Slogging the Middle Build

[0:00:00.9] 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’m the struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining the shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.


In this episode, I finally start making some real progress on my second draft of the middle build. So I finished up four scenes in the middle bill that we talked about on last week’s episode and I got some direction on, sent those over to Shawn, about 6600 words. I was just so thrilled to actually get that many words out, that many scenes out in a way that I felt like they worked. But, of course, I was nervous to hear what Shawn thought of them.


So you’ll hear his feedback and some other thoughts we have on where to get inspiration from, how to think about the limitations of your book as positives instead of negatives and some other really fun things that I think you’ll enjoy.


So let’s jump in and get started.




[0:01:08.9] TG: Shawn, after we talked last week, I felt more energized about what to do next in the book can and actually start making progress on the middle build that I haven’t of really long time, and you know there’s always this weird pressure, because I feel like all the other writers cannot work on their book for two months and just nobody notices, but like I have to actually. But I did spin, I reread hunger games over the weekend and I’m going to work on spreadsheeting that, and then I started rereading Ender’s Game, and will eventually spreadsheet that one as well. Because just with how much clarity I got from spending those six or eight hours spreadsheeting Die Hard, I mean I felt like it just completely opened my mind up in the way that was really refreshing. I’m thinking just getting into a rhythm of just reading a book or watching a movie and spreadsheeting it at least once a quarter  is going to be a helpful exercise of just keeping my mind really dialed in to story.


Anyway, so I went back and I picked up from after she burns down the tower, so the first test, and then we spent a lot of time talking of, basically — We know about the first test and then we know the middle point of the middle build, but there’s this big swath in between that I was just really stuck on what to do and.


So you gave me the idea of the president basically trying to take her out. So I went back and I worked on that, came up with an idea and wrote it, and then I came up with some other new things, because one of the things you said I needed was — I forgot what you call them. Is it a red herring? When they think one things, the bad guy or —


[0:03:03.0] SC: Yes.


[0:03:04.6] TG: So in the process I came up with the new red herring where when something tries to kill her, afterwards, they decided it was Az. So I’m setting him up as the red herring, because in the end he actually helps them, and the president is the actual bad guy. Anyway, this is what I do with my therapist. It’s like I spend the first 20 minutes — I come in with this box full of like puzzle pieces and I just dump it out on the floor and then like it’s his job to help me like sort it all out.


When I reread Hunger Games, one of the things I was really struck by how well and how quickly she developed Katniss Everdeen as a character, and in the very first scene, very first chapter, Katniss wakes up in bed and her little sister is over sleeping with her mom and she talks a little bit about that, but she tells this story — Because she then she like notices the ratty old cat that they have, and she tells a story of when Prim first brings home the cat and it had worms in fleas and Katniss was like, “I don’t need another mouth to feed,” and she tries to drown the cat in a bucket, and the only reason she didn’t finish off the cat was because the cat fought so hard and because Prim cried so hard. In that tiny little space you get this picture of a 13 or 14-year-old girl that’ll drown a freaking cat to save her family. That’s ruthless. Then the only person that can stay her hand is Prim.


That goes through the entire book, which is this like ruthlessness to her that she — It’s so ingrained in her. She doesn’t know that people don’t normally process things that way. In her mind, who wouldn’t drown this cat?


[0:04:55.6] SC: That’s right. That’s her core for fundamental, archetypical characterization, and I was having a conversation with one of the Story Grid editors the other day about — She was asking me about the core action in a particular scene. How do the micro-actions of a character add up to the global? My answer to her was it was Ann Holly. My answer was, once you establish what your character’s want is, what they define themselves as, then all the micro-actions can always be traced to that core want. So what Katniss’s core/want need is is to protect your family.


So she’s like the sheriff of a small western town. Her job is to protect her family. If that means she has to drown a cat, she will. If that means she has to sacrifice and go fight an army, she will. It’s who she is. It’s like the Tommy Lee Jones character in Fugitive. It’s just like a perfect characterization, because his job is to bring in the fugitive. That’s his job. He doesn’t care about anybody else.


[0:06:17.0] TG: Yeah. One of the best lines in the movie is when he’s like Harrison Ford, like, “I’m innocent,” and he’s like, “I don’t care. That’s not my job.”


[0:06:23.8] SC: Right. Yeah, “It has nothing to do with me. I need to bring you in. That is my job.” So if you think about your protagonist and especially your antagonists in those terms, when you get stuck in micro-decisions about actions in a scene, what course they’re going to take, what their tools are to get what they want, you can always say, “Is this consistent with their core person?”


If Katniss is threatened physically and it is going to hurt her family, she will attack. If she’s threatened physically and it has no effect, no bearing on her family, she’s going to run away, because she’s smart. Why would I put myself through any kind of physical torment if it has nothing to do with my job? She is, by definition — And what’s also a beautiful choice for Suzanne Collins is that she doesn’t make Katniss. She is a very sympathetic character who’s so strong and so committed to her core beliefs that we forgive her for trying to drown the cat. I mean, that’s the first rule of screenwriters, save the cat. Suzanne Collins tried and drown one in the first scene of the book, and it works, because her overarching want is to protect her family, to take care of her family, to make sure nothing happens to her vulnerable mother and sister, and that’s what she’s going to do no matter what. Tommy Lee Jones is going to bring in Harrison Ford no matter what. That’s why even though he’s an antagonist, we respect him and we’re sympathetic. We want Tommy Lee Jones to succeed in the movie, even though Harrison Ford is his prey, and that was the beauty of that screenplay, is they just always kept true to the core nature of that character.


Anyway, that’s a really good thing to always remember, when you get stuck, “Who is my character? What does she want? Oh! My character doesn’t want to grow up. She wants to go play with her friends back in the city. She wants to go back to the way things were. She would love it if her brother would come home and then everybody would leave her alone again and he would be the center of attention in her family. She doesn’t want to be the center of attention in her family. She just wants to do her thing and have a safe place to come home at night. That’s what she wants.”


[0:09:08.4] TG: And that’s one thing I realized I didn’t have that clear of a picture of what’s driving Jesse in my story, and we had the want of like she wants to go home, but that’s not how she processes the world. So I’ve decided I’m going to make her basically super innocent, almost the opposite of Katniss, where she thinks everybody’s nice, everybody’s telling the truth, everybody’s out for her own good.


[0:09:37.6] SC: That’s right.


[0:09:38.4] TG: And so I rewrote the end of the scene where she meets with the president where he doesn’t threaten her. He offers her a deal where he’s going to let her go home, and she just completely buys it hook line and sinker.


[0:09:52.3] SC: Well, we do too. The reader will too, because when we attach to a character in a story, we see the world through that character’s eyes. So she is an innocent person who’s young. The subplot here — The sub-genre is the maturation plot, and what is the maturation plot? It’s discovering the perfidy and the lying and the cheating and all the stuff that goes on in regular society. We don’t think that makes sense when we’re little when somebody says, “Here’s some candy if you come into my car.” When you’re a little kid, you’re like, “Oh! Okay. I’ll go in your car.” Until your parents say, “Please! Never go in a car if somebody offers you a candy.”


That is an important thing to remember, is the more you support her worldview, her worldview is; everyone tells the truth. Everyone is upfront about what they want from me. No one is out to get me. As long as I play by the rules, I will win. So when she stops playing by the rules, which is when she tears — What she does this she breaks the rules all the time and is ready to take the consequences, but doesn’t understand the complexity of the thing that she’s in, which is her life, which is it’s important for everyone to grow up and accept that they have a mission in their life. This is a story about a little girl who has to grow up faster than she should, and she has to understand that she’s on this planet and she has a mission.


So this is a good thing to remember of like your global force of your story. This is the story of a little girl who has a mission on the planet and she is going to kick and scream and scratch and do everything possible not to do that thing, because she just wants to play until the moment comes when she realizes she can’t go back and play anymore. She now has a mission.


[0:12:01.0] TG: Yeah. Candice, she’s getting her master’s to be a therapist and one of the things — I don’t know where she learned it, but basically it’s this idea of everybody’s denial blanket, and we all have our denial blanket that we put on in some — Whatever that is, and the hardest points in life are when your blanket is getting ripped off and then the amount of suffering you go through is how tightly you hold on to it and won’t let go.


So I was thinking here of, like, I want her to believe the world is good, it’s trustworthy, everybody does what they say, and then at the middle point is when she makes this bargain of, like, “Okay. She is going to accept this mission. She’s going to stop fighting the mission, but she still believes she’s still also going to try to hold on to the fact that the world is basically good.” Because, to me, the point that I kind of understood the hero arch in a new way was when I re-watch Family Man last year, whatever, after we’ve been doing all these, and it’s like it’s at the middle point that he decides, “I’m going to accept responsibility of my new world,” but yet he tries to get both. He tries to combine the old world with the new world so he can have it both ways. Then it’s not until almost the end of the middle build that he realizes he has to completely let go of the old in order to get the new. That’s where — Well, I’ll stop now.


So I sent you, I think, it was four scenes. So it was the scene after the tower burns down and they’re trying to make a plan of how to escape, then there’s a scene where they immediately get caught and she’s taken to the president and she meets with him. Then there’s the new scene, which is the middle test, and that’s where in a simulation, something goes wrong and she gets attacked and almost dies, and then there’s the scene after that, the ramifications of that. I sent you those four scenes, and I’ll post them in the show notes for everybody that wants to read them. It was right at 6,600 words. So I would love your feedback.


[0:14:18.3] SC: Okay. Well, I didn’t have time to go and spreadsheet them, but I can tell you my general reaction to them is that what I think has been bothering you for two months is this very, very intricate sort of dance that you have to do as a storyteller to maintain the suspense and excitement of the storytelling in those places that don’t have big moments, there aren’t big swings of value. Like they’re not the big pivotal scenes, they’re not that climactic scene of your middle build. They’re not the crisis of your middle build. They’re all the little, smaller turning points that get you up there, and the trick is, is that what we often do is we sort of just do a lot of scenes that we’ve seen a million times before and we don’t really put any cliffhangers in them and we just sort of mechanically build to that moment and then we’re dumbfounded when people go, “Yeah, it was okay, but I kind of saw it coming, and it’s all right.”


So the passes that you’ve done in these four scenes is to make sure that you’re not writing ahead, meaning you’re not just sort of throwing down words here, it’s because you’re really just trying to string the reader on until they get to the big moment. Instead, you have to think of each of these scenes as many entertainment units, right?


So it’s difficult, because you’re just like, “This isn’t really an important scene and I really just want to keep moving,” but you have to step back and say, “How can I make this more interesting. How can I in a way that will actually add more to my big moment scenes down the road? How can I use these many little building blocks to set things up that will be very, very disturbing and exciting later on in the story? I think you’ve planted a lot of things in these four scenes.


Just to talk sort of how they relate to the Die Hard conversation we had last week. Remember the conversation we are talking about that John McClane, in Die Hard, at the very first moment he confronts a terrorist, he doesn’t want to kill them. He really doesn’t want to hurt anyone, because he’s a police officer. He knows what’s right and wrong. He’s not a vigilante. He’s just there trying to wait until the Calvary comes.


So the first terrorist he sees, he tries to capture him, to keep him hostage and not to hurt him, and then he gets in a struggle with a guy, because he’s a bad guy, and they fall down a flight of stairs, and McClane is holding onto his neck and he accidentally kills the guy. Then, later on, again, a guy comes into a room, McClane is waiting for him, he’s got his gun aimed at him and he goes, “Freeze! Stop right there.” He doesn’t start firing at the guy the minute he comes to the door. He gives them the opportunity to surrender, and then the guy falls down and the guy behind him tries to shoot McClane, and he shoots him. It’s from that point forward the audience and the people watching the thing, now, they’re all in. They’re like, “McClane can kill whoever he wants. However he wants to,” because he has done two instances where he’s giving these people the opportunity to surrender.


This is really, really important in an action story or a thriller story, because it makes your protagonist super, super heroic and sympathetic. He’s not a vigilante. Now, of course, you can tell a vigilante story, like Magnum Force, or Dirty Harry, or Death Wish, but the movie poster tells you, “Hey, be prepared. This is a vigilante story.” You really lead with the fact that you have just — Harry Callahan is not going to give anyone a break. If somebody threatens him, he’s just going to shoot them. He’s not going to say, “Hold it there.” He’s just going to shoot them.


But John McClane, when you’re establishing, this is a full-bodied human being who has a wife and kids who’s trying to reconnect with them, then it’s impossible to make him a vigilante, because you’ll be like, “That doesn’t make any sense.”


Anyway, this is all relates to these four scenes in the following way. You need in this story — This is why you wisely, something inside of you said to yourself you had to go back to Hunger Games. You need, in this moment, to really, really make it clear to the reader things are really life-and-death now. Things are not — This is no game. When Jesse burns down the tower and messes everything up, this is no little small thing, and she is going to be physically attacked by the other kids.


Now, basically turning up the gas on the stove. Before, it was a little low simmer. She did get hurt when she was shamed and she was thrown in with the numbered. She had her head shaved. There was some pain involved. It was very scary. But then when she went to the magical world, there was this a little bit of a sigh of a relief for everyone, because, like, “Oh my gosh! This place is beautiful. Things are great. She’s got her own room. There’s food whenever she needs it. Everything is nice. She’s got these two team members.”


So you need to move. You have to sort of smack that out of the thinking of the reader, and the way to do that was in the scene that you’ve created where after she — I think it’s the first scene that you sent me. It’s right after she’s burned down the tower, she’s messed up the entire severing. Nobody has been thrown out, because she screwed up the computer, and now she needs to get out, because the kids are coming to physically harm her.


I think that’s a good choice. It might be a little bit unclear in what you’ve written, except that Alex has really sort of become her bodyguard, and Ernst too, which I think was a really good choice. I don’t know if you have enough material that supports that decision on their part at this juncture. It might be a more interesting choice if they actually sort of let those kids — There’s a scene in the movie, Full Metal Jacket, and I know this is strange to bring up at this point, but this is a way of doing something that will physically hurt a character in a way that’s alien, and we understand that they’re being hurt, but it’s not graphic.


So there’s a scene in Full Metal Jacket, it’s the first half of the movie when they’re doing the military training in Paris Island and character played by Vincent D’Onofrio is sort of this sort of fat guy who can’t really get anything right and he’s screwing everything up for all the other guys. So every time the fat guy screws up, the other guys have to train harder. They have to run an extra 3 miles, and it’s getting to the point where these guys are really, really, really angry at this fact guy. And so the fact guy sleeping soundly in the top bunk of his bunk and it’s in the middle of the night and the other Marine recruits all wake up quietly and eight of them hold grab the sheets holding the fact guy so he can’t move, and they pull it down from the bunk, and all the other guys have taken soap bars and put them into their pillows sheets and they all take turns whacking him with the hard soap in the pillowcase in the middle of the night. So the wax are excruciatingly painful for the recruit and he can’t get out of the bunk. So they’re all we are punishing him for his screw up that is costing them.


This is something that has to happen to Jesse in a way, some kind of thing that isn’t graphically threatening and scary, but it’s weird alien, and if you think about it you go, “Yeah! I guess — Wow! Yeah, if you were hit with a bar of soap swung by a really strong guy on the side or in your stomach, it would really hurt,” and that’s a pivotal moment in the movie too in Full Metal Jacket, because then that character completely has a psychological breakdown and it’s an horrifying events ensue thereafter.


So my point is, is that you need to have a moment where these guys, this sort of group of coders has to make Jesse suffer for screwing everything up. I don’t think it makes sense that she’s going to be protected by Alex and Ernst, because they are probably in as deep trouble as she said. So they might even be more mad at her than the other group. So in the gauntlet that she has to run to safely escape, it might be interesting if they do something like the pillowcase torment to her.


There’s another scene in a movie, a great movie — Anyway, it’s a similar set up where somebody who makes a big mistake gets hurt in a way that’s really strange, and in that case, a woman is hit with a bag of oranges over and over again and it doesn’t bruise her, but it really causes a lot of internal pain. It’s a way of hurting somebody physically without any marks showing. So think about something like that for Jesse, and that’s also going to really — The consequences of her burning down that thing are really going to be large to her. So that will actually elevate her desire by the time she hits that meeting with President Marcus to just get the hell out of there. So when he makes the offer, “If you go along and do this thing for me, I’ll get you out of here.” She buys into that as quickly as she can, because there’s no way that she is going to want to deal with these other horrible coders anymore. Plus, when they accuse Az later on of being the one responsible for her almost dying in that simulation, it will make sense, because he’s sort of the leader of the gang, and your readers are going to suspect, “Maybe it’s not Az. Maybe it’s the ghost of her brother who’s doing it.”


So you’ve got like a three-headed possibility of the person behind the coding simulation attack. There’s President Marcus, and nobody’s really going to be thinking President Marcus at that point, because he comes off as this sort of gentle uncle who’s made a deal with Jesse, which is great, because when we do discover it was him, the readers, their brain will tumble back to remember, “Oh my gosh! Of course, it was him. How didn’t I see that?” But you do need to sort of have this very dangerous, but not life-threatening. It’s sort of like when you’re a little kid and you’re playing a game with your buddy and you make a mistake, he goes, “Oh! I get to punch you three times in the arm because you screwed up.” You go, “Okay,” and you sort of just hold your arm and you are like, “This is going to hurt, but better to take three punches than to have him whining at me all day. So that kind of thing.


Then what you could do is when she returns from the meeting with Marcus, she’s like happy and also pissed, because she’s pissed at Ernst and Alex for not having her back. So when she gets into that new room that they send her, because she gets this upgraded stuff, then she’s going to be looking and I’m like, “Hey! Thanks a lot guys. Thanks a lot for the backup. Gee! I guess I can’t trust you,” and then when they’re asking her where she was, the she can say, “You know, none of your business.”


So they are going to have to earn her trust back later on and they’re going to feel guilty, because she elevated them and they were blaming her for it. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost, “Hey, Alex! I thought you’re a big tough guy. Where were you when I was running down the hall and everybody was hitting me with bars of soap?” or whatever it was. “You weren’t so tough then, were you?”


She can actually start — And she’s going to be confident at this point, because she’s got a plan, right? As long as they do what Marcus tells me, I’m out of here. She has this little secret in her head that she’s believing. She believes that Marcus is playing straight, that he’s going to deliver what he says he is. I like that point where you say, “She’s still waiting for Marcus’s report about her brother. It’s not here yet. When it’s going to come? Well, I guess he’s really busy.” So you have that nice little piece in that scene too where she’s thinking to herself, “He promised me that he was going to get a report about what happened with my brother and I haven’t seen it yet and it’s been pretty long. Oh, well, he is the president. I guess I should give him a break.”


[0:28:20.2] TG: Yeah. Well, that was where I was starting to try to weave in, because I’m constantly — One of the other things about this second draft that’s hard is that I’m changing things as I continue to move forward, but I don’t want to keep going back and like fixing the previous parts of the book, because it’s changing so much.


[0:28:39.5] SC: Yeah, don’t do that.


[0:28:40.7] TG: I’m like, “Right,” and you’ve told me not to. So I’m like, “Okay. Well, I’ve have got this I feel like a clear picture of what I want her character to be, which is this overly trusting. So I need to start weaving that in.” So in that moment, it’s like it doesn’t cross her mind to think that he lied. She’s just wondering why he hasn’t followed through yet.


[0:29:02.3] SC: That’s right. She assumes that he just needs an extension, because everybody needs an extension. It’s just the way things are.


[0:29:11.6] TG: Yeah. So what did you think about how I did the scene of the simulation and her getting attacked?


[0:29:21.3] SC: I liked it. I thought it was creepy and strange and it’s always extremely difficult to write a monster, and the trick to writing monsters is to lead the reader create their own monster. So having shadows and not being able to see anything very clearly, that is the art of the horror writer and also the horror movie director.


Like in the movie Alien, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of sort of like scratchy, snowy — You see glimpses of the alien, but never really truly until the very, very end of the movie, and even at that point, it’s very strange and ethereal.


Throughout the film — Ridley Scott directed it, and when he wisely did, is he had people like looking at video screens where the alien appears, but in shadow. So when you write monster to make the character not really sure what is happening, hearing scratching or clawing or some kind of scraping is always a good idea, instead of, “The monster had three heads, and one of the heads had red eyes.” When you get into detailed description of monsters, it looks kind of silly and it ends up being like the — that was the brilliance in Ghostbusters when they had the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man be the killer, the big monster at the end.


So I think you did a pretty good job not being too specific about what that monster is and to hear that the monster is killing the guards in the distance was a great choice too. So I think you handled it pretty well. I wouldn’t do any editing on the scene now other than to make a note, make it even more strange, hard to really make out what the thing looks like, the sounds and the scratches and the visuals is the way to describe that kind of attack, and then he opens up her leg in her arm, I think it works.


So all in all I think it’s pretty creepy and strange and it makes sense that she freaked out to the point where her heart stopped for a couple of beats. That is a critical moment too in your John McClane progression, right? Now, there is no question that life and death is on the table. No question whatsoever, because before, in that gauntlet seeing that you’re going to edit, there is the potential of getting hurt. She’s hurt. The movement from not physically threatened, but intellectually and emotionally threatened, to physically threatened, to life and death stakes, you need that progression, right? If you don’t have the progression, right? If it goes too quickly from la-di-da, everything’s okay,” to, “Oh my god! He tried to kill me!” It doesn’t feel like right. You need to have that slow burn boil. It’s like the John McClane escalation to vigilante in Die Hard.


[0:32:47.5] TG: So a couple of things that I think I’ve wrapped my head around. So the first is I kept getting like the fact that she goes into this computer-world. The fact that you could literally make that anything is kept kind of bugging me as far as like now I can do anything. But I decided — I was trying to think like what are the benefits of that when it get in a movie that’s just set in reality all the time? And one of those is that I can severely hurt her without ramifications, because as soon as she logs out, she’s not hurt anymore.


[0:33:27.0] SC: That’s right.


[0:33:27.7] TG: That’s why I put in — Because when I was thinking — Again, first it was Die Hard and now I’m comparing it to Hunger Games in my head. It’s like whenever this action situation, you always have to be careful how hurt your protagonist gets, because unless there is big spans of time in between, you have to deal with those injuries. So you need to constantly put their life in danger without them getting too hurt. I was like, “Well, this is kind of fun, because I can hurt her as much as I want, because as soon she wakes up, it’s not real. But while she’s in there, her brain thinks it’s real.” That was kind of fun, so I could actually have the monster get a hold of her and kind of rip her up a little bit without long term effects of her being hurt.


[0:34:12.6] SC: The other thing that you should consider doing, and this is probably in the next drafts, so you might just want to make a note about this, is you could create rules of the threshing, right? Like the great thing about Hunger Games is that there were rules. The rules were so wonderful that we immediately bought in to the whole situation, “Oh my gosh! These rules are awesome.”


So you could add rules to the threshing, like the threshing will take place in one of four environments. And so all the training activities would revolve about trying to master as best they can all four of these environments, and some of the coders would say, “Look, we have a choice. We can try and be okay in four of the venues, really good in two, or really amazing in one, and basically taking the chance that the next venue is going to be the one we’re going to be awesome in.”


[0:35:09.9] TG: I could root this in, because the world that they all live in is so harsh and they never actually spend time outdoors, I could root in like the legends of how the world used to be. So it could be something like of rain forests, tundra — I don’t know. I’ll think through that. No, that’s good.


[0:35:31.3] SC: Then it becomes like a strategic discussion that the coders can have, like, “What do you think? Do you think this is going to be sand? No, I don’t know. We had sands. I’ve gone through the archives, in the last seven threshings, there were three sand things. So the chances of it being sand again are pretty slim. Okay, water — Maybe it’s water. Maybe it’s fire.” That way you can kind of watch these people think through and take chances. Then on the third severing — And the severings of course are all going to mirror the possible environments of the threshing itself. So that’s just something to think about, like how can you make the threshing game severing process have certain rules that will fire up the excitement and imagination of your readers and your players?


[0:36:30.5] TG: Okay. So the second thing I think I figured out is basically what her power is inside of these things. So what can she do — because the whole thing is, apparently, she can do things through the simulation world that other people can’t. The basic idea here is that she’s able to — I’m picturing it as almost like opening up like wormholes in it, where she can go from one place to the other very quickly in a way that nobody else can. Again, she does this so naturally, she doesn’t understand what she’s doing. So this is why she’s able to do all of the theft back in the city at the beginning of the book.


Then in this case, there is the point in the book, and I put it in the dark on purpose so the reader couldn’t see what was actually happening, but I was hoping to kind of plant the idea where like right when she’s really trapped and there’s nowhere for her to go, she closes her eyes, really pushes, and there’s a tearing sound, and then she falls into an empty space.


So because that empty spaces is where her brothers going to find her in a few scenes. So that’s my thought, is that move — Because then at the very end, she rips such a big hole that she can get down into the very base layer of the code and shut it all down.


[0:38:00.2] SC: Well, you’re setting it up, because she says that to Marcus, “Well, it wasn’t coded that way.” He says, “How do you know what?” Then she doesn’t answer him. So it’s almost like she sees things, she’s a savant in a way. She’s a coding savant and it’s like when you ask certain savants, “What’s 462 x 7 37?” They can spit out the number to you very quickly.


[0:38:24.1] TG: But if you ask him how they did it that fast, they had no idea.


[0:38:27.6] SC: Right. When they go, “How do you know that?” They go, “Uhm —” They usually have some rationale, like I see the number on the top of my glasses or something, and you could have her do that, like, “Well, I don’t know. When I concentrated and think very, very hard, I can see the code,” and the code comes to me and I knew this is not structured for that. So I think that power works, and I think if you somehow can have other people, like Ernst and Alex, like maybe she overhears them talking about her power, like, “What do you think it is, Ernst?” “I don’t know. There are some guys, you ask them numbers, and they just can do it, and I think it’s her thing.”


You need someone to have third-party conversation talking about her power, because she doesn’t know what it is. She’s not going to be able to explain it. So you need other people in the cast to make hypotheses about what makes her so special.


[0:39:34.2] TG: Right now, I’m taking the approach where every scene is it has her in it. It’s her point of view the whole time. So there’re no scenes where you see anybody else, and I thought about adding in some scenes that don’t include her. But either way I was thinking like I need to go all the way back to the first scene and just drip in one short little line where even the people that work with her, the other rats back in town, know she’s special, but don’t understand why. Don’t really understand what she can do, but there is a reason that she’s the one that actually goes in the nobody else can.


Then, yeah, I was thinking like at some point there’s going to have to be a discussion about what she’s doing, and that’s where I was thinking it would happen. So in this one, it was unclear, but in the next severing, it’s going to be extremely obvious that something went weird and they’re going to really press her on it and there’s going to have to be a discussion about what happened. So that’s where I thought I could start weaving in her trying to explain what she does while she’s in there.


[0:40:46.3] SC: That’s good.


[0:40:47.3] TG: Anyway. So I feel like — Because I got her in there and I’m like, “Well, now how am I going to get her out of this spot?” I’ve been trying to think about — Like I need a much more clear idea of what it is she’s doing and that will then tie to the end, because then the very end to when she has to take her power and go further than she’s ever gone with it.


So the sequence in general, do you feel like works okay?


[0:41:19.3] SC: Yes.


[0:41:20.5] TG: Okay. So my next job will be to basically weave that sequence into the second severing and rework the severing, the second severing based on everything we’ve already talked about.


[0:41:35.5] SC: Yeah.


[0:41:36.0] TG: And that will put me at almost 50,000 words. So I’ll be — And it’s the middle point of the book anyway, and I have a lot to do now that I’ve got a more established set of characters and more stuff going on. Yeah, I’ve got to deal with them confronting Az or doing something there. I’ve got some things to do.


[0:41:59.9] SC: Yeah. Think of those guys, all those other coders, is very competitive, nasty kids in a schoolyard, and now Jesse is the chosen one who’s going to be just emotionally terrorized. That’s the horror of school, is that there’s always that one kid or two kids or group of people who are chosen by the others, and it’s just ruthless psychological warfare. In some cases, it’s physical abuse. When the authority figures are not present, it’s very, very painful and it can be physically painful and especially psychologically and emotionally painful. So she’s going to see these kids behave one way when the authorities are there and another when they’re not. At some point, somebody is going to say to her, “Do you think these kids are weird? No. This is the way adults are too, honey. Adults act one way and do another thing all the time.” So that she slowly starts to realize, “Oh my gosh! This is the way the world is. It’s every man for himself. How am I going to negotiate this world?” Then she’ll get her mission.


[0:43:19.7] TG: How are you feeling about how I’m handling 61 or Harold like being like kind of an asshole, but is actually the only one that knows what’s going on?


[0:43:30.0] SC: I think that’s absolutely appropriate. He’s sort of like the character in Hunger Games, who’s the drunk, who’s the mentor to Katniss. The secondary characterizations, you can polish a little bit later on so that, yeah, right now he’s kind of a cardboard figure, but that’s okay. You can give him some kind of weird thing later on. You don’t have to solve that problem now. Right now, he’s a tool to layer on the importance of — People want something from her, and he’s the one to say that, “Basically, you’re here for a reason sweetheart.” And she’s like, “What’s my reason? Why am I here?” “I can’t tell you that. If you can’t figure it out yourself, then blah-blah-blah.” I think Harold is fine. I think you can fix him later. You can give them more — Yeah, make him more memorable.


[0:44:23.5] TG: Okay. I was nervous because I — That seeing is kind of weird that I wrote in the simulation, but it was me trying to like use it as an advantage, that I could literally build an entire world just for one scene that I can throw away immediately after. So I was curious if you thought that worked or not.


[0:44:45.8] SC: No. I think it did. I think it did, and what you’re doing is you’re saying to the reader, “Oh! Here’s that scene where they do their simulation and it’s really hard and she wins,” and instead what you give her is a simulation where she almost gets killed. So the reader is not going to expect that when they read the simulation scene. That’s what I mean from at the very start of this conversation when I said, “It’s difficult to make the scenes in between the big major points interesting and exciting and entertaining.”


So the way you do that is what you’ve done here, is the reader is going to expect one of those simulation scenes where they train and everything is great and they win at the end and they’re strong and they’re ready to go in to the next severing. Instead, you get her very low. She’s almost kind of dead, which I think was a really good choice, and the readers are going to go, “Oh! What’s that crazy animal and that weird thing?” That’s just another thing that will upend. Because you got to remember, the reader is always trying to figure out where you’re going. They’re always one step ahead of you. They’re always thinking about, “What’s going to happen in the end?” and every little scene that you give them gives them more information, which they tumble forward. So you have to keep upending their expectation of what’s going to happen at the end, so that when what does happen at the end is extremely surprising and yet inevitable.


[0:46:17.3] TG: All right. Well, I’ll keep going.


[0:46:18.5] SC: Okay.


[0:46:19.0] TG: Well, that was good to hear. I was like, “This either really sucks, or it’s right on the money.”


[0:46:28.5] SC: No. It’s right on the money, because you’re not expecting a monster at that point, which is good.


[0:46:33.1] TG: Yeah. I mean, I really was like — I’m looking at Hunger Games and I’m like, “Okay. I started to freak out, because I’m like my book is a rip-off of Hunger Games.” I’m like, “Okay. Let’s not go there,” but I was like, “One of the strengths I have is that Hunger Games is set in one arena, and that’s the whole thing.” I’m like, “I can just like keep spinning up new ones for every single one,” and so I was just like, “What would be just like super creepy?” I’m like, “Okay. She’s stuck in a cave with a monster,” and I just started writing that. So it kind of makes me like want to stretch that a little bit more. I’m like, “Maybe I’ll rewrite the first severing to not be just set in woods, but maybe set on like Mars.” Really kind of go crazy with these individual scenes that are set in the simulations, because that allows me — Like I could do literally whatever I want. Like I could have her be a dog, because that was one of the cool things about the magician.


So it’s like a dark nasty combination of Harry Potter and Narnia. It’s so good, but there is this one part where like they go to Alaska — Well, to get to Alaska, they turn them all into like gooses and they all have to fly there, and then like one of the trainings while they’re there is they’re all turned in the wolves and then they all end up like having this orgy with each other because they’re wolves, but then when they turned back into their normal selves, they are all like ashamed of what they did. It’s like this really weird thing, but it’s like, to me, now looking at it from this perspective, it’s like he was just really flexing the fact that like you couldn’t put that in a John McClane story. You know what I mean?


So I’m just trying to think like, “Okay. I keep looking at all these world I created in looking at it almost like a negative, like I backed myself into this weird corner where I’m like, “Okay. If I look at it as like what could I do with this scenario, the other books can’t do, because they’re not in this scenario. Then I can go in some interesting directions.


[0:48:51.3] SC: That’s a good idea. Yeah, you remember — it’s like take advantage of what you have. Yeah, I mean, the masterwork is Hunger Games. So what? There’s a million books inspired by masterworks. There’s no shame in saying, “Oh, this is just like Hunger Games.” No, it’s not. Your character is different than Katniss. Katniss is tough. Yours isn’t.


That’s what people always sort of — That undermines them to the point where they quit what they’re doing. They go, “Oh! People would just say this is a rip-off of X, and boy, I’ll never want people to say that about my story.” So what?


[0:49:26.4] TG: And I have the advantage of I’m publicly saying I’m writing a book like Hunger Games. Like I can’t just like think it, but then when like I put it out in the world, it’s be like, “No. No. I came up with this on my own.” It’s like, “No. I spent 12 hours dissecting Hunger Games as a way to write this book.”


[0:49:46.1] SC: That’s how they made Night at the Museum, right? What’s wrong with that?


[0:49:50.1] TG: Yeah, we had that discussion. Yeah, I’m letting that go. Well, again, I’m like, “Okay. Let’s look at what I have that Hunger Games doesn’t have,” and it’s the fact that I can spin up a new arena for every single action scene.


[0:50:05.3] SC: Yeah.


[0:50:06.2] TG: And just have fun. So I got to write like a 2000-word horror story in the middle — Or horror action sequence in the middle of an action.


[0:50:16.1] SC: That’s right.


[0:50:17.5] TG: Okay. Well, we’ll stop there and then we’ll talk next week.


[0:50:20.0] SC: Okay. Thanks, Tim.




[0:50:21.7] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.


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The Book

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

First Time Writer

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


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