Review of The Story Grid; The Core of Fantasy and Romance

Now and then, I like to post about writing tools on this blog. I especially like tools that are unique or approach an old problem in a new way.

Both apply to The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.

The cover was what attracted me. I’ve seen story graphs before, but none that made it look as complex and vital and complete as Coyne’s graph did. I got it through Interlibrary Loan and devoured the thing.

It’s a great read for both writers and, interestingly enough, readers. He starts off talking about what a good editor can do for a story and how, many times, a story that lives and breathes will get a very light touch by an editor because they’re afraid they’ll wreck the thing. Because the most important thing is story. That trumps anything and everything, and he uses Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code as an example of story trumping even, according to critical reviews, good writing.

He also talks a bit about the training, or lack of training, among editors, especially today. It’s considered an art form, something that a person just has, and the best way to learn it (if there’s anything that can be learned) is by watching an editor edit and seeing how he or she approaches story. (Sounds an awful lot like the beliefs and traditions surrounding writing.)

However, the bulk of the book is devoted to explaining the tools he developed as an editor. They include an approach to genre that I’d never seen before but that makes so much sense. It also includes the Foolscap Story Grid, which, after looking closely at it, is a great tool, both for those who want an idea of what should happen before they write a word and a map of how the emotions should rise and fall in the course of the story, and for those who have a story already written and want a quick way to map it.

The graph that made me want the book itself isn’t explained until the end, but when it is and the instructions are given, it was just as impressive as it appeared on the cover.

I do need to point out that Shawn Coyne worked with mysteries and thrillers, so he is very knowledgeable about those genres. He also does a very good job of breaking fantasy and sci-fi down, and his thoughts on horror made me rethink the whole genre in a very positive way. His thoughts on romance, though good, got confusing at times. They weren’t nearly as clear as the other genres, but he got it mostly right, if I understood him correctly in the first place.

I would really like to go on and on about this book, but in looking over my notes, there’s so much information that it’s going to take a while to digest it and apply it.

Reading this book, however, has made me take a closer look at all the genres. And I realized something very important that I’d heard before, but that hadn’t really sunk in until now.

Fantasy is all about power. I’ve heard that many times before. What I hadn’t realized is that the Hero’s Quest, the all-important structure for just about every important fantasy book out there, is about starting from a position without power and ending in a state where you’ve not only gained power, but proven that you can use power wisely.

This is why so many heroes start out helpless or powerless. Luke Skywalker feels trapped because all his friends are gone and doing great things, and he’s stuck at the farm.

In the end, he gains both internal strength/power (gets in touch with the Force) and external power (he is able to destroy the Death Star) as well.

The Lord of the Rings does this. Frodo has no special abilities or leverage, compared to the others. He has one power, endurance, and a faith and hope in the quest that’s slowly eroded by the Ring. Aragorn, by contrast, has a bunch of talents and knowledge but fears himself. And by the time the story is done, we’ve had as comprehensive a view of power in all its variations as anyone could possibly write.

And we also see the importance of friendship and that it, too, has its own strength and power.

Not all fantasies start out with a character who feels helpless or powerless, in the typical sense. The unicorn in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, starts out very happy and content in her forest, where she’s loved and respected. It’s because of her that the forest lives like it does and has the power it does, and she knows it.

But once she overhears two hunters discuss how rare she is, and that she may be the last of her kind, she goes from disbelief to a restless need to know.

Which, now that I write it, is, in a way, a feeling of powerlessness. She doesn’t know and doesn’t know how to find out the truth. And so she sets off on her quest to know if she is indeed the last. If she is truly alone. And, in the end, finds not only the truth, but gains knowledge that even other unicorns don’t have.

By the way, I’m not the only one who has thought about this, or even written it. At the same time I was letting this sink in, that the hero or heroine of a fantasy must go from helpless/powerless to helpful/powerful by the end, Dave Farland wrote that fantasy is about power being used wisely. (The whole article is about creating a sense of wonder in your fantasy story. His comment on power is toward the end of his thoughts on creating a sense of wonder. If you write fantasy, I highly recommend reading the whole thing.)

So yeah. I think I’m on the right track.

What was even more interesting though, is that I realized fantasy romance (and romantic fantasy) is, in a way, about the same thing but as applied to relationships.

For example, Grace Draven’s book, Master of Crows, has two characters who are, in their own, individual ways, helpless. Their romance is about learning to trust each other, or, in other words, finding they have greater power together, internally and externally, than when they were looking for power alone.

And if you get right down to it, intimacy is, at the core, about power and control. It’s about letting someone else call the shots sometimes. It’s about letting someone else have their way for a while. It’s about the subtle dance of conversations, actions, and events, both large and small, that make up the dynamic between two individuals trying to create a life together. It’s about feeling safe enough, trusting someone else enough, to let them see who you are in all your different aspects, even the parts you hide from most others because you’re afraid of what it will do to your reputation, to your public image, or to whatever private relationship you’re trying to form.

In other words, part of intimacy is knowing how and when to let someone else have power over you, and the only reason it works is because they let you have power over them as well. Without that balance, true intimacy doesn’t exist.

This has been a much longer post than I anticipated, and not all my thoughts on this are together yet. But it helps me realize why fantasy and romance mix so very well, and why romantic fantasy, with its focus on a lone individual becoming part of a community, works as well as it does when it combines these two genres.

So, what about you? Am I wrong? Am I focusing on wrong thing? If you read fantasy and/or romance, especially, am I wrong about power and intimacy in those genres? Please let me know in the comments below! And thanks for reading this incredibly long post.



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