[0:00:00.9] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I’m the struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining the shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode we dive back into the Story Grid spreadsheet. So there’re lots of different Story Grid tools. We’ve gone over all of them in varying degrees, but the one probably most used and also most confused is this spreadsheet, and so we spend this episode walking through the different aspects of the Story Grid spreadsheet and why Shawn chose to have the different columns in there and what should go in each one and how to make those decisions. So if you’ve ever used the Story Grid spreadsheet or ever plan to, this is definitely an episode for you.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:00.9] TG: Shawn, over the past few weeks we’ve been going back through some of the basic tools and tenants of Story Grid and taking another look at them, because it’s been for some of these two years since we really looked deep at some of these. We went through the five commandments of storytelling. We spent a couple of weeks on the six core, six core editor question, something like that.
[0:01:27.9] SC: Yeah.
[0:01:28.9] TG: I actually went back through those and worked through some of those on my novel as well, which was really helpful, because I’m so deep into it. When you are talking about coming up out of the trees and taking a look I’m like, “Oh, man! I need a little bit of that.”
So this week I want to talk about the spreadsheet, because I feel like it’s probably the most intensive Story Grid tool that I’ve used so far as far as just the straight amount of time it takes. Also, it can be a little confusing of like what to put in each column, and since we first broached the topic of the spreadsheet, I’ve actually used it on my own book as well as filled it out for other books as well.
So I just want to hear first off like how you develop the spreadsheet and when you think about it as a Story Grid tool, like how do you view it? Because each of these things, I always use the metaphor of like tools in a toolbox where like each tool is really good at one thing, but not good at other things. When we always want to use the tools for what they’re good for and not try to use them for something they’re not good for. How do you view this tool and like how you came up with it and how you think it’s helpful?
[0:02:52.3] SC: Okay. Well, I think this spreadsheet is the most — You will get the most instant gratification by applying the spreadsheet to something. Meaning you will immediately know whether or not your story is working or your scenes are working or anything like that. It’s sort of like it is the thing that when you go to get your car inspected, now everything is operated by computer. So it looks like the mechanic is going take your car in and he’s going to manually look at all these elements that have to be perfect in order for you to keep driving your car around legally, but in reality what they usually do is just plug it into a machine and the machine spits out whether or not the air-conditioning is working, whether the exhaust is up to standards, whether the spark plugs need work, whether the brakes linings are bad.
All of those things that you see on an inspection report for a car. That’s kind of the equivalent of the Story Grid spreadsheet. It is a micro, micro anatomical look at the global — Not the global. Scene-by-scene of whether or not your story is on track. If your story is not on track, you will discover that very, very quickly using the spreadsheet. The reason why I developed the spreadsheet was I was in a position at the major publishers where — And I’ve said this a million times, where it was my job to invest quite a bit of money in certain properties and quickly turn those properties around so that they were at the highest possible story quality level for publication, but I didn’t have a lot of time to do it.
Oftentimes I would acquire a work of fiction for a large amount of money and we would want to get that book out as soon as possible. So say this had happened to me, I acquired something in February and the publishing house wanted to get it out before June 30th. Now, that’s crazy for major publishing schedules, but I was able to do something like that using something like the spreadsheet, because I would just take a day off.
It’s not take a day off from work, as I was working, but I’d have to do it at home, because I didn’t wanted distractions, and I would run the book through the spreadsheet and then I could have a phone call with the writer and I could say, “Okay. On page blank, this is wrong. You got to work on this. This scene is a little flat. You should do this.” So I could really diagnose like the car mechanic does what was wrong with the car to get it up and running and on the road and hopefully satisfy the largest number of readers and become a bestseller.
The spreadsheet was a way — It’s a machine of sorts that I created to help walk me through the process of discovering story problems from scene to scene. This is not style problems. When I say style, I’m talking about the way the writer, the voice of the writer. My job was not to fix this style or voice of the writer. It was to make the story better.
The reason why we acquired the book is because we love the voice of the writer. So why would I try and have that writer mimic my voice? It didn’t make any sense. So as an editor I didn’t try and change the style of the writer. Yes, if there was a bad cliché or a rough patch of syntax or whatever, I would say so. But that wasn’t my primary job. My primary job was to fix the story so it satisfied the most readers as possible, and the Story Grid spreadsheet is the thing I created to do that.
[0:07:20.3] TG: So I have two spreadsheets open right now. So I have the Pride and Prejudice spreadsheet that we have storygrid.com and then I have a spreadsheet I made — Jees! Almost 2 years ago now for the first Harry Potter book, and I think I counted 14 columns. I have a few extra in mind, because I actually have the actual page numbers of the version of the book I had, but I have 14 columns. Does that sound right?
[0:07:49.8] SC: 13, 14. Yes, and as all the Story Grid editors know, there’s actually a PhD version of the spreadsheet that will really satisfy the biggest story nerd possible, and I think the story grid PhD spreadsheet is like 28 columns. It could be. But we won’t get into that. Yes, 14.
[0:08:14.5] TG: So when I think about — Because we are laughing, I don’t know, a couple weeks ago about how like even I who know you well and we’ve been doing this a long time, like I look at these tools almost like they have always existed and not as if this is something you came up with. You know what I mean? It was like the 10 Commandments and the six editor questions. That’s what came down off of Mount Sinai. Like I forget that this is just something you came up with. So when I’m looking at this spreadsheet and there’s 14 columns and then another 14 I don’t even want to know about, like obviously you didn’t just like sit down one day and come up with 14 columns. How did you start constructing this, coming up with like, “Okay. What needs to be on here?”
Let me say how I see this. So I see this as like, “Okay. You’re trying to diagnose your story to see if there’s a problem,” and so when I go to my doctor for like my check up or whatever, he listens to my breathing. He pounds on my knees with the little hammer. He checks my heart. He checks my blood pressure, my pulse rate. He has like this standard battery of tests that they’ve come up with, and that’s kind of how I view this, is like the standard battery of tests that you have to give to each scene to see if it’s working. Talk just a little bit about how you started developing what went into this brief spreadsheet and what doesn’t.
[0:09:49.4] SC: I would love to answer that question, because nobody ever asks it. Just like anybody else, I had to think about what my goal was, and you talk about a lot in terms of marketing and sales and business elements, establishing systems, systems that you can rely upon to get you through onerous tasks that you don’t want to reinvent the wheel every single time, like if you have to do payroll. You want a payroll system that will make it as easy and quick and lean as possible so that the system, you can rely upon a system to get you through a difficult task that isn’t difficult-difficult. It’s just nobody wants to do it.
The problem with book editing, and this is why so many people don’t even really understand what book editors or story editors do, and we laugh about this. I always say that every writer after they finish their book, they think it’s ready for publication, but not to be edited. So they will submit it for publication, but until they hear that it’s not good enough, do they consider that it might need to be edited? So it’s the cart always before the horse. The reason I think that is nobody truly understands what editing and story editing is.
The reason why I constructed this spreadsheet was to explain the method of story editing to the writers that I was working with, because there is no university that has Shawn Coyne giving what a 52-week lecture series on the art and craft of story editing. That course —
[0:11:56.5] TG: Not yet.
[0:11:57.0] SC: Not yet. All you schools out there who want me, you know where to reach me. But my point is, is that it’s an art form that is not well known. So, because it’s not well-known, I had to create a system that not only I could immediately understand, but I had to be able to explain it to my clients, which were writers who I needed to help them make their stories better, and I didn’t want to spend 25 hours on the phone explaining one tiny little point in their book if I could explain to them the global universe of story editing, “Hey, this is the way I work. I want to see if your story moves, if your story progressively complicates, if your story has value shifts, if you are reaching, if you’re satisfying the obligatory scenes and conventions of your chosen genre. Oh! You don’t know your genre is? Oh! Well, let’s talk about that. Is this X, is this Y?” And all of the answers to those six core questions would help me be able to help them.
So the spreadsheet is a way a lot of people really can sink their teeth into the spreadsheet, because I tried to boil it down to very, very fundamental elements that anyone can understand. I try to start it, make it very simple and then build from there.
I said to myself, “Okay. What am I going need to know to refer to a part of the book that isn’t we’re going to work first?” I’m going to need to know what the scene number is. I’m going to need to know the word count, right? Like how long is this scene? Do we need a 5,000-word scene to accomplish the value shift in that scene? Say, the value shift is Jim makes a friend. Do we need 5000 words dedicated to a value shift where someone who’s lonely gets a friend? Maybe. Maybe if it’s a Victorian novel about Jim is a poor schoolboy who is from modest means who comes on scholarship to some private school. It might take 5000 words to develop that moment when someone sees something in him and befriends him.
Usually, making a friend can be a quick thing. It can even almost become a beat. So if it’s a contemporary story, I would say to the writer, “Hey, you’ve got 5,000 words and the only thing that happens here is that Jim gets a new friend. Can we pair that down?” They’ll go, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t know it was 5,000 words. Thank you for telling me that.” I would say, “You know, I’ve got a spreadsheet. I’m going to send you the spreadsheet that has all of the scenes in your book, all the word count, what happens in the thing, and on and on and on. Would you like to see that?” You say that to a writer and they go, “You have that?” Are you kidding me? Of course I want to see it.”
Then you send it to them and they’re pulled over, because they get to see all of the little puzzle pieces that they hadn’t been looking at before. They’d only been generically thinking of their story globally from a big macro point of view, “I think my ending is working. The middle gets a little sluggish in the middle, but I think it works.” But now I could say, “You’re right. The middle is sluggish, and that’s because you have six scenes here establishing something that you could have done in one scene.” They go, “You know what? You’re right. I’m going to cut those other five. I’m going to pair that down,” and then the discussion begins from there.
So the spreadsheet is essentially a way to have a common language that boils down 20-hour discussions into 10 seconds. I’ll say, “Now, let’s take a look at scene number 18,” and they’ll go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I saw scene 18. I didn’t have a value shift there. I had made note. So let’s move on.” That’s that happens all the time. You and I have had that discussion on the podcast quite a bit when I would ask you to spreadsheet your scenes, and then that episode would be like 20 minutes, because you would say, “Oh yeah, I didn’t have a value shift there. I knew you’re going to say that. Yeah, I’m going to fix that.”
The spreadsheet is about making the puzzle pieces for the ailments of the story. It’s like the vital signs of the story if you want to go with the metaphor of the health of the physical being. The Story Grid spreadsheet shows you what ails the story and when and where you need to fix it.
[0:17:16.6] TG: You kind of went through the first couple, like the scene number, the story event and the value shift. So let’s talk a little bit about the value shift and the polarity shift, because I know this is where a lot of people get hung up on, is trying to figure out — I’m using air quotes here, “the right value shift and the right polarity shift”. So when you’re going through a story and looking at a scene, how do you evaluate what is the value shift and the polarity shift of that scene?
[0:17:52.6] SC: Yeah, you’re right. People get very confused, especially those people are the most attracted to the Story Grid are the most scientifically or mathematically oriented and other people come slowly, dragging, kicking and screaming down as they do, but the ones who really jump on it are mathematically oriented, scientifically oriented people, and anyone who has a science background or math background, they’re always looking for the right answer.
[0:18:27.4] JM: That describes me pretty well.
[0:18:29.4] SC: Right. Okay. So I’m going to give you the way I determine the right answer for me, and it’s pretty simple, but it can get — So let me just say this. This is why those six core questions are so really very vitally important, and in fact, there’s really only one question that’s that important, and that question is; what’s the genre, right? If I know that my genre is a crime story that features a master detective, that is such a valuable piece of information that it will influence the way in which I diagnose the story, right?
When I’m going through the scenes, if I know it’s a crime story with a master detective or a maturation plot with a single protagonist’s journey, I am going to look at each scene from that vantage point. So if my protagonist is a central player in the scene, I’m going to look at what has happened to my protagonist. What way were they at the beginning of this scene and how are they at the end? What has changed for them in this scene?
If another character is also in the scene and something changes for them, that’s fine, but I’m not going to put that characters change down. I’m going to put the protagonist’s change down, because the reader, the audience connects to the protagonist. So why would I want to track secondary character value shifts? I know that sounds like gobbledygook. Secondary characters are characters who are not the protagonist. They’re the sidekicks, or the antagonist, or the friend of the innkeeper or whatever. I don’t really — Those characters are super important, but I’m not going to put my laser focus on them until I’m on my 12th draft, and then I’ll say, “How can I make them better serve my protagonist.” I look at the entire spectrum of the story from the point of view the protagonist. How is it going from them? What’s going on for him? What’s going on for — Or her?
In the Silence of the Lambs, the entire story, I looked at it from the point of view of the protagonist, which was Clarice Starling. She served as the master detective of that crime story even though she didn’t play the role of master detector. She played a different role. I’m not going to get into that, but in the Silence of the Lambs there were scenes where she was not in the scene. What do I do then?
Okay, if my protagonist is not in a particular scene, how do I evaluate the scene in terms of the Story Grid? What’s going to be the most helpful? That’s a question I’m asking you, Tim. It’s not rhetorical.
[0:22:26.4] TG: Oh, you’re not being rhetorical?
[0:22:28.1] SC: No, I’m not.
[0:22:29.2] TG: So then so then I would say you’re looking at how the value shift or whatever the characters are doing in that scene, how it affects the protagonist?
[0:22:38.5] SC: That’s right.
[0:22:39.7] TG: Yes!
[0:22:41.7] SC: How it affects the protagonist or how it shifts the genre’s global want and need. So in a crime story, the global want of a crime story, what the protagonist wants in a crime story, is to find the identity of the bad guy and to bring them to justice. That’s what they want. What they need is to make the world safe again. So if there’s a scene that does not have my major protagonist in it, I’m going to say to myself, “How does this scene with these protagonists affect the global external want? Meaning does this scene get us closer to finding the real identity of the killer or bag guy and bringing them to justice or not? Huh! What’s the other one? Does this scene threaten the safety, the global safety of the universe of the story?”
I’m going to look for the characters who experience a value shift and think about how those secondary characters value shifts affect the protagonist. This isn’t as hard as it sounds like I’m saying it is. Just use the Northstar, the protagonist. Just say to yourself, “Is this good for my protagonist or is this bad for my protagonist? How is this good? How is this bad?” Then use that Northstar to figure out which of the characters in the scene, or often times there isn’t even a character in the scene. It can often be a short exposition scene that has global value shift with not much detail character shifts.
For example, in Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris has a section where he describes what happens when a senator, a senator’s daughter or son or siblings or loved one is kidnapped. What are the procedures? The way you would evaluate that kind of scene is it’s exposition. It really doesn’t move much along, but what it does establish is threat, security, things are — When this kind of thing happens, the security gets worse. That’s a negative.
When you’re looking at, say, a larger spectrum novel or story, say, a big social commentary story, like Animal Farm. Animal Farm, there isn’t necessarily — Yes, you could say that Snowball and Napoleon are the protagonist and antagonist in that story, but it’s a multi-character, multi-plot stranded brilliant novel. Because I know that Animal Farm is about revolution, it’s a social novel, it’s a social commentary novel, and social commentary novels are about “revolution” when one person in power is usurped by another and then it comes back again, then I’m going to look at the story from that prison. What is the global core of what’s this story about? In a social drama, it’s about the revolution. It’s about the shift in power. I’m going to look at the scenes. Are we getting closer to the global change in power? Are we getting away from it? Are we going back to the way things were? Etc. Etc.
Genre, again, is really an important thing. It’s a massively important thing and it’s slippery. It took us a long time to figure out what your global genre was, action labyrinth with a maturation plot underneath, but a secondary one.
All right, go ahead.
[0:27:18.1] TG: Looking at the value shift, because it’d be like safe to unsafe or love to un-love. Is there ever like — A question that have come up in discussions I’ve had is like are there right and wrong words to use here? My answer has been the whole point of those two columns are just to show that there was a shift, right? Because a scene that doesn’t shift doesn’t go anywhere, and so even if you have four scenes that are safe to unsafe, maybe not in a row, but like if you use the same phrasing over and over, that’s okay because the point is not to get the spreadsheet right. The point is to just show that there’s something shifting. Would you agree with that or do you feel like spending a good amount of time, making sure you have the right phrasing down in that column is time well spent?
[0:28:15.1] SC: I’m going to agree with it 50%.
[0:28:18.3] TG: Okay. See, this is why like when people ask, because people that listen to the podcast that we do this, they start asking me advice and I’m like, “Okay. You’re asking the person that like every week says, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” I’m going to give you answer, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.”
[0:28:39.3] SC: Well, I would agree with that on your — Now, this is going to bum everyone out, but it’s the truth. Guess what? This is going to be really hard to believe, but I do multiple drafts of the spreadsheet. I think about it. I don’t just come up with the right answer immediately, and sometimes, yeah, I put in a place hanger and I’ll write safe to unsafe and I’ll move on because I got to pick up my son at baseball practice and I don’t have much time to really plumb the depths of my soul about how accurate that it.
Now, the reason why I go through the book multiple times, especially masterworks, because masterworks, things like the old man in the sea or The Great Gatsby or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Pride and Prejudice or on and on and on. The reason why they’re masterworks is because they have subtleties and gradations of writing and value shift that you don’t get after one read. You’re not going to make the right — Now, if you are just evaluating whether the scenes are working. Yes, you can be as — You can have a scene that works in the micro but doesn’t work in the macro. So it’s good to know why it doesn’t work in the macro, and it’s usually has to do with they are not progressively complicating the story, they’re repeating the same progressive complication. That’s one. Another one is they are fiddling around superfluously in a way that is show offy because they just wrote this really great scene with a secondary character and they don’t want to lose it, or they made a mistake.
Is there a right answer? No, but — I mean, is there a wrong answer? Not necessarily, but there are greater, more enlightening ways of explaining a scene and oftentimes doing those don’t occur to the editor or to the writer until they’ve gone through the book several times. Things take on the deeper meaning the more you think about them.
Yes, it’s fine to put safe, unsafe 30 times or five times or however many times in that first draft of the spreadsheet, but then on the second round, when you say safe, unsafe, you say to yourself, “Is that the best description of this?” Yes, they move from safe to unsafe, but isn’t it more about vulnerability and safety? Like they’re vulnerable to — They become more vulnerable. That’s more accurate, more specific than, “Oh, they’re just unsafe.”
They’re vulnerable. They’re not quite yet unsafe. Is vulnerability unsafe? Yes it is, but it’s also not quite as bad as being threatened. So then you start looking at your safe to unsafe and say, “Is there a better more specific description of this scene? Is this really about safety or is it about the possibility of losing safety.
Every morning I go on a walk with my kids and we do vocabulary cards for fun. What happens is that they’ll ask me, “What is that mean and why?” For example, the other day we’re doing incompatible and they’re like “Two things that don’t go together.” I’m like, “Yeah.”
The next word was incongruous, and they’re like, “Two things that don’t go together.” I say, “Yes, that’s true, but isn’t it more specific — Isn’t incongruity more specific than incompatibility? To be incongruous is two things sort of in the same family that don’t go together.” It would be like a basketball shoe and a high heel are incongruous, and they’re incompatible too, but incongruous connotes a level of — A strata of being part of the category and not being alike as supposed to basketballs and pizzas. A golf ball and a basketball or incongruous. A basketball and a pizza are incompatible, or something like that. I’m just talking off the top of my head, but that’s the kind a level of thinking that you kind of eventually start to acquire the more and more you do editing. The more you think about story, the more you think about specificity. I always say, with specificity comes universality. This is a way to help your writers become more specific. If you’re unspecific, then you’re less helpful than someone who is. I’m talking about the story editor. If the story editor says, “I don’t know. It was just a little bit of a downer.” That’s not helpful, but if you say, “In scene 27, it’s unclear about the danger. I understand, and you did make a shift between safe to unsafe, but it’s still a little bit vague. Can you come up with an action for one of the characters that directly threatens the other character instead of implying a negative on safety? Have slap hit the other guy across the face. That’s a direct active demonstration of a threat or, you know what, when you have the guy slap the other guy in the face, it was too much. Bring it back a little bit and have him say something — Have him tell a little anecdote about somebody who crossed him and the bad end that came to them.
Don’t have them directly assault the person. Have him tell an anecdote about the last — The last person who said that to me is now working at the dunk. That’s a way of threatening somebody without slapping them across the face, right? These are the levels and the fun. I know this doesn’t sound fun, but this is fun for a weird guy like myself and others story nerds out there, is to really — Can you make that a little bit — This is the kind of thing that — I saw this great documentary on Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian, and he’s just obsessed about the structure and form of a joke and he has reams and reams and reams of foolscap paper from his entire career that he’s never thrown out of every single joke he has written and why it works, the choices he made to make it work and why using the word ghetto isn’t as good as challenged neighborhood or something like that.
When I saw that documentary I’m like, “Yes! Jerry Seinfeld and I are exactly a lot, except he has a $17 billion and I don’t, but let’s set jokes the way I look at stories. He’s fascinated by the underlying structure and the choices that the writer makes to create an effect. In his case, the effect that he’s looking for is the laugh.
I’ll just take say one more thing about this Seinfeld thing and I found it so fascinating. He said he does not have respect for comedians who don’t have the courage to pause, and I think he was being interviewed by Howard Stern and he said, “What do you mean pause?” Seinfeld said, “After you tell a joke, you have to pause. You have to let the audience have the moment to absorb the joke, process the joke and then laugh. If you talk over the pause, you’re robbing them of the effect of the joke, but the trick is when you pause, you here silence, and the worst thing that a comedian can experience is silence. So it takes courage to wait and pause before beginning the next joke.”
Then I was like, “I’m not sure what he means.” Then I watched some comedians and they’re always talking over their punchline to the next joke, because they’re afraid the joke bombs and they want to get it over with and get to the next joke. So that robs the audience of a powerful emotion, because they can’t laugh as much as they would if they were allowed. And the writer of fiction and storytelling has to really think about every single piece of structure and form in their story and say to themselves, “Is this the right kind of threatening or is it not? Is this threatening or is this un-safety? It’s safe to unsafe. Is that accurate? Sometimes it is accurate.” Sometimes it’s like in Lord of the Rings, at one moment they’re safe and the next minute they’re unsafe. It’s not any deeper than that, but oftentimes it is.
In in big action, you can have larger external value shifts that, “Yeah, it’s not the end of the world,” but especially when you’re writing deep, internal genre work, it’s the subtle gradations of value that you want to start to really get good at identifying so that you can help the writer get better at identifying it for themselves.
Now, the words, the values themselves, I think there’s a group of people who do a thesaurus of certain things and one they do, like urban settings and one they do rural settings and they’re helpful because they’re just packed with different words for different things. I think they may have one on values, but if you just look on basic human values and Google it and then just kind of start compiling a list, these are things that have spectrums of value, right? There’s good. There’s bad. There’s hope. There’s despair. There’s freedom, slavery, truth untruth and on and on. Those are the big human value words, the more familiar you are with the panoply of them. How many? There are tons of them. The better you’ll be able to describe your interpretation of a particular scene, and when you do describe it and say you describe a scene to a writer and you go, “Oh, this is when your character moves from blank to blank,” and they go, “Really? That’s what you saw?” Oh my gosh! I didn’t even know that.” This happens all the time with Steve Pressfield when I’m editing his stuff. I’ll send him a spreadsheet of something and he go, “Oh my gosh! I had no idea that I was that good. I didn’t know that that one scene worked that well. I just thought I was killing time until I got to the next scene.”
Developing this language and using the Story Grid spreadsheet as a communication device was the whole goal of me taking the time to write all these stuff up, and these all comes from — I didn’t just make this up. This is Aristotle. This is Robert McKee. This is Friedman. This is — And on and on and on, Kurt Vonnegut. These are all story experts who have come before me. I’m into it. So it’s like the Lionel train guy wants to know about all the different kinds of track. I want to know all the different levels of story, and so that’s how I came up with this stuff, is I compiled all of the information I could and then I wanted to make it the most practical for a story editor so that they can help the writers identify the problems so that they can fix the problems.
[0:42:46.1] TG: Let me get back to looking at the column. So you have the value shirt, polarity shift and then why do you have the turning point? What’s important about logging the turning point of the scene?
[0:42:57.6] SC: Well, two things turning points are the progressive complication right before the crisis. They are the things that make the crisis occur in the scene. So the turning point can happen one of two ways. Like I said, it could turn actively. A man slaps another man, that’s an active turning point. That shifts that brings up a crisis. The crisis for the person who got slapped is, “What am I going to do about this. If I punch the guy back, I will lose my job. I don’t punch the guy back, I’m going to be his bitch. Which one is worse.” That’s a best bad choice situation and it’s turned by the action of the guy slapping the other guy.
Okay, the other one I described where the other man says, “Let me tell you a about a little story. The last employee who disagreed with me now works at the town dump.” Okay? That’s a revelation turning point, because the guy doesn’t actively hurt or punch or actively slapped the guy, he tells him a revelation, “Hey, let me tell you something. The last person who was in your position who didn’t do what I told him to do is now working at the town dump.” That’s a revelation. It’s a truth, or if it isn’t the truth — You can see how this can get a little squishy. You can interpret that as an active threat too. It’s a verbal threat of revelation. A more clear revelation would be, “Oh my gosh! The buildings on fire,” while these guys are having an argument, “The building is on fire.” That’s a revelatory turning point that shifts the scene. Before they safe and now they’re unsafe. All the underlying stuff that the reader thought the scene was about, a confrontation between a boss and his underling is now shifted to something else entirely.
This is what Mark Boal in Zero Dark Thirty, and I wrote about it somewhere. There’s this great scene where you have these two women who are CIA agents, they’re living in a compound where it’s all filled with men and all that entails. So they decided to go out and have a glass of wine together one night. They go out for the glass of wine, you’re watching the movie and you’re thinking, “Oh, this is that great scene where the two women talk about how shady it is to work with men,” and then all of a sudden a bomb goes off. That’s a revelatory and active turning point. Somebody has exploded a bomb and now the scene shifts. They were safe and now they’re unsafe. Now they have to get out of it.
This is a way to really create tension and suspense for a writer, is to think about turning points. How am I turning the scene? Is this interesting or is this what they’re going to expect? A turning point for the usual women having a glass of wine or two guys having a beer at the bar is something like, “I’ve come here to tell you a deep secret. I am not the person you think I am,” and that’s a revelatory turning point that everybody knows is coming. But if the guys at the bar or the women having a glass of wine are sitting and a bomb goes off, that’s a turning point that your audience is not going to expect and it shifts the value nevertheless in a really extraordinary, heart-thumping way.
When you asked me, “Why do you have the turning point column?” That’s the answer, because if your turning points are action, action, action, action, action, action, action, guess what your reader is going to think the next wave of scene is going to turn through action? You got a mix up your action revelation turning points and you have to think about them. Is this what the reader is going to expect at the beginning of this scene? If I have the scene where two guys decide to have a beer at a bar, what are they going to expect that scene to be? One guy is going to say, “Ma! You won’t believe my boss. He’s a jerk.” The others in going to say, “You think your boss is a jerk? What about my boss. What about the old woman who I live with? Oh! My kids are — It’s boring. We’ve seen this scene. It’s boring.”
But if you change it and you make it something else with a different kind of value shift and you turn it a different way, then you grab your reader by the lapels and they go, “Oh my gosh! What’s going to happen next.” So that’s why the turning point is in there, so that the editor can communicate to the writer and tell them why they’re turning point isn’t working, why they should change it or why it’s great. Sometimes the writer doesn’t even know that they’ve turned something in a really great way and there’s nothing better than hearing that you did something well.
[0:48:32.7] TG: Okay. So here I want to — The first, like the left side of the spreadsheet is stuff that like makes perfect sense to be in there, especially with everything we talk about Story Grid. But then pretty much the whole right half is like things like the period of time when this take place, how long the scene — Like how much time lapses during the scene, location, on stage characters, number of onstage characters, offstage characters, number of offstage characters. Why is it important to track all of that through the story as well? Because that seems like that doesn’t have anything to do with five commandments, or genre, or that kind of stuff. So why are we tracking that stuff as well?
[0:49:21.8] SC: It’s all continuity. You want to make sure that your story is consistent and is believable, and even if you’re writing fantasy or set on Galactus Saga and you’re on a spaceship [inaudible 0:49:39.3]. The rules of those particular universes need to be established and they have to be — There has to have a continuity. All of those other columns are about making sure that your setting in your world and the things that happen and the number of characters are consistent and believable, because art is about creating a fake, believable world.
If you don’t have continuity to make sure that all of these boxes are checked, if you make a few mistakes, you will throw a lot of readers out. They just will be like, “Oh, this guy is a clown, or this woman’s writing, it’s just ridiculous. I don’t believe — How can it be next Thursday when yesterday was the Tuesday after the Wednesday before?”
If you look at the masterworks and you do all this for a masterwork like I did with Pride and Prejudice, you’ll see that it’s a perfectly constructed story. It moves from the fall of one morning in a very specific time to the Christmas of the following year. It’s about 15 months that you can literally track if you pay attention to all of the clues that the writer puts into the story.
Jane Austen put very specific times, “A fortnight later, she was going to X,” and then you check it and the next time you check in on that fortnight later, she’s actually in the woods exactly like Jane Austen said she would be. She’s on the thing. Mr. Collins is over there. Mr. Darcy is in Pemberlyy, because he left a week past Tuesday. So all that continuity has to work, and this is the way you track it the make sure.
Instead of freaking out about it and waking up in the middle of the night and say, “I’m not sure if I kept the same character name,” if you have it in the spreadsheet, you’re not going wake up in the middle of the night because you be able to track and say, “Oh, you know what? I have 17 scenes with two people one after the other. I really should mix it up and get a larger cast in the mix for the next thing.”
All of these are really irritating and no fun to write and mark, but if you’re an editor, one of the worst things about amazon.com is that ignorant people write in comments, like this book could have used an editor. Boy! There were some mistakes in here. Boy! Where was the editor? These columns will save you from that kind of comment.
The other thing that I will say is, inevitably, something is going to fall through the cracks and you will have to live with imperfection sometimes. You’re going to strive for the most perfectly continuous story ever, the editor in the writer will, but sometimes you’re going to a make a mistake and it’s not the end of the world, and if you get a comment like that on Amazon, don’t read it like I do.
[0:53:12.4] TG: Okay. I have one kind of bigger question I want to end with here, because when I try to write — It’s basically when should you actually use the Story Grid spreadsheet? Because I like I said, these things are good, they’re good if you use them the right way at the right time. They’re bad if you use them the wrong way at the wrong time. You had me do this with the first draft of my story to prepare to write the second draft. Is that when you suggest doing this? Would you ever suggest trying to like spreadsheet a story before you write, or is this mainly in the evaluation tool of something that’s already been written?
[0:53:53.4] SC: Well, I wouldn’t say that you couldn’t use it before you wrote the novel. The only the only downside to that is that it could create something really not formulaic, but uninspired. My general thinking is use it when you want, and if you get stuck and you don’t know where you are and you’ve written 15 scenes and you don’t know how to get into the middle build or you think something is missing in your beginning, go ahead. Do the Story Grid spreadsheet and see if that will enlighten you to help you.
When you’re having trouble with the macro, go micro. So when you hit a big, big, “Oh my gosh! I don’t know what to do in the middle build,” that’s a big macro problem, right? When you have macro problems, turn your attention to the micro, and from the micro, that work will usually lead you to a solution for your macro problem. The same thing with micro, if you’re really sweating whether or not your particular scene in a particular time, step back and ask your six core questions. Look at your foolscap global Story Grid and say, “How does this scene best serve my macro? Is this scene even part of the macro or should I jettison it because it doesn’t fit my global story?”
The way to use the spreadsheet is the same way to use the foolscap global Story Grid, which is your one page of your entire novel in one piece of paper, or even more fundamentally, the six core questions. If you really want to do a quick macro look, just ask yourself the six core editorial questions that we went over the past couple of weeks and that will help you make a decision about your micro scene, and vice versa.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:56:05.4] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.
If you’d like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review.
Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.