Planning the Hero, Victim and Villain

[00:00:00] 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, I tell you I’m excited about getting to start a new fiction project and this new book that we started talking about last week. But at the same time, in this episode that we recorded as I talked to Shawn, I just started to feel that overwhelming like, “Oh, my gosh! This is bigger than anything I know how to do.”

This is why I’ve gotten – When I’ve seen some of you at our events or I’ve gotten emails from you where you’re like, “Hey! Why do you still call yourself as somebody that’s trying to figure out how to tell a story that works?” This is why. Because as soon as I step into a new story, I feel like I get completely lost, completely unsure of where I’m supposed to be going.

This was a really helpful episode for me as Shawn kind of brought me back to the basics of what to look at, how to go back to masterworks, how to think about genre, and really looking at it through this lens of victim, hero, and villain. It’s a really great episode. I think you’ll get a lot out of it. So let’s jump in and get started.


[00:01:28] TG: Shawn, last week, we started looking at the new novel I want to write, and we looked through a lot of the foolscap stuff f and figuring out what genre I’m writing and kind of the direction. So I went ahead and took a crack at writing the first few scenes and sent those over to you. I was trying to do something. The big thing I’m trying in this is a different kind of narrative device, so I open the first scene as basically in a police interrogation, where they’re getting this guy to tell what happened. So then the book is him explaining to the police officers what happened. The first scene is setting that up, and then we jump into – I think I sent you three scenes of the actual story after that. What are your thoughts?

[00:02:29] SC: Well, first, let me apologize for this bad cold. But what – The feel I got from what you sent me is I am always looking for what is the masterwork. What’s the thing that this material is sort of living inside of a particular story domain? The things that started to come to me were stories like the Usual Suspects or which was a terrific movie from the ‘90s I think and also sort of the work of Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train, some Hitchcock stuff.

The first person narration and the set up where you kind of begin at the end and then flashback, that absolutely works. It also reminded me of that television series, the first series of True Detective, which had Matthew McConaughey kind of being the narrator in telling the story, which I think worked really well. I think the key point to sort of pinpoint is, first of all, what’s the masterwork, and secondly, what is the big unexpected of that that precipitates this character to sort of leave his normal everyday life so that he starts to live in a fantasy world. Just from the scene, and I know it’s super early.

From the scene, it seemed as if it were – Somebody moved in next door who just rubbed the guy the wrong way. That can work as long as that sort of blows up in a bigger way later on, because the other thing that you’re dealing with here is the concept of the unreliable narrator. We all love the unreliable narrator, because part of the fun for the reader is.

There’s a whole series of novels that have come out over the last 5 or 10 years like – Was that The Girl on the Train?

[00:05:00] TG: The Girl on the Train. What – The big one was – Oh, geez! The one with the –

[00:05:03] SC: Gone Girl?

[00:05:04] TG: Yeah. Gone Girl, yeah.

[00:05:06] SC: There’s absolutely very clear market for these kinds of stories write-down down, this particular kind of psychological thriller, because I think we are all having difficulty understanding exactly what everybody is actually doing versus what they’re saying. The unreliable narrator is a stand-in for the dissidents that we all experience in our day-to-day lives when we’re not really sure if the person who’s talking to us is legit. What’s their angle? What are they saying versus what do they want from me?

I just want to kind of throw it back to you. This is going to be a story about a person who turns very dark, goes bad, and that does their best to redeem themselves by the end. Is there one masterwork that you think it would be worthy or interesting to look at in terms of its structure that could be helpful to you?

[00:06:17] TG: Oh, man! I feel like this is one of those questions I should know the answer to.

[00:06:23] SC: No, no, no. It’s not that. It’s more of like a dialogue between the two of us to figure out, A, how well-read are you in this arena.

[00:06:33] TG: Right. That’s why I feel put on the spot. I’m trying to think of –

[00:06:40] SC: There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to a particular genre and sort of tooling around with it in your mind and writing a couple of scenes and testing whether or not this is something you’d want to live with for the next couple of years without having sort of plumbing the depths of that genre.

I’m not judging you. But you see where I’m going here. It’s like if you want to write a compelling story that’s in a particular arena, the more you know about that arena, the better equipped you’re going to be to not repeat things that have already come before and also to know specifically why that particular book worked would be very valuable, right?

[00:07:34] TG: Yeah. I mean, the ones that you’ve mentioned so far but I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t say that they’re definitely in this genre but the ones of like Gone Girl, Girl on a Train.

[00:07:46] SC: The Woman in the Window I think where somebody –

[00:07:49] TG: Yeah. [inaudible 00:07:49] on the train. No, that was the one we just said. Yeah, I’m –

Lately, the last couple years, I’ve been a sucker for any book that takes place in or around the bookstore and any book that’s like the girl blank. The one that would probably be closest is The Girl – Is it The Girl Next Door? It’s the one where she looks across the street and sees somebody that she thinks gets killed and then – But she’s very unreliable because she’s agoraphobic and an alcoholic. Then Gone Girl would be another one.

None of these is the protagonist, the one actively trying to hurt people. It was The Girl on a Train was the one that where – Yeah, it’s Girl on a Train. The one I was just [inaudible 00:08:39] I think was The Girl in a Window. I’m trying to find it in my Kindle library here. Then –

[00:08:44] SC: Yeah. It’s The Woman in the Window.

[00:08:46] TG: Okay. That was the most recent one and then, of course, Gone Girl. Then I’ve read like – I’m actually reading one right now that I think is falling into this category, which is Magpie Murders but I’m not far enough in it to make a call on it yet. Then, of course, I’ve seen the movies that you’ve talked about, Usual Suspects. I stopped about halfway through True Detective, so I could go back and actually finish that series.

But again, none of those have a protagonist that is actively trying to do a bad thing. Well, I guess Usual Suspects did. I could go back and rewatch that. That’s probably the closest of the ones we’ve talked about to what I’m trying to do here. This is a psychological thriller is the external genre, but the internal genre is morality redemption. Would I be better off plumbing the depths of thriller psychological or morality redemption or just I need to spend time in both?

[00:09:48] SC: There’s also one called The Silent Patient, which I just stumbled on. Let’s just talk about psychological thriller for a second. Psychological means that part of the thrills for the reader not being able to – Also the lead character or characters is not being able to get the right sort of framing of reality. Part of what’s at stake in a psychological, the very sanity of the protagonist or narrator. That’s a really key important element, and I think that’s part of the narrative drive for the reader is, is this person crazy or not. It seems reasonable what they’re saying. Then as the plot evolves, it becomes – Things start to contradict the frame story that the protagonist is giving.

Another thing to look at is, are these stories told in like – Gone Girl has multiple first-person points of view, which really worked. It’s very difficult to do, and some are third-person omniscient with inner spaces of first-person. You could do some narrative devices in that way where you could have a third-person point of view with sort of a documentary evidence within the story where the person is telling the story.

That’s what they did in True Detective or it could just be straight first-person. I’m not well-versed in the masterworks of this genre well enough to say which one would be the best choice. Something about a combination sounds interesting.

[00:11:50] TG: Well, I was thinking that the way that I could give the – There’s a couple. I was thinking of basically using the fact that he’s telling this to police as like the way that we can jump out of the first-person. I could do that by either them basically saying, “Hey, wait! You said this and now you’re saying this. That doesn’t line up to show that he’s an unreliable witness.” Rather it could be just like I could –

One of the things in Gone Girl was you had those pages from her journal that were kind of telling the story. It could be like police reports where they’re pointing out the inconsistencies. They’re pointing out like back story interviews they’ve done that the first-person narrator doesn’t know about or isn’t privy to. So they just want him talking, and that’s the main part of the book. Then you get these kind interstitial parts that tell – That like make you not trust the narrator to poke holes in it to give you – That could be the third-person omniscient part where it’s like they interviewed somebody else, and here’s the report from that interview.

That was how I was thinking when I originally thought of doing it. I really want to do a different narrative device. We’ve talked about narrative device so much. We’ve talked about how great Steve Pressfield is at coming up with his narrative device. I thought this would be an interesting way that I could drive the story where this guy could tell his story from a very kind of like victim mentality of like, “This just happened to me. I just got caught up in this and I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.” Then we could get this, the police side of things that makes it really, really clear that there’s a clear case that he’s evil.

Yes. That’s still – What book did you say I should look at?

[00:13:55] SC: Well, there’s – Sometimes, it’s fun. Just look at something that’s extraordinarily popular right now that’s in the same arena, and there’s a book called The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides I think. I’m just reading off of the Amazon description, and it sounds like this is something that’s in the arena that you’re trying to do. So it might be fun for you to take a look at this book and see how the author actually created the set up here. It seems like there is someone who has – It’s like a therapist situation where the therapist is trying to get to the truth of some crime.

[00:14:49] TG: Okay. Yeah, I’m looking at it here. Maybe I’ll get Candace to read this since she’s a therapist.

[00:14:59] SC: I think just as a way to help people out there kind of start to figure out ways to get into the arena. I think maybe you should read this book and, first of all, like to see if it’s in the realm that you’re talking about that. Then if it is, then you might be able to sort of see how it works. Then maybe read a couple more that are slightly different. I mean, obviously, you’ve probably already read Gone Girl. I have. It’s terrific. Then that might help us frame and figure out what is specifically the narrative device here and what’s the big payoff. Is this person who’s telling this story – Are they crazy? Are they manipulative? What are they trying to do? That kind of thing.

It’s sort of like building the psychopathology of someone who’s trying to manipulate a situation for their own benefit from the outside in, as opposed to – Or the inside out. One of those will help you sort of come up with the global structure of how to set these pieces together. I mean, if you saw the recent movie, Knives Out, that was a really nice, fun, sort of Agatha Christie kind of a thing that really was a lot of fun, because there were a lot of twists in it. The way you construct something like that is you really have to figure out each of the characters, why they’re doing, what they’re doing, how they’re representing what they’re doing, and how they would interact and conflict through time and space.

The best way to do that is to look at how other people have done it before and see if anything gels for you that you could be inspired by for your own work.

[00:17:09] TG: In Story Grid for thriller psychological, you have Primal Fear and then –

[00:17:16] SC: Yeah. Primal Fear is a good one too. Yeah.

[00:17:19] TG: Then you have Drugstore Cowboy for reality redemption. Should I start with those two as well?

[00:17:29] SC: I really wouldn’t go to Drugstore Cowboy, because that’s very much – It is a redemptive story but it’s very much about – It’s a smallish mini plot slice of life kind of thing that’s more about – Yes, it’s redemptive but it’s more about sort of recovering from criminality as opposed – Yeah.

[00:17:52] TG: I guess I were – With redemption, isn’t – Maybe I don’t understand this, but I always saw the redemption plot as like – It’s like if Hunger Games was about Haymitch, the mentor, right? He’s a complete fuck up at the beginning and then he finds redemption throughout the story. Or the westerns where it’s like this bad guy get – All the Clint Eastwood movies, right? I think – What’s the one where he lives next door to these people and he hates them and he’s racist and then he ends up saving them, right? Where this is like –

[00:18:30] SC: Yeah. That’s Gran Torino.

[00:18:32] TG: That’s right. Where this one is more like normal guy goes bad. At the end, he like pulls it out just because he realizes how bad he got. That’s where I start to lean back towards it’s punitive but it doesn’t end – It ends with him being punished, but he still like figures out that he’s gone too far. You were saying if I make it straight punitive, it’s probably too dark and people won’t be interested in it. Or did I misread that?

[00:19:09] SC: No, that’s accurate. Let me just take a step back and try and piece together the way I see the redemption plot. I think that globally the protagonist in a redemption plot has a particular worldview, and their worldview is I’m going to use and behave in this way I figured out that works for me and get those things that I want and just sort of coast. There’s not really – I know we talked about last week about the difference between the power hierarchy and the growth hierarchy. The power hierarchy is really about having things, and the growth part hierarchy is about becoming a better person.

The redemption story is the situation where someone is fully focused on the having mode. So they figured out a whole series of skills that they believe will get them things, and the things will make them rise on the power hierarchy at least in their own mind, if not entirely on the social spectrum. The redemption plot is the transformation of that person from that worldview into a person that has the insight that the having mode is destructive and if – I mean, just living in the having mode without any interest in growth is meaningless.

The redemption plot is about that character moving from a committed having mode to rise up a hierarchy, having an insight that says, “Oh, my gosh! Everything that I’m doing is wrong.” They reach an all is lost moment. They have this insight and they say, “I have to make things right. I have to repair the damage that I’ve done so that I could become a better human being.” What they do is they redeem themselves by making the right moral choices that actually make them grow on the growth hierarchy. They try and undo all of the damage that they’ve done, and it’s usually requires a substantial sacrifice.

This movie Wall Street, if anybody has seen it, it’s about a guy who’s committed to becoming a big Wall Street trader and all of the things that come with that, which means total having mode. These people in that era used to refer to themselves as, excuse the expression, big swinging dicks. This character wants to become that person. Then what he discovers at the all is lost moment is that it’s all meaningless, and he’s actually cost so much damage. He’s betrayed his father. He’s betrayed all of the people who work with his father that he realizes, “Oh, my gosh! My life is meaningless and dark. I’ve got to fix this.” So he chooses to become a better person by repairing the damage. In the end, he must sacrifice by going to prison, but the good news is he’s grown up. He’s become a better person at the end of the story.

A punitive plot is when someone chooses to abandon the growth hierarchy early on in the story. So they’re committed to something and then they realize, “Oh, I’m just another loser.” Then they become dark. The movie Goodfellas is about a gangster. As a little boy, the gangster makes the choice, “Oh! To be cool, I need to be a gangster, so I’m going to go down that power hierarchy and become a gangster as best as I can. If I’m lucky, I could become a really big deal.” Guess what happens. We watched this little boy transform into a super bad guy who becomes worse and worse and worse. He betrays his wife. He betrays his family. He ends up betraying his best friends. At the end of the thing, he is punished because now he has become just another schnook, just another normal guy.

That’s a punitive plot that works, because what the character wants is denied at the end and they suffer. Even though they don’t go to jail, they suffer. Goodfellas is the example of a story that works, but it’s got a limited audience. I’m not [inaudible 00:25:04] it. I think it’s a fun story but it doesn’t have that extra sort of something where the person redeems themselves. The only reason why Henry Hill [inaudible 00:25:18] his friends is to save himself.

That’s the difference between a pure redemption story and a punitive plot is that the redemption story is about a movement from a character who only lives in the having mode to one who transforms into someone who accepts the growth mode. Does that make sense?

[00:25:42] TG: Yes. In the Story Grid, you have Wall Street in the morality punitive. So what I was assuming was like redemption was at the end.

[00:25:58] SC: There are two sides of the same sort of value spectrum, right? Externally, Wall Street is about a punitive thing where someone gets caught doing something and they end up going to jail. External, right? Internally, it’s a redemption story in a way. He tries to grow at the end. I’m glad you brought that up, because this is a very important concept to understanding stories is that they live in multiple life values, and the interpretation of a particular story with the frame of a particular life value can deliver multiple meanings.

If you say, “I’m just going to look at Wall Street in terms of the punitive plot,” you can make a really great argument. Guy turns bad, suffers, goes to jail. Yes. If you look at it in terms of redemption, yes, you can look at that too. Well, the guy turns bad but turns state evidence to make other guys suffer who are bad too, and he ends up doing time and growing at the end. Yes, that works too.

Goodfellas could be looked at as a redemption story, because you could say, “Well, the guy reformed at the end. He’s just a normal everyday guy at the end of the movie. He’s no longer a gangster.” So both, depending upon the frame and lens that you look at the story, the revelation of truth can come to you. My suggestion is when you are the creator or the storyteller, settle on one framework and let other people – If you do the story the right way, they will bring their own frameworks to your story and they may find different meanings that you never even really intended when you started. That’s called the magic of storytelling is that one person’s subjective experience can take on universality, depending upon the subjects of the people who enjoyed the story.

But in order to deliver universality, the creator or storyteller has to be super-duper clear in their mind and in their execution about the exact framework that they are going to use to tell the story. Ideally, by the time you’re done with your redemption story, other people will read and go, “Oh, man! That was really great because that guy really had what he got. He got what was coming to him.” Right? They’ll say, “Oh! That’s a great punitive story.” Other people might say, “Wow! It was a great psychological thriller, because the character thought the world was one way, and it was proven to be the opposite by the end of the story.” Does this make sense?

[00:29:10] TG: Yeah, but it’s – I have to have my clear view on what I’m writing to be very correct.

[00:29:16] SC: Right. That’s a really crucial thing.

[00:29:19] TG: Because that’s where it’s the specificity brings universality comes into play.

[00:29:24] SC: Yes. The seams that you create all have to have one global decision that’s guiding them. What I’m suggesting to you is that if you see the story just as a punitive plot, what will happen accidentally is that you’ll just sort of construct a thing where the person suffers by the end, and there’s no real payoff. There’s no irony or binary experience of life at the end. But if you look at it in terms of redemption, then, yes, you’re going to be able to focus on that moment when the character reaches an all is lost moment, has a worldview framing shift so that they change their behavior by the end of the story. We want the character to behave one way at the beginning of the story and another way at the end.

If you say to yourself, “Oh! This is just a punitive plot,” the danger that is that you sort of trick your mind to believe, “Oh! All I have to do is assemble a whole series of things that really make this guy suffer and then I’m done.”

[00:30:46] TG: Of all – I mean, of the ones we’ve talked about, probably the one that resonates more with what I’m trying to do is Wall Street, where it’s like he keeps making everybody suffer around him to get what he wants and then at the end realizes what he’s done and tries to fix it.

[00:31:03] SC: Okay, that’s good.

[00:31:06] TG: I love when you hesitate for long periods of time before you answer.

[00:31:11] SC: Speaking about it, well, the trick to that kind of story you need Gordon Gekko, right? You need a villain that will be so remarkably interesting to the reader that they’re almost seduced by the villain. People love Wall Street because of the Michael Douglas character, not exactly because of Charlie Sheen. Charlie Sheen is the critical factor in the story, of course, but we love to listen to Gordon Gekko. So when you’re doing that kind of story, the really, really evil figure who lives on the power hierarchy has to be very compelling.

This becomes how a poor schnook went bad, got a little bit of power, and then ended up suffering and redeeming himself and – Yeah. But if it’s counterbalanced by sort of this evil shadow figure, the antagonist to the protagonist, the great thing about Wall Street is that Charlie Sheen as his character Bud Fox looked up toward the icon of Gordon Gekko as the person he wished to become. There’s something about that construction that can compel people to follow the – It’s all like, “Wow, Jesus! Is Bud Fox going to get Gordon Gekko’s acceptance? Is he going to hire him? What does Gordon Gekko think about Bud Fox now?” Do you see what I mean for that?

[00:33:03] TG: Yeah. If we looked at it through the Hero’s Journey lens, Gordon Gekko would be the – Is e the villain? I would say he’s the mentor.

[00:33:12] SC: Yeah. He’s the mentor/villain. He’s the shadow figure. He’s the antagonist because he’s luring – He’s the Mephistopheles figure. He’s luring Bud into hell, and what’s nice is they have that great scene with the character’s father, played by Martin Sheen. You have Martin Sheen and Gordon Gekko on both sides of the polar power base, and the one guy is an honorable person who’s smart, and then the other guy is dishonorable and smart, and Bud’s in the middle.

That’s a – Wall Street is a psychological thriller where the character is sort of playing the Bud Fox character in Wall Street and being manipulated by the grand master shadow figure who teaches him some tricks. That’s kind of cool because it adds a lot of, “I really wonder what’s going on here,” because then the unreliable nature of the narrator will become even more difficult to figure out. What is this guy saying? Why is he saying it? What’s his ultimate game? You can look at Wall Street as Bud Fox just wants by the end to make Gordon Gekko suffer, so he’s trying to bring him down because he felt betrayed by him. You can look at them on so many different levels, but my point is, for any thriller, you need Gordon Gekko figure.

In Gone Girl, it’s the woman who’s concocted this incredible diary to get her husband in line. So she’s a very, very powerful person who has manipulated this guy and everybody else in the police just in order to lock him into submission. She’s “the victim” who ends up being the villain.

[00:35:30] TG: Now, this is good, because I feel like it’s hard. Because part of me is the other part that I want to put in here is basically by the end the wife ends up using him, right? So he thinks – That’s been what’s in my head is the twist as she figured out somewhere along the way what was going on and then used him to get what she wanted. But then I stared thinking like, and I’m probably overthinking this. I need to just work it. Just write the book and then figure out all this later. But I’m like, “Okay. Am I trying to do too many things because I can’t have like this twist and that twist and this punitive and this redemption and that and this and this and this?”

[00:36:13] SC: If you’re going to sort of go with that femme fatale kind of thing, the Body Heat, which was written by Lawrence Kasdan, a really terrific movie from the ‘80s I think or late ‘70s, that is a really, really good psychological thriller where it’s like Gone Girl. The big revelation at the end of the story is that the protagonist ends up being the victim but also the villain, sort of like your protagonist, and he’s doing it in order to win the love of the femme fatale played by Kathleen Turner.

[00:36:56] TG: Kathleen Turner.

[00:36:57] SC: Yeah. If you’re going to play that sort of sexual dynamic and tension between the guy who’s obsessed with the woman and the woman using her power to manipulate him, to get him to kill her husband, that’s good. But you have to figure all that stuff out first, like who is the villain, who is the victim, and who is the protagonist/hero. If the narrator is the luminary figure, meaning the protagonist hero, then they are going to be taken advantage of, realize it, and then turn the tables on the bad person. If the lead character is the victim, then the story ends with the bad person getting away with whatever it is they did.

Clearly defining who is the victim, who is the villain, and who is the hero is going to be super-duper important, especially at a thriller. Anything with life and death stakes, those things have to be very, very clear, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t switch roles. Those are the big twists in the story is that, “Oh, my gosh! This victim is actually the villain,” or, “This villain is actually the victim,” or, “The hero is the victim.” Those terms have to be really well set up so that when the payoff comes, it’s very surprising.

[00:38:41] TG: Yeah. I have no – I keep changing my mind on which is which.

[00:38:45] SC: Well, that’s good. You’re just having fun. I mean, that’s the fun part. But you’re right. You want to have some big turns. Surely, you want to have a turn at the beginning to the middle in that transition. Then you want a big midpoint of your story turn, kind of the point of no return. Then you want an all is lost turn that is really, really damaging. Then you want your climactic revelation to be the ultimate. Oh, my gosh! I didn’t see that coming.

It’s sort of figuring out those big moments early on is really, really important in a psychological thriller, because everything that precedes and goes in-between them relies upon those turns, right? These turns are usually revelations or actions that switch the role of one of these characters. Oh, my gosh! I didn’t see that coming. That person is really the one who’s behind all this. Oh, my gosh! No, it’s not that person. It’s that person.

[00:39:58] TG: Yeah. When you brought up Knives Out, we went to see that over the break and that’s what I loved about it is they kept switching around. First off, they told you what happened like a third of the way into the movie, and so you’re like, “Whoa! Why are they telling me what happened?” Then it just kept going and I was like, “I literally have no idea what the hell is going on.” That was just what I loved about it.

As you’re saying that, it makes me think like those are the times where you’re like, “Oh!” Well, that was what was so great about Gone Girl is like you hate this guy halfway throughout the book. I mean, it’s been a while since I’ve read it. But you’re like, “This is a scum of the earth, awful person who has like killed his wife, so he can be with his mistress.” Then when it starts switching back around, you’re like, “Oh, my god!”

If I had homework this week, it would probably be I could go back to watch Wall Street, watch Body Heat, watch – I have starred Usual Suspects just because of – What’s his name, the actor? Super creepy dude. Who’s the main character?

[00:41:17] SC: Kevin Spacey.

[00:41:18] TG: Yeah. Then think about the three roles; victim, hero, and villain; at those kind of five major points in the story.

[00:41:30] SC: Yes. What’s the – The really important thing is to figure out what’s the inciting incident that starts all this stuff. In Gone Girl, it’s when the wife figures out that the husband’s a scum and cheating on her, and so she concocts this incredible series of events to make him pay for that.

[00:41:55] TG: Well, but you don’t know – I mean, if you’re talking linearly reading it, the inciting incident is she disappears.

[00:42:02] SC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But you need to know –

[00:42:03] TG: But you find out –

[00:42:05] SC: You got to figure out who is ultimately behind all this stuff and how are they and why are they doing what they’re doing and how did they set all these pieces in the play. It’s a very complicated construction. But once you know how it works, then you go back and like set it up. Set everything up so that it falls into place in these revelations.

[00:42:35] TG: Would it be easier – I had this thought after watching Knives Out. It’s like, “Okay. They had to know –” I’m going to not do any spoilers. I don’t think I’ve done any yet, except say that they tell you what happens halfway through. But it’s a relatively new one, so no spoilers. But I thought afterwards. I’m like, “Okay. He had – Whoever wrote this had to know where he was going to end up, right?”

I think a lot of stories – Stephen King talks about just telling the story and the story kind of tells him where he ends up. But in these types of stories, you kind of have to know, okay, this – Like Gone Girl. The author knew, okay, the wife is the bad guy, the husband is this, and he’s done this and then work backwards. Is this one of those where I should start with, okay, who is the villain, victim, and hero at the end and then work backwards through the story to the beginning?

[00:43:33] SC: I think so.

[00:43:34] TG: Okay. Then figuring out the end of the book is what will actually tell me the inciting incident of the book.

[00:43:41] SC: Yes, because an unreliable narrator thinks that they know why things have happened the way they have. The way you started your story, that character is telling the story as if they know, “Oh! This happened and then this happened and this happened.” But they don’t understand that they have been set up by somebody else. To make sure that the poop is on the yard every time, somebody does that so that – They know the way this guy works.

Part of the beauty of these kinds stories is that we seem to think that we all have our own free will, and our behavior is self-directed, and that everything that we do is our own choice. We don’t want to believe that other people can observe us, figure out how we tick, and the push the right buttons to get the right behavioral response out of us. Those people are called pathological sociopaths. They go, “Oh! I know it’s going to get that guy to give me X dollars of money. I have to appeal to X, Y, or Z, and then the money will come out of their pocket.”

So sociopaths, they don’t worry about the growth hierarchy. They’re never – All they care about is having and power. So they enjoy the hunt, climbing up the power hierarchy and they like to watch people suffer. They like being powerful, and so the way they spend their time is by exerting their power over other people. That’s the way they think. The villain is only thinking about what can I get, the when can I get it, and how do I get it. How do I get what I want? Whereas the protagonist is dealing with those two hierarchies, the power hierarchy and the growth hierarchy. They’ve got a devil and angel on their shoulder all the time.

The bad guys only have one voice. Give me what I want and I want it now. The people who have two voices on their shoulders, one on each shoulder, they have a difficult time navigating the world, because it’s hard for them to know am I signing too much with the dark side here or the light side, right? They’re trying to get the optimal position on that spectrum of value between power and growth.

[00:46:32] TG: All right. I’m going to think about my victim, hero, villain. I’m going to try and I’m going to do some research. Then before our next call, I’ll send you my kind of layout for the five commandments for the whole story from that point of view. Is that a good homework assignment?

[00:46:56] SC: I think it is. But before you do that, I think you need to sample some masterworks so that you’re not either, A, inadvertently using plot twists that other people have used or you’re not really getting how to these things actually work. I know you’re pressed for time at your night reading. Why don’t you just buy like the e-book of The Silent Patient, which seems to be one that’s contemporary working at a very high level and just start reading it and see what bubbles up for you? I’ll buy a version too. Then we could start talking about how we feel about that book, how it’s working, etc.

[00:47:45] TG: Okay. That sounds good.


[00:47:47] 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.

Also, we are constantly doing new seminars. We have new online programs you can join. We have lots of ways that you can learn more about Story Grid and level up your writing. All of that is available at storygrid.com/university. Or you can just go to storygrid.com and click on university at the top.

If you like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple podcasts and leaving a rating and review. Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.



The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.