11.03: Layering The Elemental Genres

For our second Elemental Genre episode we discuss using the concept of Elemental Genre to help you manage sub-plots, character arcs, and genre mashups. We’ve each used the tool in these ways, and we provide examples from our own writing, as well as from works we’ve read or watched.

Here, for your convenience, is the list of the Elemental Genres we’ll be covering during Season 11.



Think of an emotion that contrasts, or foils, the primary emotion in the thing you were working on for the homework two weeks ago. Identify that,  and begin exploring it as a sub-plot.

We promo’d Word Puppets, by Mary Robinette Kowal, narrated by Kate Baker, but the audiobook does not appear to be available as of this writing. Other versions are available here, and of course there are plenty of other books  from Mary on Audible.

18 thoughts on “11.03: Layering The Elemental Genres”

  1. As a new author (two books in finished rough draft, two in the early discovery stage and one in the painful revision \rewriting stage) I love the podcast. I have been listening for two years. But I can’t show my love though audible because I have been a subscriber for over 5 years. So I am telling you (and audible) that I love your podcasts and your recommendations have increased my audible library.

  2. Inspiring episode! Could someone add a sentence length definition of the different Elements listed in the link? Some are simple to guess, but others are a little too abstract. Thanks for all your work on this podcast!

    1. Just guessing, but from the list I’d say probably adventure and issue (the issue in this case being law/justice, which is usually a major theme in westerns).

      1. The general appeal of Westerns seems, at least to me, to be very similar to Space Opera. That means Wonder + Adventure. The American West no longer evokes quite the same sense of wonder that it did when Louis L’amour (born Louis Dearborn Lamoor) was romanticizing it in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but that element is definitely there.

        But like any other bookshelf genre, “Western” is going to vary in elemental composition from story to story. Wonder + Mystery, Adventure + Relationship, etc. Don’t conflate a particular setting with a specific element, because settings themselves vary quite a bit in how they are poised before the reader.

    2. I find characters in westerns to revolve around INTEGRITY. With law being less present and innocent people being more vulnerable, people are bound more by their own beliefs and decisions than by force of law or high security. This is more than just which side of the law they are on. Characters on the right side of the law can have crooked morals. So which side of the law are they on? What drives them to stick to their code (if any)? How far will they push themselves to accomplish their goals? I’ve read some books where a decision is being made and I’m attached enough to the character to really care. It is especially exciting when the character’s development so far has me poised at the edge of my seat, unsure which path he will choose.

  3. Your statements about having a useless competency is right on target. I did this for “A Professional Man”, where the hit man has a sick mother. He is REALLY good at being a hit man, but he can’t just shoot the doctor and make his mother better.

    I always picture this concept as Superman holding a crying baby. Which super power will help silence the baby if the baby is just bored or lonely? He can push a planet (Or at least could till recent versions) but that crying baby is out of his league.

  4. @ Jon. I’ll take a stab at it… of course, I’m just making up some guesses–and I think elemental genres and emotional resonances differ person-to-person anyway, so you’re own personal definitions may be more useful to you–I’m probably off-base with some of these.

    Wonder: The joy of magicalness, weirdness, though maybe this also bleeds into marvelling at natural beauty? Lord Dunsay. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.

    Idea: The twist in the gut feeling of a new, novel or really cool idea. Bradbury has a lot of these.

    Adventure: The excitement of new experiences and dangerous events. H. Rider Haggard. Tolkien.

    Horror: The dark thrill of the helplessness and the visceral nature of horror. Lovecraft. Steven King. Difficult to think of a ‘horror’ that isn’t marketed as a horror. The Hunger Games maybe comes pretty close? The end of Book 3 is certainly horror through-and-through.

    Mystery: The fun of working out a mystery. The first three Harry Potter books are mostly mysteries.

    Thriller: Excitement around dangerous/tense situations? I guess I’m not actually sure how Thriller differs from Adventure? To me an thriller is what H. Rider Haggard would be writing if he were alive today… so, yes, this one puzzles me a bit, I guess. If a thriller is more political in nature, and more about trying to work out how X is outwitting Y, then maybe, A Song of Ice and Fire is a good example?

    Humour: Funny stuff. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

    Relationship: I presume this is mostly aimed at romantic relationships, but a story about a friendship-relationship might fit into this? Jane Eyre. The Rosie Project. Maybe the Frodo/Sam friendship in LotR? There’s an awful lot of friend/family relationship in Harry Potter too.

    Drama: So, I guess I define drama as being about relationships, or the trials and turmoils of people interacting with people–which would usually be relationship focused. Maybe relationship is ultimately positive, and drama is more difficult for the character’s involved? A drama where the drama is not driven by interpersonal actions is also tricky to settle on. Would maybe Michael Crichton’s stories, where (typically) a group of scientists come together to deal with a scientific drama maybe be what is being driven at here? Crichton’s stories, involve Idea, and obviously still involve interpersonal drama, but most of the drama comes from a man-vs-nature / man-vs-scientific-thing-gone-awry sort of thing. Oh, hey… The Martian is a drama that doesn’t involve relationship wrangles, maybe? Or I may be way off. It could just be that WX is defining relationship as two people, and drama as many?

    Issue: Exploration of a moral issue. Lathe of Heaven by Le Guin falls neatly into being an Issue piece. In a more on-the-nose way, The Grapes of Wrath. To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Ensemble: The fun of a group of idiosyncratic or eccentric characters playing off one another? In some ways the original Star Wars is an ensemble story as much as it is an adventure.

    About a year ago, in my own scribblings, I had a go at putting together a list of ‘plot drivers’, which I guess is a similar concept to ‘elemental genres’. For comparison, mine were less about emotional impact, and more about what it is that pulls a reader along. I’ve just dug through my notebook. The list I came up with was:
    Excitement: What will happen next? (shot term)
    Mystery: Why did it happen? What’s really going on?
    Suspense: How will the situation eventually resolve? (long term)
    Menace: When the blow falls, how bad will it be?
    Triumph: How magnificent will the eventual win be?
    Suffering: How much more of this can they take?

    This isn’t exhaustive. I think romances often play into an emotion along the lines of ‘The world really is a good place for good people after all’, which isn’t on my list. Maybe it would slot under ‘Reassurance’? Also, ‘How strange will this get?’ or ‘What weird and intriguing thing will happen next?’ isn’t quite ‘Excitement’. It might fall under ‘Wonderment’? As you can tell, my own thoughts remain half-baked. Would need to come back to the list and do some thinking over them to smooth them out a bit.

    Because these sorts of ‘elemental genres’ probably do differ among people, it might be neat if other listeners had a go at putting together a personal list of elemental genres that makes intuitive sense to them? It’d be interesting to see where crossing-over happens or doesn’t. Also, I suspect we’d find that some people are ‘splitters’ (creating lots of categories) and some people are ‘lumpers’ (creating only a few categories).

    Anyway, just some thoughts.


  5. And we’re off, putting together a layer cake of elemental genres. How about romance and wonder and horror? Now, do you want to use vanilla icing, or a good rich chocolate icing, maybe with a dusting of cinnamon? Just imagine the knife slipping down through the layers, and your fork stabbing into them…

    While you’re chewing on that, here’s a transcript! In the archives, or over here


  6. I just spent the last six months listening to the first ten seasons of writing excuses. It’s been wonderful. Now, I’m all caught and I can’t just listen to a new (new to me) episode anytime I want. I like this elemental genre concept. I think you’re on to something and I look forward to being a weekly listener.

  7. I feel like I would get a lot more out of this if I had basic summaries of what each of the elemental genres entailed.

    1. @Joel
      C. P. Johnstone, above, had a great summary. Here’s a distilled version:

      *Wonder*: Discovery of something grand, ethereal, eye-opening, and maybe unanswerable.
      *Idea*: The inspiration, the goal to chase after, the enticing possibility.
      *Adventure*: Events or activities that are filled with hazards, excitements, and greatness.
      *Horror*: The struggle against that which causes fear and feelings of absolute helplessness.
      *Mystery*: A journey to uncover (knowable) answers and/or solve an intricate puzzle.
      *Thriller*: The suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat experience.
      *Humor*: A situation(s) enhanced with laughs or amusement to allow escape or to enhance a point being made.
      *Relationship*: Evolving connection between two people.
      *Drama*: The serious emotional struggles of people during a shared event/moment/situation.
      *Issue*: Struggling against an undesirable and deep-seated state of affairs.
      *Ensemble*: Entertaining dynamics between a small group of people.

  8. Is it just me, or does “ensemble” seem the odd one out?

    Here is my sense of things at the moment:

    Wonder, Idea, Mystery, and Issue all tap into the “I wonder what/if.”
    Adventure, Horror, and Thriller tap into the adrenaline rush.
    Mystery, Horror, and Thriller tap into suspense.
    Wonder, Relationship, Humor, Drama, and Issue seem to tap into heartfelt (sometimes (I can’t remember the term that I want) purging) emotions of various kinds.

    Ensemble? It seems like it’s more about the importance of the various characters to the progression of the story. I seems like it’s part of another subset of elemental genre.

    1. “Ensemble” is kind of like “relationship,” but the relationship element is a mesh, or network. It fits your model just fine. The salient point, of course, is whether any of these models help us write better. We’re doing Elemental Ensemble month because we think it’ll help.

  9. Brandon, regarding the idea of a “wall” as a pit with things inside it, have you ever heard the ghost story of Castle Houska?

    There’s this strange castle in Bohemia. Its built such that the defenses face inward – rather than having walls to keep a beseiging army out, they’re built to be accessible from the outside so as to keep things in.

    In this castle, there is a pit. A pit so deep that the bottom vanishes into darkness. There is a legend about the discovery of this pit. The local lordling that came across it was curious to know what was in it. Was it a mineshaft, a cavern….what? Due to the risk of lowering a man by a rope down a pit of unknown depth, he had a condemned prisoner brought to this pit, and lowered in. If the rope breaks, oh well, the guy dies by splattering on the bottom of the pit instead of to the headsman. Shortly after lowering this man, he begins screaming in agony. They bring him back up, to find he appears to have aged significantly while in the pit – minutes passed outside while it seems the man has suffered years of torment. The implied conclusion of this story is that they subsequently concluded that this pit was no mere cavern, but a portal to hell itself, and that Castle Houska was built around it, just in case demons started climbing out of it or some such.

    (My take: it’s a prison. Toss the prisoners in to this spooky castle with this ominous pit and guard the walls to prevent them from climbing out. A purpose built version of the Nazi’s ghetto system, essentially. Not pleasant by any means, but immensely practical.)

    Wikipedia has a very detatched description of the story, but the proponents of ghost stories have much more dramatic descriptions for your perusal.

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