Using The Story Grid to Outline

On the ABOUT page and at the very beginning of the book, I write that The Story Grid is a tool with many applications. What I’ve been asked often lately, now that many see the potential of using the Story Grid methodology to work through their 2nd through 32nd drafts of their works, is about the last number on that application list. Number five.

Here it is again:

  1. It is a tool that can inspire an original creation.

What do I mean by that?

What I mean is that you can create a work plan with The Story Grid’s Foolscap Global Story Grid and The Story Grid Spreadsheet that will result in a first draft of your next novel or screenplay or TV pilot.

Obviously, this approach warrants a mini-book of its own and I promise that it’s on my to-do list, but for all of those self-starters out there, I’ll poke at this idea a bit now.

There are innumerable approaches to using The Story Grid to get you started. As I’ve recommended numerous times, one fail safe method is to start with GENRE…but since I’ve been writing about the critical requirement to have a Story within your Story (what I call The Story Spine, yet another book I’m drafting), let’s look at another way to plant and grow a new narrative.

Everything I’ve written about Want and Need (here, here, here and here) is about holding the attention of your potential audience. What if we began with that directive as our primary concern before we wrote word one?

Since it’s so critical to build in these conscious (Want) and subconscious (Need) desires in your protagonists (and antagonists), is there a way to build the central theme of your story around Want and Need? That is, can you come up with a controlling idea that will automatically generate the crucial arc of your protagonist and antagonist? Can you reverse engineer a Global Story around a single idea?

The answer is YES.

Robert McKee nails this “way in” with his description of two very popular controlling ideas of contemporary storytelling in his classic book Story. If you start with one of these ideas, you can absolutely grow your Story from beginning hook to ending payoff.

The reason why you can is because these two controlling Story ideas revolve around how we negotiate the primary conundrum of contemporary life—our culture’s conscious and subconscious definitions of “success.”

First there is the controlling idea for stories that end with positive irony:

The compulsive pursuit of contemporary values—success, fortune, fame, sex, power—will destroy you, but if you see this truth in time and throw away your obsession, you can redeem yourself.” (Page 125, Story by Robert McKee)

And the negative ironic corollary:

“If you cling to your obsession, your ruthless pursuit will achieve your desire, then destroy you.” (Page 127, Story by Robert McKee)

What I love about these two controlling ideas, not only in the fact that they speak directly to the dangers of what was once called “selling out,” is that they clearly identify the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff for two very popular Internal Genres.


Let’s take a small step backwards.

Remember how I’m always harping on GENRE? How a writer should dedicate a large portion of his education to learning about GENREs? Not only what each of my five-leaves on my Five-Leaf Genre Clover connote, but also to clearly understand all of the nuances that each conveys. How he should understand the conventions and obligatory scenes for each and every one of the Content Genres (both external and internal) and how he should be inspired by those traditional structural building blocks as opportunities to innovate the form, not merely to propagate cliché?

Well that’s all fine and good, but what if the writer is in a hurry?

Aren’t there some streamlined ways to move forward with a Story without having to pound a bunch of information and concepts into one’s head?

Well indeed, there are some shortcuts.

And the two controlling ideas that McKee describes so well above are perfect examples.

Let’s take the first one:

“The compulsive pursuit of contemporary values—success, fortune, fame, sex, power—will destroy you, but if you see this truth in time and throw away your obsession, you can redeem yourself.” (Page 125, Story by Robert McKee)

This controlling idea is the purest definition of a very specific internal genre (the Redemption Story) one could hope for. And boy do we all love a Global External Genre that has an internal Redemption Story Spine within.

Here are a few that will undoubtedly strike a chord for you. Kramer vs. Kramer (Love Story/Society/Redemption), Casablanca (Action/Love Story/Redemption), The Verdict (Legal Thriller/Redemption), The Legend of Bagger Vance (Performance/Redemption), Rocky (Performance/Redemption), Terms of Endearment (Love Story/Society/Redemption) etc.

The beginning hook of a Redemption Story is a convention.

We discover lead characters in states of moral decline. They are completely consumed by ambition (Ted Kramer), self-pity (Rick Blaine, Frank Galvin, Rannulph Junah, Rocky Balboa), or proper society (Aurora Greenway) that they are blind to their authentic selves. They are Selfish.

Then something throws their lives out of balance in the Beginning Hooks of the Story. Like all Inciting Incidents, this something must be a big loss or a big gain.

An advertising executive loses his wife and gets stuck having to take care of his toddler (Kramer vs. Kramer). A café owner’s old flame walks into his swanky joint (Casablanca). A disgraced lawyer gets a slam-dunk money-winning case (The Verdict). A shell-shocked war veteran is invited to play in a match against the two greatest golfers of all time (The Legend of Bagger Vance). An astronaut moves in next door to a widowed high society matriarch of a certain age (Terms of Endearment).

Those are the inciting incidents that progressively complicate their Stories to the Ending Payoffs—the lead characters gather themselves internally and change their moral direction. They find meaning and truth. They change from being obsessively self-interested to being able to care for at least one other person or a larger tribe/group or even all of humanity.

Okay, that’s the internal genre component, what about the external?

Because there is the promise of a big event in which the protagonist “wins” or “loses,” you’ll find that the Performance External Genre is a great choice to build out a Redemption Story. Maybe you’ll use a Sports event (the Big Game!), or a Business Event (an IPO of the Big Venture Capital Pitch) or a Theatrical Event (Opening Night) or a Musical Event (the Audition for Julliard) for your Ending Payoff.

What’s great about the Performance/Redemption combo plate is that just making these two Genre Choices will answer a comprehensive number of Story questions, right from the start.

Which is a huge help when you’re spit-balling a Story before you assign yourself the day-by-day writing tasks.

For fun, in the next post, I’ll work up a Foolscap Global Story Grid for an UNTITLED REDEMPTION STORY. You’ll be amazed to discover how much of the Story we’ll know just by working with McKee’s positive ironic controlling idea.

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


12 comments on “Using The Story Grid to Outline

  1. Another awesome post, Shawn! Your brain is jam packed with incredible insights and your posts are exciting, motivating, and inspiring to read. Thanks, as always, for teaching us so brilliantly!

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Reverse engineering – who knew? Thanks so much for this Shawn! I have to confess that I struggled through some of McKee’s Story. This is helpful clarification.

  3. Elanor says:

    This is very cool. I mean, all you’re posts are cool, but this one is Very Cool. Thanks for sharing! Looking forward to the next post!

  4. Wayne says:

    To simplify McKee’s ironic controlling ideas. “If you get your desire, you’ll be ruined. If you give up your desire, you’ll be saved.” How Zen!

  5. Teddy says:

    Thanks, Shawn. You are really crushing it here, in general. And specifically with this piece.

  6. Henry says:

    Sounds great. If there’s one thing I love about this approach, it’s the way it launches the writer into a project. No more sitting around pretending to be hamlet.

  7. Brian says:

    Good post! We not only love redemption stories. We love Posts about redemption stories!

  8. Thank you for this Shawn! The timing is perfect – I’ve been using The Story Grid (and Robert McKee’s “Story”) to plan my current WIP so I’m curious to see how what I’ve been doing jives (or conflicts) with what you do in the upcoming posts. 🙂 All the best!

  9. Justin Fike says:

    This is, as they say, “fun stuff”. I’m loving the Story Grid alchemy, keep it coming! Really looking forward to the next post.

  10. Exactly what I’ve been doing with your book, reverse engineering a new story. Such clarity is a delight. Thanks.

  11. Aaron Wolfson says:

    Thanks for the post on the benefits of choosing the Redemption internal Genre, Shawn!

    I’m curious, do you have any plans to go deeper on Kramer vs. Kramer (or similar)? I’m really interested in how one can work the Love/Redemption combo, and after reading the book and many posts here, I haven’t found a listing of the obligatory scenes for Love just yet.


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I’ve got the Love Story stuff somewhere pretty close in my frontal cortex. Hope to get to it soon. Here are a few off the top of my head.

      Lovers Meet Scene
      Lovers first kiss
      Lovers break up
      Proof of love scene
      conventions are the third wheel love triangle…the one that the lead character/s should choose with all rational thought versus the one they truly love
      The lovers need to have their own special world/language/rhythms, which is a convention. like Woody Allen and Diane Keeton have in Annie Hall and Manhattan…

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