Creating a Story Grid – Part 2

This week Shawn and I continued working through Story Grid Graph as a tool for editing the first draft of a novel.

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

In this episode, we continue talking about creating the story grid, the actual graph that you’ve seen on the book and in other places with all of the story grid stuff and how to create that and I actually went through the scenes and tried to do the homework from last week, got a little frustrated and also got a little lost on why I’m doing this and we talk through that, helped me kind of figure out and get back on track.

The we also talk about the next steps because we’ve been walking through the last couple of months from the first draft to the second draft and so we’re getting really close to me actually getting to work on a second draft. Anyway, I will stop talking here and we will just dive in and get started.


[0:01:07.5] TG: Shawn, I tried to go through the scene. Where we’re at in this process is working, I wrote a first draft that’s working and now we’re doing everything we need to do to get to the point where we can – I can write a second draft. Basically we’ve been doing these different things over the last couple of months now to look at it from different angles, we’ve gone scene by scene, we’ve kind of drawn back and looked at it as a whole with the foolscap.

We’ve looked at it through the lens of the hero’s journey and now we’re looking at it on a scene by scene value shift. What we talked about doing since there was roughly 60 scenes is with the internal value which moves from naiveté to mass sophistication to naiveté to uncertainty to maturity throughout the book and then on the external value, we’re moving from life to unconsciousness to death to damnation.

Now, last week, we identified, the idea is we’ll have like negative 30 as the low point and then positive 30 as the high point, we identified what those scenes were in the book so far and then my job was to go in and fill in the rest of the numbers.

I started doing this and I got, I think about two thirds of the way through before I just was like, I don’t know what to do. I started with the internal value and I’m just going to walk you through my process and then where I kind of threw up my hands and decided we’ll just talk about it.

I was thinking first, all right, I’m just going to bust it out, what’s negative 29, what’s negative 28, what’s negative 27. That quickly was like going back and like erasing numbers and putting in new numbers and I thought, well maybe this will be like a constant division thing right? We identified the negative 30 and like zero scene, I was like okay, well what’s the negative 15 scene?

I tried to identify that. What’s the negative seven scene and I tried to identify that or the negative 23 scene or whatever. That helped a little bit but then I felt like I was cheating a little bit because I was using the fool’s cap as – because we talked about how like the smooth line is the value shifts in this foolscap and then these are supposed to be the individual ones.

I was trying to put them in and so I felt like I did okay on the first half of the book but then once I got into the second half of the book, that’s where most of our changes are going to happen. I was just looking at all of these scenes that are going to get completely rewritten or even thrown out and I’m like, well I don’t want to spend time figuring out what the value shift is on a scene that we’re going to get rid of because it’s not working.

I struggled with that. As you can see, I’ve got like the first half filled out pretty well on the internal and external value on both values and then you can see where I was starting – I got about like I said two thirds through the whole book. I have some other numbers in there and I just kept losing the thread of what I was trying to do and then I kept like, well I’ve already used that number twice.

You know, the other thing I got a little confused on is that a more I think, when we’re talking about moving from naiveté to maturity, it’s a negative 30 to a 30 shift but then as that switched on the external when we’re moving from life to damnation, is it moving to 30 to negative 30?

If we’re closer to life, is it positive 30 or negative 30? Does that make sense?

[0:05:35.1] SC: Yes, it’s positive 30.

[0:05:36.8] TG: Right, okay. On the external, we start with positive 30 or like life is positive 30 at the beginning. Then naiveté though is negative 30. You can see that on the spreadsheet, I put that in the notes like the headers, I added another row and just put it in there at the very top.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at. I had them crossing at scene 31 when, because I felt like she moved from, we identified the internal value shift of moving into uncertainty at scene 31 but I also felt like that was a time when she moved in like switch from unconscious, the end of unconsciousness to the beginning of death in scene 31 as well. I’d mark that.

Anyway, I sent this to you yesterday so just I know you haven’t had a ton of time to look at it but what do you think so far?

[0:06:38.8] SC: Generally I think you’re absolutely on the right track. Now, let me just take a step back because this is the moment when you can often get lost in the weeds and the details of the story grid. You know, methodology. The reason why I’m having you assign numbers is to be able to plot out on the graph what your book looks like right now. Just – I wasn’t able to plot out the graph for this because I just didn’t have time to do it.

If you were to get a piece of graph paper and have 30 lines above the X axis, 30 lines below the X axis and then you know, put life at the very top and plus 30, unconsciousness at plus 15, that negative 15 and damnation at negative 30 and do the same thing with the value shifts for naiveté then what you would do is, for the very first scene, you would make a dot on number 29 for the external value which would be your red line and then the internal value I would do a blue line and put that at negative 30.

What you would be able to do by going scene by scene in this way with these numbers would be to plot the little points on the graph where each scene corresponds. Then you would be able to draw the line and what you would see is basically the internal genre is going to slowly move like climb up a mountain from naiveté masked by sophistication all the way up to maturity at the very end of the novel.

At scene 31 is the place where it crosses the threshold of the X axis. The light death damnation thing is going to move in a curve. It’s going to start high, it’s going to dip down below the X axis, approach damnation and then at the very end of the novel, it’s going to slam back up again.

You’re going to have sort of a red curve from the top to the bottom all the way up. Now, those are your general foolscap sort of movements of your value shift scene by scene. Now the reason why we’re doing this is to track whether or not your story is progressively complicating. Meaning, are the stakes in the story moving from one level to another so that you feel a movement of change in your story. Now, I know that you got confused and you know, the last third or you know, however many, 15 to 20 scenes if you have here then you’re really not sure about.

That’s good information to have right? That’s good information to have right now because when you go and redraft, you’re going to be able to go to those scenes and say hey, I’m not very clear on where this scene is going to fit in my global story. You know, I’m not clear what level of progressive complication this is going to be.

After doing this process, you will be able to say to yourself. Well, it’s got to be at a higher level than this scene and the lower level than this scene. It’s going to help you eliminate options for the rewrite because you might fall in love with an idea, I’m going to rewrite this scene this way and then when you take a look at it you’ll say, wait a minute, I can’t do that because I’d be raising the stakes too high too soon or too late.

That’s why this process of doing the story grid’s actual graph on your first draft is the last thing I wanted you to do. Because this is really about honing in and really understanding how the global story is moving from scene to scene. I know you’re confused right now and I’m sorry that you’re the guinea pig for our audience but I think I was confident that you could handle this level of analysis right now as supposed to waiting for draft three.

This is the kind of thing that as an editor, I would wait for the writer to bring back believe it or not, I would have them do the micro spreadsheet scene by scene first and do their big brain storm list and then I’d say okay, now, go back and do another draft and then they bring me that and then I would say okay, let’s look at the foolscap and the big picture again.

Then we go through that and if there were problems to do, I’d say okay, go back and work on that, then they bring me another draft and then I would say okay, let’s look at the hero’s journey. Usually by that point, the hero’s journey is pretty much baked into the story subconsciously by the writer and so what the writer discovers is that the archetypes that we talked about, the guardian and the mentor and the herald and all those things we talked about a couple of weeks ago.

They have intuitively put in their story without really even realizing. The last thing I would have them do is to do this story grid analysis and even then, if I believe at the time that the story worked at a level that was commercially viable and would work without having them to do this really intense analysis.

I would say, hey, it’s ready to go, let’s publish this. You, because you asked me to give the Full Monty on the story grid, you’re getting there. It’s actually working out pretty well because I think just looking at the numbers you assigned here, you’re seeing how your scenes are moving globally just being able to see that the value shift shifts at the middle of the story is a big deal right?

You must have felt like my gosh, I nailed it, I got, I moved my global value shift at just the right time in the story, the reader’s expecting something like this intuitively, they don’t know that but that’s a good sign. Did you know what I mean about plotting and you’re a math guy, you know about this stuff, how you would plot this out.

[0:13:34.3] TG: Yeah, creating a graph, I can do that. Yeah, I felt like it was interesting because I felt like it was easier to do the internal because I still like – I think overall, I was doing okay until I got into the scenes that I knew needed a ton of work and I felt like I lost the thread because I feel like the first half of the book needs more setting work than story work.

Then the last half of the book needs a lot more story work. That’s where I struggled to give those numbers because I’m like well, I even have one of the scenes as I didn’t even put what was in the scene, I just said, we’re cutting the scene. Anyway. Do you think I should still like try to figure out what these numbers are so I can plot the graph so I can get the graph plotted?

I guess I’m struggling with like what it’s going to show me, is that going to help me since I already know I’m changing a bunch in the book?

[0:14:43.3] SC: It will, the reason why, my suggestion is to not plot things that you don’t know. What you’re going to have is an incomplete draft but what you’ll be able to see are the big curves and the progressive move from one place to another, there will be a big gap right?

[0:15:05.0] TG: Right.

[0:15:05.5] SC: Then, when you see that gap, you’ll be able to tell yourself, I’ve got to put this scene right around an ear. When you go to revise and you hit that scene where you have to work it up, you’ll be able to take out that incomplete graph and look at it and say, I need her to be approaching damnation here but not really rubbing up against it.

I also need her to be becoming more and more mature. I need her to realize that there are variations of morality and ethics and you know, people are variations of gray, they’re not black and white, moral or ethical figures. How can I dramatize that in the scene so that I can pull that off?

That’s what the big gaps in your story grid are going to help you do when you’re approaching each rewriting scene. Does that make sense?

[0:16:07.7] TG: Yes. I mean, if I can’t figure it out, when I’m rewriting those scenes, I’ll be able to kind of take a…

[0:16:18.7] SC: Don’t try and figure it out now.

[0:16:19.1] TG: Okay.

[0:16:21.5] SC: My advice is, just pinpoint the work right? Pinpoint your to do list. In this scene, I need you to do this, don’t solve the problem yet because when you begin your next draft, I’m assuming and this is what I recommend people do. Start from the first scene and you know, work on scene one, don’t go crazy on your line edit, your line by line writing but add in all the stuff that you’ve already told yourself you wanted to do.

Setting the scene, doing a little more descriptive work, that kind of stuff. Then move to scene two. Your second draft is going to be an intense sort of analysis where you’re rewriting but you’re not totally making sure every word is perfect. You’re going to have plenty of time to go through all of the language later on. Feel free to write incomplete sentences.

Put in a lot of two comes, you can even write TK description of the switch in the back of the head or TK description of that. You want to be able to put in the places where you want to have those descriptions right?

After you do this story grid sort of, you understand what level of, for the very first half of your book, if not more, you have a pretty clear understanding of where you are in the global value which is a great thing. That’s why your first draft works, I mean, it’s not publishable right now but it works structurally.

[0:18:05.1] TG: Okay.

[0:18:07.7] SC: That’s really the – this is the kind of the final massage of your edit work is doing the story grid graph and if you find, when you do your story grid graph, after your fourth draft and you still have gaps and you still are unsure of what level your scenes are, then you’ve got a problem.

This is your second draft. Not knowing the perfect number for each one of your scenes is absolutely fine. Again, I’ll say this again for all those people who aren’t into the very analytical math stuff, you know what? Most writers don’t even assign a number to their scenes, they’re not looking at this – was such a very intense laser microscope like I do.

That’s okay. Because again, as I said earlier, a really great gifted story teller and the more stories you tell and the more books you write, the better you get at it. This stuff starts to come naturally. Is Steven Presfield going through every scene that he writes at his new novel in this way? No, do I make him do this? No, because he is at a level with 10 novels, 12 novels under his belt that he’s operating on automatic pilot at this level.

Whereas you are not. You’re learning it, this is a learning curve for you. You’re reaching sort of this very intense high level of craft, minutia and you’re doing it very early on in your process, this is what you asked of me when we started this two years ago.

[0:19:54.0] TG: Is it too late to take it back?

[0:19:56.2] SC: No, it is absolutely too late and the reason why I was intrigued by your offer to do the podcast was because I was wondering myself. How far can you take somebody on one novel in terms of craft? And even if we don’t really nail this and it’s not perfect, you’re looking at it and thinking about it. Is going to make your book a hell of a lot better. Do you understand that just thinking about this and observing your work from this perspective makes you a better writer.

[0:20:31.8] TG: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like this is, I am going to use a sports metaphor, it’s the whole like anytime you are learning a complex movement you focus way in one piece of the movement and you just do it really, really slow 50 times because it can’t become muscle memory until you do that and then it becomes something that you do automatically. You don’t have to rationally or consciously think through it and that’s why we’ve talked about that.

I remember not long after we started the podcast and we had done the math episode of the 25% as a beginning hook, 50% middle build, 25 ending payoff and I read Stephen King’s 11-22-63 and I was reading it on my Kindle and I saw where it flipped to the middle build like the ending payoff ended and it was the middle build and I touched at the bottom on my Kindle and it popped up and I was at 26% of the book, you know?

And it wasn’t because Stephen King was doing word counts and realizing or doing scene counts and thinking, “Oh I am 15 scenes in” or whatever, “It’s now time to flip over to the middle build” he just does it naturally. It’s muscle memory for him now. So yeah, this is the kind of stuff again like – well to continue the sports metaphor like my son is learning jujitsu and we’re super – me and his coaches are anal about him doing the slow practice the right way.

Same on like his piano lessons that’s like if you start fast and then you learn to do it incorrectly, you have to then later unlearn it and relearn it and I feel like that’s what most writers go through and that’s why it takes 10 years is because of that whole like they are practicing it wrong. If they wait until they have a 100,000 word manuscript before they get any kind of feedback, they’ve now practiced the wrong way for a 100,000 words.

So I do feel like it’s helped and it will help in the future and this goes back to we had talked – somebody had asked the question, what about these writers that are writing a book every two or three months and self-publishing it and they are making money because they have an audience and they are writing genre fiction, why should I got through this nine month long period of editing with the story grid process? And we talked about it on the podcast.

When I went back and gave them advice I was like, “You know what you should do is keep writing” if you want to write a book every two or three months but if you just take one book and do this entire process, it will make all your future books better without doing this process because then you’ll know what you’re trying to do when you write your next book. So that’s what I feel like too because I get frustrated with how long this is taking but what I am trusting is my next book.

It won’t take two years for me to do something that works. I’ll get it much closer on my first try so anyway.

[0:24:02.7] SC: Well absolutely, we lost six or seven months on the first draft that we drew out so yeah and that was a really great experience because a lot of people after they have to throw out a draft, they just go back to as you said, they go back to what they did before and think that it is an idea problem not a craft problem and that’s never the case. It’s always a craft problem and craft is the equivalent of lifting your elbow at 30 degrees and positioning it the right way for a certain movement.

And it’s like a great pitcher in baseball, they are not thinking about the position of their elbow and their follow through when they are pitching anymore but it took them an hour, two hours a day working on those movements before they master the art of pitching without destroying their arms. Anyway, the point of me making you do and walk you through the story grid graph and scene numbers again is to really hammer home the idea of progressive complications and variety of story value.

There’s a classic song from the 1940’s or 1950’s called Johnny One Note and I forgot, I think Rogers and Hart wrote it and Johnny could only sing one note and the note he sang was this and that he can only play one note and the thing is if your novel and your scenes have the same level of anxiety and value and your global value scene after scene after scene, it’s boring because it doesn’t seem to move and your reader isn’t feeling as if there’s change occurring, there is conflict, all that kind of stuff.

So the way to make sure you’re not one note in your scenes is to really intensely evaluate “is this scene greater or less than this scene in terms of my global value?” and if the scenes are the same then you’ve got to switch one of them right? You can’t have two 18’s. You can only have 17, 18, 16. Now again people are going to say, “Oh well that’s not true because I have read this novels and a lot of these novels don’t have…” if you read Moby Dick there’s plenty of scenes that are sluggish.

Absolutely but what I am saying is ideally wouldn’t you want to be able to craft something that has that kind of Swiss watch precision? And obviously a great writer would say yes. I want to be able to really be able to distinguish each one of my scenes one from the other. Each scene needs to be its own beautiful little spring in the watch that all comes together and does a perfect time mechanism.

[0:27:18.6] TG: Okay, so I am going to finish as much as I can on this and I’ll put it on a graph. I think I can do that. I’m trying to keep everything in this one spreadsheet so everybody listening can see everything in one place. So I’ll try to do that and then what’s next? What are we going to do next week?

[0:27:41.9] SC: Well I think the next thing after you do the graph is to start planning newer work for the next draft and so what that’s going to entail is looking at all of your notes and starting with scene number one, write three sentences of what you are going to do in this next draft. In this scene, I am going to change it to this. I am going to concentrate on this and I am going to add this. So you are basically going to start writing yourself a to-do list that is very, very specific.

So once you have say the beginning hook done, your first 12 or 13 scenes then instead of doing this for the entire novel, stop after your beginning hook because we’ve already gone through the entire novel at least three times based upon the methodology that we have been talking about. So pour all of your notes from those three times you’ve gotten through it, four times, go through your first 13 scenes and write yourself a to-do list for each scene.

“I want to change the scene this way. It needs to be this way. I need more of this and less of this. I need to hammer home the crisis because it’s a little too weak here” that kind of thing and then once you have your list of 13 scenes and the 13 to-dos that you have to do then I will have you start writing rewriting those scenes and then after you’ve done with the beginning hook, I’ll read the beginning hook again and you’ll read the beginning hook again and we’ll see whether or not we are ready to move on to the middle build and start doing the same thing there.

And my gut is you probably will be or if you’re not, we can just make notes of things for you to do in the next draft and we can keep you moving through the manuscript because the goal at the end of your second draft is to have probably – you are probably going to have 10 to 15,000 more words and you’re going to have a lot more details that are going to start to gel in ways that you never envisioned and the end of your second draft is going to be much closer to a publishable work than the end of your first.

[0:30:05.2] TG: Okay.

[0:30:06.8] SC: But it’s still not going to be ready.

[0:30:08.7] TG: Well yeah, all right so I’ll work – I mean should I start on that? Can I go ahead and start on that if I –

[0:30:19.6] SC: Yeah, doing the graph is going to take you 45 minutes. You can even set it to do what I do and use an Excel spreadsheet and you can just make your rows and your columns 0.25 inches and then you’ll have these little boxes and you just use the little boxes as your graph and then you just figure scenes from one to 61 and then you plot your plus 30’s and your minus 30’s and then you just link the little dots together and you’ll see your line shift.

So yeah, that might take you an hour, 45 minutes to an hour or maybe longer but it’s really meticulous busy work. Not really busy work but it’s not creative writing. It’s more mathematical.

[0:31:07.6] TG: Right, okay.

[0:31:09.0] SC: And then start doing your 13 beginning hook scenes to-do list.

[0:31:15.1] TG: Okay. I can do that.

[0:31:17.0] SC: Great.


[0:31:18.0] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, 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’d 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.



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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.