[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode, we continue our discussion about the editor six core questions. We went through the first three in last week’s episode and we continue that discussion in this episode with the final three. It’s a great place to start. It’s not even just start, but it’s just a great thing to come back to whenever you get suck on your story, wherever you’re at, whether at the beginning, at the middle, working on your second draft, it doesn’t matter; these are the six main questions you can always come back to as a compass to guide your way. Hopefully you enjoyed last week’s episode. If so, you’re going to enjoy this week’s too.
[0:00:58.5] TG: Shawn, as we’re going through these – some of the fundamental ideas of Story Grid and tools of Story Grid, last week we started on the editor’s six core questions and I stupidly thought we could get through all six in one episode.
We got through the first three, which was what’s the genre, what are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that genre and what’s the point of view? We went over those in the last episode in-depth. Again, it was fun. I’ve also gotten some feedback now that people have listened to the episode of really glad to hear us going back and talking about these, because I feel like we’re able to talk about them with a little – just a different angle. Now that I’ve come from having no idea what you’re talking about to actually working with these ideas for a couple years.
Now I feel like, we get to come at it from a new angle, which is always fun and helps people I think. We talked about genre, conventions, obligatory scenes, point of view. What is the fourth question of the editor’s six-core questions?
[0:02:08.2] SC: The fourth question really goes to – a lot of people always ask me – Story Grid is all about plot, you’re all about value shifts. But what about the characterization, what the Story Grid offer there? Characterization is really about the objects of desire. The fourth question that you want to ask is, and fourth question all editors ask is what are the objects of desire for the protagonist, or protagonists and the antagonist, or antagonists?
Let’s start just defining what the objects of desire actually are. There are two of them; what the character wants, which is the external – it’s usually the external component of the story. For example, what a master detective wants is to discover the criminal and bring the criminal to justice. That’s what they want.
The external is the want. The internal is the need. The need goes to something and needs are genre-specific and I’ll get to that in a minute. The need is the thing that we discover about ourselves as we progress through time. The need is things like love, self-respect. We need to express ourselves. We want to self-actualize. We want esteem. We want third-party validation from people that we don’t know. We want them to say, “Oh, boy. That guy is great, or that woman is amazing.”
The needs are these deep-seeded things that we really desire to attain in our long-term life. Those are internal, usually internal. I’m going to talk about something in a second that will delineate those even further. Let me just review again. What the character wants is an external thing. They want to find a partner. They want to get married. They want to find a criminal. They want to survive. They want justice. They want to be left alone.
All of these things are the first things when you say to somebody, “What do you want?” They’ll say, “You know what, I really want it. I want to get a Tesla car. That’s my want. I really want that.” Okay, that’s a very external desire that we can all understand. Okay, well there is a certain amount of steps that that person go through to get that car, so we understand it. But if somebody says, “What do you need?” We get baffled. “Well, what do you mean what do I need? I’ve got everything I need. What do you mean?”
What we really need are divided into five or six categories. This goes to what the work of a guy named Abraham Maslow. Maslow came up with the hierarchy of needs. Now, a lot of people have a lot of opinions about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but I really, really love now, because they make a lot of sense to me personally. On a story level, you couldn’t ask for a better categorization of needs.
The hierarchy means that Maslow said, that once you have a low-level of need satisfied you immediately progress to the next level. Once you have that satisfied, you go up to another level. Once you have that satisfied, you go to another and then another and there’s ultimately the top one, which I’ll talk about in a second too.
I have a different theory about Maslow’s, I don’t think that once you have everything done, it’s all over. Then you forget about the lower needs. Now let me talk about them generally, and then I’ll get into my specific theory in a second.
All right, so the first thing is the physiological needs. We all need food, water, air and sex is physiological need that keeps the race humanity moving forward. If you don’t have children, there’s nobody left. Those are really the low-level things. Once you have that stuff settled, Maslow’s theory is that then you start to worry about your safety.
Well, am I safe? Is anybody threatening me, or am I going to be able to survive this situation? Safety is the next level of need, and safety is a very, very primal one. When we are threatened, we have immediate reaction to it. We don’t think about anything else until we’re safe. When we get home and we lock the door and we know nobody can get us, what do we do? We have a sigh of relief.
When our kids get home from a play date and they didn’t get – in an accident, they didn’t get hurt at somebody’s house. We feel safe. All right, so safety is the next need. The third one is the meat of need, which is love. Love is the need for just somebody else to confirm that you’re a good person and that you are okay.
A mother’s love is the most primal of course, then the father, and then siblings, the larger spheres of family. Then it goes to romantic love; finding a partner. Then being loved in general; socially being loved. I’m reading a great biography of Ulysses S. Grant right now. After the civil war and throughout much of his presidency, there was just universal love for Grant.
Yeah, there were people who didn’t – who wanted to undermine him, but most everybody in the country even southerners had a love for Grant. That’s the third tier of love. You’ve got the very personal, you’ve got the second person. The first person would be your family, your mother. The second person would be another stranger who wants to marry you, or be your partner. The third is societal love. That’s the third level of need.
Once you have your food and your air and all that stuff, then you’re safe in your home, then you want to find a partner and you get love. Then the fourth level is esteem. Esteem is self-satisfaction for doing a good job. Feeling like, “You know, what? I put in a hard days’ work for a hard days’ pay. I have self-esteem.” The primary one is self-esteem. The second then again is the secondary one, your partner has esteem for you. They may love you, but they might not have all that much esteem for you.
We want to get our partners and our families’ esteem to say, “Hey, he’s doing a good job, or she’s doing a good job.” Then the third level of course is society at large saying, “That’s an honorable woman there. She’s really great.” Esteem is the fourth level. Now the last one is at the very tip, and that’s self-actualization. That’s when we feel as if our inner being has been given voice, and that we are doing the thing that we should be doing within ourselves.
Artists are usually desperately trying to attain self-actualization, where they get to a place where they feel like their art is the perfect representation of their inner genius. Obviously, the self-actualization is something that is a really great thing to be needing, because you think that you’ve pretty much got the other things nailed than to go after self-actualization is sort of a really good problem to have. “I’m not sure if my concerto was as good as my symphony.” That’s a nice dilemma to have.
Then the last thing, and this is something that Maslow tagged on just before he died, which I absolutely agree with him is what I call self-transcendence. Now self-transcendence is when you stop thinking about yourself and start sharing yourself with the greater world. You start doing things for other people to find satisfaction, as opposed to worrying about the quality of your concerto. You’re writing concerto is in performing concertos for the pleasure of other people, and that’s all you’re doing it for.
This is what the Bhagavad Gita is about. We have the rights to our labor, but not the fruits of our labor. That’s a brilliant connection that Maslow made here with this self-transcendence thing. Okay, so I’ve gone on a lot right now about need. Why is this so important for storytelling? Well, here is what I’ve done. I really think that this is very helpful for a writer. In that if you connect needs to the genres, the story genres, you can see a very clear connection.
Let me begin at the beginning again. Okay, so we get the physiological needs, right? In my estimation, the need for food and water and shelter is the primal action genre. What’s at stake in action? It’s life and death. Very survival. What do you need to survive? Food, water, shelter. The great action stories usually are all about those primal needs.
If you’re writing an action story, you really need to hammer home the primal needs of food, water, shelter and just generally being able to survive a really horrible circumstance. That’s what action stories are all about. The villain is trying to deny the hero survival. They want to kill them. In fact, a lot of times they want the fate worse than death.
Action is connected to the need of the physiological needs. What does this mean if you’re writing an action story? Stay your character is on a job. This is a great movie by Danny Boyle called Between a Rock and a Hard Place. It was based upon a non-fiction work about – I forget his name, but he wrote a terrific book. It’s the story of this guy who went on a run one day and he went in this rock formation and his arm got stuck between two boulders.
He was in the middle of nowhere, nobody could help him and he had to survive, and eventually had to cut off his own arm. He had a pen knife with him. And he cut off his own arm to survive. When I heard that Danny Boyle was going to make a movie out of this I said, “Geez, how are you going to do this?” Because the book was so internal. It was all about, “What do I do now? What do I do now? Oh, my gosh.”
That’s a great example of an action story, where the characters want is to get away from the rock, right? That’s a very obvious external want. His need is to survive. Those two things are so powerfully demonstrated in the story that we never ever lose the suspense of is this guy going to – what is he going to do? How is he going to get – how is he going to cut off his arm? How is he going to make it work? That’s the action genre. That is all about the physiological needs.
Now the safety needs are things like crime stories, war stories, horror stories, the western and the thriller. We’ve got five of the big external content genres that are all concerned with safety. The crime story. If people are allowed to murder and rob without any consequences, no one is safe. Even though the detectives want is to take down the criminal, deep down his need is to keep people safe.
That’s a good bit of information to know if you’re writing a crime story, same thing with a thriller-war stories, it’s us against them. Are they going to beat us, or are we going to beat them? We need to win the war in order to be safe. We need to protect Western civilization in order to be safe, and vice versa.
The second one, safety is a big, big well of need. It’s what a lot of the world today is controlled by the need for safety. We are all concerned – it’s the primary concern today in contemporary society, “Are we safe? Can we be safer?” The reality is in terms of the history of men, we are safer now than we’ve ever been. But nobody feels that way, and that’s for a reason, but I’m not going to get into that.
Now the third is obviously the love genre, which concerns all levels of love. Love and love perfectly align. The esteem need. Now these start to get into really – those stories where the character is trying to get a reaction from other people. You have the performance genre, the society novel, and the status internal genre. Now the status internal is usually associated with performance stories, or society stories. It’s about somebody coming from a lower class, raising themselves the whole Horatio Alger myth. That is usually the status story.
What do we do next? Self-actualization, that is the next level and that aligns with the worldview internal genre. The worldview is when we discover the truth of ourselves and we shift our worldview from naïvete to maturity, or what have you. That’s the fifth one.
The last one is self-transcendence. That aligns with the morality genre. That’s when the person who has ethical and moral problems realizes their mistakes and transcend – it’s the Christmas Carol is a great morality story, where Ebenezer Scrooge stops being a miser and looks at the greater world and start to serve the greater world, instead of himself.
All of those things, the great thing about this sort of – I’ve created something called the gas cage of needs, because it’s my contention that at any one time some of our needs are being met, some aren’t, and we’re never fully – sometimes we get hungry when we’re in a mortal crisis and that hunger can actually ruin our ability to make a clear decision.
Understanding what gas cage levels your protagonist or your antagonist is at any particular time in your story is a great way to solve a problem. That people are saying to you, “Your character did an arc. I didn’t understand what was going on.” That decision that they made just didn’t make any sense. You can fortify the story by tweaking some of these needs and mentioning things on the scale that will allow the reader to understand exactly why a particular person made a particular action at a particular time.
I know I’ve gone very long into this, but this is really important stuff because you need to know what your protagonist wants at the beginning of your story, and whether or not they get it at the end; what they need at the beginning of your story, and whether they get what they need at the end. You don’t want to get them what they want and get them what they need at the same time. Oftentimes, it’s nice to zigzag these two objects of desire. The protagonist gets what they externally want, they probably aren’t going to get internally what they need.
This is why master detectives constantly are solving new cases, because they never feel safe themselves. If they felt safe, they would stop the need to keep trying to bring justice to the world. Does that make sense?
[0:20:47.0] TG: Yeah. What it reminded me of is back last summer when we were going through the first draft of my novel and I was having trouble filling out the foolscap for it, because I was having trouble deciphering these things. Because most of the time, or the whole thing is that the inciting incident, so going back to the five commandments, the inciting incident throws our protagonist out of their equilibrium. For the whole first half of the book, they’re just trying to get back to where they used to be.
If they actually get back to where they used to be, they won’t change, which is what they need. That’s why so many times, these ones going up while the other is going down and vice versa, because if they try to get back to where they were and they actually succeed a little bit, that means they probably got further away from what they need. That relationship, I didn’t start to get that until just six months ago, just like how – I mean, am I saying that the right way? Now that I’m saying it I’m like, “I hope, I’m actually explaining that the right way.”
[0:22:01.1] SC: Yeah, I think you are. If you look at for example the Silence of the Lambs Story Grid, you’ll see the red lines and the blue lines are usually at opposite ends. The reason why that is is that the external want and the internal need are often at odds. When the guy gets the Tesla car, the redline is going to go high, because he got what he wanted, but what he needed was something else. A car is never going to give you what you need.
Trust me. I’ve tried to buy cars to get what I needed and it’s never worked. I always think it will. This time it will and it never ever gives you what you need. The way you make that is it’s absolutely true. Your statement is when somebody is getting closer to their want, they often – that’s why sometimes you have the master detective at the end of the novel, just almost ready to jump off a cliff, because yet again I’ve discovered the venality of men and how evil men can be, or women can be as the case may be.
That is not something that feeds that inner need of the master detective to actually feel safe. Now a lot of times, crime stories, mysteries, we don’t really delve into the darkness of the master detective. We don’t really need to know how damaged they are, how scared they are, we just want to see them do their job. That’s perfectly fine.
One way to really jump and take a chance riding that kind of master detective story is to explore the need of the master detective in a way that’s interesting. If our master detective is really, really in desperate need of safety and he or she doesn’t bring the bad guy to justice, that’s like a double whammy for the master detective that could send them spiraling out of control, which is an interesting idea.
Some people always ask me, “Well, how do people get ideas for stories?” It’s thinking about stuff like this, right? Like, “What would it be like if you had a protagonist who was desperate to be loved, and did everything possible to attain the want of a partner, but got further and further away from genuine authentic love in that pursuit?” That’s interesting. That’s a great book called The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.
That’s a story of a person who’s so desperate to be loved that they commit murder. The great line from that novel is, “I’d rather be a fake somebody than a real nobody.” Which said so much in such a strong sentence. I mean, she was a brilliant writer.
Anyway, the wants and the needs, you need to really go as extreme as you want and you can’t – you never get screwed up by really thinking about what your character wants and what they need. It will only enlighten and enrich your story by thinking about – not only a protagonist. Think about your antagonist, because an antagonists we often make them snidely whiplashes who were constantly twirling their mustaches and there is no real depth to their evil.
What if you really, really thought about why are they doing what they are doing? What need is driving them to create such mayhem? Is it a need for safety? Is it a need for love? Is it a need for self-actualization? Is it a need to – like in Chinatown, the evil presence in that movie is trying to gain immortality. It’s a person who has a deep physiological need to survive forever. They want to be immortal. The things that they do to become immortal are horrific.
When you think about it in terms of the need of that character of Noah Cross, what does Noah Cross need? Noah Cross is the wealthiest man in Los Angeles. He could burn money to keep warm and would never go broke. He’s got that covered. What does he need? He wants to be immortal. The way he wants to become immortal is disgusting and horrifying.
It’s a brilliant thing that makes sense if you understand – Johnny Houston who played the character in the movie, he did such an amazing job of really making that clear. “Hey, I just want to be immortal. What’s wrong with that? Don’t we all want to be immortal?” He literally states that. What do you want, Cross? Jack Nicholson playing the detective literally asks him, “You’ve got every dollar you could ever imagine. What’s enough? What do you want?”
Noah Cross says to him, “The future. I want the future.” That’s what he’s going after the entire movie and it makes perfect sense. It’s chilling. Examining the want and the need, now wants are genre-specific and so are needs. Think about the genre that this all goes back to the very question, “What is your genre? What is the global genre that you are working on?” If somebody were to say to you, “What’s your story about?” What would you say?
Would you say, “It’s a story about a crime. It’s a story about maturation. It’s a story about X.” You need to focus on what that story, what that global genre is in your story and then everything plays – everything is supporting that, because the global genre has great tools. Once you know it’s a crime story, great. Okay, what does my character want that? They want to get the criminal. Great. Understood. What do they need? They want safety. They want to create a safe world for everyone.
Safety. “Oh, boy. It doesn’t seem like anybody’s at risk here.” If you’re writing and you’re asking yourself, “Geez, this mystery story just seems like blah. There’s a clue and a clue and a clue and blah.” Well, that’s because nobody is threatened. No one’s safety is being threatened. Play with that. “Oh, I get it. I’ve got to have some scenes where people are threatened and their safety is undermined.” This is what the gas cage needs is going to do for you. It’s going to show you, “There’s something wrong with it. Well, let me look at the needs again. Let me look at the wants. Am I on the same page? Am I doing the thing that’s required to satisfy my audience?”
Again, these six questions are just – they’re a lifesaver because you can just go – they’re almost like a mantra. Just keep going through them whenever you get stuck. All right, so that’s the fourth one. What does my character, what does my protagonist want and what does my protagonist need? Do the same thing for the antagonist. Make sure that they clash. Anyway, okay I’ve gone on too long about that.
[0:30:43.2] TG: No. I mean, I’m thinking through my own of like, I have work to do here too with my book. I think some of the issues I’m running into are the fact that I don’t have this as nailed down as I should. I don’t know. I mean, all six are important. Each one is important, but I think spending that kind of time diving deep, and even the way that you’re thinking through how each genre has its own need, if you have your genre then that narrows down what you should be thinking about as far as the objects of desire.
[0:31:23.7] SC: That’s right. The worst thing that – what happens to everyone, every single writer. There’s a phrase for it, getting into the weeds. Getting into the weeds means that you’re worrying about a tertiary character’s motivation to bring in a cup of tea to the protagonist, right? You laugh, but everybody does this all the time.
[0:31:48.7] TG: Well, what I was just thinking as you’re saying that is one of the devastating things about telling a story is that – we even say, it’s like there’s nothing off limits. You can go wherever you want to go, but that is just debilitating. The example I like to use is if I decide – like I have never been a painter. I probably haven’t painted since my third grade art class. But if I decide I want to be a painter and I go to an art store, and I decide I want some paint brushes and I go in and there’s just literally thousands of options.
I mean, having that many options is debilitating. Then if I take an art class, one of the things that makes the art class so useful is not just the teacher teaching you how to paint, it’s the fact that he or she will say, “Okay, you’re going to use this paintbrush, you’re going to use this canvass, you’re going to use these three colors of this paint.” That alone saves you.
Thinking through these of like, “Okay, my genre is action. That means my character is life and death, like that’s what I’m looking at. Okay, well that really narrow – I don’t have to worry about whether or not their external need is a status, any kind of status stuff.” It’s like having these helps you take just the wide expanse of write whatever you want and actually start narrowing it down, so I can get something done. Anyway, yeah so that’s how I see it as helpful.
[0:33:31.5] SC: That’s well put. I think a lot of people who say things like, “I don’t really want to deal with all these formulas and forms. I just like to rift when I’m writing and I like to go where my writing takes me.” That’s fine, but you’re going to discover that you’re writing a lot of stuff that makes no sense and goes nowhere and does nothing but make you feel good about putting some words on a page.
If you want to really change people and write a great story, you really need to understand the limitations, because the limitations, that’s how you innovate. I’ve done this a million times, but Picasso he learned how to do the – paint the fruit before he did any kind of cubism. He didn’t just start out like, “Oh, I don’t have to learn formal drawing. I’m just going to rift.” No way.
The reason why it works and he innovate and he made it so incredible is because he had such craft. He knew how to boil down a bull into six strokes in such a incredible way, because he had drawn a bull so many times in his life that he knew the fundamental things that had to be in that sketch. The only way he could discover that was through trial and error in building his craft. This is what we’re talking about. Story Grid is just all about building your craft. It’s a really craft-based system to really get you out of the weeds and focus on what’s important.
These six questions we’re going over are the most important things in a story. If you can answer these constantly and challenge yourself constantly about these six questions, your story is just going to get better. There’s no way for your story not to get better if you do not dedicate yourself to these six questions.
Let’s get to the next question, which is a real doozy for a lot of people. It freaks them out. Extremely confusing to a lot of people. It’s confusing to me too. What I’m going to do is read. The next question is what is the controlling idea or theme? That is the fifth question.
I’m just going to read what I wrote in Story Grid, and this is Robert McKee’s approach. Story guru extraordinaire. The guy knows story like no one else. I love the way he really boils down controlling idea. Controlling idea must be boiled down to the fewest possible words and cannot be longer than a one-sentence statement. Now that is very powerful.
One sentence is going to tell you what the entire story is about. It’s a very challenging idea, but he tells you how to do it. I’m going to tell you how he tells you how to do it, because it’s the best way to do it. Okay, you must describe the climactic value charge of the entire story, either positively or negatively. You need to explain to the person by telling them your controlling idea, what value has shifted from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. Obviously, that is all genre-specific. We know the values involved in the 12 genres.
All right, and thirdly – so it has three things; it’s got to be short, one sentence, second, it’s got to have the climactic value charge either positively or negatively. Three, it has to be as specific as possible about the cause of the change in the value charge. It also has to have the cause. All right, so let me give an example. I’m just going to do it from my book, because I’m lazy. I’m getting a little tired. Okay.
[0:37:53.6] TG: Well, this is why you wrote it down so you could always refer back to it.
[0:37:56.4] SC: That’s right. Here is what I came up with for The Firm. Now The Firm is everybody knows it’s John Grisham’s great novel about Mitch McDeere overcoming a law firm in which he’s recruited, which is run by a bunch of gangsters.
It’s a crime thriller. Justice prevails when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals. Okay, so let’s test McKee’s three things. That’s a pretty short sentence that describes an entire 90,000-word novel. I think that’s pretty good. The climactic value charge, “Justice prevails.” That’s it. Justice is the value at stake in a crime story and a thriller. Will the bad guys be caught? Will justice prevail? Justice does prevail on the firm, because Mitch McDeere outsmarts the bad guys in the story.
Now, then we need to have the thing that cost the charge. If Mitch McDeere wasn’t smart, then the bad guys would’ve won. He outsmarted the bad guys. Justice prevails when an everyman victim, that’s the great thing about Mitch McDeere; he’s not a rich guy. He’s an everyman guy who got to law school with scholarships and he worked at the diner. He’s just an everyday Joe. Everyman victim, he was a victim because he was lied to when they brought him into the law firm, and also they tried to blackmail him as well when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals. Right, so that’s absolutely the controlling idea of that story.
Now you may say to yourself, “Well, that’s not very deep. I want to write a story that’s about the man’s inhumanity to man.” Well, this is a story about man’s inhumanity to man, but it’s also really entertaining. It also makes us feel confident that every man, the general every man or every woman in this country or in this world is generally good, they’re smart, and given the choice between going with the bad guys who are doing bad things, or outsmarting them and bringing them to justice, the every man or every woman is going to do that.
This is a really terrific book that is very entertaining, that supports our society. That’s a pretty great controlling idea. It’s tremendously entertaining. I love the firm. I think it’s a terrific book. Anybody who turns their nose up at a book like The Firm, I don’t know what to say other than you’re a snob and you have no real conception of what the purpose of storytelling is.
Because storytelling is about not only telling – entertaining us, but it’s also to support global values. Now globally, we all, all over the world, every human being values fairness and justice. What gets us really down is when things aren’t fair and when there’s injustice. When a story convincingly takes us on a great ride and also results in justice prevailing, it’s a good thing. It makes us feel better, and it makes us feel more secure.
Isn’t it ironic that the choices that you make for your genre, the wants and the needs or your protagonist and your antagonist, they concern in a crime story safety. What happens at the end of experiencing a novel like The Firm is that we feel a little bit safer after we’ve read that book. We feel a little bit, “Things aren’t as bad as I thought.” You know what? I know just a story, but there are people like Mitch McDeere in the world. As long as there are, justice will have a shot.
That’s really, really important. Make fun all you want about bestsellers and pulpy trash, but the reality is these stories are really, really important for us, because they bring not only entertainment value, they make us feel a little bit better, a little bit more safe. This doesn’t mean that negative novels – negative ending novels don’t do the same thing, they make us reconsider our own world views in way that can make us change.
A novel and a story is a very, very powerful thing both positively and negatively. That’s what the controlling idea theme is. Now a lot of people think of theme as more of, “Well, it has a watery theme, or it’s a theme that has movement and a journey element to it.” That’s why I like controlling idea better than theme, because I like to use the word theme more as a global feeling/settings/I don’t know what.
Theme can get confusing, but I always like to lump it in the controlling idea, so that you know as the storyteller exactly what you are doing. If you write down your controlling idea, and it can change. Obviously it can change as you’re writing. Don’t worry about it if it changes. That’s a good thing. It means that your brain is not letting you come up with a computer program in your head and then just bang out the computer program.
It’s telling you, “I know you wanted to do this kind of thing, but we’re going to throw in a thing here that’s going to make you reconsider.” This is why it can take a few years to write a novel, or even 17 years, or 23, because your brain isn’t going to let you get away all the time with just planning your novel and banging out your scenes and then you’re done. It just doesn’t work that way as you well know.
Okay, any questions on controlling idea and theme?
[0:44:56.1] TG: No. I mean, we’ve gone around that a lot on the show. Yeah, I think the thing of picking something and going with it and being willing to come back and tweak it, but mostly it’s trying to just pick something and not just destroy yourself over it. Because it can be hard to come up with the 10 perfect words for your controlling idea.
I mean, the other thing is to remember it doesn’t actually go in the book anyway, so you don’t have to get it perfect. Yeah. I think that’s good. Question number six.
[0:45:32.1] SC: Okay, the last question is just a big, big global question. It’s what is your beginning hook, your middle build and your ending payoff. I like to breakdown an entire story into just three parts; beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff. The reason why I like to do that – now the middle build is the thing that drives everybody crazy, because it’s 50% of the story and you can have all different kinds of act, choices, sub-plots, all kinds of stuff.
If you had to boil it down to three things, what are they? Beginning hook, is like a quarter of your novel generally, a quarter of your story, the middle build is half and the ending payoff is a quarter, generally. That’s just the way story structure works. It all goes to those three words; hook, build, payoff. If you look at hook, build, payoff, what you’re looking at, essentially the five commandments of storytelling.
Hook, inciting incident. What’s the inciting incident of your global story? That’s your beginning hook. Husband comes home from work, wife leaves him, but doesn’t take the kid. Bang, that’s your beginning hook of Kramer vs. Kramer.
Build. Now the build is all about progressive complications, leading to a crisis that results in a climax. Actually, let’s just talk about progressive complications leading to a crisis, because that’s what the middle build is all about. Progressively turning up the heat on the story just a little bit higher each time; each time it’s going, it’s not the same kind of complication. It has to be a little worse, a little more painful, a little more difficult. Build, build, build, build, build crisis. The middle build is about progressive complications leading to a crisis.
Now the ultimate progressive complication is the turning point that leads to the crisis question. The turning point in the global story is also called the point in no return. It’s when the character finally realizes, “I cannot go back to the way things were. I can no longer go back and live the way I used to live.” That’s the turning point progressive complication.
That leads to the crisis of the global story. “What do I do? It’s a best bad choice, or irreconcilable good.” Now, that can often push to what is – can be the climax of the global story, which can often be the transitional moment between the middle build and the ending payoff. Or it can be held until the ending payoff. But the climactic action is what the character does when they answer the best bad choice, or irreconcilable good question.
It’s the moment when Rocky says to himself, “I can’t beat Apollo Creed. But I know what I can do, I can go 15 rounds with him. Nobody has ever gone 15 rounds. I can do that.” His climactic action is to say to himself, “I’m going to go 15 rounds. I’m not going to try and win this fight. I can’t beat him. He’s too good.”
That changes his whole strategy for the better. He thought he could win, but he knew he couldn’t win. Apollo Creed was just – he was the white whale. I mean, he was a black guy, but he was a white whale, because he just could not defeat him and this was why Rocky the movie worked so well. Is that we realized, because Rocky realized that there are some times when you have to fight and you’re going to lose anyway, but you fight anyway. You have to.
That is a deep wonderful message. That’s why that first movie was so great, because when Rocky understands, “I’m not going to be able to go back and be a bum ever again, but what I can do – I’m not going to outbum myself by winning the world championship.” When he makes that decision that he will go 15 rounds, then that pushes us into the ending payoff of the movie, which is the resolution of that climactic decision.
The hook is the inciting incident. The build or progressive complications that lead to a turning point, a crisis and often the climax. Some people push the climax into the beginning of the payoff, so it’s a little squishy there. The hook build payoff are just the five commandments in another – on a guise. The ending payoff of course is after they made the choice, here is the resolution. A guy in Whiplash plays the drums for at Carnegie Hall, wherever it was at the end. It’s a great ending.
Hook, build, payoff. Now you could build those – what you want to do is build three sentences around hook, build, payoff, so that you know your global story in three sentences. Let me see if I can do The Great Gatsby.
Inciting incident, man’s long-lost love’s cousin moves next door. That’s the inciting incident. The build, man gets cousin to help him seduce his long-lost love back to him and is successful. Ending payoff, woman rejects him because – oh no, I’ve lost it. I put myself on the spot. But woman realizes she actually frames him for a murder in order to break it off, something like that.
[0:52:50.6] TG: Yeah, well I’m just thinking through the six questions. I mean, on how to use them. Is this the idea of we start here and this continues to be the thing we both check back in on and tweak as we go to just make sure we’re – I think like, okay if I’m stuck on this scene or stuck on a sequence in my story, like come back to, okay what are the characters want? What are those objects of desire? What is my genre telling me that I should do next? What are other classic works? Because we talked a lot about that.
These are the things you come back to before, during and after writing your story to always be this guide post, so you’re not stuck thinking about what the tee means in your scene, or whatever you said. I mean, is that how you use it?
[0:53:47.1] SC: Absolutely. It’s a global positioning system, so that – let’s just say generically you answer all six of these questions before you begin your novel. You know it’s a crime story, you know you have a master detective, you know what he wants is justice, you know he wants the criminal and you start – the inciting incident is somebody finds a body somewhere, and off to the races you go. Then you get stuck, because you start really getting into the details about secondary characters. You’re not sure where you are on the story and you want to just throw the whole thing out.
This is when you’re dealing with micro-problems when you have to say yourself, “Oh, I’ve got to step back here and look at the global.” These are the six questions that you sit down and re-answer and say, “In my global story, where am I right now? Have I progressively complicated stuff?” If I had to draw a graph, what would it look like? Now obviously, you don’t want to get into the deep, dark number of problems of doing a graph, but think about it like, “If I had a curve of where my protagonist is in terms of getting what he wants, what would that curve look like right now? What would it look like in terms of his needs, or her needs?”
It’s a way of changing your focus so that your brain can go back to what’s important and you can – It’s almost like if you were lost in the woods and you’re going from tree to tree and you don’t know where you’re going, and somebody would say to you, “Hey, I can lift you 70 feet in the air and you’ll be able to see where you are in the woods and where you need to go from here. Would you do it?” Of course, you would do it, right?
That’s what these six questions are. They are a balloon that takes you 70 feet in the air, so that you can see where you are in your story. You might say, “Oh, my gosh. The path is way, way over there, and I got deep into the woods. Let me just backtrack and I’ll go back to where I went off the path, then I’ll reconfigure.” That’s the way to look at these six questions.
Now when you have a complete manuscript and you’re saying to yourself, “How can I make this better?” Start with these questions, and look at your – look at the global story in terms of the Story Grid and say, “Can I make these peaks a little higher? This value a little lower? Maybe I shouldn’t jump so quickly. I can do that one time in the story and maybe twice tops.” But it can have such sharp jagged shifts until my reader is used to it, until I’ve really settled them into the story.
If you look at the Silence of the Lambs Story Grid, you’ll see it’s a nice, slow build, movement, and then there’s a lot of jagged peaks and valleys at the very end of the book, because at that point we’re ready to be everything ripped out from under us. Thomas Harris brilliantly created that through his work.
Yeah, these six questions are the thing that will pull you out of the woods, get you out of the weeds and get you right back on the right path.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:57:24.7] 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. If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review.
Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.