Out of the Rabbit Hole

For those of you playing the Storygridding the Tipping Point home game…at long last…we’ve reached the beginning of the ending payoff of the journey.

Let’s pick up from the “Staring Down the First Draft” post from August 18, 2015.

It’s now June 1998, just about eighteen months after Malcolm Gladwell signed his Little Brown contract to deliver a 60,000 to 80,000-word manuscript called The Tipping Point.  After being granted an extension, he’s got six months to turn in the manuscript.

Gladwell has a huge pile of stuff covering his desk. He has reams of printout with hours and hours of transcribed interviews. He has coffee stained Moleskin notebooks packed with his chicken scrawl from the scores of research papers and books he’s read. He’s got post-it notes, backs of envelopes, tear sheets, and scraps of newspaper…all with some intellectual fragment that he’ll need to assemble his first draft.

He’s had his morning coffee and today is marked on his calendar as “Outline Day One.”

What does he do now?

Robert McKee tells a great story about the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. Once Chayefsky understood the theme/controlling idea for each of his works (Marty and Network among many others) he’d type it on a piece of paper, pull the single sheet out of the roller, cut out the sentence and tape it to the faceplate of his Smith Corona. So every day he began work, he’d read that global intention and remind himself of where the finish line was.

Here’s another little story to ground you when you feel overwhelmed by the mountains of research material. Just before the Israeli military’s blitzkrieg offensive against the allied Arab nations massed at its borders in 1967, the word repeated over and over again on Air Force bases and on the sands of the Sinai was “Kavanah.”

Kavanah means grand intention. The Sabras were instructed to remember just one thing when the chaos of combat overwhelmed them. Remember the Kavanah.

For the pilots their global mission was to wipe out Arab airstrips while defending Israeli airspace. If they took care of the airstrips, defending the air space would be a hell of a lot easier….  For the ground troops, it was to keep moving forward…to reach and seize the Suez Canal. Taking the Suez Canal would inevitably lead to international intervention…  The United States and the U.S.S.R. would jump into the fray if the canal were at stake. Together, those two missions would add up to Israel’s security…at least until the next mobilization of Arab forces.

Kavanahs are not Matarahs, which are building block objectives. (For us writers Matarahs are daily word counts or scene objectives or outlines).

Kavanahs are the global intention. So when pilots lost course on their way to destroy Arab air bases, they did not panic. They realized that while they would not accomplish the immediate Matarah objective, bombing the specific base they’d been assigned, they could still chip away at the Kavanah by bombing another airstrip in their path.

So as we stand in Malcolm Gladwell’s shoes trying to deconstruct how he could have put his book together, we first need to remind ourselves…as often as necessary but at least at the beginning of each work session…his Kavanah.

What’s that Big Idea again?

The name given to the one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point. His book is about how Tipping Points happen and the steps we can take to promote or prevent their occurrences.

That’s his Big Idea Kavanah.

That’s nice but how did Gladwell organize all of the stuff he collected to back up this Big Idea? Not just how did he put it into neat piles, but how did he sort it into a series of building block tasks (Matarahs) that created fifty or so elemental Story units?

The simple answer is that he used fundamental Story structure to make sense of his brain dump.

Now a lot of nonfiction writers like to describe themselves as Storytellers. But if their work does not have a beginning hook, a middle build and an ending payoff that takes the reader from one place to an inevitable other place in a uniquely surprising way, then they’re just blowing smoke. They’re talking the talk but not walking the walk.  You’ll know as much because their prose will put you right to sleep.

Convincing the reader of their Big Idea with lots of data and reason is all well and good. Those are the Ethos and logos elements that Plato laid out thousands of years ago.

But there is no way that the reader will metabolize the idea in a way that makes them change the way the see the world without being mesmerized by a Storyteller’s craft. This is the Pathos element…the emotional appeal, the sticky stuff that lodges into our brains and stays there…as Gladwell might say.

So what is the Storyteller’s craft when he’s writing a work of Big Idea nonfiction? How is it different from writing fiction?

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the difference is negligible.

Like a novelist, a Big Idea nonfiction writer like Gladwell (and all aspiring narrative nonfiction writers who’d love to have a career like his or Laura Hillenbrand’s) must translate his keen eye for the real life telling detail to the page. And those details need to incite the reader’s curiosity, which progressively complicates to a crisis of understanding, climaxing in an “aha I get it” moment and then resolve with a concrete and repeatable recitation of the idea. (Inciting Incident, Progressive Complications, Crisis, Climax, Resolution)

From beginning hook, to middle build through ending payoff.

How Gladwell chose to create that translation was the innovation that makes his work so extraordinarily appealing.

So what was his innovation?

What Gladwell did was to create a doppelganger character also named Malcolm Gladwell.

He tells the Story of this curious guy name Gladwell who ventures out from his little apartment in Manhattan on a quest. What’s so appealing is that he’s a character/personality that we all recognize within ourselves. As for the quest…isn’t that the DNA of Story?

He’s that little boy we once were who takes apart the vacuum cleaner to see how it works or the little girl who makes a playhouse out of the various junk her dad threw out of the attic.

Gladwell takes us back to the wonder of childhood discovery. Not the strict didacticism of the “I teach, you take notes and then you must drill it into your head through repetition” adult way of learning something. But the “check out this weird thing that happened” kid way of learning.

The simple curiosity driven adventure of setting out to find out why something happens.

That seems simple doesn’t it? Kind of not that big of a deal, right?

But it is a big deal. Huge.

Gladwell threw away a convention that has been with us for millennia. That convention is the nonfiction writer playing the role of “lecturer” and us readers as “knowledge consumers.”

This in the nonfiction starting point whereby on the hierarchy of knowledge, the writer places himself at the top of the ladder and speaks down to us idiots beneath him. The all-knowing sage casting pearls to his followers…like every high school Chemistry class or college Economics textbook.

Instead of speaking down to his audience, as traditional nonfiction writers do, what Gladwell decided instead was to “be himself.” Now whether he consciously made this choice or whether he was in such a panic to get the damn thing written that he didn’t go out and read a whole slew of Big Idea nonfiction books in order to imitate the professorial point of view…matters little.

The result is that the reader gets pulled in to the Story of how Tipping Points are created and/or prevented by the exited voice of someone who found out a cool new thing. How he stumbled upon it and of how he picked it apart to reveal how it works is just like the kid who discovers a broken lawnmower.

We’ve all done this exploration at one time in our life and we can’t help but be enraptured by reliving the experience through the eyes of another.

At the very beginning of The Tipping Point, “Malcolm Gladwell” promises to walk us through the steps he took to discover what Tipping Points are. He’s going to do that by introducing us to a whole slew of sidekick characters, some everyday Joes just like us, some smart Professor types, and some historical figures. Meeting these figures will help us understand how things come to tip in real life…

In situ not in vitro.

That’s an important distinction. This isn’t just evidence concocted in a laboratory…it’s stuff that happens in everyday life.

We aren’t going to get a whole bunch of theory with no real life back up. When he introduces an idea, he’s going to show us how it came to him. He’ll introduce us to the people he thinks best represent his idea so we can put a face to a concept. That’s a huge innovation too.


But how will he use the 54 piles of research on his desk to make his case for Tipping Points?

Here is the mess on his desk that he’ll have to shuffle and organize into a coherent beginning, middle and end.  In alphabetical order:

  1. Airwalk
  2. Baltimore Syphilis Epidemic
  3. Basketball players in lit and darker gyms
  4. Bernard Goetze
  5. Birth order phenomenon
  6. Blue’s Clues origin Story
  7. Brain teaser to demonstrate importance of context
  8. Cellular phone adoption
  9. Charismatic people in room study
  10. Cheating study
  11. Colorado Springs gonorrhea epidemic
  12. Columbia Record Club Story
  13. Rapid decline in crime in New York City
  14. Decoding 4.5 seconds of film
  15. East St. Louis Teenage HIV
  16. Episode Editing study
  17. Folding a piece of paper to demonstrate exponential growth
  18. Gaetan Dugas as Patient Zero of AIDS
  19. Good Neighborhood/Troubled Family better than Good Family/Troubled Neighborhood
  20. Gore Associates Story
  21. Headphone research
  22. High Scorers and Low Scorers in Same room
  23. High-Tech Company in Delaware
  24. HUG segment on Sesame Street
  25. Hush Puppies Story
  26. Hutterites
  27. Peer’s more important than family
  28. Lois Weisberg Story
  29. Mark Alpert Story
  30. Methodists and John Wesley
  31. Music tone differentiation
  32. Narratives from the Crib
  33. Sesame Street’s Oscar CAT segment
  34. Paul Revere
  35. Peter Jennings Bias for Reagan
  36. Word of Mouth Phenomenon
  37. Possible early AIDS in Netherlands
  38. Rise of Teenage Smaoking
  39. Roger Horchow
  40. Role Models in a community
  41. Rule of 150
  42. Seminarian good Samaritan experiment
  43. Sesame Street origin Story
  44. Sharp Fax Machine Story
  45. Spread of Hybrid Seed Corn
  46. Stanford prison Experiment
  47. Subways in New York City
  48. Tetanus Fear Experiments at Yale
  49. The Sesame Street episode “Roy”
  50. Toys and TV Study
  51. Transactive Memory
  52. Ya Ya Sisterhood
  53. White flight
  54. Yawning

Next up is how he put all of this stuff into a three part structure.

9 comments on “Out of the Rabbit Hole

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for so ably illustrating “progressive complications” with your own cliffhanger…see you next time. As always, thanks!

  2. As much as I enjoyed the detour, it’s so good to be back to this. What a fantastic read!

  3. Ah, I look forward to seeing Adam Westbrook’s reaction to this, considering the conversation we’ve been having in the Story Grid forum about scenes and values in nonfiction.

    1. Hello! I love the idea of the doppelgänger character..to me it seems the key is thinking about the journey from the audience’s point of view, particularly with values and scene progressions, and any device that helps do that could be powerful. It reminds of a scene in the Hitchcock biopic that demonstrated his ability to predict his audience’s reactions to the second.

      I can’t wait to see where this leads!

  4. Len Wilson says:

    Shawn, I appreciate this series deeply. I published my latest book in June, and while all my books have been non-fiction, this one was a radical departure, because I decided when I wrote it in 2013 to treat my thesis as a story. It changed everything about how I write – for the better. And my model was Gladwell. I studied and took apart 3 of his titles – not as you have, but in a similar albeit lesser fashion.

    And while I have been reading your series with interest, this post is the one I was looking for, and both affirms and challenges me. I was in the same position ,having dozens of little stories and knowing they all mattered somehow, and looking for the connective tissue.

    I don’t know what you plan on writing next, but my solution was to create three parts, create a big idea statement for each of the chapters in the three parts (15 total chapters), then slot in the segments as mini-narratives that revealed the big idea, in something like a A-B-A-C-A pattern. I need to dig up the spreadsheet to see if the pattern is correct, but it was something like this.

    Thank you so much for outlining this process. I can’t wait for to see what you say next.

  5. Patric Maher says:

    I guess at the heart of this insight is the notion of curiosity stimulating creativity. However, the skill set most researchers have could easily accommodate a through line to fifty four items in a jiffy – an arc of argument.
    Research is about standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before and, from that elevation, constructing a set of propositions that can be both confirmed and refuted. It is not about constructing a universal ground level world view about anything, no matter how clear the conclusions and recommendations may be.
    So fifty four disparate items that fell out of a line of enquiry are not actually disparate. They are connected by a thematic premise. The important point is that creativity can construct a plausible insight from such a list and it will take on the mask of a verity; while research just becomes a new set of shoulders to stand on for another researcher and such a list is just a series of dots in a ‘join up the dots’ picture.
    For researchers, the biggest problem has always been to convert their findings into ‘duckies and horsies’.
    So framed in terms of Lucy and Peanuts, Gladwell had show some skill in moving from premise, confirmation and refutation to creativity – from altitude to ground level. But he is still looking at clouds that are constantly reshaping themselves.

  6. Talmage says:

    Thank you. This will help me. I especially like the concept of taking nonfiction far away from the standard textbook style of forced “learning” that dominates education. Ironically, perhaps, I find myself becoming dry and didactic in my fiction lately. Hmmm.

  7. Patricia Wilson says:

    Shawn, the “raison d’etre for my following the Story Grid was the same you outlined for Malcolm Gladwell. I have not only this lengthy fiction manuscript (most of which I’ve thrown out and rewritten); also those ubiquitous messages to myself in notebooks, on random pieces of paper, even paper towels, not to mention multiple saved “Word” documents. Now I’ve got this mess, though the story I want to tell is fairly clear in my mind’s eye, yet how do I meld the valuable or discard what is detritus? The Story Grid. Thank you.

  8. Larry says:

    Hi, Shawn

    A little copyediting: the plural of kavanah is kavanot; similarly, the plural of matarah is matarot.

    Outside of the military, kavanah is mostly brought up when speaking about prayer or meditation. I’m including a quote from Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer by Zalman-Schachter-Shalomi and Joel Segel that I found enlightening:
    We have alluded to the Hebrew phrase le-khaven el ha-matarah, to aim at the bull’s-eye. (Le-khaven is from the same root as kavanah, kaf-vav-nun) This is a useful metaphor, When I finally embrace a matarah — a bull’s-eye, a target for my existence — and I say, “Yes, I will go with that, I will invest in that, I will invest myself with that,” then my embracing becomes a kavanah.

    Or, as Bill Murray says to Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day, “Be the hat.”

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