The Internal Genre of The Tipping Point

Soon after I committed myself to storygrid Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, I had heart palpitations. I had a handle on the global external Genre (The Big Idea Nonfiction Book) and a sense of the conventions and obligatory scenes inherent in it, but I didn’t have any idea of what the overarching “Story” of the book was.

Was there even an overarching Story in there?  Or was it just a really well argued extra long thesis paper that moved between ethos scenes, logos scenes and pathos scenes?

I came up with all sorts of ideas that lead nowhere until I just decided to calm down, take my time and re-read the thing. Not as an Ivory Tower editor looking to sort through the words and sentences and paragraphs and line breaks to uncover their structural design, but just as a regular Joe wanting to be entertained by a good yarn.

Still nothing came to mind about how to begin storygridding this puppy after yet another fly through the book.

Yes, the book held me spellbound as it has numerous times before. And yet again I got sucked into the multitude of stories Gladwell weaves in there like a summer camp counselor around the fire pit, but I was nowhere closer to getting a flat edge into the interior Story.

Desperate, I then did something that I never do.

I delved into the publisher created “Reading Group Guide” at the end of the paperback edition.

I’ve been in the book business so long that I witnessed firsthand how the whole “Reading Group Guide” thing evolved. Years ago, no one would have dreamed of printing a bunch of author answers to softball questions posed by the publisher’s marketing department at the back of an actual book.

Who would care?

But in the early 1990s what publishers discovered was that there were actually people who got together monthly to discuss a book that they’d all read. They were usually groups of women. And wouldn’t you know it, if you took a survey of the books these groups were reading, they were either the latest bestseller from a popular author or an unknown author whose book would soon become a word of mouth sensation.

In order to better serve these groups and perhaps induce them to choose one of their titles, publishers began creating guides that gave these groups fodder for discussion. The guides were usually Q&As with the author…ideally questions that readers in the group would actually want asked themselves.

Today, it’s hard not to find a reading group guide at the back of a paperback novel or popular work of nonfiction.

But being the grizzled vet that I am, I’ve skipped reading these guides myself…thinking I would learn nothing from whatever it is the author had to say to obvious questions.

So it is not without irony that one of the first questions asked of Malcolm Gladwell in the Reading Group Guide to The Tipping Point is:

How would you classify The Tipping Point?

All of those who’ve read and followed the tonnage of verbiage I’ve written here have probably just slapped their foreheads with the meat of their favored palms.

I certainly did when I read that question. Because it’s another way of asking the very first question an editor/author must answer when then begin their editorial work. You can read about the editor’s six core questions here.

The first question an editor/author must answer is:

“What’s the Genre?”

Here is how Gladwell answers the question:

 I like to think of it as an intellectual adventure story.

Now, I can guarantee you that Malcolm Gladwell did not use The Story Grid to help him write or edit The Tipping Point. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that he understood exactly what he was trying to accomplish with the book. And while he certainly understood that he was writing in the arena of Big Idea Nonfiction Books like The Medium is the Message or Future Shock, Gladwell chose to write a Story too.

He wanted it to have the feel, the sensibility, and most importantly the narrative velocity of an action/adventure Story. But instead of the lead character of his book pursuing a bad guy or a prize or a stolen nuclear warhead, Gladwell wanted his lead character to pursue an idea. Not just pursue it, but attack it with all of the vim and vigor of Bruce Willis in Die Hard.

And if you’ve read The Tipping Point, you’ll agree that he achieved that goal.

Okay, so now I’m feeling a bit better. I now know the External Genre: Big Idea Nonfiction and I know the Internal Genre of The Tipping Point: Adventure Revelation, because I got it directly from the mouth of the author. That’s great.

But isn’t “Adventure” a sub-genre of fiction’s Action Genre? You know my whole Genre Five Leaf Clover thing? Which begs the question:

Can you apply the same Story structure principles of fiction that I laid out in The Story Grid, to nonfiction too?

I’m not sure is my answer.

Now you can see why I was terrified of storygridding The Tipping Point.

But here’s a thing I’m positive about. I believe that we all intuitively understand Story Structure. It’s in our DNA. And the other thing I’m positive about is that an editor has to listen to the artist/writer…especially when he clearly answers a critical editorial question.

There is a reason why Malcolm Gladwell classifies The Tipping Point as an adventure story.

To write like he can requires thousands and thousands of hours of reading behind it. I suspect Gladwell is a real reading nerd. I’ll bet he read Treasure Island a million times as a kid. I’ll bet he reads anywhere and anytime he can. [A friend of mine went to a party one night and found Gladwell perched on a stool in the corner of the coat closet reading a book while everyone else was getting loaded…my kind of guy.]

So when Malcolm Gladwell says he wrote an adventure story…I’m going to listen to him and approach the book from that editorial vantage point.

And I’m going to apply what I know about adventure stories to his work…even if it is nonfiction.

More to come.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of the Storygridding The Tipping Point posts and The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.

22 comments on “The Internal Genre of The Tipping Point

  1. Absolutely brilliant, Shawn! (I hope your heart rate has returned to normal.)

    I’ve been thinking a lot about what the Internal Genre might be since you wrote about it on Tuesday. Revelation was my best guess but I wasn’t feeling confident because I wasn’t sure if the same Content categories would apply to Non-Fiction. While I’m happy to know my guess was a decent one, I’m thrilled to discover the whole idea of Adventure Revelation. How cool is that?

    And now my head is swimming with swarms of possibilities for Narrative Non-Fiction: Epic Disillusionment, Clock Maturation, Duel Surrender, Adventure Admiration. It’ll be fun thinking about these and learning about the Action side of story.

    One final comment – “A friend of mine went to a party one night and found Gladwell perched on a stool in the corner of the coat closet reading a book while everyone else was getting loaded…my kind of guy.”

    Thanks for that! I’m in great company here! (I was the kid in grade 8 who spent every recess outside sitting on the pavement in the schoolyard reading things like Gone With the Wind while all the other kids were hanging out and playing.)

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Debbie,
      What a beautiful image you gave us! Is there anything more heart warming than an older girl sitting on blacktop with a book…? Reading Gone with the Wind? Holy Cow! So sweet. From one story nerd to another, thanks for being here every single post!

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    I love the “intellectual adventure” classification! Nothing beats being able to go to the source. I’ll have to start paying attention to those reader group questions – I’ve come across them but have ignored them thus far.

    BTW, I’m with Debbie – I hope the palpitations have abated – as always, thanks!

  3. PJ Reece says:

    As an author of adventure stories, when I set out to write a non-fiction book, it morphed quickly into another adventure. My ‘big idea’ lay a thousand miles up the Congo River, and damn it we had to fight our way there to discover it. I’m finding this discussion of non-fiction more compelling than fiction. And I can see that you, Shawn, are heading up this river as naively as the best fictional protagonist. Good for you!

  4. Patrick Brown says:

    Shawn, thanks again for sharing your expertise. I’ve been working on an academic talk this week for an audience of well-informed parents and using your last few posts as motivation to avoid an “information dump” and involve as much story as possible.

  5. Scrivener says:

    I’m not bragging but the best, most enduring memory of doing my PhD, was one of the examiners saying it read like a detective story. It won the McKenzie prize for Doctoral Level Research and when I contacted the three examiners and my Doctoral Supervisor each of them said it had narrative velocity. I think that comment is the sort of thing any writer truly values because in the dark times it has been the one vivid conviction that sticks and tells me I have the ‘chops’ for this game. Now, in moments of doubt, I do a solid bit of reassuring self-talk and glue my bum to the seat and magic happens. Thick stuff doesn’t have to be turgid and you don’t need to have written dense research to know that. I think the ‘story bones’ I got from my mother reading me nursery rhymes when I was three and four and five resonated in my work with the story bones of the examiners who’s mothers read them nursery rhymes at three and four and five. Story is in our bones.

    1. Tina Goodman says:

      Congratulations on achieving your PhD.!

  6. Tina Goodman says:

    An adventure story? That is innovative.

  7. Gary Dennis says:


    I’m going to play Devil’s advocate here. If Malcolm Gladwell had come to you before publishing The Tipping Point and said “Steve Pressfield tells me that you are a great editor,” and handed you the manuscript and asked you to tell him what it is about / Genre … what would you have answered? I’m mystified that someone of your experience has to go to the back of a book to a question and answer page with the author to find out what it is about. If you had gotten the answer right, then everything you assumed thereafter and plotted with your story grid would also have been right, But if you had made the wrong assumption … then the advice given to said writer would have been entirely wrong!
    I look forward to your answer!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Dear Gary,
      Well, hmmm.
      Let’s just say that my approach to teaching is about co-discovery (just as Gladwell’s is) and if I were to speak/write as if I had all of the answers (which I don’t by the way) then there’s very little fun in that. If I’m all Blah Blah Blah I know everything and here’s what I deem to be true, then it’s not very interesting. For you of course, but especially for me too.
      I remember sitting in lectures in College when the Professor spoke as if he were God and I’d fall right to sleep. But then there were the men and women who involved me in their lectures…who poked and prodded me to think for myself and made me consider the path they were on and what they were going through trying to figure stuff out…and those are the teachers I will never forget.
      Did I think Gladwell was writing an Action/Adventure from the get go? No. Honestly, I didn’t. I thought it was just a standard revelation plot in the vein of “I was blind and now I see.”
      But I confess that after I read his comment, it made perfect sense. The Tipping Point has Life/Death as its controlling value. I’ll get into that later on when I can actually argue it well. But I’m sure that it does.
      Would I have figured it out without his answer to that cheesy question at the back of the book? I like to think so. In fact…I guarantee you I would have. It’s obvious once you look at it through the prism of Action/Adventure/Environment. But just telling you what I discovered instead of the path I went through discovering it is a far less interesting way to teach than to walk you through the way I learned by myself. This stuff ain’t easy. There are a lot of ways to get to the truth. I’m just trying to show you the path I’m taking instead of just of where I arrived.
      All the best,

      1. Scrivener says:

        I reckon any editor – and that means Shawn – would indeed have asked that question of Malcolm Gladwell. How would it possible to proceed without asking the question. Maybe I particularly opaque but credit where it is due, I think you (Shawn) actually said that in pretty plain English –
        “So it is not without irony that one of the first questions asked of Malcolm Gladwell in the Reading Group Guide to The Tipping Point is:
        How would you classify The Tipping Point?
        … it’s another way of asking the very first question an editor/author must answer when then begin their editorial work.
        The first question an editor/author must answer is:
        “What’s the Genre?””
        Seems pretty clear to me.

        1. Scrivener says:

          Damn! Got to get a big monitor so I can see what I’m saying.

  8. Gary Dennis says:

    Not too sure of the time zones (I’m in New Zealand) but thanks for the speedy reply and explanation. I guess I found the drama that led to you discovering the Genre a bit disconcerting. I’m of the ilk that great editing is like great leadership and vital to arriving at a great ending. If the editor vacillates or shows uncertainty, then where do we all end up? In saying this, your answer is a reflection of the fallibility that we all face as writers. I appreciate your honesty and look forward to learning more from your new book and relevant charts. Keep up the great work. I have just finished my new book (170,000 words) so know how hard you have worked to pull this all together!!
    All the best

    1. I just retired from a 28 year career as a teacher/principal/board office/ministry of education “expert” and I can’t help but chime in here because we are now talking about the teaching/learning process.

      In my humble opinion, Shawn’s teaching style is leading edge brilliant. Here’s why:

      1. He uses a co-inquiry/co-discovery model which is hands down the best way for anyone (especially kids) to learn.

      2 He gets the importance of metacognition (thinking about his thinking) – he takes us inside his head and shows us his thinking process. (Schools spend very little time doing this and that’s why we have kids/adults who can regurgitate other peoples’ thinking but can’t think very well for themselves.)

      3. He shows us his vulnerable side which opens us up emotionally. When we have an emotional reaction to something, we remember it. (I suspect Gladwell would say emotional reactions are sticky.)

      4. He does all of the above through story which totally engages us and taps into our emotions even further. (More sticky.)

      The really cool thing is I suspect Shawn does all of this intuitively. Not only is he a brilliant writer/editor, but he was born to teach!

      1. Joel D Canfield says:

        Yes, Shawn is a brilliant teacher, in part because he’s a thinker. (I come here for the metacognition, not the answers to the quiz.)

  9. Petrina says:

    Just wanted to say thank you Shawn for all the effort you put in to bring The Story Grid to us every week and let you know how good it is to see the fruit of your labour of love. I have just downloaded the ebook (living in Tasmania it’s the most cost effective way) and it looks great. Looking forward to working through it with The Silence of the Lambs at my side. All the very best, Petrina

  10. John LIttrell says:

    I am eagerly awaiting the FedEx truck delivering my copy of “The Story Grid” tomorrow. Will the storygridding of “The Tipping Point” eventually be in either a PDF or book format?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi John,
      Right now, I’m feeling pretty good about The Tipping Point narrative. So I’m thinking I’ll put it together down the road as a much cheaper book/eBook than the mongo textbook just released. It will be for those who know the drill of storygridding so it won’t have all of the backup gobbledygook that I had to put in the big book. It will probably come in at about 225 pages or so with the foolscap page, story grid spreadsheet, and story grid included.
      Thanks for asking!

  11. Jeff says:

    Loved this.

  12. Carol says:

    I feel like a kid in a candy store coming across your writing. I am what Steven Pressfield calls an “awakening writer” and I’m pleased to say I have no idea, not the slightest nano particle, of what I am doing. Do I believe I have a story to tell? absolutely, do I know how to tell it? no way.
    But your site, and some others, are an absolute goldmine for people like me. I am not only an awakening writer I am also an awakening reader. I have read all my life, anything and everything, no discernment whatsoever, thank whatever god may be listening. As a child I was hungry for books, we were poor, we had no extra funds for books, but any opportunity I got, I had my nose stuck in a begged/stolen(sorry school)/ or borrowed book. So thank you, thank you, thank you, for the free resource of your experience and writing in the real world. For people like me who want to write it’s like someone handed us a pair of knitting needles and told us to knit with words, with no pattern, and then you come along and give us the resource, the pattern, and we say “ah, that’s what it’s supposed to look like. Thank you. The nano particles are starting to come together.

  13. George in Quito says:

    So that’s what those reader group thingies are for!

Leave a Comment