The Atomic Theory of Storytelling

Learn How To Tell A Story That Works

Get my 5-day video course on how to tell better stories with Story Grid.

Enter your email below for a free Story Grid course!

[0:00:00.5] 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 am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me 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 continue working through the basics of storytelling and looking at the Story Grid. We start off talking about the Kubler-Ross Curve and the gas gauge of needs. Then we also just talk some more about the fears that we’ve talked about in the last couple episodes. How that applies and how that mirrors some comic theory as well. It’s really interesting. It’s a great episode. I think you’ll enjoy it, so let’s jump in and get started.

Shawn, as we’ve been working through the basics and the foundational principles of Story Grid, the next thing I was looking at was the Kubler-Ross change curve for story, which then got me thinking about the gas gauge of needs, which you came up with after the book, which got me thinking about the hierarchy of needs.

[0:01:18.8] SC: Yes.

[0:01:19.6] TG: Which to me, they all are a way of looking at the emotional valence in different ways. I just wanted to look at that, talk about the emotional valence stuff, because we talked about math last time. Transitioning into how you think about these things and how it applies to story. I’m not really sure where to start, other than each of those things are a different way to look at the emotional drives of your characters.

I mean, in the book you start off with the Kubler-Ross change curve, so maybe we start there. I just think it’s interesting how so much of what we’re looking at is emotional changes inside our characters, while at the same time dealing with the external value shifts as well. Then they also overlap in a lot of ways, right?

[0:02:20.2] SC: Yeah, they do. I mean, it’s a riddle within a riddle, a wheel within a wheel. There are so many different levels of story that it’s easy to get lost in the weeds. I think, like I was saying last week, the real trick to it is to find that level ground where your resolution at looking at the problem is the most helpful for you in the exact moment that you’re struggling. I know that sounds strange, but when I’m talking about the resolution, it’s really important that if you look at just the way you navigate the world yourself from moment to moment, from goal to goal, what you discover is that a lot of this stuff that we talk about in Story Grid is very self-evident. Meaning you can figure it out yourself using the Kubler-Ross curve, or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or the five leaves genre clover.

These are all tools in the cognitive science world. They’d be what you would call heuristics, meaning that they are these things that we do in order to solve a problem. Whenever I get stuck, I always go back to that central question is what’s the problem? Defining the problem actually ends up being a really – the most important thing in actually solving it. If you don’t know exactly what the problem is, then you’re going to go all over the place. You’re never going to find the right level of resolution.

I think what you’re trying to get at in the question that you’re posing is okay, we’ve looked at the math, we’ve looked at the quantitative approach to story. What about character? How do we use the Story Grid in order to think about character? Character, meaning the progression of a protagonist from a beginning point where they’re one way, to an end point where they have changed. Their worldview has shifted, or their attainment of their object of desire, external object of desire has either succeeded or failed.

How do we navigate that problem? How do we get from a character starting one place and the classic arcing to another place by the end of the story? Well, I’d like to begin here is just think about a simple problem. You wake up in the morning and your routine tells you a certain set of heuristic tools in order for you to get out of the bedroom and make it to work. You wake up in the morning and as you’re getting out of bed, you’re not even really operating consciously at this point, because it’s become such a routine, you accidentally step on your dog’s chew toy.

That unexpected event causes you to actually wake up for a second, okay? Now that unexpected event is what I defined a couple of weeks ago as a ball of chaos, a phere, because you didn’t expect that thing to happen and you’re going to have to figure out what it means and what to do about it. If it just hurts your toe a little bit, then you know what? You move forward and you’re fine and you say, “Uh, yikes. I can’t believe the dog left his toy there. I can’t even kick the dog, because the dog is downstairs. What am I going to do?”

All right, so then you go on about your day and that little ball of chaos wasn’t very large, right? You’re not going to – your day is not going to change based upon stepping on that dog toy. However, that same unexpected event could randomly cause you to seriously hurt your ankle. You could twist your ankle so severely that you can’t really even place a weight on your foot anymore.

That unexpected event, that ball of chaos which you seemingly think at the beginning of what I was telling you was a very small little ball of chaos, now has exploded into a massive ball of chaos that’s going to prevent you from not just going to the bathroom and brushing your teeth, but even getting out of your bed, right?

[0:07:28.8] TG: Yeah.

[0:07:30.4] SC: The reason why I’m pointing this out is that the key to story is to really focus on that singular problem. The singular problem is how am I going to define these pheres throughout my story? How are they going to get smaller and larger and how are they going to get progressively more difficult to solve, etc.? From that moment, the character, all these things about character, who somebody is, those questions begin to be defined by the actions that they take when they deal with the unexpected pheres, the unexpected events.

For example, we’re Story Gridding that little scenario, the first scenario would be well, the goal from the character was to get to the bathroom. What happened in that line of reasoning is that on their way to the bathroom, they were delayed a little bit by a toy and it hurt their foot and they screamed a curse word and then they made it to the bathroom. At the beginning of that scene, they are trying to get to the bathroom, they’re trying to relieve themselves. At the end of the scene, they succeed. The only thing that happens is a little event that causes them a little bit of discomfort. That’s not a very interesting scene is it?

[0:09:05.6] TG: No.

[0:09:06.5] SC: No, right? The phere ball in that scene isn’t very large and it’s not very interesting and it’s not going to make anybody want to read any more. However, if the other scene happens and when they step on the dog door, they seriously injured their ankle, then they do not reach their goal of getting to the bathroom in that moment.

Now depending on how much they have to go to the bathroom, they’ll probably have to crawl to the bathroom and get there. It’s more interesting if and this is usually what happens in a comedy, is somebody gets out of bed, steps on the dog toy, twists their ankles so much that they can’t even walk, then they have to crawl to the bathroom. It’s funny, because that’s all happened to us at one point or another in our lives; when things got so terrible that we had to actually crawl somewhere, because we needed to get to the goal.

As I’m talking about this, you’re starting to meaning, the reader or the viewer is starting to get a sense of who that person is, right? You never say this is the person who’s tenacious. Jim Smith woke up tenaciously and decided that he was going to get through the day no matter what, right?

[0:10:26.7] TG: You’re right. God forbid you ever write that. Yes.

[0:10:31.4] SC: Instead, you show him tenaciously getting through the day, then it becomes more and more funny. Anyway, I know I’ve gotten off on a tangent here, but I do just want to say the big problem with story and the more and more I think about it, the more I really am attaching myself to this idea is really those moments of those little balls of chaos called pheres that drop into moments in time that force the character or characters to change actions in order to get what they want.

The larger those balls are, the more difficulties they have. Progressively, you want the phere balls to get larger and larger and larger as the story progresses. Those are the things that cause people to change, either attain their object of desire, or not attain their object of desire and have to come up with a new world view in order to assimilate that new information.

The Kubler-Ross diagram and a lot of people have said to me, well a lot of – there’s been some research that says that the Kubler-Ross change curve is invalid now and it’s been disproved. Well, the way I look at it is I think it’s a beautiful metaphor. I think it’s really, really well done in terms of the emotional experiences that we have when we have to deal with very fundamental, ice-breaking, chaotic change in our life, where we’re walking on a sheet of ice and all of a sudden, it cracks and we fall through the ice and we’re in the icy water of chaos and we don’t know what to do.

I think the Kubler-Ross metaphor is a very good one in the way we metabolize that chaos in our own lives. I stand by it. I think it’s a really good method to remind yourself a specifics moments in the story of where your character emotionally will be in those places. You have the initial shock. I actually have the book right here, so let me see if I can find it.

[0:12:45.1] TG: It’s right in the middle.

[0:12:46.7] SC: Oh, I got it. Yeah. Page 147 for you, following along at home. Yes. Okay. The Kubler-Ross curve, it begins with a shock. The shock happens in the beginning hook, right? The shock is the inciting incident of the story. It’s the first phere ball, phere’s phere that drops into the story. Shock, so if you stepped on the dog toy and you twist your ankle, it’s shocking. Then you deny it. That’s the second stage.

Now denial means, you know what? It’s not so bad. I’m sure I can walk on this. I’ve had sprained ankles before. You stand up on it and you try and walk on it. It’s excruciatingly painful. That pushes you into the next stage of the Kubler-Ross thing, which is anger. You get angry. I can’t believe this happened to me. I can’t believe the dog left the toy there. I can’t believe there’s no one in my family that I can blame for the fact that my dog left a toy there, okay?

Then the next stage of the Kubler-Ross is bargaining. What do you say to yourself is, “Okay, if I can just get to the bathroom, go to the bathroom, brush my teeth and work through my day like I normally would, I suspect that my ankle will start to loosen up and I’ll be able to use it eventually.” Maybe you start crawling there. Then you reach the bathroom, you get up on your feet again and you realize, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to walk on this end goal. Just no way.” That’s when you hit depression.

The depression is I’ve got nine meetings today. I’ve got to make my payroll. I’ve got to pay my mortgage, but this is the worst day for this to happen to me. My daughter has a violin recital tonight, how am I going to get to that? You just start going through the litany of all the things and all of the objects of desire that you have to accomplish that day and come to the realization that you’re just not going to be able to do it. You’re not in to chaos.

Depression can last quite a bit of time, depending how big a moment of chaos that you’ve experienced, right? Eventually, eventually, hopefully and if you don’t have this in the story and it’s a deeply internal story, nobody’s going to be very happy with you. Next you go to the deliberation stage. Now deliberation stage is when you start to pick apart the real problem. Now the real problem is, “Oh, man. I can’t get out of bed today. I’m going to be locked in bed.” You deliberate a solution to that problem.

Well, let’s see. If I asked my son to get my computer from across the street, then I can do some work today. If I explained to my daughter that as much as I would love to go to the recital, I just can’t make it because I’m physically unable to get there. She’s going to be super disappointed, but she’s a good kid and she’ll understand she’ll be nice about it, right? You go through this deliberation process until you finally make the choice. The choice is staying in bed today. I’m not going to work. I’m going to stay in bed. I’m going to put some ice on this and I’m going to bear through it and maybe tomorrow I can get back.

That is the final stage, which is the integration of all the information. You’ve accepted your fate, you’re going to work through it and you’re going to move on. That’s the way we metabolize these pheres, these things that are unexpected events that drop into our daily life over and over and over and over again. It’s the one big meta problem that we constantly have to reinvent and solve day in and day out, micro and macro.

When you’re thinking about the progression of your characters and thinking about the progression of your scenes, you really need to understand that your reader never wants to go back. They never want a repeated phere to be used over and over again, or it gets boring. If the pheres aren’t getting progressively more difficult to solve, then they’re going to get bored too. Another tool that just occurred to me that would be very useful would be to probably – well, we actually do this already, right? We already do the column in the Story Grid spreadsheet, which is called the turning point.

Now the turning point is either a revelation, someone discovers something that they didn’t know before, or new information comes on the scene, unexpected information comes into the scene and changes the value of the scene from a positive to a negative, or a negative to a positive. Or it’s an active unexpected event like stepping on the dog toy. That’s an active unexpected event that turns the scene from everyday course of events to the bathroom, to “Oh, my gosh. My world is falling apart. I can’t move.”

As you track those turning points in your scenes, those are really a good place to focus on, whether or not you are mixing it up and you are making these variant and larger and smaller as well. There’s different kinds of – you’ll alternate revelation, action and revelation, action so you’re not repeating the same type. You also are progressively making the pheres larger and larger difficulties and problems for your characters to solve.

That’s a way to put this – the strategy of well, my character grew up in the depression, right? All these character paths, character histories that people recommend you do, I think they’re a waste of time, unless they’re helpful. The key to the actual interest behind your story is in these turning-point progressive complications and what I’m now calling pheres.

[0:19:37.1] TG: Is this something, these pheres, is this something we’ll start tracking maybe in the spreadsheet? How are you thinking of them? Yeah.

[0:19:48.0] SC: All right, well yesterday I was just tooling around with the concept, right? One of the things that I think is interesting is that we talked a little bit – maybe we didn’t, but the basic unit of matter, like anything is the atom, right? The atomic model where your protons, neutrons and electrons, right? You have a nucleus in an atomic model and guess what an atom is? It’s a sphere. It’s a sphere-shaped conception. I don’t think that’s coincidence, because what’s earth? It’s a sphere. What does it do? It revolves around the sun, right?

Our metaphors are usually you can track them to phenomenology, right? The phenomenon of earth revolving around the sun is probably what was instigated the model of the atom, but I think it’s a very accurate model and I’m going to go with it. The atom has the protons and the neutrons and it has the electron shell. What’s a phere? A phere in my estimation is it has this center. The center of the phere there’s two parts to it, it’s binary and it’s paradoxical. It’s half opportunity and it’s half chaos, right? It’s half opportunity, half obstacle.

Let me just go back to the dog toy thing. Now you might say to yourself, “How is that dog toy any opportunity?” Well, if you look at it this way, what if and this is the random nature of our environment, what if that dog toy stopped you from going to work that day? Now if you had gone to work that day, you would have had to go to the World Trade Center to work that day, right? In September 11th. That’s a way that something that’s seemingly, and this is what survivor’s guilt is based upon is the random notion that an event that seems a very bad thing happening to you actually being a very good thing is the nature of the phere. It’s the nature of this thing I’m talking about.

That’s the binary nature of the phere. It’s half obstacle and it’s half opportunity, or potential. Just like a proton and neutrons are at the center of the nucleus of the atom. Now what’s revolving around the phere is energy. Just like the electrons are revolving around the atom, there’s a lot of energy involved in those electron movements. In fact, they’re moving so quickly we can’t even find out where they are at any one moment. That’s the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

It’s a pretty fascinating notion that Heisenberg proved the uncertainty of time and space. Strange, right? That’s quantitatively been proven. Anyway, so the phere has this binary nature and it has a bunch of energy probably similar to the electron shells around atoms. Now atoms, one proton and one neutron with one electron is a hydrogen atom, which is 75% of all matter in the universe is made up of hydrogen. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It’s the most fundamental unit of the atom. 75% of all matter in the universe is made up of hydrogen; one proton, one neutron, one electron, okay and it has energy going around it.

Now what happens in terms of atoms and matter? The more protons and neutrons and electrons that you start piling into this atomic model, the larger the elements become. I think naturally-occurring you can go very high. There’s a lot of them that are made synthetically. I don’t have a periodic table of the elements in front of me, but we all know that lead, or ferrous iron is much larger than the hydrogen. Guess what? My model of the phere has a similar conception. A small little phere like a hydrogen atom dropping into your everyday life, you can metabolize that pretty easily.

Oh, I’ve got a little – I nicked my toe when I stepped on the dog toy, not a problem. Before you know it, it’s even out of your consciousness, right? You move through the day and you forget about that little fear that nicked your – a microsecond of time out of your life. The larger these things become, the more difficult they are to metabolize. Again, the dog toy turns from a little hydrogen atom into an oxygen atom. It’s eight times as powerful as the hydrogen atom. I mean, not eight times as powerful, it has eight times more protons and neutrons. I don’t want to get into a big chemistry class here, but I think you can see where I’m going with this.

[0:25:21.1] TG: Yeah. The mass gets bigger, that’s what you’re saying.

[0:25:23.9] SC: It does. It does. What happens when you break open matter? Well, it’s called fission, or fusion. Fusion was you bring matter together, fission is when you break it apart. Now fission, nuclear fission is what creates nuclear power. A lot of energy is released when you bombard uranium with another element. When it breaks, energy is released. That’s what powers nuclear power and it’s also the thing that creates great destruction.

Nuclear power we’re able to harness in ways that allow us to operate machinery and it’s ordered, right? There’s a binary nature of it, it’s also chaotic. If you explode an atomic weapon, it destroys things, right? It’s the same thing with the phere. If you ignore the phere, what happens is that it gets larger and it starts to get bigger and bigger and bigger. For example, if you avoid paying your taxes in January, in February that tax phere gets larger, right? Then it gets larger and larger and larger.

Anyone who’s ever waited until April 10th to really start to pick apart that tax problem understands how large a phere can get. Usually what happens and a lot of people do this is that they’ll get an extension. Then the fear of taxes gets larger and larger and larger. What we have to do as human beings is to confront these little balls of phere as they arise and metabolize them and attack them and de-problem them, slice them up into little bits so that they’re no longer a big problem to us.

I’m an older man now. I’m 54-years-old. Guess what I do with the January 1 – December 31 actually is what I do is I balance all of my books and I run four different companies and personal stuff. I spend a good six hours on December 31st balancing all my books, making sure I’ve got everything ready to send to the accountant first week of January. When the first week of January arrives, guess what I do? I push that phere right off my desk and I zoom it to my accountant. Now it’s his problem. I pay him quite a bit of money to take care of that problem and he does a great job.

Now it’s April 2nd, I’m not worried about my taxes. I’ve already filed all of my taxes. I filed them five weeks ago. This doesn’t make me a great person, it just means that I have in my experience discovered that the tax phere can overwhelm me and it’s best to beat that sucker down when it’s small, right?

[0:28:40.5] TG: Yes. Yeah.

[0:28:41.4] SC: It’s the same meta problem for everything. What a story is is a series of protagonists that aren’t dealing with their problems. Those pheres get larger and larger and larger as the story progresses, right? That’s what we call progressive complications. That’s a great heuristic to think about when you’re telling a story. What’s my character literally doing when they’re confronted with these phere balls? Are they dealing with them, or not? Now if they are meticulous people, then they might be dealing with them, but they’re only dealing with them in the way that they know how, right?

The process of a story is showing how a character changes. We might put a bandage on our ankle and try and make our way through the day, or take painkillers so that we can make it to work, but we’re all looped up on Oxycontin, we’re not going to do very well at work. We think we’re dealing with the problem of the twisted ankle, right? That’s a character “choice,” that speaks to the way that they solve their problems. The way they solve their problems is by avoiding their problems, or numbing their problems.

Again, the more and more I think about it, the more this concept of this spherical mass called the phere is to storytelling. As the fission process opens up tremendous amounts of energy in our natural, material world, so does taking apart these phere molecules too in a story. The energy can either be destructive or creative in a story just as it is in the natural world. When the character opens up and confronts the phere, it can be constructive in that like earlier when I was saying, when the character says to themselves, “You  know what? I’m just going to have to deal with this the way it is. How am I going to do that? Well, I’m going to take the day and I’m going to spend it in bed, because I need to elevate and get my blood flowing so that I can fix my ankle.” That’s one way of dealing with it. That’s probably a creative constructive way.

What can I do in bed that is as good as or close to what I would do if I was mobile? Then you start picking apart what that might be. Now another person might say, “Oh, I’ve got some extra painkillers from when I had that surgery. I’ll just take one of those painkillers and wrap a nice bandage very tightly around my ankle and I’ll be able to get through the rest of the day.” Well you might be able to, but that’s a destructive choice, right? That’s going to hurt, physically hurt the ankle and it’s going to physically mess up your cognitive abilities during the day, because of the painkiller.

These two character choices, one character could do one thing and one character could do the other and there you go, you’re on a completely different story lines. When you get stuck, if you can find this ground-level perspective, what’s going on? What’s dropped into the scene such that the character has to deal with this problem? How is the character dealing with this problem? Is the way the character is dealing with this problem consistent to the Kubler-Ross paradigm? Is this consistent with the heroic journey, right? Because those are two paths by which we solve problems.

The heroic journey is the meta myth by which we solve the everyday problem of existence to the best solution for the most number of people including ourselves. The heroic journey is important, because the more heroic people we have in the world, the better the world becomes, because those heroic people are going into the darkness of their lives and trying to figure out what’s going on. When they do figure out what’s going on, they come back and tell everybody else.

If we have more heroic people in the world, the world will get better. That’s why we have that myth. That’s why that myth has been going on for thousands and thousands of years across cultures, the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Judeo-Christian myth, the Mohammed, all of those myths have – and when I say myth, I’m not saying a story that isn’t true. I’m saying a story that’s of such high resolution and abstraction that it’s true for all time. It’s meta true. That’s what a myth is, meta truth.

These ideas that I’m sharing with people, the Kubler-Ross thing and the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the correspondence between Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the flavor of story that we find in the genre five leaf clover, these are all means by which they’re to help you as you are moving your character through time and space in your story and these little chaotic pheres are dropping in. They’re dropping in in every scene and how your character deals with those pheres is what makes them who they are. Actions are who we are, not who we say we are.

[0:34:27.9] TG: When you’re thinking about these pheres, they’re more of a meta way to understand what’s happening in every scene and every beat and every sequence, all of those things. It’s not necessarily something that you’re going to be tracking your pheres in each scene, because that’s what all of the other questions are for. This is more of an overarching one, is that how you’re thinking it’ll be used?

[0:34:55.6] SC: Well, I’m in the early stages of coming up with a global conception of it, but it’s only makes sense to like if you were – for fun if you were to anthropomorphize these pheres dropping in and you were to assign the size of a circle for – and varying sizes of circles. If I were to say to you, “Tim, what I want you to do is here are 65 different sizes of circle and they all fit within each other. They nest within each other.” You’ve got this dot, that’s a circle, that’s going to be at the center. then you’ve got another ring around that dot and then you’ve got another ring around that ring and another ring around that ring and another – it’s a wheel within a wheel within a wheel within a wheel. I were to say to you, from that big, super big, incredible sized circle that has 65 inner shells, which one of those if you were Russian dolls, if you were to take one of those circles, which one would you assign to each scene, right?

Then guess what you would have? Now I do this in the actual Story Grid, right? I assign a literal number to the external and internal global shifts in the story based upon the scene. When you look at the Story Grid visual, you see the red line and the blue line and they’re moving all over the place and a lot of people ask me, “Well, where do you get those points to put on the graph, so that you can track and attach the lines to them?”

That’s what I’ve been intuitively doing, implicitly doing without really explicitly putting a concept around. That’s what the Story Grid actually is. You actually are doing that when you create a Story Grid. You’re actually tracking, for lack of a better word, the phere balls and you’re assigning them sizes. The negative fears are going to be progressively more negative numbers. A negative two is less bad than the negative 20. Similarly, a positive two is less good than a positive 20.

When you go through your scenes and you’re starting to track, well let me look at this scene in terms of the external global value. If it’s an action story, it’s life and death. You would go at first scene of the threshing and you would say, “Where are we on the grid of the life value? Are we closer to unconsciousness, or death, or the fate worse than death, or life?” You would probably put it somewhere in between life and unconsciousness, right? Because your protagonist, Jesse at the beginning of your story is alive A, but she’s not fully conscious, but she’s not literally unconscious, right?

It would probably be somewhere between life and unconscious on the positive Y-axis of your graph. That’s what you literally do as you walk through every scene. You evaluate each scene globally in terms of this phere and then you connect the dots and then you get a graph and then you can check that graph to see if readers are going to feel this emotional shift that you’re trying to get them to feel. Now if every single scene, Jesse is at the same action-life value, I don’t think the book is going to work very well to you.

[0:39:08.0] TG: Right. Yeah, because it’s those changes that keeps people going.

[0:39:12.6] SC: Right. The whole concept of the phere is both microly important and macroly important. When I was going through the guy steps on the dog toy micro scene, we can see that little phere, it’s the thing that actually makes the scene a scene. If I wake up and I go to the bathroom, that’s not a story. Nobody cares about that. I got my goal. Woo-hoo. I had a goal to go to the bathroom and I made it. Whoa. Nobody care – that’s not a scene, right?

[0:39:48.9] TG: Right, right.

[0:39:49.7] SC: We all know people who tells things like that you want to choke them, because they’re not telling a story. Anyway, I don’t mean to confuse you. I mean, the beauty of story is that it’s – you can look at it through many, many different lenses. Of all the lenses I look at story, it always comes back to this critical moment, the turning point progressive complication phere, that’s the thing that you just can’t live without in the story. If you were to say what’s the one indispensable unit of story, I would say it’s the phere.

[0:40:35.3] TG: Because that’s the point in the story when it shifts values.

[0:40:41.3] SC: Yeah. When we say shifts value, all that means is things change. A lot of our Story Grid editors are very intelligent people. I mean, all of them are. The place where they get a little bit hinky is when their brains are working overdrive, right? They’ll ask me questions like, “Well, I had this value shift moving from alienation to integration.” Well, Leslie had it as alone two together. Which one is more accurate? I’ll usually say you’re both accurate, right? You’re both on the money. You’re both in the arena.

Now if one of them had said, “Safe to threaten.” The other one said, “Alienated two together,” I would say depending upon the scene, one of one of them is not in the arena, because of different values. Change is really the most important thing. You know what? I’m going to take back what I just said, because the subjective interpretation of the reader, what might seem like to me alienation moving to togetherness, to someone else it might seem threatened to save.

Even within the analysis from scene to scene, there can be a spectrum of interpretation, but everyone will acknowledge that something changed. The method by which things change is through the construction of pheres, chaos pheres that the writer, author has constructed in their mind.

When you’re constructing a scene or a story, you would say to yourself, ‘What’s the greatest thing, or worse thing, or maybe the greatest and worst thing that could ever happen to this character?” Because that would be a really cool thing. For your novel, let’s try and make it specific, the greatest thing and the worst thing that could happen to Jesse would be for her to go to the threshing, right? The worst thing that could happen to her, it’s horrible, right? The best thing that could happen to Jesse is to go to the threshing.

It’s the best thing, because she has the potential to win the threshing. Not just win it, but maybe destroy it, so that’s good. What’s bad is it’s going to cost her her innocence. It’s going to cost her her understanding of the world, her very simple understanding of the world. It’s going to cost her her family. These two lists are running simultaneously. That is a very good inciting incident for a story, right?

[0:44:02.8] TG: Well, is this where a lot of times the external value shifts positive and the internal shifts negative and vice versa, because it’s both.

[0:44:13.3] SC: It’s the dual nature of existence. The dual nature of phere is that it’s both obstacle and opportunity. When your story ends and the phere results in both obstacle and opportunity happening, we the reader say to ourselves, “You know what? That story was just like life. That story was true.” That’s how you create truth in your storytelling, is because you’re not bullshitting and saying, “Oh, everything will be fine if somebody just does this,” because everyone on the planet knows there’s nothing simple about life. There is no easy road. It is always half opportunity, half obstacle. We’re constantly trying to negotiate that with ourselves.

When we start to see the world as all terrible, we’re wildly off mark, right? We’re wildly off the mark and we’re getting – we’re falling into the depths of depression, because all we’re focusing on, all we’re looking at is the dark side of the phere, right? When we look only at the positive side of the phere, that’s just as bad, because we’re bullshitting ourselves. It’s like that woman who started that blood company Theranos. Elizabeth –

[0:45:48.2] TG: Yeah, the Holmes. Yeah.

[0:45:50.3] TG: Yeah, Elizabeth Holmes, right? I watched the documentary. I read the book Bad Blood and that’s what my conclusion was. This woman was so completely committed to the mythos of creation and Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley. If I wear my black turtleneck, everything’s going to be fine. If we fail 10,000 times, on the 10,001st first we’ll make it, right? That’s someone who’s completely deluding themselves. She’s believing her own bullshit and the bullshit was pumped into her from our culture.

Now there are plenty of people who don’t do that, right? I’m not saying this is the way everybody is in Silicon Valley, because I don’t think that’s true. I think in her case, it was true and everybody is trying to figure out, “Well, geez. What motivated her? I don’t get it. Why did she keep lying and not – because all she could see and she was fully committed to that vision was the opportunity of chaos. The opportunity of chaos. She was fully committed and that’s all she could see.”

Whereas somebody else, all they will do is see the destruction and the difficulties and the obstacles of chaos, the darkness of chaos. I’m going to get wiped out. If I don’t do what everybody else does, everything is going to be ruined for me. Everything is corrupt. There’s no good people in the world. It’s all BS, right? Those people fall down a well of depression that’s very difficult get out of.

Now what we need to do, what the hero does is they navigate those two worlds. They understand yep, things can get bad and things can get really great. What I want to do is I want to go down this middle road, so you look at the yin-yang symbol, what do you have? You have this road in the middle of it. One part is light, one part is dark. What the hero does is navigate that journey from that path that’s in the yin-yang’s symbol from one part of the circle to the other. They want to walk that line. You’ll see it’s not a straight line. It’s not a straight line.

Every time you have to check where you are, what’s going on, what’s this thing that dropped into my – what’s this unexpected event? What can I do to fix it? Oh, I have taxes due. You know what? Let me knock that thing out of my way, because I’ve got places to go, all right? That’s what the hero does is they navigate that landscape between the light and the dark. Every now and then they got to go in the dark, because you don’t get anything new going into the light. Then you come back and then you add to the light and then it’s this constant toggling between the darkness and the light. That’s what the hero does and that’s what a story is.

Telling the story of how to do that. In your story, Jesse has to toggle between the lightness and the darkness. At the end of book one, her wish to bring light has what? It’s caused great darkness to fall. We know we’re going to get a sequel to your novel, because she’s not the person who’s just going to let darkness reign. She’s going to go into that darkness and try and bring some light. This is the meta myth of your novel that you’ve been working on for four years that was probably in your mind just these – you’re probably saying, “Shawn tells me I need to do the hero’s journey. I’m going to do the hero’s journey,” okay is that right?

You’re doing these checkpoints and that’s fine when you’re learning something new. I’m not criticizing you for that. I did the same thing. When you can pull back your vision and say, “Hey, wow. Yeah, I guess, you know what? My novel, it’s close to being ready to be published because it really is fitting in to that meta meth. Jesse really is a hero who’s navigating between these two worlds and she has to actually come down on one side. She has to step into the darkness in order to get back to the light.” The yin-yang – it’s cross-cultural, right? I’m not Asian. I don’t really know anything about the Asian culture, except that symbol I go, “Yup, that symbol is true.”


[0:50:35.3] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out 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 like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at If you would 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 Apple podcasts 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.


About the Author

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. She’s been a Story Grid junkie since 2015 and became a certified editor so that she can help fellow authors, in all genres, become better storytellers.
Comments (0)
Author Valerie Francis

Leave a Comment

Story Grid has helped thousands of authors tell better stories.

Now it's Your Turn

I’d like to send you a FREE 5-day video course on how to tell better stories with Story Grid.

The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.