[0:00:00.9] 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’m the struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining the shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode, I had something really cool happened as I was continuing to write the middle build in my story. If you’ve been listening along with us, you know that this thorn in my side is like trying to figure out the world that I’m basing my book in, which will then help me figure out everybody’s motivations, and I finally had some breakthrough in that. And so I get to talk about that. It was really cool for me and I think a lot of you hopefully will see yourself in that of like you’ll eventually get to where you need to be.
Then we go into talking about this new show on Netflix called Altered Carbon, and I’m saying this upfront, because usually in some ways you could say this entire show is based on spoilers, right? So writing my book, like you get the entire book as I write it, and when we talk about movies and that kind of thing, but this is a brand-new show that’s very popular.
So towards about two-thirds of the way into this episode I started doing spoilers on Altered Carbon. So either watch that. If you’re going to watch it, watch it before you listen to the second half of this episode. In the context of me talking about that is basically my own fears about releasing a book that’s not good, that doesn’t work, that people get angry when they read and all that kind of stuff. As I write this book, I have different freak outs about different things and I just found myself freaking out of like what if I get done with this and it just doesn’t work. What that’s going to be and how do I avoid that happening? So that becomes the second-half of the discussion on this week’s episode, and we dive into that. Shawn, as he does, tries to talk me off the ledge.
So it’s a fun episode talking about world building, talking about the show Altered Carbon and talking about how to make sure that your book doesn’t suck. So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:02:14.1] TG: Shawn, last week was super helpful in getting me over a hump. We’re working on my middle build. We got past the first big test, and then we worked a lot on like what to do in these in between times for these major story events of how you have to keep them interesting and moving even though these major story events aren’t happening in them. And so I rewrote several scenes, pieced that together with other scenes I’ve written and you felt like that was good. So my next thing was to start working on getting from that place, the end of that sequence through the middle point, the big moment at the middle of the middle build. So I started working on that.
One of the thing — It was interesting. It’s one of these like muse moments where — So I went back and like reread my story, the first draft of this portion of the story and I’ve kind of like — I already knew, like, “Okay. There’re some holes here I got to fill, and then I want to rewrite these scenes with these new things.” And so I took one of the scenes and I was rewriting it and one of my biggest worries and problems in my head is I have not been able to wrap my head around my world. I keep feeling like there’s all these holes in it and it doesn’t work right and I don’t understand why the powers are working the way they’re working, which gives me all kinds of anxiety, because I keep feeling like it’s such an important thing that could change my entire story dynamic if all of a sudden it shifts, right? So if like, “These people aren’t in charge, these people are in charge, well maybe they’re my villains now and now that has to change everything.” and, “Oh my God, what am I going to do?”
You kept telling me like to keep writing. That stuff will work it out. What I remember you saying is things like your subconscious is working on it. You need to just trust that. It will come when it comes or whatever, which is not super easy for me to do, but I’ve been trying to do that. So I was working on this scene that had nothing to do with the history of my world, which I haven’t talked about yet. I noticed in Hunger Games, she very quickly drips in like who the capital is, the fact that there’s 12 districts. The 13th one was wiped off the mat, and then like as they go through the story she liked fills in the gaps. I haven’t done that yet. I’m like, “I know once I figured out, I can like drip it into the beginning.” I was just writing this scene that had nothing to do with that and then all of a sudden like it just started downloading.
I had the scene in the first draft where they’re showing like propaganda videos to the recruits and she sees the main woman from the numbered in the background of the video. So this was a moment in the story where it’s like, “Oh my gosh! What is she doing there? What is she had to do with this?”
So I wanted to rewrite that, like have some ideas on like expanding it and making it a little better and like it has to like weave from what just happened. I changed a lot of what happened before it, so I have to like weave that in. Then I just said something like one of the first videos, they showed — I was giving context of like they’ve been showing these every week and one of the first ones was the history of the faction, and then I just started writing what the history of the faction was and where the faction came from, who set it up, why the grid happened, what the people are actually doing in the grid, because that’s been my biggest kind of mind fuck, is just like why are they plugged into the grid? I don’t understand. I have everybody in the world plugged into this thing and I don’t know why they’re there.
So it just like all of a sudden it just like snapped together and I just wrote out the entire, like how the factions work, who’s in charge, who the reapers are, why they’re in charge, why they created the grid in the first place, what the people are doing in the grid. I mean, it’s like way too long for the scene that I wrote. It was like I was so excited that I was like, “Oh my gosh! I finally understand what’s happening in my story.”
So that was like a really cool moment for me to finally have some clarity on what’s going on, because now I understand like what’s driving President Marcus and I understand what’s going to happen at the end of the story to kick into the second book in the trilogy and—
[0:07:04.7] SC: Let me just interrupt you for a second and just throw something out. I’m not suggesting you do this, but I think this is a good thing for all the listeners to think about too, is that there is a technique of being able to really get the world firmly established in the reader’s mind by using sort of a literary trick.
Here’s the trick; what you do is you have a story within a story. So, for example, at the beginning of some novels, I’m trying to think there is a baseball novel that was published a while ago and it was pretty fun. I really enjoyed it. But what the author did — And this will make sense when I circle back to it. But what the author did was he started talking about his protagonist’s love and respect for a certain shortstop, and the shortstop had written sort of like how I play the game kind of book.
So the protagonist, who is also shortstop in college, reads the famous shortstop’s autobiography; how I play the game, in the context of what he’s doing in the real story. What I mean by that is we literally read along with the protagonist as he’s reading a chapter from this great shortstop. It’s like the way I always approach a ground ball is like this. And so we as the readers, we’re sitting sort of over the shoulder of the protagonist as the protagonist is reading a book or hearing a story, and the technique really, really works well, because it’s almost like this little bit of candy that the reader gets to enjoy while they’re immersed in a larger story.
So it’s the story within the story. You could have, say, a document that Jesse is given when she gets on the airplane to go to the faction’s headquarters, and the document is sort of like one of those things you get when you start a new job, like, “Here’s your employee handbook,” and it spells you all of these stupid stuff that usually don’t even pay attention to, but in Jesse’s case, it could be the history of the faction.
Or you could do it as the propaganda films, so that you sort of get the history of the faction and the world inside of a self-contained story. So that’s a technique. It’s like when somebody reads somebody’s diary, like the Notebook, that romance written by Nicholas Sparks. The Notebook — There’re notebook passages in the book that you get to read. It’s great.
So you get to read these things that somebody had written to the character years before, or there’s also the great set up where you have this kind of the academic researcher and they’re in some more library and they discover this old dusty manuscript in the archives, and then we get to read the manuscript as the protagonist is reading it. He turned the page to page one and this is what it said, and then you get this really interesting allegorical story that will pay off at some point in in the narrative.
So using propaganda film is a really cool idea to, because — Also, there’s a great moment in the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the one with Gene Wilder. In that film — I think they call it Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But anyway, in the film, there’s this guy, Slugworth, and he comes out and he comes into the picture frame every now and then and you see them whispering to the kids who get the golden ticket, and you’re like, “What’s with that guy?”
You could have — I think it’s 81 or 83 or whatever. She could kind of play that Slugworth role, where she appears in the background, she’s almost like the character, Zelig, that Woody Allen — We shouldn’t talk about Woody Allen anymore, but there is a movie that he made called Zelig, which was about this character who always shows up in these famous events.
So anyway that’s a really cool way of solving the problem of how do I dump all these exposition into my story in a way that will be entertaining and interesting to the reader? The way to approach the manuscript or the story within the story is to think of the story within the story as a story itself. So it can get a little meta here, but you want to craft sort of like how we were founded as story. Like as you wrote all that material you were telling a story about how this organization, this government, all that stuff came about and you might be able to splice it into little sections and stick it into particular moments in the primary narrative that will be interesting to the reader, and also you would leave the page with a cliffhanger and then pick it up later, etc.
So that’s an idea to get all that material into the book with it being entertaining as well as informative, because all that exposition, you have to solve the problem; how do I tell the reader how this world came about? Because we’re all assuming that this is far into the future, or reasonably far into the future.
Blade Runner, that’s another world in the film that is very specific and you know where you are the minute the film starts. It’s sort of this quasi-weird, noir-ish 19 sort of 50s, dark noir world with flying cars and strange futuristic imagery, etc., and that’s what you want to bring to the page for your world. I think you did that pretty well at the beginning when she’s in New York. We get a sense of this very dark, strange, but technically it’s almost as if it’s been the fall of the Roman Empire, and Jesse is living in Rome. It’s like things are just completely strange and chaotic, and the only order is that people, they go into this grid, and the answers why they do — Or that’s really important. You have to make a choice on how to explain why they’re on their grid.
Like there’s a famous old science-fiction movie called Soylent Green. Have you ever heard of it?
[0:14:16.5] TG: No. I’ve only heard of Soylent, because a guy took the idea in that movie and like actually create — Yeah. But, no, I’ve never actually seen the movie.
[0:14:26.5] SC: All right. Well, I’m going to completely ruin the movie for you, but —
[0:14:29.3] TG: That’s cool. If I haven’t watched it by now, it’s my own fault.
[0:14:32.3] SC: All right. So it’s this post-apocalyptic world where everybody is starving, and people, they go to the marketplace and there’s only these biscuits, there’s Soylent red and Soylent blue and Soylent Green and people, they survive on these little biscuits. So the whole movie is set up that everybody starving, and the lead characters played by Charlton Heston, and he’s like one of the great bad actors of all time. I mean, just over-the-top bad, but in a way that’s almost believable.
[0:15:06.3] TG: He went all the way around. Like so bad it became good again.
[0:15:10.3] SC: Yeah, exactly. He plays like this police detective and he’s solving this crime, and meanwhile the background is all these people starving. Always in the background is this sensibility that there’s Soylent green and people are eating it and, “Hey, did you [inaudible 0:15:28.4] something green?”
Then at the end in the film he figures out that his friend was murdered and he cannot find the body, and he tracks the body and he’s hiding and he finally gets to — Because nobody knows where the bodies are buried anymore, because there are so many people who died because they’re starving. So he finally gets to the place where the bodies are buried, and the big payoff is that he discovers Soylent green is made of people.
So that’s the way of using a very key expositional moment as the payoff of the entire story. So if you decide to keep the whole grid thing a mystery, you could use this revelation of why people go on this grid and how as a revelatory payoff in some chapter, in some scene.
[0:16:25.4] TG: Oh! You just like tied something together for me. So let me just tell you, I don’t want to go into the whole thing, but the basic idea that I came up that I think solves my problem. So basically, global warming, fell off the cliff, and it’s too hot. We established all that in the beginning hook. So the amount of places that can support livestock and food growth is really small now, and the reapers are the ones that basically took that over and established the factions and they’re the ones that like take care the food and send it out to the factions.
What I was planning on doing for the grid — So this is all back story that may or may not make an end of the book, but this is my explanation on my head that I’m writing from, which is basically they tried to develop AI to run this, because it’s a much bigger operation than — I’m picturing like 12 people run all of these. They’re engineers, they were able to like take everything over, because they consolidated, but they can’t take care of all of this stuff on their own. So they tried to develop AI and it didn’t work, and so the grid — And at the same time, everybody’s crowding into the cities and so there’s too many people in too small a space, and that’s like wreaking havoc. So they killed two birds with one stone. They developed a grid that everybody plugs into and what they’re doing in the grid is taking care of all of the livestock and food for the reapers.
So the work that they’re doing inside the grid is extremely important, because everything will collapse without it, but it’s also the way that they control the people, is having them addicted to this grid. Then the whole point of the threshing is both control over the factions and the people and also identifying people that they can recruit in to the reapers to actually help them continue the system of control. So whoever wins the reaping goes to be a part of them, or whoever wins the threshing goes to be a part of them.
So when you said that — So one is I would love your thoughts on that overall. I still — Anyway, and then the other is my thought is that what can be revealed at the end is that we didn’t know that everybody being hooked up to the grid is the only thing that kept our food supply going. So when the grid gets shut down when Jesse tries to free everybody, it causes this problem, which is like our entire livestock and food is going to collapse in war is going to break out again.
[0:19:28.9] SC: That’s good. I think it’s a solid — It makes a lot of sense, and you could have a really great villain speech sort of explaining this, and the villain speech would speed something like, “Let me tell you an old story. There once was a village, and in the village were 36 people, and unfortunately the village was cut off from all other civilization and they only had one cow.”
And he could tell like this little story that would be an allegory for the entire globe, and it’s basically the supply of food is so fragile and the population is so large. I mean, the reasons why people would come to the cities makes sense, right? If you’re starving and you know that there’s a load, it’s like the poor refugees in countries, they all go to these camps for one reason. That’s where the food is. The people who go to the cities, they go there for one reason. That’s where the food’s is. So you can’t make any food in, like, New Jersey, for instance.
All right. So when they’re on the grid, it’s a twofold sort of control mechanism. They need to sort of artificially regulate the environmental controls that allow these foods to be growing. So it’s almost like of biosphere kind of deal where they constantly have to be regulating the salinity of the soil, blah-blah-blah.
So all those people in the grid are getting a dopamine rush by playing games that they think are only games that are actually helping regulate all the food control. That makes sense. So the reapers, these 12 board member of engineers who oversee the entire grid, and I’m assuming President Marcus is one of them, right, or not?
[0:21:38.7] TG: Well, originally I was thinking he was basically set up under their control, but yeah, he’s in on it at the very least, if he’s not one of them.
[0:21:47.7] SC: So he understands that — And part of the threshing is that you could also say the reapers are getting old. They need to find the best minds in order to keep this system working, because the system, as difficult and horrible as it is, it’s sustaining, say, 12 billion people on the planet. If the system is destroyed, 6 billion people could die within X number of days. I mean, it’s like that great terrifying statistic I read somewhere, we’re only — I think it’s nine meals away from chaos. If you think about that, it’s really horrifying and you could believe it, right? Because once you miss nine meals in a row, you start to lose all sense of blood sugar and your brain starts to do strange things. So if you multiply that by 7 million people in New York City and they haven’t eaten for nine meals, you can see how it could devolve into chaos. So that could be part of your villain speech, like, “How many meals do you think you can miss before you start to hallucinate, Jesse?” “Oh, I don’t know.”
Then you could have them explain to her, “Young lady, this is a system that works. This is a system that keeps 12 billion people alive, and you want to F with it just because you don’t know where your brother went or your mom is not feeling well and your dad is wimp?” So you could have the villain make a lot of sense, like, “What you’re doing here, you’re messing with the fundamental nature of the universe, and you will atone.” That kind of deal, like the Ned Beatty’s speech, Network, which I think is one of the greatest villain speeches of all time.
So I really liked this notion that if the people understand that there is this place where all the food is grown, then what will they want to do? Go there and eat it all. So how do you keep people from going to the place where the food is and eating all of it? You’ll have to keep them docile and engaged in triviality, which is plugging into the grid and earning little coins, virtual coins that will give them a little bit more porridge than the next guy. So I think this is a really kind of cool idea, and then the ending payoff of your first novel is, “Oh boy! You just blew up the grid.”
[0:24:35.7] TG: Yeah. That’s where I’m thinking like each thing in the grid corresponds to something in the real world, which is like when you’re doing this part of the grid and like you’re — I’m thinking of like people that play Minecraft. My kids are really into Minecraft and like you’re literally pretending to do manual labor, like how is this fun? But it’s like got this addictive thing, because it’s like you do a little bit more manual labor and you’ll power up to get this kind of axe, and then once you have that axe, you can do manual labor little quicker to get even more of these stuff. It’s like all these little things, and I’m thinking like different parts of it are like guiding the machines to take —
[0:25:22.1] SC: The robotics. Yeah.
[0:25:23.6] TG: Yeah, to take care of the lettuce the right way and to make sure the ships that are bringing everything across the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean or whatever are getting to where they need to go at the right time, and like all of is — Because my thought is as we’ve think about the fact, like Elon Musk talking about like the biggest — I’m probably butchering this, but one of the biggest threats to humanity is artificial intelligence, but yet like one of the things I read about that is robots can’t handle like water being poured on them. So it’s like if they start taking over, just pour some water on them and we win. Of course, you can keep going back and forth, but like —
So my thought is like they thought, “Okay, if we just do this, it’ll work.” That didn’t work. They need a human hand while society is melting down. So this is a way to get unlimited supply of labor to manage this system without them totally understanding what they’re doing.
[0:26:23.7] SC: Also, there’s no need for any fossil fuels at this, point because the sun is burning so intensely on the earth that all the solar panels are just completely powering the entire planet. S you could solve the whole energy, “Where are they getting the energy for the grid?” all that stuff just based upon the setup of the story.
I think you don’t even have to really get into it, like, “Yeah we tried to do an AI program, and no matter how we tweaked it, something screwed up. What we discovered is, isn’t it much easier to have people do this manual directive labor than to try and program a computer to take over it?”
Now I know quantum computer is about to come online. That is, we can even understand the technological advances that quantum computing is going to bring us. Anyway, I think your entire conception is very strong, and if you slowly use revelatory turning points with the information and then have the big, big bang at the end be like, “Oh! Congratulations. We’re going to have a 12 billion person panic, because you shut down the thing that’s keeping the food alive.”
[0:27:45.3] TG: Yeah, I feel good about it, and I feel comfortable with my ability to like weave it into the story as I need it to. My issue has just been I did not know what it was. You kept telling me like every time I bring it up, you’re like, “Oh! You’ll figure it out or it will get to that. You’re working on it without working on it,” and all that kind of stuff and I’m like, “I don’t know, man. It seems like a big deal.” As I was writing it, I kept thinking like, “See? Shawn was right again.”
[0:28:19.9] SC: Well, it’s great. I mean, it’s surprising and inevitable. If you think about it, what’s the one thing that we all need? Food. And when you’re living in a post-apocalyptic world, what’s the thing that will give you the most power? Food. And we always overlook food and nourishment, because we live in such a strange pseudo-digital world, but the whole concept of not eating a few meals and what that does to you physically, it’s a really great concept, because it’s so true and it’s so primal, and because your book is you’re having the reader taking a leap of the imagination to go to this future strange world. To make this a simple plot turn on food, I think will work, because it’s so obvious that we don’t immediately think about it.
We think, “Oh! These evil people are doing it to get money so they could have more cars.” No! They’re really doing it just to have enough food for everyone, and it also has a nice thematic element, like how much of your individuality should you sacrifice for the common good. Is basically being a slave inside a digital world worth it to keep yourself alive and everybody else on the planet or is there an alternative? What is the alternative? How do you deal with that situation?
There’s a lot of really cool yeah thematic messages that you’re playing with here and it all comes through just with that food element. So I think it’s a good, good idea.
[0:30:10.1] TG: Okay. All right. That was like the big thing for me. I still have some work to do before I’m ready to send you the next thing, but it was like a neat moment for it to just start downloading and such a relief to finally find the underlying forces that are actually driving this story I’m trying to tell. I kept feeling like — Again, like since I just read Hunger Games, it’s top of mind. If like you’re writing this book and you don’t understand like the history of the capital or Panem or — I think it was Panem, like that could severely affect how you’re getting everybody where they need to go.
Now I feel like I understand like all the major motivations of the story so I can actually like have everybody start acting consistently, because I couldn’t —
[0:31:06.2] SC: Now you know what the big payoff is. You know what the big payoff is.
[0:31:09.1] TG: Yeah. I mean, I had the payoff as like melting down the grid and her taking over, but I didn’t understand why melting down the grid was such a bad thing. It’s like, “Okay. Well, everybody’s free.” Like, “Yeah! Why is that causing a problem?” So I like this, and yeah, I feel like it sets up a speech and praise of the villain of basically like, “Hey — “ I feel like it’s going to come in that time where he’s realizing she could — When President Marcus catches on to what she’s actually doing in the threshing, and it’s like too late. Somewhere in there, where he’s going to be like, “Congratulations. You’re doing this awesome thing. You have no idea what you’ve just done.”
Because, again, one of the books in my head is the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, and that’s what the whole first book is, is they’re overthrowing this power and the speech and praise of the villain is when they just beat him, and he’s dying, and he’s like, “Congratulations. You get to take care of this problem I’ve been taking care of for the last X-number of years.”
[0:32:19.0] SC: Oh, man!
[0:32:20.4] TG: So the other thing I wanted to mention here — So totally kind of shifting to a different topic. I’m used to — Most of my diet of stories are stories that work. So like most books that I read — Like I’m always terrified of wasting a bunch of time reading a book that I don’t like and that actually happened not too long ago is like All the Birds in the Sky or something, and like the payoff, I was so pissed off, and I was mostly mad that I just gave you 300 pages of my time and the payoff was awful in my opinion. Lots of people seem to like the book. I don’t understand it.
Anyway. Then especially with television, I feel like most of this stuff works mostly because there’s so much money involved, and I also — The same way where like I usually don’t watch stuff when it first comes out. I wait to hear what other people think. Anyway, all that to say, I’ve been watching this new series by Netflix called Altered Carbon.
It’s funny you brought up Blade Runner, because it’s basically the same type world where it’s like a noir kind of thing set way into the future, and the whole idea is that they found these things that they install when you’re one years old that constantly backs up your consciousness. So if you get killed, they just like take it out and put it into a new body and you can wake back up in this new body, but it’s still you.
So I probably shouldn’t be critiquing it, because I’m eight episodes into a 10 episode season, but like the show just keeps pissing me off, because I feel like one of my greatest prides in my television watching is that I stopped, which sounds weird. But I stopped watching Lost in the first season. So then I could make fun of all those people that watch for all those seasons and got really mad at the end.
One of the things about Lost that — I didn’t watch it, thankfully, but people kept saying is like it seem like they kept writing stuff and then they’re like, “Now we have polar bears here. We didn’t really understand why they’re there. Now we got to make up a reason.” You know what I mean?
So like the whole show set up as a murder mystery. So the whole thing is like there’s these super powerful, rich people that have now lived hundreds and hundreds of years, because they keep just switching to new bodies, and so they’re like the super elite rich and powerful and they have all these thing where even if they do die, they have all these backups so that they won’t actually die. They have all these kind of contingency plans. Well, somebody tries to kill one of them, so they bring back this detective from like — They had taken his little consciousness thing and it was sitting over on ice for 250 years and now they plugged it into a body and they want him to like solve who tried to kill this guy, which is a really cool set up of like the guy that got killed hired somebody to figure out how he got killed and who’s trying to kill him.
But then like this story just keeps taking these turns that have nothing to do with the main story. There’re been entire episodes that aren’t about the murder mystery, and then the episode I watched last night — By the way, it’s a new show so I probably shouldn’t be talking about it. So I’m going to spoil it, so turn it off now. But like the whole thing was that like he really loved his sister, and they kind of established that in the beginning, which she like shows up out of nowhere in the eighth episode. No set up. Then they tried to say like, “Oh, yeah. This has been weaved through the whole story,” and I’m like, “No you didn’t.” It was like I don’t know what I’m getting at, except for like this morning I was running an errand and like I was at Kroger and I just like stopped in the isle, because I realize why I was so mad at this show, is this is what I’m afraid of with my story. Because it’s like I shouldn’t be this angry about a TV show I’m watching. Like just stop watching it. Your life will go on. But like this is my constant worry of my own story, is that it’s going to suck.
I’m looking at this thing and I’m like, “Okay. They’ve spent a lot of money. They’ve spent a lot of time. There’re actors and producers and editors and all the people that go into making this TV show. They’ve put tons of money into promoting this thing, and I don’t think it’s very good. Of course, there’s movies that happens to it, all these kind of thing. So I’m like, “I am one tiny person with you.” So there’s two of us here, and I just get like so afraid that this is what’s going to happen to my book, is I’m going to like publish it and it’s like people are going to read it and be like, “What is this?”
[0:37:33.8] SC: Okay. Let me talk you off of the ledge. Here’s the situation. I don’t know anything about the television series, except that it’s a Blade Runner rip-off, and what happened was the producer, director or writer had a really great idea and it’s a great sort of MacGuffin where people can download their consciousness and live forever. They sold the studio or Netflix on the concept of the story. This is going to be just like Blade Runner.
So Netflix said, “We love Blade Runner, but we don’t want a movie. Can you do a series?” “Of course we can do a series. No problem. No problem.” “Okay. Here you go. Here’s your money. Off you go.” What the writers discovered is that they didn’t have much beyond the set up concept. I don’t know — Is the consciousness the MacGuffin. I don’t think so? Because it’s not I play.
So what they said, “Well, we sold this on Blade Runner, and the Blade Runner is really about — If it comes right down to it, it’s about a PI trying to hunt down killers. So we should have an least of some kind of crime story here.” “Oh! I’ve got it,” and they come up with another great idea, which is to bring back an old gumshoe from 250 years before to solve this. This is like Philip Marlowe in The Little Sister, which is a fantastic — Raymond Chandler’s famous PI, Philip Marlowe.
Anyway. They basically mined the old sort of crime stories to find something that could hook people for a series of episodes, and then they panicked, because they didn’t have a payoff. What’s the payoff? He discovers who the murderer is and he solves the crime. So that’s not going to get series [inaudible 0:39:45.5] with. These are all commercial considerations. This really has little to do with storytelling. It has a lot to do with employing people and paychecks, and I’m all for employing people and paychecks, but when you’re creating a work of art, you have to have a vision, and the vision — Somebody like David Chase, who created the Sopranos, the guy had a vision. He’s like, “I’m going to create a crime family that’s exactly like my family, and I’m just going to make my mom, Tony soprano, or I’m going to have my mom be a character.”
He looked at it as a family drama that had a long, long arc. Will Tony redeem himself or will Tony — Will it be a punitive plot? And he ran that long vision for — I don’t know how many seasons? 6, 7 seasons? And guess what? He didn’t even answer at the very end whether Tony would redeem himself or whether he would have a bad end. But we all sort of intuit that Tony’s not going to end well.
Anyway, my point is, is that David Chase had a very long vision, and so when he got his second season approved, he’s like, “Great. I got plenty of more stories about Tony.” Again, I know nothing about the series, but I’m just extrapolating from my 20+ years of experience in this kind of business.
[0:41:21.2] TG: Yeah, I’m sure you’ve seen a bad television series before. So not like we’re talking of something that’s never been done before.
[0:41:29.2] SC: And you see great ones too, and the great ones — I mean, they make you so excited to turn on a television. Will this happened — Let’s get to the bottom line. Will this happen to you? I say it won’t, and the reason why it won’t is because you are constantly — Because of me, constantly looking at, “What’s my genre? Am I satisfying the conventions and the obligatory scenes of my genre? What do you need in an action labyrinth plot at the very end?” You need — And especially a trilogy that you envision. You need a massive kick-start to the book two. The problem that you been facing for a long time is you haven’t figured out what that big bang at the end of your book was going to be. Now you sort of know what the big bang is, so you’re going to be able to fill in a lot of pieces that were a little bit vague, a little bit soft, a little bit okay, but not great, and now you’re going to be able to go back and say, “Oh! I can proceed in all these moments so that my set up for my big payoff will be a big, “Oh my gosh! Why didn’t I see that coming? Of course these people are tending the food. Oh my gosh! Why didn’t I think of that?”
So the action labyrinth requires certain things that you are consciously making sure are in your story. Will everybody love your story? No. Some people are going read your story, “Yeah, it works, but — Food? Who cares?” And that’s not your problem. You are abiding the conventions and obligatory scenes of your genre. You’re thinking clearly about your protagonist. You’re thinking about the world. You’re thinking scene-by-scene. You’re really constructing from a vision. Now, the vision didn’t fully become clear until two years into the work. I don’t think these guys who did this television series had two years to gestate. They had to deliver, deliver, deliver, deliver episode after episode after episode or they don’t get their money.
So sometimes when you are under a tremendous amount of stress to create story in an incredible way, it works. Very rarely does work, especially in television series, because what television writers do is they spend a good six weeks in a room mapping out the entire vision of the entire series. Sometimes when you get to quickly approved for your budget, you’re like thrown into it and you have one week to come up with your Bible, and if everybody’s just like, “We got to get these episodes done. We got to get these episodes done.” Nobody is going to say, “You know what? I really don’t think episode eight, when we revealed who the killer is, is really going to payoff.” This is what happened to that other — Twin Peaks. It fell apart at the end of season one.
So will this happen to you? I don’t think so your story is going to work. Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be successful, but it will satisfy, you are not going to make a promise to your reader that you aren’t going to at least make a very strong attempt to satisfy.
The problem with this series is that it says, “Oh! We’re a science fiction crime series,” but it’s not really. It’s not really science fiction. It’s not really crime, and there’s a lot of tangents and there’s a lot of “character development” that doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know what your global genre is.
What David Chase knew about The Sopranos is that he had a lead character who was either going to save himself from the hell he had built in his life or he wasn’t. He was either going to be — He was either going to redeem himself or was going to be a punitive plot. That’s the global arc of The Sopranos. Will Tony save himself or will he just become another mooch, another underworld slob who shot and killed just like all the other ones? At the end of that series, we were ready for Tony to die, because he had proved himself to be a miserable, horrible person who had multiple chances to change his course, but chose not to.
Same thing with Don Draper in Mad Men, and same thing with Breaking Bad. We’ve got these characters who are given multiple chances to do the right thing, and time and time again they just sputter back into their bad, terrible behavior and do what’s expedient, what’s good for them in the moment. That is actually a pretty good thing for a long form series, because we can always hope this time Don Draper won’t cheat on his wife. Oh, no! There he goes again. This time Tony Soprano won’t beat up the guy and kill him. Oh, no! There he goes again. Oh, well. Well, maybe the next time it won’t be so bad. The same thing in Breaking Bad, maybe he’ll tell his wife this time that he has the money. Oh, he does — Oh, no! It’s an in an even bigger problem.
So if you’re going to construct, and hopefully constructed six series arc, you’ve got to have an epic world like Game of Thrones, or The Lord of the Ring. You have to conceive of an astronomical universe and then really have a global action plot that has multiple characters that are sympathetic to the audience so that you can sustain 7,200 episodes, because you got nine different characters that you can switch between, and it’s like a soap opera. You can play out —
[0:47:34.8] TG: Yeah, that’s what came into mind, is like these things that spanned decades now.
[0:47:39.2] SC: Yeah. So the other thing, when you were mentioning being disappointed by something that you read, here’s a good sort of boilerplate clue for people who say, “I really don’t know what genre would be a good one to try and approach.” There are masterwork in certain genres that everybody recognizes as the leading title in the genre. What we’re doing now with our story grid certified editors is they are creating story great guides, like the Pride and Prejudice guide that I did for love story, and what they’re discovering, which is fascinating for me to sit back and watch, is that some of these masterworks that people considered to be the best examples of the particular genre don’t work, and I get these frantic email saying, “I can’t find this obligatory scene, and this thing isn’t working and paying off in the way that I thought I would.” They think that they’re wrong. They think that they’re analyzing it in the wrong way. Then like, “No! That’s correct.”
So what would that suggest, that particular genre about? It suggests that the masterwork can be exceeded, that the masterwork can be dethroned, that there is opportunity for the right writer at the right time to look at something and go, “I can do better than that,” and that’s the best in the genre. I bet if I do better than that thing, I could do okay for myself.
So the trick is when you hear, when somebody says, “Oh! You got to read this book. It’s the best science fiction story ever on in an alternative planet,” and you read it and you go, “Really? Because they don’t have all these stuff.” Then a light bulb can go off in your head and say, “Well, if I really put my mind to it, I might be able to write a story that’s as good, maybe even better than the masterwork.”
[0:49:43.9] TG: That’s funny you take that perspective, because most people would say, “Well, then I don’t have to have that obligatory scene to write a book that works. So I don’t have to do it that way, because, look, the masterwork doesn’t have that thing.”
You’re saying like they got it 75% right. Now that 75% —
[0:50:05.5] SC: The hunger for this genre is so strong that people will accept 75% is great. That’s my point, is that there is such a large demand for that particular kind of story. It’s sort of like — Like think about brand-new products, right? When I was growing up, I used to have this dream, “One day, I would be able to take music with me when on a jog.” Now, I’m older guy. Guess what happened? The Walkman came out, right? The Walkman. You could put a cassette in a Walkman and job with it, and it was amazing, but guess what? When the iPod came out, did anybody buy a Walkman anymore?
Think about it. They created — It was the masterwork of the genre, the hand held music device. The Sony Walkman was the best thing. It was the masterwork of the handheld audio listening device. Now look at what the masterwork of the audio listening. It’s not even an iPod. It’s a phone. So when people say, “Oh! The Walkman is great.”
Well, there are certain novels and I’m not going to name them, because people will just think I’m being nasty about it, but you will discover in some of our story grid guides when they come out, these specific ones. I don’t want to take the thunder away from the story grid editors who are putting together these books by giving away their big payoff right on this podcast. What you’ll discover is that, no, you can do better than that, and if you set your sights on these genres that have these massive audiences for — It’s the equivalent of a Sony Walkman and you know how to do an iPod, forget about the iPhone, you can do an iPod. You’re going to really attract all those people who read the masterwork and they’re going to say, “I thought The Hobbit was great, until I read the Lord of the Rings.” Everybody who reads The Hobbit goes, “I can’t see how anybody can do a better fantasy novel than that.” Then you go, “Here. Read the Lord of the Rings,” or “Here, read A Song of Ice and Fire,” which is the Game of Thrones thing, and people go, “Okay. They upped the game.”
So I totally stand by the fact that when people say, “See? This book sold a million copies and it doesn’t have a speech and praise of the villain.” What I say to that is I better would’ve sold two million if it did. It’s not like you don’t have to do it if somebody was successful. It’s just like nobody has written the great one yet. No one has made the iPod yet. Can you make the iPod of X-genre? Because genres, as I’ve said this a million times before, they weave and they change and they morph and they mix and they — So we’ve talked about the LitRPG genre, which is this up-and-coming thing that Ready Player One is the masterwork right now. It’s literary role-playing game novel.
Can somebody write a better novel than Ready Player One? Maybe? Probably? Who knows? Is it going to be on the Mount Olympus of LitRPG until the end of time? It could be. It very well could be. But is it possible that somebody could say, “Hey, I think might be able to do better than that,” and it might even be the guy who wrote Ready Player One. I’m sure he’s shooting for it. Ernest Cline, right? Something like that.
[0:53:41.9] TG: Right. Yeah, that’s right.
[0:53:44.6] SC: So that’s just one example of go to the Amazon categories — If anybody who doesn’t, any writers out there don’t do this, I highly suggest they do, is when you go to buy a novel, see what category it’s under an Amazon categories, because the great thing about Amazon is that they’re slicing and dicing and adding additional genre characters underneath specific genres all the time. So there are listings for like gay, werewolf, shape shifter, redemption plots. It’s that specific and you could say, “Oh! That’s the top of the genre? I’m going to read that thing and I’m going to do a better job, and then a I’m going to market all of my material for that specific audience.” Don’t pick an audience that is a niche of a niche of a niche of a niche that only has 12 people who have bought the book. Find something that has a livable wage within it, you could say. Enough people that if you write a book that’s really terrific and you’re able to get the word out to that community, that you will be able to make a $1,000 a month on your royalties. That’s a good start. You’re not going to be able live on that, but if you do enough of those books, eventually you could. If you make your craft better, you might try other genres.
Anyway, I’m glad you brought that up, how when you start to see things that don’t work, you really need to start to recognize why they don’t. And it seems to me, that series does not work, because it doesn’t answer the primary number one question of story grid, which is what’s the genre.
[0:55:34.1] TG: Yeah. So you’re saying looking at a story, like figuring out why does it work and how you can do it better is a better use of time than using it as a reason to freak out that my story is going to suck?
[0:55:46.0] SC: Yeah, exactly.
[0:55:48.1] TG: All right.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:55:49.1] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the story good podcast for everything story grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the story grid universe.
If you like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. Also, if you haven’t yet, make sure you go check out the Story Grid Editors Roundtable Podcast. We’ve been getting our initial reviews of the show and they’re really good and I’m really excited that so many people are liking the show.
In this show, this is much more about you following my path as a writer and as I write my book and all those kind of things, and I really like this Editors Roundtable podcast because it allows you to just look at a genre, look at a masterwork and really dive in and learn very specifically about what makes certain movies work in a genre and not work in a genre. So it’s definitely a great complement to what Shawn and I to do here at Story Grid.
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