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Tracking the Scene

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The next three columns on The Story Grid Spreadsheet pinpoint the mechanics of each scene.

Essentially, the VALUE SHIFT, POLARITY SHIFT and TURNING POINT columns will tell you how each scene has moved the Story forward. You’ll identify what value is at stake at the beginning of the scene and the value by the end of the scene. Then you’ll determine whether that value has shifted from positive to negative or negative to positive. Lastly, you’ll determine the precise moment in the scene when that shift occurred, the Turning Point.

These three columns will give you the perspective necessary to track the success of your Story form. That is whether your Inciting Incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions in each scene are clearly defined. If you have to struggle to determine what value is at stake in your scene or if there was no discernable moment in the scene when it shifted from positive to negative or negative to positive, you’ll know that you have more work to do on that scene.

Before I lay out these three columns for the sixty-four scenes in The Silence of the Lambs, some definitions and refreshers of fundamental Story principles are in order:

Story Value: These are human experiences that can shift in quality from positive to negative or negative to positive from moment to moment. For example happy/sad, wisdom/ stupidity, love/hate, freedom/slavery, innocence/experience, etc. Every scene must turn a Story value or it is not a scene. It must start someplace (happy) and end somewhere else (sad) or there is no movement, no change and the Story stops dead in its tracks.

Polarity Shift: The polarity shift is simply shorthand for the value valence change from +/- or -/+. Remember that change can occur in a scene that moves from good to great or bad to worse too. +/++ and -/– are perfectly valid polarity shifts and are essential to building the thriller’s progressive complications. Choosing when to escalate the complications in your overall Story can make or break it from one that “works” to “doesn’t work.”

Turning Point: the precise beat when the value in the scene shifts from positive to negative or negative to positive etc. Turning points can either happen through action (a bomb blows up) or revelation. (“I’m you’re father, Luke.”)

You can see the Value Shift, Polarity Shift and Turning Point columns for The Silence of the Lambs’ first six scenes here.

Here is the first page of The Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs

Here is the first page of The Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs

You’ll notice that I’ve categorized the turning points as either turning on “action” or “revelation.”

Tracking the quality of the turning points is important, as it will give you a sense of flow and continuity of your Story. If you are turning your scenes the same way over and over again, it would be good to know that right?

Repetitious turns will turn off a reader or viewer subconsciously. They won’t know exactly why they’re losing the ability to suspend their disbelief in your Story, but they will.

No matter how great the scene is, if it is the tenth straight scene that turns on revelation, you will bore your audience. You’ve got to mix it up and surprise the reader at every opportunity. So if they are expecting some big revelation to happen, it’s best to throw down some action. And vice versa.

THE EDITOR

STAGE THREE

Now it’s time for you to go through all of your scenes and evaluate your value shifts, polarity shifts and turning points. Take your time doing so and be brutally honest with yourself. This process could take as long as two weeks to complete. Set yourself a reasonable goal each day. Today I will evaluate ten scenes.

Remember that we all have a tendency to protect ourselves from criticism by writing down “what we intended to do” as opposed to “what we really did” on the page. And we become more and more susceptible to that temptation when we’ve been slaving in the analytical mines all day. So take your time and do this piecemeal. And again, don’t rewrite now. Wait until you’ve finished your Story Grid before you set yourself to that task.

It’s okay if you want to write down what you intended to do as well as what you actually did if that will allow you to be truthful. What you don’t want to do is write down what is not on the page. Remember that no one in the universe will look at your Story Grid Spreadsheet. Nor would they really understand what it means anyway. The last thing you want to do is lie to yourself about what is actually on the page. You need to remind yourself that you are going to fix the problems in due course. This is the time to find the problems, not to sweep them under the rug.

So if you find that your first ten scenes do not turn or there is no clear value at stake, but a whole slew of values, or that you’ve used the same polarity shift over and over again, don’t sweat it. Just barrel through and write down the truth of every scene in your first draft and leave the “solution” stage for another time.

FINDING THE PROBLEMS IS THE EDITOR’S #1 JOB

This first draft spreadsheet round is all about finding the problems.

It’s not about solving the problems.

The only way to solve all of the problems in your draft is to have them all clearly listed in front of you. So you must force yourself to keep the Writer on vacation and also don’t overwork the Editor. Pace yourself. You may not think that you are getting anywhere, but you are. When you finish The Story Grid Spreadsheet, you’ll be able to go through it over and over again and mine seriously valuable insight. But if your spreadsheet is not complete or there are intentions and not actualities listed in it, it will do you little good. It will be more of an excuse list than a helpful tool.

Think of The Story Grid Spreadsheet like a knife. You must hone it and keep it razor sharp so that when you need to cut or re-envision a scene, you’ll know exactly where to do it and more importantly WHY to do it. The How of doing it will also come to you over time. Not now, but when you least expect it. Let the writer deal with the How later. You’ll be amazed by how smart that guy is.

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.

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic


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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.