In today's post, I'm covering the conventions of the performance genre.
I’m also going to show you how these conventions manifest in three popular movies—The Mighty Ducks, Cool Runnings, and The Karate Kid.
Why movies? Why not books?
Well, the simple answer is that movies require less time investment than books. I’m hoping that if you haven’t seen these movies, you’ll watch them after reading this post to help cement these conventions in your mind.
But, before we get into what those conventions are, let’s go over some basics.
Performance stories center around a character who wants to achieve something specific in order to prove their worth to the world. For example, they might want to win a certain award, climb Mount Everest, be the best in their field, or be famous.
However, achieving this specific thing is not what the story is really about. The characters in performance stories usually lack self-esteem or self-respect. They are searching for external validation, but what they really need is to embrace who they already are. And these stories show just that.
Beyond that, performance stories can have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have various levels of romance, adventure, mystery, or magic. They can include different subplots as long as the protagonist’s pursuit of that specific thing remains the main focus of the story.
People read performance stories because they are extremely relatable. Every day we deal with the pressure to perform on the world’s stage, and we are constantly faced with decisions that could result in success or failure.
Performance stories inspire readers by showing us what life could be if only we learned to embrace our unique gifts and talents. These stories teach us to believe in ourselves and to determine our own worth instead of looking to others for the answers.
Not only that, but it’s also incredibly satisfying to see an underdog character work hard at something and succeed against all odds. In these stories, hard work does pay off -- usually in more ways than one.
So, how do you deliver these specific emotional experiences readers are looking for? Well, you can start by including the obligatory scenes and conventions of the performance genre in your story. In this post, we’re covering the genre conventions. Let’s dive in.
Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of roles, settings, events, and values that are specific to a genre. They're the things that readers intuitively expect to be present in a work of genre fiction whether they consciously realize it or not.
Obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that move the protagonist along on his or her journey. These key scenes are what help to evoke emotional reactions in the reader. And, when coupled with your genre’s conventions, will give the reader the experience they’re looking for.
Let’s take a look at our three case studies (warning–spoilers ahead).
In a performance story, the main character (or the group of main characters) is usually an underdog with a big heart and a lot to learn. The competition is always better trained and more equipped for success in the upcoming big event. Luckily for the protagonist, he or she has some kind of special gift whether it be a big heart, a strong will, or an excellent support system.
In every performance story, there needs to be something specific that the protagonist is working towards. This could be something like a big event, a prize, a title, or an award. Whatever it is, it’s what sets the story in motion, but often has less meaning once it’s achieved. The important thing here is that there needs to be a clear definition of what it means to win or lose.
In performance stories, there’s usually one or more mentors responsible for training the protagonist. This can be a coach, a retired performer, a parent, a friend, or anyone with the skillset to get the protagonist ready for the upcoming event. Usually, the mentor in these stories has some kind of personal wound in their past that they will overcome (or not) by the end of the story. The mentor’s wound can help to reinforce the theme of the story.
In a performance story, there’s usually a team that either competes on the same side as the protagonist or that shows up to support the protagonist. The team members often have qualities that the protagonist lacks, but needs in order to succeed in the upcoming event.
With a specific event or goal in mind, the protagonist must practice to gain or recover the skills and knowledge necessary to perform. As he or she trains and learns new skills, they will also start to become a better version of themselves internally. The important thing here is to make sure that there are "levels" that let the reader know how the protagonist is advancing toward his or her goal.
In performance stories, there’s often some kind of social problem or moral challenge that the protagonist has to face or deal with. Examples include things like bullying, social class divides, abortion, poverty, civil rights, marital affairs, climate change, gender equality, divorce, sexual and gender identity, etc.
In every performance story, the protagonist needs to have a worthy opponent. Otherwise, there’d be nothing standing in the character’s way, and nothing to force him or her to grow and change. The protagonist’s opponent isn’t always bad or evil -- sometimes they just want the same thing as the protagonist and only one of them can win.
In every great performance story, there’s something that kiboshes the plan just when victory is in sight. In other words, some kind of monkey wrench gets thrown in and stops the plan cold. Usually, this occurs near or at the “All is Lost Moment” and causes the protagonist to feel like there’s no hope for success.
At some point in every performance story, the protagonist realizes that the world isn’t going to change, so he or she must change instead. The protagonist stops caring so much about getting approval from others and instead learns to value themselves as they are.
In performance stories, there’s usually a bittersweet ending. There is a clear sacrifice for the win or a need is met in light of a loss. Prize pales in comparison to the real treasure — love friendship, self-esteem, etc.
You're probably thinking, "This is so obvious! Tell me something I don't know!" But seriously, you'd be surprised how many first drafts I see that are missing these conventions.
These are the things readers LOVE — what they come to performance stories for.
Everyone wants to see the protagonist train for the big game or event, right? Will they be ready in time? Is the mentor really qualified to teach them? Will they win or will they lose?
Can you imagine a performance story without some of these key roles or set pieces?
(I bet you can't. And if you have read a book that was missing any of these conventions, you probably stopped reading it somewhere in the first 50 pages.)
So, don't leave these conventions out!
Instead, find a way to give the reader what they want, in new and unexpected ways. After all, many great stories stick with us precisely because they innovate on these genre conventions. You can do it, too!
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Are you writing a performance novel? How do you come up with innovative ways to deliver these conventions?
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