Your Story Sets Up Your Work

Today’s post features a transcript of an interview I did with Marx Pyle and his partner Julie at GenrEtainment.  If you’d rather listen to it, you can find it here

What strikes me as I do more and more of these interviews is the necessity of being able to tell your own Story effectively.  If you can’t do that, there is little chance that those unfamiliar with your work will have any inclination to consider reading it.  You need to walk down your own private memory lane and discover the inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions in your own Story to effectively communicate why your work matters. 

Especially in nonfiction, if you do not have a compelling origin story about why you chose to write the Story/Book you wrote…you’ll find it hard to engage an audience.

The creator compels interest in the creation.

Without Dr. Frankenstein, the monster is just an antagonist with bolts in his neck.

Marx: We really enjoyed your book The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. I’m curious, before we get too in depth about that book, I’m curious about your career. You had a really long, successful career as an editor, a publisher, a literary agent, and a writer. How did you get started in the whole book field in the first place?

Shawn: When I first got out of college, I thought I was going to go to medical school, and so I wisely took a year off to figure out exactly if I really wanted to do that. While I was goofing around, I was acting – for a lot of different reasons – and I met my wife at Williamstown Theatre Festival one summer. When we got together, one of us had to get a job.

She was a much, much better actor than I was, so I decided that it best be me, and so I tried to figure out exactly what it is that I really loved to do that I could possibly get paid for. The first thing that came to was read. Luckily, I applied for a bunch of entry-level positions in New York publishing. This is around 1991/1992 and I started from there. I started at Dell Publishing in 1992.

The great thing about it was that it was really at this transitional moment in book publishing history, and it was old school because we didn’t have computers at the time. An editor would be assigned an assistant, and the assistant would have to learn at the desk of his editor, and I was lucky enough to work for two editors. One was the editor-in-chief of Delacorte Press, which was the hardcover division of Dell Publishing, and Dell was this major, major mass-market publishing company for years and years and years.

One of the people I got to work with early on in my career was Elmore Leonard. It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to watch a master writer go from draft to draft to draft. At that point, he had written a good 30 books, and I was lucky enough to work alongside his editor, Jackie Farber, on Pronto, which actually became a television series Justified years ago.

It was a wonderful introduction to the craft of writing, and at very, very early age. Through the years, I was always really fascinated on story structure and how exactly writers were capable of putting together these amazing stories seemingly overnight. Through the years in book publishing, I went from Dell Publishing to St. Martin’s Press, and then I went to Doubleday, and then I started my own company.

All through that time, about a period of 20 years, on the side, I would be studying story structure to figure out how to best help writers solve their problems. The primary problem is is the book working? Is it something that the average reader would really enjoy?

I dove deeply and deeply into story structure. I took Robert McKee’s course. I did a lot of reading – everybody from Norman Friedman’s theories to George Polti to Aristotle and Plato, to really to try to parse it all the way back to the beginning of storytelling. It’s been a wonderful journey and a wonderful time, and I’ve applied those principles throughout my career to great success, I would say.

Marx: For sure.

Julie: What I learned from that story is that you owe your wife, because it was because of her that you found the correct career.

Shawn: That’s correct. If she wasn’t as talented as she is, I would probably be doing Sunday in the Park with George somewhere.

Marx: You’ve mentioned a few names. You have tons of people you’ve worked with over the years.

Julie: Yes, just pick one.

Marx: Betty White and, of course, Robert McKee, you mentioned.

Julie: Is Betty White just as awesome in person as she seems?

Shawn: The thing about Betty White is that she has written so many wonderful books… And one of my jobs when I was at St. Martin’s Press was to buy the paperback rights to very successful hardcover books. The thing about Betty White is that she has this really long track record of books about animals. What I discovered when I was at St. Martin’s – I was in the paperback division at the time – was that if you were able to get the right package – meaning cover – with the right animal, and have Betty White’s name on it, you were good to sell a good 10,000 to 15,000 copies. It was a predatory relationship more than a personal one.

Marx: You’ve taken all of this experience that you learned and have written this book, The Story Grid, which is a method that it sounds like you’ve developed over the years with your editing. We really enjoyed it. Curious what motivated you to take it from a concept to use to actually putting it in this book for everyone else?

Shawn: Just going back a little bit to my career, what I discovered very early on is that there was no textbook to learn how to edit a book. There are certainly textbooks to teach you how to correct grammar, to help with style – Strunk & White’s book is a classic – and you have all the great copy editing resources, thesauruses, and dictionaries. But when I started in book publishing, I went to my editor and I said, “What’s the preeminent book on story editing?”

She drew a blank and said, “That’s not really the way it works. The way it works is that you’ll watch the way I work and I used to watch the way the editor who I used to work for worked, and it’s sort of a mentorship.” I found that very strange because it’s a very intense discipline to learn, and so what I said to myself over the years was, “I need to teach this to myself.”

The reason why I wrote the book The Story Grid was I found a big, big hole over the past 20 years, and I wanted to create a system – it’s one system that a successful New York editor has used over his career to great success – that is simple enough and easy enough to understand, that a writer can read this book and learn how to edit themselves.

One of the biggest difficulties today in big New York publishing is editors don’t have the time to do the kind of story editing that I was afforded when I was younger, and that’s for a number of reasons. Primarily, there are acquisitions editors. Basically, their job is to find the books that are going to sell the best and become bestsellers.

Back when I started, there used to be a bullpen approach to developing talent, so you would have genre interests among your editors who would find new talent and work with them from book to book to book. They wouldn’t pay them a lot of money, but they would publish them and they’d work hard to make their career pick up a little bit of steam with each and every book, and then at some point, they would hit a tipping point and they would become a bestselling writer.

Those are the careers of people like Harlan Coben, who I acquired when I was at Dell Publishing 20 years ago. It took him a good five or six books before he became a bestseller. Michael Connelly is another example. I published Michael Connelly when I was at St. Martin’s in paperback, and this was way before he was a major New York Times bestseller.

James Lee Burke, Robert Crais. These are some of the preeminent names in crime fiction today. They got their start early on with younger editors working with them from book to book, and helping edit their stories.

But back to your original question, the reason why I wrote the book is I didn’t want everything that I’ve learned over my career to just die with me. I was talking to my business partner and good friend, Steven Pressfield and I said, “Steve, I’ll bang out a little paperback about how to edit, and we’ll be done. We’ll put it in under our little publishing company, and everything will be fine.”

Three and a half years later, we finally did publish The Story Grid, but what you discover is that when you do so many things intuitively, to actually take that intuitive knowledge and put it down on paper and make it make sense to people is quite a task. I’m quite relieved to have the book finally out of my brain and now people can actually lift it. It’s a big brick of a thing, and I can’t believe you guys are even able to get through it. Congratulations on that.

Julie: What you’re really describing to me, it seems like what’s really happened, not just in the world of publishing, but just – I don’t know – the working environment in general in America used to be that you got hired on and they would teach you and groom you, and you worked your way up the ranks in a company, and nowadays, they expect you to already know stuff. Companies don’t want to train, and instead of promoting within, they’d rather just hire someone new from somewhere else.

Shawn: No, that’s true. Yeah.

Julie: There’s no real learning the ropes from mentors and working your way up, and I think that’s a shame, because I think a lot of talent doesn’t get cultivated, not just in the world of literature, but certainly it’s noticeable in that.

Shawn: No, I would absolutely agree with that. In my 25-year career in publishing, the number of editorial jobs – meaning editors full-time employed at the major publishing houses – has decreased by at least 50%. The reason why that is is because there’s tremendous competition to have big bestselling blowout tent-pole storytelling. In order to do that, you don’t really want to spend a lot of time training the younger people. You’d rather just hire a pro and let them run with it and bring in the great big talent.

But on the opposite side, there is so much opportunity for people to learn by themselves, to be their own autodidacts in a way that there just never was when I was younger. There was no source for me to be able to go out and learn the things that I’ve learned over my career back when I was 26 years old. But today, one of the reasons why I started, was to give people who really wanted to learn editing craft the opportunity to teach it themselves without cost.

Everything on is for free. It’s the same content that’s in the book. If you love the content in Story Grid and you can’t afford the book, you’re still going to be able to teach yourself how to be an editor, and I think that’s a really important point to get across. I would love everybody to run out and buy this book and buy the e-book and put a lot of money in my bank account, but the reality is that the most important thing is to help writers become their own editors and to become really better craftsmen.

If you can do that, the quality of storytelling will only get better and better and better, and writing will become more and more fun for writers. Right now, I think there’s a moment when they hit the wall, they have a first draft in front of them, and they say to themselves, “Geez, what am going to do now? How am I going to tell what’s working and what’s not working? How am I going to fix the stuff that isn’t?” Even just the very simple understanding of what’s working and what’s not working drives them crazy.

What they end up doing is asking a lot of wonderful, nice friends and family to read a book and to give them notes. Those people are wonderful and everything, but they’re not editors and they’re not going to be able to help in the way that a really strong editor can.

The Story Grid is all about taking those first drafts and going through them very, very systematically, methodically, and looking at the global picture and the micro picture and being able to teach a writer how to fix what’s not working and make what’s working even better.

Marx: It seems like it’s going to be a great tool, especially for more indie authors, to help them. They should get an editor, also, but also to help edit themselves, too, with these tools.

Shawn: They’ll also be able to tell whether or not the editor who’s trying to get their business really knows what they’re talking about. One of the things that used to drive me crazy as an editor – and I know writer friends of mine, too – is when an editor has really great intentions and has really positive energy but they really don’t know what they’re talking about.

They’ll say things like, “I really think you need some more oomph in that third act,” but they won’t tell you where in the third act you need the oomph, what scene, what character isn’t working. They can’t give you the specifics, so they give you a lot of florid language that can only confuse then writer. Because the writer can understand, “Oh yeah, I guess I do need to pump up my third act,” but how to do it and where to start, and where exactly to make that happen is really important to know, and that’s what an editor should help you do.

At the very least, go to and you’re going to get a free lesson to be able to evaluate whether or not the editors who are trying to get your business are capable of actually helping you.

Julie: That’s a good idea. Yeah, because if they can’t tell you what is oomphless… It’s like, “Do I need to have more of an action sequence that tells you the same information rather than these two characters talking at this scene? Or is that scene working? Or should I just have random circus come to town?”

Shawn: Exactly.

Marx: Always the random circus.

Julie: I’m for the random circus coming to town, because you can always introduce a killer clown into the second act.

Shawn: Yes, you can never go wrong with that, right?

Marx: Wow. You guys are on fire.

Julie: He’s like, “Boy, have I met two people who need my Story Grid.” We are who you wrote it for.

Marx: I wrote a book recently on Web television, and I found by putting the things I knew on paper and just gathering together all that stuff, that I learned some things that I didn’t really quite know. Maybe they’re just subconscious. I’m wondering, when you wrote The Story Grid were there some things that came out crystallized that you didn’t realize until you wrote the book?

Shawn: Absolutely. Whenever you write anything, it’s a magical experience. I don’t mean that in a woo-woo way; it’s just there’s something that happens when your creative lead is just banging out copy. It’s hard to describe, but you just did, Marx, because what you described is while you’re typing and while you’re trying to move your points from A, B, C, to D, another part of your brain fires and gives you little hints. It’s what Steve Pressfield calls the muse descending.

I’m not sure if I’m completely onboard with the actual muse, but I do think that there’s really something to the metaphysics of the left- and right-handed sides of your brain. I think it’s the right-handed side that’s the creative part and the left-handed is the more analytical part, but when you’re really focusing on one side of your brain, the other brain gets to rest and play.

As you’re working on something and you have a clear, set goal, and you’re writing it, the analytical part of your brain will give you a little nugget here and there that you just end up starting to play with.

This happened to me a number of times when I was writing The Story Grid. As you know, I do a very deep analysis of The Silence of the Lambs in The Story Grid, and so many things occurred to me as I was going through the technicalities of the scene-by-scene progression of the story that I just never really even considered before.

One of those was really the deep arc of story that happens in the internal genre of The Silence of the Lambs, and that is Clarice Starling’s disillusionment plot. We think of The Silence of the Lambs as this amazing serial killer thriller that just scares the bejesus out of us, and it really is that – I’m not taking anything away from that – but what’s underneath that story is this lead character who really comes to the realization that she’s being used.

She’s being used by the FBI, which she thinks is a meritocracy is not a meritocracy. They’re using her to goose this psychopath to help solve a crime. Until she reaches that realization, she’s not going to be able to really effectively crack the case.

Anyway, I can go on and on about the internal genre and disillusionment plot in The Silence of the Lambs – and I do in the book – but back to your question, Marx, that is something that really came to the fore when I was methodically going scene by scene by scene and analyzing the progression of the value changes in each of those scenes, and I discovered, “Oh, my gosh, there’s something happening underneath here that I hadn’t really thought about.”

The great thing about writing is the more you do it, the more these little bits and pieces come to you from the ether, from the collective unconscious, whatever you want to say, and it’s a wonderful way of discovering what you really think deeply inside.

Marx: In your book, you talk quite a bit about genre. I found your genre five-leaf clover concept really interesting. What most people would consider genre – say a western or a thriller or horror film or something like that – you characterize as the external content genre aspect. Can you go a little bit more about what the five-leaf clover is, how you look at genre?

Shawn: Sure. The first thing I have to say about it is a lot of these ideas came to me through Robert McKee and his colleague Bass El-Wakil, who’s a brilliant story guy, and I can’t wait for them to publish their book on genre, because they’ve been working on this for a long time and they’re really, really smart.

With that said, I did combine from other sources and whatever. My five-leaf clover is basically what genre is basically. Forget the French word, and it seems obtuse. Basically, what genre does is it manages audience expectations. That’s all it does. When you go to see a movie, just by looking at a movie poster, that’s managing your expectations. If you see The Rock is starring in something, you know it’s going to be an action adventure something. What the five-leaf genre clover is are the five leaves on it manage one of the expectations of an audience.

If I’m going to lure you to read my novel or read my narrative nonfiction book, I’m going to have to answer these questions to you. The first question that you’re going to want to know is how long is this thing going to be? Is this going to be a novel, or is this going to be a short story? Or is this going to be a novella? How much time am I going to have to invest to watch this? That’s one leaf of the clover. It’s a very simple question: is it going to be long, medium, or short?

The second one is the reality. What’s the reality that we’re talking about here? Is this going to be realism like NYPD Blue or Silence of the Lambs, which is a realistic setting around and using the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit as the setting? Is it realistic or is it a fantasy? What is the reality that I’m going to engaging here? As long as you know, you know when you go to see The Lord of the Rings, it’s fantasy. You know that’s what that is.

Julie: Is that what that is?

Shawn: But you know immediately. That’s another question that you have to answer, and there’s four different reality genres. There’s absurdism, factualism, fantasy, and realism. You can get all of this for free at I’m not going to go into each of them.

But the third one is the style. The third leaf is the style. Is this going to be a drama, a comedy? Is this going to be a musical, a documentary? What? That’s the style of the storytelling.

Then the fourth one is the structure. I could really go nuts on the structure, but basically, there’s three choices of structure. There’s the arch plot, which is what we all think of when we think of a story. It’s the hero’s journey – something happens, throws the character’s life out of balance, and they have to go on a journey until they can get their life back in order. That is an arch plot.

There’s the mini plot, which would be a series of those arch plots told from the point of view of a number of different characters. Mini plots are usually the work of big literary nonfiction – like War and Peace, things like that. Those are little stories that add up to something larger than the sum of their parts.

Then there’s the anti-plot, which came about in the middle of the 20th Century after the horrors of World War I and World War II. It’s very, very theater of the absurd, where nothing makes sense. These aren’t really my cup of tea and these aren’t explored that much in The Story Grid because there’s no beginning, middle, and end. It’s just an absurd world, it’s existentialism, it’s a lot of big thinking stuff that, in my opinion, doesn’t really add up to much.

Julie: Like Waiting for Godot.

Shawn: Yes, I think Waiting for Godot actually works, but most of them don’t.

Julie: It is the exception. I know what you’re talking about. I had to read several things in college that I don’t get into it as well, either. I’m like, “Really? I have to read this?” I never really got it.

Shawn: Like No Exit, Sartre.

Julie: It was at a time when it was really cool on college campuses. There was the cult of this with the black turtlenecks.

Shawn: It had a lot of Beat Generation Jean-Luc Godard elements to it that…

Julie: Yes, and if you didn’t really like it or get it, then you were somehow just stupid. You know?

Shawn: Yes. I’m more of a meat-and-potatoes story guy, and I completely agree with you.

Marx, the last leaf is the one that you were talking about, which is the content. The content one is what we all think of when we think of genre. This is the place where you find the thriller, the crime story, the western, the love story, the society drama, horror, action, performance story, and then I make little distinction here that I think no one else does, and I divide the content genre leaf into two things. The external genre and the internal genre.

The reason why I do that is that the external genre concerns things that are on the surface. Right? Somebody comes and they have a bomb, and everybody has to get out of the way, and it’s solving the big action piece. We know on the surface, for example, The Silence of the Lambs, the on-the-surface external genre is thriller. Right? Or because you’ve got a serial killer loose, Buffalo Bill, who’s murdering people, and you have to stop him. That’s the on-the-surface movement of the story.

Now, there are also the internal stories, the internal content genres. These are the ones that are the coming-of-age story, where we see the internal movement of the lead character or a series of characters in mini-plot move from one state of worldview to another, or one state of moral position to another. You have the redemption plots, you have coming of age, maturation. You have the disillusionment plot that I was talking about earlier with Clarice Starling.

These are the places where the external and the internal genres… These are major, major decisions that a writer needs to make as they are working on their novel, or even if they have a first draft, just taking a very hard, close look at their book and saying, “Is this a crime story primarily or is this a coming-of-age story?”

Those decisions are crucial because there are a lot of different values that are involved in moving your story from the beginning to the middle to the end, so you really need to know and really, really lock down what it is you’re trying to do in your story.

Once you do know, “You know what? This is definitely a thriller…” Silence of the Lambs, when all comes down to it, it’s a thriller. It’s a serial killer thriller, and all that stuff I talked about Clarice Starling is really interesting, but people go to see the movie or they read the book because it’s a serial killer thriller and they’re going to get scared out of their mind.

Thomas Harris made a very clear choice. He said, “I’m going to write a serial killer thriller and I’m going to make it even deeper and have a lot more oomph to it by adding this under-the-surface internal content genre, which is the disillusionment plot.”

You can probably tell I could go to town on this for another nine hours, but I hope that helps. There are five different leaves. They all answer questions that your audience is going to want to know before they even consider reading your book. They’re going to want to know what content am I going to get here? How long is it going to be? Is this going to be realistic or fantasy? What kind of style is this? Is this going to be a comedy or a drama? And what’s the structure? Is this going to strange and incomprehensible or is this going to be what I’m used to?

Those are the five things that you need to understand as a writer, and it’s one of the first things I talk about in the book because these are global concepts that every writer really needs to take into account before they start work.

Marx: I think it’s a great way to break it down, the best way I’ve seen so far, for sure.

Shawn: Great.

Julie: I’m the worst person to ask about, “Oh, you saw that movie? Yeah, explain it.” Because, in my mind, if I were to talk about Silence of the Lambs, I don’t just go, “Oh, it was this really scary…” I’m like, “And it was really interesting because the character Clarice…” I go into the character plot. In my mind, I don’t notice that that’s somehow less important plot than the main one.

Shawn: It’s not less important, but I’m talking about in categorical. When you went to see the movie or when you picked up the book, you knew you were in for a crime story. You knew that somebody was doing something horrible, somebody was murdering.

Julie: I’m always the person who goes, “But then there is more than you think because it really was about this.” By the time I get done talking, someone’s eyes have glazed over. I’m not the one to ask about…

Shawn: You are an editor, is what you are. May not know it, but you are.

Julie: No.

Marx: She’s actually pretty good at editing.

Julie: I edit a lot of Marx’s stuff.

Marx: Another thing you talk about with genres and such, is the…

Julie: …The obligatory scenes in the genre, and you go in depth on thrillers, like we talked about with Silence of the Lambs, but what are some other scenes for other kinds of genres?

Shawn: There are so many, but in terms of a love story, the obligatory scene, the obvious one, is lovers meet. You have to have a great scene where the lovers meet. Then you have to have, in a love story, the lovers’ first kiss. Then you have to have a scene they break up or they come back together.

In terms of a performance story, now there are several kinds of different performance stories, but like the movie Whiplash, that’s a performance story, and Rocky, that’s a performance story. In a performance story, you need to have the big game or the big performance. In Whiplash, the movie ends with the obligatory scene. The most important obligatory scene, which is the big performance, and same with Rocky. You know when that movie starts, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t wait until they fight.” The beauty of a performance plot is that you can build up to something, anticipation. The exciting incident of Rocky is when Rocky Balboa gets called in and gets the shot to fight the champ.

You know the obligatory thing is they better fight at the end. That’s pretty obvious, but oftentimes you will find people who will develop a story that’s a performance plot and not give you that final scene.

Julie: Is that because they don’t know that it’s a performance story?

Shawn: That’s part of it, and another part of it is fear. Because the problem and the challenge of obligatory scenes is that they’ve been done to death. Right? How many times have we seen the big fight in a boxing movie or a boxing story? Over and over and over and over again. We get fear when we have to create and innovate a new one. Oftentimes, what we’ll do is we’ll say, “Oh, I made a creative choice not to give that scene because that’s just cliché and it’s been done a million times.” That’s a cop out. You have to deliver the obligatory scene.

In horror, the major obligatory scene is the victim at the mercy of the monster scene. We always see this scene, and always the victim has to figure out a way to overcome the epitome of evil in the form of this monster. If you don’t give them that scene, you’re going to disappoint your audience.

Obligatory scenes are really, really crucial to understand in your chosen genre because if you don’t deliver them, people might not get it that you didn’t deliver it, but they’ll just say, “Yeah, I didn’t really like that one. It didn’t do anything for me.”

Part of being a writer is to find… Right now at Story Grid, what I’m doing is I’m story gridding The Tipping Point, which is a crazy idea. It’s nonfiction, it’s like the epitome of a big nonfiction, big idea book. I had to sit down and I had to think through very clearly, what are the obligatory scenes that a big idea nonfiction book has to have?

One is they have to have a big idea. Right? That seems so obvious, but if you’re writing, say, a love story and there’s never ever a moment where the two lovers are threatened and there is nobody trying to pull them apart, everybody is going to be like, “There was no story there. They met, they fell in love, they got married, they lived happily ever after. That’s not a love story.”

Julie: That’s a snooze fest.

Marx: That’s a Facebook photo album.

Shawn: Exactly. That’s the key thing about obligatory scenes. People always ask me, “Can you give me all the obligatory scenes for every single genre and tell me exactly all the things that I have to do to fill them out?” I could do that but that’s going to take me another 20 years to figure out.

Julie: But then I would be writing your book for you.

Shawn: That’s right. What I do know are crime, thriller, and performance, and I know some genres, and I’ll certainly dive in there and do the best I can, but the way to figure these things out is to read your five biggest, best books in the genre that you want to work and analyze them. Think about them. What do they all have in common? What you will find are the obligatory scenes and the conventions of that particular genre. Because those books that satisfy the conventions of a particular genre best all share those things.

For thriller, which I go very in depth in the book, there are about seven obligatory conventions and obligatory scenes that you need to deliver in a thriller. In Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris delivers every single one, and he does it in innovative, brilliant ways that you don’t see coming until you analyze it again and you go, “Holy cow. He solved the hero at the mercy of the villain scene in a way that’s never been done before, and he sets it up on page seven of the book. How did he do that?

Then what you can do from there is say, “I need to do something like Thomas Harris did. Not that I can do it perfectly, but let me be inspired by the work of a master in a way that can help me.”

If you have five of your favorite science fiction books, read them over and over and over again, make a list of the things that they have in common, and you’re going to find that you’re going to be able to nail all of the conventions and obligatory scenes, and then you’re going to know exactly how those masters were able to deliver those scenes in unique ways.

Marx: That would be a good tool to use a story grid. Basically, what you do is Silence of the Lambs with your five favorite books in your genre that you want to write in.

Shawn: Yes.

Marx: For screenwriting, I’ve had to break down scripts and study them before, and I’m always fascinated by the little nuances I never caught, the things that I enjoyed. In a book, I can just imagine the little things hiding in little corners.

Julie: A lot more corners in a book.

Marx: With a story grid, you have a few steps that you take. One of them is called the foolscap method. Maybe if you can explain what that is.

Shawn: Just to go back quickly, the story grid, basically, you have three stages. It’s so funny to me how everything ends up being in three stages. I don’t know why; it just is. Three stages.

Marx: The rule of three, yes.

Shawn: The first stage is you want to create the foolscap global story grid. What the foolscap story grid is is it’s just a one-page outline of the entire book. What it does is it shows you the global progression of the story, and it also will show you and answer all of the questions that you need to know about your book.

If you go to, you’ll see examples of the foolscap global story grid for Silence of the Lambs and, as I mentioned, I’m working on The Tipping Point now. What you do is you fill out that one sheet of paper after you have your first draft, or even before. A lot of people use this as a method to outline their book before they even write page one, and I would highly recommend you do that.

Steven Pressfield, my colleague and friend, I got it from him. This is really something. I do it in a much more complex way than Steve does, but Steve has been using this method for 20 years.

What it does it shows you exactly the global movements of the story. You have your global inciting incident and then you have your what we happens in the middle, and then you have what happens in the end. Once you fill that out, you have the global story.

Now you put that aside, and the next document you want to fill out is called the story grid spreadsheet. What the story grid spreadsheet is is a spreadsheet, and it has 18 separate columns that you’re going to fill in for every single scene in the book. You’ll be able to track whether or not one of your scenes is working or not working and you’ll be able to see, “Oh, my gosh, nothing happens in this scene except people talking about nothing. I shouldn’t have this scene in my book.”

Going through your novel or your story from page one in your first draft and taking the time to really create and work hard to fill in all of the questions that are asked on the story grid spreadsheet will allow you to see the global scene by scene. You’ll have the micro of your story.

You probably know what’s coming next. The next thing you want to do is take your macro, which is the foolscap global story grid, and combine it with your micro, which is the story grid spreadsheet. From those two documents, you’re going to be able to create an infographic, meaning an actual diagram of the movement of your story from the very beginning, through the middle, through the end.

When you do that, you will see where things are moving, how they’re working, and where they’re not working, whether or not you were able to abide the conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen genres, all of the questions that are raised, and all of the things you need to know about whether or not your story is working, and if it’s working, can you make it better? Can you make the best in its genre?

Again, you have three stops. You have to do the macro, you have to do the micro, and then you put the two together and you create a story grid. From that, you are going to have the most complex marching orders to fix your book that you will ever imagine. You will know exactly what you need to do, when you need to do it, and where.

This is something that I’ve used for over 300 books that I’ve worked on in my career. It’s remarkably helpful to a writer because it specifically tells them, “This scene is not working, and this is why it’s not working, and this is how you can fix it.”

Julie: Hearing you talk about it, it reminds me of the plot diagramming that you do in middle school or elementary school, or whatever, when they’re teaching you. I don’t know if they do now, but in reality, it looks very different, honestly, from the plot diagramming that I was taught. It’s like the same idea but it looks like it’s a lot more detailed.

Shawn: It’s like any discipline. Plot diagramming, I did not invent it in any way, shape, or form. Kurt Vonnegut used to, for fun, sketch out these diagrams of all different kinds of stories, and you can go online and see it. Spreadsheeting and gridding is not original, either. J.K. Rowling created the entire universe of Harry Potter using a very, very large spreadsheet. The difference between the two things is yes, it’s very, very specific. It’s as specific as you need it to be.

You can spend years going through story grid specificity and driving yourself crazy. The most important thing to remember about the story grid is it’s a tool. If you are really hitting the bricks and you don’t know what’s wrong, and you’re ready, you’re in great despair, going through these steps and really taking the time to think about these things is going to be immeasurably helpful. It’s going to be rational and reasonable. But you don’t have to kill yourself if your book is working and if you’re satisfied with it.

Are there flaws? There are flaws in everything. This is just a tool to find out where they are.

Julie: This one looks like it’s more useful. I remember not feeling very helped by the much more generic plot diagram I did when I was younger. I’m sure they were keeping it simple because of our age, but now I’m looking at this, I’m going, “Oh, hey. Maybe that’s what we should have been working towards because this looks like it actually has some helpful information in it.”

Shawn: It’s all building blocks. I try not to overwhelm everybody at the very beginning of the book because you really can get lost in the weeds. It’s really building blocks – starting with genre and understanding, “Okay, genre doesn’t mean cheesy stuff; it means satisfying audience expectations.”

If you’re a writer and you don’t want to satisfy audience expectations, you’re not going to have a very long career, because everybody writes for a reason. The reason is they want other people to read them. They want them to hear what they’re saying, they have a point of view, they have something to say.

You need to think about your audience when you write. I’m not saying you have to kowtow to your audience. The great thing is the audience is so fully immerse in story tradition. We all intuitively know every single thing that I write about in The Story Grid. We know it in our DNA. When people go to a movie and they say, “I didn’t like it,” there’s a very specific reason why they didn’t like it.

Julie: They may not know what it is.

Shawn: Exactly, but there is. Anyway, I’m blathering.

Marx: The book is packed with information but you do give it nice chunks in each chapter where it doesn’t overwhelm you.

Julie: You give a path through the weeds, I think, rather than letting people get lost in them is what Marx is trying to say.

Marx: It reminds me McKee’s Story is, as always, a must-have book for script writing especially, and I never really found too many books that were an equivalent. I know Story is more than just script writing or can be used for more than script writing, but it’s focused more towards that. I never really found books that really had that same kind of service for novels until now. This book, I feel, is the Story for novels.

Shawn: Great. That’s a great compliment. Thank you.

Marx: It’s a great book. I think everybody should check it out, especially for editors, but really, for any writer. Before we go, what else are you working on? Is there anything else you would like to promote? Upcoming projects?

Shawn: Not really. I really have my hands full with this Story Grid stuff. It’s a lot of fun. The other thing is that the publisher of The Story Grid… I’m actually the publisher as well as the writer and editor of my own stuff. Actually, I was edited by Steve Pressfield, who is my business partner. The company is called Black Irish Books and we publish pretty much wonderful books that, we hope, encourage people really fight their inner lazy bones and get to work.

We publish The War of Art, Turning Pro, Do the Work. All of Steve’s nonfiction with the exception of his narrative nonfiction, we publish at Black Irish Books. Anybody inspired should check out They’re really, really fun. They’re not cheesy. I really like the practicality of the books themselves.

I guess the only other thing I would promote is the company. We’re very small. We don’t plan on getting any larger. If we do, we’ll shut down because that was our agreement. That’s it.

Julie: I have to say, I love the name, Black Irish Books. That’s good. I like it.

Shawn: Black Irish people – and I count myself as one – we have a short fuse. It’s using that temperament to fight the inner naysayer within. Instead of using that energy outside, turn that vigor and aggressive nature inside and challenge yourself, and don’t be satisfied with, “Oh, they’ll never understand me at work if I say that,” or “I could never be a writer. I’m no good,” all that crap that we tell ourselves.

Julie: I like it.

Marx: There’s that and then Correct?

Shawn: Yes.

Marx: All right. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Julie: Yes, thank you.

Shawn: Thanks so much, guys.

Julie: Take care.


15 comments on “Your Story Sets Up Your Work

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for sharing these interviews. Every time I hear you explain these concepts to someone in a slightly different way it helps to cement them into my own (admittedly) thick head!

  2. Are there flaws? There are flaws in everything. This is just a tool to find out where they are.


    Any idea when the McKee/El-Wakil book will be out?

  3. Steve Schoenmakers says:

    Very useful interview that provided some helpful insights about concepts described in the book. Thank you!

  4. Sinakhone Keodara says:

    Hi Shawn,

    I started reading over your book (love 5-leaf genre clover) I wanted to know if you will print a second edition where you list all the conventions and obligatory scenes of each genre including the mixture of several genres. Or, if you can point to a book or website where I can obtain that information it would be great. Thanks a bunch!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Sinakhone,
      I’ve been asked this question a number of times. Below is how my friend Joel Canfield kindly answered it for me yesterday when asked a similar question by another reader. As I always say, writers must be thoroughly entrenched in the genres in which they’d like to work. That means doing a lot of reading. Each Genre is it’s own book and while I certainly will do that kind of work down the road, there are lots of other more difficult jobs I’d like to get done. Sorry to disappoint.

      Ah, everyone’s question. In today’s post Shawn says that’d be a 20-year job, laying all that out.

      His recommendation: read the 5 best books in your genre, and note the intersections. The scenes each of these books has, the standouts, will be the obligatory scenes for your genre.

      And then, go post it in the forum so everyone can share

      1. Sinakhone says:

        Thanks, Shawn! I finished reading your interview and gleaned that info from it. Thanks for the work you do. I look forward your new work. BTW, i appreciate the heads- up about Robert McKee’s new book on genre.

  5. Justin says:

    Hi Shawn,

    Got your book, its fantastic, and so is this site. One thing I would love to gain your insight on is using the foolscap and story grid techniques on a trilogy. Trilogies are very popular these days, and while I can see most of the foolscap and story grid techniques remaining the same for each standalone book, there must be a way to use this strategy to tie in all three books in a masterful way. Have you ever tried it?


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Justin,
      Here’s something that could help. The concepts remain the same. You just need to pull back the vision to a higher altitude.
      Glad you’re here.

      1. Sinakhone says:

        Thank you Justin for asking this great question and Shawn for providing the answer. I too am writing a trilogy so this applied to me as well. This site is such a treasure! I’m so grateful!

  6. Martha Knox says:

    I bought the hard copy of Story Grid which is a brick, literally so dense with such good information.I have written in it (gasp), and made side notes like a rabbi doing commentary on the bible. I have used it to write my Clover, Global story, beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff. Working on scenes (I love the graph) I keep these two pages next to me as I write my story. I changed and re-arranged a couple scenes, renamed a few characters, and gave some characters new jobs, but overall it follows my Story Grid. I added another complication in the middle.

    But I had to have an easier way to take the Story grid along with me to the library, and on the plane (I wrote character’s back story, pen , journal, no electronics). I write my book in my office but I found it was difficult to brain storm at a keyboard because I am very right brained when brain storming. I must have circles, and arrows and drawings. So I bought the story grid for my Kindle. I take it with me to the library when I need to brainstorm, I find that 6 hours of thinking in a quiet place surrounded by thousands of books is exactly what I need one day a week. When I wrote on the plane in my journal, my Kindle with Story Grid was propped up on my lap tray. When I come back to the keyboard in my office after a brainstorming session I can write 1500 to 2500 words and the words pour out of me as if I am writing a movie in my mind.

    Thanks for all the tips and the wonderful podcasts; my nighttime story hour. Although I read Silence of the Lambs before I even heard of the Story Grid., it’s kind of a creepy book, but well written. I also saw the movie.

    So as an alternative to creepiness before bedtime, I have been using the Story Grid to map out some of my favorite authors to see how they do it. I like small town, sort of funny, wacky characters, classic mystery genre, not too cozy. I like a little edge to my characters; a little rumpled also. Authors I like are: Bill Crider, Betty Webb, Donis Casey, Terry Shames, Kerry Greenwood, William Tappley, Phillip Craig, P D James, MC Beaton, Janet Evanovich (not romance), Alexander McCall Smith (#1 Ladies Detective not others) , Michael Conelly ( Lincoln Lawyer- Mickey not Harry), Sara Paretsky, Faye Kellerman, Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, Eline Viets, Agatha Christie (Marple and Poirot), Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Sue Grafton, Colin Dexter, and so on, so many. I just love them all.

    I stopped cable and now I read my favorite authors from a Story Grid view. For anyone that says you can only have a few characters I dare them to read Murder on the Orient Express, at least 20 characters or more if you count all the victims and people affected by the murder. She is amazing.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Wow Martha, great stuff! Music to my ears to read this!
      All the best,

  7. Blake Madden says:


    First post here and I’ve been obsessively reading for a few weeks now. What I didn’t know at the beginning that I know now: I’m writing a performance/ maturation story, and my entire first draft did not contain ‘the big performance’. As you say here, you’re not going to spell out all the finer points of the performance genre. I like your suggestion of finding the best five books on your genre and reading and dissecting them. My problem here is that I am thinking of a ton of movies and can’t seem to think of a single book. Or rather, the question I wanted to ask is can you see the performance genre cloaked in other types of stories you wouldn’t necessarily associate with it? Is any story with a big showdown/ battle or even a big task at the end in some way a performance story? Can Moby Dick be a performance story? Is Saving Private Ryan a performance story? Are heist stories performance stories? Or if I’m looking too deep and you just have some better suggestions of classic performance novels, I’d love to hear them. Thanks for the great work.

    1. Why not use the movies? They will, of necessity, have all the obligatory scenes and conventions you’re looking for, but in a more streamlined package.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Blake,

      I agree with Joel. One story to look at that is a novel and a film in this genre is SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (a genre meld of love and performance…). The performance is the dance at the end, which beautifully illustrates the maturation/education/revelation internal genre of the lead male character coming to accept the obvious truth of his perfect mate. So the external love story and the internal come together brilliantly at story climax.
      Performance is just another word for CLIMACTIC EVENT AT THE END OF THE STORY. We use the term Performance to be specific about Sports Event Stories, Business Stories, Musical Performances, Big Speeches (The King’s Speech is another one to look at). You could look at Moby Dick or Gates of Fire as a Performance Story too. The big whale fight and the big battle are at the end of the line (isn’t it a great idea to set up a big event so very early on in the story that the reader can’t help but anticipate it?) and are essentially big performances for the protagonists.

      What’s important to remember is that all of this stuff is fluid…one man’s performance story is another man’s social drama.

      But in order for that to work (someone bringing his own life experience to the table during his internal interpretation of what the story means to him) We need to be really specific when we write so that other’s may take from the story whatever it is they see in there.

      Through specificity comes universality. So all of these genre categories are tools to use in order to hone in on what exactly you want to express.
      Hope that helps.

      1. Blake Madden says:

        Shawn, Thanks so much. I’m glad you mentioned Silver Linings (I know you had before here but I forgot). I remember a very specific feeling after watching that movie. Speaking of conventions and obligatory scenes in genre, I remember thinking ‘wow, I knew everything that was going to happen in that movie and they still pulled it off in a fresh and creative way’. I guess that’s what your always talking about, right? Great example.

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