Anne Hawley is the author of Restraint, a love story set in 19th Century London. She’s a Story Grid Certified Editor specializing in literary and historical fiction, and is the producer of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast.
[00:00:00] AH: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Masterwork Experiment. My name is Anne Hawley, and I’m an experienced novelist trying to ground my craft more solidly in Story Grid methodology. So, I’ve agreed to be the lab rat in the Masterwork Experiment, which Shawn Coyne is conducting as a test of his latest writing and editing methods.
Shawn is the creator of the Story Grid Method. He’s the author of the book, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, and he’s an editor with many years’ experience in the big New York publishing houses. In the Masterwork Experiment, Shawn and I analyze the brilliant short novella Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, with an eye to understanding what it’s made of right down to the beat level. Then my job will be to write a novella of my own using exactly the same beats and structure but with a different setting, style and voice.
Last week we did a little planning of my Regency England characters and setting and defined the major scene structure of Brokeback Mountain. In today’s episode, I misconstrue what Shawn meant by last week’s assignment to discover the beats in the beginning hook of the story. I dropped way down to the micro-level, and there I find 8 micro-beats inside the prologue alone. Shawn, meanwhile, gives us all a lesson in the deep reading of a scene, finding meaning and story cues that I completely missed with my microscope.
It’s a fun episode, so put on your white coat and safety goggles and step into the lab for episode four of the Masterwork Experiment.
[00:01:38] AH: Good morning, Shawn.
[00:01:39] SC: Good morning, Anne. How are you?
[00:01:41] AH: I’m fine. I’m really curious about this whole defining of beats. I’m really interested in it. I’ve run into a couple of sources that I thought were really interesting. One of them popped up just last night. Rochelle found it. It’s an old, old 19th-century book called The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.
[00:02:02] SC: Oh my God! Georges Polti, right?
[00:02:04] AH: Yeah, and they’re more like plots, but there’s some interesting ideas in there. Then TV Tropes at the opposite end of the old to new spectrum. I found some good beat ideas in there too, and I wanted to make sure that people had a chance to kind of dig around in that, because we might as well not entirely reinvent the wheel if somebody else has already invented part of it.
[00:02:25] SC: No. I absolutely agree, and both of those sources I’m familiar with. The TV Tropes things, those could be beats, they could be scene setups, they could be units of story. There are all kinds are really cool ideas, and you’re absolutely right. Not reinventing the wheel is great. However, I also think that converting story into the trope for your own self is extremely valuable tool, because the more – It’s like story gridding and spreadsheeting and all that stuff we do. The more you do it, the more it becomes automatic.
So I’m all for taking advantage of resources that have already existed, but the rubber meets the road for your own cognitive sort of ability to do what the sources are giving you. It’s like getting the answers to the test is great, but you –
[00:03:24] AH: Well, I hope that’s not what I was doing, but as I went through the story sort of line by line and I started to think, “I know there’s something here. There’s a thing here,” and just getting at what it might be, I just needed a little help to kind of work in that level of abstraction.
[00:03:43] SC: Yes. We’ll go through your stuff in a second, but just at first glance, I really don’t think you should be worrying at all about the concepts of beats or micro-beats or moments from my reading of your work that you did. You’re absolutely on the money.
The whole point, just to sort of to backtrack, and it’s always a good thing to remind yourself why you’re doing something in the first place. The whole point of the beat and the methodology of Story Grid in general is to have a system by which you can solve problems, right?
So the beat is just the micro-solution to a micro-problem. So if you’re sort of spitballing in your mind, “How am I going to do this turning point progressive complication for my third sequence scene?” Really saying to yourself, “Why don’t I start with, a stranger knocks on the door and then I’ll put in a little bit of interstitial tissue to get me to friends having coffee.” That way you can sort of map out this thing in your mind that will start spinning automatically. It’s the concept of – I think we talked about it last week. If I say, “Don’t think of pink elephants”, you’ll immediately think of the pink elephant.
So the tropes and the beats and the micro little units, these are all little sort of triggers that will get your imagination starting to go into overdrive, and that’s really what writing is about, is allowing your imagination to spin out tons and tons of stuff and then sort of getting that down in a series of sort of micro-beats step-by-step stuff, then you can use your analytical mind to say, “Eh! I don’t know. That’s not going to work. Let me just get rid of that. Let me try this one.”
So it’s just sort of mapping out different options, different simulations of scenes before you actually bang out 2,500 words. I’m not trying to say I’ve got this magic pill that will eliminate writing scenes that you have to throw away. Absolutely not.
[00:06:04] AH: You aren’t?
[00:06:05] SC: No. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that instead of having to write, say, 10 to get one, you may be able to, through using this methodology, get down to having to write maybe two, and then you’re picking one of two instead of, “I don’t know. One of these ten has got to work, but I’m not sure which.”
So just the mental practice of being able to abstract a story movement into a beat or a micro-beat, that will get your mind used to figuring out these little triggers that you can use to get the right side of your brain, the sort of fantastical thinker to start spinning out things just automatically. So, that’s why we care about beats. That’s why it’s worth this effort to sort of boil down a big masterwork, which is a really terrific short story/novella, into its beats and even you did micro-beats, which I think is even cooler.
[00:07:10] AH: Oh, I did?
[00:07:11] SC: You did.
[00:07:12] AH: That was accidental. I thought I was just doing beats.
[00:07:14] SC: Well, one person’s beat is another person’s micro-beat. So, it’s really about – You and I had this discussion, I think it was February, about my general concept of what I call the phere, the P-H-E-R-E, which is the change agent, right? It’s the thing that drops in to a story or your life that is unexpected that changes things.
So what you have done is sort of you’ve pinpointed a lot of these pheres that, some people would say, “Well, that’s kind of the micro-phere. I don’t know if I want to really go to that resolution,” but you’re a pro and you’re like, “I’m going the whole way. I’m doing this, I’m going the whole way.”
So, a lot of the beats that you’ve pointed out are little segments of story that have that change agent in it, the phere, but a lot of people would sort of – Well, I’m talking abstractly. We should probably just sort of jump in to the specificity here.
[00:08:14] AH: Do you want to start by looking at the scenes? Well, first of all, dividing this story into beginning hook and then talking about the scenes in that? One thing I want to point out for listeners and for you is that the version of the story published in The New Yorker did not include this prologue that she added or put back in, or I don’t know what the story is, in the collection, the anthology that she published of her several short stories about Wyoming.
So she’s added a prologue of about – I don’t know, a couple of hundred words. It’s not very long, but it’s pretty important. So, I’m including that in my consideration. Should we keep that?
[00:08:51] SC: Yes, absolutely.
[00:08:52] AH: Okay.
[00:08:53] SC: So, I’m looking at right now the scenes that you’ve delineated. So why don’t we just walk through them? On first glance, they all sort of click with me. So, let me put the onus on you and have you read through them, and you’ve come up with 17. So, everybody, I’m sure Anne will post some of this stuff. But I think it’s absolutely worth going through the way you categorize these scenes. When you do read these, essentially what you’re doing is giving the story event on the story grid spreadsheet that best characterizes the scene unit. So, why don’t you get into it?
[00:09:35] AH: For the prologue, which is 300 words. The literal action is Ennis begins his day having dreamed of Jack, and then what I’m calling scene one, we can argue about the numbering, is 548 words and it’s basically Ennis and Jack apply for a job.
Then scene two, which is only 148 words, they get acquainted at a bar. Scene three, I have 571 words. They start their new job. Then scene four, which is 385 words, I marked it as transitional and I think it really might belong to scene three is kind of a resolution. But I don’t feel very confident about how I’ve delineated scene four.
[00:10:18] SC: Okay. We can talk about that.
[00:10:21] AH: Okay. Scene five, I have 428 words is their first sexual encounter, but I didn’t count it as intimacy, because it’s pretty detached. Scene six, they begin to have trouble on the job, and this could be a resolution to the previous scene, but I think it stands as a scene itself.
[00:10:41] SC: Probably.
[00:10:42] AH: And it, yeah, basically goes from they pretend nothing’s happened between them sexually, but things on the job start to fall apart, because they’re so busy having sex with each other.
Scene seven, 402 words, the job ends and they part, and that seems fairly clear. That is the end of the beginning hook.
[00:11:04] SC: I absolutely agree. We’re probably going to be splicing atoms in terms of the other stuff. So, keep going. That’s the end of your beginning hook. Let’s just fly through the whole thing since we’re only talking about 17 scenes here.
[00:11:20] AH: Okay.
[00:11:20] SC: And then let’s try and set a goal of getting some of this beginning hook under our belt.
[00:11:26] AH: All right. Well, then continuing into the middle build, scene 8, 280 words. It felt like 280 words of transitional material. It just describes time passing. It contains a lot of information about his marriage, basically.
Scene 9, 690 words. Jack and Ennis reunite. Lovers reunite after a temporary breakup. Scene 10, which is 1,700 words. It’s a long one. Basically, they get back together, but it’s basically about planning their fishing trip. There’s a lot of talk in between about revealing their past, getting to know each other better, greater intimacy and that sort of thing. But the literal action is they have sex and conversation in a motel room.
[00:12:14] SC: Right.
[00:12:15] AH: Okay. Scene 11, 663 words. Ennis and Alma’s marriage dissolves. They get divorced, and there’s a conflict over Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a great scene. I think the conflict scene over Thanksgiving dinner is really like this scene, and the information leading up to it is transitional. But we can talk about that.
Scene 12, 619 words. It’s a transitional scene and it sets up the following scene, but it’s basically Ennis and Jack meeting over the years. It makes a lot of time pass, I think almost 20 years past in that one scene. Scene 13, 429 words. Probably transitional, I think, and a continuation of the previous scene. But it’s basically – In fact, I don’t really have anything on that. I just cut it out and said it seems transitional. Whether it belongs as the resolution of the previous scene or the introduction to the next scene, I’m not quite sure.
[00:13:14] SC: Yeah. I would probably agree with you. When we get into it, we can talk about it more. But, obviously, she used, let’s say, a thousand words to basically cover 20-X years of life.
[00:13:29] AH: I know. It’s amazing.
[00:13:30] SC: Which is pretty efficient.
[00:13:33] AH: Really, it’s incredible. There’s such a strong feeling of scene and sequence in her writing.
[00:13:39] SC: Oh, yeah. Gosh!
[00:13:41] AH: It’s really, really interesting. I’ve never seen anything quite like it since I’ve been studying. So carrying on here through the middle build, scene 14, Ennis breaks the bad news to Jack basically saying, “I’m not going to be able to get together with you again as soon as you would like,” and it is essentially the last time they are together. It is in fact the last time they’re together. Little do they know. That’s the end of the middle build.
[00:14:05] SC: Yeah, I would agree with that, because the way I try and figure out where the ending of the middle build and the beginning of the ending pay off, where that break is, is usually I think about the all is lost moment. This is obviously an all is lost moment for Jack when Ennis basically says to him, “Dude, this is all I can do. I’m not in. I’m not that guy you want me to be.”
So, that pushes Jack with the brilliant – I mean, there are so many takeaways from this work that we as writers and thinkers and editors can pull out of it, but it kills him.
[00:14:49] AH: Yeah.
[00:14:49] SC: That literally kills Jack.
[00:14:51] AH: But from the point of view the protagonist, we don’t get to the all is lost moment till the next sentence.
[00:14:57] SC: That’s right. Yup.
[00:14:59] AH: So I sort of drew the dividing line because of Annie Proulx’s writing style of this. Sort of there’s a definite pause to take a breath. Time has passed, and we start in to a new time period, basically, is kind of how I looked at it.
[00:15:15] SC: Yup.
[00:15:16] AH: So the ending payoff to me starts at what I’m calling scene 15, which is 477 words where Ennis learns of Jack’s death from the postcard being returned marked deceased. Very sad. He learns of Jack’s death and talks to Lureen, Jack’s widow.
Scene 16, 1,226 words. So, it’s a long one. Ennis visits Jack’s parents, the Twists, and he finds the memento that Jack left him of the two shirts. Then scene 17, 343 words, and the end of the story, is Ennis makes a memorial to Jack.
[00:15:54] SC: Yeah, I think we’re absolutely in the same ballpark here. I agree with everything that you’ve written. I think you’ve really nailed the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff. Now, the end of the beginning hook occurs at the end of scene seven, correct? That’s when they part.
[00:16:14] AH: When they part. Yeah.
[00:16:16] SC: So we’ve got seven scenes of about – I’m trying to add it up quickly in my mind here.
[00:16:23] AH: 3,111 words.
[00:16:25] SC: Okay. Great. So that’s about 30% of this story is the beginning hook. The middle build is about –
[00:16:35] AH: 51%.
[00:16:36] SC: 51%, and then we’ve got the ending payoff, the last three scenes.
[00:16:40] AH: Yeah. It’s only 19% short ending payoff, which is appropriate for something this short.
[00:16:44] SC: Absolutely. The reason why am bringing up those sort of silly quantitative details is to just support the global notion that as a sort of rule of thumb, the beginning hook is about 25% of your story. The middle is about 50 and the ending is about 25. So, here we have this masterwork novella, and 31, 51 19.
So, we’re in the arena. We’re in the ballpark, and it’s also when you’re writing a novella, it does take a little while to set the firecrackers, line them all up so that it works in the middle build and the ending payoff. So, that’s why you see beginning hooks in these sorts of works like The Old Man and the Sea has quite a long beginning hook too. That’s because it just takes a while to set up the dominoes.
So, why don’t we sort of get into – We’ll go as far as we can. Let’s get into the beginning hook and let’s think about, now, these scenes, I’m very, very confident that if Anne and I spent an hour and a half delineating them on the Story Grid spreadsheet, it wouldn’t be that difficult. We’d find pretty easily the polarity shifts, the values at stake, the point of view, etc.
So, instead of doing that sort of global scene work, let’s pull it down one level even further to what I’ve been calling beats or micro-beats or what have you, smaller, tiny units of story. So let’s with the prologue here, and just because you’ve already done the entire thing in terms of scenes, let me tell you what I came up with for this unit. It’s 300 words, and I call this beat number one. You may have broken it down further. Yes, you did, which is great.
[00:18:40] AH: I’ve broken it down into like eight beats.
[00:18:42] SC: It’s great.
[00:18:44] AH: Maybe nine.
[00:18:44] SC: Yeah, exactly. So, let me do mine first, and if you agree with me, then we can go to your level and we’ll even do the eight that make up this one. So, this is like, “Boy! Talk about the value added here.” Okay.
So beat number one, I call it “the quotidian life of the protagonists”. That’s the beat type that I’ve sort of come up with. I made some notes here. I’ll just read to you: “Proulx defines the life of the protagonist in present time. A man as they say in the retirement communities in Florida on the back nine of his life. He’s broke, barely hanging on. The life he’d built, ranch work, is running on fumes, and he’s the collateral damage. He doesn’t see much of a point to it anymore. So, he pees in his own sink, drinks day-old coffee, doesn’t keep up his hygiene. The only thing that keeps him moving along from day-to-day is the remembrance of things past. His connection to his alter ego, lover, soul mate, Jack Twist.”
So, the quotidian life of the protagonists, I pulled all of that stuff from those 300 words, which sums up – It gives a really great, really boiled down to its core, sense of who this guy is, and that’s the purpose of the quotidian life of the protagonist be in my estimation. The reason I think she added this or put it back or whatever for her collection, which she was able to be the ultimate editor. So when she wrote the story from The New Yorker, there is a New Yorker fiction editor who either cut this or wasn’t there when she first presented it. So, Proulx either wrote this, because she thought it needed it, or she put it back. It doesn’t matter. The point is, is that the purpose of this prologue is twofold. It’s to establish the protagonist in the reader’s mind very clearly, very quickly and charmingly, right? It’s charming.
None of us would really ever want to pee in own sink, but because this guy does, it doesn’t – You would think that would turn us off.
[00:21:15] AH: It kind of did, Shawn.
[00:21:17] SC: Well, okay. Well, see again, two different points of view. So maybe it turns off most people.
[00:21:24] AH: But it very clearly establishes something about him.
[00:21:27] SC: Right. He doesn’t give an F anymore, right? Okay. So that’s one thing. The other thing, I noticed when I was going through your stuff, is that you brilliantly pointed out the setup of the entire story, right? That’s the reference to the shirts hanging on the wall.
[00:21:46] AH: Yeah, and I’m sure that’s why she added it back, because those shirts disappear pretty thoroughly without this set up.
[00:21:54] SC: Yup. Yup.
[00:21:56] AH: But I have question here. What I was thinking, and it’s pretty clear on the page what my style of thinking, was to get at – Like when you say quotidian start of the day. Then, obviously, that can be expanded into any human being anywhere anytime, right? Everybody starts their day.
[00:22:16] SC: Right.
[00:22:16] AH: Every human being ever starts their day and has a routine. So there’s a level of abstraction in saying that the quotidian start of the day. Then the rest of what you wrote there is very specific to this start of the day.
[00:22:32] SC: That’s right. The reason why I read that was, remember earlier when we were talking and I was saying, “If you understand the concepts of the beats, it that allows you to spin out simulated options.”
So, the reason why I read that is that’s the way I’ve kind of summarized the final choices that she may have come to while she was crafting this piece, this 300 word unit. In that, she may have said, “Well, maybe he’s not in a trailer. Maybe he’s in sort of the backwoods in a tent. Huh! Will that work? Well, let me run that through.” So then she would create some sort of quotidian start of the day for the protagonist living in a tent in the backwoods, “Huh! Well, okay. I’m going to put that over there. Now, let me try it with him living in a retirement community and what that’s like. Let’s see. Maybe the nurse comes in to wake him up.”
[00:23:38] AH: He’s only 40 at this point.
[00:23:40] SC: Well. Anne, you’re getting mired into the details.
[00:23:46] AH: Right. Right.
[00:23:48] SC: Okay. So, let’s say she spreads those out and then she has like her five scenes, five little options and she says, “Hmm, I think he’s living in a trailer. I’m going to go with that,” and the trailer is on its last legs. Okay. It’s there and it’s that and it’s that.”
So what she’s done is to sort of use the quotidian life of the protagonist as a trigger to get her to come up with a whole bunch of ideas and she settles on this depiction. From the way she’s written this, I think the majority of people who would read that 300 words would come up with something similar to my interpretation, not exactly. They might not exactly come to that, but it would be in that realm. This is a guy who’s at the end of the line. He doesn’t give an F anymore.
So, my interpretation of what that actually means from what she wrote, and if we had you do what I did and 20 other people, I think if we read all 20 of those descriptions, the one common theme would, “This is a guy who doesn’t give an F anymore.”
So that’s my point, is that people can have subjective interpretations of individual units of story, but if you put all those subjective interpretations together, you’re going to find correlations, correlations that all share, and that’s the gift of the writer, is to create something that’s wholly theirs, wholly unique, and yet it can spin out and be communicated to multiple people with multiple subjective points of view in such a way that they all agree in the general bottom-line substance of the unit of story. Do you get it?
[00:25:40] AH: Yeah. So, one of the things that’s going on here is what you talk about a lot, specificity, giving rise to universality.
[00:25:48] SC: Yes, exactly.
[00:25:50] AH: Because these are such specific details. There could readers all over the world who have no idea what a trailer is or what Wyoming is like or any of that, and yet somehow you can understand, you can get an idea from those specific details, the aluminum doors, the chipped enamel pan, the very specific details that she puts in. You can extrapolate that into your own life, basically.
[00:26:14] SC: Yeah, and last sentence is, “The wind strikes the trailer like a load of dirt coming off a dump truck, eases, dies, leaves a temporary silence.” Now, if that’s not a beautiful sentence to begin with, but the second sentence is, “Oh! See? What happens when you die? Is you become dirt. This is like death. Death is coming. This is ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and it’s organically within the realm of the action of that prologue. So, she’s not only great on the specificity of what a broken down cowboy in Wyoming would be like in a trailer in 1960. She’s also capable, quite capable of poetic genius as well.
Just to sort of spin out a little bit here, a lot of people may start their story with that sentence, “The wind strikes trailer like a load of dirt coming off dump truck, eases, dies, leaves the temporary silence.” Now, that’s probably a legitimate choice, but I think what separates her from the rest of us is understanding, that’s a very poetic sentence, and it’s beautiful, but I need to suck people in before I can drop that on them.
The way the suck people in is to begin with its human being, the very first three words are the three words of this man’s name. We are going inside the life of one person. So, she doesn’t begin with the wind. She begins with “Ennis Del Mar wakes”. Simple, declarative noun verb.
[00:27:58] AH: Right. Yeah, and tells us who the protagonist is and who we’re going to be following through the story.
[00:28:05] SC: We might not want to hang out with a guy, but he’s interesting. It implies so many different things, like how did this guy get to this point? It’s a mysterious prologue that really gets us interested in reading more. That’s narrative drive. It’s great.
[00:28:28] AH: He’s a sympathetic character. I mean, by the time you get to the end of these 300 words, I mean, he’s had this dream. He’s humanized. There’s this sorrow to him. He’s in trouble. There’s a feeling that he’s – He not just doesn’t give a damn anymore, but he’s in trouble. There’s a feeling of what’s going to happen with this guy. Of course, we never really find out, because this is the end of the story, but it’s implied. You want to find out how he got there.
[00:28:56] SC: Yeah. Okay, for fun, and not just for fun, but for great instruction. Why don’t you break down the eight or nine micro-beats that you came up with that come up and create this global thing if we’re going to agree that the quotidian life of the protagonist is a good representation of what this beat is, if we’re an agreement with that. Are we in agreement with that or not?
[00:29:26] AH: Yeah. No. We totally are. I’m just sort of taking it back that you treated this whole 300 words as a beat, because I’m learning what we’re talking about when we talk about beats. So, that’s fine, because I took you at your word last time when you said, “We may have as many as 120 beats in this story.” So I’m looking at that level.
[00:29:45] SC: That’s great.
[00:29:46] AH: I’m sifting through the grains of sand here. So, I started with the first sentences, first couple sentences basically waking up. Then starting his day, which I see is applicable – Here’s what I was thinking. Here’s how I was thinking about this. I was thinking about how to repurpose any little Lego block in here. So, you can have a starting your day scene, which could be separate from a waking up scene, right? That’s how I was looking at it. Person wakes up. Person starts his day. There are worrisome signs, because that’s the wind threatening that it might be a difficult drive that day.
He’s in a situation where he has no choice, that’s like the next sentence. Has no choice. Then the owner of the ranch, presumably his boss, has given him responsibilities that he should’ve taken. So I called that someone abdicates responsibility or someone is left holding the bag. Then in the midst of all of this rising difficulty, something good offsets a hard choice. That’s when we find out that he’s had a dream of Jack Twist.
There’s a last-second save. That’s when he rescues the coffee from boiling over. These are really micro. Then as he left a panel of the dream slide forward, I identified that as living in the past for solace or comfort. And then there’s an ominous resolution with the wind striking the trailer like a load of dirt.
[00:31:11] SC: Yeah. I mean, I think you – That’s perfect. That’s a perfect way of taking a beat, a 300-word unit and bringing it down to 7 to 8 words units or 10 words or whatever it adds up to. So, all I can say to you is keep going, because you’re operating really, really at a high-level, and that resolution is absolutely on the money. Because you are the writer, it only makes sense that you would want to break that down to that level, because you’re the one who’s going to have to, “Well, what sentence am I going to use here? What’s the general gist I want to get out of these couple of sentences?” So, my hats off to you on that.
Okay. Let me just quickly run through, because I did spreadsheet these beats. I’m just going to give a highlight of my Story Grid spreadsheet stuff. So, on the story grid spreadsheet, the first column is always my scene number. So this would be scene one. Then I have the beat number. So that would be beat number one.
Now, what Anne has done here, is that she’s even gone even higher resolution than the beat. So she’s not just looking at this single-celled organism. She’s looking at the mitochondria, which is awesome. I can’t even – I mean, I’m beside myself. I love it so much.
Okay. So, we already talked about the beat type. It’s the quotidian life of the protagonist. Genre notes. That’s just a little calm that I sometimes put in. I already talked about that, the foreshadowing of death with the dust at the end.
[00:33:01] AH: How is that genre note? Can you say a little more about that?
[00:33:04] SC: Well, the genre note would be something that distinguishes the genre or like ticking off something, like lovers meet scene. Now, the reason why I put the dust as a genre note is that it was so good I couldn’t help putting it in a note.
[00:33:23] AH: Okay, got you.
[00:33:24] SC: Now, we don’t need the foreshadowing of death in a love story, not even close, but if we’re talking about innovating a love story, making a choice that combines it with thematic death as a counterpoint, if we think of it musically, is a pretty damn good choice, because no one else – Very few people would ever think, “Oh! Love equals death,” but there’s a little bit of that in here. If life is an intimate connection with another human being, not having that is death. So, you could see the mind of a genius sort of thinking of these things and then using her language and her writing ability to actually get that very, very subtle, the oboe, if you will, the oboe notes in this story.
All right. So the work has 300-story event. Ennis Del Mar wakes up refreshed for a new day despite the fact that he’s closing down the ranch that employed him. Value shift; discontented to hopeful. That’s what I have. Polarity shift; negative to positive. Turning point; Jack Twist was in his dream. So, that’s a revelation.
Third-person omniscient, and I call it journalistic, because there is just not any frills. It’s all sort of Joan Didion like as a really, really great journalists telling the story, letting the story tell itself without any gilding of the lily. That’s kind of the way I see her really incredible technique.
[00:35:14] AH: It departs a little bit from journalism when she talks about his dream, because then she’s kind of going into his head.
[00:35:20] SC: Absolutely.
[00:35:20] AH: Rather than just reporting. He gets up, he pees in the sink. He does this and does that, which a reporter watching could see and she eases inside his head.
[00:35:31] SC: That’s exactly right. So the second part of the point of view column, I have Ennis’ point of view. So she does manage that very delicate balance extraordinarily well in such a way that it is godlike. It’s a godlike point of view.
[00:35:48] AH: Yeah.
[00:35:49] SC: Period time, I have like 1983? Sometime 20, 23 years after whatever. Duration, 10 minutes, maybe. Location, Ennis’s trailer, on his boss’s property. On stage characters, Ennis Del Mar. Offstage characters, the owner. Ennis’s married daughter, and Jack Twist.
So that is sort of the bare bones of the beat Story Grid spreadsheeted and, believe it or not, Anne could, if she so desired, which I do not recommend she do. She could do the exact same thing for all eight of those little micro-beats that she went over earlier. Those micro-beats – It’s pointless. Just understanding these micro-beats is enough evidence that you know how story works. So, all these little things, the waking up, the starting his day, the worrisome signs, that he has no choice. These could all be brought down to the resolution of an unexpected event that emerges in the storytelling in the life of Ennis Del Mar. That’s what I referred to when I say a phere, a P-H-E-R-E. It’s this little sort of ball of energy, and I’m talking not literal ball of energy, although I actually think it has metaphysic qualities to it. It drops into the life of this protagonist and changes. It’s the thing that causes some change. We have these little things that cause change that add up into larger and larger changes in our life.
So, Anne’s designation of these micro-beats are representations of this concept of the phere dropping in unexpectedly and changing things.
Great! We’ve just nailed the first 300 words. We’re 43 minutes in. So, what I’d like to do now is I think we should just keep going and go for as long as we can, and then we’ll cut it. So let’s get into scene number one, which you have termed – Let’s see what I called it. You say Ennis and Jack apply for a job. That’s your beat type.
Yeah, actually, I did the second beat that I call interstitial tissue, and that beat comprises everything up about their backgrounds up until the sentence: “He wanted to be a sophomore. Felt the word carried a kind of distinction, but the truck broke down short of it pitching him directly into ranch work.”
So, it doesn’t matter. My designation of interstitial tissue is more of a writer’s crafty kind of little expositional bit, and it’s just a way to get from that great prologue into giving us a full picture of who this guy is from his youth. Back story portrait of the protagonist as a young man in order to transition into the love story. So, that’s the purpose that I wrote for this interstitial tissue.
You included the interstitial tissue in the scene, which you should, and you did the right thing, and your scene is called “Ennis and Jack apply for job”, which I totally agree with. So, why don’t you go through your micro-beats for this 548-word scene and then let’s see where that takes us. But for I think we’re doing well here.
[00:39:36] AH: Okay. Well, I took the first couple of sentences, I guess. No, it’s a single sentence, and I just called it “exposition full of ammunition”.
[00:39:45] SC: Right. That’s better. That’s better than interstitial tissue.
[00:39:49] AH: Well, they’re both kind of hard to say. I think, really, that exposition, like you say, does continue for the next several sentences. But I had identified the next sentence where it talks about Ennis’s difficulty getting through high school and the hardship in his truck breaking down as overcoming a difficulty, and then followed by a difficulty that can’t be overcome. Then, to me, the sentence that starts with, “In 1963 when he met Jack Twist”, we’re still giving background, but we’re hinting at the scene actually starting.
[00:40:21] SC: Yes.
[00:40:22] AH: But that’s all part of several sentences of exposition. Then they shook hands in the choky little trailer office. That’s the lovers meet.
[00:40:31] SC: Absolutely. Let me just back up to that sentence that you just mentioned. In 1963, when he met Jack Twist, Ennis was engaged to Alma Beers. Okay. So, one of the conventions of love story as you know is the necessity of having a triangle. So, there she’s done it, right? Annie Proulx has put in the triangle.
[00:40:55] AH: All three names in a sentence. It’s great.
[00:40:57] SC: Right. So it’s like, “Check!” So, anyway I just wanted to point that out. A lot of the times, people really sort of thrash their mind, “Oh! How am I going to get that done?” She did it, one sentence. Then she nails the lovers meet scene, and I think we talked about this earlier, but she does this in a way that’s very organic. These guys, they’re just there for a job. The lovers meet is very mundane and every day and ordinary, which is exactly the opposite of the relationship that they end up having.
So, if we were going to go nuts and say, “Well, what’s the phere thing that Shawn’s talking about in this unit of story?” You would say, “Well, the minute that those guys shake hands, there’s sort of phere, P-H-E-R-E, that drops into both of their lives that begins the process of change. Their connection, their literal handshake, it starts something that neither one of them expected. Unexpected event that causes change is a phere.
That all leads up to lovers meet. Then you’ve got a few more here in this exact scene. So, why don’t you continue?
[00:42:10] AH: Yeah. It goes on to Joe Aguirre talking about the job, and he’s demanding that, basically, one of them do something illegal. So I sort of abstracted that down to a superior or a boss assigns a task, a job description and is demanding bad action or demanding – What do I want to say? It’s like an imposition of authority over lower people, right? I can tell you to do something illegal and you’re going to do it.
[00:42:38] SC: That’s right. It’s great.
[00:42:40] AH: Then in the next kind of sentence, he goes on, he’s assigning that illegal task to Jack and then he points at Ennis and the next part is he assigns, he just assigns a task that’s perfectly legal. So, it’s another job description.
[00:42:52] SC: Yup.
[00:42:53] AH: And then there’s this one thing that I thought was really important. Joe Aguirre didn’t ask if Ennis had a watch, but took a cheap round – He throws a little cheap watch at him. To me, that was like putting down the help or looking down on an inferior or proving dominance in a very subtle way, and that’s the paragraph that ends with that great sentence, “Pair of deuces going nowhere.”
[00:43:19] SC: Yeah, I agree with all of that. One of the things that people talk about in terms of how am I supposed to characterize my guys or my women in my story? How am I going to do that? A lot of people recommend that you do these vary in-depth character histories and you write down all these stuff that you never put in the book about what they eat for breakfast. Who their third date was in high school, all that kind of stuff.
I don’t think that’s necessary if you think of conflicts, right? How can you define the character of someone best is through what they do when they face conflict? So, Joe Aguirre is representative of all of the forces above social forces above Jack and Ennis. These are everything from the family circle, the mother and father of Jack and Ennis who obviously held these guys with a very tight leash. All the way up to their employer, up to the social class, the country, etc., etc., etc.
So, the circles of social influence are all embodied in the actions of this one character, Joe Aguirre. So, the fact that you pointed out that he asks them, doesn’t ask, demands them, to perform the legal service and does not have any problem telling them that. It’s a really, really good point, because that’s who these two guys are. The most unlikely people to leave social norms, right? They are born and bred cowboys.
So, what she’s doing with this structure, this sort of social structure in the telling, is to establish, “Hey, reader. These guys are the two most unlikely fellows to buck social norms. They have been perfectly broken.” If they’re horses, you break these horses and then they do what they’re told. So these are the two least likely people who would break social norm.
So, it’s a brilliant way of establishing the power of their connection. They know to be gay in 1960s, Wyoming, that gets you killed. It’s like no question. No question about it. They know that. Their daddies told them that from the minute they were born. But that’s who they are, and they love each other and lightning strikes. It’s just, “Sorry, the Gods have something for you that you’re not really thinking about.”
So, this is all to say that that great little micro-beat that you just delineated is a way in which Annie Proulx was able to establish the very, very tightly controlled social conventions bearing down on these two men in such a way that they would be the least likely to break them all in 7 sentences.
[00:46:44] AH: It’s pretty amazing.
[00:46:46] SC: So, that’s important to know, because that’s why this story is so powerful and it’s why I think I mentioned to you earlier that my father was not a very cosmopolitan sort of person in terms of personal relationships. But when he saw this movie, he’s like, “Oh! I get it. I get it. Oh! It’s just these guys are just in love.”
[00:47:09] AH: Yeah.
[00:47:10] SC: So, that’s how she got my father to get it, because he understood, “There’s no way those two guys would ever be gay if it was a “choice”. It’s just who they are, man. That is scene number one, right?
[00:47:28] AH: Well, one following the prologue. Yeah. Depending on whether how you count the prologue.
[00:47:32] SC: Let’s fly through scene number two, and let’s go with your breakdown, because I’m loving what you’re doing here and it’s better than what I have.
[00:47:42] AH: Well, this next scene is a really straightforward conversation over drinks at a bar.
[00:47:48] SC: Yes.
[00:47:48] AH: And also contains the element getting acquainted, getting to know you. They don’t know each other yet. They’re becoming friends. That’s basically you get that new friends get acquainted, conversation in a bar. Followed by two character description beats, one of Ennis looking at Jack, and the other basically of Jack looking at Ennis, and we get a physical description of each of them in I think two separate beats, and that’s it. That’s the whole scene.
[00:48:15] SC: Yup.
[00:48:15] AH: The thing about this is it’s not really – Nothing really turns in this scene. It’s just a fragment.
[00:48:21] SC: Yeah.
[00:48:22] AH: I don’t see a turn here. It’s just they’re just getting to know each other. So it’s kind of leading into the next scene where they start their new job or is resolution of the previous scene where they shake hands.
[00:48:34] SC: Yeah. I mean, you can always use that wonderful cheat about the movement. It’s like they move from unknown to known. They know a little bit more about each other. So they’re getting comfortable with each other. So, discomfortable, to comfortable, that’s of value shift that works here.
[00:48:54] AH: Yeah, I had put “indifferent to friends”.
[00:48:57] SC: Yes. Yeah, that all works. So, sometimes people get all messed up like, “Oh! Jesus! Really not massive amount of value shift in this scene. I don’t know if I should have it,” and this is a great example of, “No. Have it. I mean, we need we need variety of scene value shifts so that it feels –” Remember, that fiction is all about sort of boiling down real-life into its most salient moments.
So, to not have a moment of sort of every day couple of people having a drink together, it doesn’t ring true if you just throw all that stuff out of the story, because you need those moments – They’re almost life signposts that everyone can relate to. Everybody’s had coffee with a friend, or had a beer, or whatever, and that’s what you do. At the end of your first class in college or in high school – Well, not high school, I hope. You find somebody who seems like a pretty reasonable person. If they go, “Hey, you want to go grab a beer?” You go, “Yeah, okay. I’ll see what that’s all about.” So, that’s why this little scene is great. It’s life boiled down to its essence. It’s only 184 words, and she got it done. She got it done well, and we’re out of there.
[00:50:24] AH: I do have one question about it though. There is a feeling of a turn in the value shift. There doesn’t seem to be an actual progressive complication turning point.
[00:50:36] SC: Well, let’s see if I can pinpoint it here. Okay, you’re going to need plenty of whiskey up there. Okay. I don’t want to read into it, but if I were to read into it, it just seems to me that the way she’s describing the way Jack looks in terms of what Ennis is noticing, is the way in which we all sort of check people out. He’s a small man who carried some weight in the hunch and his smile disclosed buck teeth. Now, if he’s looking at his mouth and his bottom, it’s kind of on the nose, as they say.
[00:51:19] AH: She also throws the word infatuated in there in a slightly different context, but the word is there.
[00:51:24] SC: Yes. He was infatuated with the rodeo life, and fastened his belt. It’s great. I mean –
[00:51:32] AH: Notice my belt buckle.
[00:51:33] SC: Yeah, exactly. Check out the belt buckle. Yeah.
[00:51:38] AH: Yeah. Yeah, it’s really good.
[00:51:41] SC: It’s great. So, while it’s not blatant, it’s implied that the turning point is this moment when he notices the other guy as a physical being worth sizing up.
[00:51:56] AH: Okay.
[00:51:57] SC: Okay, let’s fly into scene three while we’re going here.
[00:52:02] AH: Well, in scene three, just to remind people, it is Ennis and Jack start their new job, and Jack is complaining about the job. That’s basically it. The first beat is transitional. It sets the scene. It’s a beautiful description of the landscape, and which I think is particularly beautiful. Ennis and Jack, the dogs, the horses and mules, “a thousand use on their lamps flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line.” It’s a great sentenced, describing the landscape.
[00:52:33] SC: Oh man! Yeah. What it does, and a lot of people say, “Well, what makes for beautiful description?” What makes for a beautiful description is in the ability to take a moment, read the words and see if the imagery comes into your mind. That is great descriptive imagery that, it’s a trigger that gets your mind to start running the film, if you will.
So, this sentence runs the film. So we see these two guys and these dogs, and the horses, and this whole sort of pack of beautiful, natural – The beautiful, natural world, and it’s moving. It’s moving upward. So, thematically, these guys are moving up. They’re transcending the everyday world into an extraordinary place, and that flow, and the flow, like dirty water, because we’re all dirty water. We all got some dirt in us, and so do these guys, and so do the sheep, and it’s just this beautiful transcendent sentence that thematically describes the film runs. Then when you look at it in terms of abstract notions, they are moving to a higher world. They’re going up. Forget about it. It’s amazing.
[00:54:06] AH: It’s so strong and beautiful that I don’t know how much it must have cost them in the movie to replicate it exactly. But that’s one scene in the movie that’s like visually exactly what she describes here. How they got that huge herd of sheep and the actors riding horses among the – I mean, it’s an amazing replication of this sentence that they must’ve spent a million dollars just getting that shot. It is amazing.
So going on from there, Jack begins to complain about the job. So it’s complaining about the job, creating a little discord. We move from that to a little bit more scene setting. We get a beautiful next-day transition. Dawn came, glassy orange, etc. Then there’s this wonderful sentence that I’m calling, I’m describing as longing looks across the room.
[00:54:54] SC: Oh! That’s a great way of putting.
[00:54:56] AH: Yeah, it doesn’t have to be outdoors in the mountain, but Ennis looks across the gulf and sometimes sees Jack, and Jack in his dark camp sees Ennis as night fire, a red spark on the huge black massive mountain. God! It’s amazing. But it’s the same as some enchanted evening. You may see a stranger across a crowded room and it looks just, sounds just –
[00:55:17] SC: The same beat type, yup.
[00:55:18] AH: Yeah, runs the same thing. Then we’re followed by what I’m calling a “honey I’m home” beat. Jack comes back and drinks beer and sits down and rests and starts – The next beat it starts complaining about the job even worse. So, he’s escalating the complaining about the job, which is going to drive the next beat, which is they negotiate about switching jobs and then they do switch jobs and they establish the final beat of the scene, to me, is they establish a new order. They switch jobs.
[00:55:49] SC: Yes, and they’re seizing their agency. Meaning, they’re up above in this beautiful world, in this extraordinary world. People like Joe Aguirre can go to hell, right? We’re going do it the way we’re going to do it, and we don’t care about all those forces below us.
So, that’s why, again, this artful turning of active movement. So, when I say they’re seizing their agency, that’s sort of the human condition. This is when we get kind of everybody gets upset and, rightfully, when their agency starts to be eroded. When I say agency, it’s when a person is in their arena, the world in which they love and the world in which they want to make their life. They have an agency. That means they’re able to act in ways that will get them what they want and ultimately, hopefully, get them what they need.
What we don’t like is when someone takes away our agency. So, what Joe Aguirre was doing to these guys and what everybody is doing to these guys their entire life is taking away their agency. “No, you can go to school, because your truck doesn’t work and you’re poor. If you want to survive, you can’t go to school. You can’t get an education. Meaning, you can’t get a better job.” So, that’s slowly eroding a person’s agency. So, now here they are in this beautiful, marvelous, extraordinary world, and what do they do? They don’t do it right away. They start feeling comfortable with one another and they’re like, “Hey, it’s just me and you up here. Why don’t we change the rules? Why don’t we seize the moment? Seize the day and let’s change jobs? What are they going to do to us down there?” and they do, which gives them power, which is a progressive complication that allows us to see how these two people are starting to open their minds to the fact that they might mean something to each other larger than what they might’ve thought at the beginning.
So, this is a beautiful progressive complication that’s positive. A lot of people always say, “Give me an example of a positive, progressive complication,” and I would say the fact that these two guys negotiated peacefully, in such a way that they respected one another. Jack never lies to Ennis. He’s like, “This job – The job that I have is terrible. You don’t want this job. I’ll keep it. Really I’m telling you, it’s horrible.” Ennis is like, “No! Actually, that’s for me. That’s what I like.” Then like, “Okay. Suit yourself. If you want that, you can have it.” So these two guys are kings. They’re kings of this world, and it’s all done with this very simple idea of them switching jobs. So, good stuff.
[00:58:44] AH: So, for the value, the life value change, I had just put that Ennis goes from the cushy job to the harder job or goes from follower to leader. He sort of insists on taking the more difficult job, but it sounds like what you’re saying is they go from no agency to agency, which is a much more powerful life value change.
[00:59:02] SC: Well, I think there’s multiple life value changes here too, because I also – I know you may have a different opinion, but I think that what she’s done here is to also abide another love story convention, which is the archetypical representation of feminine versus masculine. So, they are coming into their respective archetypical roles, if you will. Jack is not suited for the “masculine” job, the honey I’m home. So he wants to be the honey at home. He doesn’t want to be the guy out taking care of the sheep. So, they switch it, right?
Through this movement of no agency to agency, through this movement from – I forgot the other one that you said that, but was absolutely valid too.
[00:59:52] AH: Follower to leader.
[00:59:53] SC: Yes. We’re also seeing the delineation of the – A convention of establishing gender, feminine masculine archetypes. So, I don’t want to make too much of that, but I think the argument to be made that that’s how she solved that “must have” in a love story is evidence in this scene.
[01:00:18] AH: Okay.
[01:00:19] SC: I mean, your work here is just great, Anne.
[01:00:22] AH: What a relief. So, for next time –
[01:00:26] SC: Let’s pickup with scene four next week. So, we’re doing four now. five will be the rest of the beginning hook. Then at the end of the show, I’ll give you a homework assignment, and then you can send me that before the recording of the next show and we can talk about it.
[01:00:41] AH: Okay. Well, we’ll catch you next week and start in on scene four.
[01:00:46] SC: Sounds good. Thanks, Anne.
[01:00:48] AH: Thanks Shawn.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[01:00:49] AH: And that’s a wrap for episode four of the Masterwork Experiment. You’ll find links to my fools cap and scenes, spreadsheet in progress in the show notes. We’ve also included a link to The New Yorker edition of Brokeback Mountain. We hope you’ll read it and follow along. It’s really brilliant.
For everything Story Grid related, visit storygrid.com. Be sure to pick up a copy of the book; The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, if you haven’t already, and sign up for the newsletter to get a weekly notice of all the wonderful things we are always working on in the Story Grid universe.
If you’d like to learn more about me and my work, you’ll find me at annehawly.net, where I’m writing about the process of working with Shawn and the challenges of writing to specifications set by someone else. I’ve posted a couple of my trial scenes there too. So, check that out on my blog. You can also join me on the Editor Roundtable Podcast, where I team up with four other Story Grid certified editors to analyze the structure of a movie or a novel every week. To support the show, tell other authors about us or leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. It really does help new listeners find us.
Join us again next week when Shawn and I start into the middle build of Brokeback Mountain and he hands me my first official writing assignment.
Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.