The Final Tweaks

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So, we’ve tracked the entire scene-to-scene movement of The Silence of the Lambs in terms of its external and internal values. And we’ve identified quite a number of places within its scenes where Thomas Harris has abided by the conventions and obligatory scenes of his chosen global Story—the serial killer thriller. We’ve also tracked the exact places where the Beginning Hook has transitioned into the Middle Build and where the Middle Build has transitioned into the Ending Payoff.

Let’s now load all of that information into a final Story Grid so that at a glance, we’ll be able to remind ourselves where Harris did what. The real value of The Story Grid is in its immediate gratification. That is, in the years prior to creating The Story Grid infographic, every time I had a question like “When did Thomas Harris drop in his clock?” I had to go look at a pile of notes.

And I’d have to dig through it until I found the answer. I don’t know about you, but once I found that answer I’d often forget the original question I was trying to answer!

But now with The Story Grid, all I have to do is look for the clock moment on the grid. Then I’ll know it was in scene 19 (chapter 17), six scenes into the Middle Build. Similarly, when you map out your own Story Grid for your work in progress, you may see that you’ve jammed a whole bunch of stuff into one series of scenes, or your values are not dynamically moving in the way that they should. Seeing it visually as opposed to trying to piece it together in your brain intellectually will be extremely useful.

So our final Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs with all of the crucial conventions and obligatory scenes marked as well as the BH, MB, and EP demarcations follows.  This is the humungous version I’ve been writing about the past couple of weeks, for serious Story Nerds only.

The Mongo Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs

The Mongo Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs


It took me twenty-two years to figure out that The Story Grid was not something that any other book editor I knew used. After innumerable lunch and drink dates, I found out that they didn’t create their own method to evaluate work by studying Story structure. And they thought I was a nerd for doing that myself. Acquire it, tweak it, get it to market were their mantras. And sometimes that was mine too. Remember that editors don’t work for writers. They work for publishers.Now that I’m a grizzled vet and I understand the realities of the book publishing Business versus the desires of Art, I see The Story Grid as a tool to bridge the gap between commercial necessity and literary ambition.
First things first…commercial necessity.
Rest assured, using The Story Grid will absolutely do no harm to your Story. It will not turn a book that works into a book that doesn’t work. It will not botch up your best scene or convince you to cut your best secondary character.Instead The Story Grid can make you learn a great deal about why you’ve written your Story in the first place. And that knowledge will be indispensable to making your work better. Not just a little bit, but to such an extent that you will find yourself re-energized to laser focus on what exactly your Story is and how you can make it the best it can possibly be.

The Story Grid is all about getting from “Doesn’t Work” to “Works” to “Holy Moly This is Incredible!”

Remember, like a joke, if your Story has three major movements—a Beginning Hook, a Middle Build, and an Ending Payoff—for a simple, compelling premise, it works. But that doesn’t mean a publisher will offer you a contract or that one million or even one person will buy it.

Now having something work is nice.

But we all know that some jokes are good and make us chuckle and some make us spit out our food. Same with Stories. Some are okay. Some change our lives.

If you want your Story to be great, you’ve got to hone it and edit it yourself.

Even if you get a Big Five publisher to take it on…especially if you get a Big Five publisher to take it on. The publisher has bought your Story because they are confident that it will sell to a critical mass of readers “as is.” That’s their job. Whatever editorial commentary they provide after they’ve bought it will be first and foremost all about getting their investment back! So they’re not going to ask you to take another look at your Lovers Kiss scene and make it less cheesy. A lot of people like cheesy…probably more than those who don’t. Only you will care enough to really push yourself to take it from cheesy to heart wrenching.

Now, you may wish to have a greater impact in the world than just selling to ten thousand people (hitting that number is a huge success regardless). If that is the case, you need to know how to analyze and improve the work you’ve already done without killing the good stuff. This is what The Story Grid is for. It’s for fixing flaws and bettering strengths.

If you write a better Lovers Kiss scene than the solid cheesy one you’ve written before, readers will recognize it. They want that better scene. They really do. And if you give it to them, they’ll come back for more of your work in the future.

If you use The Story Grid tool rigorously and do not give in to the “good enoughs,” it will definitely prove the difference between “nice work here, but it’s not quite right for us” to “we’re getting our numbers together to make you an offer.”

It’s my contention that most writers don’t fear the work. They want to do the work. No one, though, has clearly laid out in practical terms exactly what that work is. I built The Story Grid methodology to do that.

Most amateur writers understand the general concepts of Story: that they need a compelling Inciting Incident and that they have to satisfy the expectations of their audience for the particular Genre they’ve chosen to write. But they have no idea where to begin and no idea of how to analyze their work after they’ve done some of it to make sure it can withstand the critical winds and turbulent external forces of nature. The problem that bedevils most novice writers (and even some seasoned pros) is that they fall in love with the glamorous aspects of the literary trade—the romance of “the creative process,” the thrill of dashing off chapter after chapter in a white heat of inspiration, etc.—and they undervalue the blue-collar aspects of Story construction and inspection—understanding and mastering Genre, Story form, character, Story cast, and so forth.

They fail to learn how to edit.

The inescapable fact is that you need an editor who cares about making your book not just “work” but for it to transcend its Genre…to break new ground in such a way that it changes the way people see the world. And there is only one editor alive with that kind of commitment.


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.



About the Author

Comments (22)
Author Shawn Coyne


Mary Doyle says:

The final Mongo is a masterpiece! Thanks for choosing such a brilliant book for this project. As an aside, I appreciate finally understanding why I always liked Lecter so much despite feeling creepy about myself for it.

As always, thanks – I bow to The Nerd! Now the countdown to the Big Launch…

Jack Price says:

Stirring words. Toward the end, you were writing about me. Twenty-two years, well spent.

Debbie L. Kasman says:

Stirring words indeed! I feel your heart in this post, Shawn, and am more motivated and inspired than ever to keep pushing myself. Thanks for such a beautiful gift.

Jule Kucera says:

“Most amateur writers… have no idea where to begin and no idea of how to analyze their work….” Yes. So I can stop beating myself up for not knowing. And now I have hope. I have a different role now, but I used to design training programs. I did it for about twenty years and I was good at it. So many things I did that other designers didn’t do relate so well to this process. I used to analyze the course in increments of 20 minutes (which has to do with neuroscience). I would color code the agenda–blue for lecture, yellow for discussion, red for when the participants actually had to do some thing. I still remember talking with a content expert about why we couldn’t have an all blue morning. I knew what to do with training because I went to school for five years at night to learn, and then honed my craft with every course. So no wonder that I didn’t know what to do with story. I haven’t gone to school until now. I haven’t honed my craft. You have provided the tools. Time to hone my craft. Or more realistically, start crafting. —big sigh of relief—

And regarding the Mongo Story Grid–seeing it like this does indeed remind me of Minard’s info graphic of Napoleon’s march on Russia and yes, being able to have it as a poster would be most wonderful. It is a work of Art.

Mary Doyle says:

Jule, thanks! I had the same thought about having a poster of the Mongo Story Grid – I know just where I’d hang it too. Shawn, how about it?

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Mary,
We’ve got something in the works…but I hear you about the MONGO version. I’ll talk to my art guy and see what he can come up with.
All the best,

Joel D Canfield says:

This version would print just fine at 22″ x 34″. It’s set at 11″ x17″ @ 300dpi but b&w can be printed at double-size and still look great.

If you’re looking for the full wall version, that’ll take some stretching . . .

Jan O'Hara says:

That there is a work of art.

This has been incredibly helpful, Shawn.

Herbert Exner says:

It’s brilliant…each post is in itself…it cumulates in the overall picture but the underlying (knowledge) systematization is amazing. And what I find unprecedented is the bottom up approach…learning and teaching…

I’m not a writer, a mathematician who’s business life is characterized by many requests of the type: “structure me this”…but only in very rare cases I could find such a complete, contradiction-free, understandable and manageable scheme (beyond schemes in the mathematical framework).

There’s Polanyi’s paradox: “we know more than we can tell”…that often boycotts our systematization desires…what you did with the Story Grid isn’t only hard work, it’s the most difficult work…systematize in a field where psychology beats logic.

And your great concept can be adopted…it has inspired me…and motivated!…to adopt it in my work as innovation marketer and marketing advisor. I selected innovations that deal with kind of computational knowledge…they are the thrillers.

I’ve developed schemes to assess (quant) innovations, but they missed the dynamic aspects…

Thank you Shawn!

DC Harrell says:

That thing looks like it could hurt a body like a brick, but it’s got the precision of a scalpel. Thanks, again, Shawn.

Christine says:

Thank you for all of this hard work Shawn! It’s great. I was wondering if you created that final story grid in Excel? It looks awesome. Or is it some super cool piece of software I don’t know about? If it is in Excel I will have to figure out how to get those lines to cross over the top of my text when I put one together for my story.

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Christine,
My art director created the final Story Grid. I sent him a very wonky version in excel, but it is so filled with notes etc. that it’s not appropriate to share. I do think you can create something like it with excel. It would just take some time.
All the best,

Stacy says:

Thank you, Shawn. This is late in coming, but I just finished the book. I tried the Foolscap for a short story I’m working on and I have to say that it’s making the writing easier. Rewrote the opening scene and for the first time, I feel like I have something competent in terms of Story. Prior to reading THE STORY GRID I’d always had a problem with editing. I can write the first draft like nobody’s business, but I simply couldn’t seem to get a handle on how to edit without the story raging completely out of control, or editing the thing right out of existence. (I’ve done the latter DOZENS of times.) For the first time, I feel like it’s possible I could be a pro. Thanks again.

Donna says:

I would love for you to make a worksheet version of the grid for us to toy with. I’m going to use the excel version I found and the global grid, but the actual graph version really appeals to me. Anyway, thanks for laying things out in such a visual way. I’ve just found the book and am working my way through it and the website. Very helpful! I’d love to have you come to our writing workshop at Seton Hill University for our MFA alumni program (called the In Your Write Mind Retreat) in June. Let me know if you would be interested in coming to meet a group of very dedicated writers. Thanks!

James McKew says:

Hi Shawn, I ‘ve spent the last couple weeks working my way down the Story Grid blog postings and applying that information to a first draft of a thriller that I just finished. The initial spread sheet pointed out some glaring errors in each chapter …very logical and helpful. Then I took the first draft and filled out the Foolscap, including the global view, obligatory scenes and required characters.
All indications are that I was way off in my early story development and now I need to essentially take the Foolscap and make it the baseline for a revised story that hits all the necessary mile markers, then (if possible) recycle any of the original story that can be added in and modified to fit the story grid, then rewrite from the top down. Does this sound right?

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi James,
You got it. Also I would recommend that you “map out” each scene before starting the rewrite. That is, figure out what happens in each scene and proceed step by step from beginning to end to make sure that it is in keeping with your global foolscap Story grid. Then dive back in to the re-write. Trust me, what you’ve done takes a tremendous amount of forebearance and courage. The worst possible thing that will happen at the end of this process will be that you will have taken a giant leap in your craft. Congrats no matter what!

Stephen says:

Ok. I read every post, although I have to admit my eyes glazed over during the last three because I haven’t read SotL, so none of the summarization means a thing to me. But at the end of this, I have to ask…

So what?

Like, all I see is we’ve conjured up a bunch of data, half of which doesn’t even make any sense to me, and made a graph out of it that doesn’t inherently tell us anything. What do we *DO* with the Story Grid? What are we supposed to take from this? Is there no lesson on the interpretation of this graph? Is there no sage wisdom on what all of the squiggly ups and downs actually do for us?

I’m a math tutor by trade. I know plenty about graphs. I also know that I have to teach my students what to do, and how to recognize the implications of increasing vs decreasing, concavity, points of inflection, etc. You’ve dumped the grid on us, waved your hands, and gone “voila!”

I’m sorry to say, unlike the previous posters, I fail to the see the genius inherent. Explanation please?

Jule says:

Stephen, if you have no issues structuring compelling fiction, then by all means, wave your hands and walk away. For those of us who have been flying by the seat of our pants and puzzled when others read our story and rather than being enraptured, are confused, lost, or worst of all, bored, this method for structuring a story can be immensely helpful Different strokes for different folks.

Stephen says:

That’s hardly what I said. I didn’t suggest The Story Grid is meaningless; I said that I don’t understand what that meaning is.

If you show a kindergartener a bar chart, they won’t know what it is, even though it’s obvious to you and I. Well, I’m afraid I don’t understand what this chart tells us. I don’t know how to interpret it. Heck, I don’t even understand the plot value shifts.

I’m not assailing the method. I’m asking someone to enlighten me on what the method actually does.


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