#231 – Story Grid Trinity – Beyond the Surface


[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 your host, Tim Grahl, and I am a writer and publisher at Story Grid. 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 25 years’ experience.

In this episode, we keep diving into the Story Grid Trinity. This week, we’re going to talk about the third level, which is beyond the surface. Now, I just want to remind you that we are hosting a Story Grid Trinity seminar here in Nashville, Tennessee, and streaming online as well. You can see all of the information about that at storygrid.com/trinity.

Also, Shawn has put together just a short video walking you through everything that he’s going to teach at the seminar and where this idea came from and the basis of it and why it’s so important. It’s a really cool little video. You can see that at storygrid.com/trinity as well.

Okay, let’s jump into this final episode of the Story Grid Trinity series on the podcast, where we talk about beyond the surface. I’m excited for you to listen in. Let’s jump in and get started.


[00:01:12] TG: Shawn, the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at this Story Grid Trinity, and looking at the three different pieces of it, on the surface, above the surface and beyond the surface. Well, you’ve talked about how you have to have on the surface. Then once you have on the surface, you look at above the surface. Then now once you have above the surface, we’re looking at beyond the surface. I also feel they get a little bit more hard to wrap your head around at each level.

On the surface is pretty straightforward. It’s what’s happening, what are the characters literally doing, how are they moving, where are they going, what’s happening to them? Then above the surface is that what is happening inside of their skulls? The why of what they’re doing, what they want, what they need, all of those things. What is the beyond the surface?

[00:02:07] SC: Well, the beyond the surface is the mono-mythic construct that Carl Jung came up with, that he called individuation. Okay, so the individuation is simply the means by which we transform ourselves into better agents on the planet. Now, it’s based upon in philosophy, it’s called the nomological order. The words that philosophers use and scientists use can get super intimidating. All the nomological order means is that there’s a trinity. There’s a trinity of the way we experience the world, okay. That trinity is that we are agents, each subject on the planet, each homo-sapiens and other species, too. COVID-19 is an agent. Each agent has agency that they enact in the universal arena.

Beyond the surface stems from that trinity. Each one of us has agency that we enact in the global arena. It’s a feedback loop. One of the examples I use at seminars is, it says if when I throw a boomerang, I expect it to come back as a boomerang. I genetically throw something into the arena and it circles back, and I’m expecting it to be a boomerang that comes back to me, right? That’s called being in-tune with the arena. I make a prediction.

If I throw the boomerang a certain way, it will circle back and I’ll be able to catch it in my left hand. That’s a predictive agent and acting agency in arena that they believe that they are attuned to. Here’s the problem, sometimes we throw boomerangs and we get a gorilla come back at us, a metaphorical gorilla. What we predict will happen, doesn’t happen. What we can do is one of two things. We can say to ourselves, I need to find a new way of thinking about the way I throw boomerangs. Or I can say, “Oh, I’m just going to ignore that gorilla, because it will make me have to change the way I’m behaving in this arena. I don’t want to change, because it’s working pretty well.”

If I throw a boomerang a 150 times and I only get one gorilla back, I’m not going to change my behavior, because that’s a pretty good percentage. This is beyond the surface stuff. It’s as true today as it was in the Bronze Age. Beyond the surface is those deep patterns of understanding reality that have to be aligned in a story, so that it makes sense.

When Carl Jung was talking about individuation, and then Joseph Campbell started talking about the hero’s journey, what they were talking about was a process by which we can get better at our boomerangs, so that we can attune ourselves to the natural reality of a thing that we don’t know much about, but we can get a little bit better. We can transform our agencies, so that it’s more attuned and adaptive to the environments that we find ourselves.

The beyond the surface stuff has traditionally been seen as the hero’s journey. There’s all kinds of wonderful stuff that you can use to check to see if you’re aligning with beyond the surface. There are some great cheats, great feature lists. Like, you want to start your avatars in a world that they’re very familiar with. In that world, at the beginning of your story, you want an avatar to have a gorilla drop into their life. Meaning, they’re throwing boomerangs and all of a sudden, a big, big gorilla comes back from the boomerang, instead of what they’re expecting.

Then, in order to deal with that gorilla, they have to leave their familiar environment and go into a brand-new environment to search for a solution to that gorilla problem. I’m speaking very metaphorically and abstractly, but this is generally beyond the surface. They move from their familiar into the extraordinary world, and they discover that all of their boomerangs turned into gorillas.

It’s like, the percentages of boomerangs coming back are dwindling. In the familiar world, they’re shooting about 80%. It’s pretty good. Then when they go into the extraordinary world, 80% becomes 70%, becomes 60%, becomes 50%. It gets progressively maladaptive. What they do, their motions in that world are not working to get them what they want, until you hit this crisis in the middle of the storm. It’s called the midpoint crisis. It’s when the avatar, your central protagonist avatar, discovers that everything that they’re throwing doesn’t make sense. None of the things that they thought were going to work for them, they don’t longer make sense. This is the individuation process. This is the hero’s journey.

Once they hit that crisis, they tumble down to the depths of themselves. They fall into chaos and they wonder, “Well, if I can’t do anything on earth that makes sense, that means that I don’t make sense, which means that even my being on the planet doesn’t make sense.” They reach a bottom of themselves, which I call the existential crisis. That’s when they wonder, what’s the point of all this? This is ridiculous. It’s at this point, that something either magical happens, they release their desire to have certainty about what they’re supposed to do and that release of that desire actually opens up a channel into another realm that we don’t understand, called the numinous.

They have an insight. It’s like, when you don’t know the answer to a problem, and all of a sudden you do, it’s exactly that. When people say, “Oh, that numinous stuff is ridiculous, Shawn. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not the way the world is.” Just think about when you solve a problem, when you thought you would never solve it. it’s just like, “Oh, of course. That’s what I do.” That’s what I’m talking about. That’s an insight. That’s a revelation that comes from somewhere. I just called that place somewhere, the numinous.

[00:09:04] TG: Yeah. A couple of weeks ago, you introduce the three eyes. You had the eye of the author, the eye of the avatar, the eye of the audience. You talked about the audience from the on the surface side of things. You talked about the avatar from above the surface. How do you equate the author and the beyond the surface together?

[00:09:27] SC: The author has to contend with beyond the surface. The author needs to think about these things for themselves. This is where it gets extraordinarily revelatory. It’s what Steve Pressfield would call, the artist’s journey. This is when the author artist discovers something unique about themselves. It’s like, Jackson Browne says, “The reason why I write songs is I want to learn to know what I think.” That’s what the author does.

The author is contending with beyond the surface. Because I haven’t really mentioned this, but there’s a trinity of time signatures for each of these two. The on the surface time is what is happening right now. What is actually in front of my eyes, in my vision? What motion am I experiencing in the world? That’s on the surface. Above the surface is, what am I experiencing right now? What does that have to do with everything I’ve experienced in my life so far? That’s the duration of your lifespan? What is it going to mean for the future of my life, the finitude of my life?

On the surface is a point in time. It’s a single event. It’s a collapse of a moment in time. Above the surface is about the finitude of your own existence. How long is Tim Grahl going to be on the planet? The way I look at doing the podcast is like, I don’t know how much more time I have. I’m not trying to be morbid, but I have to think about, “Look, I’ve got a lot crap in this head that I would like to translate to other people, so that they can use it or not use it, but I need to get it out, or I won’t feel I’ve done justice to the finitude of my life.”

Now, oh, my gosh. Here comes beyond the surface. What’s the time signature of beyond the surface? Oh, my gosh. It’s holy crap. Me, the finitude of my existence in the context of the infinitude of eternity. That’s a big, big thing. Once you start thinking about that, then you can start thinking about, “Oh. Well, let me think less about the finitude of Shawn Coyne. Let me think about the finitude of the species homo sapiens.” Because we know that things get extinct all the time. There are beings on our earth that die off. They’re no longer here.

Part of thinking about beyond the surface is to think about what is the context of a single life in the frame of the species, in the frame of eternity? Can a single life help the species increase its ability to survive, thrive and derive meaning on this planet? Or can it decrease that? Let’s say, the homo sapiens species has 300,000 years available to it. Let’s say, it’s 2 million years. It doesn’t matter. Let’s say, there’s a probability, like the Roman Empire, it had a probability of surviving in a less, a couple thousand years it worked. We’re in the United States. Who knows?

Understanding time as much, much more large than the duration of your own life is extraordinarily important. That’s what beyond the surface is about. It’s literally thinking about what will help homo sapiens survive, thrive and derive meaning for the longest possible time? What you can do is it requires the individual life to level up their cognitive capability. That’s one. Then also, to link up with other people who are doing the same thing, to participate with other members of the species, such that we get a better understanding of how to navigate this world before it blows up.

A story is about, it’s deeply, deeply important. Because what it’s telling people is, you have to individuate and participate in increasing our ability to survive, thrive and derive. Don’t do it, so that it decreases that ability. Do it to increase that ability. Do it for the species. Do it for your children. Do it for your great grandchildren. What you need to do is to break up unconscious crap from your lineage that is keeping you maladaptive to environmental change. I know, this is super abstract, and I know I’m probably losing you, but it’s about the infinitude.

[00:14:27] TG: Right. When we talk about on the surface, it’s the moment right now. When we talk about above the surface, it’s basically my life span, right? What’s happened to me?

[00:14:35] SC: What does your life mean?

[00:14:36] TG: Right. Okay. What does my life mean to who? To me? When we’re above the surface.

[00:14:42] SC: What does your life mean to you? A. To your children and your loved ones. What does it mean to your tribal affiliations? You see how this is expanding a tornado. It’s first party, second party, third party.

[00:15:00] TG: Okay. In the beyond the surface as the global species, and you’ve been talking a lot about what it looks like in the future. What does my life look like towards where we’re going?

[00:15:13] SC: The great thing about telling a story is that you can rip yourself out of this equation. You can just separate yourself from all of this pain. You can say, “What does my avatar’s life mean?”

[00:15:27] TG: Right. Well, I’m trying to wrap my head around – how does this bring me back to things like, “Oh, my story needs a mentor.”

[00:15:34] SC: Carl Jung did all this work for us. He’s like, well, okay, we all have to get smarter. Our cognitive capabilities have to get better, so that we don’t blow up the world. Okay, cool. How do we do that? Jung was like, “I wonder if there’s some answers to this in mythopoetic stories from the past.” Carl Jung didn’t want to solve the problem himself. He thought to himself, “I bet other people have dealt with this problem before me. Why don’t I take a look at all these other stories, like the Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata and the blah, blah, blah, blah?” I mean, all of it, the Nordic myths.

He looked at them. He’s like, “What do all these things have in common?” He’s like, “Oh, there are these forces that enable. They enable people and they constrain people, so that they can undergo the process of individuating, transforming themselves into more complex beings.” What are those forces? Well, there’s this force of mentorship. Meaning, that the mentor can impart some knowledge to someone who is lower on the developmental cognitive scale. There are two kinds of mentors. There is the mentor that is luminary. They’re doing it in order to bring in more light into the world.

They want to enlighten. Okay, that’s one force of mentorship. Then there’s another one. That’s like the necromancer. The necromancer doesn’t believe in enlightenment. They believe that this is all there is. What they’re doing is that they are a force of trying to capture the agency of the mentee, so that they can control the mentee as just another foot soldier in their army.

Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, who doesn’t even have a physicality, the Eye of Sauron, right? The Eye of Sauron is a necromancer. The Eye of Sauron just is sucking, is a big vacuum of agency. That eye wants to eat and devour the planet. Then there’s Gandalf. Gandalf wants to enlighten. Gandalf is a mentorship force that is trying to open up the enlightenment of the world, and to get people to individuate, like Frodo, like Bilbo.

This is what Jung did, is he saw these patterns of intelligibility across multiple mythic structures, in multiple cultures, that has nothing to do with skin color, or language, or anything. They all share a mythopoetic tradition. These mythic forces of archetypes, they are present all the time. They are beyond the surface. They are forces of the mythopoetic phenomenology of our experience. We can’t measure them. We can’t take a Geiger counter and go, “Oh, there’s mentorship over there. No. We don’t even feel it. We know it to be true.

Why did you ever call me? You’re like, “I need a mentor to teach me how to write. I hope he’s not a necromancer.” You’re like, “There have been necromancers who have taken my money. I’m hoping this guy is not a necromancer.” I’m trying to be Gandalf, not Sauron.

[00:19:30] TG: Yeah. When I’m thinking about this, so this is stuff that just exists. What Jung did and what Joseph Campbell did, is they basically are just doing pattern recognition. They’re like, “Okay, so this is the stuff that seems to happen over and over and over.” Because what we get in trouble as writers is hardening these things a little too much, where it’s like, “Okay, if I just have a mentor, some allies and some shadow agents, I just have all these things, then my story is going to work.” It’s like, well, it’s not that solidified. It’s more like, this is what it feels like and this is how it tends to happen.

Because when we are having the discussion around the book I’m working on now about what the mentor would be, we start throwing out, there’s mentors that have been dogs, there’s mentors that have been books, there’s mentors that have been, of course, people, there’s been child mentors. This mentor force shows up lots and lots and lots of different ways. It’s mostly, it’s what I always come back to is Anthony de Mello was this priest. He was a very Eastern Catholic priest. He did a good job of combining the eastern and western traditions. He gave this example one time that really has stuck with me, as he’s trying to describe God as this. He’s like, imagine there’s two blind men that have never seen before. One of them comes up to you and they say, “Describe to me the color green.” On that particular day, you say, “Well, the color green is like the softest velvet you’ve ever touched.”

It’s like, “Okay. Yeah. Sure, that makes sense.” That blind guy goes off. A couple weeks later, another blind guy comes to you, and you’re on a different day. Maybe you guys are outside. He’s like, “Describe to me the color green.” You’re like, “It’s like standing on the top of a hill and the wind blowing in your face.” It’s like, well, sure. That’s just as true as development thing. Because how do you describe a color to somebody that hasn’t ever seen?

Then a couple weeks later, you’re walking down the street, and you see these two blind guys fighting and you go separate them. You’re like, “What the hell are you fighting about?” They’re both fighting over what the color green is, because one believes it’s velvet and one believes that it’s like the wind on a cool day. They’re now fighting over the color green, when they both don’t actually even understand what it is. It’s like, that’s what I always come back to. This mentor figure, he shows up as Gandalf here, he shows up as a kid here, he shows up as a book here, he shows up as Haymitch the drunk in Hunger Games. We’re all talking about the same thing, which is this force that helps people move from point A to point B. Yet, it can show up in any different way, but it’s still serving the same overall purpose. I don’t know. Maybe I feel like I lost the thread at the end.

[00:22:34] SC: I used to think of them as anthropomorphic representations, meaning physical things that you put inside of your story. Now I think of them as the Yang to the Yin of gravitation in the physical world. These are forces that have general flavors, and they are very, very morphy. Really cool. Amazingly cool.

When you think about the mentor, you shouldn’t think of any one thing. This is where people start to lose the thread, is that when you’re crafting on the surface, you start to spin up this really incredible tapestry of motion. You have these really nice slides. I call them slides. Let’s say, there are 60 scenes in the novel. You have these 60 really cool slides. There are these motion capture things. Cool. Then you add the above the surface, so that the justification systems of the avatars at play, it makes sense.

Then now, when you’re looking at beyond the surface, what you’re going to discover is that a lot of it is already baked in there. Why? Because the story that you’re going to be able to craft really focusing on those two elements will magically deliver these forces that I talk about beyond the surface. It will bake it in, but you still need to put on the beyond the surface glasses and look at each of those 60 frames and say, “Is it that clear?” Because what you’ll do is you’ll discover, “Oh, this is like a mentor like no mentor has ever been before.”

The mentor in that movie Whiplash was the JK Simmons character. Boy, was he a very interesting mentor. He was luminary, he was necromancer. Which was he? Which was he? Which was he? After the film is over, you’re still wondering, what was he serving? Was he destroying that kid? Or was he enlightening that kid?

I come down on extraordinarily painful enlightenment, individuation at a level that will almost kill you. It almost killed that kid. That guy wouldn’t let him get away without going all the way to the bottom. That climactic scene at the end of Whiplash, you see JK Simmons when he clues into the fact, that kid is creating music that has never been created before and he gets with the program. He serves that drummer, and he changes the time signature. He’s like, “Now I serve that kid. That kid is my mentor now.”

You see the way you can play with the force of mentorship, its shape shifts. It does all kinds of weird stuff. You can’t really be able to take that level of analysis to your story, until you’ve done on the surface, above the surface. Now you can say, “Whew, now I get to look at the real beyond the surface forces that are going to make people have a catharsis at the end of the experience of seeing, or reading my story.”

It’s really the super-duper portal into the infinite eternal. It’s like, when you get here, now you’re really playing some serious cricket. You’re at the top of the pyramid. You’re playing in the realm of Jane Austen. Jane Austen did this. She pulled off beyond the surface. We’re still talking about Jane. My children’s children, hopefully, will still be talking about it. You get it? I mean, it’s slippery. The higher up the pyramid, the more slippery it is, right?

[00:26:49] TG: Right.

[00:26:50] SC: Geez. Knowing about it is super important. I mean, I did what, a 60-hour lecture on the heroic journey 2.0, which really gets into this stuff at a level that is very, very high resolution. This is the eye. This is the last eye. It’s the Eye of Sauron and the eye of Gandalf. It’s the eye of Sauron and the eye of Gandalf in you, because it’s the eye of the author.


[00:27:19] 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.

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Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.



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Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.