Crack the Scene and You’ll Crack Your Novel

The results of our WHICH BOOK TO STORY GRID NEXT are in!

THE MARTIAN received 782 votes

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD received 731 votes and


So tune in to The Story Grid Podcast on December 23, 2015 to check out The Story Grid for Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN.

For those of you who did not vote for THE MARTIAN, don’t fret. I’ll Story Grid TKAM and TBOMC down the road when I put together projects concerning the MATURATION plot in the Worldview Internal Content Genre (this is the global genre of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) and the LOVE STORY/COURTSHIP PLOT in the Love Story External Content Genre (this is the global genre of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY). Both are crying out to be storygridded and I won’t let you down…

Here is some more data.  Episode six of The Story Grid Podcast increased our listenership 31% more than previous week, which isn’t really all that surprising to me. We’re on the front lines of the writing war now…

Tim and I are now getting into the nitty gritty of the writing process and I’m doing my best to keep him from making catastrophic mistakes (the kinds that usually take 50,000 words to discover).  In episode six, Tim courageously shared a scene from his new writing project and withstood all of the critical slings and arrows I hurled at him with not just inner fortitude, but with gratitude.

Just a small aside about that part.  When an editor “rips apart your work” you should be thankful.  They aren’t doing it to make you feel bad.  They’re doing it to help you.  It takes just as much time to think through and diagnose a writer’s problems as it does for the writer to bang out a first draft of something.  Having been on both sides of the table, I know it takes even more time to edit.

So when an editor makes that investment in you, do what Tim does in this episode and in future episodes.  Try and turn off that Boy am I an idiot! voice inside your head and listen. Don’t react.  Just takes notes and clarify the points the editor is making. Don’t explain or argue.  Listen and give yourself time to metabolize before you react. Like days or weeks even if that’s what it takes.

The next episode must have been just as excruciating for him.  In episode seven, I dive even more deeply into his work and not just offer more critiques, but offer solutions to the problems too.

Here’s the transcript for episode six, “Shawn Rips it Apart” of The Story Grid Podcast.

The big takeaway from this episode is this: FOCUS ON SCENES!

You can also listen to it by clicking the play button below.

Tim: Hello, and welcome to The Story Grid Podcast. This is a podcast dedicated to helping you become a better writer. My name is Tim Grahl. I’m the host, and I am the struggling writer trying to get started in figuring out how to write a book that works. Shawn Coyne is the expert editor, 25-plus years in the business, author of the book “The Story Grid,” and he comes on and answers all of my questions, helping me become a better writer, and I’m allowing you to listen in so that you can become a better writer next to me.

This episode was the hardest so far for us to record – I guess I should say for me to record – because we spent most of the time ripping apart one of my scenes. I wrote a first scene for a book that I want to work on, and I made a whole lot of mistakes in it. Shawn really dives in with me and helps me figure out what’s wrong with the scene and how I can make it better, and you get to listen in as he deconstructs or – as I say – rips apart my scene.

Also, after we finished recording, we kept on talking as we normally do, and we had a little piece that I wanted to share with you. The mic was still rolling, and I decided to add that on as an epilogue. So make sure you hang on past the end of the episode to hear the last couple of minutes of an epilogue that we put together for you, as well.

We’re going to jump right in and get started. I hope you enjoy the show.

Hey, Shawn. I figured we’ll get started talking about the draft of the scene I sent you. Last week, I promised I would write a draft and send it to you. Now, you had told us to write ten versions of it, and I only wrote two because I was lazy/scared. I put off sending it to you until the last minute because I just really didn’t want to.

Anyway, I sent that to you, and what I did is… Let me set it up for listeners. This is the inciting incident of my story, and basically, in the first scene that I didn’t write, I wanted to keep the scene where something malfunctions with the scuba diving equipment and they have to shoot to the top.

You said last week, “Hey, use weather as why they have to go back,” but what I thought was instead, I’ll use it where one of the people gets symptoms of the bends from coming up too fast, and so they need to get back to shore to get him taken care of.

Shawn: That’s good. I like it.

Tim: At the beginning of the scene, it was like “Hey, we’re heading back because this guy is sick, so we have to cancel this vacation everybody has been looking forward to.” Anyway, you read it.

Shawn: I did. Yes.

Tim: Thoughts and feedback.

Shawn: This is a really great process, because there’s any number of ways that I can start with helping you on this. The great thing is that you went for it and you wrote a scene that at the beginning, it’s one way and at the end, it’s another.

This scene, as I described in “The Story Grid,” you have to start one place with a value and end another. The value at the beginning of your scene right now is everybody is alive. And at the end of your scene… And I think you’re going to post this, so I’m not giving anything away.

Tim: I’m going to put it in the show notes a link to the exact draft I sent him, so you can stop and read it now or read it after you listen.

Shawn: At the end of the scene, somebody is dead. In terms of a scene value, at the beginning of the scene, everybody is alive, and at the end of the scene, somebody is dead. There’s an arc: something happened at the beginning and the result at the end is somebody is dead. That’s great, and that’s a good start.

When I suggested last week for you to write this up ten times, I didn’t mean to necessarily write 1500 words ten times. What I was going for was for you to come up with ten different scenarios. I think, luckily, you picked a pretty good one for this scene as your inciting incident for the global story.

From what I can read from this story, this is about a group of guys who are out on a guy vacation. They’re on a diving excursion, probably somewhere off the coast of Australia or maybe the Caribbean. That’s a little bit vague right now, which I think you need to think about, being more specific.

These guys are on this vacation, they’re on a boat, and it opens with a conversation between a bunch of guys on a sundeck. Apparently, one of the guys in the group has taken up ill and they think he might have the bends. The bends is a really interesting way of coming up with a way to get the necessity of this boat having going back to shore.

The other thing you want to think about, Tim, is the realism here. You’re definitely in the terrain of the reality genre of realism, which means this could happen. From this point forward – and this is a first draft, so I’m not taking you to the woodshed over this, I’m just putting this in your head – when you’re dealing with realism, you have to do a little bit of research.

Is there a place where somebody would go scuba diving deep underwater where the boat would be, say, a day away from land?

Tim: Actually, I did that. I’m placing it at… Oh, geez, it’s in my notes. It is off of Australia. I found a place that they do what are called liveaboards, which are basically small cruise ships. In this case, I actually found a company that goes to this remote place that you can only go during a certain season of the year and you’re 12 hours from shore.

Shawn: That’s great.

Tim: I looked at their boat. I looked at a couple of these. I wanted to find a smaller boat because some of them can have 20 people and that would have been too many people. I found one where it’s a 50-foot catamaran, and they actually put on it the specs of each floor, like how the entire boat is laid out. I’m using that as my layout and my location, and I actually I found a great page that explains all of the references and “stern” and “bow” and all that kind of stuff on the boat so that I can actually use those terms in it, which I threw a couple in the draft.

I have a location. It’s remote, so it’s places that only more experienced people would go or take you. You can only go a couple of times a year, and it’s remote enough where not a lot of liveaboards go, so they’re going to be the only boat out there.

Shawn: You’ve done your homework. You visually, in your head, have a sense of where all this action is taking place, which is terrific. I’m talking in terms of genre right now, and we just went through the reality genre. As your editor, I’m giving you a sense of, “Hey, you’re going to have to tweak this a little bit down the road, not now.”

We’re doing this a little ass-backwards in that you’re developing the story and I’m giving you editorial comments as you’re developing it, which I would not suggest anybody really do, because you can get so overwhelmed with specificity and editorial vision and all that stuff where it kind of sucks the life out of you and you’re hamstrung to be able to write.

As I say in the book, you have to wear two hats. You have to wear your writing hat and your editing hat. What you did last week is you put on your writing hat, and now you’re sharing it with me, and I’m playing the role of your editor.

We’ve gone through realism. You’ve definitely done that work. You should feel confident that you know what you’re talking about, you know the general reality of the situation. That’s great.

Next up is the content genre. From what I can read, what I’m extrapolating here is that you’re dealing with the action genre, and I’m not going to extrapolate and I don’t want you to tell me what’s going to happen later. Let’s just deal with what’s on the page now.

Right now, we’re dealing with the action genre, and the action genre has four major components to it. There’s the “man against nature” stories, which are basically like the situation where you have like Die Hard, where there’s a labyrinth that the hero has to get through to be able to save everybody. You have the man against nature stories. The environment is another one in the man against nature, and the movie Gravity would be a good example of that. The whole purpose is for Sandra Bullock to get out of space and land back on Earth.

The second one is the “man against the state” stories, and this is where you have conspiracy plots, vigilante plots, rebellion plots, and all of this, of course, is in the book “The Story Grid.”

The third one is the “man against man” story. These are where you have a duel between a villain and a hero. That’s interesting here because I think what you’re leading up in your story is a showdown of some sort between one of these characters versus one or more of the other ones, and I’m just going from what I’m reading.

The last one is “man against time,” which is like there’s a clock and there’s a deadline – like a ransom plot, like that great movie Ransom with Mel Gibson, which was done years ago. It was a fantastic movie. That’s where you have to save the victim before something terrible happens. Somebody’s held for ransom.

From the introduction of your first scene, what I’m saying to myself, as I read it, was “Tim is dealing with a train of an action story. He’s added man against time,” and I say man against time because I love the idea of you using the bends as a means to get these characters to have to change course.

As we’ve talked about before, inciting incidents are all about changing circumstances in the protagonist’s life such that the world is thrown out of balance. At the beginning of your story, there’s a bunch of guys who have gone on vacation and they’re all excited about going scuba diving and really doing the full nine yards of the scuba diving. All of a sudden, one of the guys gets the bends and they have to head back and get him medical treatment. That’s terrific. That’s an inciting incident that works.

I’m going to say right now that if I were to give you a couple of examples of another story that’s in your realm, it would be a movie. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this movie, but it’s called Dead Calm.

Tim: Dead Calm?

Shawn: Dead Calm. I’m not very good at enunciating “calm.” It’s a fantastic movie with Sam Neill. I think it was made in Australia. I forget the name of the director. Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman are on this boat, and it’s very much a deep sea kind of action story. I would suggest for next week your homework would be to watch that movie and think about the obligatory scenes and the conventions that happen in that movie.

Another movie to think about watching was the one with Robert Redford. Fantastic movie. It was released last year. I think it’s called All is Lost. It’s the story of a guy who’s out on a ship and something happens, and he has to somehow figure out a way to get back to shore.

Tim: The one in my head was “And Then There was One” by Agatha Christie. I was looking it up the other day when I was working on this, and then I read that she said it was the hardest book she ever wrote, and I was like, “Oh, dear God. What have I done?”

But that was what I was thinking. In “And Then There was One,” I think it was 13 people or 10 people end up on an island. They’ve been summoned there for lots of different reasons, and then they start dying off one by one, and you’re trying to figure out who the bad guy is and who’s doing all the killing.

I wanted to ask you about this because what that means is there’s no actual protagonist. What I was planning on doing was hopping between all of the people on the boat and telling different sides of the story – and then people continue to die – but trying to set it up where you don’t know which one of these six guys is the bad guy.

Shawn: I think there’s a reason why Agatha Christie said it was the most difficult book for her to write, and that is it.

Tim: Is that something I should not be tackling on my first book?

Shawn: I think you should reconsider it, and the reasons why are… One of the most important things to always remember is as a writer, you need your reader to become emotionally attached to the story, and the way people become emotionally attached to the story is to identify with one particular character. For “The Silence of the Lambs,” it’s Clarice Starling. Everybody puts themselves in her shoes.

That is a very, very important element to bring because we need to almost experience what the protagonist is experiencing to give us the narrative drive to keep reading the book. If you go out with an epic story and you have multiple characters – and six characters is a very, very difficult thing to pull off – the problems that you’re going to face is you’re going to be trying to create more and more pyrotechnic plotting to keep people attached to this story. They would be more attached to the pyrotechnic plotting than they would emotionally attaching to one particular character.

The notion of doing… I think she also wrote one called “Ten Little Indians” or something that’s similar to that.

Tim: That was a previous title of the same book.

Shawn: Oh, it was. That’s really difficult. I think if it’s your first novel, what you want to do is to find a story that you can tell where you’re almost writing as if you were in the character’s shoes so that you can put yourself into one of these character’s… You can inhabit their body and tell the experiences that are happening to that person as they go through the story.

The reason why I suggest that is because it gives the reader somebody to cling to, somebody to really hold on to and fix in their brain. I don’t know about you, Tim, but I’m really bad when I meet somebody to remember their name. I’ve met so many people in my life and my wife – God bless her – can remember everybody’s name, and she’ll whisper to me before I see them again, and she’ll say, “That’s Sue.”

The reason why is that the more people you’re exposed to in your life, the more difficult it is to place them. When you’re reading a novel, if you have to follow more than one person, it’s difficult. Your brain gets a little overwhelmed and a little bit frustrated, so what you do is you start tuning out and saying, “What? What’s going on? Who is this? Why do I care about this person?”

Tim: See, I thought I would solve that probably by having only six people.

Shawn: Six people is a lot.

Tim: I guess I was thinking like trapping six people, I wouldn’t have to deal with other people, but you mean it’s a lot as far as not the amount of people in the story but the amount of points of view I have to cover.

Shawn: Yes. Not only that, but it also set up the problem – which I’m going to address now – that your story begins with a whole bunch of people talking, and we don’t know anything about any of them. I don’t know who Matt is versus Nick versus Tommy versus Chris versus the other two characters that I can’t… Adam is one.

You’re setting yourself up for failure when you’re trying to bite off more than you can chew on this first kind of exploration. I would really suggest to you that you come up with a simpler idea.

Tim: Like a completely different book idea or simplify this one?

Shawn: I would simplify this one, because I think the notion of a book that’s about a ship lost at sea that has to desperately get back to shore or somebody’s going to die, and they’re not just going to die; they’re going to be living in hell until they get to shore, because from what I understand about the bends, it’s excruciating to experience.

Tim: What happens is nitrogen gets stuck in your tissue and basically fizzes up like soda.

Shawn: Exactly. You’re basically rotting from inside – a slow rot – and you’re almost exploding inside, so it’s extraordinarily painful. I like that setup, but I don’t think the scene is grabbing the reader in the way that it needs to, especially as the first scene in the novel. I do think that you need to take advantage of some of the things that writers have developed over the years. What I’m thinking about is free and direct style.

What that is, is it’s being able to write in the third person from a very global point of view where you can talk about the design of the ship, the past histories of the characters onboard that ship, but you can also get inside one particular character’s head, so we can actually, as a reader, hear their thoughts in a way – we read their thoughts.

Thomas Harris does this extraordinarily well in “The Silence of the Lambs,” where you get inside the head of Clarice Starling. He doesn’t do it right away. He does it gradually. At the very beginning, it’s a two-person scene.

What I would suggest is you think about making this first scene a two-person scene, not a six-, seven-, eight-person scene. The reason why is that when it’s two people, the reader doesn’t have to work very hard to place who is who and what is what. That’s a pretty big suggestion to pull it back to a two-character scene.

The other thing is that when you’re starting out on the first scene of a novel, what you really want to do is really just grab the reader by the throat immediately with really compelling and mysterious story tricks.

What I’m saying by that is there’s a famous line in Ken Follett’s book “The Key to Rebecca,” and it’s the very first line of the novel. I’m paraphrasing, but I think it’s “The last camel collapsed at noon.” That’s the first sentence of the book. What does that sentence do for you as a writer? It pulls the reader in, because they’re like, “What? The last camel collapsed at noon?”

Just that one sentence pulls the reader right into a world. Something is going on and all the camels are dead, and the very last one has just collapsed, and it’s in the height of midday. The midday sun. Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. What Ken Follett did there was pull you right into the middle of a desert with one sentence.

Tim: Does the inciting incident need to be in the first scene?

Shawn: Yes. It does. You have sort of two inciting incidents in your scene.

Tim: I didn’t even think of that until you said that a couple of minutes ago. Is that a problem?

Shawn: It’s not necessarily a problem. It depends on how you use it. There’s a great short story by Ernest Hemingway called “Hills Like White Elephants.” It’s this beautiful short story where nobody really understands what’s going on until you finished reading. What it’s about is it’s a man and a woman having a conversation about wine and things, and you finally figure it out at the end that they’re contemplating whether or not this woman should have an abortion, and they never mention terminating the pregnancy, they never make any mention of that whatsoever.

That short story, it clicked with me when I read yours because I’m like, “If Tim were to be able to create a scene where he has two characters, and they’re talking about things that are really fascinating, but the big payoff of the scene is discovering that one of the guys on the ship is in tremendous amount of pain, and if they don’t get him back to shore, he’s going to die. And he’s not going to just die…”

Another assignment for you is to read “Hills Like White Elephants.” It’s a very short story and it’s really brilliantly done. The great thing about Hemingway is he doesn’t use million dollar words; it’s all subtext, and it’s a brilliant way of looking at the way a writer can convey things that are never on the page.

Anyway, my thinking about it is that the other thing that people have a tendency to do when they’re writing their first novel or their first short story is they jam in so much plot. Right? They jam in as many plot points as they can into one scene. It’s like, “Not only that, there’s zombies, too! The zombies, they’re not just Dracula zombies, they’re alien zombies.”

I think you have to have a little patience. Let the scene play out in a way that builds to this moment at the very end where you say, “We have to go back.” They might be discussing “Well, we do have that…” And you would have to do a little bit of research on this. “We do have that mini iron lung downstairs. We could stick him in there.” Maybe one guy is like, “Hey, he’s not so bad. He’s doing okay. I think he’s going to come out of it,” and the other guy is like, “I’m not so sure. I’ve seen people suffer through this.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve seen…”

They’re talking about the symptoms of the bends, and you never have to say, “The bends,” right? Until the end. Then the reader is going to be like, “Oh, my gosh. There’s somebody down below writhing in pain while these two guys are basically contemplating whether or not they’re going to save his life.”

Tim: I don’t know. We may be boring people out of their minds talking about one story.

My thinking, though – this is how I had it in my head – is what I wrote was the second scene, and the first scene was him coming up too fast because of blah, blah, blah, and that’s how he got the bends, and now the second scene was them deciding…

Shawn: That’s shoe leather. That’s what I call a shoe leather scene, Tim, meaning it’s unnecessary. The most important thing to remember, too. Listen to me: “The most important thing to remember, too.” When you start a story, you want to begin it in the middle of things. It’s called in medias res. I think it’s either Latin or Greek.

What that means is you just started in the middle of the thing. There’s no setup, there’s no, “Boy, Jim. Good morning.” That’s all exposition that nobody needs to read. A major thing that first-time writers do is they over explain, and they think that the reader isn’t going to understand unless they give them a lot of exposition.

Hold on a second. I’m going to pull up your story. The first sentence is, “‘Goddamn, Matt. I’ve been looking forward to this trip for a year, and he has to go fuck it up,’ said Adam.” That first sentence, to me, reads like exposition, meaning you are telling the reader a whole bunch of information as quickly as you can in one sentence of dialogue. It’s like, “Hey, here we are on this trip, and isn’t it interesting? And boy, Matt really ruined it.”

Nobody talks like that. I don’t say to you when we started the podcast, “Gee, Tim. It’s really great that now we’re on our sixth episode, and things are going really well. What do you think about that?” We just start, and you say, “Shawn, what do I do now?”

To think about that, try not to put any exposition and just write the scene. Pretend that you are these two guys and go back and forth in your own mind. One time, you’re Adam and one time, you’re John, or whatever. Just write down what you think they would be saying to each other in this circumstance.

Instead of “‘Goddamn, Matt, I’ve been looking forward to this trip, and he has to go fuck it up,’ said Adam.” Instead of that, what would Adam say? He would probably say… I can’t think of it off the top of my head, but you want to start with something like “The last camel collapsed at noon.”

Tim: Can I just use that one? I’ll just put that in.

Shawn: Actually, Elizabeth Peters used that first line as the title to one of her books, and she gives Ken Follett credit. That one line is so famous that a really successful bestselling crime writer named Elizabeth Peters entitled one of her books “The Last Camel Died at Noon.” I think Follett said, “Collapsed at noon.”

There are two ways to begin a novel, a story. One way is go from the airplane view, 30,000 feet in the air, and that’s what Follett did. He’s the narrator of the story. There’s a storyteller, and the storyteller begins the story by saying, “The last camel collapsed at noon.” That’s one way.

There’s another way of doing it where you’re on the ground, and that’s what you’ve done. You’ve begun your story with dialogue. One character says something to another character. Those are two different ways to begin a short story or any story whatsoever, and it depends on the personal tastes of the writer, but there are advantages and disadvantages to each.

If you think of movies, they usually begin with… They used to… 100% of the time, they would begin with a big, wide shot. Think of Lawrence of Arabia. Actually, it begins on a motorcycle.

You have to think about your point of view when you’re starting your story. Do you want it to be a global point of view, or do you want it to be on the ground? When you go on the ground, if it’s not a two-person scene, it gets really confusing very quickly for a reader.

But if you begin globally and slowly pan down to a two-person scene, you can gradually bring the reader down into that two-person scene, or beginning with dialogue can work very, very well. It depends.

I know I’m not being very helpful right now, but what I’m trying to do is to get you to look at options to think about how can you really bring the reader into your world in a way that’s gradual and organic and really surprise them at the end.

You’re dealing with a very interesting subject, a very interesting universe or world, and it’s a world on a boat in the middle of nowhere. That is a very primal sort of world. It’s an isolated universe in the middle of not chaos but we’re not really sure – the mysterious universe. You have a lot going for you in your choice of the boat, the scuba diving trip, and this guy who has the bends.

Tim: Say I open it with the scene, the two people talking, and at the end, you realize the guy has the bends. My whole idea was I wanted to put half a dozen people outward, they’re stuck, and they’re stuck on purpose because somebody is trying to kill the rest of them.

Shawn: You can still do that. You can absolutely do that. But the way to do that is, I think, going through the world of one protagonist. I think you need… What you’re basically doing is you’re thinking about a protagonist…

See, the Agatha Christie thing is a global point of view, meaning these characters in the Agatha Christie story are really just archetypes in that as a reader, when we read an Agatha Christie novel, we’re reading it for the puzzle. We’re reading it for “How is the master detective going to solve this mystery?” It’s not very deep. You know what I mean?

If you’re doing that on this ship, you’re basically trying to do a meld between a crime story and an action/adventure story. Here’s what I think. I think if you open up a scene with a bunch of guys who are stranded on a boat in the middle of nowhere, the reader is going to have an expectation: “Oh, boy. I am going to fasten my seatbelt. This is going to be a great action story. This is going to be unbelievably about how these guys are going to get through incredible storms, through whatever, somebody’s going to try to kill somebody. This is going to be a great action story.”

Instead, what you’re trying to do is to put a crime story on top of an action story and reveal that it’s a crime story later on. I think the reader’s expectation is that this is going to be an action/adventure story, just based upon the setting.

This is really my Shawn Coyne’s “20 years in commercial fiction” point of view. Other people may have a different opinion about that, and there might be a great way of being able to put an Agatha Christie thing on a ship, but it would usually be a cruise ship. You know what I mean? It would be like “The Love Boat” mystery story, and I don’t think that’s what you want to write.

I know I’m going all over the place, but one of the things I talk about in “The Story Grid” is to satisfy readers’ expectations. I think what you’re setting up here at the beginning with this boat and these bunch of guys in the middle of nowhere on a scuba diving trip, first of all, it’s a bunch of guys, there’s no woman on this boat, which I think is a mistake, because 70% of the people who read novels are women.

If you don’t have a woman on the ship, first of all, you’re losing a very large dynamic of conflict – just male/female conflict – and secondly, women don’t really want to read… I know I’m generalizing here, but generally, women aren’t going to want to read a book about seven guys on a boat who end up dying off one by one.

They’re going to want a much richer cast of people, and they’re definitely going to want to have a woman on that boat. They’re going to want to have some person they can relate to, and a bunch of guys drinking beers on a boat, they’re not going to really relate to that.

Tim: All right.

Shawn: Just in terms of casting, and I think you’re going to have a lot of fun thinking about… The other thing that I always suggest about casting is do what people don’t expect. Don’t make it she’s the navigator with the PhD from MIT. Maybe instead, she’s the best mate. She’s the one who knows everything about the ship but she’s blue-collar. You know what I’m saying?

Don’t make it like out of a Hollywood action story where there’s the hot librarian MIT scientist who’s going to come in and say, “But Joe, don’t you think H2O is a different molecule than sodium chloride? You don’t want to do that because we’ve seen that a million times.

Go ahead, Tim. I’m starting to…

Tim: You’re saying it’s a mistake to try to have one of them killing everybody off while also trying to do a “How are we going to survive this?” boat thing.

Shawn: No. I think you can do that, but use it. Don’t reveal it. That’s like a major act climax to realize “Holy shit, not only are these guys desperately trying to get back to shore in incredible circumstances of weather or whatever, but there’s somebody onboard who’s killing everybody.” That’s an act climax. That is…

Tim: That’s like the end of act 1.

Shawn: Yes, it could be the end of act 1. Yes. Because you want to really… That’s a progressive complication that if you build it the right way, when you realize that the reader is going to be like, “Oh, my god. What’s going on? What’s really going on? Who is the bad guy? Because I thought these guys were just fighting nature.”

When we started this conversation, I was talking about the action storyline. Basically, you have an action clock – man against time – with the guy with the bends, and I think to use man against nature is a really great opportunity that just the setting that you’ve chosen, the reader is going to expect. They’re going to expect something like a monsoon or tornado, something outrageous. You should do some research about this. Is there something interesting, something strange in a weather pattern that could happen to these guys?

Like when Wes Craven was trying to figure out something interesting for the horror genre, he’s the struggling young writer, and he thought to himself, “How can I make the horror genre more interesting?” what did he come up with? He didn’t come up with just another psycho killer; he came up with Freddy Krueger, which is just such a diabolical, unbelievable twist. That’s all he needed.

Once Wes Craven figured out Freddy Krueger, I bet his script pretty much wrote itself, but it probably took him a hell of a long time to come up with Freddy Krueger. Freddy Krueger is this very unique villain, this very powerful force, and as I remember, he can only hurt you when you’re asleep. Right?

Tim: I never had the guts to watch it.

Shawn: Anyway, my point is to pick around and think, “I’m going to do an action/adventure story and then I’m going to progressively complicate it in different ways.” You’re going to start your story by setting up the action “man against time” thriller.

Basically, at the end of this first scene, the readers are going to say to themselves, “These guys have to get this other guy to shore or he’s going to die., and he’s not just going to die easily; he’s going to be in excruciating pain. To withstand that kind of hell, it’s hard for us to understand.”

That’s a very, very large inciting incident that, I think, is going to get people to start reading chapter 2. If you think of your storytelling in these terms, I don’t really think you’re going to go wrong. At the end of chapter 1, you’re going to say to yourself, “I’m Tim. I have got this idea. At the end, it’s revealed somebody is in extraordinary pain, they have the bends, they have to get him to shore. Is that going to get people to read chapter 2? I think it is.” – and I would agree with that – “So what am I going to do in chapter 2?”

Tim: I like that you said, “I think people will read it, and I agree with that.” You just agreed with yourself. Like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m ready.”

Shawn: This is the way I write. I talk to myself, and I say to myself, “Is this what I think it is?” I try to look at it rationally and reasonably. I use my writer’s side and my editor’s side. My writer will come up with an idea, and my editor in my head will evaluate and say, “Yes. I think that’s going to work.”

I recommend people do this, too. Whether they want to be a schizophrenic or not, I don’t know, but it seems to help me when I’m writing something. “Is this interesting enough for people to want to read the next sentence?”

Tim: Let me ask this while we’re here. Last week when we talked, I asked, “How do we get started?” I expected you to talk about the Foolscap, and you said, “Write one of the obligatory scenes.”

At the beginning, you’re like, “Don’t get an editor involved at this stage because it could really hurt your progress.” But I’m wondering should people write an initial scene like this and take it to a few people and say, “What are your questions? What is your feedback? Do you know…?” Ask six questions about the scene because, to me, if I had tried to…

Do you think I would have figured out some of this as I went through the Foolscap? I guess now looking at it, I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. I’m so glad I didn’t try to write this story before I got your feedback. I’m 1500 words in, instead of 50,000.”

Shawn: Exactly. I don’t think that’s a bad idea. Again, I always recommend the opposite of what you think you should do. Remember last week, you said, “Oh, man. I’m really nervous because I thought you were going to say you want me to fill out the Foolscap Global Story Grid, and I was so excited about that because it would keep me from having to write a scene.” Instead, I said, “Write a scene,” and you’re like, “Oh, boy. Okay. I’ll write the scene.” Now you’ve written the scene and you’re getting my feedback.

I think if you have really good friends who can stand to read 1500 words and to honestly say to you… It’s a matter of asking them the right questions.

Tim: What would those questions be?

Shawn: I think the first question you would ask is “What kind of story do you think this is?” After reading what you wrote, they might say, “I’m not really sure. Can you tell me more about it?” I think what that’s going to say to you is that you might have tried to jam a lot more into that first scene than you really wanted to. They would be confused.

To go and write the scene and ask people’s advice, I think it’s better for you to spend your time learning more about genre than to ask people who don’t know really the global concepts of genre to give you an opinion, because everybody’s going to have a different opinion. A lot of people are like, “Yeah, that sounds great. Agatha Christie on a ship.”

What I think is that based upon the scene that you wrote, what you can do is ask yourself the questions that are in the Foolscap Global Story Grid, and the first question is always, “What is the genre?” This is the question we’ve been talking about for 45 minutes. This is no small question.

Initially, from what you had described to me, you were describing a crime story mystery to me, like Agatha Christie, “Ten Little Indians.” That’s not what this is. The reason why it’s not that is because of what you’ve chosen as your setting.

You’ve chosen not a big… If you had written the scene that took place on Carnival Princess Cruises and there were 3000 people onboard this cruise ship, that would be a different situation. Because then, what I would suggest to you is, okay, find a master detective. Find a protagonist the reader can attach to who’s going to sort through all of these clues and figure out who the bad guy is, and write a mystery story based upon Agatha Christie principles, which are have a master detective like Ms. Marple or Poirot and put them in the middle of a situation that seems impossible to figure out, and then through their brilliance, have them piece together clues that, at the very end of the book, they can stand up in the middle of the cruise ship amphitheater and say, “It was Captain Stubing who was the killer!” because that’s what people are going to expect from that kind of story.

But the idea that you’ve set up here, which is an inciting incident where a bunch of guys have to go back to shore because somebody has the bends, that doesn’t sound feel like an Agatha Christie story; that seems like an action/adventure story.

Tim: How could I figure that out on my own? This is all about “Okay, I’m Joe Schmoe writer. I can’t get Shawn Coyne on the phone and tell me what genre I’m writing in from some random scene I wrote.” How do I go from “I wrote this scene” to “Okay, what genre am I in? And since I’m in that genre, these are the things that don’t work”?

Because basically what you did is you said, “No, no, no, no. You’re writing for this genre, so here’s what doesn’t work about what you tried to pull off in 1500 words.”

Shawn: That’s right. This is going to be an answer that people are going to probably kick in their computer when they hear it, but I’m going to give it anyway. Here’s the answer: you have to be really, really, really well read. To be a really, really terrific writer, you need to read your genres that you obsessively love to a degree that all of the things that I said earlier, they’re right there, you can grab them.

When you start writing this scene, at the end of it, you would have said to yourself, “Oh, geez. This isn’t a crime story; this is an action/adventure story. That’s really what I want to write.” Then you would say to yourself, “What action/adventure story do I want this one to be like?” And then you might say to yourself, “I’d love it to be something like Dead Calm only this way. Dead Calm meets Ransom.” I don’t know. Maybe the guy who has the bends is actually faking the bends. I don’t know.

Tim: See, that’s actually what I was thinking.

Shawn: Of course you were. You think I’m stupid? I’ve been around town. I know what you’re doing before you even know it. That’s a great setup, right? That’s a great reversal, because what you’re going to do is you’re going to get that guy with the bends a tremendous amount of sympathy from the reader. So if you reveal later on this guy is setting up everybody from the very start, it’s going to be like one of those, “Oh, why didn’t I see that?” That’s what you call a “surprising but inevitable” twist.

Tim: All right. Oh, my god. I’m so overwhelmed. It just feels like when I sit down to think about writing a book, I’m thinking “I can do this,” and then as we’ve talked through all of these things, I feel like – I don’t know, there has to be a great metaphor – just completely overwhelmed. “Oh, my god, I’m never going to be able to pull this off.” I guess anything I’ve done in my life has vacillated between those two things – “Oh, I got this,” and “Oh, my god. I’m never going to do this.”

Shawn: Exactly. That’s the way we get the courage to do things that we wouldn’t even imagine that we would be capable of doing it. If you’re six years old and somebody says to you, “You’re going to graduate college, and then you’re going to get a PhD in economics, and you’re going to win the Nobel Prize,” nobody would ever even consider that a possibility.

What I like about the process that we’re going through now, Tim, is that right now, you’re having that holy shit moment. “Oh, my god. I don’t know what I’m doing right now. I’m not really sure what I want to write.” This is a moment that every writer faces.

Something to hold on to is the craft. What we’ve been talking about for the past hour is that first question: what is the genre? If you can lock down what your genre is and think about exactly which one you’re going to commit to, then that is going to be extraordinarily powerful for you.

Tim: I feel like, as we’ve been talking, that’s what I’ve been… I’ve read the book, we’ve talked about genre the last few weeks, but now I see “Okay, if I pick one of these, and I go and do what we’ve said where I read the books, I watch the movies in that genre, that will keep from going off the rails and trying to do a detective story at the same time.”

Shawn: Exactly. The other thing is I talk a lot about taking one piece at a time. Try not to get so overwhelmed right now with all the massive amount of things that you have to figure out and just think, as I said earlier, “Okay, I have an idea for the first chapter. It’s going to start here and it’s going to end here. Will that drive people to want to read the next chapter?” I think you have a kernel of an idea that will.

Now, the scene that you’ve written is not executed properly yet. It’s not there yet. It’s a great wild riff that’s going to give you a lot of information for the future and where your story is going to go.

I think the next thing to do is not to go back and fill out the Foolscap Global Story Grid yet; I think it’s to merely settle on a few things. The first thing is what’s the global genre? I suggest that your global genre is an action-adventure story that begins as a countdown plot, meaning if these guys don’t get this other guy back to shore, he’s going to die a terrible death.

That’s what it’s going to start out at, and it’s eventually going to be revealed to be a “man against man” story, and that is going to have a protagonist and an antagonist who will somehow duel over the final whatever it is.

Let’s not figure all that out yet. I think it would be a good idea to revisit this opening scene and try to get two characters to talk about the problem that they’re facing.

Tim: So I now attack this first scene as if the only thing I’m writing is the inciting incident for a “man against clock” action/adventure?

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: The whole goal is I don’t want to over explain anything, I want to reveal things slowly, and the only thing I have to do is by the end reveal that somebody has the bends and they have to go back now and drop it in right at the end that will get people to want to turn the page and read the next chapter.

Shawn: Right. The other thing that I would suggest is that the two characters that you’re going to focus on in the scene, one of them wants something and the other one wants the other thing, the opposite. One of them wants to keep scuba diving and the other one wants to head back to shore.

Tim: Yes. I was thinking it would be between the captain who’s in charge and wants to head back to shore and the other one would be the guy who paid for the trip for everybody to come.

Shawn: That sounds like a good start. What you’re setting up here is a really nice conflict, because the captain, and he should know, and the guy who’s paying for everything should let him know, “Hey, dude. If we head back, you’re not getting paid.” The action that the captain is taking… Or maybe the captain wants to think about it this way, too. Think about it one way and then flip it.

Think about this scene with the captain wanting to head back because he doesn’t want somebody to die on the ship, and then think about the opposite, the captain not wanting to head back he doesn’t want to lose his money. Then maybe the guy who’s paying for everything – think of it – he wants to head back to save his friend or he doesn’t want to head back because he doesn’t want to miss the scuba dive.

Tim: Now I see why trying to cram five people in a scene, because there’s…

Shawn: Yes, it’s too many dynamics.

Tim: The problem is five different people want five different things for five different reasons, and I can’t do that in a scene.

Shawn: Right. Think about ZIP codes. 01230, that’s five numbers in a ZIP code, and how many people have five-numbered ZIP codes? The possibilities are endless with five different levels of… That was a very obtuse way of saying…

Tim: No, I get you. We just talked about we have two characters, one wants one thing, one wants the other, and for me to consider the opposite, I just flip them. But now if I add a third in, that goes up exponentially. I’m not good enough at math. I think I go from two options to six.

Shawn: Not to get too off track, but the basis of a love story is the three, the triangle. The triangle relationship…

Tim: Yes, but even in that, there’s usually two women and a man or one woman and two men, and there’s still only two choices, or three, I guess. One, the other, or neither.

Shawn: And that’s enough to sustain thousands and thousands of romantic comedies. You don’t want to have six characters with six different motivations because it’s too overwhelming for us, for just a normal person.

Tim: My error in this was thinking… Because what I’m trying to do is come up with a story that gives me the least possibility to really screw something up. Right? I want to write something that can be successful, so I’m trying to take out anything that… That’s why when I read that that was Agatha Christie’s hardest novel, I didn’t think, “Oh, a good challenge.” I thought, “Oh, I think I’ve made a mistake.”

Shawn: You did.

Tim: At first, what my error was when you said, “A cruise boat with 3000 people,” I think, “I have to keep track of 3000 people,” and that was totally off base because I still only have to keep track of three people. You’re saying, basically, do the same thing on a boat of six people, which is you only keep track of one protagonist who is driving the whole thing.

Shawn: Yes. The way to simplify things is… The action story is basically the primal story of all stories. It’s the basis of Greek stories and all the stuff from the beginning of time. Action stories, again, as I said before, there are four basic ones, and to choose one of those and having a ship… If you have people on a boat, you have to have the weather at some point. You just do. Because people are going to say to themselves, “I thought this was one of those cool boat thrillers where they…”

And watch All is Lost. There’s one character in that entire story, and it’s really brilliantly done. One character. It’s man against nature, and it sustains an hour and a half of filmmaking in a way that will take your breath away. Robert Redford has no lines. He does not really speak in the entire movie. But the power of the primal force of a man against the sea… Is he going to survive or is he going to be swallowed into the depth of blackness?

That is such a primal story that when you start adding things on to it, it sucks the life out of that primal thing. Man against nature and man against man are two… Like mano a mano, one guy against another guy, one woman against another woman, one woman against a man, those are really primal stories that we all…

When we all face very difficult things in our lives, it’s not like we have 17 people that we have to deal with. It’s usually there’s one central conflict. We have an argument with our wife, and that argument is destroying our happiness, and we have to figure out a solution to that or we’re going to continue to be unhappy.

Think about that when you’re telling a story. Think about those primal things that really, really dominate our own individual lives, and use them to inspire you to keep your storytelling simple. Like I said in the beginning, this one thing has two huge events, the guy with the bends and the death of the captain. Save that death of the captain for much later on.

Tim: Okay. I can do that. My homework is I have to watch Dead Calm, I have to watch All is Lost, and I have to rewrite this scene as a conversation between two people.

Shawn: Yes, and read “The Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway.

Tim: That’s right. I have that down, too.

Shawn: If I had the time, I’ll try to tinker a little bit with your story and try to show you what I’m talking about. It’s easy for me to say, “Well, you know, you’re not going global when you should be specific and you’re too specific when you should be global.” That’s not as helpful as I’d like it to be.

Tim: That’s a good struggle for me, because so many of the things you’ve said that I just don’t know, like the first scene would have been shoe leather, the opening dialogue with too many people, trying to cram two inciting incidents into one scene, I was basically cross-pollinating genres in the first scene, as well. All of those things are things that I didn’t even know to think about.

Shawn: I’ll give more thing to read. I wrote a post called “Narrative Altitude” and it’s all about what we are talking about – on the ground and above the air. It’s about Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in The New Yorker called “The Tipping Point,” which actually was the inspiration for his book.

I made a graph there, which is pretty cool, which will show you when Gladwell shifts from the ground to above the ground, to even higher, and you can actually track it by reading the story online and also looking at my graph. It’s really cool because there are little transitions that you between the different places in the storytelling. “Narrative Altitude” at StoryGrid.com is something that you should take a look at, too.

Again, if I have time this week, I’ll futz a little with your scene and just goof on it for a little while and see if I can be more specific about what I’m talking about.

Tim: Okay. That sounds good.

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. As I mentioned at the beginning, there is a small piece that we’ve added as an epilogue to this show that you can hear just after I’m finished talking here.

Before we get there, though, I want to remind you that if you want to stay up on everything that Shawn is doing with “The Story Grid,” you can do that at StoryGrid.com, sign up for the e-mail list, read the blog post, you’re not going to want to miss any of that.

If you haven’t yet, you’re going to want to also pick up the book “The Story Grid.” It’s a fantastic read, it’s the whole reason I reached out to Shawn in the first place to get his input on my writing and where this podcast came from. It’s a fantastic read, and I think you’ll really enjoy it, especially, of course, if you’re enjoying the podcast already.

Lastly, we would love your support in the way of leaving an iTunes review or rating. You just go into iTunes, search for “Story Grid,” and leave a review of the show. We read them all and it’s really helpful for us. And, of course, share it with your friends, put it on Twitter, put it on Facebook, put it in the writers groups that you’re part of. We would love to continue to have your support for the show as we continue to make the show for free.

Thanks again for listening and hang on for the epilogue, and then we will see you next week.

No. I understand holding back, just because it can be overwhelming, but don’t hold back. One is if this wasn’t being recorded, I want you to rip me apart at 1500 words instead of 50,000. Right?

Shawn: That’s a great point.

Tim: This is what I want. If you were my editor and, again, we were just on the phone going over it, that’s what I want.

Shawn: As we were saying last week, this is Russian dolls. If you learn how to write a scene, if you can write a 1500-word scene that’s going to make people go, “Holy cow, I can’t wait to read the next scene,” you’ve got story knocked, man. You’re going to be able to nail it. Concentrating on the scene is a really, really great idea, and I think a lot of people get lost. Starting with the scene, I think we stumbled into something that can be very instructive for people and not too overwhelming.



The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.