What KIND of story is it?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

When I teach story structure – especially when I have to teach it in a short workshop – I will of course hit the highlights of the Three-Act structure, and the Three-Act, Eight Sequence structure,  but I also try to get across to students that the BEST thing that you can do to help yourself with story structure is to make a list of and compare in depth 5-10 (ten being best!) stories – films, novels, and plays – that are structurally similar to yours.

Because different kinds of stories have different and very specific structural elements.  And the kind of story is is is not the same thing as the genre.

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 a workshop I taught recently, without giving details of anyone’s plots, there was 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.

I am currently writing an outline of a Chosen One story, and am looking closely at the Harry Potter series and The Matrix. (I am also having to do the kind of world building that those two fantasies do so brilliantly.) But as always I have strong fairy tale elements in the story, and the structure is completely a mentor plot, so once again, Silence of the Lambs is high on my list, and I’m thinking I need to rewatch Dead Poets Society. It also is intricately involved with betrayal, so I am trying to find great examples of films and books with a major betrayal by the hero/ine’s loved one or trusted friend, which at some point turns the main character’s whole perception of reality around (I have not found much I’m satisfied with, either, so if you know of any… I have Vertigo, Rosemary’s Baby, The Fugitive, Marathon Man…)

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.

Inception might be a movie about dreams, but Christopher Nolan used the structure of a caper plot (or a reverse heist)  to tell this story, and all the conventions of that genre are used and laid out very – conventionally.  You’ll see the exact same structure and conventions in Armageddon, Ocean’s Eleven, Swordfish, and Topkapi.

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 this is what I’m trying to say today. Identifying genres is not enough. Identifying categories of stories is not enough. Knowing how general story structure works 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. And when you look at great examples of the type of story you’re writing, you’ll find yourself coming up with your own, specific story elements checklist, that goes much farther than a general story elements checklist ever could.

So what kind of story ARE you writing?  And oh yes – if anyone can point me toward some great betrayal plots, I’d be most grateful!

– Alex

Related posts:

What is genre?

What’s your premise?

What is High Concept?

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

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