Editor Roundtable: Baby Driver

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This week, Valerie drives home the importance of a compelling middle build in the context of the film Baby Driver. Don’t get away without hearing the Roundtablers’ take on this 2017 film written and directed by Edgar Wright.




The Story

  • Beginning Hook – When Baby gets a call to drive the getaway car for a heist, he’s confronted with Bats, the antagonist, who doesn’t believe in his ability. The job doesn’t go as planned and when Bats asks Baby whether he intentionally blocked his shot, Baby must decide whether to answer truthfully and risk Bats’s wrath, or lie and hopefully calm the waters. Baby lies and while Bats doesn’t believe him, he lets it go. Baby finishes paying his debt to Doc and believes that he can leave the criminal life behind.
  • Middle Build – Doc recruits Baby, under duress, to do another heist. When Bats kills Doc’s gun suppliers and fence men, Baby must decide whether to out Bats and call off the heist, or remain quiet and let the heist go off as scheduled. He says nothing and tries to escape to meet Debora. He’s caught so the heist will still go off as planned. 
  • Ending Payoff – When the heist goes wrong Bats and Darling are killed. Baby gets Joe to safety and tries to escape with Debora (Doc is killed helping them get away), but first he must deal with Buddy who is seeking revenge for Darling’s death. When Baby and Debora do finally escape Atlanta, they are stopped by the Mounties trying to cross the Canadian border. Baby must decide whether to try and outrun the Mounties or surrender to “face the music”. (The Mounties always get their man.) He surrenders and is sentenced to 25 years. He’s paroled after 5 years and finally drives off into the sunset with Debora.

Genre: The genre is at best, murky. Movie-goers would most certainly call this an action film. However, when we look at the Story Grid genres, it falls somewhere between a crime story (heist) and a thriller, but at the end, the love story sub-genre kinda takes over.


The Principle – Valerie – The Middle Build in Two Parts

So, my daughter was right; Baby Driver is a fun movie and I can see why she loved it so much. This is a terrific example of playing to the strengths of the medium. Stories can be told as part of the oral tradition, on the screen through film and television, on the stage and on the page. One form of storytelling isn’t better than another, but each one has its strengths and weaknesses. That means that some stories will work better in one medium over another. For example, stories on the page (novels, short stories and so on) allow the reader to get into the protagonist’s head; we get to know exactly what the character is thinking and feeling. 

Stories told on a screen, especially a big screen, shine when they’re visually pleasing. They appeal to our sense of sight and our hearing, and Baby Driver certainly delivers on both of those accounts. The car chases are fun and innovative and the music is fantastic. The filmmakers actually choreographed the scenes and had the soundtrack playing while the actors did their thing. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the gunshots are rhythmic, and in time with the music. The wiper blades, the sound of the raindrops, the footsteps – everything is in time with the music. 

Of course, Baby Driver also tapped into star power to attract an audience—and of course, this is something else that film and television can do. So, gold star to Baby Driver for playing to the strengths of film.

However, if you scratch the surface at all, the story starts to fall apart pretty quickly. Structurally, it isn’t as sound as it could be. I don’t see this movie as a spoof, but it is campy. So those who like camp will enjoy the flat, stereotypical characters and dreadful dialogue. I’m not one of those people so even on the first viewing, I had to make a conscious effort to ignore that and focus on the music. And, I’ve already talked about the fact that the genre isn’t particularly well defined. 

Ok, so be that as it may, this week, I’m going to take a close look at the middle build of Baby Driver in light of Shawn’s recent approach to breaking the second act down into two parts. 

We’ll call the two parts Middle Build One (MB1) and Middle Build Two (MB2). 

Middle Build One: In MB1, the hero has crossed into the extraordinary world and is doing his best to navigate it using the skill, knowledge, tools and experience that he’s brought with him from the ordinary world. This is what Shawn calls the hero’s Code 1.0. And it works for a while, but as he encounters new obstacles and complications, his tried-and-true methods become less and less effective. Eventually he hits a point where none of his old tricks work. His old belief structure doesn’t work and the story takes a sharp turn. This is the point that, here on the podcast, we call the midpoint shift and it throws the hero into chaos.

Middle Build Two: MB2 is this phase of chaos. Since none of the hero’s usual approaches work, he’s making things up as he goes along. He’s flying by the seat of his pants just trying any way he can, to get his object of desire. Things spiral out of control until he hits an All is Lost Moment, after which he moves into the Ending Payoff.

You’ve heard us talking about the Story Spine having 15 Core Scenes; and it does! But, for those who struggle through the middle build, Shawn has now given us a method of navigating this huge part of our stories. If you choose to break the middle build down into two parts, you’ll be creating a spine with 20 Core Scenes. 

Now, to be honest, if you’re in the planning phase of your novel, I recommend starting with the 15 Core Scenes because it’s a more macro view of the story. Once you nail that down, you can add the other five scenes. Of course, the 20 Core Scenes are the Five Commandments of Storytelling in each of the acts; the beginning hook, middle build one, middle build two, and the ending payoff. 

Let’s look at MB1 and MB2 using Baby Driver as an example:

Middle Build One (MB1) – Hero Code 1.0

  • Inciting Incident: It’s clear that the protagonist is in a whole new world. Things aren’t going as they usually do, but the hero thinks his usual approach to the world will work. Remember, his goal is to get life back to the way it was.

    The inciting incident of MB1 happens at about the 45 minute mark, which is kind of late in my opinion (it follows a 15-minute love story sequence). Doc arrives on the scene and gives Baby the best bad choice option of working for him again, or having everything he loves taken away from him. Obviously, Baby decides to drive for him again.

  • Turning Point Progressive Complication: The hero becomes the target of the villain (Bats). The antagonist is right at home in this environment whereas the protagonist isn’t – this is why the middle build belongs to the villain.

    The villain is Bats and Baby becomes his target during the explanation of the second heist.

  • Crisis: Should the protagonist comply or defy the antagonist?

    Should Baby talk back to Bats when he’s confronted or not? Baby keeps his mouth shut and doesn’t confront Bats during the meeting, or when he steals the gum, or when he’s told to get out of the car and follow them at the gun purchase.

  • Climax: Villain asserts his power and “It is such a monstrous execution of force that the protagonist’s behavioral toolkit fails….The protagonist is overwhelmed and responds in a way that the antagonist does not anticipate.” (Action Story: The Primal Genre, by Shawn Coyne)

    This is when Bats starts the shootout with Doc’s crooked cops. Baby doesn’t say a word, which Bats finds curious.

  • Resolution: No way out; irreversible change event of the global story. When the hero falls into chaos, everyone falls into chaos. The protagonist has no idea how to act now.

    Baby doesn’t know how to handle having the criminals in the diner. The shootout combined with the diner scene solidifies the midpoint shift. Baby is thoroughly in chaos and from this point on, we see that the lives of Doc, Bats, Buddy, Darling, Debora and Joe are also thrown into chaos. Fascinating stuff!

Middle Build Two (MB2) – Hero in Chaos. The question the audience is asking, and that the writer needs to figure out, is “how will the hero climb out of the chaos he’s fallen into as a result of the resolution of MB1?”.

  • Inciting Incident: “The protagonist experiences a mysterious encounter with an unexplainable event. Something happens to the protagonist that can be a positive or negative development, but it’s random and transformational. The protagonist and the antagonist contend with the unexplained event in ways that counterbalance each other’s response.”  (Action Story: The Primal Genre, by Shawn Coyne) The hero accepts the chaos, but the villain believes his worldview is so perfect, denies it. He believes he can control anything.

    Doc calls off the heist. Buddy’s and Darling’s verbal response confirms this, as does Baby’s and Bats’s physical response. This is when they return from the shootout and Bats says the cops fired first, and it’s Bats who convinces Doc to keep the heist in play.

  • Turning Point Progressive Complication: The protagonist suffers a significant set-back and despairs that all is lost.

    The significant set-back is when Bats finds Baby’s tape recorder. The tapes are discovered in Joe’s apartment so now Baby knows that both Joe and Debora are in jeopardy, and he’s at risk of losing the recording of his mother; the only thing he has to remember her by.

  • Crisis: This is when the Global Story crisis emerges. So, this would be the crisis that you list in the 15 Core Scenes.

    Does Baby tell the truth about what he does with the recordings or not?

  • Climax: The hero decides to face the villain.

    Baby tells the truth about the recordings, but tries to protect Joe (and his coveted recording of his mother singing) by saying that he lives really far away.

  • Resolution: The hero prepares for battle, makes preparations, says last goodbyes etc.

    They all hear the recordings and Baby is thrown off the job but, to protect Debora, he insists he remain on the job. As a result he has to stand Debora up.

Hopefully, this breakdown of the middle build helps give you a strategy for tackling the middle build of your own Work-In-Progress. If you want to learn more about breaking the middle build into two parts, you can read  (Action Story: The Primal Genre, by Shawn Coyne).


Kim– Core Event for Crime vs Thriller 

This film was a lot of fun for me, all the way up until the ending which left me feeling … meh. I have some theories as to why and it boils down to the Core Event and Core Emotion of what I was set up to expect and then what actually happened. I’ll walk you through my precise experience momentarily, but first let’s recap the importance of the Core Event, which actually begins at the beginning … 

The aspects of the story  revealed at the beginning of a story prompts a question in the reader’s mind, and this question is specific to the genre. As story elements are introduced, the human need and life values at stake are signaled to the reader’s subconscious. We pick up what they’re putting down. As events take place, the change of these needs and life values (+ to -, – to +, – to –) makes us FEEL things: the Core Emotion. It’s this emotional feeling experience that makes us expect future events/feelings, which are satisfied (or not) when those expectations are paid off.  

This ultimate moment is known as the Core Event: when the global life values are most at stake, meaning the protagonist has the most to gain and the most to lose. It is also a microcosm for the global genre and an expression of the controlling idea/theme. All roads lead to the Core Event. Or at least they should. 

Now let’s look more closely at what we, or at least I, experience in Baby Driver.

For the majority of the film I’m not entirely sure what I’m watching but I’m enjoying it. Something in my audience brain is tracking a fun-loving heist story, which is a particular subgenre of Crime, similar to a Caper (a subgenre we have analyzed quite a bit on the show). It is one of many Crime subgenres where the criminal rather than the investigator is the protagonist. But there is something else going on too, that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s as if the antagonist changes. In the BH there is the guy from the first crew who gives Baby a hard time and messes with his sunglasses. Then later it’s Bats (with some repeat complications before they progress), then in a switcheroo for the EP it’s Buddy, the guy who stuck up for him earlier. And all the while we’re not really sure about Doc–sometimes he’s fair to Baby and sometimes he’s an overlord. We do get a whiff of death when we see what happens to the guy who botched a job by leaving his shotgun behind when they switched cars. So it could be a Thriller with the stakes of life and death. Baby faces forces of antagonism that he can’t escape and are confusing (are they friend or foe?)

But I’m still not feeling all that primed for a Thriller and am expecting a Crime-Caper like story where the primary question is: Will the criminal be discovered? Will they get away with their crime? Will Justice be served? (okay so that’s three questions but you get it). And because our protagonist is the criminal, we feel differently about the answer. We are rooting for our criminal to get away with it. On this side of the coin, the most positive value of Justice is actually Poetic Justice. The Core Emotion of Crime is intrigue (fascination) and then ultimately a sense of justice/satisfaction (security that the world makes sense). The Core Event for a Crime story is the Exposure of the Criminal. Which would then be followed by Brought to Justice or Escapes Justice scene, which serves as the global resolution of the story.

But that isn’t exactly what we experience in Baby Driver

The genre flips to much more of a Thriller in the ending payoff, with a Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene (with a core emotion of excitement) with Baby and Debora in the parking garage at the mercy of Buddy. This feels like the Core Event of the story, but it’s not the one we (or at least I) expected. 

So together, Baby and Debora defeat Buddy and then are headed out of town, on the run until they run into a police roadblock on a bridge. Blocked in from both sides there is nowhere to go. He makes his decision not to run anymore in order to save Debora from his fate. And while this is sweet (and you all now I’m a sucker for sweet) it was a let down to me. He turns himself in and it just feels ordinary. 

And then people testify on Baby’s behalf and he gets sentenced to 25 years with the chance for parole after five. And lo and behold Debora is waiting for him with a classic convertible so they can drive off into the sunset together. And like it I said, it’s swee but I just wanted more. It’s like it wasn’t sweet enough to be meaningful. I wanted poetic justice for Baby. And while I’ve been having an intellectual battle with myself about the genre and the core event and life values of this story, when it comes down to it, the ending left me emotionally unsatisfied. The genre mashiness feels very Edgar Wright though, so while it’s not an UNsatisfying movie, it’s not a cracker jack ending either.

So don’t forget to consider what comes after your Core Event, and be sure that even if you payoff the readers core emotion expectations in that moment, that you don’t let them down after. There is a psychological heuristic known as The Recency Effect where we remember the most recent event of an experience.


Leslie – Point of View and Narrative Device

I’m continuing my study of POV and Narrative Device because there’s still a lot to uncover. As I’ve mentioned before, if genre is what your story is about, POV and Narrative Device are how you present it to your reader. 

My bite size episode on choosing your POV can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here.

I begin my inquiry with the narrative problem presented by the premise.

What’s the narrative problem presented by the premise?

The premise consists of three elements, a character in a particular setting with a problem. Here, Baby is a young man in Atlanta who made a mistake as a child that hooked him into a life of crime. He wants to pay off the debt he owes to a criminal mastermind, so he can survive, avoid prison, and find a more meaningful life. 

Although the story involves a great deal of sensory spectacle with car and pedestrian chases and several songs, we’re laser focused on how Baby responds to the forces of antagonism around him, which includes other criminals, the police, to a lesser extent his foster father, Joe, who doesn’t approve of Baby’s involvement with criminal activities, and to a greater extent the global environment that put these circumstances in play. 

The reality leaf of the Story Grid genre clover presents an interesting question here. The choreographed quality of the action feels a bit fantastical. You might even say it has a nostalgic quality about it with the feel of fond memories. 

To pull this story off, we need a point of view and narrative device that allows us to empathize with Baby as he participates in crimes where people are killed. (It raises an interesting societal question about how culpable the get-away driver is for the actions of gunman). We’re narrowly focused on Baby. In fact, I remember only one scene that takes place outside Baby’s presence, when Debora waits for him at the diner, but it could very easily have been his imagining her waiting. Understanding Baby’s inner experience is challenging in a film. We can’t read Baby’s mind except through voiceover, which Edgar Wright doesn’t use. We must consider what he says and does as evidence of what he’s thinking and feeling.  

What’s the Point of View? This is a film, so it can be challenging to identify a specific POV, but for some reason my intuition zeroed in on it quickly. Keep in mind that this involves a fair bit of speculation, and reasonable minds can differ. 

The clues in the film point to Selective Omniscience, also known as close third person point of view (the same POV is used in “Waters of Versailles” and Brooklyn). This is not a god-like narrator moving from mind to mind and speaking to us directly (like we saw in Howards End). But rather, the mind of the character reveals the story without the burden of a self-conscious narration. That seems an odd choice for an intense, action-driven story, but follow my thoughtline and hopefully it will make sense. 

One of the first clues that lead me to this conclusion we “hear” Baby’s tinnitus anytime music isn’t playing. When he can’t hear (for example when Buddy fired a gun near his ears), we can’t hear. We experience the events as he would (or would have), with a bit of a twist, and this is where the reality genre comes into play for me. The action, whether Baby is driving a car, walking to get coffee, or running from police has the feel of well-planned choreography. This was an intentional choice Edgar Wright made. Music is usually playing, and Baby’s actions are almost always timed to the beat, right down to when he slams a car door or breaks a window to steal a car. 

What’s the Narrative Device?

My take on the narrative device is that it’s Baby recalling the events that led to his imprisonment. In a way, the purpose seems similar to Simo’s in the short story “Wolves of Karelia,” which we discussed last season. It feels like a kind of accounting to decide if the choices and sacrifices Baby made were worth it.

So the “who” of the narrative device would be Baby’s mind. “To whom” would also be Baby because it  appears that he’s assessing the quality of his choices. When and where is the story being told? I think his mind is going through the exercise while he’s in prison, after the events of the story. It’s as if Baby is listening to music in prison that reminds him of the events he’s considering. 

In what form? Thoughts or more specifically memories. It’s as if Baby is reviewing an internal record in the form of a film, complete with soundtrack. 

Narrative Distance? Normally when we think of narrative distance we think of where the narrator is in relation to the characters and events of the story, and therefore where the reader experiences the story. But something I stumbled upon in The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth has me thinking about this differently. Booth explains that  moral distance, or differences between the reader’s morality and that of characters within the story is worth noting. This is particularly important when we have a young man engaged in criminal activities against the advice of his foster father and mentor. The audience needs sufficient details presented in a way that we forgive him for his choice, and the narrative device and POV need to evoke significant empathy. Selective Omniscient POV allows us to view the story from Baby’s perspective and help us root for him, even as he’s participating in violent crime. This possibility makes the ending make sense to me because Baby shouldn’t get away with his crime. It’s unfortunate that he was swept up in this environment of criminal activity, but he’s not blameless, so his capture at the end gives us a sense that the world is to a certain extent righting wrongs—particularly because he willingly chooses to sacrifice himself for Debora’s freedom. 

Why? Again, there appears to be a certain amount of assessment going on. Baby wants to know if his sacrifice was worth it. But it could also be that he’s playing the mental record to cope with his surroundings and remind him of what it could be like if and when he’s released. Either way, the controlling idea for the story feels like his primary takeaway.

What’s the Controlling Idea? I would call Baby Driver a global Thriller. The heist setup is a vehicle for the Thriller and Baby’s internal shift. 

The story lacks some of the typical hallmarks of a heist (e.g., the teams are already put together; there is no real planning phase because Doc delivers the plans).  The Core Emotion feels more like excitement to me. It seems as though society is the villain,  setting up situations that cause harm to various people. The final scene is Thriller’s second ending in which Baby sacrifices himself to save Debora from death or prison. Beneath the camp style and spectacle, there’s some subtle social commentary. As if Wright wants to sneak some kale into a fruit smoothie.

So, I would say the controlling idea/theme or Baby Driver’s primary takeaway is …

Life is preserved when young criminals express their gift of communication and choreography, formerly leveraged by a violent criminal boss, to save innocent victims from death and themselves from damnation. 

How well do the POV/Narrative Device choice solve the problem presented by the premise? 

It worked really well for me. I’m not a huge fan of chase scenes, but they were so well-choreographed and aligned with the story that I was drawn in immediately and didn’t feel bored by the spectacle. A great deal of this effect seems to be the result of a great POV and Narrative Device choice executed with mastery.


Final Thoughts and Takeaways for Writers

We like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft. 

Kim: My takeaway today is that the Core Emotion should peak in the Core Event, but the Resolution is the final part of the story we experience and so should be crafted with just as much intention.

Leslie: Exceedingly bland … I’m surprised over and over, though I shouldn’t be by now how ital POV and Narrative choices are. Solid choices here can make the difference between a great audience experience and a mediocre one.   

Valerie: The key takeaway for me this week is that different stories work better in different media. The forms of storytelling have their own strengths and weaknesses so, it’s a good idea for us to know what they are so we can play to them.


Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Story Grid Certified Editor Tanya Lovetter through the Story Grid Guild.

What are the similarities and differences between the Obsession Love Story and an erotic Thriller?

Valerie: The obvious answer here is that they’re two totally different global genres, which means they have different spectrum of values, different core events and core emotions, different spines, different conventions and obligatory scenes, etc. 

The confusion here, I think, is about what story it is you’re trying to tell. What’s the point of your story? Any given story can have elements of many different genres, but only one of them is global. 

The other thing I’d challenge you to consider is your definition of erotica. I’ve come to learn that this is highly subjective. For some people, if there’s a sex scene at all in the story, it’s erotica. Most writers leave their readers at the bedroom door, so when something like Outlander comes along, everyone gets all excited and giggly. There’s no hard and fast definition, and no right or wrong definition. 

In terms of similarities, it would really depend on the masterworks you have in mind. The love story might be thrilling, but not anything like a thriller in Story Grid terms. A thriller might include erotica, but there may or may not be any actual love between the characters. 

If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.

Join us next time when Leslie looks at point of view and narrative device in the 1925 novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the 2013 film adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann. Why not give it a look or read during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Valerie Francis, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.