Nailing the End of Your Book

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I’m sure if I went back and listened, I’d find that every single part of this book felt like the hardest part. But, damn, this Ending Payoff is rough stuff.

I can’t seem to figure out when to write the next scene and when to stop and plan. Whichever I choose seems to be wrong.

In this episode Shawn helps me get clear on what’s next for me and where I’m going with this final part of the book.

[00:00:00.3] 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, Shawn and I continue to work through the first few scenes of the ending payoff, trying to make sure that they work, that they hit all the right things, that they’re focused on the right conflict. As we work through those, we come up with some really good insights into just overall how to make your ending payoff work. Especially, if you’re thinking that your book might turn into a series, how to set up the end of your book so that you can continue in the series.

We talked through a lot of that. I think you’re really going to enjoy it. Let’s jump in and get started.


[00:00:52.0] TG: So Shawn, I sent you my third take on the first scenes of the ending payoff of my story, and the last talk we had, the last episode, was really helpful, because it’s been just rolling in my head how important it is to understand what the conflict really is. Realizing that everybody wants Jessie alive is why I was having trouble coming up with any conflict.

I wrote these scenes, and I feel like you give me all these advice and I take about 10% of it, because I don’t really know how to wrap my head around everything. I didn’t end up binging in any past characters. I’m curious if you think that was a mistake. I’m still thinking they could be brought in towards the end, and I have some ideas about that.

The other thing I did a little different was I’m still trying to hide that the brother is a bad guy and still trying to set up President Marcus as the true villain. In the first scene, him and Marcus get into it and Lila steps in and Marcus ends up agreeing to let him go, but the last request that Randy has is that they cremate Jessie’s body. I thought it was a really natural ass for him, because he says he wants his parents to have closure for at least one of their children. He wants her body cremated and sent back them immediately.

Of course, later, we’ll find out it’s because he was trying to kill her off before she woke up, because now he’s awake and that’s what he wanted all along. Then, there’s a scene where they bring him back, they log him out for the first time in four years and brings him back. Then, there’s a scene where Jessie wakes up and it’s just this kind of scene where this guy that’s in charge or cremating her body, basically, she wakes up while he’s trying to cremate her and he gets her out.

Anyway, what are your thoughts?

[0:03:09.0] SC: First of all, this is a really nice step forward from the last batch of scenes and it reminds me of that sort of business philosophy, or maybe it’s just general philosophy, called Occam’s razor, which is essentially using the principles doing the easiest, simplest choice to fix a problem.

Tim Ferriss is a big Occam’s razor kind of guy, and he wrote The Four Hour Work Week, and The Four Hour Body, and The Four Hour Diet all come out of that principle of finding the least amount of work necessary to get the most possible gain. I think these scenes are a really nice example of Occam’s razor, because what you’ve done is the scene where — The scene I liked a lot was when they go and get Randy out of his electronic prison, because at the previous scene where he’s in the glass walls and it’s sort of this hyper-reality thing where they’re having an argument, and Randy is very strong, and he doesn’t put up with any crap. That is really standard issue conflict scene.

I’m not saying it doesn’t work, because it works, but when you juxtapose that with the reality of who Randy and what Randy has become, it really gives the reader sympathy for Randy at a level that they didn’t have before. When Lila and Marcus go to his literal chamber instead of his virtual chamber, the guy is a mess. He’s sort of suspended by this organic machine that’s got plugs into them, he’s withered away, his body is operating at probably the least physical strength possible. He’s lost his hair, his skin, he’s opaque. Great scene, because that provides a very visual moment, the reader can’t help but build that visual in their mind in a much more interesting way than the glass wall virtual chamber.

I think that scene really, really worked, and then having him at the end of the previous scene saying, “At least, cremate my sister.” That was consistent too and it makes sense that he would want his sister to have her last rights and to be sent her body and ashes — Her ashes be sent to his family. That absolutely works. Again, the scene where you go back to the fallout in the severing room reads much stronger now with those other scenes linking them.

[0:06:12.0] TG: Right, because I left that one pretty much the same, except for the very end.

[0:06:16.5] SC: Yeah. One thing that did occur to me that — I think it’s okay that you didn’t do this wild, crazy, let’s steal the body and get it before it goes to the incinerator. Really, this is a transitional moment. It’s right before the end of the end to make it high-octane action scene, which I was talking about doing earlier, the last conversation we had.

It’s much better at a softer level introducing sort of this guy who’s playing the — What do they call them in India? The people who — The untouchables I think they call them. The untouchable cast in India are the people who take care of cremation and death rights. This guy is sort of the untouchable within this culture and society, and him coming to realize that this young girl is actually alive. It works. I don’t really want to be tinkering with it now.

[0:07:32.4] TG: You just really drew out the works.

[0:07:36.0] SC: Yeah, I did — See, without having the full sort of draft in front of me, I can’t really evaluate where it falls on the hyper action spectrum. I can’t evaluate the scene yet to see if it’s appropriate, because the great — We were talking about The Silence of the Lambs in the last conversation, and Thomas Harris’ choice to make the transitional moment from the end of the line, the — Oh gosh! I’m sorry. My brain is a little foggy today. The lowest possible point. What do we call it? The All is Lost moment.

When Harris made the choice to transition from the All is Lost moment for Starling into the ending payoff where Starling actually takes control of the investigation in her own hands and travels independently to Ohio to find Buffalo Bill, he could have made that high-octane action story. Instead, he had set up this moment where Starling has to visit Crawford at a funeral home. Crawford wife has finally died and he’s paying — He’s bereaved.

It really makes it work, because it’s a very soft, non-active, no action scene, where two people have a conversation. One needs to help the other, and the other one is so bereaved that he can barely stand up. I like the fact that you are sort of mirroring that sensibility here by having the critical moment when Jessie wakes up, be less dramatic than what the reader would anticipate.

[0:09:30.4] TG: Yeah, because we talked some about that of like trying to come up with the unique way to wake somebody up was a little weird. Then, on top of that, it’s hard to — We kept coming back to this place of everybody wants her to be alive except for Randy.

[0:09:49.8] SC: Right.

[0:09:50.5] TG: To make it a dramatic thing seems a little forced. That was why it felt forced, was because I was making this thing dramatic that has no conflict. That’s why I tried to — We kind of landed on, “Let’s just have her wake up.” We were talking about maybe Randy was trying to get rid of her body, but I still felt too much, and I was, “I think I can still do this,” where you’re still questioning whether Randy is a good or bad buy, because I felt like him just requesting his sister be taken care of is a very brotherly thing. I’m trying to string it along as much as I can and keep pointing to Marcus, which is why I wrote the scene and put Randy in such bad shape and I still had Marcus abusing him so that everybody will hate Marcus and not look at the brother as the bad guy.

[0:10:53.8] SC: I really think it was a really inspired choice. The critical moment in the ending payoff threshing scene or just prior to it, is Jessie realizing that her brother is the bad guy. The thing that you need to set up is a revelation scene where a character reveals to Jessie information that doesn’t really seem all that dramatic, but actually is loaded with meaning to Jessie.

I envisioned right prior to her going into the chamber to thresh, that Lila or somebody says to her, “Oh, well, thank God Randy’s efforts to have you cremated didn’t go through.” That we, the reader, know that Randy was the one who pushed her to the crematorium. She doesn’t know that. She thinks that she was just a dead body that they put into the crematorium. She doesn’t know that her brother directed people to get to that crematorium immediately.

What’s that going to do for her is immediately tell her that Randy wants her dead, because Randy is the only person who knows that she can revive from death, from the virtual death, because — Now, I think you cut the moment in the scene, but you could use this sort of as a prologue to the entire novel, whereas their children, they are playing, or whatever, and she ends up dying in this virtual world and Randy picks her up and starts running, because he’s panicking. Then, she revives.

Randy knows that she’s capable of revivable when nobody else does, and Jessie knows that. The only two people who know that are Jessie and Randy. When she hears that Randy tried to have her cremated immediately after she “died” in the virtual world, she knows, “Holy cow! My brother is the bad guy.”

This is a great setup for a revelatory turning point in a future scene that does not seem like a big deal to the reader until — Again, then, acting in the threshing, Jessie can do dramatic things that circumvent Randy’s agenda. 

[0:13:42.7] TG: That’s where I feel like I wanted to pull in that weird mentor guy from earlier, or perhaps her friends, because she’ll need people that aren’t connected to the capital to help her with whatever she does in the threshing.

[0:13:58.6] SC: Right.

[0:13:59.4] TG: I thought I would save that for those moments.

[0:14:05.6] SC: That’s great, because that little note that you put in the rock at the very beginning hook of this story, and you didn’t know what you’re going to do with that note when we’re working through all these stuff. Now, you can go back and say, “Oh, I left that Easter egg. Now, I can do something with that and make it a pivotal moment in the threshing.” Only Jessie and her rats are privy to what was on that note. The other guy who’s the strange biblical speaking guy, he’s privy too, because he’s sort of the spiritual leaders of the rats. Correct?

[0:14:44.7] TG: Yeah, that was the plan.

[0:14:46.2] SC: Yeah. Yeah. I think we can go through all these stuff when we actually edit the book, but you’ve got — These scenes are enough to move you forward into a deeper moment of the middle build.

[0:15:05.8] TG: The ending payoff you mean?

[0:15:07.0] SC: Yeah, the ending payoff. Sorry.

[0:15:07.7] TG: Okay.

[0:15:09.4] SC: Told you, my head is foggy today.

[0:15:11.1] TG: No, that’s fine. I just want to make sure. I’m like, “Okay. Are we back talking about the middle build?” I’m ready, I can go back. I can do it.

[0:15:21.3] SC: I think it’s really — It’s flowing now. How do you feel about it? Do you feel that it’s flowing in a better way than it had been in the previous two drafts?

[0:15:34.5] TG: Okay. You know those lateral thinking games where they offer a problem and you kind of have to be able to think sideways to find the solution? You know what I’m talking about?

[0:15:47.5] SC: Not really.

[0:15:49.0] TG: Okay. They’re like word games, they’re like puzzles, and you always have to be able to think kind of outside of your first reaction to something. I’m horrible at those games. My wife, Candice, is just awesome at those games. She can do — It takes me half an hour to do an easy Sudoku puzzle, and she can get it done in three minutes.

All of that to say, I tend to struggle with breaking outside of whatever my first solution is. As we’ve kind of ripped it apart, I don’t know — The first batch felt good, that we threw out for the ending payoff. The second batch, like we’ve said in the last episode, forced. This did feel much easier. Even though I was breaking outside of what we were talking about, it felt like, “Okay. I think this is the right way to do this.” I enjoyed writing this scene of Randy coming out of the machine. I know that last scene of Jessie waking up, we’ll probably have to rework someway. I kind of used this setup in a previous scene we threw out, so I’m just going to keep this so we can do it later. It felt good.

My problem is I’m still just so — I have to constantly push out in my head what the threshing is going to be. I was talking to Candice about it too and I’m just like — I was talking to a guy that used to work for Seth Godin and he said after a particular project, Seth worked on — I forgot which one. That Seth was convinced he would never do anything interesting again. Which, from the outside, looking at everything that he does, it’s like, “That’s crazy!” Really, I have that feeling of like, “Well, that idea for that game in the last severing, that was my last good idea and I used it up.”

I feel good about it, and I felt like it got us past the point — I did feel like the scene — I was so focused on trying to make her waking up interesting. In the last episode, when we talked through what was really going on, it’s like, “Oh! Well, that’s really not the point of this, is to wake her up. The point of this is to set up this other conflict.”

Once I kind of got off this focus of trying to come up with some fast paced or super interesting way to wake her up, it did come a lot easier, and that’s when I thought — When I decided to go ahead and wake him up, I got excited, because I’m like, “That scene can be kind of really vivid both in him being just emaciated and Marcus still — He’s so brutal to him, because he’s so afraid of him.” That’s what I’m trying to set up, is like even this guy that can’t even hold his head up, he’s got like six guards around him. He still just like won’t let anybody near him. He still is just tormenting him, because he’s just terrified of what this guy can do. Then, hopefully I can figure out a way to pay that off of, “Yes, everybody should be terrified of this guy.”

[0:19:27.8] SC: Let’s think about this for a little bit, because what I mean is the actual threshing, what you want to accomplish by the big epic threshing scene at the very end of the novel. From the start, you’ve explained to me that you want to make this at least a trilogy of novels. A couple of things occur to me, and when we’re talking about at the very beginning of this process too of this project was having things that we take for granted end up being very — It’s like the evolution of the thriller is the distance between evil and the victim.

The first thrillers, which really begun in the 60s, and 50s, and probably film noir and pulp fiction had thriller elements where the hero becomes the victim. There’s a long tradition of it, but thrillers have evolved from the evil getting closer and closer and closer to the protagonist. It becomes a level of paranoia, “Who can I trust and when can I trust them?”

The earlier thrillers were these outside forces that were threatening to the protagonist. For example, like an Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, North by Northwest, the lead character is sort of this hotshot advertising executive. In the case of mistaken identity, he is taken out of the Plaza Hotel, because they believe he’s somebody else. It’s this sort of very large conspiracy that he inadvertently stumbled into.

He becomes the victim, but it’s a case of mistaken identity. It’s not all that personal. They don’t hate advertising. The bad guy is played by James Mason. They want to get rid of this guy, because he’s an obstacle for their ultimate object of desire. The level of evil in those first sort of generation of thrillers was the Nazis, or the Indiana Jones stuff, you have the Nazis and a rival archeologist are out to get Indiana Jones.

As our world became more and more difficult to navigate and things became less and less secure, a lot of thrillers started to get closer and closer to home. The one that’s at the top of my head from the 1980s, I think it was, was The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. That was a thriller where your nanny is the level of evil and she is there to take over your life and she is threatening, and Rosemary’s Baby, which was a horror-thriller. Boy! That’s when your husband is in a pact with the Devil and he’s using you and allowing the devil to rape you to have the Devil spawn. That was 1968, 1969 based on an Ira Levin novel. Roman Polanski directed that. He also directed Chinatown. That’s a dark figure, and Polanski is a very controversial figure too.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that when we’re discussing this earlier on, one of the things we were talking about is that Jessie, the threats from Jessie are really close to her. Her brother being this evil force behind — The one behind all of the horrific things that she’s already gone through, is a great payoff, because it’s in keeping with our paranoia in our society. I we can’t trust our own family, it’s every man for himself. What do you when you’re all alone in the universe and you’re exiled from your own nuclear family? That is a very intriguing notion to explore, especially in a series of novels about adolescent reaching maturity.

The other thing that we talked about was perhaps using not just the brother, but even make it even worse by having the mother emerge later on as being in league with the brother, because is there anything worse than your mother betraying you? I don’t know. I don’t think there is, because your mother gave you life. She supported you when you were helpless. No matter how nice your mom is, she did those things for you.

To lose the love of your mother and, in fact, have your mother loath you to the grief, if she wants you extinguished from the planet, is a pretty intense notion. I’m not saying that you would bring that in this novel, but the reason why I’m talking about this is to think of the global arc of this three novel trilogy and — This threshing scene isn’t just the climax of book one, it’s the thing that’s going to propel people to want to read book two. Right?

[0:25:22.2] TG: Yeah.

[0:25:24.2] SC: It’s like those great television series, you were talking about 24, which I’m not familiar — I haven’t watched it. I really should. You kept saying, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe —” They can’t get any higher. They can’t do anything worse than this. Then, they would top themselves.

The threshing scene is going to serve as almost this inciting incident to get book two off the ground, the fallout from the threshing is going to generate the inciting incident of book two. I ran the concept of getting Randy back in his physical body, because, now, we can look to some of the master storytellers and say, and think, “Well, how did they solve this problem?” One of the things that Thomas Harris did in The Silence of the Lambs was — Guess what he did? He had Hannibal Lectar escape. In Red Dragon, the first novel —

[0:26:25.8] TG: That was at the end, right?

[0:26:27.8] SC: No. It’s about midpoint. Not midpoint —

[0:26:30.9] TG: Yeah, when he cuts the face off the guy — I’ve always seen the movie, but you say the movie is pretty close.

[0:26:37.2] SC: It is. They’ve just shot the book. It was a brilliant directing job, because I think it was Jonathan Demme who directed it. He just shot the book. He was like, “You know what? I’m not going to do any better than Thomas Harris. I’m just going to shoot the book scene by scene.” He cut some stuff, but it’s all very consistent. That’s why he won the Academy Award, et cetera, et cetera. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins won Academy Awards that year too.

The thing is, is that he had Lecter escape knowing Lecter was the reason why people were reading the book really. I say this all the time, and everybody says, “Oh, yeah! I couldn’t agree more.” It’s the level of evil that generates deep, deep connection and interest. It’s very exciting when you create a figure of such evil that a reader can’t turn away from the experience.

After Hannibal Lecter got out, then it became, “Oh my gosh! What’s Lecter going to do? Is going to come in and get Clarice Starling?” Harris had set himself up, and he’s a famous guy for writing novels based upon his financial situation. It doesn’t mean that he’s a hack. It just meant that he worked so hard on his craft that he sort of procrastinates until he’s probably got, maybe, 11 months left of cash. Then, he’ll write the next one. Then, he’ll get his next advance. He set himself up so that he knew he would be able to do sequels after The Silence of the Lambs, and he did. He did Hannibal, and he did a bunch of other ones.

Anyway, my point is if you look at this big ending payoff and understand that it’s not just the explosive amazing ending of this one novel, but it’s the starting off point — Like the Guardians of the Galaxy. I‘ve talked about that before. At the end of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, it was an amazing, terrific ending payoff scene that completely consistent with all the story that had come before. It also served as the moment when the Guardians of the Galaxy became a unit. They literally became a unit to fight —

[0:29:06.6] TG: Yeah, they all hold hands and beat that thing, or whatever.

[0:29:10.9] SC: Yeah. Now, we’re at the end of that movie, we’re like, “Oh! This is going to be great. I can’t wait for Guardians of the Galaxy II.” That’s about to come out, and I’m sure it’s going to do an incredible box office and maybe the biggest of all time. Who knows?

The point is, is that the writers who wrote Guardians of the Galaxy knew, “Hey guys, we are — Our job is not to just do a great final ending, but to set up a new story. Whether or not this movie ever does well enough to do the sequel, at least we had the seeds to be able to move it.”

If you combine the notion that the ending payoff of this novel not only has to be thrilling, and exciting, and innovative, but has to set up the second one, then you can actually say to yourself, “What do I want to do? Do I want Randy to survive and escape and have Randy be the central evil?” because Marcus has served as the central evil for most of this novel.

The reader is going to see Marcus as the bad guy twitching its mustache when the big reveal at the end of the novel is actually wasn’t Marcus, it was Randy behind all of these horrible stuff that happens to Jessie. Do you want him to escape, then how is he going to do it? Is Jessie going to aid him inadvertently? Is Marcus going to aid him inadvertently? What is it going to be?

[0:30:50.1] TG: I’ve been thinking about this. My overall plan from the beginning has been, I’ve referenced it a couple of times, Brandon Sanderson’s series, the Mistborn trilogy, and then he’s written some independent novels in the same world, but it was an original trilogy. At the end of the first book, they win, but by winning, they released a greater evil.

[0:31:20.5] SC: Right.

[0:31:21.4] TG: That’s the evil that they fight for the next two books that they — For the other two books in the trilogy.

My overall plan has been that Jessie dismantles the Grid in some way, where you — What I want is — Right. We talked about what are the decisions you can’t go back on, irreversible decisions, or whatever. What I want is for her to do something to the Grid that effects, basically, the entire world. They can’t go back and just turn the Grid back on, but nobody has a roadmap of what the next thing is going to look at. It’s going to create this giant vacuum, because there’s no power anymore. Then, the struggle over the next two books will be filling that power vacuum that was created.

The plan is to — When Jessie does this, the brother — I haven’t thought through all of these, but I want Jessie to realize the brother is the bad guy and try to stop him, but by the time she realizes it, or something like that, it’s too late to really stop what she started. He escapes and killing Marcus in the process, because I feel like Marcus — He needs to die, because he was the setup villain anyway. Basically, he escapes and he’s now trying to take over the world, basically. The fight moving forward will be between Jessie and him.

[0:33:05.9] SC: I think that can work. It can be an ironic situation where she wins by destroying the Grid. When she destroys the Grid’s system, then it enables Randy to literally be free. You could have a moment where — Randy kind of says to her “Gees! I thought you were just going to win the threshing and then I could take power. I didn’t know you’re going to blow the whole thing up. That’s even better. Now, I cannot only take power at this faction, I’ve got supporters all over the Grid. I’ve been working on this for four years.”

It’s sort of like a marketing launch, the guy has got followers that he’s been working on for four years. That was what was going to secure his power in the faction. Now that there aren’t any more factions, the world is in disarray, it’s chaotic. Jessie, of course, frees so many people that they’re very excited about the fact of being free.

[0:34:14.9] TG: Are they? Because I set up in the beginning hook that they completely freak out when they get kicked out of the Grid. That they’re all addicted to it like a drug.

[0:34:24.3] SC: The numbered.

[0:34:27.1] TG: Oh, the numbered. Yeah. Okay.

[0:34:29.1] SC: Those are her people.

[0:34:30.4] TG: Yeah, because I figured the numbered will become, basically, her army moving forward.

[0:34:34.4] SC: Yeah. Those suppressed — They’ll figure out something.

[0:34:41.1] TG: Because I’ve set it up where they’re basically all of the ones that are really good at the Grid that couldn’t be controlled.

[0:34:49.6] SC: Right. Exactly.

[0:34:53.0] TG: My thinking is that she will do something to basically unzip the entire thing, which is what Randy was trying to do all along, but she thought she was stopping him.

[0:35:07.7] SC: Right.

[0:35:09.2] TG: Then, he’ll escape and she’ll be left kind of holding the bag, because we won’t know what Randy is up for a while. That’s kind of the end I’m looking at. Then, it’ll be her, Lila, who will be devastated, because she’ll realize she was wrong the whole time as well. Her mentor figure, the rats, and the numbered, are kind of just left standing in the burnout ruins trying to figure out what to do next. Because I still haven’t really gone into who is running the threshing, because those are the people that will really show a big time in the second book.

[0:35:50.8] SC: Okay. You generally know what you have to do. You know the stages. Now, just take a step back, you have a lot of opportunity to do some fun stuff before the climactic scene. The other thing to think about is how did Suzanne Collins figure out how to do that great ending of the first Hunger Games? She was faced with the same problem, “How do I make this interesting?” The way she figured it out was Katniss and — I forgot the name of the guy that she’s with.

They figure out that their celebrity is more important, is so strong, that if they both died, it would really destroy the power base, because that’s the way the power base kept control, was giving celebrities to the population in these Hunger Games. When they figured out, “Oh! We’re the last two standing. One of us has to die. What if we both die? If we both die, then the power structure is really not going to be able to rule anymore. We’re going to have to sacrifice our lives for this, but it’s going to help everybody else.” That is the heroic tradition, where the hero sacrifices themselves for the good of the larger good.

When Jessie is doing this threshing thing, there has to be that sort of moment where she has to literally make the choice, “Okay, it’s me or everybody. I’m going to sacrifice myself.” That’s another thing, it’s a convention of the thriller and the heroic tradition, is to have your hero sacrifice for the larger good. That sacrifice that she decides to make could be the thing that this dismantles the Grid inadvertently.

[0:37:56.1] TG: But the sacrifice can’t be her life, because we’ve already done that. It has to be her family, right?

[0:38:04.2] SC: No. She can’t —

[0:38:06.5] TG: Because the whole thing has been she wants — To me, the underlying theme of this — I feel like it’s morphed into — I actually talked a little bit about this in the intro podcast  a couple of episodes ago. Realizing during that episode when we’re talking, I realized that one of the underlying things of this is that family isn’t your family, it’s the people that are actually going to be there for you when you need them most. Your family isn’t blood. Your family is these other people that you can actually count on. We’ve touched on that.

To me, the final decision — All through the book, she just wants to go home. She just wants her brother. She knew her brother — All these stuff. To me, the final self-sacrifice will be giving up the dream of her family. 

[0:39:00.6] SC: Yes. That’s the subconscious. When she discovers that Randy is the one who tried to kill her, that’s the moment when she will make that subconscious choice, because when you discover that everything that you believed is falsehood, the first reaction is to just shut down completely. It’s to just crawl in a hole and try and reboot yourself if you will.

The subconscious sacrifice is, yes, she’s going to let go of that dream, but you need an external believable — Like in Guardians of the Galaxy, the lead character, Chris Pratt, sacrifices himself. He knows if he grabs open that thing, he’s going to die. He makes that deal, “All right, I’ll die, and everybody else can be free.” He grabs the thing, and the thing that makes it work is that the other guardians of the galaxy jump on his back and they hold hands and they absorb that thing together. That’s what saves his life, because the other people cared too. You can see why I think that’s a really good movie, because it just doesn’t take one hero, it takes a village of heroes in order to change the world.

That is the underlying message of the thriller, by the way, which we’ve talked about a lot before, but it’s worth repeating. The reason why we love thrillers is because they reaffirm a value that we, as human beings, really need to have reasserted. That heroes, individuals who make difficult choices and sacrificed their own good for other people, are valuable members of society.

Thrillers reinforce that meaningful message to everyone. All the fun and the excitement of watching, or reading, or whatever, the movies, and the books, that is absolutely true, because we get that excitement because it reinforces a deep truth that we all hold so fundamentally dear. This is why thrillers that end negatively, where the hero loses, never become commercially successful, because we cannot accept, as human, that reality.

We are reinforcing a global, universal human value in the heroic tradition of the person who sacrifices his own, or her own personal stuff for the betterment of society. This is what people used to do to — Politicians used to go into what they call a public service, not personal service, public service. They understood that they were never going to get rich, but they could help people by doing public service.

In our world today, when all of that stuff is getting more and more blurred, and it doesn’t seem to be public service anymore, it seems to be personal service. This is why the thriller is so important, because if we can write really dramatic and wonderful thriller stories, maybe it can change people’s attitudes and remind them of how important it is to put your own personal craft aside for the betterment of other people. That’s what we try and teach our children, and the stories that we tell and these thrillers — A lot of people say, “Oh! Tim’s book is cute. It’s going to be great.” I’m like, “It’s an important contribution to the oove of thrillerdom.”

It’s important to me that people do take this craft very seriously and do everything they can to be innovative and surprising so that people will engage with these stories, and the final payoff, when the hero sacrifices, truly sacrifices their lives, or their exile, or whatever — She can absolutely sacrifice her life. She knows she has a gift.

What you could build in to the threshing is, “Hey! Just so you know Jessie —” Randy can tell her this. “You know that little trick you and I know you have ain’t going to fly here. This is — You know how I won the threshing? I gave my ability to do what you do.” Something like that. 

[0:44:01.0] TG: I was starting to think, what if during the threshing, I jump back and forth between two parallel action stories? One is what’s going on in the threshing with Jessie? The other is what’s going on in the real world?”

[0:44:19.5] SC: That would work.

[0:44:21.4] TG: I feel like coming up with — Okay. She can come back anytime, except for this time. It’s a little like — What I have established is if something horrific happens to her body, she’s not coming back.

[0:44:40.2] SC: Right.

[0:44:41.9] TG: What if — Jessie realizes, when she’s going in the threshing or near the beginning of the threshing, that her brother is full of shit. We don’t tell the reader yet, but she realizes that. She gets to the point in the threshing where she’s doing the thing that her brother told her she needs to do and she starts not doing it. She starts doing something else. When he sees that, he starts attacking her real body, because he knows if he can shut down her real body, it will stop her in the threshing and she can’t come back.

Then, it becomes Az trying to help her finish her work, because her body — She’s shutting down in the threshing, because her body is shutting down. Then, it becomes Ernst, and Alex, and whoever else, trying to stop the brother from hurting Jessie in the real world.

She has a moment where she could stop it all by just doing what her brother asked, but she just keeps going knowing that —

[0:45:48.8] SC: That works.

[0:45:50.0] TG: Does that work?

[0:45:50.7] SC: That works very well. You could have Randy sort of takeover her medications, have him take on the role of a medic. Alex thinks that he’s the medic, but Randy has rigged it so that he’s got an access and he doesn’t. Something like that. That works, where Randy is going to put her into cardiac arrest and really make — Because at this point, it’s so important to Randy to escape that he’ll sacrifice his sister in order to do it.

I’m not trying to pile too much on you right now, but the other thing that’s necessary, which is we haven’t had a speech and praise of the villain yet. We need to have Lila or somebody tell the story of how powerful Randy is.

[0:46:51.9] TG: I thought the villain did the speech and praise of the villain.

[0:46:55.1] SC: He can, or other people can. For example, in Silence of the Lambs, Crawford and Hannibal Lecter served as the chorus explaining how powerful Buffalo Bill is. All the clues in Silence of the Lambs, they can’t figure it out. What’s with the moth in his throat? Why is there no pattern in the death of the bodies? These girls have nothing in common. They’re found in rivers.

The whole speech and praise of the villain is really all about the investigative materials that explain just how smart Buffalo Bill is. Buffalo Bill never says, “Hey, Clarice Starling. Now, you’re in my chamber, and now I’m going to tell you how smart I am.”

Thomas Harris knew he had to praise the villain. The way he did that was using — The whole what if is based upon praising the villain, because Thomas Harris said, “Hey, there is this really —” He was an AP reporter for years before he became a novelist, and he heard about the FBIs Behavioral Science Unit, which was run by John Douglas. He understood that what they were trying to do was get to think like the most diabolical evil forces who have ever walked the earth.

They interview these guys, the serial killers after they’ve been imprisoned and try and reengineer their thought processes so that they would be able to find and catch the future serial killers in a better way, and it did work for a while.

Silence of the Lambs uses that idea that these serial killers are so sociopathic and so good at what they do that they cover their tracks in a way that a normal person who isn’t a sociopath psychopath. That’s a human being who has no ability to be sympathetic or empathic for another person. They view the world in terms of works doesn’t work, “Is this good for me or not?” It’s almost like a mixture of Ayn Randian philosophy with Nietzsche, where you’ve got these people who are incapable of empathy for anybody else. As long as they get what they want, they’re happy. If they get enjoyment from torturing people, then that’s what’s good for the world, and that’s what they’ll do. Sociopathology is a real thing.

Thomas Harris knew about all these stuff, and he said, “Oh! All I have to do is explain the workings of this behavioral unit and put all the red herrings and clues in there, and by osmosis, I will satisfy the speech and praise in the villain.” The other thing is he doesn’t literally to. He hands Starling a folder that has all of these information on a plane ride from Quantico to West Virginia to find — They find the latest victim. They way Harris Handled it was by using the crime subplot to get all that information out there.

Now, you on the other hand, do not have a crime subplot. You’ve got pure action story which is driven by hero’s journey principles where you have your hero leave the ordinary world, go to an extraordinary world, face multiple challenges, be victorious in those challenges. Just when she thinks that she’s got the whole thing figured out, oh, she hits rock bottom, and then the ending payoff is she’s got to have one final major challenge after her resurrection in order to solidify what she understands and knows, and her gift.

The threshing is that final incredible moment when she comes to realization of who she is, what her world is like, her worldview changes. At the end, she goes back to the ordinary world with her gift intact and she shares her gift with the community. Now, you’ve got that set up. You got her — She’s going to return to the ordinary world. She’s going to free the numbered. The numbered are going to join her. She’s got Lila as her vice president. Then, she’s got her spiritual, who are the rats and her Obi-Wan Kenobi mentor figure, who will continue into the next novel.

The speech and praise of the villain is one thing that you haven’t ticked off the thriller list, and you could have other people do it, or you could have Randy do it. You could have Randy almost enter into the fictional — The false reality, and have a conversation with Jessie, or you could have Lila, or you could have him do it in the training sessions. Right? They’ve got four weeks before the actual threshing. In these four weeks, Randy has secured her release so he can teach these guys how to win.

In these moments of teaching, he can explain his worldview to these three teams in a way that praises his very deep understanding of the world. He can actually explain how he won the last one. You could have Lila explain that. You do — This is a great thing, because now you know, “Oh! One of my scenes, I can tick off the speech and praise and the villain requirement,” and use that as a way to put velocity in the actual scene itself.

You know there’s going to be a moment where Randy stops and goes, “Let me explain something to you people. Do you think —” It’s like a great coach. He’ll stop practice and he’ll go, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Everybody stop. Let me explain something to you about the Russian faction. They are these, they are that, they are these.” Then, you can set up who these opponents they’re going to face, because we don’t even really know who these people are. You can set that stuff up and then he can say, “In my experience, this is the way the world works.” He can explain his worldview.

We’ve got sheep, and we’ve got herders. We’ve got the people who herd the sheep in order to save the world. He can do some kind of great speech that’s fun, and interesting, and entertaining. Underneath it, explains why he’s doing what he’s doing and why it’s so important to him?

He obviously believes in what he believes so strongly that he’s willing to kill his sister in order to make it happen. There are lots of great stuff here that you can really play with and delivery in this ending payoff. All the work that you’ve done is setting up a really interesting, fun opportunity to deliver a really kickass scene. It will probably be a series of scenes, because I like the idea of going back and forth between the reality and the virtual world. Eventually, she is going to smash the machine and make everything reality again. That is a great ending, because facing reality is what we all need to do.

[0:55:25.9] TG: Okay. The next sequence I need to write is basically the in between, between her waking up and the threshing starting.

[0:55:38.0] SC: Yeah. This is the super-duper intense training session. It’s like the moment in The Godfather where they bring Mike down into basement — Michael, and they teach him how to fire a gun. He go, “Mike, this is what you got to do. When you kill Sollozzo, you got to have the gun, you make it real loud.” I think it’s Clemenza, right? He takes him in the basement and he teaches him  how to shoot close range with the most effect to scare everybody in the restaurant that nobody challenges him. Also, to make sure that he gets them right between the eyes. 

Michael, when he volunteers to kill Sterling Hayden, and he plays the police officer — I forgot the name of the bad guy — Sollozzo. Michael is just innocent. He’s like, “You know what? They tried to kill my father. I’m going to kill them.”

Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, they go, “Oh! We got to have a scene where one of the really great killers teaches Michael how to kill.” And so they take him in the basement and they give him a gun and they show him how to aim the gun, and it’s such a wonderful scene, because at the end of it, Clemenza looks at him, because he’s not sure he’s going to survive, because this guy is just a green kid. Who knows? Maybe the cops will kill him.

He look at him and he goes, “Michael, we was all real proud of you what you did at World War II.” Which is a brilliant, brilliant idea, because it reminded the viewer that Michael Corleone had fought in World War II to beat down fascism, to beat down tyranny. What is organized crime, but tyranny?

He’s completely shifting his worldview. Michael Corleone didn’t believe in the family business. Now, he is the family business. This is the moment, if he kills Sollozzo, it’s over for him. His life is set in stone. The die has been cast. This happens in the first — This is the end of the beginning hook of The Godfather. Once Michael shoots Sollozzo and the detective, it’s all over for him. He now subscribes to the life of the family. The family is now the most important.

He gave up his future in order to get revenge for the people who shot his father, by Brando. This is a wonderful moment when they finally bring Brando home and he whispers to Tom Hayden, “Where is Michael?” He’s the one who killed Sollozzo. Then, Brando makes them all leave the room, because that’s the last thing Brando wanted. He wanted Michael to get out of the family. It’s just so brilliant.

Anyway, I forgot my point, other than — Oh! Have that scene where you have the old grizzled veteran played by Randy and Lila tell these young punks what they’re going to face, “Hey, look. You’ve been through a lot of training. You’ve been in three severings. You guys all have the mental capacity and the physical capacity to perform. What’s the thing that’s going to throw you through a loop in this threshing? Here’s the thing, you have to kill — One man has to be standing, and it has to be our guy. The thing you’re going to face is this.”

Then, Randy tells them, “In my situation, the way I came out of this — You know what? When I was in your place, I didn’t have anybody who won a threshing. I did win a threshing, and my reward was four years in solitary confinement. What I’m saying to you is you better win this, because who knows what’s going to happen if you don’t?” Something like that.

You can have that great, great Sollozzo — The great Clemenza, Michael Corleone scene with Jessie, Az, and the other guy. You use Lila — Lila and Randy can play off one another. They can play good cop, bad cop, whatever. It’s good.

[1:00:13.6] TG: Okay. I need to — I need to get that and that training scene. Is there any other thing? I’ll need to have some kind of scene that’s the fallout from Jessie waking up, or do I just skip that whole thing?

[1:00:34.7] SC: Just skip it. Skip it for now, because I think the way you’ve handled her waking up now is going to make the reader go, “You know what? Tim Grahl did me a solid. He didn’t make me read 4,000 with this girl slowing coming to life again.” You got her to wake up and now we get to go into the good stuff.

[1:00:59.0] TG: All right.

[1:00:59.4] SC: Think about it. If you’re the reader, you’re like, “Yeah, you know she’s going to wake up, because she’s going to have to fight the dragon in the ending payoff.” If she doesn’t wake up, then your book — Forget it. Nobody is going to buy it, because they’ll be so angry that you killed off your protagonist that ended the middle build, that they’ll throw the book across the room. They know she’s going to wake up. If you drag on the drama of her waking up, they’re going to be, “Enough already! Just get her to wake up so that we can get the action scene.”

[1:01:31.2] TG: You would say the same thing about, “We all know that everybody is going to lose their shit when she wakes up, so we don’t need to see all that. We just need to get into what happens next that pushes it forward.”

[1:01:41.4] SC: Exactly. Right. Let the reader fill in all of that how everybody lost their shit. Let some filmmaker who adapts this into a movie figure that out. Right?

[1:01:53.1] TG: Yeah, and it was funny too, because I tried to even in the scene where they bring Randy out to put as little description as possible. Even some of the stuff you said, I did not write. You filled it in with your own stuff. I forgot what you said, but I’m like, “I didn’t write that.” I guess that’s a good sign.

I’ll work on the scenes between —

[1:02:21.2] SC: Why don’t you just really focus and just do the scene we just talked about? The Michael Corleone, Clemenza scene, with Randy and Lila and the three shmucks who have to go into the threshing. What are they going to say to them that’s going to be the most helpful to them? They’re going to explain. You could have a Steve Jobs kind of speech, “Okay. Here is the situation. You got to fight three factions. You’ve got the Russians, you’ve got the blahs and the blahs. Here is what the Russian specialize in, and here’s what the blah specialize in, and this is what — As you can see, it’s virtually impossible for you to win.”

[1:03:07.4] TG: Is this where he can reveal how he won?

[1:03:12.1] SC: That would be great, because you’ve planted that seed so many times that if the way he won is spectacular, it will be great. It could also reveal about how ruthless he is and how dangerous he is and why Marcus put him behind bars for four years. This isn’t a guy you want walking around in the community.

[1:03:40.5] TG: All right.

[1:03:41.0] SC: He has his uses. It’s like that scene in A Few Good Men where they have the marine colonel on the stand and they’re like, “How could you allow these marines to harass one another.” It’s like, “Look. You want us to defend the country. You want the toughest sons of bitches that we can make, right? If one of them dies in a training accident, they die in a training accident. You need me to take care of this. Don’t sit there and tell me that I’m not living up the letter of the law, when you put me in charge of defending the law.”

It’s a great scene. I’m not as dramatic as Jack Nicholson, but that was the point. That’s what Randy is. Randy is the guy you want behind you, or in front of you, when you have to go into a bar and face 10 guys, because Randy is not going to quit until he kills everybody.

Yeah, you want to have Randy available, but you don’t want Randy to come over to the house for dinner, because he might freak out and kill everybody. That’s a kind of guy Randy kind of is. We don’t need to know why he is that way right now. You can explore that in other books. Just establishing his ruthlessness, his intelligence, and he’s not a romantic person. He doesn’t care. He wants to win. He wants to figure out the best way to get what he wants as quickly as possible. He’s a sociopath, and sociopaths are wonderfully charming.

[1:05:24.6] TG: Okay. Yeah, I’ll work on that, because I’ve had a general idea of how to set it up for a while, which is they want you to think you’re supposed to kill the other people, but that’s not how I won. I won in this other secret way.

[1:05:41.5] SC: I had them kill themselves.

[1:05:44.8] TG: Well I wanted some way that to do it though, he had to stab his two other coders in the back to make it happen. Because the speech and praise of the villain is, “If it wasn’t for me, the faction would have fell apart years ago. This guy you got running it is a complete idiot, and I have to run it. I’m doing everything it takes to be in charge, because without me, everything would fall apart.”

[1:06:19.7] SC: You know what? Marcus would probably let him say all of that, because he’s unleashed him. He doesn’t have a choice, “Go ahead Randy. We’ve got 20 guards around you. Go ahead and talk as much as you want. Because the truth is, is Marcus is still in charge. It’s okay if you want to go down that literal route.

[1:06:39.7] TG: I was thinking of setting it up here, but later, when he’s trying to kill Jessie is when he’ll actually — Either him or Marcus will give the real final speech. Because I feel like he still — He’s going to give some information to all three of them, and then he’s going to, at some point, peel Jessie off and say, “Look, once you get there, this is what you really have to do.”

[1:07:03.0] SC: Right.

[1:07:05.5] TG: Then, when he’s trying to kill Jessie at the end and everybody is freaking out, he’s going to do the real speech of, “You don’t even understand why I have to do this.”

[1:07:20.4] SC:  The other thing that will really work well is, all of a sudden, he’s gone and nobody understands why. He was working so hard to kill Jessie, and it seemed inevitable that he would. Then, all of a sudden, he’s just gone, and they’re wondering, “Why did he leave?” Because Jessie inadvertently gave him everything he wanted.

He escapes, because of her self-sacrifice. That’s irony. She does an act. She continues to pursue her goal even though he’s trying to stop her. He doesn’t know what her goal is.

[1:07:58.6] TG: He just knows she’s gone off the reservation. He realizes at some point she’s —

[1:08:04.0] SC: Right. She’s going to win this stupid threshing, and then he’s still going to be locked up. Then, once he sees, “Oh! She’s not going —” Then, he sort of like lets her alone, and then you cut, she does her amazing thing. You cut back, “Where is Randy?” That kind of thing. 

[1:08:26.6] TG: I’ll work on that scene, because it sounds like I’ve got my work cut out from me with that just one.

[1:08:31.6] SC: Yeah, absolutely.

[1:08:33.7] TG: Okay. I’ll do that, and then we’ll talk again next week.


[1:08:36.2] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, checkout 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, and man are there things coming up that you will not want to miss! So if you want to make sure that you know everything going on, make sure you sign up for the newsletter at storygrid.com.

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Tim Grahl