#233 – Story Grid Trinity for Nonfiction


[00:00:00] 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 in the Story Grid universe. 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. 

In this episode, we got a question in about how to apply the Story Grid Trinity to nonfiction works, specifically memoir. I know a lot of you listening write memoir or working on a memoir because we often get questions around memoir. So I think you’ll really enjoy this episode because we dive back into kind of the three parts of the Story Grid Trinity, and we look at how this affects nonfiction writing. That’s what we’re going to cover today, so let’s jump in and get started. 

Shawn, we got a question in this week from Consetta, following up on the episodes we did about the Trinity, the Story Grid Trinity, and she asked, “How does the Trinity apply to nonfiction, especially memoir?”

[00:01:08] SC: Well, I’ll do a broad canvas survey here. I mean, that’s like a three, four-day seminar. But let me just kind of break it down into the big abstract concepts. So just to briefly outline my conception of nonfiction is I have four categories of genre of nonfiction, right? The first one I have is academic nonfiction, which is really for a very targeted audience of specialists, and so you don’t really have to worry so much about entertaining them. You’re just trying to get the logos out there. You’re trying to get the new information to those people out there in as efficient way as possible so that they can integrate it into their thinking, so that you have academic nonfiction. It’s very wonky, high-resolution stuff at very, very deep levels of analysis. 

The second is how-to. How-to is a broad category where you’re trying to engender a new skill and third parties that you’re never going to meet. What you want to do is boil down formulaic procedures and protocols in order to learn a new skill, so how to bake a cake, how to garden, how to sew. 

[00:02:25] TG: Yeah. Cook books is what popped in my head when you said that.

[00:02:27] SC: Yeah. So academic how-to. The third one is a narrative nonfiction, and what narrative nonfiction is it uses the toolbox of Story Grid fiction, and it maps them on to real historical details. So the trick of narrative nonfiction is, and memoir, I would put inside of narrative nonfiction. Memoir is not very interesting if I begin and tell you I was born in 1964 and blah, blah, blah. People don’t really care about the facts of my life as much as they do the crisis moments of my life, right? They want to know how I’ve come to navigate the world. 

So a memoir is really about communicating as the first person teller of a tale, a specific time in your life where you had a frame shift, where you moved from one way of looking at the world to a new way. What does this sound like? It sounds like the heroic journey, right? So memoir and narrative nonfiction uses the toolbox from Story Grid fiction, heroic journey, genre considerations, and the Trinity, which I’ll get to in a second, in order to tell a very specific story about a very specific time. 

Tara Westover’s book, Uneducated, I think that’s – Or Educated, a big bestseller. It was a memoir. It was about how she came to move from one way of looking at the world to another way. It was brilliantly done and it’s framed in probably like a six or seven-year period. So it’s not her entire life. It’s really this one moment in time. All right. 

Then lastly is the big idea, and the big idea I did an entire conference on. The big idea combines all three. So those are books like The Tipping Point. Or I guess Atomic Habits would be one, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Obviously, you manipulate the different forms of academic high-resolution investigation of our analysis and story and functionality, like trying to get people to be able to apply that information in their life. Then you want the story part, so you try and balance those. 

[00:04:55] TG: Yeah. I would say like different big idea writers usually have one of those that shine through the most, right? So like Malcolm Gladwell is probably the best at the narrative side, or something like Atomic Habits is probably leans heavier on the academic or probably how-to side and less on the narrative side, although all three are in each of those books.

[00:05:18] SC: That’s right. Dan Pink’s another example. Dan does that too. So it’s emphasis, right? The big idea writer is they kind of want to figure out which one of these things do I emphasize? Which one makes me feel more comfortable as the narrator of the story? All right, so those are the four things of – Then memoir is a subcategory of narrative nonfiction generally, but you want to put that other stuff in there too. So when we read Educated by Tara Westover, when we walk away at the end, there is functionality to have read the book. We learn a protocol about how to approach education. We also learn a story. We also learn all kinds of stuff. 

All right, so what about the Trinity? Where’s does the Trinity fit in for this nonfiction stuff? Well, it’s very, very similar to the way it works for fiction in that as a nonfiction writer, what you are doing is you’re placing yourself as the avatar of the protagonist avatar, which is kind of interesting.

[00:06:27] TG: Yeah, and hard to do.

[00:06:28] SC: It is. So what you’re trying to communicate to your audience when you’re writing nonfiction, especially a memoir, and that’s the question, so it’s memoir, is you are now the protagonist of the story. So this requires a lot of self-reflection, a lot of self-consciousness, a lot of ways of looking at your life and framing it abstractly. So you want to see what’s the big moment in my life where – We all have these. They’re moments of Kairos, as the Greeks would say, and there are these moments when we have a transformational change. We’re one way this day and another way the next day. 

Right in between that is something – It’s sort of what I call the – It’s usually terrible truth, right? The terrible truth just means that the way you’re looking at the world was completely out of control and wrong. So coming to that terrible truth is the midpoint between the way I was and the way I am now. 

[00:07:36] TG: Yeah. Well, I mean, we talked about that last week when we were looking at the Heroic Journey 2.0 about that moment when you realize the truth, and therefore you can never live in the falsity again. 

[00:07:48] SC: That’s right. Yeah. So it’s a point of no return. All right, so what about the Trinity? What’s the Trinity about? The Trinity is about how we experience the world. So before you begin work, you’ve got to go high level abstraction in your memoir and sort of map out the general four quadrants of the heroic journey of your memoir. I started this way. I thought I had everything together. Things started to fail. Then I decided to move into this new domain. Things failed even worse. Then I had my terrible truth, I hit bottom, and then I came up with a new revelation. That revelation was what I used to operate in the fourth quadrant, and I learned something about myself. I learned more. I broke through the illusion of my worldview in a way that other people can benefit from, right? I’m expanding the agency. 

If you read my memoir, I’m going to expand your agency. That’s like the value proposition you give people when you say, “Hey, I wrote this memoir.” You’re going like, “I don’t know if I’m going to read that.” “Just read it, and I think you’re going to find it regulatory for you personally.” All right, so that’s big proposition stuff. That’s like what you’re trying to communicate as a writer. So it’s very abstract, and there’s all kinds of ways to think about it, right? Is this a crime story? What kind of genre it is? 

Now, underneath that, though, is actually the experience of life, which is not propositional. So when we experience life, we get inputs from the environment. Something happens in our minds in the moment that processes that input, and it outputs in motor action what we do based upon that sensory input. That’s experience. So what’s important is to understand, well, how does that stuff get in, right? That’s perception, right? 

[00:09:49] TG: Yes, yeah. 

[00:09:50] SC: The planes of perception, this is kind of a simple concept. There are things in the environment that stand out. So this pencil, we can see it. Guess what? We can measure it. So I can find how long it is, how thick it is, how wide it is on three dimensions. So the space of this pencil is very definable in my mind. That’s perception, right? 

[00:10:17] TG: Yes, yeah. 

[00:10:19] SC: It’s also here right now. Now, it’s not, right?

[00:10:24] TG: Yeah. 

[00:10:25] SC: So we’ve got space and time. Three dimensions of space and there are actually three dimensions of time that map onto that space. So there are other kinds of ways that we experience the world though. It’s not just visual. 

[00:10:39] TG: Well, I almost hear you saying it’s not all two plus two equals four, right? It’s not all something we would all agree on.

[00:10:48] SC: Yeah. That’s qualia, right? So something that might be very painful for me might not be painful to you at all. Something that gives me great joy might not do the same for you, right? So we live in gradients of qualia. That’s like another perceptual level. Taste. Something tastes delicious. Something doesn’t. I might think something’s delicious. You might not, so subjective qualia interpretations is another way that we perceive the world. 

Then lastly, is sort of the way we model where we are in terms of the arena. So how do I fit in to this arena and these people in the arena? Am I more successful or less successful from that, right? There’s a great old New Yorker cartoon, where a couple is together and one person says the other and they’re just about to go into an event. Are these the people that we pretend we have more money than we do or less, right? 

[00:11:48] TG: Yeah. 

[00:11:48] SC: I thought that was so good because that’s sort of like that third play. All right, so the Trinities are the on the surface motions of everyday life. So that would mean your organization of your story in a series of events. You’ve got event A causes event B that causes event C, and it has a continuity of telling a memoir story. On the surface, it’s all about the motion, what’s going on in the perceptual plane of your audience. What are they “seeing” in terms of space and time? Cool. So that’s one dimension, and you’ll know what you’ll do as a writer is try and run that film in your mind. 

I’m going to start with this little setting of scene and then I’m going to move to this one. What is my audience seeing? Is this interesting to watch two people sit and have coffee for five straight scenes or should I mix it up?

[00:12:46] TG: Well, and that’s I think the hardest part about memoir is one time I was talking to Candace about some – It was like a memoir type thing I wanted to write, and she goes, “Tim.” She goes, “This is not that interesting.” She’s like, “What you went through is not that interesting.” She’s like, “People go through this all the time, and the way you went through it is not all that more interesting than anybody else.”

I think about the book. I haven’t read a ton of memoir, but one is Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and like what would that book have been like if she hadn’t have gone to Italy, in India, and wherever else she went? I forget now. It’s been a while since I’ve read it. But it’s like if she just like stayed in her New York apartment and like had realizations, like that memoir would have been boring because it wouldn’t have had any of the on the surface action, right? 

Like one of my favorite scenes that I always remember is when she’s at the soccer game, and the guy behind her is just letting out this string of curses in Italian. But because it’s an Italian, it sounds so beautiful. So she’s just like laying back, listening to this man like curse at the soccer players. It’s like – Anyway, yeah.

[00:14:01] SC: It’s beautiful example of perspectival shift. So to the other Italians, he was a jerk. To her, he was beautiful, right? 

[00:14:11] TG: Yeah. 

[00:14:12] SC: Just because of her – The way she was observing her capacities, her competency in the Italian language was such that she just turned the beauty in the lyricism of the words instead of their content.

[00:14:23] TG: Yeah. It’s like the difference of there is a – I forgot her name, but there was a woman that left the – What’s that church that they like protest all the like funerals and stuff? There’s like that one little church, and they like show up at like the Marines’ funerals and protests. They show up at like –

[00:14:43] SC: I don’t know. 

[00:14:43] TG: Yeah. There’s like a church. It’s a well-known church anyway and it’s all basically one family that runs the whole thing. Then they have some other people. It’s a relatively small church, but like one of the daughters or granddaughters left the church and left the family and basically escaped. I was listening to her on Joe Rogan. It was just this really interesting story about like having to plan it and having – Then like when she got out, she had no money, no skills, nowhere to live, like all this kind of stuff. It’s like that’s on the surface interesting to watch, where me leaving religion had no drama on the surface. It was literally me sitting in coffee shops, listening to audiobooks in my car. Like that was my drama, right? 

It’s like that’s why I think memoir can be so hard to write because what’s super dramatic for me internally, if I’m telling a memoir, which is a true story, the on the surface is boring. Where like I’ve had a similar above the surface shift as this woman did, but hers on the surface is super interesting, where mine was boring. 

[00:15:57] SC: Yes. That’s a really great way of putting it. So the above the surface Trinity is that stuff that we’re talking about in terms of coming to the understanding that the way you’re predicting the world is faulty, so the model of the world that you are predicting. Prediction, it’s called predictive processing and cognitive science, right? What we do is we’ve got this really amazing engine in our minds. I don’t mean to mechanize it and make it like a robotic thing, but it’s a good metaphor. 

This is the kind of way I’m looking at it now. The engine could be like a two-stroke engine that you have for your lawnmower. It cuts the grass really well. You can’t complain about it. So you might be using a two-stroke engine for your worldview and your modeling of the world. So you predict, “Oh, grass is high. I can cut the grass. I cause the effect that I want.” Now, what happens though, if there’s all this beautiful tulips that are growing out of your yard, and you don’t want to cut them, and you only have a two-stroke engine? It doesn’t work so well. 

The whole above the surface thing is like thinking about your predictive processing engine and how sophisticated it is. So when you come into a tighter association, what’s really real, you break through the illusions of, “I can get by with just a two-stroke engine for the rest of my life.” You go, “Oh, my god. I need a better engine.” Then that is the above the surface realization, and that happens in that terrible knowledge place at midpoint climax of the memoir. Then you have to fall into chaos because now your two-stroke engine is broken. You can’t even cut the grass, you have no other engine, you don’t know what to do, and you’re waiting for a new – You want all those parts from the two-stroke engine to fall down. Then you want them to reemerge into a four-stroke engine. Yeah. You’re like, “How will I do that? How do I do that?”

Here is the trick. You got to let it all fall down and then you got to sit there. Then things emerge and emanate down, such that it teaches you to integrate in such a way that’s more complex. You move from a two-stroke to a four-stroke engine. Now, you can use that four-stroke engine in the fourth quadrant. You got to use it though. That’s the above the surface Trinity. So if you’re writing a memoir, you want to think about that moment in your life. When you thought one way, something broke that frame. Then you had to build a new way of looking at the world. That’s beneath the surface Trinity of the middle, the above the surface viewpoint. It’s not so much propositional as it’s experiential. So you want to use the on the surface to dramatize how that happened. 

Then lastly is the beyond the surface, which is sort of like this beautiful wormhole all the way back to the Heroic Journey. 2.0. The beyond the surface is really about how is your story going to connect to the monomyth. So then you want to intentionally, as the creator of the story, creator of the memoir, check the points and make sure that it’s arching with the Heroic Journey 2.0. Because why? Because that is in our linguistical systems that we as Homo sapiens actually, when we see a Heroic Journey 2.0 story, even though we don’t know what it is, we know what it is. So it’s this intuitive thing that connects us so that we can understand what the other person is communicating. 

It’s like a channel on a radio, the Heroic Journey 2.0. You want to dial in that channel because everybody can get that channel. That’s generally what the Trinity does for nonfiction and specifically memoir.

[00:20:08] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. I want to mention here that during this episode, I was referencing a church and a person that left that church, and so I actually looked it up. It was Westboro Baptist Church that I was referencing, and the woman that left was Megan Phelps-Roper. If you’re interested at all in her story, I highly recommend that you go to The Joe Rogan Experience Podcast and look up the episode with her. It was really interesting, and I also believe she has a book out now, though I haven’t read that. 

Okay, for everything else 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/books to see all of the titles we’ve released through Story Grid Publishing, especially this month’s new title, The Story Microscope, by Kimberly Kessler. It’s all about how to correctly fill out the Story Grid spreadsheet. 

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