The Race to the Finish


[0:00:00.3] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid, and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

Now before I jump into this week’s episode, I do want to mention, last week I announced at the end of the episode that we were starting a certification program for Story Grid, for Story Grid editors. I just want to mention that again here really quick. It looks like we have about half the spots already full. So if this something you’re interested in, I recommend you go ahead and move quickly on it.

What we’re looking to do here at Story Grid is expand out how many people can access Story Grid and access people that have been trained in the Story Grid method. The number request we get here at Story Grid is all about people that want to have editors that help them edit their story in the Story Grid methodology. Of course, Shawn can’t edit everybody’s story and so we’ve been talking about how to pull this off, and we’ve decided we’re going to bring together 25 editors and we’re going to train them in the Story Grid methodology and also train them on how to run a successful freelance editing business, then make those people available to the Story Grid community, the thousands and thousands of listeners and readers we have here at Story Grid.

If this is something you think you may be interested in, we have an application setup for you. You can go to storygrid.com/cert. That’s c-e-r-t for certification, so storygrid.com/cert. There’s a little bit more information there and the application for you to fill out and let us know that you’re interested in this. Again, our goal with Story Grid is to make this amazing methodology of how to edit your book and to know that your book is working and available to more and more people. This is the next step that we are taking here at Story Grid.

Diving in to this week’s episode, I did an end up skipping ahead and writing some scenes further along in the book and just skipping some pieces that I was having some trouble with. So we look at those scenes and Shawn gives his feedback and we take a look at where I should be doing next.

It’s a really fun episode. I think you’ll enjoy it, and let’s jump in and get started.


[0:02:30.3] TG: So Shawn, last week, we decided that I should skip ahead a few scenes and start writing kind of the real midi part of the ending payoff. I started working on it. I started thinking — I honestly thought I was writing the scene with the confrontation between her and her brother. Then, I kept writing and then that scene ended and then I wrote another scene, and wrote another — I ended up writing four scenes, about 2,400 words that didn’t even get to the point that I thought I was going to get. I basically ran out of time, because I was planning on sending you this one or two scenes.

I ended up writing four scenes that weren’t what we talked about. I have no idea what they ended up being. I read back through them and I thought I had good progression through them. Then, I also went through and I sent you this too and try to write down every character and their desire and their conflict; what they want and what’s keeping them from getting what they want. As I way to clear my head is I write this out.  Anyway, curious what you think about where I landed.

[0:03:50.5] SC: I think you did a really nice job. I think this — You have to remember that you’ve been building to the resolution of the novel from the very beginning. To just have this climactic scene, or two scenes, will probably not make the reader all that happy about it. Just as a comparison, the Silence of the Lamb’s ending payoff is very much in the vein of setting up the big moment when Clarice kills Buffalo Bill.

Now, the way he solved that problem, when you look at it objectively, from afar, like an editor, is not all that incredibly innovative. He thought to himself, “I’ll have Clarice have to operate in complete darkness and have to use information that she receives throughout the novel in order to rise above Buffalo Bill and find him and shoot him before he can kill her.” It’s sort of like, “Well, I’ll have them both in the dark. Then, she’ll hear the snap of his gun and then she’ll fire and kill him.”

That is his hero at the mercy of the villain scene when the hero finds that extra special something within themselves to overcome the villain. Objectively, when you look at it like that — And we’ve talked about this before in a couple of previous episodes, to overbuild the climactic moments, the point where you’re pulling hair out and saying, “Oh! I just can’t figure out how to make this spectacular.”

You don’t really need it to be absolutely spectacular in terms of the external setting and all that stuff. It’s really the moment when the character, they find something within themselves that makes them heroic. The reason why I’m bringing that up now is that the build to that ending payoff was so expertly done by Thomas Harris, and so intricately done and not this major car chase or remarkable investigative procedure. It was just a very determined woman investigator asking very specific questions and following her very brilliantly thought way of looking at the world from the point of view of the victim. That is Clarice’s special sauce.

She, instead of Crawford who tries to look at crime from the point of view of the perpetrator, she look at crime from the point of view of the victim, and it was that innovation for her that led her to find Buffalo Bill and to smite him, and kill him, and destroy him. The final resolution of the novel is, again, it’s not — We’re not following the FBI on 120 mile an hour speed chase across the desert, or anything like that. It’s a very methodical, brilliant description of a determined investigator getting the clues, putting them together, and not quitting until the very end.

The fact is that your instincts to write these four smaller scenes are really good. They’re right on track, because what you did is you put — You sort of put the buildup on the back burner and you put all those scenes where Jessie and the team have to fight their Russian-European contingency, and the Asian contingency, and you took it all the way to the place just before she enters the belly of the best. You wisely made her confront this stuff inside of a cave, which is a really nice metaphor for coming to a new realization and rising out of — It’s almost a rebirthing metaphor.

Not to get too woo-woo about it, but that is what you’re supposed to do in a hero’s journey at the very end, it’s a rebirth. It’s the regeneration of your protagonist with a brand new worldview. Using the externalities of the setting — I don’t even know if that’s a word, but the external setting as a means to get that rebirthing metaphor across was a really good choice.

Also, you’ve put in a really nice speech and praise of the villain with Randy. Randy, basically, tells Jessie everything that the reader has held as truth for chapter after chapter after chapter after chapter. When he does say that to her, we agree with Randy, and Randy is saying, “Oh, you mean those people who put their two children at jeopardy and sent us here to get killed? You want me to go back there with those people? What are you? Stupid.”

It’s a really, really smart way of getting us to understand Randy’s point of view. He makes a really great point. If somebody’s going to be a tyrant in this society, why not him? The entire society is setup as a tyranny. If you’re in a tyranny, wouldn’t it be best to be the tyrant, because then you get all the best stuff. It makes perfect sense. That speech and praise of the villain worked really well.

[0:09:59.7] TG: I felt like I’ve put two of them in there, because there’s the one where he talks to her, and then there’s the one where he talks to Lila, Ernst, and Alex.

[0:10:09.8] SC: They both worked.

[0:10:10.7] TG: You said, “Sometimes you have to split them up.” That’s what I did.

[0:10:16.5] SC: Yeah, I think it worked. You also have Randy mentally agile, but physically confined to the wheelchair, which was a really good choice too. Then, Alex, and Lila, and Ernst are outside of his chamber where he’s right — From what I understand, he’s sitting in the same area as Jessie who’s jacked in to the world, correct? He’s pumping her full of drugs to get her to do his bidding. I also liked the way you brought back to the old mentor from the very beginning of the novel.

All in, I think this might be a short podcast this week, because I think —

[0:11:05.3] TG: Last week was super long, so that’s alright.

[0:11:08.9] SC: Just to review what the ending payoff is all about. It’s the resolution of the global story, and the resolution does not have to be just one 1,500 word scene. Like in Silence of the Lambs, it’s a good four, or five, or six builds up to that moment where she has to kill him in the darkness.

Now that we know — The other thing that you did here which was really great is you established the dramatic irony. We know, the reader knows, that Randy is really in control of Jessie’s physical reality. She doesn’t know that, because she’s in that world and she thinks that Randy might be in another — She’s talking to him, but she doesn’t know that he’s sitting right next to her body and can kill her at any moment.

[0:12:06.8] TG: I kind of set it up where she doesn’t know he’s alone with her.

[0:12:13.1] SC: That’s dramatically ironic. Meaning, the reader knows more than the protagonist. That’s exactly what Harris did in Silence of the Lambs. He split up the point of view in the climactic scene between Buffalo Bill and Clarice. We see in that climactic scene, and I don’t know it off the top of my head. It’s probably around 52, or so, or maybe 60, chapter 60 of Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill — It begins with him tracking her in the darkness with his infrared vision goggles. Then, in the middle of the scene, it switches to Starling’s point of view.

That was the way he established the dramatic irony as we saw the killer hunting the victim an then he switched the point of view where the victim is experiencing the emotional and sensory feelings of being stalked, and that really, really paid off and worked.

Even though, again, the actual climactic moment when she shoots and kills the guy. If you say that, you’re like, “Oh! She shoots and kills him. Why am I going to read that book? I already know how it’s going to end.”

This also speaks to something that occurred very early on when we’re working on the novel. A lot of people would write in and write me, specifically, and say, “Oh, we know that the brother is going to be alive. I mean, it just has to be, because there’s no body.” I was trying to express at that time, and I’ll say it again. Yes, of course. But how is he alive is the interesting thing that makes us, “Why is he alive? Where is he?” All of that is the suspense that keeps us reading and wanting to find out what is the truth? What’s going on? What’s this girl — Why is she so important? What’s her special skill?

You also have Jessie talk about the early moment when Randy and her were goofing around when they were younger and Randy discovers that she can live when she gets scrambled in the net. Obviously, we’re going to have to put some kind of prologue at the start of the novel, but you can fix that later.

All in all, I think you’ve got a very nice core that is sort of — You’ve got probably one, or two, or three scenes that build to the moment where she’s in the cave. We have to see Az die on stage in some kind of heroic act. Then, after she gets in there and blows up the machine and her mentor is capable of — I think just a warning, you can’t have the mentor be the one who blows up the machine. She gets an access, but she’s got to be the critical person to make the final choice.

He can’t do it remotely. She has to do something within that sphere that she’s in at the time, because you cannot have a third party come in and do the climactic action on the entire story or people will say, “Oh, that’s kind of a bummer. I really hope that she would be the one to do it.” It’s like in one of those Batman movies, there’s a really big mistake where Batman is in the hero at the mercy of a villain scene and Catwoman comes in and saves him. You can’t do that.

That movie made a billion dollars. When I say you can’t do that, it’s — They got away with it, because they had so much other stuff going on. I think it’s the one where the guy has that iron mask or whatever. I think it’s Batman three. Just avoid doing that. She has to be the pivotal player who does the climactic action to break up the machine.

[0:16:36.1] TG: Okay. I have a couple of other questions. These are good to keep moving?

[0:16:43.3] SC: I think so. We can tweak them later.

[0:16:46.1] TG: Should I go to the end, or should I go back and write the scenes I skipped? Should I keep moving towards the end or go back to where I left off and fill in the gaps in that right now?

[0:16:59.7] SC: I would go to the end, because you’re on a role. Honestly, you don’t have that much more to write after these scenes here. You’ve got your big climactic action scene where the thing blows up, Randy escapes, or maybe it seems that Randy hasn’t escaped and then you drop in a zinger.

The other thing you have to remember about a thriller is that it has two endings; it has a false ending, and then the big real ending. In Silence of the Lambs, the false ending was when Crawford, the FBI, Starling calls the FBI after doing an interview with one of the victim’s family just to check in. They say, “Hey, Starling. Great to hear from you. Hey, here are some amazing news. We found Buffalo Bill. He’s in Chicago. The FBI is just about to take him down. Come on home. Everything is cool.”

At that moment, we think it’s over, the reader does. Startling has to say to herself, “Oh, gees. I came all the way to Cleveland on my own dime and now Crawford is going to get all the credit and the FBI is going to take down Buffalo Bill.” It’s at that moment where she can either do one or two things. She can quit and go home, or she can just play out the trail of her investigation.

That false ending pushes us and then we actually get to see, Harris puts in a scene where the FBI goes to this other alternative Buffalo Bill and it’s not him. Then, the next scene is Starling knocking on the door of the real Buffalo Bill. That begins the real ending.

You need a false ending, and then the real ending. The false ending could be, “Oh! We’ve exploded the machine. Everything is great. Unfortunately, Randy didn’t make it. I’m just making this up and it’s probably so obvious that you don’t want to go this way.”

Then, the real ending would be, “Oh! We just got a communication, Randy in the netherworld,” of whatever, “he’s escaped.” Then, that’s ending of the novel itself. It’s a tricky thing for you to pull off because — It’s not that tricky. I’m not trying to intimidate you. What you want to do is satisfy the reader with this first novel and make them feel, “Oh! That was great.” You also want to seed the sequel, but not be too cheesy about it.

[0:19:48.3] TG: I was thinking the first ending would be her blowing up the machine and then the second ending would be the oh shit moment when that does not go — Because that’s when everybody wakes up and then anarchy ensues. Cause kicking in to the second novel will be — The problem of the second novel will be dealing with the ramifications of blowing up the machine and the fight for power over what’s left. Does it need to be more personal than that?

[0:20:27.9] SC: I’m trying to think it through. What you could do is have the first ending being the blowing up of the machine. The second ending being the saving of Jessie’s body. Jessie heroically sacrifices herself. She has to get information while she’s in there probably from the rats or her mentor that, “Hey, just so you know, Randy is about to kill your body. You probably want to pull out of there now before he can do it.”

She has to make the decision, “If I do that, then he’s going to become president and he’s going to kill me anyway, and there will be continued tyranny and everybody’s going to suffer even worse than I can imagine.”

She makes the heroic decision to press forward and to actually destroy the machine. Now, it’s okay for her family to now come and somehow safeguard her body from Randy. You could do a situation where you cliffhanger and you have Jessie make the action to destroy the machine knowing fully well that she’s going to physically suffer and die for it. You already set that up with her nose bleeding and that thing.

[0:21:56.3] TG: Right.

[0:21:57.6] SC: Then, I think it works if Lila, and Ernst, and Ales come and rescue her. By the way, I wouldn’t have Lila be the one to kill the president. If you’re going to bring her back, we can’t see her as being a merciless pawn of Randy.

[0:22:17.9] TG: I was playing with the idea of killer her off at the end of this.

[0:22:23.1] SC: That’s possible.

[0:22:25.8] TG: I was thinking she would have a change of heart and realize he’s evil. She would be the one left to watch him and he kills her to get away.

[0:22:36.6] SC: Okay.

[0:22:37.3] TG: I felt like having her go to — Because you said, with Az, you can’t have him go too far and then redeem him. I know watching shows and watching movies, once somebody crosses a certain line, you’re like, “Well, they’re going to die.” I kind of was going to do that to her where she had a good heart all along, but she just went too far, and so she doesn’t get to win alongside everybody else. That was what I was playing with with having her kill President Marcus on behalf of Randy. We could change that.

[0:23:15.3] SC: That could be a solution to another problem, which is getting access to the room. Lila could — Because she’s already killed Marcus, she probably has the confidence of Randy, I would think. If she hadn’t killed Marcus, the he wouldn’t be in a position to take power. Her loyalty was proven to him by that action.

Again, I don’t want to overthink it and I think the best course of action for you right now if to follow whatever it is is driving you now and get to an ending. Then, all those —

[0:24:03.1] TG: Assess from there.

[0:24:04.1] SC: Yeah, and then all those scenes that you haven’t written to bind us from the previous action to the cave moment. You just put a big, fat to come there, and you may even let them percolate while you go back — After you finish this — You’re going to have a draft after you come to the ending in this thing. You don’t have to go repair everything immediately. Sometimes those transitional moments are the most difficult to figure out. How do you really make — You want to add that big Hunger Games setting, that big climactic Super Bowl-esk pageantry to — Those are the seeds you haven’t written.

[0:24:53.6] TG: Yeah. I thought action will be getting from the start of the threshing to the cave.

[0:25:01.0] SC: Right.

[0:25:03.3] TG: That will be the action sequences. That will be the big exciting parts, and then we’ll slow down right before the end.

[0:25:13.0] SC: Right. It’s like Indiana Jones going into the temple to get that gold, or whatever, and then all that amazing things that happen on his way out. Yeah, that’s something that you can really play with later on. I think you’re pretty close to getting to a pretty reasonable end to this. The goal is to get this draft done. Steve Pressfield always says, “Race to the finish.” Don’t hold back. Don’t stop. If you could put TK on something, do it and just get to the end, because it’s really an amazing thing just to have 80% draft — I mean content-wise, not necessarily page counter. That’s my advice.

I think over the next, you might need — I don’t know. It’s up to you. I think keep working toward the end and share what you have next week and we can go at it again.

[0:26:15.3] TG: Okay. I have one other question that’s been bugging me the last couple of weeks that I haven’t gotten to. One of the hallmarks of any story that — And I’ve been paying attention to these movies and books I’m reading, you’ve mentioned it. You mentioned it last week, or the week before in Silence of the Lambs, it was basically the protagonist picking up things through the middle build that they use in the ending payoff.

I was watching this really stupid movie called We’re the Millers, or Meet the Millers, and it’s this — Do you know what the movie is?

[0:26:56.9] SC: No. No. I remember when it came out.

[0:27:00.5] TG: It’s a drug dealer that — Citing incident is he gets robbed and so he’s in deep with his supplier. He has to go down to Mexico to pick up these drugs. Him and — He gets a stripper, and then two kids that don’t have a home to act like their family so that they can get past the border.

Along the way, all these things happen and the kids pick up these individual learning things and they do, and then right at the climactic moment, they all used the gifts that they got along the way. It is super dumb.

[0:27:42.7] SC: Have I completely ruined all the storytelling for you, Tim? I think I’m —

[0:27:46.5] TG: No. No. I enjoy it. It’s just — In Silence of the Lambs, you talked about how she was the best shot and then her hearing, the mulls or something. There are two or three things you mentioned that she picked up along the way that allowed her to defeat the villain at the end. Right now, consciously, I don’t have any of those.

Is that something that we would go back and seed in later? Whatever we use in the end, go back and drop him in later. Because I had this huge argument with somebody about J.K. Rowling and how I believe she went back and added stuff to make it more continuous, and people swear up and down that she wrote it start to finish with not doing any of that stuff.

Anyway, yeah, just curious what you think — Is that something in need to be worrying about now? I don’t know. It’s just been nagging at me that I can’t think of anything that I’ve seeded along the way that she’s using in the end to pay off all of that.

[0:28:53.9] SC: What you’re really talking about is it’s sort of a convention of the hero’s journey, and that I always talk about obligatory scenes and conventions for the genres, and a lot of conventions are universal. The convention of the protagonist learning little bits and pieces of things that they — Little clues that they put to the test at the climactic hero at the mercy of the villain scene. That’s a convention.

It’s sort of the thing that you would do — You have certainly a number of opportunities to go back and place those little Easter eggs in. I wouldn’t — If something radical and fun comes to you that reflects back on the things that she’s learned in the three trials. Remember when we talked about the middle build? It was probably the most difficult time for us, was the middle build and creating a sense of complications that were unique and innovative and moved this story forward and brought us to a place of irreversibility later on. Those three trials, you can go back and look and say, “What did she learn in those trials? How can she apply the lessons from those trials in a unique way in the ending payoff?”

The first trial was her way of — She shut down the rules of the game. She figured out a way to outsmart the game maker, which was Marcus, the president. The second one, she panicked, and she was saved by the meeting with the goddess, which is a representation of her meeting with — She met her brother in the netherworld and he actually bailed her out.

It was almost an Obi-Wan Kenobi moment where a third part goes and rescues her there and lets her know that she is important and she has a mission that she has to complete. The third one, she actually gets a lot of confidence together and outsmarts some people in a game playing situation. She wins, but loses her life in that process, but is resurrected.

From those three trials, she may be able to piece together a solution to the big problem that would be really cool. I don’t know what that is off the top of my head. It’s a kind of thing for you to think about.

The other great moment is that sometimes you can have the character almost have a conversation with themselves. It’s that sort of free and direct style cheat where they’re thinking; can help provide a solution to satisfying that convention? She could review this stuff, “Let me think. If I did this, that the other will happen,” or blah. Then, she figured out.

The other solution, as you suggested, is to just go back and seed little Easter eggs and then have her pull out the charms in her brain that she learned in the process. It’s not something that I would absolutely tell you to freak out about now.

This is kind of what happens at the end of something, is you start to really obsesses about all the things that you haven’t done yet that aren’t in the manuscript. The tendency is to say to yourself, “Oh, well I know how I’m going to end this. Why don’t I just back and fix some of these other stuff before I write the end at the end?” That’s a classic way of really messing you up.

[0:32:52.3] TG: Okay.

[0:32:53.2] SC: Steve always says that resistance brings its greatest forces at the very end of the project. You have to steal yourself. Know that resistance really doesn’t want you to finish this ending, because if you finish this ending, then you’ve got all of the clay assembled. You’ve got your statue. You’re going to have to do a lot of chipping and polishing and all kinds of stuff to it, but you’re going to have the blob of David sitting in front of you, and resistance doesn’t want you to have that. They’re going to do anything they can to get you from having that finished blob.

Again, try and put that stuff aside. This is why the Story Grid is so great, because then you’ve got a checklist. It’s an amazing thing. You can go through your checklist and say, “Did I satisfy this convention?” You say, “Oh, no. I didn’t.” “Okay. Where can I stick this stuff in and drop in and fix that so that I can satisfy it in a really fun, unique way.” Then, you can go back to some of these scenes and drop in little asides that characters say that she will put together in the end and it will become this cathartic moment where she puts together the clues, just like Starling did. She’s the best shot in the academy. She knows the smell of schizophrenia, which smells like a goat. She smells the smell, she hears the click, she banged, she turns, and shoots and kills the guy.

We absolutely believe that she had that power and we never ever question her ability to pull that off because Harris had set that up so well. If he hadn’t, and I be he didn’t in his first draft. He probably said to himself, “Oh, this scene is crazy, that this Starling has able to figure out how to kill this buy just by hearing the click of a thing. I haven’t established that she’s an expert shot. Nor have I established her other sensory input. Oh! I know what I’ll do. I’ll have Hannibal Lecter lecture her about the smell of schizophrenia.” That’s what he did, and he did that probably — I think it was chapter 12, or 9. Then, that all comes to fruition and pays off at the very end of the thing.

I think you are absolutely right about J.K. Rowling. I think she probably had a very tight outline that she wanted to complete. She did. Then, she went back and tinkered, and peppered, and put these little things in and made it stronger and focused it. These people who believe that first-draft-itis, that people just have these incredibly visions and are able to bang out an amazing work. They’re magical thinkers is what they are. They believe that there’s some magical thing that happens to a writer that gives them these moments of complete clarity.

There are those moments, but they’re never strung together in one session. I don’t even know how many hours we’ve been doing this. We’re on our year and a half of you working on this, and I still say this year and a half that you’ve been working, would have taken you 10 years. 

[0:36:21.2] TG: Yeah, for sure. I actually just went back and looked and we started working on this draft in September.

[0:36:30.5] SC: Oh, you’re kidding me. It’s only September?

[0:36:32.9] TG: Only?

[0:36:33.8] SC: What? It’s six months.

[0:36:34.7] TG: Six months, it’s like April, man. That’s more than six months. Isn’t it?

[0:36:40.2] SC: It’s seven months.

[0:36:40.9] TG: Okay. Because I’m critiquing Tim’s beginning hook. Tim has finished the first 11 scenes of his book. Shawn waits and just critique, and that’s where you’re like, “All right. Let’s just write one scene.”

Yeah, that was September 8th.

[0:37:00.5] SC: September 8th. Now, it’s April 3rd. That’s six months, right?

[0:37:05.9] TG: Yeah.

[0:37:06.5] SC: You thought it was a lot longer. I thought it was a long longer. Gees! That’s pretty great to get — You know what? Let’s not patter each other on the back yet.

[0:37:15.7] TG: Yeah. We got to finish it.

[0:37:16.9] SC: Yeah, finish that. Just get to the end.

[0:37:18.6] TG: Then, a quick three or four weeks. We edit it and ready to go, right?

[0:37:21.9] SC: Yeah. Oh, sure! Yeah.

[0:37:25.8] TG: All right. Well, I’m going to work on — Just keep working towards the end and send you what I have and we’ll go over that next week.

[0:37:32.7] SC: Great.


[0:37:33.7] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid Universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.

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