The Rosetta Grid

I’ll begin this post Matthew Mercer style:

Last we left off I had decided that it was time to ask Hard Questions of my manuscript, and to answer them. It has been going, uhh, along. Quickly, I’ve realised that the improvised approach I’ve employed so far won’t take me much further. I need something more explicit. Something with a touch more rigour. Enter the Rosetta Grid.

rosetta grid 0
A blank Rosetta Grid, with story elements buttressed by whole, acts, chapters, and beats.

There’s three things that underpin it: story elements, bottom-up structuring, and the notion of “keys”.

The primary elements of all stories, in order of descending importance, are: authorial intent, characters, world, events and narration. Separating out and tracking these elements is, in theory, doable. But when contrasted with an actual manuscript, any attempts to track the elements of a story soon become slum-like: wild, messy, unruly, unpredicatable, illegible.

Bottom-up structuring is the opposite of what I employed with the story’s original outline. Instead of starting with (what I hope is) a potent premise and unpacking it via ever-finer strokes (whole story to acts to chapters to beats), I do the reverse. Beat by beat, I will work my way through the manuscript, stating my intent, noting characters in order of appearance, jotting down the worldbuilding necessary, and summarising the events. Once I’ve completed the four beats of the prologue, for example, I transfer the elements up. An example:

rosetta grid 1
Here, I’ve begun to fill it out. I went from P1 to P4, taking notes on each element, then collated and compressed the info for the Prologue section as a whole.

Once I reach the top, I should have a complete list of characters, worldbuilding elements and summaries of events at different grains of abstraction.

Finally, the notion of “keys” is why this grid is called what it is. From the Wikipedia page for the Rosetta Stone:

“The term Rosetta stone has been used idiomatically to represent a crucial key in the process of decryption of encoded information, especially when a small but representative sample is recognised as the clue to understanding a larger whole. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first figurative use of the term appeared in the 1902 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica relating to an entry on the chemical analysis of glucose. Another use of the phrase is found in H. G. Wells’ 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, where the protagonist finds a manuscript written in shorthand that provides a key to understanding additional scattered material that is sketched out in both longhand and on typewriter.

Since then, the term has been widely used in other contexts. For example, Nobel laureate Theodor W. Hänsch in a 1979 Scientific American article on spectroscopy wrote that “the spectrum of the hydrogen atoms has proved to be the Rosetta Stone of modern physics: once this pattern of lines had been deciphered much else could also be understood”. Fully understanding the key set of genes to the human leucocyte antigen has been described as “the Rosetta Stone of immunology”. The flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana has been called the “Rosetta Stone of flowering time”. A Gamma ray burst (GRB) found in conjunction with a supernova has been called a Rosetta Stone for understanding the origin of GRBs. The technique of Doppler echocardiography has been called a Rosetta Stone for clinicians trying to understand the complex process by which the left ventricle of the human heart can be filled during various forms of diastolic dysfunction.”

A completed grid is a Rosetta stone, a master key for my project.

You’ve probably also noticed the duplication of the grids. The left is labelled “Included”. This is the one which will be filled out in the manner described above. It is also, probably, the least significant of the two. The one on the right, “Troubleshoot”, is where I reconvene with the notion of answering “hard questions”.

Once a full pass of the manuscript is complete, not only will I have a clue what’s going on, I will be able to begin picking apart what’s going wrong. Another combing of the manuscript will begin and during it I will be able to note flaws and failures and correlate them with the appropriate element.

As will others. See, once I’ve made a troubleshooting pass, my intention is to get a draft to a select few people, collate their feedback into the Rosetta Grid, and solve more problems, iterating until release.

There’s one other tweak I’ve made to my writing process, in addition to the creation and use of the Rosetta Grid. I’ve stuck a hand-wrtten version of this 2×2 on the bottom of my monitor.

imagination and nerves

The content of the grid comes from a Breaking Smart post: Good Forecasting Takes Strong Nerves. When I read it initially I thought its concepts particularly applicable to fiction writing, and as I embark into a more advanced stage I thought it would be helpful to keep a reminder of them in front of my face.

Finally: in other news, I went for a dip in a river (second time so far this year) and met some sheep.

Photo 03-06-2019, 06 25 46