Unknown Unknowns

We’re storygridding The Tipping Point.

Why are we doing this again?

The reason why we want to storygrid the book is to discover how Malcolm Gladwell crafted an indelible story…one that not only sold millions of copies, but also changed the way we view our world.

Story Grids are the blueprints/CT scans that teach us how to solve problems we face in our own writing work. Actually pinpointing exactly how and where the masters created masterworks not only inspires our future creations, but more importantly, it takes a lot of the mystery out of the experience.

We get to witness these writers with their sleeves rolled up, with grease on their hands. We can literally see how they practically managed to keep the momentum flowing in a book that could have been as dry as dust.

Yes, of course some of the great writers were probably born with some innate DNA-laden talent. But without the blue-collar work ethic to give that talent the freedom to express itself, we’d never be the beneficiaries of their art.

I’d wager the pantheon of literary greats is far more representative of “grinders” than “naturals.”

No one sits down and writes a perfect first draft. Trust me on this. It’s never happened. What real writers understand is that the first draft is the raw material—the slab of marble, the bag of moist clay, the bricks, the blank canvass and paint, the zeroes and ones…

It’s important to remind yourself of this fact every single day. It’s the little things, those incremental drip, drip, drips of inner bullheaded, stubborn discipline that matter in the end.

Fight that inner war doing the work you were put here to do every day and the rest will take care of itself. Seriously.

Here’s what I do every time I’m faced with created a new post for this series, which scares the hell out of me each and every time.

I remind myself of a bunch of things:

My end of the line destination is to create a Story Grid infographic for The Tipping Point just as I did for The Silence of the Lambs, a visual representation of the building blocks of the Story.

The second thing I remind myself is that in order to create that infographic I need to have two documents in front of me.

  1. The Foolscap Global Story Grid for The Tipping Point
  2. The Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Tipping Point

The Foolscap Global Story Grid is the MACRO/30,000 foot view of the book and The Story Grid Spreadsheet is the MICRO/scene-by-scene view of the book. (If you read the Story Grid posts beneath the subscription forms from beginning to end you’ll know more than you’d ever want to know about The Foolscap Global Story Grid and The Story Grid Spreadsheet.  It’s also all in the book too)

While I’ve not yet written about the MICRO Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Tipping Point in these posts, I’ve already broken down the bits of the book into 51 scenes that amount to 74,139 words (an average of 1453.7 words per scene, see here for more on the Math of a Story). And I’ve begun work filling in all of the columns for each of those scenes.

Lots left to do on that MICRO front.

But the great thing about doing the work for The Story Grid Spreadsheet is that it’s fact based rather than intensely analytical. It’s a matter of reading each scene. Then answering the question posed by a column in the Spreadsheet. Filling in the blank of that column for that scene. And then re-reading the scene again to answer the next question from the next column and so on. Drip, drip, drip.

It’s like pointing bricks. Move from one brick to the next brick to the next. You finish a row, you move to the beginning of the next row and so on…

Ideally, I’ll focus on the MICRO for an hour or two a day.

Then I’ll eat lunch or go for a walk or get a cup of coffee, depending upon my work schedule versus my other life responsibilities schedule. I’m also a husband and a dad and work is great and all, but it’s third on the priority list.

After I’ve had my coffee, I’ll work on the MACRO Foolscap Global Story Grid for The Tipping Point.

The Foolscap Global Story Grid only requires the editor to answer six questions:

  1. What’s the Genre?
  2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for the Genre?
  3. What’s the Point of View?
  4. What are the objects of desire?
  5. What’s the controlling idea/theme?
  6. What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?

I’ve been poking around all of these questions in search of answering the very first one, What’s the Genre? since I began this project.

As you know, figuring out the Genre/s is a paramount series of choices for the writer. Because Genre choices satisfy reader expectations. If you don’t set up and satisfy a reader’s expectations, your Story won’t work.

What do we know so far about The Tipping Point Genres?

  • We know that the Global Genre of The Tipping Point is Big Idea Nonfiction.
  • We know that the External Genre of The Tipping Point is Action Adventure.
  • From The Story Grid book we know that the External Value at Stake in an Action Adventure Story is Life/Death.
  • And we know that that the spectrum of value for Life/Death moves from: Life to Unconsciousness to Death to Damnation.

For more about Story values and the spectrum of value, read this.

What about the Internal Genre of The Tipping Point? What’s that?

Remember that my interpretation of the Internal Genres derives from the work of Norman Friedman and his seminal paper “Forms of the Plot” in the Journal of General Education.

They are:

  • Worldview: connotes a change of seeing the world one way and by Story’s end, seeing it differently.
  • Morality: connotes a change in the moral or ethical character of the protagonist.
  • Status: connotes a change in social position of the protagonist

As The Tipping Point is a Big Idea work of Nonfiction, it’s obvious that its Internal Genre is Worldview.

Can we categorize it further?


Worldview, has four subgenres. They are:

  • Education: a shift in view from life as meaningless to meaningful
  • Maturation: a shift in view from naivete to worldliness
  • Revelation: ignorance to wisdom
  • Disillusionment: belief to disillusionment

Of those four subgenres, it’s again obvious that we’re in the Revelation arena. A Big Idea book is one that shifts our understanding of the world from ignorance “not having enough information, but capable of comprehension” to wisdom/knowing.

Great. We now know that the Internal Genre of The Tipping Point is Worldview Revelation. We can also file away in our minds the fact that all Big Idea Nonfiction has Worldview Revelation as its Internal Genre.

What about the value at stake in the Worldview Revelation genre? What’s that?

The value is Wisdom/Stupidity.

And the value spectrum of Wisdom/Stupidity from it’s most negative to it most positive moves as follows.

Stupidity perceived as Intelligence to Stupidity to Ignorance to Wisdom

I was reluctant to use the word stupidity as the opposite of wisdom because it has such a fuzzy feeling in the mind. We’ve heard “stupid” so many times that we lose the core meaning of the word. So it’s worth reiterating it’s core meaning:

Stupidity means that no matter the information available, one is incapable of or unwilling to understand. Stupidity is resolute.

Ignorance on the other hand is a temporary unknowing due to lack of information. Once the information is available, though, the ignorant become enlightened and gain wisdom.

The negation of the negation of the Wisdom value is the fate worse than just stupidity, Stupidity perceived as intelligence. An example of in its most obvious form would be back in the days when man believed earth was flat.

Looking back it seems silly that anyone would believe that the world was flat, but when society pushes a known “fact” on the individual from birth, few have the temerity/courage to challenge the status quo.

What it takes to achieve human progress are explorers and innovators with the nerve to weather the slings and arrows of their contemporaries while they cast their light into the darkness. Torchbearers willing to lead…to sacrifice their own lives/reputations if necessary (Galileo anyone?) in order to inform the rest of us as we take our mild baby steps behind them in our own private journeys from ignorance to wisdom.

As Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said:

“There are known knowns…there are things we know we know. We also know that there are known unknowns…that is to say we know that there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns…the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

The Big Idea Book is all about those unknown unknowns and The Tipping Point is an epitome of the Genre.

More to come.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of the Storygridding The Tipping Point posts and The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.



8 comments on “Unknown Unknowns

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    I’m finding that repeated exposure to this stuff is really helping to cement the concepts. My head is actually no longer spinning at warp speed. My copy of “The Story Grid” is already marked up with lots of notations, and showing up here to see your work on “The Tipping Point” is invaluable. Thanks also for the reminder that being scared when we face the page/screen is part of the deal. It reminded me of Anne Lamott’s admonition from “Bird By Bird” that we need to give ourselves permission to write “shitty first drafts” because “all good writers write them.” Thanks for coming down into the trenches with us Shawn!

  2. I agree with Mary. More time reading and thinking about all of this is incredibly helpful. Thank you as always, Shawn!

  3. Joel D Canfield says:

    all Big Idea Nonfiction has Worldview Revelation as its Internal Genre

    I am bothered by the idea of an External Genre having only one Internal Genre.

    Not because I know any different, but because 1-to-1 relationships are the rarest of all in data filtering and sorting. In my database geekery, a 1-to-1 relationship is a flag for a logic error.

    I am not challenging, because I have no basis for a challenge. Could be I’m dragging database thinking into a place it doesn’t belong.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Joel,
      I hear you. But think of BIG IDEA NONFICTION as a subgenre of WORLDVIEW REVELATION as opposed to WORLDVIEW REVELATION being a subgenre of BIG IDEA NONFICTION. It may seem strange, but I think that is the case. That WORLDVIEW REVELATION, an INTERNAL GENRE, has both fiction and nonfiction components. And it is the nonfiction varieties that are the most dynamic. So BIG IDEA NONFICTION is not an EXTERNAL GENRE. It’s an INTERNAL ONE…

      And just to really drive you crazy, I think HOW-TO, ACADEMIC and NARRATIVE NONFICTION are subgenres of WORLDVIEW REVELATION too. The key movement in nonfiction is from ignorance to wisdom. That is the core value progression. Just like CRIME has a value progression from injustice to justice and Action has life/death.

      Anyway, this is what I’m thinking right now. Open to change if another compelling argument comes forward.
      All the best,

      1. Joel D Canfield says:

        Thanks; I’ll watch this unfold and let it simmer a while.

      2. Barbara Saunders says:

        This breakdown makes sense to me intuitively: The way I’m thinking about it – underneath it all, the author has Something to Say, and that something might be delivered in a fiction or nonfiction format. The ultimate “gift” of the book is not the account of the sequence of events which either happened or didn’t happen; the “gift” to the reader is entry into the controlling idea.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Barbara,
          Couldn’t have said it better myself. Yes, the controlling idea/theme is the atom of story. From it, all else. For Fiction and Nonfiction.
          All the best,

  4. George in Quito says:

    I remember Michael Moorcock saying that he wrote all his books in 90 days, starting at the first word and ending at the last, and not needing an editor. I always questioned that. lol

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