What’s so fun about this deliberate writing practice experiment for me is in the way Tim’s work is evolving…organically.
What I mean by that is that characters enter Tim’s story now with real purpose. They enter through necessity. For example, when Tim was grinding out the elements for his first challenge sequence of scenes in his middle build, the need arose for Jessie to reach out to a former confidant for guidance. Tim hadn’t created that character yet. But he didn’t let that stop him from doing it right then and there with the intention of seeding in that character earlier on in the story if need be in a future draft. Just because he hadn’t planned for that character didn’t stop him for creating it. And just because it could mess up his beginning hook, he resolved to fix that problem later on…when he had a full first draft in hand.
So while I’m a huge believer in planning your work before you set out to create it, another very big element of the creative process is to be open to “necessity” and to have the confidence to drop in fresh characters to solve compelling problems. We can plan our work to death and do everything in our power to figure out every single contingency before we actually start writing scenes. (Remember that Tim did that for his last draft and it fell very short of a working story.)
What’s important is to leave room in the plan to deviate if the need arises. Don’t get so locked in to your plan that you refuse to change course. Or the blueprint paralyzes you to the extent that when you need to scrap parts of it, you despair and put the work in a drawer.
When we’re driving somewhere after a spring or winter storm and a bridge washes away (this happens where I live with more frequency than I ever thought possible) we need to find an alternate route across the river. If we’re not in a rush that exploration is actually quite fun.
The same thing applies for a story. When we plan to have a big moment in a particular scene and our instinct is to come up with something traditional to solve a particular problem (Jessie has to “win” her first challenge and show a brilliance that the other game players don’t have), we have to guard against cliche and rote genre solutions. In Tim’s case, he required a different way to get around the problem of convincingly having an underdog competitor beating heavily favored and more highly trained competition. The way he accomplished that task was to introduce a mentor figure from Jessie’s past who could provide her with the concept to out think the competition. And “win” without really “winning.”
In this episode of The Story Grid Podcast we talk more about being open to necessity while in the middle of executing a narrative plan. To listen click the play button or read the transcript that follows.
[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello, and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid, and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode, we dive into the second sequence of my middle build, and I am fresh off of this great win where I wrote all of these scenes that got his approval and allowed me to move on, and so I confidently wrote these scenes, and well, you’ll hear what he has to say about them. He offers me some really good feedback on where I went wrong and where I went right in the sequence, and the kinds of things I need to fix to really make them work.
If you have struggled with writing a sequence of scenes where it gets you from point A to point B, but it just is missing something, this is going to be a great episode for you. I think you’re really going to get a lot out of it.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:06.5] TG: Shawn, I’ve written, I’ve finished off the next sequence, and I sent you that. So I actually sent you the 17th scene, which you had already seen before, through the 20th scene. In my mind, that was a complete sequence. I sent you that, and I actually wrote three whole scenes, well, two and a half, because about halfway through the third scene, I was like, this sucks, and I just threw it away.
I have it, but I threw it in the trash, because it was like, I tried to come up with this scenario and it just wasn’t working, and like, everything was moving too fast, so like Jessie kind of came to this moment where she was attacked in the first part of the scene, which left me with nothing to do for the rest of it.
I just kind of kept stringing this thing along, until finally I’m like, I’m going to kill this and start over. I threw that out, I waited a day, was thinking on it and reading some stuff, and then landed on what I sent you. Then wrote that out and it seemed to come together a lot better.
Anyway, I’m trying to decide if I should just kind of give an overview of what happens in the scene. Should I do that?
[0:02:19.7] SC: Yeah, that’s a good idea. Just remind everybody what this sequence is, and the first sequence of the middle build, and then transitioning into this one.
[0:02:30.1] TG: Okay, the first sequence, I focused on introducing the world, introducing her allies and enemies, and then kind of setting up what the test will be through the rest of the middle build. Introducing her to this academy that she’s been sent to, and she’s replacing a guy that got attacked or whatever, and so she’s on this team, but she doesn’t have any training, and then they’re going to do these series of severings to kind of pare down who makes it to the final threshing at the end of the book.
These things are all in the digital world. She is going to log in, she’s the coder, she’s the one actually in the system, and then she has her two allies, which are Ernst and Alex, who are her communications person and her medic person that’s keeping her alive while she’s in there.
That all got setup in the first few scenes of the middle build, and then this next sequence is the first test, or the first severing in the book. We decided there need to be three different tests where she grows through each one, and so this is the first one, and when I did my research on hackers and what they need to know, one of the biggest things they need to be able to do is be able to cover their tracks and move in a way where nobody can figure out, nobody can go back and figure out who they are and what they were doing.
I started thinking about this, and over the summer for a different project, I did all this reading on military strategy. In particular, I did a bunch of reading on the Navy Seals training, what’s it called? The BUD/S training.
[0:04:13.6] SC: Right.
[0:04:15.2] TG: That they go through. I went back and looked at some of my research on that, and I was looking at how they do their stealth training or their stalking, so especially for the snipers, they’ll spend sometimes three days moving across 400 yards to get to a place where they can take a shot.
They’re moving, and it’s all about stealth. I decided to setup a scenario like that, where they’re dropped in this forest, on the edge of this field, and there’s this beacon way across the field. It’s raining and it’s dark, and there’s a storm, and they have to get from the forest to the beacon without getting caught by the patrols, and they have to be one of the first — there’s 16 of them –
You have to be one of the first eight to make it to pass.
That’s what this sequence is introducing. Here’s what the severing is going to be, logging in, and then two scenes of actually going through that process. Then at the end, she makes it, but she’s the eighth one and she does it by the skin of her teeth, of course. Yeah.
[0:05:24.3] SC: Yeah, that’s good. My general impression with the scenes were that they were very well constructed. It felt very organic to read it. The characters felt authentic and believable, it seemed very intensely in the world without being overly descriptive. The scenes themselves, I think they all work and they’re all moving the agenda forward. That’s really cool.
Also, the explanations that you have about the medical elements, etcetera, were very well done too, just enough to — your attitude, which I think has come over the months that we’ve worked together is now, “I’m going to give the least amount of information possible in order to keep the story moving.”
The way you’re setting up these moments of exposition are really well done, because it’s all based upon action and reaction. When Jessie is getting the needle put into her hand for the IV drug doses that she’ll be getting from Alex, she naturally squirms and doesn’t want to get the IV, so he has to explain to her what he’s doing, and he does it in the fewest words possible. Which makes absolute sense because, they want to get her into the grid to train as quickly as possible.
They also want to give her the most amount of information that she’s going to need to get going.
I think you did a really nice job with that. I think Alex, as a character, is clear in my mind. He’s a formed presence, as is Ernst, as is the bad guy Az, I think. All in all, I think you’ve established in this next sequence a nice, solid, narrative momentum that is hinting at the really interesting stuff that’s going to come in the future, but also making it active enough and interesting enough to keep the reader glued to the page.
The one — couple of things that struck me as a little off is Jessie’s sort of confidence. It seems a little bit misplaced right now, since she hasn’t really established herself as somebody who can go into this situation. The stakes that she’s going into are really well drawn and they’re firmly in place. But when you have the other characters bitch and moan about the fact that she’s been brought in after a year’s training has already happened, she has no experience in the grid, and it’s unfair. What I liked is when you had her say, “Well you forget, I was in the other grid a long time ago, and I was identified for being able to move around there very well.”
That made sense for her to have a little confidence there, and I also liked that she went back to her home base to talk to her friends off-story. Like you don’t go and show her actually making that, reaching out to those old friends in the town to get the coding, which I thought was a great idea. This isn’t anything to fix now, so don’t feel like I’m telling you to go and fix this right now.
The actual event of her getting to the beacon was a little anticlimactic. It wasn’t as — there isn’t a big twist that makes the reader go, “Oh my gosh!” Although, at the very end of the chapter, the last chapter, you do mention something strange that she has done that has caused Alex to get a nose bleed. I’m not sure what that is, which is good.
[0:09:17.9] TG: That’s interesting. Because I thought I clearly explained what she did.
[0:09:22.5] SC: No.
[0:09:24.1] TG: In my mind, what she did is she took out the guy that stood up and screamed and ran the other way. She made him do that.
[0:09:33.3] SC: I understand that, but I don’t understand how that caused Alex to get a nose bleed.
[0:09:39.4] TG: What I was planning on doing in the next — what I was trying to setup with that was a surprise of like, they should all be thrilled that she made it, but they’re really pissed when she comes out, right? She’s relieved she made it, and they should be too, and then they’re not. The reason is that I was planning on doing — the next sequence is basically her taking over somebody else’s mind in the grid, which is off limits. You’re not allowed to do that.
That’s how — she used that to win. When she did that, I was going to setup where, what I was trying to setup was the guy she took over, his support staff came and basically attacked…
[0:10:23.2] SC: I get it.
[0:10:24.7] TG: They got in a scuffle while she was finishing off winning.
[0:10:28.9] SC: That works.
[0:10:31.0] TG: That was my plan, because then, I was setting up where she basically gets called into the principal’s office, where she gets called in to see probably the president, or maybe not the president yet, but somebody. She’s ready to get the riot act, right, because she did this thing she wasn’t supposed to do, and they want to know how she did it.
It sets up this kind of tension for the next set, and it also will alienate her and Ernst and Alex from everybody else, because she did this thing that was off-limits.
[0:11:01.9] SC: That’s good. It’s sort of like in business when somebody tries a new terms of sale and something, and they start seizing the marketplace and everybody gets mad at them. It’s like, that’s not what we normally do, that’s not what we do in our industry. The fact that she is — she’s basically disrupting this training world by coming in here fresh.
That’s a really good motivation for why the president brought her in in the first place. I like that. I think that caused — what is really nice at the end of that last chapter is that we don’t know that that’s what happened in the real world, and then you’ll be explaining that in future chapters. She feels as if she’s done this amazingly successful event, which she has, but then once she gets back offline, she’s now a pariah among the plebs, because she did something that you’re not supposed to do.
[0:12:02.7] TG: Yeah, that’s where I mentioned several weeks ago, I’m going to go back and change the very first scene of the beginning hook to where it wasn’t that she was stealing food, it was that she was stealing credits, and you’re not — that’s a huge no-no.
I wanted that to kind of connect to this, where she doesn’t care what’s a no-no and what’s not a no-no. She’s just doing what she needs to do. You feel like — what do you mean it was anticlimactic? Was it just not surprising that she made it, or…
[0:12:37.4] SC: The surprising — well, first of all, I knew she was going to make it. What was anticlimactic was the method by which she outmaneuvered — using that guy, and mind-bending him, and having him run into the field so that he draws the guards was okay, but it just seemed — when it’s not amazingly clear that she has actively done something, it comes off — are you familiar with the phrase “deus ex machina?”
[0:13:09.9] TG: Yeah, it’s that word like, when you get stuck in a story — isn’t that where you get stuck in the story and God shows up and does it for you.
[0:13:16.7] SC: Exactly. In this case, it had a little bit of a feeling of that, although you did set it up that she had Ernst run this super-secret code that she got from the townie friends. I was expecting something like — I’m not even sure what, but more of her actively mimicking some kind of behavior that — I’m not really quite sure, and I might be nitpicking.
This is why I didn’t want you to get overwhelmed by the comment. I just wanted to give you my visceral reaction, because you know, this first challenge has to suck the reader in in a way that is really captivating. I think the setup of the scene worked. I would even make it more directly — have them directly be hunted as supposed to — they have to get to this one sector of the place in a certain amount of time.
I think besides having roving guards, there’s a famous story from Vietnam where there was this Vietcong sniper that was so good that they couldn’t tell where his shots were coming from. This platoon was out on a patrol, and the lead of the platoon suddenly goes down and he’s dead, and he’s been shot by a Vietcong sniper.
Everybody hits the ground, and they call in the eyes in the sky, and they get helicopters to go around to see where they can find it, they can’t find the guy. One guy raises the courage and finally stands up, and then he gets shot. Again and again. It wasn’t — they never did find the sniper, so the guys who survived had to literally crawl in the brush to get back in to camp. I was thinking.
You might have that kind of scenario, where there is a sniper who these coders have to find and terminate and get — that might be too military though. I’m just talking off the top of my head, because the notion of her having to get to a certain point with no time limit — there is a time limit, because the other people got through. It had a feeling of one of those sort of Hunger Game challenges, which is good. It didn’t pay off and feel as strong as a Hunger Games challenge, that’s my only point.
[0:15:44.9] TG: Okay. I want to kind of stay on this, because I want to figure out like, what mechanism am I not using? That was why I added in the eight of them have to be there, and when the final scene starts, six of them were already there. I knew there need to be something pushing the scene forward, otherwise there was no point or no rush to finish.
[0:16:10.3] SC: Yeah, exactly. The other thing about these kinds of scenes is that I wrote something about this a long time ago, but narrative momentum and narrative drive are all about withholding information from the reader, or giving the reader more information than the character has.
In this scene, let’s just look at the reality here. Jessie — and Jessie has more information than the reader has, correct? She knows what she’s going to do, and the reader is just going to watch her do something and then have it explained later. In that case, that is mystery. Meaning, the characters have more information than the reader, and what drives the reader to continue reading is to discover what the characters already know.
The second form of narrative drive is suspense, and in suspense, the characters and the reader have the same amount of information, so that as the things are happening, it’s as if the character and the reader are one and the same. What may be holding your scene back may have nothing to do with the structure of it.
It could be that it would be better served if Jessie and the reader have the same amount of information instead of Jessie having more information. Because if Jessie has more information, the reader isn’t going to be so surprised that she got through the challenge, right? If they have the same amount of information, then the reader is going to be surprised by the thing that Jessie does in order to get out of the situation.
[0:17:54.7] TG: It sounds like, because you said, one of the first things you said is, once she was in the thing, she had a little too much confidence. It almost sounds like because she kind of had this ace up her sleeve, it took away some of the suspense of whether or not she’d actually make it?
[0:18:11.1] SC: Exactly. The other thing, just to make a Star Wars reference here. One of the things that was really great about the mentor training for Luke Skywalker was that yeah, they trained him in tactics and fighting skills, but it was when Obi Wan Kenobi would always say, “Trust the force, Luke.” You’ve got to trust the force. It’s almost as if Jessie has the super power and nobody really knows what it is.
It’s better for her, I think you could add a scene — you could add a scene where she goes back to her friends, you could have an interaction between her friends and her from the town, she explains her situation, and she’s expecting her mentor, who ran the Oliver Twist kind of group of band of outsiders who steal credits. Like the Fagan. Fagan was the leader of that crew. The Fagan-figure for the kind of radical young coders who would steal credits back in the town.
He would say to her, “Okay, explain your situation. What do you need?” She lays out the elements of the game. “I’m going to have to go in there blind, here’s what I think I’m going to face,” and he would have to give her some sort of lyrical thing, like “trust the force,” so that he would give her almost like a riddle for her to solve that would get her out of the situation.
I’m just, again, I’m talking off the top of my head, I’m not trying to tell you what to write, I’m just trying to find out what the problem is, and then try and figure out a possible solution to that problem. The problem that’s in there now is the suspense of her inside the grid during the first challenge feels flat. It does not feel like she is really in that big a danger throughout. Ideally, you’re going to want the reader to feel as if they are in the exact same environment as she is, and things are happening, and she’s constantly trying to figure out what her next move is going to be.
Right now, it seems like she has this master plan and she’s just going to execute it. She doesn’t share what the master plan is to the audience, so the audience doesn’t know what she’s going through. We’re not going through the experience in the way that she is. We need to experience her doubts, her fears, her strategies, her tactics.
[0:20:56.1] TG: I mean, should there even be like some — because it was, it’s a pretty linear scene, like she just does this and does this, and then she’s there. Should there be some tries and failures in there, too?
[0:21:08.0] SC: Yeah. It should progressively complicate itself to a point where it seems as if she’s in a cage. There’s no way — maybe Az, who used one of those people as a shield to get up, maybe you involve him in some way, where he’s kind of like tormenting her from the top of the tower or something.
You could involve him, because right now, she’s playing in the scene the perpetrators, the people who are trying to kill her, are two Nebulous and a Morpheus. There are just this guys who are reapers, and they’re kind of like the storm troopers in Star Wars. You don’t see their face, you don’t know what they’re about.
[0:21:54.2] TG: This is where…
[0:21:56.2] SC: You need a hero, a victim, and a villain in the scene, and right now you have Jessie, who plays the victim and the hero, and the villain is very amorphous. It’s just these guys. We need that third element in the triangle to be far more diabolical and clear. It would be almost as if — the other thing that you could consider, which could be interesting, is to have the rules of the game be explained, but the game master withholds some information from the crowd and then only Jessie is the one who figures it out.
I know I’m speaking in circles, but instead, the game master can say, “Your goal is to get to the top of the tower. The first people to the top of the tower are going to be safe.” Maybe that’s a lie, maybe it’s not a lie. In listening to the rules of the game, there is like an Easter Egg in the rules of the game that only she can understand.
[0:23:05.6] TG: Yeah, I feel like I’m starting to get a handle on it. I feel like there needs to be more — yeah, I’m thinking things like, maybe that guy that she follows at the beginning, maybe he does agree to help her. Then she basically sacrifices him to make it at the end, or something like that or — then I do need some kind of direct.
Because the enemy doesn’t switch to the — the enemy is Az until the middle point of the middle build, right? The enemy at the end is the faction, but right now it needs to be personified in something much more personal, because she doesn’t care about the faction right now. She won’t care about the faction until she meets with her brother.
[0:23:51.2] SC: I think you might want to take a page out of the Hunger Games and make these people compete against themselves. Remember, you’re setting up a Darwinian world of challenges so that the most evolved team gets sent to the threshing.
What the game would be — each of the teams has to hunt down and kill or scramble one of the other teams, or like — the last eight teams, the winners of the scramble, the last eight survivors who haven’t been scrambled wins. Jessie has a choice. She can either go on the offensive and try and scramble other people to eliminate them, or she can hide as best as she can from being scrambled herself.
Which is kind of an interesting choice. Is she going to be — right now, she’s not making really any choice. She’s already planned the thing out, so it feels like there’s no real crisis in the scene, in the big action scene. You’re not having her have a crisis question.
[0:25:02.4] TG: Right.
[0:25:04.1] SC: If there’s no crisis in the scene, it’s not a scene. This is a good example of how I can read something quickly and not pick out the scene that doesn’t have a crisis in it until I’m really picking apart the entire thing. That’s the problem with the scene, Tim, is that she doesn’t…
[0:25:22.9] TG: There’s no crisis.
[0:25:23.8] SC: There’s no crisis. She has to make a choice. She has to make a competitive choice. Is she a hunter or a hider? Is she going to run, or is she going to fight?
[0:25:34.9] TG: I feel like in this stage, she should be a runner, because she just wants to survive.
[0:25:40.0] SC: Right.
[0:25:41.5] TG: I mean, this is basically — this is why I was dreading writing these scenes, because I knew I wasn’t ready yet. I knew I need to come up with something that has much more direct, that is not such a clear path to victory, and leads up to a point where she has to make the best of the worst bad decision, or what is it?
[0:26:05.9] SC: Your reconcilable goods. What’s good for her is not going to be good for other ones. I think it’s the best — you’re going to make a choice here of the best bad decision, and she’s got, I mean, don’t think you have to do this entire scene in one chapter, this entire movement in one chapter. You could do a setback, a two-scene or a three-scene sequence that captures the entire thing. You’ll probably want to save the longer moments for the second and third challenges.
[0:26:38.0] TG: That’s been my struggle too, is like, I want to make sure I don’t progress it to the point where I can’t outdo it in the next one.
[0:26:46.7] SC: Well, my opinion about that is always go to the end of the line of what you have.
[0:26:51.9] TG: Yeah, but that’s where I get into stabbing somebody in scene one of the book.
[0:26:56.2] SC: That’s true, and you have to remember that going to the end of the line doesn’t mean externally. It means internally, going to the end of the line, meaning putting in enough red herrings and strange circumstances so that we need to establish her genius, and her genius is what? What’s her genius? Beyond the fact that she’s immortal and she can’t be scrambled or die in the world. We’re not going to discover that until the mid-point of the story, or even the later part of…
[0:27:28.4] TG: To me, her genius is that she can do things in the grid that nobody else can, because she doesn’t get hurt like everybody else does. It’s kind of like, if I knew I could jump off a ten-story building without getting hurt, I would jump off a ten-story building all the time. That’s a dumb metaphor, but it’s that kind of thing which is like — she doesn’t realize that everybody else can’t do that. That’s where I was establishing, like what I was planning on establishing was the fact that she took somebody else over was something that normally somebody else would have gotten fried when they tried to do.
[0:28:12.0] SC: Right.
[0:28:14.5] TG: She did, but she didn’t even realize it, because that doesn’t really happen to her. That’s what I was wanting to establish is that she breaks rules that other people can’t break, because they will get kicked back from the grid. I don’t want to do the thing, I don’t want to do the Matrix route, which is they can just manipulate the matrix in a way that nobody else can, because they’re so good. To me, she’s able to do things in the matrix, because the limitations that are set on other people are gone, but she doesn’t even realize that that’s why she can do it until later.
[0:28:52.7] SC: Right.
[0:28:54.2] TG: That’s where I want to pull something off where when she comes out form pulling it off, everybody is just surprised and pissed at the same time. Because she did something that was off the books, you know? You’re not supposed to do that, and even if you did try, you shouldn’t be able to do it, and so why?
[0:29:14.7] SC: Right.
[0:29:15.7] TG: The pieces, let me try and talk this out. I’ve got to establish that more clearly, but I’ve got to do it in a way where there’s progressive complications and it ends with a crisis. There’s actual suspense building of how — it’s not surprising that she makes it. The problem is not that it wasn’t surprising that she makes it, because everybody reading this knows she’s going to make it.
The problem is that I telegraphed how she was going to make it, right? To me, when I’m reading, what I love is the points where I’m getting to the point in the book where I’m like, I have no idea how the author is going to get there. I know the protagonist is going to make it out of this, but I can’t think of a scenario of how that’s going to work.
[0:30:02.5] SC: Right, that’s part of the fun of the story, is the author having a thing that nobody else is thinking of. I mean yeah, how she gets out of this situation has to be less of a mind control thing than a physical strange thing, I think, or a really brilliant mental twist on something.
[0:30:28.0] TG: Yeah, I don’t know how to come up with that. I mean, that’s where I guess I just need to go back and look at how other people have done it.
[0:30:36.3] SC: And you need to make the villain very clear, and yeah, you can have the reapers out there, but I do think that they need to be fighting amongst each other, too. So part of this elimination round is to eliminate your opponents, and one of the things that she could do would be to form some kind of alliances, or seemingly be the victim of an alliance, and then pull the rug out from them.
What I mean by that is, a couple of the guys who are coding could come to her and say, “Look, we are forming an alliance, and we’ll protect you for this first thing if you follow our lead in the bush,” and so she agrees to it, but she knows that they’re going to betray her at some point. So she betrays them before they betray her, thus securing her own safety, and that’s what pisses everybody off is that she can see through the manipulations of the guys that are competing with her and eliminate them before they can eliminate her.
So she plays the innocent sort of, “I’m panicking! I don’t know what to do!” So she plays possum and other guys think, “Oh well, we’ll just pull her into our alliance, and then she’ll be the first one, we can offer her up first,” so she’ll get zapped first and be out of there, and instead she turns the tables by being smarter than everybody else. Like, “What do these tools do over here?” “Oh don’t touch that. That’s the scrambler,” or whatever.
But to play with, instead of worrying about playing with the psychology of groups, maybe in this first one like they need to stealthily, they need to scramble, or they have to be one of eight people to have to survive this thing, and part of the thing is, they have to get to this tower in a certain amount of time, and if that means that nobody gets to the tower…
[0:32:53.1] TG: I feel like I may just end up throwing out the scenario I came up with, or I’m going to have to rework the whole thing to cause the kind of tension that we’re talking about.
[0:33:04.7] SC: Yeah, and you also have to remember what the challenge is about. It’s about stealth, and it’s about being capable of doing something without being identified as the cause of the thing, right?
[0:33:17.3] TG: Yeah.
[0:33:18.0] SC: So if she’s capable of scrambling a whole bunch of people with them not knowing that she would be the cause of it, that would be the best way to show the judges that she’s very stealthy.
[0:33:31.6] TG: You know, I was struggling with whether or not she would actually go through with scrambling somebody else after seeing Ricky and the fact that she’s 12.
[0:33:41.9] SC: Right.
[0:33:43.4] TG: I was going to try to set things up where everything she did to hurt somebody else was indirect, so that she didn’t feel the guilt of it.
[0:33:51.7] SC: Well yeah, that’s a good idea, and she could use Az as sort of her executioner by manipulating him in ways that he does all the dirty work for her. So she never personally scrambles anybody. She has the others eliminated by somebody else, so she’s the genius that the faction needs to lead their team.
[0:34:15.9] TG: I mean, she could do that with her alliances, where she just keeps setting them up to be knocked down by Az.
[0:34:23.0] SC: Right.
[0:34:23.3] TG: But they can’t figure out that she was the one doing it.
[0:34:26.8] SC: Exactly.
[0:34:27.6] TG: Okay. This is hard, and I knew this was coming to these points, where it’s like coming up with this thing, when you always say this of like, “You just have to do the same thing everybody else has done, but in a way that it’s never been done before.”
[0:34:47.3] SC: Right, it’s innovation. Yeah.
[0:34:50.2] TG: So I have to figure out how many movies have there been a situation where, this exact scenario, but I’ve got to figure out a way to do it that seems innovative and fun and that doesn’t show my hand until the end.
[0:35:06.7] SC: Right. It’s like a Sherlock Holmes movie. The one with Robert Downey Jr., where we see him think of the solution to the problem before he actually does it, and then when he does it, we go, “Oh, I see how he thought of that,” and this is in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They’re constantly putting Indiana Jones into these situations that seem impossible to get out of, and then he somehow gets out of them.
So this is the challenge of a terrific action thriller. It’s to come up with at least seven sequences of events that really pay off in a really fascinating way. So you’ve got the three challenges, and then you have the big threshing at the end. So you’ve made a choice to have four action scenes that are going to combine in a unique way, and turn the story at the end where she wins, or loses and wins anyway. So there’s sort of a dramatic irony at the very end. She wins the threshing, but loses the faction or vice versa. I’m not sure.
I don’t think you’re even sure yet of how you’re going to absolutely end that, and that’s fine. The twist that the brother is going to come to her in the second or third of these challenges is good too, but you’re right. I mean, this is the real brain work that requires just imagination, research, think about the stories that have these inherently difficult situations, where the hero has to get out of a jam in a unique and compelling way that’s character specific.
And when I say character specific, I mean it goes to a certain trait that the character has that they have to discover about themselves.
[0:37:09.6] TG: Well, and that’s where in this first one, I want to establish, and as we talk about this, I realize more things I want to establish here, which is her only goal right now is a selfish goal. I just want to get through this far enough where I can just go home, and that doesn’t shift until the middle point of the middle build. So even in this, she’s not interested in hurting anybody else. She’s not interested in becoming the one that makes it to the threshing.
She just wants to get through this alive, and so there won’t — to me, most of her action should be pressed on her. Like, it’s a passive — like she only does things when she has to. She’s not actively causing things to happen, because she’s just still playing it safe. So that’s where I like the idea of her basically playing behind these other guys, and then she’s just setting them up to be knocked down, because that’s a much more passive approach than actually attacking.
[0:38:14.1] SC: You know, I thought — it just occurred to me, you could have her destroy the tower. You know what I mean? That’s a really interesting idea of circumventing the game. The game is to get to the top of the tower. What happens if she’s able to destroy the tower so nobody could get up there?
[0:38:31.4] TG: What if I do something where she’s like the second one there? So it seems like she just got there with no problem, but then she pulls something like that just to throw a wrench in everything, because the other thing I have established that I can use is that she will do things just to circumvent authority, because that’s just what she wants to do. So a way to circumvent the authority or the faction would be to not play by the rules of the game. Oh geez, I’ve got to do my own work on this. I just got to think through and sketch out what this is about.
[0:39:06.2] SC: I think you’re onto something with that, and that what she wants is to go home and try and rebuild her life.
[0:39:15.9] TG: So maybe her method, because she’s seen that she can’t do it, the only two ways that are presented to her is to win enough to get to the threshing, which she doesn’t want to do, or get scrambled out, which she obviously doesn’t want to do. So maybe she tries to create a third scenario, where she’s such a giant pain in the ass that they just send her home, and so she does all these things.
[0:39:37.8] SC: Yeah, she wants to get kicked out.
[0:39:41.8] TG: Right, so if they set up this goal, she just removes the goal, and now what are they going to do?
[0:39:49.0] SC: Right. So what we’re expecting — and that’s interesting, what you’re expecting from this scene, how can you innovate it in a way that it’s surprising and yet inevitable? So if you establish that Jessie is anti-authoritarian…
[0:40:05.5] TG: Which I already have.
[0:40:08.1] SC: You already have, that what she’s going to do, and she might even, when she goes back to talk to her townie friends and the Fagan character from the band of gypsy stealers, pickpockets who steal credits, he could say to her, “Fight the power. You know what your job is, you got to just fight the power,” so she goes in there with that mantra. I’m going to fight the power. Now the power says, “We have to do it this way. What if I have the entire tower destroyed? Then nobody can get to the top of the tower. The game is ruined, and what are they going to do then?”
[0:40:47.0] TG: Oh, it would be cool! Maybe that guy is like, a collector of relics, and he’s always quoting scripture? Because I can always go back and add him in the beginning hook somewhere, and he quotes the scripture about Paul and the thorn in the side, and he just says something like, “Be the thorn.”
[0:41:05.5] SC: Right, exactly.
[0:41:07.6] TG: Like some kind of idiosyncratic thing, which nobody believes the Bible anymore, because it’s all the way past that, and it’s a hundred years ago, but it’s this eccentric guy that quotes from the Bible or something, and so he tells her to be the thorn, and she interprets that and that would be fun to do something where, like…
[0:41:29.1] SC: Yeah, he could speak in riddles.
[0:41:30.5] TG: Okay, so if I take my scene, and I’m telegraphing the whole time that she’s going to make it, but then she doesn’t make it, she’s stuck.
[0:41:39.6] SC: Yeah, and everybody gets pulled out of the thing, because nobody was able to get to the tower, and then the game masters are really pissed off, because they say the president himself came up with the scenario. So if she destroys the scenario so that — she hacks the scenario, like “Okay, the goal is for eight of us to get to the top of the tower, what happens if the tower falls? Now what are you going to do?”
And it’s obvious to us as we are talking about it now that that’s a great solution. But to the reader who’s never read this before, they’re going to be like, “Oh my God, she just destroyed the tower! That doesn’t make any sense, she’s going to get in deep trouble.”
[0:42:20.0] TG: Well that’s where, when she logs out, she’s in deep shit with everybody because of what she did.
[0:42:23.7] SC: Right, and then she’s like, “What? What did I do? Am I still here? My job is to survive, right?” That’s what she can say like, “I’m sorry. Is my job to survive as a coder, or to get scrambled? Was I scrambled? No. Am I still here? Yes. Then I did my job. So what are you complaining about? Do you think the people in the threshing are going to care about how I fight or whether I win or not? Do you want me to win, or what? Because I just won, and you’re mad at me.”
[0:42:53.5] TG: Well, I think her argument actually would be like, “You know what? I am such a pain in the ass you should probably just send me home.”
[0:43:00.7] SC: Yeah, of course, and then of course there’s the smart, maybe it’s the president, maybe it’s one of the trainers who goes, “I get what you’re about. You’re applying your power in the wrong way,” so she’s like in that movie The Officer and the Gentleman, where Richard Gere plays a selfish bastard who’s just smarter than everybody else and faster than everybody else, and what he does is he circumvents all the rules of the Navy.
His entire emotional journey from the start of the movie to the end of the movie is how he learned how to sacrifice his own self-worth and gain for the team, for the other guys, and so Jessie could have that behavior, too. Like my job here is to go. I want to go home, and I’m going to do whatever I need to do to go home. You know, throw me out of the school, great, but remember, she doesn’t want to go back to the numbered either.
So she can do this thing, but she has to be threatened in a way that’s going to make her fly right, too, because she’s not going to get what she wants by burning down this tower, but what she will do is survive another day. What’s great about this is that part of creating a novel and a story is going through this stuff and thinking back, well what do I want to accomplish here? What’s the point of this story? What is this character about?
And we’ve established that she just doesn’t like the way the world is, and she’s rebellious, and she is against power in any way, shape, or form. So it’s consistent in her character to do something where she would destroy the game instead of play the game. You know, there’s a great quote from one of my favorite novels called North Dallas Forty, and it’s this moment where this football player understands that he was being used by the head coach to get another football player to have needles put in him so that he could play a game, and the owner of the team says to him, “Seeing through the game is not the same as winning the game.”
Jessie is skilled beyond the fact that she cannot be scrambled, which she’s going to discover much later on, is that she sees through the game and she knows how to dismantle it. So that’s a very powerful skill that she has, and she does it.
[0:45:27.4] TG: Yeah, but right now her motivation is just to be a pain in the ass, nothing like…
[0:45:30.7] SC: Exactly, yeah. Right now her motivation is to, she was told, “Oh, you’re going to go into this incredibly difficult challenge, and you’re either going to end up scrambled and you’ll have your brains all messed up like this guy who’s in the hospital ward, or you’re going to become one of our special students who rises to the top.” That’s the two best bad choice situation. Either she plays the game by their rules and succeeds and becomes the star pupil, which she doesn’t want to do, or she loses and gets her brain scrambled, and ends up going home with mental problems.
So she has to make the best bad choice. Instead, what she does is destroy their game so that she can’t get scrambled, and yet she’s not the prized pupil either, which is an innovative way to solve the scene that’s also consistent with the theme of her character, which is anti-authoritarian individual, “I want to do it and I’m going to do it,” that kind of attitude, libertarian.
[0:46:42.2] TG: So what I need to do is figure out a way for her to pull that off without — I mean, to me, I should keep it then in a place where she knows something the reader doesn’t, right? Because she knows going into it that she’s going to try to do something like this, but we don’t want the reader to suspect that. I want to telegraph to the reader that she’s got this plan and she’s just going to win.
[0:47:05.8] SC: Well, I think the way you can do that is use the Fagan character, speaking in cryptic tones, who tells the story of some Biblical story, and you don’t have to say this is from the Bible, just have him tell a story and be a Bible story, but you would tell me a story that’s a Bible story in a different way than it’s written in the Bible. So he would say, “Be the thorn,” and she’d be like, “What do you mean be the thorn?” and he’d just say, “Be the thorn.”
So it’s like this Buddhist priest, who gives a rune or an impossible thing for somebody to mull over so that they can find their own solution, which is cool, because then you have this figure from her past who is sort of her mentor, who gives her these tools to move forward in this new environment.
[0:48:03.3] TG: Okay, and that’s a way of establishing her power without overdoing it. Her power in this case is just being a pain in the ass.
[0:48:13.7] SC: Well yeah, her power is in her intelligence of seeing through the bullshit of the games. So she’s a hacker and she can see. This was how she was identified in the first place. She knows how to go steal the credits in a way that is undetectable, or seemingly undetectable, until the president discovers that it’s her. So she makes some mistakes early on at the very beginning of the book that pinpoint her as the thief, and she has to learn so that by the end, she won’t make that same mistake.
But we don’t have to get into that. My point is that her immortality, so to speak, in the game will be the thing that the bad guys really want to tap into, but she doesn’t know that she’s immortal, and nobody really knows it, except her brother, who is the ghost in the machine who will come to her later on, but not to get too far ahead. I think this is an interesting solution to the problem is for her to destroy the game and not fulfill the challenge.
So if she breaks the rules of the game to survive, then that’s interesting, because the reader is going to expect her to come up with some magical solution to getting to the top of the tower. Instead, she’s like, “I’m not going to go on top of the tower. I’ll just knock it down. I’ll knock it down and stand at the top after it’s in the field,” or something. I’m not sure how you’re going to do that, but I don’t think it’s that difficult of a challenge to figure out how she would say to herself be the thorn.
“Be the thorn, what does that mean? Let’s see, what can I do here?” and then she hides, and then she figures out some strategy in her head that will destroy the tower, and then we watch her as she implements the strategy and almost gets caught a million times, and then it’s successful, and then the game is called, and then everybody’s confined to quarters until the powers that be review film to see what happened or something, you know?
[0:50:31.1] TG: Yeah, and figure out what to do.
[0:50:33.1] SC: Right, and you could still use that thing where some of the controllers from another team come and fight Alex and Ernst while she’s still under, because they were scrambled or something. I don’t know, but I think that’s a good innovation to a scene that you’re saying, “Oh, we’re going to have that great scene where she outsmarts everybody and wins the challenge,” so the reader is going to expect that, and then when she doesn’t do that, and in fact screws up the game, that’s even more interesting, because she does win the challenge, but she doesn’t win the challenge in the way that the reader was expecting.
[0:51:13.5] TG: But I still need to build in where there’s probably alliances and they’re directly going against Az, and she outsmarts them and gets there first, but then instead of crossing the threshold of the win, she just destroys the whole thing.
[0:51:32.2] SC: Right. That’s good, so she’s like the gum in the works who’s trying to outsmart the game master, and that’s what these people need anyway, right? They need somebody up the game of the game master, and the game master comes up with these challenges, and she can beat down the challenge of the game master. That’s why she’s there in the first place. So I would set this thing up that she does this really stupid thing.
Everybody is confined to quarters, everybody is in deep shit. It’s all her fault, and then they bring her in and say, “You know why we brought her in? For exactly that reason. Which one of you would have ever thought to destroy that tower? This is why she is the most important one of you.” and so they can exalt her, and she can get a feeling of pride, and then she can — it’s like if somebody says you’re great, you want to believe them so much that you will try to prove to them that you’re even better than they think you are.
This is how people manipulate others. They say things like, “You know, I see a lot of potential in you, young man,” and you go, “Oh wow, even though I don’t like my boss all that much, he sees potential in me. So here I am, I’m going to do better at my job,” and that’s what a master manager manipulator does to people, is that even if the person doesn’t respect them, they’re capable of manipulating them to do the work necessary that forwards their goals, as opposed to the individual’s goals.
So that’s a great transitional moment for you to get Jessie from wanting to go home and screwing everything up, to being the star student at the academy, and “We’re counting on you, Jessie, and here’s the second task,” so this is a great way of modulating the emotional arc of the storytelling, is that we’re expecting her to go in and play by the rules and win this game by the rules, when in fact she decides, “Screw the rules. I’m going to destroy the game.” Which is what her main goal is anyway, right? She doesn’t know that’s her main goal yet, but that thematically is her main goal. It’s to destroy this virtual world society so that people can think and be themselves.
[0:54:09.0] TG: Okay, so I will work on that this week.
[0:54:13.1] SC: Great.
[END OF DISCUSSION]
[0:54:16.2] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode, or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.
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