#230 – Story Grid Trinity – Above the Surface


[INTRODUCTION]

[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m you host Tim Grahl. I’m a writer and publisher at Story Grid and joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid. The author of the Book Story Grid and an editor with over 30 years’ experience. 

Yesterday, I was catching up with a friend of mine, an author named Jay Papasan. He’s the author of The ONE Thing, and he’s one of these guys that I’ve known for a while in the industry. We catch up maybe once a year or so until he was just asking me about Story Grid. I was catching him up on everything we’ve been working on, showing them our master work guide, showing them some of our other books, talking about the upcoming training seminar. I just realized how excited I get when I talk about Story Grid. 

As many of you know, I came into Story Grid as a fan first. I read the book, I loved it, Shawn and I started the Podcast, but even then, there were no workshops, there were no other books, there was no there was nothing else for me to do, other than learn how to write. Learning the story Grid methodology just changed my life so much that it makes it really, really easy for me to tell other people about it. 

Back in March, I got my first real look at the Story Grid Trinity. Shawn, Leslie Watts, our editor-in-chief, Danielle Kiowski, one of our story grid certified editors, and I all came to Nashville. We rented a house for a few days. We spent five days working through the first draft of my next novel, and running it through this Story Grid Trinity. It was just one of those amazing weeks. I mean, it was really, really hard because I found out on day one that I was going to need to do a page one rewrite. As we worked through it, and basically tore the story apart and started putting it back together. By the time we reached the end of the week, it was just a just completely transformative time, not just for my novel, but for me, as well. 

So as I’ve continued learning about this, on the surface above the surface, and beyond the surface, it is completely changed my writing. Just really leveled me up in a way that I honestly didn’t know if I would ever be able to reach. That’s why I’m so excited to introduce these ideas to you as well. We’ve been talking about them on the Podcast. We’re going to dive into above the surface here in a minute. I just want to remind you that you can join us here in Nashville, or online for a live seminar. The Story Grid Trinity seminar, where Shawn is going to go in deep detail through the Story Grid Trinity, and you can find out everything you need to know about that conference at storygrid.com/trinity so again, that’s storygrid.com/trinity. 

Go there learn more about it. I really hope to see you here in Nashville. I’m really excited for this pandemic starting to be able to lift as everybody gets vaccinated. If you can come join us here in Nashville, we would love to have you if you can’t join us here in Nashville in person we are offering a online virtual where we stream it live. We did this last September, it works really well. We have professional, an entire professional team here, filming it and streaming it and we’ll have a live slack forum so that you can ask questions throughout the event as well. 

You can see all of that a storygrid.com/trinity and I just really hope you’ll join us for that. I think it’s going to be a life changing event for you. Okay, enough of that, we’re going to go ahead and jump into this week’s episode where we talk about the above the surface component of the Story Grid Trinity. Let’s jump in and get started. 

Okay, so Shawn, the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about the Story Grid Trinity that you’ve been working on. We looked at how it’s on the surface above the surface and beyond the surface. So last week, we looked at on the surface. You also talked about those three different planes of perception of, I the writer, or I author, I the avatar that’s actually moving, and then the eye the audience as well. 

So we really looked at the audience and the on the surface this week, I just wanted to talk about the above the surface because that’s the one I feel I have the hardest time wrapping my head around exactly what we’re talking about, when we’re talking about above the surface and the avatar and what’s going on above the neck as you say.

[00:04:53] SC: Yeah, well, I mean, this is a very difficult thing. You’re basically exploring the cognitive realm of Homo sapiens when you’re talking about above the surface. So that’s a very, very vast and complex set of investigations that have multiple disciplines to do that. You’ve got neurology, you’ve got psychology you’ve got all this stuff. It’s generally called cognitive science, because they just want to schlump it all together and say it’s exploring how it is that we think. How is it that we navigate the world? How do we make decisions? How do we solve problems? How do we integrate our emotional systems? All this stuff. Above the surface is extraordinarily difficult. So what I’m trying to do is to boil it down into actionable things that the writer can consider and then to make sure that it works and if it works, then you can just move on with your life instead of worrying about the neurology of decision making. 

Okay, what’s above the surface? Alright, so what we talked about the last time was that there are these, this trinity of point of view, right? We’ve got the eye of the author, which is this, this being that’s on top of a stepladder, maybe 20 feet in the air and that author has decorated a scene, they’ve decorated a box, let’s pretend it’s a movie theater. 

So you’ve got the author, and they’ve put some avatars, I was talking to Leslie the other day, remember those dioramas, I don’t know, maybe we’re too young but when I was a kid, part of the school projects that I had to do in public school in Pittsburgh in the 1970’s, is that every now and then they would say, go home, get an old shoe box and what we want you to do is to make a scene in that shoe box that represents indigenous people living in whatever time – or a Thanksgiving seen from whatever. 

So what you would do is you go home, and you’d have the box, and then you would go, “Oh, what am I going to do with this box?” So you would go out and you’re “Well, I need some earth to represent earth. So you go out and get some leaves or some moss, and you throw it on the bottom, and then you get some rocks in the paint faces on them and then you put it right?

[00:07:30] TG: Yeah.

[00:07:31] SC: This is exactly what a storyteller does, right? We’re creating these dioramas in our mind, and then what we’re wanting to do is describe the diorama that we see to an audience so that they can see what we see in such a way that they understand what we’re trying to communicate. That’s the eye of the author. Its 20 feet above the surface, at the very top, not above the surface, but for lack of a better word. It’s the god perspective. 

Watching what’s going on in a constructed universe, on the surface of what they’ve created. Now, the second point of view that the storyteller needs to consider is the avatar. The avatar are those people in the diorama moving around through time and space. We’ve first started this whole discussion by talking about the audience, which is the third eye and that is, what are they seeing? Right? What we want to do is to consider now the avatars, what are they experiencing? Why are they doing what they’re doing? How do they think? Right? This is all about considering the reasons why people are behaving the way they are, in our crazy make them up avatar world. 

So what you as the author get to do is to think of “Who am I going to put in my diorama? Why? Why would I want to have two figures in my diorama who think exactly the same way? I wouldn’t, would I? Because it’d be boring. The eye above the surface is thinking about what reasons, what justifications my avatars using to put themselves in motion in the way that they do. 

When we are faced with the dilemma? Should I get the chocolate ice cream or the vanilla ice cream? We have a justification system in our mind. We go chocolate vanilla, definitely chocolate. Why? Well chocolates my favorite ice cream. Well, how do that? Well, I’ve had both chocolate ice cream and vanilla ice cream in the past and it’s been my experience that I get a higher level of pleasure from eating the chocolate ice cream than I do the vanilla ice. Right?

If you literally pick, this is what soccer teams would say to somebody. Well, why do you chocolate over vanilla? Then you go, I don’t know. I just do. What can you think more about why you do? Then they would go? “Oh, well, I guess I’ve had them.” I made a decision a long time ago that the pleasure I get from chocolate is higher than right? I’m making a value judgment. I value chocolate over vanilla.

[00:10:34] TG: Yeah, this made me think of them. That movie Runaway Bride, because when you first see her order eggs, her boyfriend orders eggs, and she says, I’ll have the same thing. Right? Then later, you start seeing Richard Gere asked her past boyfriends. What kind of eggs did she liked and every one of them started saying she liked poach just me, she fried just like me and then you realize the reason she was ordering those eggs was because she was constantly trying to turn herself into somebody, the man would like instead of being true to herself.

In the beginning, it looks well, they’re just at a diner and they just ordered eggs, it just it goes right past you without even paying attention but then later, you realize it’s this outer action that’s, that’s showing you what’s actually going on and what we would say is above the surface, is that what you’re talking about?

[00:11:34] SC: Exactly. I would also say that what you just described is a sub, a subcategory of above the surface, which is called unconscious behavior. 

[00:11:44] TG: Okay.

 [00:11:46] SC: There’s conscious behavior, subconscious behavior, and unconscious behavior and a story is all about converting the unconscious into conscious understanding.

[00:12:01] TG: What’s the difference between subconscious and unconscious? I think I use them interchangeably. 

[00:12:05] SC: Right? All right.

[00:12:06] TG: Because I know what conscious is. It’s, I would say, it’s when I know that I’m doing it on purpose. I know why I’m doing it. 

[00:12:15] SC: It’s salient, too. You’re aware. You’re aware of a particular phenomena and you are engaged with that phenomenon. The subconscious is something just beneath the surface that isn’t fully conscious yet, but it’s something that if somebody points their finger at it, we would be able to say, “Oh, yeah. I guess, I do do that.” If I do this to you, if we first meet, I go, “Hi, how you doing, and you give me a weird vibe, I might do something this, I might protect my – there’s great books out this, there’s an FBI guy who wrote a great book about, so it’s all the subconscious behaviors. They can slide into unconscious, too. 

Unconscious is something that requires deep, deep psychological investigation. For example, say that you were raised an environment that was very dangerous. So what you had to do in order to survive in that environment, was to figure out a way to almost try and not exist, to disappear into the background, so that you weren’t in danger. That would be become an unconscious thing that you would start to incorporate in the rest of your life, even after you’ve left the dangerous environment.

[00:14:00] TG: It’s the people that had that grew up and never had enough food. That now they hoard food, even though there’s plenty, plenty of food, and they’re never they’re never in danger of being out of food. 

[00:14:13] SC: That’s correct. 

[00:14:14] TG: Okay.

[00:14:17] SC: That is an unconscious thing, that I have a theory, that these unconscious behaviors, this is a little bit controversial so hang in here with me. I have this idea. It’s called the Limnology idea is such that we are from a long line of genetic stuff, right? Your parents had their parents who had their parents. You come from a line of let’s call it the growl line, right? Let’s say years and years and years ago in the past generations and generations ago, the growl line had to do some things in order to survive, that weren’t exactly perfect, but it was necessary. 

That behavior then got passed on to0 the children of that growl line, and then the children’s children and the children’s children and the children’s children. Just to be more specific about this, let’s say, it was a really horrible time and in order for the family to survive, they had to I’m going to make this nasty because it’s your family saying the father had to go and steal food from the people next door, because he didn’t want his kids to die. Right? Let’s say it’s a real bad problem.

So he had to go and steal some food, and then he had to protect that food that they could survive. He had to make some very difficult decisions that would require him to choose the lives of his children over the lives of his next doors, neighbor’s children. Right?

[00:16:05] TG: Okay. 

[00:16:06] SC: That’s a horrible choice. Right? Then it became deeply ingrained within the girl family and then let’s say the girl family became extraordinarily selfish and they became very successful, because they didn’t really care about other people’s stuff. Then, let’s say here comes, here comes a new growl and he’s “You know what, this has made my family miserable. I’ve got to stop that behavior.” He has to pull the unconscious, Limnological problems of his family. He’s got to break it apart, and integrate a new way of being, which is very, very hard. 

The unconscious is, it can’t go that freakin deep and it can also be just in the lifespan of the human being. Every time I get nervous if I do this, and I’ve been doing this since I was in the cradle, it’s going to be hard to stop. 

[00:17:05] TG: Right, right, right.

[00:17:06] SC: The story is about how to break those things that don’t work anymore, right? They’re maladaptive to the environment in which we find ourselves. If my solution to a problem that worked for me for a long time is to yell at people who don’t do what I want them to do, until they do, that’s going to be a maladaptive behavior, because it’s going to not solve my three perennial problems, it might solve my survival problem. I’m certainly not going to have any close relationships with anyone, because everyone’s not going to want to be around me, because all I do is yell at people.

So that’s a pattern of behavior that has to be broken apart and fixed. A lot of people are “I’ve got great reasons to be angry. Let me list them.” Right? “This and this, and this, and this and this.” And you’re “I’m not arguing with your justifications for your anger.” What I’m saying is that it’s not pleasant to be around someone who’s angry all the time. Maybe better think about how you might want to see the other side of experience, and stop being so angry about it. Because there’s a lot of stuff to be happy about, too.

[00:18:18] TG: Is this, well, because you said a few minutes ago, you said, the storytelling is the act of bringing the unconscious to the conscious. When you’re talking about above the surface, that’s what you’re getting at is looking at your avatar, and saying, what is unconsciously driving them that needs to be broken apart and re integrated consciously?

[00:18:45] SC: Yes, that’s the global question you want to ask yourself.

[00:18:48] TG: Okay.

[00:18:49] SC: That’s the global, right? Now, there’s the micro, and you go scene by scene and say, “What are they thinking?” “What reason is it that they’re doing the thing that they’re doing?” Right? The trajectory of a story is about breaking the cognitive framing of an avatar such that they reach an insight and enlightenment. Oh, I guess they don’t have to yell at everybody and sometimes I can be, I can just let people be people. I can’t control them. Me yelling at anyone isn’t going to stop people from being people, right?

Yes, the above the surface has many dimensions of levels of analysis, right? There’s the, what’s going on in each moment of a scene? There’s what’s going on in each scene? There’s what’s going on in deep sequence? Each quadrant, right? The global story, each happy, right? We can break that thing into a lot of different levels of analysis. The above the surface is, it’s really, really important. The reason why is that, a really well told story makes the very difficult process of confronting unconscious maladaptive behaviors. Understandable. Right?

When we see a great story, we go, “Oh, wow, yeah.” That person was one way at the beginning. Now they see the world in a different way and the new way that they see it is much more enlightened, even though they probably they’ve suffered tremendously to learn that lesson but now that they have it, now, they’re better adapted to their environment, and they have better relationships. 

That would be a prescriptive story and then there’s the opposite. Here’s someone who is doubling down on their anger. They’re never going to leave the anger and then they’re going to doom themselves to being miserable. That’s a cautionary tale. So guess who gets to make all of those decisions? That author who’s sitting up on that ladder, right? This is all about what is moving the motion. What is energizing the avatars to try and attain things that they care about? 

That’s the way I define emotion. Its energy to get the avatars to attain things that they care about. The energy makes them go in motion to a goal state. It’s important that your avatars have goal states that want something and they need something. Now what they want will be obvious, it’ll be conscious to them. I want to get a Cadillac car. What they need will be unconscious, right? The need in a prescriptive tale, the need becomes conscious in the enlightenment moment, at the end of the third quadrant.

You see how quickly you start getting into cognitive developmental framing here, once you start talking about above the surface, because in order to answer the questions about their avatars, this is what’s extraordinarily beautiful about storytelling. The author has to explore what they believe they have to explore what they value, what they care about, what’s meaningful to them, what they want, what they need. This is why the psycho technology of storytelling isn’t just to have a bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list, it’s actually more important, far more important than. It’s all about learning how to investigate yourself by coming up with some crazy avatars. They aren’t you, but you can put you in them. The way you put you in them is to think about how those avatars are thinking, how they’re moving through space and time. How they are trying to attain a goal state of a want. They want to have something. That’s the second eyes, the eye of the Avatar that the storyteller needs to consider and it’s really, really super important.

But if you don’t, just let me go back for a second, if you don’t have an exciting motion on the stage, the audience won’t give you the opportunity to go near that. First, think about the motion. Then think about the emotion and the emotion will link to the motion, right? The more crazy your motion is, the more you’re going to have to have really intense justification systems to have your avatars move through the world in a way that seems real. 

[00:24:10] TG: Yeah. Connor, my oldest son and I watched the first John Wick over the weekend. That’s become a joke I feel of “What’s the lamest setup you can have for an action movie? Right that where he literally kills 100 people because his dog was killed. But there’s too – when I re-watched it because I haven’t watched it in a while through the, now that I’m learning all this stuff, I’m watching it through these frames as these two moments in the movie that make it work. 

Of course that sets it up but the first is when the bad guys have finally call it John Wick, and they’re going to kill him and he was basically – he was explaining why he’s on this rampage is that dog was the only thing that provided him any kind of hope after the one thing that did give him hope his wife died. That dog was this replacement and they just took it from him. So he’s “You took all my hope, you took every reason I had not to step back into this life.” 

Then at the very end of the movie, he’s stabbed and beaten up and bleeding and he wrecks a car, he falls out of it and he stumbles into this building and it just happens to be a veterinary clinic or pound or something. Right? He not only gets the gauze and the staple and everything he needs to put himself back together. There’s a dog there that is slated to be killed, to be put down so he opens it up and he walks away. So he re-found his hope, it was just silly of a setup as it is, it’s still worked, because you knew why he was doing what he was doing. They took him through the entire art by the end.

[00:25:58] SC: Yeah, I mean, it’s probably be the first person and last person to make this comparison. It’s Captain Ahab. It’s Moby Dick. John Wick is Captain Ahab, and he’s out to destroy the random nature of the universe. He’s decided that anyone who creates a chaotic situation in his life and randomly decides to destroy something of value to him must die. That’s what Captain Ahab does, because the white whale ate his leg. Right? So he’s got this peg leg and he’s “That I’m going to kill that whale.” The whole story is about, talking about motion, right? 

There’s a lot of great motion on that whaleship that keeps us glued to the page but the emotion is this Titanic, the hubris of the person of Ahab. We all sort of like, “That Ahab’s one crazy guy, but I wonder if he’s going to kill that whale.” That’s what keeps us going. We’re like, “Is John Wick really going to make it through this time?” His connection to a dog is, yeah. That worked. I mean, they had the minimum viable amount of above the surface and beyond the surface in the John Wick stories, to make them commercially very successful, because the spectacle’s unbelievable.

[00:27:30] TG: You feel something watching John Wick, versus Transformers. That’s what’s so interesting to me is it’s like, you do have this internal pole that just isn’t there for –

[00:27:42] SC: It’s Keanu Reeves. Don’t underestimate the power of the actor. Keanu Reeves, the minute he’s on the stage, right? You’re sympathetic to Keanu Reeves, because he’s a fascinating, inscrutable human being. We all think, “Wow, there’s something really deep in that guy.”

Above the surface is about the eye of the avatar. It’s about the reasons, the justifications to do the things that we do. You have to look at the why the avatar is doing what they’re doing, what their justification, what their reason is for their behavior.

[00:28:29] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. Again, if you want to join us for the Story Grid Trinity Conference here in Nashville and streaming online, you can see all of the information for that at storygrid.com/trinity.

For everything else Story Grid related, checkout 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/books to see all of the titles we have released through Story Grid Publishing.

If you 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 submit a question for Shawn to answer on a future episode, you can go to storygrid.com/podcast as well.

If you 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

2 Comments

Tom says:

It seems what we are talking about is motivation. It also seems that if the motivation of a MC is understood by the reader, then their kinetic motion ‘on the surface’ makes sense to the reader (and if not, it doesn’t).

Shawn made a great observation in his Story Grid book about Jake Gittes in Chinatown. Robert Towne’s screenplay has a brief little scene where Jake reveals to Evelyn Mulwray that he made a mistake back when he worked for the DA’s office that ended up tragically hurting someone based on him not stepping up. So this reveals to the audience a ‘morality: redemption’ motivation—Jake Gittes is driven to never have to bear that pain of him not stepping up being the cause of someone else’s woes. He could not live with himself if he ever failed to step up.

On some level, we all can relate to this.

So immediately, all of the unexpected things he does to help Evelyn and her daughter in Act III make perfect sense to the viewer. Jake wants an opportunity to do the right thing, to psychologically redeem himself. That hits home with his internal need.

Shawn pointing this out (my favorite movie, seen it 9 times, never put 2 and 2 together) has been critical to my writing. It was a really important lesson.

So I am happy to see that the methodology is now concentrating on the importance of motivation. I likely knew the value unconsciously, but now I see it consciously.

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Kat Adele says:

A minor sidetrip: If one is not familiar with dioramas (as Shawn mentions at 04:53), view the work of Artist Tanaka Tatsuya:

https://www.designboom.com/art/intricate-miniature-worlds-japanese-artist-tatsuya-tanaka-04-15-2021/
https://www.spoon-tamago.com/2014/08/05/artist-creates-miniature-dioramas-every-day-of-the-year/
https://www.boredpanda.com/miniature-dioramas-tatsuya-tanaka/

or you can jump down the rabbit hole at: https://miniature-calendar.com/

In Tanaka’s work, it’s possible to experience the ‘on the surface’ and ‘above the surface’ in these various diaramas.

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