Story Grid Spreadsheeting Your Scenes

Tim has finished the first eleven scenes that will comprise the structural foundation of his entire novel, his book’s Beginning Hook.  And now he’s ready to test them against the Story Grid Spreadsheet.

What he discovers is that what he suspected might be problematic…is problematic.  And that what is working could use a tweak or two too.  The next couple of episodes will take you through the process the editor side of your brain needs to apply to the work your writer brain delivers.  The work itself is tiresome and in many instances a pain in the ass. I’m talking about taking the time to generate a Story Grid Spreadsheet.  But the payoff from doing the spreadsheet for your major story movements is extraordinary.

To listen, click the play button below or read the transcript that follows:

[0:00:00.4] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book, Story Grid, and he is an editor with over 25 years’ experience.


In this episode, we finally dive into the entirety of my beginning hook. So I submit the 11 scenes, two of them we’ve gone over on the show so nine new scenes. 11 total scenes as a beginning hook on my story and Shawn and I start working through those and as you can imagine, there is some ups and downs in our conversation. As we’ve gotten feedback on the show, many times it’s this deep dive critique, getting in the weeds to talk about this stuff that a lot of you really enjoy. If that’s you then you’re going to enjoy this episode.


So let’s jump in and get started.


[0:00:56.4] TG: So Shawn, I finished the next nine scenes that got us to the end of the beginning hook. I sent you those to look over, I’ve only thrown up twice since I did that. Now I want to — where do we start, what do we do now?


[0:01:18.8] SC: Okay, well I need to just say one thing. I got this yesterday, which was Wednesday, we usually tape on Wednesday but we pushed it to the Thursday, so I’ve had it for about maybe 20 hours. So all of the things that I’m going to say now about it, you have to sort of take it with a grain of salt, I’m confident in what I’m going to say but as I work, I usually get better and better as I go. I’ll tell you what I’ve done with the material.


First of all, this goes to sort of what an editor does, I go over in the Story Grid, in the book, and this is exactly what I did. I did exactly what I recommend editors do in the book. I read the material just without trying to make any editorial thinking about it, just to get the flow of it and then after I let it sit for a little while, it was good because you worked in scenes so you just gave me 11 straight files, I didn’t have to do my usual print out and staple and all that stuff.


So I had all 11 files ready to go and then what I did is, I created the story grid spreadsheet for those 11 scenes. I don’t like doing the spreadsheets just like everybody else, I find it to be tedious, difficult, analytical work that’s a pain in the ass. I’m just going to say that right up front, I don’t enjoy doing the story grid spreadsheets for our project and every time I get a project, there’s a moment in time where I say to myself, “Hey, maybe I don’t need to do it this time. Maybe I can just sort of wing this one because it’s in my bones now, maybe I don’t have to do the spreadsheet?”


And each and every time I say to myself, “Well, tell you what, why don’t you do it and then if everything that you thought that you were going to come up with is the same as before you did it then great.” Of course, when I did the spreadsheet I discovered a whole bunch of stuff that I hadn’t even thought of with my generic notes. So just to take a step back, I read the material and after I read the material, I sat down and I banged out a couple of pages and notes, chapter by chapter, just based upon my initial feelings.


Then I was ready to just spout out and give you all kinds of advice without doing the spreadsheet and then I said to myself, “You know what? Don’t do that, do the spreadsheet too.” I’ve done the spreadsheet and that has further informed all the comments that I’m going to give you today and probably we won’t get that far into it and that’s no reflection on it being bad. It’s just that we need to think about a lot of different things.


[0:04:07.7] TG: Yeah, I think if we worked through this over two or three episodes, I don’t want to rush it because a lot of the feedback we’ve gotten from listeners is they’ve liked when we really dug into the materials. So yeah, let’s just take our time and pull that Band-Aid off as slowly as possible.


[0:04:27.3] SC: Okay. The first thing I’m going to say just generally is that your feel for scenes is getting better and better and better. Yes you’ve made a lot of mistakes and there are a lot of things that we can fix and a lot of things that I’m going to recommend we can change but I think if you look at this draft of these 11 scenes and compare it to the first 11 scenes, the large draft that you did and completed last spring, I think you would see and anybody would see a very large shift in progress.


It feels more of a coherent story than the other one and that’s because you’ve been really concentrating on all the skills that we’ve talked about with the story grid craft. I think maybe the best way to start would be to kind of, and we can share my story grid in the notes and you have not seen the spreadsheet that I put together yet. Why don’t I walk through the spreadsheet you know, columns themselves and explain to you what I took out of this first 11 scenes and we’ll just sort of go scene by scene and we’ll track the movements that I like to track the valences of value, et cetera?


So let’s begin with the very first scene of this novel. So it’s scene one, that’s the first column, the word count for this scene is 1,255 words and then the next column is what I call “the story event”. This is in as few words possible, the editors writing down what actually happens in this scene. For me, this is in the first scene, Jessie rejects a place in the cross over’s elite school of programming and defense. That’s what happens in this scene, Jessie rejects a place in the cross over’s elite school of programming and defense. At the beginning of the story, she’s not offered anything, in the middle of the scene she’s given an offer, and at the end of the scene, she rejects the offer. That’s what happens and that’s the event.


Now, the value shift in this scene for me was acceptance to rejection. So from my point of view, this scene began with a positive, this man arrived to offer her a plum position in a school, it’s the equivalent of some recruiter from Harvard, Yale or Princeton coming to somebody and saying,
“Hey, we got a slot for you next year, do you want to sign up?” That’s an acceptance and then the end of the scene, she rejects them and says, “No, I’m not going to your school,” that’s the value shift from acceptance to rejection. The polarity shift meaning, does it move from positive to negative, negative to positive, it’s from a positive to a negative, which is great. This scene really works so far.


The turning point is that thing that shifts, the very moment in the scene that shifts the valence meaning it shifts the scene from positive to negative, or negative to positive depending upon the kind of scene it is. The turning point, I always like to identify in my spreadsheet because it will tell the writer and the editor if it’s clear, is there clearly a moment in the scene when it shifts from positive to negative? If there is no clear turning point in this scene, that’s a problem because you really want to explain to the reader as they’re going through action that there is a shift. So what this does is it creates a sense of narrative drive, it gets momentum going, it tells the reader, “Things are happening. You should hang on, you’re going to learn more.” The turning point in this scene is when Jessie literally says, “No, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to accept this position.” So it turns on action, she actively states I am making a choice to say no. Okay. So the turning…


[0:08:38.8] TG: Is that, it turns, is it the first time she says no or when the scene ends with her saying no?


[0:08:44.7] SC: It’s the first time.


[0:08:45.9] TG: Okay.


[0:08:47.3] SC: It’s the first time. Then, the rest of the scene plays out where is this really kind of he’s like incredulous about it and he asked some more about it and she holds up her end of the — she holds to her decision, which is a really nice character trait early on for you to show in the character, she’s going to be our protagonist. We want to know that she is willful, we want to know that she’s going to stick by her gun, she does at the end and it makes us want to read more about this person.


We all want to be that person. Anyway, the turning point is literally the first no. Okay, now we come to the point of view. The point of view I get into a lot in The Story Grid. This is a place where this very first scene is inconsistent with the rest of the other 10 scenes that you wrote and that’s okay because the scene that you sent me was the one that I kind of tinkered with a little bit and I dropped in some free indirect style stuff, which took us inside the head of Jessie.


Now, upon further reflection and after reading that stuff that I had stuck into your scene, I’m 50/50 on whether or not we need it or not. Right now, I would say, no, we don’t need it and we could cut out all of her internal thoughts because it just seems a little bit too much too soon. It doesn’t mean that you couldn’t pull that in later but you’ve got to sort of make a decision early on about whether or not you’re going to use that kind of free indirect style and go inside the brain and have the character share thoughts in the third person.


So my recommendation right now as of this moment is to not do it and just use third person admission point of view from Jessie’s point of view. Take that for what it’s worth, I think it’s probably the best decision for you and it’s from reading the other material, I think you’re just more comfortable as a writer writing from that stance right now and that’s perfect. Yeah, it’s perfectly acceptable.


[0:10:57.8] TG: I feel like I am trying to find the simplest, I’m trying to cut out as much fancy stuff not that that’s fancy but if I only have to watch her and report what she’s doing, that’s all I have to focus on instead of trying to also make sure I have her thoughts right because I still struggled with making sure I keep her character consistent. So I feel like it’s harder if I’m coming at her from two angles instead of just one.


[0:11:32.2] SC: I think you’re right and I think it’s a good choice. Let’s make a universal choice right now that this entire story will be told from third person omniscient from the point of view of Jessie. What that essentially means is that you, Tim, the writer are sort of this camera man who is standing above maybe five feet off of Jessie’s back of her head and you are showing the story from her point of view from here on end. You’re not going to go inside her head. You know what? My gut is that with young adult stuff, that’s the right way to go because young adult fiction, the primary market are children under the age of 16.


That doesn’t mean that adults don’t read them but they probably would be less engaged by the internal world and internal struggle of the lead character than somebody who is my age because they’re just forming their authenticity for themselves so getting inside the head of a character is just probably not, it’s probably distracting to that audience and from what I can recall, there is very little of that kind of mind game stuff in Harry Potter or Hunger Games, I really can’t even think of any specific moments come to mind with the JK Rowling or Susanne Collins used that technique.


Let’s make that decision, let’s stop right there on that so from now on, every chapter’s going to be third person omniscient from Jessie’s point of view unless we make another decision to drop in something else and we’ll get to that in a couple of minutes. Okay so the next column in the story grid spreadsheet is period/time and this is an interesting thing when I was doing this spreadsheet, I was like, “Okay, this is something that Tim’s going to have to solve and make very clear that is not solved in very clear right now.” So we really don’t know what the period is right now. We know it’s not contemporary, we know it’s probably a post-apocalyptic sort of future or maybe it’s not even post-apocalyptic, maybe it’s just future with gradual degradation. Who knows?


But it’s not clear if this is the past or if this is the future or the present. I think that’s something to keep in the back of your mind, not something that you have to solve right now but something to think about. The time is another thing that you need to really lock down and time means is this a Tuesday, September 26th, 2052? Is this the morning? Is this the evening? When is this? Where does this sit on the calendar and to map out, just to take a step back, The Silence of the Lambs is brilliantly laid out in terms of period and time, the entire story takes place over a period of a couple of weeks as I recall and if you go through the literal words on the page, you can suss out every single day of that investigation.


You can suss out when Clarice Starling is in that hotel room by herself, the next day, the day after, it’s all very consistent and it doesn’t seem like any of that stuff is detailed in the book when you’re reading it but when you look at it from an editorial point of view and you look for it, it’s all in there. That’s another thing you have to keep in mind. Again, this is not a problem for you to solve right now. This is kind of like one of those fun things to fix later on when you’ve got your big soup of narrative and you say, I can drop in little things here to fix that and make it interesting and drop it into a sentence and sort of hide it but it’s important to have it in there because what it does is it grounds the reader in this fictional reality to the point where it’s engrossing and believable and you don’t even, as a reader, you don’t even consciously make those connections.


Okay, so period in time, I’ll just sort of pass over those as we go through the rest of the scenes unless it makes sense to talk about a little bit. The next column is duration and what duration means is how long does this scene play out? How much time does it take for the scene to actually begin and have a middle and then the ending? Since this is a meeting of sorts, this is two people having a conversation in an enclosed space, I put it at somewhere at like 10 minutes. You don’t have to nail this perfectly, it just have to be a reasonable guest and a meeting — go ahead.


[0:16:37.5] TG: It gives you like a sense, is it 10 minutes or an hour or half a day?


[0:16:37.5] SC: Exactly.


[0:16:43.5] TG: Is that kind of what you mean?


[0:16:45.3] SC: Exactly. The reason when you want to track this, it all goes to the writer as Steven Spielberg. I bring this up a lot but the writer is Steven Spielberg. To be able to track this, you say to yourself, my gosh, I have five scenes that are only 10 minutes long through duration, back to back.


[0:17:11.4] TG: Is that kind of what we talked about with the two people to a crowd back to a small group of people?


[0:17:19.3] SC: Exactly, that’s exactly the same thing. When you’re tracking your — this is why the story grid spreadsheet is such an indispensable tool and again, I don’t enjoy filling it out.


[0:17:36.6] TG: Everybody listening can’t send you their book to have you fill out their story grid for them?


[0:17:42.4] SC: What it will do is it solves all, it shows you all of this easy to fix problems that if you’re not looking at that specific problem and that specific column, they’ll just fly by you, right? There are all these unseen elements that a novelist brings to the table that you don’t pick up when you’re reading, you have to literally look at each scene as an editor and say to yourself, okay, this is a scene about two people having a conversation, how long does it usually, two-person conversation last? Maybe 10 minutes. I’m going to put that there.


Okay, what’s the next thing is the location. Where is the scene happening? Where is it going about? For location, I wrote down inside a blue collar house in the future/or past. Right now I’m not really sure if this is the future or the past and that’s kind of interesting and I think it works and is this a house or is this an apartment? That’s a decision that you, Tim, will need to make. If it’s a house, I think it works because she crawls through an open window, she’s in a kitchen.


It seemed to me when I read this scene, what it recalled to me was a nice blue collar house maybe a two family detached house in a blue collar area in Pittsburg where I grew up. I grew up in a two-family house on a long stretch of row of houses in suburban sort of outskirt area of Pittsburg and that’s the flavor I got from it.


[0:19:26.8] TG: That actually encourages me because I was kind of picturing kind of a middle lower class kind of house but you filled it in with your middle-lower middle-class house.


[0:19:40.2] SC: Yes.


[0:19:40.7] TG: That’s the right kind of tone you want me to hit with my scenes is like just enough where people fill it in themselves.


[0:19:49.1] SC: Exactly. So I think it works and if that was your intention to portray a lower middle class, blue collar house and sort of an industrial area, I think it worked. So that’s great, the next column is the on-stage characters, meaning the people who are literally in the room who you refer to or they speak. The on-stage characters in the scene are Jessie and then the “man” that Jessie is talking to and then there is a plugged in guy who is sort of a catatonic zombie sitting in a chair and then there’s the plugged in woman who is a catatonic zombie female. So the number of people in this scene is four but only two are talking.


The next column after that is the off-stage characters and what I mean by that are who are the characters that the people who are speaking about are referring to, who are not in the room? Again, this is not fun to do but it’s important to do it. I’ll explain why in a minute. The off-stage characters are Ryan, who is Jessie’s brother, and then there’s Jessie’s mother who is referred to and Jessie’s father who is referred to. There may be others, again, this was on a first read. I didn’t go through this with a microscope like I do when I do major projects but generally, there were three offstage characters talked about.


Now again, the reason why we want to have, and that’s the end of the story grid spreadsheet columns and we’ll go to the second scene in a second. But for me, this scene works, this scene, it has a very clear location, it has a clear duration of time, it moves from a positive to a negative very clearly, there’s a clear turning point, the turning point is an active turning point, which I think is an important choice to make in an action story. You want your inciting incident for an action story to turn on an active moment.


Now, we’ll talk about how you turn scenes with revelations later on but when you’re doing an action story, I think it’s a very good idea to turn your first scene, which is going to be the inciting incident of your entire global story, it should turn actively. Meaning, the character should make an active choice that propels the story forward and it does. Jessie says “no”. So the only things that are a little unsure of right now are the period and time and that’s pretty much it. The period and time and I think it’s okay to leave that vague in this first scene and the reason being that it’s a way of creating a narrative velocity to keep the reader questioning “what’s next?”. It creates a level of mystery.


Now, the way you create mystery, and we’re going to talk about this when I get to scene three, but there are three ways to keep people interested in your story as a writer. Three ways, three techniques. There’s the technique of creating mystery, there’s the technique of creating suspense and the technique of creating dramatic irony. Now, that all sounds very like I’m some professor on a platform saying that. But simply, what creating mystery means is that the reader does not have as much information as the characters in the story.


So the characters in the story have a lot more information than we have. They understand the universe they’re living in, they understand the rules, they understand so much stuff that we don’t understand as a reader. That creates mystery when the reader is engaging in the work. You want to create mystery at the very beginning of your story no matter what, in my opinion. Because if there are things that are all answered for the reader, it’s not interesting, it’s boring. We want to be propelled forward, we want questions to be raised in our mind, subconsciously as we read, that we know the writer will eventually answer. But if everything’s answered from the get go, it’s boring, you don’t care.


[0:24:24.6] TG: You did say that the first time we went over this scene, because this is the scene we went over a couple of months ago I think and that I opened up a lot of loops that I didn’t close and that would kind of draw people into the story.


[0:24:39.2] SC: Yes, yes. Okay, so you’re working with first device of narrative drive, which is creating mystery and again, mystery only means this: the characters have more information than the reader does. So narrative drive is all about how much information you share with your reader and how much information you share with your characters. So the first scene creates mystery. Now, the second element of narrative drive is called suspense.


What suspense means is that the reader and the protagonist of your story have the same amount of information so that the reader has the same information as Jessie. Jessie has been offered a position by some third party authoritarian figure to go to this great school. That’s what the reader knows too. The reader knows what Jessie knows, reader doesn’t know more about who this guy is than Jessie does because we’re looking at this world over Jessie’s shoulder.


So suspense is when the reader and the protagonist have the same amount of information. I’m going to get into dramatic irony when we get to your third scene. So let’s just move to the second scene and I’m not going to go as deliberately through this as I did with the first scene because we already kind of covered the columns, so I’ll just sort of go as quickly as possible while making points along the way.


Okay, the second scene, the word count is 1,257 words and the story event is Jessie is shamed. So story events, you try and boil it down to the least amount of words. It’s shorthand for you as the writer or the editor to be able to just sort of go in there and know exactly what happens in that scene. So we know that this is the scene where Jessie is shamed. The value shift in this scene is from abused to rescued and the polarity shift moves from a negative to a positive.


I just want to say this is nice because the first polarity shift of the first scene went from a positive to a negative. So what you’re doing in the second scene is you’re taking up that negative from the ending of the first scene, you’re beginning the second scene with a negative sensibility and you’re moving it to a positive. So we’re getting a sense of narrative movement just from first scene to second scene. That was a great choice to make.


The turning point of this scene is turned on action again, which I think was a good choice because this is an action story and you want to let the reader know that there’s going to be plenty of action here. The action that turns this scene is at the very end of the scene when a man and a woman pick up Jessie after she’s been shamed. That turns the scene from Jessie being abused by this crowd and this faction and getting her cap put on to being rescued by this man and woman who come and pick her up and take her off stage.


We have a clear movement, we have a clear turning point, again it’s third person omniscient from Jessie’s point of view, the period time, you want to be able to drop in when this scene happens. This is the day after she’s been, she’s turned down the thing? You could probably drop that sort of exposition into the dialog between the father and Jessie at the very beginning of the scene, it’s something to keep in mind, it’s not a huge point, I probably would say save that to fix in another draft but it’s up to you.


The duration of the scene, to me it seems like it was between an hour and maybe two hours. We don’t know the time of day on this, though, which is something that you have to keep in mind and I just want to say, sort of go off in a little bit of a tangent here about day and night for a second.


[0:28:35.5] TG: Okay.


[0:28:37.1] SC: This is going to speak to the global universe of your world. Let’s just kind of put a pin in this spreadsheet for one second here, well longer than a second, and let me just talk about daylights and night time in this universe. And this is a suggestion, it’s a thought, it’s whatever you want to do with it. It seems to me that what you’re creating here is a universe in the future that has gotten to the point where there aren’t just sort of vague notions of differences between social classes, there are literal differences between social classes such that the lower class has served the upper classes in a way that we don’t’ fully understand or I don’t fully understand and that’s okay right now.


But in this future, it would be best to sort of lock it into assumptions that we have about the world on earth today. So what I mean by that is in the future, perhaps, and this is just through reading all I’ve done and all this stuff. But perhaps, based upon the global warming phenomenon that we’re under now and also the exponential rise in technologies and digital technologies, perhaps in the future, there will be a world such that we can’t really walk around during the daytime because it’s so hot and there are such weather concerns that it might be interesting for your story to sort of have this opposite world meaning, people live at night and sleep during the day.


Everybody goes inside during the day time because dust storms happen, it’s tremendously hot. It’s just very difficult to get about especially in this blue collar world and the other thing that I thought was interesting and I love the notion that we’ll get into longer, of these people who are physically attached to this matrix like world. They literally have this hats on, this caps, these people have plugs in the back of their head and that’s kind of interesting to me too because it reminds me of the evolution of internet technology, right? When we all started getting on the internet, everybody needed a phone cable.


Then the only way to get on the internet was to put in your thing in the phone jack and you would go through America Online and it was a physical thing that you had to connect to something. Then you had the Ethernet cable. Now, everything’s pretty much WiFi. So what was interesting to me, you’re showing these people in this lower middle-class world, is that they all have like an Ethernet connection, right? This literal plugging in because they can’t live in the higher society that might be all WiFi, right?


This is something to think about in your middle build. The transitional from Jessie moving from her ordinary world to the extraordinary world. So maybe in this ordinary world of the blue collar world, nobody has Wi-Fi brain intersection with this matrix, they all have to have these helmets, they all have to be literally plugged in, this is why people are zombies in their houses because they can’t — but maybe in the next world there’s a different way of connecting to this matrix like world.


Okay, so that’s one thing, the other thing is the notion of night and day. To flip it so that people live by night and sleep or hibernate by day so that the numbered people are the ones tasked with literally going out in the sand storms and the heat to do all of this horrible stuff that the plugged-in people aren’t doing. So that’s just a thought.


[0:32:35.7] TG: I like that a lot because that’s the whole “they’ll be plugged in during the day and out at night”, which flips around when the numbered lived their life so they remain unseen but have the hardest life.


[0:32:48.3] SC: Exactly. That speaks to period in time. The shaming would have to happen at night time because that’s when the people can go outside, it’s cooler, they can stone her without getting dust in their throat, which is good. Okay. The duration is anywhere from 60 minutes to a couple of hours, I think that’s fudgeable. The location is good, it’s different than the blue-collar house, we start inside an old church that isn’t really a church anymore and then we move into sort of the town pavilion center where she is abused and she’s put in the thing and it’s great, it’s reminiscent of the Salem witch trials, it’s really cool. We love this scene.


The on-stage characters are Jessie, Jessie’s father, Jessie’s unplugged mother, Mayor Charles, the crowd of stone throwers and shamers, and then, at last, the man and woman saviors who come and pick her up. The off-stage characters again are Ryan who is Jessie’s brother, who is assumed dead and the global sort of undefined villainous force called “the faction”. Scene two works, scene two again, it’s strong, it’s clear, it’s scary. I like the movement from a two-person scene to a transitional two person scene to a big sort of gross scene of a mob of people and then finally ending on a human interaction where a man and a woman, mother-father figure come and save the young girl, it’s good.


[0:34:34.0] TG: I want to stop you here because this was the scene that you were like, “It’s good, keep writing.”


[0:34:41.2] SC: Yes.


[0:34:45.6] TG: When you posted the transcript for this episode, you know you always do your little intro, this is my favorite line from the intro you wrote about this scene we just went over, “I found it unique and compelling, which I loved of course,” and then you said, “Unlike any of his previous scenes we’ve worked through.”


[0:35:07.6] SC: Oh, the truth hurts my friend.


[0:35:10.6] TG: I know, I was just like, “That’s beautiful.”


[0:35:14.8] SC: Yeah, don’t get too excited yet. It’s sort of like, “Here is a nice apple now there’s a razor blade in it.” Okay, so now we’re going to move on to scene three.


[0:35:31.6] TG: And this is the first scene of the group you haven’t seen yet.


[0:35:34.6] SC: That’s correct.


[0:35:35.6] TG: So you had edited scene one, you had seen scene two and then you said, “Finish up the middle build and we’ll go over it all at once.”


[0:35:43.7] SC: Yeah, you mean the beginning hook?


[0:35:45.2] TG: Or the beginning hook, yeah.


[0:35:46.9] SC: Okay, I’m going to walk through the spreadsheet here and then we can discuss what I described to you and if you disagree with me during this spreadsheet analysis, let me know, okay?


[0:35:58.5] TG: Okay.


[0:35:59.8] SC: Scene three, the word count is 886 words and the story event is captain Mason meets with the general and they set up a plan. The value shift, it doesn’t move, there’s no movement in this scene at all. The polarity shift begins at a negative and it ends at a negative so it doesn’t even move in a polar way. The turning point, to be fair I said that it turned to a degree with the revelation that they will use the rat children to change Jessie’s mind.


So it does turn in a way in that captain Mason or the general and captain Mason sort of figure out that, “Oh we use these rat children that are the friends of Jessie to get her to change her mind, maybe that would be a good plan.” That’s more of an expositional thing of just sort of dropping something in without really — it doesn’t really turn but it does give information.


[0:37:02.8] TG: Yeah, so this scene after I had finished or was getting towards the end. I almost pulled it many, many times for several reasons. One is, I knew it didn’t turn, which means the only reason — then I was like, “Well why did I write it?” And it was to give information which is in a good reason to write a scene and what was the other reason? It’s the only scene that’s not from Jessie’s point of view. So I almost pulled it and then I was like, “Well I’ll just leave it in because I wrote it and it will give us something to say, I feel like what’s useful in this process for everybody listening is to see it all.


I don’t want to edit before we talk about it. So I just left it in but I knew, I just knew it wasn’t any good or it just wasn’t supposed to be there. I feel like looking back now, the whole thing could just be thrown out and we just jump on to scene four because even revealing that plan takes away some of the mystery.


[0:38:07.4] SC: That’s absolutely right. The other thing I wanted to say about it, and this goes to what I was talking about narrative drive, remember, narrative drive, you create mystery suspense or dramatic irony. What you’ve done here is you’ve created dramatic irony. You’ve given information to the reader that the lead character doesn’t have.


[0:38:27.6] TG: That was one of my questions is like, is it good to — should I try to use all three in the story or like if we’re using mystery we just stick with mystery and that’s how we’re driving those story in general?


[0:38:41.9] SC: I would have to really do a deep think about the best uses of these three. My gut about it is that you don’t want to bring in dramatic irony until you need to.


[0:38:57.0] TG: Okay, and dramatic irony is when the reader knows something the characters don’t?


[0:39:00.9] SC: Yes. So essentially, this scene is bringing in two people that we’ve been introduced to this captain Mason but we don’t know them by name. The other thing that you do here, which is kind of interesting, is to show the ethereal world of what the world is like when you do plug in.


[0:39:22.5] TG: Yeah, that’s what I feel like is missing is like if this is a true lit RPG, I haven’t shown anything of what it’s like when you’re plugged in because I pulled Jessie out in the first scene or the second scene, she can’t even access it anymore. So that’s been another concern of mine as we work through it, which is another reason I threw in the scene that shouldn’t be there. I was like, “Well I need to show them what it’s like.” And I wanted to establish the guy in charge is like the opposite of what you would assume was in charge. He’s like this nerd.


[00:39:58.8] SC: Right.


[00:39:59.6] TG: So there are all these reasons that aren’t actually useful to the reader.


[00:40:04.9] SC: Well you’re absolutely right about that lit RPG element and it’s not something that I want to just shrug off and say don’t worry about it but what I will say is that the first draft is really about nailing the story’s spine and when I say story spine, what I’m talking about is all these hours that we’ve talked about, the sixth primal story arcs and the hedometer and having Andy Reagan and talking about Man and Hole Fool and Cinderella and Kurt Vonnegut, that’s what I’m talking about.


I’m talking about the story spine or the emotional parts of the story itself meaning that the reader subconsciously attaches to the story because you have this built in beating heart of story arc. A story spine that moves ideally from something like man in hole, man in hole, Cinderella, tragedy and I’m not going to kill you with that right now. Only to say that what we’re establishing in this beginning hook is a first man in hole kind of story arc.


And just to remind you the man in hole story is simply an everyday person walks down the street, they fall in the hole, they move from a positive place to a very low place and then we watch them climb out of that hole. How are they going to get out of that hole? So, Jessie, she starts off, she’s winning, she’s getting her food, everything is going well, she’s making her steals and then she gets caught. She falls in the hole now we’ve got a man in the hole.


We’ve got it working well for us here. So let’s work through the man in the hole and then later on when we say to ourselves, “Geez we’ve got, I don’t know, 10,000 words of our beginning hook and we want pretty much 70 to 80,000 word manuscript, how are we going to juice up this beginning hook from 12,000 words to say 18 to 20? Oh wait a minute, this is a lit RPG novel. You know what would be cool is to drop in a scene where we see this world in a way that we’ve never seen before.” Let’s think about doing that, now how could we do that and where should we put it? But we can do that after we have established this man in hole beginning and the man in hole also runs parallel to the hero’s journey, right?


[00:42:36.8] TG: Right.


[00:42:37.4] SC: The hero’s journey is about the hero avoiding the call is the beginning. It’s the avoidance of the call to adventure.


[00:42:46.7] TG: Which I mean I did that pretty clearly.


[00:42:49.6] SC: Yes, it’s clear that it’s avoiding adventure. It’s not so clear right now why beyond, “Oh well my brother went on the adventure and he got killed so I don’t want to because I am afraid of dying but she never literally states that. She just says, “No I’m not going to do it because my parents are already lost, one child and they can’t really afford to lose another” but we can get into a place to drop that fear of the lead character in somewhere else but I do agree with you that you have firmly established that she’s avoiding the call to adventure and that’s important to the beginning hook.


Because we want to get her from avoidance of call to the adventure to going on the adventure. That’s the goal of this beginning hook but we also want to entertain the shit out of the reader along the way right? We don’t want to bore them with getting her to the adventure. We want to make them invested in man in the hole story. Remember I was talking about the six story arcs, the sequential elements not the through line hero’s journey but again, I’m getting very theoretical here so let’s go back to the practicality.


[00:44:05.9] TG: All right, so third scene, we could probably just throw away and nobody would ever miss it.


[00:44:10.6] SC: I think so. I think it’s superfluous and it doesn’t give us anything and we don’t want to know, right now the villain is not personified quite yet and I think we’re using that to an advantage. The villain is the system in much the same way that the villain in The Hunger Games was the system at the beginning. We don’t really have any clearly defined villain beyond the society at the beginning of The Hunger Hames and it worked because the rules of the land were so abhorrent to us that they’re inherently evil and the whole what if of The Hunger Games story was inherently evil.


You know let’s have a contest and have children kill each other and whoever wins the contest becomes a celebrity. I mean that is a pretty abhorrent what if and so that’s enough. That’s enough to get us going and I think with your story, there’s enough mystery of the villainy but it’s clearly this is a dystopian world where we don’t really understand everything that’s going on but it’s not good. It’s not good at all. It’s like the worst of our past and the worst of our future and mixed with the worst of our present.


All sort of coming together in a very nasty goo and that’s good so yeah, we can get rid of the third scene and just chalk it up to a mistake and move on but it’s also important to just clearly, the dagger in the heart of the scene is in it’s use of dramatic irony to create narrative drive because what would happen if you kept this, is that the reader would read the third scene and then she would throw the book across the room and say, “Oh I don’t want to read this, I know exactly where this is going” and she would get pissed and I would too.


Because you are essentially saying, “you know what? I don’t really have the confidence in my narrative capabilities so I am just going to tell you the things that are going to happen in the future and then I’m going to show you how that actually happens” and nobody wants that.


[00:46:23.6] TG: Okay.


[00:46:24.3] SC: Okay, so we’ll get rid of the third scene. So the fourth scene is 1537 words and the event is that Jessie meets her mentor and her mentor’s name is number 83. So that’s the story event and the value shift moves to uninformed to informed. So that moves from a negative to a positive. Now the turning point for me was a revelation turning point and you might be a little bit confused by this but the revelation is that Jessie has one week to acclimate to this new lower, lower, lower class of the world. And so there’s no active turn, it’s a revelation from number 83 to Jessie telling her that she has one week to acclimate.


The point of view again is again third person omission, Jessie’s point of view and the period of time I suspect was a day after the shaming. So after she shamed and unconscious, they bring her back to this compound of sorts where the numbered people lived and she goes to sleep. She’s knocked out for a while. So the duration for this entire scene for me was about eight hours so she had time to sleep to throw up, to go get coffee with number 83.


[00:47:53.6] TG: Okay, I have some questions.


[00:47:56.4] SC: Okay,


[00:47:56.6] TG: So my goal with this, I feel like most of what you said I agree. That’s what I was trying to do. I wanted to get her introduced to what she was going to do, where she’s at now with the idea that she is not going to accept that which shall be the next scene and I wanted to do something where the part of society she was a member of was already pretty low and this is even lower and so I thought the thing that you can do to make people even worst is to take away their names.


Just make them numbered people but then I felt as I continued to write the scenes that naming some of the main character 83 was weird and heavy handed as I kept using it. So I would like your overall thoughts on those decisions. Well, I guess maybe you’re getting to this but I’m just curious because this was the scene where I start to actually go off what we’ve already talked about in coming up with my own stuff.


[00:49:02.1] SC: Yeah.


[00:49:02.9] TG: So yeah, just you know?


[00:49:05.4] SC: Sure, my reaction to it was that it was working and giving them numbers, yeah it’s a little on the nose but in on the nose means obvious but I think it’s okay and it didn’t bother me because I’m going with you. I am a reader and I think these first two scenes were interesting and I’m interested to know who these two, this man and woman are who came and saved her and took her away. So that fact that they’re numbered also makes sense too because you do depersonalized people.


Not to, this very sensitive thing to say but the Nazi occupation in putting the Jewish star and numbers on Auschwitz camp survivors is a harrowing thing and depersonalizing people to a number is excruciatingly painful and I think your use of it works. I didn’t think you were milking it, I think it was organic to the story that you were telling. So my suggestion is let’s keep moving forward with that concept but you need to be consistent with it.


[00:50:17.8] TG: Okay.


[00:50:18.9] SC: So I think the man’s name is 97 and then he just becomes the man later on, you’ve got to lock in and give these people numbers and if they have numbers, they have to have other descriptive elements about them that will distinguish them from one to the other. I think that’s okay. Now globally this scene, I think it works but I think it could be much better and I’m going to take just a minute here to explain something that I thought was really, really brilliant in Matthew Weiner, his television series, Mad Men and it was in the very first season of Mad Men. I believe it was the second episode, it might even be the first but go with me here on this tangential journey for a second.


But the lead character in Mad Men that Weiner, he established that Peggy Olson who is this young woman who just enters this advertising agency secretary to work for this very powerful figure, is sort of our protagonist. It’s the person that everybody watches the show immediately feels sympathy for because she’s in this, oh who knows what this place is about? It’s very sexist, it’s very strange, her boss is very strange, he’s a negative but positive figure, she’s not really sure about the environment.


So instead of doing a lot of exposition where people come and say, “Hey I’m Jim from the buying department of our advertising agency and I think you’re a really nice girl,” instead what he did was he had a guy on the make who really thought she was cute come up to her and say, “Hey let me buy you a sandwich.” And he walks her through the entire advertising agency explaining to her how the whole business works. Meanwhile, his motivations are he wants to take her out, he wants to get her in bed. But he’s showing us and he’s giving us the world of this advertising agency, he’s doing a lot of expositional work while also having an active motivation of why he’s doing it.


And the reason why I bring this up is because this moment is similar to the Peggy Olson moment for Jessie. She’s arrived in an alien environment, she’s extremely vulnerable and she’s looking for somebody to be her mentor. She’s looking for somebody to look after her interests, to tell her what she’s got to do because you’ve got to think of the world from her point of view of this place okay? She’s a strong-willed young girl, she puts her money where her mouth is and she says no to going to Harvard and she doesn’t just get thrown out of her little group of friends, she gets a helmet smashed into her head.


She’s almost stoned to death and she wakes up in this really threadbare cot in this really disgusting environment. She’s got to be scared shit less right? So what do you do when you’re vulnerable? What you do when you’re vulnerable is you are attractive to anybody who treats you with kindness because you want somebody to show you how to get along in this world. I don’t think Jessie at this point is all that strong internally.


What she wants is somebody to just get her through the next couple of days and maybe after she can get her shelter and her food and her principal things that she needs to survive taken care off, then maybe she can think about still fighting this faction and what she’s going to do with the rest of her life. Right now what she wants to do is get some kind of security. So the reason why I’m bringing this up is this is a scene where she wakes up and she’s basically in hell.


This kindly person, number 83, takes her under her wing. She makes sure that her brow is cool and she overcomes all of the bad things that happen after you get shamed. Now these speak to the place and the setting of your story. So instead, what I’m recommending is don’t have her go into another place and have coffee and have a meeting, a 10-minute meeting with somebody who’s like the original guy in the very first scene. We don’t want a meeting scene. We want something that has more activity to it.


So what I would suggest and I don’t think you have her wake up, have her brow mopped, go back to sleep and then wake up again and then go into the coffee room for the numbered people. Instead, wake her up and get her moving and I think 83 is going to say to her, “Honey, I know you feel like crap but the thing that we’ve got to do is we’ve got to get you moving. You’ve got to trust me on this. Come with me.”


“I have gotten through a lot of people in your state and this is what we need to do and you’re going to walk with me and I’m going to tell you how you’re going to survive” and I think she has to take that walk through the advertising agency into this very, very hostile world and people are going to look at her and they’re going to scowl at her and they’re going to hiss at her and this 83 is going to indoctrinate her into this world in a more active way than having coffee.


[00:56:09.5] TG: Okay so if I take one thing you said earlier and what you just said, should she take her out on her first day of chores, which will be the first time that Jessie has been out in the sun and out in the heat because she’s never had to do that before?


[00:56:27.4] SC: Yes.


[00:56:27.7] TG: Like what we were saying earlier and then she gets to experience that, experience the chores and stay moving and along the way, 83 is teaching her these nuggets of information.


[00:56:37.7] SC: That’s right.


[00:56:38.3] TG: I need the reader to know.


[00:56:40.5] SC: Exactly and you’re giving a lot of expositions. So the only thing that we really need to think about — the way that I would think about this scene, I’m sorry to go off a little bit here but if you’ve ever had too much to drink.


[00:56:54.5] TG: I have from time to time, yes.


[00:56:56.8] SC: Way too much right? And you wake up the next morning and a friend of mine told me this about his father which I thought was brilliant. So one night my friend when he was in high school he went out with his friends and he got into a lot of trouble but he finally made his way home and he drank too much and his father knew exactly what he had done but his father wasn’t going to be a jerk about it. So he let his kid go to bed and he wakes up and he’s got the world’s worst hangover.


Like that first hangover that you ever had the first time you drank. You can’t even hold anything down. So what the father did and he said, “Hey buddy, how are you doing? Hey it’s time for our jog,” and he made him go on a five mile run and he stopped for him and he let him throw up along the way and he did all of those things and he took care of him and he made sure he had enough water and he made sure he wasn’t going to end up in the hospital.


But what he showed him was like, “Hey, if you make that choice, you still have to run in the morning. So think about those choices that you make,” and this is the way that I see this scene. She wakes up and said, “Honey, yeah I know it must be painful.” So she’s a benevolent force but she’s a maternal/paternal force who’s teaching this young girl a lesson. You make choices in the world, there are consequences and yes, you’re going to put on the mask.


Yes, you’re going to go out in a 112-degree heat with 98% humidity with the dust storm and you’ve got to empty people’s shit and this is what we do. Welcome to our world, I’m sorry you’re not feeling well and so she indoctrinates her into the world and yes, I know we don’t go out during the daytime but guess what? We do and so this moves from a place of positivity of being saved to negativity and she would ask questions like, “Well why do I have to do this, I’m still sick?”


She would say, “Well these things in the back of our head they light up and when we don’t do our chores, we get a negative impulse to get us to do our chores.” So you can explain a lot of things with the questioning that Jessie is going to make and you can make this an active scene that introduces us into this very, very strange and nasty world and it will put her further and further into that hole. The man in the hole. What we need to do in this beginning hook is establish a hole that Jessie has dug for herself.


So we want to go deeper and deeper into this negative shitty hole because then when she can climb out of it in a way that’s interesting and innovative, the reader will really admire her for overcoming this really negative hole. So anyway, that’s my suggestion to revamp this scene is to move it from as you said, as I said earlier, uninformed to informed. So it moves from a positive to a negative but it needs to turn kind of actively and the active turn is 83, forcing her on the chores, she’s got to do the chores.


[1:00:15.8] TG: Okay, so should I work on reworking that scene in between us going over the rest of this? Or should I kind of wait until we go over everything? Because so one of my worries is that we’ll make a major shift on scene eight that will make me go back and redo earlier things to keep them all consistent or what should we just continue to go through them before I go back and start messing with stuff?


[1:00:44.5] SC: Okay, let’s talk about the major things that I think you need to do in the beginning hook and maybe this will inform you, maybe it will encourage you to redo the scene anyway. My two major notes for the beginning hook are this.


[1:00:58.0] TG: Beginning hook as in all of the scenes together?


[1:00:59.7] SC: All of the scenes together.


[1:01:01.1] TG: Okay.


[1:01:02.0] SC: You need to introduce the rats early and then come back to them like four or five scenes later. The rats coming to see Jessie instead of her being so powerful and saying, “You do this, you do that, this is the thing, we got to,” — she needs to say, “You know what guys? I’m out, I can’t do this anymore.” I think you need to take Jessie to a point of basically giving up to a degree. The other thing is that I think you need to setup 83 as a mentor, which you’ve already done but she has to have motivations outside of being a benevolent figure.


I think off stage, in scenes, we haven’t seen that the villain has coopted 83 and has told her okay, you’ve got to bring this girl around and if you bring the girl around, we’ll do this for you. She has to be a Judas figure in some way.


[1:02:02.9] TG: Well you know what I was thinking was that the way that I ended up going with the first, I was struggling to figure out how later I would reveal the mom as the bad guy and so what I started thinking was of attaching her to 83 and then the next scene after the ones I sent you was going to be Jessie leaving but they let 83 come with her.


[1:02:27.0] SC: That’s possible.


[1:02:29.1] TG: Because I was thinking like that would be like a gift that Mason did for her was to let 83 go and go with her but really all along, she’s this person that’s basically out to get her own.


[1:02:40.5] SC: Yeah, she’s the informant.


[1:02:42.8] TG: She ends up being, instead of the mom being the bad guy, it ends up being her because you kind of, “I want you to fall in love with her for taking such good care of Jessie the whole time.”


[1:02:55.4] SC: That’s good. Let me just speak to one other element in a later scene where the lights go out, if they don’t get back to the compound then their lights will turn red. You got to have one of them turn red man, you can’t just have them everything turn out okay.


[1:03:16.5] TG: Okay, I now see, I’ve like flipped the other — because in the very first scene when I had her stab the guy and you’re like, “Wait, that’s way too far, you can’t go to death and violence that quick.” Now I’m like on the other side and shying away from it because I originally wanted one of the men that were with them to not make it back but then I’m like, well am I killing somebody too soon?


[1:03:39.6] SC: No, I think that’s the right way to go, I think one way to setup her as a false mentor, good benevolent figure, meaning 83 is to have her light turn red but it flickered back to green quickly. It’s like, the reader and Jessie see her light go red but somehow it goes back to green, I don’t know? That could be a way of sort of signaling things aren’t what they are, it puts just a level of doubt about the character in a way, I’m not sure yet. What I think is that you can redo scene four without it affecting.


[1:04:16.1] TG: Okay.


[1:04:16.8] SC: You may bring the rats in at the end of scene four. They come back from the day of chores and they are the two rats waiting for Jessie and then 83 tells her, “Hey, sweetheart, you better get rid of this guys or you have no idea.” Then Jessie can basically say to them, “Look, guys, I’m out, you guys are on your own, this is hell,” I can’t do this anymore.


[1:04:45.1] TG: Okay, I’ll rework that and then we’ll continue to work through the beginning hook and figure out where we end up.


[1:04:52.1] SC: Yeah, that’s good. Just overall, this is fun to work on and I think it has a lot of potential.


[1:04:59.1] TG: Okay.


[1:04:59.4] SC: It’s getting there.


[1:05:01.2] TG: All right, sounds good.


[1:05:03.6] SC: Okay, thanks, Tim.




[1:05:04.6] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so that you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on twitter, @storygrid.


Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review. Thanks for subscribing and being part of our work here at Story Grid, and we will see you next week.


12 comments on “Story Grid Spreadsheeting Your Scenes

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    This series continues to be incredibly helpful. Thanks for the succinct recap of the three elements of narrative drive (and no, Shawn, you don’t sound like an English professor – trust me, I sat through my share of classes back in the day and none of them taught me as much as I’m learning here). As always, thanks!

  2. Jack Lyon says:

    If you want to “spreadsheet” your scenes, you should really be using the free Notebox Disorganizer, which is a sort of spreadsheet made specifically for writers rather than number-crunchers:

    I used this program to write two published novels, and it worked wonderfully well. It’s my favorite writing program.

    I have no financial interest in this program; I’m just a very happy user.

    1. Tim says:

      Just tried to check this out and it is being tagged as virus infected … … ;(((

      1. tresero says:

        Worked fine for me, at least the download. Haven’t tried the program.

  3. Larry says:

    Really great to hear that detailed analysis. I’d hoped to see Shawn’s Story Grid of the Beginning Hook in the show notes — maybe next time.

    One thing I’m wondering about. As I was listening to how #83 is helping Jessie, the first thing I thought was, “I bet she’s really working for the bad guys.” So when Shawn suggested exactly that, I remembered his advice that the first ten ideas you have aren’t ideas, they’re memories. Which brings up a question: Is the “helper/mentor turns out to be betrayer or villain” trope a cliche, or a story convention? If the latter, then I guess Tim’s task is to reveal the fact in a unique and surprising way. Not unlike the reveal that the brother is alive, ’cause we’ve all learned “if you don’t see the body, the dude’s not dead.”

    Looking forward to the next istallment.

    1. Tina M Goodman says:

      With their technology there shouldn’t be any problem in fooling people with a fake dead brother, especially if the brother is in on the scam. They can show a dead body and make everyone who needs to believe it’s the brother’s body (for the story to work) believe that it IS the brother’s body.

  4. Leigh says:

    This was a great episode for pulling everything together. It really helped to hear how the Story Grid is being filled out for each scene and how that helps to move (or not move as the case may be) the story along. I can’t wait to hear how the rest of the scenes for the beginning hook play out. I enjoy seeing how Story Grid is being used in real time.

  5. Larry says:

    Oh, another thing. Current popular Young Adult books like The Hunger Games and Divergent are written in first person POV. Both are also written in present tense.

  6. This was awesomely helpful. Thanks Shawn for sharing your expertise and Tim for being so vulnerable with your work. It’s going to be such a kick ass story! And I don’t know whether to be encouraged or disheartened that Shawn finds filling out the Story Grid spreadsheet tedious and painful too. I was hoping his infectious love for story would inspire me to buckle down and finish mine 🙂 oh well. On with my mantra.. “I can do hard things”…thanks guys!

  7. Tina M Goodman says:

    I’m detail-oriented and analytical. I love this stuff!

  8. scrivener says:

    Lost myself in this – one of the best yet. It has been a long time since I have listened to two voices who have managed to get the pictures in their minds into mine.

  9. Christine W. says:

    Do we get to see these scenes so we can follow along? It was hard without a summary of the scenes we haven’t seen yet.

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