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Shawn Coyne developed a system for analyzing stories, called The Story Grid, that we here at The Story Ninja apply in our developmental editing. In a new series of posts, I am going to explain what the system is, how it works, and what it looks like in action when applied to romance novels.
Story Grid focuses on Genre-specific obligatory scenes and conventions, global value change, and what Shawn calls “The Five Commandments”.
I realize that at first glance, this can all sound very formulaic, and in some senses, it is. Genre fiction by definition is distinct from literary fiction in that each genre follows a preset list of “rules”. In as much as genre fiction is formulaic, the Story Grid is a formula, but as any genre fiction fan knows, there is an abundance of variety within the bounds of each genre, not to mention authors are constantly finding ways to combine and expand the bounds of genres. Ultimately, it is necessary for authors to realize that fans of genre fiction bring with them a certain set of expectations when they seek out a particular genre, and failing to meet those expectations will result in disappointed readers.
Another important consideration is that Shawn does not fit books into his mold. Rather, he read hundreds of successful books within each genre and picked apart what made each book “work” until he had a framework to apply. Having learned his system, I can now figure out why I dislike a particular book, or even scene within a book, by determining which tenant of the genre the author violated or neglected.
Today, we will start with the most basic building block of any story, regardless of the length or Genre: The Five Commandments.
What are The Five Commandments:
These 5 elements should appear in each scene and Act:
Something happens, either caused by a character or a coincidence, that changes the protagonist’s day/moment.
Something else happens, either through character action or a revelation of some type, which changes the protagonist’s view of their current situation and forces the protagonist to make a decision on how to move forward.
This is a best bad choice or best good choice that the protagonist needs to make. It is crucial that the protagonist makes the decision, not a secondary character or Act of God. When a character makes decisions, the reader sees what kind of person they are and understands them better. This causes your reader to empathize with them.
This is what the character risks with each option. To ensure that the crisis question is between a ‘best bad’ or ‘best good’ choice, the stakes should be comparable in their gravity.
This is the actual decision made by the character, but it can be changed by outside forces.
These are the results of the specific decision made by the character.
I do realize there are six items on my list of Five Commandments. Shawn Coyne created the system, but I think it is important to pull the stakes of the crisis question out separately, or authors tend to forget to consider them, in which case they are missing or grossly incomparable. For example, if Option A means you get one million dollars and Option B means you spend twenty-five years in prison, it isn’t a choice—everyone would obviously choose Option A. The only thing your character choosing Option A proves is that she is not a total moron. Considering your stakes ensure that you are actually giving your character difficult decisions that help to develop her.
You might also notice that the last paragraph was all about the crisis question and stakes. That is because it is, in my opinion, the most difficult and important piece to put in place. If you can determine what crisis question your character is facing and what its stakes are, all of the rest generally falls into place pretty easily. In my own writing, I always start my outlines by determining the crisis question and stakes first, then fill in the rest.
Hopefully that all made sense (but if I didn’t, feel free to leave me questions in the comments). In honor of the release of Crown of Fools (Underestimated Book 5), I’ll further clarify, by showing the five commandments in action in a book called Queen of Carnage (Underestimated Book 1) by one of my favorite indie authors—Candice Wright.
Scene Level: Queen of Carnage, Chapter One
Luna befriends a dog she sees in a fenced yard and starts to visit him regularly.
Luna sees a man kick the dog.
Does Luna save the dog or walk away?
If Luna breaks the dog out, she is risking the wrath of an obviously violent man, but if she leaves him, she will be knowingly leaving a dog she has grown attached to in a situation where he is being abused.
Luna cuts a hole in the fence and runs away with the dog.
Luna is captured and taken to the Kings of Carnage compound.
After only one scene, you know a lot about Luna; she is brave, probably a bit reckless, and so loyal that she would risk her own safety in order to help a dog she occasionally visits. If you enjoy Motorcycle Club romances and reverse harems, but haven’t read Queen of Carnage I highly recommend it. For those who have read the book, you will notice that much of this is implied, but the reader knows it is there nonetheless. This is why I say that The Story Grid method is not truly formulaic; it is more like a list of rules to follow for your story telling, the same way there are rules to follow in grammar. In the book, Luna does not actually consider walking away and leaving the dog—for her, the decision is automatic. Neither does she think through the possible ramifications of her decision. The reader, however, is able to infer all of this. When reading the book, you know that while Luna’s moral compass might have made walking away not an option, it was in fact a choice on the table. Likewise, while she doesn’t think through the potential consequences of her actions, the reader has been given enough information to know that there are risks inherent in the decision she is making.
So, does every scene have to follow The Five Commandments? Just like with grammar, there are times when you can get away with breaking the rules. In romance, bedroom scenes come to mind as a common and obvious place where your main character does not necessarily have to face a crisis question—although even these scenes tend to be better if you include one. For example, a heroine who has faced previous trauma might deal with the crisis question of whether or not she is willing to trust her partner(s) enough to be restrained, or if she needs to set that as a limit for the time being. Remember, every time your characters face a crisis question and make a decision, the reader learns more about them and what type of people they are, which builds empathy and makes your reader more invested in characters and their story.
Act Level: Queen of Carnage, Act I
After attempting to rescue King, Luna is captured by Halo and taken to the Kings of Carnage compound.
Orion expressed his interest in having a relationship with Luna.
Will Luna begin a relationship with Orion or shut down his advances?
Luna has already seen evidence that the biker life is not very woman-friendly, and entering into this relationship will mean dealing with much different circumstances and expectations than she is used to, but she is intensely attracted to Orion and shutting him down would mean denying herself the entire time she is at the Carnage compound and potentially missing out on something great.
Luna agrees to give a relationship with Orion a try for the month that she will be living at the MC compound.
Luna and Orion are both happy in their new relationship.
We discussed the fact that it can sometimes be okay to not have The Five Commandments in every scene of your novel. Is the same true for Acts? No! If your main character goes an entire Act without having some major crisis question to address, I can guarantee your book is boring. What that question is, is up to you. There are certainly trends in Romance novels—Act I is almost always whether or not to enter into the relationship, and Act III is usually whether or not to forgive the love interest for whatever caused the breakup—but this is the part that is not a formula. In fact this is where the creativity and variety come in. You can make the crisis questions your character faces in each act be whatever you want! All that matters is that they are there.
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Have questions I didn’t address? Leave me a comment or get in touch and I’ll be happy to answer!