#242 – How to Use Active Beats to Generate Words?


[00:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. My name Tim Grahl, and I am a writer and I am writer and the behind-the-scenes guy here at Story Grid. This podcast episode is hosted by Story Grid certified editor, Kimberly Kessler alongside Shawn Coyne, the founder of Story Grid, and an editor with over 30 years’ experience.

In this episode, Kim and Shawn start their discussion on the three types of beats by looking specifically at active beats and how they are used in your writing. Before we jump in, I want to mention two things you might be interested in. First, I recommend you pick up a copy of the Story Grid Masterwork Guide to the Hobbit by Shawn Coyne. In this guide, Shawn examines Bilbo’s transformation and Tolkien’s craft through the powerful heroic journey 2.0 lens, revealing how stories help us survive, thrive and find meaning individually, and as a species. You can get 20% off The Master work Guide to the Hobbit, and all of our books at storygrid.com/books, with the coupon code podcast.

Lastly, if you are fascinated by Story Grid and are interested in joining the elite team of story grid certified editors, our next training is coming up this February. One of the many benefits of this program is unlimited free access to all future story grid trainings and products. You can see all of the details at storygrid.com/certification. Okay, that’s all on the announcements. So, let me turn it over to Kim and Shawn.


[00:01:36] KK: It’s really what prompted me wanting to have this discussion with you. And also, what I found so personally useful about the Trinity seminar was because when you really started to unpack this top down, bottom up thing, and that the editor brain being sort of this top down thing and the writer brain being – writers are bottom up, right? They start with these pieces in there, they’re building towards something, and my brain, because I automatically like, jump to the top again, and then come back down, and then jump back to the top and come back down. It’s really hard for me to write words on the page, because I’m like, “Well, they could be any words, I don’t know.”

Once I have the global story, then it’s almost like I have to translate it into prose, right? I’m like, “Okay, what words?” So, when we really dug into the bottom up stuff, and we were there to really learn this, like beat stuff, right? Like this beat by beat, on the surface stimulus response, it feels like micro beats, like these moments, just these little moments of stimulus and response. But they had a specific reason why you choose those specific beats, and you lay them out in this specific way. I was like, “Oh, my God, if I could use that, then I think I could write sentences again.”

Anyway, it’s so fascinating to me. And I was like, there might actually be a solution for my problem, which is I can outline all day. I have all of these global stories that I’m like, “These are really good. These are really good.” But I literally can’t write words, you know what I mean? I can’t go line by line. It’s so painful, because I don’t know how to make any of those decisions. So anyway.

[00:03:12] SC: What’s fascinating is that what you just described is what the avatars in a story go through too. So, let me just try and get it back to bottom up. What is the very bottom of a scene? Where do you start? What we recommend and what we’re doing now in the guild so we have the Story Grid Guild, which are a collection of couple 100 people who work together on stuff every month and it’s pretty cool.

But what we’re running now in an experiment with Danielle Kowalski, who is one of our storyboard certified editors, she’s leading five guild members through this protocol, if you will. It’s sort of like the beat protocol to build a scene that will work, right? A scene that has a lot of meat to it. What we’re doing in this experiment is we’re starting with a masterwork scene. So, the first thing we want to do is we want to get rid of as many choices for the writer as possible when they’re working on a skill.

So, when you’re working to be a better basketball player, you’re not thinking about taking the shot in the fourth quarter, the three pointer or from 36 feet, right? No, you’re like, “I got to learn how to dribble and make my layups.” So, you spend hour after hour after hour doing the layups. And the layups, you don’t become attached to your performance in layup, you just keep practicing the form. If you’re going to miss a few, you’re going to make a few and then eventually you’re going to increase you’re making from the missing. You’re always going to expect a performance error every now and then, you’re going to miss a layup every now and then. But the more you practice it, the more the probability is that you’re going to make more layups.

Once you have the skill of being able to make the lap You stop worrying about it, right? So, you’re not attached to the fact that you missed a layup seven years ago. It’s like, “It was just a performance error.” So, this is what we’re trying to do in terms of learning how to write a scene. We want writers to detach emotionally from the things that they’ve written. The way we do that is we take a masterwork scene. I believe the same Danielle is working with is from the Wizard of – the Ursula Le Guin.

[00:05:27] KK: Oh, yes.

[00:05:28] SC: Yeah, it’s a great scene and the title of it, The Wizard of Earthsea, is that it?

[00:05:33] KK: Yes, that is it.

[00:05:34] SC: So, it’s this amazing scene and it goes all the way to damnation. It’s a single unit, it’s maybe thousand words, 1,200 words, and you say to yourself, “How did she do that? How did she take that value from life to damnation in one scene?” So, what Danielle did, she broke it down using this new technology that we’ve created, which breaks it down into what we call beats, tropes. And then we build out the five commandments from beats and tropes.

Now, don’t worry about the word trope. Trope is just the equivalent of like, an obligatory moment in a larger form, right? So, a trope would be something like the rival threatens, insults the upstart. Something like that. That would be a trope that would consist of one to three beats. 

[00:06:23] KK: Okay, yes.

[00:06:25] SC: All right. So, what about these beats? Where does the rubber meet the road? All of these tropes and everything are just a little bit confusing. Well, in my estimation, the way the rubber meets the road is the first skill that you need to really perfect as a scene writer is the active beat.

Alright, so an active beat is pretty simple. What you have is stimulus that crosses a channel, and invades sort of the circle of an avatar protagonist, and then the avatar protagonist response. So, stimulus response. That way, you’re only putting objective active things on the page, instead of relying upon the audience to intuit what might be going on in the information processing system inside of that circle.

So, there’s only really two things that we can purely evaluate in a story is the objective stimulus and the objective response of the avatar protagonist of a particular scene. I highly recommend sort of just starting to look out for when you’re reading terrific stories. Where’s the stimulus? Oh, it’s coming from where? Where’s it coming from? And who’s responding? Oh, this person is responding. And how are they responding to that stimulus?

Well, you can do this very generically, right? You could say to yourself, is the stimulus – who’s it coming from? Alright, let’s say, Shawn and Kim, are having lunch in a high school cafeteria. I’m just skimming off the top of my head. So, bear with me here. So, Shawn, sitting alone at a cafeteria table, and Kim comes over and she has a tray full of food. Kim says to Shawn, “Is this seat taken?” Okay. Bang, bang, ding, ding, ding, there’s some stimulus, right? All right. So, what’s the stimulus? Who’s it coming from? It’s coming from the other. So, you are another human being, right? I didn’t say to myself, “I wonder if Kim’s going to come and sit down.”

[00:08:49] KK: Right.

[00:08:50] SC: Because that would be stimulus from my internal self and it’s not coming from, “Oh, a tornado just came through the cafeteria and it knocked over the chair across from Shawn.” That would be a nominal event. Something from the arena, the environment, that is sort of amorphous.

[00:09:10] KK: Okay. So, you’re saying so all three of those are examples of stimulus, one, like if it was your thoughts, it’s coming from inside of you. If it was like a tornado, it’s coming from outside of everyone, right? The arena. And then basically, like your interpersonal coming from another individual would be like, I come and plop my tray down and go, “Hey, can I sit here?”

[00:09:31] SC: That’s exactly right. So basically, what you have there are the three descriptions of here’s a fancy word, sort of the ontological, everything this. So, it’s pretty cool. This is a really great tool and I’ve used it a million times and I explained it a million different ways. Now, I keep doing it. What you have in everything is the agent, the arena, and agency. Alright, so Kim is an agent, agency is Kim’s stimulus, and the arena is the cafeteria and it’s all coming towards the avatar protagonist which is me.

[00:10:11] KK: Towards introverted, Shawn, who just wants to be left alone in his lunch.

[00:10:15] SC: Possibly. We’re not sure yet because you haven’t got my response.

[00:10:18] KK: We haven’t had observable objective reason. Okay, good.

[00:10:23] SC: All right. So, let’s just play around with this stimulus for a minute. Is this seat taken? Okay, so that stimulus is a little bit squishy, isn’t it? Could we make that a little bit tighter? So, how would we make that tighter? There are two kinds of energy. There’s energy that’s enlivening, that brings life. And then there’s energy that’s depleting, that kind of sucks life out of something. So, stimulus can be either enlivening or depleting. If you came in and you said, “Hi, my name is Kim, I’m going to take this chair.” That would be enlivening.

[00:11:01] KK: Maybe. Not everybody agrees with you.

[00:11:04] SC: Well, you would have to do qualification of exposition, but I’m just playing around here. My point is that you want to be able to make the stimulus clear, right? Okay. You want very tight signal, because who’s reading this, the audience, right? So, you want the audience to understand exactly what you’re trying to get across here. Now, you might be trying to get across that Kim is inviting a conversation with Shawn. So, the language that Kim uses to say, “Do you mind if I sit down? Is this seat taken? Boy, those cinnamon rolls smell good, right? Hey, do you mind if I sit down?” That kind of stuff would be enlivening, because it’s a person who is opening themselves up to a connection.

Whereas if somebody walked up and said, “I’m taking this chair, I need it for this other table.” That would be depleted. Because what it would be signaling to not only the avatar protagonist who’s made up by the way, but to the audience, right? The audience is going to be like, “What a bitch. She’s coming over and taking this guy’s chair, and then she’s going to go sit with her friends elsewhere.” That’s depleting. But it’s clear. But is this seat taking as little ambiguous, unless you want ambiguity. But you see what you’re doing there, you’re having to make clear signal choices as the storyteller with the stimulus.

Now, think of that stimulus, not just going to the avatar, but going to the audience. And this is the big trick. A lot of times when we’re writing, we’re not thinking about the audience. Who are we thinking about?

[00:12:56] KK: Ourselves.

[00:12:56] SC: We’re thinking about ourselves.

[00:12:58] KK: Yes, we are. And if they’re going to like me or not when I’m done writing this thing.

[00:13:04] SC: Is this a pretty sentence or not? Is this good or bad? So, what we’re doing is we’re so ego centrically, we’re just trolling around in our own stuff in our minds, evaluating how am I doing? How am I doing? How do I look? How do I look, right? So that’s an ego centric sort of place, and it’s hard to generate things when you’re constantly beating yourself up. How well am I doing here?

But if you start thinking about the audience, you move your attention from you, your egocentric writer self, and you say, “What’s the audience hearing? Is this seat taken? All the audience, I wonder what they would think about that? They might be wondering if, what that means. Oh, can I clarify, what do I mean? Oh, I want her to be nice. I want her to be enlivening. Well, I need to do the stimulus as a livening moment, not a depleting moment. Or no, I want her to come off as a bitch. So, I’m going to make her say something depleting that will go across the channel, so that my audience can understand that signal.”

Okay, now we’ve got the stimulus. Now, this is the really cool part. Now we say to ourselves, how is my avatar protagonists going to respond? And then you would say to yourself, “What is the audience going to expect?” Kim has come over and said, “Boy, those cinnamon rolls smell great. I’ve got an extra one. I’m going to give it to you, do you mind if I sit down?” So, that’s an enlivening thing. She’s going to give them a cinnamon roll if he lets her sit down next to him. And then what is the audience going to expect? “Oh, well, he’s definitely going to say yes.” Instead, the avatar, Shawn, goes, “That’s saved. No, thank you. I’m trying to watch my way.” It’s intriguing. Like, “What the fuck is up that guy’s – sorry.” I’m already getting upset.

[00:15:05] KK: So rude.

[00:15:08] SC: It’s like, “What’s with guy?” So, what do you have here, you have a stimulus that’s enlivening, right? What you’re expecting is for the avatar protagonist to be able to read that signal and to give back an appropriate signal to that information. But when the avatar protagonists doesn’t, it creates a gap. So, instead of giving back enlivening, he gives back doubled deplaning. And now you’ve got like this positive energy moving forward, and she gets back a double negative. That’s interesting.

Now, what if Kim says, “Hi, I got a cinnamon roll, you mind if I sit down?” “Sure. What’s your name? My name is Shawn.” That’s not so interesting, is it? Because the audience is already expecting what Shawn is giving. And so, it becomes shoe leather, right? It’s not unexpected. It’s not interesting.

[00:16:07] KK: So, it feels like, the gap is where you’re having conflict and tension and intrigue and interest, right?

[00:16:13] SC: You’ll notice that at no point, you write, “Shawn wasn’t feeling well that day. So, he decided to tell Kim to buzz off.” You don’t want to put that in there. Why? Because we want the audience to be trying to figure out why exactly he’s acting like that. We don’t want to answer that question for them. We want to pay off that answer later on in the scene, right? When there’s a value shift, when Kim gets Shawn to open up, that’s a turning point, because Kim then wins that scene because her good-naturedness turns Shawn, from aggressive angry guy into someone who opens up and ask for help.

[00:16:57] KK: These are my life goals. This is all I want to do, just go around helping people open up. This is great.

[00:17:05] SC: That’s right. But what you see there is we can objectively evaluate the words on the page. At no point are we starting to play around in the realm of speculation about what’s going on in the information processing systems of these two avatars.

[00:17:24] KK: When we’re at this level, and we’re playing in the stimulus response in these beats, this is bottom up activity of just kind of like, “Okay, let me just shrink down to a moment and let me set the scene and let me play out how these characters would interact.” At this point, I’m not worried about what global story I’m telling or how it fits into the story. I’m just letting my characters play.

[00:17:46] SC: Well, I mean, generally, I would recommend that you have a general understanding of what kind of story you want to tell. So, the kind of scene that you decide to embark upon, would be driven by your genre understanding, right? So, if you’re writing a crime scene, you would say, “Okay, this is going to be the discovery of the body scene. And it’s going to take place in the cafeteria. It’s going to be between Kim and Shawn, and we’re not going to reveal the body until some really kind of cool, fun thing.”

Yeah, you play around in this world where they’re having this conversation, and you play at the bottom up, not top down, like, sometimes you’d be like, “Well, I got to hurry up and get to my turning point. Has my value shifted yet?” And instead, what I’m saying is that have a gestalt of what the purpose of the scene is, but then you practice some layups, right? Do some stimulus response and go with it, and instead of worrying about, “Oh, man, I haven’t done enough words yet.” Just go, “What would Shawn say next, that would be surprising to the audience?” “Oh, shut up you bitch, leave me alone.” What would Kim come, in return? 

[00:19:03] KK: She’s going to throw a cinnamon roll right into his head.

[00:19:06] SC: Maybe. Would she escalate that? Or would she say, “Hey, dude, I just want to talk to you for a second. Do you mind?” So, then she could defuse, right? And then, you just do it in that way. It’s sort of like an imaginal plane without this sort of dictatorial writer in your mind saying or editor saying, “You know what? Get back to brass tacks here. Get to that turning point.” So instead, it’s like a little kid who puts on the cape, who is Superman or Supergirl or Superwoman or whatever, for the next 25 minutes until dinner. At no point do they say, “Well, I’ve got to get to the moment where I save the town.” It’s just like, “What would Superman do now?” Not what is Superman’s goal state for – so that’s the means to generate words that have real signal, and information and energy that will be read and understood by an audience.

So, instead of having an I-it relation, like I was talking to somebody earlier about this concept, and it’s a pretty good one. We kind of have these modes, these existential modes, and one of them is sort of called the having mode. And the having mode is about getting that thing. So, you’re thinking of, “I need to get it now. Give it to me now.” There’s nothing wrong with having mode. Like, “I need a sandwich now.” So, you go get the sandwich, right?

If you’re busy, and your spouse is there, and you go, “Will you make me a sandwich?” You’re treating them as an it. “You are a sandwich maker, would you make me a sandwich?” Now that’s an I-it relationship. So, with the spouse, they’re like, “Yeah, I’ll make you a sandwich, whatever.” They’re not offended by being treated as an it in that moment, because whatever. 

But in real relationships, you want to be I-thou. So, you want to treat the other person as a complex, multi aspectual thing, instead of sandwich maker. So, what does this have to do with writers and audiences? Okay, so here’s the thing. I think a lot of people who want to be storytellers and want to be a writer, they have a foundational problem. And the foundational problem is that they’re looking at the audience as an I-it relationship. So, they’re saying to themselves, “I need to get a million people to read my book.” It, it, it, it. They are a number, they are a metric, I want to optimize. Instead of I-thou. What is my audience thinking about that stimulus? Instead of me write stimulus, hope audience likes and fives, right? So, I-it is very – it makes you very sort of, what’s the word, very results driven.

[00:22:10] KK: Yeah. transactional, right?

[00:22:13] SC: Transactional. You want to get that same done so that you can go do something else. Instead of the imaginal world of a little kid playing superhero. They don’t have any interest in stopping playing superhero until they’re too tired. Don’t play superhero all day, they’ll play doggy all day, they’ll play whatever is fun. We denigrate play and it’s actually the thing that enables us to grow. Why do you think children play? It’s a developmental skill. They take on the persona of another person, they empathize, and they practice their empathy. So, when you’re writing, I think one of the things that’s gets in the way of bottom up generation of words and stimuluses and responses, is this general attitude that the audience is an it, and I need to just deal with them as a number that I’m going to maximize and optimize, after I’ve done my beautiful creative work, and then I can jam it down, the it.

I’ll find the its that like my beautiful creations and all. Instead of, “How am I doing? How am I doing out there, audience?” And what do you do? You imaginarily pretend to be in the audience. “Would this be surprising to me? Would this be interesting stimulus to me? Or would I think this was shoe leather? Am I surprising audience? Am I giving them energy? Am I giving them meaningful trajectory of story?” So, all of this can be really, really clearly delineated in scene construction.

Now, I know we have only gone over one form of beat and there are two different other ones. But when you’re just starting out, simply doing stimulus response and doing like a tennis game, and then guess what’s going to happen, you’re going to discover progressive complications. You’re going to start discovering what I mean by inciting incident progressive complications, turning point crisis, climax and resolution, because you’re going to want to up yourself with the turns of the stimulus and response until it reaches a critical point, when a value is going to shift. Shawn’s hardnosed persona will break or Kim will start crying. One of those things is going to happen.

[00:24:41] KK: It’s going to happen. I love what you’re saying about play because that I mean, that just rings so true to me and like my top down brain that I love. That’s super useful, right? It solves a lot of problems and it does. It jumps to that abstract, and I can make all cool connections and everything. But when it comes to me as the writer, there’s that, it has a lot of obsession about time, how much time have wasted, how much time – you know what I mean? It’s like I got to do this faster. I’ve got to perform better. I’ve got to make a better connection.

But if you really like, and it sounds like, it’s coming back to flow. Flow state, which is where you’re not even aware of time and that essence of play of just enjoying, really getting down there at the bottom level, and yeah, playing in this idea of stimulus and response. It sounds like, there’s no fear there. You’re not afraid of screwing it up. You’re not afraid of wasting time. You’re not afraid of anything, you’re just playing. And not playing in – there’s still constraints, we’re still in a sandbox, we’re still in this like arena we’re defining and that’s what it sounds like.

[00:25:51] SC: Well, what do we start with? We started with an arena, an agent, and agency. So, we had two agents in an arena, both with agency. And the other thing that you’ll discover is all the abstractions that I talked about, the five commandments of storytelling. Guess what happens? They just emerge as you are creating the stimulus and response. You will reach a point after probably four or five of these stimulus response things where the value is going to turn. And then it’s going to turn automatically. “Well, F you!” And that turns the value, and then you go, “Oh, my gosh, there’s a turning point.” And then the other person reaches a crisis, right? 

But you don’t have them think, “Well, geez, they said F you, what am I going to do now?” You just have them respond by saying something like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do it like that.” And then that climax, then will induce a resolution from the other person and they go, “Hey, you know, it’s okay.” Or like, “You know what, F you. I’m out of here anyway.”

So, you see the five commandments emerge out of this very bottom up process of simple two stages of stimulus and response, and you want to be clear in the stimulus and response. Is this enlivening? Is this depleting? And then you want to gap between what the one agent does and what the other agent does. So, if I give you some enlivening stuff, and you give me back the same enlivening stuff, guess what? That’s not interesting. That stuff, we don’t tell other people about our day. We don’t tell people about going into the deli and getting the sandwich and having the deli guy go, “Hey, no problem. Here you go.” That’s not interesting. When you go into the deli, and the guy goes, “F you! We don’t have any ham left. You go down to the next deli. How dare you ask for him in this kosher deli.” And then you’re like, “Oh, my God, you’re not going to believe I went into a kosher deli and I asked for a sandwich.” You’re like, “Oh, my God, that is so funny.”

[00:27:57] KK: Right. The gap. Okay, on the flip side, though, if you went into a deli and you asked for something, and they’re like, actually, you’re 100th customer, here’s a free ham, like you would talk about that, because it was even better than what you expect.

[00:28:12] SC: That’s right.

[00:28:13] KK: Okay, so it’s still a gap, even if it’s more positive.

[00:28:17] SC: Yes. There’s a hierarchy of spectrum of value.

Thanks for listening to this episode of the story grid podcast. If your heart is set on telling an internal genre story, but struggling with how to get it on the page, I invite you to connect with me for a free consult at Kimber kessler.com that’s kmbrkssler.com for everything story grid related check out story grid COMM And make sure to 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. Also, make sure you go to story grid comm slash books, to see all of the titles that we’ve released through story grid publishing. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode, or any past episodes, all of that can be found at story grid comm slash podcast. If you’d like to reach out to us directly, you can find us on Twitter at story grid. And lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple podcasts and leaving a rating and review. Thanks so much for subscribing and being a part of our work here at story grid. We’ll see you next week.


[00:28:20] KK: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. If your heart is set on telling an internal genre story, but is struggling with how to get it on the page, I invite you to connect with me for a free consult at kimberkessler.com. That’s kimberkessler.com for.

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. Also, make sure you go to storygrid.com/books to see all of the titles we have released through Story Grid publishing. 

If you like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episode, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you like to reach out to us directly, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcasts and leaving a rating and review.

Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.



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