The Micro Story

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Story Grid Mini-Course Four

Story Grid Mini-Course Four

With your Foolscap Global Story Grid road map and a thousand cups of coffee, you’ve reached THE END.  Now what?

Now is the time to send your writer half of the brain on a long vacation and hand over the Story keys to your inner editor.  He’s going to create an indispensable spreadsheet that will show the writer exactly how each scene is (or is not) working.  He’ll not just identify the problems, he’ll show the writer exactly how and where he needs to fix them.

Part 4 of 5: The Story Grid Spreadsheet

Shawn Coyne: Okay so we’ve looked at the big picture, that macro view of the story from the editor’s point of view. We understand that the book is working, the book moves from beginning to middle to end and it seems to be hitting all the marks, it’s hitting all its conventions and obligatory scenes. Is there a way we can make a book that works incredible? Can we take it to the next level or a book that doesn’t work and make it work and even maybe a little bit better than that? And the answer to that is of course. So how do you do that? Well, the way you do that is looking at the micro point of view. And the way you do this requires a lot of blue-collar effort and a lot of hard work. But if you’ve already written a manuscript, you’re very familiar with that anyway. So to start here’s what I do. I’ve got my Global Foolscap Story Grid written down on a piece of paper. I see the story’s doing okay. The body’s okay. Now there are going to be some problems within the body of that story.

So I take that four-hundred-page manuscript, and the first thing I’ll do is get myself a stapler. Then I will peel off two or three pages or however many pages it takes to make one scene. And I’ll move to the next scene and I’ll do the same thing. So by the end of the process I’ll have probably a stack between fifty to seventy-five little pieces of paper stapled together—each one of them being a specific scene. Now, I’ll take the first scene, and I’ll put it on my desk. I’ll move all the other stuff away and I’ll read that scene again. And what I’m going to do with that scene is create the Story Grid Spreadsheet.

Let’s walk through the very first scene in The Silence of the Lambs. The very first thing we’re going to do in column one is scene number. It’s the very first scene, we’re going to put one there. The second column is word count and the first scene is 1,690 words and in the case of The Silence of the Lambs each scene is around 2,000 words. If somebody asked me the recommended length for a scene, I would say between 2,000 and 3,000 words. I think it’s sort of potato chip length in that people, once you read 2,000 words, it doesn’t take that long. If it’s a great scene, you’ll read the next one. If you’re writing scenes that are 8,000 words, people will quit in the middle. It’s that simple.

The next column is the third column, story event. In as few words as possible, what you want to sum up is what happens in this scene. So the story event for the first scene in Silence of the Lambs is FBI recruit Clarice Starling gets an interesting job. Right, she’s recruited to interview Hannibal Lecter. So you don’t have to get into the massive details. You can go into as much detail as you like on the first round of this, that’s fine, but what you’ll slowly understand is that the better your scenes are, the fewer the number of words you’re going to need to describe them. So that’s the story event.

The fourth column is the value shift. Now the value shift is a very important thing. In this case, it’s a change in movement in the scene. So at the beginning of this scene, Clarice Starling is just another newbie. She’s just a recruit at the FBI. So she’s not chosen. And by the end of this scene, she’s chosen. She’s chosen to do a job, so she moves from being ignored to chosen. That’s a shift. That’s a value shift. When you’re ignored, nobody cares. When you’re chosen, you’re part of the group. So that’s the value shift in scene 1.

The next column is polarity shift. And polarity shift is pretty simple. It means are we moving from a state of positive to negative, or negative to positive, or even negative to double negative? And what I mean by that, is in the first scene of Silence of the Lambs, at the beginning, Clarice Starling is just another FBI recruit. She’s sort of one in a crowd. So it’s sort of a negative point of view from her world. And because she’s chosen for this special errand, she’s now moved to the positive. She’s now caught the attention of the higher ups at the FBI. So the polarity shift in the first scene is from a negative to a positive.

The next column is the turning point, and this is a critical moment in the scene. Just like a global story has to have a beginning, middle, and end, so does each scene. And the demarcation point of when the scene changes is called the turning point. So before the turning point things are one way. After the turning point things are another way. At the beginning of this scene, Clarice Starling goes into the office with Jack Crawford and he says, “Starling, you’re doing great out there I really think you’re going to make a terrific FBI Agent.” And she says, “Thank you, sir.” And he says, “I’ve got my eye on you.” End of scene. That’s not a scene. Nothing changed. Instead he used the turning point. He had Jack Crawford offer Starling a job and she chose to interview Lecter. So that’s a great scene. It’s short. It’s 1,690 words. And it turns very succinctly.

The reason why we do this over and over again is that we have to make sure every scene is turning. If our scenes aren’t turning, we’re going to find that when we go to our box that says turning point, we don’t have anything to write down. We’re going to circle that scene, we’re going to take those three pages, and we’re going to say, “I’m cutting those.”

The next column is point of view. The reason we want to track point of view is we want to make sure we’re consistently showing the reader one particular point of view. Or when you do change points of view, that it’s a very, very conscious choice. So the first scene in Silence of the Lambs is Clarice Starling’s point of view and it’s from an omniscient point of view. Meaning she doesn’t see everything that we can.

The next column is the period and time. And this is important for tracking continuity. Have you ever been to a movie and you see somebody smoking a cigarette in one scene and they cut and the next thing they have a glass of vodka? That’s a continuity problem. And you don’t want that to happen in your book. So the next sort of series of columns are all about making sure continuity in your storytelling is consistent. So in the first scene of The Silence of the Lambs, the period of time is February 6th and it’s Thursday morning.

The next column is duration, meaning how long is this scene taking place. Is it two hours? Are they on a stakeout? Is a nine-hour stakeout in a car? Usually you want to be able to mix up the durations of your scenes because you want to constantly be shifting and surprising your audience. So in this case it’s about fifteen minutes. It takes about a fifteen-minute meeting.

The next column is location and in this case it’s FBI Headquarters in Quantico.

The next column is to track onstage characters. And what onstage characters means are those characters that are literally in the scene talking to one another. So in this case it’s Jack Crawford and Clarice Starling. So we have a two-person scene.

I always track the number of characters, too. Because again you want to be mixing it up. You want to have a tight scene and then follow it up with a larger scene, so in this case there’s two.

I also track the offstage characters to make it consistent. So that you know I did refer to Hannibal Lecter at the very, very beginning of this book, so I don’t have to be so intense in introduction later on. So in this case there are thirteen offstage characters that I literally list. And the reason why is it’s the introduction of a book, so Thomas Harris is trying to get in as much exposition as he can in a very interesting dramatic way, and he succeeds.

You might think all of this stuff is overkill, right, you’ve got fourteen columns, you’re filling all this stuff in for sixty-four scenes. You’re almost at the end of the Excel spreadsheet. What’s going on, you’re crazy, right? This is pointless. You’re going to have that feeling. But the truth is this is what separates the pros from the amateurs.

Steven Pressfield: You know when I first saw the detail that Shawn went into in The Story Grid, going from scene 1 all the way to scene 64—the value change and all that kind of thing—I thought, Oh my god, this is really overkill. But it isn’t because it’s the difference between approaching your craft like an amateur or approaching it like a professional. As the writer, a lot of that stuff you do on instinct. You just have a feeling. You know that Clarice Starling is becoming disillusioned at the same time point that the value of life and death is crossing at that moment. But, you have to be able to pull back and switch from the right brain to the left brain at some point when you’re editing, when you’re being your own editor, and have that vocabulary. Have that editor’s vocabulary where you’re like the mechanic that knows what makes a Ferrari engine work. So it’s one thing to say, “Ahhh this is too much, I don’t want to learn all this stuff. It’s crazy.” But if you’re a pro, you’ve got to know it. You’ve got to know it one way or another.

Shawn Coyne: So a lot of people say, “Why do you obsessively do this stuff?” And I’ll tell you one of the other people who does it and it’s a really terrific story is J.K. Rowling. She mapped the entire Harry Potter universe on a spreadsheet. And you can go online and you can see it. She spent the time, a lot of time, to make sure that each of her characters was in the right place at the right time. She knew from book one to book seven, where everybody was at a specific time and place. This is a woman who worked very, very hard to make sure her storytelling was consistent and the continuity was there every, every time.

So why are we tracking all this stuff? Why are we tracking the word count, the scene number, the value shift, the polarity shift? What does all this mean? What does it matter? Well the reason why we’re doing it is we want to be able to track from scene to scene whether or not we are making any sort of changes that will surprise the reader. So if we’re moving from scene to scene and nothing changes—in that value goes from negative to positive, negative to positive, negative to positive—we’re going to understand that the reader’s going to get bored with that. They’re going to get in a routine. So you constantly want to be turning and changing and surprising your storytelling.

When I’m editing a book, and I’m talking to a writer, if I say to them, “Something about the middle part, umm, not enough colors. I’m not really sure I’m getting where you’re going.” That is absolutely not helpful whatsoever. What’s important is to say, “Hey look, in scene thirty-six, when the waitress goes in to get the cup of coffee, it’s not working.” Then he can immediately go to that scene in his mind, he’s the writer, he knows exactly what I’m talking about. And you can have a very quick conversation and you can nail and destroy a problem in about ten seconds. So if you have this exhaustive Story Grid Spreadsheet in front of you as a writer, you can have these meetings with yourself in microseconds. And you can fix things so quickly with so little effort that you’re not banging your head against the wall saying, “Oh my third act doesn’t work.” You’ll know it doesn’t work, and you’ll know what to do to fix it. So that’s why it’s important to take the time and blue-collar effort to get your spreadsheet as perfect as possible. Now when you have your spreadsheet, you go back, and you’ve got your foolscap page, too. And you take your spreadsheet and your foolscap page and now you’re ready to create The Story Grid.

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Shawn Coyne

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.