Ep. 116: The Five Commandments of Storytelling

In this episode, Leslie is joined by Shawn Coyne, the author of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. They discuss the five commandments of storytelling in the context of chapter five of Animal Farm by George Orwell and what makes this story a great one to analyze.

The five commandments (the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis question, climax, and resolution) provide the basic structure for your global story, but also your acts, sequences, and scenes, like nested dolls. If you learn to execute the five commandments in your story, you’ll become a better writer.

This week’s mission encourages you to look for the five commandments in one of your favorite stories, and then use them to plan or revise your own work-in-progress.

The Five Commandments of Story by Leslie Watts with Writership.com.


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About Our Guest Host

Clark is taking a well-deserved break from the podcast so today we welcome guest host Shawn Coyne. Shawn is the author of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know and creator of the Story Grid editing process for which Leslie is now a certified editor.

He's also a twenty-five year book-publishing veteran. He's edited, published or represented works from dozens of household-name authors. During his years as an editor at the Big Five publishing houses, as an independent publisher, as a literary agent both at a major Hollywood talent agency and as head of Genre Management Inc., and as a bestselling co-writer (The Ones Who Hit The Hardest with Chad Millman) and ghostwriter, Coyne created a methodology called The Story Grid to each the editing craft.

With his friend, business partner and client Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, Coyne also runs the independent publishing company Black Irish Books and writes for stevenpressfield.com and storygrid.com.


Wise Words on the Five Commandments of Story

We didn't include a quote in this week's show but, after recording, we found this one which we want to share with you. 

So my advice is to surrender to [the Five Commandments of Story]. Bow down to them. Hold them closely to your heart. They will save you from yourself. They will outwit and out duel any bullshit you or anyone else will come up with to get you to ignore them so that you can write “freely.” Sure go nuts on your first draft and riff all you want. But when you dive into your edit, you’ve got to make sure that these five elements are present in every beat, scene, sequence, act, subplot and global story.
— Shawn Coyne


Mentioned on the Show


Don't have a copy of Animal Farm handy?

While Animal Farm isn't in the public domain in the US, it is in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. You can use these links read the scene:


Check out the Story Grid Workshop

Don’t forget to check out the Story Grid Workshop, which you can find here. In it, Shawn breaks down Pride & Prejudice to show why it works. Even if you're not interested in love stories, the lessons can be applied to whichever genre you're working in. The course is available for a limited time only!


Join the Writership Book Club!

For October, we’ll review one or more stories from The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Ten.


The Writership Index

Listeners have asked for an index of the podcast episodes and the topics discussed, so we've put together a Google spreadsheet containing details of each episode, its airdate, author name, story title, genre, story type, published location, author website, and topics discussed. Get access to the spreadsheet here.


Clark's Offer ends Friday!


As you may know, our co-host Clark has been having a rough time recently. While we as a community can’t help him with his health or rewrite his circumstances, we can help give him a little financial breathing room AND get an amazing deal on his course, Advanced Novel Writing With Harry Potter, at the same time!

Advanced Novel Writing With Harry Potter is professionally recorded and breaks down the secrets behind why the series works so well and sold by the boatload. It’s really good stuff.

He’s also doing a special on it right now: Pay What You Want. This offer ends this Friday!

That’s right: The course normally retails for $197, but for a very limited time you can pay anything you want and receive this amazing course in its entirety! 


Editorial Mission—Look for the Five Commandments of Story

Choose a scene from a book you love and try to identify the five commandments of story. Look for the inciting incident, progressive complications (that lead to a turning point), the crisis question, climax, and resolution. Once you feel comfortable with that, review a scene of your own and see if you’ve missed any of the commandments. Or, plan a scene you haven’t yet written by identifying the points you need to hit. If you struggle with this, leave a comment below or email me.

Below are links to more information on each of the story commandments.

Five Commandments generally

1. Inciting Incident

2. Progressive Complications & Turning Point

3. Crisis Question

4. Climax

5. Resolution

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