[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode, we continue looking at the kind of basic tools and ideas of Story Grid, through this new lens of pheres that Shawn has come up with and we’ve been talking about for a few weeks now. This week, we dive into the five commandments and how those work with this new idea from this new perspective. It’s a really great episode. I think you’ll enjoy it, let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:50.6] TG: So Shawn, I think it’s been interesting because we’ve been going back through some of the fundamental Story Grid ideas and tools. It’s been neat because we’ve been kind of going through them with this new kind of perspective around pheres, I remember when you kind of had this realization at the editor training, it was in this discussion of the five commandments and really around the turning point in identifying the turning point that sparked this.
The thing I was planning on talking about this week was kind of going through the five commandments again of storytelling and talking about that and I just wonder, I almost feel like this phere thing, maybe it’s because it’s like the new things so it’s front of mind but it’s almost coloring how you talk about everything.
Anyway, I want to go through the commandments but I was wondering like, how you view it now from this phere perspective of the five different commandments of every part of your story has to have an inciting incident, a middle build, crisis. Is it crisis, climax and –
[0:02:13.0] SC: It’s progressive complication.
[0:02:15.3] TG: Progressive complications.
[0:02:16.9] SC: Crisis, climax, resolution, yes, that’s right. I mean, yeah, the fact that we all sort of stumble on what those five things are. I think is testimony to the necessity of having a Story Grid golden rule, you know? That’s kind of the way I kind of conceived it in the Story Grid editor training was I just was not communicating to the group. One of the great things about my experience with the Story Grid was in our idea to bring in other people who have different world views and different perspectives.
Essentially what happened in that room that day, I was being asked a set of questions from multiple people in the audience all with different subjective points of view but what they all shared was uncertainty. They didn’t quite get what I was trying to say. You know, in those moments, we all, when we’re not communicating very well, we get frustrated. We get frustrated because we’re afraid that if few can’t explain it to them the way that makes sense to them, we’re going to lose them, right?
We’re going to lose their interest in our way of looking at things. It was a real crisis for me in that moment and one of the editors pulled me aside later and said, it’s interesting that the crisis for the conference happened on Wednesday which was the day you were going over crisis.
It’s this circle within a circle again but I think it was important. That night, I went back to my hotel room and I couldn’t sleep and meanwhile, I’ve been talking for nine hours. It was really sort of obsessing me and so the phere concept came from this notion of how do I explain myself about the importance of writing – I’ve written about story and storytelling for the past seven, eight years. I always talk about the turn, you know? A story has to turn, it has to move, the value has to shift.
Concentration on that critical moment, it really came to me that that is the most important thing in a story. People who start telling you episodes in their life, where the value shift never turns are the most boring people in the world, right?
We’ve all run into them. You’re not going to believe what happened to me yesterday. I went to the shoe store and I picked up the shoes that I had polished and they looked great. Then I went to the grocery store and I got the best steak that they had available and then I came home and I cooked it to the perfect degree that I love and then I ate it, right?
We’re ready to hang ourselves by the end of that story, right? It’s because it doesn’t turn, nothing happens, there’s no moment in there. The concept of the phere, I won’t even get in to the young stuff and chaos and order and everything, yet but the concept of phere really seemed to me to be the golden role of story.
You got to have phere in your story and I love the metaphor too because it’s what fear is the prime motivator of action. Most of us don’t do anything unless we become afraid of what – of not doing something, right? That’s what motivates behavior. In my estimation, it’s the prime motivator of behavior. It’s what advertising knows.
That’s how they get us to buy things, they make us afraid of not buying it. The Story Grid golden rule is thou must have phere in every unit of your story. Okay, if that’s the golden rule, then maybe we should just throw out these five commandments and I say no.
The reason why we don’t want to throw away those five commandments is because they give us a very clear progression of levels of phere. If you have the same phere in every unit of story, it’s boring too. There is a great character that I think Fred Armison played on Saturday night live where he sort of, he plays this guy who never gets to the point and he just keeps saying like these escalating things and he never finishes the story of the escalation and each one of the things that he says is of the same phere level.
That can be a nightmare too when you just have somebody repeating the same level of phere. It’s like what I call the power of 10 when you are analyzing your progressive complications, if you have the same type of progressive complication. He doesn’t get the job and then he doesn’t get the job. You could do that once.
[0:07:56.1] TG: It’s like when my kids are telling me stories. It’s what it sounds like.
[0:08:01.0] SC: Right. Because the older we get, the more interesting the world becomes, the more we want variety in our pheres. These five commandments are way of sort of thinking about the levels of phere in a particular unit of stories. The inciting incident, chances are, the inciting incident is going to be relatively large.
You could make a smaller one and then they’re all different kinds of pheres, right? There’s the thing that doesn’t seem to be such a big deal that explodes into a nuclear holocaust, right? Then there’s the thing that seems like a massive big horror that turns out to be not that big of a deal anyway.
The inciting incident is sort of when you’re looking at the inciting incident, it literally incites, it’s the phere that the moment of phere that incites a scene or a beat or whatever. The way I would explain how to construct and think about what those things are, is just to consider what we talked about the other week which is just what happens when you start to feel phere.
What happens is you’re going about your day and something unexpected happens. Or, alternatively, something that you anticipate happening happens, right? If I say to you, Tim, I’m going to give you a test on the five commandments of storytelling, on Friday at 9:00 in the morning and it’s Monday. What you can do is start anticipating the failure of yourself on that test on Friday, on Monday, right?
You can build up an internal phere of the test. You can do one of two things, you can either just sort of obsess on that phere and make it grow and grow and get bigger and bigger and my god, what am I going to do, that test is on Friday.
Then maybe you’ll try and put the test off of your mind so you’ll go to an amusement park and you’ll have fun for a little while and you ride a roller coaster but then as you’re going to buy a funnel cake, you’ll remember, my god, that test is on Friday, right? You can run away from the phere and obsess about it and then by the time Friday rolls around, that phere has gotten so large that when you walk into that anticipated event, it’s a monster, right? It’s like the beginning of Risky Business, that movie with Tom cruise back in the 80s.
You know, the beginning of the movie is he tells you about a dream and the dream is he’s taking the SAT test, right? That’s the big phere of everyone in high school. How am I going to perform on that very weird, antiquated stupid test? Okay, that’s an anticipated phere and then once you reach that place, that could be the inciting incident of a story.
The beginning of The Shining is a job interview. It’s a job interview where a man is interviewing for a job to be a caretaker at a big resort hotel, that’s the inciting incident of the global story. Now, the brilliance of Stephen King was, we got all kinds of information about how that character was approaching that job interview while the job interview was progressing. Jack Torrent who is the protagonist in The Shining is really doing everything in his power to get that job because Jack Torrents is in deep trouble. If he does not get this job, he is –
His life could be flushed right down the toilet. He’s been sober for a year, there was some really bad incident in his family that caused him to have to go and get a job, he’s a writer, he got thrown, he got fired from his other job because he was a drunk and now he has to write a book and he thinks, this job is going to solve all of his problems. The inciting incident of The Shining is in the anticipated moment that the protagonist has been thinking about for quite some time before it actually begins.
You’ll see that the wall up the pack, the big level of phere, the phere of all that Stephen King puts at the beginning of his novel, The Shining is perfect. It’s a perfect anticipation event that will drive our attachment to Jack Torrents, because whenever someone has a goal and a desire, we can’t help as human beings but root for them. Okay.
That’s an example of an anticipated sort of phere. Now, an unexpected inducement of phere would be, let’s see, somebody’s on a plane and the plane crashes. It’s unexpected event that incites and then it becomes a story of survival. There’s plenty of stories available about plane crashes or any other extraordinary sort of random coincidental, chaotic event from the environment.
You’ll see that I’m talking about the inciting incident now, not so much as sort of not generic but before the way I define inciting incident was it could either be causal or coincident. It could be caused by another character or it could be a coincidental, chaotic environmental effect.
Now, what are we doing? We’re thinking about phere, right? We’re thinking about this moment in time, either anticipated or unexpected, that forces the character, the protagonist or the antagonist or any secondary character to behave in a way that will allow them to reach a goal. That is really powerful because when you get confused and you go, you know what? I’m really not sure what the inciting incident is.
This is why I got frustrated at the Story Grid editor certification conference because you know, I collected, I mean, they self-selected obviously, really intelligent people who study story manically like I do. They weren’t going to sit in the audience and just let me get away with not being clear.
That’s why we have these things is that they make me up my game at the same time I’m asking them to up their game. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. In the moment, yeah, I’m irritated by them but I can’t do without them because they forced me to come up with a better mouse trap here.
Let’s just talk about in terms of phere. The inciting incident has a level of baked-in sort of phere that is either the result of an anticipated event by the protagonist or the player in the drama, the focal character or an unexpected event.
It’s relatively large and it has multi-dimensions, right? In the example of the Jack Torrents character in The Shining, that job interview is an anticipated phere and if he does not perform properly in that meeting, that phere will explode and he could lose his wife and his son if he doesn’t get the job because if he doesn’t get the job, he very may well lose all hope.
He might say well, there it goes, not going to write that novel ever, nobody’s giving me a chance, the world is out to get me, here I’ve been a good boy for a year. I haven’t had a drink, I’ve done what my wife has said, I’ve done what my son has said and guess where that leads, it leads right to the bar, right?
He’s holding on a very narrow passage that he really has to navigate properly or his world could fall apart. That phere within Jack Torrents is so dynamic on so many different levels that it’s what drives the entire novel, it drives the horror, his phere actually, we actually watch Stephen King take this guy’s internal phere and externalize it.
He becomes a monster, he loses it, he loses his freaking mind in this story. He believes that if he doesn’t get this job; he’s going to go crazy. What’s the irony? He gets the job which drives him crazy. Because sometimes when we think we’re getting what we need and what we want, it destroys us.
That’s what happens and that’s the beauty of Stephen King is that he externalizes so much internal angst and horror that we’re mesmerized by the action of the story when in reality, his stories, his best stories are internal horror shows of a depth that Kafka would appreciate. Anyway.
We have this big dynamic ball, multidimensional ball of phere that’ the inciting incident.
[0:17:10.9] TG: Because I was about to say, when you’re thinking about your inciting incident, you keep going, you’re ahead of me on all these stuff.
[0:17:18.0] SC: When you’re thinking about your inciting incident. Think about it in those terms. What is the most multidimensional ball of phere that my character could either anticipate or something unexpected happens to them? Then, I’m talking about the global inciting incident of your story.
You know, before we got on the call, we were talking about Brokeback Mountain. There is another inciting incident that seemingly seems kind of whatever, coincidence, weird. Two guys get a job taking care of a flock of sheep in the middle of the mountains and that’s it, that’s the inciting incident. But within both of those people, there was, there are other pheres about, pheres meaning p-h-e-r-e-s meaning internalized authentic pieces of themselves that had not been expressed.
There are multidimensional fears within each of them. The unexpected moment of these two being given the same job, they fall in love and that’s interesting because it’s an unexpected coincidental, inciting incident that if these two cowboys had never met each other, it’s very possible that they’d never would have realized who they really are.
Okay. That’s really interesting too. When you’re thinking about the inciting incident, think about transformative fears that we all have within us. If I don’t get this job, everything’s going to shit. That’s a transformative fear because it’s guess what? It’s not true. This is what David Mana always says. A lot of playwrights insist on this, they always say, when you’re telling a story, think about the lie.
What’s the lie, who is playing the lie? When you are writing a scene, what is the lie being bandied about? The people accept this truthful, so that is another way to look at it at the inciting incident. What is the phere within the character that is forcing them to lie to themselves? Because we all know that being out subjectively, objectively whatever, if you’d lose your job yeah it’s not good.
It’s kind of terrible but is it the end of the world? Are you never going to be able to work again? No, it’s not true.
[0:19:30.4] TG: So in The Threshing, the big phere is going to the capital.
[0:19:37.1] SC: That’s correct. Her fear is that the capital equals death. Right, exactly and actually that’s a lie because her brother is alive. It means a bunch of other things but that’s a lie. So she has to face her fear in order to find the truth that’s the other thing I love about the concept of the phere because it is pronounced ‘fear’ and you know guess what we all have to do in order to level up in our lives is we have to face our fears because the fears are usually bullshit and not true.
Okay, so generally that is the inciting incident where the fear lives in the inciting incident is playing around with the lie the character is telling themselves. So the lie Jack Torrance is telling himself is, “If I don’t get this job I am going to go crazy” but the truth is if he gets this job he is going to go crazy. Okay, so let us move on to the second one of these five. So we have the golden rule, which is the number one principle of Story Grid and underneath are these five commandments of storytelling.
So it’s like if we have a pyramid, at the very tip would be phere. “Though must have phere” and then the next level would be these five units. So the next unit is progressive complication. So the progressive complication when you are looking that in terms of phere, these are little micro irritants. So if you are trying to make a sandwich and you get out of the chair and you bark your ankle on the coffee table that is a progressive complication.
It is a minute irritant that you could probably overcome without losing your shit, right? So that is a little tiny phere. It is an unexpected moment right? But it could be a metabolized. It can be dealt with relatively easily. So you bark your ankle then as you are making your way into the kitchen the doorbell rings. “Oh man you’re kidding me! I am starving and now I’ve got to go answer the doorbell” right? That is a progressive complication that is a little bit more than barking your ankle on the coffee table.
But it can be dealt with. Okay, so you are still on your way to get your sandwich but you stop yourself and you go, “Let me deal with the door first.” So you go to the door, you open the door and it is somebody you have never met before and across the street there is a black car and the guy is holding a manila envelope and that’s weird. You don’t know them. So that’s another progressive complication. There is a stranger at my door who is driving a black car who has a manila envelope in his hand.
So now you’re like, “Well there’s no getting around the fact that I’ve got to deal with this guy and my sandwich is still in the future yet.” Okay, so that is another one that’s to see how we are getting a little bit more difficult. So each phere is getting a little bit bigger. The first one is easy to metabolize. The second one relatively easy to metabolize. The third one is really you don’t know what to do, right? What am I supposed to do? So you say something like, “Can I help you?”
And the person says to you, “Are you Sean Coyne?” and I say, “Yes” and then goes and hands me the manila envelope and he says, “You have been served” and then he walks away and I am standing there with a manila envelope filled with fear, right? That is the beginning of the crisis of the scene because the crisis is not turned the scene. The scene is no longer about getting a sandwich. It is “Holy crap, what the hell just happened?” so that is interesting.
[0:23:20.4] TG: The turning point is always the one –
[0:23:22.3] SC: That shifts the value of the scene. So the turning point progressive complication is when I touched that enveloped. When he hands me and he says, “You have been served” he thrusts the envelope into my hand and walks away. That is a literal passing off of a turning point progressive complication fear that is multi-dimensional that will really get your reader or your viewer to say to themselves what’s going to happen next. What’s in that envelope?
What is going on? I thought this was about a sandwich. So it literally turns the value of the scene escalates the stakes. So it’s a scene that takes the mundane up a level to the extraordinary. That kind of thing doesn’t happen every day. At least I hope it doesn’t.
[0:24:12.9] TG: And what would you put in the column on the value change? Like it changes from what to what?
[0:24:18.4] SC: Probably a stable to panicked or something like that you know? You could play with it in terms of the internal feeling of the character. Every day to extraordinary, stable to panic, known to unknown and on and on and on and on. All of those are valid right? So when I was giving the course I kept saying to people, “Hey your interpretation is valid. What you would bring subjectively into these stories and to these scenes that we’re analyzing is as valid as what I bring” right?
And so it is a difficult concept to understand that there could be multi-interpretations of a value shift in the scene but it’s true because when I see or I read the novel of The Great Gatsby I pull way, way different things than my 13-year-old son would, right? So he’s going to look at it with a different lens. He’s going to look at it with the lens of his world view, his subjective lens. Now his lens doesn’t mean it’s invalid because he’s younger than I. No, it doesn’t mean that at all.
[0:25:30.1] TG: But there is still like – I feel like you are balancing too though. There is still like better answers than others. This isn’t a situation where it’s like –
[0:25:39.4] SC: I don’t agree.
[0:25:39.8] TG: Everybody gets a gold star.
[0:25:41.4] SC: I don’t agree to a certain extent and the reason why I don’t agree is the beauty of art and the beauty of storytelling is that it is not anti-intellectual but it’s for everyone, right? So the sophistication that the person brings to this story is interesting because the best stories can speak to everyone. The best stories can relate experiences that people of all ranges of sophistication can understand. This is why we love The Simpsons right?
The Simpsons cartoon operates on so many dimensions and so many multi-sophistication levels that I can watch it and go bananas laughing because of the references to the most ridiculous literature that you could imagine. Well my 10-year-old son can watch and laugh at Krusty the Clown, right? Krusty the Clown is funny to him as he is to me but we see it in different ways. Krusty the Clown represents to me an old birched belt comedian who fell apart who is now forced to do child’s parties, right?
Whereas to my son, he’s just a funny clown, right? So it doesn’t mean that his interpretation of why Krusty the Clown is funny is wrong and it doesn’t mean that I am right or vice-versa. That’s what art is. Art is a multi-dimensional work that speaks to the greatest number of people as possible. So this is why I was talking to Kevin Johns the other day who is the Canadian story sort of coach and he was asking me about what I call the bell curve of story where I clump in at the very peak.
Where the largest possible viewership would be the action story. So that is why we have the Marvel Universe is such a universally profitable story universe because it deals with very primal action narratives that we can all pull something from. Whereas Jean-Luc Godard’s work is not really up there in the big peak of popularity in the bell curve. It is an outlier on the anti-plot side that only café society would really get much out of.
You would go, people go to Godard movies and they go and have coffee afterwards to try and figure out what the hell they just saw. So that’s what for me, I am a populist. So the best art for me is one that has so many different levels of storytelling that as you grow more and more sophisticated throughout your life, the more you can take from the story later on in life. So I – go ahead.
[0:28:35.7] TG: I guess what I mean though because the whole point of having a tool like Story Grid is to be able to look at your story and say – because I am thinking if I am working with an editor and they’re like, “Well this one doesn’t have a turning point” and you’re like, “Yeah it is turning right there and I see it and it has this value” if you are saying that everybody’s opinion is accurate then how do you still critique a story, you know what I mean?
[0:29:01.1] SC: Okay I see what you are talking about. Yeah, okay so to take a little bit of a leap back, when I say somebody else’s interpretation is as valid as mine is, I am basically saying, “Oh from what you are telling me the value shift that you saw you are reading this multi-dimensional story as coming of age” as the maturation plot and what I would say is that is a valid interpretation of the value shift. Now truth be told Tim a lot of people can’t even pick up a value shift you know?
So the fact that people are putting their mind to it, the chances, the probability is that they are going to globally understand the concept of a value to begin with and unless they are saying, “Oh it is moving from known to unknown and then the next scene is unknown to known and then the scene after that is known to…” yeah, that’s not really very specific now is it? But if they are specifically identifying a value from say alienated to part of the group I’ll go yeah, I could probably see that.
So I think we are both right here. I think there are deeper more sophisticated readings of stories and obviously anyone who’s applying Story Grid methodology to stuff, their global end of the road kind of goal would be to parse out the most sophisticated levels of story that they possibly can globally and micro and scene by scene and the better you are at sort of doing that the more you get out of stories. So for me, Story Grid methodology isn’t just a way to edit fiction.
It is also a selfish act in trying to figure out what the hell Edith Wharton means you know? What was she really getting at because that’s great art when you put together a very specific story, it’s like Steve Pressfield when I started talking about Gates of Fire, he just takes a deep breath and goes, “Oh my god I had no clue that I was able to do that” because in the moment he didn’t feel like he was doing that but then I could talk about the brotherhood of the combat soldier.
And he’ll be like, “Yeah I totally see that in there. Wow wasn’t that lucky I got that right?” so that to me is art, right? So that is the beauty of the Story Grid is it allows you to appreciate art at a level that is overwhelmingly appreciative at the global level and at the micro level and to see how they put together this Swiss watch and didn’t know that each gear has a particular function, is a great gift. All right, so we just went through progressive complication.
That are getting this little balls of phere getting larger and larger and larger until they reach this moment when the value shifts and that is the multi-dynamic fear that is even more larger than probably the inciting incident of the individual scene and the reason it is, is that it raises a crisis and the crisis is an active choice you know? Am I going to do the worst? I won a best bad choice or your reconcilable goods and those are just two different ways at looking at the same problem.
If I do X, Y will be resolved. Y is not ideal, I am not going to get my sandwich now right? So I can either just ignore this thing and go make my sandwich and have it torment me or I can open up the package. So which is the best bad choice? If I don’t open the package then it’s going to torment me as I am eating my sandwich and if I do open it then I probably will lose my appetite because it is probably somebody suing me for something.
[0:33:06.3] TG: Yes, usually not good news being delivered that way.
[0:33:09.2] SC: No, it is not like you’ve won the Irish sweepstakes, here is your check for five million. So the crisis leads to the climax, which is the actual choice. He rips open the thing and discovers that his next door neighbor is suing him because his fence is on the wrong side of the property line or something or maybe it is margin that. His wife is leaving him. He has just been served with divorce papers and then he looks around and notices, “Oh my gosh her car is gone.”
All of her stuff is out of the closet like all of these things that he hadn’t noticed before he now notices. So then that propels the next scene right? “Oh my gosh, my wife is gone. How do I fix this problem? Maybe I avoid the problem” you know what I’m saying? So that is how you sort of – so the crisis turns into the climactic action, which resolves itself into here is the follow up on that phere ball now what am I going to do about it? How am I going to rejigger my goals?
You know what? I am just going to make my sandwich. I am sorry about the sandwich, I keep taking about this stupid sandwich but I am just trying to show you that in each one of these five things there is a phere ball involved and they are all of varying complexity. The inciting incident one is pretty complex right? Then the progressive complications one is sort of if it is a rollercoaster the inciting incident is taking you to the top of the first fall and then you fall and then you slowly go up to the next hill on the roller coaster.
Those are progressive complications and that hails a little bit bigger than the inciting incident right? So that one so that one then sends you into an action, which takes you down to a resolution and then you start all over again.
[0:35:02.7] TG: So when you are looking at these you are not replacing the commandments like you said with this thing. It is just a new way of looking at them from a higher perspective.
[0:35:16.3] SC: Right. It is applying the notion of phere at the five commandment levels. So if you have a progressive complication problem then you would zero in on phere and go, “Okay something is going wrong here. Something doesn’t feel right. Let me take a look at what the turning points of this beats and this progressive complications series leading to the knock on the door are. Oh I get it, so now I am just repeating the same level of phere.
He barks his ankle on the coffee table and then he slips on the dog toy and then as he is rounding the corner, he bumps his shoulder on the wall, right? Those are all the same progressive complication and then the doorbell rings. So you had – if you are going to assign powers of 10 to these progressive complications it wouldn’t be two, two, two, seven you know like, “Oh okay, then those two’s represent the level of fear ball. So I just need to take the second one from a two to a three or a four and then the third one from a four or to a six.”
So what else could I do that is a little bit worse than barking your ankle at the coffee table? The knock on the door is one of them. So that is the way you use phere. The golden rule of Story Grid that is how you use that to fix the five stages of a scene or a beep or a unit of story is by, you know, first thing you are going to do is look at what is going on with the pheres. How big are they? Are they dynamic? Are they interesting? Are they complex?
You know you don’t really want super complex ones in progressive complications. So that is why it is important to know what a progressive complication is and you do know that the crisis is going to be a best bad choice. So the progressive complications are going to lead to a ball of phere that makes the person actually consider an active behavioral change. So what fears are, is they cause change. What stories are, are descriptions of change.
How we change our behavior to deal with environmental changes in our lives right? So if stories are about change the thing that causes that change are the fears.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:37:41.1] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you 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. 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 would like to reach out to us, 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 iTunes and leaving a rating and review.