Phase Shifting: The Story Grid Universe in 2021

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A year ago, in January 2020, Story Grid Publishing released its first title, appropriately titled The Story Grid Universe.  You can download and read it for free here.  

The Story Grid Universe was the first title of seventeen we put into the collective cultural soup last year. Those titles reflect the Story Grid Guild and the Story Grid Certified Editors’ commitment to support our creation of a comprehensive narrative theory and apply the method derived from theory to transform stories that don’t work into ones that do.  And then ultimately testing our combined application of that method in the commercial marketplace. 

As part of my duties, I have to pay attention to inquiries that bubble up from our Dojo, Story Grid University, where we learn and practice the tools that make up the method. The trick is to address those challenges without top-downing declarations of ultimate authority. I can’t just say, “that’s the way it is because I know best.” Not only because I am far from infallible, but because that’s antithetical to a practice.  If only one person can do it, then it’s not very powerful.  

Instead, I have to figure out what the problem is, which is a lot harder than just making pronouncements.  And more importantly, I have to listen to the wisdom of the voices around me to seek a possible set of solutions. What works as a solution for me isn’t going to work for everyone.

Just this past month, with help from two of our Story Grid Editors (Jarie Bolander and Kim Kessler), I’ve discovered an emergent real life invisible phere gorilla that’s bubbled up for Story Grid.  It’s a doozy, too, one that leaps from our University to our Publishing House and back again ad infinitum. Remember that invisible phere gorillas are simply unexpected events that drop into our lives that we have difficulty identifying (we don’t even see them) until they threaten something valuable and vital to us.

So, for 2021, we intend to create a process to address this beast that is gumming up our works.  It has to do with our definition of “Works/Doesn’t Work” and how we can cut a better path to empower the Story Grid community to make the phase transition from a mess of words that don’t work to a coherent and publishable work of art. 

So, what’s this new thing we’re going to try in 2021? It’s a metaphorical space ship with warp speed that we hope will become the model for story nerds in the future.

As I described in The Story Grid Universe, when Tim Grahl and I began working together, two planets emerged: Planet Dojo and Planet Performance.  

Planet Dojo represents our instruction, the Story Grid Methodology writ large, our Story Grid University.  SGU is the domain to phase transition work from a chaotic gaseous state (perhaps just a single compelling idea or a character or a bunch of scenes etc.) into a more discernible liquid. This first draft is opaque, murky, a bit like the water collected in a tub from a creek after torrential rains.  An outside observer can see a volume to this liquid as defined by how full the tub is and a sense of mass, but the details of the particulars inside are not in any real way clear yet.  Story Grid University is the place storytellers come to learn how to use our tools to distill and clean up that odd soup to have a particular genre of flavor.

Planet Performance represents our commercial enterprise, Story Grid Publishing.  SGP is the place to come when the soup has solidified.  What was once a gaseous idea that transitioned into a murky soup has now congealed into a coherent beginning, middle, and end story that has the potential for commercial physicality to it (a material book, a digital file, and a recorded audio performance).  When we find these works, we partner with the creator, wrap this solid work of art in the appropriate jacket, and send it off into the marketplace with a 10,000-reader-rule flourish.  Once we’ve reached the 10,000 exposure terminus, the story has enough of a push to make it (or not make it) as a value proposition to lovers of its particular genre.  

The above system is generally the way we’ve enabled and constrained The Story Grid Universe’s formal institutions for the past eighteen months or so.

I suspect you have an inkling of what the invisible phere gorilla I mentioned earlier is.  Kim Kessler sounded its alarm about a month ago on our Story Grid Certified Editor (SGCE) Slack channel.  

Let’s reveal it from first principles.

If we are proposing that creating a story is akin to phase transitions,

  1. From a gas (random chaotic ideas that strangely attract us that isn’t anything yet) to 
  2. A liquid (a mess of words inspired by those strange ideas that are of a particular formal length that doesn’t work) to 
  3. A solid (a working example of story art that conforms to the demands of a particular genre) and that 
  4. SGP is in the business of publishing solid works of story art…

Isn’t the gap between the liquid to solid phase ill-defined and thus extraordinarily difficult to cross?

Well, duh, yes, it is.  

Here’s generally how we initially conceived of enabling the transition from liquid to solid.  Story Grid University has the equivalent of a “Bachelor’s Degree” in Story Grid methods, our Story Grid Editor Certification program.  

We’re extraordinarily pleased with the program for many reasons. Foundationally, it serves as a fine filter.  You see, there is a whole slew of Story Nerds in the world.  Of those, probably 50% are empirically based.  That is, they’re “plotters” who understand that there are patterns inside stories that embed the global form’s structural, functional organization, and they love figuring out just what those patterns are.  This category of nerds is drawn to Story Grid because, well, that’s our thing.

Then there’s another level of nerd.  These nerds love Story so much that while they write themselves, they find themselves poking their noses into other people’s projects.  Deep down, they discover their inner editor desperately trying to surface and take over the entire cognitive operation.  These tinkerers eventually embrace their complete nerdiness and learn the Story Grid craft diligently so that they can midwife projects from “doesn’t work” to “work.”  These are our Story Grid Certified Editors.  

So, we hypothesized that the way we’d be able to transition some of the murky liquid first drafts swirling around the story universe to solids would be for our Story Grid Editors to work with clients until they’d reach a “minimum viable solid-state.”  Once they did, the editors would then advise their clients to submit the work to Story Grid Publishing for possible publication.

I’m happy to report that (for the most part) we weren’t out of our minds.  This process has worked!

We’ve accepted five original works of fiction in our first year of operation, relying upon these two person phase transition protocols (writer + editor).


We’ve recently discovered that it is possible to meet our “minimum viable solid-state” specs…and still not have a story that works.  [Another tip of the hat to Kim for identifying and having the courage to announce the presence of this phere gorilla.] 

What that means is that I need to reexamine our specs.  Are they as precise and accurate as I initially thought they’d be?

In some cases, “yes,” but in others, “no.”  


I’ve since come up with some ideas about why someone can hit our spec, and still, the work they’ve created isn’t yet publishable, i.e., it doesn’t work.  Tim and I will do a podcast about what I’ve discovered in 2021 to detail my findings.

Here’s the cool thing.  Again, it has to do with listening to your compadres.

A week before Kim rang the bell about our spec problem, Jarie Bolander, another Story Grid Certified Editor, urged me to read a book called Loonshots by Safi Bahcall.  So, I read it just before Kim’s siren went off.

What’s remarkable in a Jungian synchronicity kind of way is that Jarie’s recommendation enabled me to restructure the way I saw the rise of our spec problem in such a way that I could make better sense of it.  You see, the brilliant notion of phase shifting is a significant theme in Bahcall’s book, and having that insight fresh in my head (thanks to Jarie) enabled me to look at the spec problem that Kim identified with a new set of lenses.

What’s now clear to me (and wasn’t before) is that we’re asking our SGCE’s to do Master’s level editing work for certain kinds of stories….those genres associated with the upper regions of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

I propose that the higher you climb up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to tell a particular story, the more spec required to meet the “works” threshold.  The foundational level (Straight Action, War, Crime, Horror, and Thriller) does not have as many requirements as those at the upper levels.  The core emotion the audience is looking for in these primary genres is excitement.

But the further up the ladder you climb, the more nuanced are the emotional requirements of the story.  Not only must you deliver excitement, but a whole slew of emotions that ultimately lead to external and internal catharsis for the audience.  When done with fluency and craft at the upper reaches, the audience will cry and have a transformational internal shift.  But to get there requires decades of practice (Edith Wharton, Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot), Tolstoy, Orwell, etc.).

I’ve been recommending for years that first novelists play within the constraints of the primary genres and not to attempt creating those at the more demanding levels (Society, Morality, etc.) for years.  Now, I’m beginning to understand why I’ve been adamant about that declaration and why it is damn good advice—the specific reasons why are coming into higher resolution.

I hadn’t pinpointed these phenomena up until just a month or so ago.  I first shared it in a forty-minute lecture with the Story Grid Guild.  And I wouldn’t have been capable of coming to its conclusion without all of the deep work I’ve continued to do since the publication The Story Grid book. Which, you guessed it, requires me to listen and respond to tens of story nerds just like myself who have the same commitment to the art that I do.

Falling in love with the exploratory process even when it doesn’t impact revenue (you can’t see it paying off literally) is the secret sauce to prepare yourself for unexpected events.  And it’s the very people I confer with who constrain and enable me to keep pressing forward.

So, what’s this big initiative for 2021?

We will be rolling out a new phase transition process that I’m calling The Story Grid Incubator. The incubator will serve as a faster spaceship to transition works from “meeting spec” to “best in class” than our traditional two-person process.

We’ll start up the incubator with works we’ve accepted for publication so that we can iron out the kinks before we roll out the psycho-technology to the community.  Here’s what we’re thinking:

  1. After a writer accepts our offer to publish their novel with Story Grid Publishing, we will schedule an incubator session (fingers crossed in person in 2021) to review that work at multiple levels of analysis.  
  1. Members of the incubator will include
    1. Me.
    2. Story Grid Publisher and author Tim Grahl
    3. Story Grid Editor in Chief and author Leslie Watts
    4. The Story Grid Certified Editor working with the writer and
    5. The writer
  1. Each of these five members of the incubator will read the manuscript and create their own Story Grid Spreadsheet for that work before the meeting.
  1. The members will convene for multiple days (to be determined based upon a protocol to be created by me to generate the most effective “next steps document” for the writer to execute after the session) and work through the manuscript start to finish. 

We intend to have all Story Grid Publishing titles undergo the incubator before publication.  The incubator procedures will adapt to a series of best practices over time, which we will share with the Story Grid Community in due course.  

The down the road goal state for the incubator is to create a process for constructive dialogue among Story Grid craftspeople and use the vast array of Story Grid technology practically and purposefully for each title we publish.  

The second-order effect is to encourage Story Grid Incubators outside of the publishing paradigm. Phase transitions between “doesn’t work to work” can be more fully realized in the field.  

A grand slam for the Incubator would be the emergence of Story Grid Incubator, El Paso, Story Grid Incubator, Dublin, Story Grid Incubator, Schenectady, etc.   These incubation localities will promote dialogue among Story Grid enthusiasts such that editing and phase transition becomes less of a painful solitary process or, at best, a two-person process and into a multi-subjective, pro-active and kind means to level up a project from doesn’t work to work.

The pilot program will reveal all sorts of invisible phere gorillas that we cannot anticipate right now.  But, I’m confident that our core Story Grid loons’ concerted efforts will bring forth a new way of approaching the arduous task of turning metaphorical liquid into solid.

So, once again, my thanks to Kim and Jarie for their dialogical aid, and I encourage all of us to spend more time listening and contemplating the thoughts and concerns of our fellow story nerds in 2021.

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Shawn Coyne

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