Saturday, January 09, 2010

What KIND of story is it?

I’ve been teaching an online class since Jan. 1 and as always am finding it completely inspiring for ME – I love hearing other writers talk about their stories and characters and writing processes.

The discussion so far has also completely reinforced my belief that the best thing that you can do to help yourself with story structure is to look at and compare in depth 5-10 (ten being best!) stories – films, novels, and plays - that are structurally similar to yours.

The late and much-missed Blake Snyder said that all film stories break down into just ten patterns that he outlined in his Save The Cat! books. Dramatist Georges Polti claimed there are Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations and outlined those in his classic book.

I think those books on the subject are truly useful – as I say often, I think you should read everything. But I believe you also have to get much more specific than ten plots or even thirty-six.

(I also think it’s plainly lazy to use someone else’s analysis of a story pattern instead of identifying your own. Relying on anyone else’s analysis, and that for sure includes mine, is not going to make you the writer you want to be.)

For example, in the class that I’m teaching now, without giving details of anyone’s plots, there is a reluctant witness story, a wartime romance story, an ensemble mystery plot, a mentor plot, a heroine in disguise plot. And others.

Each of those stories has a story pattern that you could force into one of ten general overall patterns – I guess – but they also have unique qualities that would get lost in such a generalization. And all of those stories could also be categorized in OTHER ways besides “reluctant witness” or “hero in disguise”.

Harry Potter, for example, is what you could call a King Arthur story – the chosen one coming into his or her own (also see Star Wars, The Matrix…) but it is told as a traditional mystery, with clues and red herrings and the three kids playing detectives. It’s also got strong fairy tale elements. So if you’re writing a story that combines those three (and more) types of stories, looking at examples of ANY of those types of stories is going to help you structure and brainstorm your own story.

If you find you’re writing a “reluctant witness” story, whether it’s a detective story, a sci-fi setting, a period piece, or a romance, it’s extremely useful to look at other stories you like that fall into that “reluctant witness” category – like Witness, North By Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Conspiracy Theory, Someone To Watch Over Me.

If you’re writing a mentor plot, you could take a look at Silence of the Lambs, The Karate Kid, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, An Officer and a Gentleman, Dirty Dancing, all stories in completely different genres with strong mentor plot lines, with vastly different mentor types.

A Mysterious Stranger story has a very specific plotline, too: a “fixer” character comes into the life of a main character, or characters, and turns it upside down – for the good, and the main character, not the Mysterious Stranger, is the one with the character arc (look at Mary Poppins, Shane, Nanny McPhee, and Lee Child's Jack Reacher books).

A Cinderella story, well, where do you even start? Pretty Woman, Cinderella of course, Arthur, Rebecca, Suspicion, Maid to Order (I think that the one I mean), Slumdog Millionaire.

A deal with the devil story – The Firm, Silence of the Lambs, Damn Yankees, The Little Mermaid, Rosemary’s Baby, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Devil’s Advocate.

And you might violently disagree with some of my examples, or have a completely different designation for what kind of story some of the above are…

But that is EXACTLY my point. You have to create YOUR OWN definitions of types of stories, and find your own examples to help you learn what works in those stories. All of writing is about creating your own rules and believing in them.

So I guess that’s what I wanted to say today. Identifying genres is not enough. Identifying categories of stories is not enough. What’s the kind of story YOU’RE writing – by your own definition?

When you start to get specific about that, that’s when your writing starts to get truly interesting.

So what kind of story ARE you writing? Let's hear some, and brainstorm some great examples.

Happy New Year, everyone!


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

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G.R. Yeates said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
G.R. Yeates said...

At the moment, I'd say most of the manuscripts I've worked on have followed storylines that could be called a Descent into Hell, a Downward Spiral or a Man Alone.

Some of them have also had elements of the Deal with the Devil storyline involved and there is usually an Enigma at the heart of each one that is resolved/revealed during the final climax. The odd thing is I never intend to write a story with a twist when I sit down and start the work but they keep coming out that way.

If I was going to pick archetypal films that have inspired my approach to writing horror fiction, I'd probably go for Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder first. It features a number of the story elements I've mentioned above as well as a very sympathetic man alone as the protagonist and the enigma driving the narrative is not revealed until the very last reel.

A more recent example would be the first SAW film for having a narrative driven by an enigma as well as being a descent into hell for both protagonists, primarily Dr Lawrence. There’s also a deal with the devil element as well with regard to how Jigsaw manipulates his victims. Finally, that twist at the end was what got me interested in horror again right around the time I'd almost completely given up on the genre.

Two much earlier examples for me would The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu. Caligari being about the downward spiral of Francis. Nosferatu being about a deal with one of my favourite devils. I've always preferred vampires portrayed as cadaverous vermiform parasites which is why Max Shreck's interpretation of Dracula stands out for me.

I'll also slot in one of my favourites from the underground here - Lucio Fulci's The Beyond. It's a pretty crude descent into hell story in many ways but I love the music, the zombies and the attempt to reload a pistol by shoving bullets down the barrel! o_O

Lastly, I think I'll pick John Carpenter's The Thing as it portrays a descent into hell/downward spiral for all involved as no-one knows who to trust or believe, including the audience. It could even be looked at as a man alone story for every character in the film as they are each isolated from one another by the very nature of the threat. I might be extrapolating a little too much there though.

Whew! I need a lie down. That all made my brain work too hard for a Saturday evening.

Bobby Mangahas said...

Mary Poppins and Jack Reacher sharing a category. Who would have thought?

I would call my manuscript a desperation/deal with the devil story.

By the way, I just got the workbook from Amazon. Good stuff Alex.

Sarra Cannon said...

My current novel is a mix. It's a zombie apocalypse novel on the surface, but underneath it is also a journey story. I don't know what you would say the technical name of it is, but a major part of the structure revolves around the heroine meeting up with three other people on the way to get answers and/or find safety. They journey together (as in The Wizard of Oz). Of course, there is also a love story element.

I have been trying to think of good examples in film and literature so I can analyze them. This weekend, my husband and I watched all three Resident Evil movies, and that was a good start, but I'm also trying to find a good structural example of a group taking a journey together. Lord of the Rings would be an obvious choice, as well as the above mentioned Wizard of Oz, but I want more. Any suggestions?

Oh, and I also am writing it from the point of view of the main character in journal format. Also trying to think of books written in this format where a character starts from the end and most of the book is a flashback. I want to see if that has worked well for other authors and how they did it. And wondering if the flashback element or the journal element takes too much away from the intensity of ths story. If anyone has any suggestions or ideas, I'm all ears :). Thanks for another great post.

Gayle Carline said...

My mystery series (I'm working on book 2) is centered on a woman P.I., older but new to the business, whose curiosity and stubbornness overrule her common sense. As far as character, I'd describe her as Jessica Fletcher meets Murphy Brown. The plots run more like Sherlock Holmes meets I Love Lucy. Is that a category?

LeSan said...

Whew! This post is a relief to read. I was afraid to admit that I had story examples that appeared so oppososite they produced whiplash. I was sticking with them but I felt a little dirty about it. heheh. Thanks for the tip. It is very helpful and encouraging to understand that I am on the right track. example? The Shining and the Ten Commandments, Misery and Paper Moon, Godfather and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It just keeps going like that. I'm having my meds upped.

Sonja Foust said...

You helped me articulate why I picked The Little Mermaid to use for a time-travel Victorian steampunk: It's a fish out of water story. And The Little Mermaid is that, literally. :)

Anonymous said...


This is where you loose me slightly, but understanding would be a big step.

All your examples make sense, but my stories don't seem to follow others. Although I'm sure they do. I'm just not seeing the underlying.

The novel I'm working on now is (if I had to guess) a quest story. Character is surrounded by secrets, she discovers the truth, and must complete a task to save the world.

Okay, now I'm thinking of examples. Star Wars, Harry Potter. Although I feel my structure would be different from this. My story is in real world.

Can you think of any movie structures I could study that sound similar to my direction?

This did help. It got me thinking. I guess I need to find a list of movies and look through it and see if I can locate some that may have similarities.

ssas said...

My book is KINGDOM OF HEAVEN meets BOONDOCK SAINTS set in post apocalyptic Boulder, Colorado. I've yet to meet a book just like it, though THE CHANGE series by Stirling shares elements.

Good post.

Anonymous said...
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Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Descent into Hell and Downward Spiral... nothing revealing your genre there, Greg! ;)

I love those stories, too (haven't seen SAW, won't...)

I particularly love THE GODFATHER as a descent into hell story - because Michael is so seemingly on the ascent as he spirals downward, morally. I

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I have no doubt Mary Poppins and Reacher are old friends, RJ.

Thanks a million for picking up the workbook!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sweetie, THE STAND of course comes to mind as an apocalyptic journey story with an ensemble cast. Also CELL - not as good, of course, but King is always gripping.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, I think that Sherlock Holmes meets I Love Lucy has been a tad overdone.

Just kidding.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

LeSan, I have no idea what you might be writing, but with those examples, it's going to be an original!

Make your own rules.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sonja, I love the idea of The Little Mermaid in a Victorian steampunk setting. That's just great.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Cher, I need more details before I can give you examples - I don't have a clear idea of what you're writing.

Also, I hope no one was thinking that those five general types of stories I listed is anything like a complete list. Those are just five examples - only five - of types of stories that I'm seeing in my current class.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sex Scenes, it sounds like you have a good grasp on what your story is.

Remember, though, that describing your story as ----- meets ------ is NOT generally a good way to pitch a storyline. I have no idea what your story is about from that sentence. It's a lot better to take those two books and distill WHAT about them is similar to yours into a specific, detailed sentence about your own story.

I love the movie THE PLAYER, but oh, man, that "Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman" joke continues to do writers a lot of damage.

Anonymous said...


Basically the main character goes home to take care of her father, who claims to be ill, but it turns out that he's not and that he just wanted her home for reasons he saids can wait till later. She spends the story searching for the truth about what her father and an old classmate is up to. The story is full of dangers from spirits and the old classmate. As she discovers what's going on, she must face the unknown. There is a ticking clock as she nears the events that will bring an end to the world as we know it.

Is that enough info?

LeSan said...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...
LeSan, I have no idea what you might be writing, but with those examples, it's going to be an original!

Make your own rules.

And this is exactly why I am finding your lessons and guides on structure invaluable. That, and a big bottle of Advil.

Anonymous said...

I will not concur on it. I assume warm-hearted post. Expressly the title-deed attracted me to read the intact story.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Cher, I don't mean to sound dense, but I still don't have a good idea of what your story is about. The hardest thing for newer writers seems to be giving up this holding back about crucial plot details.

Wnat are the spirits? What are the secrets?
Why does the father want her home?
What are the father and the old classmate up to?
Why is the world going to end?

These are all things you have to be excruciatingly specific about when you're articulating your premise. It's as much a part of your job as a writer as writing the book.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

LeSan, I don't know whether to be flattered or appalled that this blog causes that kind of Advil use, but you know what I'm always saying - Whatever works.

Happy New Year.

Anonymous said...


Of course you don't sound dense, I am a new writer. I am also having trouble applying the eight sequence to my story. So if answering these questions will help you to steer me in the right direction I'm all for it.

Wnat are the spirits?
Spirits roam the earth waiting to pass over into the next realm. Good ones stay to help the living, while bad ones have to serve their time before passing over.

What are the secrets? The main character's father is in charge of the soul container.
Why does the father want her home?
The main character is needed for the final ritual.
What are the father and the old classmate up to?
The father must collect as many evil spirits within the container as he can before the end of the world. The classmate is helping him, but he has his own agenda.
Why is the world going to end?
The world ends because the realms collide. All realms become one. The purpose is to distroy the evil that has taken over the world's people.

This still may not be clear.

ssas said...

Yeah, Alexandra, I know. I've been around the block just enough times to know that. I actually hate those phrases because half the time I've never seen the movie or read the book!

I was amused at myself, though, that for the first time I could label one of my books that way. Heh.


Harvey Stanbrough said...

Hi Alex,

Great post, and a great blog that I didn't even know was here. I'll add it to my blogroll at


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