[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 of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode we continue looking at the non-fiction big idea genre and we start looking at how Story Grid really applies to this genre. A lot of times when you’re thinking about Story Grid, of course, on the show, especially, we’re talking about the fiction side, telling a better made-up story. Where in this case, I wanted to see how these same Story Grid principles of genres, values, beginning, middle and end, how these apply to the big idea genre when we’re talking about nonfiction. So that’s what we get into this episode. It’s really great. It was really eye-opening for me. So I think you’ll enjoy it. So let’s jump in and get started.
[00:01:06] TG: Shawn, we’ve spent the last couple of weeks looking at nonfiction, the different subgenres of nonfiction. Then we looked really deep at the big idea genre last week, but now that we’ve kind identified that and we’re talking about how Story Grid works with nonfiction, we’d have to start asking all the same questions that we would normally ask about fiction about the big idea genre. So to me the first question to think about is like, “Well, what’s the value at stake?” Because that’s what defines a genre. Action is life and death. When you’re looking at the big idea genre, what makes it a genre, which is what is the value at stake when we’re looking at big idea.
[00:01:58] SC: Okay. Yeah. That’s really important. The big idea value is about ignorance and wisdom and knowledge. I always like to think about value in terms of sort of like a gradient of value or a spectrum of value. There’s negative values and positive on one sort of a global wisdom spectrum. If wisdom is the thing at the very, very far right of our gradient or at the top of our pyramid, then how can we think about what’s the opposite of wisdom? The opposite of wisdom would be something like ignorance. You just don’t know that you don’t know. To be ignorant of something is it’s perfectly natural. Everybody is ignorant of a lot of things.
We move from ignorance to wisdom by the end of a big idea book. The thing about wisdom that people get a lot of uncertainty about is that wisdom does not mean certainty. It does not mean that you have a computational formula at the end of the process. What it means is you have a global understanding of one element within a very dynamic system.
To understand the atomic theory is sort of globally understanding that there are the ideas that there’s atoms that have different states of mass depending upon how many protons and neutrons they have and they have electrons spinning around them and the atomic theory is an essential psycho-technology, a tool within your mind, that allows you to start to piece together other things. Are we absolutely certain that everything that we think about the atomic model is correct? No. We spent hundred years, thousands of years in fact of trying to figure out what we got right and what we got wrong.
Wisdom is not about reaching a moment of perfect certainty, because we don’t live in a world of perfect certainty. Ignorance is just sort of not even knowing something is a phenomena that exists. The big idea value moves from something that’s interesting and sort of strikes our fascination and then slowly it moves over this arc from beginning with the phenomena itself and then at the end of the big idea, the reader will have a general understanding of what that concept really means. Where it fits in to the global understanding of a particular arena.
If it’s a big idea book like the structure of scientific revolutions, then at the end of that book we sort of have a global understanding of how scientific progress actually might happen as supposed to the way we used to think it happened. The global value in all big ideas is moving from ignorance to wisdom.
[00:05:37] TG: How would you contrast that to like a how-to-book? Because you said wisdom isn’t necessarily exactly knowing how to do something or a how-to-book is. Is that more just like specific knowledge? Is the value-at-stake in something like a how-to?
[00:05:54] SC: Yeah. The value-at-stake is moving from sort of reproducing a phenomena that happens predictable. Reproducing a predictable phenomena and learning a skill, a craft, that is what how-tos value most. It’s more of skill acquisition as supposed to exploring the fundamental nature of the universe.
We don’t really know all of the details about how tomatoes are formed. We have a pretty good idea, but it doesn’t mean that you need to know that to learn how to garden. It’s reproducing a predictable phenomena through a set of skills. Cookbooks – We reproduce a phenomena of having a cake by using the ingredients that other people have used before and manipulating those ingredients in the same way that others before us have. Innovations within skillsets and crafts are the substance of a lot of how-to-books.
We’re talking about a couple of weeks ago square foot gardening, which was sort of a new paradigm in backyard gardening. It was a way in which to get the greatest quantity of growth out of the smallest possible proportion of earth. That was a very innovative how-to-book that also sort of crossed into big idea a little bit, but he doesn’t really talk about why it is that you get more growth. He’s just like, “Hey! I discovered this thing is the truth and I’m going to teach you how to create and manipulate your environment in much the same way I do.” It’s about creating a skill, how-to, versus a big idea book which is about exploration. It’s about intellectual sort of adventure. It’s the pleasures of thinking. The pleasures of investigating things that we don’t understand very well and piecing together some sort of a hypothesis based upon a particular phenomena. Can you see the distinction?
[00:08:22] TG: Yeah. For sure. One of the things I’ve struggled with when I’m thinking about nonfiction is – Because when I’ve written a how-to-book, it was pretty straightforward. The introduction sets up the problem and then the book is like, “First you do this, then you do this, then you do this.” It’s pretty straightforward how to structure it.
But when we’re thinking about a big idea book and then, again, applying the same kind of Story Grid principles, to me what a big idea book still have the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff the same way – Is that still the structure we’re looking at?
[00:09:04] SC: Yeah. This took me a long time. Years ago when I started the Story Grid website, the first thing I did of course was to just delineate everything that I knew about fiction. Then after I finished that, that took about 6 months of twice weekly postings of 2,000 to 3,000 words. I can’t believe I did all that work, but thank God I did. Then I finished sort of the fiction element, I was talking to Steve, Steve Pressfield, and he said, “You really ought to do the same thing for nonfiction.” That’s sort of how I began to look at nonfiction in the way that I always viewed fiction. All the principles that I thought about for fiction, I said to myself, “Well, those probably are the same principles that apply to nonfiction too, but probably you have to use kind of a different lens to think about those same principles.”
For fiction, when we talk about the three act structure, the Aristotelian sort of beginning, middle and end, I thought to myself, “Well, there has to be a beginning, middle and end in big idea nonfiction too. So what would that be?”
For quite some time I kind of spun my wheels, but there was one thing that I kept coming back to, and that is sort of the nature of the scientific method. The nature of investigating interesting phenomena that we’re not really sure why it happens, but it reoccurs. It’s a predictable pattern of phenomena that we are curious. What’s the thing underneath it? What’s the essence of the phenomena itself?
The way science works is that we really want to look at the phenomena itself and then run a bunch of experiments to test different variables about how we might think it works. Then the ultimate goal of science is to actually create a way to reproduce that phenomena on demand. That’s power. That’s how human beings create powerful machines, is that we look at a phenomena, we analyze it and then we formulate a hypothesis about what’s behind that thing. Then we test our hypothesis. We want to make sure that we’re on the right track. Then the ultimate test is to sort of reverse engineer our hypothesis and to mechanize our thinking to see if we can create that phenomena on-demand.
Back to this three act structure and the nature of scientific investigation. I thought, “Okay. There’s a beginning, middle and end in fiction, in story, and there’s got to be three parts to the arc of nonfiction.” So the way I came to that is I said, “Okay. Probably the first part is analyzing the phenomena that’s interesting.” It’s sort of an analysis, an investigation into a particular phenomena. This happens, and then this happens, and this happens, and they all seem to be of this – I’m starting to go off tangent for second, but I love this metaphor. I was thinking about the other day that great little game that they used to play on that television series for when your kids Sesame Street.
On Sesame Street, I remember when I was a kid, they used to do this in class too. They would have these pictures and they would have like a quadrant. They would have four different pictures in quarters of a piece of paper and the question was always, “Which one of these is not like the other.” So they would have like a rollerskate, and a basketball, and a tennis racket, and like a banana.
That’s how we train our scientific sort of investigation skills when we’re little. You really go, “Well, the banana, because the other three things you use in athletic competition,” and it’s that simple in science. That’s science, man. That’s the analysis kind of part of the big idea book. It’s the beginning. Analysis is the beginning of the story. It’s like, “Well, I found this, and then I found this, and then I found this,” and they all seem to be of a similar group.
Just to use an example in the Tipping Point, at the very start of the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell points out a whole bunch of stuff that doesn’t seem to be in the same arena unless you look at it through a new lens. He talks about Hush Puppies becoming popular, and he talks about the crime rate in New York City in the 1990s falling. Then he also talks about sort of the expansion of gonorrhea in one particular neighborhood in Baltimore. We have these three very different kinds of things. People buying shoes, crime rates, and then the spread of a venereal disease. He says, “These things, they don’t seem to be like one another, but I think there might be something underneath all three of these phenomena that they all share.”
That early part is called the analysis. The middle part is once we identify all of these things that seem to be like one another, then what we have to do is we have to formalize a hypothesis of what could be behind all of them at the same time. In the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell does that. He says, “I think that there is something underneath these phenomena, and I call it the tipping point. It’s this place when things become critical and then they become a mass phenomena.”
That’s sort of the middle build of the Tipping Point, and it’s very long. It takes a long time to formalize a hypothesis about a particular phenomena. Then lastly, the final kind of ending payoff of big nonfiction would be can we mechanize this? Can we use this hypothesis and this formulation based upon an analysis in such a way that we can reproduce the phenomena?
In the Tipping Point he talks about, “Well, if we are able to do particular things, we might be able to get our company to tip into great commercial success. We might be able to stop the spread of breast cancer in a particular community in San Diego and so on and so forth.” But he’s not sort of saying, “Oh! Here’s the perfect formula at the end,” and that’s the difference of a big idea book versus a how-to-book, because a how-to-book is really about reproducing the phenomena over and over again and creating a skill or a craft, whereas as the big idea is it’s an intellectual exploration. It’s one person who has the courage to investigator a phenomena and to formalize some ideas about that phenomena and then say, “Well, if we are able to apply these ideas in this form, we can reverse engineer and create the thing that I’m investigating.”
Just to bring it back to the Story Grid, that’s what the Story Grid, right? It’s me looking at analyzing a whole set of different kinds of stories, formulating a big idea, which is these things seem to have categories and they seem to have things in common across specific kinds of categories. Then the ending payoff is if we abide by the structural foundational essence of these particular categories, perhaps we can reverse engineer a really great story.
If we can look at the great stories, find out what all those little pieces underneath them are and use those to inspire us and to formulate our story in the way in which the masters did, then perhaps we can reverse engineer a working story that will satisfy your particular audience.
Just to get back an answer very clearly what the beginning, middle and end of a big idea book is, it’s analysis, formulation and mechanization. Does that make sense?
[00:18:34] TG: Yes. Analysis – Well, it’s the beginning hook. It’s like, “Hey, I’m noticing this thing.” Then it goes into what’s really going on here, and then it finishes. Now, with the end, does it have to be – Is it still kind of the surprising but inevitable type thing?
[00:18:56] SC: Yes, and that’s really what sort of sets apart a lot of big idea books from other ones. The surprising but inevitable conclusion of a big idea book is that there is a yin-yang. When we’re talking –I’m just going to use the Tipping Point again as another example. When we’re talking about the Tipping Point, we tend to think about all the positive great things about being able to understand tipping points would bring us.
We think about, “Wouldn’t it be great to create a product that became a mass success that was worth a hundred million dollars or whatever?” We think about, “Well, if we can control the process by which something tips, then we can create a product that will bring us $100 billion.” That’s sort of like the positive thing that we’re all excited about.
Now, the inevitable conclusion though that Malcolm Gladwell draws, and he did this brilliantly in the book, was, “Hey, guys. Don’t forget, tipping points can go to negative too.” He brings up at the very end of the tipping point the phenomena of suicide tipping. What he meant by that, it’s possible once there is a lot of sort of publicity about a popular figure who commit suicide, it actually increases suicide rates across the world. It’s this double-edged sword. If you report someone famous who takes their own life, it can actually tip negatively and encourage other people to take their own lives.
Tipping points can move positively and negatively. Oftentimes, say, our company does become worth $100 million. That’s great in some senses, but it’s not so great in others, because then you start having a lot more pressure that you hadn’t really considered before because you’re like, “Oh! If I had a ton of money, all my problems would be solved.” The truth is, is that through all psychological investigation is the more money people have, the greater their depression and incidence of depression and all that sort of thing happens.
The inevitable conclusion of the big idea book is sort of taking the counterintuitive idea and flipping it and then saying, “Yeah, there’s a positive side, but there’s also negative sides too,” because we live in a binary world where nothing is black or white, good or bad. There’re a lot of different shades of gray and understanding that and bringing that big payoff to the end of the book is what the big idea is about, because what we’re trying to do is to become wise. We’re trying to investigate our world so that we can navigate it better. We’re not trying to find certainty, because there is no such thing as certainty in certain arenas of our lives. To have a lot of money seemingly seems like a great gift, but it has a lot of downsides to it too.
Anyway, that’s really when the big idea pays off, is one it looks at the dual nature, the binary nature of phenomena. There’s good and there’s bad and we have to manage and understand how those things happen so that we can make the best decisions possible and optimize our life on earth and navigate it as best we can.
[00:22:46] TG: Yeah. It made me think when you’re talking about another one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, Outliers, and how it’s been a while since I read it, but the thing that sticks out in my head that was surprising at the end, because he was going through all these amazing people that accomplish all these amazing things, at the end the two conclusions he draws where one is the real talent is the ability to practice more than anybody else in creating communities that give people those opportunities.
It wasn’t about being born with this amazing talent. It was more the talent was the ability to practice and we should be looking at how we create communities. To me, the surprising part was it wasn’t about these individuals. It was about the greater community. What’s like the surprising but inevitable end of the War of Art?
[00:23:41] SC: For me, it’s process-driven and it’s exactly the same as what you just described for Outliers, but in a different realm. What I mean by that is that I think what the War of Art is about is that the actual process of creativity, the work necessary to get into the arena in which you want to apply your agency. If you’re a painter and you want to become a great painter, you’ve got to learn the craft of painting. You’re probably driven to that arena thinking, as we all do, that, “Gees! When I paint my masterpiece, then I will find the fulfillment. I will find peace on earth. I will finally prove to myself and to all those around me that I’m a valuable human being.” That is a recipe for disaster, because when we do finally paint or write or create the business that we always thought would bring us happiness, what inevitably happens is that we find it lacking at the end of the rainbow. It’s not because we’re ungrateful or terrible people. It’s just that the end results are not all that meaningful, and this is really, really hard to really put into yourselves, but I believe in this a hundred percent, is that it’s the process. It’s the work necessary to get better. A little bit better each and every day to apply yourself. To go on the intellectual adventures necessary to become a better painter, to admire the works of Freda Callow, or whoever, and learn more and more about her technique and then to use her technique in your own way such that you get a little bit better. Then the next day or the next year you say, “I wonder what all this cubism is all about,” and you investigate that. It’s the process of investigating an unknown territory of your own mind that brings you the meaning, the joy, the happiness, the process-driven creative act is, in my estimation, it’s the key to being grounded. Understanding your role on earth is by really coming to the understanding that the process is the thing.
Steve in the War of Art, what he’s saying is it’s like just fall in love with that process. Think of it like it’s a war. You’re going to want to fight yourself. You’re not going to want to do the work necessary to keep churning away. Here are some tricks in order to keep doing that.
He talks about like always start the next project before you finish the first one. That way, once you finish and you reach that end of the rainbow with the first project, the next day you can start working on the next one, because you cannot make your life about the fruits of your labor, as Krishna would say in the Bhagavad-Gita, “We are entitled to the labor, not the fruits of the labor.” It’s in the labor that our meaning is generated for us. So that’s easy to say and we all like third-party validation. We all like success. We all like bestsellers. We all like it when somebody says, “Boy! That book you wrote was really great.”
But the truth is it’s a little bit hollow when we do finally hear it and we keep thinking, “Well, thanks. It wasn’t really that great.” The process by which we can sort of function is through the creative act itself. Not the results of the act. That’s what I think the surprising but inevitable conclusion of the War of Art is, and I think it’s also the surprising but inevitable conclusion of Outliers too.
[00:28:06] TG: Yeah, that’s interesting. I don’t know if I’ve ever thought of it from that perspective with these books of like they’re following that same path of having to have the beginning, middle and end and pay it off in a way that it’s surprising but inevitable. I’m guessing the books that tried to be big idea books that I didn’t love is they didn’t really do that correctly. Because I guess if I get to the end of a big idea book and there’s kind of like nothing that surprises me, I will feel like it’s a waste.
[00:28:40] SC: Yeah. I mean, I think this is actually a good moment to kind of talk about the conflict. Where is the conflict in a big idea book? Because I always talk about in fiction and in story, we need a great antagonist. If we have a hero who’s navigating a world in a work of fiction, there’s always going to be in the antagonist. There’s got to be a shadow figure that’s pressing up against and trying to stop that hero from reaching their particular goal. There is an antagonist in big idea books. This antagonist, Steve brilliantly called resistance in the War of Art, and resistance has many different hats. It wears many different hats and many different outfits. But the resistance in, say, the Tipping Point is not being able to find or just sort of being stymied by the phenomena itself. It’s sort like kind of giving up on the intellectual adventure before it’s actually surprising and inevitable.
I think when you say there’s a couple of big idea books that you’ve read in the past that you didn’t really feel were all that great and you’re not really sure why. I think it’s because the writer of that book kind of gave up. They gave up the intellectual adventure. They said, “Well, that’s good enough. I’ve sort of come up with this hypothesis. I’m not really sure what to do from here. So I’m just going to end the book now.” They sort of end the book at the end of the formulization instead of taking it to the next level and paying it off by thinking about abstractly how to mechanize this new information.
In Outliers and the War of Art, the ending payoff mechanizes it, as strange as that sounds, it mechanizes is the information that’s been in both books throughout the entire time. The way it does that is to say the big take away here is enjoy the process. Don’t get overwhelmed by the result. As long as you tick, tick, get your bottom in the chair, do the work, do the 10,000 hours. You know what? The rewards are going to take care of themselves. But please, really focus on the process. Enjoy the intellectual adventure. Enjoy that stuff.
Now, if they had just stopped with like, “Oh! Well, the secret is to do a lot of hard work. The end.” Then people would be like, “Well, that’s not really news to me,” and some people do misread those books and some people, they don’t get that big final payoff at the end of the book oftentimes because they quit reading the book before getting to the end. But I think that’s sort of like the big antagonist in nonfiction big idea is the reluctance to take the intellectual adventure to the Nth power. To sort of get the global idea, formulize it and then take an abstraction from it and mechanize it and come up with a lesson, a universal idea that the reader can take away and say, “You know what? Gladwell and Pressfield were really right about that. I don’t think this is the right career for me because I’m really not enjoying this process.”
I think that’s how people kind of get stuck in careers, is they’re like, “Well, if I can just get that new promotion and if I can just get that extra cash on my salary, I can just chug through this process and then I’ll get that and then things will be okay.” Inevitably, what happens is they do get the promotion and they find themselves unsatisfied, a little bit unhappy, and they can’t really make heads or tails of it. It’s probably because the process by which they had to attain that goal was not enchanting to them. They never entered the flow state. They never just got overwhelmed by some really cool idea and spent nine hours Googling it.
This cycles back to the antagonist, the hero and the big idea book is the writer. It’s the person who has the courage to investigative a phenomena and to come up with some grand hypothesis about why it happens. Then the antagonist is all of the chaotic unknown information, things that just waylay you and destroy your theories. This happens to all of us and it’s continuing to sort of enjoy, “Well, gees! That really set me back. Well, let me get at it again. I’m not going to quit until I can really sort of give someone some really good advice about this and to support some universal truths so that they have wisdom.”
Wisdom is the accumulation of experience and knowledge such that we can kind of – It’s sort of like when you look at your kid and you go, “Oh my gosh! They don’t know what’s coming. I know exactly what’s going to happen when they go to that pizza party.” You can’t really give them that wisdom until they experience it.
The big idea book is sort of – It’s almost like people reading love stories because it’s this sort of safe way of falling in love and going through the love experience without being vulnerable or getting hurt. The reason why people read big idea books is that it’s a way in which they can sort of get wisdom without having to go to the pizza party and accidentally spilling milk all over yourself at the party and being made fun of.
The big antagonist is that big black hole of the unknown and keep going into it and looking for the patterns that we all know are inherent in – I mean, the unknown is sort of like a chaotic realm. We’re not sure what’s happening. We can’t figure it out, but we know within chaos there are patterns. The big idea is about stepping into the chaotic unknown as a heroic figure, being the writer, and looking for the patterns, analyzing them. Formulating an idea of why those patterns recur and then testing that hypothesis over and over again until you can actually predict that pattern happening based upon your hypothesis.
[00:35:43] TG: Yeah. This reminds me of something you told me back when I writing Running Down a Dream, because the story I always tell is how I wrote the first draft of the book, and it was these 30 tools and it was just like do this, do this, do this.
I sent it to Jeff Goins. He said it wasn’t a book. It was a collection of blog posts. Then I sent it to you hoping for a different answer and you said – You agreed with Jeff and said, “This is a book that somebody will read half of, put on their bookshelf and immediately forget,” which is not what I’m looking for.
I don’t know if it was at that point, but you told me at some point, he’s like 9 out of 10 people that read the War of Art read is basically what we’re talking about, the beginning hook and the middle build and think, “Oh! That’s a good book. That’s really useful or whatever,” then they just kind of move on with their lives. But that 1 out of 10 read the – Oh! Those 9 out of 10 read the end and kind of was like, “That’s weird,” but they don’t really get it. But the 1 out of 10, it’s that ending payoff that changes their life and they tell it to another people to buy a copy of the book. That’s what you kept kind of pushing me towards with Running Down a Dream, is you know you can give people this advice, you can tell them how to do all this stuff, but unless you have that surprising but inevitable end that goes much deeper, again 9 out of 10 people will miss it, but the one they get it will tell it to another people. That’s what’s been so surprising about the book, because I will hear from these people that like people are like, “Oh! I liked your book. I liked your book.” Then some person like stops me and it’s like, “I’ve sold 20 copies of your book because it changed my life.”
It’s been really interesting to be on the receiving end, but I feel like what we’ve been talking about here with the beginning, middle and end and having the surprising but inevitable payoff and even the antagonist is all getting to that thing you said to me a couple of years ago now about you have to have that piece, because otherwise it will be a book that will be forgotten. I think that’s what I was kind of getting to when I was saying that was like all these nonfiction books I’ve read that are like, sure, they’re helpful, whatever. But then there’s those ones that stand out in my head and those are the ones that have that kind of special piece at the end. That is the hardest thing. It’s like the shortest part of the book, but the hardest part defined to write.
[00:38:21] SC: Yeah. Again, I’m just going to go back to what I sort of said at the beginning here, which is we all long for certainty. We all long for someone to tell us what to do. This is part of the appeal of the big idea book is that we believe it’s sort of the candy that we get people to take us seriously and we say, “Come into my book and I’m going to give you the tools that I used to be successful.”
That’s sort of the stuff that drives us to these books. We’re like, “Great! I’m just going to do whatever this person says and then all my dreams are going come true.” The real talent in a big idea book is to give them the truth. Is to tell them the story of how you came to the ideas and the principles that you thought of. Then when you pay it off, the payoff has to be very clear. It’s that this was my path. The big abstraction that I can give you is this. You need to be intellectually adventurous. You need to pursue whatever it is that you find salient and fascinating and you need to enjoy the process by which you go about doing that. You cannot reach certainty. You can’t take my 30 steps that work for me and reproduce exactly all of the wonder and great stuff that came to me. But what you can do is take the message. The point of the investigation on this big idea is to inspire you to be as intellectually adventurous. It was a real big payoff for me. I wrote this entire book about it. It changed my life writing this book.
That’s really the big take away of the big idea. It’s not, “Oh! Well, that theory doesn’t really pan out when you look at the statistical analysis of 10,000 hours. It’s just not true.” That’s not the point at all. It’s about really falling in love with the adventure and spending the time necessary to really formulate your own theories about it. Because the more you do that, the better you’re going to be able to figure out how best to get a grip on the world that’s going to work for.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:40:55] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcasts. As I mentioned last week, we are doing a brand-new seminar this coming February, and it’s all about nonfiction big idea. If you’re interested in writing nonfiction work, I highly recommend you join us for this. It’s a three-day event, except that Shawn has never taught before and there’re only 35 spots available. You can see a lot of the information at storygrid.com/nonfiction if you’re interested, but we only have the 35 spots available. We’ve already sold several of them. If this is something that you’re interested in, I highly recommend you go take a look.
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