Tag Archives: story design

Understanding Genre

Genre

Genre

Genre is a paradigm of shared characteristics conspiring to create a pliable mould that informs the work being poured into it. For a writer, it is a recipe for creating a story based on commonalities. I say commonalities, because stories within a certain genre, say, the Western, contain a number of shared elements, such as characters packing six-guns, riding horses, and drinking in saloons. Location, dress, props, and time period are important indicators of genre. Science fiction stories, for example might entail the use of non-existing gadgets, exotic creatures in equally exotic apparel, and perhaps other worldly locations, or at least, transformed or foreign spaces. I say ‘might’ and ‘pliable’, because none of these characteristics are set in stone. In the Science Fiction Western, Cowboys and Aliens, for example, alien spaceships and cowboys are juxtaposed unexpectedly, dispensing with a typical requirement for a futuristic time-line.

Genres Evolve

The evolution of genre, much like genetic evolution, involves successful stories passing on their genetic code – their characteristics, to future generations. But because there is a requirement of novelty or originality, the code is never exactly the same, but contains new inflections, which, if successful, are added to the existing genre and passed on to the next iteration. We see this evolution in the Western Hero, for example, where the protagonist of old, played by the likes of John Wayne, goes from being a tough but straight-laced man representing conservative values, to the ambivalent and racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, and finally, to the unequivocal anti-hero of Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven – a man with a violent past, a killer of women and children, who, nonetheless, expresses love for his dead wife, and whom we root for by the end of the film.

Mixing Genres

Things become at once more exciting and complicated when we mix Genres. Certain mixtures are common – Action/Comedy films such as Bad Boys, or Crime/Love Stories such as Out of Sight. Some mixtures are even more exotic, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show – a Musical/Comedy/Horror/Science Fiction/Love Story that was concocted decades ago, yet still remains fresh.

The purpose of genre, then, is to guide the expectations of audiences and readers, as much as writers, by referencing past stories of similar ilk. Genre helps audiences and readers choose a story as much as it helps inform the story itself. Good stories inject new and unexpected elements, which help to keep the material fresh.

Summary

Genres are a groups of shared characteristics that survive form story to story – albeit with new elements and variations that are intended to keep the material fresh. Genres not only assist the reader or audience in selecting which stories to consume, they also provide the writer with a blue-print to emulate, extend, and adapt.

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How to Create Dramatic Conflict in Your Stories

Conflict is the driving force behind every story. It supports narrative causality and provides the juice of the tale. Conflict derives from forces that oppose each other and operates on multiple levels. There are three main types of conflict: external, internal, and internal/external.

Understanding Conflict Types

External conflict is typically represented through protagonist/antagonist interaction, but it can also take the form of environmental opposition such as a threat presented by a volcano, or a cyclone.

Internal conflict pits the protagonist against himself, in effect, turning him into the story’s antagonist — as in Fight Club (conflict between the character’s wishes, goals and desires, and between defining traits).

Internal/external conflict is the most common form. Here the protagonist is confronted by a mixture of inner and outer obstacles.

The Matrix

The film The Matrix is a good example of how conflict is distributed amongst the three types. At an internal level, the protagonist, Neo (Keanu Reeves), experiences tension between his belief that his current existence is real, and his growing conviction that the world as he knows it is an illusion. It is only when he comes to accept he is “The One” that he is able to resolve this conflict and defeat the antagonist, agent Smith. His inner journey, therefore, is to accept the truth by choosing to believe. By contrast, Neo’s fight with Smith and the machines represents the story’s external conflict. Although this conflict is ostensibly inside the matrix, it does spill over into the real world, with real world consequences. Lastly, the internal/external conflict is a combination of the aforementioned.

At each stage of the journey, the two conflicting strands impede and deflect each other in a causal way, until the resolution. In The Matrix, Neo’s inner struggle to believe interacts with his outer struggle to defeat agent Smith, creating the internal/external conflict through-line. It is only when he syncs up his inner and outer life that he is able to achieve success. This through-line is the chief driver of the story.

In Summary

Conflict is the fuel that powers your story. There are three main types of conflict: external, internal, and internal/external. The last combines the inner and outer journey of the protagonist and constitutes the most important through-line of your story.

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