[0:00:00.2] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode we continue working through the 15 most important scenes inside of my story. We pick up where we left off last week and continue through. Shawn also takes some time to talk a lot about just generally the conflicts inside of a story and what we’re trying to accomplish with all of these stuff. So I think it’s a really good episode not just to continue to walk through these scenes in my story and hear us work through those, but also to just continue to hear this kind of higher view of what we’re trying to accomplish in the story. So it’s been a really useful tool for it to go through these 15 scenes for me, and so hopefully it’s useful for you as well to follow along.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:07.0] TG: So Shawn, a few weeks ago you laid out the 15 most important scenes that every book has to have. So my homework was to go through and outline those scenes in the threshing, my own book. So I did that, and last week we started working through them and we got through seven of the scenes in the first part and we stopped at the crisis of the middle build.
[0:01:34.0] SC: Right.
[0:01:34.7] TG: So how do you want to jump in?
[0:01:37.2] SC: Well, I think the best way to jump in, especially for restarting the conversation is to get in the helicopter and go 30,000 – Well, not helicopter, but airplane and go 30,000 feet and say, “What’s the genre we’re working in here?’ What the genre is, is action in. The subplot of the action story is the labyrinth.
So when we’re talking about action stories, the first thing we need to say to ourselves is what’s the value at stake? What’s the core value? The core value at stake is life-and-death. So it’s really – Action stories are about survival. In a labyrinth story, weeks and weeks ago we talked about Diehard as sort of the global general masterwork to think about when we’re thinking about the threshing. In a labyrinth plot, one of the driving narrative forces is just even identifying the force of malevolence. Who is the antagonist and what do they want and why? Vice versa, the antagonist doesn’t even know who he or she is up against yet.
So the moment in the middle of the story is often the gelling point in an action labyrinth story where the protagonist finally understands the malevolent force that he or she is up against, and the antagonist discovers just how threatening the force is.
So just to use Diehard, we have John McClane doesn’t know really who the bad guy is, except that there is this amorphous group of bad guys who have taken over the building and are threatening everybody inside, and Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman in Diehard, doesn’t really know who John McClane is. It’s just, “Oh! There’s some sort of force inside this building that is disrupting my plan,” and I believe it’s around midpoint in Diehard – I’m stretching here, that they actually finally get on the walkie-talkie, and John McClane and Gruber start talking to each other and they both identify and they now have sort of a global understanding of their opponent.
I’ve been thinking about your novel, and one of the things that we’ve been struggling with is when and how and in what way are we going to really boil down the primal conflict of this story, and it seems to me that the place to do it is the midpoint crisis. , we also have a wonderful opportunity here, because you’ve set up the brother as sort of this ghost in the machine and he serves – In the heroic journey, he’s kind of serving as what Campbell and other people would say – Joseph Campbell, is the meeting with the goddess, and that’s a very abstract strange phrase that is difficult to putting the practicality. But the way I look at it is meeting with the goddess is it’s sort of like Glenda, the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz. She’s this presence that is introduced very early on in the Wizard of Oz, and then at midpoint crisis of the Wizard of Oz they’re in that poppy field, and I think it’s the lion and Dorothy, they fall asleep. It’s one of those holy crap, all is lost, Dorothy and the lion. They’re drugged. They’re never going to wake up. They’re going to die in this poppy field. The tin man and the scarecrow can’t do anything even though they’re not asleep. They can’t wake them up. What’s going to happen?
What happens is the magical element in the story when Glenda, the Good Witch, she comes and she starts the snowfall, and the snowfall wipes out the poppy stuff. Dorothy wakes up and so is the lion and along the way they go.
So what the brother represents is Glenda, the Good Witch in this story. You’ve introduced him early on in the plot as this ghost in the machine. Her brother left for the capital or whatever you end up calling it when she was younger and never to return again. So now is the perfect time to bring him in, and it seems to me that the other thing that’s vague right now is the core struggle in your story, and the core struggle is what I’ve been sort of talking about recently as the conflict between chaos and order.
Now, systems – Not to get all scientific on you, but there’s a rule of – One of the Newtonian rules, I believe, is the rule of entropy. Entropy says that all systems are constantly trying to disassemble. Things are always falling apart, and what we have to do as people is constantly be monitoring what’s going on to make sure that our things aren’t falling apart. This is why we take our car in for their service. This is why we check our gutters in our house so that they’re not full of leaves and that it don’t rot the wood, blah-blah-blah.
So entropy is this constant sort of falling apart, and what we’ve discovered at the beginning of your story is that there’s this very, very orderly system in place in the threshing world, and the orderly system is not fully delineated yet, but it’s something like this, “A long time ago, or at least before the birth of Jesse, there was a global catastrophe, and the catastrophe is that the world’s sort of ran out of food because of global warming and environmental entropy. The human activity on earth caused, finally, the chaotic nature to arise and wipe out systems of food production.” So there was a cataclysmic event where a lot of people died and everybody else who survived had to come together in these sort of wasteland cities, and in that wasteland City of Rose, a group of leaders called the reapers who figured out a way to harness the digital fake world, the fantasy world of digital life in such a way that they could manipulate the population to work to produce food sources that would keep everybody alive.
But they realized the only way to get people to do this was to manipulate sort of their dopaminergic system in their brain and make the work fun so that when they’re in this online world sort of playing Fortnight or whatever it is that people played today, they get such a rush that they’ll play. You literally have to turn them off from playing, because it’s such an incredible rush to play the game.
So all of these people in these cities spend most of their time in the darkness in these virtual worlds playing this game. Now, the end result of the game of all these people playing the game is that there is this sort of Garden of Eden kind of place that is the soul food production creating the food that feeds everyone. So it’s a very ordered society, and if the order of the society breaks down, it will devolve into a chaotic situation once again. Now, the problem with quarter and totalitarianism is that it denies individuality.
So Jesse represents the individual spirit of the person who isn’t so enthralled by playing a game for dopamine all the time. So she and her group of fellow urchins decide to game the system, and so they’re kind of playing their own game, and their own game is about operating outside the rules of the traditional game. So she goes at night and she steals credits and she’s having fun, and those credits allow her family to eat just a little bit better than everybody. She’s not really doing it for food more than the thrill of the game.
Then she’s discovered by sort of this system that the reapers have set up where it’s almost like the educational system that was developed in the early 1900s in the United States, which was a way of sort of picking out people from the working classes that had extraordinary gifts. So people in the working class says, “I grew up in Pittsburgh,” and I did a lot of research for a book I wrote a long time ago about the Steelers, but what they did in Pittsburgh was they would have very working-class steelworker families and they had classrooms and the children started to be forced to go to these schools, and then the schools would identify the brightest of those working class kids and then they would get scholarships and they would slowly sort of matriculate up the pyramid, the social structure so that they could find the smartest of the working class and bring them into aristocratic world.
So what you’re doing in the threshing is Jesse, unknowing to herself, has been identified in this system of matriculating the urchins in the street below up to sort of the hierarchy of the reaper world. Now, the reapers are the ones who control everything to make sure that everyone is being fed and that the system is working.
Now, Jesse doesn’t understand any of this, nor does the reader. So it’s really important that we have a very grand moment when we have this force, this Glenda, the Good Which force that explains things to Jesse. Through the explanation to Jesse, the reader will have a real aha moment as will she, and the chaotic nature of the story, which is very compelling up until this point, if it doesn’t get very ordered at this point in terms of the narrative, we will lose anyone who has gotten to this place in the book. If it continues sort of vaguely from this point forward, we’re going to be in deep trouble and people will go, “You know, I kind of like the beginning. It was kind of cool, and then I lost interest and it’s just – It fell apart for me and I just didn’t care and I stopped after 130 pages. But I thought it had a lot of potential, but then –”
So this is obviously the midpoint of the middle build, is when you really put your jaw, your teeth into the reader and you make them go, “Holy moly! I had no idea this is what was going on,” and Jesse’s going to have the same reaction, so much to the point where it’s almost going to be debilitating.
So I know that was a very long speech, but I think it’s important to really get the global context of the importance of this moment in the story because this is when John McClane and Hans Gruber finally figure it out that, “Oh my gosh! My sort of vague abstract goal for John McClane – My vague abstract goal was; bring the police in so that they can handle this. I can get my wife and then I can go home for Christmas vacation with my wife.”
Now it turns into, “Police aren’t coming. Holy cow! I’ve got to defeat Hans Gruber if what I want is actually going to happen,” and Hans Gruber’s goal is, “I want to get all the money out of this building that I can and get away Scott free. Boy! I’m not going to be able to do that until I get rid of this pest; John McClane.”
So in your book, we need Jesse to come to the realization, “Oh my gosh! There is this system out to corrupt me and get me to be part of their thing, and if I don’t win the threshing, I’m going to be their tool for the rest of my life. If I win the threshing, maybe I can bargain myself out of this problem. Then the president of the order, who represents the ultimate, he’s just a minion of the reapers who we don’t even know about really Yet.
So Jesse has to understand, “In order for me to win, I have to figure out what the hell to do about this malevolent force that’s out to get me to play by their rules.” Jesse is still adamant that she will play by no rules, but by her own. So she’s really the representative individual force in this story. So there are three primal forces in all stories. There’s order, there’s chaos and there’s the individual. It’s the trinity that makes storytelling really, really bite into us and make us want to read more.
How will our individual deal with the complexities of an impossible to understand chaotic universe and the complexities of a difficult to understand orderly universe? How will she walk that tight line between not selling her soul for the ordered world or to fall into a chaotic black hole that will leave her helpless and completely adrift in a complex universe that she’ll never be able to navigate? So that’s really story . That is all of story. If somebody really pushed me to my limits and said, “Tell me what a story is.” I would say, “It’s the individual against two very complex, impossible to understand universes.” The orderly universe, which is culture/your job, your place in society versus the things that we don’t understand at all, everything, the sum total of everything we do not understand, which is so complex. It’s a zillion things. It’s literally the cosmos of uncertainty. It’s the chaotic universe that we don’t understand.
How does the individual negotiate the constraints of culture, and society, and order? Also, the complex universe of chaos? How do we negotiate the path between those two massive forces that are much larger than we can imagine? People read stories to find clues on how they can navigate their own personal worlds.
So your story is about the individual against chaos and order, and this moment in your story is the moment when she comes to recognize – Now, what’s really going to be the body blow, and we already understand this, is that at the end of this story, book one, she has unleashed the forces of chaos, because she was so directed at bringing down the order that she had no understanding, is that once you topple Lehman Brothers in 2008 when the Federal Reserve decided not to bailout Lehman Brothers. They bailed out AIG and all of these other too-big-to-fail massive banking systems. Once they said, “You know what? We’re not going to bailout Lehman Brothers.” That’s what precipitated a rush on Wall Street and set us into of pretty deep economic spiral that we still haven’t really even understood very well.
So Jesse, at the end of your novel, is basically unleashing the forces of chaos and that’s the hook to get people to buy book two. So if we were to say, globally, this is a story about a young girl who brings down the most complex and soul-crushing order that we can imagine. That’s pretty compelling. But the result of that bringing down of that order is, “What am I going to eat? Where is the food?” And that is a really great hook to get people to buy book two. But we have to establish these very specific and yet abstract concepts in this middle build crisis, and what I’m suggesting to you is that we allow Jesse’s brother who’s been over the mountain. He’s been in the war. He has a perspective that she does not have, and he’s her brother, and this is the moment in our lives once someone that we love gives it to us straight, and I think this is a perfect moment in your story, because she’s falling down a rabbit hole of incredible proportion to the point where she’s almost lost her ability to orient herself in the world. She’s in that white room. People are banging on the door. She’s basically said, “I quit. I give up. I can handle this. I can beat this system. I’m just going to wait and let them take me,” and that’s when Glenda, the Good Witch, as representation as her brother comes to get her.
So when she goes to see him, he’s going to say to her the truth. He’s going to give her the universal truth of experience and he’s going to say to her, “Jesse, what do you think is happening is only a fraction of the story. Let me explain it to you,” and you can actually take some time in this passage and allow him to explain to her the world, because you have put so much mystery and suspense to this moment that the moment of clarity that will orient your reader is really important at this stage in your story.
So what I’m saying is that he is going to outline the global crisis for Jesse, “Here’s what’s going on, Jesse. Do you know what happened before you were born?” “No, I don’t.” “Well, there was a big problem. We were running out of food because the earth was burning to a crisp,” and these people came and they came up with a solution,” and he almost lay out the back story of this entire novel through a brother trying to get his sister to understand how important she is.
[0:23:47.6] TG: Well, I was thinking of this one as – If you ask somebody’s opinion about something that happened, especially anything that has emotional weight to it. Okay. So if you ask one side of a divorce couple what happened, you’ll get a completely different story than if you asked the other side of the divorce couple, right? Only one thing happened, or only one real story happened, but you’ll get two different stories.
So my feeling is that I’ve been thinking, I actually want to even introduce that the reapers exist until the very end of the book. All I would do is have the president, and I haven’t come up with the new names based on your advice, I think last week, but the president allude to, “He works for other people, but that’s all.”
To me, the other thing I’ve been thinking is I actually think I want to set Randy up through the entire first part of the book as the hero of the last threshing. So everybody knows who he is, but yet it’s believed that he died by winning. So then when Jesse meets him, the story he tells her is the president is evil. He’s grasping for power. When everything went to shit 50 years ago or whatever, he used that opportunity to enslave everybody. Then when I won the threshing, he enslaved me too.
[0:25:18.8] SC: Let me just jump in right here, and you are absolutely right. Here’s how it works. If you find two people who are getting divorced, here’s the story that you will hear. One side – And it doesn’t matter, it’s either the man says this or the woman says this, or if it’s the same-sex couple, it’s one of the people. It’s just like universal, right? One of them will say, “The other one was a controlling freak. They wanted to know everything I was doing and when I was doing it. They just would not let me be myself.” Then the other one will say, “They were wildly out of control. They were doing things that made no sense.” Right?
So one of them is telling half of the story and the other one is telling the other side of the story. One is saying they had no spontaneity and they were not open to the chaotic complexities of the universe. They were control freaks. They were trying to drive me into their little box. The other person says, “They were so out of control. They had no structure in their life and they were just a mess, and usually that goes along with drinking problems, cheating, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. Right?
So the way people tell their story and the way they argue is that they tell half the side, right? And the reality of our existence is both. We live in both. So what you’re saying is that Randy is going to tell Jesse about how controlling and how terrible the order is and how President Marcus is a totalitarian freak who has s figured out how to manipulate people to do his bidding, and that he must be stopped. So that is absolutely correct.
The big payoff of your story is that Randy is telling half of the story, and Randy believes his half of the story as we all sort of oftentimes fall into a misreading of our predicaments. We don’t understand, it’s like the writer who says, “I outline everything to the last sentence, and then I write the book, and that’s the way I do it. I do not believe in muses. I do not believe in spirits. I do not believe in flying by the seat of my pants. I like the order of my storytelling, and that’s what I do.”
Then there’s the other writer who says, “Order is bullshit. I listen to my muse and my muse tells me what to do.” Right? So here’s what I’m proposing, is that you need both. You need the order and you need the chaos and you need to be the thing that walks between those two hemispheres of your brain, and that is how you get inspired and then you put the order on the inspiration and create stories.
So it’s the same thing with Randy and Jesse. Randy is going to say to her – And this is very susceptible one we’re younger and naïve to half of the story. Somebody could say, “You know what? The way to get from here to here is to be very ordered and to not let anything distract you.” So you find little kids who were given that advice who specialize in the violin, who play the violin for nine hours a day and maybe by the time they’re 14, they get into Juilliard and maybe they excel at Juilliard and they get to the point with their first chair at the New York Philharmonic by the time they’re 21, and then by the time they’re 23, they’re like, “Is this all there is?” Or you find that – So I think your thing about Randy is he’s that guy who’s saying, “Order is bad. We need to bring down the order,” but he has no plans to what to do after the order is destroyed, but he’s so compelling a figure and he tells such a really good convincing rhetorical argument that President Marcus is the evil that must be destroyed, that Jesse buys it hook line and sinker and now her amorphous; I just want to go home goal, turns into, “In order for me to go home, I must destroy President Marcus, and then I can go home.” Does that make sense?
[0:30:10.1] TG: Right, because that’s the whole – At the middle point in the middle build is when the hero changes from – They make a bargain, right? So they stopped just trying to go home and they think, “Okay. I’ll do this thing just so I can get the thing I really want.” Then the final crisis of the book is choosing one of those, “Am I going to go after the things that I still want from the beginning or am I going to do this other thing?” So the climax here is when Randy lays out this whole thing of what’s really going on from his perspective and she has to decide whether or not she’s going to work with him.
[0:30:54.2] SC: That’s right, and it’s a best bad choice. If I do what my brother says, I probably – It’s going to delay my ever getting home by quite some time, but if I don’t, then I’ll never get home.
[0:31:10.8] TG: Right, because now she realizes that – So she sees this as a way to – If she doesn’t do this, she doesn’t get to take her brother home. If she does do this, she gets to go home and be the hero with her parents by bringing her brother with her.
[0:31:25.6] SC: Yup, and then maybe her parents will love her then.
[0:31:29.1] TG: Right. Then the climax is she decides to work with him.
[0:31:34.4] SC: Yeah, that’s exactly right. But you really need to be specific, and if you have to wax on a little bit with Randy laying out the history of the universe according to Randy, then you should do that and you can always pull it back.
The way to think about this is that Randy is your voice of Revelation to the reader and to Jesse. This is obviously a big revelation that will give rise to the crisis. I mean, the turning point progressive complication, the global one that we talked about earlier, the number seven scene is when Randy literally rescues her from the panic. That is a revelation that her brother is alive. Bang!
Now, the turning point progressive complication in the crisis scene is when Randy tells her, “President Marcus is evil. He must be destroyed.” These are like nested Russian dolls and Russian dolls, but I’ll just try and say this as clearly as I can. Each one of our 15 scenes that we’re talking about, right? Now, don’t freak out if you don’t – Just to the people listening. Don’t freak out if you don’t completely get this yet, but each one of the scenes also has the five commandments of storytelling within them. So it might be the crisis seen of our middle build, the number eight of our 15 scenes, that’s what the scene we’re talking about now. But within that scene, there are inside – There is the inciting incident, turning point progressive complication crisis, climax and resolution within the scene itself too.
So not to go all meta on everybody, but that is a fact. Each unit of story has its own five commandments and sometimes the five commandments overlap between units of stories. So the turning point progressive complication of your crisis scene of your middle build could also be of the same – It could be the same thing for the sequence, etc. etc. Usually, you can tell the big moments in a story is when they all connect. So the turning point progressive complication of your beat is the same turning point progressive complication on the scene, which is the same turning point progressive complication of your sequence, which is the same turning point progressive complication of your act, of your subplot. You get what I’m saying?
So now, as I was talking about earlier about the crazy orderly writer, you can really fall down into a spiral of trying to figure all this out at this very abstract, intellectual level, and I don’t suggest you do that, but what I do suggest is that once you have sort of figured it out on the analytical level that you most prefer and you go back – Like Thomas Harris who wrote The Silence of the Lambs, and I know I bring that up all the time. He never analytically said to himself, “My crisis scene in my middle build must be the same turning point progressive complication on five different levels.” He didn’t do that. He just wrote the thing and it turned out that the muse took care of all that stuff for him.
So talking about the different levels of analysis of a story can get heady very quickly, and even for me, it’s difficult for me to be able to separate all of these concepts into one thing. That’s why I think the 15 scene analysis is a really good primary foundational way of talking about story structure without getting into the weeds, which I obviously just have done.
[0:35:47.3] TG: Yeah. Well, I think I talked inside of the level up your craft there in the editor roundtable last week. We talked a little bit about this of like the intellectual struggle of driving yourself crazy looking at this stuff is not about finding the right answer. It’s the struggle that then later makes you a better writer. So I found like often on as we’ve gone through this stuff, I’ve started kind of losing myself and trying to find the right answer, right? Is this an actual labyrinth plot, or is this whatever, action countdown time thing? Whatever it is? Or is this a causal inciting incident, or is this a coincidental inciting incident? Driving myself crazy with that.
What I’ve found is that nobody’s going to test me on this at the end, right? This isn’t a test thing where you have to get the right answer. It’s that struggle. It’s a weird thing where just struggling to get the right answer is what makes you a better writer. It’s not figuring out the right answer.
So I feel like part of what Story Grid is, is inviting people – We talked about this a little bit during one of the Q&A episodes when somebody was like, “Well, there’s all these writers churning out a new book every two or three months. How are you saying we should spend a year or two years on one novel?” Our answer was basically like, “Well, but spending that one or two years on one novel will make everything else you write better forever, because you understand story in a new way.” It’s not because you spent a year driving yourself crazy, not because you just wrote, kind of went through this process. So I feel like that’s part of what story.
[0:37:36.2] SC: I absolutely agree with that, but I think the primary – One of the things that I wrote when I first started writing about the Story Grid was; this is a tool to teach you about what works and what doesn’t work. So when we began this conversation I said I think you were going to lose all of your readers at this midpoint crisis if you don’t really give them a clear understanding of what really is at stake. So that’s another way of saying; your readers are going to think this doesn’t work by midpoint if you don’t do this thing. So all of the things that we talked about, all of these different levels of analysis are to solve the global problem of creating a story that works.
So instead of somebody saying, “I just didn’t identify with your character.” That’s not helpful. What could be helpful to someone is the say, “Well, I don’t think people are attaching to my character. I wonder why that is. Now, how do people attach to characters again? Oh, they have to have wants, very clear wants and needs establish. How do I do that again? Oh, well, there’s a thing called a hero’s journey that has particular stages. So let me see if my story has those stages in them. Can I identify the stages? Are they very clearly delineated? Well, they’re not. Well, maybe I could tweak that. Let me tweak that. Still, it’s still not working. Is there another level of analysis that I can look at my story that could help me to make it better? Well, there’s this five commandments and storytelling thing. Let me check my –” You know what I’m saying?
So all of these things are diagnostic tools that help you figure out how to make something that doesn’t work work. Now, is it hard? You’re damn right it’s hard. This is like figuring out an internal combustion engine. Mechanics don’t say, “Well, my engine doesn’t run, but it looks really nice. So will you buy the car even though the engine doesn’t work?” No. Right? The bottom line for the person who wants a car is if the car actually moves and if the engine works.
So the problem we are solving using Story Grid methodology is to get the engine working, to make sure – And then we can tweak it, right? Well, it’s sputtering every six cycles. It goes, “[sputtering noise]”. So maybe we could fix that. That’s what sort of these different analytical tools do. We have the heroes journey. We have the five commandments of storytelling. We have genre. We have the Story Grid spreadsheet. We have the fool’s cap page. These are all different sort of diagnostic tools so that you can say, “Well, let me look at it through this prism. Okay. I fix that prism. I think it’s pretty solid. Let me try it again.” Then readers come back to you and say, “I still don’t get it.” Okay. Then let me try the hero’s journey. Let me fix that. Does it work now? No. Okay. Let me try another one. As we’re trying these things and we’re working through them, guess what happens? We start to understand deeper and deeper levels of all of the analytical tools, which become part of our left side of our brain, so that in the future, when the right side of our brain says, “What if this happened?” and it throws it over to the left side of our brain, our left side of our brain intuitively uses that machinery to create a new story that works very much sooner than it would at our amateur level. So leveling up our craft is all about understanding the tools. They can take something that doesn’t work into work and eventually it works better and better and better, and someday perhaps will create a Bentley, or a Lamborghini, or a Ferrari, instead of the lawnmower that we start out with.
There’s nothing wrong with a lawnmower, but who wants to make the same lawnmower every month and hope that people buy the same lawnmower, right? We want to keep leveling up so that we can fuel inject our stories like we would an engine, so that the engine gets to be so perfectly tuned that the reader the minute they start and the spark plug kicks in, they’re on the ride and they’re just in the car and they’re going, and by the end, they’re in a brand-new place and they think it’s an amazing story. So that’s what I hope Story Grid will help people do, and that’s what we’re putting your stuff – I mean, we’ve been working on your novel for almost 3 years, and it’s not ready yet, right? But it’s getting so much better each time that we rethink it and re-use a different tool, and I don’t throw the same tool at you each time. I’m constantly – Like this whole new chaos, order an individual triumvirate trilogy, or trinity is a new prison that I’m playing with now and I think it’s a pretty compelling one because it’s everyday experience and it’s every year experience and it’s every decade experience of the human life. We have goals. We set out for them and something helps us towards our goal or something throws us in a hole, and that’s the way life works, and that’s the way a story has to work to.
All right. So the middle build ill climax will be when Jesse agrees to bring down President Marcus. It makes perfect sense. The middle build resolution will be when she wins the final severing, right? So she is on track and her new goal of bringing down President Marcus is on track. She wins the final severing by this sort of fuel injection of her brother giving her added understanding of the stakes of what she has to do. So I think that resolution is on the money. She wins the final one.
Now we’re transitioning into the big, big payoff of the entire story. So she’s gone through her three trials that you usually go through in a hero’s journey. She’s on an up, right? She’s feeling good about herself. So the ending pay – The middle build resolution is a positive push upwards. Now as we recall, just to check this, the end of the beginning hook was kind of a negative, right? She had to do something. She was forced to do something she didn’t want to do because she was shamed into doing it. So there we go. So we have a negative, and now at the end of the middle build we’re into a positive. Again, one of the Story Grid tools is the positive-negative valence shifts of values from one unit of story to the next.
So our big unit of story, the beginning hook ends negatively. So what we want for our middle build is for it to end positively. So we want to have a swing. We want to move from negative to positive, and so we’re checking that now we say, “Yeah. Yeah, we’re ending positively because she wins the third severing in a really brilliant masterstroke.” Now we’re transitioning into the ending payoff. Now, what’s the inciting incident of the ending payoff?
[0:45:01.1] TG: When the threshing starts.
[0:45:03.3] SC: Right. So the threshing begins, and the threshing is the big moment of the story. It’s called the threshing, right? So that is definitely the inciting incident. She shows up for the threshing. All right.
[0:45:18.7] TG: So, originally – So in the second draft we had Jesse dying at the end of the middle build right after she wins the final severing. I had it where Az killed her. We were going to change it to where Az accidentally kills her, but as I was laying this out, and this is why I really enjoyed the homework of going through these 15 scenes, because it made me relook at the story and a new light. I felt like it would be more a better fit and more dramatic, because the whole thing was is if you die in the grid, you die in real life, and we established that early on.
So I thought it would be more dramatic to have her die in the threshing. So they think they’ve lost the threshing. So President Marcus thinks he’s lost. The rebellion, including her brother thinks they’ve lost. Everybody thinks they’ve lost. Then she comes back, and that’s what sets her up to actually win. So I was thinking the progressive complication would be when she gets killed inside of the grid, because then than that kicks in to the crisis.
[0:46:26.9] SC: Yeah, I think you’re right. As I said before, ending the middle build negatively, when we ended the beginning hook negatively, would be like [wha-wha], kind of a trombone bummer for the reader, and it also seems like she should die inside the threshing, because when you call the book the threshing, you anticipate that the character is going to win the damn thing. So it’s a good, I think, twist that, no, she doesn’t win. In fact, she’s dead. Now what?
So the turning point progressive complication of the global story and the ending payoff is the revelation or the action that Jesse dies inside of the grid. Okay. So then after that complication, what’s the crisis?
[0:47:14.9] TG: So this is what I have and I was getting fuzzy at this point. So my picturing of the story was that she dies inside of the threshing. Az leaves her behind and continues on, or maybe he’s dead at that point. I don’t know. Everybody just kind of leaves her there. So then when she wakes up, she is in the perfect position to win, because everybody’s just left her alone.
So the crisis though feels a little weak with what I have here, because I have Jesse has to decide whether she’s going through with the plan now that she knows the truth about her brother, the rebellion, and what they did to her. So this is where she realizes that they planned this whole thing to get her in here so that she would be killed, so that she would be in a position to win, because there is going to be a part where they start, Ernst and Alex, start to unhook her from the machine and 31 won’t let them because he knows what’s coming. He knows she’s going to wake up. So the crisis is; is she going to go through with it?
[0:48:21.7] SC: Okay. I think all that works as long as she still buys into the program. Meaning, when she wakes up after – So it’s almost as if she gets her computer, her internal brain/computer rebooted. So she goes like brain-dead for two minutes and then something happens and that she reboots and then she wakes up, meaning psychically wakes up not – She doesn’t get off the table, correct?
[0:48:52.4] TG: Right. What if this is when the speech in praise of the villain? So she reaches the point where she can pull the plug on the entire grid. The president realizes it and can’t stop her, and so he steps in and tells her the truth about what’s really going on to try to get her to not do this.
[0:49:15.1] SC: Yes.
[0:49:17.7] TG: So this is when we find out about the reapers, and the system, and everything else, and he promises that if she does this, everybody’s going to starve, and there’s a reason this is happening, and she’s still in a position where she has to choose between that and her brother.
[0:49:35.5] SC: I think that’s a good idea. So the midpoint crisis is when the brother, Randy, tells Jesse the tyrannical order part of the story, right? This is what’s going on. It’s a tyranny. So the crisis of the ending payoff will be when President Marcus gets to talk to her about the complexity of chaos. So he tells her the other half of the story as the speech in praise of the villain. This is good, Tim. I think it works.
Then the crisis that he poses to her is, “So what are you going to pick, Jesse? Order or chaos?” The climax is she picks chaos and destroys the grid. Now, that’s really cool because what happens with tyrannies is that they are destroyed, and it devolves into a chaotic situation until a new order arises to fix the complexity. So she has to pick chaos. It’s thematically, no matter how difficult life becomes, chaos beats tyranny. So I think that’s a great climax. She picks chaos and then the resolution is, “Holy shit! I had no idea chaos was this bad.” Then, bang! We’re out. Then we have to spend another three years writing book two.
[0:51:06.1] TG: Don’t say that, Shawn.
[0:51:10.1] SC: Maybe two years instead of three, maybe.
[0:51:12.7] TG: Okay.
[0:51:15.2] SC: But I think that really gives a firm progression to your story that it lacked before, and I think – Well, instead of me telling how smart I am. Why don’t you tell me what you think the 15 scene progression has done for you? Has it clarified anything? Has it sort of saved you from thousands of words fixing something that was sort of almost there, but not quite?
[0:51:43.6] TG: Well, I feel like, for me, in this particular instance, the first thing it did was help me step back into the story. I was really scared and blocked on like just picking up at scene 32. So this helped me kind of wrap my head back around the story I was telling. So that was the first thing. The second thing is, it made me feel better about what I’ve written so far, because the first seven or eight of these scenes were just outlining what I’ve already written. So makes me feel better about that. Also, I felt like it helped me fix some problems. This is where it gets into save me lots of writing, is looking at it this way, help me fix several problems, such as when Jesse actually dies. So ending on a positive at the end of the middle build, fixing what is relayed to her by Randy in the middle point of the middle build, fixing when the speech and praise of the villain is, because I didn’t have that in the second draft, the speech and praise of the villain. So I felt like this was super helpful to kind of lay this out.
Like you said, I feel like it’s a nice balance between the plotters and the pantsers where it’s like I haven’t plotted out all 60+ scenes of the book, but I do have a general roadmap of where I’m going once I start writing again here.
[0:53:10.3] SC: Right. Now, what I would suggest that you do is to focus on rewriting from scene 8 through 15. So you do the middle build crisis scene, then you do the middle build climax scene on and on, and then after you feel good about those additional seven or eight scenes that you’ve reconfigured, then you go back and say, “How or why scenes in between these scenes connecting to these points?” Right?
[0:53:43.0] TG: So you think I should actually write these seven scenes or these eight scenes?
[0:53:45.7] SC: Yeah, go into the manuscript. Find the scene that you have in there now that corresponds to this and rewrite it based upon this new information. So start with –
[0:53:56.6] TG: Right. But then do I also write the five ending payoff scenes?
[0:54:00.2] SC: Yes, but I would start with the middle build crisis. Start with that scene. So that would be your homework until our next phone call.
[0:54:12.9] TG: Okay.
[0:54:13.9] SC: And then –
[0:54:14.6] TG: Rewrite the crisis and climax scenes?
[0:54:16.9] SC: Yeah, start with the crisis, and if you feel good after you’ve finished the crisis scene, then try the climaxing too. But the important thing is to really nail that middle build crisis scene. Then we can sort of go through the rest of them over the ensuing weeks. Then basically what you’ll have there is these really strong foundational tent poles, and then you can string the other scenes so that they build to them. Does that make sense?
[0:54:44.9] TG: Yeah. No, that sounds good. So I’ll work on that and then we can go over that on the next call.
[0:54:50.4] SC: Okay, great.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:54:51.8] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. For everything Story Grid related, checkouts storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletters so you don’t miss anything happening in the story universe. If you like to check out the show notes for this episode, including the outline of the 15 scenes that I did, or any of the show notes for the past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.
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