First Draft is Done. Now what?

[0:00:00.3] 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’ experience.

In this episode, we get to actually dive into the editing process. The subtitle of the book, The Story Grid, is what good editors know, and we spent the last nine months or so just working on a first draft to my story. Now that the first draft is done, we get to actually dive into the editing process, which is exciting for me to change pace a little bit and we get to start to use all these really cool Story Grid tools, like the spreadsheet and the graphs and all that kind of stuff.

As usual, I get out in front of myself and Shawn kind of reels me back in in this episode and we start talking about exactly what I need to be doing now that the first draft is done and what I’m going to do to get to a second draft. It’s a really fun episode. I’m really excited for you, the listener, you no longer have to just hear me slog through my story scene-by-scene. We actually get to dig in to the editing side, and this episode in particular has some really actionable advice for you.

So once you get that first draft done, what do you do? How can you use Story Grid to edit it and get a much, much better second draft? So that’s what we talked about in episode. That’s what my homework consists of, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun over the coming weeks as we start to dig into the editing side of this process. I’m going to stop talking and jump in and we can get started.


[0:01:45.3] TG: So Shawn, it was nice to be done with the first draft for now. I guess I’m done with the first draft and moving on to the editing.  I think our listeners will enjoy a nice change in pace of actually editing something instead of just churning through a story.

My homework was we’re both going to go through the first 11 scenes, so the beginning hook, and do the Story Grid spreadsheet and kind of compare notes. I have my spreadsheet. Do you have your spreadsheet?

[0:02:22.1] SC: I do. Before we get in to that, I’d like to sort of take a giant step back, because one of the things that writers often forget is that editors are human beings, right?

[0:02:42.1] TG: I thought you were just a robot.

[0:02:43.9] SC: No. That an editor, everytime I get a new project, I have a moment of panic. I have a moment of, “Oh my gosh! How am I going to get through this? Where should I start? How am I going to communicate properly? How am I going to evaluate it? How am I going to make great recommendations?” and on and on and on and on.

Editors face the same sort of resistance to doing the work as writers do when they’re plopped down a first draft of manuscript and they’ve agreed to take it on and they cash the first check and all of those things bear down on the editor in much the same way that they do a writer  when they’re working on their first draft.

What I’m trying to do here is to teach you not only the principles of writing which we sort of gone over ad nauseum over the last year and a half. Now, we’re massively shifting gears and we are moving away from the creative day-by-day writing process into the very analytical diagnosis of the story that you put together.

The first thing I think we should do is to talk about sort of the mindset that we take on when we make that shift. You just finished your first draft and that is a huge deal and you should feel really, really good about it. What often happens if you don’t take the moment to, in your mind make a very severe shift in thinking, is that you can overwhelm yourself very quickly with all the things that aren’t correct in your book now that need to be fixed. Because you’re so close to the writing process, you can make a huge mistake. The huge mistake that you can make is to start fixing things before you’ve comprehensively created a to-do-list.

The mind shift that you need to make right now is away from, “Oh my gosh! I’m almost done. I’ve got a first draft. I’m only a couple of drafts away. As soon as I can finish this stuff, then that, and then the other thing, and then before you know, it can get this to an agent, and then the agent will take me on and then the agent will sell it to a major publisher, and then nine months later —” You see what I mean? You can immediately fall down a vortex of expectation and emotional trauma, or emotional expectation that can completely destroy you.

This is when resistance — We talk about this a lot. Just for everybody who’s listening for the first time, resistance is a force that’s Steven Pressfield writes about in his book, The War of Art, and it’s a force that we all contend with. It’s the force that stops us from doing the work that we should. Really, you’ve won a round, but it’s a 15-round battle with resistance. You’ve won round one and it was on points. You didn’t knock ‘em down. You won on points. If we’re going to use the metaphor of battling an internal demon as you’re writing a project, you’re fighting a boxing match, you won round one, because you have a first draft. Resistance is not very happy.

It’s a good idea to answer it more positive, because if you don’t, then you start attacking yourself. Using resistance as a force, a literal thing within you, that’s trying to stop you from creating the thing that you’re in attempt on creating. That is a very, very big helpful tool and it’s why Steve’s book is such a huge bestseller year after year after year, is because it gets you away from self-blame and allows you to look at an enemy in a battle in a very systematic thoughtful way.

Resistance is now very upset with you, because it’s beaten you so many times on your first drafts that you’ve quite probably 3, or 4, or 5 projects in your life, maybe more, before you actually had a first draft. Even the first drafts that we’ve had before, the one that you shared with me last year, that really wasn’t a professional first draft. The last year, what we’ve created is a professional first draft. Meaning —

[0:07:43.9] TG: Okay. Yeah. What’s the difference?

[0:07:46.3] SC: An amateur first draft is a series of scenes that don’t have beginning, middles, and ends, that don’t have valence shifts, that don’t have any values at stake, that are riddled with clichés, that just — They read — As a reader, readers know what’s going to happen far before they do. There’s no real thought about the global movements of shift and genres and obligatory scenes and conventions and all that stuff. It’s sort of a heated moment when a writer cranks out 60,000 words beginning with word one ending with the end you kind of have to throw it away, because not one of the scenes really works and they don’t build. There’s no arc. It’s 60,000 words is what it is. It’s not a first draft.

What you have now are scenes — How many scenes in the project now?

[0:08:51.8] TG: I still haven’t written those three or four in the middle of the final act, or the — Yeah. Right now, I’m at 57. It will be right at 60.

[0:09:05.9] SC: Okay. You’re going to have 60 to 63 scenes depending upon things that we have to figure out. Each of those scenes has a beginning, middle, and end. We’ve gone through them laboriously. You’ve written probably 100 scenes and we threw out 40 of them. Now, you have a professional first draft, meaning it has a clear beginning, it has a clear middle, and it has a clear ending. Now, it is the moment when — When you have a professional first draft, you kind of think, and you like to yourself, and resistance is whispering in your ear, “Oh, boy, you’re almost done. Hey, this is great. You’re almost done. You just fix a few things, tweak a few things, and before you know it, you can get that out to New York, and then all of your dreams will come true.”

The truth is you’re very far from home. You’re very far from home. It’s okay to be very far from home because what you’re going to do now is be almost like a building engineer. You’re going not worry about the quality and writing and all that stuff. All you’re going to do is go around with a thermometer and a brace to see to check the floorboards and to check the plumbing and you’re going to write down a list, a punch list of all the stuff that you’re going to need to do before you have another draft.

This draft has nothing to do with line-by-line writing, meaning the last thing you should do is start polishing your pros now. Polishing your pros are for the last seven drafts.

[0:10:51.7] TG: Okay. The last seven?

[0:10:52.8] SC: Yeah. This draft is about getting a punch list of things that you have to do, and I’m going to walk you through step by step how to create this punch list. The thing that you’re going to want to do, and it’s going to be eating at you, because resistance is going to tell you, “Don’t listen to Shawn. Fix that scene.”

Resistance is going to say to you, “Oh my gosh! I really need to knock out some of these problems because they’re just driving me crazy. Let me just fix that scene in the middle build that doesn’t work.” Then you go and you try and fix that scene before you have your full punch list. What that is, is wasting your time, and it’s just not wasting your time, it could completely destroy everything you’ve worked so hard to build now, because you need to take a very, very long view, a 30,000 foot view of what you’re trying to accomplish in this novel and all of the ways in which you are not getting to the place where you need it to be. You need to find and diagnose all the problems in the book and you need to have a very large spreadsheet that list these things from top to bottom.

Once you have that list, then it will start to embed in your subconscious, all of those problems. I’m going to tell you, you might reach a moment of despair and say, “There’s no way I can fix all these stuff.” Until you know that is wrong, you’re not going to be able to come up with an elegant solution that will solve multiple problems at one time.

[0:12:45.9] TG: When you talk about these problems, are you talking about scenes that don’t follow the five commandments, or are you talking about continuity problems, are you talking about character inconsistencies, or just like all of the above at this point?

[0:13:02.8] SC: Generally, you have abide the five commandments in each one of your states. Now, we’re sort of — I had never told you this or anybody else, but the Story Grid, the book, is really 1.0 of the methodology. There’s a Ph.D. level of Story Grid that will slowly build to, that is a spreadsheet that moves far beyond 14 columns.

[0:13:32.6] TG: Oh, dear.

[0:13:34.2] SC: What you want to do now is you know all those sort of narrative arcs I talked about? The Kurt Vonnegut — If anybody hasn’t seen Kurt Vonnegut talking about story and six fundamental stories in humanity, just go to YouTube and look under Kurt Vonnegut and storytelling.

Kurt Vonnegut talks about the man in the hall, the Cinderella story, the tragedy, the Icarus story. There are six of them and we had a whole podcast about how computers have actually figured out that Kurt Vonnegut was right and he had said this in 1948, or whatever.

Anyway, those arcs that Kurt Vonnegut so elegantly draws on the chalkboard, we need to test that your arcs are abiding those sort of movements. I’m going to show you and tell you how to do that, and that’s what a lot of people say to me, “Hey, I totally get the Story Grid spreadsheet and the fool’s cap page. The Story Grid graphic is cute and everything, but I don’t really see that it’s all that helpful.”

I can understand that when you’re at the beginning of your writing process, but as you get more and more professional, the more you come to realize that the Story Grid arcs are the things that really, really show you where your scenes are moving emotionally.

[0:15:06.0] TG: In the book, you have the different tools of the fool’s cap, the spreadsheet, an then you actually do the graph of Silence of the Lambs. We do that for this draft?

[0:15:17.6] SC: We’re going to take it one step at a time. Don’t start panicking about having to make a Story Grid yet.

[0:15:24.5] TG: No. I’m just curious of — At this point, I’ve never gotten this far before.

[0:15:31.0] SC: Right.

[0:15:33.7] TG: I’m in a completely new territory of just — When I went through, I did fix a couple of types, but otherwise I left it alone. What I did is I added a note section to my spreadsheet that just major things I notice I would just take notes on, but I didn’t change anything.

[0:15:54.3] SC: Great, because that’s my first recommendation. The very first thing you need to do after you had a beer to celebrate having a first draft is to take a few days off and then put your editor’s hat and be just — Not negative, but objective, as objective about the work as you possibly can. The way to sort of get yourself into the mode is to start the spreadsheet. That’s where we — What I asked you to do last week was to map out these first 11 scenes, and we’ll talk about them in the second.

You want to do this in three parts; your beginning hook, your middle build, and your ending payoff, and it’s really a question of what you’re most comfortable with. I didn’t tell you to map out the entire spreadsheet for the podcast because we don’t want to have a nine-hour podcast, so we’re going to look at the beginning hook of the story and just objectively say to ourselves and ask ourselves some questions about them.

Once you do your spreadsheet, then you started putting a note section in the actual spreadsheet. What I would recommend is to — You can do that as you’re going through the spreadsheet, but also open up a brand new document and call this, for lack of a better word, the story grid to-do-list. You literally put down number one and you find the blatant problems in your spreadsheet.

You and I have done a lot of work to make sure that the scenes are moving and have valances and have values at risk and at stake from scene to scene. Obviously, we’re not perfect and probably screwed some things up and there are probably some scenes that may not even have a value at stake. I might have glossed over something in our one year discussion of this. Don’t take anything for granted. That’s my point.

It’s kind of, if not fun, it’s a different set of neurons that you’ll be using. You’re not going to feel like the dread of having to create a thousand words and writing a scene from scratch. Objectively look at your scenes and make sure that you have the five commandments in the story, you have clear turning points, you have clear value shifts, that you have a consistent point of view. Now is not the time to worry so much about continuity. Should you make sure that you’re not shifting, that you’re changing the name of your character. Yeah, definitely, but don’t overwhelm yourself with the minutia of continuity.

The continuity columns are things like period and time, duration, location, on stage characters, and off stage characters. That stuff is the really tiny, nitty-gritty that’s really easy to fix that you can tweak in later drafts. This is really finding the big holes, the big scene problems. Once you do your spreadsheet, then what you would do is, for number one, you would write something like scene two; the value shift is unclear turning point week.

You would make a note yourself; I need to go back and look at that scene and tweak it to make sure that I make it very clear with the turning point of the scene is, that the crisis is clear, that kind of stuff. If you go through your 60 scenes, you probably have 15 scenes that need this kind of dedicated work; global, real rethinking of the five fundamentals. You’re not a terrible writer. If even half or your scenes aren’t up to snuff. Again, just write them down, the ones that need the work.

[0:20:29.1] TG: Don’t actually fix them.

[0:20:30.1] SC: Don’t fix them yet, because until you have a global perspective of everything, don’t start fixing things because your fix today could be a major screw up for tomorrow. Things are going to reveal themselves to you in elegant ways down the road that will fix multiple things at the same time and you don’t know what all of the problems are yet.

What you need to do is get a big master punch list of what all of the problems are, so you have these systems in place using Story Grid methodology that will allow you to exhaust your editorial thinking and get you this big 200-item master list, or whatever it is.

[0:21:20.6] TG: Okay. All right.

[0:21:23.0] SC: Okay. What I think might be good is to just give an overview, just take it to the next level before we go into the minutia of your scene-by-scene stuff, because this is a really big episode, because this is a transitional moment as we started to talk about at the very beginning. This is a transitional moment from the writer’s hat to the editor’s hat.

I got to tell you, once you have the writer’s hat and you can put it down for a while, it’s going to be a great relief, but you have to put it down a long time before you pick it up again. Again, I’m going to warn everybody out there, once you have that first draft and you say, “That’s my first draft.” Now, you’ve got to be an editor. To be an editor requires very analytical, anal retentive Story Grid stuff that will give you a list of problems that your writer-self will solve in a month, or two months, of however long it takes.

[0:22:31.3] TG: All right. Before we dive in, I have another maybe dumb question. It’s great that I have you to help me go through all these stuff, but is this the point — If I were on my own and I wrote a first draft and you say I’ve got to put my editor hat on, is that because I’ve got you, or should every writer be switching over and doing this, or this is the point after their first draft where they’re like, “Okay. Now, I need an editor to help me find the problems.”

[0:23:00.8] SC: I’ll tell you this. Most people make the huge mistake of hiring an editor at this point. The reason why it’s a huge mistake is because while you have in your mind an on the page something that can become something. It’s very far away. If you handed some editor your first draft of the threshing, they would probably say to you, “Oh, boy! You’re kind of far away here. Let me see if I can give you some ideas about how to flash this out.”

Their ideas will really mess you up, because they are going to react to it from a whole set of their own subjective point of view and they could say things like, “I think you should add a character who is a wizard.” You’ll say, “What? There’s no wizards in this book.” For them, they might say, “Well, it’s a futuristic fantasy of sorts, right?” You would go, “Yeah, but it’s really a thriller about coming of age.” “Oh, I don’t see it that way.” You’d go, “Really? You don’t see it that way?” “No. I think this would be much better as a fantasy novel set in a futuristic world where there’s magic at play.”

You could actually get convinced to completely do a page one rewrite based upon the opinion of an editor who hasn’t spent 18 months creating this first draft. This isn’t a knock on the editor. The editor is doing his or her best to help you create something that’s workable and publishable to a large commercial market. They want you to succeed. They’re not out to sabotage you, but their opinions and their subjective point of view can destroy you, because what they will say are things that are based upno their world view. They may say to you, “Hey, Tim. There’s been Harry Potter, there’s been Rick Riordan’s books —” I forgot the title of that character.

There’s been a lot of these. There’s been these movies that are trilogies based upon coming of age stories and futuristic worlds. What you’re writing isn’t really all that unique and it’s not yet. I’m not trying to make you panic or feel terrible about yourself. I’m just saying, these are the moments that can really upend you.

You wrote this story because you, Tim Grahl, have this story inside of you. While I made suggestions about possible genres that would work for you, you ultimately made choices that are in this first draft, and that’s a delicate thing about an editor, is not to be so specific that you can upend somebody’s internal muse, but also to give them direction.

The original question is; if you have a first draft of this caliber, your professional first draft, should you seek outside editorial counsel? My very, very strong opinion is no, no, because what is best is for you to employ you first, because a great writer — You know who edits my stuff? Steven Pressfield.

Now, Steven Pressfield didn’t become an editor. He didn’t spend 25 years working in book publishing to become an editor, but Steven Pressfield is a great writer. I trust Steve, because he’ll say to me, “That’s not working. This isn’t working. Try this.” I can trust him because he knows the same principles that I do, but his brain is wired for writing, mine is wired for editing.

That’s why I think we’re a great team and that’s why I trust him and he trusts me, is because he knows I’m right and I know he can edit. We can — We’re like two halves of the same brain in a way. Every writer has an editor brain. Steve does not ever, ever, ever send me a draft like the draft that you have now. He would never, in a million years, consider sharing that with anybody. It’s like this goo that he — Very delicate goo that he doesn’t want anybody else to see. That’s what you have now, and a lot of people just want to dump their goo on an editor and have the editor form that into something for them.

Sometimes it works. A lot of people email me with exceptions. They always say, “Shawn, I saw that you said this, but the five commandments of storytelling aren’t in scene 26 of X-novel which sold 75 million copies, so you’re an idiot.”

My point is that, yeah, there are exceptions to everything, and some writers use scenes that don’t go anywhere. In Silence of the Lambs, there’s one or two scenes that don’t go anywhere, but their expositional scenes use to explain the situation. They’re very short, and they’re sweet, and they get the job done, and he’s out. He gets out of the scene very quickly.

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes there’s a way of getting exposition in an innovative way that does not use the five commandments of storytelling. I don’t want to make this episode about that. My point is is that —

[0:29:17.5] TG: I see what you’re saying, because there’s a level of me that’s exhausted now, right?

[0:29:24.0] SC: Yeah.

[0:29:25.5] TG: The idea of passing it off to somebody else, like spending a couple of bucks and making it somebody else’s problem to fix the story. That’s sounds pretty good. It sounds like you’re saying that just a fool’s errand or it’s not going to work out the way you think it will.

[0:29:43.7] SC: No, it won’t. There’s this old saying, this old farmer saying, and you see it when you go to somebody’s house and they’ll have this drawing up on the wall and it will say something, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, because he’ll never sing and you’ll only irritate the pig.” When you do try to dump your goo on an editor, their feeling about it — This happens to me all the time. Everybody wants me. They want to pay me a lot of money and hand me their goo and it infuriates me because, “Hey, dude! I’m not the writer. You’re the writer. You’ve made some choices here, but you’re so far away from something that I can actually tweak and amplify and polish and help you polish, that it’s ridiculous.”

You can pay me $100,000, $200,000 to do it, and I might take that job, but then I end up ghostwriting your book for you. I’ve ghostwritten people’s books and I’ve taken paychecks that way. While I appreciate the financial security it gives me, I also — I think the writer just quit and they dump their problem on me and I fixed it, it’s published. Sometimes their bestsellers, but you know what? You’d given yourself short shrift.

I know you’re exhausted, that’s why you get to go on vacation. Half of your brain gets to go on a very long vacation. The other half of your brain, which I know you personally, this is the brain that you really like to use.

[0:31:36.2] TG: Yeah. When you start talking about to-do-list, I’m like, “Brain. It’s on,” because I can do to-do-list. That’s my specialty in life.

[0:31:44.9] SC: Yeah. You just knock and scratch that out. But you got to create the to-do-list —

[0:31:49.7] TG: But it’s the finding the to-do-list. I could see dumping your story and wanting somebody else to rewrite it. I’m okay with the rewriting. It’s that I don’t know how to find the problems, and that’s what we’re going to talk about. That’s a part that seems overwhelming to me.

[0:32:04.9] SC: Okay. Here is the other thing about the problems. Some things would be problems for me, but not for you. It all depends on your controlling idea for your novel, the choices of your genre that you’ve taken, you attachment to your character. What you internally feel that they could or could not do, et cetera, et cetera.

There are challenges and there are questions — I know I use the world problems all the time, but sometimes these things are just questions that you need to answer and make sure that the reader understands the answers to those questions in the book. Problems, they connote this — Like a broken engine, and it is a broken engine, but I think it’s probably more instructive to think of them as, “Oh, here are all these questions that I haven’t answered yet, and I can’t answer question six until I figured out the answer to the question 312.”

Until you have the full list of all the questions that you need to answer, you can’t answer each one individually yet. Your second draft, which is what we’re talking about now. Your second draft is all about being an editor and finding as many of these questions that are unanswered in your book as possible that you can systemically write down the problem that you need to address and allow it to percolate in your subconscious as you’re doing your analytical editor work.

This is a skill that Steven King has, Steven Pressfield, John Grisham has, Jane Austin certainly had it. This is a skill that takes you from somebody who really busted their ass and created a professional first draft to someone who can turn a professional first draft, which is basically the clay of your sculpture. It’s like the block of granite that Michelangelo started.

He took a long time to figure out what he was going to do. What sculpture he was going to create. They probably took a long time to find the right piece of marble to chisel too. Now, what you have is Michelangelo, he’s figured out he’s going to create this statue of David and he’s got this big, huge block of marble in his backyard. He’s got his chisels out, right?

Now, you got that big blog of marble and it’s a great thing to have, but don’t give the marble to somebody else. Only you can fix it. The way to do that is to use the Story Grid editorial approach which will give you a comprehensive list of tons of things to think about that you will think about and fix and put it in to your next draft.

The first step is to do a spreadsheet of your entire novel. You’ve done the first 11 scenes, and through those 11 scenes, you will write down little notes of things that you have to fix and change and think about. It can even be things like in your first scene, the very first scene of your novel, Jessie is confronted by the president and she is taking food from people who are plugged in, right?

[0:35:37.3] TG: Right.

[0:35:39.0] SC: The scene works. We worked on it a long time, but one of the notes you can say to yourself in that first scene — Boy, this is the other thing about being an editor, is that my brain just fired 19 million times to other scenes where someone gets a job. Basically, that scene is about Jessie being offered a job. The conflict is that the interviewer/offerer of the job has leverage over the lead character. He has caught her red-handed doing something illegal. She is at a great disadvantage in the scene, and the reader, when they read that scene is going to say, “Oh, boy! This guy has her over a barrel.” Not only has he caught her doing something illegal, but he’s an authority figure who has great massive power and control over the entire universe of this story.

Instinctively, a reader is going to say to themselves, “There’s no way this girl is going to turn this guy down. It’s impossible. She’d have to be crazy to turn down this guy’s offer of a job and security of leaving her mundane existence to go to a magical world.”

I think your first scene works, because she says no at the end, and it’s a complete reversal of what people would expect. I think your first scene, generally, is in good shape, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other possibilities to tweak it. I think you mentioned in one of the podcasts that maybe she’s not after food. Maybe there’s something else that she could be after.

Instead of making that decision now, you can write a note; scene one, Jessie caught red-handed, offered job. Maybe what she’s stealing is not food. Could be something else?

You’re an editor now. This is kind of fun. You not having to answer the question. You just say, “Maybe there’s something else she could steal.” Because you definitely want her to say no at the end of the scene.

[0:38:03.6] TG: What you’re doing is, first, you’re looking at making sure there’s a value shift, polarity shift, and a turning point, and five commandments are there. The scene works on that level, and so now that you know what works on that level, you’re able to step back and say, “Okay. What else could we do to make this scene —” Are you thinking things like, “Am I hitting the right levels?” because there’s one scene where I’m like — That when we’re going through them, like it’s just not — I think it hits all the right notes, just not strong enough.

[0:38:38.8] SC: Yeah. We’re going to get to that.

[0:38:42.1] TG: Okay. Those are the questions you start. Once you know it works in a kind of fundamental way, then you start asking those questions. I was thinking here, because he mentions the rats that he could also mention Balem here, so I can start weaving him into the story earlier on.

[0:38:56.4] SC: Exactly.

[0:38:58.0] TG: Just over all — Because when we wrote the beginning hook, we didn’t really know what the capital was yet.

[0:39:03.4] SC: Exactly.

[0:39:04.7] TG: All the references to the capital don’t fit what it ends up being, and so I just made notes that I’m going to have to clean that stuff up, and we put in the voice in our head and we never use that again, so I put I note in that we’ll probably need to take that out. That’s what went in my notes. Once I figure that, that scene was working.

[0:39:26.4] SC: Okay. I think this might be fun, or it might be overwhelming for you.

[0:39:32.8] TG: Okay. I’m worthy.

[0:39:35.1] SC: How’s that for an inciting instrument? Just to address the things that you were just talking about, there are ways to use Story Grid methodology to answer those questions. Just to give you something to think about and the listeners to think about, you had a really great question; how do you know that this scene is strong enough, or is it too strong, or is it just blah?

Eventually, after we get through a second level of analysis after we do this first level of analysis, the second level, of course, is we’re going to look at the fool’s cap global Story Grid and check everything. Do we have the hero at the mercy of the villain scene? Do we have all the conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen genres? Is there an all is lost moment? Is there a hero’s journey progression?

The maturation plot is all about hero’s journey, and we had hours of episodes about the hero’s journey. We can actually test your story to see that we’ve hit all the marks in the hero’s journey, and there were about 14 different elements in the hero’s journey that you should have or they should at least be hinted at. There’s a transition from the ordinary world to the magical world, and from the beginning hook, to the middle build. Then, there’s a transition from leaving the magical world back home at the very ending payoff. Just off of the top of my head, you did do both of those things, so don’t worry about that. What you want to do is check all of those things to make sure that they’re in there. That’s kind of the fool’s cap global Story Grid check.

Then, the next level is to start thinking about creating a Story Grid. The way you do that is this is a really kind of cool thing that I’ve been thinking about over the past — I don’t know. I’ve always thought about it, but I’m not starting to put it into practice which will answer a lot of questions, is to think about your 60 scenes in terms of positive and negative valence. What I mean by that is if somebody held a gun to your head and said, “Okay, Tim. What I want you to do is sort your 60 scenes. I want you to find the scene where the value of naïveté is at the lowest and the value of worldliness, maturity, is at the highest. Which scene of your 60 scenes would you say is that? Then, you would assign a number.

The All is Lost moment where the person is completely lying to themselves, they’re panicking, they don’t know what to do. That would have a number of negative 30. The one that’s really — The realization point, the truth will out scene when the character realizes they can no longer live in their naïve world, and now they have to live in a world that has lots of variations of gray. That would be a plus 30. That’s the moment when she has a change of worldview. Which scene of those 60 scenes, what number exactly is that moment? Assign that scene a valence of plus 30.

The inciting incident at the global story would be your baseline, right? That would be your zero scene. If you’re going to start reading this thing and you assign valences according to the two global values at stake in the thriller, it’s life and death. That’s one value; life-death, and the maturation plot is naïveté. Naïveté and worldliness, or maturity, is the value at stake, or the internal plot.

You would have two columns, one says, “What’s the valence of the life-death value, and what’s the valence of the worldliness value, maturity versus naïveté?” you would go from scene one to scene 60 and you would have tried to objectively give a number for each of those values for each of your scenes.

[0:44:07.1] TG: This is how you create that graph.

[0:44:09.1] SC: That’s right. What you will discover on your second draft is that you’re going to have a lot of wishy-washy scenes, scenes that aren’t clearly one or the other. You’ll see when you look at the Story Grid for Silence of the Lambs and for Pride and Prejudice, that’s okay as long as they’re in the trough of the emotional arc and they’re being the other side is being more — For instance, some scenes in Price and Prejudice are really sort of low on the maturation scale, but high on the dramatic love value. You can see how this can get very mind-numbingly confusing for people when I’m talking about valences and assigning numbers.

The reason why you want to go through that process is what you’re going to identify are moments when you’re just not arching the story. You’re not progressively moving it from low to high, or high to low, or midpoint, or those things that Kurt Vonnegut talks about; this is the way to check them.

When you do that, you will find those scenes that you need to work on and take from, say, 18 positives to 16 positives, and how you do that is through looking at levels of conflict, which we can talk about at another time. You can see, there’s a real — For every problem, or challenge, or question that comes up in the story, there are ways of looking at it. There’s an analysis process that you can go through that will take you out of the; I’m a terrible writer, point of view, into a very thoughtful examination of the actual scene and the actual character. You’re actually thinking about how to change the scene to work in a global way even though it works.

This is the way you create narrative drive. This is the way you hook people into reading the book from page one to the very end. The magical moments that will come to you are solutions to those problems, but that will happen after you know the global challenges.

[0:46:42.3] TG: I’m getting lost. Is that something I should be doing now as I go through each scene?

[0:46:48.0] SC: No.

[0:46:50.7] TG: That’s something I would like —

[0:46:52.1] SC: No. Don’t do that now. Don’t do that now.

[0:46:54.4] TG: Okay.

[0:46:54.9] SC: What you want to do is you want to sort of — I have a big yard, so when I clean up the yard in the spring, I’ve got huge down trees and I’ve got branches that are sort of big, and then I got all these pine needles and I have leaves and I have twigs and I have all kinds of stuff.

When I look at that mess in my yard, I can panic and go, “Oh my God! I’m never going to get this done. Look at all these stuff. There’s no way” I can say, “Oh, okay. Here is what I’m going to do. I’m going to find — I’m going to get my chainsaw and the big dead tree in the middle of my yard — First thing I’m going to do is I’m going to cut that into logs and I’m going to put the logs in the side of the yard and we might use those for stools around the campfire, but I’m going to just not deal with those yet. I’m just going to put them to the side so that I can eventually cut the grass.”

“Then, I’m going to get the big, big branches and I’m going to cut those into much smaller pieces that I can burn. Then, I’m going to get the leaves and the twigs.” I have a system, a systematic process of cleaning up my yard. What you have a really nice piece of property that has a lot of broken branches in it and you’ve got some fallen trees. The first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to find out where the fallen trees in your hard are.

[0:48:22.2] TG: Going through each scene and filling out these first seven or eight columns and then making notes along the way. That’s the first thing.

[0:48:33.6] SC: Yeah, that’s finding the fallen trees. That doesn’t mean that if you see a bunch of twigs next to the trees, you don’t make a note, “Oh! There’s a whole pile of twigs here that I have to clean up to.”

Systematically not overwhelming your brain and worrying about whether or not you have irreversible progressive complication in the 3rd beat of scene 18, because you can go down that road and you can fall into a pit of despair.

Often time, you don’t even go near that stuff. You don’t even want to know the beats of your scene. You just want to — Anyway. Go ahead.

[0:49:19.9] TG: As I go through this — So I’ve done the first 11 and it sounds like my homework this week will be to keep rolling. Is there anything I’m look for in particular or am I just trying to get all those down so that I can kind of step back and look at all 60 scenes at the same time?

[0:49:39.5] SC: The second part. After you have — Again, I have an absolutely second document that says, Story Grid to-do-list, second draft.  Yeah, write down all of those thoughts and ideas about each scene that you think you could tweak, that are opportunities. You know in your mind some of the global problems already. You’re already thinking about them; Balem, I’d like to get him in earlier. I need to fix the world. I need to device and create a real understanding of what the capital is like far earlier than I do now.

All those little things are already in your brain. You’ve already done a lot of editing that’s stuck in your brain. Allow that editor to be creative, and the way you do that is to write down your thoughts.

[0:50:33.2] TG: This isn’t just — Because I was first thinking like these would be granular to dos, where this is almost like a brainstorming document. Should I have this in there? Because one of the themes that came out towards the end was this kind of higher consciousness, you can break out a reality that I didn’t have in any of the rest of the book. That would be a question of; should I be weaving that in, and just kind of dumping down anything that pops in my head as I go through it. Okay.

[0:51:03.1] TG: That’s right. You might say, “Maybe I could — In scene. This is a moment, a higher consciousness action point possibility. Maybe I could have her blank here.” You might be like — You’ll find moments, “I could have a transitional scene, an interstitial scene that deals with X here.” Yeah, you start from scene one and you go all the way through until the end and then all those scenes that are to come scenes that you haven’t written yet, you’re going to — By the time you get to those scenes, you’re going to be like, “Oh, this is what I should have in that scene,” and make notes, “This is possibilities, possibilities for this scene, possibilities for that scene.”

That’s really the stage we’re at now; Story Grid spreadsheeting. Check your five commandments. Check your turning points. Make sure the scenes work. If they don’t work, write down why they don’t work so that you can fix them later and don’t fix anything. Just be an editor. Just be an editor. Don’t write. This is step one; do your spreadsheet.

Then, after that, we’d move on to the fool’s cap, which is — You move from the granular to the telescopic view. You go from the Adams to 30,000 feet above, and that’s what we’re going to do next, but it’s good to flip your point of view. It’s good to think small and then large, and then small and then large. Keep moving your focus back and forth, and the process in the second draft is to get a master document of all of these stuff that you possibly can think of that you need to think about and address and check off as you move through actually the second draft. The second draft, you’re not going to start writing that second draft for a few weeks, at least a few weeks.

[0:53:10.7] TG: Looking at the spreadsheet, I always worry I’m doing this wrong. I realized that my value shift, I may identify different value shifts than you, and that’s not necessarily right or wrong. Then, there were scenes where I’m like, “I don’t know where the shift is. I don’t know where this turned.”

[0:53:30.1] SC: Just write that down.

[0:53:31.3] TG: Okay. Write all that stuff down.

[0:53:32.8] SC: Yes. Don’t know where this shifts. Don’t know where this turns.

[0:53:35.2] TG: Okay.

[0:53:36.7] SC: That’s fine. You don’t have to solve the problem. You just say, “Not sure about the value shift here. Don’t know where it turns. Inconsistent pint of view.” You just write that and just let the writer fix that later.

[0:53:50.7] TG: Okay.

[0:53:51.4] SC: This is going to sound really obvious. Eventually, when you’re firing on all cylinders, your intention of the value shift will be realized in the brain of your reader, so your reader will absolutely understand what the value shift is without knowing it.

When your readers — If I hand you Story Grid Pride and Prejudice, it would look very similar to mine. Will it be exact copy? No, but it will be really similar and there will be different nuances to the way you look at price and prejudice as a way that I do. That is great. That is called art, because great art means different things to different people.

If Jane Austin looked at my spreadsheet, she might say, “Oh my gosh! I had no idea that I did that. Wow! You got that out of my book? Holy cow! You’re kidding me.”

When we had this seminar in February and we had Steve Pressfield in the audience, he told me later on when we went out to dinner that somebody looked at him and said — Because I had mentioned the controlling idea of Gates at Fire and what it was about and the love story and how Steve book’s was a way of bringing love into a war story that was very — About the brotherhood of arms and all these stuff, and somebody at the break asked Steve, “Hey, wow! I didn’t know that you put all that stuff in your book.” Steve laughed and said, “I didn’t either. I just asked Shawn at the end when I did and I’m very happy when he tells me things that are interesting.” That is the beauty of art.

My point is, is that your spreadsheet for Price and Prejudice, my spreadsheet, they will be nuancy different. They would have different points of view about different scenes, but globally, we would both agree of the structure of it. It’s a story about two people who have to give up their small-minded thinking in order to be capable of loving one another. That’s the theme. We have to become better people in order to earn a loving, intimate, respectful relationship with another human being. We are not guaranteed love. We have to work for it. We have to change ourselves for the better in order to get love. It’s not guaranteed to anyone. You have to work at it.

Jane Austin would say, “Yeah, that is kind of what I meant. Yeah, that is it.” You say to Steve, “Your book is really about love. It’s really about the guys at Thermopylae loving each other and working together to save one another’s lives to the best of their ability with honor, and that’s enough for them.” He’d go, “Yeah, that’s what it’s about. That’s what guys go to war. They’re not fighting for their country when they go to war. They’re fighting for the guy next to them.”

That’s why guys can go to war. It’s not about the country, really. Yeah, they believe in the principles of the country and they believe in democracy and all that stuff, but when they’re on the battlefield, they’re fighting not for themselves. They’re not fighting to survive. They’re fighting to have the next guy survive. They don’t want to let down the guy next to them. That’s why they fight. That’s why those guys died at Thermopylae. They didn’t fight to save Western Civilization. They fought for each other. They put the life of the guy next to them to a higher standard that their own, and that’s why guys fight. You say that to Steve and he’d go, “Yeah. Yeah, that was my point.

This is how you get to being able to communicate with people. If you could make your value shifts in your scenes identifiable and recognizable globally to a reader who’s never heard of you before, who doesn’t know what you look like, who isn’t your friend, and their spreadsheet would look like my spreadsheet would look like your spreadsheet or the guy down the street, then you’ve created art. You’ve communicated to a massive people a very important idea, and that’s why you want to check your spreadsheet.

You want to make sure that you have actually put in a value shift. You want to make sure that there’s a clear turning point, because you want people to recognize that, because you are building an argument with your story. The argument of your story is that people have to sacrifice their own stuff in order for everybody to benefit. That’s generally the idea of a thriller; heroes sacrifice for the good of others.

To be a hero requires that kind of behavior. That’s what your story is about. You cannot be a little child and live in this world being petulant and silly. No. You have to go through trials in your life to become a better person that willingly sacrifices their own personal goods for the betterment of other people. That’s the message of your novel, and all of the thriller stuff is great.

The futuristic stuff, it’s fantastic. We love it, but that is the communication that people need to hear over and over and over again, because if we lose that story, then we lose meaning. We don’t find meaning in our lives. If we don’t have stories like that that solidify really important human values. That’s why your story is important. That’s why you are the only one who can fix that goo. You can’t hire me. I can’t fix that goo for you. I can do my own thing on your book, but it’s not yours and you can’t pay somebody else to tell your story. You can have somebody help you to tell your story. That’s what I hope I’m doing for you, but I can’t write your story for you. 

[1:00:30.3] TG: okay. Moving forward, I’m going to try to get through as many scenes as I can in the spreadsheet and then I’m just brain-dumping every question, potential problem, anything I see that might my need my attention put into a master to-do-list.

[1:00:47.4] SC: Yes. Then, why don’t you share the master to-do-list with me and then we can go scene by scene through it and just see if I can add anything to the soup. Then, we can move to the next stage of editing, which is adding more stuff from the fool’s cap global Story Grid, which are much more clear tests of hitting your obligatory scenes and conventions and your global arcs. We can get into that later. The first thing is to just go scene by scene and brain-dump all of the opportunities, questions, interesting thoughts, all that stuff in one document.

[1:01:31.7] TG: Okay. Sounds good. I’ll keep moving.

[1:01:33.7] SC: Okay.


[1:01:34.4] 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.

Also, I put a link up in this week’s episode to the Google spreadsheet that I’m using to map out all of my scenes and the to-do-list Shawn and I mentioned in this episode. A link to all of that is going to be in the show notes for this episode. Of course, last week, I’ve put up the full draft of my book, so if you want to download that and take a look at that, that would be great. I don’t want to — Please don’t give me your feedback. I’m really sensitive right now about my story.

Anyway, all that is up at storygrid.com/podcast. If you’d 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.


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.