Foolscap Coup de Grace

To complete the bottom three quarters of our Foolscap Global Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs, we need to go back to our Story Grid Spreadsheet. Our goal is to pick out the five scenes from the novel that comprise the five cornerstones of Story Form—the Inciting Incident, a progressive complication, the crisis, the climax and the resolution—for the Beginning Hook of the novel. Then, we’ll do the same thing for the Middle Build of the book and lastly the Ending Payoff.

Where to begin?

Let’s go back and pretend that we’re Thomas Harris using The Story Grid to lay out his novel before he actually wrote the first draft. How would he approach filling in this section of the Foolscap Global Story Grid?

Well, he’ll know a few things right off the bat about Beginning Hooks, Middle Builds, and Ending Payoffs. He’ll know the values at stake and the kind of transitional scenes he’ll need to write to move from the Beginning Hook (BH) to the Middle Build (MB) and from the MB to the Ending Payoff (EP).

  1. He’ll need a scene at the end of the Beginning Hook that shifts the global value of his External Genre in a major way, while it also shifts the global value of his Internal Genre in a major way, such that there is a clear demarcation in the reader’s mind. This doesn’t mean that he just slaps a divider in his book and calls it PART TWO. It means that the reader subconsciously understands that “now things are getting serious.”
  2. He’ll need a scene at the end of the Middle Build that shifts the global value of his External Genre in an even bigger way than the transition scene from BH to MB. This scene must also shift the global value of his Internal Genre in an even bigger way than the transition scene from BH to MB.

There must really be an even clearer demarcation in the reader’s mind at the end of this scene. Like a spectator at a Fourth of July Fireworks show, the reader now must subconsciously understand that the grand finale of the novel is on the way. The reader will put the book down at this point, go to the bathroom, refill their glass of preferred beverage and let every person know around him/her to leave him/her alone until they’ve finished the book.

So let’s figure out how Harris solved these two scenes…that is, what chapters from our Story Grid Spreadsheet represent these two critical scenes?

From my point of view, scene 12 (which corresponds to chapter 10) is the transitional scene that ends the Beginning Hook and moves to the Middle Build. Let’s look at whether or not this scene does what it’s supposed to do.

Does it shift the global value of the External Genre (the serial killer thriller value is life) in a major way?

Remember that Harris made a note to himself a while back that reminded him that he had to shift the value from Life to Unconsciousness by the end of the Beginning hook. Does he do that with this scene? The answer is that he actually takes the value a little further than unconsciousness…he takes it to what I call “off stage death.”

If he were to have just taken it to unconsciousness, the end of the Beginning Hook would be the discovery that there was some killer out there that no one had any clue was active. Everything that the FBI had thought about the Buffalo Bill case would be completely turned on its ear. I think that moment (life to unconsciousness) comes earlier in the telling and is not a major turning point in the novel. It was the revelation that Hannibal Lecter knew about the head in the jar in the storage unit and that he mostly likely knows the real identity of Buffalo Bill.

So what do I mean by “off-stage death”? This is when the novelist reports of death. He doesn’t put it on the page. Harris has Crawford tell Starling about Miggs’ death in scene 7 (also chapter 7), which is the first death of the novel. Now in scene 12, we learn that another victim of Buffalo Bill has surfaced. Can you make the argument that this revelation can also be interpreted as information that informs the FBI that what they thought was true isn’t? Sure.

The reason why scene 12 is the moment when the value drastically shifts in terms of the life value is that it requires a very large reaction on the part of the central figures in the novel. The Miggs death doesn’t, nor does the head in the jar. The Miggs death matters little to the FBI. And the head in the jar seemingly means little too. But the discovery of a body in a river is cause for the private plane to be brought out and to immediately fly to West Virginia to check for fresh clues.

Does it shift the global value of the Internal Genre (the disillusionment Genre’s value is worldview) in a major way?

Prior to scene 12, Starling is operating under “blind belief” of the meritocracy inherent in the FBI. She thinks the way the FBI works is that if you do exceptional work, you’ll move up. You’ll be rewarded with more responsibility. It’s the same “blind belief” that we all begin with when we get out of college or start a new job or join the tennis team. We believe that all we have to do is work hard and do great work and we’ll be rewarded. Oftentimes, at the beginning of our honeymoon with a particular institution, this blind belief is rewarded. That is, if we do bust our chops, we do get recognized and we do get a pat on the back. It is this pat on the back that moves our attitude from “blind belief” to “justified belief.” Our idea that hard work pays off with recognition is proven correct, so we place more trust in the institution. When what we think is true turns out to be true, we trust our rational faculties all the more.

So, Starling sets off at the beginning of the novel with “blind belief” in the FBI. She gets an interesting errand from big shot section head Jack Crawford, interviews Lecter, writes up a stellar report and does a great job. Crawford tells her as much and rewards her with another job, following up the lead that Lecter gave her about the “valentines.”

Remember that Crawford didn’t agree to let Starling follow up on that clue initially. It was only after her report came in that he agreed. That small detail… denial of unproven skill and then rewarding of proven skill strengthens Starling’s belief in the meritocracy of the FBI. Not in a major way, but a very important building block kind of way. If Harris had Crawford give Starling the go-ahead to track down the clue without her first proving herself with her report, the reader would have found that odd…unbelievable even.

So by scene 12, Starling has proven herself twice. She did the great report on Lecter, which got her the chance to follow up the clue. The clue turned out to be the head in the jar at the storage facility in Baltimore, which was another star in her cap. Remember also that she initially failed in her attempt to track down the clue. Crawford lectured her about the failure in his “assume” speech and then he gave her the advice that led to her success. More incremental proof of meritocracy.

So now when the global external value shifts and there is the discovery of a dead body in West Virginia, Starling gets the big call to go with Crawford to fingerprint the dead body.

This is a major shift in the Internal Genre for Starling. Her “blind belief” now moves to “justified belief.” She did great work and now she’s being brought up to the big leagues. She’s going to work with Jack Crawford as his right hand. The progressive build of this promotion to junior FBI agent in training from plebe at the academy is a major shift. And it happens in the transitional scene 12 (chapter 10) when the external value shifts too. This is not a coincidence. It is indispensable Story craft.

So in my estimation, scene 12 is the resolution scene of the Beginning Hook of the novel as well as the Inciting Incident of the Middle Build of the novel. Great how that works out right? Very efficient Storytelling.

Now let’s move on to the transitional scene between the Middle Build and the Ending Payoff.

It is scene 50 (chapter 48) when Starling meets Crawford at the funeral home to ask him for his blessing for her to go to Belvedere, Ohio.

Does it shift the global value of the External Genre (the serial killer thriller value is life) in a major way?

Thomas Harris knows that he has to move the global value from life to death to the fate worse than death (damnation) in order to pay off the promise of his chosen global External Genre. It is in scene 50 that this escalation of stakes becomes very clear. The mere fact that it takes place in front of a funeral home after the death of Jack Crawford’s wife lets the reader know that there are fates worse than death. Outliving your loved one is certainly one.

From chapter 3, Bella has been slowly withering away, sapping Crawford of life force. While he’s a stoic and tight-lipped professional, the reader can sense that he’s not going to be of much use once his beloved kicks the bucket. And he’s not.

Starling too has been beaten down, pushing her to quit her pursuit of Buffalo Bill.

Political machinations have forced her back to the academy. She’s been warned that if she goes near the Buffalo Bill case again, she’ll be washed out of the program. And it’s also clear that even if she makes it through and gets her badge as a full-fledged FBI agent, chances are that she’ll end up in a satellite office in Podunk U.S.A. She’s not liked.

But what Starling can’t abide is the fact that a woman is not only going to be killed, but her body will be desecrated, flayed and used to make a vest with “tits on it.” Deep down she knows that if she does not do everything in her power to try and save the woman, she’ll never forgive herself. Forget about the lambs she didn’t try and save when she was a girl, how in the hell is she going to live with herself knowing that she did nothing to save another human being?

This is the place where the External Genre moves from death to damnation for this very reason.

If Starling quits and does nothing, a woman will die and she will suffer a fate worse than death. So will Starling. She’ll have to live with unimaginable self- hate. Damnation indeed.

So in scene 50 (chapter 48), Starling goes to Crawford and asks him to send her to Ohio to figure out how Buffalo Bill hunts. Crawford, on the verge of an emotional breakdown and also at the end of his career, agrees. Starling is the last best hope.

Does it shift the global value of the Internal Genre (the disillusionment Genre’s value is worldview) in a major way?

I think it’s obvious by scene 50 (chapter 48) that Starling is no longer a believer in the meritocracy of the FBI. Just to recap, she’s been used to titillate a cannibal serial killer. That killer, Hannibal Lecter, turned the tables and used the FBI’s stupidity against itself in a way that ensured his escape. He’s now at large after slaughtering a number of innocent people. And God knows whether he has designs on visiting Starling in person in the near future. Not only that, but the FBI blames Starling for his escape and only through the intervention of the man who got her into the mess in the first place (Crawford) is she still a viable candidate to get her badge. Barely.

She’s moved from “blind belief” in the Beginning Hook, to “justified belief” and “doubt” in the Middle Build, and now she’s on a steep dive into “disillusionment” for the Ending Payoff.

What’s really great here is that she now knows the truth.

The FBI is bullshit. But, the job is not.

Her mission in life is still to bring justice to the world, to save as many lambs as she can. Now that she no longer confuses the artifice of her mission (the badge) with the actual mission, she’s a force to be reckoned with.

She’s literally no longer operating under any illusions. She doesn’t think she’s going to get anything out of her mission to Ohio. In fact, she’s pretty certain she’ll get recycled for going in the first place. But she does it anyway.

She’s now a hero. She sacrifices herself for the sake of others.

You’ll notice that both of Harris’ transitional scenes that create major Story value shifts are not big action scenes. There is no gunplay or blood.

He trusted his Story to deliver…not spectacle. And boy does it.

Now that we have our two critical Major shifts figured out, all we need to do is walk back through the other scenes that make up the Inciting Incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions for our Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff and track the polarity shifts in each of these scenes in terms of the two global values at stake, life and worldview.

Here’s how it came out:

Final Foolscap Page for The Silence of the Lambs

Final Foolscap Page for The Silence of the Lambs

So now we have a completed Story Grid Spreadsheet and a completed Foolscap Global Story Grid.

Next up? We’ll put them together to generate The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs.

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.

16 comments on “Foolscap Coup de Grace

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    So glad I went ahead and bought SOTL which I hadn’t read since it first came out. It’s really helpful to be able to follow along as you walk us through the process. Distilling this into a single spreadsheet is an amazing feat. Can’t wait to see the final Story Grid – as always, thanks for being such a story nerd Shawn!

  2. Shawn, this is really cool stuff! As always, thank you, thank you, thank you!

  3. Michael Beverly says:

    Super. Can’t even think of any questions about this post. I get it. Now it’s do the work time, which is scary, overwhelming, daunting and the sluice box that separates the ore from the slurry.

    I do have a business side question, why no Amazon page for the book?

    Pre-orders? What about ARC’s for those of us that review? I still have the number one review on Amazon for the Authentic Swing, I’m sure others take that seriously too (and it’s not about getting a free book, hell, I’d pay double for it to get it early).

    Just a thought.

    Oh, and PS (from Tues post) I went to compare the POV of Mapp with the Moth, aprox 300 words v. 100, so I guess it’s too minor to include…

    However, it does end with an interesting quote (end of Chap 40 if anyone is interested).

    It is: “tilling and killing”, which, before I went to read it again, I suspected it was in there for Harris to make a point about the world.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      Well, here’s a shocker. The work is what matters most to me. I’ll get the book up at Amazon and elsewhere after we sell it to the people who really care for a great price (plus freebies etc.). Waiting on a date from our printer for books in warehouse. Once I know that, we’ll figure out the rest. As Steve Pressfield and I always say to each other when we’re doing Black Irish Books business…as long as we break even…

      1. Phyla says:

        Shawn-I will buy the book if it is written in Sanskrit, on Post-it notes. Just get us the damn book!

      2. I love this. Well said. It’s something I needed to hear right now as well. Thanks

  4. Ron Estrada says:

    I’m really loving this. It’s hard work to figure out the external and internal genre plus all the turning points, but that one page will add amazing depth to my novels. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. steve says:

    Shawn, thnks for the breakdown at this level. From my perspective, I see alot of moving parts in the story line, so these transitions aren’t as obvious as they are somewhat blended in the whole story. This alignment makes sense.

  6. Jim Starr says:

    Yeah, my head’s no longer swimming. It’s having cramps and screaming at me for gulping everything down so fast and going back in the water too quickly. But I remember this pain from college, the last time I was pushed to really learn anything big.

    Still, I also remember why I committed to following along, as Shawn indicated a connect-the-dots structural approach, one I felt would make every book I write from here out much better. And that’s what I feel I’m getting.

    I can’t thank you enough, Shawn. But thank you just the same. (And I look forward to recommending the book to every writer I know.)


  7. Sue Coletta says:

    Wow. That was so clear. Everything I’ve read on your site finally clicked. Even though I’ve seen the movie a gazillion times I really need to buy the book. Thank you!

    1. Jim Starr says:

      Yes, Sue, I think it’s very smart to get a copy of the book. For one thing, there are important elements, like Starling’s disillusionment, that I think are much harder to spot in the pared-down adaptation to film. But also, I’ve turned my copy into a workbook for Shawn’s Spreadsheet by transcribing the notes from his first 7 columns into the book with pencil and highlighter. I found a hardback copy (easier to write in) online for $7. Go for it!


      1. Sue Coletta says:

        Thanks, Jim! I’d like to do the same. Buying it now…

  8. Shawn, would you be willing to give Joel an excel version of the completed Foolscap for SOTL as you did with the Spreadsheet for posting in the Resources section? Thanks for considering!

  9. Jule Kucera says:

    Just to put a small weight on the other side of the balance, I can wait for the book. I have enough right here, with this post, when things clicked (as they did for Sue). When the Jim-recommended SOTL hardback arrives (scheduled delivery March 25 – April 8), I will return to this post with book, pen, (I believe in the serial comma) and highlighter in hand. These posts have taught me so much about structure (which I knew I didn’t understand very well) and value change (which I never even considered before). Please do not take this to mean that I don’t want the book. I do, I do, I do, I do, I do (spoken in the Snuffles the cartoon dog voice).

  10. DC Harrell says:

    I have taken a novella of notes on all these posts and the follow-up questions/answers (that’s 34 pages). Processing. Processing. Processing. And looking forward to applying it all post first draft. I add my thank-you to the others above.

  11. Patricia Wilson says:

    Shawn, I feel, thus far, as though I’ve been attending a very in-depth fiction writing class. Though I’ve been taking very close notes, still reading your book will enlighten me to any nuances I may have missed.

    As I said in a previous comment, I’m late to the party, but doing my very best to catch up, finding your posts invaluable on a level I’ve never found before. The Story Grid makes me feel so much more confident that with your guidelines I can actually produce a story of fiction which is worthy of publication.

    Thank you so much, Shawn, for your dedication to teaching unpublished writers the form and format for their fiction. Obviously, the rest is up to us isn’t it?

    Patricia Wilson
    Columbia, CT

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