Episode 259: The Five Commandments of Storytelling – Part 3


Danielle Kiowski, Shawn Coyne, Tim Grahl, Leslie Watts

Tim Grahl  00:00

Hello and welcome to the Story Grid podcast. My name is 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 and founder of story grid. Along with him is Leslie Watts. She’s the Editor-in-Chief of Story Grid Publishing. And Danielle Kiowski, the Chief Academic Officer as Story Grid University. This is the third of a three part series where we’re looking at the five commandments of storytelling. And we’re looking at it specifically through the lens of the short story eyewitness by Ed McBain. So we’ve been going through the full 624 analysis for the past several weeks, looking at this short story. And we’re finishing off with this five commandments analysis. And this week, we’re finishing it up. So let’s jump in and get started.

Danielle Kiowski  00:49

Hi, everyone, and welcome back, we’re going to continue discussing the five commandments of Ed mcbaine eyewitness today. This is the short story that we’re going over, that’s a crime story. And so we’ve been going through the 624 analysis, we’ve started out with figuring out are beyond the surface levels, looking at the the genre of the story, it’s a crime story. And then we looked at the proposition of possibility took that down to narrative, device and point of view. And now we’re in the on the surface level where we’re talking about the five commandments, and and what’s actually happening in the scene. Last week, we went over the first three of the five commandments, we went over the inciting incident, which happens off stage when Struthers the protagonist witnesses the crime. Then we talked about the turning point progressive complication, when the lieutenant comes in, and he realizes that the person he’s been trying to see all along is actually the murderer. And we talk about the crisis, what does Struthers do in the face of that new information that he gets when the when the lieutenant comes in. And we built out the crisis matrix, which is a great tool for figuring out all of the ways in which your protagonist is evaluating the decision that they need to make to move into our fourth commandment, the climax. So we’re going to start out today by going over the climax. And then we’ll finish out with the resolution. And as we go over the climax, it’s a great opportunity to revisit our crisis matrix, and make sure that we understand all of the implications of the choice that the protagonist makes. So let’s get started by talking about the climax a little bit. As a commandment, the climax is the fourth commandment, this is coming out of the crisis dilemma, the protagonist needs to make one of the choices presented in the crisis. And so we do our crisis matrix with the two columns. And we say there’s choice one and Choice two. It’s collapsed down into this binary choice. And the protagonist makes one of those choices and enacts it. And that’s the climax. So enacting it is really important. What this does for us from a narrative standpoint, is that it reveals character. So in story grid, we don’t talk about characters, right, we talk about avatars. And that’s a distinction that we’ve made along the way. And the reason for that is that we save this term character, which is really important and really powerful, to talk about, what the, what this the avatar, how they actually function, how they prioritize different values, and virtues, how they process information, what they care about. And we can reveal that through the ways that they actually act. So you can say all day, I’m a person who cares about the truth, I don’t lie. But if something pressors you and it comes down to it, and you lie, to get out of something, then you’re a liar no matter what you say. And so this is the kind of thing that, you know, we really want to focus on, instead of just looking at what avatars say about themselves, we want to look at how they reveal character through what they choose in the climax. And the reason that we build out the crisis matrix is that so we have a very clear picture of what the choice means in terms of trade offs, so that we see not only what they choose, but what they choose, relative to other things that are on the table. So for example, in the line, it could be that they’re lying to save a family member, but they wouldn’t lie to save money. And so these are the kinds of things that we learn about them. And that teaches us how they function in the world. So to accomplish this, it’s really important that we have a well built up crisis, which we did last time. And it’s important that the protagonist is the one who makes the decision. So if something else, something else or someone else comes in and makes the decision for the protagonist, we call this a deus ex machina, where it comes in takes takes the decision away from the aganist and we don’t actually learn anything about them, because they aren’t the ones making the decision solved for them. And that comes from the days of the Greek place, when they would have a God come in on a machine, that’s what it means God from the machine, they would have a God come in from the machine and just fix everything Athena comes in, resolves the battle, everything’s good. So we want to avoid that. We also want to avoid having the climax just go off without a hitch, you know, it’s still story. So still want to have it as a unit of story. We want to have the the beats going on there. And the tropes to keep complicating things keep showing interesting developments in the story. And that’s going to continue to develop the story as the execution happens. And so those are the most important features of the climax. It also, as I mentioned before, but I think it bears looking at a little more closely, it needs to be an actual, an actual execution. So it’s not, again, more talking. So it’s not like, Oh, I’m going to take this this action, it needs to be an actual commitment to one of the choices laid out in the crisis. So before we move on to the specific context of the climax, have I witnessed anybody have any anything to add on the on the climax? Generally,

Leslie Watts  06:25

I have a thought about about the climax. And and it was while you were talking about the crisis matrix, that it got me thinking about how the how Sam’s problem from the narrative device is fueled right into the crisis matrix. And is really the if, well, if you have if you’re of a certain mind, that that is what generates the crisis matrix, and all those considerations within the within the five commandments of the story. And then the climax is not necessarily what the author of the of the story is trying to tell Sam to do, right, because it’s about illuminating Sam’s problem. And showing this is what’s you know, this is what’s happening in this context. And then ultimately, in the resolution, we get the result of that. But the climax is showing a very clear instantiation of a case a solution to the problem that allows Sam to look at it. So I just wanted to mention that as tying all of the the five commandments are directly tied to the narrative device, and the importance of of that tool, and how it allows you to build out these the five commandments within the story.

Danielle Kiowski  07:49

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s, it’s a really important thing to do to consider how those layers linked together. And and it’s, it’s absolutely a great point to make that it’s not always what the author wants him to do, especially early on in longer form stories. And what we’ll see sometimes is that protagonists start making the right decisions from the beginning. And so so it’s really important to call that out so that writers can understand to start out with a protagonist who doesn’t have it all figured out. And then progress to that point in the story, based on the global five commandments, and as executed in these scene level five commandments.

Shawn Coyne  08:35

Not really, I think you think you’ve covered it there. The big link that you pointed out that I think is, is really the salient one is the revelation of character, and character in terms of a virtue schema that your protagonist is using to navigate the world. So as you said, the crisis matrix is organized, the crisis matrix is organized in terms of the three Aristotelian virtues that we’re all trying to optimize and choose which one at which particular time to emphasize. So those three virtues are the good, and that’s often referred to as as the state of well being. So that’s sort of, you know, the goodness of life itself. propagating life itself, making sure that people are taken care of and are secure. The second one is truth. And that is a communion with the patterns of intelligibility in the universe such that we are, we are living a real existence, we are communing with them and conforming to the cosmos. And lastly, is beauty and beauty is the interaction of those prior two virtues? When is it when when do you emphasize one over the other in order to attain a particular kind of beauty. Beauty is complexity. So its minimum viable features for a whole greater than the sum of its parts. So beautiful things can also be horrifying. So you need to manage the truth and the good in order to maintain the beauty of one’s existence. So the crisis matrix, as you know, is broken into those three levels. And we use different sort of choice mechanisms in in terms of a particular genre, in order to enable Sam or a single audience member, to be able to facilitate her being able to make a choice for the good, the true and the beautiful in her own life. If she is presented with the same context that the story presents in its in its fictional outpouring. So yes, this is not a single solution for Sam, this is not a generalized answer. Oh, whenever you go into the police department never give up your your information. That’s not the answer here. It’s under the certain conditions, you need to balance what is more important, the truth or well being? And in this case, well, I’ll let I’ll let you guys talk about what the choice ultimately is here. But it’s, it’s not so simple to say always tell the truth, or always plays life above truth.

Danielle Kiowski  11:51

Right. And it occurs to me too, that if, if it were so simple as anytime you go into the police station, never give your information, the story would be about don’t go into the police station. Because why would you go right? So yeah, so. So if if we run into these single solution moments, then the real story happened before where things were still uncertain. So moving into the context of the story, then Tim, what do you have for the climax of the story, Eyewitness

Tim Grahl  12:25

News, it’s when Mr. Struthers leaves. So in particular, the line where he says he slammed his head onto his head and ran out quickly. Because when we looked at the crisis, even though we looked at it at above the surface, on the surface above the surface to be on the surface, the decision was whether to stay or to leave. We kind of boiled it down to those two words. So so he left?

Danielle Kiowski  12:52

Yeah, absolutely. That’s the same one that we have. And so let’s revisit a little bit the crisis matrix, to say what that says about Struthers as about what he prioritizes. So what does it reveal about his character? So let’s review on the surface. What does it mean that he chooses to leave?

Tim Grahl  13:12

I don’t remember what to cry. What, okay, we’re less.

Danielle Kiowski  13:15

That’s fine. I can review it, I have it, I have it here in front. So alright, so he chooses to leave, right. So on the surface, that means that he’s someone who prioritizes safety, and in particular in the story safety of his family. So he knows that he’s exposed, but he’s trying to keep his family from becoming a target. So he’s prioritizing safety over the exposure of the criminal. So this is something that happens in on the surface is there that we can differentiate between short term and long term results. So the criminal remains concealed for now because Struthers leaves and so he is avoiding immediate exposure of the criminal. And so this is about his prioritization of safety of this family over that immediate exposure. And the second order effects of the exposure of a criminal are the safety of others, so to differing levels of probability. So we talked last time, about how because the lieutenant is a violent person and has already committed a murder, that there is a chance that he continues to commit violent acts especially since Struthers is already scared for his own safety. And so this is in this level. It’s about whose safety is most salient to Struthers and he chooses his family.

Tim Grahl  14:42

And again, when we’re looking at this, we decided we’re looking at this through the lens of the protagonist, not the author or the artist or even the SAM it’s always looking at it through the protagonist, right?

Danielle Kiowski  14:57

That’s because this is revealing the protagonist character They’re, so if they are making a choice based on information they don’t know, or steaks they don’t know about. They can’t they can’t make a choice based on that. So, so if it’s just from the author’s perspective, then it doesn’t reveal character, because they’re not actually weighing those options. So that’s why we look at it from the lens of the protagonist. Yeah. Okay. So moving into the above the surface layer, this is about this is about power. This is about the information processing system. And what we see is that this that Struthers chooses to retain his leverage. So he doesn’t give up the power that he has, and in rephrasing these in terms of the outcomes of this decision, so he, he ends up with retained power, instead of with lost power. The cost of that is that he gives up his internal stability. So he leaves with a lot of conflict, a lot of cognitive dissonance, because he’s come into the station expecting to be a witness and taking on that identity. And now, that identity that he’s taken on his fracturing, as he has to reevaluate what his role is in the situation with respect to the crime. And part of that is that he keeps the burden and responsibility of the witnessing function. So he doesn’t, he doesn’t get to pass on the responsibility for, for responding to the crime that he’s witnessed, and that has those two sides of he retains power, he retains his agency, he’s not giving up receding his agency to another actor who will then decide what the outcome of this is, at least not. Not yet, well, we’ll get to that. He doesn’t, he doesn’t give that up. And he retains that power. But the flip side of that is that he retains the burden of responsibility as well. And so that is on the above the surface plane. And then beyond the surface, what we see is that he chooses to differentiate from the collective cultural grammar of the expectation of revelation of truth. So this is, you know, if you see something, say something, and he was trying to say something. So that’s clearly what he believes in, because that’s what he’s trying to enact at the beginning of the story. And then he’s going to differentiate from that. So that signifies that he’s making a shift in the way that he views the world, it’s very hard to differentiate from the collective cultural grammars under which we operate. And so he’s doing that. He’s also breaking down his relationship with Capella, which again, is hard one, so even though they just met each other, they test each other out, as we talked about, in the scene analysis questions, they test each other out, they find out, they’re on the same page, they get to an understanding. And that work, which developing trust is not an easy thing, especially for someone in a position like Struthers is in. He mentioned this, right? He’s, he’s afraid of everyone, essentially, he gets that hard one trust, and then he’s choosing to break it. So that’s a cost for him as well. And he chooses, he chooses silence. And he chooses to, to act for, for silence, instead of recognition, he could get recognition, he could be the guy who solves this murder, but he chooses against that. So this is the trade off that we have at the beyond the surface level. And you can see he’s enduring a lot of beyond the surface pain and a lot of beyond the surface cost. And what that tells us is that he’s making sacrifices for the safety of his family. And that’s why we talk in the scene events synthesis, we talk about valor, because he’s making those sacrifices for his family, by putting their safety ahead of his own integrity, in terms of the collective cultural grammar that he’s upholding. So that’s what we can get from going back to the crisis matrix and evaluating it, knowing the decision that the protagonist has made in the climax,

Shawn Coyne  19:24

let me just just because we brought it up earlier, and I think this is an important map. To map what Danielle just said, into those three virtues that I was just talking about the good, the true and the beautiful. So on the surface concerns, the good, the continuation of life. So it’s, it’s valuing life as an important factor. The second one is truth, which means having a connection to understand and to have information that others Do not or to abide by truthful actions. And lastly is beauty. So what we have here is beauty is, is to increase the probability of the continuation of life and truth together. And horror is the disintegration of the more more death and more lies, right? So horror is death and lies disintegration, chaos, life and truth is ordered beauty. So Struthers has to make a very, very difficult choice here, because the short term will probably increase the probability of prolonged lie. And he is now a target because the lieutenant has identified him as the one person who can put them away. But if he chooses the other, the short term revelation of the criminal, the short term will be the lieutenant is possibly going to be arrested. But it’s also very probable that he may not because he’s part of the blue wall of silence inside of the police department. So what would the lieutenant do if he fingered him in the lineup, but expand the probability of violence outside of that, and his and Struthers family would certainly be a part of that. So these three values are are constantly being tugged and pulled back and forth, and back and forth. And so the crisis is about managing, which one should I, you know, put more emphasis on. So that’s how character is built. It’s making these very difficult decisions in moments of crisis that don’t have a single solution to them. There’s no, it’s best bad choice here. And so Struthers goes for the choice that he believes will have the greatest probability of more beautiful outcome than horrifying outcome. One

Leslie Watts  22:49

other thought kind of along those lines, is that what you said earlier, Tim, is that that this crisis belongs to Struthers and we’re looking at it through Struthers eyes. But we know we have a good idea of what capelli as the author thinks about it, based on the language that he’s using, and the way he describes the aftermath of all of this. So it’s we’re not testing Peles character, but we do understand and we should understand through the valence language through the specificity of the language how how capelli feels about what Struthers has done here?

Tim Grahl  23:34

Well, my point in bringing that up to was about how, in previous weeks we had talked some about like, well, was justice, you know, Justice was almost served better by him leaving. And so when that starts bleeding into me trying to figure out the crisis matrix, it really I started having a hard time keeping track. So that’s why when we were looking at the crisis, you know, because according to Struthers and only Struthers, if I had like, interviewed him, as he walked out of the room, he would be saying, you know, I, you know, what, are we getting closer or further from justice? He would say we are getting further from justice. Even though we feel you know, we kind of we had come to the consensus that it probably actually moved us closer to justice, globally, but from Struthers point of view, it was he was choosing injustice over justice for the safety of his family.

Shawn Coyne  24:38

Okay, well, I have to jump in here because what you just described was third person empirical evaluation versus first person evaluation. Right. So you’re absolutely right. strugglers would think he would be in cognitive dissonance because he would think that He didn’t behave properly, and that he made justice worse by by his actions. But when you pull back the frame, and you take a third person point of view, which means multiple people looking at the same problem together, and then you do a calculation, you would say, Oh, actually, that was the right choice because these other these other things that Struthers doesn’t know about, are also at play here. So Struthers has a very limited point of view, he’s only seeing the world through his own eyes capelli, he can see the world from multiple points of view. So he plays the third person omniscient narrator even though it’s in first person, it’s a little weird. But that that’s the difference between first person experiential, and third person empirical is that there’s multiple points of view give you a better view of the battlefield than one. So if you’re if you’re a soldier, and you’re on a better Battlefield, you see tunnels, right. But if you’re a general up on the hill, you can see the whole battlefield. So you might think we’re getting we’re getting hammered here, everyone’s calling the infantry, the general might be like, this is perfect. We’re bringing them in, and then we’re going to do a counter attack on the other side. So that’s the difference between first person experiential, which is very limited, and third person, the whole field kind of empirical.

Leslie Watts  26:48

Yeah. And what’s really cool about this, I think, is that it mirrors life, right? When you’re exactly as you say, when you’re in the trenches, you have no idea whether the actions that you’re taking you’re on the surface actions that you’re pursuing, you know, in furtherance of a goal, you have no idea how well it’s doing or what result. And that’s part of the, of course, the heroic journey is continuing on nonetheless, even if your actions are, you know, end up undermining the value that you’re pursuing, but you go on nonetheless. So I love the way that this story is really showing that so clearly.

Danielle Kiowski  27:31

Yeah, that’s great. And I think all of this is pulling us toward the resolution as the climax tends to do. So we can move into the fifth commandment here, which is the resolution, and have a deeper discussion about how this plays out in the ending of the story. And the fifth commandment, the resolution comes out of the climax. So this shows how the climax works out. And we can think about it in terms of the consequences of the climax, the response from the arena and other avatars to the climax, we can also think about it, tying it back to the crisis matrix. And that’s what I like to do. So tying the five commandments together as much as possible, we’ll create a really strong structure to make sure that everything is functioning together as a whole. And the reason that I like to, to connect the crisis in the resolution particularly is that as you can probably see, from how much time we spent on the crisis matrix in these episodes, it’s a big deal. And it’s a big deal for your protagonist, because they have to make that decision. It’s also a big deal for your SAM. Because they have to pay attention to all of these different levels of stakes that are going on and care about them with the protagonist, because they’re living in this parallel empathy with the protagonist. And what that means is it’s a lot of emotional investment. When the lieutenant walks in, we care. You know, and we care because we’ve built up that empathy with Struthers. And what happens is, if you don’t respect the crisis matrix, as you’re building the resolution, it undercuts all of that emotional investment that your reader made. And you’re training Sam, how to interact with your story as you go along. So this is a one scene short story. But imagine that it’s part of a larger hole. If you realize that the crisis doesn’t really matter, that the resolution is kind of they work out the way they’ll work out. You’re teaching Sam, this is a chaotic world where nothing really matters. You shouldn’t care, you shouldn’t spend the emotional energy to invest in in the protagonist decisions, and then she’ll stop caring, and then she’ll stop empathizing with the protagonist, and then she’ll close The book. And so we want to avoid that. We want to keep her engaged. And the way to do that is to respect the investment that she’s making of her time and her emotional energy in our stories. And that we can do that by connecting the crisis matrix with the resolution. So what that looks like in practice is the resolution is how things work out. And you’ve created a checklist for yourself. And checklists are great, because they tell you exactly what to do. Like I love having a checklist, you know. And so the crisis matrix gives you a checklist of things that need to be established before the protagonist makes this decision that they make in the climax. And also a list of things that you need to treat in some way. In the resolution, and in a longer form story, you might have some delayed resolution where things play out over the course of a sequence or something like that. But still, all of these things have to come to fruition. And that’s going to respect Sam’s investment. So a way that that you might undercut that is by showing that one of the stakes isn’t really real, or something like that. I have done some, some choose your own adventure stories. And I’m a completionist. So I like to go through and see all the different pathways. And it’s really frustrating if you have two different pathways. And both of them the protagonist turns out fine. So why did I invest my time and effort in making this choice. So you want to have different consequences, based on what choice they make in the climax, and that’s going to play out in your resolution. It can even in and I want to be clear here that when you’re treating them, I’m not saying actualizing them, I’m saying treating them. So some of them will be actualized, some of them will come to pass, you can also complicate some of these stakes, so that it turns out that your protagonist was mistaken. This is the discussion that we start getting into, you can have circumstances changed so that some of them become become moot points, or some of them might escalate things like that. But what you have to show is that whatever comes to pass, the risk in the moment was real. One of my favorite examples to talk about this is Bridget Jones’s Diary. So when she makes her decision, to tell Mark Darcy, that she loves him. She’s worried about being humiliated. And she’s she’s worried about risking herself and becoming vulnerable. And she chooses to do it anyway. And if it’s just a happily ever after, then it’s like, he was a good guy. What was her problem. And what I love about about the story is that when he leaves to buy her the new diary, she wakes up and she thinks he’s gone. And in that moment, what that allows, what that allows Sam to do is it allows him to see, okay, the risk to her vulner, the risk of becoming vulnerable was real, he was really in a position of power to hurt her. And it turns out that he doesn’t, but the vulnerability is real, because he has that potential. And so without that tag on the end, then we just think Well, well, Bridget’s just a mess. You know, she doesn’t know how to read people and and we don’t see the actual risk to her own stability. So I really love that example, just because it shows us like she can be mistaken, but we still have to treat the stakes in in the resolution. So these are some considerations as you’re building your resolutions to make sure that they tie back and make sure that they connect to every level of the crisis matrix. All right. So with those considerations in mind for building an effective resolution, what is the resolution in eyewitness?

Tim Grahl  33:58

The resolution? This one? I mean, there’s only three lines after the the climax, right? So there’s now what the hell got into him all of a sudden, I asked. So that’s capelli talking. And Lieutenant Anderson shrugged. Weirdly, I don’t know. He said, I don’t know. And so I started to feel like much of the resolution is filled in by the SAM after the fact because if you’re just going with what’s on the page, not a lot happens. It’s basically two people that are confused. But it you know, you pretty quickly fill in what’s happened. So the resolution is that, you know, if we go through the matrix, I do think that well we don’t know I think that’s the thing is like, is Struthers family safe? Or are they not? I think he did retain his leverage. But we don’t actually know how much leverage that is. Was it enough leverage to keep him safe? Or was it not enough leverage to keep him safe? Or did he use it in another way? In the future? And yeah, so it’s interesting. I’m currently reading a collection of short stories by a friend of mine named Adam Ross. I think it’s called ladies and gentleman stories. And they’re really good. But there’s a couple that, like, I was actually talking to him later. And one of the the one I liked the least, is the one that won the most awards, of course. But it i It drives me crazy when like, you get to the end, and you’re like, there’s no, I don’t understand. There’s no clear resolution, it starts to just feel like, like, this is why I hate indie movies, because it’s like, a lot of stuff happens. A lot of people are sad. And then at the end, there’s still just kind of the same sort of sad, and I’m like, That’s life. I don’t need to watch that in a movie. You know. Anyway, I’m getting into my own opinions on this stuff. But so the resolution, I mean, I can I can spin up a resolution, but the resolution that’s on the page is just that capelli and the lieutenant are left confused with what just happened. Because it’s not even 100% clear that the lieutenant recognizes Struthers, like maybe Struthers saw him and got up and ran out the door. And he didn’t realize that that was who it was. That’s not even on your percent on the page or promise. So yeah, I wasn’t really sure how to address the resolution based on what was on the page, or if I was supposed to fill it in myself, based on my interpretation, but then it becomes you know, squirrely where two different people would have would write down two different resolutions.

Danielle Kiowski  37:14

Okay, these are these are great questions. So so when you’re saying, like, how you feel about indie movies and about the the stories that end ambiguously? Is that how you feel about this story? Or do you have a better handle on this one?

Tim Grahl  37:29

No, I have a much better handle on this one. I feel like well, here’s my whole thing is everybody’s different at the end of the story. Right. So I think capelli has changed by the end of the story. I think Struthers has definitely changed by the end of the story. And there’s a hint that the lieutenant has had his value shift as well. So no, I don’t I don’t feel like I didn’t feel like that about this one. I just needed a chance to get on that soapbox.

Danielle Kiowski  38:02

No, no, absolutely. I think that’s great. Because what I want to explore and the reason that I asked about that is that I want to explore what the story does to make you have a better handle on it. So like when you talk about filling in, so we read the story. And have the sense, as we talked about in previous episodes, that there’s a greater sense of justice. And as you said, That’s not here at the end. Right. So how Why do you get that sense? When you read it, that there’s a greater sense of justice coming?

Tim Grahl  38:43

I believe it goes back to our our narrative device of who’s telling the story, how it’s being told, and why it’s being told in the way that is where this is. This is leaving a lot of space. I mean, it’s leaving space for you to understand that justice can be served in different ways. So I also think that the way that capelli narrates the story does a really good job of you understanding what capelli thinks at the beginning, and what’s left at the end, so he knows that Struthers solid murder he believes that Struthers actually saw the murder, and that’s really clear in the writing. And so because Struthers takes one look at the lieutenant and runs out the door. You can it’s really easy To make the leap that capellini now knows that the lieutenant is the murderer, and he’s left holding the bag on that knowledge.

Danielle Kiowski  40:09

Right, right. And so I think what I’m trying to get at here is, is I want to avoid saying things aren’t on the page. Because when we come to the, when we come to a story, that’s all we’ve got, is what’s on the page. And so and especially when we read something, and we’re able to fill it in, and we’re able to come to a consensus, yes, this is what’s happening. What we’re seeing is that it may be subtle clues, but it is on the page, it may not be right at the end. But it’s part of the story that we can use to figure out what’s going on. And so what you’re what you’re sensing here is that the telling like the author capelli, who exists in the future of the story. Like the the events of the story are happening before author capelli is telling the story. Author capelli has a very clear point of view and knows what’s happening. So if we were to say, the resolution of this story is that the lieutenant gets away and justice is never served. We have to believe some things about capelli that don’t match up with how, with our experience of him as an author and our experience of him as an avatar, we have to except that he’s pretty clueless. And so the clues on the page about his beliefs at the time of the writing of the story about how how Struthers saw murder, that’s really important. So we can get to that to how you saw the murderer, and then how he reacted and where he chooses to cut the story. These are making really clear points about what he thinks happened. And the fact that he would even choose to tell the story is also very telling, because like, why would you tell a story about a witness who he doesn’t tell a story about any of the other witnesses who didn’t testify? So why would he tell a story about this one unless something changed for him throughout the experience of of talking to this witness? And so you’re filling in gaps of things that are there on the page in more subtle ways.

Tim Grahl  42:30

Let me try to repeat back what you just said to me and see if I’ve got it right. So what you’re saying is, basically, because as you were talking, I realized like okay, if 10 People read this story, or 50 people read this story, they’re going to come to the same conclusion, which is the lieutenant’s the murderer, and capelli knows that. Right? So that so it’s not ambiguous, because so what you’re saying is it was written so well, and that the resolution was given to you. Even before the resolution. It was time for the resolution. So it set up all these things. So that when the climax happened, really, when the turning point happened, you already knew what the resolution was, like you or you at least knew that the lieutenant was the murderer. And then when he made his decision, you already knew all of these things, because of the way that Ed McBain had written everything leading up to that point. So he didn’t need to be. He didn’t need to say now capelli knew that the lieutenant was the murderer. Is that what you’re saying?

Danielle Kiowski  43:47

Yeah, and so we have to know Sam has to know that the lieutenant is the murderer at the turning point, as you pointed out, or the crisis matrix doesn’t work. Because otherwise, it’s like, of course Struthers would tell this kindly lieutenant who has come in and he’s just sad. And it’s like, of course, he’s going to try to relieve his anguish by telling him and we don’t learn what we just talked about about Struthers character, if we think that the lieutenant isn’t, so we have to have this setup. So that we understand that if he reacts in fear, he’s reacting to the murder. And then what remains to be seen as does capelli. Get that? And we see that it’s it’s like a circle where we see that because he’s able to impart that to Sam. And so the signal comes through clearly throughout these ripples of the witnessing function from Struthers to capelli. To Sam, who is also us, eventually, as the readers right and so that’s why it’s not an ambiguous is that capelli as author is communicating that very clearly. And when you talked about seeing a murder, one of the things that we had talked about is that is it’s a very subtle point. But it’s interesting that the story starts out with he had seen a murderer. But the police officers at the beginning are talking about a mugging. Right. And so what you notice is that something has changed in between capelli talking to McGruder at the beginning and capelli talking to Sam. After the events of the story, so something has changed for Capella, his understanding of the situation has changed. And we can understand that through the way that the binding differs from the action.

Tim Grahl  45:40

This is the stuff that makes me despair and think I’m never going to be able to write anything anywhere near this good because it’s just so it’s just so well, I’m just because I never I didn’t even notice that while you were talking. I just pulled it up. I’m like, wait, what? It’s like, oh, yeah, it starts with he had seen a murder. And then when Magruder and capelli are talking, it starts with that Tim? Yeah, that’s him. And he saw the McGee

Danielle Kiowski  46:10

Yeah, so good. Well, you know, and this, this is not draft one for Ed McBain.

Tim Grahl  46:18

Or, or story number one?

Danielle Kiowski  46:19

Yeah, exactly right. And so So what what will happen is, as you’re writing, you might create a really ambiguous story. And somebody might say to you, oh, this is like that indie film that I hate, because everybody’s just sad. At the end, I have to spin it, maybe you give it to five of your friends to read and, and you know, one of them is like, I don’t know, Tim, I don’t like that the lieutenant got away. And another one is, in so so you see that you see this ambiguous ending. And if that’s if you’re trying to not create this, you use that feedback, and you say, Oh, I’m not clear enough in my signal to Sam. And so then you can go in and tweak like this is not a one shot deal, where you’re going to get this right away. And so this is very doable, in terms of iterating slowly and making sure that your signal is coming across clearly. And it’s just about it’s about I think, being really intentional and looking at things this closely and looking at the effect the individual words can have, and then also respecting the as the creator. Sometimes you need some distance from it. And to get the opinions of others. And to figure out using that feedback and using that response from the arena, how to incorporate the signal that you want to convey into the beginning of your of your story.

Shawn Coyne  47:53

I would just like to add a little bit about Ed McBain. He was one of his he’s known for accurately conveying how the justice system works at the police procedural level. So this story is part of a whole slew of other stories that he is trying to explain to people how police work. And one of the things that police have to do is to not jump to conclusions. And so police need to learn how to write reports such that they lead the witness who’s reading the report down to facilitate an insight for the witness. And so really great police reports. Never state, the lieutenant is the murderer and he needs to go behind bars. It’s like here are the facts of what happened. And that subtle ability to say the lieutenant is the murderer is captured in those in that tense that verb tense. In the very first sentence of the of the story. He had seen a murderer. And so that’s capelli, the the season detective telling the higher ups that the lieutenant is a murderer without literally writing that Lieutenant is a murderer. And that’s the way we facilitate insights into people. I can’t give you the answer. But what I can do is help you have the insight yourself such that you understand the lieutenant is the murderer. At no point does anybody say in this story? The lieutenant is a murderer. You jump to that conclusion, based upon you have that insight based upon this specificity of the language in the in the verb tense choices, and all of those things. So, at the end of the story, it feels open. We don’t know if the lieutenant is arrested immediately. So it’s open. But we also know, oh, it’s only a matter of time before that guy gets caught. So it increases the probability of justice. So at the end of the story, we feel confident that the lieutenant is a known he’s been identified. And that’s what you have to do in a crime story, right? Identify the culprit, that’s a key part of a crime story. That’s the critical moment, that’s the core event of crime is the identification of the criminal. And we have that here. Without it being told to us, we actually figure it out, it makes us feel smart. As as the SAM

Leslie Watts  50:59

so building on that, it really reminds me of something that you often say, Shawn, about how the artist who’s at the top of our, of our groups of, of people that we’re talking about when we’re talking about a story, and that the artist has to transform, in the process of writing the story, otherwise, the story is not going to work, they’re not going to be able to pull it off. So because the author in truth is part of the artist, the author also has to transform. And it occurs to me that what Ed mcbaine is doing here in in this story is he showing the transformation of the author capelli. Within the within the story, through these very subtle changes, intense changes in vocabulary just is so specific, so tight. And, and so it’s really, it really blew my mind when you talked about this as such that I couldn’t get it at first. So but now I see really what, what Ed mcbaine is showing us is a process that we can use as artists as editors in order to help transform ourselves so that we can meet the story and really presented to Sam in the best way because it’s really about Sam and helping Sam illuminate her problem. So I just I think this is such a beautiful story and a wonderful choice. Because it’s it’s it’s meta without being meta, obviously, and, and owner Slee. So yeah, so thank you.

Shawn Coyne  53:03

Yeah, and that’s, that’s why I love really well to genre fiction is because it’s so much it has that quality of oh, this is fun to read this little story. And then when you really pick it apart, a great crime writer, will will do that exact thing that you said, they are embedding the transformational process of how one changes one’s mind, and how one goes through through that, that difficult series of steps in the stories themselves. So oh, that’s that’s really, that’s really great that I finally, finally was made sense to you.

Tim Grahl  53:47

Well, I sent I sent you all an email this week, because I was going back through I recently read The Shadow of the Wind, which I just absolutely love the book. And whenever I’m reading, I read all my fiction on Kindle so whenever just a line kind of pops out to me, I’ll just highlight it. And so I went back and was just reminding myself of everything I highlight and there’s this one line that basically says what you just said which is a story is a letter the author writes to himself to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise. Okay, so we’ve spent I don’t know how many weeks 678 weeks going through this 624 analysis in depth analysis of this Ed McBain short story I witness in the goal here is to use this masterwork as a guide to have me write my own seat. But even at this level, it’s like this has been highly enlightening in all kinds of ways and I understand it you know, I definitely understand this short story, in more depth in literally any anything else I’ve ever read. But it’s still a little overwhelming the idea that I can now just sit down and like bang out a story based on just this 624 analysis. So, is that what you’re wanting me to do? Like, should I go off and try to write my scene now? Or do we have something else we need to do first?

Shawn Coyne  55:20

Well, well, the answer to that question is that story grid has what we call cognitive toggling sort of technology. And that what all that means is that we, we look from one perspective, and then we toggle to another perspective, when we’ve exhausted everything we’ve can learn at one particular time at one level. So the big macro, top down look at a story is what we just completed the 624. And that walks through our, our, what I call the the mutilated three to three tier display case, that has, you know, sort of the practical theory on one side, and then the, the way to actually iterate that theory on the other side. So we have artist, we have big group of sands at the very top. And then we have author, and then a single audience member. And then we have seen synthesis, and then the five commandments. So that’s what we’ve done over the last seven or eight weeks. And we’ve we’ve really, you know, mind that for all its worth for this one story. Now we want to go okay, well, now that I have that big macro map, how did Ed McMahon actually write the sentences? How did he actually send energy to the reader Sam, in in the words that he the word choices that he used? So we have another tool? This is sort of almost like the quantum mechanics of story grid, and it’s, it’s, it’s difficult. But if you walk through this process, you will have a an energy level ability to to see how McBain actually did this with each sentence. And we call this beat analysis. So beat analysis is the next tool for you to learn. So that when we’re done with beat analysis, you will have a sense of how Ed mcbaine actually transfers, energy, intrigue and catharsis to Sam. Cool. But that’s going to be really specific, you know, a good analogy would be it’d be like learning the notes of the Moonlight Sonata, right. So the notes of the Moonlight Sonata are really important, right, you need to know the notes of the Sonata before you can play them. But once you know the notes, then you need another level up, which is sort of this middle level called trope. And so what we’ll do is we’ll do our beats, we’ll learn the notes. And then we’re going to go up to this thing called trope, which is this beautiful interstitial space between our big macro analysis and our micro analysis. And the trope level is very graspable for a writer, because you’ll be able to iterate based on trope, and then you can, you know, go up and make sure that, you know, you’re, you’re consistent with your 624. And you can go down and make sure that the energy is interesting moment to moment. So this is a very long answer to you. But the next step for us when you’re dealing with a masterwork is to get the notes that the master played on the piano or on the guitar, what, whatever metaphor you want to use. And then we can go up into sort of the courts, how those chord progressions happened. Instead of just the the fingerings of the notes, like, you know, when you’re in the guitar, you got to do this, and you got to get this finger, this finger and this finger. And then once you learn that, then you can play the G chord, but you got to put 123 together G Corp, that would be a trope. So the G chord is the trope, the beats are the single fingerings on the guitar itself. So we need to teach you the fingerings first before you can play the chords. And then once once that happens, then you’re going to have this great map that will be G chord, C chord, G chord, A flat minor, G chord C, right? I’m using a metaphor, but that’s the way you can look at story musically as a metaphor is that and the five commandments are the Boo Babu Babu, bah, bah, you know, so you get that final tag at the end that resolves it. So yeah, this this is not easy stuff. But it’s it’s very, it’s very well worth the time if you want to be able to get better and level up your ability to tell stories. And look, we just went through a really masterful short story. That’s what I don’t even know how many words that is 1500 words maybe. And we’ve spent a good eight weeks analyzing eight hours. And now we’re going to, we’re going to give the same level of analysis to how Ed McBain chose the beats in his story, to iterate the tropes, and then that build the five commandments, which builds the scene synthesis, which builds Sam’s problem, which builds the narrative device and up and up and up. So these are all beautifully intermeshed and linked, but we need to take it one step at a time. And that’s why we call it cognitive tog toggling. We move from the macro to the micro, and then we go interstitial into that mid space. And then we keep checking, we keep going up and down to make sure that we’re aligning and getting things in place. So once you have tropes, then we would send you on your way to iterate but until we have those tropes locked in you understand how they work and how they work with the five commandments, then it would be silly for us to send you out right now this this has taken us what six years to learn this, Tim, because I used to send you out writing scenes blind. So this is how the story grid has evolved over our six years of this podcast. It was a really good tool to begin with. And now it’s getting very, very specific. And the way you right now versus the way you wrote then is night and day.

Tim Grahl  1:01:41

Day for sure.


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.