Breaking Down the Big Idea


[00:00:00] 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 of experience.

So last week, we looked at the four different types of genres inside of nonfiction. In this episode, we really hone in on the Big Idea nonfiction work. We look at what it is, what it isn’t, how it incorporates all the different parts of nonfiction, all the different genres of nonfiction, and really look at the different types of Big Idea nonfiction, and how you can write one that fits who you are and your writing style. So it’s a really great episode. I think you’ll enjoy it. So let’s jump in with Shawn.

[EPISODE]

[00:00:55] TG: So, Shawn, last week we talked about nonfiction, and we talked about the four different types of nonfiction. But the one that we really landed on that you didn’t really get to go into was the Big Idea, and that kind of seems to be the big one. I don’t know if that’s the right word for it, but like that’s the one that we’re really wanting to focus on here.

[00:01:20] SC: Yeah. The Big Idea Book is it’s just such a remarkable kind of phenomena, and it’s the thing in nonfiction that really gets people. When it’s done extraordinarily well, it gets them very excited, because it allows them to sort of project into the future and sort of make predictions about phenomena that was always kind of curious to them and that really what weren’t sure exactly what was behind how certain things happen in the world.

So you can go back to Big Idea Books all the way back to you like Isaac Newton’s physics. He really basically — That was a Big Idea Book. It was sort of getting to the fundamental science of forces on the planet that you know were predictable. So he came up with the idea of gravity and force equals mass times acceleration. All these incredible conclusions that really defined the forces that were present on earth. Knowing those forces then allowed people to use that knowledge to make predictions about things that would happen in the future, and it works.

So the Big Idea Book – Now, obviously, that’s also a major academic treatise. But you have to remember back in Isaac Newton’s day, formal scientific academic stuff was really sort of at the beginning. So that book was probably looked at as sort of some guy’s global vision about how the world actually works. Then through time, people applied what Newton projected and discovered, “Hey! This is repeatable. The stuff that he says actually happens in the way that he says it over and over again.”

So the Big Idea Book is a thing that can change culture very, very quickly, and obviously it’s the kind of book that everybody who you ever meet always says is lurking in their mind. Whenever you meet someone, they’re like, “Oh! I have an idea for a book.” If it’s nonfiction, it’s usually something about something that they have discovered that they would like to investigate at a really, really deep level.

So as I explained in the last podcast, I divide nonfiction into four categories. There is the academic side. There’s the how-to. There’s the narrative nonfiction, story-driven that uses the principles of fiction in order to bring life to events that had happened. Lastly is the Big Idea Book, and the Big Idea Book is a great amalgamation of all the other three, and it’s all in one sort of delicious package.

So Big Idea for me, I would have to say I’m going to go off script a little bit here, because I think a lot of people get confused about Big Idea projects. So when we were talking last week, we were talking about Drive by Dan Pink, which is definitely a Big Idea Book and The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. There’s any number of them that come on the stage. Atomic habits. That’s very big bestseller that in my estimation is a Big Idea Book too.

I think I mentioned last week, Big Idea Books are not projects that their goal is certainty, meaning they are not out for finding perfection. That’s a very difficult concept for most people to understand and myself included, because when we read a book, especially nonfiction, we believe and we want to believe that that book is going to deliver us a fundamental truth that will bring us certainty and predictability in our navigating the world. So if we apply the idea of Drive to our business, we believe it will bring us certainty that all of our employees will be happy campers and that they will be absolutely motivated to work tirelessly for our ends, for what we want.

That’s not what Dan Pink’s point was, but we often believe that, “Oh! I read this book Drive by Dan Pink. Therefore, if I apply the principles that he talks about in that book, I will gain a certain outcome.” That’s not the case, and it’s the same thing for Malcolm Gladwell. It’s the same thing for Atomic Habits is that we’re looking at individual phenomena out of context. Context in the world is really the thing that creates unexpected events that we have difficulty metabolizing.

So Big Idea Books are about looking at a very, very specific phenomena and going on sort of an intellectual adventure. It’s as if the writer says to themselves, and I know you’ve told me about Dan Pink, is that he has what he calls sort of the experimental mindset. He looks at the world as, “Oh! Well, let’s try this experiment and see what happens, and we’ll learn something along the way.” I suspect that’s the way he kind of came up with the idea for Drive.

He looked at some statistics. He’s a guy who’s fascinated by stuff. So he was probably reading a newspaper one day and read the latest figures that 82% of American workers were unhappy in their work. I just made up that figure, by the way. But it’s something like that probably sparked his interest, and he probably said to himself, “I wonder why that is. I wonder why people are unhappy in their work.” Then off he went. He was captured by something that a phenomena that didn’t make sense to him.

So from that place, he started to investigate that phenomena, and he probably thought to himself, “I really don’t know what motivates people.

Maybe I should investigate that, because if I can find out what motivates generally people in general, then maybe that would help businesses motivate their employees when they’re on their job.” Off he went, and he did a ton of research and he worked probably for two years investigating that phenomena. He had places that he thought were going to give him answers that didn’t and places that he didn’t think did and blah, blah, blah. From that material, from that intellectual investigation, he was able to compile and write a story about what he found.

[00:09:10] TG: So if people are reading nonfiction to get a conclusion and then the Big Idea nonfiction is not really about coming to a conclusion, why are they so popular?

[00:09:25] SC: Well, what they are, their idea is that there are sort of places to enter the stream. What I mean by that is they’re not purporting to tell the absolute definitive certain answer, because we can only find those things in formal logic or in computational problems, math problems. There’s only a definitive answer in certain scientific kind of explorations that are man-made.

In the natural world, in the world that we live in, we find it very difficult to find certainty. So the Big Idea Book are efforts by writers and people who are just intellectually interested that discover a phenomena, and they say to themselves, “That’s interesting. I wonder if I explore that more, whether or not I could sort of come up with a formal explanation that could be true, could be closer to an understanding of the phenomena than what we currently have right now.” So they’re not saying to people, “I’ve spent 45 years in the laboratory, investigating how electrons move around an atom, and here are my results.” That would be an academic work.

No. They’re not saying that. They’re saying, “I was fascinated by a phenomena, and so what I did is I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so I spent a number of years of my life, taking a very large sample of information about that phenomena. I read all of it, and then I formalized an idea about how that phenomena actually behaves, what its essence is,” because that’s sort of what we’re looking for. I’m fascinated by a story, and so I’ve spent my life trying to figure out what’s the essence, what’s the fundamental structural functional organization of stories. I don’t have the definitive answer yet. I might never reach that definitive answer. But it’s the exploration of the terrain that I am completely committed to, because I believe that my exploration may not deliver the final truth. But it will get us perhaps a little bit closer to boiling down something that would be helpful to the rest of humanity.

So I know it sounds like I might be wishy-washy on this. But I think when we come to a book, a Big Idea Book like, let’s say, The Tipping Point, and The Tipping Point was sort of a resurgence of the Big Idea Book. I think it was published in 2000 or something like that, 1999 or somewhere around that. So like 20 years ago. Prior to The Tipping Point, the Big Idea Book, it stayed in the kind of business book arena so that you would find books about management stuff like Six Sigma and things like that that were big bestsellers, but they didn’t sort of cross out of the business world sort of thought base.

But The Tipping Point, it hit a number of different cultural hotspots. That was due to the genius of Malcolm Gladwell, because he said, “Well, tipping points are interesting in business and they’re in crime and they’re in suicide rates.” So he saw phenomena that was across multiple sectors of society, and he was able to really weave a story about his investigation in such a way that was wildly entertaining and across multiple hotspots in the culture.

So if you weren’t really into business, you would be kind of fascinated by the people that he would interview. If you got tired of the people, then he would move to a sneaker company, and then he would move to Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. He would take you all over many different cultural places, all with a thematic Big Idea underneath that journey, which was in search of this moment he called The Tipping Point, the moment when things become culturally significant across all of society.

So when the Hush Puppy shoes become crazily popular seemingly overnight, what is the thing that makes that happen? The same thing with Dan Pink. What is it that makes people really committed to their work in such a way that they find great meaning from it? So he went, and he explored all kinds of different avenues within businesses, because that was the arena that he set out to really explore. He came up with a formal idea about what Drive is all about. Drive is about creating meaning. It’s not about money. Money, in fact, actually sucks meaning out. Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that counterintuitive?

So he was demonstrating to the business world, money isn’t everything. In fact, it’s probably the thing that’s your biggest problem. When you tell people that the only thing that’s important in your company is generating profits, you suck the life out of them, and you make them not interested in working so much every day. But if you tell them that you’re doing work that is important and meaningful to the culture, then people start to get interested in your journey.

So you’ll see these big idea projects are really sort of fundamentally obsessed with finding conceptual ideas almost like moral patterns. When I say moral, I mean means by which to behave so that life can be better, more meaningful. Does that make sense?

[00:16:00] TG: Yeah. But a lot of these books you’re talking about, so Tipping Point, Drive, I would put like all of Dan Ariely’s writing in here. I would put stuff like Charles Duhigg, Power of Habit in here. It’s all these kind of highly researched stories or science wrapped around stories or stories wrapped around science, that kind of stuff, Freakonomics. But that’s a lot of what we talked about.

But then there’s books like my book, Running Down a Dream, everything Steven Pressfield writes. I would may be even like a middle ground between those two, because my book is much more just like personal story-driven. Actually, what we mentioned last week of like I used a memoir as a narrative device. Then kind of if that’s one end of the spectrum, the other end of the spectrum is this very science-driven Big Idea Books. Then maybe in the middle would be something like a lot of Ryan Holiday’s writing. So it’s based on a wide breadth of reading. Not really science but just lots and lots of sources. That would be in there. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck would be in there. That kind of stuff.

[00:17:16] SC: Yes.

[00:17:17] TG: But you wouldn’t put all of those as Big Idea. It’s not just these heavily researched kind of things.

[00:17:25] SC: Well, that’s a really good question. I think that –

[00:17:30] TG: So let me mention one more thing before you keep going, because this is like – It’s honestly a really personal question, because I for a long time, whenever I would try to write nonfiction, I would feel like I needed to do it like Malcolm Gladwell does it. Or I need to do it like these other people did it. Every time I would go down that road, I hated it and wasn’t good at it and didn’t care about it.

So I constantly felt like I was lesser than as a nonfiction writer, because I couldn’t do it like these other people. I was actually just talking with a writer yesterday on the phone, and she was feeling the same thing of like, “I’ve got this book, but I don’t – It’s kind of like this other book. But I’m not going to be able to write it like them.” So it’s kind of personal too. Sometimes, I feel like a lesser writer, because I don’t do it like these other people.

[00:18:26] SC: Well, that’s reasonable. But the way I would answer that question is that the narrative device that each of these people chooses to use is extremely personal. So whenever we get into this place where we believe we have to do it like everyone else does it, we intuitively reject that and we want to rebel against it. That makes a lot of sense, because we know that our point of view, our subjective way of writing, our subjective way of seeing the world is as valid as Malcolm Gladwell’s. It’s as valid as Dan Pink’s. It’s as valid as fill in the blank.

So when we come up against, say, literary agents or your mom or other people who feel as if they are qualified to tell you how to write and they say, “Geez! Your book doesn’t read anything like those good books,” then we get kind of – We fall into despair, because we think, “Well, geez! Maybe my voice isn’t good enough. Maybe this is –” When you mention that wide net of books from everywhere from Ryan Holiday, to Steve Pressfield, to Dan Ariely, all of these people have different subjective points of view, which is the beauty of their work.

When you read Ryan Holiday, only Ryan Holiday can write that way. You know that that’s his point of view. He’s an auto didactic intellectual who spends a lot of time reading. You can tell. The way he writes is very, very intelligent, and it’s very well-thought-through. Somebody like a Malcolm Gladwell is a little bit more breezy, and what I mean breezy, I mean you feel he’s that good. His voice is that strong. You feel as if Michael Lewis is the same way. You feel as if you’re literally sitting at a table, and he’s telling you a story. SO that breeziness is wonderful. It’s infectious. It’s why we love reading his stuff. Same thing with so many great writers.

Elizabeth Gilbert is like that. You read her stuff. You’re like, “Oh! She’s my sister, and she’s telling this great story, and it’s awesome.” But what all of these things have in common, I would argue and I’m making a broad statement here, they’re all Big Idea Books because the way I define a Big Idea Book is that they’re all in search of solving some kind of perennial problem that all of us, every human being experiences. We’re confused. We’re not sure how things work. There’s so much information coming at us that it’s very easy to fall into, “I’m never going to figure this out. This makes no sense. I don’t understand the way the world is.”

So what Big Idea Books do is they’re about the pursuit of getting to the bottom of something. Let’s get to the bottom of why I keep blowing up my life every time I start a new business. Why am I finding it difficult to cope with situations at work or relationships or – And on and on and on. Why can’t I get anybody motivated in my company? Why can’t I come up with one of those viral memes that takes the Internet by storm? Why am I a terrible marketer? And on and on and on.

So each one of these things that I’m saying, all of those books can be summarized down to a problem. Why is it that X happens, and how can I wrap my mind around that phenomena in such a way that I can affect change? How can I lose weight? How can I get into good habits instead of bad habits? How can I be more like the stoics? How can I start a business that doesn’t put me $500 million in debt in 10 seconds? All of those things are all those problems that all of those writers that you mentioned were trying to move the needle a little bit closer to an answer. They’re not saying I have all the answers.

Ryan Holiday doesn’t say, “I am reincarnated Socrates, and I can tell you everything that you need to do to be able to navigate the world in a stoic way.” No. He goes, “Hey! I read this thing by Marcus Aurelius, and what he said was this, and I think it applies to today for the following reasons.” You go, “Oh, my gosh! He’s absolutely right. I’m going to remember that.” Or Elizabeth Gilbert talking about fear, saying, “Fear is so palpable. It feels as if they’re sitting next to me all the time, poking me and bugging me and trying to keep me from doing my work.” You go, “Elizabeth Gilbert is absolutely right.”

So these Big Idea Books are about getting to the essence of a phenomena so that they can help us solve problems. Not give us the answer but to help us get a little bit better at dealing with the phenomena that we face every single day.

[00:24:07] TG: So let me go through these again. So the academic books, those kind of standalone as science. Then a how-to book, it’s almost like the Big Idea Book is about the journey. It’s about going on this journey of discovery with the author, where a how-to book is like, “I figured something out. I’m not going to tell you how to do it.” You’re not going on the journey with the square foot gardening guy.

[00:24:34] SC: Right.

[00:24:36] TG: Then the narrative nonfiction is basically fiction, but it’s true. It’s more just a story about something that has happened. It’s not really a search for an answer to a problem.

[00:24:49] SC: That’s correct. So the big idea has qualities from all of those other three inside of it. That’s what makes it so compelling is that the writer finds something salient. Something is just bugging them, right?

[00:25:07] TG: Yeah.

[00:25:07] SC: It’s for whatever reason, they just can’t stop thinking about it. We’re often told from a young age, find your passion. Find your thing and go for that thing. We never really know what that means. My passion. I don’t know what you mean about my passion. What I’m really upset about right now is the following. That is actually a great indication of your passion. What is salient to you? What’s bothering you? What’s giving you pause? What’s keeping you up at night?

So when you’re searching to see whether or not your Big Idea Book could work for you, think about those things that are bugging you at night. Then say to yourself, “Okay. I’m really upset about X.” For me, recently, I just finished writing a Big Idea Book with a neurosurgeon, and I was really concerned about a phenomena in my own life that was bothering me. How is it that I lose my temper in situations where I know it’s best not to lose my temper? Intellectually, I know after I review it in my mind for about 3,000 times. I understand, “Geez! I could have done better in that situation by not yelling at someone.” That’s sort of what’s been sticking in my mind. What is it? Why is my emotional systems overwhelming my ability to use my brain to solve a problem in such a way that I make the problem worse?

So when I met Mark McLaughlin who’s a neurosurgeon, he was obsessed by the same thing. Only his was why is it that sometimes I get overwhelmed by sort of anxiety. So the two of us got together and we said, “Why don’t we both work on examining these two phenomena independently. Then every week , we’ll get on the phone and we’ll tell each other the results of what we found.” That’s what we did for two and a half years. Eventually, we wrote this book called Cognitive Dominance, which is coming out soon.

Beyond plugging the book, my point is that it was something that compelled me and something that compelled Mark that we shared, and then we were two nerds on the phone every week, talking about this thing that only he and I really were obsessed by. It sent us to academic work about emotional responses. It sent us back to Darwin and evolution, and it sent us to neurology, and it sent us to all kinds of stuff. So when we are working on the book, the Big Idea became how do you deal with fear.

Instead of just like some easy quick fix thing like count to 12 and clasp your hands and everything will go away, we thought like, “How does the brain actually deal with fear? What is fear? How does it work? How can I listen to my fear so that it can indicate to me how to best behave?” So it’s that sort of passionate salience that drives the Big Idea, and it becomes an intellectual obsession. It’s googling YouTube videos about whatever it is and then continuing to research and research and research it until you formalize an idea. Well, I guess fear is indicating that something unexpected happened. So what are unexpected events? Let’s take a look at that, and then we formalized an idea about unexpected events or those things that not only cause fear, but they inhibit us from acting. So how do we act?

We formalized an idea about cognitive dominance, and then the whole middle of the book is about laying out that formal idea. Then the last is applying it. How do you use this idea to make your life a little bit better? It’s not a quick fix, certainty. But it’s – We’ve used this thing over and over again, and it’s made our lives better. I don’t yell at baseball coaches anymore in Little League’s. That’s a pretty good thing to do and to learn how to do.

So that’s kind of what the Big Idea is. It’s analysis, formalization, and mechanization. So we analyze the phenomena. We figure out what’s behind it. We figure out what structural organizational function is, and then we come up with an idea like Malcolm Gladwell with The Tipping Point, about how that happens. Why that phenomenon occurs. X happens and then that triggers Y, and then Y gives Z, and then you get your phenomena. So that’s the formalization part. That’s the big middle, because you want to be able to walk the reader through that process so that they understand how you got from A to B, to C to D, to E and F, etc.

Then the last part of the book is about how do you apply and mechanize, meaning come up with a way to solve problems using that formalization of the idea, Atomic Habits. Every time you go to the bathroom do a push-up before you go the bathroom. Before you know it, you’re doing 20 push-ups a day if you have a bladder control problem. But probably it’s sort of that very easy step that can actually help you formalize and use Big Ideas in your own life, not for certain outcomes but to get you closer to your goals.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:31:19] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. As I mentioned last week, we are doing a brand new seminar this coming February, and it’s all about nonfiction, Big Idea. So if you’re interested in a writing nonfiction work, I highly recommend you join us for this. It’s a three-day event. It’s stuff that Shawn has never taught before, and there’s only 35 spots available. So you can see a lot of the information at storygrid.com/nonfiction, if you’re interested. But we only have the 35 spots available. We’ve already sold several of them. So if this is something that you’re interested in, I highly recommend you go take a look. So the information is at storygrid.com/nonfiction.

For everything else Story Grid related, you can check out 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 found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you 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 Apple podcasts 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.

[END]

About the Author

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. She’s been a Story Grid junkie since 2015 and became a certified editor so that she can help fellow authors, in all genres, become better storytellers. To learn more, visit valeriefrancis.ca
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