[0:00:00.1] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I’m the struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining the shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode we are continuing to dive back into some of the fundamental core ideas that we talk a lot about on the show in different pieces, but I think it’s helpful to go and explicitly talk about these. So last week was the five commandments of storytelling, and this week we start talking through the editor’s six core questions. So it’s really helpful. I’m learning a lot as we stop and go back through these fundamental ideas, and so I think you’re going to enjoy it as well.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:53.1] TG: Shawn, we’re continuing to kind of go back through these fundamental Story Grid things. I don’t know about everybody else, but last week talking through the five Story Grid commandments was really helpful, and it’s one of these things where like I said I knew them, but then like I’ve been working on them for a while. So going back and specifically talking about them was really helpful, because I feel like each time I understand them more and more and more.
So today I wanted to talk about the editor’s six core questions. So I’m just going to run through them really quick, and these are in the Story Grid book give. If you have the print edition — What pages is it? What did you say, 124?
[0:01:38.9] SC: No, 112.
[0:01:41.1] TG: 112, if you have the print edition. The six questions, the editor’s six core questions are; What’s the genre? What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that genre? What’s the point of view? What are the objects of desire? What’s the controlling idea/theme? What is the beginning hook, the middle build and the ending payoff?
So let’s just start with where these questions come from, like where do you come up with these six questions and what should writers be using these for, because you say the editor’s six core questions, but we talk about how you have to put on the writer hat and then you put on the editor hat. When the writer puts on the editor hat and they start with these six questions, like why do you start with these specific six questions?
[0:02:31.1] SC: Okay. I’ll tell you the derivational of where these things came from, and it came from my years being an acquiring editor at the major publishing houses and it was my job to evaluate manuscripts who came across my desk very quickly and be able to sort them in my mind. Ideally I had to answer the question; does this book work or doesn’t work? I it does work, can it be better? If it doesn’t work, can I fix it and should I fix it? These six core questions answer that dilemma for an editor.
Now, as a writer these questions to ask yourself as putting on your editor hat, are going to be the best possible things for you to be able to evaluate objectively whether or not your book works or doesn’t work.
[0:03:32.7] TG: Let me stop you. So we use that phrase a lot. Can you try to put into words what you mean when you say a book works?
[0:03:40.7] SC: Sure. A book works when fans of the genre the book is in find it satisfying. They see it in themselves, “Hey, I enjoyed that. That was worth my time. I just invested six hours of my life reading this book, and I say that I won. I won in that transaction.”
If you really want to bring it down to the core of what writing is and storytelling, you are asking an audience to give up time. You’re asking them to invest a lot of time reading your invention. So at the end of the investment of time, your audience needs to be satisfied or they’re going to say, “I can’t believe I just traded $10, $25, $1.99 free. I can’t believe I just wasted six hours of my life reading this story. It brought me no satisfaction.”
That’s a book or a story that does not work and in fact is counterproductive. It makes the audience hate you, right? If you come out of the book and you go, “I’m going to make this incredible promise. If you come into my tent, I am going to tell you a story that will make you laugh and cry and essentially change your life. It is going to make you so over the top, wonderfully excited. It will be a cathartic experience. Come on in to my tent.” Somebody says, “Well, I don’t know.” You go, “No. I seriously — I promise.” So they come in to the tent and you waste six hours of their life and you disappoint them. That is going to make them hate you.
When a book doesn’t work, there are ways to fix it. That’s why I came up with the whole Story Grid thing to begin with. It’s a how to fix stories that don’t work. How to not disappoint people when you make them a promise? When you make somebody a promise and you don’t deliver on the promise, in fact, you need to over deliver them the promise. But let’s say you just don’t deliver the promise. You’re going to make them angry with you.
So that’s what I mean by works doesn’t work. A book that works delivers on the promise that the writer is making to the audience. If it’s a mystery, the promise the writer is making to the audience is; I will confound you for 300 pages, and when I reveal the solution to this mystery, you are going to say, “Oh my gosh! Why didn’t I think of that? That’s brilliant. Wow! Good story. I’m satisfied.”
Now, that is delivering on the promise of the mystery. Can you do better than? Absolutely, but at the very minimum, you must deliver the promise of the genre that you choose. So that’s when a book works, is when the writer delivers on the promise made to the audience by the choice of genre they have chosen. Does that make sense?
[0:07:17.2] TG: Yeah. Yeah, I like that definition. I wrote it down.
[0:07:21.5] SC: Yeah, so a lot of people go, “Oh! It doesn’t work.” Well, why doesn’t it work? That’s the next question. I’ve said this a million times, we all have an incredible intuitive sense of story. We know in our guts when a story works and when it doesn’t and we also know when it’s okay. That’s okay. Now, it didn’t go crazy for it, but it’s okay.
Now, the goal of being a writer and a storyteller is to tell stories that change people’s lives. When you can write a story that’s going to change the way somebody views the world, that is magic, and anyone who is a writer or a storyteller wants to create that magic, and the way to create that magic is to understand what promises they are making the audience just by the choices of their genre, of the cover of their book, of the cover of the movie poster, of the way — If I’m walking down the street and I’m wearing a Jester’s outfit, you’re going to expect me to be pretty funny, right?
If I’m walking around with bells and whistles and pointy-toed boots and you come up to me, you’re going to expect that I’m going to be kind of funny, kind of interesting. Now, if you come up to me and I act like I’m a lawyer for the Security and Exchange Commission, you’re going to be disappointed, because my genre that I’m presenting to the world does not abide who I really am. Genre is a very wide, wide lens that is a very important thing to understand, because if you don’t know your own personal genre, then you’re going to have trouble relating to other people in the universe.
But I’m going beyond storytelling right now, and it’s great that we’re going to transition right now into the very first question an editor is going to ask themselves. This is a question that I used to ask agents who would call me to see if I wanted to read a book they were representing. I want to know what’s the genre. What are you pitching? What is the thing that you think this story is so that I can set my expectations as an acquiring editor at a major publishing house, because I have an expertise. I know my genre that I am required to deliver to my bosses, and by extension, to the reading public.
What’s the genre is the best question you as a writer can ever, ever ask yourself, and you need to ask yourself all the time. Almost every time you sit down to start working on your story, ask yourself, “What’s my genre again?” Because it can change, and it’s okay if it changes as it’s evolving in your writing, and you and I have discovered through this process of working on your novel how it can change and it’s okay that it has. But we constantly asked ourselves as you were working through it, “What’s the genre of this again? Is this a thriller? Is this a maturation plot?” Which is the one? If you were locked in a room and somebody forced you with a gun to your head to say, “What’s the genre of your story?” What would you say?
[0:11:07.6] TG: It’s a labyrinth, action labyrinth plot.
[0:11:09.9] SC: Okay. Great. Now, you say that your genre is an action labyrinth plot. Okay. So that means that people who want to come read a maturation story, like To Kill a Mockingbird, they aren’t necessarily going to want to read your book even though you have a maturation subplot inside the story. That’s inside your action labyrinth plot, but the core global genre, the one genre that you would say your book is, it’s an action story with a labyrinth plot. That is very, very clear, and every time you do work on your book and you’re given the choice, “Do I add more maturation stuff here or do I do more action?” You must make the choice to constantly think about the action, because the action is the thing that you’re going to sell your book on.
If somebody walks up to the street and says, “Hey, Tim, I hear you’re a writer. What’s your novel about?” You’re going to say, “It’s an action story like X. It’s an action story like The Hunger Games, because there’s like kind of this labyrinth plot where the protagonist has to figure it all out and then solve the labyrinth before the end of the novel.” You’re not going to say, “This is the story of a young girl who is alienated from her family. Her father has sort of abandoned her. Her mother’s a little bit on edge. Her brother, they’re not even sure if he’s alive yet,” because that’s in your book. It’s important. It’s a big part of your book, but it’s not what you’re going to sell, right? It’s not why people are going to buy your book. You’re going to get that as a bonus that’s going to over deliver on your action story.
Now, if you are writing To Kill a Mockingbird and somebody comes up to Harper Lee and says, “What did you write? She’s going to say, “This is a story about a little girl in the south who has to grow up, and how she does that is to the help of her father and sort of a nutty guy who lives next door that she’s really scared of people.” People will go, “Wow! That’s a kind of book I would like to read. I bet it’s really moving.”
Then the way Harper Lee over delivered on To Kill a Mockingbird is she put in a legal trial plot. She put in an external genre, a legal drama on top of the maturation plot. So when people go to read To Kill a Mockingbird, they get this over deliver of this great trial, amazing trial, but my point is you have to pick one genre and nail it and then everything else over delivers to the audience, but you never want to tell somebody, “Well, it’s sort of and this and this and this,” because you know what? I don’t want to read a dog’s breakfast of a story. I want to read an action story. So hook me with the action story, give me a lot of great action and then slide in this other stuff in the slower parts.
So the first question I always ask as an editor is; what’s the genre, because it’s crucial. It’s the most important question that you as a writer have to settle on. You can’t be wishy-washy about it. You have to say to yourself, “I’m writing an action labyrinth story. The end. That is what I’m selling. That’s what I’m going to tell people. I’m not going to tell them about all this maturation hero’s journey, family drama, society novel, dystopian, blah, blah, blah. I’m not going to burden them with that. I’m just going to focus on my global genre, and that’s what is going to work or not work. That’s question number one. Does that make sense?
[0:15:45.8] TG: Yes.
[0:15:48.0] SC: I can’t stress this enough. I mean, we’ve been working with Story Grid editors. We did a very in depth 80, 90-hour week with these people in September, and I said that at the beginning of the week and I said it at the end of the week and they now understand genre, choosing your genre and understanding the genre to the deepest levels is the best choice a writer can make. Don’t try and master every single genre in the book. Find one that you just adore and then read it to death, and that will serve you well, and then you can build. It’s like building this route with this fundamental foundation of story understanding and craft and then you can add more pieces to it, but find one genre that you know you want to write in and then read it across the board. Find the masterworks. Find the very, very best in that genre and then analyze them, Story Grid them, understand how those books work. If you understand how the masterworks work, then you can bring that understanding to your own stuff and you’ll quickly recognize when your stuff isn’t working. Better than that, you’ll be able to fix why and you’ll understand why it’s not working.
The second question — This brings me to the second question, is what are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that genre? You’ve made your genre choice. Now, the next thing is, what will the audience expect from this kind of story? There are conventions and obligatory scenes for every single one of the genres in the five-leaf genre clover, and God willing, I’m dedicating the rest of my life into really clarifying what I believe those conventions and obligatory scenes are. I’m not just weighing it. I’m doing deep research with all the masters of these particular genres.
The next thing after you know what the genre is, and when I was an editor I would say to myself, “Oh! It’s a thriller,” because that was my specialty. So I’m going to expect to see a scene with where the villain has a speech. Somebody praises the villain or the villain praises himself or herself, explaining just why they’re so smart, just why their worldview is very compelling. When we were doing that seminar, one of the scenes that I showed the class was a great scene from Network where Ned Beatty plays — Ned Beatty is a wonderful actor, incredible actor, and he plays the bad guy in Network, which is an amazing story. It’s a satire about the news business, and Ned Beatty plays the head of a corporation that owns a television network, and one of the people in the network has criticized the corporation that Ned Beatty is running.
Ned Beatty brings him into a conference room and he gives this man a very long speech explaining to him just how wrong it is that he has dared to criticize the corporation, and it’s one of the finest speeches and praise in the villain that you will ever hear, and I can recommend it more. Go watch the movie Network and you’ll see the speech and it’s right at midpoint of the movie where Ned Beatty, he tells this incredible story, and he convinces this network anchor of his stupidity. That is a convention. That is a convention of a thriller.
It’s also the convention of the horror story, because we want to know, like in the horror movie, science fiction, horror movie Alien, we want to know just how bad is this alien. The way they deal with the speech and praise in the villain in that is they do research and they say, “Oh my gosh! His blood is like acid. It will pour through and destroy anything. In fact, it’s going right through directly through the spaceship, and we got to be lucky if it doesn’t board the entire way through the ship,” and on and on and on.
They use analysis. They use science to explain just how impossible it is to kill this alien. It’s a thing that just will not die. In many, many genres you have a speech and praise of the villain, but in the thriller, it really has to be there. So that’s one convention.
Obligatory scene in the thriller, I’ve talked about a million times, is the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, and that’s got to be on the page. We’ve got to see that scene. As an editor, if I’m reading a thriller and there’s no hero at the mercy of the villain scene, I’m disappointed. Not only am I disappointed, I’m angry, because how can somebody call me and say that they’ve got a thriller and they’ve send it to me and they’ve asked me to take my time to read this book and it’s not abiding any of the conventions or obligatory scenes of the chosen genre. That’s going to make me the editor angry, just as it would make your audience angry if you promises them something and not deliver.
So understanding — And there’s usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 to 8 must have obligatory scenes in your chosen genre and somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 to 8 conventions that you have to have there. Some people call the conventions tropes. The tropes can be misleading, because some tropes are clichés, like the prostitute with a heart of gold in the cranky old lady or the — You can know where that goes. But tropes are often associated with genres too, and so if you’re out there searching for obligatory scenes in tropes — Now, all of the Story Grid editors, we went through all 12 of the content genres during that week and they have a pretty good handle on what these things are now too. Anyway —
[0:22:46.5] TG: If I’m a writer that wants to figure out the conventions and obligatory scenes from my genre, what should I do?
[0:22:55.6] SC: I’ll tell you what I do, the way I figure them out. It’s not magic. I didn’t go to the top of the mountain and nobody struck me with all these knowledge. I had to do the work, right? What I do is I find the masterwork in a particular genre. I find it. For love story, I write Pride and Prejudice. I didn’t just read Pride and Prejudice. I analyzed the thing. I read it 20 times. I went through it page by page.
After I did that I said to myself, “What are the highlights of this story? What are the things that are familiar to me? What are the things that made me gasp? What were the highlights of this story?” For love story, generally we can all think of what the obligatory scenes are, right? Boy meets girl. It’s a love story, right? Or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl or whatever. It can be whatever gender love story you want to tell. It doesn’t matter. Two people meet each other. That’s an obligatory scene. How are you going to do that?
In a love story in the middle, usually they break up. Boy loses girl, and then in the end, boy gets the girl back, right? Then there are other things, like the scene where there’s the proof of the love. The proof of love scene is the hero of the mercy of the villain scene for the love story. It’s the big, big moment. It’s moment when one of the lovers proves their love to the other, and the way they prove their love to the other is by allowing them to not go with them. So they prove that they love the other person so much that if that other person doesn’t reciprocate the love, they’re okay with it and they sacrifice themselves for the good of the other. That’s a proof of love.
So I’m answering the question; how do you figure the stuff out of yourself? So as I first read Pride and Prejudice, I would mark down in the book the moments that struck me as very, very moving. I’d circle that scene, that page, that chapter and then I’d keep reading. What I discovered is that there were about five or six times in the book that were surprising, innovative, and really interesting to me.
I allowed my story love radar pinpoint the moments in the story that were really important to me specifically, and it turns out that pretty much everyone pinpoints the same scenes. Those are the scenes that are usually the obligatory scenes of the specific genre. The reason why it chose Pride and Prejudice and not a book by a writer that I’ve never heard of who says they’ve written a love story, is that Pride and Prejudice wrote the book on the genre. It was the genre killer. It was the smasher. It’s one every love story is really in deep debt to.
So if you want to learn these things yourself and teach them to yourself, analyze the masterworks and you’ll find them. In fact I have I have a lot of stuff on storygrid.com specific to thriller, to love story, to action story, to all kinds of genres that give a lot of these answers and it’s all for free as long as you can dig through all the archives.
[0:26:42.2] TG: I have another question here before we move on to the third editor core question. So what if you’re writing like a romantic thriller. So you have to pick one genre. Let’s say we’re writing a thriller, but there is also a romance story through it as well. Do we have to have all of the obligatory scenes and conventions for both the thriller and the romance story line, or do we get them all in for the thriller? How do you we think about that when we’re writing something that has a main genre and then the secondary genre?
[0:27:22.8] SC: That’s a really good question, and the answer is always go with your global genre. Solve that puppy first. Do all the conventions and obligatory scenes of your global genre first. If it’s a thriller that has a love subplot in it, nail the thriller first. Okay, that’s number one. Nail your global genre first.
Number two; now you want to highlight the romance and the love story underneath the thriller. So here’s a great trick. How can you combine a boy meets girl with the inciting incident of the thriller? How could you combine a proof of love with hero at the mercy of the villain scene? Could you do both? Yes, you could. Couldn’t you? If somebody could prove that they love somebody so strongly in a thriller that they sacrifice their own body and self for the other person? This happens all the time in the great stories where a love story, one of the lovers sacrifices themselves for the other person.
So my suggestion is concentrate on the global genre first. Now, if you want to add a love story underneath it or a society novel underneath it or performance story underneath it, try and combine conventions and obligatory scenes from both of them into one scene and you’ll get a double whammy for that particular scene.
Now, you can only do this in really, really — Like maybe two or three times in the novel. So if you’re constantly combining them, it’s going to read —It’s not going to work, and you will intuitively know when to do it and when not to do it.
One of the great things to think about is to set yourself up. Like people always ask me, “How do you come up with ideas for stories?” Think of a moment where someone who loves somebody else does something heroic out of character, and then transpose that into an obligatory scene from another genre. I know I’m talking in generalities and I’m trying to think of an example here, but it’s like that old chestnut where — And I’ve talked about this before, and I forget the name of the story, but the husband pawns his wristwatch to buy his wife a comb.
[0:30:14.7] TG: The Gift of the Magi.
[0:30:16.0] SC: Yeah, The Gift of the Magi.
[0:30:19.5] TG: Specifically, the Mickey Mouse version.
[0:30:21.1] SC: Right. Again, just to step back and answer that question again. Think about always nail your global genre first, and then if you can — If some of your conventions and things and obligatory scenes for the sub-genre aren’t on the page, it’s okay. As long as you deliver your global genre stuff, some of the other things can be reported. They can be used as revelation turning points. “You’re not going to believe this. Jim broke up with Susie. What do you mean Jim broke up with Susie?” That’s a revelation turning point that it doesn’t have to be on the page. Somebody can report that to somebody else during another genre play. Does that make sense?
[0:31:11.5] TG: Yeah, but all the obligatory scenes and conventions of your primary genre have to be on the page.
[0:31:16.3] SC: Absolutely, yes.
[0:31:18.7] TG: Okay, because we’ve gotten that question before too.
[0:31:21.7] SC: Yes.
[0:31:22.4] TG: Okay, conventions and obligatory — Because these are the things that seem to trip people up the most, myself included, and would you say to like — Because what you described of like reading Pride and Prejudice is sitting back and thinking, “Okay. What were the most meaningful? What were the most surprising?” If you ask five different people that question, you would get different answers, but my sense is that doesn’t really matter so much. Like as long as you are finding the really important emotional points in the story and figuring out how to do those in your story, you’re going to be fine, or are there like kind of set in stone conventions and obligatory scenes for each one?
To me, like you can’t have the — You can’t go without the hero at the mercy of the villain or the boy meets girl scene. But my guess is like you might identify some that somebody else may call something else may leave one of them out and it would still be okay.
[0:32:30.7] SC: I’m not so sure about that. I think the really well told tales, the really, really well told stories, everybody has the same emotional reaction at the pivotal moments in the story that are the obligatory scenes. So conventions, yeah, I could say that could be a little bit fuzzy. Some people play with conventions and innovate them in ways that are unique and different and they can get away with that. But in terms of the obligatory scenes, these are the moments when every single bottom is at the edge of their seat in the movie, and they might be for different reasons, but they identify — Like in Pride and Prejudice, when Darcy asks Elizabeth to marry him in the middle of the story, and she rails on him and screams at him and tells him, “How dare you! I would never marry you.” That is a moment across every gender, every nationality, every single person when they reach that scene. The heart is in their throat, because they deep down you know that these two should be together and that Elizabeth is making a really bad choice and that Darcy is so arrogant, he doesn’t even understand why he’s making the choice. Just to answer that again. I think the obligatory scenes are obvious.
[0:34:08.0] TG: I want to be careful with that word obvious, because it’s like I might feel dumb if I miss one. I guess I’m thinking like — I actually had two things when you’re talking about that. The first is my sense would be then to evaluate like three masterworks in a genre and almost use them, like If you look scene by scene and you spreadsheet out the scene with the Story Grid spreadsheet and then you compare and like I think that would be a way to make sure you don’t miss an important one, right? Because then you’d be, “Oh, look. This scene shows up three times, and this scene shows up three times, and this scene shows up three times.”
That would be, to me, one way. I think I’m sure we talked about before, is like looking at three different masterworks, because then you’ll be able to like actually step back and look at them as a whole and see where they overlap. Would you agree with that?
[0:35:07.0] SC: Absolutely. Yeah.
[0:35:08.8] TG: Okay. I guess anytime I say to look at another masterwork, you’re never going to say, “No. That’s a waste of time.”
[0:35:16.1] SC: Absolutely not, and the reason why I say start with one, is that once you start opening up the hood of stories, it’s almost you can’t help yourself. But when you say do three people, people go, “Oh my gosh! Three? I don’t want to do three? Can I just do one?” Everybody wants to do one. Yeah, do one.
[0:35:43.3] TG: You’re just hoping that that gets them hooked.
[0:35:46.0] SC: Yeah, exactly. Because once you start identifying — Like we talked about last week, the five commandments and storytelling. Once you start seeing that over and over and over again, it’s shocking. It opens up a whole vortex of, “Oh my gosh! This is actually true. There actually is a foundational structure in every well told story, from scene, to act, to global story.” Then once you start picking apart Pride and Prejudice or Silence of the Lambs or To Kill a Mockingbird or on and on — I mean, The Great Gatsby. There are so many great novels that the deeper you go the more enticing it becomes, the more you spreadsheet, the more you compare and you go, “Oh! I see how what’s his name solves the love story problem, whereas this one solves it this way. “Oh! Isn’t that neat how they were inspired by that and did that?”
Critical reading and deep analysis is its own reward. But when you say to somebody, “Go take apart three cars and see what parts they have that are the same,” it makes them freak out. But if you say, “Just open up the car and tinker with it for a while and read it a couple of times.” Because every read gives you new information.
I can’t tell you how many times I read the Silence of the Lambs, and there are so many levels within that story that Thomas Harris doesn’t even understand the levels in that story, because it was all these work that he did that came on to the page, and as he edited it to the point where he was satisfied with it, there’s all kinds of things that he intuitively put in that he didn’t consciously put in. I’m straying from the question again.
Yes, masterworks are always the best bet, and there’s good news on that front too, because we have at least, I think, 12 masterworks Story Grid guides in the works now written by our Story Grid editors, and then I’ll be editing the editors, and I’m really excited because there’s just no way I can do that many Story Grid guides in six months. We really got lucky with these editors, because they’re going to be doing a lot of this work for me, and then I’ll be supervising and editing their work. Those will be coming out soon, and I can’t wait to share that with everybody.
[0:38:30.9] TG: I don’t think we’re going to get through all six questions, because I still have questions on number two. I feel like I understand what an obligatory scene is, right? I feel like it’s a scene you have to have in your book that does this thing. How do you define a convention though?
[0:38:51.4] SC: A convention is something like in a love story you have to have the third alternative. There has to be a triangle in a love story. It’s not a scene, but it’s a character. It’s a cast part. In Pride and Prejudice, it’s the very strange vicar who proposes to Elizabeth, and there’re plenty of those who come about in Silence of the Lambs. You have the antagonistic member of the investigative force, and that’s the guy who runs the psychiatric Institute. He’s just a creepy guy who harasses Starling when she gets there. Conventions are things that aren’t scenes that everybody expects in a genre.
In a thriller, there is a moment of cheap surprise. Like somebody does something that surprises the protagonist and it’s just a moment of, “Oh! Thank God, it’s just you.” Instead of it being a real plot point where the antagonists comes to get the hero, something strange happens and you think it’s one thing but it’s really not. It’s a relief scene.
Other conventions, let’s see. In the performance story, you have to have arrival team, right? If somebody’s in the sports team, the other team is just incredible. They’re unbeatable. Like Steve Pressfield’s novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, his hero has to play a golf match against Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan. Two of the greatest golfers of all time. That’s a convention. If the guy is playing a golf match against Joe Schmo from Kokomo who has no victories, it’s not interested. You have to put the hero against massive forces.
The conventions are things that need to be in the story, but they’re not scenes. They’re a cast member, they’re a rich family, like the Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets and the Montagues. Usually love stories have that golf between the families. One is rich in one is poor. One is well bred, one is not well-bred. That’s a convention.
[0:41:20.7] TG: Okay. I will not let you go on to the third question.
[0:41:25.1] SC: Okay. The third question, it’s a great secret of writing that can really be very, very helpful, and the question is; what is the point of view? Another way of asking this question is what is the narrative device?
Point of view means; is this being — Who is telling the story? That’s the question. If this was a layman’s guide and not something that I worked up myself, I would’ve written who’s telling the story. The choice of the storyteller is a crucial one, and often times a writer, once they make the choice of who’s telling the story, the story almost writes itself.
I was talking to Steve about how we wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance and he said, “You know, I wanted to do this riff on the bog at Aveda,” which is this ancient Indian text that it’s sort of one of the foundational texts of stoicism or maybe it was at the same time, but it’s a really great, amazing mythos from India, and he wanted to tell a contemporary story about that, and he couldn’t wrap his mind around it and he wanted to somehow combine it with golf. He didn’t figure out how to tell this story until he cracked the storyteller. The idea came up with is, “Oh! I’ll have it told from the point of view of a little boy. A little boy who gets to caddie for my hero, or is a helpful caddie for my hero, and I will have him tell it as he’s telling another golfer years and years later about this momentous day.”
He’s using the narrative device of a young boy who has an experience and he’s now an older man, and the older man tells the story of when he was a boy to another person to help them. It’s a wonderful device. It’s like grandpa telling a story to his grandson. His grandson comes in crime from being bullied in the park, and he’s crying and he’s sad. Grandpa looks at the little boy and says, “Let me tell you a story about when I was your age and the same thing happened to me. Let’s get a cup of cocoa and I’ll tell it to you,” and that is magic.
So when Steve figured out, “I’m going to use grandpa telling the story to his grandson.” He used that device and then he wrapped it all up and he said, “Okay. This is golf, and my hero isn’t going to want to play the game. He’s not going to want to do this golf match, and if he doesn’t play this golf match, the whole town is going to go under, because I’m going to set this during the Great Depression.” Once he figured that out he said, “It just flowed,” and he wrote a great book called The Authentic Swing that tells the story that I just told in a much better way than I’m telling it.
[0:44:47.1] TG: That’s one of my favorite Steve books. I read that one every year.
[0:44:50.9] SC: Yeah, it’s magical, because it was when the muse was really talking in his ear, and it’s a beautiful book. The Legend of Bagger Vance is a wonderful novel, and him writing about writing about is even better.
That’s what I mean in point of view and narrative device. Should you tell it in the first person, “I walked down the street on Thursday,” or third person, “He walked down the street on Thursday only to discover that his car was broken in two.”
So third person omniscient is sort of the godlike narrator, like Charles Dickens like to use that. A lot of people use it. First person is your typical I first person narration, but narrative device is the thing that’s really — You’re usually going to tell your story in third or first or free indirect style, which is a combo plate of third and first, which I’ve written about a lot. That’s the question an editor is going to say to themselves, “Okay. Who’s telling the story? Is the storytelling consistent?” If it’s not consistent, it has to be fixed. That’s one of the ways an editor tells if writer really has craft down, right? If they start changing the point of view or the narrative device without reason, then it’s a red flag to the editor, “Oh! This person really doesn’t have the fundamentals of writing down, and I don’t know if I want to work or not.”
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:46:28.5] 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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