[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the 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 the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience.
In this episode, I have taken another crack at the turning point scene of the middle build. It continues to surprise me how important this scene is, how hard it is to write and how much stuff you have to cram into this thing. So I’ve taken another crack at writing it and sent it to Shawn and so he’ll jump in and start giving feedback, talking about if I got it right and if I could do better, what things I could do better.
It’s a great episode, this is a scene that I’ve just – like I said, I’ve been surprised at how important it is and how hard it is to write, so all of us struggle with our middle builds and I think the turning point scene in the middle build is often the hardest to write.
Hopefully it’s a helpful episode for you, so let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:12.6] TG: Shawn, I took everything, you know, last week we talked about the turning point scene of the middle build, so the progressive complication, turning point scene of the middle build and I had written a version of it and I did some things right but overall, it needed a lot of work. You gave me some feedback on it and I successfully procrastinated for six days after you gave me feedback on it and finally rewrote the version yesterday.
As I was writing it, I was like, really thinking about the life and death value and action so I tried to add some of that in, which I felt like it actually made the scene longer but when I reread it before I send it to you, it actually felt shorter because it felt faster paced than two people having a conversation.
Anyway, I sent that to you yesterday, what are your thoughts on it?
[0:02:10.8] SC: I have a bunch of thoughts and I think generally, just to recap what I wanted you to do is what we talked about last week was the necessity and we’re going over this in The Story Grid Summer School but this scene that we’re talking about now is the turning point progressive complication scene for the middle build of your story.
I know that’s a long phrase, but it has to be long because we want to be really specific about all of the micro-tasks that we have to do when we write up a big long form story. One of the rules for the 15 scenes that we always have to remember, and I tip my head to Valerie, one of our Story Grid certified editors who is really focused on this very important concept.
We always have to make sure that these 15 scenes turn on the global value of the global genre. Now, that again, that’s more long winded structural foundational information but it’s important to remember that. When we’re really considering each one of our 15 scenes, one of the first things we have to say to ourselves is, “Is this scene turning on the global value of my genre?”
Let’s talk about your genre. Your genre is action with a sub-genre of labyrinth. All right, action stories turn on the global value of life and death, great. We just need to make sure, in your 15 structural foundational scenes that each one of those scenes turns on that global value.
What happened last week is that it didn’t. It was conceptually an interesting scene because of some of the choices that you made, most definitely the choice that you made her return to her home. Her home environment to meet the goddess who is represented by her brother Randy.
Now, that was really a terrific turn for the sub-genre, the internal genre that you’re also playing with here, which is a maturation plot. You were on the money in terms of using the maturation plot to sort of ground this turning point progressive complication scene, but you didn’t use the global value effectively. In fact, I don’t even know that it was there.
This new scene that you’ve created, a bunch of things I really like about it and the first one being that is you change the value, it’s now running in terms of life and death. Jesse is literally being pursued in the grid by the faction guards who protect that sort of sacred domain space of the tyranny, which absolutely perfectly makes sense.
It’s absolutely reasonable that once she falls into this nether world, that there is a negative antagonistic force that wants to seize her and either you know, hold her captive or kill her, get her out of that space because it’s verbatim, it’s like going into the sanctum sanctorum of the arch villain. It’s like, when the hobbit goes in to Smaug’s domain inside the mountain.
We know he’s going to – it’s a life and death circumstance because Smaug the dragon could smite and kill him with just one breath. All right, that was a really great choice. She falls in to the cyber world and I also liked the fact that you really delineated the – you made it very clear that no one else can get in here, Az is trying to poke a hole and get into the same space and he can’t do it. Which is great.
Then you described sort of the transitional moments between falling into these digital ones and zeros and actually the imaginative fantasy world that a brother can create because he’s a great coder. What’s really great about this new version is you’re giving so much detailed information about this mystical world without exposition, right?
You’re not saying, “The way the world worked was that X.” No, we’re actually experiencing the world as Jesse is experiencing the world which creates a lot of narrative velocity. We are in the world of suspense. We, the reader, have the same amount of information about this world that Jesse has.
As she’s experiencing the tumbling into the nether world, so do we. As the guards start to fire their guns at her, we feel like those bullets are chasing us too. This is one of those things that I can talk until I’m blue in the face and until someone actually does the thing, they don’t really understand what I’m talking about.
You know, I wrote maybe a year or two, I don’t even remember how long ago, a very long time on diatribe about how to create narrative velocity over at Steven Pressfield’s site and it talks about suspense, mystery and dramatic irony as tools to create that.
But until you actually do it effectively, it’s difficult to understand what I’m talking about. This scene is a very good example of the effective use of suspense to drive the velocity of the scene. I absolutely agree with you, I didn’t know that this scene is longer than the previous scene. In fact, I thought it was a lot shorter.
Not only did you effectively extend the word count, but you made it appear to be a shorter version than the earlier one. I think that’s because as you mentioned, we don’t want to see another two-person dialogue scene over coffee.
Because that’s kind of what the scene was before, right? It was another one of those “Hi, how are you, good to see you, what’s going on?” Well, no matter what the circumstances of that scene were, the setting of the scene, that was how it played. Instead, this is a very active scene which goes to my next point, which is that the turning point, progressive complication scene of the middle build, has to escalate the stakes of the story.
In a way that really sort of ignites the narrative momentum all the way from the middle of the middle build to the end of the story has to sort of have the effect of like a bullet. It has to speed along and the way you do that is you have to escalate the stakes.
One of the ways to escalate the stakes is to literally have the character no longer have the capacity to procrastinate. The character can no longer fit and fuddle and think through and strategize there now. All better off, they now purely have to act and the reason why they have to act is because they’re being chased. Someone is out to get them and stop them with great vigor.
This scene moves that, it creates that reality. Before this scene, Jesse was just another sort of mole in the habitat, right? The powers that be, are trying to flush out the smartest rat. You know? Say we’re BF Skinner and we got a bunch of rats and we’re doing experiments. BF Skinner will need to find the smartest rat. We’d put these rats in mazes and would deprive them of food and he would make them do all these skills so that he could observe their behavior. He was always looking for the smartest rat.
That’s a really great bastardization of one man’s work but he was a complicated figure to say the least. Anyway, conceptually, the way this whole system is working is, president Marcus who we don’t know this yet but he’s sort of just a figure within a very larger hierarchy that we’re not even sure what that is yet.
His job is to go flush out the smartest, sort of young coders in his domain, bring them to this facility which is like a maze, a labyrinth and set those little rats free and have them knock each other off until he gets the three best rats that he can put in to yet another greater maze that will fight in a thing called the Threshing.
Prior to this scene, Jesse was just another rat in the maze and Marcus and all those other people, “Hey, this is pretty smart ride but well, let’s see how it all shakes out in the end.” They’re not really thinking about Jesse as some sort of chosen one or threat. She’s just another one of the rats.
But now, in this scene, when Randy sucks her in to the cyber nether world. Now, she, a big alarm is going off at central command, right? She’s inside the machine and you better damn be sure that Marcus is going to be aware that she got in there. He can’t outsmart Randy, he’s been working for years to outsmart Randy and he’s been using all of his techniques to get Randy to give up the goods and Randy pulls his sister into this nether world now too.
Now, Marcus is observing what’s going on inside this world as Jesse is being attacked by his faction guards inside the nether world. All right. Great turn of events. Because now, Jesse has been sucked in to an even deeper crevice. You’re escalating, you’re progressively escalating turning up the stakes of your story. It started with her just being a rat in a maze, being sucked in, refusing the call and then being punished for that and then you know, eventually, having to take the call and now, this is the next level up.
Now, she’s entered the sanctum sanctorum, cyber space of the elite and she was pulled in there by the goddess. I’m talking, when I say the goddess, I’m talking in terms of the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey. The goddess moment is when Dorothy is in the poppy fields and Glenda the good witch comes to her rescue and gets her out of that horrible circumstance.
Randy serves as Glenda the good witch, even though we’re not really sure what his motives are, he gets her out of the situation in which she has shut down. She is no longer functioning in that severing and she’s about to be terminated when Randy, as the goddess pulls her into this quantum suit.
Okay, now, you’re accomplishing all of this in a very active scene. It’s great. Because what it’s doing is it’s doing all these things at levels that the reader is not really interested in exploring, they don’t want to hear about it, they just want to find out, “Holy shit,” excuse my French. “What is going to happen to Jesse?”
Now, just a couple of notes and these are very minor notes, once she finally makes it to Randy, she discovers she’s in her childhood home and I think you can tweak that and make it even more clear in this version. I think you need to just push a little bit more, the maturation internal plot and have her say something to Randy like, “Shouldn’t we contact mom and dad?”
You know, “Shouldn’t we go to our authority figures that we’ve known all our lives to help rescue us?” And then Randy can let her know, “You got to forget about mom and dad Jesse. They can’t help us here.” It’s a very important moment in the maturation story when the young being discovers that the figures of authority, that used to be able to solve all of their problems for them are now powerless to help them.
That’s part of maturation is when we fall in the black hole, and we realize, our parents are human beings, they are not all knowing. They make mistakes and in fact do not have the expertise that are going to help us with our organic chemistry class.
They are nice people but my life and my purpose is up to me. Our initial response when we fall into this sort of downward spiral which Jesse is literally going through. She lands at the bottom. And the bottom is her former life. Thematically, that makes sense because she has to rise out from her past in order to seize her future.
When we hit bottom, the first thing we do when we hit bottom is we go back to rely upon our old tools and so she would say, “Randy, let’s just get mom and dad to fix everything” and he’ll look at her like, “Are you out of your mind? I’ve been locked in this – I’m like just about dead,” you know? “Where have mom and dad been,” for however many years Randy has been gone?
His telling her that will explain to the reader, any hope of going back to the past is now over for Jesse. What’s great about having those faction guards chase her is that she will not be given the luxury of wallowing in that realization.
You know, this is one of the – just to take one sort of small side psychological tangent here. This is something that you write about in your book Running Down A Dream, one of your tools is to, if you want to accomplish something, you have to create a situation that will be so deplorable to you if you don’t accomplish that thing.
Technically, what that means and what you did is, you wrote a check to a person who robbed from you and you wrote an apology letter to that person who stole money from you and you said, “If I don’t finish my book by this date,” you gave this to a friend and said, “You have to mail this letter.”
That negative, horrific consequence, you lit and you put that behind you and if you didn’t reach your target, that thing would eat you. That’s what you’ve done in this story. Jesse no longer has the ability to just sort of like wallow in her angst.
She’s got people who are now after her. They’re going to chase her. Once she gets out of this scene, her life is no longer about worrying about getting home. It’s just freaking surviving, right? She just has to figure out – Randy basically says to her, “Sweetheart, you have to win the threshing and I can’t give you any more details than that but if you don’t, you’re in trouble.”
You know, “We’ve got to stop this guy and your mission is to – you can’t even turn down this mission because you know those guys who were trying to shoot you? They’re going to come get you.” This escalates the story to a whole another level. We know, at the end of this chapter, my gosh, what is going to happen next?
What’s going to happen once she gets out of that severing, you know, is Marcus going to send his bad guys to get her? Probably, right? He’s going to be like, “Oh this one got into cyberspace, we’re going to bring her in for some questioning,” and then she’s going to – right? So this is a case where when you write a scene like this, the dominoes in the future start to fall in place for you and so you can really almost follow your imaginative breadcrumb path from this is almost the insighting incident that’s going to push you into the climax of your middle build and then even push you into your ending payoff because you know your ending payoff is the Threshing anyway.
So my question to you now after all that long diatribe telling you how important this scene has become is do you understand what I’m talking about? Do you feel more confident now? Do you see what I am talking about, generally?
[0:21:52.9] TG: You mean as far as what this scene is supposed to do?
[0:21:55.6] SC: Yes.
[0:21:56.8] TG: Yeah, I felt like after we talked last week, I got a clear picture and I’ve been watching as I watch TV or reading another book, I am noticing how it is. It’s like you’re always talking about if whenever we talk about these different pieces of the story, that people will not like the book but not understand why if they are in there like the speech and praise of the villain. So I watched the Spiderman Homecoming, the newer Spiderman over the weekend.
And I was like, “Oh there’s the…” and it is funny because my kids started pointing stuff out. So Conner is like, “Is this the all is lost moment?” I’m like, “This is the all is lost moment,” you know? And there’s the speech and praise of the villain but there was that turning point in the middle where all of a sudden everything got ratcheted up and kind of he was playing around until this point and now he’s not playing, or he doesn’t have an option to play around anymore.
And so it’s been interesting as I thought about this scene is I was thinking like, “Okay so here is the list” as I am sitting down to rewrite the scene, I am going to the list in my head. Okay, I’ve got to make it life or death and while we were on the call last week, I kind of figured out the structure which was going to be her dropping into the space but then being chased through the space. I think you even said that and so I had that in my head and it was fun to come up with the way I did.
Like the staircases and stuff, I had fun picturing that and trying to write that and so I am like, “Okay, I got to make it life or death, but I’ve also got to get some information here to her about her brother still being alive and what he needs her to do. I also need to mess with the internal genre as well. So that is where she’s like, “We can just go back home” and he’s like, “No we can’t go back home but we can if we accomplish this,” so that there is that subtle line.
Where we all know, we as a reader know they’re not going back so why is Randy telling her that they’re going to go back because he knows too. So it’s like it was just really interesting to try to like – this scene is supposed to do about eight different things. I got it as far as the information I got to get across, turning the right things, making sure it’s the values at stake or the right values at stake and all of that and so which almost starts to help because it’s not ambiguous anymore.
It’s like I got this scene ended up being 2100 words but it’s like I got 1500 and 2000 words to accomplish all of these things. It doesn’t leave a lot of room to play around. I don’t have to fluff anything up to make it work where that is often my struggle with this stuff in the middle build. It’s like, “How do we add interesting things that keep the story from only being 20,000 words long?” or whatever. So I felt like it was super helpful and I have a better understanding now about pre-turning point of the middle build and post-turning point of the middle build.
Those are two different parts of the story and I feel like you talk about – we’ve talked about how the judging the irreversibility of the decisions and how leading up to this, most of her decisions were pretty irreversible, or pretty reversible and then now, this decision is irreversible to both engage with her brother and to agree to do what he says.
[0:25:48.6] SC: Well what I like about it, what I also like about it is that in maturation plots, if you were capable of actually using the forces of the universe to push, compel, force the protagonist to grow up as opposed to them intellectually making the conscious choice to do something, I think it works better. The reason why I am emphasizing that is that you know stories when you really come down to it, they’re really sort of self-evident in a lot of ways and whenever I get stuck, I think about:
“You know what? What’s life like?” Well let’s think about it in terms of maturation. Do we consciously make the choice to grow up? Not really, you know it sort of like, we hit a place where we are forced to. They are the turning points in our lives and the maturation process isn’t literary a conscious choice. I am just going to use an analogy here. You go to college and you got to perform or you flunk out and if you flunk out then that demon of your future starts to chase you, right?
It’s like in the movie Saturday Night Fever, one of the great maturation stories of all time. There’s a scene where John Travolta, who works in a hardware store as the head of the paint department who’s boss is about to give him his paycheck and he says, “Could I have my pay early this week?” It’s like a Friday and the boss says, “No, payday is on Monday.” He goes, “Oh man, I am almost out of money and I want to go to the club tonight and go dancing.”
And the boss goes, “Well that’s why I’ll pay you on Monday because if I pay you today, you’d go blow all that money at the club,” and he goes, “Oh man, F*** the future. I want my money now!” and the boss goes, “No, you can’t F*** the future or the future will F*** you,” and that’s kind of the point when we start to mature. We understand, we can’t just plan for tomorrow or for next week, we’ve got to think about the meta future and so we get forced into situations in which that meta future starts to bear down on us and Randy is that force for Jesse.
So he is the one who forces her to seize her maturity. Randy as the goddess compels her to get her act together and direct her focus, “You’ve got to win the Threshing or that future hell will come crashing down on you.” So it is seizing the potential of your life by necessity and I think that is a necessity and I think that is a key moment in the maturation story and often times when a writer or a storyteller has the character make that choice themselves without being forced to actually just do it, then it seems a little bit unrealistic. Does that make sense?
[0:29:49.3] TG: Yeah, I mean Candice and I talk about this all the time of like, we so rarely grow outside of pain of some sort. You know when things are good our chief concern seems to be how do we keep them good? So don’t do anything to mess this up and you have to – then once things are knocked off balanced and things are going bad or you are in pain or whatever, then it is like, “Okay now I’ve got to change.” So that is why I like this and as you are talking, I think I might need to bump this up a little bit more.
Where like I have already realized early on, I could put a little bit probably just like two lines in the whole beginning hook but bump up a little bit how much she adored and idolized Randy so that then – and then in scene, the threat that if she doesn’t make it to the Threshing, Randy will always be trapped and possibly die is enough pain to get her to change, to do anything right? Well in Running Down A Dream, I talked about Candice making that phone call and was basically like:
“You know you can keep going but I am not going to be part of that,” and the pain, the fear of losing her was enough to make me change and so it’s like I wasn’t sitting around thinking, “I need to change, I’m going to make some changes today,” it was like this fear of losing this thing that is super important to me was what finally kicked me into gear. So that was what I was thinking too. It’s like if there was one thing that she will give up on being the petulant child.
Give up on just trying to go home and give up on all of this stuff, it will be the fear that if she does that, she’ll lose. She finally got him back and then she’ll lose him again this time for real.
[0:31:58.5] SC: Yeah and it also makes sense in terms of the psychology of role models. We begin idolizing our parents and then if we have an older brother or sibling or sister and they perform in the world well or even if they perform poorly, we begin to model their behavior. So you are escalating the choice of role model in this moment too because now, she’s looking at Randy as this ideal figure that she needs to mimic his behavior in order to save not only him but herself.
So that’s how it works. We go up a chain of idealic figures in our lives. This is why little boys have pictures of Aaron Judge on their wall or whoever their hero happens to be because you know pictures of heroes on our wall are important totems for us as we grow older and the maturation process is a part of using the symbolic archetypical visions of betterment, better people, people who have created things that we would have created and sort of going up a chain.
Until we come to the realization and I’m sure you had this in your own life because it’s happened to me. It’s like when we start working with our heroes, we discovered their fallibility, shall we say and that’s a very difficult thing to accept and often times we go through numerous heroic figures that we end up working with. Until we come to the realization like, “There is no one with any special information that I don’t have myself and I need to use a larger abstraction of ideal life more than specific people.”
This is when you stop obsessing about People Magazine and realize that those are just troubled people too. So it is a process though, it doesn’t happen – you don’t go from, “Oh my parents aren’t all that great” to “I must be self-sufficient.” No, you go from, “My parents aren’t really going to give me any answers, but my big brother will” and then you get to the big brother and big brother disappoints you and you go, “Well maybe my boss at my job will help me.”
“Oh she’s fallible too. Oh well maybe the CEO” you know? You see how that sort of like goes up until you have learned through the CEO and realized, “Oh my gosh, this is a stuffed shirt who doesn’t know anything of what he speaks of” and then you go, “What am I going to do now?” But it is a chain of escalating, leveling up of ambition and desire and creation. So, you know the bottom line is this is a really good scene. It’s doing what you needed it to do.
And when I read it, I felt like, “Wow the guy has figured it out”, you know? He knows what is required to raise the stakes because as I say to people I work with all the time, “I can walk through nine or 10 different levels of analysis of a story and we can explore each and every one but when it comes right down to it, you are the one who has to take my left brain analytical approach and mix it with the right side of your own brain because if my right side of my brain isn’t going to help you.”
“And then you will make something If you can manage that movement between information from a third party and mix it with your own imaginative, fantastical part of yourself, then this is the result.” I didn’t tell you to put staircases in this, I didn’t walk you through how to make this work, I just said, “You need to do globally, you need to raise the stakes, you have to move it on the value shift of life and death.”
“You have to turn the internal genre at the same time as you’re turning the external genre.” In this case, what we have is the life/death genre is moving downwards because now her life is seriously being threatened. But, the internal genre is moving upwards, right? Because she is starting to seize her destiny and become her own person.
Her immaturity and petulance is being burned off. She is rising internally while she is descending externally. Can you see the curve? That’s in this scene.
[0:37:19.6] TG: Yeah, I mean, it makes me think of when we went over Pride and Prejudice and this is – it’s the same thing where they cross here. They cross the – is it the X axis at this point? That’s where they meet and cross, one’s going up and one’s going down.
[0:37:34.6] SC: That’s right. I can say that theoretically to people until I’m blue in the face but until they sort of create this thing and then go, “I’m not sure if that worked. Let me read it again and go, holy cow, how did I do that?” That’s what I mean, like combining the left side of your brain with the right side of your brain and voila, this thing comes out and you sort of preprogrammed your imagination to deliver something that abides the structural requirements of the left side of your brain and that is called, magic.
That is literally magic. Because who knows where those ideas came from that came to you in your mind, you just knew, “I’ve got eight requirements that have to be in this scene, you stuff that into the left side of your brain and somehow communicate it with the right side of your brain and out popped this.”
Now, is this perfect? No. But it’s on the money, you know, it’s not imperfect. I mean, it’s not – well, whatever it is, it’s close. It’s very close. It’s workable, that’s what it is, it works and that’s what we’re looking for, right? We’re trying to create stories that work, and this is an example of a scene that works.
[0:39:00.8] TG: Okay. So, a few weeks ago, we had gone through the 15 scenes, should I now move on to the crisis scene of the middle build or should I start writing the next scene after this?
[0:39:15.3] SC: What do your instincts tell you?
[0:39:17.2] TG: My instincts say to just write the next scene.
[0:39:20.7] SC: That’s right, and that’s what you do.
[0:39:24.1] TG: Okay.
[0:39:24.7] SC: Because, you don’t want to try and do lightning in a bottle 15 times and then stitch together, unless that works for you, right? If you had said, “You know what? I think I should do the crisis scene,” then I would say, do that. Because often times, we can overthink things when we should just listen to ourselves. I think your instincts are absolutely right.
The next scene is going to help you build an even better crisis scene and climactic scene and resolution scene. Do that.
[0:39:59.1] TG: Okay, that sounds good. Yeah, I feel like this is a wondering path and if I try to pick a point in the future, I’ll probably not actually end up there. Is what it feels like. Okay, I’ll work on probably like the next sequence and then we’ll go from there.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:40:17.7] 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 the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review.
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