Here’s the transcript for episode two, “Ice cubes can either become guns or they can’t” of The Story Grid Podcast.
You can also listen to it by clicking the play button below.
Tim: Hello, and welcome to Episode 2 of The Story Grid Podcast. This is Tim Grahl, I’m your host. Shawn is going to join me here in just a minute. Before we dive into this week’s episode, I just have to say thanks so much to all of you who got behind the first episode of our show.
Shawn and I figured we’d put out the show and a few people would listen to it, and that’d be pretty much it. But instead, we got so many e-mails, so many posts on social media, and we had a lot of you leave reviews and rating on iTunes. We were just really surprised by the amount of you who listened to the show and enjoyed it. Thank you so much for that.
We want to let you know that we set up a Twitter account. It’s at Twitter.com/StoryGrid – just @StoryGrid. Right now, as of this recording, we have a grand total of three followers and one of those is me, so it doesn’t really count. But we want to let you know it’s there because that’s how you can interact with us. If you want to ask a question that we can throw into a future episode of the show, that’s the way to do it. If you have feedback or questions, do it in Twitter. Just @StoryGrid, and either Shawn and I will jump in and answer your questions and respond to you.
Without further ado, let’s jump into Episode 2. We are talking about literary versus commercial fiction, and we will start to dive into the giant topic that is genre. I hope you enjoy it. Let’s get started.
Hey, Shawn. This week, I want to start in the literary and commercial chapter of your book. You call them two different cultures: commercial and literary. Just talk about that for a little bit. Explain what you mean by that.
Shawn: When I first started out in publishing… This is probably the early 1990s, probably around 1991-1992, and I think it’s still exactly the same way. I don’t think it changes at all. Essentially, what happens is if, say, Tim, you’re 22 or 23 and you want to get into book publishing, you put your resume out there.
Say you get an interview at a major publishing conglomerate like Penguin Random House today. What you would do is you would go in and you would meet the human resources guy, and he would put you through the paces, and then he would call you when a job would open up.
This is what happened to me. I interviewed with a company called Bantam Doubleday Dell back then, which eventually become Random House anyway. He called me, and he said, “Look, I have this job available at Dell Publishing.”
Dell Publishing, actually, it’s not very active right now, but it was one of the first paperback publishing companies in the United States. What they concentrated on was really big fun mysteries, and romances, and really great commercial stuff that you would read on the beach or your friends would read and tell you about.
I really didn’t know that from Herman Melville, and I really just needed a job at that point. I went in for the job, I got the job, and I discovered, “Oh, my gosh. This is the stuff I love to read and I’m a little bit ashamed to tell people about. But boy, this is a lot of fun.” I got to work with people like Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, and all of these really terrific writers who are writing for everyday Joes and Janes who just love to read.
As I was progressing in my career, I discovered, “Oh, there’s this whole other place in book publishing called literary.” The literary world was made up of people who would publish John Irving, and Anne Tyler, and Toni Morrison, and on and on and on. The houses that would publish these books were Alfred A. Knopf and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. What I discovered was that there was this real difference between people who loved commercial fiction and those who loved literary fiction.
Tim: I didn’t even know half of those authors you said on the literary fiction. Give me some books and what do you mean by that? You’re saying it like there’s this definite difference, and I don’t even know who they are, so explain to me what that means.
Shawn: Literary would mean somebody who would be up for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Right? It would be somebody like, today, we revere somebody like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Anne Tyler is a literary writer today who skirts the literary/commercial chasm. Anyway, Toni Morrison, there’s a great example. There’s somebody who’s written these really deep, thoughtful kind of… Thomas Pynchon would be considered a literary writer.
Tim: What do they write, though?
Shawn: They write stories that are pretty much not plot-driven, meaning you read the story… Jonathan Franzen today would be considered a literary writer. They write stories that are like… I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “the novel of ideas.”
These are people who go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, they get a master’s in writing. They’re very, very good line-by-line writers, meaning they write great sentences that are sometimes very difficult to follow but are really brilliant, like William Gaddis. People of the stature who teach writing at universities.
They are what everybody thinks of when they go into an English literature class. You’re not going to go into an English literature class in high school or in college and get a book written by Elmore Leonard and saying, “You should read this because we want to talk about the deep thoughts that are in this book ‘Get Shorty.’” That’s not going to happen.
But you might get a Jonathan Franzen book today, like “The Corrections.” Somebody who was taking English literature class, they might be reading “The Corrections” now, which was a book that was published probably 10 or 15 years ago that still resonates as this novel of ideas.
When you say novel of ideas, basically what it means is that it’s either a really in-depth character study of somebody who’s going through life, the vicissitudes of strange things happen to them, and you’re not really sure where the story is going, but the writing is really interesting, and you feel like you should keep reading it. Every now and then, the writer pulls you back in with a really great line. But you’re not really totally compelled or convinced that this is something that you want to burn up your beach day with.
That’s kind of what literary means. It’s really sort of PhD, smart guy, master’s degree, deep thought, Dostoyevsky, people who’ve read the great novels of all time, they consider themselves literary. It’s sort of a snooty, “I’m smarter than you” kind of way of separating literature.
Tim: It’s interesting you say that, because I think I almost fell asleep with you just talking about that. It’s funny because I must be definitely on the commercial side.
Shawn: Yes, you definitely are. People who love science fiction, mysteries, crime, love stories, or any of those really terrific commercial external genres, they’re commercial readers.
Tim: In the book, you say to the screenwriter, it’s the same as independent versus studio.
Shawn: Exactly. If you love “Guardians of the Galaxy” versus “Howards End.” E. M. Forster is one of the major English writers. That was an adaptation of an E. M. Forster novel that was fantastic, but it’s very drawing-room English sort of sensibilities about the changing of a culture as opposed to blowing things up.
Dell Publishing at the time was all about those big, fun, crass, commercial, fun reads, and Knopf is about finding the next Nobel Prize winner. This might seem like silliness to somebody who’s not inside the book publishing industry, but inside the book publishing industry, it’s sort of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Right? It’s like the literary people look down their nose at the commercial people, and the commercial people think the literary people are snobs.
Tim: It’s so true.
Shawn: It’s so great. To this day, this is exactly the same stuff that’s going on now.
Tim: From my point of view, what I see is I separate it by the people who make money writing and the people who don’t make money writing.
Shawn: That’s an easy way of doing it, and I don’t necessarily agree. I think there are a lot of literary writers who do make really substantial… Jonathan Franzen is a very good example. There’s a guy whose latest novel, “Purity,” that’s going to be on the New York Time’s Best Sellers list. Oprah picked two of his novels as her…
The great thing about Oprah, her book picks, she doesn’t really care. I can tell by the way she chooses books. She’ll choose Wally Lamb, who’s considered a commercial fiction writer, and she’ll choose Jonathan Franzen. She won’t really even distinguish between the two. She’ll pick as many Dell books as she will Knopf books. I don’t really think… She just picks what she likes, which I think is awesome.
The divide is really about those who are after great reviews, great accolades, and let’s say literary pretensions of lasting forever and ever and ever versus somebody who writes a great episode of “Mannix.” I always say “Mannix” and no one knows what I’m talking about. Like “Special Victims Unit” or something.
Tim: I see. I’m interested in talking about this because in the work I’ve done with authors, there are authors who come to me and they tell me about their book and I just want to be like, “Yeah, that’s not going to sell. There’s nothing I can do for you.” I feel bad but there’s this level of they’ll come to me with this… I don’t know, I don’t want to say what, but some kind of just one where I’m like, “That’s never going to be a big seller and I don’t have magic dust to sprinkle on it.”
It’s interesting. As I approach this, I’m thinking, one, I want to write what I like to read, which is definitely on the commercial side. But at the same time, I’m interested in writing books that have a chance of selling enough that I can make money on it. To me, the commercial side is definitely more likely to do that than the literary side.
You can find edge cases anywhere, but commercial is commercial because it sells, because it’s commercial. More people are going to watch “The Avengers” movie than some kind of obscure whatever that comes out.
Shawn: Here’s the thing, Tim, and I talk about this a little bit in the book. I think everybody’s goals and everybody’s whatever floats their boat is valid, but as you said, when you spoke a little while ago, just know where you sit on this commercial/literary spectrum before you write your book.
For example, I bring up the title “Lolita,” Nabokov’s “Lolita.” “Lolita” now today is considered this remarkable novel that’s literary and also really compelling to read. Even though it’s a difficult slog at the beginning to get used to the way Nabokov writes and the language that he uses, once you get into the story, it’s really compelling and it’s really disturbing, too. It’s like Stephen King meets… I don’t know. It’s really a remarkable book.
Anyway, when he wrote that book, I can guarantee you a couple of things. I can guarantee you he didn’t think it was going to be a big sensation. I think he probably thought to himself, “Chances are nobody’s going to publish this book.” You know why? Because it’s about a pedophile.
He gave himself this impossible task. He said to himself, “I’m going to write a novel about a pedophile in which people, when they read the book, are going to root for the pedophile to actually get his conquest.” If you’re thinking that and you’re a writer, hey, that’s pretty cool. If you can pull that off, God bless you. But don’t expect anybody to want to read that book. Right?
Tim: Yes, I hear you.
Shawn: But he was such a great writer… Of course, when he did publish it, the only country that would publish it was France. When it was brought over to the United States… Grove Press brought it over – Bernie, I forget his last name. Anyway, I know all this publishing history that bores people to death.
…It was considered inflammatory, pornographic, terrible, the worst thing that could corrupt minors, and all of this stuff.
It’s one of those rare books that is both literary and commercial in that people who invest the time, they do it out of medicine at first – like, “Oh, I got to read this great novel” – and then once they get into it, it’s like commercial bat-out-of-hell kind of reading.
Just to go back to the main point and your point, which I think is a really good one, hey, you should really know what it is you want to write, and make sure that your goals for what you write are realistic.
You, Tim, I don’t know about you what you write other than the fact that you want to write some science fiction. Now, science fiction happens to be right now an extremely popular genre – and it always has been – and if you hit it the right way, you can be anybody from Kurt Vonnegut, who’s on the literary spectrum, to a popular science fiction writer today. Off the top of my head, I can’t even think of somebody, but you know probably every single one of them.
Within each genre, there’s the literary and then there’s commercial end, too, and there’s always a place for you, if you understand, “Hey, what I’m getting into, I need to write for myself.” That’s the number one thing. “I need to have something that’s going to obsess me to the point where I’m going to invest at least 12 to 18 months in.” Probably more, but don’t kill yourself at the beginning and think you’re going to spend the rest of your life on a book.
But you really need to have something that’s going to obsess you to that point. It has to engage you. You can’t be writing to some formula because when you write to formula, it becomes really boring, and stale, and you can’t run away from it. That’s the first thing.
Tim: Did you see the NPR article “When It Comes To Book Sales, What Counts As Success Might Surprise You”? Did you see that?
Shawn: No, I didn’t.
Tim: It’s really interesting. I’ll put it in the show notes. It goes through and talks about these books that get these awards and how little they actually sell. There is this one part I want to read: “Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler, the only writer on the list with six-figure sales for her book ‘A Spool of Blue Thread.’” But then it goes into others that have sold between 15,000 and 20,000, and one that sold 3600 copies. They quote Jane Dystel: “A sensational sale would be about 25,000 copies.”
I just think that’s interesting for people. We know that because we’re in the industry. To me, coming in from the outside, if I heard those numbers, I would be appalled that that’s what’s considered success is 25,000. “Sensational” is the word that was used is 25,000.
Because what I get into is as I started to map out several ideas for books I have, if I have five different ideas for books, I want to pick the one that has the most possibility. If all of them are interesting to me, I want to pick the one that has the most possibility for commercial success. That just makes sense. That’s what I’m getting at here.
Also, I think it’s really important for people to think about “What am I doing this for? Am I doing this so that I can someday impress an elite group of people who will never be actually impressed? Or am I doing this for myself? What’s going to mean success for me? Is it sales? Is it making X amount of dollars? Or is it getting written up in X, Y, or Z publication?”
Shawn: That’s a really good point, and you’re answering the question that you asked me at the beginning. Because if you’re after the great review, you’re a literary person and you want Michiko Kakutani at The New York Times to review your book and give you a rave – and if that is the case, I don’t think it’s a realistic goal, but it’s a goal.
But if you want to entertain people and you want to have been ready by a lot of people, then you don’t really care so much about the reviews; what you care about is getting your book into people’s hands and see if they read it.
Tim: I think one interesting topic is go to Amazon and read the top reader reviews of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and all of them talk about what a horrible writer she is. But yet, that is the biggest selling book since “Harry Potter” or whatever. I just think it’s so interesting that idea of… I can’t remember; I’m reading so much stuff on writing. I think it was in “The Story Grid.” How shall I put this? A book with a fantastic story that’s not written very well will get more widely read and entertain more people than a book with not a good story but written perfectly.
Shawn: Absolutely true. When you say written perfectly, I think what you’re talking about are line-by-line skills – line-by-line, sentence-by-sentence, dazzling turns of phrase, metaphors, impeccable points of view. That sort of thing is a really important skill, and what a lot of people think of when they think of writing is that’s all they think of. Now, storytelling is something completely different, and storytelling is what made “Fifty Shades of Grey” so exciting.
I could go off for a half an hour about… The other thing that really determines whether or not a book sells or not… You can write a great book that has a great story, and is extremely well-written line-by-line. You can combine the best of commercial, being storytelling, and literary, being line-by-line writing. You can combine both of those things in a great book and for whatever reason, the moment of the culture at the time just doesn’t coalesce with that story.
Every day, when we walk around, we’re constantly bombarded with stories, the culture, and everything of that sort. I was talking to my friend Steve Pressfield about this yesterday. Sometimes what’s really frustrating is you can really work very, very hard on something and it’s very successful on two very big, important levels, but it’s not of the time, if it doesn’t sit into this sweet spot of the cultural way of everybody thinking, it may not perform.
“Fifty Shades of Grey,” that’s a really fascinating study, if you ask me. There’s a book, 100 million, 200 million copies of that book have been sold.
Tim: I heard of figures somewhere of the percentage of overall book sales that it ate up for a while. It was extremely high. I wish I could remember.
Shawn: Yes, it was a probably a good 10%.
Tim: Yes, of all books sold, it was 10%.
Shawn: It sold so well that Random House had so much money that they gave $5000 to all of their employees as a Christmas bonus. Think about how much money that is, because it was better for them to give those bonuses than to pay the taxes. You know what I’m saying? No corporation is going to give a bonus unless they can get a tax advantage out of it.
That’s how much money that book made, and what’s fascinating to me is that it was self-published. You know what I mean? It was ignored, it was ridiculed, and people thumbed their noses at it. There’s no way that book ever, ever would have gotten out of the slush at any major publisher until it became a sensation. Then they’re like, “Oh, great, we’re love your book. We’ll keep your cover, too. We’ll do whatever is necessary to take 95% of your revenue.” But that’s a whole other story.
Tim: That piqued something in my thought process, because the idea that it was picked up like that…
Shawn: Who published it? A very, very literary place. Vintage Books, which is the paperback division of Knopf. Is that the biggest irony ever? It is.
Tim: This is what I wanted to come back to. Over and over, when I read stuff from the industry – like the Authors United or whatever, and that kind of stuff – they’re talking about how publishing is protecting literature. That’s one of the goals. At the same time, they paid a huge advance to Kim Kardashian for a book of her selfies.
I’m like, “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say you’re the beacon in literature and then do whatever it takes to make money.” I’m totally fine with you doing everything that it takes to make money; I just don’t think you can play both sides of the card. I just don’t think that’s fair. Because when they look at the slush pile that is self-publishing out there, they’re like, “Well, we have this process and we make sure it’s well da, da, da, da, da, da.”
Shawn: “We have standards.”
Tim: And then they publish “Fifty Shades of Grey,” where there are no standards that that meets other than it sells a lot of copies.
Shawn: Exactly. “We have standards until you have a very successful book, and then we’re happy to take it off of your hands and take all of your revenue.”
Tim: I’ve felt like that was a good point to hit here. The whole idea of this podcast is to help writers be more successful, and I think it’s just good to make sure – like we were talking about – you know what you’re getting into, you understand the economics of it, and I think the whole point of “The Story Grid” is to give you the best shot at writing the best book. Obviously, no guarantees, but what we’re trying to do here is give you the best shot at success.
In this one, I want to jump into “The Story Grid,” and I’m starting in Chapter 11: The Story Grid in Action. I just want to start with that. You give six questions that you should ask when writing every story, and this goes into the full scape, and we’ll get into all of that in future episodes.
The first one is what’s the genre? I have all these pages dog-eared. You say about genre, the first question you’re supposed to ask is “What’s the genre?” and then you say, “Genre choices are the most important decisions you need to make.” Then a couple of paragraphs down, you say, “Knowing genre is the single best way to avoid doing a hell of a lot of work for naught.”
Tell me about why it’s important that the first thing you do is pick a genre and why that’s going to save you so much time down the road by picking your genre up front.
Shawn: I think in the last episode, I mentioned the house analogy. If you’re building a house and somebody says, “What do you want in your house?” and you don’t have an answer for them, you say, “I don’t know. I want half Cape Cod, half modern, half. I’m not really sure. Let’s just start and see where it goes.” That’s a nightmare. Nobody would do that. Nobody would say to a builder, “Hey. Let’s just start at Cape Cod, and then we’ll switch if we want to.”
Tim: “We’ll see how it goes.”
Shawn: Right? It’s the exact same thing with the story. What genres are is it’s a big, fat, fancy word that’s French that basically means what category. If somebody had to ask you, “What’s the category of your house?” you would be able to answer it. You would say, “It’s a Cape Cod, it’s a split level, it’s a Victorian,” whatever. Genre is really important because it narrows your choices. It narrows down from this big mess of the universe what it is you want to focus on.
There are five components of genre, but the ones everybody knows intuitively are those things… Like you say, “I want to write science fiction,” and that’s a great place to start. Because now you know, “Everything that I want to put into this story, I have to put into the science fiction kind of building, and a science fiction building has the following things.”
So I need to list the things that have to be in my building so that my building will stand properly, so it won’t fall in and people will know, when they look at it, “Oh, that’s a science fiction building.” They won’t think it’s half science fiction, half mystery, half love story. It’s going to have a very specific feel to it.
This is the beginning of what a publisher would do. That’s how they market things. They’re going to look at a story and say, “What kind of story is it? How do we put a cover on that story so that people, when they go into a bookstore, are going to know what that story is about?”
It’s a way of explaining to your audience, because nobody writes for themselves. I know everybody says they do, but everybody writes so that other people will read them and tell them how great they are.
They will say, “You move me.” That makes you feel good if you’re the writer. “You move me. That sentence you wrote was really killer. In fact, I wrote that down and I put it next to my computer because it made me feel better.” That’s why we write. It’s so other people can share, and we can share our experiences and they become universal, and everybody can feel like part of a community. That’s not cheesy; that’s just true. We all want to commune with people, and one of the ways we do that – the primary way we do that – is by telling a story.
What genres do is they tell your audience what to expect. The very, very first thing you should do is to figure out “What genres do I like?” The great thing, Tim, is that we’re all so perfectly… Ever since the time we were born, we’ve been exposed to stories, so whether we know it or not, everything that’s in “The Story Grid” is intuitively in everybody’s DNA.
What the book basically is doing is giving shape to something that you know intuitively. We all know genres intuitively. We all know what a knock-knock joke is. We all know what a fable is, a parable.
From the time we were kids, we know what a Dr. Seuss book is like. We know we’re going to get great rhyming. We’re going to get a great moral center in a Dr. Seuss booker. We’re going to get some really cool art.
It’s the same thing when you’re writing science fiction. Are you going to write something that’s going to involve real science or made-up science? Are you going to write about magical worlds? I can go on and on, and there’s a ton of stuff in the book about it.
Tim: You said that genres have conventions, and then you also talked about obligatory scenes. What’s the difference?
Shawn: A convention would be something like in a love story, a convention would be you would have lovers. You would have a man and a woman, two men, two women, or whatever your story is. And then there’s going to be what I call the third wheel. The third wheel character. That’s a convention.
A third wheel character is that person who’s engaged to one of those lovers or is going to get in between. It’s a competing love interest. If you don’t have a triangle of love interest and the love story, there’s no conflict. Because there’s no place for the one partner to say, “This guy is bothering me. I’m going to go with the other one.” The other guy doesn’t think that he’s going to lose the person if there’s no competition. You need a competition.
That’s a convention. It’s a character, or it’s a setting. Say it’s a war story, a convention of a war story. Guess what? There’s going to be a battle, there’s going to be a battle scene. You have to have some blowing up, you have to have guys fighting each other. That’s a convention.
An obligatory scene is a very, very specific moment in the story that the reader or the viewer expects to happen and if it doesn’t happen, it’s going to piss them off, it’s going to make them say, “This is terrible. This isn’t a love story. I’m not even sure what this thing is.”
Tim: You know one of the things I figured out reading “The Story Grid” was… I love romantic comedies…
Shawn: Who doesn’t? They’re the best.
Tim: Confession time.
…Until those last scenes. They always drive me insane because then it gets all sappy, and it was this really funny, quirky movie. But then I realize, “Oh, if that wasn’t in there, the entire movie would fall apart.” It’s always funny because…
Shawn: What you’re talking about is somebody who hasn’t innovated an obligatory scene. What you’re saying is that you’re talking about romantic comedies that make an obligatory scene a cliché. They’re following old innovations, and that’s what a cliché is.
Tim: One of my favorites is “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” No?
Shawn: I didn’t see it but that’s the one with Matthew McConaughey, right?
Tim: Yes, that one. It’s this really funny setup where basically… Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen it, but it’s been out a while, so that’s your fault.
Shawn: I’ll tell you what. I haven’t seen the movie, and for fun, let me try and tell you what the major movements of this story are, just based on the title and on the genre, and see how close I am. I haven’t seen the movie.
It’s “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” I’m going to just say the lead character is some sort of playboy and the female love interest probably makes a bet with somebody, like “I’m going to let this guy seduce me and then I’m going to make it so irritating for him that he’ll dump me,” or something like that. Then, by the end, they fall in love and live happily ever after.
Tim: That’s so spot on. Yes. Matthew McConaughey is this big ad executive who’s hot and everybody wants him, and then I forgot the girl’s name in it.
Shawn: She’s great. Kate Hudson.
Tim: She works at a Cosmopolitan-type magazine and she…
Shawn: She has to be a magazine writer.
Tim: She got this article of she has to get a guy to like her – it’s exactly what you say – get a guy to like her, and then do all of the things girls normally do to drive him away. There’s all this really funny stuff where she hooks him and then she turns and starts doing all of this crazy stuff to drive him crazy. See, he has to keep her because he had a bet going.
Shawn: Of course. There has to be a bet somewhere.
Tim: Yes. He can’t dump her because of something else, so they’re stuck together until, of course, she ends up meeting his family and falls in love with them and realizes that they’re supposed to be together. Then, of course, there’s the moment when they both realize what was really going on, they get all pissed off. Kate Hudson leaves and then he’s racing down the highway on his motorcycle to catch her before she leaves town.
That’s the point where I’m like, “Okay, I’ve had enough.” The funny part was in the middle, and then it’s like, “Okay.” How many of those have we seen where you’re running and chasing somebody through the airport, down the road, or whatever?
Shawn: Yes. That was a big Hollywood moment; it did extraordinarily well at the box office, as I recall. The thing is that we love that story, we love that setup. “The Philadelphia Story” is a great example of a romantic comedy. It’s so great.
What an obligatory scene is that moment where the lovers, they have to meet cute. The setup is, the hook is there’s some cute meeting that we haven’t seen before. And then they have to parry, they have to get into this… They’re opposites. They’re trying to do different things and they clash. And then they have this moment where they have their first kiss. That’s an obligatory scene. The first kiss scene, the meet cute scene, these are all what I call obligatory scenes in a love story.
“Brokeback Mountain,” there is a great love story about two guys, and it’s a western. When I went to see the movie, it’s the last thing I wanted to see, but my wife is like, “I really want to see this,” and I went to see it. It’s one of the best love stories ever put together, and it has all of those things. It innovates all of these conventions and obligatory scenes in a way that is quite shocking and extremely moving by the end of that. It’s a really terrific movie, if you haven’t seen it.
Anyway, the romantic comedy, they have the first kiss, and then the big climactic moment of a love story is proof of love. It’s the proof of love obligatory scene. The proof of love is when the guy… In “Terms of endearment,” Jack Nicholson, at the very end of the movie, he shows up. Shirley MacLaine’s daughter is dying in the hospital. He’s already dumped Shirley MacLaine. He’s this big ass.
Shirley MacLaine is like this bitchy suburban widow. The astronaut played by Jack Nicholson had an affair with her, he had fun, he was the next door neighbor, and then she started to become grating and irritating, so he dumps her. You know, “Oh, man. They’re a perfect couple. They should really be together.” You kind of root for them to stay together. When Nicholson dumps her, you’re like, “He’s acting in character. He’s really not going to end up with somebody like Shirley MacLaine.”
At the end of the movie, the proof of love, that’s the beauty of that movie and that novel. Larry McMurtry wrote it. Forget it. Larry McMurtry, talk about a genre master. That guy can write westerns, love stories, whatever. He wrote the screenplay to “Brokeback Mountain.”
At the end of the book and at the end of the movie, Nicholson shows up after Shirley MacLaine’s daughter has been diagnosed with cancer. The daughter is about to die in the hospital, Shirley MacLaine hasn’t showered in nine days. She’s a freakin’ wreck.
She’s coming out of the hospital, and who’s standing outside? Jack Nicholson. He just looks at her and he says, “What can I say? I love you.” At that moment, that’s the proof of love, and that’s when everybody’s heart just explodes when they watch that scene. That’s the proof of love.
Tim: That’s the same as McConaughey racing down the road on his motorcycle with the love fern in the back of his motorcycle. That scene?
Shawn: That’s correct. Which one’s better? Which one’s more innovative? Right?
Shawn: They’re both the same scene, one sort of takes the easy way out because we all want to see Matthew McConaughey ride that motorcycle, and the studio execs want to see that moment. We want to see that moment, but we also want something deeper, too.
The romantic comedy, the way they pitch… Look, they didn’t pitch Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson as something that’s going to move you as a human being; they pitched it as, “Hey, you’re going to have fun for two hours.” And they delivered. That’s a story that works.
Tim: It makes me think of “Bridesmaids.” Did you see that?
Shawn: Oh, yes.
Tim: The very last scene is when she walks out and her guy is standing there against the car. Now as I think about it, I feel like, at the end, they’re like, “Oh, crap. Yes, we have to tie up the love story,” and they just threw it in because that’s how it always happens. They walk out and the guy is standing there. That wasn’t the point of the movie, but they still put it in anyway because you have to.”
Shawn: They did.
Tim: Because at the end, if they hadn’t put them together, we would have been like, “What the heck happened there?”
Shawn: That’s right. That’s what you call a reshoot. They pulled the cast together back for one day of shooting because what happened is they took that movie to a test audience, and the test audience was like, “We really liked it, but why didn’t she get back with her boyfriend?” So the studio is like, “Let’s pull it together. It’s going to cost us $2 million for the day. We have to get that shot.” Nobody wants to make that movie where the word of mouth is bad because they don’t have that stupid shot at the end.
Tim: Right. Which is how funny… I’m starting to get a sense for how necessary these are.
Shawn: They’re that necessary.
Tim: That scene, I never talk about that scene. I talk about the scene where they’re getting the wedding dresses and I talk about the scene where she gets thrown off the plane and how funny it is. But if that hadn’t have been in there, I would have been like, “Man, but something was… I don’t know. It was okay.”
Shawn: That’s right. The point of genre, and obligatory scenes, and conventions is, “Hey, don’t put your nose in the air and say, ‘I don’t want to add that stupid scene. That’s a stupid scene. I don’t want to have Matthew McConaughey on the motorcycle.’ Okay. Totally cool. I get it. Don’t have that scene. But you have to do something better in the setup.” Right? Do a better scene. Write a better story. But you have to have that moment.
The proof of love scene in a love story is required. If you don’t put it in, your book won’t work and nobody will talk about it. People might admire little pieces of it, and it might become a cult classic that someday sells 5000 copies underground, but it’s not going to get anybody to say, “Hey, man. You have to read this book. Wait till you get to the end. I don’t even know how to explain it to you.”
That’s what’s going to give you so much joy as a writer. When you crack an obligatory scene in a brand-new way, that’s what gives you the juice to keep moving forward. My suggestion – and it’s more like a rule than a suggestion – is if you want to be a writer, you have to know your genre. It’s really not that difficult to learn it.
If I were to make a suggestion to you, Tim, I would say, “Hey, pick out your five favorite novels, the five ones that you wish you had written that are in your genre.” Don’t take “The Great Gatsby” and that novel you were talking about last week and put them in the same basket. They have to be in the same genre.
If you want to write a disillusionment plot, yes, get “The Great Gatsby.” But if you want to write science fiction, find those five pivotal books that are all similar of a genre that you love. Sit down and read them and take notes. Think to yourself, “I’m going to list the things that these five books have in common. What are the conventions and what are the obligatory scenes?” Usually, within genres, I think it’s safe to say that you’re going to find at least 10 to 15 things that those five books are going to share. Once you have that list, you’re going to say, “These must be the…”
The other thing is, Tim, is that we live in a connected world now. On Story Grid, there’s a place to sign up for a thing called The Story Grid Forum. There are about 600 or 700 people on there now, and what they do is help each other.
If you’re a big science fiction fan, you can find other science fiction fans and you can break up the work. You can do one book, somebody else could do another book, and then you compare and contrast, e-mail each other, go on the forum, and figure out whatever.
I would love to just lock myself in a vault and do this kind of work because it’s what I love to do, but I have to balance having a family, a life, and all of that. But I would love to do this for each of the genres and maybe someday I will. Love story I know pretty well, crime, thrillers, mystery, and all of that stuff, but science fiction I’m a little weak on.
That’s what I would suggest. Once you have that list, now you’re ready to rock. Now you know, “I have to deliver this stuff. How am I going to do it in a new unique way? How am I going to set up that scene that’s different from the guy on the motorcycle, or the guy in the car, or the guy running down the hall at the airport, or the woman who’s running through the park? How many times have we seen that?”
Have fun with it. One of the great things is watch movies. Watch every science fiction movie. It’s like what you were saying last week about watching the “Garfield” cartoon and saying, “Oh, my gosh. There’s the inciting incident.” You can pick that stuff out anywhere, and it’s fun.
Tim: That’s part of it. If you can’t force yourself to sit down and read five great books in the genre you want to write in, you might want to rethink the whole idea anyway. Right now, I’m reading… Something I want to start doing on most episodes is just talk about what we’re reading.
Right now, I’m going back and I’m re-reading this book. I just finished this epic 1.75-million-word book, “Worm,” that was extraordinary, but I’m exhausted. I read “Girl on the Train,” which was a fun mystery/thriller thing, and now I’m re-reading one of my favorite fantasy books, which is “The Way of the Shadows” by Brent Weeks, which is… I’m just going to tell the story.
Shawn: Yes, please. I haven’t heard of it. I’d love to…
Tim: I think I’m five years in now, but if you had asked me prior to five years ago… I read a ton, I’ve already read since I can remember. If you had asked me, “Who reads fantasy?” I would have pictured the greasy guy in his mom’s basement. I didn’t read fantasy, wasn’t interested in it. I wasn’t that kind of a person. Now we’re showing my biases where I’m all against the literary/commercial thing. That was one of my biases, as well.
I had played this video game called Assassin’s Creed. Oh, man, I have to come back to that, too, but I played this video game called Assassin’s Creed, which was really big at the time. I was walking through Barnes & Noble and the cover of the book, stood out to me because it reminded me of that video game.
I picked it up and I looked at it, and it was about an assassin. I was like, “Oh, man. I love assassin books.” I’ll read it, but it was the third book in the series, so I went home and ordered the first book, “The Way of the Shadows.” I started reading it, and it wasn’t until a third of the way into the book or something… And I’m actually paying attention now as I read it. There’s not much magic in it.
I just thought I was reading this fun kind of medieval assassin story. Then all of a sudden, somebody throws a fireball at somebody, and I’m like, “What am I reading?” I got this fantasy book but I’m so hooked on it that I ended up just blowing through the entire trilogy.
Fast-forward a year, and I’m reading another fantasy book, and my wife, she’s candid, she’s like, “You’re really into those fantasy books now,” and I’m like, “No, no, no. I don’t read that many. I’m not a fantasy reader.”
She goes, “How many have you read in the last year?” I counted up, and it was like 14. I was like, “Oh, my gosh. What has become of me?”
Shawn: You should start a club.
Tim: It’s a little sad. Oh, another thing I’ll just throw in here is I talked to a guy at Orbit, which is the publisher.
Shawn: Oh, yes. They’re terrific.
Tim: I told him that story about Assassin’s Creed. He goes, “Oh, that’s really interesting because that’s why we put that cover on it. We knew that game was really popular, and so we designed the cover to match the game so that it would catch people’s eyes.” I was like, “Oh, that’s really fascinating.” I was like, “Well, it worked on me.”
Shawn: Exactly. That’s what a publisher does. It’s how do you make the connection for people between different cultural moments in time? That’s why they change.
Tim: I’m going back and reading it because if I could make people feel the way I feel reading this book, that’s kind of my goal. It’s this brutally violent and just dirty assassin story, and those are my favorite kind. It has to be violent, it has to be everybody, there’s no good in anybody, and that’s my kind of book. For some reason, I don’t know, I’m a pretty nice guy otherwise.
Shawn: Yes. That’s probably why. You’re suppressing all of your negative energy, and it has to go out in your fantasy.
Tim: Yes. That’s what I’m reading right now: “The Way of the Shadows.” I’m probably about 15% into it now, and this is the first time I’ve gone back and I’m going to re-read all three of them. Maybe it’s because it was my first, but it’s just my favorite fantasy book. It’s the Night “Angel Trilogy” by Brent Weeks.
What are you reading?
Shawn: Oh, what am I reading?
Tim: Yes. What are you reading right now?
Shawn: Because I still am a fiction editor, I spend most of my free time reading nonfiction, because it’s very difficult for me to suspend my disbelief in books. And the other thing is a friend of mine once said to me that it’s like I know where all the bodies are buried in every publication. Knowing the editor of the guy, and the thing, and the agent, it’s just not good.
I focus really on nonfiction and I read a lot of stuff that is sort of strange and doesn’t seem to make any sense. One of the books I’m reading is a book “Washington’s Crossing,” which is written by a guy named David Hackett Fischer. Fischer is sort of this really wonky kind of historian who really digs on getting into the realities of famous moments in time.
“Washington’s Crossing” is all about that famous painting that’s at the Metropolitan Museum in New York of Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas night fighting the American Revolution. This is the story of what that was really about, because the painting is a metaphor for the actual event more than it is what the actual event was really all about.
I love reading nonfiction like that because it pulls back the curtain on a specific time, and it shows the actuality of what it was like to be general when you’re down to 10% of your men, it’s freezing, it’s snowing, the river is almost frozen, and you have to get across it to surprise an enemy that’s beaten you in every single campaign so far. How do you raise the courage? How do you raise the courage of your men to go and fight that battle?
What really excites me is reading stuff like that. It’s like those pivotal moments in life. What great fiction and great nonfiction do is they take you to that place, that place where your back’s against the wall and it’s either, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to throw it all down on this,” or “I quit.”
That’s what Washington was up against. “I have 10% of the guys that I started with, and I have got to go across the river. Who’s coming with me?” Right? And everybody did. They were all starving, and they all did.
Anyway. That’s the great thing about Fischer. He also wrote that book that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in “The Tipping Point” about Paul Revere’s ride – what that actually was as opposed to, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” It was actually a lot more detailed than that and who was Paul Revere really? How was he able to do that?
One last book that I started reading last night is a biography of the musician Ryan Adams. I don’t know if you know anything about his work, but he’s this brilliant sort of strange person who does this amazing original music, and just yesterday, he released… He basically took Taylor Swift’s album “1989,” and he redid it as him.
It’s almost like Bruce Springsteen, in the era of writing “Nebraska,” found the Pointer Sisters album of the time and made that. It just doesn’t make any sense. Last night, I was listening to it, and I’m like, “I have to know about this guy because this is incredible.” It’s a great album, and it gives me so much more respect for Taylor Swift now.
Anyway, I bought a biography of Ryan Adams and his first band called Whiskeytown last night by a guy named David Menconi, and it’s terrific. That’s another story about somebody who’s just interesting. He’s an interesting figure to me. I don’t know why he makes the decisions he makes, and so I’m interested in reading the biography for no other reason than that.
I have to jump back in. Genre, back on track. We’ll just start on this, and we’ll continue in the next episode. You break genre into five pieces. You have time, content, structure, reality, and style. We’re going to start with just the most interesting to me. I like the reality.
You put in this kind of five-leaf clover that makes up the story. I like the reality one. If I understand this right, when I’m picking my genre, I’m not necessarily picking just mystery. There are actually five decisions I have to make. It’s time, content, structure, style, and reality.
The content is more of the genre, whether it’s a western, a thriller, science fiction, or whatever. But you also have five other decisions to make. One is reality, and you have fantasy, realism, factualism, and absurdism.
Just explain what the reality part of genre is all about and why those are the four pieces we have to think about.
Shawn: Let me really start with the simple one, and then I’ll get into reality. The very, very simple one is time. How long is your project going to be? Is it going to be a short story, is it going to be a story, or is it going to be a novella? In film, is it going to be a short film? Is it going to be a commercial?
Really understanding just how long you want to sustain your story is a very important decision. Obviously, Tim, for you, you want to write novels. You want long form, that’s your timeframe.
Tim: Even in that, I’ve been thinking about the whole serializing thing. I actually wanted to talk to you about that, anyway. The one I remember doing this first, although I know he wasn’t first, but in the self-publishing world, it hit it big was Hugh Howey with “Wool.” He put out this short story and then he ended up writing four more pieces, and that became the book “Wool.”
Now he just did again with this book “Beacon 23,” and he did it on purpose from the beginning – where it’s like, okay, he knows the arc of the novel but he put it out in five different pieces that would make up the final novel.
I want to write a long novel but perhaps I want to serialize it. What do I need to think about with that?
Shawn: You can absolutely do that, and knowing that you’re going to do that from the start is going to be extremely helpful. If you make that decision, lock it in. Say to yourself, “That’s what I’m going to do.” Don’t say, “Well, maybe I’ll serialize it,” because if you do, if you go wishy-washy in any decision that you make, if you go wishy-washy, you’re going to not deliver in the way that you should.
If you’re going to make that commitment, make that commitment. With that said, how do you break up a novel into a compelling series of four pieces, five pieces, or whatever? That goes to the overall structure of your novel. How many acts are you going have? And that’s “acts,” not “ax.”
I suspect that Hugh has probably two or three acts in the middle build of his story. He has his opening, his beginning hook, which is going to be one act, and his ending payoff is going to be one act. You can read more about all that terminology in The Story Grid, and we’ll certainly talk about it at greater length later. But those five simple sections will help you figure out a lot of different things in planning your novel.
Knowing that you’re going to write long form but you’re going to break it into five pieces is going to be really helpful to you, because you’re going to know, “Okay. I have to hook people not only with part one but with part two, part three, part four, and part five. I’ll have to have an internal structure that has the same structure as the entire novel.” Each one of those parts has to have a beginning hook, a middle build, and an ending payoff.
Usually, what you’re going to do is you’re going to end on a cliffhanger in your first four, and then pay it off really at the final ending payoff in the last piece. What you’re going to want to do is think to yourself, “How am I going to get people to read the next piece? Where can I break my story that is the most exciting and the most tantalizing for them to want to go and download the next piece?”
You’re going to challenge yourself to create five major crises and climaxes that will compel people to go to the next one. I think that’s a pretty good idea. It’s what I would recommend people do anyway, even if they weren’t going to serialize it, because the most important thing about telling a story is to maintain people’s engagement.
If you challenge yourself to outdo yourself over and over again and reverse in turns that will keep people really glued to the page, that’s what it’s all about. It’s really about keeping people attached to the story and to find out what happens next. That’s the main goal of any storytelling. You want people to wonder and be just compelled to find out what happens next.
Say it’s a long form piece, five pieces, and you want to go into reality because that’s your thing. Let’s go into the reality genre and try to pick that a little bit apart. The first reality genre is factualism, and these are stories that are based upon facts of history or biography.
What you’re saying to the reader or the viewer is that this story did happen and it happened pretty much like you’re seeing now. Stories like “Serpico,” which was based upon Frank Serpico’s career as a police detective in New York City in the 1970s, that’s factualism. That’s a story based upon fact.
Tim: These are ones that at the beginning, say, “Based on a true story.”
Shawn: Exactly. Like “12 Years a Slave,” which won the Oscar, I think, last year. That was based upon a book written by a guy who was a slave for 12 years. “Argo,” that movie with Ben Affleck, that was based upon an article written about this scheme to get the hostages out of Iran. Those are stories that are based on fact.
Factualism – like “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s movie – that’s one thing. Those are kind of fun to do because you have a lot of meat on the bone that you can do the research to find out the actual stuff. That’s a pretty cool reality genre, facts.
Then there’s realism. Realism, what you’re telling the viewer is this could happen in real life, but it didn’t.
Tim: That’s where courtroom dramas and that kind of stuff.
Shawn: Exactly, like “Law & Order” or a really good crime story featuring a detective who’s very real. It feels real. It’s realism. The “Precinct” stories of Evan Hunter are great example of them. Just really good… Crime TV is a good example – “SVU,” that kind of thing. You have things that are based on facts that were true, things that could be true that are based in real life. They could be true but they’re made up; they’re fictional.
The third one is absurdism, which means this is not even close to reality. This is like a “Looney Tunes” cartoon where the Roadrunner picks up a hole and throws it, and then the Roadrunner falls in it or whatever… The Coyote falls in it and falls to his death, and then magically it cuts, and then they’re back where they started. This isn’t even remotely true.
Absurdism is not really something you really want to play around with in a novel because it goes to the literary spectrum, and people really have little patience for absurdism because it’s just…
Tim: It has no rules.
Shawn: Exactly. It makes people pissed off, really. Anyway.
The fourth one is fantasy. This is the thing that I know you want to write in. Fantasies are really stories of imagination. You have to suspend your disbelief entirely.
Tim: But you do it in a set of rules, though. If I was watching “Star Wars” and if somebody threw a fireball out of their hand at one point, you’d be like, “Where’d that come from?” That doesn’t fit. There are rules.
Shawn: There are rules. A lightsaber works; fireball, no. Because they’ve established the rules that we don’t control fireballs, but we control lightsabers. It has an internal, rational way of thinking. This is why you have all those great nerds who have these arguments about the rules of specific universes. “Oh, no. You can’t do that because fireballs aren’t allowed on orcs,” or whatever it is.
That’s great. People love rules, and when you create your own universe, you can create your own rules, but you have to abide by them. Like “Animal Farm,” George Orwell’s satirical novel about communism, that had very internal rules. The animals could spoke English and they talked to each other amongst each other but the farmer couldn’t hear them. They lived in this own little world, and that’s a fantasy world.
Tim: Would you call factualism…? Is that nonfiction?
Shawn: It’s nonfiction with liberties. It’s sort of the narrative nonfiction but so much so.
Tim: Erik Larson fits in that, right?
Shawn: Erik Larson? Yeah. He would say that it’s pure nonfiction. I would say it’s narrative nonfiction that skews more towards the fiction element than the nonfiction. There’s a big debate in circles about…
Narrative nonfiction is basically using the techniques of fiction for telling a true story. A lot of people say, “Well, you’re manipulating the data so that you can tell a story that abides your genre’s conventions.” And that’s true. Whether or not that’s true… We’re starting to slice atoms when you’re talking about… But narrative nonfiction, I would say Erik Larson’s stuff is very, very close to the truth, but it’s a great story.
Tim: We’ll come back to this in another episode. Here’s how I think of reality genres. The reason you’re picking is you have to figure out what set of rules that you’re asking people to read by, or how far they’re going to suspend their disbelief. They’re going to go to here but not here.
Tim: Why is that important?
Shawn: It’s important because when you are told a story, you want to know what you’re in for. Say, for example, I write a fantasy novel that involves magical creatures, and my publisher loves the novel and they say, “Hey, let’s not tell people it’s fantasy. Because it has this great crime story in it, let’s just pretend that it’s just a crime story. We’ll put a crime cover on it and we won’t tell anybody.”
What’s going to happen… And this is why publishers would never do this anymore. What would happen is crime readers would buy that book based upon the cover and the promises made by that cover. They would start to read it, and the minute people started acting magically, they would throw the book across the room.
They’d be like, “Hey. Nobody told me I had to suspend my disbelief to think that people can point at each other and blow each other’s heads off just with their fingers. You can’t do that. I hate this book, and how dare you tell me this is one thing and then deliver another.”
The reason why you have to tell them how much they have to suspend their disbelief… Because people will suspend their disbelief. They don’t have a problem doing it as long as they know what they’re in for. It’s like you want to surprise them but that’s a dirty trick.
If you give them a dirty trick, they’re going to be angry at you. If you say, “I’m going to give you one thing and actually I’m going to pull the rug out from you and say it’s a completely different thing,” then they’re going to get angry.
If you’re going to write a fantasy reality, you need to make it very clear very early in the story that it’s fantasy. Just to take that example, I talked about the crime novel. Jonathan Lethem actually wrote a fantastic crime novel called “Gun, with Occasional Music.” This was a story that featured animals. I think a kangaroo was the detective or something.
What the publisher did is his hardcover publisher didn’t really tell anybody that, and the hardcover didn’t do so well, because people went through it and they thought it was a hardboiled detective story and when they found out the lead character was a kangaroo, they’re like, “What is this?”
What’s interesting is I was at St. Martin’s press at the time and one of the parent companies is Tor, which is a great science fiction and fantasy publisher. Jonathan Lethem is a literary kind of guy. He was published by Random House or something, and the cover for the hardcover didn’t really tell anybody it was a fantasy hardboiled crime novel.
Tor is like, “We love this,” and they bought the paperback rights to it. It sold maybe 5000 copies in hardcover. They put a kangaroo on the cover, and it sold like crazy, because their audience is like, “Oh, it’s Tor, this is going to be fantasy. Oh, my god, this is great. It’s a send-up of private eye hardboiled detectives.”
It never works if you’re trying to pull one over on the reader and not tell them how to suspend their disbelief. But once they know, they’re in. If somebody wants to read Thomas Pynchon, they know what they’re in for.
That’s why you have to tell them. That’s why the reality genre is so important to make a decision. The other thing is you can’t go back and forth. You can’t move from factualism to fantasy to realism to absurdism, because forget it. That’s the mark of an amateur. That’s somebody saying, “Oh, I was just riffing, man. I thought it was cool the way the ice cube became a gun.” It’s like, “No, you can’t do that.”
Ice cubes can either become guns in that world for everyone, or they can’t.
Tim: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. As always, if you want more Story Grid in your life, go to StoryGrid.com, sign up for Shawn’s e-mail list, read his blog. You will not want to miss all of the content that he’s putting out. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, you can follow us on Twitter, and that is where you can ask your questions, give show feedback, and interact with Shawn and me outside of these episodes.
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As always, thanks for listening. We will see you next week for Episode 3 of The Story Grid Podcast.