Intellect: The Brain of Your Story

As your emotion cubby was the heart of your story, your intellect cubby is the brain.

You need to incorporate into your story a theme that is intellectual in nature.

An interesting and thought-provoking idea. What kind of stuff?

Something related to science, philosophy, technology, math, pattern recognition, economics, social sciences – whatever.

The most effective intellect lines take the form of philosophical questions.

Big, unanswerable questions that really make an audience think.

The reason these work, is because there is no one right answer – it’s a question that’s meant to be mulled over long after the story is done. An idea that’s just as interesting to consider fully and deeply, as it would be to come to any specific conclusion.

Like questioning the nature of reality.
We see this in The Matrix, Inception, and Vanilla Sky.

But most of the intellect lines you see are a bit more straight forward. They are usually just interesting ideas that are intellectually stimulating.

Like examining the “american dream.”
We see this in The Great Gatsby and American Beauty.

Once you have an idea worth talking about…

Isolate the central overarching theme, then express it in different forms throughout the course of the story.

Sound familiar? The easiest way to do this, is to follow the four act structure.

Say your intellect line is: examining the limits of technology.

  • Act 1: you’re exploring the boundless potential of groundbreaking, new technologies.
  • Act 2: you focus on the benefits of such technology.
  • Act 3: you lean on the costs of such a gift.
  • Act 4: you focus on the moral ramifications of the use of this new tech.

Another way to look at it:

  • Potential.
  • Benefits.
  • Costs.
  • Ramifications.

Another way to look at it:

  • Establish.
  • Positive.
  • Negative.
  • Resolution.

Following the four acts gives you a good structure through which to explore the different sides and different expressions of the main intellectual theme.

Your intellect line is here to make sure you infuse your story with some brains. Really bake in some concerns of the human mind. But most importantly, it’s an opportunity to teach your audience something. Get them thinking, engaged, expanding their minds – so that they leave your story better off than when it started.

Emotion: The Heart of Your Story

A theme that takes care to create an emotional experience in your audience.

This is the responsibility of your emotion cubby.

You’ve got to make them feel. They’ve got to care, they’ve got to invest in your characters and the events of your story.

How do you do this?

First, you want to choose an overall emotional concept.

An emotional theme.

The most effective emotional themes are the primal ones.

We talked about primal desires a few cubbies back – let’s take a look at primal emotions.

These are the basic, most easily understood emotions we animals feel. We’re talkin’ the kind of emotional themes that grip deep inside us.

Primal Emotional Themes:

  • Love
  • Hate
  • Joy
  • Sorrow
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Jealousy
  • Pride
  • Lust
  • Etc…

Whichever you go with, you’ve got to keep in mind:

This theme is the main thing you want your audience to feel during your story.

It’s about emotion. What do you want them to feel?

A few details:

You want to make sure you don’t get too intellectual or philosophical with your emotional theme. This cubby is all about emotion. Feelings. If you get too heady with it, you’ll lose the heart.

Also, take care to make sure your emotion line has something to say.
Pick your central emotion, but then explore the positive and negative sides of that emotion. Really dig in and get interesting with it. Push the emotion in different directions with different expressions and perceptions. Re-define these emotions as much as you can.

So how do we do it?

Choose your primary emotion – then break things down into the four act structure.

Your primary emotional theme will be present throughout the entire story. But you also want to select related sub-emotions to explore during each specific act.

Say your main theme is: anger.

  • Act 1: resentment
  • Act 2: frustration
  • Act 3: rage
  • Act 4: catharsis

Notice anger, as a concept, is ever-present. But each act gets a specific expression of anger to explore.

In the end, you want to make sure you lean on your ultimate point about anger. What are you trying to say about anger? Whatever that might be, bring it to a head in act 4.

Depending on what you’re looking for, your emotion line can be very simple or complex. Whatever you go with, the emotion line is absolutely essential.

We can’t overstate its importance enough.

A story without an emotion line is a hollow shell.

Genre: The Tone of Your Story

Here at Story Shamans we have our own, specific, definition of genre. We find it more useful than the ones you typically run into.

We define “genre” by tone, not content.

While others might call something a horror story because it’s got monsters, blood, or screams in it…

We’re calling it a horror story if it’s meant to scare.


There are eight different tones that a story can have:

  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Drama
  • Farce
  • Action
  • Horror
  • Romance
  • Erotica

Every genre has a different set of expectations.

It’s these expectations that define them:

  • Comedy is happy.
  • Tragedy is sad.
  • Drama is serious.
  • Farce is silly.
  • Action is exciting.
  • Horror is scary.
  • Romance is idealistic.
  • Erotica is sexy.

Genre is a lens that your story is projected through.

No matter the events of your story, the genre – the tone – will determine how these events are portrayed to an audience.

Misunderstand or mishandle genre, and your story will collapse.

If your action story is not exciting, it’s no good.
A horror story has to be scary, or it’s a failure.
Comedies are happy. They need to be lighthearted and funny or they have failed on a fundamental level.

So when constructing your story, pay attention to the intended genre. Pay attention to the context you’re creating. The tone you’re setting for the actions of the story to take place within.

The same exact story event could unfold within the eight different contexts to very different effect. Same stuff, different tone.

Say two characters take a ride on a ferris wheel. It could be exciting, or scary. It could be silly, serious, or sad. It could honestly be idealistic or even sexy. Clearly, it could also be any mix or variation of these tones.

This is how the events of your story need to be constructed – from the inside out. What’s that mean?

The events of the story are here to service the tone, not the other way around.

If you’re putting your characters on a ferris wheel, then you’re doing it specifically to instill fear, or produce excitement, or joy, or whatever you’re going for – given your desired genre.

A few more notes:

Some genres mix really well together and others are direct opposites.

Comedy, farce, action, romance, and erotica all mix nicely together because they all have a positive tone – they complement one another.

The same goes for drama, tragedy, and horror because they’re all negative tones.

That’s pretty simple, right?

  • The positive tones mix with the positive.
  • The negative tones mix with the negative.

Besides belonging to the positive camp, or the negative camp, some genres are inherently complementary.

  • Romance and Erotica.
  • Action and Horror.
  • Comedy and Farce.
  • Drama and Tragedy.

They go so well together because they hit some of the same notes.

You put action and horror together and you get the common “thriller” story. A “thriller” is just an exciting story (action) that veers into scary town (horror).

The direct opposites – like drama and farce, comedy and tragedy – are the hardest to mix. Because they’re on different ends of the spectrum. They don’t bleed into each other in the same way the complementary genres do. In cases like this, you’ve got to carefully craft the juxtaposition or it won’t work at all.

Regardless of difficulty though, they can all be mixed together if you put the work in.

So how do we do this?

How do we make sure we’re doing right by our genre(s)?

Every story needs a dominate genre that incorporates the subordinate ones.

A great example of this is the so-called “romantic comedy.”

Really, these stories should be called “comedic romances,” because that’s what they are. They are romance stories first, that then incorporate comedic elements.

Make sense?

“The Wedding Planner” has comedic elements. But the story is first and foremost, a romance.
“Wedding Crashers” on the other hand, is clearly about the laughs first, and romance second.

That’s a big difference.

You’ll notice, it’s always easier to add comedy to another dominant genre, rather than adding another sub-genre to the dominant comedy.

Just take a look at action comedies.

If you set a baseline of action, it’s real easy to add humor. You have an exciting story, then throw in jokes along the way to lighten the mood here and there.

But if you have a primarily comedic story, and try to add in bits of real action – it’s going to be tonally off. It’s doable, but quite a bit harder.

Why? Because action is exciting, and excitement is more serious than silly.

The audience will have a hard time taking a story seriously when the baseline is silly and comedic. So when the action comes in, it’ll be hard to fear for the stakes involved.

It’s always easier to lighten the mood with a joke, then turn a comedic situation serious all of the sudden.

In the end, understanding genre is really about understanding the differences and the similarities between the eight different tones. The more familiar with them you become, the more effortlessly you can utilize them in your stories.

Most of the genres are self explanatory. But to clear up any confusion…

Let’s take a look at “romance” and “erotica.”

First thing to consider, is that “romance” does not strictly mean “love.”

“Romance,” in the genre sense of the word, means to accentuate, focus on, and admire all the positive qualities of something while generally ignoring the negative. This is why we say it is “idealistic.” It focuses on the positive, and ignores the negative.

This idealism could be applied to love or a romantic relationship. But it could just as easily be applied to a job, or a city, or a sport – anything really. You can romanticize anything.

“Erotica” on the other hand, is all about sexuality. Not romance, but sexiness. The two can go together of course. There’s probably a healthy dose of sexy in your idealized romantic relationship. But they don’t have to go together.

“Erotica” has its own identity – sexually charging any situation.
“Romance” is all about idealizing any situation.

When constructing your story, it’s almost impossible to stay in one genre the entire time. So you want to control the mix.

Set a main genre, then incorporate sub-genres along the way.

The main genre will dominate, setting the overall tone for your story. Then you can add in as many other genres as is appropriate within the main genre.

Like our other cubbies before it, genre will follow the four act structure.

Say the main genre is: action. That’s the genre that will run through the entire story.

  • Act 1 could focus primarily on the action.
  • Act 2 could then lean on say: comedy.
  • Act 3 pumps some horror into the mix.
  • Act 4 pays some attention to romance.

Remember that these genres are based on tone, not content.

So when we say act three pumps the horror, this just means that it leans into what’s scary. Whatever that means for your story. It doesn’t have to mean gore or monsters or serial killers. It just means whatever’s happening is playing to the designs of creating scares.

Genre is so fluid that it can change from scene to scene, or it can change a few times within the same scene. You want to embrace this variety. Utilize it to bring out the full tonal potential of your story.

Pick a main genre, pick some sub-genres to explore during the different acts, then it’s over.

Easy peasey.

Revelation: The Intrigue of Your Story

The intrigue of your story.

It’s what keeps your audience interested and keeps them guessing. It’s that progressive mystery. That rolling out of information that hooks ’em and simultaneously keeps ’em curious.

“Revelation” is all about surprising your audience, while moving the story forward.

There are three main methods for executing revelations in your story:

  • The Question and Answer Method
  • The Mystery and Reveal Method
  • The Unknown Surprise Method

Question and Answer Method

What’s that look like?

You raise a question, then you answer it.

The level of suspense is determined by how much ambiguity and time you put between the initial raising of the question, and the eventual answer.

Example: Will he take the job offer?

The question raised, is obvious. There’s a job on the table – will he take it or not? That’s the mystery. When he makes that decision, that’s when we have our answer.

Question. Answer.

But the general level of mystery here is limited. He’ll either accept the job offer or not. We know that much. There are really only two choices.

Sure, there’s maybe a convoluted third choice – where he bargains for a different job at the same company, etc. But by and large the question raised is clear, and the answer can really only be one of two choices. Because of that, the audience already has a 50/50 shot of guessing correctly what the answer is going to be. This makes the method simple, but still very useful.

Mystery and Reveal Method

What’s that look like?

Here you establish a mystery, then reveal the answer.

Example: Who is the killer?

Now this mystery is established here in the form of a question – just like the question and answer method, but notice the answer is not a simple binary choice.

“Who is the killer?” actually has a near-unlimited number of possible answers. The killer could be anyone. This is what causes the mystery reveal method to feel more complex than the question and answer method.

You establish a mystery with an abundance of possible answers. The audience is left guessing as to who in the world the killer could be. They sit in that uncertainty looking for clues. Primed and ready to accept red herrings along the way. Then, when you’re ready, you reveal the true answer.

Establish a mystery, and eventually reveal the answer.

Unknown Surprise Method

Revealing the answer to a question that was never actually asked.

Example: A character busting into a room and announcing:

“I’m Moving to France!”

Boom. It’s like a slap in the face. It comes out of nowhere. It’s a complete surprise, but a revelation none the less.

This is the simplest form of a revelation because you weren’t building toward it in any obvious way. You just revealed information, with no set-up. And because there was no set up, the unknown surprise method tends to feel a bit false unless done just right. Be careful.

Each method can be used to different effect, go ahead and utilize what’s best for your story.

The different types of revelations:

Character Revelation

This is the most common type of revelation. This is when the revelation is specifically experienced from a character’s perspective. The character learns something new and so does the audience, at the same time.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – Harry is told by Hagrid that he is a wizard.
Batman Begins – Bruce Wayne learns the true identity of Henri Ducard.

Audience Revelation

The audience learns something that a character does not.


The Lion King – the audience sees Scar intentionally kill Mufasa while young Simba is oblivious to this fact.
Iron Man – the audience learns that Tony’s friend Obadiah Stane is betraying him long before he does.

Character’s Self Revelation

Which, as we’ve seen with the character cubby, is an intimate part of a character’s arc. The character learns something about themselves and grows.

This type of revelation is more of a concern for your character cubby and plot cubby. But it’s still a revelation, so we’re bringing it up now.


The Matrix – Neo has the self-revelation that he is in fact “The One.” He never believed it before and the audience was kept in a limbo state of uncertainty, but now, as he rises from the dead, both he and the audience learn the truth.

Story Twist Revelation

This is where the revelation is so massive that it changes your entire perception of the story up until this point.

In fact this type of revelation is so massive and story-altering that we could just say the story’s title and you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about:

Fight Club or The Sixth Sense.

Audiences love a good mystery, it gets their mind racing, trying to solve the riddle that’s been laid out before them. It’s fun and mentally stimulating.

The interesting thing about a revelation line is that it can only truly be experienced the first time. Once you know the answer, the riddle is never the same.

The structure for your revelations looks a lot like your desire line and conflict line.

Have a major revelation for each act.

Set it up at the beginning of your act, spend the act building towards the reveal, then end the act with that reveal.

Notice that this set-up gives you the opportunity to try a few different types and methods of revelations throughout your story. Mix it up. Try not to use the same type of revelation each time.

Keep them guessing.

If your revelations are predictable, then they have failed on a fundamental level because they did not build intrigue. A failed revelation can seriously backfire – instead of sitting on the edge of their seats, your audience’ll be rolling their eyes.