The Math of Storytelling

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[00:00:00] 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 Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience. 

In this episode, we continue diving into the fundamentals of Story Grid and looking in the toolbox, and we look at the math of storytelling. So one of the ways that Shawn likes to change his perspective on looking in the story is to move from this kind of subjective place to a much more objective place, so we can get an objective kind of concrete look on what we’re trying to do when we’re writing a book. 

So it was one of the chapters when I first read Story Grid that really stood out to me, and so it’s fun to dive back into this concept of the math of storytelling. So, it’s a great episode. I think you’ll enjoy it. 

Let’s jump in and get started.

[INTERVIEW]

[00:01:06] TG: So, Shawn, a couple weeks ago we finished going through the six core editor questions, which it’s one of those the more I come back to it, the more these things just have so many layers to them. I feel like every time I go back through it, it’s like, “Oh, man! I see something new that I didn’t see before.” 

But now I want to get into what I think we’ve talked about is like everybody’s – They ask about it the most, which is the math. 

[00:01:37] SC: Yeah.

[00:01:37] TG: And so just talk a little bit, because I still remember when I first read the book and saw the chapter heading of the math and I’m like, “What is math have to do with storytelling?” So just talk a little bit about how math applies in Story Grid. 

[00:01:57] SC: Sure. Okay, so the way I usually talk about the math is to think about stories in a global context, and it’s sort of looking at a story through a different one. So to look at it quantitatively, as supposed to qualitative. 

So one of the tricks I always play with my son, who’s a big baseball fan, is to say to him, “Imagine if a Martian came down and plopped themselves in a chair and watched a baseball game, several baseball games, and nobody told the Martian you know what the rules of the game are or, actually, they just sort of gave the simple rules of the game.” There’s nine innings, nine positions, etc. Then at the end of that, allow the Martian to sort of start parsing out and talking about how one would be able to win that game with the greatest probability of success. 

So if you look at baseball like that, this is the sort of the evolution of sabermetrics in baseball, which is very quantitative analysis of the events that happen in a baseball game and sort of picking out the truth, as supposed to traditional stories that people talk about baseball. So I won’t belabor baseball too much, but I will say in traditional baseball history, it was always taken for granted that the way to measure hitter was batting average, like how many times they safely reached base through a hit, and that would be the best way to say who is the best hitter. 

Well, it turned out, when sabermetrics came into the game, that it was sort of like this Martian-like analysis. Well, it’s actually on base percentage, because you can reach base without actually getting hit and the more people you have on base, the more runs you score, the more runs you score, the greater the probability of winning. So if you take this sort of way of looking at a phenomena in a different way and you apply it to storytelling, this is sort of how I came up with the math. 

So I looked at story in terms of, “Well, geez! If I were a Martian and someone said to me, “Here. Here’s a book contract. You have to deliver this book in nine months,” and the Martian would say, “Well, how many words is that book that I have to deliver?” They’re going to go, “I’m going to hit the minimum viable number of words, because the words will equate to amount of effort necessary to meet the minimum viable standard. So that’s what you have in a book contract. It says, “Usually, for a novel, 60 to 80,000 words.” So that sort of my starting point. How might someone with a very quantitative approach approach the problem of delivering a 60,000 to 80,000 word novel?

Being someone who majored in science in college, I said, “Well, I break down that 80,000 or 60,000 words into smaller chunks, because I’ve got a calendar in front of me and I’ve got X-number of days to deliver the 80,000 words.” Then I’m going to say to myself, “Well, gees! If I can break down that 80,000 word problem into 300 days, then I will know how many words I should be able to commit to the page in order to make that deadline. 

Okay. So this is the rational way I started looking at story, especially novels. Then I said to myself, “Okay, that’s one way, a simple – You got to do a thousand words a day for 80 days, and then you’ve got another 80 days to revise those thousand words, etc.” So that’s a very practical and prescriptive way of solving a big problem by just breaking it down into word count. But what about that word count? What in those words am I also going to have to deliver? Well, what’s the biggest sort of dividing point in a story? Well, this is pretty simple too. There’s a beginning. There’s a middle, and there’s an end. It’s a three-part deal. It goes all the way back to Aristotle who was trying to solve this problem himself, and he said to himself, “Well, there’s three parts to a story, a beginning, middle and end,” and the way you break it down is the middle is usually the meaty middle. It’s much larger than the other two parts. 

He sort of came up with this notion that a well told story is about 25% beginning, 50% middle, and 25% end. Okay, great. So a quarter, half, quarter. So if I break down my 80,000 word manuscript into a quarter, half quarter, my middle is going to be 40,000 words. My beginning is going to be 20,000 words, and my endings going to be 20,000. So that’s just another quantitative way of looking at a story by using a first principle. 

Okay. So then you can say, “Okay, so I’ve got to do 20,000 beginning, 50,000 middle, 20,000 end. So now I’m starting to think about qualities. What qualities are necessary in order to deliver that beginning, middle and end? Maybe if I can figure out different kinds of things that I have to do in each one of those sections, I can break each one of those sections down into a more comprehensive, understandable mathematical problem. 

So in the book, you could basically follow my reasoning into how I broke down the 20,000 words at the beginning into five critical scenes that must be a part of those. If you have 20,000 words, you can’t really write 20,000 scenes, because then each scene would be one word, right? 

[00:08:37] TG: Right. 

[00:08:37] SC: So then I thought to myself, “Well, what is the average scene length? If I were to take a look at all of these scenes that have been written over the last, say, 30 years, in all of the novels and divide them by the number of scenes, how many words would be the average?” What I discovered is, generally, it’s between a thousand to 2,000 words. So I settled in like the 1,500 word length, and then I started reading scenes that were about 1,500 words and I said to myself, “That’s a really nice number of words for a scene, because it’s not too long, it’s not too short, and it’s just enough to want you to read another one.” So I called it the potato chip length scene. 

Like potato chips, if the scene is really well done, it’s like a potato chip. You want to eat one more. So that’s how another way you can establish narrative drive is by using sort of the 1,500 word guide as potato chip length scenes. So you take your 20,000 words and you divide it by 1,500, which is the average length of a scene. So now I can figure out it’s probably – I’m looking at between 10 and 15 scenes in the beginning, and then I can do the same thing in the middle, which would be between 20 and 30 scenes. Then the ending would be between 10 and 15 scenes 

So now I’ve broken this massive 80,000 word problem into smaller and smaller pieces. So the math for me, looking at this story problem quantitatively as supposed to constantly looking at it qualitatively was a big innovation, because it allowed me as an editor to be able to communicate with a writer in a way that they would understand if I said to them, “You know what? Your seventh scene is crazy long. It’s like 7,000 words. You got to chop that up.” They go, “Why?” Then I could actually have an answer for them that would be reasonable. As supposed to say, “Well, I just have this feeling that 7,000 words is too long.” But if I was able to say to them, “Hey, you know what? I’ve analyzed and taken a look at pretty much every X novel in your genre for the past 15 years, and it’s been in my experience that of the hundreds of novels that I’ve read in your genre, that the average scene length is between 1,500 and 2,000 words.” Then they would say, “Oh! Okay, I get you. I’m really not going to want to mess with that sort of expectation of the audience. So let me cut that 7,000 words either into four different scenes or one scene that cuts out a lot of descriptive and exposition.” 

So the math in the Story Grid book is a really critical – It’s sort of like a psycho technology. That’s what Math is. It’s a way that our minds are creating sort of a prism to look at a problem. So if you use different tools that aren’t unexpected to help you solve problems, you can actually get yourself out of your usual frame of mind, which is, “Oh my God! This book is due in nine months and I have no idea how to finish it.” 

[00:12:17] TG: Well, and this is where – Actually, first, I thought like is there anywhere – Has anybody actually fed books into a database where it keeps track of like how many words are in the book or divided by scenes or divided by – Anything like that before?

[00:12:38] SC: Well, the closest thing is sort of the hedonometer that we talked about a couple years ago, and that hedonometer is a computer software program that some scientists at the University of Vermont, I believe, created to analyze the movement of stories. So the way in which they solved that problem was not qualitative in any real way beyond sort of assigning a valence number to words, and I don’t want to get too deeply into it, but the short answer to your question is no, because I do believe that – I’m going to go a little off track here, but I think it’s important that I do. 

There is this thing, this thing in the intellectual world, meaning universities and sort of research laboratories, and it’s called the two cultures. A guy named C.P. Snow wrote about two cultures back in the 1950s, and he was sort of one of these people who’s just intellectually curious. So he had training in the sciences and he also had training in the humanity. 

So the science people are people who believe in the quantitative world. Anything that you can measure that is the same measurement across time with different numbers of people making the measurements is what they call a scientific fact. So if I have a piece of rope and I measure it and I say it’s 16 inches and I hand you the rope and you take the same measuring device, you’ll find that it’s 16 inches too. That’s a scientific fact. So it’s the world of matter, right? So all the things in the world are made up of matter and we can measure them. 

So scientists see that as sort of their global focal point, that anything real is made up of matter, and so they don’t really go outside of the world of matter. Now, on the opposite side you have people who live in the humanities. What the humanities is about is thinking about what matters. So it’s the world of the mind. It’s the world the story. It’s the world of religion. It’s the world of philosophy, history. 

So what matters is the big problem that the humanities are trying to solve. So storytelling has always been sort of sludged into the humanities arena. Now the difficult thing is that the world is both, right? We have both matter and what matters. So we have the world of everyday things that you can measure and we also have the world of why we think gold is more precious than dust. It doesn’t empirically make sense that gold is more valuable than dust, but it is. 

Now, we as human beings, were the machines of what matters. So we have values. Now, we value certain things more than other things. We have a spectrum of value, a gradient of value. Some things are more important to us than others. Okay. 

So the humanities is all about the phenomena of what matters and science is all about the phenomena of just matter. So as you can see, when you look at story from the scientific viewpoint matter, what is the matter of story? The matter of story, story is made up of, for lack of a better description, words. What they put in putting contracts are we need to see 80,000 words or you are not abiding the contract. So writers say to themselves, “Well, I’m certainly going to buy that 80,000 word mark.” So we take the science of story very seriously when it’s contractually obligated to, but that kind of falls to the wayside when we approach the problem of story.

So the reason why I came up with the Story Grid methodology was to say, “In how many different, in how many different levels of analysis, can I use to approach the story problem?” By gosh! I’m not going to give up science when I’m looking at story, because story is matter as much of it is what matters. So that’s how I came up with sort of figuring out how many scenes would traditionally be seen in the average contemporary novel. I came to the conclusion, it’s between 40 and 65. Now, if you’re doing epic fantasy fiction, it can go up to about 110, 120. So I’ve sort of lost the question other than looking at story from a quantitative point of view is very enriching, because it gets you out of worrying about dealing with what matters. 

So when you’re looking at a problem, use one prism at a time. Use one level of analysis at a time, because if you start to mix-and-match them in your mind as you’re examining the problem, you can get wildly confused and you can spiral out of control and you will lose sort of your ability to be able to solve the micro problem. Identify the problem and then slice up the problem into little mini problems. Then as you’re looking at the mini problem, don’t go to the next mini problem until you solve the first one. 

[00:18:56] TG: So if I’m a writer – If I’m a writer. If I’m a writer looking at I’m planning out my novel and I’ve gone through the six core questions, so I know what my genre is. I know what my obligatory scenes and conventions are. I know my point of view, all that stuff. Is the next thing to start thinking about like, “Okay. What are my 15 scenes that fiver in the beginning, fiver in the middle build, fiver in the ending payoff. Is that kind of the next thing I would want to be mapping out?

[00:19:31] SC: That’s what I recommend, and the reason why I recommend that is what those five scenes are – Okay, let’s go back to what I was saying about value, right? We value more things than we do other. So in a story, a story is about progressively escalating the value at stake. So if it’s an action story, the value at stake is life-and-death. 

So, obviously, the critical scenes in the story are going to be about that value and we’re going to get closer and closer to moving that value from life to death, and in the fact, we’ll probably cross it at least one, if not multiple times in the story. So if you are creating a story, you want to sort of really nail down sort of the big skeletal moments of the story as soon as possible. So that’s why I suggest find those five critical scenes at the beginning of your story. Five in the middle and five in the end, and at least get like a one sentence idea down about them, right? This is the moment when the hero is at the mercy of the villain and has to get out of this situation either using their physical prowess or their mental prowess or a combination of both. So that’s a very vague notion of what is seen is, but it’s a good starting point. In fact, that’s an obligatory scene in an action story and also a thriller, etc., in multiples genres. That’s because it’s a critical moment in our life, right?

Oftentimes we feel if we’re going in to get a raise at work, the villain is basically our boss, and we are at the mercy of our boss. We’re not going to get anything unless that boss agrees to it. So that’s where the hero at the mercy of the villain scene came from, is that we constantly experience our life in these sort of archetypical roles, and often we’re cast, we cast ourselves as the victim in a dramatic situation. 

So when we go in to ask for a raise from our boss at work, we are dealing with the problem that is terrifying. How do we outwit the villain across the desk who has all of the money and I have very little of it? What can I do? Well, I could beat them up and say, “You’re going to give me a raise or I’m going to beat you up.” That’s looking to work very well. So we would have to use a psycho technology. We would have to reason with them and say, “Look, I’ve analyzed the work I’ve done in this company. Here is the work I’ve done. Here is the amount of net profit that has been the result. Here is my salary. I think I deserve more that net profit that I’m getting now,” and that’s an argument that your boss is going to – That’s a way where you can outwit the villain. 

So that scene as a critical scene in the ending of a story, especially an action story. So write it down, “Well, I got to have one of those scenes at the end. I’m going to put that down,” and that’s probably going to be one of those five major points in the story. Then in the middle you can do the same thing and same at the beginning. 

[00:23:10] TG: Yeah. When we are going through the spreadsheet for the threshing this last time and analyzing it, it really made me think about this, because, to me, the whole thing, what you’ve been describing about breaking a 60,000 to 80,000 word problem down into smaller, smaller bits, is putting constraints so that I can create. Because one of the things that’s really hard is if you have no constraints. You don’t know where to start. 

I always think of the example of like one of the – Why would you go to like an art class, like an actual show up at a studio and take an art class as supposed to just take online classes or something like that? And it’s because like if I just walk into a store that sells supplies, it’s like I don’t even know where to begin or what to do. I don’t know what I want to paint. Let’s say I pick watercolor., I wouldn’t even know where to start. 

So going to a class and having somebody say, “Okay, you’re going to use this paintbrush. You’re going to use these three colors and you’re going to do this.” That puts me in a situation where like, “Okay. That is a solvable problem for me.” When I start thinking through – When we went through and I had to first identify my 15 scenes, and then I had to prove that it turned on the value of life and death, because I’m writing an action story. It got me thinking like, “Oh, that would be super helpful in the beginning to just know like, “Okay, I have to have an inciting incident to the beginning hook. That’s the inciting incident for the story, and it has to turn on life-and-death. So somebody’s life has to be at stake –” It’s just pushing it all the way down into like a 1,500 word problem that has really tight constraints on what it can be. Because even if you just say write 1,500 words, it’s like I don’t even know what I’m trying to accomplish with those. But it’s like once you wrap it in those constraints, it becomes a solvable problem that feels much more clear. 

I’ve done a couple of writing contest and I’ve really enjoyed those, because they’re like, “Okay, here’s what your story has to be. Write 1,500 words, or 2,000 words, or whatever,” and it’s like, “Okay, that I can do. That feels solvable.” So I’ve liked this –

[00:25:36] SC: Yeah, that’s really a great way of putting it. In fact, the coursework that I’m writing, currently writing now, it’s the counter to the macro course that we’ve done, I did last summer, and we ran again in the winter, and this is about micro work, micro storytelling. 

So part of what I’m doing is creating these very strict constraints that would should, and very confident that they will, because they work for me. They should be able to make the people who take the class really understand how to sort of pen themselves in with very specific goals right before they start to work. 

So, for example, one of the things that you and I have done with the threshing is I remember I made you stick in a new column in the spreadsheet called scene type. What a scene type is –

[00:26:38] TG: Yeah. 

[00:26:39] SC: Yeah. The scene type is everyday scenes that everyone experiences. So stranger knocks at the door, that’s a scene type. You’re home, somebody’s knocking on the door and you don’t know who it is. It could be the gas man. It could be your long lost friend, whatever. It allows you to have your imagination very focused and run wild. 

So if you add the scene type with the global point of the scene in terms of story structure, like a stranger knocks at the door with hero at the mercy of the villain. Go, right? At the very least you’ve got, “Oh! Let’s see. What could that be? Well, the stranger could be someone pretending to be –” and off you go and you find yourself actually starting to be able to see things in your mind that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do if I just said, “Hey, yeah. Just bang out a 1,500 word scene for me and bring it in next Tuesday.” Then you’re like, “Oh my gosh! 1,500 words, let’s see. Word one, maybe I’ll start with the,” and then you get into a nightmare situation, because it’s computationally explosive. I mean, that’s how we solve problems. 

[00:28:01] TG: Well, let’s stop right there. So at the editor training a few weeks ago you use that phrase several times. Explain what that means. 

[00:28:09] SC: Well, this is like one of those things that everybody already knows, but until you point it out, they don’t really quite know it at this degree. Okay. So what computationally explosive means is that there are so many different options to move from sort of your current state of what is to a future goal state. 

So let’s say I want to move from my kitchen table to the coffee pot where the coffee is. This is fascinating when you think about it. Now, there’s any number of paths that I can use to get from where I am to where I want to be. If you think of them in terms of the numbers of like direction that you can go from here to the coffee pot, you can come up with probably at least just off the top of your head, let’s say 12. There’re 12 options to start my path toward the coffee pot. So there’re 12 options, and then let’s say it’s going to take 25 different stages for me to move from my kitchen table to the coffee pot. 

So 12 options to begin with, and let’s say there’re always 12 options just to limit ourselves. So if you want to do the computational, like how many options there are for me to get from my kitchen table to the coffee pot, you come up with the number of directions and early moves I can make each time. So that would be the number 12. If it takes 25 steps to get the coffee pot, it would be 12 to the 25th power. 

So if you do that number, it’s massive. It’s like 1×10 to the –I don’t even know, because I haven’t done the math. But it’s at least 20 power. That doesn’t make any sense when you say that. It’s like – But then you think about it and you go, “Well, I guess that is true. There are that many paths from that many options. It’s computationally explosive.” So how is it that were just able immediately to step up and walk directly to the coffee pot? Well, I don’t want to get into too much cognitive science, but it’s because we have eyes and we’re able to focus and we’re able to pick out salience. So we understand the shortest path is a direct line, because that’s the way our bodies move. We don’t go zig-zag on our way to the coffee pot, because we know from our focus and are our eyes that that’s where it is. 

Okay. So when you’re creating a scene or a story, you can just think of how computationally explosive that is. So if I say to you, “Tim, write a 1,500 words scene.” You’re going to go, “Well, I have a lot of options, don’t I? I could write a scene that is the first scene in a horror story, or could write a scene that’s the first story in a society story, or a maturation plot, or a Western, or a love story, right?” 

So just from the Story Grid itself, we have 12 content genres, and that’s not even including the other four leaves of the five-leaf clover of story. Then you say to yourself, “Well, gees! If I’m going to write a novel, I need to write at least 60 scenes. So that’s 60 steps. So 12th to the 60th power is outrageously large.” 

So the problems that we’re dealing with are very, very large. There’s no joke about that, and that’s why it’s so difficult. But the way the Story Grid works is that it starts to slice out a lot of options for you so that you can really laser focus and go from very large problem, to super problem, to large problem, to medium problem, to small problem, to micro problem. So you’re using your levels of analysis to constrain your problem, and then you set out the series of these tiny little problems that you solve and then you work the problems. 

So everything that I just said, that’s math talk, right? Right? Remember at the beginning you’re like, “What’s with the math and how does that relate to story?” Well, it doesn’t really take a genius to figure out, “Well, why don’t I just apply the other way people look at the world to what I’m looking at and maybe I’ll come up with some insight on how to solve the problems in a brand-new way? 

So the story – I mean, there’s a reason why I call it Story Grid, right? Story connotes the humanities, and grids connotes science. So when you bring the science and humanities together, you can solve problems that you never thought that you would be able to solve before. 

[00:33:17] TG: Okay. So one of the tools that we’ve a lot is the fool’s global story grid, an so between the sixth editor questions and then doing this math and looking at the 15 scenes, is that all you need to fill that out?

[00:33:35] SC: Yes. I mean, the fool’s cap global story grid is basically at the very top of the fool’s cap page is sort of a checklist. It reviews your conventions and obligatory scenes. What you need to have in that story? It also reviews the point of view narrative device, whose telling the story. It tells you what global genre you need to abide, and it also tells you if you have an internal genre. What that subgenre is at play, or vice versa. 

So then once you have that top quarter of the fool’s cap page done, you’ve got global marching orders, so to speak. Then the last three quarters of the global fool’s cap page are blowing out the five skeletal scenes in your beginning, your middle and your end. So I always call it the purpose of the beginning is the hook. Hook the reader into going on the ride. The middle is about building the tension and narrative interest for the reader so that they get paid off at the end so with a surprising, but inevitable finish. 

So that’s what the global fool’s cap global story grid is. It’s a one page map that you can refer to on your micro problem movement from scene one to scene 60, or word one to word 80,000. Then the toolbox to use for mapping out the micro scenes, that is all about the story grid spreadsheet, which is a means to really slice and dice each scene into its component parts and to make sure that it’s the continuity from scene to scene is consistent so that the world that you’re creating is believable and it also goes through the very major point in each scene, which is the value shift, the polarity shift of the value and the major turning point progressive complication in that scene that moves the value from one place on the gradient to another. 

So, yes, it’s a very – It’s a complex system. I’ll be the first one to admit it, but when you think about it in terms of a global idea, it’s really not that complex. What story grid is about is taking the computationally explosive problem of writing a novel and breaking it first into two pieces. So we take that big glob and we slice it in half to start, and half of that is what is the micro problem, how we’re going to deal with the micro problem and how are we going to deal with the macro problem. The macro problem is the global movement of story, the content movement, which is solved by using the fool’s cap global story grid. 

The micro problem is how do we make our scenes work from scene to scene in building the appropriate way, and that is solved by using the story grid spreadsheet. So now we did an entire course, which is the macro just on that one half, which is the 15 core scenes. So that’s what we’re going to do this summer, is we’re going to shift our focus from the big picture to micro. We’re going to work scenes. We’re going to work a lot of scenes. We’re going to work.15 scenes from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and I’m having a lot of fun figuring out how we can mix and match and have some fun while we’re working these scenes, but it’s going to be very micro-driven. 

So, obviously, in order to get the most out of story grid, to be able to take both of these classes would be the best. But, again, I’m going to say this, the autodidacts out there, you probably are driven to the point where you can probably do this yourself. I mean, that’s how I came up with the story grid to begin with. Nobody gave me a class in story grid. It didn’t exist. 

So all of the tools that we talk about are just reinforcements in the class work of global story grid principles. It doesn’t mean that you can’t figure it out yourself. So I’m not here to be selling anyone on courses or dance lessons or anything like that. This is really – You can figure this out yourself. I did it, and as my wife would tell you, I’m not really that smart. 

[00:38:35] TG: Yeah! It’s interesting, because sometimes – You just said in passing, you can get really overwhelmed by the story grids system, and that’s why I don’t really look at it as a system anymore, because to me a system is something you do from start to finish. I look at it more of like a toolset. Because everything that I feel like the thing that we do the most consistently whenever I get stuck is figure out a way to look at it from a different point of view, where like, “Okay, I’m stuck here. I’m stuck on the micro, so let’s zoom out and remind ourselves of the macro. I’m stuck on the macro, let’s zoom in and just take care of something micro.” 

It’s like, “Okay, we’ve looked at it from –” Like you had me do of like, “Okay, let’s put another column in there and look at it from the standpoint of what is this scene and the global kind of list of scenes.” So I feel like it’s more like a toolbox that is full of all these great tools and you get better at both, because if you – I’ve gotten to work alongside people that are really good at woodworking, and they are not only good at using the tools. They’re good at knowing what is the right tool to use. That’s what’s really interesting, is like they’ll pull out a tool that I know what that tool is for, but they’ll use it at a time or in a certain way that I would’ve never thought of. That’s kind of how I’ve come to think of this, is like it’s more about learning a toolset that you can apply and you get better and better at not only applying the tools. 

So this spreadsheet was easier for me to do than the very first spreadsheet I did years ago, but also getting better at learning, “Okay, I’m stuck here. What tool is the best one to kind of get me past this?” So, to me, if you try to look at it as like, “Okay, I’m going to use story grid as a system to write the perfect first draft,” that is overwhelming, but if you look at it more of like a toolset that you pull out different tools at different times, then it becomes much less overwhelming in my mind. 

[00:40:54] SC: Well, let me let me just riff on that a little bit and sort of take a side step here and talk about sort of – One of the major themes of contemporary life is sort of people are getting into mindfulness, and what mindfulness is, is essentially using the teachings of Siddhartha or the Buddha in ways that will allow more insight into the nature of the world and to make us feel more connected to the world. 

So, basically, what mindfulness does is it has two tools. The first tool is meditation, and what meditation is, it’s a means by which you start to look at the world through how your mind is actually working. So it’s sort of moving between transparency and opacity. So if I have a pencil and you asked me to sort of poke something and start to describe the thing that I’m poking if I have to close my eyes and it’s a glass. If I poke it long enough, I’ll start to be able to figure out that the nature of what that thing it is that I’m poking. So the pencil actually becomes an extension of my consciousness in a certain way. 

So that’s sort of the meditative practice, is to focus in and out going from very detailed things to the way your mind is actually interpreting and looking at the world. So that’s one big massive tool in the mindfulness arena. The other one is contemplation. Now, contemplation’s goal is to take a very big, wide angle look at the world and sort of try and exit the thoughts of your mind.

So this toggling between meditation, which being a science guy, I would say is sort of running on the X-axis. So you’re moving to point 100, and then 75, and your goal is get as close to zero in your mind as you can. So you start focusing for far position and taking a closer and closer in. Then the contemplative practice would be like the Y-axis, where you’re literally trying to engage with the order and chaos of the universe. 

I’m not trying to be cheesy about it, but that is the tool things, and what they discovered and what Buddha discovered was that when you start to get really good at this, insight starts to come to you. Meaning, things that you can imagine that you would ever think up by yourself walking down the street just sort of comes to you. 

So that’s sort of what the story grid is trying to do in terms of story. I’m trying to allow people to contemplate meditatively the micro-scene structure from scene-to-scene and really pick apart that stuff in a very linear way, “Well, I got to have a beginning, middle and end.” So it’s very micro-detailed from scene-to-scene. 

Then the other tool, the contemplative tool, is the fool’s cap global story grid, which is looking at story from various levels of elevation, for lack of a better metaphor. So you move from the ground level up to a thousand feet, all the way up to the main archetypes of story, again, chaos and order. What is this story about? Is it about order? The power of order or chaos, the tyranny or order? So I don’t want to go too much into that. 

Basically, while you call it a toolbox, I think that that is absolutely true and specific, but I think it’s more about training yourself to have more insight. The more insight that you have, the better you will be able to tell your story. Now, I don’t want to go to cheesy on this, but it’s true. A great story alters the consciousness of the reader. There’s just no other way to explain it. When you were deeply engrossed in reading a story, or seeing a story on television, or hearing a song, or whatever, you are literally in a different conscious realm. When people interrupt you while you’re in that realm, you get very irritated, because they’re literally pulling you out of the experience. 

So if that’s the power of story, you really need to not look at it like a formula. We are not creating a machine. We are creating something that’s, again, for lack of a better metaphor, it’s larger than the sum of its parts. So the way to create that sort of like internal magical thing, it requires a lot of insight. It requires a lot of contemplation of your personal experiences, get inspired by them, put them on the page, tweak them some. 

I’m a great believer that writers are actually practicing meditation and contemplation in exactly the same way that Buddha describes the as they’re working, and that’s why we can get into a flow state when it’s humming that is magical to the point where it keeps driving us back to the desk. I mean, when Steve Pressfield says, “I tried other things in my life, and it just didn’t work. I needed to be a writer.” He says that over and over again, “Look, I tried not to be a writer. I tried desperately. I did everything in my power not to be a writer, but it just kept pulling me back.” 

I think it’s that very meditational, contemplational nature of writing that puts you in a very insightful flow state for how small amount of time. It’s just so empowering and meaningful that we can’t help but keep coming back to it. That’s why I’m really – A lot of people always say to me, “Well, geez! You and Tim have gone hour and hour and talked on a podcast and really done all these stuff about story grid and given all the stuff away for free. Aren’t you worried that people will just take all the free stuff?” I don’t worry about that, because I think once you sort of get locked into this moment where you see the power of writing as a contemplative and meditative process, that you just want to get better at it, and we’re sort of like – When we give our conferences and we do the classes and the stories and all that stuff, it’s a way to help people get into that state faster with more frequency and to really explore the depth of what meaning is to them. 

[END OF INTERVIEW]

[00:48:31] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. For everything Story Grid related, checkout 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 this show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review. 

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[END]

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.
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