Editor Roundtable: Story Grid 101: The Six Core Questions

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It’s Story Grid 101: The Six Core Questions. What do they mean? Why do you need them? How do they help you edit your novel? The Roundtable team stacks it all up for you in this special episode.

Based on our listeners feedback, we decided to do this special episode to explain the Editor’s Six Core Questions in a little more detail. That way, when you listen to our analysis, you’ll understand why we use these questions and how they will help you become a better writer and editor.

So in this episode, we tackle the topic behind the topic and discuss the Six Core Questions by answering the following questions:

  • What does each one mean?
  • Why do I need to know about it?
  • And how is it going to help me edit my novel?

After we cover the Six Core Questions, we’ll answer some frequently asked questions that our listeners have asked us on Twitter and in reviews on Apple Podcast and Stitcher. (Thanks for the ratings and reviews!)

We opened the episode with this quote from Robert McKee:

Robert Frost said that writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down, for it’s the self-imposed, indeed artificial demands of poetic convention that stir the imagination. Let’s say a poet arbitrarily imposes this limit: He decides to write in six-line stanzas, rhyming every other line. After rhyming the fourth line with the second line he reaches the end of a stanza. Backed into this corner, his struggle to rhyme the sixth line with the fourth and second may inspire him to think of a word that has no relationship to his poem whatsoever—it just happens to rhyme—but this random word then springs loose a phrase that in turn brings an image to mind, that in turns resonates back through the first five lines, triggering a whole new sense and feeling, twisting and driving the poem to a richer meaning and emotion. Thanks to the poet’s Creative Limitation of this rhyme scheme, the poem achieves an intensity it would have lacked had the poet allowed himself the freedom to choose any word he wished.

The principle of Creative Limitation calls for freedom within a circle of obstacles. Talent is like a muscle, without something to push against, it atrophies. So we deliberately put rocks in our path, barriers that inspire. We discipline ourselves as to what to do, while we are boundless as to how to do it. One of our first steps, therefore, is to identify the genre or combination of genres that govern our work, for the stony ground that grows the most fruitful ideas is genre conventions.

The Editor’s Six Core Questions

1. Global Genre – Valerie

What is it?

Genre basically means the kind of story you’re writing, but now that you’re a writer, the first thing you need to understand is that genre is not the same thing as an Amazon sales category.

We all entered the publishing industry as readers. We love The Lord of the Rings, so when we decide to turn our hand to writing a novel, we decide we’re going to write a fantasy novel. That’s what all new authors do because the experience they have is as a reader. It’s the only point of reference they have for story. But when those new authors make the decision to Turn Pro, they need to understand that genre has five parts to it—Shawn illustrates them as the five leaves of a clover—and they need to make a choice from each leaf.

Time: How much time will the reader have to spend with this project? Are you writing a short story, novella, or novel?

Structure: What is the plot structure of your book? Is it arch-plot, mini-plot or anti-plot?

Style: Shawn lists ten options here, because stories are told in different media. But for novelists, there are really only four options; comedy, drama, literary, epistolary.

Reality: What kind of world are you writing in, and how far will your reader have to suspend her disbelief? Are you writing a story that takes place in contemporary life? Or does it take place in a world that you’ve created?

Content: There are two kinds of content genres: external and internal. These are the things most people think of when they think of genre. What is the actual content of your story? Is it primarily a love story? A coming of age story?

So, if you say you want to write a fantasy story, you’re only addressing the world in which your story takes place. As an author, you need to make decisions based on the other four areas as well.  

Why do I need to know it?

If you don’t have a clear understanding of genre—that is, if you haven’t made a clear choice from all five leaves on the clover—you’re going to have a very difficult time writing a story that works. You’ll get confused and frustrated, which means your reader will get confused and frustrated. The reader might not even make it to the end of the book, and they surely won’t recommend it to their friends.

Your choice of genre (all five leaves of the clover) impacts every aspect of your story.

How is it going to help me edit my novel?

You must make a firm decision with respect to the global genre of the story. Yes, you can have a subplot in another content genre, or a secondary content genre. (In other words, you can selection a couple of options from the content clover leaf. For example, a crime story with a love story sub-plot and morality-punitive internal story. But the global story is a crime story.) But you must choose one global genre and stick to it. Yes, you’ll have elements of many content genres in your story. That’s normal. But one content genre will reign supreme. Genre mashups are extremely difficult to pull off; it’s a master storytelling technique. You’re much better off innovating other aspects of your story.

Knowing your genre will help you edit your novel because you’ll know exactly which elements to keep, add, and delete from your draft. It will act as a guiding light and keep you on track, so that you tell a story that works and that satisfies reader expectations. The other five questions on the Editor’s Six Core Questions list, all flow from the global genre. For example, see this post on finding conventions and obligatory scenes.

Additional Comment

Jarie: Genre is analogous to a music category. There are certain things that Jazz has that Nu-Metal or Rap Rock does not. If you listen to Rage Against the Machine and expect Charlie Parker, you’re going to be disappointed. Just like a book. It’s not a formula—it’s an expectation.

2. Beginning Hook, Middle Build, Ending Payoff  – Leslie

What is it?

The Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff are elements of basic Story form or structure for everything from a flash fiction story to an epic fantasy novel. (Compare to plot form, where we look at genre conventions and obligatory scenes.)

Most stories you read today are made up of a three-act structure. (This is not the only way to structure a story, but it’s a great place to start if you’re new to writing stories). Let’s look at these three acts more closely.

Beginning Hook: This is the first 25 percent or so of a story. It  sets up expectations and raises questions in the mind of the reader to hook them  into the story.

Middle Build: This is the next 50 percent or so of the story where we build tension as the protagonist faces increasingly difficult obstacles. We also raise the stakes as the protagonist is forced to take risks to get what they want and need.

Ending Payoff: This is the final 25 percent or so of the story, where you provide a  surprising yet inevitable payoff of reader expectations and answer the big questions raised by Beginning Hook.

Each act contains five key scenes: The  Five Commandments of Storytelling.

Inciting Incident: Upsets the status quo for the protagonist, and can be causal (a character purposely upsets the status quo), coincidental (the result of an extrapersonal force or the character didn’t intentionally upset the status quo), or ambiguous (the reader is not sure in the beginning).

Turning Point Progressive Complication: This is a progressive complication (one of a series of increasingly difficult obstacles the protagonist faces in pursuit of their goal) that forces the protagonist into a dilemma that turns the scene value. These come in two varieties:  Action (a character acts) or Revelation (new information or understanding).

Crisis (Question): This is the dilemma the protagonist faces as the result of the Turning Point. It can be one of two types: Best Bad Choice (two options, neither of which is appealing) or Irreconcilable Goods (either two appealing but mutually exclusive options or an option that is good for the protagonist but bad for someone else).

Climax (Decision): This is the answer to the question or decision plus the action the protagonist takes as a result.

Resolution: The consequences that flow from the protagonist’s decision and action in the climax. Is often the setup for the inciting incident of the next act.

Many of these scenes will be genre specific. For example, the inciting incident in a Love Story is the Lover’s Meet scene, in a Crime Story, it is Establishing the Crime, in a Worldview-Maturation Story, it is an Opportunity or Challenge to the protagonist’s view of the world.

Three acts times Five Commandments gives you fifteen scenes that create a useful summary of your story.

With this Core Question, our goal is to express each act as a sentence that demonstrates the life value shift that takes place. The Five Commandments of Storytelling are the elements of that sentence.

Here’s an example I worked up from Carrie, which we discussed earlier this season:

  • Beginning Hook: After Carrie gets her first period and is terrified by the experience, her mother accuses her of having lustful thoughts, and when she locks Carrie in the closet to pray for forgiveness, Carrie is able to control her gift, and her mother lets her out in the morning.
  • Middle Build: Carrie is taunted at school but is pleased when she uses her powers to crack a bathroom mirror, and when her mother threatens to tell prom date Tommy how Carrie was conceived, Carrie is able to control her gift, though she locks her mother in the closet at home.
  • Ending Payoff: Carrie and Tommy go to the prom where Chris and her boyfriend Billy dump a bucket of pig’s blood on the couple, but when Chris drops the bucket and kills Tommy, Carrie cannot control her gift, but uses it to destroy the school, kill Billy and Chris, and ultimately kill her mother.

Why do I need to know it?

This is basic story form. If you don’t observe this form, you interfere with the reader’s experience and the ability to convey your unique expression of human nature. Does every successful story observe this form to the letter? Nope. In that case the story has something else going for it that overcomes the deficit. You shouldn’t count on getting lucky. If you choose to forgo this form (for example in an anti-plot story), you should at least understand what you are forgoing and how that affects the reader’s experience.

How is it going to help me edit my novel?

Stories are more than a series of events. As Anne reminds us, “Stories are not real life, and characters are not real people.” We use story structure or form to impose order on the chaos of life. It acts as a filter to help us leave out “the boring bits.” We can come to a clear cause and effect statement about some aspect of life and method of meeting our human needs.  

If your story is a journey from point A (beginning life value) to point B (ending life value), these 15 scenes give you rest stops along the route to write toward and away from.

Additional Comment

Jarie: The math is why I wanted to become a Story Grid Certified Editor. I love quantitative measures of progress since I’m an engineer by training and a writer by accident. If you are like me, then you can appreciate having a roadmap of how each beat, scene, sequence, and part fits together. The math has helped me so much to become a better writer simply because I know when I’m done. That reduces my anxiety so that tackling a big project is not as scary. As a writer, it’s great to have a framework as a gauge to evaluate your work. Without that, you’ll be spinning your wheels. Remember that the Story Grid has tools and techniques to help you become a better writer, and as an editor, it helps us focus on a common language in which to communicate to an author what we feel is going on.

3. Conventions & Obligatory Scenes

Conventions – Anne

What are they?

Different writers define this term differently, but for Story Grid purposes, conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of settings, roles, events and values that are specific to a genre.

In one this article, Shawn says, “Conventions and obligatory scenes are like the legs, backrests, and seats of chairs. Without them, you don’t have a chair.”

Where do conventions come from?

Short answer: from the long, long human history of storytelling. Do they change over time? Sure. There were no Thriller conventions before the Thriller genre arose out of crime, action and horror. The Horror convention of using technology to witness the monster via things like radios and security cameras obviously didn’t exist as such when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula.

So the conventions as we currently know them are a snapshot in time. A bit of a moving target. As new writers and filmmakers innovate established conventions, some of the conventions drift. New ones arise, old ones are innovated until they morph. Story structure seems to be a constant, but stories change with time.

What’s the relationship between conventions and the archetypes of the Hero’s Journey or Virgin’s Promise?

Some genres have truly classical, timeless conventions. For instance, the Mentor figure, an archetype identified in the Hero’s Journey, is a convention of Performance, Status, Morality and Worldview stories. Why? Because Performance requires a coach-type figure, and the internal genre Protagonist can’t move from naivete to sophistication, or from ignorance to wisdom, or from selfishness to altruism without some guidance from outside themselves. These things aren’t arbitrary.

Why do I need to know them?  

Let’s think about another form of conventions: table manners. Why on earth does it matter which fork you use? It absolutely doesn’t, until you’re dining at La Tour d’Argent in Paris. In that story, you’d better use the right fork or everyone around will feel that you don’t fit in. Why does it matter how you hold your chopsticks? It doesn’t, except that holding them inappropriately or not knowing how to use them marks you as an outsider to the story of a big Sichuan meal in Chengdu.

By the same token, if you insist on using a fork and knife to eat your pizza at a New York City hole-in-the-wall pizza joint, you’re going to look kind of uppity. They don’t even HAVE knives and forks there. Your story isn’t meeting the expectations you’ve set for it. You don’t fit in. You don’t make sense in your context. And if you want to break all the rules and eat with your hands or put your face right down into your plate, you’re free to do it—but chances are you’ll be eating alone.

A good exercise is to imagine a favorite movie or novel without the conventions of its genre: Billy Elliot without Mrs Wilkinson, who meets the Mentor convention of a Performance story. Alien where you get a clear, well-lit look at the monster from the beginning—violating Horror convention of use-of-technology. The Avengers where Tony Stark doesn’t sacrifice himself for his fellow Avengers—that’s the “sacrifice for brotherhood” convention in a War story. And how much of a Thriller would Silence of the Lambs be if Starling had all the time in the world to catch the killer and there was no ticking clock convention?

How are conventions going to help me edit my novel?

Conventions are part of the overall expectation a reader brings to a story. Meet them in some interesting way, and satisfy the reader. Fail to meet them, and leave your reader feeling unsatisfied. It’s really that simple.

Oh, and if you meet them by doing exactly what that famous movie or favorite novel did, your reader will be bored. Think up every variation you can on a convention, knowing that the first ten will be cliches, like skimming off the pond scum, because you’ve seen them all before. The eleventh will get you to fresh water.

When you know your genre and you’ve reached a second or third draft, you can look at the list of conventions for that genre and make sure you’ve hit them all. Then check that you’ve innovated. You’ll be amazed at how much tighter and better your story becomes.

Additional Comment

Jarie: Conventions are like the difference between Mac and a PC. One has a one button mouse, while the other has a ton of buttons. Think of it as the aesthetic or design sense. It’s the look and feel of the product or service. Think of your favorite products or services or brands. Why do they resonate with you? Chances are it will be the conventions or the consistent aesthetic that draws you in. As a framework, Story Grid is a way to build your story on a solid foundation. It’s clearly not the only way to go, and for some, it might not resonate.

Obligatory Scenes – Kim

What are they?

Obligatory Scenes are the must-have moments in a story. Kim Hudson in The Virgin’s Promise defines them as “key events, decisions, and discoveries … that move the protagonist along on her/his journey.” These key moments will evoke emotional reactions in the reader. They pay off the raised expectations of the conventions.

Where do they come from?

A natural progression from conventions: Genre conventions are required content ingredients that set up the particular change (life value shift) in the protagonist and create reader expectations (short- and long-term hopes and fears for the protagonist: do we hope their situation will get better, or do we fear it will get worse?) and emotions that must be paid off.  The obligatory scenes are the key structural scenes that pay off these expectations.

They are genre specific because the conventions are genre specific, and yet you will find many overlapping elements because humanity has a natural process of how we experience (ahem, and avoid) change. Obligatory Scenes are the sequential flow of events that connect the genre content (life values and conventions) with structure of a story (aka five commandments and kubler-ross)

Why do I need to know them?

Like everything in genre, it’s all about a reader’s expectations. If you forsake the obligatory scenes of your chosen genre, you aren’t being faithful to the pattern of meaning the genre represents. The Life Value change required for the genre won’t be executed in a way that is clear and authentic to the audience. The obligatory scenes highlight change and evoke emotions that bring the reader through the change. Without these key scenes, the reader is left confused about what story is actually taking place.

Let’s use the Core Event (an obligatory scene for every genre) as an example:

  • Imagine an Action story without the final showdown with the villain where we fear for our hero’s survival (and you can’t face down a villain without an initial attack by the villain, and you can’t face them down if you never discover who they are).
  • Imagine a Crime story without final solving the case and unveiling the killer (and you can’t solve a case without discovering a crime).
  • Imagine a War story without the Big Battle or a Western without the final showdown.
  • Imagine a Love story without the Proof of Love, Society without a Revolution, or a Performance story with no big performance (Can you imagine Rocky without the fight against Apollo Creed? That might still be a story, but it’s not a Performance story.)

How is knowing them going to help me edit my novel?

Once you know (and wholeheartedly embrace) that obligatory scenes are not optional, you can look for them in your story. Do they exist? Are they in the right location that is most impactful? Are they executed in a strong way that evokes emotion? Are they executed in an innovative way that defies cliche or expectation (while still paying off expectation). Like GI Joe says, knowing is half the battle. Now just go do it.

Read this article for more information about Conventions and Obligatory Scenes for the internal genres.

Additional Comments

Jarie: For me, I think of obligatory scenes as must have features of a product. If you have a “phone” and you can’t make a phone call, then it’s really not a phone. If you think of them as must have features, then the whole formulaic idea goes out the window. It’s just a feature that must be present or it’s not a phone or accounting software, or headphones or George Foreman grill. As with products, innovating the obligatory scenes is what sets your product/story apart.

4. Point of View, Narrative Devices, Forms of Narrative Drive – Anne

What is it?

I can tell you what it’s absolutely not: it is absolutely not a simple grammatical matter of first person or third person. Norman Friedman has a whole chapter on “Point of View in Fiction,” and it’s harder than you might think to boil down. (You can find the article here.

Rather than POV, it might be clearer to think of Narrative Distance. Shawn has also used the term Narrative Altitude. How far removed from the events of the story do you want your reader to feel? How much do you need your reader to know? If you use a first-person narrator who is also your protagonist, or a tight third-person strictly from that protagonist’s point of view, then your reader can only know what that character knows–or what that character chooses to reveal.

If on the other hand you have a narrator who knows everything–that is, an omniscient narrator–you’re free to let your reader know anything, at any time, from any point of view. Seems great until you have a story reason to withhold information from the reader, then suddenly the all-knowing narrator doesn’t make much sense. If they could tell me something but they just don’t, I’m going to feel a bit tricked.

How do you choose? It depends on the type of story you want to tell and the emotion you want your reader to feel.

This brings us to Narrative Drive. There are three kinds: suspense, mystery, and dramatic irony.

Are you after suspense? That’s when your reader and your character know the same things at the same time. You can see how a close first-person or strict third person single point of view would support suspense. I’m going up the stairs. I hear a creak behind me in the dark. You and I, Dear Reader, know exactly the same amount, and we both feel the need to know more.

Or do you want your reader to enjoy the intrigue of mystery, where the character–say a master detective–knows more than the reader? In that case a more distant perspective is useful: a reporter in the room, so to speak, who can tell the reader what’s going on, but not what Hercule Poirot–or the murderer–is thinking. We have to wait till he says it.

Or maybe you’d like the reader to know more than the character knows. If so, a more all-knowing narrator can show the reader that the monster is hiding in the closet, then show the poor victim going up the stairs all unknowing, so that the reader goes “No! Don’t go up there!” This is the narrative drive of dramatic irony.

Check out these great Story Grid posts on POV and Narrative Altitude from Shawn Coyne, as well as posts from Jennifer Ellis and the Editor’s Blog.

Why do I need to know it?

One of the most common mistakes new novelists make is not nailing down point of view. It’s important to make conscious choices about the perspective and the distance from which any scene is presented. You can choose to tell an entire story from a single, strict point of view. You can choose to zoom the metaphorical camera in so close that the reader knows what a character is thinking, or pull back so far that the reader can see an entire battlefield. You can stay with a single point of view throughout your entire story, or you can choose to follow one character, then another.

But do it consciously. There’s a lot to study on this subject–in some ways it’s bigger and more complex than even genre and controlling idea–but if I had to give one piece of advice to writers it would be to stick with a single point of view for at least the duration of a whole scene. Older novels sometimes switch in-scene, but kids, don’t try that at home. It’s hard to get right, and when you get it wrong it’s known as “head-hopping” and there are few better ways to confuse and frustrate your reader.

Oh, and when in doubt about the dreaded head-hopping, try mentally rewriting your scene in first person and reading it out loud. Point of view problems become crystal clear.

Additional Comment

Jarie: A consistent POV and narrative drive helps the reader not get confused. What a writer might think is crystal clear might not be so clear to a reader. That’s why this is an important part of a good story. The simple fact is that you want to make it as simple as possible to follow your story. If it’s too confusing, you’re going to lose the reader.

5. Objects of Desire or Character Wants and Needs – Leslie

What is it?

Wants and Needs within a story are connected to your genre choice and the human needs tank that genre is concerned with.

Wants are the character’s conscious object of desire, related to the external genre. For example, generally speaking, in an action story, the protagonist wants to save the victim and defeat the villain (survival tank); in a love story, the protagonist wants to find authentic love in a committed relationship (human connection and belonging tank); in a crime story, the protagonist wants to expose the criminal (safety and security tank).

Needs are the character’s unconscious object of desire, often related to the internal genre, if any. Not every external genre requires an internal mate, particularly action and crime. In those cases, the need is often to survive (survival tank) and obtain security (safety and security tank) respectively. If your story has an internal genre, let’s use Worldview-Maturation as an example, the character generally needs to change their black-and-white thinking and accept a more nuanced view of the world (self-actualization tank). In a Status Sentimental story, the protagonist needs to alter their definition of success to avoid compromising their inner moral compass (self-respect and self-esteem tank).

Why do I need to know it?

Unless you know what your protagonist wants and needs, they won’t know how to act. What I really mean is that you won’t necessarily know how to make them act. They are rudderless and what they say, think, and do won’t make sense. Also, you can’t convey a cohesive cause and effect statement about life unless you know what the protagonist wants and needs. Some writers have an innate sense of this and can write a cohesive narrative without asking the question. Those writers are in the minority.

How is it going to help me edit my novel?

On a basic level, understanding what your character wants and needs will help you with the action they take and obstacles they face in the story.

The cool thing about objects of desire is that you might find an interesting relationship between needs and wants in story. Often it is the case that the protagonist obtains what they want through what they need. Or, they must give up what they want to get what they need. Or, they refuse to accept what they need and lose what they want or get what they want, but then find it unsatisfying. It depends on your genre and the result you want for your story. Identifying these patterns will help you craft a satisfying ending.

Additional Comment

Jarie: Knowing what your characters want and need allows you to have the be internally consistent. The reader should not be surprise that a character does something. This is all about being consistent so that the reader does not get confused.

6. Controlling Idea or Theme – Leslie

What is it?

There’s a lot of confusion the about the Controlling Idea/Theme, but it’s a simple statement that contains the main message of the story in a cause and effect statement about the life value at stake and human needs tank, both of which are related to the Global Genre of the story.

Compare to motifs (e.g., life isn’t fair or  it’s never too late to change), which are ideas that may relate to the theme, but don’t express a cause and effect statement about the life value at stake in the story.

Here’s a basic template for crafting a Controlling Idea/Theme:

[Global Story Value] [verb expressing the result, like prevails, triumphs, fails] when [type of protagonist] [cause of life value result within the story].

That’s pretty general, so let’s look at a couple of genre examples.

The conventional controlling idea in an action story is “Life prevails when the protagonist overpowers or outwits the antagonist” in a story that ends positively, and Death results when the protagonist fails to overpower or outwit the antagonist” when the story ends negatively.

Here’s my take on the action story Wonder Woman, which we’ll discuss later this season:
Life is preserved when the hero outwits the villain by abandoning her one-dimensional understanding that violence and anger can end war, and realizing instead that she must metabolize anger to create peace through love and understanding.

For a love story, “Love triumphs when lovers overcome moral failings or sacrifice their needs for the other” or “Love fails when lovers don’t evolve beyond desire.”

Here’s my take on Brokeback Mountain, which we discussed earlier this season: Love fails when the lovers face life-threatening violence and aren’t able to commit to one another publicly.

You can find the conventional controlling idea for all twelve content genres within the Roundtable show notes.

Why do I need to know it, and how is it going to help me edit my novel?

The Controlling Idea/Theme is the main point of your story, your true north, that provides a filter for making decisions about your story. Often, different characters will express different ideas on this central theme, but the protagonist’s experience is the clearest statement of it.

In the beginning, this may be a general statement. You don’t want to spend too much time crafting the perfect controlling idea when planning, drafting, or revising in the early stages. Start with the typical controlling idea for your genre and refine it as you go.

Additional Comment

Jarie: The controlling idea is your story guide star or north star. It’s what you look too when you’re down in the weeds trying to get your character out of some progressive complication. The theme of the story should be consistent and obvious once the reader has read it. In some cases, it should be obvious right up front. By having a clear and consistent theme, you as the writer, will not get off track or confused. To think of it another way, this is the overall arch of the story.

7. Frequently Asked Questions:

Why do you analyze movies when most of the Story Grid community is writing books?

Jarie: Movies are more accessible, have a fixed length, and offer great insights into story. We would not be able to read and analyze a book a week—nor would our listeners. We felt that movies were the best way to get through the 12 content genres in a timely manner so we could analyze more.

Does analyzing movies spoil them for you?

Jarie: Not for me. I like the fact that I look at movies differently because of Story Grid. Who I spoil it for is my girlfriend since I’m always commenting on why what I think is going to happen. I started to do this after learning Story Grid. I try hard not too but now, I see Story Grid in every movie or book I read just like I see good website design or good product design.

Not all good stories follow this formula. Isn’t this kind of thing the problem with the endless action movies Hollywood pumps out that are so predictable?

Jarie: I think all good stories do follow the framework. Again, for me, Story Grid is not a formula—rather it’s a framework like a computer language or a product type. There are some fundamental pieces and parts that all of them have but the stories that take off and become ones that people talk about innovate the 6 core questions. This is akin to a startup as well. Most entrepreneurs think that they can wander off into the woods and come back with some nifty, cool new thing that people want without adhering to the fundamentals of business or product design. Funny enough, the odds of hitting a company out of the park is about the same as writing a blockbuster book—roughly about 1%. The company’s/books that do make it deliver to the customer/reader an experience that exceeds their expectations in unique and novel ways. If a company/book does not do that, then it’s not going to be memorable, which is perfectly fine. It really boils down to what you want out of your artistic journey.

When is the right time to work with a Story Grid Editor?

Kim: Recently I had the awesome privilege of meeting in person with some of our students from Level Up Your Summer. And this was something we discussed and they asked we clarify for everyone.

Working with a Story Grid Editor is not something you have to wait to do. There is no prerequisite. The kind of service you choose to engage in will depend on where you are at in your process (i.e., do you have a finished manuscript) and your personal goals. But ongoing developmental editing (aka weekly calls and coaching) is something you can benefit from at any point in your process, if that is something you are interested in. I bring this up not as a hard selling technique but simply to help inform and encourage you that if you need help that is precisely what we’re here for.

So when it comes to a diagnostic / manuscript evaluation, it’s beneficial for a writer to have taken it as far as they can before they invest funds to having someone else look at it. Now that does not mean it’s perfect. It just means you’ve exhausted your own avenues of progress and need to get another brain in the mix. But the wonderful thing about ongoing developmental editing (weekly coaching) is you can bring this brain in at any point in the process. Idea – outline – drafting – editing.

So again this is not intended to be a hard sell, it’s just permission to get the help you need whenever you need it. For me, that’s what this job is all about.

Join us again next time, when we disappear into the Thriller genre with Gillian Flynn’s 2014 hit Gone Girl. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
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Author Leslie Watts

7 Comments

JP says:

I actually enjoy you guys using SG on movies. I remember Steven Pressfield wrote that Norm Stahl, a very successful documentary filmmaker, introduced him to the Foolscap Method.

Currently, I’m tackling my first draft and the Foolscap-SG method has been invaluable. Instead of beginning at the micro-level, I’m taking your advice and beginning at the Macro-Level. Already, I’m spotting some huge holes in the narrative/plot. Your articles have been a very valuable (actually, they’re a life-saver) service.

Thank you for your generosity .

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Anne Hawley says:

Thank you, JP. I’m sure I speak for all five of us in saying that your feedback means a lot.

Lately I’ve been thinking a great deal about Valerie’s insight that screenwriters learn story structure in film school, while novelists, on the whole do not learn it in MFA programs (or the like). I’ve begun thinking of Story Grid as the equivalent of screenwriters’ film school for novelists. Analyzing movies that have been adapted from popular novels tends to reveal all the flaws of the novel–what the screenwriter compressed, cut out, or had to add to make the story work in the tighter frame of a movie.

I don’t believe we should all write novels that are exactly like movies, because the novel is a different art form. Personally, I’d like to write novels that would *make* great movies, but that also offer all the pleasure of reading the written language.

Good luck with your draft!

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Annamarie Muirhead says:

I loved the comments above they told me so much, I have listened to this podcast twice now and my have to read it as well, since i’m a visiual person. I believe that I have learned a ton in those three sessions. But am still not confident enough to set it upon the Grid. My story has been written as a picture book, I am now changing it into a novel, growing in age group as well.
The story is given to me, every time I sit down and want to add some it just comes.
Picture book was good for the young ones, but as the story evolved it was not suitable any more. Hence the change to crate a novel for 12-Teens . ( Amazon).
I’m also aware of how long I want to make each book, there should be enough for three books. Since my oroginal thought was to write a never ending story, it may well happen that way?
Many thanks fot all the help and informative “blogs”.

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Anne Hawley says:

Hi Annamarie. Changing a children’s picture book into a novel sounds like a challenging and interesting project. I wouldn’t worry about putting it on the Story Grid (spreadsheet or graph) till you have a pretty solid first draft.

Good luck with your writing.

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Miles White says:

An enlightening conversation; I wish I had listened to it three drafts ago. I read the Story Grid book and thought I understood the core concepts; then I wrote 120,000 words. Now I’m putting the manuscript through the tools and discovering that I only kinda sorta maybe understood about half of how this stuff works, so I’m going back to story grid school by reviewing the core concepts via the articles and podcasts. This has been a great refresher. Thank you.

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Anne Hawley says:

That’s good to hear, Miles. So glad we’ve provided something of use. And good luck with putting your manuscript through the tools. Doing that sure made a difference to me!

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Melissa Haynes says:

Hello! Can you please tell us where to see the show notes, above you wrote, “You can find the conventional controlling idea for all twelve content genres within the Roundtable show notes.” Just don’t see the show notes, thank you!

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