Pick a Genre and Run With It

(Tune in to Writing Wednesdays this Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the continuation of the series “Using Your Real Life in Fiction” — and for more of The Knowledges backstory.)

Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe in "Farewell, My Lovely."

Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe in “Farewell, My Lovely.”

The problem with real life is it’s messy. It doesn’t fit into neat categories.

But if you and I are going to use our real lives as material for fiction, we have to do just that.

We have to wrangle it.

We have to bring it under control.

We have to pick a story category, i.e. a genre, and make our real-life narrative work within that genre.

Or put another way, we have to ask ourselves, “If this mess in our real life were a publishable, ready-for-prime-time story, what genre would that story be?”

Is our real-life tale a Love Story? That’s a genre.

Is it a Thriller? That’s another genre.

A Western?

A Coming Of Age saga?

Shawn was the one who put his finger on what The Knowledge was. He nailed it the instant I showed him the first draft. (That’s how editors are trained to think.)

It’s a private eye story. It’s The Big Lebowski. It’s a detective story where the detective is not a hard-boiled private eye but a screwed-up young writer.

I can’t tell you how much that helped me.

Why? Because every story falls into a genre and every genre has conventions [see Chapter 41 in Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t].

A convention is an obligatory scene. It’s a story-beat that MUST be in the narrative if it’s going to fit into the genre.

Here’s how this helped me in working out the story for The Knowledge. I thought:

Hmm. If The Knowledge is a private eye story, then I have to have at least one scene where the private eye (i.e. Stretch, the character-that’s-me) gets beaten up.

Why? Because a Private-Eye-Gets-Beaten-Up scene occurs in every Sam Spade story, every Philip Marlowe story; it happens to Jake Gittes in Chinatown; it happens to the Dude in The Big Lebowski.

I literally sat down and wrote myself this note:

Come up with beat-up scene.

What other conventions does a private eye story mandate?

If the private eye gets hired by a woman, he must become romantically involved with that woman.

Note to self:

Come up with Romantic Involvement story.

In every private eye tale, the detective gets offered a second assignment (“Find so-and-so”), usually by the person that he was hired to find in the first place.

Further note:

Come up with this one too.

If you’re following along in The Knowledge, #1 is Chapter 15, “Glen Island Casino.” #2 is Chapter 28, “University Village.” And #3 are Chapter 18, “Empire Diner.”

Does this sound like formula?

It’s not.

This is how a writer thinks.

This is how a writer works.

This is how a writer structures and shapes a story.

Remember that our Most Dreaded Outcome in attempting a story based on our real life is that the tale will be too ego-centered, too ordinary, too internal, too boring.

Our aim as writers is to

1) Heighten the drama

2) Make the internal external

3) Give the story meaning, i.e. THEME.

4) Make it universal

5) Make it beautiful

When we pick a genre and work within its conventions, we automatically accomplish all five points above (assuming we do a good job with the story).

But even better, we acquire a road map and a structure that are invaluable to us as we’re working out the fictional, and even the real-life, aspects of our tale.

Genre is not a four-letter word.

It’s our secret weapon for real-life-based fiction, and for every other kind as well.





Read this one first.
It identifies the enemy—what I call Resistance with a capital “R,” i.e. fear, self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, all the forms of self-sabotage—that stop us from doing our work and realizing our dreams.
Start here.
Everything else proceeds from this.



  1. Mary Doyle on December 9, 2016 at 6:05 am

    Thanks for this Steve – looking at genre as a secret weapon rather than a four-letter word is liberating. Really enjoying this three-day-a-week series!

  2. gwen abitz on December 9, 2016 at 6:50 am

    Hopefully it is OK that I do this. It is the link to the The Rich Dad Radio Show with Robert and Kim Kiyosaki interviewing Steven Pressfield -http://bit.ly/1zt5EbR – very helpful to me about THE KNOWLEDGE…Hope I have the link right. “You know hope is this thing with feathers that perches on the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.~Emily Dickerson~ 🙂

  3. Tony levelle on December 9, 2016 at 7:43 am

    Pretty good. Thanks again!
    Back to NWTRYS for another read…

  4. Jerry Ellis on December 9, 2016 at 8:34 am

    Another good one, Steve! “It’s Neither fish nor fowl,” said Gay Bryant, senior editor at Penthouse magazine, in her office in NYC after I had thumbed there from Alabama. She was referring to my new short short, The Striptease Trapeze Mushroom. The mag, back in the day, had bought, when I was 21, the first story I ever wrote and submitted. It was a parody on a bestseller, The Teachings of Don Juan. I loved that book so it was easy to knockout a parody on it in a couple of days. “Neither fish nor fowl.” No worries. I went on to be the lead fiction writer for Gallery magazine that year. Back in the day, back before all the PC, back, long back, before Random House started publishing my books. Keep up the good, often GREAT, posts, Steve. We love you, man.

  5. Lorene Albers on December 9, 2016 at 9:12 am

    “Genre” is a five-letter word, Mary. Just sayin’ 🙂

  6. Michael Beverly on December 9, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    I hang out (online mostly) with wannabe writers and it never ceases to amaze my how often someone will ask a question without stating the sub-genre the question pertains to.

    How long should chapters be, or what qualities should my protagonist have, or how long should the book be, or any other of a thousand questions are meaningless without the specificity of sub-genre.

    IN some cases, sub-sub-genre.

    Of course, if meeting reader expectations aren’t important, then it doesn’t matter, but in that case, why ask the question in the first place?

    Some year and half ago, give or take, Shawn said he was working on a list of prime examples of works for a bunch of sub-genres, the ones he’d listed up that point (I believe it was the blog post: What we mean when we talk about genre, or something like that) was very valuable to me.

    Steve: Any chance you’ve got a list as well and if so, any chance you all could work together on sharing such a list?
    Or just publish it as an appendix in a book?
    Or a blog post?

    Maybe the market changes so quickly that this idea is mostly impractical… but maybe not.

  7. Adam Abramowitz on December 9, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing that link Gwen (thumbs up)

  8. Adam Abramowitz on December 9, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks for sharing the link Gwen (thumbs up)

  9. Sandy Brown Jensen on December 9, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    Hamlet is also a detective story where the young prince has to find evidence for the murder of his father. He doesn’t want to just go on “spectral evidence”; I.e. the word of a ghost but searches for other ways of knowing.

    Was Hamlet pure fiction? Or did he also draw from real life? Modern evidence points to Hamlet being a mashup of his patron Henry Wriothesley and rival playwright Christopher Marlowe.

    Shakespeare travelled this road long before us. Having the process broken down and re-examined like this is very fascinating and helpful!

  10. Mary Doyle on December 9, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    Right Lorene…I was referencing Steve’s statement that “genre is not a four-letter word.”

  11. Lorene Albers on December 9, 2016 at 9:00 pm

    Yeah, I know, Mary. Couldn’t help myself.

  12. Armando Batista on December 12, 2016 at 9:01 am

    Hey Steve. I have a question about the Coming-of-age genre. I know this is usually referring to young people (i.e. teens) but can this also apply to Adults? Like a mid-life crisis situation that is actually a coming of age? Or is this another genre altogether?

  13. […] Here’s the blog post mentioned in today’s podcast: “Writing Wednesdays: Pick a Genre and Run With It” […]

  14. Katie Hyde on December 14, 2016 at 4:45 am

    Thanks for this post – another gem!! Wondering, Steven, if you know of a place online (or if you have created a list yourself) of the conventions of an evolution plot (a coming of age story)?
    Thank you so much for these posts – they are really helpful and inspiring!!
    ~Katie Hyde

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