#243 – How to use Passive 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 continue their discussion on beats, and looks specifically at how passive beats are used in your writing. Before we jump in, I want to mention it an event I’m hosting in a few days. On Thursday, November 18, I’m hosting the annual State of Story Grid Live Virtual Event. During this time, I will give an update on the progress in the Story Grid methodology, the growth of Story Grid publishing and exciting new changes for the Story Grid guild. I would love for you to join me and you can grab your spot at storygrid.com/live. Again, that’s storygrid.com/live. Okay, that’s it for me. So, let me turn it over to Kim and Shawn.


[00:01:08] KK: Okay, Shawn, we are back and we’re talking about this idea of the top down editor brain, and the bottom up writer brain. And the reason why I wanted to bring this up is because I have been struggling so much for years, when people tell me turn off your editor brain and just write. I say, “Cool, I don’t know how to do that. Like what does that actually mean? What is an editor brain? And how does one turn that off? Where’s the switch for that?

So, what was so amazing when we were at the Trinity seminar was that you really started defining what this means, the editor brain and how it thinks, how it makes sense of things from this top down, and the writer brain, how it really gets to play from the bottom up, and how they work together. It’s awesome when you have different people, one person playing the editor and one person playing the writer. It gets really tricky when you’re trying to play the editor and writer within your own body, and you have to switch.

I haven’t personally watched the show a lot. But everybody raves about the Schitt’s Creek show, that’s on Netflix. And there’s a specific little scene where David and his mom are cooking, and she’s reading him the recipe and he’s at the stove, like doing the cooking. She’s telling him all the steps and then she goes, “Okay, so fold in the cheese.” And he’s like, “I don’t know what that means. What do you mean fold in the cheese?” She’s like, “You know, just fold it. Just fold in.” She just keeps saying it back to him. Just fold in the cheese.

So, Bran and another one of our certified editors and I were cracking up about this, because that’s what it feels like, just turn off your editor brain. It’s like telling me to fold cheese. I have no idea what that means. So, I know that we’re not the only ones. And so yeah, so when we’re talking about how we turn off our editor brain, it really sounds like from what we got from our last episode, it really sounds like it’s letting ourselves go and play in the sandbox and really play and think about what’s happening in these little micro moments with our characters on stage, like we’re a kid just playing superhero. And we’re not really worried so much about the result as much as we’re allowing ourselves to investigate what’s possible in this realm of play.

[00:03:22] SC: Well, yes, and no. It’s extraordinarily constrained, playing. Sometimes it’s not as fun as we’d like it to be, right? So, if you want to become a great basketball player, you have to constrain your play. What you do is you develop skills by constraining the arena in which you are working, so you don’t practice the layup and then shoot a free throw, and then shoot a 20-footer, right? Because you’re not drilling into your memory systems, the appropriate skill that can be repeatable. What happens is that when we’re creating a scene, we need to constrain the scene extraordinarily tightly, so that we don’t fly off the rails in our own sort of mystical fun journaling experience where we’re just sort of like doing all kinds of silly stuff that doesn’t really train the – because when you are exercising, if you just are moving around all the time, you never really established a skill, you’re just sort of goofing around.

So, you don’t want to goof around, so the editor’s brain is the thing that constrains you. It’s the thing that you can use to keep you in the channel of flow. So, there’s flow channel, which is an extraordinarily demanding and difficult process that’s also extraordinarily meaningful, rewarding, time flies, and you don’t want to get out of that channel by just sort of goofing around and doing things that are not the purpose of that particular thing.

Alright, let me just talk about top down, bottom up a little bit more to frame, why you need both. So, this is the kind of thing that we do automatically and we don’t even know that we’re doing it. We simultaneously top down bottom up all the time. So, what do I mean by that? If I told you to look at a bunch of letters, and you bottom up the letters, and let’s say it says C, A, T, then you would say, C, A, T. And then if I told you, “Well, what is that mean?” And you can’t top down it, then you would just say, “I have no idea what that means.” That’s one signal with a squiggly line one with the thing.

So, actually, reading is this amazing thing that is both bottom up, top down simultaneously. That’s called complexification. It’s when you can bring together the small parts and establish the gestalt hole at the same time. So, when you bite into peanut butter cup, you taste the chocolate, you taste the peanut butter, but you also get the peanut butter cupness at the same time, right? Nobody is confused when they eat a peanut butter cup, they don’t go, “Well, what are the ingredients in that?” Nobody’s like, “Oh, sardines, and bread.” They’re like chocolate and peanut butter. But it’s completely different than just chocolate and peanut butter, right?

So, that top down, bottom. Alright, so top down is about theory. It’s about the nature of the structure of how the thing actually is. It’s levels of analysis that can show you the processes by which things come together from top down. So, you break down a problem into its constituent parts, and then you see all these tiny little problems that you can solve. And if you can solve all these problems, you can solve the top problem.

Theory is top down thinking and practice is bottom up. Now, what practice is, is when you’re in the basketball court, and your coach says, “Okay, when you’re doing a layup, what you want to do is, when you raise your right arm, let’s say you’re right handed, and you’re making a right handed free throw, you want your right leg to go up with your arm, and then you want to aim the basketball in the center of the square.” That’s theory, right? But until you do it, you can’t do it. What do you do? You take that theory, you dribble, and then you bumble a little bit before you can get your arm and your leg connected, such that you can jump with your left leg and right leg, move your right leg up as your right arm goes up, and you let the ball go, and it hits the square and it goes in.

At the beginning, you don’t make many. You’re practicing is very difficult at the beginning, because your skills aren’t there yet. The demands of the game are higher than what your skills are. So, what you do is you keep doing it until you start making a few. And then magically, after probably 20, 30 minutes, you get into a flow state, and you start making more than you miss. And then you make more and more and more and more and you grind into your neocortex, the pattern, the causal pattern of how to make a layup. So, the question for writers is like what is the layup equivalent for a storyteller? And the layup equivalent for a storyteller is the scene but the scene has constituent parts.

So, the scene instead of talking about story as a novel. We’re going to just say; our macro now is the scene. The goal state is to write a good scene. Are their constituent parts that make up a scene, right? Is there the equivalent of raising your right arm as you raise your right knee such that you can throw the ball, it hits the side of the square and goes in. And the answer is that yes, there are these micro skills within the scene called beats. There are three kinds of beats.

The first kind of beat that you want to master, is probably the equivalent of being able to dribble and get the ball comfortably in your hand. That would be the act of beat. The act of beat, it’s also, the act of beat is the most important because if you can’t dribble up for the layup –

[00:09:42] KK: You’re never making it to the hoop anyway.

[00:09:44] SC: And you’re traveling. It’s illegal.

[00:09:45] KK: You’re travelling. They give the ball to the other team. 

[00:09:50] SC: That’s right. So, that’s the first thing you got to learn how to do is to literally dribble. The dribble for seeing construction is stimulus response active beats. Okay, so that’s kind of what we talked about the last time we talked about and I don’t want to repeat myself. But what I will say about active beats is that I’m sure this isn’t going to surprise you. But there are different kinds of active beast. Three kinds of activate beast.

[00:10:15] KK: A trinity of active beats.

[00:10:18] SC: A trinity of active beats. Can you imagine that. There’s a trinity of beats inside of scene and then there’s a trinity of each of those specific kinds of beats. So, the trinity of active beats are inciting active beats, progressive active beats, and turning active beast. That’s kind of cool. Because what does that mean? Well, in the example we used last time, we talked about Kim coming into a cafeteria, Shawn sitting at a table, Kim enliveningly asks if she can sit down and she very warmly says that. So, that’s what I would call and then Shawn response, so the inciting beat there would be, it would be an active beat, there would be a stimulus and response. So, active beats have both stimulus and response. The incitement would be Kim stimulating, dropping in unexpectedly, like a grain of sand into Sean’s life such that Shawn has to respond. 

So, that’s inciting actively the beginning of a be a trope or a scene or sequence, et cetera. Inciting active beats, get the ball rolling, then the next beat would be after Shawn insults Kim and says, “No, you can’t sit there.” Kim would progressively try and combat what she got back from Shawn. And then it would go up to that point until it turned and Kim either abandons her quest to sit in that chair, or she succeeds in getting to sit in that chair. And that’s the scene turning point. And so, these active beats lead up to this turning point.

Inciting active beats, progressive active beats, and turning active beats, are the sub kinds of beats, and you can see their progression why. Because the beginning is the incitement, the middle is the progression, and the end is the turning. So, you can look at those and just iterate them over and over and over again. So, that’s where the practice comes in. You can strain the work by practicing stimulus and response, incite, progress, turn, incite, progress, turn, bounce, the ball, lays the right leg while raising the right arm, right?

[00:12:46] KK: Right.

[00:12:48] SC: That’s what you do. You don’t get to shoot three pointers. You don’t get to shoot foul shots. There’s plenty of time for three pointers and foul shots later. So, keep yourself locked. But you need the theory in order to iterate the practice. The editor gives the theory and the writer does the practice. Does that track for you?

[00:13:11] KK: Yes. Yeah, that’s great. I like that we still get to have constraints. The editor still gets to have a say, and limiting where we’re going to play, that helps me a lot.

[00:13:23] SC: Well, the editor knows what the point of it all is, really. And then the writer gets to innovate. So, the editor says, “I want to write a great crime story featuring an amateur detective, and it’s set in the civil war in a small town in Savannah.” I just made that up. But all those constraints, you see, it starts to narrow and narrow, and then the controlling ideas built in is like getting justice. So, we know that the crime story thing is, and so the editor constraints and constraints and constraints, and then the editor assigns a task to the writer and says, “Look, it’s now time for you to do the discovery of the body scene. How are you going to do it? I would like you to do it in the railroad station. That will be your arena, and you will have the following avatars to play in that arena. Go.” And then the writer is like, “Oh, I don’t know what to do. Oh, stimulus and response. Okay, who’s my central avatar?” They’re going to be the responder. And so, I need other people to stimulate the responder, and such that they incite progress and turn in the scene such that the climax, is maybe the discovery of the body is the climax, maybe that’s the inciting incident. You don’t know. Go ahead, play around. But under those constraints.

[00:14:50] KK: Again, this editor and writer they can exist in the same person, right? So, when you’re sort of, you can constrain yourself by saying, “Cool. We know this is the idea. This is what’s important to us. This is the kind of story we’re trying to tell. And this is the scene that we’re going to work on today. These are the avatars. This is the arena. This is the agency.” And you can constrain yourself all the way down and then you go, “Okay, now writer, switch takeover, innovate bottom up, let it just like play within the stimulus response stuff, and see what shakes out.”

[00:15:25] SC: Yeah, because one of the things I really like about the Trinity thing is that this new sort of schematic that it came up with called the diorama model. And so, the diorama model, sort of just swaps out the word editor and writer and substitutes it for artist, author. The artist is sort of the one that has the big, big picture. They have the gestalt what they want, they have the total goal state writing the next Agatha Christie novel. So, they’re the artist. They’re in control.

What they do, is they go within themselves, and they find all of these potential authors within them. And they hire one, they go, “I’m going to give you a shot, I’m going to give you a bunch of prompts, and constraints, and then you’re going to play within those. And then you’re going to iterate. The tools that you’re going to use is you’re going to construct in arena where made up avatars will play with one another through stimulus and response, such that an audience can watch those avatars playing in that arena, and understand exactly what my message is. I will give you the message and you have to make the signal that comes from those stimuluses and responses from your avatars, abundantly clear to the audience such that the audience is excited, intrigued and has catharsis by the end of the story.”

What I’ll do is I’m not going to make you do it all at once, I’m going to hand feed you scenes, and I’m going to assign you the scenes. You have to paint these pictures, and then we will evaluate whether or not how well you did. So, the author, “Goes great. I love to paint.” The author gets to play around and they go, “Well, what if I put some pink over here and I did some response, a different response than what the audience might expect?” And from that bubbling up of the imaginal play of the author, then at the end of that period, guess who gets to come in and look at what the author has done? The artist. And the artist comes in and goes, “Wow, I like what you did there. I didn’t expect that. That was good. Where did that come from? I don’t care. I’m keeping it.”

So, the author is the one who practices using the Story Grid toolbox of these beat ideas of active and we’ll talk about the passive and expository soon, but they use these three kinds of beats to paint this picture using these avatars playing in the arena. But the key thing is that they’re always always putting their attention where? On the audience. Is the audience understanding what I’m trying to do here? Do they understand that this is an enlivening stimulus or depleting stimulus? How enlivening? How depleting? As you want nuance of enlivening and depleting. So, the diorama model is fun because it enables you to see this this chain of work. Artist hires the author who creates the avatars, who play in an alternate world that an audience watches and experiences. Hopefully, the audience is excited, intrigued, and is brought to catharsis by the end of the play.

[00:18:52] KK: So, let’s dig in and let’s talk a little bit more about this next tool, this micro tool that we have, which is the – well, I guess it depends, which one do you think’s more useful to talk about? We’ve talked about the active beat, the stimulus and response. So, which one would you like to talk about next? The passive beat or the expository beat?

[00:19:12] SC: Well, I think the passive beat is the way to go here because exposition is the thing that drives everybody crazy.

[00:19:19] KK: Save the best for last, right?

[00:19:23] SC: It’s extraordinarily nuanced, and complex, and its exposition is the voice of your author, right? So, a lot of things like point of view and narrative device get thrown in there, which are hard concepts to understand. But passivity is, it’s not conceptually difficult to understand, but the trick is to figure out when to employ passivity to the greatest possible effect. Now, passivity is all about the means by which you can send signal to the audience about how the avatar protagonist is processing the energy and information and meaning of the stimulus directed towards them.

So, this is what happens. Let’s go back to the cafeteria. Kim comes in and says, “Hi, the cinnamon roll still smells good. I have an extra one. Do you mind if I share it with you and take this chair?” Okay. That’s an unexpected event to Shawn who’s sitting at the table. But it’s not one that he doesn’t know how to process, right? So, Shawn responds by, “Actually, I think somebody, I’m waiting on somebody to take that chair and no, I’m on a diet, but thanks, anyway.” Okay. So, what we have is an enlivening stimulus and a depleting response. But at no point does Shawn not know how to answer the question. “Can I take this chair?” Alright, cool. A passive beat, is when the avatar protagonists doesn’t know what to do. So, they do nothing.

[00:21:01] KK: Okay. Well, that sounds like the easiest one to write.

[00:21:06] SC: It is. But here’s what happens is that we get scared about putting passivity in there, because we don’t think the audience will get it. Also, it requires a lot, a lot of thinking to employ passivity properly, because guess what, there’s three kinds of passivity.

[00:21:29] KK: Oh, okay.

[00:21:31] SC: Let me first try and figure out in an example, where passivity would make sense to the audience. So, let’s say the stimulus comes in and Kim says, “Please don’t take this the wrong way. It’s the first thing that came to my mind, and I don’t mean to be weird.” Let’s say Shawn’s sitting at the cafeteria and Kim comes up to the table. And Shawn’s never met Kim before. She looks them right in the eye. She goes, “Thanks a lot, Shawn. I’m pregnant.” Let’s think about what Shawn does. Shawn doesn’t even know this Kim, and this Kim is saying that Shawn has impregnated her in front of an entire cafeteria of people. That’s an unexpected novel event that he never anticipated coming.

So, what happens when unexpected novel events happen to us is that we have an immediate autonomic response within our limbic system, and it’s called fear. So, there are three kinds of passive beats that are induced by fear. The first one that we all experience in fear is freezing. So, when we freeze, we don’t do anything, we don’t know what to do. It’s sort of like when you’re – let’s say, you’re doing a computer program on your machine, and you overload the software. And that little circle just turns and turns and turns. You’re like, “Yeah, it’ll catch up eventually.” But it doesn’t, right? So, you have to reboot the software to make it work again.

That’s the equivalent of the passive freeze beat. The passive freeze beat is employed in moments that are trying to incite big turning points in a global story. That’s the first kind of passivity. So, then you would sort of, there are tools to move out of the passivity that have to do with exposition that I’m not going to get into now. But that passivity what often people do is that they’re worried that the audience is going to not understand that Shawn doesn’t know what to do. So, they’ll put in some kind of exposition that says he didn’t know what to do when the strange woman came up to him asking him whether or not if he impregnated her. Guess what, you don’t want to do that unless – never say never about anything. That’s usually a mistake, because you want the audience to be just totally – it’s sort of like those great thrillers that begin with like, “Hello. Dad? Jimmy? Is it you? But you died seven years ago.”

Anyway, so the first passive beat is the freeze. The second one is flight. What that kind of passive beat is, is that the avatar protagonist getting that stimulus leaves, just runs away from the problem. 

[00:24:45] KK: Okay. So, what’s interesting about that, I was wondering about that because just like the idea of like picking up this tray and just walking away, so it’s like, it’s a response but it’s not a response to the stimulus. It’s actually just exiting. So, it’s still passive and that he’s not addressing the stimulus directly. Is that correct?

[00:25:05] SC: Here’s what’s going on. Think about what’s going on inside the internal Shawn character in this story. First thing, unexpected novel that I don’t have the software to output a response.

[00:25:20] KK: It does not compute.

[00:25:20] SC: Does not compute. So, what do I do? I freeze, then maybe you start continuing to speak and I’m still frozen sitting at the table. Shawn sat at the table. Just report the non-response in exposition. Then Kim goes, and after all those things you promise me and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Alright, so more stimulus is coming in. So, what does Shawn need to do? Don’t know how to process this, got to get the fuck away from this crazy bitch. Excuse me. I’m sorry.

[00:25:56] KK: He’s really getting into character, folks.

[00:26:00] SC: So, what do I do? Meanwhile, everybody in the cafeteria is hearing you say this thing, right?

[00:26:06] KK: Yeah, gathering around.

[00:26:07] SC: So, now I’m picking up my train, I’m leaving because I’m flying. I’m passively not responding to your stimulus still. But this time I’m responding by leaving and the reason why I’m leaving is that I’m trying to buy time for my information processing system to come up with a possible choice that I could make to solve this very difficult to solve problem. So, I’m buying time for my brain to start kicking in and pop out some possibilities.

Now, we have a system inside of our minds, that it’s like this tertiary system, that is the possibility generator. It’s the choice portfolio generator. So, as I’m leaving, now, the audience is just intuiting everything that I’m saying now, because this is the way we behave, right? Now, I’ve got three systems to generate a quick choice. One is my monster, one’s my line, and the person is my highest level. The monster is sort of like the thing that deals with trying to just eliminate any discomfort as soon as possible. It’s all about the now.

The line is about how I’m going to look in front of the rest of the people in the cafeteria, what’s the duration of my reputation as Shawn with all these other people in the room. And then the person is the one that navigates which one of those to do and how best to do it. So, now I’m building up all these ideas of the final passive beat, which would be the fight, which is actually a conversion into a response. You could passively fight by not responding. I mean, these get really fun to play with. But what they do is they bring out under these constraints, all these options for you to play. So, maybe after the flight passive beat, maybe do a series of passive beats that do not and this is what happens in the scene that Danielle is talking about Kiowaski, I always mispronounce her last name. She’s doing in her scene analysis is that she uses the scene from Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. And what you get are a series of passive beats that pay off in the climactic action.

Let’s play in that arena. So, first thing is, “Thanks a lot, Shawn, I’m pregnant.” Freeze passive beat. And then Kim, throw some more stimulus out. “And after all those things, you promise me”, this is like American tragedy, and then he decides to get up and leave. And then the people in the cafeteria, he can start to hear the murmuring of, “Wow, what’s going on with that guy? What a weirdo?” And then Kim, give some final climactic stimulus, like, “You know what? You can go to hell.” And then Shawn returns with a response to that stimulus that’s generated out of one of that Trinity inside of him.

So, the monster Shawn might say something like, “Fuck you. I never met you in my life. Who the hell do you think you are coming in here? You’re crazy. You’re crazy. Everybody. I’ve never met her before in my life.” Get out of the now. Protect yourself. Defend yourself as much as you can. Fight back with how it serves right? The lion might be turned around and the lion might do something like, “You seem to be really upset. I’m not really sure we’ve met before. But I think you think I’m somebody that I’m not.” And he would say this very placating terms so that the rest of the people in the room can get – his talking really to the rest of the people room, than he is to Kim. And then the last one would be an integration of all of these things together, which would be a well-integrated person with sort of come back and say, sort of balance both. Right? They would say, “Look, you seem to be very upset. Why don’t we go down to the principal’s office and we can talk about this, but I think you’re upset.”

So, they would offer these kinds of things that could serve as the climax, to push us into a resolution of, will Kim go to the principal’s office or not? Obviously, I’m just pulling these things off top my head. But this is what you do when you practice. A lot of this stuff that I’m saying I would completely throw out, but I’m just building portfolios of choices for me as the author to paint my picture. And now, I’m not worried so much about how many words I’m getting on the page, I’m worried about, is the audience understanding how the Shawn character who has gone through these passive beats is processing the information? Is he acting out of monster line or self in his information processing system with his stimulus?

[00:31:26] KK: What I love about this is how grounded it is with the characters themselves, with the avatars, the agents, and really like, what’s making them tick, right? Like, what do they really want and need? So, their choices are going to align with who you’ve built them out to be. Yeah, it’s not that nothing that’s happening is random, right? It’s always bubbling up out of the agent. And that level of just intention. Again, it’s the avatar themselves are the great, they are constraint, “Oh, well, this is who Shawn is. So, this is how he would react or not react or whatever.” But yeah, again, the more grounded you are in – I mean, that really helps me with like internally driven stories, like when you really are all about the change that’s happening in the character, you really want to know who they are and what they’re really struggling with. So, then you can make their responses align with their essential action.

I mean, that’s something you definitely want to do in every story. But anyway, again, what I’m loving about hearing all of this again, and learning about all this is it’s giving me constraints at the line level so that I can actually make decisions and make choices. It isn’t just, “Okay, I could choose anything. I could use any words to tell the story. “It’s like, Oh, it’s narrowing it down so I actually have choices that I can actually decide between and that’s really empowering. 

[00:32:52] SC: Is it enlivening? Is it depleted? That’s a great heuristic to just start out with. Is it clear that this is energy that’s being offered sort of as food to the other person? Or are they sucking energy out of the person and depleting their life. The first Kim who’s offering the cinnamon roll is enlivening. The second Kim who is accusing is depleting. The fact is if the Shawn avatar doesn’t know who this Kim person is, guess what that is, that’s a pretty great global inciting incident. Because now the audience is being like, “What motivated that Kim person that comment accuse this guy of being the father of her child? Weird. What’s going on here? Is she set up?” This is like the beginning of Chinatown, like what’s motivating miss – it’s just this really cool thing that spins and spins and gets larger and larger and larger.

Also, to do it publicly is a choice that would be – obviously, if the Shawn character is very concerned about his social status, then doing it – like all of these things are immediately coming to my mind and this is just from some crazy, mixed up, stupid make them up that I just came up –

[00:34:11] KK: Make them ups.

[00:34:12] SC: Yeah, off the top my head. But when you look at it from the prism of the audience, they’re like what’s going on with Kim?

[00:34:19] KK: Yeah.

[00:34:19] SC: Why is Shawn getting so upset?

[00:34:23] KK: Yeah, it’s fascinating.


[00:34:24] 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.

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