Outlining a Redemption Story

In my last post I described one way to use the methodology of The Story Grid to build out an original Story. By starting with a very compelling contemporary controlling idea, one that Robert McKee nailed in his classic book Story, we’d be able to reverse engineer a work plan to create a first draft of a novel, a screenplay or a TV Pilot. (Or even a sticky, irresistible personal Story one could use to get a job, build a sales pitch around, or get a suspicious colleague to join you on a project.)

Here is that controlling idea again:

The compulsive pursuit of contemporary values—success, fortune, fame, sex, power—will destroy you, but if you see this truth in time and throw away your obsession, you can redeem yourself.” (Page 125, Story by Robert McKee)

But before I break out the yellow one-sheet, it’s important to remind everyone just where the Foolscap Method came from.

Remember that there are two major components to a Global Story. There is the Macro View, big picture. And there is the Micro View, beat-by-beat, scene-by-scene, sequence-by-sequence, act-by-act construction. One of the very big reasons why writing a compelling Story, or joke for that matter, is so difficult is that these two indispensable skills (having the big picture vision and also the capability to execute the little things to paint it) are often mutually exclusive.

Steve Jobs was great at the Macro, but he needed Steve Wozniak to actually put the Micro circuit boards together to create the first Apple Computer.

Moshe Dayan understood Israel’s Big Picture situation in 1967 and had the genius to negotiate the intersection of his nation’s necessity (just to survive) and its most desperate desire (to reclaim the Old City in Jerusalem). But without the Micro of in-the-air fighter jocks like Giora Romm to hunt and destroy enemy MiGs and ground-pounding soldiers like Eli Rikovitz to execute the nation’s Kavanah, Dayan’s leadership would have amounted to naught.

The Sabras were so tightly knit, Spartan-like, that they pulled off perhaps the most audacious military victory in history. The Six-Day-War (Seriously? It only lasted Six Days?) was as big a win for the Western world as Thermopylae was as crucial a loss. If you haven’t read Steven Pressfield’s The Lion’s Gate, you’re missing the best narrative nonfiction book I’ve ever worked on—a work of art as potent as his Gates of Fire.

I bring up the work of my friend Steven Pressfield because it is through his inspiration that I devised The Foolscap Global Story Grid.

And as these things go, Steve himself devised his version of Foolscapping from his friend Norm Stahl. You can read more of the Foolscap origin story here.

This is what blue-collar writers do for one another. If they come up with a notion that works for them, they share it with their fellow laborers.  They’re not possessive of a tool that could help a fellow scribe. The prolific documentary filmmaker Stahl had little time for preciousness and needed to have a Macro one page outline for an entire project at hand to meet his schedule.  So he wrote down everything he needed to know to shoot on one page of yellow legal sized foolscap.

Norm told Steve to get his head out of his navel and figure out his beginning, middle and end of his Story…put it on one sheet of paper and then write the damn thing. Decades later, Steve told me about the Foolscap Method and I mangled my outrageously complex Macro Story Grid methodology into a one-page framework too.

Steve’s Black Irish book, The Authentic Swing, is about how he used The Foolscap Method to write his bestselling first novel The Legend of Bagger Vance. And what you’ll find if you read that charming little book is that Steve’s Foolscap Method is much more streamlined than mine.


The answer is all about the Macro/Micro Story dichotomy.

I approach writing like an editor.

I had to learn Story principles to evaluate submissions, find ways to fix broken ones and to improve those that worked. I needed to be able to sum up a Story in three sentences at an editorial meeting or in a publisher’s office. If I couldn’t do that well, I’d never get authorization to acquire novels that would be successful enough to take me from editorial assistant to assistant editor to editor to senior editor to executive editor to editorial director to editor in chief to publisher.

For the Editor, mastering Story Macro trumps the Micro.

Steve approaches writing like…well…a writer…someone who intuitively knew that he was put on earth to tell Stories. He then tasked himself to figure out the best way he could do that.

Unfortunately there was no and still is no practical craft-like University sponsored approach to learning how to effectively write a Story. You can’t take Story 101 at Williams College or The University of Indiana. Those courses don’t exist. Even though they should!

The Story Grid would be one of the textbooks for that course. That’s why I wrote it.

Anyway, without any ivory tower instruction, Steve wrote manuscript after manuscript that didn’t work. Even though each new one was incrementally better than the previous one. The scenes were tighter. The dialogue crisper. The milieu more captivating. The Micro Story components kept getting better and better and better.

But something was missing. A Kavanah.

And then Steve had lunch with Norm Stahl and it clicked for him. He discovered that he’d been obsessing over the Micro Element of the writing craft. And because of that work, he’d learned how to make beats and scenes and sequences and acts hum with narrative velocity. But still his work was still not being picked up for publication.

Now he knew why. Norm laid it out for Steve in five minutes what had taken him decades to be able to understand.

Steve needed to master the Macro Element of writing if he wanted to get his work from “doesn’t work” to “works.”  And he created his version of The Foolscap Method to do that.

Because of his 10,000 hours honing his Micro beforehand, Steve did not have to layout all of the stuff I put into my Foolscap Global Story Grid. He already knew the necessity of having inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions so deep in his bones that he didn’t need to map them all out on his Foolscap. Steve tells this Story much better than I in The Authentic Swing.

Now, as a dear friend of mine is fond of saying, “Let’s get back to me and my shit.”

As a book editor, I know Story’s Macro Element like the back of my hand. But what I found years ago is telling a writer that his third act isn’t working isn’t very helpful. What writers need to understand is how to practically fix their Micro problems so that their Macro moves from “doesn’t work” to “works.”

So I had to learn the Micro in order to walk a writer through a revision or page one re-write that would fix his Macro problems. I had to learn how to speak the writer’s language. And all of that work is in The Story Grid.

Why am I bringing all of this up? Isn’t this post about Foolscapping the Redemption Story?

The reason why I’ve brought Steve Pressfield and The Authentic Swing up is that he mapped out The Legend of Bagger Vance, his bestselling first novel that went on to be adapted in the Robert Redford film, in much the same way that I’m about to lay to you now.

Before he wrote one word of his first draft!

What’s remarkable too is that at the time, Steve had no idea that he was about to craft a Story that fit perfectly into two Genres, the Performance External Content Genre and the Redemption Internal Content Genre.

He was, like you, a writer in a hurry. But this time instead of letting his Micro skill set meander him from beginning to “end”, he began with a Macro idea first. He already knew he had the discipline to execute the Micro. So he challenged himself to solve his Macro.

It’s worth repeating. Once Steve had his Macro clearly outlined on his Foolscap page, he and the Muse went to town on the Micro. He’s written everything in the exact same way post Bagger. And there hasn’t been a dud that had to be filed in his closet since.

But what if you haven’t put in 10,000 hours on the Micro Story stuff like Steve had?

This is where The Story Grid toolbox comes in. Like a combo set of Mikata power tools, The Story Grid makes work that would take months…years…and brings it down to days and weeks.  It’s an exponential reducer of labor.

Now,the first tool to break out of the box for a writer desiring to plan a work of fiction from scratch is The Foolscap Global Story Grid.

So without further ado, here is my first crack creating a generic roadmap for a Global Redemption Story–the Genre that includes CasablancaKramer vs. KramerTerms of EndearmentRocky, Tender Mercies, and dozens of other classic Stories.

I’ll walk you through it line by line in the next post.

A Foolscap for an Untitled Redemption Story

A Foolscap for an Untitled Redemption Story

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts The Story Grid Bonus Material posts and Storygridding The Tipping Point posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.


19 comments on “Outlining a Redemption Story

  1. Jack Price says:

    Dear Shawn,

    Thanks to this blog, I finally grew the cojones to pull my much-loved and oft-rejected novel from under the bed and start running it through The Story Grid process. I blush as the naïve structural errors and omissions leap from the page.

    I remember slaving away at the micro through many, many revisions and polishes. But to paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the macro, stupid!” How can a reader possibly understand my global story if I haven’t truly nailed it myself?

    As if your book weren’t enough, your current and previous posts have opened another window. My story fits the performance and redemption-morality genres! (Now it’s so obvious.)

    Maybe the hippie-dippy, navel-gazing spiritualists are right, and the Universe is conspiring to help me out. If so… umm… thanks, Universe. And thanks to you for your incredible generosity in sharing your knowledge and experience.


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      So great to read your comment. And I think the next post (even though I haven’t written it yet) should be even more helpful. I confess that if I ever muster enough cojones myself to write a novel, using the Performance/Redemption genres would definitely appeal to me. What’s so great about them is that they can apply to anything. I saw a movie the other night about the codebreakers (The Imitation Game) which was essentially a Peformance/Redemption plot. Will Turing crack Enigma? The Redemption side of the equation has to do with his ability to care for other people beyond himself. It’s a flawed film I think (but what isn’t besides The Godfather or Chinatown?
      Anyway it is all about Macro/Micro. When you nail both, your novel will work. Trust me.
      All the best

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for an excellent post Shawn!

  3. Here I am, trying to start my next mystery, and you keep making me up my game.

    Yeah, you give me all the tools to do it, but now I can’t cruise anymore.

    The Foolscap is a rocket launcher for writers, that’s what it is. And having read all Steve’s nonfiction and started on his fiction, if I can grow up to be one-tenth the writer he is by using the same tools, it’s the biggest leg up since Neil Armstrong got a ride for the first 286,000 miles and only had to walk the last couple steps.

  4. Alec Graf says:

    Shawn, what’s interesting here is that instead of filling in specific scenes in the BH, MB and EP sections, you’ve plugged in your generic obligatory scene descriptions. By keeping it generic at this point, you allow room for your lateral thinking to spill out any number of specific possibilities — with the rule of thumb being, *make it new*. You’re not tied down to some pre-imagined scene yet. You’re free.

    Furthermore, once you have something specific and *new* to replace the generic marker, you can start reverse engineering equally new scenes to fill out the rest of the grid, plugging in your Inciting Incidents, Complications, etc. with stuff that logically and surprisingly leads up to or falls out from what you already have.

    Ingenious…! And many thanks again.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Alec,
      Exactly! This is the beauty of The Story Grid methodology. It will tell you the “kind” of scenes you’ll need to create. But it won’t tell you how to specifically create them. This is the difference between FORM and FORMULA. Knowing the FORM allows you to rack your brain SPECIFICALLY. You’ll have a mission for a particular scene…but not the specific path. You’ll know that you have to move from a positive value at the beginning of a particular scene and end with its negative corollary and vice versa. And for the major shifts in the Story, you’ll know the value too. How you do it, though is all you. Some people when they are young want to go to college. Many fight like hell to get “good grades” and rise to the top of their class to make it. That’s one path. Others spend more time exploring extracurricular work and while they have okay grades, they are spectacular violinists. Both students go to college, but one has gone on one path, another another.
      All the best

      1. Alec Graf says:

        Form vs Formula — good food for thought. Thanks again Shawn.

  5. Tina Goodman says:

    The compulsive pursuit for contemporary values like fame, success. I like the way this is contrasted by the professors’ lives in Good Will Hunting. Also, the redemption of Will wins me over.

  6. Shawn,
    I love studying children’s books and movies when I’m first trying to make sense of a new story structure idea. They keep it simple enough that I can find all the important scenes and conventions. Plus, I have young kids, so I can hang out with them while I analyze. As I was reading this post and noticing the conventions of the Redemption story, I immediately thought of the movie “Cars”. Seems to fit perfectly. Can’t wait for more details.

  7. From reading Story Grid, I realized I write thrillers (soft, very soft thrillers, because I am fundamentally a wimp. I can’t watch thriller movies because they affect me too much). Thus, my current story is developing nicely, with the requisite scenes and increasing stakes.

    Little did I know, however, that the story brewing in my head is Redemption. But now I know. So I’m bouncing in my writer’s chair, almost patiently waiting for your next post. Thank you so much.

  8. Georgina says:

    Hi, i’m greatful to Shawn for sharing such priceless knowledge. This is by far the best site i have ever found (and i hunt in the internet for an education). Thank you.

  9. Aaron Wolfson says:

    Hey Shawn,
    Can the obligatory scenes you list here apply for any External Genre that is used with a Global Redemption Genre? Or do they only apply to Performance?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Aaron,
      If you are making a concerted effort to stress the Redemption plot as the overarching global story, then yes. The obligatory scenes and conventions of the redemption story will drive the global must-have scenes. Off the top of my head I would say that TRUE GRIT is an example of a Western Redemption Plot. Hard to make the call without knowing the details of what you would be planning…

  10. Larry says:

    There is another type of Redemption story, where the protagonist is not moving from a selfish to an unselfish worldview, but where he is trying to make up for a single action for which he feels guilt/shame. The Four Feathers is probably the best known example (there have been three movie versions, so A.E. Mason must have done something right). Other examples are the movies They Came to Cordura and Seven Pounds.

    The redemption story where the character does change from selfish to altruistic can also end with both Internal and External wins — two examples are A Christmas Carol and the origin story of Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts.

  11. Robert Guidi says:

    So Shawn, loving the materials. I am just trying to understand how to use the spreadsheet approach when we have both an internal and external story. Why do we not have one column for the external story and one column for the internal story?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Robert,
      You have to choose one dominant genre. You can have two, but when push comes to shove you need to decide which one will be the global force of the story. Star Wars is a coming of age/maturation plot global genre…even though it is sci-fi/space opera too. If you asked George Lucas he’d talk about The hero’s journey being the core focus of the story and Luke’s maturation being the point of the thing… He used external genre to inform and make his internal genre progression active.
      This is the stuff that Tim Grahl and I have been batting around in the Podcast…do you want your Story to be Externally dominant or Internally dominant. Once you make that choice, the driving moments in the Foolscap must pay off in that one global genre.
      Hope that helps.

      1. Robert Guidi says:

        I understand that one of the stories has to be dominant but I am just thinking that for the Secondary story to be successful it needs to have a solid structure as well. I have mapped my secondary story but I’m struggling to map of its third movement – are you saying that that doesn’t necessarily have to be a full three movement structure to the secondary story?

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Robert
          Use the story grid tools in the ways you feel are most helpful. You seem to have a strong grasp of the concepts. Now it’s your turn to apply them in the best way for you. Go with your gut and add whatever you need to your foolscap and spreadsheet. Everyone creates a unique work model. Mine may not be best for you. Just remember that secondary plot lines are secondary to the global and that they must serve the larger controlling idea. A question to ask yourself is “If I had to cut all secondary story lines…would this story still work?”
          Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.
          Hemingway knew that there was no secondary story line necessary for that micro jewel of the form. The reader fills all of that in for him. When in doubt…simplify.
          All the best

          1. Robert Guidi says:

            Roger that. Thanks to you (and Tim) for bringing all this great “technique” to life.

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