How to Write a Great Scene

[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book the Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

In this episode, we start talking about a new project we’re doing here at Story Grid that I think is first of all, I think it’s been a long time coming. I think everything we’re going to take you through, what you’re going to learn, I don’t want to give anything away till we actually get into it, but it’s really exciting for me. I think it’s something that again, has been a long time coming that you’re really going to enjoy.

Shawn talks about that, give some background on it and how you can be a part of it. I’m not going to give anything else away, because we’re going to talk about it throughout the episode. I’m excited to jump in and get started.


[0:00:53.5] TG: Shawn, I’m excited, really excited to do this episode and record this, because just yesterday, we opened up registration for something brand new that we haven’t done at Story Grid before. We’re calling it ground your craft. I want to get into it of what it is and why we’re doing and how all the editors are going to be involved and all that. First, just start by telling us what this thing is.

[0:01:25.4] SC: Okay. When I wrote Story Grid and when I wrote the book and when I started the website, I didn’t have this grand, global vision of what exactly it is I wanted Story Grid to become. Since the time and it’s almost five years now, when I published the book and we started getting more and more people involved in the website, I started thinking about, well, if someone were to put the power of teaching story principles to everybody on the planet, how would I go about doing it?

Since that time, we’ve created a whole bunch of courses. A lot of the times, we were flying by the seat of our pants, because we were responding to the demands of people who came to Story Grid for what they wanted. It turned out that it was this really nice, symbiotic ideas came to us while we were doing it. I’m speaking very abstractly.

My point is that what I came down to is that the very first course that we ever offered was the love story course. The reason why we did the love story course was I was just thinking, and the people who were coming to Story Grid were asking, could you really dive deeply into the genre conventions, obligatory scenes, etc., and were really interested in love story. If you could really talk about the primal love story of contemporary culture, which is Pride and Prejudice, that would be great. That’s how we started everything. We started with the love story seminar.

I love that course and I think it’s great. It was a really wonderful experience for me to teach it, because it really made me think about, “Well, what are the skill sets that someone needs to really have at their command before they can even really wrap their minds around genre?” From that, I came up with this concept of the two modes of looking at story.

Now there are a lot more than two, but the two very important ones are the macro point of view and the micro point of view. The macro point of view is having a telescope; being able to explain the Big Bang, explaining the cosmos, the way things work generally; that one over very well at the love story conference. I created Level Up Your Craft, which we’re also offering at the same time as we’re doing this new class, Ground Your Craft.

Now, Level Up Your Craft is all about the macro point of view as a storyteller, like what are the big movements of story? How am I going to create a global map for an entire long-form story? What are the 15 most important scenes that I need to nail first before I can fill in the interstitial tissue around it? Level Up Your Craft use three different master works and I went through all of the conventions and obligatory scenes of those three specific genres and I analyzed the 15 core scenes that made up the skeletal structure of each of those master works.

Those master works are The Martian, Fight Club and Bridget Jones’s Diary. I used the film adaptations to go through each and every one of those. I think it went very well. Everybody was very pleased with it, but I also knew I had to do something similar for the other lens that we need to look at story. That lens is the micro lens, or the microscope, right?

The microscope is all about grounding your story skills. As I stayed again and again in the Story Grid book, the most important unit of story is the scene, for the novelist at least. Now for the actor, it’s the beat. For the novelist, for the screenwriter, for the playwright, for the long-form television person, everything boils down, does the scene work? Are your scenes actually building progressively to those big moments in the story that you need; the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff. Are your scenes working?

It’s taking me some time to figure out the right way in which I can teach the principles of scene construction, in a way that’s actually very prescriptive and practical. As scientists say, the ideal situation is to be able to describe a problem really with great focus and intricacy. You want to describe something, and then you want to prescribe a solution to that problem. The problem that we’re setting up to describe and prescribe in this course is the problem of writing a scene. The scene is the on-the-ground experience for the reader, or the viewer of your work. If your scenes work, the reader or the viewer will keep turning pages, keep watching. It’s the potato-chip phenomenon. If the potato-chip tastes good, they’ll keep eating the potato chips, right?

[0:07:25.4] TG: They’ll eat one more, one more, one more.

[0:07:27.2] SC: Exactly.

[0:07:27.8] TG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

[0:07:28.7] SC: All right, so that’s the general abstract idea of these two. If there’s a Story Grid 100, the entry level courses that you would need to learn story, there are two of them, right? There is Story Grid macro 100, which is Level Up Your Craft and the second one this Story Grid micro, Ground Your Craft.

For me, these are the two fundamental classes that you can learn as a newbie, an amateur, or a professional writer and refresh your craft by reviewing these two fundamental courses. Let me get back to what actually Ground Your Craft is really going to be all about.

Again, it’s about the scene. Okay, so that brings up another question. Well, what kind of scene, right? What kind of scene are we going to be working on? Thankfully, and this is where I say that our flying by the seat of the pants and giving the people what they wanted early is actually helping us, because one of the things that all of the people who at the Story Grid website wanted was editor certification, right? They wanted to come and spend a very intense amount of time personally with me and with you to learn the craft of story editing, as well as entrepreneurial skills, which are your expertise.

We did the Story Grid certified editors program, and now we have about 50 certified Story Grid editors. Some are just coming online now. Then we have 19 of the original. What happened was I started asking around. This is a really great thing to do when you’re facing a problem, ask other people’s opinions. Just state your problem and say, “Look, I’m looking to define what this problem is at a better resolution.” That’s what I did. I talked to everyone at the Story Grid certified editors class in February. I said, “Look, we’re going to do – I’m going to put together the micro course. Now what questions would you want answered in this ground your craft course?”

They all went away after the class and then they started sending me e-mails about the questions that they wanted me to answer. Two of the editors started working independently; Rebecca Monterosso and Kimberly Kessler. They came up with a great idea. They said, the biggest thing that their clients want to figure out is genre, right? If I’m going to do a micro course, wouldn’t it be great to be able to be specific to the 12-content genres? The ones that really people start to get obsessed with.

That got me thinking and they started thinking more and they said, “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you cover one of the genres each week and create a scene and analyze a scene within that specific genre? That way, while you’re going through micro details of the Story Grid spreadsheet for each of these scenes, you’ll be able to layout the global conventions and obligatory scenes of those specific content genres at the same time.” What you’ll be able to do is to focus on the core event of that particular genre. If you’re writing a horror short story, you’re going to want to feature the core event of horror. What the core event is, it’s the big moment that everybody goes to a horror movie, or reads a horror novel to see. That is the victim at the mercy of the monster scene, right?

When we do horror and thankfully, James Thorne who’s our horror expert, he’s going to be working with me on that week’s work. We’re going to look at a short story, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe, which is all about that core horror ethos. That’s just part of it. Now, the other thing that’s great is that the Story Grid editors, they all have their own loves of particular kinds of stories, right? James for example, is a horror nut. He just loves it. That’s what he concentrates on. That’s what he reads for pleasure, that’s what he writes.

I opened it up to them and I said, “Look, why don’t we each week, so we’ll have 12 weeks. Each of those weeks will feature one of the 12 content genres, the nine external and the three internal. One of the Story Grid certified editors can be the leader that week along with me. They will be the supportive player to my lecture. They will follow up and do a lot of the course work and answer questions and really get knee-deep into the thing that they love the most.”

[0:13:11.0] TG: They’ll be your like your TA?

[0:13:12.7] SC: Exactly. They’ll be a section leader, teaching assistant, to go over a specific category of content. I opened it up to the Story Grid editors and they all jumped, piled on and you and I actually got there first. You’re going to do the war story. I’m actually going to be doing society myself, because that’s what I love too.

All right, so the way it’ll be structured is that each week, we’ll go over the analysis of a masterwork scene. Now these master work scenes are the pinnacle of short stories, or really terrific, critical moments in specific novels. What I’ll do is I’ll lay out my analysis using the Story Grid spreadsheet tool, as well as some other tools that I want to share that I haven’t really talked about all that much yet.

Each week, the lecture will begin with the analysis of a master work scene. We’re going to open up the hood of these master works and we’re going to go through the spreadsheet, so everybody who takes the class is going to really immerse themselves in the intricacies and the difficulties and the really, really nitpicky stuff in the spreadsheet. They’ll see me make spreadsheets. They’ll see how I do it, and so they can always refer to that work whenever they get stuck. They’ll see how I make the decisions about whether it’s third-person omniscient point of view, or free and direct style, or first-person, whatever.

Each one of those columns, I’ll spend considerable amount of time, maybe a minute or two, explaining the decisions that I made to fill in the Story Grid spreadsheet for just this specific scene. We’re going to really, really open up the hood of these master work scenes. What’s also cool is that I’m just not picking them myself. I went to the Story Grid editors and I said, “Look, if you’re going to be the section leader, you pick the scene, you pick one of your favorites, you send it to me, you do analysis independently and I will do the analysis. Then we can have two different points of view about these master works, right?”

The reason why that’s terrific is that it will explain to people that different interpretations, subjective points of view brought to a masterwork are really important. The more eyeballs you can get on something, the better you’ll understand how well that scene actually works. Okay, so that’s going to be the first part of each lecture is just a super duper in-depth analysis of a master work scene, or short story within a specific genre. We’re going to have 12 weeks of this, covering all 12 of the genres.

Okay, now the next thing is that after I do my super-duper analysis, what I’ll do is something that I call leveling up my thinking. I’ll take the ground of the master work and I’ll start pulling out some abstractions from it. For example, the scene that I talk about in the book a lot, in the Story Grid book and I talked about all the time is the scene in Silence of the Lambs when Clarice Starling, the core scene is when Clarice Starling goes and takes down Buffalo Bill and kills him, right?

She is actually the hero at the mercy of the villain. That scene is really, really a primal example of how to pull out some abstractions and to help you direct your own work. What do I mean by that? If everybody who can remember that scene in the film, it begins with what I call the stranger knocks on the door opening. At the beginning of the scene, Clarice Starling is going to interview this tailor who worked in the small town. One of the victims worked with this tailor. She wants to go talk to the tailor to see maybe if he has any information about who might have wanted to hurt her.

She’s knocking on the door for this tailor and the tailor is the killer, Buffalo Bill. Now she doesn’t know that the tailor is Buffalo Bill and Buffalo Bill doesn’t know who she is. It’s the classic setup of stranger knocks on the door. Now if you look at the beginning of The Hobbit, it’s the same abstract scene, right? When Gandalf knocks on, or comes and approaches Bilbo Baggins, it’s the stranger knocking on the door.

What we’ll do from that is I will walk through these individual core event scenes in each one of these genres and I will start building an assignment. I will be starting to form constraints of a scene that the master who created the scene generically came up on their own, so that at the end of this part of the lecture, I’ll be able to give an assignment. The assignment would be something similar to begin your action scene, which must turn on the life-death value. I would like you to write a scene that turns on the life-death value that begins with the stranger knocking at the door.

The way your scene is going to turn in the middle is through the life and death value. One of the players will threaten the life of the other and/or take the life of the other, or bring back the life of the other, depending upon whatever choice you want to make. You’ll see how where I’m leading with this is that not only are we going to describe how short scene stories and short stories work, right? We’re going to prescribe a means by which you can inspire yourself by the very master work that you love to write your own original scene, that uses the solutions that the master has already solved in his or her master work. Does that make sense?

[0:20:20.3] TG: Yeah. I mean, because when we first started talking about doing this, I was very – I was glad it wasn’t my job to come up with how to teach this, because it was such a big ball of things. The idea of doing it through the content genres was really neat. I love the idea of analyzing the scenes, because that’s what you had me do. That was a column I never had to deal with back in December when I was analyzing the threshing, you’re like, “Go through and figure out what the –” What did you call it?

[0:20:56.3] SC: The scene types.

[0:20:57.4] TG: Yeah, the scene types. It took me a couple tries to wrap my head around it. Once it did, I started noticing every one of my scenes, our scenes that have showed up and book after book after book after book that I’ve read. It was just one of those times again where I was like, “Oh, my gosh. It’s been here the whole time.”

[0:21:18.7] SC: Yeah. I mean, that’s the nature of learning. I talked a little bit about this at the Story Grid certified editor seminar. There are basically two ways we learn. It’s been proven by experiments, psychology experiments, etc. I think I mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again and I always forget the name of the guy who actually did the experiment and I’ll try and remember by the time I finish the story.

There was an experimenter in the 1960s and he was curious about the notion of what people call their gut feelings like, “Oh, I just know that that’s not going to happen.” He wanted to debunk the whole notion of people’s hunches and gut’s reactions, etc. What he did is that he decided, “I know what I’ll do. I’m going to create some nonsense words.” The nonsense will have an underlying structure to it. Every fifth letter, I’ll turn into another letter based upon some mathematical formula. I’ll do a whole series of fake words that are abide the structural algorithm. Then as a test, as a control, I’ll do just randomly ridiculous words. I’ll see if people actually can identify this underlying structure in these words like they say they can, like this whole hunch thing. It’s got to be ridiculous.”

What he discovered was that people could actually do it. They would come in, he would show them 25 of these fake words that all had that algorithm underneath them in their structure. It’s not anything that anyone would be able to rationally figure out. Then he would do the ones that didn’t. He would show them 25 that had the structure, and then he would hold up the 26 card and he would say, “Do you think this card belongs with the other 25?” They would say yes or no.

What he discovered is that there was a standard deviation above random chance that was very clearly evidence that people have an implicit ability to identify patterns and structures in phenomena just magically. It’s our superpower. It’s the human being’s implicit ability to recognize underlying structures in natural phenomena. That’s interesting and cool, but when he would ask them how did you know that? They would either say, “I have no clue,” or they’d come up with some explanation that wasn’t anywhere near what the algorithm actually did.

That’s one way we learn is the implicit learning. I think that’s what we all understand when we start out to write a story, right? We have all of this experience consuming stories from the time we were little kids. We have this big bank of stories that have this underlying structure already attached to them. Part of that underlying structure is what I talked about in terms of scene type. We all can say, “All right, that’s the scene where the two friends have coffee, or the people go out on their first date, or there’s a big war and the battle is about to begin and there’s somebody who’s afraid in a foxhole.”

We’ve seen these things a million times and they’re implicitly structural across multiple genres, right? When you started writing your novel, you had this inventory of scene types that you were already deeply, implicitly familiar with. You knew how the scene types usually went. At the beginning, you would just go on the fly and you would bang out a scene that seemed like a scene based upon that implicit learning, right?

Implicit learning is unbelievable. I mean, I think it’s amazing. However, there’s also explicit learning, right? An explicit learning is what Story Grid stuff is. It’s making the underlying structure of stories across multiple genres explicit. We’re trying to lay out and describe how the structure works and how you can use that knowledge to help you write better stories. If you know the underlying structure of a shed before you build it and you make a plan to build the shed before you actually do, by the time you head out to build your shed, you build the shed pretty quickly and pretty efficiently.

If you just are going on your gut instinct of what a shed looks like, you need a roof, you need a floor, some walls, yeah, that’s a little vague. You have the implicit knowledge, but you really need to add explicit knowledge on top of the implicit knowledge to make the thing actually work. That’s the whole Story Grid concept. It’s not anything more revolutionary than that. It’s just taking the underlying structure of stories and doing our best to really delineate the different patterns and put them under high resolution, so that when we face a problem, we can go, “Oh, well what’s the explicit structure behind that incredible scene with Clarice Starling and Buffalo Bill? Oh, well it’s a stranger knocks at the door, followed by killer recognizes threat. Killer decides to take care of threat, the threatened FBI agent hides.” You can just map it out in terms of abstract ideas beat to beat.

Then you can say to yourself, “Let me not reinvent the wheel here. I’m a writer. I’m trying to learn. Why don’t I just take Thomas Harris’s all of the work that he did abstractly and abstract from it, and then just mirror that scene and see what I come up with.” That will be the structure of the Ground Your Craft scene work.

Not only will we describe the scenes, we will actually prescribe how to create a similar scene yourself within the context of the individual genre that we cover that week. It won’t just be Professor Shawn burbling into a microphone. It will be you will have section leaders and these section leaders have trained with me for years, right? They’ve asked me so many questions that they know a lot of things better than I do at certain resolutions. Why not combine the specialists in a particular genre with the globalist, who is me. We’ll both analyze it. Then on the weekly calls that we’ll do and of course, we’ll have a forum where there will be questions and answers, so that the students can actually talk to the section leader each week and get their points of view what they agreed with, and my analysis what they didn’t, how they approach the work.

To cap it all off, this is really cool, all of the Story Grid editors have agreed to take my prescription at the end of the lecture and to write a scene themselves, based upon the instructions and constraints that I give them. That they will post their scenes that they have written that I’ve prescribed based upon the master work that they recommended. If you can follow that train of thought, you’re probably a far smarter person than I am.

What I love about it is that there’s actionable homework to do each week for each student. If I were to take the class, I would say to myself, “Oh, well. There’s at least four genres here that I really want to take a crack at.” I’m going to plan my work so that I can write a scene at the same time that the section leader is writing it. Then I can look at my scene and their scene and the master work and then I’ll have three examples of the execution of a particular scene type. Boy, I think people are just going to learn so much, it’s going to blow their mind.

Not only that, our Story Grid editors are going to – they’re going to learn a ton. I’m going to learn a ton too, because I’m going to write a scene too – I can’t believe I agreed to it, but we’ll see just how well the baseball coach can actually play baseball. You’re going to do one too. We’re both putting our butts on the line here too, but that’s part of the whole fun. Yeah.

[0:31:23.9] TG: Yeah, I’m used to it. Yeah, I thought that was really cool, because the thing I liked about it is the constraints part, because it’s so hard when you’re sitting down and like, “Okay, I want to practice writing scenes.” It’s like, okay where do you even start? I think that’s why it’s so easy for people to just like, “I’m going to start a new book.” Because it seems weird to just write one random scene.

I love the idea that you’re constraining it down to this week this is the setup, this is the genre, this is a type scene you’re writing and it really forces people probably also to write stuff that they’re not used to writing, because for me, I was excited to do the war genre, because I’ve never written anything in the war genre. It’s an interesting challenge to me. It’s like, a couple years ago I entered a bunch of writing contests, because they would give you this really constrained short story you had to write and you had to write within the boundaries of that. It really forced me to write from a perspective I’m not used to writing.

[0:32:35.0] SC: Well, that’s the way the old pulp fiction writers used to work, right? Even when I was early on in my career in book publishing, there were slots, right? I was responsible for publishing two mysteries a month. Sometimes, I just couldn’t find mysteries ready to go. I would call up a pro and I would say, “Look, I need a private eye novel for next February.” I would say, “I’ve got a budget of 10 grand. Can you do that?” They would go, “Sure.” They would bang out a really solid private eye novel, deliver it to me, they get paid. It’s just writing on – it’s like, deadline writer. Journalists you’ll find are able to do that too. The more you learn how to write on command, the better command you’ll have of your own writing.

[0:33:38.6] TG: Yeah, I remember I was listening to an interview of Malcolm Gladwell, I think it was the one on the Tim Ferriss podcast. He asked him about – whoever the interviewer was asked him about writer’s block and he’s like that. I forgot exactly how he answered it, so I’m sure I’m going to put words in his mouth. I remember him saying something like, “I don’t think it exists,” because when he was writing as a journalist, your editor would not accept the fact that you missed your deadline because you had writer’s block.

It was just so interesting. I think it is just that professional mindset of, “Okay, this is my assignment.” That’s where I think for everybody that joins and considers that each week, my assignment is to write 1,500 words of whatever Shawn prescribes. They’re just going to just shoot so far ahead by the end of the course and just their ability to sit down and write great stuff. 

[0:34:35.2] SC: Yeah, they’re going to have a very clear conception of what the core event, meaning the one event and each one of these genres that is really what people are putting their money down to read. The other way I structured it is that I’m moving from the Maslow hierarchy of needs, from the most primal needs of just surviving through security, through love all, the way down to the morality genre, which is about self-transcendence, rising above your own particular humanity in service of other people.

It’s moving up the hierarchy as we move from week-to-week. It’s going to expose everyone to the global concepts behind each one of these 12 genres. While it is grounding and it is specifically about scenes, the added effect just is like the added effect of Level Up Your Craft was learning how to analyze the scene, is that you’re going to get a global, macro injection of explicit learning at the same time, which is cool.


[0:35:55.7] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. First of all, if you’d like to find out more about the new program that we just spoke about, you can see all of that at storygrid.com/ground, G-R-O-U-N-D. storygrid.com/ground. All the information in how to join is there. We’re really excited to get into this and have you be a part of it.

For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in this Story Grid universe. If you 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’d 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.

Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.



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.

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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.