Editor’s 6 Core Questions Part 2

[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 the Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

What you’re listening to right now is the 159th episode of the Story Grid Podcast. We’ve been recording for three and a half years. Over that time, our listenership keeps growing and growing. In fact, last month was our biggest month ever for downloads, which was pretty cool. I was looking at our stats this week and I realized that this episode that you’re listening to right now, the downloads that we’ll get from this episode will put us over 2 million downloads of this podcast altogether, which just seems crazy to me.

When we started three and a half years ago, Shawn and I committed to 10 episodes and figured that would be it. I’m looking at this that this is a normal episode. It’s the second part of the editor six core questions. There’s not a lot special about it. Looking at the fact that we’ll have 2 million downloads of this podcast just is crazy to me. I really can’t thank you enough. You guys listening to this knowing you’re out there, getting your e-mails, getting your tweets, getting senior reviews on Apple Podcast, all that stuff is just really meaningful. Because for me, this has been so amazing, because of all of the learning I’ve gotten to do and sitting under Shawn’s tutelage.

The only reason he’s doing this is because we have the podcast and it’s growing this other thing, right? You listening to this gives me this opportunity, so I just want to thank you for that as we get in to this 159th episode that will kick us over 2 million downloads of the show. Thanks for being a part of this ride. Thanks for continuing to tell other people about it. Again, it keeps growing. We’re not exactly advertising or promoting it, so it’s you that’s spreading the word.

As always, we couldn’t do this without you. Thank you so much for listening in, sharing, spreading the gospel of Story Grid and being a part of everything we do. This episode is about the last three questions of the editor six core questions continued from last week. If you liked last week, you’re definitely going to love this week.

Thanks again for being a part of what we do here a Story Grid. Let’s go ahead and jump in to this episode and get started.


[0:02:47.5] TG: So Shawn, the last few weeks we’ve been going back through and looking at some of the fundamental Story Grid stuff. It was funny, I was looking on Twitter and somebody tweeted at us that they’ve been listening since the beginning and they just realized I’m finally on this finishing stretch to finish this book. It just reminded me again of the very first thing we did on the show was walk through the whole book basically, the whole Story Grid book in order, looking at all the different things and how – and we did that I think once before, maybe a year and a half ago or something where we went back through some of the fundamentals.

As we go through them again, it’s just so interesting from my point of view to see them with a little bit of understanding now, where they were just these, I don’t know. It almost felt like reading a book about how to play the guitar. It’s like, sure, I understand the mechanics, but when I actually sit down to do it it’s a totally different ballgame.

Where now as we go through it, it’s just fun, because I had a conversation with a buddy of mine who’s writing a business allegory and he’s like, “It’s an action story.” I’m like, “I don’t think it’s an action story.” He’s like,  “No.” He’s familiar with Story Grid. He’s like, “No, because there’s lots of action in it.” I was like, “Yeah, but who’s going to die? Whose life is at stake?” He’s like, “Well, nobody.” I was like, “I really think it’s a performance.” He’s like, “No, no.” I was like, “Well, but.”

We had this whole conversation. I actually knew enough that I could actually help him and sure enough, he’s like, “I am writing a performance.” He’s like, “I’m glad that I’ve talked –” The first thing we looked at was genre, because that gives us our values. Then now we’ve been going through the next step, which is looking at the editor six core questions. In the last episode, we went through the first three and we’re going to pick it up from there.

We talked about what’s the genre, conventions and obligatory scenes of the genre and then the point of view, which again is that question that always strikes me is it should be easy, but it’s like, what’s the point of view? I mean, and you went into it last week of all the nuances of answering that question. Now we’re looking at the next three. The first one is what are the objects of desire?

[0:05:14.7] SC: Yeah, exactly. I’ve been doing a lot of cognitive science fun research on the side. What caught me –

[0:05:22.4] TG: That’s what you do for fun?

[0:05:23.8] SC: Yeah. It actually is fun, because what I like to do is try and take the concepts that I understand about story and apply them in different domains of knowledge. To see if there’s any inner lap or overlap between neuroscience, cognitive science, biology, all that stuff. 

What cognitive science is, it’s a way that we explore the processes by which we think. The practical applications of explaining the processes by which we think are to create machines that can mimic and use the principles that we use to think so that we don’t have to think so much. Cognitive science is the science behind the efforts to create an artificially intelligent machine; a machine that could solve problems for us in the most abstract way.

It’s a fascinating field, because we’re not really sure completely how we think, how we solve problems. What we do know is that a very large part of it is forming an understanding of our present state of inefficiency to projecting a future state of betterment. What is storytelling? It’s using that abstract global understanding and telling a scene-by-scene story of a movement from a character from one state of inefficiency to either wisdom, or attainment at the end of the story.

I’m not going to get into all the really in-depth examinations of the way in which our brains formulate problems and how we go about solving those problems. I will say that there are two distinctions that are important to understand is the most difficult thing – you would think it would be actually doing the work to solve the problem, but the very difficult work is in defining the problem.

Once you define a problem with laser specificity, it’s much easier to solve, because you’re taking out 99.99% of an arena that you would explore that would have nothing to do with solving the problem. The big problem of storytelling is that it’s a vast arena of exploration. What the Story Grid does is that it defines the problem of understanding story at multiple levels. The six core questions that an editor asks are the entry point to starting to explore how to solve the problem of telling a really good story. The way we define a really good story is this might sound strange, but it’s almost a shamanic act in the writer, in that when they write a story or we watch a story or we listen to a story, the storyteller is literally changing our – it’s bringing us into an alternative consciousness.

When we’re reading a book, we get really into it and we start playing out the story in our own minds, which is an alternate consciousness of sorts. Whenever we’re really deeply engrossed in the story and somebody interrupts us, it’s as if somebody’s thrown cold water on our face and we have to shake out of this alternate consciousness in order to go back to the “real world.”

I know I’m talking in very vague abstractions right now, but the reason why I’m doing it is to explain where the origin of these six questions come from. They’re just not willy-nilly things that I pulled out of the my experience as being an editor. They’re actually ways of defining multiple levels of analysis in the story. This fourth question is a very, very deep question. You can answer it on a number of levels, but we’ll just go for the very obvious level to start, because you want to narrow the definition of the problem at the beginning, so that you can move forward and then you can trickle out from there.

The fourth question that an editor asks themselves when they’re editing a story is what are the objects of desire at play here? The objects of desire are character-driven. I always start with the protagonist, or say I would not recommend doing this, but if you were trying to write a society novel with multi-protagonists, you would want to look at each one of those subsets of the global protagonist and look at what each one of those characters wants.

Let’s just pull it back to a single protagonist in an arch plot, arch plot. The two questions you want to ask are what does the character want? That is actually a pretty easy question to answer at first glance, because what the character wants will be driven by the choice of genre, right? Again, here we go. We’re circling back to the very first question is what is the global genre the write is working in?

When you understand what global genre choice you’ve made, a lot of questions get answered for you very quickly. One of them is what does the character want? As you were talking about the action story, what the character wants in an action story is to survive. They want to live, because what’s at stake at an action story is life and death. What the character wants is to live, and by extension on their heroic journey they’ll want to safeguard the life or lives of other people. Okay, so that’s the want for the character.

Now the need of the character is their internal desire for moving up the hierarchy of needs; Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Now again, there’s a lot of nuance to this. When I say the need is driven by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, yes, that’s true, but it’s a very – it’s like a sledgehammer response for a very nuanced question, but it’s always a good idea to start with the sledgehammer if you want to break up a rock before you get out the chisel. In terms of an action story, an action story doesn’t necessarily have to have a internal need for the character. Let’s assume in –

[0:12:22.9] TG: Right. This is where we always talk about James Bond.

[0:12:25.2] SC: Exactly. Now, there’s another wonderful action story that was based on a true story called A Rock and a Hard Place. This was a story about this guy who went out a fun run one day in the desert and he was running through a cave that he runs through all the time and going swimming in the cave. All of a sudden, he put his arm up and he got stuck and a boulder fell on his arm and he was stuck and he was in the middle of nowhere. He was in Arizona. No cellphone. All he had was what he brought in his backpack.

Luckily, he had one of those little – one of those Swiss Army knives. The entire story is about – it’s an action story about survival. What’s remarkable is that the filmmaker was Danny Boyle who made the adaptation realized, “Holy cow. How am I going to sustain interest in this guy for an hour and a half on film?” The way he solved that problem was to add an internal element to the story. It became a story of this man had to take stock in his life and understand what was his importance on earth, why was he here, why would it be necessary to take that Swiss Army knife and through extraordinary pain, cut his own arm off to survive? Why would he do that?

It was it was the need that drove him to accomplish the want. The need was to rise up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to self-transcend. The way Danny Boyle brilliantly conveyed that was he would move in and out of consciousness, right? Because he hadn’t eaten, he had very limited amount of water. Obviously, his brain would start to wander. Not to spoil the movie for everyone, but he started to imagine his son. He realized if he didn’t cut his arm off, his son would never live, right? He would never be able to get married and have that boy who came to him in his dream.

It was a brilliant decision that allowed for an action story to take on a whole new dimension. That need for self-transcendence, self-actualization that we all – and the beautiful part about having children is that it’s like this – it’s almost like this magical ticket that forces you to consider your life having meaning beyond the consumption of calories and listening to music and having fun.

The objects of desire are a very important thing to think about when you are starting to write a story, or when you’re evaluating a story. If it is not clear to the reader what the character wants, for example, in an action story if the character constantly is refusing to do anything, or refusing the call to adventure and it’s sort of that’s the beginning and that’s the middle, and then at the very end he reluctantly decides to help out at the last minute. Through his actions, it saves the community.

That story isn’t going to work so well, because people will abandon it right after the beginning, because if he delays his call to adventure, it really does not engage the audience. Anyway, the objects of desire are two questions; what does the character want and what does the character need? Danny Boyle solved that problem by really taking the substance of the non-fiction story about what this man was writing and said to himself, “What does this character need? Well, he needs self-transcendence. How is he going to get self-transcendence? How can I make that an active part of my story? Oh, I got it. It’s an action story. Therefore, he’s going to operate on multiple levels of consciousness. He’s going to lose consciousness, he’s going to be injured, his life will be threatened.”

In one of those states of marginalized consciousness, a vision will come to him. That vision will be the act of self-transcendence, which is having a child. An unborn child will come to him and he will talk to him and he will walk him through the necessary stages for him to survive. There you’ve got this incredible, big meaty middle that you can start to fractionalize and do scenes based upon that.

You can actually have – a protagonist have a character art to actually transcend himself by the end in the film. The want and the need are really the things that your reader is going to engage with most psychically and in their guts. They’re going to say, “Oh, yeah. I want that thing too.” That’s what’s going to lure them into the story, because when we all target something, when we project a future that we want, we can’t help but root for the person to get what they want.

[0:17:43.1] TG: When we’re looking at the objects of desire, so on the external is it pretty much just one direction? Like this is what they want. I mean, I guess is what they want need always lined up on the external?

[0:17:58.0] SC: No.

[0:17:58.4] TG: Okay. Because we’ve talked a lot in the past about the internal, where a lot of times what they want is to stay the same and what they need is to change. On the external, if what they want is to survive and they also need to survive, so am I – I’m right thinking?

[0:18:16.3] SC: You’re getting a little bit. You can see how these things can spin out of control. The way I define want, can you look at the want and the need from the external point of view? Yes, you can. Can you look at want to need from the internal point of view? Yes, you can. However, I recommend that you focus the answer to the question what does the character want, purely in terms of the external story choice.

Analogously, I also believe that you should take a look at what the character needs purely through their internal conflict. What’s going on inside their mind? For example, if you’re telling a story, like Saturday Night Fever. Saturday Night Fever is a maturation plot globally. It also has a performance genre attached to it. The global genre for Saturday Night Fever is a worldview maturation plot. That is the driving force of the story.

However, the external genre that’s attached to that internal worldview global genre is a performance story. If somebody were to ask me what does the protagonist in Saturday Night Fever want? I would say, he wants to win the dance contest. If someone were to ask me what is the protagonist in Saturday Night Fever need? I would say, he needs to mature. He needs to move beyond his limited worldview and generate a broader and more nuanced view of the universe.

His want and his need are two separate things. The character is going to invest all of his energy in getting his want, right? What he needs will have to be granted to him through accident. His desire to get the want will drive the visual storytelling, but it’s his – the necessity to get what he needs which will drive people’s interest in watching the work that he does to get the dance contest, right?

Understanding what they want and literally saying, I need to keep reminding my audience of what they want. I would even have the character voice it every now and then in your early drafts, just to remind yourself that they are pursuing a path to a goal. The objects of desire are super-duper important. They are the most nuanced elements within your story that are subtextual in a lot of ways, except for the very blatant external stories that are purely about want.

Yes, in an action story like a James Bond story prior to 2010, all of the James Bond stories are about survival, they’re action, they’re life and death. James Bond wants to survive to win to get the bad guy and bring them to justice. What he needs is that’s what he needs too, right? Because he is pretty much an automaton; he’s a machine that goes out and gets bad guys and that’s really all he’s about. There’s no real psychic conflict within James Bond, until they ran out of great hooks and stories. Now he is a more complicated figure, because they needed to add an internal genre, because they had just wiped out all external explosions and things that could entertain the audience.

[0:22:15.3] TG: Okay, so let’s go to number five. What’s the controlling idea and theme?

[0:22:21.6] SC: Yes. Okay, so the controlling idea and theme, this is an expression of what your story means. What that means is you need to be able to convey how the story changed from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. The way you come up with your controlling idea is to begin with the genre of course and figure out your genre. Your global genre has a value at stake.

For example, a love story has obviously the value of love at stake. Then what you would do is begin with the value. This is how you create a controlling idea and theme. The reason why I’m being very formulaic about it is that a lot of people get way, way, way lost in the weeds worrying and freaking out about their controlling idea and theme. My recommendation is to start very simply. As you create the work, the controlling idea and theme, as long as you have a clear understanding of where the story begins and where it ends, it’s going to get more nuanced as you do the work.

The way I would always advise people to think about the controlling idea when they’re starting a story is to say well, begin with the value of the genre. Love. Love triumphs when X, right? That’s a great way to begin writing a controlling idea and theme. Love triumphs when the two lovers recognize and embrace the flaws of their partner as much as the good things about them. That would be a simple controlling idea that connotes the movement of revelation, right? Love triumphs when the lovers recognize the good and the bad and embrace both.

That actually tells you a story just in one sentence. Oh, this is the story of two people who meet, who come together, probably breakup because they don’t like the way the other person does a certain thing. Then come back together after they realized that that was really petty and stupid to cast somebody away, because of one little strange idiosyncrasy.

The reason why you really need to understand the controlling idea and theme is because it’s really the ground from which all of your story will derive. For example in a crime story, justice prevails when X, or – Those are prescriptive stories, right? Those are stories where the theme, the global value shifts from at the beginning it’s negative, and at the end it’s positive. At the beginning of a love story, nobody is in love and everybody’s miserable. The end of the love story, people end up together and happy and committed. That’s a negative to a positive shift and it’s all described in the controlling idea, or theme of the story.

The reason why I say controlling idea/theme is that a lot of people prefer the word theme. Well, I prefer Robert McKee’s concept of the controlling idea, because it’s more specific. Theme, a lot of people go, “Well, the theme of my story is slavery.” That doesn’t really mean anything. If you say justice prevails when people don’t incarcerate innocent people. Then that’s a thematic thing about slavery that’s actually specific.

[0:26:01.5] TG: Well, I feel like – because you tell a story – stories a lot about how Steve will write his draft and give it to you and then you’ll see the theme after the fact and he’s like, “Oh, I didn’t even know that’s what I was writing.” I feel like this is one of those questions to remember that the name of these are the editor’s six core questions. That you can write a book that works without having all of this nailed down, that the big reason for these is once you’ve written it, your editor or you if you’re playing the role of you’re an editor, should be able to read the book and immediately answer these questions.

I remember I was constantly turning on this as well. We came up with probably a half dozen different ones, which now that the book is where it’s at, it’s much easier to look at and be like, “Oh, there’s the controlling idea.” When you talk about getting mixed up in this before you write, that’s when I was thinking this might be a good time to remember that these are the editor’s six core questions, not necessarily the writer’s. That this is a lot of times what you’re looking for after the first draft to start refining it. Would you agree with that?

[0:27:20.9] SC: I would agree with that. I think, we have two ways of learning. This goes to the sometimes you can find a great writer who can’t explain any anything about how they actually write, but boy can they write and they tell stories like nobody’s business. If you ask them how did you do that, they would start talking and none of it would really truly make sense.

[0:27:43.2] TG: To me, this in my personal opinion. I’ve watched several themasterclass.com classes from these amazing – some of them are writers. I’ve watched some others not just writing and I feel that’s what makes it not that great is you listen to them talk for 10 hours or whatever and you’re like, “I don’t think they said anything, because I don’t think they understand what they do to the point that they can teach it.”

I’ve just seen that a lot of just these people that are really, really good at something, but being able to teach something is different than being good at it. Would you actually ask people, it’s like asking that old yarn of you ask a writer where do you get ideas from and it’s always like, “I don’t know, man. They just show up.”

[0:28:29.9] SC: Right. Cognitively, we have two different ways of learning; one is the implicit learning process. Actually, the implicit learning process is the stickiest. To use a Malcolm Gladwell phrase, so the stickiness of implicit learning is this; we can’t help it that just by being human beings, we have a very, very amazing ability to pick up patterns, to pick up relations between specific phenomena.

I spoke about this in a class the other day, but there’s this – and of course, I didn’t go out and find the reference, but there’s a famous psychological experiment that was done in the 1970s. A psychologist was trying to debunk the notion of psychics. Is there really any psychic phenomena? What he decided to do was to do an experiment. The experiment was he created a series of letters that was algorithmically derived. Meaning, he came up with a formula like every start with the 7th letter of the alphabet add 15, subtract 7, etc., right? There was an algorithm that created the series of nonsense words.

He had a big stack of them, like 50 of them all derived from the same formula, that were – very complex formula that nobody would really be able to figure out, unless they were running the enigma machine. All right, so that was one stack. Then the other stack was other ones that were randomly generated. There was no pattern to those words that were generated.

Then he brought people in and he would say, “Okay, I’m going to show you a bunch of cards and just take a look at them.” He shows them the 50 cards that have been generated from the algorithm. Then he says, “Okay, now I’m going to show you a bunch of other cards and I’m going to say do you think the card that I show you is part of the first group, or is it not part of the first group.” He did that. He was expecting that there would be a 50/50 chance that the person would be able to pick out whether or not the randomly generated word was in that earlier category of words or completely random.

What he found out is that no, actually people are really good at this, that they’re able to innately understand that there are patterns. When they were seeing those 50 cards all generated from the same algorithm, their mind started to associate that with a pattern, even though I couldn’t delineate exactly what the algorithm was to generate it. It knew that there was a pattern. Then when they saw the random cards they’re like, “No, that thing doesn’t go with that. I don’t know. I don’t know why.” They’d say, “Well, why do you think that?” Then go, “I don’t know,” or they would make up some story that didn’t make any sense anyway.

What he found out is that people perform at a much higher level than chance, something on the order of a magnitude, or a couple of standard deviations higher than chance, which was an incredible discovery.

What that essentially created and meant was that we all have this innate sense of picking out patterns. Now what are stories? Stories are a series of Russian dolls, right? All these patterns, little behaviors that move from the beginning to a middle to an end. What you find is that great writers like Steve work for 30 years reading stories and writing stories and trying it; no, that doesn’t work. They’re innately learning the patterns of storytelling through exposure to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of examples of stories and they’re learning those patterns innately, so that when they keep writing, they keep writing and keep writing, they get a little bit better each time being able to create their own patterns that conform to the earlier patterns of the thousands of stories that they’ve read.

That innate learning teaches them how to be a great writer. You talk to any writer who writes all the time and all they do is read. They’re innately learning from each thing that they read. Okay, so what is the Story Grid all about? Well, it’s trying to take innate learning, or implicit learning and make it explicit. To be able to say here are the patterns and we’re trying – what we’re doing is explaining the way the patterns work in the story by using geniuses from the past who have examined the same thing, and coming up with a set of tools that will say, if you understand the patterns of storytelling, then you’re going to learn how to write and tell stories at a much faster rate than someone who has to spend 35 years reading 15,000 novels. Does that make sense?

[0:33:50.1] TG: Yeah, yeah. No, that’s interesting. Yeah.

[0:33:53.0] SC: To make the implicit explicit is a difficult chore. It’s defining the problem of story in a very specific way. When you have a master writer who wasn’t very good at teaching how to write, it’s not their fault because they haven’t spent 25 years like I have trying to make the implicit explicit.

A lot of people say, “I don’t believe in rules. I don’t believe in patterns. Stories are just innate. Somebody just can sit down and write a thing and all you have to do is read one screenplay and then mimic it and you’ll be fine.” I disagree with that, because if you don’t do the thousands of screenplays read before step, you’re not going to be able to do a very good job finding the patterns in one specific example of a story.

I’ve read thousands and thousands of stories in my life. What I’ve attuned myself into doing is those people in that experiment is like, “What are the correlative patterns that all of these stories share?” That’s what Jung did and Joseph Campbell and they came up with the monomyth. I’m getting a little bit off track. The controlling idea theme as you described, do you need to know it when you begin writing? No, I don’t think so.

I will say this too. If you and I hadn’t gone through the concept of the controlling idea and theme and hadn’t spitballed a whole bunch of them, before you really started writing seriously your draft, you might have had to write instead of just one draft that you threw away, you might have had to write seven, right?

[0:35:38.8] TG: Oh, gosh.

[0:35:39.8] SC: Yeah, it’s the sorrow and pain in between draft 1 and 7 that can throw somebody off of the discipline. I mean, why not? I mean, if you keep going and swinging the bat and striking out every single time, it’s hard to keep swinging the bat. That’s the controlling idea and theme is a crucial notion that you should understand if you’re a pro like Steve. You’ll notice that Steve came to me to help him make his story better, right?

He understands that there’s – his implicit knowledge can be ramped up by partnering with someone with explicit knowledge. He isn’t like, “Oh, Shawn. You’re full of shit with that concept of my controlling idea of theme, because I never came up with that. You’re just talking on the side of your whatever.” No. He’s like, “You know what? Didn’t even consider that. Now that you’ve told me and I agree with you, because if I look at my own work, I can see this pattern that you’re talking about. Wow, that’s great to know. I bet if I tweaked scene 17, scene 36 and scene 47 to really hammer home that message, then my controlling idea theme will get even stronger subconsciously to the reader, so it’ll be a more powerful cathartic experience by the end of the story.”

He’s not just saying like, “Oh, Shawn. You’re so clever with your understanding of stupid controlling ideas that make no difference, because I’m a real pro and I don’t need to know that crap.” No. He’s saying, “Oh, that’s information I can use to make my story even better.” When you have an implicit storyteller working with an explicit editor, what you combine is peanut butter and chocolate and you get a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

[0:37:38.2] TG: Okay. Let’s jump into the final question of the editor six core questions, which is what is the beginning hook, the middle build and ending payoff?

[0:37:47.4] SC: Right. I mean, this is a pretty another first principle fundamental of storytelling, even if you talk to people who don’t believe in story structure. There are a lot of very successful people who will fight you tooth and nail and say, “All that stuff is ridiculous; five commandments of storytelling. Give me a break.” What they will say is – if you say well, you think a story has a beginning, middle and end. They’re like, “Of course, it has a beginning, middle and end. What do you think? I’m stupid?”

Well, that’s an organizational structure that’s so innately understood by people that we think it’s just obvious. It is a structural element. Knowing how your story is going to begin, how it’s going to build in momentum in the middle and how it’s going to pay off in the end is a really great thing to understand. The easier you can explain those three steps, the better your story is going to work. One of the things I always ask people to do is hey, give me three sentences about your story. How does it start? What happens in the middle and how does it end?

You can do this with anything. The Odyssey by Homer; a guy gets stranded has to head home; that’s the beginning hook. The middle build, all kinds of calamity – he faces all kinds of calamity on his way home and he almost doesn’t make it. Ending payoff, he makes it and he discovers that home is not like he thought it would be. That’s the Odyssey in three sentences. Homer knew that principle. You can do the same thing for the Iliad. You can do the same thing for The Bell Jar. You can do the same thing for any great story. You can do it for a song.

The beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff, the reason why I use the phrases hook, build, payoff is to reinforce the purpose of each one of these sections in the story. The beginning is supposed to really grab the reader by the throat and throw them into a vortex of alternate reality, so that they don’t want to surface. You want to alter the consciousness, so they want to say, “No, I can’t go out tonight because I’m going to read my book.” That’s the hook.

The build is constantly ratcheting up the stakes and progressive complications to the point where the reader just is like, “I cannot see where this thing is going, but it’s going to be amazing. Holy cow. I have to keep going.” Then the payoff is when the hook is resolved and all the build pushes the hook back to resolution. As Mamet says, it’s surprising and inevitable the payoff. We are absolutely flummoxed by how the writer figured out how to surprise us. Also, we’re flummoxed by how they were able to build in the perfect ending, because it’s completely realistic to what the hook was.

The hook of Between a Rock and a Hard Place is guy gets stuck with a boulder on his arm. The build is what am I going to do about this? It just gets worse and worse and worse. He’s starting to starve, doesn’t have any water. It’s a nightmare. The payoff is well, got to cut off my arm. He cuts off his arm and he survives. That is inevitable, but surprising too, because we all believe that there’s always someone there who’s going to come and rescue us. He’s not immune to that in the story either. He’s like, “If I cut off my arm and then the paramedics are outside when I get outside, that’s really going to bum me out.” It’s the turmoil and the build in that middle that was very difficult to create, but Danny Boyle in the movie did a very, very good job.

He did it by going forward, past, present and future. We got to see more, like all the conscious – the unconscious lives of the character. He explored those unconscious lives in the middle build, so that when the payoff came it was inevitable and surprising at the same time.

[0:42:02.6] TG: Okay. Stepping back and just looking at the last two episodes as a whole and looking at the order that again, the order that you put all this stuff in the book and thought through is like, what are you trying to accomplish with these editor six core questions? Why are they there? Then even a Story Grid when our editors do diagnostics of when they actually take a manuscript and look at it, one of the main things they do is go through and answer these six core questions. Why are they so early in the process and why do you see them as so important?

[0:42:43.1] SC: Well again, like I said at the beginning, one of the very difficult things in solving problems is believe it or not, defining the problem, right? Defining the problem. If you define a problem very, very well, the anxiety and difficulty in solving the problem is less, much less. When you have a monster problem, like here’s my 400-page novel, tell me what you think. That’s a massive problem. Where do you begin slicing up that problem?

This is the first stage, right? The six core questions are literally like going to the doctor. What do you do at the doctor’s? What does he do? He takes your blood pressure, takes your temperature, he weighs you, get some blood drawn from you. These are the same things as the six editor’s core questions. They get the vital signs of the patient. There six core questions are the vital signs for the manuscript, for the story, for the screenplay, for the short story, for the and on and on and on, for the song.

These are the entry points to – it’s like walking along the surface and the first thing you have to do and if you want to get into a cave, you got to drill a big hole to begin with and that’ll get you down to another level and then another hole and then another hole. That’s what the six core questions do is that they define the problems in large buckets; big, fat silos, so that you’re able to break up a massive monster problem into six pretty big problems, right? Six pretty large problems.

Then you start with each one of those bigger problems and you break those down, and then you break those down, and then you break those down. It’s a process of a hierarchy of problems and systematically and methodically moving from monster problem to six huge problems, to 15 lesser problems, to 70 or 80 problems to and on and on and on and on. Then you have other domains of experience that you can do ask other questions of.

This is why I organize the book in a very large way. The big monster problem that a lot of people just refuse to face is genre, right? Because no one wants to be locked in to being a blank writer. “I’m not a romance writer. I write about society.” Nobody wants to be a crime writer. “I don’t write about crime. I write literary fiction.”

A novelist who writes realism about society is not really any novelist. It’s just someone who’s afraid to pick a genre. We get lost in the status of being certain writer, instead of really saying, “What kind of story do I love? What’s the thing that makes me excited? Why do I want to write anyway?” Then if you can start answering that question and say, “Well, my favorite novel is The Hobbit. I just can’t help it, but my favorite novel of all time is The Hobbit.” Okay, well then why don’t you write a story about like The Hobbit? There’s nothing wrong with that. Well, what is a hobbit? What is The Hobbit? Well, it’s a blank story. “Oh, okay.”

Then you see how I’m taking a big ill-defined problem? I want to be a storyteller and I’m starting to knock away at it, chip away at that problem. I’m trying to define it in the most specific way I possibly can. That’s how we solve problems. It’s defining the problem first. Then all the other stuff is almost self-evident after a while. Once you understand the five commandments of storytelling, that’s a really great tool to help you on multiple levels of analysis.

The six core questions are the entry point for a writer or an editor to just really define the problems well. From that point, you’re really on your way to making very implicit knowledge explicit.


[0:47:06.4] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.

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The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.