World Building 101

[0:00:00.5] 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 the Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

In this episode, we hit on something that really coalesced for me in my mind, what I’m trying to do when I’m creating the world and how that affects my characters. This is one of those things where part of me feels a little embarrassed that I didn’t already put all this together, and then part of me hopes that it’s something that will be helpful to you as well. Anyway, it’s a really good conversation and again for me the way that Shawn talked about it, it really helped me understand what I’m doing when I’m creating the world and how that affects everything in my story.

It’s a really good episode. I hope you enjoy it. Let’s jump in and get started.


[0:01:02.5] TG: Shawn, last week it was really helpful. Even as I’ve been continuing to work on the threshing of already starting to put my characters in this chaos, verse order, tyranny, verse freedom thing has been super helpful. That’s been fun. It’s got me thinking which is what I wanted was, it’s got me thinking about the character. When I go back and work on the third draft of this of how am I going to ground these characters, because a few weeks ago I was really stuck on the emotional valiance thing. I think this is actually more of the answer of like – because my feeling was my characters were these constantly shifting cardboard cutouts.

Having more of a grounding of what they are in this realm will help me make them more believable, which I think that’s what I call the episode, creating believable characters or something like that.

Now I want to talk about, because the other part of the book that we’ve talked a little bit about that I need to do work on is the setting of the book. Part of me feels like I can see it clearly. Part of me feels like I can’t. There’s still tons of decisions to be made. I really like, we talked about food is going to be the common thread through everything, which gives me some sort of thing to attach to, because I’ve been thinking about what myths would arise around food. Would there miss, or Gods, or thinking even modern day myths where there’s not as many “Gods,” but there’s lots of myths around different things.

Anyway, I could keep going, like religious sects, that kind of thing. I just wanted to talk a little bit about if you were talking to an author about how to create a grounded real-world that feels real, even if like in my case, it’s fantasy-science fiction, it still has to feel consistent and real. What things – where would you tell an author to start thinking, or start working on if they’re trying to figure out how to ground this – I feel it’s this foggy idea of what my world is. Eventually, I’m going to have to ground it in reality.

[0:03:44.7] SC: Right. Well, here’s the advice that I would give, just to take a step back into our global six core editor questions. This is a action story, right? It’s an action thriller with a labyrinth plot. If you had to really, really pull it down into one genre, and we’ve had this discussion before, so don’t get worried. It’s an action story. Now action stories concern our primal needs.

On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, at the very bottom are things like food, shelter, air, waste removal, all that stuff. When you start thinking about how do I best create the world, you think about now, just to take another psychological step back, according to Maslow and I think I have a varying sensibility about his hierarchy, but Maslow says that we can’t worry about our higher needs until our lower needs on the pyramid are met. What that means is that I can’t worry about being self-actualized if I don’t have any food.

I need to secure my need for nourishment before I’m going to worry about finding a mate to marry, because I’m starving to death. These are the great things about action stories is that they’re very, very primal. They’re really right into the center of brain 1.0, right the hypothalamus, the limbic system, all of those very, very intense emotional places all concern the primal need. Action stories whenever you get confused you just think to yourself look, what is the thing, what is the primal need at stake in this story of a primal value? In action, the primal value concerns that bottom rung of the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy.

Now, where I differ with Maslow is that I think all of our needs are met in varying ways temporarily; meaning, through time. One day, we’re feeling really strong about our state of love, right? Our marriage is going great, our kids are doing well, everything’s cool, and then the next day it can be different. I look at the needs in terms of I call it the gas gauge of needs. Are we close to full, or are we running on empty?

One of the things to do in an action story, because the primal need has to concern either reproduction, food, reproduction but what is it? The Margaret Atwood’s book, which is the television series.

[0:07:02.8] TG: Yeah. Handmaid’s Tale.

[0:07:03.7] SC: Handmaid’s Tale, right. Okay, so yours concerns food, which is great because everybody can understand food. You’re also working on an advantage because our food supplies today are we’re learning more and more about how possibly vulnerable they are. There are 8,000 lawsuits against the Monsanto Corporation, because of their weed killer roundup, which has a very toxic – I’m not a lawyer, but there’s something called glyco – glycosphate or something like that. Apparently, it increases the risk of cancer and every crop that is not organically grown in the United States has been exposed to this chemical for, I don’t know, 10 years? There is this growing swelling uncertainty about the food that we’ve been ingesting for 10 years, probably longer than that.

[0:08:15.8] TG: This is the first I’m hearing of this. This is great.

[0:08:17.9] SC: Yeah. Check out Monsanto. There was just a very, very important case where Monsanto was found liable for cancer in somebody who’s consumed food that was grown with the roundup crops. Anyway, so I think this works toward your advantage because I think the notion of food as a vulnerable thing is growing in consciousness in the society. When you’re constructing the world, when you get stuck, think about what’s the story with the food, right?

At the beginning of – I always like to say what’s your Star Wars scroll? At the beginning of Star Wars, the first one, George Lucas had to lock in the audience very quickly. At the beginning of Star Wars, there’s that scroll like in a distant land and the galaxies away, there were these two things, right?

[0:09:19.4] TG: Yeah. You’re butchering it, but yeah, I get what you’re saying.

[0:09:21.9] SC: Yeah, exactly.

[0:09:24.3] SC: Think about – and here’s another way I was thinking about the other day, because you and I have talked about publishing your book before and I’m, once it’s ready, we’ll need a way to sell it, right? I was thinking to myself, “Well, how would you convince someone to give your book a try in a way that isn’t well, there’s this girl and she must save the world, like a boring recitation of global plot devices is not going to really get anyone all that interested, because if you do that, basically – this is really a good book.

One of the things that I was thinking about is if you were to create the history of the world up until the point where the story starts, and if you were to tell it in almost for lack of a better word, like a newsreel way. Meaning, long ago, or in the not-too-distant future, or in 2046, a perfect storm of the following things hit the earth. There was an excessive drought in Siberia, or wherever, where all the crops are. You just string out the story with an inciting incident, a progressive complication, a crisis, a climax and a resolution.

If you do that in your mind before you start your next edit, then that global – this is how we got to where we are will be in your mind. Doing the Star Wars scroll in your mind will help you as you’re editing, because then you’ll just fill in little details and one character will say to the other, I was like, “What is this? 2046.” Something like that. That would set up an explanation of well, no we’re not going to have a 132 degree heat, if that’s what you mean.

This is like that chemical company that destroyed all the crops. The primal need is food. That really helps you, because then you say to yourself if there’s not enough food, then what does the society do to deal with that problem? The problem will get to all the way down to a life-and-death choice, right? Some people are going to get food and some people aren’t. The people who do not get food are going to starve to death and die. We don’t have enough food to keep everyone alive. We only have enough food to keep X number of people alive.

These are very, very difficult impossible prisoner’s dilemma choices. If you establish that crisis moment in the society, not only will you raise the stakes of the story, but the motivations of the “bad guys” will take on more meaning, because it’s someone has to make a choice. Do we let these people starve, or those people starve? Who gets to survive?

Food is literally that choice. In order to firmly establish your world, you think about okay, there was a moment in time in the future when the crops failed. When the crops failed, there was only so much food. What happened was a riot happened. People were slaughtering each other and killing each other willy-nilly, all for an ear of corn. It was brutal and horrific and chaotic. From that moment, there rose a very intelligent person who put a stop to it and said, “Listen, let’s do something like this.” They built this system.

It could be where the reapers come together and they say, “What resources do we have available to us that will enable us to control the world in a way where people aren’t slaughtering each other over an ear of corn?” Then they would say to themselves, “Well, let’s think. What do we have in abundance? Well, what we have in abundance is technology. We have the ability because of our solar panel situation.”

Imaginable world in which there’s an abundance of information and technology, but not an abundance of nourishment. What would happen would be fascinating, because then the people in charge would say, “Okay, if we do the following things, we can regulate the ability to grow this amount of food in this climate, in this specific place. Okay, well what harvest can we get from that? Well, that would be 200 billion tons of grain a year. Okay, but we have 25 billion people on the planet, which means that X,” right?

It’s solving a big horrific math problem and using the things that are in abundance to help solve that problem. What can technology do? Well, it can help distract people, right? The only way to survive is to reduce the caloric requirements of the population. The way to reduce the caloric requirements of the population would be to get them addicted to a virtual world, in which they are rewarded not with food, but with dopamine; neural transmitters, that would make them feel better, even though they’re starving to death.

You wouldn’t want them walking around in the heat, burning precious metabolic calories. The more I’m talking about this, the more clear it’s becoming to me that the people who are surviving are not very strong. They’re very frail people, because the society cannot afford to give them too much food. It’s almost minimum viable, livable requirements. Because the goal of the reapers is to eventually increase the food output so that people can be better nourished, but it’s a really nasty time. Now, because they don’t have enough food to keep everybody nourished and they don’t want to be in a position where they’re slaughtering people on a lottery.

Imagine a lottery in which your number comes up and you have to go to die to save everyone else, maybe that was the first thing that happened. Maybe that’s what drove Jesse’s mother crazy. Maybe that was the first thing that had to happen. Jesse’s mother lost her family to a lottery. Now this is phase 2 of the reapers thing, right?

Phase 2 is okay, everyone is barely surviving, the crops are doing well, the system is working, the grid is working well, the people are relatively calm, those that get in trouble we have a system in order to punish them, they service the people who are starving to death while they’re sleeping, right? You can build out this very, very complex, but simple plan of how the reapers are barely holding the shit together, right?

[0:18:03.2] TG: It’s funny. At the end of The Wool Trilogy – spoilers alert, it’s been out a while, so it’s your own fault. Wool is about – it’s Hugh Howey wrote about these people in these silos who couldn’t go outside, because they would die, because of well, you don’t know what it is, but it’s nanobots that are basically killing everything.

The very end of the trilogy is when they finally brave going outside as a group and they go far enough into the barren world that they get into basically paradise, right? What they realize is there was just a circle drawn around all the silos that was keeping them in, while the rest of the world was flourishing. That was the end was they realized that and they made it out. They basically – the book ends with them in paradise.

I listen to a ton of economics podcasts. Then I’ve been reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. It’s by the guy that wrote Sapiens. I can’t say his name. Yuval Noah and then there’s a last name. Sapiens is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. I’m reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and it’s all about – Sapiens was the history of the human race. He wrote a second book about the future of the human race and this one is like, what to do for the next 100 years.

He starts talking about – in one of the chapters, he’s talking about global warming and what could happen in the future with global warming and he started talking about how Russia could become the superpower, because everything would melt and they would be in one of the few environments that you could keep growing a lot of food basically. I mean, he went into a lot of stuff, so I’m sure he would be appalled of how I just summarized his book.

It fits into what I’m thinking is I want the people in charge to actually be evil. Oh, that was what. I was listening to a Planet Money episode, the NPR podcast, Planet Money and they were talking about how in – it wasn’t Chechnya. What is the country right next to Russia that they keep trying to take over? What is it? I forget.

[0:20:52.7] SC: Georgia.

[0:20:54.2] TG: No, it starts with a C. Anyway, what happened is there was this big revolt, the president literally hops in a helicopter and escapes. When they go into his palace, it’s what you imagine, right? There’s huge palaces just the whole place is dripping with money, while the entire country’s poor and in poverty and starving. It’s that cliche where the guy on top has everything and is destroying everybody to stay on top.

I see it as the reapers created this fully automated system, or they’re living in paradise with silos full of grain. They divvy out just enough to all the people to keep them under power. I was also thinking the whole since there’s so much sunlight, it would be a ship shows up once a week at the New York Harbor that’s fully automated, there’s not a person on it, to deliver the food for that week. It’s constantly six days’ worth of food. You know what I mean? It’s this constant –

[0:22:08.3] SC: Will the ship show up? Yeah.

[0:22:10.7] TG: Yeah. Then the time that there was the revolt, the ship didn’t show up for two weeks. It’s these faceless people that nobody ever talks to, because it’s fully automated, but they are obviously paying attention and in full control. To me, the end of the trilogy will be them making it all the way there and taking over and it ends in this paradise of we now all have enough food.

[0:22:43.5] SC: Well yeah, that absolutely works. The trick that you have to figure out though is what is the story that the evil guys are telling the population in order to maintain their power? The story could be, like that’s what the Stalin and Lenin told a really good story to the people in the Soviet Union that, “Oh, everybody’s getting the same amount and everything’s going well.” Reality is there were as many striations of the society as there were in a capitalist society. Some people had a lot of stuff and some people didn’t.

The construction of the story that like, what are the evil guys telling the people and what is the actual – the discovery that Jesse and the people learn at the end of the story is that, “Oh, my gosh. We’ve been lied to.” You use the reality of really horrific times in the past as a way to threaten people for the future. Anyway, I think we got a little bit off-track. I think what you want to do makes perfect sense and I think it’ll work.

[0:24:02.1] TG: Okay. I mean, I like the idea of basically what if I sat down and wrote, “Yeah, the history of what God is here.” It wouldn’t go in the book, but then that would be in my head to reference about when as I’m writing the book, this is – and it’s the whitewashed history, right? It’s the history that they now teach in the schools to the children, which is always from the perspective of the victor.

[0:24:32.9] SC: Well yes, which is a great point and that’s what creates your binary world, right? The binary world are the people who are aligned with the order, the people who believe that story to the bottom of their heart like Az, right? Then you have the people who don’t believe that story. The people who don’t believe that story was somebody like Jesse, right? Because she knows something weird is happening, that’s why she’s an outlaw, right?

[0:25:05.4] TG: Well, I feel it starts with she doesn’t care about the story and then it crystallizes. Whereas somebody like the numbered, most of the people in the numbered are the people that don’t believe the story, which is why they’re there in the first place for one reason or another. I mean, and that could begin once I’m able to ground that, then I could go back and start her indoctrination while she’s at the numbered.

[0:25:34.7] SC: Yes. The other thing is that the reason why you were talking earlier about emotional valence, the way we look at the world is a binary way. Each one of us when we walk down the street, we view the world in either/or terms, right? Maturation is learning how that is not actually the best way of looking at the world. It’s how we are wired to look at the world. In a story, your lead character is going to look at those who I can trust, those who I can’t trust. Establishing the two poles of the binary world is extremely important.

That’s what makes the characters, it gives them the electricity within them that the reader can pick up. Oh, Ernst and Alex are they just want to do the right thing, so that they can win the threshing. They believe in the order. They’re just trying to get to the top of the pack. The same as Az and the other people. They all believe in a certain thing. Then as Jesse comes into that world and she’s this force of chaos in a way. When she gets there, she starts toppling down all of these severing games in ways that nobody anticipated, which makes everyone very uncomfortable, which makes these people reconsider their positions about what they believe in the society and what they don’t. Some people really double down on their belief in the order and some people question their belief in the order. Not many are going to question, most are going to double down, right?

[0:27:35.7] TG: I feel something just crystallized in my head, right? Because I know when we’ve talked about character development in the past, not the framework we talked about last week, but also I think Stephen King talks about this in on writing, where he talks about a character is the decisions they make. That’s all that really matters.

[0:27:55.1] SC: That’s right. What you do is your character, not what you said.

[0:28:01.5] TG: Right. The fact that I’ve had a squishy world – here’s the line that just popped in my head is – so here’s the belief system of the world. The analogy that popped in my head was because one of the things he talks about in Sapiens and 21 Lessons of the 21st Century is how basically all of our social structures are not biological. They’re stuff that we came up with, right? They’re not biological, or evolutionary. They’re just capitalism –

[0:28:35.3] SC: Cultural.

[0:28:35.8] TG: – liberalism. Yeah, cultural. One of the things that drove me early on to become an entrepreneur was this like hey, here’s this set of rules that I’m told I have to live by to succeed, which is go to college, get a good job, go in 40 to 60 hours a week for 40 years. Okay, I’m going to try to circumvent that. I think I’m pretty cool for trying to circumvent that, but the truth is I’m still playing by the same rules of this thing that is not necessarily real. Does that make sense, right? We’re getting philosophical here about capitalism and all that stuff. I’m still choosing to work inside the structure of capitalism, which may or may not be a good structure, right?

It’s my decisions reflected upon this thing that exists, right? If I put that in my world, once I have a solid story, everybody’s character gets revealed based on the reflection against that story, right? You have the multitudes that just accept it. You have people Jesse who accept it, but try to find the holes, right? She doesn’t actually think it’s a not true system, or that they’re lying. She just thinks there’s a way to hack it, right? Like an entrepreneur would think about capitalism, or getting a job or whatever. Then you have a group of people that think the whole thing is a sham.

My characters start revealing – the reason I can’t figure out who my characters are is I have nothing to reflect against, because it’s too squishy. Is that a good line of thinking? Does that make sense what I just said?

[0:30:17.8] SC: Yeah, it absolutely makes sense. Another way to look at it in terms of the cultural norm of the society is to think of it as a game. What are the rules of this game? There were rules of baseball, there are rules of football. What’s the rules of this society? There are rules of capitalism, there are rules – and the rules of capitalism, the American form of capitalism is I mean, the rules that your generation and well, especially my generation, maybe less yours, but the rules were find a corporation that is on the Dow Jones Industrial Average that is solid and consistent, work there, do what’s necessary and get a pension. That way, that is the easiest way to secure yourself in our society.

Alternatively, you could become a professional. You could become a doctor, or a lawyer. Those professions will provide enough security for you to move forward. Now, the rules of capitalism in the United States have shifted, because now we all know that the number of companies that are capable of maintaining themselves through time are getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Also, the price of having employees is getting larger and larger and larger. The rules of the game are changing.

The game in your story is about what is the game? How are people playing it? The game changes as time moves forward; some adapt to the change, some don’t. You’re absolutely right, the people in your story aren’t up against this cultural – now cultural stuff is usually represented by order and natural stuff is represented in the chaotic world. Because your story is about lack of food, which is a natural chaotic element, the story that you need to construct concerns food. How do we control a natural resource that’s depleted? How do we control the people on the planet to not completely deplete it?

You’re absolutely on the right track, and knowing where each character falls in the story game will certainly lock down every single choice that each of the secondary characters makes around Jesse. The great thing about secondary and tertiary characters is that they always make the same choice. They’re going to be consistent. The only character who changes course is going to be your protagonist.

When you get stuck and you’re like, “I’m not really sure what Az would do here,” then you say, “Well, what would serve the order best, and then that’s what he would do?” Does that make sense?

[0:33:39.5] TG: Yeah. Yeah. I’ve just struggled with why I’m struggling so much to find my characters. As we are talking about this and then I think that – I mean, I won’t know until I dive into it, but that was a big piece that fell into place in my head was like, “Okay, I can’t figure them out.” If the only way who your characters are is the decisions they make, and the only thing that drives the decisions is what they believe about the world around them, and then my world is vague and foggy, that domino effect down to there’s really nothing for them to, because their decisions are a natural reflection of who they are. I never give them anything to make a decision about.

[0:34:29.4] SC: Yup. That’s it.

[0:34:31.7] TG: That’s interesting. I never thought about it from that perspective before.

[0:34:36.3] SC: Well, everything that we do comes from what we believe in. We construct stories in our minds to reflect our core beliefs. I say this to people all the time and especially writers, but you need to really think about what you believe in. I don’t mean, whether or not you believe in an immortal God or anything like that. That is certainly up to the individual person. What I’m talking about, what value in your world do you hold at the highest, right? If you had to give away something, what values would you give away?

Well, I value nice cars, right? If someone said, “Well, you can’t have a nice car, unless you lie.” Oh boy, that’s a tough one. Well, you know what? I hold truth at a higher level than nice car, so I’m going to be happy with my 20-year-old Honda, right? It’s to think about what value do they hold at the highest? If you know what you personally – for me, freedom of speech is the highest value for me. When people are not allowed to speak freely under threat of incarceration, or damnation, or whatever, that’s a real problem, because just through the research that I’ve done in terms of psychology and the way our brain works is that we find it extremely difficult to act against what we believe, that’s called cognitive dissonance.

When what we believe turns out not to be real, or true, that’s when we get very, very upset, and we fall into a pit of chaos and we just either get extremely depressed, or we’re incapable of doing anything for quite some time. What you hold as the highest value is something to always think about. I’m talking about those global universal values. What is more important? Wealth or truth, or honesty or what, or justice or what?

I talk about this all the time. I mean, this is what stories are about, right? There’s a core value at stake in every story. The reason why we tell stories is so that we can pick at and think about what we value. That’s why it’s really good to be very clear about the value at stake in your story. When you’re telling an action story and you know it’s food, whenever you get confused, you can only say to yourself, “Ah, gee. How do I bring it back to food?” These people are starving. They’re physically starving and psychically starving.

Whenever I get off track, I always need to bring it back to the necessity to get nourishment, either literal food, or intellectual nourishment. That is a great way to think about the characters; what do they believe in and how do they act to maintain that belief system?


[0:38:08.6] 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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Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.



The Book

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

First Time Writer

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


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