I’m a Story nerd. Can’t help it. I’m always thinking about why Stories as so damn important and why some are immeasurably moving and helpful to us as we navigate this wonderful yet inscrutable world while others make us cringe in their utter cheesiness.
What I’ve concluded is that Stories are the stuff of change. Some Stories give us the courage to do things we’d never think ourselves capable, but others keep us quivering in fear, incapable of seizing the day. And the thing about change is that it requires loss. And who better to reference about loss than Elizabeth Kubler Ross? Add a little Joseph Campbell? And you’ve got a helluva narrative peanut butter cup.
So here’s the transcript for episode ten, “The 8 Stages of Grief/Writing” of The Story Grid Podcast.
You can also listen to it by clicking the play button below.
Tim: First off, I just have to tell you how awesome you are. A couple of episodes ago, I asked you to go and leave reviews to put us over the 50 mark on the ratings and reviews inside of iTunes, and not only did we hit 50, but as of this recording, we’re at 61. Just thank you so much for your support of the show and thank you for sharing it, as well.
Each week, our downloads and listens keep going up, they keep going up, and it’s really fun to see. We’re not doing any advertising or promotion for it, so what that means is you’re sharing the word, you’re spreading the word to other authors. Thank you so much for doing that.
Welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. My name is Tim Grahl. I’m your host. I’m a struggling fiction writer trying to figure out how to write a story that works. Shawn Coyne is the creator of The Story Grid. He wrote the book “The Story Grid,” and he’s been an editor for over 25 years, and he’s worked on many bestselling books, hundreds of authors, and he is sharing his advice with me as a struggling writer, and hopefully, it’s something that will be helpful to you, as well.
In this episode, we talk about the Kübler-Ross curve and how that applies to writing. We also talked about character development and what it means, how we put ourselves into our characters, and why that’s an important part of the process.
I also want to let you know that next week is our Christmas episode, and Shawn and are doing something really cool as a gift to you that we think you’ll love. We’re taking the movie The Martian and we’re running it through the Story Grid. We’re going to talk through the entire Foolscap method, and we’re going to talk about obligatory scenes and genre and beginning hook, and we’re just going to break down the entire book and walk through that. I think it will be something you’ll love. So hang on for that.
Then we’re doing a second story that will be a secret bonus story that we’re also going to run through the Story Grid, so two stories that you’re really going to love and I think you’re going to learn a lot through that. Make sure you come back next week and listen to that episode.
Let’s dive in and get started.
Shawn, I want to start with chapter 37 of your book, because I thought it was an interesting take and an interesting path to go on after everything we come to. We’ve gone through introducing the Story Grid and the math, the beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff, and then you throw in this Kübler-Ross change curve and how it applies to story and the math of the story.
Could you just tell me a little bit about what the Kübler-Ross change curve is and where you found that?
Shawn: Sure. There was a psychologist named Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, and she was fascinated about the way people come to terms with death. She wrote a seminal book – I think it was called “On Death and Dying.” What she did is she spent a lot of time with people in hospices and relatives of people who were on the path to death and followed up with them to see how they integrated this major life change in their own world.
What she discovered is that there was this pattern that people would have to go through, and it became the Kübler-Ross curve. You’ve probably heard about it here and there throughout your life, and it’s about denial and anger and depression. There are five stages, and then you come to terms with the problem and the death, and then you reintegrate your life, and you’re a changed person by the effect of a loved one dying in your life.
I think that was in maybe the late 1960s. Through the years after that, other people, even marketing people, were examining this curve that she had postulated based upon all these interviews and all this data that she collected.
I was thinking about this when I was thinking about story. I think when you really boil a story down to one thing, it’s what separates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom. We can speak, and we speak in terms of stories, and we relate our lives to stories.
Everybody has their own little story inside of their head that they’re operating on. We believe that we’re a victim or something wonderful happened to us and changed our life or we are like the black sheep of the family. There are all these little narratives that we all plug into our own plugs. We have the Eeyore guy, “I’ll never make anything of myself. Everything is terrible.” We have all sorts of little stories that are deeply engrained in our brains.
When I was thinking about the Story Grid, and I was thinking about the structure of stories – and this is my life’s work and it’s what fascinates me – I was thinking “I wonder if there’s an association between Kübler-Ross’s work and story structure in general.” Because when I was looking at story structure, I was comparing it to the Kübler-Ross curve, I was like, “Wow, this is really kind of weird.”
At the beginning of a traumatic event in the Kübler-Ross model, we have shock. We’re all shocked by the death of a loved one, for example, or, say, you lose the woman you love and she dumps you. That’s a shock, right?
A shock is very much like an inciting incident in a story. The inciting incident is the thing that throws a lead character’s life out of balance. So I’m like, “Wow, shock and inciting incidents are pretty familiar.”
And then there’s denial. Whenever we get shocked, we’re like, “Well, she’s going to come back to me,” or “My loved one, they’re really still with me in spirit and I can really rely on them being around, and whether or not they’re here in physicality or not is not really the issue.”
We go through the stage of denial and we refuse to act, we refuse to do anything about the circumstances in which we are thrown. The inciting incidents of our lives shock us and our first reaction is to deny that it even happened. “Oh, boy, I’m not even going to think about that right now. I’ve got other things I’ve got to do.”
For me, those two elements of the Kübler-Ross curve – shock and denial – are what the beginning hook of a story is. The very beginning of a story has this progressive movement from this inciting incident through progressive complications to this crisis, and this climax of the beginning hook, which is usually “Will our lead character actually come out of denial and face their problem head on, face the unbalance in their life and recognize that there is something that they must do in order to right the world?”
I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” I did more and more reading on the Kübler-Ross thing, and then there are four more stages that I think are like the middle build of the story – and that is anger, bargaining, depression, and deliberation. Those make up the big chunk of the middle build of your story.
We get angry. We’re like, “Well, I’m not going to take this any, more and this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to call that woman who dumped me, and I’m going to convince her that I’m really the perfect person for her and she’s crazy for letting me go.” That sort of thing.
And then maybe, we’ll bargain with her. “Well, you know, you’re right. I’m not really that good at cleaning the house, I’ll do more housework, I’ll take better care of the kids if you come back to us.” So you bargain with them.
Then when we reach a point in a story, this is what we often refer to as the “all is lost” moment. There’s a moment in pretty much every single story – every single story – where the lead character realizes all is lost. They’re not going to get the woman back. They’re not going to get the loved one to come back to them. Things are not going to be the way they always thought they were going to be.
The way they saw the world before this inciting incident happened to them is just not the way the world works, and this is the really like the bottom moment, it’s the trough of the emotional turmoil of your lead character.
For example, I talk about “The Silence of the Lambs” in the book. Since a lot of people have seen the movie, which is very, very close to the book, the all is lost moment for Clarice Starling is when she goes to lend a hand to help find the woman who’s locked in that dungeon of Buffalo Bill. Coincidentally, I think somewhere near Nashville, Tennessee.
What happens is she gets kicked off the team. A senator’s daughter has been kidnapped and the bad serial killer has the daughter of the senator in his really sick crypt. The senator meets Clarice Starling, who’s an FBI trainee, and says, “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be involved. Get out of this investigation. You’re worthless. You’re not going to be helpful.”
Actually, the FBI tells Clarice Starling, “Hey, if you continue to do this investigation and get in the way, we are going to flush you out of the program, you’ll probably never become an FBI agent.”
You have to remember at this point in the story, Starling has basically given up her entire intellectual life to Hannibal Lecter to get this crucial information to help find this person. The “all is lost” moment for Clarice Starling is that time when she realizes “Look, if I don’t stop what I really think I need to do, I’m going to not even become an FBI agent. I might even go to prison for what I’m doing.”
She has to realize that the way she was viewing the world, that if she did the right things in the FBI and if she went on the right meritocracy path, that she would become an FBI agent. She realized that that entire way of thinking was false, that she was being sold a bill of goods in order for her to get this crucial information from Hannibal Lecter.
That “all is lost” moment is a crucial moment for her because she realizes “The way I saw the world before this moment is false. I must change the way I see the world, my worldview, in order to become a productive person. I have to get rid of my illusions, I have to get rid of this falsity that I’ve been living with.”
That’s the “all is lost” moment, and this is what happens in Kulber-Ross. People, when they lose a loved one or a serious shock in their life happens, they realize, “You know what? I can’t go on believing that my arm is going to grow back after it was cut off in a farm accident. I have to get on with my life. I am not going to be able to ever use my arm. I need to readapt and change my worldview. I am now a person who no longer has an arm.” I’m using a very extreme example, but those emotional shocks that we all have, those are very similar to having to change our worldview.
After the “all is lost” moment in depression, we have deliberation. What deliberation is, is “You know what? Okay. My life is what I thought it would be, so what am I going to do now? How am I going to change my worldview so that I can function? How am I going to change my life so that I am not a basket case any more? I refuse to live in a world of depression and thinking that the world is out to get me. How am I going to change myself?” That’s the deliberation moment.
This is usually the end of the middle build of a story, and this is the moment when the lead character or the group of lead characters comes to the realization that they have to make a serious choice. They have to change their worldview, they have to come up with a really concrete plan for the ending payoff of the story.
They have to change themselves and then they have to deliberate and figure out a strategy to fix themselves, and then the final ending payoff of the story is them making that change and acting on those choices, which brings the ending payoff of the entire story, which is the actual choice.
In the case of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling makes the choice, “Hey, you know what? Yes, I might very well get kicked out of the FBI, but if I don’t go and do everything possible to save this woman’s life, I will never forgive myself.”
Tim: In that, as you just said that, the way that you described it is a… Is that one of the obligatory scenes of a horror thriller where the lead character is trying to decide whether they’re actually going to go through with this?
Shawn: Absolutely. You’re way ahead of me.
Tim: Because when you said that, I’m like, “Oh well, that happens in every movie.” It’s like, “Oh, I don’t know if I’m going to do it, but, oh, how about it? They did end up going after him.” But somehow, when it’s in the middle of a great movie, you don’t realize, “Oh well, this happens in every movie where the hero is trying to decide whether or not to go through with it,” even though you know they’re going to go through with it.
Shawn: Yes, and the beautiful part of storytelling is we all know this story, we all know story structure backwards and forwards intuitively in ourselves. The trick for a writer and a storyteller is to really explore specificity of your own life experience, and through specificity, you find universality. What I mean by that is that when somebody… I’m reading right now this incredible…
I’m a huge Eugene O’Neill fan. I’m black Irish; he’s like the king of black Irish people. Eugene O’Neill was this fantastic playwright. He’s the only American playwright to ever win the Nobel Prize. What he was going through in his life…
I lost my train of thought for a second. Oh, through specificity is universality. Okay, so Eugene O’Neill is like the preeminent black Irish playwright, and I’m reading this great biography about him. His life story mirrors every story, every play he ever wrote. What he discovered for himself is that the closer he got to his own life experience, the more powerful his work was.
Just to really put a highlight sledgehammer on this point, he decided, right before he was about to die, to write a series of plays that ended up being the preeminent plays of the 20th Century, in my opinion. Those plays are Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and Moon for the Misbegotten. These three stories are pretty much autobiography and they’re horrifying stories.
I bet when he was writing them, he was thinking, “Oh, boy, nobody is going to relate the fact that I spent a good five years drunk in a bar and all the people who came in there were these crazy Marxists and socialists. Who’s ever going to believe this thing?” But he wrote it anyway.
It was through that specificity of his own life experience that… Today, Nathan Lane was just in a production of The Iceman Cometh in Chicago. It’s one of the greatest plays of the American theater.
Tim: When you say…
Shawn: When I say “specificity,” I mean think about your own life experience. A lot of people think that writing is about – I say this all the time – the magic fairy who comes down and lands inside your brain and whispers a story to you that you’ve never heard of before. That’s really not the way it works.
The way it works is looking at your own life experience, looking deep within yourself, finding those moments in your life when you were shocked, when you were really thrown for a loop, when your life was completely out of balance, and how you came to terms with that shocking change. This all goes to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and the change curve.
If you can look at those own moments in your own life… And I’m not saying just write spew autobiography and talk about yourself. What it means is to be inspired by those particular moments in your life and use those specific moments of your own personal experience to influence your storytelling.
Eugene O’Neill, he didn’t write specifically about the specific bars that he spent his youth in and almost drank himself to death in. No, what he did is he coalesced all of that experience and he created this fictional bar that had all of the characters that influenced his philosophy throughout his life, basically walked into that bar.
What he said to himself was, “Huh, here’s my ‘What if?’ What if there was a moment in my life where everybody who ever influenced me in a very strong way were to walk into the bar and we would all sit down and we would have a couple of drinks together? Where would that take us?
“How would I come up with a cast of characters from my own life experience that I know specifically, I know who these people are because I’ve been around them my entire life? If I could just dramatize those particular people and give them fictional names, whenever I get confused, I will think about those people in my life who are the amalgamation basis of these fictional characters.”
The specificity of Eugene O’Neill’s life is what created the beauty and the universality of his art. You don’t need to know anything about Eugene O’Neill to watch Long Day’s Journey Into Night and say to yourself, “Oh, my gosh. I know that family. That family lives down the block from me,” or “You know what? That’s my family. Yeah, my mom might not be a morphine addict, but my mom is just a little weird,” or “My brother is kind of a jerk and he kind of sucked the life out of me a little bit and I can actually see that on the stage.
When you go to a great production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, and I’ve seen a number of amazing ones, when you look around the audience, you see people, Korean people, black people, Chinese people, all kinds of ethnicity looking at this play about 1940s in a small New England town in a summer resort, and one day in their life, and they’re crying – because they see what happened to their family back where they came from, and that’s universality. But O’Neill got to the universality by plumbing the depths of his own soul and plumbing the depths of own specific life experience.
Why I was attracted to the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross curve is because it’s about coming to terms with dramatic change. How do you change your worldview? We all have a worldview, we all have stories we tell ourselves, and there are moments in our lives where we realize those stories are baloney. They’re not true. What are we going to do now? We have to find ourselves a new story, and this is why storytelling is so important, because the way we find a new story is we look to other people’s stories. We look to the great literature, and we pose our questions in the form of stories.
You probably have heroes in your mind, Tim, that you think about and you go, “You know what? That guy wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. He would be doing this. If Steve Jobs were running this podcast, this is what he would be doing.” You know what I’m saying?
Shawn: I do that all of the time. I say to myself, “Sam Sheppard, when he was 45, he already had an Oscar, and look at me. I’m shoveling dirt in my backyard trying to…”
Tim: You’re stuck doing this podcast.
Shawn: Sam Sheppard has his own stories. This is why storytelling is so important because stories are the vehicles we use to change ourselves. We change who we are based upon storytelling.
It’s really important to think about that if you’re a writer and if you’re a storyteller, because you really need to understand how important they are. They are so important, and writers and creative people, everybody…
I know a lot of people are in the financial industry – right – and they’re multimillionaires and they never have to worry about a financial problem for the rest of their lives, but to a person, whenever I talk to them, they’re like, “You know, I really want to be a writer,” or “I always wanted to make a movie.” The reason why is that we all have a story and we all want to tell it.
For those of us who dedicate ourselves to storytelling, it’s really important to think about story really psychologically and deeply because the deeper you go, the more satisfying the story experience is.
We talked about a couple of weeks ago when you were watching a Garfield cartoon and you’re like, “Oh, my god. There’s the inciting incident.” Those are the things that once you get into this really deep analysis of storytelling, you really start to pick out in the world and you start to look at your own life experience in a different way.
Like, “Boy. I don’t know if I think that any more. Huh, let me think about that. I’m not really sure. I used to think storytelling was like this but now I have a different point of view.”
Tim: With that specificity – I can’t say that word; it’s like “cinnamon” – it makes me think of in “On Writing,” where he talks about telling the truth. Stephen King says it over and over, you have to tell the truth.
It’s just it’s interesting to me how all of these things come together because you have I feel like when I come up with story ideas, I’m more thinking about the setup. What will set up a good story or a good situation that I’ve got to get a hero out of? Then at the same time, I want to look at that person and think, “What would I do in their situation?”
I don’t know if we’ve talked about it here, though, but I’ve told you about it – this other superhero novel thing I had started working on. I kind of view myself personally as a coward who constantly puts myself in situations where I’m not allowed to be a coward. Right? Like as a father, it’s like there’s all these things – especially as my boys get older – that I’m just terrified of confronting, and the only way I can get myself to confront them is when it’s like there’s no other way for me to escape.
As I look at this character, I’m like, “If I were that person, I would as much as possible avoid doing the right until I get forced to where I have to do the right thing.” As I’m writing it, I’m realizing I’m writing this guy who, to me, is like the antithesis of what you think of is the superhero, which is like, “I’m here to right all the wrongs.” I’m like, “This guy’s here to try to avoid that as much as possible, because that’s what I would do.”
It’s just interesting. As you were talking about that and it becomes autobiographical, we’re not writing biographies here, but it’s almost like you get this set up and then you think, “What would I do in this situation?”
It reminds me, too, – I forget where I heard this or read this – about how there’s no such thing as a bad guy in a story. Everybody thinks they’re the hero of their own story, so you can’t just set up a villain as in they’re just evil; you have to set them up as they’re trying to get what they want out of the world, too, and they feel like they’re going about it the best way they possibly can.
It just is interesting to me, as you talk about telling our own being very specific about what we’re dealing with, it’s like you really have to go through the depths of what you believe about yourself and humanity, and then kind of force that on your characters, I guess.
Shawn: That’s exactly right. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I think just to throw out some examples of the things that you’re talking about, there’s a great movie called Michael Clayton. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. But it stars George Clooney, and even the assassins in that movie, every character is so believable, because when you look at their decision-making process, you say to yourself, “You know, I could kind of see being in that situation and hiring somebody to kill that guy.” I think Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplay and directed it, and he’s fantastic. He wrote the screenplay for the first Bourne Identity.
That is really looking at the darkness within your own soul and understanding the whole Kübler-Ross thing that I was just talking about, every character goes through this.
Tim: You mean every character in the book?
Shawn: Yes. Every character who’s a dynamic character in your story – definitely your antagonist and your protagonist. Here’s a little secret about protagonists and antagonists, like your superhero and your supervillain. They’re basically the yin and yang of the same person. They complement each other and they’re polar opposites at the same time.
If you get stuck, I always recommend people, when they’re thinking about their story and they have this general idea of a setup or a genre – like your setup and genre of the guys on the boat – to think about the bad guy first. Because human beings are fascinated by evil because we’re always trying to check our own dark impulses.
When there’s a character who actually acts on their dark impulses, we can’t help but be attracted to it because we’re constantly trying to stop our own. Whereas the goody-goody two-shoes who always does the right thing, they’re kind of boring characters.
Your instinct about the superhero novel or story that you’re contemplating in your own brain, to make him or her do everything in their power not to act is a really great instinct because we’re all cowards. I hate to tell you this, Tim, but you’re not the only coward in the world.
Tim: That’s good to know. I’m just too afraid to talk about it.
Shawn: That’s the thing. We’re all reluctant to act.
This is the thing about storytelling. That’s the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is about being called to action and doing everything in your power not to act. In the “Iliad,” Achilles is the greatest fighter in the history of the world. He’s like invincible. The only way anybody’s ever going to kill Achilles is his heel. Right?
The gods blessed Achilles as the greatest warrior of all time. In the beginning of the “Iliad,” a big chunk of the “Iliad” is trying to get Achilles out of his tent. “Dude, come down and fight, man. We got a big battle going.” He’s like, “No. I’m mad at Agamemnon. He blew me off, he didn’t give me what he promised me. I’m not fighting.” That is really instructive because even though Achilles is the greatest warrior of all time, all that talk about all of the reasons why he’s not going to fight is really a mask. It’s a mask for cowardice.
Tim: Why is a story such as “Superman” done so well? Maybe I haven’t dug deep enough into the story. I’ve never really liked Superman as a superhero, so I’m just going to admit that upfront, because he seems so one-dimensional. It’s like this guy that can’t be beat. If he could just stay the hell away from that green stuff, he’d be totally fine, and he’s always going to try to do the right thing.
Where I feel like the conflicted superheroes are the ones who are more interesting, and I know in recent years, things have come around towards the Jack Bauers of 24 who are always doing the bad thing for the right reason, and you have the recent Batmans are much darker and he’s doing things for the wrong reasons, in many cases.
But why has that changed? It seems, in my opinion, to have changed over the last 80 years or whatever from the heroes who were infallible and always made the right decisions to now, the heroes always seem to be much more conflicted. Would you agree with that assessment, and then what would you think has kind of brought that change about?
Shawn: I would generally agree with that. I think the Superman myth is very similar to the Harry Potter sensibility. That is what I call the hero denying their power, the hero who doesn’t want to accept their otherness. Superman, he wants to work at The Daily Planet, right? He wants to be Clark Kent, he wants to be just like everybody else, and he’s constantly called to call on his inner power in a way that makes him uncomfortable.
What I love about that… It’s like with Harry Potter, “You’re a wizard, Harry.” Harry Potter, he has to accept that he’s a different kind of guy. He has powers that other people don’t have. When you have a certain genius and you have a certain thing that other people don’t have, you know what happens? People don’t like you so much.
I remember being in the playground and there was that kid who could run faster than everybody else, and I hated that kid. I couldn’t stand that kid because I could never catch him, and he had a genius that I didn’t have. No matter how hard I tried, I could not catch him. There is a real negative element to having a particular genius that people are out to really deny you and they really dislike you for that certain power.
Superman, psychologically, it’s a story about accepting your inner genius and exploring it and doing what’s necessary for the betterment of the world, and that is to express that genius. The same thing with Harry Potter.
We used to have these one-dimensional heroes from the 1950s and 1960s. I would say the 1960s was really this moment in time when the psychology and the family unit and the culture of Western culture, at least, became really isolating, in that in the 1950s and prior to World War II, we lived in a world of scarcity. A lot of people, they were just happy to have enough food for the week. If there was enough to be able to put a new pair of shoes on your kid and to be able to go out to dinner once a year and maybe get an orange for Christmas, that was a hell of a great year.
We had to bind together as family units and as community in order to really survive properly. Food was difficult to transport, refrigeration was just at the beginning, mass transportation was nowhere really where it is today, and then we had this explosive industrial age of technology right after World War II, and the old ways of looking at the world where I must rely upon my community in order to be able to take care of myself and I must contribute to my community to take care of myself, all of those sorts of values started to fracture and we started to live in a world of plenty, in a world of 3000 different kinds of flavors of ice cream.
When we started getting all of these new products and services and marketing and advertising and sell, sell, sell, and television channels started to explode, what all of that did was isolate people because now you didn’t really have to rely on anybody else. You could be God’s lonely man inside a big city and never talk to the guy who lives next door to you in an apartment building, and there are a lot of people who were attracted to that.
Anyway, I think how all of this evolved and how the way stories evolved is that the reflections of our culture and the way things are going in our current everyday world. Right now, we’re living in a very isolated, demanding, strange world where people can sit in their home and make a living without ever actually having to do much, I mean, physically.
This is what I do. I type all day, I write stories, I do podcasts, and I make a living. I’m able to take care of my family this way. I’m not required to go down to the hay loft or to the blacksmith to get shoes for my horse. I don’t have to talk to anybody if I don’t want to, and that’s isolation, and isolation is dehumanizing.
The heroes today are always very conflicted and they’re all unsure of themselves, and they face these very dark questions because that’s what happens when you’re isolated. Batman is a very isolated figure. He lives in a cave, his best friend is his butler. This guy has no friends.
I think a lot of people make light of superheroes and superhero stories and all that stuff, but if you really want to look at the state of the culture and the difficult questions that the culture is facing, look at the most popular entertainment. Right now, it’s the superhero and it’s the superhero films.
As you said, these characters are very, very multidimensional now. Even looking at Breaking Bad, that great television series, that’s a character who’s extremely conflicted, makes a lot of terrible choices, and really doesn’t have any remorse at the end. He’s destroyed by his own desires, right?
He desires to be a powerful figure, and he longs to express his genius. His genius just happens to be creating an addictive drug that destroys people’s lives, but he doesn’t care because he’s the best at it, and “I’m going to be the best at whatever it is that I’m going to do, no matter what it does to the society.” That’s his attitude.
We were so fascinated by that television series because we can all relate to that. We can all say, “You know, I don’t really care if there’s ten less years to the environmental if I can make my billion dollars this year.”
Tim: This conversation reminds me of a couple of years ago I started going to counseling.
Shawn: We all have to. We’ve all been there.
Tim: I feel like I’m safe with you. I feel like every therapist or counselor has their model that they bring to the table.
Shawn: Yes, of course.
Tim: He ran me through all these questions and everything, and he laid out five different things. He’s like, “In this one thing, you’re clinical.” I’m like, “What does that mean?” This is what he says to me. This is my counselor, who I was getting uplifting advice from. He said, “People walking around drooling in clinics locked up, you’re like that.” He’s like, “The only reason you’re not locked up is because you’re pretty okay in the other four areas.” I was like, “So, what? I have problems?” He goes, “Oh, yeah. You got problems.”
What I was thinking is, as you were talking about that, it’s like… I was going to counseling to kind of level that off, I no longer want to be clinical, but I feel like a thought experiment for any of your characters is to take one specific thing and just follow as deep as it will go.
Because if I think back… I forgot how many seasons I got through Breaking Bad. That show just drove me insane. It was just so slow and… I don’t know, I hated that show by the end, I didn’t even finish it. I know everybody is probably cringing this listening because everybody’s like, “Really?”
Anyway, but what I thought was interesting as you were saying is I felt like the entire show was about this pride. Even in the beginning, it wasn’t to take care of his family; it was the fact that he would not leave anything behind. It was more about what it would say about him. I feel like the whole show was just taking his pride deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper.
I almost feel like the thought experiment for… What I feel like we have to do when we’re telling a story is we can’t rub off the edges, right? We have to go as far as we can, otherwise the story would just be bland.
Would you agree a thought experiment would be to basically take one thing…? In mine, if I’m talking about my character is a coward, at every possible instance, I just make him as cowardly as possible until he has no other option, and never rub off the edge of his cowardice. Am I going in the right direction here?
Shawn: I think you are. I talk a lot about want and need in The Story Grid book and the reason why I do… Want and need really drive the external and the internal of your storytelling, respectively. The want is the external driving force and the need is the internal driving force.
In order for you to really hone in on the internal, which is the need, it is a good idea to think about… One of the great Roman philosophers, either Cicero or one of those guys, he talked about the essential thing – what is the essence of that particular thing? When you’re thinking about your character, think about what’s the one big secret? What’s the thing that they’re doing everything in their life to compensate for? What are they hiding?
If you can find that out… And in your case, what you’re talking about is that your lead character is a coward. But what does that mean? What is he afraid of? What would happen if he acted contrary to his wanting to not act? Those are questions to think about.
The other thing is don’t go crazy. Don’t go think about them too much, because I’ll tell you why. Everybody who has a need and desire to write a story – every writer, or script writer, or movie maker, or whatever – there’s something working inside their brains that they don’t really understand, and it’s okay not to understand.
This is what Steve Pressfield talks a little bit about in “The War of Art” and in other books that he’s written. It’s like this force inside of you that is going to help you discover the things that are important to you, and the way that happens is you get a cool idea. “Oh, wow. This is a cool idea. I bet I can sell this script to Hollywood. I’m going to just start banging this out.”
You know what? Go ahead. Start banging it out because there’s something within that idea that’s hiding that will come out the deeper and deeper you go into the work. If you can figure out a way to structure it in a way that can keep you moving, you’re going to discover more and more things that you hadn’t thought of before.
As an editor, I’ve worked with so many writers, and they’ll send me their novel, and I’ll read it, and I’ll go, “Wow, dude. Boy, great controlling idea,” and they’re like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “You know, how your entire book’s really about facing down the demons within yourself and seizing the day of your own existence.” They’re like, “What? No. This is just the thing about this guy who lost his dog. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The beautiful thing about storytelling – remember when we started about simplicity bringing specificity – is that when you start really being specific about your particular story and you start envisioning it and you write it, what it does is it somehow touches this universal collective unconscious in a way, and when people read your story and it’s very specific, it brings up things in their own psyches that speak to them.
I know I’m sounding kind of woo-woo right now but it’s really… If I didn’t have this personal experience over and over and over and over again, and that personal experience is a writer giving me their work, I read it, and I see all of these wonderful, controlling ideas and themes and everything, and they’re concrete – I’m not making them up; they’re in there – and I bring them up and I show them exactly where these messages in their storytelling are about. They’re like, “Wow, holy cow. I had no idea I did that. Really, seriously, I did not think of that particular moment meaning that particular thing, but now that you bring it up, wow, I’m great. This is fantastic. Geez.”
Tim: See, I wonder if that goes back to just trusting the reader to fill it in.
Shawn: Yes, it does.
Tim: There was this short run podcast called Untitled Rothfuss that was a conversation between Patrick Rothfuss, author of “Name of the Wind,” which was this widely successful fantasy book that was really good, and he’s friends with this guy named Max Temkin, who helps start Cards Against Humanity, that card game. They just did this short run where it was conversations between the two of them.
It was interesting because Patrick at one point started talking about how so many people had said his book meant different things. They’re like, “Oh, it’s a tragedy, and that’s what this is,” and they’re like, “No, it’s this classic hero story,” and then it’s like, “No, it’s this,” and it’s like every person who read it read themselves into the book.
I don’t like woo-woo answers, too, so I’m constantly going to argue with them. I think it goes back to this thing of we’ve all had our own life experiences, we’ve all read different books, and we’ve, again, been indoctrinated with story our entire life. So when we read something, we bring all of that to the table and we’re all going to read something different into it.
It’s like last week, we were talking about “Bird Box” and how since the author did a good job giving very little description, I backfilled it with my own fear of the dark. Then it became so much scarier because I brought my own fears to the table instead of him saying, “No, no, no. You have to be afraid of it this way, and I’m going to write it this way.”
I think that’s probably been the biggest lesson I’ve learned in the past few weeks. I guess I felt like writing a story was putting as much as you possibly could in it, and it’s almost like it’s telling the story in as little as possible to let the reader fill it in because then it will seem so much real to them.
Shawn: Yes. The trick is to have the least amount of stuff in there so that the reader… You don’t want any shoe leather – “And then he walked to the door, he feet pounded lightly on the floorboards as creaks.” You don’t want any of that stuff.
Tim: I want to make sure we don’t end this episode. I want to go back to the Kübler-Ross curve. We’ve talked about on the show how this thing is like Russian dolls, right? Writing a scene is very similar to writing the entire book. So, would you apply this Kübler-Ross curve to a scene, as well? Should we have those same kind of highs and low through a scene?
Shawn: I think it’s absolutely applicable to a scene, too, yes. That doesn’t mean that you have to bring each scene to the depths of human experience. What it means is that you have to turn the scene. It has to start someplace and it has to end another. The “all is lost moment” could be an “all is gained” moment in a positive scene.
Again, it would have to be progressively moving forward, so at the beginning of your story, you’re going to have a really humdinger inciting incident that’s going to shock your lead character and shock your reader to want to continue reading and to find out what happens next.
The Kübler-Ross curve is a good way of saying… Through the editorial process, I would not suggest that you obsess about the Kübler-Ross curve as you’re writing. You brought up a point a couple of weeks ago – which was a very good one – that it’s actually not a bad idea if you have a very analytical brain to think about the inciting incident progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution in your scene, but I think the Kübler-Ross thing is more of an internal as opposed to an external editorial look.
It might be something that you look at in your second or third edit to see that the emotional stakes as well as the external stakes of your scenes are progressively complicated. But really, the reason why I put the Kübler-Ross curve in “The Story Grid” was to really hone in on the point that stories are about coping with change, and major changes in all of our lives are those moments in our lives that are really, really challenging.
When you’re writing a story, think about your story as a way of creating a world that will help somebody come to terms with… In the book, I talk about that story about the woman who left the World Trade Tower before it fell, and how the other people who didn’t leave the Trade Tower… It’s from a fantastic book written by a psychologist, I forget his name, but it’s definitely in the book.
Those other people just didn’t have the story in their head. “Oh, this isn’t good, it’s time to leave now. I have to get out of the tower.” Instead, they were like, “I’m not really sure what’s going to happen because we get these alarm systems go off all the time and we’re usually told to stay in place, so I’m just going to stay in place.”
Stories are about helping people change themselves.
Tim: It was interesting. You reminded me this when you said this about thinking through each of the pieces as you write, and we talked a couple of weeks ago about I feel like early on, it’s really frustrating to do it but it’s very helpful to actually think through each of those things as I write.
I’m in the middle of writing a new book for my marketing business, and so reading “The Story Grid,” talking to you, it’s been mostly thinking about fiction, but most of my writing – 98% of it – has been done in nonfiction and business writing, and that’s a lot of the authors I’ve worked with. You’ve said it applies, but I just didn’t really feel it, and so I’m like, “Okay, I’ll just let him say that and not push back on it.”
I sat down to write the introduction to this new book I’m working on, and I’m basically taking one of the book launches I worked on and I’m telling that story through the book, and then teaching you how to do a book launch as you go through the book.
I sat down and I went to write the introduction, and I immediately opened up on this story of me being on a train and how I was nervous, and I just knew everything was on the line. Then I wrote the entire introduction and kept trying to draw it out as much as possible before I told you why I was so nervous.
I went back and re-read it, and I’m like, “I just wrote this based on all of ‘The Story Grid’ stuff we’ve been talking about.” I actually have started integrating some of those story ideas into my nonfiction writing. The book’s going to be basically a textbook on how to do book launches.
It was just really interesting how it’s changing the way I write. In the past, I want to get it out as fast as possible. Right? I feel like I need to tell you as much as possible to hook you early, or whatever, and now as I’m going through, I’m about one-third of the way through the manuscript, I find myself as much as possible drawing out the story to let you not know what’s going on for a little bit and not really know where I’m going.
I just thought it was really interesting how it’s starting to change the way that I think about any story that I’m telling – even nonfiction of “First, you do this; second, you do this; third, you do this.” I’m finding myself wanting to turn it into a story instead of just kind of lay it out.
Shawn: That’s great, and I think the reason why people love their nonfiction in story form is because it humanizes them. You know what I mean? It shows the reader that there are actual human beings whose lives have been changed by this information, and that by following the story of how this information was discovered, you will get the why as much as you will get the what.
It’s like anybody talking to a kid. You say anything and the first question out of a kid’s mouth is, “Why?” “You can’t ride in the backseat like that.” “Why?” And then you go, “Well, I’ll tell you why. If you don’t put on your seatbelt and the car stops, it will be going at a very fast rate, and when the car stops, you will be continuing to go at a fast rate and the car won’t. So you’ll crash into the front seat and hurt yourself. That’s why.”
So then he understands that, right? He’s “Oh, okay. I’m going to get hurt if I don’t buckle my seatbelt.” But if you don’t tell him why he’s buckling the seatbelt, chances are he might not buckle it.
That’s the beauty of nonfiction. If you can integrate a story into the actual practical applications of your stuff, then people, it will integrate into their brain. They will understand the why as well as the what.
I’m going to give you a little compliment here – as painful as this might be for you. When you wrote “Your First 1000 Copies,” you intuitively started that book with a story. “This is why I’m writing this book and why it’s important for you.” I read your entire book and I’m like, “Wow, this guy knows what he’s talking about, he’s convincing me to change my behavior.”
Before I read your book, I was like, “I don’t want to do a website. It’s going to be too much work and what’s going to be the payoff, really?” That’s what you led with, as I recall, with your book. You’re like, “A lot of people don’t want to do it because of this, and this is completely wrong because of these reasons.”
When you bring a little and you can bring a little bit of yourself and the specificity of your own life to nonfiction, it’s really powerful. A lot of people just want to give you all the facts because they spent a lot of time and a lot of hard work figuring out the solutions to all of the problems, so they just want to give you the solutions. But people want to know what the problem is, and how you solved it. They want to know that story.
You might feel like, “Oh, I’m stringing people along here.” They’re interested in how you came into your worldview because you’re basically telling them when you write nonfiction, Tim, you’re giving people your worldview. “Here is what I have learned. I have gone out to learn how to do a specific thing, and I’ve come back, I’ve actually integrated and used what I’ve discovered in practical applications, I’ve had some success. Here, I’d like to share it with you. Here’s what I learned.”
And that is the hero’s journey. That’s storytelling and that’s as interesting to people as a superhero.
Tim: It’s got me thinking, too, about learning to be okay with… Back to my book. I don’t think I’ve talked about it here before. It’s called “Your First 1000 Copies.” I’ve been doing book marketing consulting for a long time, and so I decided to write a book on it.
I thought it would be easy. I’m like, “I got this.” I talk about it every day, I get on the phone and I walk authors through this. This is all I talk about. I wake up in the morning thinking about it. I go to bed thinking about it. I can throw this book together in three or four weeks.”
And then what I ran into was I’ve never said this in a way where I’ve tried to say it all at once and with no feedback or questions. Right? So I need to take the reader along this journey with me, and I’ve always done it where I’ve taught people where they can stop me and say, “Oh, I don’t understand that,” and I can go back and I can be like, “Okay, well let me explain this before we hit that.”
Putting it all in one thing ended up being the hardest part of the whole book. The other was, too, I wrote the entire book and then what I normally want to do is make it a really, really, really strong case why what I’m about to tell you is important, and so all of my early readers were like, “Okay. You convinced in the introduction this was important and then you spent the next half of the book continuing to tell us why this is important.”
So I had to cut out most of the book and all of this stuff.
Shawn: You always cut out a ton.
Tim: What I think is interesting – and I want to change my nonfiction writing based on this, too – is to allow the reader, again, to fill it in with what they want to learn. We’ve talked about Seth Godin before, I always said when I would read a Seth Godin book, it was like it would create this itch on my back I couldn’t reach, right? It would completely change the way I looked at the world, but he would not explain to you what you’re supposed to do now, and it left it to me to figure that part out.
Where I’m always so concerned with my writing that I’m going to be misunderstood, but it made me think of all the stories Jesus told in the New Testament, right? He told this crazy story about old wineskins and new wineskins. You don’t put wine in old wineskins; you put it in new. I’ve heard probably a dozen different sermons on that and I’ve probably heard it described six different ways. “Well, this is what he was teaching,” and then it was like, “No, this is what he was teaching.”
It’s like all of it is good teachings but he’s kind of like, “Well here’s a story. I’m just going to let you figure it out.” I think as I’m writing this new book, I want to not be so concerned that people understand exactly what I’m trying to say. I want to tell my story, tell some of the things I’ve learned, but then just leave it open-ended and let them figure out what it means for them.
Shawn: Right. That’s a good approach.
Tim: You’ve been doing all of this with “The Tipping Point,” and I feel like Malcolm Gladwell does that, too. If you get six people in a room to talk about “The Tipping Point” or “Outliers,” they’ll give you six different things they learned by reading the book that are all kind of different and probably completely different than what Malcolm Gladwell thought he was saying.
Shawn: I’d agree with that, yes. The great thing about “The Tipping Point” is that he brings in so much wonderful data and sidekick explanations of what he’s talking about, and he tells this story in such a way that you’re like… It’s like that movie My Dinner with Andre. It’s like you’re sitting with this guy who’s telling you this great theory he had and how he came to come to it, and “Isn’t this cool?”
It’s not like “What I have to say is the be all and end all, and this is what a tipping point is, and this is how you do it.” Instead he tells you all of the little tributaries he had to go down to figure out what he thought about it, what it means to him, and that opens it up for other people to have their own interpretations.
Yes, you’re absolutely right about Seth Godin’s stuff. That’s what he does. He’s a master at poking you to think differently, to think about your world and your life in a way that is about finding what it is that you are supposed to be doing and then go doing it, and giving you the inspiration to have the courage to do it.
That’s so powerful. It’s so much more powerful than, “Hey, here’s a formula to make peanut butter.” “Okay. What do I do after I eat the peanut butter?”
Tim: I think that’s the title of this episode.
Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. As always, if you want more Story Grid, you can go to StoryGrid.com, sign up for the newsletter, read the blog, there is all kinds of resources there that Shawn makes available. Also, if you want to check in on any episodes that you’ve missed or the show notes, any downloads that we’ve had there, you can go to StoryGrid.com/podcast.
I won’t continue to beg you for iTunes reviews and ratings because you really came through there, although I’m not going to stop you if you want to go ahead and go do that and you haven’t yet.
I do thank you for continuing to share the show. I check our stats really obsessively, multiple times a day, so it’s nice that that number keeps going on. If you want to continue to help the show, help my sanity, continue to share the show, I really appreciate it. Shawn really appreciates it, too.
I’m looking forward to next week, our Christmas episode, as we Story Grid The Martian and another secret story. Hang in there for that, and I’ll see you next week.