Problem by Problem

Tim and I are trying something weird.

We’re trying to see if we can work together on his novel in a way that will require the least amount of stress and pain possible.  To see if I can direct him down the right roads as he drives 65 miles per hour with limited visibility on his way to THE END of his first draft.

This is a pretty terrifying concept.  Not least of which is telling him to go down roads…that end up dead ends.  Now if Tim wasn’t the kind of person he is (willing to suspend his argumentative side and go with the flow with my advice) we’d be in deep trouble.

But what about poor me?  The “expert” riding shotgun tested week in and week out, looked to for magical direction on demand?

I’ll be the first one to shout that I don’t have all of the answers, but what is fun for me is to pour over this stuff in far too much detail for any rational person.  And if you’ve listened to all of these episodes, you are certainly not a rational person.  You’re as fascinated by the vicissitudes of story structure as I am.  And seeing Tim blow out tires in his work has got to give you some sense of relief when you make your own mistakes.

So this week’s episode which details Tim’s latest revision of a key sequence in his middle build brought me great relief.  It’s an obviously better solution to his “first big test” problem than earlier iterations.  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 the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.


In this episode, I take what is really my fourth crack at this sequence in trying to dial it in and get something that actually works, and when I started — and I talk about this a little bit — but I think what’s important is coming back to what does it mean when a scene or a sequence actually works, and what that means is, it abides by the five commandments of storytelling that are in Story Grid that every scene, every sequence, every piece of your story should have an inciting incident, a progressive complication, a crisis, a climax and a resolution.


When you’re missing those pieces, and that’s what I’m learning, is when you’re missing those pieces is when it makes the scene not work. When you have them, you’re much closer to having a scene that actually works. We go over some obvious problems in this sequence, but I definitely make some progress over the last week. Anyway, I’ll let Shawn explain that better than I’m doing here, so let’s jump in and get started.




[0:01:24.5] TG: I was thinking about this sequence, and I realized this is actually the fourth rewrite I’ve done. Because when I first started the middle build, I tried to just dive into the action and I wrote two versions of that before we stopped and redid a bunch of stuff, and then I rewrote it and we went over that last week, and now I rewrote it again.


We’ve already done the sequence, the first sequence of the middle build, where she enters the new world, gets introduced to the new world, and introduced to her enemies and allies, and then this is the first test. I rewrote it based on what we talked about last week, and I really tried to focus on her interaction with Az, the enemy, and making sure that he caused problems.

I focused on progressively complicating it so that she tried something and it didn’t work, and she tried something and it didn’t work. There was actual — she didn’t just go straight through and hit her goal. Then we talked last week about trying to turn it in a way that was unexpected, and then you suggested blowing up the tower. The whole goal is for all of them to make it to this tower, and be one of the first ones there, and instead she gets there, and then she blows up the tower.


In my scene, I ended up, she burnt it down. I did that, and I had a lot of fun with that, and then I had the one scene where she went back to talk to a mentor figure that I’ll probably, if we keep him, I’ll have to add him somewhere in the beginning hook. But basically, this kind of hacker guy who survived off the grid for a long time, and she went to him for advice, and I tried to make him as weird as possible. When I wrote it and then I went back and reread it, I’m like, I can’t tell if this is just too stupid, or it works or not. Because I had him speaking this super silly Shakespearean old English and just tried to make him as much of a character as I could.


Anyway, I kept the first two scenes pretty much the same, where she gets the announcement of the severing happens, and all of that, and then there’s a scene where she goes to see this guy and he tells her to be the thorn, and then there’s the two scenes — I think it ended up being three scenes — where she actually goes into the game and goes through all the progressive complications, and then ends with her burning down the tower and nobody making it out of the game anyway.


Anyway, that was the recap. I’d love to hear your thoughts, because I actually got this to you a day ahead of time. I was pretty proud of myself.


[0:04:18.7] SC: Well, it took me, I got them and I said, “I’ll read those in a minute,” and then I didn’t read it until this morning. I’m the one to blame.


[0:04:26.6] TG: Hey, at least it wasn’t my fault this time.


[0:04:28.1] SC: That’s right. Generally, I think these scenes work. I think they’re a very large leap forward from the last set of scenes. The scene with the Fagan character, who is sort of the, what’s his name, the character in Harry Potter who tells him he’s a wizard, what’s his name again?


[0:04:49.2] TG: Hagrid.


[0:04:49.5] SC: Hagrid. I kind of picture that guy like Hagrid in a way, which I thought was interesting. Anyway, I think it worked. I think the scenes played out in a way that were interesting, innovative, fun, and you did tell the reader, you gave the reader a clue of how she was going to solve her problem with that scene with the mentor figure, which I think worked.


I think “be the thorn” worked, because he doesn’t directly tell her what to do. Overall, I think it’s time to move on into the next sequence of scenes, but I do have a few notes that you should just take down and address later on. The big note is to — I want to talk generally about this week is to remember about characters, your protagonist’s wants and needs. We’ve talked about this a number of times before, but this is really a crucial element to make sure to keep your reader completely engaged in the story.


That is to drop in hints and actions throughout that remind the reader just what Jessie wants. The want that we’ve been defining and talking about over the weeks is her want to return back to sort of this ideal normal, where she is with her mother and her father, and she’s back in town, and she’s doing and hanging out with her friends the way it used to be.


That want makes a lot of sense. It’s a little unclear in these scenes that it is her ultimate goal. You remember that a want, we all, when we read a book, we want to attach to the characters through their wants and needs. Every time we read a story, we expect the protagonist to have some macro want. Meaning, there’s some big global goal at the end of the rainbow that they go on a quest to achieve, and the want is the external conscious desire.


There are two objects of the desire. There’s the external object of desire, which is the primary one in an action story, and in an action story, it’s life and death stakes, and usually the character just wants to survive. They just want to get through the ordeal with their life intact, and the people that they care about alive, too. That is the external want, and Jessie’s external want in this story is a combination of now it’s moved into the realm of just surviving, right? She doesn’t want to come out of the situation with her brain scrambled. She understands that the stakes of her life have escalated.


She still wants the macro want of going back, and going back to the way things were when her brother was around, and her mother was home, and her father was there. Right now, all she needs is to survive. She needs to survive this ordeal in a way that will leave her mind unscrambled and her opportunity to eventually go home still intact. My global note to you in these scenes is to make sure that you take an opportunity for her to express that, and to express that in an active way. Again, this is something that you can weave in to a later draft, and I would recommend that you move forward in the next series of scenes.


Just take this note, she needs to be less confident and more reaching a level of almost panic. It seems that her — Alex and Ernst, who are her helpers in this, and they’re team members — they’re more terrified for her than she is. That’s a good way of establishing the stakes, but she needs to express to herself, or to someone, and it could be her mentor figure, “Hey man, I am out of my element here. I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t show any vulnerability to my teammates, or they’re just going to get more and more freaked out than they already are. I’ve come to you for help.” When she goes back into the townie grid, to talk to the mentor, she kind of has to almost be at a level of panic when she reaches in.


[0:09:45.4] TG: I was feeling more like she is not understanding the level of — she doesn’t understand she should be afraid. Her desire is just to get out of this any way possible, and she realizes she could get hurt, but it’s almost like a child that realizes they can get hurt, but doesn’t actually think they’ll ever get hurt. I guess I was thinking of it more like she wasn’t that afraid because she’s never been hurt before in the grid. It’s more like she’s just trying to figure out how to get everybody to leave her the hell alone. Is that not strong enough?


[0:10:27.7] SC: I think that’s a little bit too — you have to remember that we live from moment to moment. Generally, I think that I’m the kind of person who can withstand a lot of stress, and you know, can fight through a lot of adversity. In the moment — we were talking about this before we even got on this call — we’re going to do this seminar in a month or so, and I’m absolutely prepared. I know what I need to do, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not panicking. I have a lot of anxiety from day to day, and until that event actually happens, even though I’m confident in my grasp of the material and my ability to communicate with people, it doesn’t mean that I’m not very fearful and panicked.


I think you need to remember this, and especially since she has confronted the reality of the situation when she went to visit the last guy, who is pretty much in a strait jacket in a hospital ward. Try and picture yourself as 12 years old, and you know, if somebody had showed me the repercussions of playing football when I was 12, before I played football, I would have had a lot more trepidation about it. If I could see the headaches in the future, and the knee replacements, and all of the things that I’ve gone through by playing football when I was younger, I probably would have been a lot more terrified when I did play.


You introduced the fact that her companions — and I think it’s the right choice, because it’s so extraordinary what has happened to her. She doesn’t understand why she’s really been brought here, and what the motivations are of the president are in bringing her here. I think that’s what’s going to — that’s going to be the big revelation in the next sequence, really, is her starting to grasp that she has some sort of gift, and that the people around her see that, too.


What I’m saying is that it doesn’t seem plausible that she would not have trepidation and a level of panic with having to go into a situation with really not having any clue of what she was in for. And, she knows the consequences. The consequences are getting scrambled. She’s had two encounters with people who have been scrambled. One was in the beginning hook, where the scrambled guy just kind of had his brains tossed a little bit, but he was in deep trouble too. Then the second scrambling showed somebody her own age in a hospital bed who is in deep stress.


Those two things are going to lodge in her brain, whether she wants them to or not. I think it’s perfectly cool and a smart idea to have her be tougher in front of her comrades than she really is internally. For her to be like the way she is in front of Alex and Ernst, I think it works. I do think she needs to let her guard down a little bit and confess her panic to her mentor in a way that, you know, you don’t have to hammer on it, but we do need the reader to say, “Oh my gosh, yes, of course she realizes that if she doesn’t get some kind of help and some kind of guidance, she’s really going to be in trouble.”


That’s my big note, is that rings a little false. She has to have some self-doubt, she has to — her need and her want to survive is really strong, and the other way that she is so smart is that she doesn’t just want to survive, she wants to be flushed out of the program with her brain intact, right? That’s her goal.


[0:14:48.6] TG: Right.


[0:14:51.2] SC: The way she burns down…


[0:14:52.6] TG: That’s what I tried to get at with her saying, “there are only two paths, to go to the threshing and die, or to get scrambled now,” and that’s where the mentor pushes her to think about a third path.


[0:15:09.4] SC: Yeah, that works, but I think her anxiety and her panic at that stage needs to be sharpened.


[0:15:19.5] TG: Okay.


[0:15:20.3] SC: The other thought that occurred to me, which is very small, it’s a very small point, and it’s probably not even worth mentioning, but I’ll mention it anyway, is that it might be interesting to make Alex a girl instead of a boy. Because Alex is in charge of her medical condition, and it’s a little weird when Alex puts the things on her chest. Even though she’s only 12, and you know, if Alex were a girl, she could say to Ernst, turn your back, you know? Just girls helping girls. Also I like the fact that Alex is tough, and it goes against character that she’s a really tough fighter. That being a female quality as well as a male quality could be cool too.


[0:16:09.0] TG: Okay.


[0:16:09.8] SC: The scene where she’s actually — where Jessie is actually in the grid, I think was really solid. I didn’t run it through the Story Grid spreadsheet, each of these scenes. Did you?


[0:16:25.5] TG: No. When I reread them, I just tried to make sure they did actually turn on something. The one I had was like the one where she gets caught by the two boys that she ends up helping. The crisis was on their part. I always forget, the crisis is the decision, and the climax is when they make the decision, right?


[0:16:57.0] SC: Crisis is a question. The crisis is always answering one of two questions. The best bad decision, or irreconcilable goods. Those two boys needed to make a decision about should we bring her along, which would be good for her, but it could be bad for us. That’s one way of looking at it, the irreconcilable good way ones. Because if she is with them, she could weigh down their ability to get to the tower.


The best bad decision would be, if they do scramble her and get rid of her, it will probably give away their position.


[0:17:38.3] TG: I also tried to set it up where she made the argument that if they help her, she’d be a weaker opponent in the future.


[0:17:45.3] SC: Right.


[0:17:47.8] TG: Okay, because that wasn’t in a crisis on her part, it was on their part.

[0:17:52.8] SC: It’s okay that it’s not on her part, and a lot of times we forget this, that scene to scene does not require that the protagonist face these crisis moments every single time. You’re having the secondary characters face it with her being — the stakes raised for her works perfectly well. That was a good choice.


The only thing that seemed a little bit farfetched was the gun, but you know, it’s okay. I think you make Az get the gun and he shoots at her. I think that works because that’s the game world, right? The game world is all about life, and death, and weapons, and guns, and shooting, and all that stuff. I can understand why you brought in the gun. One of the things I loved about the Hunger Games was she didn’t use guns all the time. She had archers and all kinds of different ways of inflicting death and pain, not necessarily just the standard, “I’m going to shoot you.” You might want to tweak that in a later draft, you might leave it as is. It’s not the end of the world.


I think her choice at the end to burn down the tower works in a very good way, because it progressively complicates not only Jessie’s story, but everybody around her. When she wakes, when she comes out of the grid, every single person in the academy is — they don’t know what’s going to happen next. They can’t believe that she did that. You know, of course, they’re all expecting a negative repercussion from that. What you decided to do — go ahead.


[0:19:46.1] TG: So is she, that was the whole point. The goal for her was to hopefully just get kicked out, but it’s actually going to progress her in the program. I have a couple of other questions. I kind of agree on the gun thing, and that can easily be changed later, because I wasn’t sure what to do. I tell you, I put this off. I wrote all of this, all 3,200 new words on Monday morning. Because I kept, like every time I would think — I actually just sat at my desk for an hour trying to figure out what to do with this stupid thing.


I could not figure out how to just — how to build conflict. How to make sure she would have conflict with Az, but then come out on top in a way that worked. It couldn’t be that she just beat them off of her. That’s why I’m like, “Okay, well I’ll have her bring these other guys along that will save her, so she actually loses, but they save her. It took me forever to come up with this plan, and then I just banged it all out Monday morning, and reread it and tweaked it and sent it to you yesterday.


The gun was like, I was just glad to have something I felt like was working, and that was just the first thing that popped in my head, so I threw it down. But I could definitely see coming up with some other way. I wanted something where she gets hurt in the process. She was doing what — because the whole thing was last week, it was too linear, and her plan went exactly as she planned. That’s where I wanted her, she was trying to follow the one boy, and then she gets caught. So that didn’t go according to plan, but she came out okay, and then she’s getting closer to the tower, and then she gets hurt. Then they’re back again.


The other is, I wasn’t sure, I kept going back and forth on whether the boy should die. Part of me wanted to keep him alive, where she ends up saving him by logging everybody out the way that she did. Like if he was so hurt he couldn’t come along, then the crisis would be that they left him behind. Because he was hurt, too hurt to keep following, but not dead yet, but they knew if eight people made it to the tower, he would get scrambled anyway, because he was stuck back in the woods.


Then, the way that she did it, she actually ends up saving him, because they didn’t wean out the eight people like they were planning on. I didn’t know if it — also, I tend to overdo on the violence side of things, and I was wondering if it was still too early to kill somebody, even though it was a side character.


[0:22:34.5] SC: I would probably not kill him. I like the notion of him being scrambled, but yeah, I’m glad you brought that up, because I didn’t think that through very well. To establish Az as not only competitive in wanting to scramble other people, but also so competitive that he will actually kill someone seems a bit much.


I think it’s almost — that’s why the gun probably felt too much to me. I think Az is the kind of person that enjoys other’s suffering more than he would enjoy their death. He wouldn’t really want to kill anybody, because he’d rather see them squirm and go through tremendous amount of pain. He’s a sociopath in a way. Having him kill people so early on, killing is sort of like the last resort for him. If somebody is completely in his way and he doesn’t have time to enjoy their suffering, he’ll just kill them, which is really kind of an interesting idea in terms of the antagonist.


One of the things about No Country for Old Men, sorry to sort of swing into a different point here, but if you read the novel, No Country for Old Men or saw the movie, which was amazing, the Coen Brothers directed it. Javier Bardem played Antoine Chigurh, who is the really bad killing presence in that movie and in that book. The thing about him as an antagonist is that he doesn’t really care about people suffering or anything. He doesn’t enjoy people’s suffering, he just finds if somebody’s in his way, he just kills them. He is sort of the anti-sociopathic sociopath. He’s like the negation of the negation of the sociopath. What he represents in my opinion is just the chaotic universe and randomness of the world.


If you run into him and you’re in his way, he will kill you. He enjoys the different ways that he kills people, but he doesn’t do it, that’s not his reason for being. His reason for being is to just plow forward in his own agenda. Even the money and all the things that people are worried that he wants aren’t really what motivate him. What motivate him is being this force of nature and his death incarnate. He’s the grim reaper.


Az is more of the other kind of — the sick puppy who enjoys other people’s suffering. It’s the kind of person who if somebody else, who is their rival, something terrible happens to them, they can’t help but enjoy it. We all have elements of that within ourselves. We all, if we’re very competitive with somebody and it turns out that they get fired from the job that they had that was very important, a part of us has a little joy.


A person like Az really enjoys that. Him, scrambling other people and watching them writhe and suffer brings him a lot of joy, and in fact, it’s one of the reasons why he doesn’t go to the top of the tower and get to the top first. He wants to inflict some pain on other people, and especially Jessie, because she represents his biggest rival. This is a person who has come in to the program in the middle, I mean, this is right before the threshing, and here she is. Nobody tells him why. He’s like the best in the group, so he wants to really humiliate her.


Think of his motivations in those terms. If he were just there to become one of the three people who go to the threshing, he would have gone right up to the top of the tower. But he didn’t do that, he got to the tower and waited. He waited, not to kill her, but to make her suffer. I don’t think he’s going to kill those other guys, he’s just going to enjoy their suffering. You see what I’m saying?


[0:27:17.6] TG: Yeah. I was just taking notes, because like you said, I won’t fix it now, but I’ll rework it later to be something a little more psychological than just shooting at people.


[0:27:30.6] SC: Yeah.


[0:27:33.0] TG: That will basically just be making one part of it better, the rest of it works as it is in general?


[0:27:40.6] SC: Yeah, it’s working. Yeah it works. I think people who haven’t read any of this stuff who are reading the book, when they come to this section, they’d be like, “Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen next? She blew up the game. You’re not supposed to blow up the game! This whole book is about beating the game!’


So I think that was a good something that really nicely came out of last week’s conversation was solving that problem. How do we have her win, but not win, and that worked, and it’s also within her character. She doesn’t care. She doesn’t want to go to the threshing. It makes no difference to her. All this third party political faction stuff, who cares? She just want to go home. She wants to hang with her homies back at homie town.


[0:28:38.0] TG: Yeah, and that’s where like, for now, it’s that whole thing of like, she doesn’t care. She’s not trying to fight the man or beat the power. She’s just trying to get out of the whole thing, and that will be what changes halfway through is now she realizes that she has to make this more than herself.


[0:28:57.1] SC: Well, I think there’s a step in between there that we have talked about before that I’ll just talk about a little bit briefly now, and that’s when the hero is co-opted by the antagonist. This is a really interesting twist that often happens in thrillers. Some people do it, some people don’t, but it’s one that I think psychologically makes sense. So what I mean by this is in the next sequence — I’m not telling you what to write. I’m just throwing some ideas out there that you can do with what you wish.


But in the next sequence, okay, everybody comes out of the grid, Jessie’s blown up the tower, nobody could get to the top of the tower, and of course, they’re all going to get a dressing down by the colonel, or whoever is in charge. What could be fun would be to actually have the president show up or something, and him saying, “Ha-ha-ha! This is exactly my plan all around! Everyone wonders why I brought this young girl in at the last minute for the threshing; it’s because we need brains like her. She was given an impossible problem to solve, and she solved it. That’s the kind of thinking we need here in the faction.”


So him pointing her out as a special being is the first step in a psychological manipulation. When people tell you, “You know, I really admire you. I think you’re a wonderful editor, Shawn, and the things that you have taught me are just incredible.” Whether or not I like that person or not, I can’t help but be attracted to them, right?


[0:30:46.0] TG: Yeah.


[0:30:46.2] SC: I want to hear more of that. I want to, “Go on, please tell me more about how wonderful I am,” and that is a psychological characteristic that we all have. She might be like, “Oh wow, somebody does recognize that I did something pretty amazing there. I didn’t really think about it all that much myself, but yeah, I guess that was pretty great,” and so what happens in that situation is that the hero starts to perform for the antagonist.


Not only does it make the story spin in an unexpected way, but it hides the reality of the antagonist too, in a way, in that the hero wants to get more praise from the antagonist. It’s like those old gladiator movies, where the evil guy who owns the gladiators recognizes that special something in one of the gladiators, and so the gladiators shows how great a fighter they are in contest after contest, and then the guy who owns the slaves gives them extra meat and makes them feel good.


There has to come a time when the hero understands that they’re being manipulated, and it usually happens in a dramatic way. The truth of what that mentor is really all about comes to light, and then a crisis arises where the hero has to make a new choice. So there could be a sequence of scenes that would be the — sequence would be called “the antagonist seduces the hero.”


[0:32:32.3] TG: So with that included, it could be something where— because how I was planning on ending the next sequence was basically Jessie and Az at each other’s throat, and then agreeing to basically have a duel. So I could get there by starting off with, basically, Jessie getting ripped to shreds by the sergeant and everybody else, and then the president shows up and saves her by basically saying all of the stuff you just said, and then also using her status to embarrass Az and the others for not figuring it out.


I keep thinking, like the thing that keeps showing up over and over, is just as she starts to have a community, it gets ripped away from her, right? So I want to do that again, where she then -another gulf winds between her and all the other trainees, and then that ends with — because what I want to do is have — I need to actually go back through. We have taken such a turn, it’s already taken such a turn from what I planned in my scene list that I’ve got to go rework everything. So I’ll just have to think through the next sequence, but I am trying to get it to where — so I can include the part where she’s…


[0:34:08.6] SC: I think having a very dramatic confrontation between Az and Jessie in the second severing sequence makes sense. The other thing that I’ll bring up is there’s a great scene in the novel The Natural, and if you ever saw the film with Robert Redford, he plays this very gifted baseball player. He ends up, through all kinds of circumstances, he ends up on this losing baseball team, and the co-owner of the baseball team wants the team to flush out and lose the season so that he can get the entire team for himself.


One of the people who works for him is the star player on the team, a guy named Bump. Bump is the star right-fielder of the baseball team, and he’s played by Michael Madsen in the film, and he’s terrific in it. So Robert Redford, I think his name is George Hobbs. He gets on the team and he starts playing better and better and better, and the team keeps winning and winning and winning, and so much so that he becomes a bigger star than Bump.


So Bump gets upset, because he’s being overshadowed, and because his ego is so strong, he starts to play better and better and better too, and my point is that this rivalry between who gets the favor of the patriarch is a classic brother against brother story all the way from the Bible. So having Jessie get the nod from the patriarch of the faction in front of Az is going to motivate him all the more to get her out. He’s going to prove that this girl is a fraud. This girl is nowhere near the level of competence that he is.


So escalating their animosity to the showdown at the end of the second severing scene is a very good choice, and the patriarch is going to humiliate Az a little bit, because he wants Jessie to get every sort of psychological or physical challenge possible before the threshing, right? He wants to train his prized fighter in the best possible way. That’s his motivation, because he wants to win the threshing. So this second sequence is co-opting the hero to fight for the glory of the patriarch, and then to beat her rival as proof that she is the best.


So her want is to go back. Her deep want is to go back to the way things used to be, and to hide back in the town with her friends, and not have any ambition, and so this is a transformation of her motivations from moving toward — well, and she’ll psyche herself into this, “Well, I don’t really agree with it, but I figure I’ll do this threshing thing and win the faction, and then I can go home.”


So she can tell herself a story about it that fits within her worldview, and her worldview is “I just want to go home and be a plain Jane in town with all my homies, and maybe things will return back to normal and good the way they used to be when my brother was home with my mother and father.” So what you’re building up to here is a classic moment where she fights her rival, and then she slips in a wormhole and ends up having to confront that fantasy in the form of her brother, right?


[0:38:10.8] TG: Right.


[0:38:12.2] SC: So I think this is, you’re churning in a way that is very productive, and you are getting deeper and deeper into the storyline in ways that you would never have planned previously. So I wouldn’t worry about having to go back and redoing your scenes. You should expect yourself to be inspired while you’re working, so that your scenes are revised — almost every new sequence that you do will probably jangle and mangle your plan.


It doesn’t mean that you don’t go back and rejigger and rethink and come up with a new plan. If your car breaks down in Indiana, and you have to wait for a replacement part, you do that and you figure out what you have to do, and then you get the replacement part in your car, and then you go on your way again. This is a creative process that is analytical and intuitive at the same time. So the fact is that at the beginning of this episode, you are talking about how this is like, the fourth middle build sequence that you’ve been working on, and that sounds like a lot. Like, “Oh geez, this is the fourth time I’m going through this thing,” but imagine writing the entire novel four times.


[0:39:37.2] TG: Oh, I know, and that’s what I’ve talked about so many times with people is just the short feedback loop is just so helpful, because it allows me to — because I keep thinking like, okay, so last week we talked about how the scene didn’t have a crisis, and so I wrote one scene without a crisis. You stopped me, called me on it, I had me go back and then rewrite the sequence so I didn’t have any scenes without a crisis.


And I think how many of my scenes would have lacked a crisis if I have tried to write the whole novel? So that’s, yeah, I am not discouraged about how many times, because I also see how quickly I am catching onto this stuff. I am not making the same mistake multiple times. I am learning it and fixing it, I’m learning it and fixing it, and I feel like each time, even in this where I have rewritten the thing four times, like each one has been noticeably better than the previous one.


So yeah, I am happy with how well it’s going. It’s just so funny because I think of this as like, “I wonder if I’m going to lose track of,” I feel like the book that people will eventually read will be like 20% of this kind of main — I don’t know, it’s almost like Jessie’s story is like the multiverse theory, where there’s multiple universes where everything is a little bit different than what it is now. I feel like there’s this multiverse with Jessie, with all of these different stories, and just one of them is going to make it onto the shelf.


I don’t know, it’s weird writing this stuff in this way, where I back up and add a character, back up and change a character, and back up and make her more panicked than she was before. It’s just interesting the way to do that, but I can tell I am getting a better feel for things. It’s just that as soon as I get a feel for how to do the first three scenes of a middle build, we move onto the next sequence, because that one is done now.


So I have already thought of what it will be like when I move into the second book. Will I go much faster? Will I understand these things? I’ve wondered what it would be like once I’m on book two.


[0:42:06.9] SC: Well, the other thing that is really wonderful about this process, which we’re discovering each week, because this has been a big experiment, is that characters are evolved and coming to the fore organically. Meaning, a lot of times when we plan something we say, “Oh, I’ve got to have a helper character, so that will be this guy, and I’ll do this character, and I’ll do that character,” and so we start our work with a whole cast of people that might not work out. It’s like when a theater director does auditions for people, and sometimes he casts somebody, and it’s just not working out, and they have to get somebody else. It doesn’t mean that the person is a bad actor. It just means that the story has evolved in a way that requires a different take.


There’s a famous story about Bullets over Broadway, which is a fantastic movie, and Dianne Wiest, who won an Oscar for it I believe, she was cast as this smart, legendary Broadway actress who gets this part, and her job was to be a legendary Broadway actress, which means she’s very dramatic. She doesn’t make much sense, she’s ego-driven, and so the first time they were shooting the movie, Woody Allen said, “You know, this just isn’t really working out very well.” She says, “Yes, I know, I really don’t know what to do. I just haven’t figured it out yet.”


That night, she went home and she came up with this very dramatic voice, and she became this very dramatic actress with a very forced way of speaking, and it was that small change that completely altered her character to the point where she’s so wonderful in the movie. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve got to watch it.


It’s the same thing when you’re constructing your own stories yourself in a novel is that you came up with that character who is a very strange figure, but he’s a very original character, and sort of this Buddha-esque guy who smokes a cigar, who is lost in the townie grid, who is a Fagan-like Dickensian character who attracts hackers, who can get away with things.


Now, just by the necessity of having somebody that Jessie could go back and ask advice of, now you’ve created this new character who could come back earlier in the story, and in later stories. He’s far more developed as a character than he would have been if you had started out having him in the story. If you had had him in the beginning hook, it probably would have been a cliché-esque story scene where he acts like the mentor.


She didn’t need a mentor in the beginning hook really. She needed one now, you put that in, and you may or may not bring him into the story in the beginning hook of this novel or not. My point is that he came to be organically. There was a necessity to have a character, to give her a puzzle that would enable her to triumph innovatively in the problem that you had setup for yourself.


This is kind of an interesting way of building a novel is yeah, you’re right. Getting the advice quickly as you’re working on it is bringing a lot of fruit, and it’s scary, because sometimes the fruit completely jangles your genre choices, and the trick is to not panic. Not worry about taking off every convention and obligatory scene until you’re fully vested in a first draft. You can really laser focus in on what is the story really about? Because believe it or not, we don’t even know that yet.


[0:46:39.1]TG: Man, I feel like it is just such a constant like, coming up and looking at the whole thing, and then going deep and trying to write something, and coming up and looking at the whole thing, but yeah, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out, but it’s definitely been a good process so far, and you know, we’ll see how the final product comes together.


I feel good about the last two sequences. It feels good to be several scenes into the middle build now and not — because that was just like this yawning canyon I didn’t know how to attack. The next sequence will kind of come down, and do the things we talked about but not have a lot of action, and then it will go back up in the next one. I’ll work on the next sequence and get that to you so we can go over it, and then we’ll go from there.

[0:47:41.1] SC: Great.




[0:47:42.0] 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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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.