Monday, February 25, 2013

Is It a Love Story?

Genre is the promise you make to your reader to give them the kind of story they want without annoying them by giving them information they don’t want.

So what happens when your premise, that brilliant story seed that came to you in a dream or while pacing your kitchen at 3:00 a.m. on a sleepless night, doesn’t fit neatly into one of those broad categories? What if the term genre makes you feel slightly nauseated or makes you fear you’ll have to kill too many darlings? 

The answer lies in the story skeleton you select and how you layer the conflicts.

Let’s say you have a brilliant story idea about a scientist named Dick trying to win the heart of Sally, the girl of his dreams. Meanwhile, Jane asks him to solve the problem of a meteor streaking toward earth. In addition, Dick really hates Ted because Ted is eager to replace him as head of the space defense department. You want to cram all of this into one story. But what kind of story is it? 

That depends on how much page time you want to devote to each layer of conflict: the romance, the impending meteor strike, and the interdepartmental competition. 

To make it a romance, the love connection between Dick and Sally becomes the Overall Story Problem. Jane and the meteor strike provide either antagonistic or interpersonal conflict. Ted’s agenda provides either antagonistic or interpersonal conflict. Perhaps Ted also wants Sally. Perhaps Jane also wants Dick or wants Ted. Debating the merits of eternal love versus the eventuality of Earth’s annihilation could be Dick’s internal conflict. The main turning points and overall focus stay on Dick and Sally’s relationship with interpersonal and antagonistic conflicts creating obstacles along the way. The meteor strike and conflict between Ted and Dick are secondary issues. The reader is worried these complications will keep Dick and Sally from making it as a couple.

Let’s switch the focus and make it a Thriller. The meteor strike becomes the overall story problem which provides a ticking clock for tension. The romance angle and the competition angle make solving the overall story problem of the impending meteor strike harder for Dick solve. Everyone has a stake in or opinion on the meteor strike. The reader is worried that the people in the story won’t survive. If you make Ted the antagonist, he might think it is time for humans to be removed from the planet. Ted does not want Dick to thwart the meteor. Jane could become Dick's ally, but her efforts could hinder rather than help. Dick’s relationship with Sally could provide his internal dilemma. Their relationship may fray or unravel under the pressure. It’s hard to care about being a good partner when the world is about to end. The dire situation adds poignancy to their love story. The main turning points and overall focus stay on the meteor strike while the rest of the cast complicate things.

The story seed could be applied to many of the story skeletons. In addition, there are subgenres to consider. We will examine how Romance subgenres affect the story premise in my next post. Stay tuned to the Blood Red Pencil for more story analysis.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. That makes so much sense, Diana. I've read so many thrillers where there is a romance angle (usually a love triangle), but you would never mistake them for romance novels.

    Your meteor strike could also be a science fiction story if there is a big scientific (or technically detailed) component involved in solving the issue. Or horror, if the strike unleashes rampaging aliens upon the Earth... and all with the possibility of a love-interest sub-plot ;-)

  2. Genre is something I struggle with ... I know it's important to help people figure out what the heck they are getting into but I really have a hard time nailing down the genre for my stories ... but then I've always had a hard time with commitment.

    Hey, Anonymous ... does your boss know you're shirking your job to surf the 'net? Well, since you are obviously perceptive enough to recognize such a great blog, I'm sure you'd be forgiven.

  3. Great discussion, Diana! Genre has always been a bit of a thorn in my side (forgive the cliché), so I appreciate your defining the ways a story idea can be presented to satisfy the requirements of different reading audiences. Now I'm looking forward to the next installment — subgenres. :-)

  4. But, but, can we have Spot save the day or the romance, either way we go? :-)

    Great post, Diana. Defining (and refining accordingly) is what I am currently struggling with.

  5. Since I write romantic suspense (that's what the industry calls them--I call them Mysteries With Relationships) I'm always bouncing from genre to genre during the story, but you're right--if the book is a romance at its heart (no pun intended), then that has to take precedence over solving the mystery or dealing with the catastrophe of the thriller. And it can be tough to do, because you're the hero's character arc, the heroine's character arc, the mystery/thriller theme AND the romance. And, in all likelihood, it's going to have to happen FAST, which means convincing readers that the hero and heroine have had time to fall in love while dealing with their external crises.

    Terry's Place

  6. This is great! Many of us (and especially new authors) write stories that could be one of several genres, so it's good to know how to emphasize one aspect over another.

  7. Excellent topic, and a very well done treatise, Diana. I'll have to stop back and read more as you "dig into" it further. :-)

    Marvin D Wilson

  8. never have worked out what my series is - any of the labels that are suggested seems wrong - and i fear will dissapoint genre readers - why can't stories be stories I cry:(

  9. Great examples, Diana! I often get manuscripts that open in one genre and try to close on what should have been the subplot. These posts will be most valuable to our readers!

  10. Thanks so much for this, Diana. Structuring the story this way has been second-nature to me, but I had never seen the process explained so well. I can see where this skeleton can be helpful when plotting my next story.

  11. Great advice in this day and age of mixed genres!

    Morgan Mandel


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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