Tracking Continuity

The last six columns in The Story Grid Spreadsheet concern story continuity.

These are important to track so that you keep all of the setting, time, and character entrances and exits in sync. On the screen, continuity glitches can take the viewer right out of the experience. We’ve all seen movies where a character is smoking a long cigarette in one scene. And then the shot cuts to another character and then back to the cigarette smoker who is now holding a drink with no cigarette in sight. It’s distracting and lazy on the part of the director to allow that kind of screw-up. The same thing can happen in a novel or play.

The Story Grid Spreadsheet is the place to keep track of all of the little details that can sabotage the finest of stories.

Again, this is pure analytical labor. It takes serious concentration. So, I’d suggest doing only a limited amount of this work per day. Set a goal to do ten scenes and then shut it down and walk the dog. You can get seriously hinky if you try and knock off these details in a day. Take your time. The more accurate the spreadsheet is, the more helpful it will be.

Here are the column headings with brief descriptions:

Point of View is the vantage point from which the reader/viewer sees the fictional world. Thomas Harris uses nine different points of view in The Silence of the Lambs. Where he chose to switch points of view were critical decisions. The way you choose to approach POV is no less crucial.

Period/Time is simply the time of day, hour, weekday, month or year that the scene is taking place. For example, Late Afternoon, Thursday February 6 is a very specific period and time designation. The more specific you are with the period and time in each of your scenes, the better. If you are unable to pinpoint exactly when the scene you’ve written has taken place, you need to figure that out. If you don’t know, the reader certainly won’t either. Why would you ever want to lose a reader because they are confused about the time in a scene?

Duration describes the approximate length of time the scene took to occur. If it’s a meeting, chances are it won’t last longer than 15 minutes. If it’s a long chase action scene, the duration could be much longer. You need to choose how long your scene will play out. Again, specificity and variety are keys to holding a readers’ interest. One meeting scene after another will bore them to tears.

Location is literally where the scene is taking place. Again be as specific as possible.

On Stage Characters column is a literal list of all of the characters present in the scene. It’s important to have a keen understanding of who is On Stage in every single scene. If someone never appears on stage and is just referred to, that choice will have a very big impact on how the reader imagines them. I also track the total number of players on stage and place the number next to the list in a separate column. Again we don’t want the same characters over and over again in the same combinations. We want variety.

Off Stage Characters are the people who are not in the scene but are referred to by the people on stage. This is especially important when tracking “speeches in praise of villains” in Thrillers and in establishing relationships between characters. If your On Stage characters never refer to any off-stage characters, the scene will not feel authentic. I also track the total number of players mentioned off stage in the scene and place the number next to the list.

See below for the entire Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs

With sixty-four rows corresponding to sixty-four scenes in the novel The Silence of the Lambs and fourteen columns detailing the step-by-step progression of the global Story along with the key values for each scene labeled and all elements of continuity detailed, we’ve got the micro progression of scenes fully fleshed out. Now is the time to use The Story Grid Spreadsheet to help us analyze the novel from the thirty-thousand-foot view, the macro distillation of The Foolscap Global Story Grid.

We’ve now reached:



Deconstructing the big movements of how Thomas Harris created that rarest of novels—the outrageously successful commercial thriller that stands as one of the pre-eminent novels of the twentieth century will be a lot of fun. Seriously. Somehow Harris wrote a book that was impossible to put down but deeply resonates with the reader long after he’s finished reading. I’ve gone through the book at least fifty times line by line and I always discover something new. While I do not profess to have any insight into the working mind of Thomas Harris or of how he crafts his stories, what I can do is analyze the structure of his work within the traditions and conventions of his chosen Genres.

We’re going to do this by going back to our Foolscap Global Story Grid. This is the Norm Stahl/Steven Pressfield one piece of paper, The Foolscap Method, that outlines an entire novel. So next up let’s now go macro again and fill in the foolscap page for The Silence of the Lambs.  Once we have completed The Foolscap Global Story Grid, we’ll combine it with The Story Grid Spreadsheet and create the final mongo Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs.  We’re coming close to the finish line…

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.

Here is the complete Story Grid Spreadsheet:

This link is the full Excel version of The Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs. (The images below are static and can be viewed without spreadsheet apps like Excel.) For this link or the images below, Right-click (Windows) or Control-click (Mac) and select the “save link or target” option, or click the image for a full resolution version, and download it. (The Excel version is also available on the Resources page so you don’t have to hunt for it down the road.)

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 comments on “Tracking Continuity

  1. Jack Price says:

    What a great resource, Shawn. I’ve started doing a spreadsheet on a short novel that I’m reading. It’s like a magnifying glass that makes the flaws pop out — maybe not flaws but opportunities to make it better. Now I need to re-read SOTL and study it with your spreadsheet in hand. I haven’t worked up the guts to pull my poor novel out from under the bed and tackle it with the foolscap and spreadsheet. But soon. I’ll wait for your final installment. Thanks for this helpful series, can’t wait to grab the book. Jack

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      You’ve got the guts dude. You’ve dutifully read all of my blather for months… Working on your novel will be much easier. Don’t let that Resistance animal keep you from it. You’ll wrestle the beast into shape. I know it.
      All the best

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    I was so happy to see this post this morning! Continuity is one of the issues that’s always worming about in the back of my mind during the writing process. I created background sheets for my characters and a temporal timeline of events to try to keep the details straight, but even with that I wasn’t confident I’d catch all of the inconsistencies that would inevitably fall through the proverbial cracks. Whenever I’ve asked other writers about this the answer is always the same: “Hire an editor.” Thanks for making it possible for us to all hire ourselves with this beautiful system!

    I just downloaded SOTL on my Kindle (Harris should set you up with some royalties for the number of additional book sales Story Grid will generate for him) and am going to reread it with the spreadsheets. Can’t wait to see this tied back to the single sheet Foolscap – here’s to you and to the “final mongo.” As always, thanks Shawn!

    1. Jim Starr says:

      Me, too, Mary. I found a $7 hardback copy online the other night, the format I prefer to use when I need to brutalize a book with my highlighter and margin notes in pencil. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read the book, but perhaps that will allow me to apply Shawn’s analysis through fresh eyes.

  3. Joel D Canfield says:

    My editor is convinced that my characters are hobbits: they seem to eat 11 meals a day.

    I think I’ll surprise him with some continuity in my current book.

    Any chance of a digital (Excel or otherwise) copy of the spreadsheet? Flexible would be easier to muck with visually than fixed images.

    1. Joel D Canfield says:

      And thank you for the spreadsheet version.

  4. Shawn, I have to add my thanks to the mix for today’s awesome spreadsheet. I just bought and read A Practical Handbook for the Actor and it has helped me a lot. I’ll be reading SOLT shortly right alongside your spreadsheet and….I finished the first draft of my book and am now working on a spreadsheet for it! I can’t thank you enough for the amazing teaching, tools, tips, tricks and resources!!!

  5. Thanks for sharing the full version of the spreadsheet Shawn – it’s a fabulous resource.

  6. Jim Starr says:


    At the risk of rewinding too much, regarding your recommendation of A Practical Handbook for the Actor: I’ve already said how much I get from the book in general, but as we move forward through the spreadsheet and see how you analyze the remaining scenes, is there a particular chapter in the Handbook that you feel offers most relevant guidance with respect to Story Events? In the first pass I thought the second chapter, Analyzing a Scene, would relate the most. But now, getting into it more deeply, I wonder if the first chapter, Physical Action, is more to the point and seems to relate more to the sort of summary you’ve entered in that third column (understanding, of course, the other definition of action, as in action vs revelation in the Turning Point column).



  7. Elanor says:

    This is amazing! And insane! But, you know… cool, mad scientist/evil genius insane. lol

    As a writer, I’m a pantser, but in everything else I’m super-detail oriented, so this method of editing will help me get both sides of me in harness together to finish my fiction.

    I think one of the reasons your editing style works for me is that your perspective on how a story works is grounded in your acting background, so you use terms that feel familiar to me. I studied acting for something like 10 years. It was what I wanted to be when I grew up, but there wasn’t a lot of work for Asians in the late 90s, no matter how good I might have been. So, I turned to other things, and now I find myself here.

    Thanks again for another great post!

  8. Jim Starr says:

    Nerd Alert: I wonder if any of you folks who have the book might venture an answer to my geeky little question (I honestly do feel I could learn something from it).

    There is a tiny little moment at the very end of SOTL’s Chapter 12/Scene 14 in Potter, West Virginia, where Lamar, the “lean funeral home assistant with a whiskey bloom in the middle of his face” is observed (by what I think would be Third Person Omniscient) to watch Crawford and Starling drive away, and then to relax with a Coke.

    It’s only a 3-sentence paragraph, one that Shawn neither breaks off as a separate scene nor attributes with a POV. As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve never read the book, and so this might be a little foreshadowing (I did sense a bonding between him and Starling). But even if it doesn’t deserve identification by Shawn, what do you think it’s doing there, or how might you defend Harris’s choice to write it in?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Jim,
      I love the moment you reference. It’s essentially–Nerd Alert Extraordinaire–a resolution beat for the Potter WVA scene. The POV is within the Free Indirect Style paradigm. Remember that Free Indirect Style allows the writer to use both third person omniscient, with POV first person intracranial too. So the POV for the moment you describe is “Authorial,” which is as you correctly point out Third Person Omniscient.
      Why did Harris report Lamar’s watching Crawford and Starling drive away? He did it to resolve the scene in a way that makes the reader understand subconsciously that there will be no more travels back to West Virginia. Lamar watching them drive away tells the reader that the FBI is done here…and life will return to the way it always has been even after the horrors inflicted by Buffalo Bill on the community.
      The bond between Lamar and Starling is real too. Great pick up. The thing is that Starling is of both worlds… Having her bond with Lamar shows the reader that. I think it was the electrifying of fish that both Lamar and Starling knew about that Crawford didn’t. Starling’s relationship to the underclass…the forgotten…the dispensable is what ultimately will make her such an amazing investigator. Guess who sees that quality right from the start? Dr. Hannibal Lecter….

      I’m jealous that you’re reading this for the first time!
      All the best

      1. Jim Starr says:

        All I can say is Wow. Thanks, Shawn.

        Okay, actually I guess I’ll say more.

        Your clear understanding of the bone and sinew lying just below the skin of these issues is invaluable. I feel as though I just got an entire one-hour class alone with the instructor.

        I’m so looking forward to the book.

        1. Jule Kucera says:

          And others get to listen in on the private class and learn as well! As much as I do not like and do not read horror stories because I end up afraid of the dark–ka-ching–here comes another sale for Harris and his lambs.

          1. Jim Starr says:

            Jule: Maybe, since I’m out ahead of you, I can let you know when there’s something awful in the pages ahead, so you know to avert your eyes!


  9. DC Harrell says:

    master class indeed!

  10. Bob Conroy says:

    When your book comes out, I’m snapping it up… Great stuff.

  11. Sue Coletta says:

    What a fantastic resource! Thank you for the spreadsheet. I can hardly wait to test my latest novel.

  12. Everything that you included in the Story Grid Spreadsheet makes sense to me after going through it all, but I wondered about how you didn’t directly map the 5 elements of story to the scene level, to make sure the scenes work.

    The Story Event would list the Inciting Incident and you make sure to capture the Turning Point, but I would have thought you’d more clearly highlight the conflict itself (Crisis & Climax) rather than bury it inside the Story Event cell? You do such a great job of hammering home how important it is to make conflict central to your scenes that I’d worry some less practiced attempts at using your sheet might get lost in the weeds a bit and get away from that key aspect of making sure there is a focus on conflict (and that resolution doesn’t get forgotten). For my own use I think I’d add those either there, or at least put them in my Scrivener synopsis or document notes.

    Of course that adds another level of detail to an already significant undertaking to populate the full Grid Spreadsheet.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      You nailed it. You could take this stuff to the “beat” level if you wanted to. And if I did that, it would take another year to complete the book. And my obsession would prove off putting for far too many people who would gain a great deal of confidence from this story approach. The trick for me has been to keep it simple, but not oversimplify.
      Obviously, you know of what I’m talking about. So glad you found the site and I hope you hang out for a long time to add your two cents.
      All the best,

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