#249 – The History of the Story Grid Universe


[00:00:00] 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, Kim and Shawn go back to the beginning and discuss the origins of the Story Grid universe.

Before we jump in, I want to recommend you pick up a copy of our book, Point of View: Why Narrative Perspective Can Make or Break Your Story, by Story Grid Publishing Editor in Chief Leslie Watts. Finding the right point of view is one of the most important and least understood challenges writers face. It goes so much deeper than the choice of first second or third person. In this book, Leslie Watts offers a revolutionary approach to point of view, demonstrating how deep study of narrative perspectives can empower and uplift storytellers themselves. When writers truly master point of view, they can share the messages they want to share and bring their stories to life. You can get 20% off Point of View and all of our books at storygrid.com/books, with the coupon code PODCAST. Okay, that’s all. Let me turn it over to Kim and Shawn.


[00:01:24] KK: Hi, Shawn.

[00:01:25] SC: Hi, Kim.

[00:01:26] KK: How are you doing?

[00:01:28] SC: I’m doing great.

[00:01:29] KK: Great. So I’m really excited to talk to you today, and I’ve been thinking. I’ve gotten a little nostalgic is maybe the word. So my husband and I, we just did that like ancestry spit in the thing, send your DNA in, whatever, and we got our results back. It was really interesting to see where you’re from in the world. I’m 38% Scottish, apparently. So that was pretty fun, just this idea of genealogy and like the origins of where you’re from and where your people are from. On the ancestry website, they do this super cool thing where they’ll kind of show you like how your people kind of like, when they migrated over maybe to the United States and from where, each decade kind of like how the people spread across wherever. It was super interesting. Someone’s done a lot of really amazing work, and they got together with some visual designers and created this whole thing. So, anyway, it’s been really fun to see that.

Anyway, so that’s been on my mind over the last couple days. I knew we’re talking today. I’m always like we’ve had this podcast for however many years now, right? So it’s like you guys have pretty much talked about everything. But I was thinking of all of that and I was like it’d be kind of interesting to take a minute and to kind of look back and have you sort of recount for us how we got here and how your ideas have expanded and kind of where they started and how they’ve expanded. I think sort of this history of Story Grid because I think something that makes storytelling so compelling to me is its interconnectedness, right? The interconnection between arts and humanities and science. I think that’s something that all of us here at Story Grid really value that you’ve really shown us like story really can be science-based. Art can be science-based, and it’s still art, right? It doesn’t make it less art just because there’s science in it. You’ve created this community where we get to have sense making, and we get to align to these core truths and these core principles.

Basically, you’re not making this stuff up, right? It’s observed reality. You’ve seen it. You’re like, “Hey, these patterns over here in this discipline apply to this discipline over here, and that gives me this insight, and then let’s make a tool about it,” and just that whole thing. I know you’re always pushing the boundaries of your own understanding and exploring new territory. Most recently, with the beats and the trinity and that kind of thing, it’s been really exciting to see that. So my whole preamble is to say I think it would be really awesome for us to kind of chart the stars, so to speak. To kind of look at how does the story have a universal lay out? What are all the different pools of thought and different places that you’ve researched, and you’ve dug into these different things, and how you’ve connected them and just kind of laid that out there and kind of see where that takes us.

[00:04:26] SC: Okay, sure. I think the foundational part of where Story Grid really came from was just my realization, a quick realization when I entered book publishing as a profession, that there was no place to learn how to become a story expert or an editor. How that transpired was when I got into book publishing, the way it works and continues to work is that it’s a sort of a mentorship program, but there’s no sort of pedagogical process by which someone can learn by themselves. It’s sort of like you watch the master craftsmen do their work, and you sort of look over their shoulder. The thinking is, is that through a process by osmosis, you kind of learn how they do what they do just by observing them.

I was very lucky in that I had a bunch of mentors when I was starting out. A woman named Jackie Farber, especially, she edited people like Elmore Leonard and Maeve Binchy and Belva Plain, like very, very popular storytellers. She was always very open to any questions that I had about how she did it, but it turned out to be very much an art more than a science. That’s not denigrating art. But what it did formalize to me was this doesn’t really quite make sense to me because a lot of people through time have examined story as a process, as a scientific progression of forms from Aristotle all the way through Edith Wharton to Robert McKee, etc.

The fact that there wasn’t an institutionalized protocol or pedagogy to learn how to edit was very confusing to me, so I decided I better make it myself. It was very, very mercenary though, right? Because I wanted to move up in the ranks where I was Sammy Glick trying to climb the ladder of success. So the route to success in book publishing is commercially viable products that make money. If you bring in money into the corporation, you’re recognized, and you can move up the ladder. So that’s the way I approached editing. How can I take projects that would have a minimum viable sale of, say, 8,000 copies and get them up to 15,000 copies? Was there a process by which I could do that?

The way I went about that was to look at the classics. I worked with a guy named Syd Field. So I worked with Syd Field when I was at Dell Publishing, and he was a great guy, and he told me a lot about his process and how he came to it and the Aristotelian Three-Act Structure and how he was using that in Hollywood to help screenwriters, etc. That was sort of like the introduction for me. Then I read more. I went back to Aristotle and read his stuff. I read Plato’s stuff about storytelling and rhetoric and etc. So I started to cobble together these ideas about plot and character and world building and conflict and all that, the big four elements of storytelling.

Over time, I got better and better at making suggestions to writers, such that they were able to make their stories better. But I didn’t have a methodology like begin here, do this, then do this, then this. So I had to evolve and learn how to sort of make notes to myself. The way Story Grid became more sort of spreadsheet-based and scientifically generated was I was just breaking down stories. I literally would have a stapler, right? I would take the first three pages of the manuscript that I thought were just sort of like a whole unit of story like a scene. So then I would just do that and I would go through an entire manuscript and I’d have maybe 60 to 70 stapled scenes, right? Then I do a spreadsheet. Here’s scene number one. Here are the characters in it. Here’s what happens. Here’s how it fits into the grand story.

It was very much a macro approach at the very beginning. Then these brought up more questions. Wow, huh. Well, it seems to have a crime in here, and there’s a love story. Let me ask the author what their intention was. What is the – So that’s how my systems of genre sort of evolved was to think about, “Well, the people I’m working with, what are they trying to accomplish?” Working with somebody like Jackie Farber, who worked across multiple genres, was really helpful because she could tell me, “Well, you’re not going to get a crime story in a Belva Plain family saga story, unless it’s like one of those secrets from the family.” It’s not really driving the plot. It’s about the relationships between the people in the family.

Then she would talk about Elmore Leonard, and she would say, “Well, it’s really the crime and the dialogue and the voice that Dutch Leonard brings to the table here. And so you really want to help him if there are holes in the plotter.” She would help me do that. So this is like 1993, 1994. This is a long time ago. When I became a full editor, I have to kind of concentrate on something. So I concentrated in crime stories, which are great because they’re not formulaic, but they have very, very strict, obligatory moments and conventions, right? That was extraordinarily helpful because you could organize them in very intuitive ways that were also scientifically instructable. I could have a discussion with a writer and say, “Hey, look. The body isn’t discovered until page 50, and why don’t we just bring that forward?”

Story Grid as a methodology was really about me building a career, taking writers who were what they used to call midlist writers, who would net 8,000 and build them up into perhaps breakout form. So one of the people I started in, I acquired his first books, was Harlan Coben, right? So Harlan, he wrote a great story, always had a great voice. But it was about getting a series character established with him at first, which was his Myron Bolitar series. So those are the books that I worked on with him. Then after I went to St. Martin’s Press, and then I went to [inaudible 00:11:12], and I lost touch with Harlan. But he kept moving up the ranks because he would get better and better with each book. Then he would do standalone thrillers, etc.

That was the means by which I built my career. Then eventually, I got to the point where I wanted to start my own thing, and I started my own publishing house, and I worked with some of my writers there. My first publishing house, what you have to do is bring in the revenue to pay your employees, and it became this very vicious circle of trying to keep the cash registers churning. That’s usually nonfiction, right? So I had to concentrate on a lot of nonfiction and a lot of the fun and enjoyment that I had about picking apart fiction. Story, in general, had to sort of take a backseat, so I could learn the business stuff. Probably around 2005, that’s when I really started to formalize a lot of the things that became the Story Grid methodology. I didn’t publish the Story Grid until I think 2015.

It took about 10 years for me to go, “Well, what do I do with this spreadsheet? What do I do with this macro stuff that I think about genre, and I had to sort of integrate it together?” Then the big questions started to emerge like, “What’s this thing for anyway? Why do we do stories? What’s the purpose of them? Does story have essence? Like do all stories concern some essential thing?” Because if they do, if they do have essence, then that means that there can be a science of story. So science is the thing that reveals the essence of particular categories of phenomena, right? There are certainly categories of things that don’t have essence like all the things that happen on Tuesday, right?

[00:13:10] KK: Oh, right. Okay. Right.

[00:13:12] SC: There’s no essence to Tuesday. Yeah. I can’t say, “Oh, that’s very Tuesday, what you’re doing right now.”

[00:13:18] KK: I don’t know. I don’t know. I had a theory about 10 years ago when I was back at the bank, and my friend and I were like, “Fucking Tuesdays, man. They’re like the new Monday. What’s going on?” We had the season crappy Tuesdays, so anyway.

[00:13:32] SC: That’s funny. That’s funny.

[00:13:33] KK: But I just – Funny ironies. But, yeah, I get it.

[00:13:36] SC: Well, yeah. It goes to Wittgenstein’s idea about the nonessential. He was the one who said that there’s categories of phenomena that don’t have essence, and everybody sort of gets confused because of the essential heuristic is that we always assume that something has an essence. Yeah. It goes all the way to Heidegger, and Heidegger basically said, “We are the things that are in search of essence because we have so much potentiality within us, that any one of us has the potential to be just about anything.” So to be a human being –

[00:14:11] KK: Right. No pressure.

[00:14:13] SC: Yeah, right. So to be a human being –

[00:14:15] KK: I mean, it’s such a big problem.

[00:14:16] SC: Yeah, is to search for your ultimate concern or your essence or whatever. Anyway, so anything that does have essence, however, you can have a science of it. Science just means being able to ask hypothetical questions, and then testing to see if you’re right or wrong, and finding categories that are consistent and essential. So obviously, for me, story is a simulation of life, right? This is very tricky because when you’re trying to craft a story, the best story is very lifelike, right? So it has to feel as if it’s real in order for it to have the bang that can last longer than just pure entertainment.

So then I was thinking about levels of story. Like there are great stories that are just entertaining and exciting. We consume them like potato chips. When we’re done, they don’t really sit with us much longer than the experience. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they’re sort of like empty calories, and those are great. There’s nothing wrong with them. Then the next level of story or sort of things that enable us to better our personal life in some way, like we learn some truth that’s very applicable to our own experience, such that it opens up the framing of the way we see the world, and things are cool, and it’s very cathartic.

Then there’s the third primo category, which does both of those things simultaneously, and then tells us a universal truth, something that’s been true forever. That’s an experience that every human being who’s ever walked around conscious can say, “Yeah, that’s true.” Those are sort of like the ones that I’m searching for and trying to help people create because those are the ones that are timeless. Those are the pride and prejudices of story that you don’t have to be living in Jane Austen’s time to understand what she was talking about. She’s telling universal truths. So, anyway, well, how do you get to that? The great thing about Story Grid that I love is that it’s just opening up more and more cans of worms.

[00:16:43] KK: Yeah, right. So many worms.

00:16:47 SC: Right. Just like story as a simulation of life, then you have to start thinking, “Well, what is life,” right? Now, you get into philosophy. Now, you get into metaphysics. Then you can bring the metaphysics and philosophy, and merge it with the science and then the subjective, cognitive, experiential, phenomenological experience of an individual person versus third-person scientific evaluation of generalized patterns.

Anyway, the philosophy that I have for Story Grid is that it’s an ever expanding combinatorially explosive phenomena that’s just never going to be done, right? That’s exciting to me. It’s not devastating. It brings so many things. Yeah. So I know I’ll never be done, and I know that there are very clear pathways to help other people sort of climb up the cliff behind me or alongside of me or even ahead of me. Ideally, I can teach some people who overtake me because what I think story, and I said this a couple of years ago, it’s our super psycho technology. It’s our heroic sort of incredible capability that enables us to do what we ought to do about what it is. We can project into the future, and think about what we would like the future to be, and then enact our capabilities and our skills to do our best to make that future a reality.

The trouble that we get in is we all think about right now. How am I feeling right now? How’s right now going for me? Oh, it’s not very good. Let me have that cupcake. I feel a little bit better. Let me have another cupcake, right? So all you’re doing is satisfying your monster once of the now, and you need to project into the future as far in the future of your horizon of intelligibility that you can, and always use that as sort of your North Star. You want to say, “Well, the cupcake is going to give me a sugar rush. But maybe if I had a wedge of cheese, that might satisfy my hunger, and then I’m not going to have a headache in 45 minutes,” right?

That’s like projecting into the future. It’s a very simple projection. But that’s what a storyteller does. That’s what she projects, a series of events into the future of an avatar. Then she gets to control what happens. She plays the role of the noumenal figure. She gets to be the god of that story, and she gets to direct it in the way that is the most meaningful to her. The trick here is taking that signal of what’s most meaningful to her and clarifying it so that it’s pitch perfect, so that your average audience member can hear what she’s saying and can attune to the way she views the world, such that it gives them the same cathartic understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness that she has or their opposite.

This is where the Claude Shannon information theory really rang a bell for me because story is signal, and signal theory comes from Claude Shannon and also from Norbert Wiener and cybernetic theory and the cognitive revolution of the 1950s. So understanding a lot of that sort of deep theoretical stuff is very empowering when you’re thinking about story because you can generalize across all genres and say, “Well, every single genre, there’s a message, right?” The artist is trying to get a message across a channel so that their audience can pick up that frequency and say, “Oh, yeah. I get what they mean. That’s exactly what happens for me. Oh, I feel less alone now, considering the fact that there’s some person who wrote this story I will never meet. But they were able to connect to me in a phenomenal experience that I’ve had, such that I am no longer alone. I am not the only one who thinks that’s wrong, or thinks that’s beautiful, or etc.”

I’d love to go all the way up the stack of abstraction and think about story at that level and to see how important it is. We all know that we sort of navigate our lives through the stories we tell ourselves. If we can tell a better story to our self, then the life that we can live will be more meaningful to us. That meaning can also be transmitted to other people, and it’s this really nice, solid, beautiful feedback loop when you get the stories coherent, integrated, and connecting with other people. There’s two sides to every story, and that’s just a whole other element to story that I love too, and a lot of people only like to tell one side of it.

That’s the other thing about Story Grid. It’s not just about getting people to tell stories. It’s to get them to see that there is a binary process by which we change. It’s top down and bottom up, and it’s an integrated function that has two elements to it. Not just one but two, and that they work together to enable us to improve our lives. Every story has that binary process embedded within it so that the subtext of the story passes on to the audience, such that they can start to get that process going for themselves. That process is what I broadly call the Heroic Journey 2.0.


[00:23:01] KK: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. If your heart is set on telling an internal genre story but is 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. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you’d like to reach out to us directly, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show, and by visiting us on Apple podcasts and leaving a rating and review. Thanks so much for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We’ll see you next week.



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


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