[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a 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 Story Grid, the author of the book the Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode, I started out asking some specific questions about issues I’m having with might continue to rewrite of the threshing. Then we get into the movie The Green Book, which is a movie I recently watched and really enjoyed. We talked about some specific moments in that and analyzed that, but also just talked about a little bit of race and looking at these stories in a bigger cultural context.
I think it’s a good thing for us to talk about and be aware of and start touching on. It’s a great episode. I think you’ll really enjoy it. Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:59.7] TG: Shawn, I got back on the horse this week and started working through my scenes again. I didn’t take 45 minutes every day, but I did take three days out of the last week and work on it. I’m trying to get back into it. I discovered as I was working through it that I think there’s two things that I think are making this harder for me. I just wanted to run three with you.
The first is I’m constantly worried that I’m not weaving it together the right way. I feel within the last couple years, I got to a point where I could consistently write 1,500 words at work, but now that I’m trying to have 60,000 words that all work together, I’m constantly – what’s making me go slow is I keep going back to all the different parts of the book and rechecking to see if I’m writing this the right way to work with those.
I don’t know if that’s the right way, or the wrong way to go about this. Because almost everything else we’ve done you’re like, “Don’t worry about any of that. Just work on what’s in front of you.” Now it’s like, okay I’m working through it. I keep having, because I have 12 different versions of this book I’ve written that are all in my head. I can’t remember what I ended up with on any given scene. I keep having to go back.
Then there’s entire characters that I either need to get rid of, or weave through more of the book, and so I keep going back. I think that actually leads to the second thing, which is I have this pressure that this is supposed to be the version of the book that’s the final version. We got to clean it up and edit it and whatever. It was like, when I finished running down a dream and I sent it to you, I was like, “This is the book and it was.” We had to clean it up, but I knew the book was done.
I think that’s what’s driving a lot of my resistance to finishing it is I don’t know if I’m doing this right, so I’ll actually turn in a finish, like a ready-to-go manuscript. Again in the past, I would just be like, “Nope, don’t worry about that.” Just write the scene in front of you, just whatever. This is supposed to be the version where this scene works with the other 60 scenes, or whatever. That’s where I’m at with it. I’m making progress. I finished some scenes, but I’m just not – I got it done, I’m like, “I don’t know.” I feel zero confidence that it’s working the way it’s supposed to be working.
[0:03:47.7] SC: Well, that doesn’t concern me. I mean, that’s the way it usually goes in the final stages is that – I’m actually working on another project, where I’m facing the same stuff. The way I’ve been handling it is to put aside all the previous work that I’ve done, so all my spreadsheets, all of my outlines, all of my stuff. I’m literally trying to stay on the ground as I’m editing the 25th draft and saying, “Okay, let me put myself in the position of a reader. What would follow next?” If I’m talking about this scene, what is the scene that they will expect next and do I want to deliver that scene, or do I want to mix it up and put in a different scene to break their mode of experience for a moment, and then get them back on track?
Well there’s going to be some mistakes in there. What you’re going to find is that you have the access to editors, proofreaders and copy editors that are going to be able to catch all those problems. Really focusing on the details of the specific things that you’re dropping, or it’s thematically doesn’t feel right is a mistake.
Your goal really is to keep your attention on the line-by-line writing and add detail that will further establish the world and just get through the entire manuscript, so that the scenes are fuller, for lack of a better word, fuller with the details that you provided. I’m just remembering the early scenes that you rewrote at the very beginning of the story and they were much richer and filled with more detail. You actually enjoyed doing that.
It’s always a good idea that when you find yourself grinding, to head back to a task that brings more excitement and joy. Adding little details about what needle they stick into her head is more fun, than worrying about if you had – if one of the characters is present here or not, or if you’re not establishing them in the right way, just this draft is really about adding resolution.
Back in the old days when I was growing up, there was no such thing as a recording device for television. Television was three channels and the resolution was terrible. Everything was fadey and weird, but we didn’t really care because it was television. Then in the 80s, this VCR came around, right? You would use this VCR and you put these video cassette tapes into this machine and it would tape television shows at a pretty solid resolution that was more detailed than it was before.
Then DVDs came online and the resolution increased. Now, we have these high-definition televisions that have 10,000 pixels per cubic inch or something. I don’t even know. If you want to use that metaphor, the process that you’re doing now is you’re moving your VCR tape into digital video. You’re adding detail and little bits and pieces that are fun to the core narrative that you’ve already established.
You don’t need to mess with the engine of the story, because we spent three years engineering that thing. I pretty committed to the fact that you have the building blocks, the engine works, it fires, there’s plenty of action in it. I mean, I haven’t read it in a very long time, but I always felt very secure that it was getting to the place where it needed to be. You have nice twists. You have really solid action in it. The final scenes that you came up were terrific. Instead of worrying so much about the continuity from scene-to-scene, just I give you a pass. I release you from that anxiety.
Just say, “Oh, I’m doing that thing again where I’m worried about whether or not this guy was in the scene or not. Shawn said it’s fine to just forget about it. I’m going to keep forgetting about it and just go line-by-line and add more detail, add more analogy, add more little fun metaphors.”
[0:09:02.7] TG: What do you mean by that?
[0:09:04.6] SC: Well, this is a terrible example, but he ate a pack rat eating straw. That was simile-metaphor stuff. I just gave a terrible one, but it’s fun sometimes to think of little things that you hadn’t really – you thought of putting in physical descriptions. Charles Dickens was great at this. The way he would describe somebody’s hat would tell you so much about who that character was, that it was – his hat was in such a derelict shaped that the slightest wind would blow the last seam apart, or something, or whatever.
Fun little stuff like that, as well as descriptive things about the environment of you want to juxtapose the ordinary and extraordinary. I don’t want to get too much into it, because now I’m getting into the same thing that you were worried about is like, “Whoa, if I establish the ordinary world in such a way that is as interesting as the –” Don’t do that. Just go through the thing, tighten up the lines again, try and make it as cleanly your voice as possible, adding in any fun bits and pieces that you think of in the moment.
[0:10:36.1] TG: Okay, I’ll just keep doing that. Really still just looking at it scene by scene, not over complicating wondering if the scene is working and the whole thing.
[0:10:48.2] SC: Yeah, don’t worry about that. Because generally, what you’re trying to deliver to your editor is something that they can spend, say 8 to 15 hours on reading, going through and then coming up with the checklist of things that you’re going to have to fix for the final delivery to the copy editor.
Worrying about tone, or theme, or the general skeletal structure of the story is not worth your time now, because you put a lot of energy already into that, and so have I. It’s lucky that I’ll be your editor, so that when you send it to me, I’m going to read it fresh and then I’ll make notes as I’m reading, because I am very familiar with the story that will be very much checklists of things for you to fix in the final round, so that I would make a note like, scene 15 is still not working very well. The turning point isn’t clear, please heighten it. I thought we agreed that the turning point would be this. It seems it’s just fizzing. That way you’ll go, “Oh, okay. I’m going to have to tweak that.” Then you don’t have to worry about scene 1 through 14. You just fix scene 15, right?
[0:12:21.8] TG: Yeah. Okay, I can do that. I also wanted to mention, I watched The Green Book. Have you seen that movie yet?
[0:12:29.9] SC: Yeah.
[0:12:31.0] TG: Oh, well what did you think of the movie?
[0:12:33.0] SC: I enjoyed the movie. I liked it and I found it to be really entertaining. Then upon reflection, because I know there was some controversy about it –
[0:12:48.3] TG: Oh, I didn’t. I didn’t know that.
[0:12:49.8] SC: Yeah. I mean, the controversy is more of a political controversy that is actually a fascinating controversy that is worth talking about. If you want to talk about just story principles, I can do it that way. What did you think?
[0:13:05.5] TG: Yeah. Well first of all, it was the main character – the driver was the guy from Lord of the Rings. He played Aragorn.
[0:13:15.0] SC: Yeah, Viggo Mortensen. Yeah, yeah.
[0:13:16.9] TG: Yeah. I like pointing out to my wife that she thought he was so cute and now he’s this old fat guy. To just keep in mind, that’s probably what’s going to happen to Chris, whatever the – whoever plays Thor in Marvel. That was fun. I’m like, “You think he’s cute now. That’s what he’s going to look in a few years.”
Anyway, a couple things I noticed about it that I thought were cool were the way that they established the driver, they established his character through his actions early on that paid off later. I thought they did really good with that when he got offered to work for the mob for a couple months and he turned that down, so that later when he turned it down it was consistent. You weren’t surprised that he turned it down.
There were several things like that I felt they did a good job telling us who he was early on that paid off later. To me, I thought were very satisfying ways. I’ve been thinking a lot about that of we’ve talked about character is you don’t just develop characters, you develop character based on the actions that they take. There are all these early actions that he took that made him seem this schmuck that made him the hero later in the story.
Anyway, I didn’t know – that was just the biggest thing. I felt there were several on Story Gridding thing. Even the transferring to the new world was them getting in the car and leaving town.
[0:15:03.7] SC: Oh, yeah, and it was –
[0:15:04.7] TG: Then coming back with the gift was very clear at the end.
[0:15:09.3] SC: Yeah, and it was a buddy romance, love story too. There were multiple –
[0:15:13.9] TG: Oh, yeah.
[0:15:15.4] SC: There were multiple genres at play. It was –
[0:15:18.3] TG: What would you say was the main genre?
[0:15:21.3] SC: I would say was a revelation maturation plot for both characters. It was a heroic journey where the Mook Italian guy from the Bronx with a code of honor, that was family-based, was antithetical to his prejudice and racism at the beginning of the story. As you said, the way the creators and the writers established sympathy and empathy for the racist, the guy was a racist, right, at the beginning of the story.
[0:15:58.0] TG: Well, he threw those cups away. I thought it was cool that they didn’t have him just say a bunch of racist stuff, you know what I mean?
[0:16:08.1] SC: Yeah, because he doesn’t say that.
[0:16:09.1] TG: They’ve established in these – right. These other subtle ways of yeah.
[0:16:15.3] SC: Right. That was a really wonderful theme and it was a good – it was a really good story for contemporary life, right? One of the principles about doing historical stories is that the only reason to use a historical setting is to mirror contemporary life. You don’t just throw something in a time period just because you like the time period. You choose stories of a particular time period that reflect what’s going on in contemporary society.
For me, when the Viggo Mortensen character, his actions are outwardly noble and “family-oriented and good.” Meaning, he doesn’t use racial slurs. He uses the power of his fists to maintain order in a disorderly society. Just because he seemingly seems like a principled and good person, deep down he’s unenlightened and childish, to believe that he has any superiority to another human being based upon any criteria, other than personal experience is crazy. It’s ridiculous.
I think that’s part of the movement today, the political movement to get – I don’t like the term so much, because it makes me uncomfortable, but I think that’s why they have the term ‘white privilege’, right? White privilege is a buzz phrase today, that is forcing people who are white to think about their world in a different way. That’s exactly what the Viggo Mortensen character had to do. He didn’t yell at the guys who came to fix his dishwasher, because they were black. He just was reasonably pleasant, polite, but deep down, he was a racist. That’s why the scene where he’s throwing away the glasses that they drank from, meanwhile his wife was not a racist. That was another great element is that he fell in love with a woman who wasn’t a racist.
That says something good about him that he recognizes truth and love and beauty and others. He just hasn’t recognized it in himself yet. What was required for him was to meet and to live with and to hang out with a person who is of a much higher intellectual capacity and cultural intelligence than he is, which was the classical jazz piano player.
Anyway, I thought the story was really wonderful in many levels. Then the controversy at the Oscars was that Spike Lee took great offense that it was praised and became the best picture of the year. I was thinking about that and I could totally see his point now. Because his point was this was a movie that celebrates white people. This is a movie that celebrates white people who see the dignity in black people. Haven’t we had enough of those movies? Haven’t we had enough – I think he said something like – and he made a really good point. “It was just driving Miss Daisy, except they changed the color of the driver.”
I think he made a really good point there, because it’s all about the way person discovering just how wonderful black people are. I think he has a really good point. Haven’t we established that story so many times, that it makes white people feel good like, “Oh, I’m not a racist. Therefore, I can really enjoy this movie, watching this racist white guy discover the way I live and how great I am.”
It’s a tough one, because I think it was a really entertaining movie. I don’t think it was in any way representing untruths about you know what? I can’t even say that, because I’m not a black person, right? I have no experience being able to say whether or not the white filmmaker got it right, directing the black actors, because I can only hope that the – and I think this is true, that if the white director wasn’t establishing the story in an appropriate way, that the black actors would have told them. Judging by the guy who played the lead, I think his name is Mahershala Ali is great acting.
[0:21:47.0] TG: Yeah, something like that. Yeah.
[0:21:49.0] SC: Yeah. I don’t think that guy would let anything get by without commenting on it if it was offensive. You look at that movie and then you look at BlacKkKlansman, right? so BlacKkKlansman was a story about racism by Spike Lee. The hero of the story was a black man pretending to be a white man. I mean, it was a brilliant movie too. I’m going to have to come down on Spike Lee’s side here and say, “You know what? I think BlacKkKlansman was a more important movie and you can’t really judge what’s the best picture anyway.”
In terms of let’s support stuff that’s difficult to get made, because it’s from different voices and appreciate BlacKkKlansman as opposed to The Green Book, I agree with Spike Lee. It’s really a difficult political moment, because – but it’s also a great moment too, because what stories do and this is a great example of it, they make us think about things. They make us consider our worldviews and whether or not we are seeing the world in the way that is the best for us individually and for everyone collectively.
I think both movies were very interesting to come out at this time, because the country is struggling with what it means, what is even race? I mean, it’s a made-up scientific term to begin with. How we going to try and live together in a way that we can respect everybody’s worldview? Anyway, it’s –
[0:23:54.7] TG: Yeah. No, I mean, it’s good, it’s interesting I mean, to continue talking about this. We’ve been in Nashville now for almost four years. Both of my kids now, most of their memories are from this place. We live in the city, and so very diverse, very progressive city. It’s the only county in Tennessee that went blue.
It’s interesting because Matt, so Connor is my older one. He’s 13, so I’ve had a lot more talks with him about racism. When I was homeschooling him, we did a whole thing on Martin Luther King and he always just thought it was so weird. Then Max would watch The Green Book with us and his brain was broken by the fact that people wouldn’t like somebody just because weren’t the same color as them. He thought it was wrong, he also just thought it was weird.
I’m like, well, there is progress of it had never crossed his mind that anybody would want to do that. We’ve talked about it and stuff, so he understands that racism exists, but we never – it’s always been this intellectual conversation where we’re talking about it. He’s never experienced a story about it. That was one of the realizations I had is I probably haven’t exposed him to enough history for him to understand, but he watched The Green Book and was like – we came out to stop and explain why people would act that way, you know what I mean?
It was just really interesting, because it allowed us to have, to your point about stories in this way are very important, is it opened up these conversations that we haven’t had before. Because we raised him in this way where it’s never a question. Yeah, so I feel in that way, it was a good thing for us to look at it, because he had no category for why people would act that way when they were down in the south, especially the part where they wouldn’t let him use the restroom.
[0:26:15.4] SC: Oh, I know.
[0:26:16.8] TG: He’s like, “Why?” We’re like, “Well.” We’re trying to explain it, but it’s there’s no good reason, right? How do you explain – He’s like, “I just don’t understand.” I’m like, “Good. Just you don’t understand and that’s fine.”
[0:26:32.7] SC: Yeah, well that’s called progress. Oftentimes, we forget where – I mean, that’s why I thought The Green Book was a really important movie, because it did – that wasn’t so long ago. That was when I was growing up. I grew up in Pittsburgh and there were clearly defined areas where people lived where I grew up. They called it the city of a thousand towns.
It was so provincial that there were certain places within the city that you just didn’t travel. I don’t think it’s that way anymore, at least I hope it isn’t. It wasn’t just in the south. It was in northeastern industrial cities. My father was in the steel workers union and the steel workers union had these different distinctions too. That was in the 1970s in Pittsburgh. We’re really just at the beginning of metabolizing a really horrific cultural nightmare. That’s why there’s so much tension and there should be tension. As you say, I think it is the stories that allow us to see someone else’s other point of view, right?
That’s the beauty of it is that human beings automatically empathize and sympathize with heroes and protagonists in stories. To Spike Lee’s point, why can’t we have more films written by people who don’t get opportunities to show their stories and put them in the places of the hero? Because that’s important, so that white people can see the world through the prism of another person, of a different color, of a different nationality, or different sexual preference, or whatever. He’s got a really great point there, because why don’t we use the power of story to affect change, because I can say it’s not reasonable, it’s not rationable, everything’s ridiculous about these categories of human being that are based on nothing, other than prejudice and tribalism.
I can say that until I’m blue in the face, but tell me a great story, something like Lilies of the Field with Sidney Poitier, right? I remember seeing that when I was a little boy and I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Imagine that. Imagine what it’s like to have a different color skin, or in the heat of the night, another Sidney Poitier movie.”
I mean, think about these great movie stars like Sidney Poitier. This guy was an amazing movie star and he was a black guy. All the stories that featured him changed the points of view of little boys like me, because they’re like, “Oh, my gosh. That guy’s incredible and it has nothing to do with his skin color.” He’s a hero. We saw stories through his eyes, and that allows us to empathize and sympathize with our fellow human beings.
It just states more and how important it is to tell a really good story and to really think through your choices of protagonists. That’s the beauty of story is that no one cares who the protagonist is if it’s a great story. It’s just really that – it’s this deep reminder of who we are, we’re all in this together and we better learn how to deal with each other and love each other equally, or we’re in trouble.
[0:30:45.6] 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 this Story Grid universe. If you’d 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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