Hitting the Wall

So we’re making some solid progress with our Foolscap Global Story Grid for Malcolm Gladwell’s Big Idea Nonfiction book, The Tipping Point. I confess that the bottom three quarters of my Foolscap page for The Tipping Point gives me great anxiety.


Here’s where we stand:

Foolscap Global Story Grid for The Tipping Point

Foolscap Global Story Grid for The Tipping Point

While I’m confident that I’ll be able to clearly break down the book’s Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff, I won’t be able to really do that until I finish my Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Tipping Point.  I’m making progress with that, but I still have many miles to go before it is complete.  The Story Grid Spreadsheet is that meticulous bugger that you can’t bang out in a day, or a week, or even a month sometimes.  It requires precision and line by line concentration.

I’m not afraid of that kind of work.

The thing that’s giving me the cold sweats is that I’m not so sure about how to clearly define The Five Commandments of Story Form for the BH, MB and EP of The Tipping Point.  All of that blank space looms large.

But this fear of failure is actually a good sign.  If I wasn’t starting to panic right now I’d be concerned.  Here’s why:

If you’ve read Steve Pressfield’s book Do the Work that we published with Seth Godin’s Domino Project, you’ll know that when we take on a project and I mean all of us…no matter what project it is…there comes a time when we HIT THE WALL.  We reach a point where we find ourselves lost and we think we’ve made a terrible mistake, that this time the project is going to kill us, that we’re going to screw it up and worse still make complete fools of ourselves.  We fall into what Steve calls THE BELLY OF THE BEAST…

When you’re in this place, you know it.  The last thing you want to do is more work on that damn project that’s killing you.  So you make excuses to not work.  Boy have I been coming up with some great ones lately.  And then I’ll remember that I’ve been in this place before and if I’m lucky I’ll be in it again.  All I need to do is the next small thing.  I don’t have to figure it all out right now…just the next small thing.

So what’s got me so squirrelly?

You know those Five Commandments of Storytelling I laid out in The Story Grid, inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution? These are the requirements that the writer must deliver in each and every unit of his Story from the beat through the scene, the sequence, the act, the subplot and the global story.

My conundrum is this:

In fiction, these forms are pretty easy to identify to a trained editor or writer or even just anyone exposed to media since birth (that’s just about everyone today).

For example, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the inciting incident of the global action adventure story is the tornado that lifts Dorothy Gale’s house in Kansas and plops it smack down into Munchkin Country, a district in the alternative universe called Land of Oz.

This inciting incident is coincidental. [Remember an inciting incident can occur by cause or coincidence] A random and indifferent act of the natural world (the weather doesn’t care about Dorothy) jump-starts the Story. Dorothy didn’t cause the cyclone. It just coincidentally came to her place in the prairie.

A progressive complication that soon follows is that not only is Dorothy far from home, but her arrival has significantly altered the new world she’s just entered. The turning point of this complication is the discovery of the dead Wicked Witch of the East, squashed beneath Dorothy’s house. This is a revelatory turning point. Turning points in complications happen either through revelation (Hey look, the Witch is dead!) or through character action. Dorothy didn’t personally smite the witch. She didn’t actively confront and kill her.

Now the progressive complication that the witch is dead and that Dorothy is responsible for her death (even though it was an accidental one) raises a Story crisis. Dorothy learns that the Wicked Witch of the East had enslaved the Munchkins and with her death comes freedom for an entire civilization. The Munchkins are beyond grateful to her and see her as a Goddess/Sorceress. They offer her sanctuary.

Now the crisis question (remember crises boil down to questions that make the protagonist choose a course of action) that arises is: Should Dorothy stay with the Munchkins or set out to find a way home?

The climax of the scene is of the best bad choice variety. If Dorothy stays with the Munchkins, she’ll never get home. If she leaves, she may very well lose her way or worse ,die in the desert.

Dorothy chooses to leave. That’s the climax of the scene.

The Resolution is Dorothy’s preparations to leave (getting bread and water) and her literal departure from Munchkin Country.

Pretty simple stuff.

But what are the equivalent Five Commandments of Storytelling  for Big Idea Nonfiction?

My gut is that for Big Idea nonfiction, the Five Commandments are still very much in play. Except that they are wrapped around and enveloped inside the methodology of the foundation of all natural knowledge, The Scientific Method.

The Scientific Method has been with us probably since consciousness itself—kind of like Storytelling. I can imagine a caveman with a walking stick seeing lightening strike a dry patch of dead wood using the Scientific Method to transfer the fire from the field back to his cave to keep his wife and kids warm. Or maybe that’s just an old Flintstones episode stuck in my head…

The Scientific Method itself became more and more rationally delineated by guys like Aristotle with his deep thinking on logic (inductive and deductive reasoning) and then Epicurus, Ptolemy, Ibn al-Haytham, Al-Biruni, Ibn Sina, Robert Grossetese, Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Gallileo, Newton etc. etc.  Higher education’s History of Science curriculum around the world dive deeply into its evolution.

But for our purposes, here is my nutshell breakdown of The Scientific Method:

  1. QUESTION A PHENOMENON See something puzzling and ask a question.
  2. INVESTIGATE ANSWERS Gather research from others who have asked a similar question
  3. ANSWER THE QUESTION YOURSELF Critically evaluate the research and guess your own answer to the question.
  4. TEST YOUR ANSWER Test the guess with an experiment you’ve devised or gather results of experiments that have already been done addressing a similar question.
  5. CONFIRM OR REVISE YOUR ANSWER Analyze the results from the experiments and revise your answer


Hmm. Let’s take a look again at the global definitions of our Five Commandments of Storytelling and compare them to the five part Scientific Method.

  1. The Inciting Incident must upset the life balance of the protagonist/s in the Story in such a way that they take action to return to equilibrium.
  2. Progressive Complications are escalating degrees of conflict that face the protagonist from the beginning of his journey to the end—things get harder and harder.
  3. The Crisis in a story boils the protagonist’s dilemma down to a question that he must answer to move forward.
  4. The Climax in a story is the active choice the protagonist makes. We see him actually do the thing he has decided to do after facing crisis.
  5. The Resolution in a story is the resultant fallout from the action…it explains what happened after the choice.

So here’s what I’m thinking about the Five Commandments of Storytelling for Big Idea Nonfiction:

  1. Inciting Incidents in Big Idea Nonfiction revolve around the protagonist’s (author) question/s about a particular phenomenon.
  2. Progressive Complications in Big Idea Nonfiction are represented by the author’s research results about how others have looked at the same or similar phenomenon.
  3. The Crisis in Big Idea Nonfiction is the moment when the protagonist author answers the question raised by the Inciting Incident.
  4. The Climax in Big Idea Nonfiction is when the protagonist author tests his answer.
  5. The Resolution in Big Idea Nonfiction is a convincing recap of the evidence collected to answer the question raised by a particular phenomenon and of how the protagonist/author has made sense of it.

Okay, so now I have some thoughts about how to address Inciting Incident, Progressive Complication, Crisis, Climax, and Resolution in Big Idea Nonfiction.  Now I just have to test my answers.

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.

15 comments on “Hitting the Wall

  1. Brilliant thinking, Shawn! Don’t let The Wall get you down!

  2. Joel D Canfield says:

    If you end up defining the Unifying Theory of the Universe Einstein is gonna be a mite peeved.

    Really, connecting scientific method with how story works? Brilliant. Logical and simple and makes perfect sense. Now that you’ve explained it, of course.

  3. Mary Doyle says:

    Integrating the Scientific Method into the Story Grid took me right back to my graduate course in Research Methods and makes complete sense. Gladwell’s controlling theme/idea identified in your earlier post – “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do” – becomes, to borrow from research vernacular, the hypothesis that he must confirm by the end of the book. I’ll bet Gladwell had some “hitting the wall” moments himself. Thanks for your meticulous explanation.

  4. Tony Levelle says:

    Your analysis of the five commandments for nonfiction feels right to me.

    Writing narrative nonfiction is a constant battle between reporting and story telling. The writer must first report (get the facts) and then figure out a way to present these facts as a story (build the narrative arc). All this without altering the essential truth of what happened.

    I say, “Onward!” And thanks for your report about hitting the wall. It helps.

  5. Tina Goodman says:

    You are very creative!

  6. Patrick Maher says:

    Shawn, you say that, “I confess that the bottom three quarters of my Foolscap page for The Tipping Point gives me great anxiety.” It should’t. Provided you don’t confuse the Scientific Method with Research. There are many ‘methods’ of ‘research’. The nature of the arc of your argument is key to applying which ‘method’ is the best to apply to your ‘research data’. There are different methodologies of doing research and investigating the data in your field: psychology, social, science, organisations, gender issues and so on. Going to the ‘Scientific’ research approach to analyse the Data in and methodology on “Tipping Point” misses several other much more useful and properly applicable approaches to what is essentially a semiotic and psychological treatise on ‘memes’. I would have use a “qualitative” methodology rather than shoe-horn a ‘quantitative – pseudo-scientific’ methodology into a literature analysis. Your argument can be better, much better, and more appropriately investigated using other methodological approaches.
    You are at the front end of the boat here – the rudder wheel is at the back of the boat – much easier to steer through the shoals of a literature analysis from there.

  7. Patrick Maher says:

    Hi Shawn,
    Your terms are quite applicable to most forms of research – not just the scientific method. This subject of research feels a lot like and ethnographic analysis of a philosophical text on memes where the ‘meme’ is the focus of the cutural/ethnograhic component (how memes spread into cultures) and the text is the literature component, in essence, a dialectical discourse. Adopting the Scientific Method to do this task will lead you down blind alleys and false hypotheses.
    Your Terms: (plus one you omitted – ‘data gathering’)
    QUESTION A PHENOMENON – this is the first or working hypothesis.
    INVESTIGATE ANSWERS – this is usually considered to be a full literature review and often takes most of the time on a research project. It is on the shoulders of these previous researchers that your research will stand. Prime sources are best. I would also suggest “Virus of the Mind” by Richard Brodie, and “The Meme Machine” by Susan Blackmore.
    ANSWER THE QUESTION YOURSELF – this is the research question you really want to answer and forms your arc of argument. It is the informed hypothesis you will test with your next step – AFTER you decide on a methodology appropriate to that new hypothesis. The data you collect comes from the next item on your list…
    DATA GATHERING – this is the actual data gathering – in this case excerpts from a piece of literature that is somewhat philosophical in nature. Prime sources cited in that original work would be your first port of call here.
    METHODOLOGY – the bit you would apply ‘scientific method’ or some other ‘method’ to. Methodology is not research – it is a necessary part of your research and it is a way of testing a hypothesis and relates directly to the data you wish to analyse – but it is NOT the research. The research is what you write up – the data and its analysis and the method you used to analyse that data are only part of the research outcome. Different forms of research use different methodological tools. I would suggest, “Handbook of Qualitative Research” by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln.
    TEST YOUR ANSWER. – testing your hypothesis by analysing the data you gathered that BOTH confirmed and refuted the hypothesis. This is your lab work phase – you apply the methodology you adopted because it determines what you do here and in your next phase, the analysis of this data.
    CONFIRM OR REVISE YOUR ANSWER – this is the summary or conclusion phase – you verify your hypothesis and reflect on the suitability of the methodology explaining how you determined what analytical tools you applied and whether the research confirmed or refuted your hypothesis and answered the research question – and for about five minutes in the entire universe of time, you will be the world’s ‘expert’ on that subject.

    1. Patrick Maher says:

      Can’t revise on this web page – but “TEST YOUR ANSWER. – testing your hypothesis by analysing the data you gathered that BOTH confirmed and refuted the hypothesis. This is your lab work phase – you apply the methodology you adopted because it determines what you do here and in your next phase, the analysis of this data.” just ignore the last phrase – so it should read – “This is your lab work phase – you apply the methodology you adopted because it determines what you do here.” I saw it was necessary stay with the order of your ‘process’.

  8. Patrick Maher says:

    … and if you want to stretch both brain cells try “Global Brain” by Howard Bloom.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks so much for your in depth responses. I confess, I’m not on your level in this arena so the fact that you took the time to give me these recommendations is outstanding!
      All the best,

  9. Vanessa says:

    Shawn, not apropos of this, but how else to leave a comment? I am completely committed to your exposition re: the Story Grid (and have now got the book!!). But I started late and just can’t catch up so can never leave up-to-the-minute relevant comments! However I thought you would be interested in this discussion about genre and would really like to hear your feedback on it: I heard Ishiguro talking at the Hay Festival in Britain last week and he had some really fascinating thoughts about it, reproduced in this discussion with Neil Gaiman http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02sc1rf
    How would this breakdown of genre as a defining structure affect your approach to editing do you think?

  10. Alec Graf says:

    Shawn, it sounds like you’re in the progressive complications phase of your Story Gridding process (or am I getting too meta here….)?!

    I’m wondering though: by trying to fit the *author’s* process of writing the book into the Five Commandments — as opposed to the *reader’s* experience of the book’s Story — might you be creating problems for yourself?

    The point behind the 5 Com — and the author’s use of it — is to build and release the experience of tension (or perhaps in non-fiction, *interest*) in the reader. By focusing on how the author arrived at the various ideas he uses to create this experience, rather than on how those ideas placed on the page create this experience, you are saying, in effect, that the *author* is the hero of the book — not the ideas. And you might, at that point, be running into problems.

    Instead, what *ideas* does the author employ, globally and at each stage of the book/story (BH, MB, EP), in order to create *tension/interest* in the reader? Which ideas, specifically, serve to incite interest in the reader, which ones make the reader progressively confused/enlightened, which ones place the reader in a crisis of “not-knowing” and wondering how it could all possibly be resolved, which ones demonstrate the answer, and which ones summarize and/or wrap it all up nicely at the end?


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Alec,
      Many thanks for your thoughts. I think you can definitely use your approach. But I do think that Gladwell’s use of the first person and second person points of view in his book creates a subtextual Story that abides Action Adventure conventions and obligatory scenes. So there’s a sort of combo plate at work here…one that is straightforward Big Idea rhetorical nonfiction structure and an underlying fiction structure (A “Wizard of Oz” element). It is Gladwell’s approach that makes the reader keep turning pages even though there is a blatant idea easily digested from the introduction. Anyway, I’m still in the woods and appreciate the companionship.
      All the best,

  11. Carol says:

    I began reading the tipping point because you were story gridding it and I find that as a reader I am going through all the 5 commandntments of the story as I turn each page. I work in the field of Family violence, it is my passion to change things for children, to educate, to help, to support and change the lives of children who have to endure violence, they have no voice. So the Inciting Incident for me as a reader is the notion that my ideas, my approach can go viral, let’s face it, a lot of us want to believe that our book/song/art etc., will have a bigger audience, we want the tipping point for our project. Then came the progressive complication, I am not a Connector, a Maven nor a Salesman so now I am at the crisis point for my project, what the hell do I do now to make the difference I so want to make? As I delve further into the book I’m sure I will reach the climax and resolution. For me as the reader I am absolutely journeying through the 5 commandments, the writer is taking me there, it is fascinating and challenging.

  12. Herbert Exner says:

    Scientific method, models, methods, data?

    Through the lens of a mathematician you create “theories”.

    It’s amazing. You introduced a set of formal statements (in the object language and logic of storytelling)…The Story Grid. It works perfect on the object level (consistent and complete). You introduce domains (genres), building blocks (units)…and a set of axioms, fundamental and higher rules…about whether a story will work and sell.

    To make it theories (with sets of theorems) you need models (there’s no theory on the object layer). Thriller…Big Idea Nonfiction. To identify the models you ask questions about the instances: genre, conventions, obligatory scenes, objects of desire, controlling ideas, BH, MB and EP.

    To test your models across the formal TSG statements, you developed a (set of) method(s)…Foolscap, Spreadsheet…the STG info-graphics. You backtest(ed) it with concrete data: “Lambs” (for Thriller). “Tipping Point” (for BI Nonfiction).

    IMO, a theory that’s theorems are not provable is great, if it shows “correctness” atop a few “extreme” examples (data). A sloppy assessment, I know…(my maths colleagues, physicists…won’t let me back into the office for this)

    I am convinced…that the Story Grid is great in this sense.

    BI Nonfiction is a challenge. Especially when emphasizing the similarities to Thriller? It’s the commandments and the units…the granularity of repeated application…?

    A little pointer: there’s this new fundamental theory of physics: constructor theory…generalizing its idea…in short: express laws in terms of changes which the laws make possible. It enables describing information in terms of laws. A constructor is an entity that “implements” the change…a catalyst is a chemical constructor…a constructor is called task (a scene?).

    So, IMO, a great BI Nonfiction has “constructors” enabling the description of progressive conflicts, crisis climax and resolution? The more technical the content is the more “operational” constructors…

    Im looking forward to the “Tipping Point” STG Spreadsheet…

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