The five commandment story formula

Hi everyone,

As you all know, I’ve been diving deep on story structure this year, especially using a methodology called The Story Grid, and today I wanted to share a tool I’ve developed to help check for the “five commandments” of story that Story Grid creator Shawn Coyne says must be in every unit of story, be it a beat, scene, sequence, or act.

As a quick review (or introduction if you aren’t familiar), the five commandments Shawn lists in his book (or website. I highly recommend both, as well as The Story Grid Podcast if you really want to dive deep) are as follows.

  1. The Inciting Incident
  2. Progressive Complication(s)
    • Turning point (the “little buddy” of commandment two)
  3. Crisis (I call it the crisis question to keep it more distinct from the climax)
  4. Climax (or climax choice or climax action)
  5. Resolution
Photo Credit

Now, at the risk of stealing too much from Shawn, I’ll just go ahead and say up front that you should really go to his resources for expertise, but in brief, those five elements according to my interpretation are…

  1. The event that kicks off the scene (or beat, sequence, act, etc. I’ll use scene here for ease of use).
  2. Something that complicates the situation for better or worse
    • A specific complication that forces the character into…
  3. A choice the character has to face which is either between two bad choices or two good choices that can’t be reconciled
  4. The action the character takes in response to that choice (whether or not it is the same action they said they would take)
  5. The resolution event of that character’s action

To help hammer this home, I’ll give an example from my featured Storium game, Twice Born. Though this sequence of scenes doesn’t happen “on screen,” it is the setup behind the main story.

  1. The prince of Valdor is fatally wounded in an assassination attempt.
  2. The royal physician manages to save the prince’s life by transferring his soul into another body.
    • The physician and prince fail to retrieve enough information about whoever ordered the assassination attempt to protect the prince from further attack.
  3. The prince must decide between telling people he is alive and getting help or hiding the fact he is alive to draw out his enemies.
  4. The prince and physician choose to hide the fact the prince is alive.
  5. The prince and physician choose a clandestine team to assist the prince on a quest to retrieve magical armor that can restore the prince to his rightful body.

Pretty straight forward, right?

Well, sort of, until you start adding sub-plots and character arcs and internal and external growth and motion. That’s when things start getting a little more tangled.

So, how does one untangle all of those knots and keep them in order? And how does one decide which story events really fit into each of those slots?

Well, in case you hadn’t guessed already, I just so happen to have developed a handy dandy formula for just such a purpose.

It looks like this:

Event happens. But, complication happens. When turning point happens, character must choose between crisis question option 1 or crisis question option 2. Character chooses climax choice/action, and as a result, resolution happens.

I’ll show you how it works below using that same Twice Born example. For ease of reading, I’ll switch the bold face to just apply to the connecting pieces of the equation rather than the events.

The prince of Valdor is fatally wounded in an assassination attempt. But, the royal physician is able to save his life by putting his soul into another body. When they fail to retrieve enough information to keep the prince safe from further attack, they must choose between revealing the prince survived so they can get help or hiding his survival to draw out their enemies. They choose to hide his survival, and as a result, form a clandestine team to help him track down magical armor that can restore him to his original body.

Now, like any other equation, if you start throwing any old thing into it, the results you get are going to be a little bit goopy, so there are a few considerations to keep in mind when using it that I’ve found helpful.

  1. Keep your internal and external genres/arcs separate. They should of course intertwine and impact each other, but trying to merge them at this stage can make things a little confusing and will make you lose your chain of cause and effect. I’ll talk about that more in my next post, but for now, just try to keep story events in each equation linked either to your external plot and your internal arc (you can actually do it for both, if you like, just keep them separate).
  2. Watch out for false choices. Shawn says false choices are when the crisis question option the character would pick is either obvious or doesn’t matter. The example he frequently gives is between making a pb&j and a turkey sandwich. Does it really matter if the character makes one or the other? Unless they or the person they are making it for are allergic to peanuts, probably not, in which case, find something else. There must be clear consequences for your choices.
  3. Focus on one character or team of characters for each equation. Which character that is can change from scene to scene/equation to equation, depending on your POV, but jumping back and forth between characters within each set will be confusing and likely break the through line of cause and effect.
  4. Be specific. While you don’t need to rewrite your entire scene, having specific story events will help you to have not only sharper, but stronger scenes. For example, you could have “beats the bad guy” for a resolution, but knowing how they do it (throw them in jail? throw them in a snake pit? humiliate them in front of their friends in a snake pit?) will help you build specificity, which will help you later on as you start thematically connecting events, fleshing out your world, etc. If you’re just starting out, haven’t quite come up with your specific answer yet, or are just outlining though, you can put in a place holder if you need to in order to keep moving.
  5. Use your answers to build characterization. Related to the last point, if you’re still wondering what your character’s major arc is, just look at what choices they make, or even what crises they face. If your character doesn’t care about love, then they probably won’t have crises concerning choosing love over money. Or, if they are given the choice between love and money, what they choose tells you a lot about that character, as well as where they are in their arc. While the primary purpose of this formula is just to check for the five commandments, it can also be used to check against character arc, to make sure that the crises and choices they are facing/making are appropriate to where they are in the story. Leaning on your genre for this really helps (e.g. if you’re writing a love story, the big choices probably won’t be related to saving a bus full of children from a giant shark).
  6. Remember to scale it. Since every unit of story, from the beat to your story at large needs to have the five commandments, try using this tool to check on different sizes of story chunks. Even if your scenes are rock solid, if they don’t fit into a story that has all five, your story won’t sing.

That, in a nutshell, is how it works. Next post, I’ll cover a few pitfalls you can run into (or, putting it optimistically, root out) with this, and how to wield this new writing weapon well.

So, how about you? Do you have any tips or tools you use for scene analysis? Different interpretations on the five commandments? My understanding of the turning point was specifically influenced by The Story Grid Podcast and supplemental explanations they had there, but it can be interpreted lots of different ways. Or, if you try the equation and have suggestions for improvements, let me know. If you’d like more content like this, writing or reading recommendations, or content about my personal writing journey, feel free to follow me here or on social media using the links in the sidebar or below. Thanks for reading!

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