If you listen to the podcast, you may have heard me talk about The Story Grid, a book by Shawn Coyne that I love and one of my favorite books on the craft of writing. The book and the process are useful for so many aspects of writing, and I’m clear that it works for me. I gush about it, but I wanted to write a proper post about what’s so great about the Story Grid.
The Story Grid as a process came from Coyne’s over 25 years as an editor, both for big publishing houses and independent. He needed a method to decide if a story was worth the investment for the publisher, and that meant understanding whether the story worked and, if so, what needed improvement.
The process tests the story by looking at the entire plot and individual scenes. On the micro-level, you look at numbers, like the word count and characters in a scene, but also more qualitative data, like the story event, the scene’s turning point, and shifts in story values. On a macro-level, you assess the parts of the story (generally and for your genre) to make sure they’re present and accounted for.
Coyne applies his process to The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. You can see exactly how it works and how Coyne evaluates the story.
When I talk to people about my love of the Story Grid, I tend to hear two reactions. First people wonder how these bits of data organized in a spreadsheet can help them write a better story. Second, it involves grunt work that takes time, and writers don’t want to waste their time. Not every writing tool will work for every writer. But this tool is akin to magic and well worth your time.
Assess your draft
Coyne wrote The Story Grid so that writers could use his method to revise their own stories. One of the biggest problems with assessing your writing is gaining the distance and objectivity to decide what you should cut or keep and where the problems are so you can fix them.
Because this method uses straightforward data, it creates a barrier to separate yourself from the work. In the beginning, you record information about the story without a judgment that it’s good or bad.
When you’ve finished, you can see what’s missing, where you’ve gone off track, where you repeat turning points, and whether you’ve varied success and failure in pursuit of your characters’ goals, among other things. The scene assessment and global story foolscap will help you see if you’ve ticked all the boxes.
How does it work? The elements of story that go into the spreadsheet are the raw materials of a working story. Think of it like a decoder stencil that reveals the secret message of the story within your prose. If you don’t have a draft yet, you can use the same tool to get you ready to write.
Plan your story
The Story Grid can help you get started with your story. Just as you want to check that you have all the ingredients after you’ve written a rough draft, it helps to know which ingredients need to go into the story before you begin.
You look at the big structure of stories, acts, sequences, and scenes, which all have a beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff. For your genre, you look at obligatory scenes and conventions. What are the special ingredients for your main character’s inner and outer journey? That’s useful to know when you plan your story. There’s more to romance than two characters, attraction, obstacles, and a wedding. A mystery needs more than a crime, a sleuth, and a villain.
On the Story Grid Podcast, Coyne has worked with nonfiction author and book launch expert Tim Grahl as he learns to write fiction. Grahl understands that learning the craft of writing fiction is challenging and takes time. He wanted to speed that process up. He has shared the ups and downs of his journey (rough drafts included!) on the podcast while Coyne critiques his work using the concepts within the Story Grid.
Deconstruct successful stories
I love understanding how things work, and I want to know why certain stories are powerful, popular, and critically acclaimed. What it is about the stories I love that makes them resonate with me? How can I write an adventure story that works?
You can use the Story Grid to deconstruct your favorite novels and movies. If you have even a little familiarity with story structure, you’ll notice turning points and events in the stories you read and watch. Using the Story Grid to analyze them affords a more precise image of how they work.
I spent an entire day watching Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and taking notes scene by scene to Story Grid it because I want to understand nautical adventure stories. (I’ll share the results in a later post.) It was eye-opening to see the attention to detail for things that the casual viewer won’t catch, but that add to the entire story experience.
Some people have asked me if evaluating stories like this ruins my enjoyment. I’m pleased to say that it adds to the enjoyment because master storytellers make it look easy, and it’s exciting to appreciate the care that goes into their work.
As I said above, I know that not every tool works for every writer, but if you’re interested in improving your stories, you owe it to yourself to try it.
If you’re ready to investigate the Story Grid further, here are some resources to get you started and continue your studies.
I recommend that you first check out the blog. Before Coyne published the book, he shared the process in posts on his site. You can get a feel for the specifics and how it works by checking out those posts. You’ll find lots of other material there as well, including Coyne’s Story Grid of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (because a nonfiction book that works tells a great story too).
If the posts resonate with you, I recommend picking up the paperback version of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. It’s a substantial book with big margins for note-taking, and it’s easy to flip through and find what you need. You can buy it direct from Black Irish Books or find it on Amazon.
Coyne just published Pride and Prejudice: The Story Grid Edition. If you write romance or want to include a love story subplot in your novels, get yourself a copy. You’ll understand why Jane Austen’s story still resonates with readers two hundred years after she wrote it.
Listen to the podcast! This show is the opportunity to eavesdrop on great conversations between Coyne and Grahl: a master editor coaching his client through the development of his first novel. Writers willing to post anything other than the final, polished version of their books is rare and rough drafts, almost unheard of. Grahl is brave and generous to share this experience with us so openly. He asks great questions and is mindful of how the focusing on the specifics of his novel can help other writers. Coyne offers his expertise, knowledge, honest and constructive feedback, and encouragement. If you’ve never worked with an editor before, this is what it should look and sound like. That alone is valuable.
I was thrilled to attend the first Story Grid Workshop this year. The best way for me to describe it is Hogwarts for story nerds. We had rich discussions about the nuances and deeper layers of story. The Q&A sessions were valuable as well. Coyne and Grahl have put together an online course with high quality videos taken at the workshop. If you want to learn even more about the method and hear Coyne talk through Pride and Prejudice, consider signing up here.
What tools do you love?
Have you discovered books and tools that help you with your writing? I’m always on the lookout for useful resources for myself and my clients, and I’d love for you to share what works for you. I’ve stumbled on some great ones lately that I’m excited to tell you about in future posts.
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