Shawn continues answering listener questions. To submit a question for a future episode, find us on Twitter @storygrid.
[0:00:00.3] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid, and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode we are continuing to do the Q&A. A few weeks ago I took and questions via Twitter and Facebook and I am just peppering Shawn with those questions. For me, it’s been a lot of fun to just kind of hit him with a bunch of random questions and hear his feedback and I think you’ll enjoy it as well, so let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:44.3] TG: Okay Shawn, so last week we did our very first Q&A episode. Again, I was surprised we had never done this before, and so we’ve had even more questions come in, so we added to the list that we didn’t even get close to completing last week. We’re ere just going to jump right in and get started.
Here’s one: What are the values at stake for nonfiction?
[0:01:12.7] SC: Oh! That’s a great question. The big value at stake for nonfiction is its knowledge. It’s a revelation plot. In revelation plots, the value is unknowingness to knowledge or wisdom. I’m trying to pull up from my brain sort of the four before major points of the knowledge value, but I am going to just take a stab at it here.
The negation of the negation, meaning like the most negative value of knowledge is believing something to be true that is false. If we believe something to be a truth that is not true, that is the worst possible case because we’re kind of lying ourselves. That’s the most negative. The other negative is understanding that something is untrue, but not doing anything about it.
The most negative is believing an untruth to be true. The next negative is knowing something is untrue and not doing anything about it, not trying to find the truth after it. Now, then we sort of across the threshold of the x-axis, if it’s a story grid, and the next one that’s positive is uncertainty or what I call cognitive dissonance. What that means is that you are starting to believe that your worldview is incorrect. You’re getting more and more evidence against your standard operating procedure and it’s causing you distress. That’s what cognitive dissonance is. It’s when you have two competing ideas going on in your brain and you’re trying to figure out what to do about it. This is the moment right before you make a decision to change your point of view.
Then the most positive in the knowledge sort of revelation plot is truth when you recognize that a new truth, a new revelation then you change your behavior based upon the revelation. If you look at nonfiction in terms of that value, when we read, say, an academic book, and I would say that the Story Grid book itself is sort of — It shades on the side of academic treatment more so than probably — It has academic how-to qualities and big idea qualities, but if I were to say, “Is the Story Grid a nonfiction book for everyone?” I would absolutely say, “No. It’s is for people who are very, very interested in learning story structure, and I wrote it that way.”
When you’re looking at the value of knowledge in terms of an academic treatment, it’s very much pointed toward building an argument. There’s very much a rational sort of building up of a very logical argument. It’s logos-driven.
Narrative nonfiction — I always break up my nonfiction into four categories. There’s academic, which is for a limited audience that knows a lot of background. Then there is the how-to, which is a prescriptive plan to do something, like gardening, a gardening book. Then there is narrative nonfiction, which is story-based nonfiction, like the Perfect Storm or something like that or the Eric Larson books, The Devil in the White City is terrific narrative nonfiction book. Then the fourth is the big idea nonfiction book.
Logos is what drives the academic movement from something that we believe is true that is not true to a new knowledge, a new revelation. Academic is logos-driven. Narrative nonfiction is pathos-driven, which means story-driven. It’s using story to convey the controlling idea throughout.
For example, the narrative nonfiction story, The Devil in the White City is about evil posing as good. Beware of doctors who pretend as if they’re good, because they may have evil intentions.
[0:06:16.7] TG: I always thought narrative nonfiction would basically be just one of the fiction genres.
[0:06:23.8] SC: Yes, it is, but the difference is is that there is underneath the revelation nonfiction internal genre that there is a controlling idea within the narrative nonfiction. It’s not just telling the story of the doctor who turns out to be a serial killer. It’s also telling sort of a warning to the reader that they should beware of believing whole handedly in the professional disguise, that the revelation is beware of even your doctor, because there have been really bad instances of doctors taking advantage of people because they place their full trust in them.
The big idea, of course, is a combination of ethos, logos and pathos and that’s why we love it so much. It takes conventional wisdom and proves it wrong through using story, pathos, the hard work of the writer journalists. That’s the ethos part. Then the logos part is the rational explanation using factual information and supportive information to build the case.
[0:07:42.9] TG: Okay. There’s one here that I’m going to have trouble pronouncing. All right, is it deus ex machina?
[0:07:52.0] SC: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right.
[0:07:52.9] TG: Did I say that right? Okay. Is that ever a good thing to using your story?
[0:07:58.6] SC: Well, no. I don’t think it is ever a good thing in a story.
[0:08:04.2] TG: Can you explain what it is first for other people, because I obviously know what it is.
[0:08:09.5] SC: Yeah, obviously. By the way, you pronounced it. Okay, deus ex machina is a technique that happened back in Greek theater. The ancient Greeks, they used — Their belief system and their spiritual beliefs were in gods and they believe that there were terrestrial or extraterrestrial god-like figures who intervened in everyday human capacity. The playwrights of the era, they would set up these dramas based upon human foibles and interactions. A lot of them were social dramas about people getting married or shame of the family or whatever.
What would happen is by the third act, the ending payoff of the story, because they had this belief system in gods, they would literally bring a god down from the sky on to the stage to decide the resolution of the story. You would have Zeus descend from the rafters and he would say, “Now, you’re going to marry him. He’s going to marry her, and your two families are going to split the property.” I’m just making this up. What that would do is resolve the entire story using a god-like figure as the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong.
Deus ex machine, today, is frowned upon, because we don’t live in a super spiritual metaphysical world today and our belief system is very much in humanism, so bringing a god on stage to decide the fate of a story would really disappoint your audience. We live in an era in which we believe people solve their own problems, there’s rational thoughts, etc., etc. A dues ex machina ending even for a contemporary dystopian fantasy is a bad idea, and it’s a bad idea because it is unbelievable to contemporary audiences.
If we were having this podcast in Aristotle’s time, that would absolutely be wrong. My suggestion not to do deus ex machina wouldn’t make any sense, because that culture and that society had a full belief system in the power of god-like figures and trusted in external spiritual beings to even though they didn’t believe literally all the time that a physical presence of a god would arrive and point out everything that is wrong in their lives. What they did believe is that there was another world, another metaphysical world that they could not see that had strong influence on what happened to people on earth.
[0:11:36.1] TG: Isn’t it used — It’s not just when you use it for like god-like stuff, right? It’s also when you basically just make something up that fixes all your problems. My thing is I hate when movies — They’re stringing out all these weird stuff that’s going on, then at the end they’re like, “Oh, it’s aliens.” Just because aliens can basically — I guess aliens are throwing in a god, because a god can fix anything. Isn’t it any time you just kind of throw something in the fixture problems?
[0:12:05.9] SC: Exactly. That comes — I’ll tell you why people use deus ex machine, is because they can’t figure out the core scene of their story. They can’t figure out the hero at the mercy of the villain scene. The hero at the mercy of the villain scene, or whatever the core event of that particular story is, that is the moment that is very difficult to crack, because we need the protagonist to overcome the much more powerful antagonist by releasing an inner gift in a unique and innovative way.
When John McClane Die Hard gets Gruber to laugh for a moment so that he can take out his gun from his back and shoot him, that is using John McLean’s particular gift, which is sort of being a wisecracking cop wise guy that can disarm somebody through their sense of humor. That works. It’s not deus ex machine. All of a sudden the third army doesn’t arrive and take out Hans Gruber. No, it’s John McClane who solves the problem.
A deus ex machina solution to Die Hard would be all of a sudden SWAT team arrives and takes out Hans Gruber and then saves the day, and that would be extremely disappointing to the viewer, because John McClane has the save the day, not a SWAT team, because that’s the structure of a thriller. If you don’t have your protagonist rise to the occasion and release their inner gift, it defies the purpose of the thriller to begin with, which is a story to reinforce in all of us in understanding that we have internal gifts that have to be released and shared with the world.
Even though it seems like, “Oh! That’s a fun movie, Die Hard, and I really enjoyed myself,” it does have a cultural significance and a social significance beyond entertainment. When you eliminate that core event and don’t release the inner gift of the hero, it strikes the audience as disappointing, “Oh my gosh! I thought this is going to end that way, and then the SWAT team came in? That’s no good.”
That’s why you don’t want to use deus ex machine, because what it does — I saw a Batman movie, maybe it was the third Batman where there’s Catwoman in it. Yeah, Catwoman ends up saving Batman, which was deus ex machine, because, “Wait a minute. She’s not supposed to save Batman. Batman has to save Batman.”
That was the third movie in a trilogy that I think Christopher Nolan directed, and I think he might’ve run out of some gas at the end of it and just said, “You know what? Just get —”
[0:15:15.7] TG: Yeah, that movie had other problems too.
Okay. All right, I got some more kind of — I got a couple kind of more existential ones here to play off the god realm. What have you, Shawn, learned through this process? Have you changed your mind about anything since working with me?
[0:15:37.9] SC: Oh! Yeah. Absolutely. A ton of stuff. One of the things that’s the most difficult thing to learn as an editor is, for lack of a better phrase, it’s something called the bedside manner. Doctors who are really bad at it, they don’t do so well with their patients, because patients get better when they have an infection or whatever, when they’re psychologically strong. There’s a lot to this. If a doctor has a terrible bedside manner, shows up when somebody’s sick and treats them terribly and just wants to sort of get them off of their checklist of the rounds, that actually has a really bad effect on the patient, because then the patient’s ability to psychologically repair their illness suffers.
The bedside manner for an editor is really important too, because if you don’t take the right approach with the clients and help them step-by-step overcome obstacles without debilitating them, they’re just to throw in the towel.
One of the great things I’ve learned working with you, Tim, is when to modulates deep criticism, when to pullback, when to push, and that is invaluable information. Because there’s a tendency for people, just generally, when you know something that other people don’t know, you have a great sense of power. That sense of power is very — It can make you not do nice things. When we have power, we have to really check ourselves and make sure that we don’t abuse it.
There’s a lot of editors, a lot of you general people. Somebody like — I just read this article about Carl Icahn, who’s this multi-crazy-billionaire investor who was an advisor to President Trump for a while until he recently stepped down and it was in the New Yorker. It really made this whole sense of power come to my mind in a really strong way, because he was basically trying to abuse his role as an advisor to President Trump, that powerful position, to change a lot of regulations that would make him even more rich and to bring him even more power. It’s a really good article New Yorker — I think it’s New Yorker, about just how he did that and how his entire sort of professional career is about building up more and more and more power through accumulation of wealth to the point where he can affect millions of people with his power.
As an editor, learning how to scale back criticism and dumping things on a client before they’re ready for them is a real skill. I think I’ve learned how to best approach taking a writer through baby steps of progressions. The most powerful thing I’ve learned is, really, just the importance of scene work. Just how important understanding the fundamental unit of storytelling is, because once you started to feel comfortable writing scenes, that’s when you are ready to start thinking about bigger elements. Now, everybody, when they start out writing something, they want the answers to the big questions first, “What am I doing wrong in the beginning?” “Why isn’t my ending working?”
The truth is you can’t answer those questions until you understand the fundamental unit of story, which is the scene. That’s another huge thing I’ve learned and that’s really, I think, the primary skill of an editor is being able to analyze a scene and explain how a good scene works very succinctly and using a lot of examples, and the more examples that you can bring to the table that are within the genre of the writer you’re talking to, the more that writer will be able to understand it. You need to say the same thing 20 different ways, and the best way to do that is to use 20 different examples from 20 different works within the genre that the writer wants to work in.
[0:20:35.6] TG: All right. Okay, let’s do this one. What do you recommend writers do about writer’s block?
[0:20:42.0] SC: Writer’s block has a couple of components to it. The most obvious component is the resistance to deep thinking. I was talking to somebody about this the other day, and one of my favorite books over the last 10 years, if now my lifetime, and I think we talked about this last week, was Thinking Fast and Slow.
[0:21:08.4] TG: Yeah. We talked about it a couple of times. Yeah.
[0:21:11.5] SC: Yeah. It’s changed my life, because deep thinking requires a lot of energy and it requires a lot of self-examination that is difficult. It’s not exactly enjoyable when you’re trying to solve a difficult problem. It’s much more difficult even in higher math skills.
Deep thinking, there’s a great resistance to it, and I think that’s a major part of writer’s block, because we have been told since we were young that there are certain magical people who are born with talent, and the talent will drive their work. Meaning they just have a particular gift to doing something. They might be a tennis prodigy or a musical prodigy and they’re just able to sit down on a piano and bang out beautiful music. I don’t ever think that that is never been true. I don’t think that was true for Mozart. I don’t think that was true for Beethoven. I think those guys had a proclivity, a love, a passionate, an internal desire to be great musicians. They weren’t born out of the shell with the ability to play the piano in an incredible level. I just don’t believe it. I think they built that quality at a young age, yes, but they weren’t born with that level of proficiency.
Because we’re sold these bill of goods that some people have writing talent and they were born with it, and when they sit down they a bang out paragraph after paragraph of prose that might not be perfect, but it’s editable. I think that’s a fallacy. I think people who have certain passion to write all face writer’s block. They all face this not wanting to go deep, not wanting to self-examine, because writing is about asking yourself, “What do I think about this? If this happened, what do I think would happen next?”
That’s the general idea about writing. You start with an inciting incident, a shark comes to a small community in the Hamptons and starts killing people. What would the sheriff do? He’s probably try to kill the shark, but what if the sheriff was afraid of the water? Oh! That’s even more interesting. What would he do then?
That’s where Peter eventually kind of began. He’s probably on vacation thinking, “I wonder what would happen if a shark came and started chewing up all these people at the beach?” and that’s how he started writing Jaws. There’s any number of examples where that happens. My advice about how to combat writer’s block is to engage yourself, come up with a whole bunch of inciting incidents. What would happen if, and they can be causal, meeting what would happen if my brother-in-law asked me for a thousand dollars? Would I give it to him or wouldn’t I give it to him? What would I do with that information?
[0:24:27.4] TG: In your experience working with authors, because I’m sure — Let me just not make the assumption. Working at all the publishing houses you did and all the different authors, I’m sure there were times that like you had an author that you had a contract with that just could not finish the book, because I’m thinking like there’s one thing — There’s, to me, different situations for writer’s block. There’s one where it’s like I’ve set time aside just to write. I’m not really working on a project. I sit down. I can’t think of anything to write, and hat I feel like is mostly failure of planning.
I’ve had the situation. What I found is if I plan ahead — I do what you’re talking about, right? List a bunch of ideas. If I have a plan, I can sit down and start working on it. Then there’s another type of writer’s block which is I’m halfway through a project and I can’t finish it. Have you dealt with that with writers and what do you end up — Like what have you seen them do or what have you done to get them kind of over that block?
[0:25:36.5] SC: Well, I wish I could say that I could cure people of writer’s block, but I can’t, and there’s only so much the editor can do for a writer. The writer needs — An editor can work with them developmentally, meaning if the writer has a sticking point, they can — I would always suggest that the writer call their editor and say, “Hey, look. I just can’t solve this problem.”
Then what happens is just by the Socratic method of the editor asking questions that he or she would need to know to be able to help, what it does is it turns on the editorial vision of the writer too. Asking those six core questions that I always talk about is a great way of jumpstarting your work. Not only jumpstarting, but if you’re stuck, go back to those six core questions. What’s my genre? What are the obligatory scenes and conventions of my genre? What’s my point of view narrative device? What are the objects of desire for my protagonist and my antagonist? What is the controlling idea? What is the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff? Those six questions, if you just get stuck writing scenes — Remember, a lot of people think writing is only literally writing a scene, and that is not true. Writing is also contemplating the vision of the book.
Steve Pressfield just finished up a really great series called the In The Trenches, where he’s been writing at stevenpressfield.com about facing these problems that we’re talking about right now. He wrote a manuscript, he sent it to me. I told him he had some pretty substantial problems with the manuscript which sent him sort of over the cliff. The last seven posts have been how he started to climb back up that cliff, and he’s at the top now and he’s working hard and he’s is setting down each day’s writing goal, but he wouldn’t say, “Oh, just because I haven’t been writing scenes, I’m not writing.” What he would say is, “I’m out in the trenches trying to solve some problems with the manuscript that doesn’t work.”
There’s a big fallacy that writer’s block includes the moments when you’re contemplating the work and planning the work, and that’s not true. A writer is writing when he’s thinking about the editorial vision too. I think your original thing was how do you get somebody out of writer’s block and if I ever did.
The problem with editors at major publishing houses is that they just don’t have the time to do developmental editing with people. They’re not being paid to get a writer out of the writer’s block. They’re paid to go find the next writer, the next manuscript. I’m not faulting the publishing houses for that structure. That’s just a business. It’s a business over there.
My advice to writers is find someone, even a fellow writer, who you can shoot the shit with and go through those six core questions when you get stuck. That’s a way of getting out of writer’s block. Sometimes another writer’s block problem is when you come up with a really mediocre idea and you’ve committed a lot of work to the mediocre idea and you’ve hit a reckoning. You’ve hit a reckoning point. The reckoning point is when you say yourself — Robert McKee once — I overheard him give advice to somebody one day and I don’t know how he put it, but this guy went through this long explanation of what his screenplay idea was and how he’d been working on it for four years. McKee, he looked at him and he goes, “The problem is, is that you have an elephant pulling like a little toy truck. Your inciting incident is just not that thrilling, and you’ve build all of these stuff around this inciting incident that is much larger than what your initial inciting incident was. You really need throw out the inciting incident and come up with a new one that will support the elephant pulling the car, or start all over again.”
It was a moment of revelation for this guy when he felt so good because he got really, really intelligent quick advice that got him to stop fitsing and futsing on something that just was never going to work. Those of writer’s block problems too.
[0:30:56.4] TG: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting, and I think this is why — Because I listened to an interview with Malcolm Gladwell awhile back and he’s like, “I don’t deal with writer’s block.” He said he had a job at a newspaper and writer’s block was not an excuse that your editor liked. I feel like there’s like different here because, I remember the story of it on writing where Stephen King was stuck on the stand, like halfway through the stand for weeks and he would go out for his walks and then eventually like popped in his head how to fix the story and he was able to go do it. Other times I feel like I get blocked just because I’m afraid of the work.
I think, especially working with you and stuff like that, having somebody that can help you, when you’re just being scared they can tell to just cut to it and start writing because you’re just scared, or like help you think through, because there is that underground subconscious work that’s going on that you just have to work through sometimes.
I want to get into some more meaty things about genre. Here’s one; can you talk more about the society genre? Does this lend itself better to a mini-plot plus story with multiple protagonists and an arch plot, or how do you think about the society genre, and I would say give some examples of books or movies that are good society genres.
[0:32:40.2] SC: Yeah. Some of my favorite novels of all time are in the society genre, and what they are, when they really work — It’s sort of what we were talking about last week, and that you kind of have — It’s a mini-plot with multiple protagonists, but you always have sort of the center of the story. That’s one character that sort of has elements of themselves expressed in other characters.
Let me try and give some examples. Society novels are really — They’re about talking about very deep social issues at a very human level. One of the great society novels is Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow. The reason why that’s such a great novel is that what Doctorow did is he came up with a really wonderful idea. Back at the turn of the century during the Gilded Age, there was a bunch of crime that happened and there was a big, big moment in time when there was a woman named Evelyn Nesbit and she was sort of this showgirl at the Ziegfield Follies at Madison Square Garden, which is to be in Madison Park around 23rd Street in Manhattan.
She was this beautiful showgirl who was kind of not that bright, but she was married to a man named Harry Thaw, and Harry Thaw was this rich guy from Pittsburgh. Anyway, she’s decided to start having an affair with Stanford White, who was this famous, famous architect in New York City designed, actually, Madison Square Garden, and what he did at the top of Madison Square Garden is he created a sculpture of Evelyn Nesbitt in the nude. It was this big, big scandal where it was obvious that he had used the naked figure of his lover to inspire him to do this beautiful statue that’s at the top of Madison Square Garden.
Meanwhile, Harry Thaw, who’s her husband, freaks out and shoots him, kills him. There’s this huge trial at the turn-of-the-century about whether or not Harry Thaw will be exonerated for murdering Stanford White.
E. L. Doctorow, he went back to this and he thought to himself, “This is an amazing time in America, and how can I best explain the rise of multiculturalism in the United States where we have immigrants from Eastern Europe coming here who are bringing their culture with them. We’ve got cleaning people from the South who are disenfranchised African-Americans who are working for rich families. In Westchester County we’ve got this very wealthy aristocracy that is sort of having all these fun and games while other people are suffering tremendously. He came with this incredible novel where he featured a one family from Westchester County and how that family changed from the turn-of-the-century.
What the society novel is, is it’s an allegory using one core very, very specific story to be an allegory for an entire culture or society. For all those who are interested in the society novel, read Ragtime and you’ll really love that novel. It’s fantastic. They made a movie of it, which is great too. It’s just a stunning piece of big grand storytelling on an epic scale that features a very, very tight cast that you’re sympathetic and empathetic for every single character in the novel, which was a brilliant, brilliant piece of work.
The second one, which is on a smaller scale, but no less large, is, of course, George Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm. Now, animal farm is — Forget about it. It’s so brilliant in its simplicity and yet it is so deep in its description of humanity and, specifically, the Russian Revolution. He takes the Russian — Now, George Orwell, he was a journalist, a brilliant writer. He was a socialist and he was part of the Spanish Civil War. He fought on the side of the Republicans — I’m sorry not the Republicans. He fought on the side of the socialists.
Anyway, he felt disenfranchised by the movement of the socialists when Stalin came to power, and so he Animal Farm to express how that may have happened. In this characters of these animals in this barn there is a character that represents sort of this Leon Trotsky sort of central character named Snowball, who was a leader of this movement, and then there’s another figure named Napoleon, who’s also part of the revolution who slowly takes power. He uses this allegory using barnyard animals and it reads kind of like a fun little story until you start putting the pieces together and you see, “Oh my gosh! This is exactly the structure of the Russian Revolution and what happened in Stalinist Russia.”
Society novels and stories can be very intimidating, and they’re all usually about major cultural shifts in power. They’re all about power, power shift from one part of society to another. For example, In Ragtime, it’s about the shift of power from the very, very wealthy gilded age aristocrats to this teaming society underneath that will create jazz, create all the Great American things that we all love about this country and it’s undermining this sort of aristocratic gilded age, centralized wealth era. Animal Farm, it’s all about the Russian revolution. It’s about the workers overthrowing the owners. Then it’s a revolution within the revolution that brings them back to a conspiracy in which the workers end up being exploited by their own compadres for comrades as they say in the novel.
Just to recap. Society novels are about power, shifts in power, major — The best way to sort of approach them is to think about them in terms of allegory. When I say allegory, I always think of algor meaning telling a simple story that tells a much larger tale. I don’t know much more to say about that without —
[0:40:34.0] TG: I’m thinking like — Have you watched The Handmaid’s Tale? Would that be a society genre?
[0:40:39.0] SC: Yeah, absolutely.
[0:40:40.7] TG: Okay.
[0:40:41.9] SC: That’s a feminist society, like a power deal. Yeah, that’s another brilliant work. Margaret Atwood. Yeah. Incredible.
[0:40:51.7] TG: Okay. I really like this question. How do you go to the “end of the line” in a story like The Accidental Tourist? Clearly, the stakes are not life or death, so how do you show a fate worse than death?
[0:41:09.1] SC: Okay. There’s a little bit of confusion about the values. I’ll definitely answer that in a second, but every genre does not rest on life and death.
[0:41:24.1] TG: Let me try to guess at what you’re going to say, and then you tell me if I’m right. That’s why I want to cut you off. Because there’s the all is lost moment. There is an all is lost moment in every story, right?
[0:41:41.4] SC: Yes.
[0:41:42.4] TG: Right. Is that a better question, is like — We know the stakes aren’t life and death, and in a life or death value, the low point is when they’re facing death. In a story like the Accidental Tourist, what would be that low point? What would be that all is lost moment, or am I asking a different question than what you think was being asked?
[0:42:10.5] SC: No. I think you’re on to the question and the heart of it. The heart of the Accidental Tourist specifically is about isolation, really. It’s about a character whose all is lost moment occurs when he understands that he has built such a safety sort of chamber around his emotional being that he has exiled himself from vanity he begins to understand that he’s a pathetic creature, he’s self-loathing.
About Schmidt is another novel that’s similar to the Accidental Tourist where you have a lead character — Also, Is That All There. Yeah, the Jack Nicholson movie. As Good as it Gets. Yeah.
What he faces in his all is lost moment is if I continue on this path, I will come to hate myself. I will reach a level of self-loathing, and self0loathing is a damnation of sorts. It’s also a love story and it’s about a woman who gets this man out — Megan Leary is the lead character. The woman is a dog trainer. It’s a brilliant novel. The dog training — His dog ends up biting everybody. He has to take his dog to this dog trainer to him trained so he doesn’t attack people anymore, and she’s a very eccentric idiosyncratic person and she makes him really self-examine.
His all is lost moment, the negation of the negation for him is recognizing that if he continues on his isolated exiled journey he will guide miserable and unhappy and not really contribute anything to the world beyond — The character writes travel guides for Americans so that they don’t have to deal with foreign countries when they go to the foreign countries. He tells them where the Holiday Inns are, where they can get hamburgers. All the things to protect yourself from other influences of other cultures and people, and it’s such a great hook. He comes to realize that he’s got to shake things up. His all is lost moment is, “If I continue on this path, I will die like one of those people that they don’t find for six days because nobody cares about them.”
When you’re dealing with the negation of the negation in sort of that internal global genre, always think of it in terms of the worst possible thing is it’s self-hatred, it’s self-loathing that the character must overcome the level of destruction or they will die miserable and damned.
[0:45:27.8] TG: Okay. How do you track subplot on the foolscap global story grid, or is it not something you’re worried about at that point?
[0:45:36.8] SC: I don’t I don’t really do track subplot on the foolscap page, because subplot is really a way — To speak in global terms, one of the uses of subplot plot is either to increase the global plot by sort of putting a spotlight on if they don’t know — It’s like progressively complicating the global plot to make the consequences much larger if it weren’t there, or it’s to sort of not distract, but sort of fool the reader into thinking they’re getting one story when they’re really getting another. The subplot — This often happens in a performance story. Performance story are like movies like Rocky where the viewer is led to believe, “This is going to be a great boxing movie. I can’t wait until the final fight,” and they think that the final fight is really what the entire story is about. That’s a little bit of a fate, because the reality is the real story is the redemption plot or the education plot or the maturation plot of Rocky Balboa.
The performance story ends negatively. He loses the fight, but the global story ends extremely positively where he comes to respect himself. There’s another example of a story that rests on the lead character’s ability to respect himself and learn to love himself.
Subplots are sort of your — That’s a thing that you want to use to add to your global story more than feature on your foolscap. If I were doing a foolscap of Rocky, it would be about Rocky’s redemption, not about Rocky’s fighting at the end. Now, the big fight at the end will be on the foolscap because that will be a climactic scene, but the real turning point is the redemption story.
There’s no hard and fast rule about what you want to feature on your foolscap page, but my advice is to always err on the side of the core, core global story, because you got to remember you got to pick one. One genre is your global story. The global story rules, and if you don’t solve the global story problems, no matter how good your subplots are, it won’t matter. If you have great subplots and a terrible global story or just like a global story, it’s not going to save the story. You can have mediocre subplots, but a great global story.
A lot of the long-form television shows, there are subplots that are like, “Eh, that’s all right.”
[0:48:52.3] TG: But you hang on for hose last five minutes of the show.
[0:48:55.7] SC: Right, because you’re coming back to the global turning points of the global story, because sometimes like in Madman, there were episodes really kind of like, “Eh, I don’t really like Pete and I don’t really care about this subplot,” but you hang on because you want to know what’s going to happen with Don Draper.
[0:49:14.6] TG: Okay. This next one is going kind of deep down the genre how, but I figure we’ll throw it in. In the action genre clock sub-genre, the Story Grid book gives four subgenres with different villain types driving the plot. You have ransom, holdout, countdown and fate. Fate, time itself is the villain and the example is back to the future. Does that last one apply only to time travel stories? How do time and circumstances differ as clock devices and villains?
[0:50:00.0] SC: Okay.
[0:50:01.4] TG: Talk about how time is used in the fate sub-sub-genre and what are your kind options there and how do you make decisions when you’re choosing between the different clock sub genres of action.
[0:50:16.0] SC: I will say this about the — I don’t have my book in front of me, and that is really inside baseball.
[0:50:22.8] TG: You don’t have it memorized?
[0:50:24.4] SC: No, I don’t. Back to the Future was a brilliant piece of work, because time is literally the antagonist in that story, and it’s hard for me to come up with any more examples that had that characteristic.
Now, the ransom plot is — We all know the ransom plot. Great movie, Ransom, is a great example of it where somebody kidnaps somebody and then the clock is, they say — The first Dirty Harry has a ransom plot too.
Time as a clock, I would — Here’s my advice about it. Use the clock element to amplify the global action elements. Usually, clocks are involved in things like crime stories, horror stories and thrillers. The action story is sort of the primal base, if you will, for all of these ones that concerns safety. The action story —
[0:51:34.8] TG: I’m thinking of like Mission Impossible, right? They got to like do all these things before the bomb hits, before the nuke goes off or something like that.
[0:51:45.0] SC: Holdout stories or things like 300, the 300, where you’ve got a have — Somebody got a hold out while other people are regrouping, and how desperate it is fighting to the last man so that they can finish the [inaudible 0:52:05.2] work that will save humanity. The Battle of Thermopylae was that moment in Western civilization where it seemed like all was lost, the Persians are taking over and if the Greeks can’t rally, all of Greece will be taken over by Persia and we would never even have any Greek history or Western ideals or whatever. The Battle of Thermopylae was such a pivotal moment and it was to the last man stand, that is the holdout, the ultimate holdout story.
The great thing about Steve’s novel, Gates of Fire, which deals with the Battle of Thermopylae, and even the movie. It’s not really holdout moment. It’s about the ethos underneath that compel those men to take on the mission itself. I don’t really want to get into more of the clock elements of the fourth sub- genre of action other than to say, “Think of the sub-sub-genres as little plot device elements that you can add to your story more than the full monte of the driver of the antagonism. Have the element of time be an antagonist, but be a supporting antagonist as opposed to the full antagonist, because if you use time as the full antagonist, what it becomes is really heady.
There’s a novel the Martin Amis wrote called Time’s Arrow, which is a perfect example of this, where it is so heady, meaning difficult to follow and understand the projection of time that you lose the ability to really enjoy the entertainment because you’re trying to — Well, if that happens and if Marty McFly’s mother was really — If she does have relations with — It’s ridiculous. You start to overwhelm yourself with the what-ifs. That why Back to the Future was so great, because it had this element of antagonism that usually spells disaster that actually worked.
[0:54:25.6] TG: Okay. Let’s end on this one. Is there an ideal time to engage in editor or beta readers for your story?
[0:54:34.7] SC: There’s one of two ways of doing it. Once you have a draft that you sort of throw up your hands and say, “You know what? I can’t really tweak this anymore. I need to get feedback.” That is the time to — I’m not a big believer in beta readers unless they’re editors that you’re paying, because beta readers can really send you off the rails. I’m not saying that they don’t have a great story sense, because everybody does. What happens often though, if you are dealing within somebody who’s not a professional editor or even a professional editor, is that once you hand them the manuscript and they read it and they come back to you with notes, their interpretation of what you have written is often differs than your intention.
It’s a good idea to engage an editor who will, before they give you their notes, have them do their homework first and then have a phone call with you first to talk about what your intentions were, because then that can direct them in helping you to get your intentions more clear on the page. That might seem a little strange, but what I think is a great technique and it’s what I do now is, especially for writers that I don’t know who hire me, trust me, I don’t take many of these on, if I can help it, is that if you’re the editor and you don’t know what the intention of the writer is, the problem is that oftentimes you will see a kernel or what you see as the global genre of the story is actually not the intention of the writer. You’ll start giving them advice about writing a crime novel when they really wanted to write a redemption story.
You start pushing them on the crime stuff and then the crime overwhelms the redemption story and then the intention of the writer gets thrown away and then the writer mysteriously through two rewrites starts to lose their love of the project, because what they really wanted was to write a redemption story. If you have an early conversation with them and say, “Hey, what’s your global genre? What’s your global goal here? What do you really want to write about?” If the writer says, “Well, I want to talk about how somebody who’s really screwed up their life returns to a state of grace.” Then the editor is going to know, “Oh, this is a redemption story.” If they say, “I want to do this really great mastermind plot where this criminal plans the perfect murder and almost gets away,” then the editor goes, “Oh! They want to write a crime story.” If you don’t have a conversation, you can get confused as the editor and give contrary advice to what the writer really wants to do.
My advice about when the best time to seek an editor is either, A, when you have a complete draft and you don’t know what else to do with it, or, B, when you have an idea and you have some notions and you want to get some advice about how to move that idea notion forward in a way that will make sense. Sort of like the way you and I have been doing the Story Grid podcast where had some global notions after we had to throw away that first draft, and then we built it from there. It took a long time, but I think you are much closer to a publishable novel now than you would’ve been if you had tweaked that first manuscript until you were blue in the face.
[0:58:30.1] TG: How do you feel about writers groups? I was listening to this class that’s online, YouTube classify Brandon Sanderson, who’s a very prolific writer and he talks about writers group and he talks about when he was in college — I am going to not get the specifics right, but basically when he was a young writer, he was in this writers group and they really stuck it altogether and now like four out of five of them are writing professionally, and whatever that means.
Then I have always kind of shied away from it and now for all those listening rolling their eyes, I know I’m pretty lucky because I get Shawn to look at my writing and not everybody gets that, but I’ve always kind of shied away from it because I feel like, “Why do I want to ask other amateurs that don’t know what they’re talking about any more than I do their opinion of my writing?”
How do you feel about writers groups, and if people are going to do them, what’s the right way to go about them? I would love your input on that.
[0:59:44.2] SC: Well, it’s like else. You don’t want to get into a group of people that’s sole purpose is to get in a pissing contest about who’s a better writer. Unfortunately, a lot of —I’m probably going to take a lot of heat for this, but I think most of the MFA programs are incubators for discontent. There are places where people who don’t really know writing craft get to take potshots at each other every single week, and I think the end result is everybody wants to get teacher’s approval, right? There’s always this brilliant novelist who’s running the MFA program and everybody buys for that person’s approval.
My advice is that a writers group, unless you’re really close friends and you really care about each other, and hopefully you’re writing in different genres, because you can undermine each other subconsciously if you’re all trying to write Sherlock Holmes stories, that can be just a recipe for disaster.
The other thing that I think is important is that there is value traded here, right? If you know an editor who has a lot of value and they want to be a writer too and you’re trading value to their editorial advice, I think the best situation is where you can find an editor who is not emotionally invested in your work beyond wanting to help you get better and you pay them, and they help you step-by-step through the process and give you legitimate advice that they can use a lot of examples to back up.
That’s why I’m a great believer in the Story Grid methodology, it’s because it uses very, very clear principles as critical tools. I can’t just say to you, “Tim, I didn’t like the third scene.” “Why?” “I don’t know. It just seemed kind of flat.” “That’s terrible. What was that? What are you going to do with that?” That’s the advice we get from writers groups all the time. If you’re in writers group and everybody says to you, “You know what? Your inciting incident is a little weak, and then you never progressively complicate, and I don’t see a clear crisis here, and it all seems as if you’re writing the power of two in all your progressive complications. I think you need to raise the stakes until they’re irreversible, and that time comes right at the major moments of your act shifts.” Hey! That’s shit. I would love to hear that kind of advice. I just don’t think it out there.
One of the ways to see whether or not the writers group is going to help you or not is to listen to the way they talk about the work. If they’re talking about it in terms of, “Well, I just didn’t feel it was all that hooky to me.” You don’t need that. That’s not going to help you. What you need is very specific advice that cites story structure principles over and over again. If somebody says to you, “Your inciting incident doesn’t work.” You know how to fix that. You go out and you think of another inciting incident.
If somebody says you’re not progressively complicating to an irreversible point, you know how to fix that. You know you got to keep upping the stakes on the progressive complications until there’s a moment when it’s irreversible. They can’t go back. Now, they’ve got to move forward. There’s a point of no return.
if you get that advice in your writers groups, great, take it, but if you don’t, find somebody who will give it to you.
[1:03:41.1] 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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