Putting my story on the grid
This week’s article is a departure from my usual work-life-reflective type posts. I hope it is useful to anyone thinking about story genre and structure.
I’m learning a lot from Shawn Coyne’s story grid approach to editing. Although still in the middle of writing the first draft of my first novel, I was so impressed with the articles on his Story Grid website that I bought his book. I am also catching-up with the vast quantity of Story Grid podcasts – a weekly discussion between Shawn and Tim Grahl – exploring what makes a great story work. There’s a lot of written and audio material to absorb and apply, and so far my learning is probably at a level 3 (out of 10). I took time out this week to analyse the genre of my book in more detail, think about conventions and obligatory scenes, and map out a foolscap global story grid.
When we talk about book genre, we think of romance, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, historical fiction and so on. These are all content genres. Some genres break down further, for example crime covers murder mystery, courtroom, espionage etc. Shawn has defined different types of genre in his 5-leaf clover infographic. Today, I am focusing on the content genre. I won’t go into detail about the other four types but suffice to say my book is archplot drama realism set over a long historical period.
My novel’s external content genre is society (with elements of politics and power). Set in the early twentieth century, the story explores deep social issues at the heart of England’s class based society, at a time when commercial opportunities and other external factors were creating a new kind of wealth.
What is the protagonist's internal object of desire?
The content genre also considers an internal theme by asking—what is the protagonist’s internal object of desire? For example, is it respect, or seeking the truth, or winning? In my book, the protagonist starts with a positive belief that if he maintains his (financial and emotional) independence, then he’ll be successful. But over time he comes to hate himself and realises that without connection to other humans, there is little point of success. It could have been a redemption novel, but in the end he can’t achieve the meaningful life he thinks he now wants. This is a disillusionment theme. And my controlling idea – the whole point to the story – is that success is worthless without a meaningful life, but giving up success doesn’t entitle you to a meaningful life.
Understanding internal and external content genre is important because it helps to understand what are the required conventions and obligatory scenes for any type of book.
Shawn describes conventions as “specific requirements of the Story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward”. For my Society genre I think the conventions are:
Protagonist (and others) have a well defined, rigid place in society (and he doesn’t like it)
Protagonist endeavours to change his place (has a specific goal in mind)
Society resists change (multiple resistances)
Protagonist has a fatal flaw which will scupper his attempt to change
Protagonist has enough intellect and drive to make it happen
A strong mentor figure provides guidance or help
Ironic or bittersweet ending
Obligatory scenes are “the must-have elements to payoff the raised expectations of those conventions”. For my novel, I have identified the obligatory scenes as:
Inciting incident challenges protagonist’s place in society
Protagonist leaves home to better himself
Protagonist struggles to adapt to a new environment
Protagonist sets out to better antagonist’s objects of desire
Initial plan to outmanoeuvre antagonist fails
Betrayal by someone important
Protagonist’s ideal is tarnished
An all is lost moment
Protagonist must choose what’s necessary to achieve success or reject world he strived to join (hero at the mercy of the villain)
Protagonist saves or loses himself: failure or sell-out
Foolscap Global Story Grid
If you have read my other posts, you’ll know that I’m also a fan of Dwight Swain’s scene-sequel method, and KM Weiland’s novel outline and story structure. I thought it would be fun to see if I could overlay Shawn’s foolscap story grid onto my existing structure to review where I was and if the story was missing any core components.
I was able to pinpoint the specific crossover between act one and two
I had been struggling with where the second act should finish and the third act should start. There are multiple conflicts happening to my protagonist at this point, and I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. With KM Weiland’s story structure the third act starts with the 3rd plot point which is a dark moment for the protagonist: after victory at the end of the second act, there is a reversal. The story grid structure ends the second act with a resolution and starts the third act with an inciting event. By pulling out each individual scene and assessing it against these two methods, I was able to pinpoint the specific crossover between act one and two, as well as the underlying positive and negative charges in each scene.
I’m also finding that the scenes in my third act are dull and repetitive: there’s nothing new or exciting until the very end. I know I need to put some extra conflict in there. It’s something I am allowing my subconscious to think about as I continue with act two.
It’s been a really useful exercise. No doubt I’ll be re-visiting the story grid and editing scenes, sequences and acts through various drafts in the months to come. But for now I’m happy to get back to writing, knowing I have a better understanding of my genre and how it works.