Wouldn’t it be great to know exactly what readers want?
Well, you’re in luck! There happens to be an entire profession of folks whose one job is to know what readers are hungry for, and provide it: editors.
If you’re a writer who wants to write an amazing story that your readers will love, there is probably no better book to read than The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. Be sure to check out the podcast and website, too.
Coyne, an editor himself, has given us a raw, blunt, and stunningly powerful look inside the mind of an editor. The Story Grid doesn’t pull any punches, telling you exactly what elements you’ll need to write books so amazing, they’ll sell like TVs on Black Friday.
Over the next several months, I’m going to use my bi-weekly column to explore one particular piece of Coyne’s recipe for success so that you can know exactly how to use this tool to take your story to the next level and write a book readers will love.
Let’s get started with the highest overview of your story: the Editor’s Six Core Questions.
The Editor’s 6 Core Questions
You’re a storytelling genius full of brilliant ideas, right? You don’t need things like “structure” and “rules” to write a good story.
Or do you?
The Six Core Questions of Story Grid identify the fundamental elements of your story. They’ll help you figure out what your story is truly about, and what you need to include in it to turn it into a book readers will love.
If you’ve already written your book, use these questions to evaluate what you’ve put on the page. And if you’re just getting started, take time to think through them before you write a single word. Because wouldn’t it be better to have all of this figured out ahead of time so you don’t waste hours and days of your life writing the wrong story?
The Six Core Questions are the first part of what Coyne calls The Foolscap Method, because you should be able to answer all of these questions and outline your story on a single “foolscap” sheet of lined paper. Doing so will get you on the right path toward writing a fantastic story worthy of becoming a bestseller.
Question #1: What is the Genre?
Coyne writes, “Deciding what Genre(s) your Story will inhabit will also tell you exactly what you need to do to satisfy your potential audience’s expectations.”
Genre is all about expectations. Whether you are writing a science fiction story or a romance, Genre tells the reader what he or she can expect. Well-met expectations lead to comfort and trust, and if you want your book to sell and convince readers to tell their friends about it, you want to satisfy their trust with a book that fits into their genre-related expectations.
Question #2: What are the Obligatory Scenes/Conventions?
Each Genre comes with its own requirements. These requirements take the form of mandatory scenes or conventions.
For example, a Romance will undoubtedly have a scene where the lovers meet for the first time. Without this scene, the story can’t really be a Romance.
As for Conventions, these are elemental expectations your reader will bring. Are you writing a Serial Killer Thriller? Then there damned-well better be a serial killer! You should also have a dead body with some surprising characteristics. Otherwise, it won’t feel right to your reader, and he/she won’t trust you.
Question #3: What’s the Point of View?
On the surface, point of view is obvious. Are you telling the story in First Person, Third Limited, Third Omniscient, or something else that’s more obscure?
But there’s more than just First vs. Third Person to consider. How near is your Point of View to the protagonist, or the character with the highest stakes in the situation?
Since you’ll want your reader to be hooked, it’d be wise to choose a point of view that stays close to the character or characters with the most of gain or lose.
Don’t give all the voice or attention to a static or boring character. Instead, consider who is changing or risking the most, and tell the story (or that scene/chapter) from his/her point of view.
Question #4: What are the Protagonist’s Objects of Desire?
Coyne writes numerous chapters about the power of external desire and internal need. Your story will most likely (though not necessarily) include both and explore the way these complicate each other.
First, every protagonist must have an external desire, something he or she wants, like love, money, success, or freedom.
But then, inside, the protagonist may need something deeper that may be subconscious. If so, this deep need must be pursued as well, often complicating (or even contradicting) the pursuit of the external goal. This creates complex drama that hooks a reader and keeps him or her turning the page in anxious anticipation.
Question #5: What’s the Controlling Idea/Theme?
Great books are filled with controlling ideas and themes.
In short, a controlling idea or theme is a change-based statement on a topic. Topics are simple, one-word ideas like Love, Death, Freedom, or Justice. The controlling idea/theme, however, is a statement about the “climactic charge” of that topic in the story (Coyne borrows the words of Robert McKee here), and the cause of that change.
For example, if I had to conjure a controlling idea statement about The Lord of the Rings, it would be thus: “Courage and friendship can change the entire world, no matter how big or small the heart of its bearer.”
My topic here is Courage, and I have made a statement about the charge of this value at the end of the novel (positive) and its cause (friendship).
Most authors wouldn’t be able to tell you what the Controlling Idea or Theme of their novel is, even after it has been written. That’s one of the beautiful mysteries of creating with the written word. But with the help of beta readers and a writer’s group, while your book is in the revision process, you’d be wise to suss out exactly what message your story communicates so you can shape it effectively.
Question #6: What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?
Finally, Coyne’s “Foolscap Method” asks you to break your entire novel into three parts, or acts: Beginning, Middle, and End.
This may seem overly simplistic, but it’s actually deceptive in its brilliance. Remember, the goal is to write a story that readers will love, and editors know what kinds of stories will deliver the goods, versus what kinds won’t. And good stories follow the three-act structure.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t use five or seven or seventeen acts as you plan, outline, and draft. But when it comes to breaking down the whole thing, is there a clear beginning (hook), middle (build), and end (payoff)? This is the fundamental rhythm of storytelling we recognize subconsciously, and the best way to know is to plan ahead or diagnose what you’ve already written so you can revise accordingly.
Leverage the 6 Core Questions to Write a Better Book
No matter how you feel at this point (encouraged or defeated), know that you’re not alone. I have yet to successfully land an agent, pitch an editor, and see my novel published by a major brand and appear in the windows of a Barnes and Noble.
But I want to. Oh, how I want to!
I bet you do too. It’s a dream most writers share, and it’s an awesome dream because it can come true.
And if you want to get it started, you need to do your homework and make sure what you’re writing, or what you’ve written, is going to answer the Six Core Questions with ease.
So take a moment today and apply the Foolscap Method to your story, as Shawn Coyne would encourage you to. It’s a great way to boil your story down to its essence and discover where its strengths and weakness might be.
Join me in the dream as we approach this new year. How amazing would it be to write a novel in 2019 that becomes a beautiful, published book your readers will love! I know it’s my dream, and I hope it’s yours too.
Have you ever answered the Six Core Questions for a story you’re working on? How did it help your storytelling? Let us know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to answer these six questions for your work in progress. Don’t worry if you’re not sure about some of the answers — remember, this is a tool to help you focus your writing and get your imagination working.
Don’t have a story you’re currently writing? Answer these questions for a new story based around this prompt: Eliza crept through the woods, but stopped when she saw someone ahead.
When you’re done, share your answers in the comments below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!