In this week’s episode Tim and I talk about how to approach Storygridding 101… Where to begin your analysis of your favorite Stories. If you’re interested in using a masterwork as your guide…how exactly do you begin doing that?
To listen, click the play button below, or read the transcript that follows.
[0:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. My name is Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Helping me along that journey is Shawn Coyne. He is the author of The Story Gridand has 25 plus years’ experience in editing and traditional publishing, self-publishing and everything in between.
If you remember from last episode, I talked about using Harry Potter as a guide to outline my own story. So I began story gridding out Harry Potter and you can actually see that in the show notes for this episode at storygrid.com/podcast. I have a link to my spreadsheet where I story gridded out the entire thing and you could see it there.
So we talked through as I’ve gotten started doing that and then we get into just different things. We talk about specificity, we talk about the publishing industry ins and outs, how to do research on all these types of things. It’s a really great episode. If you’ve tried to story grid your own book or you’re thinking about story gridding your own book, this is a great place to start.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:09] TG: So Shawn last week, we talked about basically taking a book and laying it out and going through it and story gridding it and then using that as a map to map out your book and it’s one of these things like, I think the only reason I’ve ever found success at anything is because I greatly underestimate the amount of work something takes and so I just start.
Then I’m like, “Oh this should be easy,” and so I started working on story gridding Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book. I’m about two thirds of the way through, it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.
[0:01:48] SC: Yes, yeah. It’s intensive work because what you’re doing is you’re not only doing the global foolscap story grid which hits all the major sign posts in the story, your beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff, but it’s really the nitty-gritty of the story grid spreadsheet that can really intimidate you because once you analyze scene by scene, what often happens is that you discover that there are moments in some of your favorite books that don’t work.
[0:02:25] TG: Yeah.
[0:02:26] SC: That seem to have no real polarity shift from one scene to the next and a lot of people say to me and they’re always trying to catch me in a screw up and I love being…
[0:02:47] TG: It’s so nice of people.
[0:02:48] SC: I know but it’s good because the fact that they’re paying attention and that they’re really laser focusing on the story structure, that’s the best thing that comes of it but there is sort of that “global works doesn’t work” paradigm that I talk about in the book and I talk about at the website, which is we all have that “works doesn’t work” sort of on-off switch within ourselves.
So if you read a book and you enjoy it and you want to recommend it to somebody, it works and that doesn’t mean that there aren’t sort of challenges and things that don’t work within. Every single book and every single novel if you went to the writer of the novel and said, “If you were able to go back in time and we stopped time and we gave you a month and a half to go back and tweak things, would you have any work to do?”
Of course, they would all say, “Of course I would. I would have tons of work to do. There are things that have been nagging me about that. One scene that I wrote that I would love to re-tweak, but I have to move on with my life.” And that’s the thing that we have to remember when we’re story gridding is that to see a master writer make a mistake, I think it gives us some confidence.
That even the people that we admire the most, sometimes their scenes don’t perfectly gel and sometimes the major action doesn’t sort of coalesce in a way that you would want it to. And you could learn from those moments as much as you can learn from the moments when they’re very successful. So the fact that you’re going through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, you said Sorcerer’s Stone or Philosopher’s Stone? I think its Philosopher’s.
[0:04:46] TG: Well, the original UK version was Philosopher’s Stone and then the US version was Sorcerer’s Stone, I believe that’s how it works but it’s the same book.
[0:04:53] SC: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. So the fact that you’re going through that it’s going to — it’s very challenging because as you can see the story grid spreadsheet has a lot of columns to fill in.
[0:05:07] TG: Yeah. There’s a couple of columns I’m like, “Yeah I’m not doing that.”
[0:05:14] SC: Well, you can take what you want and there are columns that are extremely specific like all the characters that are mentioned on stage and off stage, those are usually things that you want to do in maybe your seventh or eighth round of editing, just for continuity’s sake to make sure that you’re not mentioning a character and never have them come on stage.
So to be able to track the characters is really for the work in progress that is at its later stages of development. The major things are finding those polarity shifts in each scene and the values in which those polar opposites shift. That’s important because once you start to get a grip on how each one of these scenes begins positive and then ends negative or begins negative and ends positive and the way that that writer moves the fluidity of the storytelling from positive to negative.
Sometimes it’s negative double negative or positive double positive, but you can always have a sense of movement and so every scene ideally is going to move on a value shift. There’s a scene in the Silence of the Lambs that doesn’t shift anything and it’s pretty much in a journalistic approach to getting information. It’s exposition. But we allow it as a reader because it’s so deep in the book.
It’s the moment when the senator’s daughter is kidnapped by Buffalo Bill and Thomas Harris puts in a very short, maybe it’s 500 to 600 words, of exposition about what happens, what are the procedures that occur in Washington DC when somebody whose powerful’s daughter or spouse gets kidnapped, what happens and we find that kind of fascinating.
So the fact that that passage doesn’t move, it doesn’t really matter to us because it’s interesting information to know how the secret service and all those organizations cope with something like that and you will find that those sort of lolls every now and then in your favorite books too. In To Kill a Mockingbird there’s a lot of exposition very early on in the book about the nature of Maycomb, Alabama and who’s in the town and the relationship between Scout and Jem.
Yeah, I think it’s Jem, her brother and it’s okay because it harkens back to what we were talking to about last week which was The Hero’s Journey and in The Hero’s Journey, the beginning hook of your story is in many ways establishing the ordinary world of your hero like how things are just in normal everyday life for them.
So at the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird we hear the narrator, who is Scout, some years later as an adult recalling this incident from her past, talking about the way the world was when she was five years old and so we get an understanding of the time, place, period and the relationships of the people in the town and because the voice is so specific and authentic, we go along with it.
We don’t need to have big action, we don’t need to have a false accusation of rape to keep us going. We don’t need a trial scene. We don’t need anything like that and that is a real rarity. When the voice is so strong at the very beginning that we just sort of fall into the world.
[0:09:22] TG: Yeah. I actually just double checked you while I was trying to do one of those “gotchas”, so I pulled up the spreadsheet and you actually did just, you left the value shift blank in that scene.
[0:09:36] SC: Oh good.
[0:09:37] TG: Yeah, so it was interesting. There was a couple of different things. So I love when I get surprised by stuff like this. So there were several things that I was surprised by, so the first is, I had trouble figuring out where scenes started and ended. So inside of Harry Potter, she’ll have a chapter but then so much happens in that chapter and she doesn’t have any breaks.
Because one of the columns, I added three columns to the spreadsheet because I wanted to keep track of scene numbers but also track of what chapter those scene numbers were in and then I also kept track of page numbers based on the copy that I had. That way I could easily flip to that scene if I wanted to and so I would start and be like, “Okay, well this scene goes from here to here,” but then when I would read it I’m like, “Well actually, there’s like three scenes inside of there all mashed together.”
And so I would have to say, “Well okay, I think this scene ends here and picks up on a new one.” I don’t know why that surprised me so much, but I guess I assumed there would be either those big paragraph breaks where the formatting is saying “something new is happening” but instead, inside of Harry Potter, there’s all of these things mashed together.
The worst one I’ve come across so far is when the kids get on the train for the first time, they talk about them getting on the train and a bunch of stuff happens and they talk about Harry and Ron being together on the train and getting to know each other and a bunch of stuff happens and then Draco Malfoy, the bad guy shows up and a bunch of stuff happens.
All of those things were just crammed together and so I had to go through and say, “Well I think this scene ends here and the next scene picks up here.” Is that normal inside of books? I’ve never looked at a book this closely.
[0:11:34] SC: It is. There is sort of prior to I would say — I’m just going to pull out a date — I would say around 1985. There were a lot of commercial fiction writers decided to do something interesting and one of them is Thomas Harrison and another is James Paterson and there were a lot of other writers do similar things and what they decided to do was to not worry so much about comprehensive chapters and have an entire novel in 15 chapters.
What they did is they broke down the work in a way where they made each scene almost a chapter in and of itself. Now because J.K. Rowling is writing in rather an affected sensibility, she’s trying to create something unique and that it has the qualities of classic literature while also being contemporary in feel.
So what she decided, which was a wise choice was to have meteor chapters that were comprised of a number of scenes so that her chapters are longer. There’s other elements to consider too and I would have to go specifically through the book along with you and we could have a longer discussion about this, but it’s very possible that some of the things that you’re identifying as scenes are actually beats.
Or they could be scenes and the larger chapter could be comprised of a sequence. My advice is not to get so overwhelmed by the categorization of the story unit. I mean I love to get into that stuff, but it’s more — what you described about the train movement could very well be three scenes as you’re discussing that they’re perfectly transitioned from one to the other because they’re all within the same time and space.
Or they could be just one scene that has three different longer beats to it. It doesn’t really matter, but again I would have to look at each. What does matter is that a beat like a scene, does have a very distinct value shift. So for example, when you’re talking about Harry and Ron meeting on the train, it could be the beginning of the scene is Harry is scared like everybody would be. Just going on this train with strangers and he’s reluctant to put himself out there to meet anybody and along comes Ron and so the beginning of the scene is alienation and the end of the scene is brotherhood. I just made that up…
[0:14:47] TG: Yeah.
[0:14:48] SC: …off the top of my head. And that’s a very, you know somebody will say, “Well, that’s not a very big value shift, somebody just meeting,” but it is. It’s a very distinct value shift when you’re alone and then you’ve got a friend. So a lot of these things that don’t appear to have these massive value shifts, they shouldn’t especially if it’s very early on in the storytelling.
You want to have those big, big moments of value shift happen at the climaxes of your beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff. You don’t want to have all these big, big events very early on in storytelling because then there’s no rhythm. It doesn’t build to a crescendo. It’s like a symphony, you don’t start — you build up to the climactic moment at the end of the symphony which is the fourth movement and it’s just like that in a novel too.
So the fact that J. K. Rowling is packing more scenes per capita into each of her chapters is fine and I think your idea of writing down the page numbers of where your scene is and knowing the transition points is a good way of knowing it too because when you Tim, say you decide that you’re going to write a story and instead of being on a train, you’re on a boat. I don’t know?
Then you can use that paradigm and say, “Well how can I make this boat trip interesting from one place to another? Oh well, I could think about what J. K. Rowling did where what she did is, she put her lead character in a position of vulnerability, made him feel a little bit better and then she escalated the stakes by bringing in a bad guy, Malfoy, who threatens him and then by the end of that scene, he’s vulnerable again.”
So you can see how she escalated the stakes in that one passage of these kids getting on a train and then when they disembark, how the world is completely different and how Potter is threatened at a higher level than when it started.
[0:17:00] TG: Yeah, I’m definitely going to continue to story grid different books because there’s been several points that I’ve noticed that I would have never noticed just reading through the book. Like for instance, there was on the train, there was that scene where he gets to know Ron and he had already met Malfoy a couple of weeks before. He gets on the train, he spends some time with Ron and then Malfoy comes in and basically pushes him to either make a decision, you’re either with me or you’re with Ron.
[0:17:33] SC: Right.
[0:17:35] TG: And so that’s the first point in the book where Harry chooses good over evil. Everything else, he was just looking out for himself, there is really no choice to be made and so that was interesting. The other thing I thought was interesting is, now I just listened to the entire book in one sitting basically a week before I started story gridding this. And if you would asked me, because the main story is the Sorcerer’s Stone right?
The kids are in the school and all these stuff happening and they figure out that somebody is trying to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone. And so that is the main story of the book and if you would ask me if that part of the book got started, I would have told you around 25%. But at halfway through the book, they are just getting to Hogwarts and going through the whole sorting hat and getting sorted into the houses and then getting settled at the school. She spent half the book just getting him to the point where she could tell the story.
[0:18:40] SC: Right.
[0:18:41] TG: And I thought that kind of blew me away because again, if you would ask me I would have said, “Oh well that was all done in the first fourth of the book,” and it wasn’t. Again, a book that I’ve read a couple of different times and listened to now and so story gridding it out and especially doing the page numbers and being able to see. When I did that scene of sorting the hat, I realized my thumb was almost to the middle of the book and I was like, “What in the world is going on?” Go ahead.
[0:19:14] SC: Well, I think that’s a really good point and it’s interesting to think about, “Well how did she sustain your interest,” right? Because if she waited until half way through the first episode of the Harry Potter’s story to even get him to the school, I think what maintained your interest was the very attractive notion of the hero’s journey and she specifically spent an extraordinary amount of time to establish Harry’s ordinary world.
The reason why she did that was she wanted Hogwarts and the whole concept of the school and the whole idea of the series to be so magical and believable that she really built and worked very hard to make sure that people understood the world of Harry before he got there. Because the world of Harry before he got to Hogwarts is very much a humdrum sort of ordinary existence.
He’s been a loner, he’s been rejected, he’s an orphan and we all feel alienated. And so his alienation, we are attracted to and we feel a kinship with him very early on in storytelling. She probably, both intuitively and intellectually, knew, “Hey, if I work really hard here and make this ordinary world and the transition between the hero’s call to adventure interesting for the reader then they’re really, really going to anticipate the world of Hogwarts.”
And once I get there, then I’ll be able to do all kinds of things in ways that if she was writing a 288 page, say 65 to 70,000 word novel, she wouldn’t have been able to do. Now the other great thing about J.K. Rowling is that she had a certain naiveté about publishing and if she were to know the things that you and I know now Tim, she may not have made that choice and it would have been a real big mistake.
[0:21:48] TG: Yeah.
[0:21:49] SC: Because young adult novels traditionally, before Harry Potter, publishers would always say, “Oh we don’t want anything over a 160 pages,” which amounts to 40,000 words, “because kids can’t just concentrate that long. We can’t hold their interest very long so what we do is we do really short books that have a lot of spectacle in them and that’s what makes them excited and that’s what makes them buy them.”
Now, J.K. Rowling when she was conceiving the whole Harry Potter world, she didn’t know any of that because she was more into the creation of the world than she really cared about the — and this is what a lot of people are doing when they’re getting into writing. They try and ignore publishing’s traditions and paradigms and follow their instincts. In the case of J.K. Rowling, her instincts paid off very well but she’s an exception to the rule.
What she did and we’ve talked about this last week too about breaking the pattern. Breaking the structure to suite the form of the writer’s vision. So she broke the pattern without literary knowing what she was doing. When her agent, I think it was Christopher Little in the UK, when he read it he must have been like, “Oh my gosh this is fantastic! There’s no way I’m going to sell this.”
[0:23:27] TG: Right, well and how many publishers — there was a ton of publishers that turned it down.
[0:23:30] SC: Yeah and Bloomsbury, which is a smaller boutique publishing company, they were the ones to say, “You know what? It’s just too good.” This is a great thing about book publishing, is that it’s made up of a lot and I’m the most cynical when it comes to book publishing and I can rant and rave about how everything is corrupt and nobody knows what they’re doing and it’s terrible blah, blah, blah. But it’s also filled with people who just love to read.
[0:24:00] TG: Yeah.
[0:24:01] SC: It attracts people who love great storytelling and every now and then at every single publishing house from Random House to Mom & Pop, there’s going to come a book that will land on somebody’s desk and they’ll fall in love with the book and they’ll show it to their colleagues and they’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, this is fantastic.” And then it’ll come up in an editorial board meeting and they’ll all say, “Boy, this is amazing but we don’t know how to publish it.”
And the publisher will end up saying, “You know what? It’s just too good. Let’s try. Let’s just try it.” And that’s what happened at Bloomsbury with J.K. Rowling and those are the moments that give me great hope and great love for the industry as a whole in that there are those exceptions and it happens all the time. In my career, every year, every single year in my career when I was at the major publishing houses and I was at Doubleday, I was at Dell Publishing, I was at St. Martin’s Press and it didn’t mean I got fired.
That’s the way you actually are promoted. You have to move from house to house to make it a living. So a lot of people are like, “Wow, gee, you couldn’t hold on to a job,” but that’s the way that the system works when I was in publishing is that if you were home grown, unless somebody else is interested in hiring you, you couldn’t get a promotion and then something.
[0:25:27] TG: Yeah, I had a friend that’s been an editor in a bunch of places and that was the whole thing. It was like, in fact one of the jobs, he tried to get a raise and a promotion there. He’s like, “No, you won’t be able to get that anywhere else,” and so he goes out to another publisher that he didn’t even want to work for and basically got a job offer. Brought it back and was like, “Look, I am worth that.” And his boss was like, “Okay, go take that job.”
[0:25:53] SC: Yeah, exactly. I wish I could say that didn’t happen to me but a lot of time, you feel so depressed because you think like, “Oh, well I’ve been giving my blood to this company and now I’m just disposable and they’ll just give the young turk the promotion and he will take my job and they will pay them half of the price,” and then you go to the other house and you have to restart your entire career. So it’s very Darwinian in the book business.
But the point I was trying to make is that, what’s great is that there are lovers of fiction and there are lovers of books and every year, there’s always an exception and there’s always a book that they always say, “We don’t know how to publish it but it’s just too good for us not to try.” And nine times out of ten, it doesn’t work.
So J.K. Rowling was this moment in time where a very ambitious and smart company said, “We know we’re not supposed to publish a book like this. It’s too big but it’s just too good and maybe, we’ll get lucky,” and they got lucky because the book was so good. Everybody who read it recommended it to somebody else.
So that was all word of mouth. They really didn’t have any budget to promote or market this thing and then now we see all these series of books for young adults. I mean the biggest growth engine in book publishing over the last 10 years has been young adult fiction.
[0:27:29] TG: Yeah because so many adults read them too.
[0:27:31] SC: Right, you have the Mocking Jay, Hunger Games you’ve got the Divergent Series, you’ve got all these series that are similar in sensibility to the Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling was the one who broke the mold. She did that by doing what you’re talking about. She put three scenes into a chapter, or five scenes into a chapter.
She went back to the traditional, classical sort of Dickensian structure where you jam a lot of stuff into a chapter and you make your book big, I mean meaning a lot of words because you want to immerse the people in a very distinctive world and they feel like the better the exposition, the better the sensibility of it, the more we understand about the characters, the more we’ll be engaged in the world. And in her case, she has the ability and the voice to make that true.
[0:28:30] TG: Yeah, so you had mentioned the world and everything. I wanted to talk a little bit about that. So I’m a big fan of Seth Godin and he had this book called Tribes and it’s kind of a marketing book and it’s a really interesting take on things but he talks about how like everybody’s in tribes and you have all this way to identify your tribe.
Like we’re in the book tribe, I’m in the CrossFit tribe, I’m in the Star Wars fans tribe, we’re all part of these tribes and he talks about one of the important things of tribes is that they have their own language. So there’s all these things that you know in words that you know in definitions and the way you talk that makes you stand apart and it’s a way that you identify other people that are a part of your tribe. Again, I’m going to keep using CrossFit as an example. So if I talk about Kipping pull ups, if you know what that means, you might be in my tribe, you know what I mean?
[0:29:34] SC: Yes.
[0:29:35] TG: I was really interested because again, critically looking at Harry Potter, this is just packed full of it with muggles and Quidditch and all this stuff that unless you’re a fan, you’ll wonder if people are like speaking a different language. And this is obviously unique, not unique to Harry Potter, but unique to the fact that this is literary a different world. Right?
It’s this magical world. This is not a thing that’s odd in the fantasy genre, but I’m wondering how much world building should go into the book? Is it extremely specific to the type of book you’re writing? I’m trying to think about how much do I have to suck people into a new world? I don’t know if I’m asking the right question?
[0:30:32] SC: No, I think you are. Here’s my advice about it. What you’re speaking about is specificity and what specificity when I talk about that, what I mean is this: when you’re a writer and you’re writing a novel and you speak of the ordinary world that you established at the beginning hook of your story to lock into the establishing the story spine of your novel, which is the hero’s journey. And then you transitioned from the ordinary world into an extraordinary world.
Then ideally, what you want to do is at the resolution in the ending payoff, the protagonist or the group of protagonists return to their ordinary world changed, they’re not the same person. So when you’re talking about Seth Godin and tribes and language and nomenclature, that’s all absolutely, positively true.
So specificity, when I talk about specificity, what I mean is that you want to — it doesn’t require making Quidditch or any of those major things that are in the great fantasy novels or Lord of the Rings has so much detail, Star Trek, Star Wars, these all have tremendous amounts of detail and specificity to the world, the rules of the world, etcetera, etcetera.
Now, I’m going to use an example from film because a lot of people have seen a lot more movies than they had read novels but the example that I’m going to use is When Harry Met Sally. Now, When Harry Met Sally is a love story and what is a love story? A love story has several different structures but the story of When Harry Met Sally is very specific.
And the ordinary world that they start in is the University of Chicago and it’s literary only maybe three or four minutes of screen time, but Harry meets Sally at the University of Chicago and there as these young people who have just graduated and they’re going to drive together to New York City. So they transition, they literary transitioned from the ordinary world which is just entering adulthood to a road situation where they travel across the country and then they get to New York City.
So in that space of time, which is probably 15 minutes of the film, we get so much specificity about these characters that we know them like the back of our hands. We know who Harry is all about, we know who Sally is all about and it’s through the repartee in the car, their specific discussions about male-female relationships, about whether or not to put the dressing on the salad or to have the dressing on the side, and all these fun things that we learn about those characters.
So that specificity creates the world that those two people are living and then it transitions into the extraordinary world years later when the two of them meet again and they meet on a plane. They’re both on business trips, he’s about to be married, she’s got a boyfriend and the point is, is that the tribes of people who love romantic comedies or love stories, they’re familiar with the structure of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back or boy loses girl forever.
Or boy-boy or girl-girl or whatever, I mean Brokeback Mountain is a great love story too and that’s two guys, two cowboys. So anyway, my point is that specificity of characterization and of the world and of the ordinary world doesn’t mean that you have to go and create just completely different literal worlds but what you have to do is create different dramatic moments between your characters.
The way to do that is to be really, really specific about the choices that you make for the characters and what they’re doing. I’m being pretty vague here and I’m trying to correct myself because I can understand I am being vague.
[0:35:18] TG: No, I think you’re explaining it fine and you’re kind of helping me figure out the best way to ask the question because one of the down falls I think of trying to look really, really closely at a popular book is see these things and think, “Oh man, for my book to find success, I’ve got to do it like this.”
So I’m like, “All right, do I need to create like this whole nomenclature that goes into my book?” And realizing, looking at it that that’s more like correlation not causation. So there’s plenty of books that come up with their own world and their own nomenclature that nobody ever reads but Quidditch and muggles and all this stuff became popular because of the book not because that was in there.
But I think what you’re almost describing when you use When Harry Met Sally as an example is back to the genre conventions, right? So when you use the conventions inside of a genre, you’re basically speaking the language of people that like that genre and so they start feeling comfortable because you’re speaking in a language that they understand.
[0:36:33] SC: Yes and also, the thing to remember is to have it very clear, and we talked about this about generating ideas. Now, if I were to write a novel about book publishing, I know a lot of insider terminology about book publishing, I know the way the hierarchy of book publishing works. I think you do too.
So if I were to set, if I were to set a love story inside a book publishing company, I would be able to create a believable world through the specificity of knowledge that I have about book publishing. So the situations that I would come up with to put my characters in dramatic conflict would revolve around my knowledge base of the world in which I’ve built my career over 25 years.
So I would be able to create a pretty interesting scene that was set say in an editorial meeting and the language and the repartee that would go about and the unconscious things that people would do at the table to either get other people to manipulate other people to get their support or to cut somebody off at the knees because you don’t want them to get a book on the list.
Because if they get their book on the list and you don’t, then you might get fired and there’s all these very political things that go on in an editorial meeting and it’s all sub textual, meaning nobody blatantly comes out and says, “Oh, well I don’t want to support your book because if I support your book then my book might not be allowed to be acquired. So I’m going to pretend that I don’t like your book so that your book will get axed and mine will go through.”
Nobody says that, they’ll say things like, “Well, there is something in the ending that just didn’t work for me,” and if you get enough of those undermining comments in the editorial meeting, the book will be destroyed. These are the things that writers don’t understand. A lot of the time, you might write an amazing work that for one of context at a publishing house, you’re just not going to get a contract because of things that are completely out of your control and that’s like anything. We could be talking about an oil refinery company too.
There are moments in — like one of my favorite movies is Michael Clayton. Michael Clayton is the story of sort of a fixer-lawyer, who gets in this big trouble because one of his friends is defending a client that’s a multinational corporation that is destroying the environment and his friend sort of goes crazy and so we learn about the way legal firms do underhanded things completely above board and legally while subverting our environmental protection laws.
It was just an amazing — and Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplay and I think he directed it too and it was just a great story and they were also abiding the hero’s journey and it showed us the way multinational corporations are able to subvert the law and how heroic people can make them get there and come up against. But the point is is that each one of us lives in a tribe and you brought this up earlier Tim.
You’re a member of a tribe, I’m a member of a tribe so when you’re a writer, think about the tribes that you belong to and all the insider information that you know that other people may or may not understand. Ideally, the tribe that you’re a part of has some kind of sexiness that other people who aren’t a member of the tribe would like to learn about.
I hope that answers your question about establishing the world. Try and immerse yourself and know the inside knowledge of your particular tribal affiliation and then bring that knowledge to the page, put your characters within those tribes and then use the circumstances within that tribal world that can create dramatic conflict.
What you’ll find is that, if somebody said to me, “Write a scene, set an editorial meeting at a major publishing house and you’ve got 15 minutes,” I’d probably be able to do that. And if somebody said to you Tim, “Write a scene about a marketing expert on a conference call with a publisher to go over the marketing plan,” you could write that scene too because you’ve been in that situation so many times that you know all of the hidden language. That’s like, “Oh, we’re going to take a look at that,” which means, they’re never going to do anything.
[0:41:41] TG: Yeah. This kind of comes back to that idea of writing what you know and this always makes me think of when Stephen King talks about writing — if you’re a plumber, write a great thriller where your plumber owns a spaceship.
[0:42:02] SC: Right.
[0:42:03] TG: You’ll be able to write that in a way that feels very real because you know all about plumbing but you’ve never been on a spaceship before. So it’s just, again, it’s one of those things that makes it a little easier because you don’t have to do research and research is always going to be different than real life experience.
[0:42:26] SC: That’s true. I mean some people are — years and years and years ago, I worked with a senior editor who is working with Elmore Leonard on the series of books that became Justified, the television series. Elmore Leonard was just the sweetest guy, great writer and he was somebody who was capable of writing what he did not know using what he knew about human nature to flavor it.
So what do I mean by that? He wrote Get Shorty, which was about a wise guy from New York who goes to Los Angeles and becomes a movie mogul and Leonard certainly knows the movie business so what he did is he went out and he made a few phone calls and he hung out with some wise guys in New York and he found out what they do and he came up with the character Chili Palmer based upon real research that he did.
When he wanted to write about the fashion industry, he called Anna Wintour and he went to Vogue and he hang out in the offices and then he went to all the Prada Porte shows or whatever and so partly, when you get a real firm confidence in what you already know and another guy who does this is Steve Pressfield.
When he understands the story structure and he feels very confident with it, he doesn’t have a problem going and reading and doing the research and interviewing people because what he’s doing is he’s sucking out phrases and he’s getting the nomenclature of the tribe so he can bring it to the page.
He’s not asking them stupid questions, he’s listening to the way they speak. So when he was writing his book about the Six Day War, he had to write narrative non-fiction about what it was like to be an Israeli ground soldier in the Six Day War. So what does he do? He went and he talked to a 150 guys who fought in the war.
He got the words that they talked about and he’s a secular Jew from the United States. He knew no Hebrew but what he came back with is words like Kavanah and Madera and all of these great Hebrew phrases that have such deep meaning and are part of the everyday lexicon of language among soldiers over there.
When you read the book, you’re like, “Oh my God, Pressfield’s like, — how did he do it?” And what he did was he was confident in his ground understanding of story structure so much so that he knew, “I just need to get to nomenclature.” So that’s what the research is about. It’s about finding the tribal language and then using that tribal language in the circumstances and the conflicts of that tribe and bringing it to the page with your deep understanding of story structure already inherent in your work.
[0:45:26] TG: Yeah, you know it’s interesting because that same kind of process is what goes into good marketing writing as well. It’s funny because when I write something that I want to really resonate with writers, I know exactly what to say because I’ve talked to hundreds of hundreds of them and heard their fears and heard what they’re dealing with and so I can put into really basically as authors and writers read it, they’re like, “This dude is reading my mail.”
[0:46:05] SC: Yeah.
[0:46:06] TG: And so it’s interesting because that puts in a new context for me because that’s one of the things that I do. I basically just talk to enough people and ask them enough questions and basically wait till I start seeing things pop up over and over. It was like, “Oh, that’s the language that people are using when they talk to themselves in their head.”
And it’s interesting because — so what I find interesting and I haven’t read the, Steve’s book that you were referencing about the Six Day War. But what’s interesting is if somebody reads a book and somebody hasn’t done that kind of research, and even those — I am trying to think of a simple way to say this. Basically like if I read a book that’s set in a world that I know nothing about but there’s two books and one of them somewhat did that kind of research and one of them didn’t, I’d be able to tell the difference.
[0:47:02] SC: Oh yeah.
[0:47:03] TG: Even though I don’t know anything about that world. So I think that’s an interesting idea too of just making sure that you understand it deep enough because people that read it that aren’t Jewish will still be able to tell if it’s authentic or not.
[0:47:21] SC: Oh absolutely, absolutely. It’s what really good journalists are capable of doing. A master of this is Tom Wolfe. And Tom Wolfe, when he wrote The Right Stuff he spent four years getting the language of the astronauts and their wives and NASA and mission control and all of those intricate details in a fighter pilot and what he did was to bring all that language to bear in a story.
The story of The Right Stuff is about the birth of the nuclear age and astronauts and it’s an amazing book but he knew generally the angle of what he was going to take. After he did all the research, he saw the patterns that you’re talking about Tim. He saw, “Wow, well where did this sort of ethos start? Where did the right stuff start?”
And what he found out was it started with a guy named Chuck Yeager. So what he did was he talked to Chuck Yeager and he found out that Chuck Yeager was the pre-eminent fighter pilot of World War II and he was so great and such a ballsy character that every airline pilot from the end of World War II to the present day has taken on his particular way of speech.
So every time you’re on an airplane and you hear the pilot come on and these kind of folks here and he’s like, “Hey folks, we’re going to be landing in…” That is the same way that Chuck Yeager talks and so it’s a fascinating idea that he was able to come and go to the root and find the root of what the right stuff was which was Chuck Yeager who is one the greatest fighter pilots in World War II.
He became a great test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in San Diego and it was from that crop, that Edwards Air Force Base that brought us the astronauts and every pilot wants to mimic the coolness of Chuck Yeager and just watch the movie because Sam Shepherd plays Chuck Yeager in the movie and they couldn’t cast a better guy to play Chuck Yeager than Sam Shepherd.
So that’s the point of what we’re talking about. It’s like get into the world and find those wonderful phrases and those wonderful made up words and use that to create the specificity of the setting and the subject matter of your work and people will immediately glom onto it. They’ll go, “Oh my gosh, this is authentic.” But if you say something like, “The right stuff was about the way the astronauts became really good pilots,” that’s just boring, right?
[0:50:31] TG: Yeah. So I would say that the difference that we’re talking about is when we’re looking at great fantasy worlds like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, it’s like somebody creates a really in depth world and then they do a really good job of basically explaining that world and immersing you in that world. Where on books like the ones you’ve been talking about and most books I would say is more like taking an existing world and immersing you in that one.
[0:51:01] SC: Yes, that’s a very good distinction.
[END OF DISCUSSION]
[0:51:05] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid, you can go to Storygrid.com. To see all the past episodes and show notes including my link to my Harry Potter story grid. You can go to Storygrid.com/podcast. It’s all there with the show notes and downloads. If you go to Story Grid, also make sure you sign up for the e-mail list. That is a great place to get started.
Now last week, I promised that if we broke a 100 reviews, I would leave you alone about the iTunes ratings and reviews and as of this recording, we’re at a 104. So thank you so much for jumping on that. I will not ask for those for at least a week or two. So anyway, thanks for listening. This was a great episode. I really enjoyed it, and share it with your friends, share it with your colleagues, and we’ll see you next week. Thanks.