The Foolscap: How to Put Your Novel on One Page

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It took my friend and business partner Steven Pressfield thirty years before he published his first novel. If he had to boil the thick slurry of reasons why it took so long, he’d tell you that it took that long to figure out how to write a single foolscap page.

Years ago Steve was a struggling writer in New York, with a slew of unfinished manuscripts in his closet. He had no clue about why he knew deep in his heart that all of his efforts just didn’t have “it” to convince a publishing house to give him a shot. He just knew there was something wrong with his novels, but didn’t know what.

One morning Steve was, yet again, whining to his friend Norm Stahl about this dark feeling when Stahl had finally had enough. He told Steve to meet him for lunch at Joe Allen’s on West 46th Street in the Theater District of Manhattan that very day. His treat. [Joe Allen’s is famous for its “Flop Wall,” featured posters of failed Broadway plays]

So after Steve orders his cheeseburger and fries and gets his tall glass of ice tea, Stahl lays it on him. He reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a legal sized yellow pad, known in the paper trade as foolscap.

“Steve, the good Lord wisely made one sheet of foolscap paper just long enough to outline an entire novel. The reason why your work is letting you down is that you may have a clear destination in mind when you start, but you have no map. How will you know if you made the best choices for getting to ‘THE END’ if you don’t have a game plan before you set out? THIS IS YOUR MAP!” he pointed to the yellow lined paper.

Steve’s friend wasn’t just some civilian with no experience creating narrative Story. Norm Stahl is a highly respected and incredibly nimble and productive filmmaker with over 300 feature length documentaries to his credit. And if you have no sense of Story making a documentary you are in deep trouble. Over the years, Stahl had learned not to be so precious with his material, but to be brutal and decisive about what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.

Stahl then pulls out a thick felted sharpie and draws two lines across the page, cutting the one sheet into thirds.

“The top third of the page is your first act Steve. The second third is your second act and the third is your third act… You can only use the space allotted.”

Steve sat transfixed.

“In the simplest way possible write down your What If? Inciting incident at the top of Act One. Say it’s a murder mystery. Your inciting incident will be the discovery of a body. If it’s a romance, it’s the lovers meet scene. If it’s a horror novel, it’s the scene where the monster attacks. Now at the very bottom of the page, write down the climax of the entire novel. If it’s a murder mystery it could be the core event identifying the murderer…bringing him to justice or him getting away. If it’s a romance, it could be the lover’s reunite after falling out in the second act scene. If it’s a horror novel, it could be the vulnerable victim overcoming the monster. Whatever. After you have the global inciting incident and the global climax of your Story, then all you have to do is fill in the rest!”

Steve was speechless.

The concept was so easy to get and understand that he had a hard time believing it was this simple. Like anyone else would, Steve resisted the notion.

“That’s nice Norm, but I’m trying to write something with real gravitas. My stuff can’t be broken down like that.”

Stahl smiled and said, “Oh yeah? Is your stuff better than Moby Dick? How about The Great Gatsby?” Steve shook his head. “Well both of those break down perfectly using the Foolscap Method. Try it!”

Eventually, in one of those All is lost moments we all reach when we’re forced to change, Steve did try it. He decided to map out a novel that had been scratching inside his head for years.  He just had no idea how to execute. He only had a notion. That novel turned out to be his first published work. More about it in the next post.

The reason why I bring up Norm Stahl’s Foolscap Method is that it is remarkably similar to what took me a good twenty years to figure out myself as a struggling book editor. I have a similar, but a bit more obsessive method, that involves an extra black line that divides the foolscap into four sections instead of three. It evolved as an editor’s diagnostic tool rather than a “create from whole cloth” Story creator’s point of view. But it’s absolutely a similar concept.

In honor of my friend Steven Pressfield and his mentor Norm Stahl, I call it The Foolscap Global Story Grid.

And in the next series of posts, I’ll lay out what it’s all about and how you can create your own.  For fun, I’ve posted a generic version of it in the Resources section.

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

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About the Author

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.