Episode 265: How to Plan a Short Story Based on a Masterwork


Danielle Kiowski, Shawn Coyne, Tim Grahl, Leslie Watts

Tim Grahl  00:00

Hello, and welcome to this Story Grid Podcast. My name is Tim Grahl. I’m your host and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He’s the creator and founder of Story Grid, and an editor with over 30 years of experience. Along with him is Leslie watts, our editor in chief of Story Grid Publishing. And Danielle Kiowski, the Chief Academic Officer at Story Grid University. So this episode is a little strange. So we’ve been doing the whole analysis and in depth look at Ed McBain short story I witness. And now we’re ready to transition into me writing my scene, my short story based on that masterwork. So in this episode, we begin talking about that, and as you see, it starts to go off the rails. And so we thought about, you know, is this really an episode we should keep in here? Should we edit it in some way. And we decided to just go ahead and leave in it. You know, we’ve been running the Story Grid Podcast for over 260 episodes. And one of the things we tried to do here is show what it’s really like for an editor and a writer to work together. And for a long time, we’ve had a rule that we don’t talk about my writing outside of this podcast, we don’t want to have anything behind the scenes, we want to show you what goes on, in. So this is what it looks like when an editor and a writer can’t seem to get on the same page. And they’re not understanding each other. And they’re both kind of getting frustrated. And along with that, what we realized is like we made a couple of fundamental mistakes. One of the mistakes is a mistake that drives us crazy. We hate when writers take this idea. These like vague ideas of writing, they haven’t put anything we’ve taught into practice. And they kind of think about like these vague kind of hypothetical questions, and they just start throwing them out without actually going and doing the writing. And so we realized like, that’s what we did here is instead of me actually trying to write a scene, and then having something to get feedback on. I started asking a bunch of questions trying to avoid actually going in writing the scene. Along with that we didn’t do something that we even do in the guild and our membership in our training is we actually, when we’re looking at a scene, a masterwork scene that we want to iterate on, we actually have the parameter set ahead of time of what can be changed and what can’t be changed. And we didn’t do that for this. And so that’s where a lot of the struggle started coming from. And so we’re going to discuss more about this. in probably the next episode. We haven’t recorded it yet. But we wanted to go ahead and put this out, let you take a look at this. And hopefully you’ll learn something along the way. But also see what it’s like when an editor and a writer can’t seem to get on the same page and that it’s okay to get frustrated. It’s okay. If you struggle in that process, because we’re both working towards the same goal. So I think you’ll enjoy the episode. Hopefully you’ll learn something out of it. So let’s jump in and get started.

Shawn Coyne  02:59

Well, Tim, I’m sure you’re you’re wondering what these last weeks have been all about. Because oftentimes, you can get you can lose the forest for the trees. And we’ve we’ve gone through a lot of material, and we’ve gone through a lot of tools. And you know, we began with the 624, which moved us down into the micro details of Ed McBain seen eyewitness. We’ve analyzed it a great detail. So we all have a very strong sense of just the mastery that he brought to the table creating this short story. And so you might be wondering, why am I making you go through all this analysis? And what’s the point? I mean, you and I have worked together since 2014, I think or 15, or whatever. And we’ve actually, I’ve worked with you on on your first novel to write the threshing. So we even published your first novel. And here I am, I’m going all the way back into discussing how to write a scene. So why did I do that? I’m sure you’re wondering. And I don’t want to belittle or offend you in any way. But what happened was in your last foray into writing a full novel, Leslie, Danielle and I and you discovered that we were having a difficult time communicating with you about specific line by line writing, right? So we would we would ask you to do certain things you would do them and then the previous things that we asked you to do would get mucked up in your efforts to do the new things. So what what we discovered is we needed to be able to cheat Each use specifically how to construct a single scene from first principles. And from that, that, that we derived the 624 method. And using, you know, sort of Claude Shannon’s information theory and Norbert Wiener cybernetic theory, to be able to get to the bottom of what stories are about, and what stories are about is communication. It’s about sending a signal from one person to another, because no matter how well I concentrate on your physicality, I will never be able to know what you think. So the great skill that we have as as a species is being able to encode our thoughts into messages that we can share with one another, and explain as best we can, how we think and how we feel and what’s going on for us. And that’s all stories are our means by which we can communicate with one another. Because we can’t read each other’s minds. So what we do is we represent the word the world with language and with grammar, and with linguistic capability. And we learned that as children in the form of narrative and storytelling, so instead of telling somebody exactly what to do, we tell them stories instead. So when you tell your son, or your daughter, don’t put your finger on the stove, they’re not going to listen to you until they do it. And then they and then they have a story. And they can say, well, if you put your finger it will burn, it will hurt. And that’s all all storytelling is it’s a means by which we can help other people not make the mistakes that we’ve made, and to teach them how to navigate the world to the best possible advantage from our own experiences. So it’s a sharing technique. All right. So if storytelling is communication from one signal, to be decoded by another person, to, to make sense to them, then what we have is, you know, one person on one side of a channel, another person on the other side of the channel, and this person passes information over to this person who has to decode what this means. And hopefully, they can send back other signal and you can have a relationship and interactions in that way. And that’s all storytelling is. So the formalized story of words on a page is mimicking and mirroring that exact process that we communicate with one another. So we discovered that you are having a difficult time doing that mirror function of reality onto the page. And so we came up with this process to be able to show you how to best construct a story that has value transfer in it using the Story Grid methodology at very, very practical levels, and that’s the scene level. And so this last past week, we got to that sweet spot that Danielle has been working on is the trope level. And the trope level is this beautiful, perfect intersection between practicality and theory. So we can have the seven little micro steps for you to walk so that you can get a draft together. That will be a close representation of what Ed McBain has written in his short story eyewitness. Okay, so let’s walk through again, exactly what kind of scene this is, and what Ed McBain has done. So from our 624, we know that this is a short story, right? So it’s about I think it’s about 1900 or 2000 words, maybe a little less cool. So that’s not that difficult for us to conceive of when we’re thinking about writing something. 1900 words is like a you know, it’s a four page exam paper that we used to write in high school. So we were able to do that back then. And hopefully we can do that now. So it’s a reasonable chunk that we can approach without getting too intimidated. We’re not asking you to write a novel, we’re asking to write a very, very specific scene. Alright, so it’s a short story. The structure is going to be an arc plot, which means that there’s going to be a beginning, middle and end and there will be change that occurs for a particular protagonist. So the protagonist will enter one way and they will leave another the style is you All right, the story is, is very, it’s sort of a police report journalism style. So you’re not going to want to put a lot of detail in here, you’re going to want to have a lot of very journalistic just the facts, you want bare minimum information here, that’s very, very strategically delivered, as if a police sergeant wrote this report, and is submitting it to a committee for them to review the next steps. So it’s a police report journalism style. The reality genre for this story is realism. So you’re going to want this story to feel real, so that it mimics the causes and effects that we experience in our own lives. So you don’t want to have magic here. You don’t want to have special relativity or anything, you want it to be a very realistic story about causes and effects that happen in our everyday lives. Cool. So the external and the internal content genres for the story. Okay, so these are for the external, this is a crime story. So we want you to write a story about a crime. So that is the global genre. So what what we know about crime is that it concerns the value of justice, right? So the thing that you’re always going to want to be thinking about as you’re writing the story, in these tropes is, has this trope move me further away from justice or closer to justice? So at the beginning of the story, the value at stake is going to be justice, will there be justice? Is the question. So at the end of the story, we’re going to be able to clearly understand that justice has changed. It’s either further away from justice, or it’s closer to justice. Cool. The internal genre is is a worldview revelation story. So if that means is that your protagonist is going to experience a revelation in in such a way that it’s going to really mess with his, the way he’s viewing the world, his worldview is going to be disrupted, such that it will be very, very shattering to him. And how he reacts to that is going to be the climax of your story. Alright, so we have crime story concerning the value of justice. And it’s going to be a world level worldview revelation from the point of view of your central protagonist of the story. So this is what we want you to write and we want you to use the following seven tropes in order to make this work. And those tropes are. The first trope is sizing up the team. The second trope is fending off a threat. The third trope is negotiating the terms. The fourth trope is delivering the script. The fifth trope is appealing to sense of pity. The sixth is realizing existential threat. And the last one is testing loyalty. So what I’ve just sort of given you is a global spec sheet of the scene that you’re trying to write here. And another another way of looking this is what we call a scene type. And this kind of scene we call it Which side are you on? So it’s constantly about people testing each others? Are you on my side or the other side? Are you on my side or the other side. And this is a means to ensure that there’s a greater probability of justice at the end of the story. So now what we want to do is start thinking about the players, the avatars, the inciting incidents, the things that are going to get you going in your story. So the first question I want to ask you is, when we talk about the protagonist, we’re talking about sort of two ways of looking at the protagonist. And remember, in ED McBain scene, there’s a shift of protagonist. And we’ll talk about that too, because the protagonist is always the output or in a particular moment in the story in a particular beat. So let me go back to the the global idea of what When a protagonist, how we should think about them. So the first kind of protagonist is what we call a fish out of native waters. Right? So a fish out of their native waters is some avatar that comes into a different context that they are not familiar with. It’s an unfamiliar context to them. So that’s one protagonist. So Struthers is the protagonist of eyewitness. He’s the global protagonist of the scene, because he carries the crisis and the climax. And Struthers is a fish out of native waters, he doesn’t go to the job at the police department every day, he’s going into a brand new environment. And he needs to figure out how that environment is going to work for him. So he’s going to be moving into an alien environment. That’s the first kind of protagonist. The second kind of protagonist globally, is what we have an indigenous member of the pond. So an indigenous member of the pond is a fish who lives in that context. Right. So at the beginning of the eyewitness scene, we begin with capelli as our protagonist, he is indigenous to the police department. He knows all the things that happened in the police department. So let me let’s just play a game here. And let’s throw out some ideas about an avatar for for your story that will be interesting for you to write, which is more interesting to you as a concept. Do you want to Well, actually, let’s not do that. Let’s follow the the absolute way that Ed McBain did this scene. So we can release you from having to do too much creative work. Right. So this is one of the great things about using masterwork scenes is that they can strain the spec sheet so that you know what to do most of the time. And so the only times that you don’t know what to do, those are going to be the difficult points for you where you’re going to have to create your new ideas, right? So if we can constrain your spec sheet, then it’s going to make your your ability to create the scene a lot more probable than if we open it up too much. So what I’m going to ask you to do is come up with a central protagonist first, and your central protagonist has to be a fish out of native waters. So that will invite to a new question, right? So we’re talking about a crime story. And this fish out of native waters is a witness to a crime. They are not the victim of the crime. They’ve witnessed the crime. So the first thing that you have to do is think of an avatar, who has witnessed a crime who is now coming into a new pond, that they’re not sure of how it works. Do you have any thoughts about how you might do that?

Tim Grahl  18:29

So I was thinking about this in the way. One of the weeks were recorded, you’re talking about how Ed McBain was a journalist. He worked the crime beat. And so him writing these kinds of things were very much him pulling from his real world experience. And I have almost no experience interacting with the police, thank goodness. But I was trying to think of like what would be an interesting kind of fun spin on this. That would still be justice that would still kind of abide by the constraints. We’ve come up so far. And I was thinking like, a similar position was it if you were like a kid like high Elementary School, low middle school, you witnessed some sort of crime or rule break, and you got pulled into the principal’s office. But Rob, probably not just the principal’s office, maybe there was even like to maybe it was such a big deal. They’ve got like people there that you have to interact with. But and so and then also thinking through how much we’ve talked about the double factor problem of I think that puts you in an interesting position puts the protagonists in an interesting position of like, they don’t want to betray their friends. They don’t want to be known as a snitch. But at the same time, I really, really really don’t want them to call my parents. And so it kind of puts the protagonist in a different bind, right? So he’s not afraid that somebody’s going to die. But since this isn’t action, it doesn’t have to be life and death. But I think when you’re that age, the stress level is probably similar. Even though life and death is not on the table, you feel like life and death might be on the table?

Shawn Coyne  20:29

Well, I have some thoughts about it. And my first thought is, I’d rather you not use adolescents in this story, because I think there’s there’s a, there’s a tendency that we all have that it’s less risky, because you don’t have to deal with very, very complex emotional ranges. Because children in terms of maturation, they have very, they have bifurcated ethics, meaning things are either this or that. And the difficulty with when you progress into adult fiction is dealing with all those shades of grey. And you already wrote a why a story. And this isn’t to say that your setup won’t work. It’s just that I would change the age of your avatars. And I wouldn’t make it a school. Just because you’ve you’ve already done it, you’ve gone down that road. And now’s the time to try something new. So the double factor problem is great, somebody witnesses something they have to go into what when the witness in terms of the ED McBain story is that Struthers wants to release himself of the information such that he has minimum viable responsibility any longer. Right? He wants to just dump this out.

Tim Grahl  22:05

This raises my question of like, which pieces of the 624 is if I abide by all 24 things? I’ll basically just write this scene again. And so well, that’s my question is like how? Like, how tightly Am I to adhere to the 624? Right? So could we could we mess with the reality genre? Or could we not? Do we need to have it where he wants to tell? But he’s afraid to? Or can it be like, you know, or can we mess with that? Or, you know, because we we you know, you went quickly over the five leaf clover, but that’s just five of 24 things. And so when we’re looking at recreating the scene, are we using? Do I need to abide by all 24? And those are all those are all constraints? Or do we? Can we tweak the dials on some of them? I’m just I don’t know. I’m just asking like when you’re asking me to recreate the scene? Is it? Like do I need to have a Struthers character and a cappella character and McGruder character and a lieutenant character like I can only have four characters? They’re going to play each of those exact roles, or is that up for grabs? So I’m just wondering, like I unders, I love the idea of constraining it down so that I’m not like trying to come up with this whole new thing. But like, how constrained down are we going? When we’re looking at a masterwork like this?

Shawn Coyne  23:51

Well, this is a this is an exercise. It’s an experiment to to be able to teach writers how to iterate. And so my, my, my point of view about this is that the resistance that we have to following a script, or constraints does not serve us very well when we’re trying to learn something. So if you are if I instead of writing a story, and I said, oh, there’s this, this person who has this, this list of things to do, and if we follow this list exactly. You’re gonna get a chocolate chip cookie at the end. Would you say? Well, can I just make it oatmeal peach? And I would say, Well, do you want to have Have a chocolate chip cookie. So you want to reduce the number of variables when you’re doing an experiment. So the best way to see if you can mechanize a process is to now this is going to be a different, like the way I make chocolate chip cookies is different than the way you do but it’s micro difference, right? Because of I’d say let’s, let’s go for let’s just completely rip them off. Let’s completely rip them off. And let’s see, without just you know, using the same lines of dialogue and changing the word so much, we conceptually use the spec sheet. And then then we can change the context, right? So it doesn’t have to be a police department. It could be maybe it’s shoplifting. Maybe it’s somebody at the at the Duane Reade or the Walgreens or I don’t know. But the pond we can change because the pond is a generalized feature. And then the nodes, I mean the fish inside of that pond and network, we’re going to limit ourselves to how many are going to play in that pond. So we’re going to have capelli we’re going to have McGruder, we’re going to have Struthers and we’re going to have Anderson that Lieutenant So those four and then we’re going to refer to Anderson’s wife who was murdered. And this nebulous killer, who ends up being Anderson. So that limits our avatars that we have to feature to Struthers capelli McGruder Anderson and Anderson’s wife. So that’s five. And then also there’s the mention of tertiary characters, the family of Struthers. We don’t really know if he has kids, he says my family, I think, so that’s six. And so that’s going to be helpful, because now you’re going to be limited. And you’re going to be like, Oh, I can’t bring in more than six. And this is where this one comes in. Okay, so let’s talk about the context. Maybe that should that’s what kind of pond is this. So we’ve got a witness who’s a fish out of native waters, who has to come in to turn over information to read reduce their responsibility. So what kind of context Do you think this could be you were you’re initially thinking of like a school principal’s office. Is there another? Another domain that that is could be interesting.

Tim Grahl  27:57

You know, the first thing that popped into my head was in Stephen King’s on writing, he taught he at some point, he talks about if you’re a plumber, right about a plumber in space, you know. And so I was like, Well, you know, what, if it was something like that we’re like, is just some like, grease hog on some spaceship with, you know, 5000 people working on it, and living on it, and he saw a murderer. And then you get the thing of like, well, I don’t want to live on a ship with a murderer. And he only wants to talk to the captain because he’s the captain of this ship, but nobody gets to talk to the captain of the ship. You know, you can it’s has a lot of the same kind of things you know if we’re changing the pod that changes the pawn.

Shawn Coyne  28:53

I’m just thinking it through. Let me let me just compare and contrast to the ED McBain so the ED McBain is that we have a taxpayer a resident of an urban city. And within this urban city, there’s a special pond called the Law, the police department. So if you’re going to change the urban city landscape into a spaceship that would be okay, as long as there is a special room a place where is the place of last resort for help or something? So we’d have to mimic the police department as the authority position. It’s sort of the nucleus of the spaceship in terms of the Justice value, if you want to get justice you go to this nucleus where the justice is. So if that is Um, so the person on the spaceship, okay, so they’re going to be a fish out of native waters, and they have to go into the special sort of Sanctum Sanctorum of where you get justice. So it’s sort of like, you know, if you want food, you go to the cafeteria at the spaceship or whatever. So I think conceptually that works. I want to ask Leslie and, Danielle, if they have any thoughts about this, and if I’m thinking of this in the right way, or if they, if they have any thoughts.

Leslie Watts  30:39

Okay, so. So when we’re thinking about translating, from a masterwork pattern into an using that as the example for our scene, or story, we want to think about what what are the the necessary components so that we want to look at the structure and the function and the organization of what we are example, because all of those elements create the final product. So when we’re looking at the context, we’ve got our criminal justice system 1950s in a big city. So we need something with that, yeah, with those elements. And as Sean, as you said, we need a specific place where the protagonist can be a fish out of water, when it comes to that Justice value. We also have that place we have, it’s a military structure type hierarchy. So we need something where there’s a hierarchy because you’ve got capelli, at the bottom of at least in this room. Right now, capelli at the bottom, McGruder is his partner, but he has more experience. And then you’ve got the lieutenant who’s at the top of that, that hierarchy in that room. So we need that. And then we need the double factor problem space. So in this context, we need discretion, that gives rise to corruption or at least the possibility of corruption. And an A place where retribution can happen because that’s the that’s the aspect of that’s what Struthers is worried about retribution. So that has to be a possibility within the context. So if we have those pieces, then then I think you can put it anywhere. But we’ve got to have those elements in order to create that feel and the tension and the type of conflict we’re looking at.

Danielle Kiowski  32:49

Yeah, I absolutely agree with with all of those things. And I think when you bring up the the ability for retribution. That means that there, there has to be enough of a world outside of this room that people can disappear. So it couldn’t be like a small spaceship, like alien or something like that. Because then absence is conspicuous. But it could be something big, like a space station, like where a lot of people live, a lot of people are working. And so those are the kinds of considerations where it would almost need to be a city in space. And that leads me to wonder if the urbanization of this area is really important. I think it is. I think that the anonymity of the city, the anonymity and the crowdedness, those conflicting opposing values of this urban environment are really important. And they allow corruption to flourish. And they also allow for that dynamic where people can fall victim to retribution. You could also have like a targeted retribution, not a disappear but a, a framing kind of retribution. I think.

Tim Grahl  34:11

Yeah, I mean, if I kept going down this path, my thought would be it would be this. It would be a large space, because one of the things we talked about with why Struthers felt like one of the things that is driving him is that he’s part of a community where he doesn’t want killers to just walk around. And so to me, it actually even turns up that knob a little bit more if you’re in some sort of remote place where even though there’s 1000s of you, you still are very reliant on each other so you don’t know everybody, but like one person could really fuck this up for everybody. Where so like, as I was playing it out in my head, I could see it as something where like he was Is spacewalking like working on the ship when the wife got pushed out the airlock, and then, you know, he saw who it was and the person saw him. And could it at the very least narrowed down to these five people that saw me. And so it creates a situation where I’m now the one thing that and this may be this may mess up, the whole thing is, it’s like one of the things you get. So I was listening, I was listening to RL Stein talk about this of like, it’s hard to write really fun kid horror now and set modern day because everybody has phones, and that ruins everything, if you can just call somebody. And he’s like, so you always have to have some sort of setup that gets rid of the phones. And I was thinking, Well, you know, one of the things about the 1950s is like, you can’t just, people just don’t know what everybody looks like, you know what I mean? We’re now we kind of can look up 1000s of pictures of each other. And so would he really not know who’s somebody high up on the ship look like? You know, I think I would have to come up with some sort of scenario for that. But I do think having some sort of futuristic thing, you know, Elon Musk is trying to have lots of us live on Mars. So I think having some sort of setup where there’s lots and lots of people, and there’s all these, you know, same thing as a city where it’s like you have your people that you hang out with, and you don’t know everybody. Even if you pass them every day,

Danielle Kiowski  36:42

I have a thought on the higher ups being anonymous is if it’s like a clandestine intelligence service within the ship, that they are the station where the it’s just like, the enforcers are anonymous. Because they want to keep an eye on people. And another another thing that I was thinking about as you were talking about, he’s outside working and then sees the wife gets pushed out the airlock. One thing that we’ve identified as being important when it’s for the failure of one of the tropes, when he’s sharing his story when he’s delivering the script that fails when he over shares. And so your Struthers character needs to be someone who is touched by the corruption and by touched by any like implicit in involved in the corruption in similar ways to the other avatars in the story. So it’s something to think about, you know, why? What would he have within his story that would endanger him? If whatever authority it is new everything?

Shawn Coyne  37:53

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, Danielle, because one of the geniuses of the story is that Struthers is holding a secret. And just by I’m not sure if how deeply we went into this, but he he says he was at the movies. And it’s like a weekday and in the analysis that Leslie and Danielle and I did. And I’m not sure if we shared this with you or not, we did come to the conclusion that he was having an affair with Anderson’s wife, and that he he was lying about what he was doing that night. And so Struthers as your witness, as Danielle was saying, needs to have a deep dark secret that associates him with the victim. And so that’s, that’s another component to bring into your setup. That’s the double factor problem at writ large. Like he wants justice, and yet he’s living an unjust life himself. He’s not abiding by the injustice of his his marital vows. So it definitely is. I don’t know that that we got into the deep analysis. But when Danielle and Leslie and I went through it, he over shares as Lesley as Daniel said, with capelli, and capelli, shuts him down and realizes that this guy is not telling the whole truth, and that he did see the killer face to face, he could definitely identify him because he was having a relationship with his wife. So that’s another thing to think about. And it’s, it’s a it’s it’s an enabling function. Shouldn’t that will enable you to write the story better because it sets up the delivering of the script, which is your fourth trope in in Struthers is oversharing. At that moment, but just to get back to the context that that Leslie and Danielle were going over, and they I absolutely agree with them. Leslie is right, you need a hierarchy, you need a clear distinction of authority. So she’s absolutely right. capelli is at the bottom in this pond. He’s very, he’s very good at his job. But he’s definitely at the bottom. Magruder is above him. And the lieutenants above Magruder. Cool. And then as Danielle pointed out, Struthers has to be within the the Alien Nation and populous of an urban environment, it’s going to be kind of tricky to pull off with a futuristic story, because you’re asking your reader to suspend their disbelief. And I think it could be distracting. When you’re asking them to believe that there’s a city in space on a ship, as large as New York, that’s kind of a hyper concept that is, can become so attractive and salient to your single audience member. And then you have to do a lot of explaining, well, they have surveillance, but not in this particular corner of the city, they do have access to everybody’s ID, blah, blah, blah. So something is telling me that you would probably do better if you went backward in time, instead of present time or future time. So it’s just a suggestion, because all of those things that you’re talking about in terms of phone, Google searching, and all that, if you just set it in the 1800s, or the 1700s, or another, another era, that does have an urban environment that does have a hierarchy, but doesn’t have all this technology, that that you’re going to your your single audience member is going to be thinking of this technology, instead of the progression of the story like that doesn’t make any sense. Why does he just go to his iPad and type up, you know, where he is on the on the lock. And I think that can that can overwhelm? A story like this, when you set it, it’s almost like, too clever by half, right? Like when you go into a futuristic setting. You’re you’re adding a lot of artifice that can distract the core of the story this this isn’t about. Remember, science fiction is about either dystopia, or utopia ik vision in the future. So it’s more about the social structure than it is about. And now justice can be a part of that. But that’s the salient factor when you add science fiction or fantasy into an equation, because the reader gets sucked in by the world building. And you don’t have a lot of room to do a lot of world building here.

Tim Grahl  43:40

So why wouldn’t I? Why are we discussing? Again, I’m just going back to like, if I, let’s say I want to go off and do this on my own at some point. Why are we open to changing the context more than other pieces? Because I could, why don’t I just write this as a 1950s urban environment.

Shawn Coyne  44:02

Because what you’re going to want to do is change one feature, you’re going to want to change one element of the feature list in such a way that it will enable you to come up with new ways of generating the same value shift. So the easiest way to do that is to change the context into something that is specific to you as an artist. So again, you already did science fiction dystopia in the threshing. And I think it’s something that you like. So it’s not a challenge. It’s kind of sometimes we as writers, we get locked into particular kinds of middle years and we liked Stay there. Right? So your first idea was to do a wire a story. And I said don’t do the YA story. And you go, Okay, well, what about a dystopia story? Do you see what I’m saying? So what I want you to do is there’s something different than 1950s Police Department, and it doesn’t have to be in space. Is there something that’s similar to a 1950s Police Department? That is attractive to you that might be a little bit scary that you might not know all that much about but you can sort of pretend?

Tim Grahl  45:39

Does it? Does it need to be a murderer?

Shawn Coyne  45:43

Well, it’s a short story. And one of the tricky things about a short story is you need to go to life and death. If this was one element in us, I mean, do you want to do a short story? Or do you want to do a scene? I think a short story, you have to go to murder. This has to be life and death.

Tim Grahl  46:02

So because then I start? Well, because I started thinking, Well, if we set it. So that always means it’s going to rise up to some law level, right? Because I was thinking, Well, should I set it in like a business setting or something I’ve never written in like a modern day business setting. But if there’s a murder, they just call the police. You know, so what I’m thinking is, if there’s not some sort of law enforcement available, you’re in an environment that is too small for the story to work. Right? There’s not enough people. Because if once the amount of people grows to what we’re talking about, there’s always going to be some level of law enforcement available. If we’re talking if we’re talking about murder. And we’re talking about a large enough group of people to cover like an urban type environment you would have anywhere in history, there’s going to be some sort of law enforcement that would get involved in a murder, right? So we are talking about some sort of law enforcement, even if we go back in time. So I mean, so then I start thinking things like, Well, should it just be set in like, a Western type environment? Where, but most of those towns, where too small? Should it be set in some sort of like ancient Greece environment, which just, that does terrify me, because I don’t know enough about that to have, you know, to write about it in any kind of way, I would have to go research who was even in charge of dealing with murderers. And so so then I start kind of, well, should it just be modern day? You know? Because I’m familiar with modern day. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t really know, this is where it’s like, I’m not sure what knobs you want me to turn. And, you know,

Shawn Coyne  48:05

no matter how much methodology you can bring to the table, there’s, there’s iterations that you have to do as the writer. So it’s sort of like, you’re asking me to like to come up with a function and say, I’m going to do this. Will that work? I don’t really know, unless you try it. So I can say that I think a science fiction story would be probably not the best idea. Because it it’s just too much world building that Sam wants. Same thing with a fantasy story. Do you want to change it from a police department to the IRS? I don’t know. Do you want to? I don’t know. I can’t. It’s hard for me to give you

Tim Grahl  48:59

that’s what that was. My point is like if we say murder, we’re dealing with police department. I mean, I don’t know in what context of a large urban environment at any point in time, when you want it be dealing with the police depart whatever their version of police depart. Well, there’s

Shawn Coyne  49:20

there’s other hierarchies of, of law. So there are criminal enterprises that would have their own kind of law. There’s there’s corporate stuff. Did you ever see Michael Collins, or not Michael Collins, Michael Clayton, which was about a murder. And it was set in a corporate environment and the way murderers are hand handled in those kinds of corporate environments. So you can have hierarchies of power that deal with With specific kinds of murders, you can have military murder stuff.

Tim Grahl  50:09

I’m not saying I’m saying what I actually want is to do whatever assignment you want me to do. But when you say, well, there’s a hierarchy in the military, we could be something like that. I’m like, Yeah, but the military isn’t millions of people, they would notice when somebody’s gone, and they all know each other in a, in a short context, right? Like, if I think of something like A Few Good Men, it’s like, everybody knew everybody on that base, except for Tom Cruise, who walked in as the whoever character, the compelling character. So So what I’m saying is, is like, if you want millions of people and a murderer, that’s a police department. Right? So it couldn’t, because when you started saying, well, there’s different hierarchies criminal, I’m like, Oh, well, we could do something like a game where like, if there’s like some, but then like, yep, too small. They all know each other. So that’s where I’m like, I don’t know what knobs you’re asking me to turn. Because I feel like I turned one, you’re like, it’s not that one. And then I turned the next one, you’re like, it’s not that one. I’m like, okay, that’s fine. You just tell me I don’t care. I just wanted I need, I need to know what you want me to go right. At this point. I’m not trying to be, you know, follow the muse. I just want to know what my assignment is. So it’s like, so that’s, that’s where like, I’m feeling a little like, you’re like, we’ll just do this. And I’m like, Okay, well, I’ll do it this way. You’re like, well, it won’t work for that reason. I’m like, okay. So which, which thing? Which knob Do you will? And that’s where I’m like, Well, why don’t we just leave it in the 1950s. And I’ll do my some will turn some other knobs to make it different.

Shawn Coyne  51:51

I’m at a loss, I don’t, I don’t know how to tell you how to write the story. I mean, we’ve went through 25 weeks of going through everything that the story has. And you just want to change all the things that we’ve already analyzed. And what I said is just do this story, and just change all the names of the people start that way, and then change the sentences. I guess, I don’t I don’t know what to say, when you’re like just telling me what to do. We’ve spent 10 weeks trying to explain how to do it. I mean, if you look at the analysis that we did, trope, one goal, share the information without suffering the consequences. So your avatar, that’s his goal, the essential tack is to measure trustworthiness. So it’s kind of like apply all of this stuff in a way and multiple occasions to see if you can I mean, try one trope. I don’t know. I don’t know what to say, when somebody asks me just tell me what to do. Because that’s what I’m trying to enable you to do what you want to do. And then if you ask my opinion, about a tactic or an idea that you have, and I say, you’ve done that before, and that’s not what this exercise is about. And then you go okay, well, what about this one? I go, you did that one before. And you go, but you’re telling me to change the context. And I can only think of two ways to change the context. So it’s either science fiction, it’s why a or it’s 1950s. And it just doesn’t seem to make any sense to me that you can’t think of any other possibility. And then I go, Well, there’s other kinds of hierarchies of authority that deal with murderers. Yeah, but they’re going to know each other Struthers knows who the killer is. He sees the killer. And that’s the climax of the story. And he runs away. So yes, he knows who the killer is.

Tim Grahl  54:13

It’s still a little bit like if you showed up at my house, and you had the best nail gun money could buy and the best saw the money could buy and the best ruler, the money to buy, and you’re like I have given you every tool you possibly need to build the perfect dining room table. And I’m like, I don’t know. I don’t know how to do that still. Like, just because you gave me all the tools and some beautiful maple wood doesn’t mean I can turn this I know how to take those materials and turn them in. So it’s like I’m still struggling with that part. But I can’t have liked the idea of just what you just said, of just when we gotten into changing the context, I start thinking, all kinds of crazy stuff. So I liked the idea of constraining it all the way down. And just what you just said is like, it’s the 1950s. It’s a police department, it’s all the same characters, I’m just going to tell a slightly different version of that. And I think once we have a draft, then we’ll know what to do. And where I’m still not understanding how to use the tool set you’re giving me I’m not questioning the tool set, I understand this is the best analysis, I understand the scene in a way in all kinds of different levels that I would have never, you know, I could have read it 1000 times. And so, but it’s more like, I’m still learning how to take those things, and apply them in a genre I’ve never written in a time setting I’ve never written in a setup I’ve never written in, I’ve never done any of this stuff. And so it’s like, you know, and so as you’re saying, like, Well, you go to a young adult, and then you go to science fiction, like, oh, yeah, of course, I’m going to the things that I feel the most comfortable about. I’ve read the most in, you know, all of those kinds of things. And so, I’m probably unconsciously fighting you, because I’m just scared to just try it. But so I’ll just, I’ll just try that. And then we’ll see what I come up with. And we can just start working from there. Because that’s what I mean, in that, when we’ve tried to do some of this in the over the past year that wasn’t, you know, recorded as a podcast, it, that’s what we did is it’s like, well go try this thing. And then it took us, you know, 12 weeks to get it to a working draft. And I think we’re hoping it doesn’t take that long. But you know, may still,

Shawn Coyne  56:57

yeah, I would just follow the essential features of each trope. And, you know, write better sentences than I just spit it out and see where it gets you? And also I would I would look at that, that moment when we talked about earlier about Struthers revealing that he wasn’t telling the truth. Because once once you look at that, and you see the language, his his soft soled shoes, and his going to the movies in the middle of the week when he has a family at home. It just doesn’t make any sense. Unless you’re a detective listening to the story. And you can go through the Beats the follow the Beats, see what the inputs and outputs are. You know, here’s it, here’s a freeze, here’s a build up, here’s a breakdown. These tools are, are there for a reason, because they they make it less uncomfortable. So when you get confused, you’re like, I don’t know what to do. Just go well, what does it say here to do all do that. And then just try it. And I think what you’ll discover is that the scene that you write will be different than the ED McBain scene. But how different we can we can make, we can evaluate later. But but it is a matter of following the paint by numbers, just to get some words on the page and say there’s so like your analogy and your metaphor about me bringing the nail gun and the tape measure is like I know you, Tim, you’d be like great. Thanks for the tools. I’m going out and I’m going to try it. And you’d build the dining room table and it would look like shit and you would bring it in you go, Hey, I don’t think I did such a good job. What do you think? What should I fix? I go, Oh, well, you might want to redo those legs and you go great. I’m going to redo the legs. I’ll be back in an hour. Because you wouldn’t just go I don’t know what to do with this wood and this nail gun and this tape measure. You’d be like, I know how to measure wood. I know how long my table I want you to do it. It’s the same thing. It’s just when you’re dealing with in material substances like thoughts of your mind. You you doubt yourself. And all I’m saying is that you’re gonna make a terrible table. And when you make your first terrible table, you don’t hate yourself. You’re like, Oh my god. Candace, check out this terrible table I made and you go Oh, that’s funny. You’re going to work on it’s more Yeah, definitely. And then five tables later later, you’re sitting at your your dining room table in Kansas goes, Hey, Tim made that and you go, Wow, that’s amazing. It’s the same thing. Except when you’re talking about your your ideas and your thoughts. You’re letting in that resistance asshole go to him. You don’t know how to do anything, but ya, just stick to what you know, bro, do the science fiction, you’re good at that. And what I’m saying is like, No, you can do it. And here, here’s the way to do it and write shitty sentences like I did. And then you can fix them. So I think that’s a pretty I think we’ve gotten to the point where it’s time for Tim, to take this shit and do his best. And then we’ll look at it, we’ll measure it. And we’ll go, we like this seam here. We like that. This is good. Let’s take a look at this. And we can fix it that way. But it’s masterwork scene analysis and masterwork iteration is not about coming up with a publishable short story at the end, all it’s about is being able to be given directions, and iterating the directions and you get better and better and better at them. So this is not anything that we’re going to be publishing or sharing with anybody beyond, you know, the podcast audience. But what we’re trying to do is demystify the difficult work that it takes to write and to edit. And, you know, I get I get frustrated when I don’t have anything to edit, and people go, tell me what to write so that you can edit it, and I’m like, write it. And then I’ll edit it. No, but I don’t want to write words that I’m going to throw out. So can you just tell me all the things that I shouldn’t do? That’s combinatorially explosive? Just as it is all the things that you should do? And we’ll know it when we see it. I mean, Leslie and Danielle, you’ve worked with writers too. You know what this is? Like? You probably have better strategies than I do, because I just get angry and frustrated. I mean, do you have any any? Any thoughts to offer about this this sticking point? Or is this really just a matter of do do a draft? And let’s see what happens?

Danielle Kiowski  1:02:35

I think what I would do, if it were before, before this last episode, and this is what we do with the guild is focused on like, what is the core of what you’re trying to learn? So for the guild, right now, it’s about writing a specific scene type. If this is about writing a specific scene type, then it’s about which side are you on scene? And then use that as the guiding principle for figuring out what, what should be preserved? And what are the what has degrees of freedom in it. Because that I think, Tim, is what you’re asking for, like, what needs what has the least wiggle room in what has the most wiggle room, and that’s dependent on the goal. So if, for example, we were saying, I want to write a noir crime story, then that’s a different brief. So we would have different, like the context would have less wiggle room there. So because we’re focusing on the scene type, we have more wiggle room in the context versus the I think the the value shift, the double factor problem, those are things that are really bound up with the scene type. So if the brief is right, or which side are you on scene, we need to identify the pieces of the analysis that are critical to that and then identify the other parts that do have some freedom. And if they have freedom, how do they have freedom and so that’s like, what Leslie and I do with the guild scenes every semester is that we sit down we say, we’re doing a lover’s meat scene now. So what is the core of the lovers meat scene, what can they change, and try to give maximum freedom to play around with, with the scene without without losing that core? And so it’s a little bit of an opponent strategy, I think to just write sentences that that fit because it’s it’s giving maximum freedom instead of minimum freedom, but my philosophy on that is like, if they break it, so what like we just fix it so so in that way, I try to, you know, let them let them go to the edges and even sometimes push push past the edges of what I think is is portable outside I’d have the immediate context of the scene, and then just use that as a, as a teaching moment to bring it back. So that would be my approach. Leslie, do you have thoughts as well?

Leslie Watts  1:05:12

I think that one other thing is that when we’re trying to zero in on the thing, that it’s really hard, it’s really hard to do that. And so one thing we might do is instead of saying, Okay, is it in the principal’s office it or, you know, is it here is it there is like, come up with, like, 10 really bad options, and then from, you know, or 15, or whatever. And if we start, because if you’re trying to zero in on something, it’s really hard to hit it. But if we, if we get a bunch of things we can look at, like, what if it’s in a mining camp? What if it’s in a, like, company town? What, you know, what if it’s in, I’m hitting the same. I’m doing the same note there. But um, but but just like, get a pile, and then we can sort through the pile. And that pile, I think, would also be really instructive about the stuff that you’re drawn to, because it’s important to hit the scene and hit all of the, you know, the the aspects of the scene, which mean that you have iterated the pattern, we have to hit those. But it’s also important that we’re kind of bringing in the things that you’re interested in the things that you, you’re maybe a little obsessed about, right? Because that’s the stuff that you as a, as a writer want to explore in your stories. And so, yeah, so those are the thoughts that I have just kind of off the top of my head.

Tim Grahl  1:06:45

Yeah, I mean, I feel, I feel like I’m ready to just try something. And I think I have an idea I’m going to run with, and and what I’m trying to keep in mind, too, is like, I don’t know how much it matters if I care about this, right? Because we’re teaching me skills that I can apply to the next book I write that I will actually care about. So I do think that, like, you know that to overuse the cliche example, this is my waxing on and waxing off, right? It’s not about that. It’s about the movement, it’s teaching me. So I’m just going to constrain it all the way down. I’ve got a slight tweak that I think will give me something interesting. And then I’m going to write it. And we’ll see what because I need to, if I can write a Whose side are you on scene set at a 1950s police station, then I will start to get in my bones, how to write who cited you are in scenes that I’ll be able to apply? When I need to write one in my next book. Right, like that’s why we’re doing this. And so yeah, I think this is a good place to be. And I’ll work on this, and then it’ll give us something to talk about next week.

Shawn Coyne  1:08:15

Well, the last, the last thing I want to say is to pick up on what Leslie said. So the insight that I just had is that the trick, I think, for playing in the realm of a masterwork scene and reiterating it is to change the domain to change the context to change the pot. So when Leslie said come up with 15, instead of two, or three, or 20, she’s really on the money there. Because just save yourself, I don’t have to do anything is except to come up with a domain, a company town, a spaceship, principal’s office, a Duane Reade, a, and on and on, and on and on. Right. And that is a world unto itself. And then you take the things that Danielle was talking about, is this a large enough society? Is there enough anonymity such that people can get away with stuff if they turn the other way? So is there corruption endemic in that thing? And the truth is, is there is in everything. So I think instead of doing 1950s, the only thing I would say to you is try and do a different context instead of 1950s the police department to Nashville, contemporary police department or something like that. So just change that one variable. And then then you know, do a draft because I do think that you you might mimic that McBain sensibility it too closely if you do hold the context. That’s, that’s my, my one caveat. And before you write anything I think you need to do, let’s say 15 different contexts. And after six, you’re going to be like, I can’t think of another. And then in the car, you’re going to think of another one. And then in the shower, it might take you three days to come up with 15. But it’s, it’s an important thing to do. Because then once you have your 15, you’re going to go let me take a look at this one. No. Too much world building for science fiction. That’s, that’s going to be too distracting. This one, no fantasy, too much worldly, ya know, principles now. Life and death. I can’t get life and death there. Where can I get life and it’s a thought. Just to be super practical.

Tim Grahl  1:11:13

Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Story Grid Podcast. Make sure you tune in next week as we dissect what happened this week, and we start moving forward with the new scene that I’ve written for next week’s episode. For everything Story, Grid related, you can go to story grid.com. The main thing you’ve got to do is sign up for the email newsletter. That’s where we always put out the newest content, all of the latest stuff and make sure you know about everything going on at Story Grid. Along with that, if you like YouTube, or Instagram, or Twitter or Facebook, make sure you follow us. We’re Story Grid everywhere. We’re putting out daily videos, daily content on all of those platforms to help you level up your craft as a writer. As always, thank you for subscribing to the podcast. And along with all that content we’re putting out we’ve actually put three of our books, the audio books up on YouTube, so you can listen to the four core framework, Story Grid 101, or the writers common language. The full audio books are up at our account at Story Grid on YouTube. So make sure you go subscribe, check out those channels as well. But thanks as always for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We’ll see you next week.


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.