Hitting the Wall

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So we’re making some solid progress with our Foolscap Global Story Grid for Malcolm Gladwell’s Big Idea Nonfiction book, The Tipping Point. I confess that the bottom three quarters of my Foolscap page for The Tipping Point gives me great anxiety.


Here’s where we stand:

Foolscap Global Story Grid for The Tipping Point

Foolscap Global Story Grid for The Tipping Point

While I’m confident that I’ll be able to clearly break down the book’s Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff, I won’t be able to really do that until I finish my Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Tipping Point.  I’m making progress with that, but I still have many miles to go before it is complete.  The Story Grid Spreadsheet is that meticulous bugger that you can’t bang out in a day, or a week, or even a month sometimes.  It requires precision and line by line concentration.

I’m not afraid of that kind of work.

The thing that’s giving me the cold sweats is that I’m not so sure about how to clearly define The Five Commandments of Story Form for the BH, MB and EP of The Tipping Point.  All of that blank space looms large.

But this fear of failure is actually a good sign.  If I wasn’t starting to panic right now I’d be concerned.  Here’s why:

If you’ve read Steve Pressfield’s book Do the Work that we published with Seth Godin’s Domino Project, you’ll know that when we take on a project and I mean all of us…no matter what project it is…there comes a time when we HIT THE WALL.  We reach a point where we find ourselves lost and we think we’ve made a terrible mistake, that this time the project is going to kill us, that we’re going to screw it up and worse still make complete fools of ourselves.  We fall into what Steve calls THE BELLY OF THE BEAST…

When you’re in this place, you know it.  The last thing you want to do is more work on that damn project that’s killing you.  So you make excuses to not work.  Boy have I been coming up with some great ones lately.  And then I’ll remember that I’ve been in this place before and if I’m lucky I’ll be in it again.  All I need to do is the next small thing.  I don’t have to figure it all out right now…just the next small thing.

So what’s got me so squirrelly?

You know those Five Commandments of Storytelling I laid out in The Story Grid, inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution? These are the requirements that the writer must deliver in each and every unit of his Story from the beat through the scene, the sequence, the act, the subplot and the global story.

My conundrum is this:

In fiction, these forms are pretty easy to identify to a trained editor or writer or even just anyone exposed to media since birth (that’s just about everyone today).

For example, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the inciting incident of the global action adventure story is the tornado that lifts Dorothy Gale’s house in Kansas and plops it smack down into Munchkin Country, a district in the alternative universe called Land of Oz.

This inciting incident is coincidental. [Remember an inciting incident can occur by cause or coincidence] A random and indifferent act of the natural world (the weather doesn’t care about Dorothy) jump-starts the Story. Dorothy didn’t cause the cyclone. It just coincidentally came to her place in the prairie.

A progressive complication that soon follows is that not only is Dorothy far from home, but her arrival has significantly altered the new world she’s just entered. The turning point of this complication is the discovery of the dead Wicked Witch of the East, squashed beneath Dorothy’s house. This is a revelatory turning point. Turning points in complications happen either through revelation (Hey look, the Witch is dead!) or through character action. Dorothy didn’t personally smite the witch. She didn’t actively confront and kill her.

Now the progressive complication that the witch is dead and that Dorothy is responsible for her death (even though it was an accidental one) raises a Story crisis. Dorothy learns that the Wicked Witch of the East had enslaved the Munchkins and with her death comes freedom for an entire civilization. The Munchkins are beyond grateful to her and see her as a Goddess/Sorceress. They offer her sanctuary.

Now the crisis question (remember crises boil down to questions that make the protagonist choose a course of action) that arises is: Should Dorothy stay with the Munchkins or set out to find a way home?

The climax of the scene is of the best bad choice variety. If Dorothy stays with the Munchkins, she’ll never get home. If she leaves, she may very well lose her way or worse ,die in the desert.

Dorothy chooses to leave. That’s the climax of the scene.

The Resolution is Dorothy’s preparations to leave (getting bread and water) and her literal departure from Munchkin Country.

Pretty simple stuff.

But what are the equivalent Five Commandments of Storytelling  for Big Idea Nonfiction?

My gut is that for Big Idea nonfiction, the Five Commandments are still very much in play. Except that they are wrapped around and enveloped inside the methodology of the foundation of all natural knowledge, The Scientific Method.

The Scientific Method has been with us probably since consciousness itself—kind of like Storytelling. I can imagine a caveman with a walking stick seeing lightening strike a dry patch of dead wood using the Scientific Method to transfer the fire from the field back to his cave to keep his wife and kids warm. Or maybe that’s just an old Flintstones episode stuck in my head…

The Scientific Method itself became more and more rationally delineated by guys like Aristotle with his deep thinking on logic (inductive and deductive reasoning) and then Epicurus, Ptolemy, Ibn al-Haytham, Al-Biruni, Ibn Sina, Robert Grossetese, Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Gallileo, Newton etc. etc.  Higher education’s History of Science curriculum around the world dive deeply into its evolution.

But for our purposes, here is my nutshell breakdown of The Scientific Method:

  1. QUESTION A PHENOMENON See something puzzling and ask a question.
  2. INVESTIGATE ANSWERS Gather research from others who have asked a similar question
  3. ANSWER THE QUESTION YOURSELF Critically evaluate the research and guess your own answer to the question.
  4. TEST YOUR ANSWER Test the guess with an experiment you’ve devised or gather results of experiments that have already been done addressing a similar question.
  5. CONFIRM OR REVISE YOUR ANSWER Analyze the results from the experiments and revise your answer


Hmm. Let’s take a look again at the global definitions of our Five Commandments of Storytelling and compare them to the five part Scientific Method.

  1. The Inciting Incident must upset the life balance of the protagonist/s in the Story in such a way that they take action to return to equilibrium.
  2. Progressive Complications are escalating degrees of conflict that face the protagonist from the beginning of his journey to the end—things get harder and harder.
  3. The Crisis in a story boils the protagonist’s dilemma down to a question that he must answer to move forward.
  4. The Climax in a story is the active choice the protagonist makes. We see him actually do the thing he has decided to do after facing crisis.
  5. The Resolution in a story is the resultant fallout from the action…it explains what happened after the choice.

So here’s what I’m thinking about the Five Commandments of Storytelling for Big Idea Nonfiction:

  1. Inciting Incidents in Big Idea Nonfiction revolve around the protagonist’s (author) question/s about a particular phenomenon.
  2. Progressive Complications in Big Idea Nonfiction are represented by the author’s research results about how others have looked at the same or similar phenomenon.
  3. The Crisis in Big Idea Nonfiction is the moment when the protagonist author answers the question raised by the Inciting Incident.
  4. The Climax in Big Idea Nonfiction is when the protagonist author tests his answer.
  5. The Resolution in Big Idea Nonfiction is a convincing recap of the evidence collected to answer the question raised by a particular phenomenon and of how the protagonist/author has made sense of it.

Okay, so now I have some thoughts about how to address Inciting Incident, Progressive Complication, Crisis, Climax, and Resolution in Big Idea Nonfiction.  Now I just have to test my answers.

More to come.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of the Storygridding The Tipping Point posts and The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.

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Shawn Coyne

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the ’70s and the Fight For America’s Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.