The Macro Story

Story Grid Mini-Course Three

Story Grid Mini-Course Three

Editors (and Writers!) must master the Macro of Story.  The Foolscap Global Story Grid is a simple one-page map to figure out your Story’s final destination are more importantly how to get there.

Part 3 of 5: The Foolscap Global Story Grid

Shawn Coyne: So now that we have a pretty clear understanding of what Genre is, the next thing to do as an editor or a writer is to create what I call The Foolscap Global Story Grid. And what that represents for an editor is the macro point of view of a story. Well the macro point of view is all about putting down on one piece of paper everything in the story. And I was inspired by the name of The Foolscap Global Story Grid by my good friend Steven Pressfield and his mentor Norm Stahl.

Steven Pressfield: The Foolscap Method is a way that I’ve learned as a writer kind of by accident of how to block out a story in your mind at the start in one simple piece. And it came from my good friend Norm Stahl who took me out to lunch one time at Joe Allen’s in New York. I was trying to start a novel one time and I was all screwed up and he took out a piece of yellow foolscap paper, which is you know the yellow legal pad and he said, “Steve, God made one sheet, a single sheet of yellow foolscap to be exactly the right length to hold the outline of an entire novel.” And that was like a real breakthrough for me because it kept me away from writing these lengthy kind of bibles you know of the background, the backstory of every character, which is just resistance. And then Shawn sort of on his own evolved The Story Grid and came up with the same concept. His is a lot more complicated than mine, but he did the same thing in having a first macro shot where he would evaluate a manuscript that he got from page one to the end all on one page all in his mind in one snapshot.

Shawn Coyne: So the most important thing to do as an editor when you’re beginning, once you know your genres, is to figure out the beginning hook, the middle build, and the ending payoff of this four-hundred-page manuscript. So for example because I go through it in the book, why don’t we look at The Silence of the Lambs and I’ll walk you through it.

So in The Silence of the Lambs, the beginning hook of the story of course happens in the very first scene. That beginning hook is a young FBI trainee is brought in to interview the most sadistic and strange serial killer in the world. So talk about an inciting incident for an entire work. You have a newbie FBI agent who’s tasked with going to the craziest serial killer ever in order to help them find somebody who’s out slaughtering people as they speak. So that’s the inciting incident, beginning hook of the story. If I were Thomas Harris and I was just starting the novel, I would write down Clarice Starling gets job to interview Hannibal Lecter. That would be at the very top of the Foolscap Global Story Grid.

So next up is what do I do now? Do I do the middle build or the ending payoff? Well actually what you want to do is you want to do the climax. And because this is the serial killer thriller genre, we know what the climax is going to be because it’s a convention. It’s an obligatory scene. And what means is that you want to have your hero confront the bad guy, the villain. So the hero has to confront the bad guy or villain and either win or lose. Now in a serial killer thriller, you usually want to have the hero win, because nobody really likes to know that serial killers are out there getting away with stuff. So Thomas Harris obviously at the end of his Foolscap Story Grid, not that he did this, but he could have, he could have written Clarice Starling catches and kills Buffalo Bill. So that’s the beginning of the book and that’s the end of the book.

Now the middle build is really the tricky part. This is where a lot of people get hung up. The middle build is that moment, what I call the all is lost moment. It’s an extreme moment that changes everything for your hero. So what does Thomas Harris do? You know, he surprises us. He’s brilliant. What he does at the middle build of that story is he makes Hannibal Lecter escape. Once Hannibal Lecter is off the reservation, Clarice Starling is completely on her own. He’s not going to tell her where Buffalo Bill is. He enjoys watching her go through these machinations. So when Hannibal Lecter escapes, which is about the midpoint of the book, that is the all is lost moment for Clarice Starling. That is what you are going to write down in your middle build section—Hannibal Lecter escapes.

So in that one page Global Foolscap Story Grid, we’ve got the entire outline of the novel. We’ve got Clarice Starling gets the job to hunt down Buffalo Bill and interview Hannibal Lecter. We have Lecter escapes as the midpoint. And then finally we have Clarice Starling beats Buffalo Bill and takes him down.

So the question often arises—how is my foolscap method different from Steve’s? It’s pretty simple to explain. Steve’s foolscap method is from the point of view of the writer before they’re embarking on the journey of writing their first draft. And because that’s such an intimidating idea, Steve smartly keeps it very, very short. Making a map on one page, I can’t recommend that more highly. Now the difference between Steve’s method and mine is that mine is the editorial method. Mine is when you’ve got that four-hundred-page first draft, you’ve taken a breath, you’ve relaxed, but you haven’t gone back and edited anything in your manuscript yet because you really shouldn’t. Don’t edit yourself when you’re writing, and don’t write while you edit. Now you’ve had your day off, you’ve had your cup of coffee, you have your editorial hat on—and I highly recommend getting a hat just to put it on—now’s the time to do my foolscap method, which is exhaustive. It’s like the mechanic opening up the hood of a car and checking it all out when you’re getting your car inspected. That is the role of the editor.

Now when you look at my Foolscap Global Story Grid, you’re going to take a deep breath and say HOLY COW what have I got myself into? But all of the questions that are on that page are very simple to answer. It’s a toolbox for the editor. It’s a way of checking the sound systems—all of the wiring of the story—to make sure that everything works correctly. You want to check all of the little bits and parts of your story to make sure that you’re keeping the focus, that you’re delivering on those three things that you say you’re going to do, and that you surprise the reader over and over again.

Once you get them down, you will be able to improve your story from…oh well he escaped because somebody left the key on the floor. Maybe that was Thomas Harris’ initial idea to get Hannibal Lecter out of the cell. I don’t think so, but maybe it was. But if that had been, and he looked at that in his first draft he’d say, “Oh I’ve got to fix that because the fact that somebody dropped their key and he can get of the cell that way, that’s really not going to work.” So these are the ways in which the Global Foolscap Story Grid can teach you how to improve every scene in your book and also globally. So when you go to create your global story grid, what the foolscap is going to do for you is it’s going to give you your major movements. It’s going to show you where your beginning hook ends, where your middle build begins, and where your ending payoff is. So using that, you’re going to be able to get sort of a big gross curve of action. So next up is creating what I call the Story Grid Spreadsheet. There are sixty-four scenes in The Silence of the Lambs. And you walk through every single one of those scenes to move from beginning hook to middle build to ending payoff.

6 comments on “The Macro Story

  1. J D Yoder says:

    Shawn, thank you very much for creating these videos. I recently bought your book as well (working my way through it). There is so much gold in what you offer here. Any author would be a fool not to ‘put the grid on it.’ As a non-fiction author, I’m working my way into fiction and I cannot tell you how helpful your method is–to get started the right way versus floundering on my own.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    These videos are a great supplement to the book. Last week a guy protested about having bought the book and you generously offered him a refund. I think most of us who have read The Story Grid would agree that the book/video combination can’t be beat. As always, thanks!

  3. Nick says:

    Shawn thank you for these videos. They are a great complement to your book. I now feel that I really understand structure. I’ve applied your method to some of my favourite books. My understanding of the writing of fiction has skyrocketed.

  4. Chiming in with praise and thanks here. I really appreciate how you so succinctly boiled down the order in which you would map out the three parts – BH first, then skip down to EP, then back to MB. I can certainly imagine doing that for my next project. I’m curious about something — in SOTL, it makes absolute sense to me that you would sum up the MB as: “Hannibal Lecter escapes.” In the version you use in the book (p. 153), the MB is summed up as “Starling goes alone to Ohio.” I realize the MB comprises beaucoup chapters, just wondering if you could shed light on these differing ways of slicing it. Thanks!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Julie,
      The end of the middle build that transitions into the ending payoff for SOTL is when Starling goes to Ohio…it’s the final resolution of the MB and the Inciting Incident of the Ending Payoff. The climax of the middle build is when Lecter escapes which Harris brilliantly stretches over several scenes. As you can probably tell, one person’s climax could be another’s progressive complication. So while these are essential elements to have in the Story, the particulars are open to interpretation. It’s sort of like how the movie Rocky could be seen as a Redemption Story or a Revelation Story. The important thing is to clearly track the ways in which the Story moves. So you may disagree with one or more of my analyses of a particular Story, but the methodology I use to support my ideas remains consistent with yours. What that all means is that my Foolscap Global Story Grid or Spreadhseet or Story Grid could differ from yours in particular ways, but we’ll share practically identical views of the global movement of the Story. The red and blue lines for my Story Grid will be almost the same (if not completely) as yours.
      All the best,

      1. Very helpful. Thanks for elaborating.

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