Do You Know What Your Story Is About? I Mean, REALLY About

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Thinking up a story idea is simple. You’re staring off into space, or maybe a bizarre lovers' scene plays out in front of you, when wham-o! Now you have the spark, a gem of shining brilliance, and you know exactly what you want to write about. It’s a sultry romance! No, it’s more of a Gothic romance… or really, it could be a time-traveling horror story. 

Holy bunches of plots, Writer! What’s your story? Really? 

I’ve been test-writing the Save the Cat! beat cards recently and in the midst of my outline and the beats, I started re-thinking my story genre (according to the Save the Cat!’s ten genres). More specifically, I began to think that what I’d originally assumed my story to be about (“Dude with a Problem”) wasn’t really what my story was about at all. (You can see what I finally figured out in “Save the Cat! Saves the Writing Day!” over on my personal blog.) 

But why does that matter? After all, it’s my story, I can write what I want. That’s what writers do, right?

Well, sort of. That is, we can write what we want, but we also make a promise of the premise and that includes our story genre; we make a bargain with our readers from page one. And though we can throw in plot twists and turns, red herrings and unreliable narrators, and yes, write whatever we want, there are certain expectations our readers will have, and we’d better deliver. 

So it actually does matter very much, this knowing what your story is about. There are elements you’ll need in a plot, depending on the genre. Doesn’t mean you have to write them the same way and that’s where the fun comes in. 

Horror novels, for example, often begin with a strong sense of foreboding, settings on the moors, or in secluded, broken-down inns, characters oozing evil, promises of something dark and sinister to come.

However, horror can also begin with sunshine and suburbs, as Stephen King has demonstrated. But King is a master at inserting nuances of horror, a moment just a tick off, in the midst of a seemingly ordinary day so that the reader knows. The reader knows something bad is coming

Now let’s say a writer has fifty pages of happy little puppies frolicking in a field, unicorns blowing rainbow bubbles out of their…er, horns…and then on page 51, out of the blue, a monster squashes all the puppies and kicks the unicorns to Christmas. Well, then, you’ve got some upset readers. And not just because of puppy-squashing. You’ve duped your readers, suddenly switching genres, and that’s not good. 

It’s not always that obvious, mucking about with a story genre. But still, one can write an entire novel, thinking it’s one thing (like a “Dude with a Problem”) when halfway through it’s something else (like “Monster in the House”). And when one is muddling about in the middle of a plot that’s not working, it could very well be that one has lost the way of the story. 

Which is why it’s a very good thing to know what your story is about from the beginning. There are lots of opinions on how many genres/plots there are, from five to twenty, and you can find plenty of crafting-your-story books to investigate the elements of each plot/genre. Or you can take a look at the Save the Cat! genres (my favorite!) with the added benefit of included examples and beat sheets. 

But wherever you look, I hope you’ll open your mind to the possibility that what you thought your story was about may not be what it’s about at all, and then see where it leads. Take a deep dive and think, think, think, maybe even stare into space a bit. Because it’s a lot simpler to figure out plotting ideas and story genres before you actually write the whole blamed book.


Sue Bradford Edwards said...

My experience wasn't a matter of trying on different genre to find the right fit. I think I was so close to the details that I simply could not find a fit. "There isn't a genre about THIS." I had to pull back and then I found it. But once I found it, my story started to change.

It is nteresting to see how each of us have worked with Save the Cat. At first it seems to rigit. "What do you mean I have to do it this way?" But each of us has found a slightly different fit. It is really very versatile.

Cathy C. Hall said...

I agree, Sue, that STC is versatile...and though I initially loved the beats and story genres, I still didn't like the idea of writing almost to a template, if that makes sense. And now, after umpteen revisions, I'm seeing the versatility and willing to get with the program. :-)

Renee Roberson said...

I have to admit the Save the Cat! method is helping to resuscitate several of my manuscripts that almost hit the mark . . . but not quite. You are right in that nailing down one, or even two story genres was helpful in pinpointing the heart of the story. Sometimes I had the guts of the story, but not the heart. I've been a stubborn pantser for so long but I think I've finally been converted to an outliner!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--I was just in a writing group last night, talking to a woman who has lots of manuscripts gathering dust. She has trouble with a plot. She has trouble with what is the heart of her story. You know good and well what I suggested she get...

... a copy of "Save the Cat." (Actually, I said I would get her a copy and send it to her, since she was there when I first began writing my book, and was one of my first critics, so I think I owe her. ;)

Jeanine DeHoney said...

This was a great article to make me think more about plotting Cathy, thanks.

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