[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience.
In this book, I actually wrote the last scenes of the manuscript. I rewrote a few scenes, added on a few scenes and just got to the end and actually got to write the end of the end of these scenes. I sent those eight to Shawn, of course I was pretty nervous to see what he had, to think about them. So, I’m just going to stop here and jump into the episode so that you can hear his thoughts on the final few scenes of the book.
Hope it’s a fun one for you, I’m looking forward to moving in to the editing stage, I think that’s going to be helpful for you guys. Bu anyway, let’s get through this episode first, I’m going to stop and jump in and get started.
[0:01:04.5] TG: So Shawn, I sent you eight scenes, we’ve been working towards this for a while all the way through the book, we’re now at the very end of the book and, you know, last week you said I was putting off the ending of the book because I wrote four scenes and then I wrote four more scenes and then I still wasn’t really at the end of the book.
So you gave me — you said to finish the book or get to through the confrontation with the villain in five or six scenes. So of course I took all six scenes and then I just went ahead and wrote the last two scenes of the book just to get to an end, even if I got to go back and rewrite it.
I sent you all eight scenes, some of them, what I found is when I went back and started reworking the scenes, I just reworked some of the scenes I had already written, I took elements that I had been dragging out in other scenes and just added them into early scenes so that I could combine them together. I got her — so it was all about her current confronting Randy and them, having a final thing and then resolving the story. So, sent those to you, what did you think?
[0:02:30.3] SC: I thought the scenes worked. You know, I think the narrative velocity was there too. I liked the ending, obviously what I’m operating on now as your editor is are these workable? Is this setup, does it feel like it’s going to work in the long haul? And I think it does. I think getting her into that cave, having her have a dialogue with Randy inside of the grid, him, giving her the big reveal about how he won the first threshing, she’s completely vulnerable, it’s a very innovative technique of having her physical reality in one space and her mental reality in another.
Craig; Craig’s meltdown works in this scene much better. I like the fact that only Jessie is capable of going into this interstitial grid world without having severe physical problems. Whereas Craig, when he breaks the threshold, his body starts to give up on him, mentally he can’t handle it. I also think that supports, we talked last week about the necessity of having Jessie confront Randy in the literal world as opposed to just the virtual reality world.
The way you transitioned from the virtual reality world to the real world I think works. Now, that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have to go back and really seed in a lot of the clues to setup that big moment when she sort of uses a meditation of sorts. To remind herself that she can go back to the physical world in her own mind and get there. When she does do that, I think it works. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have to set that up better in another edit. The resolution I thought was pretty good.
I thought you ended the book on a real cliff hanger, which some people could be angry about but I think today, as long as you sort of warn and let the audience know that they’re in for a 300 to 400,000 word trilogy or four book epic, then you can end on those little cliff hangers. You did resolve, she did escape the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, it’s still a little shaky, it’s not perfect yet and it’s going to take a while to get there but again, the rudimentary mechanics of it are there.
Again, you cannot have other people save the hero in that moment, the way in which Randy escapes is a little clinky now too but you know, you’ve got to somehow get him out of that pod and make it believable and realistic and I think making the choice for Alex and Ernst to they can either do one of two things, they can chase Randy and stop him from escaping and what’s her name? Lydia? Or?
[0:06:18.2] TG: Leila.
[0:06:19.4] SC: Leila. Or they can come to the aide of their compatriot. Their choice to come to Jessie’s aid and to let him sort of leave is the right choice. You could probably do something more with the adrenaline, the fact that he gets the syringe in the neck filled with adrenaline could actually enable him to get out of there quicker.
But again, I think this was a good exercise to get you to see the end that it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to build other stuff here. But getting to the end is a big hurdle because now you don’t just have it in your mind, you have it on the page. So having it on the page is such a huge step up because now you can work with what’s on the page.
Before, when you’re just fiddling around in your mind, you don’t really pull the trigger and actually end the thing. Having her become the De Facto president, you’re going to set that up of course in the rest of the story too with a little bit of back story about how the factions actually operate, how the presidents are elected or not elected, how the tyranny works.
These are all setting elements that when we go through the edit of the book, you can make really great choices and say, “Oh, here’s kind of a dull moment where I can put in a little history and have one of the characters inform Jessie about how this whole thing works.” How did you feel when you finished it? Did you feel relieved, or you didn’t quite have it yet, or what?
[0:08:10.3] TG: Yeah, I mean, between when the night after I wrote this scene, the scene where she beats Randy and he escapes and then that night, because then the next day I had to write the last two scenes of the book, I couldn’t sleep because I felt like, I kept waking up, it was one of these where like I was dreaming and then would wake up thinking about it and then fall back asleep and then wake up thinking about it. You know, you’ve done that before.
[0:08:46.3] SC: Yeah.
[0:08:47.7] TG: Because I felt like it just wasn’t exciting enough or innovative enough or, you know, power of 10 enough but then I went back and read it and was like, “You know, I feel like it works so I need to just,” — I wanted, that’s when I decided to, I have time left, it was Tuesday and I tried to get to everything on Tuesday because we record on Wednesday.
I was like, “Okay, I can write the last two scenes and write,” because I knew what those were going to be, “…and write the end on something or I could keep fiddling with this things that I felt like worked but could be better. But that’s like the entire book right now. I just wanted to get it finished so that I could say I have a first draft done and then we can move into whatever comes next.
I don’t know, with all of this, I feel like kind of ambivalent about the whole thing because I feel good on one hand but I don’t know if — I truly don’t know if what I write is good until you start giving me feedback you know? Sometimes I can tell but with this completely uncharted territory of ending a book, I’m always just kind of like, “I don’t know.”
[0:10:13.4] SC: Right.
[0:10:15.2] TG: Yeah, I don’t know, it felt good to finish the book, I felt like it ended, I was happy with the ending and setting up the next book because I set up the next problem really well it felt like. I like having her be in charge because now she’s risen to this level but now she’s got to rise to an even bigger level that’s beyond her capability and that’s what the next books will be about.
[0:10:44.3] SC: Yeah, it does have that feeling where she has — I really liked sort of the last line of the novel because this is a maturation plot. So let’s just take a couple of giant steps back and review the global story. At the beginning of this novel, you have kind of a petulant young girl who just wants to do everything her way and wants to live in a fantasy when her brother will one day return and everything will go back to the way it was.
Mom won’t be so crazy, dad will have more, be more powerful and not sell her down the river. And then, as the book progresses, she has to get stronger and stronger and at mid-point she kind of freaks out and realizes that she’s just not cut out for this and that’s when she is saved by, literally saved by the brother who informs her, “Hey, there’s a mission that must be done, you have to follow what I have to tell you, everything is going to be fine, I’m going to get you through this severing.”
He sort of saves her in the second severing. By the end of this novel, she has realized that her fantasy is just that and that she is rejecting her literal family in favor of the global family and the global family to her are, naively of course, are all the poor people who were enslaved by the tyranny.
So she’s still operating under a naiveté, but she has matured tremendously and the last line of the novel that you have it now, the sign of maturity in my estimation is to understand that you don’t know everything and it’s okay not to know everything as long as you recognize that there is things that you need to learn.
The last line, she admits that she doesn’t know everything and that it’s going to be a process for her to learn how to become the next version of herself. That works you know? That’s a really solid maturation story that delivers. Now, also you have a thriller plot where she serves as the hero, you have the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, you have the villain speech scene, you have red herrings and clues about how the brother, why the brother was imprisoned, how the society is working.
We don’t understand why Jessie is such a critical character at the beginning of the novel, we come to that understanding because she is capable of surviving death in the virtual world and living in the real world. We’ve discovered who the real villain is, it’s her brother, it’s not this president Marcus. You’ve got values or shifting the obligatory scenes and conventions of your chosen genres are operating.
There’s big realization moments, there’s an all is lost moment, there is the one thing that still you haven’t plugged in there yet and this is something that you can do on the next round is the false ending, right? you don’t have the false ending yet. But obviously, you have the materials there to create it.
So the false ending would probably operate somewhere on the way Randy escapes. Generally, the global story that you have set up to tell is working. You have the five commandments of storytelling operating at a global level, which is huge. That’s a big deal, you have a crisis, the crisis is, “Do I stay with my brother and live in a fantasy world and everything will be great and I’ll live at the highest level of society? Or do I sacrifice that for the greater good?”
Now, it’s an ironic ending too because what is the greater good, will result in chaos at the very end. You’ve got tons of progressive complications throughout the novel, you’ve got the severing’s, you’ve got her death, you’ve got the betrayal of Leila, the numbered sequences, Randy’s betrayal, Marcus’ complications.
The complications that if she does not operate, if she doesn’t continue to do the work of the people in power, her friends will suffer. The inciting incident is she gets caught in somebody else’s house robbing them. You know, this is really great stuff. Did you do a total word count? I mean, what are you at? Like 55,000, something like that?
[0:16:03.6] TG: I’m at — now, remember, I’m still missing probably three scenes in the ending payoff because I skipped ahead.
[0:16:11.5] SC: Yeah, you’re missing — there’s going to be a whole bunch of little tiny scenes that you’re going to plug in there too.
[0:16:18.5] TG: But right now, I’m at 57 scenes, I’ll probably end it around 60 to 63 scenes and I’m at 5,700 words.
[0:16:31.2] SC: You mean 57,000.
[0:16:33.2] TG: 57,000. This is not a short story. Yeah, 57,000 words.
[0:16:39.5] SC: That’s great and there’s a lot of…
[0:16:41.8] TG: So we’ll round out at 60, right?
[0:16:44.9] SC: No, you’re probably going to get a little higher than that because sort of the next step is to figure out what to figure out first.
[0:16:58.5] TG: This is also why I wanted to go ahead and end the book is to give everybody a relief that wants to move on to something new on the podcast. It’s like, “All right, great, he’s writing again and they’re going to talk about his scenes again.”
[0:17:12.2] SC: Right.
[0:17:13.9] TG: I figure, it would be — because I don’t know how to go from first draft to second draft. So that will be an interesting thing to learn.
[0:17:24.2] SC: It’s true. The process, it changes for each individual writer. I can’t give you — there’s not a play book, you know what I mean? There’s not a very prescriptive easy to follow, “Oh, here’s what you do in the second edit.” I will say, the second edit is really about making sure that your three acts, your beginning hook, your middle build and your ending payoff all have the same five commandments that I talked about for the global story and that they are transitioning well and that you haven’t left anything out to setup that you really need to hone and polish the crisis and climax of each one of these things.
Generally what I would do in this situation is go back from the very beginning of the novel and story grid it again. Do a spreadsheet again. Go scene by scene again to see where things are working, where things are a little soft. Another thing that we’ll talk about in the coming weeks is putting another layer of story grid methodology on it, which is sort of testing scene by scene the complications. Are they reaching a place where there are irrevocable complications? You can’t go back in time, that sort of thing.
Are the complications of building it away that are leading to these grand moments at the end of the beginning hook, at midpoint and then the transition from the middle build to the ending payoff? So there’s tons of work to do and then as we’re doing that work we have to make little notes like, “Must figure out two or three places to set up the ending payoff better.” What that would mean is need to get more backstory about the rats and Balaam in the middle build. Or, are there moments to put in backstory? All that kind of stuff.
So at this time after you have a first draft, one of the easiest things for you to do is to fill in the scenes that you put in TK and the big ones are the ceremonial moments leading up to the threshing and getting from zero to the cave and you did, you dropped in hints about there being sort of three levels in the threshing that Randy talked about. You might want to think about, “Well, what are those levels? Do I only want to do two levels?” Because you can switch that, it doesn’t have to be three.
You do have three severing’s so there might be the early game and then remember when Brandy said, “Well, I won the threshing before at two started,” or whatever. So to think about that stuff to really flush out your ending payoff a bit more because the beginning hook and the ending payoff are mirrors. So you want to establish a lot of stuff in the beginning hook that is going to be resolved in the ending payoff.
What that means is that some of the things that you talk about in the ending payoff you have to make more clear in the beginning hook. Just what is mining, how does it work? How does the society work through this tyranny? There’s a lot of stuff that you glassed over in the first draft that now you can pepper in, in little bits of dialogue and use as offhanded expressions that will build to the climactic moment in the ending payoff.
But we need to understand that this is really not a good system of government. People are enslaved either in reality, meaning the numbered, and virtually, meaning everybody else. So there’s two levels of slavery in the society and you need to distinguish that so that when the whole society is blown up at the end of the book, there’s real tension about how it’s going to come back together again and Jessie has to rise to the challenge to be able to lead it. Anyway, before I keep rambling on, do you have any questions?
[0:22:18.4] TG: Yeah, well so I can work on those fill in scenes and then you think the next work is to just start going scene by scene and filling out the spreadsheet and foolscap just so I have something to look at as kind of a whole?
[0:22:35.7] SC: Yeah, I mean, what an editor would do after they’ve read the book and they see that it generally works, the next thing they would do is just do the dirty grunt work of going through the entire book scene by scene and then making some evaluations. “This scene is a little bit soft, that scene is a little bit too hard. There’s no transition here.” Make a whole bunch of notes about the several different levels of story that you’ve got going here.
You’ve got the maturation plot, how is that working? Is it progressing properly? Is the thriller plot progressing properly? Can we better establish the setting because this is a fantastical world, the setting and the rules of the setting have to be extremely clear and understandable as soon as possible to the audience? So yeah, I mean, the answer is yeah. If you have 57 scenes you go through each scene, you see how their building.
You look at your global foolscap, you pay particular attention to the three, beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff sections. Because those three sections that you can focus on and get better and better and better it’s actually best to go back to the beginning and say, “Now that I know how this thing ends,” and the best way to go back to the beginning is to have an entire spreadsheet in front of you, right?
So that you can then say to yourself, “Oh that’s when I did that. That’s in scene 56 and I need to set that up better. Where can I do that in my beginning or my middle? What scene would best accommodate a couple of beats will later on payoff?” We were talking about The Silence of the Lambs a few weeks ago, Thomas Harris had to had said to himself, “Oh maybe it’s not very clear about how Clarice Starling is able to locate Buffalo Bill. How can I do that? Well maybe I’ll have Hannibal Lecter give her a clue about Buffalo Bill that will help her find out where he is in the basement which won’t use eyesight. So what other sensory things can I use? Oh smell, maybe she smells him.”
So his smell radiates across the basement, she picks up the scent and is able to locate his general direction and when she hears the snick of his gun, of him pulling the barrel, she can turn and fire in the direction of the smell. “Well how do I do that? Oh I can have Hannibal Lecter explain to her in chapter 22,” — I made that up, it’s on the spreadsheet. “I can have him explain to her that Buffalo Bill is a schizophrenic who emits a certain goat like smell.”
And so then he went back into his manuscript and have Lecter talk about that and it doesn’t make any sense when you are reading it like, “Why is he telling her about the way schizophrenic smell now?” And then it pays off at the very end when we understand, “Oh my gosh Lecter knew how this guy smelled. Wow he’s so smart and he told Starling and Starling was so smart that she remembered it in that critical moment in the climax of the story.”
So think about those things, how do you establish that Jessie is going to be able to come out of the virtual reality through a meditation? Maybe Balaam, maybe you stick in a little moment with Balaam somewhere, you know that kind of thing.
[0:26:48.1] TG: Yeah and that’s what having it all in the spreadsheet makes it easier to do because I can then look at it, basically flip through the book quicker by having it all on one place instead of trying to look at a manuscript and figure it out.
[0:27:04.2] SC: Yeah, exactly. I mean that’s really what — the Story Grid spreadsheet is really such such a great tool because it reduces the amount of time that you just churn along trying to find the passage of the thing and you don’t know what happened in a particular chapter so you have to read it again. But if you have the spreadsheet there it tells you exactly who’s in the scene, what’s going on, etcetera.
[0:27:32.1] TG: Okay, so when me or anybody else finishes their first draft you think that’s the next thing to do is fill up the foolscap, fill out the spreadsheet so now we can actually look at it as a whole instead of individual scenes?
[0:27:48.5] SC: Exactly. So it’s what I would do as an editor and I should probably do it along with you so that everybody can see our different interpretations of your particular scenes. I’ve spread sheeted a couple of your I think maybe at least 10, I have to look up in my files but I think I have some spreadsheets that I’ve already done but what I’d like you to do now is to send me, and if you’re cool with it, post the 57,000 word manuscript as a resource and then we can walk through it scene by scene and spreadsheet it together. So maybe next week we should talk about — we should spreadsheet the first, the beginning hook which is 13 scenes, right?
[0:28:44.9] TG: Okay, yeah I can do that. I actually have a buddy of mine that listens to the show. He’s like, “Can I just get the whole book in one place?” I was like, “Well yeah I guess because you have to go back through every episode and download the scenes and there’s like three or four weeks in a row where I rewrite the same scenes so you’ve got to find the right one.” So yeah, I’ll post the entire manuscript as is with this episode in the show notes and then next week we could talk about the Story Grid spreadsheet and start walking through that and I’ll do the first, I think it’s 11 scenes is the beginning hook.
[0:29:23.5] SC: Oh okay.
[0:29:24.3] TG: It’s 11 scenes and it’s funny because I already know things that don’t work in them based on where we went with the rest of the book. So it will be interesting to go back through everything and start sorting it all out.
[0:29:39.2] SC: Yeah, exactly and the other thing that you’ll see is you will find other opportunities to clarify things that happen later on with set ups. So you’ll say, “Oh I know I can put in a little scene here where X happens, which will explain later on and payoff later on”.
[0:29:58.5] TG: So I would assume I shouldn’t actually touch the manuscript right now but if I have those ideas just like add them to a note section in the spreadsheet as I am filling it out?
[0:30:10.0] SC: Yeah, that’s a great idea. Do the spreadsheet and then add a column that says notes and then you can just write in that little column, “drop in X, pull out Y, add Z” and that way you can build yourself a to-do list of mini problems to fix later on. The trick in the first, looking at your first draft is to really break down the big huge problems and since we’ve been doing this for six months, hopefully we won’t have the big huge problems. I’m not saying that they might not be there, they might be there.
[0:31:03.1] TG: When you say huge problems, what do you mean?
[0:31:05.9] SC: Like there’s no huge middle build, there’s no “all is lost” moment, there’s no climax of the middle build, there’s no progressive complications, there’s no irreversible changes that happen, and on and on and on. There’s no conflict in the scene. There’s a million little things that can go wrong. One of the reason why we took the time to do a six month draft in a podcast was so that I could stop you from making huge mistakes that you would have to have completely rewritten in second draft.
So for example when we started the middle build, you did go off track for a couple of weeks and you went off track maybe four or five times and hopefully I got you back on track. I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution to a problem but I am hoping that the major movements of this story are there and when they are there, that’s a big deal because the rest of the stuff is almost, you’re just tweaking. Right now the engines are humming. It’s not humming, it turned over.
If this was a car and we had to fix the car and we turned the key, I think it would slowly turn over. Like in the 70’s when my family had cars it was always whether or not the Chevy was going to start in the morning, you know? You would flood the gas and would tweak this and pat it six times and sometimes it turned over and I think the car turns over but we have to make sure.
[0:33:01.6] TG: Okay, all right and the way that we find that out is by doing the spreadsheet, doing the foolscap and then we’ll be able to actually see the problems as they arise.
[0:33:13.0] SC: Right and we’ll see opportunities too to make things even brighter and to put, in a Broadway play what they do after they’ve got the play on its feet meaning the actors know they’re blocking, the directors told them their entrances, exits, he’s gotten them to speak the words the right way, all of that and then they have four days of tech and what the tech rehearsal is, the actors come on stage, they hit their marks and then you have a lighting designer and you have a wardrobe person and they sit there with the director and they change the lighting, they focus on the backdrop and the setting to make sure they want to really amplify the moments in the play that are the most crucial.
This is how you get a play on Broadway or you set anything up on stage is the first stage is to get the intentions of the writer, you want to make sure that they’re clear on the stage. So you rehears your actors, you give them blocking, you use rudimentary setting, and then you bring in the stage craft and you bring in the lighting and you tweak things and you add sound queues and you do all kinds of magical wonderful stuff on top of the central working play on its feet. They call it “putting the play on its feet”. Once the play is on its feet, then you have more and more rehearsals and you put lights in different places and that’s the stage, hopefully, we’re at now.
We’ve got a working story now we have to bring up lights. We have to make the setting better, we have to get better clothes on our people, all that kind of stuff and actors always say, “Oh I hate tech and it’s really boring because I don’t get to be creative” but what happens is that they get into it more too. Once the lights starts shinning on them, they start to feel better as characters. So it’s a wonderful, magical experience in the theater when the play gets up on its feet and then you have tech rehearsal and it’s just a blast because you get to really, you know the quality of the work is sound. Now you get to really highlight it and make things even brighter and better than they were before.
[0:35:53.4] TG: Okay, well I will get to work on that and then we can go over that in the next episode.
[0:36:00.6] SC: Great.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:36:01.3] 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, which will include the entire first draft manuscript of the book or any of the past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review.
Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.