Musings on Theme

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In this week’s episode Tim and I talk about the importance of Theme or as I refer to it throughout The Story Grid, the Controlling Idea.

To listen, click the play button below, or read the transcript that follows.



[0:00:00.3] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. My name is Tim Grahl, I am a first time novelist trying to figure out how to write a story that works. Joining me soon is Shawn Coyne, he is the creator of Story Grid, he is the guy that wrote the book Story Grid and he’s an editor with over 25 years of experience and he’s helping me to write my first book.


In this episode we talk about theme. I finally gotten past the outline of my story and started writing and of course I’m running in to all kinds of road blocks. We talk about theme, we talk about how it applies to your story, how to figure out what it is and how it can help you write your story. We also talk about specificity and some other things that you may run in to the first time you sit down and start writing your next book.


I hope it’s helpful for you, let’s jump in and get started.




[0:00:53.9] TG: In the last week, I finally started writing. I finished up my outline as best I could. Actually I want to start there because I got stuck about two thirds of the way through my middle build and didn’t know what to do next. Then I knew what I was going to do to get to my ending pay off and then through the end of the book. I outlined that but I’m still five to 10 scenes short. Is that okay to go ahead and start writing if I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the middle of the book?


[0:01:29.7] SC: Absolutely.


[0:01:31.2] TG: Okay.


[0:01:32.1] SC: Again, I’ve gotten bunch of emails over the last couple of days from people asking about — they’re basically worried that they’re getting paralyzed by analysis. I think that’s a very important thing to bring up because the thing about the story grid is that it can be really very helpful when you’re planning a book like you are right now and you’re doing your outline and you’re using the principles of the story grid to give you a map.


But remember that if you get so intense and overwhelmed by the minutia of each individual scene, you can get to a place where the love and the fun of the writing is just absolutely out the window. I’ve been getting a couple of emails, actually more than a couple, from people who were saying, “I really appreciate the story grid but it’s really brought me to a point of despair.” That’s not what it’s for.


[0:02:41.0] TG: Any writer loves to hear that about their book.


[0:02:46.1] SC: That’s true. I don’t get too upset about it because the suggestion I make is, once you start you start getting freaked out, feel good about it because what it’s saying to you is that you’re getting deeper and deeper into the work to the point where you’re starting to self-sabotage. This is something that we all seem to think is a bad thing.


It feels terrible but as Steve Pressfield writes in the war of art, resistance and that bad feeling and that panic moment and the paralysis that can result is an indication that you’re on the right track. It means that you are getting close to sort of that place where the nasty being inside of you lives. He or she inside of you is starting to get threatened by the work that you’re doing.


So what they do is they marshal an offensive against you and I know I’m speaking a little meta physically here but it’s actually a great metaphor to think about that you have this sort of dragon inside of you that doesn’t want you to do anything. It wants you to just sort of hang out, enjoy your life and not get too deep about anything.


The fact that you’re worried about whether or not you should proceed with your work because you’re five scenes short of your goal of your 20 scenes in your middle build or you’re 25 scenes or whatever it is that you’ve decided to use is a good sign. Because what it’s saying is that your insides, your inner resistance is marshalling forces to make you stop. It’s trying to get you to quit, it’s trying to bring you to your knees, it’s trying to give you a great sense of despair so you’ll quit.


When we face that demon, we often want to quit because we think it will make the demon go away. That demon is a great sign that you’re onto something. That’s my advice when you hit this moments, when you say, “Oh my gosh, this story grid stuff is just way too, way too in depth, it’s driving me crazy. Okay, that’s absolutely valid, it can drive you crazy if you let it.


The tool itself is a very valuable tool and it’s one that is primarily a great tool for editing, as a tool for outlining, it’s a perfect way to get you from New York to Pittsburgh but don’t worry about whether you’re going to take the Pennsylvania turnpike or you’re going to take side roads. You just want to get to Pittsburgh you know?


[0:05:31.8] TG: I found myself, I just kept like — I lost the thread and it’s such a weird feeling of like I’m trucking along because I think last week we talked about one day I worked for an hour and a half and got one scene planned out. Well the day after we talked, I got like eight in two hours. I was trucking along and I just hit this wall, and I was like, “I don’t know what to do next.”


So I knew how I wanted to end this story and you had been talking about the ending of the story so I just skipped ahead and did that and I went back and I still couldn’t find it. And so I was like, “Well, I’m just going to start writing again.”


[0:06:12.4] SC: Yeah.


[0:06:14.5] TG: This is day three and I’m 6,500 words in.


[0:06:19.1] SC: Wow.


[0:06:19.6] TG: I’m trying to — because I’m very obsessive about things and so I knew once I started, that’s all I want to do. That’s why I was trying to get myself to a point where I had everything kind of mapped out because I’ll just kind of bull head through it and get the first draft done before I kind of look back at it.


[0:06:41.0] SC: That’s exactly what I would recommend. I’m similar in my practices as you are. When I actually wrote The Story Grid book, I had outlined 70 or 80 chapters that are pretty close to what they were in the final. I went on wild tangents that I had to rip out and edit after I had written a first draft.


We talked about this last week with the writing habits episode. But intention, to have a clear intention every single day is a great way to get work done. Even if you don’t quite finish or accomplish or it doesn’t quite work, at least you know that you hit that wall with your hammer as hard as you could for a good two hours and you might have worn it down a little bit.


It’s like when you’re trying to unscrew a really tight pickle jar, sometimes you have to get out a different tool but as long as you keep twisting that thing, you’re eventually going to get it off. The intention of twisting off the cap of the pickle jar is the same as “I need to get this scene done today”.


This speaks to living with uncertainty, living with a little bit of doubt can be a good thing and the reason why I bring that up is I was just watching this great documentary the other day that I’ve seen before and it’s always a terrific thing to watch whenever you get really panicked about your work.


It’s a documentary, it’s called hearts of darkness. It’s the story of the making of apocalypse now. The point of view of the documentary is Eleanor Coppola who is Francis Ford Coppola’s wife. She went, she’s a film maker herself and when they were filming apocalypse now, she took a camera and she shot stuff and she interviewed Francis while he was in the throw of creating apocalypse now.


There’s a moment in it very early on where it’s great because it’s a wife getting an authentic panic from her husband, it’s not an interviewer interviewing a director who is trying to get something from him. He’s very candid and there’s these great audios of him saying, “I’m so upset, I have this vision that I want to bring to the screen and nothing’s working, it’s all falling apart, I don’t even know what my ending is.


I don’t like the ending that’s in the script now, it’s not big enough, it’s not anywhere near it where it needs to be, my biggest fear is I’m going to blow all of our life savings,” which she had put on the line to make this movie, “and ruin my career, my family’s life, everything.” It’s a wonder thing to see the moments of panic and dread and suffering when you really, really stick your neck out


Now Francis Ford Coppola is like famous for really going to the end of the line in his work and after Apocalypse Now, that movie I think just really broken in a way. I think the movie itself, when you watch that movie, it’s such an amazing work of art that it’s so suspenseful, it’s so exciting and yet it’s so deep and the themes in that movie are so resonant that it travels through time. He and John Milius who wrote this screen play, they had been working on that thing for years before they eventually had the crazy idea to actually film the thing.


He had this major roadblocks and sign posts in his mind on what he had to get on film before he shot it but he didn’t solve the ending of that film while he was in the process of shooting it. He had the courage to say to himself, “I have a place marker ending here that I’m not completely thrilled with, but I’m going to go and I’m going to start anyway.”


He did and the ending to that movie is so devastating and it’s one of those moments on screen when you say to yourself, “Oh my gosh, the guy really just nailed the heart of darkness, he really did.” And he was never the same after that movie. But my point here is that a lot of times you’re going to hit these very big walls.


The walls that you’ve hit so far, they’re not so big yet, you’re going to hit this moments of panic, you’re going to hit this moments of great despair and treat them like really great artists, treat them. They feel it but they keep fighting and they keep pushing forward because you can’t let those things stop you and if you’re having a crisis of analysis, stop analyzing and start writing.


[0:11:57.2] TG: Yeah, that’s what I tried to do. I feel like so far whenever I’ve hit a wall I just kind of go find something else to do with the story, there’s always more work to do. But it’s been fun though to finally just sit down and start writing the story and see it coming out. I had a couple of questions though.


One is, I was reading Steve Pressfield’s blog and he’s been doing a series on theme, and this is where I get really kind of tied up because I’m — it’s like he talks out of both sides of his mouth in these articles he’s writing because on one hand he says, “You can’t write your book without your theme,” and then he list out all his bestselling books that he wrote without knowing what the theme was and he talks about how you had to tell him what the theme was and go back and fix it.


So I feel like I have an idea of what the theme is but I don’t know, like coming up with a theme almost seems like coming up with a clear definition of God. It’s like, “What do I say?” Somebody was telling me or I was reading, I dunno, I’ve been reading so much around this stuff lately but basically every scene should speak to the theme.


[0:13:14.9] SC: Yeah.


[0:13:16.5] TG: Then the other thing is like you’re antagonist should be the opposite of the theme and your final show down or whatever should be like about the theme and I’m just like, “I don’t even know what the theme is.” Sometimes I’m like, “Well maybe I’m just not deep enough of a person to have a theme for my story, I just want to tell a fun story.”


[0:13:38.4] SC: Okay, this is a really good question and it’s something a lot of people struggle with. Obviously Steve struggles with it too. But let me just simplify it for you, a theme can be as simple as love conquers all or justice prevails. Themes and controlling ideas, I use the phrase “controlling idea” in The Story Grid and you can substitute the word’s theme for that too.


[0:14:07.9] TG: Yeah, I went back and read — maybe that’s where I read? Every scene should go to the theme or the controlling idea?


[0:14:15.7] SC: I stopped reading stuff I’ve read so many years ago.


[0:14:18.6] TG: You don’t have it all memorized? Come on.


[0:14:21.1] SC: No. I always find things that are poorly worded or — so sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie. Here’s my bit about theme and controlling idea. If you choose a genre that is very specific and very — has very strong rules and obligatory scenes and conventions, a lot of times, your theme is baked into the genre. So if you’re writing a crime story. Crime stories, the core value at stake in a crime story is justice. Will justice prevail?


And so the theme of story where justice does prevail can be as simple as justice prevails when the investigators outsmart the villains. That is a perfectly valid theme and this is what Steve and others who write mean when they say know what your theme is before you sit down and write. Doesn’t mean the specificity of the theme that can go deeper than the external sort of controlling idea of the story itself.


You were writing from what I understand generically and I don’t want to get into specifics on what you’re writing because I don’t want to ruin what you’re — that’s the other thing is. When you’re writing, it should really sort of keep as much of it to yourself as you possibly can until you feel confident enough in the material to seek advice.


[0:16:00.7] TG: It’s too late, I posted my foolscap global story grid and the first 17 scenes I outlined with last week’s episode.


[0:16:07.7] SC: Okay. That’s why you’re a hero. You have a lot of courage and the other thing is that everything that I say and I try and remind people this, it’s my opinion and a lot of people work in different ways. This is what I think can work best for somebody but everybody has their own thing.


Just back to the idea of theme, that’s another situation where you can overanalyze your theme to death. You can spend hour upon hour upon hour coming up with the perfect thematic phrase that will encompass all of the vicissitudes of the deepest emotional turmoil’s of your characters. That is a process of self-sabotage. Especially when you’re doing your first draft.


Now, the reason why Steve writes and reveals that and a lot of times he’ll write a book and he’ll send it to me, I’m his primary editor and I have been for 20 years and then I’ll get back to him and say, “This is what your book is about and these are the things that you need to do to amplify what your book is about.”


It’s not that it’s a huge surprise to Steve when I tell him, “Your book is about self-deception. It’s not about who wins the battle at the end, it’s about X, Y and Z.” He’s not overly — it’s not like a big light bulb goes off in his mind and says, “Oh jeez, I never knew about that.” He was writing around that subconsciously as he was working and he needed an editor to say, “This is really what’s underneath your war story and a war story is really about whether or not the war is justified or not, and do the means justify the ends?” That’s a theme of war. Is war a valid choice to solve a conflict or is it ignoble and bad? That’s the core theme of a war story.


So Steve writes a lot in the war genre but the themes underneath those are expressed by his protagonist and his antagonist, they come out while he’s in the process of getting from A to B to C to D and to climax his story with an epic battle at the very end. Just back to simplifying theme, I think if you’re working in the specific genre and a lot of people do. If it’s a coming of age story, the theme is going to be about coming to a level of deeper understanding about humanity.


That’s what’s backed in to a coming of age story. It’s losing your naiveté and becoming an adult. Learning that things are neither black nor white, there’s all shades of grey, it’s a difficult thing to navigate the world because of the difficulties in every situation has, and every context has its own logic to it. Again, in your first draft and Steve writes about Paddy Chayefsky and him writing down his themes before he wrote his masterpiece screen plays.


His theme are probably very short and concise and to the point. “Media will destroy us” was probably just the simple theme that Paddy Chayefsky put on his typewriter when he was writing. “Mass media will destroy us”. Of course there are far deeper themes and net worth than just that global blanket theme but that’s the thing that when he had to turn a scene, he had to come up with an idea that would be within that realm.


[0:20:08.8] TG: That’s I guess my question with it is — ‘cause I’ve written down something for my theme because there was a space for that and the foolscap story grid so I had to write something down. Is that how you use it where like each scene almost turns back towards that?


Almost like that’s the light that we’re all trying to get to and at the end of every scene you got to kind of point back towards that light. Is that why — is that what the theme’s for? ’Cause it’s one thing to say you need the theme but then it’s like, “Okay, you got your theme, how does that affect my scene by scene writing?”


[0:20:45.7] SC: Well to look at it in this terms and when I did the global story grid, scene by scene, the big thing that’s on the cover of my book for the Silence of the Lambs, a lot of people ask me, “How do you know scene by scene where to put the positive and the negative data points for the external and internal genres?”


The answer to that question is that you look at the scene in terms of the global value. The global value of the story of the Silence of the Lambs is life and death. How closer is the world of the story to life or death or life unconsciousness, death and damnation, those are the four, the two positive and the two negatives on the spectrum of the value.


So every time I looked at a scene, I evaluated in my mind, is the global story world closer to that global value? Now, here’s trick, if you find that the scene that you’re looking at or thinking about writing has nothing to do with life or death or it doesn’t move the story forward in terms of that spectrum value meaning it’s not shifting from life to death or death or unconsciousness or unconsciousness to life or all of those little small movements in the global movement of the story.


If it’s not moving it on that value, then chances are you probably don’t want to put that scene in there. But what you can do is look at the scene that you want to write and if you find that it’s heavily towards another value like justice or tyranny or something on that spectrum then you want to bring it back to, “Can I put in a level of the life and death value to this scene that can be clear?”


That’s a way of modulating the story so that there’s differences and innovations and surprises but are still on theme. The other thing to think about when you’re writing your global story is that there are thematic values that a lot of genre share. The horror story and the action story, also as does the thriller, they move on the life and death value spectrum too.


So thinking about alternative genres that have great scenes in them, can you adapt one of those genres’ scenes for your work? Now is the time when I bet a lot of people listening are saying, “Oh my gosh, this is getting crazy, specific and complicated and I don’t know what Coyne’s talking about, it’s just is getting way off the charts.”


The simple answer is, just write your first draft, don’t worry about being on theme with every scene before you write your first draft. Write your first draft because chances are, you’re going to do it without thinking about it. You’re not even going to think about global value story, global value shifts or anything like that. You have in your mind a certain path you want to get from A to B to C to D to E. Just get the car to Pittsburgh, don’t worry about if you make it.


[0:24:32.7] TG: I have this idealistic, if I do enough work first, I will get it so much closer to done on my first try then just sitting down and writing but I’m having trouble deciding when to do that. When to be just like, “Okay, now it’s time to just forget about everything and start writing.”


[0:24:56.2] SC: Now is that time. Here’s the thing is that you are the kind of writer and you’re like me who indulges in analysis. You’re a big plotter, you like to know exactly what you’re going to do every single day and you want to go in there and you want to get your work done and then you want to go and go to the gym or pickup your kids at school or do whatever it is that you also have to do.


That’s perfectly valid way of approaching that. The thing that you need to work on and learn is to free yourself from that because that is a crutch. It’s a way of avoiding the mystical element of writing. When I say the mystical element of writing, I feel a little weird because I’m in your camp and I prefer the grind, I prefer to analyze until I’m blue in the face.


[0:25:48.9] TG: ‘Cause then there’s control.


[0:25:50.5] SC: Yes, you have to start to learn to give up control. That’s what Francis Ford Coppola did and that’s why he created one of the greatest movies ever created. It’s because he gave up control. He set himself up to lose control that was what brought him to the verge of madness. Even he said, he went insane when he was making that movie because he set himself up in such a way that he knew he wouldn’t be able to control the weather.


He went to film it in the Philippines and he was using — he went to Ferdinand Marcos who was this terrible dictator in the Philippines in the 1970’s and he said, “Hey, the US government — because this is a movie about Vietnam, they don’t want to lend me any helicopters, would you mind lending me the Philippine army’s helicopters to shoot my Hollywood movie?”


Ferdinand Marcos was a tyrant, he’s like, “Yeah, sure, if people in the United States would think the Philippines are cool, my army’s helicopters,” but little did Coppola know that there was an uprising of communists in southern Philippines who wanted to overthrow Marcos during this entire shoot.


In the middle of filming, the helicopters would leave to go fight the communists. Coppola is like, “Oh my god, I just spent $50,000 setting up this scene and the helicopters just left. I just lost $50,000.” He put himself in this impossible situation and he did it on purpose. He did it because he knew that was what the movie was about. That’s what apocalypse now was.


What he tried to do and he was very successful to do it. He put himself within the thematic world of the story so much so that he went insane and when you watch that movie, you can — there’s such a pervasive sense of dread when you watch apocalypse now. It’s to no small effect that that came about by the way it was shot.


While he was shooting it, there were huge typhoons that would come and ruin his days of shooting. He had to fire his lead actor, Harvey Kitel with after two weeks of shooting film because it wasn’t working out. Then he bring in Martin Sheen to take on the role of Captain Willard and Martin Sheen, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, he has a heart attack in the middle of the filming.


Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. But he was triumphant because he said to himself, “I know the theme of my movie, it’s about darkness, it’s about losing control of yourself and being a megalomaniac,” and that’s what he became. That’s what happens to Colonel Kurt at the very end, played by Marlon Brando, and it’s all based upon heart of darkness written by Joseph Conrad in the 1800’s.


My point here is that as an artist, sometimes you have to set yourself up to let go. You need to let go of the control sometimes. You have to allot time, you’re never going to write a perfect first draft. What’s within you will not allow you to do that.


[0:29:18.0] TG: Yeah, it’s like logically I know that but then there’s whisper of like, “If you just work a little bit longer, you can.” Yeah, that is why I basically just stopped and started writing a couple of days ago because I’ve realized early on when you told me, I’m like, I stated asking, “Well should I do this or should I do this?” And you’re like, “Just write a scene.” “Well that’s the one thing I’m scared of,” and you’re like, “Exactly.” I realize like me trying to churn on the outline some more was me basically avoiding actually having the right things and see what came you the other end.


[0:29:58.3] SC: Right, now you can see that how Steve in his blog post isn’t really talking out of both sides of his mouth. What he’s saying is that there are two parts of a writer. He plays the role of the writer, I play the role of the editor. But when I wrote The Story Grid, we switched parts. Within each individual person, what we’re saying is that — this is the thing that writers often ignore, there is a very analytical, editorial point of view within every writer.


That person, that being, that thing is what you really like to give power to, you as Tim. Now a lot of — most writers, traditionally, maybe it’s inaccurate to say most writers but I think a lot of writers prefer to give control to the creative person and they like to contemplate the tea leaves and think about what the character had for breakfast and have sense memories about how the scene would work in their head.


They try and attach themselves to the muse and all those thing. That’s their form of resistance and self-sabotage is that they won’t allow for the editor to have any breathing room. You’re going on the other side, you’re not allowing that creative part of yourself and that creative part of yourself is desperate to get out.


[0:31:28.2] TG: So how do I let him out?


[0:31:30.5] SC: You give yourself an intent, one single intent for every single writing session. You say, “Today, I’m not going to worry about any of my outline. The only thing I’m going to worry about is scene number six and I’m going to get a draft to scene number six down. I’m going to start with the inciting incident of scene number six and I’m going the vaguely know or specifically know what the crisis of that scene is going to be.

I’m going to progressively complicate it so that it gets to that crisis, things aren’t going to go so great, he’s going to make plans, they’re not going to work out or it does make plans and they work out but they don’t work out in the way that he thought and then I’m going to have them make a decision in the climax and I’m going to resolve the thing. That’s all I’m going to do, I’m going to write.”


Learning the craft or just writing scenes is really something that I need to help people understand better because if you can master the skill set of writing one basic story unit and the crucial story unit for a novelist and a screen writer and a playwright is a scene. If you can really get good and comfortable, allowing yourself to bang out a draft of the scene and then going back and saying, “Oh let me see if all of my parts are in there now?”


Let your creative energy, and we talked about this very, very early on in the podcast and you kind of took me to town for it. But I think now is a good time to go back to it where you said, “No, no, no, no, I like to know that I need to get to the climax and then I need to resolve the thing and I need an inciting incident and that’s the way I’m going to write my scenes,” and I said, “If that’s going to work for you, great, as long as you write the scenes.”


[0:33:26.0] TG: Yeah.


[0:33:27.6] SC: The scene, when all else fails and you’re just going crazy, you can’t shut your brain up, just go back to a scene and say, “Okay, scene four, my hero is confronted with the villain and he has to get out of a tough situation. How am I going to write that scene? What is the situation? What introduces the villain into the scene? How can I make it interesting? How can I innovate it so it doesn’t read like everybody else’s scene?”


That’s where you can focus on your intention for that day and then give yourself a little bit of time to get setup, your inciting incident and then just run. Run out the scene, write as much as you can and try and get to the end and resolve the thing. Then if you have time at the end of the day, go back over it and say, “How did that work out?”


Nine times out of 10, the scene will work, it won’t be perfect, it won’t be even near perfect but it will work, it’s like that — you know, you learn how to write a scene pretty quickly Tim. I mean the first thing that you wrote had really no inciting incident, too many characters, no real clear, beginning, middle and end, no value shift, nothing.


But the second scene that you wrote with the guy lurking in the shadows who wants to — asking for help with his flat tire, that had a beginning middle and end, it worked, it had a clear shift, it had a value at stake, all that minutia that I talked about in Story Grid was all in there. It worked. When we went over it, I said, “Maybe you can make it better?”


[0:35:19.1] TG: Yeah, I want to ask too, so one thing I’ve been struggling with, it goes back, we mentioned it a couple of weeks ago talking about specificity. It’s like saying cinnamon. Anyway.


[0:35:34.5] SC: Or syllablistic.


[0:35:36.3] TG: Oh that’s even worse. Right now I realized, I have it pin pointed — so my story lands, it’s taking place in like the metropolitan city where people can walk the streets, take cabs, that sort of thing. But I haven’t really specified what city it’s in, is that something that’s important? Like do I need to put, “This is the city that it’s in,” and lay it out? Not just say, “One day in Atlanta,” or something. I’m just struggling with, I’m realizing now, I don’t really have in my mind exactly where the story is taking place which means it’s kind of taking place in nowhere.


[0:36:18.8] SC: Right, the answer to that question is really genre dependent. If you’re writing a super hero story, the batman universe is Gotham and Gotham is just an amalgamation of every big city that alienates people and nobody wants to help anybody else and they walk on the streets and everybody’s alienated and it’s dark. What the creators of Batman did and all the interpreters of batman do and, is it Christopher Nolan? the last guy who did the batman?


I mean, his universe is so wonderful because it’s such a hybrid between realism and super caricature, whereas Tim Burton’s Gotham is all caricature. It depends upon the sensibility of the writer but I think it’s important for you to know what genre you’re working in. If you’re running a historical mystery like the Alienist, there is a great crime, mystery/thriller set in Teddy Roosevelt era New York City in the early, late 1800’s.


Caleb Carter who wrote that book, he really, he sucked you in to the world, you know you want the del Monaco Steak House and everybody was eating their oysters and everybody had spats on. I don’t know, I’m making it up. That kind of specificity is necessary for a particular genre, if you’re running a historical thriller or something, you really need to nail that.


But if you’re writing fantasy, science fiction, super hero, H.G. Wells kind of stuff, then — Steampunk stuff, then what you do is you get yourself into the world of that genre and you play with the conventions of the genre and the way things are. Like I’m not really an expert in Steampunk but what I do know is that it comes from that sort of late 19th, early 20th century sensibility that we can create machines that will take care of us.


Like H.G. Wells and the time machine and all those sort of things, it’s very mechanistic and people are, they wear sort of Victorian garb only — anyway, I could go on like this all the time but the answer is, it depends on your genre. With that said, make up your own universe and make some rules and give us some geography of the world. It doesn’t have to be, “It’s at Atlanta and its 2006,” unless you’re writing a thriller about Atlanta in 2006.


So for a super hero thing, I think its fine to create another world that is very similar and realistic to the world in which we’re living now. Like the Hunger Games, that’s a completely different universe but it’s also familiar, we can understand the rural nature of the hunger games universe and we can understand — I mean that was such a wonderful creation because it did mish and mash all kinds of different time periods and so it felt as if it was sort of a rural 1930’s, grapes of wrath kind of world, matched to a Steampunk universe, matched to Ridley Scott.


It all worked together because — and JK Rowling does this too. They invent the universe in their mind and they’re very skilled at describing what they see in their own mind. When you get confused and you go, I don’t know whether or not if I’m giving enough specificity, think about, because we all think in pictures as well as we do in language and words, mostly pictures actually. Describe what you’re seeing in your own internal world and give yourself the freedom to describe things in strange ways.


That’s the great thing about the Hunger Games. There’s a lot of strange, like Mocking Jay. How does she come up with that? Like a cross between a mocking bird and a blue jay and it has a specific sound and what she did and I’m sorry, I forget her name, I think it’s Suzanne…


[0:41:05.8] TG: No, that’s not right. Now what is it? Oh man.


[0:41:09.7] SC: I know, it’s really, it’s criminal how my brain has just shunned all specificity of names but I’ sure she’s not going to be too upset about me forgetting. But really, just her ability to give herself the creative freedom to go with the imagery that she saw on her mind and to say, “You know what? People might give me crap about the mocking jay idea. I like it, I’m going to use it. Screw it.”


And it works because she’s so confident in the internal world in which she is putting her characters. When you’re worried about whether or not you’re describing something, take a little time and save yourself — give yourself an intention one day, “Today, I’m going to describe the ordinary world.” You know how we talk all the time about the hero’s journey.


JK Rowling was great at doing this and a lot of great authors are is that they get you immersed in the ordinary world early on. Rocky is a great example of how you understand the world of Rocky Balboa in the first 20 minutes of the movie. Nothing is really happening in that movie except we’re getting, we’re immersing ourselves in Rocky’s life and his world.


Same thing in To Kill a Mockingbird, at the very beginning you immerse yourself, she immerses you in the world of Alabama in that world. Maycomb, Alabama I think. That’s a good thing to give yourself an intent like describe, give yourself a little wind and some words to describe the setup of a particular scene.


For example in Rocky, one of the great things at the very beginning of the movie is the introduction of Adrian. The introduction of the love interest to Rocky. It’s a beautiful scene because Rocky’s got the dog. He’s got Butkus the dog. He makes it to his daily trip to go to the pet store because Adrian works at the pet store. He could get all the supply of meat and food that he needs for his dog once a month, but he goes every single day.


It’s that little detail where we follow Rocky, goes into the pet store, he plays with the turtles, he’s trying to make jokes to impress Adrian. Adrian’s got the hat over her eyes and you just fall into that world and you say, “Oh man, I’ve been in the pet store like that, I know a woman like that. Yeah, there’s always that really pretty woman with the hat on, who works at the pet store, doesn’t think she’s pretty enough and then there’s the—”


That’s a way of thinking of an intention like, “Today I’m going to write a scene that isn’t a life and death thing. Today I’m going to introduce the love interest for my hero. We’re going to get the reader attached to my hero by the woman, the kind of woman he falls in love with.” Because Rocky’s a — he’s an enforcer. He beats people up for the mob. People on their beds, he goes and he breaks their arm to get the money. That’s not a very attractive thing, it’s not very sympathetic. But when we see the woman that he’s in love with, we go, “Oh you know, he’s not all bad.”


[0:44:48.8] TG: Do you think like a good exercise would be just to sit down and spend some time describing where the story takes place, what the general mood of the city is, the name of the city and just kind of take time to describe all of that so while I’m writing I know what I see, does that make sense?


[0:45:11.7] SC: That’s the traditional advice which I would like to modify. My suggestion is to get your character to do something in a world that you have to describe. Don’t just talk about and write about the opacity of the light that comes through the window of the pet shop when the sun just barely creeps over the horizon. That is just a waste of time.


But if you write a scene and say, “You know what? I’m going to describe, I’m going to put in a lot of shoe leather in there,” shoe leather meaning, actions that are very descriptive, that may or not be all that enthralling, “But I’m going to give myself some air to describe an actual scene that has far more detail than I would normally put in.” Describe that scene where somebody has to go and get on the bus. On the bus, it’s like the movie Speed.


[0:46:21.0] TG: Yeah, like what does the city look like outside and who is on the bus with her? And each of those things will give a description of the…


[0:46:29.5] SC: that’s exactly what happens in the movie Speed. When se see Sandra Bullock at the beginning of the movie, she’s at the bus stop. They don’t immediately have the bus be taken over by the psychopath and put a bomb on it. She’s on the bus, she’s interacting with the other people, we’re getting a sense of what Los Angeles is like from the point of view of a bus, which is a very interesting things because nobody thinks of riding a bus in Los Angeles.


So that’s the kind of thing — and that’s an action story but the film maker knew, “I need to lure my viewer into this world before I turn all hell loose. I need her to smile at the lady across the way from the bus who’s got the little kid,” or whatever it is. Describe those things that are interesting. Like the kid has snot in his nose and he wipes it on his jacket and then the woman sees him wiping on the jacket and he wipes it on his pants.


Anything like that that is specific that can say something about who your protagonist is, is a good way of getting the details of the story and the exposition. It’s a way of putting exposition into a story with a purpose. So your question, I think we may have gotten a little bit off topic but the question that you said is, “Should I sit down and just describe the world?”


My suggestion is no, what you should do is write a scene where somebody does something, it doesn’t have to be a huge thing. Somebody does something and you describe the experiences that they have and what they see and what they smell and what they hear as they are going through the process.


If you pad your first draft with some of the — every now and then you’re going to intuitively know, “This is a good scene to do that in because I just had the bomb go off in the last scene.” You want to regulate and you want to change up…


[0:48:30.7] TG: It’s a way of slowing it down.


[0:48:32.8] SC: Yeah.


[0:48:34.0] TG: Okay.


[0:48:34.4] SC: It’s especially true when you’re introducing a new character. You want to give them some space and some life that tells something about them and also the environment and the way they see the environment. The way you would describe Bernard Gets going into the subway is a different way than you would describe Sandra Bullock getting onto a bus in Los Angeles.


[0:48:58.8] TG: Right.


[0:49:01.3] SC: You know what I mean? Think in those terms.




[0:49:02.6] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. To find all the past episodes, all the show notes, any downloads we mentioned in episode, like my outline and my foolscap Story Grid and the spreadsheet of the Harry Potter Story Grid, all of that is at


In addition you can go to to make sure you don’t miss any blog post, sign up for the email list. You won’t want to miss anything that Shawn is working on. Thanks as always for continuing to listen, continuing to share it with your writer friends and spread the word about the Story Grid Podcast.


Shawn and I are having a great time doing this, we have some great stuff in store for you in the future and we can’t wait to share it with you. So stay tuned and we will see you next week.

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Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
Paperback: $19.99
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Audiobook: $14.99
Author Shawn Coyne


Mary Doyle says:

I’ll be listening to/reading this again. The big takeaway for me today – and I really needed to hear this – is that “living with uncertainty, living with a little bit of doubt can be a good thing.” I am always ready to fight another day after these podcasts – thanks guys!

Michael Beverly says:

Just a thought: I find it helpful to me to write at least a sentence for every scene in the outline, plug that into Scrivener, and then be open for changes.
If Tim starts writing and has totally blank spots, it’s harder later, to go back and add scenes to fill in the middle than it is to change existing scenes in an existing outline.
This might be merely a mental trick, but it’s helpful to me.

Btw: It’s Caleb Carr.

And, the follow up book, Angel of Darkness, is a female serial killer novel, set in the same world (a few years later, the narrator is a young man that appeared in The Alienist). Not too many female serial killer stories out there, so it’s a good book to check out if you’re trying to think up some unique ideas.

Last idea, Tim: check out Turow. He writes his legal thrillers in a fictional town (the inside cover of his books have a map).

It’s a great freaking idea because anything you say about the world:

There is a great Chinese restaurant at the corner of Fifth and Main is automatically correct.

Anne-Maree says:

I love that documentary… and when he’s screaming into the phone that Sheen can’t die until he says he can die coz he’s the director.
The alienist is a favourite of mine, too.


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The Book

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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.