Image by Photo 85094197 © Elayne6 – Dreamstime.com.
As most of you reading this know, I am a Certified Story Grid Editor. I love the Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid method. I use it for editing my client’s novels and for writing my own. I really get a lot out of the structure it gives my writing and the way I can identify the areas that are less exciting.
That being said, I’ve read a few books about writing, especially before my Story Grid days, and one of those books was Save the Cat Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody (Now referred to as STC for the rest of this post!).
First, let me address the elephant, or at least the large cat, in the room. Many writers claim either or both of these methods are formulaic, and that they write from their muse. That’s fine. However you write, planner or pantser or muser, that’s great that you are writing. But at the end of your first draft, you’ll undoubtably start to edit, and that’s when either or both or another method will help you to identify plot points and strengthen scenes. So I’m not here to debate how to best write your next great novel, I’m just happy you are writing. All I’m here to say is that if you want to try a self-editing method after your first draft, you could do worse than picking up one of these two books and reading what they have to say.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s get on to how these two methods compare.
The Story Grid Method
Developed by experienced editor Shawn Coyne, this method is a great way to analyze your scenes, chapters, acts, and whole story. The Story Grid goes deep into the scene level analysis, and I’m not going to do that here. If you are interested in that then check out my Story Grid Showrunners Podcast or one of my television series analysis or go to the source at the Story Grid website. In this post I will cover how Story Grid analyzes the overall story and the structure of the 3 acts in order to make a story that works.
First, the meat and potatoes of Story Grid is called the 5 Commandments:
- Inciting Incident: This is the thing that knocks the world out of balance for your protagonist; it can be causal or coincidence
- Turning Point: This is the thing that forces your protagonist to make a decision, forcing the protagonist out of his status quo; this can be caused by a revelation or a character action
- Crisis Question: This is the question the protagonist asks himself based on the Turning Point. Does he do one thing or the other? The answer to this question will build the character of the protagonist for the reader.
- Climax: This is the decision made by the protagonist
- Resolution: This is the repercussions of Protagonist’s decision.
The other item of importance in the Story Grid is the Global Value of the novel which depends on the core emotion the reader will elicit from reading the novel. In a Thriller or Action novel, the reader wants to be thrilled, wants to be in fear for the protagonist’s life and celebrating when the protagonist barely survives. The global value for Thriller and Action novels is Life and Death.
For some examples of the 5 commandments and the Global Value, see my posts where I analyze novels such as Rambo: First Blood by David Morrell and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.
The Story Grid Method breaks down novels into 3 acts, called the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff. Each one of these Acts needs to have a scene that fulfills one of the 5 Commandments where the scene turns on the life value of the Genre of the novel (As I mentioned, for a Thriller or Action novel, that would be life and death). So 3 acts and 5 commandments for each act equals 15 core scenes that make up the spine of the novel.
The Story Grid also estimates that the Beginning Hook (Act 1) will consist of about 25% of the novel, the Middle Build (Act 2) will be 50% of the novel, and the Ending Payoff will be the last 25% o the novel. These are estimations based on Shawn Coyne’s 25 years of editing thousands of novels. Does every book do this? No. But the majority of the books that work do. That’s all he’s saying.
Another part of the Story Grid is the inclusion of Obligatory Scenes and Conventions unique for each Genre type. All of these items are covered in free articles found on www.storygrid.com.
For the Thriller, the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions are as follows.
- An Inciting Crime indicative of a master villain
- Speech in praise of the victim
- The protagonist/ hero becomes the victim
- the hero at the mercy of the villain
- all is lost moment
- false ending
- MacGuffin – Villain’s object of desire
- investigative red herrings
- making it personal between the villain and the hero
- clock/ countdown
- Plus specific sub-genre conventions
If you want to see all of the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions for the Thriller explained in detail, check out this post on storygrid.com.
That is a very brief summary of the Story Grid methodology – 3 acts and 5 commandments for each act resulting in the 15 core scenes of the novel’s spine that turn on the core value. Add to this the obligatory scenes and conventions of the genre. Do this and you will have a very good start to a story that works.
Save the Cat Writes a Novel
When I reread the STC book, I was amazed to notice a ton of similarities between the two methodologies.
STC also breaks a novel into 3 acts, however the estimated lengths of the acts are: Act 1 20%, Act 2 60%, Act 3 20%. So slightly different, but not by much.
Act one has 5 core scenes:
- the opening image (1%) – a single scene that shows the protagonist at the beginning of his journey before he is changed by his adventures. this isn’t stated in the Story Grid, but if you think about any of your favorite movies, I think you will easily identify this scene. it’s a great idea to set up the novel. Think of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker stuck on a farm on the desert planet.
- Theme stated (5%) – This is another great idea. Brody suggests that a character, not the protagonist, tell the protagonist how to solve all his problems at the beginning. Of course the protagonist doesn’t follow the advice, he must discover this nugget in his own way through the journey he embarks on.
- Setup (1-10%) – This part is pretty much the Inciting Incident and the setup for the future payoffs of the novel
- catalyst (10%) – This is the same as the Turning Point in the Story Grid Method
- debate (10-20%) – This is the Crisis and Climax of Act 1 in the Story Grid method.
Act 2 has 7 parts
- Break into 2 (20%) – This is the Resolution of Act 1 in the Story Grid, when the protagonist makes his decision
- The B Story (22-25%) – Brody suggests that once the protagonist breaks into Act 2, they are in a new world with new friends and new enemies and new problems that will highlight the protagonist’s flaw. The B story should be the inverse of Act 1. This is the Inciting Incident of Act 2 in the Story Grid method.
- Fun and Games (20-50%) – these are the scenes that reader picked up the book for, what was promised on the back of the novel.
- Midpoint (50%) – Brody describes this as the dynamic pivotal point of the novel where the stakes are raised
- Bad Guys Close In (50-70%) – These are the most exciting scenes of the novel where the bad guys come back even stronger. This is the build up to the crisis
- All is Lost (75%) – This is the turning point where the Hero must change, also the turning point of Act two for the Story Grid.
- Dark Night of the Soul (75-80%) – This is the Crisis and climax of Act 2; what choices does the protagonist now have and which one will he/she make after the All is Lost moment/ Turning point for Act 2?
Act three has 3 parts (actually 7 because she sneaks in a 5 part finale):
- Break into 3 (80%) – This is the resolution for Act 2, where the hero finally figures out how to fix things the right way
- Finale (80-99%) – The protagonist resolves all his problems and finally learns the theme. It can be conducted in a 5 point finale structure:
- 1. Gather Team
- 2. Execute Plan
- 3. High Tower Surprise – the protagonist’s initial plan doesn’t work, this is the Story Grid Turning Point for Act 3
- 4. Dig Deep Down – The protagonist is at the end of rope, he’s tried everything, but now he must dig deep and try something he never would have at the beginning of the story. In Story Grid terms, this is when the protagonist uses his/her gift. This is the Crisis/ Climax of Act 3.
- 5. Execution of the new plan – the protagonist triumphs. This is the Resolution of Act 3 – what were the results of the protagonist’s decision?
- Final Image (99-100%) – This is the readers final image of the protagonist and it should show how the protagonist has changed from what he has learned in his journey.
And the Winner is??
As you can see, there are a lot of similarities between the two methods. I’m sorry for the hard core believers, but i believe they both have some merits and it couldn’t hurt to apply both to the massive problem of writing a novel.
The 15 core scenes of the Story Grid cross over into the 15 parts of the STC method. If you look hard enough, you can also see most of the obligatory scenes and conventions of the Story Grid in the STC method as well.
STC has some details that I like a lot, such as the theme stated and the opening/ final image. I look for that in the manuscripts I edit, and suggest to the author that it is a technique used by many successful authors and movies.
The Story Grid goes a step further by applying its 5 commandments to the individual scenes, which I find very useful when analyzing my clients’ work and helping them write better scenes and overall stories.
If you haven’t read one or either of these writing books, I would definitely recommend them. You can never learn too much about writing. Take what you can use and discard the rest.