Building The Story Grid

At long last, now it’s time to combine the Macro with the Micro and create The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs.

The first thing we need to do is to get out a big piece of graph paper.

I use eleven-inch by seventeen-inch paper that is divided into .25 inch boxes, which will give you sixty-eight boxes from left to right and forty-four boxes from bottom to top. You can also use a spreadsheet program like Excel. Just set it up so that the row and column settings are both at .25 inches.

I turn it so that it is in the horizontal configuration and then count up twenty-two boxes from the bottom which will be just about the middle of the page and draw a thick black line across. This will be the horizontal, or x-axis of our Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs.

On the horizontal x-axis we will use one box to designate a scene from The Silence of the Lambs. From our Story Grid Spreadsheet, we know that there are sixty-four total scenes in the book, so I label from one to sixty-four across the black line from left to right.

Under and above each of the scene numbers, I’ll boil down each scene event that I’ve written on my Story Grid Spreadsheet to the shortest possible phrase or sentence that tells me what’s happened. I’ll then write down the event above or below the horizontal line to designate the value shift of that particular scene.

So if the scene moves from a positive to a negative value charge, I will put the label for that scene beneath the x-axis to indicate that it ends negative. If the scene moves from a negative to a positive charge, I will put the label for that scene above the x-axis to indicate that it ends positive.

What do I glean from The Foolscap Global Story Grid? The Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff of the Global Story. So I’ll move to scene 12 on my sheet and draw a vertical line straight down from top to bottom and I’ll do the same at scene 50.

Now I have the whole novel broken down into the three component parts, it’s Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff.

So, after I’ve combined the Spreadsheet info with the Foolscap for the Beginning Hook of the novel, which comprises the first twelve scenes, the horizontal axis should look like this.

Beginning Hook of The Silence of the Lambs

Beginning Hook of The Silence of the Lambs

You’ll notice a couple of things.

  1. Ten of these first twelve scenes are written from Clarice Starling’s point of view (again, I’ve used the information we wrote down in The Story Grid Spreadsheet), while two are from the point of view of Jack Crawford. Thomas Harris wisely made sure that the reader will not get too distracted in the Beginning Hook. The reader needs to bond immediately with the protagonist Starling, or the rest of the novel won’t work. But Harris also knew that thematically he needed to establish “impending death” early on so that the reader wouldn’t shudder and abandon the book when things got bloody. He does this by using Crawford’s ailing and comatose wife Bella as the device to signal to the reader that the Story is going to go to the limits of human experience. Bella’s unconsciousness lurks over the entire novel until scene 50 when she finally dies and Starling now has her full faculties available to deal with Buffalo Bill. Plus the dying wife element really softens Crawford as Starling’s manipulative mentor. Without Bella, Crawford would come off as a real asshole.
  2. Scenes 3 and 11 have italicized type describing the events. I’ve put italic type here to designate the times when Starling and Lecter meet one on one. The Lecter interview scenes are brilliant. But the reader still “sees” the scene through Starling’s point of view. To be able to immediately go back and see when they occur and how they evolve shows just how carefully Harris constructed the Story.
  3. The Story events in scenes 5 and 8 are shaded boxes. The shaded boxes indicate when Thomas Harris has shifted the point of view to Jack Crawford. So all scenes in the novel that are from the point of view of Jack Crawford will be in shaded boxes.

    Harris will use eight other points of view. Here is that box again that shows you the others as well as the number of scenes each POV has in the Beginning Hook (BH), Middle Build (MB) and Ending Payoff (EP) of the book.

    Point of View in The Silence of the Lambs

    Point of View in The Silence of the Lambs

    Next up, the vertical line/y-axis

    Not only can we track the progression of Story events and shifts in values scene by scene in The Story Grid, we can also track the progression of the global Genre values. We do this by moving from scene to scene on our Story Grid and evaluating the state of the global value at stake in each scene. Is it positive or negative in relation to the scene that came before it? We’ll put a dot on the grid on the vertical y-axis, corresponding to the scene based on the movement of the global value at the end of that scene.

    Remember that the serial killer life value in The Silence of the Lambs moves from Life to Unconsciousness to Death to the fate worse than death (Damnation) and the disillusionment internal worldview value moves from blind belief to justified belief to doubt to disillusionment. We’ll mark those levels of positive and negative on our Story Grid alongside the y-axis so we don’t forget.

    We can use the vertical axis of our graph paper to track how these global values are moving.

    So to begin, let’s define the area above the horizontal line as Positive in global value and below the horizontal line as Negative in global value. Let’s designate the Life value with a solid line and the Worldview value with a dashed line. With these definitions in mind, let’s walk through the progression of global values in the Beginning Hook.

    The EXTERNAL GENRE VALUE “LIFE” starts at the most positive for Clarice Starling at the very beginning of the novel. She’s got her shit together. As an FBI trainee, she’s on her way to reaching her goal of becoming an FBI agent. Then she gets the call to see Jack Crawford.

    In scene 1 (chapter 1) Crawford offers her the Inciting Incident “errand” to go and interview the most dangerous serial killer on earth. Now her “LIFE” value is threatened in the negative. She’s going to be putting her life in danger, and she has no idea how much danger, so the curve of her Life value descends. She’s acting without knowing just exactly what she’s gotten herself into, approaching unconsciousness.

    Now let’s look at the Worldview value.

    As Starling’s LIFE value in the EXTERNAL PLOT descends toward UNCONSCIOUSNESS, the INTERNAL GENRE VALUE “WORLDVIEW” ascends.

    At the beginning of the novel, Starling’s worldview is filled with “illusion.” She’s ignorant of the ways of the professional world and thus vulnerable for manipulation. While some would argue that illusion is a positive outlook on life in that the individual is immersed in the powers of positive thinking, for our purposes, and for Harris’, this lack of knowledge is in fact a false positive.

    And a false positive is in fact, negative.

    I’m defining it as “Blind Belief.” And I’m giving it a negative charge.

    Justified belief as I’m defining it will be evidence in the righteousness of a blind belief. In this case a particular institution, the FBI. Doubt however will have a negative charge as will ultimately disillusionment, which is a negative worldview.

    Let’s track the internal value for the Beginning Hook.

    At the onset of the Story, Starling is clueless about the ways of the world…as represented by the FBI. She thinks that as long as she does what she’s told and does it well, she will move up in the FBI hierarchy. To pinpoint her illusion/naiveté more precisely, I think the notion of “blind belief” is most accurate. She goes on faith that the FBI’s fundamental concern is with maintaining law and order. And order means rules, appropriate conduct that must be adhered to in order to become part of the institution. And once inside the institution, Starling believes that there are clear steps that an agent takes in order to rise in the organization.

    As the BEGINNING HOOK of the novel progresses, Starling becomes less and less naive just as her life faces more and more threats. Her external moves down the graph, while her internal moves up. She doesn’t know that Crawford is using her to get to Lecter until the smarmy Dr. Chilton assaults her with that possibility.

    That revelation makes Starling even more confused about exactly what her errand is really about. Her blind belief is now in question. Meanwhile, she’s getting a serious lesson in the lack of gravitas her position as an FBI agent in training means. She’s losing her illusions and gaining understanding of her place in the world.

    At the climax of the BEGINNING HOOK of the novel, you’ll see that the two values intersect. The climax comes in scene 12, chapter 10 when Starling is “rewarded” for her intrepid investigation of a clue proffered by Lecter. By following Lecter’s lead, she’s discovered a severed head of an unknown victim in the storage unit held by one of Lecter’s victims.

    She’s also shown to be a capable agent when faced with media interference. So Crawford pulls her out of the Academy to accompany him on a trip to West Virginia. The fact that Starling is also from West Virginia is certainly not far from his mind either.

    Another victim of Buffalo Bill has been found, which moves the life value across the dead zone.

    On the worldview dashed line side of things though, Starling, just a newbie trainee, has moved up the ladder. She’s now joined the hunt for Buffalo Bill and Harris has completely hooked the reader. Her worldview has now shifted from blind belief to justified belief.

    Obviously Crawford’s pulling her into a serial killer investigation when she is only a trainee is a huge deal. Even Starling isn’t sure why he’s is bringing her, but instead of deeply questioning his motives, she puts her head down and resolves to do the best job possible. She’s crossed the line from “blind belief” to “justified belief.”

    She’s done what she’s been told and she’s done it well. So, as she expected previously based on blind assumption (Harris even makes a joke about the word “assume”), she’s being elevated in the FBI hierarchy based on what she perceives as merit.

    Her worldview is now more informed and she’s now a believer in the way the FBI works.

    So, here is the Beginning Hook with the External and Internal Value tracking.

    Beginning Hook with External and Internal Content Value Tracking

    Beginning Hook with External and Internal Content Value Tracking

    Let’s take a short time out here and check in on THE MATH of the book. By my calculation, The Silence of the Lambs is 96,299 words. The end of the BEGINNING HOOK comes after TEN CHAPTERS/TWELVE SCENES and takes up 18,152 words, or 19% of the entire novel. Not exactly the 25% we use to estimate the length of a novel’s beginning in our 25/50/25 principle, but definitely in the general arena that we’ve been using as our yardstick for long form Story.

    Next up is THE MIDDLE BUILD!

    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.

34 comments on “Building The Story Grid

  1. I remember, at the beginning of my trig class, feeling that I was about to peer into something that would let me connect things I had never realized we’re connected, that what made conic sections understandable as formulae and vice versa would touch more than the parabola and hyperbola.

    This feels like that.

  2. Jack Price says:

    My internal worldview graph just spiked from “blissful ignorance” to “holy crap!”

    1. Next time either of us is in the other’s town I’ll buy you your beverage of choice for that one, Jack.

      1. Jack Price says:

        That’s a deal. Come on down to Richmond anytime; we don’t shoot Yankees any more.

        1. Our nomadism has yet to take us to the deep south or the far nor’east, so I’ll holler when we’re heading your way.

          1. Cheryl says:

            The far nor’east is still waiting for you to drop by. Lobster dinner on me when you do, Joel.
            Jack, brilliant comment! My eye twitched reading this post. My brain is overheating.

  3. I am absolutely blown away…and looking forward to more on Thursday!

  4. Mary Doyle says:

    You’ve blown my mind with this Shawn! Layering in the external and internal values tracking on top of the scenes progression really helped me to see how this all meshes. The level of detail you’ve put into this is amazing – can’t wait to see the Middle Build on Thursday. As always, thanks, thanks, and thanks again!

  5. Michael Beverly says:

    Perhaps this will be helpful to others:

    I finished re-reading SOTL (again) a couple nights ago. What I did this time through was read a chapter, then consult the grid sheets (I printed them out and had to use a magnifying glass).

    This helped me understand what the notations meant.

    I watched the movie again on Sunday, that was interesting too, because you see where the film makers decided to cut things (Bella for instance doesn’t make it in) and Starling only goes to the Smithsonian once (they show her the skull shape on the first visit).

    They did, however, keep in Catherine’s cat. Watching from the window as her master is abducted and driven off.

    I was surprised that I found new things on this read that I’d missed before.

    In any case, I do recommend reading the book chapter by chapter while looking at the spread sheet.

    I started a spread sheet of my own WIP and it was difficult at places to know what to insert, and I think (slash that, I know) that’s kind of the point, if you can’t find the turning point or if you can’t see a value shift, then you know there is work to do.

    1. I’d been pretending Shawn was going to spoon feed us all the answers and then I’d start churning out epic classic masterpieces.

      Looks like writing will continue to involve work.

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        Hey Joel, what I’ve come to realize, and Shawn addresses this in his response below to Steve, is that a lot of this stuff is subjective and not set in stone, BUT that talking about it, thinking about it, etc., makes us better writers (and readers).

        And if we come across a section in our own writing that isn’t worthy of any debate (ie it’s so clear what we were trying to do and say) then it’s probably too pedestrian to matter (to be really great).

        For me, I’m hooked into the story when Starling gets attacked by Miggs and Lector calls her back to his cell.

        At that point, I’m seeing the transition that means the killer is going to be caught, and I’m on board to find out how and why, etc.

        Maybe others find that they identify with the Martin woman being kidnapped, that’s when they get emotionally involved at a high level.

        We could talk/discuss/debate this for ever,,that’s what makes it so amazingly good.

  6. Elanor says:

    This is awesome. I love how visual it’s all becoming. However, my confidence in my ability to evaluate as precisely as this is dwindling. lol

  7. steve says:

    Shawn. Much appreciated. I have been tracking these posts with a high level of interest. At the risk of back tracking, when I read the book, I see the tempo of the story really changes at the point where Catherine is kidnapped/the clock is set. Heres where I appreciate your thoughts, why isn’t this point the end of the beginning hook? If I hadnt followed your analysis and explanation, this is where I would originally guess it to be located, as I could make the argument that everything previous to this point is a historical build, and at this point the story switches to real time/active motion. Appreciate your guidance here.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Steve,
      The beauty of this stuff is that everyone can have their own interpretation. My gut is that the end of the beginning is when evidence of Buffalo Bill killing again arises, thus putting the pressure on the FBI to stop dilly-dallying with FBI recruits interviewing Hannibal Lecter and actually following some real clues left by the killer. That element matched with the escalation of the internal genre from blind belief to true belief spelled transition moment for me. The abduction is just a means to take the obligatory movements of the serial killer to the next level…a brilliant maneuver to use in what one would think would be a slow transitional period in a middle build. Anyway, I’m not the final arbiter of this stuff. What’s great is having the discussion and for you to be thinking this deeply about the structure. That’s a major win for me even if you disagree with my analysis.
      All the best,

      1. steve says:

        Shawn, Thanks. I’m building my understanding of your perspective to apply to the next book I read.

  8. Thank you for putting all this amazing information out here for us to benefit from. I am new to your site and am trying to get oriented. It seems a little overwhelming, but yet I find myself convinced that your approach could help me immensely with the revision I am working on. I think I need your book so that it’s all laid out neatly in one place. Please publish it soon! Thanks again for these great posts.

  9. Michael Beverly says:

    Shawn, just to be clear:

    Is the value shift always from the perspective of the main protagonist?

    In other words, when Jame captures Catherine and gets away cleanly, it’s a positive for him, the value shift from his perspective is good, he’s got his next victim, nobody saw him.

    But from Starlings perspective (or anyone on the side of the FBI, etc.) it’s a huge negative.

    This is an obvious example, but some of the time, it doesn’t seem so clear cut.

    Let’s be frank here, one of the things we like about this story is that Lector escapes, not because we want a serial killer on the loose, but we want to see the bureaucrats put in their place.

    Who doesn’t want to see Chilton get what he has coming?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      The global value shift is always from the point of view of the main character/s on the mission of the global genre. So for a crime novel, the global value is always evaluated according to the success and/or failure of the main character/s to progress in finding out the criminal and bringing him to justice. This is why it is so important to understand the genres in which you are work. The global value of crime is justice, so you’ll always be able to ground yourself in your storytelling by pulling back what it is you are trying to accomplish and look at it from the main character/s point of view. Are the closer (positive) or further away (negative) from their mission. You could definitely use a negative character (anti-hero) as your protagonist, though. THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is pure genius. The lead character is a psychopath, but we really want him not to get caught because Patricia Highsmith was so clear about the mission of her crime novel…to put us in the shoes of the “bad guy.” So the value shift moves from bringing the bad guy to justice to not getting caught.
      As for your points about Lecter and Chilton etc., those emotions we have as readers are the byproduct of Harris laser focusing on Starling and her mission/s. If he wavered in that focus in any way and tried to get the reader to see the world from the point of view of Jame Gumb and/or Lecter as well as Starling, it would have been a disaster. Trust me on that.
      Hope that helps.

      1. Okay, because I’m tottering on the fringe of confusion (okay fine; I’m wallowing in the pit of it) —

        For our story grid, each and every scene’s value shift is analyzed from the perspective of the global values at stake?

        I understand that when writing a scene, someone’s value must shift to the other polarity, and sometimes, that’s a secondary character in a B plot. But, for the story grid, we’re only always only mapping globals.

        Yes? No? Chartreuse microbus?

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Joel,

          The short answer is Yes.

          The movement of the solid line is the change in global value for the external genre (thriller) which is Life, Unconsciousness, Death and Damnation…scene by scene. So when I created the points on the graph I thought about how the global value had shifted as a result of the scene. And then plotted a point where I believed the story had moved. The highest end of the Y-Axis represents LIFE. As you progress further down the Y-Axis, you move toward UNCONSCIOUSNESS. Then when you dip below the X-Axis and into the Negative Y-Axis, you hit DEATH. The very bottom of the Y-AXIS (the most negative) represents DAMNATION. When I was done plotting all 64 points on the graph, I connected the dots. I’m doing THE MIDDLE BUILD tomorrow, so this should become more clear.

          The values inside each scene are also tracked (they are just noted so that the reader of The Story Grid can be reminded of how Harris turned each individual scene), but the graph lines only relate to the global external (solid line) and global internal (dash line) movements from scene to scene.
          Hope that helps

          1. Bingo. Got it. Whew. I’m less confused than I thunk.

          2. Shawn Coyne says:

            The beauty of The Story Grid is the crazy amount of information it throws off. When we’re done, you’ll be able to track every single scene in the novel (how and on what value it turned), see where the major events occur for both the thriller and disillusionment genres, see where Harris complied with the obligatory scenes and conventions of his chosen genres, and the points of view choices he made along the way. Having that info at your fingertips will be immeasurably helpful if you get stuff doing your own work.

            But when you are building the machine…it can easily get over the top complicated. The more of these you do for yourself, by studying the masters, the deeper you’ll push the principles into your subconscious. And after a lot of work, you’ll do all of this stuff intuitively and only need to break out a Story Grid if you get into deep trouble.
            Thanks for hanging in there. I know this is serious Inside Baseball.

          3. DC Harrell says:

            This added explanation is what I needed to move the solid line in my brain from fog to clearing. The professor always delivers the best stuff five minutes after the bell rings.

        2. Michael Beverly says:

          Thanks Joel for the additional question and Shawn for the answers, I was getting really lost in my own grid sheet for my WIP.

          It is easy to forget that a positive for the villain is a negative for the hero and vice versa.

          Now, for anyone that is this deep into this thread, I have another suggestion, just based upon my own experience.

          I January, when I decided to really dive into this blog, I put my old work on the back burner (I know, I know “finish your work”) and just write a quick thriller, a “practice” novel.

          I’m soooooo glad I did, because by writing a thriller, it’s so much easier to follow along with this stuff. Monkey see monkey do.

          I will have more confidence later when I go back to my old project, having done this first.

          Actually, if I had time, I’d write a thriller novel that copied SOTL using different characters and situations, but the same scene value shifts and the same global story, chapter for chapter.

          This is how I learned to paint, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be a good way to learn to write.

          1. Larry says:

            Hi, Michael

            I read somewhere that Terry Brooks wrote The Sword Of Shannara as the same sort of exercise you propose here (sans Story Grid tools), using Lord Of The Rings as his model. It turned out well for him.

    2. Tina Goodman says:

      Michael, If we followed the external genre value shift for Catherine Martin it would go from Life to physically Unconscious and Confused to threat of Death and Damnation to Life again.

      Bella is in the Hannibal television series. Do you watch that?

  10. Hello, Shawn,
    love the book, working through the Story Grid portion now, but I must be misunderstanding something. Your book states:

    “So if the scene moves from a positive to a negative value charge, I will put the label for that scene beneath the x-axis to indicate that it ends negative. If the scene moves from a negative to a positive charge, I will put the label for that scene above the x-axis to indicate that it ends positive.”

    Yet in the examples shown, it appears that it’s just the opposite and all the scenes that move from negative to positive are below the x-axis. Have I profoundly misunderstood something?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi William,
      The label for the scene, STARLING GETS JOB is in a box above the x-axis. The movement with the value inside the arrow appears below the X-axis to connote the movement from negative to positive. So the boxes represent the Scene Event, and the arrows represent the shift in value…negative to positive would be an “up” arrow and positive to negative would be a “down” arrow.
      Hope that helps.

      1. William says:

        Erp! Got it now. Thanks, buddy. I did totally misread that. For some reason, I was reading the scenes and the values in line, not understanding that one was below the other. My bad. Now back to work plotting out my novel. Thanks again.

  11. Patricia Wilson says:

    Shawn, I must admit I’m feeling overwhelmed by the detail necessary to complete the SOTL Story Grid…overwhelmed, and more properly described, intimidated. Just acquiring the 11 x 17 (I think it is) graph paper seems more than I can accomplish. I’m literally taking deep breaths to calm myself as I communicate this to you. Guess I’ll have to “put on my big girl pants (swimsuit)” for once, take deep breaths, then just jump into the deep end and learn how to swim.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Patricia,
      Remember that no one needs to see your Story Grid. Ever. It’s a tool for you and you’re editor if you’re not the same person. And no one else. You are supposed to make A LOT OF MISTAKES filling it in, figuring it out and playing with it. If you aren’t completely re-doing it at least three times, you’re probably lying to yourself. So enjoy the process. What you will find are ways to make your work better and that is the BIG BIG IDEA behind the entire thing. I hope you bought more than one page of graph paper!
      All the best,

  12. Nick B says:

    Hi Shawn,
    I enjoyed your book, although the plotting of lines on the Y axis is still confusing. Is choosing where to plot a subjective exercise? I had imagined that you would start at the beginning and then simply go up or down one level (like in a board game) based on the change in value. Your charting of SOTL has dramatic rises and falls – how do you choose exactly where to plot each point? Is there a podcast or a resource devoted to this on the website? Maybe the answer lies on the final ‘scored’ spreadsheet – is that available as a resource? Many thanks, Nick

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Nick,
      Think of the Y axis in terms of the two global values for the story and how each scene shifts in terms of that global value. For the external value, it’s LIFE, UNCONSCIOUSNESS, DEATH AND DAMNATION so what I did was evaluate where on that spectrum each scene fell. Same with the Disillusionment Internal value. There is absolutely some subjective decision making going on in the determination, but overall, the graph will have the same sensibility from one person’s analysis to another.

  13. Stephen says:

    Hmm, so I’ve read like fifty blog posts, leading up to this, and…I can’t say the payoff is there. At least not yet.

    I’ve been waiting for quite some time for you to explain how one moves from life to unconsciousness as a plot trend. And why is her Life Meter swinging up and down so wildly when (I assume) her survival isn’t actually threatened? The scene values from the spreadsheet didn’t make *ANY* sense to me when you first explained them, nor do I see their value here. I guess the internal arc overall passes muster, as long as I think of it as “amount of *good* faith” the protag has, but that’s about the only part of this graph that I can say I fully agree and accept what you’re doing with it….and everything else we’ve done so far seems like something my bungled amateur self has arrived at on my own.

    I’ll read on a little bit to see what you do with all this, but I’d appreciate some clarity.

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