#229 – Story Grid Trinity – On the Surface


[INTRODUCTION]

[00:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. My name is Tim Grahl. I am a writer that has now been working with Shawn for almost six years to figure out how to tell a story that works. Alongside that, I’m also running all of the behind-the-scenes stuff at Story Grid, acting as the publisher of Story Grid Publishing. Now, this is pretty much what I do, and so I’m excited to get this podcast up and running. 

Again, we started last week with the Story Grid Trinity, and we’re continuing that. We’re going to dive in this week on the surface of the Story Grid Trinity. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the Founder and Creator of Story Grid. He’s an editor with over 30 years of experience and continues to learn and grow and push himself to learn everything he can about helping you and I both level up our craft. 

As we talk about the Story Grid Trinity, I want to let you know that we are also doing a three-day seminar this coming August, August 6th through 8th, here in Nashville, Tennessee. We’re doing the Story Grid Trinity seminar. So if you’re enjoying learning, alongside of Shawn, I really encourage you to join us for that as well. We’re going to have an in person and virtual option as well. We did this last September for the Hero’s Journey seminar. That went really well, so we’re going to do it again, where you’re going to be able to come here to Nashville and join us live in person. 

But we’re also going to stream it live virtually, and it’s really cool. We have three cameras set up with the slides, and so it’s not just like a camera at the back of the room. It’s going to be really good footage to allow you to really participate. Then we also will have a forum set up, a Slack channel, if you’re familiar with Slack, where you’ll be able to participate with all of the other people at the conference and submit your questions for the Q&As when we have the Q&A sections as well. But all of that is available now if you want to go check it out at storygrid.com/trinity

Now, we are limiting the number of in person tickets. So if you’re at all interested in that, you’re going to want to go check that out right now. Like I said, we’re turning this into a Q&A, and these first four weeks are going to be about the trinity. We’re on week two, but I was already going through some of the questions you had submitted, and you can submit your own at storygrid.com/podcast. I was surprised to find a couple questions just for me. Any questions that you have for me as well, I’ll probably just do a short answer of those in the beginning.

One of them that was submitted was how I deal with negative reviews of my writing and my work. This is something I’ve been dealing with for a long time, even when I was writing a blog, when I started my first blog a decade ago or something, and somebody would leave a negative comment. Definitely hurts worse when you get the one in two-star reviews of your books as well. Somehow, a two-star review hurts my feelings more than a one-star because a one-star is just like, “Oh, I hated it.” But two stars is like, “I actually thought a lot about it and I mostly hate it, right?”

How do you deal with negative reviews of your work? The biggest thing that I focus on, I made this decision a long time ago, and it’s worked really well for me, is the only negative feedback I listen to is when it’s from people that I know love me and want my best. So that’s why I can take a lot of negative feedback from Shawn. I can take negative feedback from my friends, I can take negative feedback from the community at Story Grid because I know that you care about me and you care about making me better. If I trust that somebody is looking out for my good, it’s not just that I can take their negative criticism. I actually invite it in because that’s how I get better. 

But I do not listen to or give any time of day to anonymous random negativity on the Internet, especially just negative Amazon reviews. I read them and, of course, I don’t love them. But I have several author friends that don’t even read any of their reviews on Amazon. Hugh Howey, he said one time that, “What people think of me is none of my business,” which I thought was really good. The thing that I think about is that everybody that sees a version of you through your books, your writing, anything creative you do, they’re only seeing you from one perspective. 

It’s kind of like when you go to the movies, and they have those cardboard cutouts of characters from movies. When you’re standing right in front of it, it looks 3D and it looks real. But all you have to do is kind of shift to the side, and you realize, “Oh, it’s just a cardboard cutout. It’s really just a one dimensional thing.” So I realized that everybody that is giving negative feedback, they’re not reacting to me. They’re reacting to a version of me that they think is 3D but is actually just one piece of me. It’s not me. It’s not all of me. Somebody’s not liking my book or liking my writing or something creative, it’s not that they don’t like me. It’s that they just don’t like that particular piece of me. 

The other thing that I found, I learned this early on doing this podcast. It was funny. We had a review come in that talked about how much they love the podcast, and they’re getting so much out of it. Then the next review was, “Shawn Coyne is brilliant, but Tim is dim.” The review went on to talk about how much of an idiot I am. What I’ve realized is that most of the time, when people get feedback, it’s actually a reflection of themselves. So when people love the podcast and love what I do on the podcast, I realized that in rooting for me, they’re rooting for themselves. What they’re hoping is that if I can succeed, they can succeed too. So they’re just projecting onto me their own hopes and dreams for themselves. It’s the same on the negativity. When people get really upset or really dislike something of mine or criticize something of mine, a lot of times it’s more about them than it is about me and my work.

Anyway, that’s my answer. Those are a few things I use to help get rid of the negativity or not taken on. But the biggest thing is I have people that I trust, and I’ll take negativity from them and critiques from them and try to grow from it. Then people I don’t know, anonymous people online, I just ignore their criticism and don’t assume they have any idea what they’re talking about. Okay, so let’s jump into the real reason you’re here on this podcast, which is to hear from Shawn Coyne. We’re going to jump back into this idea of the Story Grid Trinity and we’re going to start with that first piece, the on the surface piece. So let’s jump in and get started. 

[EPISODE]

[00:06:43] TG: Shawn, in the last episode, we started talking about how we came to realize that there’s this foundational level of story that we need to talk about. You introduced the on the surface, above the surface, and beyond the surface. So I just want to dig a little bit into the on the surface and both one to just talk about what it is again, but also where you see the most people go wrong in this area because without on the surface, you might as well not even bother with the other two. But then I’ve also seen manuscripts where people are really concerned with the other two and kind of forget the first one. So talk a little bit again about what it is and where you see most people going wrong with on the surface thinking.

[00:07:35] SC: Well, on the surface is the literal kinetic motion of what your audience is projecting into the sort of cinema of their own mind. I was talking to Leslie Watts about this the other day, and we’re working on a side project about point of view, perspective, etc. Of course, it occurred to me that there’s a trinity of points of view that the storyteller needs to understand and to have a grasp of because it will be very helpful when you have to deal with this trinity of things that I’m talking about on the surface, above the surface, and beyond the surface. So I think it’s a good idea to sort of introduce that idea now before I talk about on the surface because it will be very helpful I think for people to be able to understand exactly what I mean when I talk about on the surface. 

The point of view, there’s three sort of eyes. This is a really cool play on words because it’s the I of I am Shawn, right? My I-ness. Then there are my eyes, what I see. So there are three eyes in the story universe, right? The first eye is the eye of the storyteller, so that would be Tim Grahl. When you’re writing your novels, you’re thinking about what you want to write. You’re trying to solve the problems of being the storyteller. All right, so that’s the first I. 

The second eye is the eye of the avatars on your stage, right? So if you think of yourself as sort of this being that’s climbed a ladder, let’s say you’ve climbed up a ladder, and you’re looking down on a set, and it’s sort of like Tim Grahl’s diorama of the universe. Let’s say you’re going to populate that sort of box with avatars. So you’re going to create these fictional beings and you’re going to sort of go, “Oh, I’m going to take this person and I’m going to drop it down here. Then I’m going to take this rock, and I’m going to roll the rock, and it’s going to hit the person.” That’s your eye. That’s what you are projecting onto your stage, right? Cool. 

Now, you will eventually say to yourself, “Oh, I need to think about what my avatar thinks about that rock about to hit them. What would they do with a rock approaching them, right?” So then you’re going to take your eye, a storyteller, and drop it down onto the stage and think about what’s going on on that stage from the point of view of that avatar. All right, so that’s the second eye, the eye of the avatar. So the first eye is the eye of the author. We’ll call that in A too. So the eye of the author is number one. The eye of the avatar is number two. And there’s a third eye. 

This is sort of where we make our bones at Story Grid, right? Because we say don’t forget the eye of the audience. There’s the audience that’s on the other side of the scrim of your stage, and they are looking at the avatars moving around in that space, and the objects that are stopping them from getting from point A to point B. So you have the eye of the audience, the eye of the avatar, and the eye of the storyteller. There are levels, right? The eye of the author’s up here, the eye of the avatar is right here, and the eye of the audience is right here. 

Think of it like a movie theater, right? The audience is like this, and then they’re looking at a screen, so they have to look up. Then there’s the avatars running around on the two-dimensional space of the screen. Then there’s the hidden author of the creator of that motion, right?

[00:11:39] TG: Like the puppet master. He’s the one moving them.

[00:11:42] SC: That’s exactly right. So when you have these three eyes, this trinity of eyes, then you can say to yourself, “Okay, I have a trinity of planes of perception.” So I’ve got the eye of the author is looking at the story from one particular plane of perception. I’ve got the avatars that are looking at the world in their plane of perception. Then I’ve got the audience who’s looking at it through their planes of perception. I’ll play it’s a perception mean. Our length, width, and depth, and time, right? When we go to the actual theater and we’re an audience member, we see the three-dimensional movement of players on a stage enacting a story. 

Now, the audience is going to want to experience what they’re seeing. The ideal situation is that it’s so well constructed that the audience believes that the avatars are real human beings. That’s a really cool insight, isn’t it? The ideal situation was when the audience believes that the avatars are real. Okay, so cool. That brings up a question. Well, how do we experience reality? 

[00:13:05] TG: Yeah. Because when you say that, it makes me think. I think to Hamilton, right? Because when you’re talking about actual theater, because I’ve had this thought about Hamilton. When my wife and I first watched it, when it came out on Disney Plus last year, we were mesmerized, and we loved it, and we watched it over and over. But then from this kind of logical stepping back and looking, it’s a bunch of people on a stage singing at each other. It makes no sense why I believe what you’re saying. They’re real, that this is actually happening, that this is affecting me that I forget I’m even watching it. It has all of those effects, and yet it’s kind of ridiculous that it even can have those effects because it doesn’t make any logical.

If we were just at the mall, and this was happening, people just started singing at each other around us and dancing and dressed up in weird outfits. We would be like, “What is going on?” It would not suck us in. I don’t know. I just think about that of just like how does it do that so well, where, I mean, it’s a true-ish story but it still forces us to suspend an enormous amount of disbelief to get into it.

[00:14:15] SC: I’ve used that term myself in my career. I don’t really think it’s about suspending disbelief. It’s about falling into a portal. It’s about falling into a virtual reality that is so well-constructed and so condensed, that what the storyteller has done is gotten rid of all the peripheral stuff that doesn’t matter. What they’ve done is focused on what really matters. So the most salient, the most relevant experiential moments of life are condensed into a story, such that you can watch an entire set of avatars progress throughout their entire life in three hours. 

We see Hamilton as a poor young teenager arriving in New York City. This is kind of how Lin-Manuel Miranda I think considered this is like, “What is this really about?” “Oh, it’s about this teenage kid who comes to New York and has to make something of himself because he’s from nowheresville.” What does that sound like? That sounds like me, right? Wow, okay. Maybe if I look at this historical figure as a real human being who’s like me, then maybe I could tell a story that other people might find real like I do, right?

[00:15:43] TG: Right. 

[00:15:43] SC: Lin-Manuel Miranda had a beautiful eye as a storyteller because he looked at the stage and he populated the stage to tell Lin-Manuel’s story. The reason why that story is so great, it’s not Hamilton. It is Hamilton. Of course, it is. But it’s Lin-Manuel’s story, and Lin-Manuel’s story is all of our stories, right? 

[00:16:07] TG: Right.

[00:16:08] SC: It’s this beautiful, “Oh, my gosh.” The heavens parted when he locked in like, “Oh, this is just a guy like me.” That’s why it made sense that he could do the rap music and the hip hop beats, and it worked because he is Hamilton and Hamilton is Lin-Manuel. Anyway, so I’ve got these three eyes now, right? I’ve got the eye of the author, the eye of the avatars, and the eye of the audience. Now, the author, the storyteller has to be able to keep all of those eyes in mind, right? But they don’t have to do it all at the same time. 

This is the trick of the Story Grid. It’s like separate the problems into smaller problems. So the first I want people to think about is not about themselves as the author, not about the phony make them ups of the avatar, what they’re going through, but to think about the audience. What are you going to subject your audience to? What are you going to make them watch, right? So think about the way you write is you’re basically describing motion and action in real life. If you’re a novelist, a scene is about the motion and the change events of value and these avatars populating a stage. At the beginning of the scene is one way in, and at the end of the scene it’s another. 

What we want to think about on the surface is what is the audience seeing from scene to scene, right? We don’t want to bore the audience with, “I’m going to start my story with two people at a restaurant having dinner.” Then the next scene is the next morning because they’re going to fall in love and sleep together. Then the next morning, that scene is going to be them having breakfast. Then the scene after that is that later that day, they’re going to meet for coffee. Then later that day, they’re going to get together for a party, right? It’s just you’re going to make people watch people eat dinner, then eat breakfast, and then have coffee, and then go to a cocktail party to drink and eat canapés. Is that fair to the audience? Will you want to watch that?

You need to think about what is the literal kinetic motion on the screen of the mind of the audience. That’s your first priority, and you want to mix it up. You want to have different numbers of people on the stage at different times. You want to bring in different sets. I mean, this is what they do. This is what a set designer does in a play. This is why you hire the great stage lighting because they make the set different in each scene. When you go to see Hamilton on Broadway, does nothing happen in motion? Do people just stand in the middle of the stage and go, “La, la, la, la, la, la, la?” No, no, no. He’s got dancers. He’s got cannons. He’s got staircases. He’s got all of this stuff flowing and moving in kinetic motion constantly. He has a wheel in the middle of the stage where people are literally turning around, stepping off. 

It’s remarkable the choreography of that show, and it’s not a coincidence because it wouldn’t be very interesting to watch. If you have Hamilton standing here the entire show, Burr standing over here, I mean, this is part of learning how to be an actor is to understand you’re acting with your motion, as much as you are with your words, right? In so many ways, we enact far more than we can ever verbalize because we have a very limited ability to categorically describe in language and symbol exactly what we mean. This is why email is a problem. This is why Twitter is a problem because you don’t get any context or subtlety in a bunch of symbols on a screen, so you need to see people in motion in order to really understand what’s going on because there’s so much more information that’s being transmitted to the audience by the way they’re seeing the story progress. 

On the surface, you asked earlier, what big mistake do you see people making. This is the biggest mistake over and over and over again because I think it stems from believing that the motion component of the story is somewhat less than the other intellectual things. So people kind of connote action stories as, “I don’t want to tell a stupid Hollywood action story because I’ve got much more stuff to say.” But that’s really, really off the mark because yes, there are stories like the Transformers stories, that they’re really spectacular. There’s a lot of motion. There’s a lot of action. There’s a lot of crashes. There’s a lot of transformation of cars and things. It’s fascinating, and the motion can be really exciting to watch. But it’s not enough, right? 

Also, it depends upon your cognitive development, right? Children will watch a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and they’re running around, and there’s all this motion, and it’s fascinating, and it’s fun to watch. We were all kids and we all watched that, and we all loved it, right? There was something fascinating and exciting about watching Tom chase Jerry or vice versa. That stuff is not stupid. That stuff is extraordinarily difficult to create, and it’s also extraordinary difficult to innovate. So I think what a lot of storytellers do is they say, “That’s not me. I’m not an action story person.” But they’re misrepresenting what action is, and this is a very, very important distinction, right? There are action stories that are dealing with life and death. 

[00:22:31] TG: Right. That’s at the genre level. 

[00:22:33] SC: That’s at the genre level. But there’s something beneath that, which is called the kinetic motion on the surface dimension of a story that has to be interesting to watch. So you can tell a story that is a global story about a maturation process, where no one’s life is ever at stake, right? 

[00:22:54] TG: Right.

[00:22:55] SC: But that does not mean that you don’t have to worry about what people are seeing on the screen of their minds. You need to make it interesting. You need to make it innovative.

[00:23:07] TG: Yeah. For me, I remember I bring this up a lot, so it really sticks out to me is back, I don’t know, years ago, when I wrote some scene. That’s when you told me about the Mad Men introduction, where instead of Peggy and whoever the guy was just having a conversation where he tells her about the office, you follow them as they move through the office, right? So there’s all this kinetic movement, while it’s getting the information across. 

I realized, for me, obviously, I’m not in that place where I’m like, “Oh, I need to stay very intellectual and not do an action story, right?” I’m trying to write an action story. But, for me, it’s like, “Okay. In this scene, I need to get this information across, right? So I need to make sure that these people say these things, and that it moves the scene from here to here because I’ve got somewhere I’m going.” I forget about the making it interesting kinetically or on the surface. So then that’s where I end up just having two people standing there talking for 1,500 words because I’m really worried about the information getting out the right way. Then you read it and you’re like, “This is boring. You have to have the movie. You have to have them doing something, while the information is being given to the reader in some way.” 

Then we talked about before we even with something like Pride and Prejudice that is a love story. You’re like, “Oh, those people. They’re just moving in all the time, like even in the first scene when she’s like chasing him around, trying to get him to go see the guy that just moved to town.” That’s how I’ve come to think of it is just like, “Okay.” Even if you are trying to do something intellectual, even if you are just trying to live the way that people think in this, it’s like you still got to give them something that makes it interesting to take in that information. 

I was thinking about this. I’ve been watching all these Berkshire Hathaway annual meetings. It’s like a lot of what they’re talking about is in books. But when I try to read the books, they’re boring, and I can’t get through them. But hearing two guys answer questions, tell nerdy old guy jokes, it’s way more interesting to take in the information that way than just reading a dry book about how to invest better.

[00:25:25] SC: That’s exactly true. Okay, so I just want this one takeaway here. The three eyes, right? Each one of these eyes is going to be associated with one of these foundational levels of story. So there’s a trinity of eyes, and there’s a trinity of story forms that have to come together and coalesce into a whole. Remember, I said the eye of the author, the eye of the avatar, and the eye of the audience. So it’s triple A; author, avatar, audience. On the surface is all about thinking about the eye of the audience. What are they seeing literally on screen? 

Just to support you one last time, is there’s now sort of this cliché. It’s the Aaron Sorkin cliché. It’s not really a cliché, but Aaron Sorkin is an extraordinarily brilliant writer. He’s extraordinarily intellectual. He’s the one who wrote the West Wing and A Few Good Men. He’s just really intelligent, crazy intelligent, right? So the way he solves his problem of how do I get really intelligent people to have very intelligent conversations in such a way that people find it interesting is he does what he’s called the walk and talk. 

[00:26:50] TG: Yeah. Was he the first one to do that?

[00:26:53] SC: No, absolutely not. But he does it so well. 

[00:26:57] TG: Right. Yeah. I just remember that, people talking about that, and everybody always references the West Wing when they talk about it.

[00:27:04] SC: That’s how we made a story a bunch of nerds in the West Wing of the White House, who never really leave that office, right? All they do is go, “Oh, my gosh. Pick up the phone.” Like, “Ah, just a minute. I have to get some coffee.” Somebody is doing the dishes, and that’s what they did in the office too. It’s constant motion. Nobody’s ever standing still. You see people walking into Michael’s office and Michael going over here and going into the snack room. How many scenes are in the snack room? Kevin’s eating food all the time. Everybody has a motion that we associate with them. When we think of Michael, we think of a particular kind of kinetic motion. 

I was reading this great thing about the Simpsons the other day, and one of the writers said, “Whenever I have to write Homer Simpson, I think of writing about a dog because a dog can have a switch of emotions like that.” The way he moves is very “Woof woof woof”, very doglike. Think about that I of the audience. Don’t bore them. It’s kind of not cool, right? How would you like it if someone said, “Oh, I want you to sit down, and me and my friends are going to have a conversation, and you’re going to evaluate it and tell us how good it is, and we’re going to be talking for three hours.”? It’s no good. So on the surface is primary, primary. It’s all about excitement and motion and interesting. Is it interesting to watch?

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:28:41] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid-related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. Also, make sure you go to storygrid.com/trinity to find out more about the Story Grid Trinity seminar coming up this August here in Nashville, Tennessee and streaming virtually. Make sure you go to storygrid.com/books to see all of the titles we’ve released through Story Grid Publishing. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you’d like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcasts and leaving a rating and review. Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.

[END]

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Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
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Author Tim Grahl

One Comment

Tom says:

Tim. You are not dim! You know this is true. You hold your own with Shawn, who is also in no way dim. I can see your intelligence and insight come through in the podcasts, regularly. Shawn does set a high bar, but you meet it easily.

I think you have a very solid talent in knowing how to move the podcast where it should go, and really, you are the conductor. Shawn is more the performer. He adds tons of value, but then so do you. You ask the right questions of him every time, and it is obvious you prepare well. He does show these flashes of brilliance, but you keep everything, including Shawn, on track. So you are a perfect team, and the podcast is strong because both of you are great together.

One thing I like is how up front you two are and are willing to grow. You told us up front just the other day that the methodology was not as perfect as you wished it to be. You and the team did something very important which was to question your own authority, and this led to your team thinking even deeper about how to make the methodology better. That takes courage, so Bravo.

I’ve learned more about how to write from you guys, and in particular about structure and order, than from all the rest combined. So thank you, and please keep up the great work.

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