If you’re recall from a while back when we discussed Kurt Vonnegut’s Six Story Arcs, we talked about the “man in a hole” arc, which requires that your protagonist fall in a proverbial hole and then struggle to get themselves out of it. In this episode of The Story Grid Podcast we examine Tim’s second “man in a hole” arc in his novel’s beginning hook.
Remember that you cannot go backward in terms of story-stakes. So if you start a story with a man in the hole sequence, which Tim did when his protagonist declines an opportunity and ends up being punished for her decision (she falls in a hole), if you choose to add on another man in a hole sequence after the first, it must be a deeper hole. In this episode we talk about Tim’s choices to make this second hole in his story a much more serious fall than the first.
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 dive back into my story. We go over the last few scenes that I’ve written and we start talking about the next sequence in the story. And I think that’s what’s exciting for me is we’re starting to move from looking at individual scenes to looking at sequences, because I think Shawn can trust me to write a decent scene now and is allowing me to go a little deeper.
So I’m excited about this episode because we’re getting closer and closer to the end of the beginning hook which will allow us to dive into the middle build of the story, which I think is going to be really important to start working through that because that’s going to be 50% of the story. So anyway, we dive into a new sequence in this, I think you’re going to enjoy it.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:09.2] TG: So Shawn, we’re back into my story. So we’ve gotten four or five scenes done or approved to a point where I can keep going and we’re onto the next sequence, the sequence where Jessie runs away, tries to go home and gets dragged back. Now, originally I wrote two scenes that you had some tweaks to but they seem to be all right, and then the third scene that kind of wrap that sequence up, I had flash forward and kind of looking back like she was safe and then looking back at what happened, you’re like, “No, no, no you got to keep telling the story in real time and draw out that suspense.”
I threw out that scene and rewrote it. The first two scenes I basically just tweaked some things to fit some of the decisions we’ve made. Like everybody goes out at night, everybody’s in there during the day, so I tried to make those more consistent. I tried to add some things where it was a little more obvious that the numbered were like the cast out of society and I also will use that as the way, because 83 will have to get punished for what will happen and the punishment is not so much that Jessie got away. It was that they were seen by so many people because that’s the bad thing, because they’re the cast outs is what I was thinking.
Then, so that third scene, I added on to kind of wrap up because the first scene was when she gets home, second scene is when she first runs away and then the third scene is when they’re trying to get back to the numbered compound before something bad happens. I really liked how I ended it, I felt like I was really happy with it, I had fun writing it and I want to say that before you said anything about it. But yeah. So that’s where we’re at so what do you think?
[0:03:10.7] SC: I think they’re in good shape, I really do. I think these three scenes, they’re accomplishing exactly what you want in the sequence, which is to establish almost another man in the hole complication for Jessie in her evolution of actually eventually getting to the capital. We need to bring her to a place where she just, there’s no other choice but to go. So the very first scene is really strong because it’s coming off of her realization, after the revelation from 83 — let me just, for all those people who are, this might be their first episode. Let me just quickly go through the evolution of the story.
It begins with a young girl who is stealing food from a house and she feels the presence of another person there who says to her, “I know what you’re doing, don’t worry, you’re in great luck, you’re going to go to the capital and you’re going to join this group of people who are at a higher level in society than you are now. Congratulations,” and the end of that scene is she says, “No, I’m not going to go.” The second scene is the repercussions of that decision, she is shamed in the society and she is physically and emotionally abused to the point where she is cast down and coast out into a group in society that has physical monitors embedded in the back of their heads and her hair is actually shaved bald. That’s the second scene.
The third scene is her awakening the next day and being introduced to her mentor whose name is 83. 83 puts her through the paces to discover and as we’re watching what’s happening to her, as she’s acclimating to this new world, she is then also put in the process of these jobs that she has to fulfill to be part of the unknown people in this society. So that ends with her discovering that she has been sentenced to 25 years to life in this group of the castaway’s. That is enough motivation for this next scene that what I’m going to talk about now where she decides, “You know what? Forget it, I’m just going to escape this world and go home,” which is perfectly reasonable for her age group and for everything that she knows.
So this is the scene where she’s running home and we find out her little secret paths through this society from her previous life with her family. It works and she drops the note underneath the brick, which signals to the reader, she is in communication with another group of people from her past and she gets home only to discover that there is no escape. The thing in her head is beeping, nobody else can hear it and just as she sees her father, 83 comes back and says, “Look, you’ve got to go, you’ve got to get out of here.”
They break in and she decides to run away, she goes through her hideaway and the next scene is her hiding in a shed and 83 has to get her to go back to where she should be or something terrible is going to happen. This is also a really nice scene because you’re coming off of her going back to her father and her family, helpless, right? She’s helpless, she goes home, she says, “Dad, here I am, I’m home, help me and he rejects her.” He says, “Look, you shouldn’t be here, the decision that you made is awful, it’s terrible for your mother,” and I and so he essentially is rejecting her which is a really painful moment for her.
Now, before I move forward, my big note for you in this section is the moment when the father says, “Why didn’t you take that commission and go to the capital?” Jessie doesn’t respond, and I think this is the moment when the reader’s going to ask — wants the question is answered. You don’t have to have a perfect answer right now but there should be some dialogue there where she says, “Well, you know, if I went I die just like my brother did,” or something. Do you understand what I’m talking about?
[0:08:18.3] TG: Yeah.
[0:08:18.8] SC: Because the reader at this point is going to be saying to themselves, “Yeah, what’s this girl’s problem? Why doesn’t she just go take this commission and I’ll be over with?” So you can either directly have our answer to that question by saying something that makes sense, or you could say, “You know very well dad why I didn’t do it.” What that will establish is the secret. So you can setup something that you can reveal later on in your story. Because when we’re talking to people that we know very well and somebody asks us a direct question like, “Shawn, why were you late?” and I answer you by saying, “Oh, you know why I was late, Tim.”
[0:09:06.0] TG: Right.
[0:09:07.0] SC: Other people hearing that would say, “Oh, there’s some rift between Tim and Shawn and I’m not really sure what it is but I really want to know.” So you can use that psychology in your writing too, to get narrative momentum going. So what you’re doing is you’re lodging a question in the reader’s mind that they want answered later on, which will make them want to continue reading the book.
[0:09:33.7] TG: Okay.
[0:09:34.4] SC: You can use that setup as a payoff somewhere in your middle build or even in your ending payoff where they explain exactly why she was so terrified to take the commission. So that’s my really, really big note for that scene because it strains the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief if the father directly asks her a question and she does not answer.
[0:10:01.7] TG: Okay.
[0:10:03.5] SC: Because we want to know why that is anyway. So to move forward, the next scene is that she runs away and hides in a shed and 83 waits her out. Jessie knows that 83 is making a sacrifice to be — she doesn’t know exactly why she is, but she’s making a sacrifice far larger than her father did, right? What’s great is that it establishes that mentor-mentee bond very organically and we can see that Jessie, “Hey, Jessie, maybe should bond to this woman because she’s out for your interest far better than your father or mother are.”
[0:10:50.3] TG: The other thing I was thinking when I went back and read it and why I liked it too is you talked about early on where the first scene of the book is two people and the second scene was a crowd and just jumping back and forth between just kind of what’s happening and who is there and so this I thought was thinking like the first one was a lot of like run, run, run to the house, arguing at the house, and then run away. And then this like stopped the motion where they were both just waiting for most of the scene.
[0:11:24.4] SC: Right.
[0:11:25.2] TG: So that was another thing I was thinking. I mean is that, I guess, is that good like that kind of thinking?
[0:11:33.6] SC: I think so because what I think it is, it’s true to life, we have very quick moments of rapid thought and rapid decision and rapid action and it’s usually followed by contemplation of, “Oh my god, what did I just do?” That’s what it feels like. It feels organically believable because her instinct run away — you know, what’s really great about this sequence is it’s a very clear value at stake and just to go over what values are again is story values are the life blood of a writer. So I always talk about how at the beginning of a scene, something has to be one way and at the end it has to shift, there has to be a positive to a negative or a negative to a positive or a positive to a double positive or a negative to a double negative or there has to be a shift of value on the spectrum of value.
So just to use this three scenes as an example of that, the value at stake in this sequence of scenes is freedom and slavery. So at the beginning of this story, at the beginning of the sequence, it’s positive, she’s escaped so on the freedom spectrum, she’s in the positive or at least she thinks she is and then as it progresses, she comes to discover that she’s never been free, she’s a slave. But in the slavery of being part of this group, what she discovers at the very end is that there is a tribe of people just like her.
She is not alone even in this very lower class of society, she’s part of a group, she’s part of a tribe. Whereas when she’s at home, she’s not really much a part of anything. She’s trying to reform bonds with her father so that she can bring back this fantasy of her family life that departed some time ago, it departed when her brother departed. So I mean that’s another thing to think about, I’m on saying you should do this now but there should be a moment in the story when that idyllic moment in her mind is demonstrated.
So maybe earlier before her brother left for the capital, there was probably a good family feeling. The father was a stronger figure, the mother was more sane figure, the brother was helpful to assist her, there was a nice family dynamic and bond there that Jessie longs to return to. That is her want. Her want is to go back in time to when the family was strong and together and it felt secure. So that’s really what she wants and the reason why she doesn’t want to go to the capital is that the capital is what destroyed that. So to go to the capital, in her mind, is like a double destruction of her family.
[0:15:04.5] TG: Right.
[0:15:06.0] SC: That organically makes sense and psychologically it makes sense too. So her wants and, you know, I always talk about wants and needs. Now the want is the thing that drives the external story. Jessie’s want for a return of her family is what’s going to drive the external action thriller story component of your long form novel. So the reasons why she goes to the capital, it’s to try and heal from the destruction of her family. Go ahead.
[0:15:48.6] TG: Too, as you frame it like that, I think too like at the beginning of the story, she was already a long way off from what she thought was the idyllic thing and then by the fourth or fifth scene where something she didn’t think could get worse, it’s now worse. Now she’s cut off from even what little family she had left. So in her trying to get home, she’s trying to just get — the whole thing with refusing the call is trying to get back to status quo. Like, “Maybe status quo wasn’t awesome but at least I’ll stick with it.”
[0:16:22.9] SC: That’s right.
[0:16:24.9] TG: She’s just like, “I’ll just at least go home and get what I had,” and then that’s even taken away.
[0:16:30.8] SC: Exactly. That’s the want of Jessie driving the external genre of your story. Now, her need is the internal thing that is really, is the global thing that is driving the entire story. This is a coming of age story, it’s a maturation plot. The action stuff and the thriller stuff is really fun to read but the reader really wants to see this young girl evolve, they want to see her arc from being a child to an experienced, smart hero.
Her inner need is the need that is required in a maturation plot is to move from naiveté to experience and wisdom. What she really needs is to find out the truth and the truth for the maturation plot is that hey, the world is complicated and all the people in the world who surrounds you are not there as puppets in your own private little story. Each one of those people has their own story going on and sometimes their stories, positively intersect with yours and it makes things good for you but sometimes they negatively intersect with yours. So part of the maturation plot is discovering that you are not the center of the universe. That is the deep truth of the maturation plot.
[0:18:22.3] TG: I think my kids need to go through that maturation plot.
[0:18:27.1] SC: Well a lot of adults do too. Far more than you would think. I include myself probably in that list too. So this is why the maturation plot is so important and it’s so primal to people is because it reiterates the truth that when we judge other people based upon our own internal world view, we’ve got to be careful doing that because our world view is, as they say, it’s unreliable. We constantly, as human beings, need to be looking at our world view with skepticism because often times we lie to ourselves in ways that not only hurt us but they hurt other people.
So the maturation plot is a way that people, when they read the story and they identify with the protagonist and they root for her to come to a truth, it reinforces this necessity of all of us to constantly be searching for our own private truth. I know I’m getting very sort of psycho-babbly, but it’s true. The world view that we all have is extremely unreliable and this is one of the basis for things like Steve Pressfield’s concept of resistance.
Resistance uses our world view to its advantage to get us to not do anything. It doesn’t want us to be exploring our internal world views and being skeptical about them and being open to change because stories are always about change. Stories teach us how to behave when confronted with positive or negative change. So the maturation plot, is like To Kill a Mockingbird, there’s a maturation plot for you, right? These are things that we really bond to because they show us how important it is to self-examine and to learn and to seek truth.
That’s what you’re writing, your story has a lot of bells and whistles on I, literally bells and whistles. Deep down the core of the story as this Harry Potter and all the other great big epic stories, featuring younger protagonists, it’s a maturation plot. It’s something coming to terms with the truth of life, which is that you are not the center of the universe. You need to seek wisdom in order to not just benefit yourself but to benefit all of humanity and the thriller element in your novel is supportive of the maturation plot because the thriller element is the hero sacrifices himself or herself for the good of others. The world is a better place when heroes sacrifice themselves for the betterment of others.
So that’s why all of this stuff when it clicks together, become billion dollar franchises because you’re dealing with primal search for truth and the social contract as well. We’re not here for ourselves. We are here for everybody else.
[0:22:02.5] TG: So is that your guarantee that I’m working on a billion dollar franchise, here?
[0:22:07.4] SC: No, you’ve got no guarantees. All I could do is point out these things and hope that you execute. Execution is everything.
[0:22:16.4] TG: I’m hoping for dozens of dollars off of this book. So we’re in this sixth scene where she escapes and she’s hiding in the wood shed.
[0:22:28.4] SC: Yeah. This scene begins with her being free again. So the first scene opens with her free, and then it shifts to being caught, and then she escapes again, and she’s now not free. She’s stuck in this shed and she has to make a decision, “Do I give up the freedom of being alone in the shed for the slavery of being part of 83’s world?” and she chooses to do that. That choice makes sense.
[0:23:04.7] TG: Well I was actually talking to my 11-year-old, or almost 11-year-old son about the story and I was thinking about that decision and how he’s in this place where he can’t seem to think long term about his decisions. So he keeps making decisions that just are painful for him because he can’t think past the end of his nose, which is normal for his age.
So I was thinking about if he was in this situation and he’s stuck in the shed, he would literally be trying to decide, “Should I live in this shed now, or should I go out?” Where and adult is like, “I’m stuck, am I going to keep running or am I going to turn myself in?” I was thinking, Jessie’s literally making the decision as like, “Is this where I live now? I’m just going to stay here.” Anyway, so did the scene work?
[0:24:05.4] SC: Let’s walk through it. The first scene rides on the value of freedom and slavery. It opens with her escape so it’s a positive freedom and it shifts to slavery when the people come to collect her and then it shifts again back to freedom when she escapes. The valence moves from positive, to negative, to positive. The next scene, it’s negative because she’s stuck in the shed and it moves to positive because she escapes the thing in her head from going off. Actually there’s one more scene after that where that is resolved, correct?
[0:24:52.8] TG: Yeah. I guess I was thinking it shifted from like — I don’t know how to put this, but basically she’s alone at the beginning and when she makes the decision to go with 83, that’s basically her deciding, “I’m a part of this now.”
[0:25:10.3] SC: That’s right. She was rejected to embraced in a way. So alone to together is also a value shift, right?
[0:25:20.8] TG: Okay.
[0:25:21.3] SC: That value shift really supersedes, is larger in my estimation than the freedom to slavery one. Because at that point, she pretty much knows there’s no escape. So the slavery value is underneath the primary value which is at stake, which is alone versus togetherness. It begins negative alone and it ends positive in a group. So I would agree with you on that. Now the third scene, that’s when they return back to the compound with the rest of the number and so what happens there is that they begin, they’re safe and as they travel, they make it but somebody gets hurt, pretty seriously.
I’m just walking this through off the top of my head so forgive me if I don’t come up with the perfect value at stake right now. I do know that there is a movement there that moves from being secure to insecure. So it moves from positive to negative. We have the first scene moves, positive, negative, positive. The second scene moves, negative, positive. So that that all works. The third scene moves positive, negative. Those valence shifts make perfect sense.
So each one of the scenes works as a singular unit and the sequence itself moves from freedom to certain slavery. It moves from a positive to a double negative. What happens at the end of the sequence, there’s no turning back, right? She’s learned, by falling in this hole and coming out of this hole, that there’s no turning back. She is part of the number, she’s stuck there for 25 years, she can’t leave the compound or she’s going to get hurt or somebody else is going to get hurt. So the sequence works and it escalates and it progressively complicates. I think you did a really nice job.
[0:27:51.4] TG: Okay, great. Because, you know, what I want — we talked about killing him, the guy that was them. Then we backed off and said, “No, it’s too much death too soon.” So I just had it where he got hurt.
[0:28:09.8] SC: That works.
[0:28:11.0] TG: I tried to end it with it being pinned on Jessie in front of everybody, which I want it — so she accepted membership into the society, but right after that she’s kind of shamed in front of them because it’s her fault that he got hurt.
[0:28:30.9] SC: Yeah, and she’s given the test that she has to stand by him and nurse him, which was great.
[0:28:36.5] TG: Okay.
[0:28:37.9] SC: So yeah, not killing the guy was really smart because when you bring in death too early, it’s too much too soon and it could turn off the reader to a degree like, “Oh jeez, now the bloodbath starts. Everybody gets killed, I get it.” But the fact that he gets this serious injury and he’s bleeding, that’s enough. It’s enough.
[0:29:05.9] TG: How did you — because I’ve tried to do this kind of mini thing where you think he made it and he’s safe and then I pulled the rug out. Did that part work? Or was that a little too — I felt like it was like, is this too on the nose where it’s like, “He’s safe and then no he’s not,” you know?
[0:29:24.1] SC: It did not strike me as cheesy if that’s helpful. It seemed like a reasonable device, the guy gets caught in the thing, “Oh my gosh, he’s not going to make it back. Oh my gosh, there he is! He’s dragging his leg, he got stuck. Okay, everything’s cool. Come on, hurry up,” and then it happens. Because the reader wants to witness the repercussions of him not making it. We need to see on stage what happens to the guy and the fact that he grabs his ears, you can sort of — you know, everybody has these images of being tortured with really loud noises and having your nose bleed and so that’s what you accomplished and it’s also even worse because nobody else can hear it.
Nobody can feel or experience the terror and horror that this guy is experiencing because it’s all internalized through that mechanism that’s at the base of his skull. I really think that that element too, with Jessie being the only one to really — only the numbered can hear the beeping is great. So yeah. I didn’t find it — I could see what you mean now, intellectually thinking about it, “Oh jeez, yeah, I guess that is a little cheesy.” But I always say this, the first thing I do as an editor is I read the book like I’m reading a book.
So when I read a story or read a scene, I don’t put on my editor hat until afterwards. A lot of things will jump out at me like, “Oh, this is stupid. Write that down.” But if it doesn’t jump out at me on the read, I usually think that’s a good sign and it’s working organically. When you can…
[0:31:15.4] TG: Okay.
[0:31:18.4] SC: So yeah, other people can point it out and every editor is different. It might bother some other editor and the fact is, is that, everything can be made better, right? Something that’s working can even be better than working. So that’s why different editors have different things that they want to focus on.
[0:31:40.4] TG: But the goal now is to get a working scene that gets us from this point to this point in a decent fashion and we can always go back and fix it.
[0:31:49.9] SC: Absolutely.
[0:31:51.3] TG: Bu yeah, because I thought like, one is, I’ve been watching a lot of this Disney show called Liv and Maddie, because my kids like it and I kind of like it, I’m going to admit that. But I keep like cracking Connor and Max up because I’ll like, I’ll say, “Oh, well this is what’s going to happen,” and then of course that’s what happens. It’s the same plot from Saved By The Bell when I was a kid and, you know, all these other shows because they can just rehash the same things because the kids are only eight and they haven’t seen it a hundred times.
I was like, how many times have I been watching your show and as soon as the guy comes around the corner and you think he’s safe, immediately I’m like, “Uh oh. The ice is going to break or like a meteor is going to come and hit him on the head.” There was this moment where I’m like — yeah, I was interested in your first take on if that worked to be like, “He’s okay, no he’s not.”
[0:32:51.2] SC: Well you know, the very thing that you’re talking about, the cliché-ish element, it’s a cliché for a reason for a reason and that’s because it works. You have to balance satisfying those little kind of fun things that we all enjoy in a story, a particular kind of story by giving them to the reader in a way that they hadn’t seen before. The fact that the torture device is unique, it’s an internal torture device that causes complete, I don’t even know what? But it causes bleeding and everything. I think we might be belaboring it, but I didn’t find that too over the top. It is those sort of things, there is a convention of kind of cheap surprise in thrillers and you know, you can get away with it every now and then.
[0:33:50.5] TG: Okay, so with reworking this scenes and I, you know, I was trying to figure out how to get us now to the end of the beginning hook.
[0:34:00.8] SC: Right.
[0:34:01.3] TG: I made some notes and I’m struggling with where to go because the two kind of threads that we’ve talked about are one, 83 getting punished for Jessie running about and in that being revealed to the numbered that she can leave whenever she wants, which will make her an outcast from even the numbered. So that was one thread, the other thread was she left that note that’s for her friends and this idea that she is going to make one last ditch effort to get this thing out of her head so she can just run off and be by herself. Then, that not working and her friends getting punished for that is what finally puts her over the edge to agree to go to the capital.
So I was struggling a little bit with how to tile that together because — so the notes I have are like, you know, scene eight as 83 being punished but I was thinking the value shift would be from accepted to cast out where even though 83 is being punished and the captain was hoping that that would drive Jessie the numbered kind of come around her and like, assure her it’s okay and so to kind of pull the rug out from under that, the captain reveals like, you know, “She’s not like you, she can leave whenever she wants.”
So that will basically make her cast out from even the numbered so she’s now another rung lower, that will drive her to try together friends to help her, which is scene nine, I was going to move from hopeless to hopeful where she thinks she’s really stuck now but her friends assure her, they can help her. Then I didn’t sketch out getting her to the end of that.
[0:35:59.6] SC: Okay. Here are just some early thoughts. I think at this point in the story, we need to turn down the volume a little bit and have a scene that will be informative to the reader and also get Jessie more firmly attached to the tribe. These are kind of like the scenes in thrillers where the two cops or the people get to know each other by doing something, they have a conversation. Somebody tells somebody else’s story, it’s a story within a story. It could be a situation where the next scene is Jessie taking care of this guy who just had his brain scrambled and has blood all over his face.
So it could be a situation where he tells her a story about how he became a numbered. That story within a story will serve more than one purpose. One of the things that we need to establish is how did this world get this way? This guy’s sort of an older figure and he could tell her — it’s like sort of like a nurse in a Hemingway novel. The nurse comes in and you’ve got the soldier on the bed who is recovering from a wound and she asks the soldier what happened and the soldier tells the nurse his life story. “Well, when we were on the — let me tell you what happened at the battle.” Then the soldier tells the story to the nurse and you know, we as the reader overhear it.
So you could have this figure explain to Jessie the things like how the shaming came about, what people are doing in those virtual reality machines. These are some of the questions that the readers is desperate for answers for. He can tell it in the form of, “Well, let me tell you how I became a numbered.” Maybe he’s bleeding and she’s tending to him and he wakes up and he’s got PTSD and he thinks it’s his daughter or his niece and she calmly assures him, she’s not his niece and he says, “Oh, my niece, let me tell you what happened,” and he starts and he tells her a story that informs the reader and Jessie about what happened to make the society the way it is.
It’s the old soldier telling how world war one started or, so that we can have more context for the reader to really understand what is in the offing. What is the fantastical world that she is going to be entering into in the middle build? It’s a way of giving them a little bit of warning and to give them an anticipation for something extraordinary. He might say, “You know, you wouldn’t,” — go ahead.
[0:39:31.6] TG: What if he is from the capital?
[0:39:33.3] SC: That’s what I was about to say.
[0:39:35.0] TG: Okay.
[0:39:36.3] SC: He could be like, “Well I was a,” — she could ask him a question like, “How did you know that you could make it back and why did you come to my rescue?” and he could say you know, it’s like guys when I was growing up would say, “Oh, it’s an old trick I learned in the army.” He can tell her, “Well, you know, I’ve been around these devices since they’ve started putting them in people’s heads and I have an internal feeling of when they’re going to go off and I knew I had a certain amount of time to make it. But, I was only a couple of seconds off and I’m no worse for where despite the fact that I have a terrible headache and I have been bleeding all over the place, I’ve been through this before.” That kind of thing.
[00:40:32.2] TG: What if it ended with them getting up because he’s hungry or going out and joining the rest of them as they eat and banter and they give him a hard time. Because if you say, “We want her entrenched in this tribe that’s going to reject her shortly,” we’ve got to entrench her not just with another one character but in her realizing she is accepted by everybody. Do you think that would be a good way to end that one too?
[00:41:05.5] SC: Yeah, I’d like the transition of it being a one-on-one bedside moment, to her helping them out, to the canteen where they eat and having people sort of shun her but come to him and ask him how he’s feeling and then he can say, “Sit down. She’s one of us. We’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all suffered for them.” So he can come to her defense, and then that way she can even get another jolt of camaraderie and love from this very strange rag tag group of people.
[00:41:50.9] TG: And could I establish here too something where, maybe he says something like, “We’re all stuck in this and have no choice so we need to get along,” and kind of he’s assuming that she has no choice but to be there and really drive that home because that’s what we’re about to turn over in the next scene?
[00:42:12.5] SC: Yeah and also it’s like that scene in Titanic when Leo DiCaprio, he goes down below and they’re dancing and they’re having all that good time and it’s this fun sort of provincial group of people having fun versus all the people at the top of the ship who were in tuxedoes and everything. So Jessie is sort of our Leo character. She’s going to move from below board to the capital and instead of it being a dancing scene, it could be, “Hey old 61, tell us the story. Tell us the story,” like one of the kids can say that.
He’s kind of the entertainer of the group and, “Tell us the story of the capital,” and then he tells some parable about life in the capital. It’s like Of Mice and Men, the Steinbeck novel when Lennie is always, “Tell me about the rabbits George,” and so George tells them about the rabbits. “We’ll get an estate together and we’ll get a farm,” and, “I will get to raise the rabbits, right?” And you can have a character like that, so that in the midst of all of this numbered life which is really shitty and depressing, there’s human interaction and camaraderie.
So much so that it’s almost a blessing of sorts to be among these people and not be plugged into the machinery that just diverts them and makes them hollow, soulless creatures who lie in bed all day, you know? So I think this is a nice moment to establish Jessie as becoming a member of the tribe and also use this as an opportunity to dump in some exposition about the extraordinary world that she will eventually go to, does that make sense?
[00:44:23.9] TG: Yeah and start to hint at answers to some of the mysteries I have opened up.
[00:44:30.4] SC: Right and then, because one of the things that you have to regulate in your storytelling, especially when you tell a big canvass action story like you are telling is remember, people cannot withstand action, action, action, action scene, action scene, action scene, one after the other where the stakes are higher and higher and higher without moments of either comedic relief or communal gathering. So this is why when you go see a movie like a cop movie like Lethal Weapon. Lethal Weapon works because you have those domestic scenes with Danny Glover and his family.
[00:45:20.4] TG: And you always have these scenes where they’re like back in the precinct talking about stuff, that’s no action.
[00:45:26.6] SC: Right.
[00:45:27.2] TG: Because I’m thinking of the comedy, The Other Guys with Will Farrell and Marky Mark, whatever his name is.
[00:45:35.5] SC: Mark Walberg, yeah.
[00:45:36.8] TG: Yeah and there was action, action, action and then back in the precinct where they have the meeting with the boss, and so then there was no action. So you’re basically saying that it gives a chance for the reader to take a deep breath.
[00:45:53.7] SC: Yeah and that doesn’t mean that this is a pure — you still have to turn the scene, and one of the things that I always suggest is, think about doing the opposite of what the readers are going to expect. So one of these sort of languid “getting to know the group” scenes, your readers is going to know what kind of scene this is the minute they start reading it, intuitively. So what they’re going to think is that, “Oh boy, here is the scene where she bonds with the tribe.”
So you have to keep that in mind and say to yourself, “How can I make this scene interesting? How can I turn it? What value can I put on top of this that will be more interesting than alone to part of the group?” Because that’s what made that scene in your previous action sequence interesting, is that it moved from this high level action, freedom versus slavery, to alone to part of a group. So what you did there when she was in the shed was bring the temperature down a little bit to get a breath before the ending payoff of the run back to the compound.
If you had just made it more guns and guys running after her and more and more, it would have become too much and too over the top. So in this way, you might even do two scenes here that you would break up to establish her as a member of the tribe. You want to get a story within the story. We might think, “Oh he’s going to tell a really cute charming story about his time in the capital,” and maybe he tells some horrific thing, I don’t know? But keep that in mind that you want to use a value that the reader is going to find surprising to turn this.
Another example that I talk about in the Story Grid book is in that great movie, Zero Dark Thirty, where you have the two women who work at the CIA and Islamabad go out to dinner and you think, “Oh here’s the girl talk scene,” and as they’re starting to talk, bang, explosion. So what the film makers did was like, “Let’s cut this scene short. Let’s defy the expectations of the audience in an interesting way.” And the result of that is the two women became even closer friends because they had to get out of the rubble together.
They had to find their way out together and that’s more of a bonding situation than one woman saying to the other over a glass of wine, “Oh, you know, the guys back at the office just don’t respect me.” Instead, they made those two women bond over a life and death matter. They had to escape the rubble together. I’m not saying to do an explosion in this scene, because I don’t think it calls for it. But just think about 10 different ways you could turn this scene in a way that will be interesting.
[00:49:15.6] TG: Okay and maybe even think about extending it out to two. Because then I could end that second scene with basically 83, them busting in and dragging her out. I actually first thought drag her out by her hair but she doesn’t have any, so I can’t do that. But yeah, basically dragging her out and that’s how the scene ends. So that could be my bomb going off in that second scene of this part. But I can think harder about the first one of how to…
[00:49:45.2] SC: Oh here’s another idea, I just thought of this.
[00:49:47.9] TG: Okay.
[00:49:48.4] SC: There is some really great scenes in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and this is the story of — are you familiar with that novel and that movie?
[00:49:56.4] TG: No.
[00:49:57.4] SC: All right.
[00:49:57.9] TG: I mean I have heard of it but never watched it or read them.
[00:50:00.5] SC: Well, it’s great. It’s Jack Nicholson plays this guy who is in jail and he learns that if he can convince people he’s crazy, they’ll throw him in the lunatic asylum and he won’t have to do any hard labor and then he can run out his sentence in the looney bin and hang out and not to do any work and get out of jail. So he does that. So he goes to this lunatic asylum and he’s trying to make friends with these guys because that is just the kind of extrovert this character is.
So they end up playing poker and then the lunatics don’t do it the right way, and he gets more and more angry, and there’s this one great scene where he’s finally starting to get through to these guys and they’re starting to have a little bit of fun and he says, “You know what guys? Let’s ask the nurse if she’ll let us watch the World Series tonight because the World Series is on, we’ve got a television here,” and the guys are like, “Oh I don’t know anything about the World Series,” and he gets so excited telling them about it. There’s this great build up, “Hey guys, let’s all just ask the nurse because if we all ask her, she’ll say yes and then we can watch it.”
So of course they have this therapy session with the nurse and he says, “Nurse, I was talking to the fellows and the World Series is on tonight and we’d sure like to watch it, right guys?” And he looks around and none of the guys really say anything and she says, “Well why don’t we have a vote?” And so as you’re watching this, you’re like “Oh the guys are definitely going to vote to watch the World Series.” And she says, “Well who wants to watch the World Series?” And nobody raises their hand but him.
So it turns when you think, “Oh R.P. McMurphy, the character’s finally gotten through to these guys that they have some power in their life and they can make their own choices about what to watch on TV,” and then bang, uh-uh-oh, no siree Bob. You think you might be part of the group but you’re really not. So that turning moment was a really big scene in the film because it showed he thinks that he could just go in there and charm people. He has no idea what he’s up against and so that’s an example of doing a camaraderie scene, a guy tries to become part of the tribe and to turn it in a unique way that is devastating to the audience but perfectly in keeping with the world that he has entered.
[00:52:36.4] TG: Yeah and I am thinking too again you brought up Titanic and that scene of them being down and dancing, that scene does that really well of he could say, it could have been a scene of exposition where he’s like, “You know you guys are up here and so stiff and we’re down there and we’re dancing all the time,” and instead you just watch them have this party. So I’m trying to think too, did you ever watch the show Office?
[00:53:10.2] SC: Yes.
[00:53:11.3] TG: The Office. My favorite — Candice and I are working our way back through the series and my favorite character is the old guy Creed. Because he says the most random stuff and so as you were talking about him being — and some of it is true and some of it is just weird and you don’t know, we just watched the episode where he’s like, “If I can’t scuba then what’s all these been about?” It’s like, “What?” So I was just thinking like maybe he spins her this story and then it turns on like half of it wasn’t true, you just isn’t sure which half.
[00:53:52.5] SC: Right, right. No that’s good. That’s good, you need a character like that. It’s a comic relief element and that’s a good thing to think through. Yeah, I love that.
[00:54:04.0] TG: All right, so the next thing I’m going to do is work on those two scenes and the third scene where 83 is basically punished and it comes out that she can leave whenever she wants, which gets her kicked out of the community again, is that the progression of the story?
[00:54:28.7] SC: I’m not sure what you mean by that. So 83 can leave whenever she wants?
[00:54:34.7] TG: No, no, no. So all of the numbered are stuck for their sentence, just like when they were in jail. The only one that with a word can leave is Jessie but they don’t know that. They think she’s got her 25 year senates but she knows the secret that she can leave whenever she wants and she’s the only one that knows that. And so that getting revealed will basically, to me, it would ex-communicate — I’m thinking if I was in jail, I’m thinking in a jail setting there’s this camaraderie about we’re all stuck here. But if all of a sudden it comes out that one guy is just in there for the hell of it, I don’t think that would turn out well for him.
[00:55:20.8] SC: No. No, that’s good.
[00:55:23.7] TG: So I was thinking we have to keep progressively complicating it and so we don’t want her to get too cozy with these numbered like, “Oh maybe I can actually,” — because to me, she still doesn’t want to go to the capital and so maybe as she gets warm and fuzzy with the numbered, she starts thinking, “I could live like this. This is more of a family than I had with my mom and dad.”
[00:55:52.0] SC: Oh then what you’re saying is then you have the guy at the very first scene come into the thing and reveal to all of these people, “Oh well, you know, she can leave whenever she wants.”
[00:56:04.5] TG: Yeah, I’m thinking in the midst of 83 being punished. I haven’t figured out what that will be yet. They come around Jessie and like, “It’s okay, it’s okay. You didn’t know what you were doing,” that kind of thing and the captain overhears that and he’s like, “Wait a second, you don’t know?” and they’re like, “What are you talking about?” and he’s like, “She can leave. In fact she’s not only can leave, she can go all the way up and be a part of the capital at the top one percent whenever she wants,” and that is what will sever her from her new family of the numbered.
[00:56:40.9] SC: Yes.
[00:56:41.6] TG: Okay.
[00:56:42.5] SC: Yeah, I think that works.
[00:56:44.0] TG: And that will push her into her last ditch effort to get her friends to help her get this thing out of her head, which will then put her into the space where she finally calls it and then goes. Because to me, right now she could be happy with the numbered but then she gets kicked out of there. So her only choice now is to escape, for real this time and the only way to do that is to get this thing out of her head. And so she works with her friends to try to make that happen and that backfires and at that point, she has nothing else but she’s got to give up. Because she can’t go back to the numbered, she can’t go back home and if she tries to go back to her friends, they’re going to get destroyed as well. So she literary has no other choice but to go to the capital.
[00:57:36.7] SC: Yeah, I think it works.
[00:57:38.6] TG: Okay. Well now I’ve just got to write it.
[00:57:45.2] SC: Ah details.
[00:57:46.3] TG: Yeah, so that kind of progression, do you think that works?
[00:57:51.9] SC: I do. I think it’s a good game plan, whether or not it reads well.
[00:57:56.9] TG: It plays out.
[00:57:57.3] SC: Yeah but I think it will work. I mean, I’ve got to tell you I like the fact that the friends from the past are going to show up and they’re going to try and get the thing out of her head. That’s kind of cool and then they’re going to be caught in some fashion. Maybe they do get it out of her head? I’m not really sure how are you going to pull that off but I like — because the thing with the thing in the head is that it’s going to be fascinating to our reader and deep inside, they’re going to say, “I wonder how that thing works?” You know?
So if you can write about how the thing actually works by having some sort of operation that explains the mechanism and how, you know, you don’t have to get supper detailed but the reader wants to know is it directly fed into the cerebral cortex of somebody’s head? Is it in the spinal cord? How does it work? How do you get the wiring out? That kind of thing. That would be cool to be able to use as a means to have this last ditch effort to get away.
[00:59:12.5] TG: Yeah because I’ve always thought of like, she was part of this kind of underground hacker movement that thought they were fighting the man when really they were not even itching him that much. But that was kind of what they saw is, “We’re out here fighting the faction,” and so they would know how to try to get the thing out.
[00:59:37.5] SC: Right.
[00:59:38.4] TG: Okay, now I keep not thinking about the middle build and ending payoff of the book, and I mean is that — I have no idea.
[00:59:49.7] SC: Well, you know the middle build and the ending payoff already, right?
[00:59:53.3] TG: Yeah, well I mean I know it in the way that I knew with the beginning hook was going to be, which is completely different than what it ended up being. I guess I feel like I’ve been focusing so much on this beginning hook that I am on this path but I don’t even know if it’s going the direction I need to go. You know, if we keep using the map metaphor of like, “Okay, I’m in New York and I am going to California.”
[01:00:17.7] SC: Right.
[01:00:18.1] TG: I don’t even know, am I heading west?
[01:00:21.8] SC: You’re definitely heading west.
[01:00:24.0] TG: Okay.
[01:00:24.2] SC: What you’re doing is you’re having the anxiety of the plotter and that’s okay. But you also have to remember that you need to enjoy the process too. So having some mystery about how you’re going to get to California and saying, “Okay, I know I’m going west but you know what? Instead of going on Route 80, I’m going to take this side road. It’s still going west, it’s going to meander a little bit, but it might be interesting to do that.”
So you’re giving yourself the freedom to do that by going through the process that we’re doing now. When we tried prior to just map the whole thing out and have you write the whole thing, it didn’t work. So we need to try something else and so that’s why we’re meticulously building this thing out of spare parts right now and we’re going to get, you know, it’s going to get — the ending payoff is she comes to a realization that she’s going to sacrifice something to help other people and she does that.
And she ends up losing something but gaining something in the end too. So it’s a dramatically ironic winning. She wins her maturation but she loses something too and the loss will be an external loss because the inciting incident of the entire story was positive. So anyway, I don’t want to get…
[01:01:57.0] TG: Just like Katniss lost the thing that mattered most to her to save everybody else when she lost her sister.
[01:02:06.9] SC: Right.
[01:02:07.2] TG: So we know we are going to a point where she has to give up this dream of her family because she’s got to save everybody else.
[01:02:15.6] SC: Right.
[01:02:17.2] TG: Right.
[01:02:20.4] SC: You’ll get there.
[01:02:21.0] TG: All right, yep.
[01:02:21.3] SC: Yeah, don’t freak out about it.
[01:02:23.1] TG: Okay. All right, well I’ll get going on those and we’ll go over those next.
[01:02:29.5] SC: Okay.
[END OF EPISODE]
[01:02:30.1] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. I know last week, we talked about the workshop that we’re doing this coming February. If you are still interested in that and have not put your name in the hat for that yet, you can see that at storygrid.com/workshop. The application is still up there. We actually have just clicked over 35 people filled it out but we’re wanting to make sure that the right people show up. So if this is something you’re interested in, make sure you do that pretty soon.
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