Tim Grahl and I “soft-launched” The Story Grid Podcast here just last Thursday October 15. Thank you to all of you who’ve listened and especially all of you hardcore story nerds who reached out via email to say how much you liked it. I had no idea there was a such a legion…
There was one major caveat though. Many were disappointed that there was not a transcript to accompany the show.
As one who hated taking notes back in my old school, I can relate.
So I’ve booked my favorite transcriber for the next ten weeks. I’ll post the podcast verbatim here every Tuesday. So feel free to just listen on Thursdays or over the weekend knowing that you don’t have to write anything down.
Soft-launching is my term for just announcing a project to the core tribe and letting it find an audience organically. Steven Pressfield, Callie Oettinger, Jeff Simon and I have had a lot of quiet success (my favorite kind) soft-launching Black Irish Books. So why change now? It’s just a fancy phrase for not calling in favors from friends or paying for ads or tweeting until your fingers bleed. Just doing the work and shipping to your own private mom-and-pop general store universe The end.
Soft-launching won’t make your stuff “go viral.” But drip, drip, drip, is powerful too. Anyone who hasn’t changed the washer on their cast iron tub faucet knows what I’m talking about…
Here’s the script from The Story Grid Podcast Episode One: “And That’s What Life Is All About”
Tim: Hello, and welcome to The Story Grid podcast. My name is Tim Grahl. I’m going to be your host. In this very first episode, I want to you walk you through really quickly, before we jump in, what you’re going to learn on this podcast.
The number one goal of this podcast is to make you a better writer, to help you figure out how to tell a good story and become a successful writer. I myself am an aspiring fiction writer just getting into it. After several of playing around with it and writing here and there, I’ve decided I’m really going to go after it.
I reached out to a friend of mine named Shawn Coyne to talk to him about how I can do this and how I can do it well. I reached out to him because he is the author of “The Story Grid,” this amazing book that walks you through how to tell great stories.
I reached out to him, we started talking, and we came up with this idea of this podcast, where basically I could play the role of you and me – the person trying to become a better writer – and just pepper him with all of my questions around how to tell a great story, the different parts of a story, things from “The Story Grid,” books we love, and why they work – all the things that I want to figure out as I’m becoming a writer.
So that’s what you get to do. You’re going to listen in to conversations that we have where I just pepper him with all kinds of questions and hear his answers so that I can become a better writer and you can become a better writer alongside me.
We’re going to jump right into this first episode. I’m excited to get started.
Shawn, I want to start out this whole podcast adventure with you by asking you what it is that you do as an editor. As a writer, you hear about editors and then you hear about line editing and the ones who edit for grammar and the ones who edit for the whole story arc. What is that you do as an editor?
Shawn: I’m going to answer that question from the point of view of a Big Five, top publishing editor – somebody at Random House, or HarperCollins, or Grand Central Publishing. Basically they have two jobs. The first job is what they call acquisitions editing. What acquisition editing is it’s making friends with a lot of agents and pounding the street getting submissions.
You might think, “Oh, geez. Editors get submissions all the time. Why do they have to go out and find new stuff?” Well, it’s just like anything else. It’s like a mini-Hollywood in a way in that there are certain agents who specialize in certain kinds of books.
When I was at Doubleday, I had a number of jobs, but my primary job was to do big, commercial fiction for the male audience – big male thrillers, military thrillers, serial-killer thrillers, really great crime novels, what have you. My job was to go out and find all the agents within my specialty and make sure that they knew that this was the kind of book that I wanted to acquire and publish at Doubleday.
What that entails is being friends with people, going to lunch, having drink dates, and when that agent would have something that they thought was terrific, they would call me and say, “Hey, I have this new project. Do you want to read it?” Of course, I wanted to read it. You always want to read it.
The second the manuscript arrives, as an editor, the first thing I’m going to do is read it for pleasure. What that means is I’m not going to worry about anything. I’m going to try to put all of my analytical and critical skills aside and just enjoy it as an everyday Joe.
The way that works is that because you have so much experience reading so many different books, if that book doesn’t grab you within five pages, you know pretty much that it’s not going to grab you within a hundred. So even though you’ll probably keep going so that you can formulate a pretty good rejection letter, if that book does not grab you immediately, you’re not going to keep going.
Literally the first job of an editor is to be a reader to see if the book holds the attention throughout the entire thing. I call that a book working. What I mean by that is if you start from page one, you get all the way to the end and you say to yourself, “Wow. I enjoyed myself. That was a good read. That’s working.”
Whether or not it’s working to a level that you think that you can convince your publisher to publish it is another question, but you’ll know upfront that the book works, meaning that it delivers what it promises.
If it’s a serial killer, you know it’s going to be a great ride with a lot of twists and turns. You’re going to think it’s one guy and it ends up being somebody else. If it’s a military thriller, there’s going to be a great action scene at the beginning, middle, and end. You’re going to have a certain number of sequences of action scenes that are going to be amazing.
If the writer delivers those things and there are some problems in there, you don’t worry about them. In fact, when you go to your publisher and say, “Hey, this is a book that I think we should publish,” you’ll admit to those problems and say, “It needs some work in the middle act.” But the bottom line is you can say, “This is a guy/woman who can really deliver a book year after year after year.” So that’s the first job.
The second job is after you acquire the book and it’s on the schedule and Doubleday is going to publish it in 18 months. Then you take out the surgeon’s gloves and you look at the entire thing in terms of the global story, not the line-by-line work. If the story grabs your attention and imagination at the very beginning when you first read it, you’re going to say to yourself, “This person has their own voice. They have their own particular style. Some of the sentences are a little choppy and cheesy and I can work with them on that, but I’m not going to worry about going through every single sentence in this story,” because that’s really what the writer has to bring to the table. They have to bring their own voice.
So the second job is to look at the global story and fix all of the problems within that global story. It’s easy for me to say. That’s a process that takes a good two or three months. In fact, I wrote “The Story Grid” because that is basically what The Story Grid is all about. It’s talking about the global problems of a story’s structure and form that you can fix yourself as a writer.
Tim: That was one of the interesting things I had going into this Story Grid thing. What would you call the Story Grid? I’ve been talking to some friends about it, and I’ll give you the way I explain it first.
I’m like, “There are these forms that every story falls into, and there are these things that every story has to have. Depending on your genre, it has to have certain obligatory scenes that make you think, ‘That really stuck out to me.’ There’s this overall form that your story should fall into, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t ‘work.’
“What that means is that at some point, the reader is going to either get confused, or get frustrated, or get bored. So what the Story Grid is there to do is to help you map out your story and make sure that you haven’t missed anything and that it has all of the pieces of a story that you need to make sure it works.” That’s my long-winded version.
Shawn: That’s pretty accurate. I’m always trying to think of metaphors to make it easy for people. I like to use the house metaphor. We all know what the structure of a house is, but there are many different forms of houses. There are adobe houses. There are Cape Cods. There’s modern architectures.
There are all forms of houses, but they all share central things that each and every one of them have to have. They have to have plumbing. They have to have electricity. They have to have walls. They have to have shelter. They have to have insulation. They have to have a roof. These are all things that a story must have, too.
When people say, “What’s the Story Grid?” I’ll say, “It’s sort of like what they would teach in architecture school, what they would teach in carpentry school – how to frame certain kinds of wood, how to cut them properly. I’m making it up as I go. But it’s all about craftsmanship.” It’s all about practicality.
The Story Grid is not about that mythical creature that’s going to come into your workroom and inspire you to write The Great American Novel. That’s just not going to happen. What the Story Grid is it’s a way to learn the craft of story. Now, story is the thing that separates from animals. It’s something that we do intuitively that we all live our lives by. We all have our own internal stories. You’ve written about this yourself, Tim.
The central thing about whether or not something works or not is whether or not your story’s spine is going to attract enough people to keep turning pages. If I had to say the one story spine that’s going to work for everybody, it’s the Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey story, which is all about somebody who’s cast out of society, is thrown into the bushes, and they have to find their way home, and when they get home, they tell everybody everything they’ve experienced. It’s the “Odyssey.” These are the primal stories of our lives that we all have and we all talk about.
If your fiction – be it science fiction, or fantasy, or a crime story, or a love story, or whatever – if it doesn’t have a central hero’s journey of sorts, people just aren’t going to attach to it emotionally. The Story Grid is about teaching writers that central story and building wings and other things on top of that to suit their particular interests.
Tim: As I’m starting to step into this whole fiction writing thing for real – I’m really going after it – I was looking for something that would teach me how to do this. I listened to Stephen King’s “On Writing,” and I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times. I absolutely love it.
There are some amazing things in there. It’s an amazing book. Everybody should read it. But when he gets to talking about putting the story together, he falls into this metaphysical “The stories come to me, and it’s my job to dig them up,” and he never plots anything; he just starts writing. For somebody who has never done that before, I’m like, “Okay, so I just start writing and a story comes out?” I can’t imagine that that’s the way it works.
When I went through “The Story Grid” and you had all these different things… For instance, you talked about the inciting incident. Every story starts with an inciting incident or has to have one near the beginning. The day after, I sat down and was watching the Garfield cartoon with my kids, and at the beginning of the episode was an inciting incident. I’m like, “Oh man, everything from The Great American Novel to a Garfield cartoon…”
Shawn: That’s right. Here’s the thing. I’m a huge fan of Stephen King, and I love his book “On Writing,” too, and I love all the other books on writing, like Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones.” I wouldn’t have written “The Story Grid” if I was just going to write what Stephen King had written. The reason why I wrote “The Story Grid” is because I look at story from the point of view of an editor.
Again, an editor’s job is to fix things that aren’t working. When I started out very early on in my career, I wanted to find that book. “Where’s that book that teaches me how to edit?” What I discovered was there was no book. It was very much similar to learning a trade from the master above you. It was an apprenticeship that an editor would learn from the great fiction editor in the desk down the hall.
I was okay with that, but the problem was that those editors had put in 10, 20, 30 years, and “It took me 30 years to learn this. I don’t really want to hand this to some bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young editor so that they can go and take my job.” Whether or not that was their real reluctance to sit down and go through the process with me is beside the point.
I do think that Stephen King as a writer, he had to learn all this stuff, but he had learned it through trial and error. He was in the marketplace writing short stories and books and everything, and some people would say, “Yeah, that’s terrible,” and other people would say, “You have something here, but you need to tweak it a little bit.”
Tim: Yes. He tells all these stories of all the books he’s read since he was a kid, and then he was writing when he was seven or whatever, and all the way through, and finally hit with “Carrie,” long after he started writing. I’m like, “There has to be a path that isn’t 15 years long to find some success.”
Shawn: There definitely is.
Tim: That’s why I was looking. I’m like, “There has to be something that teaches me some kind of form” – that’s the word we keep using – “to do these things and you’ll at least get close.”
Shawn: Exactly. Here’s an example. I’m one of these people who thinks he can build anything, but I don’t have any skills. I had to build a bench for my kids. I’m like, “I’m going to go online and I’m going to get a diagram of a bench and then I’m just going to reengineer it from that diagram.” Guess what? I did do that. Is it a great bench? No. But it’s a usable bench. My kids use it.
I think the same thing can work with a story. I’m not saying it’s that simple where I’m going to be able to give you a formula – it’s very complex – but there are certain principles that if you understand them, you’ll be able to check your work. The big thing, Tim, is learning how to check your work.
We all get excited. We have an inspiration. We write a scene. We read it, and we’re like, “Wow. This is amazing!” Then the next day, we read it again and we go, “There’s something not right about this. I don’t know what it is.”
But if you know, “Oh, I need an inciting incident. I need to progressively complicate the circumstances. I need a crisis. I need a climax and a resolution,” you can go and look at that scene and say, “Do I have those five things? Oh, my gosh. I have no crisis. That’s my problem. I have to put that in.”
Tim: Yes. It’s interesting. I had “Write a 50,000-word novel” that I started working through your Story Grid. I’m making my spreadsheet, and it got me really worried because you had “A typical novel is 80,000 words and you should have 62 scenes,” or something like that.
Shawn: Between 50 and 80 scenes, or whatever.
Tim: So my 50,000-word novel had 70-something scenes, and I’m like, “Oh. What’s going on here?” Then I put all the word counts next to it, and I had all these scenes that are about 200 words or 90 words, and then I had this super-long scene that had 2000 and some odd words. I’m like, “Oh, I have a problem.” That was the first sign I got of like, “This is what he means by finding the problems.” I had re-read it, and I had made some changes. I had gone through it all, but I didn’t see that issue until I laid it out.
Shawn: That’s exactly true. It’s all about finding the problems. To be able to tackle a huge problem that doesn’t have specific little tiny problems to fix is intimidating – it’s really intimidating.
What we end up doing, Tim, is we end up going to people who we think are going to solve our problems for us. We’ll go and we’ll hire an editor, who has a lot of experience, who has edited a lot of different books in their time, and we put all of our faith in them. Oftentimes, they don’t deliver in the way that we want them to, and then we start damning them, and then we get confused and we don’t know what to do.
It’s piles upon piles upon piles of these little micro-problems that snowball into this huge thing that we don’t know how to deal with. But when you look at your work really analytically, not judging yourself and saying, “Oh my God. What an idiot am I for writing a 200-word scene?” Some 200-word scenes are off-the-charts amazing. There’s nothing wrong with a 200-word scene. Is there something wrong with 75 200-word scenes? Yes there is. That’s an important thing to learn.
That’s the first stage when you go, “Oh, okay. Now I know. Here’s one problem I have. Let’s see if I can find some more.”
Tim: Right. Have you heard of Scrivener?
Shawn: Yes, I have.
Tim: Have you ever used it before?
Shawn: I haven’t.
Tim: You have to check it out. The part of Story Grid where you’re telling people to go through and put all these numbers in their spreadsheet, you’re telling them how to highlight and see the word count in all of that. You’re like, “This is going to take a day of your time.”
It took me 20 minutes with Scrivener, because you can lay out – like on a corkboard inside of Scrivener – all of your scenes and have one-line summaries, like you tell people to do. Then it also gives you all the word counts, so it cut down on the first three or four steps of the Story Grid. I probably saved me a day’s worth of work, just writing inside of Scrivener.
You should download Scrivener and check it out, just from a standpoint of using the Story Grid, because you can do a lot of the things you say to do. I haven’t gotten this far, but there’s a column for whose point of view it’s from. You can go through and color-code scenes. You can say, “All the green scenes are going to be Tom’s point of view,” and go through and hit all those green, and then you’ll be able to see all of those in a color code.
I was just thinking of that because when I was reading about this, I was like, “Oh man, this is going to take me a long time.” But I had it in Scrivener, so it took me not very long at all to put together my initial spreadsheet.
Shawn: A lot of people have been asking me about software, which I certainly have a big interest in doing. It’s really good to know that somebody has already done a lot of the analytical and software work for it.
I think Scrivener is great, and I think it’s a tool you should use, but just to be the old fogey, too, there is something to taking yourself out of the writing world in a way when you start working on your editing.
What I mean by that is if you can take some tasks that aren’t that difficult, that are rote, that are mechanical, in a way, a lot of times what I find… Today, I’m analyzing the Tipping Point piece that was in “The New Yorker” in 1996 that eventually became Malcolm Gladwell’s book. Today, I wanted to do this really fun thing where I analyzed the word counts. Because I’m a “The New Yorker” subscriber, I printed out the actual article, and I want went line by line, and I wrote down the number of words. I took a good two hours doing that kind of cheesy, rote, mechanical stuff, and while I was doing it, a lot of things came to me that I hadn’t thought of before.
It’s like somebody pounding nails… The repetitive tasks of doing a craft open up another window in your mind while you’re doing that. I’m starting to sound like Mr. Muse here, but I do think that there’s something to that.
Tim: You’re going to have a hard time talking me into saying I should be copying and pasting and highlighting each scene and looking at the word count.
Shawn: No, you’re absolutely right.
Tim: I want to go back to “The Story Grid” and talk about some basic things in it. Since this is the first episode, if you haven’t read the book, I want to let everyone know what it is.
What really stuck with me is this idea of editors say things like, “The book doesn’t work,” but when you say “Why?” you don’t get an answer. I had an editor read this book I told you about – the 50,000-word thing – and she came back and she’s like, “You have a story.” I said, “How do you know?” and she’s like, “I just know.” I’m like, “Not helpful.”
When you say a story doesn’t work – and one of the examples you gave of a story not working is when you tried to partner with that one writer who just kept having all these problems and she wouldn’t put in the obligatory scenes – if you could just talk a little bit about what you mean when the story doesn’t work and what you find when you start looking at some of these, obligatory scenes, and genre-specific stuff. Could you talk a little bit about that to give people an overview of what “The Story Grid” is about?
Shawn: Absolutely. The thing about something not working is that it does speak to a reader’s expectations. When I say to you, “Tim, I’ve written this great crime novel. It’s a mystery, but it also has a love story underneath it,” what I’m doing is I’m trying to give you a sense of what you’re going to experience by reading my novel.
If I convince you, and I say, “This is great. You’re going to love it. Give me your thoughts about it,” and I hand it to you and nothing happens for the first 50 pages beyond really terrific descriptions of seaweed and the tidal marshes in South Carolina, you’re going to say to yourself, “Where is the murder? Where is the crime? When am I going to get my mystery?”
What genres are is a way to let people know what they’re in for. We all love to go to the movies, and when we see a poster or we see a trailer for a movie, we know immediately whether or not we want to see that movie, because those devices are ways to explain to people what they’re going to experience when they go to the movie. It’s the same thing with book covers.
A book will not work if you say to somebody, “I’m going to give you a love story,” but then deliver a historical biography because people just are not going to be satisfied unless they get the obligatory scenes and conventions from a love story from the work that you’ve described.
Tim: What do you mean by “obligatory scenes”?
Shawn: Every single genre has certain things that you have to deliver in them. A lot of people have asked me over and over and over again if I could just give everybody the list of all the obligatory scenes and all the genres. Everything would be fine, and I would be happy to do that, but it would take me a good 30 years to do it.
But what I can say is that there are certain genres that editors and writers are attracted to. For me, I know crime novels. I know thrillers. I know those obligatory scenes like the back of my hand because I’ve been editing and working with them for so very long. Even non-fiction has obligatory scenes.
What am I saying when I say “obligatory scene”? An obligatory scene is the moment in the love story when the lovers meet. It’s a moment in a serial-killer thriller where the hero is at the mercy of the villain. It’s a moment in a mystery story when the master detective explains who the killer is. It’s a moment in a coming-of-age story where the protagonist is betrayed by their mentor.
These are the moments that we can all understand when we watch the films. When you watch “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you know there’s going to be that great trial scene at the end. Is he going to get off or not going to get off? Is he going to get convicted of the rape or not? That is what drives the reader and the viewer to the end of that story. We set these things up so that the reader will have something to look forward to and anticipate at the very end of the story.
Tim: You mentioned that the thriller has to have the hero at the mercy of the villain. If I’m writing a thriller and I don’t put that in somewhere towards the end, what’s going to happen?
Shawn: The book won’t work. People won’t be able to tell you why. Even some editors won’t be able to tell you why. They’ll just say, “I don’t know. There’s just something missing about it. It just didn’t work for me.” This is what drives writers crazy. If somebody said to them, “You’re building up to a place but then you never delivered the scene,” the writer would go, “Oh my gosh. You’re right. I didn’t know that.”
Tim: “I can write that scene.”
Shawn: Exactly. If given a problem, people can solve it. If I say to you, “Tim, I’m going to call you tomorrow at 5:00, and I want you to have ten different setups for a hero-at-the-mercy-of- the-villain scene. I want all ten of them to be something that you’ve never seen before,” that’s a problem that you can put your mind to very specifically and think to yourself, “How can I set up a hero-at-the-mercy-of-the-villain scene where Mel Gibson is not chained to a pipe and somebody’s whipping him?” because we’ve seen that scene a thousand times.
Tim: When I read that part, I started going back through different movies and books, and I thought of the movie Limitless with Bradley Cooper. Did you see that movie?
Shawn: I didn’t.
Tim: It’s all about this pill that he takes to become superhuman. He can solve any problem. He just becomes incredibly smart. He finishes this novel that he’s been working on for years in 24 hours or something.
Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it: there’s this point towards the end of the movie where he’s run out of the drug, he’s going through withdrawal, he’s about to die, and this one guy who has stolen all of his stash is right in front of him and he’s going to win. All of a sudden – I forgot how – that guy ends dead on the floor bleeding, and Bradley Cooper drinks his blood to get this stuff back in his system.
It was the point where the villain was going to win, and Bradley Cooper was tied up and almost dead on the floor because he was withdrawing from this medicine, and then it turned. I’m like, “Oh, man!” That’s what you’re talking about, right?
Shawn: Exactly. Horror movies are another example. Usually it’s the victim-at-the-mercy-of-the-monster scene. It’s just a little variation on it. The monster is usually so awesomely powerful that you can never believe that they would ever… What makes horror movies so exciting is the difference between the power of the victim and the monster is so large that the viewer just cannot believe that there’s any way out of the situation. The higher you raise that power dynamic, the more exciting it is for a reader or a viewer.
So that’s what an obligatory scene is. Every genre has them. Some of the best writers fall into this trap. There are a lot of great writers who write novels that just don’t work, but because they’re A-list writers at this point, they just get the books published, and people read it and they say “Eh. It wasn’t one of his better ones.” But nobody can tell you why.
Tim: Can you give an example of that?
Shawn: I’d rather not name a specific person. I’ll say one thing, and I think he would probably agree. There is more than one Stephen King novel – like “The Tommyknockers” – that is not at top level of Stephen King.
Tim: That book drove me insane.
Shawn: Yes. Put that next to “Misery” or “The Shining.” Those are real, substantial novels, and they’re not about horror at all. They’re deep, internal genres that are expressed in external ways that will just rock your world in so many different ways.
In “The Story Grid,” there’s a deep analysis of “The Silence of the Lambs.” Thomas Harris wrote “Red Dragon,” and who would have ever thought he could do any better than that? Then “The Silence of the Lambs” comes along. Since “The Silence of the Lambs,” I think he’s been not really at that level.
Tim: Go back to “The Tommyknockers.” I’ve read it a long time ago. I remember the plot. I remember what happened. I remember the ending. But what was missing that made it not work?
Shawn: I read “The Tommyknockers” so long ago. That’s where the aliens come down or something?
Tim: Yes. They find that spaceship in the back of the thing. Then they’re making the batteries, and everybody has to be in close to it so they don’t die or something.
Shawn: Exactly. That’s a deus ex machina problem, which means that when the writer puts themselves in a certain corner, instead of coming up with the perfect turn of a plot point, they’ll just say, “Oh, look at this magic herb I found in the forest, Jim.”
Tim: That’s the alien thing for me. I hate when I’m watching a movie or reading a book and there’s this awesome mystery going on, but then the writer is just like, “Oh, it was aliens,” because you can say aliens can do whatever they want because they’re aliens. That drives me insane, because you’re getting me involved in a mystery and then you just…
One that pissed me off like that was Michael Crichton’s… The one with…
Shawn: “Sphere”? Was that it?
Tim: No, “Sphere” was my favorite one. We can’t talk bad about “Sphere.” That was my favorite Michael Crichton book. No, it was the disease one?
Shawn: “The Andromeda Strain”?
Tim: Yes. Because at the end of “The Andromeda Strain,” they don’t ever fix it. It just goes off into the atmosphere and goes away.
Shawn: Yes. I have to tell that it had a great inciting incident, though. Right?
Tim: What was it? I read it once and was so mad at the ending.
Shawn: The inciting incident is one of those things that just spooks you out so much. At the beginning of the story, it feels as if there are these astronauts who are going into this town. They have the mask on. They have the whole suit on. They have their own oxygen. Then you discover that this is just like any normal town. They go in and all these people are lying on the ground. One guy takes out a knife to prick the skin, and he does and sand comes out, or something. You’re like, “Oh my gosh! What’s going on?”
That’s just a killer inciting incident. It takes an ordinary scene and it makes it extraordinary. Then I think at one point, the coffee mug is still warm and the guy just died or something. I don’t know.
Inciting incidents, man. If you spend a lot of time on them and you come with something extraordinary… Here’s a little tip: a great thing to do is concentrate on two things because they bookend each other: the inciting incident and the global climax of your story, the ending payoff of your story. They have to bookend each other. When I say “bookend,” it means that you’re going to set up in the reader’s mind an expectation that the very end of this story is going to resolve that inciting incident.
To use “The Silence of the Lambs” as an example, the inciting incident is this young recruit gets called into the boss’ office – and not just any boss, the boss of the FBI, everybody respects this guy, the genius of the FBI – and for some reason, he asks her to go interview the biggest madman of all time. It’s very strange and you’re not sure why. You know there’s something not quite right about the situation. She agrees to do it.
But what that sets up is the ultimate confrontation at the very end. You know that Clarice Starling and this madman are either going to be at each other’s throats or there’s going to be some crime that is just so outrageous that she’s going to have to solve. The way Thomas Harris twisted that is he sets up Hannibal Lecter as the force of central evil throughout the book, which he is sort of is, but he’s also the only trustworthy character in the entire novel, which I thought was a brilliant twist.
Anyway, your inciting incidents in crimes stories and in science fiction and in thrillers, especially, if you can get that moment where the reader or the viewer just goes, “Oh my gosh. What’s going to happen next?”
Tim: What’s your definition of an inciting incident?
Shawn: It’s when something happens for good or for ill that throws the world out of whack. It breaks the equilibrium of everyday life. Two things can happen. It can either be causal, meaning somebody does something. Somebody kills your brother and you have to go find that person. That’s a causal inciting incident.
A horrible situation. You come home. You’re going to go fishing with your brother that day, but instead he’s lying on the carpet and he has been shot to death. You have no clue who did it. That’s a causal inciting incident, where the protagonist’s world is completely thrown out of whack.
Then there’s the coincidental, which would mean something like by some stroke of luck, you won the lottery and you are delivered a check for $150 million. Something great happens to you that throws out the balance your life.
A good example of this one is “A Simple Plan.” A couple of guys are walking through the woods. They stumble upon a plane. There’s a whole slew of money in there. All they have to do is hide the money and keep their mouths shut for a few months. When the story falls away from the press, everything is going to be great. They’re all going to be rich. But it doesn’t end up that way.
That’s a great coincidental inciting incident that makes the reader go, “Oh my gosh. What would I do if I stumbled upon all that money in the woods? How would I deal with it? What if I had that?”
Tim: What do you call a good inciting incident versus a bad one? Is it that question of making people say, “What would I do in this situation?” What makes a good inciting incident versus a not so good one?
Shawn: The thing is that it’s so dependent upon the writer and the storyteller. In “The Great Gatsby,” the inciting incident of that novel is Daisy Buchanan’s cousin rents a summer house next to Jay Gatsby. That’s it. This guy from Minnesota or somewhere like that shows up, and he rents this little shack on Long Island Sound next to Jay Gatsby. Gatsby finds out he’s the cousin of his long-lost love, and there you have it. That’s a tiny little inciting incident. It’s a coincidental inciting incident.
It depends on the genre you’re working in. If you’re working in science fiction and you have a tiny, cheesy, non-exciting little inciting incident like somebody comes home for lunch and aliens have landed in their backyard… Actually, that’s probably not a bad idea. But you know what I mean. It’s all the skillset of the writer. Can you turn the reader into somebody who voraciously wants to know what’s going to happen? That’s the skill.
Tim: I was telling you about that podcast entitled “Rothfuss.” Max Temkin, who was the host of it, he created that game Cards Against Humanity. At one point, he was talking about why he loves comedy so much is because you can take a story to somebody and say, “Do you like this?” and they can lie to you, but if you tell somebody a joke or show them a joke that you’ve written, you can tell by whether or not they laugh whether or not it works.
I guess that’s what’s so hard about some of this stuff. I want to know when something I’ve written doesn’t work, or when my inciting incident doesn’t grab people’s attention and keep them reading. Is there a good rule of thumb…? I don’t even know what I’m asking.
Shawn: Here’s what I’m going to suggest. I know what you’re asking. You’re asking, “Is there a way I can test before I bang out 80,000 words and find out somebody doesn’t like it?” The answer to that is yes. You can use “The Story Grid” to do this. It’s all in the chapter about math, believe it or not.
There are three sections of every story. There’s a beginning hook, there’s a middle build, and there’s an ending payoff. Each one of these sections: you spend a certain amount of time in each one of them, but the bottom line is each one of those sections has to have five things in them. They have to have an inciting incident, a progressive complications, a crisis, a climax, and a resolution.
What I would do is I would write down 15 little scenes, setups. You would want to write your inciting incident of your beginning hook. This would be the inciting incident of your global story. For example, if F. Scott Fitzgerald is sitting down and is going to Story Grid “The Great Gatsby” before he writes it, the first sentence he writes is, “Nick Carraway moves next to Jay Gatsby.” That would be the inciting incident of the global story.
Remember how I was talking about how the inciting incident and the ending payoff always bookend each other? What’s the ending of “The Great Gatsby”? The ending of “The Great Gatsby” is Gatsby’s dead, and the only person who goes to his funeral is this guy who had just moved in two months ago.
That’s a great bookend. This guy shows up. He’s a pisher. He’s just some guy from the Midwest. He has no connections. He has a distant cousin who’s kind of a bitch who lives next to this rich guy.
The initial reaction of the reader is, “I feel sorry for that Nick Carraway. He’s a real striver. I don’t know if he’s going to make it or not,” and at the end of the novel, you feel terrible for Jay Gatsby. The only guy who shows up to his funeral is the guy who rented the cottage next door. Talk about a bookend! Do you know what that is? That is incredible writing. That’s what it is.
If you look at your story that way, and you say to yourself… Even forget about the middle build for a second – just beginning hook and ending payoff. This is what you do, Tim. Then you call up three friends and you set up individual coffee drinks with each one of them. You say, “I’m going to pay and you can buy anything you want at the coffee shop. But you have to listen to me for 15 minutes.”
The you take them out to coffee. You have your list of 15 scenes. Even break it down to five or ten or whatever. Just get your beginning hook and ending payoff down so that it turns, so that what you expect at the beginning isn’t what happens at the end but it makes sense. It’s inevitable. It’s surprising and inevitable.
At the end of “The Great Gatsby,” it’s really surprising that Gatsby’s dead, but when you look back at it, you’re like, “You know what? It was inevitable.” This was a guy who was living in a fantasy world, who was placing all his hopes and dreams in some really stupid, nasty rich lady who would never, ever live up to what he wanted in the first place. In fact, it’s probably a good thing that he got killed, because what if he had gotten Daisy? That would have driven the guy crazy. So that’s an inevitable but surprising conclusion.
Back to what to do. Write this stuff out and then go out with a friend and sit there and tell them a story. If they start rolling their eyes or fidgeting in the chair, you’re going to know. It’s like the joke thing. When you tell a joke, people are either going to laugh or not. It’s the same thing when you tell them a story.
If you say to them, “You’re not going to believe what happened to Chip the other day,” they’re going to be interested. But if you’re a terrible storyteller, you’re going to lose them very quickly. But if you have a good story to tell, they’re going to listen to the end. In fact, they’re going to go, “Oh my gosh. You’re kidding me. Wow!”
Tim: That actually brings up something completely different in my mind that I’d like to get your input on. You’ve been an editor for 20+ years. Ballpark me how many writers you’ve worked with.
Shawn: At least 300.
Tim: So you’ve worked with a lot of different writers. Describe to me the attitude that a writer brings to their work that makes them most likely to succeed in the long term.
Shawn: That’s a really good question.
Tim: My biggest fear as I’m getting into this is Stephen King is like, “Kill your darlings, kill you’re darlings” but I’m like “How am I going to know the difference between killing my darlings and doing what I know I need to put in my story? How am I going to know when people are going to tell me the truth? How can I make sure that I don’t turn into ‘Oh, the story,’ and just all up in arms about being pure to the story?”
Probably my biggest worry right now as I step into this is that I will bring the wrong attitude to the craft that will really undercut my chances at success.
Shawn: My advice to just about everything is this: you can’t worry about what other people are going to think. You can’t worry about living up to some strange theoretical ideal. The only person you’re going to be with when you’re a writer is yourself. My advice always is to think about the craft. Enjoy it.
We’re laughing about how I write down how many words are in a paragraph. I enjoy that in the sense that it engages a part of me that I just can’t do anywhere else. That’s what writers are. Writers are people who really can’t get much satisfaction unless they’re engaging in a story within their own brain. They don’t even know what it is sometimes, and they get confused.
They’re not sure, and sometimes people give them advice, but the bottom line is that you need as a writer to be open to learning your craft. Saying, “The muse didn’t tell me. I just need to be loyal to what I think is right. I don’t think I should put in an obligatory scene. I think that’s what hacks do,” I think that’s baloney. I think that’s running away from your requirements as a writer. Your requirements as a writer are to move people, to tell them something, to have some controlling idea that says something to them.
The great thing about commercial fiction writers – when they go beyond just telling a humdinger of a tale – is that they have a message underneath their story. I think the thing for you to think about is when you write a story is “What do I want to say here?”
Do you think Fitzgerald had anything to say in “The Great Gatsby”? You’re damn right he did. You know what he had to say? Pursuing money for money’s sake and trying to be somebody who you’re not is a death wish. “You are never, ever going to be Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby. Be yourself. In fact, you’re going to betray your moral interior by chasing some baloney dream that has no meaning.” Fitzgerald told that story and he put that forth in such a beautiful way that it has changed people’s lives.
Your job as a writer is to think about those things that are the most important to you specifically. What means something to you as a writer? What do you want to convey in your story that somebody is going to take away and say, “Oh, man. I’m glad I don’t live in a mansion”?
I think my guiding principle for any writer is when all the crap starts to fall on your head, you have to remember, “Hey, I enjoy what I do. I enjoy chasing the form and the craft, and even when the days are terrible and nothing comes to me, at least I’m with characters and ideas that inspire me.”
If you’re out there trying to write a blockbuster movie that Robert Downey, Jr. is going to star in and you’re going to make a zillion dollars, you’re in for a world of pain. You really are. Even if you get that, it’s not going to mean that much to you. But if you’re in it to tell an elegant story that can change somebody to make them not feel alone, then you’re going to get something out of it. Then you’re a real writer.
You’re going to have some up and some downs. Some of your books aren’t going to work, some editors are going to tell you you’re an idiot, and a lot of people won’t read your stuff. All of that crap is going to happen to you, guaranteed. But at the end of the day, you’ll be able to say to yourself, “Hey, man, I really busted my ass on that idea that I had, and it’s in that book. That’s all I can give.”
Tim: That reminded me of quote from Jim Carrey. I’m going to butcher it, but it was something like “I wish everybody could get everything they ever wanted so that they would realize that’s not going to solve their problems.” When you said that about writing this huge blockbuster, I thought of that.
Shawn: It’s a hard lesson to learn.
Tim: When you’re talking about “The Great Gatsby,” you’re taking this great novel that has stood the test of time and saying, “Write something like that.” But I’ve also read…
Shawn: So has “The Lord of the Rings,” so has “The Hobbit,” so has “Marathon Man.” There are certain classic stories… To call something literary and commercial is a way to position something in a marketplace. I think “The Great Gatsby” is The Great American Novel. A lot of other people do. A lot of people don’t. It doesn’t really matter. It means a lot to me, and that’s all that matters.
Tim: A book I really loved in the last couple of years was this book by Max Barry called “Lexicon.”
Shawn: I didn’t read that book, but I read “Syrup” years and years ago when I was an acquiring editor, and I loved it. I think I lost it to Penguin.
Tim: That’s one of his I didn’t read. I’ve read “Lexicon,” “Machine Man,” and I think one other of his. “Lexicon” was a story that left you breathless. It was so fast-paced. I just love that book and I recommend it all the time, but I can’t think of the life lesson I learned in it. All I remember was that I couldn’t read fast enough to figure out what happened next.
Shawn: I would have to read it. I can tell you this. There is probably a controlling idea in there that is not earth shattering… For instance, think of “The Firm.” It’s a terrific novel. I loved it. I had a blast reading it. The controlling idea of that novel is…
Tim: …Don’t work for the mob?
Shawn: It’s that criminals come to justice when their victims are smarter than they are – they outwit the villain. That’s not a huge… But the basic moral of that story is that justice prevails. One of the reasons why we need stories is to reinforce those very important social things that we have. When we read a book and justice prevails, it makes us feel good that the bad guys aren’t getting away with stuff.
Tim: That’s a great point. I do the book marketing side, and I’ve been doing that for almost a decade. When I talk to fiction writers, I often get this line about “It’s hard to market my book because I’m not helping people lose weight, or I’m not helping people do this.” They get this tone of “My book is not really helping people.” It’s their thing.
I struggle because I love fiction more than non-fiction and it’s added to my life, but it’s been hard to put in to words, like, “Yes, your work matters because of this.” But I think you just did.
Shawn: Yes. There’s a reason why we tell stories to each other, and that is to keep the bedrock of humanity strong. There are moral principles that we all in our hearts believe in, truly. It doesn’t matter what religious affiliation you have. There is moral right and wrong, and stories reinforce those values and they keep the society strong.
Even potboiler serial-killer thrillers – all that stuff, it does support this idea that if you’re a bad guy, you’re eventually going to get caught. You’re not going to get away with it. It’s like Dostoyevsky. Even if you get away with it, you’re going to eat yourself up alive. You’re going to destroy yourself. Having the knowledge that you’re an evil person will destroy you. Those are important messages for people to get across.
When they’re entertained at the same time, it’s even better because those things are absorbed without the dogmatic person saying… This is the thing about literary fiction. A lot of times, you have these dogmatic writers who say, “This, that, and the other thing, and we should all do this,” but they don’t tell a story to save their lives. So nobody really gets anything out of it beyond their intellectual virtuosity.
As you can tell, I’m a huge fan of just really good, strong storytelling. If you want to write a mystery, what’s a mystery about? It’s about solving a riddle. That’s what life is all about.
Tim: Thanks so much for being a part of this very first episode of “The Story Grid” podcast. Shawn and I are really excited about the future of this podcast and what it means to you and what it means to all of us as we become better writers together.
If you want to learn more about “The Story Grid,” the book, Shawn, and everything that he’s doing, you can go to StoryGrid.com and sign up for the e-mail list. That’s the number one thing you’re going to want to do. Shawn regularly sends out new content, new podcast episodes, and new articles he’s writing. If you don’t want to miss anything, that’s the thing to do: StoryGrid.com. Sign up for the e-mail list.
If you want to see all the episodes of this podcast as they come out and subscribe, you can see those at StoryGrid.com/podcast. Lastly, if you loved this show and you want to make sure that we keep doing this, there are two things that you can do to help out.
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That’s it for this first episode of The Story Grid podcast. My name is Tim Grahl. On behalf of Shawn Coyne, thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you next time.