#240 – How does the Story Grid Trinity apply at the macro level vs micro level?


[0:00:00.0] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you level up your craft as a writer. My name is Tim Grahl, and I’m a writer and the behind-the-scenes guy here at Story Grid. This 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 discussing how the Story Grid Trinity applies at the macro and micro levels of storytelling.

Before we jump in, I want to mention two things you might be interested in. First, I recommend you pick up a copy of the Story Microscope by your podcast host, Kimberly Kessler. In this book, Kim shows you how to turn a spreadsheet into a precision editing tool. Using the Story Grid approach, the spreadsheet becomes a microscope through which you can see scenes, sequences in your entire story in high-resolution. You can get 20% off the Story Microscope and 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. If you’re an editor looking to increase the income you can make in your business, I highly recommend you join us for this training. You can see all of the details at storygrid.com/certification.

Okay, that’s all in the announcements. Let me turn it over to Kim and Shawn.


[00:01:23] KK: Hi, Shawn.

[00:01:24] SC: Hi, Kim.

[00:01:25] KK: We’re back again. We’ve been talking about internal genres. I’ve been asking you to help me translate and just apply the Trinity framework to global internal stories, because that’s what I write, that’s what I tell. That’s the majority of my clients. This is what we’re really into. We’re really into the relationships between people, and we’re really into the pressures and changes that individuals go through in their environment.

I would really appreciate you wrestling with this with me, and getting to this point where I really love what you had to say about that no matter what, no matter how much we love our character and what they’re going through, and how meaningful it is to us, and how much we believe that it’s going to be cathartic to our reader, if it’s not exciting, if it doesn’t have this, on the surface excitement, something that the reader can really sink their teeth into, and the puppets are moving around the stage, so to speak, they’re never going to get to the end of the book, and so they’re never going to get my cathartic moment that I’ve so beautifully set up for them.

You had a couple ideas. You said ways that we can really help us is to one, constrain the time. Have a specific, really shrink down the time that the story is going to take place over, rather than the entirety of someone’s life. Also, having a really clear, external goal state for my character, right. Really making sure we’re anchoring in the external, so that the internal has some context.

From there, we talked a little bit about making sure then that in order for them to achieve this goal state, they have to go through a stimulus response of on the surface action happening in order to be moving them either closer to, or further from this goal state. Can you talk to me a little bit about how we’re applying these concepts of time, goal state and stimulus response? I’m wondering how that applies at the different layers of the story, like the macro all the way down to the micro of the beat.

Making me want to ask the Trinity, how do you see the Trinity applying to the different units of story? How does the Trinity apply to the macro level, versus the beat level? Is it the same, or different, or – I guess, just lead us down that road, and I think, then, I’ll have some follow-up? I wanted to connect to, we talked a little bit about genre inclusion and exclusion, or emphasis. Now, I’m thinking about the beats, like all the way from the beat level up to the global level and how the Trinity shows up that way.

[00:04:09] SC: Well, I think the best thing to do is to start at the beat level, because this is really where the rubber meets the road. I think, it’s going to be a very big innovation for Story Grid methodology, in that I’ve been doing, I guess, the last eight months or so, a lot, a lot of work on beat generation, and as it compares to the surface, beyond the surface and above the surface. I’ve got that mixed up.

Generally, at the beat level, I mean, the goal state for me in Story Grid is to be able to as strange as this sounds, is to be able to do a bunch of things. The first thing is to establish the different kinds of beats. Now, there are in my estimation, I guess, you’re probably not going to be surprised when I say there are three kinds of beats.

[00:05:02] KK: A trinity of beats? What?

[00:05:04] SC: There are a trinity of beats. Of course, they map on the surface, above the surface and beyond the surface ideas. What are the three kinds of beats? The first kind of beat is called an expository beat. What expository beats are, is when the author – now it doesn’t necessarily have to mean, the artist who is employing the author. Let’s say, for example, in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald created an author and the author’s name is Nick Carraway. Nick Carraway is the author of The Great Gatsby, but he works for F. Scott Fitzgerald. That’s a pretty cool way of thinking about it.

[00:05:47] KK: Your point of view, narrator character is the person who’s telling the story, and how they can be different or separate from the you, the writer of the story.

[00:05:58] SC: That’s exactly right. Obviously, once you nail who is telling the story, a lot of your problems just drizzle away. If I were to give advice to people, I would say, really, really focus on who do you think the best narrator of your story is. Like, Harper Lee thought, “Well, maybe myself as a early 30s woman telling a story about my childhood would be the right narrator for this book that I want to write.” Then after a couple of drafts, her editor said, “You know, have you tried about writing this from the point of view of yourself when you were younger, when you were scout’s age?”

That’s what cracked the book, because she was able to do things through the eyes of a child, that no audience would believe from a 30-year-old, or 28-year-old woman. That’s a key-key component. Expository beats are those descriptions of time, or the world that are directed towards the audience. For example, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That’s exposition. That’s the narrator, Charles Dickens, telling the beginning of Tale of Two Cities.

[00:07:12] KK: Well, even in The Bell Jar, right, that opening line about it was the summer that they executed the Rosenbergs, that’s still that same beat.

[00:07:20] SC: That’s exactly right. What I’ve discovered is that genres have conventions of the beginning of the story.

[00:07:31] KK: Oh, interesting. Yeah. I’m not surprised, but still exciting, right? Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah.

[00:07:37] SC: Okay. After Jim wiped down the counter, he opened up a bottle of beer. That’s exposition, because it’s describing, telling the audience what’s going on, on the stage. It’s also camera shifting. It compresses time. We get to see a whole sequence of events in one sentence.

[00:08:01] KK: Oh, that’s so interesting. I don’t think I would have thought that that was exposition. When you explain it that way, it makes sense that it is. Okay.

[00:08:10] SC: There’s different kinds of exposition beats that I won’t get into now, but they’re all about kind, degree and urgency. I’ll get to that, maybe some point.

[00:08:21] KK: Yeah. I might have to bring it up again at a later point then.

[00:08:26] SC: All right. After expository beats, then we have active beats. Now, what active beats are, they are associated with on the surface. These are green. I use green for on the surface, red for above the surface and blue for beyond the surface. Exposition beats are beyond the surface, right? Because they’re explaining to the audience. I’m thinking of this directly, like what is the experience of the audience? What energy is transferring from the actual words on the page to the audience?

I’m not worrying about the avatar’s motivations at this point. I’m just looking at, how is the audience experiencing the story? Are they getting good signal? Is the signal from the author ringing really good bills, through the perceptual plains of the audience? That’s the first level to evaluate whether or not your story works. Is the signal easy to grasp? Can the audience get an optimal grip on what you’re trying to tell them? Can they follow the action? Does the action make sense? Are you moving the camera around in their mind to the point where they’re getting dizzy and vertigo?

[00:09:42] KK: Right, right.

[00:09:43] SC: Now, what we’re doing is we’re starting to get into a style guide for Story Grid, which is going to be awesome. Because instead of saying, “Don’t use this, don’t do that,” and giving a bunch of rules, we can explain, “Hey, when you say it that way, when you use passive voice, the dog was bought by the owner at the store.” That’s difficult. Instead of, “We bought a beautiful puppy. The dog was bought by the owner at the store,” makes the audience have to, “Wait, let me think about that for a minute. The dog is –” The people bought the dog at the store, instead of, “We bought Skippy at the store.”

Instead of saying, never use passive voice, we can say passive voice is not an optimal grip for the audience. It’s confusing. It makes them work too hard. All right, so exposition is beyond the surface. It builds the world. The author lays out the world. Nick Carraway describes Jay Gatsby’s mansion. He describes his house. He describes the bay. He describes the green light, at the end of Daisy’s dock. All of those things are energy that goes directly into the mind of the audience.

All right, so then active beats are green. Active beats are stimulus response. Stimulus is when there’s information energy that flows from the story to the audience. Suddenly, a ball dropped from the sky. The audience gets stimulated by that description of what just happened. It’s the drop in of chaos into the story. It’s an unexpected event that stimulates the audience. It also stimulates the other players on the stage. Active beats, you can clearly delineate what the stimulus is, where it’s coming from, how big it is. Then, you can also clearly delineate the read response of the Avatar, who responds to the stimulus.

In The Hobbit, when Bilbo sees an old man walking across the bottom of his hill, he shouts out, “Good morning.” The stimulus is this is the perception of the old man at the bottom of the hill, and Bilbo’s “Good morning,” is the response to that stimulus. That can actively be pictured in the mind of the audience very clearly. When you read The Hobbit, it starts to form in your mind. There’s this little guy standing on this hill, he’s got his pipe, and he says, “Good morning.” You see him hold his hand up and wave, even though that’s not described. Those are active beats.

Lastly, and they’re associated with on the server here. Lastly, there are passive beats. Now, passive beats are really, really interesting, because what they are, are stimulus that has no response. What that does is they’re associated with above the surface. What it does to the audience is it indicates to them, somebody just said something, and nobody’s saying anything else like, “Hey, Kim. Would you like a bowl of ice cream?” Judy walked by. You’re like, “Why isn’t Kim responding to the ice cream?” Right?

[00:13:00] KK: Right. That would never happen. I guarantee it.

[00:13:06] SC: The audience will be intrigued. Like, “What’s going on with Kim? Did she fall? What happened?” Passive beats, they’re really, really – you don’t want to have a ton of them in there. You want to really manage them. Because what they indicate to the audience is that there’s something not being processed in the avatar’s mind. The stimulus has not been processed. Why? Because they haven’t responded. That is the means by which you can indicate to the audience that there’s some shift, some changes going on in that avatar.

[00:13:45] KK: Is that different than having the character freeze? Like an acknowledging that Shawn offers Kim ice cream and Kim freezes, and has a visceral response of like, “Oh, my God. He’s talking to me. I don’t know what to say.”

[00:13:58] SC: Yeah, there’s a massive difference.

[00:14:00] KK: Okay. Okay. Yeah. Can you talk me through that? Yeah, that’s super useful.

[00:14:05] SC: Yeah, the difference is this, is that when you explain, that gives away the joke. Now, occasionally, you might want to do that. Oftentimes, that’s usually first draftitis. What you want to do is on your second draft, when you see yourself explaining people’s freezing, or a lack of response, just cut it. Why? Why do you want to do that? Because let your audience fill it in, because then they’re going to be wondering, “I wonder why they froze.” But when you go, “She froze,” then it’s not exciting. It’s not interesting, because you’re just reporting the result.

It is a response, but it’s told by the author. That’s telling, not showing. This whole notion of show, don’t tell and everything, I’m getting a far, far better way of giving advice about that stuff. It really has to do about the specificity and the way in which you direct your exposition, which goes to a even more micro-level of what exposition is trying to do. When you’re explaining behavior, the author is explaining behavior, you really have to be careful about it. Because what it does is it robs the reader of why they’re there in the first place. They want to figure it out. They can figure it out. “What? Does this author think I’m stupid?” That’s the way I feel when people are like, “She really didn’t like the way he said to her.” I’m like, “Why don’t you just not respond?”

[00:15:39] KK: It’s interesting, because I feel the other side of that coin is that when people are like, “Oh, but it’s supposed to be subtext.” You’re like, “No, we have no idea what’s going on.” How to balance between over – giving you every thought that’s in my character’s head, versus like, I just left all the stuff out, because “subtext, and I’m so deep.” You’re like, “No, no. You really need to show us and tell us what’s going on, because we have no idea what’s happening.” That’s an interesting problem to try to solve.

[00:16:06] SC: That’s why you have to be very careful about how often you use passive beats. Passive beats perfectly managed, are amazing. Too many of them are ridiculous, right? It’s all about management. It’s managing the expectations of the audience. It’s like being the puppet master and looking at the kids as you’re dancing the people on the stage. You know what? Stop talking, stop looking at your marionettes for a minute and look out at the audience. Are those kids ready to pee their pants, because they can’t stand what you’re telling them? Or are they really engaged? Are they really, really interested?

What do you do in a puppet show? “Well, Peter woke up that morning and across the way was a wolf.” You don’t go, “The wolf wanted to eat him. The wolf didn’t have any breakfast that morning, and he was –” Because the kids are like, “What are you doing?” Stop at wolf. Wolf works for us. Let me think about the wolf. Not you.

It’s like my diorama trick. Think about your audience. It’s like, once we start looking in our navels and thinking about how well we painted the stage, instead of looking about the reactions of the audience, that’s when we get into trouble. When we start worrying about subtext and when we make a mistake, we’ll go, “Oh, well. It’s subtext.”

[00:17:43] KK: Right. It’s not a cure-all for all [inaudible 00:17:46].

[00:17:46] SC: If I don’t know what it is, it did work, right?

[00:17:48] KK: Exactly, exactly. Right. Right. It’s interesting. Yeah, the idea of like, “Oh, I don’t know what it is. Am I intrigued, or am I frustrated by that?” It’s okay to not know if I’m like, “Ooh, there’s something,” but I know that you’re doing it on purpose.

[00:18:02] SC: That’s what keeps you reading, right?

[00:18:03] KK: Right. Yeah. You meant for me to not know, so that – because you’re going to tell me later, versus like, “Oh, supposedly picking up on that, and I totally –”

[00:18:10] SC: Well, you’ve got to pay it off.

[00:18:11] KK: Yeah. You got to pay it off.

[00:18:12] SC: You’ve got to pay off the passive beats. This is a means. Passive beats are the means by which you intrigued the audience. Then, when you build up a really great set of them, for example, in Chinatown, I’m sorry to use these old things, but they’re the first things off the top of my head. In Chinatown, what you do when you’re watching the film, you’re like, you see Elizabeth Moray played by Faye Dunaway, you see her not respond, or responding weirdly all the time.

At one point, the Jack Nicholson character, Jake Gittes says, “So, your father says to me, and she’s already got three cigarettes going and she lights up another one, and she won’t respond,” but we see her response as lighting the cigarette. We’re like, “I wonder why. Why is she lighting all these cigarettes all the time?” We don’t notice that she does it every time he mentions her father. Or she gets very nervous whenever he says, “I talked to your father.” “You talked to my father?” Right?

You’re like, “What’s with this weird Faye Dunaway? What’s with her acting?” Then bang, all those passive non-response, or strange response moments, they land in that incredible moment at the end of the third act, third quadrant, when she’s like, “She’s my daughter and my sister. Get it?” Then you’re like, “Oh, wow. All that passivity really makes sense now.”

[00:19:40] KK: Yeah. You’re calling that a passive beat. She’s lighting a cigarette is her response, but she’s not responding to him directly. It’s like, that’s what makes a passive. It’s not that they don’t take any action. It’s just the action has nothing to do –

[00:19:50] SC: Yeah. They might do something –

[00:19:52] KK: Okay. That’s useful. That’s useful for indication.

[00:19:53] SC: It’s not responding to the stimulus. Yeah.

[00:19:55] KK: Okay. That’s helpful. Because I think, right, because it’s sometimes an example like, “Oh, they don’t respond.” Maybe they just, yeah, they turn away, or they ignore them, or they do something else. They might respond, but it won’t be direct. It won’t be active. It’s a passive response. It’s going in a different direction.

[00:20:13] SC: Just think of the stimulus of, “Kim, do you want some ice cream?” That’s this ball. It’s this ball of energy, and it goes into the avatar. We see the words on the page, “Kim, would you like some ice cream?” The audience is seeing that. The audience sees metaphorically, a little ball of energy, and it’s leaving that sentence. Then, Kim turned and walked over to the Xerox machine. We were like, “What happened to that ball of energy? We know it went into Kim, but she hasn’t metabolized the ball of energy yet. That’s not good. She’s walking around with unmetabolized balls of chaos inside of her. I wonder when she’s going to metabolize that stuff.” Then she doesn’t. Then she doesn’t.

It’s a little twig in the mind of the audience. Then three seasons later, she could turn – somebody could say, this is a regulatory turning point. Someone could say to Shawn, who offered the ice cream, “You know, Kim’s great, great grandfather owned an ice cream store, and it killed 27 children.” Right?

[00:21:26] KK: Right, right, right.

[00:21:28] SC: “Don’t mention ice cream around Kim.”

[00:21:31] KK: Right. Right. Okay.

[00:21:32] SC: Then the audience goes, “Oh, I get it. That’s why she didn’t want the ice cream.”

[00:21:38] KK: What this makes me think right is this feels like, going back to this original thought was like, how does the Trinity play out at all of the different layers, right? At all the units?

[00:21:50] SC: Very small question, by the way.

[00:21:52] KK: Sorry about that. I know. I want to throw out this giant ball casting, but we can break it down into as many tiny pieces as you need. I don’t know where else to start. As you’re talking about all the beats, and you’re talking about, okay, we have these passive beats, we have these things we’re setting up, so we can pay them off later, right? That feels like, that’s a more macro view of the story right to know, “I’m going to set this up here and I’m going to pay it off over there.”

We’re thinking about the audience’s experience of the story at the beat level, at the scene level, at the act level, and etc., etc., to the macro like, “This is my opening line about the summer that the Rosenbergs got executed and they were in the electric chair. Then later, when I bring up that Ester ends up having to go through electroshock therapy.” Thinking, having that awareness and intention when you’re approaching the story, so that’s interesting.

[00:22:50] SC: That example is just a remarkable way of looking at exposition. What Sylvia Plath, what her – she’s genius. She’s like, “What can I do to thematically set up the payoff of this story from the very first sentence?” Well, let’s see. The end of this story is electroshock therapy, and then the woman’s numb to the point, where she just goes off and gets married and has a baby. Okay, so electroshock. What do I know about electroshock therapy? Is there anything in the realm of electroshock therapy that I could describe?

Oh, right. The Rosenbergs were fried in the electric chair. Oh, great. She didn’t go, “Well, technically, I did leave Smith in 19 blah, blah, blah, and it wasn’t the summer the Rosenberg –” A lot of people are like, “Well, I can do that.” Instead, she’s like, “That’s perfect. That’s how I’m going to start the story.” The great thing about all this jargon that I come up with, is that it just labels things, right? You know what kind of thing it is.

When you said, you would recognize passive beats in the second draft, if you get really good at throwing a baseball, you don’t think about your grip so much anymore when somebody throws it to you. You just automatically get the perfect grip. If you can label these things, these beats, you can eventually stop yourself, and you will start doing these passive beats autonomically, so that you can get a first draft that has some setups and payoffs in it, and then you can analyze a scene and go, “Holy crap. All I have is I have 32 exposition beats and no active and no passive. All of my exposition is in the same realm. I’m just describing the baseball field, which is only about a qualification of the arena in the now. Maybe I should do a qualification of the arena in the eternal.”

Just to qualify what I’m saying, the Rosenberg thing, “I went to New York the summer they executed the Rosenbergs.” Okay, what does that do? That’s a qualification of the arena in New York. When? When the summer of the Rosenbergs. That is a qualification of the arena in the duration of New York City.

Being able to look at a sentence and say, what kind of beat is that? Okay, it’s a exposition. What sub-kind of beat is that? What is the degree of the beat and what is the urgency of the beat? Enables you to see this beautiful, different kind of notes in a scale that you can start playing music with these beat structures.

[00:25:57] KK: It’s all about what the audience is getting.

[00:26:01] SC: That’s right. You’re constantly looking back at the audience. How did that one land? Oh, they seem a little bored. Maybe I shouldn’t have five beats in a row about the agency and then now. Or, a qualification of the agency would be like, he set the beer bottles down with great veracity, veracity, not truth, but you know what I mean.

[00:26:22] KK: Yeah, I know what you mean.

[00:26:24] SC: It’s hard to come up with examples right up.

[00:26:26] KK: I know. You’re such a good sport about it. It’s great.

[00:26:28] SC: Okay, good.

[00:26:29] KK: Okay. Well, thank you for this. I think this is going to be great. I’m really, I’m excited to get some more. I’m going to be going and pounding the pavement for more questions about people’s questions about the Trinity and questions about internal genres and we’re going to circle back. I think, these tools are going to be – just the clarity of getting to talk about it at this level and pick it apart, anyway, I really appreciate it and I think it’s going to be really useful for people.


[00:26:55] KK: 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.

For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com, and make sure to 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 that we’ve released through Story Grid Publishing.

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