[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 take a look at the Story Grid spreadsheet I did for Die Hard. Over the holiday break, I spent some time sitting on the couch in my pajamas while my kids played video games, watching Die Hard and putting it into a spreadsheet. It was a really helpful exercise, and I come away with some thoughts and some questions that Shawn and I go over in this episode. I think it’s a lot of fun and hopefully you’ll get something out of it. Let’s jump in and get started.
Shawn, over the holiday break you and I have been talking a lot about we’ve gone over – in recent weeks we’ve gone over some different fundamental Story Grid stuff that we hadn’t directly touched on in a long time. Then I’ve been wrestling with my middle – the second draft of my middle build. One of the things I was wanting to do was to go back and look at some different – since my book is an action labyrinth, what is it? Action genre labyrinth plot, I wanted to go back and look at some other stories that have used that. The one in the Story Grid that you use an example is Die Hard.
Over the holiday break, while my kids were playing their new Xbox, I was sitting on the couch with my headphones in watching Die Hard in 30-second increments. I filled it out and I’ll put the link in the show notes, so anybody listening can go to storygrid.com/podcast and link over, because I have it on Google Drive and that spreadsheet.
I did the Story Grid spreadsheet for the entire movie. I just wanted to talk a little bit about what I did with it and then dive into some questions I had. The first thing I did is I did it just based on the movie. I have three columns; I have the scene column, and then I added columns for the timestamps of the movie and then – so the start timestamp and in timestamp of each scene, and then I had a fourth column, or a third column that did the math on those, so you can actually see the length of every scene.
I’ll say the first thing that struck me was I could not believe how much they fit into such periods of time. I never noticed that, but in this see, the movie is 2 hours and 7 minutes. I counted 75 different scenes. I would say the average scene was a minute and a half, and even that skews to the long side of thing. I think the longest scene was maybe 6 minutes, 4 minutes, something like that.
There was so many times that I watched and so much happened, but when I did the math it was like 58 seconds for the entire scene. It made me appreciate how tight the entire movie was. There was almost no fluff in the entire movie, which just floored me I guess. I guess, I was surprised that that was the movie is there are so little fluff. Every few seconds, something happened that was important. That was fascinating to me.
[0:03:57.8] SC: Yeah. That’s why it’s a classic of the genre is that whether or not you appreciate the performances in the film, and I think they’re all really good. You’re exactly right, the economy of story is so strong, another one that immediately comes to mind like that is The Fugitive. These action-thriller stories, it’s ratcheted up each and every time one of these ones comes along.
This is why it’s so difficult today to outthink Die Hard, or The Fugitive, or to come up with innovations that are completely unique. The other thing is that visual storytelling is so much more economical than literary. Meaning, you can have a major, major story turning point with just the way somebody looks at somebody else.
That’s the real challenge of writing a screenplay is to think visually and not in terms of pros and the traditional literary traditions. The great thing about dissecting a screenplay, or film for a writer of narrative story and book form, a novel is that it does show you just how amazing plot can be and how integral it is to getting people’s attention.
Anyway, I haven’t seen Die Hard in quite a long time, so this is going to be fun for me too, because oftentimes what happens is when you see something and you just are bowled over by it, there are pivotal moments in the film that stick in your brain that you always remember, even though it’s probably been 25, 30 years since I’ve seen this movie. When did it come out?
[0:05:59.1] TG: It was the 80s. I think it was ’83, or ’84.
[0:06:02.4] SC: Yeah. That sounds right.
[0:06:04.1] TG: Yeah, and I haven’t seen it in 10 or 12 years. Yeah, there is a couple scenes I remembered. It’s funny, like there was so many scenes like I was – I knew exactly what was going to happen and I was still like, “Oh, my God. He’s going to die. It’s going to pull him out of the window, or whatever.” That was the –
The other reason I wanted to do a movie is because, so I – it took me six to seven hours to do this. It was funny, because a friend of mine told me that – because I was telling him I was doing this, and he told me that Night at the Museum, do you know that movie?
[0:06:42.9] SC: Yeah.
[0:06:44.0] TG: With Ben Stiller, that it’s a shoot-for-shoot remake of Die Hard. The two guys that did the screenplay for Night at the Museum wrote a book and apparent – I haven’t read the book, but my buddy was telling me they basically took Die Hard and remade it and just used Die Hard as a template to make Night at the Museum.
Then I thought, “Okay, I need to go do a spreadsheet on Night at the Museum.” I mentioned that to my wife and she’s like, “Well, me and the boys like that movie. We’ll watch it with you.” I’m like, “You do not want to watch the movie the way I have to watch this movie, because it took me six to seven hours to get through a two-hour movie.” Which is though the reason I wanted to do a movie was because it is faster than dissecting an 80,000 word novel and putting into a spreadsheet, because I’ve done that before too.
Yeah, so I was just – that was the first thing. As I went through it, there was several things I noticed. One is there were several scenes that were only exposition. They were usually really short scenes, where they were basically just showing you – they were just giving you information, so that they could – they’re setting up a scene for later.
Let’s see, towards the end there was just like – they were sending the bad guy – one of the terrorists to take the hostages to the roof and they just kept showing short 10-second clips of them heading up to the roof. All these little clips, especially at the end of the movie, I’m looking at one scene, it went 29 seconds, 29 seconds, 8, 15, 10, 7, 10, 29, 33, like those were all scenes just – it starts cutting really, really fast at the end. About a third of those were only exposition of just – which I again never thought of like – because we talked about scenes in the book that are just exposition, that are just giving you information, and that’s it. It doesn’t actually turn, and those are okay sometimes, but movie use those too.
The most telling one was in the third scene, John McClane gets in the limo with Argyle and he’s driving him to the tower. There’s nothing that turns in it that I could find. It was just setting up the information. That’s when you find out that John McClane and his wife were estranged that he hasn’t seen her since she moved to LA from New York, that he’s a cop. It’s an interesting way, because he’s having this conversation with this limo driver. I thought it was interesting that the third scene was just complete set up for the world that you’re about to enter into.
[0:09:41.6] SC: Well, that’s absolutely true. I’m just looking at your spreadsheet here. What’s interesting to me is that they chose to make this the limo driver’s first day. They made it so that it was playable. Meaning, we’d go along with the exposition, because it’s a believable situation where the limo driver’s nervous, it’s his first day and what do you do on your first day of work? You talk too much. You ask too many questions. You’re pathetic.
McClane, he’s the classic fish out of water, right? He is coming to Los Angeles. He’s a cop from – yeah, he’s from New York, right? He’s a New York City cop. He’s in Los Angeles. He doesn’t feel comfortable with the way Los Angeles is. You have two guys who are uncomfortable and what do they do? McClane also feels comfortable talking to this guy, because he plans, “He’d probably never see him again.” The scene works and it doesn’t feel just like exposition, because it is the relationships between the two characters are so clear. Also, Argyle acts as – is it Argyle, is that his name?
[0:11:05.9] TG: Yeah.
[0:11:06.4] SC: The limo driver. He acts as a herald, or maybe it’s not a herald, maybe he’s a threshold guardian. He’s a threshold guardian whose easing our hero into the extraordinary world. You can look at this – I always say you can look at story structure in so many different ways. If you look at it in terms of the hero’s journey, this makes perfect sense. You can see the screen writer saying to himself, well I need to – they always talk this about, like the establishing shot.
We need to establish the world as quickly, with as much detail, but as entertainingly as possible. The discomfort between these two characters in a limo is enough to intrigue us to listen in on their conversation. The fact that McClane refuses to sit in the back is even better, because he’s basically saying, “I’m like you, Argyle. I’m not some fancy guy. I’m just a normal every day Joe.”
Do you want this kind of scene in your novel? Probably not, because you’re going to want to turn it at some point. It’s okay here, because the audience you have to remember has been primed before they’ve entered the movie theater. They know this is going to be a thriller. This is a thriller set in a building, because a building is on the movie poster. They know Bruce Willis is in this.
All of those things are working in the advantage of the screenwriter, so he or she is going to say to themselves how primed is my audience before I can begin this story? What do they absolutely essentially need to know in order to fall down the rabbit hole and get into this extraordinary world and find themselves captivated with a labyrinth.
That’s why I think you really have this opening softer scenes in a thriller. When you open a thriller with a incredible action sequence, like they do in James Bond, it immediately cuts to Bond back home, right? He’s getting his next assignment, he’s driving his new car. It slows down a bit. This is another way of getting people into an action story, is to slowly warm them into the world before you start exploding things.
[0:13:53.5] TG: Yeah. Okay. The other thing I liked about the beginning is how much they showed you instead of told you things. Then when you mentioned the part about like you can do stuff with looks, I thought of – see, I have it as the sixth scene. This is when he enters the new world, is when John steps off the elevator into the office party. Now he’s come from his comfortable world to the new world. He’s walking around the office party and he never says a word about it, but just his face is saying he thinks the entire thing is stupid.
[0:14:31.0] SC: Yeah.
[0:14:31.5] TG: I like the way that they really built it well of like the tension between him and his wife, because when he tries to find her in the office building and looks her up and the directory is when you first see that she’s using her maiden name. That was after she had talked to the nanny and slammed down the picture of her and John, which then is used through the entire movie, the fact that that picture is faced down in her office.
I loved the scene of when they’re finally alone together, because he said in the car he wants her to basically as soon as she sees him to like run and jump in his arms and be so glad to see him, and well it’s not that intense. She does say like, “I missed you. I’m so glad you’re here.” Then as soon as she does, he picks a fight with her by bringing up the maiden name thing. I’m like, “Oh, man. That’s like every married couple.”
I thought it was really good the way they established the relationship between them two before all the bad stuff started. It was really cool. Again, in my head if you had asked me before doing the spreadsheet, I’d be like, “Okay, it’s an action movie. It’s one of the greatest movie. I could even tell you some of my favorite parts.” Taking the spreadsheet approach and narrowing down and looking at it in 30 or 2-minute – 30-second or 2-minute segment is just a totally different thing.
[0:16:03.8] SC: Yeah. You see the craftsmanship, right? It’s just impeccable to watch and to observe and to analyze the little pieces that add up to this larger thing. Every single choice, there’s nothing in the story that’s superfluous. It boils down all the unimportant things and focuses on how do we make the audience care about this guy, this relationship and also have fun? How do we set things up that we can pay off in the ending pay off, all that stuff?
Yeah, when she knocks the photo over, it seems like it’s just accidental, but it’s not. That’s because of the craft of the writer at work here. It’s fun when obviously the writer – I know who wrote the novel – forget who the screenwriter was. You know at some point they faced a problem. How do we reveal too the bad guys that the guy who is ruining all their fun, his wife is one of the hostages. That’s the way they solved that problem.
They were like, “Well, we got to set it up early, so that it’s not this big shocker and it’s not stupid. Let’s have her knock over the photo and then later the explanation will reveal the revelation.” That’s a way to use a revelation as a major turning point in the story.
[0:17:48.1] TG: Yeah, it was Steven E. de Souza was the screenwriter. I just looked it up. Here is some other things that I noticed when I able to zoom in on this. Back when I did the spreadsheet of the first Harry Potter a couple years ago, I noticed how tools were given to Harry throughout the middle build that he ended up needing to get through the end.
I would’ve never said that that also appeared in Die Hard, but then the first fight he has with one of the bad guys and kills, he gets a bag that has a gun, ammo and a lighter in it, that he uses the lighter over and over and over throughout the entire thing. It was just really neat to how like – and also the gun that he got, he used it as a gun, but he also used it to lower himself down into this shaft to get away from the bad guys.
It was just really neat how the writer kept giving him these tools that he needed to get through the end of the – They weren’t set up as much. He didn’t use a tool from scene four to win in the end, but it was really neat, like he kept getting these things, but then using them to get out of spot, so you’re like, “How is he going to get out of this?” That was cool. Some other conventions I noticed were – what do you call it? The double-ending in a thriller, where there is always a second ending?
[0:19:24.1] SC: Yeah, it’s the false ending.
[0:19:25.5] TG: That’s right. The false ending is when he kills the main bad guy, Hans Gruber. Then the final scene of the movie where they’re all coming out of the building and he finally meets the cop that had talked him through the whole thing. Then one of the bad guys jumps out and tries to shoot him and the cop is the one that kills him and he set that up earlier when the cop says that he’s at desk duty, because he shot a kid and could never draw his gun again.
[0:19:55.3] SC: Yes. That’s great, right? It’s perfect.
[0:20:00.5] TG: Well, in that scene too was cool, because John McClane knew that he was working a desk only because he was a cop and understood something he – I forgot what it was, but somehow Al had said something right at the beginning that tipped John off to him being on desk duty. He only knew that, because he was a cop. People that aren’t cops wouldn’t have picked up on that.
I’m trying to think of anything else before I dive into my questions that I thought was really neat. Just overall, how tight it was, how everything was well planned out. If you look through the plus, the minus and minus the pluses, like they were very evenly spaced, same with action and revelation is like even in the middle of the end of the movie when it’s all action, there were still scenes, like every third scene at least was turning on revelation, which again is why it feels so clean through the whole thing. Because those are one of those things you say it would – you wouldn’t know why you didn’t like the movie, but it would just be like something’s off about the ending.
Anyway, I thought that was pretty cool.
[0:21:16.0] SC: Yes, absolutely. That is absolutely true is when you think you’re getting away with, “I want to keep the action going, so I’m going to have all my turning points be action.” What I mean when I say it turns the reader off of them not knowing it, it’s because it does not mirror real life. In real life, things happen to us through revelation and the actions of other people. We never know it’s a chaotic situation.
One of the things that tips us off to somebody who is playing us is they keep doing the same thing over and over again. That unconsciously tells us that there’s something not quite right about the way this person is treating me. That slowly gets us to a point of crisis where we confront the person for their action or their revelations, and something changes from that point forward. In a story, if you don’t mix them up then people start to suspect that they’re being played; they’re being manipulated by the author, instead of being captivated by the story. Does that make sense?
[0:22:41.4] TG: Yeah. I have some questions about filling out the spreadsheet that I ran into. When I did the spreadsheet for Harry Potter, one of the things I noticed was like every scene is from his point of view. It’s not – I’m going to get this wrong, but it’s not until like the third or fourth book that there are some scenes that are not from Harry’s point of view. He was in every scene. It was really easy to see everything from his perspective.
With this, there is lots of scenes that don’t involve John McClane. When I was looking at the polarity shift, I started wondering like, “Okay, am I always shifting the polarity shift based on our hero, or based on the point of view of that scene?” Then there is several scenes, and I don’t know if this – I didn’t think much about the question, but I don’t know if this is going to be movie-specific, or I’m sure it can happen to books too.
I couldn’t figure out whose point of view the scene was from, because there is like one particular scene when Holly the wife first goes in to confront the terrorist and ask him for some things. It’s both of their point of views. In the polarity shift on that, am I looking – should I always be judging it against our hero’s point of view? As in like at the end when Hans, the main bad guy, figures out that Holly is his wife, that’s a negative to positive for Hans and that – it was from his point of view that scene, but it’s a positive to negative for John McClane. Do I shift it based on how it shifts for John McClane or how it shifts for the people in the scene?
[0:24:39.8] SC: Well, this is a recurring question that comes up all the time with Story Grid analysis. I’m glad you’re bringing it up. For some reason, this is a really delicate and difficult concept, so I’m going to do the best I can to explain it as clearly as possible.
Okay, so you remember in the Story Grid, I always talk about there are two ways to look at story. There is the macro view and the micro view. The macro view is the big, big picture. It’s the global movement of the genre story from beginning, to middle, to end and all that stuff.
When you are filling out trying to actually Story Grid a story, the lines that you see on a Story Grid are macro lines. They are only about the specific movement of the global story. What does that mean in terms of Die Hard?
Die Hard is an action story with a single protagonist in a labyrinth plot. We know that going in. When we are Story Gridding the story, each one of the scenes might move in a different way than what the macro effect of that scene is. For example, when Hans Gruber discovers that Holly is the wife of John McClane, that acts a negatively to the global action story featuring John McClane. That’s bad for John McClane. That moves the story in a negative way. He is going to have a harder time overcoming the antagonism and winning the day when Hans Gruber discovers that.
If we are, say worried about the motivations of our antagonist, and so that’s over-focusing on – we’re analyzing our story and saying, “I’m worried that Hans Gruber just isn’t that smart.” How can I make this work, then the screenwriter or the novelist would look at that scene and say, “How can we make this a positive in terms of Hans Gruber? We make him so smart that he figures out that John McClane is the husband of Holly.”
That scene, the micro scene if we’re looking at it from the point of view of the antagonist moves from negative to positive, which is great, which is fine. But the Story Grid data point is still going to read positive to negative. It’s going to move the curve lower. Does that make sense?
Each one of the micro scenes can turn based upon other characters besides John McClane. Whether or not you choose to highlight one character’s point of view in one of those scenes, or the others on your Story Grid, is really dependent upon what you’re working on at the time. If you are worried about your secondary characters like Holly and whether or not she feels like a strong women who doesn’t take any shit from anybody and she’s always fluttering around in the story without having any strength, then you would look at these scenes and go, “All these scenes have her being a victim. That’s not what I want to project here. How can I make that work? I know, I’ll have her walk in and confront Hans Gruber and say, ‘You’ve got to take care of these hostages.’ That’s a way for me to strengthen this secondary character from one who seems feeble to one who is strong.”
The story, the micro Story Grid spreadsheet, when you are just starting it out and you’re working through the stuff, the way I look at something could be different than the way that you look at something. That’s okay. I might want to look at that scene and say it moves from a negative to positive and you might look at it from the point of view of Hans Gruber and say it moves from positive – from negative to positive.
That’s why the spreadsheet is a really great tool, is that it’s malleable to your editorial problems. There is not one way to create the Story Grid spreadsheet. Now I would say that the overall Story Grid is fundamentally reproduceable amongst people like you and I. If you match my Story Grid, if I did the Story Grid for Die Hard and I created the graph and then we put it over yours, the lines are pretty much going to align.
If we look at both of our spreadsheets, you might have something that you looked at from a different point of view than I did in a scene that does not feature the primary protagonist. It could be different. You could even use language and polarity shifts in a different way than I do. Yours is valid and mine is valid, because they both are deep analyses from individual points of view, but when you extend them to the global story, they align.
This is why somebody can read Pride and Prejudice and discover levels of depth in it that another person doesn’t. One person could read Pride and Prejudice and say, “It was really, really romantic. The love story between Darcy and Elizabeth it just bowled me over. It was so great when she changed her mind and decided to marry him.” Another person could say, “I can’t believe what an idiot Elizabeth’s sister is.”
That whole story was about how one terrible person in your family can ruin everybody’s life in a family. Guess what? Both of those interpretations are valid. That’s what I mean by the Story Grid spreadsheets are tools for writers and editors to have conversations like we’re having now. Say the studio head saw the screenplay for Die Hard and Holly really doesn’t come off as a very strong figure.
This studio head is a woman and she has notes. She tells a note to the screenwriter it says, “Hey, you’re trying to establish a women who’s really strong, who’s an executive at a major corporation and there she is hiding in a corner afraid to confront these guys. You know what it’s like to be me, to be the head of a studio and be a woman? I can’t sit back and let people walk on me.”
What I advise you to do is to have a scene where that woman goes in and talks turkey and takes no shit and takes no prisoners. The screenwriter says, “Absolutely. Thank you for that note. I’m going to fix that.” Then even –
[0:33:13.9] TG: I’m sure, that’s how they respond to all notes.
[0:33:16.5] SC: Exactly. Then he’s going to look at his spreadsheet and go, “Where can I put in that scene? What scene can I fix that I can do that?” Then he goes in and he fixes it, or she goes in and fixes it. You see what I mean, like the micro-polarity shifts in your Story Grid spreadsheet do not necessarily align with the global story. The reason why that is is because the full cast of characters and the full micro subplots and all that other stuff that are also in the global – that are also in the novel in the story, those things have to have moments in the story too, and oftentimes they misalign with the global movement. Is that clear, or is that still vague?
[0:34:12.6] TG: No, that makes sense. Would it be helpful then when I’m going in to doing a spreadsheet to make a decision on what that column is going to be? For instance, if I really wanted to track say, maybe I have a column that’s like protagonist polarity shift, antagonist polarity shift and keep track of both of them, but what I was struggling with is is those moments when I’m like, well every time –
It’s easy if I’m in a scene with John McClane and it turns and the value shift is for John McClane, right? It either gets better or worse for him. Then it got confusing when the shift, the value shift affected multiple people in the story and people that weren’t onscreen, specifically John McClane, because it’s like, “Okay, well this is good for Hans, but bad for John McClane.” It’s the same value shift either way, but the polarity shift will change depending on it, right?
[0:35:18.7] SC: Yeah.
[0:35:19.7] TG: In my case, just so everybody knows, this was a first draft that has lots of even misspellings in it, so don’t judge me too harshly. I was about halfway through the movie when I decided, “Okay, I’m just going to do this from John’s point of view.” Anytime every polarity shift, whether he’s in the scene or not is going to be from John’s point of view. I think using the spreadsheet –
[0:35:48.8] SC: That’s what I recommend. That’s entirely what I recommend. The reason why is because just think of it rationally. If we’re trying to figure out how somebody did something so well, we’re going to look at the beginning, middle and end of what they did and say, “How did they get this ending to work so well?”
Each one of the micro pieces that adds up to that ending, we can evaluate from the point of view as is this getting closer to a positive ending, or a negative ending? If say this movie ended terribly and John McClane lost and Hans Gruber won, now it wouldn’t be very popular, but that is a choice that the writer could make. Then we would say, how did the author make it so that this has a negative ending and it still works?
Then we would look at the story from the antagonist point of view, instead of the protagonist point of view. How did evil overwhelmed good? We know that John McClane wins in the end, so how did John McClane bring back justice? How did he solve this riddle? How did he safeguard all of those victims? When you have an action story, it’s hero, villain, victim. The hero protects the victim from the villain.
If the action story ends with the hero triumphant, we have to look at each one of those scenes and say, “Did this make it easier for the hero to be triumphant, or less easy?” That’s how we map the global Story Grid. If you look at each scene through those lenses, then you could say, “The scenes that don’t have my guy in them, I’m just going to look at them from the point of view of how that’s going to affect the global story and by extension, him.”
When Gruber finds out that Holly is McClane’s wife, that turns negatively, and you put that in the Story Grid, and I would suggest even in the micro scene, you make it turn negatively too, because the victim is in a worse position at the end of that scene than they were at the beginning. For an action thriller, or an action labyrinth plot, always use that hero-victim-villain as your triangle and say, “Who’s winning here? The villain, or the hero and the victim?
Again, I say this all the time, it always goes back to genre. What’s my story about? What is the global genre and how I analyze the story is dependent upon the choice of global genre. The better you know your global genre, the better your Story Grids will become and vice versa.
[0:39:08.0] TG: Okay. Then you would say maybe, like if this was my book and I wanted to just take a look at – a hard look at the villain in my book, I could go through and just spreadsheet out all the scenes with my villain and track his path through the entire book and find the spots where it could be stronger?
[0:39:31.8] SC: Exactly. Exactly. I highly recommend you do that.
[0:39:36.9] TG: Okay. When I’m filling out a spreadsheet just for myself to look at like a one book or one movie, I’m going to track the main path. Like you said, and it’s positively for the protagonist, that’s what I’m going to shift through each thing.
[0:39:58.1] SC: Yes. Yes.
[0:39:59.5] TG: Okay.
[0:40:00.8] SC: Let me tell one funny story based upon that, and maybe this will help people remember that idea. Years ago I was negotiating a contract with an agent, a wonderful agent in Los Angeles who happen to be Jewish. I’d call him with updates about, “Well, what you asked for there, I don’t know whether we can do that, but we can give you an extra $5,000 advance,” things like that.
He started, every time I would call him and they would put me through to him they go, “Shawn, just answer me this, is it good for the Jews?” I always said that was so funny, because that was his bottom line and that was his catch phrase, if you look at story that way and say, “Is this good for my protagonist? Is this good for my antagonist? Who is this good for? Or who is this bad for?” That’s a good way of looking at how best to evaluate a polarity shift for a micro scene or a macro story movement.
Who is this good for? Is this good for the victim? Is this good for the villain? Is this good for our hero? Obviously, you want a very dynamic movement of what’s good and what’s bad for all of those three in that triangle.
[0:41:25.8] TG: Okay. One thing I noticed, I was surprised at how easy it was to pick the scenes that were action-based turns and revelation. For some reason, I always felt like those are hard to figure out, but it was super clear in every single one. Sometimes I think, “Oh, that was action, but this happened. But then like, well the action isn’t what it turned it. It was somebody finding out something is what turned it.”
There was like super clear ones were like, John and one of the bad guys are fighting and he’s getting beat up and all of a sudden, he starts beating up the other guys. I’m like, “Okay, well that’s action obviously.” There was the – I think I’m going to get this right. There is this scene where John sends a dead bad guy down the elevator to them. It seems very action-turned, but what actually turned was them finding out that John was in the building. It was actually a revelation turn, even thought it was a very action packed scene, if that makes sense.
[0:42:37.3] SC: Yeah, definitely.
[0:42:40.6] TG: One of the things that I stopped on scene 12 tracking was the off-stage characters, because it just became really cumbersome. Explain to me again why it’s important to track the on-stage and off stage characters, and how many there are.
[0:43:05.2] SC: Well, it’s important to track for a – this is for somebody who’s work hasn’t already been successful, but just to see the variety of scenes. Also to escalate the stakes. What it mean by that is if you have a two-person scene after two-person scene after two-person scene, it’s boring. Nobody wants to see two people having a conversation over and over again.
If you have crowd scene after crowd scene after crowd scene, again it becomes boring after a while, because the audience can’t focus in on a core story or relationship. The reason why you want to track who’s on stage and who’s off stage, the first thing is to make sure that if you mention somebody in the story, you get back to them at some point, or you make it very clear that you don’t – you never give anybody a name and story, unless they’re going to recur.
If I write a novel and in the first chapter I talk about Jim Liliput and how interesting Jim Liliput is and then never talk about him again in the rest of the novel, that’s a red flag because what we say to our audience when we name somebody is this is somebody that your brain is going to have to track, because I’m telling you this is an important person.
If you never get back to that important person, your reader is like, “Why did that guy make me put that name in my head? What a pain.” They don’t consciously know that, but they’ll say to themselves, “This was a waste of my time.” What you find in things like Tolkien who has armies of goblins and gooblins and elves and all kinds – massive scale of participants in the story is that he rarely, rarely gives names to characters who have no importance whatsoever.
This is why I think it’s the goblins in The Hobbit, there is the head goblin and everybody else. It’s a goblin who attacks. It’s not Jim Liliput the goblin, it’s a goblin. Especially the ones that he has as cannon fodder. He doesn’t want the reader to get attached to anyone who is going to die, right?
[0:45:55.6] TG: In general, we just did the last episode was on the Story Grid spreadsheet and then this one has been going through a little bit of my spreadsheet on Die Hard the movie, is this a good practice you would recommend as far as like – because I identified I want to look at Night at the Museum. You would also mention outside of this call, taking a look at Castaway as a labyrinth plot. Is going through and looking at it with this Story Grid spreadsheet granularity, is this a good way – we’ve talked so much about looking at different master works in the genres we’re trying to write in, is this a good way to do that?
[0:46:40.7] SC: Well, yes. That’s the short answer. The long answer is this, just the other day I had a call from a very desperate, very successful, someone who writes bestseller after bestseller, and he called me because he wanted to pitch me his latest idea for a story and ask me if I would tell him if I thought it would work or not.
What he meant worked, he’s not necessarily the kind of person who’s going to screw up micro details. He wanted to get my opinion about whether it would work commercially, or not. Meaning, was the idea good enough to attract people to want to spend $27 to read the novel. He started telling me the story and it was very compelling, but I stopped him after about three minutes and I said, “Do you have a model story that you’re constructing this around?”
He said, “Not really. I’m not sure really what you mean.” I said, “Well, what I think is always a good idea is to find the stories that you think are wonderful and also were extremely popular. Meaning, they did extremely well in the marketplace, and find the one that is the closest resemblance to the story that you want to write.”
For example, say you wanted to write a labyrinth plot about a buccaneer, the 1800s on a ship who needed to navigate this very difficult waterway in order to bury treasure that they’ve been holding forever, and they’re being chased by some other galleon. Now if that’s the kind of story that you wanted to write, you would probably want to look at a novel like Master and Commander, or a film like Master and Commander, which is based on the Patrick O’Brien novels, right? You would want to look at the things that closest resemble the thing that you’re trying to create.
The long answer to your question about is it a good idea the Story Grid movies and books that you like is absolutely. Because what you’ll discover are the ways in which those who came before you who had similar visions to what you had, how they saw the same problems, and to see how Roderick Thorp, the guy who wrote the novel based – that was based on Die Hard, how he saw problems or how the screenwriter said to themselves, “How am I going to set this thing up for a big revelatory turn at the end of the middle build, so that I can push me into the ending pay off my story?”
If you know all the answers to the masterworks of the kind of story that you want to tell, then when you face a similar problem you’ll be able to go to the Story Grid spreadsheets that you’ve already done and say, “Now how did Thomas Harris solved that problem? That’s what he did. How did Jane Austen – oh, that’s how she did it. How did J.R.R Tolkien do it? That’s what he did.”
That way, that will inspire you to fix your own problem in a similar but unique and innovative way. Anyone who appreciates the Story Grid methodology, the way to answer their own questions about the Story Grid is to just do more spreadsheets, spend more six, seven-hour chunks of time analyzing the masterworks. Then you could apply that learning directly to your own work and become a better writer.
[0:50:44.8] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, checkout storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe.
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