The Editorial Microscope

Now that we’ve reviewed the five fundamentals of Story form (Inciting Incident, Progressive Complications, Crisis, Climax and Resolution) and the six units of Story (Beat, Scene, Sequence, Act, Subplot and Global Story), let’s take a step back to the very beginning of why this website exists in the first place.

What does an editor do the minute a manuscript that he’s commissioned lands on his desk?

Let’s assume he’s already read it.
The Story isn’t working quite yet.
It’s close, but it’s vaguely disappointing.

There is no easy fix that comes into his mind. He knows that he’ll have to do a comprehensive analysis of the work before he’ll be able to give the right diagnosis and provide suggestions capable of helping the writer fix the problems.

The first editorial stage is to pull up a fresh Story Grid Spreadsheet and fill it in. This is no small task, but it is crucial to take a book that doesn’t Work to one that does.

As we are leading up to The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs, let’s create The Story Grid Spreadsheet for it too. So in the next few posts, we’ll walk through the data points on The Story Grid Spreadsheet column-by-column and row-by-row. These data points, when combined with The Foolscap Global Story Grid, will ultimately generate that very strange-looking infographic I shared with you at the very beginning of this website, the one that looks like a sine/cosine graph on the resources page.  As an aside, the final version of The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs is even more wonky and jam packed with info than my original.  I’m in the final throes of design and layout for the book and I gotta tell you, it’s really cool.  As soon as it’s ready, I’ll post it in the resources section too.

By the time we’re through with the Spreadsheet, you’ll be able to walk through The Story Grid from left to right, from top to bottom and everywhere in between and intuit exactly how Thomas Harris created such an amazing Story.

We’ll get there, I promise. It’s the Ending Payoff of this long series and of the book.

I have to confess at this very moment my blood is pumping. I’m excited. For a Story nerd, there is nothing more appealing than figuring out how a master writer put together his masterpiece.

So next up is the explanation for the first three columns of The Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs.

Just for fun, here’s is the first two page spread that will be in the book.

Here is the first page of The Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs

Here is the first page of The Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs


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.

23 comments on “The Editorial Microscope

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Yours isn’t the only blood that’s pumping Shawn – what a build-up! See you back here on Thursday. As always, thanks!

  2. As my daughter says, this is both awesome and terrifying.

    Your reassurances that it’s best NOT to fuss about this stuff until we need it, that this is an editing tool, not a writing tool, have been helpful.

    1. Michael Beverly says:

      I’m still curious about that, Joel. To me, it seems like both. I know you also are a student of Brooks, and I’m not sure I see the difference between what he stresses as proper planning and using the story grid stuff to pre-plan a story, before writing it.

      When I wrote my first serious attempt at a novel (I think I got to 40K words before it crashed), I had written on 3×5 cards what happened in every chapter of an urban fantasy novel I loved. Then I rewrote it, using my characters, etc. But I got lost.

      When I actually finished something, which was this January, after having come here, it was because I’d planned out everything. Not every detail, of course, but every single thing that had to happen to be a complete story.

      I’m not saying you have it wrong, but I’m questioning why I see a conflict here, I’m thinking, hells bells, I want to fill in the story grid before I write word one.

      Do you think that is too constricting of an approach?
      Am I taking this too far?

      1. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

        Folks who are plotters, outliners, writers who have a thick stack of 3x5s before they sit down to write should stick with what works.

        For me, I’d never get there. I am, by nature, a planner extraordinaire. I worked on one set of drawings for custom bookcases that we moved out of the house before I ever built them.

        When it comes to art, though, I work much better having a simple framework and a few guidelines, and then pouring it out fast enough that Resistance can’t scream loud enough to stanch the flow.

        Rather than “leap, and the net will appear” (leading to broken noses) I subscribe to the concept “know where the net is, then leap.” When I know I can edit my work and bring it up to standards after I’ve poured it out, wheat and chaff together, I can let it flow and fix it later.

        With my songwriting, I already have a framework (verses, chorus, rhythms and chord structure) which fills the space of the “12 sentences” I learned from Larry Brooks. And after a song is written, performing it reveals every flaw, every hitch, every oddness or clanking thud. Over time, the lyrics move into better places, the rhythms adjust, that odd D7 gets swapped out for an F#m and ooh that feels good.

        But I didn’t have that tool, the microscope of performance, for my prose.

        Now, I do.

  3. Michael Beverly says:

    I can see I’ll need to get the book in a paper version. It’s hard to mark up and highlight an ebook.

    I can’t wait.

    So, I read The Shining over the weekend, finishing last night. To get a better grasp of this “internal/external” thing, I enjoyed it, although felt it was a bit too long.

    I liked Dolores Claiborne/Shawshank better; and it got me thinking about pushing the envelope on the external. I think SOTL is ultimately scarier, because men like Lector actually exist.

    As do men like Dolores’ husband, or the corrupt warden, etc.

    I guess it’s personal taste. Back to the story deconstruction, I feel like I’m about to get the keys and combination to a safe. Inside that safe is a map.

    I will admit a bit of shame here, I wish this wasn’t being shared with the whole world. But, thankfully, Shawn is being generous.

    Most of the world will ignore it anyway.

    1. Indeed; I am in mind of the old axiom about not worrying that someone will steal your brilliant idea because if it’s truly brilliant you’ll have to shove it down their throat.

      I’m gun shy about offering writing help to folks online anymore, even when they explicitly ask for it, because 98.6% of them are really just asking you to tell them they’re already right.

      I love hanging out here with the other 1.4-ers.

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        You might be a tad optimistic with the 1.4%.

        My girlfriend said to me, after I was whining about still finding errors after 5 or 6 reads, that this was the reason almost nobody ever actually finishes a novel.

        It seems so much easier on paper. LOL.

        Later, when she finally got her hands on it, she text messaged me that she was going to remove the semicolon key from my computer. Hey, I like semicolons; they are good friends.

        Anyway, maybe we are on the same page about outlining, I wasn’t suggesting pages of documents or stacks of 3×5 cards, what I meant was, knowing the story grid stuff before hand. I like commas too, they call to me, I’m not sure why, maybe, I don’t like hard abrupt stops, so I avoid periods. Not sure, but I also don’t like long paragraphs.

        Are you saying you don’t write out sixty (or as many scenes as you have) sentences before writing?

        Like this:

        Chapter One: Naked chick goes swimming, shark eats her.
        Chapter Two: Sheriff finds body parts on beach, he’s worried about his job.
        Chapter 57: Sheriff kills shark.

        AND THEN look at them and say, okay, if Shawn was standing over my shoulder asking me where the inciting incident was, or the progressive complications or anything, would I be able to answer.

        This is how I envision doing it.

        Am I being naive?

        This is a bit harder than learning (stop, a LOT harder) than learning to oil paint, because when I learned oil painting I had a master painter teach me by the “monkey-see-monkey-do” method.

        I watched master works being built.

        Now we are watching master works be deconstructed, it’s different.

        1. Joel D Canfield says:

          Michael, I’m moving toward a card for each scene, but my last two books came out fine with only the 12 sentences in place.

          As I learn, I’ll probably increase my plotting up to a point of diminishing returns, at which point I’ll probably also have much of the structure internalized, making it superfluous. Then I’ll back off, and go back to spinning yarns out of ether and only coming back to address what’s broken.

  4. Jim Starr says:

    This is so incredibly helpful. I’m at first-draft stage on my first two novels, and Shawn’s priceless advice couldn’t come at a better time.

  5. My blood’s pumping right along with yours and Mary’s, Shawn. It’s going to be a slow crawl until Thursday. Would you be willing to post a printable version of the two page spread in the resources section? I’d love to be able to better wrap my head around it while I’m waiting for Thursday to get here! (It’s pretty hard to read as is.)

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I think if you download it to your desktop, it should be printable. I’m going to ask Joel Canfield to see if he take care of what you need. He helps me out when I’m out of my tech league.

      1. Mary Doyle says:

        I downloaded it and was able to print it.

      2. Joel D Canfield says:

        Yup; if you just click and open it, or right-click (on a PC) and “save as” it’s print resolution.

        I’m adding it to the Resources page so it’s easy to find once this post slides down the page.

  6. P. S. I forgot to say thanks for an exhilarating post!

  7. Thank you all for your tech assistance!

  8. Rosanne Bane says:

    I’m assuming it’s a typo you’ll want to correct: not “final throws” but “final throes”.

  9. Shane Seley says:

    Shawn, thanks for the spreadsheet and reminding me of how much the Godfathers rock.

  10. Kim says:

    Writing a screenplay for the first time, I’ve spent hours on scenes that I didn’t need. Even trying to reshape the story to have more tension and turns has me up against a wall (of inexperience). I sit with McKee’s “Story” and then look at Shawn’s editing advice and know the story needs turns, choices, and actions. I’m thinking I should have put way more thought into the underlying structure as Michael mentioned above. I suppose it’s a matter of what’s helpful but wallowing at around page sixty-five yet again has me thinking more time should be put into developing the idea in the first place for the sake of time. As a newbie, I want more examples of analysis. Also what’s the value of the word count and off stage characters?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Kim,
      Hang in there. The next three posts are all dedicated to the spreadsheet and explain all of the columns…why they are there…whey they are important etc. And down the road, you’ll get more analysis than you’ll probably wish to read about Thomas Harris’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
      All the best

    2. Michael Beverly says:

      I’m a beginner myself, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

      That said, I’d wallowed around for years in half finished projects until two things happened.

      First, I’d finished my third read through of Story Engineering (Larry Brooks), and I mean I read that book three times, each time with a highlighter and a pencil.

      Second, I came here. I read every post to get caught up, and then I read each new one religiously. I only found out this week, after being here for two months, that Shawn publishes on a regular schedule. That is because I came to the home page every single day (sometimes more than once) and hit ‘refresh’. LOL…silly me.

      Anyway, I took everything to heart.

      In January, just for fun, I decided to try a project I didn’t care about on an emotional level. A throw-a-way novel.

      I outlined the thing in a week and wrote 80K words in three weeks.

      Now, I’m not saying it’s good, but that’s beside the point. It can be edited and fixed, obviously that’s the point of this blog.

      What I was amazed about is how fast the words came and the scenes filled up ONCE I KNEW EVERY MAJOR EVENT.

      Personally, I’d never start a project again without at least a one sentence description of all scenes, making sure I had everything covered. If you check out the Potato Chip post, it’s really helpful in seeing how this works out in terms of helping you get from A to Z.


      Of course, editing has me wanting to put my head through the drywall–but that’s another subject.

      1. Joel D Canfield says:

        I’m hoping the Story Grid keeps my head out of the plaster.

        Truth told, when I structure the story well up front, editing becomes a matter of fussing with language, not moving load-bearing walls. And since I have a magnificent editor, I worry less about polishing to perfection, and focus on direct words in short sentences.

        The more I learn, the more I get right on the first pass.

  11. Gary Dennis says:

    Hi from NZ. Tell me that when the book is printed that you are going to do writing workshops and use the Story Grid as a reference. I’d be more than happy to travel from New Zealand to attend!


    1. Joel D Canfield says:

      Yeah; that, and the Story Grid Certified Trainer Certification Training classes, so we can all go forth and spread the gospel of the story grid.

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