When we were shooting these videos, I kept using the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup as an analogy to explain how a combination of The Foolscap Global Story Grid and The Story Grid Spreadsheet comes together to create something unique. Jeff and Steve liked it at first, but after a while they tired of hearing me blather the inanity over and over again until even I could tell I’d beaten the poor idea to death.
I remember stopping, looking at an exasperated Jeff (who is a remarkable director with a genius for seeming as if he’s just hanging out all the while he’s manipulating you into performing way beyond your natural ability) and then Steve and saying…
“What do you guys think about cutting the peanut butter cup thing?”
They both acted as if I’d come up with the edit myself and even took a pregnant pause to make it look like they had to think about it before both of them saying over-top one another….”Uh, yeah…I think that’s probably best.”
So here’s how you combine the Macro and the Micro to create what I think is really remarkable…a visual representation of an entire novel.
Part 5 of 5: The Story Grid
Shawn Coyne: Okay so now we’ve come to the moment of truth. We have our Foolscap Global Story Grid and we have our Story Grid Spreadsheet, now how are we going to put these two things together to create our final Story Grid? This is actually the fun part.
So the first thing you’re going to do is get a really nice piece of graph paper. And right in the middle of the graph paper you want to draw a line from left to right. And from that line you want to put from 1 to 64 (or however many scenes that you have). Because we’re talking about The Silence of the Lambs, we’ll go from 1 to 64. So each bar on that graph will represent a scene. Now the upper part of the graph, above the line, connotes positive and below that is negative. So the thing to remember about putting these two things together, the Foolscap page and your Spreadsheet is that your Foolscap page is going to tell you the major shifts in your story. It’s going to tell you about your beginning hook, your middle build, and your ending payoff. It’s going to tell you exactly in what place in your story, which scene these major shifts are happening.
So to begin with, we’re going to talk about the global story value of a serial killer thriller. And the global value is life and death. Remember when we did the spreadsheet, each scene had its own value at stake? Well now we’re going to put those scene values aside and we’re going to talk about the global values. So the global values in the story grid are represented by a red line for the life value. There’s life and there’s death. And then in between death and life is something called unconsciousness. That’s when you’re in a coma or you’re out of it. And lastly there’s the fate worse than death, which is damnation. Damnation is when it’d be a mercy to die because you’re overwhelmed with guilt or something terrible has happened. So to track the global value what you want to do is start and go scene by scene through your story and plot it. Literally plot it on the graph itself. So in scene 1 of The Silence of the Lambs, the life value is going to be high. So you’re going to make a red dot right there that corresponds with the highest value of life in scene 1. And then each and every scene that follows after that you’re going to make the same points on that graph based upon your belief of what’s happening in the story. It doesn’t have to be perfect. What’s important is that you, the artist, are able to subjectively figure out whether things are closer to death now or closer to life.
Now in the case of The Silence of the Lambs, let’s just take a step back and think about the foolscap page for a second. Remember how I said the foolscap page will map out your global changes from opening hook to middle build to ending payoff? Well here’s where we’re going to put them to use. So when you go through the foolscap page, you’ll discover that the major point of shift after the beginning hook occurs in about scene 12 of The Silence of the Lambs and this is when Starling gets the job to go with Jack Crawford to West Virginia. A body has been found. Buffalo Bill has been known to kill again. So at that point, Starling has always been sort of the gopher for Jack Crawford, the errand runner. And now because she’s done such a nice job at the beginning of the story, he’s actually taken her out of the FBI program for trainees and taken her with him to fingerprint this body. That’s a crucial shift. If you think about it, that’s a pretty major thing for the head of the FBI to do. He’s going to take some recruit and take her on a plane and have her do a very, very important fingerprinting job? That’s a major shift. So that’s a great shift. That’s a moment where the story moves away from the niceties of the beginning—finding of clues and things of that sort—to oh my gosh, Buffalo Bill is active again, what are we going to do? So that’s the end of the beginning hook of The Silence of the Lambs. It’s around scene 12, chapter 12.
So at chapter 12, what I would usually do is start at chapter 1 and mark my life value. And then I’d go to chapter 12 and know that’s going to be a major turning point in the book so I’ll make a little X on my x-axis at chapter 12.
Back to the foolscap page. We also know that the end of the middle build is when Jack Crawford’s wife dies. And we know that because, that’s a very, very important moment where Thomas Harris is basically taken a woman who’s been unconscious throughout the entire novel and now just before the ending payoff, she dies. This woman who’s been sort of floating around in the ether throughout the entire novel as sort of a symbolic metaphor for everybody in the story, has now died. So we know that is when Bella, Jack Crawford’s wife, dies. I make a little X there, too. So the reason that I made these two Xs is that these are going to be the two crucial places where our two lines are going to cross.
Now we’re going to do the exact same thing for the internal value at stake. The blue line represents the internal content genre that Thomas Harris chose for his protagonist in The Silence of the Lambs. The protagonist is Clarice Starling of course. This is a wonderful character who makes a wonderful worldview shift from the very beginning of the story to the very end. And the way we can track that shift is by looking at the way Clarice Starling views the world as it happens to her throughout the story. So, as I said, it’s a worldview shift and it’s a disillusionment plot which means that at the beginning of the story, she believes the world to be a certain way. And at the end, she discovers that is not true.
At the very beginning of the story, she has a blind belief in the institution of the FBI. She believes—like we all do on certain things when we’re starting out—she believes that if she does the proper amount of work, if she works really hard and is thoughtful, she will slowly rise up the ladder of the FBI based upon merit. She believes in the meritocracy of the FBI. So that’s a blind belief in a social institution at the very beginning of the story. So because it’s a blind belief, I believe it’s negative. She has no proof at the very beginning of the story. In fact her personal history when you go back would suggest that institutions aren’t really that terrific.
Now when she gets to scene 12—when she gets the job to go on the plane to West Virginia to fingerprint the body—now she’s moving into the positive of the worldview, justified belief. The FBI has actually rewarded her for a job well done. So she gets to go on the plane with Crawford and as she’s going—they go to West Virginia—there’s a moment that’s very beautiful and really smart by Thomas Harris. You’ll see on the Story Grid itself, there’s a little dip. I think it’s around chapter/scene 14 or so. And that dip represents this. When Starling is with Crawford, they’re with a group of men. She’s the only woman around, she’s the only cop around that isn’t one of the good old boys, and Crawford turns to the Sheriff and he says, “Can I speak to you privately, you know, there’s a woman around?” Completely disrespecting her. And he goes in and they have their chitchat.
Two scenes later they’re back in Washington and Starling is really upset because she’s been completely disrespected. The FBI, maybe it’s a good old boys club. Maybe women aren’t really respected in this institution. There’s a moment of doubt. And you’ll see in that chapter, in that scene, it dips. And you’ll see the blue line dip. And that dip represents that moment of doubt. And she wisely confronts Crawford and says to him, “You know what you did back there, you know it’s not really cool.” And you know what he does? He apologizes. He apologizes. So it’s a wonderful setup for a later massive disappointment. But in that moment Crawford actually increases her belief in the system because he admitted he had made a mistake. And he was disrespecting her even though it was for a good cause.
Okay let’s move forward.
Starling interviews Lecter a couple more times. This is the moment where she feels, “I’m going to go the full nine yards on this relationship. I’m going to let this guy have some of my childhood memories. Because if I do, I’m definitely going to become an FBI agent.” So she makes a deal with Lecter. And it’s this quid pro quo deal. And he says to her, “I’ll help you out, Clarice. All you have to do is open up your psyche to me. Let me in that brain of yours.” And she does it. Because she believes in the FBI. She believes that if she does this, she is going to become a big time agent. Guess what happens. Shortly thereafter, they take Lecter away. She’s not allowed to talk to him anymore. And now she’s got the serial killer psychologist swimming around in her brain for the rest of her life.
Now that is the moment of doubt. Holy cow, what have I just done? And that’s when you see that blue line start to move downward. And it moves farther and farther down, and she reaches the point where she says, “I can either stay in this FBI program and become an agent for an institution I have no faith in anymore, that has used me, or I can go and try and help somebody who is going to get slaughtered. But if I do that, I have to do it by myself.” And it’s exactly at that moment when Bella dies. That’s not a coincidence. Not a coincidence at all. It’s literally the death of her naiveté and the literal death of a character.
Then from that moment forward, she’s reached the level of disillusionment. She’s underneath the x-axis and she will never be the same.
So a lot of people would ask me in terms of The Story Grid itself, especially with The Silence of the Lambs, “Oh that’s kind of interesting that those things cross at that moment, wow, what a coincidence.” The reality is, it’s not a coincidence.
Steven Pressfield: The thing that blew my mind when Shawn first showed me the sine cosine graph of The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs was the way the two lines crisscrossed. The two arcs of the value of life and death and the value of disillusionment. And I realized that I had sort of been doing that myself in my books, but it was totally by instinct and I never realized that this is something that you really had to understand and really be able to have a device like The Story Grid so that you made sure those lines did cross and weren’t kind of doing this kind of thing. So that’s one of the great values of The Story Grid is it gives you this graphic thing that you can look at and you’re not operating entirely on instinct. You’re seeing how the pieces actually mesh together.
Shawn Coyne: It’s crucial to create the kind of masterpiece that Thomas Harris did, whether he knew, “Oh I’m going to do this in scene 12” or not, he created the moments where both of them intersected at the exact same moment. And that creates a level of catharsis in the reader like, “Oh boy!” It’s like you take a breath at the end of the beginning hook because you’re like, “Ooh, now the fun’s really going to begin.” Now she’s on the plane and they’re going and Buffalo Bill’s killed somebody and things are going great for her. All of that comes together in a very specific moment. That is not a coincidence. And in fact, the editor’s job, and the reason why you do the Foolscap page—I’m speaking as an editor now, and if you’re a writer you need to be an editor, too. The reason why you do the Foolscap page and the reason why you do the Spreadsheet, and the reason why you plot all this stuff, is that then you can see what’s really going on in emotional terms in your story.
So the beauty of The Story Grid and the whole beauty of the editorial process is to break down the components of story in a way that can inspire us. To make us do the work that we know we can do by showing us the work of the masters. Now, did Thomas Harris graph all this stuff and do spreadsheets, probably not. I would guess the last thing he did was this. But he did really, internally, he did all of this work himself. Whether or not it was the schemata that I do is really not the point. The point is that here’s a guy who wrote a masterpiece and I think he would want other people to be able to look at his work and see, “Oh wow, I see how he did that. Wow, that’s really masterful.” It’s like when somebody makes a beautiful cabinet, and you don’t know what kind of dovetailing they did on the drawers until you actually open up the drawer and you look. “Wow, that guy really did a great job on that dovetailing.” And it’s the same thing in storytelling. The more we can learn from the masters, the better our own work will be.