Story Grid 101
eBook - ePub

Story Grid 101

Shawn Coyne, Leslie Watts, Shelley Sperry

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eBook - ePub

Story Grid 101

Shawn Coyne, Leslie Watts, Shelley Sperry

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What are the first principles in writing a story that works?

At Story Grid, it's easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles.

In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years of experience working with writers to build their stories into five principles:

  • Stories are made up of distinct parts, or units.
  • Stories are about change.
  • The change that happens in stories concerns Universal Human Values, the things that most people would say are necessary to survive and thrive in the world-or alternatively, the things that keep us from surviving and thriving.
  • Each unit of story has a Story Event, a one-sentence distillation of what's happening and what value is changing.
  • Within each story unit we find a pattern of change we call the Five Commandments of Storytelling.

Also inside of Story Grid 101, Shawn also introduces you to the fundamental tools:

  • The Foolscap and Editor's Six Core Questions
  • The Spreadsheet
  • The Infographic
  • The Four Core Framework
  • Story's Boundaries

Story Grid 101 is for anyone new to Story Grid who needs a primer on how we approach our craft.

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Stories are made up of distinct parts, or units.

Stories are composed of many units, each of which fits into the next like a Russian nesting doll. We need to examine those units to understand how stories work.
The smallest unit of a story, called a beat might be only a few words or a few sentences long. The beats combine to create scenes, which combine to create sequences. Sequences combine to build acts and subplots, and finally, the global story unit, within which all the other units live and interact.
In this book about First Principles, we’ll look primarily at the global story unit and one of the smaller units, the scene. Although we’ll dig into these two most important units of story here, it’s worth knowing a little about each of the other units before we begin.
The smallest unit we study is the beat, a term taken from the performing arts. Actors break down scenes into beats as they explore how their characters change throughout a play or film. A beat is defined by an identifiable change in behavior. Often, it’s a brief moment when one character realizes the choice they are making is not working. They’re not getting what they want, so they change their tactics. Although it’s important for writers to look carefully at each beat in certain critical scenes, most of us shouldn’t get distracted by the beats until we’ve produced a well-crafted manuscript in all other respects.
The next unit of story is the scene. This micro unit is the key to every story that works. Sometimes they’re short—a fraction of a chapter—and sometimes long, but in each scene the characters experience movement from Point A to Point B. In a scene that works, a change representing a shift in what we call a universal human value takes place. We’ll discuss these human values more below.
In both the macro unit of the global story and the micro unit of the scene, we intuitively sense the beginning, middle, and end. And as readers, when we reach the end of a scene, we have the feeling that something has resolved, and it’s time to move on to a new bit of action.
The unit of story called a sequence is built with two or more scenes and also has a beginning, middle, and end. Sequences are about critical moments that we sum up in phrases such as “catching the killer,” “practicing for the big performance,” or “courting the princess.” They include a change more significant than what’s in a single scene but not the explosive change that happens in an act—the next unit in the nesting doll of story.
In the unit of story called the act, the protagonist’s life is changed permanently. Not only do the events provide a feeling of resolution for readers, but they also leave us wanting more.
Most novels and films also contain subplots, units of story that amplify or comment on the theme or counterbalance the global story with irony.
The macro, or global, story unit is the whole enchilada. The total experience from start to finish.
We all know what we can expect from a global story when we see a book cover or movie poster because the images are designed to convey that feeling of “horror” or “love” or “war” instantly. The moment we see the iconic movie poster for Jonathan Demme’s film, The Silence of the Lambs, based on the novel by Thomas Harris, we know what we’re getting. Actress Jodie Foster’s face is ghostly, her dark eyes glow, and her mouth is covered by a mysterious insect with a skull across its thorax that foretells death. We sense that a battle between the forces of good and evil will happen in this story—the mark of a classic thriller.
Why do we bother dividing our stories into all these units?
As writers—and as humans—we can’t see both the forest and the trees at the same time. We can’t analyze, edit, and polish our macro, or big picture story elements while also analyzing, editing, and polishing our micro, scene-level details. We need to move back and forth so we can see our stories in all their complexity—and tackle the problems one at a time.
The primary tools we use to tackle problems at the global level are the Story Grid Foolscap and Editor’s Six Core Questions, the Four Core Framework, and the Story Grid Infographic. You’ll find more about each of those in the chapter on Story Grid Tools below. The most valuable tool for analyzing stories at the scene level is the Story Grid Spreadsheet, also explained in the Tools chapter below.


Stories are about change.

All stories are about change. The state of the world inside a story and inside each unit of a story is different at the end than it was at the beginning. In fact, the first thing we check when assessing any unit of a story is whether a life-altering change has taken place in the protagonist or another character. The change doesn’t always have to be dramatic, but it does have to reflect a real transformation that can be defined in the Story Grid Spreadsheet.
If there is no change in your characters, readers won’t care about them. And in the case of the protagonist, the change over the course of the entire story should be irreversible. We expect the characters we care about to take on great challenges and emerge with valuable experiences to share. Stories provide us with knowledge about how to act when we encounter the inevitable conflicts we all face as humans. How we act or don’t act when we face such conflicts is the engine of storytelling.
For example, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the change at the macro, or global level is about Dorothy gaining maturity and full agency over her life when she confronts frightening challenges far from home. At the micro level, in the first scene, the change is about Dorothy moving from safety to a life in danger as a result of the cyclone.

Examples of Change in Global Stories

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy travels to an extraordinary world and returns a different person, having gained full agency over her life.
In The Silence of the L...

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