Once you have a first draft, you’ll need to inspect each of the units of your Story and make sure you’ve used the right materials. Just like a building, you’ll want to make sure that your Story will stand up to the test of time. This is what The Story Grid is all about. It’s an editorial tool above all else.
What is also appealing about creating The Story Grid for your Story is that it requires you to use a completely different part of your brain. You can give your creative side a rest and dive completely into the analytics. For each and every scene you’ve written in your book, you’ll now take inventory of what exactly you have in hand by writing down critical information in each column of The Story Grid Spreadsheet.
It’s crucial to be very meticulous about the notations because the spreadsheet will be invaluable in pinpointing places where you went off course, missed a crucial scene or beat, and/or made minor continuity mistakes.
Spend the time making your notes in The Story Grid Spreadsheet succinct. But err on the side of being comprehensive in your first round. Trust me, you’ll go through this spreadsheet so many times that, by the end of the process, you’ll be able to boil down each scene in your book to a phrase.
And if you can’t, you’ll know the scene is too obtuse…not clear…in need of an overhaul.
Here’s another major word of advice.
Don’t stop and fix an obvious problem until you’ve completed the entire spreadsheet!
It is just about impossible to toggle between your creative side (writing the Story) and your analytical side (editing your Story) simultaneously. You need to separate Church and State. The Writer and the Editor. When the Writer is doing his work, the Editor has to be on vacation…and when the Editor is doing his work, the Writer has to be on vacation.
You, the Editor, need to see the work as a whole, every single piece, before you’ll be able to tackle revisions. If you revise before you’ve done a complete analysis, you’ll find that your first instinct solutions will not work when viewed globally. That is, you may come up with a great idea to fix chapter 3, but if you actually do that revision, you may up fouling up the foundation for your best work in chapter 1 and your best work in chapter 18.
So don’t do it, no matter how easy a fix you think it is, or how dreadfully terrible the scene is.
Not writing while you are editing is going to be as hard as it is to not revise your work while you’re writing. But you can’t give the Writer a working plan to fix all of the novel’s problems as the Editor until you’ve digested the entire Story Grid Spreadsheet, put it together with the Foolscap Global Story Grid and mapped out the final Story Grid.
After you’ve done all of that work, the problems AND THE SOLUTIONS TO THOSE PROBLEMS will be evident.
You must resist the temptation to revise before you have all of this work done. Seriously. If you don’t, you’ll add months if not years to your workload or you’ll abandon it completely because you’ll come to the conclusion that your work is unsalvageable. It’s not!
If you have a pile of pages completed and you are putting your editor hat on for the first time, the very first thing to do is to write out your list of fifty-odd scenes/ chapters. In order to figure out what’s going on in the Story, you need to know where everything is.
So when I take on a new editing job, I’ll first sit down with the manuscript and a stapler. I’ll go page by page and separate the entire book into its component scenes. There are usually between fifty and seventy scenes in a novel. So I’ll have a pile of fifty to seventy packets.
I’ll then turn on my computer and pull up a fresh Excel spreadsheet. As I will be analyzing The Silence of the Lambs, I’ll label the file “The Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs.”
I’ve gone through The Silence of the Lambs and determined that Harris’ 61 chapters break down to 64 scenes. Harris wisely chose to make each of his chapters a scene, with the exception of three chapters, which comprise two scenes stitched together.
Now on my spreadsheet, in the very first column, at the top I’ll type SCENE and underneath, I’ll write from 1 to 64 row to row.
Next to the SCENE column, I’ll create another column called WORD COUNT. For this column, I’ll simply add up the number of words for every single scene. For example, the first scene is the first chapter in The Silence of the Lambs and it runs for 1,690 words, so I’ll type 1,690 in the corresponding cell for scene 1.
It’s a grind to do this for every scene, but keeping track of the word count is invaluable. It will allow you as the editor to compare and contrast how you, the writer emphasized or deemphasized a particular scene just by its very length, and where you should trim and/or revise to best effect. It’s not a lot of fun to run your cursor over a big patch of text just to get the word count number, but when you have the entire word count on a single spreadsheet, scene by scene, you’ve got some vital information.
When you the editor first finished reading the draft, you may have had a suspicion that a very minor scene went on far too long, while a critical scene was too short. Saying that you have a suspicion to a writer is one thing. Telling them exactly what scenes you are referring to and their respective word counts is far more helpful.
Actually showing the writer that, for example, his “getting a haircut” scene took six thousand words, while his “contemplating suicide” scene took less than one thousand is far more persuasive to get him to cut the haircut and pump up the suicide. There is no arguing when you have pinpointed information.
It should take you a full workday, perhaps two or three when you are just getting started, to complete these first two columns. I’d suggest that you assign yourself this task on Day One of Editing and no matter how long the process takes you, knock off for the day when you complete the work.
Editing requires very concentrated attention. When you get tired, you screw up. Just like writing. So until you’re in the Editing groove, give yourself ample time to complete The Story Grid tasks.
After you’ve filled in your scene numbers and word counts, it’s time to fill in the next column on The Story Grid Spreadsheet, the STORY EVENT column. I recommend you read A Practical Handbook for the Actor, which was written by a group of actors from the Atlantic Theater Company to help you nail Story Events. I keep the book handy at all times.
The trick to filling out the STORY EVENT column is to reduce each scene to its essence, either a single sentence or a phrase that will tell you the gist of what has occurred in the scene. It’s a great way to build a shorthand language with the writer too. You can refer to The killer prepares scene and know exactly where in the novel it takes place.
I also suggest that once you’ve completed this column you go out and buy a stack of 3 x 5 index cards and write down each scene on one card, along with its corresponding sequential number and word count. This is a technique I used back in college when I struggled through organic chemistry. On one side of the card, I’d draw you the structural diagram for a particular compound like Benzene, and on the other, I’d write the word Benzene. I’d walk around with a stack of these in my backpack at all times. So on my way to odd jobs or to the canteen for dinner, I’d be able to quiz myself and keep everything straight.
You can make notes about each of these scenes in your downtime and you’ll be surprised at the kind of subconscious work your mind will be doing just lugging the cards around. Try it.
When you are first running through the book scene by scene, and coming up with the Story events for each, it could take anywhere from a day to a week or more of work. Don’t kill yourself over getting the perfect description for every Story event. You’ll end up tweaking just about all of them by the time you’re through generating the full Story Grid.
Don’t grind too hard now. Write down just enough so that you’ll remember the scene as a unit. So later on, when you’re thinking about the sequence of your Story, you’ll think in terms of “The break-up scene” or “The battle for Constantinople scene” instead of the myriads of beats and details that will go into each.
Here’s how I did it:
The first scene/chapter in The Silence of the Lambs can be summed up as “FBI Section Chief Jack Crawford summons FBI trainee Clarice Starling and recruits her for ‘an interesting errand.’” And here is how the beginning of your Story Grid Spreadsheet will look:
|SCENE||WORD COUNT||STORY EVENT|
|1||1,690||FBI Section Chief Jack Crawford summons|
|FBI trainee Clarice Starling to recruit her for|
|an ‘interesting errand.’|
Now it is simply a matter of going through the entire manuscript and generating a list of all of the scenes in their particular order with their word counts and their particular Story events.
If you discover (and you will) that one or more of your scenes do not have events, you’ll find that these are the sorts of expositional passages that can be cut in your next draft. But for now, simply write down the core of activity.
That is, “John walks to town” or “Susan thinks about ice cream” can be written in the Story Event column as placeholders. They aren’t really events. They’re stage business/ exposition. You’ll fix them later.
Don’t freak out if your scenes don’t seem all that exciting yet. Even those shoe leather scenes that aren’t really scenes are important to keep in that first draft. They are important because there is probably critical exposition in these passages that must be woven into the Story.
There will be plenty of time to evaluate the effectiveness of each scene’s event later on. You didn’t nail it perfectly on the first draft (who does?) but don’t throw these “not working” scenes away or try and fix them yet. You need to see the full picture as an editor to make specific decisions later on.
Let’s move forward. So after a full workweek, we’ve got the first three columns together for our Story Grid Spreadsheet.
When I finished my spreadsheet’s first three columns, I knew that The Silence of the Lambs is sixty-four scenes comprised of 96,299 words. I now knew its core component parts. That is a huge step forward.
Now it’s time to break these sixty-four scenes down further to see just how and where Thomas Harris not only delivered the five commandments of Story form for each, but how he solved the knotty problem of abiding by all of the conventions and obligatory scenes of his chosen Genres.
That’s up next.
For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.