Episode 280: How to Connect with Characters: Finding the Motivation and Shadow in Yourself

Tim Grahl  00:00

Hello, and welcome to this Story Grid Podcast. My name is Tim Grahl. I am the CEO of Story Grid Universe, and I’m a struggling writer trying to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is not Shawn Coyne or Leslie watts, it’s just Danielle Kiowski, the Chief Academic Officer of Story Grid University. So this episode kind of came about organically, Danielle and I were on our weekly business call. But then we started talking about the most recent episode of the podcast, my struggles with doing this eyewitness scene. And we started getting into my writing. Now in general, I have this rule that if we’re going to talk about my writing, we have to record it for the podcast. Now at this point, I still wasn’t planning on recording it for the podcast. So it’s a very organic conversation. But as we got deeper into it, I realized we should just put this up as an episode of the podcast because we talk about a lot of the same things we talked about on the podcast. And it really helped me have some clear understanding into what my blocks have been in rewriting my own version of eyewitness by Ed McBain. So if you’re watching this on the YouTube version, you’ll see it’s just a zoom recording. It’s low resolution, it’s not super high resolution. And the other thing is, if you’re listening to this is that the audio isn’t as good as it usually is, because I was using, I wasn’t using this microphone, which makes me sound better. Same thing for Danielle as well. But towards the end, we just realized like this is something we wanted to share with all of you and make sure that you hear all the behind the scenes of the stuff that we’re working through. So I think it’s a really great episode. It’s definitely different than what we normally do. But we still hit on the same subject. So I’m just going to go ahead and let it speak for itself. So let’s jump in and get started. I mean, to me, when you when you talked about how building a real world building context, in a real world is just as hard as building a fantasy world is just coming at the same problem from the different direction. What I heard in that, too, is it’s the same thing with writing narrative nonfiction, which is like, in in some so in some ways, it’s harder, because it’s like, I literally only have these facts to work with. So so I’m I’m working on a book right now, that is trying to novelize My EMDR experience. And so I’m writing it. And so it’s a very weird feeling to write it about 10,000 words into it. Because I’m writing it as if I’m writing it the way I wrote running down a dream, which is I’m writing it as if it’s a real story. So it’s like, I’m in a canvas is in my voice or in it. Like every it’s I’m telling like all the true stories. The EMDR portions are really easy. So I went back and rewatch big fish. Did you ever see that movie? So what I was the reason I watched it is there’s a framing story that is happening in reality. And it’s a it’s a father son story. But most of the movie are these fantastical stories. It’s a Tim Burton movie, right? So it’s very tin Bernie fantastical stories in between and the whole thing was his dad used to tell these insane stories. That obviously didn’t happen. And I think about that, yeah. Okay, so I went back and rewatch it because I’m like, that’s how I’m telling the stories if the framing stories and reality and then I drop into a fantastical world for these EMDR things. So like I have my EMDR therapist is a character but she’s like Minerva from not Minerva, who’s the crazy the crazy teacher at Harry Potter Kalani that yeah the the what’s what did she teach divination? Yes, her. That’s who I’m I started explaining to Kenneth she goes oh to toolani from Harry Potter. I’m like, Yeah. So. So she’s the one that shows up. And then like, drags me into these worlds. And then I the EMDR things are super easy. They just pour right out of me. But I’ve been trying to figure out this framing story. And I realize I’m going to tell I’m going to compact down. Basically every mistake I made as a father and husband and just cram them all into this one framing story which will only probably end up being In 10,000 words of the story, so it’s going to be a novella on its own. But I realized, like, Oh, I’m doing the same thing I did and running down a dream, which was like, editing, taking what happens, but then putting it into a narrative that made a lot, that makes a lot more sense. Because this is part of what I talked to Sean about about, I feel like I’m pretending to be a writer, instead of writing is I can’t figure out how to get into this space, without it being me.

Danielle Kiowski  05:40

Oh, interesting. Okay. All right. So I sent

Tim Grahl  05:43

him over the few months, a couple months ago, I wrote two of my EMDR experience stories, and I sent it to him. And he’s like, this is the best stuff you’ve ever written. Like it was like, and it was like first draft? Because it’s like, I’m just, it was just weird thing. Because they’re completely fantastical. So that’s the struggle I’m currently having is like, how do I get into that same space? Where I feel like I’m just like, telling the truth about what happened, when it didn’t actually happen to me. Okay, does that make sense? It does.

Danielle Kiowski  06:25

It does. And a couple of thoughts. So one, just when you were talking about big fish, and about like, the way that you’re thinking about the story, it reminded me of everything everywhere all at once.

Tim Grahl  06:36

Yeah, I just watched that. About a month ago.

Danielle Kiowski  06:39

Yeah, that’s, um, I see that in very much the same way that I read this article in speculative journaling. And it was, it was interesting, because it was it reminded me a lot of what you said about the threshing that it’s like, this thing happened to me. But it’s boring to watch. So I’m adding in elements to make the outside match the inside. Yeah. And that’s what I felt like everything else everyone else wants is doing. And so it seems really similar to what you’re talking about with you drop in and, and on the question of like, then how do you do that when it’s not you? I think what it sounds like to me is that when you go into these, the EMDR states, and you have these experiences, that you’re tapping into your story sense. And you’re generating these things, and they’re coming to you fully formed, because you don’t have all the stuff in the way between, you know, whatever it is like that access to, to innate storytelling, or the collective subconscious or whatever it is. But you have like the ability to to have to tap into that story river. And so what happens is that they come out, and they work. And they conform to all of these things, but it’s all implicit. And so, what you’re trying to do, whenever you write something that’s not coming from that experience, is you have to then make it explicit. And that feels a lot clumsier, because you’re having to break down a methodical way of doing it. That isn’t just like relying on instinct. And so I can see why that would be really frustrating, because it’s like, if I can do it in this one arena, why can’t I do it in this other arena, but it’s like, I don’t.

Tim Grahl  08:41

I don’t, I understand. I understand that. And I understand that’s why. But it’s like, like, with, with, you know, the eyewitness thing. It’s like, how do I meld those, like, you know, how do I get from here, from here to there, right. And that’s the thing. And so it’s like, because so before, so before I started working on this, so I had this moment, it all like the whole book, like downloaded into my head one morning while driving to work like two weeks ago, this one, the VR one before that, because it’s like, I’m only working on one scene a week and so it’s driving me crazy. So I was like, I got to work on stuff in between. So I had this I came up with what I thought was a pretty good setup for a crime story. Characters, you know, and trying to attach is going to happen within a church system. So there’s all these like secrets and hiding and everything else. But it was the same way where I kept feeling like I was telling this story It was it coming out, right? So then I’m like watching myself, like I’m watching myself, right? Instead of writing. It’s like I had this conversation with my dad a couple months ago, where I’m like, you’ve got to stop trying to be my father when we’re together. Because what happens is, is you’re watching yourself, interact with me, which means you’re over here. Like, there’s always space between us, because you’re up here watching yourself interact with me, you’re not just interacting with me. And that’s what it feels like when I’m writing for the eyewitness stuff. And when I’m writing these other stories is it feels like I’m constantly watching myself, right? Instead of just writing. Yeah, that makes sense.

Danielle Kiowski  10:57

It does. And something that occurs to me is that I don’t know if this is causal. But it seems like a lot of a lot of that is arising whenever you approach a crime story. And so maybe there’s something about that genre. You know, and I’m remembering about like, the, the neighbor, who was spying on his neighbor or somebody who had like a thriller that

Tim Grahl  11:29

you were Oh, yeah. Yeah. And it seemed

Danielle Kiowski  11:32

like, it seems like maybe you have some sort of a block with that, like, crime thriller area. And I wonder if maybe you tried, start tried writing something else that’s primal. So like, get out of the action space, but not to crime? Like try doing a horror story. And see if you’re still finding that,

Tim Grahl  11:52

why it feels it felt. So this is what like, I hit my head, because this is I felt the same way about the Earth see one, right. Okay. Okay. It feels like when I’m trying to learn how to do something, right. And this is where it’s like, I don’t know how I don’t always think this is a bad thing, right? Because this is where I now use jujitsu. Right. So it’s like, we did a we did, like, we had this world champion come in yesterday and did like a three hour seminar. And it’s super interesting, because he’s, so I’m a purple belt. So I’m like, somewhere in the middle. But we had people that have been training less than two months in the room, and people that have been training 15 years in the room, and he’s trying to teach, and there’s 100 of us. And there’s one guy in the middle teaching everybody. And so he’s like, I immediately start, like picking up the move, and then like, but then I find like, these little areas, I’m getting stuck. So I’m working on those. And then you watch the people that have been training for a month. And they’re like, I don’t even know where to put my hands. Right. So I can like start flowing in the move a little bit. Because I know, I know, basically what we’re doing. And then I’m trying to add in the specifics that he’s showing. And so when we’re doing this, I know that part of what I’m doing is it’s like, write a fucking police report, use this narrative device. You can’t use the word compulsively because that has this intonation to it, you have to use methodically or something else that you would see, you know, and I’m like, oh, you know, so that’s, like, part of this exercise is I am supposed to be watching myself, right? Because I’m trying to do something I’ve never done before. So But then, at some point, like, like the final, I remember, this was the final version of the ER C one it finally like, I’m like, Yeah, and it all came right out, you know. And so if I bring away from that, a set of skills that now if I tried to use them, I wouldn’t even realize I was using something I picked up in writing, or C, because it’s got installed now. And I can just use it. So I think of that with this. This is worth beating my head against these things. Because then in three years when I need to write something that involves this kind of a separation, where I can’t put any emotion, I can’t put anything, you know, I’ll have that I can reach into my toolbox and pull that tool out because of this. Yeah. But so this is where I’d like I have to just trust the process because I start having these moments where I’m like, Am I ever going to write anything again? You know what I mean? Like? Because Will I ever not watch myself, right? And then when I’m like writing this EMDR stuff, and it feels so good, I’m like, Yeah, but I, I’ll be done. Like, I don’t have any more shit in there to pull from, you know, and I can’t like keep going back to EMDR and making her like, dig deeper into my psyche to find more shit. So I can write another book. So like, I gotta be able to, like, do other stuff, you know? So it’s like all of this like, and anyway, no, no, you know? I don’t know.

Danielle Kiowski  15:40

Yeah, no, that makes sense. You know, I’m thinking back on the earth see? So that’s a good reflection, because I wasn’t thinking that, that you would have that same like, like witnessing experience there. So it’s good to know that that was true there too. And I’m thinking about how, what unlocked it is that we got down to this is what you have to do. You know, conceptually, you need to write a complex institution. And it was like, it was like scraping away all of the details until it got to that core of like, what is it that you’re not wanting to do? And here and this is what is my sense of it, is that the narrative device isn’t the problem. Because it’s like, you don’t have problems with word choice. You know, once we point out, it’s methodically not compulsively. It’s like, Alright, cool. But you there’s something and I think my sense of the story is really, that there’s something at the essential tactic level that is a blocker for you. Like figuring out what people in this context really want. And I was thinking about talking about the narrative device. methodically is what is what someone like capelli would use, compulsively might be something that someone who’s more corrupt with you, the word choices in a police report are going to change based on the level of corruption or, or culpability of that officer who’s writing it. So if Wilson wrote it, he would use compulsively because he wants to paint Randall in this negative light. And so I think like even those things, it’s getting out really understanding. Understanding everyone’s role in the context. And I’m not sure what that blocker is, but but it seems like we keep settling on the the red essential tactic level as the problem. Yeah, in there. That’s like a stitch.

Tim Grahl  18:05

Yeah. So I rewrote the trip already did it yesterday, I went through it again this morning. Because when I was I was thinking about it this weekend. And I was like, Watson’s really, he would be really angry about this. And he would be angry because it happens. He would also be angry because he can’t do anything about it. Like he would be angry at himself that he’s a coward. For not just saying what happened, but knowing he can’t just say what happened, right? And then I thought, like, if he’s one of the good ones, that means he was friends with bonds. And now he actually feels a little guilty, because they were probably trying to take Wilson down together. And Barnes got killed in the process, even though he’s not actually culpable. He probably feels bad about it too, which makes him even more angry, right? Because Kansas is always like, anger is the safest emotion. So people that don’t feel comfortable with their emotions, they always go to anger. So then I’m like, so he would write this in a way where he was angry. But he has to do it under this particular filling out a police report. Which means he can’t just be like this fucking guy. Like he asked to like, say this fucking guy without saying this fucking guy.

Danielle Kiowski  19:40

We’re also like I think about it as he’s not he’s not writing this as a journal to get his anger out. He’s writing this for purpose. So this is going to internal affairs. And the idea is like He hangs Wilson without paying himself.

Tim Grahl  20:05

Well in this trope he’s trying to hate Dawson.

Danielle Kiowski  20:08

Yeah, right. Right. So

Tim Grahl  20:10

that’s where I’m like, he’s Yeah, he’s trying to hate. That’s what I did that when I read because I just rewrote the trope. I’m like, anyway.

Danielle Kiowski  20:27

So yeah, so one of the things that, that we were talking about, I think we talked about this in the podcast is about how how it’s about connecting to them at that archetypical level. So, you know, Randall is a fish out of water. And that generally, you tend not to be. And and so like, even in this conversation, you’re connecting really strongly with Watson. And I think that, I think that it’s like, you have to connect with both of them in a story like this, and that’s something that’s I think, more difficult than we realized it would be, because you have to access both sides of the archetype. So I think that you’re really getting dialed in to that Watson side. And, and I would, like I’m thinking about times that you’ve done, like, when you emailed, you were doing a very similar thing to like using that communication as a tool to let the person fuck themselves over. Like, that’s what Watson’s doing. So I think it’s I don’t think it’s surprising that you have that strong connection to that Watson side of it. And then it’s like, how do you also connect to Randall in the same way? Or to Dawson? Like do you have to connect to all these people?

Tim Grahl  21:58

Yeah. And maybe that is the same block I was having with the complexity Order and Chaos thing because I, it’s like, yeah, I don’t know what the block is.

Danielle Kiowski  22:12

Yeah. Is it like? Is it like, this is a shitty guy, like, do you think about? Do you think about them in terms of like, good and bad?

Tim Grahl  22:22

No, I think about it in terms of like, like, I can I can get on board with Dawson. I feel like I probably been him at some point where I’m trying to protect something that doesn’t need protecting. I mean, that’s I think it’s the like I’m having trouble. Even in eyewitness, unlike if I was that guy. If I was Struthers, the story would never have existed because I would have never gone in. Because it’s like if if there was a chance that I in the people I love could be harmed by me going in and I’m only going in to relieve myself of something guilt, I would decide it was mine to carry. Does that make sense? Like I’ll just carry that guilt the rest of my life, because I’m the one that was sleeping with this woman which got her killed, which is why I got I witnessed the killing in the first place. And it was all my fault. So why would I risk myself and the ones I love when I can just move forward and carry the guilt? Okay, does that make sense? So when I so when I put myself in Randles shoes. I have a hard time coming up with why he would come in.

Danielle Kiowski  24:08

Right. Okay. Okay. Well, I think I think we’re getting somewhere. You know, I think Struthers doesn’t know he’s the reason why I agree with you. If he knows that their husband that it’s like not as compelling. But he doesn’t know that. So I think I think it’s about he sees what he thinks is a random attack. That’s why he wants to talk to her husband. He knows her husband is Lieutenant. He doesn’t know her husband is the murderer. So he wants to talk to him because he thinks look, if anybody is beyond corruption, it’s her husband because he loved her. And then he finds out Oh, like he finds out that the story is what you just said. And so when he goes in, he’s thinking there’s a maniac on the street. So either I put myself in a position where they might find out my culpability. Or this guy keeps on murdering people, and somebody else loses somebody they love.

Tim Grahl  25:12

Like, as much as I hate to say it. My first reaction, I don’t know if I would do that.

Danielle Kiowski  25:22

So I think the question is like, if you’re in that situation, you witness a murder like that, and you think, Okay, this is going to be a risk to my family, like find your criterion, what is it? What’s the risk? That will get you to come in? And maybe the stories don’t have enough yet, but then amp it up? Like, you gotta you got to find out what would cause you to come in?

Tim Grahl  25:47

Because when I think about him, I think you should not be here. Why did you do this do not come in here. This is not worth whatever you’re getting out of it.

Danielle Kiowski  25:58

I think this is the I think this is what the story is, is like, what the blocker is that you need to unlock for them. All right. I also recognize that’s really hard. When you hold something really sacred, and it’s like, there’s nothing like your family. Like, if there’s any chance to get hurt. I don’t do anything. So I just want to want to recognize, because I felt that way, too. Yeah, well, when

Tim Grahl  26:32

I think about if I was in Randles position, I have almost nothing already. And I probably had something at one point, and it got taken from me, even if I was culpable in it, I don’t have it anymore. And I used to have something because when we worked with the homeless a lot, that was that was always what struck me is it’s like, it’s like you have obviously these people, you know, 99% of the morning born onto the street, have always lived on the street. You know, like they went from having something to having nothing, and something happened in there. And so when I think about this, it’s like he’s risking what little he has, after losing a lot already. To for what to like, you know, help people that he doesn’t know and will never see again. And like he, so I have a hard time feeling responsible for society as a large because I’m like, What can I you know, it’s like, call your congressman and like, and yeah, me and the other 300 million people, you know what I mean? It’s like, whatever. You know, it’s like, I’ll risk it for like my small sis my smaller tribes, but I do not feel connected at that. Country national, like, nationalism makes no sense to me. I don’t even have a category for it. And so you know. So when I think about like him doing it for like the city to keep the city safe. It’s like, why would he do that? The city does it keep him safe?

Danielle Kiowski  28:39

Yeah, no, I don’t I think it needs to be more personal than that. Yeah, so So what I’m thinking of Struthers is he has his family. And he has already betrayed them. And so I hope this articulation will make sense. It’s not like the clearest thing that I have thought. But the idea is that it’s not even like the on the surface. This guy might kill somebody, I don’t know. But it’s like, if I don’t it’s the damnation part of it. Like if I if I don’t act on what I saw, if I let that go, then I’m not the kind of person who can I don’t know how he thinks about it, maybe deserve his family or like that. The instability that he feels is going to ruin what he does have left.

Tim Grahl  29:37

That it has to be something where whatever Randall has. It’s like, he’s gonna lose everything. If he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, if he doesn’t speak up, because he’s going to become the kind of person who can’t have that thing.


I’m wondering about you have that he was on his way back from church. Which wasn’t true. Right. But it was. It was what he came up with. And so if he is if the last thing he has left is a code of conduct, inspire inspired by whatever religion he subscribes to, and then he becomes the kind of person who doesn’t do that. Then he loses the last place he actually belong.

Tim Grahl  30:36

Yeah, like, I wonder if he had a conversation with like, his pastor before coming in? Yeah, I did all kinds of stuff that I didn’t want to do, because it subscribed to the tribe I belong to.

Danielle Kiowski  31:01

Yeah, yeah. Well, I had a friend who, like, he did something that that wasn’t like that bad. You know, it was like, it was like, there was an issue with software licensing. And the leader of his church was like, if you don’t resolve this, you can’t have any positions in the church. And so it took it from like this. victimless? Who cares kind of thing. Yeah, to like, damnation level. From the community, if you don’t like, make sure that all of your licenses are in order. Like, it just became very, it was really interesting. You know, and then, and then he’s feeling like all of that added pressure, because now it’s not just like, oh, this is a financial matter. I need to like, make sure all my ducks are in a row. Now. It’s like, oh, like, I get shamed. If I don’t do this, like, I potentially lose my community lose, like all of the activities that I have going on.

Tim Grahl  32:06

Yeah. And that even that really shifts the motivation because now internal motivation is not to, he doesn’t actually care about what happened. He’s trying to stay a part of this thing over here. Yeah. And so the reason he’s there as all external pressure.

Danielle Kiowski  32:25

Yeah. Right, like we were talking about before that pushing and pulling like he’s, he’s being pushed like, Dawson’s trying to push him out. And something out there is trying to push him in. And I think what you’re finding is what’s pushing him in?

Tim Grahl  32:44

Yeah. Because it can also be like Hello, have you heard of that show? Bad sisters? No. Holy shit. You got to watch this show. This is one of my favorite shows I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a 10 episode run and seven episodes are out and like Candice center is so pissed. We can’t just binge it and finish it. Because we’ve watched all six episodes last weekend, like just boom, boom, boom, boom. I mean, so it’s about that opens with this. This woman’s husband is dead. The woman has four sisters. So there’s five sisters all together. And it’s one of those that like, jumps back and forth from real time to past right. And so what you very quickly find out so I’m not ruining anything is that this and they share this in like the previews and stuff is the sisters are trying to kill him. Oh, okay. Okay, so, you know, like that worked out? Well, no, you know, he’s dead, but you don’t know how or why. Okay. And even like, I’m seven episodes and they’re like building to how he ultimately died. And there’s there’s this added pressure where the the insurance that is supposed to be paid out has an investigator that’s trying to find out what happened. Oh, still, you should watch bad sisters because it’s really good. So on. Apple, Apple, okay.

Danielle Kiowski  34:32

Oh, yeah, that’s fine. Because I was gonna cancel apple. And then I started scrolling through the catalog and I was like, oh, man,

Tim Grahl  34:38

there’s some good stuff in there. They’ve done a good job

Danielle Kiowski  34:40

whatsoever. And that was really good.

Tim Grahl  34:42

Oh, man. Yeah. Oh, yeah. Brian told me you’re watching that. That was another one that was like, Whoa, this is really good. I thought

Danielle Kiowski  34:51

it was going to wrap stuff up. I finished the last episode. I just texted him. No.

Tim Grahl  34:55

Yeah. Yeah. Uh, yeah,

Danielle Kiowski  35:00

that was last weekend activity.

Tim Grahl  35:05

Loss. It’s not, it’s getting somewhere with that of just like, I like this idea. I feel much more like I could connect to it and understand why he’s there. Oh, this is what it was. It was like, you know, there’s like if somebody, like, if like somebody catches somebody and like an affair, and they say you tell your partner or I’m going to, yeah. Right. So now they’re in this quandary of, you know, so I mean, even in the space of like, Look, you saw something like I could see that kind of external pressure to if like he confides in somebody that what he saw, then it’s like, you have to you have to go tell them because because like me, as a third party might give the advice to somebody that they should go report what they saw, because I don’t have to deal with consequences. You know what I mean? And then I could definitely see this at the pastoral level, where they’re like, this is the right thing to do. So you have to do the right thing, even though they don’t have to bear the consequences.

Danielle Kiowski  36:30

Right? And I’m gonna make it easier on you by giving you additional consequences.

Tim Grahl  36:34

If Yeah, yeah. Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. As always, make sure you go to story grid.com, sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid Universe. If you want to download the transcript for this episode, if you missed anything Danielle and I were talking about, or any of the past episodes, you can go to story grid.com/podcast. And I would really just like to thank you for continuing to listen to this podcast and be a part of what we’re doing here at Story Grid. This is a really long and tough journey for me as a writer, and especially as we continue to grow Story Grid behind the scenes. And so the fact that you keep tuning in and listening means a lot, and I hope that you’re continuing to get a lot out of listening to this podcast. So if you want to help out the podcast, of course, you can tell other writers about the show. And you can go to Apple podcasts and leave us a rating and review. But either way, thanks for being a part of what we do here at Story Grid, and we’ll see you next week.


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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.