The Four Types of Modern Stories

The other day, I was doing some research into story structure because I was (and still am) thinking about writing a post about the subject. In the course of this research, I came across an article from 2010 in Writer’s Digest, written by Orson Scott Card entitled “The 4 Story Structures Dominating the Modern Novel.”

Now, Orson Scott Card is a fantastic writer, probably a better writer than I will ever be, but his analysis in this article was less about structure—at least as I understand it—than about story archetype. He talked less about beginnings, middles, and rising action than about the subject and theme of the works.

There was a theory bouncing around for a while that said all fiction stories were variations of two basic stories: Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstock. While I think this is a gross oversimplification, I felt this was the direction Mr. Card’s article had taken. Not that it was bad, or untrue, just misleading. I thought it should be titled: “The 4 Story Types Dominating the Modern Novel.” He does do a good job of identifying four “types” of fiction novels. Despite not being quite the structural analysis I was looking for, Mr. Card’s analysis of type was still interesting.

Four “types” of Fiction Novels:

The Milieu Story

In this type, the writer’s focus rests squarely on the world in which the action occurs. While every story has a milieu, in these novels the environment is the primary aspect, more important than character development, or even plot.

These stories usually begin when the character arrives in the particular world and ends when he/she leaves it.

For example: Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia

The Idea Story

The purpose of this story type concentrates on discovering new information as seen through the eyes of characters driven to uncover the truth.

Mystery and detective fiction fit nicely into this category. And as in most mysteries, the novel begins with a crime and the question of who committed it and ends with the discovery of the criminal and his/her motive.

Much political fiction is also fiction of ideas. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is dedicated to asking the question “Does communism work?” and, in Orwell’s opinion, answering it.

The Character Story

These stories focus on transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to her. These are most often what are considered “literary” fiction, though that is only a general guideline.

Think of Practical Magic, which chronicles two sisters’ struggles to define and accept their roles in the family and The Secret History, which looks at the workings of a group of college friends through the eyes of a naïve young man. The events of the story cause him to drastically reassess his opinion of everyone involved.

These stories usually begin when the character decides to change his role in the community and ends when the character either settles into the new one, or retreats into the old.

The Event Story

In the event story, something is wrong in the fabric of the universe. The world is in disarray and the main character is called upon to restore order. Almost all fantasy fiction and horror falls into this category, as does much science fiction. But the event story is not limited to genre fiction. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is also an event story. (A king has been murdered by his brother. Something’s rotten in Denmark.)

These stories usually begin when the character is made aware of the problem and ends when the character either restores the old order, or ushers in a new order.

Think Lord of the Rings, Dune, Stephen King’s It.

Personally, most of my work falls under the “story of ideas” category, probably because of my long love affair with mystery and horror fiction. Of course, almost no writing is exclusively one category over another. Often, it is merely a recognition of what the writer feels is most important. The story revolves around a murder investigation, but the author is more interested in the psychological stress on the detectives than the mystery itself has the trapping of a story of ideas, but is actually a character story. Tana French’s In the Woods is a good example.

So where does your writing fall? Have you even thought about it?

Let me know in the comments.

writing, Writing advice

Why I Write What I Do

At a reading I gave a couple of weeks ago, one of the questions I fielded from the audience had to do with why I’d chosen to write genre rather than literary fiction. It’s a fairly common question, especially among university educated, literary types. Sometimes there’s a bit of snobbery involved, similar to that a jazz musician might feel when speaking to a pop star, but I didn’t feel it this time. This time it was about genuine curiosity.

Why do I write suspense fiction (ranging from horror to crime) rather than more literary fiction?

The answer is somewhat complicated.

First, suspense fiction is not the only thing I write. It is the only genre I write novels in, but I do write short fiction of a more “literary” nature. I even write some poetry and essays (like this one).

However, most of my time and effort goes into writing fiction in the broad style of suspense fiction. Why? Well, primarily, suspense fiction is the type of novel I prefer to read. I will and do read just about anything (except Harlequin Romances, sorry) but my favorites are in the suspense spectrum, from the horror of Stephen King and Peter Straub to the thrillers of David Baldacci and John Sandford to the noir detective works of Dennis Lehane and Greg Iles.

This is the genre I know the best. I write what I know. I write suspense fiction.

But there is another story that explains how I chose the path I’m currently on. For once I too was a young college student, taking writing and literature classes and trying to write cutting edge, experimental fiction. I read Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. I tried to be symbolic.

Don’t ever try to be symbolic.

Then I read a detective novel by John D. McDonald, one of his Travis McGee novels. One of the characters in this novel (I have no idea which one anymore) was a young woman who painted abstracts. In one scene, she asked the detective what he thought of her work. Instead of an answer, he asked her to do him a favor. What? Take out a pencil, a piece of paper and draw that lamp. She made an effort, but couldn’t do it. He told her that before she attempted to experiment with her art, she needed to have mastered the basics.

That scene struck me and made me think. Before experimenting, one must have first mastered the basics. Well, what are the basics of writing fiction? In short, storytelling. Before I tried to push the edges of my art form, I needed to know and have mastered the basics of storytelling.

I’ve spent the next thirty-five years doing just that, learning the basics of storytelling. That means plot, characterization, dialogue, description, exposition, voice, and everything else it takes to tell a story. Now, I think I’m getting to the point where I can tell a pretty good story.

So am I going to start experimenting with my fiction? Perhaps. And perhaps I already have.

Writing and Editing

The Thing About Genres

I recently finished reading a novel by Tess Thompson, entitled Caramel and Magnolias. I met Ms. Thompson after taking a dialogue-writing workshop from her at a writer’s conference. I was impressed with Ms. Thompson, her advice, anecdotes, and general attitude toward the craft. So I thought I should read some of her work.

It was funny. When I asked her which novel I should read (she had seven published at the time in at least two series) she wasn’t sure which to recommend because she doesn’t write for a male audience. In short, she writes chick-lit.

I have always been of the mind that if a story is good and the author tells it well that it doesn’t matter what genre it is. (Though, to be honest, I do prefer some genres over others. Without some outside reason like many recommendations from trusted friends or a personal relationship with the author, I probably wouldn’t pick up a romance.) But hey, I read Love Story all on my own.

So I dove into Caramel and Magnolias, which is considered romantic suspense, and read it in something like three days. My impression? It was good. Not great, but an entertaining read. I never felt the need to skip over a passage; never wanted to just walk away. Her characters were rendered well enough that I cared about them and what happened to them. It was good.

But my strongest impression had to do with the manner in which she chose to write the story. In short, she chose this novel exactly opposite of how I would have written it.

Let me explain. There are four basic plots in the novel: one follows a detective’s investigation of a shady adoption agency; the second follows a young woman who has given up on love for ten years and whether she will allow it into her life again; the third involves the first woman’s best friend, who is in a loveless marriage and an unsuccessful quest for motherhood; the fourth involves a male bartender friend of the two women and his unrequited love for the married friend. All are interesting. All are very human.

The way Ms. Thompson chose to write the novel, the two love stories—the loveless woman and the detective, and the friend/mother and the bartender—were the primary plots, while the investigation was pretty much a minor subplot.

If I had written this novel, using the same basic plot elements, I would have concentrated mostly on the detective’s investigation, with his affair with the loveless woman as a major subplot. Everything else would have fallen back to minor subplots.

Now I’m not saying my way would be better, or worse. It would just be different. Ms. Thompson wrote the novel the way she did and it is romantic suspense. If I had written in the way I prefer, it would have been a detective novel, possibly a mystery.

The only real difference between the genres is in what the author chooses to emphasize.

To take it another step, add scenes showing the bad guy’s thoughts and motivations to my version of the novel could turn it from a detective novel into a thriller. Add a lot of gunplay, it becomes action/adventure.

My point here is to point out that the sole difference between many genres is simply a matter of what the author chooses to emphasize.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writing a Successful Sex Scene

Sooner or later, it seems, if you’re writing adult fiction in almost any genre, there will come a point where the story calls for a sex scene of some sort. If you’re writing something having to do with shades of various colors, that point will come quicker and more often. I have faced the dilemma myself with varying degrees of success.

Writing sex is some of the most difficult writing I’ve ever done. Sex is one those issues in Western culture in which there seems to be little middle ground, yet we’re so conflicted emotionally about it, we tie ourselves in intellectual knots. It’s dangerous. The mere mention of genitalia will lose you an entire segment of society. Describe it with vulgar, or street terms and many will walk away from your work without a second thought. Even if it is in character. Yet others will applaud you for your honest characterization.

What some will praise as “torrid” or “erotic,” others will condemn as “pornographic” and “obscene.” So tread carefully. Know your genre and know your audience. Certain genres simply will not tolerate graphic sex in any form. Some even frown on the mention of certain anatomical parts.

When you do decide that depiction of a sex act is appropriate for your story, you have to get down to the mechanics of writing a memorable scene. And that is difficult.

In my opinion, the biggest pitfall most writers face is the temptation to spend their time and energy on rendering the mechanics of the physical act. After all, it is a physical act, isn’t it? The problem with this is pretty much everyone over the age of twelve is familiar with how the process works. Showing the reader how it works again on the page of your short story or novel will risk appearing either monotonous or sophomoric. Neither of which (I assume) is the effect we’re shooting for.

The solution to this problem? A bicycle ride.

Yep. A bicycle ride.

Consider, if you will, your main character rides her bicycle the ten blocks from her home to work every day (she’s environmentally conscientious, or maybe just poor). Do you describe the mechanics of riding the bike? Do you show her pressing down on each pedal with her feet and legs to propel herself? Do you describe how she minutely adjusts her body weight to maintain balance? How she steers? Brakes? Shifts gears? Probably not. Your audience already knows how to operate a bicycle. Telling them again is wasting their time.

Unless something unusual were to happen (like having to dodge a car) your depiction of the bike ride would only have the barest details of the bicycle’s operation, just enough to occasionally remind the reader that your character is riding a bike. Instead, your scene would consist largely of how the character feels (is it sunny and warm, a pleasant ride, or cold and windy?), what she’s thinking about, what she sees and hears along her journey, how her body responds to the exercise.

Now if she takes the ride with her romantic partner, you would describe their relative positions as they ride, but still concentrate on the sights, feelings and desires of your character. Much of them would now just be related to her companion.

The same rules apply to writing sex. Concentrate less on the mechanics (unless something unusual happens like, say, falling out of bed) and more on the emotions involved. That will go a long way toward making it a successful scene. There’s an unwritten rule in horror fiction that says “do not describe the monster. The reader will imagine worse than you could possibly describe.” I’d posit the opposite for sex scenes. We, as writers cannot describe anything as beautiful and erotic as our readers can imagine, so maybe we shouldn’t do more than point them in the right direction. After all, the most important sexual organ in the human being is the imagination. Use that to make your scenes work for everyone.


Writing “Literary” vs “Genre” Fiction

I freely confess; I mostly write genre fiction.

There is a little confusion about the difference between “literary” or “serious” fiction and “genre” or commercial fiction. A good rule of thumb goes like this: serious fiction is all about the writing technique itself, while in genre or commercial fiction the plot or characters are the most important.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he tells an anecdote of his days in a college fiction writing class. In short, he’d written a story for the class, but received a failing grade from the instructor, who’d commented on the work that it was “pulp garbage.” (Well, Stephen King wrote it). When Mr. King argued on the merits of the writing, the instructor wouldn’t budge, declaring “this kind of pulp garbage has no place in this class.” Stephen subsequently sold the story to a magazine and brought the check in to show the instructor, who told him that it didn’t matter if he’d sold it for a million dollars, it was still pulp garbage.

I believe Mr. King stopped taking college-level writing classes after that.

He’d encountered literary snobbishness but was strong enough and confidant enough to walk away.

I encountered a similar mindset when I was young and taking the University writing classes. We were all reading and studying literature in our other classes. The unspoken rule was that we were learning to create literature. We were to be experimental, avant-garde. We were the new generation, training to advance the art form.

I bought into it too. I wanted to win the Nobel Prize. I wanted to be the new literary wunderkind.

Which is fine, in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with having a goal and as far as literary goals go, the Nobel Prize is about as good as it gets. The problem is in choosing the road you must travel to reach that goal.

See, the problem is that outside the ivy-covered walls of the University is a real world and the rules in the real world don’t always mirror the rules in the University. And one of the first rules you learn in the real world is that outside of the University communities, almost no one reads “literary” or “serious” fiction. Since no one reads it, almost no one will publish it.

For those who dreamed of making a living writing fiction, writing experimental fiction doesn’t seem the most favorable path. If you want to make money writing fiction, it’s going to have to be commercial. It’s going to have to be genre.

Another factor in my decision to concentrate my efforts on genre writing was (of all things) a passage in one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee detective novels. In this passage, Travis is talking with another character, an aspiring young artist. She asks him what he thinks of her work, an abstract expressionist painting. He looks it over, then asks her to do him a favor and sketch a nearby lamp. When she couldn’t do it, he advises her that before you can successfully experiment in your art form, you have to master the fundamentals.

That statement resonated for me. Before we can push the boundaries of our chosen art, we must master the fundamentals. In my mind, as a fiction writer, that means mastering plot, characterization, pace and all the other details of successful fiction.

And the final nail in the literary snobs’ metaphorical coffin is the realization that most of the literary greats we students were to emulate did not write their works thinking that people would consider them the height of literary art. Most wrote them hoping to entertain their readers, express themselves, and maybe make a buck (or farthing, drachma, whatever). Even Shakespeare, probably the paragon of English language literature, wrote his plays not so he’d be admired by future generations, but because he wanted to sell theater tickets right then. It was a business.

So the next time someone looks down their nose at me for writing commercial fiction, maybe I’ll hand them a pen and paper and ask them to describe a lamp.