Taming the Beast: Story Outlining and Five Commandments from Shawn Coyne of the Story Grid

Feeling overwhelmed by how to tackle a project as big as even a novella, I was encouraged when I listened to a three part series on story outlining by Shawn Coyne of Story Grid. [I heartily recommend signing up for his invaluable email list.] In three short lessons, totaling no more than thirty minutes, he managed to make 50,000 words seem like a doable task—even in a month of 30 days. He does this by breaking things down into three levels of chunks: larger chunks (acts), smaller chunks (scenes) and even smaller chunks (beats).

Accepting the challenge

Coyne started with the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge which happens each November and is repeated as Camp NaNoWriMo throughout the year. The standard goal for NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I, personally, have failed at this once and am on track to fail at it again this month. But Coyne gives me hope that with some planning, November 2017 may be the month I manage to go all the way.

The gift Coyne gives is to break this huge chunk of writing down into smaller chunks of acts, scenes and beats.

First the big picture: Acts

Divided this way, the 50K words breaks down into:

  • A beginning (12,500 words)
  • A middle (25,000 words)
  • An end (12,500 words)

Coyne calls attention to the ratio of 1:2:1 which recurs on each level. So many people have elaborated on the three-act structure, there is no need for us to comment on the structure here. It’s the next part that gets interesting.

Next, the middle ground: Scenes

Coyne suggests that within these acts there are divisions which we call scenes. Brilliant, right? He suggests a scene length of 1500 words, which he considers a “potato chip” size chunk of reading. Then he breaks each scene down into five components. This is where Coyne′s Five Commandments of Storytelling come in. I would call them five components of a scene, but his appellation is much more dramatic and appealing. The components are:

  1. An Inciting incident
  2. Progressive complications
  3. A Crisis
  4. A Climax
  5. A Resolution

As in a fractal, each of these five components repeat at the act, sequence, scene and even beat level.

Each inciting incident upsets the character’s balance and can be the result of a coincidence (incidental) or an action (causal). These inciting incidents arouse curiosity.

Progressive complications are moments of conflict where one character’s expectations are not met and dissatisfaction rises. These complications are turning points, and there are two types, according to Coyne, active turning points and revelatory turning points. Active turning points are actions and events that happen while revelatory turning points are caused by the revealing of information.

Each crisis raises a question in the unsatisfied character’s mind. Either they need to make the best of two bad choices or they need to make a choice where there are irreconcilable goods (one person wins/the other loses).

Each climax is the decisive action a distressed character takes.

Each resolution resolves the conflict between the characters in what Coyne calls a “surprising but inevitable” manner.

Finally, the nitty-gritty: Beats

Coyne breaks down the scenes into smaller subsections which he calls beats. In each scene he identifies eight (8) beats, divided, again, into the beginning, the middle and the end of a scene.

  1. Beginning
    • Inciting incident
    • 1st complication
  2. Middle
    • 2nd complication
    • 3rd complication (major turning point)
    • Crisis
    • Climax
  3. End
    • 4th complication
    • Resolution

Like the number of scenes in each act, each scene has eight beats in the ratio of 1:2:1. Coyne translates these into words: the beginning has about 375 words, the middle has 750 words and the end has 375 words. Each beat in this scheme, therefore, breaks down into 188 words.

And that sounds doable

188 words per beat translates into a novel of 266 beats in 30 days. But 188 words is such a doable number of words to write and a concise number of words in which to think. And the structure allows one to plug these beat-sized fragments of writing into a larger whole. In fact, Coyne has demonstrated how one could even set up a spreadsheet to make sure every beat and every scene of every sequence and act is accounted for. I′m not quite ready to spreadsheet my stories (although Coyne assures us that it is an incredibly valuable exercise) but I am ready to think of my writing in smaller chunks, and maybe, take a look at my overall structure in terms of beats rather than an amorphous blob of tens of thousands of words that need to well up from somewhere within my brain.

What do you think? Does Coyne’s breakdown work for you? Let me know in the comments or drop me a line at christofllewellyn@gmail.com. I appreciate your interest and your ideas.

Blessed be!


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