Story Gridding The Tipping Point

This is the fifth post in my Story Gridding Nonfiction series.  To read the first, click here.  To read the second, click here. To read the third, click here. And to read the fourth, click here.

We’ve been exploring Story Grid as it relates to nonfiction, specifically Big Idea Nonfiction.

For our case study, I’m going to reexamine Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.  Preparing this condensed series required me to go back to the extended work I did in 2015 and it’s definitely worth another look. The material will be familiar for veteran followers of

When I began analyzing The Tipping Point, I had a handle on the global Genre (The Big Idea Nonfiction Book) and a sense of the conventions and obligatory scenes inherent in it, but I didn’t have any idea of what the overarching “Story” of the book was.

Was there even an overarching Story in there?  Or was it just a really well argued extra long thesis paper that moved between ethos scenes, logos scenes and pathos scenes?

I came up with all sorts of ideas that lead nowhere until I just decided to calm down, take my time and re-read the thing. Not as an Ivory Tower editor looking to sort through the words and sentences and paragraphs and line breaks to uncover their structural design, but just as a regular Joe wanting to be entertained by a good yarn.

Still nothing came to mind about how to begin story gridding this puppy after yet another fly through the book.

Yes, the book held me spellbound as it has numerous times before. And yet again I got sucked into the multitude of stories Gladwell weaves in there like a summer camp counselor around the fire pit, but I was nowhere closer to getting a flat edge into the interior Story.

Desperate, I then did something that I don’t usually do.

I delved into the publisher created “Reading Group Guide” at the end of the paperback edition.

I’ve been in the book business so long that I witnessed firsthand how the whole “Reading Group Guide” thing evolved. Years ago, no one would have dreamed of printing a bunch of author answers to softball questions posed by the publisher’s marketing department at the back of an actual book.

Who would care?

But in the early 1990s what publishers discovered was that there were actually people who got together monthly to discuss a book that they’d all read. They were usually groups of women. And wouldn’t you know it, if you took a survey of the books these groups were reading, they were either the latest bestseller from a popular author or an unknown author whose book would soon become a word of mouth sensation.

In order to better serve these groups and perhaps induce them to choose one of their titles, publishers began creating guides that gave these groups fodder for discussion. The guides were usually Q&As with the author…ideally questions that readers in the group would actually want asked themselves.

Today, it’s hard not to find a reading group guide at the back of a paperback novel or popular work of nonfiction.

But being the grizzled vet that I am, I’ve skipped reading these guides myself…thinking I would learn nothing from whatever it is the author had to say to obvious questions.

So it is not without irony that one of the first questions asked of Malcolm Gladwell in the Reading Group Guide to The Tipping Point is:

How would you classify The Tipping Point?

This is just another way of asking the very first question an editor/author must answer when then begin their editorial work. You can read about the editor’s six core questions here.

The first question an editor/author must answer is:

“What’s the Genre?”

Here is how Gladwell answers the question:

 I like to think of it as an intellectual adventure story.

Now, I can guarantee you that Malcolm Gladwell did not use The Story Grid to help him write or edit The Tipping Point. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that he understood exactly what he was trying to accomplish with the book. And while he certainly understood that he was writing in the arena of Big Idea Nonfiction Books like The Medium is the Message or Future Shock, Gladwell chose to write a Story too.

He wanted it to have the feel, the sensibility, and most importantly the narrative velocity of an action/adventure Story. But instead of the lead character of his book pursuing a bad guy or a prize or a stolen nuclear warhead, Gladwell wanted his lead character to pursue an idea. Not just pursue it, but attack it with all of the vim and vigor of Bruce Willis in Die Hard.

And if you’ve read The Tipping Point, you’ll agree that he achieved that goal.

But how did he do it? This is what Story Grid can tell you.

Okay, so now I know the Global Genre: Big Idea Nonfiction and I know the External Genre of The Tipping Point: Action/Adventure, because I got it directly from the mouth of the author. That’s great.

Now I’m going to apply what I know about Action/Adventure stories to his work and check and see how he delivered the conventions and obligatory scenes inherent in them.

Let’s go back to The Story Grid’s GENRE section and look again at what the Action Adventure Story is all about. A

Action Adventure/Man Against Nature Stories: These are stories that use the natural world or a specific setting as the villain/force of conflict. They can be further delineated by four kinds of plot devices:

  • Labyrinth Plot: The object of desire is to save victim(s) and get out of a maze-like edifice. (Die Hard)
  • The Monster Plot: The villain is an animal. (Jaws)
  • The Environment Plot: The villain is the actual global setting (Gravity)
  • The Doomsday Plot: The victim is the environment. The hero must save the environment from disaster (Independence Day)

Okay. The above narrows our focus a bit.

Of the four sub-genres of Action Adventure, I’d have to say that The Environment Plot is the best fit. If you remember the movie Gravity, outer space was the villain of the film. In the movie 127 Hours, the villain was the rock that trapped Aron Ralston (played by James Franco). The very environment is the thing that threatens the protagonist/hero of the story.

And it’s a life or death threat too.

Now I know from experience that one of Action’s must-have conventions (for every single one of its sub-genres) is all about the core cast of the story. It doesn’t take a genius or publishing veteran to know this. This convention is embedded in everyone’s subconscious too. So it’s not going to be a big shocker for you.

Remember that when you begin to make a list of “conventions and obligatory scenes” for the genre/s that you want to explore, write down everything that you know to be true about that genre. No matter how obvious. The little things are hugely important.

Now to tell an Action story you must have at least three characters. They are:

  • The hero
  • The victim
  • The villain.

These are not suggestions. Without a hero, a victim and a villain, you just can’t deliver an Action story.

That doesn’t mean that there can only one hero, one victim or one villain.

You could have a number of heroes with differing individual traits who come together as a unit to free a single victim or a group of victims from a single villain or a group of villains. The key though is that the sum total of the individual parts of the heroic cast must add up to a formidable force of strength. The Seven SamuraiThe Dirty Dozen, Gates of Fire, Inglorious Basterds, Ocean’s Eleven, Ghostbusters, are examples of stories with multi-protagonist/heroes.

And remember also that the hero can also play the victim role too. A great example of that is The Fugitive. Or in the case of The Incredible Hulk, depending upon the situation, the Hulk can play hero, victim or villain. All three.

Or another show-stopper, one of my all time favorites…Chuck Palahniuk’s masterpiece Fight Club. All three (hero, victim and villain)…all in one character. Brilliant!

The three roles must be filled, but again they do not have to be filled by a single character. Part of the innovative fun is figuring out the cast.

But above all, the villain is the crucial role to fill in an Action story…because the villain is the force that provides all of the conflict. And conflict drives Story. Here’s something I wrote about the importance of the bad guy a while back.

Okay, so an indispensable convention in the Action Adventure story is that there must be hero/s, victim/s, and villain/s.

That’s nice, but what does that have to do with the Big Idea Nonfiction The Tipping Point?

Strictly speaking, does The Tipping Point have the required conventions of hero, victim, and villain?

Who would be the hero of The Tipping Point?

With his use of the first person point of view “I remember once as a child…” (Page 13) and his direct address of the reader “I made some of you reading this yawn simply by writing the word ‘yawn.'”(Page 10), Gladwell places himself at the center of the story.

So Gladwell is one possible hero.

What makes a protagonist a hero? Here’s a short definition: A Hero is a character who sacrifices himself to free victim/s of the villain/s.

But Gladwell also brings in other characters throughout the book that act as co-conspirators of a sort in his quest to figure out what makes things “tip.” He even addresses the reader in the collective “we” at times to bring him/her into his search party.

What that all adds up to is that there are numerous protagonists/potential heroes in the Story, including the reader.

So let’s put a check mark next to the Hero requirement in an Action Adventure Story and move on.

Who would be the victim of The Tipping Point?

The victims in The Tipping Point are its readers. They are our ignorant selves.

And in a fantastic choice, Gladwell also makes himself a victim too. He writes about his missteps in his journey to codify the mysterious idea he has labeled The Tipping Point. He’s poking and prodding in the darkness, hoping to free a pattern that gives form and structure to something we just don’t understand, which he states is…

Why seemingly overnight, some things become ubiquitous…

And when phenomena emerge that he has difficulty fitting inside his theory, Gladwell narrates his struggles with them.

It’s all well and good to label heroes and victims in The Tipping Point, but if there is no compelling villain in the Story, there is no way it could be categorized as an Action Adventure. So does it have a villain?

Well, The Tipping Point has the most dastardly villain of them all…an unbeatable one to boot.

The villain is our state of being.

No, it’s not specifically “outer space” or “a rock” or “ a snowstorm.” It’s the implacable foe that each and every one of us stares down and most often retreats from every single conscious moment of our lives.

The villain of The Tipping Point (and all of Nonfiction for that matter) is the human condition.

As Matt Weiner’s Don Draper on Mad Men so bluntly put it:

Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.”

We know very little about what makes the world go around. Physically or spiritually.

So the villain in The Tipping Point is the chaotic indifferent universe, the things that happen that we don’t understand.

In an Action Adventure Story, the hero sacrifices and fights the villain to free the victim.

And that’s exactly what Malcolm Gladwell does in The Tipping Point.  He spent years on the book with no certainty that anyone would really care what he was writing (sound familiar?).

He seeks an answer to a big question…

Is there a process by which things suddenly become extraordinarily commonplace?

And he tells the story of how he came up with his conclusion by using the conventions and obligatory scenes of the Action Adventure Genre.

More to come.

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  1. bruce jones on May 12, 2017 at 6:56 am

    this series has been very interesting. I am starting work on a new non-fiction book and never thought about setting it like this using the The Story Grid principals. I went and pulled out my copy of The Story Grid and with this series see if I can improve the book. Just writing a non fiction book as an action adventure gives it a totally different twist, thank you for the series.

  2. Kent Faver on May 12, 2017 at 8:44 am

    In an indifferent world, Resistance is king? Thanks Shawn!

  3. Marie-Therese on May 22, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    It never occurred to me to look at The Tipping Point, or any non-fiction book, this way. I just ordered The Story Grid from my independent bookseller. I can’t wait to have it in my hands.

  4. kai greene on January 24, 2020 at 10:34 pm

    I am also using this way windows shortcut i think you can try easily.

  5. Montgomery Webster on April 9, 2020 at 11:43 am

    Took the opposite approach to Bruce – Assumed that the Story Grid had to have a way to include non-fiction, so read the series as a starting point.

    Have all I need now.

  6. Patricia Hansen on April 27, 2020 at 6:41 am

    Thanks for this article!

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