[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, we dive back into the threshing. We left that off about a month or six weeks ago as we jumped into launching Running Down a Dream, but now I was able to actually get back in and keep writing and send Shawn words that I had written in the threshing.
So we start there and then Shawn talks a lot about some of these global story ideas he’s been working on, and it’s really cool. I think you’ll really like it. So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:50.5] TG: Shawn, now that Running Down a Dream is out and it’s running and we talked about that last week, and I have had like tons of personal projects between moving and traveling and my real job that is not Story Grid, or Black Irish or promoting a book. I’m finally able to like sit back down and focus on the threshing, because now I feel like that’s the next thing I want to finish.
So I went back and went through the last seen I had sent you and then wrote the next scene and sent that to you. I figure that’s just we left off it right at the middle point of the middle build. So now it’s kind of a race to the end of the middle build, which has been good, because in the level of your craft course, you’re going over the climax, the crisis climax resolution of the middle build, which is what I need. So anyway, I sent that to you. Let’s just start with your feedback on that scene.
[0:01:57.3] SC: Well, I think this scene is fine. I think you’re taking the right course of action, which is to really start escalating the active moments. I mean, the external action to a degree where it becomes more of a chase, sort of a lot of movement and action from the midpoint through the end of the story.
So it’s less discovery revelatory terms turns and more active turns. So just to give everybody a sense of what I’m talking about when I say revelatory versus active turns, in the five commandments of storytelling, we’ve got the inciting incident, which is the thing that kicks off the unit of story, be it a beat, a scene, a sequence, an act, or a subplot, or the global story. We have the inciting incident. Then we have what are called progressive complications.
Now, progressive complications are things that the protagonist from the inciting incident, they get a goal. They get a way of moving from the inciting moment that changes their world. So they want to change back or move forward. They want to move from sort of a negative present to a positive future.
So in that course of events where they plan a strategy to turn their situation from a negative to a positive, then what happens is progressive complications arise rocks and there are either obstacles, which are negative events, or their tools, which are positive events. These progressive complications lead to a moment called – Which is the last progressive complication before the crisis, and this is called the turning point progressive complication.
Now, the turning point is the moment in the story when the value in the unit of story shifts. So it moves from, say, safety to threat, safety to un-safety. The way you turn a story event is one of two ways. Either there is a revelation, meaning new information comes on to the scene that hadn’t been known before by the protagonist that changes the value or something active happens. Meaning, either your protagonist does something or the secondary characters around the protagonist do something that changes the value of the scene.
So let me give an example of a revelatory turning point, is if in the movie – This is a classic one that I say all the time, because it’s so very clear. In the movie Chinatown, there’s a moment at the very end of the story, which kicks it into the ending payoff, where the protagonists played by Jack Nicholson who’s a private investigator confronts the femme fatale, which is played by Faye Dunaway and asks her to tell him finally the truth, “What is your relationship to this woman I’m trying to find?” She says, “She’s my sister,” and then he slaps her to get the truth out her. This is a 1940-esk story. It’s not politically correct. Then she says, “She’s my daughter.” So that’s a revelatory turning point that finally triggers into the protagonist’s mind the truth that her father raped her and the result of that rape was this girl who is now a woman that he is trying to track down.
So all of the pieces of the story tumble and the revelation forms a cohesive whole to the protagonist. So That’s called a revelatory turning point where new information comes on to the scene that changes the scene from confrontation to protection.
So the Jack Nicholson character is confronting and is aggressively assaulting this woman, and this information then turns the entire scene into him wanting to protect her. So everything from that turning point onward has changed. The value has changed. Okay, so that’s a revelatory turning point.
Now, an active turning point would be in the same scene when Jack Nicholson slaps Faye Dunaway. That action triggers the revelation, right? So you could say, “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” and that’s a beautiful work of storytelling, because the action and the revelation turn the story and it’s the pivotal moment in the story.
Robert Towne, the screenwriter, said to himself probably not rationally, but he knew intuitively, “If I want this to be a big, big turning point in the entire film, if I could somehow make it revelatory and active at the same time, then I’d really have something,” and that’s what he did.
One of the characters, the protagonist actively assaults the other character who reveals finally the truth that will change the entire story. So on many, many different levels, you have these two turning point tools that turn the scene, the beat, the sequence, the subplot and the global story all at the exact same time. So the turning point can be moved through a revelation or action.
So when you are planning your story, if you’re telling an action story and you don’t have many active turning points in the story, you’re going to disappoint your audience. Now, it doesn’t mean that you don’t use revelatory turning points, because if you don’t, then it’ll become, “Oh! That doesn’t feel very realistic. Every time somebody needs to do something, somebody slap somebody, or somebody throws a bomb into the middle of the room. All these active turning points just don’t feel real.”
So the trick is to not worry about this stuff that I’m talking about unless you absolutely have to, right? Because it can really get – You could find yourself in a deep abyss of weeds of intellectual abstraction when you just need to solve a simple problem and say, “That doesn’t feel right. Maybe I should have somebody drop an information bomb here instead of a literal bomb.”
So you can think of turning points in that way, which are much more practical. Should I have somebody tell somebody something that they don’t know here to turn the scene, or should I have somebody actively do something, like crash the car, or throw the eggs in the sink, or whatever?
So anyway, the reason why bring this up is that you have reached the middle point of the middle build and you’ve really made a case to the reader that this is going to end in active way that is so surprising and interesting that you’re going have your head blown off, metaphorically, of course. So if you don’t start sort of ratcheting up active moments of turning, then it will feel too much, too lackadaisical, too sort of intellectual. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a great revelatory turning point as your ending payoff, but the point is to think about, “Can I get the pace of the active movement of the story clicking along at a faster pace than the previous scenes?”
So the choice that you made in the scene that you sent me was to after Jesse comes out of the matrix world where her brother has been captured and is living in sort of a virtual reality existence inside this matrix of digital universe, she comes in back to the “real world” of the simulated game, which is kind of cool, right? She’s going down levels of consciousness from this uber consciousness to this virtual consciousness and eventually she’ll tumble back into “the reality consciousness”.
So in this middle world of the severing game, instead of her sort of just sitting on her bottom waiting for her brother to make her win this thing, she makes the active choice based upon the motivation of new information that her brother is alive, that she has to get out of that room and go find her brother, which I think is a really good choice on your part, because now she has moved from being the one acted upon to the one who is consciously acting.
You probably didn’t know you did this, but the crisis of this sequence is when she is overwhelmed by her situation to the point where she shuts down intellectually. She sort of like throws in the towel, and that’s when Randy pulls her through that hole in the wall and saves her. Now, after she’s spit back through that whole, she needs to be engaged fully on goal, right? Her goal now is very clear. I think you make that goal very clear in this scene. Her goal now is get Randy out of there, which is great, because it makes perfect logical intellectual sense to the reader, and the reader now wants her to go free Randy.
So her mission now has moved from, “I don’t know what my mission is,” to, “I have to save my brother,” which actually progressively elevates the stakes of the story, and this is the critical moment to do that, because this is now the second severing and you’re tumbling down to the end of your middle build, and this scene works. Now, is it perfect? No. I mean, you can really spice it up, but generally the manic movement of it works. It’s the right choice, and I think it’s a good choice. So I hope that helps you.
[0:12:28.9] TG: Yeah. Well, I always like that answer. Yeah, I felt like one of the issues I’ve had when I was going back through my notes on the first draft is there was really no red herring. Am I using that … Red herring is the thing you think you need, but it’s not actually the thing you need.
[0:12:47.3] SC: It’s misdirection. It’s a false clue.
[0:12:49.1] TG: Misdirection. Okay.
[0:12:50.3] SC: Yeah, it’s a false clue.
[0:12:50.4] TG: Okay. We didn’t have any of that in the first draft, and because of that, there is a lot of moments in the first draft with the middle build where there was kind of nothing for her to do. So I thought – And then the second half of the middle build is usually when the protagonist agrees that they can’t go back to the old world, but tries to make a bargain of how to get what they want in the new world.
Correct me at any point if I’m saying something wrong, but I’ve always felt like when I’ve checked this stuff, the first half in the middle build is the protagonist trying to get back to the original world, right?
[0:13:36.5] SC: Yes.
[0:13:38.2] TG: And then something happens in the middle that kicks them to realizing, “No. You actually have to stay here and do some work,” but then it becomes bargaining of, “Okay. I’m going to stay and I’m going to do this, but just enough to get what I want.”
So that’s where I thought this would be give her something to focus on between this, between here and the end of the middle build, is basically trying to actively find and save her brother while also not getting caught and all the other different pressures that are starting to push in on her. So I felt like it would be good to give her this kind of mission to find her brother even though that’s not the right mission yet. She’s still missing the point.
[0:14:25.3] SC: No. That’s absolutely the right choice, and I think – Let me try and go through what you were talking about in terms of the bargaining and everything. In the hero’s journey, I use eight stages of the hero’s journey and I combine a bunch. Campbell, Joseph Campbell had 12, and I think Vogler has 12. But here’s my working hero’s journey kind of outline.
The beginning book is about the call to adventure and the refusal of the call. So those two stages are really what you need to accomplish in the beginning hook. There is an issue that I want to talk to you about after I’d go through this, but let me just keep on the track of the hero’s journey.
Okay, so the beginning hook is about the call to adventure and the refusal of the call, and Jesse’s situation is very clear. I think that’s very solid. The third stage is called crossing the threshold, and that’s essentially the moment when the beginning hook moves from sort of that ordinary world, that ordinary familiar world of life for Jesse into the extraordinary world. Now, that is the third stage and it serves as the transition between the beginning book and the middle build.
Then the big meat painful part of the middle build comes in, and that is tests, allies and enemies. So that’s the fourth stage. You kind of have – The tests are usually two or three tests, major tests where allies and enemies surface to hold back or help the protagonist on their mission. Then the fifth stage is called the ordeal.
Now, the word deal is the moment when sort of – It’s like that cliché, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.” It’s sort of the ordeal that clearly shows the protagonists that this is a situation that is far, far larger in scope than they initially thought.
So what we’ve been talking about in these last couple of scenes is really clearly encapsulating the ordeal, and the ordeal for Jesse is coming to the realization that her brother is not only alive, but he’s being held captive. So everything, all the things up to this moment that she had thought to be true are no longer true. So I think the ordeal is in – It’s probably 73% there, okay? Then this is all still in the middle build, right? Then we have what is called the sixth stage, which is called apotheosis, which is one of those big fat words that’s hard to really get a handle on.
The way I think of apotheosis is sort of the moment of transformation. It’s the moment where the protagonists changes, and they change meaning the way that they were operating and seeing the world. prior to this moment has now moved toward a complete worldview shift or external shift of strategy. Like for example, in the Martian, there is no real internal genre attached to the Martian. So the apotheosis is the moment when they have to shift their strategy, their global strategy, to solve the global problem of the story from, “Oh, we’ll just get the guy some more food, and then he can hang out on Mars until our next mission, and then we’ll bring him back on the next mission.” That big strategy blows up and they have to transform their global strategy into a different thing, which those who have read the books or seen the movie is called the Rich Purcell maneuver.
Anyway, that is a different strategy to solve the problem. So the apotheosis is the moment when it’s just after they’ve realized, “Holy crap! Everything that we were working for is now not working. In fact, it’s impossible,” which is also called the all is lost moment. Now, we must transform our thinking into a new way.” The mechanism that it happens in the Martian is Rich Purcell, who comes up with this idea.
But in your story, we need this apotheosis moment of transformation. I think you have the opportunity within your ordeal to – Because it doesn’t have to be its own scene, its own thing. It can be part of another phase, right? So this is the tricky thing about the hero’s journey, is that if you – The important thing is to clearly identify in the story when the protagonist shifts, when their worldview changes from one thing into another, and it’s usually when they hit the all is lost moment and then shortly thereafter they kind of are like, “Ah! The old tools aren’t working anymore. Now I have to figure out something else.”
So what could be working here is Jesse’s understanding, “Holy cow! My brother is alive. I’ve got to save him.” So it could be a very quick transformative moments in this scene that you’ve sent me today that is actively representing the transformation. I think it’s working. I think she’s just had her ordeal. Now she’s tumbling into her apotheosis moment in the hero’s journey, which is her moment of transformation. She’s kind of a petulant pain in the ass prior to this who’s just really super smart and can get away with a lot of stuff, because she just has the ability to think a little bit faster than everybody else.
Then she hits this wall where that isn’t going to help her really anymore, and she tumbles into this netherworld where she – And this is one of Campbell’s things, is that she has a meeting with the goddess, represented by Randy, which is this sort of super consciousness thing that it’s like, “Trust the force, Luke.” It’s the collective unconscious as represented by a particular character or sensibility.
So she has this moment with Randy, which makes her transform into a different person. So now, you’ve hit that moment of apotheosis where Jesse is actively doing things that she would not have done before, which is nice.
I think we clearly have these first six moments in the threshing pretty much concretely laid out, which is really a good thing and, we’re pretty much at midpoint, right?
[0:21:24.3] TG: Yeah.
[0:21:25.0] SC: And you’ve set up two major action sequences to come. So in the reader’s mind, they know there’s one more severing and there’s the threshing. So doing this apotheosis moment in midpoint is not a bad idea, because you have already planted the scenes that there’s plenty of action to come. Sometimes you do the apotheosis just prior to the kick in of the pending payoff. It’s almost like the resolution of the middle build becomes your apotheosis, and then you use the final two stages in your ending payoff.
Now, this is why it’s really smart and really a good idea to always remind yourself of these global tools, like the five commandments of storytelling, which I talked about earlier, and the hero’s journey. When you get stuck or you’re trying to figure out what your next move is in your work, before you start doing the micro scene is to think of, “Okay. Where am I in this story? Is a good idea to have the apotheosis now? Well, you know what? I’m not really positive yet, but it seems to work now. So, do I have enough energy in the gas tank to get me through the ending payoff and the climax of the middle build? Have I structured this story so that I have enough set up?” Yeah, I think you have, because you have these two major events still to come.
Now, before I forget, Tim, let me just go over the last two stages so I don’t drop them. The seventh stage of the hero’s journey is called the resurrection, and then the eighth stage is reward and return. So let me just get that off the table, but let me ask you if you have any questions about that stuff now.
[0:23:14.2] TG: Yeah, I guess I feel like she’s still got one more like – I keep just hearing the word apothecary, and I know that’s not right. But because I feel like now, and I know this is the movie I use all the time, which is probably a much lesser movie than Chinatown, but the The Family Man, because I still feel like it has the most clear delineations and maybe it’s because I watched it right when I was learning this stuff.
In the second part of the middle build is when he realizes he wants the family that he never had, that he was trying to get rid of for the first part of the middle bill. But then he also goes back and tries to get the old life, and it’s not until kicking into the ending payoff that he realizes that’s not going to happen.
So I feel like she is still not signed on to the mission of taking down the government. She is just going to go on the mission of trying to take them down just enough to get her brother out, because she still doesn’t actually care about the global mission.
[0:24:27.4] SC: Yes.
[0:24:28.1] TG: I mean, that’s going to be the final decision, I guess, is between those two things. Is that what I’m setting up with this?
[0:24:35.1] SC: Well, what you’re setting up is you’re setting up a revelation to her, and this might be something to tweak in this story, is that you might not have Randy tell her about the big super-duper mission in moment inside the matrix. So that he motivates her sort of with in a cynical way, and he knows, “Look. This is a 14-year-old girl. I’ve got to make this super clear to her. I’m not going to tell her about bringing down the entire society now. In fact, she’s probably too stupid to really understand that. What’s I’m going to tell her is that I’m trapped and that I need her to help me get out of here.”
In that way when she does discover later on that her brother was using her to be the means to his own ends, and he never occlude her in until he had to, then that revelation can really turn something at the very ending payoff. So she may not even really understand that her mission to get her brother out of the matrix will end up destroying the structure in order of the society. In fact, it’s probably best that you hold that information, because you don’t want to use two motivating elements to get your character to do something when one will suffice. Because if you hold back that revelation, then you can turn your ending payoff in a unique but completely understandable and surprising inevitable.
So it’s inevitable that idea will immediately be like, “Oh! Of course. That’s why Randy had her go try and get her out of there, because he wants to take power himself. He wants revenge.” Randy is motivated by revenge and resentment, and for good reason. I mean, the guy has been locked in that world for how many years, but his motivations are not about making the world a better place. His motivations are to smite the bad people who have locked him in that prison for so many years. The first person is the president, Marcus.
So that’s Randy’s primary motivation. He is acting as a sort of adversary figure to the global order of things. Now the order is a tyranny, right? It’s not really good for individuality in this society. In fact, you have to surrender your individuality in order to let the society work. People will be fed and food is made based upon everyone basically suppressing their individuality. That is how this system works well.
Now, Randy, he is motivated to destroy this system as an act of revenge. The man has zero plan to fix the order of things so that there’s more individuality. He just wants to bring it down. So Randy is a force of bringing the order down in order to elevate himself.
So I know I mentioned earlier I wanted to talk to you about something in the story globally, and all of these sort of stuff has become more and more clear to me as I’ve been working through it. I’ve been working on this notion, the hierarchy of story, if you’ll bear with me for a second. One of the big investigations that I’ve dedicated my life to is what are stories? Is there a hierarchy of story? Meaning, is there the meta-story above all story? Then are there little sub genres of that meta-story and where do they fit? I’m working through this sort of big, big global concept that will direct me in my future work. I’ve had a couple of things come together for me that I think can be helpful to you.
So if there’s a big, big meta-story. It’s really going to come from a fundamental question of existence. I know. I know. I sound like I’m Kierkegaard or something here. So if you were to boil down the problems of being alive, one of the big problems is how do I behave in this universe so that I survive today, tomorrow, next week, a month after that, a year after that? How can I make my time here work for the longest possible amount of time? Because I know I’m going to die. That’s the thing about being a human being, is that it’s this incredible existential understanding that we know we’re going to die. Nobody has solved death.
So, given that I will eventually die, how can I extend my life? How can I behave on earth, so that I can live as long as possible and as fruitfully as possible? How can I navigate this world in the best way? So this is where stories come in.
So that’s the big problem in the big story. How do I behave so that I can – So when you’re trying to solve that problem, you want to think about, “Well, what am I up against? What is the nature of the world and how do I deal with it?”
So, the nature of the world is that there are things that we cannot understand. It’s the great unknown. Okay, those are the things I don’t know anything about, wiring of electrical building, right? So that’s an unknown to me. It’s knowable, but it’s still unknown to me.
I have a familiar world that I navigate that I know. I know my house. I know my yard. I know my car. I know my kids. I know a certain amount of – I know my wife. I know a certain amount of my universe. But then there’s the great unknown out of hat. So the great unknown is sort of the chaotic universe. It’s the place where there’s a lot of potential and there’s a lot of threat. It’s two things that once, isn’t it? It’s this horrifically impossible thing that things fly at you that you don’t see coming and they knock you down, and there’s also great opportunities out there too. There are stuff that if you engage with, you become a stronger person. Okay, so that’s the chaotic universe.
Then there’s the known universe, which is the familiar, which is the ordered life, right? So don’t worry. I’m going to get to your book in the second.
[0:31:31.0] TG: No. I’m with you.
[0:31:31.9] SC: Then those are the two major existential things, chaos and order, familiar and unknown, and then you have one more thing, and that is the individual that has to navigate between those two worlds. There’s the familiar world of waking up in the morning, brushing your teeth, taking your shower, doing your chores, and then there’s the chaotic world where, as you’re driving your car out of nowhere, somebody slams into your back and then your car doesn’t work anymore. That is the chaos of the universe that you didn’t see coming that stops you in your tracks.
So that’s the meta-story. How does an individual navigate these two worlds? That is what a story is. They start in familiar circumstances. Then something chaotic and strange happens to them that puts them in a world that they don’t know very well and then they have to navigate and figure out tools and things that will make them deal with the universe of unknown things in a better way by the end of the story. So that’s the big meta-story. You’ve got chaos, order, individual.
Now each one of those three things has two valences, there’s the positive and the negative. So the positive form of chaos is opportunity. It’s finding the diamond when you’re walking down the street accidentally, and it has destructive forces. Those can waylay you. Those are the things you don’t see something. You fall through the thin ice, you end up in frigid water for no fault of your own. So there is opportunity and obstacle, creation and destruction. Okay. So those of the two valences of the chaotic universe.
Order, there’s the really good order of being secure. There’s security of living in a walled garden or a walled city that makes you feel, “Uh! I can relax. Let me just watch some Netflix now and everything is going to be fine, because I’m inside my living room. I’ve got my entertainment system and everything is cool.” Okay, that’s good, and then there’s something else.
So the good stuff is secure, familiar world that is safe. The problem is that it can also become a tyranny, where one person orders things so drastically that upon their whims, other people have to behave, and it destroys individual expressions. So those of the two valences of the ordered world, there’s tyranny and there’s sort of the just society.
Now, let’s go to the individual whose navigating the world. There’re two expressions of the individual right? There’s the one who’s trying to make positive things happen. That is the hero. The hero confronts order and chaos in such a way that it affects the universe in a positive way. They make sacrifices of themselves in order to bring a positive effect. So there’s the hero.
Then there’s the adversary, or the antagonist, and that’s the villain, and that’s the person who wants to destroy this world. It’s the one who gets resentful, angry and destructive. All we want is revenge when we are our own internal adversary. The adversary is resistance. They don’t want anybody creating anything. So this is the villain that we fight within ourselves when we’re creators. That is a real thing and it’s trying to stop us from creating positive influence in the world would. When Steve Pressfield said that’s a real thing. It is no joke. That thing is out to kill you. It really is, and it’s an eternal demon and it’s also a meta-demon in our global universe. All right. So you have the hero and the adversary.
So you have sort of these six fundamental archetypes that are at play in every single story. What’s the story? It’s the story about a hero who has to confront chaos or tyranny in order to bring about change to affect a positive change in the world.
So let’s get to your story. So Jesse is our hero. She’s confronting of tyranny of order. She doesn’t want to confront the tyranny of order. She just wants to stay home with her mom and dad and her brother and have things be the way they always were, which were sort of this tightly sealed environment where everybody plays their part and everything is cool. So that’s what she wants at the beginning. She wants to go back in time to make things the way they used to be.
At the beginning of the story, in the form of the mayor, he says, “Hey! Guess what? You’re going to go to this other place and serve this order.” She’s like, “No. I’m not. I’m not doing that.” Then she suffers the consequences until she finally moves from that ordinary tyrannical world into this sort of extraordinary chaotic world that she does not know. It’s an unknown entity to her. Through the course of her travels in the unknown world, she has to transform from the person who wants to live in the past to a person who wants to affect a brighter future.
So, the moment we’ve reached in your story is she has made the decision that she will go free her brother from the matrix and bring him home and then everything will be cool. She has no idea that her brother has ulterior motives. The brother wants to destroy the entire order of her society, but she doesn’t know that yet. Then the ending payoff, she has to make a choice that will either, A, support the order that is currently in place or go for chaos. So her choice at the end to choose destruction over creation, like she’s not going to at the end of this story come up with a brand-new society and say, “Okay. We’re going to get rid of this, and this is going to be the new thing,” or “We’re going to keep this and we’re going to move this and we’re going to change this.”
So this is why the ending of the threshing has to end in chaos, because we need to hook the reader into buying the next book, which will be about how do you solve a chaotic environment. This first story is about how do you undermine a tyranny? So the global meta-story that you’re writing is about how to confront tyrannical unjust societies in a way that can bring them down?
Now, you’re not going to answer the question, “What do you build after that?” Because you want a sequel and you want another book after that. If you look at stories like Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings and you look at them through this prism of chaos, order, individual navigating between the two, you can really start to see the meta-meta-story that is the story of every individual on the planet throughout time, because people in 1800s had to face these same problems as we did. This is why we love fantasy, because they’re timeless stories. It could be a post-apocalyptic world. It could be a middle ages world. It could be an arterial legend, or it could be elves and goblins. It doesn’t matter, because these are the archetypical stories that we are trying to solve every day of our lives. How do we navigate the order of our world while still dealing with obstacles and opportunities from the chaotic world? How do we walk that sort of like that you yin-yang the line that divides the black and the white? There’s a line that runs right down the middle.
Our job is to deftly walk that line without falling into one or the other pits, because if you fall into chaos, you end up eating Cheetos on your couch for seven months. If you fall into order, then you become a regimental guy who’s trying to get every single dollar you can off of the business table and drives himself crazy ordering his life to the point where he wakes up at 49 every morning and then he takes a shower and then, and it’s difficult for the individual, and I’m speaking personally, to navigate those two arenas. When do we let ourselves take a break from our writing? Are we letting resistance win if we decide to go to the beach with our family, or should we do that? It’s a very – Who knows? It’s an hour by hour, minute by minute struggle, and when we are writing these stories, i we share them in the right way and we lock into this eternal struggle in a way that is very identifiable to readers, then we can give them hope. We can say, “Look. You are not the only one struggling between chaos and order. You are not the only one who has adversary within.”
In fact, this is the meta-story of what it’s like to be a human being. Now, there’re a million subplots and genres and all that stuff underneath this meta-story. But if you want to really get sort of the intergalactic view of story, I think if you divide it into order chaos individual navigating between the two and think of your beginning hook as the place where they’re living in the familiar and they get flushed into a chaotic world. The middle is how do they navigate the chaotic world in such a way that they can actually survive?
The ending payoff is; how do they get back home with new information that will help everybody else? That’s really what a story is. So we know the hero is going to return at the end with something for the community. So that’s why the ending is surprising, because we don’t know how that’s going to happen, but inevitable. We know they’re coming home. We know that Mark Watney in the Martian is going to be brought home from the minute we sit in the seat in the movie theater. We know the ending of the story, but we don’t know how. That’s what drives us to stories. We know the ending. We want to know how we get there and we want to compile in our minds as many successful strategies to get to the end of that how that we can in our lifetime. We also liked those ones that tell us what not to do. So it’s almost like filing a big, big file cabinet in our brain of stories that direct us to how to navigate this world of chaos and order.
So when you’re thinking about, “How is my middle build ending? How is my ending payoff think about the relationship of your individual protagonist against these forces of order, chaos and the adversary?” Does that makes sense?
[0:42:44.7] TG: Yeah. I mean, it’s one of those things I feel like I need to hear a lot and it will sink in overtime, because everything you said I’m like, “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” But it’s one of those once I sit down to write, it will be hard to like put it into practice.
[0:43:05.2] SC: Yes.
[0:43:06.0] TG: But thinking that way, like you said, it’s a global thing. It’s one of the things I pull back to look at and then I have to zoom in to actually write. I mean, was there something in particular you feel like I was missing with my story or are you just wanting me to make sure I’m thinking about these things as I plan out and write it?
[0:43:27.2] SC: Well, the truth of it was, it that I thought that one of the concepts that I’ve come up with over the last couple of weeks working on the 15 scene level up your craft thing, is a great way to look at the beginning hook and the ending payoff is to look at them in terms of rhyming. So they need to rhyme.
What I mean by that is that the hero at the beginning of the story is facing a problem, and the way they face the problem is solved in one way. Then at the ending, they have to face the exact same problem, but solve it in a different way. So the problem that Jesse faces at the beginning of her story is to – Her problem is what? What’s her problem? How do I live in this strange world that I know is not right?
The way she solves that is by being a rebellious renegade. So she steals credits. She’s like winning the uber game instead of trying to win the game game, right? She’s trying to win this meta-game instead of doing what all the other suckers are doing, which is mining for chips and doing whatever it is the order is saying. What she’s doing is like, “Hey, I can outsmart all these idiots and I can steal their chips.” So she’s sort of like an outlaw renegade. That’s how she solves her problem of navigating the ordered world that she lives in.
So it’s sort of a way of stealing, right? It’s not authentic. She’s sort of a cynical smartass who’s figured a backdoor to cheating and winning in spite of all of the things that are supposed to keep her down. So the ending payoff of your story, she has to solve the problem of, “How do I navigate this ordered universe in a different way?”
Traditionally, the character, the protagonist solves the problem by sort of destroying at the beginning, for lack of a better world. They choose the negative. They choose the negative valence to solve their problem at the start, and it’s working out okay for them, and they’re living in a deniable, negative world. At the end, they have to choose a positive choice. They have to choose creation.
Now, Jesse at the end, her crisis is, “Do I pull the plug on this entire order knowing full well that there would be really serious consequences to that?” It’s going to force all of these people who are living in a hive sort of mind to confront themselves. Is that a positive thing or a negative thing? She has to use her faculties to make that choice.
Now, technically, if you look at it externally, Jesse is choosing to destroy the ordered universe, right? But the hero also challenges tyranny. The hero is supposed to refresh order. So when tyrannies come on line, so to speak, we need heroic people to go and fight those tyrannies so that they are dismantled, and then they can be rebuilt with a stronger foundation.
Now, the problem with destroying a tyranny is that the first thing that happens right after the tyranny is what? Massive chaos. It’s like what happened at the end of World War I in the Treaty of Versailles is that all of the allied forces decided, “Oh, we’ve brought down this tyranny of the second Reich,” which was Kaiser Wilhelm, “so what we’ll do is we’ll restructure German society and we’ll make them basically work for us.”
So the way they solved destroying the tyranny was the seeds of a new tyranny rising, right? What they did is they had Germany, they basically destroyed their army, which I’m not saying that the choices that they made were wrong at the time. I’m just saying look it back in history, they made the new order in Germany serve the old ally people. So they had to pay reparations that were just impossible to pay, and a guy like Winston Churchill saw the forest for the trees and tried to get them stop that, but he didn’t.
Anyway, that tyranny became a chaotic world and Germany devolved into this hyperinflation nightmare, where to buy a loaf of bread cost 2 million marks very, very quickly. That’s a very, very simple analysis of World War I, the end of World War I, but that’s sort of my point, is that you need to look at this stuff in a meta-way.
So book two, the second book is Jesse’s dealing with this massive chaos. You’ve got a lot to play with there. I’m not telling you to even think about that now. But let me just get back to the point of the positive nature. So the way she should be solving this problem at the end of this story is to say, “It’s going to be up positive thing that individuality is brought back on line, because even though it’s going to be chaotic, the only way we can navigate this world, the only way we can make things work in any sustainable way is through the individual geniuses being allowed to flourish.”
Thematically, I think the ending payoff, but she really has to face – This crisis needs to be really, really clear to the reader what she’s actually facing. It’s not just, “Oh, if I blow up the matrix, then my brother is free.” She really has to be like, “My brother used me in order to seize power in a bad chaotic world.” So maybe that’s your second ending, where the brother thinks he’s going to take the role of commandant of this ordered world. In fact, she brings down the whole thing so that he can’t get his negative payoff at the end too. That actually would work well.
But my point is that you need to crystal really clear make this explicit to the reader in that crisis of your ending payoff so they really understand the stakes that she is facing. We talked about a best bad choices, that’s like, “If I bring down the matrix, people could starve and die. If I don’t bring down the matrix, we will lose all individuality on the planet. So what do you pick? Death or genius?” If people are dead –
[0:50:09.5] TG: Yeah, and the whole thing comes down to why does a 12-girl-old-girl get to make that decision for everybody?
[0:50:18.3] SC: Well, yes, and that’s a brilliant thing, and I’m glad you have a 12-year-old girl that you’re putting in this situation, because this is how our culture is revitalized. It’s through youth. You need to energize youth in order to make the culture stronger, to whittle down the bad stuff and bring in some good stuff. Now, there are good and bad 12-year-olds too, right? But we’re running up heroic story.
Thematically, it makes sense that a 12-year-old girl has the fate of the world in her hands, right? Because they do. We tend to think like, “Oh, I’m meaningless.” But you know what? Every single – This is what our entire culture in our Western civilization is found on, is the sacred nature of individual human beings. If we think that we will have no consequence on the planet, that’s not good. We need stories that tell people, “You are so freaking important. It’s incredible.”
So, you, Tim, are writing a story about how important a single 12 year old girl is to the entire earth staying reasonably sane. It’s not ridiculous to say that is the fundamental truth that our culture is built upon, that every single person has something within them that is unique and valuable and can contribute to a better planet. It’s when we get overwhelmed by our internal adversaries that says, “You know? The planet is stupid. People are stupid. Let’s just wipe everything out. Being is meaningless, man. Forget it. It’s dumb.” That is not good, because when you say there is nothing meaningful on earth, then what do you end up doing? You contribute to more negative stuff.
So just as a fundamental choice, you need to think about what you can do to add something positive just to keep sane.
[0:52:25.4] TG: Okay.
[0:52:26.3] SC: So the bottom line is you’re on track.
[0:52:30.6] TG: All right. Well, I’ll keep writing then.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:52:33.1] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. For everything Story Grid related, checkout 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.
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