A Deeper Dive into the Five Commandments of Storytelling

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Here’s the transcript for episode seven, “Luke Skywalker Gets the Call” of The Story Grid Podcast.

In this episode Tim and I detail Inciting Incidents, Progressive Complications, Crises, Climaxes and Resolutions for a whole bunch of stories, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

And don’t forget we’ll be Storygridding Andy Weir’s The Martian and another classic story for the December 23rd episode.

You can listen to episode seven by clicking the play button below.


Tim: Hello, and welcome to The Story Grid podcast. This is the podcast dedicated to helping you become a better writer. My name is Tim Grahl. I’m your host, and I am the writer just trying to get into storytelling and learning how to do it, so I’m asking all of the inane little questions that writers like us want to ask experts like Shawn Coyne.

Shawn Coyne has been in the industry for over 25 years. He wrote the book “The Story Grid,” and he is an expert in making sure your story works and is something people will want to read.

That’s what this podcast is all about, and this is Episode 7. In this episode, we talk about macro- and micro-stories. We talk about the six questions every editor is trying to answer. Then we walk through the five different parts of a story, what each of them mean, and what they mean for your story, as well.

Just to let you know, we did a survey last week to the e-mail subscribers at StoryGrid.com. We asked, “What story would you like us to run through the Story Grid?” You voted, and the answer was “The Martian.” So Shawn and I are working on that right now, and we’re going to make that available in a few episodes. In fact, that’s going to be our Christmas episode that comes out on December 23rd. You’re going to want to look out for that, because along with that, we’re going to run the classic story “A Christmas Carol” through the Story Grid, as well. So look out for that.

Last thing before we jump into this week’s episode: I want to remind you that one of the best ways that you can support this show is to go to iTunes and drop in a rating or a review for our show. Right now, as I record this, we are 29, and I would love to get that to 50. I know there are thousands of you listening to this podcast, and so far we’ve had 29 ratings and reviews, so if just a couple of you jump in and do this, we will hit that goal of 50 reviews on iTunes. So go into iTunes and do that right now.

Let’s jump into this week’s episode.

Hey, Shawn, how’s it going?

Shawn: It’s good. Good to be back.

Tim: Last week, we did a nice, complete, public teardown of my scene, which was so much fun for me. Were you able to put any notes on that?

Shawn: Yes. I’ll tell you what I did. I’ll shoot it to you, and then maybe you can post it for everybody listening.

What I did is I took your scene and basically plugged in, after certain points in your scene, just general comments, and it’s in red text. Generally, it’s reiterating a lot of things that we talked about last week, and also, it goes in a brand new direction at the very end.

We talked a couple weeks ago about where do you start? “How do I start my novel? What’s the best way to do it? Should I fill in the Foolscap Global Story Grid, or should I start a scene?” What I suggested for you, because you’re a mad planner, is to do the opposite of what your inclination is.

You probably wanted to sit down and bang out the Foolscap Global Story Grid and just fill it all out. Instead, I asked you to write an inciting incident scene for your global story. That’s what you did, and you sent it to me. Last week, we went through it in general terms.

What I’ve done with the actual scene itself is to go very specific and to talk about how you could use that first crunchy draft that you banged out and you really needed to just get something on the paper and how can you use that to inspire you to solve a lot of questions.

Last week, we talked about how you initially though that your story was going to be akin to Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” – I think they published it under a number of different names – that one story about the group of people where you have to figure out which one is the murderer.

We looked at that and looked at your storytelling, and I pointed you in the direction that what you were setting up for the reader was a different experience than that. You were setting up a global action story set on the high seas, where there’s a group of people who are stranded and the reader is going to expect a certain kind of story when you take them into that world.

Tim: I was surprised by how much just trying to tell one scene showed all the holes in what I thought I was writing. It immediately brought so many things to light. Even just my personal notes on everything you said was just so extensive on 1500 words.

Shawn: Yes. As we’ve been talking about over the weeks, storytelling is really like that thing with the Russian dolls, those great little dolls that fit one inside the other. When you start with a scene, you’re starting with this little kernel, this microcosm, that will expand into a larger global tale.

When I asked you to do one scene, your brain was going to try to jam as much into that one scene of what you wanted to do as you could. So that’s a good place to start because it’s going to show you the places where you probably would get off track if you were trying to bang out a 60,000- to 80,000-word novel, just in one scene.

I think that was fortuitous in that I really didn’t know that we were going to come to so many different conclusions based upon that one scene.

Tim: You didn’t know how effed up my story would be.

Shawn: No, not at all. This is a great thing about storytelling that’s so much fun. When you write something, there’s so much stuff that’s on the page that you as the writer don’t even really see. You are at an advantage if you have somebody who’s a friend who can help you see the things that you can’t see yourself.

Tim: I can’t remember how deep we went into this last week, but you should have an editor when you’re writing. Would it be good to have that editor getting involved this early in the process?

Shawn: Well, yeah. Ideally, if there’s somebody you trust who has a very good sense of the genre that you’re working in, even if it’s somebody who’s not a professional editor, and you write one scene… Asking somebody to read 1500 words as opposed to 70,000 words is so much easier.

Say you wanted to write a story like Star Wars and one of your good friends is one of those Star Wars fanatics, he or she may not even have any experience in book publishing, but I can guarantee you they know the genre structure of a Star Wars story probably as good as any editor would at a major publishing house.

So if you said to them, “Hey, I want to create this world like Star Wars, and I’ve written this scene. It’s like the scene where Luke Skywalker gets the call to leave the planet. Here it is. What do you think?” they’re going to say to you, “Well, I’m not really sure. This sounds more like this other scene.”

I do think that if you do have friends who are real experts in a certain kind of story area, to use their expertise by giving them one scene is going to be fun for both of you. They’re going to help you find problems way before you go down the road of 20,000 words that you have to cut out.

I do think if you have the advantage of being able to work with somebody who’s a story expert, the sooner you do it, the better. The more you respect and trust their opinion, the better it’s going to be for you.

Tim: Yes. I didn’t think about it until later when I sat down to do it. You gave me the homework of reading Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” I read it, and I was just devastated, and I’m like, “So my homework is to write like Hemingway?”

Shawn: No.

Tim: No, I understand what you’re going for, but I was like, “Oh my gosh. I can’t do this.”

Shawn: Obviously, that’s one of the greatest short stories ever written, and it’s an example of subtext. It’s one of the finest scenes, where the two people never directly address… The “Hills Like White Elephants,” what’s the elephant in the room? It’s the thing that nobody wants to talk about but is constantly on everybody’s mind.

The reason I wanted you to read that is to see that when you’re doing a scene where two people or three people are in a conversation, being direct is almost a mistake. You actually want them to playing around the central problem without anybody really directly addressing it, because that’s what people do. They run away from problems, and they say things that address a problem but never directly.

Anyway, that’s why I wanted you to read it.

Tim: The thing you pointed out, too, is it’s these things I’ve heard before and know, but until I’m in it and doing it, it’s that whole they know what’s going on, so they wouldn’t directly say these things, not even just to avoid things, but because they already know the other person knows what they’re talking about.

Shawn: Exactly. It’s like a conversation that you would have with your wife in the grocery store. “Hey, did you get that thing?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, what do you mean? Did you get it or not?”

You don’t have to say, “Did you get the lamb chops for the party that we’re going to have next Tuesday.” Do you know what I mean? The two of you already know that.

When you can do that, the expectation of the reader… It creates a mystery for the reader, because then they’re like, “I wonder what they’re talking about. I’m going to keep reading because I’m eventually going to find out.”

Tim: Yes. I sent you – we’ll go over this next week – a rewrite where it was basically dialogue between two people. I re-edited it several times to take out description. I ended up writing 300 or 400 words basically towards the end of the scene that I ended up going back and deleting, shortening it to a sentence or two. I was basically trying to say as little as possible in the 1500 words about what… I don’t know how to put it.

Shawn: There’s a great line that Elmore Leonard said all the time. People say, “Well, how do you write?” and he says, “Well, I like to leave out the things that people are going to skip.”

Tim: Yes. Leave out the boring part.

Shawn: Yes. All the stuff that a reader already knows, they’re going to skip over that. I call it shoe leather. They’re scenes where “Jim walked to the door. He turned the knob. The knob was a little sticky, and when he pulled the door, it actually opened. On the other side of the threshold was his long lost friend, George.” You don’t need that.

“George came over.” That’s it. That’s all you have to say.

Tim: I hear you say that, and I realize it’s bad writing, but I think I’ve written that exact thing before.

Shawn: We all have, and that’s why you cut it. That’s what you have in your first draft. Don’t kill yourself over it. Everybody does it.

Tim: Okay, we’ll shelve that for now. If you want to download Shawn’s notes on my scene, that’s in the show notes for this episode at StoryGrid.com/podcast, Episode 6. We’ll talk about the rewrite next week, but this week I want to dive into the Foolscap. We’ve been talking about it for a couple weeks now.

Just tell me a little bit about what is the Foolscap, and what is the whole point of it?

Shawn: Okay. There are two major components in telling a story. There is what I call the macro point of view, which is the global three-sentence description of a story. Like the movie Rocky: Bum fighter from Philadelphia gets a break to fight the champion of the world and goes all 15 rounds in an incredible triumph. That’s basically the story of Rocky. That’s the macro point of view. It has the beginning of the story, the middle of the story, and the ending of the story, all encapsulated in as few words as possible.

The Foolscap Global Story Grid is a one-sheet piece of paper that will give you, the writer, a global map of your story. We’ll get into the details of it later, but that’s what it’s for. You’re on day 37 of your writing; you’re in the middle of your middle, and you ask yourself, “Where am I going again?” That’s when you pull out your Foolscap Global Story Grid, and you say, “Oh, okay. I’m progressively complicating the middle of my book. I have about three more steps to go before I get to the global crisis of my middle build.”

That’s what it’s for. It’s a map. It’s like, going from New York to Los Angeles, it’s going to show you which interstate to go to to go through Kansas.

Then there’s the other part, which we’ll get into later, which is the micro-story. The micro is all about scene-to-scene progressions, from the beginning of your story to the very end. It’s all very detailed. It’s really about making sure that you’re consistent in your storytelling, that you’re raising the stakes and never going back. That is really an essential editing tool, but they’re both very important editing tools.

But as a writer like you, who’s starting out on just coming up a global outline for the book that they’re going to write, starting with Foolscap Global Story Grid is really a great way to go because after you’re done filling in this one piece of paper, you’re going to have your Rand McNally map to go from the beginning, to the middle, to the end.

Tim: You have it split up into four sections. The first one is the global story. This is where you figure out your external genre, your external value, your internal genre, your internal value – this type of stuff. Why is that so important to make those decisions first?

Shawn: It’s extremely important because these answer those six questions that I talk a lot about in the book – the first six questions an editor is going to ask. When you understand specifically – this is what we talked about last week – you really need to home in and lock down your genres.

The reason why you need to do that is because your genres are going to be so helpful for you to create your map, because what your genres tell you are the indispensable elements that you’re going to have in your story in order to satisfy your reader.

What does that mean? What that means is if you’re writing a crime story, you’re going to want to have a scene where a body is discovered. You’re going to want to have that scene in your beginning hook, because if you don’t, your reader isn’t going to understand that your story is primarily a crime story. If you hold that scene – that discovery of the body – until the middle build, they’re not going to really understand. They’re going to think that your story is something else.

So making these decisions, sticking to them, and figuring out what the conventions of that particular genre are is going to be invaluable when you’re planning your entire book.

For example, last week, when you were writing your one scene, you initially thought that your story was going to be a crime story. It was going to be a story where somebody is murdering everybody on the boat, and the big mystery for the reader will be trying to figure out who the culprit is. That’s like an Agatha Christie story. It has a master detective element.

But when you started writing it, the possibilities, the interesting elements, the world you wanted to explore were shouting out for something else. It was shouting out for an action story.

Now, it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have a crime element in that story. Absolutely, you are going to have a crime element in that story. But the crime element is not going to be the global driving force that you’re going to pay off for your reader, because when you start on a boat in the open sea, your reader is just going to be like, “Oh my gosh. I’m going to settle in. I’m going to get a great seafaring yarn. This is going to be a great action story. Life and death is going to be at stake. Boy, this is going to be great!”

If you don’t raise the stakes and get to that point very early on in your inciting incident for the global story, your reader is going to be like, “Wait. What is this? I thought this was going to be one of those really cool sea novels, but this is going to be turning into ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’ Oh, I don’t want to read that.” They’re going to be disappointed.

Tim: If I start with the crime genre, I’d be looking at red herrings and lots of investigation by a central character, an investigator, where one guy is outwitting another. The action genre has different conventions that I have to have, so that’s basically a completely different roadmap I’m picking.

Shawn: Exactly. This is why the very top of your Foolscap Global page is so important. These are the big, big, meaty, juicy answers that you can always go back to and refer to. It’s going to stop you from writing a scene that isn’t going to make sense for your global genre.

A lot of people ask me where did I get the Foolscap concept? This came from my friend Steve Pressfield, who learned years ago, when he was a struggling writer in New York… He was driving a cab, he couldn’t get arrested, he was just at his wits’ end, and one of his good friends is a documentary filmmaker named Norm Stahl. Norm is banging out great documentary after documentary. He seems to have the world at his feet. Steve’s crying and saying, “Oh Geez. I don’t know what to do, Norm. What should I do?”

Norm finally had enough and said, “Let me take you out to lunch.” So he took Steve out to lunch. Steve gets his cheeseburger and his iced tea, and he is waiting for the big moment. He’s like, “Geez, Norm. I just don’t know what’s going on. I just can’t seem to crack the story. My novels just don’t seem to have that one thing. I keep going off track, and I don’t know what to do.”

Norm stops him and pulls out a legal pad of paper. It’s that yellow foolscap that we all know. It’s a legal pad. He said, “Steve, the Good Lord made the yellow foolscap so that you can put an entire story on one piece of paper.”

He sat down and he outlined an entire novel for Steve. I think Steve said he went through “The Great Gatsby,” which I think was amazing. Just as you see in The Story Grid, he drew a couple lines on the page, and he said, “You have your beginning. You have your middle. You have your end. Now, at the top of the page, you want to tell yourself what kind of story you’re going to write, and then you’re going to fill in the other three things. Then whenever you get lost and you’re struggling, you just go pull out that piece of paper and you’ll know where you have to go. This is going to get you a first draft. Once you have a first draft, then you can start doing your real work.”

But the really difficult thing for writers is getting that first draft, so then they can start going back and tweaking it and making things better and better and better. That’s why I call it the Foolscap Global Story Grid. It’s in salute to Norm Stahl, who came up with this concept. I think it really works well because everybody wants that one piece of paper. “Where my guide that I don’t have to be flipping through a million pages of notes and character history?” and all that baloney a lot of people ask you to do.

If you have that one piece of paper, that’s going to say, “Oh, I need to write that scene today. I need to write the climax and my middle build today. Oh, okay. This is what it’s going to be. It’s going to move from X to Y, and it’s going to go from positive from negative. Got it. Now I can write my 1500 words today.”

Tim: I feel like, looking at it, there’s this continuum between the plotters and pantsers. The pantsers are the people who just sit down and start writing. They have an idea, so they just sit down and start writing.

You can go all the way to the other end of that extreme, where you basically do these very intense outlines. I think that’s what James Patterson does. Before he writes a book, he has an outline that describes each scene and what’s happening in that scene.

This seems like a middle ground. It’s not starting with nothing. It’s doing some planning ahead of time and knowing where you’re going, but it’s also not planning out your 82 scenes and exactly what’s going to be in each one.

Shawn: Yes. I’m not going to argue with James Patterson. I’ll confess that if I was tasked to write a novel, I’d probably go closer to what he does than other people. But I think what is really informative is what we experienced last week – and what we’ll talk about more next week. If you give yourself a little bit of freedom and you don’t decide concretely straightaway “I’m definitely going to write a locked room mystery story, and nothing is going to stop me from doing that”…

If you don’t do that and you say to yourself, “Here’s the kernel of the idea that I have”… You started with this, and you were like, “The kernel of the idea that I have is a bunch of guys on boat who are going on this very expensive deep-sea scuba diving adventure, and they start dying off one by one, and nobody can really figure it out.”

That was the kernel of the idea that you had, and you said to yourself, “Oh, okay. That could be sort of like an Agatha Christie story. This is similar to ‘Ten Little Indians,’ so let me just use that as my starting point. I’m going to write this scene, my inciting incident, to get the thing going.”

The inciting incident that you came up with was fantastic, which was one of the people gets sick. They have a very, very bad sickness, which is the bends. From that, you wrote your scene. What we discovered last week is that all the decisions that you had thought you had made concretely before actually weren’t going to serve the global, big “what if” you had initially in your head.

All of this is to say that if you spend a lot of time plotting out 82 scenes and writing a full paragraph about each and meticulously thinking about “A goes to B, B goes to C, C goes to D,” that’s a really great way of planning, but it leaves you little room to discover those things that you haven’t consciously figured out yet.

That’s why I like the Foolscap Global Story Grid, because you’re basically plotting out 15 scenes – you’re not plotting out 82 – and they’re the 15 crucial scenes that you’re going to have to deliver.

What are those scenes? There’s the beginning hook, the middle build, and the ending payoff – the power of three. All stories, no matter how many acts they have – or sequences or scenes or anything – they have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In each one of those sections – the beginning, the middle, and the end – they need to have five very crucial story scenes. Those five scenes are the inciting incident of that section, a scene that progressively complicates the problem of the inciting incident, a crisis, a climax, and a resolution.

Each one of your parts – your beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff – needs to have a scene that is analogous to one of those five crucial elements in story. You’re going to need an inciting incident scene. You’re going to need a progressively complicated scene. You’re going to need a crisis scene, a climax scene, and a resolution scene.

You know that right off the top for each section of your book. So no matter what genre you’re writing in, no matter what story you’re writing, you know that for a fact, you need to do that. That’s why I use those five scenes as your Foolscap Global Story Grid to map those out, because those are going to be the key scenes in each part of your book.

To have a general sense of where your book is going to go, from the beginning until the end, with five scenes in each section, is just a great way… They’re like mile markers. It’s like, “Okay, I’m starting in New York. I need to know how to get to Pittsburgh. Then from Pittsburgh, I need to know how to get to Chicago. From Chicago, I need to know how to get to Denver.”

You know what I’m saying. So those are the mile markers for each section of your story. I think that explains it. Ask away. I’m blathering on.

Tim: I have those five pieces – inciting incident, complication, crisis, climax, and resolution. I feel like I understand the inciting incident pretty well. That’s what knocks the world out of balance. The world is in balance; it now knocks it out of balance, and usually the protagonist’s goal is to just put the world back in balance.

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: Then the complications are one or more things that basically keep the protagonist from putting his world back to order. I heard it described once that how you write a story is put somebody in a tree, throw rocks at them, and then let the person get back down out of the tree. So the complications are where it keeps getting worse and worse. It keeps staying out of their grasp.

Shawn: Right. Get somebody in a tree. Take away the ladder. Start throwing rocks at them. Then sit the tree on fire. Then have an earthquake happen. That’s the kind of thing. Yes, exactly.

Tim: The two that I feel like I get the most confused about are the crisis and the climax. How is the crisis different from the complication? The inciting incident is what knocks it out of balance. Complications keep it out of balance. What is the crisis?

Shawn: I always think of a crisis as a question, and it always helps. It’s the question that the protagonist has to answer in the dilemma. It boils down to one of two choices.

Just for fun, let’s use the guy up the tree. A guy is up a tree. He thought he was going to be able to get down. Let’s say it’s a 100 ft. tree, and the bucket truck that put him up there has had to leave. So he’s up there in the tree and he has to get down, and there’s no way he’s going to be able to climb down because the jump will be too high.

So he’s sitting up there and thinking about it. As he is thinking about it, he’s like, “Okay. I can wait for the bucket truck to come back, or I can start climbing down and see if there’s a way for me to maybe jump to another limb and another tree, and then maybe I can Tarzan my way down.” He starts climbing down the tree.

Let’s say a group of nasty people start throwing rocks at him from the ground. So he’s like, “Okay. I have to go to the other side of the tree now because I’m getting hit by rocks on this side of the tree.” He tumbles around to the other side, and as he gets to the other side, he’s going further and further down, and somebody lights the bottom of the branch on fire. There’s fire starting to come up for him. Now he knows he can’t continue to go down. He has now reached a crisis.

The crisis that he has reached is the following. If he stays on that limb of the tree, he is going to burn up. Fire is coming up. He has maybe five minutes before that fire is going to reach him. It’s starting to get smoky. It’s starting to get very uncomfortable for him.

The crisis is does he jump from there, which is probably going to break his legs, or does he risk going to the other side and having those people throwing rocks at him? He did notice that there was a possibility of him being able to jump and leap ten feet into the air and perhaps fall onto a very large pine tree that could break his fall and not break his legs. But if he gets hit by the rocks, he might miss. Then he is not just going to break his legs; he’s going to die because he is going to land directly on his head.

The crisis is what I call the best bad choice. He can either try to still wait for the bucket truck, which is stupid at this point. He can jump from where he is and break his legs, or he can try the other route. This decision is the crisis.

Tim: So the difference between a complication and a crisis would be a complication is the obvious next thing I need to do to try to reach my goal.

Shawn: Right.

Tim: Whereas a crisis is either the best bad choice. You’re down to two choices that are both horrible and you have to pick one. Instead of thinking, “Okay, this thing is going to get me what I want,” it’s like, “Well, neither of these probably are, but I have to do one.”

You also talk about the two…

Shawn: Irreconcilable goods. Something is good for me, or it’s good for somebody else, but both of us can’t get the same good.

Tim: So that’s when you transition from complications to the crisis of the beginning hook.

Shawn: That’s exactly correct. This isn’t that complicated when you’re talking about a guy in a tree, but it does get complicated when you’re working on your story. The thing that transitions from a progressive complication to a crisis is the thing called the turning point. I talk about the turning point in the book a lot.

A turning point can happen in two ways – either through action or revelation. The turning point means you can’t stay where you are. You have to make a decision. For the guy in the tree, it’s an active turning point. The tree has been set on fire by somebody. Somebody took an action that forced that character in the tree to make a decision.

Now, a revelatory turning point would be something like somebody doesn’t set the tree on fire but what the guy sees is, say, a rope ladder that he can’t reach perfectly, but if he stretches and then jumps a little bit, he may be able to grab the rung.

That’s a revelation. That is new information that changes the status of the guy in the tree. Nobody does anything. There’s just a rope ladder that some kids had put up on another tree that this guy sees, and it’s revealed to him “Oh, there is something that can change my circumstances.”

So a turning point is either active or revelatory.

Tim: Let’s go back to the story I’m writing, to try to put this in concrete. When I rewrote the first scene, basically I’m making it all about the fact that the one guy thinks he doesn’t have the bends and the other guy thinks he does. They’re arguing about what to do about that. Do they go back or do they stay?

How I was planning on doing it is over the next few scenes, we keep going back and forth. Something happens that makes you think, “Okay, he’s getting better,” then the next thing happens, “Oh, he’s getting worse, but everybody still wants to stay.”

So my turning point will be where we can no longer wait to make this decision. We now have to make a decision right now: are we going back or are we staying? That would be the turning point, and that would then move me into the best bad choice.

Shawn: Yes. Just to play off the scene that you wrote, the first draft of the scene, the crisis was the guy has the bends and we either have to head back or make sure that he is going to be okay on board. That’s not a really good crisis because the reader is going to say to themselves, “Oh Geez. If somebody has the bends, you’re definitely going to go back.”

Tim: Well, I did some more research on the bends. In most cases where you have, at first, just mild symptoms, people assume it’s not the bends. They just act like they’re just feeling sick, or they take some oxygen, or they’re tired. A lot of people get the bends really bad because they talk themselves out of the early symptoms.

Shawn: Right, great.

Tim: So what I decided to do was basically keep it on this edge of “Maybe he doesn’t have the bends,” because he’s just feeling a little run down, and we gave him some oxygen. I found this really great article where somebody talks about how they had the bends and their captain kept telling them. “No, you don’t have it,” and kept doing all of these things until finally she basically fell out and she had the bends.

I’m like, “Oh, well, there’s my progressive complication,” which is “No, he doesn’t have it. We’re fine,” “No, he doesn’t have it. We’re fine,” “No, he doesn’t have it. We’re fine,” and “Oh my God. He has it. We have to go back now.”

Shawn: That’s good, but here’s the thing that you can’t do more than once. I talk about this in the book a lot. With each complication, you can’t have the same complication over and over again, or the reader will get bored.

Initially, you can say – you don’t have to reveal it’s the bends – they’re not feeling well. They’re tired. They’ve had some oxygen. They’re feeling better now. Now, you can’t do that again. You can’t have another argument about “Oh, well, they’re feeling bad again,” because you’ve already covered that ground. You have to escalate the progressive complication.

I’m just playing around here. The initial thing was “Jim doesn’t feel well.” “Oh my gosh. What’s wrong with him?” “Well, he seems to be feeling better now because we’ve given him oxygen.” “Okay.”

Then the next complication has to be something like “Hey, we’re starting to lose our navigation equipment. It’d probably be better if we headed back.” “Umm. Yeah, I guess so, but do we have the…”

Tim: And then there’s a storm coming.

Shawn: Exactly.

Tim: I see.

Shawn: So that’s an obvious example. That’s the thing. You have to keep twisting the rope so that it gets tighter and tighter and tighter. You can’t just use the same level. That’s a mistake a lot of first-time writers make. They’re like, “Hey, I’m progressively complicating everything, because first, he’s sick, and then he’s not sick, and then he’s sick again, and then he’s not sick. So that’s four different progressive complications.” I’m like, “Yes, that’s true. But they’re the same one.”

Tim: Okay. And that gets boring pretty quick.

Shawn: Yes. Very quickly. The other thing is that whenever anybody gets ill in a story, the reader is going to assume they’re going to really go down the deep end. Why? It’s like that famous Chekhov saying: don’t introduce a gun into your story unless it goes off.

Tim: Yeah. It’s like when you’re watching a show and they try to introduce a side character who you’re not supposed to care about it, but they give him three too many lines. You’re like, “Wait, wait, wait.” That’s the killer, because otherwise they wouldn’t have spent so much time introducing us to this character who’s not supposed to matter.

Shawn: Right. Or they have a famous star come on and you’re like, “Oh, well, that star’s definitely going to be a big part of the show.”

Tim: Right. So I have complications, and then the crisis is where I’m at a point where I have to make a decision. So the climax is where you make the decision and then see what happens.

Shawn:   Exactly. A lot of people say, “Well, what if he doesn’t make a decision? What if he just stays in the tree?” I’m like, “That’s a decision.” That’s a decision that he is going to burn up because you can’t stop the fire.

Here’s the thing. A couple of episodes ago, you asked me about why I don’t really get into characterization and stuff so much in “The Story Grid.” Here’s the reason why. It’s the crisis moments in your story that reveal character.

If your character decides to stay in the tree, that says a lot about that kind of person. They’re very fearful, they’re incapable of making decisions, and they’re going to die because they have no courage.

But if they choose to jump and try to find a limb to go elsewhere, that shows that they’re very courageous. Or, the third option would be maybe they’re really smart and they somehow convince one of the rock throwers to get a ladder in some way. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s those crisis moments in your story that define who your characters are.

At the beginning of Casablanca, Rick’s friend is arrested for gambling or something. He’s played by that great character actor. I forget his name. He gets arrested. The cops come and they take him. Rick owns the place. Rick could have stopped the cops and said, “Hey, he’s cool. Don’t arrest him. I’ll vouch for him.” But he doesn’t do it because he’s like, “I stick my neck out for nobody. Screw it. Let them arrest him. I don’t care.” That decision says who Rick is. Rick a pathetic alcoholic who’s only concerned about himself.

That’s the beginning of the story. By the end of the story, Rick’s actions are, “No. You know what? I’ll stay back here in Casablanca and I’m going to fight the Nazis. I’m going to let the leader of the Resistance and the woman I love get on that plane without me. I’m going to sacrifice my life to fight evil and to try for a better world.”

The transition of the actions from Rick at the very beginning of that story and Rick at the very end of the story is what you call a character arc. Character is revealed through action. So the crisis moments in all of your scenes you have to think about very specifically. “What is this choice saying about my character? What kind of person do I want to portray by the action that they take?”

The crisis moments, you don’t have to use a sledgehammer. You don’t have to do one of those moments like at the end of the old Batman shows in the 1960s cartoon series, where they go, “What will Batman do? Will he…?” You don’t have to sledgehammer the question home to the reader. But the reader has to do be able to pick up what that crisis moment is, and they have to understand that that character is facing a choice.

Like Katniss Everdeen in all of “The Hunger Games” things. That girl is faced with choice after choice and crisis after crisis, and each choice that she makes… At the very beginning of “The Hunger Games,” they come and they say, “We’re picking two kids out of this lottery. They’re going to have to go and fight to the death in the Hunger Games. If one kid wants to substitute for another kid, we’ll allow one substitution.”

Of course, they pick Katniss Everdeen’s little sister to fight in the Hunger Games, and what does Katniss Everdeen do? She says, “I’ll go. I’ll save my sister.” That’s a crisis situation. “Am I going to let my sister go and get killed in the Hunger Games, or am I going to sacrifice myself and maybe I can survive? I’m going to volunteer.” That’s a hero.

Tim: Is that the end of the beginning hook of “The Hunger Games”?

Shawn: Yes, that is. When you’re watching that movie or reading the book, you go, “Oh my gosh. This is going to be great,” because you’re like, “Oh, wow. I wish I would have the courage to do that. I don’t know if I’d do that for my sister.”

Those are the moments where the writer did not say, “Here’s the crisis moment for my character.” She just presented the circumstances and let the character make a choice that defined that character, who they are, what they believe, what they value. That is just great storytelling.

We can get wrapped up in all this inciting incidents and progressive complications and crisis and climax, and the thing is when you’re writing a great scene and it’s humming along, I guarantee you that all the stuff we’re talking about is inherently in what you’re writing. You’re just not conscious of it. But if you go back three days later and look at that scene from an editor’s point of view, you’ll be able to pick out that moment and go, “Oh, man. I wrote a hell of crisis there, didn’t I? Wow, that was incredible. How did I do that?”

So the crisis is the question confronting the character where they must do something. They have to make a choice, and the choice is between the lesser of two evils or choosing between irreconcilable goods.

In the movie Kramer vs. Kramer, Kramer has to make a choice when his wife leaves him. “Do I take care of my son at the expense of my career, or do I stay on the career track and become a big shot in advertising? My kid will be fine. I’ll get some lady. I can hire some lady to take care of my kid. He’ll be fine. Everybody does that.”

So the goods are it could be good for Kramer –he could become a big shot – or it could be good for his son – his son could be around his dad all the time. The choice that he makes is brilliant.

Tim: A lot of times, the irreconcilable goods and the two bad choices are the heads and tails of the same situation.

Shawn: Exactly. It’s the yin and the yang. You can look at pretty much anything from the irreconcilable goods point of view or the lesser of two evils point of view. That is true. That is the duality of the universe and in choice. Are you looking at it from something being good for somebody or something being terrible?

Tim: We’ve gone over the inciting incident, complication, crisis, and climax. What is the resolution?

Shawn: The resolution is a really important part of the story structure because what it does is it gives the reader a sense of the world after the climax has been done, meaning it doesn’t have to be this huge statement or a huge scene; it basically says, “Here’s the way the world is now after everything has changed.”

Let me try to think of an example. Let’s go back to the guy in the tree. In the crisis, he is either going to jump and try to catch that rope ladder, or he is going to burn up in the tree, or he is going to go to the other side and get hit with a rock and maybe die. So he decides that the lesser of two evils is to try to grab the rope ladder, and if he misses, he is going to break his legs.

He jumps, he grabs the rope ladder, he almost gets it, but it slips out of his hands. But it’s enough to break his fall enough so that he doesn’t break both legs; he only breaks an arm. So the resolution of the crisis is that his courage enabled him to save his own life and only break his arm.

The resolution of that scene is what happens after he makes the choice. After the climactic moment when he jumps from that tree, usually what happens is that… I was talking about the old Batman shows. What the old Batman shows would do – and they did this in the 1940s during black-and-white fun Western movies – is they would stop the action right when the character makes the climactic choice.

What they would do is the guy in the tree would jump out of the tree, and they would say, “Tune in next week to see what happens with Jim jumping out of the tree.” That’s a cliffhanger that will hold the attention of the audience until the next week, hopefully.

At the beginning of the next show, what they’ll do is they’ll walk the viewer through what happened. “Then this happened, and Lassie went and chased the rabbit, and then the rabbit…” I’m mixing up Batman and Lassie.

Tim: They’re basically the same thing.

Shawn: So the resolution, they would wait until the next episode, and the resolution would be… He jumps. He grabs the ladder. It breaks his fall just enough to slow down his momentum, but he can’t hold on long enough. He falls and breaks his arm instead of his legs. The resolution is the arm break instead of the legs.

Tim: Usually, especially since this isn’t the final resolution of the book, the resolution rolls right into the next inciting incident. In this case, he makes it out, breaks his arm instead of his legs, but now all of those rock throwers see him, and they start chasing him.

Shawn: Exactly. Now we have another progressive complication. Now we’re onto a new scene. What’s he going to do now?

This is classic action storytelling. This the great action stories that we all know and love. That’s what they do. They progressively complicate until cars are going into buildings and people are jumping out of the sky. This is James Bond stuff, and it’s great. We love it.

Tim: This is where you were talking about those Russian dolls. We have those five pieces, inciting incident through the resolution, in the beginning hook, but then we have that same thing sometimes within scenes, right?

Shawn: Always. We always have them within the scenes.

Tim: So every scene has the same five pieces.

Shawn: Yes. It’s like DNA. The cells in your fingernails have all the DNA necessary to make another you. So do the cells in your hand and in your arm. It’s this primal thing that goes from the beat to the scene to the sequence to the act to the subplot to the global story. I say in the book that they’re the five commandments of storytelling. Thou must have an inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution in every unit of your story.

As you said, once that guy falls and he has a broken arm, then he looks over and those guys are going to start to chase him. That’s the inciting incident of the next scene. We’re going to go through that same progression. He can’t go back up a tree again because we already saw the tree scene.

Tim: Right. So we can’t just send him up the next tree over.

Shawn: That’s right. Because people would be like, “We already the tree scene. He has to jump in the lake now,” or “He has to jump off the cliff.”

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a great example of progressive complications. These guys rob a train, and then they start getting chased. It just progressively complicates all the way until they’re at the top of the mountain. There’s nowhere else to go. Sundance looks at Butch Cassidy and they’re like, “Well, what are we going to do?” They look down and there’s a little river. Butch says to Sundance, “All right. I guess we’re going to have to jump.” And they jump.

That was such a climactic moment. That was the end of the beginning hook of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: when those two guys jump off the cliff and Sundance is afraid of jumping off the cliff. He was the most courageous gunslinger in all of the West. He turns to Butch and goes, “I’m not going to jump,” and Butch is like, “What do you mean you’re not going to jump? These guys are going to kill us in two minutes if you don’t jump. This is our only chance. Why? Why won’t you jump?” He goes, “I can’t swim.”

Then Paul Newman cracks up, laughing his ass off. He says, “Swim? Jesus! The fall is going to kill us!” That’s when they go, “Holy shit!” and they grab hands and jump off the cliff. Boy, are we excited. That’s the end of the beginning hook, and we’re like, “Wow. We want to spend another hour-and-a-half with these two guys because they’re hilarious.”

Tim: How do you differentiate between those five pieces of the beginning hook, the middle build, and the ending payoff and the five pieces…? What I’m struggling with is the guy falls out of his tree and breaks his arm, and the people start coming after him. That’s the inciting incident of the next scene, but is that also the inciting incident of the middle build?

Shawn: Well, it depends on the length of your story. Let’s go to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for a second. It’s written by William Goldman. If anybody has not seen this movie, you have to go see it. You have to rent it. You have to Netflix it. It’s a genre buster that reinvented the Western into the modern world. It’s basically about how individualism and freedom of the Old West was destroyed by big corporations. Anyway, that’s the big theme.

The story itself is about these two guys who are really fun. One is a gunslinger, one is the brains of the operation. They’re just freewheeling guys. They go around the West and they rob banks, and when they run out of money, they rob another bank. The have the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang, a bunch of other guys who help them out. They usually just rob trains. They don’t hurt anybody. They rob the trains of Harriman Company, which is this huge corporation with tons of money.

The beginning hook of this story is that they rob this train. They get away with the money, and everything is great. Then it escalates. “Oh, man. Let’s rob another train. We’re out of money.” So they go to rob the next train, and they do, but as they’re about to take all the money, this huge posse shows up, and they start to chase them.

Half of the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang goes one way, and Butch and Sundance go the other way. They figure, “Oh, half of the posse is going to go with the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang, and the other half will chase us.”

But, no. The whole posse goes after Butch and Sundance. They don’t care about the other guys. They want to ringleaders of this gang. So now we’re following Butch and Sundance as they’re running away from this posse that’s out to get them, hired by the Harriman Company, which is this huge eastern conglomerate banking system.

The end of the beginning hook of this story is that moment I just described. They’ve gone to the top of the hill. The posse is after them. There’s no way out. The only way that they’re going to live their lives the way they want to is to jump off that cliff because if they let these guys take them, they’re either going to kill them or they’re going to throw them in jail for the rest of their lives.

So Butch and Sundance make a decision in that moment. It’s a climactic moment. The crisis is “Do we wait and be taken by the posse, or do we jump off the cliff?” They decide to jump off the cliff. That’s the end of the beginning hook of the story.

The beginning of the middle build is the two guys survive. Now, the middle build of this story also has to rise. The ending of the beginning hook is negative. They guys’ lives are completely out of balance now. They can’t go around robbing banks anymore because there’s a posse after them. Geez, they can’t even live in their own country anymore. What are they going to do? That’s the inciting incident of the middle build of the movie.

The climax of the middle build is when Butch says to Sundance, “We have to go to Bolivia,” and Sundance is like, “What? Bolivia?” “Yeah. They have lots of banks down there. I speak a little Spanish.” They convince Sundance’s girlfriend to go with, and then go to Bolivia. The whole middle build is about how these two gringos figure out the customs and traditions of Bolivia and how they can be free in Bolivia by robbing the same sort of banks. It’s a brilliant setup, and they become successful. It’s a positive thing.

Then the ending payoff of this story is, again, they’re cornered. They’re cornered in Bolivia, and they have to make a decision. “Do we give up? Put our hands up and go out and be arrested and thrown in jail? Or do we go down fighting?” Those guys go down fighting.

The final shot of the movie is them running out of this dilapidated Bolivian hut. The entire Bolivian army is out there, and they shoot them dead. The ending is a downer because it’s the death of the Old West. It’s the death of individualism.

That is a way of structuring a beginning hook, a middle build, and an ending payoff. The beginning hook is we meet Butch and Sundance and taken them to a really negative place. They have to leave their own country, so it ends negative. The middle build ends kind of positively. They go to Bolivia and they’re pretty successful after a bunch of screw-ups, but they end up making a life for themselves, and things are going to be okay.

Then the ending payoff mirrors the middle build, where they get into the exact same situation. But this time, they’re not going to overcome big government. They’re not going to overcome the big banks. They’re going to get killed.

That’s a very simple story that’s an hour and 20 minutes, a 110-page script, and it’s brilliantly executed. It has all five of those things in each one of the movements – the beginning hook, the middle build, and the ending payoff.

Tim: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. If you want to see everything Story Grid-related, you can do that at StoryGrid.com. Of course, sign up for the e-mail newsletter. As I mentioned at the beginning of this show, we just ran a survey and people got to pick which story we were running through The Story Grid. If you want to throw your voice in on that, along with everything that Shawn sends out on a regular basis, make sure you go to StoryGrid.com and sign up for the newsletter.

On behalf of myself, Tim Grahl, and Shawn Coyne, thanks for listening. We will see you next week for Episode 8.


5 comments on “A Deeper Dive into the Five Commandments of Storytelling

  1. Thank you Shawn and Steve for the Black Irish Megabundle for Writers deal! I’ve already placed my order and downloaded the books.

    Thanks also Shawn and Tim for another very helpful podcast!

    1. Doug Walsh says:

      Same here! That was an amazing offer to get in my inbox the other morning. I didn’t hesitate to place my order!

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for another great podcast and for another great holiday book deal! I’ve already ordered and have plans to gift a few people with some of the books.

  3. Peter Schmitt says:

    I just discovered and am currently going through podcast. All of these books are on my Books to Read List. Is there anyway that I can still get in on this deal?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Peter,
      We usually do some kind of crazy deal at the end of each calendar year to thank our tribe. If you can hold out that long, we’ll probably do something similar at the end of 2016. Stay tuned for other benefits over the year though. Signing up for the automatic emails will put you on our preferred list.
      All the best,

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