[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 discuss the two sides of story and how you can use these skills to look at your writing from both a top down and bottom up approach.
Before we jump in, I want to recommend you pick up a copy of the masterwork guide to The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, analyzed by Leslie Watts and Shelley Sperry. On the 20th anniversary of The Tipping Point’s publication, Watts and Sperry dissect Gladwell’s masterwork to find out what makes it a cultural touchstone. They analyze the structure of the book to understand how Gladwell uses scientific evidence, memorable antidotes, and compelling characters to bring ideas to life. Breakdowns of each scene reveal the essential questions Gladwell asked, the challenges he faces, and how he resolves them. This masterwork guide is a deep dive into the mind of a brilliant storyteller, designed to give you the tools and confidence to set off on an intellectual adventure of your own. You can get 20% off the masterwork guide to The Tipping Point and all of our books at storygrid.com/books with the coupon code PODCAST. Okay, that’s all for me. Let me turn it over to Kim and Shawn.
[00:01:32] KK: Okay, Shawn, so we’re kind of talking about the Story Grid universe and the history of the Story Grid universe. We’re talking about sort of the circuitous route that you took to get to where you are now and where all of us are now that are on this journey with you and in the Story Grid universe. So you’ve been sharing about kind of how you got to this place. You were talking about the two sides to story and how that there’s two sides and maybe that not everybody wants to look at both sides. So can you kind of back up and dig back into that a little bit more for us and talk a little bit more about these two sides to story?
[00:02:13] SC: Sure. Well, the two sides to story are they’re mirrors of the way in which we have insights. I’m just trying to think of the right sort of metaphor here, but there’s something called sort of top-down processing. All top-down processing means is that you’ve got a proposition, and you use that proposition to solve problems. So a top-down proposition would be something like in order to bake a cake, I follow the following protocol, the following formula. That top-down proposition works, and so I’m going to stick to it. Because I like to make my cakes exactly like this, and so I use that top-down processing to do that kind of thing. It’s very what they call computational, meaning you’ve got a series of tasks that you figured out how to do. Then you just reiterate them over and over and over again, and those bring a certainty of a result, right? So I’ve got no cake when I begin, and at the end I have a cake.
[00:03:24] KK: Then I won’t have a cake very soon after that.
[00:03:27] SC: Yeah, that’s right. So top-down processing is fantastic, and we’ve got a full hemisphere of our brain. The left hemisphere of our brain is extraordinarily good at top-down process because it likes to have very specific order. So what it does is it takes in information, and then it represents the information in sort of stages. All right, so top-down processing is awesome, and it’s the thing that gives us technology. It gives us all kinds of amazing power. It’s very much about boiling down the massive combinatorially explosive nature of reality into very concrete steps.
It’s sort of like if you look at your favorite coffee cup, every time you see your coffee cup, you’re like, “There’s my coffee cup, and that’s for coffee,” right? You’re not seeing it for the other kind of aspects that it has. So the coffee cup could also be a weapon, right? Let’s say somebody comes in your house, and you’ve got some coffee in your coffee cup. You can use it as a weapon to defend yourself. But your left hemisphere usually sees that just as a coffee cup.
[00:04:44] KK: Okay, okay. That’s useful.
[00:04:46] SC: So it slams all of the aspects of a particular object or even a person down into one essential aspect, right? So the left hemisphere is incredibly powerful. It likes order. It orders its world extraordinarily well. It likes things where they should be. In evolutionary terms, it’s the niche constructor, right? So when you say you rent a new apartment, that left hemisphere is going to put that couch there, and it’s going to get those cups in that cupboard, and it’s going to make sure that the refrigerator’s full. It’s going to put sheets on the bed. It’s going to make sure the kids get to bed on time, all those things, right? It’s a super important, amazing facility that we have, and a lot of people confuse it with your total intelligence, right? But it’s very propositional in nature, meaning it has very strong instructions. It’s what Descartes fell in love with. When he said, “I think therefore I am,” that was his left hemisphere talking.
All right, so that’s called top-down, right? So that’s one side. The other side is called bottom-up, and what bottom-up is it’s kind of like the specialist of your right hemisphere. So your right hemisphere is sort of the thing that takes in everything. It’s the big context generator, right? So it sees the entire forest, and the left hemisphere just focuses on the bark of one tree. You can think of it almost as like your visual perception, right? So you’ve got this focal area that’s about the size of your hands that you focus on things, and you laser focus with your focal vision. But you also take in the entire context. So your right hemisphere sort of is scanning that massive frame of context, while your left hemisphere is focusing and collapsing things down into single essences.
This is very chaotic, right? Because your right hemisphere has to take in so much information that it’s got to sort of like scan, and it sort of backgrounds a lot of stuff so that you’re not overwhelmed by it. The right hemisphere kind of is the bottom-up thing. It allows things to come inside into your perceptive frame that could capture your attention, right? It’s very chaotic because there’s just too much information to take in. So there’s two ways that we attend to things. Either we direct our attention to something, and that would be sort of turning on your left hemisphere and going. It’s like the Eye of Sauron, right? You’re like, “Left hemisphere, go look over here,” right?
[00:08:00] KK: That’s a very creepy and very good analogy.
[00:08:03] SC: Yeah. So your left hemisphere does your focal direction of attention. Then your right hemisphere is open to be captured, meaning if something pops up on the radar screen of your right hemisphere that is loud and powerful, it can get captured. The right hemisphere will signal like an alarm bell over to your left hemisphere and go, “Hey, look in the upper right hand quadrant. I think there’s a monkey over there,” right? So then your eyes pop up there, and you move the Eye of Sauron, and then you check to see what that thing is, right? So what the right hemisphere is doing is it’s scanning for bottom-up chaos. It’s looking for sort of like things that can capture your attention that you can use to further your goal. Then it passes them over to the left hemisphere to figure out what kind of aspect that particular phenomena should be classified as.
Now, this is going to get a little tricky, but the left hemisphere just doesn’t operate by itself. It’s got these goals, right? So the goals are what direct the focal attention of your Eye of Sauron. Your goals can really distract you from things that may be very helpful or may be very harmful that are coming into your right hemisphere. You know that famous experiment I always talk about is the invisible gorilla experiment, right? In that experiment, they had a bunch of people who were counting basketball passes between two teams in front of kind of a screen. So they said, “Your goal is to get the perfect – We want the perfectly accurate number of passes that people wearing the black t-shirts are passing to one another and ignore everything else.”
People watch that, and then they have this little trick where they have a person in a gorilla suit walk across the screen. Then they ask the people who have been counting the passes, “Did you see the gorilla?” A full 50% don’t, which is pretty remarkable. That’s evidence of sort of your left hemisphere being so good at the task that it gets blinded to information that could be very damaging to it, right? This is kind of what happens in the story so you –
[00:10:33] KK: I was just going to say, I’m making all the connections over here. Yeah, yeah.
[00:10:37] SC: Right. So what happens in the story is that you have an avatar protagonist at the beginning of a story that has a goal. They have multiple goals, and they’re so focused on that goal, that at the beginning of the story, something comes into their right hemisphere, into their frame of their life, and they’re just not paying attention to it. That thing get louder.
[00:11:01] KK: They try to ignore it, right?
[00:11:03] SC: That’s right. That’s right. The thing gets louder and louder and louder, until they have to deal with it. The great stories have that stimulus that comes in, basically destroys the Eye of Sauron at midpoint [inaudible 00:11:20], right? So the Eye of Sauron just gets obliterated. Guess what happens? Then the avatar has to fall into the chaos of only getting information from the right hemisphere, and the right hemisphere is it’s taking – It presences the world to us, right?
By the way, I didn’t make all this stuff up. This comes from a wonderful neuroscientist and doctor and psychologist named Iain McGilchrist, and I highly recommend his work. He wrote a wonderful book called The Master and His Emissary, and he’s just come out with a two-volume set called The Matter With Things, which is – I just started reading it, and it’s just brilliant. So anyway, I’m not making this up. This really comes from McGilchrist’s work, and McGilchrist takes it from thousands of years of cognitive science and neuroscience, etc.
[00:12:19] KK: Awesome. It’s awesome.
[00:12:20] SC: All right, so like after the Eye of Sauron gets obliterated, it’s called frame breaking.
[00:12:25] KK: Mm-hmm, been there.
[00:12:28] SC: Yeah. Then the avatar kind of falls into chaos, until such time as they can grab hold of some order within the chaos that becomes revelatory to them, right? Now, here’s the tricky thing is that we cannot change, and we cannot level up our ability without that disintegration. So all the great stories have these amazing moments of pure frame obliteration and disintegration, such that the protagonist avatar falls into chaos in such a way that they lose their grip, and they have an existential crisis. Everything that I’ve believed to be true from my past is proven to be wrong.
[00:13:21] KK: It sucks. Cognitive dissonance, I always say it’s my worst version of hell, right? It’s awful. It’s just awful.
[00:13:30] SC: Well, cognitive dissonance, it’s sort of like the precursor in my explanation.
[00:13:33] KK: The precursor. Right, yeah.
[00:13:35] SC: It’s sort of like my idea. Well, it’s not my idea again, but there’s the agent, the arena, and agency, right? So when the agent with agency is in the right arena, then things are cognitively consonant. The football player playing a football game in a football stadium, there’s no problems there because everything is consonant. Now, whether or not they’re successful in their journey is a different question. But they never question what they’re doing because they’re in the right arena, right? Now, if it’s Bobby Flay trying to cook a casserole in a football field, that’s cognitively dissonant because he’s like, “Why are people trying to tackle me?” So that’s a very obvious metaphor, but that’s kind of the way it feels when we step out of our comfort zone, right?
[00:14:28] KK: So then the frame breaking would be – I’m just trying to go with this metaphor, right? So the football players think he’s a football player. But then he’s, I don’t know, like becomes paralyzed and can no longer play football. So now you’re like, “Now, I don’t even know who I am at all. Now, I no longer fit in my arena. So I guess I’ll learn to cook from Bobby Flay,” right? You’ll go find new meaning or something else like.
[00:14:55] SC: Well, that’s the conundrum every athlete faces because there’s the moment when you can’t play any longer. You’re not allowed on the field. I played football all through my sophomore year of college. When my body could no longer play football, and I was alerted to that fact by medical professionals, I was thrown into chaos because I defined myself as that sort of being. Now, I couldn’t be that person anymore, and I felt like a fraud, a failure, a loser. It was kind of silly when I look back at it now, but it made perfect sense because my arena had been taken from me. So that’s a really great example. So here we go. Like can you think of a story that you might be able to tell where the person loses their arena?
[00:15:47] KK: Yeah, loses their arena.
[00:15:48] SC: Yeah. Can you think of what that genre might be? Well, it could be the performance genre, right? It could be any number of genres. Or let’s say your –
[00:15:56] KK: Love, marriage plot.
[00:15:57] SC: That’s right. Yeah. So these are sort of global generalizations that are sort of invariant patterns of human experience that have variation, right? My story about not being able to play football anymore is the same invariant pattern as the person who has to leave their home and go across the ocean to a brand new world in order to save their family or whatever, right? They have to move arena like that great book, novel, and movie Brooklyn. Yeah. That’s a really interesting, great story.
[00:16:42] KK: [inaudible 00:16:42].
[00:16:43] SC: Yeah, yeah. It’s wonderful. That is the same general idea, right? So it’s an invariant pattern of the person, an agent with agency having to leave their arena, either because they no longer fit in that arena or out of necessity. Then, wow, there we go. When people say, “Oh. Well, all stories are different, and you can’t generalize,” no, you can, right? You can. When you get stuck, you can go to the invariant patterns of story to help you create the variation that’s only yours and uniquely yours.
That’s where Story Grid really lives is finding the invariant patterns and then using those as enabling constraints for the writer so that they can map their variant ideas on the invariant patterns. That’s what it really, really – I’ll go to my grave saying that that is really what Story Grid is all about. It’s not about formulas. It’s about finding the invariant thematic patterns of sapiential life so that when we are constructing our particular variant story, we’ve got a mold to constrain us, and we’re not just flying all over the place.
[00:18:16] KK: Right. Because that’s not meaningful, right?
[00:18:18] SC: No.
[00:18:18] KK: So when we go back to like the work of Claude Shannon, he’s not just saying something to say it, right? He’s not just sending a signal. He has a specific person that he’s trying to talk to, right? He has a specific message he’s trying to deliver to a specific person so that they’ll get it. So, yeah, it’s interesting. This is how it all connects.
[00:18:37] SC: Well, what I love about the information theory, and this is a real mind blower, but he came to the conclusion that the content of the message, you don’t need to know what it is. It almost doesn’t matter. It’s the connection.
[00:18:58] KK: Interesting. Okay.
[00:19:00] SC: Like the purest signal, this is another head scratcher, is pure, chaotic information because ordered pattern is not inherently surprising. So he defined information as that which is surprising. Therefore, if patterns that we’ve recognized before are no longer surprising, then they are purely not information. They’re noise. That’s interesting, right? Because the way we learn is through operant conditioning. Stimulus comes into our mind. We learn how to effectively metabolize the stimulus. When we’re thirsty, we learn how to find a drink. Then that operant learned behavior now becomes unconscious. So we know how to raise the glass to our lips and drink. We don’t need to think about it? What Shannon would say is that those kinds of patterns are no longer really information because they’re not surprising.
[00:20:11] KK: Right. Because they’re not new, right? There’s nothing new about them.
[00:20:14] SC: Yeah. If you boil it all the way down, pure information is pure chaos, which is the most difficult thing for us to metabolize.
[00:20:28] KK: Right. That feels like the opposite of everything we just said.
[00:20:32] SC: I know.
[00:20:33] KK: But I love paradox. I love the paradox. It’s a –
[00:20:36] SC: Well, there’s order in chaos and chaos in order. Yeah.
[00:20:37] KK: I’m fine with it. It’s good. That’s super good. So I remember years ago, when we were doing the Editor Roundtable podcast, and I don’t remember which episode it was. But we’re quoting somebody. Maybe it was a comment that got left on something. People argue about like you’re saying, like, “Oh, story doesn’t have –” You make it a formula, if you want to say there’s like a pattern or rules or whatever. I remember being like anybody who thinks that story structure is not real, like they’re the equivalent of like flat-earthers to me. I just – I can’t even with you, right? I just can’t. If you’re going to just ignore everything, then we can’t even have a conversation, right? It’s just there is pattern.
[00:21:26] SC: It goes to people who say that life is meaningless, right? Usually, they’re going all the way to the end of the spectrum of random chaos. Then the other end of the spectrum is that it’s all order and it’s all clearly order, deterministic order. The reality is that it’s complex, right? So complexity has both order and chaos in it. So this is why when you go through a Mandelbrot set, you find the order in the chaos at the fractal.
[00:21:57] KK: Okay, you’re going to have to unpack that one.
[00:22:00] SC: Okay. There’s a famous mathematician, I forget his first name, named Mandelbrot. If you just go to Google and look up the Mandelbrot set, what he shows is that a chaotic function, when you graph it, and you just keep graphing it and graphing it and graphing it, you will see these patterns emerge from the chaos. So they’re called – It all goes to chaos theory. Fractals are the patterns that emerge out of chaos. It’s like that concept that I was saying. When the avatar falls in third quadrant of a story into chaos, what they need to do, this is metaphor, is they have to find that fractal order in the chaos and grab a hold of it because that is pure reality. It’s a more refined complexly ordered reality than the one that they were living in before.
It’s kind of like those old Alfred Hitchcock movie posters, where the person falls into the spiral, right? They’re like [inaudible 00:23:10]. They’re falling. That’s a metaphor for this experience of having your left hemispheres focal focus, your framing break. What thematically you’re doing is you’re going to the bottom of your kind of cognitive system, which causes a lot of negative effect. So you get into a fully depressive state because you’re losing your bearings, and you’re starting to question whether or not the way you’re seeing and perceiving the world is real or not and if you’re maybe losing your mind.
It’s at that point, this is the disintegration process that takes you all the way to the bottom so that you can bottom up and find the top-down handle. So it’s a simultaneous emanation or emergent process. So the emergence is when you start to settle at the bottom and just hang there for a while. Then what happens is it’s like Plato’s cave. You come out of the cave, and the light emanates down, and you see the pattern of the light. Now, you’ve got a new, better framed, opened cognitive system that can see more aspect.
Now, let’s just use the earlier idea that I had about the coffee mug, right? Now, your coffee mug is now not just a coffee mug. It’s a weapon. So you have this insight. I can use my coffee mug as a weapon because it has more aspects than just the thing that holds coffee. That’s a really prosaic way of trying to explain top-down bottom-up processing. But it’s as simple as that, and it can also get very, very large when it’s in your entire worldview frame. So we’re constantly having these tiny little insights that don’t cause us a lot of negative impact. But there’s still negative effect like, “God dammit, I can’t figure out how to not have my clothes all fall into the bed sheet when I put them in the dryer.” Like, “Oh, I have the insight of buttoning up the bed sheets so that the clothes won’t go in in the dryer.” That’s a tiny little insight, but like the bed sheet’s not just an –
[00:25:43] KK: But life hacks though, right?
[00:25:44] SC: Yeah.
[00:25:47] KK: People love those.
[00:25:48] SC: It’s the same top-down bottom-up processing system at work there as it is in having a revelation about, “Oh, I keep falling in love with the wrong person.”
[END OF EPISODE]
[00:26:02] 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 https://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.