: 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, as we continue just wading through this pandemic, I’m continuing to work on the second book in The Threshing Series. We jump back in and Shawn gives me some feedback and advice on what to do next with book 2 in the series. I think you’ll enjoy it. Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:43.4] TG: Shawn, I have officially started working on the next book in The Threshing Series, which I’m just calling The Burning for now, just so I have something to call it other than the second book in The Threshing Series. My homework last time was map out the beginning hook and then write the first scene.
I wrote an entire first scene and it was super boring. I just remembered how some of the feedback I’ve gotten on The Threshing is how much people have liked just the pacing and how there’s so much movement and action in it. I just remembered all the times I would write a scene, or a sequence and you’re like, “Okay, now go make it interesting.”
You used the example of the first episode of Bad Men, where instead of them just meeting for coffee and having a conversation, he walked her through the office. There’s always movement. I wrote this scene that’s boring and that I was thinking about it later and I was like, “Okay, how could I just make it exciting, but an exciting entry into it?” Because stepping into The Threshing, it was three scenes of action, basically.
I rewrote the first scene. There was 1,100 words and that I hope was exciting. Then I mapped out what I thought the sequences of the beginning hook could be and sent those over to you. Thoughts.
[0:02:24.2] SC: I thought the scene worked really well. I thought it had that narrative velocity from the start that made you as a reader just connect to what was actually going on on the ground, as opposed to thinking about what had happened in the interim between the end of The Threshing and the beginning of this book. I think you’re definitely on the right track there. I also love the way you’ve set up a lot of conflict and tension already about Harry and about the fact that Jessie is the young queen, in that her consiglieres, her second-in-command are the people that the – just the rank-and-file people who report to the queen, take their cues from as opposed to the queen. I love that. I thought that was really insightful and really a good point.
Generally, the idea of this destabilized world where the scavengers who have been literally outcasts from the global society as represented by New York City and the grid, etc., that they are now seizing the opportunity in the destabilized world after the grid has been shut down to attack the elites in the cities was really good too. All of that was established just through the action of that scene.
I think you’re absolutely on target with the scene. I think the arena that you’re talking about in terms of what happened after the threshing is on the money too. It actually reminded me of I know a lot of people who have served in the military and many different functions, a lot of Special Forces people. Recently, I’ve had some discussions with and one of the guys I was talking to about after the fall of Iraq and just how some bad decisions that were made at the time and the way he put it is like, every guy on the ground knew that the worst possible decision to have made was to fire all of the Iraqi military forces, because what that did is it massive – it was a massive destabilization of people who were very nervous. Now they were thrown into chaos. Whereas, if they had been brought into the American equation, it would have kept a lid on the build-up of anti-American attitudes at that time.
There was a very short window after Saddam Hussein was thrown out of power for the American forces to prove themselves empathetic to the average Iraqi citizen. The way Hussein’s global social structure worked was the majority of people were employed in some military function. When the decision was made to just basically fire everyone who was part of the military, because they were the people that were “conquered” by the military forces that that would be a good idea and it was actually a terrible idea.
It reminded me of – and also there were the safe perimeters within Baghdad that the American forces established that provided perimeter protection of those inside of the perimeter. It seems to me that what you’ve created here is that destabilized environment similar to what Baghdad was like during right after the fall of Iraq.
What to be done is really strong leadership to be able to navigate this very, very delicate balance between keeping everybody stable without it degrading into absolute revolutionary chaos. This first scene that you wrote reminded me of that, because you can see that it’s very, very unstable, but for whatever reason, Jessie has been capable up to this moment of holding a lid on things, that things are really, really at a freeing point, but she’s very, very – an extremely talented and intuitive leader, who knows not to just not pay attention to the scavengers.
All of this is to say that I think this is a really, really good start. It’s very, very action-oriented, which it should be, because life and death is really at stake here. It’s a prime moment in pulling people into your story that didn’t read The Threshing, right? If someone comes to this and reads this first scene, not having read The Threshing, they’re still going to want to know, “I wonder what happens next. This is weird.” This is like a post-apocalyptic world where these people are under attack, they have to reach the safety zone inside of literally across a bridge into a perimeter secured area in Chicago. I mean, I think this is a really good start. I’m sure you’re shocked to hear that.
[0:08:33.2] TG: Well, it was nice because I had written that last – the version you never saw and nobody will ever see. It was sitting on it and then kept thinking about it and kept thinking about it, kept thinking about it and was like – because it started with her, basically just landing in the city and then doing what she’s there to do.
I kept like, well what if it was really hard for her to even get there in the first place? What would that look like? I’m like, oh well, I already established in the first book that the scavengers will attack transports as they’re coming into cities. What if that happens and they have to crash-land a mile from the perimeter and they got to get there? What would that do? That would be interesting and exciting and all of those things.
Then as I wrote it and that’s where I started to having those little things happen, where as I was writing it, I was like, oh, probably the guards would default to Harry, because he knows what’s going on more than this little girl does. That would be annoying for her, but she would also realize they’re not going to listen to her anyway. All of that started to come into my mind as I was writing this. I was pretty happy with how it turned out. I actually did think you would like this one.
[0:09:56.6] SC: Oh, good, good.
[0:09:58.8] TG: Then did you look at – I just mapped out – Did it even make sense the stuff I sent you for the rest of the beginning hook?
[0:10:07.7] SC: Yeah, it does. Again, I think you’re on a good track here because okay, so you open up with this action sequence where probably through quite a bit of insightful strategic and tactical planning, Jessie and Harry probably gets credit for it, because the people will think that all these ideas are coming from Harry, they actually make it into Chicago. Okay, so that’s good.
Then what you have planned here is that Jessie has a really, really comprehensive understanding of the mechanics necessary to power up the grid in a way that will get people back online. That’s a great bit, because she’s now relying upon her complicated worldview that works. She’s extraordinarily capable and we get to see her expertise in action. She’s like, if think that maybe Harry’s leading the charge at the beginning just to get them into the perimeter, now she really shows her stuff when she’s able to splice together a system that will calm the people inside the perimeter. That’s good.
Then she’s going to meet with the person who is presenting himself as the leader of the Chicago area. There’s a tie there, because it’s as his father, which is great. She’s going to have feelings about this guy even before she meets him, because she had mixed feelings about Az. She really did not like Az, but Az proved to be a critical ally at the end of The Threshing. Whatever results there is going to be interesting, because you’re somehow going to be able to create some tension there and she’s going to expect his reaction to be one way and will probably be another and he’s a political figure, so we can’t really trust his – whatever it is that he’s doing in that moment. I think you’ve got a lot of juicy stuff to play with there.
Then the big global unexpected event, the fear event that will drive this second part you’ve embedded in this unit of story when there’s a message from the reapers. The reapers are these godlike figures from a very protected space that don’t just contact anyone. What you’ve also baked in here is that she’s been ignoring dealing with the reapers, out of probably necessity, right?
She can’t deal with the super high-level godlike figures in some other environment that’s obviously protected when she’s responsible for the lives and the survival of massive numbers of people in these cities. Her ignoring the reapers is a great character active way of showing that she has her heart in the right place. She’s solving problems for the many before dealing with the requests of the few, which is great.
Now, now that she gets this message, now what’s really great is that you’re going to have an action sequence, which is going to be even more intense, because the scavengers are going to actually attack Chicago. What’s even better is that the leader of the scavengers is going to be revealed at this moment as Jessie’s former mentor, Balaam, which is awesome.
You’re really embedding a lot of really great deep stuff in this beginning hook that will really drive readers of The Threshing and excite them, while also, I think it’ll be strong enough as stand-alone action to bring in people who didn’t read The Threshing. I think you’re on track there.
Then you’ve got this moment where at the end of this beginning hook, what you want to set up are all of the fellowship from The Threshing, you’ve got Harry, Alex as his father and Jessie, they understand that for whatever reason, they have to secure the leadership people, so they’re trying to get them out of the city, so that they don’t get killed during this attack with the scavengers. What happens is that they’re overrun and they kidnap Jessie.
That’s a really, I think pretty exciting beginning hook, where at the beginning of this beginning hook, Jessie is a very powerful figure who demonstrates her power over and over again. Then at the end of the beginning hook, she has now been held captive and she’s now agency deprived. She’s going to lose her power at the end of this beginning hook, which when she loses her power, that threatens everything.
The forces that are going to take her are the powerless. That’s cool too, because she’s going to move from her ordinary world, which is generally this post-meta modern, post-apocalyptic city-like infrastructure and she’s going to move from that into the desolation of the wastelands outside of the city, which are run by this supposedly horrifically brutal group called the scavengers. That’s a pretty good map. I think you’ve got a pretty good map here for your beginning hook.
[0:16:39.2] TG: Okay. One piece that I must have been unclear on was I was planning on the reapers actually kidnapping her and taking her, because they’re trying to restore order. That was my actual plan.
[0:16:55.1] SC: Well, I don’t think you want to go there this quickly.
[0:16:58.9] TG: Okay.
[0:17:00.2] SC: I think one of the things that’s going to be interesting about this book is that you’re reversing the movement, the liminal space between the ordinary world to the extraordinary world. In The Threshing, Jessie moves from an ordinary world to a super high-tech extraordinary, for lack of a better word, paradisical existence in that place that has grass and sunshine, etc.
In this book, she’s going the other way. She’s moving from some generally ordered world, where the cellphones work and people are able to text each other, into she’s going back a 150 years into late 19th century America, where nobody has anything. It’s a scarcity. It’s a scarcity mentality among the scavengers and you can also play along with her relationship to Balaam, right?
When she’s in the scavenger world, it’s ruled by her old mentor, Balaam. She’s going to have to go back in time in her own mind and metabolize why she was attracted to Balaam in the first place as a disruptive force in her former world and what that actually means and what Balaam means as a mentor force in that space. Balaam absolutely is going to want to kidnap Jessie, because when they have Jessie, the scavengers are finally going to get some leverage and some power, right?
[0:19:02.8] TG: Right.
[0:19:05.2] SC: Balaam probably – you got to think through, is Balaam a good guy, or a bad guy, or what? Who is the force of antagonism? I think the reapers are your Uber shadowy figure villains. The longer you can delay their actuality on the page, I think the more effective it will be, because then it just shows the power divide. They’re so powerful that they don’t even have to go near all this ridiculous stuff on the ground. They live in a place that is just so perfectly hermetically sealed that they don’t – it’s like when you when you ride on a plane and you’re in coach and your knees are cramped and then you look out the window and there’s some jet-setting billionaire getting on his private jet and you look over there and you’re like, “God. Those people don’t even know what it’s like to have to sit in coach. To them, that’s normal just to go on your jet. Look at me, what’s normal for me is to be in coach. Why is there such a separation between the way they live their lives and the way that I live my life?”
That’s what you’re trying to create here is we’ve got these people who are in the worst seats on the airplane and then they look outside and there are people who don’t even get on the plane. They get their own thing. I think that’s the way you want to present the reapers as this Uber, incredibly, a privileged class of people who don’t even have any understanding of what it’s like for those people beneath them.
The way to get there is to not have Jessie confront those reapers, or go into that world until some critical time in the story. I don’t necessarily think you have to figure that out right now, other than I think it makes more sense for her that have to go into the wasteland and learn the ways of the scavengers.
There’s a wonderful movie from the 1970s, I’m sure it’s super dated and probably, I haven’t seen it in 30 years. I remember seeing it as a kid. It was a movie called A Man Called Horse. It was the story of this British officer who was in the United States helping out the cavalry fight “the Indians.” It’s a super old way of looking at the world.
What was really interesting about the movie is that there’s a battle and he survives the battle, but the cavalry gets wiped out and he becomes the prisoner of this Native American tribe somewhere in middle-American somewhere. The whole story is about how he integrates himself into that culture. This British thop ends up understanding the ways of this Native American tribe and the Native American tribe is such that they’re open to unique beings joining them.
This man slowly becomes part of that native tribe and he goes through the cultural necessities and the indoctrinations of the tribe in order to prove himself worthy of being a member. There’s amazing – these things that he has to go through to prove himself that he’s truly part of the tribe. He goes through these rituals that are extraordinarily powerful.
I think you have an opportunity here to do something like that with Jessie. It’s almost as if she’s been kidnapped by this native tribe that has a way of integrating into the reality of the world in such a way that they’re capable of surviving and even thriving in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
Thematically, this is a great movement for your story, because now she’s going back to the roots of what it actually means to be a human being. It’s not really having really great skills, coding computers and all that stuff is really great, but when push comes to shove, you need to know how to find out where the water is, you need to find out where the places that you can find shelter are, where the vegetables are, all that stuff.
What you can do in this middle build, probably the entire middle build, it’s up to you, is have her experience this native way of attuning to the reality of the natural world. Her prior worldview is attuned to the virtual creation of virtual worlds. The virtual worlds of the grid and the reapers and the elites and the threshing and all that stuff is superimposed virtual reality on top of an ignoring of the natural reality of life on earth.
If you can get her into having to adapt to the natural environment and to use the scavengers as the means by which she learns those skills, that could be really, really effective because then you can see how her complicated worldview that has worked for her before is not going to work in the natural world. She’s going to reach a point of no return, where she has to blow up her old ways of looking at the world and she starts to be able to open up her mind to the idea that we need to attune ourselves to the natural reality of life on earth, as opposed to trying to create virtual environments that can trick us into believing that we’re safe.
The reapers as the malevolent shadowy force are going to be able – they’re going to be tracking, I think, they’ll be tracking where she is because they have that ability. They’re going to present somehow the force of antagonism that’s going to force her to confront them. Or alternatively, you just keep the reapers in book 2 as this superstructure, untouchable in some realm that she will never be able to reach and then that could be book 3; she finally transitions into having to confront the power systems that seemingly control the world in another realm.
This second book could be about that return, the clash between virtual reality in Chicago and New York, versus the natural reality of the scavengers and Jessie is the force that somehow is capable of integrating those two worldviews in an integral fashion that is threatening to the reapers, wherever they are. Is any of that tracking?
[0:27:46.6] TG: Yeah. That makes sense, because the big thing that was in my head as I was planning this out was the Empire Strikes Back, the second Star Wars which was episode five. The opening scenes were them on – they had this outpost, the rebels, after they destroyed the Death Star, they had this outpost. Then there’s this little action scene in the beginning where Luke gets caught by the monster and then has to escape and Han rescues him and there’s that.
Then there’s a regrouping and then there’s this giant battle where they all have to evacuate the planet. That’s when they get split up, where Luke goes to see Yoda and then Han and everybody else ends up in Cloud City.
My thinking was I did want the group to get broken up, because everybody’s got stuff to learn. I like this idea of her getting integrated into the scavengers, because that will end up being the force that they use. I do want to – because what I’m trying to figure out here is who’s the villain in this book and then who’s the villain in the entire series. I pretty much planned on the villain in the series being Randy, her brother.
This is where this book will probably – I’ll probably follow – I mean, right now I’m counting four different storylines. We’ll have Jessie, we’ll have 83, we’ll have Harry and we’ll have Randy. We’ve got to follow their storylines and see where they all end up. Because my thing is the reapers in my mind, they need the Americus faction. This idea that they just don’t even care and it’s like, “Okay. Well, that’s fine. Well, why were they helping them in the first place?” Well, I think it’s because they need them and the thing I’d come up with a long time ago was basically all of the field hands that were logging into the grid every day were actually running all of the systems that the Reapers were relying on. Now that one of the three fractions have gone offline, everything is falling apart back at the reapers, because they need that going on. Otherwise, they lose what they have.
[0:30:22.3] SC: Right.
[0:30:23.5] TG: To me, there has to be some force of the reapers trying to get them to fall back in line, right? Because if I look at it from the reapers’ side of things, so if I was telling the story of the reapers, the inciting incident of their story is suddenly the entire Americus faction disappears off the grid. That means a third of their systems go offline. Now they’re scrambling to try to figure out what went wrong, why can’t we get a hold of President Marcus and we need to figure out how to get them back online. What are they doing? That’s where I thought they would basically try to – Randy tries to make a deal with them and they try to help reinstall him as the guy. Does that make sense?
[0:31:15.2] SC: It does. As you were talking about that, one of the fun things to do in storytelling is – What could be cool is the reapers think that either Harry or Randy was the mastermind of the grid falling apart during the threshing. What could happen is that and this is a really cool concept is the misdirection of people assume, there’s no way that girl had anything to do with it. Let’s take that guy, Harry.
The reapers were the ones who somehow were able to encourage the scavengers to attack Chicago and their idea was they’re going to take Harry and bring Harry to them, or maybe it’s Randy, or maybe somebody else. I’m not sure yet. They make the mistake of not knowing that it’s actually Jessie who’s the brain behind the operation.
Jessie ends up behind enemy lines and is brought into the scavengers, because and then you could follow a storyline where Harry or Randy goes to – they’re to the reapers or something. I’m not really sure yet, but I just wanted to put that little kernel thought in your mind is to create an unexpected event in the story is the reapers are fully committed to getting America back online. All we have to do is find the person who was responsible for breaking the grid, we’ll bring them back, we’ll co-opt them to our advantage, we’ll give them whatever President Marcus had and then everything will be fine. They make the mistake of picking the wrong person and think that it was Randy or Harry who were actual forces behind the win at the threshing.
Then they come to the realization later on, “Oh, this guy’s a fraud.” Then they target finally, Jessie, or Jessie targets them in the meantime. I’m not trying to complicate it overly, but I did want to let you know that’s a good way of – Because to the reader, it’s obvious that Jessie is the mastermind, right? To the reapers, it’s not. They would underestimate a 12-year-old girl. They’ll go, “She had nothing to do with it. She was just the puppet that somebody else was using to manipulate the system.”
I like the idea of you taking the reins of the story and moving it probably out from the beginning hook into almost third-person omniscient, so that you could follow multiple lines of story in the middle build. Jessie could be one track of story, where she’s with the reapers and then you could track Harry, or Az’s father, or you know what I’m saying? You can branch from beginning hook into third person omniscient with three or four different story lines that can converge at the end of your middle build, into your ending payoff.
Those four forces, they move into different lines of story and then they converge at the end of the middle build and flush you into the ending payoff, so that the group is back together again fighting a common enemy, something like that. I do encourage you to branch out.
I think probably the best course of events is for you to just flow with the gasoline that you already have and I think you’ve got a lot of gasoline to keep you busy for a while. It’s good to talk about this middle build coming up, but why don’t you just let it percolate in your mind and these options of using the scavenger, using Randy, using Harry, using the reapers, looking at the world through the reapers’ point of view. On the ground, just start working scene-to-scene using these four sequences that you’ve come up with that you’ve already shared. Does that make sense?
[0:35:55.6] TG: Yeah. Not get too caught up with trying to have the whole plan in place, but be thinking about it while I’m actually writing the scenes that I know where I’m going with.
[0:36:06.8] SC: Exactly. Then as you share the scenes with me week-by-week, we can discuss, “Oh, that’s a cool development. What do you think that it’s going to do to the middle build?” What is going to be the arc of that second, or tertiary storyline in the middle build? What happens to Harry in the reaper world? Well, do we need that or should it be someone else? Maybe it’s Az’s father goes to the reaper world, because he’s a political animal.
Maybe Harry is attempting to free Jessie from the scavengers, so we can track him on trying to get the hero back into the scene, right? All of that I think will become more interesting as you’re plugging along on the beginning hook.
[0:36:58.7] TG: Okay. Okay. Well, I’ll keep going on that on the beginning hook.
[0:37:03.9] SC: I really do suggest that you write down notes and thoughts about the middle build, not just let them sit in your head. When you have an insight, just have a notebook. I know your super-duper notebook will come in handy. In your notebook, use a thing and just go middle build thoughts. There could be a mistaken identity of Jessie, so they take the wrong person to the reapers, that’s one thought. Second thought, maybe hey, what are the three storylines I want to pursue? Do I want to do two or three? I want to move into third-person omniscient in the blank, right?
Just write down all the stuff that occurs to you as you’re building your beginning hook. One of the things that I’ve recently come to in terms of action story is that the force of antagonism can be rather nebulous in the beginning hook. The middle build, they often say it belongs to the villain and that’s because I think the villain finally comes to the realization of who’s really upsetting the balance of their – building on their ideology. They figure out who the hero is, or the luminary agent.
The villain takes over the middle build, because the luminary agent becomes visible to that villain and then the villain reacts to the rise of the luminary agent. At the beginning of the story, the work of the villain/shadow agent is just embedded in all of the action that occurs. Then as it transitions into the middle build, the shadow agent villain becomes more and higher resolution, so that the reader starts to understand there’s a focal point on who is behind all this, or there’s a narrative drive for the reader to discover who is behind it.
I don’t think it’s a bad idea to not worry so much about perfectly defining the forces, the literal shadow agent in this book yet until you get to the middle build, but allow yourself to think through and make notes about what the possibilities are.
[0:39:32.7] TG: Okay. Well, I’ll keep writing on it and have some more to show you next week.
[0:39:37.2] SC: Okay.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:39:39.2] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. Also each month, we have new books coming out from Story Grid Publishing. You can see all of those at storygrid.com/books.
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. If you’d like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review.
Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We hope you stay safe, stay sane and we will see you next week.