[00:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode, I start diving into a new book that I want to work on. Now that the threshing is getting published and the contender guide is moving forward, that was the last three or four years of my life, was getting to the point that I could actually write and publish the threshing. Now I’m ready to start a new project.
I talked through filling out the foolscap story grid and get Shawn’s input before I get started actually writing. I think it’ll be a fun one. It was a fun one for me to talk about something other than the threshing and hopefully you’ll get something out of this as I start a new novel and you can follow along with it. Let’s jump in and get started.
[00:01:10] TG: Shawn, now that the threshing is done with a capital D coming out really soon, I’m already thinking about the next book that I want to work on and thinking through what it’s going to be, and I’ve had this idea about a book for a while. I’ve had this thought. Should I just kind of tell you the idea for the book and then we can kind of go through –
[00:01:36] SC: Yeah.
[00:01:37] TG: Okay. I did the foolscap I sent you that and we’ll look at that second. I had this idea, I’ve had this idea for a while now of this story about basically – Because I’m a middle-aged man. I think about things like midlife crisis. What am I doing with my life? Am I making all the right decisions? Am I happy with where I’m at? Then I had thought, I read this article a long time ago about how easy it is to hack into routers, like Internet routers. Now I’ve actually played around with this a little bit where I’ve gone to like a Starbucks and ran – I forgot what it’s called. It’s something Sniffer and it’s basically where it’s listening to all the router traffic. If people aren’t using the correct security on their computers, you can start picking up their passwords and it’s like crazy simple. I figured out how to do it in about 10 minutes.
Yeah, quick tip. Only use HTTP as like secured sites all the time. If there is a site that’s not secure, do not use it. That’s one lesson I’ve learned in this already. I had this thought like what if – Oh! One of my favorite Hitchcock movies is Rear Window with – What is Cary Grant? Was at who stared in that?
[00:03:00] SC: I thought it might’ve been Jimmy Stewart.
[00:03:01] TG: You’re right. It’s Jimmy Stewart. It’s this whole thing where he’s like watching the apartment. It’s been probably 30 years since I’ve seen the movie. But like he’s got a broken leg, so he’s stuck in his apartment. He’s watching the apartment building across the street and he thinks he sees a murder and he kind of has to deal with that.
I thought about like what if it was where one guy was super unhappy with his life and started fucking with his neighbor because he could get access to all of his computer stuff in his house? Because I thought like if somebody could basically get into my email, the amount of like just the havoc they could wreak in my life without me really even realizing it for a while is really big They could email people that I know and start problems for me. They could probably get into my accounts. All it would take is them getting access to one area of my life to get access to lots of areas of my life.
I started thinking like this would be a fun kind of story to tell about a guy who’s basically going through midlife crisis, unhappy with his marriage, unhappy with his life, unhappy with his job, bored, and then basically falls in love with his next-door neighbor’s wife and starts causing trouble in their marriage. It’s almost like a way to just fuck with people because he’s bored. The way that trolls do when they leave mean comments on YouTube.
I started thinking through this, and then I’ve had this idea for a while. Then once the threshing was done, I wanted to start working on my next one. Of course, the first thing I do is fill out a foolscap global story grid. I sent that to you. I’ll upload it on the website so that everybody will be able to see it and follow along if they want.
[00:04:55] SC: Okay. I’ve actually been working on a lot of different sort of ways to refresh and rethink story grid methodology and one of the tools that I think is really going to be helpful for me and hopefully for everybody else is to think about –I talk about this a lot, but I think I have a new way of framing it. To think about what stories are actually for and then we can sort of whittle down and go a little bit deeper into why this story is – I think it’s a really cool idea, but just to sort of figure out what the main goal of the story to tell is for you. Not the controlling idea yet, but just sort of like framing how you want this story to proceed.
This sort of big abstract idea that I have is that stories are – Yes, they’re about change. I talk about that all the time. Stories are about the ways in which we can metabolize unexpected events in our lives and then use that narrative in our own minds when we are confronted with something similar. Yes, it’s about how to deal with change in our particular environment. We all have tons and tons and tons of stories that are sort of in our own private story vaults in our minds.
Yeah, that’s right. But isn’t there something else more abstract about what stories are actually for other than it seems like that’s kind of not the primal thing. It’s like one step away from the primal thing. What I think the primal thing actually is with story, it’s this revolutionary psycho technology that develops right when human beings started to separate from all the other species on the planet.
I’m going to just say it’s the moment in time when Homo sapiens became conscious. When they became conscious, they were able to categorize and start to think through very, very primal story ways. Those first people who came online with their consciousness, they were able to start to think about the future. When they came across some berries in the woods as they were walking and they ate the berries, they sort of made a mental melt, like berries are here. Then when they got hungry again, they could return to that very patch and get something to eat. Then if they found someone who was hungry, they could communicate with them through this story of where the berries are.
Story is the mechanism by which knowledge is transferred from one human being to another. If we frame all of story as a wisdom/knowledge accumulation and communication system, I think that’s a really, really strong scientific way of looking at the purpose of story. What does story do? It gives Homo sapiens an adaptive advantage in their environment evolutionarily.
One person who may have starved before story now no longer starves, which means they are capable of adapting to changes in their environment that they were able to adapt to before and it didn’t require like a genetically encoded physical thing that they have. Maybe they’re hairy and they didn’t die because of a cold spell. It’s a psycho-technology, a mind tool that actually embeds a very serious evolutionary advantage to Homo sapiens.
Okay. Why am I talking in the super abstract terms? Well, let’s walk through it. Okay. If the primal purpose of story is to impart knowledge and to communicate knowledge and knowledge about what? Well, it’s knowledge about how to cope with unexpected events, changes in the environment. Cool. With that understanding, let’s piece together sort of the point, like if you had to say, “Well, what knowledge am I going to impart to the audience about this story?” A whole bunch of knowledge things came up to me when you are pitching me your idea.
Well, the first thing is to alert people to their virtual vulnerability through the virtual world in which they live. What that means is the way they access the networked Internet. They’re absolutely vulnerable to malevolence without knowing it. They’re ignorant to the fact that they’re vulnerable. Really cool idea, because when we think like, “Oh! When I go on the Internet, I’m cool. I’m just doing it and nobody can tell what I’m doing unless there’s a really, really super bad guy out there who’s an evil genius and they’ve created a way to hack Facebook, right?” There’s this big booty man out there that seems to be this thing that’s upending elections, and causing chaos, and they’re politically motivated and all that stuff. But that’s so abstract to us that we don’t really think of it as someone next-door.
The fact that you’re going to set up this sort of domestic conflict between neighbors is really, really great. It absolutely locks into that intrigue that we all have about those people who share the same sort of physical environment that we do. We always wonder, “What’s going on across the street? Do they have the same arguments with their wife that I do, or husband, or whatever? Are there kids as nasty as my kids, or are there kids as good as my kids?” All of those questions are really – It’s like the desire for knowledge that we really shouldn’t have.
It’s not really our business. It has no bearing on how we should live our lives, but we can’t help it, because we are social creatures and we constantly want to sort of figure out where we sit on the hierarchy of power. Is the guy across the street more powerful or less powerful than me? He’s got a better car, but his house is a little rundown, right? There’s all this nuance of power and power hierarchies involved in everyday life. Okay. That’s one thing.
If we look at your story in terms of knowledge that you want to convey to the reader in a way that’s entertaining, then I think it’s kind of cool that you would be able to unlock the systemic vulnerability of using your computer in the vicinity of anyone, right?
[00:13:07] TG: Yeah.
[00:13:08] SC: That’s cool, and you’re also exploring someone who is kind of breach the place where they’re stuck, right? Like the character that you’re describing to me who seems to be kind the focal feature character is this guy who’s resentful and he doesn’t feel like there’s any way out. He sort of locked into this membrane prison of his own making, of his own mind. He feels like his job is sort of what it is. It’s not really going anywhere. He’s created a narrative in his mind that he’s just locked in. He can’t quit because he’s got these people that he has to take care of and he doesn’t really get along with his wife anymore. He can’t even really remember why they got married in the first place. Maybe his kids don’t treat them with the respect that he thinks he deserves, and, aha! He’s locked in this sort of suburban house and across the street he sees another world, and he can only see the superficial elements of that other world, but it seems really appealing.
Maybe the guy across the street or next-door, his wife seems nice. The main character’s wife isn’t treating him properly anymore. It’s a really cool starting place because there’s a lot of under the surface tension that we’re talking. Now some things that just immediately come to mind about where – The beginning thing here is interesting.
Now, I see on your foolscap page here, you’re talking about an internal genre of a punitive morality store. Your lead character seems to me to be in the vein of Donald Draper on Mad Men or Tom Ripley in the Ripley Novels by Patricia Highsmith, and what that character is, is the anti-hero. The antihero is a fascinating figure and it’s a very popular one right now which we could have a discussion about why that is.
But the antihero, you have one or two choices when you have an antihero. You can either have them redeem themselves at the end or you can have them suffer and get their just rewards. If they end up –I’m just talking off the top of my head here. I don’t have any fully formed ideas about it. But if the antihero suffers at the end, then the underlying sort of message or controlling idea would be in the cautionary realm. It sort of warning people not to covet those things that seem very easy to take without being caught. That would be kind of a cautionary tale.
Now the other side of the equation, it could be – That’s like a pure cautionary tale. Meaning that sort of vulnerable guy who’s not really a good guy turns bad and suffers. The other idea would be a vulnerable guy who seems to have some skills does something stupid for fun, and then that little stupid action devolves into a nightmare and they reach a place of all is lost and they have an insight such that they can redeem themselves. That seems to be another option that you could have. It would be a fallen person declines and declines and declines until they reach and all is lost moment. Has an insight and starts to ascend back to a higher level of cognitive function. That would be more of a morality redemption story.
Now the question that you have to answer for yourself is which story do you want to write? Which story do you think would align with more excitement to you to explore? Is it surely the punitive plot or is it more of a redemptive plot?
[00:18:50] TG: When you talked about that, I’ve felt more about the second one, because the way that I was thinking of the story was almost like he started out not trying to do something horrible. It was more just like I’m bored and I’m going to kind of fuck with somebody. It’s not like he was setting out to do something horrible.
Then I feel like the first half of the book would be him continuing to kind of resist, like, “Okay. I can’t do that anymore. This is stupid. What if I get caught?” Then like it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and he can’t sleep, and so he logs back in the keeps messing with it.
Then it switches over to where he decides like this is a good thing that I’m doing. He convinces himself it’s a good thing. Then the ending payoff would be when he realizes how deep he’s gone and that this is truly serious and he tries to redeem it at the end.
[00:19:52] SC: Yeah, I think that is – I mean, let’s just think about it very crassly, like let’s pretend that we’re big shot publishers and we want a story that’s going to sell, right? If we want a story that’s going to sell, do we think of very dark ending where the guy gets his just rewards and the bad guy is punished and justice prevails? That’s not very –
Here’s what I think. I think people recognize that they have a little bit of a shadow within them. Even those people who say that they’re all – They never do anything wrong and they’re perfect people. They do in the deep dark recesses of their soul understand that there are attractions that they find really, really appealing, that they know are not the right thing to do, but they just do their best to suppress those shadow instincts within them.
Now one of those shadow instincts that I think all people share is the titillation of being able to be a voyeur. I mean, that’s part of what Rear Window was about, is that the lead character has a deep psychological problem, the Jimmy Stewart character, and he’s a voyeur who was really enjoying and being titillated by watching people in private moments.
Yeah, that can extend all the way to sexual sort of stimulation, but it’s a power thing at its core that takes on, I believe, a sexual dimension in certain circumstances. Part of it is sort of being the puppet master and watching the marionettes across the street makes you feel really excited.
[00:22:04] TG: Well, and I thought of it as a way of like he feels powerless in his life, and this is like a sick way that he can feel like he’s in control of something as he’s controlling these people across the street, because if he does X, they do Y.
[00:22:19] SC: Exactly. Let me just take up a short sidetrack here and talk about hierarchy for a minute, because this is going to become I think really good, solid, new tool for story grid. It’s kind of looking at story through the hierarchy lens. Now there are two kinds of hierarchies. There is the power/dominance hierarchy, which is sort of what the shadow figure the antagonist in a story is all about, right? They want to rise to the top of power and they want to keep everybody beneath them. They want to make sure that they have power over everyone else and they want to stay at the top.
What that involves, it’s sort of robbing people of their agency. What you do when you rob someone of their agency is that there is nothing that they can do? They’re sort of imprisonment and somebody else has the power. Bureaucrats love power hierarchies, and bureaucrats sort of like this isn’t nice to people who work at the Department of Motor Vehicles, but a lot of those people behind the window at DMV, when you go up, they’re really good at making sure that you followed all the right procedures or you’re not going to get your driver’s license. They have the power and they enjoy that power even though they may not be super powerful in everyday life. At the DMV, they’re super powerful.
The tyrants love the power hierarchy and they believe they see the world through the lens of power hierarchy. They see the world in terms of winners and losers. I’m a winner. I’m at the top of the hierarchy. Everybody beneath me is beneath me and they’re losers. Okay. That’s one kind of hierarchy and that’s what the shadow agent, sort of the antagonist in stories really focuses on.
Then the other kind of hierarchy is what I call the growth hierarchy, and the growth hierarchy is about leveling up your skillset. So becoming a better carpenter or becoming a better storyteller, not in order to Lord that over other people, but literally just to become a better craftsperson. The growth hierarchy is really important because when we’re babies, somebody is going to teach us how to grow up, right? Literally grow up.
We learn how to communicate. We learn how to behave by watching our parents who – And then eventually when we become an adult, we have to get better at our skillset. If were a carpenter and we’re not so good when we start, we better get better or we’re going to get fired. We have to grow our skills and we have to grow our cognitive capabilities through time. We’re constantly trying to get a little bit better at what we do.
Growth hierarchies have nothing to do with winning and losing. They have to do with getting a little bit better at what we’re doing in our lives overtime. Essentially, if you look at growth hierarchies and the power/dominance hierarchy, they are on a spectrum, right? They’re a spectrum of value, and super-duper growth hierarchies are people who all they care about is gaining in wisdom and knowledge and becoming better people across all domains of their life. Then on the other side are the tyrants who want to lock down the winners and losers and be at the very top.
We all live in that spectrum because we got to get some power because we’ve got to exploit and get some value out of the world in order to take care of the people that we love. Sometimes if we’re in a job and our boss tells us to do something that we don’t want to do, but if we act up, we might get demoted. We do it and we accept our fate as being a little bit lower on the hierarchy. But then we also say, “Well, my assistant, I’ll just pass on that job to my assistant.” Where it’s sort of like shoveling the power down on that power hierarchy.
On the other side, we know that we need to get better at our skillsets, so we’ve got this spectrum of value in the power hierarchies themselves. What you’re describing is your antihero is definitely shading the way they’re viewing the world in terms of a power hierarchy. That’s why they’re an antihero. They’re seeing the world through the lens of power and dominance and status versus sort of someone who’s looking at the world in terms of getting a little bit better being a human being across multiple domains. That kind of person is sort of the luminary figure, the figure that is trying to become a better person, to grow up. Even, I mean, adults have to grow up too. There’s no place for you stop growing up.
All right. We have those two hierarchies. Your lead character is definitely shading into the dark side, but we all have to navigate both of these. Someone who’s really good at navigating a growth hierarchy has this other side of them that is very concerned with power and status too. Within every person, we have a luminary agent/hero and we have a shadow figure/villain.
What’s the beauty of story is that what’s internalized can be external. Your lead character is someone who has reached a place in their minds where they don’t believe they’re ever going to be able to go up another rung on the power hierarchy at their job and they don’t really care anymore about the growth hierarchy. They’re really fully focused on the power dominance hierarchy.
That person is going to try and find a way to become powerful somehow, someway in some domain. This person that you’re describing has a real competency with software and technology. They’re like, “Aha! I’ve got a lot of skills in this domain and I bet you I got many more skills than the guy across the street. So I can exert my power over him and jack into his system and then play around in there like I’m God, and I can send emails using his name. I can do all kinds of stuff that will affect him and then I can watch the results from the safety of my own home like I’m watching TV.”
Now, at first, it’s kind of fun, right? Maybe he orders a pizza, and the pizza is delivered and the guy is like, “Hey, I didn’t order this.” Then the other guy across the street is sitting behind the bushes laughing. We can all be like, “Ha! Ha! It is not funny.” Then it progressively complicates where the guy starts to get addicted to the dopamine rush of power.
[00:30:03] TG: What I have is at the end of the beginning hook – Because it’s been interesting to think through the hero’s journey type thing from this standpoint. He’s not being called to a worthy adventure of destroying the one ring. What he’s being called into is a horrible adventure. What I have is at the end of the beginning hook when he’s screwing around in their system and after he’s ordered the pizza and all that kind of stuff, he then finds evidence that his neighbor – In the beginning hook, he also just notices the neighbors wife and how hot she is or whatever and that started kind of percolating in his head of like she’s better than my wife. He’s lucky to have her, that kind of thing.
At the end of the beginning hook is when he finds evidence in the guy’s computer that he’s had an affair. So that’s when it switches from I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m screwing around with this guy and he doesn’t deserve it, to now the guy kind of deserves it and I’m going to keep going after it. Because I felt like he needed a way to justify in his mind that this is a worthy thing that he’s doing.
[00:31:23] SC: Right. Okay. I get what you’re saying. I’m just trying to think about that transition from this man’s ordinary world to crossing the threshold into – I think there’s a lot of amazing, important, helpful stuff in the hero’s journey that is going to apply to all stories. I’ve since been working with Rachelle Ramirez, one of our Story Grid certified editors, on exploring all these things in genre and together we’ve sort of been playing around with the hero’s journey to figure out is it really the meta-myth or is there something more abstract above that that could be more helpful?
But I’ll put that on the back burner for now and just say that the concept of moving from the ordinary world into the extraordinary world throughout crossing a threshold I think is something to keep in whatever it is that we decide to call this new sort of meta-mythic structure.
When I paused, I was thinking what would be the right threshold shift to get the antihero into no longer – It’s sort of like the moment when shit gets real, right? It was a lot of fun doing the pizza stuff, but he really wants to take it to the next level, but deep down he knows it’s wrong to be doing what he’s doing. He’s kindness stymied, but he’s really, really looking for something that will allow him to take this game to the next level.
When you say he finds evidence of an affair by the husband across the street, I think that is good. If you’re going to go down the road of trying to steal the woman from the other guy, that works, but I do think you need – That thing has to blow up later on. Meaning, he has to come to the realization, “Holy shit! The guy wasn’t having an affair. That’s his sister.” Something like that.
[00:34:02] TG: Oh! Well, I was thinking more of like evidence of a past one. Basically, I need a way for him in his mind decide this guy is a bad guy. Now it’s that whole thing of like the only way you can ever do something harmful to another human is in some way convince yourself that they’re below human, right? If you’re going to find a war, you have to decide that your enemy is less than human in order to treat them the way that you’re going to try to treat them.
Any time, whether you’re cutting somebody off in traffic or whatever, you have to like come up with this reason why you’re allowed to treat another human being as less than a human being. My thinking was like, “Okay. It’s one thing to do the equivalent of ordering a pizza to somebody’s house. It’s another to actually start trying to dismantle the man’s life.” What can I do that will be to the reader not enough evidence that he’s a bad guy, but to my character, the excuse he needs to keep going?
That’s why I was thinking like not a current affair that’s going on. It’s just evidence of like it’s happened before and then it allows my character to decide he doesn’t actually deserve this woman and I’m going to keep messing with him to prove that he’s a bad guy.
[00:35:38] SC: No. I get that. I get that, but I just want to take a half step back and think about, “Okay. If we’re doing a thriller, we must clearly define the hero, the villain and the victim.”
[00:36:00] TG: We haven’t actually said that. What I have in the external genre is thriller psychological and the value at stake is life, to death, to damnation. Okay. With the thriller, we have to have – What is it? A hero, a victim and an antagonist?
[00:36:18] SC: A villain.
[00:36:19] TG: A villain.
[00:36:20] SC: So, if our protagonist is playing on the field of – He’s essentially acting as the shadow, which means the villain.
[00:36:39] TG: This is a question. It’s like whose viewpoint are we viewing this through? Are viewing it through our main character? Because in our main character’s mind, he’s the hero.
[00:36:52] SC: It’s all you, man.
[00:36:53] TG: It’s all me as the writer.
[00:36:55] SC: As the writer. You’re the creator.
[00:36:56] TG: Okay.
[00:36:58] SC: You have to make these constructions yourself and then that sort of ironclad construction at the top will inform everything that falls below it. You as the creator have to say to yourself, you have to answer some questions. Is it cool that somebody is doing what this person is doing? If it’s not cool, then they’re probably the villain. Do you know what I’m saying?
[00:37:30] TG: Yes. From that standpoint, the main character is the villain. The husband across the street is the victim and the hero will be the husband’s wife.
[00:37:39] SC: Okay. I’m thinking about – I’m sorry to be so wishy-washy, but we’re kind of like split bowling here. What I think is interesting in terms of that hierarchy structure that I just talked about is to counterbalance the power dominance hierarchy that’s a play for the antihero or the protagonist with, say, the growth hierarchy across the street.
One of the things that gets us all into a lot of trouble is that when we’re looking at the world through a power/dominance hierarchy, that’s the only way we see the world. Your guy who’s surveilling the guy across the street, he looks at that guy only through the lens of the power hierarchy. Now what I think might be worth pursuing and thinking about is what if the guy across the street is actually operating primarily through a growth hierarchy? The choices that he’s making are about becoming a better person, and so the things that he does that the other guy witnesses are misinterpreted because that guy can’t see what it’s like to try and get better.
Maybe you can use that as the setup for the misunderstanding that causes an irreversible change at midpoint by having your victim be operating on the growth hierarchy and being earnest and helpful to other people in such a way that he becomes a better person and then the other guy misinterprets that guy’s actions as being nefarious and wrong.
This is all to say that I think it would probably seem to the reader and to the antihero that what the antihero finds on the guy’s email is evidence of an affair or a crime when in fact it’s not evidence of an affair or crime, but evidence of this guy trying to improve himself and going up the growth hierarchy.
[00:40:14] TG: So like the first thing that popped to my head is I have a friend who’s a single guy and he spends a lot of time working with like upper elementary and middle school kids that are in bad situations in their life, and h talked about how carefully has to be with how he interacts with the kids when he talks to them. How much he talks to them and how he talks to them outside of the actual place that he’s volunteering because it could be so easily misconstrued as like really nasty stuff.
It could be something like that where it’s like the victim is doing his best to help somebody and it shows his evidence because somebody who’s operating under a power structure would never try to actually help people.
[00:41:07] SC: Right. So they can’t – It’s not even on their radar. Obviously, that person would think that there is an ulterior motive and immediately believes that. That guy would feel justified, “Oh! A crime is being committed. It’s my duty to figure out a way such that this bad guy can get caught without me being caught revealing how that guy was caught,” right?
[00:41:39] TG: Right. Yeah.
[00:41:40] SC: That then becomes – If you do it well, the reader –
[00:41:46] TG: Big if.
[00:41:47] SC: Well, no, but the reader will buy into that antihero’s mission, right? The best way to do it is that we kind of relate to the guy who’s kind of goofing around at the beginning and it’s kind of fun. Nobody’s getting hurt. This is some goofing around. The guy across the street, he’s like that guy Ned Flanders on the Simpson’s, right? Your guy is like Homer Simpson who hates Ned Flanders, because Flanders, he gets the new RV and it’s like, “Ah! That Flanders, that bastard.”
He starts messing around with Flanders, and we all kind of enjoying it because we can all relate to the guy across the street who gets the new car, puts in the swimming pool or whatever. We want to kill that guy. Then, oh my gosh! It turns out Ned Flanders is horrible. He’s doing all this incredible nasty crap and Homer find out. Now, Homer has a mission. He’s going to out Flanders as a criminal. Then the reader who’s reading the book is like, “Yes. I knew there was something wrong with that guy across the street. There’s no way he could afford that RV,” right?
[00:43:12] TG: Yeah.
[00:43:13] SC: Then if you do that well, then when the twist comes like, “Oh my gosh! I wanted that guy to be bad. This isn’t evidence of anything, and look what’s happened. He’s now in jail. His wife is losing –” You can just see the spiral coming down. Then the antihero has to make a choice, “How am I going to get out of this situation and free this guy from wrongful conviction without revealing that I was part of it,” and eventually he would have to reveal that he set him up or something. It’s kind of like this is really, really well done in that television, Better Call Saul, because it’s worth watching some of it. I mean, it takes a little while to get into it, but Vince Gilligan who created Better Call Saul, it’s sort of like a parallel story to – It’s a prequel to Breaking Bad.
Vince Gilligan is just such a master at these psychological manipulations that it’s worth watching him create these stories with an antihero, who’s Saul, who’s like –
[00:44:30] TG: The worst.
[00:44:31] SC: The worst lawyer, has no moral fiber at all. But Better Call Saul is about how Saul became Saul. When you watch it, you’re so rooting for Saul/Jimmy the entire time, because you can tell that there’s a good part of him and then these malevolent forces are just driving him into deeper and deeper and deeper resentment, which allows him to act out negatively. It might be helpful to you to sort of just see a parallel construction, but I think there’s a real potential for this kind of story today, because basically you’re starting with – I know we have to get off shortly, but you’re starting with a character who we can all relate to. A character who feels as if they’ve lost all agency in their life that whatever they do is meaningless that they’re not going anywhere. They’re locked in a go nowhere job. Their kids don’t like them. Their spouse doesn’t like them. They’re in a prison. There’s just no way out.
I think in contemporary society, it’s very difficult to understand really what’s going on at any level. We do feel like we’ve lost our agency. We don’t know to vote this way or that way or what the voting is even going to do. Everyone’s reaching this level of, “Ah!” When that level happens we all start to look for ways to distract ourselves to sort of relieve our anxieties and our resentments by actively finding some domain in which we can apply our agency that makes us feel powerful.
That’s I think what the heart of what you’re getting at and this idea that you’re putting forth, and I really want to encourage you to keep exploring it and just keep asking these questions of yourself like, “What is the lesson here I’m trying to convey? How can I make the reader start to root for this antihero?” That’s with the great antihero stories always get us to root for the bad guy who has some good in them that we want that good to come out. That’s why we watched Mad Men, the television series. That’s why we love Tom Ripley. We want that person to sort of find their inner goodness and start to go towards that. So if you can trick the reader into thinking that your antihero is actually going for a good thing, he’s trying to put a bad guy behind bars when he crosses the threshold into doing stuff that is far worse than just ordering pizzas, then they can root for him as he’s destroying somebody else’s life. Then when the turn comes in the midpoint, irreversible change like, “Oh my gosh! This guy is innocent. Now I have to undo all of the things that I thought I was doing for good, and it’s not going to be easy.”
[00:47:56] TG: Okay. Do you think I have enough here to like maybe put together the first sequence of seeing something like that?
[00:48:06] SC: Yeah. I think what you want to do is, for fun, instead of figuring out all these stuff that we’ve been talking about, you kind of have a sense of where you want this thing to go. Yeah, riff on a couple of scenes where you set up the inciting incident where the guy just goes, “I can’t take it anymore. I get to F with this guy because he’s driving me crazy.”
[00:48:32] TG: Yeah.
[00:48:32] SC: Then we can all relate to that, because there’s always – That somebody is like, “Well, have you ever run into your neighbor and they’re like, “Well, Billy’s now at Harvard, and Chile is at Yale, and Zed just got back from Oxford, and they’re all leading these great things, and he just signed his million dollar bonus with the Boston Red Sox,” and you just want to kill them.
[00:49:00] TG: I don’t know what you’re talking about, Shawn. Obviously, you’re having some issues over there.
[00:49:06] SC: Yeah, a lot of a lot of people are doing a lot better than I am here.
[00:49:11] TG: I’ll work on that and then – I mean, the biggest change of what I have here right now is I’m looking at morality redemption, not morality punitive.
[00:49:22] SC: Yeah. I think that’s a better commercial choice and it’ll be more fun to write, because you can only – How much hell can you dump on the person? By the end the, the final blow of hell is like people are kind of worn out with the punitive stuff by the end.
[00:49:43] TG: Okay. All right. I’ll get started and I’ll send over what I come up with.
[00:49:47] SC: Okay.
[END Of EPISODE]
[00:49:48] 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.
Also, we still have some spots available for our big idea nonfiction seminar that is happening in February in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s going to be a really great three days together. If you’re writing nonfiction in any way, it doesn’t have to be this huge Malcolm Gladwell’s book. Another example of big idea is my own Running Down a Dream, right? If you’re looking to write nonfiction and you want to figure out how to write a book that will stand the test of time, how to do it using the Story Grid methodology, I highly recommend you join us in Nashville in February. Again, you can go see more about that at storygrid.com/nonfiction.
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