[0:00:00.2] 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.
In this episode, I continue writing down the path that we talked about in last week’s episode, and I’ve finally felt like I had a breakthrough and got to a really good place in the novel. So I’d sent that to Sean. So he gives feedback on that. Again, of course, we dive into some of the underlying things about chaos and order and how to look at these things, and especially how to keep writing even when you feel like I feel constantly torn between the planning and the writing and not knowing where to go next. So he gave some really helpful feedback for me. So I think it will be helpful for you as well.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:03.3] TG: So Sean, I took what we talked about last week, because I sent you the one scene of them moving through. So I’m working on the middle build. We’re through the midpoint of the middle build and now we’re ramping up the ending pay off. So I’ve been just struggling with the pacing and what to do between the main points of the middle build.
Everything we run into always seems like the hardest, right? So this is like, “Oh, this is so hard to write this inciting incident that works,” and now figuring out how to pace and keep the middle build interesting while we build up to the ending payoff has been hard. So I feel like last week, I sent you one scene where they’re moving from one place to another and kind of escaping. Then I really sat down and thought about a way, like they now have a task, which is Jesse’s brother, Randy. They find out he’s alive. So now they’re going to go try to rescue him.
I tried to come up with something. I think I told you, I watched the Mission Impossible movies, and I feel like one of the things that they do really well in their action sequences is the plan never goes right. So the progressive complications are super interesting, because they have this very straightforward plan, and almost from go, the whole thing falls apart. So then they’re constantly just like improvising and coming up with the new plan.
So I tried to do that. I tried the like, “Okay. This is what we’re going to do to get him out.” So everybody just starts improvising and then things fall apart, and we had already talked about making Randy part of the kind of – When we go back and do draft three, making Randy kind of part of the myth of the world where there’s like posters of him, because he’s the one that won the threshing, but he tied.
So I wanted to do a little bit of a twist, because in order to get him out, they caused a ton of trouble, right? So the sneaky part was out the window. But then they needed a way to keep themselves safe from Marcus. So at the end, once they got him out, I had them basically announced to the world that Randy was still alive as a way to protect him, because he’s been set up as the hero for four years. So now that everybody knows he’s alive, that will protect him, because everybody knows he’s alive.
So I tried to use that as like a way, like how are they going to get out of this and use that as a way to kind of twist some things at the end of the scene? So I just wrote it all as one long scene. It was like 4,000 words. I sent that to you, would like your feedback on it.
[0:04:01.1] SC: Sure. First of all, I think it’s a great idea and I think it works. So the details of how the scene works can certainly be improved, and there’s a lot of stuff to do. But that’s not really worth dealing with right now, because the trick is to really keep the narrative velocity of the story propelling forward through active exploration of the hero in real time. Meaning, actively, physically moving from one place to another and dealing with obstacles and tools at the same time that the reader may or may not even be aware of.
Now I’m always looking for different ways to help writers visualize different scenarios that wouldn’t be obvious to the reader, but upon the revelation of what the character does, it becomes obvious to the reader. So that’s called something that’s inevitable, but surprising, as David Mamet so brilliantly put it.
In my sort of current research, and I talked to a lot about these past couple of lessons in the 15 lesson level up your craft course that we’re running on Story Grid, is that for the past sort of forever, we had a certain way of viewing the way people navigate the world. We used to think that it was very sort of rational and reasonable, and that people really taken a ton of information, sort through the information, come to some – Draw some conclusion based upon the information and then act. That’s actually not true at all. I think it was maybe in 1975 when this first psychological experiment came forward, but as all things that are very revelatory, it didn’t really land until the early 2000’s. It’s this experiment that these guys did. I forget the names of the psychologists, but it’s really, really fascinating. I might have spoken about it earlier, but it’s this experiment where people are told, “Look, we want you to count the number of basketball passes that these people in the screen are going to execute. So you guys over here, we want you to look at the black-shirted team and see how many times they pass the basketball. You on the left side of our experiment, we want you to look at the people with the white shirts and how many times they pass the basketball.”
So everybody understands their direction. The goal of what they need to do watching this experiment. So then they run this film, and these people in black shirts come out and people in white shirts come out and they’re passing basketballs back and forth, and it runs for a good three minutes or something like that. I don’t know the exact amount of time.
So at the end of the experiment, the professor gets up and he says, “Okay, how many times did the black teen passed the ball?” They settle on a number that’s absolutely true, “It’s about 14 times they passed the ball,” and they asked the people on the other side, “How many times have they passed the ball on the white side?” and they said, “Oh, that’s about 16 times.” and he goes, “That’s correct.”
Then just about when he’s about ready to let everybody go, he says, “Who saw the gorilla?” It’s this famous experiment where nobody sees this gorilla that walks in the middle of the set and pounds its chest. It’s a man in a gorilla suit and then he walks off. So it’s something crazy, like 78% of the people or something like that didn’t see the gorilla, and then a minority did who were hypersensitive to their surroundings.
Okay. So what does that mean? Well, it basically means that the way we operate is very goal-directed, and the goal is micro goals that lead to larger goals. So this entire podcast is a goal-directed service, right? Your goal is to create a novel. When we started this thing, we said, “Okay, let’s put the goal of having a completed novel that’s publishable by the standards of an old cranky editor named Sean Coyne, and we will proceed, and each week we have a little micro task,” right? So you go away at the end of the week and you have a micro task that you have to complete and then you send it back and then I critique it and then I tell you what the obstacles are and what the things that will help you are in your larger goal. I point out what the tools are, then you create it, that will advance your goal.
So that’s actually the way we view of the world. So it’s basically all of us live in a sort of, “Don’t take this the wrong way.” We live in a negative present, and it doesn’t mean our lives are miserable, but there’s something that we want that we don’t have yet in the present. So if we wake up in the morning and we haven’t had a cup of coffee yet, our goal is to get that couple coffee.
So we moved from the negative present to the positive future, and the positive future is when we get our cup of coffee. So from the moment of our negative present, we set these micro tools to achieve the larger goal. So we have to get out of bed, and then we have to walk down the stairs, and we have to step over the dog, and we have to find the coffee filters, and then we have to get the coffee filters, we have to refill the pot. There’re a lot of steps actually in creating a cup of coffee. So it’s not a small task, but there’s a lot of little micro tasks that we have to do in order to make that happen.
As we’re doing it, things happen to us as we’re navigating the world that are either obstacles, meaning they stop us from our goal of getting our cup of coffee, or they’re tools. Meaning they aid us, “Oh! Oh! My wife actually was really sweet and she emptied the old coffee last night. So now I don’t have to clean out the pot, because it’s already cleaned.” That’s a tool.
So what does all this mean in terms of your scene? Well, if you look at each of your characters and you think about what their goal-directed behavior is. As long as it’s consistent in their movement from their negative present into their positive future, you can actually set up things that the reader isn’t going to see coming, but the character does.
So Jesse knows that Randy is sort of a martyred hero of the culture, and she knows that that is a powerful tool for her. So as she’s progressing through this scene, all of these incredible obstacles keep flying in the face of what she wants. What she wants out of this scene is to free her brother from that cell, that sort of induced coma that keeps him in this virtual reality world.
Sis body is being taken care of by machines, but his brain and this functioning thought process is actually in this virtual reality. So that’s her goal, but all these things – I mean, there’s no way that this guy is going to be able to walk. Even if they get all these stuff out, there’re guards chasing them. There’s all kinds of stuff that’s happening that she cannot control that are obstacles, but she also knows in the back of her mind that she has this sort of trump card that is her ability to publicize his being in captivity.
Now, as the reader is reading the story, he or she has forgotten that fact. So she never says to the other people who are helping her in this scene, “Oh! My big plan is that I’m going to have Ernst take us alive so everybody sees that my brother is really alive.” She doesn’t have to say that, because the other people are operating under this similar culture. They know what’s going on in a way that the reader does.
So you get her to this crisis moment where it’s either, “Do I release my brother from his captivity and then get arrested, or do I not do that and let him linger in this coma?” and she chooses to release her brother, and the reader thinks, “Oh my gosh! This is the worst choice. She took the worst choice of the best bad choices.” Until it’s revealed in the turning point that she is going to publicize that he’s alive, which really pulls the rug out from Marcus. Now he has to explain – He has to back up this story that Jesse has come up with to free her brother.
So I think that was a really, really smart move, because it’s an inevitable, but surprising revelatory moment that will keep the reader glued to what’s going to happen next. Because now we’re thinking, “Oh my gosh! Jesse has outsmarted the president of the faction.” He’s not going to really be too happy about that, but his hands are kind of tied here, because he has to go with this story that she’s presenting to the public. It’s also really nice because it is thematically about Jesse’s ability to undermine the order, right? We’re talking about a while back about chaos and order in story.
So Jesse is actually the engine of chaos. She’s the thing that’s undermining this tyrannical order. So when she turns the order to her story, then she’s really undermining the order, and the order is really going to be threatened. She is no longer just a pawn in a tool that the order can manipulate. Now the order has to sort of negotiate with her.
So the order can no longer think of her as irrelevant and worthless and not worthy of even paying attention to. Now it’s like, “Whoa! This is a problem.” Before we thought she was an inconvenience and irritant, now she’s become a problem, which is great, because you needed to escalate the stakes so that Marcus has now – Now he sees her as something that must be destroyed. Before he thought of her as sort of like, “Oh, isn’t that cute? This little kid has some interesting thoughts about the world. She’s a good hacker. She undermined my games a little bit. She’s really smart.” Now it’s like, “Oh! this thing is going to threaten me, so it must be destroyed.”
So now the level of tension and dramatic interplay is really escalated. So I think this scene works really well and it also solves the problem of not having a bunch of people sitting in the cafeteria talking about things, but actually doing things that are actively undermining the order. Now the reader is thinking about, “I wonder what’s going to happen next? What’s Marcus going to do?” which is exactly where you want them.
[0:15:38.9] TG: Yeah. I did think – Because it was a couple of weeks ago that we talked about the order versus chaos thing, and in thinking about it I was thinking like from scene one of the book, she’s siding with chaos. So thinking of more and more weight, every chance she gets, she’s going to create more chaos.
So I was thinking about that. I was also thinking about how on the rewrite of her first meeting with Randy, we’re going to make it where it’s all about just getting him out. So he’s not going to reveal this big plan. So she’s developed this plan of how to get him out of the capital, but it turns into something where in order to save him, she creates a scenario where they have to stay.
[0:16:26.7] SC: That’s great. That’s great.
[0:16:28.1] TG: Because I thought that too of like – And I know I’m going to keep talking about it, but it’s like – Because I was wondering, “Why do I like these mission impossible?” So as I rewatch them, I was like paying attention to like what were my favorite parts? What got me most interested in the story? It was when like – It was those constant like, “Now what are they going to do?”
Then what always happens is he creates a scenario where he has to like help the bad guys get what they want in order to ultimately get what he wants. So that’s where I was thinking too of like, at the end, she supports the narrative that the ruling party is all-powerful and all important, but she does it in a way to manipulate to get to what she wants.
So I thought that would be another way the like raise those stakes, where she’s giving Marcus what he wants while eroding the foundation of what he has. I feel like I rushed a lot of it, because I just wanted to see if I could get to the end of the scene and if it felt right.
[0:17:34.9] SC: Right.
[0:17:35.6] TG: So I just kind of was like, “Okay, this happened, this happened, this happened, and then this happened,” just to get to the end where it switched. So it’s good to hear like you feel like the scene works overall, because that’s what I was hoping to do, and now it puts them in a situation where everybody’s got to start doing things they don’t want to do.
[0:17:55.0] SC: Yeah, exactly. The thing to remember about the concept of order and chaos, and it’s often easy to put the negative on chaos, right? Because when you say chaos, people think, “Oh my gosh! It’s just so much stuff coming at me. I can’t even think.”
So you fear chaos, and you should fear chaos. But the reality is, is that chaos has two components. It’s a binary system, and the two components are there are great opportunities that come from chaos as well as great destructive forces too. So the way our bodies are adapted to the environment is to, A, protect ourselves, number one, because that’s the big riddle of existence, like, “How do I stay alive as long as I possibly can?” So that’s the way our brains and our bodies are adapted to our environment.
So it makes sense, our first reaction to a chaotic situation is fear, and panic, and “Oh my gosh! I don’t know what to do.” But the other element of chaos that it’s so difficult to remember, is that out of chaos comes great opportunity.
So I just think of the book business, because I’ve been in it for so long, and what I always found fascinating was when there was a moment in the marketplace for books that was chaotic and difficult to predict and things were going weirdly and nobody really knew what was going to happen next, most people in the industry want to go back to the way it used to be.
So I guess it was the late 90s. I grew up in the sort of mass-market paperback beach read kind of book publishing world, and this is the era when there used to be the local drugstore that would have these racks of these very cheap little paperback books that were five bucks, seven bucks. As a kid I would go in there and there’d be the latest mystery and the latest fantasy novel and the latest romance, and you would buy one and it would be like popcorn. So that was basically the e-book before the e-book.
So what happened was there was all of these small little mom and pop distribution companies in all parts of the United States, and every year as a mass-market book editor, I would go to this convention and it would be called the IPDA Convention, and it was the Independent Periodical Distribution Association, right? IPDA.
[0:20:35.5] TG: I wish they could have a longer name.
[0:20:36.9] SC: Oh, I know. I know. But it was really cool, and I’d go to this hotel, it would be some share near an airport in Dallas-Fort Worth or somewhere like that and there’d be 300 small mom and pop distribution companies that would come in there and I would pitch them our books and I would say, “You got to have this one on the racks in the summer. They’ll go, “Well, I don’t like the cover,” and it was this fun sort of network of people. Within two years, all of those distributors were out of business, and IPDA was no more, and I didn’t go to that convention anymore, because the mass-market paperback was dying, and it was dying because of the differences, the new technology, that chaotic introduction of the internet into the book publishing business.
At the same time, there is this young guy named Jeff Bezos in 1996 said, “Oh my gosh! If I put a bookstore online, I don’t have to have any physical space. You know what that means? The cost of inventory for every single book ever made in the planet is zero. What if I offered every single book on the planet ever printed to anyone who comes to my website? Then when they order it, I can go find it and then get it to them. So they’re happy and I’m happy and I don’t have to pay overhead for a bookstore.”
He saw opportunity in the chaos, where others soft threat, and fear, and destruction. So the IPDA people weren’t thinking of the world like Jeff Bezos, because their gold direction was about making their annual amount of rent to pay for their business. They weren’t saying to themselves, “What’s my big goal?” and Jeff Bezos had a big goal. His big goal was, “I want to build new kind of business on the internet such that I don’t have to worry about inventory.” That was his global abstraction, and he sorted through all the different kinds of businesses until he landed on books and said, “The big problem about having a bookstore is having enough inventory, because you can’t pay the retail space to have a big bookstore, because books don’t move very quickly. It’s a long tail business. So you need a long tail warehouse space to offer enough stuff to draw enough customers to make enough money, but it’s this horrible algorithm that the more space you have, the more expensive it is to keep the space heated.”
So it was like this crazy dilemma. So then what you had were these specialty bookstores, and you would get your mass-market paperbacks at the deli, and at the drugstore, and you would get your hardcovers at the Barnes & Noble and Borders, and you would – So there was this very complicated network of difficult weird problem solving that Bezos funneled into one stop solution that the rest is history. He’s now the richest man on the planet.
So my point is, is that you need to think about the big abstractions when you get stuck as a writer and think about the big abstractions in terms of each of your characters. So Jesse’s big abstraction after she discovers that her brother is alive, her only goal is, “Must get my brother freed.” Guess what’s going to happen? She’s going to get him freed, and then, bang! Now a whole level of other difficult chaotic stuff is going to tumble upon her.
So chaos is both opportunity and destruction. It’s creation and destruction. Order is a great concept in order to provide safety and shared tribal space, that is it’s like walling in a garden. You keep all the predators outside of the wall and then you grow all these stuff that keeps everybody alive and happy inside the wall.
The problem is, if you don’t let some of those people come in through the wall gates, you don’t make your city more vital. New solutions to present problems aren’t able to be found, because everybody’s thinking the same way. So order can be very protective, and in your case, in your novel, the order is feeding everybody, right? Everybody is alive because of this order. It’s doing a great service, but it’s also a tyranny, because in order to provide, it’s saying, “We can’t have individual variation. The individual must bow down to the collective,” and Jesse is just a little kid, right? She doesn’t know what that means. She just wants to be herself. So she’s being herself without knowing that she’s the agent of chaos. By being herself, she’s undermining the tyranny of the order.
So it’s this great interplay through these big massive thematic things that’s going to keep your reader locked in on your story, and they don’t know the chaos and order mythological stuff. They just want to see what this kid is going to do under this great duress in this great opportunity. She’s a really smart person, and we need smart people like Jesse on the planet to be heroic and exploratory, because that’s basically what she’s doing. She’s exploring the unknown world and she’s coping with the opportunity and obstacles that come her way as they come her way. But she constantly has to update. She’s constantly having to update her goal. Her goal first was, “Oh, I’m just going to stay in New York, because I like New York and I don’t want to leave my parents.” Then it’s like, “No, you can’t do that, because people are suffering because of your selfishness of inability to want to go and explore the world.”
So she finally reluctantly goes, “Okay. If people are going to get hurt if I don’t go explore, all right. I guess I’ll explore,” and then you dump her into this extraordinarily new unknown world, and then she has to get her bearings and she has to go through trials. Her goal is still to go back home until the midpoint of your story when Randy says, “I’m alive. Help me! Free me!” and now her goal changes, right? Her goal changes to, “Must get Randy out of the prison.”
Then once she accomplishes that goal, she thinks, “Oh! This will get me home.” “No! You got to do this.” So she’s constantly being forced to change her goals. When you change your goals, you change your worldview until you reach a point where you change yourself. You no longer are content with the past and you start to explore more to become more developed, to create more confidence, to find new ways to explore the unknown world.
So thematically, that’s what you’re setting up, and I don’t want you to think about this stuff too much, and the reason why I’m going into these sort of global abstraction is to let the people who are listening to this understand that I’m not willy-nilly saying, “Hey, yeah. That’s some pretty good idea.” That’s good. Yeah, keep going, Tim.”
This is in form thinking by an editor who has a lot of experience, and these are the things to think about when you’re thinking about telling stories, because the stories are the things that we go to. There are crutches and there are tools to learn how to navigate the world in the best way possible for us to be successful in whatever it is our goals are.
So using that sort of abstract understanding of storytelling and applying it to the idiosyncratic story of one individual writing a story is really important, because now I suspect what’s happening for you, Tim. When you said that you just wanted to get to the end and pull off your big revelation and see if it worked. That’s really great, because you can always fix those micro details later. It is those big revelatory moments that reveal the real genius of the individual characters in your story that compels people to want to keep reading.
[0:29:26.6] TG: So it’s good that that works, and I have a general understanding of where I’m going next. So I’m going to keep going. But I would like your just thoughts like on writing the action sequence. What parts did you feel like – I guess this is still kind of new for me, is writing these kind of action sequences. So is there anything reading through what I’ve wrote, and I’ll post it up in the show notes as well for this episode, but reading through what I wrote where you’re like, “This didn’t work, because it’s –” Is there any just kind of feedback or direction you could give me on some of that micro stuff for the action sequences I’ll be writing in the coming weeks and couple of months, or do feel like that’s just not helpful right now?
[0:30:17.1] SC: I don’t think it is helpful right now. I’ll be happy to get into it if you want to, because it’s sort of what you’re putting in are – And don’t take this the wrong way, you’re putting in sort of like clichéd moments from stories that you’ve consumed in the past. So they’re going down the hallways and they’re using the tools the previous action heroes have used before, and the way to solve that problem is it’s almost like the fun part later on when you can really create the physical space of your Battle Star Galactica.
Right now, it’s the sort of like a vague sort of subbasement in some complex somewhere where it’s better than New York, which is kind of a dystopian hot mess. It’s sort of like going through those details, and those are kind of like after you have the scenes pretty much laid out, then you can step back and go, “Now, what is this world really look like? What are the corridors like? What are the storm troopers look like?” Do they sort of just look like all the storm troopers I’ve seen before in Star Wars and all the other things, or can I come up with some other thing? Maybe the robotic. No, maybe that’s cheesy.” You know what I mean?
That’s sort of like the fun fantasy adventure that you get to overlay once you have this story really humming. You’re absolutely right. The big moments are the ones that you want to really nail. So her turning this scene using popularity, because that’s what people do, right? For all tyranny, what Tierney understands is controlling, mind control of the mass. So the thing that gives them their powers in the first place is controlling mass thought. So that means propaganda. It means getting people to believe the big lie.
So the one thing they understand about power is that if they lose the ability of people to understand the big lie, they’re in deep trouble. So when Jesse figures out, “If I can play off of their big lie and create my own story –” she’s literally creating a story about Randy in order to undermine the big lie of the order.
So that is really smart, and that is thematically a monster of an idea that makes sense intuitively to anyone who understands the world in which we live. We are all attracted to messages that make us feel like we belong to a group, or a movement, or a community. Well, we’re not that kind of people who do that kind of thing, or we are the kind of people who do – I mean Seth Godin talks about this all the time in his marketing stuff, and he’s absolutely right.
So tyranny, the fascist, or even the sort of the far left version of the far right fascist, which would be something similar to the collective socialist neo-Marxist representation that the community is more important than the individual, right? That’s sort of – If you had a spectrum of political value, the far, far right is the fascist who believes in totalitarian manipulation of the world according to a bunch of big lies, I would say.
Ironically, the other side of the spectrum is the totalitarian left wing that believes a different set of lies, but they’re all lies. The thing that we’re always looking for for people who to trying to navigate a very difficult world is recognizing the middle ground, that the truth is the path to follow to avert fascism and neo-Marxism. I don’t want to get into a big political thing here, but that’s generally truth, is that’s what storytelling is about. It’s about exploratory heroes in search of the truth.
Now they don’t have to consciously understand that that’s their ultimate path, but the pure act of exploring is a search for truth. So if you get somebody to explore, they can’t help but find the truth. That’s sort of the message of action stories. We want to get people out of their funk to explore the universe and to take the good and the bad and to metabolize it in search of truth. You want to make the unknown known, right? That’s the truth. When somebody leaves the campfire and goes into the darkness and comes back and says, “Hey, I found a lake with pure clean water over here.” Everybody’s happy, because they found the truth and they brought the unknown into the known realm. “In that blackness out there is a big pool of water that we can drink from. Come on, follow me,” and everybody leaves the campfire for a minute. The hero takes them to the water, everybody drinks, takes a bath and then goes back to the campfire, and now they go, “Tomorrow, we’ll go get another bath and we’ll drink some more, because that is now known to us.”
That’s thematically why we – All of our stories have an exploratory hero, and the ones that are featured the adversary, which is the anti-exploratory hero, those are stories about people who just don’t get it. They are resentful, angry and they try to destroy the world, and the redemptive stories take those people who are trying – Who are out of resentment and anger, are trying to destroy things instead of add to them, instead of creating, instead of exploring and taking the unknown and making it known. They are out to tell everybody they’re stupid and that you know it’s not – It’s meaningless to go into the unknown, because the unknown is the unknown and everything is unknown, and therefore everything’s meaningless. That’s the path of the nihilist.
So we love stories of that figure who learns something and discovers the true, and the truth is you must pursue what is right in the universe. You have to take the unknown and make it known. So movies like As Good As It Gets, they’re about these cranky old jerks who reach a moment to understand, “Oh! Maybe life isn’t meaningless. Maybe a connection with this person who makes me feel better is the right path. If I explore that, maybe I’ll find some truth,” and then at the end of the movie, whether or not they get the girl are not, they say, “You know what? I guess life isn’t as shitty as I thought it was,” and that makes us feel like, “Oh! Okay, that makes sense. That guy turned out to be not so bad. He redeemed himself. He found the truth of life,” and the truth of life is, “It’s our job to go out into the darkness, into the unknown, find stuff, bring it back and share it with our friends so that we can all drink and take a bath.”
[0:37:59.8] TG: All right. So at this point your advice to me is, “Don’t worry about it. Just keep going.”
[0:38:03.8] SC: Keep exploring.
[0:38:04.6] TG: Get your –
[0:38:05.4] SC: Yeah, keep going into the darkness. Take the Mission Impossible route. Whenever it looks like things are going to turn out okay for her, just pull it out from under her again. You’ve got the general idea of how to do that. She’s got to do one more severing. You already have a pretty good solid idea of how she’s going to wiggle out of that problem. Then she’s going to spiral down into the deep, deep pit where she loses physical consciousness. She falls into the realm of where Randy probably was. Then somebody’s going to try and kill her and then her friends are going to save her and then she’s going to go do the threshing and make the big choice.
See, you know where you’re going. You’ve got your map. You know you’re in Iowa and you got to get to Los Angeles, and you know you’re going to go to Denver, and then you’re going to go to Taos, New Mexico, and then you’re going to go to Montecito, and then eventually you’re going to get to Los Angeles, but knowing your path, I mean, you’ve really – I am not saying this as a warning, because I don’t think this is going to happen too, but this is like when you’ve got resistance a little bit on the ropes, you’ve got to just keep firing, man. Keep going. Just don’t worry about Sean’s criticism of the cliché scene of the guy chasing somebody in a hall. Who cares? You’ll fix that later.
[0:39:26.1] TG: Okay. One thing that I got to when Running Down a Dream really started clicking was I would literally – As I drop the kids off work, and so I’m driving to my office and I know, like I always do my writing first things. So I know I’m 20 minutes away from having to write something. I would just start thinking about like, “What’s the next most painful story I can tell about myself?”
It kind of became my guide for what to write next, and I’m struggling a little bit with – I feel like every – And maybe this is just because it’s my first time writing a novel like this and really trying to get it right, or whatever. But I feel like every part is very kind of grasping at straws. There is no real kind of methodical way that I’m like, “Okay, this is what I do next, and this is what I do next.” I don’t know how to put it. I just feel like I should have like a better understanding or a better kind of way of like digging in figuring out what to do next instead of just kind of – I mean, what’s happening now is what I sent you was like the third rewrite, and not of the full thing, but it’s like I started writing this whole sequence, I’m like, “This sucks,” so I throw it away. Start writing a whole another sequence, and maybe that is the part of like – Maybe that’s my method, is like I have to like start writing it to realize it doesn’t work and back up and try again. But I guess I just feel like it’s still a little – I don’t know.
[0:41:04.8] SC: Well, here’s the really – All that talk that I had about the global abstractions in your story about chaos and order, you’re fighting that same battle internally. So this is the real metaphysical weird crap that scares people, but if you just have a very firm grasp of this general concept, it might be helpful. And that concept is when you are writing, you are a tyrant and you’re also chaotic.
So the tyrant in you comes from the left side of your brain, your Story Grid editor part of your brain. Me, I’m the tyrant. As the tyrants, you want a perfectly reasonable set of steps that will get you to your goal. You don’t want anything unknown or chaotic. You don’t want any opportunities. You don’t want any uncertainty or obstacles to come your way. You want a clear pathway. That’s the tyrants of the creative, and that is a very useful tool sometimes, but not all the time.
Now the opposite side of that is the chaotic “mystical creative force looking for the muse”, and that part of you just wants to goof and riff, and just follow your heart, and start on page one and [inaudible 0:42:32.0] it all the way home. Whatever the universe gave you is beautiful, and therefore you shouldn’t use that nasty tyrant to make it bad, because there’s no such thing as story structure, and all the people who say that there is are simply just denying their creative use and pulse. If they just had a nice cup of warm tea and took a nice hot bath, all the beauty and wonderful revelations of the universe will come to them. Well, it’s neither. It’s neither of those things. It’s both of those things. You as the artist have to navigate that internal terrain.
So yes, it’s nice to have that map that I talked about of you’re in Iowa, you’re going to LA, and you know you’re going to Denver, and you don’t know how you’re getting there, and you have to say, “I don’t know how I’m getting there. I know I’m getting there though,” and then you let yourself go and you go, “Here’s the scene that I need to do globally. This is the scene were Jesse tries to free her brother. Oh my God! What am I going to do? Well, that’s my goal. I’m going to start writing, and there we go. Ah! That’s terrible. That’s an obstacle. This one is not worth continuing.” Who tells you that? The tyrant. The tyrant tells you that.
So the tyrant is very useful, because it makes you throw out crap that nobody is going to like. Your tyrant is very useful, but if you don’t have the warm, nice muse, who’s the creative force who will sit down and try another time, then your tyrant can’t do anything, can he? So you’ve got to have both. You got to say, “Oh! The tyrant is going to go sit on the porch while I let my nice muse goof around,” because that muse is going to give you stuff that the tyrant would never think of, because the tyrants not very creative. The tyrant is really good at ordering the chaos, but you need to jump into the pool of chaos and just start riffing, goofing around. Write that cliché, because you know you want to get to the end where the big payoff is. Allow the cliché to sit there. Don’t let the tyrant make you fix the cliché when you haven’t gotten all the way to Los Angeles yet.
So just as your story is about a hero who’s navigating the world of chaos and order, so are you, the artist, doing the same thing internal. The levels of abstraction, this is the incredible nature of our experience on this planet, is that everything is binary, meaning there’s two – Things can be one thing and they’re exact opposite at the same time. You can be a wonderful artist who’s created a great work of art and you can also be the person who’s crying in his car, right? You can be that big ball of mess, but you’re also the guy who sucked it up and published a book and busted his ass to get it done. So you’re two things, right?
Everything on the planet is two things. It’s a very difficult concept to understand. Your friend today can be the person who stabs you in the back tomorrow. That’s just the nature of the world. We abstractly know that, but when we discover it in real life, it’s a body blow. We don’t understand how that can be possible, but it is possible. So you can be chaotic and ordered at the same time, and you have to – It’s a very, very helpful thing to understand. I have a very difficult time being creative if my desk is a mess, because I just want to put all the stuff away. Instead of saying, “I’m being a jerk,” and it’s a anal-retentive idiot by cleaning my desk before I write, I go, “Oh, that’s just how I need it to be in order to let the chaos fill the edges of my desk.” Now it doesn’t literally do that. It metaphorically does that. I need space for all the crap that’s chaotic to fall around me so that I can pick through it and find the good stuff and not do the bad stuff, or try the bad stuff and say, “That doesn’t work, so I have to throw it out. Let me try this good stuff over here.”
So if you think of the world in a metaphor of there’s good stuff in and chaos and bad stuff in chaos, and I wanted navigate between those two. Now, there’s good stuff in order and there’s bad stuff in order, and I need to navigate between those two. There’s a tight rope that I need to walk. I’ve got to keep one foot in chaos and one foot in in order, but I have to keep coming back to my tight rope. When I get confused, I go to the other one and I go, “Okay. I am being way too anal-retentive with my plot outline. Oh! I better write a scene. Let me write a scene. I don’t want to write a scene. Well, I’ll just write a scene,” and then you write that scene and you go, “I’m just going to keep going, because this feels good.” You go, “Oh my gosh! Let me order that. That stuff would go great here.” You know how it works.
Before you know it, you’ve been working for nine hours straight and haven’t taken a bathroom break and you’re like, “Whoa! Whoa! Where did that happen?” Now, that doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, we know it, because we feel. Then we’d go and we have dinner with the happiest clam on the universe.
So you internally are going to come up against chaos and order all the time and recognize it in yourself will be very helpful for you to just keep shifting and go, “Oh boy, that’s that tyrant in me. I got to put him on the back burner. Let me go over here in the warm waters of chaos.”
So whenever you get all, “Oh well, my plan isn’t working out. I really need to have a plan.” That’s a great indication, “Oh! I’m getting those messages. It means I need to keep writing my scenes.”
[0:48:23.5] TG: Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time like convincing myself I was making progress by planning out my scenes instead of writing them.
[0:48:29.6] SC: Yeah. Yeah, we all do that.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:48:31.8] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com and 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. If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you’d like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review.
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