Holding the Center

In this week’s episode of The Story Grid Podcast, Tim and I go through his revised outline for his middle build in detail.  As you’ll recall, we’ve had some setbacks over the past few weeks which led to a segue into a review of setting and the necessity of the writer being crystal clear with his fictional world.

As I suspected, Tim’s working on his ‘world’ led him to a clear path through his middle build.  He put together a series of sequences and scenes that will logically take him from point B to point C.  Are they perfect?  No.  But they will definitely work.  They’ll get him to move back into crafting scenes with a clear understanding of the road forward.

To listen click the play button 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 start actually figuring out what the middle build is going to be. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on this, researching how middles builds are built going over the hero’s journey again, and actually started putting together some scenes and sequences to build out what this is going to be and so Shawn and I dive into that and we go over it in detail. And I think it’s going to be really helpful for you because the middle build is often — it’s the longest part of the book, it’s hard to figure out exactly how to build it in a way that’s not too fast or not too slow that introduces the right characters and the right timing. We all are going to have to deal with our own middle build so I think it’s going to be something you really enjoy.


Let’s jump in and get started.




[0:01:12.1] TG: So Shawn I’ve been working on this scene list since last week and just for putting together what was probably 500 words that I actually sent you, probably not even that much, it’s just trying to figure out how these things should stack up has been really hard. So I sent it to you and I’ll put in the show notes. But a couple of things; one is, I have these really kind — of every sequence is three scenes, which seem a little too normal.


Then on a different note — or kind of similar I guess — I cannot decide what the digital world should look like? So when they plug in and they’re going through this different — because you sent me an email this week saying basically, “We need to make sure that Jessie goes through kind of three trials…


[0:02:07.1] SC: Yes.


[0:02:08.0] TG: …as she levels up.” I was working those into my scene list as well. When I’m trying to picture what those are actually going to be, I’ve written a couple of scenes that didn’t work for other reasons but I didn’t even know if they worked as far as like the digital world made sense. Am I just basically ripping off The Matrix?


Yeah, the only reason I sent them to you this morning is it was like time to send you something because I’m not thrilled with where they’re at even though I’ve tinkered with them for the last week. So that’s where I’m at with it. Not sure what you thought when you kind of worked through it?


[0:02:48.9] SC: I just went through them this morning very quickly, and my initial reaction was “this is a good, solid starting point”. The question about your not knowing exactly what the virtual game world is going to look like, or what the rules of that world are, that’s something that you kind of have to do a deep kind of mind dive in and say to yourself, “All right, what are the worlds that I’m very familiar with and prior works of story?


So The Matrix is definitely one and so The Matrix is sort of, the reality of their world is being on this very strange space ship and its darkness and the way they jack in is similar to the way that your characters are going to jack in. They literally have to plug their cerebral cortex into this world in order to live inside of it.


The world inside of The Matrix is just your everyday normal, beautiful world that only Keanu Reeves can bend to his will. The only way out is through the telephone call. So, that’s a good thing to think about, “All right, well, that’s pretty cool.” The other world that comes to mind for me is Ender’s Game, which was much more — I didn’t see the movie, so I read the novel. Orson Scott Card wrote it and it’s a really terrific novel.


[0:04:24.0] TG: Yeah, I’ve read it.


[0:04:27.5] SC: So for me, that world was very interesting too because he had defined a three-dimensional kind of cage of sorts where all of this practice happens where the kids sort of are able to manipulate themselves so that they get in these fights and they have to figure out a way past this goal and it had a three-dimensional — like a three-dimensional chess games, that’s what it pictured to me. Only the players and the pieces of the chess board were actual people in a non-gravity weightless sort of area. So to think about what’s been done before is an interesting idea.


One of the things that are a good way to solve a world problem is to think of one major element that you could switch around or play with that changes everything. For example, in The Matrix, it’s the pill. Once he takes the pill it goes to the real world, he gets out of that primordial goo and he’s on the ship. So the pill changes his consciousness. One of the things that come to mind just off the top of my head now is the speed of thought. What could be interesting is to think about what if the game world required very focused neural energy?


And what I mean by that is that the people who played the game the best way are those who can almost reach a zen-like place in their mind where all of the internal chatter filters away and their movements are done through thinking. So when one of the players thinks, “I’ll move to the left three places,” they’re automatically there. If you thought of this world being such that the internal mind, it’s almost as if when you jack into this world, you operate almost in the interior landscape of your mind. Your thoughts become the reality that you see. It’s like a dream world for the people who enter this virtual reality.


So the people who are the most successful inside this virtual reality are those who are capable of slowing down their panic and slowing down their internal thought processes. Jessie is very, very good at it, and I bring this up and I’m not saying that you need to use that or play with that and you’re welcome to it if you like it. But the reason I’m saying that is one of the solutions to finding something unique and innovative in a world is to riff on the expectations in the audience.


The audience, when they come to your novel and they’re thinking of this virtual game world where these players go inside and do battle, they’re going to think of video games, they’re going to think of — I’m not a video game guy, so I’ve never really even played any of them. Whatever that landscape is where people go to play video games, that’s going to be their first thought. This is just like — name some game. I don’t even know any of the games.


[0:08:00.2] TG: Call of Duty.


[0:08:01.7] SC: Yeah, Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, or whatever. So, the trick is to play with that idea but gives them one thing that they’re not expecting so that the trick of the game is thematic too. When I say “the trick of the game is thematic”, I’m saying that whatever thing, if it’s the — let’s just go with, at the game level, all action operates at the speed of thought. So if you think the speed of light is fast, the speed of thought is even faster.


Only those people who can filter out all of the boloney in their head are capable of being present in the world. So when you go into this world, there is all this noise and the noise is coming from other people who are in the world too who can’t control themselves. Think about like crazy monkeys chattering around in a cage and the only way for you not to become like that chattering monkey is to have sort of a zen-like sensibility.


Part of the training that Jessie goes under is almost a Buddhist kind of training, which was one of the great things. I know this is kind of off topic, but there was this great TV show in the 1970’s and it was about this Buddhist monk, what was it called again? Kung Fu. It’s called Kung Fu. This Buddhist monk from china or Tibet comes to the United States in the old west and he gets in all of this problems and all these situations.


Because he’s a Buddhist monk, he’s able to slow down his thoughts while everybody else panics. So he uses all of the martial arts to beat people up and save the day because he has this special skill of being able to slow down his thoughts. That’s kind of an interesting idea because that’s usually the way game players or anybody who plays a sport, when they reach that level, it’s called like the flow level.


Psychologists have written about this flow thing before. It’s when you are almost connected, you’re plugged into this metaphysical state and you know, if you pull up for that three point shot and you just setup right, you’re going to make the shot. That would be kind of interesting, because video game players, when they hit that place, they know before they see the bad guy on the screen where he’s going to be in. They immediately shoot the bad guy before he even appears.


That could be kind of interesting where you think about okay, it’s this black sort of space and when people jack into it, the trick is to not get disoriented. That’s really where they find the best players. Those who can go into this black nothingness and not freak out. Jessie, of course, is a natural and it’s only when self-doubt and internal thoughts inside the brain of the player start to come in that they fall apart in the game.


That could be kind of cool because just to get back to what I was saying about the thing should be thematic, one of the themes of the thriller and the maturation plot is when your protagonist waddles away all of the unimportant things in their life and comes to some central revelatory moment. What’s required of them is to focus their energies and to really understand the problems that they’re facing and how they’re going to solve them.


I know I’ve probably have gone on too long about trying to help you with your world, but I do think, once you figure out that neat thing and it might not be players operated speed of thought, although that’s kind of cool. I don’t know if there’s any other game or story world where that is the thing. It’s possible that there could be. I’m not all that well read in the arena. But that’s something to think about, and I like the idea of — it’s like that moment in The Matrix when they have to think up all those guns, you know?


[0:12:36.1] SC: Yeah. They go into that warehouse and they’re like, “It’s just white space,” and he’s like, “Think about guns,” and then all those guns show up and they’re like, “Oh, okay.” So that’s one thing. All right, let’s get back to your middle build scenes, I’ll just leave it at that for that.


[0:12:54.5] TG: Okay.


[0:12:55.5] SC: Remember, now first of all, what I do like is you started this out very well in that you’ve brought down the temperature and you’re introducing the magical world to the reader from the very start of the middle build. The first scene that you talk about is a character named Az who shows Jessie around the facilities.


So Az, I guess, is a sort of like the mentor or the gatekeeper who is going to walk Jessie into the facility and say, “Okay, breakfast is at five AM and it’s this and that.” That’s a really good start because now the reader’s going to go, “Oh, this is the great part. This is when she’s going to get her training.”


[0:13:37.2] TG: Yeah, so Az is going to be her enemy. He’s another trainee and so he’s the one that’s going to be showing her around. That was the plan.


[0:13:48.1] SC: That’s good.


[0:13:49.7] TG: I wanted to introduce to the real world a new world. So the new world, but the real part of that and then the second scene will be inside of the grid so we get to see that as part of the introduction to the new world.


[0:14:06.1] SC: That’s good. The other thing that you had to think about when you’re mapping out these scenes is you’ve got a good solid 21 scenes here, whatever they are. When I mean solid, I mean they are rational, logical progressively complicated movements. Now that you have that, you have to start thinking about, “Okay, Az shows Jessie around the facilities. How can I set that up so that I can pay it off interestingly later on? So I know Az is going to be one of Jessie’s competitors. If I do that scene, Az is pretty smart and he’s going to make Jessie believe that he’s her friend, right? Because he’s going to want to have some ammunition to mess her up when the time comes.”


So you have to think about very Machiavellian figures who are going to be her rivals. How they will try and manipulate her and the reader to believe that they are on the protagonists’ side. So, that first scene you do, I would not give away that Az is competitive.


[0:15:23.0] TG: My plan was to set it up where he’s seen as somebody that’s helpful.


[0:15:29.5] SC: Right.


[0:15:31.2] TG: Then because Jessie buddy’s up to him, her new partners don’t like her and don’t trust her because they don’t like him because he’s the bad guy.


[0:15:42.4] SC: That’s great, because that’s exactly what mirrored that story you told me last week about when you had that job and the CEO walked you around and everybody hated you. Using that for this scene is a great idea. Remember, set something up where Az says something like, “Whatever you do, don’t use the purple button,” or whatever it is. So that Jessie thinks that he’s giving her a really good tip and then, later on, she uses it or does something and she gets in trouble or something. I don’t know.You know what I mean about setting up so you can pay off later. Yeah, okay.


[0:16:22.3] TG: Let me just walk you through them then. That was the idea. The first three are going to — the first sequence is going to be her basically being introduced to all the characters in the world. I’ve been thinking through again the fact, you know, we talked about the fact that she’s coming in late and I’ve thought about even making it where she came on an irregular year.


So all the kids are a year older than her and everybody’s wondering why she was recruited when she was because she was the only new one to be brought in because it was an on and off year, because it is the year of the threshing and people don’t have time to prepare.
So everybody else has a lot more experience and they’re older and they bring her in. That was kind of how I was thinking that since Az is kind of the bad guy and he’s always looking for an angle, he is wanting to buddy up to this girl because he’s wondering why she’s there.


[0:17:19.0] SC: Great.


[0:17:19.5] TG: Because she must be special if they brought her in so irregularly. Then, I was thinking through, like instead of making it where every person’s kind of on their own — and this is the part I also haven’t completely worked out. But I thought about having it be teams of people where there’s somebody who is actually logged into the world or to the training simulator or whatever, and then they have a support staff basically. They have two support people that are doing things for them and giving them what they need to succeed in that world or in that training, or whatever.


[0:17:55.2] SC: Great idea.


[0:17:58.0] TG: So what I was thinking was she gets paired up with Ernst and Alex, these two guys because they just lost their lead person that got scrambled out of the program. They get paired up with this girl that’s younger and has no experience, they’re just kind of forlorn and they think she’s buddies with the bad guy. So, I wanted to create some tension there between what will become her allies.


[0:18:25.4] SC: Great.


[0:18:26.8] TG: Then, thinking through the three tests and when I went back and looked over my story grid of Harry Potter, there were tests in there too, their first big test was the sorting with the sorting hat and then there is one where the troll got loose. So anyway, I was thinking through what that would look like here and so I was thinking, okay, they have all these teams but only three teams are actually allowed to be sent to the threshing so they have to start whittling down the teams.


They start putting them through these — I just called it the severings, where they’re basically cutting out teams to get it down to the best three. So this is where there can be three tests that they have to go through in order for her to come out on top. The next sequence is her basically getting thrown into one, they only have 24 hours to prepare, Ernst and Alex are assuming they’re all going to lose because they have no time to prepare and they’re trying to come up with preparation but they don’t have anything. When they log in, it’s all lost because they’re not ready.


Then, Jessie’s able to pull something off and they win. I was thinking, here is where she will, on purpose, embarrass Az in some way so that Jessie, Alex and Ernst bond over this first severing. So then it’s clearly established by this point that their friends and Az is the enemy. So that will be a climactic moment, I wanted to come down and do some establishing of what’s going on, there’s a scene where they celebrate and they all love each other and this is so great and she finds out why they hated Az and all of those and then they move into training.


This is where Jessie meets somebody who knows her but it’s implied that he knows her and doesn’t think she should be there. So he’s really hard on her but she doesn’t understand why and then there is a point where Jessie and Az, their attention comes to a head and they decide to sneak out at night and go back in and go through the same drill again to see who will win because Az thinks he can beat her. But really, he’s just setting her up to be caught doing something she’s not supposed to do.


This is where I want to establish the payoff that’s coming in the next sequence where she logs in, he’s not there and then she ends up into this kind of anomalous space where she can’t find her way back out. We established in the beginning hook of the story that if you just get logged out, like if you just get unplugged, you go crazy. So she’s stuck in this world and this weird stuff is happening but she doesn’t know why. Then Ernst and Alex show up and rescue her and then as they log off, they’re caught by the drill sergeants. But instead of being in trouble, they’re kind of freaking out of what was going on in the system while she was in there because they don’t know what’s going on either.


So then the next sequence, we’re entering the second test, we’re coming up on scenes 13 through 15. So this is going to be the middle point of the middle build which is when she has to switch over from not caring about only caring about herself to caring about other people and something major has to happen for her to make that switch. So the next severing is announced, they begin preparation, Jessie logs in, they start fighting but then she drops in that same anomalous place from the previous sequence and lo and behold her brother meets her there.


That’s where her brother explains what’s really going on that he’s the one that created the anomaly because he’s trying to secretly talk to her, he’s the one that had her brought in and he gives her a job to do so that in the next severing he can take control of the faction. But what she has to do is actually hack the mainframe. I’ve not figured what that’s going to be yet, but in the real world, not in the grid world.


Then the next scene, the severing’s over, he had made it where they passed, her brother had made it where he passed, she tells her friends what she’s got to do, they agree to help her and then they go into the hacking of the mainframe and they’re almost caught by Az but he doesn’t know what’s actually going on. Then the final sequence I mapped out here, which is — I didn’t get all the way through the middle build because at this point I didn’t know if I was so far off track. I hate when I’m like on a path…


[0:23:29.2] SC: Right.


[0:23:31.5] TG: …and I’m like, “I don’t want to keep walking down the wrong path.” So then the final severing, we decided this is going to be the third test and at the end of the third test is where she has to die and then come back to life. So I also want to establish in the sequence where she’s now kind of over her whole petulant, “I’m in this just so I can go home and go back to my life” and she’s actually willing to sacrifice herself.


So when she gets into this severing she goes to do the thing her brother asked her to do, Az had hijacked it because he figured out what they were doing and so she realizes if she does it, she’ll probably die and she goes and does it anyway and sure enough she dies. But when she died in the grid she didn’t actually die in real life. That establishes that part, which is important for later. That’s how far I got.


[0:24:23.6] SC: I think it needs some work but generally the movement is rational, reasonable and there is enough play in there for you to set things up and surprise the reader. Her brother — okay, so let me just take one step back and say this. There is a big elephant in this that has reared it’s ugly head and that is — maybe you know the answer to this. Who is the villain? Because remember, the middle build is all about the villain manipulating behind the scenes.


If your villain, your villain has to have some master plan and if the masterplan is to find the player who won’t die in the virtual world so that they can win the threshing or to eliminate that player so that another faction wins — I’m not saying that you haven’t figured this out but what I am saying is that you’ve built up a really strong mystery here and the mystery is, who is behind everything? What is going on here?


Before you answer the question, remember, what you want to do is start at levels of antagonism against your protagonist in small-ish ways and then progressively make them larger and larger and larger. You introduce the antagonism in the first scene with this Az guy. Az becomes a personal antagonist to Jessie. She needs to defeat Az in order to get to the next level of the game.


Whenever any of us face antagonism on a personal level, everything else almost fades in our brain. We get this sort of, “Oh my gosh, I got to win, I can’t let that guy beat me,” and so the monomaniacal pursuit of defeating the antagonist for Jessie is enough to sustain the narrative and especially since you have this action scenes inside the grid, I think what you’re going to do is you’re going to build up really strong narrative drive here. But when you do that — and that is really a great thing to be able to do — but when you do it, you have to deliver the payoff to that narrative drive in a way that is surprising and interesting and organic to the story.


So after you have Az, then you have to raise the stakes. Az is at sort of the same pleb level as Jessie. The next antagonist has to be her drill sergeant or this Craig character. That person has to seem to be — it’s like, is it Snape in Harry Potter where it seems like he is against Harry but he’s actually training him?


[0:27:27.2] TG: Right. So I think I’ve worked out some of this when I was doing the world document where I’m planning it all out.

[0:27:36.0] SC: Yeah.


[0:27:37.3] TG: Thinking through, like Harry Potter, early on in the book, it was Draco and then it shifted to Voldemort or the teacher that was basically being controlled by Voldemort. What I see this as, again, using a The Matrix like it was the villain was this machine that didn’t give a shit about the people except that they were the source of their energy. The machines were embodied by Agent Smith.


So what I see this at is like Az — she’s focused on Az until that middle point when she realizes there’s something more important to be fighting. In the “my world document” what I kind of laid out is that the faction then becomes the enemy. I didn’t put it all in there because I was just giving kind of a sketch of the scene but my thinking is, in that scene 15 when she meets her brother is when he basically convinces her the faction is the enemy and you have to help me destroy them.


[0:28:47.4] SC: Right.


[0:28:49.1] TG: That’s where I feel like the enemy will shift to the basically power structure of this world where she’s, up till now, just living in the power structure of the world and hoping that if she obeys the power structure, she’ll get what she wants, which is just to go back home. So her brother helps her think bigger than that and say, “If we tear down this entire power structure, you and me can go home and everybody else gets to go home too.”


That’s where she shifts from thinking about herself to thinking about a bigger picture and that’s where the villain will switch from Az driving it, who is kind of a pseudo villain like Draco Malfoy and it will switch to the true villain which is the power structure.


[0:29:36.1] SC: Yeah, that works.


[0:29:37.9] TG: That was the plan. Because I actually went back through that video that we talked about last week and made notes on it and was kind of thinking through each of those steps for my story and thinking like, “Okay, she does need to make that shift from basically selfishness to unselfishness and what’s going to trigger that?”


It’s still set up where her brother could end up being a bad guy, but for now, at this point in the story, he’s a good guy and he needs her help to accomplish this bigger good. So she can either say no to him and just stay low or she can rise to the challenge and help him defeat something that she didn’t care about before.


[0:30:30.6] SC: Yeah, I think it works. If you execute the scenes, it has an organic logic to it that will work. The other thing is that you haven’t thrown out any possibilities of the final twist for your ending payoff. Now, the ending payoff has to be the threshing event itself, right? So it’s almost like the football game performance at the end of the story.


[0:30:59.7] TG: I know you tell me not to focus too much on the number of scenes and all that kind of thing, but I was thinking, 30 scenes for the middles build, I hit the kind of point where she’s got to change at scene 15, she dies in scene 21 or between scenes 20 and 21, she dies and comes back. So then all breaks lose because they’re trying to figure out why she was able to pull that off, and then I basically had nine more scenes to get to the threshing.


Now, for the next nine scenes, two things are happening. One is the faction is getting her ready to enter the threshing and Az is going to enter the threshing as well because he made it to the end because at this point, all but three teams have been severed. So I have Jessie’s team, I have Az’s team, and then I have another team that I can kill off because they’re not important once we’re in the threshing.


Plus, on the back end, she and her brother are now planning what’s really going to happen during the threshing. During the threshing, normally these three teams from each of the factions come together to fight and whoever comes out on top gets the resources like I laid out in my world document. That’s going to happen but at the same time she and her brother are going to tear everything down. There will be a twist where it’s not just the threshing, the ending payoff will be basically a really clever way, I haven’t thought of yet of her and her brother ripping everything apart.


[0:32:44.2] SC: Okay, I have a suggestion about your final nine scenes in your middle build and that is to bring back 83? Are you still there?


[0:32:54.5] TG: Yeah, you should be ought to remember that. Yeah, I’m trying to remember. Yes.


[0:32:59.1] SC: It’s the woman from the numbered. After Jessie dies and comes back to life, you have to setup something where Jessie, “Hey look, the good news is that you’re alive, the bad news is that you only have six days to get ready for the threshing and your vitals are terrible and if you go into the grid, you’re going to die. So you have to regroup and retrain and you have six days to do it. It’s so important that you be in the threshing that we’ve brought back. The only player to do something in the threshing,” and it ends up being 83.


So 83 can come back and serve as sort of the Obi-Wan Kenobi for those last nine scenes. She’s going to be brutal to Jessie and teach her the ways of the force inside the big threshing game. You might be able to play with something like she somehow finds back to — you know, gets one more communication from her brother who says, “Don’t trust 83.” Then you setup this climactic thing where 83 seems to be helping her perfectly well, her brother says not to trust her, so who is she supposed to trust? Her brother or 83? Then bang, you go into the threshing and that question lies dormant underneath all of the action events.


[0:34:35.2] TG: At some point, she’s going to have to make a decision.


[0:34:37.8] SC: Exactly. It’s at that decision that she realizes something. So the revelatory moment is, “Oh my god, 83 is bad or my brother is bad,” or something. You’ve got to setup a triangle where she has to make a choice between an allegiance between her blood or somebody who isn’t her blood but has shown more kindness to her than anybody ever in her life. So she has to make a really, really crucial decision, “Do I trust somebody just because we share genes or do I trust somebody based upon their behavior?”


And the decision that she makes is the thing that will result in the big cataclysmic event at the end where I am generally, from talking to you before, it seems like the structures that are keeping this society barely hanging on, Jessie will be responsible for breaking them down and destroying them. Thus the end of the book will be far more chaotic than anybody ever imagined. Is that correct?


[0:35:51.0] TG: Yeah and I am thinking now, I’m going to want to go with the brother being the bad guy and it was all so that he could seize power and so the next two books are basically them both building their army to fight each other somehow, whatever that looks like.


[0:36:09.2] SC: Yeah, that’s now bad because it’s on theme, you know what I’m saying? The theme for Jessie, her want is to go back in time to a nice place where her family was all together. So she wants to go back to the Garden of Eden.


[0:36:26.3] TG: And that’s the promise that her brother is giving her, which is “if you do this, we’ll be able to get to do that”.


[0:36:32.6] SC: Right. But meanwhile, he hasn’t made any contacts and he must know that his family thinks he’s dead. So he needs to explain a lot of that stuff. I mean that’s a really nice scene that you can do that’s going to be tricky too because there’s going to be a lot of exposition in it. So the brother has to tell a story to Jessie, a really compelling story that will be convincing in a way.


Not to bring it back to Pride and Prejudice, but since I’ve been analyzing the hell out of that book recently, there’s this great moment where this guy named Wickham, who is this scoundrel but very charming comes to town and all the young ladies in town think he’s just so wonderful and he tells this story that seems very convincing about how Mr. Darcy has done him wrong. So all of the people believed Wickham because he has the manners and the gentle nature that are appealing to people. Whereas Darcy is kind of prideful and arrogant and doesn’t take any crap from anybody.


So everybody hates Darcy and loves Wickham. But the truth is that Wickham is a big fat lie. He’s very charming and he tells a great story, but he has no character. Whereas Darcy is grouchy and prideful and doesn’t really care what other people think of him. So everybody thinks he’s a jerk when in reality he’s really the most honest and truthful person in the entire novel.


So if you can set up that dichotomy where you have a character like Jessie’s brother who is very charming, who can tell a story, “Jessie I’ve been trying to reach you for I don’t know how long. So much so that I’ve created this anomaly in the game itself. I’ve been living off the reservation. I’ve been living in the wild. I was thrown out of the program and it’s only through a lot of hard work that I am able to come and speak to you now. But I need your help.”


So it’s almost as if he’s charming her to get her to do his bidding so that he can seize power. But we believe him because we’ve set him up as the victim at the beginning of the story, right? Because at the beginning of the story, we think, “Oh the poor brother, he’s a victim. That faction had destroyed him and he’s dead.” When he discovered he’s alive, he’s going to tell a damn good story that makes him seem even more of a victim and then when he turns out to be the villain, later on, it will be surprising, hopefully.


Now the great thing about the scene by scene work is that if you do the scenes very, very well and I know that we’ve read comments where before other people. Well yeah but a lot of people say, “Oh people are going to know that immediately that the brother is the villain if you do that.” Well that’s not really true. If you do the scenes extremely well, people will be enamored with the storytelling and will fall into the reality of the story and they’re not going to be thinking like, “Oh here comes the villain now and he’s going to be telling a lie.” They’re going to want to believe the brother.


So the way you have constructed this I think is really, really a good start. So what I think you should do is start writing these scenes and first of all, try and figure out the specialness of your world. Do some research, find out what other worlds are already out there that are lit RPG kind of universes and find something that’s unique and different and fun and give it one little twist. Something like, “People behave in this speed of thought.”


And then you can have, when Jessie is introduced to the game and they throw her into it, they go, “It’s going to seem kind of dark there, and they’re going to be a little confused. Just remember those who can control their thoughts will win the game, those who panic lose immediately.” So somebody gives a one trick and she thinks it’s easy for her, whereas it’s really hard for everybody else.


[0:40:53.3] TG: Well I have been thinking through — so we’ve talked a lot about trying to find other things that we could use as analogies. Like you are talking about the coal miners going off to work, or whatever and, you know I was thinking of this as if she’s on a team I was thinking of things like James Bond and he has Moneypenny and Q. I think it’s Q, is it a Q?


[0:41:20.6] SC: Yeah.


[0:41:21.3] TG: Anyway, the guy that does all the gadgets and so they are always providing him what he needs to stay safe. So he’s the only one actually going into danger but he would not survive without them. So I was thinking about that as like one model for these kinds of close-knit teams where Earnest and Alex had particular jobs that they do to make sure that they give Jessie the tools she needs to survive.


So I’ve been thinking I want this to be something around if you think about hackers, years ago I was talking to a boss of mine about what hacking is and he’s like, “Hacking is anytime you are using a system other than what it was intended for,” and he said, “You know, when you call any company and they give you a list of options,” and you’re like, “Oh this is bullshit. I’m just going to hit zero and see if I can talk to somebody,” and you hit zero and sure enough you get somebody on the phone even though they didn’t say that was an option. That’s not what they want you to do. He’s like, “You’re hacking the phone system.” He’s like, “Now of course, you know there’s other deeper more complex versions but by and large, you’re doing something with the system that it wasn’t built to do.”


I thought, “Well that was interesting,” and that’s what I was trying to establish in those couple of scenes I wrote where Jessie went off the reservation. So everybody is trying to win the training the right way and she does something completely outside of what anybody thought or would even think of doing to win. And it’s dirty and messy and it’s clumsy but yet she wins because she does something that’s different from everybody else. So they say, “Here are the rules of the game, do it this way,” and she just goes off and does her own thing.


So I like those two things but when I try to think through how to put that into action into this kind of a thing, I start losing the thread of what that would look like. Is it as simple as what I wrote, which is basically we load up a training simulator and they step into it? If you go back and read that first one with the houses and her jumping between houses and all of that, does that work or is that just too — I just keep struggling with like, “Am I just making it in the real world and that’s kind of boring?”


[0:43:54.7] SC: I think what would be cool is — okay, I’m going to say something weird now. Years and years ago.


[0:44:05.3] TG: I love that preface.


[0:44:06.2] SC: Yeah and this isn’t that weird, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. But years and years ago, I met somebody who was in a program that was run by the defense intelligence agency and it was called “remote viewing program” and what remote viewing was and is and a lot of people still believe in it, is believing that people can have out of body experience. And so I worked with this guy on this book and it was called Psychic Warrior and it was all about how he was in the Army. He was an Army Ranger and he was recruited for this special division that was somewhere in Langley, Virginia and they trained him to be a remote viewer.


Because when he was training or something, he got a concussion and he blacked out and they were monitoring him and they thought he would be a good remote viewer and he turned out to be a really great one and the way it would work is they would give him just coordinates on a map like longitude and latitude and he would be under some sort of trans and they would give him these coordinates and he would end up being able to travel there in his mind and then they would interview him about what he was seeing in his mind.


So anyway, what was interesting to me about that that you could use is you could have like a game master and the game master, all of the units go file into the training room or whatever and the game master would say, “Okay here is today’s game”. He would set up a simulation and he could talk about, or she could talk about, “Okay, as you all know, we are preparing for the threshing. The threshing requires three major skills and we’re going to do three sessions that are dedicated to each of these skills.


The first session, you will jack into a traditional family house and your mission is to do something in the house.” So you could set up different scenarios in this fictional grid world. Where the players had to go there and do a particular mission and then once they’re out then they could debrief and the game master could explain, “Okay, you did this wrong. You did that wrong. When you’re in the threshing, you all know what the threshing is, right? Okay, so the way the threshing works is that there’s a big line down the middle of a black box.”


And you’ve got to come up with the rules of the threshing so that by the time the threshing actually happens, the reader is going to have a lot of information about the rules of the game. So it’s almost if you take somebody from, say France comes the United States and they want to do something American. So you decide to take them to a football game. Before you go to the football game, you’re going to sit down with them and say, “Okay here’s the way football works. There is a football.”


[0:47:21.7] TG: Okay.


[0:47:22.3] SC: Right? So you’re going to need to do that for your reader and this is the middle build and this is the place to do it and it’s to inject this information, this exposition into active sequences of action events.


[0:47:38.8] TG: Yeah, I like the idea of coming up with the three skills you need to win the threshing and those are what each of the three tests are about.


[0:47:47.3] SC: Right, and then those skills, Az can be — like in baseball, they have the five skills in baseball. There’s hitting for average, there’s hitting for power, there’s speed velocity of throwing, there’s glove work and there’s speed running on the bases. So they call it the five skills of baseball and they evaluate players based upon how good their five skills are.


So you could take a note from that and say, “Okay, it’s a three skilled game in the threshing. It sounds simple but those three skills are this: you’ve got to be able to think quickly, that’s number one. The second one is you’ve got to be able to lose your ability to depend on gravity. You can’t get motion sickness and the third one is I don’t know.” So that way, we can see how certain players have certain skills but they don’t have the whole package.


[0:48:50.1] TG: Well I feel like that gives me something to work on because I have been just kind of lost with what each of these things should be. So that makes a lot of sense to have like, “Okay, what are they going to need in the threshing? They need these three things. Okay, the first one is testing the first one so then I just have to,” — then coming up with something to test that particular skill is it narrows down instead of like, “I can do anything” it’s like, “I just need to come up with something interesting and thriller-ish to test this one thing.


[0:49:25.6] SC: Yeah, that’s the way it is in all sports is that everybody says, “Oh well when I was kid there wasn’t any worry about football and concussions.” So everybody was like, “Oh I play football and you would watch it on TV,” and you go, “Oh I know how to play football. I watch it on TV.” No, no, no, you don’t know how to play football.


When you play football, you go and a coach says to you, “Okay, the first skill we’re going to test is how tough you are. So everybody is going to line up and we’re going to put these two bags down. We’re going to have one guy on one side of the line, one guy on the other side of the line and your job is to knock the guy on his butt. Go!” And they blow a whistle and you have to literary fight another guy inside of boundary. That’s the first test, how tough are you? It doesn’t mean that you have to win each battle but you have to show that you’ll get up after each battle.


So that’s how they see who can be a football player and who just wants to be a football player and then the next skill they teach you is how quickly can you run backwards, if you play defense and so there are all these skill sets. The same thing in basketball, the same thing in tennis, the same thing in hockey. They test each of the players to see the potential before they figure out where they’re going to put them on the playing field. So use that concept here.


The great thing is that all of your people, they’re plebs, right? “These guys don’t know how to train. They don’t know what the threshing is. Yeah, they know what the threshing is but they don’t know how to play in the threshing.” So you have to have a very central strong figure to explain. A professor, a coach, somebody that says, “This is how the game is won. Let me show you. You need three skills.”


[0:51:13.3] TG: I could probably just use, go back to that hacker, it’s like what are the skills a hacker needs and basically use that as an analogy for what I’m doing here.


[0:51:23.7] SC: Yes.


[0:51:24.0] TG: Because the whole thing is that this is — if I go back to my plan, there is this grid that’s used to keep everybody docile and working and when people show up that aren’t easily controlled by the grid, one of two things happened. They either get sent to the numbered or they get recruited to fight in the next threshing. So by definition, they’re doing something inside this grid that they’re not supposed to do. That’s how they get identified. And so the threshing is the ultimate are you able to manipulate the grid?


[0:52:06.3] SC: Those are the fun chapters to write. Because in your mind, you are thinking about, “Okay, I’ve got 40 plebs sitting in front of a guy who’s telling them what they’re going to have to do and the next thing is that they’re going to have to go into a room and do what this guy say. What is this guy going to ask them to do? You have to make it interesting so it’s not only a mental challenge but it’s a physical one too. So maybe one of the elements of your two helpers maybe one guy is in control of the actual vital signs of the player in the game, so they have to monitor the player.


[0:52:48.9] TG: Oh maybe he’s putting adrenaline into her but keep making sure she doesn’t die in the process.


[0:52:55.5] SC: Exactly, like taking her heartbeat — yeah, and so she might come out of some event and say, “I was just ready to win that thing and all of a sudden, I lost all my energy. What’s going on?” He’s like, “Well your heart rate was really high and if you continued on at that rate, you might have died.” So Jessie is sort of the one who’s like, “Look, I can control myself. I am going full throttle. Don’t pull back on my stuff.” So there could be tension there.


[0:53:30.3] TG: I’m getting all excited now.


[0:53:32.5] SC: Yeah. So each one of these events, these three things are just going to be progressively more cool and then the third one…


[0:53:39.9] TG: Well to me, they’re progressively harder on her physically too. So it takes her longer to recover until the one where she finally just dies.


[0:53:48.5] SC: Yes, and then when she comes back, it’s like that moment when Rocky — there’s no way he’s getting up off of that canvass, you know? And of course he does, but when Apollo Creed knocks him senseless and he’s on the canvass we’re like, “Get up Rocky, get up!” So that’s where you want to get and then she has to enter the threshing hurt. She’s got to play hurt.


[0:54:19.4] TG: Oh it’s like the Gladiator.


[0:54:20.8] SC: Yeah and it’s her brain that wins the game, that blows everything up and the pivotal moment is when she makes the decision on who to trust, 83 or her brother? Anyway, this great. I think you are making a ton of progress here, Tim, and all of these scenes that you worry about, “I only have 21 scenes,” all of this training stuff you’re going to write in a fury of words because you’re just going to picture it in your head and you’re going to bang it out.


[0:54:54.9] TG: So the general path I’ve laid out in these sequences I sent you, that makes sense then?


[0:55:02.0] SC: Yeah.


[0:55:02.9] TG: Okay.y Yeah I was thinking, so one of the interesting things in the story of Genesis in the Bible with Adam and Eve is when God says, “If you eat that you’ll die,” and the snake says, “If you eat that, you won’t die.” So then they eat it and they don’t die, but they do. So they were both right.


[0:55:29.2] SC: A pretty good story, right?


[0:55:31.4] TG: So I was thinking that here of like, “He’s going to convince her that if she tears it down with him, she’ll get everything that she wants and it will make everything better and so they win, but they don’t win. That’s how I feel like it needs to end is that they win but they don’t win.


[0:55:51.3] SC: Yeah, of course. That’s called an ironic ending and the only way to have a sequel is to have an ironic ending, right? Because if it is definitively all the questions of the story has been answered by the end then everybody is like, “Oh that’s nice, the end. Goodbye. I’m done, I don’t want to read it anymore.” But if you end it ironically where somebody wins for losing or loses for winning, then people will want to follow those characters and then new adventure.


[0:56:20.6] TG: All right, well I’ll start writing.


[0:56:22.9] SC: Great.




[0:56:23.5] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.


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The Book

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Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.