Episode 271: Writing Emotional Pain: How to Care About Your Protagonist

Click here to read Tim’s scene.


Hello, and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. My name is Tim Grahl. I am the CEO of Story Grid, and I’m also 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 he’s an editor and writer with over 30 years of experience. Along with him is Danielle Kiowski, the Chief Academic Officer of Story Grid University. And Leslie watts, the editor in chief of Story Grid Publishing. This week’s episode was kind of rough on me, it basically we keep running into this thing where like, I’m trying to check off all the boxes with my writing to make sure it works without actually kind of connecting to the protagonists and connecting to like the soul of the story. And it’s one of those things, it’s just hard to force, or I guess, I would say it’s impossible to force. And we have some really good discussions around like, how important that part is, and then how all of the structure around story applies to it once you’re able to connect to it. And this actually brought up for me, this thought of like, how many times so several times I’ve been asked in person or people send me emails, and they’re like, hey, you know, does Story Grid work for this? Or does Story Grid work for this genre? Or, you know, can you you know, does it ever actually turn into a book or something like that. And I just think it’s so interesting. And I understand what they’re saying, right? There’s a lot of these kind of like formulas out there for writing a book, writing of like, you know, just do these three acts and do it in this way. And all of these kinds of things, and they’re formulaic. And so I get why people would take Story Grid and assume that we’re kind of talking about it as if it’s this formulate, formulate thing. But I hear this is what drives me crazy, is when people ask me questions like that, I hear you asking me if like, E equals MC squared works. And I’m like, Yeah, cuz it like describes reality. Right? You know, it’s, it’s kind of like taking an algebra equation, you know? And it’s like, well, yeah, it works because it’s describing reality. And so it’s it’s in this is what I’m hope that you understand about Story Grid, is that this isn’t us trying to give you some sort of formula that if you just like, go step, a step b Step C bestselling book. Obviously, that doesn’t work. Avi, obviously, that doesn’t work. I mean, if we made that promise, we’d be crazy, right? But what we’re trying to do at Story Grid is not give you some kind of simple formula, not trying to just tell you like, if you just you know, fill in these blanks, you’ll have a book, what we’re trying to do is explain reality to you. Right. So every story that works, follows the same basic patterns. And that’s what we’re trying to describe. When we’re talking about Story Grid. We’re not trying to give you a formula. This is why I think people sometimes have trouble wrapping their head around what we’re doing at Story Grid, right? We’re not trying to just give you some checkboxes, give you some formulas, and then you can go out and write the perfect book, we’re not making that promise, plenty of people are making those promises. So you can find them out there. And you can see whether or not their promise comes true comes through for you. But for us, what we’re trying to do is study story, study, masterwork study story through the ages. In Study, even beyond that, I mean, you hear Shawn, talk about this stuff all the time, all the philosophers and scientists and like historians, and like all these people, he studies in order to really, really understand the fundamental ideas that go into what it means to be human, which is analog as to what it means to tell a story, right? And he’s developed this idea, this narrative theory that goes from the macro all the way to the micro. And I think you see that I mean, if you go back and listen to the, you know, couple 100 podcasts or so we’ve done you see that, but this is what I really want you to understand when we’re talking about this stuff is we’re not trying to give you some kind of formula. If we’re trying to give you a formula, I mean, I would be churning out books, right? You know, Shawn would just be like, here’s the formula, let’s just plug and play. And then you can just like put books out into the world. And instead, what he’s trying to do is make sure I understand both the fundamental elements of what makes a story great, but also how to connect myself to the story as well. And again, that brings me back to this episode. And it’s kind of rough for me. You know, I think I hit it pretty well, this time as opposed to a few weeks ago, but I just I was getting really frustrated with it. And it’s because I’m kind of running into this running into this wall again, of just like not knowing what to do next. And what I Later, after we recorded the episode, I was thinking about it. And I’m like, Okay, I’ve been here before, I know what this feels like, I know, a breakthrough is coming, right. And that’s what I have to trust in when I get into these places. And I think it’s the same for all of us that are trying to pursue these creative things. It’s this constant series of like, we have a breakthrough. And we feel great. And all of a sudden, we can do things with our writing we couldn’t do before. And then it begins again. And the pressure starts building and building and building because we have these things we want to be able to do, and we just can’t do yet. So one last thing before we jump into this episode, next week, we are opening up registration for the Story Grid guild. In the next episode, next week’s episode, we’re going to tell you a lot more information about the guild and what goes into it and why we think you should join and everything. But this is a really, really powerful training that we do we do it on a semester basis. So we open it up for registration for a new semester, just three times a year. So we’re taking registrations for this semester that starting September 4, and we’re going to start taking registrations next week. Okay. But if you’re interested in the guild, you can go to story grid.com/guild. There’s a lot of information about it there. And again, in next week’s episode, we’re going to talk about it more in depth, you’re going to hear from Lesley and Danielle and Sean, about the story of your guild and why you should join and why it’s such a powerful thing. And if you’ve been listening to this series that we started back in the spring where we started analyzing eyewitness by Ed McBain, and then having me tried to apply that to my own writing, you’ve seen a lot of this in practice. And the guild will really help you learn how to do this and apply it to your own writing. It’s really powerful, and I can’t wait to share more about it with you. But again, if you’re interested in it if you want to get on the waitlist, so we can notify you as soon as we open up registration. Just go to story grid.com/guild, and you can learn more about it. Alright, that’s enough here. We’re gonna go ahead and jump into this episode and get started. Thanks. So last time, you guys sent me off with the homework of looking at the five commandments really hard in trying to figure out how that’s going to work in the crisis, especially, and then also trying to write it in such a way where I do the handoff of the protagonist. Right. So. So I rewrote it with both of those in mind. And then I also before I got into it, right. So, you know, the first iteration I did, I felt like, we talked about this on a previous episode where like, at first it was like, This is great. You just had this one little thing where you didn’t hand off the protagonist. And then the more we dug into it, it’s like, Oh, that little thing of handing off the protagonist is like a huge deal that affects everything. So I just took the time to go back, look at my controlling idea again, and then go through. Because I think what was really missing too, is not really understanding the motivations of all of the characters as well. And so I just went through, and this is also we’re just constraining it down to writing an iteration of eyewitness the short story I witnessed by Ed McBain was really helpful because it’s like, I only have four characters. So I don’t have to like figure out a bunch of characters, I just got to figure out four characters. And since the controlling idea is about, you know, a, in my case, you know, somebody being exploited and not treating as a basically a full human and how each person has to have that affecting them in some way. And so I started thinking through I’m like, okay, my way I got that for the protagonist of the of the scene, but what about the detective and I’m like, well, he’s a detective. That’s a new detective. And he’s the low man on the totem pole. And so everybody just kind of shits on him and gives him all the shit work and kind of treats him like he’s not a full human. And then Dawson at the deck at the desk, is basically a guy that’s so old that they’re just keeping him around because he can’t retire yet but everybody kind of shits on him too, because they think he’s not worth anything. And then from the standpoint of the the antagonists of the scene, the captain or the lieutenant, I, I thought about it more in the way of like, he sees himself that way. Because of the shame he carries around for the things that he does. And so that is what makes it easy for him to treat somebody else that way too. Right? Because, you know, we’re all just projecting on everybody else, all our own issues anyway. And so. So that was kind of where I landed. So I just wrote that up for each character, thought about the controlling idea. And then sat down and started writing the scene. And it took me probably three days to fully get a draft of the scene. And when I went back, I especially focused on the handoff and tried to get that right. And then I realized too, and an early the my first draft, I didn’t really let Randall own the crisis. And so I tried to rewrite it where the crisis, there was a clear moment where the crisis sat on his shoulders about what to do, I’ve I kept trying to give it to the detective. So that’s what I did. It took me I don’t know, I probably worked on it every day for like, nine or 10 days to get to the version that I liked well enough to send it over to you. So I’m curious what you think.


Okay. Yeah, that was a, that was very helpful what you just said, because there’s a vague sense of when I read the story, I thought, okay, I wasn’t like, oh, wow, that was amazing. And, and so that’s the first thing we do, as we as we read a story. And so you have to sort of cue into the feeling. Because the feeling is, is a direct expression of the experience, right. So as you after you’ve experienced the story, don’t just start pulling out your analytical framing. And so this is this is the I’m only speaking in my own process, and this is very helpful for me is that the first thing I do is get a feeling. And my feeling was, okay. Not Not bad. I get it. And so I sat with that for the past few days. And then I stopped myself from sticking my pen in there, and starting to analyze, because I wanted to sit with the feeling until I could hear how you approached the creation of the story. And what you did was so good for me, because it enabled me immediately to figure out what I think might be something for you to think about. Okay, so I’m just going to give you the gestalt of what came to me, and then we can take it from there. Okay. So what you were talking about, in terms of the controlling idea was a shift from a relationship of the way someone is seeing the world, from an AI it relationship to an i thou relationship. And all that means is that instead of seeing another human being, as, you know, a piece on the chessboard, that you manipulate, in order to get to a goal state, like you move your pond over here, and then that protects your king. And your goal state when you’re playing chess is gotta win the game of chess, which means in everyday life, got to got to get my wants and my needs and my desires align appropriately. Right. So I, it means that you view the other as a tool, as a either an affordance to get you what you want, or a stressor, meaning it’s an obstacle. So part of what you’re talking about in your controlling idea, which I really like, is this transformation, from the the perspective of AI it to I thou. So what all that means is to translate what I just said to your story is that the players in the in the problem space are all seeing the world as I see it. Right? So that detectives are looking at each other as things to manipulate so that they can get promoted and they can rise in the ranks of the hierarchy of the police department. Let’s just say that and then the homeless people are tools that you can manipulate to use to get what you know to further other people’s agendas. So everybody’s playing these I it games Games and they’re all playing their little chess games. And what you’re controlling idea is, is transforming the players in the story from seeing each other as tools, and it’s to functional human beings that have their own agency. So I vow means, oh, you start to empathize and understand that the other person is doing the best that they can to get along to get what they want to. So let me just bring it back to what I think might not be coming through here in your controlling idea. And you I love the way you are going through each character and how they’re dealing with this eye it thing and how, how they’re how they’re relating to each other. But I don’t think it’s clear that everyone is transformed by the end of the story. I don’t see how Randall is using the people in the story that detectives as is. He’s treating them as he is just sort of like a stranger in a strange land. And he doesn’t know the game. Randall knows the game. So Randalls got to be playing a game too. He’s not. He’s just sort of like, being manipulated, like a chess piece. So yeah, the detective and I think this goes to the fact that I didn’t get the clarity of transfer to Randall as protagonist. And I don’t know why. And I’m sure Danielle will probably be able to figure out where that happened, and how we might be able to correct it simply. But I think the fact that that transfer didn’t happen has to do with this. I, it i thou transformation. So when when Leslie talks about the problem space, and that all the players in this problem space must be confronting the same two factor problem. The two factor problem is this. Sometimes we need to see each other as is. And sometimes we need to see each other as I vow. The problem space here is that everyone is treating everyone else as I it and they never start to transform into i thou perspectives. So that’s my global gestalt of what I think will make this story from Hey, pretty good. I can see that this is a this is a working scene. This is a working story. But is it? Does it have all the the ED McBain Enos to it? Does it have those three levels of excitement, intrigue and cathartic meaning? And yeah, it does. But it doesn’t give up. You know, like, it’s not a super fired amazingly surprising but inevitable conclusion at the end of the story. So I’m going to stop talking now. And I want to pass it to let’s, let’s go to Leslie first and see what what if Leslie has anything to add, or, and then then then y’all can talk and we can start sort of getting down into the mechanics of where maybe these these things that I’m talking about? Where where they are not there, or where they are there. Does that make sense?


Okay, um, so as I was reading the scene, I was, you know, I was thinking about the 624. And the, the top Well, the blue layer, the pop in particular, and and what were the expression of the double factor problem? And then and then how that drops down into narrative device in in who the author is speaking to, and which problem they’re trying to help the single Audience Member solve, right, that’s, that’s all our our Story Grid jargon for what is this story about? What’s the, you know, very specific problem that we’re exploring in the story? And then how are we communicating it is that level of the narrative device? So the reason I got thinking about that is that there were places in in the story there were details that kind of pulled me out of the narrative. So I wasn’t I stopped thinking about the question the narrative question. Jen, and started thinking about other questions. Like, for example, when, when Randall gives his name after being very obstructionist, very, you know, nope, I’m talking to a lieutenant. I’m not talking to you. Right? He’s not. He’s not playing ball. But then suddenly he seems to start playing ball. And I’m not picking up on a reason for that shift. So and then the so that that’s one piece. And as the protagonist, I want to know, I want to have a, a felt experience, even if I don’t know exactly, but I want to have right away. I want to have that felt experience that Oh, that makes sense. Right. So if it if it doesn’t make sense, then we want to make sure that pays off in that Randall had a row of a revelation in that moment that he that we don’t know about, but that he fully understands, and that will pay off later. So that’s kind of the setup. We want that setup to be paid off. Another piece about the context. Is that the portrait that we’re getting of this of the context, the details don’t fully say to me, one of our own has been killed. Right, the exchange between Dawson and Watson. doesn’t. It doesn’t. Yeah, I and this found it sounds squishy. But but as I read it, I didn’t get the sense that this is a, this is a police station, where they have recently lost a member of the team. And, and so these, these little details are seem to be at odds with the picture that’s being painted. And so that takes me back to the 624. So that’s kind of my take on the story, though, I and I should have started with this. I like the, toward the end, I liked the way you innovated by having by having Randall see the picture. I thought that was a really nice change from the original. So I think that you’re doing some really nice things in here. But it’s a matter of how do we get everything lined up? So everything’s working together?


Yeah, I, I agree on the on the innovation. And I think that we can get into the mechanics of that, as we get into the mechanics of the story. I think there are a couple of tweaks, I would probably make to that moment to make it more of a progression through like through the sensory progression. But I agree that that’s a really nice innovation that we can work with. But before we get into any mechanics of the story, I agree that the the problems are really at this higher level. So my feeling as I read it is that I don’t connect with Randall at all. And I don’t think that’s just a matter of moving him into the protagonist role, because I think that happens at the beat level. But but the problem I’m getting is more from that double factor problem space and from the, the way that it connects down into Sam’s problem, and then the way that it connects down into the crisis. So I think it would be really good to go through because you did think a lot about that, too. So you talked about about the problem that everyone’s dealing with in the context. And to talk also about how that goes down into the controlling idea for you and how that goes down into the crisis. One thing that I noticed, as you were talking about the problem space to begin with, is that it’s a very outside in kind of problem. So everyone is treated in a certain way. But it’s not about everyone having the same kind of choice about how to apply their agency. And that might exist, but I think that’s just not fully formed yet. So it’s like everyone is like being shit on as you put it in there not. But it’s like how do they deal with that. And having that capacity for agency to combat the factors is a critical part of ensuring that the context hangs together, because otherwise, you’ll end up with a lot of passivity. And that’s what I’m seeing here. So Randall doesn’t have the same agency as everyone else. And so while he might be dealing with bias is coming his way. He, it’s it’s not clear what that unifying factor is in terms of the inside out. So I was wondering what how you were thinking about your controlling idea, as you went through the story? How are you phrasing that?


So I was thinking a lot about the double factor problem. Let’s see if I can back into the controlling idea through that. So the, to me, the double factor problem was Do I still fight for justice? In a system that’s never going to take me seriously? So that was kind of what I was holding in my head. The question that Randall was facing is like, how far do I go down this path of trying to get justice? When I know, they’re, they’re never going to treat me the way I want to be treated. And so to me, the controlling idea is, I almost feel like it’s a cautionary tale. So it’s like, something like, be careful putting yourself out there, because you’ll probably get stomped on in the process.


So this is really interesting, because that’s a departure from the Master Work scene. Right? So if there are a couple of departures there one is that if you think about it, as how far do I go for justice, that’s one factor is that everyone seeking justice? Now we need to take that factor and specify it down so that we have the actual character of the search for justice in this context, but that’s secondary, but then it’s when I’m not taken seriously. So I think what I’m getting at there is that when you talk about the problem, this is sounding more worldview, disillusionment. To me, it’s more about people having biases toward other people than a revelation about what’s going on in the context. I think we’ve talked about that before. But the way that these two play together is in a very different stakes landscape than in ED McBain. And so when it’s about am I going to be taken seriously or not. That’s not life and death where a Struthers is worried about being killed. And you know, Randall talks about having the the camp broken up and things like that, but he’s not he doesn’t have that existential dread that Struthers has. And I think that that is part of why it’s difficult to connect with him. Because when you have someone who’s like, well, you’re not speaking to me the way I want to be spoken to. So I’m not going to help with this murder. That’s a much harder position for us to be in as an audience to connect with that person. And we might say, well, you know, you’re in here for a temporary amount of time, kind of suck it up. And you know, take a little bit of crap, because you’re actually helping with something really important. And it’s not like this is. So what I’m getting at there is that the trade off is not as compelling. And that brings us down into our crisis. And that’s wrapped up in the controlling idea. So the controlling idea, this is the second departure is that Ed McBain has a prescriptive ending. So if you’re changing that that’s a huge departure from the way that the original story ends. And so, so I think that that’s something that’s at the core of why this is different. And it’s something that we have to deal with before we can do anything else at a lower level.


I feel like there’s a good metaphor here somewhere where like, you know, if you’re ever working on something, and you’re like, every time you nudge one thing to try to get that where it’s supposed to be it like knocks three other things out, and then you have to like go back and fix those. And then that nudges the thing out. And that’s the feeling. I’m getting over the last like, I don’t know, a month or whatever that I’ve been turning in scenes. It’s like when you ask me some of the questions. It’s like, I start getting kind of lost because I’m like, Okay, I know I thought about that. But I think I made that decision. And then I made other decisions that broke that decision, but I didn’t realize I broke that decision. And so then I tried to write the scene but I didn’t realize I had like broken something that would break the scene. Yeah. And this is also like, I have I felt in this like I kept it kept feeling like I was forcing myself to see the world through Randles eyes in this. And for me that I start to struggle with light Do I need to? It’s like, if we’re looking at this as an exercise, where I’m doing this exercise so that I can build up skills so that I can use later. Do I need to, like really feel connected to the controlling idea? Or do I not? I don’t know, I got, as you talk through that I’m like, oh, yeah, I don’t know. Like, I just feel kind of lost in it now. Because I was like, really focused on like, Okay, I gotta, I gotta hand it off. And then I got to, I got to make sure he owns the crisis. And then I kind of lost track of these other things. And so it’s like, and then I start to get really overwhelmed when I think about the fact that like, I have a masterwork scene. And we’re only like, opening up for things or something that I’m even allowed to adjust. And this is still a loss, I’m getting in the midst of all of it. And so I don’t know, I don’t, I don’t have much more to say, I’ll just keep rambling. If I keep talking.


Well, I wanted to respond to like that, do I have to care about the controlling idea, because I think it’s very much coming through that you don’t. And I think that the execution will get better if you do, and it’s about just finding a way into it. But one thing that strikes me as you’re talking about how you’re relating to this story is that we all go through transformations as artists, when we create stories, no matter the length, no matter the purpose. And I think that you’re at this point where you’re feeling this, this sort of despair. But when you’re talking about Randall, you’re saying I need him to do this, I need to get the mechanics so that he will do he will be the output er, and then I need him to own the crisis. And it strikes me that the way you’re talking about him as an avatar is very eye it. And I think that’s the transformation you need to go through as you need to find your way to caring about him. And that’s going to unlock the story for you. So I think it’s this, it’s the shift that you’re approaching, and the feeling of despair is the signal that you’re approaching it. But it’s something that you do have to go through to create something that will build the skills that you need to build. Because otherwise, you know, I think about it, like from a computer programming perspective as like a shallow copy instead of a deep copy, that if you have the shallow copy of a masterwork that it’s, it might look like it on the surface, but then it doesn’t, it doesn’t have the same feeling and you can’t manipulate it in the same way. So you can’t take the controlling idea from that and carry it with you. Because it already it’s rooted somewhere else. So if you can make a deep copy. And that means like going, going through all the layers of the 624. And, and figuring out how to port them over to the story in a unique way. That’s what really creates something that is I think worth creating. So because it you know how to put words on the page. That’s not the issue. And and I think last week, we talked about how you could take out one sentence and effect the shift in the protagonist. But something in you said, No, don’t do that. Right, you started this out by saying there wasn’t anything that I could do to really do this and keep the bulk of the story. And there was, but there was something that was telling you, I need to redo this, I need to put more effort into it. And so I think, like I’m getting signals that you’re approaching that transformation that’s going to make this really worthwhile for you as a project.


I just like to to, you know, second that because the mechanics of the 624 Look, I love this stuff, and we you know, but the I thou is extraordinarily important. So at the core of story is metaphor. And what metaphor is, is it’s taking something dissimilar to something else and finding the bridge that connects both of them. So, what Danielle is saying is Randall is super dissimilar from Tim Grahl. Tim’s over here. Randalls over here, Tim just wants Randall to do what Tim wants Randall to do. Right? What what the transformation requires is this metaphorical bridge that enables you to start to see the world as Randall so it’s this really sort of infer Rachele process we’re in this is why writing is such a transformational process. Because now you have to say, in what? What point in my life did I have no respect. And I still had to push forward anyway. And the stakes were so high, that if I did not push forward, I might die. Randall is facing that kind of problem. He is used to not being taking seriously. So why would he subject himself to more of that, unless it was super important? Like he couldn’t live with himself, if he doesn’t go to that police department? Is there a time when you ever had to personally go and, and confess, it’s almost like a confession? I confess to this crime, because there’s a bigger crime that has to be brought to justice. And I will accept whatever comes my way, through my confession. So these are the these are the kinds of things that you can kind of think about in development stages, right. So when you’re a little kid, there’s always that moment, when you do something that’s criminal, you steal the candy from the store, you take your friend’s best toy, and you hide it in your pants, and you take it home. You betray another human being as something that you can take from instead of as their own person, right. So let’s say you’re a little boy, you go over to your friend’s house, he’s got or she’s got the best toy you’ve ever seen in your life, and you want that frequent toy. And what the kid has to go to the bathroom. And what you do is you stick it in your pants, and you come home and you’re so excited, you’ve got the thing that you want it. And there you are in your room, and you pull it out of your pants, and you’re playing with the toy. And your mom or dad comes in. And they know that’s not your toy. And they say to you, Hey, where’d you get that toy? Oh, I found it. Right? So you go through these steps, these series of justifications, so that your parents will let you keep what isn’t yours. But if you have good parents, or you know, they got Matt, that’s not going to play, you’re gonna tell me where you got the toy. Actually, it’s Timmies toy. And I took it from him when I was playing with him. And I feel really bad about it. But I kind of want to give it back. But I don’t want to face the consequences of being embarrassed when I tell him and his parents that I took the toy. And you know, if you have good parents to go, well, that’s tough. And everybody goes through this, in fact, yeah, I went through it myself when I was little. But you know, what a really good person does is they go over and they confess, and they hand back the toy. And they apologize. And guess what? There’s a bond that will be formed there, that will be far better than the one that you broke when you took the toy. So do you have the courage to go over there and make that confession? This is a way of looking at Randall Randall. I’m not suggesting that he’s a child. What I’m saying is that there’s something that’s eating him up from his insights that he can he can’t live with that he gets to cognitively dissonant for him to be able to move forward with his life feeling good about himself. This is his redemption, to go to this police star station, take the crap that is issued to Him and do his very best to achieve a better good than the than the evil that is perpetrating the world. So he’s going to sacrifice maybe his physical being in some way. He’s going to take on risks that he knows are going to be very personal. They’re coming after Randall. If they find out they’re not going after his community. They’re coming after Randall. So so the way in here is to build a metaphor. And that’s sort of what I tried to do there with the story about the toy and the little kids taking it from his friend. Because that’s a small little steak that everyone can feel good about when when the child develops and says, I’m sorry I took your tool way, I shouldn’t have done it. And I hope he can still be my friend, in front of witnesses in front of the other parents in front of your parents. So when we deny people, those opportunities where we don’t encourage to encourage is to put courage is to cultivate enable courage. So when you encourage somebody, you’re saying, You can do this, you’ve got the courage, and you’re going to be able to do it. That’s encouragement. It’s an enabling function that allows people to find their better selves within them, and then express their better selves in the world. So Randall needs encouragement from Tim, the author, to confess to something. And I don’t know what that is. And what what I would suggest is that and that’s what I was getting at when I said, Randall, needs to move from Ai it to AI thou. And his walking into that police station is stage one. He’s got the courage to walk into the police station. What was the breaking point before he ever showed up? That made him do that thing. And he’s going to withstand the slings and arrows of everybody in that police department to get a closer justice than is present in his world now. So these are the beautiful things that McBain is doing these, these little crimes that we all commit in our tiny little lives. Where’s the breaking point when the crimes, you have to repent and redeem yourself for the little crime? So Randall has to, as we all do, he has to come to terms with a mistake. Sometimes it’s an accident. It’s a mistake, or it’s intentional. Now, obviously, the murderer did an intentional bludgeoning of the other person. That’s intentionality is a higher crime than circumstantial mistake in a in a moment on time. Anyway, I’m getting too abstract here, but metaphors, what I’d like you to take away. And the way to build them metaphor is to think about, not the not the, the, the stage dressing of who Randall is. Just because he’s homeless, and that he’s a human being right. So you’re just putting these little stage mechanisms on this human being that you’re trying to simulate named Randall. And so, you’re, you’re saying, I don’t understand, I can’t relate to people who are homeless, you know, I’ve never been homeless, either. That’s difficult. But if you say, what’s the core of what he is doing in the scene, then you could probably build a bridge. And it’s a it’s a story of justice. It’s the story of crime. And it’s the crimes of treating others like tools. That I think you’re brilliantly getting it I mean, I, I’ll say this, because I don’t say it enough. That’s a beautiful, beautiful idea to express in a crime story. Right? It’s, it’s beautiful, because that is true. We are all functional, sentient, beautiful human beings that need to be taken seriously. So I’m not telling you that that was a mistake to do that. I think it’s great. But you do need to make that bridge, build that bridge. So that I hope that was helpful in some way. So that it will enable you to have that transformation as seeing Randall instead of a some little tool that you use to manipulate in your story to actually, you know, Randall is actually me. You know, if I really had to say it, I told a story about what happened to me when I you know, when my first job and I had to make a really tough choice, and it hurt me, but it was good. It was a good choice. It set me back. I don’t know whatever. And that that is really the the heart of I think what will transform this story into something that won’t be as I worked on it nine days straight, dammit. And I put in an hour and a half each day, and I shipped across These problems and yet it still isn’t soup yet, what’s up, you’re going to be like, oh, and maybe maybe it will be, you know, one crazy afternoon or morning when it strikes you that you make the bridge, the bridge, the metaphor, is in imbuing the simulation with specific personal experience. And that’s why Writing is hard. That’s why storytelling is difficult, because a lot of the things that we remember are painful. And we don’t want to revisit them. They’re error messages in our own personal behavior. And even the good stuff is not all good. So those memories that keep flooding back to us, these are little signals that our our mind is saying, hey, might want to take a look at this a little bit more might want to take a look at this a little bit more, because they think you’re not really framing it properly. And writing and storytelling is the means by which we can put those things under the microscope and go, I’m going to take a look at this a little bit more. Instead of having me to, you know, sell flagellate, I’m going to invent a character named Randall. And I’m going to mimic a masterwork like Ed McBain. And in that process, writing and storytelling is about attending to patterns of behavior that are problematic within ourselves. It’s almost like self therapy in a way. And that’s why we all want to do it. Because we all want to feel better.


It feels like this is the part where like this is this is like almost like the life force of the story. And then all the tropes and the Beats and the handoffs and blah, blah, blah. That’s all just like making sure that signal comes through. And so it’s like yeah, I think that just, that’s something I’m going to have to sit with, because I remember when we were working on running down a dream, and then we kind of cracked it. You know, this is all on the podcast a few years ago. And then when I was working through actually writing the book, it was just like, every day trying to remember the most painful memory I could think of that came next. And then that was the next chapter. So it feels like that’s the kind of work that I need to do. that I like. I think what’s maybe I’m just this is just my resistance, but I’ll just say this and see what y’all have to say about it. Because it’s like, can I can’t just take anything, and fit it into this form. Because this is this scene, these tropes, these characters, justice is on the line. So I’ve got to find something that I can actually connect to. But that fits in those things. It fits in those actual Yeah, I can’t just pick anything, I need to pick something that will fit into this story. And I think that’s the part that I’m like, you know, as you were talking, I had things come to mind, you know, but I’m like is will that fit I don’t know if that that’s like that the painful moment I just sit in for a while, you know, an even shot I sent you that. That write up of that story with the snake and everything a few weeks ago. And it’s like I that one came easy, because I knew exactly what I had everything kind of already sitting in my brain. But it’s like, I don’t know. It’s so I would have thought a lot. You know, I’ve thought this a lot. And this is maybe off topic, but you know, I did EMDR therapy. That was completely life changing. And one of the things that happened for me in it is like the stories came out, kind of automatically. And I’ve thought several times, like if there’s some way I can figure out how to like, get into that space. Um, and then let the story come from that space. But there’s this combination of like, so when I say The story I sent Sean, I can’t remember if I sent the other YouTube deaths and that to you too, I don’t think so. It was like I did this EMDR therapy, where you basically go into your trauma and just like sit there and work through it, it’s, it’s obviously a huge thing. So I don’t want to go too deep into it. And they’re in. So when I sat down to actually write it down, it was really hard. Like, it was really emotional for me to kind of write all this down. And my wife told our EMDR therapists that I was doing this, and she thought it was a horrible idea. Because that is not what you shouldn’t be doing that on your own. But the times where I felt like I’ve written well, is those times were like, I can like, go all the way down into those places. And like, sit there. And I think what I’m trying to figure out is how to take all of this really kind of technical stuff we do with storytelling, but also be able to, like go down into those places. And in this particular case, it’s like, you know, we’re always just talking, we’ll have an interview come out in a couple of weeks, where I interviewed Scott man who wrote operation Pineapple Express. And then Randy has editor and he talked about like, he had his controlling idea of, you know, how, what does a promise mean to you? And how far will you go to keep one and that just drove the entire story. And he he knew at a at a gut level what that meant to ask that question. But the story came from the question in this case, like, how do I find the thing that resonates with me, but that takes the form of the ED McBain story. Am I asking that question? Right? Well, I


there’s there’s a lot that you said there that I I think is extraordinarily insightful. And instead of answering the, on the surface question about I mean, that’s what the pop is what you know, the pop is supposed to be that thing for you. And, and obviously it’s not. And that’s, that’s okay, you can get there. But there’s this notion of going down into sort of this, this place of primordial archetypical. Patterns of story that take on very mythical being is what Story Grid is all about. Because what Jung was talking about when he was talking about the unconscious and archetypes, what he was saying is that the things that are operating at that level of participatory knowledge, meaning energy transfer, that art is happening unconsciously, I can’t feel the sun hitting my skin now. Right? I can’t feel the sound waves I can’t put my finger on, I can’t put a representation on those very, very bottom level experiences. So what Yun always said is that the archetypes are not the things in themselves, they are these sort of like signs that are representative of forms that are that are part of the cosmos. It’s it’s abstract, but the snake that’s a that’s a form that’s that is a repetitive thing, in mythology from the beginning of people scratching things on capes, right? So the snake and it is interesting to me. That when we do do the things that you were talking about, you know, go down into this place of it’s even like meditation practices to get down to your sort of pure consciousness place altered states of consciousness, where you take say, Silo sibun or magic mushrooms, what you experience is the inevitable inevitable flow of forces. And your mind starts to represent them mythical poetically, in your, you know, in your simulation of your thoughts. So, the therapist who said it’s not a good idea for you to write down the things that you see I don’t agree with that. Because when we go through those experiences, they are mythopoetic patterns of intelligibility that have been repeating in in through time since we started telling stories. So that’s awesome to be able to get down there. And then you come back with sort of these kind of cool like psycho weird things that you can’t really explain. You go, I just described what what, what the sequence of events is that I saw in my consciousness when I was thinking about it. What do you think, right? This is the whole psychodynamic therapy of Carl Jung. It’s called like shadow work. And so that’s what you what you were doing there. And these are really cool ideas, that then they inform the form of story. So at the bottom of a story that is very powerful, that has all these things that I talked about energy, intrigue and catharsis is this, as you say, this force underneath, that’s the kind of life force that drives the execution of the mechanics of the form. So the life force informs the generation of the form. So that’s why it’s difficult when you don’t have that, that grounding of the emergence of the the information of your subconscious and constantly unconscious coming forward to to map into the form. The form can feel mechanical, and sort of, as Danielle said, a shallow imitation instead of a deep, deep imitation. And it’s not really an imitation, it’s a variance not it’s you’re not imitating Ed McBain what you’re doing is using the form of Ed McBain mechanics to inform your life force that you generate a brand new variants story from and, and that’s that’s what we’re here for. That’s what I’m that’s what the Story Grid methodology is about. And so a lot of people think, ah, Story Grid, it’s so mechanical on so analytical, can I just write what I want? And the answer is no, you cannot. Why? Because you need to constrain that lifeforce so that you can make sense of it, or it’s just going to splatter all over the place and make no sense whatsoever. So when you sent me the story with the snake in it, what did I do? I said, Oh, this is exactly what Carl Jung was talking about. This is my my understanding of Moloch maps exactly on to the way you describe the snake. It’s eating babies. Well, that’s a Malachy and mythological representation of devouring the future in favor of the present. And when Moloch wins, it’s a devouring force that eats up all the things that are potential. What’s a baby? It’s pure potentiality. And there’s a force in the world that eats up pure potentiality. And mythical poetically, he’s called or she’s called, or whatever it’s called, is Moloch. And Moloch is a fiery furnace. And if you look at images of Moloch, there are people throwing their babies into the mouth of Moloch. Now they’re not that’s not a literal representation. It’s a mythopoetic representation of when you put your future, you’re right now you sacrifice your future for your right now. And when you are talking about, well, most I don’t I don’t have anything about justice. I can’t map. Just think about the root of the word justice. Justice is coherence. Right. So justice, in its legal sense, is about having a formal coherence of proper behavior in the world. And crime stories are about making sure that we keep that balance. in good shape. We don’t have too much order, or that’s terribly tyrannical. Everybody must brush their teeth at 6am Every morning, and that’s our law. We don’t want to do that. What if I want to sleep in you’re breaking the law and you need to go to prison until you learn. Right? So that’s, we don’t you know, make that a formal law. Ah, because it’s ridiculous to order. Nobody ever has to brush their teeth ever. That’s not good, because then everybody will die of tooth decay and rot. So you somewhere in between, it’s a good idea to, it’s a norm, it’s a good idea to brush your teeth. If you want another human being to find you interesting or attractive, you have bad breath, it’s not going to help very well, right. So that’s called a norm. And it’s just, why because it’s an enabling function to build relationships. Brushing your teeth is an enabling function to build relationships with other people. And if you don’t brush your teeth, if there’s a breakdown of relationship, don’t want to talk to that person, because they have bad breath. Hey, brush your teeth. Doesn’t mean you’re a bad person if you don’t, but you’re sacrificing relationship if you don’t. Anyway, so justice as a concept as a as a virtue value system cycles all the way up into balancing order and chaos in such a way that they can work together in equilibrium are somewhere near equilibrium, such that increases the probability of new creation and complexity. So just to circle back to the moment that you’re faced not so long ago, when we were talking about Randall, there’s no urgency. It’s sort of like you can’t grind through transformation must transform Now, come to me transformation. That’s not the way it works. It’s it’s a, it’s a transparency to opacity shift, that that requires some time. And you are doing the practices necessary that enable you to transform. And guess what you did. You said, when we were working on running down a dream, I faced a similar problem. The way I saw that problem was to think of the worst thing that happened in my professional career. And that was the next thing. So that was a heuristics that enabled you to transform. And you said, Oh, I have to do is write down in blood, all the horrible things that happened to me. Because you’re Tim Grahl, you’re like, oh, simple, because you have the courage to recreate those moments. And so when you’re writing fiction fiction is true. It’s true. It’s not false. If you write false fiction, it’s bullshit. So where does the truth come? Truth comes from personal experience that informs formal structure of story. It’s that, that beautiful mixture of the peanut butter and chocolate that gives us the peanut butter, the formal structure is Shawn’s rulebook of 620 fours and starring units and blah, blah, blah, and five commandments and nine this and to have that one of this, that whole structural form is very important. Why? Because it constrains your variant of experience. And you can laser focus, what was the thing about me committing a crime, that could get me in jail? What was that thing? I don’t have to tell anybody about it, all I can do is I can use it in the story and turn that into Randles problem. So it’s very specific. It’s not just like, oh, I once hurt somebody’s feelings, or I forgot to brush my teeth. Not good enough. Right? It’s gotta be a literal crime. You You broke the law, or you considered breaking the law? What if that happened? What would you do to make it right? That’s what Randall does, when he walks into that police station. He cannot sit with the wrong in his mind any longer. And now’s the time that he’s going to stand up for what’s just that man lost his life. I contributed to the loss of that life. And I am going to stand up and say so, and I’m going to point my finger at the person who took his life, even if that means I might lose mine. I will not stand for this any longer. I am going to raise my value and use that value to generate behavior instead of not even thinking about value.


Okay? I mean, we can probably stop there. I mean, I feel like I know what you’re asking me to do. And it’s just gonna take a minute.


So one thing that yeah, you’re so close. I mean it. Sorry. Sorry, Leslie, go ahead.


One thing I would add is that the 624 is not just an analytical structure, it’s a process. And that when we walk through those questions, step by step and make the connections between the parts, it seems to help. So I’m just putting that out there. I think I mentioned this a few times, you know, I’ve mentioned it a few times. And I keep coming back to it, because I think it’s important, because if you don’t have all those foundational pieces in place, then it’s really hard to go. Okay, I’m gonna go right this scene. And that’s the place where we can line up all the slots and the things that go in the slots in advance, and ask questions and clarify, in order to Yeah, to set you up for success in writing the writing those scenes. So I would argue for that person, you know, pursuing that path, but there are many paths to a successful result.


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The Book

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

First Time Writer

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


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