Game Theory in Story

[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 the Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

In this episode, I had written a couple scenes that were objectively pretty bad. Then I got some inspiration and was able to actually get a scene written that I was happy with and it kicked off a great conversation with Shawn about a new way of looking at story, or another way of looking at story that we haven’t really tackled on this podcast before I think it’s going to be helpful for you. It was helpful for me to start thinking about it from this perspective, so let’s jump in and get started.


[0:00:50.5] TG: Shawn, I watched the new Mission Impossible movie this weekend, The Fallout, because it just came out. Candice and I like those movies, so we always go watching when they come out. Then it got me to go back and watch the last one, which was Rogue Nation. It was funny, I know I’ve seen it. Candice swears we saw it together. I have no memory of that movie. I was like, she kept trying to tell me about it and I’m like, “What are you talking about?” She’s like, “The part and the water,” and I’m like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

We went back and watched that one, and it inspired me a little bit because really what I am is I’m terrified of writing this book. I feel the podcast is making me write it, which is good for me, but at the same time I’m doing it – well, I’m resisting it. I’m trying to slow it down and I keep feeling like I’m writing this not very good stuff, because I don’t really know what to do with myself.

I’d written two scenes and they just weren’t very good, because they’re just slow and then I don’t know what to do. I was watching these movies, which I love pretty much all of the Mission Impossible movies and I’m always struck by like, you always talk about raising the stakes and the power of 10 and all that stuff. It’s like, over and over I’m like, it is so bad and then something else goes wrong. Then it’s so bad and then something else goes wrong in these movies.

Then somehow, they pull it out at the end. The pacing of it is just so bright neck. You get one or two scenes and then it’s fast, fast, fast, fast, fast, then one or two scenes and then fast, fast, fast, fast. I thought, okay, I’m just going to speed this up a little bit, because I actually had sat down and mapped out the rest of the middle build. I had three or four scenes where they were going to release her – like find and plan and release her brother, and then they were – then it got to the final severing.

I thought, let’s just do this thing. I sent you the scene, because I just threw away the other two, because they weren’t any good. I was going to throw them away. It was just a matter of me deciding, or you telling you to throw them away. I just wrote one scene that basically it was connecting the end of the second severing to they’re now going to break her brother out. They’re just going to jump right into it.

I figure the next couple scenes will be them, basically the four of them; Harry, Jesse, Ernst and Alex working together to try to break her brother out, because that will be their only leverage now that she went rogue in the second severing. I sent you the scene. That’s my plan is to just turn it into this thing where they quickly come up with a plan, they go to break him out, everything goes wrong but they still get him out and then we have to deal with the ramifications of that.

It was the first time in a while I was excited to write something for it, and then now I have time set aside as soon as we get off here for me to write on it, and I’m actually excited about it. That’s a win on my book, but I sent you to see – I know I sent it last night, so I know you couldn’t do any big analysis on it, but did you get a chance to look at it?

[0:04:39.3] SC: Yeah, I did. I think, here’s an analogy to think about. I’m always looking for different levels of analysis to unpack how to look at a story to make it as good as it possibly can be. One of the things that I stumbled upon was social theorists who is known really well in psychology circles, a guy named Jean Piaget. This guy was so smart, it’s remarkable.

Generally, he came up with the notion of looking at the world and looking at our movement through time as like a game level, right? What he meant by the game level is that when we play games, there are very strict rules of how you operate. When you’re playing a game of Monopoly, you know what the rules are, when you’re playing a video game what the objective is and what the rules are in order – you can jump up or jump to the side or whatever it is, there’s a whole set of rules.

You have baseball is a game, football is a game, being a writer is actually a game, right? Being a lawyer, that’s a game. What are the rules of the lawyer game? Well, you have to go to law school and you have to learn the “law.” You have to take different classes that explain different elements of the law. There’s the game of being the doctor. What do you do to be a doctor? Well, you go to medical school and there’s all these different rules that you have to learn there.

Piaget really was into the notion of game theory. He actually didn’t come up with game theory, that’s a whole another guy named John von Neumann, which that’s a whole other deal. Let me talk about the game as a tool of analysis for story as it relates to what you just described about now.

I haven’t seen any of the Mission Impossible movies for one reason or another, but I have a pretty good sense of how they’re working. The way you describe them is exactly right. There’s the moment when they come up with a plan and then they try and execute the plan and million things go wrong and then they get a breather moment that they have to redo their macro plan, then they retry in on a micro level. All of this narrative velocity comes from the global abstraction of someone playing a game.

The game of Mission Impossible is to solve the Mission Impossible. It’s a very simple game that has many, many rules to it. The way it keeps generating new movies is that they keep changing the rules, or the setting, or the environment, but generally it’s one person, or one group of people navigating through a game-like situation. In terms of how we learn how to play games, it’s interesting because your story is about a naive young girl who is playing a game.

What’s the game at the beginning of your story? Her game is to quietly rebel against the culture in which she is living. Everyone else is playing the game of collecting credits. Credits in order that they can have enough food to live and survive. The way they’re motivated to keep getting these credits is that the game is wildly entertaining. As they’re out there mining for credits, the systems in place give them a certain dopaminergic rush in their brains, so that they feel good as they’re doing it. They’re essentially enslaved to a game system developed by a tyrant.

Now Jesse at the beginning of your story doesn’t know that, right? She’s just a naive little girl who wants to try a different game. Her game is to outsmart the game. She’s cheating at the game. She’s figured out what the rules of the game are and then she’s undermining those rules and getting credits without doing any of the mining. The way she’s doing that is by operating in “reality.” She’s moving around the world while everybody else is plugged into a supra environment, a different reality.

Okay, so that’s her game. Now she is playing that game until she is discovered as someone who is subverting the rules. Now the big game master says to themselves, “The only way to innovate my big game is if I have people who are smart enough to see through the fake game that I’ve created.” That’s why he wants to attract all of these smart little kids who have the ability to see through the game and come up with alternatives to tweak the game. That’s how he’s going to make his game better. That’s probably the entire purpose of the thrashing itself. It’s to bring in the most brilliant young minds who are subverting the game, so that the higher powers can make the global game even more concrete and lock down.

Jesse goes there not knowing this. Now what happens sometimes when we’re playing games is we discover that the rules are not being followed, that there is injustice in the game system. One of the things we can do is either quit the game, run away from the game and say, “I’m not going to play that game anymore.” It’s like in Little League baseball. Now if there’s something in Little League baseball that is really nasty and it’s called Daddy ball. What daddy ball is when dads coach the kids in the game and then put their kid playing shortstop and have him bat third, no matter what.

Other kids who are better players never get to play shortstop and they never get to bat third, because daddy has beaten the system. What happens is a lot of those really good players just quit the game, because every single team has a daddy and a son and they can’t break through that system. That’s what’s hurting baseball right now is that the kids who are really talented decide to quit because the game is fixed.

Now that’s one way of dealing with a fixed game. The other way of dealing with a fixed game is to out think the game, is to outmaneuver, to beat the system in a way that they did not anticipate could be beaten. Now I purposely – I’m not going to make this about me, but it’s good for an example. I as a father purposely chose not to coach in Little League baseball, because if I coached in Little League baseball, I would be tempted to play my son and my daughter ahead of the other players, so I didn’t want my son or daughter to experience a game that was fixed.

The way my son and daughter have to deal with a fixed game and still play is a really big problem for them. It’s important that they learn how to figure that out by themselves with my help, of course. That’s what Jesse is facing here too, right? She’s in a game where she thought she figured it out and now they keep changing the rules, right? Every time she turns around, they change the rules and it’s confusing.

There comes a point in the game players’ life when they reach a place of panic. Now Jesse has just reached that point in a previous scene, where she’s like, “I can’t figure it out anymore. These rules are changing too fast. My mind can’t keep up. I surrender. I quit.” She melts down. She quits, right? She’s like quitting the baseball team because of Daddy ball in that moment.

Then what happens is that a force outside of herself as represented by her brother Randy, comes and rescues her. That force says, “No, no, no, no, no, no. You can’t quit the game. Because if you quit the game, you’re toast. You’re just going to go back to Nowheresville and you’ll be mining credits like every other virtual slave in this society. I’m going to give you a mission. I’m going to help you. I’m going to teach you things about this game that you don’t know, so that you can ultimately win the big game.”

The big game in your story is the ending payoff of your story, which is the title of your story called The Threshing. This is obviously, we’ve talked about this before, this is a critical moment in your story. This is the moment when little girl turns into kick-ass exploratory hero. She inspired by Randy as the force to explain to her the game has changed and I know the secrets of the game and I can pass those secrets on to you, she now is inspired by that force to proactively start to work the system, to outsmart the game master.

That’s generally where we are in terms of the Jean Piaget game analytical understanding. Do you get what I’m saying now?

[0:14:17.8] TG: Yeah. I feel like I’m tracking.

[0:14:19.5] SC: Okay. I’m going to jump to the end the concept of the game is that Piaget saw life as a game. Life has rules and we need people to see through those rules, to see the injustice, to see the corruption of the game, and we need those people to go and undermine the game in such a way that they can make it better. The concept of the heroic exploratory protagonist, which in your case is Jesse as the means by which society becomes more just and better is the process by which the exploratory hero changes the game.

The way you have constructed your story is that Jesse is out to change the game through a motivating factor, and that motivating factor is to get back her family unit into a cohesive way, into a cohesive form. The scene that you wrote, I really liked it, because as you said, it’s now tracking at a much faster pace. There’s no time now for diddly-dawdling and thinking. This is about micro actions for a global end. The global end for Jessie will clearly be to release Randy from his prison cell.

When she gets out of the second severing and she’s arrested, seemingly arrested by the bad guys, I loved the twist that the bad guys didn’t get her. It’s actually the good guys who were grabbing her, so that she can now be used as a tool for a larger idea and that is to free Randy. I think your choice to move away from slower-paced one-on-one sitting down and having coffee and talking about a problem scenes, to active movement towards a very clear active purpose was really smart.

Also what was terrific was you used revelation and action to keep your speed going. The revelation that the guards who have seized her are actually on the side of goodness, “goodness,” which is what we think that is right now, was a really good one. Then immediately, we’ve got to go do this thing, we’ve got to get here, we got to do that. Now the mechanics of how you constructed it, they’re not perfect yet, but they’re pretty good. Is it believable that the guy could break into a closet with a screwdriver? Maybe not. It works for now, right? Use the cliches as much as you need while you’re constructing the story. Then you can always go back and tweak them and rethink them, but don’t slow down your momentum of running because you can’t figure out a different way to get into a closet.

Yeah, yeah. Stick the screwdriver in and twist it. Great, works, and you can fix that later if you want, or not. A lot of readers are going to just say, “Yeah, whatever. I want to see what’s going to happen next.” Generally, I think if you look at this as she’s now in this game, she now has to – the new game is free my brother. Whether or not she does free your brother, what be really cool is that as she is seemingly are about to free him, bang, all of a sudden, it’s now the third severing, and she’s whisked away to perform anything that she has no preparation for. Something like that.

That way, you can keep the momentum of the story really propulsing forward, so that moment when she goes unconscious is going to be a real solar plexus punch to the reader. They’re not going to see it coming, because they’re going to be so involved in the micro tasks that Jesse and her crew are trying to accomplish, that when it does happen it’ll be, “Oh, my gosh. How did that happen?”

Generally, I think you’re absolutely on track to really escalate the stakes here by just follow the trail of action and innovations and interesting things are going to come to you that if you are using your analytical left side of your brain, they’re not going to come to you because you’re not running by the seat of your pants as you’re writing. This is a time to go see to pants, because you generally know where you need to go, and you generally know I need to keep the pace up, so every time things get a little dull, I’ll just drop a bomb in here and then they have to move forward.

[0:19:07.9] TG: Okay. I mean, some of the things that you have said that I should do, I was actually planning on doing differently. I was actually planning on getting him out now. Do I need to wait to do that, or – okay.

[0:19:25.4] SC: No. Yeah, follow you. I mean, I’m not writing the book. You are. Yeah.

[0:19:30.1] TG: Well yeah. Sometimes, you’re like, “No, let’s hold that because it will be better here.” Because I think I figured out what her and Randy’s superpower is, because it almost is like, did you see that movie Inception?

[0:19:44.3] SC: Yes.

[0:19:45.3] TG: The Christopher Nolan movie, where they keep dropping in the deep – they go into one dream and fall asleep, then go into another dream and fall asleep, and they just keep going deeper. I saw the new Ant-Man came out, the Marvel movie –

[0:19:57.7] SC: Yeah, I didn’t see that either.

[0:19:58.9] TG: A couple weeks before that. Yeah, I know I feel like you and I watch pretty different movies, but that’s all right. I hadn’t seen the first Ant-Man. At the very end of the first Ant-Man, the final sacrificial thing he does is he drops into this like – basically this, he drops down into a level that he shouldn’t be able to get out of. My thinking is they were in the severing, which is one level in and then her brother dropped her lower into another level and then somewhere down at the bottom is where she’s going to rip apart the whole thing.

I’m still trying to figure out the structure in my head, like the rules of how it works and doesn’t work, but that’s my thinking is that eventually the way that she’ll end the whole thing is to drop into a level that she probably won’t be able to come back from, and that’s when we’ll lose her for a little bit. I’m just restructuring everything in my head around, I think I understand now what her superpower really is, which is to go deeper into this thing that nobody else is gone, because nobody else ever comes back from even if they try, which means I’ll have to weave that mythic thing into earlier in the book later if that’s what I end up doing.

[0:21:25.2] SC: Well thematically, I would really encourage that idea and here’s why. There’s a famous, I don’t even – it could be an apocryphal story where Carl Jung had a dream, which is funny, but Carl Jung had a dream that he was with his friend Sigmund Freud who was his mentor. They’re in Carl Jung’s dream and Freud and Jung are going into a house and Freud says, “Hey, Carl. Let me show you something.” Freud opens up this door and they go down a staircase and he goes, “Look at this. This is the basement of this house. Nobody has ever been in the basement of this house before.” 

Jung looked at Freud and he said, “You know what? Follow me.” He takes Freud down a corridor and he opens up another door. Inside that door is a corridor that are filled with millions and millions of little smaller doors. Jung says, “You think that’s a big deal. Nobody has gone down here, except me.” The idea of that little dream is that Freud taught the world, he collected a lot of different information, they came up with the idea of the unconscious, which was a game changer. It changed the course of the way human beings behave on earth. No matter what anybody says, Freud was one of the huge geniuses of our time, but Freud was also a mentor to Carl Jung, and Jung took that idea and he even exploded it further when he went in search of the mythic stories that all of us share together.

What he discovered is all of these subterranean rooms underneath the unconscious that represent each of the individual cultures through time that were exploring these exact same psychic phenomena. The psyche is a process of having the courage to go further and further deeper within yourself to discover more and more truths about yourself. Thematically to have Jesse have to go lower and deeper and deeper and deeper in order to find the truth of the game, in which she has unraveled in is thematically a brilliant idea, and it also is in keeping with this global mythic structure of Freud and Jung.

I don’t even know Tim that you’ve ever read any Freud or Jung, but you’re really locked in to the teachings that these guys had. I think that in and of itself, you came to this notion without understanding the global mythological structure of Jung and Freud, and that it’s not you knew it generally, but your story is mirroring that global psychic unconscious idea. I think it connects with people, because we all lock into that subterranean depth when we say, “I don’t know. I don’t want to go that deep. I don’t want to have a deep relationship with this person. They frighten me. I prefer to just say hello to them on the street. I don’t really want to get to know that person, because the depths of their weirdness are really not interesting to me.”

In other cases, we see people and we go, “Hey, that’s a soul mate. I’d like to talk to them about what they think about X,Y or Z, because they seem to be pretty “deep.” Meaning, they they’re deep thinkers. I like the idea that Jesse and Randy superpower is that they’re not afraid to be deep thinkers. They’re not afraid to go lower. They’re not afraid.

A lot of us are afraid of going below certain levels. To have Jesse go all the way to the bottom, to the place where she actually loses her consciousness is a pretty cool idea, and it’s because she’s the exploratory hero of your story, the subtextual message you’re sending your reader is to be heroic means to confront things that you don’t necessarily want to deal with that are beneath the surface. My point is run with that idea, follow it and it will really pay off for you.


[0:26:04.1] 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 newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in this Story Grid universe.

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