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Monday, April 25, 2022

The 5 Commandments of Storytelling According to The Story Grid

The Five Commandments of Storytelling come from The Story Grid approach to writing, which was created by Shawn Coyne, who has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years now and has edited hundreds of books. Drawing from the influence of Robert McKee (best known for writing Story) as well as from his vast experience, Coyne came up with concrete ways to measure and understand story. His work has helped thousands of writers find success, and I've personally turned to his approaches several times.

Which brings me to today's article. I recently had some questions that led me back to his work, and specifically to The Five Commandments of Storytelling. Now, I admit, I don't love the name "Five Commandments of Storytelling" because all five elements have to do mainly with plot and structure, and not the other elements of storytelling. But as I've talked about time and again on here, what we call it doesn't really matter, as long as you understand the concept. Coyne also says on his site that it's comparable to the ten commandments Moses got, in that, when boiled down, these are the five things you absolutely need to guide you when getting started in storytelling. 

Some of these items will sound familiar because we've talked about them from other angles before, but I'm covering them from Coyne's angle today, while also throwing in my own thoughts and approaches (don't worry, I communicate which is which).

First off, these five elements are structural elements, and like most structural elements, they work within any structural unit: scene, sequence, act, or the global story. Each of these units really have the same basic parts. For an explanation of how that works, read my post, "Scene vs. Sequence vs. Act."

1. Inciting Incident

I've talked about the inciting incident numerous times on here, but as a quick recap, the inciting incident is either an opportunity or a problem that disrupts the established normal. The protagonist is going on, living in his Ordinary World until bam an opportunity or a problem comes up that will (at least eventually) change the direction of the story--within the narrative arc it essentially kicks off the story. Harry gets a letter from Hogwarts and later learns he's a wizard and can attend a magic school (opportunity). Nemo gets kidnapped in Finding Nemo (problem). Two love interests meet in a romance (opportunity).

In a smaller unit (such as an act, sequence, or scene, as opposed to the whole story) this will be a smaller disruption.

"No matter the unit of story (beat, scene, sequence, act, or global Story) what the inciting incident must do is upset the life balance of your lead protagonist/s. It must make them uncomfortably out of sync…for good or for ill." - Shawn Coyne

While I prefer dividing these into "opportunity" or "problem," Coyne divides this into two different types:

a. Causal

This happens from an active choice. The example he gives is a wife leaving her husband.

b. Coincidental

This happens (you guessed it) from a coincidence, such as a plane crashing and forcing the protagonist to survive in the wilderness.

For what it's worth, the reason I prefer dividing the incident into "opportunity" or "problem" over "causal" or "coincidental" is because I feel that whether it's an "opportunity" or a "problem" affects the story and protagonist more (and helps you better infer how to write what happens next), whereas many inciting incidents that are causal could be changed to coincidental or vice versa without much effect. For example, Harry could have just as well coincidentally found out about Hogwarts, Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could have just as well been given the Golden Ticket, Frodo could have just as well stumbled upon the Ring, and the stories would largely be the same. However, if Hogwarts or Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory were viewed as a problem or Frodo getting the Ring was viewed as an opportunity, that would be a very different protagonist with a very different story. 

Nonetheless, I admit that "causal" or "coincidental" can make a significant difference in some stories--a wife choosing to leave a husband is different than one "leaving" after happening to get hit by a car. And there is no reason you can't use both types of categories, and label Harry's as "opportunity, causal" or someone stuck in the wilderness after a plane crash as "problem, coincidental."

Coyne also reflects what I've read K. M. Weiland and a few others say: "the inciting incident of a global story must make a promise to the reader…the ending. The ending must be a perfectly reasonable and inevitable result of the inciting incident."

The inciting incident will give rise to a new desire or goal within the protagonist--or at least a more specific or refined one.

Learn more about Coyne's perspective of the inciting incident.

2. Progressive Complication

This is what we call the rising action, where the conflict escalates. The protagonist faces opposition from antagonistic forces. And the struggles should get more difficult, the stakes should get higher, and the costs bigger.

Coyne suggests giving each complication a number 1 - 10 for how serious the conflict is. A one means it's not that big of a problem and a ten means it will bring the protagonist to her knees. If you find most of them score pretty low, then the stakes aren't big enough in your story. (For what it's worth, I feel like this approach relates to and complements James Scott Bell's three types of death--the stakes need to get big enough to feel like death in some form or another.) This is also a good way to check that, overall, the story is escalating, not de-escalating.

Keep an eye out for "Points of No Return"--this is when a decision or an action cannot be undone (like death). "Ask yourself the simple question…how difficult would it be for my character to reverse his decision?" Coyne suggests. If most of your character's decisions can be easily reversed, and without significant ramifications, your complications and stakes aren't strong enough. "You’ve hit the Point of No Return when no matter what decision the character makes, he will be irrevocably changed by the experience." Either his world, life, or himself will not be the same.

a. The Turning Point

While Coyne actually doesn't talk about it in the above article (though it's talked about here and here), the complications will hit a turning point. Like the inciting incident, we've talked about this a few times on my blog. A turning point can only be one of two things (well, or both of them):

i. An action (a character takes an action or an event takes place)

ii. A revelation (new information enters the story)

The turning point turns the direction of the story, meaning it changes the story.

(Keep in mind it's possible to hit multiple turning points within a structural unit, but there should always be at least one, otherwise the unit probably isn't important to the story.)

When reviewing and researching this approach, I liked the way the Writer Ship Podcast explained the progressive complications:

"In pursuit of the goal, the protagonist (or POV character in a scene) can encounter four different types of people, places, and things, and events: 

- obstacles (which appear to be negative), 

- tools (which appear to be positive), but also

- elements within their environment and beyond that seem to be irrelevant to the protagonist’s pursuit, and

- unexpected events 

The unexpected event is one that arises from the elements that seem irrelevant, but means that the protagonist won’t be able to reach their goal—or at least not in the way they originally intended. This event forces the protagonist or scene POV character into a dilemma (Crisis). . . .

These progressively complicating agents of conflict can be internal (conflict within one’s self, like competing values or desires), interpersonal (conflict with another person or people), or extra-personal (conflict with something the character can’t have a relationship with, like the environment or society). These complications create a gap between what the character expects will happen and the result of their actions."

Learn more about progressive complications.

3. Crisis

This is the part where things can get a little muddy depending on what you've been taught and what writing approaches you use. See, the whole reason I started reviewing Coyne's approach was because I was confused about the crisis (also called a "dilemma" in other approaches). Some people seem to put the crisis before the climax (like Coyne), others during it, and others seemingly after, so I was wondering more about it and where it fits exactly, and does it matter exactly where it is?

I think I discovered why this was confusing to me.

But so I don't confuse you, let's first talk about Coyne's approach.

At the end of the progressive complication, the character takes another action toward a goal, and reality responds with something unanticipated--an event or new information (a turning point).

This throws the character toward a loss that raises a question from the audience, "What will the character do now?"

This puts the character in a crisis.

A crisis (also known as a dilemma) is when the character has to make a choice between two bad things or two good things, and she can't have both.

a. The Best Bad Choice

The character has to choose between two negative options.

b. Irreconcilable Goods

The character has to choose between two positive options.

The crisis is essentially a moment to lay out the stakes.

If the character chooses path A, then this will happen.

If the character chooses path B, then that will happen.

The character can't have both paths.

For example, Katniss either needs to kill Peeta and become the victor, or she needs to risk suicide so there is no victor. Neither sound like great options.

Alternatively, you may have a character that has to choose between getting the job of her dreams or the man of her dreams. She can't have both.

This is one of the most effective (if not most effective) ways to reveal character, because what the character chooses will reveal who she truly is, because it reveals her value systems. Will Katniss sacrifice someone else to get gain (and become just like the antagonistic force, the Capitol)? Or will she be willing to sacrifice herself to possibly save someone else (like she did when volunteering for Prim)? What she chooses under intense pressure will prove who she really is.

Now, it's worth noting that in some cases, inaction may be a "path," but it must have significant consequences itself (otherwise it's not a true crisis). In some cases, there may be more than two paths. And in some situations, the paths may not be obviously good or obviously bad--life isn't always so black and white. The point is that the choice is difficult, because whatever the character chooses, she risks losing something significant. This can create a Point of No Return. Once the path is chosen, the character can't go back (of course in a small structural unit, like a scene, or at the beginning of a story, this will be less dramatic).

Writer Ship points out that the crisis must be relevant to the character's goal (or one of their goals, depending on how you look at it) in some way. It should also be specific.

Coyne also writes:

"The crisis is the time when your protagonist must make a decision. And the choice that he makes will determine whether or not he’ll get closer to or further away from his object of desires (both external and internal). Often a particular choice will move a character closer to one object of desire while moving him further away from the other…"

I think a lot of the time, this is the choice between what the character wants vs. needs, and that's probably what Coyne really means about "closer to one object of desire while moving him further away from the other." For example, Katniss is often tempted by the want of personal survival. She wants to survive so bad. But what she needs (theme), is to sacrifice herself--that's the only way to not be a piece in their Games. So her crisis moment, is the moment she chooses the need and lets go of (or at least risks) her want.

What the character picks will reflect the character arc.

A negative arc protagonist will choose the want over the need at the main crisis point.

A positive arc protagonist will choose the need over the want at the main crisis point.

If you are writing a story where the protagonist changes, then you will show them at the beginning of the story picking the opposite within a smaller unit (scene, sequence, act).

If you are writing a story where the protagonist remains steadfast, then you will show them at the beginning of the story picking the same thing within a smaller unit (scene, sequence, act). 

Generally speaking of course (there are always exceptions).

When you show this on a small scale in the opening scene (or one near the opening), you essentially introduce the character's most important feature, the character arc. (And it should be said, you can do all this with more characters than just the protagonist, of course.)

For example, in Frozen, Elsa is faced with a dilemma: either let Anna into her life and risk hurting her, or isolate herself to keep Anna (and others) safe. Neither are great options. In the beginning, within scenes (and sequences and acts) she chooses the second (her want). But at the end she chooses the first (the need which informs the theme).

(However, please note that not every single crisis in a story will necessarily be a reflection of want vs. need or character arc. It may be almost entirely plot driven, though still innately reveal character.)

I also want to acknowledge, that on the global level (within the story at large) often the crisis will call back to the inciting incident and the protagonist's response to it. In The Hunger Games, the inciting incident is when Prim's name gets called and Katniss volunteers. At the crisis, she's asked if she's willing to potentially sacrifice herself again for another innocent. In a strong change arc, the responses will be opposites--the protagonist responded one way to the incident, and now chooses the opposite response in the crisis.

Where does the crisis fit?

Back to my initial confusion. Does the crisis come before the climax, during, or after?

As is often the case in the writing community, some of this confusion comes from ambiguous writing terminology. Coyne defines the "climax" as the choice and action the character makes after the crisis. So by his definition, of course it comes before the climax. For many people, the "climax" is much bigger than a single moment, and in that sense, the crisis fits within the climax. In other approaches, it may appear to come after, but I think this is more an issue of smaller structural units working within bigger ones (more on this in the future).

Then we get to the confusion of turning points. Some people refer to the climax as a turning point--but how does that work if the turning point supposedly is what leads to the crisis? 

This is because Coyne's approach actually works more like this:

Turning point --> Crisis --> Turning Point

And to get even more specific, it works like this:

Turning point (outside the protagonist) --> Crisis --> Turning Point (from the protagonist)

The turning point that leads to the crisis, is something that comes from outside the protagonist--someone or something else is taking the action or providing the information. This backs the protagonist into the corner of the crisis. The protagonist chooses a path, and acts on that path, which means taking an action or sharing information with others, which in itself is a turning point.

Does the crisis always fit here? 

Well . . . yes . . . and no.

Sometimes the crisis isn't obvious. It can be subtle and implied. There may not necessarily be a moment where it's on the page. We just see the protagonist acting on his or her choice.

Similarly, sometimes the character acts without fully appreciating or understanding the meaning behind the crisis. Sometimes it dawns on them only after the fact--their action leads to a personal revelation that is thematic (need). They now realize the "truth."

But while the crisis doesn't have to be on the page (or on the screen), I think it's often more effective if it at least gets its own beat--this is the time to emphasize plot, character, and often even theme (the holy trinity of writing). This is not to say it needs to be blatant. Instead, think about what's most effective in your story for this moment. Is it more powerful to put it directly on the page so the audience feels and appreciates the weight of it? Is it more effective to indirectly imply it through the text? Or is it more effective to let the audience fill in the blanks? 

Learn more about the crisis.

4. Climax

Coyne views the climax as the action the character takes in response to the crisis. This technically forms another turning point, because it changes the direction of the story. Coyne emphasizes action, but I want to acknowledge that the protagonist revealing information could be considered the "action"--since a turning point can be based on action or information.

The climax shows true character. We all say things we don't actually do or live up to. The climax will reveal who the character really is. It's the character's actions, not his words, that show who he is or who he has become. Katniss initially considers shooting Peeta, but ultimately acts on choosing to consume poisonous berries (to put it simply). Frodo has planned the entire time to get rid of the Ring, but ultimately chooses to keep it, showcasing the Ring's corruption of his innocence. 

When the pressure of the crisis happens, inner character is revealed. Intentions are usually not as truthful as choices and subsequent actions.

Unlike the crisis, the climax almost always needs to be front and center on the page, otherwise the audience feels robbed. And frankly, the plot, character, and theme all get robbed.

For character arcs, as touched on above, if you are writing a change arc, the action in the final climax will be different than what the character did within Act I. If you are writing a steadfast arc (also known as a flat arc), the action will be more or less the same--but more is hinging on the action at the final climax. Negative arcs choose wants over needs. Positive arcs choose needs over wants.

The final climax needs to be lifechanging. If this is a change arc, it will for sure be lifechanging internally, and maybe also externally (change the environment). If this is a steadfast arc, it will likely change the external (environment) more than the internal (the character). But this is all generally speaking, simplistically speaking.

This is (almost always) the biggest Point of No Return in the story. If it's not a Point of No Return, then that's likely a major problem in the manuscript.

Within the smaller structural units, overall, generally speaking, both the crises and the climaxes should be getting bigger and bigger--the crisis and climax of Act II needs to be bigger than the crisis and climax of Act I, for example (again, escalating, not de-escalating).

Learn more about the climax.

5. Resolution

This is the falling action. The character made a choice, took an action, and this turned the story (i.e. changed the direction of the story). What is the outcome of the character's action? Does she succeed or fail? Receive the want or the need? Both or neither? If there is change within or without, we need to see it. If there is steadfastness within or without, we need to see it. Validate all this.

Coyne mentions that the resolution is a good time to reinforce what changed (or what was learned) at the climax, and this can be done with a metaphor or fable. You may mention a similar situation that reinforces the theme discovered at the climax. For example, in a story ultimately about family vs. fame, a positive change protagonist may choose "family" at the climax. In the resolution, we may mention a similar situation that reinforces the concept that "family is more important than fame," by showing a little girl choosing to miss her talent show in order to help her grandma. Or, alternatively, we may show a local celebrity who chose a new opportunity for stardom, and lost his family as a result.

Now, this isn't the exact same language Coyne uses to explain this concept--he uses some terminology related specifically to The Story Grid and looks at things from a different angle. But this is more or less the basic idea. (You can read his actual words and approach here.) I wanted to keep it simple and more cohesive with what we've talked about previously on my blog.

Coyne writes, "What the resolution moment does is it tells the reader exactly what the climax of the story MEANS. How the worldview has shifted."

While we want to validate and reinforce what happened in the climax, Coyne emphasizes we don't want to be repetitious. The audience knows what happened in the climax: They saw it. Instead, focus on the effects, don't restate the same information.

Learn more about the resolution.

So at this point, I was planning on talking about this all more, in relation to scene structure specifically, but (unsurprisingly) this article is already pretty long! (What can I say? I love to go deep!) Best save that for a future post.

Nonetheless, there you have it. The Five Commandments of Storytelling according to the Story Grid. 

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