Commandment Number Three

Thou must have a crisis.

The Crisis in a beat, a scene, a sequence, an act, a subplot and the global Genre boils down to a question.

In all of the units of story…after the inciting incident…the protagonist faces complication/s…the story turning points then lead to definable dilemmas. These dilemmas must coalesce into a question that offers a choice between two options.

Confronted with another character’s direct action (or extra-personal action like the bomb in Zero Dark Thirty) or by the revelation of new information, will the protagonist do this? Or will the protagonist do that?

The crisis is the time when your protagonist must make a decision. And the choice that he makes will determine whether or not he’ll get closer to or further away from his object of desires (both external and internal). Often a particular choice will move a character closer to one object of desire while moving him further away from the other…

If the writer is choosing an ironic ending to his story, it stands to reason that if the protagonist gets closer to his external object of desire, the likelihood is that he’ll move further away from his internal object of desire. And vice versa.

Crises are questions that arise just after a scene turns.

That is, once the turn occurs in a unit of story through an action or a revelation, that change in circumstance raises a question. That question is the crisis.

For example:

  • A man walking down the street falls into a manhole. (A coincidental inciting incident)
  • When he regains his senses, he discovers that he’s waist deep in water. (A complication)
  • The water begins to rush around him and he struggles to hold his ground. (A second complication)
  • He loses his footing and he’s moved along in the underground current (A third complication that escalates the reversibility factor…he won’t be able to go back through the same manhole that he fell through…he’s quickly reached the point of no return.)
  • As he funnels through the pipe, gulping as much air as he can, he discovers that the pipe is getting narrower and that it will eventually reach a circumference that he will not be able to pass through. He’ll eventually plug the hole (a turning point on revelation) and then the water will overwhelm him and he will drown (escalation of complication to the limits of human experience).
  • He feels along the surface of the pipe to try and find a hold of some sort to stop his forward progress. He finds a crossbar and successfully grabs it. This grabbing of the crossbar is an active turning point that changes the direction of the value in the scene, in this case moving it from imminent death to life. The character has actively turned his world around.
  • But the water keeps rushing over him, pulling him away from his hold. He understands that there is a limited amount of time that he can stay in this position. As he catches his breath his eyes now adjust to the darkness. He sees that there is a beam of light that shines about twenty feet away from him downstream. He suspects this beam of light comes from another manhole, like the one he fell through. This revelation is a second turning point in the scene that increases his chance for survival.
  • These two beat turning points (grabbing the cross bar and seeing the light) lead to the scene’s Crisis
  • Should he let go of the crossbar and ride the water twenty feet to the next manhole to take the chance that he’ll be able to grab hold of its exit ladder to the street? Or should he stay put, wait for the rush of water to slow and then carefully make his way to the next manhole? He remembers that it was a very busy walkway he fell through and undoubtedly someone saw him fall into the hole. Are the chances that someone did see him fall and went to find help to fish him out better than him taking the risk to ride the water to the next manhole exit?

This question is The Crisis point of the scene.

The way the protagonist answers this question will show the reader/viewer what kind of person he is. The characters actions, not his words, define him. Compelling Crisis questions and the way they are answered are the way to reveal character.

If you remember the old Batman TV shows or other kids programs from the 50s 60s and 70s, you’ll recognize the Crisis point rather easily. This was the point in the show just before a commercial or just before the episode ended. Writing those kind’s of Crises is a technique called the Cliffhanger. It leaves the audience with a question that they will desperately want answered. And used with great skill, cliffhangers increase the narrative velocity of your story. But trundled out too often, cliffhangers become irritating and cliché.

The Crisis is that point when the protagonist must do something.

And remember choosing to do nothing is doing something too.

If the man in the hole decides to stay put and wait for help … that choice says a lot about him.

  • He believes in the basic goodness of humanity…that anyone who sees a person fall into a hole would immediately drop what they were doing and run for help.
  • He’s confident in his strength to hold on to the crossbar for as long as it takes for someone to arrive. For every bit of energy he expels to stay on the crossbar will drain him of energy to reach up to the next manhole and pull him up.

If on the other hand he decides to let go and make a grab for the next manhole that says a lot about him too.

  • This character is self reliant to the point that he’ll risk his own life depending upon himself instead of believing in other powers coming to his aid.
  • He knows that for every second he spends waiting for help, it will drain him of energy to help himself. And he’d rather bet on himself than someone else to save his own life.

As you can see, both of these options are “bad” choices. They could both result in his death. The character’s acting on which of the options is the least bad choice is what will define him to the reader.

So the two turns of the scene, the action to grab the crossbar and the revelation that there is a manhole twenty feel away, lead to the two pronged Crisis question—Should I stay? Or should I go?

If there is an easy way out or an obvious path for your lead character at crisis, you are making a major mistake. You will lose your reader or your viewer right then and there.


We live day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year, making small, medium and large choices in our lives. The simple choices we make automatically. They are not interesting. We do not want to revisit them in our precious downtime in a story. Unless she’s a diabetic who has already lost her left leg to the disease, having your lead character decide whether or not she puts sugar in her coffee is not a choice any of us want to read about.

We want to see the hard choices and we want to see where they lead for your characters. None of us can go back in time and change difficult decisions we’ve made in our lives. So we go to story to evaluate whether or not we made the right choice. We either find comfort from stories that show us that we’ve done the right thing. Or on the other side, when we make a mistake, in a story we get to experience the path of a different course. Risk Free! A new map to help us find our courage.

We go to Story to experience life at the edge, where we’ve been shaken in our boots in our own lives.

This is what stories are for…to reassure us that we’ve made the right decision in our own lives or to help us recognize our mistakes, learn from them and find the courage to change.

So the crisis choices in your story cannot be easy, or we’ll fall asleep.

What defines humanity is our ability to think and choose. A muskrat doesn’t face existential dilemmas. He doesn’t worry about whether or not he should kill a rat and eat it. He just does that automatically. But human beings are blessed and cursed with the ability to choose, to discern complex moral issues and to define their place on the earth by the choices they make. Life is an ever-escalating process of making choices.

All crises, of course, are not created equal. You need to build to the end of the line. (Read this to find out more about the end of the line). They all are not life and death, but they all must be the best bad choice variety or of the Irreconcilably good variety. It is the escalation of Crises in your story from reversible to irreversible that “raises the stakes” and not only gives your story narrative momentum, but deep meaning.

So when you are stuck looking at any of your units of the Story form (Beat, Scene, Sequence, Act, Subplot, Global Story) get out your magnifying glass and analyze the effectiveness of your crises. Are they building from meaningful but not irreversible to life changing and irreversible?

Track them.

If your crises are banal and pointless, so will your story be banal and pointless.

Before I dive into Climax, which is the moment when a character acts on his crisis choice, it’s worth taking a closer look at the two types of story Crises, the best bad choice and irreconcilable goods.

Best Bad Choices are 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.


15 comments on “Commandment Number Three

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    This breakdown of how we must lead our protagonist to a good choice/bad choice is really helpful. It leaves me wondering this (and maybe you’re planning to cover this in a future post): if we are doing our job, we are depleting the reader’s adrenalin tanks. After the cliffhanger, how do we keep the story moving forward but at a slower pace to allow those tanks to refill? How long do we make the reader wait? That’s probably a $64,000 question (speaking of old TV shows), but I’ve seen writers handle pacing very well, and I’ve seen it handled very poorly. It’s a difficult thing for me to judge in my own WIP. As always, thanks Shawn!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mary,
      My advice is DAMN THE TORPEDOES! Do not worry about the adrenaline tanks of your reader. That doesn’t mean that you turn every scene with action, action, action. It means that if you can mix up your turns and escalate the stakes on several different levels over and over again, you’ll create something that is impossible to put down. You’ll do this stuff intuitively and later on when you put on your editor hat, you’ll see just how brilliantly you did so. When writing go nuts and try and outdo yourself with each action and each revelation. You’ll know it when it doesn’t work when you put on the editor hat. But chances are it will.

      1. Mary Doyle says:

        Damn the torpedoes it is then, straight ahead! Many thanks!

  2. Joel D Canfield says:

    Should I stay or should I go?

    From The Clash School of Crisis, eh?

    Just to show how easy it is to build that suspense to the crisis, your example had me rushing through to see where it was going, already worried about what was going to happen to this guy.

    I suspect you didn’t spend years refining that example to put us on the edge of our seats. It works because the structure works, which is exactly what you’re teaching us.

    More and more, I see that understanding how stories work is more important than a big vocabulary or refined writing style. I’ll use all three if I can, but a poorly structured story told well can’t touch a solid story no matter how simply it’s related.

    1. Jack Price says:

      Joel, I too found myself doing the online equivalent of whipping to the next page to follow the plight of the poor schlub in the sewer but was embarrassed to admit it until you spoke up. Boy, the power of story.

      1. Joel D Canfield says:

        You’re among friends, Jack. Let’s all blurt the embarrassing stuff we’re thinking. I know I always do . . .

        The power of story is the reason Garrison Keillor can talk about the folks in Lake Wobegone, using simple words in a monotone, and they become more real than the people who live across the street from me.

        I am making a note of the word schlub because when it is the bon mot I can never remember it.

        1. Jack Price says:

          I debated schmuck but thought it too mean-spirited. Schmuck is Don Rickles, schulb is Jackie Gleason.

          1. Tina Goodman says:

            Well, I’m a little embarrassed to say that I though a choice for the guy was to let himself drown, in case he was depressed and “fell” down the man hole on purpose.

  3. Michael Beverly says:

    Hey Shawn,

    I just clicked over and re-read that post about the negation of the negation. Some of this stuff is hard to wrap your head around.

    Anyway, I started Robert Mckee’s Story last night (yes I know, finally), it’s been on my “too read” for sometime, but because I thought it was more directed at screenplay writers, I’d put it off.

    So, I’ve just barely started but one of the things I wanted to ask your opinion about was career direction advice (in the general sense, maybe it’s beyond the scope of a writing book, but yet, at the same time, I think your opinion/view coming from your experience would be helpful/encouraging [maybe discouraging?].

    McKee says that the current (at least at time writing his book) field of writers is mediocre to poor, he blames it on the idea that writing well isn’t taught (or not much or not enough) anymore, he says the studios used to have more apprenticeships and people learned by working with masters. He claims there aren’t that many masters anymore (again, this was a few years back, and he was mostly talking screenplays, I think).

    Obviously the whole point of your blog and the book you are working on is about teaching.

    And I don’t think those of us following along regularly can say enough how much we appreciate this.

    Do you have any thoughts on career direction? All this learning and writing and practice (at least for me) is something I’d like to direct into a career.

    Perhaps it’s something you might be addressing in your book?

    I realize there is no one size fits all.

    I also realize that things have changed dramatically in publishing, one of the bestsellers on Amazon right now is a book called The Martian, a nerdy scientist type wrote the book and put it online for free, some friends told him they’d appreciate if he uploaded it as a Kindle to make it easier, he did. It became a bestseller as an indie then a major publisher picked it up and now it’s going to be made into a movie…

    Go figure.

    I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t comment about what I feel about how well it’s written, but I’d like to think that if someone can write a best seller without any schooling or practice or training,,,then those of us seriously dedicated to the craft should at least be able to write something workmanlike.

    I think that’s your goal here, to teach that, and I’m hoping to nudge you for a bit of advice on using that gained experience in the right direction in becoming a pro.

    Thanks again, Shawn, I hope my long questions aren’t annoying and I’m just asking things others are thinking as well.

    1. Joel D Canfield says:

      Indeed you are, Michael.

      I’m secretly (or not) planning to become a Certified Story Grid Consultant and make millions teaching good writing.

      I always wake up right after that, but it’s fun while it lasts.

      Creating more good writers is a worthy goal, and whether I make it a career (as I’ve been working on for a number of years) or it remains primarily hobby, I’ll still be at it as much as my writing will allow.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      There is no shortage of writing advice and it’s a very lucrative business. MFA programs alone are huge cash machines for Universities. Everyone has a story to tell and thus, anyone is susceptible to someone with the “secrets” to telling a great one. The truth is that it just takes a shitload of work…trial and error…a blue collar ethos that may never put you on a bestseller list. But there is nothing more attractive in a person than the ability to tell a good story. Tell a kid a great made up story and they’ll think you can walk on water. Same with adults.

      And I happen to think it can be learned. Doesn’t mean you’ll be Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen, but you’ll never regret learning the craft.

      I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but I can say that I think the best way to learn is to teach yourself. Having the materials available to do that is the big problem with writing and more importantly storytelling in general, in my humble opinion. So that’s what THE STORY GRID is about. Could I foresee a day when it expands to include more traditional instruction? Sure. And I think it would be a major step forward in the process of debunking a lot of baloney. This is a roundabout way of saying I’m open to what the future brings. But right now, I just have to get the damn thing finished.
      All the best,

  4. DC Harrell says:

    I’ve caught up! Talk about cliffhanger. Looking forward to best bad choice. Thank you!

  5. Perk says:

    Point of parliamentary procedure, please.
    Muskrats are vegetarian.

    1. Tina Goodman says:

      I don’t know much about the minds of muskrats. But I saw a documentary on a group of animals like meerkats (can’t recall exactly) and there was a scene where one of the meerkats was terribly injured and the others were torn between staying and comforting the injured or fleeing for a safer place before it was too late. Most of the group left but a couple of them stayed behind until the injured one died, then raced off to join the group. That seemed like a crisis to me.

  6. ohita says:

    I need to crack my head more to think up plausible hard choices for my protagonists.

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