The past two The Story Grid Podcast episodes have been an exercise in Tim concertedly ratcheting up the tension in his novel. This process requires a keen understanding of progressive complications.
When you are unsure of whether the stakes in your novel are getting larger as you progress, pull back your focus and think about how difficult the complications are for your protagonist/s. Can they be easily reversed? That is, could the character change his/her mind and not suffer any consequences from the decision? If so, then the story is not progressively complicating. And if it’s not getting more and more difficult and life-altering for the lead character/s, you will soon exhaust your reader’s attention. She’ll put your book down and never come back to it. If asked why, she’ll say…”nothing was happening, so I quit.”
To listen to episode 66 click the first play button. To listen to episode 67 click the second play button. The transcripts for both follow…66 and then 67.
Episode 66 Transcript:
[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, we start off talking about editing. What editing is, how a developmental editor works with an author, but it morphs into a conversation that I think is really important, and that is basically how to get to the end of a first draft. There’s just so many times you can get hung up on things, you can get stuck on things, and you’re not moving forward, and you can just churn instead of actually getting to a first draft.
Then as you’ve seen in these episodes, there are times where you need to stop and go back and rewrite, and stop and go back and rewrite, and so how do you know when something is — you should actually stop and go back and rewrite, and when it’s like okay, that’s good, it’s working, and you move on.
I think it’s a really important conversation. One that I know all authors struggle with is you know, when you’re writing that first draft, do you keep going? Do you stop and go back? When is the right time for both of those? I think you’ll really enjoy it, and hopefully it will help you as you finish your first draft as well.
Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:28.5] TG: So Shawn, as we’ve continued to work through this book, I kept having this feeling that like, this isn’t really a LitRPG book the way I was planning on it being. If you look out there at the LitRPG books, basically, there’s a whole lot more RPG than what’s showing up in my book. We’ve had several people email us about this topic, too. They’re like “Hey, here’s six really good LitRPG books, and your book doesn’t look like that at all.”
I’m interested, we’ve touched on this topic, but I just wanted to talk a little bit about how things morph as you write them. Because I know Steve recently wrote about this, Steve Pressfield on his site, and how do you view this as you’re working on a book, and you’re like “Okay, this is the genre I’m writing in,” and I keep thinking, “Well, Shawn says that’s the most important thing, because then you know your conventions and your obligatory scenes, and all that kind of stuff.”
Then it keeps kind of shifting away from that, and I feel like trying to force it into that isn’t going to work, and so I don’t know. How do you deal with that when you’re working with a writer?
[0:02:47.7] SC: Well, it’s a really great question. Here’s something that I heard from Bruce Springsteen in an interview he had with Mark Maron on WTF. I was really impressed by this, because he really kind of summed up what the role of an artist is, and the experience of the artist is something like this.
He grew up in a blue-collar world, and he wrote a lot of great blue-collar songs about growing up in that way, and if you listen to his albums from his debut album through the latest album that he wrote, you’ll see an evolution of storytelling. The songs that are on Born to Run are a lot different than the songs that are on The River. You can take any artist, you look at the early work of Jasper Johns, and his later work as an artist, or any writer, too.
Here’s the thing that I think is happening. There is something inside the artist, the writer, the entrepreneur, the person who is looking inside of themselves and trying to give life to a creation. They’re not conscious of really what’s going on, even as they’re working through it. What Springsteen said in this interview was, “My songs were all about the evolution of emotional turmoil. From letting go of family problems in my songs, until the father and son relationship could bond and become stronger.”
He said in his real everyday life, he was nowhere near living that reality. It was as if the song writing that he was doing, and I’m talking about songs that he wrote for Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, The River, and all the songs that mentions sort of the father/son relationship, the relationship evolves in the song from being of great turmoil, to some kind of reconciliation and understanding between the father and the son.
In the reality of Springsteen’s life, he and his father were not getting along at all. There was no way he could ever imagine that reconciliation, but his work was he was writing about characters who did. He was writing, almost projecting, his internal life into his work in a way that he was not capable of living yet.
Later, when he became older and he started thinking about these things, he said to himself, “Isn’t that interesting?” I read his book too, which is terrific. Born to Run, of course, it’s called. He spent all of this time running away from himself, but his music and his art were reflections of what he longed for and what he yearend for.
The reason why I bring this up is that It’s important to remember when you’re an editor, and you’re helping an artist, or a writer, or a painter, or a sales person, or whatever. Somebody who is trying to fry the right hamburger, there’s very delicate process that you have to learn as a mentor of when to press and when to give a lot of rein.
I’m not saying that I have any solution to this, or that I’m a master of it. It goes to the question that you brought up about LitRPG. Is your story strictly LitRPG? Absolutely not. The conventions and obligatory scenes, iron clad, LitRPG? No. Are they — is it a coming of age story? Not quite yet. Is it an action story? Yes and no. Is it a social novel? Yeah, kind of.
The reality is that as you were writing the book, there are things that are inside of you that are coming out that you don’t even know. Last week, when we talked about you writing a particular sequence, you said that you hemmed and hawed, and you didn’t do anything until you sat down on a Monday, and you thought you had a general solution to your idea, and then you just banged out 3,000 words.
What I’m saying is that banging out of the 3,000 words was your internal system flushing out whatever it is that you had decided mentally, but it was your internal self, expressing itself in the words and the scenes that you wrote. You didn’t know that stuff was in you until you finished the 3,000 words. Your analytical mind gave yourself a task, and then you allowed your internal life to bring that task to life.
I may be speaking in riddles and runes here, but my point is that the editor, the developmental editor, meaning an editor who works with a writer from the conception of an idea to the end of publication has a very difficult task, because I could say to you, “Tim, you’re not playing by the rules. You haven’t done this right. The LitRPG conventions are not being met. You have to fix them. If you don’t fix them, there’s no way of having commercial marketable success. If your protagonist is 12 years old, nobody who is over 14 is going to want to read the book. Even people 14 might not want to read the book. Are you confident that this is the next Harry Potter? What are you trying to do? Who do you think you are?”
[0:08:42.3] TG: I can feel the anxiety just hearing you saying these things.
[0:08:44.4] SC: Exactly. It’s worthless and it’s pointless, because here’s the thing that you can do, once you have a first draft that you generally think is close to the story that you want to tell. You are able to look at it from a much better perspective. You can say, “Okay, there’s my ending payoff, there’s my beginning hook. What does that mean? What is that book ending? Is this really about the hero at the mercy of the villain? Is this really about the maturation plot? Is this story best served with a 12-year old protagonist? Or, can I go back and change her age from 12 to 17? What would that mean? Should I add a love component here? Well, I could add six scenes that would give me a really nice subplot of love story, if that’s what’s necessary.”
To put all of these limitations on the writer, and obligatory things that they have to do while they are figuring out the story is a mistake, in my opinion. The reason why I say it’s a mistake is because I’ve done it before.
[0:09:55.8] TG: You know the end of that road?
[0:09:57.3] SC: Yeah, I do. What happens is that the writer feels as if A, I’m writing the book, which I shouldn’t be doing. If I have a book to write, I should write it myself. They begin to resent the fact that I’m making them write things that they don’t necessarily feel like they should be writing. They resent the fact that I’m writing their book. I’m taking control of their book, which an editor should never do.
The second thing is that it exhausts them. They lose that inner fire that motivated them to write the book in the first place. They’ll either abandon the book, or they’ll finish it reluctantly, and they’ll throw up their hands, and they don’t want to do anymore editorial work. The book isn’t ready yet, and it’s not working, but they say, “You know what? I’m done with it. I’m going to try and sell it.”
Then it doesn’t sell, and then they feel like they’ve wasted their time. That’s not good for anyone, because it’s never a waste of time to explore a story. Never. It’s never a waste of time. You always learn something, but it’s excruciating to spend 18 months on something and have nothing come from it commercially.
To not make any money from something that you worked so hard on, feels like a failure and it feels like a waste of time. That has happened to me before, working with writers. I can’t go back in time and say to them, “Hey, I’m sorry about that. Let’s take it up again and try it, because you know, I made a mistake.” They made a mistake. We didn’t figure it out the right way.
This could happen between us, who knows. Because I don’t have all the answers, and the thing about stories is that they have very strict structures, but those structures evolve from the writer organically. To impose a structure on something, yeah, you can write genre fiction, and you can hit all the obligatory scenes, and you can write genre stuff with no internal investment beyond something cool.
I’m not putting that down. I think that’s a way of becoming a better writer, but to do that from — it’s not what I’m interested in as an editor or a creative person. I kind of forget what your original question is other…
[0:12:32.7] TG: I think that goes back to like, what I feel like — okay, I did, last spring, I did the “sit down and bang out an entire first draft” and you know, while you still claim it wasn’t a waste of time because we found a theme, it feels like a waste of time because so much of it didn’t work.
Well, the way we’re doing it now, because I get these emails, too, from people trying to protect me from you, and you know, it’s just like “Well, this doesn’t work, or this doesn’t work, or this genre doesn’t work here. He needs to lay off, because you’re doing fine,” and I realize like looking back, like last week or two weeks ago was such a good picture of this, because we had this scene, and you’re like, “It doesn’t really work.”
You actually were fine to move on, but I kind of kept questioning, and what we finally pointed out was it didn’t work because there was no crisis, which is something that I can fix, right? Then you helped me kind of brainstorm some ideas to fix it, but you left it to me to fix that problem. What I’ve realized you’ve done through this is you’ve let me write my own book, and there’s been times where you’ve kind of come alongside me, almost like if I was just sitting down with a friend, and be like, “hey, what would be cool with this or that or the other thing?” Coming up with new ideas, and then there’s times where you’re like, “This doesn’t work for this reason, you need to figure out how to fix it.”
You’re letting me write the book I want to write, but you’re also keeping me from making these mistakes that so many writers make, which is not having a crisis, or not progressively complicating something, or missing the whole introduction to the new world. I think that’s how it’s evolved, is you’ve kind of like kept me from making the mistakes that make a story not work, and forced me to fix them when they don’t work.
Like I was saying last week, like having to rewrite that same sequence four times until I finally got something. Each time you would say, “Okay, it doesn’t work for this reason,” and so I rewrite it. “Okay, it doesn’t work for this reason. You fixed that, but now you’ve got to fix this other thing,” until if finally landed on something that worked. When you say “worked,” it’s just basically meeting the guidelines of what makes a story a story.
I actually have written down here, because last week when I was sitting at my desk for that, you know, I put it off until Monday, which means I actually had to write something, and then I sat here for an hour trying to figure out what to write. I actually opened the book, went to the five commandments of storytelling, and I wrote down inciting incident, progressive complication, crisis, climax, resolution. I’m like, I need this for the sequence and I need this for each individual scene.
Coming back to that form allowed me to start filling it in with something that actually worked. That’s how I feel about the way that it’s morphed, is that you’ve done good to step back and let me — because you’ve like said, “Hey, maybe you do this, that,” and like, “Yeah,” then I go and write something completely different than what you suggested, but if it works and it abides by the story grid, then it works.
You’re good, like that’s what we’re going for. It’s not like writing the story you think I should write, it’s just writing a story that I want to write that works by the standards of the story grid.
[0:16:18.9] SC: Yeah, exactly. The thing again is — not to bring in too much mystical stuff — but the songs that Springsteen wrote were trying to communicate something to him personally. They were universal for people under similar circumstances, who grew up in like the blue-collar world, but they were very personal songs that had universal appeal. Whatever it is that is attracting you to this storyline, and the revision of the storyline, and fixing the storyline, is very particular to you.
I’m not saying that you need to figure out exactly why this story is so interesting to you, or why you’re coming up with it. It’s not particularly my cup of tea, right? For me to sit in a high chair and explain how you’re not abiding by the things that you need to do yourself doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. The global, the thing that I always come back to with the podcast is that we started this thing with a very specific idea, and the idea was not this. It was not an editor and a writer work on a book, publish it, and make it a bestseller. That’s not what it was.
What it is, and I think a lot of people get confused by that, because we commodify everything today, and everybody thinks that there has to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. While that would be nice and great and everything, it’s not why we’re doing this. Why we’re doing this is to, our initial idea, and what sold me on doing this in the first place, was the experimental notion of somebody who has been around the block a long time being able to guide somebody deliberately through an apprenticeship, mentorship, whatever you want to call it in writing, so that they could learn 10 years’ worth of writing principles, and work in a fraction of the time.
I think we’re extremely successful doing that right now, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want you to write a complete novel that is very perfectly aligned with a specific market of readers who would be attracted to it. They could be LitRPG readers, they could be romance readers, they could be whoever. We don’t determine that until we have a really strong idea of what the novel and the story is really about. What is really the controlling idea of the story?
We came up with some ideas to get you started, because you said you wanted to write an action thriller. We went to the conventions, and obligatory scenes, and notions of an action thriller, and we came up with the generic action thriller controlling idea, where the hero sacrifices himself for the betterment of others. That’s the generic controlling idea of the thriller, and that’s where we started, and that’s a great place to start. The specificity of the idea will evolve as you work on it. It’s becoming more and more clear as this process moves forward. You know, the notion of the story grid as a way of using the structure and forms of story to get you on the road to writing is a great one.
I think the more you know about your craft, the better your ability to release the inner vision that nobody really knows that they have until the work comes forward.
[0:20:23.1] TG: I think this would be a good spot to talk about, because I’ve gotten, again, from people listening to this show it’s — people are like, “Well, this is great for you, but I don’t — what am I supposed to do?” We’ve talked a little bit about this, but what do you see as the role of a developmental editor?
I think it’s good to just back up and talk again about — I didn’t know, and I honestly couldn’t name all the different layers of editing at this point. But like, I just thought of editing — before I got into writing, I thought editing was just like okay, well, somebody writes a book, and somebody else goes through and makes sure the commas are in the right place, and the quotes are in the right place, and that’s an editor.
The way we’re working is to the point where I’m like, you need to be like, with Shawn Coyne. Your name needs to be on the cover. There’s a big gap there, so what do you see the developmental editor’s role is of working with an author?
[0:21:35.4] SC: It’s sort of like a midwife of sorts. A creative midwife, and the midwife doesn’t have the baby, but she helps the woman have the baby. A developmental editor is somebody, and there aren’t many of them out there. I don’t really know any beyond myself, but what I love about it is it allows me to help you laser focus on what it is you want to say. The story that you want to tell.
The editing that you’re talking about, there are proofreaders and copyeditors who do all that work that you talked about previously, who make sure that the grammar is appropriate, that everything makes sense, and that there aren’t typos, etcetera, and those are very important people to have. That’s a skill, a set of rules that you can learn through dedicated work, and there are very specific yeses and no’s when it comes to grammar.
A developmental editor is someone who guides somebody through their chosen story field, until they have something that they can go back and edit. What that means is that, what an editor, a story editor does is that they look at the global movement of the story. Is this thing — does this thing have a compelling beginning, middle, and end? Is it abiding the conventions and obligatory scenes of the genre that the writer has chosen to write in?
If it hasn’t, where is it going off the rails? How can it be fixed? How can the writer go back and make sure that they hit the right moments at the right times, so that the audience that loves that kind of story will be attracted to it.
A developmental editor is somebody else who helps the writer get a first draft, and then once the first draft is done, it doesn’t mean that the book is perfect. What it means is that the global story works. It has a beginning, middle, and end, the scenes abide the five commandments of storytelling, there’s inciting incidents, progressive complications, crisis, climaxes, and resolutions.
The units of the story make sense, the scenes build to sequences, the sequences build to acts. The acts build to subplots, and then you have the global story itself. Those two things are the things that you do as an editor once you have a draft. You check the scenes to make sure they’re working, you go to micro, and you also go to the full global story grid, which is the macro point of view.
You have to look at the story from two points of view, the big point of view and the micro point of view. Then, when all of that’s done, and you feel confident that you have the appropriate genre, you have made the right choices to satisfy that genre, you’ve done the best you can to innovate the scenes in that specific genre to a point that makes sense, you have a great title, you have an idea for a cover, those are all the things that happen after you have a first draft.
But it’s like after the baby’s out, you’ve got to make sure that they have the right clothes, that they’re swaddled, that you help them find out what they are through the years, and so the editor, after the first draft, is looking at a fresh baby and saying, “How do we let this baby find their appropriate home?” I don’t know if this metaphor is working at all.
[0:25:35.6] TG: Well yeah, and I’ve been just thinking of it as like, getting a working first draft is getting it somewhere between 70% and 80% there, because I already thought with the character I introduced last week, I at least have to refer to him earlier in the book, but I wouldn’t have known that until I’m in the middle of the middle build, and I add him in. Then I’ve got to make it continuous.
As you said, we’re still even figuring out what the book is really about, and so once we figure that out it will be towards the end of the book, so I’ll have to go back through and make sure that thread is continuous through the whole thing. I just think of I’m gathering all the pieces I need and putting them in a rough order, but then I have to go back and turn on it several times to make sure it’s actually a finished project.
But that, I used to think that would be the hard part, and I’m realizing that part, which I haven’t done it yet, so who knows, but I feel like that part will become much more clear, and this has been the part that’s just so hard, is figuring out what the story even is from the get go.
[0:26:55.3] SC: Yeah, I think the first part is the hard part, and that’s why you want to build in and allow for avenues of revision that could change the story dramatically, but not require all that much surgery. What I mean by that is, for example, a lot of people have emailed me and said, “Tim’s protagonist is 12 years old, and that’s not going to work because X, Y and Z,” but my point is that, the differences between a 12-year old point of view and a 48-year old point of view are often not that different. Especially when we’re dealing with a story about a worldview change.
Because we, as human beings, it doesn’t matter how old we are. We are really, really good at lying to ourselves. So if your story, at the end of the day when we have a first draft of it, and we look at it and we say, “Okay, let’s take a look at the marketing of this novel. Who is the core market? Is this going to satisfy a core market? Should we hone it in into a LitRPG only point of view? Should we do that, or should we try and amp it up a little bit and try to go to the action thriller genre, which is a little bit more diffused anamorphous? Maybe we should change the protagonist age.”
Believe it or not, that’s not a lot of hard work. What that requires are moments of adding, “Oh, how was the prom?” A lot of people will probably say, “This is crazy, that’s a huge difference.” The actions that the character takes are what define them. Their age are little characteristics. It’s not the same thing. The age of the character is not the same as the actions that the character takes. We are defined by our actions, not by our characteristics.
Nobody looks at me and says, “Oh, that salt and pepper hair guy.” They say, “Oh, that’s the guy who edits books.” What I do, my actions define who I am, not my physical attributes. Nobody says, “Oh, Sean Coyne is a brown-eyed guy with salt and pepper hair who’s in his 50’s”. No. They go, “Oh, that’s the guy who edits books,” and that’s the same thing in our fictional characters.
Nobody cares how old Jay Gatsby was, and Katniss Everdeen. Yeah, she’s 17 years old, but she has the courage of a superhero. Her soul is a lot older than 17 years old. She makes choices that 52-year old guys don’t make. So her age and her characteristics are the novelists choices that can be manipulated after the story has been told. Does that make sense?
[0:30:18.9] TG: Yeah, I feel like again, it’s getting to that point of like, we’re just deciding on the age of the characters, not what makes the story work. Again, I think that’s what — as I think back on my own writing, as I’ve been working with writers now for eight years, it’s just so easy to get caught on these tiny things that don’t matter.
I got — I forgot one woman wrote this 3500-word blog post talking about how the book’s not going to work because it doesn’t, basically because she’s 12. I’ve kept thinking, “Okay, well, should we change it?” or whatever, but then I’ve thought that same thing of like, “Well, to make her 16 would take me about 30 minutes to just go back through and just change,” because the book is not just about 5th grade, you know what I mean? The book is not about what it means to be in 5th grade or whatever. It’s about all these other things that have nothing to do with her age.
And so, if at the end, we need to change it, we’ll just change it. But I could see how like, “Okay. Oh man, I need to just go ahead and change her age. We’ll make it 16.” I go back through, at this point I stop, I go back through, and I change everything to match 16. Well then somebody else tells me, “She should actually be seven. That would be even better,” and so I’m like, “Oh you’re probably right, and there’s all these really good reasons of why she should be,” and I go back and I change that, or like, “Oh, it should be a boy instead of a girl,” and I say “Yeah, you’re probably right,” so I go back and change everything.
I think that comes back to the idea of this guiding theme. The theme is not about man versus women or age, it’s about this overarching “sacrificing yourself for the good of others,” and so as long as we’re writing on theme, we could always change other things later. That’s where I keep telling myself, like, “Keep writing scenes and sequences that work according to the Story Grid, and at the end, I’ll be able to take a much broader look at everything and look at the book as a whole.”
But for now, that’s enough to pay attention to, and once they work, I can just keep moving and knowing that it would be so much — I’m trying to think of how to explain this. It’s like, there’s so many things I could be doing that I could tell myself was progress, that is not actually progress. I have those friends that have been working on the same book for three and a half years, and it’s still not done. It is half done, because they just keep going back and re-tweaking things without having a book actually to look at.
That feels like progress, because every day they get up and work on the book. But they’re actually never getting to an end point and actually putting the book out into the world, and so I just think of this as like, I want to get a book out into the world. I want to finish it, I want a working book, and at the end, I can go back and fix all these tiny little things.
It’s like when I do woodworking stuff. The last thing I built was this big table to go on a porch. I just put the damn thing together first. Then I go back and I fill in the holes, and I sand it, and I might unscrew something and tighten it down, and pull it back, and start doing all of those other things to really dial it in. But I need the table first. If I try to make each individual board perfect before I put it together, the table would never get built, first, and it would still not be right when I finally put it together at the end. I would still have to do all that work to make the boards match each other and come together at the end.
That’s how I think of this, as like, I’m just trying to put something together that, at the end, looks like a table. I can go back through and refine it and make it perfect at the end, but for now, I just need something that looks and smells like a coming of age story that’s an action thriller. As long as I have that, I’ll have something to work with, and I can tweak everything later.
[0:35:04.4] SC: That’s true, and there are plenty of examples. The coming of age story, the maturation plot, is a universal theme. It’s part of the worldview internal plot, which is a shift of the way we see the world. A 12-year old’s coming of age can be very similar to As Good as it Gets, where the character is in his 60s or 50s and sees the world one way, has a moment of clarity that completely devastates him, and he changes his point of view. He tries to become a better person.
Springsteen talks about that in the interview, where when he was growing up, he thought as long as he solved his rock and roll problems, meaning he became a successful rock and roll artist, and made millions and millions of dollars and was able to take care of any financial problem that he faced, then everything will be fine. He did that. When he was in his early 30s, he had a crisis, because he realized that that was nothing. That worldview was naïve.
He wanted a life richer than just a guy who tours all the time and delivers four hours of great music every night. That was a mask that he wore, and he was running away from being a fully functional human being, and he says this. It’s a great interview, and his book is exactly, has that exact thematic progression. His book is called Born to Run, which is the title of his second album, and it was how he ran away from himself for years and years and years and years.
His story, in his book, there’s a reason why he didn’t write his book when he was 28. He wrote his book now because he can look back at his worldview and he can say to himself, “You know what? Yeah, I’m a rock and roll star, but that’s not what I’m proud of. I’m proud of the fact that I faced some very challenging things in my life and I changed. I changed the way I view the world. I realized that living a life dedicated to only my selfish art was not enough. That I needed to change myself so that I would be able to have a loving relationship with another human being, and to have a life that had meaning beyond dollars and Grammys and platinum records.”
That’s what his book is about. That’s why his book was so great, that’s why this interview was great, and that is what we’re all trying to do. So we can get locked into, and story grid gives you a million different things to drive you crazy, and to run away from the core story of your story. What’s the theme of your story? That’s what you are searching for, that is progress. When you move that ball a little bit closer to understanding what the story is really about.
The way we can cheat is by saying, “Oh let’s pretend we know the theme. Let’s go with that, but I love this genre. I love thrillers, and what are thrillers about? Thrillers are about sacrificing for the greater good. Great, I’m going to start from there. My book is about the importance of sacrificing yourself for the greater good.”
Okay, let’s move on from there. So what’s the other thing that I want? Oh, I like the Harry Potter story. So I’m going to make my character 12 years old. Who cares if you change that later? As long as you evolve and move your story forward, and you’re absolutely right, going back and fixing stuff, because your story changed in scene 26, so you have to go back and fix all the other previous scenes, that is a waste of time. That is the paralysis of analysis.
You need to keep moving forward. You can fix that other stuff later. You can hone in on specific genre. You can say, “Oh, well this is a thriller, but it would really work better if I tone down the environments and amped up the coming of age story. So maybe I should do that.” I mean, a lot of these great action stories, like Enders Game. There isn’t a lot of action in Enders Game. It’s a lot of coming of age stuff, but he used the arena of the action story to give depth and an immediate visceral identity for his readers.
They’re like, “Oh yeah, I can’t wait for that big moment,” and then he seated all of this other coming of age stuff inside of it. What does it mean to be your own person? What does it mean to be lied to? How do you navigate a world where you’re alienated? Those are big themes, but it’s a great story about a big event at the end, too. It’s a war story.
So your story, right now, it’s not perfect, but it’s moving forward. You’re moving forward, and to stop yourself and say, “Somebody wrote a 3500-word blog post that really made a lot of sense, and she’s right about my genre choices, and my marketing choices, and my marketplace. Maybe I should go back and fix it,” that is a recipe for despair.
[0:41:04.7] TG: Yeah, and it’s such a hard line to know when it’s worth stopping and redoing, and when it’s worth moving forward, and that’s where I found, like, last week. We talked about, like, “Well, okay, Az probably shouldn’t have a gun and be shooting people.” But you’re like, “But you need to keep moving.” It was a big kind of aha moment for me. Like, I stop and fix something when I’m breaking one of the five commandments of storytelling, or when I’m obviously missing a major piece of the story. Sitting still and churning on something until it meets the story grid conventions is worth it.
Then, once it’s there and it works, it’s time to move on. So I made a note, “Az shouldn’t be out running in the woods shooting people and here’s why,” and I’ll fix that later. Because who knows, Az might do something, and I just keep thinking, “Okay, I fix that now, and then Az does something else in a future thing and I have to come back and fix it again.” So as long as it works, and it meets the five commandments, and it’s a good working sequence, it’s just time to keep moving and I can fix that stuff later.
[0:42:27.7] SC: Yes, and I’ll just add one more thing to that, and that is this, that the story spine, and we’ve talked about this a lot, but we never talk about it enough. Your audience will forgive so many mistakes if your story spine is very clear. The story spine is the hero’s journey, and it requires that your lead character or characters have a goal. They want to get something, they have a want, and they have to leave their little world and go after it.
They have to go on a mission to get what they want, and by the end of the story, they either get what they want, or don’t get what they want, or get a little of what they thought they wanted, or it ends ironically, where they get something and they lose another. But the whole thing about stories is that they’re about change. They’re about how we human beings cope with change. Now, change is the one thing that is always present in our lives. The universe is constantly changing, things happen to us that we had no idea were coming, and that throws us for a loop.
So what we do is we look to stories for advice. We look for stories to give us prescriptions on how to handle specific kinds of change, and we also look at them as cautionary tales. What not to do in case something happens to us. So knowing that, as long as your story is about a character who undergoes a very drastic change, and has to navigate an alien world in order to get back home, changed as a human being, your story is on very solid ground. You can mash, and mix, and make all kinds of mistakes in your storytelling in terms of genre, if that is so crystal clear that it grabs the reader and makes them want to go on the ride.
So I am not saying ignore conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen genre. What I’m saying is those conventions and obligatory scenes are ways to help you navigate the storytelling to get from beginning hook to your middle build to your ending payoff.
We know in a thriller there has to be a scene where the hero is at the mercy of the villain. So if you finish this book, and there is no scene where Jessie is at the mercy of the villain, we have a problem. We can fix that problem, but knowing that that scene has to be at the ending payoff, or close to the ending payoff, you know you have to deliver that scene and you will write that scene.
So that is really, really helpful, but the story spine is as simple as a character undergoes a very traumatic change for the good or for the ill. They have to deal with that change, that change causes a worldview change, and they come home irrevocably different. That’s what storytelling is at its most barebones. It’s about how to deal with change.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:46:01.9] 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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Episode 67 Transcript
[0:00:01.0] 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 Sawn 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 solidly in the middle build. I sent Shawn three more scenes for us to go through, and this is all about — and I named the episode Correctly Progressively Complicating Your Scenes, which is quite the mouthful, but it’s really what this episode is about, because when you’re in the middle of the middle build, you have to keep the story moving without going too fast and skipping over things or upping the stakes too much, which is what I tend to do, but you also don’t want to go so slow that it’s boring and people stop reading.
That’s what we discussed lot in this episode as we get deep into the middle build of my story, but we all hit that middle build and trying to figure out how to keep the story moving at the right pace is really important, and so I think you’ll enjoy this episode.
Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:18.0] TG: Shawn, I took a couple weeks off, went on vacation and came back and started working on this — the next series of scenes. It’s been so funny because I always — these last couple of sequences, I don’t know what to do with them, and so I just put of the writing because I can’t think of anything. It’s amazing how it reaches Monday morning and I need to write something and inspiration hits.
Anyway, so I sent you the next three scenes, so this was where after the first test and then Jessie kind of hijacks the test and burns the tower down so that nobody can actually finish the test. This is like the fallout from that.
As I was writing it, I was thinking several things. One of the problems I’ve had in my first try at writing the test was that it was too linear, there was no, like they tried something and it failed. I tried to input that into this where they come up with a plan, and then before they can even implement the plan, the plan fails. That’s in the first scene where they decided, try to hide Jessie or something.
Then I tried to be surprising in presenting the president and tried to really turn him at the end of the scene where it really seems like he’s this nice guy and then it ends with him showing like, “This is what I’m really after, because I know in a few scenes, I’m going to make the faction the enemy and I want to kind of set that up.”
In the last scene, what I was trying to do was create some secrets between the friends. There’s Jessie, and then Alex, and Ernst, and it’s pretty straightforward what Alex and Ernst went out of their time there, and it’s pretty straight forward what Jessie wants out. This is the first time — everything is in conflict, and so she hides from them what’s really going on. I thought that would be nice to kind of set up some conflict there where she’s now not saying what’s really going on. She’s got her own secret from even her friends.
Anyway, that’s kind of what I was thinking as I wrote these three scenes out transitioning into when she first kind of runs into her brother. I would love your thoughts.
[0:03:52.8] SC: What I’ve really liked about these three scenes is that you really progressively complicated them. Remember, one of the really difficult things about writing a long-form story is that you always have to be moving the ball forward and you can’t go backwards. When I say that, what I’m talking about is when people make choices in the story and things aren’t working well, they can never go back in time. They can’t go back to before the choice they made.
Is the action that the person takes, is that irreversible or not? That is a really good test to see if you are progressively complicating the story. For example, when at the very beginning of the novel, when Jessie makes the decision that she’s not going to go to the training, that was a reversible decision, right? She was able to, by the end of the beginning hook, reverse that decision and actually go to the training, which is important, because you do not want to lock yourself into irreversible choices for your lead character at the very beginning of the story, because then you put yourself in a box and you can’t get out of it.
No, but as you progress in the telling, once you hit the middle build, you have to get to a point where the decisions that the character makes are irreversible, meaning they can’t go back in time and go home.
Once Jessie got to the training, she’s trying to reverse her decision again. She’s trying to go back home. What’s happening here in these three chapters is you are building an irreversible choice for her, because you wisely had the force of evil, who’s the antagonist, who’s the president say to Jessie, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Okay, not only will you suffer if you mess up and you get flushed out of the program, but the other two who are now attached to you are going to suffer even more.”
She now has to make very difficult choices and the ramifications of her choices are no longer just about her. The choice that you made here to do that was very impressive to me, because this — we’re getting to the meat and the heart of the story. The middle of your novel are the moments when your character has to face really serious dilemmas, and the choices that they make when faced by these dilemmas are what are really telling about their character.
One of the things people talk to me about this story grid, just to take a step back for a second, is that they say, “Oh! Well, the story is all about plotting. It’s all about action. I don’t really know how it’s going to help me developing my characters. I’m really into my characters and I really need to flesh them out and make sure that they’re believable.
The great truth that people, who are amateurs, don’t realize as writers is that action is character. The other stuff are characteristics; somebody’s hair color, the kind of clothes they like to wear, how smart they are. Those are characteristics. Those are not character. Character is making a choice under stress and the results of that choice.
I can say too until I’m blue in the face, “Hey Tim, you can always trust me, but if you tell me some deep, dark secret from your past, then the next thing you know, I go and tell all my friends and laugh at you. What my words are and what my actions are are completely contradictory. My character is reflected in my action, not my words.” Do you understand what I’m saying?
[0:08:17.7] TG: Yeah. Yeah, I remember Steven King talks about this a good bit and on writing. He talks about how fun it is to always have — I’m probably butchering it, because it’s been a while since I read it. He talks about how he enjoys having characters say one thing and then do a different thing, because you can never trust what people are saying. You have to trust what they’re doing, and it’s the same thing when you’re writing, is that you can have the character say one thing, but then they go and do something opposite and now you actually know who they are.
[0:08:53.0] SC: Exactly. Exactly, and you’re creating much larger crisis in your story than one particular scene that you usually have in that particular scene. One of the things that I do in the story grid is I say, “When you’re outlining your novel, what you want to do is boil down your scenes, right? You need to have a scene in your beginning hook that serves as the crisis of the entire beginning hook. You need to have a scene that serves as your climax. You need to have a scene that serves as your resolution.
A lot of people say, “Yeah. Yeah, I understand. I understand that,” but when it comes to actually doing it, they misinterpret what I’m saying, whether incapable of being able to do it. What you did is created a really strong crisis scene for your middle build. That crisis scene is when the president says to Jessie, “You’re in deep trouble now. I’m going to hurt other people if you don’t do what I tell you to do.”
That can serve as your crisis of the middle build, and the question is; what is Jessie going to do? Is she going to save herself and try and get back home no matter what at the expense of her friends, or is she going to figure out another way out of this predicament? You don’t really give the answer here, which is another smart thing to do. She’s contemplating it and she’s keeping it secret from Ernst and Alex, because she doesn’t want to rain on their parade.
These three scenes were really, really nice, because they raised the stakes of your story from sort of, “Oh! Is she going to win the competition,” to, “If she doesn’t win this competition, she’s going to cause a lot of hell for a lot of other people, not just her friends, but the families of her friends.” You’re making the choices larger and larger and larger, which is exactly what you need to do to get the reader more and more invested in the story.
[0:11:13.5] TG: What I thought — I was also thinking that I wanted to put her in the same situation that she was in with the end of the beginning hook, which was her actions now damaged somebody else.
[0:11:24.2] SC: Right.
[0:11:25.7] TG: And so now she — Where that, she didn’t realize she was damaging other people and now she’ll know if she’s doing it, if that makes sense. She took actions and somebody got hurt, but she didn’t realize that would happen. Where now, he’s like telling her, “If you do this, these other people are going to be hurt.” Now she has a choice to make.
[0:11:46.3] SC: Yes. The other thing that I really liked in the scene was the little trick he did with the president having him be sort of like the Wizard of Oz, a little befuddled, and silly, and kind of absentminded, professor like when Jessie finally does meet him. It also explains that there’s a lot at stake here, far more at stake here than we previously thought. This is not a rich society. This faction, these group of people are sort of just kind of barely getting by, and this threshing thing is really important. Obviously, it’s very important, because the head of the entire government is investing a lot of energy in getting this little girl to fight for the entire structure.
I also like the fact that you kept it a secret about who let him know about her abilities. That’s one of the things that we often forget to do when we’re writing is to drop in a lot of setups, and a lot of secrets, and a lot of pay up.
Now, at the end of these three chapters, your readers are going to be really intrigued. They’re going to say to themselves, “I wonder when she’s going to tell Alex and Ernst about discussion with the president. I wonder when she’s going to trust them enough to tell him that. I wonder who was behind her coming to the thing in the first place?”
The other thing that’s really good is that your thematic elements are becoming stronger. When I say the thematic element, is this is a girl who just wants to go home. She wants to return to the time in her life when everything was taken care of for her, when her brother was home, her mom was happy, her father was happy, they were all together. She didn’t have to worry about anything, because she was just a child.
Now, the longer you get in into your story, the more responsibilities that are starting to weigh down on her back, which only increases her want to go back to the time when she didn’t have to deal with any of that stuff. Now, it’s getting larger and larger and larger. I also like the fact that they were rewarded. They were rewarded for Jessie’s brilliance and messing up the game.
I really think you did a nice job of not overdoing it, overplaying the drama.
[0:14:29.9] TG: What do you mean?
[0:14:31.2] SC: When you had the scene where the president sort of explains to her that she’s not in trouble. She’s a little bit in trouble, but he does admire the fact that she was able to outsmart the game and she did cause some trouble, because, now, he’s going to have to eliminate twice as many teams as he would have than he had planned. That’s a small switch for him.
Don’t forget who is boss here. At the end, when he dresses her down very strongly, it was a real indication, “Yeah, I can play the friendly absentminded professor, but let’s not forget who’s in control here,” which was a really nice touch. How long is that scene? 1,500 words tops?
[0:15:23.3] TG: Yeah. Yeah, it was — because you had said before, trying to make it where like she’s flattered. When I was writing the scene, I felt like she wouldn’t care if he was flattered. She just wants to go home. She doesn’t really care about anybody else and what they think of her. That’s why I kind of — She did this thing that she thought was really clever and she was trying to be the thorn, and he kind of like weighed it off like it was no big deal. She thought that was her ticket home and she realized like it didn’t even bother. It didn’t even get her close. Because part of this is making her feel helpless and forced to do the things she doesn’t want to do. Anyway — Go ahead.
[0:16:17.4] SC: No. I think that was a good choice. I do, because he’s psychologically manipulating her. What was nice about that scene is that the beginning of the scene, he wants to befriend her, right? He is giving her very smooth and soothing language. He’s letting her know that he’s not the scary guy that she thinks he is. He hired somebody to play him, because he just doesn’t like to do that sort of thing. He would rather enjoy a nice cup of coffee in his study, and he’s a very nice gentleman.
He’s using that tactic. He’s trying to slowly present himself as a father figure. When she doesn’t respond to it in the way that he wanted her to, he goes to the hammer. What’s great here is that you’re increasing the dilemma of Jessie, because he’s implicating other people’s lives for her. She still just wants to go home.
Now, she’s going to — She’s still going to pursue her want, which is to go back home in the least amount of pain to other people as possible. That’s still her serious want. She wasn’t overly flattered by the guy, but now she knows, “I have to play the game. If I want to go home safely, I’ve got to play the game. I’ve got to do what this guy is telling to do, or other people are going to get hurt.”
She’s like, “If you want me to be that warrior, then I’ll figure out how to do it as long as can get home.” That works as well as somebody who’s flattered by the attention and wants to get more attention. You also set up something nice, because now we know there’s going to be some dramatic confrontation between Az and Jessie, because he was dressed down in the meeting with everybody else.
I also like the choice that you did not do shoe leather. You could have easily — And you may decide later on to do this, you could have easily given us that scene, right? You could have taken the scene to the room and everybody could have been yelled at and Az could have been humiliated, and that’s the scene the readers kind of expecting.
Instead, what you did, was you zigged when the reader is expecting a zag. When we get the scene where Jessie talks to the president instead after they’re trying to escape, and then when she comes back from that, she’s reported, they report to her what happened in the meeting that we didn’t want to read about anyway, because we know what was going to happen in that meeting.
Yeah, you didn’t stick in the scene. That’s all to say, is that you didn’t go for the obvious throw, which is to give us that scene and try an innovative scene.
[0:19:33.3] TG: Yeah, I wasn’t being that clever. It was mostly — I was like, “Well, she wasn’t there, and we’re doing this book where we only see things through her point of view, so I can’t,” — so I was like, “Well, if she wasn’t there, then I can’t put her in the scene.”
[0:19:49.9] SC: You can put her there.
[0:19:52.1] TG: Yeah, I guess I was just — I was thinking like she was off doing something else. I wasn’t thinking that. I wasn’t thinking, “Well, I’m going to zig, when I should be zaggy with mostly.” Like, “I can’t, because I got her over here. What else am I going to do?”
[0:20:05.9] SC: This is the great thing about when you start hitting your stride in your story, is that you eliminate so many options that you would have thought of earlier, because you’re so focused on the character. You’re like, “Oh! She wasn’t at that meeting. Somebody has to tell her.” You intuitively knew, “Oh! She’s at the meeting with the president while they’re having that meeting.” Do you know what I’m saying?
That makes perfect logical sense, but what happens when we’re grinding on a story is that we say, “Oh, now I have to have the scene where that happens, and then it has to be there.” We never think, “I’ll just have the character another character tell her what happened in that meeting.” You’re doing that means that you’re starting to see your story through your lead character’s eyes, and that’s why even though you were lazy and you didn’t sit down and do your work until Monday, you are able to bang out these three scenes, and these are three of the best scenes you’ve ever written. Did you know that?
[0:21:17.6] TG: No, but it’s good to hear.
[0:21:20.5] SC: They’re very clear. They’re very — There’s clear five commandments in each of them.
[0:21:26.7] TG: I was thinking that, because I was struggling with in the first scene. As I was writing it and getting towards the end, I realized I had no crisis, because I knew I was getting them — I was going to have them get away from everybody. Alex be really pissed off and then she get picked up by the guards. I knew that’s where I was going, but that meant there was no crisis there. The guards come for her, there’s no crisis.
That’s why I was like, “Okay. I need them to make a decision,” right?
[0:22:03.8] SC: Right.
[0:22:04.5] TG: Because I thinking, “You tend to want more active crisis than regulatory.” My default, like I try to think of how to make it an active thing. I was like, “I just have him make this decision to hide her,” even though I know before they even get started, they’re going to get caught, but then at least I have a decision. I just came up with some decision and stuck it in there so that there would be a crisis and then a climax and resolution and then it just gets hijacked and I get where I need to go anyway.
I realized that as I remember typing — I was in the middle of the scene typing it, I’m like, “I have no crisis,” and so I just dropped one in that seemed like the most obvious that came to mind.
[0:22:54.5] SC: Again, that’s a character choice too. That sheds a lot of light on the character. The character that sheds on is Ernst. Ernst is a guy who hides, and his initial thing is, “Oh, hi.” The other thing is that’s all of our initial things. That’s our initial reaction whenever we face a conflict or a crisis, is we go, “Oh, I’ll just run away from it. I can hide from it.”
[0:23:24.6] TG: What I think of Alex is his initial reaction is to fight and Ernst is to run.
[0:23:31.0] SC: Yes.
[0:23:31.8] TG: One is fight and one is flight.
[0:23:35.0] SC: Yeah, and it comes off. It doesn’t have to be any deeper than that, and it rings true, and it’s also a really nice thing that those two are now her protector. I also like the fact that you make it so that the coms people, and the communications people, and the people who regulate the body…
[0:23:59.9] TG: The medic. Yeah.
[0:24:00.6] SC: The medic. They don’t see what the hacker or coder sees in the world. They have to rely upon what the coder tells them when they get back, right?
[0:24:13.8] TG: Right.
[0:24:14.5] SC: Now, I’m going to say this now. The fact that you use that, you need to pay that off later.
[0:24:22.7] TG: What do you mean?
[0:24:23.9] SC: Think about — One of the really difficult things about writing this kind of book is to have surprising twists when the lead character is challenged in active way. The two severings that are coming up and the threshing, you may even want to — I don’t want to tell you what to do, but how many scenes do you have now? 23?
[0:24:51.7] TG: Yeah, 25. 25 scenes.
[0:24:54.6] SC: Okay, so 25 scenes in. You’re close to the midpoint of your novel, and at the midpoint of your novel, we usually see the low point of hope. There’s a real sort of All Is Lost moment that is looming.
[0:25:15.1] TG: Right. The plan is to trigger that with her brother.
[0:25:18.0] SC: Yes. The other thing is that just because you say there are severings and there are three challenges, you could say, “You know what? We’re skipping the third challenge, because this is — Do you know what I mean? You could pull that out and ratchet up the stakes by having a revelatory turning point in one of the future scenes where the president says, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve decided to cut the third severing.”
So everything is going on this, so that it can really, really raise the stakes, because you’ve prepared the reader for three challenges, right? You can really get some cheap — It’s not cheap. We’re planning it. Some excitement and intrigue in your reader by changing the rules at the last minute, because that’s what tyrannies do all the time, they say one thing and then they change the rules in the middle of it.
Back to that setup I was talking about where the coms and the medics guys don’t see the world. If the coders come back, those two are reliant on what the coder tells them happened there in order to react or not act. She could be an unreliable narrator or one of the other people could be, and they could say…
[0:26:43.2] TG: She could lie to them while she’s in there too about what’s going on.
[0:26:48.9] SC: Exactly. Yes, and so can the other players.
[0:26:54.7] TG: It’s interesting, because I went back — When we stopped and you had me start playing the alpha middle build because I kept missing the mark on the first sequence, and like — It’s unusable now, because I’m so far off of the path that I’ve built originally. I’ve had to go back to that document and start rebuilding it.
In just two scenes, they went so different than what I had laid out that I have to start re-planning everything.
[0:27:28.2] SC: That’s good. Here’s a good rule of thumb. If while you’re writing you surprise yourself when you’re writing the stuff, you know you’re on to something, because if you are just assigning yourself tasks and doing exactly as you thought you would be doing in the task, you’re not surprising yourself. If you can’t surprise yourself as you’re writing and you don’t see things occur to you that you write down that really work, then you’re writing something that’s — If you can’t surprise yourself, you’re probably not going to surprise a reader.
The fact is that when you wrote these scenes and you go, “Oh, no! Now, I have to completely redo my thing, because it isn’t anything that I planned.” That’s a good sign. That should not be something that says you’re really frustrated.
Now, with that said, as long as you are abiding your five commandments of storytelling in each scene, as long as you are still on theme — You need to be able to allow yourself to work and write your scenes with as much creativity as possible with very confined requirements of those scenes. When you’re writing the scenes, let yourself write the scene. Don’t stop yourself, because you’re going to have to revise your outline.
[0:29:00.1] TG: Yeah, I was just surprised how, in just two sequences, I went wildly different than what I’ve planned on, which is been good, because what I planned out was this very linear, she goes into this severing, she wins the severing and da-da-da-da-da, and then…
[0:29:22.9] SC: I have to tell you something that I’ve been holding back from telling you for a while.
[0:29:29.5] TG: Uh-oh.
[0:29:30.7] SC: No, it’s not bad. It’s not bad. One of my major concerns with the progression of the novel was that we were losing our empathy for Jessie, and that means that the reader is losing the why of what she’s doing. That means that the story’s spine, the hero’s journey is getting lost in the tropes and the micromanaging of the scene by scene.
The story’s spine is all about what your character wants versus what they need. Now, what Jessie always wanted was to go home, and you can saw that until your blue in the face, but until you actually see her literally trying to get what she wants on the page, it can often fade into the background of the narrative and the reader will slowly lose interest without knowing why. These two scenes, or three scenes, that you wrote, they really put us back on the train, back on the story’s spine of her quest, or her want to get back home. It also indicates to the reader, because this is the second or third time where once she makes a little bit of a connection with somebody else, it’s immediately threatened.
Her need is to discover the truth that there is no magical way of going back home. Her want to go back to a more blissful time is never going to happen. That is what he need is. That’s maturation. That’s when you discover that the magical childhood place when food is magically on the table and everything is taken care of, and if your socks get holes in them, you get new socks. That magical world is not reality. The maturation process is moving into understanding the world as it is as supposed to what you were lied to in your youth about what it is.
I’ve been a little concerned about us losing that threat about who Jessie is and what she really wants and what she really needs until these three scenes, because it’s very clear that the president is a father figure. That, here we go again, there’s some nice older man who’s being nice to her as long as she does what she’s told. It’s a conditional sort of attention. The father figure will give her a conditional attention as long as she does what he tells her to do. That is information that she’s slowly starting to learn that life is a lot more complicated than it seems, and that parents are real people too, and that sometimes what they want us to do isn’t good for us.
Anyway, this is really nice, because we also see her forming a bond with Alex and Ernst. Now, she’s become their protector. She is getting her family. She’s getting what she needs.
[0:33:09.3] TG: She just doesn’t know.
[0:33:11.3] SC: What she needs is to have a group of people who care about here and will sacrifice for her and will be her family. Those two people; Ernst and Alex, are serving as that reminder to the reader, “Oh! Those people are taking care of her now just like 83 and 61 did back in the numbered world.”
Anyway, this was a really nice step forward with these scenes. I enjoyed reading them. I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Good job.
[0:33:52.6] TG: Thank you. That’s nice to hear. It’s funny, because I’ve been so angsty about the length of the book and the length of the scenes, and you keep telling me to stop worrying about that, and I can’t, or I’ve had trouble putting that to the side. Those scenes I sent — These scenes were a thousand words, 1,600 words, and then I think it was like 600 or 700 words.
As we’re talking here, I pulled up the book, because we’re not 25 scenes in, which means we’re — I’m hitting stride, so I should have the middle point, All Is Lost scene in the roughly five scenes. Long and behold, I’m at 28,000. I’ll be around 35,000, and we’re planning on a 60,000-word novel.
I’m hitting all the marks even though I keep — Every time I write a scene that is less than 1,500 words, I have to forgive myself. Seriously, I have to go through this whole process where I’m like, “Oh, God! I did it again. I wrote this tiny little scene. Okay, ”— I keep saying — I’ll have to process it. That’s been good too.
I’m struggling a little bit with how now to get her — The things I’m feeling are, one; she needs to have another class with Az. That’s a bigger one, because I’ve set that up. We also — I have to get her to meeting with her brother. Have that revelation that kicks off, because, again, at the halfway point is when she switches from basically being selfish to unselfish. In my book, that means she’s going to give up this — She’s going to trade the dream of just looking up for herself and going home and trade it for a bigger vision of saving somebody else, or saving other people.
My original plan was to have that happen in the middle of the second severing, where he basically pulls her out without her realizing what’s going on. That could also be where he basically has her lie to Ernst what’s going on. I don’t know.
Is that kind of a good plan? Do I need to — I feel like I need her to clash with Az again, because I’ve set that up. I feel like this middle build thing is much harder than the beginning hook. It’s just so long, and like figuring out how to progressively complicate it, but not too much, like, “Don’t go too far, too fast, because we’re still pretty early.”
Anyway, that’s my next thing.
[0:36:50.3] SC: I think that’s a pretty good plan. I think that’s a pretty good plan. The other thing to keep in mind is I don’t know how you have resolved the relationship between Jessie’s brother and the president and the faction. You don’t have to tell me, but I think having her — Remember, is that for the All Is Lost moment, it really has to hit a very critical place. It will seem as if there’s no way out.
You could even do that by escalating mistakes of the action element in the story, and we all know action stories turn on life and death. One of the things that we talked about at the very beginning of the story was in her ability to survive death in the virtual world. Her being seemingly dead in the virtual world, she’s capable of surviving that. Because nobody else knows of that quality, all will believe that she is dead, and maybe the medic, who’s Alex, will declare her dead or something. I’m not sure.
I like the idea of her being pulled out of the game by this force. It’s the game within the game, and that force which is her — The ghost in the machine, or her brother, explains to her just what’s really going on here. Wouldn’t it be great if you’re able to go home without your friends having getting in a lot of trouble? He establishes the real antagonist, or he lies to her. I’m not sure what your choices are there.
Whatever happens, there has to be a moment of All Is Lost meaning. What All Is Lost means is this; I could not, for the life of me, figure out what to do next. I cannot fix whatever happened. What am I going to do? This is what I talked about in the book when I talked about the Kubler-Ross change curve. It’s that moment in our lives when we discover, “Oh my gosh! I’m going to have to change. I’m going to have to change the way I think about the world. How am I going to do that? Because the way I think about the world has just been obviously proven by every stretch of the imagination. The way I used to think about the world is completely wrong. It’s only getting me into trouble. It’s going to lead to disaster. I can either change the way I see the world and come up with a solution, or I can just give up now.” That’s what All Is Lost is about. It’s facing the truth that your world view is wrong.
[0:40:06.1] TG: Can you give me some examples?
[0:40:09.1] SC: Great. Sure. The All Is Lost moment in — Let me think. What would be a good example off the top of my head?
[0:40:19.1] TG: Start with Silence of the Lambs then.
[0:40:22.3] SC: Oh, okay. The All Is Lost moment in the Silence of the Lambs is when Starling, Clarice Starling is kicked off the case. It comes just about — I think it’s probably around chapter 44, so it’s scene 44. What happens is that she goes to Tennessee, and she’s looking at the victim’s old apartment, the one who’s been abducted and Buffalo Bill is holding her captive.
The mother of the victim who’s a very powerful senator accuses her of stealing things in the victim’s room. She gets her kicked off and says, “I don’t want that FBI agent to deal with this anymore. She’s terrible. Get her off the case.” One of her flunkies calls Jack Crawford and says, “She’s off the case,” and they kick her off. She has to go back to Quantico.
She was doing her job. Now, not only can she not do her job, she’s completely off the case and she has to go back to school. The “All Is Lost moment” is she had done everything right up to that point. She had followed the rules. She had given — Basically, opened up her brain to Hannibal Lecter so that she could get the right information to figure out where Buffalo Bill was and to get all the right clues.
She’s been repaid by getting kicked off the case, which means that the woman is probably going to die, and that everything that she has done to increase her chances of becoming a real FBI agent have completely failed. What did she do wrong? What’s going on? How is she going to fix this?
Her world view up to that point was that, “As long as I follow the chain of command, as long as I follow the meritocracy inherent in the FBI, everything’s going to be okay. What happens is she goes back, she’s back at Quantico, and it’s like three o’clock in the morning. She gets in, and her roommate’s there, and she makes her feel a little bit better. She can’t sleep.
She has to go, and the way that she gets over that is she goes to the laundry room, and she does laundry. It’s a symbol for going back to the womb, believe it or not. Anyway, she’s sitting there, and she realizes, “I’ve got to go track down this clue by myself. I’ve got to disobey the direct order of the FBI because if I don’t, that girl is going to die. I’ve got to change my world view. Sometimes, you have to break the rules. Sometimes, you don’t have to go. You can’t go the way everybody tells you to go, or people will suffer for that.”
Her world view changes from meritocracy to strict pragmatist. She’s very pragmatic from that point forward. It’s a flawed system, but I am not going to betray what’s important. What’s important is the life and safety of other people.
Her All Is Lost moment happens around chapter 44. That is a really, really important moment. Since we’re going to do Pride and Prejudice, let me tell you the “All Is Lost moment” in that. That moment is when Mr. Darcy — This is about chapter 32, and there’s 61 chapters in “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s about midpoint.
Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth Bennet. If anybody hasn’t read the novel, you really should. It’s great. I hate to spoil it for you, but he proposes to her, and she, not only turns him down, she lets him know that she can’t stand him, that she thinks he’s the worst kind of person. He’s arrogant, and he’s rude, and he’s terrible. The last man on earth she would ever consider marrying would be this guy.
It’s a wonderful scene. Everything he believes about the world is now wrong. He believes, because he’s a gentleman, and then he tells the truth, and that he has a certain social standing. The fact is that he can have any woman he wants as long as she’s attracted to him. Who wouldn’t be? He’s a rich guy. He’s a gentleman.
The fact that this young country girl is saying, “I’m not going to marry you. You’re a jerk.” That destroys his world view. He can do one of two things. He can hate her for it, or he can actually take what she says, and analyze it, and think about it, and change the way he looks at the world, which is he does the second thing.
The rest of the novel is about that world view change for him. The rest of the novel is how he proves he’s changed himself to his beloved. She has to change, too, by the way. Her world view change does not come until the end of the middle build around chapter 48.
In that love story, we had two All Is Lost moments. One with one lover, and one with the other. You should really do that if you’re going to write a love story.
[0:45:42.0] TG: I’m planning on the brother convincing her that the only way she can get home is by helping him tear down the faction, and he is going to end up being the villain in the end because the whole goal was to take over the faction, because the president put him into, basically, captivity after he won the last threshing. This is his way to get back at her.
The All Is Lost moment could be for her, but it wouldn’t be until closer to the end of the middle build. It could be where — First, it was her real father that let her down. Then it was president that showed it. I heard a pastor say one time, “The way to destroy love is to put any conditions on it.” True love has no conditions.
That’s what you’re saying, is like, her first dad was, “I’ll take care of you as long as you obey the rules,” and then same thing with the next one. The brother promises to protect her, but then she dies. That’s when it’s revealed, she comes back. When she comes back, she realizes, finally — She finally gets the point that she is 100% on her own. That then fuels how she enters into the ending payoff.
[0:47:13.8] SC: I think that’s a solid plan. One suggestion is the brother could serve as sort of her Elizabeth Bennet in that moment. What I mean by that is that he can explain to her — I’ve said this again and again. Every great thriller has to have the speech and praises of villain, where the villain makes a really great speech that makes complete sense and that we sort of get enamored to that villain. We don’t even know he’s a villain until much later on, but this could be the moment where the villain gives us his great speech.
The great speech from the brother could be about the fact that she’s completely out of touch with reality. “There is no family, Jessie. You think mom and dad are you family? You think I was your family? That wasn’t a family. That was a unit that worked for the faction. There’s no such thing as this magical,” — He can actually make all of the arguments to her that — Like all the “truths” that somebody who goes through a maturation process comes to believe at least momentarily. He can berate her — Not necessarily berate her but give her the lay of the land, “Look, honey. Here is the truth.”
[0:48:52.1] TG: That would be the second interaction. I want it to be the first one.
[0:48:55.9] SC: Yeah, you could do that in the second one. Hannibal Lecter is always a great model for that kind of — Some of the greatest evil speeches ever made are by Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal Lecter, he is the one who teaches Starling about — He’s the one who points out to her, “You’re being used by Jack Crawford. You’re being used by the FBI. Do you think that they think you have potential as an FBI agent? No. You’re a pretty girl that they sent to arouse me to give up information. You’re a doof for believing that they care about you.” Now, I’m summarizing a lot of subtext, but he uses much better language than I just used.
[0:49:49.2] TG: He didn’t use the word doof.
[0:49:50.5] SC: No, he didn’t use the word doof. I don’t even know if that’s a word. I just invented the word. You know what I mean? It’s like we — The other great thing about thrillers and action stories is that your reader is waiting for that. They want that scene. Bring me that scene. Bring me that truth. Bring me that speech from the villain that just completely mesmerizes me.
Not too much pressure, but that’s an obligatory element, a convention of the genre that you need to deliver in a really fun, interesting way. I think you’ve set yourself up into a place where you will be able to organically generate that kind of speech. Anyway, I went off topic. The “All Is Lost” moment — We were talking about that. The All Is Lost moment is really the crucial element of your middle build. We need that All Is Lost moment for your protagonist because that is the moment when they change their world view. It’s not even — Like in a James Bond story. James Bond doesn’t have an internal change, but the All Is Lost moment is literally All Is Lost in a James Bond movie.
It’s when the Saw is about to cut him in half, and he somehow gets away from it. His world view change is all about his finding some brilliant thing in his brain to get him out of the predicament. It’s not an internal moral or ethical shift. It’s like, “Oh! If I hop off this way and put the rope this way, it’ll cut the rope.” Even James Bond has an All Is Lost moment.
[0:51:41.6] TG: We talked a few weeks ago about the movie Family Man, and how it hit all the marks.
[0:51:50.4] SC: Yeah.
[0:51:51.4] TG: Right at the middle point of the movie, is when he finally stops trying to get back to the old world and accepts that he’s in the new world, but he still doesn’t have it yet, because he still tries to go out and recreate the old world, integrate the old world into the new world, which still means he hasn’t really got it. And so I would…
[0:52:11.3] SC: That’s called bargaining. That’s called bargaining. When you are faced with a crisis or an inciting incident in your life, that completely rocks your world. You got through these stages and one of them is bargaining. “Oh! Okay. I get it. I can’t live in the old world. I’ll just make the new world like the old world.” It is like he’s got a strategy to fix it. He’s not fully All Is Lost at that point.
[0:52:36.1] TG: Right. His All Is Lost moment came closer to the end of the middle build when he finally gets that what he has right now is everything that he needs and wants. That’s the big shift for him.
[0:52:49.6] SC: If I were to recommend the perfect place for an All Is Lost moment, that would be it. It’s right before the climax of the middle build. It’s right before the jet propulsion. It’s when Clarice Starling is sitting in that room, watching her laundry in the dryer. Next scene, she’s in Ohio. She’s — No. The next scene, she goes to see Crawford to get his approval to go to Ohio, because she doesn’t give up on Crawford.
It’s a thing that propels the action into the ending payoff. It’s the transitional moment that gets us over the hump. Now, we’re on that final stretch of momentum that propels us right to the end of the story. You want to plan the All Is Lost moment to be around in a 60-chapter book, around chapter 48, 47- When I say chapters, I mean scenes.
If you have a 60-scene book, and you’re going to do a 10, 11 scene ending payoff, you want it to come right before that. The resolution of the middle build in the Silence of the Lambs is when she goes to see Crawford.
[0:54:07.9] TG: Yeah, okay. Because I was kind of thinking it should be in the middle. I’m like, “Well, she’s not ready to — Everything’s not lost.” What’s going to happen is she’s going to shift, but she’s still going to be trying to have it both ways. All Is Lost…
[0:54:21.8] SC: Right. You could thematically have her say, “She meets her brother. Brother says the faction’s terrible. We got to fix it. If you fix it, you can get to go home again.” She’s like, “Oh, okay. All I have to do is bring down the faction and then I get to go home. Okay, that‘s my bargaining shift. That’s what I’ll do.”
She gets into it, and then something terrible happens, All Is lost. They find out about the brother — I don’t know. Then, she goes into cardiac arrest on the table. Everybody thinks she’s dead, and she changes her world view. That’s the All Is Lost moment. Actually, the next thing is she’s got to go — The plane’s leaving in five minutes for the threshing.
[0:55:06.9] TG: Okay.
[0:55:09.2] SC: Okay.
[0:55:09.1] TG: I’ll get to work on those scenes, and then we’ll go from there.
[0:55:13.0] SG: Okay. Thanks Tim.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:55:14.9] 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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