Flash Forward: The Story Grid in Action

Just for fun, here is what The Story Grid info-graphic looks like for Thomas Harris’s novel The Silence of the Lambs.


The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs

The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs

Don’t panic. It’s not nearly as complicated as it looks.

Like a human being, who has a nervous system, a skeletal system, a respiratory system and seven other major systems, a Story has global systems too. It is from these systems that extremely specific features develop.The Story Grid, at it’s most fundamental, concerns just six systemic questions that you will ask yourself over and over again.

My client and business partner, Steven Pressfield, has an organizational technique he uses before he starts any novel or narrative non-fiction project. He calls it The Foolscap Method because the whole thing fits on a single sheet of yellow legal sized foolscap paper. He’s written epic war novels, Gates of Fire, Tides of War etc., narrative nonfiction, The Lion’s Gate, a golf novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, self-help nonfiction, The War of Art…fourteen bestselling books in total using this very simple method.

Before he used The Foolscap Method he’d written quite a number of books too.  Guess how many of those were published?


I’ve edited most of Steve’s books and we’ve been a great team for so long (just about twenty years) because we speak the same language.

It’s no coincidence that The Foolscap Method is The Story Grid in miniature. It’s a crucial one-page document that gives a writer the 30,000-foot view of his work. This one-pager coupled with The Story Grid Spreadsheet (a document that represents the microscopic view of his work) gives the writer the coordinates to map all of the movements of a novel/narrative nonfiction/screenplay/play/and certain big idea and prescriptive nonfiction projects to boot.

From such an infographic, we can see the artist’s work behind the work…all of the little decisions he or she made that resulted in the sum being exponentially larger than its parts. The infographic is a craftsman’s Nirvana.

As editing tools, these three documents (The Foolscap Global Story Grid, The Story Grid Spreadsheet, and The Story Grid) are indispensable. As inspirational “what if I did this?” guides to look at your work from the outside in, they can even help you create your first draft.Tweaking Steve’s Foolscap Method (there’s a desperation story about how he learned it from one of his mentors on the way) is the first stop on the path to creating the big matrix.

In my adaptation of Steve’s method, The Foolscap Global Story Grid, we ask ourselves of the story we’re about to write or have already written just a half a dozen questions.

Over and over again:

  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 protagonist’s objects of desire?
  5. What’s the controlling idea/theme?
  6. What are the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?

Do you think of your story in these terms?

Do you ask yourself these questions?

This is how an editor works to make a story work. This is how they identify problems and how they discover how to fix them.

Next week, we’ll start with The Story Grid’s Question #1—What’s the genre?

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.

56 comments on “Flash Forward: The Story Grid in Action

  1. I love love love charts and graphs, yet I’ve neglected to foolscap my last two mysteries. It’s a bear going back and redoing things because the structure wasn’t there; as much work as starting from scratch, I’d guess.

    So am I correct in guessing that the point of the book will be to show us, at a deep level of understanding, how to create this image for our own books?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Yes! You’ll actually see where the train went off the rails and what things you’ve forgotten to put in your book that absolutely have to be there. Using the classic novels as guides to show you how a particular writer solved a particular problem will inevitably inspire your own innovation. My goal is to eventually have a whole library of these grids and analyses of the works behind them so that writers can not just critique their own work but see how the masters solved the same problems they face.

  2. Jeff says:

    This looks awesome, Shawn. My only fear is question #5. My limited experience is that the answer to that rarely comes at the planning stage. Not for me at least. Or for a lot of writers I’ve talkd to. We never seem to REALLY know what the thing is about until we’re at least a 1/3rd of the way into it, if not half-way or all-the-way done a shitty first draft.

    Is that par for the course, or is there a way to get the answer to that earlier?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      As usual you nailed the hardest part. The controlling idea/theme is the bugaboo of a lot of writers.

      If you are going to use The Story Grid as a way to plan the work before you begin to write (and you absolutely can), then I would write down a genre specific controlling idea/theme at the outset. Something that’s not all that earth shattering, but perfectly viable. For example, John Grisham’s novel, THE FIRM has a controlling idea/theme that is very straightforward…justice prevails when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals. There is no deep message in the book other than that. And guess what? That’s absolutely fine. It’s a terrific thriller. Grisham didn’t try to be Thomas Mann. He wrote a great thriller. The trick is to find out what makes you excited. What genre, what ideas are cool to you…

      Thomas Harris probably started out with the thought that his controlling idea/theme would be in a similar terrain…something straightforward. By the end of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS though his controlling idea/them had grown much deeper. I get into what I think his controlling ideas/themes are in my book. He’s got a lot of stuff swirling around in there and I bet they all evolved from his craft more than his “intellect.” What I mean that he didn’t set out to write a book that has the theme “God is dead because we evil is so much more interesting…” but it’s hard not to get part of that as a takeaway after finishing TSOTL.

      Here’s the thing though, if you’ve got a full first draft in hand and you’re using The Story Grid to do a comprehensive edit and you cannot even reasonably write down a genre specific controlling idea, you’re in trouble. I promise that I’ll get into this far more deeply in the days, weeks, months and years to come.
      All the best,

      1. Crys Williams says:

        Thanks for the detailed explanation of #5! My heart just about stopped when I read it. I see “theme” and assume something’s required with the depth of the Mariana Trench.

        So are you saying the theme serves us like glue + a pole star? A simple, or at least straight-forward, concept to keep the story on track, guide us when we’re stranded, and maybe also hold the story together?

        Like, would an adage like “blood is thicker than water” be a sufficient theme to satisfy #5? I mean, The Monkey’s Paw might have “be careful what you wish” for a theme…but am I oversimplifying?

        p.s. That Grisham example was helpful because a lot of his early books share that theme! And yet manage to be very different stories…

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          I’ll do a post on how to craft your controlling idea/theme down the road. There’s a very practical way of defining it for yourself and for your work to keep you focused. And yes, the controlling idea/theme does serve as your guiding light once you’ve got it honed and on your foolscap page…

          Here’s the thing about the “non-deep” controlling ideas/themes. We listen to and tell stories because they give us Models of behavior. So even those stories that have a theme that seems cliche (justice prevails when x, y, z) they’re very important to us. We need to be reminded that justice is an extremely important human value…one worth sacrificing and sometimes dying for. Thrillers and crime stories give us those reminders while they also entertain us. That’s important stuff, even though it may seem unoriginal. The theme that is. The execution has to be innovative and original to hold our attention.
          All the best,

          1. Crys W Williams says:

            Ah! Looking forward to that post on theme composition, thank you. And thanks for the extra insight on “non-deep” themes, too…that I can build something new on a classic foundation is a comfort.

            I hope I didn’t seem critical of Grisham’s work…I’ve read all of his early books with that same theme/form and enjoyed almost every one. The only one that disappointed was when the lawyer won the case but lost the girl. Now, thanks to you, I think I understand *why* it was such a let down: that departure from his form left me without a secondary payoff. I really am enjoying what you’re teaching us. Works/Doesn’t Work is a treat…I’m even tweezing apart Supernatural these days 🙂

      2. Jeff says:

        Hey, Shawn, been thinking about this and I came across this video and thought you’d like it, regarding Question #5. It also seems very resonant of A Practical Handbook for the Actor. If you don’t have time to watch the whole video, Just skip to 4:50 mark on the video. Great stuff, especially if you’re a fan of The Princess Bride. Hope you like it.

          1. Shawn Coyne says:

            Yes. That’s it. Beautiful stuff! So glad you shared this here.
            The actor lives in moments (beats) while the writer crafts the scenes, the sequences, the acts, the subplots and the global story with discernible actions (the one word, the one sentence that tells the actor what to “do”) that gives the clues to the actor on how to live in those beats. Patinkin is describing the work at the micro level (finding the one word actions from the clues in the text), while Rob Reiner is describing it at the macro level (putting all of the pieces together to create the big picture).
            When you combine the micro and the macro and they both complement and reinforce one another, you get great art. The Story Grid is created by mapping out the macro and the micro of a global story and then “plotting” the active movements on a graph. So it’s a way of “seeing” the world like Patinkin does and the world the way Rob Reiner does too. All in one big visual smorgasburg.
            Excellent video!

          2. Joel D Canfield says:

            I could watch that man napping on the couch and be moved by it.

            Inigo Montoya was my introduction to Mandy’s work; I’d never seen anything else he’d done (there IS an upside to being a hermit.) So everything he says and does is filtered through Inigo Montoya in my mind.

            Rob Reiner is so successful because he understands story, and because he aligns himself with people who know how to tell stories, even when they’re doing it physically the way actors do.

        1. Joel D Canfield says:

          Princess Bride would be my candidate for a story grid poster. If Shawn doesn’t have one made I’ll do it myself. Once I know how.

          (“IF they’re a fan?” I guess, since I once met a woman who didn’t like chocolate, all things are possible; still . . . )

  3. Doug says:

    Great Post, & I am learning quite a bit from your story grid.
    Many thanks!

  4. Mathias Knight says:

    This looks fantastic. So many story theory books are packed with information that’s true *about* effective stories, but they leave you surprisingly clueless as to how to practically thoroughly infuse one’s own work with those qualities. This seems much more applicable somehow. Thanks Shawn.

  5. Doug Hibbard says:

    This is the bridge I am trying to learn my way across in making the jump from writing very short–blog/magazine articles–to writing longer.

    And it shows just why it’s been so hard to make a story that makes sense, without thinking clearly through it.

  6. Thanks for this, Shawn. I’m really excited about the Story Grid. (And I’ve learned a ton from your essays.) Question: I’ve written and published a few children’s picture books. Does the Story Grid apply there as well?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Jeff,
      I’m not an expert in children’s stuff. My gut is that the form is the same, but the necessities for specificity are not as stringent. That is, as children are themselves in the process of formation (left and right brain take some time to meet and work together), the stories do not require the complexity that adult stories require. They require complications of course (when things are supposed to go one way, and they go another), but there does not have to be the earth shattering ending payoff that adults require.
      Anyway, again, I’m not expert, but I a beginning hook, a middle build, and an ending payoff is certainly a must have!
      All the best

    2. Children’s picture books are more like short stories. (Maurice Sendak, Mo Willems.)

      And sometimes like poetry. (Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss.)

      Different rule set than a novel.

      1. Thanks for your thought, Shawn and Joel. Much appreciated!

        1. Jeff says:

          Hey, Jeff,

          Since it’s a picture book, you might want to concentrate on the interplay of picture and words, and therefore check out some of the better books written about comic books, specifically Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Making Comics. You won’t be dissapointed with what you learn.

          – Jeff

  7. Faith Watson says:

    Number 2. Uh ohh. I dunno! I have soooo much work to do. Plus I kinda sorta made up number 1 so already I’m in trouble. 🙂

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hang in there Faith. There will be so much information on genre that you’ll be teaching it yourself soon…

    2. Jeremy says:

      Shawn, I’m with Faith — are you going to dig into genre conventions and obligatory scenes? I’m writing an historical adventure right now and have come across some conventions, but would love to learn about them from the team behind Gates of Fire, Tides of War etc.

      1. Shawn Coyne says:

        Hi Jeremy,
        I’m going to review all genres and touch on a lot of conventions and obligatory scenes on the site in the coming weeks. It’s a lot of material and it’s important that I take it one step at a time. Then I can get into more specifics after the global concepts for my system of Genre Classification is firmly in your head. You may even describe your novel’s genres in a completely different way…

        Once you get where I’m coming from, it will give you the tools necessary to decipher the specifics for your particular arena all by yourself. As The Story Grid uses SOTL as my deep dive work of art, I will be covering in depth the conventions and obligatory scenes of the thriller (which is a hybrid combination of Horror and Crime by the way). Perhaps I should do GATES OF FIRE’s Story Grid down the road?

        A bit of good news is that I finished draft ten today and it’s heading out to Steve for his second round of notes early next week. I’m a couple of weeks ahead of schedule so the book is moving a bit faster on its eventual path to the printer. There is a lot of art in the book so I’m commissioning it now.
        All the best

        1. Jeremy says:

          Man, if there is ANYTHING I can do to help this book along, let me know.

          And as for this:
          “Perhaps I should do GATES OF FIRE’s Story Grid down the road?”
          …Christmas is coming early.

        2. Faith Watson says:

          Hooray! I’m with Jeremy. I can’t wait. And I also need some historical fiction conventions. And fantasy. Or, fantastically fictorical. Wait. Is “biblical” fiction or history? hah. Thanks Shawn. This is wonderful, helpful, and unlike anything else being offered on the interwebs, I think!

  8. Kent Faver says:

    Good timing as my copy of the novel just arrived today. I’m a little confused on a genre’s obligatory scenes. Would this be specific to a western or sci-fi, or less specific? Thanks Shawn!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      More to come on obligatory scenes. Most genres have their own specific ones (Love story first kiss scene is one) and some share (horror, action, crime and thriller all have “speech in praise of the villain” scene). Lots to cover…
      All the best,

  9. Mary Doyle says:

    I feel lost in the woods about the obligatory scenes, so I’m really looking forward to the future posts about genre. I am also a lover of charts and graphs and will study this example. At first glance, my eyes crossed and glazed over the same time, but I trust that the logic is there. Thanks for such a treasure trove of information Shawn!

  10. Becca Borawski Jenkins says:

    Just chiming in to +1 any and all information related to conventions and obligatory scenes for any and all genres. I feel that my novel-in-progress is a genre blend and I want to make sure I’m not missing out on essential elements. For the record: I’ve gotten so much out of this website and your writing on SP’s site, that I’ll happily pay for any craft-related products you put up for sale here and post all over social media about it, too. 🙂

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks Becca!

  11. Joe Fusco says:

    I’m looking forward — hopefully — to seeing the Story Grid applied to non-fiction.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Joe,
      That may have to be the book two follow-up. I can definitely see ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, THE PERFECT STORY, BLACK HAWK DOWN and a number of other nonfiction classics in terms of THE STORY GRID. I’ve editing a whole slew of narrative nonfiction using it too…mostly business narratives, biography etc. Thanks for hanging in there. The concepts are the same, so I’d advise you to follow along.
      All the best,

  12. Sound of head beating against drywall. Forget headpalm. Went direct. Are you absolutely, positively certain you aren’t channeling Gypsy Rose Lee? Shawn, the worst tease ever! I’d buy copies for myself all my writing friends NOW if I could.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hang in there Morgyn…these lessons are often best learned in small doses, but I am burning the Midnight oil to get the book out as soon as possible Making great progress.

  13. This is priceless stuff! Scientific in its approach, but artful in its potential

  14. Amy Herring says:

    I, too, would be delighted to see a story grid for Gates of Fire, one of my all-time favorite novels. Regarding TSOTL’s grid, I’ve been pondering internal vs. external genre and positive vs. negative value (could not make out your handwriting at bottom left corner). Would you comment briefly on those concepts within the story grid structure? Thank you for this interesting tool!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Amy,
      Those concepts require their own posts. I promise to get into it all in the days, weeks and months to come. If I do it now, it will be the equivalent of explaining the Kreb’s cycle when everyone is still learning organic chemistry… We’ll get there I promise.
      All the best

      1. Jule Kucera says:

        I’m looking forward to learning more about story from someone who references the Kreb’s cycle. And I agree with Morgyn on the Gypsy Rose Lee comment–your posts are the equivalent of Pavlov’s bell and we are the drooling dogs.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Julie,
          If you’re not careful, I may put up my college thesis in the Resources section…which was all about research I did on DNA repair in yeast at a graduate school for Public Health. A real barn burner of a read!

          I had the intention of entering an MD/PhD program in my youth. But I got sidetracked, bitten by a bug that David Mamet released in the 1980s. I think you can see where my love of the old graph and quantifying qualitative information came from now.
          All the best,

          1. Jule Kucera says:

            One of my beliefs is that all of our past–such as my trek through dental hygiene –contributes in some way to the contribution we make to the world. You have a left and right brain history which allows you to look at things differently and because you are generous, help us see things differently and, if we are smart and open, do things differently. Thank you for all you are bringing to your tribe of Story. (Sidenote: name is Jule not Julie and yep, that’s my given name.)

          2. Shawn Coyne says:

            Sorry Jule. Got it.

  15. Steve says:

    I look forward to these posts more than any other email right now, I’m right in the midst of a page one rewrite, so I’m eagerly anticipating the rest of the posts and can’t wait for the book!

  16. Joe says:


    I’m genuinely moved by the generosity I see from the whole crew (Steve, Callie, you). You all share a ton of experience and insight and encouragement in your posts, both on the SP site and now here. You put time into it, to say nothing of the time you spend on your thoughtful responses. If a guy were to ask, “Why do you do it? When you might be spending time on stuff more directly tied to revenue-generating activity, why this?”

    What would you say to that guy?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Joe,
      Thanks for signing up.

      Here’s the thing. When I was starting out, I was clueless. Steve and Callie were too. We all had to figure out how to edit, write, publicize and promote our creative work all by ourselves and very few people came to our aid while we were doing it. Were there exceptions? You bet there were. We all had people who opened up their knowledge vault for us because they took pride in their work and understood that teaching others what you know does not diminish you, it makes you even better. Seth Godin is one guy who gives away everything he has. Putting words to your actions makes them even more clear to yourself.

      Anyway, when we started Black Irish Books we decided that our goal was to get our books out there and share what we know as freely as possible. If people like what we have to say, they’ll support us. They might not buy a book today or tomorrow or next Thursday (they could be pressed for cash…aren’t we all?) but if they liked us they might buy a book next year. If not, they’ll tell a friend about us and he’ll buy a book. Whatever. It’s not about selling books and becoming a zillionaire, it’s about getting better. I can’t speak for Steve or Callie, but I know my writing and my work is about 100% better than it was before I kept all of my stuff to myself.

      And the fact that I’ve found my tribe of Story nerds out there too is exhilarating. My wife and kids have heard just enough about the necessity of having a polished resolution scene just after your “all is lost moment.”

      1. Joe says:

        1) When I read Seth’s blog posts, I think of “Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch.”
        2) Two goals: “tell a friend” and “it’s about getting better.” Score. Score.
        3) Tell your family we’re glad to help take the pressure off them.

  17. Juan says:

    I recently self published my first book, my memoirs in wrestling. I kept going back to who would buy the book? I focused on as much pro wrestling as I could and minimized personal events and people that weren’t wrestling related.
    Is that the same as genre? Or completely different? Thank you for your generosity with this site and blog!
    Latin Thunder

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      You get it. Your sales genre would be “WRESTLING MEMOIR” so that you would concentrate on wrestling fans as your primary market.

      Story genres are different though. Performance Memoir would be your global genre. Depending on your internal story genre that you chose for your memoir (Status, Worldview, or Morality), more on these later, you would be able to define your Story values. Once you have those, you tell the story so that it arcs from one value to it’s “end of the line” value on the opposite pole. So for example ROCKY is an Performance Sports External Genre and it’s internal genre is a redemption plot. ROCKY loses his external performance (losing to Apollo Creed) but wins his internal genre (moves from Bum to courageous fighter).

      Hope this helps.

  18. Patti says:

    I’m learning to write. It’s late in my life. My thoughts and experiences are hounding me to share stories with the outside world. I am so grateful to happenstance onto this blog, in addition to SP’s site. You and he are instrumental in helping move me from reader to writer.
    It’s been said we learn craft from mentors, teachers and the gifted along the way. How absolutely blessed I am to find you!
    My first true experience with serendipity; now I must face the fear, walk through the resistance and write my stories.
    Thank you for lighting the way and helping me find courage to ignite my passion.

  19. Clark N. Riley says:

    For a quick, nifty look at a few very specific techniques that Jonathan Demme used in directing one scene of his film version of “The Silence of the Lambs,” see:


    Obviously, a director makes very different types of decisions in directing a film adaptation of a book than the author makes in writing that book. By looking at some of the technical choices involved in presenting the same story in a different medium, the video gives a quick peek at the underlying dynamics of the story through, one might say, a different lens. (Ouch.)

    I don’t know if this video will help to illuminate any specific part of the Story Grid, but if nothing else, it’s pretty cool. The rest of Tony Zhou’s video series is worth watching, too.

    By the way, Shawn, I’m already so glad that you’ve chosen to share the Story Grid book as you write it. I for one will gladly order it in print whenever it becomes available, even if the entirety of the text ends up on this website first. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Please keep going! Best regards.

    (In case there’s a problem with posting the above link, it points to everyframeapainting on Vimeo.)

  20. Shawn,

    I found your site through Seth Godin’s blog. I am actually not a writer like you and your audience are writers. I am a “Baby Architect,” fresh out of school, and I blog about architecture with some written posts and (mostly) youtube videos. Your blog posts here highlights the parallels between writing and architecture, loud and clear.

    1. We call genres, “typologies” (single family home, multi-family housing, mixed-use, retail, commercial office building, and church are a few broad divisions.)
    2. Each typology has certain obligatory spaces (private quarters, public quarters, an entry sequence, welcome desk, foyer etc.)
    3. Different points of view are like different occupants (visitors vs residents vs maintenance etc.)
    4. Objectives: different degrees of privacy and exposure, shelter, places to move through and places to stop and stay.
    5. Themes run all through out architecture even though I have had a hard time developing them for my self. As a broad example, the modernists operated around transparency and uniformity. They embodied these values with lots of glass and mass-produced interchangeable parts, as opposed to the hand-crafted way of making things.
    6. The idea of the procession through the building is similar to the hook, build, and payoff of a novel. Architects use things like front steps, porches, foyers, compression spaces, hallways, and rooms with views to create an experience…if they are really good architects anyway, haha.

    I don’t mean to nerd out about something uninteresting to you here. But I just want you to know that the work you are doing is important to me too! The way you are explaining these concepts around the making of stories, is more clear and succinct to me than the way my professors approached the same concepts as they applied to architecture.

    Keep up the great work! I am following you eagerly!


    1. Joel D Canfield says:

      I studied architecture back in the Precambrian, or perhaps the Jurassic. Your comparison is marvelously fitting.

      We are creatures of structure, and of repetition. No wonder cross-pollination between disciplines often yields happy results.

      You may not think of yourself as a writer, Drew, but you’re a wordsmith, no doubt of it.

      1. Thank you Joel!

        I am all about some cross-pollination! One of the things I love about writing is that the creative process of writers is so well documented because writers write about it. Where as architects or musicians struggle to describe their creative process with words, writers do a great job at putting that into words because that’s what they do!

        I have had a growing interest in writing as an artform over the last few years, and I have been looking for a blog just like this one! The way Shawn describes writing, those structures and repetitions that are common between mediums seem so obvious.


        1. While we’re all waiting for Story Grid to drop, consider reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Some overlap with Shawn’s work, but much of it unique to Larry’s methodical structural approach. I suspect your scientific mind will enjoy it.

          1. Thanks for the recommendation Jole! I am looking into it now!


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