[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
You’re listening to the 115th episode of the podcast and I get feedback from a lot of you talking about how I’m so honest and open and brave, like sharing my writing. We’ve talked about some of that on the show before, but I’m going to be honest with you, this was the first episode I almost cut something out of it. I’ve been really struggling with the nonfiction book I’m working on and figuring out the right inciting incident at the beginning of the book. Sean and I started talking through that. Then right at the end of the episode, I hit this place of vulnerability that really scared me.
After the episode, I actually thought seriously about cutting it out, but my promise to myself and to you is always that I just leave the podcast as is, all the dirty stuff and all the messy gets left in, because that’s what it’s like to be a writer. I hope it’s a helpful episode for you. I know that all of us as we write or facing down our own demons, and this is definitely one of mine. As you hear me struggle through it, hopefully it will be helpful for you as well.
Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:38.5] TG: Shawn, this week I wanted to switch gears a little bit, because as a lot of the listeners know I am working on two books at the same time, which I don’t’ recommend anybody ever do in their life. As I continue to work on the threshing, another book that we’ve talked about often on the podcast that I’m working on is a book about the creative process.
It started as an idea, geez almost two years ago. Where I was thinking about writing my practical how-to guide to the war of art, Steve Pressfield’s book was my first thought about it. It’s taken lots of different iterations and we’re now to the point where back in November when you and Steven and I were spending some time together and we were talking about the book and some of the problems with the book and Steve in about four and a half seconds fixed the major problem of the book, which was really nice.
He’s just handed me the fix to my book. As I tell the story, I think about – I’m wondering how much of this book is mine, yours and Steve’s, because Steve fixed the problem with my book and then you gave me the title for the book and said the working title now is Running Down a Dream.
I’ve gone back and I’ve reworked, because I’ve had a full draft on for about nine months, or six months or something. I’ve gone back and started trying to rework the manuscript with this new theme or running down a dream and also with the new what? Steve did was he gave me the ending payoff of the book.
Okay, I want to stop and talk about that. Because we were sitting there talking and I was giving him the idea of the book and pitching the book and he just basically took the story that I tell in the introduction and he’s like, “That’s your ending payoff. Just move that to the end of the book and you’ve got the book.” You and I both were like, “Oh, my God. That’s it.”
Been working on this. I sent you a rework, the introduction and probably about the first 30% of the book or so based on this. At this point, it’s interesting because I keep with the novel, with the threshing, I keep feeling lost, or it’s like, I don’t know what to do next, I don’t know what to do next. With this one, I just feel like I’ve torn in apart and put it back together so many times that it just feel – it’s like, I can’t remember what’s still in the book, what I’ve cut out of the book.
I go back and reread and it and I’m like, “Oh, I thought I cut that story. I guess, that story is still in here.” It’s become in my head this Frankenstein, because I literally wrote big chunks of this two years ago. Some of them are still in the book, some of them aren’t, some of them have been rewritten literally four or five times.
I sent you that and we’ve been talking about when to publish it and how we’re going to publish it. I wanted to get your feedback on where the book’s at, what I need to do because I never know if I’m really, really – or away from being done with the book, or like, “Oh, no. I’m close.”
We just like your feedback and thoughts on looking at what I’ve sent you, where am I at in the process? Am I on the right track? Where do I need to go? What kind of things should I be thinking about? All of those questions.
[0:05:26.1] SC: Right. What I always like to do when I’m unsure of stuff is to really, just take the fundamental principles of storytelling and apply them globally step-by-step. The very first thing, you’re going to be shocked when I say this. The very first question we have to answer, what’s the genre of the book?
[0:05:49.0] TG: Right. This is a nonfiction big idea book.
[0:05:53.2] SC: Right. A nonfiction big idea books have a bunch of characteristics to them. One characteristic is they’re part academic, which means that just to make it simple, it just means that there is backup with scientific proof. It doesn’t have to be 5 million footnotes in your book, but occasionally you have to refer to academic literature that backs up your global thesis, your global big idea.
Okay, so it has to have some academic stuff in it. The second thing is it has to have how to. It has to be extremely practical. You take this big idea, then you unpack it so that step by step, you give a prescriptive path for the reader to apply the big idea in their own life. That’s the second thing. It has to have how-to elements.
The third thing it has to have is narrative storytelling, narrative nonfiction. Big idea is a combination of the top three nonfiction categories, which are academic, how-to and narrative nonfiction.
Narrative nonfiction simply means that you use the toolbox of a fiction writer when you write nonfiction. It doesn’t mean you make up the facts. It just means that you look at all of the facts like a big puzzle. The way you solve the puzzle is by putting on the cape and taking up the pen of the fiction writer.
Okay, so you’re writing big idea nonfiction.
Now, the other thing you have to remember is because the thing that really sucks in the reader the best is what? Which of those things is the thing that really engages a reader? Academic how-to or narrative?
[0:07:52.4] TG: The narrative.
[0:07:53.6] SC: Right. Narrative. Now that we know that, even before we define our big idea, what do you think would be the most effective way to begin a big idea book?
[0:08:05.2] TG: With a great story.
[0:08:06.2] SC: With a great story. A great story. It doesn’t mean it has to be a long-form story. It just has to be simply on theme and to the point. Because it’s a big idea work of nonfiction, I always recommend that you open with the problem. What is the problem and how did you come to realize the problem?
For example in The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell leads his story with a phenomenon that he couldn’t understand. The problem was I don’t understand why hush puppy shoes were basically dead in the marketplace, until this moment in time when they went from 4,000 pairs sold per year to 30,000 pairs, and powers of 10 it went up. How did that happen?
That is the question and the problem that he poses at the very beginning of The Tipping Point. He juxtaposes that with another little story about how crime in New York City fell dramatically by powers of 10 again in the 1990s.
He establishes this problem across multiple disciplines. For your big idea book, you want to say yourself, “I want to start with a story.” One of the best things and Malcolm Gladwell does this in The Tipping Point too, one of the great things about getting your audience to believe what you’re going to tell them is to give personal stories to book end your big idea, so that they know, “Oh, this isn’t just some guy who went into a library and came up with an idea and is now going to prove to us through a bunch of academic stuff that he’s right.”
No, this is the story. This is about a guy who faced his own personal crisis and realized he was facing a huge problem and this is how he went about solving it. What he discovered as he was solving this in his own life is that this was an applicable process that other people could use to solve a similar problem for them too. With that kind of global thinking, what’s the problem that you were trying to solve in your book?
[0:10:28.2] TG: The problem I’m trying to solve with my book, it’s basically taking this vague idea of sitting down and working on your art until you find success. This vague like, just sit down and work and then everything will come. Breaking it and showing that there is actual systematic steps into how this stuff works and how you can accomplish your goals. I feel like the biggest problem is that we all want to pursue our art, but we have no idea the obstacles that we’re going to face and how to overcome those obstacles.
[0:11:08.9] SC: Right. The problem is right now, my life is unbearable. I’m being dramatic, but I have a dream of a future where I’m fulfilled. You want to take the reader from a place of feeling that their life is unbearable to a place where their dream is fulfilled. The story that you want to lead with, the inciting incident of your book should do what?
[0:11:36.0] TG: I mean, it should shape the problem. It should tell a story of what it’s like to be in the problem.
[0:11:42.5] SC: Yes. It should incite the reader to say to himself or herself, “Oh, my gosh. That’s just like me. That’s exactly what I’m going through right now.” That’s a way of having a story inside of a big idea. The big idea of your book is there is a path to fulfill your dreams, a very practical path.
The practical path is akin to running a marathon. It is very, very difficult, but with the right training, with the right work, you can get 26.3 miles to the end of your dream and realize that dream. What you’re providing here are the prescriptive tools for someone to get from a dream to realizing the dream.
In addition to that, what’s the other thing about a story that people are going to want to have by the end? Now that’s a weird question, but I’ll just answer it for you because –
[0:12:42.9] TG: Well, can I take a –
[0:12:44.6] SC: Yeah. Please do.
[0:12:44.9] TG: I mean, is it the surprising, but inevitable end?
[0:12:48.4] SC: That’s correct.
[0:12:50.2] TG: Hey, I’ve been listening all these years.
[0:12:54.0] SC: That’s exactly right. Your ending payoff has to be surprising, but inevitable.
[0:12:59.4] TG: Which I think we have.
[0:13:01.4] SC: Yes, absolutely true. What we need to do in the very introduction – this is really that, once you create the prologue or introduction to a big idea book and it’s usually not longer than 10%, 15% of the entire word count of the book. You’re talking 4,000 to 5,000 words at the very, very high-end. Once you created that beginning hook for a big idea book, the rest of the stuff almost writes itself. You already have – how many tools do you have? Like 50?
[0:13:35.9] TG: Well, I mean I’ve cut them down and this is what I mean. I have like 50 altogether, but I’ve also cut a bunch of them and rearranged them and squashed them together.
[0:13:47.7] SC: Let’s just call it 50. Let’s just call it 50. Those 50 tools, that your middle build. You’re going to build baby steps and then there is a little bit more advanced stuff. Here is what you do when you start getting success and here is what the pros do.
It’s like this really nice building block of tools that you as jus the average person with a creative dream will be able to follow in a way that will push them through all the pain and suffering of the creative process, so that they will know what to do when they hit a roadblock or an obstacle.
Your middle build is really yeah, you’re going to maybe make it 49, or 46, or 52, or whatever it is that you finally end up. You’re pretty clear about what that stuff is, so what your major problem is right now is to really center in sight and hook the reader with your beginning story.
One of the things I’ve always said to you is the reader is going to want to know what was your crisis, what was your breaking point, what forced you to leave your everyday world and embark on a course of action that you had no understanding of? It was completely unknown. It was chaotic and terrifying. Something happened to you as a person that pushed you into accepting that call.
[0:15:23.6] TG: I mean, for me it was getting my first two jobs out of college and realizing there is no way I can actually live this life.
[0:15:33.0] SC: What was wrong with the life?
[0:15:34.8] TG: I felt like I had something inside of me that I wanted to do and these jobs were much more interested and squelching that than helping it thrive.
[0:15:46.3] SC: Right. You face a very difficult best bad choice situation.
[0:15:51.1] TG: Yeah. I mean, I could have stayed, made decent money and had a normal life without a lot of stress around money. I would’ve had to check in my soul at the door to do it.
[0:16:04.0] SC: Right. Because you were not tasked with creating anything and you were just tasked with maintaining the status quo pretty much. I’m going to pull up your – where you have so far for your introduction.
Now, I gave you the advice of being very specific about telling the reader about a very specific time period and a very specific moment in time. You begin this with the following sentence, “In March of 2006, I found myself walking down a long hallway towards a door I was terrified to knock on.”
What that is is a great setup. Meaning, you were luring the reader into your world. When you do something like that, you had to be very, very thoughtful about how quickly to move them along. Because now, they are literally picking over your shoulder as you’re walking down a long hallway.
My point is that this is a story that you’re making a promise to the reader. When you open up your book, I’m now going to tell you a story about what that hallway represented, what I was going to do and why it terrified me. That’s an intriguing beginning.
Now the next sentence is, “As I passed by the various offices, I glanced at my co-workers. They didn’t look up. Each of them was focused on their computer or talking on the phone, or in meetings. They were working, as they should be since we were all at work. One of their colleagues walking down the hall wasn’t something of note. However, for me this was everything.” Okay, so let’s just stop there.
This is a situation where you Tim, the fiction writer isn’t working. You are now put on something called a nonfiction writer’s hat. What you’re doing is telling the reader things, instead of showing the readers things.
You haven’t really constructed the story like you would if it were fiction. You’ve structured the story in a way in which you were reporting the events of the story, instead of telling the story. Does that make sense?
[0:18:17.9] TG: Abstractly, I want to say like I’ve heard that advice before, but I feel like that’s what I was doing. Then I’m like, “Well, I must not understand because I’m not actually executing it.” Does that make sense?
[0:18:32.6] SC: Yeah, it does. It’s easy for me to sit here and say that’s what you’re doing without. Let’s just take a step back and say, let’s write a story about a guy who quits his job. It’s going to be written in the first person. The inciting incident of the story of the guy who quits his job is going to be what, do you think? What’s going to incite somebody to quit their job?
[0:18:57.0] TG: Well, I mean it could be a bad meeting. It could be a conversation with their wife. It could be just waking up one day and realizing I’ve had enough. Or are you asking me what finally put me over the edge?
[0:19:13.4] SC: Yeah, I’m asking you.
[0:19:15.3] TG: Really. Okay, so I’ll just – I’m just going to start talking. It’s like, part of me wants to keep this succinct, because this is a podcast episode and I don’t know if people want to hear all of my issues.
On the other hand, I mean there is a – I’m just going to start talking and maybe we’ll cut this out. I’ve been spending some time with some friends of mine that have had to make some really hard choices in their life. One of the things I’ve noticed is they made a decision four years ago that put them on a path to making the hard decision two months ago.
A year before I quit my job to go out on my own, I come to this crossroads where I had been offered this job at like the biggest company in my town, making better money that I’d ever made and good job security. Everybody I knew that worked there worked there forever. My uncle had worked there for 40 years or something.
I had this opportunity to take this job and then I had an opportunity to take this other job that gave me more – what I thought would be more flexibility and more freedom. I knew at that point that if I took the first job, I’d be taking a path that I really didn’t want to take.
I took this other job that didn’t pay very well and I ended up leaving it to go to a different job, knowing that I’m taking job until I get to the point where I quit. Because I had decided a year before this, or two years before this that I was not going to box myself into something just for the security of it.
What actually got me to quit my job was I was just tired of putting off this dream and I was just going to go for it, because I was so afraid that if I didn’t go for it now, I would get a house with a mortgage and – My first son was two-months-old when I quit my job. I’m like, “We’re going to have more kids. If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it. I just have to do it now.”
It wasn’t like some huge awful thing that put me over the edge. It was just like I knew I wanted something different. I finally reached the point where if I was afraid that if I didn’t do it now, I would never do it.
[0:21:48.0] SC: I understand. Yeah, that makes perfect sense. I think a lot of people can relate to that. There are moments in everyone’s life that we just know. Now this is a major fork in my life.
The reason why I’m asking you is that the key point that’s going to make this book really, really court into a lot of people, is your ability to be able to tell a story that other people can understand, that explains exactly what you’re talking about. I had a similar experience when I graduated from college.
You’re right. What you do is you decide, “I’m going to buy some time,” right? It’s almost what other people would call self-sabotage. They would say, “I don’t know why Tim didn’t take that job at that big company.” Probably your relatives and people close to you probably thought you were nuts when you didn’t take that great big job, but they didn’t say anything.
What they were saying is, “I don’t know why Tim self-sabotages himself all the time. He gets this great opportunities, they come to him and what does he do? He walks away from them and takes worse opportunities. We don’t get it.” People who have been in your position totally get it.
When I was in college, I was hell bent when I got there to go to medical school, for the exact same reason that you wanted to get that big job. It represented financial security. After I graduated from college, I got an incredible offer to get an MD and a PhD from two of the best schools in the country.
I didn’t turn them down. I said, “I’m going to take a year off and I will get back to you. Will the offer still stand?” They said, “Yeah, definitely. Just get back to us in New Year.” They’re still waiting for me to get back to them.
[0:23:40.8] TG: I’m sure. They’re like, “One day, he’s coming back.”
[0:23:43.5] SC: No, no, no. That’s not to my warrant. What it was saying is everything I thought I wanted, I really didn’t want. It wasn’t this miraculous moment of crisis. It was essentially the thing that we always talk about is ruining us, which is resistance.
Resistance has a good part to it too, because it makes you really, really consider things deeply. I’m just wondering, is there some kind of personal story – you’re right, this could be the most boring podcast in the history of podcasts. This is the way – you have to think when you’re a write is you’ve got to poke around the problem. The problem we’re trying to solve is how do we suck people into this book, so that we can make a promise to them and deliver the promise in a surprising and inevitable way?
The promise we want to make people is if you stick it out and read this entire book, what you are going to find are great tools to get you what you want. At the end of the book, you are going to be surprised that you will learn how to get what you need too. That’s pretty great. It’s very lofty right now. It’s not very specific, but that sounds pretty good. That’s a book that I’d want to read, which is I’m going to teach you how to get what you want and I’m going to surprise at the very end by teaching you that you’re going to give what you need too.
I think if we use that phrase and walked it back and said, “What story can we tell about Tim in this very beginning that will set up that big payoff at the end of your introduction?” You’re literally maybe the last sentence of your introduction prologue should be, not only am I going to tell you how you get what you want in this book, how to run down your dream, I’m going to tell you how to get what you need from that dream. What you should – I’m being a little vague here, because we’re not quite there. That’s the big payoff is that you’re going to get what you want and you’re going to get it as a bonus. I’m going to tell you how you’re going to get what you need.
If we can get that clearly in the reader’s head at the very beginning of this book, oh my gosh, this book is going to tell me everything I need to do to get what I want and then it’s going to give me a big payoff at the end, that’s going to tell me how to get what I need too. That could sustain their going through the entire book and actually really being moved by the ending.
I think what you have right now is a hell of a lot of story ideas in this introduction. What you need to do is to pick one story that will setup the rest of the story and then at the ending payoff of your story, the epilogue so to speak, the part three that’s when you pick up, I’ve reached my dream. Now what? That’s the ending payoff.
[0:26:59.1] TG: I mean, we’ll just go ahead and talk about what the ending payoff is. The ending payoff is this idea that anything external that you achieve is never actually going to be enough. What you find at the end of the journey is that you’ve been carrying with you everything you always needed all along.
[0:27:20.5] SC: I think it’s a little bit more clearer than that is that the process by which you ask yourself what you want and go after what you want is actually the thing that satisfies your need. Your need is to – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need that you’re talking about in this big idea book is what’s called self-actualization. It’s at the very, very, very top of the pyramid.
Self-actualization is when we discover our authentic – I mean, just to take a giant philosophical step back for a second. If you believe the following statement, then this is what this book is going to help you. Here is the following statement; for about the past 500 years, the global philosophical operating system for Western culture is that every single individual on the planet is divine. Not specifically divine by any God, but within every single person there is something unique that must be brought out and shared with the community.
Our governments and our social systems have been molded in the west to help people release their inner thing. That is what self-actualization is. It’s when you reach a place where you’ve gotten your primary needs taken care of. Now you are intent on doing the work that you were put on the planet to do.
This is a book for people who have reached the level where they’re strangely discomforted and strangely they feel that their life is not very meaningful and they’ve gotten everything that they thought that they wanted. They got a decent job. They’ve got a nice family. They love and enjoy their family. It’s not to say that they’re disappointed with their family. It just something seems missing. The missing thing is they are not doing the thing that gives them the greatest sense of meaning in their lives. They are not doing that inner genius thing.
[0:29:39.5] TG: See, I would come at it from the angle of what I feel like I’m writing about is I felt like something was broken inside of me and that the way to fix this thing that was broken is to pursue this dream. If I could be successful in pursuing this dream, I would finally fix this thing inside of me that was broken.
If I could write a bestselling book, or I could start a successful company, I would finally get to that place where I’m like, “Okay, I’m not broken anymore.” I feel like this is where a lot of people are is I’ve done my anecdotal survey on my own and I asked the question, “Do you feel like you’re fundamentally broken and you need fixing, or you’re fundamentally good and you just have some layers on top?”
I have one person answer the second version. My ending payoff is to show you that you’ve now done all these work to fix yourself and it’s great and you’ve accomplished your goals, but you were never broken in the first place.
[0:30:55.7] SC: Right, right, right. Okay. I got it. I now remember this in a better way. Okay, well then you got to say that very straightforward. I think maybe the right way to approach your introduction is to say there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those people who think that they have an inner gift that needs to be shared with the world and they dedicate themselves to releasing that gift.
The other kind of people think that they have no gift and they’re completely broken inside, and the only way that they can fix themselves is by achieving things that will make them repair themselves. I’m in the second category.
I think that’s a great way of beginning the story, because that is really at the heart of the message here. Who doesn’t love a bipolar metaphor? I think a lot of people will say, “Yes, I’m exactly like that. I’m the broken person who needs the repair mechanisms. Give me my repair mechanism so I can fix myself.”
[0:32:00.9] TG: What if I tell my inciting incident story, where I’m basically – I’m saying that, like I feel like I’ve got this thing that’s broken. This is a messed up version, because I’m doing off the top of my head. But basically, I’ve got this thing that’s broken and if I take this job, I will be physically fine, but always stay broken. If I go after this thing that’s inside of me, I think if I accomplish it, I will finally be okay. To me, if the surprising but inevitable end is that you were never broken in the first place, I have to set up the book as in I am broken and this book is my story of fixing myself.
[0:32:44.9] SC: Yes, exactly.
[0:32:47.0] TG: I don’t even want to say that there is two sides to it. I’m just saying this is me and this is my story of becoming unbroken.
[0:32:57.5] SC: That works. Then the ending payoff is it took me a long time to figure this out, but there was nothing wrong with me.
[0:33:05.6] TG: Yeah.
[0:33:06.9] SC: It was the pursuit of a goal, the pursuit of a dream that gave you what you needed, which is understanding your primary self. Which is that you’re not broken. You’re like everybody else, you got something inside of you, it took you a long time to find out what it was, you’re constantly changing and nobody knows exactly, like look at something like Seth Godin. There is a guy who does a million different things in his life.
He doesn’t say to himself, “I’m only going to do this one thing, because it’s what I’m supposed to do.” He’s constantly evolving and changing and trying different things all the time. That’s a really good indication that he’s looking for new, fresh projects. Because when we create something out of nothing, that is what our job is.
You could’ve taken that job at that big successful company and created a whole new product, or a whole new part of the thing, or who knows what you could have done? It would’ve been really hard because of all the bureaucratic stuff, I suspect. That would’ve been a possibility, but your problem wasn’t the company. It was you needed to lock-in on a dream. You needed specificity in order to discover the truth.
I like the idea of you talking about how in 2006 you were broken and you set out to fix yourself. I wasn’t a very good employee. I wasn’t this. I wasn’t that. What I wanted to do was to build something on my own so that I could prove to myself that I could do things and create things that nobody else in the planet could. This is my story and these are the tools I used in order to realize my dream. It was a long hard road, but let me share with you the things that I used to do it.
A lot of the stuff that you have now is like a mismatch of really solid pokes around the heart of the matter. What you need to do is just write the heart of the matter, no matter how long or short it is. Then we can build off of that. Really, the thing you want to say to people is I was broken. I went on a course to fix myself, let me tell you what I found out.
[0:35:25.3] TG: Okay. I mean, all we’ve talked about is the introduction. I mean, we’re talking about publishing this book in June. That’s a tad over three months away. What am I looking at as far as like what you’ve been of the rest of the book? I guess, I’m worried that okay, we’ll get the introduction set and then we look at the rest of the book and it’s not anywhere near where it needs to be. Have you gotten a chance to read past the introduction at all that I sent you?
[0:36:02.3] SC: No, not really. I read the version a while back ago. I don’t know how much it’s changed.
[0:36:09.8] TG: I guess, I’m wondering like –
[0:36:11.1] SC: Look. Don’t worry about the June publication thing, because the very difficult thing is cracking the beginning hook of a big idea book. Because you once you crack the beginning hook, then you know how to structure the middle build you’ve got and the ending payoff you got.
It’s just, we need to clarify the messaging so that it feels very organically told, as opposed to – right now it feels like, you’re spanning the glove of Tim experiences, instead of telling a very linear straightforward story that you are editing out the stuff that doesn’t matter. Right now, it feels like there’s a lot of stuff in there that isn’t on theme.
If your theme is going to be fixing a broken self, then the stories that you tell within the book have to be how you were broken and how you set about to fix that and how successful you were.
You have your inciting incident is I was broken. I realized I was broken and I needed to change myself. The progressive complications are I was broken in this way so I tried this. Didn’t really work out that well until I tried this. Then that fixed the deal. I was broken, you get around saying it’s like a series of things like that.
[0:37:32.6] TG: I fixed that part and now this part presented itself and I was broken in this way, and here is what I used to fix that part.
[0:37:40.2] SC: The concept of running down a dream is that you are literally moving forward, like a marathon runner on each one of these obstacles. As you’re moving forward, their way stations, then you have to hit before you can get to the next one. It’s not simple, but it is straightforward. It’s hard work, but the concepts are not crazy difficult. It’s the thing that keeps you going is the will to just press forward on that particular problem until that’s solved and then you move on to the next one, etc.
Thematically, running down a dream is about using the metaphor of a marathon runner as a tool to get people to get the thematic thing, like this is a long road. Plan for the long road and here are the tools that you can use along the way.
[0:38:39.2] TG: Okay. I mean, does that clash with the theme of fixing my broken self?
[0:38:44.4] SC: No. No, it’s like Die Hard. When John McLane is in the building, he’s got to get tools to help fix the next problem. His goal was to survive and he did that. He didn’t die. It says Die Hard. If you’re going to die, die hard. Boy, I’m really pushing the theme here.
It’s not really about dying. It’s about not dying. Your book is about fixing yourself by going on a journey. The journey is a marathon, except the journey of the hard work have changed and it will pay off in ways that you have no idea. Boy, am I going to tell you what the big payoff of this thing is a little bit further on down the road. You still seem a little unsure of what to do.
[0:39:34.9] TG: Well, I mean, I feel like I need to go back to the introduction and rewrite it again. I mean, I feel like we got clarity that I didn’t have before about the broken thing, because that is what the ending payoff is is to show you you were never broken in the first place, but yet we’re all on these journeys to try to fix ourselves.
[0:39:59.0] SC: What’s also great is that that great story about your story, like there is a great story of a genius who fixed a broken system just out of pure personality. Your dad started – fixed a really bad problem for little Debbie, just by using his inner genius. He didn’t have to hire any – This is a guy who had his own freedom.
Your dad says the inspiration for your longing for freedom, because your dad figured it out, right? He figured out how to have his own life and still enjoy the work that he did by innovating and creating new systems that were actually adopted by his parent company. The bottom line is that your dad figured out how to find freedom and to self-actualize at the same time. That’s a really good story of how – You might juxtapose your problem with the way your dad is.
I always wanted to be like my dad. Here is what my dad does. My dad found the perfect job that makes him happy. The reason why it makes him happy is because he is his own boss. He does the things his way and he’s rewarded when he figures out new systems. Geez, when I go to work with my dad who is incredible and all I want is what my dad have, but I found it difficult to get what my dad has, because I’m not as good as my dad. I’m a broken thing and my dad is a fully realized person.
If I could fix myself, maybe I can get what my dad has. Let me think about the way my dad approaches this career and maybe I can apply some of those lessons to my own life. Well, my dad has a theory, freedom is really important to my dad. He found a way to get it. Freedom is really important to me. How am I going to get that?
You can start to see how you’re using a story to guide your life and that’s how we do it. Your father’s success and personal satisfaction and self-actualization, you hold up as an idyllic model. When you get stuck, you think about, “Well, how did my dad handle it? How did my dad handle problems? Did he listen to all the rule books? No, he didn’t. Was he cordial to the guy who ran the store and ask him if he minded if he idled his truck instead of driving in the back?”
All these really innovative smart sensible answers to very difficult questions your father figured out. Also, he literally delivered cake to people. He delivered jewelry to people every single day. That’s pretty amazing. Realizing, I don’t have to have a job of executive vice president to have meaning in my life.
If some people find very meaningful lives by doing and creating things, then nobody even really recognize this. That’s a pretty damn good life. I think you might want to think about – It’s like that Aaron Copland Symphony for the Common Man, which is one of the most beautiful pieces American music ever made. It’s about that process, where we find the thing that gives us joy and how to get there.
The broken thing, how can you meld a broken element like – I think everybody can relate to, I will never be as good as my father. My father did this and that provided me with so many great advantages in my life. I’m broken, whereas my dad is whole. How is dad whole and how am I broken? Let me count the ways. Let me fix me using my own marker that I appreciate. Again, I’m just spit-balling here.
[0:44:02.9] TG: Yeah. I think at this point, I just need to take another crack at it. Your sense is if I can write an introduction for this first part of the book, that works. That will help take care of the rest of the book and knowing where to go. I mean, because like I said like we’ve talked about, I’ve written a full draft of this, but you feel like that will get me a lot closer to where I can actually finish it; go back and rework it.
[0:44:31.4] SC: Yeah. I think the other – just to take a step back, the other thing about inciting incidents and beginning hooks is that they have to be on theme with the ending payoff. The ending payoff of your book is we aren’t broken. We just have layers of stuff that we have to scrape off to find our true selves.
Your beginning hook should be on theme. Your beginning hook should be about being broken, and then because then the payoff is I wasn’t broken. I just had a bunch of crap that I have to scrape off, right?
[0:45:04.3] TG: Right.
[0:45:05.8] SC: To be on theme has to deal with wholeness? Am I whole, or am I just a splintered bunch of strange behaviors? I think we all think like we’re just a big gobbledygook of strange behaviors. If we could just get everything together and press it together in a really good ball, then we’d be whole.
Your introduction has to be, “I am a bunch of strange behaviors and I have to fix it. I know this and that’s why I left my job, because the only way I knew I could fix it was by creating something that was mine and mine only.”
Now you’ve come to this book have a similar dream. You want to move from this level of dissatisfaction with yourself and a bunch of broken – you’re pretty good at some things, you’re not so good at others, you’re not sure, you’re blah, you’ve got all these strange fragments of pieces and you want to put them together so it would make us a really cohesive whole. This is the process in which I went about making myself whole and you can too.
[0:46:22.7] TG: Okay. I think I just need to take another crack at it and just see if I can get closer.
[0:46:26.8] SC: Your goal is to write a story about a guy who’s broken. He realizes it and decides the only thing you can do is to strike out on his own. There is a moment when we realize this world is not for me. I have to strike out in the new territory and build something myself. That is a pilgrimage. That is what people do to find the answers to questions that they don’t have answers to.
It’s a very scary thing. You’re going into uncharted territory and that is the hero’s journey. Yeah, none of us want to take up that call. Until you realize, “I’ve been avoiding this fight three years. It’s time I do it. If I don’t do it now, I’ll be waiting until my kids go to college and then I’ll be too tired.”
This is the moments when like a lot of times, I stupidly was just start writing the thing for the client. Then I send it to them and they go, “No. That’s not it at all.” Then that’s not helpful. When you get stuck, think about the structure of a story. How am I going to incite? What’s my story? How do I tell a 1,000-word scene? Just write a scene where a guy realizes he’s broken and then he has to fix himself.
[0:47:49.8] TG: It’s like I do feel better, but I won’t know until I get into it, you know what I mean?
[0:47:55.1] SC: Yeah. I know. You just have to keep poking different places. It gets frustrating after a while, because like, “Ah, I tried that and it didn’t work. Man, do I have to try something else now?” It feels better to me, because it’s about being broken and then being whole.
When you get stuck, think about the principles of a story. The beginning has to mirror the end. It has to be on the same thing. The beginning gives the protagonist the intention, the want throughout the whole story. The beginning of your story has to give you the want to go about fixing yourself, and then telling the story of how you were incited to incentivize yourself to go out and fix yourself, will get the reader to want to know how you did, or did not fix yourself and what you found out.
Then when you get to the ending payoff you’ll say, “Hey, I reached my dream. Now what? I’ve already gone through the tape of the marathon. Here it is. Guess what? It doesn’t seem all that great. I don’t feel fulfilled. Why is that?”
[0:49:06.3] TG: I keep thinking of the moment. I actually opened what we’re talking. I have the work of art here in front of me. It’s the last page. It says the artist life and it’s right before with gratitude and all of that.
On the page, second paragraph, four sentence it says, “Do it or don’t do it.” When I read that, it makes me feel awful, because I think I remember reading that and thinking, “Why can’t I do it?” I want to do it, but why can’t I do it? I remember thinking after I quit my job and I’ll have to check with Candice to find out the exact timeline, but it was like six or eight months after I quit my job is when I ran out of money. I had to ask my parents for money to pay my mortgage.
Not only did I turn down this job that would’ve given me financial and career security, I put myself in the hole. It was that moment when I thought like, “I can’t do this. Why is everybody else able to do this and I can’t?” That’s the moment when I’m like, “Something’s wrong with me.”
I can either go try to fix it, or I can just give up and go back and see if they’ll still hire me at that place. Maybe that’s the inciting incident is when like –
[0:50:46.9] SC: That’s pretty powerful. That’s pretty powerful. It’s that great line from the boxer Mike Tyson. Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face. That punch in the face is called the all is lost moment. It’s when we define ourselves. You said, “You know what? Enough. I’m going to fix whatever is inside me that’s broken and I’m going to go out and I’m going to bring out the tools necessary to get that done.”
I think that’s a crisis moment that without the love of your family and your wife and your kids, a lot of guys quit. You are blessed with a family that were like, “You know what, Tim? You got to do it. If you think you need to fix yourself, then go fix yourself. We don’t want you to be miserable. Life isn’t about being miserable and just getting white-knuckling it through.” That’s true, and you’re right. Do it or don’t do it.
If you don’t do it, then that’s okay. Make that decision. Live with that decision and find fulfillment elsewhere. The place where you needed to fulfill yourself was in your career. That’s perfectly valid. That’s a very, very good story. It’s a moment that everybody can relate to. People need to know, this is no joke man. This is no joke. You can push yourself to the precipice and you know what? You got to have a plan. Here is my plan that got me off of the precipice. It got me from jumping into the abyss, because I was right there guys. Trust me.
Your family love you and everything, but they’re not going to pay two mortgage payments in a row. Your wife is going to love you until there isn’t any food in the cupboard. Then you got to man up and do what’s necessary. You did that now. You did that in the moment. It’s a great story, because I know how it ends. I know you had to check in your hand and you couldn’t deposit. That was a moment of truth of you.
It’s like that great story about the rich man who this poor man goes up to the rich man and he says, “How do you do it? How do you do it?” Then he says, “I’m going to tell you my secret. I have a 4 karat diamond that I always have in my drawer. I always know if I need to cash in that diamond, I will. I never have, because when it gets close to that, I just work a little bit harder and I scratch it out.” He says, “My gift to you, here is the diamond.”
Now the guy has got a real responsibility, right? Because he’s carrying around somebody else’s diamond. Your father and your mother gave you their diamond and said, “Here you go, Tim. Here’s our diamond.” You took that diamond and you said, “Thank you. I’m going to see if I don’t have to use it.” You didn’t. That’s a great story too.
You’re filled with great stories, Tim. It’s just which ones do you tell that are on theme that will best suck in the reader to the point where they go, “Oh, my God. I got to see what happens next,” because he couldn’t have gone from being in the hole and not being able to pay his mortgage to New York Times bestselling writer, whatever it was you were. All your clients who were –
[0:54:02.4] TG: Not that.
[0:54:02.8] SC: Now you had multiple ones. You didn’t go from zero to superstar overnight. Then went and go, “How did he do that? What did he do after he couldn’t pay his mortgage? I want to know what that is.” That’s a great push to get them to start your middle build. Well, let me tell you here is what I did when I couldn’t pay my mortgage.
You see now how this thing is starting to gel. You absolutely believed you were broken. You know what? You were broken. You were broken. You did fix yourself. Yeah, we all have genius within us, but there’s a lot of fragments around it too. Yeah, I think you’re totally on the right track and I think that’s a money story that is really going to pay off. Maybe just focus on that one story.
Here is the deal, I thought it was a big shot. I quit my job, I was going to devour the world. Then this is what happen, now what?
[0:55:00.9] TG: All right. I can write that.
[0:55:02.9] SC: Okay.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:55:04.0] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletters so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe.
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