Chapter 6

Building Genres

Previously, we have seen that the characteristics, which build the Overall Story Characters, reside at the Element level of the Thematic Structure. Theme itself emanates most strongly from the Variation level. Plot is formed in the Types. It should not be a surprise to find that Genre is most influenced at the Class level. In fact, matching a point of view to a Class creates a story’s Throughlines, and it is these Throughlines that have the greatest structural impact on Genre.

As one moves up the Dramatica structure, looking from Character to Theme to Plot, the structural components (the Elements, Variations, and Types) take on a decreasing significance to the finished work compared with the storytelling aspects involved. Overall Story Characters are easy to define solely in terms of their Elemental dramatic functions. Theme is a bit less tied to the structure as it explores the comparison between dramatic Variations whose balance must be established by the author through storytelling. Plot can be looked at rather precisely in terms of Acts, but is less so when it comes to thematic Sequences. At the Scene resolution of Plot a large part of what goes on is storytelling. At Event resolution, deciding exactly what events ought to occur is almost exclusively storytelling, with the events falling into four broad structural categories.

Following this progression, Genre, which centers on the Class level just above where we find Plot, is the least structural of story qualities. Genre is also the most influenced by storytelling.

In a casual sampling of traditional Genres, we immediately notice that Genre sometimes refers to the setting of a story, as in Westerns or Science Fiction. Other times, it describes the relationships between characters such as Love Stories and Buddy Pictures. Genre might refer to the feeling an audience gets from a story as in Comedy and Horror Stories. Even styles of storytelling can have their own Genres like Musicals or Character Studies.

With all these different duties performed by the word Genre, how can we hope to define it? Video rental stores try to do it. All the old standards are there dividing the movies on their shelves: Action, Drama, Children’s. This is fine for picking out what you want to watch some evening, but not much help to authors trying to create stories of their own.

Producer: Write me a war story!”

Writer: O.K. What do you want, something like M.A.S.H. or Platoon or The Great Escape?”

Traditional Genre categories are only useful for grouping finished works. The overall feel of a story is created from a blending of many different components that have an impact on the audience. These range from the underlying dramatic structure (storyform) through the subject matter (encoding) and style (weaving) to audience expectations (reception).

The traditional concept of Genre is most useful to writers by keeping them mindful of the flavor” of their story, no matter if they are working on character, plot, or theme. Genre would be a lot more useful if it was clearly definable. This is where Dramatica can help.

Dramatica intends to help writers build the deep structure that underlies their stories. This framework functions as the dramatic skeleton on which we build the specifics of a story. Story encoding then places muscle on the skeleton, Story weaving clothes the creation, and Reception affects how the audience might react to such a thing.

When considering Genre from an author’s point of view—rather than the traditional audience point of view—the most critical facet will be structural. That is where we lay the foundation on which we build the storytelling. The first step of seeing Genre this way is to look at the four Classes. These four Classes suggest the nature of the subject matter covered in a story’s Genre. To recap, the four Classes are:

  • Situation—an external state; commonly seen as a situation.
  • Activity—an external process; commonly seen as an activity.
  • Fixed Attitude—an internal state, commonly seen as a fixed attitude or bias.
  • Manipulation—an internal process; commonly seen as a manner of thinking or manipulation.

Modes of Expression

Next, we want to consider a new idea: Four modes of expression through which we present the story’s structure to an audience. The four modes of expression are:

  • Information—educational tone which focuses the audience on knowledge.
  • Drama—serious tone which focuses the audience on thought.
  • Comedy—humorous tone which focuses the audience on ability.
  • Entertainment—diverting tone which focuses the audience on desire.

The Dramatica Classes describe what the audience sees. The modes describe the light in which they see them. When we match the two categories, we begin to control the feel our story produces within the audience.

This is analogous to the manner in which we create Throughlines by attaching a point of view to a Class. Throughlines are part of the Story Mind itself and represent how a mind shifts its perspective to consider all sides of an issue. Genres, while also creating perspectives, do so outside the Story Mind and represent the four different ways an audience can look at the Story Mind as a finished work they are receiving.

The following Grid of Dramatica Genres,” shows the four Dramatica Classes along one axis, and the four modes of expression along the other.

Grid of Dramatica Genres

  • Where/What it is—(Information/Situation)—an examination of events and situations with an emphasis on the past, present, progress, and future state of things” (for example Documentary, Historical and Period Pieces).

  • How it works—(Information/Activity)—an examination of how specific processes work with an emphasis on instruction (for example Educational, Informational, Instructional).

  • What it means—(Information/Fixed Attitude)—an examination of opinions and points of view with an emphasis on the context in which they are made (for example Inspirational, Motivational).

  • Why it’s important—(Information/Manipulation)—an examination of value systems with an emphasis on providing context relevant to the audience’s personal life (for example Persuasion, Propaganda).

  • Exploration Drama—(Drama/Situation)—a serious exploration of how the state of things” is unbalanced (for example Courtroom, Crime, and Classroom dramas).

  • Action Drama—(Drama/Activity)—a serious take on how problems are created by continuing activities (for example Espionage and War dramas).

  • Bias Drama—(Drama/Fixed Attitude)—a serious take on what types of conflicts arise from incompatible attitudes (for example Obsession and Prejudice dramas).

  • Growth Drama—(Drama/Manipulation)—a serious take on the attempts to overcome difficulties resulting from manipulations or evolving identities (for example Coming of Age and Dysfunctional Family dramas).

  • Situation Comedy—(Comedy/Situation)—humor drawn from the difficulties created by placing characters in some predicament (for example TV Sitcoms).

  • Physical Comedy—(Comedy/Activity)—pratfalls, slapstick, and other forms of humor drawn from physical activities gone awry (for example The Three Stooges and much of Charlie Chaplin’s work)

  • Comedy of Manners—(Comedy/Fixed Attitude)—humor derived from divergent attitudes, biases, or fixations - often noted as drawing room comedies (for example Jack Benny or Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest).

  • Comedy of Errors—(Comedy/Manipulation)—humor derived from misinterpretation or, in psychological terms, attribution error (for example Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First and several Shakespeare comedies including Twelfth Night).

  • Entertainment through Atmosphere—(Entertainment/Situation)—entertainment derived from new, unique, or interesting settings or backgrounds (for example Disaster, Fantasy, Horror, Musical, and Science Fiction)

  • Entertainment through Thrills—(Entertainment/Activity)—entertainment derived from new, unique, or interesting activities/experiences — much like thrill rides at an amusement park (for example Action Adventure, Suspense)

  • Entertaining Concept—(Entertainment/Fixed Attitude)—entertainment derived from new, unique, or interesting ideas (for example High Concept piece)

  • Entertainment through Twists—(Entertainment/Manipulation)—entertainment derived from new, unique, or interesting forms of audience manipulation (for example Mysteries, Thrillers)

This grid illustrates how the mode of expression can change the impact a Class will have on an audience. If the Activity Class is expressed in terms of Information it would seem like a How to” story. If we choose Comedy as the mode of expression, however, the Activity Class looks more like a story involving physical humor or slapstick.”

The beauty of the grid is that it provides authors with a shopping list” of the kinds of impact they may wish to have on their audience. Take time to examine the table fully. Look at the brief explanation of each mode/Class combination. Unlike most of the previous information in this book, this table lends itself to an intuitive feel that ties in much more closely with the Art of Storytelling than with the Elements of Structure.

Taken together, Classes and modes of expression determine the feel of the subject matter in a story. Still, there is one aspect of Genre remaining: Positioning the audience in relationship to the subject matter. To do this, we can make use of the four Dramatica Throughlines. As a brief recap, they are:

  • Main Character Throughline—the first person point of view (I) matched with a Class, this Throughline provides the audience with a down in the trenches,” personal view of the story.
  • Influence Character Throughline—the second person point of view (you) matched with a Class, this Throughline provides the audience with a what’s impacting me,” impersonal view of the story.
  • Relationship Story Throughline—the first person plural point of view (we) matched with a Class, this Throughline provides the audience with a what’s it like to be in this type of a relationship,” passionate view of the story.
  • Overall Story Throughline—the third person point of view (they) matched with a Class, this Throughline provides the audience with a big picture,” dispassionate view of the story.

By positioning the audience’s four points of view on the Class/modes of expression grid, we can accurately predict the feel our story will have.

Suppose we wanted to write a Comedy with the Overall Story Throughline of Situation and the Main Character Throughline of Activity. We could assign all the Throughlines to the grid in the Comedy mode of expression like above.

If we were good storytellers, all four throughlines would have a consistently humorous (comedic) feel to them. The Overall Story would be a situation comedy; the Main Character would be a physically goofy or funny person (e.g. Stanley Ipkiss in The Mask). The Influence Character might be someone constantly mistaken for someone else or mistaking the Main Character for someone else. The Relationship Story relationship between the Main and Influence Characters would be conflicting over silly or exaggerated differences of opinion.

Though a story like this covers all the storyforming bases, its single mode of expression lacks the emotional depth that comes from variety. This monotone form of storytelling is fine (and often preferable) for some forms of storytelling. Many audiences, however, prefer to have greater variety of expression in their stories. As it stands, this example story lacks any educational intent (Information), any sense of seriousness (Drama), and any pure diversions (Entertainment).

How does one diversify? Assign each Throughline to a different mode of expression.

A story of such a completely mixed arrangement has no single, overriding feel to it. What it gives up in consistency, however, it gains in variety.

The Overall Story (Situation/Entertainment) set in some unique or viscerally intriguing setting (perhaps a Western, the distant future, or the dark side of the moon) in which something is amiss. In this setting we find our Main Character (Activity/Comedy), perhaps clumsy (for example Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther), or excessively active like Ace Ventura. Providing a contrast to the humorous nature of the Main Character is the serious impact of Influence Character’s manipulations (Manipulation/Drama). Finally, we add the Relationship Story relationship (Fixed Attitude/Information) as it describes how the Main and Influence Characters’ fixed attitudes conflict over what it all means.”

This is the heart of Dramatica’s approach to Genre. At its most basic level it is a choice between four modes of expression. At its most exciting and elegant, it concerns the sophisticated relationship and dynamics created when we bring together the four modes of expression, the four structural Classes, and the four Throughlines. The Class/modes of expressions grid allows authors to select Throughlines using their feelings and intuition. By carefully setting these Dramatica relationships in a story, you can create a powerful Genre experience for your audience with exactly the impact you intended.

Finally, there is a greater depth to Dramatica theory that offers more information about what is really going on in Genre. It may be more than you need to consider for your style of writing and the kinds of stories you create. If you’d like to explore this final aspect of The Elements of Structure, read on.

The Class/modes of expression table we have been using makes it appear as if a throughline must remain in one mode for the full duration of a story. In fact, this is only the Static Story Points of Genre. In practice, the Genre of a story develops as the story unfolds. It may appear” to be simply a Drama as it begins. When it is over it will have defined exactly what kind of Drama it is.

Beginning as one among a broadly identifiable group of stories and ending where no other story has gone before, each story develops its own unique Genre. The manner by which this happens relates to the Progressive Story Points of Genre, which we will now explore.

First, once you assign a throughline to a Class, creating a Throughline, that particular combination remains for the entire story. Therefore, when we examine how the Mode/Class table is laid out, we can see that each Throughline will fall in a vertical column and stay there. We see the Progressive nature of Genre when each Throughline slides up and down its particular column so during the story it may touch on all four modes of expression. Each Throughline always in its same Class gives them consistency; the ability to shift modes of expression gives them versatility.

Just as with Progressive Plot story points there are limits to how a Throughline can move from one mode to another. Like the Acts in Plot, Throughlines must move through modes of expression in a particular order. The rule of thumb is that a Throughline cannot skip over a mode (according to the order used in the table) but must go through each mode of expression in between to get to the desired one.

This limit is real. Neither the human mind nor the Story Mind can shift mental gears from first gear to third gear without going through second gear. Modes of expression are largely emotional concerns. The human mind must be allowed to experience the transition from one emotional state to the next if it is to feel natural.

A good example of the awkwardness that results from ignoring this rule of thumb exists in the motion picture, Hudson Hawke, starring Bruce Willis. The filmmakers made a brave effort to break convention and have a serious heist thriller jumbled up with comedy and even song and dance numbers in the middle of a robbery! This might have worked, had the audience gone through the intermediate modes. Alas, such was not the case and therefore the story simply came out jumbled and impossible to get a grip on emotionally.

Please note that sometimes an author wants to shock an audience. This can be carried out in several ways, including breaking structure or skipping the transitional modes of expression. We explore these kinds of techniques fully in the Storyweaving section of The Art of Storytelling. For now, we’ll limit our discussion to what a consistent progression of Genre would be.

If you have closely examined the table, you may have wondered if the mode at the top (Information) could ever connect to the mode at the bottom (Entertainment) without having to go through both Drama and Comedy first. The answer to this question is, Yes.”

If you were to clip the Class/modes of expression table out of this book (not recommended!) you could bend it around from top to bottom to make a cylinder. When presented in this form, Information appears right next to Entertainment and Drama. So, during a story, a single Throughline might shift up or down or all around, as long as it stays within its Class column.

Taken together, all four Throughlines could shift from scene to scene into different relative positions, not unlike a combination lock, making the story all comedic at one time, serio-comic at another, and so on. By the end of the story, the progressive shift of Throughlines provides the combination for the unique Genre of a story.

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