The Five Commandments of Storytelling

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It’s now time to review the timeless principles that we rely upon to create and evaluate the building blocks of a long form story—scenes. Scenes build into sequences, which build into acts, which create our Beginning hooks, Middle builds and Ending payoffs. Each of these elements must abide by the 5 Commandments of Storytelling.

5 Commandments of Storytelling

The five elements that build story are the inciting incident (either causal or coincidental), progressive complications expressed through active or revelatory turning points, a crisis question that requires a choice between at least two negative alternatives or at least two irreconcilable goods, the climax choice and the resolution.

The 5 Commandments of Storytelling

  1. Inciting Incident
    1. Causal
    2. Coincidence
  2. Progressive Complication
    1. Active Turning Point
    2. Revelatory Turning Point
  3. Crisis
    1. The Best Bad choice
    2. Irreconcilable goods
  4. Climax
  5. Resolution

These 5 commandments of storytelling must be clearly defined and executed for each unit of story. I’ll go into further detail about all of the units of story later on, but for now it’s important to note:

The Units of Storytelling

  1. Every story beat has an inciting incident, progressive complication/s, a crisis, a climax and a resolution.
  2. A well-designed series of beats builds to the next unit of story, the scene, which also has an inciting incident, progressive complications, a crisis, a climax and a resolution.
  3. Scenes build into sequences, which also have inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions.
  4. In turn sequences build into acts, which have their own inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions.
  5. Subplots also have inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions, and can be tracked in exactly the same way as the global story. They act more like add-on extensions or outbuildings to the property that make the global story a deeper and more satisfying experience.
  6. And lastly, the global story itself has its own inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution.

The Bio System of Storytelling

Like an organic structure, a Story has a base set of internal materials that integrally combine to form self contained units of mini-story which in turn combine to form even more complex systems and ultimately all of the systems combine to create a work of intellectual property.

Just as cells form tissues, which interact to form organs that work with other organs to form systems (skeletal, nervous, circulatory etc.) with ultimately fourteen systems making up the anatomy of a human being, so do beats combine to form scenes which combine to form sequences which combine to form acts and subplots and ultimately the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff of a global story.

But without the engines of creation (the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution) beats, scenes, sequences, acts, subplots and the global story will have no life. It is never a bad idea to revisit these crucial story elements before we begin a new project or just after we’ve banged out our first draft of a project…just before we put on the editor’s hat.

You Deeply Understand the 5 Commandments

Knowing them and trusting their efficacy are mandatory.  A writer who does not pound these concepts into her head will never come close to reaching her artistic potential.  There is no escaping them. And anyone who tells you differently is either ignorant or a charlatan.  Seriously.

So my advice is to surrender to them.  Bow down to them.  Hold them closely to your heart.  They will save you from yourself.  They will outwit and out duel any Bullshit you or anyone else will come up with to get you to ignore them so that you can write “freely.”  Sure go nuts on your first draft and riff all you want.  But when you dive into your edit, you’ve got to make sure that these five elements are present in every beat, scene, sequence, act, subplot and global story.

Cure for Writer’s Block?

When Moses’ cousin, Morrie the writer, went up the mountain seeking a cure for his writer’s block, God didn’t have time to give him all of the answers. And wouldn’t you know it, Morrie climbed up unprepared.  He only had a crumpled coffee shop napkin and a leaky pen in his shirt pocket. So God did Morrie a solid and boiled Story down to just 5 commandments of storytelling.

This article is part of the 5 Commandments of Storytelling series:

  1. Commandment One: Inciting Incidents
  2. Commandment Two: Progressive Complication
  3. Commandment Three: Crisis
  4. Commandment Four: Climax
  5. Commandment Four: Resolution

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

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About the Author

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on... Read more »
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Author Shawn Coyne


Mary Doyle says:

This post is getting taped to the wall behind my computer. Thanks Shawn!

Tony says:

How do the five commandments split across acts?

Beginning hook: inciting incident

Middle Build: progressive complication, Turning point, crisis

Ending payoff: climax, resolution


Can the crisis & climax both happen in the Ending Payoff?

Joel D Canfield says:

I am so glad you’re going to break this down and provide examples, ’cause otherwise my head was going to explode.

I understand that some folks like to stumble into structure rather than seeking it out with intent, but perhaps my background in architecture and computers prevents me from staying there. Sure, as a musician I can jam spontaneously, but without a structure in place we’d just be noise.

Debbie L. Kasman says:

Mary is psyched and Joel’s head was going to explode. I’m psyched and my head is well…spinning! LOL…I’m so happy to have company on this wonderful journey! Shawn, even though my head is still spinning up in the clouds somewhere, I’ve managed to plant both feet firmly on solid ground. You’ve given me the spins but also some new clarity with this post. As a newbie writer, I didn’t really know how to write. I just dove in and wrote freely. While this generated some “good stuff,” I could never figure out how to put all my pieces of “good stuff” together. Your posts are helping me to do that in a really powerful way. There is no question that my best writing comes in both ways, from my right brain “free floating” place but also from my left brain “structural” place. Structure makes sense of my “free” stuff. It’s my left brain making sense of my right brain and both sides of my brain complementing and amplifying each other in really powerful ways. I keep saying this but I’ll say it again, your “stuff” is brilliant. YOU are brilliant. I’m so grateful to be learning all the left brain stuff from you! Thank you!!!

Morgyn says:

Sound of gnawing. Me taking another edge off my desk. Dreaming of the day Shawn emails us all and says . . .

“Your pain is over. The PayPal button is on the site.”

(Soft cough in fist.) And that would be . . . ?

Michael Perkins says:

While I echo the praise of other commenters, I must express how torturous it is to wait for these posts!

I can’t wait for the book so I can keep going, but alas, wait I shall.

Mary Doyle says:

Michael, I completely agree — I think Shawn is giving us all a lesson in the “build-up” – maybe there will be a collective lighting of cigarettes (figuratively speaking for us non-smokers) when the book is finally released.

Larry says:

Ha ha ha. I’m just getting to this now, alternating between the posts, the epub and the print version. Glad I didn’t find out about this until a little while ago.

Steve Stroble says:

Shawn: a couple of years read a book that fiction is either plot driven or character driven, with the changes of the character, either for better or worse, taking place of the “plot.” Do your 5 commandments apply to character driven stories as well?
Thank you

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Steve,
I suggest you check out the previous posts. I wrote one called Plot Driven or Character Driven which should help out. And yes, these commandments are required of all stories, nonfiction too.

Alex Cespedes says:

So grateful to Morrie for bringing these commandments to us! Next time bring a full pad and a working pen

Michael Beverly says:

Hey Shawn,
I’m echoing all the people saying they can’t wait it get it all, in the mean time, I’ve been reading some other writers, yes, in between reading your posts I finished gobbling down Story Engineering by Brooks and a couple of things.

So, question:

In Larry’s work, he uses terms like First Plot Point and Second Plot Point and other terms, some of which dovetail to the terms you’re using, and some I’m not totally sure about.

At some point, would you mind clarifying what terms are universally used by the industry, as opposed to any you and others coin yourselves.

For instance, he explains the inciting incident as being like: “Joe finds out his wife is cheating”; but the First Plot Point as being like: “Joe finds out that the guy she is cheating with is his best friend.”

The first plot point then seems to be like what you’ve described as “Progressive complication.”

He claims there is universal point (like 20-25% in) that this happens, and I’m wondering if this thought process dovetails with the structure you are building here?

I hope I’m not making it more confusing, but if you can understand my question, you’ll see what I mean and where maybe I’m asking for clarification. I hope.

If this sounds confused, the fault is mine for not asking a clear question.

When I read “each beat needs an inciting incident, a progressive complication, a crisis, a climax and a resolution” I thought, holy smokes, how does all that happen in ONE beat?

Looking at my first beat in the thing I’m working on:

1. Meet protagonist, she flirts with Antagonist (at an event).

Now, I guess that is not a complete beat, then?

What I’m calling my next few beats, I suppose, are actually part of beat #1?; the father of the protag notices flirting, confrontation between father and daughter, Antag notices their fight, Antag uses her vulnerability to hit on her.

If that’s the case, is there a term for a beat within a beat?

Patrick says:

The bell REALLY went off in my head with this one, so I think I might have the answer to your question. Let’s see what Shawn thinks:

Sure, “She flirts with Antagonist” is a beat. Next beat might be “Antagonist follows her from party.” or whatever. But within the first beat you could have something like this:

1. Inciting incident — She smiles at cute guy across the room.

2. Progressive Complication (active) — He comes to talk to her.

3. Progressive Complication (realization) — she realizes from the strange mark on his hand that he is the guy who was dating her missing friend

4. Crisis (best bad choice)– how does she get out of this?

5. Climax — She spills her drink on him and rushes off,
promising to return with some napkins and club soda.

6. Resolution — she turns the corner and runs out the door, leaving her coat behind on a cold winter night.

Shawn Coyne says:

Nice Patrick! Remember that it’s okay not to have all of these answers. This is an editorial process after you have something in hand.

Kim says:

The idea of asking these questions for every beat of my draft strokes the dreaded, “why did I think I could do this button.” Next, I’ll have to think of something better to write! I sense a procrastination front heading my way.

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Kim
I think you’ll find this work empowering. And soon you’ll actually enjoy it. It will give you immediate feedback and direction. My advice is to not give a hoot about any if this until you have a scene drafted. Then go for a walk. Switch off your writer mode and put in your editor hat. Putting on an actual hat isn’t a bad idea.
Hang in there

Julia says:

Having always been a fan of the more literary type of literarure, I resisted the idea (necesity, really) of beats and obligatory scenes in my early attempts at writing. Now, especially since I started reading this blog, I understand that they are the basic elements to any good story and am trying to master them.
It really is so much better writing with these tools at hand.

Can’t wait for details on the five commandments!

Julie Tallard Johnson says:

Thank you for all this material Shawn. I keep reading, practicing, and trust that this is all “downloaded” as I write each scene. Sometimes I remember a particular method, most times I forget the name of what it is I have learned to do. I finally made my writing partner (author of several historical thrillers), cry. I finally “got it.” Of course now I must keep writing to “keep it.” Julie

Beth Barany says:

Shawn, I was wondering if the Crisis point above is the same as the “Black Moment” or the Confrontation/Ordeal of the Hero’s Journey. Thanks! LOVE your stuff. I’ve read the book, have both editions — print and digital, and am using your tools to revise/edit book 3 in my YA fantasy series. Thanks!

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Beth,
So glad The Story Grid is of value to you. There is nothing more rewarding than reading that a working writer is taking what they need from the book and applying it to their own work. Steve Pressfield and I were talking about this yesterday. The Story Grid is really a textbook…one to use for a semester or even year long course on Editing. So there is no harm in adapting the methods of The Story Grid and using them to tweak your own writing process.
Anyway, I have my head so deeply stuck in the sand with my own theories that I confess I’m not up to speed on The Black Moment in the Hero’s Journey. But, I suspect it’s exactly the same. The Hero’s Journey is the Archplot for Story and provides the global spine of the global plot. So if you prefer the Hero’s Journey terminology, I think that’s fine.
All the best Beth!

Jon P says:

This is old, so I’m not sure if you’re following on it anymore. I’m a listener to the podcast, and generally enjoy it and find it useful – thanks for that.

I’m not entirely sold, though. I’ve been reading, trying to apply the SG “five commandments” as I go. In some places, it clearly matches reality. In others . . . not so much.

For example, I’m currently reading my kids Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, a book which I adore. I think we can agree that Gaiman is broadly considered a successful writer, and that Coraline is a popular and successful book.

Chapter 4 consists of three scenes .

In the first, Coraline (finding herself in the Other World) sees a cat and learns that it can talk (inciting incident), tries to befriend it (goal, complications, turning point), but doesn’t reach any sort of crisis or any sort of resolution – the cat gives some gnomic advice and simply disappears. Has she succeeded in befriending it? Has she failed? It’s hard to know–which is very like cats. There’s an overall hint that the cat is friendly (it does give advice) but there’s no clear success or failure.

The second scene, Coraline goes to Ms. Forcible and Ms. Spink’s show. There’s a momentary complication (she doesn’t have a ticket) but the dog ticket-taker lets her in after giving a bit of hassle. Then she sees the show, gets called onto the stage (and has a knife thrown quite a bit too near her (and gets a box of chocolates as a reward), gives a chocolate to one of the dogs in the audience (that’s apparently okay in this world), and learns that the show never ends. Then she leaves. All in all, it’s a hallucinogenic scene, very atmospheric, very successful (in that it further Weirds the world and evokes a dream-state of wonder for the audience) but there’s little of the 5 Commandments in it.

The final scene, Coraline’s other mother is the protagonist of the scene, even though we’re still in Coraline’s POV. The other mother wants to get Coraline to live in the other world with them, and promises that it won’t hurt very much when she replaces Coraline’s eyes with buttons. Here, the mother has no real inciting incident (this is a continuation of a goal established much earlier). Coraline refuses to be Buttoned (the complication) and leaves. There’s no real crisis – the other mother simply says that she’ll see Coraline when she comes back, and there is, of course the (temporary) resolution of Coraline leaving. If we make Coraline the protagonist of the scene, it doesn’t really change – there is no real complication or crisis (she simply says that she doesn’t want to stay, and is allowed to leave).

This is not to say that the theory is invalid–certainly I can see elements of it in Coraline, and in other stories–but I am skeptical that it’s as universal as you claim. Which is perfectly fine if the post says “this is something that occurs in many scenes, and which contains elements that we’ll see in almost every scene,” but when we say “this is the key to a successful scene and your scene won’t reach its maximum potential without following this,” I see the Coraline example (as the nearest-to-hand) as a clear counterargument.

It could be argued that any or all of these scenes could be improved by application of the “five commandments,” but I”m not sure that that’s necessarily true. It seems that the point of the scenes in this chapter is not to develop of the conflict, but rather (in this example) to evoke a dream-state and a vague sense of dread. Bringing things to a definite head in these scenes would give the chapter an altogether different feel. It might speed the plot along, but it wouldn’t accomplish the things that Gaiman seems to have set out to accomplish.

All that said, thank you for the idea and the perspective. It’s certainly valuable, even if it’s not as universally needed as the theory proposes. It’s an interesting checklist, from a self-editing perspective.

Lewis Faulkner says:

I hope this thread is still open. I have listened and learned a great deal from the podcasts! But, there is something I can’t figure out for the life of me, and it’s critical! I am going through my thriller novel and flagging the 5 commandments in each of my scenes to see if they have all 5 items in there and putting them into the story grid. It seems that more times than not (and I notice this on tv shows in almost every scene), I have the inciting incident and numerous progressive complications. Then, I get to the crisis and it seems like stopping there would make a good cliffhanger. Do I then flag the climax and resolution in the upcoming chapter and call all of those items together a scene? In other words, how do you know you have all 5 parts, when crisis and resolution are farther into the novel (like in an upcoming chapter)? Or, am I completely missing something?

doug hartman says:

Newbie- That’s me. I always wanted to write never had the time. Now I have the time, (retired) but not the money( pensioner) All together everybody (Ahhhhhhhhhh Shame) The “don’t have the money for this course, for that software” got me here. The Story Grid. My career as a Construction planner got me “hooked”. Planning says “you can’t do that till you’ve done this otherwise you working out of sequence and your project is heading for trouble. Story Grid does that for me. Makes logical sense ie you cannot start putting the roof on until you have built all the walls and the walls have been checked and passed as being strong enough to support the roof. I’m writing my first novel- written 78 000 words so far ( the walls). Expect my novel to go to 110, 120 000 words so I am getting ready to erect my roof. Question:- Do I stop now and go back and apply Story Grid logic to my four walls before I assemble my roof or do I carry on, erect my roof and then apply the Grid Logic and see if my house is ready for painting and my “client” will like the house as I’ve built it and show it to his friends. In amongst all the above is a “newbie” thank you Story Grid. Thanks to you I can see a light, a very faint light at the moment, but I know it will get bigger and brighter as I take each Story Grid step, suddenly it’s not so dark in this “I wanna be a writer world I’ve got myself into” and if I can hold my breath long enough it’s ok to dive in, I won’t drown. Doug.


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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.