“When the pupil is ready, the Master will appear.”– often attributed incorrectly to Buddah or Lao Tse Tsu but probably from Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical movement
Has this ever happened to you? A well-read friend gushes to you about a book that has cracked open their worldview, changing forever how they see SO MANY THINGS! And you think, “Yeah, I’ll put that on the to-read list.” But then you just kind of don’t because you forgot or you got wrapped up in another amazing book or, I don’t know -squirrel! – you were just distracted?
About two years ago, a member of my writers group recommended that we all read Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid. She explained that he offered a really helpful blueprint for how to structure any story. She also shared with us this really cool infographic that Coyne designed, which can help a writer (or an editor) determine what specific genre a story inhabits.
I respect this fellow writer so much for her astute grasp of story structure and her surgically helpful critiques; so, when she suggests a book, I write that sh*t down. I remember writing “The Story Grid” in my notebook. I remember that I LOVED the infographic Genre’s Five Leaf Clover .
So, why didn’t I run right out and buy The Story Grid, then?
I vaguely recall that the group was wearing more grooves in that well-worn debate about the value of pantsing or planning when it came to writing the first draft of a long work, such as a novel or memoir. At the time, I was working on a first draft of a memoir and pantsing it. So, maybe I thought that this “structure” book just wasn’t for me.
And then years went by…
- I decided that I wasn’t ready to write a memoir, at last not the one I had started. Maybe I lost heart while pantsing my way through that first draft because I didn’t have a clear enough understanding of what I wanted the finished book to be.
- I watched as two other members of my writers group were frustrated by how challenging it was to draft, revise, and publish their novels – despite the fact they are phenomenally talented and driven writers.
- I talked with a book editor who, when I asked what books she would recommend, gushed about Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid.
“Okay, okay,” I told the universe, “I’ll read The Story Grid!”
To keep myself from being distracted by metaphorical squirrels midway through the book, I vowed to read it in one siting while on a camping trip.
It was easier than I anticipated to stay focused on the book – despite actual squirrels scampering at my feet . In fact, I sunburned my feet pretty badly during that long, sunny day of reading and I didn’t even notice.
What Is This Story Grid You Speak Of?
To synopsize (super-synopsize), Coyne’s theory is that a story should:
- Embody a specific genre; the story should clearly represent the conventions of said genre while still being fresh and surprising in its execution and details.
- Any story of any genre should have three parts: a beginning hook, a middle build, and an ending that pays off on all the promises raised by the first two parts.
- The ratios of these parts should be approximately 25/50/25.
- Each part should have its own internal story structure of hook, build, pay-off.
- Each scene should have a similar structure.
Why I Recommend The Story Grid
Looking at this list, I think what Coyne has done is to take thousands of years of thinking, writing, and talking about story – from millennia of oral story-telling traditions to Aristotle’s definition of the perfect tragedy structure to modern day MFA and film school curricula etc. etc. – and then distill them down to a highly quaffable essence.
Also, he’s included some sweet infographics and outlining tools to help you apply this distilled knowledge effectively! See, this book DID rock my worldview and it is awesome and I highly recommend it to you, when you are ready to meet this master!!
A Thrilling Read
I think Coyne made an incredibly wise choice to use the thriller, Silence of the Lambs, as an example text. In The Story Grid, Coyne steps the reader through the story of FBI agent Clarice Starling taking down serial killer Buffalo Bill. Scene by scene, chapter by chapter, section by section, Coyne explains (shows, really) how author Thomas Harris structured and crafted the novel to be a compelling and memorable story.
In applying his theory to this thriller, Coyne made The Story Grid a thrilling read. I was perched on the edge of my camping chair, eager to see 1) how Coyne would walk his talk and 2) what would happen NEXT for Clarice Starling as she tried to catch one serial killer while trying to keep another one from breaching the inner sanctum of her mind.
I was completely sucked into Coyne’s analysis of the plot/structure of Silence of the Lambs, even though I’d already seen the movie. (Full disclosure, seeing the movie scarred me for life so deeply that I’m not sure I can ever handle reading the novel. But Coyne perhaps also banked on the fact that even if readers of The Story Grid hadn’t read the Harris novel, they would have seen the popular movie.)
Cannibalized Livers Versus Broken Hearts
My big question right now is how well will it work to use The Story Grid to analyze the love story novel that my writers group has next on our discussion agenda? Can I do to Red, White & Royal Blue what Coyne did to Silence of the Lambs?
When the stakes are broken hearts instead of cannibalized livers, does the theory apply equally as well?
Stay tuned for more…