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If you’re like me, right now your head is swimming.
You’ve just spent three or four weeks using a microscope to lay out the elements of a novel, all of its scenes and continuity details, turning points, values etc. Moving from minutiae to the view from thirty thousand feet is a very difficult transition. No matter how many books I’ve worked on, the moment I’ve completed The Story Grid Spreadsheet brings great joy and soon thereafter great sorrow. Because inevitably, I’ll have this really cool document and not really know what to do with it.
It is in these times that Genre will save you. Remember that Genres manage audience expectations. So if we head back to looking at the big picture by detailing the Genres inherent in our Story, we’ll be able to make sure we hit all of our marks. That is, we can make sure that we abided by the conventions and obligatory scenes of our chosen Genres. And once we’ve made sure we’ve done that, we can then hone them so that they are extraordinary. But if we don’t have a checklist of things to make sure we’ve done, we’ll just get lost in the details of our micro Story Grid Spreadsheet.
The Foolscap Global Story Grid is that checklist. So let’s fill it out and see how Thomas Harris solved all of his Genres requirements.
Let’s go back to those very important half dozen questions that the editor must ask himself of every project that crosses his desk. These are the make or break questions that will give him the definitive answer to that crucial question—Works, Doesn’t Work?
Here they are again:
- What’s the Genre?
- What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that Genre?
- What’s the Point of View?
- What are the protagonist’s objects of desire?7
- What’s the controlling idea/theme?
- What is the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?
After we’ve answered these six big questions, we’ll be able to build our Foolscap Global Story Grid one page—the single page document that gives us our Big Picture. So let’s take a deep breath and just start out with answering Genre.
After just one read, an experienced Editor would have no problem (with the exception perhaps of the Internal Content Genre) categorizing The Silence of the Lambs’ Genres. (Go back and review GENRE’S FIVE-LEAF CLOVER if necessary.)
Let’s run ‘em down:
- TIME: Obviously, the novel is long form Storytelling.
- REALITY: From the first page, with its reportorial sensibility and the specificity of its references to a real life law and order institution (FBI) and settings, it’s clear we’re dealing with the realities of contemporary life. So Realism is the Reality Genre.
- STYLE: As we are dealing with concrete emotional terrain, the Style Genre is Drama.
- STRUCTURE: Structure is classic Arch-plot with a protagonist on a personal quest (Ambitious newbie trying to become FBI agent) and then given an external mission too (interview the craziest killer ever).
A. EXTERNAL: The External Content Genre has all of the markings of the thriller (see the earlier posts, THE UNIVERSAL APPEAL OF THE THRILLER and THE MONSTER MASH-UP) and as it concerns the hunt for a serial killer, the flavor of thriller is serial killer.
B. INTERNAL: I’ll get into the Internal Content Genre and why I categorize it as “disillusionment” later on.
Okay, so we know the Genres. We can now fill in our Foolscap.
For fun, let’s look at the world through Thomas Harris’ eyes and let’s pretend that he uses The Story Grid to help him organize his thoughts.
Let’s pretend it’s 1982 and he has to make some choices.
Again I have no idea how Thomas Harris works nor would I presume to tell him how to work. I’m just looking at the end result and reengineering it through my Story Grid methodology.
He’s already written a great serial killer thriller called Red Dragon, which introduced the piece de resistance of serial killers, Hannibal Lecter.
What’s he going to do next?
Harris is a working pro. That is, he makes his living writing. Red Dragon was successful enough that his agent and his editor probably plead with him to write a sequel. The publisher backs up the notion with a hefty advance. So Harris is tasked with outdoing Red Dragon, the novel that defined the serial killer thriller.
What a nightmare!
Congratulations…you’ve done something very few writers have ever done before…now do it one better!
Harris doesn’t panic. He gets out a legal pad of foolscap paper and writes down what he needs to decide. It will look like this:
The first question to answer is easy:
External Genre: Serial Killer Thriller
The second question is easy too, as we know the thriller Genre backwards and forwards. The global value at stake in a thriller is a convention—life/death.
External Value at Stake: Life to Unconsciousness to Death to Damnation
Now, why did I write down Life to Unconsciousness to Death to Damnation? I did so to remind me of the progression of negativity of the LIFE value. It moves from LIFE to UNCONSCIOUSNESS to DEATH. But of course, it goes even further. To the end of the line of human experience.
What is that?
It is the fate worse than death…DAMNATION.
The most compelling thrillers take us to the end of the line…the limit of human experience. Thomas Harris knows that his protagonist for his sequel must move through these stages to reach a fresh and personal hell (just like his protagonist Will Graham did in Red Dragon). His protagonist must face damnation. [Review the post THE POWER OF NEGATIVE THINKING at www.stevenpressfield.com for further explanation on value progressions.]
We are just two answers into filling out our Foolscap page and already we know just about everything we’ll need to know about the global structure of the new novel. Just by clearly deciding the global Genre and using the value at stake for that Genre as our North Star.
We have to write a BEGINNING HOOK for the novel, then a MIDDLE BUILD, and finally an ENDING PAYOFF. But we can’t just willy-nilly shift our global Story Genre in mid-stream from serial killer thriller to love Story and throw out our global life value and substitute it with a global love value.
That would be a recipe for disaster.
The reason why we can’t do this is because the major turning points in a Story require turns on the global value of the chosen global Genre. That is, the climax of the Beginning Hook, the climax of the Middle Build and the climax of the Ending Payoff must turn on the Life value for a thriller. For a love Story they must turn on the love value.
Now smaller scenes in the thriller novel (those we fully detailed in our Story Grid Spreadsheet) can certainly turn on other values. But the big moments have to turn on the global value.
Because we know straight off the bat that we’re writing a sequel to a serial killer thriller, we know that we have to abide by the serial killer Genre’s conventions for the major turning points of the Story.
Harris knows that those conventions insist that he move the lead protagonist from a stable LIFE at the beginning of the Story to a state of cluelessness, UNCONSCIOUSNESS, at the end of the Beginning Hook of his Story.
And then Harris knows that he has to take the protagonist from UNCONSCIOUSNESS at the end of his hook to the threat of DEATH in his Middle Build.
And finally he must take his protagonist from the threat of DEATH at the climax of his Middle Build to the threat of DAMNATION to pay off the entire Story.
This is his goal…to take his protagonist to the limits of external human experience.
Some thrillers, most in fact, don’t go this far and that’s okay. But they have to at least have the threat of damnation if not put it in play. Or they’ve gone to the limits of human experience in the Story’s supporting Internal Genre. Or they simply work without going to the end of the line. They may work, but they’d don’t push the envelope of the Genre. If you want to transcend the run of the mill stuff in your chosen Genre, you must take the Story to the end of the line.
Harris went for broke with The Silence of the Lambs. He chose to take his Story as far as it could go.
Because he knows he’s going for broke, Harris moves to the last three quarters of his foolscap page and writes the following in the three blocks designated for his Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff. These notes will remind him of how his scenes must progress.
On his foolscap, he’s reminding himself that the BEGINNING HOOK of his book will move his protagonist from LIFE TO UNCONSCIOUSNESS. Then the MIDDLE BUILD must take the character from UNCONSCIOUSNESS to threat of DEATH. And lastly, the ENDING PAYOFF must deliver the limit of human experience moving from the threat of DEATH to the threat of DAMNATION.
So if and when he gets stuck at any place in his novel, Harris will have a concrete reminder of the most important progressions. He’ll have something to use to evaluate his scenes. No matter how great a scene, if it gets in the way of moving his lead character from one life value to the next, it has to go.
What is so impressive about Harris is that instead of banging out just another book that mirrored the progressions of Red Dragon, he challenged himself to write something completely different. The foolscap he has in hand now is the same as it would have been for Red Dragon at the same stage of construction.
But, what Harris chose to do with The Silence of the Lambs is to do Red Dragon one better. He added a remarkably satisfying Internal Content Genre for his protagonist. Reading Red Dragon and then The Silence of the Lambs back to back is the equivalent of listening to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations recorded in 1955 and then listening to the same pieces he recorded in 1981. They are both astounding works, but for my money Harris in 1988 and Gould in 1981 are examples of creators moving from exuberant geniuses to seasoned artists.
Next up? I’ll break down The Internal Content Genre of The Silence of the Lambs.
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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