Stories Are About Change

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Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the seminal book On Death and Dying (1969) in which she laid out a psychological model for the stages of extreme change…coping with the death of a loved one. In the years after publication, psychologists, sociologists and economists have applied Kubler-Ross’s work to the process of dealing with many varieties of life change. Most notably, her stages of grief were applied to organizational change in an article entitled “Applying Grief Stages to Organizational Change” by P. Scire in Mark R. Brent’s book An Attributional Analysis of Kubler-Ross’s Model of Dying (Harvard University, 1981), an article that inspired me to think of Story as “coping with change” narrative.

The bottom line with change (and change is the substance of Story) is that it requires loss. Even when change is positive, we lose something of ourselves coping with its effects. Lottery winners are a great example of the monumental effect of positive change.

I promised in my last post to explain why I think Stories break down to 25% beginning hook, 50% middle build, and 25% ending payoff. So for our purposes, I’ve created a change curve that best aligns with the storyteller process.

Here it is:

Kubler-Ross Change Curve for Story

Let’s walk through it. You’ll see that the vertical axis reflects the effects of change on the protagonist/s of your Story. The higher the position on the Y-Axis, the more comfortable and competent the character is. The lower the position, the less comfortable and competent. The horizontal access represents Time. I’ve broken the Time into our three parts—beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff.

Let’s begin at the beginning SHOCK.

Remember that when life throws us out of kilter, it takes us a certain amount of time to even realize that we’re out of kilter. There is an initial shock about an event in our life and then shortly thereafter, a denial that the event even occurred. We just pretend that everything is as it ever was until we’re forced to face facts.

I think these two stages, SHOCK and DENIAL, comprise THE BEGINNING HOOK of a Story.

The beginning hook of a story ends when the protagonist or multiple cast of the story can no longer deny the truth. The climax and resolution of the BEGINNING HOOK pushes us into the MIDDLE BUILD of our story and also the middle of the change curve.

The middle forces us to react to the truth of the life event.

Once we can no longer bullshit ourselves about our circumstances, we get ANGRY. We blame others or the Gods for what has stricken us, lash out, usually making our circumstances even worse. After we burn off our anger, we search for the easiest way out of our situation. We work to BARGAIN our way out of the problem. Perhaps we push the problem to someone else, who is sure to fail solving it.

Or we decide that if we change our environment, we will be able to slough off the problem. We move to another city. We change jobs. We find a new spouse. We buy a better lifestyle. Of course, the bargaining proves fruitless. The monkey on our back (coping with the shock necessitating a change in ourselves) gets even heavier.

When we discover that there is no easy solution to our predicament and all of our bargaining has left us broken and battered in worse circumstances that if we had faced the problem head on at the beginning, we finally come to the understanding that there is no way we can turn back.

Our lives will never be the same. We’ve lost. We bottom out in DEPRESSION.

This depression is dramatized in what screenwriters call the ALL IS LOST MOMENT scene. We despair. There is no way in Hell that we’re going to come out of this event anywhere near how we were before it happened. It’s finally clear to us that our life will never be the same.

Once we can no longer live with our sad sack, life-is-no-fair selves, we take a deep breath and get to work. We dig deep and confront our demon/s, stare down our problems and resolve to beat them into submission. We come to THE DELIBERATION stage. This is the moment we weigh the pros and cons about what we can do to cope with the big change in our lives.

We finally see the crisis for what it really is, a single question that has no easy answer. Whatever we do will require loss.

We must choose the best bad choice or an irreconcilable good, knowing that we have to lose something in order to gain forward progress and reach a new level of stability. We understand that we’ll never get back to “normal,” so we stop trying.

I think these four stages, ANGER, BARGAINING, DEPRESSION and DELIBERATION, thematically comprise the MIDDLE BUILD of a Story.

Now the beginning of the ENDING PAYOFF of a Story is how we choose to answer our crisis dilemma. CHOICE is the climactic moment when we actively do something that will finally metabolize the inciting incident event and change our lives forever.

Once we choose, we barrel forward, damn the torpedoes and act.

Lastly, there is INTEGRATION, which I would call the very end of a Story. INTEGRATION dramatizes resolution. We’ve found a new stability, one that is vastly different that where we began. We’ve got a whole new outlook on life and we’re not the same person we once were. At INTEGRATION, we have come full circle and have recovered from the SHOCK of a big inciting incident in our life. No matter what, by the end of the story we will never go back to where or who we were before.

This entire change process is 8 stages.

In terms of telling a story (a change process) the BEGINNING HOOK is two parts, the MIDDLE BUILD is four parts and the ENDING PAYOFF is two parts.

What do you know?

In terms of percentage of the change cycle, 25% of the cycle comprises the beginning, 50% for the middle, and 25% for the end. So the 25/50/25 rule mirrors the process that psychologists have hypothesized is required for a global personal point of view change. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s theories can be helpful in other ways too. Especially if you get stuck trying to understand how your protagonist will psychologically proceed through your story. Here’s how the building materials of Story break down psychologically.

The Inciting Incident SHOCKS our protagonist…throws them off balance to the point of DENIAL…hooking the reader’s curiosity about how the denial will come back to haunt the protagonist.

This beginning to the story transitions into the progressive complications in the middle, when the protagonist can no longer deny his predicament. He rages about his plight, bargains ineffectively to make it go away, realizes his life will never be the same and despairs during his ALL IS LOST MOMENT, until he regroups and deliberates about his crisis.

He makes a choice, often called THE POINT OF NO RETURN, and the story moves toward the ending payoff when he makes that CHOICE active during the climax, which results in the INTEGRATION of a new point of view, which is the Story’s Resolution.

So, if you get stuck and you’re not sure where to take your character in any one place during your Story, think about these eight stages. Are you dramatizing the psychological turmoil of your lead character/s?

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


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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.