Last month Tim Grahl and I spoke at Jeff Goins’ Tribe Writers Conference in Nashville.
One of the first questions that came up was “I’ve been struggling with my epic novel and I find myself very reluctant to dedicate my work time to it. Why do you think that is?”
I proceeded to tell the audience that this phenomenon is what Steven Pressfield sees as the platinum gift from that nasty bugger known as Resistance. What Steve states so eloquently in THE WAR OF ART is that when you have a list of say ten things that you want to get accomplished before you die…the one you should wrestle to the ground first is…THE ONE YOU FIND YOURSELF BEING THE MOST RELUCTANT TO DO. This is the one Resistance is telling us matters most.
I felt great giving this answer, because it’s been my experience that it is absolutely true.
It took me three years to write THE STORY GRID even though I had it on my top ten list of things to do since the turn of the century. I was reluctant to actually write the thing because I was afraid that once I did, I’d be done.
Once I shared the way I think as an editor, I thought that anyone with any interest in story editing would read the book…add it to their private autodidactic exploration of understanding story and move on. I didn’t get it that THE STORY GRID was the tip of the iceberg of stuff that people were interested in. My fears that once I opened up my mind vault and shared my global ideas about the importance of understanding story structure that that would be the end of it were ridiculous. A day does not go by when I don’t get emails asking me my thoughts about the conventions and obligatory scenes of particular genres…or what I mean by turning points…etc. etc.
Which brings me to #2 on my “things that I’ve been avoiding” list.
I’ve had a lot of reasons why I haven’t done Story Grid seminars. And when asked, I’d spew them out like a carnival barker. Format isn’t right for me. Too much stuff to cover. The audience is unpredictable. Long lunch breaks bug me. Bathrooms too far away.
My big problem came up when Tim Grahl asked me why I don’t give seminars. And for every reason I gave him why I didn’t want to do them he came up with solutions to my objections.
In fact, he asked me… “What would be the best possible atmosphere for you to do a Seminar?”
Here were my answers:
- A limited group of people eager to take their craft to the next level.
- A diverse group of expertise represented in the class (when everyone is too experienced the questions get too micro, when everyone is too inexperienced the questions are too basic). If you have people who’ve already been published, plus people who haven’t been published but who’ve been at it for a while (two or three unpublished manuscripts in their drawers), plus people with desire and discipline just starting out, the range of questions will be perfect. The know-it-alls (myself included) are forced to clearly state those things that they take for granted. And when you revisit ideas that you haven’t questioned in a while…you find out that they may be inadequate or you add another layer of understanding onto them. And those just starting out learn by the company they are in what a lifelong journey being a craftsman is. The best writers are always angling to get better. There’s no such thing as one and done.
- An intense, immersive experience where anyone who came would feel as if they’d been through the Story version of Navy Seal training (without the hazing or cold water treatment of course). I want to cover as much ground as possible, so there will be no “leaving the building” once the seminar starts. All meals and breaks will be included in the price and there were be a full college semester’s worth of material covered. The days will be long and tiring, but unforgettable.
- A respectful atmosphere where no one calls out during the course work. They hold questions until breaks and/or specific Q&A times.
- I want to do it at the beginning of the year. It’s been my experience that we get very ambitious at the start of a new year so I want to grab people when they’re ready to seize the day…
- I hate traveling and the prospect of preparing 21 hours of material to present over three days while having to worry about where to pick up my rental car is a nonstarter.
So Tim came back to me with this:
- The Story Grid Seminar will be limited to 35 people.
- The Story Grid Seminar requires an application. Tim Grahl has agreed to do follow up calls to answer any questions.
- The Story Grid Seminar will be self-contained. No one will have to stress out about where to get a sandwich or a cup of coffee.
- The Story Grid Seminar will be respectful and non-combative. See the application requirement. It’s been our experience that once you require some work before acceptance to a program…amateur rabble-rousers fail to do it and thus self-select out.
- The Story Grid Seminar will be February 10, 11 and 12, 2017.
- It will be in New York, NY. The final location is being whittled down now. It will definitely be “downtown,” in either Tribeca, Soho or Greenwich Village.
So I said I’d try it.
For those interested, the application for the seminar can be found here, STORY GRID SEMINAR APPLICATION.
Now back to our regularly scheduled program… This week on The Story Grid Podcast, Tim and I finished off our discussion of the Love Story Genre. This mini-series has proved to be the move popular episodes we’ve ever done. Not surprising.
To listen, click the play button below or read the transcript that follows:
[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience.
In this episode, we continue talking about love stories. Last week we introduced this as the most important genre that you can be learning as a writer. Today, we are going to dive in to exactly how to write a great love story. The obligatory scenes, the conventions and what makes a great love story. Also, I want to mention here before we dive in that at the end of this episode, I have something really cool to tell you about. It’s something Shawn and I have been talking about for a while and we want to introduce it to you first here on the episode. So make sure that you stay tuned until the very end and I will tell you about it then.
All right, let’s get started.
[0:01:03.5] TG: So Shawn, last week I asked a question of if I had to pick a genre that was the most likely to work and the one I probably could master to spread across the most stories and I asked that question, you said it was the love story. We started diving into that and we didn’t get all the way through it. But, you know, just give a quick recap on what we went over last week and why the love story is so important.
[0:01:35.1]SC: Oh okay. Well the love story I maintained is the first one everybody should consider mastering because love stories is the perfect thing to meld with other genres. For example, love story and horror, when you mash those things, two together, you get Twilight, right? And that’s incredible. That’s an incredibly commercially successful…
[0:02:01.7] TG: Yeah, it’s done okay.
[0:02:01.9] SC: Yeah, it’s done okay, right? Like love and crime, you get something like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which is you know, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s, you know, legacy of their marriage. But it was a terrific movie, it’s love and crime where you have this two assassins who are married. Then you have like love and fantasy, and if you ever saw the movie Splash, which is this fantastic movie Ron Howard did with Tom Hanks years ago, it’s fantastic. It’s about a mermaid, this guy falls in love with a mermaid and it’s love and fantasy put together.
So if you are able to master love and you tack on the love and the war story, that’s in McEwan’s book, oh I forget the title of it but it’s a fantastic book set during World War I right before the war, it’s a love story that concerns war at the end. Anyway, you can take any of the major genres and mash it on to love story and create something that’s extremely commercial, has extreme commercial potential. I’m thinking of that fantastic writer that did the Notebook, Nicolas Sparks.
There’s a guy who understood the concept of being able to create really compelling love stories and he’s one of the most successful writers today in commercial fiction because he really concentrates on that genre specifically and it’s told with a male sensibility and a male point of view and obviously it’s commercially successful. So if you’re interested in becoming a writer and commercially successful and somebody were to say to you, “Concentrate on one genre,” the first one I would teach would be love story.
Now, as we talked about last week, there are three major — now, when I say love story, I’m not talking about the buddy cop story. I’m talking about love, meaning, a relationship between two people with the potential for sexual intimacy. So it’s the romantic notion of love where you find a partner and you settle down and get married or when you’re in a marriage, some challenges come along, infidelity, issues of trust, that sort of thing. These are the kinds of stories that I’m talking about between two people with sexual intimacy at their core.
Of those stories, there are three major subdivisions and there’s the passion love story, which concerns the desire for sex primarily. That’s really what’s driving the entire thing or ownership of an obsession and ownership of a particular other person. Stories like the great Gatsby where Gatsby’s obsessed with Daisy are prime examples of this. So the obsession, passion love story is one. The second one is courtship which is really the basis of a lot of most romance novels today are all about the courtship genre and that one is really what can drive a lot of commercial eyes to a particular story. That is when two people come together, are they going to commit to one another or they are not going to commit? So the central question is commitment. In the courtship story, are they going — go ahead.
[0:05:25.6] TG: Is this like pretty much every romantic comedy movie?
[0:05:31.0] SC: Yes, the romantic comedy in films is the courtship story with a comedic sensibility. The courtship story without the comedic sensibility is the romance novel. The one that I always look at is the one that started the whole thing is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin which is fantastic. You read it today, it’s as fantastic today as it was back in the 1800’s.
So that’s the second big genre, silo, sub-genre of love story, which is courtship. The last one is marriage. When you have two people who have already come together, who have already committed to each other, can they take their relationship to the next level? And that next level is intimacy, where the two partners in the marriage something external comes between them.
It’s usually an issue of trust or infidelity and they are challenged to the point where they must recognize the true, authentic being of the other person and love them for their true selves as opposed to the masks that they wore during the courtship phase. The courtship stuff is great to make fun of in comedies and romantic comedies because we all pretend to be someone we’re not in order to lure the person that we think would be our perfect match.
[0:06:58.6] TG: I love the word “lure”.
[0:07:00.5] SC: Yes, exactly, because we all fear revelation of our own personal strangeness and internal battles that we’re all going through. So we really push that stuff, all that baggage, we don’t want the other person to see when we’re in the courtship phase. Which lends itself to great, dramatic possibilities because when you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, often times you make mistakes and you blurt out something that you shouldn’t and the other person, it’s great mistaken lies and all that sort of thing are the building blocks of a lot of the dramatic tension in the courtship dramas, and the courtship comedies too.
So the love story to me, they had this three major subdivisions which are based on human desire. The first one is sexual desire, the second one is commitment, and the third one is intimacy. These are sort of the three stages of a relationship, a long lasting relationship that can make somebody feel part of something larger than themselves. We talked about this very briefly last week, but everybody is born on this planet alone and to live alone is in a way it’s a damnation of sorts. And there’s reasons why powerful, political states put people in solitary confinement to break their spirits.
So one of the primal needs that we have is to be part of something larger than ourselves. So the love story is a primal story force that, if you can master, is going to speak to every single person on the planet. Everybody, male, female, whatever, they all want to be part of something larger than themselves and our romantic tradition is that once we find that perfect partner, one and one will become three. So this is why I think if somebody put a gun to my head and said, “What’s the first genre to master?” I would say the love story.
So after we went through those major three silos, we talked about, well what are the global obligatory scenes of the love story? We went through those last week and I’ll just go through them briefly now before we get into the more specific conventions of love stories and these are all pretty much self-explanatory and a lot of times people ask me to, you know, “Shawn, when are you going to do the book where you just give all the answers to all of the genres and lay out all of the things that we have to have and in each of the genres?”
Sure, I’ll try and do that before I leave the earth but you can do that yourself and some of these things that I’m going to talk about in the obligatory scene category in the love story are obvious. Anybody who reads three romance novels or goes to watch three romantic comedies are going to recognize all of these scenes. The first one is the lovers meet scene. You’ve got to have a scene that’s interesting and innovative where the two people come together and meet. So that’s number one. If they never meet, you don’t have a story, duh.
The second one is sort of after the end of the beginning hook of your story, you usually get a moment of a confession of love where one of the people involved in the story confesses to caring about the other in a way that is probably a little bit premature and causes a lot of stress and drama within the relationship because it seems as if this confession of love is just way too early. There’s a great scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, Elizabeth thinks Mr. Darcy is a complete ass and it’s about the middle, the beginning of the middle build of Pride and Prejudice when he shows up, knocks on the door and tells her that he admires her and he can’t help himself but he wants her to marry him and she’s like, “I can’t stand you, why would I want to marry you? You’re prideful and terrible and you treat my family like dirt, you’ve insulted me the very first time we met. No, I’m not going to marry you.”
That moment is this incredible moment in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Darcy’s pride is threatened and we see the prejudice of Elizabeth too, arise. There’s a reason why she called the story Pride and Prejudice and those two characters and I’ll talk more of this in the conventions, those two characters really epitomize certain flaws that keep us from the person that we should be with. So the confession of love scene is a moment in love stories where one of the people confesses either directly to the other or to someone else and it gets back to the other person that they’re in love with them that causes all kinds of dramatic stuff to occur afterwards.
Another obligatory scene is the first kiss scene. Sometimes the first kiss scene doesn’t happen until after the story’s over, especially in the early romantic novels. There’s no discussions of people kissing before they’re even married, so those are implied and usually those first kiss scenes are not so much literally about kissing as they are about the two people actually being alone and speaking frankly to one another. So there’s a moment of intimacy, not necessarily, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical kiss but it’s a moment when the truth of one’s feelings and the big reveal comes to light.
[0:13:20.2] TG: Yeah because I can think of movies that are both, like you’re talking about, where it’s set the past and where they didn’t even touch or were barely alone. But there’s also love stories open up with them having like a one night stand and then it turns into this other thing. So it’s not even, the first kiss is not so much the action taken about the significance of the action.
[0:13:44.9] SC: Yeah, exactly and what you’ll find, the other thing that I would suggest to people who are considering writing a strict love story is to think about not setting it in contemporary life. Unless you’re going to do a comedy. The reason being that contemporary life is very unromantic today. When I say it’s unromantic, what I’m saying is that the old sort of romantic notions about love are sneered at today. A lot of the sexual revolution of the 60’s and the 70’s, the tensions between the sexes, the male and the female, have gotten to a place where the old romantic notions of courtship and this magical moment when lightning strikes and two people see each other far away from a crowded room and they understand, “Oh my gosh, that’s my partner, that’s the one I’m supposed to be with for the rest of my life.”
Those notions are kind of archaic today and a lot of people approach love and marriage as almost in a cynical contractual way of sorts and, you know, even people who get married today, they always say, “Well, if things don’t work out, we can always get divorced.” Back in the romantic age and I’m talking up until probably 1970 or so, before these barriers sort of started being attacked my contemporary society, these notions of there’s only one love in the universe for me. That is a romantic ideal that arose over the romantic period in the 1500’s to 1956 or whatever, whereby we believe that there’s only one true love for us.
When we mate, we mate for life. When we become committed to one another, we become a better person. The union of us forces us to have a moral shift in our character from a moment in time before when we’re sewing our wild oats to when we’re a committed adult and we have a committed relationship. So today, these notions are seen, they seem kind of cheesy. The other elements of romantic love, and I’ll get in to this in the conventions, are rituals and courtship rights between two people.
So back in the olden days, there were very specific things that a man would do to let his intentions be known to the family of the woman that he wanted to marry and he would write letters and he would send flowers and he would call at a certain time and he would be very proactive about expressing his admiration for somebody. If you did that today, you would probably get a restraining order. Women are completely turned off by that aggressive sort of — nobody’s writing poems that I know of to get the favor of another person. Instead, it’s a lot of texting and a lot of application…
[0:13:44.9] TG: That’s not what they’re doing on Tinder? I thought that was…
[0:17:16.9] SC: No, no. I don’t even want to know what that’s about, but it’s not about romantic love, it’s about probably releasing passion. So anyway, my suggestion is if you’re going to do a straight courtship love story, this is why most romance novels are set in another era or they’re set in an extraordinary circumstance like a war zone. There’s a sub-genre of romance now which features like navy seals and guys who are in the military who have romantic relationships with people because there’s a life and death component to this storytelling, the ritual is not sneered at in the way that it would be if it was just, you know, straight boy meets girl story.
So I know I’ve gone off track here a little bit, but my suggestion is, if you are going to write a strict love story, this is why Nicolas Sparks, most of his love stories are set in quieter times. The Notebook was a romance from another era, it was discovered in an attic. Anyway, back to the obligatory scenes. After the first kiss scene, another scene is — this usually happens and again, these obligatory scenes can all sort of be in one moment. Like the lover’s breakup scene is another obligatory scene. That could be combined with a confession of love scene.
As I described in Pride and Prejudice when Darcy says to Elizabeth, “I can’t get you out of my mind, I’m going to surrender to your charms, even though your family’s a bunch of boorish losers, I can’t help myself so all right, I’ll marry you.” Elizabeth’s reaction is like, “I don’t want to marry you, you’re a prideful jerk who insulted me the first time I met you.” So they literally, the romantic relationship is severed and they break up in that very moment as the same moment as the confession of love.
So these obligatory scenes can be mished and mashed together in a way but you do have to deliver this moments to the reader. These are, obligatory scenes and conventions, just to take a step back. These aren’t just made up things that I came up with. These are story traditions that have evolved over hundreds of years, especially in the love story, that are what people are requiring of the story to get satisfaction.
[0:20:02.5] TG: I was going to ask like, are they more obligatory moments than scenes because scenes almost make it sound like it has to have its own scene. It gets its own set of 1,500 words. Or is it just more like you have to hit these marks, otherwise the story won’t work?
[0:20:20.1] SC: That’s a really good question and I think you make a good point there, especially after just thinking about what I just said about the lover’s kiss and the lover’s breakup scene. There are moments, but the important thing to remember and the reason why I call them scenes is they have to be on the page. Meaning, the reader or the viewer has to witness these moments.
So people, often times writers will say, “Oh I hit that obligatory scene. I had that character come in and explain what happened the previous Thursday when the two people kiss for the first time.” What I’m saying is that, “No, no no, that won’t work.” Because that is such an important moment in the love story that if you have another character report it happening, it doesn’t count and your reader will get mad.
[0:21:25.7] TG: So we’re probably diving too deep, but you know, I’m trying to — this is one of those things that feels like I know it and then I get into it and I don’t know it. For instance, if there is a scene where the heroine of the story, her friend comes home and the heroine’s crying and she’s like, “What happened?” And she’s like, “We broke up,” and then tells the story but we didn’t actually get to see them break up, that’s the problem?
[0:21:50.7] SC: Yes.
[0:21:51.4] TG: Okay.
[0:21:53.6] SC: Now, you could use that setup but then you would have to do, like Jane Austin often does is, “Here, read his letter,” right? Then you read the letter that shows you in the moment. You need to hear from that character as opposed to somebody reporting. “He sent me a letter and since then we’ve broken up.” So what I’m saying is that, you can use that setup but you have to either do a flash back, which doesn’t necessarily, it seems forced. My recommendation is always try and keep — always make it actively on stage so that we as the reader or the experiencer of the story experience the emotional moments at the same time that the characters do.
If you’re looking at characters, because what we do when we read or we watch a film is we are attached, we emotionally attach ourselves to the character. So the character literally becomes our doppelgänger in the story. Once you make that connection with your reader and your reader is attached to that character, you don’t want to break that, you want them to continue to feel as if what’s happening to the character is happening to them.
So when somebody reports something that’s happened to, you know, it just feels — it breaks the connection. Because if somebody reports that, “Oh, well they broke up because she caught him cheating,” and we don’t see her actually catching him cheating and you’re attached to the protagonist of the story, it’s no good. It feels like you rob the reader of an emotional moment that they want from the story. The reason why we love, love stories is we experience love through the story vicariously. We don’t get hurt but we get the emotional feeling of being hurt because we’ve attached to the character. It’s a way of separating ourselves form emotional distress through a story. So if you ever are writing and you try and spare the reader that emotional distress, you’re making a very large mistake.
[0:24:35.0] TG: I feel like the whole point of writing the story is to cause emotional distress.
[0:24:39.7] SC: Yes.
[0:24:40.6] TG: I mean, you’re trying to get them involved emotionally in what you’re doing.
[0:24:44.6] SC: Exactly. So reporting events as opposed to putting them on the page, you can report events that, for example in your story, the last time we talked about, there’s a revelatory turning point and I think around chapter four where one of the character says, “Oh, you didn’t know? You got 25 years to life in prison. That was your sentence.” So that works because we don’t need to see the scene where the judge says, “25 years to life.”
Instead, what you chose to do was to use that information as ammunition to turn the scene form a positive to a negative in a way that was unique and organic. So that the characters said to the other character, to get her, to see the truth, “No, here’s the truth.” So that works reporting information to the character because we as the reader attach to your protagonist, not the person who gave the information. We’re getting deep into it but yeah.
[0:25:54.0] TG: I don’t want to take it all for my own thing. We hit the lover’s breakup scene, I think you had two more left.
[0:26:00.8] SC: Yeah, then there’s the big moment. In every major genre, there is the big climactic scene that has to be in the scene and usually is the big thing that turns everything in the story and it’s going to resolve all of the problems and this is the scene, in love story, it’s called “the proof of love scene”. This is a moment when one of the lovers proves how much they dearly love the other by making a proof that is a self-sacrifice.
I’ll just use Pride and Prejudice again. Mr. Darcy, after he’s rejected by Elizabeth, he kind of has to come to terms with the fact that this low rent girl in the country, he’s this big guy who has got this huge estate in Northern England, he’s wealthy beyond all understanding of us and this country girl has basically thrown him aside and said, “No, you’re not for me, you’re prideful and terrible.”
So he has to come to the realization, he’s not going to win her back. But he still loves her, and so as he comes to this realization that, “You know what? I still love her and she was right.” He changes his entire world view from the beginning of the story until the end and the person who does that for him is Elizabeth. Because he discovers that about her, he proves his love to her knowing he’s never going to get her. He doesn’t think he’s ever going to win her love.
But he still loves her so much that he’s willing to sacrifice, make a self-sacrifice that will enable her to have happiness. I don’t want to get into the full depth of the circumstances. What he does is he sacrifices part of his estate to this cad who runs away with one of her sisters, which would destroy the reputation of her family and thus ruin her chances of finding true love in a marriage.
So he sacrifices part of his estate to make that go away so that she will be able to marry somebody else and be happy. Perfectly well-knowing that he’s probably never going to end up with her. So that is a proof of love that changes everything in the story and it’s the critical moment that Darcy becomes a different person.
[0:28:45.6] TG: You say it fixes every. Every story has the obligatory scene that fixes everything. What do you mean by “fixes everything”?
[0:28:55.2] SC: It’s the moment that everybody who is reading the story is waiting for. In the thriller, it’s the hero at the mercy of the villain scene. This is the moment and John McClain in Die Hard is, you know, he’s in trouble and there’s no way he’s going to seem to get out of it and he somehow gets out of it. It’s usually around the climactic moment of the third act. It’s often the payoff of the entire story, especially in the thriller.
In the proof of love scene, it comes at, in Pride and Prejudice, it comes out probably the end of the middle build. So it kick starts the ending payoff of the story where Elizabeth and Darcy come together again at the very end. The proof of love scene is this thing that will get us to the inevitable but surprising conclusion of our story. It’s sort of the turning point of the turning point of the global story in a love story that will get us to our resolution, if that makes sense?
[0:30:02.3] TG: Yeah, it does.
[0:30:05.1] SC: Then, lastly, we have the lovers reunite scene and this is the moment when they come back together and say, “You know what? I love you and let’s get married.” So it’s the commitment scene when it’s the resolution of the courtship drama romance, when the two people come together at the very end and declare their love for one another. It’s usually, the ending payoff, after the proof of love scene, the one who has proved their love, what they did is discovered by the other, they say, “Oh my gosh, look what they’ve done for me,” and then they fall in love with them.
So the lovers reunite is usually the resolution of the global story and you know, even in the marriage drama, like Kramer Versus Kramer, the lovers reunite story is at the very end of the movie, when Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep come together and they don’t get back together but they do reunite emotionally, they’re more intimate now than they were when they were married. So even though they don’t’ get back together, it’s a marriage drama that ends in a happy way. Because now Mr. Kramer, played by Dustin Hoffman, understands his ex-wife.
He understands that she does not want to be married to him anymore and he loves her for that anyway but they come together at the end and reunite for the benefit of their son. She makes a sacrifice by saying, “You know what? Our son is now home with you, his home is with you Mr. Kramer and I’ll be the one who comes to visit because to break you, what the two of you have together is too good for me to get in between at this point.”
Even in the marriage drama that ends in a sad way, ironically there’s a sadness and a happiness at the end, that’s dramatic irony where isn’t ironic that these two people can come back together even though they both love their son so much? That’s what makes it so upsetting at the very end of the story. We’re happy that Dustin Hoffman and his son are going to be together again but we’re also sad that that family is never coming together again. That’s a marriage drama.
Okay, so those are the obligatory scenes or moments as you suggested we refer to them, which I think is a valid thing. They don’t necessarily have to be full scenes, they can be meshed together. But the very important point that I’m trying to make about them is that you need to put this on the page, we need to witness the scene, we need to see these moments. So with those major turning points of scenes and moments, there are also a lot of conventions of love stories, meaning these are sort of characteristics of the love story that we all come to appreciate and observe and want when we go see a romantic comedy or we read a romance novel or read a love story.
A lot of these things, again are, when I say them, you’re going to say, “Yeah, of course, duh. If I write a couple of this love stories I’d be able to pick them out.” But you would be surprised when you’re cranking out your work and you don’t have a checklist of the things that you know need to be in there, often times you’re going to admit something and your reader or an editor at a publishing house reads the book and says, “Hey, it was good but there’s something about it that I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief.” Usually, that means you’ve left out one of this conventions or one of those obligatory moments or scenes that, you know, is destroying your story. So it’s a good idea. Go ahead.
[0:34:17.4] TG: What’s the difference between a convention and an obligatory scene?
[0:34:21.4] SC: Well, a convention is more, like for example, it relates to cast, meaning people like for example, I’ll just give you the first convention of a love story, you have to have a third party rival, right? So there has to be somebody else in the mix who is trying to get the attentions of one or more of the lovers in the story. So if you just have this two people who meet and there’s no other alternative for either one of them to marry in a courtship drama, it’s boring. You’ve got to have a triangle of relationship where there’s another courter, another person who is interesting.
[0:35:05.1] TG: In Kramer Versus Kramer would the third party just be his job?
[0:35:09.7] SC: Yes.
[0:35:12.1] TG: Okay. So it doesn’t have to be a person?
[0:35:14.0] SC: Well, now it wouldn’t really be his job. That would be more of a societal pressure on him that he has to overcome. It’s a force that’s in his control and that’s another convention, there has to be forces that are pushing the lovers apart that are in the control of the two parties, the two people who are trying to come together. One of the forces in Kramer’s control, Mr. Kramer’s control, is his job and the wife says to Kramer in no uncertain terms, “Your job is causing a rift in our marriage, you’ve got to do something about it,” and he says, “No I don’t. I’m going to become a big advertising executive.” So that’s not really a rival, that’s a force from society that pushes on one of the people that’s in his control. He can change his job but he chooses not to out of selfishness.
Now, a rival in Kramer Versus Kramer is the man who’s third party who is mentioned after Meryl Streep comes back and she’s seeing other people and that drives Dustin Hoffman crazy and there’s a scene in a coffee shop where they’re both having a glass of wine and Dustin Hoffman goes in thinking his wife has come back to him. So he’s there and he’s pretty confident like, “Yeah, the old lady’s coming back to me, things are going to be okay. I just nipped it at the bud, things are going to be okay now,” and instead she says, “Oh, no, no, I’ve been seeing other people and I’m starting to feel better about myself,” and he was like, “What?”
He actually at the end of the scene and this is a famous moment because he didn’t tell Meryl Streep he was going to do this, he slaps the glass of wine and it hits the wall and crashes and wine and glass just go all over Meryl Streep. It’s that moment when the rival comes into the equation and the rival is the other men that Meryl Streep is interested in. She no longer wants to be his wife. That rivalry is, that is the moment when they made the scene, when the screen writer decided, “You know what? We need a moment when a rival is in here. Because if we don’t have that rival moment, the marriage drama isn’t going to work.”
Now, Kramer Versus Kramer is also a love story between a man — it’s not a technical love story because they always talk about the love stories that we’re talking about are the prospect of sexual intimacy. There’s a love, a communal father-son love story that’s really the hardcore driver of the middle build of this movie. But the marriage drama is the inciting incident and the ending payoff. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The inciting incident is the wife leaves the husband and she doesn’t take the son.
The middle build is how is this man going to react to this? Is he going to let his marriage drama destroy his relationship with his son? Is he going to farm out his son to a bunch of nannies or is he going to change himself and understand himself more by forming a bond with his son? But the ending payoff is the marriage drama again, will they come back together again? The moment when they meet in that wine shop and they’re having a glass of wine is when the rival, the convention of the rival is introduced, that sets Dustin — it’s a revelatory moment.
It’s a revelatory turning point in the scene, when she off handedly says that she’s been seeing people. When she says that the rival emerges and it flips him out. That forces the action of him who is excited to be in there at the beginning, there’s nothing worse than going into a meeting, thinking it’s going one way, and oh my gosh, has this happened to me before? You think it’s going one way and when it turns, it’s like somebody stuck a hand into your gut and just started ripping things out.
[0:39:48.4] TG: I love that picture.
[0:39:50.8] SC: When you see that reaction of Dustin Hoffman, every person who has ever been in that moment, when they discover that, you know, they lose the person that they care about and it just rips your heart out. Anyway, that’s the rival. The job is not a rival, the job is a societal force. Okay, that’s the first convention, you have to have a rival, a third party that comes in between and in romantic comedies, these are always the great nerdy guy who is, you know, he’s the right choice for the wild lady. You know, the really straight laced guy who is going to make her comfortable and then there’s the wild man that she can’t help but love or vice versa.
It’s the man who is the nerd who falls in love with the crazy woman but the other woman is the right call. There’s a great movie with Charles Grodin in it called The Heartbreak Kid, which is one of the funniest movies ever and it’s a story of this guy who goes on his honeymoon with his wife, he marries the woman that he’s supposed to marry and then he’s this nice Jewish guy in New York City, he goes to Miami beach for his honeymoon, and who does he meet there on his honeymoon? Cybill Shepherd. You know when Cybill Shepherd was 20x years old and he falls for the blond chicksa and it’s just hilarious movie. Anyway, I highly recommend it, it’s a great example of romantic comedy and Charles Grodin is just genius there.
Okay, so after the rival, then we also have to have a couple of other role players, you have your helpers, the people who are in favor of the relationship and your harmers, the people who want to destroy the relationship. In Pride and Prejudice, the helpers are people like Jane who is Elizabeth’s best friend and older sister and then the harmers are people like from Ms. Bingley who is a rival for the affection of Darcy and also the other people in sort of their social circle who think this country girl who’s family are a bunch of crazy people should never ever be in our society.
So those are two other roles you need. You need to have helpers who are for the relationship and harmers who will do anything to stop it. So those are the two camps. This all goes to Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare and the Capulets and the Montagues. You have these two families who are big rivals and then you have people who are helpers and harmers within the story. Another convention is to raise the stakes of the love story. There needs to be some sort of external need introduced. What I mean by that, in Pride and Prejudice, it’s a very important external need. It’s introduced very early on.
The Bennet family has five daughters. There’s Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet. Mr. Bennet is a gentleman and he lives in the country and he married a woman because he found her beautiful and she turned out to be a little bit silly when after he was married but he’s made a commitment to her, he doesn’t have much respect for her, but he’s a gentleman and his estate will go to a cousin and not to any of his daughters. So his daughters must marry well or they’re going to, after Mr. Bennet dies, they’re all going to be thrown out of their house. So the external need for all this Bennet sisters is they better get married and they better get married well or they’re going to end up homeless or at the mercy of this strange cousin who lives elsewhere who gets the whole loot of the entire estate once Mr. Bennet dies.
So over all of the proceedings in the story is this external need from this sisters needing to get married and the mother is crazy about them getting married, that’s all she focuses on. She’s just crazy running around, trying to get them all hooked up and she makes a fool of herself and all the things that she does to get her daughters married have the opposite effect. She thinks she’s helping but she’s really harming. So she thinks she’s a helper but the reader knows she’s a harmer.
So again, the external need in a love story, there’s also a recent movie with Sandra Bullock in it and I think it was called The Proposal and it was a romantic comedy and it turned on the idea that she had to get married or she would be kicked out of the country. She was Canadian or something and she had to marry an American citizen so she makes her assistant marry her and things ensue from there. It’s a pretty non-innovative hook, but it works because you have Sandra Bullock, you know? And she’s fantastic.
[0:45:10.4] TG: So the external need, is that, I mean, does that usually come pretty early on as far as like is that often the inciting incident of the book of like this is what kicks things off? As if somebody doesn’t hook up soon, something bad is going to happen?
[0:45:29.4] SC: Well, it can take as large a role in the storytelling as you’d like. It can be the major external force that gets the entire story going as the inciting incident. If you don’t get married by X, there’s also another great romantic comedy called A New Leaf, which starred Elaine May and I forget the man. It was the story of this sort of loser-ish rich guy who is running out of money and he has to marry this woman in order to maintain his lifestyle.
She sort of like a nebbish-y loser but he marries her anyway. Then of course once they get married, they fall in love and he discovers how wonderful she is. So you can use the external need as a means to get the characters together. But in Pride and Prejudice, what’s wonderful about it is that the only person who really, I mean everybody in the story understands the external need that this sisters must get married.
But Elizabeth who plays the major protagonist in Pride and Prejudice, she tries to put it out of her mind and she doesn’t want to give in to the external need and so what she does is overcompensate by insisting on finding a partner that has crazy amount of qualities that she would find attractive, that’s her prejudice. She’s prejudice against anybody who has any flaws and she’s very quick to point out the flaws in people so that she’s almost sort of pre-conceivably causing her own destruction through her prejudice.
So Darcy is prideful and she’s the prejudice, that’s why we have Pride and Prejudice, they both come together and they fall in love, which is genius. But the external need can be as monumental or as secondary as you wish. Usually in a romantic comedy, they try and ratchet up the external need to give a level of stakes. If they don’t get together, the worst is going to happen, it’s a way of using the convention to propel the stakes of your story telling to make people more invested in the story.
I always recommend, think about an external need that could be really compelling and innovative that can keep people interested in the storytelling, which brings up two other things. One is something I’ve already mentioned, which is forces that are in the control of the characters, which are pushing the two people apart. In the case of Kramer Versus Kramer, it’s societal pressure to become a big shot advertising executive that’s bearing down on Dustin Hoffman. Now that’s a force that’s in his control. Nobody says that he can’t take a lesser job or do something that is not as high powered and still be a man. He’s in control of that force and he’s feeding that force.
But there’s also forces that are out of their control that come between and just to use Kramer Versus Kramer again, there’s a moment ion the story when the little boy falls off a jungle gym and he gets very deep cut on his eyelid and it’s just this horrific moment where Dustin Hoffman has to run across the park, get him into an emergency room and the boy’s screaming and it’s terrible and they sew up his eye and he’s going to be okay. But later on, that moment is brought up in a court of law saying that he’s a negligent parent because the boy fell.
Now that’s a force that’s out of Dustin Hoffman’s control. The fact that the boy fell off a jungle gym is an accident. There’s nothing that he could have done to stop that. So that is another example of a force out of control that can conspires to push the two lovers apart. So Meryl Streep and her attorney used that information to push their family apart so that she can get full custody of the son and Dustin Hoffman will lose his custody. So those are two forces that push the characters apart, one is force out of the control and one is force in their control.
[0:50:15.6] TG: Okay.
[0:50:16.4] SC: Now, the next convention are secrets, there have to be secrets held throughout the story and it’s a great way of thinking about, “How am I going to get some really cool secrets in this story?” There’s four different kinds of secrets. There’s this secret that society keeps from the lovers, meaning — I’m trying to think of a good example of when society has a secret that lovers don’t know about.
[0:50:45.1] TG: Was it like something where once you’re married, this awful thing happens or? I’m trying to — yeah, I’m trying to think of one too.
[0:50:55.4] SC: Well, there have been some love stories that feature, this is kind of a movie of the week idea, but there have been some stories where people have fallen in love who discover later on that they share some genetic material together, meaning that they are related. So a societal secret that they don’t know is that they cannot come together because society will shun them for being first cousins and marrying. That’s usually a movie of the week convention where will they or won’t they, you know? That’s one example.
If you think of it sort of their societal legal pressures that for example, in the really dark ages of the united states, there were miscegenation laws that’s kept black people and white people from marrying one another or even getting together and they would literally you’d be thrown in jail if they were ever caught courting one another. So the miscegenation law would be a societal secret that keeps the two lovers from — well, it’s actually wouldn’t be a secret. That would be more of a force out of their control. I’ll have to come back to that one but that’s an important one to remember.
Now another thing, when a couple keeps secret from society, that’s an example where after Darcy and Elizabeth come together and they share a lot of intimacy together and they understand each other, they don’t tell anybody about that. She doesn’t share this information with Jane because she doesn’t want jane to know about other things. So there’s these secrets that go on top and on top of one another. Elizabeth doesn’t know that Darcy proved his love by bailing out on her family, she has to learn that through her sister and her aunt.
So Darcy keeps her secret from Elizabeth, that’s another one where they keep secrets from one another. Darcy doesn’t want Elizabeth to know that he did this act of love because he doesn’t want her to falsely fall in love with him just because he did a good action for her. He doesn’t want her to feel indebted to him so he keeps the fact that he saved her family’s honor secret form her. But once she discovers it from third parties and she understands that he wanted that to be a secret from her, she falls in love with him all the more. So that’s another example where the lovers keep a secret from one another.
Another one is a secret that they keep from themselves. This is usually the flaw that’s holding them back from being able to form an intimate relationship with a committed relationship with somebody else. In Darcy’s case, this is his pride. His pride is keeping him from being able to recognize beauty and love in another person. So Darcy’s big thing is he’s from a really hoity-toity family and his friend rents this house in the country and he goes to the country with his friend to hang out and this woman and her family come over for a party and the family acts like a bunch of idiots.
They’re running around and they’re saying things that are ridiculous and he just thinks that there’s no way that he should have to withstand this terrible people and as pride in his status and the stature in life is keeping him from seeing the beauty of Elizabeth. Now Elizabeth’s problem, the secret that she’s keeping and hiding from herself is that she’s prejudice. She finds the rich people to be so ridiculous that she will do anything not to see their merits. So she refuses to see the good parts of Darcy because he’s so prideful.
Anybody who is from a higher station in life, she looks down upon. She refuses to see that the inanity of her own family. Until she can recognize that her family’s pretty foolish and they’re country bumpkins, she is not going to be able to understand Darcy’s world. So these are the two things, this secrets that the lovers are keeping them from themselves, that they must arc in the story and overcome before they are capable of a commitment. So this is why secrets are so important in a love story because lies and recognizing the truth is a really major part of forming a committed relationship.
Now, there are only two more. One is, it just makes absolute sense, are rituals. What rituals are, these sort of things that we share with the people that we love. I can say something to my wife from 30 years ago about some restaurant that we were in and she will immediately know what I’m talking about. These are rituals and traditions that we both share. It’s sort of like people who throw salt over their shoulder after they drop something at a dinner table, but they’re shared intimacies that only the two lovers are aware of.
So for Darcy and Elizabeth, the things that they do is they’re very good at poking fun at one another. They speak to one another in a way that other people would find offensive but they enjoy it, it’s sort of their repartee where she’s constantly needling him and he needles back, and they’re very smart people so they really enjoy the repartee that each one of them gives to one another. But they wouldn’t do that ritual kind of talking to other people. so it’s only when they’re talking together, and they share these sort of things together.
The last convention is that there has to be a moral weight to the story. They have to, the characters have to change for the better. In many ways, love stories in the courtship drama and in the marriage drama are all about the two characters becoming morally better. Their education plots where their moral sensibility shifts from a negative place to a positive place. So for example in Pride and Prejudice, we have Elizabeth moving from being prejudice against certain people to understanding certain people and withholding judgments. Darcy moves from being very prideful to being very open minded and cordial and less so sure of himself and his station in life.
So morally, there has to be a moral arc from a negative place to a positive place and even hilarious movies like There’s Something About Mary, the lead character is obsessively attached to Mary and by the end of the movie, he has to have a moral rise for him to have an actual relationship with her. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on in love stories, but when they’re done well, they’re so commercially appealing to us that we can’t resist them and combined with other genres, they can become just monster smashes.
So anyway, that is my global overview of love story that you know, really shows just how important this is for global storytelling. If you can master the love story, you are going to learn craft that can be applied to any be applied to any other of the major genres themselves.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:59:20.3] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. Now, I mentioned at the beginning of this episode that there was something cool I wanted to announce. So Shawn has been getting a ton of request to do a live, in person, Story Grid workshop. So, he has decided that he’s going to do one. We’re planning this for February, it’s going to be three days of Shawn walking you through specifically how to use Story Grid to write and edit your own work.
I’m excited to be a part of this, I’m excited to learn from him, and if this is something that you think you would like to be a part of too, we’d like to hear from you. So we’ve decided this isn’t going to be something that you can just go to the website and buy. We want to make sure that the right people come, we want to make sure that we build something and invite the right people that will actually get the most out of it and really help them in their writing career.
So we’ve decided to put up a little application where you can tell us a little bit about you as a writer and then we’ll follow up with you to talk about the best ways for you to be a part of the workshop. If you are interested in being a part of a story grid workshop where Shawn is going to teach you live in person for three days, you can go and fill out the application, it is at storygrid.com/workshop. That will help us have a little bit more information about you so we can follow up and make sure that it’s a good fit for you.
Now, I will tell you that we’re going to keep the attendance to only 35 people. So there’ sonly going to be 35 slots for this thing. So if you’re interested, I highly recommend you go as soon as possible to storygrid.com/workshop and make sure you let us know that you’re interested in being part of it. So I’m really excited that Shawn has decided to do this workshop, I can’t wait to be a part of it myself and learn from him as well, in person, for three days instead of just an hour every week. So hopefully this is something you’re excited about too. So make sure you go to storygrid.com/workshop and fill out the application so we can follow up with you.
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