The middle build of a longform story is extremely intimidating. It comprises half of the book and can drive even the most seasoned storyteller into despair. So how should you approach the middle? In this episode, Tim decided to keep pushing forward scene by scene. To see where that approach left him, click the play button below or read the transcript that follows.
[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 episode, we start diving into the middle build of my story. So as you recall, last episode, we called the beginning hook and decided I had finished with that and I got tossed into the deep end of trying to figure out what my middle build is. I wrote the first scene, sent it to Shawn and we talk through not only my scene but the overarching picture of what the middle build is for. So I think it’s a really great episode. All of us have to write a middle build at some point and Shawn gives some really good feedback on how to wade into that pool and figure out how to tell the middle build that works.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:03.3] TG: So Shawn, this whole moving into the middle build thing took me by surprise because I still felt like I had a while. And wrapping my head around it, it was just really hard trying to figure out. Because the beginning hook kept taking all this turns that I wasn’t planning on, I had just stopped thinking about what the middle build could be. And so when I actually sat down and started planning it, I kind of was looking at roughly 30 scenes, I’m thinking the kind of middle point of the middle build will be something with the brother and so I was trying to think, “Okay, well how do we get to that point?”
And then I was going back in reading through all this stuff on the hero’s journey again. I feel like we’re in the allies, enemies, and test kind of phase. So I was kind of thinking about that and then I sat down and wrote out like kind of what we’ve talked about before where it’s like, “Okay, well what are all my options?” So I wrote out like things like, “Okay, well what’s the timeframe? Is this immediately after the last scene, is this a month after the last scene, is it maybe right after her arrival in the capital, when is it?” And then I was thinking of like settings, where could this take place? All the different options there and then thinking again about, “Well, who’s going to be there? What are the people in play. What people came along from the beginning hook and what people are going to be new?”
And so, I decided the biggest thing that we haven’t introduced and actually want to touch on this at some point while we talked today, I want to go back and touch on a change I think we need to make to the first scene of the book. I was thinking, well, the biggest shift is, we’re now entering the new world and so I decided it might be good to do that in a really dramatic way. So I started this scene inside of like the matrix or whatever we’re going to call this thing. But inside of the simulation and just kind of dropped you into it without really understanding what’s going on and then try to build this scene that kind of introduced some new people, introduced kind of the new world, introduced some of the consequences of the new world.
And at the end of writing this scene, I couldn’t — because I thought I would actually send you like a sequence, three scenes at least and I couldn’t come out with what to write next, I was just completely stuck. So I just did this scene and sent it to you. So that’s kind of what I was thinking and how I arrived at what I ended up sending you, and again I’ll put it in the show notes for everybody to take a look at.
[0:03:47.3] SC: Well okay, all of that stuff makes perfect sense and the fact that you are confused at the beginning makes sense too. We’ve been concentrating on the beginning hook and the beginning hook, let’s take a couple of really big steps backwards just so that we can look at the world from a very high perspective. One of my favorite films of all time is a film called The Power of 10 and if you haven’t seen it, check it out on YouTube, it was created by Charles Eames, the guy who created the Eames Chair.
Anyway, the reason why I love this movie is that it takes you on powers of 10 far, far, far above. The movie begins with this couple on this blanket in this park in Chicago and then they slowly scan back 10 meters and then a hundred meters and then a thousand meters and every power of 10, up to like 10 to the 24th power when you’re at the edge of the Milky Way. I always like to use that sort of power of 10 movie to help me whenever I get stumped at a particular level of consciousness and when you’re talking about story, there are so many different levels operating and there’s so many micro elements that you have to deal with, all those things that you started talking about, that you can quickly lose your bearings.
Whenever I lose my bearings, whenever I lose my bearings on a story, I do the opposite thing. You lost your bearings because you were trying to map the micro story scene by scene. You wanted to sort of get yourself an outline of things that are going to happen sequence by sequence, scene by scene over a period of 30 scenes and that makes perfect sense because we’ve been working scene by scene, sequence by sequence over the last month or so.
So now that we’re moving from the beginning hook, which I think is in very good shape, and we’re moving and transitioning into the middle build, the thing to do now is to say to yourself, “Okay, what’s my beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff all about again? How am I going to relate that to the genres I’ve chosen? What’s my overall purpose in the middle build? Are there any conventions and obligatory scenes in my genres that I’ve chosen that can help me when I dive deep back into the scene by scene stuff?”
Let’s go out a couple of powers of 10 and take a look at the story from a wide angle, the macro point of view and see if we can get some answers that will help you get back on course and on track in your micro. Now, before I go any further, I do want to say that the scene that you created was very good. Whether or not it stays exactly the same way it is, is another question. But when I read it, I found myself saying, “What’s going on, what’s going to happen next? What’s this all about?” When I was reading it, I was like, “Hey, this is nice because it’s unexpected,” which means that you’re surprising your reader with a different sensibility than what’s ever come before.
The sensibility of the character seems a bit different too, she seems much more comfortable in this world, she seems stronger. I’m just going to say that off the top so that you don’t worry that I’m going to slap you around for writing a shitty scene at the end of this step back. But we should step back and this is a place where people can go wildly off the rails, especially once they’ve established the fact that they’re comfortable creating scenes. So these are the moments when sort of by the pants writers really go wildly off-track. They have such a sense of confidence from the work they’ve done previously that they trust the organic flow of their thoughts and whenever you start to trust the organic flow of your thoughts, it’s time to get very analytical.
[0:08:03.2] TG: I would never do that.
[0:08:06.0] SC: Okay, so let’s just take a wide angle step back and remind ourselves of the genres that we’re dealing with. Now, what is the global genre that you’re writing in this book?
[0:08:20.4] TG: The thriller.
[0:08:22.3] SC: That’s the external one, that’s the external genre, content genre that you’ve decided to focus on in the story but…
[0:08:31.3] TG: The coming of age?
[0:08:33.1] SC: Yes, this is a maturation plot, it’s an internal genre and it’s really, really important. I was writing something the other day, preparing for something I have to do and I had to explicitly say that when you’re writing, you have to choose one overarching, global genre and the reason why is this. You cannot tell your reader — you can’t have it both ways, you can’t say, it’s a thriller and a coming of age story.
Although it has elements of both and the thriller element is very strong. At the end of the day, you as the writer have to make a choice and you have to say to yourself, “The most important genre that I’m writing in is going to be the maturation plot.” The reason why you have to do that is because you need the reader to really anticipate your ending payoff. The ending payoff of the maturation plot is different than the ending payoff of a thriller.
Now, there are elements that you can play with where you can deliver both at the same time but the big, big punch to the stomach, the cathartic experience to the reader has to come on the maturation plot and the reason why is because you chose a 12 year old character. If you had chosen another character who was an adult, who hasn’t gone through, who wasn’t in the process of understanding that the world is a complicated place and that moving from naiveté to worldliness? If you hadn’t established a character who is 12, then you could make the choice that it’s just a thriller. I don’t mean just a thriller, I love thriller.
Anyway, we know that the ending payoff of this story is going to be the revelatory moment when your character comes to realize that she is not the center of the universe and that people are not black or white, they have creations of moral character. That is the maturation process, when you come to understand that there are not magical people in the world who have all the answers, which is sort of the way we think our parents are when we’re younger.
When we come to realize that are parents are not the magical creatures who can ensure our happiness, that’s the moment of maturation. We know, you know you are going to have to deliver at the ending payoff, a moment of truth to this character that will blow her world apart, it will change her way of looking at the world. So I’m not saying you have to figure out what that scene is yet, and I think what’s going to happen is it’s going to become obvious as we proceed to through the story. But knowing that you have to get there is a really important thing to understand. Okay?
[0:11:41.6] TG: Okay.
[0:11:43.5] SC: Now, because you were writing a maturation plot, that also affected the beginning hook and as you’ll recall, when we started the beginning hook, we pulled out a lot of things that went too far in terms of action. We did not go to death remember? We decided after going through scenes, “You know what? Death is not a good thing here. What’s really important in this beginning hook is to establish this character’s childishness and that her childishness is getting her into deep trouble.”
So the beginning hook began with two man in a hole sequences, which means somebody makes a decision that is catastrophic, it has a level of catastrophic consequences to it. So her first catastrophic decision was to not accept the position in the capital. What that did is it threw her in a hole, she got thrown out of just being a townie and now she’s a numbered. Then, once she became a numbered, she fell in another hole because she panicked as everybody does and decided, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t mean to make that decision. I’m just going to go home.”
And that panic threw her in another hole which caused not only her own personal pain but others. She brought pain to other people and then you tied off the man in the whole sequence, you got her out of that hole by her making an active choice to surrender and to go to the capital.
[0:13:25.5] TG: Now that didn’t happen on the page though.
[0:13:27.4] SC: It’s okay though.
[0:13:28.9] TG: Okay.
[0:13:29.9] SC: That is a decision that you did not have to put on the page because the action brought us to that inevitable conclusion and you could have put it on the page but you would have ripped it out in your fifth draft because you would have said to yourself, “We don’t need this. My readers aren’t stupid. My readers can understand what happened here. They understand what I’m doing.”
So the final scene in the beginning hook ends with this moment between 83 and Jessie where 83 looks at Jessie after having her the news that Jessie can leave the numbered anytime she wants and that she’s just being a petulant little child. So at that point, as you said at the beginning of your discussion, the temptation as a writer is to guild the lily. Meaning, do a little bit more stuff before she actually does go to the magical world.
[0:14:35.8] TG: We talked about not doing that, of just like dropping her right instead of like all of this like “now she’s made the decision, now she’s on her way, now she’s finally arrived”.
[0:14:46.6] SC: Yes, it’s a way of using our climactic active moment as a cliff hanger and it’s not something you should do all the time but remember, you’re transitioning from the beginning hook to the middle build. You need a big moment here. You need a big moment for the reader so that they intuitively know, “Oh, now, all bets are off.” So because you did not put in the resolution where she says, “Okay, I’ll go,” you used the technique of creating a cliffhanger by suspending the active decision and the resolution of that decision, you just didn’t write that.
You cut off, you cut us off at the cliff, at the end of your beginning hook and so your instinct in this beginning of your middle build is a good one. Your instinct is, “Oh, I don’t want to do this scene where she’s in the train and she has a nice delicious milkshake and everybody’s nice to her and this is the new magical world.” You didn’t want to do that scene, because we’ve seen that scene before and others have done it very well, you know? So what’s the point in trying to do a scene better than Suzanne Collins or J.K. Rowling? Let them have that scene you know? They did that scene really well.
So your choice was to start it in medias res, meaning in the middle of things. It’s now sometime in the future, she’s already been in the magical world and here she is, living in a magical world, doing magical things. That works because it is a different — it’s a completely different world than where we’ve been. The scene that you created that you just sent me yesterday or the day before is a completely different sensibility than what you had created before. So you’re in a good place.
[0:16:42.6] TG: And that’s a good thing, or a bad thing?
[0:16:43.7] SC: It’s a very good thing. It’s a good thing because in terms of the hero’s journey, this is the moment where she has passed the gatekeeper of the old world, which was herself ironically, and now she’s in the magical world. So you need to create a different world so that the reader understands, “Hey, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” The house has landed, she is in the magical world. Okay, but this is our global universe; we’ve got this maturation plot that is our heart and soul of the story, we’ve moved our character from being childish to making her first adult decision and that adult decision is going to foreshadow a very big decision later on.
So her first adult decision was motivated by the pain she was bringing other people, which is great. Because that is creating her character in an organic way, she makes a mistake, she makes a bigger mistake, she changes. She is showing the capacity to change. So youu are signaling to the audience, “Hey, hang on, this character is changing. Wait till you see what’s going to happen later on.” So you’re establishing this pattern where you’re showing the reader that this character is somebody to follow. This is somebody who is just like the rest of us. She makes bad decisions but when push comes to shove, she makes the right choice.
Okay, so that’s the beginning hook; it’s in good shape. You have a great instinctual sense of what to do in the first scene of the middle build. Great. Now, the problem with the first scene is all about global reasoning and the global reasoning is this: the middle build is the moment for the antagonist. There’s a saying, I don’t know who said it, it was probably somebody a lot smarter than me but they said the middle build is the villain, that’s the villain’s terrain. They own the middle build.
So the villain needs to be firmly established as quickly as possible and when you’re dealing with a villain in this kind of story, which has a maturation plot as the global story but the external is thriller, then we need to put a villain that is right out of central casting in the thriller. The thriller is a combination of action and one of the internal genres. So you’re already in good shape because you’ve established that the internal genre is maturation. So thriller just means action plus maturation plot and the protagonist becomes the victim.
Now, what’s great again is that you’ve already established her as a victim. So we don’t’ have to work so hard in the middle build, establishing her as a victim but what we do need to do is to firmly establish the forces of antagonism that are bearing down on her. So the questions that you need to focus on right now are the following: who is the villain? And remember, a villain is not just a character. For example, a villain can move and morph and can have many heads. So in Raiders of the Lost Ark — a great thriller, one of the best — there are three villains that form a three headed monster that are opposing Indiana Jones right?
Okay, so there are three villains, there’s some gestapo officer, there is a general, a Nazi general, and then there’s that really despicable, Nazi archeologist. So all three of those evil forces, they come into Indiana’s life and create havoc at each and every stage. The climax of Indiana Jones takes care of all three of those bastards in one fell swoop. It’s a brilliant ending payoff. So the reason why I bring up Raiders of the Lost Ark is that you already have a really solid villain presence in the, what you call them? Ambassador?
[0:21:20.7] TG: The faction? Captain Mason?
[0:21:23.7] SC: Captain Mason, right. Captain Mason is the liaison between the faction and the townies. His job is to go down and pull out the best townie coders who work in the underground and bring them for more training to the capital. So he’s serving the faction and the faction is this sort of nebulous force that controls society. It’s in control. So the faction, as an institution, is a villain but it’s not very specific. So the fact that you have the captain as a representative of the faction is extremely important because we need to have specific personal antagonism in order for scenes to work.
My suggestion to you is to think about — remember when I said, “the villain owns the middle build”, and in action stories and thrillers, what happens is that the hero, the protagonist eventually morphs into the victim and the villain is responsible for creating an object of desire in the hero. Now, this is probably sounding very complicated, but the great thing about action stories is that the answers to these questions are already solved for you. They are conventions, in other words.
So in an action story, the villain, their plan affects the hero in such a way that the hero develops an object of desire. The object of desire in a thriller is for the hero to protect the victim. So here we go again, we’re going to talk about those three forces that have to be in a thriller: the hero, the victim and the villain. The villain has an evil plan. Remember, the villain’s plan has a lot of great reasonable things to it too. Especially in a story like this where you’re talking about social strata and the political universe of this dystopia, there has to be some things that can make sense to the reader in the villain’s plan, and I have some ideas that I’ll share with you about what I think the villain’s plan is.
But it’s important to understand what the villain wants and what the villain wants will create a desire in the hero to protect a victim of the villain’s wants. We’ve got the captain and I think what you should do is think about Raiders of the Lost Ark. Let’s not reinvent the wheel here. Is there another forceful antagonistic character from the faction that can be introduced here? And perhaps there might be another one later on, I’m not sure? But I think there is a level of, once she gets to this magical world, the captain was a little bit scary in the beginning hook, now you’ve got to up your game. You’ve got to come up with some person or force, I would make it personal, and you do hint at that person in the scene that you wrote but you’re going to have to flesh out that character in a way.
[0:24:53.9] TG: Okay.
[0:24:55.7] SC: The villain creates the object of desire in the hero. So the villain has to have to want something and what the villain wants in a thriller is something that the hero has. So the villain wants something the hero has. Okay, so let’s think about this. Let’s think about this world. What I think is interesting is that just through our conversations, you use sort of like this ceremonial event that you’ve talked about called “the threshing”, right?
[0:25:27.8] TG: Yes.
[0:25:28.6] SC: Okay. Just for fun, I looked up the definition of threshing and threshing means to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s a way of separating grain so that you get rid of all the stuff that isn’t good so that you can have great bread. It’s an agricultural term. So that gave me an idea and the idea is this: one of the things that totalitarian states or tyrannies fear the most are uprisings by very charismatic figures. Figures who have skills and ways of talking and ways of motivating people that can threaten the power of the tyranny.
What is kind of interesting to me is that we had this captain go back to the townie land where sort of all of the proletarian live and the captain’s job is to find the best in that townie world and to pull them out of the townie world and to give them entrée into the upper classes society, which is in the capital. So if I were a power structure in the dystopia, one of the things that I would want to do would be to protect my power base by cutting off any possibility of uprising and the way you would cut off — what’s interesting the way you’ve setup this story is that the way to cut off uprising would be to appeal to the baser instincts and the baser wants of those people who could possibly destroy you.
That sounds kind of esoteric, but basically what I mean is, if you want to stop somebody who is really great at doing something, you give them a nice car or you give them all kinds of little treats to make them feel that they’re superior to everybody else and keeps them docile and complacent and unwilling or unmotivated to help their fellow man. So what could be cool in your story is to use this faction as this power base that is really, really intelligent and the way it keeps it power is by telling a story to the community.
The story is this: “We are under constant attack,” — this is the story that the faction could be telling the people in the town and the people in the capital and the numbered and et cetera. “We are under constant attack and every four years, we have to reassert our inviolability in a contest and our power base has to fight other power bases around the planet or the Earth or however you want to structure it. I think you want to keep it on Earth.
[0:28:26.8] TG: Yeah.
[0:28:28.8] SC: “So what we have to do is pull out and find the most talented people from wherever they are. We don’t care if you’re poor or if you’re a townie or whatever, we are going to find the best of the best, bring them to the capital, train them and then they can fight for us in this competition so that we can keep everybody safe.” So that’s the story that the people kind of understand. They support it.
So the fact that Jessie doesn’t support this plan and rejected, her call to action is disturbing to the faction. Because even though she’s doing it out of sort of childish petulance and fear of losing her family, somebody who turns down a trip to go have ice cream every day, you got to worry about them. So it kind of causes this red flag. So they send this captain to monitor the situation after she’s been shamed et cetera. And what they discover is that the only thing that’s going to motivate this girl to do what we want her to do is to hurt other people.
It’s almost as if she’s immune to being hurt herself but when you start to hurt other people, her moral center arises and it glows and it makes her, it forces her to make choices that are heroic. Once she does go to the capital, she’s targeted even more closely. Now the villain is saying to themselves, “Ah-ha! Here’s one of those uprising sort of personalities, charismatic figure who could lead an uprising against our power base. So what I want from them is to destroy them publicly. I want to make them a cautionary tale for the rest of society.”
[0:30:31.5] TG: Okay, I’ve got several thoughts here. I’ll just jump in.
[0:30:34.9] SC: Please do.
[0:30:37.2] TG: A lot of this, because I was thinking two things, basically the way they find these people is by hooking everybody up. It’s basically a socialistic environment where the government provides everything as long as you’re doing what you need to do. So everybody gets hooked up to the same system to do the mining and then the way that they find people to bring them up is by anomalies in that system.
This was what I was thinking we may go back to the first scene and redo, is maybe instead of her stealing food, she’s syphoning off mining credits or she’s basically hooked into the system and stealing from people in the system. So that it shows early on that she knows how to work this system in ways that everybody else doesn’t, and that’s what threw the red flag to go get her in the first place.
[0:31:27.0] SC: Okay.
[0:31:28.3] TG: Because I still am nervous that we did not introduce anything about the digital world until the middle build.
[0:31:36.0] SC: Right.
[0:31:37.8] TG: Also, I think that again weaves in to this bigger story instead of just like, “Oh, well she was stealing food.” To me, needs to be breaking some kind of rule in the system that threw the red flag, that got her invited up anyway. Because that’s what this entire thing is doing is basically looking for this people.
[0:31:57.5] SC: Yes.
[0:31:57.6] TG: Does that makes sense?
[0:31:59.2] SC: Yes it does.
[0:32:00.2] TG: Most of them, when you come and find them and they’re caught doing something they shouldn’t or even if they’re just really good at something and you offer them this awesome prize, they just say “yes”. So like you were saying, her, saying “no” throws a red flag and you said there’s one way to deal with them is to destroy them, the other way to deal with them would be to try to give them more power but inside of a system you control.
[0:32:24.8] SC: Yes. To co-op them. Yes.
[0:32:28.4] TG: I was thinking more like they would start grooming her because she’s showing promise, start grooming her to be some kind of like upper person and that actually gives her the access she needs later to wreak havoc for them.
[0:32:42.4] SC: That’s a good idea too. When you said that, it reminded me of a classic movie that if you haven’t seen, you need to see it. It’s called Network. Have you ever seen it?
[0:32:54.5] TG: I can’t remember. I’m thinking of the one with Sandra Bullock.
[00:32:59.1] SC: No, no that’s The Net.
[00:33:01.6] TG: Okay.
[00:33:02.0] SC: Network is a dystopian media universe created by an amazing writer named Paddy Chayefsky and essentially, it’s the story of the manipulation of the public using media and popular culture and you should definitely see it. It was made in the 70’s and when you watch it, you’re going to think to yourself, “Oh well, this is just like the way media is today.” But the point of making is that what happens in that movie is exactly what you were talking about.
The media corporation creates a figure that is very popular for the nation and there comes a point where that figure, who’s played by an amazing actor died shortly after making the movie, he plays the sword of preacher/fire and brimstone kind of news anchor named Howard Beale and the character essentially goes crazy because he’s getting older and the entire universe he’s living in is absurd and there comes a point where he decides that everybody should turn off their television.
And so of course, this goes right to the heart of the power base of this corporation and there’s an amazing scene in the movie where Howard Beale goes in to see the chief executive officer of this news corporation and the CEO closes and he’s played by Ned Beatty who’s just the sweetest sort of sensibility when you look at them and you feel that this meeting is the guy’s going to say to him, “You know Howard, you’re really not helping us here if you’re doing these things and telling people to turn off their television, you should really help us out.”
Instead what happens is one of the greatest speeches in movie history where the CEO closes the doors and speaks as if he’s God because he knows Howard Beale has gone crazy. So he uses the voice of God and he says, “You are messing with the fundamental systems of the universe,” and so what happens is then that character just becomes completely coop-ted by this corporation and slowly does what he is told and then ending payoff of the movie is so over the top and so brilliantly constructed that it’s both funny and tragic at the same time.
It’s one of the greatest movies made, it’s one of the greatest writing performances of all time. So I highly recommend that you go watch that movie and I’m not saying to rip it off in anyway, but what I am saying is that it firmly establishes the victim and the villain. The problem is, is that we lose heroes in this movie. The people that we think are heroic in the movie turned out to be slowly destroyed. So the ending of the film is extremely tragic but the trajectory of the storytelling is so well-constructed that we can’t help but watch.
Anyway, so back to your story, yes there are two ways to deal with somebody with an incredible amount of talent and charisma. You can either make them cautionary tale for everybody else and destroy them publicly or you can coop them to do your work for you and I think you’re right, I think that you’re right. I think that your story, because we are dealing with a 12 year old girl here, and the villain is going to make the mistake of thinking, “Oh it’s just a kid.”
[00:36:44.2] TG: Yeah, I feel like trying to — she hasn’t done anything worth destroying yet.
[00:36:49.6] SC: Right, your instincts are much better than mine on that thing and you’re right, they should reward her, constantly groom her, constantly let her know that she’s special. To let her know that she’s got this special gift and that she’s going to be a big part of the faction and when the threshing comes, they’re hoping that she’s going to be one of the major players in the defense of the country, blah, blah, blah. All that stuff that gets us excited about being very important people. So in your middle build, now you’re starting to see maybe in your head some sequences that will allow you to establish these sort of villain-victim-hero triangles.
[00:37:35.2] TG: So can I back up a second?
[00:37:37.6] SC: Sure.
[00:37:38.0] TG: You know, this was something we talked about earlier on in the beginning hook too and I think we touched on it like last week or the week before when you were saying, “Maybe she’s not quite a special snowflake yet. She’s just getting scooped up in the same system everybody else is getting scooped up,” in which I think works.
[00:37:57.7] SC: Yes.
[00:37:58.1] TG: So the villain does get things started but the villain doesn’t get things started pointed at Jessie. The villain wants to find anybody with Jessie’s talents and bring them in and she just happens to be one of them.
[00:38:12.5] SC: That’s correct, and you’ve already done that.
[00:38:14.3] TG: Right. So the villain did get things going because you said, the villain drives the story. But now it has to shift because the villain got what it wanted and if the villain keeps getting what it wants, we don’t really have a story, right? There’s no tension?
[00:38:31.8] SC: No, that’s not exactly true. The tension here is going to be provided internally, scene by scene through the maturation plot, and also through the external scenes that you create scene to scene. What I mean by that is the scene that you wrote, it has a victim and it has a villain and but it doesn’t really have a hero. The scene that you wrote, let me just walk everybody through it quickly.
It’s a scene where Jessie is in the matrix and she’s doing a task. She discovers while she’s in there that she needs to knock out one of her competitors so she figures out where she can get a virtual rolling pin and she goes and she bangs…
[00:39:20.2] TG: I kept laughing when I would use that.
[00:39:23.2] SC: Well, it’s fine. It works. So anyways, she knocks the kid out who is her competition while he’s at the computer. Now who’s the villain there? Who’s the villain in that scene?
[00:39:34.5] TG: Well Jessie.
[00:39:35.8] SC: Yeah, Jessie is playing the villain in the scene and the victim wakes up vomiting after it’s all done. He’s very ill. Jessie at the end of the scene gets caught and she is tased by an authority figure and she wakes up and she’s got a nose bleed. She plays the villain and she’s been playing the protagonist in the story. So your reader is going to believe that she is the person that they should have sympathy and empathy for. Instead what happens is in this scene she plays the villain and she hurts somebody else and when she wakes up she has other friends in this sort of competitive environment and she doesn’t like the kid that she hit, some kid named Justin, or something like that.
So you do have a victim and a villain but the hero element is not quite clear, maybe it works because what you’re signaling to the audience is that, “Hey, time has passed and our little 12 year old sweetheart who sacrificed herself so that she would stop all the pain with her friends is now kind of a bully.” And that works as long as you understand that you are establishing early on a pattern of behavior that seems to be something that you’re going to want to build to as opposed to drop in immediately. Do you know what I’m saying?
[00:41:09.3] TG: Okay.
[00:41:10.9] SC: Because we kind of still…
[00:41:14.0] TG: So it’s too much of a, oh I don’t know, whiplash to go from like this poor girl that’s fallen into three different holes or whatever to now she’s beating people up.
[00:41:26.1] SC: Exactly.
[00:41:26.9] TG: Which has been my pattern of making that mistake.
[00:41:30.4] SC: Well, it’s a perfectly reasonable choice but it might be too early. That’s my only point and it might be the world is so strange, it sort of like you have to pick one element of the story to stress at the beginning of your middle build. You don’t want to try and bite off more than you can chew and what you’ve done here is you’ve established this really weird world and then you’ve done it even one bigger by having a pretty major shift in character of your protagonist and I think it’s too much too soon, basically.
[00:42:10.0] TG: Okay.
[00:42:11.3] SC: Now later on, maybe not. So I think what you need to think about is going back to that idea that we had last week when we said that she wasn’t any really special snowflake. Instead of doing this big character change scene, what you were talking about last week was to make her more sympathetic and have her pretend to be terrible at what she’s doing. So maybe instead of her being like this kickass intelligent coder in this first scene, she gets in a situation that she can’t control, seemingly can’t control.
It could be a situation where she’s in the matrix and there are game controllers, right and the game controllers is monitored the children on those beds who have been sort of locked into this game world and so the game controllers, it might be a scene where the game controllers are monitoring the children. So instead of taking it into Jessie’s personal world so quickly in the middle build, instead you give the stage to the villainous forces, in a sense.
These are the minor villains of this tyranny, these are the everyday workers who make sure that everything is going as planned. So they’re kind of like the guys on the alien spaceship who go and pick up garbage. They’re like the garbage man of space and these are the game controllers who are monitoring this group of kids, these 27 or 28 kids on beds, who are plugged into the matrix. So you could begin the scene where, “Number 17, her blood oxygen level is falling, let’s monitor that.” You know? And they’re eating sandwiches, they’re talking about something, I don’t know? And then we see from their point of view, one girl is just completely fritzing out. She’s not doing well, they have to make a decision, should we pull her out of the game or not pull her out of the game or what?
In that way, you establish that Jessie’s in a very competitive environment that she’s not really doing all that well. The reason why I’m suggesting is this: is that you set up the scene with that moment between Jessie and 61 earlier, where 61 tells her about how he, being one of the tough guys, one of the faction leaders, got duked by this incredible player, right? Who kept loosing and loosing and loosing, and so the guy started to take the guy for granted and then he switched it up on him and then he ended up losing, remember that scene?
[00:45:12.5] TG: Yeah, I’m trying to wrap my head around this. So let me try to repeat some of this back to you.
[00:45:16.5] SC: Okay.
[00:45:18.5] TG: So I need to establish, in this first scene, the new villain, the new object of desire of the villain, and that they want something from our hero and I also have to establish the victim. Now does the victim need to be somebody besides — so here’s what popped in my head as you were talking:
So if we still have Jessie being petulant and not really working as hard as she can, and we have already established the way to get her to do anything is to hurt somebody she cares about, could this be a situation where she’s loosing? She’s loosing and then a friend of hers is losing and she steps in and fixes things to save her friend, and that’s what tips off the faction that she’s actually really good?
Because I am also trying to think, should I even be thinking about where I need to be in 15 scenes to introduce her brother, or am I not worried about that right now? Because I am thinking too like because also with the scene that you described, that breaks the rule we set that everything is going to be from Jessie’s perspective.
[00:46:28.6] SC: That’s true, but there comes a time when, especially when you’re struggling to map, if you threw in a third person omission scene from another point of view at the beginning of your middle build, you could probably get away with it and the reason why you could get away with it is, and Thomas Harris does this in the Silence of the Lambs, is that occasionally, we need to see the way we world views our protagonist or we need to see a larger social context.
And because the middle build is the domain of the villain, it’s really important that the reader understand that there is a villain, that there is a force that wants something and that there are systems in place so that that force is constantly satisfied. The beginning of this middle build is a crucial scene because we want the reader to say to themselves, “Oh my gosh, this is a whole level of a world that I can’t believe this is even possible.” So you’re upping the stakes of the universe and putting your protagonist into a very, very difficult situation.
Also, it’s a Cinderella arc in the middle build here because you want to build her up, build her up, build her up and then see her fall and then have her build her up at the end. So you want to arise-fall-arise emotional arc in your middle build and one of the ways to do that, I like the idea that you came up with where she’s sort of playing possum and not really giving it her all in this game and then somebody else is threatened and she comes to the rescue.
That sounds like a much more in character storyline for her at the beginning of the middle build and slowly in the middle build, you can erode, you can have the faction start to teach her about the realities of the game, “Jessie, we can’t always go back and help our comrade when we were in the middle of a fight now can we? If you’re going over a wall and your comrade gets caught in the wire, if you go back and get your comrade both of you die. Not just one of you, both of you die and that hurts everybody.” Do you see what I am saying?
[00:48:54.7] TG: Yeah and with that established too, that would get the faction whoever is in charge, whoever the drill sergeant person is, that would catch their attention that all of a sudden this person that they’ve been thinking about kicking out of the system does something amazing and so scene two could be in the real world where he’s basically like, “What the hell is this about?”
[00:49:18.0] SC: Yes and, you know, that’s the kind of moment you bring in Obi Wan Kenobi to train the new warrior.
[00:49:27.5] TG: Well and that’s where I think I was planning on bringing — because you had thrown in like maybe a person that 61 was describing wasn’t her brother, it was 53.
[00:49:38.1] SC: Or 83, yeah so you bring 83 back.
[00:49:39.0] TG: Or 83 and so maybe this is where…
[00:49:42.0] SC: Yeah, you bring 83 back in the middle build.
[00:49:43.7] TG: And she’s now the mentor again.
[00:49:44.7] SC: Exactly.
[00:49:46.0] TG: And because that’s what I thought that all of these middle tests are going to be is basically squeezing them in different ways to see what they’re really capable of and some of them get squeezed so hard that they get scrambled up and they’re thrown out of the system but they’re trying to find the best of the best so that they can win this threshing and I was thinking you had mentioned several weeks ago too, of just thinking of the three book arc and I figured that the third book would be the threshing.
[00:50:15.0] SC: Well no, I think you need a threshing. If you’re promising a threshing in this first book, you’ve got to have a threshing at the end bro.
[00:50:24.5] TG: Okay, I can do that.
[00:50:25.4] SC: No, don’t think about it. But you can say like what Steven Pressfield wrote Gates of Fire, he didn’t say, “Oh there’s this great battle, The Battle of Thermopylae, coming up at the end. But I’m going to stop the book right now and you’re going to have to buy the second book to get that scene.” The while war genre is based on the big battle at the end.
[00:50:47.0] TG: Well I guess I was thinking in terms of like Star Wars. They beat the death star but they don’t really put it into the dark side until the end, the third book.
[00:50:58.5] SC: Well it depends on how you want to arc this three book arc. I mean if you look at the reality of tyranny is that it’s a lot of lies man. You know maybe this threshing thing is real but it’s not real, you know what I mean?
[00:51:16.9] TG: So have you heard of Brandon Sanderson?
[00:51:20.3] SC: Yeah.
[00:51:20.7] TG: He wrote this trilogy that was just amazing. Hold on — Brandon Sanderson, The Mistborn Trilogy. So the whole first book was basically overthrowing the government, the tyranny and at the very end, they kill the guy that’s been the tyrannical leader and he does his speech and in his speech he’s basically saying, “You have no idea what hell you’re unleashing by killing me,” and then the following two books is them dealing with the hell that they’ve unleashed by killing him.
And so I was thinking this first book — so maybe we’re three years out from the threshing and this first book, she is so pissed off with the faction by the end that she just rips it off. She rips it to shreds. But now they’re left with nothing and they’re facing the threshing even without their faction. So now what do they do?
That was kind of the arc in my mind is this one, she destroys her faction but that opens up this bigger can of worms of now they’re going to get to take over by an even worst faction because it’s a competition between different powers in the world. And so what she realizes at the end, once she destroys her faction is that was actually the best one of the group that she just tore down.
[00:52:42.5] SC: That works. I think that can work.
[00:52:43.4] TG: So that was my long — so then you have the middle but that’s all prep and then the final book is all about the final battle, was my kind of, in my head, this one was she’s going to go get so pissed off with the fact, the power that be in her faction that she’s just going to rip it like eviscerate it. Then that leaves this power gap. Because in Mistborn, the whole thing was, he was keeping at bay this really evil thing. He had become evil to pull that off. So when he disappeared, it was like taking the stopper out of the — you know?
[0:53:22.2]SC: I think you accomplished the same thing and also delivered the expectation to the audience if you have the final ending payoff of this book, be the actual threshing and in the actual threshing, she outmaneuvers her faction and brings it down and then the next book. She wins, but she loses too because the pain she brings after bringing down her own faction is going to come to fruition in the next book or so. You don’t have to make this decision now but it’s…
[0:54:01.4] TG: I know, but it’s more fun to talk about this than like the actual work I have to do next. So anyway, let’s actually get back to that. So I need to think about a sequence that establishes the villain and their object of desire and they want something that the hero has and this case Jessie’s still not — I was thinking in this sequence, she would reveal herself as perhaps maybe a special snowflake.
So up until now, she’s just one of the many townies that they’ve pulled in, some are getting thrown out, some are doing okay and then all of a sudden she catches the eye and that makes them want to push her harder, to see what she’s really made of.
[0:54:46.0] SC: Yeah, I mean, I see this — this is your Cinderella arc. The beginning is she comes to the aid of one of the other victims of her group. She’s identified by one of the members of the factions and somebody to keep their eye on, they bring in 83 to train her so that she can get to the next level, she goes in the next level, she does extremely well, she rises, she rises, she rises, and then there’s the big audition or whatever and she falls. So you’re going to have a rise and then a fall.
That fall, she dies in that battle, but she doesn’t die. So she falls and she thinks she’s in deep trouble, she wakes up and she discovers that, and the villain discovers, she lives even when dying in the game. So that shows her special, special, special snowflake, then things really take off, she rises again and then your ending payoff is sort of a tragic fall. Anyway, I’m getting way ahead but I think thinking of it in terms of progressively moving her from “she’s one of the special ones. Oh my gosh, she’s really pretty good, maybe we should bring her in to the next level? Let’s bring in a mentor.” They bring in 83.
We learn more and more about the society as she starts to train with 83. 83 tells some back story and we move in to a big super-duper event where she has to square off against five Samurai level game players. She goes to that level, she does, she beats all five, she goes to the next level and dies in that level and thinks that she’s in trouble and she’s going to get thrown out of the program and the fact is that she in her losing and her ability to rise from that depth gives her a super special thing that identifies her as the chosen one to the villain and then you do your final sort of climax of the middle build where Jessie has to come to a very deep, dark revelation that the villain is the villain and that she can’t do their bidding anymore. That pumps you in to your ending payoff. We should stop there before your brain explodes.
[0:57:05.1] TG: No, no that gives me — I mean, to have a general direction and then — so basically, the scene I wrote, I feel like could work with some tweaks. So instead of her just out and out attacking this dude, she realizes her friend’s in trouble and like does something kind of outside of the norm to save her.
[0:57:28.2] SC: Yeah, I would make her friend the boy, not the girl.
[0:57:31.8] TG: Oh yeah. No girls against boys here.
[0:57:34.2] SC: No, I think you want a level of very soft platonic romance. I’m not saying you want to go crazy love story or anything, but I think an alliance between a 12 year old girl and an 11 year old boy is more interesting than girls against the boys.
[0:57:54.6] TG: Okay.
[0:57:55.9] SC: Because she likes boys, her brother was a boy, you know? She’s not afraid of boys. The other girls are afraid of boys and they stay away from them, but she’s not like that because she had a really nice brother, you know?
[0:58:07.3] TG: Okay, so do you think my instinct’s right on that? That like the scene I’ve setup I could reuse?
[0:58:14.1] SC: Just don’t try and do too much in it, you know? Don’t have somebody dive in, don’t have, you know what I mean? It was a really good scene because it showed that your mind is really thinking of, “How do I progressively complicate this?” You did, you just did too much too quickly, but your instincts are right on target.
That’s why you need, when you make a mistake like that, it’s hard to understand that you made the mistake and you keep writing and then you get in to a deeper and deeper hole and instead, it’s always good when you’re starting a brand new section of, you know, you’ve got your beginning hook, you’re starting your middle build, you’ve got to think of it globally first before you start tinkering with the micro.
Think of, “What is my goal here? What do I have to do, how do I have to supply, how do I have to satisfy the conventions and obligatory scenes and my chosen genres? Where should I put them? How should I structure this? How should I do my emotional arcs? How should I do my Kurt Vonnegut kind of, you know, which of the six emotional arcs do I want to concentrate here?”
The middle build’s a great place to do a Cinderella story which is rise, fall, rise. So let’s think of it in that terms, “I want to start out, move her up the chain and then have a big fall and then have her come back. That’s what my middle build’s going to be.” So now that we have that global sensibility, now you can sort of start pecking away at the micro.
[0:59:46.2] TG: Okay, I’ll get to work.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:59:47.2] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. 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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