Into the Woods and Home Before Dark

This will probably seem ridiculous, but I have a new, all-time favorite book on story design. It’s called Into the Woods by Yorke, and it pretty much replaces Story Grid, which was my previous all-time favorite.

When I read Story Grid (by Shawn Coyne) it was life-changing. The way he described the fractal nature of scenes, acts and stories resonated with me. The emphasis on making sure that every scene had a setup, conflict escalation and payoff improved my scene writing. How much did my scenes improve? Like, a lot.

And if you can write a good scene, you can tell a good story of any length. Eventually.

I was convinced I’d found my storytelling guru

At the time, I set aside my storytelling for a month as I read Story Grid, and then worked hard with it on my desk for the next six months, applying the lessons. It made my storytelling much better.

Last year, I attended the Story Grid conference and then it made even more sense.


But Story Grid’s true focus is on editing a story to figure out why it doesn’t work. It doesn’t answer the question why you tell a particular story.

Still it made a great deal of sense, and the story I recently completed has gotten positive feedback from my early readers (the book is in proof reading, so keep your shirts on).

It seemed like there were missing chapters (for lack of a better cliche) on how to begin a story. The Story Grid website has added a couple of dozen articles that filled that void, and I listened to a podcast hosted by Tim Grahl, a novelist working with Shawn Coyne on how to use Story Grid. That filled more of the void for me, and I felt really good about the strength of my storytelling after all that.

I didn’t even think I needed anything else to read about story design.

Enter Into the Woods

Every year I read at least one book on writing. Some years I read two or three. For some reason, I had two copies of Into the Woods on my shelf, and I hadn’t read them.

I got them in a flurry of writing-book-buying, and somehow they got pushed to the bottom of the pile. Recently — as in a month ago — I started a different book on writing, found it shallow, and grabbed Into the Woods off the shelf.

It’s deep.

It’s life changing.

It has connected dozens of dots about writing, and has blown my mind. I have never read a book that I dog-eared and underlined so many pages. I copied dozens of critical notes and quotes into my common place book, and re-read as I went along, so I’ve read it twice already.

The Funny Thing Is…

The funny thing is that Story Grid and Into the Woods have a lot in common. They both talk about how the setup, conflict escalation and payoff are the fundamental building block of every sentence, beat, scene, act and story. They both talk about inciting incidents, turning-point conflict, crisis and climax in every scene, act and story. They both talk about how the protagonist’s inner journey is inextricably linked to their outer journey.

More than once, I checked the copyright date on the books to figure out who published first (Into the Woods, 2013). For a while I thought Into the Woods would be the perfect complement to Story Grid.

Then I realized how much better Into the Woods helps me understand story structure than Story Grid.

Not a Fair Comparison

I’m positive that Shawn Coyne would shrug if I mentioned Into the Woods. Shawn is very up front about how Story Grid is about how to edit a story to get the conflict escalation correct so that you have an entertaining, enlightening and compelling story.

Story Grid relies on the Hero’s Journey, from Joseph Campbell and expanded by Chris Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, to explain the structure needed.

Into the Woods, on the other hand, endeavors to answer the question why our stories fall into the archetypal pattern we know as the Hero’s Journey. Moreover, it answers the question why we tell stories at all.

I’m An Idiot

I’m so happy I’ve read both these books. I have had this edition of Into the Woods on my to-be-read shelf for three years. That’s a full year before I read StoryGrid. But when I got Into the Woods, for some reason, I didn’t crack it open. I bought it at the same time as Vogler’s book on the Hero’s Journey and read that, first. (To be honest, Vogler’s doesn’t read well, to me, from cover to cover, and I’d picked at it, flipping around reading the various sections until I eventually read all of it.)

Had I read the first couple of pages of Into the Woods instead, the last three years would have been different for me.

Oddly enough, the same friend who sent me Story Grid (with a note that said, “You have to read this”) had also recommended The Writer’s Journey and Into the Woods.

Why Read Into the Woods?

If my goofy enthusiasm doesn’t convince you, consider this: Into the Woods has the best explanation for how to create a compelling second act. How does he do this?

Yorke makes a brilliant explanation for how to turn the dreaded second act into three acts, matching the journey your character must take, and how to find a mid-point that elevates the meaning of your story — whether you know what the meaning is or not. Thus, you end up with a five-act story. But it makes so much more sense (once you read the book).

Another Reason to Read Into the Woods

Once more, I recommend you read both Story Grid and Into the Woods. They complement each other, answering ‘why’ we tell stories, and also how to edit a story that is not quite escalating the conflict properly.

Also, I realized that I have two copies of Into the Woods. Somehow, I ordered it twice, and now I’m willing to give away the one I haven’t bent, dog-eared and written in.

How to Win a Copy of Into the Woods

Use this link to join the giveaway for this one copy of Into the Woods. This is an overkill way to figure out how to give away a single book, but I have my reasons.

Mostly the reason is because I bought the giveaway promotion software from Kingsumo many years ago, and just want to use it.

Am I whoring for followers? Maybe, but it just seems easier to communicate about the giveaway with this damn thing I paid for, rather than cobble together some half-assed system.

A week from now, I’ll pick one of the people who entered and figure out how to give you the book. Only eligible to U.S. residents, because I don’t feel like dealing with shipping out of the country.


17 Ping Pong Balls and Reaching Into the Dark and Dank Pit to Deal With a Writer’s Despair

This was the closest I could come to a dark, dank pit. (Photo via Stencil)

I took the dog for a walk the other day. It's winter, here, and it's a much more involved process because of the snow, sleet and cold. I have to put on boots, wear a hat and gloves, and decide whether or not I need multiple layers or just a single coat.

When I walk the dog, that's my thing for the evening, I don't want any other things for me to do. Other than to write.

It's become my habit to write in the evenings, after supper, when the house is relatively calm. Some days I walk the dog earlier in the evening so that not even that hangs over my head. When I'm back, I can put on comfortable clothes, settle into my writing corner, and write.

That's my ideal evening, now. The previous twenty-four years were dominated by family and parenting activities. (I wasn't an effective parent, but I put in the time, which counts for something.)

When I returned home after this particular dog walk the other day, I noticed a sound, like a motor running somewhere in the house. Not loud, mind you. If there was a motor running on the dining room table I'd know right away. No, this was quiet enough to have been outside, like it was in the neighbor's garage.

I removed my winter gear, put things away and was on my way to my writing corner when I once again noticed the sound of a motor running. I checked with my family, "Do you hear that?"

They did.

But no one had a great theory on what might be the source.

I walked around the house and noticed it was louder in the corner of our living room. That spot was closest to our neighbor's garage. Then it hit me: that spot is also directly above our sump pump.

I hurried into the basement and of course that was it. The pump was stuck in the pump mode, sucking air. I pulled the plug and lifted the lid and yanked the plug out of the wall. Smoke was wafting from the pump — never a good sign.

Shining a light down into the pit, the first thing I noticed was quite a few ping pong balls gathered at the bottom. With water trickling into the pit, they took float.

Not me, but I'd love to play at this level (Photo via Stencil)

Years ago, I indulged my love of ping pong with a table bought on clearance when McSporty's went out of business (can't recall the name of the store, now). My son's high school years were full of noisy games there in the basement, and he quickly out-gunned me. Eventually, the table fell into disuse.

Over the course of those years of enthusiasm, we went through a lot of ping pong balls. I bought them by the dozen, and many are still unaccounted for in the recesses of the basement.

But I know for certain that 17 of them went into the sump pit. And one of those finally got pinned in the float mechanism of the pump to tell it the pit was empty.

A lot of life shares that same symbiotic relationship of ping pong and the sump pump. We chase after some fun activity in our life, thinking that this is great and will sustain us forever. Distracted by so much fun, we neglect the actual things that sustain our life, and possibly even abuse it somehow with the jetsam of enthusiasm.

When I first graduated college, I wanted to become a writer, and worked on that as much as I could. But I also had a decent job, and thought it'd be a way to make something great. At various times over the next two decades, I chased business ideas, startups and learned new things. They all fizzled out, however.

In the meantime, I neglected my writing. I gave up on it a few times, but I've come back to it repeatedly because (I now realize) I have a primal compulsion to entertain, and I specifically love the idea of writing to entertain.

Ten years ago, when I realized I wanted to write more than anything, my creativity pump was throwing smoke from the bottom of an empty pit, and nobody liked what was coming out of it.

Since then I've been trying to rebuild that pump, and I hope that within months, or maybe a couple of years, my creative hose will be gushing with stuff that is nothing but pure gold.

And I promise to work at finding better metaphors for my creative writing.


Blood in the House and the Natural System of the Universe

Our house has been busy, lately, and we found blood splattered across the floor near the front door, leading across the carpet and into the kitchen as if someone had been cut and was bleeding while making their way through the house.

Obviously, this was disturbing.

The mystery was heightened because our adult children are both living at home. We don't know exactly what they're doing at any given moment.

To digress for a moment, having adult children in the house is fun, really, but not quite how we thought things would be.

I'm not being judgmental when I say, "…how we thought things would be." I had been going on the assumption that circumstances would pull them away from us. Instead, circumstances kept them close.

Allow me to digress just a bit more.

I study Stoic philosophy, and one of its tenets is that we must submit to the natural order of things. Stoicism does not promote the idea of a God or gods, but neither does it preclude them. It is based on embracing rational thought, and dealing with the circumstances you are presented with.

Stoicism also embraces the fact that the natural order of the world — nature, governments and people — can mess with you in ways you never imagined.

For example, my wife dropped a jar of marinara sauce the other day in the kitchen and the jar's lid blew off. The splatter of spaghetti sauce went through the mouse hole I cut in the door to our basement and splattered the stairwell wall. Instead of working on my novel the next hour, I was scrubbing the wall. Something in the natural system of the world presented me with circumstances I had to deal with.

The blood appeared the next day. We thought it might be the dogs, and checked their paws very carefully (no cuts!). The cats were similarly checked and showed no signs of bleeding.

We asked both kids, and no one knew how blood could have been brought in through the front door.

I got a bucket and began scrubbing the blood. I worked from the entrance to kitchen, and noticed the trail continued across the kitchen. Because of the color of the kitchen tile, it was difficult to see the blood, but I kept my face low and cleaned it up.

The trail led me back to the door to the basement, the one with the mouse hole cut in it. Then it hit me: it wasn't blood, but spaghetti sauce. One of the dogs had stepped in the mess while I was getting a bucket to clean the spill.

The dog tracked the spaghetti sauce through the kitchen and towards the front door. We, however, didn't notice for two days. In the meantime, I forgot about the spilled spaghetti sauce, and jumped to the conclusion that blood was in the house.

It bears repeating: no animals were injured when my wife spilled spaghetti sauce.


Middle Age Reckoning for the Holidays

You probably can't tell from this blog, but I'm well into middle-age. I'm not horrified by the prospect as I feel fine and my mind seems sharp.

But a thing happened this past week that give me pause.

Family photos at JC Penney

Our adult children, both out of college, are living with us at the moment. It gives a weird vibe to things, as routines from 20 years ago have now morphed into very different things, like we still watch television together but, instead of Dexter's Labratory or the Power Puff Girls, it's Ru Paul's Drag Race and Japanese language soft-porn anime with subtitles.

We decided to get a family portrait done for our holiday greeting cards. Next year may see all of us in different places. This could be one of the last such portraits we take (you just don't know).

JC Penney is cheap, true, but we chose them also because they allow pets. The photo shoot was a testament of all things Americana:

  • Each of the four adults drove separately
  • JC Penney is a department store that has seen better days
  • It's located at a mall that has seen better days
  • I had the wrong location, and led my son astray, but thanks to our cell phones, he and I were only fifteen minutes late for the appointment
  •  We used coupons to save money on a thing we really didn't need in the first place

Someday, far in the future, our portrait might end up in a Ken Burns III documentary about the demise of department stores and shopping malls. I hope he uses the one with the dogs looking up at the camera.


How to Unlock the StoryGrid Principles as a Design Tool for Fiction

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 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.