Tracking the Global Story

Once you have a first draft, you’ll need to inspect each of the units of your Story and make sure you’ve used the right materials. Just like a building, you’ll want to make sure that your Story will stand up to the test of time. This is what The Story Grid is all about. It’s an editorial tool above all else.

What is also appealing about creating The Story Grid for your Story is that it requires you to use a completely different part of your brain. You can give your creative side a rest and dive completely into the analytics. For each and every scene you’ve written in your book, you’ll now take inventory of what exactly you have in hand by writing down critical information in each column of The Story Grid Spreadsheet.

It’s crucial to be very meticulous about the notations because the spreadsheet will be invaluable in pinpointing places where you went off course, missed a crucial scene or beat, and/or made minor continuity mistakes.

Spend the time making your notes in The Story Grid Spreadsheet succinct. But err on the side of being comprehensive in your first round. Trust me, you’ll go through this spreadsheet so many times that, by the end of the process, you’ll be able to boil down each scene in your book to a phrase.

And if you can’t, you’ll know the scene is too obtuse…not clear…in need of an overhaul.

Here’s another major word of advice.

Don’t stop and fix an obvious problem until you’ve completed the entire spreadsheet!

It is just about impossible to toggle between your creative side (writing the Story) and your analytical side (editing your Story) simultaneously. You need to separate Church and State. The Writer and the Editor. When the Writer is doing his work, the Editor has to be on vacation…and when the Editor is doing his work, the Writer has to be on vacation.

You, the Editor, need to see the work as a whole, every single piece, before you’ll be able to tackle revisions. If you revise before you’ve done a complete analysis, you’ll find that your first instinct solutions will not work when viewed globally. That is, you may come up with a great idea to fix chapter 3, but if you actually do that revision, you may up fouling up the foundation for your best work in chapter 1 and your best work in chapter 18.

So don’t do it, no matter how easy a fix you think it is, or how dreadfully terrible the scene is.

Not writing while you are editing is going to be as hard as it is to not revise your work while you’re writing. But you can’t give the Writer a working plan to fix all of the novel’s problems as the Editor until you’ve digested the entire Story Grid Spreadsheet, put it together with the Foolscap Global Story Grid and mapped out the final Story Grid.

After you’ve done all of that work, the problems AND THE SOLUTIONS TO THOSE PROBLEMS will be evident.

You must resist the temptation to revise before you have all of this work done. Seriously. If you don’t, you’ll add months if not years to your workload or you’ll abandon it completely because you’ll come to the conclusion that your work is unsalvageable. It’s not!



If you have a pile of pages completed and you are putting your editor hat on for the first time, the very first thing to do is to write out your list of fifty-odd scenes/ chapters. In order to figure out what’s going on in the Story, you need to know where everything is.

So when I take on a new editing job, I’ll first sit down with the manuscript and a stapler. I’ll go page by page and separate the entire book into its component scenes. There are usually between fifty and seventy scenes in a novel. So I’ll have a pile of fifty to seventy packets.

I’ll then turn on my computer and pull up a fresh Excel spreadsheet. As I will be analyzing The Silence of the Lambs, I’ll label the file “The Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs.”

I’ve gone through The Silence of the Lambs and determined that Harris’ 61 chapters break down to 64 scenes. Harris wisely chose to make each of his chapters a scene, with the exception of three chapters, which comprise two scenes stitched together.

Now on my spreadsheet, in the very first column, at the top I’ll type SCENE and underneath, I’ll write from 1 to 64 row to row.

Next to the SCENE column, I’ll create another column called WORD COUNT. For this column, I’ll simply add up the number of words for every single scene. For example, the first scene is the first chapter in The Silence of the Lambs and it runs for 1,690 words, so I’ll type 1,690 in the corresponding cell for scene 1.

It’s a grind to do this for every scene, but keeping track of the word count is invaluable. It will allow you as the editor to compare and contrast how you, the writer emphasized or deemphasized a particular scene just by its very length, and where you should trim and/or revise to best effect. It’s not a lot of fun to run your cursor over a big patch of text just to get the word count number, but when you have the entire word count on a single spreadsheet, scene by scene, you’ve got some vital information.

When you the editor first finished reading the draft, you may have had a suspicion that a very minor scene went on far too long, while a critical scene was too short. Saying that you have a suspicion to a writer is one thing. Telling them exactly what scenes you are referring to and their respective word counts is far more helpful.

Actually showing the writer that, for example, his “getting a haircut” scene took six thousand words, while his “contemplating suicide” scene took less than one thousand is far more persuasive to get him to cut the haircut and pump up the suicide. There is no arguing when you have pinpointed information.

It should take you a full workday, perhaps two or three when you are just getting started, to complete these first two columns. I’d suggest that you assign yourself this task on Day One of Editing and no matter how long the process takes you, knock off for the day when you complete the work.

Editing requires very concentrated attention. When you get tired, you screw up. Just like writing. So until you’re in the Editing groove, give yourself ample time to complete The Story Grid tasks.



After you’ve filled in your scene numbers and word counts, it’s time to fill in the next column on The Story Grid Spreadsheet, the STORY EVENT column. I recommend you read A Practical Handbook for the Actor, which was written by a group of actors from the Atlantic Theater Company to help you nail Story Events. I keep the book handy at all times.

The trick to filling out the STORY EVENT column is to reduce each scene to its essence, either a single sentence or a phrase that will tell you the gist of what has occurred in the scene. It’s a great way to build a shorthand language with the writer too. You can refer to The killer prepares scene and know exactly where in the novel it takes place.

I also suggest that once you’ve completed this column you go out and buy a stack of 3 x 5 index cards and write down each scene on one card, along with its corresponding sequential number and word count. This is a technique I used back in college when I struggled through organic chemistry. On one side of the card, I’d draw you the structural diagram for a particular compound like Benzene, and on the other, I’d write the word Benzene. I’d walk around with a stack of these in my backpack at all times. So on my way to odd jobs or to the canteen for dinner, I’d be able to quiz myself and keep everything straight.

You can make notes about each of these scenes in your downtime and you’ll be surprised at the kind of subconscious work your mind will be doing just lugging the cards around. Try it.

When you are first running through the book scene by scene, and coming up with the Story events for each, it could take anywhere from a day to a week or more of work. Don’t kill yourself over getting the perfect description for every Story event. You’ll end up tweaking just about all of them by the time you’re through generating the full Story Grid.

Don’t grind too hard now. Write down just enough so that you’ll remember the scene as a unit. So later on, when you’re thinking about the sequence of your Story, you’ll think in terms of “The break-up scene” or “The battle for Constantinople scene” instead of the myriads of beats and details that will go into each.

Here’s how I did it:

The first scene/chapter in The Silence of the Lambs can be summed up as “FBI Section Chief Jack Crawford summons FBI trainee Clarice Starling and recruits her for ‘an interesting errand.’” And here is how the beginning of your Story Grid Spreadsheet will look:

1 1,690 FBI Section Chief Jack Crawford summons
FBI trainee Clarice Starling to recruit her for
an ‘interesting errand.’


Now it is simply a matter of going through the entire manuscript and generating a list of all of the scenes in their particular order with their word counts and their particular Story events.

If you discover (and you will) that one or more of your scenes do not have events, you’ll find that these are the sorts of expositional passages that can be cut in your next draft. But for now, simply write down the core of activity.

That is, “John walks to town” or “Susan thinks about ice cream” can be written in the Story Event column as placeholders. They aren’t really events. They’re stage business/ exposition. You’ll fix them later.

Don’t freak out if your scenes don’t seem all that exciting yet. Even those shoe leather scenes that aren’t really scenes are important to keep in that first draft. They are important because there is probably critical exposition in these passages that must be woven into the Story.

There will be plenty of time to evaluate the effectiveness of each scene’s event later on. You didn’t nail it perfectly on the first draft (who does?) but don’t throw these “not working” scenes away or try and fix them yet. You need to see the full picture as an editor to make specific decisions later on.

Let’s move forward.
 So after a full workweek, we’ve got the first three columns together for our Story Grid Spreadsheet.

When I finished my spreadsheet’s first three columns, I knew that The Silence of the Lambs is sixty-four scenes comprised of 96,299 words. I now knew its core component parts. That is a huge step forward.

Now it’s time to break these sixty-four scenes down further to see just how and where Thomas Harris not only delivered the five commandments of Story form for each, but how he solved the knotty problem of abiding by all of the conventions and obligatory scenes of his chosen Genres.

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.

22 comments on “Tracking the Global Story

  1. Hi Shawn. This post stirred something in me really deeply. I’m not exactly sure why just yet but I think it’s because you’ve explained a lot of grey areas, things that I sometimes wonder about but figured I’d never really know the answers to, and things I do as a writer that I shouldn’t do like edit while I’m writing (which I’ve learned through experience – the hard way – that it really does just mess the whole thing up and add months to the workload!) I’m in such a reflective space because of today’s post that I sat down with a cup of tea, sunk into deep thought, and came out of it feeling intense gratitude for you and for what you are doing for all of us “out here.” I’m hoping that the gratitude will ripple through the quantum soup and somehow find it’s way to you. Here’s hoping you have a wonderful day! I know I will.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Spread sheets and index cards? This is my territory, so your prediction that this would settle my nerves was spot on. At different times in this series I’ve felt as though I was sitting in a classroom with a super-cool and interesting teacher, but never as much as I did today. The buzzing in my head as I read and reread today’s post was “you can do this, even with that freaking mess of a novel piled up over there.” Thanks for having enough of the mad scientist/nerd mindset to sit down and figure this entire process/system out for the rest of us! And thanks especially for the admonishments to a) keep the writing separate from the editing, b) don’t try to fix anything as you go, and c) don’t throw out anything yet. I would have made every single one of those mistakes. Can’t wait for the next post! As always, thanks!

  3. Hi Shawn,
    Love this process of breaking down a novel into it’s component scenes, and summarizing the point of each, along with numerating the word count, giving the writer a scene map of her entire novel. It’s the kind of global from the local, forest from the trees sort of map I tend to want *before* drafting, which of course only ends up delaying the drafting. These days I’m realizing a shorter outline beforehand lets me get to the drafting. This process, coupled with your story grid, provides the way to create that map after the fact.

    Very much looking forward to the Story Grid book. Thanks for all the insight you are sharing!

  4. Joel D Canfield says:

    Amazing how hard it is to only wear one hat at a time. Promising myself that this stage is coming helps shut down the editor during writing. I would not have thunk about shutting down the writer while editing.

  5. William Smith says:

    Shawn: Thanks for the post. Do you have a suggestion about how to organize the chapters in a word doc? My story is coming together but it’s getting unwieldy as I keep adding words and chapters.

    1. James Salahuddin says:

      There’s a software program that a lot of writers use (myself included) that will solve this issue for you. It’s called Scrivener.

      Scrivener will allow you to organize your novel (or screenplay) into manageable bite-sized scenes so you can focus (edit/analyze) ONE scene at a time. Scrivener also keeps track of the word count of each scene, which should make creating your Story Grid Spreadsheet a little bit easier.

      If you’re ready to “Turn Pro” (as Steven Pressfield calls it) you should look into this professional tool. It’s only about 40 bucks and if you already know how to navigate around Microsoft Word, you already know how to use Scrivener. It’s well worth the investment.

      You can check it out here:

      1. William Smith says:

        Thanks. This is great. I downloaded the free version and have already migrated much of my work to it. I will definitely use the notecard feature to track the flow of my story and keep up with my evolving characters.

  6. Elanor says:

    Wow! This is cool stuff!

    A question: When I’m writing, I use Scrivener which allows me to make virtual index cards where I try to write a scene summary or scene sentence. These index cards are attached to individual documents which hold my scenes. Because all my scenes are in individual files, it’s easy to see the word counts. For the story grid, should I pretend those don’t exist and try to re-figure out what the story events for each scene are?

    1. Michael Beverly says:

      I use Scrivener too. Shouldn’t they be the same? I mean, why would your virtual index card be different from the paper one?

      1. Elanor says:

        I was thinking more about the fact that sometimes when I go back and look at what I wrote, it isn’t what I thought I was writing at the time. lol

        So, should I write new index cards for the scenes I actually wrote, or should I try to revise my scenes so that they better match the story event I’d planned to write?

        1. Michael Beverly says:

          It seems, if you are following the advice above, you would write down what you actually wrote.

          Then you revise.

          Writing down what you might have written doesn’t seem to make any sense at all, however, it might be that your first instinct was right and you’d revise back to that.

          What I did before I started writing rough draft on my WIP was read through my outline with two different people. They both had input, I made some revisions then.

          The cool thing was one of these people finished beta reading the rough draft last night and she said to me “you really nailed the outline, you should stick to that method” and I think she’s right.

          As Joel and I were discussing before, there is a line somewhere between proper planning and going overboard and stifling the art.

  7. Michael Beverly says:

    This is almost as good as the time I discovered The Joy of Sex as a young virginal teenager.

    One quick question, if you can shed some light on this Shawn:

    When I finished my WIP rough draft I went right to outlining my next novel (which of course is a sequel, because, yeah, for all those reasons).

    Then, when I started editing, exactly what you said would happen, happened.

    I couldn’t switch between editing book one and writing book two, so I stopped. Trying to switch hats was very difficult, even when it was different books.

    But it’s kind of driving me crazy, because I’m getting help on the editing process and there are down times. I feel like I should be writing rough draft two. But maybe it’s counterproductive and all concentration should be on work #1 until it’s perfected?

    Thoughts on this? To be “pro” do you simply have to create in yourself a kind of MPD, or as it’s now called, Dissociative Personality Disorder?

    1. Tina Goodman says:

      The woman who wrote the Harry Potter series reportedly outlined all of the books before she started with the first one. It helps with continuity and later pay-offs.

  8. “It is just about impossible to toggle between your creative side (writing the Story) and your analytical side (editing your Story) simultaneously. You need to separate Church and State. The Writer and the Editor. When the Writer is doing his work, the Editor has to be on vacation…and when the Editor is doing his work, the Writer has to be on vacation.”

    Reading this reminded me of a songwriter I once met who wrote songs in one room of his house, but edited in another. At the time I thought he was crazy, but later I learned he was on to something. Because I do graphics on my computer plus write, I discovered I needed to use a separate account (with different backgrounds and such) when I’m writing in order to stay focused. I’m thinking I might just make a third account for editing.

    The writing account is also handy for eliminating distractions. I haven’t sets up email or access to social networking in that account, so when I’m writing I’m not pulled away as easily.

    1. Joel D Canfield says:

      I’ve fallen in a tub of butter in that regard: I have this computer on the main floor where I do my daily whatnot, but I have an office downstairs with a door and a loud stereo where I do my head-down writing.

      Keeping left-brain and right-brain activities separate has been an enormous help.

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        I’ve tried writing while listening to music. I cannot do it as well as when in silence. However, on occasion, it’s the better of options (if there are other noises going on).
        I wonder, do you think it’s a trained quality?

        Do you listen to classical music (instrumental only?) or just your favorite stuff? I heard the SPP guys talk about listening to rap music, but I don’t know how they do that. I’m not really a fan of their style, so maybe it’s all just matters of taste. I don’t know.

        1. Joel D Canfield says:

          When I’m really creating, it has to be super familiar instrumental stuff. Classical, sometimes, especially Mozart and Vivaldi. Or old school electronica, which is what Tangerine Dream is. Almost dance beats, but Zeppelin-feeling guitars and very melodic. Pat Metheney jazz guitar.

          I need something to stifle background sounds. A boat on the lake, birds fighting by the feeder, guy down the road with a weed whacker: they take me out of flow. My brain is far too noisy, unless I have carefully controlled external stimuli. If I’m creating words, instrumental music does the trick. Otherwise, any music.

          For writing, it has to be so familiar that it becomes white noise. Listening to new or unfamiliar stuff, I keep stopping to think about the music. I just need it to hide other sounds.

          Experiment, but do what works.

        2. Elanor says:

          I almost always listen to music when I’m writing. Generally, I’ll take the time to put together a dedicated playlist for each work. The songs on the playlist help generate a mood particular to the story, but I’ll use the same song on different playlists. I find that making dedicated playlists also helps when I’ve been away from a piece for a while. Listening to the playlist helps me get back into that same headspace and write without much loss in continuity.

          I have a lot of training in dance, acting, and a little in singing, so I’m used to my creative endeavors having a soundtrack. 😉 I find that having music on while I write distracts just enough of my brain to let the creative side take over.

  9. Ron Estrada says:

    And I’m all caught up! This is an excellent series. I cannot wait to apply the spreadsheet to my recently completed manuscripts (I went a bit nuts late last year). Thanks for all the great info!

  10. DC Harrell says:

    The best way I’ve found to keep the twins from fighting is to write in the dark/early am and to edit/research/outline/write marketing copy in the daylight. I think my inner critic is less active when I’m drowsy. This is a problem when I need to write only, but so far I’ve solved that—as some of the rest of you have—by writing elsewhere (on vacation, in a coffee shop).

  11. amy says:

    Hello Shawn,

    I am just curious … is there a specific way you try to phrase your Story Events? Are there specific things that you’re looking for those “story-essence” sentences to do?

    I’ll be honest, it probably would not have occurred to me to fill in something like “John walks to town.” I imagine I would have lumped that detail in, as a whole, with something like … “John walks to town — church on the horizon — mulling over whether to forgive the alcoholic clown or shoot him,” whereby, the way of rewriting this essence statement sounds more interesting.

    Or did I miss this point entirely? Perhaps, you are simply trying to make the writing progress from “John walks to town” to something more dynamic, entertaining, progressive (whereby the second example works???)?

    I am probably overthinking this. I assume the main gist is to find “actions” that are more static than propelling. Is that the basic goal?

    I suppose I just worry that when time comes to actually write down all these story events, I’ll JUSTIFY why John needs to “walk” versus ram a stagecoach into the circus tent. (Obviously, the second one would add more thrill, but it’s the dang word “context” that throws me; what if the boring “walk” makes more contextual sense than the “ramming”?)

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Amy,
      You just want to sum up the entire scene in as few words as possible so that you know what happens from the beginning of the scene until the end. “Starling gets job” is the essence of the action of scene 1/chapter1 of The Silence of the Lambs. The reason why you do this is to be able to easily track the movement of the story from beginning to end and also, if you are using The Story Grid to begin a project and to map out the entire novel before you begin writing, it’s a great way of giving yourself assignments. Today, I’ll write the “protagonist gets job” scene.
      All the best,

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