#239 – Does the Trinity On-the-Surface mean External Genre?


[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 the behind the scenes guy here at Story Grid.

The podcast episode is hosted by Story Grid certified editor Kimberly Kessler, alongside Shawn Coyne, the founder of Story Grid and an editor with over 30 years of experience. In this episode, they are continuing their discussion of the Story Grid Trinity by talking about how on the surface relates to the external genres.

Before we jump in, I want to mention two things you might be interested in. First, since it’s October, I recommend you check out the Story Grid Masterwork Guide to Frankenstein. How does a book written in 1818 by a teenage author remain a classic and a best seller, still permeating our culture and haunting readers 200 years later? In this masterwork guide to Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein, Story Grid editor and novelist Maya Rushing Walker leads us deep into the heart of the story, demonstrating how Shelley blends essential elements of the horror and morality genres into a spectacular and chilling effect.

You can get 20% off the Masterwork Guide to Frankenstein in all of our books at storygrid.com/books with the coupon code Podcast.

Lastly, the next Story Grid certified editor training is coming up this February. Editor certification has many benefits, including free access to all Story Grid trainings, and workshops. You can see all of the details at storygrid.com/certification.

Okay, that’s all on the announcements. So, let me turn it over to Kim and Shawn.


[00:01:42] KK: Hi, Shawn. So, we’re back again. I just really wanted to say that I appreciate you diving into these, to the internal genres with me and talking through these things. I appreciate you being a good sport about me dropping this stuff on you without giving you a heads up. I love that you’re able to tap into all of your experience and, and pull out these gems for us. So, thank you for that.

[00:02:06] SC: Sure.

[00:02:06] KK: So, I want to keep going, I’m just going to keep kind of circling back around to this idea of the kinds of stories that I want to tell and that my clients tell are these global internal stories. I really want – I’m hoping to help sort of translate and articulate some tools for them, so that they can see how the Trinity is applying, and how they’re able to execute the on the surface, above the surface and beyond the surface in a story that the major global focus is on what’s going on inside the character. What their transformation that they’re going through, and how we still can bring that to being on the surface, but still communicate this above the surface, and so that it can be beyond the surface meaningful to the audience.

So, there’s a couple thoughts that kind of come up over the last couple episodes that I kind of want to circle back to and just see if we can shine some light on it. One thing is that we were talking about on the surface being the literal active – I think you called like the kinetic. This is characters on stage. Like they’re walking around, they’re talking, they’re interacting, they’re stimulus, right? They’re stimulus in response going on, on the surface. It’s interesting, we were talking last week about the bell jar, and how it even it opens with this idea of life and death. It opens with this line and we’re talking about the summer that Rosenberg’s were executed.

I’m curious about this idea of, is there something, when we’re talking about on the surface, is this really where we’re talking about the external genre, whether it’s life and death, or we talked about it being performance, like respect and shame. I don’t know if we want to go as far as to paint that broad brush to say that the on the surface is the external genre realm. But that’s what coming through and it’s what it’s feeling like to me. So, I’m just curious if you can kind of talk us through like how the life values can be expressed on the surface.

[00:04:06] SC: As a general heuristic, I would say that on the surface is about solving the problem of staying alive. It’s about life, survive. How do I survive? The survival realm is living down at sort of the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So, on the surface is really concerned with how do I survive, literally, at the bottom? And then how does my life survive, generally?

So, the external genres play in the realm of the external forces that are literally trying to destroy us. On the surface, of course, is going to be concerned with kinesis. The kinetic energy transfers between individual human beings. If I hurt you, I’m going to drain you of energy and perhaps take your life. The kinetic energy is really at the play of on the surface. So, we associate that with the externality demands of the environment.

The external genres, which are action, war, thriller, horror crime, those are really concerned with the safety of the individual and society in general, to say that those are really going to be dominant at on the surface is accurate. Now, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have the other two in an action story. What we’re talking about here is not – we’re talking about emphasis, not all or nothing.

[00:05:47] KK: Okay.

[00:05:48] SC: So, above the surface, is about cognitive behavior, right? What cognitive behavior is how we process inputs into our bodies and our minds. On the surface is really about how stimulus comes in. And then above the surfaces after the stimulus has come through our sort of cell wall or markup blankets. How do we then process that energy information and meaning, such that it can get us what we want, get us what we need, and perhaps get us what we all desire.

Above the surface is really about the cognitive processes of the avatar. So, when we’re talking about on the surface, we can really evaluate that with great specificity and with great detail, because that’s what the audience is going to experience. The audience is not going to be able to experience what’s going on in the minds of the avatars. Just as I cannot experience what’s going on inside your mind, it will never happen, right? So, all the audience can experience is what they “see on the stage”. And that is on the surface, right?

So, you can’t have a story without on the surface, because you’re just going to bore the hell out of the audience, they’re not going to have anything to see. Describing what people are thinking is not interesting and it will not sustain excitement. On the surface generates excitement. Because if we can have some kinetic energy on the stage that the audience can actually see an objectively evaluate themselves, then maybe we can hold their attention long enough to care about what the avatars are thinking.

Above the surface is the cognitive processes of the avatars. So, when we’re looking and we want to analyze our story, when we start looking at above the surface, we’re thinking about, did the character get what they wanted? Did the character get what they needed? What happened when they didn’t get it? How did they respond when they did get it? Those sorts of things. I don’t want to scare the hell out of you. But I am working on another level of spreadsheet that would fully, fully analyze a story just from the point of view of the avatar. And of course, there’s a super low level that we talked about at the Trinity seminar, where you analyze just what’s happening on the surface to see the excitement energy that’s transferring to the audience.

And then beyond the surface, that would be – alright, so if I had to label these, I would say, on the surface concerns generally as heuristic. The external genres. Above the surface, generally as heuristic is concerning of the transformation deep, breaking up a frame. So, that would be the internal genres. And then beyond the surface would be heroic journey 2.0. The deep patterns of how one goes about navigating the external and internal worlds of our own experience. That’s what Jung was after, when he was talking about individuation.

My interpretation of what’s been called the hero’s journey, is to go back to the source and that’s Carl Jung, and you’ll never intended, nor did he ever see the process of navigating the world as a result-oriented thing. It’s always a process and he had a circle and they called it individuation. So, he saw it as a process and that’s the way we frame heroic journey 2.0.

Heroic journey 2.0 is the thing that that provides the deep meaning such that we could say, “Oh, yes, that’s cathartically true.” So, in terms of emotions, I would say, on the surface is about excitement, above the surface is about intrigue, and beyond the surface is about catharsis. So again, this Trinity concept is like a homing device, so that when you get confused, you’re like, “Well, I only want to do this kind of story.” The first thing you need to say to yourself, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I can’t do that. Why? Because I can’t live in isolation in my mind. I need food. I need the external world.” Just think of it yourself.

[00:10:14] KK: Yeah.

[00:10:14] SC: Okay, I need the external world. So, I can’t just write an internal story because that’s not life. Life is externality, internality and connection. That’s it. So, we have the external, we have what’s going on inside of us, and then we connect. So, on the surface is the external, above the surface is the internal, and beyond the surface is the connection between the two.

[00:10:42] KK: Yeah. So, what makes me really happy is that tracks with like the model of the universe I have built in my head when it comes to the Trinity. So, thank you for confirming. But like, that feels really good. It seems like when we’re drawn to myself and my clients and those like us, when we’re drawn to the – like you’re saying the, how am I making sense of the world around me, and I want these internal – the transformation of the avatar. But ultimately, I want it to be meaningful, because I want the transformation of my audience, right? I want them to connect with the transformation of my character, so that they can transform. To me, that’s what’s so interesting about global internal genres is that it’s the catharsis moment. What does it mean? What does it really mean to the reader?

So, in order to do that, we are coming back to, I still have to connect it to this on the surface, what’s actually happening. It’s interesting, I have this thing that I’ve been exploring, I’ve been saying, and I’ve been saying it to people and clients, and whatever. I blogged about it on my list, whatever. It’s like that idea that – and I think I emailed you about it once where it says, “Every story is a love story”, right? Because now that’s my lens, that I see everything through. I’m like, “Oh, we have these seven types of love. And there’s all these relationships in this connection. And it feels like that, to me, that hero’s journey 2.0 is like, that’s a love story about me, my avatar and whoever I’m connecting with.” My book is a love story between me and my reader. I’m trying to connect with them.

So, it’s just interesting. And so this idea that like, we have connection and disconnection happening at beyond the surface, and we have life and death happening, in it’s varying degrees on the surface. It’s interesting to think that, in my version that like, if every story is a love story, well, every story is kind of an action story too, right? We all have some version of life and death happening, because we have people in this story. They are representations of life, and we have life and death in life. So, if you don’t have some sort of on the surface something going on, and again, it doesn’t just say that we’re going to be injured or have death, the stakes of life and death necessarily. But I’m thinking of all the internal genre stories that I studied when we were doing the roundtable podcast, and how you could see like, “Okay, yeah, this is a worldview education story, and it’s a love story, and it’s a friendship story, and it’s all the stuff. But they go on a road trip, and they’re rushed for time.” There’s all these other like, “Oh, the guy forgot his medication.” There’s all these like other sort of like life and death things that are going on, even though they don’t feel like life – I don’t know, I’m kind of rambling. It’s just it’s interesting. And I like this idea that you’re saying, it’s not about exclusion, or it’s about emphasis. It’s about emphasis.

[00:13:25] SC: Let me comment on your concept that every story is a love story, because I would agree with that, fundamentally. But I agree with it from like a different frame. So, it goes to the notion of the expansion of life. We have a lot of potential life. We have a lot of potential within ourselves and within other people and within the universe itself. So, the potential is awesome, but it’s only potential until it’s actualized. There’s an incredibly brilliant philosopher named Forrest Landry and I recommend people start to look him up, because he’s got some really amazing ideas. It’s very difficult sledding, because it is dealing with very high abstractions. 

But one of the things that I really love about his approach to deep questions is that one of the things that he says is that love is the thing that enables choice. So, if you move away from love is purely this romantic notion, and you look at it more in the gothic sense of creating the future with yourself and others, then enabling choice is a really good rubric of thinking of love. So, what choice is, is the potential and the actuality.

So, making the choice to actualize your potential is a big deal. And when you do actualize your potential, you’re actually complexifying. You’re bringing more life, metaphysical life into the universe when you actualize an idea, or you have a conversation, or you make a connection with somebody. It doesn’t mean you’re built the Eiffel Tower from your hands from scratch, the smallest potentiality that is released as actual stuff is great. So, love is that which enables choice.

When we think of stories, we can look at it through the lens of love is my protagonist, how are they enabling choice? Are they enabling their own choice? Or is their choice portfolio extraordinarily constraint? Oh, interesting. Well, let’s use that frame. Well, the beginning of the usual story, the characters pretty locked in their choices. They’re not moving beyond the environment that they like. They like their food cooked in a certain way. They like their bed a certain way, and they don’t want to change.

[00:15:55] KK: I’m looking at you Bilbo, looking at you.

[00:15:59] SC: That’s right. The heroic journey is this deep, mythic sort of transformational process, that is the process by which the protagonist learns how to enable their own choices. And then once they learn how to enable their own choices, they can expand that by enabling other people’s choices. And then when they do that, they can actualize for the good.

So, enabling effective good choices is what love is. It’s exactly true that if you say, “I only want to tell a story about love.” Okay, cool.

[00:16:35] KK: That’s every story.

[00:16:37] SC: It is every story, but if you don’t have values that which people can make choices from, and a whole portfolio of values and emphasize one value over another to make it clear, and abide by the genre that likes that value, and has hundreds of years of experience of telling stories about that specific value. So yes, you can have internal stories that have a road trip in them and people go to the dentist, and they go to the circus. But if it’s a performance story, then that’s going to be its arc. You can see a movie like Whiplash, which is an internal story, but boy, is it active.

[00:17:21] KK: Right.

[00:17:24] SC: Is it exciting? It sure is. Is it a performance story? Yes. But it’s really about an internal shift of somebody’s breaking frame. And instead of playing for the validation of a bully mentor, he learns the beauty of playing, just playing. The ending of that story is amazing. Because the bully recognizes genius, and he plays with the genius. So, that’s an internal transformational story where the worldview is exploded from, “I want to be the best Trevor of all time”, to, I “That was pretty awesome what we just did.” That’s enough. Your idea of love is great. So, I have no criticisms of it.

[00:18:11] KK: I love how you’re clarifying like, we’re not talking about romantic love. We’re talking about connection, we’re talking about agency, we’re talking about – because that’s what I mean. So, it’s fun to say it that way and people are like, “No, it isn’t.” You’re like, “I know, but this is what I mean, though.” It feels good to me. Yeah, like you’re saying, like, it’s about enabling effective good choices in yourself and therefore in others, and that feels true.

[00:18:33] SC: No, it’s not just there for others. It’s first yourself, and then you have to have the courage, like Bilbo did to make effective good choices even though he would be cast out of his tribe.

[00:18:49] KK: Yeah, yeah. And that’s proof of love, right?

[00:18:52] SC: Yeah, that’s right. That’s the proof of love.

[00:18:55] KK: So, it’s so interesting. When we’re talking about, you know, it’s not exclusive – it’s emphasis, because one thing, with my pattern recognition brain, or whatever I’ve been noticing, was like, “Oh, here at the mercy of the villain, when the hero gives their gift, it kind of feels like proof of love.” It kind of feels like that. And when the performer has to do the big performance –

[00:19:13] SC: It’s all different language.

[00:19:15] KK: Right. It’s different language. So, it’s useful to have the specificity of how do you express the life value, the core, the four core of that genre in that moment? And then how it’s also, that’s why it’s heroic journey 2.0. It’s universally still, are we expressing agency or are we constraining agency?

[00:19:37] SC: You got it. You got it. It’s all flavoring. It’s different kinds of snow cones.

[00:19:43] KK: Yes.

[00:19:44] SC: But if you want a watermelon snow cone and I bring you a rainbow snow cone. You’re not going to like it.

[00:19:48] KK: My daughter will cry her eyes out and be so upset because she only wanted watermelon. Yeah, totally. But you’re like, “No, it’s still snow cone.” You’re like, “I didn’t want that.”

[00:19:57] SC: See, that’s different now. When you want a crime story, you want a crime story. You don’t want a dog’s birth.

[00:20:05] KK: So, that’s really interesting. To me, that’s like what you’re saying like within the Trinity, within the Trinity, the Trinity applies to every genre. Every genre that we’re telling, it still has these three layers going on, these three dimensions happening. The way that you execute these dimensions, they’re going to have their own flavor based on what the genre, the global genre that you’re telling. Does that ring true to you?

[00:20:31] SC: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And where I got the Trinity is from cognitive science and information theory. So, it maps on to our best understanding right now, of the perceptual and expression planes of existence. Perceptual planes that come into our bodies, through our five senses, the sensory system is the means by which external stimuli enter our bodies, and then we have an above the surface sort of feeling system. So, we feel those things that are not autonomic processes, right?

A snake response, we’re not going to feel a snake response, we just jump. But those things that are difficult being processed by your mind, which isn’t just your brain, it’s all of your peripheral neural systems. So, those things that are hard to figure out the answer to, they go up for more processing. The second level of processing is called feeling. It’s your limbic system, the amygdala and all that stuff, it puts a valence on it, pleasure pain. Is this something to approach or avoid? That is happening in above the surface, right?

So sometimes you get so much information, flooding, and the avatar gets so much information flooding into them, that they freeze, because they can’t process all of that. What you do on the page is just have them freeze, and what that will signal because this is the way we all are, that will signal to the audiences, “Oh, something’s going wrong. They’re not processing. They don’t know this off the top of their head.” But they will recognize the freeze response to too much information.

And the other great thing is that we also do this thing called modeling. So, we’re mutually modeling our friends, our neighbors, everything. We all have a model of our closest relationships, our first party relationships, we have models have second party relationships. So, we’re modeling machines. All that means is we’re making these models of our connections to other things and people, and we’re loading them into our sort of deep memory software, so that we can predict. What happens when the audience is reading his stories, they automatically, you don’t even have to worry about this. They will model themselves on to the avatar protagonist.

So that way, when the avatar protagonist is passive and freezes, it intrigues the audience immediately, because they are following the story through their eyes, which means that they’re seeing through the eyes of the avatar, which means the avatar is them. You don’t have to build sympathy or empathy between the audience and the avatar protagonist, if you are doing on the surface correctly. This worry like, “Oh, I just don’t know if my audience understands what the motivations of my avatar protagonist are in this particular moment.” There’s only way one way to solve that, clear signal, clear stimulus, clear response. If you have wishy washy, unclear, ambiguous signal, and wishy washy, unclear, like it was a nice day, she was feeling good about herself. What? That gives me no information. It’s the problem with our culture is that it’s the no judgy culture, right?

I don’t judge. They might be the worst person in the world, but you won’t hear me saying it. This whole note judging thing is killing our art. It’s killing our art. Because what happens is artists are fearful when they get to the page because they’re worried that they might be too judgy with their words in the story that they’re telling. I’ve seen this a million times where a first draft will have something like, “He was a real son of a bitch.” And then the next draft is, “People didn’t like him as much as you might want them to.” It’s just like, what? Could you please take a stand?

So, that’s another thing to watch is signal, signal, signal. Be specific, make a stand. Don’t give me wishy washy descriptions, because that’s all the audience has to care about. People love the bad people.

[00:24:49] KK: Yeah, they do. They really do.

[00:24:51] SC: They love an artist who will describe a real son of a bitch with great detail.

[00:24:59] KK: I think there’s something so fun about that too. If you’re willing to go there and say the thing that everybody’s thinking, and nobody wants to say, and you like, call it out, that’s what’s so fun. The specificity, I mean that you can get to, certainly in any story, but the specificity that is necessary and that you can get to an internal story, because you really want to anchor them in, like you’re saying, on the surface. So, you can really get in there with some of those details. And when you combine it with your point of view and narrative device, like the edginess that you can bring is just – I don’t know, it’s so much fun. It’s just so, so fun. Yeah, that’s great.

Okay, so we’re talking about on the surface, above the surface, beyond the surface. And again, I’m keep bringing it back to, “Okay, how am I going to write my global internal stories? How am I going to help my clients write those global internal stories?” We’re getting the – we want to make sure we have the external on the surface signal response, this is what’s happening, we want to have the sense making part but be careful not to do too much. Too much of that inner monologue, just telling the reader what they’re thinking, we want to be showing that through stimulus and response. Sometimes the best way to show them struggling to process is to have them freeze. So, to stop taking action. That’s really interesting.

I think when it comes to – so it’s kind of like this idea that the heroic journey is about connection, it feels like that agency creating, what I’m calling like, a love story, right? And we have this external is really about survival and it’s the version of what’s happening on the surface, like what is life and death look like for this person in this story? So, the internal, the above the surface, so you’re saying this is really about the avatars, the avatar sense making of.

You mentioned something at the conference, which has stuck with me, this idea of the now, the duration and the eternal, right? So, I’ve noticed some really cool pattern between jumping from now, to duration, to eternal and how, again, the Trinity of that the time and how it’s mapping on to, let’s say, conflict, right? Or mapping on to progressive complications, like, “Oh, this is a complication now, but it’s not really going to affect them later.” Later, let’s say, there’s a progressive complication that’s going to affect them for the duration. So, it’s interesting how you can you use that just to progress your story.

So, the different layers of the Trinity that we have, and we’re kind of – like they’re applying to every genre, the kind of this idea that all of the genres exist, but we’re choosing to emphasize something. We have to pick one. It goes back to like, what your primal thing that you were saying. You have to pick a genre. I guess, what is the caution with seeing these three planes of perception and seeing how on the surface, above the surface, beyond the surface, is there a risk of someone being too wishy washy about their genre and kind of trying to do the mashup thing? I mean, I guess that’s always a risk. But I guess, how do we balance? I guess that’s my question. How do we balance having all three of the planes of perception and really delivering this to the reader and still choosing a global focus to make sure that the message is coming through clearly?

[00:28:18] SC: It’s a pretty simple step by step ladder kind of deal. Unfortunately, people who are obsessed with internal stories aren’t going to like what I’m going to say. You have to excite the audience. So, nobody cares about somebody’s internal processing, or their worldview shift, if it’s not exciting. Excitement occurs on the page, on the surface. So, if you’re telling an internal story, and you really want to focus on that, there’s a couple of tricks that you can use to really selectively constrain your enthusiasm to show just how brilliant your enlightened idea from worldview transformation is.

The first thing is, you got to constrain the time. Think of it like this is a story that has to take place in nine months or six months. So, that’s number one. Think of it in terms of memoir, right? If you’re writing a memoir, who wants to – one of the things I hated about biographies when I was a kid is they don’t always start, “Jim Smith’s great, great, great grandfather came from Liverpool. And in Liverpool in 1637.” I came to read the story about Jim Smith, not the story of where his great, great, great grandfather came from and Liverpool, right? That’s kind of a cheat because that way you can just dump a lot of information on the page, and biographers would be like, “Well, you can’t really understand the context of Jim Smith unless you understand where it came from.” Well, you can do that in ways that is sort of like camera shifting, exposition, inside a story that is actually happening.

For example, a movie like Lincoln. It’s the story of passing a very specific bill, the Emancipation Proclamation or I forget what the bill was, but it ended slavery.

[00:30:20] KK: Yeah, Emancipation Proclamation.

[00:30:21] SC: Yeah, it had a very clear timeline associated with it. It had battle scenes, it had the Civil War, it had Lincoln, it had all this stuff. It had Congress, et cetera. But it was a very clear timeframe. Alright, so that’s number one. Number two is what’s the goal state? Nobody has a goal state of I want to blow up my worldview.

[00:30:43] KK: Nobody, nobody.

[00:30:45] SC: No one, right? So, the goal state has to be an external goal state. Nobody ever feels like, “Oh, I’m fully enlightened now. That’s cool. I’m all done. I’m just going to sit here and home until I die.” So, there’s no goal state inherent in the world do transformation story, right? So, the internal stories are really emphasis stories. The reason why we call them internal stories, because the externality isn’t all that massively important.

A movie like Little Miss Sunshine, it’s a pageant. It’s not a, no big deal. But what’s a big deal is the transformation of the people who go on the road to make the little girl have her pageant. So, you need that pageant.

[00:31:39] KK: Yes.

[00:31:40] SC: Because it’s a goal state. I want to win the pageant. I want to be the lead drummer in the band. I want to be – so all of those things are extraordinarily important to figure out for your internal story. What will happen is, then you’ll go, “Well, what are the stages involved in becoming, getting that goal?” Then you can start blocking it out and think of the story in terms of what is happening, what stimulus and response is happening? Is this exciting? Or have we seen the scene a million times before, where the young ice skater comes on into the rink and – right?

[00:32:23] KK: Yes, yes.

[00:32:24] SC: Well, look, if you know ice skating, say you were in competitive ice skating, there would be a great ice-skating worldview maturation story. It’s just that the stories that have been told have been pretty cliché. I think somebody who knew competitive ice skating would have details, that would be amazing. What the rink smells like at three o’clock in the morning after the hockey players have been throwing up and drinking beer all night on the ice?

[00:32:50] KK: Right. Specificity of place. Yes.

[00:32:54] SC: You got to nail what’s going on the stage. If you’re giving a puppet show and the the puppet master is talking to the kids for 20 minutes and not a puppet has moved on that stage, the kids in the audience are going to start screaming and crying. They want to get out of there.

[00:33:13] KK: Yes.

[00:33:14] SC: So, put people on stage. Create conflict. Stimulus and response is, stimulus is a conflict. It’s a breaking of the Markov blanket within energy. The response is conflict back. Well, you give me that, here you get back. Well, what are you going to do with that? Well, let me think about it. Here’s something else. We’re predicting what the other person is going to give us based upon a goal state. If I’m nice to Kim, she might go out on a date with me, right? Or if I’m mean to Kim, maybe she’ll leave me alone. It’s that dumb. It’s that simple. But when we start thinking about our big masterwork, where are our lead, Gerta character has a change of transform. Then we just get so locked in the importance of the story that we forget that there should be a story.


[00:34:12]: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. If your heart is set on telling an internal genre story, but struggling with how to get it on the page, I invite you to connect with me for a free consult at kimberkessler.com. That’s K-I-M-B-E-R-K-E-S-S-L-E-R.com.

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