#236 – Can Story Grid improve on Masterworks?


[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 and publisher at 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 continue our discussion about Masterworks, and we talked about looking at Masterworks through this lens of story grid. And we have a great listener question about can you use story grid to even upgrade Masterworks? So, it’s an interesting question. Shawn has a really good answer for it. So, I think you’ll enjoy this episode. So, let’s jump in and get started. 


[00:00:42] TG: So, Shawn, this question this week is from Brandon and I picked this one because last week we talked about how to know you know what defines a Masterwork, how to select Masterworks, and Brandon asked how can Story Grid improve a Masterwork? I could be wrong, but my guess would be that even Masterworks do not always hit every storytelling principle perfectly, whether it be a value shift, spreadsheet, component, hero’s journey 2.0 event or Story Grid Trinity Principle. I think it would be tremendously helpful for writers to hear Shawn examine how some Masterworks could even be made better by studying them from the standpoint of like, what are they even missing?

[00:01:23] SC: Well, that really speaks very specifically to the current work that I’m doing, the kind of like the thing that I’ve been reaching for, and it always eludes my grasp, is what I would call the objective evaluation of story at a level that requires – it’s almost [inaudible 00:01:46], if that’s a word, that requires no subjective reading into. This all goes to this concept that is called the Story Grid Trinity, which is about the fundamental foundational components of storytelling. 

So, let me just share kind of an update of where I am with that. And I’ve been working on it with you, Leslie, Watts, and Danielle. I always forget how to pronounce Daniels last name. Kowowski?

[00:02:18] TG: I always say Kiowski. She’s never corrected me.

[00:02:21] SC: She’s so polite. She probably wouldn’t. But Danielle, well, I just call her Danielle and Leslie. Alright, so the four of us have been working on this, and to a lesser degree you, because you’ve got other macro things and you’re also working on your novel. So, Danielle and Leslie have been really right there with me for literally six to eight hours a week on Zoom calls. 

Anyway, so we’ve got these three levels at the foundation called on the surface, above the surface and beyond the surface. And it’s been my goal, to be able to figure out how to assign quantitative numbers to these three levels. I won’t go into the details, but I think we’re on to a really amazing system to figure that out. Why would I want to do that? Well, it will take out, well, I kind of looked at it like this, and I looked at it like this. So, when somebody has a different interpretation, then there’s this space, that becomes this nebulous weird zone where you’re not really sure which person is more accurate than the other one.

So, I want to narrow that space between interpretation. So, what does this have to do with Masterworks not having some liabilities within them, is that the technology that we’re working on has identified moments in a Masterwork that we’re working on, The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, where there could be a better choice that he made, that we have identified that if he had done something differently, it would have sort of upgraded the storytelling capability.

Now, I don’t have the space here to talk about exactly what that means. But let me talk broadly, there are plenty of Masterworks that have shoe leather in them. Back in the Victorian era, or even before that, you have to remember that there wasn’t the imaginal space in the readership’s mind that we have today. What does that mean? They weren’t exposed to a lot of visual entertainment. So, imagine you grew up in a small town, and you never left that small town. Your visual perceptual plane would be limited to the horizon of intelligibility around you. So, if you never leave small-town USA or small-town England or small-town Nairobi or whatever, then all you see is what you’ve seen.

So, the form that would take people and move them into different worlds was the novel. So, the novel back in the 19th century, was very heavy on exposition. Why? Because it was necessary to set the scene at a level that is not necessary today. So, when we say in space, land far, far away, all of us start immediately start running the film of Star Wars in our minds whether we know it or not. So, we’re able to frame the imaginal space a lot faster than they were framing it in Victorian era. For me to say that there was a lot of shoe leather in Dracula, and there are a lot of beats that just did not really go anywhere, and [inaudible 00:05:39] nature of Bram Stoker just doesn’t play would be a mistake. Why? Because I’m reading it in the context of the collective cultural grammar of today.

So, for me to say, “Well, you can make Dracula better.” What I would say and said is you could update Dracula for today’s contemporary society, using the techniques of story grids such that you don’t have to put all of the shoe leather exposition that Bram Stoker had to put in there, because we live in a different era because people have been exposed to thousands of Dracula stories. So, if you’re going to tell a Dracula story, a vampire story, knowing how Stoker did it is going to be really helpful, but you want to update Stoker, and eliminate the things that were necessary in that era in a contemporary vampire story.

But even if, especially if, you decide to set it in a Victorian era, because then you can tell a Victorian story with the sensibility of the collective cultural grammar of today, and it would become a much more fast paced experience. So, what Caleb Carr did was, he thought like, wouldn’t it be cool to write the Silence of the Lambs and set it in the Victorian era? And that’s what he did. He said, “I’m going to research.” Because Caleb Carr is naturally historian. He writes a lot of I think, war history. He’s a very brilliant scholar in the war field. So, he’s like, he knew the Victorian era very well. So, he’s like, “What was the equivalent of a master detective back then?” And that’s how he came up with the idea of the alienist, and then he transported the collective cultural grammar of the serial killer thriller back into Victorian England, and he ran the simulation.

He did it in such a way that it didn’t feel like a Victorian novel. But it was, I mean, it felt like a Victorian novel, but it was really a contemporary novel transported back in time. When the question arises, what did the Masterworks from the past do wrong and how can we correct them? The trick is, you know what, let’s not say that Shawn knows better than Herman Melville of how to tell Moby Dick. Let’s just pretend that is true and it’s absolutely true. That thing is amazing. I do not want to touch one word of Moby Dick. However, Moby Dick is difficult today. Because the collective cultural grammar does not have the patience for exposition about the different kinds of whales that they did back then. Why? Because it was kind of fascinating. The people, they knew nothing about whales. So, when he ran that middle section, where he’s categorizing all the whales, people are actually interested in fascinated by that. Today, we wouldn’t be, why? Because we can just Google it.

[00:08:34] TG: Well, yeah, we’ve all seen like 12 different versions of what is it, Blue Earth or whatever, where it’s like, they show us the whales, and they’re beautiful. Even as I say it, I’m like, yeah, yeah. Okay, I get the joke.

[00:08:46] SC: Right. So, if I’m going to write Moby Dick today, fix Moby Dick. I wouldn’t fix Moby Dick. I would say what if I wrote a story set back then, and just eliminated all the stuff that I think isn’t necessary today. And then I wrote that Moby Dick novel, like, maybe it’s the cousin of Ishmael, right? I don’t know. I’m just making it up. That’s my point is like, the point is not to fix the Masterworks from the past, using this great new story grid technology. It’s to acknowledge the symphonies of the past were different flavors of music.

So, if you think of Masterworks as symphonies, you know, we have different musical tastes today. We don’t say, “Well, geez, if somebody could just go back and fix the Ninth Symphony, then Beethoven will really catch on today.” No, we go, “There are certain people who appreciate the beauty of what Beethoven created Ninth Symphony, and we don’t want to change a note of the Ninth Symphony.” Because why? Because it’s a portal back into time and it’s a beautiful portal we don’t want to say, “Well, if he had done it this way, then he’d have a real big hit today.” It’s like you’re comparing apples to walnuts. It’s not even the same fruit category. It’s a different thing and we can all appreciate different things and the beauty of different things at different times.

[00:10:23] TG: So, let me come at it from another way, because what I hear you saying is, it was written 100 years ago, different sensibilities, different things they had to put on the page. We rewrote something like that modern. We would have to write it somewhat different to the same notes. I kind of thought when I first read the question, I was thinking of it more, so this is where I want you to correct me if I’m wrong, I’m thinking of it more like there’s this line, where if it gets above this line, it’s going to resonate at such a level that it’s going to go on for a really long time, it’s going to be considered a Masterwork. And all of the things we talk about from genre to conventions, and obligatory moments to hero’s journey, or hero journey archetypes, hero journey moments, all of these kinds of things, each of them kind of like push it higher and higher up that resonation, where eventually it’s going to cross that line. And then anything you keep going, but that doesn’t mean it did every single thing perfectly. It just meant it kind of like got loud enough for a got high enough where it crossed that line.

But of course, there’s always something that you could go back and see, “Well, I bet if they really amped up the mentor, it could have been a little bit better.” Because I think even any author would say their work is never perfect. It’s just every author talks about this, how do you know when something’s done? And you have somebody like Stephen King, who’s turning out two or three books a year, and then you have. I was just listening to the guy that wrote Chaos, that story about the Manson family, and it took him 20 years to write the book. And the only reason he ever finished is because the publisher assigned him a writing partner that made him finish.

Anyway, that’s how I was kind of thinking of it is like, all of these things make the book better and better and better. But there’s never a point where it’s – it’s just this like threshold to me, where it’s going to resonate with so many people at such a deep level that the book is going to go on for a long time. But that doesn’t mean the book is some sort of perfect work of art.

[00:12:35] SC: I would absolutely agree with that. I don’t know if we have time to get into this, but there’s a cognitive science principle that completely maps into what you just said, if you want to hear it.

[00:12:45] TG: Yeah, I’d love to hear it.

[00:12:47] SC: Okay. There’s a theory of consciousness, there’s a concept called setting the criterion. This goes into consciousness studies. Setting the criterion is sort of like this. Okay, pretend you are a white-tailed deer in the forest for a second. I promise this is going to pay off and map on to what you just said. Pretend your white-tailed deer in the forest and you hear the rustling of leaves. What does that stimulus mean to you as a white-tailed deer? It depends, right? Obviously, that’s a relevant bit of stimulus. So, the white-tailed deer hears the stimulus, but now, before they can act, they have to set the criterion of what that is going to mean to them.

So, the rustling of the leaves is kind of paradoxical. The white-tailed deer doesn’t really know if it’s just the wind, and should be just ignored. Or if it’s the approach of a bear who’s going to eat it. So, it has this place, this very strange place, where if it constantly runs, every time the wind blows, it’s going to burn out all of its energy, and it’s going to die of starvation. If it stays too long, because they think everything’s the wind, then it’s eventually quickly going to be eaten by a bear, because it’s going to mistake the rustling of the leaves, right? So, the way the white-tailed deer kind of manages this in their cognitive functioning of their – they do have a brain, they do have a consciousness, they are aware of their being just as a dog or a cat does, right? Is that they set the criterion and the way they set their criterion is an adaptive response to the environment. The deer that is always running away, its criterion is too low. So, it’s going to burn out all of its energy and die.

So, that kind of deer isn’t going to last very long in the wild. So, that kind of gene of setting the criterion low is going to eventually kind of fall out of the gene pool. So, those kinds of deer aren’t going to survive very long. They’re not going to reproduce. They’re not going to make more deer. The ones that are super high, they’re not going to last either, right? Because the bears are going to eat them up very quickly. And so those deer with that kind of criterion are going to die off.

So, guess what happens is the stresses of the environment are going to have this band of criterion. So, deer that are sort of in this band width of criterion are going to survive, they’re going to know just when to run and just when not to run, right? Because they are going to have a criterion that’s set in their cognitive capacity that will enable them to adapt to the stressors of the environment in the way that they can survive and thrive, which is, by definition, being able to reproduce.

So, what were you just saying? You’re saying, well, I think there’s this threshold, this band of criterion that people have that once it’s crossed, it sort of transitions into a Masterwork. Guess what happens, our criterion, our band that says Masterwork shifts, depending upon our cultural time and place. So, back in the turn of the 20th century, there was a guy named H. Rider Haggard, who wrote these things called adventures. And they were massive bestsellers, bigger than Stephen King. This guy was massively wealthy. Well, if you go back, like an example is King Solomon’s minds, well, let’s just throw away all the endemic racism and all the horrible crap that he put in there from that time period, which was a major problem. But they didn’t know it was a major problem back then.

Anyway, his story today is not a Masterwork. Why? Because our criterion moved up or it changed, right? So, that’s what you were saying is absolutely true. Yeah, there’s going to be stuff that’s wiggly, but it’s going to be in a band of this thing that is lasting. Now, Jane Austen’s band, she hit the sweet spot. She hit a sweet spot of deep truth that has lasted for centuries and it’s not culturally dependent upon a particular time and place.

[00:17:14] TG: As you said that, it felt almost like it went 3D in my head, because when I think about like are people still going to be reading – oh, shit, what was that like, quasi pornographic trilogy that hit a few years ago, they made movies out of it. You know what I’m talking about.

[00:17:33] SC: I do. I totally – E. L. James was the writer.

[00:17:37] TG: Yeah, to me that hit a band that was relevant in our culture at that moment, because it just sold and sold and sold and sold, because that was the one that the publisher ended up having to, like, give everybody at the company a bunch of money. Otherwise, they were going to pay it all in taxes. There was just so much money sitting around.

[00:17:55] SC: Yes. 50 Shades of Grey.

[00:17:57] TG: 50 Shades of Grey. Well, but I can’t imagine that that’s a book that’s going to be still being read 100 years from now, right? Where if we look at like, Pride and Prejudice, or like The Hobbit, it’s something that resonated at the moment, but then it also resonates through time. And that’s where you’re talking about, like, the further and further back, you go, and you’re asking like, “Well, was it still selling five years ago? Was it still selling 10 years ago?” Because we had something come up of like, why aren’t you calling the books that you’re publishing a story grid Masterworks? Because you’re saying that they’re at this level, because you’ve done all this analysis, and it’s like, I can’t imagine the presumption that we would have to say that anything like – that we won’t know for a long time, if anything that we produced is a Masterwork. We can say that we’ve done this analysis, but it’s like, I want to see it not just in this band of now, but this band of time too, to see what last.

[00:19:03] SC: That’s the story grid project isn’t it? It’s identifying this band of criterion, right? It’s setting the criterion. So, what our goal is, or at least, I can actually include you now, since we’ve worked together for so long, or we’ve now sort of come together in this bandwidth of goal. And the goal that I always set out was what was very frustrating to me, was the ill-defined of this criterion. So, when I was in publishing, I would say, “Well, why was this a best seller and this one wasn’t?” And other people were like, “Read the tea leaves. I don’t know. I don’t know what the lottery numbers are going to be tomorrow either.” I just was never satisfied with that answer, because I thought that there was a criterion that was objective only able to be discovered.

And so, that’s the story grid project is not only defining the criterion for story grid contenders, and that criterion is constantly changing. We’re changing the ways in which we have conceived the publishing house in our fiction program all the time. We’re constantly poking it. We’re constantly saying, “Is this the right criterion?” Because it seemed to have failed this writer here, how can we make it better so that the next writer won’t be failed by our criterion? So, we’re constantly poking our own criterion as we’re examining the historical criterion of Masterworks so that we can learn what is the universal story criterion. Once we’ve had some sensibility of what that is, we can apply that understanding to the generation of new stories such that they hit that criterion, and then it’s up to the commercial imperative that I call, which means like, we’re just silly people doing our best, right?

So, when it goes out into the marketplace, we allow people who love stories to test, did we hit your criterion? I hope we did. If we did, please, tell a friend. If we didn’t hit your criterion, then you’re going to let us know by not saying anything. It’s a response, no response kind of stimulus. If people are responding to the work, they buy it, and they tell other people to buy it. If they are not responding to the work, they don’t buy it, and they don’t tell other people, the commercial imperative gives us the answer to how well we’ve set the criteria. That’s why we call them contenders. We’re saying, these are contenders for your attention. They’re contending with other forms, to take your attention away. And so, we hope that they break through. And if they don’t, then we can learn from the fact that they didn’t break through because our criterion might be off there, and we didn’t help the writer create a work that did break through.

So, we’re not giving up on the on the writer or the story, we’re just saying, “Hey, our criterion is a little off here. Let’s try and set it better the next time we do this.” So, we’re trying to incrementally get a little bit better at what we’re doing from project to project and constantly be looking at what’s the criterion. What’s the universal criterion? What’s the specific criterion of the genre book that we want to publish? And let’s try and map that onto the universal and we have multiple kinds of criterion to look at. We’ve got the Masterwork criterion of in through time, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and then we have like Masterworks today, like Ian Rankin’s work or Janet Evanovich’s work, right? So, they are writing crime stories that are in that pantheon of crime that is murder of Roger Ackroyd, but they are different forms. They are subcategories of that stuff.

So, for me, you can tell by the way, I’m talking about this, this is what gives me all of my energy. I love this. I love mapping science, setting the criterion and consciousness studies from 4E cognitive science, which is kind of like my nerdy side project to examine all that stuff, and then mapping it on to the thing that I care about, which is storytelling. How is setting the criterion of a white-tailed deer in the forest going to help me understand how we set the criterion of a story personally? So, everybody has their own sort of bandwidth of criterion, but there is a universal one. To say that there isn’t, I think is really not accurate.


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