How to Spreadsheet Your Novel

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[0:00:00.5] 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 the Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

In this episode, we go over in detail how to use the Story Grid spreadsheet to analyze your novel. This is what I am in the middle of with my second draft. Shawn and I went through it and talked about the different columns in your spreadsheet and we went over some specific questions I had on making sure I’m filling it out right.

This next series as we look at my second draft I think is going to be really helpful as you get a chance to see the Story Grid tools in use, and so we’re going to be getting really nerdy as we dive into them. If you enjoy the nerdy part of Story Grid, which I’m sure as most of you out there, then you’re really going to enjoy these episodes and the ones to come. Let’s jump in and get started.

[EPISODE]

[0:00:00.5] TG: So Shawn, I’m a little over half way through spreadsheeting my second draft. I’ve been trying to fill out the foolscap as I do that as well. It’s interesting going back through – well, one is this is like hard work. I don’t know, because one of the things we talked about at some point was just the value shifts, getting this to this, right? Danger to safety, or those things that third or fourth column.

Actually, why don’t we start first so people know what we’re talking about, just talk a little bit about what the spreadsheet is, what it’s for and maybe describe the first few columns, and then I have some questions as I’ve been working through it.

[0:01:59.9] SC: Okay. Sure. Okay, so just to take a giant leap backwards, the whole genesis of the Story Grid came about from me trying to figure out a way to help writers make their books better. After I had acquired a book, I needed to work with a writer and explain to them in a short amount as possible how to evaluate the work that they already did and to fix the bugs in the system that could make the book better.

There were two strategies, because there are two global ways of looking at a work of a story or a novel. The first one is the global big picture, which is just looking at the big, big movements of the story; beginning, middle and end, having a very big broad understanding of whether or not the global story is working. That is represented by the Story Grid foolscap page, which boils down the entire story into one legal size yellow piece of paper and it goes through just the big 15 global scenes that have to be in the work. Now that is one level of analysis.

The second level of analysis is all about the micro-detail of each and every scene. You see how I’m dividing the problems of story into separate buckets. The first big bucket is the global story and that’s the foolscap global Story Grid. The second bucket is the Story Grid spreadsheet, which is all about tracking the scene-to-scene movement of your story, to make sure that each scene is A, working and working means abiding the five commandments of storytelling. Secondly, to track the continuity of the story itself.

For example on Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen brilliantly, the continuity in that story is off the charts, perfectly specific. It begins some time after Michaelmas, which is the middle of September and it ends about 15 months later. You can literally track every scene and the movement of time throughout the novel. It’s brilliantly done, it’s impeccable.

Okay, so the continuity is one element. I think what you’re talking about in the Story Grid spreadsheet is these first couple of columns. Generally, the bottom line of the spreadsheet is there are 14 columns in the spreadsheet and there are iterations of the spreadsheet, like Anne Hawley, one of our Story Grid editors, she has one that goes for 20 columns and she includes the five commandments. I’ve got like a PhD level of spreadsheet, which is even wackier that goes for 35 columns. Those are all different levels of analysis that you can get into if you really want to.

Let me just say this again with the Story Grid; now the Story Grid, you can go as deeply into it as you want, or as globally as you want and you should not let it overwhelm you. Because the bottom line is if people read your story, they enjoy your story, it works, they tell their friends about it, you have a working story. Now can it become better? Yeah, sure. You don’t want to spend your entire life working on one manuscript.

People who fall into the abyss of the Story Grid methodology, I have great sympathy for them because I do myself, but you always have to remember you only want to bring out this toolbox if you absolutely have to. The bottom line of the spreadsheet, the 14-column spreadsheet will really serve you well. Yes, it’s a hell of a lot of work to do just filling out those 14 columns. I’m actually editing a novel now, which you and I will publish down the road that’s fantastic, but is a 160,000 words and I’m going scene by scene. I’m lucky if I do three scenes a day, because this is very intense.

All right, so the first column is just the scene number, the chronological order of the number. The second column is the word count; how many words are in that specific scene? Again, I always recommend between 1,500 to 2,500, or less is a very nice level that somebody can read quickly and enjoy and get everything they can at it.

The third column is the story event. Now the story event is what actually happens in the scene, what shifts in the scene. If you had to boil down the scene into the fewest possible words, what would that story event be? For you, the first scene of your novel, it would be something like Jesse gets caught stealing credits, right? That’s enough. That tells you, oh, it’s really a reference point for you when you’re going through. Oftentimes, people use index cards and they put the story event on each index card and then add other things as they go along, so they can track the scene.

Okay, now the column after the story event is the value shift. That’s what you just mentioned. Now every scene has to have a shift and value. It has to start someplace and another place. What you’re really looking at here is the value at stake in the scene. Somebody is in danger at the beginning of the scene and they find some relative safety by the end of the scene, the scene has shifted. It’s shifted from a negative danger at the beginning to a positive safety. That’s what you want to be able to track in each one of your scenes.

The next column after value shift is the polarity shift. That’s literally a negative/ to a positive. Or a positive to a negative, or a negative to a double negative. Sometimes something can get even worse, somebody’s in danger and they get into even greater danger. That works. Or a positive to a double positive. Somebody meets the love of their life and then the love of their life tells them that they’re enamored with them too. That moves from a positive to a double positive, so it doesn’t have to go from positive to negative, negative to positive. It can also be varying degrees of on the spectrum of negative and varying degrees on the spectrum of positive. Now, I’m going to stop there because I think that’s where your question lines, right?

[0:08:43.6] TG: Yeah, because I can – obviously the scene and word count and story event are pretty easy to fill out. Then I’m also filling out the following five, so the turning – well, did you talk about the turning point?

[0:08:58.6] SC: No. Let me get to that now. All right, so after the polarity shift, then I have the column of the turning point. Now the turning point has to do with the five commandments of storytelling. As we all know, the five commandments of storytelling are number one, is the inciting incident, number two are progressive complications, number three is the crisis, number four is the climax, number five is the resolution. Where the turning point comes in smack dab in the middle of those five commandments.

The turning point is the last progressive complication right before the crisis. It’s the complication that gives rise to the crisis. It’s the place where the value shifts. It’s the moment of truth in the scene where a complication arises in such a way that it gives rise to the crisis question and it shifts the polarity of the scene. Turning points can either be action, meaning somebody’s behavioral, or physical behavior or active behavior gives rise to a shift in the value.

For example, somebody’s in danger, someone arrives and grabs them and pulls them out of the sinking ship. That would be an active turning point in the scene where the value has shifted from danger to safety and it has happened through the complication of a rescuer arriving, providing aide and literally pulling somebody out of the water.

Now the scene wouldn’t be over necessarily, because there could be a crisis that arises after the saving. Anyway, I’m not going to get into my hypothetical scene that I just made up on the fly. That’s generally what the action turning point requires; somebody actively does something that changes the value of the scene.

In another way, the other way to turn a scene is through a revelation. A revelation is a verbal action. It’s when someone brings new information to light that changes the value of the scene. For example, I always use this one and it’s an easy one. In Chinatown, there’s a great moment when the detective confronts the femme fatale and says, “Tell me the truth about this girl.” She says, “She’s my sister and my daughter.” That is a revelation that absolutely turns not only that scene, but the entire story on its head. The detective comes to realize that the femme fatal gave birth to her sister, meaning she was raped by her father, which was a massive revelation, a massive turning point. He’s confronting her and now he has to protect her. It completely shifts the dynamic of the scene and the global story at the same time.

That’s the turning point. It’s not one of the five commandments, but maybe I should make it one. It’s like the sixth commandment, because it comes right before the value shift. It’s a progressive complication that’s either an action or a revelation that turns the value of the scene. You want to on your spreadsheet, I put it in the spreadsheet, because you want to be able to pinpoint exactly when shifts.

If you can’t find the turning point in your scene, either your value never shifts, or you never directly make it clear to the reader when that actually happens, or you have a really weak value of moving from uninformed to informed. A lot of people have a lot of scenes like that, where someone – it’s basically an exposition scene, where someone just gets some information. Now does it shift? Yeah, technically from shifts from someone who doesn’t have all the information at the beginning of the scene and at the end of the scene they have more information, but it’s such a weak value shift that often you can’t even find the turning point. Those are really easy to find when you’re looking at story scene-to-scene using the spreadsheet.

They might fly through your brain when you’re going globally and just reading through your book. When you are required to really look at each scene individually and point out each one of these elements, these things don’t get past your eye. It’s like a microscope and all of a sudden, you can see the little uni-cellular organisms. Whereas, if you don’t have a microscope before you can never see them.

After the turning point, the next column is the point of view. The point of view is usually  consistent throughout the story, but you must put it in there, because oftentimes we accidentally will change the point of view. Now point of view is very simple. It’s either the first person, meaning – Let me tell you a story, my name is Jim and when I was a little boy the following things happened to me. That’s a first-person story where you have a real narrator telling you the story, like The Great Gatsby is written in the first person from the point of view of Nick Carraway. You want to track that.

Another massive use of point of view is the third-person omniscient, where you have an other-worldly presence that’s telling you the story, like a Charles Dickens story. Once a upon a time, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Then he goes on to tell you a story and the narrator takes on authorial voice, or a godlike narrative structure. Third-person omniscient is used a lot.

Then one of my favorite ones is free and direct style, which is a combination plate between third-person omniscient and first person. In that way, you have the global narrator and then occasionally, they will let you hear the thoughts of a single protagonist in the story. You can’t have multiple free and direct style and that’s a lot of – a lot of people make that mistake, so you really want to track that.

What I mean like, you can’t have multiple characters, you can’t hear the thoughts of multiple or it confuses the reader. You can only do it one-time. In Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris, he allows us to hear the thoughts of Clarice Starling, who is the protagonist of the novel. Technically, he does let us hear us Jack Crawford’s thoughts, but only when it’s Jack Crawford alone in a single scene.

I know I just said you can never do that, but if you’re Thomas Harris, you can do it and it can work. You really need to have a level of craft that is really up there at a level that most of us don’t have.

After the point of view, then you get into what I call the continuity columns, which are basically just making sure that you’re mixing up your storytelling work in a way that makes sense. The next column is period time. That would mean, like if say a time travel novel where the character moves from the 21st century to the 16th century, the period would be whatever the scene is, so it would be 16th century, let’s say French provincial town. The period would be the century, or even the year, or the month and period/time would be September 1st, 1593 provincial town of whatever in France.

You would want to list that and you would really want to be specific about it, because the more specific you are, the tighter the focus your reader will have. If it’s just generic and you never tell exactly what time it is, you really need to make a choice about that. Either be super specific about it, or explain sort of, long ago and far away in another galaxy, right? That’s the beginning of Star Wars. Long ago and far away in another galaxy, something similar to that.

What George Lucas did when he wrote that was he was establishing time and place and he was saying, “I’m not going to tell you the year because it’s not going to make any sense.” Let me get that off the table right now. This story takes place long ago, far away in another galaxy. Once the reader of the viewer has that in their mind they’re like, “Oh, okay. I’m along for the ride. I don’t need to know it’s 1923,” but you need to firmly establish that.

Even when you do that, you have to have a consistent linear movement of time in the story, so that when we go through the Star Wars storyline, I mean there’s a trilogy and then there’s the pre-story and the sequels that all have a very straightforward time-passing sequence of events. That’s the importance in this column, so that you can track to make sure that you don’t make a big mistake and all of a sudden, move 50 years in the future without ever warning the reader. Then you lose them, because you haven’t made that clear to them.

The next column is duration. Duration is just means how long is this scene taking place? If it’s two people having a cup of coffee, it’s probably 15 to 20 minutes. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you should have a general idea. If instead it’s a battle that begins in the morning and ends three days later, we need to know that too.

For duration, you would something like 30 minutes if it’s a two-person scene. If it’s an epic battle scene, you might be like three and a half hours, or 27 minutes or whatever it would be. As long as you can figure out how long that scene works, you will inform the next round of editing. When you go back to it you’ll be like, “Oh, the duration is this. Wow, this is really going on a long time. I need to trim or I need to expand.”

The next column is the location. Where is this scene happening? It could be the corner coffee shop on 14th street and 7th avenue in Manhattan in 1986. The coffee shop is called Twin Donut. Knowing that specific element will help you as a writer, because guess what happens, if you can literally see in your mind a specific place and time, like I can think of that Twin Donut coffee shop on 14th Street and 8th Avenue right now. That thing has been shut down for 26 years. When I just came up with that idea about two people having coffee, where would they have coffee? If it’s set in the 1980s, they would have it on the corner of 14th Street and 8th Avenue and it would across the street from that old bank and they would have cream-filled donut in the window and they would be probably sitting on the stools that overlooked that avenue.

All in that one second, microsecond all of that stuff comes back to me and informs me as a writer. If you can think of those moments and those places from your own personal life and use those memories to inform your work, it makes them so specific that the readers or the viewers will immediately believe it, because it does have a level of factual otherness that’s already built into it, so that’s location.

Then the last four columns, the first one is on-stage characters. Meaning, who is literally on the stage? Who is talking in the scene? Who is present? You want to list them. The reason why you want to list them is that you don’t want to have 36 scenes that only have two people in them. Because guess what? It gets really boring and repetitive. Oh, not another scene at the coffee shop at Twin Donut on 8th Avenue and 14th Street. You don’t want your reader to start to feel that way. You want to list them, so that you can really track to see that you’re mixing up the social world that you are trying to portray.

You look at a novel like Pride and Prejudice and it begins with a couple of people on a walk, or talking in a drawing room. Then it moves to a very big party. The whole town shows up for this party. It moves from very intimate, one-on-one conversation to a big event, back again and forward and all different levels of and numbers of people in the particular scene. Literally, you want to count them, so that if you don’t want to look at all the people, you can just, “Oh, I have a nine-person scene here. This is great. I should follow it up with something like a two or three scene.”

Then the last two columns are the off-stage characters and the number of off-stage characters. Off-stage characters are when one of the characters who’s on stage refers to somebody who’s not there. This is a great way of reminding yourself to set up particular people that might not arrive for several scenes down the road. If you have a scene where someone says, “Well, my Great Aunt Bertha is due in town in three weeks and I don’t know what to do.” Then the reader in their mind sticks this pin in their mind that says, “Oh, I wonder what this Aunt Bertha is all about.” Then when you finally do introduce Aunt Bertha, the reader will feel as if they already know the character.

Oftentimes, people will begin their novel with a cast of thousands. It can be very, very disorienting for a reader, because they can’t track everyone. Oftentimes, what you’ll find is that the beginnings of novels, or the beginnings of films begin at a level that is very manageable for the reader. It’s got one character, or two characters. For your scene, the beginning of your novel, it begins with Jesse. She’s on the move. She’s robbing a house. We can follow and track that one character as opposed to beginning with The Battle of Waterloo, where you’ve got a thousand people on the stage, if not more.

It’s not to say that you can’t do the big amazing set piece, but you have to be very, very skilled so as not to disorient your reader before they even get into your story. You got to remember, you got to bring them into a warm bath, a familiar terrain, a sort of hey, come along with me and I’m going to tell you a story. The story begins this way. It begins with a young girl who doesn’t really know what to do herself. To mark time, she enjoys going to rob people. Which is this is a really nice way to start your story, because a lot of people say that the hero’s journey begins with a crime. Jesse actually committing a crime at the beginning of the story is pretty good.

I mean, Dickens did a really nice job with Olive Twist, where he begins with a crime too. He becomes part of that group. Anyway, I’m getting off track. Those are the 14 columns in the spreadsheet. As you said, is it a lot of work to go through every single scene in your book? Usually, there are 60, and to fill out the spreadsheet? You’re damn right it does.

What it does do is it gives you such a clear familiarity with your story that it will show you all of the places that need work and it will teach you how to make sure that you’re telling a linear story, or you’ve got your time period right and its continuity is fresh and all that stuff. More importantly, it will tell you if your scene turns, if your scene is actually about a value shift. If it’s not, then you know you have to rewrite it.

[0:25:41.6] TG: Okay. I’ve run into a couple questions as I’ve gone through this. I’ll start with I think some easy ones. On the duration. Several of mine have several durations, but there is time jumps in between, right? Some are – this happens and the next scene picks right back up and keeps going and then picks right back up. Then some of them, it’s been a week in between. Should I be keeping track of that in the duration as well?

[0:26:12.6] SC: Yes. Because generally what you want to be able to do is if there’s some weird guy like me who comes to you and says, “Tell me about your story. How long does the story last?” You would go, “What do you mean?” Well, when the story begins, it begins on a particular time and place and day. We’re assuming that we’re telling a story that abides the Newtonian laws of physics on earth, right? How long does it happen?

You would say, “Well, I’m not really sure. Probably like six months? I’m not sure.” That’s a really big red flag, because if you’re the writer and you haven’t fully sussed out actual – well this is – it’s Thursday. Tomorrow would be the day that X happens. If you think I’m crazy, then you have to know this, just check out Pride and Prejudice. Because Jane Austen accounts for every minute over a period of 15 months. Trust me, because I checked.

[0:27:13.3] TG: You’re that guy.

[0:27:14.1] SC: I’m that guy. The reason why I checked is I said, “Okay, so she’s – why did she mention Michaelmas in the very early stages of the novel? Why would she mention that? Now Michaelmas is it happens at the same time every year. It’s a British holiday that happens around the middle of September every single year.

The reason why she used Michaelmas was to instead of saying in the late fall, she said, “When Michaelmas –” She has one of the characters refer to Michaelmas. What that does, it’s a little Easter Egg that tells you what time this is all happening. Bingley comes to the country at the end of September. If you track the story from that point forward scene by scene, they all get married at Christmas the following year.

The entire universe of Pride and Prejudice occurs over a 15-month period and you can literally go from scene-to-scene and know at what time the characters are leaving. You can know, “Oh, this must be September. This must be December. This must be January. This must be March.” If you know that the entire story, let’s say – I mean, have you thought it through?

Let’s say the severing – the threshing happens every six years. Before the threshing, they start bringing in recruits to become the best people that they can put up for the threshing when? When do they start training for the big threshing? Two years before? Three years before? Four years before? The day after the threshing? When? Because if you know that and you know the time period, then you can add so much drama and stakes to your story and all with one little sentence.

Even though, something like well, the other members of the American faction had been training since three years prior. Jesse, and so it makes her stumbling into the extraordinary world at a critical moment all the more critical. If everybody else has been training for two years and she shows up and they’ve already begun the severings, she didn’t have two years of training that these other people had.

It’s implying to the reader, this girl is gifted, this girl has something extra special that these other idiots that have been training there for two years don’t have. She doesn’t even know it, right? Maybe it’s a secret how long they’ve been training. Who knows? It’s up to you as the writer. How many times, when the severings happen, do they have the severings just before the threshing, so that these people are their confidence is high?

If you imagine that you’ve survived three really intense severings and you just won the third severing and you made it, wouldn’t the faction then want to put them immediately into the threshing? Because it’s almost like after you’ve run your fastest quarter-mile, don’t you want to run three days later at the event? Because you’ve reached your limits of your capacity at a very important time, so you want to be able to the next day exploit that.

You don’t want to sit around for three months after you’ve had your best time and then go, right? It’s almost like building these athletes up to this moment of critical capacity and then throwing them into the furnace. This is good stuff to know, right? If you  k now the structure of how these geniuses have figured out how to psychologically manipulate these young kids into performing during this threshing, then you can with very, very minimal language load all that information back into your draft in moments of well, she’s only – she’s only in her first quarter. These guys have been here for seven quarters. I can’t believe that she was able to figure out that burning down the tower when these idiots have been here so long. Something like that.

The question you said is if there’s a gap of time that there’s a week between a scene, you either need to come up with some device that tells the reader that, or you need to through the language or the structure of the scene refer to the week passing. You need the reader to really have a conscious understanding, a subconscious understanding of the duration of time.

[0:31:49.0] TG: Okay. I need to track. I need to track in that column, both the duration of that scene and the duration of time before the scene, between the scenes.

[0:31:58.8] SC: I would. Yeah.

[0:31:59.7] TG: Okay. What I’ve been doing as I fill this out, so I fill out the first three; the scene and word count, that’s easy. The story event, pretty easy. Then I can usually catch the turning point. I’ve had to think and reread a couple times to pick my turning point. Then once I know the turning point, I know what it turns on, action or revelation. Point of view is easy. Period in time, all of those get pretty just writing down what’s already there.

In the polarity shift, I can figure out pretty easy, but the value shift what to put in there to me is consistently the hardest thing to figure out exactly what shifts. Part of me feels like, because this was going to be another question is basically how do I keep from lying to myself that something actually shifted when it didn’t? The other is what language to use in there? Because I know in the past, I’ve done 10 scenes that are safe to unsafe, or unsafe to safe. When we went through it before you’re like, “Well, it’s right but it’s not overly specific.”

I’m trying to get more specific, but then I’m not – my very first one is so the first scene is not when Jesse gets caught. That’s actually the third scene. The first scene is just an action scene to set up the world and set up what she does. She steals and gets away with it, or so she thinks. At the very end of the scene is when she actually ducks into the sewers and she’s gone.

The turning point was when she should have left, but she stayed to completely – she had stolen enough and she was running short on time, but she stayed and put herself in danger to completely wipe them out. The reason she did was because she hates the people that have all the money. I put that it turned when she decided to stay instead of leave, then the value shift became okay, is it survival to what was – I have survival to revenge, or helpless to control? I was having trouble putting in the words.

I felt like, okay it’s pretty clear when her compatriot tells her, “You have to leave,” and she decides to stay. It’s showing something about her, right? Which is the point of the turn, but now I’m trying to decide well, how do I put that into words what the turn is? Do you understand what I’m struggling with?

[0:34:44.5] SC: Yeah. Yeah. This is an indication of your growing as a writer, because –

[0:34:50.1] TG: The fact that I don’t know what to do.

[0:34:52.3] SC: No, no, no, no, no. You’re absolutely on the money in terms of deliberating what value shift to write down. I think that’s a very good sign, because in a perfect world there would be a resource that would have the value of safety. Again, I’m referencing Anne Hawley here twice, but I came up with these ideas of the spectrums of value. Anne actually put them on a spectrum value on some resources that the Story Grid editors have for our cheat sheets.

I think it’s a really, really great tool. If you were to think of in terms of splicing and dicing our language, what levels of vulnerability are there? Can you move from one level of vulnerability to even more vulnerable level, or a less vulnerable level and can you put that on a big long spectrum? When you’re talking about what to write down for the value shift, you start exploring the language that we use at a really great level. You’re saying, “Well, is it specifically her moving from vulnerability to – or from safety to vulnerability, or is it more about what’s motivating her to do that?”

Should I put down, say she resents. Her personal thing is she resents the wealthy in her society so much, that she’s willing to risk capture. That is a great character indication of what she’s about. If you choose something like safe to vulnerable, you’re not dealing with a deeper psychological character motivation. If you put something like tactical to emotional, right? She’s letting her emotional part of herself dictate her behavior as opposed to her practical intellectual part, which is go in there and steal credits, get as many as you can and get out of there before you get caught.

She’s crossed a line in order to wipe out these rich people, because she resents them so much. If you put the value shift, that’s a little less specific you might forget that element. If you put something like careful to emotional, or again, I don’t have it right off at the top of my head. It requires some thought. That’s the beauty of the Story Grid spreadsheet and also the great taxing nature of it is it makes you really, really think about the intention of the scene.

This scene is about establishing her as a thief, but it’s also establishing her character. My big point to you, the big point, the big takeaway here, it’s probably not going to matter in the grand scheme of things in terms of the global external genre, right? This is an action story. You’re selling it as an action story. It’s a labyrinth plot. People who come to this story are going to get it. She’s becoming vulnerable out of some choice that she’s made internally. Fine, whatever. Move on.

If you’re really starting to going down to the deeper levels of characterization and you put the value shift that has to do with her moving from very practical intellectual choice to emotionally charge choice, then that will help you later on in the book when her emotional choices become more evolved and she understands that she has a deeper level of understanding of the world. I don’t know how well I’m answering your question.

[0:38:47.8] TG: Again, I fill in every other column and then I come back to turning point, polarity shift and value shift. I usually fill in the turning point and polarity shift and I just sit there and stare at the screen, while I try to figure out what the value shift is. I think feel a little bit more based on when we talked a couple weeks ago, I feel like this is the version of the book that will become the final version of the book, if that makes sense.

It’s like, now is the time to think about all this stuff, because the next rewrite should basically be taking the story that’s already there and just amping it up in all the ways it needs to be amped up, but the story is there.

[0:39:30.5] SC: All right, I’m going to give you an answer that I think I make sense, and it all goes to genre, okay? Mow we all know that a value shift inside a particular scene does not have to move on the global value at stake. Now the global value at stake in an action story is life and death. When you’re trying to suss out what the value shift is in an individual scene and you hit a wall, like you have, think about that scene in terms of whether or not the global genre that you have chosen is externally, or internally driven.

Because your story, if you had to put a cover on this book, you would put an action cover on it, you wouldn’t put a maturation plot on it, right? You wouldn’t put a field in, like the standard coming-of-age story. You wouldn’t have a jacket like that on this book. You would have guns and stuff. That means that because you chose an external genre, you should probably track the value shift in terms of the external story. For this scene, it would be in control to vulnerable, right? Don’t you think?

[0:40:43.5] TG: Okay. I had survival to revenge.

[0:40:48.3] SC: Survival and revenge are not in the same spectrum of value, right? If you look at revenge, the spectrum of value would be what’s the opposite of revenge? It would be, I don’t know off the top of my head. It would be cooperation.

[0:41:04.8] TG: I kept having to Google antonyms.

[0:41:06.9] SC: Yeah. Well, this is part being a writer. It’s really, really hammering home if we have all these spectrum values. When I talk about spectrum, I’m talking about the spectrum of light. There’s ultraviolet light, there’s radiation, there’s green, there’s blue, there’s RGBIV, there’s all of those different fractured layers of light. You can look at language in the same – using the same metaphor.

The spectrum of value for life is yeah, there’s death, there’s unconsciousness, there’s super consciousness, there’s all kinds of different levels on the positive and negative spectrum. Revenge would be on probably the resentment –

[0:41:53.3] TG: Like forgiveness to revenge.

[0:41:55.8] SC: Yeah, something like that. Yeah. Or a resentment turns into – resentment would be being angry about someone and really not liking them, but not actively showing that. Revenge would be somebody has done something to you and betrayed you and you want your pound of flesh for that act. That would probably be on the betray – I don’t know. I don’t have it off the top my head.

This is the thing to remember is that when you’re dealing with stories, you’re dealing with language, which is not a fully completely objective science. It’s part of the humanities, right? The language is all about finding words that represent experiences, so that we can all share. Like when I say revenge, you go, “Oh, I get it.” Because in your mind, you start circling back about either a revenge story that you’ve read or seen on television or the time you got revenge on someone or whatever.

They’re all very subjective definitions, but we all share a global general idea of the word revenge. Let me get back to the answer, because I’m really going down a rabbit hole here. What I mean is if you were to say from in control to vulnerable, or safe to vulnerable, that would be indicative of the external action arena. If you were to say instead of cool customer to resentful, then that would be on an emotional internal plane that would have to do with her emotional state as the protagonist.

You’re talking about her external safety, as opposed to her internal state of mind. What I would suggest is because your global genre is an action story, that when you get stuck on your scenes is to look at it through the prism of the external story and not the internal character movement, even though you have a maturation plot moving in the same time. Now just to complicate things further, you could do two. You could do –

[0:44:17.5] TG: I was about to ask that question.

[0:44:18.7] SC: You could do two and that would be another level of analysis, if you really wanted to make sure that your internal genre was moving appropriately. In fact, it is what I’ve done when I do those Story Grid diagrams, I track Clarice Starling’s emotional point of view, as well as the external story, but that’s really again, it’s a process of someone being a nerd and enjoying the analytical process.

[0:44:50.9] TG: I mean, that’s what we do here. I don’t think that’s – I mean, so then that begs this question. Say I start tracking the value. Then I start wondering, okay, is this scene a turning on action scene, or is this scene a turning on – use better language. Is this scene a turning on external, or turning on internal? Can a scene turn on – can it have separate ones? One for internal and one for external?

[0:45:20.8] SC: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it absolutely turns on both.

[0:45:24.8] TG: Now would the same turning point be for both? Then I say at this point, it turned here externally and it turned from – shifted from here to here externally and from here to here internally?

[0:45:38.7] SC: I would have to really think through that. Generally, it probably would shift at the same time. The reason why is that the turning point, when we look at the world, we have two ways of looking at the world. We have the objective and the subjective, right? The objective world, for lack of a better – just to make a parallel here, the objective world is the scientific nature of things, the external factual things of life.

The objective world is the same as the external world. The subjective world is the same as the internal world. Objective facts are things that we can quantify. We can put a number on them. The human body can – all kinds of numbers could be correlated with the human body. There’s your body weight, there’s your IQ, there’s how many cells are in your body, there’s how many atoms are in your body. There’s all kinds of numbers that you can associate with the human body, right? Those numbers don’t tell you anything about the quality of the human body.

The way we look at the world in terms of quality is a subjective way of looking at the world. The subjective way of looking at the world would say the person is attractive, they’re a good person, they’re morally sound, they are funny, blah, blah, blah. Those are qualitative ways of evaluating the world. When we’re walking around every day, we don’t consciously know this, but this is what we do. We look at things objectively and subjectively at the exact same time.

If I’m on a desert island and I haven’t eaten anything, I would see a coconut objectively as a thing that fell from a tree that weighed three and a half pounds, that had hair on it, that would be my objective perception of a coconut. Subjectively, I would say that that would be the most precious thing that I had ever found on earth, right? It’s two things at the same time.

When we’re talking about a scene, there’s an objective external turning point, right? Then there’s the subjective internal turning point. With the coconut, those would both intersect when I opened up the coconut and ate it. The turning point would be grabbing the coconut and eat it and it would work on both the external objective and the internal subjective turning point. Because the coconut would cease to be a coconut after I opened it externally, right? It would then be a broken coconut, and then it would also be subjectively food.

[0:48:25.9] TG: Right. In this case, I could – it’s almost like switching between being an observer, what’s going on and having no idea what’s going on inside of Jesse. Then switching and being the person inside of Jesse, knowing her thoughts and knowing her motivation. From the outside, at that point in the story, she moves and I can – I’ll figure out to make it more specific, but she moves from safe to unsafe, right? She moves from if I leave now, I’ll be safe. Okay, she stayed, she’s less safe. That’s a positive to negative. Internally, it shifts as well and I could track that as well separately, because now, what’s driving it is also important on that level of the story. On the external level of the story, does it matter what’s driving it? What matters is it switched from safe to unsafe. Is that what you’re referring to?

[0:49:20.5] SC: Yes. Because you’re writing an action story, don’t kill yourself over the internal stuff yet. You might not even worry about it so much later on if the story works. This is funny, because a lot of times when I’ve worked with Steve, he’ll give me a manuscript and then I’ll write back and I’ll tell him all these internal shifts that he didn’t even recognize in his own stuff, because he was so busy making sure that the global external genre was working, that he wasn’t even really focusing on the internal. When I bring it up he’ll go, “Oh, my gosh. I didn’t even see that. You’re right. Wow. Holy cow. That’s amazing.”

[0:49:56.3] TG: I’m amazing.

[0:49:57.4] SC: Yeah. Like, “Oh, man. I’m a great writer. I didn’t know.” You can get to the place where you can rip out all of the magic by really going at this level. Again, sometimes you become a better writer when you understand what you’re doing more. Understanding both the external and the internal in terms of objective and subjective experience isn’t going to – you shouldn’t run away from it like, “Oh, I don’t want to know that because then it’ll ruin all my writing.” I absolutely don’t agree with that.

I think having a keen intellectual and analytical mind only helps you. It never hurts you. It will help you clarify your intentions. Sometimes we start writing things and we don’t know why we’re writing them and we just enjoy it. When someone says, “Well, what did you think you wrote that for?” We don’t want to go near it, because we don’t want to ruin the magic of it. It’s my contention that you’re not going to ruin it. In fact, what you’re going to do is discover things about yourself that you had no clue that you knew, or that you didn’t even understand that you were passionate and interested in.

It’s not something to run away from. It’s when you have the time and you’re really trying to level up your craft to think about this stuff. Then there is going to come a time when you have to draw a line and say, “You know what? I can really drive myself crazy if I track every internal turning point in this, when it’s an action story.” Let me keep to my knitting, make sure that my action – I’m hitting my action story points first. Then if I want to and I have the luxury of time, I can go back and check the internal, but I might not want to if it’s working really well. That’s absolutely reasonable.

To not even want to consider that element, which obviously you are if you wouldn’t have even asked the question, I think is limiting you as an intellectual and analytical being. The more you explore that very nitpicky analytical part of yourself, that isn’t just for your analytical self, it will help you in your imagination.

That moment when I – earlier in the podcast when I when I remembered Twin Donut on 8th Avenue and 14th Street and now I can picture entirely what that coffee shop looked like, and all the people I had coffee in there with, that came from this really weird analytical process that you and I are undergoing. It’s not worthless and wasteful and it’s not going to ruin your imagination. It’s actually going to enhance it.

[0:52:48.2] TG: Okay. Well, I’m going to keep rolling on this and I’m going to try to have this to you so we can discuss it on the next one. That way you can give me your overview of where it’s at and what we’ll do next.

[0:53:01.8] SC: Okay. Sounds good.

[0:53:03.0] TG: All righty. Thanks, Shawn.

[0:53:04.0] SC: Thanks. Talk to you soon.

[END OF EPISODE]

[0:53:06.3] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For those of you interested in the Story Grid editor certification training, that is coming up this coming February. We are still taking applications for that and you can see more information about that at storygrid.com/cert, C-E-R-T. storygrid.com/cert.

If you have wanted to dive really deep into Story Grid, learn more about how to put the practices and principles into play and also how you can work with other authors to help them with their editing as well, this is a training you’re not going to want to miss. It’s a week-long, it’s in-person, we’ll all be together here in Nashville. If you’re interested in that, go to storygrid.com/cert.

For everything else 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.

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[END]

About the Author

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. She’s been a Story Grid junkie since 2015 and became a certified editor so that she can help fellow authors, in all genres, become better storytellers.
Comments (5)
Author Valerie Francis

5 Comments

Monica T. Rodriguez (@docmon67) says:

I have been waiting for this episode for months! I have the same problem as Tim, with the value shift and how to qualify it. I think Shawn’s explanation makes sense, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to name my scenes’ value shifts any better. Shawn seems to come up with them easily, but I don’t know where he’s getting them from. What part of the scene tells you what the value shift is?
I’ve read that part of the Story Grid so many times. What am I missing?

Reply
pswrites says:

Hey Valerie, great episode here. Is there a spreadsheet template somewhere that I’m missing? I also have a question about genres, as it’s something Shawn is obviously quite serious about: is there a “genre bible” that Shawn or anyone else has done that covers at least the core genres but also the obligatory scenes? It seems like an obvious need but I don’t see anything like that anywhere.

Reply
Valerie Francis says:

The spreadsheet that Shawn and Tim are talking about is the Story Grid spreadsheet. There’s one in the back of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know (for Silence of the Lambs) and you can also check out our downloadable tools page here: https://storygrid.com/downloadable-tools/. Shawn has referenced the spreadsheet in a number of podcast episodes and there are several Fundamental Fridays articles that address it. With respect to genres and obligatory scenes and conventions, yes there are also several Fundamental Fridays articles and podcasts (both the Story Grid podcast and the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast) that cover those as well.

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