[0:00:00.5] 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 the Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode, this is a follow up to two pretty cool things. First off, like I mentioned last week, we did cross that two million download mark, which is just really cool. Thank you again for being a part of our work here at Story Grid. Also, we did a training and a Story Grid editor certification training last week in Nashville and it was just a lot of fun.
We started out the episode talking a little bit about last week and what that meant and what happened there. Then we move into talking about a brand new Story Grid tool epiphany that Shawn had while we were here together last week. It’s a really great episode. It’s the first time you’re going to be hearing Shawn talk about this. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:10.5] TG: Shawn, we are fresh off of spending a week in Nashville together training 29 new Story Grid editors, which was really cool. These things don’t seem to coalesce in my mind until we’re all sitting in the room and I’m like, “Oh, my gosh.” We had 29 people getting training for the first time and 10 of the original editors that came, so we had 40 people in the room listening to you and I blab on for a week.
[0:01:44.5] SC: It’s true. Yeah, it was pretty incredible. Before we got on the call here, I just remember – When we first did it, we had our first 19. Everybody was a little bit – they were in the middle of their Story Grid comprehension and they wanted to learn a lot more. A lot of that first original conference was reviewing the fundamentals of Story Grid and we did that again this month.
The difference was it fell to me when I was doing it originally that I was being drained. If you fell into an ice pond, the pond would suck all of your heat out of you, and this is not to denigrate the original 19, because without them we’d be nowhere. It makes sense that they were trying to get a sense of what I wanted to do, what you wanted to do, what Story Grid would really become, and so they were taking it all in. They’re taking it all in, read to me as the performer that they were just absorbing what I was saying without really trying to pick at it.
Now this time, we had 10 of the original 19 and all 19 actually wanted to come. For one reason or another, they weren’t able to – 9 of them weren’t able to make it. Those original 10 have now had 18 more months to digest Story Grid and to actually put it into action. They were at a very, very high-level of comprehension. Then the other 29 had probably listened to all of the Story Grid podcast, had read the book, had taken the level up your craft course, had done probably the love story course as well. Everyone was at this level that was remarkable.
I didn’t have to talk about value shift, or polarity shift at the level that I originally did. What was remarkable to me was it became a conference about back and forth and a Socratic way of actually defining Story Grid principles even at a higher level than they were when they started. There was a palpable moment during the week when that happened and it really shifted the necessity for me to communicate in a better way.
I think everybody felt exhausted by the end of the week, but I think everybody felt we took it – we took Story Grid to another level. It wouldn’t have gotten there without all of us being in that room at one time. Instead of me feeling drained, I came home and I banged out so much stuff from that week that I’m really excited to share not just today or on the podcast, but to actually put it into practice. I’m so thrilled that we did this event and it tells me that we need to do more events actually.
[0:04:46.5] TG: Yeah, yeah. For me, it was just seeing a group of people that had come – we had one guy from New Zealand, we had a woman from Germany, we had a couple from England, we had one from Sweden, we had several from Canada. People were coming from all over the world to learn this stuff. I forget sometimes – there’s every week I log in and I look at our numbers of downloads for the podcast and that thing and it’s easy to get in this mode where it’s like, well me and Shawn talk and then there’s numbers on the screen.
To be in the room with people that love Story Grid, have learned Story Grid, have probably learned a lot over the last 18 months from the other editors reading their blog post, being in the level of your craft course, it was just really exciting to hear them talking about it, watch them. I would be standing adjacent to a group of them and they would be talking about story stuff and using all of the language of Story Grid to talk about it and you and I weren’t there. We weren’t in the mix.
That just gave me this okay, I feel people are really getting it in a way that I think logically knew because of we broke 2 million downloads, our e-mail list is growing, everything’s growing, but to actually hear people in the room talking about it, I came home and I was just thrilled. I just was really excited. I feel besides the fact that we’re trying to grow something, I feel this all started with helping people understand and be able to talk about story in a fundamentally different way. I feel this was the first time I really got to see that in action.
[0:06:40.7] SC: Yeah, exactly. The other wonderful thing about Story Grid is that it makes you speak about concepts that have much larger ramifications than you initially think. When you were talking about these groups of four or five people reinventing and refreshing Story Grid terminology without you or I present, that really speaks to me, because that has been the vision that we’ve talked about from the beginning about Story Grid is that it’s not about Shawn or Tim. It’s about the concepts.
Part of the global problem whenever we’re doing anything is trying to find a balance between the order that we feel comfortable with. If we know what everybody’s role is and what everybody’s supposed to do, it gives us a certain level of comfort that we’re controlling the situation. Control and order is super important, because if you don’t have it, it can spiral out of control.
On the other hand, if you don’t have chaos involved in your systems, and chaos meaning allowing the free flow of information between people and allowing people to put their particular spin on your thing that you started, then what happens is that the system never grows. It’s always about well, what does Shawn think, right? What I think is really important and what I tried to stress all last week is that Story Grid is a Socratic methodology. What I mean by that is that there’s no answer key and that makes us all very uncomfortable, because we’ve all gotten to the point in our lives where we feel comfortable when we are given certification that what our thoughts and what our actions are are correct by some third party.
The problem with that is that then power has to be centrally focused into one person or one organization. That’s what destroys a really great thing. The Socratic method is about constantly asking each other questions. They’re similar question and we ask the same questions over and over again. What it does is it allows each individual subjective point of view to start to hone in what is true for them, for their particular point of view.
That’s why I love more people from more international countries coming into the Story Grid universe, because their points of view are really important for story. The more of those people who are involved, the more different genders are involved, the better that we all get at being able to dissect and enjoy the Story Grid methodology.
What you and I think, we always come back to this. What do we do if a certified Story Grid editor does something that we think is a little bit not cool, right? At the beginning I was like, “We’ve got to have strict rules and guidances and things that they must – they have to read the Story Grid handbook of –” It’s like, when you go to college, you have to read and sign a thing that said you read the student handbook, even though nobody does, so that they have a legal position to throw you out of school if you break a rule, right?
Part of me is we should really have a rule book and a handbook for all these people that they have to – Then you were like, I think the best way to treat this is that when somebody acts uncool and does something that we don’t like, we just talked to them about and say, “Hey, that’s uncool and you have to stop doing that, or you can’t be a Story Grid editor anymore.” That one principle, don’t be uncool, don’t spam people using the Story Grid as your spam device.
[0:10:41.7] TG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[0:10:43.7] SC: Yeah, go ahead.
[0:10:44.7] TG: I always think of I really respect Jason Fried and David – I never know how to – David Heinemeier Hansson, something like that that started Basecamp, formerly 37Signals. I feel they think really good about business. One of the things he talked about was how businesses have an overabundance of rules, because something happened once, or they were afraid something happened once. It’s when you walk into a gas station and it’s no shirt, no shoes, no service. I’m like, “Do you really have so many people coming in here half-naked that you got to make a rule that you post on the front door that every single person has to look at? Is that really that big of a problem that you have to put it in everybody’s face?”
I mean, he’s talked about this before. That’s what I was thinking is every time that I assume that people are good people, that make good choices, that are all trying to do the best they can, I am rarely proved wrong. It happens. Our thing was like, yeah, let’s all work on this together towards a common vision and if every once in a while we have to have a slightly uncomfortable conversation, that’s fine. I’ll take that over trying to hymn everybody in.
Because even just what we’ve seen over the past year and a half of we’ve had editors that have gone to conferences, we’ve had editors write so much amazing stuff for the Story Grid website, we’ve had people come up with new ideas, pitches on new ideas, we spun off the Story Grid roundtable podcast. I mean, there’s all this stuff that if we had tried to control it or God forbid, hire a bunch of editors that work for us and do what they’re told, we would have never come up with this stuff.
It’s really fun for me to – because that’s a risk, right? We’re trusting in people, instead of assuming they’ll all be assholes. There’s a risk on our end, but I’ve just been thrilled to just see the results of it.
[0:12:53.9] SC: I mean, that’s the other great thing about a methodology like the Story Grid; it’s a self-selecting process, right? It’s difficult to fake it. You’ve got to really have been infected by the analytical processes, because it’s not easy delivering Story Grid deliverables in any way, shape or form; the six core questions, the Story Grid foolscap page, the spreadsheet God forbid.
That’s the other wonderful thing is that it really attracts only those who are really, really into it. I think you will find it very difficult for anyone to say, “Oh, the Story Grid. Yeah, that’s a super easy thing that will get you from zero to 60 miles per hour in two seconds.” No, it’s the playbook for the tortoise, not the hare. It’s the playbook for someone who wants to meticulously build a craft that has principles that they can always go back to, that are all constantly being refreshed not by the leader, but by the other fellow journeyman in the story universe, and to see and to be a part of something much larger than ourselves was what really gave me the thrill.
Just to go back to the metaphor about the ice water,, if the first time was feeling as if I was being drained of all of my intellectual capacity, this time I was being energized. I left far better than when I arrived. To be the “lecturer,” who was able to have that experience, it’s the price of gold. It did say to me, we should be doing more of these, not for me to be standing in front of a lectern, but for me to be able to help lead a discussion, a Socratic approach to piecing out and figuring out the answers to very specific problems. Yeah, I know. I don’t want to belabor it, but it was great.
[0:15:09.8] TG: Yeah. Well I mean, I feel it’s not more of these so it gives you an opportunity to get up and wax poetic or whatever. It’s we’re realizing the more that we get this group of people together, the better everybody’s going to be. That’s what it felt is just like, oh, man. I kept just thinking the amazing stuff that’s going to come out of the people in this room that we’re going to get to just watch and be a part, it just got me really excited. Again, we’ve been doing this for three and a half years with this loose vision and hope that it would be something that would impact people. I felt like again, we’ve seen it in little doses, but this was I think having the original editors in the same room with the new ones interacting, hearing their conversations was like, “Oh, man. This is working,” because it’s just been on faith for three years.
Well, so tell me, because I know you had something you started talking about that I think really took a life of its own throughout the week about this idea around chaos and balls of chaos. You want to talk about that a little bit?
[0:16:22.5] SC: Sure. Part of the approach of the week was we went through – formally went through about 15 questions concerning individual units of story, that some contain multiple scenes in them, but there were five video scenes taken from films, there were five homework pages. Each of the editors received the scenes and they’re from famous novelists and short story writers. They were able to review the scenes and answer these questions before they came to the conference. Then there were five cold scenes in which I would hand them out. I handed them out during that day. The editors were able to read them for about 20 minutes and then they had about 5 to 10 minutes to answer the questions and then we reviewed them, right? It was very Socratic and organic process.
Then in addition to that, we did five songs. At the end of each day, we went through a popular, or evergreen song and discussed the Story Grid questions with those songs. Between those four scenes per day, everyone got so much. They had to really apply their brain using the Story Grid method for at least two and a half hours of the eight-hour class per day.
All right, so a theme that happened that occurred over and again on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday was that my descriptions of what I believe the inciting incident of these units of story were being challenged. I kept being poked by the same question. I thought you said, and actually from the Story Grid book was brought up a number of times. In the book you wrote, the inciting incident must be X, Y and Z. I would answer the question and I would keep coming back to this idea that I had that they were picking an inciting incident for a micro-beat of story that was in the larger unit, and if they were only looking at it from my point of view in the big context of the larger arc of the story, then they would be able to have the insight that I did about the inciting incident.
If I were in an audience of people who weren’t comfortable questioning the “master at the head of the room,” that would have been the end of it, right? They would have all been like, “Oh, must think like Shawn. Not thinking Shawn yet, therefore I am wrong and must mimic with the way Shawn thinks.” That wasn’t what these people were about, right? They paid quite a bit of money to come and they weren’t going to be that answer wasn’t going to suffice for them.
What happened was and it’s really interesting when you look at it in terms of the five commandments of story is that I reached a crisis. I reached a crisis on day three, which was the day that I was covering the crisis, right?
[0:19:31.3] TG: Of course.
[0:19:31.7] SC: This gets very meta and cheesy, but it’s not inaccurate. In fact, Mark from New Zealand came up to me and said, “Isn’t that interesting that you’re going through a crisis right now when this is the crisis day?” I was so locked up. I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Coffee’s over there.” Like, “I don’t want to talk to you right now,” because I was I was getting really upset about it.
Okay, so that night I went back to my hotel room and I couldn’t sleep all night. It was really bothering me, because – In fact, I came out in one of the breaks and was – you were on the phone with Candice and I interrupted your call and I was yelling. You’re like, “Can I just finish my phone call before you start freaking out?”
[0:20:16.1] TG: I wasn’t going to bring that up.
[0:20:17.4] SC: No, but it was great. It was really great, because all of these things indicated to me that this was a problem I had to deal with, right? This was a question that I could not easily blow off. It kept coming back, right? The more I blew it off, the more I was getting upset about it. Interesting, right? That’s what happens in a crisis.
I’m back in my hotel room. It’s 1:00 in the morning. I can’t sleep and I’m thinking about what I’m experiencing, the phenomenon that I’m undergoing, which is I’m getting angry about a question. Okay, what’s the question about? The question is that the problem that I’m trying to solve for the people in the audience, I’m not providing a good enough solution.
Okay, so that frustration is making me angry, which is making me wish to tell them to stop asking me the question. I don’t want to answer this question. Now is that because I don’t have an answer, or that I just haven’t clearly been able to communicate the answer? Thank God, it turned out I absolutely had the answer, but I just hadn’t clearly labeled and identified the answer yet.
On Thursday morning before we got into our scene work, what I did was I went through an argument. I didn’t say this is the answer to all of your problems. I said, “What do you guys think about this?” What I’ve noticed is that the inciting incident, it keeps coming back and everybody’s a little bit confused by it. I keep saying too, it’s not important. Your inciting incident is perfectly valid as is Leslie’s and as is Anne’s, as is Rochelle’s. Everybody’s choices are perfectly valid and they’re saying, “Why are they valid?”
All right, and so what it boils down to is this; I had to think of there are five commandments. That’s too many, right? I was trying to think of my own past and I said, “Well, what’s analogous to the problem I’m facing?” Okay, so when – please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not saying that I am anyway the person I’m going to talk about. When Moses –
[0:22:32.5] TG: Well, I always refer to you as you’re God creating the scriptures and everybody else is helping. You’re taking a step down from what I say.
[0:22:42.0] SC: Oh, good, good. Okay. When Moses came down from the mountain with the 10 Commandments, I can imagine people were like, “10 Commandments? How are we supposed to keep all those?” Ask anyone today, what are the 10 Commandments? They’ll come up with maybe three or four. The problem was 10 wasn’t working, right? There had to come – something came out of that 10 that one principle that basically takes care of all 10 in one fell swoop. That of course, is the golden rule, right? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
It’s not just a Judeo-Christian concept. The concept across cultures is the concept of reciprocity. Reciprocity means if someone does me a good favor, I will return the favor. If I don’t, then shame on me. That’s the tribal code. If you had to boil down the tribal – that’s the hospitality, right? Everything comes from this global thing, I wouldn’t want to do something to somebody else that I wouldn’t want to have done to me.
All right, so what’s the deal for story? Could I break my five commandments of story down to one? I thought to myself, what’s the critical point in the story? I looked at my spreadsheet and I said, “What on my spreadsheet is the thing that is in the middle? The thing that I’ve identified that is the most important to identify?” It turned out that it’s the turning-point progressive complication.
Now let me just review what that means. The turning-point progressive complication is the thing in the unit of story, be it a beat, a scene, a sequence, whatever, that turns the value. It’s the thing that moves from satisfaction to unsatisfaction, or from safe to threatened, right? It’s a thing that kicks you right into the crisis. I thought to myself, “Okay, if you had to throw away the five commandments and come up with one commandment, what would it be?” I said to myself, “Well, it has to be this turning-point progressive complication.”
Now isn’t it interesting is that the turning-point progressive complication is often the most confusing concept within the Story Grid. A lot of people were like, “I’m not really sure which one it is and I can’t really put my finger on it. I know when it’s not there, but I’m not sure which one of them is which.”
Okay, so I had already answered the question. The most important thing to identify in a single unit of story is the turning-point progressive complication, but that doesn’t sound like anything I can understand. It sounds like gobbledygook from a scientist. It’s a blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s like the ontological and epistemological thoughts of nobody understands what that means. I thought, “Well, what is that thing really? What is that thing?”
Then I said to myself, “Well, that turning-point progressive complication was what I experienced while I was teaching that made me have an emotional reaction of anger.” When these certain kinds of things drop into my life, my first response and other people’s first responses are different, but I have actually an emotional response and it’s usually I get angry.
I went back to Jung. I went to back to Carl Jung, which is always a good place to go back to and I thought, “What concept does he talk about that can describe that turning-point progressive complication that gives rise to an emotional response from the protagonist?” what I came up with was this very archaic notion that he – not archaic, but little known, little known. It’s called the Carl Jung’s round balls of chaos. Now that sounds weird and I have a response to that in a second.
Basically, what the round ball of chaos is, it’s a moment that occurs that we’re not expecting. For example, if I’m walking to get a cup of coffee and my dog jumps in the way and I didn’t expect it, because it’s dark and I accidentally kicked the dog, that is a little round ball of chaos, right? My ordered progression to get my coffee has been interrupted by a chaotic event, which is my dog crossing my pathway in the darkness.
These round balls of chaos are really interesting, because the way Jung talked about is that they have – they’re paradoxical, meaning that they contain both threat and opportunity, or obstacles and promises. They’re half positive, half negative and we’re not really sure which one they are when they come into our life, right? For example, when I built up my first publishing company Rugged Land Books, and it seemed to be going really well. That was actually a negative that was a positive. It was a paradox. When it came tumbling down, I thought everything was terrible in my life after it came tumbling down. In truth, that negative event actually was an opportunity for me to change my mind, for me to look at things in a different way of my own life. What spun out of that? What spun out of that was the Story Grid.
All right, so these round balls of chaos have different sizes. A small tiny one is accidentally kicking my little dog, he screams, I bend down, I pet him, I recognize the problem, the round ball of chaos and I make it better. I focus on the round ball of chaos, which is in this instance my little dog. I don’t just go run and make my coffee and kick the dog, right? Because I want to make the dog feel better and to feel safe. I concentrate. I put my focus on that little round ball of chaos. I pet him and I go, “It’s okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there.” I give him a good nice scratch behind the ear and he feels better and he walks away and everything’s cool.
The problem is when we don’t put our focus on the round ball of chaos; we ignore it and then the ball of chaos gets larger and larger and larger and larger, until we’re forced to deal with it. That’s what happened to me in the lecture. I was just ignoring it. The inciting incident, it’s not a big deal. Don’t worry about it. Then it came back. I’m telling you, don’t worry about it, right? It’s getting larger and larger and larger.
One of the things I also discovered is that calling this thing a round ball of chaos really wasn’t – it wasn’t very alliterative, or it wasn’t very specific to what these things actually were. I was thinking about it –
[0:29:40.9] TG: I’m sorry. Does Jung call it a round ball of chaos?
[0:29:45.5] SC: He does. He does.
[0:29:47.7] TG: Why I say round ball? You’re just saying it twice, a round ball.
[0:29:52.8] SC: Oh, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he doesn’t. I mean, if you go to Google and you and you type in something like, Jung’s ball of chaos, you’ll see only a – believe it or not, only a few references to it. The references that you’ll read, one is from the psychologist Jordan Peterson who he works at University of Toronto, has a big bestseller called 12 Rules For Life. He’s a polar figure in contemporary society. As a psychologist – I’m not going to get into what people think about him politically. As a psychologist, this guy is super-duper well trained and he refers to these balls of chaos in a couple of his lectures. He was the one who actually pointed out that J.K. Rowling actually anthropomorphized these round balls of chaos in Harry Potter. What she did brilliantly –
[0:30:43.8] TG: Don’t move past that. You need to explain that, so go ahead.
[0:30:47.7] SC: What’s really fascinating about J.K. Rowling is that she’s super-duper smart, she’s done a lot of research, she knows myth better than pretty much anyone right now. She brought all the mythic stories from the past to the table when she created Harry Potter and her series of seven novels about it. The round ball of chaos is actually that thing that she calls a snitch. The snitch is the little ball that has wings in the Quidditch game, right?
[0:31:16.3] TG: Yeah, yeah.
[0:31:17.6] SC: This is really a brilliant construction about the game of life, right? There’s this game of Quidditch, there are all these rules and then there’s this super-duper rule above all the regular rules. That is anyone who catches the snitch, what? Wins the game automatically, right?
[0:31:33.9] TG: Yeah.
[0:31:34.7] SC: The person who’s in the Quidditch game called the seeker, which is one of the roles that you play in Quidditch, like halfback in football. Now if the seeker for one of the teams catches the snitch, game is over and that team wins. That is a metaphor for story, right? Those who put their attention on the little round ball of chaos that is very difficult to pinpoint, and if you can catch it and analyze it and figure out what that little ball of chaos means, you win. You win the game. You move further. You improve. You become a better person.
The core idea that Jung was coming up with was that these little things drop into our lives constantly. The only way to deal with them is to really focus on what they mean; to really put your mind to the problem, to identify the problem and then work toward a solution. You can defuse these things by really focusing on them when they come up in you. That’s what a story is. It’s how people are coping and putting their attention and dealing with these balls of chaos in units of story.
Let me get to my new coining of a term, if you will. I was thinking to myself, “Okay, if I were to look at a story as a physical – in terms of physics, right? The original state at the beginning of a story, someone is either in homeostasis, or they’re just who they are in that moment.” Then I always say this, at the end of the scene they’re changed, right? It moves from an initial state to some goal state, or sub-goal state, or above goal state. Whatever happens, it has to change; the value has to shift from the beginning until the end.
In terms of physics, in order to change matter, you need to apply energy, right? If I want to turn a piece of wood into a sword, a play sword for my son, I’ve got to apply energy to that piece of wood. I’ve got to get a knife and carve it and then I have to sand it, but I have to apply energy from my being into that wood in order to convert it into – to change it from just a block of wood into a play sword.
What is the energy that does that in the story? It’s a paradoxical ball that Carl Jung came up with. A paradox, meaning it could be either positive or negative and it’s both at the same time, as strange as that is. That’s what chaos is, right? There’s plenty of opportunity and there’s also plenty of threat. A tornado, if you harnessed a tornado, it could provide a tremendous amount of power, but it’s also tremendously destructive. It has both elements in it; tremendously powerfully, an opportunity that could create a lot of energy, or it could destroy. It’s both at the same time. That’s what a paradox is is having the same qualities that are at the opposite ends of a gradient or spectrum, so positive and negative.
I think Jung is absolutely right. The conception that these are little balls, or spheres I think is important. They move and they get bigger and they’re smaller and they’re little snitches as J.K. Rowling says. If they’re paradoxical spheres, why don’t we call this unit of energy as a fear, which is just dropping the S on sphere, it’s a P-H-E-R-E. What a P-H-E-R-E is, it’s the unit of energy that turns a unit of story. In terms of physics, it’s a unit of power, like a Joule, or gravity has inherent energy and gravitational force.
Anyway, I love this because it says ball, because it’s the root of the word is sphere, right? It’s also what we get after we experience it. We get fear. P-H-E-R-E is pronounced fear. What a phere does, it’s a unit of energy that comes into a story that creates fear in the character. Now the way I react to fear is by my amygdala fires, get angry. That’s why we call our company Black Irish Books, because that is my first response to something that makes me fearful is I get angry.
Other people get – they try and be extra sweet. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I upset you,” right? That’s their immediate response to it. The way to deal with these pheres, P-H-E-R-E-S is to understand that it’s going to shift the value from one value to another in a unit of story. If you need to know one thing about story is that it’s not a story, unless there’s a phere, P-H-E-R-E that exhibits its energetic force on the actual unit of story. The phere is the thing that induces the shift in valence from satisfied to unsatisfied.
That’s what I got out of this this week, which I think is pretty remarkable is it took me from five commandments to one. I got from the 10 Commandments to the Golden Rule and then this went – I got from five commandments to pheres. If you look at a story, what you want to do is modulate the energy of the phere, right? There’s going to be little phere balls and there’s going to be larger ones. They should all change and move depending upon where you are in the global story. If it’s the beginning hook, you’re probably going to start with a big phere and then you’re going to taper off and then move up and it’s like the movement and the expansion of the energy applied to the system will create a cathartic experience at the end.
This is no small thing that I would have never really pinpointed, unless the people in the audience at our conference had the courage to poke me, to actually drop these little pheres on me, so that it got so large that I had no other choice but to deal with the thing, and I spent all Wednesday night thinking it through. I went on, I found a little diagram of what a phere looks like in terms of Jung’s conception. I showed that to the group. I walked them through it. I said, “Look, I had already pinpointed this on the spreadsheet, but I hadn’t given it a good enough definition that it becomes clear.”
I think the concept of the phere as the unit of energy that must be applied in a story to move the value shift from one end of a gradient or spectrum to the other is a pretty great definition and it’s the only thing you know. If you don’t have a phere in your unit of story, it’s not a story. Does that make sense?
[0:39:00.4] TG: Yeah. I feel it’s like the other Story Grid things where I completely understand what you’re saying until I try to put it in practice, but it makes sense as far as having this one concept that drives everything. Could you give an example, just maybe use one of the scenes we talked about last week of how you would apply it to a scene to dissect the scene?
[0:39:25.7] SC: Sure, sure. Okay, so one of the scenes that we analyzed was from Ragtime. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s a similar unit of story. About the midpoint, maybe a little bit earlier than that, but E.L. Doctorow, the novelist knew that he had to get his character Coalhouse Walker, Jr. from a place of getting along in society, even though it’s very unjust, to a place where he becomes a revolutionary rebel who says, “The system is broken. We have to tear it apart,” right?
He was faced with this moment where how do I create a story event, a scene that will move my character Coalhouse Walker, Jr. from complacent to revolutionary, from getting along with everybody to a place where I must tear this system down? What he came up with is a ball, a phere, a P-H-E-R-E, a very large magnitude, but really only large magnitude to Coalhouse, right?
It was very specific to Coalhouse, but once this phere came, then all bets were off, right? He changed his behavior based upon confronting this one phere. What’s the phere? Let me quickly walk through the scene. Coalhouse Walker, Jr. is a black man. They’re around the turn of the century and he has worked his tail off as a piano player. He’s a great Ragtime pianist. He’s doing really well and he saved his money and he’s bought a car. He has a Model T Ford. He’s one of the few people in his world that has one.
He has a fiancé and she lives in Rye, New York. Every Sunday, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. drives his Model T car to Rye, New York to visit his fiancé. Okay, so it’s probably late afternoon on Sunday, he’s had his visit and he decides to get in his car and drive back to his apartment in Harlem. He’s on the road and he’s on the same road that he’s taking 30, 40, 50 times before. Guess what happens? As he’s driving, all of a sudden a fire department filled with angry racist white men pull their fire engine to block the road. Coalhouse sees that obstacle, that’s a phere, right? That’s a thing that he wasn’t expecting that comes into the road and blocks his progress.
He cannot get past that fire engine in his car. What does he do? He initially turns around to back up and one of the nasty firemen done on that side? They’ve blocked out that side too. E. L. Doctorow was saying, “Okay, I’ve got Coalhouse blocked off. He can’t go backward, he can’t go forward. He’s stuck in the moment. He’s going to have to deal with these racist white guys, right?”
One of the racist white guys is the head of the fire department and he says to Coalhouse, “It’s going to cost you $20. This is a toll road,” right? Oh, my gosh. Coalhouse, again he’s a very wise, smart, strong person says to himself, “There’s no way I’m paying this white guy $20 to pass. I can’t really back up, but I did notice before I got here there was a police station. I’m going to leave my car and I’m going to ask for help by the authority figure, right?” He does that. He comes back and he’s with the police officer and guess what? the nasty white racist guys have moved all the blockades.
It looks like it’s clear sailing for him and they’re making fun of them, right? The policeman is like, “See, I don’t see this is – this isn’t any problem son, so just keep moving.” Then he’s ready to let it go, because this is just the way the world is. There’s some nasty people in the world. Then he notices that they have defiled his car. He’s not expecting them to have ripped apart his roof and one of the men went to the bathroom on his side of the bench to drive the car. There’s human feces on his seat and this is a ball of chaos, a phere that Coalhouse Walker, Jr. cannot get over and that was how he solved it.
Coalhouse Walker, Jr. at that moment when he confronts that phere, he looks at it hard and he says, “No Mas. No more,” right? “I am no longer going to eat this feces from this society. I am now going to be an agent of change and I will refuse to back down.” The rest of the novel is about him insisting that his car be returned to him in its original condition, or all others will have hell to pay. It was a brilliant ball of chaos of phere that was so large, specifically to that one character that every single person who reads that novel or sees that movie is immediately on Coalhouse Walker’s side, even if they are nasty white racist themselves. They’re like, “You k now what? You guys got a point.”
[0:44:34.7] TG: You don’t fuck with a man’s car.
[0:44:36.2] SC: That’s right.
[0:44:38.9] TG: In that case, you’re thinking –
[0:44:42.4] SC: Okay. Let me just go back a second to explain. Okay, so that’s the scene we read, right? People were saying to me, “I thought the turning-point progressive complication was when they put the fire engine in the road?” I was like, “No, no, no, no. That wasn’t it,” right? They couldn’t understand what I was meaning. It didn’t really occur to me, unless I started looking at all these turning moments in the progression of the unit of story and say what’s the largest one? What’s the one that changes Coalhouse Walker, Jr. from a guy just trying to get along, have a family and have a good life to a revolutionary?
By the time I explained this concept to the group, they all agreed, it’s the moment when he discovers the feces on his car. That’s a much bigger moment than blocking the drive, right? Because –
[0:45:31.6] TG: It’s just interesting, because a lot of what you’re describing is stuff that I’ve gone through on the therapy side of just the problem starts out small, I can live with that problem. The problem gets a little bit bigger, I can live with that problem. It finally gets to a point where I’m like, “I can no longer live with this problem. I have to make a choice.” When I used to teach classes in the jails, the guy that I taught with would always say like, “People always change when they get to the end of their rope, but they get to choose how long the rope is.” It’s basically when have you had enough suffering that you’re ready to change.
In that case as you described that, it’s like, if it had stopped before that, he would have gotten back in his car, drove away and nothing would have changed. It could have been for him, it could have been if he had changed at the fire engine, but we know that if they had moved it, he wouldn’t got the cop, so these are all progressive complications. If he had gotten in the car and the car was fine, he would have drove off, gone home and been annoyed about it, but not changed. Is that what you’re describing?
[0:46:45.1] SC: That’s exactly correct. I use that as an example, because that’s the progressive complication in the entire global story of Ragtime that shifts the global story. Prior to that moment, the people who were downtrodden in the story were willing to overlook the injustice. Because you know what? Coalhouse Walker, Jr. he used the system in order to better himself, right? He used the system to get very wealthy and wealthy enough to buy a car. He used the system to become a pillar of his individual group of people that he hung out with. You know what? It was still corrupt and it still had to be refreshed. hat moment is the moment in the global story when the entire novel shifts. Now it’s about we got to take the power away from these white guys who are racists, right? We’ve got to – go ahead.
[0:47:42.1] TG: It makes me think of I’ve been – Candice bought me the entire Everybody Loves Raymond series for Christmas. We’ve been going back and watching those and there’s this one episode, because the whole thing is Raymond’s this guy that just lets his mom and dad just run over him and tell him what to do and cause all these problems. There’s this episode where – We haven’t gotten this far in the series yet, but I think the episodes open with his dad backing the car into his living room. The whole wall just gets blown out and the car comes in and he had just been sitting where the car ended up. That wasn’t that big of a deal.
Then other thing, and then his dad was trying to get insurance, like trying to cut corners and that – he kept letting it slide. Then it came down to the wallpaper, the stripes on the wallpaper were a fraction of an inch smaller than the rest of the wallpaper in the room. That’s when he loses his shit and he’s like, “I can’t live like this anymore.” It was that moment that everything changed. Up until then, he was fine.
[0:48:54.1] SC: That’s true. It’s true. That’s the art of storytelling is pinpointing these pheres. Where are the pheres? If you don’t have a phere in a unit of story, it’s not going to turn. If I’m walking to get my coffee and I tell you a story, so Tim, this morning I woke up and I’d like to get a cup of coffee in the morning. What I did is I got out of bed, I put on my slippers, I brushed my teeth and then I walked down the stairs. I walked to the coffee maker and then I got some coffee. I put a filter in the coffee maker, I put some coffee in the filter and then I poured water in the machine and I hit the button on. Then lo and behold, in about three minutes I had a cup of coffee. What do you think of that story?
[0:49:36.4] TG: My question would be like, “Why did you tell me this story?”
[0:49:38.9] SC: That’s exactly right, because no one cares, because it makes absolutely no difference, because everything worked. Every plan I did worked to get me that coffee. If I tell you, and so it was a little bit dark. I ran into the dog. The dog accidentally fell down the stairs, so I had to run down the stairs to get the dog. The dog wasn’t moving. Then I called my wife and said we had to go to the vet, right? Now you’re like, “What’s going to happen to the dog? What’s going to happen to you? How are your kids going to react to this, right?” It has nothing to do with my initial state of wanting to get a cup of coffee. The scene turned the moment that ball of phere came into the scene when I kicked the dog and he fell down the stairs.
That’s why you have to identify the phere. If there’s one story principle that is just above everything else, it’s where is the phere, where is the P-H-E-R-E pronounced fear, and the pheres have to change. They have to be of different small valances. One might be the size of an electron, one might be the size of the sun, right? These things you have to track. that’s generally what the Story Grid spreadsheet is about is tracking the balls of phere. The where are they? When are they coming in? How large are they? If you had to put a number on them, what would they be? That’s how you actually do the Story Grid spreadsheet. I mean, the Story Grid itself.
Each scene has an inherent ball of phere value. The climax of your story, the phere value for the external genre is going to be at 50. When nothing’s happening, the external value is going to be zero, or one. That’s the one principle that drives everything else in Story Grid. It’s the turning-point progressive complication, chaos ball of phere, P-H-E-R-E.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:51:33.8] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out 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.
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