I think I mentioned before that I’m studying The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne
, a really cool editing method that takes you deep into how a story’s theme and structure work together. The approach it takes really struck a chord with me, so I gave it a try with Heir of Tanaris
. This might be more interesting for writers, but if you’re an avid reader and like seeing how the sausage is made, so to speak, you might find it interesting too.
Heir had already been through one major revision and was out with the beta readers while I was working through the Story Grid book, but I felt like I hadn’t gone deep enough into what the story is about. This is a novel that has given me a hard time for years, trying to really get a grasp on it. So I decided to take Heir through the process, which involves making a spreadsheet of different sets of info about the story and a 1-page summary of the story then putting it all together into a grid.
Here’s a screen shot of part of my spreadsheet for Heir:
Because spreadsheets are awesome, and doing this helped me start to clearly see the patterns of the story.
My “1 page” summary kinda turned out to be a lot more complicated than that. The Story Grid summary is based on a 3-part structure, beginning – middle – end, while I myself am more partial to a four-part structure, beginning – middle 1 – [midpoint reversal] – middle 2 – end, and Heir actually falls more naturally into 5 parts. But the basic principles are the same, each section consists of complications rising to some sort of crisis and climax, and I eventually got that beaten into shape.
And then the fun part, making the actual grid. You do this on actual grid paper with actual pens (it is possible to do it on a spreadsheet, but it would be a lot harder unless you’re a spreadsheet virtuoso, and the examples I’ve seen are hard to read); I used my new set of Tul colored gel pens 😀 which was fun. And here it is:
The boxes above and below the center line each represent a scene. The Story Grid method evaluates scenes based on how the story situation changes, from bad to good (negative to positive) or good to bad (positive to negative); you can also have bad to worse (which is fun) and good to better (use sparingly). Scenes that move in a positive direction go above the line, scenes that go in a negative direction go below the line. The tricky thing, and the thing that really helps you strengthen the theme of the story, is the direction the scene goes in has to relate to the overall storyline. For example, if the villain gets something he wants, that’s positive for the villain but negative for the overall story. So that scene goes below the line.
Trickier is if one of the good guys gets something he wants that he shouldn’t want, because he’s trying to overcome a character flaw; that is also a negative turn for the story, even though it’s temporarily positive for the character. Or if the character has to make a sacrifice in order to achieve their goal; negative at the moment for the character, but positive for the storyline. It can especially get complicated if you have two conflicting goals. A scene can be positive for one storyline and negative for the other. For example, in a romance, if the hero passionately kisses the heroine even though he’s got no business kissing her at all right now, that’s positive for the romance but negative for his moral development. Heir of Tanaris has a lot of that conflicting stuff going on, so this helped me get a firmer grip on all of it.
I had fun with my colored pens 🙂 The blue boxes are for scenes where we’re in Davian’s head, pink boxes are for scenes in Isamina’s point of view. Imaginative, I know 😛 Brown boxes are for the villain. The colored lines going up and down represent the rise and fall of the different storylines. Blue is one of Davian’s storylines, green is the other, pink is Isamina’s, and orange is the romance storyline. That line, for example, goes down when something happens to keep Davian and Isamina apart and up when they’re together and their relationship progresses.
Now, over on the right hand side, not all the way to the right but kind of in the middle of the right side of the graph, you might notice a problem. That’s right, hardly any scenes with a negative turn. Almost all the action is above the line. This means everything through here was going very smoothly for our hero and heroine. Which is nice for them but makes for a boring story. That was a huge flaw in the story which was really made clear by the grid. So what I did was go back and evaluate the story conflicts in each of those scenes, the larger-scale problems the characters are facing throughout the book. What problems did I solve too easily? Where do the characters need to struggle harder?
Another problem is all the way to the right, near the end, there’s one scene that stretches both above and below the center line with a bunch of lines zooming up and down and up and down all within that one scene that takes place over maybe an hour of story time. What that showed me is I was trying to do too much in that one scene and the climax of the story was rushed. So there again I had to deepen the struggle, and also spread it out over more scenes and over time within the story.
I just finished the revision incorporating everything I got from this and also the beta reader feedback, and I think it’s made Heir of Tanaris a much stronger, deeper book. I’m going through a modified version of the process with the first draft of the Defenders of the Wildings series, combining it with Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel method, in hopes of nailing all the major story issues in one big revision instead of two. Which hopefully will help me get those books out faster.
To learn more about the Story Grid, visit the Story Grid website. Most of the content from the book is also available for free on the blog, and you can also view story grids that Shawn Coyne made for Silence of the Lambs (the book he uses as the example throughout the blog posts and book) and Pride and Prejudice.
Anyway, Heir of Tanaris is currently on track for release in late September. To make sure you don’t miss out on the release (and the special limited-time low introductory price), sign up for my email newsletter. Subscribers will also get the first peek at the cover, before I do the cover reveal here on my blog. So excited about this; Mominur Rahman’s art for this book is gorgeous!