[0:00:00.9] 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’m the struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining the 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, Shawn has now gotten a chance to take a look at Die Hard and we dive into how to fix just my stuckness in my middle build based on what I’ve been learning through Die Hard and other stories. So for those of you that have gotten stuck on your own middle build, I think this will be a great episode.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:46.9] TG: So Shawn, a couple weeks ago we went over Die Hard writing, watch it and put into spreadsheet and one of the things I was trying to accomplish with that, now you had a chance to go back and watch the movie and I wanted to use that as a way to talk about where I’m stuck in my book. So I’ve had several things kind of bouncing around my head, so I’m just going to kind of throw them all out and would love to hear your feedback.
The first is that I feel like looking at Die Hard as an example, there was like this kind of big test, and then a little test before the middle point, and in my book the first big test is the whole tower burning down things and then I’m kind of stuck on what to do until we get to the middle point where she gets sucked into that world with her brother.
I’ve had in the original, in the first draft, this whole kind of competition with Az, her kind of nemesis in the book and that might still stand, but what I’m stuck with is like I feel like the story is just real kind of loosey-goosey, which is a technical term, and it’s just real kind of loose and just bland right now and I made the mistake, because I went to Universal Studios last week and went into the Harry Potter World and it’s like every time I go there it’s like a rule, I have to then listen to the audiobook again.
I’ve been re-listening to the audiobook of Harry Potter and now I’m like, “Well, maybe I don’t have that many characters in my book. Maybe I should expand that more. Should I be expanding the world a lot more and making it much more immersive?” Then I’m like, “No. No. No. You need to just focus on the story and you can add all that stuff later and getting the, dialing in the things on the story.” But then I’m like, “Yeah, but if I had more characters, then I’d have more to do in my story.”
I’m just really — I’m stuck on what to do, because every time I’ve gone to work on the book I end up doing one of two things. I either take the scene that I wrote in the first draft and just kind of changing it to try to make it a little better, which feels like I’m polishing a turd. Then the other one is I just completely rewrite the scene, but it ends up being just a different version of the same thing that I don’t think is any better.
I’ve been just spinning my wheels on it for a while now, and since we’re — you and I off mic have been talking about eventually wanting to publicist this thing, I should probably actually finish it. So I’m just kind of stuck with what to do, and so was wondering your feedback on like my next steps on how I should attack this middle build with where I’m at.
[0:03:43.2] SC: I think you’re facing something that a lot of writers do after they’ve hit a place in their writing where they start to doubt the work that they’ve already done, because they’re so familiar with it that they feel like, “Yeah! This is run-of-the-mill baloney.” “Ah! Not this again.” It’s only natural when you’ve lived with these characters and with these scenes for so long to grow tired of them and to start doubting whether or not they’re really that good and whether or not they’re going to compel people to keep reading the book.
It’s absolutely natural what you’re going through, but the thing that you need to remember is right now you’re sort of like focusing on this nebulous, you’re not really going micro and you’re not really thinking macro. You’re sort of just saying, “Oh! My middle build just doesn’t work and I don’t know what to do about it.”
So when you face this kind of trouble, the middle build is really about progressively complicating the story to the point of a major, major shift in the action of the story or the worldview of the protagonist. Because your protagonist is going through a maturation plot along with the actual labyrinth, what you want to think about is how am I going to get her to the point of recognizing that all is lost, that she cannot find the solution to what she wants? Because that’s the thing that really pushes the character into another dimension, is when the character either gets what they thought they wanted and realizes it’s not what they wanted at all, or there is no possibility that they can foresee of them ever getting what they want. That moment, it’s either realizing the want is wanting or realizing that you can never get what you want, is sort of the point of no return. The character realizes in a very specific moment in time in the story, “My life is never going to be in the same. What I want is impossible or what I’ve achieved is not what I thought it was.”
So that’s usually the moment close to the end of the middle build. Now, because the end of your middle build, as I recall, because we haven’t talked about it in so long, results in a sort of vegetable state, if you will, of your character so that she is neither dead nor alive. You’re going to need her to reach that sort of point of no return a little bit earlier. From what I remember, you chose to have her reach that freak out stage about midpoint in the second trial. So now the question becomes, the first trial, she brilliantly overturns the expectations of the people that she’s all around constantly in an effort to go back in time. She burns down the thing so that the whole prize and the reason for the competition now doesn’t make any sense, because everybody is supposed to get to the top of this tower. So she decides to burn down the tower, which undermines the game, and that’s a great way, and the reason why she does this is she believes, “If I screw up their game, they’ll kick me out.” So that’s her pursuit of her want, and her want is to just go back to the way things were before. She just wants to go back home with her crazy mother and her wimpy father and hang out with the rats and do all the other things that she used to get away with.
That motivation for her to do that makes perfect sense. Now, as a progressive complication, it’s a pretty good turn. Now the next big progressive complication is when she can’t figure out how to win the second trial. So she loses her mind a bit and is touched by the goddess or she gets that, like in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy, the Tin Man, the lion and the scarecrow, they can see the Emerald City in the distance and then there’s a field of poppies in front of them, and they go into the poppies and they all — The living beings fall asleep and will die there. Then, Glenda, the good witch, comes to the rescue and makes it snow.
That’s similar to what you’re doing for your second progressive complication in your middle build, is that you’re having Jesse get into this situation where she panics. She doesn’t know how to win this event, and as they’re banging on the door about to take her, she falls into the wormhole and sees her brother, and then the brother comes and lends her aid and gets her out of the problem and she ends up winning the trial.
Okay. So now that’s a another progressive complication that’s, I think, even better than the first one. Do you think the reader will expect that she’s going to have a problem solving the second thing?
[0:09:19.6] TG: No. So I’m happy with both of those. So I feel like those work. The problem I’m running into is how to get from the first one to the second one.
[0:09:29.8] SC: Okay. The first one to the second one, isn’t she called into the principal’s office and yelled at for what she did?
[0:09:36.3] TG: Yeah. The last scene that I reworked was that, the scene where she — after everything happens, they start to plan an escape and then she gets taken to see him, which I also like that because there’s this whole scene of them planning their escape, and before they can even get started, they get caught.
Then she goes to see the president, and I like that scene too because that’s where you find out he’s not that big imposing figure that you’ve seen throughout. Because I started putting the big imposing figure guy, like even in the beginning hook where there’s like posters of him everywhere and then you find out he’s this little scrawny, nerd guy. He’s super nice, super grandfatherly, and then at the end, when it turns, he threatens her and then sends her back.
In the first draft, I had her have this run in with Az and they end up going back into the original, the simulation from the tower burning down thing and that’s when she first, the bubble first shows up that she jumps through and escapes. The whole thing is just not very good and it’s pretty weak. If we’re contrasting it or comparing it to Die Hard, he tries twice to go back to the original world before he accepts his responsibility.
So the first one is when he pulls the fire alarm and his plan is, “I’m going to pull the fire alarm then I’m going to hunker down and let the cops take care and it,” and that’s kind of my tower burning down thing. Then there’s another one that I forget off the top of my head now. It’s amazing how quickly I forget this stuff.
[0:11:21.8] SC: It’s the one where he calls the emergency channel to get the police, and he’s on top of the roof.
[0:11:28.1] TG: That’s right.
[0:11:30.1] SC: The first one is when he pulls the fire alarm, and the second one is when he goes to the top of the roof to call the police directly. Now there’s something that happens in between the pulling of the fire alarm and him going to the top of the building. You know what that is?
[0:11:47.5] TG: Are you talking about when he sends the body down the elevator to them?
[0:11:51.2] SC: That’s right. They send up a guy to kill the guy who pulled the fire alarm on floor 32, and they send the toughest guy they have with a submachine gun. So John McClane is up there and he doesn’t really want to kill anybody. He just wants justice. So the guy comes upstairs and McClane is hiding underneath some kind of construction material and the guy is like, “Hey! Give yourself up. It’s going to be fine,” and somehow he worms away without the guy knowing, and then the guy just shoots up the construction material and McClane knows, “This guy is going to kill me.”
So then the guy chases him and McClane corners him and pulls a gun on him and says, “Hold it right there. I’m with the police.” And the guy says, “Oh! well, you can’t kill me because you’re cop.” And he’s like, “Oh my gosh! That’s true. I don’t want to kill anybody. I’m the police officer. I abide the law.” And so it’s in that moment of hesitation that the guy starts fighting him and what happens is they fall down a flight of stairs with John McClane holding the guy’s head, and in the fall, the guys neck breaks and he dies.
So John McClane —
[0:13:07.8] TG: So is that important that he didn’t actually kill him on purpose?
[0:13:12.1] SC: That is correct. That is very, very important moment, because McClane keeps himself sort of clean. He’s not killing people for any kind of pleasure. It’s an accident and he doesn’t feel bad that the guy died, but he didn’t shoot the guy in the face the minute he saw him, because then he would have lost the audience. That’s not a heroic thing to do.
Okay. So that’s just after the fire alarm. So you see how the writers are moving McClane into justifiable homicide. They’re moving him. He has a moral code until he has to defend himself. It’s either him or the other guy, he accidentally kills him, and then he gets the bag of tools. That’s when he takes the guy’s submachine gun and his bag of tools and he uses those tools. Part of that is the walkie-talkie. He goes with the bag of tools to the top of the roof after he realizes that nobody is going to show up. The fire alarm went off and then the fire company went back. He’s like, “Oh! I can’t believe this. They’re turning around.” Then he goes to the roof and he calls on the intercom or the walkie-talkie to the special channel, Channel 9 or whatever it is, that the police are constantly monitoring and he tells them, “Get over here. There are terrorists,” and the police blown off in the lady is like, “Sir. You got to get off this channel. This is only for emergencies,” and he’s freaking out.
Meanwhile, Hans Gruber, the bad guy, hears him on the walkie-talkie and sends up the bad guys to kill him. Then we’ve got this great action sequence where he has to get away from the bad guys.
[0:15:02.0] TG: And he uses the tools to get away from the bad guys.
[0:15:04.8] SC: That’s right. Then the next series is that the one police car shows up to just do a drive-by and the guy is outside checking around, and he can’t believe they’ve only sent one car. So he decides he’s going to throw a chair through a window so that the guy can hear, and the guy doesn’t care. This is a police officer.
Meanwhile, a couple of the goons find him in that office and the first one comes through the door and McClane does not shoot him. He says, “Hold it right there!” and he’s got his gun trained on the guy who has a submachine gun. The guy holds up his hands like, “I’m not going to shoot,” and then he jumps down on the floor and the guy behind him tries to shoot McClane. McClane shoots him, because he’s going to shoot him, and then McClane shoots the other guy too. My point is the movement from the first trial to the second trial has active moments of threat. It’s not just prepare for the next trial and come up. They didn’t show John McClane thinking about how he’s going to get the police to pay attention this next time. They actually showed him doing the things that would get him to pay attention.
That is a great clue to think about in the movement from trial one to trial two. How do you get Jesse actively trying to continue her want? Now, what’s her want? She wants to go home. So when she has that meeting with the president, should she say, “Hey, Mr. President, I just want to go home.” Did she say that?
[0:16:51.3] TG: No. Not right now.
[0:16:52.9] SC: Yeah. She should, because she could go — Or you could have the president go, “Well, now Jesse, I am a pretty smart guy and I understand what you did there. I see that what you did is you tried to break my game and you thought if you broke my game you would get to go home and hang out with your crazy mother and your wimpy father. Guess what? You’re not going to get to go home, because I wanted to see how smart you are, and apparently you’re pretty smart. So I’m planning a super extra special trial for number two. So you go on your merry little way, little girl, and you better try and figure out how to beat this next trial.” So that way you’re raising the stakes and you’re saying, “Oh my gosh! Jesse is not outsmarting the people behind the machine. In fact, they’re manipulating her to get the best out of her.”
So what could you also do to get her to the next trial? Now having a training sequence is a good idea, but do you really want to pinpoint or show that there’s a possible wormhole? Where you want to use that wormhole in a really incredible moment when all is lost in the second trial. I think the latter. I think having the training session is a good idea, but the trick is to make the training session innovative. How can you make that interesting? It’s like in Rocky. How did they make it interesting where the boxer, they had a big space in their screenplay that says Rocky trains for fight. The way they filled in how Rocky trains for the fight was brilliant. It was so brilliant, to character, that it made everybody watched that seen fall in love with Rocky, and it was the music and it was the eggs in the morning and it was the running through the meat market and the punching of the meat, sides of beef in his cousin Polly’s beef factory. Because, traditionally, the way you train for a fight is — What do you do? You’d go to a gym and the you spar, and then they showed the way Apollo Creed trained, and that’s what he was doing.
Think about how you get Jesse training for a big fight in an innovative way. Would she just go in and train like everyone else, or is there a different way that Jesse approaches these problems that makes her gifted?
[0:19:35.0] TG: So Rocky is a performance genre with a — Is it a status internal? What’s that internal –
[0:19:43.1] SC: Yeah, it’s status. It’s squishy. It’s definitely the status in there and there’s also redemption and —
[0:19:49.8] TG: So you have to have the training sequence in a performance genre, but in an action, if I just do a training sequence without some kind of life to death at stake, like in the first training, it will fall flat, right? To me, there needs to be some sort of danger in the next sequence. Otherwise, even if it’s a super cool thing, it doesn’t progress the life to death.
[0:20:18.3] SC: That’s correct.
[0:20:19.7] TG: So as you were talking — and the other thing that — and I tend to get hyper-focused on these things that aren’t overly important. So call me on that, but the other thing is I feel like she needs to give one more try to go back to the old world, and so should it be something more along the lines of her basically trying to like sneak on a ship or something and go back home? One more shot at going home, or like — I guess, if it’s just — I’m thinking of a training sequences is like her running through a training sequence, but there’s no danger there, and she’s not getting closer or further away from her goal of going back home. Because in Die Hard, when he chucks that body through the window and it lands of the police car is the moment when everybody in which the whole thing shifts for everybody. John realizes it’s all up to him. Hans Gruber realizes this guy is actually a problem. The police actually take it seriously. That’s the middle point of the middle build.
In mind, it’s at the top of that second thing, where all is lost for her, she’s stuck and she gets sucked into meeting with her brother. The brother gives her her new instructions and she takes them on an the idea of her going back home is gone and she’s now moving towards this new ending.
So I feel like there’s this spot between the first trial and the second trial that I’ve got to fill with something that’s life-threatening, less life-threatening than the second trial, more life-threatening than the first trial, but also is her still trying to shirk the responsibility.
[0:22:02.1] SC: I think you make a good point about escalating into life, death stakes. I think a thing that could be interesting is that you have that nice heart-to-heart talk with the president, and I don’t know how you pull it off, but at the end of that scene, as she is dismissed and leaving, the president should say, “Kill her,” to someone. “She’s a waste. We need to get rid of her. I don’t want anybody messing up my game. Kill her.”
[0:22:31.7] TG: Yeah, because I think that’s good, because that fits what we are saying. One of the problems we’ve found a couple months ago was like he should not know who she is or care about her at this point.
[0:22:43.3] SC: Exactly.
[0:22:43.9] TG: So if he’s just pissed at her for messing up the game and then she’s complaining that she wants to go home –
[0:22:49.6] SC: Yes. I thought there was something there, but I was wrong. Kill her. So at the end — You know what I mean? He’s talking to his henchmen and he goes, “Hey! You know, I thought the kid had something for a second there, but she’s just a baby. She wants to go home. Just kill her.”
Then while she’s training somebody tries to kill her and she has to avoid it, and maybe the thing that saves her is the start of the next thing. Maybe it could be like — I don’t know, but I think that will take the story and make it life-and-death and it will be an active turning point that will propel her into, “Holy shit! They’re trying to kill me. I don’t need to go home. I just need to survive.” She might say that to somebody, like, “I just wanted to go home. Now, I just want to stay alive. I can’t worry about going home right now. I just need to stay alive.”
[0:23:50.4] TG: Yeah. I like that too, because she could — Another aspect of that I could leave intact is she can leave the office thinking the president’s on her side.
[0:24:00.8] SC: Right, and maybe —
[0:24:02.4] TG: That’s super helpful.
[0:24:05.2] SC: I mean, maybe she gets like a text message from Belem or something. He somehow gets a message to her, “They’re going to kill you.”
[0:24:12.7] TG: I was thinking like she’s just doing a simulation, and then like Ernst and Alex, like lose control and she realizes that what’s happening is actually going to kill her and she’s got to get out.
[0:24:26.5] SC: Yeah.
[0:24:27.3] TG: Okay. That’s a problem I can solve.
[0:24:29.4] SC: So that way, that moment will escalate the stakes and it will make sense when she freaks out in the second trial.
[0:24:41.0] TG: Okay. So backing up, this is — Okay. This is so helpful from the standpoint of figuring out how to break the middle build down into solvable pieces.
[0:24:52.9] SC: Yeah.
[0:24:53.5] TG: So this idea that like I need to come back to the genre, which means it’s an action, labyrinth plot, because I can also make —
[0:25:02.8] SC: Where the stakes are life-and-death.
[0:25:04.7] TG: Yeah. I need to progress, make it more dangerous. Also, it’s a maturation plot and she’s still trying to not have to mature. So that fits here, and then that gets me to the place where everything turns over and at the end of the second one is where she’s taking it seriously. The president is taking her seriously now because she’s now escaped it twice more. Then everything can turn over and I can worry about that once I get to what to do after that.
Again, if I’m comparing like Harry Potter, which is not anything like my genre, really, to, I guess, the maturation is — Anyway, to like Die Hard. Die Hard is like super simple, not overly complicated, the setup, right? There’s not lot of people. It’s like him, the bad guys and like three or four other people are the main characters. Set in an office building, terrorists trying to steal money. Just super straightforward, not a lot of innovation, the setup, of what’s going. Then I look at something like Harry Potter, and it’s like just over the top setup down to — As I’m listening to the book again from the standpoint of looking at it as a writer. I mean, she has like the names of the books that Harry Potter sees in the shop in the new world. It’s so specific. There’s a huge cast of characters, and then I’m trying to think of things like Hunger Games, which I think probably like splits the two where it’s definitely bigger than life. It’s a fantasy world, but it’s not as huge as Harry Potter.
Then I’m thinking back to — I was listing to an interview with the Patrick Rothfuss who wrote The Name of the Wind, which is one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read, but the man will not finish the third book of the trilogy, and so it’s driving me insane.
Anyway, he was talking about the first book and how later, like toward — He’s this writer that had worked on this book for years and years and years. Finally got a publisher to buy it, and then his editor, when he was working with this editor, they had to put in this whole new character that just added a whole dimension to the book that I listen to it after I read the book and I was like, “Oh! I can’t imagine the book without this character.”
So is that like a third draft thing where like I go back and like once I’ve really got this story nailed, try to expand the world and maybe even characters and just make everything more colorful, I guess, or is that something that — Like I start to want to do that now, but then I’m like, “Is that me avoiding the work of actually coming up with a compelling story?”
[0:28:06.8] SC: Well, that’s a chicken or the egg kind of question. My advice is always as long as the material you see — I think asking the question, “What my genre?” Are you writing Harry Potter? No. Are you writing more Hunger Games, Ender’s Game? Yes.
Now, if you remember Hunger Games and Ender’s Game, what the writers — They spend some time really painting a picture of the opposing teams so that we got a sense of who our hero was up against, and these teams were really strong, like in Hunger Games, there’s a really strong women and boys who are out to kill everybody and you’re just never going to overpowers some of these people. Same in Ender’s Game. There are teams of players that are just so diabolical and intelligent that it seems impossible that Ender will ever overcome those odds.
I think if you were to really take a look at the beginning of your middle build when Jesse walks through that very large cavernous building and use people like 61 to explain to her her situation, “Okay, here’s the deal. We’ve got six teams. One of them is from blah, and I’ll tell you their teams, their strengths are these and their weaknesses are these. They live in cellblock X.”
At the same time, he’s giving her like the low down of the world. She’s thinking to herself, “Yeah! Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I want to go home.” Then when she finally meets the president after burning down the thing and he’s like, “Hey, I was really impressed by that,” and she’s like, “Yeah, I want to go home.” He’s like, “Oh! This kid just got lucky. Yeah, kill her.”
She somehow survives and wins round two. She’s going to come out of that knowing that I wasn’t her who did it. She got lucky. She got a supernatural force. She’s barely alive, and now she’s got to lie. Now she’s got to let people believe she can do things that she really can’t do. On top of that, she has a great responsibility and a mission now where her self-confidence is kind of undercut. Before, she thought like, “Oh! Yeah, I’ll just burn down the tower.” Now she has really no clue of how to move forward.
So the answer to your question is, if it’s going to help you come up with solutions to the sort of progressive complications in a that way that will be compelling, can you set some stuff up earlier that will pay off in the tail of the middle build by throwing some — Like 61 gives her some precious information about somebody. It’s a little tool that she stores in the back of her mind that helps her tell a lie in the middle build. These are all ideas. So will you want to expand your world so that it’s more specific and more — We understand it more?
Do you want to explain to the reader through a character saying, “This is a sanitary world here. We only allow those who are in the game to be in this sector of the capital,” and that way you explain to the reader, “Oh! This is like an isolated chamber within a much larger organism,” and you don’t have to explain all of the things in a larger organism, because you’ve already had a character explain to your character, “Oh! Yeah, you’re not going to see a lot of people here. You’re only going to see competitors and guards,” and that’s a good little way to cheat a big story into a smaller package. So you don’t have to add 36 characters to represent 36 different levels of society and blah, blah, blah.
So all those questions about, “Do I add these elements of the world now or later?” The answer to that is, can you think of a way of adding new elements that also increase the complications of the life-and-death element? If you’re going to bring in, they literally want to kill her after the first trial.
So her second trial is not just winning the second trial. It’s surviving to play in the second trial, right?
[0:32:56.3] TG: Right. Yeah.
[0:32:57.0] SC: So it’s like trial 1B.
[0:32:58.8] TG: Okay. I like that.
[0:33:00.4] SC: Yeah. One of those great plot points, a great way to really spin a story is to have this moment where somebody says, “Oh! On the 13th, remember we have that thing. We have to go to that amusement park.” So all this crazy stuff happens and you forget about it as a reader and then the character, it’s the morning of the 13th and nobody has told the character or the reader, and then the little boy goes, “Daddy! It’s time to go to that amusement park today,” and he’s like, “What? I’ve got this incredible thing I’ve got to do. Well, let me take care of that first and then —” So like the big event actually interrupts her desire to survive, and it actually saves her from death. She’s going to compete in this incredibly difficult challenge, and that’s sort of like she’s worried about that, but in between, there’s this bigger challenge of just surviving. As she’s trying to survive, a critical moment arises where it looks like she’s going to get killed, and then ba bing! “Now, trial number two is to begin.”
[0:34:09.6] TG: Okay. I think that’s good. I will work on that. So what I’ll try to do is work on that sequence and then basically getting that into the second trial, because I’ve already written that part and we seemed pretty happy with that. I’ll work on that and then we’ll go from there.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:34:30.8] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.
If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review.
Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.