Genre Choices

Here’s the transcript for episode three, “Until the Woman From the Sea Arrives” of The Story Grid Podcast.
You can also listen to it by clicking the play button below.

Tim: Hello, and welcome to Episode 3 of The Story Grid Podcast. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, and Shawn Coyne will be joining me shortly. He is the author of “The Story Grid” book and the mastermind behind this entire podcast.
I just want to thank you again for being part of this podcast. We’re now on Episode 3, and it’s been really fun to see everybody’s reactions to the first two episodes. Downloads continue to go up, you guys continue to share it on Facebook and Twitter, and we’re starting to get questions that we’re going to integrate into future episodes of the podcast.
Our whole goal with this podcast is to help you become a better writer. I’m beginning my journey as a fiction writer, and Shawn is helping me along the road with this podcast. Hopefully it will help you find your way along your road of becoming a better writer, as well.
We’re going to jump in. This is a fun episode. We’re talking about objects of desire, we’re continuing to talk about different types of genre and content genre, and we even get into the hero’s journey a little bit. I hope you enjoy it, and let’s jump right in.
Shawn, how has your week been? You’re traveling, aren’t you?
Shawn: I am. It’s been pretty hectic. I’m actually on a move from New York to Massachusetts, so I have my hands full.
Tim: You’re moving from New York to Massachusetts?
Shawn: Yes. My kids are moving to a different school, so my wife and I are actually going to go with them.
Tim: Oh, wow.
Shawn: I’m kidding. They’re still in elementary school, so I think they’d lock me away and throw away the key if I didn’t go with my kids.
Tim: Last week, we were talking about the reality part of genre, but there are four other pieces, and I just want to keep working through those because, honestly, going through the book, this was the part that broke my brain the most, trying to figure out all this stuff.
We talked about the short, long, and medium version, the time. We talked about reality. I want to jump into the style part of genre. Just tell me a little bit about what you mean by style and the different decisions I have to make when I’m trying to decide the style of my book.
Shawn: The style is very much, when you’re writing fiction – a novel or something like that – a lot of these styles that are in the book are really things that a filmmaker, a documentary maker, or a dramatic writer for the stage is really going to focus on. The ability to write cartoons as novels, there’s a very, very small market for that kind of a thing.
Tim: Or you have musical here. That would be really hard to write as a novel.
Shawn: It would. It really would, because your characters really can’t break out into song. It just really wouldn’t work.
Just to take a quick step backwards, it’s always important to remember about genre that it’s really just a way to categorize things and it’s a way of breaking different kinds of airplanes down to Piper Cubs, to 747s, or what have you.
I can understand how it can get overwhelming, especially when you go through… I really specifically get into every single thing in the book. My suggestion is if you have no intention of writing a musical or a documentary novel, you can really skip through that stuff and not let it overwhelm you.
The important thing to remember about the style thing is it’s really about what is your reader going to expect from your novel? If it’s a comedy, they are going to expect some laughs. If there’s comedy or romantic comedy within the novel, they’re going to expect to laugh. What comedy is really about, in essence, is the ability of people to throw away and not deal with reality in a way.
I’m getting a little esoteric here again, and I didn’t mean to do that. The most important thing to remember is that the style stuff is you’re going to know whether or not you’re going to write a comedy or a drama. I would really just limit it to those two things for a novelist.
Also, the last one is the literary style. The literary style – we were talking about this last week, Tim – is really about a means to position your book in the marketplace. It’s really kind of marketing. If you want to be a literary writer, there are all sorts of really hoity-toity kind of big words that you can describe yourself as.
For instance, you could call yourself a minimalist post-modern meta-fiction experimentalist. What all that means is that you’re trying to get really big attention in esoteric literary reviews in “The New York Review of Books” or “The New York Times” to call you the next – I don’t even know – Samuel Beckett maybe.
That is a real decision but it’s a stylistic decision. It really has nothing to do with how to structure your book; it’s really about the quality of your line-by-line writing, your sentence structure, the way you can jam 150 words into a single sentence. Some people can do that in an amazing way – Jonathan Franzen can do that – but I wouldn’t recommend that for the average writer.
Tim: The five decisions you say we have to make with genre are content, time, reality, style, and structure. I would guess most people who are coming into writing already know the time, structure, and style, and the two big decisions they’re making are the reality and the content. Would you agree with that?
Shawn: I would agree with that. The style part of the equation is really about… I’m just going to do this a little bit because I think it’s important. I didn’t just throw it out there just to fill in the five leaves of the clover. It really is a specific kind of decision that you need to make.
Again, I would say as a writer, you need to think about two things in terms of style. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? What drama is all about is real emotional conflict. It’s about dealing with emotional situations that are true, and real, and difficult. It’s everyday life. A drama means dealing with the emotional world the way it is.
Comedy is about doing everything you can to avoid emotional life. I know that seems a little bit like “What? What’s he talking about? Comedy is just supposed to make you laugh.” Robert McKee does a whole day on comedy, and I couldn’t recommend it more. But the thing about comedy is it’s about avoiding emotions.
One of the funniest people in the world is John Cleese. He’s the guy in “Monty Python.” There’s a great story about when – I think – Graham Chapman had died and at Graham Chapman’s funeral, they asked John Cleese to speak, to talk about him, to give a eulogy. John Cleese, who is just remarkably hilarious, stood up at the funeral and said, “I’m really actually glad that the bastard’s dead.”
What he was saying was to speak sort of this truth in a funny way because he didn’t want to deal with the reality that he lost one of his best friends. We laugh because what he is saying is kind of true. “He was a cheap bastard. He owed me 196 quid before he died. I’m never going to get it back.” It’s very, very funny because what the person is doing is they’re laying out the truth of the situation in a way that is completely emotionally barren, so it gives everybody a cathartic relief.
Anyway, I could do a whole book on comedy and drama but that’s not really important. I think, for a writer like you… And I always try and think back to what is Tim going to want me to tell him that’s going to be useful to him?
Tim: Yes, that’s what I want too.
Shawn: Exactly. I know the arena that you want to work in, and for the most part, with science fiction, you’re dealing with dramatic situations. Yes, there’s some comic relief now and then, but you’re really dealing with are the orcs going to attack the moops, or whatever – I’m just making that up – and how do we deal with this conflict?
Quickly, in the last section, we are talking about the reality genre, and a lot of people think science fiction is a content choice but it’s actually a “suspension of disbelief” choice. I did want to clarify that because over and over, a lot of people say, “I thought science fiction and fantasy were a content choice.” But it’s actually not because when we get into the content stuff, you’ll discover that you can have science fiction stories that are love stories, that are crime stories, that are war stories, that are performance stories.
Science fiction is really about a specific reality choice. It’s building an alternative universe, if you will, for your reader to fall into, and love and adore, but the storytelling is really about content.
Tim: We talked about this at some point. I can’t remember if we were on the podcast or not. I feel like the science fiction has to be a backdrop, because bad science fiction is when it’s about the science. It creates the reality that you then tell a story into. That’s what bad science fiction is, when it’s too much about that.
Shawn: That is exactly what I mean, and I’m glad you articulated it better than I did. Exactly. If all you care about is building a world, nobody cares because there’s no emotional attachment to any of the characters if they’re talking about whether or not the Z force was better than the Y force, or whatever.
Tim: Yes, we leave that to the nerds after it’s already out.
Shawn: Exactly. Yes.
Tim: All right. Then let’s dive into the content part because this, to me, is the most… I feel like you have to layer them. So anyway, you break up the content genres into external and internal content genres. Talk a little bit about that first before we try to dive into specific ones.
Shawn: Okay. When I was trying to figure out how am I going to explain content genres, I was thinking to myself there’s the great coming of age story, like “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Where does that fit in? Where does James Bond fit in? Where does a great love story fit in?
I was thinking for quite a while about it, and the division line for me is external and internal. What I mean by that is external content genres are all about forces of antagonism that come at your lead character from other people, or society, or nature itself. So what the lead character has to do is that the world is upended by an external force.
For example, in “Kramer vs. Kramer” – a great movie, Dustin Hoffman plays this advertising executive who is really cool, and up and coming, and he’s really successful. He comes home one night right after work and his wife says, “See you later. I’m out of here, and not only am I leaving you, I’m going to leave you our four-year-old,” and she leaves.
That’s an external force of antagonism, and it’s something that the protagonist is going to have to deal with. It throws his life completely out of balance. He wants just to get back to the good old days when his wife was at home, who took care of the kid, he came home at 7:30, his wife cooked him a steak, he talked a little bit and then he went right to bed to start all over the next day. That’s an external force of antagonism, when another person upends your life.
Another external force of antagonism is a war story. I can’t believe this came to my mind, but Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor.” “Pearl Harbor” started the American involvement in World War II. That’s an external story that upended the lives of every American citizen.
These are very, very obvious things in the external content genres that we can all immediately understand. The internal content genres, though, are all about the inner struggle of the protagonist. These stories are really about somebody facing deep internal antagonism.
We all have voices in our head. Freud came up with a theory of three voices in our head, but I’ll just focus on two. One of our voices in our head is the voice that we really don’t like very much, which is the one that says that we’re not doing well enough, all of our efforts are for naught, it’s a very difficult world and we’re never going to make it, the critical voice that tells us we’ll never be a writer, all of that stuff. Steve Pressfield deals with that voice in “The War of Art” in a wonderful way. That’s one of the voices in our head.
The other voice is like the negotiator – like “Oh, well, as long as I finish this task now, then I can have a marshmallow later.” It seems like a manager at a job telling you if you do this, you’ll get that. It’s all about managing your world so that you can actually negotiate the world.
An internal genre is about when all that stuff stops working very well for a lead character or a group of characters. For instance, something like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the internal genre is what I call the “coming of age” maturation plot. It’s the story of a little girl – I think she’s five or six – and she doesn’t understand the world in the way that she wants to.
It’s an internal struggle because she’s not really sure why she’s getting in trouble for just pointing out the obvious. If you remember at the beginning of the book, there’s the kid at school who’s from the other side of the tracks, he doesn’t have any money, and Scout gets in a fight with him because he gets her in trouble at school.
They bring the kid home for lunch, and the kid goes crazy, right? He wants to eat this whole pile of food, and then he gets this big pitcher of molasses and he pours it all over the food. Scout says, “What are you doing, you pig? You can’t eat like that!” Calpurnia, the housekeeper, pulls Scout aside, gets her in big trouble and says, “You are not to talk to anybody like that. That’s a guest in our home.”
This is a moment when Scout’s like, “I don’t understand. My internal world, the way I’ve been negotiating the world, isn’t working anymore.” That throws her life out of balance. Then brilliantly – it’s one of the greatest novels ever written – it escalates. The stakes progressively get more and more difficult for Scout to understand the world. “Why is Boo Radley locked up in his house? I don’t understand that. That doesn’t make any sense.”
That’s an internal genre that has external forces, but it’s really about her negotiating the world in a way that she will understand the way things work. I could spend another couple of hours talking about the difference.
Another example would be “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky wrote this book about this guy, Raskolnikov, who is too smart for his own good, and he thinks to himself, “Morally and ethically, it would be okay if I murdered the woman upstairs just as an experiment to see whether or not society is capable of capturing somebody who is at an intellectual level above everybody else.”
The whole novel is about how he’s trying to justify and play with this little game in his own mind, and he does commit murder. The whole novel is really about the struggle of man trying to form a moral and ethical core. He betrays his own self because his body refuses to allow him to do something so terrible, and he actually helps the police investigator realize that he was the one who committed the murder. Anyway, that is, at its core, an internal genre.
Do stories have both external and internal genres at play? Yes, absolutely. I think the best stories – the ones that we attach to the most, the ones that really get us excited – have both elements to them. It can sometimes become a parlor game to see is the external genre of the crime story in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is that bigger than the maturation story of Scout? That’s kind of a fun parlor game to play if you want to.
But the reality is that there are two. There’s the rape trial of – I think – John Robinson and there’s the maturation plot of Scout. Then there are some little mini plots, too, but those are the two core stories driving the entire novel. We want to know is that poor guy going to get convicted of rape when it’s obvious he didn’t do it, and how in the hell is Scout going to negotiate her world when it’s all changing? She’s not sure.
Tim: Would you say that a lot of times, the external and internal are at conflict?
Shawn: The external and the internal are at conflict? That’s a really good question.
Tim: This book I’m reading called “The Way of Shadows,” I’m re-reading, and of course, I’m reading it from a different perspective now because I’m thinking about it from a writing standpoint. As you were talking about that, I would say the lead character, he got forced into this life as an assassin to just survive, but he doesn’t want to hurt anybody. But at the same time, the external conflict is forcing him to hurt a lot of people to do the greatest good.
I just thought it was interesting, and then I just started thinking through other stories that popped into my head where so many times the external conflict is forcing the character to do something they don’t want to do. It keeps just forcing them to do the next thing that they don’t want to do.
Shawn: That’s absolutely true. When you’re looking at building your own story, think about two things. I get into this in-depth in the book and on my site, too. There are two things in your lead character’s world that are going to drive how they are going to behave throughout the story. I call them their wants and their needs – what they want and what they need.
A three-dimensional character, a character who starts at one place at the beginning of the novel – say they’re selfish and at the end of the novel, they’re not selfish – they need to be in pursuit of a want and also have a need. The need is usually a search for some sort of worldview truth to them.
In this case, I haven’t read the book that you’re talking about, but that’s a classic set-up of a way where you have a lead character whose life is in conflict. What they want is basically to live an honorable, decent life but what they need is to also live within a society.
I’m sure the writer of the book that you’ve been talking about, he thought to himself, “How can I force this person to do things that he really, really doesn’t want to do?” The way you do that is you come up with crises in the character’s life that force them to make a choice. They have to make a choice between what I call the best bad choice or a choice between irreconcilable goods.
Tim: I love the way that you put that. The example you gave was about the guy hanging onto the grate and the pipe of water or something, right?
Shawn: Yes.
Tim: Talk about that. What are those two options, again?
Shawn: The best bad choice is about something not good is going to happen – there’s no way around it – but you do have a choice. Do you choose something that will result in a little bit of bad happening or a lot of bad happening? I’m being very generic here, so let me try to come up with an example.
For example, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” which is the movie I was talking about earlier with Dustin Hoffman. His wife leaves him at the very beginning of the story, which is the inciting incident of the global story, and it’s a love story. This is a love story. It’s a brilliant love story about a father falling in love with his own son.
At the beginning of the story, his wife leaves. She leaves him with the kid. That crisis raises a question to the Dustin Hoffman character. He says to himself, “Who’s going to take care of this kid? The best thing for me would be to get somebody else to take care of him so that I can keep going to work and everything would be great. But that’s probably not really good for my kid, so let me make a small choice. What I’ll do is I’ll drop the kid off early at school and then I’ll get the lady downstairs to pick him up after school and then I can get home, say, between 6:00 and 6:30 at night, cook him dinner, and then I can work at home when I get him into bed.”
He’s making these choices that are the best bad choice. The best thing for that kid is to have his mom, right? It’s to have his mom and his dad in the apartment taking care of him, loving him. But he’s not getting that.
The writer had Kramer at this crossroads. He slowly, incrementally throughout the story has to keep making these choices. He has to keep confronting the reality of his son’s life and seeing “Is it better for my son to have a rich father who he never sees, or is it better for my son to have a father who he sees a lot and not have so much money? Is that a better choice?” These are the brilliant things in storytelling.
You never see this on screen. You never see Dustin Hoffman saying, “Hmm, what do I think about this?” But it’s the situation and the way the story is constructed and the structure of the story that everybody intuits that crisis even though it’s never blatantly stated, and they watch the choice that the character makes and they say, “Oh, that’s a good choice,” or “Oh boy, that’s not going to be good.”
Tim: This makes me think of the show “24.” Jack Bauer was constantly put into this scenario where he had to do something awful because it was the least of two evils.
Shawn: Right.
Tim: There was this one – I have no idea which season this was. The terrorists were threatening to do such and such, and they said he had to bring this guy to this empty parking lot and kill him in front of them or they would do something awful. So he ends up committing murder on purpose because it would have done this other awful thing. That’s like the best bad choice. It’s a horrible choice but it’s better than the other horrible choice.
Shawn: Exactly. We all face those in our everyday life. They’re not at that level of death and life, but it’s a very, very complicated universe that we live in now and even the smallest decisions that we make, we face those things.
The other choice is the irreconcilable good. It’s sort of yin and yang. You can look at these crises in either the irreconcilable good way or the best bad choice. It depends on what floats your boat and what you think is stronger.
For example, if we looked at the irreconcilable good thing in the “Kramer vs. Kramer” story, the irreconcilable good thing would mean it’s good for somebody else, not so good for me. The character has to say to himself, “You know what? It’s good for my son that I lost my job and now I have to go find another one and I have to take seven steps back in order just to get a job. It’s better for my son. It’s not so good for me because I have defined myself by my place on some advertising hierarchy and now that I’m falling back, I’m not feeling so good about myself professionally.”
Here’s another great example of want and need, Tim, because what the character wants at the beginning of the story is to be the best advertising executive on Madison Avenue. We can all relate to that. We all want to be the best at whatever we do in our professional lives. But what he really needs is deep truth. He needs to find out the truth of the world as opposed to the baloney of it.
The truth of the world is what he needs is to find a bond with his son. He needs to form a really strong relationship with his son, and if he can realize that by the end of the story and if he can accept that beautiful truth, his life is going to be astronomically better than at the beginning of the story.
At the beginning of the story, he thinks he’s at the top of the world, right? But the reality is he’s not because he has no close relationship to a being that he is half of. That is a tragedy. All of these wants and needs, these irreconcilable goods and best bad choices, they’re all about negotiating a world to find a deeper truth.
You know how they always say your character has to arc? Well, it’s true. Your character at the beginning of your story has to be different by the end of your story.
Tim: On that note, you bring up the James Bond stories throughout your book. To me, thinking back to the James Bond books, how does he change from the beginning to the end of one of those books?
Shawn: I’m so glad you brought that up.
Tim: Because it seems like he’s just this exact same character through the entire series.
Shawn: You’re absolutely right. He is. That is an example of a story that only has an external content genre. It’s a pure action story. There’s no underlying internal drama within James Bond. James Bond is a spy, and James Bond is a lethal weapon for Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That’s all he is, and he loves his job. He finds the best-looking women to seduce, and everything is great in his world. This is a guy who has no inner turmoil. He has no inner antagonism.
Tim: But they’ve changed that in the recent movies.
Shawn: They have, because you know why?
Tim: That’s what we want now.
Shawn: Well, it’s also they’ve exhausted how many set-ups. The thing about action stories, and a lot of people turn their nose up at them and they say, “Oh, well I prefer really deep stories, and those action stories are just silly.” There is nothing more difficult than innovating an action story. There really isn’t. I’d put Don DeLillo up against Shane Black to see who can innovate an action story better.
The action story has no underlying stuff, so what you need is to create such extraordinary personal and extrapersonal antagonism that it constantly is driving the story forward and you have to have this incredible climactic moment at the end of the story that supersedes the beginning of it which is the thing that really hooks us.
You know at the beginning of every James Bond movie, he’s getting chased, right? Somebody’s chasing him. He has to somehow get out of an impossible situation. This is why we love James Bond movies because at the beginning, your heart’s immediately in your throat, you’re totally hooked. It’s the beginning of it and that’s just like the amuse-bouche of James Bond.
Then the big story comes in. He goes in for the meeting and they say, “There’s this bad guy. He’s going to take over Fort Knox, take all the gold, and you have to stop him.” We’re like, “How’s he going to do that? How’s he going to do that?” That’s wonderful.
There’s nothing more exciting than somebody facing personal and extrapersonal antagonism, winning some, losing some and ultimately winning the big day, stopping the big event, and we can relax. Those are pure action external content genres that have no internal content genre.
Tim: In these content genres… You have a list of them here. You have action, horror, crime, western, war, thriller, society, love and performance. In each of them, you’d have action goes from life to death and that’s what is in conflict. The point of even walking through this, to me, as I’m thinking through writing, it helps me kind of ground when I make a decision.
There’s this guy named Derek Sivers, and he teaches on business and stuff. He started this company called CD Baby and sold it. He talks about how whenever you’re starting a business or whatever, you need to optimize for fame, fortune, or freedom and you need to make that decision early so that whenever the two come into conflict, you know which one you’re going to pick. If I’m optimizing to make the most money over freedom, I’ll pick that when I have to make a decision. Early on, it helps you make this decision so in the future, when they come into conflict, you know which direction to go.
I feel like that’s what this is for. It’s that if you know what genre you’re writing, when you come into a decision point of “What am I going to do next?” it helps you make that decision.
Shawn: Oh, absolutely. I do want to say one thing about the content genres. Don’t feel like you have to become Robert McKee before you start writing, because McKee knows this stuff backwards and forwards and he’s made his life studying story.
As an editor, I had to learn it because I needed to decide what part of the publishing world I wanted to concentrate in. I needed to learn the huge, big canvas of story so that I could make some choices, and that’s why I wrote the book, so that people would be better served to make the right choices.
Now, say you know, “Okay, I know exactly what I want to write. I want to write the next ‘Star Wars,’ and I have this thing in my head and I just need to figure out how ‘Star Wars’ is structured and then I can sort of use that sensibility and create something that is in the same form but completely innovative and unique.
“I’m not going to do the same scenes that ‘Star Wars’ has. In fact, I have completely different scenes that will satisfy specific elements in a ‘Star Wars’ kind of story. But I need to know what do I do when X happens, or what do I do when Y happens? Should I throw in a love story there like they did with Luke? I’m just confused.” That’s what the Story Grid is for.
Once you know you’re going to write a crime story or whatever, then just dive into that silo. Dive into that one particular genre that you want to do – or two. Again, you can have an external and an internal genre together and they complement each other as you stated before. The external is about what somebody wants and the internal is about what somebody needs. The thing is that we don’t always know what we need. We know what we want but we don’t always know what we need.
To make it more simple, when you’re starting out, you’re going to design your story and you’re going to figure out all the little pieces of things that you need to do to get a first draft together. Don’t freak out and say to yourself, “Well, I really can’t do that until I understand what the war genre is about.” If you’re writing a love story and there’s no war in your love story, don’t do it. Just focus on what’s important to you.
I love what you just said about Derek Sivers. I read his book that he published with Seth Godin.
Tim: Yes, “Anything You Want.”
Shawn: Yes. It was wonderful. That’s a really great philosophy. It really helps you. There’s another quote that I’m going to completely ruin but it’s like, “Think about your philosophy when you’re not under a tremendous amount of stress so that when you do become under a tremendous amount of stress, you’ll already have the answer ready. You’ll already know how to behave because you’ve already thought about it when the gun’s not pointing at your head.”
Tim: That’s probably good character development advice alone. When you’re thinking about what your story is going to be about, before you even write it, decide what your character believes and what they will and won’t do in life so that when you come up on these decisions in the story, you automatically know which way he’s got to go.
Shawn: That’s right. That’s a great way to start, and I’m going to take it one step further. Figure that out. Say, for example, that your lead character is somebody who has decided about his life, “I’m not going to stick my nose out for anybody. I’ve done that before. I’m going to take care of number one. I’m not going to hurt anybody intentionally, but I’m not going to put myself into any vulnerable position for anybody else because in my past, every time I’ve done that, I’ve gotten hurt. So I’m going to pull back the wall, I’m going to just take care of number one, and it’s going to be cool.”
That’s a philosophy that a lot of people come to in their life, right? If that’s what you’re starting with, then you say, “How am I going to change that person? What are they going to be like at the end? Is there a way to take them from looking out for themselves and not sticking their neck out to somebody who would sacrifice everything for anybody? How am I going to make that progression happen?”
Tim: It sounds like a great way to find an inciting incident, too.
Shawn: Exactly. Who I’m describing is the character Rick in “Casablanca.” At the beginning of the story, he’s just this sad sack, selfish bastard who won’t stick his neck out for anybody. He’s really cool because he’s played by Humphrey Bogart.
You had to have a really strong leading man to play that role and have people fall in love with him at the beginning. If you look at it objectively at the beginning of that story, here’s this guy who’s whining about losing his girlfriend, he’s got this bar and he doesn’t help anybody, and by the end, what does he do? He gives up the woman who he loves and he saves the Western world. It’s a great way of looking at your lead character. “How do I take them from this place to this place?”
That’s the same thing in “Kramer vs. Kramer.” At the beginning, you have a very selfish guy who wants his own name in lights, and at the end, you have a guy crying because he’s got his son back. That’s when the tears come to our own eyes when we’re watching a story like that because what it says to us – the deep message of these stories – is “This is what’s important, this isn’t important, and here’s a reminder.”
When you’re pursuing your life’s dream, your profession, you want to be the biggest cheese in book publishing and you want to be Stephen King, that’s great. That’s nice. But don’t forget the fact that you have people who love you, and care about, and need you. Those are the relationships that are going to make you happy.
No number of “New York Times” bestsellers is going to make you happy but a connection with another human being will. That’s the takeaway from stories like “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Casablanca.” This is why storytelling is so damn important because it solidifies… Even like your assassin book, I haven’t read the book, but what you’ve described to me is here’s a guy who has to do something that he doesn’t want to do in order to survive. Who does that sound like?
That sounds like me before I left major book publishing. I was going into work every day, not very happy, but I said to myself, “I have to climb the rings of book publishing to reach this place so that I can do that, and then I can do that, and then I can do that.” Meanwhile, I didn’t really want to be going into the office every day with a suit and tie on. It just wasn’t me.
If it wasn’t for reading, and stories, and the stuff that we’re talking about now, Tim, I’d still be chasing the editor-in-chief job at Joe Schmoe Publishing.
Tim: This actually gets into the next thing I wanted to talk about, which was objects of desire and then the conflict. When we start talking about objects of desire, we’re saying that we have the protagonist and we have something that they desperately want.
Shawn: Yes.
Tim: And then something happens to keep them from getting that.
Shawn: That’s right.
Tim: I haven’t seen “Kramer vs. Kramer,” but it sounds like the object of desire is for him to become the number one ad executive, but then his object of desire changes over the course of the book.
Shawn: Yes it does. Yes, it was a novel first and it was a movie. The brilliant thing about it is that yes, his object of desire at the beginning is to become a big cheese advertising executive. I remember watching it. It came out in the 1970s. I was a kid. I remember seeing the movie and I kept wanting the movie to start. “When’s he going to do the big meeting with the advertising people? When’s that going to happen?”
That’s a brilliant way of hooking your viewer or your reader with something that they can relate to and then slowly eroding that specific want to the point where they understand what’s more important. What’s more important is that he picks his kid up at school.
I’m going to use “Lolita” again as an example to explain the power of a want. The power of a want… This is a really great thing to write down when you’re planning your novel and you’re thinking about your protagonist. Give them really, really something extremely specific. You can always change it, right? But at the beginning when you’re just mapping out your story, think of something really specific that they want and then play that out a little bit.
What I mean by that is in “Lolita,” the lead character is a terrible person in “Lolita.” Terrible. He’s a pedophile, Humbert Humbert. Humbert Humbert, what he wants to do is seduce an under-aged girl. He wants to bed an under-aged girl. That is his want. We learn that in the first pages of the book.
You think most people would say, “This is disgusting. I’m not going to read this anymore.” But the power of the want in humanity is so strong and Nabokov is brilliant to use this in such a way. It’s so strong in all of us. We all can relate to wanting something so much that the reader or the viewer of a movie can’t help but attach to that character because they want something so badly.
Even though Humbert Humbert is a horrible human being, we can relate to his want and subconsciously, not consciously – nobody’s rooting for him to seduce this girl consciously – but subconsciously, we want to find out what happens. We want to find out how is this going to work? Is he going to get this?
For James Bond, it’s a very simple want. He wants to stop the bad guy. That’s a really important, easy-to-understand want.
Tim: Even though in “Kramer vs. Kramer”… In the book, you say the inciting incident happens and it gives rise to the object of desire. Would you say that his true object of desire was to not be a horrible father? The inciting incident is his wife leaves him and he’s stuck with this kid. If his true object of desire was to become an ad executive, he would have pawned the kid off and kept on going.
Shawn: That’s correct. The inciting incident is the wife leaves. His object of desire from that inciting incident is “I want to get my wife back. I got to get my life back into equilibrium. I have to get my wife back.” At the very beginning of the movie, there is scene after scene after scene where Dustin Hoffman says to people, “She’ll be back soon. It’s one of those women things. They chit-chat and one puts an idea in their head, they leave for a little while, they come back, and everything’s fine.”
At the beginning of the story, the first third of the story, the first act, Dustin Hoffman is completely committed to the fact that this is a temporary setback. He’s going to get his wife back. He’s going to apologize. Maybe he’ll buy her a nice piece of jewelry, give her some flowers. Everything is going to be fine.
The object of desire that arises from the very beginning of the story is “Get my wife back, get equilibrium back.” We could have seen an entire movie based upon that premise, and there are a lot of movies based on that premise where somebody is left at the very beginning of the story and they spend the rest of the story trying to get that person back. That is a very clear object of desire: “I want to get my wife back.”
Instead, in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” it innovated the convention of “Here’s an inciting incident that gives us an object of desire of getting the partner back.” Dustin Hoffman, until the very end of that movie, still thinks he’s going to get her back. Meryl Streep plays his wife. You have to see the movie. It’s really good.
Meryl Streep plays his wife and until the very end of the movie, I’d say four-fifths of the way through the movie, he still has that object of desire. He thinks, “If I’m a better father, my wife will like me better. If I pick up my kid at school a little bit and we hang out, she’s going to see I changed, and once she sees I changed, then she’s going to find that wonderful thing about me that we had before when we got married, and it’s going to resolve itself.”
At the very end of the movie, she calls him and says, “I’m ready to come back.” He’s so excited. He’s like, “She’s ready to come back. I’m going to get her back!” He says, “When are you moving back in?” and she says, “I think you misunderstand. I’m ready to take the son. I want the son back. I don’t want you back. I want my son back.”
That’s the final payoff of the movie, which is the battle for the son. Who’s going to get the son? The mother or the father? You have a courtroom scene, which is a great external genre that the writer uses so that we can all attach to it. We all know the conventions of a courtroom scene, and we all know what’s going to happen. It brings up another best bad choice irreconcilable good.
At the very end of that story, Dustin Hoffman has to say to himself, “Is it good to put my kid on the witness stand so that I can show that his mother abandoned him and that I deserve to be the primary parent? Is that good for him? Is that better for him than him being with his mother by himself?” He makes the biggest sacrifice and he says, “No. I have to let the person who I love the most in the world right now go because it’s better for him.”
Tim: Oh, man. I don’t know if I can watch that movie now.
Shawn: It’s unbelievable, and the acting is impeccable. It’s life-affirming and it’s scary. It’s scary because it’s one of those stories that you can say to yourself, “Oh my gosh. I could be that guy.”
Tim: At the very beginning of your story, you’re trying to think of it sounds like starting with your character and what is a particular thing he wants? The inciting incident is what ultimately throws out his path of what he’s going after, and then the object of desire is what he goes after for the rest of the novel.
Shawn: Yes. I’ll try to make it even more simple than that. At the very, very beginning of your story, your character’s life is thrown out of balance. That’s it. What we want when our lives are thrown out of balance is we want to get back to equilibrium. We want to get back to the same old routine. We don’t like stress of being unbalanced, human beings in general. Think about your story that way.
Something happens to your lead character – what I call the inciting incident – that throws their life out of balance. That thing, that “out of balance” thing, from that is the stew from which the object of desire will arise. The object of desire is the thing that the lead character thinks if they can get, their life will go back to balance.
Tim: This makes me think of “Star Wars.” The Stormtroopers come in and wipe out Luke’s family, so that’s the inciting incident. Then he’s like, “Okay, okay, I’ll take you as far as this place and then I have to go off and figure something out.” Then it’s like he keeps getting dragged along on this adventure that all along he’s like, “Can I just get back to my normal life?”
Shawn: Yes.
Tim: But even while he’s in the trash chute of the Death Star, somehow he ended up there and that seemed like the quickest path to get back to how things used to be.
Shawn: Well, it’s been a long time since I saw “Star Wars.”
Tim: I think about Obi-wan Kenobi says, “Okay, you have to come with me and you have to join this and we have to fight,” and he’s like, “No, no, no, but I’ll take you this far,” and then he just gets dragged into the whole thing.
Shawn: Here’s the thing about “Star Wars” and George Lucas. He’s the first one to say it. He used Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey as his inspiration for the plot points in “Star Wars,” and he tried to follow the hero’s journey in the way that Joseph Campbell described it in that great series on PBS. If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth watching. He also wrote the classic book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.”
The hero’s journey is something that I call the story spine. I don’t mean to get away from the core of content, but this is the core of content. The story spine is my manipulation of the hero’s journey in a way.
What happens in the hero’s journey is that their life gets thrown out of balance and what they try to do is keep trying to get back to their life the way it used to be. But they are the one who has to do this certain amazing thing to save other people. But they’re reluctant to do it. This goes all the way back to “The Iliad.” Every tribal indigenous culture in the history of humanity has this story. This is like the DNA of story. It’s a beautiful story, too.
The hero, at the beginning of the story, gets his life thrown out of balance, just as you described Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars.” Then he makes it his journey just to get back to some sense of normality. There’s always this mentor figure who says, “No, no, no. You are required to seize your inner self. You are required to help humanity. We need you or dire things are going to happen. If you don’t take on your purpose in life, your goal, you’re going to ruin it for everybody.”
There’s a moment – it’s the “all is lost” moment – when the hero says to themselves, “Okay, enough already. All right, I’ll do it.” It’s at that point where we get the great climactic scenes where they have to seize that inner genius within them to overcome external or personal conflicts. It’s usually a war story or something of that nature.
Then what happens at the end of the story is that hero has changed. They have transformed from someone who’s “I don’t really want to change who I am,” to somebody who is completely changed. Then they go back. They go back home, like in “The Odyssey,” and they explain to the people what they’ve learned. This is a beautiful story.
Tim: That’s the end of “The Lord of the Rings,” too.
Shawn: Of course, it is.
Tim: He tries to go back home and he can’t.
Shawn: Yes. The thing is that the hero has information that other people, they want that information but they can’t understand it. This is what happened to poor Odysseus. He finally, finally gets back to Ithaca and nobody recognizes him because he’s been through such an ordeal, his hair is down to his butt, he looks like a pauper and he’s a king. Nobody wants to hear a word he says about anything, and it’s not until he’s recognized by Penelope that he really feels back home.
If I was to give one bit of advice, a really nice place to start to get a global sense of beginning, middle, and end is to think about the hero’s journey and from that exploration, put that hero’s journey into the content genre that you love. Think about Jake Gittes in “Chinatown.” That’s a Hero’s Journey.
Tim: Would the hero’s journey apply in the love story?
Shawn: It does, because at the beginning of a love story, usually the two lovers, they want to do everything possible but fall in love, and if they do want to fall in love, they want love on their own terms.
Like “When Harry Met Sally,” that’s a great movie, right? That’s a love story. But it’s such a great love story because we will do anything to tell ourselves, “I haven’t found the right person yet. This isn’t the right person. Yes, she’s cute and everything. She’s nice and we laugh all the time and I love going to movies with her and if I have a problem, she’s the first person I call, but she’s not the right one for me.” The entire movie is about these two people who are obviously in love from the first moment they meet. It’s just avoiding that.
What do they want to do? They like the equilibrium of saying, “There’s somebody better out there. I’m going to find the woman who’s going to rise from the sea. She’s coming for me, and so I can’t concern myself with this other person until the woman from the sea arrives.” It’s the same thing with women. Like, “He’s okay, but he’s kind of a fixer-upper. He’s kind of a slob but he’s funny.”
The hero’s journey in a love story is the realization of the only thing worthwhile is an attachment with another human being that is the strength of a marriage or a monogamous relationship, because it’s in our relationships on Earth that we remember fondly and we live on, not in filing the right form at the IRS.
Tim: Thanks for listening to Episode 3 of The Story Grid Podcast. As always, we really appreciate you tuning in. We hope that you’re getting a lot out of it and it’s helping you become a better writer.
I wanted to let you know that every Tuesday, Shawn is posting the entire transcript of each episode. Each episode comes out on a Wednesday. The following Tuesday, posted at StoryGrid.com is the entire transcript. If you want to go back and reference anything that we talked about, that’s the best way to do it.
Also, while you’re there at StoryGrid.com, go ahead and sign up for the e-mail list. That’s where Shawn announces new articles, new tools he’s putting out, basically everything that is going on in the Story Grid universe. That’s the best way to keep up with what’s happening.
If you’d like to support the show and continue to spread the word, there are two main ways you can do that. If you go to iTunes, you can go in and put a rating and a review of the show. That helps it spread through iTunes, which is where a lot of new people are looking for podcasts.
Secondly, if you know an author who is trying to become better at their craft, please share this show with them. Whether you’re in a forum or a Facebook group or you just shoot an e-mail to a friend, if you know any authors in your life who would enjoy this show, please share it with them. That’s the best way that’s going to help spread the podcast and make sure that we can continue doing this.
Thanks, as always, for listening, and we will see you next week for Episode 4.


The Book

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

First Time Writer

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


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