The Foolscap Story Grid

[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience.

In this episode, we dive into the foolscap method in story grid. It’s taking the entire book and putting it on one piece of paper. It’s a pretty cool exercise especially coming out of all of the really micro, looking at each individual scene, what’s going on in each scene and things that I can fix in each scene that I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks.

And now it’s able to step back and look at the story as a whole. I finished filling out the foolscap and in this episode, Shawn and I dive in and start working through each piece. It’s a really useful tool as you edit your first draft and I think you’re really going to get a lot out of this episode.

Let’s jump in and get started.


[0:01:06.5] TG: Shawn, a few weeks ago, I finished the first draft of the novel and now we’ve entered into trying to figure out how to edit this first draft because this is what I’ve realized with story grid is this is where it shines apart from other methodology. There’s save the cat and there’s story and there’s other people teaching methodologies for writing which you know, all have their merits, none of them were bad but what I realized is, they all get you to a first draft but they don’t help you get past the first draft.

Where, as we’ve started going through this, applying the story grid to a now an actual manuscript instead of a work in progress, it’s helping me see things in such a different light. Anyway, the first thing you had me do was go scene by scene and put it in to the story grid spreadsheet and fill out the first five or six columns and then create a long grain storm to do list of things I thought — I’ve even added a couple of more over the past week as I’ve thought about it. My wife has started reading it. She’s giving me some feedback too, that’s been good. Then this last week, you had me now move to — instead of going scene by scene, kind of looking at the book as a whole and do the story grid foolscap sheet where you put the whole book on one page. That’s what I did.

I just went ahead and added it to the same Google spreadsheet. I’ll link to it again in the notes and I even made it yellow with all the lines exactly the same like blue and red just so on a foolscap and I was doing that when I kept getting stuck and I didn’t know what to do. I would fiddle with that for a few minutes and then try to finish it and then fiddle with it.

Anyway, I put it all in there and I definitely hit some places I wasn’t — I had a really hard time with the external, internal charge of the different pieces and you know, I’m not 100% on if I got — yeah, I don’t know if I put in there what you were looking for but it’s all there.

[0:03:21.7] SC: Okay. Just one comment about what you said at the beginning and that is, you have to remember where the story grid came from. It came from a guy who is trying to do a job and the job that I had to do was to make books that my publishing company acquired better.

The way I could do that was to create a systematic way of analyzing the stories so that I can communicate properly with the writers who had written hem. That’s really why it’s so practical is because I couldn’t talk in very global terms with writers, they wanted me to tell them, what do you need me to do so that I can get my delivery and acceptance check?

Because they wanted the money, rightfully so, they had written a book, part of their advance payment was a very big payment on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript from the publisher. What that means is that an editor puts them through all this paces and finally when the editor’s happy, he puts through the check with the accounting department. As the editor, I would get in trouble if I accepted a manuscript before it was ready because guess what would happen?

The writer wouldn’t want to do any work, we’d already accepted it and that basically meant we had to publish it. You know, it had a very, there was a very — the elephant in the room and the relationship was that, if they didn’t do what I told them to do, I could essentially fire them and force them to give back their advance to the publisher.

They were very motivated to do what I ask them to do. From my point of view, the way I could help them would be to be as specific as possible so that I could say to them, well you don’t have the conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen genre. You’ve got two thirds of them. Here are the ones that you don’t have and I would say, you don’t have the speech and praise of the villain, you don’t have — you’re not red herrings, et cetera.

When I explained it to them like that, they’d go, you know what? You’re right, I can fix that. What’s next? That was how the story grid evolved and it was always a wonderful way of avoiding a lot of negative atmosphere between two people. Anyway, I think the people — I forget the guy who wrote save the cat but Robert McKee and all the other great craftsman of story who know it so well, they were put in a position where they had to make it so practical that somebody would be able to do the thing and then they could get their money.

That’s why the story grid is so valuable to me and to other people is because it was built by necessity to be specific. Yeah, I think it’s a great idea to keep going through your foolscap global story grid and the fact that you had some questions and you were unsure of things and you know, that’s good.

It means that you’re thinking about it and if you’re unsure of something, that means that either you didn’t make the choice necessary that you were required to make or the choice that you made at the time was incorrect or it also means that maybe you didn’t make a choice at all.

[0:07:01.5] TG: It’s not that there’s something wrong with your story grid method? It has to be something wrong with my book?

[0:07:08.5] SC: Well, we can test it. Let’s see, I always say that, I’m willing to put it, put the entire thing under another test and we’ll figure it out by the end of the call whether or not I was right or you were right.

Now, from what I remember, we left off last time by — we went through the obligatory scenes and conventions of the thriller right?

[0:07:34.4] TG: That’s correct. We have the point of view, objects of desire and controlling idea theme left in the global story at the top part of the page.

[0:07:43.7] SC: Right. The point of view is pretty easy, it’s in third person and then at one point, it shifts into free indirect style and that’s what about midpoint of the novel?

[0:07:57.0] TG: Yeah, I think it’s after she meets with Randy so right in the middle.

[0:08:02.1] SC: So the only question that arises now is will that work? Is that a viable approach to the point of view and the answer that I always give when that question arises is does it work? Is it so blatantly ridiculous that you shift from third person to free indirect style that the reader is going to be thrown out of their chair and they’ll be completely thrown out of the experience? And in my estimation I don’t think they will.

[0:08:39.6] TG: Yeah because when we went over the very first scene that I switched to at you didn’t even noticed it. We had talked about that and then the only other switch that I would talk about is it’s the entire beginning hook and middle build of the book is from Jessie’s point of view and then the first scene of the ending payoff is from Randy’s point of view.

[0:09:03.2] SC: Right.

[0:09:03.7] TG: And then it even jumps around until Jessie wakes back up and then it’s all from Jessie’s point of view again.

[0:09:09.6] SC: Well I think that has to be, there has to be a foundation put in place to make that absolutely workable and I’ll just get into it now. One of the ways that you can solve this kind of problem is to even go to a higher level of a storytelling point of view and what I mean by that is, if the master storyteller, the very omniscient narrator makes a choice in that, you have two points of view in the story but he lets somebody dominate for a long time and then bring it back, I think it would work.

And so what I’m basically saying is, you may want to start your novel with a prologue and the prologue would be from Randy’s point of view but you would not tell the reader that, it would probably be the flashback scene that’s the inciting moment of everything and that scene in my head is when Randy and Jessie are hanging out together and she’s a very young girl and he is probably 12 and she is maybe whatever she would be, what would she be six, seven, five?

[0:10:42.3] TG: I can’t remember, I’d have to do the math.

[0:10:44.6] SC: Right, so that’s the other thing you also have to clarify is the age difference between the two etcetera, etcetera but my point is that, that prologue would be the moment when Randy discovers that Jessie is gifted and that Jessie is capable of recovering after being scrambled or whatever term you come up with that isn’t scrambled. So we refer to this moment in the ending payoff or just before the ending payoff in the novel when Randy is rushing to get her home because he thinks she’s dying or is dead and she wakes up.

So if you were to use that as your framing prologue from Randy’s point of view then when you shift to Randy’s point of view after she dies at the end of the middle build then you’re not cheating and that the grandmaster narrator which is sort of like this God-like presence has book ended the story. If you were to think of storytelling in terms of I think there is a scene in Star Wars where there’s this video game or something at the arcade and people go up and play it and they’re literary God.

They create this universes on a video platform and then destroy them, do you remember that scene? Or maybe I am thinking of something else.

[0:12:16.3] TG: In Star Wars?

[0:12:18.4] SC: It maybe the original Star Wars or maybe I’ve even thought of that in my own head and I put it on Star Wars, I don’t know but the idea is that you are essentially God and the storyteller, this is why everybody wants to tell stories because you play God and when you’re God it works as long as the reader understands that there is a higher presence above the story putting it on paper for them. So the God-like presence, if they’re telling the story and they’re opening with a prologue.

From the point of view of a character that we don’t even meet for 300 pages later that works but if we never have that prologue and you just pick up the point of view of another character without that sort of warning, then it seems like a deus ex machina which is when the storyteller just cheats. Deus ex machina means a God comes down, it’s from the Greek theater thousands and thousands of years ago where these great playwrights would write this stories and then they wouldn’t know how to figure out the third act.

So what they would do is they would bring down a God, Apollo or Dionysus or somebody would come down and say, “Let me solve this problem for you human beings. You go with her” blah-blah and that’s all fixed. So that’s called a deus ex machina where you bring down some other worldly presence to fix your story problems. So that’s what it could feel like when you don’t set it up but if you set it up with a really interesting prologue that is dreamlike and interesting and scary and all those things.

Then when the reader gets to that place where Randy’s point of view comes back, they go “Oh my gosh” at the very beginning of this novel, with the point of view of Randy the brother then that would work, does that make sense?

[0:14:30.6] TG: Yeah.

[0:14:31.9] SC: Okay, so let’s move on from point of view. The next thing are the objects of desire and just as a reminder, your objects of desire are what the character wants and what the character needs. What they want is their external object of desire and what they need is their internal object of desire. So what you have written down here is what Jessie wants is to go home and what she needs is the global truth that the world is full of grace and I think that’s pretty accurate.

What she wants to do is to stay in her familiar surroundings. She doesn’t want to challenge herself. She likes being sort of like the king, like the apprentice rat to the master, what’s that guy’s name Balem or whatever?

[0:15:35.7] TG: Yeah Balem.

[0:15:36.7] SC: Okay, so if you established that she’s the artful dodger to Balem’s pagan, that’s from Oliver Twists, Dickens’s Oliver Twist, so she’s like the best pickpocket of Balem. So for her to leave that environment is threatening to her because she won’t see her parents anymore and she won’t be the chosen one anymore. She will be challenged in ways that she’s not really interested in being challenged. It’s like when you play a game with a little kid and all they want to do is win.

And when they get challenged, they’ll quit. They’ll quit the game, “I quit!” well you can’t quit. So she’s a child. So what she wants is to maintain her security and her feeling of wellbeing and what she needs is to grow up and to recognize that the world is riddled with paradoxes that are difficult to navigate. So this is accurate. You might want to clarify it and say, “Wants to maintain her supremacy and her environment” or whatever.

Wants to go home is a little bit vague. It’s accurate but home is a little bit home to one person is not home to another. So if you could be specific about why she feels secure in that environment, that would be helpful to you later on when you have to make choices about tweaking your scene. Needs the global truth that the world is full of grace, I think that’s solid. I think that’s good and paradox is a word that we can often get confused about.

A paradox is just an absurdity. It’s when you — what’s a good example of a paradox? I don’t really need to give one. I think everybody knows what’s a paradox is. It’s when you’re in a situation that seems ridiculous. It’s like going to the department of motor vehicles for nine hours just so they can take your picture and you could have taken it with your cellphone, that’s the paradox. It’s absurd. Okay, so the next thing on the foolscap is the controlling idea theme.

Now obviously this is the ghost in the machine of your story. This is the thing that you want if somebody said to you, “Well what is that book? Why did you write that book Tim? What did it mean to you?” this is the answer that you would give them and what you have written is “True family is not blood. It is those that are there for you in your toughest times and you must be willing to sacrifice everything for them” that’s pretty solid.

That’s a really interesting theme but technically, the controlling idea is an expression. It’s a formulated sentence so what you have to do is put in the value that’s at stake in the story and explain how it has changed. So in this case and in the traditional controlling idea, generic controlling idea for the thriller is that hero sacrificed themselves, tyranny, justice prevails when heroes sacrifice themselves for the good of everyone else.

So you will see that in a thriller, a crime thriller justice is the core value at stake. So in this case, the core value at stake is life and death and it’s also justice right? This is a dystopian world. This is a place where people are used as automatons in order to serve a minority group of people. So justice to Jessie is in democratizing the universe of these people who were locked in this virtual reality, ridiculous dopamine machines.

So the value at stake would be it could be tyranny falls or justice prevails or this could be a core maturation plot where what’s at stake is the world view of the character and what you have here is a really nice mix. So what I would suggest is you do something like justice prevails when heroes recognize the values and I am just winging it here. So don’t feel like I’ve spent nine hours figuring this out. This isn’t a declaration from an all-knowing figure, not even close.

So justice prevails when heroes recognize true family and to sacrifice for that true family. So what she is required to do is to recognize that her brother is not her real family. Not only that but to support those who are, that’s the core of the story and so until she makes that choice and she makes that action, the story is not done. So justice prevails when heroes recognize their true family and act accordingly or something like that. Do you see what I’m getting at here?

[0:21:33.9] TG: Yes. Yeah so I am just making a list.

[0:21:36.2] SC: So basically what you want to do especially for a genre mix like this is you want to take both of your very, very strongly expressed genres and combine them in your controlling idea theme so that justice prevails. That says this is a story that has a central crime in it which is a very big part of the thriller. Go ahead.

[0:22:07.9] TG: And so the reason why getting this right is so important is this is the question I’ll be asking as I go back through each of my scenes is it being true to this theme.

[0:22:21.1] SC: Exactly and also this is the grand test, did you pull this off? Did you make this clear in your story? If somebody were to read your novel would they walk away saying, would they start to think about their own family? They’ll say, “Oh my brother is like Randy, he would sell me down the river for whatever is good for him but you know who’s really, really great is that woman I married. She would never do that to me” because that’s a pretty great message to give to people.

It’s like don’t just judge people based upon genetics and blood value. In fact that’s a grand mistake, that’s what immature people do right? So even though somebody maybe 48 years old and say they read your novel, they’re probably immature in some ways. So this is what this part does and this is why stories are so important. If you are able to captivate that 48 year old male reader who is reading a book, like I read The Hunger Games and I got a lot out of it.

I thought it was terrific so it’s not like 48 year old men don’t read young adult thrillers, they do when they’re really good. I heard that The Hunger Games was really good so I read it. I paid my own money for it. I do that all the time, I’m sure you do too. So say if your 48 year old men reads your novel and he walks away with it and says, “You know what? I’m done. I’m done with my sister. I’m done with the way she treats me. The way she treats me is not good for me”.

Or “You know what? I’m really lucky that my blood family is actually my real family too” so this is what stories do. They get into our subconscious and they have us reflect about our own lives. So the controlling idea theme is really important because if you are evaluating your story to see if you are controlling idea theme is clear and if each unit of your story, each scene builds to that moment of revelation where Jessie understands that her brother is the bad guy then it’s going to work.

[0:24:58.2] TG: And so when we say the internal value at stake is naivety masters sophistication all the way down to maturation then that applies to the controlling idea. So what I need to be doing is making sure I am moving her from naivety masters sophistication to naivety to uncertainty to maturation in the storyline of her interaction with her family.

[0:25:27.2] SC: Exactly.

[0:25:30.3] TG: Okay. So I am even thinking of like if I need to mask it into sophistication then I need her to like I can go back to those first few scenes and really make her steadfast in the face of all evidence of the contrary that her dad is going to stand up for her.

[0:25:49.7] SC: That’s correct.

[0:25:51.2] TG: Okay.

[0:25:52.2] SC: That’s correct and when her mother when push really comes to shove.

[0:25:56.0] TG: Really does love her.

[0:25:56.8] SC: Yeah, that’s exactly right and there you go, there is a huge note, a huge revelation that you came to just by going through your foolscap page and we’re not even a third of the way through, right? And it’s exciting because now you’re like, “Oh my gosh now I know what I have to do because the ultimate story grid is when you track these values from scene to scene and subjectively, I think it’s actually objective but when you plot the points on where the character is.

In terms of both of those values and the life and death value where are they? On the maturation value, where are they? And then you connect those dots and what you see at the end are the rises, the peaks and valleys of the story and if you’re really doing a great job those peaks and valleys mirror the peaks and valleys that Kurt Vonnegut talks about, there’s only six stories. So you would have man in a hole, man in a hole, Cinderella tragedy.

That’s the universal story that really attracts the biggest audience. I just jumped ahead to seven weeks from now so don’t freak out.

[0:27:23.4] TG: All right.

[0:27:25.3] SC: But it is really important to understand these valued and not just say to yourself, “Well I know where she is on the value spectrum” that’s not enough. You actually have to prove it in the scene. So what you are talking about just five seconds ago is going back and looking at those early scenes and saying, “I need to really amp up her steadfast dedication to her father and her mother and her brother and Balem and all those things that give her a sense of sophistication”.

Sophistication means knowing and believing that your world view is righteous and that you see through the chaotic universe. You’re sophisticated, you’re not just fumbling around like a marble in a pinball machine, you are sophisticated.

[0:28:24.5] TG: Yeah and so when we’ve talked about Pride and Prejudice how Elizabeth Bennett in the beginning felt like she knew where she stood and that all rich people were jerks and her family was good and the first step was for her to actually start questioning that.

[0:28:44.7] SC: Yes.

[0:28:45.8] TG: Right so in these first ones, I’ve got to amp that up and then I probably need to add some stuff early in the middle build where she starts questioning that for the first time.

[0:28:57.6] SC: Right.

[0:28:58.4] TG: Okay so that’s when she moves into uncertainty.

[0:29:03.5] SC: How did Jane Austen solve that problem? How did she bring the sophistication? Naivety has masked sophistication, how did she make that and bring that to a head? Do you remember?

[0:29:16.4] TG: I’m cheating, I have the foolscap for Pride and Prejudice right here in front of me. So ask me the question again.

[0:29:28.0] SC: Okay, I’ll just give a little thing here. Jane Austen had to solve a problem. The problem was how does she make Elizabeth face facts? How does she make Elizabeth start to doubt her world view?

[0:29:44.1] TG: Was it when her mom acted like a fool at the party?

[0:29:46.6] SC: No.

[0:29:48.1] TG: Ah I’ll let you talk now.

[0:29:50.2] SC: I’ve got to say that it’s in the middle build. It’s when Darcy gives her he’s letter. After Elizabeth screams at Darcy, tells him he’s a jerk, he’s the last man on earth she would marry, how dare he think that she would ever fall for him just because he’s rich. He’s a jerk, the way he behaves is the worst and by the way, you ruined my friend’s life by not giving him directory at your house and blah-blah-blah. So Darcy goes home and he writes her a letter.

He writes one of the best letters in literary history and he basically in the kindest way says, “You young lady are an idiot. That is not the case. You are not looking at this clearly. The fact is, I live at a higher level than you do. That’s just fact sweetheart and your family are a bunch of — they made fools of themselves at Bingley’s party” so he basically lays it out for her that the way she looks at the world is really off kilter and in the novel, she doesn’t have an immediate change of heart.

She screams and yells about the letter, hates him for it and then she actually uses, Jane Austen uses two chapters, two scenes for her to metabolize this letter. So she solved that problem by having this very dramatic moment, very active moment where Darcy proposes to Elizabeth and then she rejects him and then she is thrown into a real uncertainty about her world view by the end of that. So that’s the way she pushed Elizabeth Bennett from naivety masked by sophistication into uncertainty, deep uncertainty.

So anyway that’s what you have to think about, at what moment in your story are you going to have Jessie feel that deep uncertainty about her world view? First you have to establish her world view in a much stronger way and that’s what you’re going to do later when you in seven weeks go back to start working scenes but after you established it by doing little tweaks in the language, I’m not talking major surgery here. This is just really adding details inside of your chipping away at your marble.

So that it’s more clear and then you’re going to come up with some idea where it really hits her in a moment and that moment for me and your novel was when she freaks out in the second severing and she panics because she can’t do it anymore. She’s not smart enough anymore, she has a real crisis of conscience, she doesn’t know what’s going to happen and who comes in to save her but the ghost of her brother. So she’s going to look at her brother as being the real family.

“Mom and dad aren’t really my real family, it’s my brother” and then she’s going to get that double whammy at the end of the middle build where she discovers her brother is even worse than mom and dad, you see how that’s working?

[0:33:28.2] TG: Yeah.

[0:33:29.3] SC: Okay, so controlling idea theme it’s always a nice place to reconfigure yourself if you get confused as a writer and it’s why Robert McKey always tells that great story about Paddy Chayefsky, that once he had his controlling idea and theme, he’d type it up and he’d glue it onto his typewriter. So everything that he wrote he would be looking at his controlling idea and theme and hopefully, what came out of his brain would be on theme but he never forgot it and he wrote some of the best satire Network.

I don’t know if you have ever seen that but Network the movie is 50 years ahead of its time, it’s just great. Okay so that big quarter of your foolscap page with the global story, this is something that you are going to come back to again and again and again. It’s a checklist and it’s important to really make sure that you keep honing in on all of those elements in it so that your book gets more and more clear. So the rest of the foolscap page is really about the big major moments in your story.

Your beginning hook, your middle build and your ending payoff and these three sections are about clarifying that your beginning hook is doing what it should be doing. Your middle build is doing what it should be doing and your ending payoff is doing what it should be doing. So what we do…

[0:35:05.0] TG: And when you say doing what it should be doing, what it should be doing?

[0:35:13.3] SC: Okay, well the beginning is supposed to hook right? The beginning is supposed to hook your reader in such a way that they want to turn off all internet connections and just stay with your story for the rest of the night. So the beginning is all about the hook, all about bringing the reader in, in such a way that they just have to finish your book. The build, the middle of your story, the build is about deeply complicating the story beyond the imagination of your reader.

Creating complications that the reader doesn’t see coming and resolving them in ways that are really outstanding and the middle build is all about reaching a level of intensity that it brings to your character into an all is lost moment. Your story hits an all is lost moment when it seems as if there is absolutely no possible way that your protagonist is going to get over this. They’re going to have to change their behavior, they’re going to have to change their tactics.

They’re going to have to look at the world in a new way because if they don’t, they’re going to die. In a thriller they die and they don’t just die, they face the fate worse than death which is damnation. So the middle build is all about building your story to the edge of a precipice and then the ending payoff is the moment when you pay off your hook and your build in a way that your character changes, the story changes in an innovative way that is surprising but inevitable. That’s it, that’s all you have to do.

[0:37:15.0] TG: Simple enough. Okay, so I had pulled up both the Pride and Prejudice foolscap and the Silence of the Lambs foolscap to give me — I can’t remember when we first talked about, it might have been when we went through The Martian and the Christmas Carol which was like 15 months ago and I was thinking at first that this was like a particular scene. That’s what’s in my head but then when I looked at those, you had several scenes mashed together to do the inciting incident.

So what am I looking at to find? Is it the inciting incident complication crisis, climax, resolution of the entire beginning hook? The first scene, the first sequence? What am I looking at when I am finding these moments?

[0:38:17.2] SC: That’s a really great question. What you’re looking at is the entire big chunk. So for the first 11 or 12 scenes of your novel, if you have to boil down those two or three or four sequences into one thing, what would that thing be? One thing meaning the five commandments, how would you characterize the entire act, not a scene. Now of course, you’re going to have a scene that is the inciting incident of your global story. So the inciting incident of your thing I think is pretty accurate where it says Jessie is caught stealing from the plugged in.

[0:39:02.5] TG: Well now that you say as you were saying, it’s for the entire beginning hook and this one’s actually for the entire story is the inciting incident really — as I am looking at it as a global story and as the entire act, would the inciting incident actually be when she got invited to the capital as oppose to when she got caught stealing? Because that’s the real crux of the matter. It’s not that she was stealing. It’s that they want her in the capital.

[0:39:33.4] SC: Well that’s a good question. I think the inciting incident of the story is the moment that pushes all of the events forward. So when she gets invited to the capital, that’s the same thing as when she gets caught stealing. Now if you throw in that point…

[0:39:52.1] TG: So really it’s when she says no?

[0:39:54.0] SC: It could be.

[0:39:55.1] TG: Or am I overthinking this?

[0:39:56.8] SC: Well I confess that I haven’t thought at the level that you have.

[0:40:04.1] TG: Well yeah.

[0:40:06.2] SC: So, it’s not that you’re wrong, it’s that I am a little bit behind. So I have to think of that. The inciting incident of the global story could actually be if you were to put in that prologue, the moment when she survives scrambling when her brother discovers that she has a gift. So that can be the inciting incident because that’s the thing before that happens nobody cared about her really. She wasn’t on the radar screen of anybody.

So what an inciting incident is the moment the action or either a cause or coincidence that up ends the life of your lead character. So the inciting incident of your story is when third parties discover that Jessie can survive scrambling in the alternative reality and the first third party to understand that she can survive is who?

[0:41:12.3] TG: Her brother.

[0:41:13.5] SC: Randy right. So Randy discovers that she is special when she’s 12 years old. For a very, very long time nobody else knew that she was special until she started working with Balem and the other rats but she never got fully scrambled with Balem and the other rats, she was just a really good packer. So the inciting incident of her life is when she is discovered to have a gift. That up ends her life, she will never be the same after people know that she has a gift.

That guy would never come in and recruit her to go to the capital if he didn’t already know that she had a gift right?

[0:42:02.6] TG: Right.

[0:42:03.4] SC: And when she goes to the capital, all the other kids were like, “What’s with this kid skipping three years of this regimental training?” well she has a gift. Well what is the gift? We don’t know, she doesn’t know, that’s part of the mystery of this story. You want the reader to not really know what her gift is. You and I have been talking about this gift since the beginning of time and anybody who’s listened to this podcast knows what this gift is.

But we’ve got to think about a kid 20 years from now who picks up your book and has never heard of it. She doesn’t know what the gift of this girl is so let’s use that reality that that kid is not going to know to our advantage when we’re planning the story. So when her gift is discovered by the reader, that’s not going to happen until almost the end of the middle build right? So when you’re doing your scenes you should always say to yourself, “Is this a good place to put in something about nobody knows her gift?”

What’s up with that kid? Why does she get to come here? You could have Alex say that, “What’s with her? Why does she get to?” I don’t know. Well what do you think it is Jessie? “Hey, if I could tell you I would tell you” that’s what she would say. She doesn’t know what her gift is and that if you add stuff like that throughout the story, you’re getting honing more and more into the heroes journey because the heroes journey is all about a hero who doesn’t know what her gift is, right?

And it’s not until they’ve discovered that gift at the all is lost moment, we don’t know how gifted we are until we’re so far up against the wall that all we can do is change. When I was in collage I had to take organic chemistry. Now I was terrified of organic chemistry because it was the class that would wipe out 60% of the pre-med students in college. I knew that going in. Anybody who takes organic chemistry knows that. If you don’t pass organic chemistry, you can’t be a doctor.

So I was so terrified of that fact that I didn’t study, that I failed test after test after test and at college, there was this one great saving grace if you passed the final, all the other tests didn’t matter. If you get a better grade on the final then all of the quizzes and tests, your final grade stood as your final grade. Your final exam grade stood as your final exam. So what I did is I pushed myself subconsciously to my all is lost moment. Obviously I needed to put so much pressure on myself that I had to learn organic chemistry in reading period which is a two week period.

I had to learn 12 weeks to 13 weeks of instruction in two weeks by myself with a textbook instead of doing the homework and guess what? I did have the organic chemistry gift. I didn’t use it but I did pass the course but that I am not trying to say that this is a great thing about me but my point is that what we do is we avoid dealing with pressure and conflict until the moment where we can’t anymore. We either change or we fail so that’s what the hero’s journey is about.

It’s getting the hero to avoid facing the reality of their situation so long that they reach and all is lost moment when all they can do is summon something within them to rise and find a gift to get them through a problem.

[0:45:56.7] TG: So is it a problem that her gift is something she’s not in control of?

[0:46:02.6] SC: No, nobody is in control of their gifts. This is why guys take steroids in baseball. They can’t control their gift. Roger Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers of all time but he started to lose his fastball. He couldn’t control the gift and when somebody said to him allegedly, “If you take these steroids you can have your fastball back” I don’t think he did it for money. He did it because he could see his gift, the gift that he invested in his entire identity in starting to fade.

And so when somebody said, “I got this magic syringe that will give you your fastball back” he took it. So these guys who are taking steroids they’re not doing it to get — I’m sure some of them do it to get a lot of money but they are doing it to keep their gift in their life. So this is the hero’s journey is finding. Now what Roger Clemens is doing was avoiding finding another gift within himself. That’s what these guys face. Derek Jeter on the other hand, I hate to be Mr. Baseball, Derek Jeter recognized his gift had diminished and he stopped baseball at a really good time in his career.

If he played one more year, he would have been batting 205 and would have made errors. He would have no range and what did he do? Did he just hang on and start taking steroids? No, he retired and now he’s trying to find other gifts in life. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t but at least he’s trying and this is why the hero’s journey is so important in your storytelling.

[0:47:44.3] TG: Okay so at this point, we’re reaching the end of an episode and we have gotten to the first inciting incident of the beginning hook and even bounced that around a little bit. So why don’t we Shawn make this like a two parter and in the next episode, we’ll keep going through and you’ll be able to walk me through the foolscap all the way to the end because I have questions of course about the five different parts but also like I mentioned the external and internal charges. I’m really lost on that so we’ll just keep going through this for the next episode and then we’ll move on from there. How does that sound?

[0:48:23.1] SC: That sounds great.


[0:48:24.8] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review.

Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.


6 comments on “The Foolscap Story Grid

  1. I just want you to know that I’m a devoted follower of this podcast.

  2. Herlinda says:

    I am following this podcast, too. The making of a best seller book. It is exciting. Thank you, for the podcast. You guys are awesome. Herlind a Moralez

  3. Mike Cipolla says:

    Reading this transcript I realize I’m not following much of the conversation. Instead of jumping into this now would it be best to go back to the beginning and binge read/listen until I catch up? Or try to catch up and keep up with the current episodes?

    1. Jack Lewis says:

      Hello Mike, while I can’t speak for Shawn or Tim, I do have an opinion on where to start catching up. Looking through the archive, I think the episode titled “Three Sentences” might be a good jumping-in point. Link here:

      In the archive, it’s about mid-2015.

      Tim and Shawn resume after taking a hiatus from the podcast, and are discussing how to plan Tim’s second draft of his novel. This second draft turns out to be a whole new thing; basically, all they kept was the concept. The podcasts from there will build Tim’s book, scene by scene.

      The reason I think it’s a good place for newcomers to begin is because Shawn will reiterate storytelling principles throughout the podcasts which follow the one I linked to. He’s been over all of it with Tim as he wrote the first draft. After they agree to discard and start over, Shawn really digs in. He’s committed to seeing Tim succeed, and his explanations and guidance tie in neatly with his Story Grid book — observe how Tim’s seemingly impossible story problems melt away. Plenty of aha! moments for me, anyway. Your mileage may vary.

      Anyway, I hope this helps. Seeing Tim struggle and then have Shawn untie the knots has been inspiring for me.

      1. Jack Lewis says:

        The episode I linked to was mid 2016, not 2015.

        Also, if you go through the podcast pages, you’ll notice that some episodes include downloads of Tim’s scenes. Reading these may help catch you up quicker than sifting through hours of transcripts.

  4. Cathy Perdue Ryan says:

    Thank you. Just, Thank you.

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