Storytelling

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.

Nope

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.

Books

More About the Background of My Novella Sally and Billy in Babyland

Sally and Billy in Babyland is a political satire told in the form of a fable. It also borrows elements from fairy tales. In particular, it borrows the setup of the Grimm fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. In my story, Sally and Billy are two children abandoned in the woods. But beyond that, the story is not like the Grimm fairy tale (plot spoiler: they are not eaten by a witch).
The world that Sally and Billy encounter, Babyland, is cult-like. I live in Michigan and there have been a couple of well-known cults here. So that was somewhere in the back of my mind as I played with the design of this story. The most notorious cult (well, technically, it’s a religion) is arguably what happened on Beaver Island.
What happened on Beaver Island, you ask?
Beaver Island is an island in Lake Michigan. It’s part of the state of Michigan, and in 1848, James Strang, a Mormon who claimed to be Joseph Smith’s successor, moved there and declared it a sovereign country, naming himself the monarch of the country. For quite a few years, he lived just a little bit like a king. It didn’t end well for him.
But once I got the story of Sally and Billy rolling, I didn’t work anymore of those parallels into it. The story began to tell itself as I grew to understand and care about the characters. I even cared about the characters I didn’t like very much (we all have a role to play) but I admit it was a relief to see some of them go.
And I was worried about the welfare of Sally and Billy as well. It’s not easy to be abandoned in the woods. If you survive, it can really build character. But I don’t recommend it.
I mentioned that Sally and Billy in Babyland is a fable and animals play a prominent role in the story. It’s also a satire, so there are some ridiculous elements in it, as well. But I think you’ll agree that, as a satire, you can recognize the truth in the story.
If you read it, I hope you enjoy it. Either way, I hope you’ll let me know.
Books

My Inspiration For Sally and Billy in Babyland

I have always been a big fan of satire and absurd stories, such as Animal Farm, Alice in Wonderland, and Life of Brian.

Several years ago, I was brainstorming ideas for a story to write. I was attracted to the idea of a story about two kids who end up in a bizarre world. But I couldn’t get progress with the story because I had nothing to drive their journey. All my ideas were about two kids, probably siblings, arguing about how they got here and what are they supposed to do. I had ideas for wacky things to happen, and for wacky people for them to meet.

But I had no story.

As 2016 came to a close, and we elected the new president, I found myself deeply upset. At first I was despondent and didn’t know quite what to do. Then I got busy and became more involved with politics than I ever had been before.

I was motivated because I was worried about my daughter and how women, minorities, and migrants would fare under this new regime. As I tried to find projects to make the world better through politics, helping people directly, and using my talents, I tried to think of something that would use my talent for writing.

At some point I remembered this story I had tried to work on many years ago about two kids who find themselves in a bizarre world. Now I was able to connect the bizarre world I sought for the story with the bizarre world we were living in. And I was able to connect the two kids in the story with my own two children.

My worry for the children in the story parallels my worry for my own children in this world.

I don’t think this story I’ve written will change the world directly. But I do believe that sharing stories about the world in which we live is how we come to a deeper and agreed-upon understanding of the world. And maybe once were all in better agreement, we can do something about.

Storytelling

How Our Fear of Abandonment By Mom and Dad Can Inspire Us to Survive the Bad Things We Must Face in the Woods

Illustration and cover design by Michael Reibsome

I told a story about two children abandoned in the woods. It is an homage to Hanzel and Gretel, a fairy tale told in the time when children were frequently abandoned in the woods when families had too many mouths to feed, and parents had to choose between leaving their children to die alone in the forest, or watching those children starve along with their siblings.

But my story is about us, today, in America. The idea of children abandoned in the woods by their parents stuck with me because that’s how I feel our political parties treat the people they supposedly represent. We have become something of a burden to their plans and, not knowing what else to do, they have left us to fend for ourselves.

In my story, Sally and Billy, the abandoned children, are terrified as night approaches, and bear witness to an atrocity. Their lone glimmer of hope comes in the form of a kitten they rescue. But just as they figure out how to comfort each other, the kitten is stolen away.

The children do everything they can to save their poor little kitten. They do this with a pure desire to do the right thing, and they help each other figure out how to overcome the obstacles in their path.

They do this in spite of being abandoned by their parents.

I believe that is what Americans will do for each other, even as we bear witness to atrocities on a daily basis, and in spite of what our political parties have done to us.

Yes, I realize that we constitute the political parties, and that many of us, individually, do not like other Americans. But, taken as a whole, we have a desire to do the right thing for each other. When America welcomes and supports those with the greatest need, it benefits all of us. Supporting each other strengthens our communities, helps us improve local government, and, ultimately, gives us better state and federal lawmakers.

But it won’t be easy. We are pretty deep in the woods at this moment.

Fight or Flight

Sally and Billy must overcome great challenges and personal hardship. They are accosted, in the story, by Big Baby, a narcissist despot who doesn’t like to share.

We also must survive a leader who doesn’t like to share.

A novella may not seem like a significant step towards solving the worlds problems, but it’s all that I have to offer at this time.

Sally and Billy in Babyland is a fable for our times, a political satire that offers a view on the world through the perspective of children abandoned in the woods who cling to the hope of a better future.

So may we all.

If you’re interested in this political satire/fable, it’s available right now on Amazon. If you like it, I hope you’ll leave a review.


This post was originally published on Medium, where I write about writing, creativity, and productivity.