Categorizing Scenes

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[0:00:00.2] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

In this episode, I have finally finished the Story Grid spreadsheet and the foolscap for the second draft of my novel. So Shawn and I go over that, talk about some specifics and then he gives me some homework that is a tool, a Story Grid tool that we’ve never talked about before on the podcasts. So I’m excited for you to hear it and for you to dive into this with me. So let’s jump in and get started.

[INTERVIEW]

[00:00:50] TG: Shawn, I sent you the spreadsheet yesterday. I finished it up. I went through the – I went scene by scene through the entire second draft of the threshing and I filled out the first – I think it’s – I forgot how many columns, like 10 columns or something, that we went over on the last episode. So, yeah, I went through each scene. Filled them all out and tried, again, the value shift. What it shifted on was the hardest for each one.

Yeah, I did that, and I feel like overall – My kind of feeling is that, overall, the story is working and there’s a lot of peripheral stuff that needs fixed. But, overall, I’m still pretty happy with how the story is working overall. But, yes, I did the spreadsheet and send it to you. Did you get a chance to look at it a little bit?

[00:01:52] SC: I did. I did obviously go through scene-by-scene in every perfect way. I did notice that you didn’t put the break. I mean, you have the break for the end of the beginning hook to middle build, but –

[00:02:08] TG: Oh, yeah. I didn’t put the –

[00:02:09] SC: So what do you think the break is from middle build and the ending payoff?

[00:02:15] TG: Let’s see.

[00:02:16] SC: So you have 58 total scenes.

[00:02:18] TG: Right. It’s actually 57, because for some reason I skipped scene 39 when I was like doing all my scenes.

[00:02:30] SC: Oh! I see. Yeah.

[00:02:32] TG: Yeah. I was like, “Did I cut it? Did I lose it?” No. I just apparently decided it’s like the floor 13 on skyscrapers. Just leave it out. Yeah. It’s the scene after she wins the third severing. Let’s see. I’m him looking for here. Yeah. After scene 40 is where I was going to place it.

[00:02:58] SC: Okay. So that gives you 17 scenes in your ending payoff and 13 is your beginning hook, right? Yeah. Let’s se. What does that mean? I’ve got 13. 17, which is 30, and you have 57 scenes. So you have 27 in the middle. Yeah, that seems to be reasonable. How do you feel generally about sort of your heroic journey – Let me take a step back. Okay. You’ve done your spreadsheet. You’re feeling pretty good globally about the movement of the story from the beginning hook, through the middle build, to the ending payoff.

Generally, what I can say is that we’ve spent so much time thinking through the heroic movement from ordinary world. It’s sort of like the beginning of The Hobbit. Tolkien rights There and Back Again. I think that’s the subtitle of The Hobbit, actually. So that’s a really good small bit of advice about the heroic journey. It’s going someplace and coming back.

So the beginning of the story is the ordinary world in which Jesse lives, transitions into the extraordinary world where she has a big adventure and then she returns back at the very end with an extraordinary change in herself as well as the external story. Globally, what I can say just not even having to go through the scene-by-scene, but having worked with you for over two years on this, is that I think that’s pretty clear that she moves from the ordinary world into an extraordinary world and then is changed fundamentally. Returns back to the ordinary world and it has changed extraordinarily well, because at the beginning of the story, order is in place. At the end of the story, we’ve reached chaos, right?

[00:05:14] TG: Right. Yeah.

[00:05:16] SC: That’s sort of like if you want to create the first book in a trilogy, yeah, you it’s all about undermining the tyranny of order, and what happens after you undermine order is not good great new order. It’s actually chaos. It devolves into a place where everybody is unsure what’s going to happen next.

I think that’s a – At the end of your novel, it’s pretty clear that they’ve reached a place that nobody anticipated was going to happen. It all happened because of Jesse, and Jesse is now being looked at as the leader, the person who’s going to fix things. Good. I think the heroic journey here is pretty strong.

[00:06:12] TG: Yeah. I felt like I did a good job of like – One is, did you see the tav in the spreadsheet for the foolscap?

[00:06:21] SC: Yes.

[00:06:22] TG: So I went through the obligatory scenes and conventions, or the obligatory scenes as well and I can identify six out of the eight that I have in there. Then I was thinking through the hero’s journey of refusing the call. Then she goes. It’s really clear when she crosses into the new world. Then the first half of the middle build is her still trying to get back to the original world. The second half of the middle build is her making this agreement where, “Okay, I’m going to do the thing, but just so I can get back to the original world.” Then when it kicks into the ending payoff, is when she has that talk with Randy that she realizes for the first time she’s not going to be able to get everything.

So that is when we moved to the ending payoff where then she makes the choice to leave, leave all of the naïveté behind and move in this sophistication and actually do the thing that needs to be done even though that’s not what she wanted. Then I have her going back to where she came from with the gift, which is she’s now in charge. She now understands her role even though she doesn’t know what she’s going to do.

[00:07:50] SC: That’s good. I’m just looking at your obligatory scenes and conventions from the foolscap page. Let’s just walk through this, because I think the listeners will want to go through this again. Now, again, the external genre that you chose was the action labyrinth plot. The external value at stake is life-and-death and gets clear from the very start that that is what’s at stake considering the painful course that Jesse goes through this story. One thing I would mention is – And this is probably a tweaking thing to do in a line-by-line edit, is to keep in mind that you need to somehow get the information to the reader that food is at a premium in this world.

There’s really not much of it and you could even have an explanation of why everybody is dormant so much, is that if you add up the calories necessary to maintain a human being and they’re all running around in heat, they’re going to burn so many calories that they’re going to need a lot of food. So the way they keep people indoors and sedate is through the grid system, which locks them into a fantasy world, which is not as calorically expensive as it is for people to be in the external environment.

This goes to the notion of really nailing down the world and the order. I mean, the order, if you really look at it, it’s pretty lock tight. If there is not much food available for the population, then what’s one of the main goals? Those who are still alive should consume as few calories as possible. How do you get people to consume as few calories as possible, is you keep them sedate. The way you can do that is using the technology that comes to the fore in your story.

Again, there’s always this moment in these sorts of novels where you have someone who explains this to the protagonists. You might have a little bit of a speech somewhere in the story where somebody just looks at it and go, “What are you, stupid? Don’t you understand the way this works? It might be 61 or 83, one of the mentor figures. Is that it’s not that simple to just free everybody, Jesse. If you did, then we would burn through the food very quickly,” that kind of thing.

So the reason why mentioned this in the external value at stake is because life-and-death is threatened in an action story at a primal level and food is one of those Maslow hierarchy of needs at the very, very bottom of the pyramid. If we don’t eat, we die. It’s that simple.

Okay. So the next one is the internal genre that’s at play in this story and it’s a maturation plot. It’s the story of a young girl becoming a very intelligent adult very quickly. Internal value of stake is naïveté versus sophistication, absolutely true. We can see that moving at the beginning of the story. She’s kind of a petulant little brat who gets whatever she wants, because she’s really smart. Then by the end she has to make very, very difficult choices using her new intelligence under new maturation.

Okay. So let’s get to the thing, the obligatory scenes and conventions necessary to meet for an action labyrinth story. Now, the first one is the inciting incident is usually an attack by the villain. Now, you have said that you did not abide that convention, but I think that’s debatable.

[00:12:08] TG: Yeah. So I put no, because when I think of attack, I think of like this person went after that person. But –

[00:12:17] SC: Like an external, a physical attack, like somebody punches someone or a bomb goes off or something like that, right?

[00:12:25] TG: Yeah. But in a labyrinth, the villain has no knowledge of the hero at the beginning. So this isn’t like somebody attacked James Bond or whatever, or like sent a bomb somewhere. I felt like – So I was going back-and-forth in my head, but since I didn’t immediately say yes, I just put a no. But I felt like in the beginning, when she is invited to the capital to compete that that would be the attack.

[00:12:58] SC: Yes, you’re right. That’s absolutely right. The reason why that’s right is that it’s a very good way of abiding by the convention in an innovative way. Okay? So the convention is there’s an inciting attack by the villain. Now, the first thing that we all think about when we think of an inciting attack is the monster beat somebody up, or there’s a bomb, or there’s some external negative thing that’s obviously negative.

Now, the convention and inciting attack by the villain does not mean it has to be obvious that it’s an attack by the villain at the very beginning of the story. What do I mean by that? What I’m meaning by that is that once the story has been completed and the reader has the full panoply of information from this story in their mind, if they were asked, “Was there some sort of attack at the beginning of the story?” They would probably say, “Well, not really, but what I did find interesting was that they coerced this girl into going to the capital to compete to fight in a war basically.”

So what the faction has been able to do was to get people to think that being invited to the capital to fight for the faction is an honor. When in fact, it’s kind of a sacrifice, right? Once you go there, you’re either going to flush out and get in – your credits are going to be reduced, or you make it all the way and you could end up dying. So that psychological manipulation is in many ways an attack by the villain. Now, the villain – If you look at the villain in terms of the global archetypes, the global villain is not necessarily a single person. It’s the tyranny of the system. Now, the tyranny of the system is the order. Now, the order is tyrannical and that they’re manipulating people to do things in order to keep everybody else alive, so they say. But it is completely destroying individuality and a heroic freedom of choice for the individual.

Okay. So all what I’m saying might sound like a really big, long-winded justification to say that you actually abided the convention, but I think it’s true. I mean, the inciting incident by the villain is when Jesse is told that she has been selected to go to this place to compete. That is an attack on her, because she no longer can live out her relatively free existence in New York unimpeded. Now she has been selected to be basically a tool for the order.

So they are attacking her by denying her her home, where they’re her ripping her out of her environment and saying, “You must do this now.” Well, it’s culturally in your story. It’s an honor to be chosen. It’s not really an honor, and she’s like intuitively brilliant to understand that. That’s why she rejects it.

I think you did abide the inciting attack by the villain. It’s just not a specific mustache twitching villain. It’s a global archetypical villain of the tyrannical culture that is – I think the word is stultifying individual creativity. Congratulations. You actually abided it. Okay.

[00:17:21] TG: Good. Just pause there for sec. A bunch of the work that needs to be done is grounding all of these in the real world of thinking about their – I need to refer to the fact that the selection process is going on and how everybody’s all excited about it. But she doesn’t care. She’s undermining it. She’s not even old enough to go. It doesn’t have anything to do with her.

[00:17:48] SC: That’s right. It’s almost like imagine the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket with a kid who doesn’t want the ticket.

[00:17:56] TG: Yes.

[00:17:56] SC: That’s what it is.

[00:17:57] TG: So there’s that, and then the food thing is a part of that to where I figured there’d be like a celebration going on because of this so everybody gets extra food rations, because they’re going to be out celebrating. So they need it for the – That kind of thing that I’ve got – Like you said, just like a line or two here or there, but I’ve got to ground that in the reality and weave that in. Okay. Good.

[00:18:25] SC: All right. Just to follow up on that.

[00:18:28] TG: I thought that of like, “That could be it,” but I wanted to air on the side of saying, “No.” I’d rather you talk me into saying I had the scene than the other way around.

[00:18:40] SC: No. I get it. Another way of sort of incorporating that stuff you just said is in the early first scene of the novel. You could have it be a celebration day. It’s almost like the selection day and everybody’s celebrating in the streets and everybody gets an extra 20 minutes outside or whatever, and that’s what she uses as cover to get the extra credits. So when people are celebrating, nobody’s really paying attention to crime that’s going on. It’s like that great scene is Godfather II when Don Corleone murders the bad guy who’s running the little Italy during the festival of – The annual festival in the street.

So it’s a really nice moment, because nobody’s really paying attention, because they’re all having fun at the festival. Then he murders the guy, because the gunshot won’t be heard because of the carnival going on. That could be a similar way to use that to describe just how exciting it is to be part of the selection process for the severing.

Okay. The next obligatory scene and convention is hero sidesteps responsibility to take action. Absolutely. The next one is forced to leave the ordinary world. Hero lashes out. That happens, yes. Discovering and understanding the antagonist’s MacGuffin. Villain’s object of desire. You say. Again, I think you’re wrong. I think by the time Jesse learns in the middle build the MacGuffin of the global order, is that the head of the faction, the President Macrus has imprisoned her brother and then her brother wants to be the head of the faction. She understands the MacGuffin of the antagonist, which is specifically Marcus, but globally it’s the order itself. It’s the tyranny of the reapers, which are still offstage, which is an important thing to establish in a trilogy, right? You need to sort of give an inkling of the deeper story in the first in the series of novels that there are even bigger villains down the road.

I think the villain’s object of desire isn’t specifically – It’s basically to maintain order is the object of desire. That’s the MacGuffin of the tyrannical king. The tyranny wants things to remain the way they are always.

[00:21:34] TG: Yeah. I feel like it’s in there, but I feel like it’s definitely a power of ten thing, where – After the first severing, which he burns down the tower and she gets called down to meet with Marcus, I need to like turn that scene up. I think I put it in my notes. It’s in there, but it’s a little squishy right now. I needed to be much more clear about it. Sure, it’s in there, but I don’t feel like it’s overly clear what’s going on. I think that’s one of the things. Yeah.

[00:22:10] SC: Yeah. He can have a little heart-to-heart with her kind of like the way – Say, you’re a baseball coach. You’re a basketball coach and you’ve got a player who just isn’t really getting with the program. Then you pull them aside and you go, “Look, I know you don’t want to do the sprints at the end of practice, but let me explain to you why they’re important. If you don’t do the sprints well – You’re our best player. So if you don’t do them well, our worst player isn’t going to do them well and nobody else would do them well and we will lose every game. So it is your responsibility as one of the best players to give the most effort. That is if you want to win basketball games. If you don’t want to win basketball games, then you probably aren’t going to attract the attention of college scouts. So this is all about you.”

It’s sort of like that kind of speech you could give – Marcus could be giving Jesse, right? Like, “Hey, you’re pretty smart here. Look what you did. You won that first severing. You kind of surprised me. Now, you’re really good, but let me clue you in here about what’s really going on.” So he can almost take almost a kindly way of like – I remember early on in my career, there was a very powerful figure in a publishing house who pulled me aside and said that to me. It was very helpful to me at the time to know that I was being recognized as a talented person who could become even better. That obviously motivated me to become an even better editor. I think it’s the same concept that you could use in that scene too. All right?

[00:23:56] TG: Okay.

[00:23:57] SC: So let’s keep moving down the road. The hero’s initial strategy against the villain fails. Yes, that absolutely is true. She panics in midpoint and is “rescued by Randy at that time”. So her initial strategy was to just sort of like get home as soon as possible. She was going to do that by just winning all the things and then being able to get to go home. Then she panics midpoint. So that initial strategy fails. Yes, you do abide that.

Hero reaches an all is lost moment. That’s absolutely true. Her all is lost moment is coming to the realization that her brother Randy is really not who she thinks he is and he is as hungry for power as Marcus is. Is that your all is lost moment in your estimation too?

[00:24:52] TG: What would be the all is lost moment for the internal genre, but not the external. The external genre would be – Well, it would either be in the second severing when she realizes she’s about to die, or it could be when she finishes – Well, no, no. Yes, that’s what I was thinking, was –

[00:25:14] SC: That’s good. That works, because her all is lost externally comes quite a bit before her all is lost internal moment. The all is lost internal moment comes just before the transition into the ending payoff. I think, as things go, that’s a very good progression, is that we suffer – Usually what happens in life is that we overestimate our abilities, because we should, because we do have a lot of capacity and potential in all of us. But often times we get – When we’re good, we overestimate that ability, and then we have a very big external fall, like our company goes under, or the thing that we promise somebody turns out to be terrible. So that external thing then pushes us into a fall where we realize, “Oh my gosh! That’s a shock,” and we have to metabolize that maybe we aren’t as great as we think we are and then eventually we tumble further and further down into the pit until we reach that internal all is lost moment where we say, “Oh! Why bother anyway? Everything is terrible and there’s no way out of it,” and then if we’re really lucky, we rise out of it and we work hard and we come to some moment where we change our point of view. I think yours works here and that Jesse reaches that internal all is lost moment at a crisis point in the story that’s going to transition into the ending payoff. I think it works.

[00:27:01] TG: Well, because up until that point in the story, she is still holding on to the belief that once this is all over, she’s going to get her whole life back, her old life back.

[00:27:10] SC: That’s right. Yeah, in that moment she realizes her brother has no intention of going back to home and the parents and the weird house. Yeah, it’s not going to happen.

Okay, the hero at the mercy of the villain scene. What do you think is that? Where is that scene?

[00:27:29] TG: That is scene –. That’s the scene where she meets with Marcus right after winning the threshing where he then kills her inside of the grid.

[00:27:39] SC: Yeah. Hero’s sacrifice is rewarded. Yes, yes, and yes. That’s true. Okay. Good overcomes evil when we allow our true strengths to shine. That’s the controlling idea theme. I think that works. Then I think you’re beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff all work. Also, your valences are shifting well. Yeah.

Okay, now – So let’s go back to the spreadsheets. I’m tempted to give you another exercise to get a perspective of the story, but I don’t think it’s necessary right now. But I can talk about the exercise and you can make a decision on whether or not you want to do it or not. How is that?

[00:28:31] TG: That sounds good?

[00:28:32] SC: Okay. What I’ve been editing another project on the side, and one of the things that I started to do in the spreadsheet is to come up with abstract representations of the scenes that are at play. What I mean by that is – Like, say, you have two characters who have a conversation over a cup of coffee. Then I would call that scene a coffee scene, a two-person coffee scene.

Say, another scene that you have is a big chase scene where the character is discovered and then they have to run through some kind of labyrinths. The whole narrative velocity of it is whether or not they will be caught or not. That’s generally a chase scene. Then you have the stranger at the door scene. Then you have the big action war battle scene. Then you have the competition scene, or the performance scene. You see where I’m going here?

[00:29:43] TG: Yeah.

[00:29:44] SC: One of the things to consider doing, especially if you start to get the feeling that you’re having the same structured seen over and over again, like meeting scene, meetings scene, meeting scene, chase scene. Meeting scene, meeting scene, chase thing. That is something that we kind of lose track of when we’re creating the story.

I think we did go over this a couple of times throughout the past couple of years so that your scenes are globally mix-and-match. It’s sort of like a way of looking at the couple of columns, the onstage characters and the offstage characters. This is another way of doing that kind of check, because if you’re doing meetings scene, meetings scene, meeting scene, usually your onstage characters are between two to four people and then you might have like six or seven offstage characters that are mentioned in the actual meeting scene. Vice versa, if you’re doing a chase scene, you don’t have any offstage characters mentioned, because it’s a very active scene where you’re describing the actual action.

That is always a good thing to keep in mind when sort of you’re at this stage in your novel. Now, the stage that you are is you’ve got a solid first draft. Now what you want to do is spotlight individual scenes in stronger ways, raise the stakes of them, hone the message of the scene like we talked about with the scene with Marcus and Jesse where he calls her down after she has won of the first severing to tell her what’s what and to give her a warning, also to let her know that he now has his eye on her as someone who could become really good at this thing. If you were to do that, then what would the first scene – Abstractly, how would you classify it?

[00:32:07] TG: Yeah. I don’t know. I was trying to think as you were talking like what these classifications would be, because it’s almost like – If I look at eight different action movies, sci-fi, futuristic, just lots of different kind of settings, we would still call this scene the same thing across all those. It’s kind of that level.

[00:32:33] SC: Yes, exactly.

[00:32:35] TG: The first scene, when I wrote it, I was thinking about how at the beginning of every mission impossible, there’s just like an opening action sequence to kind of get the ball rolling. Sometimes it leads into the rest of the story. Sometimes it’s just a complete standalone thing. Same thing with like the James Bond stories, a lot of times the movie opens with a big action sequence to kind of get you hyped for the movie. So that’s how I was thinking of this, was just an opening action sequence. You could, in theory, throw the thing out in the story. You would have to do some world setting, but you could get rid of it because it doesn’t really affect the rest of the story. But it’s a great way to open up an action story, especially since the next couple of scenes are kind of low action. They’re not too adrenaline fueled. I would call it opening action sequence.

[00:33:36] SC: Okay. What I would say that that classification, it’s a valid classification. That is at the level of a resolution of looking at the story from about 30,000 feet. What I’m asking for is like maybe the 20,000 foot view. Now, the 20,000 foot view would be criminal breaks in and steals.

[00:34:01] TG: Okay.

[00:34:02] SC: Like robber breaks in and steal something. The beginning of David Baldacci’s story, I think his first novel. Oh! What was the novel called? It was Executive Privilege I think it was called, and it was this story of the president doing something horrible. But the opening scene is the hero of the story I believe is a criminal and he’s broken into the White House or an apartment building and he’s in the process of stealing something. Then he actually witnesses a crime. It’s like this double whammy, but the 20,000 foot view of that is criminal in the process of robbing an apartment or a store or something.

That’s how I would sort of classify that in terms of this one level of resolution. You’re looking at it at a level that would be – I’m going to open up like Hollywood’s big action sequence followed by intimate one on one dialogue, blah-blah-blah. But if we were to sort of come up with a glossary of different kinds of scenes, criminal breaking into apartment would be one scene and you would think immediately, “Oh! This is either caper or one of those kinds of stories, where –”

[00:35:30] TG: It’s almost like if I read this scene by itself without any context with the rest of the story, how would I classify the scene?

[00:35:39] SC: Right. Yes.

[00:35:40] TG: Okay.

[00:35:41] SC: Eventually what you can do as practice is if you have a glossary of these scenes, like stranger comes to the door scene. We all know that scene. “Knock. Knock.” “Who’s there?” “Hi, I’m Gandalf, the old wizard.” That stranger knocks at the door scene.

There is a novel where a woman knocks on the door – No. A man knocks on the door. The woman opens it and goes, “Hi, I am your long-lost son. Remember, you gave me up for adoption 30 years ago?” That kicks us into this story. So there’s stranger at the door scene. There is people having dinner scene. There’s a two-person dinner scene. Then there’s the banquet. Then there’s the family lunch, the meeting the in-laws over dinner, right? There are all these kind of scenes that we all know in our minds that if we abstractly think, “Oh! There’s the inviting the people over for cocktails scene.” Have you ever seen the play or saw the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? You’ll know that Edward Albee built an entire play and story over the two sort of like alcoholic older people at a university. Invite over the young couple, where the younger man is now a professor at the University and the entire story is about the older people confronting those younger people and tormenting them. It’s an incredible work of art that is built upon the whole inviting somebody over for cocktails.

I’m working up some new material for the Story Grid editor certification, and part of the micro detail work I’m going to do is talk about these sorts of classifications of scenes, so that as editors, we will have the vocabulary we could say to somebody, “You know what you should do here? You should do a stranger knocks on the door scene and then follow it up by a recap coffee scene of what happened the night before between two friends.”

I think if we get more and more adept at abstractly categorizing individual scenes and start story-gridding a list of these specific kinds of scenes, it could be really helpful not only for people who are stuck writing their novel, but just as exercises to work on the five commandments or to come up with a short story. Some of the great short stories are built around these little scenes.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is the scene of a family’s day at the beach. It turns into a really horrific story, but at the beginning, it’s just like the beginning of the day. Then he moves through the entire day throughout the play, and we can follow the story because we all have had a day at the beach and we’re looking and we’re comparing and contrasting the storyteller’s version of the day of the beach versus our own. That’s what we do with these archetypical story scenes, is that you we’re not intentionally doing it as viewers or readers of a story, but our brains are comparing and contrasting what we believe will happen based upon our own experience in these particular circumstances, versus what’s actually happening in the story itself.

When we can abstractly clarify and understand the intention of each one of these scenes and what it’s abstractly trying to get across, then when we go back to edit and rework them, we’re like, “Oh! This is a criminal breaks into somebody’s house scene.” What’s the reader going to expect if they’ve seen 30 criminal breaks into the house scenes?

[00:39:51] TG: Yeah. It’s also a way to kind of keep yourself and check if you’re doing a cliché.

[00:39:59] SC: Yes. How can I make this two friends having coffee scene more interesting than two friends having coffee? Hemingway took that in Hills Like White Elephants, which we talked years ago. That’s a scene where two people were having coffee or having a drink and they never discuss what they’re both thinking about.

[00:40:22] TG: That’s a brutal one.

[00:40:24] SC: It’s a brilliant scene without ever revealing the subtext. You kind of get where I’m going with this micro scene abstract 20,000 foot category. It’s another lens of looking at a story that can help us from scene-to-scene and really clarify what exactly it is this scene is all about. This is what actors do all the time. They ask each other, “What do you think that scene is about in the third act in Shakespeare?” They’re like, “I think it’s actually guy comes home from college and has flunked out of school and it has to tell his parents.” Then they could be talking about like Act III of King Lear. But it helps the actor be like, “Oh, I get it. I just came home from college and I’m trying to explain to my parents why I was kicked out for smoking dope.”

Then all of a sudden they use the Elizabethan language and they’re acting a scene in that way that people in the audience go, “Oh my gosh! This guy is in deep trouble.” They don’t know why the actor’s actions are doing that. It’s because the actor’s intention is to play the part of the kid who just got kicked out of college who has to tell his parent. I’m not trying to mix you up, Tim. I’m trying to just sort of like apply some new ideas in a way – You know what I’m saying? I’m not trying to criticize your work. I’m just trying to –

[00:42:05] TG: Oh, no.

[00:42:06] SC: I don’t know that there’s anything active for you to do. I don’t know what the point of getting you to do this for 57 scenes would be other than to exercise a muscle in your brain that you could probably develop another time.

[00:42:23] TG: No. I think one of the reasons that we’re doing this is to continue to try to look at stories from a new perspective, because even as I went through, like I realized, “Oh, okay. I have like four scenes in a row that shift from negative to positive. That’s going to have to be fixed,” or I have like three – Like right here I’m looking at, I have three revelation scenes in a row. I probably need to mix that up.

I mean, that’s the whole point of this. I always think of it as like there’s – I think of it like I don’t know if you’ve seen those toys. I think it’s called a perplexes, and it’s this sphere, this plastic sphere and inside of it is this 3D maze. You have a little marble that you have to get all the way through the maze and you constantly have to turn this thing and look at it from different perspectives in order to get it through.

I made my family promise to never buy me something like that again, because I get so obsessed with it and I get so angry, I want to like throw it out the window. I’ve thrown it across the room multiple times, but the idea is that like every time you turn the ball, you see the entire maze, you get a new perspective on the maze that allows you to understand it. So that’s how I think of all of these things, is it’s like forcing me to – I had a buddy in town last week and we were going through this book that we got off Kickstarter that’s all these lateral thinking puzzles. You know those puzzles that like –

[00:44:03] SC: Yeah.

[00:44:04] TG: I’ve always been horrible at lateral thinking puzzles. Once I see something from one perspective, it’s really, really hard for me to change my perspective. Once I look at a lateral thinking puzzle and I think I figure out the answer and then it’s wrong, I’m kind of screwed. I cannot get myself to look at it from a different perspective. I’ve been like that since a kid. It’s like this weird thing in my brain.

So what I’ve enjoyed about like looking – Because when we went through the first draft, we looked at it from the perspective of the hero journey archetypes, the hero’s journey moments. We looked at it and I just kept thinking like, “Okay. This is really good, because these tools forced me to forget about the way that I think about the story, which is this how it’s written, and forces me to look at it from a new perspective.

Yeah, so I’ve enjoyed this. So I’ll work on that this week. I’ll just add another column to the spreadsheet. Actually, I already did. I’ll start working through trying to come up with these things as well. Because I think it’ll be good for me, because what I see those – When I write a scene, I’m not necessarily thinking I’m writing a two friends meet for a coffee scene. Once I see –

[00:45:31] SC: No, of course not. 

[00:45:32] TG: Once I think, “Oh! This is a two friends meet for coffee scene,” I see it from that perspective I’d be like, “Oh my God, this scene is not innovative at all. It’s the same scene I’ve seen 100 times. It’s just in a different setting, so I didn’t think of it that way.”

[00:45:47] SC: I mean, just not to belabor the point on this, but the other thing that’s very helpful about looking at the scenes in this way is that say you do four meetings scenes in a row, and plenty of writers have done four meetings scenes in a row in the course of literary history. Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to stick something else and that’s not for – I would certainly say you got to make something up there and switch something up. But my point is, is that the other thing that I try and really emphasize, and I don’t think I’m even doing it enough, is one of the most difficult thing about writing is to take away self-flagellation while you’re going through it.

If you are looking at a story from multiple levels of analysis, it can allow you to just say – It can shut up the other person who’s like, “Yeah, but that sentence is terrible.” That’s the worst dialogue I’ve ever read in my life. Because if you’re going, “I don’t care about the dialogue. I’m just trying to get the abstract notion of what the scene is about. Oh! This is a meeting for coffee scene. I wonder why,” and then you can really step backward and go, “I wonder why I wrote three meeting for coffee scenes in a row. Oh, you know what? I bet it’s because I wanted to get a lot of information to the reader about this particular world, and I thought that having these coffee scenes where people explain things to one another would be a way to do that. Oh, okay. So what was the intention of each of these scenes? Oh! I guess the intention was just exposition to tell them about the nature of this world.”

Then you can save to yourself, “Gees! Is there another way I could do that? Maybe I could have X scene. Maybe I could – Is there a way to make that exposition active?” Meaning someone thinks somebody is somebody else does something based upon that information, and then actively hurt someone and then says, “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were an orc.” That way, it gets you to creatively fix your problems without being like, “I am such an idiot. I can’t write dialogue to save my life.” So it’s identifying problems, challenges, obstacles for you telling a better story as opposed to beating yourself up because you made a mistake, or maybe you didn’t do the best scene imaginable for that particular moment. Guess what? Nobody does. It’s using levels of analysis of story to help you invigorate the narrative so that you’re constantly mixing it up. When the reader is expecting a particular scene to follow another, you don’t give them that. You give them another scene and they go, “Oh my god! What’s the stranger at the door scene doing when I expected two people meeting for coffee scene?” Guess what that does? It makes them keep reading to find out the answer to that question.

So these ways of looking at the scenes from the 30,000 foot view, to the 20,000 foot view, and all the way down to the beat level are really – They’re just little micro tools for you to be able to look at your work in a different way and improve it so that you start to have these tools available to you the more you write. So the more you write and the more you level up your craft, the more you bring this to the page in your first drafts as opposed to having to really put on your thinking cap as an editor to say, “Oh my gosh! Look at that. I’ve got five valiant shifts moving the same way, and five meetings scenes in the same way. I got to mix that up.”

Then you actually have an intention for work that day, as supposed to, “Hey, it looks pretty good. Let me see if I can get an agent on this.” You’re just shipping them out to a bunch of people who don’t want to read it in the first place, and it’s not even ready.

[00:50:21] TG: Yeah. Okay. So I’m going to work on that. Then I’m also going to – I’ve have been itching to work on a little more of the world. We talked a month or two ago about spending some – Almost write a brief history of the world.

[00:50:39] SC: Yes. Also when you’re doing that – Sorry to interrupt, but I don’t want to forget this, is that – and I think I talked about this a couple weeks ago. When you’re doing the world, think about the time period that this is happening. I’m reading a book called Station 11 for fun, and one of the really nice things that she does as a writer, I think her name is Emily St. Mandel or something. But she’s a very good writer. What she does really well is she’s always dropping in little references to what time it is. How long they’ve been on this journey? The way things used to be versus the way they are now. It’s done in a way that is not a slap in the face.

So dropping in these little bits and pieces of, “Oh, that reminds me of the –” That’s a terrible expression of having a character say, “That reminds me of –” You don’t want to do that. But just dropping in little bits of pieces and knowing in your mind, “When does this story begin? How many months is it?”

Jesse, on day one, how many days does it take from day one to the end of your story? Do you know the answer to that?

[00:51:55] TG: No.

[00:51:55] SC: You should. Yeah, you should.

[00:51:57] TG: Well, yeah, I mean there are several spots where – I mean, there’s a whole string of scenes where it’s like, “When is this scene happening?” And I just have a question mark. Yeah, because you’ve talked a lot about that with Pride and Prejudice, of how it started in this season and it went to this season and you always knew where you are at. That’s where like I feel like making the decisions will allow me when I go back through to easily drop that in. It’d be like, “Oh! I can mention that here. I can mention that here,” and the reason why I didn’t mention that on the first one is because I don’t know.

[00:52:38] SC: Right, which is fine.

[00:52:39] TG: Yeah.

[00:52:42] SC: I’ll give you one more tip, and I use this with my kids when they’re working on projects, writing projects, especially timed writing, because when you’re a kid you get these stupid tests where you’ve got 20 minutes and they go, “Give me an essay in 20 minutes that answers this question.” A lot of people get caught up working their micro sentence structure at the beginning and then they never answer the question, because they’re working on their writing and then the 20 minutes is up.

So the solution I gave them, and it really works well for them, is write it like a police report, “This happened. That happened. This happened. That happened. This happened,” and that way you don’t get caught up in worrying so much about the language. Just say, “At 12:00 PM, Jesse is caught inside a house. At 3:00 PM, blah, blah-blah-blah.”

Very simple declarative sentences from start to finish, and then later you can go back and polish things up. But just use it like a police report to describe your world, “In X year, the following happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. The end.” That will keep you from falling in love with writing the history of your world.

[00:54:08] TG: All right, I can do that.

[END OF INTERVIEW]

[00:54:08] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review.

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

[END]

About the Author

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. She’s been a Story Grid junkie since 2015 and became a certified editor so that she can help fellow authors, in all genres, become better storytellers.
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