy, Lifetime, or Hallmark channel?

Most writers would prefer that their book be at the very front of the bookstore, prominently displayed on a table as you walk in. However, publishers pay extra for that. Even if they choose your book for that honor, it won’t stay there long. It will eventually have to go “somewhere.” Those are the realities of the traditional publishing game.

With electronic publishing, some of this may change. The lines are blurring. People searching for your book on Amazon will look up Fantasy or Romance or History. If they frequently purchase Romance novels, algorithms will recommend more Romance novels. 

E-Books and online bookstores have the advantage of adding “tags” to describe your book that step outside the rigid framework of genre. A Romance set in Scotland might be recommended to someone who buys a different book that is set in Scotland or is about Scotland. With E-publishing you can sometimes choose more than one BISAC code, the numeric code that tells librarians and book stores what category your book fits into.

As of this writing, the lines are still pretty firmly drawn in traditional publishing. If your book bucks all trends, be prepared to publish it yourself, because getting past the query stage will be very difficult, if not impossible. Agents and editors are overworked and underpaid and only have so many hours in the day. 
They may truly love a story but not be able to place it.

The book market is a fey and fickle gorgon. She accepts inferior offerings and turns a cold shoulder to superior offerings. There is no predicting what she will devour on a particular day. She isn’t fair and she isn’t just. She simply is the beast that she is. It can be disheartening. 

In the end it comes down to what you wish to achieve, whether you wish to write the best book you can write or whether you attempt to placate an inconsistent, ungrateful gorgon. If you wish to produce the best work you are capable of, the Story Building Block method can help you achieve that. It won’t necessarily help you feed the gorgon.

For the next few months we will be exploring the different genres and subgenres and how you can use the Story Building Blocks to craft them.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Toxic Messages in Fiction Part 2

Last week, we began an exploration of some of the toxic messages buried in fiction and other forms of entertainment. Once you recognize them, they are easier to avoid. To reinforce, I am not saying you cannot portray severely damaged characters, but that you are responsible for how you slant the portrayal.

#7 Happily Ever After

The Romance camera stops rolling when the lovers make a commitment to a relationship. However, a relationship is like a bank account. It takes five deposits for every withdrawal, meaning the ratio of positive moments has to outnumber the negative ones by a wide margin. 

Which is why I have a problem with a partner who treats the other badly (whatever the particular reason cited by the plot) and with the turn of a page in the fourth act, all is forgiven. There needs to be an apology and amends made before the healing can begin. The partner needs to change his or her behavior and regain trust and that doesn't happen overnight. I am not saying there shouldn't be conflict or misunderstandings, but that outright pathological behavior should not be easily forgiven and forgotten.

Love is a very different animal from lust. A healthy relationship involves trust, shared values and goals, mutual respect, financial equality regardless of who earns more, and a desire to meet each other’s romantic and sexual needs. It takes healthy communication and healthy boundaries. 
It is damned hard work.

This is why I prefer literary stories that explore the messiness and difficulty in achieving a healthy relationship over the rose-colored romance genre. Coming together is easy. Staying together is the real challenge.

#8 Desirable Bachelor Versus Spinster

I call this the George Clooney Syndrome. Men who choose not to marry are considered a challenge to single ladies: the white lion to be hunted and tamed. All it takes is the “right” woman to win him. Women who choose not to marry are considered spinsters, losers in the game of love to be pitied and banished to a house full of cats. This is a sexist double standard. 

We need to be solid alone before we can be with someone else. People with an inadequate sense of self, who feel they must have someone else complete them and create their happiness have serious work to do. Being single and on your own is a viable option as well.

#9 The Irresistible Bad Boy/Girl

He’s cheeky, a little devious, but clever, and oh so handsome that you forgive his naughty ways. This makes me physically nauseated. In real life, men or women with poor boundaries and toxic behavior should be avoided.

Women in particular are led to believe they can cure the bad boy. They just have to be loyal, love him long enough, and turn themselves into pleasing pretzels to curb their lover’s behavior.

The sad truth is, guys are just as at risk from bad girls. They are also told it is okay to put up with a raving witch, even a physically and emotionally abusive one. He is supposed to be the hero after all.

Bad boys/girls do not make good romantic partners. They are often low-level narcissists or sociopaths. They are guilty of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse.

Too many stories subtly make excuses for abusive acts that should never be tolerated. If they are engaged in criminal behavior, they will drag their partner down with them. If they are addicts, their behavior and associates can be dangerous.

Fiscal and emotional infidelity are not acceptable either.

I am not saying a flawed character cannot be rehabilitated, or even that love cannot inspire them to do it. Just that it is important to differentiate those doing the work to reclaim their lives from those that aren't.

Toxic relationships are not fun little strolls on the wild side that will immediately change once you "put a ring on it."

#10 The Lost/Broken One

This is the flip side of the Bad Boy meme. The heroic girl or the noble guy rescues the broken one. All it takes is their love to heal them and return them to emotional health. 

Seriously broken people need to fix themselves before they are ready for a relationship. They may be victims of abuse who in turn become an abuser. 

They need professional help and should do the work before embarking on a relationship.  If that happens and they come back repaired, then a relationship might be possible. You could even be their friend while they to do the work.

I'm not saying characters should be perfect people. No one is perfect. No one is without baggage. Flaws make your characters three dimensional. I'm saying the pathologically flawed should not be normalized.

Relationships, especially marriage, should not be a major renovation project. If a person is toxic, they will not absorb the love. They will use it against you.

#11 Normalizing Abuse

Signs of a toxic relationship that are used for romantic conflict and subtly promote abusive behavior include: 

~The emotional roller coaster, blowing hot and cold, and constant conflicts that leave you uncertain about the relationship.

~ Extreme moodiness and pushing the partner away then drawing them back in.

~Isolation from friends and family for your own good or their safety.

~Jealousy over relationships with others.

~ Arguments that escalate quickly. Put downs, name calling, and screaming are verbal abuse.

~ Justifying constant criticism with, "I'm sorry but you know it's true." or "I am telling you this for your own good." 

~ Justifying affairs or liaisons with someone else or waiting around for them to “end it” with someone else.

~ Flirting with other people as a “joke” or to make their partner jealous

~ Humiliating or embarrassing each other in public.

~ Accepting a position of ”superior” or “inferior."

~ Feeling responsible for a partner’s emotional state or walking on eggshells around them.

~ Trapped by circumstances to stay in the relationship or enduring an abusive relationship because of the belief that it will end happily ever after.

~ Feeling like they are the problem or need to change to make things better.

~ Controlling behavior (it’s for your own good).

~ Saying things like: you’ll never do better than me or I'll die without you. 

#12 Love hurts

Not true. Love should be comforting. You can ache with longing for someone. In fact, longing is the key emotion that your readers resonate with. Your lovers can feel hope or anxiety about the success of a relationship. They will have conflicts. But if they are experiencing soul crushing pain, that is a symptom that something is really wrong – with them. If they need a relationship so bad that to not have it means emotional death, they have some work to do. It comes back to characters should be perfectly fine on their own. The relationship should augment not “complete” them.

In a world rife with dysfunction, it has never been more important to portray good characters and healthy choices. It is time to offer role models that inspire readers to be the hero in their own life.

To conclude, just because these memes are prevalent throughout the fiction world doesn’t mean we have to keep perpetuating them. We can change perception one plot, one book, and one screenplay at a time.

For more about how to craft characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book and Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, available in paperback and E-book.

Toxic Messages in Fiction Part 1 of 2

There are unhealthy subliminal messages contained within all genres of stories that make me cringe. Some dysfunction is necessary to make characters interesting. It is the pathologically dysfunctional memes, or mental viruses, I have a problem with.

I know this post will be greeted with resistance.

"But, this is real life!"

"Healthy people are boring." 

"But, that takes all the fun out of fiction!"

"Fiction mirrors real life and healthy people aren't real life."

"Bad characters are more fun. They are popular: Bad Santa, Bad Mothers, Bad Teachers, Girls Gone Wild, Bad Boys Bad Boys Whatcha gonna do?"

I get that.

Tweet this:  There is no fiction without friction, but friction can be created by flaws rather than outright pathology.

You can create tension and momentum in a plot without utilizing the dysfunctional cast of a reality television show as protagonists.

Writers not only reflect but shape reality through storytelling. We can present something as being true without suggesting that it is desirable. This is the key: the message you embed in the situation by your plot choices.

To reinforce, I am not saying you cannot portray severely damaged characters, but that you are responsible for how you slant the portrayal.

It is worth dragging a few idea viruses into the limelight to create awareness.

#1 I'm Not Worthy

The fact that low self-esteem is rampant among teens, young adults, even the middle-aged is a sad reality. Mirroring that, I’ve been told, is realistic and what appeals to readers. It may be true, but that doesn’t mean it should be.

What if we designed characters with healthy self-esteem? I don’t mean flawless individuals, but those with a base level of “I am a worthy person and anyone I let into my life should be equally worthy.”

I'd much prefer a hero or heroine who meets someone and wonders, "What do they have to offer me?" or "Why should I invest my valuable time and energy into a relationship with this person?"

#2 The Hotness Scale

Nowhere is physical perfection more lauded than in the Romance genre. Either one partner is seriously hot and the other isn’t as attractive, therefore less worthy of regard, or both are so super-hot they would naturally end up together. It is time for us to move past anatomical attributes in weighing attractiveness.

Young girls have been hysterically drooling over "hot" guys since before Beatlemania and Elvis induced fainting fits. Boys are always depicted as lusting after the Marilyn Monroes of the world.

As Carrie Fisher stated recently before she died, “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments. My body is my brain bag. It hauls me around to those places and in front of faces where there’s something to say or see.”

There is too much focus on physical attractiveness and not enough on attractiveness of character. Physical attraction is amazingly powerful, but all people feel passion no matter how they physically appear to other people.

Love isn’t just for pretty people.

#3 Partnering as the Ultimate Life Goal

This is my biggest problem with the Romance genre, particularly targeted at young people. Just because hormones kick in and teens are plagued with passionate angst doesn’t mean we should encourage it to the degree that we do. We groom children from an early age to focus on romantic relationships. We think it is cute when toddlers kiss and start calling them "girlfriend and boyfriend" long before they are old enough to know what that really means. We push it with Valentine exchanges and school dances. Books and movies geared toward teens perpetuate the notion that teen love is forever love. 

Perhaps we should do a little less pairing and little more preparing.

It is difficult to fight hormones when they kick in, but framing them in the right perspective might mean less interest in hookups before they are ready to assume the consequences. Teaching them they need to become the best version of themselves before they take on a partner could lead to healthier relationships.

If we tone down the romance aspect, they might be able to view each other as individuals rather than objects of desire. Imagine a world in which we put self-actualization above the need to find our forever love so that when we do find a partner, both of us are balanced individuals before we begin the confluence of lives.

Not everyone needs or wants a lifetime romantic partnership, marriage, or children and that should be viewed as a viable option, not a symptom of psychopathy.

#4 Stranger Danger

You should not let a stranger enter your house or car, much less your body. Lust overriding common sense is another mind virus that desperately needs a cure. The hook up culture started long before I was born, but has become the new normal. Many stories (not to mention reality TV) are guilty of romanticizing it. Forget the morality/religious debate and look at it from a common sense standpoint. Random hookups are not sound choices physically or psychologically.

You shouldn’t give strangers intimate access to your home, work, finances, friends, pets, or family, until you are reasonably certain they are safe. In real life, jumping into bed with someone you don’t know turns into a murder mystery or woman/man in peril story far more often than a love story.

You leave a little DNA with every partner you mingle with. Let that sink in. Your body is a vulnerable biologic entity. You should vet anyone before you give them access that can permanently affect your health.

With random hookups, you don’t know the character or intent of the person you hook up with, much less the criminal record or STD history. Just because you can, does not mean you should.

#5 Opposites Attract

Opposites may very well attract, at first. You may feel lust initially, but the day to day clashes will get old fast. When a partner is your diametric opposite in every way, there isn't enough common ground to base a long-term relationship on. Total opposite personality pairings result in a contentious battlefield rather than a safe space.

Some personality differences can result in a positive, symbiotic relationship. Differing traits can make up for each other’s weaknesses and encourage personal growth, but you need some commonality to make the bond strong.

Shared values, goals, and interests make strong partnerships.

#6 Love Triangles

Life presenting you with two viable candidates at the same time rarely occurs. Unhappy and unfulfilling relationships occur far too often. Looking outside your relationship for a solution never leads to anything good.

There are many types of relationships that have unique boundaries. I'm not weighing in on the advisability of polyamory or polygamy in this post. Normally, I say whatever floats your boat so long as you are all consenting adults, it is not driven by a cult, and no one is being harmed by the situation. There have been many different rules governing societies throughout history. I'm not saying you need to revise history when writing historical novels.

I’ve lived long enough to know that you can love different people along the way for different reasons. Not all relationships last and you may have many different types of relationships before you die.

There are no barriers to liaisons these days, even if one partner is supposedly in a relationship (legal or otherwise) with another person. There are always justifications cited for the choice to pursue someone other than the one they are with.

In reality, a relationship built on betrayal of someone’s trust is 99.9 percent likely to end the same way. If a person is willing to burn someone to start a relationship with you or targets you knowing you are with someone else, their boundaries are off. If you buy into it, your boundaries are off.

The, “Wait for me, I really need to break things off but can’t” excuse means the person has poor boundaries and a lack of integrity.

That’s not to say a character can’t be attracted to two different people for different reasons. There are legitimate situations where a character can choose between various options or even wonder if they made the right choices in life. They could even be tempted by an old love. But they need to gain clarity before they take action and resolve the old before investigating the new. How you portray their thinking and actions and consequences matter.

We can change the narrative so that it reflects healthy decision making rather than justifying betrayal. It is healthier to end one relationship before starting another. Betrayal and fuzzy boundaries should be deal breakers.

Tune in next week for part two of toxic messages in fiction.

For more about how to craft characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book and Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, available in paperback and E-book.