Seeking Truth

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Human beings live in two worlds, the external and the internal, on the public stage and inside ourselves. We pursue external objects of desire like a new job or a spouse or if we’re in law enforcement, we seek to bring criminals to justice. But we also have internal objects of desire, like respect or redemption or belonging to something bigger than ourselves. But the deepest internal object of desire, the one we admire most in our fellow human beings and in ourselves, is to seek truth.

And truth is defined as a search for those unknowable answers to two questions:

Who am I?

Why am I here?

It is within the Internal Content Genres that we find the pursuit of answers to these ultimately unknowable questions.

The best stories, the ones that we fall head over heels in love with, are those that contend with finding deep internal truth.

Thomas Harris decided, whether consciously or subconsciously matters little, that the way to outdo Red Dragon was to put as much emphasis on his Internal Content Genre in The Silence of the Lambs as he does his External Content Genre.

Remember that the external Story of life is on the surface.

And two kinds of outside forces drive external events. Harris knew that he had the personal outside forces of the serial killer Buffalo Bill and the extra-personal outside forces of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit to drive his external Story for The Silence of the Lambs. His lead protagonist’s external Story would move backward or forward according to her moment-to-moment success pursuing her conscious object of desire, her “want.”

What’s wonderful about Harris’ choice of protagonist (beyond the fact that he wisely chose to feature a woman trying to make it in a man’s world) is that he does not give her the obvious “want” of most serial killer stories. We don’t meet a seasoned/hardened detective faced with a seemingly impossible task. Well, we do, but he’s the secondary character Jack Crawford.

Instead of making the charismatic Crawford his lead, Harris introduces us to a version of ourselves, a newbie trainee with a lot of ambition and “on the surface” qualities that seem to be easy to exploit. She’s smart, but more importantly, she has the physical qualities that will attract the attentions of Hannibal Lecter. Clarice Starling’s “want” at the beginning of the Story is a reflection of her internal need to find the truth. Just as every one of our deep-seated wants is to find truth.

At the beginning of the novel, Clarice Starling just wants to become an FBI Agent under Behavioral Science head Jack Crawford.

But when she discovers the errand that Crawford sends her on could help solve the Buffalo Bill case, her want then escalates to contribute to cracking the case itself. She now wants to play a big role in catching the serial killer du jour.

That change in want, driven by events arising from conflict, moves the external Story forward. She’s now “wanting” something else and we as readers are pulled with her as she chases it. We want it for her too. What this “on the surface” drive sets up is an internal journey too. We the readers might not know the specific internal reasons why it is so important for her to be an FBI agent, but Harris does.

And Harris masterfully takes us deeper and deeper into Starling as a human being. She doesn’t know it (and we don’t know it either really), but her want to become an FBI Agent has turned into a need to find truth…about the world she inhabits and the truth about herself.

She wants to find the surface truth of the identity of Buffalo Bill, but she also needs to learn the truth of the institution that is tasked with finding him (the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit) in order to be ultimately successful in her career. Crawford is retiring soon. What will it take for her to get his job someday? Learning the truth about the institution brings up yet another need…to find out the truth of why she needs to be a part of it so badly.

Remember that we look to Story to instruct us how to navigate the world. While we the readers get sucked into the External Genre, Thomas Harris is also telling an underlying Internal Content Genre Story. The “A” Story is the serial killer thriller and the “B” Story is the internal content Story all about Starling, an empathetic stand-in for the reader.

We don’t live in one world. We live in two.

The external world (how we live among our fellow man pursuing what we want) and the internal world (how we find peace within ourselves by getting what we need) are the hemispheres of human experience.

Let’s get back to Thomas Harris’ foolscap and look at how he answered the crucial Internal Content Genre and the value at stake progression:

Internal Genre:

Internal Value at Stake:

Again, Harris knew that he was going to write a sequel to Red Dragon and that it would be a serial killer thriller that had life as its central global value at stake. I also suspect that he knew that he wanted his lead character to “win” the external challenge—to find the killer. That is, he wanted his protagonist to smite the dragon, to get what she wants externally. He may have toyed with the idea of Buffalo Bill getting away or even killing Clarice Starling and using a part of her body to perfect his woman suit, but I doubt that notion got very far. Having a schizophrenic flayer of women come out on top just doesn’t jibe with even the most cynical views of contemporary society. The world is a mess, but it’s not so chaotic that you can’t walk down the street without the threat of death. At least that’s true within the confines of western society’s reading public…those people who would actually engage and buy Harris’ book.

So if the External Genre ends up as a “win,” a positive success, the killer is brought to justice and the protagonist survives, what “B” Story could Harris tell that doesn’t end with roses and sunshine?

Remember that one of the reasons we find Story so compelling is that it provides both sides of life in the telling…the positive and the negative. So if the External Genre ends in positive, the Internal Genre should end in the negative. The combination plate of win/lose produces irony. If the writer invests in a deep Internal Content Genre as his “B” Story and chooses to have it succeed or fail in the same way as his External Content Genre, the Story won’t work. It will ring untrue. Readers will come away disappointed, even though they don’t know exactly why.

The thriller often uses a secondary tragic love Story to counterbalance the positive of getting the criminal. That is, the protagonist falls in love, but then loses the love after the killer discovers the attachment. The villain then kills the protagonist’s love interest or his buddy salvation partner etc. The lead character wins by bringing the antagonist to justice, but loses by losing her love.

We’ve seen this twist a million times. It’s not that you can’t use love Story to accomplish this goal if you set out to write a thriller, but you’re going to have a hell of a time making it fresh and surprising. We’re so used to this subplot that most readers will be so far ahead of the Storytelling that they’ll abandon the book very early on in the read. They know it’s only a matter of time before the bad guy kills the hero’s lover/partner/friend.

Harris uses love Story as subplot in The Silence of the Lambs, but he uses it as tertiary comic relief more than dramatic revelation—i.e. the nerd at the Smithsonian’s flirtation with Clarice Starling. Harris also uses the father/daughter mentor/apprentice love relationship masterfully too, but serious romantic love is not a driving force in the book.

Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel with Starling falling in love as his “B” Story, Harris decided to use his journalist’s training to comment on a social institution. He has Starling learn the hard way about the realities of the FBI, bureaucracy, politics, sexism etc. The way he chose to dramatize this education, while also adding deep layers of characterization to his lead character, is to choose the Disillusionment Plot as his Internal Content Genre.

Remember that the disillusionment plot is a movement from a positive belief in the order of the universe, basic fairness etc. (positive) to a darker point of view, one that recognizes the murkiness of life, the real injustice and mendacity that plagues us all. To have no illusions is to understand that a person must have powerful political connections to move up in a large organization. Working ones fingers to the bone is all well and good, but getting to “the top” requires alliances and careful manipulations.

The disillusioned come to the conclusion that there is no treasure at the end of the hard-work rainbow, because there really isn’t any rainbow to begin with. What we think we want and how we think we can get there is never what it really turns out to be. To become a pivotal high-ranking FBI agent has as much to do with who your friends are as it does with how hard you work or how talented an agent you are. Harris chose to have Starling learn this needed dark lesson while she pursues her external wants—finding Buffalo Bill.

The value at stake in the Disillusionment plot is the lead character’s worldview. What Germans call Weltanschauung. I love the German word because, for me, it sounds visceral, in the guts. Generally, the progression of negativity of the Weltanschauung value moves from ILLUSION to CONFUSION to DISILLUSION to the negation of the negation DYSTHYMIA (a chronic state of negative/ depression).

But for The Silence of the Lambs, I define the progression as a movement from the negative state of naïve positivity of BLIND BELIEF (assuming something without empirical proof) to the positive state of JUSTIFIED BELIEF (coming to trust based on evidence) back to the negative with the rise of DOUBT (counter evidence arising disproving previous data) and culminating in deep negative of DISILLUSION.

For Clarice Starling, her disillusionment plot manifests itself through her illusions about the meritocracy of the FBI. She begins the Story from a positive yet dangerous state of BLIND BELIEF in the power figures and the FBI institution as a whole. At the beginning, she’s being played by Jack Crawford to do his dirty work (using her as bait for Hannibal Lecter to help Crawford crack a case) but because she is so blinded by her ambition and ego, she doesn’t question Crawford’s motives. She wants to believe that Crawford sees something in her, some quality above and beyond her test scores and beauty that leads her to this great opportunity.

After he pulls her in, Crawford then actively manipulates Starling into seeing the FBI as a righteous institution. He rewards her with more authority and respect as she proves herself capable. He confuses her and her confusion/unconsciousness leads her to JUSTIFIED BELIEF that the FBI really is a meritocracy. Harris has Starling transition from BLIND BELIEF to JUSTIFIED BELIEF just as he moves the external value from LIFE to UNCONSCIOUSNESS at the end of the Beginning Hook of the novel.

Later when the FBI and Crawford come under extreme stress after the kidnapping of a senator’s daughter though, the real truth about the institution begins to reveal itself to Starling. Her illusions about her place in the world begin to shatter. By the novel’s end, she is forced to directly oppose the FBI in order to get what she wants (Buffalo Bill) which also saves her from spiritual damnation.

After all of the machinations within and outside the FBI, at the end of the novel Starling is DISILLUSIONED.

She has a negative worldview. She understands that there are no rules at the FBI beyond self-preservation. She is not at the end of the line in terms of the disillusion value (catatonic depression or Dysthymia), but her worldview has dramatically changed from beginning of the novel to the end.

While the external content value ends at positive, the life value has been restored (although it is not at the level that it was at the beginning of the novel), the internal value ends at negative. I’ll do a much deeper dive into this dual progression and how the two values arc in relation to one another chapter by chapter later on when we build our final Story Grid.

So here is how we’ll fill in our Foolscap for the Internal Genre:

Internal Genre: Worldview Disillusionment

Internal Value at Stake: Blind Belief to Justified Belief to Doubt to Disillusion

And let’s add in the Internal Value Progression alongside the external value progression on the rest of our Foolscap Global Story Grid page:

Partial Foolscap with Global External and Internal Value Progressioin

Partial Foolscap with Global External and Internal Value Progression


Next up?  We’ll fill in more of our Foolscap Global Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs.  Hang in there, we’re getting close to the ending payoff of this crazy thing…

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.


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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.
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Ron Estrada says:

I love the way you’ve laid this out on the foolscap grid. Of course, I realize that coming up with the external and internal genres doesn’t happen quickly, but once it’s on paper, it sure makes plotting the rest of the story come a lot easier (not easy, but easier). Thanks again.

Mary Doyle says:

The internal quest is what interests me the most – thanks for this terrific, in-depth analysis of Starling’s quest, and her transformation from Blind Belief to Disillusion. Most importantly, you said, “she’s now ‘wanting’ something else and we as readers are pulled with her as she chases it. We want it for her too.” That really struck me, how critical it is to engage the reader at this level.

I recently abandoned a novel I was reading. The author is a prolific writer and I’ve admired her work for years. This particular novel had a protagonist on both an internal and external quest. Half-way through I came to the realization I’d been fighting almost from the first chapter, that I didn’t give a damn whether she got either one. Because of my admiration for this writer, I hung in there longer than I might have otherwise even as I watched her character make non-credible choices given what was at stake. After I stopped reading, I took a look at the reviews, and more than one reader expressed disappointment that the “character never changed” by the book’s end. It was a good reminder for me, piggybacking on today’s post, that there has to be a transformation, and the reader needs to want to go along for the ride, and it’s the writer’s job to make sure that happens.

You ask us to hang in there – thanks for hanging in there with us as you spin this work out week after week. It’s been quite a ride! As always, thanks.

Debbie L. Kasman says:

Hi Shawn. Thanks for another outstanding post! Like Mary, I am very interested in the internal quest. I have a question about it.

Is it possible to write a story with an external value and 2 internal values at stake or would that be too complicated to execute?

Thanks as always for your time!

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Debbie,
My advice is to laser focus on just one.
Here’s why: When you try and do too much…this is when Resistance with a Capital R kicks in. We’ll use our grand notions to keep us from completing a single task. What will happen if you refuse to give in to the grand scheme thinking and just focus on the one major goal at hand, is that you’ll find that the Muse will fall in love with you. While you’re hacking away at the Morality Redemption story (or whatever other Internal Content Genre you choose) and refusing to be swayed from that focus, the Muse will be peppering your work with underlying thematic gold.
That certainly happened in The Silence of the Lambs. Harris was so focused on making sure that Starling moved from the naivete of blind belief to disillusionment in his story, that a whole slew of other Internal Content Genres slipped in…in the process. There are arguments to be made in fact that the Internal Content Genre of SOTL is Worldview Education or Worldview Revelation or Worldview Maturation or Status Admiration or Status Sentimental or Morality Testing… Guess what? All of those arguments are valid. Because when you really focus and nail your singular choice, you’ll find that in that process you’ll comply with a number of other Internal Content Genres too. Which only adds depth and gravitas.
So I titled the post today SEEKING TRUTH…because that is what protagonists in arch-plots and mini-plots should do. And here’s a clue to help you when you put them on that path…The Truth Hurts! Starling was determined to throw away her coal mining WVA past away and become someone important at the FBI. But the truth was that her WVA past is what makes her an authentic force, capable of right injustice. She had to figure that out in order to discover the truth about herself.
How they get to their own truth requires a singular focus on a clear path…what they need. So focus on the need of the character and the internal (and in many cases the external too) genre will become evident for you. Hope this isn’t too confusing.

Debbie L. Kasman says:

Thank you so much, Shawn. It’s not confusing at all. It’s exactly what I need to hear. A whole slew of internal content genre stuff slipped in as I wrote my first draft. I know it needs to be there intuitively (and you’ve just confirmed it’s really good that it’s there) but it’s been confusing the hell out of me because I can no longer tell which internal content genre is/was my focus. But as you have suggested, when I go back and think about what the character needs, it becomes totally obvious. And now I can lasar focus in on that. Thank you so much for putting me out of my “grand scheme thinking” misery! It’s not a fun place to be! Resistance with a capital R does indeed kick in hard when you’re in that ugly place.

Shawn Coyne says:

Excellent. It’s impossible to remember that Storytelling is basically simple because it is so damn complex. So the way to keep focused is to make sure that what the character wants (external objects of desire) and what the character needs (internal objects of desire) are clearly dramatized from scene to scene. They are the things that hold the reader’s attention. The questions “Will the character get what they want?” and “Will the character get what they need?” generate narrative momentum.

Michael Beverly says:

Great post, I’m a little confused about the positive/negative balance.

When I think of the end of the story, here’s what I see:

She finds out the inquest has been dropped, her room mate is going to help her study, so she won’t be recycled. She is a legend already. She’s got a date. She’s the darling of the day, there’s almost no way the FBI cannot not promote her, the public would be outraged.

Hannibal has promised to “not visit her” and we believe him, she’s safe.

Yes, she now knows the FBI is just another corrupt thing, so I see the disillusionment here, but even that is a positive, isn’t it? Discovery of truth?

Shawn are you saying all these positive things are the external victories and the negative loss is simply finding out the truth?

And that’s enough of a negative to make the story a balance of win/lose love/hate etc?

Everything can be great in life, but you still die?

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Michael,
Well the beauty of the novel is in the ambiguity of both the external and the internal climaxes. What I mean by that is that they are “open to interpretation,” which is why I have such esteem for the work. Like life, the endings are positive and negative depending upon your point of view (meaning the reader’s point of view, not the characters or even Harris’s, but the person who experiences the story).

The external genre ends with a “win,” yes. Starling kills Buffalo Bill. That’s definitely a positive, right?

But at what cost? Starling’s ambition (wanting to throw her WVA past aside and become a big and important FBI agent) was in no small part a contributing factor in the escape of a far more diabolical killer…Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is a lot of things, but he is not a being that should be loose. He is not unlike the Tyrants of history (his judgement reigns and low to those who come up short…he’ll kill them).

Lecter (while he does not lie to her) uses Starling to escape. Just as Crawford uses Starling to find Buffalo Bill. Lecter knows what Starling will do…what the FBI will do…etc. before they even know it. He’s the dark prince of the novel and a very attractive figure (just as the devil and evil in general are throughout literary history). So the external “win” of getting a schizophrenic serial killer off the street has far less “whoopee” factor when considering that the obsession with BB caused a far more intelligent and sinister force to be unleashed. So the external “win” could be interpreted as a big big big “loss” too.

As for the Internal Content Genre, Starling is never ever going to be a big deal in the FBI. She’s not a “team player” and while she will get her due (a badge), there is little doubt in my mind that she’ll never become a big cheese in the bureau. So basically, she comes to the conclusion by the end of the book that she’s all alone. And yes, that’s the truth for all of us. There is no magical place where we’ll be accepted and encouraged to be who we are. All we have to guide us is a mysterious inner something that makes us believe in certain moral stands and ethics. Whether or not anyone else shares those beliefs is highly debatable. Yes, she has a date, but that’s in my interpretation a way in which she’ll find some real/solid and truthful beauty out of this world in the face of the dark realities of it. All we have are the small connections we can make with one another. Treasure them the best that you can.
So generally, I’d say that THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS ends dramatically negative rather than ironic, which is quite a feat to pull off and still make people satisfied. I think you’ll see that when you see my final Story Grid for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Evil reigns and the best we can do about it is take the small comforts where we can find them. That’s where I come out of it. And because Harris did such a masterful job with the novel, my take is as valid as anyone else’s.
That is art!

Michael Beverly says:

I bow to your brilliance.

Off to put on some headphones and listen to the Stones “Sympathy for the Devil”….

Jim Starr says:

Shawn: I’m hanging this one here on the off chance that it relates to Michael’s questions.

And as much as it may come off sounding like a gotcha, I don’t want it to. I only want to make sure I’ve not missed part of the lesson.

But in going back through the Spreadsheet, specifically the Value & Polarity Shifts for Scenes 10 and 11, I see what seems to be an inconsistency. Or am I missing something very nuanced?

SCENE 10: Stymied to Victorious: +/- (maybe that’s Starling becoming the “story”?).

But looking even more like a typo:
SCENE 11: Confident to Confused: -/+.

Are these Polarity Shifts correctly matched up with their Value Shifts? They seem opposite to me.


Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Jim,

If you look on the spreadsheet at Scene 11, you’ll see that it is a +/-/+ shift that moves from Confident to confused to informed.

What happens in this scene is that Starling goes to see Lecter after the head in the body scene in the storage unit. She begins “confident.” She’s just found Lecter’s “Valentine” and she feels like she’s had a big win. And she has. When she goes to see Lecter, he tells her a story about Raspail killing the guy whose head is in the jar (Klaus) but then Lecter tells her that he thinks Raspail was lying to him… Starling gets confused by all of this as she’s not sure what this head and this Raspail person and all of the rest have to do with her and her search for Buffalo Bill.

“Your interrogative case often has that proper subjunctive in it. With your accent, it stinks of the lamp. Crawford clearly likes you and believes you competent. Surely the odd confluence of events hasn’t escaped you, Clarice—you’ve had Crawford’s help and you’ve had mine. You say you don’t know why Crawford helps you—do you know why I did?”

Harris, Thomas (2009-12-28). The Silence of the Lambs (p. 61). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

That is the “Confused” movement in the scene.

At the very end of the scene, Lecter tells Starling that Buffalo Bill lives in a two story house. That is the final movment to “informed.”

This three part polarity shift may have been clipped on the spreadsheet I posted. I’ll check it. I’m sure it’s on the final spreadsheet, though. Thanks for catching it.

As for scene 10, you are correct about the polarity moving from Stymied (she can’t get the door open to the storage unit) to Victorious (she gets it open and finds the head).

PJ Reece says:

Yes, I have the same response as Michael vis a vis “disillusionment,” which cannot ultimately be anything but positive. Because disillusionment means “without illusion.” Meaning truth. So when the story delivers the protagonist to the moment of disillusionment, that’s the prize, the portal to a worldview free of bogus beliefs. I’ve just reread Silence of the Lambs thanks to this discussion — thank you, Shawn — and I come away feeling hugely happy for Clarice. Disillusionment is the first step in breaking free of the human condition in which we’re imprisoned. Freedom doesn’t come without this wake up call. That’s how the art of fiction works me over.

Scrivener says:

One of the very, very few elite places I can come to and read something that has not been rehashed or hyped and where it feels like the reading is actually writing – because the material goes straight to the ‘writer brain’ in me – yes BOTH cells.

Patricia Wilson says:

Shawn, I’m late to this party since it’s now July 7, 2015, but I’ve begun at the beginning and have religiously been following each segment and learning so much about novel structure. So happy I found your blog and that you’ve kept each segment available.

Is there any room for a reader, like me, who finds herself rooting for the “devil incarnate,” Hannibal Lector, so feels relieved when he ultimately escapes? I felt the same while watching the movie. Likewise, years ago when seeing the German movie, “Das Bot” (spelling), told from a German submarine crew’s POV, I felt myself rooting for the German captain and his crew against the U.S. in that instance.

In real life, I am neither a WWII German Hitler/Nazi sympathizer, nor a “bleeding heart” who justifies and forgives murder and other crimes, brutal or otherwise, or even white collar crimes.

I know I’m not a sociopath, so I presume I’m not alone in these responses.

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Patricia,
Great to have you. What you are describing is the power of human want and need and our attachment to characters (no matter how despicable) on a mission. We just can’t help attaching to people trying to “get” something. Because we are all on our own desperate (at times) paths to get what we want, we want our fictional friends to show us how they got theirs. Our desires are so strong that we’ll take any advice we can get about how to get our hands on that brass ring…even made up advice from bad people. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful this force is. Joseph Campbell dedicated his life’s work to thinking about it and what he discovered is that it is simply a universal phenomenon among all human beings.
All the best,


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