Review of “Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne

Story GridI’m a sucker for an analytical way of breaking down story structure. Since I outline more than most, I like to have a story broken down and built up again multiple ways. I now have about eight steps in my outlining process, each of which adds twists, character depth, and world building.

So I should be the ideal audience for Story Grid, as it emphasises the importance of structure in books. And, for the most part, I enjoyed reading it and picked up a few tips.

However, the book does fall down in a number of places that frustrated me. The author mentions that every genre has obligatory scenes that the reader needs to see. However, other than a few examples, there isn’t a list of those scenes.

The author also breaks down The Silence of the Lambs and uses it as the example for every part of the book. Which starts to feel a little tired. The book would have benefited from more examples than one. Granted, it’s probably a lot of work to break a book down like that, but I felt like there should have been half a dozen examples across multiple genres.

My other criticism of the book would be the focus on the thriller genre, to the exclusion of all others. It felt a little like the author was discounting the other genres as being a waste of time, or irrelevant. I’ve read Silence of the Lambs and didn’t enjoy it all that much. Of course, I’m not a fan of crime, so I didn’t really expect to.

The book triggered a lot of thoughts in my own head on how to approach the subject. It is an interesting idea, breaking down the book into obligatory scenes and filling in the gaps. It feels like with some work, it would make the outlining process a lot easier. However, there’s a lot more groundwork that needs to be done before that happens.

Overall, I give Story Grid 3/5 stars (4/5 on Amazon). It’s a good starting point, if you enjoy outlining books and want to see a different approach. However, it will require more leg-work to apply to anything other than a thriller.

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8 thoughts on “Review of “Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne

  1. I haven’t read it; however, he might have chosen thrillers because he thinks they demonstrate his point especially well rather than because he doesn’t rate other genres highly.

    For example, many fantasy readers (especially readers of epic fantasy) like some intellectual/anthropological moments such as having the wider world explained, whereas thrillers rely almost entirely on making the reader feel strongly in the moment. So he might consider thrillers a better example because it is easier to learn how to expand the thriller-form into an epic-form than the reverse.

    • From the book, he says that the thriller genre is the ultimate expression of modern literature. I’m paraphrasing, but he says that it combines the best elements of crime, action, and mystery into one.

      While he doesn’t disparage the other genres directly, he does emphasize that thrillers earn more than the other genres. With the subtext being that it’s silly to write something that’s not going to earn the maximum amount of money.

      It’s still worth a read, as it has some useful information. It just feels like there’s more there for someone who puts in the work.

  2. I had similar feelings to you, but have found the advice useful in two specific stages of writing. Firstly, the ideas side. Homing in on a genre sounded daft at first, but it’s really helped as a reference point when I’ve been stuck with the tone to strike when writing, and even certain plot decisions. I don’t go fully into it with sub genres and themes etc, but I think it’s useful if you have only the nub of an idea and want to see where you could take it, The second is after having written the first draft (which makes sense with Shawn having been an Editor). It really helped identify areas of weakness in the flow and structure, particularly with polarity and looking for incidents, progressive complications, crisis’s and so on. But this is definitely not a craft book or even a methodology book. I did find the Story Grid podcast really helpful. Shawn and a new author Tim Grall work through lots of examples (still biased towards thrillers if I’m honest, but they do expand out) and Tim actually starts to write using some of the techniques outlined in the book. I read a lot of technique and analysis books too and this was the first one I felt was for more experienced people looking to hone rather that revolutionise.

    • Totally. And to be fair, not every book has to be a revolutionary change. I need to work through it and find a way to use it in sci-fi & fantasy. For example, one sci-fi obligatory scene I’ve thought of might be: “Scientists discover something is acting strangely.” I think I’ve seen scientists sitting at consoles and then jumping up as a graph changes a few hundred times 🙂

      • Lol. I’ve worked out a few of my own for crime, but want to work it into steampunk as well. He does mention on the podcast that the forums on his website are a good place to exchange ideas on obligatory scenes, but I’ve yet to find any…

  3. Spot on, Simon. I would be a thriller first writer and so his exact audience but even for me it felt a bit narrow and more like a launching pad for building my own framework on top of Shawn’s ideas. Nothing wrong with that, but it means more work than expected!

    • Yeah, I feel like whoever does the work for a genre should bring out a book specific to their genre, with the sub-genres included. I’d buy it 🙂

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