The Story Solution: Genre Therapy Part Two

Write Craft with Sean and Johnny

Genre Therapy is just like normal therapy, but applied to story.  

And therapy, vastly simplified, is all about digging under the surface of a person to figure out what’s really going on, because what you see on the top is never the whole story, or even the real one.  

On the surface, a person might have chronic anger, but as they talk to a therapist, they might realize anger isn’t the problem and it’s all about fear. Or a patient might have an intense dislike of another person … and yet therapy reveals it to be dislike of themselves, projected outward.  

Therapy is an attempt to crack the black box of our human minds. Ordinarily, input enters the brain, then behavior and emotions spill out — and we just kind of accept it without question. Therapy pops the hood to find the wires have been crossed, causing inputs to drive us into wayward results. It’s the process of collaborating with a professional to write an owner’s manual specifically for you.  

We call our author process “Genre Therapy” because it does the same thing. Many authors will say, “I like to write romance and always have,” but then during Genre Therapy we’ll learn that they don’t actually like romance at all. It’s hilarious because often, it’s a surprise to them, too.  

This exact thing happened with one of our authors and triggered the birth of Genre Therapy. She wrote romance novels but didn’t like the romantic tropes or the sex scenes. We delved deeper, asked her why she thought romance was the right genre for her. She realized what she really enjoyed was the banter between couples: a hallmark of romance.  

But the banter this author liked, as it turned out, was closer to Mulder and Scully in The X-Files than Harry meeting Sally.  

We realized something was off when we asked her what her ideal romance would be, and she said, “A Jack the Ripper romance.” So we flipped her script, and now she writes banter-filled thrillers. These days she writes a whole lot faster, has more ideas than she can get to, and enjoys her work so much more.  

What stories are you currently telling yourself and the world? And more importantly, Why?  

The trick to finding your right genre is to give special attention to the question of why. Look at the stories you’re telling yourself, then ask why you’ve been telling them. What did your subconscious mind hope to achieve by asking those specific questions? What have those stories been giving you that keeps you telling them (or listening when others tell them to you)? 

To find the why, keep in mind that even your worst stories aren’t all bad. They’re good by some definition or your brain would stop telling them. Every false path leaves evidence of what might be better. It’s your job to find it.  

You do this by asking, What do I like about what I’ve been doing, even if it feels like a wrong path or a problem … and what are other ways to get that same thing? 

Consider the author who was writing romances but ended up finding her best self in thrillers. It was the banter she enjoyed, not the romance itself. That was the “good” in her current (but wrong) genre. Once she found another way to get the same sort of banter that also indulged her larger wants (serial killers instead of sweet couples), she was off and running.  

Or consider another of our authors who’d been writing sci-fi because she always loved Star Trek: The Next Generation. She wasn’t right for anything but the softest sci-fi because the hardness and specificity of most science fiction (not to mention its reductive, analytical nature) didn’t fit her personality or style at all. She’s one of the most bubbly people we’ve ever met. She’s never not smiling, seldom not actively laughing. Trying to write serious sci-fi was both tedious and ill-fitting for her, and she kept stalling out, dispirited and unproductive.  

That changed when we asked why she liked Star Trek: TNG so much. Her answer surprised us. It wasn’t the sci-fi so much as the sense of adventure, wonder, and possibility. What she actually enjoyed were the characters and their varied we’re-different-but-all-seeking-the-same-goal relationships.  

Seeing this, we asked her what other movies, TV, and books she enjoyed. Turns out, they were a lot more Ella Enchanted and Princess Diaries than Asimov and Heinlein. These days she’s writing Young Adult fantasy (which has that same sense of grandeur, hope, and varied cast that works together despite their differences) and having a lot more fun, writing fast without the snags.  

It was only possible because she asked the question: What’s right about my wrong story? Only by considering the pearl inside the oyster was she able to find a way to capture all that she’d loved about Star Trek: TNG without the wrong-genre mismatches that made writing sci-fi so arduous.  

We can’t do your Genre Therapy for you, but the process is straightforward.

It’s not easy and will likely be painful — especially if you realize you’ll need to end something in which you’re deeply entangled, or have invested heavily in — but it is simple.


This excerpt was taken out of the book The Story Solution by Sean M. Platt & Johnny Truant.

If you’d like to get more in depth with Genre Therapy, check out Sean & Johnny in their live Genre Therapy session at S3 2020.

Also Read: Genre Therapy Part One

Next Week: Tone & Voice


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