Week seven: Of taxonomies and tools

It is week seven of 2019. How are the words treating you this week? Tenderly, I hope, in honor of Valentine’s Day. If not, kick ’em to the curb and throw their cheap, stale drugstore chocolates after them. Maybe learn some new words? In a different language even? Here are a few Italian words I prize: eccoci qua (here we are), allora (well, then), and piano, piano (slowly, slowly). You can throw these in most anywhere.

Now, let’s get down to the Serious Business of Story. One glance at The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know will show you that Shawn Coyne takes Story very seriously indeed, or at least that's the implication of his capitalization style. But you’ll have to get over the capitalization because I think this book is worth your attention if you are a novelist.

Coyne treats a novel the way an arachnologist might treat an unfamiliar spider: he pins it to a board to be anatomized and taxonomized. Is this process pretty or inspirational? Not particularly. But it’s very useful. Even when you disagree with some of his classifications and conclusions, you will find yourself exploring aspects of the novel you hadn’t given much thought to before.

There is a lot to learn from this book, but here are a few of the insights I have found most helpful as an editor:

  • Most novels have both an “external content genre” and an “internal content genre.” The external genre is often defined by a convention: to find a satisfying relationship in romance, to solve the murder in a mystery. The internal genre often explores the protagonist’s subconscious needs and desires. Setting up a cause and effect relationship between the two genres provides a powerful engine for your plot. (This is the territory Lisa Cron takes us through in Wired for Story.)

  • Look for a turning point in your scene – either a character action or a revelation that creates change. If you can’t find one, you likely don’t need the scene. If you’ve got too many of one kind (all action or all revelation), you should introduce more variety.

  • A novel can be broken down into three phases: “the beginning is all about hooking your reader… getting them so deeply curious and involved in the Story that there is no way they’ll abandon it until they know how it turns out. The middle is about building progressive complications that bring the stress and pressure down so hard on your lead character(s) that they are forced to take huge risks so that they can return to ‘normal.’ The ending is the big payoff, when the promises you’ve made from your hook get satisfied in completely unique and unexpected ways.”

  • There are five core elements to every story: an inciting incident, progressive complications, a crisis that requires a choice, a climax that results from the choice, and a resolution.

  • There are three basic categories of conflict: inner conflict between the protagonist and her own brain (familiar, anyone?), interpersonal conflict between the protagonist and another character, and extra-personal conflict between the protagonist and a natural force or society at large. Varying the kinds of conflict from scene to scene can help you build momentum and excitement.

If you do decide to venture into The Story Grid, I’d like to warn you against getting caught up in the labels. Novels, after all, are not spiders, and they resist easy classification. And in certain moments, analysis can be harmful. As a writer, when you are floating along on a magic carpet of inspiration and your story is just working (something I believe you can often know by instinct), then you don’t need classifications. You just need to keep writing. But when you have finished a draft or when you get stuck in mid-draft, the taxonomies can become powerful tools that will show you where to go next. 

Next week, I’ll continue on with The Story Grid and tell you about the two primary tools Coyne offers up for writers.

Here’s to taxonomizing, y’all,

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