[0:00:00.5] 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 get to actually dive into the things that I’ve written over the last week or so. If you’ve been listening along, you know that I’ve been really blocked on the book and I finally made some progress and had some actual scenes and words to send Shawn to look at. We get to talk through those and talk through some of the decisions I’ve made and where I’m going next. It was at least a fun episode for me, but hopefully you’ll get something out of it as well.
Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:00.5] TG: Shawn, I finally was able to break through my block, because we talked through it a couple weeks ago. I did the outline and then I started writing again. It was nice, because where I started was a few scenes or a couple scenes that you had already liked on the first draft, so I just had to add some things that you had suggested and we talked about well, like a year ago now. Then I just kept going basically as fast as I could. Any time I got stuck, I would just be just make a decision and write it down.
I sent you I think about 7,000 words and I sent you the end of the middle build into the beginning of the ending payoff into the final battle. I’m realizing as I go, because you said something a few weeks ago we’re like, I just have a lot of work to do on the world itself and making it much more clear what it is. I’ve just embraced that it’s going to be vague and I’m just trying to get the story moments happening the right way in the right order.
Then later, once I ground the world and I’m using air quotes here, reality much more, then I’ll be able to go back through and make some decisions about what it looks like and what’s happening around them. I’m just trying to get this story set now. Sent that to you, what are your thoughts?
[0:02:43.2] SC: I think it’s absolutely on the mark. There are some suggestions that I would make in another round of draft, but all in all I think your decisions to just keep moving forward, make a decision no matter what it is, it’s absolutely the right one. There’s real narrative velocity in this series of scenes. I think all in all, it’s in pretty good shape. I like the way you’ve set up the severing and how as and Craig are the ones who actually save her in that moment.
[0:03:25.3] TG: Oh, you be the threshing, like at the beginning of the threshing?
[0:03:28.1] SC: Yes, exactly. I think the idea of the swarm is fantastic, because what I think you’re doing here is to – what I like about it is that what you say is that the threshing each year is almost a simulation of the calamity that caused the dystopia in the first place. Each of these threshings is a new take on the catastrophic calamity. I think that’s really good. It was a really good idea, because what you can do is provide backstory in the actual front story.
I know you probably didn’t think of that, but it’s a really innovative idea. What I mean by that is that a lot of times it’s difficult to express, especially in science fiction and fantasy how the world got to where it is. For example, in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, we never really get the answer to that question. Now I think it’s a brilliant novel, but it’s one of the things that I felt a little like, “Oh, man. I really wish I understood more clearly what actually happened to bring dystopia about.”
Your idea that the threshing is another simulation of the catastrophic event that destroyed the ability of humanity to feed itself, it’s really good, because then you’re putting the reader, you’re flashing back while you’re moving forward. The idea that there is this field of crops, the sun is beating down, and then on top of that there’s a swarm of locusts or some hybrid flying insect that devours crops coming down is great.
I mean, I felt it was really terrifying. The fact that Jesse succumbs to these bugs, I mean, bugs are one of those things for me personally, I just hate bugs in anything that stings me, because I for whatever reason, I’m a mosquito magnet, so my legs all summer are just riddled with bites. Anyway, I love that. I think it also dramatizes the ending-ending payoff, which is that holy cow, we don’t want to go back to the way it was because the way it was was horrifying.
If your threshing it the big payoff of your entire novel is the event that caused the cataclysm that brought the dystopia, that’s a really great idea. I don’t think the reader is going to see that coming. I certainly did not.
[0:06:37.6] TG: I’m sorry. Say that again?
[0:06:40.2] SC: When you have that threshing mirror the cataclysmic event that caused the dystopia in the first place, I think that works so well because I don’t think the rear is going to see that coming. Especially with the severings, which are very much let’s say they’re inspired by The Hunger Games, right? They’re different than the Hunger Games, but they’re inspired by them. There’s no reason to run away from that truth.
What you don’t want the reader to think and this is what they will think, “Oh, I hope the threshing isn’t just another reiteration of The Hunger Games.” I think you’ve solved that problem by – because it only makes sense, right? If we were going to protect ourselves from an event that caused a great problem, I’m sorry to go a little bit strange here but there’s a phrasing in the military and that’s we’re always fighting the previous war, right?
When we fought the Vietnam War, we thought that if we use the tactics and strategies that were successful in World War II that everything would work out fine. In your novel, what I believe the thrashings have become are means by which the reapers, who are the powers that be that are off stage, and they should remain off stage in this first novel. The reapers are basically re-fighting, recalibrating the exact world that created the dystopia and it makes sense, right?
What they’re doing is they’re finding the smartest people and the brightest warriors and they’re sticking them in the same problem that caused the dystopia to begin with. The reason why they’re doing that is they are breeding the new leadership. I know I’m explaining to you how your own novel works, but I think you stumbled on to something that’s really interesting here, because one of the things that was – I wouldn’t say disappointing, but was a little bit unclear was why there were Hunger Games to begin with in the Hunger Games series. Now, I know to criticize The Hunger Games is a really stupid idea, because it’s extremely successful in a wonderful trilogy of novels.
[0:09:30.2] TG: Well, the way it was presented in the book just to jump in because I’m sure people are screaming at the recording right now, is it was a way of keeping control over people and reminding them basically who has the power and what will happen if you fight the capital, or the government.
There was basically – the myth was there was an uprising and they put the uprising down. Basically, each year they have to offer a sacrifice of their children as penance for what happened.
[0:10:07.8] SC: No, I understand that. I understand that. I’m not criticizing that set up. It absolutely works and it’s fantastic. The problem that you face is you don’t want people to look at your novel and go, “Oh, it’s just a rip-off of The Hunger Games.” He just used the same thematic structure as Suzanne Collins did and it’s not different.
If you like The Hunger Games, yeah, you’ll like his book, but it’s not as good as The Hunger Games, because he didn’t innovate the genre at all, right? Now I’m talking in a very meta editorial vision here. I will say it’s absolutely fine to be inspired by a masterwork like The Hunger Games and to write a similar story that doesn’t have a thematic innovation in any way. Don’t feel like, “Oh, Shawn says I can’t do this, because I’m not taking it up to another level.”
My point for you Tim, is that think you stumbled upon an opportunity here that refreshes the notion of the difficult nature of power, of control, of keeping a society intact with the least possible harm, right? Because the great difficulty in structured society is the balance between order and creative innovation.
Generally, in western society since the enlightenment, the equation that we believe works best – when I say we, I’m saying people who believe in the fundamental principles of western democracy and with its mixture of capitalism thrown in there. Not that it’s perfect in any way, shape or form. It’s not perfect at all. The way it works is that the order is such that laws are enacted in order to protect the individual, because in western society it is believed generally as a general moral principle that the individual is unique and important and every individual has specific gifts that should be encouraged to come out of them.
The individual ingenuity is extremely valued in western cultures. The trick is, is to make the society work for everyone at the least possible harm to the individual, so that individuals will be able to have the opportunity to release their individual genius in such a way that it helps refresh and revitalize the global society. What we want are opportunities for as many individuals as possible to be able to release their inner gifts, so that the order can be refreshed.
In your novel, it seems to me that that ethos is what’s driving the reapers. The reason why I think that’s true is that with your decision to have the threshing be a new simulation of a catastrophe that caused the problems in the first place, the way the reapers set up that threshing idea was to find the individual geniuses capable of rising above the cataclysm with their unique gifts. If you find those individuals, they will refresh the order and make things better for society in general.
The ironic or the paradoxical element of your novel is that the reapers set up the threshing to find people exactly like Jesse. When Jesse wins this thing it’s almost as if the reapers, their plan worked, right? Because what the reapers really want is to get rid of people like Marcus, but they don’t want to forcibly get rid of Marcus. They want individuals within Marcus’s society to take him down with their own inner geniuses.
I think, thematically you’ve got a really nice thing going here. On the next draft when we’re doing a polish, I would only suggest to make this clear and have it be a revelatory turning point in a much bigger way. Now right now, it is a revelatory turning point because I believe 61, what’s his name in real life in this story?
[0:15:42.3] TG: Harry.
[0:15:42.8] SC: Harry. Okay, so Harry explains to her, okay this is the way the threshing is set up, it’s just like what happened only different, right?
[0:15:52.4] TG: Right.
[0:15:53.1] SC: He reviews the previous threshings, it’s all about X. It’s all about what happened. The fact that randy has been imprisoned by Marcus is good too, because the reapers they’re not going to intervene with the way Marcus runs the American faction, because they’re like, that’s not – the way the reapers look at the whole threshing situation is that they have four or five factions around the world. Each faction is allowed to rule their faction the way they want and each year, or every four years they have this threshing thing. That’s when the new leaders rise and the winner of the threshing becomes the new faction leader. The fact that Marcus suppressed – I mean, I think Marcus has to be – this might be a note to take. Marcus has to have won the threshing before Randy, something like that.
[0:16:58.5] TG: Yeah. Well, my thought was that his whole thing is once he had the power, he’s trying to retain it.
[0:17:06.5] SC: Yes.
[0:17:07.6] TG: That’s why he imprisoned Randy, and then that’s why he’s going to get rid of Jesse. Yeah, that was my thinking there. My thinking on – one of the things we talked about a while back that has just been in my head that will be work to do after this draft is basically when we figured out that food is driving the whole thing, remember that where they’re all working? That will become the metaphor through the entire thing.
However I re-envision the world, everything will be around this idea of food and farming. That’s why I had the thought of, I was also thinking this is where the reminder of where they’ve come from is the threshing. This is what we’re saving you from. This is where you would be without us. Yeah, the thought of rotating leadership, but Marcus has been circumventing that. I don’t know. I haven’t thought completely through it, but that’s why I’m starting to put these farming references in there and that’s why I thought the threshing should be a reminder of what happened.
I can’t remember if I mentioned this before, because I’ve just been stuck on what the threshing should be. My kids are – I think a huge majority of kids in the United States right now are obsessed with Fortnite; that video game? I was thinking about – actually my kids were asking me like, “Why do you think Fortnite got so popular, as opposed to other online multiplayer video games?” There’s lots of thoughts to it, but everybody has an opinion on it.
One of the innovative things they did was the way that they force people towards each other, right? When the game starts they’re on this island, but then there’s this ever-shrinking storm that you have to stay inside, or you’ll die. What that means is it’s forcing all the players together to fight.
[0:19:27.7] SC: Wow.
[0:19:28.8] TG: I thought, what if I had something that was constantly forcing them together? It would also drive the velocity of the story, because the thing about The Hunger Games is it takes place over a longer period of the book, right? There’s lots of downtime while she’s in The Hunger Games. Mine will have that, because it’s just a short period of time, which means this needs to be the heightened action part of the book. right?
[0:19:57.3] SC: Yes.
[0:19:58.6] TG: I thought having that will force them to not be able to rest. They’ll have to constantly keep moving, because there’s both – but now they’re dealing with the fact that they’re moving away from something that will kill them, but they’re also moving towards other people that will try to kill them.
[0:20:15.7] SC: Yes.
[0:20:17.0] TG: Then I thought, okay what powers has she picked up along this story that will give her an edge? I thought, “Oh, she understands the numbered.” That’s where at the end, I kept going but I think the scene I sent you ended with her realizing that. They’re going to be able to move around in the sunlight easier than everybody else, because she figured that out by working with the numbered.
[0:20:47.2] SC: That’s great. That’s great. That’s another really important element, because as I was saying a couple of weeks ago to someone, your beginning hook and your ending payoff need to rhyme. I might have said mirror, but I meant rhyme. What I mean by that is that the character at the beginning of the novel in the beginning hook has to transform and be more active and heroic at the ending payoff.
If you can bring in elements that rhyme back to where she was before, that’s wonderful, because it allows the reader to go, “Oh, that’s right.” They tumble back in time to the moments that you have written about her time as a numbered, which also is thematically really good because Jesse thinks about the forgotten ones, the people who are being abused by the system and it’s by her identification with the numbered that she will win this damn thing, which is great because thematically it says, don’t forget the geniuses of the people who are in the underclass, right?
Thematically, that saying to this big cultural society, if you believe in the sanctity of the individual as the prime motivator of making a better world, then you cannot keep the underclass down because when you do not provide the underclass the opportunities that the other parts of society get, you are missing out on probably the finest brains and minds.
This is the very difficult world we’re navigating now in real life is there’s some very strong figures among the traditional people who have been cast out of opportunity in our country. They are rising and saying, “This is not cool. We all need equal opportunities.” Now the problem can come in and maybe this is in book 2 or book 3 is that you cannot confuse equal opportunity and say equal outcome, because equal outcome it’s almost the Aisne Randian dystopia, where you disincentivize people who have real skills from pursuing them to their nth degree, because if they do then they’re just – whatever they win, it’s taken away and given to people who are not working hard.
The key here is that I think what you’re doing now is starting to really coalesce into an innovative story that people who love the Hunger Games will enjoy, but also it has another message. It’s not just Suzanne Collins’, for lack of a better phrase –
[0:24:16.7] TG: Rehash.
[0:24:17.2] SC: Rehash. Yeah. Anyway, I think I’m so glad that you got out of that block and whatever you did to get these 7,000 words I would just encourage you to keep going on. I think the setup for this threshing is really terrific. It rhymes a lot of the stuff that you’ve already done in the severings and also with the numbered.
Jesse’s between a rock and a hard place. We don’t know how much she believes Randy, because you have a scene in there where randy says to her, After you win the threshing, make sure you murder Marcus, because then you and I will rule the faction and everything will be great.” We don’t know really how Jesse feels about that directive yet and we don’t know what she’s going to do, which is great.
[0:25:13.6] TG: Yeah. I tried to thread the needle of her agreeing, but not actually agreeing.
[0:25:19.6] SC: I think you did it really well, because she – it’s almost like she has to accept her brother for his limitations at this point. That’s what a mature person does, right? I think she’s reached a level of maturity in that scene where part of her wants to be like “No, we can’t do that. I’m not going to murder that guy. What are you, crazy?”
She has to recognize that, “Oh, my God. My poor brothers been incarcerated. His body’s falling apart. He’s not his best self right now. He’s asking me to do something that is against my ethical and moral belief system, but he’s my brother and I love him, and I need to – this is the last moment I’m probably ever going to see this guy. Do I want to get into an argument about whether or not I’m going to murder President Marcus right now? No. I’m going to go and I’m going to give him a hug and I’m going to spend as many nice moments with him as I can before they take him away.”
I think that works. I think the readers not going to know what decision she’s made, but her reaction to his edict and order for her to do this deed is mature. It’s not childish. It’s not argumentative. It’s like, “Well, we’ll see what I’m going to do. I love you anyway and this is terrible? This is just not cool. it’s not good. It makes me sad. I don’t like the way the world is, but I will continue anyway.”
It was a nice scene. I think it works. It’s also a way of dumping a lot of exposition in a scene between a brother and a sister that it’s a goodbye scene sort of. It’s a scene where you have to say, “Goodbye brother. I’m leaving. The chances that we’ll ever see each other again, it’s like when you leave for college and you leave your little sister, or your little brother at home.” They know. They know you’re never really coming back. You’re not coming back the way you were, right? These are the moments in our lives where we intuitively know something is ending and it’s extremely painful/
When we leave for college, or we leave for our first job, or these are – for lack of a better word, these are death moments, because a part of our lives are ending. It’s dying. We are no longer the fun big brother who will run around the playground with you. We’re now becoming an adult. When we become adults, we all change and grow in different ways. When we have to say goodbye to people in those moments, it’s extremely difficult to understand that we feel such emotional sorrow and sadness. I see that scene as that moment for Jesse and Randy.
She always looked up to her brother. Her brother was God to her. She wanted to be just like Randy. Now she’s realizing, “Holy cow. I do not want to be like Randy. I love him, but he’s not who I want to be.”
[0:28:45.7] TG: What I’ve been thinking a lot about too, like when somebody’s been gone a long time, you tend to either forget the good parts or the bad parts.
[0:28:59.5] SC: Right. Yeah.
[0:29:00.7] TG: Especially I think when somebody dies, you have this temptation, especially if there’s somebody you cared about to sweep away all the bad and just leave the good. I’ve seen a couple people in my life do this in recent years, where it’s like all of a sudden, it’s this person that had a lot of gray in their life is now idolized, because they died.
I think about between her age and what happened around the time, what would have happened is that Randy would have become this perfect shining beacon with no gray, only good. That would fix everything if somehow he could come back. I think having the final stage of her maturity is letting that go and realizing – in the book of course, she’s not going to do what he asked. She’s going to do something much worse. She’s not going to do what he wants, because she’s realizing that he has major flaws.
That’s where I think too, I’ve thought a lot too of like – I heard this myth, this just story of some – this is going to take a minute here. Where once upon a time, there was this man that lived up north where it was snowy and cold for most of the year, and he discovered fire. It was the first time anybody had discovered fire.
He started traveling. He would go to a village and he would show them fire, so that they could stay warm, so they could cook year-round, all this stuff. He never wanted anything. He just would take them fire. Then once they knew it, he would move on to the next village.
Well, eventually he comes to a village that has an established ruling religious class. When they see that people are using the fire instead of looking to the religious people for their source of comfort and hope, they get afraid. What they do is they go out and they kill the guy that brought them fire, because too many people were paying attention to him instead of paying attention to them.
Then they get afraid, because they realize all these people are going to get really pissed at us that we just killed this guy that brought us fire. What they do is they make a place to honor him. They put up a carving of him and candles and a little shrine to him and they start talking about what an amazing man this guy was that brought us fire. Then once again, they have their power back. Because now, they are the ones talking about how important this was and people are looking to them again the way they wanted it, right?
I heard this not too long ago. I’ve been thinking about that for the rewrite of this, of basically Randy being that person in this society. Marcus was terrified of what Randy was able to do, so he put him in chains basically. Then he knew he’d be facing questions of what happened. He set him up as somebody to be revered and worshiped in the faction as a way to maintain his control.
I was thinking, not only will he be idolized by Jesse throughout the book, he will be idolized by everybody in society, because that’s the way Marcus maintained power when he was supposed to give it up.
[0:33:28.9] SC: It’s good. It works. I think, it also provides motivation for Jesse not wanting to go to the capitol, because she doesn’t feel able to live up to that legacy. The way she hides is to do underhanded things. She’s like, “I’m not my brother. I’ll never be my brother. Bla, bla, bla.” That’s why she goes to the numbered, because she’s terrified of taking up her brother’s legacy.
I think that’s a really good add-on to the story.
Then the reveal that the brother is he’s just overwhelmed with and who wouldn’t be? He’s overwhelmed with resentment and anger and all he wants is revenge. For her to witness that, she would take pity on that, because it only makes sense that he would feel that way. I think that’s a really, really solid strong element.
I mean, the only thing is that we know, we’re going to know the minute you hold this guy up as the martyr, that he’s definitely not dead, but I think that’s okay. I mean, somebody who’s familiar with the genre is probably going to know that. It’s okay, because we also know that it’s going to end relatively well for Jesse, because well actually if it’s a trilogy, you know what I mean? A lot of people avoid “setting up those conventions, because they’re see-through.” The thing is is that they’re a convention for a reason and that as long as it, I think it’ll work. I think if you weren’t to do that, because you were afraid of a cliché, or upsetting the genre reader, it would be a big mistake. Forget I even said anything about it.
[0:35:31.7] TG: I started thinking how many stories where the hero is stepping into an environment where people know who they are, before they get there. There’s Harry Potter, there’s Luke Skywalker, there’s –
[0:35:48.7] SC: The Matrix.
[0:35:50.4] TG: Yeah. Well, was he known beforehand?
[0:35:54.1] SC: Yeah, he was the one. The reason why –
[0:35:58.5] TG: Oh, I guess I’m thinking as far as like family ties.
[0:36:03.0] SC: Oh, right, right. Yeah.
[0:36:04.3] TG: The family went before. Harry’s parents were the ones that defeated Voldemort, or well, please don’t crucify me for how I just put that all the Harry Potter fans. That and Luke’s father was a Jedi Knight and then was thinking, was it Ender’s family in Ender’s game involved somehow before him? I know his brother got kicked out of the program. It’s been a while since I’ve read it.
[0:36:30.2] SC: Yeah, I don’t remember.
[0:36:32.1] TG: Anyway, I was thinking having some family legacy that she’s stepping into.
[0:36:39.8] SC: Well, Shakespeare did it and Henry the 4th, so I think it’s a pretty – and Henry the 5th. Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s absolutely a good approach. Because it’s an archetypical problem, right? When you have brothers and sisters and you’re younger, or you’re older and you’re always the family mess up, then the roles that you take within your family are archetypical and people can immediately attach to a character who has to deal with those kinds of problems. Really clarifying in that and making that crystal clear is a good idea.
[0:37:22.9] TG: Okay. Yeah, because I watched the new movie, The Clock in the Walls, or The House With the Clock in the Walls, or something like that. The beginning, the inciting incident was the kids family, his parents had died and he was sent off to live with an uncle. I was like, how many times – that’s the setup of every single kids – Harry Potter is one, but another one would be the Lemony Snicket series was that was the same set up. It’s always their parents died and they get sent off somewhere interesting.
I was thinking having the set up a family involvement a little bit more entrenched. I’ve been thinking a lot since we’ve talked about all this stuff about power, about Marcus’s grip on power. Then when I had heard this story a long time ago and then a friend brought it up the other day about the fire. I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting. That would be an interesting way to tie all of that back together.”
[0:38:29.4] SC: They’re myths for a reason. They happen over and over and over again. That’s why they become myths. Myths are true historical events that repeat themselves thematically. They’re boiled down story to their essence. When people say, “Oh, it’s just some myth.” Well, myths are deeply truthful human stories. Whenever you get stuck, it’s always a good idea to think of the myths of your childhood, to go – the great thing about myth is that they’re cross-cultural.
The Mesopotamian myths are similar to the Egyptian myths, which are similar to Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths. I’m sorry to say myths there. I meant stories. All of them boiled down to this – I mean, this is Jung’s work. I mean, he read so many myths and then constructed the hero’s journey, which is the myth of all myths. It’s the monomyth, and he constructed the hero’s journey from all these different cultural stories.
Whenever you get stuck writing something, asking people what’s your favorite Grimm’s fairy tale? What’s your favorite myth? Do you have a favorite Greek hero? Then just listen to the way they tell the story and then see if you can reconfigure your story to thematically follow that mythic structure.
Using multiple myths as almost subplot is a really good idea. Then having the confrontation between brother and sister in this penultimate moment right before the threshing, that works. It’s a way of getting exposition and setting up what this threshing is going to be like and what she has to do and keep it within a core mythic story that people are used to hearing and are interested in hearing and is repeated over and over again. I think you really stumbled on to something there too is thinking about, well what’s a really great myth that I can mangle for my own purposes?
[0:41:15.0] TG: Right. Well, as you say that I think about Steve Pressfield’s Authentic Swing, when he walks through the writing of The Legend of Bagger Vance based on, I can never say it, the bag of –
[0:41:27.0] SC: Bhagavad Gita.
[0:41:29.4] TG: That thing. I mean, I forget exactly how he put it, but at one point in the book he’s basically like, “I’m going to completely rip this off.” I was like, “Oh, man. That’s the first time that –” Yeah, well when I read it, it was the first time I heard or read and author just be very straightforward about what they were setting out to do.
[0:41:51.4] SC: Yeah, yeah.
[0:41:56.5] TG: Okay. Well, I mean it sounds like I should just keep going then.
[0:41:59.9] SC: Yeah. Yeah. You’re on track.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:42:02.9] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review.
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