The 5 Commandments of Storytelling (Revisited)

[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a 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 Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

In this episode, Shawn and I start diving back into some of the basic core principles of Story Grid. We start with the five commandments of storytelling. I think that’s always a great place to start when we’re talking about Story Grid.

I get Shawn to go back through, talk about these fundamentals and hopefully help you apply them to your work in progress. I think it’s a great episode. It will really help your understanding of these core principles of Story Grid. So let’s jump in and get started.


[0:00:55.5] TG: Shawn, it’s been a couple years since we started the podcast. I’ve come a long way and in some of these ideas that we’ve talked about, we either made complete episodes about, or of course we talked about ad nauseam off and on the show through different episodes. I’m wanting to circle back around to then now that I feel like I have a better understanding.

I went out to – I had some of my own questions. I went out to some people in the Story Grid community to ask questions, and I want to start with just talking about the five commandments of storytelling, and see if we can drill down into some questions.

I have in some common questions I think people have is they try to apply the five commandments, because so many times I feel like this stuff – because I know this is true for me, which means I’m sure it’s true for so many of our listeners where like I hear you say it and I think I got it, then I go to actually apply it and I’m like, “I don’t know what to do.”

First, let’s just start with what are the five commandments and how do you see them as applying to storytelling?

[0:02:17.4] SC: The five commandments are the things that everybody intuitively already knows. These are the foundation of every story from a joke to a 25-novel epic. The five commandments, there is the inciting incident. The inciting is a thing. It’s a cause, or coincidence that throws the life of a character, or characters out of balance.

A hurricane comes, that’s a coincidence. It throws somebody’s life out of balance. You got to put wood up on your windows, you’ve got to get shelter, etc. It throws somebody’s life out of balance and then make a change. They have to react to the inciting incident. A cause of inciting incident would be something that is caused by another person.

You come home and your wife tells you, “I’ve had enough. I’m leaving you.” She leaves. That’s a cause of inciting incident that completely up-ends the characters or your life is completely out of balance at that point.

The inciting incident pushes a character into trying to get back to the place they were before. It up-ends their life in a way that makes them yearn to go back to “normal.” That’s the inciting incident. That’s the key thing that starts every story. Crime story, somebody is murdered, or the jewels are stolen. That’s the inciting incident of a crime story.

Okay, the next thing – That’s the first commandment. You must have an inciting incident. The second commandment is you must progressively complicate the story. There have to be complications that get progressively more and more difficult, or more and more difficult.

I have a whole chapter in the book about this, but a progressively complication would be something like this. A guy hears about a hurricane imminent. He runs to his shed to get some 2 by 4s to put up some wood. He finds the 2 by 4s, but he can’t find any plywood to cover the window. That’s a progressive complication. What’s he going to do now?

He looks around and he finds an old ping pong table and he says, “I’ll just cut up this ping pong table to make sure I cover the window.” He gets out his saw and he cuts the ping pong table and he’s got his 2 by 4s, he goes to one of his windows and he discovers that his son has fallen out of the window, and his son is now screaming on the ground. That’s another complication. He can’t fix the window until he tends to his son. It’s a serious complication, right? It’s bigger than not having plywood. His son is hurt.

He runs into the yard, his son is lying on the ground, he’s screaming his head off and it looks like he’s broken his leg. Now he has to solve the problem of the broken leg before he can solve the problem of the impending hurricane and on and on and on. That is what complications are.

Now the key thing to remember about them is that you don’t want to repeat the same complication. You don’t want the same level over and over and over again, because it’s boring, right? If the guy goes into the garage and he discovers he has no plywood, then he discovers he has no nails. “Oh, what am I going to do? I’m going to get some nails?” Then his saw doesn’t work. Those are all similar complications that are boring. But when his son falls out the window and breaks his leg, that’s a completely different complication that’s at a much higher level of dramatic difficulty.

Complications slowly, slowly build, or quickly build depending upon the story to the ultimate complication, which is called the turning point. The turning point is not a commandment itself, but at sometimes I think I should’ve had six commandments, because the turning point is really, really important.

The turning point is the complication right before the crisis question comes to the mind of the character or the characters. The turning point shifts the value of the scene and makes it move from being safe, to being in danger. In the case of the guy and the ping pong table and the son with the broken leg, let me try and think of a turning point.

Now after the son breaks his leg, the man knows he has to get his son to the hospital, but he also knows that if he doesn’t cover up the windows, his entire house is going to be destroyed. That brings up a crisis for the man, right?

[0:08:04.1] TG: Yeah. I’m thinking through –

[0:08:05.9] SC: I’ve already confused you. Yeah, go ahead.

[0:08:08.1] TG: No, no, no, no. Is the turning point the progressive complication that finally kicks the situation into an actual decision? It’s almost the protagonist is going in, the inciting incident kicks them into motion. They’re moving in one direction, but things keep complicating. The complication that finally causes the person to have to make a decision is the turning point.

[0:08:43.4] SC: That’s correct.

[0:08:43.3] TG: It’s another progressive complication, it’s just the one that – It’s like, “Okay, I can fix this, I can fix this, I can fix this. My son falls out the window. Okay, I can’t do both things. Now I have to decide.” Now that kicks it into the crisis.

[0:08:58.2] SC: That’s correct. That’s a really great way of –

[0:09:00.5] TG: That’s what I think, because one of the questions we got is why isn’t the turning point some commandment. You said sometimes you think it should be. I feel like the turning point, it’s the final progressive complication before the crisis if it’s what causes it.

[0:09:17.0] SC: It’s the thing that gives rise to the crisis.

[0:09:21.9]TG: We’ve talked about – so these things, we use what are the dolls that go inside each other?

[0:09:28.0] SC: The Russian dolls, yes.

[0:09:29.4] TG: Yeah, the Russian dolls. These five commandments apply to every level of storytelling, so beats, scenes, acts. Do you call that a – is that part, and then the book itself, the full book. I feel like I get a little squiggly on the progressive complications. I understand them in a scene. What you’re describing is a scene. But how do I consider progressive complications on the book as a whole?

[0:10:03.7] SC: Okay. Well, the way to do that is to think globally. I’m going to take a leap of faith here. Before I do to explain that, there are three other commandments that I need to go through; there is the crisis, which gives rise to a question and it’s one of two kinds of questions; the best bad choice, meaning do I sacrifice my property to safeguard the leg of my child? Or do I let my son writhe in pain while I safeguard the property? Which one is the one that the character is going to choose?

Now everybody always says to me, “Well, you never talk about characterization and how do you get characterization involved in Story Grid?” The answer to that is by the actions that the characters make. Character’s actions define who they are. They can say whatever they want. I mean, this man is dealing with a hurricane. He might say, “Family is the most important thing to me.” They could say that all and then on and on and on. But if he chooses to put up that ping pong table on his window while his kid is screaming, the action speaks louder than the words, right? It’s actually not true.

The best bad choice is you pick the thing that is the least bad to that character. The other one is irreconcilable goods. Now the thing about these two different things is you can look at the situation from either lens. Irreconcilable goods would be, “It’s good for me, but it’s not good for somebody else.” Do I choose what’s good for me and not good for somebody else, or do I choose the thing that’s good for somebody else?”

Just looking at this crisis, the man could say to himself, “It’s good for me to save my stuff inside my house. It’s not so good for my kid who is screaming.” That’s in your reconcilable good choice, as well as a best bad choice. Some people say, “Well, I don’t see any irreconcilable good choices.” The thing is it’s the way you look at the situation from the point of view of the character. That’s the crisis.

The next one is the climax. Now the climax is the thing that the character chooses to do. It’s the action that the character takes after making a decision about the crisis. The guy goes and he picks up his kid and he rushes him to the car to get into the hospital and he abandons saving his property. That would be the climax of that scene.

The last commandment is a resolution. The resolution is the thing that happens after the climax. How was that action, how did that affect the world by taking that action? The resolution would be either the kid has to lose his leg, which is even more progressively complicated. It resolves the issue. Or he gets a cast at the hospital. Or it remains unresolved and becomes the inciting incident of the next scene.

As he’s driving he gets in an accident. Now not only is his son have a broken leg, but is in an accident. You can see how this can keep moving and moving and moving and you’re driving more and more tension in the audience, because they will keep asking themselves what’s going to happen next. That’s what you want to do, you want to create these moments so that your reader is constantly asking themselves, “Oh, my God. I thought something else is going to happen and this happened instead.” Those are the five.

[0:14:04.7] TG: Let me try to say this. The inciting incident knocks the character out of balance. Progressive complications keep the character out of balance until they reach the turning point, which is the final complication that gives rise to the crisis, which is the question. What is the character going to do in this situation? The answer to the question is what the character does, that’s the climax. The crisis is the question, the climax is the answer and the resolution is what happens as a result of the character taking that action.

[0:14:43.6] SC: Yes. Now, just to be super, super clear about it, some people will send me a scene and the character chooses to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of a tuna fish sandwich. They ask me if that scene works.

The crisis is which is better? Tuna fish or peanut butter? Now is that really a high-stakes conflicting difficult element for a character to take? No, not specially. But sometimes you need these lolly – The other thing is that there has to be a clear value shift in a scene. Meaning at the beginning of the scene in the hurricane, he’s in danger. At the end of the scene, he’s even in more danger. It goes from a negative to a double negative. That works.

It doesn’t necessarily have to go positive-negative, or negative-positive. It can go from positive, “Oh, I just found a quarter on the sidewalk,” to a double positive, “I’m going to put this quarter in the slot machine. Oh, my gosh. I just won $3,000.” Positive to double positive works too.

Now you don’t want to have your scenes going negative-double negative, double negative-triple negative, triple negative-quadruple negative, because it doesn’t seem realistic to the audience. You want to alternate your scenes in their valences so things move from a negative to a positive, a positive to a negative, a negative to a double negative, a double negative to a positive and so on and so forth.

Just to get back to that question that you mentioned earlier Tim, about understanding progressive complications leading to turning points in terms of a scene, but it’s difficult to consider that in terms of an act, or even a global story. I’m going to take a leap of faith here and hope that everybody has seen the movie The Godfather. Have you seen it, Tim?

[0:16:54.7] TG: Yeah.

[0:16:56.2] SC: Okay. The Godfather is about a ton of different things. But if you want to look at it from the prism of Michael Corleone who is the central protagonist, he begins the story as someone who has rejected his family. He comes home and he’s got his girlfriend with him, he’s an army hero and he goes to the wedding of his sister, because he’s a good son. He doesn’t agree with the family business, but he’s going to show up and go to the wedding, because he’s a good kid.

Slowly his life progressively complicates. The inciting incident for Michael is when his father gets shot in the street. That up-ends his life. He’s on this path, he’s going to marry Kay who is this nice waspy woman,  he’s going to settle down and probably at New Hampshire, bang his father gets shot in the street. Now his life is out of balance. That’s the inciting incident of The Godfather, in terms of Michael Corleone and generally the entire movie too.

Then he decides, “Oh, my gosh. I better get home and see how my father is doing.” He gets home and he discovers that his father was the victim of an assassination attack. That’s progressively complicating his life. Michael has to say to himself, “Oh, my gosh. People are trying to kill my father. What am I going to do about it? Well, I’m just going to hang here for a while. My brothers are going to take care of it. Okay.” That’s a progressive complication. “What am I going to do? My brothers will take care of it.”

He sits there a little longer and he discovers his brothers are screwing up. His father is supposed to have guards at his bed at the hospital, because somebody is going to try and kill him there too. Geez, the guards are away and oh, my gosh, now the counselor to the family has been abducted. He’s being held hostage. What’s Michael going to do? He loves his father. He has to make a choice. His life is getting progressively complicated.

His choice is, “You know what? I’m going to go to that hospital. I’m going to protect my father.” He goes to the hospital to protect his father and he discovers there aren’t any guards there. He gets his father in his bed and he wheels him to a different room, because he thinks, “Oh, my gosh. The bad guys know which room he’s in if they’ve got rid of the guards. I better get him in this other room, or he’s going to get shot.”

He does that and on and on and on and on these little progressive complications that force Michael to make more and more choices, more best bad choices, more irreconcilable good choices, until he eventually decides at the critical moment at the end of the first act of The Godfather that he is going to kill the man who tried to kill his father. He has changed from someone who wants nothing to do with the family business to becoming a martyr, to the one who gets revenge.

If you look at the arc of that whole first act of The Godfather, you can see these moments and it reaches this turning point, the turning point of The Godfather is when Michael is in the Italian restaurant and there is Clemen – not Clemenza. Just a bad guy who met with him and wanted to run drugs and also the dirty lieutenant.

Michael is in the bathroom and they’ve hidden a gun for him. There is this moment, the turning point is, “Oh, my gosh. What am I going to do? Am I really going to go through with this? Am I really going to kill these guys?” He does. He makes the choice. The climactic moment is he decides to kill those two men and his life will never be the same.

That is a point of no return for Michael Corleone that he will never be able to go back. He’s never going to be able to settle in New Hampshire with the waspy woman and live a nice comfortable middle-class life. He is now on the road to becoming his father. He does assume the role of his father by the end of the movie.

If you’re Francis Coppola and you’re Mario Puzo and you’re trying to map out these scenes and you’ve got Mario’s novel there and go, “Well, what should we cut? This part is not important. All these back story about the woman who is having an affair with Sonny, we can cut that out.” What are the major progressive complications in the story? How do I get from A to B to C to D?

To look at the global story in terms of those five commandments is a great idea too. If you’re having trouble in each of the individual sections, the acts will get the five commandments. What’s the beginning of my beginning hook? What are the progressive complications in my beginning hook? What’s the crisis in my beginning hook? What’s the climax? What’s the resolution?

The resolution in The Godfather is Michael has to go to Italy. He has to exile himself for a period of time until such time that he will be able to return to New York. But he has to be exiled. That’s the end of act one. Michael goes to Italy and then the war begins between the five families.

I mean, just watch The Godfather. I mean, the storytelling in that is so crisp, clear, defined, brilliant and all the characters make actions that define who they are. That’s the way to look at it in terms of the bigger unit of story than just you’re seeing.

[0:22:57.9]TG: Okay. I mean, would you suggest then a good exercise for somebody would be to take a book or movie and say, “Okay, globally what’s these five things? Okay, the first act, what’s these five things? Okay, scene by scene, what’s these five things?” Would that be a good – because I feel like that’s where I’ve started to learn some of these. But is that a good way to actually go for – I think I understand this to getting this in your bones.

[0:23:32.2] SC: Absolutely. Especially, if you’re absolutely stuck writing your novel and you know what your genre is and you know what book it is that you really want to model it on. You say to yourself, “I want to write Moby Dick in the desert. All the sand will substitute for the water and there’s going to be this big creature in the desert.” You get stuck, what do you do? Well, go pick up Moby Dick and go through all those things that I just talked about.

You should be able to sum up a story in three sentences; the beginning, the middle build and the ending payoff. You should be able to sum it up in five commandments too. What is the inciting incident of the story? Let’s try and do it for The Godfather. The inciting incident of the story for The Godfather is The Godfather – the older – the paterfamilias as they say, gets shot. There’s an assassination attack. Progressive complication. That is the inciting incident in The Godfather.

Progressive complications. No one seems to be able to figure out how to deal with the father’s assassination attempt. It gets worse and worse and worse. Sonny wants to shoot everybody. Tom wants to placate everybody. Fredo doesn’t even know what to do. Fredo couldn’t even pick up his gun and protect his father. Who has to step up? Michael.

The one person in the family the father never wanted involved in the family business. Michael has got to step forward. What is he going to do? Well, what Michael is going to do is get revenge. He’s going to reassert the power of the Corleone family by having the guts to kill a New York City policeman. He does it. That’s the crisis and the climax of act one.

Then the rest of the movie is all about reasserting the Corleone power and Michael comes to the fore and the resolution is Michael is now The Godfather. Michael literally, he becomes the godfather of Connie’s baby at the end of the movie. Just as his father was the godfather to people, now he is.

At the very end, he wipes out every other family. He murders the heads of all the other five families. It’s a very, very clear trajectory. That’s a great idea is to always go to the classics, go to the master works, work through them. Because as you work through them, you see how the masters solve these impossible problems that we’re dealing with and they can inspire you to come up with your own fixes.

[0:26:26.8] TG: One other questions is how do you apply these in different types of scenes? We’ve described some – the two examples, the one you made up about the storm and then The Godfather are both pretty dramatic examples.

There’s also scenes that are just a lot of dialogue, or it’s set up for what’s coming next, or it is something – we talked about how the irreversibility, if that’s the right word. The irreversibility should go up over time. Well that means early in the book, a lot of these decisions should be reversible. Maybe choosing what type of sandwich to make is the crisis if the person has allergies or something. I don’t know.

To me the question is how do you apply these in scenes that have less at stake that are less – are more like setup scenes for what’s to come, or the lay of the land scenes? Do they still apply in those, or do you have to be more subtle with them? I guess, thinking about a storm coming and I got to get the boards and then I got to get this, like there may be a scene where it’s like, “What are some subtle progressive complications?” Does that make sense?

[0:27:52.2] SC: Yeah, it does. I mean, it goes back – it really goes back to thinking through the global story. At the end of the beginning hook, there’s got to be something that’s almost completely irreversible. I’m not going to go out and say that every climax of the beginning hook should be an irreversible complication that pushes you into the middle build.

That’s a good rule of thumb. It’s a good rule of thumb to say to yourself, “I need my character to do something that’s irreversible by the end of the beginning hook.” Then I need something that’s a point of no return by the middle of the middle build of the book. I need another irreversible action at the end of the middle build that pushes me into my ending payoff, and I need an irreversible change in the character by the end of the ending payoff?

Why? Why do you need that? Because you need movement of storytelling. Just looking at that, you can see the curves that are moving in that story. Something knocks somebody off balance. They have to make an irreversible decision by the end of the middle build. By the middle of the book – I’m sorry, at the end of the beginning hook. By the middle of the book, they have to reach a point of no return. They can never go back to the way things were.

Then at the end of the middle build, they have to have another irreversible movement that will push them into the climactic ending payoff. Now what you are saying is how do you create scenes that are interesting when it’s not that big of a progressive complication? That is really where genre helps. You and I have been talking about the labyrinth plot for an action story.

One of the great things about a labyrinth plot is you got to show the labyrinth, right? In your middle build you’ve got to have your character be indoctrinated into this new world. You got to have the scene where somebody shows her around, right? That scene doesn’t have big progressive complications in it, but it’s entertaining all the saying, because it’s entertaining at a different level. It’s entertaining with new information.

[0:30:45.3] TG: It makes me think of a while back, I asked you a question about my constant struggle with writing scenes that are too short and all that, and you’re talking about when they’re introduced to the world in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s just all of this interesting set up of what the world is. It’s fascinating and it’s exciting to read, even though it’s not action-oriented. It’s not a huge jump forward in the story.

[0:31:20.3] SC: It is very important, because it progressively complicates. Each one of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has like an Achilles heel. They have a deep, dark badness within them, except Charlie. What Dahl does, Roald Dahl who wrote it is that he presents this beautiful incredible world and then he has these kids. They’re like the slovenly kid, like Gunter or whatever. The kid eats all the time.

He gets sucked up by that chocolate – hot chocolate pipe, because he refuses to listen to Willy Wonka who says, “Don’t drink from my chocolate river, you’re going to contaminate it.” The kid falls in, because he’s a glutton and then he gets shot up in that thing. Yes, we’re seeing that beautiful magical world of Willy Wonka, but the characterization, these characters are behaving in ways that make them poor candidates to take over the chocolate factory.

Of course, Dahl had this great idea of, “Well, this is all a ruse for Willy Wonka to find the right kid to take over his factory.” Each one of those scenes that moves from the kid who drinks the hot chocolate, then the next scene is the girl who eats the blueberry and blows up, because she refuses to listen to. Each one of these places within the Willy Wonka world challenges a different element of humanity and these kids fail to test.

Yes, in these scenes these things aren’t hugely at stake, but it is too, because it brings in life and death. Like is that kid going to survive when he goes up that pipe? Is that girl who blows up to be a blueberry, is she going to survive? You can be comedic and fun and have fun with it and you can still have very high stakes.

Like in that scene I talk about where the indoctrination of Peggy Olson in Mad Men, that’s a great scene because the person who’s taking around the advertising agency is trying to seduce her. He’s using this, “Let me show you around,“ as a way to get her interested in him.

You’re watching the scene on two levels. You’re enjoying learning where the copied apartment is and all that stuff, but you’re also like, “Is she going to fall for this stupid thing this guy is trying to do?” That’s a way to really animate your scenes that don’t seem like – it doesn’t really seem to be a progressive complication in that scene, but there is and it rides on will Peggy Olson be seduced by this guy or not? Matt Weiner had all of that exposition in old stuff. He uses that, but he does have a really meaty five-commandment scene attached to it.

[0:34:46.7] TG: Another question, do each of these – I’m looking now scene-specific. Do each of these things have to be on the page?

[0:34:56.4] SC: I’m not sure what you mean on the page.

[0:34:59.4] TG: Sometimes we refer to – okay, so when we’ve talked about the Pride and Prejudice and how some of the side characters have their own stories going on and not all aspects of the story have to be on the page for you to understand what’s going on. Is there ever a time where the crisis is implied, or the inciting incident already happened off the page and we’re not reacting to it? Or is this something that needs to explicit be in each scene?

[0:35:35.5] SC: It has to explicitly be in each scene. Oftentimes, we get so heady about this theory that we don’t use common sense. The common sense in the story is you need to entertain people from scene to scene. You’ve got to mix it up. You’ve got to have lows and big dramatic moments. You have to drop in exposition, you have to setup things that are later on will be very explosive.

Each scene has to – you have to be able to reasonably be able to pull together those five things. When I’m analyzing a scene in a novel, it’s not necessarily all that fun, because I like to read the scene and enjoy it. Then after I read the scene, I have to go back and say, “What was the inciting incident?” That’s when Gandalf finally shows up. He comes, that changes everything and everybody changes their behavior based upon it. Okay, what re the progressive complications. You have to reasonably be able to walk through those things, and you’ll know whether or not your fudging it, or – but it’s not that tricky. It really isn’t.

[0:37:00.4] TG: Okay. I’ve analyzed a couple books. I’ve gone through – Last year I did the entire spreadsheet of the first Harry Potter book. Then on my own, like I’ve done pieces of books just to look at them. A lot of books, it’s hard to figure out when the scenes begin and end. Some of them are super helpful when they’re just like, “Chapter one,” then it’s like, “The scene.” Then chapter two and the scene. But a lot of them and I remember this with Harry Potter – I had my paper copy and I was going through and marking them, because a chapter in her book actually contain lots of different scenes. When you’re analyzing another work, how do you find where the scenes break? Because sometimes it’s hard to figure that out.

[0:37:59.6] SC: Usually, I’ll just know. It’s usually a setting changes, or there is a break in the action and time it picks up later. The time will pick up later. It would be hard for me to be able to explain that, unless I was going through a particular work. Right now I’m going through The Hobbit. Each of the chapters has between one to three or four scenes. A lot of the scenes are 3,000 words and they’re wordy and they’ve got singing and dialect and all kinds of stuff in it. I can track and you can track through your own intuitive sense of, “Oh, there is a law. Everybody’s gone to sleep. Oh, my gosh, the goblins have come out, new scene.” Even though –

[0:38:59.8] TG: Was that in – what you just described is an inciting incident.

[0:39:04.1] SC: Yes. Look for –

[0:39:04.8] TG: It’s an inciting – go ahead.

[0:39:06.8] SC: Yeah, you can look for resolutions where, “And then they all went to sleep.” End of resolution. A crack in the door and goblins came in, that’s an inciting incident. Look for big moments, like the Gollum scene in The Hobbit goes on for 4,000 words, and there is five or six different moments where they’re doing riddles and things.

It’s a great scene, but it goes on for a while and it should go on for a while, because Tolkien was really establishing something that was going to really payoff in The Lord of the Rings later on, and this brilliant character needed some stage time. When you know when the scene breaks is usually you get a lull and then excitement. Then you say, “Oh.” Usually when you say, “Well, what happened in that chapter?” This happened and then this happened and then this happened. Those are usually three scenes. Does that make sense?

[0:40:16.3] TG: Yeah. Okay, so if somebody is in the position that I’m so often in, which is I’ve listen to you talk about this, I feel like I understand it, but I want to actually practice my ability to apply the five commandments. What should I do? What should I do to practice and put my understanding of the five commandments of storytelling to actually help me figure out if I actually know what I’m talking about or practice identifying them, or applying to my own writing. How do I move from this conceptual idea from listening to this episode to actually grounding it in reality in my understanding?

[0:41:05.2] SC: Well, I would suggest having a little fun and just saying to yourself, come up with some crisis questions. Attack the scene from the middle, and the middle is the crisis. Would you rather do this or that? Which is worse? Would you rather have your finger cut off or your toe cut off? Think about a character and put them in a situation where they have to make a best bad choice.

Do I jump off the bridge and possibly die, but get away from the police who are chasing me and I didn’t do anything wrong? Or do I stay and let the police take me and get thrown in jail for the rest of my life? That’s The Fugitive. That’s the movie The Fugitive. That’s the entire crisis of the situation.

[0:41:56.3] TG: Over and over and over.

[0:41:57.9] SC: Yeah, and it works and it’s great. Think about crisis. What if you were given the chance to have a lottery ticket and you could have all the money yourself, even though somebody gave you the numbers and said that they would split it for you, what would you do? Then walk back – these are global crisis, and then you can walk back in inciting incident.

The other way to do it is think of an inciting incident and see what kind of crisis arises from it. There is a hurricane coming and your son falls out the window. What do you do? That’s not really that difficult of a choice, unless you’re trying to establish a negligent father character. It’s’ hard to sympathize with somebody who would rather save their junk than get their kid to the hospital.

[0:42:54.1] TG: Unless that junk is how he feeds his child, so now –

[0:42:57.7] SC: Right, exactly. You can add in a complication. “If I don’t save this –” What if there are antiquities in their house? Maybe he could find a different way. Maybe he’d give the kid a bunch of whiskey and maybe his pain will go away. I don’t know. But this is the way to think about – think of crisis, inciting incidents and the progressive complications will come, because it’s like once you know you want to go to Vermont, you know you got to go over this mountain, that mountain and that mountain to get there.

You can build the progressive complications and you check your progressive complications by saying, “I can’t do the nails thing, because I already did it to my floor thing. I got to come up with something else.” Then of course, the climax is what action do they take based upon the crisis. The crisis could be anything – it could be a life and death crisis, it could be a love crisis. “If I do this, then my beloved might not like me. If I pretend to be somebody else, she might. Should I pretend to be somebody else, or be myself and risk that she won’t like my true self, or do I pretend to be somebody else that she will like and then never trust her?”

These novels and epics and operas have been written upon that crisis. “Do I pretend I’m somebody that I’m not? How would I get away with a crime? What if I fell down a well and there was a magical world down there, what would I do?” These are all the things that writers explore and create masterpieces based on.

My advice is if you’re having trouble with five commandments, just think about these great ideas, “What if X happened? What if I was in this situation where Y happened? How would I handle it? If everybody was making fun of the kid who have the surgery on his face, would I stand up for him or not? If I didn’t, what would I do instead?” On and on and on.

The thing to remember is having imagination and then let your imagination allow you to form a vision of a story that could be interesting. Whenever you think – whatever your first instinct is rejected, because you’re probably repeating something that you saw on TV and you forgot about.

Your first instinct is a good way to get going, but then constantly say, “What if I couldn’t do it that way? How would I do it instead?” Everybody would expect this father to help the son. Well, maybe he saves the house first. We discover later on that in the house was blank. That’s the way to goof around the storytelling, because the five commandments are just making something up and seeing what happens.


[0:46:08.9] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast.  For everything Story Grid related, checkout 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 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.

Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.



The Book

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.

First Time Writer

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.