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Using the Story Grid Method from Start to Finish
One of the most common questions we get as Story Grid Certified Editors is, “Can the Story Grid method be used as a drafting tool?” The answer to that is a resounding yes! Our goal here is to take you through the process of using the Story Grid method from the first spark of an idea through to the final working draft of your story.
For those of you who listen to UP (the Un-Podcast) you’ll know that in addition to being an editor, I (Valerie) am also an author and Leslie is my editor. At the time of writing, I’ve been working on my latest novel, Immortal, for two years. For eighteen months of that time, I was heading in the wrong direction. I’d spent time choosing my global genre but after that I dove into the writing, occasionally looking up to draw upon parts of the Story Grid methodology. After a year and a half, my manuscript crashed and burned and it was time for me to re-evaluate my approach.
I sent myself back for a page one rewrite.
I needed to go back to first principles and the fundamentals of storytelling. After eighteen months of spinning my wheels, I used the existing Story Grid tools and methodology (properly this time) and within weeks, got my novel back on track. Suddenly the pieces of my story started to click into place and my writing gained momentum. I’m still writing the first draft, but I know the story works and I know that when I get to the end, the manuscript will be solid.
My novel is a non-linear story with multiple plotlines so I came up with a few new tools to help keep my narrative on track. I briefly go over those as well in case they’re of use to those of you also writing complex stories that are non-linear, or have multiple plotlines. They’d also be applicable to epic fantasies, or a multi-book series.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ve organized this post in a linear fashion as though the story idea happens first and the writing continues logically, step-by-step, through the first draft (whether you’re a pantser or a plotter) and the editing, to the finished working manuscript. Of course, creativity doesn’t work that way so you could find yourself entering this process at any point along the spectrum. That’s absolutely fine. All you have to do is work backwards and forwards from your starting point.
If you’re new to Story Grid, don’t worry. Throughout the article we’ve linked to other posts and podcast episodes that will help you understand the methodology in greater detail.
Above all else, remember this: Everything is in service of the story.
Your Story Idea
Some writers have so many ideas they wonder how they’ll ever be able to write them all. (I fall into this category.) Other writers get them one at a time. Ian Rankin begins a new novel each January 2 and begins the day by opening up a file folder of newspaper clippings he’s gathered over time. One of them will inevitably catch his eye and that’s what he writes about.
No matter how many plotlines are rolling around in your head, the initial spark of your idea likely came to you as some part of the story premise. It could have been your main character (as was the case for J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter series), the setting (which is how the Outlander series came to Diana Gabaldon), or the problem the character will face (as happened with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy).
The story premise is defined as a character in a setting with a problem.
Your idea could also come in the form of a “what if” question. That’s what happened with Andy Weir when he wrote The Martian. (What if someone was stranded on Mars?) Or you could be inspired by a writing prompt or challenge (as I was with Immortal), a core event idea, a narrator or narrative device.
Once you have an idea, take time to flesh out all three parts of the story premise before moving on. Remember, the premise is the main storyline of your novel. So often, writers struggle to articulate what their story is about. Their minds are a jumble of ideas and plotlines which means their manuscripts are a jumble as well. When you have a solid understanding of your premise, you’ll be able to test it effectively and turn it into a manuscript that works. Sure there’ll be other characters and other events happening in the novel, but the premise is the main thread running through it. Everything in your book exists to tell the story that is referenced in this premise.
Testing Your Story Idea
Before you spend the next two years of your life banging out a manuscript, you might want to test your story premise to see if it’s worth your time and to know if anyone is interested in reading your book once it’s done. Testing your story idea is a process that starts with a high-level global view and gradually works its way down to the scene level.
The Coffee Test
The first and easiest thing to do is to invite a friend (who happens to be your ideal reader) out for coffee and pitch your story to her. This method takes a little bit of practice, but it’s worth learning because once you get it working for you, you’ll instantly know if you’re on to something or not. The best part is that your friend won’t be able to fake her interest. She’ll either like it or she won’t. She’ll probably be polite even if your idea doesn’t hold water, but if you’ve got a winner, you’ll know it—her eyebrows will shoot up and she’ll lean in to hear more. It’s a bit like telling a joke; you know instantly whether the laugh you’re getting is genuine or fake.
I tried the coffee test for my last novel (in truth, it was more of a wine test and the “what if” question I floated now works wonders as sales copy), and for my next two novels (Leslie was intrigued by them both). My idea for Immortal started this way too, but when I ran the idea past Shawn he challenged me to go one better.
The Soup to Nuts Tests
Now that you’ve got a global story idea that’s of interest to a reader, it’s time to evaluate your story from beginning to end. There are two basic approaches here. One isn’t better than the other, they’re simply two different forms of assessment. You might lean toward one of them more naturally, or you might need to switch between them from project to project. The two options here are The Exploratory Draft and The Story Grid Drafting Tools.
The Exploratory Draft (for pantsers)
The exploratory draft is also known as Draft Zero and it’s ideal for writers who consider themselves “pantsers”. It allows you to free write without constraint, and to think through your story as you go. Here, you can let your imagination run wild and see what emerges. If this appeals to you, dive into your story premise and see what happens. Then, skip down to the “Editing Your Draft” section below.
Pro Tip: The exploratory draft works for every unit of story within your novel. Even if you’re a plotter, when you get stuck, try writing an exploratory draft of that part of the story to get the creative juices flowing again.
The Story Grid Drafting Tools (for plotters)
These tools help bring clarity to your idea. Your high-level story premise might have passed the coffee test, but now it’s time to drill down and see if you’ve got enough to sustain a reader’s interest through 80,000 or 100,000 words.
Yes, this takes time and requires significant mental energy but it’s much faster and much less exhausting than a page-one rewrite. Trust me on this.
What you’ll end up with is a rock solid outline that is infinitely malleable.
This is not about stifling your creativing by generating a blueprint. This is about inspiring innovation through constraints, while simultaneously setting yourself, and your story, up for success.
Not surprisingly, the Editor’s Six Core Questions (part one, part two) and the Story Grid Global Foolscap (part one, part two) factor heavily in this approach. As I used them to develop my idea, I gained a whole new appreciation for them. The storytelling principles they highlight weren’t chosen randomly. Each part of these two documents is vital to the success of your story, so consider them carefully. As you do, observe how they work together.
Of course, they were developed as editing tools to evaluate a manuscript that had already been written. As I began to layer in details of my story idea, I discovered that in the drafting phase, I needed to develop additional tools to help me bring shape to the ethereal ideas running through my mind.
Editor’s Writer’s Six Core Questions
The topics included in the Editor’s Six Core Questions are genre, conventions and obligatory scenes, point of view and narrative device, objects of desire, theme and controlling idea, and the beginning, middle and end. As an editing tool, they’re brilliant and will help you decode even the most complicated story. As a writing tool, they’re indispensable. These are the pillars that your story stands on, and if even one is missing your story will implode. I’d made a firm decision on one area (the global genre), but the other five were wobbly and well, you know how that turned out.
When you’re planning your story (based on the premise you identified), you can work through these six questions in any order you like. In fact, you’ll probably toggle back and forth between them as you go, refining the answer to one as you learn about another. However, I strongly recommend choosing the global genre first because the genre sets up reader expectations, informs the other five questions and influences every other aspect of the narrative. The global genre is your north star.
Your job is to decide which genre will help you tell your story best, and you can pick any one you want. As we saw on the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast, Hidden Figures is an excellent example to study. The filmmakers could have gone in any number of directions but they chose performance as the global genre because they wanted to highlight the women’s contributions and extraordinary skills on the job.
How do you find your genre?
This answer won’t surprise you. You find your genre by reading widely and deeply. You’ll likely know the ballpark you’re playing in so can start by eliminating the genres that are clearly off the mark. For example, you’ll know that the premise is likely a crime story or thriller, but is definitely not a love or society story. So, once you’ve identified two or three possible global genres, consume multiple stories in those genres (film, television and novels) and compare them to the idea in your head. Think about which one will help you tell your story best. When you figure out the main genre category, repeat the process to find the sub-genre.
There is no quick fix here. You’ve got to do the work. There is no way to cut the corners and no one else can do it for you. It took me four months to decide that what I’m writing is a psychological thriller rather than a horror, and it was four months well-spent.
CONVENTIONS AND OBLIGATORY SCENES
When a reader picks up a book, she expects certain things from it. She may not be able to articulate what those things are, but she’ll know if they’re missing. For example, if it’s a love story, she’ll expect to find some characters who support the relationship and others who don’t. Those are conventions. They operate as constraints that set up conflict in your story and they’re determined by the global genre.
Each of the content genres also has a series of obligatory scenes, which are moments of significant, global life-value change within the story. They include unexpected events (for example, an inciting incident), revelations (for example, the All Is Lost Moment) or actions (for example, a climax) that pay off the expectations set up by the conventions. Like conventions, these are moments your reader will expect to see in your story.
You may not know the specifics of what the conventions and obligatory scenes will look like in your novel (for example, you might not know what all the red herrings will be), but if you take the time to get a general sense of them and how they’ll function, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favour. Not only will you be ensuring that your book will meet reader expectations, but you’ll be creating constraints. The more constraints you have to work with, the more focus you’ll be able to develop, and the more opportunity you’ll have to innovate. If you need a ticking clock in your story, what kinds of clocks can you create and how will each of those options impact the story? In the film The Invisible Man (2020) the clock arrives toward the end of the middle build and serves to propel the story into the ending payoff.
How do you know what the conventions and obligatory scenes are for your genre? The Story Grid Editor Roundtable studied all twelve content genres in each of the first two seasons of the podcast, so you can find them listed in the show notes.
A word of warning however. Having a list won’t necessarily solve your problems. You’ve got to know what to do with the conventions and obligatory scenes and what purpose they serve in a story, and you learn that by studying other stories in your genre to see how other writers have tackled them.
Don’t forget that sub-genres often have additional conventions and obligatory scenes, so you’ll need to know those as well.
POINT OF VIEW AND NARRATIVE DEVICE
This is a biggie, and not taking the time to consider it in advance is one of the main reasons for the colossal crash-and-burn of my first draft. It threatened to derail my second draft as well.
If genre is what your story is about, point of view (POV) and narrative device are how you deliver it to your reader. Who is telling your story, to whom, and why?
Point of view is typically first person, third person limited or third person omniscient. Writers often don’t know why they chose one over the other, but it’s important to study the pros and cons of each option and then make a conscious choice. The narrative will be very different depending on how much the narrator knows. It will also be very different depending on who the narrator is talking to. For example, when my teenage daughter tells me what happened at the party last night, she’ll give me one version of events. When she tells her bestie, she’ll be giving a very different story.
The narrative device is the situation, or the way in which the story is being told. It could be an obvious device as in Bridget Jones’s Diary (Helen Fielding), or it could be far more subtle like “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (Alice Munro).
Why do you need to know this in advance, and how do you choose? Point of view changes your story dramatically. It can be the difference between a story that works, and one that doesn’t. To Kill A Mockingbird is a famous example. Harper Lee originally wrote it from an adult’s point of view but at the suggestion of her editor, Tay Hohoff, rewrote it from a child’s perspective. To find the POV that works best for your novel, you may have to experiment. Naturally, reading widely and deeply will help you see the different options in action, and you’ll begin to notice that some genres lend themselves more naturally to one POV more than another (this often has to do with narrative drive and the central dramatic question of your story).
Pro Tip: None of the choices an author makes when writing her novel are arbitrary. Authors are strategic. When you catch yourself making an arbitrary choice, it’s a sign that you either don’t know enough about the topic yet, or you haven’t given it enough thought.
OBJECTS OF DESIRE
Objects of desire refer to what your character wants and needs. This is directly tied to genre, character development, narrative drive (part one, part two, part three) and so much more.
At a very high level, objects of desire flow from the global genre. In an action story, the protagonist wants to survive. In a maturation story, she needs to grow up. That said, the specifics are up to you. This is where you reach into your imagination and, working within the constraints you’ve created through the other five core questions, you dream up wants and needs that are fresh and new but that make sense within the context of the story you’re telling. For me, discovering my protagonist’s specific want was the key to solving the point of view problem that destroyed my first draft.
What your character wants and needs must be crystal clear because your reader will be tracking it; she’ll be wondering whether your hero will get what he wants (that is, whether he’ll achieve his goal). In a love story, will the guy get the girl? In a crime story, will the detective catch the criminal? This of course frames the central dramatic question, which is the one main question your reader wants to know the answer to. It’s the reason readers keep reading. It’s the main catalyst for narrative drive.
When a character hits a crisis moment, the climactic decision will be determined by her objects of desire, and will in turn reveal who she truly is. (Character is revealed through action under pressure.) The character is going after a goal. The decision she makes in that moment will be determined by what she thinks will help her attain that goal.
Clear wants and needs are also essential for hooking the reader and creating empathy for your protagonist. If you don’t take the time to articulate them, your story will wander. It won’t have a central dramatic question and your reader won’t know what to track or cheer for.
THEME / CONTROLLING IDEA
Theme and Controlling Idea are two separate, yet related, concepts.
Your story needs to be about something. It doesn’t have to be deep or philosophical, but you do need to be very clear in your own mind about what it is. In The X-Files, the theme is The Truth Is Out There. Every romance novel ever written has the theme of Love Conquers All.
This is another area where I made a misstep in my first draft. I jumped to a conclusion that was incorrect. Since I’m writing a vampire story, I assumed that I was exploring the shadow self, and yes, that’s partially true. However, when I took the time to reflect on what the theme really was (i.e., immortality), suddenly the pieces of my story began to click into place.
Everything in your story is an expression of the theme, or the anti-theme. The protagonist, the antagonist and all the other characters, the title, the climax…everything. Steven Pressfield has an excellent series of articles about theme over on his Writing Wednesdays blog, or you can read What’s Your Story About? which is part of his JABs series.
The controlling idea identifies how the change is happening in the story. For example, justice prevails when the criminal is exposed and is held accountable for her crimes.
While controlling idea is dependent upon the genre, the theme is dependent upon the author. What idea do you want to explore? What do you want to say through your art? Since theme permeates every aspect of your story, you’d be wise to give it some serious thought. What are the themes of your favourite novels? What kinds of themes do your favourite authors explore? Given the premise of your story, what kinds of questions can you raise with your story and how many different perspectives can you offer?
I want to be clear: this is not about telling your reader what to think, how to feel, or how to behave. You’re writing a novel, not a sermon. Every one of the content genres offers an opportunity to explore fascinating ideas. Even a straight-up crime story can ponder the nature of justice and what it really means.
BEGINNING, MIDDLE, END
If you took the time to articulate your story’s premise, then you’ve got step one (writing out your story in one sentence) already done. For example, an orphan boy (a character) enters a magical world (in a setting) and discovers that he is destined to fight the man who killed his parents (with a problem).
The idea here is that you work from the highest-level concept and gradually add more detail to flesh out the plot of your story. This is much harder than it sounds, and more important than you could possibly imagine.
Once you have a solid premise, the next step is summarize your story in three sentences or short phrases; one for the beginning hook, one for the middle build, and one for the ending payoff. For example, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again. When I say “sentence” I mean 25 words or less. You might have to write a full page summary of your beginning hook before you can boil it down into one sentence, and if that’s the case, do it. You’ll thank yourself for it.
When all three sentences are done, you should be able to clearly see the arc of your story and the change that takes place. If you can’t, try writing a three-sentence summary of your favourite novel or film. It’s a very effective exercise.
After the three-sentence summary, you’ll decide on the Five Commandments of Storytelling for each of the three acts. This is where the rubber really starts hitting the road and without a firm grasp on your Editor’s (or Writer’s ) Six Core Questions, you’ll flounder.
Depending on the complexity of your story, your knowledge of storytelling tools and techniques, and your experience with writing novels, you may or may not be able to go on to the Story Grid Global Foolscap at this point. Personally, I’m writing at the very edges of my ability. Given that Immortal has five storylines, each with secondary genres and sub-plots, even though I’m a Story Grid Certified Editor with two novels under my belt, I found it difficult to jump from the Editor’s Six Core Questions directly to the Story Grid Global Foolscap. I needed to create new tools to help me bridge the gap.
I’m constantly listening to interviews with A-List authors, screenwriters, filmmakers, actors and other professional storytellers. They have knowledge that novelists can mine and I do so happily, borrowing any and all ideas that might help me level up my craft. The screenwriter’s treatment is one such idea.
At its core, a treatment is a way of capturing your story on paper so that you don’t have to hold it in your head as you write. I find this reduces my overall anxiety while freeing up my mind and my imagination, thereby allowing my creativity to flow.
There is no hard-and-fast single format for a treatment and if you do a Google search, you’ll discover dozens of templates, all with common elements. I found one that I liked and then began to add other topics that are useful to me as a novelist.
My version has three main sections: a general overview of my story, notes on the cast design and notes on the plot design.
The general overview includes the global genre, the logline, a description of the inciting incident (and how it meets the seven requirements of an inciting incident), the In and Out of my story, the three-sentence summary, and the central dramatic questions that will drive my narrative.
In the cast design section, I give a brief description of the main characters of the story; who they are, what they want (external object of desire), and who they’ll need to become to get it (internal object of desire, or internal character shift). I list the characters according to importance in the novel. So, my protagonist is first followed by my antagonist and other major characters, standard characters and minor characters.
A word about cast design: Everything in your story, including your cast of characters, exists in a hierarchy. In order for me to put my characters in priority sequence I had to really think about who they are and what role they play in the story. I had to make sure my protagonist, antagonist and major characters had enough complexity to carry the story and sustain the reader’s interest. This led me to create a new kind of character sheet—one that dispenses with the physical, observable attributes of a character and focuses on what’s important and useful for the writer to know. If physicality happens to be important (for example, if it relates to theme or point of view), there’s plenty of opportunity to add that in. If you’re interested in seeing the character sheet, subscribe to my inner circle and download it from the member area.
Next comes the plot design, and here I work through the story in detail starting with an overview of my beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff. I’m not concerned about articulating the Five Commandments of Storytelling at this point because I don’t yet know the acts well enough to know what those commandments would be. The point of this exercise is to think through the acts in order to discover the commandments. I don’t focus on one particular storyline either. I simply write down everything I know about my story so I can then begin to tease the storylines apart.
Once I can do that, I then include a short paragraph describing each storyline and how it serves the global story. If there’s a secondary genre or sub-plot within the storyline, I include it here as well. They’re listed in priority order with the global story (A-Story) being first, the second most important plotline (B-Story) second, and so on.
Pro Tip: Adding more storylines and more characters doesn’t necessarily make a novel better. It makes it much harder to write and harder to read. Everything exists to serve the global story (i.e., that which dramatizes your story premise). Any characters or plotlines that are not doing so must be cut.
For more detail on the sections of my treatment and how I use it to develop my story, subscribe to UP (the Un-Podcast).
The Story Grid Global Foolscap
Armed with your Editor’s Six Core Questions and your treatment, you’re now ready to tackle the Story Grid Global Foolscap. The first section is a brief summary of the first five questions from the Editor’s Six Core Questions. That’s fairly straightforward.
The tricky part is articulating the story spine, that is the Five Commandments for each of the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff. I strongly recommend starting with 15 core spinal scenes and building up to 20 core spinal scenes and there’s a very practical reason for this. When you’re thinking through your story idea, and testing to see if it works, you’re working from macro to micro gradually adding in detail as you go. When you’re in planning mode and using the Story Grid method as a drafting tool, you don’t yet know enough about your story to know what the 20 core spinal scenes are. You’ve got to work up to that by first articulating the 15 core spinal scenes. For more about the 20 core spinal scenes, see Action Story: The Primal Genre (Shawn Coyne).
It’s not enough to merely list the scenes. You’ve got to evaluate each scene to make sure it relates to your global story and turns on the global value at stake for the genre. To do this, I make notes on the reverse side of my foolscap sheet. There’s two reasons for this. One, I want to make sure these foundational pieces are solid before I build a story on them. Two, I want to be able to remember what my thought process was when I selected these scenes.
The good news is that you don’t need to know how these scenes will play out. All you need to know is what happens at that point in the story. You’re stating the plot. That’s it. For example, I knew that my Hero At The Mercy Of The Villain (HATMOV) scene was the climax of the ending payoff for my story. So, in the first draft of the foolscap for my A-Story, I simply wrote “HATMOV” in that box.
Yes, I said, “first draft of the foolscap for my A-Story”. Foolscaps also have drafts, and I created a different foolscap (with 20 core spinal scenes) for each of my storylines. It was a chunk of work but it revealed things about my story I would have never discovered otherwise.
The Step Outline
By this point, I’d already tackled my story from many different angles. I had the Editor’s Six Core Questions, the treatment, the character sheets and multiple foolscaps but yet, when I tried to write the draft, I still became disoriented. I needed to develop three more tools to guide me, and those are the step outline, the scene list and the scene outline.
The step outline is pretty much as it sounds. It’s a list of all the steps in my plot and is the precursor to a scene list. I started with the 20 core spinal scenes of my A-Story and then slotted the spinal scenes from my other stories around them. Given that I have five foolscaps, each with 20 core spinal scenes, it sounds like my novel has 100 core spinal scenes, but that isn’t the case at all. Not even close.
The beauty of the step outline is that I immediately saw how key elements of each of the plotlines could be dramatized in one scene. One story event can turn multiple plotlines, maybe even all the plotlines. I’m not gonna lie; that made me really happy.
It also enabled me to create a scene list. Personally, I’m taking the scene list an act at a time, and a sequence at a time. You may prefer to map out all the scenes in your novel from start to finish. That’s what James Patterson does, and it seems to work well for him!
To drill down to the details of the scene, I created a scene outline which is a list of everything that needs to be in a scene in order for it to work. If you’re new to Story Grid, I recommend you start with the Five Commandments of Storytelling. I wrote a whole novel that way and readers seem to enjoy it. Once you can really make the Five Commandments sing, you can add in the other elements which includes storytelling principles like the scene type and the form of narrative drive.
You can learn more about how I used the step outline, scene list and scene outline, on UP (the Un-Podcast).
The First Working Draft
When it comes to writing the first working draft, there are basically three strategies. You can write by word count, time or task. I go into detail about all three in this episode of the Roundtable podcast.
On the first pass, your goal is to cover the canvas as quickly as possible. That doesn’t mean you rush, it simply means you don’t worry about the nitty gritty details. You’re sketching out the narrative in broad strokes, and putting the framework in place. Then with each subsequent pass, you’ll add more detail, fix errors and set up all the things that will eventually be paid off.
Eventually, you’ll have what I call a first working draft. This is the version that you’ll send to your editor for review. It’s a full manuscript with a coherent story. There will still be typos and areas that need line editing, and your editor will definitely have suggestions for areas you can (and should) improve. But the story, for the most part, will be in place. It will be a working manuscript that, with your editor’s help, you’ll be able to take to the next level.
But I’ll be honest, writing the first working draft is 5% strategy, 95% mindset. You’ve got to want it. If you believe that writing is hard, and tortuous, and causes you anxiety and heartache, then it will be hard, and tortuous, and it will cause you anxiety and heartache.
Resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it, is not some external Being keeping you from writing. Resistance is within you. It’s that part of you that keeps you from writing, or losing the weight, or asking out the person, or applying for the job. No one else can overcome Resistance for you, and constantly talking about it with other writers makes it worse. Sure, writing a novel is challenging, but you can choose to revel in that challenge or you can choose to be defeated by it.
In the end, the only person who can write your novel is you, and if you want to be a novelist, you must discipline yourself to do the work.
Editing Your Drafts
You’ve finished your first draft. Congratulations! Lots of people set out to write a novel, and few get as far as the first draft. There’s still a long way to go, but be sure to acknowledge how far you’ve come already.
No matter how pleased you are with the result, you probably realize it needs some work. And whether the task of editing seems daunting or exciting, you do want to get on with it. But you might not know exactly what needs to be done or where to start. The first step is to take a moment to appreciate what you’ve accomplished.
This exercise is not just about patting yourself on the back, though that’s important. The main purpose is to help you shift gears.
Your big-picture goal of writing a novel that works hasn’t changed, but your short-term goal to get the story down has. Making the story suitable for readers means shifting from creation to presentation mode. There is a lot of overlap between the planning, drafting, and editing phases, and you’ll revisit many of the same tools, but the differences matter. Revision is a different process and requires a different approach and tactics.
The Editor’s Mindset
It’s time to think critically about your draft. That doesn’t mean it’s all negative. A professional aims for perspective and objectivity, and above all, curiosity. We face the draft in front of us with open eyes and a willingness to see. The more intention you bring to this transition, the more successful you’ll be. To gain this all-important vantage point, acknowledge the transition to the extraordinary world of editing. Put away your writer’s hat, and don your editor’s hat. The editor’s mindset supports the process of revision, but it also happens to give you the best shot at enjoying the process.
Curiosity is important in planning and drafting your novel, but this is required for editing as well. It supports the other two qualities of the editor’s mindset. This enables you to see the true of the state of your draft, seek potential solutions to the problems you find, and pursue the knowledge you need to reach your goal. You have to make loads of decisions, so go into them with an openness of mind that supports the process.
Perspective is all about seeing your story from a new mental view. We need to overcome our preconceived ideas. When you’re in the middle of drafting, you can’t know for certain how well it works. You’re too close to it. So you need distance.
When trying to gain perspective, remember one of the lessons of The Tipping Point: Small changes in your immediate environment have a big effect on behavior. Adjustments like these will make it easier to gain the distance you need:
- Take time away from your manuscript. (But do some other writing activity in the meantime. You don’t want to lose your habit and momentum.) The length of this break will vary by writer and might be anything from a few days to a couple of weeks or a month.
- Move to another location. You might try another room in your home, your local library, or a café. If different locations are impossible for you, try sitting in a different chair or even facing a different direction.
- Change your formatting. Adjusting the format (line spacing, font, margins) or device changes the way we view what we’re reading. You can export as a PDF to read on a tablet if y ou usually write on a computer. Listen to your draft using an app like Natural Reader Pro, print and read a hard copy.
Adjustments like these signal your mind that you’re doing a different activity. You don’t want to make it so onerous that you open the door to resistance. For example, if circumstances prevent your usual trek to the local library, you still need to do your scheduled work.
Every writer’s process is a little different, so use what works for you. If you don’t know what your process is because this is the first time you’ve edited long form writing, start with your best guess according to the way you work in other areas of your life. Keep track of the work in a way that’s meaningful to you. This could be by word count, but it’s more likely the number of scenes reviewed, items on your to-do list, or a certain length of time. Make adjustments as needed.
So these are ways to gain perspective, but how do you make objective decisions about your current draft? That’s where the Story Grid tools come in. They provide clear standards to assess the state of your draft and identify problems. They point to clear steps to follow so you can level up your story and your skills with every draft. The first tool you need is the Story Grid diagnostic.
Whether this is your first or tenth draft, you’ll want to perform a diagnostic. This tool will help you see where you are in relation to your goal of writing a novel that works. A story that works meets the expectations of readers of your genre. Within the story, working scenes are ones that include at least one story event, when one or more characters or their circumstances change as the result of conflict. The Story Grid tools (explained described below) will show you how to measure your novel and scenes by these standards.
A diagnostic is like an MRI that will tell you what’s going on beneath the surface of your novel, what you have, and what needs to be fixed.
You need a diagnostic because it will tell you where you are and where to start revision. You could hire a Story Grid Certified editor to do this for you. But I encourage you to do this yourself. You want to move your draft as far as you can before you hire an editor, and this will help you know your story more intimately, which is important for all stages of the work.
You won’t know which stage you’re at until you review draft. The amount of planning you did before you began drafting, but also you experience and understanding of the way stories work will affect where you land. No matter where you are in your journey, a diagnostic will help you figure out what you have and what your next steps are.
This is not a grade and it’s not a judgment about you, but a landmark on the journey.
Assessing Your Draft
Here are the high-level steps in a Story Grid diagnostic. You’ll find the details below.
- Read the entire manuscript quickly. Keep notes, but don’t try to fix anything.
- Answer the Editor’s Six Core Questions (explained below). Give each answer some thought, but move through the questions steadily. Be as honest as you can. If something isn’t present, it’s better to call it out so you can address it.
- Analyze the first five scenes (explained below) of your draft and use that information to fill in your spreadsheet.
What does this give you? You will have a global view of your story and a basic idea of how well you’re executing scenes. With this information, you identify where your manuscript is at this moment.
You may be tempted to begin fixing or adjusting the things you know need work. Please resist this urge! Even if you’re not a planner typically, you’ll want to take a systematic approach to editing. There is a useful hierarchy to the editing process that goes macro to micro. It doesn’t make sense to adjust scenes if you need to change your global narrative device.
So what kind of draft do you have? To figure that out, let’s look at draft levels.
Our goal in assigning a draft level is an honest assessment of what’s working and what’s not, so you know how to proceed. These numbers are not tools of torture, and you’re not authorized to use them that way (honestly, that’s just a form of resistance).
Wherever a draft is on the spectrum from exploratory draft to a story that works and is ready for submission, accept that and focus on what you can do to make your next draft better. The level is not an indictment of you as a person or writer. It says, the draft needs work. There’s no wasted effort because you probably learned a lot along the way—about your story and yourself. Knowing the level will help you understand what comes next. This is valuable information.
The Exploratory Draft
Exploratory drafts are a little different from the other drafts I describe here. It’s more process than result. This approach is really useful when you don’t have a clear image of a setting where a character has a problem to build upon. Maybe you have a feeling or a sense of what you want the story to be, but it’s not defined. That’s OK. This tool will help you narrow the field of possibilities to find what you really want to write. If you struggle with the planning process, as described above, this is an alternate method to get on the path to finding your story.
What you do is you pick topics from the planning list and do writing practice, which I first learned from Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones. This is a structured activity we do on a regular basis, whether we feel inspired or not. We sit down and write for a specific length of time (like 15 or 30 minutes) or until we reach a certain landmark (three handwritten pages or 500 words). I recommend writing by hand because it’s a physical process well suited to exploration. But use typing or dictation if you prefer. Keep this writing in a separate notebook or document in the word processor of your choice.
During your practice time, write on your topic from the planning list without editing. Keep your hand going or fingers typing. Don’t cross anything out, and don’t worry about punctuation or spelling or grammar. (You don’t ever have to show this draft to anyone. So let it rip.) If you get stuck or wander off topic, write your topic again and keep going. It doesn’t need to make sense or be organized. This is pure stream of consciousness.
Schedule your writing practice. Most writers find it’s best to do this every day, but you can make that four days a week or write for a longer period one day a week. Consistency is key. An incidental benefit is that you’re already building your habit for your official first draft.
Each week, schedule additional time to read what you’ve written and make note of what’s interesting.This is not an analytical process. Rely on your intuition. You’re looking for what excites you and maybe even scares you a bit. Jot those ideas down in the back of your notebook or in a separate digital file. Use those topics in future writing sessions, but also keep returning to questions from the planning phase: What’s the global genre, what’s the controlling idea, who is my protagonist, what do they want? The idea is to keep following the threads until you can put some boundaries around the story you want to write. When something grabs you, follow it. Eventually, the story you want to write will come to the surface, and you’ll have lots of material to help you with the planning steps above, which is your next step.
Writing practice is not limited to this stage of the writing process. I use it no matter where I am in a work-in-progress, particularly editing. If I have a problem to solve, I start with a topic like everything I know about editing a novel. It works like a charm.
At this level, the manuscript doesn’t reveal a clear genre choice. The draft includes a series of interesting events, but it’s more writing about a story than telling a story. There is no clear narrative device choice. The first five scenes don’t turn and usually don’t include the Five Commandments of Storytelling. Overall at this level, the draft lacks the macro and micro structure that communicates form a story that works.
It may not feel like it, but this is a great start. A lot of NaNoWriMo drafts are right about here, and writers can use this draft to go on to tell a story that works. It’s true that most if not all of the writing in this draft will need to be set aside, but you’ll find useful raw materials from which you can draw elements of the story you want to write. You also take with you the experience of having completed an entire draft. You know how to do it, and you can do it again.
Next Steps: If you don’t have one already, find a masterwork and, using the steps below, perform an initial Story Grid analysis on that story (use the Editor’s Six Core Questions Analysis, Spreadsheet, and Foolscap). With that analysis in hand, take the elements of setting, characters, circumstances, and events that make sense from your draft then set the rest aside. Review the instructions in the first part of this article to plan and write your next draft.
This draft conforms to basic story structure, but the global genre still isn’t fully clear and consistent in the draft. The point of view and narrative device choices may not be consistently applied. One or two of the first scenes may include story events, but scenes in the story aren’t executed consistently. For example, they may include inciting incidents, but the rest of the commandments aren’t present, and the scenes don’t turn.
The good news here is that you’ve been able to apply some implicit and explicit knowledge of story to your draft. In addition to the knowledge of how to complete a draft, you may be able to save more of the raw materials and some of the text, provided that it works with the global story as you construct it. Significant portions will still need to be put aside and rewritten to achieve a story that works, but you can take what you know about your scenes that worked and apply that in your next draft.
Next Steps: If you don’t have one already, find a masterwork and using the steps below, perform an initial Story Grid analysis on that story (Editor’s Six Core Questions Analysis, Spreadsheet, and Foolscap). Save elements of setting, characters, circumstances, and moments that make sense from your current draft and set the rest aside. You’ll probably want to follow the planning and drafting advice above for the global story. Then write your next draft.
At this level, many of the scenes in your draft are working. That’s great news because executing scenes consistently is a core storytelling skill you must develop to write a novel that works.
The global story still needs work, though. The global genre may still be unclear because the draft is missing conventions or obligatory moments (formerly events), as well as the eight major story checkpoints. The luminary agent (protagonist) may not be sympathetic, the shadow agent (main force of antagonism) may not be strong enough to progressively complicate the story. In addition, the core event (ending payoff climax) may not evoke a satisfying catharsis.
The global story doesn’t work, but that can often be fixed by working with the foolscap and employing a few other tools. More of the draft can be saved here, but still some scenes will need to be set aside. New scenes have to be rewritten, but you know how to execute scenes, and again, you know how to finish a draft. You’re building your storyteller’s toolbox, and you can apply what you know about the Five Commandments in scenes to the larger units of story.
Next Steps: If you don’t have one already, find a masterwork and, using the steps below, perform an initial Story Grid analysis on that story (Editor’s Six Core Questions Analysis, Spreadsheet, and Foolscap). Plan your next draft at the global level by paying attention to the conventions and obligatory moments, heroic journey, eight major checkpoints, and Kubler-Ross model. Save scenes that work and fit the global story. Then follow the beginning, middle, and end advice below.
In this draft, the global genre is clear, as are your narrative and point of view choices. You have a story that mostly works. On the macro level, the story may not progressively complicate as well as it could, and the luminary agent may not be as sympathetic as they could be. On the micro level, most of the scenes work, but they could be sharpened and improved.
Stories like this can satisfy readers of the genre, because the macro and micro elements are constructed to create narrative drive. But these stories are often forgettable because of stereotypes, repeat scene types, and the inability to relate to the luminary agent.
The great news about a manuscript at this level is that you have the skills to write a story that works. You need to make some adjustments to create a memorable experience for readers of your genre, but for the most part that means adjusting text rather than the story.
Next Steps: Your goal is to fix the micro problems, which then strengthens the macro story. Analyze your scenes using the scene analysis questions and the Story Grid spreadsheet. Update your Editor’s Six Core Questions and Foolscap as needed. Then use Power of 10 analysis (described below) to evaluate the progression of scenes that lead to the point of no return (also known as the midpoint shift or midpoint climax), when the luminary agent’s action is irreversible. Use the heroic journey (perhaps combined with Kubler-Ross Change Curve) to make the luminary agent sympathetic and relatable. Plan your next draft by following the beginning, middle, and end advice below.
This is a story that works. The global story is solid, and the scenes all work. Your story should satisfy typical readers of the genre. But you can make it stronger by innovating genre conventions and obligatory moments and intensifying the progressive complications.
Next Steps: Update your spreadsheet and foolscap. Do a full analysis of the global conventions and obligatory moments, p10, heroic journey, eight major story points, and Kubler-Ross. Prepare the Story Grid infographic.
How to Handle Subsequent Drafts
Instead of thinking in terms of which draft you are on, think about moving your current draft from where it is to the next level. Not everyone who finishes a certain number of drafts or passes will be at the same stage. Identifying draft levels is a more useful way to approach the work.
When you finish a new draft follow the directions above by allowing to to gain changing the format to gain perspective. Then perform a new diagnostic, assess the draft level, and follow the directions to apply the tools.
Story Grid Tools
Here you’ll find descriptions and resources to help you apply the Story Grid tools mentioned in the steps above.
Editor’s Six Core Questions Analysis
Answer the Editor’s Six Core Questions. Take a fresh look at these questions, even if you already answered them as part while planning your novel.
- What’s the global genre? Be sure to investigate your genre’s Four Core Framework (core need, core value, core emotion, core event): Check the content, structure, style and reality genres as well.
- What are the conventions and obligatory moments (formerly events) of your genre? Identify the appropriate choices for your genre and look for them within your draft.
- What is the point of view and narrative device?
- What are the objects of desire?
- What is the controlling idea or theme?
- Describe the action of the beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff in one sentence each.
In addition to this, you’ll want to analyze the first five scenes as we do in this Bite Size episode of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast and enter in your spreadsheet. For more information about scenes, check out this episode of the Story Grid Podcast.
A story event is an active change in circumstances for one or more of the characters in a scene as the result of conflict. You can figure out the story event by asking these questions.
1. What are the characters literally doing, that is, what are their micro in-the-moment, on-the-ground actions?
2. What is the essential tactic of the characters, that is, what are the macro behaviors they’re employing to attain a future goal?
3. What universal human values have changed for one or more characters in the scene and which one of those universal human value changes should we highlight in the Story Grid Spreadsheet?
4. What is the resulting Story Event, which we will enter in the Story Grid Spreadsheet?
Identify the Five Commandments of Storytelling within the scene.
- The Inciting Incident, which kicks off the action;
- The Turning Point Progressive Complication (also called the Phere), an unexpected event that turns the human value at stake in the scene, and gives rise to . . .
- The Crisis, which is a dilemma about how to confront the unexpected event;
- The Climax, which is the decision and action a character takes in response to the Crisis; and The Resolution, which is the outcome of the action of the Climax.
For more about the Five Commandments check out this episode of the Story Grid Podcast.
Story Grid Spreadsheet
Use the information you’ve gathered in the scene analysis to fill in the spreadsheet. You can download examples of the spreadsheet here. To learn more about the Story Grid Spreadsheet, check out this article.
The Story Grid Spreadsheet allows you to organize and view the macro story on a single sheet of paper.
To learn more about building your own foolscap, check out this article or this video or this episode of the Story Grid Podcast.
If where you are right now is your point A, your story’s masterwork is your point B. You may not reach this level with your first or second or even third book, but studying excellent stories closely will help you get much further than you otherwise would.
When you want to do something you’ve never done before, like write a novel of a certain quality, you study with someone who has already done it. Your masterwork is a mentor.
Pick one and analyze it. Get as close as you can to the story you want to tell. Can’t find one? Consider that you may need to do more reading within your genre. Be sure to look outside your comfort zone, especially if you’re struggling to find onee. In all the millions of stories that have already been published, there’s a pretty good chance that someone has written a model of what you want to accomplish. Even if your goal is to innovate by subverting the conventions of a genre, you need to know what you’re pushing back against.
We’re talking the Editors Six Core Questions, spreadsheet, and foolscap at a minimum. You’ll want to create an infographic too, but that will keep until later stages. It takes many, many hours to analyze a story Story Grid way, so choose one that is the closest to the story you want to write. This masterwork as filtered through your experience
1. Read it through once for fun.
2. Answer the Editor’s Six Core Questions.
3. Read again and fill in the Story Grid Spreadsheet.
4. Fill in the Story Grid Foolscap based on what you’ve found.
5. Think about what can you apply to your story.
This will be a tool you’ll refer to no matter what level your draft is at through the entire editing process. Remember, the writer of this masterwork has solved the same problems you face in your story. Consult your mentor often.
The goal here is to “steal like an artist.” Let the masterwork inspire you, and even use it as scaffolding as Story Grid editors did in the Four Core Fiction project. Identify specific decisions the masterwork’s writer made, and consider, what could this be in my story.
For more about why you need a masterwork and what to do with it, check out this Bite Size episode from the Story Grid Editor Roundtable.
Beginning Hook, Middle Build 1 & 2, Ending Payoff Revisions
- Use your notes to create a spreadsheet of your draft’s existing beginning hook scenes.
- Macro Changes: Consider the Five Commandments as well as the conventions and obligatory moments you need to establish in the beginning hook. What do you need to add to satisfy story form and your global genre? What needs to be cut because it doesn’t add to the story? What do you need to emphasize? What do you need to de-emphasize?
- Micro Changes: Use what you’ve learned about the macro changes to plan adjustments to your scenes. A specific to-do list is useful because specific tasks will help you defeat resistance in your work sessions.
- Once you have a plan and list, begin the next draft of beginning hook. Depending on the last stage of your draft, this may mean starting from scratch or editing the draft itself.
- Repeat this process for middle build one, then middle build two, and the ending payoff. Tackling one quarter of the novel at a time helps keep you from getting overwhelmed. It also allows you to apply what you’ve learned from earlier scenes to later events.
- Once you finish the next draft, it’s time for another diagnostic.
Everyone gets stuck from time to time, and you will too. The best approach is to stay curious and employ supportive rules of thumb as speedbumps arise. Start your collection with these.
- If a micro component is giving you trouble, pull back and look at the macro. What’s the global genre? What’s the controlling idea or theme? What are your POV and narrative device? In essence, what’s the subject matter, what’s your point, and how are you presenting it to your reader?
- If something at the macro level has you tied in knots, get back on the ground and consider what micro actions you could take to get things moving again.
- Be specific about the resolution of your story lens in any given moment, but get comfortable switching among them.
- No matter your problem, apply Shawn’s “Six Word GPS.”
Remember to update the Editor’s Six Core Questions, Foolscap, and spreadsheet as you make changes.
Sometimes we feel reluctant to cut. We think, what if we throw out something we need later? Eliminate this concern by keeping copies of your old drafts that are dated or otherwise identified. It also helps to maintain an archive or recycling document for passages you trim.
For more information about the beginning, middle, and end of your story, check out this Story Grid Editor Roundtable episode.
Conventions and Obligatory Moments
Conventions are genre must-haves that set up genre specific change in your story. They consist of the setting (selective constraints), characters, and catalysts (enabling constraints) that set up the conflict in your story. Obligatory moments (formerly events) are the unexpected events, revelations, and decisions that change circumstances in the story.
For more information about conventions and obligatory moments, check out this article. And read this article for help identifying the conventions and obligatory moments in your genre.
The Heroic Journey is a set of scenes that help the reader sympathize and relate to the luminary agent (protagonist). You can learn more about the heroic journey in this episode of the Story Grid Podcast and in this article.
Kubler-Ross Change Curve
The Kubler-Ross Change Curve models steps in the process of metabolizing change. The steps can help you add emotional content to the heroic journey scenes. For more information about the way we use the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, check out this article or this episode of the Story Grid Podcast.
Power of 10 Analysis
The Power of 10 Analysis shows you how to assess the way your story is progressively complicating so you can build to your story’s point of no return. For more information about the Power of 10 analysis, check out this article.
Story Grid Infographic
The Story Grid Infographic is that colorful graph that graces the cover of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. It will help you see the interaction of the macro and micro story clearly. If you’re not sure about how to create one on a computer, feel free to use colored pens and graph paper. Shawn started there first. Watch this webinar to see how Shawn and Tim created the infographic for Tim’s book The Threshing. To see other examples of the infographic, check out this page.
Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic
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