This weekend I finished reading Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.

I have already listened to all The Story Grid podcast episodes, and the material in the book is pretty soundly covered in the podcast. The difference is that the Podcast is taking one author’s story (Tim Grahl) through the paces (and they make references to items in the book that I felt were not fully explained in the podcast).

Shawn Coyne repeats himself at most opportunities that the actual content of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know is available for free at, but I find the articles there very hard to navigate, and wanted a reference book I could read cover-to-cover.

Having finished it, I am vaguely disappointed that Shawn Coyne focused solely on the thriller genre, but only in the sense that this decision leaves me with more research to do before I can enact the advice provided in the book.

The advice is: Always Let Your Genre Be Your Guide (/earworm)

And so I am left with the question, “What – exactly – is a Space Opera?”

I need to hunt down the conventions and obligatory scenes that readers of such a story will expect. Then I can lay these conventions against my draft and see which expectations I have fulfilled and which I have neglected. By identifying such scenes, I can also determine whether mine are crafted in a new and interesting way, and which are expected and unremarkable.

I Googled for an answer, but found pretty vaporous commentary on the matter. It seemed to revolve far more around whether the book would be taken seriously by literary connoisseurs and less about what actually defines a Space Opera tale. It occurred to me that perhaps the fans can define it better than the critics. There’s a promising thread entitled ‘What is Space Opera?’ on Good Reads in the Space Opera Fans group. The discussion began in 2014 and is still going strong. The consensus is not clear.

Are you into galactic-spanning science fiction that focuses as much on the interpersonal and political aspects of life off-Earth as it does the hard science? Do you like your spaceships to come with kick-butt heroes and heroines, with lots of angst, intrigue, and perhaps a bit of backstabbing or romance as you piece together your warp drive using duct tape and a few junk parts. If so, guess what? You are a space opera fan!

This may well be a description of Space Opera, but it’s by no means a guide by which I can self-correct my story.

Of course, most people aren’t thinking in terms of conventional and obligatory scenes, or as editors, or even in terms of how to strengthen a story. They are largely interested in simply sorting their favorite stories into one column or another. But one post had a list of prerequisite elements that feels to me like it comes close to providing the answers I seek:

GoodReads member Packi on Space Opera Conventions

1. There is a voyage.

2. There is a conflict.

3. The stakes are high.

4. Something without precedent is happening. This one is optional.

During our last coaching session, my editor pegged Flotsam as a Space Pop Opera, because while it takes place on one planet, there are aliens, ships, a journey, high stakes, and character-driven plot. (Why it was Pop and not hard Space Opera was given to the lack of interplanetary travel, and the level of technology.)

So there’s a voyage, with high stakes revolving around a conflict.

What I’m gathering, today, is that Space Opera is The Hero’s Journey with a liberal application of stars and lasers.

So my Genre is really the Hero’s Journey (as described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a tome I am tackling currently), and it’s the setting and physical elements of the particular story that will place it in the Space Opera genre.

My obligatory scenes are those of The Hero’s Journey. Thankfully many have studied Campbell’s theory of story and can break it down for me in bite-sizier pieces.

This makes things much easier. Then again, I’m about to dive into my kindle and do a lot of reading of Space Opera titles to see if I can confirm or contest that understanding.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this soon enough.

Books on my list to read and examine:

The New Space Opera (Short Stories)

Beyond the Stars: A Planet Too Far: a space opera anthology (Volume 2) (Short Stories)

Triplanetary (The Lensman Series Book 1) (currently free)

Star Nomad: Fallen Empire, Book 1

Ender’s Game (The Ender Quintet)


And then there’s just about any book off this GoodReads sub-genre list.

(Note all title links are affiliate links, fwiw)


  1. Did you ever finished this project? I would love an update.

    I still need to read The Story Grid, but am a bit surprised that the obligatory scenes and conventions for all the content genres are not in there. It is possible that crime or thriller genres tend to have stricter conventions, slightly skewing Coyne’s theory.

    You would probably know this better than me, but aren’t the conventions for the Content genre only?
    For example, “Space Opera” might not be a genre according to Story Grid’ genre breakdown “Space” or science-fiction is technically more of a setting and falls under the Reality genre. “Opera” is possibly Content genre dependent: For example, one Space Opera might be an Action Epic or Action Adventure content genre. Don’t you think?

    Obviously, creating the convention list from “Space Opera” novels is the correct approach, but finding “Space Opera” novels with the same content genre as your own would be even better.

    1. Hi Montgomery,

      I didn’t really look into this much beyond what I pontificated in the post. As far as I’ve found, there’s no supplemental list of genre tropes out there as yet. For good reason: it will be an enormous task to assemble. There are lots of editors being certified as Story Grid professionals now, including J Thorn, so your best bet if you want official, concrete answers would be to contract one of them to coach you, or at least hire them for a Q&A session to clarify any points.

      As for me, I’ve decided to stop worrying so much about writing to market and focus on doing the things that work for my stories, with the help and guidance of my editor.

      Good luck!