Discover Your Story’s Core

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Psst! Hey, writer! Yes, over here, around the corner. We’re going to let you in on a little secret. There’s more than one way into the Story Grid. Let us show you a side door, and help you break into the Story Grid vault to find your story’s emotional core while the Analytical Mind is out.

Discover Your Story's Emotional Core

Anne and I are certified Story Grid editors, and the analytical approach to story makes sense to us. It’s native to the way we think. But we know we’re not the only type of writer out there. Other people feel their stories, and if you’re one of them, the Story Grid methodology can work for you too. We want to show you how.

You’ll write a better story when you feel your way to the Core Emotion and discover your story’s Core Event and Core Value.

Why? Because understanding your story in this way will help you delight and satisfy your readers by giving them what they’re looking for. And it all starts with the stories you love best. When you know what you love and why you love it, you’ll be able to write, revise, and market your story in a way that entices readers to love it too.

During an ongoing conversation about the books we love, we noticed patterns in the types of stories we’re drawn to, the dilemmas the characters in those stories face, and the way we felt after reading them. It seems that our lives, like stories, have themes. We started referring to this as our “personal internal genre.” Could it be that we’re drawn to certain genres because we have a personal, internal need to explore specific themes?

Our training allowed us to connect these patterns to Story Grid principles and see that the emotional and analytical aspects of story are deeply connected, not separate. This path of inquiry provides a useful side entrance to understanding the story you want to tell, especially if you find spreadsheets, charts and graphs intimidating. Let us show you what we mean.

Anne’s Favorite Story

Not long ago my idea for my next novel was failing to gel. Leslie and I had been talking about the “personal genre” we tend to grapple with over and over again in our writing, and I felt sure that if I could just find mine, I’d know how to shape my new story. But I was stuck.

One afternoon I was listening to Episode 99 of the Story Grid Podcast when Shawn said:

“When you’re trying to start a new novel, the trick is to ask yourself, ‘What kind of story do I want to tell? …What kind of story is going to give me a lot of energy to get to the end?’”

Yeah, fine, Shawn, I thought. If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be stuck.

Then he said, “Find your favorite novel and say to yourself, ‘You know what? I’m gonna write a book like that.’”

I’m gonna write a book like that.

It was a bombshell. Until he said it, the idea of using a favorite novel as a model was unthinkable. It was cheating. It was totally uncreative. And it was presumptuous! I like some really great novels. I couldn’t possibly emulate them.

Suddenly, though, it seemed worth a try. I felt like a fraud, but I took a deep breath and said, “My favorite novel is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. And you know what? I’m gonna write a book like that.”


Image of novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Shawn goes on to say that you should reread your favorite book and answer six questions about it. The first is “What’s My Genre?”

It’s a big question, the question. It throws a lot of writers off, especially if, like me, you’ve been staring at a spreadsheet-looking thing or a giant clover-leaf looking thing, and nothing is ringing a bell and you’re still stuck.

So how about coming at it from the feeling angle?

Why did I love Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellWell! I mean…It’s set in Regency England–but with magic! What’s not to love? 

Yes, okay, fine, but that’s only why I chose the book, not why I loved it.

I could cite beautiful writing style, complex structure, brilliant world-building. I could mention its massive scope and its big cast of unforgettable characters. But when I say, “I’m going to write a book like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” those elements aren’t really what I would aim to emulate. That would simply be copying–and I couldn’t do it if I tried. I’m not Susanna Clarke.

I had to go deeper.

I thought about my single favorite scene. How did it make me feel? And why?

When Lady Pole, the chief victim of the arrogant magicians, emerges at last from the spell of enslavement she’s been under for almost the whole book, the first thing she does is angrily denounce the men who sold her out for their own political ends. She’s been oppressed, and now she’s free.

I know how she feels. I’ve experienced powerlessness, erasure and injustice myself. I am so happy she’s out of her hell. I’m so angry for her! I want her rebellion to succeed, and yet I relish the irony of knowing that it won’t. She has awakened into the same world she left, where women’s voices are unheard. That’s the way things are.

The tragicomic conclusion makes me cry every time because it’s so surprising, so inevitable and so perfect. Nobody really wins, but everybody gets what they absolutely need. I feel hollowed out and clean. It’s cathartic. It’s satisfying.

Now that is what I want my own readers to feel.

Suddenly I could see this pattern in all sorts of stories I’ve loved, from A Wrinkle in Time to Thelma and Louise to Brokeback Mountain to Cloud Atlas. Power and impotence; underrepresented groups rebelling against tyrannical social and political forces; ambiguous, ironic, win-but-lose endings.

It would seem that my “personal genre” is Society (I like to think of it as the Revolution genre), and that is information I can use to structure my new novel.

Finally! I’m in the door.

Leslie’s Favorite Story

One story that stands out as a favorite in the last few years is The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher. I bought it because a friend recommended it, knowing I love ships and fantasy stories. I’d also read and enjoyed one of Butcher’s short stories.

Cover art from Jim Butcher's novel The Aeronaut's Windlass I loved the book from the beginning, but I most appreciate the main character and hero, Captain Grimm (so much so that I named my cat after him). Grimm leads the AMS Predator, a privateering ship sent to harry the ships of Aurora, Albion’s enemy. He’s been booted out of the Fleet, but it’s clear from his behavior and sense of honor that he’s gotten a raw deal. He doesn’t complain about it, but gets on with the work that must be done.

Grimm is the kind of person you want to have around—and in charge—when things go terribly wrong. He’s not the life of the party, but puts duty first, especially with regard to people entrusted to his care. He doesn’t allow circumstances to sway him from what he knows is the right thing to do.

My favorite two scenes come near the end of the book. If you’ve ever read or watched an action story, it won’t be a spoiler to know that the hero finds himself at the mercy of the villain, in this case the captain and crew of the Auroran flagship Itasca, with an opportunity to defeat them and live, or fail and die.

Within these two scenes is everything I look for in a BIG story event: The odds are stacked against the hero and his crew, but they’re willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to defeat the villain. In true heroic fashion, no one makes a big deal of the sacrifice, but Butcher includes Lady Gwendolyn Lancaster in the role of Herald, to comment and ask questions about what’s happening, so we understand exactly what’s at stake: not only the hero’s life and honor, but the survival of the entire nation.

Grimm understands the weight of his responsibility, but we see almost no outward sign of it. He is steady and stable and never complains that the situation is unfair. Complaining would get in the way of what must be done.

A Shapeshifter arrives on the scene, ostensibly to render aid, and then bails, leaving the hero in a far worse position than before. True Allies appear, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice not just for the nation, but for a friend and fellow aeronaut.

No matter how many times I read these chapters, I have a strong reaction. I yell, laugh, cheer, and cry. It’s exhilarating, and I feel deep respect and admiration for Captain Grimm, who stays the course.

When I look at this story and others that resonate with me on this level, I see a pattern: life-and-death consequences, but also principled characters who do the right thing and fight no matter what comes their way. 

What can you do with this information?

You can use information like what we’ve gleaned from our favorite books to unlock the  Core Elements of the story you want to write. More specifically, the Core Value, Core Emotion, and Core Event. What are these Cores and why are they useful?

Let’s take a step back and consider why we choose to read the stories we do. We may not be conscious of it, but we look for a particular experience. We want to explore certain dilemmas and feel certain emotions. Our genre choices reflect these interests, or personal internal genres.

Core Value

Core Value is the essential yardstick of your story. That famous red and blue graph on the cover of The Story Grid literally has Core Value as its Y-axis. It’s the metric of how high is high and how low is low.

Characters’ actions push the value up and down.

If they don’t, you don’t have a story. When you try to have them push more than two different values up and down, you don’t have a story. And If they don’t push the values up or down in the right places, you don’t have a story—at least, not one that works.

Stories are about change. Writers write stories, and people read them, to make sense of the changes in their lives.

Satisfying stories include changes that come from both external events and internal character shifts. The Core Value describes the primary change from the beginning to the end of the story.

Here are three quick examples: Action stories change on the Core Value spectrum of life and death; Crime stories, on the spectrum of justice and injustice; Love stories, on the spectrum of love and hate.

These changes aren’t arbitrary. They arise from real and universal human needs, as expressed, for instance, by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Rainbow pyramid depicting Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs with labels

Action stories probe threats to our physiological needs. Crime stories investigate challenges to our need for safety and security, Love stories get to the heart of our need for love and belonging.

Human needs have a progression: people aren’t concerned about self-esteem while trying to escape a sinking ship, and if they’re dying of thirst, even safety will be secondary to obtaining water. However, our human needs are affected in small and large ways, up and down the scale, all the time. 

Shawn Coyne has created the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need to help us visualize the full range of human needs as they apply to story. It’s called a “gas gauge” because it’s helpful to think of needs as fuel tanks whose levels rise and fall as things change. Let one of them drop near E, and the character will have to act. 

Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need

Your Story’s Emotional Core

Stories make us feel a wide range of emotions. The most satisfying stories evoke a Core Emotion. The Core Emotion is the one we want to feel when we choose a story, and it’s what you want your reader to feel when they read your story. Here are three examples.

Action stories allow us to feel excitement: we experience danger from the safety of our favorite reading chair. A well-crafted crime story keeps us intrigued: we want to see if the sleuth exposes the villain. A love story evokes a sense of romance and connection: we want to see the lovers come together.

“You can’t possibly distill Story into such simple formulas,” some writers object. “Stories are art, unique expressions of individual experiences from individual human hearts and minds.”

Core values and emotions are not formulas, but form, and the tools of the Story Grid help you apply that form while keeping you from discarding, ignoring, or muddling story elements that the reader expects to find. 

It’s true that stories seem to have a mystical quality that affects readers’ emotions, but it’s false to believe that we’ll lose something essential if we look too deeply into what that quality is. The fact is, our stories are made up of things we all have in common as humans—desires, needs, dilemmas, emotions. It is your individual expression as a writer, your particular, personal execution of the Core Value and Core Emotion, that make your story unique.

And that brings us to the Core Event.

Core Event

The Core Event is the big turning point in a story. It’s the scene we look for when we choose a particular story, the one we miss if it’s not present or is weak. Technically, it’s the point in the story where the Core Value shift intersects with the Core Emotion at its height.

Every scene that comes before the Core Event leads up to it and sets it up. Every scene that follows it deals with the consequences of what happened in it. If you understand what happens at the Core Event, the rest of your story becomes much easier to write (not easy, but easier).

Every genre has a specific Core Event.

In the Action story, it’s the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene. The hero faces a villain who is more powerful, better resourced, or in a stronger position. To survive, the hero must find a way to outwit or overpower the villain by means the writer has set up throughout the previous scenes, or the hero will die.

In a Crime story, the Core Event is Exposure of the Criminal. For justice to prevail, the detective must use their gifts (for example, deduction or setting a trap) to reveal the criminal’s identity.

In a Love story, the Core Event is the Proof of Love scene. The lovers cannot commit to one another unless each makes a sacrifice for the other without hope of benefit. As Shawn wrote in Pride and Prejudice: The Story Grid Edition, “Loving someone and acting on that love by personally suffering—all the while knowing your sacrifice will not change the other’s mind—is the proof of authentic love.”

With this understanding of the Cores that make up a story, you’re ready to explore your favorite book and discover your personal genre.

Your Favorite Story

Now it’s your turn. Choose a favorite book. Read it again as if for the first time. Keep a notebook or app nearby to record the moments you particularly enjoy. When you’re done, capture how those moments made you feel.

Jot down your first thoughts, but keep going to discover the essence of what you love about the book. This information will provide the key that unlocks the three “Cores” of your genre. Follow these steps.

  1. Identify your favorite scene in the book. Assume that the scene you remember as the most intense and rewarding is the Core Event.
  2. What was the primary feeling you experienced while reading that scene? That’s a clue to the story’s Core Emotion.
  3. What is the human need and principal change that occurs between the beginning and the end of your favorite scene? That’s a clue to the story’s Core Value.
  4. Using this information, envision, plan, and write the Core Event of the story you want to write.
  5. Consider what you need to include prior to the Core Event in order to set it up. Consider what needs to happen afterward to make it satisfying. (If you get stuck, look at how the writer of your favorite book solved the problem and put your unique spin on it.)

(Note: If Analytical Mind comes up behind you and demands that you check your work, we’ve created this handy list of Core Value, Core Emotion, and Core Event for the twelve content genres. We recommend going through all five steps above before taking a peek, though.)

Whether you embrace the analytical aspects of the Story Grid or not, using this alternate approach and feeling your way into the Core Elements  will help you write a better story–one that delivers just what your readers are looking for.

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About Anne Hawley

Anne Hawley is a developmental editor specializing in literary historical fiction and stories set in fantasy and science fiction worlds. When she's not editing, she's creating courses for writers at Pages & Platforms, a women-owned business aimed at helping diverse writers tell the best story they can—and then market it to its intended audience. Anne is the author of Restraint, a queer love story set in 19th Century London, and the forthcoming The Footman, set in the same universe. She lives and rides a bike around Portland, Oregon.