An Editor’s Six Core Questions

An editor handed a pile of manuscript pages must answer a whole bunch of questions before he can even begin to diagnose the effectiveness of the storytelling. While he’ll know after one read whether or not the book “works,” in order to take the book to the next level, he’ll have to figure out exactly how it is working. He has to put the whole book onto one page.

To refresh your memory, here are the six questions he must answer:

  1. What’s the genre?
  2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that genre?
  3. What’s the Point of View?
  4. What are the objects of desire?
  5. What’s the controlling idea/theme?
  6. What is the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?

The Foolscap Global Story Grid is that one page document. Once he’s read the book [just one time] if the book is well conceived he should be able to fill in the blanks of The Foolscap Global Story Grid without having any serious head scratches.

When you boil down an entire Story to one page, there is no place for a writer or an editor to bullshit himself.  It’s an indispensable tool to check your work.

But don’t forget that it is a diagnostic tool and not a recipe. You could have a brilliantly laid out Foolscap Global Story Grid before you begin writing and the Story itself could fizzle completely. Or you may have what seems to be a rather generic Foolscap Global Story Grid that results in a timeless work of art.  Execution is everything.

If you cannot execute the plan, The Foolscap Global Story Grid will not result in a great story. You could have the best architectural plans, but If you are a lousy carpenter or plumber or electrician, the house is going to have flaws. But those kinds of flaws are fixable through perseverance and hard work and dedication to craft. But an ill-conceived Foolscap Global Story Grid is fatal. The Story won’t work.

But again, The Foolscap Global Story Grid is not an end to itself. It’s not even something to show anyone else unless he is your editor or a fellow scribe in need of a helping hand. To go back to our metaphor, it’s an architectural layout for a building, not a building.

Don’t torture yourself over it unless you really have to.

What The Foolscap Global Story Grid can do for you if your story isn’t working is immeasurably helpful. It will show you where you went wrong. Where you jumped off track, got lazy, fell in love with a scene instead of making sure the scene served your story, etc. It will show you where your problems are, where there’s a leak in your plumbing, a short in your wiring etc. and thus it will take away quite a bit of that inner self loathing and destructive behavior we all face when we have a very very rough first draft. You as the writer are not the problem, the problem is the problem. The Foolscap Global Story Grid will tell you where your problems are.

It will take away a lot of emotional sturm and drang and keep you working. You’ll use it to make discernible progress. It will keep you from desperately seeking “notes” from friends or acquaintances who know nothing about Story structure. It will make you a much better storyteller and as you use it more and more, you’ll become a far better writer.

Eventually you’ll do the work of The Foolscap Global Story Grid intuitively. But you’ll always be able to fill it in at the first sign of trouble.

Now, let’s move down The Foolscap Global Story Grid from top to bottom and explain exactly what we need to fill in.

Screenshot 2014-11-25 11.48.01

The first line we need to fill out is the External Genre, which is one of the nine external content genres I detailed here along with it’s sub and/or sub-sub genre classification.  So for The Silence of the Lambs, the External Content Genre would be THRILLER, along with its subgenre classification SERIAL KILLER

External Genre:  Serial Killer Thriller

The External Value at Stake in a Thriller is a convention.  It is Life.  To remind myself of the progression of the value, I’ll move it from its positive value to its most negative:

External Value at Stake: Life to Unconsciousness to Death to Fate Worse than Death (Damnation)

One of the Internal Genres that I discussed here is also a very major component of The Silence of the Lambs. I’ll do a much more in-depth analysis of why I’ve designated it the way that I have later on when I walk you through the entire Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs.  

Internal Genre: Worldview Disillusionment

The Internal Value at Stake in a Worldview Internal Story is, what you’d expect.  The way in which the protagonist views the world.  It will arc from negative to positive or positive to negative depending upon your subgenre.  In the case of The Silence of the Lambs, it arcs from what I see as a “false positive view” to a proven negative and it does so through the prism of Clarice Starling’s professional ambition.  It moves like this:

Internal Value at Stake: Blind Belief to True Belief to Doubt to Disillusionment

Next up…I’ll lay out the obligatory scenes and conventions of the Thriller.

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.


12 comments on “An Editor’s Six Core Questions

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Great stuff Shawn, and so far this fool is able to follow along! Looking forward to the next post. Thanks so much!

  2. Joel D Canfield says:

    Even this simple sheet made my eyes glaze with fear. Thanks for the walk-through.

    I can feel my brain growing . . .

  3. I’m loving the simplicity and clarity of your method. Thanks Shawn!

  4. Faith Watson says:

    Your the best. I didn’t read SOTL, only saw the film. Hope that will still be okay. It does make me think about a nice chianti.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Faith,
      What’s great about the movie (beyond the brilliant acting) is the way Jonathan Demme basically “shot the book.” He followed Harris’s Story almost chapter by chapter/scene by scene. So I think you’ll be able to follow along with no problem.

      1. Faith Watson says:

        Oh goodie. This is invaluable! Thank you again, Shawn. I’m telling everyone I can about you & The Story Grid.

  5. Diego Schutt says:

    Great post. It made me wonder if dramas have a specific External Value at Stake. Any thoughts?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Diego,
      Yes, the definitely do. I suggest when you have time to go through the earlier posts sequentially. You’ll get a lot of the backstory about External and Internal content genres as well as the values at stake in each. Drama is part of the “Style” Genres and I’d recommend you take a look at the post and the graphic THE FIVE LEAF GENRE CLOVER for more about that.
      All the best,

      1. Diego Schutt says:

        Shawn, thank you very much for your prompt reply. I’ve been reading the previous posts in sequence. It’s very illuminating to see how you build, step by step, a blueprint of a well-crafted story. Thanks for helping me see the big picture. I can’t wait to read your book.

        Keep it coming. 🙂


  6. Sheryl Lord says:

    This is very helpful and is helping me expand my story. I am confused about some of the terms like convention and value at stake. Can you explain ?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Sheryl,
      I’d suggest you read all of the posts in their order and then see if your questions are answered. A convention is something that is a standard element in a story, like the body in a murder mystery. A value is a global idea like Justice or Love or Life, which has various stages of positive or negative. So Justice would be the most positive, unfairness would be its negative to a smallish degree, injustice to a more negative degree and tyranny to its highest negative degree.
      All the best

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