I’ve been listening to The Story Grid with Tim Grahl and Shawn Coyne. It’s a writing podcast which pairs up the flailing new writer with an experienced editor and they talk about all things story related. Shawn relies heavily on Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and Robert McKee’s Story, so if you’ve studied either of them, you’ll find much of Shawn’s work familiar.

One of the first things that struck me was how Shawn categorizes the different genres, but the more I dug into them, it made sense. I write Fantasy and Science Fiction. Sometimes I veer into the creepy, the edge of horror. And Amazon lists those as genres, as do bookstores. But Shawn suggests genre is more complex and divides it into a five-leaf clover. The categories he breaks down are Time (think short story or novel), Reality (real versus fantastical), Style (musical versus documentary, for example), Structure (archplot versus miniplot, for example), and Content. Science Fiction and Fantasy are included in the Reality leaf. Action, Drama, Love Story, Horror, and what we tend to think of when we hear the word genre fall under the Content leaf. Dystopian, space opera, cyberpunk, these weren’t included. Each story has a classification from each clover leaf. An example he gives is: Moby Dick is a Realistic, Long form, Arch-plot, Action Adventure, Monster Drama.

This complex clover made me think about stories differently. I write Science Fiction or Fantasy, but which type of universal story am I trying to tell? At its core, is my story an action story? Or a Thriller? What’s the difference? And why is it important? They talk about this in the early episodes of their podcast, and you can find more information in the book.

Shawn also goes on to suggest analyzing five books that are similar to the type of story you are trying to write to identify common scenes, and then challenge yourself to create fresh spins on those scenes. In other words, deconstruct a novel not for the specific content or setting, but the scenes. Hero is set up. Hero becomes victim. That sort of thing. Each story has different scenes. A horror story has different scenes than an action story.

I decided to take the challenge. I’m currently fleshing out scenes for a sci-fi story I’m hoping to start work on after I finish the sequel to Ashborne. I have vague ideas, nothing more. I know my female protagonist will help someone. Hide him from various groups of people who are searching for him. Rich, bizarre details in a dark urban setting. Near future. I’ll have augmentation. Some biopunk. The trick now is to find five sci-fi novels that are similar, not just in setting, but in story.

I’ve decided it falls under action or thriller (from what I can gather, thriller seems to be crime smashed with action and/or horror) and it will not take place on a large-scale space theater. So I’m not looking for Clarke or Alistair Reynolds books. Actually, the best example I can come up with is The Fifth Element, which is a movie (although some question the inspiration for the screenplay). It’s not the same story, but it does have a similar overall arc. I thought about Judge Dredd for setting, but Judge Dredd is strictly a crime story and would have different scenes.

After a little research, and mostly suggestions from other science fiction fans, I’ve come up with the following possible novels to study for an action/thriller story arc:

  1. Perdido Street Station, China Mieville
  2. Neuromancer, William Gibson
  3. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

I haven’t read these, so I don’t know if they are action or thriller stories, but I guess I’ll find out since I plan to take them apart over the summer =). I also need two more, which means I need your help. If you have any suggestions, please share!

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