The Five Commandments of Storytelling

It’s now time to review the timeless principles that we rely upon to create and evaluate the building blocks of a long form story—scenes. Scenes build into sequences, which build into acts, which create our Beginning hooks, Middle builds and Ending payoffs.

The five elements that build story are the inciting incident (either causal or coincidental), progressive complications expressed through active or revelatory turning points, a crisis question that requires a choice between at least two negative alternatives or at least two irreconcilable goods, the climax choice and the resolution.

Here they are in outline form:

  1. Inciting Incident
    1. Causal
    2. Coincidence
  2. Progressive Complication
    1. Active Turning Point
    2. Revelatory Turning Point
  3. Crisis
    1. The Best Bad choice
    2. Irreconcilable goods
  4. Climax
  5. Resolution

These five elements must be clearly defined and executed for each unit of story. I’ll go into further detail about all of the units of story later on, but for now it’s important to note:

  1. Every beat has an inciting incident, progressive complication/s, a crisis, a climax and a resolution.
  2. A well-designed series of beats builds to the next unit of story, the scene, which also has an inciting incident, progressive complications, a crisis, a climax and a resolution.
  3. Scenes build into sequences, which also have inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions.
  4. In turn sequences build into acts, which have their own inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions.
  5. Subplots also have inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions, and can be tracked in exactly the same way as the global story. They act more like add-on extensions or outbuildings to the property that make the global story a deeper and more satisfying experience.
  6. And lastly, the global story itself has its own inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution.

Like an organic structure, a Story has a base set of internal materials that integrally combine to form self contained units of mini-story which in turn combine to form even more complex systems and ultimately all of the systems combine to create a work of intellectual property.

Just as cells form tissues, which interact to form organs that work with other organs to form systems (skeletal, nervous, circulatory etc.) with ultimately fourteen systems making up the anatomy of a human being, so do beats combine to form scenes which combine to form sequences which combine to form acts and subplots and ultimately the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff of a global story.

But without the engines of creation (the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution) beats, scenes, sequences, acts, subplots and the global story will have no life. It is never a bad idea to revisit these crucial story elements before we begin a new project or just after we’ve banged out our first draft of a project…just before we put on the editor’s hat.

Knowing them and trusting their efficacy are mandatory.  A writer who does not pound these concepts into her head will never come close to reaching her artistic potential.  There is no escaping them. And anyone who tells you differently is either ignorant or a charlatan.  Seriously.

So my advice is to surrender to them.  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.

When Moses’ cousin, Morrie the writer, went up the mountain seeking a cure for his writer’s block, God didn’t have time to give him all of the answers. And wouldn’t you know it, Morrie climbed up unprepared.  He only had a crumpled coffee shop napkin and a leaky pen in his shirt pocket. So God did Morrie a solid and boiled Story down to just five commandments.

Thou must have an Inciting Incident is number one… That’s up next.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


23 comments on “The Five Commandments of Storytelling

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    This post is getting taped to the wall behind my computer. Thanks Shawn!

  2. I am so glad you’re going to break this down and provide examples, ’cause otherwise my head was going to explode.

    I understand that some folks like to stumble into structure rather than seeking it out with intent, but perhaps my background in architecture and computers prevents me from staying there. Sure, as a musician I can jam spontaneously, but without a structure in place we’d just be noise.

  3. Mary is psyched and Joel’s head was going to explode. I’m psyched and my head is well…spinning! LOL…I’m so happy to have company on this wonderful journey! Shawn, even though my head is still spinning up in the clouds somewhere, I’ve managed to plant both feet firmly on solid ground. You’ve given me the spins but also some new clarity with this post. As a newbie writer, I didn’t really know how to write. I just dove in and wrote freely. While this generated some “good stuff,” I could never figure out how to put all my pieces of “good stuff” together. Your posts are helping me to do that in a really powerful way. There is no question that my best writing comes in both ways, from my right brain “free floating” place but also from my left brain “structural” place. Structure makes sense of my “free” stuff. It’s my left brain making sense of my right brain and both sides of my brain complementing and amplifying each other in really powerful ways. I keep saying this but I’ll say it again, your “stuff” is brilliant. YOU are brilliant. I’m so grateful to be learning all the left brain stuff from you! Thank you!!!

  4. Morgyn says:

    Sound of gnawing. Me taking another edge off my desk. Dreaming of the day Shawn emails us all and says . . .

    “Your pain is over. The PayPal button is on the site.”

    (Soft cough in fist.) And that would be . . . ?

    1. Barbara Saunders says:


  5. Michael Perkins says:

    While I echo the praise of other commenters, I must express how torturous it is to wait for these posts!

    I can’t wait for the book so I can keep going, but alas, wait I shall.

    1. Mary Doyle says:

      Michael, I completely agree — I think Shawn is giving us all a lesson in the “build-up” – maybe there will be a collective lighting of cigarettes (figuratively speaking for us non-smokers) when the book is finally released.

    2. Larry says:

      Ha ha ha. I’m just getting to this now, alternating between the posts, the epub and the print version. Glad I didn’t find out about this until a little while ago.

  6. Steve Stroble says:

    Shawn: a couple of years read a book that fiction is either plot driven or character driven, with the changes of the character, either for better or worse, taking place of the “plot.” Do your 5 commandments apply to character driven stories as well?
    Thank you

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Steve,
      I suggest you check out the previous posts. I wrote one called Plot Driven or Character Driven which should help out. And yes, these commandments are required of all stories, nonfiction too.

  7. So grateful to Morrie for bringing these commandments to us! Next time bring a full pad and a working pen

  8. Michael Beverly says:

    Hey Shawn,
    I’m echoing all the people saying they can’t wait it get it all, in the mean time, I’ve been reading some other writers, yes, in between reading your posts I finished gobbling down Story Engineering by Brooks and a couple of things.

    So, question:

    In Larry’s work, he uses terms like First Plot Point and Second Plot Point and other terms, some of which dovetail to the terms you’re using, and some I’m not totally sure about.

    At some point, would you mind clarifying what terms are universally used by the industry, as opposed to any you and others coin yourselves.

    For instance, he explains the inciting incident as being like: “Joe finds out his wife is cheating”; but the First Plot Point as being like: “Joe finds out that the guy she is cheating with is his best friend.”

    The first plot point then seems to be like what you’ve described as “Progressive complication.”

    He claims there is universal point (like 20-25% in) that this happens, and I’m wondering if this thought process dovetails with the structure you are building here?

    I hope I’m not making it more confusing, but if you can understand my question, you’ll see what I mean and where maybe I’m asking for clarification. I hope.

    If this sounds confused, the fault is mine for not asking a clear question.

    When I read “each beat needs an inciting incident, a progressive complication, a crisis, a climax and a resolution” I thought, holy smokes, how does all that happen in ONE beat?

    Looking at my first beat in the thing I’m working on:

    1. Meet protagonist, she flirts with Antagonist (at an event).

    Now, I guess that is not a complete beat, then?

    What I’m calling my next few beats, I suppose, are actually part of beat #1?; the father of the protag notices flirting, confrontation between father and daughter, Antag notices their fight, Antag uses her vulnerability to hit on her.

    If that’s the case, is there a term for a beat within a beat?

    1. Patrick says:

      The bell REALLY went off in my head with this one, so I think I might have the answer to your question. Let’s see what Shawn thinks:

      Sure, “She flirts with Antagonist” is a beat. Next beat might be “Antagonist follows her from party.” or whatever. But within the first beat you could have something like this:

      1. Inciting incident — She smiles at cute guy across the room.

      2. Progressive Complication (active) — He comes to talk to her.

      3. Progressive Complication (realization) — she realizes from the strange mark on his hand that he is the guy who was dating her missing friend

      4. Crisis (best bad choice)– how does she get out of this?

      5. Climax — She spills her drink on him and rushes off,
      promising to return with some napkins and club soda.

      6. Resolution — she turns the corner and runs out the door, leaving her coat behind on a cold winter night.

      1. Shawn Coyne says:

        Nice Patrick! Remember that it’s okay not to have all of these answers. This is an editorial process after you have something in hand.

      2. Sue Coletta says:

        Wow. Well done, Patrick. That really clears it up for me. Thanks!

    2. Tina Goodman says:

      I wonder, which terms did Mr. Coyne coin?

  9. Kim says:

    The idea of asking these questions for every beat of my draft strokes the dreaded, “why did I think I could do this button.” Next, I’ll have to think of something better to write! I sense a procrastination front heading my way.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Kim
      I think you’ll find this work empowering. And soon you’ll actually enjoy it. It will give you immediate feedback and direction. My advice is to not give a hoot about any if this until you have a scene drafted. Then go for a walk. Switch off your writer mode and put in your editor hat. Putting on an actual hat isn’t a bad idea.
      Hang in there

  10. Julia says:

    Having always been a fan of the more literary type of literarure, I resisted the idea (necesity, really) of beats and obligatory scenes in my early attempts at writing. Now, especially since I started reading this blog, I understand that they are the basic elements to any good story and am trying to master them.
    It really is so much better writing with these tools at hand.

    Can’t wait for details on the five commandments!

  11. Thank you for all this material Shawn. I keep reading, practicing, and trust that this is all “downloaded” as I write each scene. Sometimes I remember a particular method, most times I forget the name of what it is I have learned to do. I finally made my writing partner (author of several historical thrillers), cry. I finally “got it.” Of course now I must keep writing to “keep it.” Julie

  12. Beth Barany says:

    Shawn, I was wondering if the Crisis point above is the same as the “Black Moment” or the Confrontation/Ordeal of the Hero’s Journey. Thanks! LOVE your stuff. I’ve read the book, have both editions — print and digital, and am using your tools to revise/edit book 3 in my YA fantasy series. Thanks!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Beth,
      So glad The Story Grid is of value to you. There is nothing more rewarding than reading that a working writer is taking what they need from the book and applying it to their own work. Steve Pressfield and I were talking about this yesterday. The Story Grid is really a textbook…one to use for a semester or even year long course on Editing. So there is no harm in adapting the methods of The Story Grid and using them to tweak your own writing process.
      Anyway, I have my head so deeply stuck in the sand with my own theories that I confess I’m not up to speed on The Black Moment in the Hero’s Journey. But, I suspect it’s exactly the same. The Hero’s Journey is the Archplot for Story and provides the global spine of the global plot. So if you prefer the Hero’s Journey terminology, I think that’s fine.
      All the best Beth!

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