Units Big and Small

Like a complex organism which grows from an individual cell into an organ which with other organs comprise a system which along with other systems comprise an individual being, so does a long form Story break down into its constituent beats, scenes, sequences, acts, and subplots.

For more on the units of Story, below is the transcript from last week’s Story Grid Podcast and for those of you who’d like to listen again you can here:

Tim: 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’m the struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works.

On the show with me is Shawn Coyne, the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book, “The Story Grid,” and an editor with 25+ years’ experience. He is taking all of my questions and all of my floundering around, trying to figure out how to do this writing thing, and helping to put me on the right path and, hopefully, along the way put you on the right path as well.

In this episode, we talk about the units of story. We talk about the beat, the scene, the sequence, the act, and the subplot, all the different units of the story and how they all work together to make sure that you write a story that works. This is one of the more complicated parts of the story grid for me. I get a little confused, but Shawn does a good job walking me through how each of these things work and which things I need to pay attention to before the writing and which things I need to pay attention to once I’m in editor mode and the manuscript is done. I think you’re going to learn a lot in this episode, so we’re going to jump right in and get started.

Shawn, I want to start this episode by going into a new part of the book. We just came through the five commandments of storytelling, and now it’s the units of the story. Talk a little bit about what the different units are first, and then I have a plethora of questions for you.

Shawn: Okay. The units of story is a way that I, as an editor, try to figure out the global tracking of the story. The units are pretty simple. There’s the beat. If anyone has ever taken an acting class, a beat is a moment in a scene where an event happens that makes one of the characters change their behavior or their action. These five units of storytelling are very similar to what we’ve been talking about.

The one thing that all of these units of storytelling have in common is that you to have those five commandments of storytelling within each one of the units. In a beat, you’re going to have an inciting incident to a beat. You’re going to have progressive complication to a beat; a crisis, a climax, and a resolution.

Now, beats are very, very small units, and they’re very much in the realm of the actors’ world. Actors create very, very dynamic beats that all add up to the sum total of a particular characterization. I don’t want to really go crazy about the beat right now. I think I mentioned last week that I could have done a beat-by-beat analysis of “The Silence of the Lambs,” but that’s really getting over-the-top compulsive about this stuff. So I refrained from doing that, but you absolutely could.

This speaks also to this concept of Russian dolls that I talk about all the time. The beat is the tiny, tiny, tiny, little baby inside the larger Russian doll. You could have anywhere from 1 to 4 to 20 beats in a particular scene. A scene is the next unit of story. Beats add up to a scene. The scene is really the primary unit of storytelling for a novelist, for a screenwriter, for a dramatist, for a short-story writer.

The scene is really what I think everybody should be concentrating 95% of their energy on. The reason is that if you can create very dynamic scenes, the rest of the units of storytelling that I’ll get to in a second almost take care of themselves, in that scenes add up to particular larger units of story. But if your scenes are really crystal clear and dynamic and terrific, the other things you tweak at the final stages of editing and they take care of themselves.

After the scene, the next unit of story is what’s called a sequence. A sequence is a series of scenes that add up to a larger active moment in your story. For instance, a sequence could be something like getting the job. Getting the job would be a sequence of a global story. You would perhaps have three to four scenes that would build to his climactic moment in a sequence where the lead character gets a job. You might have an interview scene. You might have a preparation or a second interview scene. Then you might have a scene where the lead character is tested as to whether or not they’re going to get a particular job. Those three scenes would add up to a larger unit called a sequence.

I do go into sequence, I think, very well in the book. I pick apart the movie version of Stephen King’s wonderful thriller, “Misery,” and show you exactly what a sequence is in a book. Maybe we can get to it a little bit later. I’ll have to refresh my memory about it.

After the sequence, you have the act. The act is really a very, very large moment in the story. It’s, “Wife leaves husband.” “Husband quits job.” These are the major moments in a particular story that really climactically move the story forward in a way that’s very large. Traditionally, a lot of professors and story experts talk about the three-act structure. The three-act structure is essentially the Aristotelian beginning/middle/end. I use the terms “beginning hook,” “middle build,” and “ending payoff.”

The thing about the act is that you can have more than three acts in your story. Your middle build may comprise three little mini-acts. Your beginning hook could be one act, and your ending payoff could be one act. You could have a five-act story. There are seven-act stories. There are any number of complications that you can come up with, in terms of acts. David Lean famously was a proponent of seven major story movements in his stories, and those would basically be seven acts.

After the act, you have something that integrates within the global story itself, and I call it the subplot. The subplot is a smaller story unit than the global story itself, but larger than an act. I don’t really want to get into multi-character mini-stories that all build together. Pulp Fiction is an example of that, as well as that Christmas movie, Love Actually, which has eight to ten mini-stories that all build up to a global story. But let me use that, since I’m on that topic, as an example of a subplot.

If you were to look at the movie Love Actually, which is a fun Christmas movie that is light-hearted fare but with some good stuff in it – I enjoyed it when I saw it – there are ten mini-stories or so that all add up to the global story, which is about finding love in a very difficult world today. One of those features Hugh Grant playing the Prime Minister of England, who falls in love with one of the women in his office. Then there are six or eight smaller little units of story that build up at the same time as the Hugh Grant story. I think there’s a story about someone falling in love with his best friend’s fiancé, played by Keira Knightley. It’s a fun story, especially at Christmastime. Then there’s a really nice bromance story featuring Bill Nighy.

Tim: I hated that movie.

Shawn: You have to be in the right mood. I think that says a lot about you.

Tim: I just didn’t like it for so many different reasons that are outside the scope of this show.

Shawn: Okay. Anyway, Love Actually is a series of subplots that build to a global story. Obviously, the largest unit of story you have is the global story.

Another example of subplot is in Star Wars. I’m not a huge Star Wars guy, but there are all those subunits of story within Star Wars. There’s the original trilogy of stories, and then there are the three prequels, and now they’re beginning three sequels to the original. From what I understand, there are at least nine bigger stories that you could consider to be subplots of a global story, which is the Star Wars universe.

The reason why I break down everything into units of story isn’t to confuse everybody. It’s actually to clarify things so that you can pinpoint those particular moments in your work that you need to focus on. Oftentimes, if your scenes are really tight and well-constructed, you might find, after you examine and go through your story grid rigmarole at the end of your first draft, that you’re not hitting a particular moment for an act strongly enough. You’ll find that scene that is the critical moment in your moment in your act, and you will tweak that scene to increase the stakes or whatever for that particular moment.

But if your scenes are really well-constructed, the editing and the work of the global, larger units is a lot easier than if you have a bunch of scenes that are really half-baked and don’t go anywhere. You can often get lost in the larger units of story when you’re real deep-down problems are scene to scene.

Always concentrate on your scenes. The harder you work on your scenes, the better your skillset will become with the larger units of story.

Tim: I get confused by some of this. The beats add up to a scene. I honestly don’t really know what a beat is yet. But you make it sound like that’s not something to focus on while you’re writing.

Shawn: No.

Tim: Then you have the sequence and the act. What is the difference between a sequence and an act?

Shawn: A sequence is a smaller unit than an act.

Tim: Let me back up and ask how you use these. I can sense the scene. When you’re writing your book, you’re writing these individuals scenes. I can wrap my head around that. But what is the point of paying attention to sequences or acts?

Shawn: It’s like throwing down those mile markers on your map. Let’s assume that you haven’t written a first draft. Let’s assume that you’re planning your work on writing your first draft. The reason why you want to think about sequences, acts, subplots, and global story elements is that they will become your Pittsburg; your Lincoln, Nebraska; your Sioux City, South Dakota. These are mile markers on your map.

We were talking last week about progressive complications and escalating stakes and things of that sort. They will help you do that before you start your scene work. For example, let’s say your lead character is a curmudgeon like the guy Jack Nicholson plays in As Good as it Gets.

Tim: I love that movie.

Shawn: Good. There’s another one, “The Accidental Tourist.” William Hurt in the film plays the lead character. It’s a terrific novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s by Anne Tyler. She is one of those people who critics call literary, but you and I call a great storyteller. “The Accidental Tourist” is about this man who loses his wife at the very beginning of the story because they’ve lost their child. It’s the beginning of the story, and the child has died. The husband and the wife are so filled with grief that they can’t keep it together, so the wife decides to leave the husband. She leaves the husband with the dog. He doesn’t really like the dog, but he is stuck with the dog.

The climax of one of the sequences early on is that the lead character falls off of a ladder and breaks his arm or leg. So the buildup to that moment, to that sequence, would be you’re trying to progressively complicate the lead character’s life. Now, the lead character is one of these people has systems for everything. He is obsessive-compulsive. He has filed away his grief in the back of his mind, and he is trying to live his life day by day, one task at a time.

Anne Tyler was brilliant in that she progressively complicated his life by giving him a dog. Dogs aren’t going to do things in the way that human beings want them to. They just act and behave in the way that they want to behave. Then she also gave him this handicap where he breaks his leg trying to find some sort of toy for the dog.

A sequence to think about would be when Anne Tyler was writing this book, she might have said to herself, “I want to get my lead character at the beginning of this story to be emotionally cut off. He is emotionally sterile. By the end of my story, I want him to be emotionally vulnerable. I want him to be back in the world, not healed from his grief, but prepared to take a chance on love again. He has basically given up his search for love.” She was probably sitting in her writer’s room, thinking, “Okay. I know this sort of guy. How am I going to do this?”

It’s funny because a couple weeks ago we talked about narrative device, and what Anne Tyler decided to, which was a brilliant decision for this narrative device, was to make this lead character a travel writer. And not just any travel writer. He is an American travel writer. He makes his living by writing travel stories for Americans so that they never have to experience the culture that they have to go to.

For example, if he has to go to France, he writes about how to go to France and find the local McDonald’s; how to avoid all of the things that are unique and precious and different about other cultures. That’s why the book is called “The Accidental Tourist.” So the narrative device in the book is you get some of these columns within the storytelling that describe the kind of person he is through the way he writes travel stories.

Anne Tyler had to figure out a lot of things. Part of the sequences she thought of were, “Before this story starts, I want to bring this man to the point of complete emotional loss. I’m going to start this story with the death of his beloved son. Then I’m going to complicate things even further by having his wife leave him because he is incapable of showing any emotional reactions to it.

So the mile markers that she would set out were: How do I do the opening scene? How do I create the tension that will show exactly what kind of man this is? The way she does it is brilliant. I believe the husband and the wife are coming back from some sort of vacation. They’re driving in the car, and there’s a rainstorm. The lead character is driving the car and the wife wants him to pull over because the rain is getting almost dangerous. But he is refusing to let the rain stop him. So we’re in this car with these two characters and we discover who they are very quickly by their reactions to the danger of the weather conditions. At the end of the scene, she basically says to him, “I can’t be married to you anymore.” He stoically moves forward. The next scene is he is all alone in the house now.

Anyway, the reason why I’m telling you this is that when Anne Tyler started to think about this story, she had to think about the big moments in the story. She had to say to herself, “I have to get this guy romantically involved with somebody. He has to meet somebody who will force him to open up his heart again.” She probably wrote down: “Climax of Act One: Lead character meets woman who will change his life.”

Since she knows this is going to be a love story, she knows the genre conventions of love stories and she is going to say to herself, “The end of my middle build, or probably the climax of my middle build, will be the two characters fall in love and they express love for each other. The climax of my middle build will be they break up.” In a love story, the people have to come together. There has to be some sort of tension and conflict that breaks them apart. Then the climax of the story is they come back together or they don’t. That’s basically a love story.

Tim: We have the acts, which are the major things. We have the sequences, which are the series of events that get us to the act. The scenes are the individual scenes of that sequence.

Shawn: Exactly. In the example I was talking about, our lead character meets the woman. What Anne Tyler did is the dog end up being a menace, so the lead character is forced to get the dog lessons to get his temperament under control. He has to take the dog to a dog trainer, and guess what? The dog trainer is this very charismatic but strange woman who will become the love interest.

So Anne Tyler was asking herself, “How do I get a really interesting love interest? I’m going to have to have a sequence made up of scenes that get my lead character to this dog trainer. So the dog has to bite somebody in the neighborhood. The lead character has to deal with that conflict, and then the lead character has to deal with the fact that he is going to have to get this dog lessons in behavior, or they’re going to euthanize the dog.”

He has to make a choice. “I could have my dog killed and this problem will be over for me, or I can go get him some training.” That’s a beautiful moment because that reveals to the reader and the viewer that this guy has the capacity for love. He didn’t just have this dog killed. He went and he got the training lessons. Then he finds this strange woman. I believe her name is Muriel Pritchett, which is one of those great names that authors can come up with. It’s very Dickensian. And he falls in love with her. That’s the end of Act One.

Anne Tyler, when she was writing the book, didn’t just start the book and say, “Okay, I’m going to start the book in this rainstorm in the car and see where it goes.” I doubt she did that. I doubt she just sat down and had a thought about two people in a car during a rainstorm and just said, “Oh, what if I made their child die?” I think she had a greater plan than just winging it from a terrific scene in a car.

That’s why you need to know the units of story. That’s why you need to know what acts are for, what sequences are for, and what subplots are for. You want to lay down these signposts for yourself before you begin your work so that you know, “I need to get to the dog trainer.” It’s like Name That Tune. How many scenes is it going to take me to get to that dog trainer that are interesting and will not bore the hell out of my audience? Can I do it in three scenes? Can I do it in two? Maybe I could do it in one. Who knows?

I think she ends up doing it in maybe two or three scenes, which will be a sequence that gets us from the lead character to the dog trainer. That is a note that she would have on her outline that says to her, “Get protagonist to dog trainer.” She might not solve that problem when she is laying out her outline, but she is going to know the major movements in her story before she constructs it.

Tim: So you have your beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff. How do acts interact with those three things?

Shawn: Here’s what I do with acts. I don’t worry about acts. The reason why I talk about acts in the book is because it’s nomenclature that we’re all familiar with. If you worry about acts all the time, I think it’s a waste of time.

I think there are three primary things you have to worry about, and those are the beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff. Within those three big, major movements of your story, you can have as many acts or sequences as you wish. I highly recommend that a quarter of your story be your beginning hook, 50% be your middle build, and a quarter be the ending payoff of your story. That’s just based upon analyzing stories and story gurus for 25 years. That seems to be a structure that people enjoy and are used to. They like the rhythm of it. It’s in our DNA. So 25% of your story should be the beginning hook, 50% should be your middle build, and 25% should be your ending payoff.

Within that opening beginning hook – I think we talked about the math a few weeks ago – you have to play with somewhere between 8-13 scenes. Within those 8-13 scenes, you may have two or three sequences. You would have a bunch of scenes that lead and build to a sequence that goes to a very major movement. The climax of your beginning hook should be surprising and interesting enough to propel you into the middle build. It’s almost like you take a breather at the beginning of the middle build.

Let’s talk about Dead Calm or even The Martian. When we talk about The Martian, there’s the climax where Mark Watney almost accidentally blows himself up while he is trying to make water to grow his potatoes. That climactic moment is the end of the beginning hook of The Martian. Then it transitions right into the beginning of the middle build, which is, “Hey, we’re back on earth and we’re at NASA.” The NASA scientists are dealing with the fact that they abandoned a guy on Mars. We get this explosive moment – literally, an explosive moment – at the end of the beginning hook. Andy Weir did that. Then that transitions into the beginning inciting incident of the middle build, which is what’s going on, on Earth.

Tim: I’m trying to turn this into actual useful things. They’re all useful. If I’m planning out my story and I use the foolscap, and I still have your foolscap here from The Martian. Like you just said, the end of the beginning of the hook is the explosion, and then the inciting incident of the middle build is the fact that they realize that Mark Watney is still alive on Mars. Then that moves into all of that. Then you have the Rich Purnell maneuver as the climax. So there’s all this space between those two things.

Once you have that down in your foolscap, “These are the five pieces of the three different parts of the book,” is that when you start saying, “What kind of sequences am I going to have to fill in?”

Shawn: Yes, you nailed it. That’s exactly right.

Tim: At this point, would you call what’s happening on Earth, what’s happening with Mark Watney on Mars, and then what’s happening with the crew still on the Hermes three different subplots?

Shawn: Yeah, I would say so. They’re all three different settings. They’re all three different storylines. Yeah, those are all three subplots. Now, the global plot is of course the Watney story. Are we going to get him home? I would say Watney is the global story because he is the protagonist of the story, even though he doesn’t change. I’ll say it again. Your protagonist does not have to change in an action film. But you better have some great action and some great details to propel the story like Andy Weir did, or it’s going to get boring very quickly.

What drives The Martian are really the action sequences and the deep, scientific, hard science-fiction elements that he puts in the storytelling.

Tim: So a sequence of The Martian would be when he did his first test drive out to pick up that satellite?

Shawn: Exactly.

Tim: That would be a sequence. We’re looking at the fact that we need to get from Watney survives the explosion to Watney heads out. The ending payoff is when he travels the 3,000 kilometers to get to the launch site. Then we basically backfill it with sequences to get us to that point, and then we go into those sequences and say, “How many scenes am I going to need to tell this story?”

Shawn: Exactly. The thing about action movies is that they’re built on sequences. They’re very easy to identify in an action film. What’s wonderful about sequences is that they’re little units of story that have a beginning, middle, and end, and they have a payoff. The payoffs are those sequences that you were talking about in The Martian, will Watney figure out how to grow his potatoes? That has a beginning, middle, and end, that sequence itself. Will Watney figure out how to communicate with Earth? That’s a sequence.

Then there’s a sequence back on Earth. Will the Jet Propulsion Lab be able to build out a rocket in time to fill it with provisions to get to Mars on time? That’s a sequence.

Tim: This is an interesting way to look because, a lot of what I’ve read on how to plot out your story, I feel like this sequence step is an extra step that’s not usually in there. Usually it’s, “Figure out the beginning, middle, and end of your story, and then fill it in with all your scenes,” which I have gotten snarled in the couple times I’ve tried to do that. It’s like all of a sudden I’m going from this general idea of where the story is going to trying to map up 60 – or in my case, since I write 100-word scenes – 120 scenes or whatever.

I’m thinking that this is a nicer, slower pace to that planning. I don’t have to plan out my scenes yet. I just have to figure out a loose structure of the different things that are going to get me from point A to point B.

Shawn: Exactly. I’m going to Los Angeles. My first stop is going to be Pittsburgh. I’m going to sleep in Pittsburgh, and then the next stop is going to be Lincoln, Nebraska.

Tim: If you were starting in New York and going to LA, and we say, “We’re going to stop in Chicago,” and we know we’re going to do that, that allows us back up and say, “Now we’re going to go through Pittsburgh, go through another city, and get to Chicago.”

Shawn: Right. What interstates are we going to use?

Tim: Yeah. Then we get down to what interstates we’re going to use and where we’re going to stop.

Shawn: Right. Where am I going to get gas? These are all great metaphors to look at your global story. Do you remember that I mentioned a little while ago that old TV show called Name that Tune? I remember this thing from when I was a kid. You’re probably way too young for this show.

Tim: I’m familiar with it. I actually grew up watching The Dick Van Dyke Show and Taxi. All I watched was Nick at Nite all the time. I’m familiar with the shows of your old generation.

Shawn: Okay. Good. In Name That Tune, there are two contestants, and there’s another contestant who’s in a soundproof room. They play a song for these two contestants. It’s something like “Happy Birthday to You.” Then they start competing. One says, “I can name that tune in five notes,” and the other one says, “Four notes.” Then they’d go down and they’ll do the name that tune and play however many notes. It usually is down to three notes. You need three notes to figure out every song. I would always start with an even number so you could always go down.

This is the way you should think about your scenes. How can you name that sequence in the fewest number of scenes? You don’t want a scene where Mark Watney communicates with Earth to ask them how you make hydrazine or how you burn hydrazine. You want him to know that intuitively so you don’t have to burn that scene in order to make that sequence work.

The reason why there are sequences and acts and major movements are in your story, there are ways to get from A to C and you want to figure out B and, from A to B, you want to go on the fewest legs as possible. You want to do the fewest scenes possible to get to that place.

Tim: This reminds me of something else. In The Martian, there were these couple moments where he really builds up this mystery. He starts driving, but he doesn’t tell you where he is driving yet. All the people back at NASA are freaking out, wondering where he is going. It builds and builds and builds, and then you realize he is going to get the satellite that crashed.

There are a couple of those moments. Most of it, he’s like, “I need to make water. Here’s how I’m going to make water.” Then there are these moments where he builds up the tension. It reminded me of this author named Joe Konrath, who has written a ton about writing. He is a big self-publishing guy.

I remember him talking about doing that kind of stuff on purpose. He says, “For instance, if you have a scene where the people are getting in a truck to go somewhere, have them put a box in the backseat. But don’t tell anybody what the box is. Then mention the box a couple more times, and all of a sudden the box is a crux of the story.”

Shawn: What you’re talking about is building narrative drive.

Tim: I like that you have names for all of these things.

Shawn: Well, this is the thing: I had to create a language and a way of speaking about this stuff so that when I would communicate with writers and try to explain to them what was wrong with their manuscripts, I couldn’t just say, “Oh, I just didn’t find it very suspenseful.” How do you act on a comment like that if you’re a writer? Over my career, I learned and I made up these terms that I would share with the writers that I was working with so we could have a common language. So when I’d say, “I think your narrative drive is flagging here,” they would understand what I mean.

I wrote a piece for Steven Pressfield’s website, StevenPressfield.com, called “Narrative Drive,” which I would recommend everybody read.

Shawn: All right. I’ll put in the show notes at StoryGrid.com/podcast.

Tim: Good. There are three ways about how to build narrative drive, in a way. There’s mystery, there’s dramatic irony, and there’s suspense. I won’t go into them, but it’s all about how much the reader knows, how much your characters know, and how much you share with the reader. Do you want your reader to have more information than the characters on the page? If you do, that’s called dramatic irony. Do you want them to have the same amount of information at the same time? That’s suspense. Or do you want the characters on the page to know more than your reader? That’s mystery. These are things to rely on while you’re crafting scenes.

When you’re thinking about major movements, you could say to yourself, “Well, how do I make it interesting that my lead character’s brother is actually the murderer?” Part of what you would do is figure out how you could make that revelation in your story the most effective. “Do I let the reader know that information before it’s revealed to the people in the story?”

This happens a lot in those great slasher movies. The audience learns before the people in the movie world that the guy is the psychopath. Then the psychopath says, “Hey, Jim. Why don’t you come on in for a cup of coffee? I just made a pot of coffee.” Then the guy comes in –

Tim: No! No! Don’t go!

Shawn: Yeah. Hitchcock was the master of it.

Tim: I used to watch Hitchcock Presents all the time.

Shawn: These are all wonderful little tricks that aren’t that difficult, but you need to have a plan. You need to, as a writer, have the fun to create these little moments in your story through your scenes. These energize your scenes in ways that are just terrific. It makes the narrative drive.

Tim: Are any of these better or easier, of the three you mentioned? If you say to an author, “This is flagging a little bit. You need more narrative drive,” do you have a recommendation usually of, “Do this”?

Shawn: It’s story to story. If your story is not working fundamentally, meaning you haven’t done your obligatory scenes, you haven’t lived up to the conventions of the genre that you want to be writing in, you have go-nowhere scenes, and you’re just writing exposition, if your story doesn’t work, no, I’m not going to get into the details of narrative drive with you. You need to learn fundamental storytelling principles before we get into that.

When I worked with Robert Crais years ago, I could have that conversation with him very early on and say, “Hey, what about that thing? How about a little dramatic irony in Act Three?” He would say, “Oh my gosh! That’s a great idea! Yeah, I didn’t think of that.” You can start to speak in shorthand once you become a professional in the story skillset. Then you start tweaking the carburetor. I’m mixing all of my metaphors, but if a story is an engine and it turns over and it works, that’s the first thing. You want to make sure your engine is going to turn on to drive your car.

Now, for all those engine nuts out, they also know that some engines are very efficient and some are terrible. You can tweak them. You tweak them with the carburetor, the fuel injection, and all that stuff. I’m not a car guy. There are a million different little tricks that you can use to make that engine hum and to convert more power to the drive train. But you need to have the engine start first.

When we’re talking about the units of story, when we’re talking about the five commandments of storytelling, when we’re talking about the beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff, we’re talking about the engine block, the starter key, the fuel injection system. We’re talking about the major building blocks of your story’s engine. We need to get you to learn how to make an engine that will turn over and run before we can tweak it out so that you’re winning the Indy 500.

Tim: It’s something that you pause on. With your book, there are both sides. There’s before you write and then after you write. So this would be more of a decision once you’re going back through and tweaking everything to make it perfect, is where you’d have discussions about narrative drive.

Shawn: Yes, absolutely. Suggestions that I’ve made in the past to people would be, “Hey, why don’t you tweak that scene?” We did this at the very beginning of your story with the guys on the boat. “Instead of it being this, let’s let the reader know that there’s a pirate ship on the way, and these characters don’t know.” That’s a way of doing dramatic irony, where the reader knows more than the crew. Or the crew knows that one of the guys is deathly ill, but they don’t want to tell the captain because if the captain finds out, then they’ll have to turn around and go back. That’s the guy with the bends.

All these little things you can tweak and trick out after you have your scene where your protagonist takes the dog to the dog trainer. You need to have those mile markers in place before you can trick out your scenes. I always say to write a bad scene just to get your sequences down. Then you can tweak your scenes. You can rip some out that you don’t need. You can steal some bits from one that isn’t working and put them in another, and do a mystery scene as opposed to a suspense scene as opposed to a dramatically ironic scene, just to mix up your narrative drive. You can end with cliffhangers. There are a million different combinations. How many notes are there in a scale to create music? There aren’t that many. 12 notes? I don’t know. It’s the same thing with storytelling.

But since we’re really focusing on the units of story now, the units of story are really important. I’m going to say it again. You have to nail your scenes, but you need to know your big, big moments in your story, and then you need to know your little, medium moments that will get you to your big moments. Those little, medium moments are usually the climaxes of sequences.

Tim: I want to go back and talk about the beat. Does every scene need to have a beat in it? How do I even know a beat has happened?

Shawn: I think it’s best, especially for writers who are starting out, to not worry about beats, because you are going to write beats intuitively. If you just follow the rules of the five commandments of storytelling and know that you need an inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution, all of the beats are going to take care of themselves. If you have those five things in your scene, those beats are going to be in there, and you won’t even know it. But I would be able to walk you through your beats after the fact.

A beat usually happens in dialogue. Somebody says, “My brother owns a Pontiac Firebird,” and somebody else might say, “That’s not true. It’s a Camaro.” Those two things are a beat. Somebody has contradicted somebody else, introducing conflict, which is an inciting incident, and all in a very precise moment in the actual scene.

Because I was an actor, I know what a beat is because if you don’t know what a beat is when you’re an actor, you’re a terrible actor. Beats are those things that we watch when we watch a movie and see a great actor performs. He turns a certain way or he shrugs, or she stifles a laugh. We know exactly what she is communicating as an actress when she stifles a laugh when somebody is trying to tell her that he loves her.

If you see on camera somebody saying to somebody, “I love you. Will you marry me?” and you see out of the corner of your eye that the actress is stifling a laugh, that’s a beat. You know something has dramatically changed. If the character sees that the person is stifling a laugh when he has proposed to her, that’s a beat that could also be the climax of an entire global story. But it’s also a beat. Do you know what I’m saying?

Tim: I think so. It makes me feel better. Whenever you tell me to do something intuitively, or that I will do something intuitively, I start to get stressed out. I feel like when we say we do something intuitively, all that means is we know it so well that we don’t think about it. I guess that you’re saying to trust the fact that I’ve been so indoctrinated in stories more than the fact that I haven’t written much.

Shawn: That’s correct. Here’s an analogy. When I say to you, “You intuitively know how to walk across the room,” you say, “Yeah, sure,” because if you have the intention in your brain of, “I’m going to go the kitchen and get a cup of coffee,” before you know it, you’re in the kitchen and you’re pouring a cup of coffee. You’re not thinking about how you’ve adjusted the mass of your body such that you pushed it from the bottom to the top of your legs and then propelled yourself through pushing against the inanimate floor to get to the kitchen. That’s what storytelling is.

This is why everybody thinks, “Oh man, if I just had a weekend, I could bang out a great script,” because we all know intuitively what storytelling is. The difference is that an amateur knows how to walk, perhaps – maybe they know how to tell a good little anecdote in a bar or to their friend over coffee – but they can’t run like Usain Bolt. A great writer can run like Usain Bolt with a pen. You can’t become Usain Bolt if you’re an amateur. But you do know how to walk. You do know how to run. But will you be Usain Bolt? Probably not.

When I say you do something intuitively, you need to trust that you know how to walk and you know how to talk. Those are intuitive things in your life. You also know how to tell a story intuitively. You’ve been learning stories since you were a baby. This is how we communicate. This is how we make friends. This is how we make enemies.

Every day, there are millions of beats that occur in your everyday life. Your son will ask, “Dad, will you take me to McDonald’s?” and you’ll say, “No, I’m not taking you to McDonald’s.” There’s conflict there, and then he gets upset, and then you don’t want to make him upset, so you do something else. You’re constantly changing your actions based upon beats that happen in your own life. When you’re writing and you’re writing a scene, you would intuitively put beats within that scene. Whether or not they’re the best choices is another question. You can always tweak them.

What I’m saying is, don’t worry about the beats. The beats are like draft nine. They’re like a final run. You go through your manuscript and say, “Ah, that’s a little flat. Let me change that little thing so that it’s not so flat.”

Shawn: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. As always, if you would like more Story Grid stuff, you can find that at StoryGrid.com. Make sure you sign up for Shawn’s e-mail newsletter. You can see all the past episodes of this podcast, and of course, Shawn has lots and lots of amazing content there to help you become a better writer.

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That’s it for us here at The Story Grid Podcast. We will see you next week.


7 comments on “Units Big and Small

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    This is great stuff – sort of a “Story Grid for Dummies” (at least where I’m concerned). After I listen to these podcasts, and to Shawn’s answers to all of Tim’s questions, I go back and reread that section of The Story Grid. The water is always clearer – thanks so much for these!

  2. Jill says:

    it’s like fractals!!!

  3. Kev Gan says:

    Hi Tim and Shawn, many thanks for this latest episode. I’m finding this series incredibly helpful – almost like being a fly on the wall on meetings between writer and editor.

    Shawn, I just had a question regarding the ‘scene’ (not sure if this is the best place to post this but here goes). Would you consider a short story/short film screenplay to essentially be a standalone scene? That’s what it appears to be to me…with all five elements from Inciting Incident through to Resolution. If a novel or a feature length screenplay is a global story consisting of a number of scenes, would a short story/short film then be a global story all in one scene?

    Many thanks,


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Kev,
      It depends. There’s a famous Alfred Hitchcock movie called ROPE which is shot like one long scene, but obviously is a feature length movie. A short story can be a sequence of scenes or an act, and a short short story could be a single scene. It’s fun to think about economy. Almost like NAME THAT TUNE…in how small a series of Story units can you tell the story? Here’s a famous six word Hemingway novel… FOR SALE: BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN. That gave you chills, right? HEMINGWAY was the king of NAME THAT TUNE NOVELS. OLD MAN AND THE SEA…am I right?
      Hope that helps

      1. Kev Gan says:

        Hi Shawn,
        That does help, thanks so much.
        The economy aspect is very interesting; I’ve been reading ‘On Directing Film’ by David Mamet (which I would recommend to everyone) and he mentions that a good writer gets better only by learning to cut out the ornamental, the narrative and everything else, and what remains then is the story. I suppose that’s where the discipline comes in.
        Thanks again for your help,

  4. I’m really appreciating these transcripts, as I’m not really a podcast guy — just wanted to let you know!

  5. Marvelous revelation regarding sequences. One of my weak spots.

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