Stories Are About Change

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the seminal book On Death and Dying (1969) in which she laid out a psychological model for the stages of extreme change…coping with the death of a loved one. In the years after publication, psychologists, sociologists and economists have applied Kubler-Ross’s work to the process of dealing with many varieties of life change. Most notably, her stages of grief were applied to organizational change in an article entitled “Applying Grief Stages to Organizational Change” by P. Scire in Mark R. Brent’s book An Attributional Analysis of Kubler-Ross’s Model of Dying (Harvard University, 1981), an article that inspired me to think of Story as “coping with change” narrative.

The bottom line with change (and change is the substance of Story) is that it requires loss. Even when change is positive, we lose something of ourselves coping with its effects. Lottery winners are a great example of the monumental effect of positive change.

I promised in my last post to explain why I think Stories break down to 25% beginning hook, 50% middle build, and 25% ending payoff. So for our purposes, I’ve created a change curve that best aligns with the storyteller process.

Here it is:


Kubler-Ross Change Curve for Story

Let’s walk through it. You’ll see that the vertical axis reflects the effects of change on the protagonist/s of your Story. The higher the position on the Y-Axis, the more comfortable and competent the character is. The lower the position, the less comfortable and competent. The horizontal access represents Time. I’ve broken the Time into our three parts—beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff.

Let’s begin at the beginning SHOCK.

Remember that when life throws us out of kilter, it takes us a certain amount of time to even realize that we’re out of kilter. There is an initial shock about an event in our life and then shortly thereafter, a denial that the event even occurred. We just pretend that everything is as it ever was until we’re forced to face facts.

I think these two stages, SHOCK and DENIAL, comprise THE BEGINNING HOOK of a Story.

The beginning hook of a story ends when the protagonist or multiple cast of the story can no longer deny the truth. The climax and resolution of the BEGINNING HOOK pushes us into the MIDDLE BUILD of our story and also the middle of the change curve.

The middle forces us to react to the truth of the life event.

Once we can no longer bullshit ourselves about our circumstances, we get ANGRY. We blame others or the Gods for what has stricken us, lash out, usually making our circumstances even worse. After we burn off our anger, we search for the easiest way out of our situation. We work to BARGAIN our way out of the problem. Perhaps we push the problem to someone else, who is sure to fail solving it.

Or we decide that if we change our environment, we will be able to slough off the problem. We move to another city. We change jobs. We find a new spouse. We buy a better lifestyle. Of course, the bargaining proves fruitless. The monkey on our back (coping with the shock necessitating a change in ourselves) gets even heavier.

When we discover that there is no easy solution to our predicament and all of our bargaining has left us broken and battered in worse circumstances that if we had faced the problem head on at the beginning, we finally come to the understanding that there is no way we can turn back.

Our lives will never be the same. We’ve lost. We bottom out in DEPRESSION.

This depression is dramatized in what screenwriters call the ALL IS LOST MOMENT scene. We despair. There is no way in Hell that we’re going to come out of this event anywhere near how we were before it happened. It’s finally clear to us that our life will never be the same.

Once we can no longer live with our sad sack, life-is-no-fair selves, we take a deep breath and get to work. We dig deep and confront our demon/s, stare down our problems and resolve to beat them into submission. We come to THE DELIBERATION stage. This is the moment we weigh the pros and cons about what we can do to cope with the big change in our lives.

We finally see the crisis for what it really is, a single question that has no easy answer. Whatever we do will require loss.

We must choose the best bad choice or an irreconcilable good, knowing that we have to lose something in order to gain forward progress and reach a new level of stability. We understand that we’ll never get back to “normal,” so we stop trying.

I think these four stages, ANGER, BARGAINING, DEPRESSION and DELIBERATION, thematically comprise the MIDDLE BUILD of a Story.

Now the beginning of the ENDING PAYOFF of a Story is how we choose to answer our crisis dilemma. CHOICE is the climactic moment when we actively do something that will finally metabolize the inciting incident event and change our lives forever.

Once we choose, we barrel forward, damn the torpedoes and act.

Lastly, there is INTEGRATION, which I would call the very end of a Story. INTEGRATION dramatizes resolution. We’ve found a new stability, one that is vastly different that where we began. We’ve got a whole new outlook on life and we’re not the same person we once were. At INTEGRATION, we have come full circle and have recovered from the SHOCK of a big inciting incident in our life. No matter what, by the end of the story we will never go back to where or who we were before.

This entire change process is 8 stages.

In terms of telling a story (a change process) the BEGINNING HOOK is two parts, the MIDDLE BUILD is four parts and the ENDING PAYOFF is two parts.

What do you know?

In terms of percentage of the change cycle, 25% of the cycle comprises the beginning, 50% for the middle, and 25% for the end. So the 25/50/25 rule mirrors the process that psychologists have hypothesized is required for a global personal point of view change. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s theories can be helpful in other ways too. Especially if you get stuck trying to understand how your protagonist will psychologically proceed through your story. Here’s how the building materials of Story break down psychologically.

The Inciting Incident SHOCKS our protagonist…throws them off balance to the point of DENIAL…hooking the reader’s curiosity about how the denial will come back to haunt the protagonist.

This beginning to the story transitions into the progressive complications in the middle, when the protagonist can no longer deny his predicament. He rages about his plight, bargains ineffectively to make it go away, realizes his life will never be the same and despairs during his ALL IS LOST MOMENT, until he regroups and deliberates about his crisis.

He makes a choice, often called THE POINT OF NO RETURN, and the story moves toward the ending payoff when he makes that CHOICE active during the climax, which results in the INTEGRATION of a new point of view, which is the Story’s Resolution.

So, if you get stuck and you’re not sure where to take your character in any one place during your Story, think about these eight stages. Are you dramatizing the psychological turmoil of your lead character/s?

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.

31 comments on “Stories Are About Change

  1. This is the single most important article I’ve ever read about story structure. It’s universal.

    I’ve been looking for the structure of a short story, versus a novel. Thing is, story structure is universal, so these 8 stages are still going to happen. They’ll happen in a narrower field to fewer characters, focusing on (most likely) a single event rather than a series, but the psychology of coping with change is universal, and story has long been one of our most powerful tools along the way.

    I know this stuff is all old news to you, Shawn, but this is where your depth of experience shows, in these deep insights. Thank you.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Really appreciate your comment. It’s very rewarding to read that what I think about so obsessively is as exiting to others as it is to me. And I know you read everything out there about Story structure…

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Reading this post made me smack my own head in one of those “I could have had a V8” moments. The Kubler-Ross stage model is the perfect change map, and it’s been in front of me all this time but I didn’t see it (full disclosure, I’m trained in the mental health field, am familiar with this model and have no excuse for not having put this together myself). As always, I’m grateful for your insights.

    Happy New Year to you and to everyone who visits this blog every week – can’t wait to see what’s next!

    1. Mary, it’s delightful to see someone who knows this from a professional level declare it sensible.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Many thanks and Happy New Year too! Lots more to come.

    3. Jule Kucera says:

      Mary, you’re not the only one doing the V8 smack. I’m not only familiar with the model, I’ve put it into multiple training programs! Oh, life is too funny sometimes. Ah, but we have this place to see what we have not seen so we can do what we have not done. Happy New Year–here’s to what we will write in 2015!

  3. Michael Beverly says:

    I’m a little confused about the “all is lost” placement.
    You have it in the “depression” area, the middle of the story.

    But I thought that the “all is lost” part comes in Act III, after the hero has decided to change, to fight, to become the warrior, and the very capable villain rises up, one last time, and places the hero in jeopardy.

    As the hero faces the “all is lost” moment, the hero becomes the martyr, the true hero, and either wins the day, beating the villain, or loses to the villain but only by conquering the inner demon and proving virtue.

    I’m a mixing two different “all is lost” moments?

    Are there supposed to be two of them?

    1. Michael Perkins says:

      I wondered about this as well.

      Great post, as usual.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      I believe the all is lost is the bottom of Depression and happens before the climactic Ending payoff. I believe you are talking about THE HERO AT THE MERCY OF THE VILLAIN SCENE, which is usually in the Ending Payoff CLIMAX and not ALL IS LOST.

      We don’t change until we realize that there is no alternative. Once we realize that we’ve already lost whatever it is we were desperately trying to hold on to, that’s when we raise the courage to deliberate and act on our new circumstances. Ending payoffs are one quarter of the story, while the middle build is half.

      We know Rocky is going to fight Apollo Creed and we even believe he might beat him. That is until the end of the middle build of the Story when Rocky goes to the ring the night before the fight and realizes that there is no way he’ll ever beat the champ. All is lost in that moment and then he decides that what is is capable of doing is going 15 rounds. That’s enough for Rocky and it’s enough for the audience. If we don’t see that all is lost moment in Rocky, we’d find the ending disappointing. Anyway, all of this stuff is really one man’s opinion. You can use whatever works for you.
      All the best

      1. Judy Potocki says:

        This placement is true for screenwriting paradigms, as well. Fabulous insights, Shawn. I can use them immediately as emotional markers for the character’s development in his or her arc.

      2. Michael Beverly says:

        No, no, you are correct, I see that now.

        Depression, all is lost, no hope;

        “we need a bigger boat”.

        Then, after the hero decides to act, the “hero at mercy of villain” scene just shows us how capable the villain really is (everyone but the chief is eaten, the boat is sinking).

        I was confused because it seemed like “all hope is lost” when he’s on the mast, just feet above the water and the shark is closing, but in reality, he’s already conquered his own inner demons and he’s fighting back, he might get eaten and it would be tragic, but he’s not depressed or lost.

        Insight, thank you.

        Btw, in the movie they resurrect the shark expert, because, I’m assuming, the nobody wants to kill Richard Dreyfus, but in the book, he dies.

        Poetic justice because he’d bedded Brody’s wife (my favorite chapter as a preadolescence reader).

        Do you think the movie ending with two survivors is better than the novel ending with only the chief?

        I think the novel makes his lone survival more heroic, the experienced captain dies, the shark expert dies, only the hero of the story lives.

        Is that something we should aim for, or is it too cheesy?

        1. Tina Goodman says:

          I liked the movie ending best.

      3. Trudee says:

        Michael Beverly, very glad you asked that question, and Shawn, thanks for the perfect answer that really helps with the low point in my WOP that I was struggling with in this regard.

  4. Shawn- I have to echo the others’ sentiments. You’ve had many insightful and earth-shattering posts before, but this post for me is as cataclysmic as they come. I think you just raised the bar for yourself on this one. Thanks as always, and I can’t wait for the book!

  5. PJ Reece says:

    Love it. Surely these are the real elements of Story. Thank you. At the heart of the dynamic you’re talking about, Shawn, there’s a tiny moment that is rarely commented upon except by people like the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, who has actually measured this moment — 1.6 seconds! (She’s being facetious…or is she?) It’s at the heart of the “All is lost” moment. I like to think that this transcendental moment is “why we read fiction.” When all is lost, even our power to choose is gone. The Christian mystics even claim that God is gone (or should be). This flash is an unbridgable abyss that separates the old character from the new. For this reason, I see a story as two stories separated by this gap. In that gap the protagonist has escaped from under the weight of who he always thought he was, and sees, as Proust says, “almost the whole universe.” SEES is the key. Are we afraid to talk about the best fiction as turning on a transcendental experience? I suggest that until we do, we won’t ever get to the heart of why we read… or why we write fiction. What say ye?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I say Indeed! Thanks PJ!

  6. Cynthia Port says:

    Hi Shawn, just discovered you through Joel, making me a first time listener, first time caller. Thanks for this post. It helped me further clarify why the first few chapters of my middle grade historical fiction novel never feel right. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a funeral to write from the perspective of a 3 year old girl.

  7. Shane says:


    This is great insight, I’ve been following your work for a couple of months now and it has helped me in my writing significantly. I don’t write fiction, but the strict process you’re walking through can be adapted to pretty much any project.

    Thanks again!

  8. Felipe says:

    Very interesting parallel with the hero’s journey! Totally makes sense.

  9. Pleiades Smith says:

    Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant!

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    I am grateful to have found this so early on in my career path, while all my projects are still in outline or early draft form.

    Every novel I am currently working on and every novel I someday will start will be much the better for this.

    And I am already.

    When my website eventually goes up, I will link to this.

  10. Herbert Exner says:

    It’s brilliant!

    It has inspired me to transfer this great diagnosis tool to (quantitative) innovations (I’ve evaluated (reviewed) about 500 innovation projects for the European Commission over 10 years) – experienced as innovator and innovation marketer.

    The scheme I’ve in mind (already prototyped) is much better than the schemes we’ve used for our assessments .

    Doing this I am a borrower (of your core ideas).

    Can I ever redeem?

    A small try.

    Innovation is (also) about change.

    To make the change effective , we recommend

    1. Analyze the system you want to change, but not too much
    2. Apply explorative, experiment (evolutionary) prototyping
    3. Organize feed back loops with featured clients, focus groups…
    4. Seek connections and alliances
    5. Make it “antifragile” (become stronger, when stress is added)

    Your tool is a fantastic diagnosis tool, but, IMO, also a prototyping tool.

    The 5 points above recommend an innovator’s role as Analyst, Nowist, Communicator, Connector and Risk Manager…with your help and your tool more authors could become nowists and risk managers?

    However, thank you Shawn!

    1. Herbert Exner says:

      “…experimental…”, sorry

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Absolutely correct. The Story Grid methods are both diagnostic and indispensable prototyping tools. They can make a work better or inspire a completely new one. Thanks so much for getting to the essence of the thing.

  11. Joe says:

    I could not wait to get to this site after seeing you on Joanna Penn’s podcast. I’ve had a sense that Kubler-Ross could be applied to just about anything – I have a main character dealing with being a widower and forced retirement at the same time, but to overall story structure. Wow. This is coming at a perfect time for me as I get deep into my mystery series.
    One thing: I have an antagonist bent on revenge because he feels cheated. The reader knows the antognist’s story, his needs, his reasons for committing a crime. When things go wrong, the man goes berzerk. It’s like there are continuous change curves within the greater story. Thoughts?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Joe,
      So happy you came to the site. Can’t really comment on your work in progress as I’m covering the global editing landscape here. And the last thing I want to do is lead you down the wrong road. I’d suggest you just start at the beginning of the posts and work your way through at your leisure. I suspect there will be an answer in there somewhere. I also wrote this as my friend Steven Pressfield’s site a while back which may help.
      All the best,

      1. Joe says:

        Thanks. I’m working my way through the posts. Very educational, especially for an old newspaper editor like me.

  12. Anna Girolami says:

    Hi Shawn –

    Last year, I heard an entertaining and helpful lecture from the head film reviewer of a British broadsheet newspaper. She said that she’d fruitlessly spent several years trying to decide how many basic types of story there are. Is it seven? Is it three? Is it more? After extensive research (aka watching and thinking about lots and lots of films), she eventually reached the conclusion that, really, there is only one story: “a stranger came to town”. In other words, something changes and what are you going to do about it, buddy?

    I found that idea very resonant and this post seems to me to accord with it perfectly. I love it when the experts can agree!

    I’m batch-reading these posts at the moment. I echo everyone else’s thanks for your generosity.

    1. “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” — Leo Tolstoy

      Of course, those aren’t really plots, but they’re the larger buckets any plot could probably be placed in.

      And, looking at those two, they’re simply two perspectives on the same even: the traveler’s and those visited.

      Thanks for the nudge to revisit that quote. Reminds me of the cowboys & aliens book I need to outline.

  13. Two sides of the same coin? Yes, I see that. Thanks Joel.

  14. Nan Roberts says:

    I just read The Meat in the Middle, and then this post. I’m trying to apply all this to what started as a short-short story, but I’m expanding. This Kubler-Ross paradigm will help a lot, I think, to take my story apart and look at the pro- and antagonists and then put it all back together. But at the same time, I’m applying this to my own life, which has been following this very same pattern, plus complications. (I’m at Deliberation, now, I think.) So that also helps in terms of telling the story, because I’m living it (the process, not the story.) So I must give my protagonist feelings and motives, and same for the bad guys. It’s not enough that stuff happens. I have to show what effect stuff has on the people, and therefore what they do next. Harder in a short story.
    Thanks, Shawne. I will go back and read everything else. Does any of this apply to essays?

  15. ohita says:

    This paradigm just makes me understand that literature is all about LIFE itself. Many thanks.

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