[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience.
In this episode, with next month being National Novel Writing Month, Shawn and I wanted to talk about the best way to prepare to write an entire novel in one month. Shawn walks us through the first few questions you need to answer as you prepare to outline your story for NaNoWriMo.
So I think it’s a great episode if — it’s a really great one too where he takes a lot of vast story grid advice and packs it all down into just one episode.
So whether you’re doing NanoWrimo or not, if you’re preparing to write a new novel, this is a great episode. I think you’ll really enjoy it. So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:05.8] TG: Shawn, I’m looking at the calendar and I’m a little appalled that it is already October. I’m not sure what happened to the year. Thinking through this, that means in just a couple weeks it’s going to be November, which means NanoWrimo is coming up. I was thinking about like – so I have one NanoWriMo twice, where I’ve actually written a 50,000 word manuscript in the 30 days of November.
[0:01:43.7] SC: Wow. I didn’t know that.
[0:01:45.8] TG: Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t good. But it got the words in. One of them – I can’t remember if it was the first or second. I had this – it was like this time travel thing where you don’t know it’s a time travel thing to the end, but the villain is from the future and he brought futuristic weapons back to medieval times, and so everybody thought he was like a wizard, because he had all these instruments of death that would seem like – what is that thing about like any misunderstood technology seems like magic or something like that?
[0:02:26.5] SC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[0:02:29.7] TG: I had him as the villain. Anyway, it’s now very good. Thinking about NaNoWriMo and how – when you get started, the first time I did it, so that the second time. The first time I did that, I really planned nothing. Just November 1 I’m like, “Scene one,” and just started to write.
Thinking about planning for NaNoWriMo where you could actually make a plan and then enact the plan for those 30 days. When people start thinking about what they’re going to write next month, like what’s the first question do you think that they should be asking themselves about like, okay if I’m going to plan this out, what’s the first decision I need to make?
[0:03:15.5] SC: That’s a great question, and it’s the first question that every editor asks themselves after they read a manuscript. The first question you had to ask is what kind of story do I want to write? What’s the genre, is the first question that every editor and writer really needs to consider at the very beginning.
Steve Pressfield told me a story which I thought was really great, is that back in his Hollywood screenwriter days, he had a partner, a writing partner, a very successful guy who one of the guys who wrote Alien, Ron Shusett. Steve and Ron used to get together after they’d finish a project and they didn’t have anything hot on the table. They would just have coffee and they would say, “Well, what kind of movie do we want to see? What’s the thing that we want – we’d really like to watch or see?”
That’s the first question they would ask each other. Do we want to do a detective story? Do we want to do a love story? What’s the kind of thing that would really interest us? From that first question, what is the genre, you may say to yourself, “Well, I don’t really know what genre means. I don’t know what coming of age/external blog, all that Story Grid stuff,” and that’s okay, because there’s a very simple classifications of genre that I’ll just sort of rattle off right now.
You basically have 12 choices, because every book, every story, every movie when it comes right down to it is classified by one genre. Star Wars, even though it’s an epic maturation plot, it’s a science-fiction war movie, right? It’s science-fiction.
In these genres, there is 12 of them. Let me just run them down for fun and all those crazy people out there can write them down if they want. Okay, so the first one is the action story. The action story is – it could be Ironman, or it could be Jaws, or it could be Die Hard. Those are action stories that feature a hero, a villain and a victim, and everything starts and stops from there.
The next story is a crime story. Now crime story could be something like Ocean’s 11, or a Sherlock Holmes mystery, or even something like All the President’s Men. Crime stories are all about justice. Will the criminal get away with it, or won’t he?
The third genre is the horror story, and these are things like Carey, or Nightmare on Elm Street or even Alien, what I talked about earlier, which is a science fiction horror story. These are all about the attack of the months. Then you have the thriller, which is sort of a mixture of all of the three above; the action, crime and horror story. Thrillers are things like the Bourne Identity or Red Dragon or Marathon Man. It’s when the hero becomes the victim.
After that, we have the love story. So you have Pride and Prejudice, Terms of Endearment, or Kramer vs. Kramer. These are stories about love. I did a big thing on Pride and Prejudice, so if you want to check out love, you can always check in to the Pride and Prejudice Story Grid stuff.
The next one is the performance story. A performance story is obviously all about a big event at the end of the story. Something like Rocky, or Whiplash, which was a great story about a young drummer, or even something like Trading Places, which is a very funny movie with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. It’s a comedy, but the performance is will they be able to gain the stock market and overcome the nasty white guys who are trying to keep them down.
After that, you have the society story. Society stories are about revolutions and power, novels like Animal Farm or Rag Time, or even E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which is about the underclass rising during – I think it’s Eddie Murphy and Ed Wardee in England or maybe it’s Victorian. But it’s around turn of the century or just before the turn of the century.
After society, you have the war story. War stories are things like Gates of Fire, or The Killer Angers, or All Quiet on the Western Front. These are like the performance story and that there is a big event. There is a big battle at the end of the story that readers are really excited to get to and how the writer builds to that big climactic battle is the thing that really makes the war story work.
Then you have the western, which is an antiquated form. Nobody really writes many westerns anymore, because the western was really about the individual striking out on the zone, or her own in uncharted territory and eventually how society tries to rain them back in. So you have stories like High Noon, or The Great Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s great movie, or even those old spaghetti westerns like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, another Clint story.
Okay, so those are your big external genres. Those are the ones that we all know and love. Then we have things like the internal stories. These are about people who are changing the worldview and that’s the first genre and their internal genres is the worldview change story.
A worldview change story is something like Saturday Night Fever, or Charlotte’s Web, or even Farmer Boy, or Tequila Mockingbird, all those classic coming of age novels that we love. The capture in their eyes worldview shift change.
A morality change story. This is when somebody turns bad or turns good. They move from a moral – one moral place on a spectrum to another. So morality change stories are things like The Verdict, to The Color of Money, or that movie was Harvey Keitel years ago, Bad Lieutenant. These are stories where good guy turns bad, or a bad guy turns good.
Lastly is the status change story. This is when you have somebody who moves up in society or moves down in society. These are stories like how to succeed in business without really trying, American Tragedy and even that classic movie All About Eve. That’s a status story.
All these stuff, I’ve talked about it a million times, and even saying it again, I get confused. If I were to give somebody advice and they don’t really want to listen to me go on for 45 minutes about the 12 different genres, what I suggest is that the trick when you’re trying to start a new novel or a new story, the trick is to do what Steve and Ron Shusett did and ask yourself, “What story do I want to tell? What kind of story is really going to give me a lot of energy to get to the end of 50,000 words?”
What I’m suggesting is that you find your favorite novel or your favorite story and really say to yourself, “You know what, I’m going to write a book like say Charlotte’s Web.” Charlotte’s Web, no matter what anybody says is just such a classic, it’s wonderful, it reads at every single level, it’s good for kids, it’s good for old people, it’s good for everyone. It’s just this great really terrific story that’s universal.
Let’s say you’re going to do NaNoWriMo. Again, it’s not – I think it’s maybe 40,000 words, maybe 50,000 words. I don’t know off the top of my head, but it’s not this big epic story, like Howards End or War and Peace. It’s a very contained beautiful construction that has simple, simple movements to it that are put together like a Swiss watch.
The story structure and foundation in Charlotte’s Web is just extraordinary. Say to yourself, “Okay, I’m going to write something like Charlotte’s Web.” That will give you a really, really strong understanding of the kind of book that you want to write. So maybe it’s not Charlotte’s Web. Maybe it’s The Old Man in the Sea, or maybe it’s a classic love story, like Love Story by Erich Segal. Whatever it is, make a decision. Say to yourself, “I want to write a book just like X,” and fill in the blank.
Once you do that, your brain is going to lock in on that story in ways that you’re not even conscious of. Anyway, that would be the very first question I would answer if I were going to do NaNoWriMo. I want to find that master work, that one story that I love to death and say to myself, “I’m going to do one like that.”
[0:13:28.6] TG: Why is that the first question you’re question? We’re not thinking about the questions I’m asking. It’s like, we love the map metaphor, or maybe we just keep using it, but don’t actually love it. But anyway, when I think about like, okay I’m in Nashville. The first question is where am I going? So it’s like, California. Okay, but that means I’m heading west. That’s my first big decision. What is genre doing for you that’s such an important decision that it’s the first one that you’re looking at?
[0:14:08.1] SC: It’s great, and it’s a great question and it’s an easy answer. When you say Charlotte’s Web, if you’ve read the novel or if you’ve seen the show when you’re a little kid, the animated movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s like Los Angeles. If you say Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
It’s literally its own universe that has a clear, clear meaning to the writer. The map analogy still works. If you’re nowhere and somebody says you – what kind of book do you want to write? You say Charlotte’s Web, that is an amazing decision, because that tells you what your final destination is. It doesn’t tell you how to get there yet, but it tells you what your destination is.
Finding the master work that you would like to use as your model is a huge leap. It takes you from, “I don’t know. I like a good mystery on a rainy day, but I also like love stories and wars pretty good.” You’re moving from that kind of vagueness to specificity. You’re moving to a clear destination. Genre is the godsend that allows us to understand what our clear destination is.
[0:15:39.7] TG: Okay. Let’s see. I’ve picked the book. I want to write a book like Charlotte’s Web. I made that decision. Now what do I do?
[0:15:49.2] SC: Okay. Well the next thing you want to do is get a global sense of what Charlotte’s Web is all about, right? So you want to say to yourself, now you don’t have to get all intellectual about it. Instead, what you need to think about are what are the things in Charlotte’s Web? What are the scenes? What are the moments in the book that really speak to me?
What I’m talking about is what I often talk about, is conventions and obligatory scenes. A lot of people get really, really stressed out about conventions and obligatory scenes. What I want to do now, if you’re planning NaNoWriMo, is to really boil down conventions and obligatory scenes to very easy to understand principles.
Now NaNoWriMo is not about writing a perfect book. It’s about writing a really solid beginning. It’s a draft. You want a first draft. You want 50,000 words of stuff that you can fix. It’s not about a final draft. You have to go into the process understanding the purpose of the process. The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get you – to start at the beginning and finish 50,000 words later at the end. There will be a trajectory from that beginning to the end. After you’ve finished that 50,000 words, now you have clay, now you have something to mold so that it can become better and better and better.
When I talk about conventions and obligatory scenes, people get really, really plugged in about it and they want to know every detail about every genre. They want all the specificity of every single convention and obligatory scene for every single genre, sub-genre, subset genre and on and on and on.
I can understand that, because I’m similar. I’m a similar being. I want to know what do I have to do? What are the answers that I have to give on a test? But what I’m saying to that is that we need to pull back, especially for NaNoWriMo, and especially for somebody who’s – say they always wanted to write, but they don’t have any craft yet. They’re not really sure, but they want to try it and that’s perfectly legitimate. That’s what everybody does when they start writing.
How can we make NaNoWriMo successful for people who don’t have massive amounts of craft, haven’t listened to the 2,000 hours of the Story Grid podcast? How can we make it easier for them? With the conventions and obligatory scenes, here is the simple, simple way to get to the core of it. Okay, you’ve chosen your book. We’re going to do Charlotte’s Web. All right. You’re going to model Charlotte’s Web.
What you need to do is to get a notebook and you have to sit down with the novel and you have to read it again. As you’re reading it, what you want to do is pick out the moments in the story that really struck you as wonderful. For example –
[0:19:21.6] TG: I’ve never thought of it that way. I’m always like, “Okay, what are the scenes that matter?” You’re saying to let almost like your subconscious pick those meat. Which ones do you remember, like which ones when you read again you’re like, “Oh, my gosh,” like that’s what you’re looking for.
[0:19:39.4] SC: Exactly. Because those are the ones that are the obligatory scenes and conventions of the genre. You just don’t know it. There is something called unknown knowns, and that is what story is. What unknown knowns are are things that we as individuals know deep down in our souls, but we can’t articulate them. We just know it.
Psychologists and behavioral psychologists have all these categories, and one of them is the unknown known. Story is unknown knowns. The process of the whole thing of Story Grid is making those unknown knowns known to us so that we can recreate them.
[0:20:33.1] TG: I need to say that four times fast.
[0:20:36.5] SC: That’s great sales content, right? The unknown knowns known to, you know. But that’s my point. When you’re reading and something strikes you as, “Oh, my gosh. I remember that. That is incredible.” Write it down.
Your goal is really kind of like, within the first quarter of the book, so if it’s 200 pages, the first 50 pages of the book, you want to find two moments in those first 50 pages that really struck you as great. Then in the next 100 pages, you want to find four. Find four of those moments. Write them down. Then in the last 50 pages, find two more. So at the end of your read, you’ll have eight really good solid moments from that story and chances are those are eight major obligatory scenes of the genre that have been really, really finally done.
This is why you want to use a novel like Charlotte’s Web, or the Silence of the Lambs, or Pride and Prejudice, or The Old Man in the Sea, or The Great Gatsby. You want to use the Masterworks, because these things really – the stories work. They work year after year after year after year.
I’m going to plumb the depths of my Charlotte’s Web and now I have kids, so I have read the story a million times. Let me think of it like if I can think of eight of the moments. At the beginning of the story – okay, the first thing that’s really huge is when Fern, as a little girl she saves the little pig Wilbur from death, right? Her father’s got to hatch it. Wilbur is a little bit that’s been born. He’s the run of the litter and her father’s a farmer, so he knows they’re going to kill the run of the litter, because they’re not going to make it and they’re going to eat food that the other pigs can use.
It’s nature. The farmer is he’s part of nature and he decides he has to kill Wilber. Fern intervenes and she saves Wilbur’s life. So that’s a big moment. That’s in the beginning of the story. She saves his life and then it comes to the point where Wilbur gets a little bit too big for the house and he’s in this box. Now it’s time to sell Wilbur. The farmer is like, “Hey, Fern. I let you save the pig. You did a nice job. Now we got to sell him. We got to bring in some money into the farm.”
Then Fern, again figures out a way to save Wilbur. She goes and she gets her uncle to buy Wilbur from her father. The uncle agrees to buy Wilbur and he also agrees to let Fern come visit whenever she wants.
That’s the beginning of Charlotte’s Web. It’s very simple beginning. First she saves Wilbur from the axe, then she saves him from being alienated and leaving the community. Then the next thing is the big moment, sort of the transitional moment. Wilbur goes to the uncle’s farm and he’s lonely. Fern can’t come every day. She has school. Sometimes she comes, sometimes she can’t and she’s lonely, and the other animals in the barn aren’t really into him. They think he’s irritating.
All of a sudden, Wilbur meets Charlotte. Charlotte the spider speaks to Wilbur, because she sees that he’s depressed and he tries to cheer him up. That’s a big moment when Wilber meets Charlotte. Now we get further on into the story, and there’s a great moment that I thought was just so well done, is that EB White wrote it. He figured, “You know what, Fern is going to be able to understand what the animals say in the barn. She’s going to be able to hear what they say amongst each other, because she hasn’t been destroyed by society yet.”
It’s wonderful the way he presents it. It’s just a faded [inaudible 0:25:04.7]. Fern walks in the barn, she hears the animals talking, she can understand them. There is this great moment in the middle of the book when Fern comes home and she tells her parents, “Well, Templeton said this today in the barn and then Wilbur said this and Charlotte said this.” They were like, “Who are you talking about?” She’s like, “Well, Templeton is a rat and Charlotte is a spider,” and they think she’s nuts.
That was a really nice moment too. I would write that one down. Then probably about midpoint, after Wilbur has been saved so many times, he comes to understand that he’s not saved yet. In fact, he’s being – they’re feeding him, because he’s going to be a fall pig. Meaning they’re going to slaughter him for the winter food.
He learns this by hearing the other animals talk. “Yeah, enjoy that food Wilbur because you’re going to die at the end of the summer.” Of course, that sends him in a real tailspin and it brings back life and death back onto the table. Now Charlotte the spider is very upset too, because she loves Wilbur.
Wilber is very upset and he said, “Charlotte, I don’t want to die. What am I going to do? How am I going to live?” Charlotte says, “Don’t worry Wilbur, I’m going to figure something out.” The next scene is when the miraculous web appears. Charlotte spins the web that says, “Some pig.” It’s right above Wilbur’s sleeping area and all the farmer’s come and they can’t believe it and Charlie keeps doing it, so that they recognize that Wilbur is a special kind of pig.
Now that’s the end of the middle build of Charlotte’s Web. The scene that gets us into the ending is when the farmer says to himself, “Oh, my gosh. I’ve got this incredible pig. I’m going to enter him in the county fair.” I’m going to want him to win a big prize at the county fair. The ending payoff is they all go to the county fair and Wilbur is up for prize pig. Well, he doesn’t win the big award. He wins a very big award that is not ordinary. It’s an extraordinary award, all thanks to Charlotte. That’s the seventh big moment in the story.
The last moment is pretty much the end of the book and it’s a killer. It’s a literal killer. That’s when Wilbur is beside himself with happiness. His life has been saved. He’s now a special pig. There is no way they’re going to slaughter him. He’s going to be able to live on the farm. He’s famous. Everything is great. Then he discovers that Charlotte is going to die.
Charlotte explains to him, “This is the way the world is. People live and they die. It’s now my turn to die.” We have a great moment at the end when Wilbur decides, “Oh, I understand now. But what I’m going to do is make sure that your children are protected just like you protected me. He ensures that Charlotte’s children go back to the farm with him.”
It’s a great ending. It’s a great circular story. It has a great payoff. Those big eight moments are the things that I would write down as I was reading the book. When I’m starting NaNoWriMo, I’ll know, “Geez, I’ll have at least eight things that I know I’ll have to deliver in this story, if I’m going to write it like Charlotte’s Web.”
Knowing those eight moment is going to be extraordinarily helpful. Those are what kind of represent the obligatory scenes and conventions of the story. Are they all of them? No. Of course, they’re not all of them, but what they do is they give you really strong handles in driving your story from the beginning, to the middle, to the end, in a way that is commensurate with the work that you’re using to model your own work on.
[0:29:31.7] TG: Okay. We have our genre, we have our master work in the genre, we’ve gone through and picked out our eight scenes that give us some guidepost along the way. Maybe jumping the gun, but my question is how far should I go – I’m sure it’s different for each person, but how far do you recommend going down this path?
At the end of this am I looking to have every scene in my book mapped out and ready to go when I get started, or should I just – I guess, should I be filling out just a foolscap Story Grid, or should I be looking to actually have every scene mapped out?
[0:30:18.2] SC: Well, here is what I recommend and this is something that I did awhile back. I think it was around May. I would do is have the blueprint. The blueprint is really, really math. It’s math-oriented. We can put these in the show notes. But I did a spreadsheet that basically outlines all the scenes. If your scenes are about 1,500 words, you’ll need something like 32 or 33 scenes for your entire story.
Know the math. Know that you should do – if there are 33 scenes, a quarter of them should be your beginning, half of them should be your middle and a quarter should be the end. Then break it down that way, and then figure out from that point, “Okay, well let’s see. A quarter of 30 is, I don’t know, 8?” Is that right? Yeah, something like that.
[0:31:16.3] TG: Sure.
[0:31:18.2] SC: 8 or 9 scenes are going to be your beginning hook. We just talked about 8 scenes, right? We know that two of them are going to be in our beginning. Of those 8 scenes, two of them are going to be something where somebody saves somebody else from certain death, if we’re doing something like Charlotte’s Web.
Then progressively complicates, so that after they have saved them from death, they really haven’t saved them, because they’re going somewhere else, or there is a problem. Those two scenes can be the things to start and think about as you’re transitioning into the NaNoWriMo. Say it’s day one of NaNoWriMo, you’re going to say, “I’ve got 8 scenes that I have to write of 33 that I know. Let me pick one of them that is the most exciting to me and write that scene.”
After you’ve written that scene and you would say to yourself, what would’ve happened before this scene or what’s going to happen after this scene? You have a ton of fill-in the missing scenes, knowing those 8 way stations. You could begin writing all 8 of those scenes and then filling in the meat and potatoes around each one of those. That’s one strategy.
To know how many scenes you need to create, the approximate word length, how many scenes are in each; the beginning, the middle and the end, this is all great information to have. Now do you want to figure out every single scene before you start writing? I don’t think so. I think you want to pick a really compelling scene that you’re excited to write, and write that scene and guess what’s going to happen is that you’re going to be motivated to write either a scene that comes before, late or later. That will push you into the next moment.
You can map your way and use your inspiration that comes to you in the writing process to guide you, but you’ll also have a diagram of what ultimately you have to accomplish.
[0:33:40.2] TG: Okay. We have our 8 scenes laid out if we’re doing 30 scenes for a 50,000 word novel. We know where to start. What kind of advice do you give? Now it’s November 15th, and I’m facing my dark night of the soul where I’ve written – let’s say you’re running behind. You’ve only written 20,000 words. You’re halfway through the month. You’re wondering is this even worth it? All of these probably sucks anyway. You get on the phone with that writer. What do you start telling them?
[0:34:19.5] SC: Well, what I would start telling them is – I need to know of the 20,000 words where are you? Meaning, have you written from page 1 to – have you done 20,000 consecutive words, or do you have piece mail 20,000 words? If it’s they have consecutive 20,000 words, I would ask them, “Well how many of those 8 scenes have you created? Do you have 8 scenes? What are your final 2 scenes? Can you write those now and then go back and fill in the blanks?”
I would give the same advice to somebody who is hitting that wall on November 15th, as I would to somebody who is beginning. I would just remind them, “Hey, you can bang out words. It’s not difficult to bang out words.” What’s difficult is to follow your plan, and also understand it’s not going to be perfect. You are not going to write a perfect novel in a month.
What you’re going to write is something that is extremely imperfect. It’s not going to work, but it’s going to be a big step forward toward what ultimately you want to create. Knock off the, “Oh, I’m so terrible. I have only done 20,000 words.” Just knock that crap out and just understand the goal is to use the 8 mile markers, finish your mile markers and fill in the rest, and that is going to be a big, big step forward.
[0:36:10.9] TG: I’m trying to think if there is anything else I – because I want to talk about – I want to talk about what to do on December 1st. But before that, is there anything else that you’re like, you should ask me this question, or anything else that – because when they fill out, when they get those 8 scenes, is filling out the foolscap before you write, is that something they should spend some time doing too, that way they have it all in one place?
[0:36:39.4] SC: I would do a much simpler foolscap process. After you have the obligatory scenes or 8 things and you have your genre choice, the next thing you should really decide is what’s my point of view, right? Who is going to tell the story? Is there a narrative device that can really help me out here? A narrative device is something like Fitzgerald used, the guy who lives next door to Jay Gatsby to tell the story.
He had any number of choices to narrate the Great Gatsby, but he chose writing in the first person, from the point of view of the guy who lives in the small house next to the extravagant millionaire, Jay Gatsby. It was a great choice. It sure took him a long time to figure that out, but once he made that decision then a lot of his scenes were already automatically – he knew he had to write. He had to write the moment when the guy meets Jay Gatsby, right? There is a scene and he’s got it, right?
He’s got it right at the moment when Gatsby tries to become his friend and why he tries to become his friend. The narrative device is really important and point of view is a really important decision. Now EB White decided to write in the voice of a very omniscient. It’s almost as if a grandfather were telling a story to his grandson or granddaughter.
[0:38:19.7] TG: Which is another popular narrative device, right?
[0:38:23.0] SC: Absolutely. That is a wonderful way. The Princess Bride is literally a grandfather telling a grandson a story. That’s a really great device. Another one is from the point of view of a child, To Kill a Mockingbird is that voice.
It’s actually a woman writing the reflections of what it was like when she was a child, so that you can use more elaborate language. Think about who is telling the story and why am I making that choice. You need to understand why your storyteller is telling the story. They need to be able to explain something, like in Charlotte’s Web, the narrator is – if we think about it, the narrator is trying to explain something to somebody else.
This is the nature of life. It’s beautiful, but it involves death. Death is always the corner. We can’t escape death. Nobody can. Now to say that to a little kid is impossible, right? What are you talking about? I’m not going to die. But if you tell the story about a beautiful, wonderful little pig and his friend the spider, they go, “I totally get it. We’re all going to die. I’m going to die someday. I understand.”
That choice was perfect for Charlotte’s Web. The choice of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby was perfect too. Think about what is the perfect point of view or narrative device that I can use for my story. Now if you’re writing a story like Charlotte’s Web, taking the grandfather or your grandmotherly voice is a pretty good decision, because what you’re going to do is say, “Hey, I don’t know what to do. What did EB White do? He used the grandfather voice. That’s what I’m going to do too.”
That’s a really good idea is to take advice from the masters. What did Hemingway do in the Old Man in the Sea. He used a very, very loving, but godlike voice. It’s almost as if God is talking to one of his angels when he’s telling you the Santiago story. “Hey, you got to hear this story about this guy. This guy refused to die. I’ll tell you what, this fishermen down in Cuba was starting to death, and he hadn’t had a fish forever. God is telling one of the angels. I can’t just give fish to Santiago, so I watched this guy and this is what happened.”
It’s almost as if God is telling an angel with the easiest language possible, the story. When you read it again with that perspective you say to yourself, “Yeah, I could hear God telling an angel in that way.” It’s very matter of fact journalistic, but in my ring at the same time.
Point of view or narrative device is a great way to ground you as you’re writing, because you can always say, “Who is writing this again? What would they do? What would a grandfather tell his grandkid? How would he tell this story? How would Nick Carraway tell his future wife what happened to him in Long Island on that summer? How would he tell that story?”
That way you can externalize yourself and start worrying about you the writer and think about your narrator. Give the narrator an anthropomorphized sensibility, so that you can extract yourself from all the baloney of worrying about how many words you’re writing. That way you can almost like tune in to another person’s talking to you. After you add in your point, if you –
[0:42:30.0] TG: Is that basically asking the same – it seems like a similar question to what point of view, right?
[0:42:37.9] SC: Yeah.
[0:42:39.9] TG: Right. But point of view only has a few options and what you’re talking about has more options.
[0:42:46.1] TG: Well, it’s very – it’s very specific way of looking at point of view. Point of view, yeah you can tell it in first person, second person or third person. Then there is also free indirect style, which allows you to mix first and third. That’s not very exciting to think about when you are writing. Like, “Oh, gee. Is this first person or third person? I’m going to go with third person.” That isn’t going to save you when you’re 10,000 words behind.
What will save you is when you say, “This is being written and this story is being told by this person. What would they say next?” Ask yourself what somebody else would do, and you will come up with an answer because you’ll start thinking about that other presence and how they would answer the question. Not about first person, second person, third person, free indirect style, blah, blah, blah.
Try and get away from the Story Grid blunt stuff and make it really a rich and personal to you, and that will push you through when you hit walls. There are two more things that you need to ask yourself to fill in this six – it’s like your six-question foolscap shorthand. They’re the six core question and editor always asks when they’re reviewing a work.
The fifth question is what do the characters want, or what do they need? For Wilbur, what Wilbur wants is to survive, and what he needs is understanding. He needs to understand that he’s going to die. Somebody has to teach Wilbur about the facts of life. He needs to mature. He needs to reach a level of wisdom. What he wants is to survive. That’s all Wilbur talks about. But deep down, until he understands that he’s going to die no matter what intervention he gets, he’s not going to be mature.
That’s a great thing to know in your story, because when you get stuck and Wilbur has a revelation in the fourth scene that everyone dies, and it’s okay. Where do you go from there? You go nowhere from there, because that’s the payoff of the entire story. If you don’t know what Wilbur wants and what he needs, you can make a huge mistake and paint yourself into a corner, write yourself into a corner in the beginning hook. Remind yourself, “He wants, he wants, he wants, he wants, until he finally gets what he needs at the end.”
Knowing the wants and the needs are really important, because they will stop you from making rash decisions that will – We all have a tendency to over-plot and overthink and try and keep adding plot pyro techniques. But the wants and the needs are things that take a long time to shift. It’s like anything else in life. We think we want one thing, we work for years to get it, years and years and years and years, then when we get it, we discover it’s not really what we need. It’s depressing, but that’s life.
[0:46:34.7] TG: I was talking to this guy, and we were talking about what we wanted in the future and he’s like – the only thing he could come up with is one day he will own a Lamborghini, and I’m like, “Dude.” I was like, “Oof. That’s going to be a sad day when you get that thing.” Anyway, sure. I had evolved.
You’ve gone through each of these steps. You’ve written the book. You have a beer in the last day of November, because you finally finished, or you have a beer at 12:03 AM on December 1st, because you finally finished. I have this slump of clay and see we’ve been talking now, we’ve got 10 minutes to tell me what to do with this slump of clay. What’s the first thing I do with this first draft to start figuring out what to do next?
[0:47:39.0] SC: The first thing you would do is to look at each of the scenes that you have created, each of the 33 scenes and take the time to analyze them to see if they work. Now the way to tell if something works or not is to clearly be able to fill in a Story Grid spreadsheet. Before you even do that, the best easiest way to see if they work is to test them for the five commandments.
Does the scene have an inciting incident? Does it progressively complicate? Does the progressive complication lead to a turning point that pushes the scene into a crisis? Is the crisis a best bad choice or a irreconcilable good? Does that question lead to an active decision by the protagonist, or the lead character in that scene, such that it’s a climactic action? The climax is the fourth of the five. Does that climax lead to a resolution that clearly lets the reader know how things are different than how they started?
Those five things, the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution are the five things to check each one of your scenes. What you’re going to find after you do a $50,000 – 50,000 word – $50,000 wow, you got a dollar a word. What you’re going to find is that a lot of your scenes aren’t going to work.
The next thing to do after understanding is you will have a complete understanding of one in your manuscript is working and one is not working. Now here is a big, big helpful hint. The scenes that don’t work are probably the reason why they don’t work is that they have gone off the – you were just banging it out. The reason why the scene didn’t work is because it doesn’t fit your genre choice.
Probably, eight of your scenes are going to work, because those are the eight scenes that you picked out in this big Story Grid map at the very beginning. Then you’re going to find other ones that do work too. Maybe of your 33 scenes you’ve got, I don’t know, maybe 15 work. That’s pretty good. Then you take those 15 that do work, then you look at them in terms of your master work and say, “How do they support my eight central scenes?”
What you’re going to discover is that you’re going to have to do more work in terms of your global genre. So you’re going to click the work away for a while. You’re not going to panic, and then you’re going to pick up other books like Charlotte’s Web and further look at the conventions and obligatory scenes in that global genre, and you’re going to do more story gridding. You’re going to read the book again. You’re going to do more story grid, and that is going to teach you how to write the second draft.
Now we’ve spent, I don’t know, 20 weeks on the second draft of your novel. If these people get stuck, they can look and see what we did after you had a first draft. It took a long time, right? You had to do lists and you had to do spreadsheets and you have to do –
[0:51:41.0] TG: Lists and spreadsheets and lists and spreadsheets. Yeah.
[0:51:44.9] SC: Here is journey stuff and archetypes and all kinds of stuff. But all of that stuff, you built a basic, a very voluminous to-do list for your second draft, right? That’s what you’re doing now is you have taken the 20 weeks of work that you did to analyze your story, to figure out how to make it better, and now you’re putting all that stuff in your writing the second draft.
December 1 or December 2 or December 3 or whatever, that’s the time to start thinking about your story from an editor’s point of view. Looking at it from micro and macro and adding them together, so that you have a really voluminous list of to-dos for each scene that you reconstruct in your second draft.
[0:52:38.7] TG: All right. Yeah. You know it’s funny, as I was thinking about this episode I was thinking, “Okay, I wanted to do something where we just talk through for people that are getting ready for NaNoWriMo to write their first draft.” I know a lot of people are probably listening to the show thinking, “Okay, I’m going to do it. This year I’m going to finish it.”
I was like, “Okay, what could we do to just make it a little bit easier?” Because I remember getting halfway through the month and just being like, “This is awful. Why am I doing this to myself?” Yeah, so hopefully this will be helpful to people as I think through where to start, starting with the master work, figuring out obligatory scenes and starting there and just working out from there.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:53:26.8] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. Before I ended, I just wanted to give you one more chance to share with us what the podcast has meant to you. We’ve been doing this just about two years. We’re coming up on the 100th episode, and we wanted to put together a collection of recordings from you the listeners sharing with us what the podcast has meant to you.
Shawn has been doing this weekend and week out, sharing his knowledge with all of you, and I would love to put together the 100th episode with a bunch of recordings of what that podcast has meant to you, what you’ve learned, how its helped with your writing.
So I put a webpage. It’s storygrid.com/tell and I actually put in a little widget so you’d be able to record it right there on the webpage. You don’t have to figure out how to record it and upload your own. Again, go ahead do that now. I need you to do it in the next few days for us to have time to put together the 100th episode. Go ahead and do that at storygrid.com/tell.
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