If you arrived at this page via the link in the print edition of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, Shawn Coyne’s Silence of the Lambs spreadsheet is now at this link.
New! This post is now available on audio.
Once upon a time I wrote a novel. It was a passionate love story, a sweeping social drama, a staggering work of heartbreaking genius.
So needless to say it was also a manuscript of epic proportions. It weighed in at a mighty 230,000 words.
I knew it needed to be cut, but I didn’t have a clue where to begin. After all, the whole story was brilliant. How could I make it shorter without ruining it? I spent a month on a search-and-destroy mission targeting adverbs and shoe leather, and managed to cut it by something like two percent.
Of course, this was using 1200-grit sandpaper on raw lumber. It was finishing the seams of a coat that was four sizes too big. It was putting lipstick on a pig.
Well, you get the idea. It was wasted effort.
Then I had a brainstorm.
Why not take my tax refund and give it to a professional editor?
That very day, someone on Twitter said an editor they knew had a rare opening in her schedule. It was so much like magic that I didn’t even look further–or do any research. I contacted her and grabbed that upcoming spot.
I explained to her that I thought my novel was well-written, meaning that my line-by-line prose was good. I said it had been through editing already, because several people had done line edits, copy edits, and proofreading, and I didn’t want her thinking I was looking for those services. But, I explained, my book was too long and had “pacing problems” (though I didn’t really know what that meant).
I had a vague sense that between the wordsmithing skill that was my whole definition of “good writing” and the prose-polishing that was my whole definition of “editing,” there was a mysterious chasm, and in that chasm lurked the solution to my too-big-novel problem. I thought that if I gave her a lot of money, this real editor would reveal what was down there.
Little did I know…
About six weeks after I sent the behemoth off, the editor came back to me a with a short note saying that my novel was “well-written, way too long, and had pacing problems.” If I wanted her to write up more detailed notes, it would cost me another tax refund. She had, after all, earned my whole windfall just by reading the thing.
Let me be clear here: this is not a critique of that editor, or of editing services in general. While it may be the case that her services weren’t clearly defined, it was also the case that I was an unprepared, uneducated client who went into the situation with more self-delusion than a plan.
But I was out of money. And what was worse, I felt shamefully duped and ignorant. I couldn’t fix the novel I had. I didn’t dare start another one because it would come out too long, with pacing problems, just like the last one. For a whole year I quit writing altogether.
My Worldview Disillusionment arc was complete.
Then one day a friend told me about The Story Grid. I can’t remember what prompted me to give one more writing book a chance–possibly the friend’s insistent enthusiasm–but I bought the ebook and I was hooked right from Steven Pressfield’s introduction:
What The Story Grid offers is a way for you, the writer, to evaluate whether or not your story is working at the level of a publishable professional. It if is, The Story Grid will make it even better. If it isn’t, The Story Grid will show you where and why it isn’t working–and how to fix what’s broken.”
Hallelujah! I plunged back in. I accepted the call and began my new adventure.
If you’re still deciding whether to do the same, maybe my own experience will help you.
A word regarding the Foolscap
I tried. I really did. I accepted that defining my Content Genre was critically important, but I couldn’t nail it down for more than a year.
(PRO TIP: It is much easier to pin someone else’s story to a Foolscap than it is to pin your own. Other Story Grid Editors assure me that my novel is a Global Love Story with a strong Society secondary, and that’s good enough for me.)
I returned over and over to the Controlling Idea, and the best I ever came up with was “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”
And you know what? That served me perfectly well. Though it wasn’t up to Story Grid official specs, It felt right, and it did what a Controlling Idea is supposed to do: it kept me on track scene by scene and draft by draft.
All this is to say that my Global Foolscap sheet was incomplete or slightly off for most of the two years it took me to edit my book. It was a constant source of discomfort to me, because I believed in the story theory it represented and I wanted to have it all perfectly filled in, but I couldn’t do it.
Instead, I plunged into…
“The Muse loves me. I don’t need to do this kind of thing.” –Not Me
The Story Grid tool that stymies more of my editing clients than any other is The Spreadsheet. The very name evokes disdain, terror, or the glazed eyes of overwhelm. I’m not gonna fib here: The Spreadsheet is hard work. There are good reasons to fear it.
It’s also the most amazing tool in the world if you have a story that’s finished but not working…or almost finished…or, like mine, so over-written that you need to cut tens of thousands of words.
Using The Spreadsheet, I cut my novel from 230,000 to 130,000 words. That’s right–it lost 43% of its body weight. I jettisoned two characters, two subplots, and 20 scenes. Four sequences were drastically rearranged. The average chapter length dropped from 3900 to 2400 words.
The result was still the story I’d set out to tell, with the same plot, setting, protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, climax and resolution. But the characters were better: darker, more nuanced, more three-dimensional. Their motivations were clearer. The middle build was tighter. The essence of the story was more apparent. And the writing was better.
Wait a sec. You got all that out of a spreadsheet?
Full disclosure: No, of course not. I got all that out of The Spreadsheet and eleven drafts over two years. But The Spreadsheet was essential.
Let’s go into the process a bit.
My first problem was figuring out what constituted a “scene.” Was it a chapter? Did a new one start after some time-break that I’d indicated with a double white space? Each time my characters changed location? At every point-of-view shift?
I didn’t know, so I began by adding a row in each of those cases and wound up with something like 130 rows. Eventually I got it through my head that a scene contains a story event where something changes for one or more of the characters, and I was able to collapse a lot of those rows. (The final count was 84.)
The point is, I added as much as I could. Better 130 rows than no rows. I filled in the easy, objective columns: scene number, word count, characters onstage, characters mentioned but offstage, duration, location.
Then I started flailing. Turning point? Value shift? Jeez, I don’t know. And it was incredibly frustrating trying to guess. It was hard. It made me feel dense and clumsy. My brain just didn’t work that way.
It was like learning to ride the Backwards Brain Bike.
Nevertheless, I persisted.
Not because I’m super disciplined, but because it was a puzzle that I felt compelled to solve in the name of this story that I genuinely loved.
That first pass took three weeks. Three times six days times two-hour work periods: 36 solid hours of heavy analytical lifting.
By the end of that time, half of the Value Shift column contained question marks or blanks. Where the Turning Point column wasn’t blank, it was filled with guesses, most of them kind of stupid.
But a glimmer of light began to emerge as I plugged away. More than half of my scenes had a clear turning point, and quite a few of them felt like they turned even though I couldn’t yet pinpoint exactly where. Over the course of one bazillion passes through The Spreadsheet I was able to identify or add an exact turn and value shift in the scenes I kept.
In short, The Spreadsheet was showing me that my initial story instincts had been pretty good, a sign of how many stories I’d consumed in my life, and how much I already subconsciously knew.
Getting the Lead Out
As lovely as it was for me to strike that glimmer of gold, the real thrill for a chronic long-writer like me was when I struck lead.
The Spreadsheet quickly showed me which scenes were cold, heavy, and dead. Not only was it obvious that they didn’t turn, but I could see that they would never turn. Most of them weren’t “scenes” at all. There really was no story event. They were mere settings, setups, or backstory that didn’t need to be on the page. These provided my first big cuts.
For instance, I had a 5000 word prologue.
The Spreadsheet showed me that while this prologue had some turns and some conflict, it fell outside the main timeline. It involved settings and characters that never recurred in the story. I loved that prologue, but I could see that the only reason it existed was to narrate a key fact of my protagonist’s early life.
I deleted it. Boom.
Then one day I saw a way to insert that key fact of my protagonist’s early life into Chapter 14 as three words of dialogue.
Three words. Gut-punch impact. Better writing.
And that was my turning point.
The value of The Spreadsheet came into focus. My ability to use it accelerated. My brain began to change. And I became ruthless.
Every scene that didn’t have a clear turn or story purpose got cut. I would read the preceding and following scenes and look for ways to suture the edges of the wound together. Sometimes the stitching involved adding a new scene. Most of the time, however, it involved further cuts–for instance, yanking out whole characters and their subplots.
It was like pulling a big, obvious weed, and then finding all sorts of tendrils and roots and dirt coming up with it. At least two full drafts were devoted to making sure none of those deleted story filaments left holes.
Here’s where The Spreadsheet had the biggest impact on making me a better writer. Like that prologue, most deleted scenes contained some detail critical to the story. But when I noted that detail in my list of things to weave back in somewhere, I discovered that I’d made the critical point elsewhere.
It’s a fact of life for us long-writers: we tend to reiterate our important points, testing them with different flavors or colors, trying to get them just right. Then, because we also tend not to be story planners, we embroider whole wonderful scenes around the second and third iterations of those important points. That embroidery leads to another lovely scene, and pretty soon extraction has become a delicate, complex maneuver with a high emotional cost.
The Spreadsheet is the best tool I’ve found for identifying this problem. Once you identify the problem, solutions start to appear. And once you’ve implemented the solution a few times, you tend to stop causing the problem in the first place.
The Column View
If you hate spreadsheets, it’s certainly possible to gather the same information on index cards. Or the backs of ATM receipts. Or a giant sheet of paper taped to the wall.
But really: use a spreadsheet.
For one thing, the format will accommodate all the adds, deletes, and changes you’ll be making. (The history on the document I created for my last novel lists 97 versions.)
More than that, though, The Spreadsheet gives you the column view.
The column view is where the story structure information lies. You’ve built this story up row by row, layer by layer. The column view is the vertical slice. It lets you see how things stack up.
The columns are where you glimpse your patterns, your habits, your problems. There, you spot your unwillingness to challenge your characters (Polarity Shift keeps ending positive). You see where you ratcheted up the tension too soon or left it too late (Value Shift takes a shocking dive then leaps back up). You see that the energy is moving downwards as the story tension increases (consecutive positive-to-negative shifts).
The official Story Grid Spreadsheet has 14 columns:
- Scene Number
- Word Count: Watch for both wild variation and monotonous consistency in your scene lengths.
- Story Event: What literally happens in the scene. Something had better be happening. No event? No scene.
- Turning Point: Point where complications are about to become the crisis. No turn? No scene.
- Value Shift: The nature of the change of a character’s state. Hungry to satisfied. Alive to dead. No shift? No scene.
- Polarity Shift: based on the previous. If Alive to Dead then + to -. If Hungry to Satisfied, then – to +. Beware multiple consecutive scenes with the same polarity shift.
- POV: If you alter the POV, track it here. Is the POV character the one experiencing the shift in column 5?
- Period/Time: When in the story’s history the scene takes place. Summer, April 1772, three weeks later, the same afternoon.
- Duration: How much story time is spanned by the scene. 15 minutes, an evening, a couple of hours. Vary the duration of scenes.
- Location: Pablo’s living room, Long Peace Street, the diner, Entebbe International Airport. Watch for too much recurrence. Check for specificity.
- Characters Onstage: Name them.
- Number: Count them. Beware of multiple consecutive two-person scenes, crowd scenes, same-character scenes.
- Mentioned but Offstage: Name them. Watch for characters who never appear onstage–especially characters whose storylines you’ve deleted.
- Number: Count them.
The original 14 columns may be perfect for you, but if they aren’t, remember: The Spreadsheet was not handed down by God. You can change it if you want to.
That’s what I did.
My personal Giant Novel Spreadsheet has the original 14 columns plus 20 more. To each header, I added notes defining the terms and reminding me why I’m collecting that data. My additional columns include:
- All Five Commandments.
- Opening and closing lines: I was starting too many scenes with someone waking up and ending too many with someone leaving a room.
- Reversibility: On a scale of one to five, how reversible is the character’s crisis decision? (I had a tendency to make all consequences reversible, a real drama-killer.)
- Conflict type: Choices are Internal, Interpersonal, External. (I was over-preferencing Internal.)
- Plot purpose: A place to note key Hero’s Journey points, obligatory scenes and conventions, or just why I wrote the scene in the first place.
Some of these extras, like opening and closing lines, help improve line-by-line writing more than my story structure. Some of them will probably end up being deleted. Most of them are more experimental than proven. But they’ve made The Spreadsheet easier and more fun for me, because when I can’t find the answer to one column, the answers in other columns usually point the way.
A Map You Can Grasp
All these technical uses aside, perhaps the most compelling reason to attempt The Spreadsheet is this:
“Nothing, no power, will keep a book steady and motionless before us, so that we may have time to examine its shape and design. As quickly as we read, it melts and shifts in the memory; even at the moment when the last page is turned, a great part of the book, its finer detail, is already vague and doubtful…”
Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction, 1921
Old Percy was talking about novel criticism rather than writing, but his point is still valid: even you, the author, probably can’t keep the whole novel in your mind at once. The Spreadsheet is a map of the vast territory of your creation. You can pan around it both horizontally and vertically, zoom in, zoom out, and see patterns and gaps in your book that you simply can’t detect at ground level when you’re reading your own text.
- If you have a full manuscript…
- If you know it doesn’t quite work but you’re not sure why, or how to fix it…
- If it’s way too long, and just cutting adverbs and shoe-leather is not going to cut it down to a manageable size…
- If you want to hire an editor, but first you’d like to bring your manuscript to a more professional level on your own and save a lot of money…
…then it’s Spreadsheet time. Take a deep breath, crack your knuckles, and accept your fate, because I know of no clearer path than The Spreadsheet to streamlining and repairing this complex thing known as a novel.