The StoryGrid, by Shawn Coyne, is meant for editors to help them fix stories that have already been written. By mastering the principles it presents on good storytelling, you can design a better story. What's cool for me is that I'm starting to believe I know how to do it.
I'm not 100% convinced I know how, but I'm getting there. I'm like at 78% convinced.
This article will not help you design a better story. This article will explain how I'm using StoryGrid principles in my story design efforts. I hope this will encourage and inspire you to design a better story yourself.
How we learn StoryGrid is how we learn anything
Learning to write a compelling story is not easy. The StoryGrid gives you a way to improve your storytelling skills but, like any new skill, it takes time to master. First, you must attempt something you haven't done before, make mistakes, get coaching, and practice.
You can't read the book over a weekend and up your craft by Monday. In fact, there is so much to think about that your writing may suffer until your brain has time to process everything.
It took me three weeks to read the book because I studied and pondered its lessons. I paced the house, thinking about how the points he made applied to other stories I'd read or written.
The book uses Silence of the Lambs as its case study, so I then read that book so I could experience what was discussed in detail, and feel how it worked as story.
Only then did I attempt to put to use the StoryGrid lessons in my own writing. It was a five week interruption from my writing but it felt like progress because I was ready to take a baby step forward in the right direction.
How to learn anything
Here is review of the learning process, applicable to everything in life:
- Specifically, you must go beyond your comfort zone and stretch yourself, attempting things you haven't done before
- Attempt new skills consciously, as if experimenting, and slowly, noticing everything that's involved
- Get a coach or feedback on what you're attempting, either in the technique or the result
- Practice intensely, focusing on the new skills
- Get good rest to allow your brain to reinforce the neural paths you're blazing with myelin
- Continue practicing, with feedback, to make the skill second nature
That's all there is to it, but you have to accept it will take an unknown amount of time to truly master new skills. It depends on the quality of your coaching, the intensity of your training, and your ability to rest and recover.
How to use StoryGrid
Like all great, modern story theories, StoryGrid is a simple formula that works like a Mad-Lib. Fill in some names and locations, and there you have your story outline, ready to be written by an artificial intelligence taught by machine learning.
It's not that simple to use StoryGrid. Shawn Coyne, the author, mentions more than once that it's not really meant for story design. Rather, he built it for editors to figure out how to fix stories.
What I've been doing the past year is develop a portion of the story, and then using StoryGrid principles to decide if it's not quite right, and how to fix it if it ain't.
With the novel I just completed (third draft), I wrote about 50,000 words and turned to StoryGrid to fix it. With that first draft, I felt in my bones it was not right. After a week of struggle, I had a much better design, and a way to rip out chunks of that first draft that weren't serving the story, and identified what I needed instead.
With the second draft, again I turned to StoryGrid to help me identify scenes without goals or stakes, pacing problems, and whether or not the theme was being served by each scene. It was brutally hard, but it got me to a solid third draft of 87,000 words.
Let's say you're starting from scratch. Here's how to use StoryGrid.
Start with a story seed
I'm currently working on the first draft of a novel that I thought of ten years ago. Ten.
I was doing a brainstorming exercise, came up with 100 story ideas, and whittled those down to five stories worth pursuing. This was one of them, but I never got around to writing it. Something was missing.
Back then, I couldn't describe the story beyond the premise description which was, roughly, "A scientist charged with conducting genetic experiments on herds of human beings violates his oath and the law by falling in love with one of his subjects."
What I couldn't figure out was how to setup this story, how to build the tension, and what was the big payoff at the end.
When you study StoryGrid, the concept of setup, build and payoff for every scene, every act, and the entire story, is repeated. What I realize now is that, for the past thirty years, I've been pretty bad at the setup, build, and payoff of novel-length stories. My novels were "a bunch of stuff happens to some guy" and then I would wrap it up.
I swear to god, two of my novels pretty much ended like the shrugging emoji: ¯_(ツ)_/¯
With this current story, the bunch of stuff I had in mind was so distasteful to me that I couldn't even approach the story for nine years. So it sat there until I took the time to work out who was the scientist, with whom did he fall in love, and how did that progress.
Once I did that, I realized the scientist thing wasn't going to work, and the story transformed. I found different characters with more at stake who could deliver the story I wanted to tell. It was quite thrilling, actually, to see how this new story emerged.
Find your genre
Practicing setup, build and payoff is absolutely the most useful thing I've gotten out of StoryGrid. But the way he has documented genre, and broken it down, completely blew my mind.
Outside of StoryGrid, the term "genre" is used loosely (romance, sci-fi, action), and sub-genres seem to emerge from out of the void (psychological thrillers, caper movies, dystopian sci-fi). Trying to think about genre was, for me, like walking into an anatomy lesson where all the bones of the human body are being described. I kind of know what femurs and ribs are, but when the other 279 bones are brought into the discussion, my eyes glaze over.
I was faking my knowledge of genre all these years.
In StoryGrid, genre is laid out in a chart and divided by content, style, and other categories. This allows you to figure out the external goal, internal goal, and how you'll tell the story.
Importance of Genre
I used to be a genre snob, thinking that writing in a genre was no better than being a pulp-fiction hack. Oh, how I was wrong.
Writing to genre allows you to meet the audience half-way with your storytelling. Everybody picking up your book has a set of expectations. Right or wrong, they have them, and those expectations matter to those readers. If you ignore the expectations of your genre, you'll disappoint your readers, and you are the big loser in that exchange.
StoryGrid and Genre
In Shawn Coyne's book, he goes deep on one (and only one) genre: serial-killer thriller. As the obligatory scenes and conventions of the genre are described, it makes perfect sense. It doesn't feel cheap at all. It feels complete.
When I finished reading StoryGrid, I wanted to know about many other genres. But that was going to take a lot of hard work.
Recently, the StoryGrid certified consultants have been publishing articles on storygrid.com about all the other genres. Put together, they're the missing chapter of the book. Read them, and suddenly almost every story you've ever read before in your life makes a little more sense.
Back to your story
Once you decide what genre your story fits into, study the conventions and obligatory scenes. Then, adapt your story to fit it. Again, this is not formula, and you can't use boilerplate to tell the story.
As with happened to me and my story, you may need to change your characters to fit the genre. You may need to lose some and add others. This is your creativity being called upon to design the story. You aren't just filling in a formula.
Use your creativity to find unique ways that your characters in your setting can fit the pattern (even if those obligatory scenes are "out of order") and you'll have overcome a huge hurdle in finding an audience for your story.
Choose the POV and Narrative Device
The other critical component of a story's design is the point of view from which the story will be (mostly) told, along with the narrative device employed.
These were missing from the story idea I had, but once I'd began using StoryGrid to organize my thoughts about the story, I could try various characters out as the POV. What I realized is that the initial protagonist didn't have enough at stake in the story (things were going to go her way) and it would be harder to build empathy for her.
From that realization came a younger sister of that first choice. She would by more sympathetic. Telling the story from her POV would allow me to tug at emotional heartstrings.
Given that, I decided I'd use a subjective third-person point of view, allowing me to share that characters thoughts in a way that would match the readers story knowledge, thus pulling the reader into the story through that character.
Create the Foolscap Global Story Grid for the story
Given all the stuff we just discussed, you can then create the cornerstone design artifact for your story: the Foolscap Global Story Grid.
The Foolscap Global Story Grid is one-page summary that spells out:
- Genre for your story
- The theme
- The setup, build and payoff of the entire story
This is a lot tougher than it sounds because you have to have a complete vision for your story. It's all too easy to toss in a bunch of stuff happens type events, fooling yourself into believing you have it figured out.
How to get better at creating Foolscap Global Story Grids for your stories
I'd attempted four of the Foolscaps on my other stories before working on this current story, and I thought I had it right. But I was wrong.
One of the suggestions I heard at the StoryGrid Live conference was to practice creating Foolscaps on stories you already know. I did six of them and suddenly my confidence soared. It became easier to spot the turning points in acts one, two and three that mattered.
With that confidence, I refined the Foolscap for my current story, and I feel much better that, once I'm done writing the first draft, I'll be able to edit and revise, and realize the vision I had for this story ten years ago.
Guess what? That was the easy part
If you've written a novel-length story before, you know the hard part awaits you. 50-80,000 words ain't for the feint of heart. It's one thing to type that many words.
It's entirely another to get the correct 80,000 words in the correct order. Using StoryGrid, I'm much more confident I'll figure out that problem.
You can too. Get busy and type faster.
Welcome to the inaugural issue of The Mickey Picayune. The change in branding is as much for me as it is for you, trying to get me to make this a regular thing (monthly?) and to offer value each time so that you open the email. It's not like I can give you a free book with every email, but I can give you something. Maybe an updated picture of me will suffice?
I completed updates to my website, www.mickeyhadick.com. If you've read these newsletters regularly, you've probably seen all the bits and pieces, but this is a better presentation and improved navigation. If nothing else, browse my blog for an existential crisis blast from the past.
I'm deep into a sci-fi dystopian novel, now. Those can be tricky to pull off, but I'm keeping it short in case I need to rewrite it.
And this email is coming from a new provider (SendFox) so I hope it makes it past your spam filter.
In other news
I drove out to NYC a couple of days to pick up something very important (my daughter). It rained ten out of the eleven hours during my drive east, so I didn't enjoy the fall colors in the mountains of Pennsylvania. During the drive back, there were some gorgeous views and much simpler driving. I took this one from Riverside Dr. in Manhattan, just before we got on the George Washington bridge (pictured) to leave.
What to read while you're waiting for my novel
I just finished Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. It's set in 1948 but written in 1990, and it's a superb depiction of racism of the time. Also, it's a hard-boiled a detective story as they come. It was really a fun read.
I've also started Watch What You Say by George Weinstein, who I met in September at the writing conference I attended. I'm only four chapters in, but it's a grab-you-by-the-short-hairs kind of story, and I'll be deep into it soon.
I've revamped my website, http://www.mickeyhadick.com, after a few years of stagnation. What's most interesting, of course, is my content, especially my blog posts these days. I'm sure there's something there you'd enjoy.
It ain't fancy, and I doubt it ever will be. It's a place to find my articles, links to social media, and links to my books.
Also, if you're a writer of any kind, you'll appreciate that I'm working on my website as an excuse to avoid writing my next novel. I haven't built up any momentum with the story, and I'm extremely vulnerable to distraction.
October 25, 2019
I'm in between things. My third draft of the most recent novel is complete. I've started (400 words) the next novel. I've started some changes to my website, but haven't completed them. I'm also going to change my email system from Mailchimp to SendFox.
In a sense, I'm always in between things because I always have a lot of writing projects going on. I don't have 17 books I want to write and then I'll be done. It doesn't work that way.
I'm accustomed to being in between things. It's absolutely necessary for my peace of mind. I'm finding tranquility in the chaos of creation.
That chaos used to be a serious problem for me because of anxiety attacks.
In kindergarten and through first grade, I would cry when it rained. (I cried about a lot of things in kindergarten, but rain was a big one for me.) I finally got over that, but would panic whenever I was late.
If I got a late start to school, I would sweat and cry. I would make my mother late for work, begging for a ride, so that I wouldn't be quite as late.
I practiced being calm to control these feelings. I didn't understand that the triggers would set off negative feedback loops, and the subconscious response to that would take over my emotions and body.
One time, I'd gone to the airport to pick up a rental car for a wedding. I was on a deadline, but I thought I had it all figured out. My father drove me there, and as we walked through the airport terminal, I didn't see any signs for the rental cars. When it hit me that the rental car agencies were a few miles away from the airport, and that I was going to be late, I went into a panic — rapid breathing, sweating, on the verge of tears. My father was baffled, and tried to explain that it was just a few minutes away, and I wouldn't be so very late, but I was in the tail spin.
I'm lucky in that those attacks were not on the level of an anxiety disorder, and I'm not fishing for sympathy in telling this. I'm just sharing that I'm surprised with my own level of calm in dealing with multiple, complicated projects in my spare time. My day job keeps me busy, too, publishing content across ten different websites using four different technologies, plus duties as assigned.
Part of my calm is that I've learned to enjoy all these projects — the writing, the story design and planning, and the website publishing for my day job. I don't mind doing any of it, so none of it triggers me.
Back to that recently completed third draft of a novel
The story is a crime-thriller set in 1979. In it, a cop's daughter dies in a bizarre boating accident. Everyone blames the young man she was with, except the cop's younger daughter, who wants to find out what really happened. She learns that the people she loves the most can be trusted the least.
I'm looking for feedback on the story, so if you'd be willing to read an 86,000 word crime thriller, and tell me what you think, let me know.
Here is what I'll need from you if want to help:
#1 Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
#2 Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?
#3 Could you relate to the main character?
#4 Did the setting interest you and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
#5 Was there a point at which you felt the story lagged or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?
#6 Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?
#7 Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?
#8 Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likable?
#9 Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names of characters too similar?
#10 Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?
#11 Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?
#12 Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?
#13 Was the ending satisfying? Believable?
#14 Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?
#15 Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?
To top it off, I'd like to ask for this feedback within three weeks (once I send you the manuscript). Given the holidays, that'll put it before Thanksgiving.
I'll send you a PDF or an ebook. If you don't know what you'd do with an ebook, I'll send you the PDF. (No paperbacks this time.)
Can't commit? That's cool. Reading the book is a huge ask, anyway. That much book takes me around two weeks of reading.
Interested? Hit me up directly at email@example.com
Do you email at work?
In other news
If you've ever wondered how I go about writing, it's like this: I spend a few minutes in the morning journaling, writing down dreams and thoughts I woke up with. Then I go to work and if a random head about a story pops in my head, I write it down in a tiny journal I carry around. In the evening, I nap or meditate, and then sit my butt at a desk for two hours, working on a story.
That's the ideal.
What is typical involves distractions with dinner preparations, taking out the trash, fixing something around the house, running errands, and life stuff.
But I'm not complaining.
I study Stoicism, and today's message was a reminder that we only have two things to do in this life: be kind to others, and pursue an occupation that you love. Everything else is just distraction, and should be avoided if possible.
I get to write novels. If no one reads them, so be it.
I got to go sailing a couple of weeks ago. (Thus the picture at the top of this post.) It's fun. I recommend it if you have the means. My friend Brian makes it a priority in his life, and I went along for the ride.
I'm hoping he upgrades to a party yacht at some point before we're too old to enjoy such things, but the sailing was fun.
What I've read lately
Recently, I read and recommend the following books:
- The Street Lawyer by John Grisham. I hadn't read Grisham in a long time, and was curious about this. It really sucked me in and I enjoyed the ending a lot. A couple of plot points were random stuff, but it starts as a crime story, then shifts into courtroom drama.
- The Feral Detective by Jonathon Lethem. I forget who wrote it but I won't forget the story. It's told from the POV of the detective's client, who has a really interesting emotional journey. That's what sucked me in.
- The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. I'd always been curious about hardboiled stuff. Some of the lines had me laughing out loud.
- Double Indemnity by Cain. This was a re-read that happened by accident. I picked up the book, which I read a few months before, and started reading and found I couldn't put it down again. It's that good.
Thanks for reading this far, and thanks for your time.