This week’s Podcast episode concerns editing a scene after it “works.” Should you be satisfied with your first working story unit? Or should you go deeper and challenge yourself to explore unknown creative territory?
To listen, click the play button below, or read the transcript that follows.
[0:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me soon is Shawn Coyne. He is the author of the book, Story Grid and the creator of the Story Grid System and he is the editor with 25 plus years’ experience and he’s trying to help me avoid all the common pitfalls and mistakes that new writers make.
One of my favorite things about the advice that Shawn gives is it’s always so practical and this episode is packed full of practical advice. Once again, I’ve written a scene, I send it to Shawn and he critics and walks me through and along the way, he gives so many specific things that writers can do to make their scenes better. So you’re going to love this episode.
I do want to mention here, I recorded this when I was still a little sick. If you’d remember, I lost my voice so my voice in this episode isn’t quite as silky smooth as you are currently hearing so bear with us, but I know you’re going to love the content and so we’re going to jump right in and get started.
[0:01:04] TG: Okay Shawn, so I sent you another first scene of a book I’m working on. I’d like to just hear your initial thoughts on it.
[0:01:14] SC: Okay, well it’s kind of dependent of course. My initial thoughts about it is that it has all those things that you need in a scene. It has the five commandments pretty much taken care off. It’s all well delineated. So it’s pretty obvious how to figure it out. Any layman I think would be able to pull out the inciting incidents, some progressive complications, the crisis question, the climax and the resolution.
So as a scene, it absolutely works. Now, just to get a little bit deeper into it, the next question you want to ask yourself is, well, this is a question that you want to start with and after you have write the scene, you want to go back to it and that is, “What is the purpose of this scene?” You know like when we talked about the mathematics of storytelling and we have sort of like 15 must have scenes in a story that cover some of the major elements in the beginning hook, middle build and ending pay off of your story.
If you’re thinking in those terms, then for instance this could be, this scene that you sent me, it could be the in sighting incident of the entire global story in the beginning hook of your novel. I’m suspecting that that might be possible here. Is that what you’re thinking?
[0:02:48] TG: Yes, so in the scene, I have the character Brian Black, he goes to help this guy on the side of the road and he ends up getting stabbed and then thrown into a trashcan and then he dies at the end of the scene.
[0:03:05] SC: Yes.
[0:03:06] TG: And so, what I was planning on doing with this is the next — so that would be the opening scene of the book and then remember we talked about it a couple of weeks ago, this is why I asked you this a couple of weeks ago was, starting with the scene that’s from the middle of the book and then backing up.
[0:03:25] SC: Right.
[0:03:26] TG: And so my plan was the next scene to say like two days earlier and it opens with him alive and then we’re building to him dying basically, because the whole thing is I want to write this series like a super hero series and the whole thing is that at the point that he dies in the opening scene, he doesn’t know it yet but he can’t die.
He dies and then he heals and comes back to life, and so the whole idea is I open with him dying and then I build up to him to that scene and then the rest of the story is him basically coming back and then there’s a final kind of payoff where he takes care of the person that came after him.
[0:04:13] SC: Okay, you know that’s funny because I suspected this was sort of a superhero story based upon kind of the feel of the storytelling. So globally what I would say to you is that you hit your marks so that the first scene of your novel is — what I always talk about is that when you write a story, you’re making a promise to a reader from the very start.
That promise is saying, “By the way I am writing this, I am indicating to you what kind of story you’re going to get here,” and so after reading this first introductory scene, whether you knew it or not and refrain from using the word intuitive, but whether you knew it or not, you were writing in the conventions and sort of sensibility of a superhero story.
[0:05:20] TG: Why did you think that?
[0:05:24] SC: Well, a couple of things; superhero action stories are very externally driven so that the reader is sucked in by the immediate action involved and the other element was, it seemed very and I don’t mean this as an insult but it was sort of cartoony in that the lead two characters you identified very quickly, you gave them names and you set up a very simple straightforward scene that is familiar.
It’s a trope of sorts in which a character cries out for help from another character. Now we’ve seen this scene, readers like myself who have read a zillion things, I’ve seen this scene set up and paid off a number of times before and that’s okay. It’s okay to use something that’s been done before and just specifically, the way you set this up is psychologically in behavior when somebody cries for help and you are the only person who hears the cry, psychologically through behavioral theory, you are more inclined to help than if you were in a crowd.
[0:07:00] TG: Yeah, that’s from a Malcolm Gladwell book, I remember reading that in one of his.
[0:07:04] SC: Yeah, exactly. So that’s what you did here. You set up a situation where there is sort of a deserted street, a character cries out to somebody else to ask them for help, “Hey buddy, can you lend me a hand here,” and this is exactly what Thomas Harris did in The Silence of the Lambs too where Jame Gumb who end up being Buffalo Bill, the serial killer, is loading some furniture into the back of his van.
[0:07:31] TG: Right, yeah.
[0:07:33] SC: And the woman, Catherine Martin, who he ends up abducting is all alone and Jame Gumb is really smart so what he does is he puts a fake cast on his arm so it appears that he has a broken arm and he’s got this arm chair and he can’t seem to manipulate it enough into the back of the van. So he cries out to her — he doesn’t even cry out to her, he just makes such a scene of him fumbling with it that she can’t help herself.
So she goes over to lend a hand and then he says, “Oh, thank you so much. If you could just jump into the van and pull it in through the back, that would be very helpful,” and then of course she does and then he drugs her and puts her under and kidnaps her. So the scene that you set up is similar to that and that you have a character who’s crying out for help to help change a tire on his bike. So the other character is thinking to himself — and I like the way this progressed.
The Ryan character, you used free and direct style so that you go into his head and we can hear his thoughts as he’s contemplating whether or not to help or not. So the inciting incident of your scene is the following: A character named Rob cries out for help from a dark alley saying, “Hey buddy, can you help me? My bike is broken and I need help.” So then it switches that’s the inciting incident and so the other character, the protagonist, Ryan, hears the cry and he starts to undergo some internal progressive complications.
And he says to himself, “Geez, it’s very dark out here. I’m not really sure if I could get hurt here but then again, my dad is always the kind of guy who goes and lends a hand,” and so that develops the crisis of the scene which is, “Do I help this guy and if I do, I could get hurt,” and the other side is, “If I don’t help him, then I won’t live up to the expectations of my father and the way my father brought me up.” So what you have here Tim is a really nice solid structural scene that the reader can attach to pretty quickly because we all have those internal thoughts.
Okay, so that’s the crisis question and the climax of the scene is when Ryan decides to help. So he makes the choice to help the man in need, which is an active choice that tells us a lot about Ryan. Ryan is going to overcome his fear, his fear of getting hurt and go and help. So you don’t have to say that Ryan Black is the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off of his back, because that’s meaningless. But to have him actively make a choice that aids another person is very clear and you don’t have to use any exposition to say what kind of person this guy is because his action speaks for himself.
So this is nice, you’ve got a nice thing going here. So then from that point forward, your scene becomes the drama of the action which is, “How did the bad guy, Rob, going to hurt the good guy, Ryan?” And you pulled it off pretty well. He stabs him and he does some really nasty things to him and he ends up in a garbage truck and the scene, the resolution of the entire scene is that, it appears as if Ryan has been killed. Now with that said, so your scene works.
[0:11:19] TG: Okay, I feel like you’re building up towards a big but though.
[0:11:23] SC: No, I’m not. It’s not a big but, but it’s something to keep in mind and this is the process. The first thing that you need to do is to create a working scene and you have that. So you’re like 80% there. Now that you know that you know how to write a working scene though, you have to think about a further choices and about what this scene is going to do for you in the long run of our global story.
So with that in mind, I think you need to think about a couple of things. The first thing is that, anyone familiar with the superhero genre is going to expect that there would be a moment where the superhero, their special talent comes to the fore. It’s sort of the truth of the character’s special gift becomes clear.
So if your story were to be published, the cover would have some sort of indication to the reader that this is a superhero story. So if you led your story with this very first scene, the expectations of the reader when they come to this first scene are going to be, “Oh man, this is great. This is going to be a superhero story,” and then this first scene that you deliver is going to meet their expectations but it’s not necessarily going to surprise them.
So what you need to think about is how can I meet their expectations but surprise them too? So at the end of this scene, anybody familiar with superhero storytelling will kind of know, “Oh wow, I wonder what he’s going to do next? Maybe he’s going to do the flashback that leads up to the point where he supposedly dies.” Because if your lead character dies in the very first scene of the novel and it’s a superhero story, nine times out of ten, ten times out of ten, the reader knows that he’s really not dead.
He’s really going to come back alive, something special about this guy is going to reveal itself and show that he was able to overcome this supposed death. So you may have written yourself into almost a corner here with this opening scene because from this point forward the reader, and your reader is the very first people who are going to read this book are going to be genre fans. They’re going to be huge superhero genre fans. So that is your first audience. If you’re a mystery writer, your first audience are going to be people who read a zillion mysteries and know every trick in the book.
[0:14:27] TG: Right.
[0:14:28] SC: So you really need to think about your reader at this point and say to yourself, “Will my reader be surprised that my lead character Ryan actually lives?” Or, “Is there a way to do a scene that accomplishes the same thing but leaves a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty in the reader’s mind that will propel them to the next chapter?” Because the next chapter if it’s two days earlier, what could happen and I’m not saying this would happen.
But what could happen would be, the real genre superhero fan will read the next chapter and he or she will actually turn the page and will say, “Two days later,” and then the next page will be the next scene and immediately, they’re going to say to themselves, “Okay, I know what’s going to happen now. Now, I’m going to get all the back story about how this led up to this point.”
“Do I really want to read this? Or I already kind of know that this is going to be, let me think. Let me think now, well maybe the lead character sort of a nerdy guy who discovers strange things happening to him leading up to the point where he gets into a little bit of trouble and this mysterious person that wants him dead, he somehow insults him and then that guy hires the Rob character to murder him to get him out of his way and he discovers that he’s immortal.”
[0:16:06] TG: Okay?
[0:16:08] SC: I’m just saying. I’m just saying, it’s possible that they could think that.
[0:16:13] TG: Okay? Yeah, that’s pretty accurate.
[0:16:18] SC: So let me just back up one major, major back up here and this is the point where once you reach a certain level of craft and understanding, now you’ve got to sort of jump over the next chasm and you’ve developed to the point where you understand the structure of the scene and you wrote a very solid working scene.
[0:16:42] TG: Okay, so my jump from the first scene we went over, ten episodes ago or whatever to this is a legitimate stride forward?
[0:16:52] SC: Oh absolutely, without a doubt.
[0:16:53] TG: Okay.
[0:16:54] SC: Without a doubt. The previous scene didn’t have any of these things. It was just a bunch of people talking, there was no clear lead character, there was no real active choice, it was very fuzzy, we didn’t even know what kind of genre we were working in. And this scene, we know what the genre is, I knew what it was immediately and I’m not even a really major superhero fan but I know the form, I know the genre.
So it’s very clear that you made a very large jump. You are being very, very clear and specific in your writing now. Now comes the time where you say to yourself, “Okay, I know how to write a scene. I’ve got a draft here. Is this scene doing the thing that I want it to do? Has this scene done its job?” And the job of the very first scene in a novel is to get the reader to not know what the hell is happening and is so overwhelmed with curiosity that they can’t help but turn the page to the next scene.
What I fear with this first scene that you’ve written is that the reader, a really smart woman or man who’s read a lot of superhero books will immediately know, “I know what’s going on here. This guy is not dead.”
[0:18:23] TG: What if he doesn’t die at the end of the scene? What if it’s the same scene but I stop short like when he hears the truck coming and he said, “That’s my cue,” and then it ends somewhere around there so you don’t really know what the resolution of that particular scene is. Or am I just knit picking now when I should just throw it out and come up with something?
[0:18:44] SC: No. I’m not saying to throw it out. I think there’s a way to tweak this that could defy genre conventions but still be surprising and live within the arena. Okay so what do I mean by that? I think you’re playing with a scene that’s familiar, so why don’t you use that to your advantage?
So everybody who’s ever read a lot of these thrillers or whatever or superhero stories, they’re familiar with the damsel in distress call and the hero goes to help, right? And what they’re expecting is for the hero to be duped by the bad guy who is luring them into their trap. That’s what they expect and that’s what you delivered here.
[0:19:34] TG: Okay.
[0:19:35] SC: Okay.
[0:19:36] TG: Which is the problem.
[0:19:37] SC: I think it’s a problem, but the setup is okay if you tweak it. If you tweak it to the point of it being surprising. So if you play with the convention and your primary readers are going to know what the scene is all about. So why don’t you tweak it and twist it and give it a 180? So what I mean by that is, instead of the lead character going into a scene knowing that he’s going to get hurt, maybe set it up the exact same way that you have.
But instead of this Rob guy getting the better of Ryan, when Ryan goes to hold those clips and Rob goes to go to get his knife to stab him in the back, Ryan obviously knows what’s going to happen. He’s prepared himself for this, he doesn’t tell the reader this and he turns the tables on Rob, so that he twirls around and he knows he’s got a certain — let’s assume that Ryan, I’m just making this up as I go.
Okay let’s assume that Ryan understands his special gift and he knows that he’s not going to die but we don’t have to tell the reader that. Ryan knows what Ryan knows, the reader doesn’t need to know that. So this is a, I forget it — I can’t believe I write things myself and I often forget my principles but this is either suspense or mystery. I think its mystery.
So the mystery is when you have the characters have more information than your reader does. So Ryan already knows that he’s got this special gift, but Rob doesn’t know that he has a special gift. Rob is just there to kill him, right? And the other thing is I don’t know if you really even need to name the assassin. Often times, it’s better to say the man in the yellow coat or the guy.
[0:21:47] TG: I have struggled with like, I don’t want to go too deep into this to like, I don’t want to make this about my story I am trying to tell. But the idea is because what I’m trying to do is set up something that could be a long running series.
[0:22:01] SC: Sure.
[0:22:02] TG: And so, the whole thing is that Ryan works for this company that’s like the evil monolithic company and he’s trying to find something. So that’s why he’s there, but he doesn’t realize what he’s on to and all of that and then there’s this shadowy character that’s after him outside the company who sends this killer.
[0:22:25] SC: Right.
[0:22:26] TG: So the climax of the entire story was going to be basically Ryan killing Rob at the end and then finding out from Rob the next step towards finding who’s after him.
[0:22:37] SC: Great, why don’t you just make that happen at the very beginning?
[0:22:42] TG: So the beginning is the final scene when he kills Rob?
[0:22:47] SC: Yeah, I don’t think Rob is going to be all that compelling of a figure. I think he’s fine as a hired gun but you don’t want to give your hired gun too much air time because he’s serving a purpose. This Rob character serves a purpose. That purpose is to move Ryan to some sort of realization that there’s somebody after him. So this becomes an action story, a mano a mano action story, where Ryan is in pursuit of the dark figure who is trying to have him murdered.
You don’t want to give him too much air time to the hurdles in the way of Ryan discovering who the bad guy is. So it’s okay to dispatch this sort of cheesy guy, you know it’s almost funny, like Ryan goes into this situation saying, “Really?” — I mean in his mind, “Really? You’re going to do this deal with me where you’re going to lure me into an alley and pretend that your bike is broken, seriously? This is how you’re going to kill me? What, did you think I’m an idiot?”
This is what makes Shane Black, the screen writer, a lot of his stuff is so great is that he’s always playing with the conventions of the genres and setting up scenes where you have this very familiar scene from say Dashiell Hammett or Philip K. Dick and then he’ll twist it. Like that great movie, “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang” does this all the time. That’s a terrific movie if you want to see somebody playing with conventions of the crime genre.
But back to this story. So Rob, I don’t know — I think he could be just one of those characters that you use as farther to get to move as a complication for your lead character to discover who’s really behind everything. So that doesn’t mean that you can’t have Ryan, because you want to play with this. I think it’s okay to have Ryan sort of end up in the trash compactor at the end of the scene still but you need to layer in more action and more interesting elements to get your reader to go to scene number two and two days later.
So I wouldn’t end with — I would have Ryan sort of outwit and outsmart Rob and perhaps I’m making this up, this could be a cliché but as he’s holding Rob and he calls the police and the police are on the way, police show up and Ryan feels pretty smug about all of this stuff. He stops this bad guy and as he’s handing over Rob to the police, the police shoot him, shoot Ryan.
So he thinks that they are the real police but they’re not. Something like that and that could be a really interesting surprise because that would say that the force behind Rob is really super powerful. If he’s able to intercept a phone call to the police department and have some fake police guys go over there and mop up the scene that Rob screwed up. Also, I wouldn’t use the same “R”.
[0:26:24] TG: Yeah, I realized that because we said it over and over. It’s really hard to — it get’s confusing.
[0:26:29] SC: Exactly, yeah you just use a different name. So you see what I’m saying? You need to set up an expectation and then subvert it and then setup a new expectation and subvert that one. So if you set up the expectation that Rob’s going to dupe Ryan into this death trap and Ryan outsmarts him so then the reader is going to be, “Oh this is interesting. So this isn’t going to be one of those scenes where the lead character gets duped so early on and then ends up in a trash compactor.”
So then Ryan outwits Rob and sets him up and then the cavalry comes in to take Rob away because Ryan’s called in the cavalry to take the bad guy away and guess what? The cavalry is bad too. It’s a really cool twist that still plays with the genre’s conventions but still abides them and could get your reader interested in figuring out, “What the hell did Ryan do to get in this predicament where everyone in this city wants him dead?” That’s kind of interesting.
[0:27:48] TG: Yeah, okay.
[0:27:49] SC: So if you escalate it and you do some progressive complications and you pull the rug out from the reader a couple of times, twice, three times, would get a little bit too much. Then, you’re progressively escalating the stakes because first it’s just this looser kind of assassin. Then it becomes some beat cops, some police. So in the readers mind, they’re like, “Wow, it went from — so the police are involved too?”
Then that could be enough to get them to want to go two days before and go through all these stuff. Because I’m not saying that you do all that stuff that you needed to do before where the lead character who becomes a superhero starts out one way and then discovers his powers and all that stuff. You do need all that back story. I’m not saying you don’t but what you need to do with it is unique. You need to twist it, you need to make it unique and different not what the reader has read before.
[0:29:00] TG: Okay. Yeah, I am thinking and basically you’re saying you need to do that two times at least or you need to do that two times in the story to go back on what they’re assuming is going to happen next and I’m assuming those are the big scenes that have to be surprising?
[0:29:20] SC: Yes. Yes, I think they all have to be surprising actually but in terms of external stakes, you’re writing an external genre story that’s action driven. So your big scenes are going to need to have big action sequences because you’re writing an action story, you’re setting yourself up to create and deliver very interesting and exciting action. Now, you may and when I say you, I don’t mean just you Tim. I’m saying all writers.
All writers when they begin to write an action story, think that they’re going to write a better action story because their lead character has a really interesting back story and internal sort of genre attached to them. But the problem with that is, it doesn’t work because the bottom line for an action story and a superhero story, people go to them for the great action sequences and for the great twists on conventional action scenes.
They don’t really care about the internal shifts and arcs of the lead character. We’ve talked about this before with James Bond and it wasn’t until film number 32 or whatever it was, whatever Quantum of Solace was that they said to themselves, “Oh my gosh, we have burned through so many action sequences and we can’t figure out how to get James Bond in a pinch anymore. Let’s give him a heart. Let’s put in a love interest where he really cares about the woman this time instead of just bedding her.”
So if you’re going to write in the action genre, you’ve got to embrace it. You can’t say to yourself, “You know I’m going to write a really great action story because it’s not really about the action,” well bullshit. It’s got to be about the action and so when you write a scene, an action scene where somebody lures somebody into an alley, okay, I’ll go with you there but you’ve got to twist it because if you give me what I’m expecting which is the bad guy who lures the protagonist into the alley and then kills them, I’m going to be like, “Oh my gosh seriously? I’ve seen this scene a million times”.
If you’re going to play with that scene, play with it. Don’t give me what I’ve seen before. I want to be surprised. I want you to turn these scenes in ways that I have never seen before and to make a turn, the turning point of your scene is when Rob stabs Ryan in the back and that’s not very surprising the way you set it up.
[0:32:27] TG: Okay.
[0:32:28] SC: Now, Rob could have been like, “Hey man, I lured you back here to warn you,” that could be surprising. “I’m supposed to be killing you but I don’t really want to kill you because the guy who hired me to kill you is going to kill me the minute I finish this job so why don’t we work together,” and that could be surprising, right? So they could team up, it could become like a buddy comedy, a buddy salvation story too.
So there’s any number of way to play with this. Rob could end up being Ryan’s partner. It could be like Batman and Robin, because what we’re expecting is that Rob is going to stick a knife in the guy’s back when he goes to change some tire and that’s what you do but if Rob instead goes, “Hey man, I’m supposed to be killing you now but actually I’m here to warn you because I know the second I kill you, the bad guy who’s after both of us is going to kill me. So why don’t we team up together and I’m going to pretend to kill you okay?”
I don’t know, I’m making that up too but the reason why I am making up these things is that it’s important to, and I say this over and over again, to dive deeper and deeper and deeper into your mind and come up with like 15 ways that you could twist this scene and the first 12 aren’t going to work. You know why? The first 12 ways you figure out to twist this scene and to turn it in a unique way have been done before.
And the reason why they’ve been done before is that we are weaned on stories. From the minute that we are born until we die, we are fed constant stories. So the two things that I just came up with were probably from a Special Victim’s Unit from nine years ago that just popped into my head because that’s on the surface of my brain. All the input that we have when we’re watching stories, lodges itself into our memory banks. When we are trying to think of interesting fun story ideas, those come up first.
[0:34:47] TG: So I’m trying to wrap my head around this because there’s things that we do that are in convention so that as people read it they’re like, “Yep, I’m with you. Yep, I feel safe, I feel safe, I feel safe, I feel safe.” And then you take these climatic moments to just twist it and make them feel unsafe again, but you have to have both right?
[0:35:12] SC: Exactly.
[0:35:13] TG: Because I’m thinking of like, I felt like that with the new Star Wars movie where the reason it was so good is because it was so much like the old ones and that’s why I think there are all these things that made me feel safe but then there’s this new story. Mine, what I was planning on doing was I was going to do it a little bit different but basically, I want to get him trapped and get zapped with gamma rays or whatever. So that he reaches this point of being a superhero in a kind of cliché way but it helps me tell the story I’m trying to tell like you know what’s coming now but then later, I can twist it or am I?
[0:36:00] SC: No, you have to twist it from page one my friend.
[0:36:05] TG: Okay.
[0:36:07] SC: You have to write every scene as if it’s your last and that sounds kind of ridiculous but it’s true because let’s face it, superhero stories are clichés, action stories are clichés and that’s not in a bad way. We like clichés because they’re very familiar so it’s being uniquely familiar is a catch phrase I use a lot and it’s something that seems contradictory but it’s not. Uniquely familiar means giving the reader the scene from Batman.
You go to the original Batman where Michael Keaton was the original Batman and there’s a scene in the alley where the parents go and they get murdered and young Bruce Wayne watches them get murdered. So the scene in the alley where they get lured to their death is a cliché, we’ve seen it before. So I’m not saying don’t use the cliché, you want to lure your reader into your story but you have to surprise them because if you give them a cliché straight, they’re going to say, “Oh this guy doesn’t know superhero stories. He’s given me a cliché that was in Spider Man 9.”
“If he really knew it, he would have played with it” So that’s what I mean. It’s okay to use the setup of the scene like the hero at the mercy of the victim’s scene, I talk about this all the time. That is an obligatory scene.
[0:37:53] TG: Yeah, the hero at the mercy of the villain not the victim.
[0:37:55] SC: Yes, right sorry. That’s an obligatory scene that’s in every thriller. That doesn’t mean you’re allowed not to do it, it means you have to innovate it. You have to come up with something unique and different and fresh. So if you’re going to use the being lured into the alley as your inciting incident for your global story, I say great. But do it but do it in a way that is surprising. Do it in a way that we don’t see it coming because you know what’s going to happen then.
Your reader is going to go, “Oh my gosh, did you read the opening of Tim Grahl’s book? Because he gives you that scene where it’s in the alley and the bad guy lures but he completely reinvents it. You’ve got to check it out and then in the next scene, he gives you the origin story of the superhero but in a completely different way.” So it’s like Harry Potter being raised underneath the stairs in Muggle world and nobody ever saw that before.
That’s an origin story of somebody discovering their superpower. Harry Potter and the way J.K. Rowling set it up was all completely innovative and fresh and the same thing with J. J. Abrams. They call him — J. J. Abrams is the guy that they call in to re-freshen these conventions. He gets paid hundreds of millions of dollars to do things where he requires himself to peel off all the stuff off the top of his brain to get down to that unique different fresh twist that will reinvent the story.
He’s done this for Star Trek, and now he’s done it for Star Wars. The guy knows his stuff right? If you’re going to have a conversation with J. J. Abrams about the conventions and obligatory scenes of Star Wars, you’d better know your stuff because he just created a multibillion dollar movie, reinventing it all but still giving the Star Wars fans something to hold onto. They still had the mythology but it’s fresh and unique and innovative.
And that’s what you are required to do when you’re writing a superhero action story. If you’re going to do the gamma ray thing, great. Is there a unique way of doing a gamma ray thing? Maybe. Maybe it’s not an accident maybe the guy doses himself on purpose but then again maybe that’s like the fly. I don’t know. This is the fun of being a writer.
This is the fun of bringing your vision to a form that you can reinvent and whenever you get complacent, whenever you say to yourself, “Oh I’m just going to do that scene that was from Spider Man 2 and I’ll load it in there and that will be fine.” Okay, you can do that in your first draft as a place maker, bang it out, put it in there but know deep down, as you go through your edits, you’re going to find that scene and say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did the same with Batman on the table and the saw is going to be sawed in half. Oh my gosh, what am I going to do now?”
[0:41:15] TG: All right and so if you were to give advice about how to make sure I don’t do that, is that like “come up with 15 things”.
[0:41:26] SC: Yes and again, I’m going to go back to this because it’s a point that I try to make as often as possible and a lot of people just don’t want to hear it but your memory is what you’ve seen before. So as a writer, it’s your job. Embrace what you’ve seen before but it’s going to take you a lot of time. Don’t trust your first five solutions to your problem because your first five solutions or maybe even 10 solutions or maybe 12 solutions, this is why writer’s room are so great because they eliminate all these stuff very early on.
A friend of mine wrote for Sex and the City and she told me that they would walk in, the writers in there was about 12 of them and they’re all these really smart women, mostly women. Michael Patrick King was the executive producer and show runner, a great comedian but they’ve seen and read every romantic comedy in their lives. So while they’re story boarding the entire story bible for a season, somebody would come up with an idea that they’ve all seen from Love Boat from 1972.
They would go, “Oh I don’t know if that would really work here,” and they had a word for these things. They called them clams. So the clams, you want to get rid of the clams and the great thing about a writer’s room is that you have other people who will tell you that you’ve written a clam and you don’t know you’ve written a clam until either someone tells you or you sit with the thing for a while. So what you want to do is eliminate the clams and come up with the original sword fish or whatever the oceanic metaphor would be other than clams.
So that’s the trick is to — don’t beat yourself up for writing clams. You have to write clams and a lot of people can reinvent a clam and make it really interesting and play off at the fun. That’s what Shane Black does. He knows the clams of all the crime stories from the beginning of time so he plays off with them and he twists them in unique ways. There was a great moment in Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang and it’s the hero at the mercy of the villain scene.
Just to give you a quick story here, Robert Downy Jr. plays this amateur private investigator and he’s hooked up with this real private investigator played by Val Kilmer who is gay and Val Kilmer is this great PI and so it’s Val Kilmer and Robert Downy Jr. they’re at the mercy of this villain, the villain has hooked up these electrodes to the testicles of Robert Downy Jr. and he squirting a water gun to get the electricity to flow.
Every time he asks them a question and he doesn’t give them the right answer, he jolts Robert Downy Jr. with electricity. Meanwhile, Val Kilmer is there strapped down in the chair and he can’t help his partner. Val Kilmer plays this gay detective and what’s very funny is that the villain is a really big homophobe. He’s one of those crazy homophobes who thinks like every gay guy wants to have sex with him. So Val Kilmer starts to come onto this guy to really freak him out.
And because the guy is getting so angry, he’s jolting Robert Downy Jr. and finally the guy gets so angry at Val Kilmer that Val Kilmer says, “Here, here look down in my pants, look down in my pants,” and the guy is like, “What are you talking about? I’m not going to look into your pants.” And he finally does and Shane Black had set up this point long at the beginning of the story, Val Kilmer, the detective keeps this very tiny gun in his pants.
So he shoots the guy through his pants as if it’s his genitalia and it was so funny because that was a scene that we’ve seen a million times in crime stories but it was completely unique. It was playing on all of the tropes that anybody who’s read a lot of crime stories would know. That was a way for Shane Black to deliver the hero at the mercy of the villain’s scene in a unique and innovative and compelling way that was not only very active but funny.
That’s a comedy action story, try and pull that off. I mean very few can, there’s 48 Hours, there’s Beverly Hills Cop, I think Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is right out there with those movies. So when you’re doing action stories and superhero stories, you really need to dive deeply into what those big active moments are and you have to twist and turn them in ways that the reader who is an aficionado of action hasn’t seen before but they have to be familiar. So they’re familiarly unique.
[0:46:52] TG: That is such an incredibly hard line to find.
[0:46:57] SC: That’s right, that’s why you’re a writer. That’s why, you know, nobody said writing was easy.
[0:47:03] TG: Well, I know. I’m not lamenting that. Here’s what’s so frustrating about it, as we get on and we record this and you tell me all this crap to do and so I’m like, “Yeah, I got it now.” And I go and sit down and I’m like, “Wait, how do I do this?” And thinking about that of like, “Okay, I need a scene.” What I like that you said is that you knew it was a superhero scene so that’s good.
[0:47:32] SC: Yes.
[0:47:33] TG: But at the same time, if the tight rope is what I’m trying to walk and on one side is confusing and on the other side it’s cliché, I was walking and then I fell over in the cliché by the end.
[0:47:49] SC: Yeah, that’s okay.
[0:47:51] TG: Right. I’m just trying to — go ahead.
[0:47:54] SC: No, that’s true and okay so that’s the next problem. This is what the Story Grid’s about. It’s about finding the problem so that you can figure out how to solve them. So the problem is, you have written a working scene that’s a cliché. Now okay, so that’s the problem. How do you solve a cliché? You innovate it and turn it in a completely different way. How do you do that? I suggest you sit down and you don’t write out 15 scenes.
What you do is you write out 15 solutions, “How do you solve this problem of the cliché?” The cliché is man lured into alley to be murdered. So man goes into the alley knowing he’s being lured, that could be, and turns the tables. That would be number one. You write that down. “Victim turns tables on supposed killer,” okay how would I do that because that’s been done before? I’m going to write that down as number one.
Number two, supposed killer confesses to hero that he’s been set up to be murdered. That’s a twist. Usually when somebody lures into an alley, they don’t tell them, “Hey, by the way I’m here to kill you and this is all a charade. You need to knock me out now so that the guy who hired me to kill you thinks that you over powered me,” that could be number two. Number three, it could be the police come to save the day.
This is for Marathon Man, a brilliant twist. A brilliant twist of an action scene. Just to quickly do it, Dustin Hoffman plays the brother of a famous assassin in the CIA and he’s being held hostage by this horrible Nazi played by Laurence Olivier and he’s being tortured through his teeth. It’s horrifying. So in order to get the information, and they think that Dustin Hoffman is lying to them.
To play with him psychologically, they fake his being rescued. So he’s in this dentist chair and then all of a sudden this guy breaks in and he goes, “Come with me. I’ve got you out of here,” and he grabs him and he takes him and he throws him in a car and he goes, “So what did you tell them?” He’s like, “I didn’t tell him anything. I don’t know anything”. “What do you mean you don’t know anything?” “I don’t know anything.” “But what did you tell them?” “I didn’t tell them anything.” Then the guy drives him back to be tortured some more by the dentist.
So Dustin Hoffman thinks that he was being rescued but he was really being manipulated to give up the goods that he didn’t have in the first place. Read Marathon Man if you want to read a great thriller. William Goldman wrote it. If there’s a pantheon of great thriller action story writers, its William Goldman is right up there but that’s an innovation of the scene where you use a rescue to psychologically manipulate the lead character.
That’s called dramatic irony where the lead character and the leader don’t have all of the information. Somebody else has it. No, dramatic irony is when the reader has more information than the lead character. That’s suspense, I apologize. Suspense is when the lead character has the same amount of information as the audience does. This is complicated stuff. I never said it wasn’t.
[0:51:33] TG: So it sounds like the place that you fix the cliché is at the turn?
[0:51:42] SC: Yes.
[0:51:43] TG: So it’s okay to set up as many clichés as you want as long as you turn them in interesting ways?
[0:51:50] SC: A lot of people would say conventions and obligatory scenes are clichés. I don’t see them that way because I see them as challenges. So look, you’re inciting incident to your story could have been done without the cliché of the guy luring the guy into the alley. I don’t necessarily think that it’s the wrong choice to use the alley scene as your inciting incident, why? Because it’s familiar. It’s something that your reader is going to understand.
It’s going to be sort of want to dig their bottom into the chair and see how you’re going to do this. If you do something unfamiliar, there’s a chance that you could alienate them and they wouldn’t know what the story is going to be. So if you’re going to write a superhero story, it would be my advice to figure out how did the top 10 superhero stories begin and use those scenes and think to yourself, “Is there one of those scenes that I can use that I could twist and play with in a unique way?”
It’s looking at the masters of the form and saying, “How did they solve this problem?” Wouldn’t that be interesting to know how they solved it? How Stan Lee would solve this problem. “Oh, this is the way Stan Lee solved it. Well, Stan Lee is pretty smart. What if I rift off of what he already did and did something unique but inspired by what he’s previously done?”
You know there’s — Harold Bloom wrote a book called The Anxiety of Influence and he was writing about poetry and woodmen and all that stuff but the same things goes for genre writers too. We are all influenced by what we’ve previously read and what we’ve previously seen and it’s not the job of the writer to expunge all that stuff from the brain. It’s the job of the writer to wade into it and say to themselves, “Boy, Hemmingway really nailed that one scene and so did Fitzgerald and geez, so did Stan Lee and so did Thomas Harris and so did Judith Krantz. I wonder if I could play with one of their scenes in a way that I could bring my own unique sensibility to it.”
That’s what a writer does, they become inspired by what has been written before and add to the pantheon. They don’t just take and steal and rip off, they make it uniquely their own and innovative and different by their own life experience. That’s why specificity of your choices is so important. You have to bring yourself, and I think you’re really on a good level Tim because when you talk about your writing, you talk about your experiences and how you’re going to bring your ideas to the page.
That’s a really good way to approach writing is not to try and be somebody else but to be yourself and to find ways to tell stories that you find interesting. I might not love superhero stories but I admire the way you do. So that’s what a great editor does and what a great writing instructor does. You don’t necessarily have to love the genre that you love but they have to admire your passion for it and you have a tremendous amount of passion for this stuff. So my advice is just keep engaging in that and look to the masters of the form to inspire you to do your own unique work.
[0:55:41] TG: Thank you once again to listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. Now if you want to download the scene that is mentioned in this episode, you can go to storygrid.com/podcast. In fact, that’s a place that you can go to see all of the old episodes, download any notes, see all the show notes, everything about the podcast is right there.
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