Coping with Imperfection

In this week’s episode Tim and I actually sat down face to face at his kitchen table, most likely the place where he retreats in the middle of the night to obsess over his work in progress while the rest of his family slumbers close by.  I’m that kind of writer myself, one who often wakes in the middle of the night incapable of going back to sleep.  So I inevitably tiptoe downstairs and pick away at whatever is  on my mind.

This episode was all about how to deal with writing stuff that isn’t all that great…  Do you fix it in the moment to make it better…or barrel ahead until you have a completed first draft of your Story?

To listen, click the play button below, or read the transcript that follows.

[0:00:00.3] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. My name is Tim Grahl, I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to write a story that works. Shawn Coyne is joining me soon and he is the creator of Story Grid, he is the author of the book The Story Grid and he’s an editor with over 25 years of experience helping authors write bestselling books. He’s sharing with me all of his secrets.

Now this is a special episode that Shawn and I actually recorded in person sitting across a table from each other. It’s the first time we actually met in person, so it was a lot of fun for me to actually sit across from him and pepper him with all of my main questions. The things that we talk about in this episode, the first is how to keep writing when you know your writing sucks.

So I reached that wall where I was writing and I was feeling good and then I picked up a new book and I started reading and I realized everything that was coming out of me was awful but yet I still had to keep writing. So he walks me through how to do that.

We also talk about building a strong antagonist and why that’s so important to your story and how to add the right kind of fat to your writing. It’s a really great episode, it was a lot of fun for me and I know you’re going to love it so let’s jump in and get started.


[0:01:18.8] TG: So Shawn, I am a little over 10,000 words into my book and it was right at the 8,000 mark that I decided that all of this sucks. I made the mistake of, I was watching the new miniseries based on Stephen King’s book, 11/22/63 and then I was really enjoying it so I stopped so I could read the book first and I started reading his book and I’m like, “Everything I’m doing is horrible.” So tell me, what are the mental gymnastics that I can do to continue writing when I feel like everything I write is horrible?

[0:02:01.9] SC: Well, the first thing that you need to remember is that it’s all about getting your first draft. Even Stephen King’s first drafts are probably not anywhere — well, they’re probably pretty good, but he even probably has moments of major doubt. And it’s — you bring up really good point because there’s a book that Steve Pressfield wrote called do the work and in that book, he talks about a moment that people face while they’re doing anything.

If they’re remodelling their house or if they are starting a new cupcake shop and he calls it being in the belly of the beast. The belly of the beast is a moment when you lose all confidence and you start to panic. David Mamet actually writes about it in one of his books too. The thing is that, everybody knows, before they start a project, “Oh I know I’m probably going to reach a point where I panic.” We all think that we can prepare for it. As Mamet writes and I think it’s in three uses of a knife that he writes this.

He says that at that moment, we all believe to our bones that this problem that we are now facing is beyond anything that we’d ever faced before and that if everybody else just understood that this problem is so severe that there’s no way we’re going to beat it then everything will be okay and then we can quit and everybody will leave us alone. But that’s the thing with every project, you’re going to hit a moment of disperse. Knowing that that moment is coming is a very good tool to prepare yourself so that when you do hit it, you say, “Okay, this is the belly of the beast, I know this is coming.”

Even though I think I’m not going to be able to overcome it, what now you should do is just say, “Okay, maybe I won’t overcome it. But what I did do before I hit this was I have a plan. I had a day by day intention to do specific scene or a specific task,” that you need to just keep doing those tasks and all of those problems in that panic moment will slowly erode but it’s going to take another concerted effort to understand that this is a moment of resistance, and it’s okay, everybody faces it and Stephen King faces it too. And he’s such a pro at this point that he just accepts it and says, “Hi. I know you’re here but I’m going to keep moving on,” and that’s what you need to do too.

[0:04:45.7] TG: Yeah, I was able to just keep writing but it feels like what my kids must feel like when they’re trying to draw something and their drawing it and it’s like, what comes out is not what was in their head.

[0:04:59.3] SC: Right.

[0:05:01.3] TG: I have this, I keep running into all this issues of like last week we talked about specificity, how much do I put in and how much do I leave out and then I just keep running into not knowing how to put these pieces of my scene together the way that I feel like they should. Then when I go in and start messing with a scene that I’ve already written, I feel like I’m just cobbling things together.

The whole thing feels like I think I had this idea that if I could just plan well enough, it would just come. What I’m finding is like actually putting those words together and I feel like, I’m like, “Man, I’m using the same word over and over,” I keep having to go back and take out the “that’s” and the “just’s” and all these filler words and…

[0:05:58.8] SC: Yeah, you got to stop doing that. This is a key point that you can never lose, you can never forget. You can’t edit things that you’ve written in the first draft. You have to promise yourself, “Once I’ve finished this first draft of this scene, I’m not going to go back and fix it until I have an entire first draft.” The reason why, and Steve calls this covering the canvas as quickly as you possibly can.

Because you’re going to have plenty of time to fix the that’s and the poor word choices and the poor descriptions and the weak inciting incidents. Trust me, you will have so much time to do that that the thing that’s going to stop you is to get rid of the editor right now. The editor is what you instinctively rely on as your guide. You feel comfortable, you like the regimentation of the editorial mindset, you want perfection, you want to perfect something and then move on. But the real difficulty in writing is to live with imperfection. Imperfection is what a first draft is.

Another thing that I always try and tell myself when I stumble into the same problems that you do is, beauty is imperfect. There’s a wonderful short story that Nathaniel Hawthorn wrote 200 years ago. I think it’s called the birth mark. It’s this very wonderful story about this man who falls in love with this beautiful woman, except she has one problem. I think I’ve talked about this before. She is like a mole that seems a little off. Not crazy off but just a little off. So he spends all this time convincing her to remove the mole so that she will become perfect.

She’s like, “I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to do it,” but eventually she gives in after she marries the man, she has the mole removed and the ending payoff of the story is she dies. She gets an infection and she dies. What Hawthorn was trying to say is that every piece and wonder in the world is imperfect. To understand. I think Michael Angelo was another one and he was commissioned to do this sculpture and he finished it and it was beautiful and the patron said, “My gosh, look at that, it’s perfect.” Michael Angelo of course took a hammer and knocked the chunk out of it.

And he’s like, “What are you doing?” And he goes, “Beauty cannot be perfect.” And so you have to get to a mindset where you save yourself, “It’s got to be imperfect and my job, it’s just as important to leave that stuff alone as it is to edit it later on.” Because editing before you finish the writing is a recipe for disaster. It’s going to stop you from finishing the book. You will abandon it because you will torment yourself. Just get that first draft done then you can go crazy with the editor and we’ve joked about this before but put on the writer hat and put the editor hat in the closet.

[0:09:30.3] TG: Okay. One thing when Stephen King in On Writing talks about how he just writes and writes and writes and then has to cut all the stuff out later and then when I went back and reread The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books, I found these parts that should have been cut out of the book. In the first one, there’s this whole — it reminded me of something in On Writing or he had written this whole thing about what this guy did over the summer and his wife’s like, “You need to get rid of that.”

After selling a million copies, not one person emailed me, well what do you do all of a sudden? There’s this one like longish scene or sequence in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo where he has to go back to prison for a certain period of time because of the inciting incident of the story and it talks about all the stuff you did in prison. I’m like, “I don’t care about any of this stuff.” It doesn’t move any of the book forward but then he probably felt like, “Well my readers are going to wonder what he did while he was in jail,” and it’s like, “No, we don’t care. He went to jail.”

And what I’m finding with me is I don’t want to put in any filler. I just wanted to like get straight to the point in the story and put in no filler whatsoever and I thought of this again because we went on another trip so we were listening to the second book in the Harry Potter series. There’s this whole long scene where he goes to this party for a ghost and it tells you all the different people, the ghost and all this gross food at the party and who is there and walking down the hallway to get there, it’s like this really interesting setting and scene and you learn more about the world but has nothing to do with the story. The only part that has to do with the story is she needed for them to not be in this part of the castle, where all of the other students were, she need them to be on their own.

[0:11:27.6] SC: Right.

[0:11:28.2] TG: And so at the end of this really long scene, they’re walking back by themselves and something happens that pushes the story forward. What I’m struggling with is, everything I put in my story, I feel like should push the story forward and I’m having trouble with my word count. I think at my current pace I’m going to come in at like 50,000 words and I want an 80,000 word novel but when I go and look at my outline, I don’t want to put anything in that isn’t pushing the story forward.

Where is this line of shoe leather, like you call it. I don’t want to watch somebody walk down the sidewalk and turn the door knob but as I read while I’m trying to write, I see all this stuff, when I’m reading this new Stephen King book, there’s lots of that stuff, or like he’s kind of shown you things that don’t move the story forward but like they fill in the story in a nice way. Does that makes sense what I’m asking? Like where is that line of just putting too much crap in your book or is that something where later I can go back and add more of that filler in?

[0:12:35.9] SC: I think what happens is certain writers fall in love with a particular set piece. If you look at, ironically, last night I was watching one of those, the movies with the cars, the Fast and the Furious.

[0:12:56.5] TG: Okay.

[0:12:57.5] SC: I think it was the latest Fast and the Furious series but it’s wonderful to watch those every now and then because you just see seven sequences and here is the sequence where the heroes have to get out of the building with the car and they’ve got the — so in moments, even in that franchise,is just built on pure action and it’s really well done I think because the action is fast and furious and the end they keep going.

There are moments of lull in there. I was saying, I was thinking to myself, “Okay, we need that telephone call scene with the hero calling his sweetheart to tell her hey, I don’t know if I’m going to make it home, this is this time I’m telling you. They’re really going to get us this time. Just let you know I love you and tell our son—” you know. It’s Paul Walker character. Anyway. I was thinking, “Oh man, do we really need that scene?” You do. You do need and we talked about that I think this last week, you do need moments of lull, of a breather of sorts.

A lot of this stuff that you’re talking about, I want to keep the momentum moving forward in the story, I want to bang, bang, bang, hit my progressive complication number one, progressive complication number two. Crisis, climax, resolution. That I think is a good plan but you also need to save yourself. I’m going to plan to put in some small scenic story fat and Stephen King does that too. He has a tendency to put a lot of that in. A great book like Misery still has some padding in there. It’s got maybe 50 or 60 pages of wonderful little stuff about actually writing process.

There’s great passages in there about the lead characters approaches, they way he approaches writing and I think that was one of the things that inspired him to want to write on writing. The reason why Stephen King leaves it in there and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has some fat in it is, the writer has to think about his or herself too. They may, I bet they enjoyed those passages to write those passages and they say to themselves, “Okay, is this really essential for my book? Probably not, but I love this set piece, I love this little bit I did.”

It’s like comedians, sometimes they’re stuff, there’s incredible build up and there’s great pay off and sometimes some of the material doesn’t quite work but they do it anyway because it’s part of a larger thematic organic unit. Like if you watch a Louie CK one hour comedy special, there are moments when you don’t quite know where he’s going, he’s telling something that doesn’t seem to fit in and then bring it back and the payoff is in the big laugh that makes all that setup work. So should you worry if you only have 50,000 words and you’ve got your beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff? No. You shouldn’t worry about that.

Get that first draft and then Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a flawed book. But there is so much compelling stuff inside of it that the reader forgives a lot. If your goal is to write a straight fast ball that doesn’t have much shoe leather in it, I think that’s a really good goal. And on your second and third draft, you may say to yourself, “Wow, there’s absolutely no let up here. This would be a nice place to insert something that will establish—” and to think about those moments as larger thematic moments in the hero’s journey is a good way to think of them.

So if you say to yourself, “This is really moving forward very quickly and I don’t know if I firmly established the transition between the ordinary world and the extraordinary world. Maybe I could do a set piece scene where it’s a little bit off of the primary thrust of the story but it will give me a great transitional moment that will really clearly explain to the reader, we are moving from the ordinary world to an extraordinary world, here is a scene that’s going to really show that.”

Like literally the goodbye scene. In every great war story, there’s that goodbye scene. The hero is at the train station and he’s with his girlfriend and she looks at him and you need that goodbye scene, because if you don’t have it like — what’s that? It’s a terrific — it’s not Persuasion. Anyway, there’s a great world war one story, I got to remember it because it’s a really good example. They made it into a movie. Anyway, I’ll try and remember it.

But in the war story, you do need that moment of time when the hero is about to leave he has to say goodbye. If he doesn’t say goodbye and he just shows up, here is an example; The Deer Hunter, which is a great movie. The deer hunter begins with a 50 minute establishment of the ordinary world. It’s 50 minutes of a wedding set in Pennsylvania in steel worker territory. It’s 50 minutes of these guys going out, getting drunk, going to the wedding, the groom gets married and then all the other guys go on one final deer hunt before they go to Vietnam.

That establishment of the world is so crucial to that movie working that we forgive the film maker because he’s establishing where these guys came from. Then, once that wedding scene is over and those guys have finished their deer hunt, it goes to black for about a micro second and the next scene is Robert De Nero in the depths of the Vietnam jungle with a flame thrower, burning down a village If we didn’t have that 50 minutes of setup in Pittsburgh, showing where this guy came from, the extraordinary difference would not be as strong.

[0:19:50.8] TG: Okay.

[0:19:52.4] SC: That’s a reason why you give so much time and padding to a particular establishment of a world. If you look at it in terms of that and say to yourself, “I’m on a fast ball, it’s bullet fast from beginning hook to middle build to ending payoff, where can I give the reader a little back story and lull that will enrich the story and bring it depth?” Because what you’re talking about right now, you’re writing a very strong externally driven thriller with a super hero from what I understand I haven’t read any of your stuff.

So the global push of your story is going to be driven by external forces. Life and death, bad guys attacking good guys, good guys retaliating, all that kind of stuff. That’s your front story that’s really going to drive — okay, your story is primarily externally driven. People are going to want to read your book for an external great action adventure thing. Concentrating on that purpose on your first draft is a great thing to do. Because that’s your primary hook. That’s your primary genre.

If you don’t hook and establish that great externally driven conflict and if it’s not fast, you’re not going to satisfy your readership. Now, once you have that done, you have to ask yourself a question about the internal genre in your story. Are you going to have an internal genre? Like the Martian does not have an internal genre with its protagonist. The protagonist begins the story and ends the story in exactly the same way.

[0:21:41.0] TG: I do, let me actually pull up my foolscap. So my genre is man against state.

[0:21:52.2] SC: And that’s in the action adventure genre right?

[0:21:52.8] TG: Right. It’s action epic man against the state because it’s this whole thing of this giant evil corporation that she’s having to infiltrate to bring down from the inside.

[0:22:02.6] SC: Great.

[0:22:03.2] TG: And then the internal genre is worldview belief to disillusionment. The belief that the world is this kind of safe environment where the right people are in charge and you can kind of trust it to seeing that the world is broken and the wrong people in charge and you can’t trust anybody that’s above you. That’s the internal shift.

[0:22:31.6] SC: It’s a disillusionment plot for the internal genre.

[0:22:35.2] TG: The internal value at stake is the belief that the world is basically good. So by the end of my story, her mentor tells her from the beginning the world is basically bad and she doesn’t want to believe it and by the end she agrees with him.

[0:22:50.4] SC: Okay.

[0:22:51.0] TG: It’s the basic idea. But I know that the internal genre is not as important as the external genre and the type of story that I’m telling.

[0:23:03.5] SC: Well, it’s going to be a crucial way for you to innovate your external story.

[0:23:11.9] TG: Okay.

[0:23:12.4] SC: So what I mean by that is the front story of the action is extraordinarily important. When you get to questions in your second draft, or even now, about a particular scene, the first question you need to ask is, “Is this moving my external genre story forward? Is it delivering the conventions and obligatory scenes that are required of this genre for my readership?”

[0:23:42.3] TG: Yeah. That’s been like 95% of what I thought about when I planned out the story.

[0:23:47.2] SC: Great.

[0:23:47.6] TG: That’s why I feel like there’s not enough fat in it because if it wasn’t that, I’m like, “It’s shoe letter, get rid of it.” I feel like what I was relying on was that naturally driving the internal genre because the whole idea of the story, what keeps driving it forward is falling deeper and deeper into this hole of, there’s a lot of evil going on. She has to deal with each of the things along the way, she’s going to have to confront the fact that the way that she saw the world isn’t how it really is.

[0:24:20.0] SC: Right, right. Well an important way in which the internal and the external come together is in viewing, for example, it’s easier to talk in terms of an example than it is globally and theoretically. Okay, in The Silence of the Lambs, what makes that story beyond the fact that it was sort of the progenitor of the serial killer thriller. What makes it so compelling and deep and moving is in the internal genre of Clarisse Starling. She starts out to be a very big believer in the FBI.

Her mentor figure is Jack Crawford, who is the big cheese in this one very sexy part of the FBI. She believes that if he takes her under his wing and teaches her what he knows, that she may one day become the same status as him. She, when she enters this, the world of the story sees Crawford as a pillar of virtue. He is the mentor figure who is going to teach her the things necessary to become a great FBI agent.

So she believes just by that assumption, the relationship between her and Crawford becomes a larger thematic metaphor. It means it’s the relationship between her and society.

[0:25:53.4] TG: Like her relationship with Crawford is like a micro chasm of how she…

[0:25:59.8] SC: How she sees the world. It’s a paternalistic, hierarchical, meritocracy that if the father figure approves of the young daughter and helps her, she will, through merit and hard work, will attain a goal which is to become an FBI agent. Crawford is — it’s funny because the way Thomas Harris has Hannibal Lector describe Crawford and with the choice of his name, he will do whatever is necessary to get the bad guy.

Crawford is playing a mind game with Starling from the very, very start. The reality of the FBI is that it is not a meritocracy, it’s political, it’s a nightmare, it’s a quagmire that will destroy somebody’s ethics and morals and we meet that figure in the guys of the guy who runs the psychiatric hospital but Crawford is a pragmatist. He will do what’s necessary to get the bad guy and we need that kind of figure.

So he says to himself, “If I can get this young woman who is beautiful to goose Hannibal Lector to give us information, we’ll be able to find the killer. Do I want to mislead this woman and make her think that I’m going to be her mentor in order to get her to do what I need her to do? Yes, I will do that.” He doesn’t like doing it but he does it anyway.

Even though the external driven story is about finding this killer, underneath, we are slowly seeing Starling leave the ordinary world of becoming an FBI recruit and becoming an FBI agent. The first third is her pretty much staying on campus right? She stays in the FBI Quantico world and she does these errands for Crawford but she doesn’t go into the field with Crawford.

The transition from the beginning hook to the middle build is when Crawford says to her, “There’s another body, you have to come with me now and we are going to fingerprint, I want you to fingerprint this dead body in West Virginia.” They literally get on a plane and leave the ordinary world into the extraordinary darkness of Buffalo Bill’s world.

There’s a moment where there’s some padding, you feel like maybe Harris is playing this whole getting on the airplane, do we really need to see Starling being pulled out of class by one of the guys to get on the airplane? Yes we do. Because it’s like the goodbye scene in a war story. We need that transitional moment where the woman literally packs her bags, gets on to a plane and goes elsewhere and then she has been taken there by her mentor figure.

I’m going to make one suggestion to you, just not knowing anything about your story. The mentor figure in your story needs to be dynamic. At the beginning you mentioned to me, at the beginning of your story, the mentor says to the young prodigy, “The world isn’t what you think it is, it’s not as good in black and white as you think it is, trust me.” He should not be doing that or she should not be doing that because you need to look at the point of view of that mentor figure and think of them in terms, just to use the Crawford example, “How is the mentor? Can I make my mentor transition to, in a sort of a fluid pattern with my protagonist?”

Not only do you have your antagonist who represents the negative theme of what the protagonist is going through, but you need to think of your mentor. Because the mentor figure is such — we all love the mentor figure because we all want guidance but we also know that if you have no effect upon your monitor, that your education and your journey through your life is not helping anybody else. The mentor should, in my opinion, if you could make the mentor have a change…

[0:30:29.0] TG: Yeah, my plan was to take the mentor from caring about nobody and nothing else except destroying the company, this evil organization because they did some evil things to him in the past. He sees her as his way to do it but by the end of the book, he actually cares about her and comes in to save her at the end. Even when it hurt his overall objective. That was my…

[0:30:57.0] SC: That’s pretty good.

[0:30:57.9] TG: …was to have him move from not caring about anybody or anything including himself except for bringing this down, to at the end he steps in to save her…

[0:31:08.3] SC: At the risk of the corporation continuing. Perfect, that works.

[0:31:13.7] TG: Okay. Because what I…

[0:31:14.4] SC: So she has an effect on the mentor?

[0:31:16.5] TG: Yes, the only reason — he manipulate like, I don’t want to go too deep into my own story but the whole idea is, she didn’t even know much about what she was getting in to in this company and behind the scenes he manipulated it so she would end up there so that he could get her to do what he wants her to do.

At the very beginning when she first meets him he’s the one that rips her out in the new world or her world because he’s like, “Look, you’re going into this and you have no idea what you’re getting in to but I’m going to help you survive it.”

[0:31:51.1] SC: Right.

[0:31:51.7] TG: He sets it up so she gets stuck in this situation but he she doesn’t realize that he steps in and was like, “Look, this is a real situation you’re getting in to and I’m going to help you get through,” and then hands her her object of desire. Which is her whole life was ruined when her brother disappeared early on but she never really knew what happened. All she cared about was getting out of her family because it completely fell apart. So her escape out of her family was school and getting a good job at a school.

She gets this job and he steps in and says, “Your brother actually disappeared at this company, don’t you want to find out what happened to him?” That’s what he uses to get her to help him bring down the company, it’s like hands her her brother was at this company, and she sees it as a coincidence when he setup the whole thing from the time it happened 10 years ago. But what he didn’t expect was to actually start caring about her and try to get, keep her from getting hurt in the process.

[0:32:51.9] SC: Right.

[0:32:52.1] TG: Because he was planning on just burning her down to get what he wanted.

[0:32:54.7] SC: Sure.

[0:32:56.0] TG: Is that enough stuff?

[0:32:57.8] SC: I think it works. I think…

[0:33:01.0] TG: What’ you’re saying is like every character, better the more characters you can have change throughout the book.

[0:33:09.0] SC: No, I’m not saying that. No, The key characters.

[0:33:13.0] TG: Okay.

[0:33:14.0] SC: A lot of people like somebody wrote me an email the other day and said, “You said that all protagonist have to change and I disagree, that’s not true in the Martian.” That’s true, you don’t have to have the protagonist have a huge change but what you do have to have for the story to have any resonance beyond just a great fun action super adventure. I mean even Iron Man changes, Robert Downey Jr. changes in that story. He goes from cad to the caring. But in the Martian for example, the lead character doesn’t change but everybody around him changes.

[0:33:53.6] SC: Yeah, his whole crew changes. Yeah They go back for him.

[0:33:59.0] TG: Yeah. And they perform mutiny, which is what they’ve been trained since forever not to do.

[0:34:02.9] SC: Exactly. So stories, and I say this all the time, stories are about change. How we confront turbulence in our own live, we use stories to help us get through difficult times or great times that we’re unprepared for. So you’ve heard of the cautionary tale. The cautionary tale is bout trying to get people from making mistakes that other people have made. Oedipus came up with the cautionary tale and Sophocles’ Oedipus like one of the great cautionary tales.

My point is that the mentor and the mentee, the protagonist and the mentor have a very close relationship. It’s a very parental figure and the thing is, Crawford changes but Hannibal Lector does not change in the story. Hannibal Lector is oddly far more consistent a character than anybody else in the book and he’s actually, even though he’s the epitome of evil, he is the only person who doesn’t lie to start off.

So the great thing that Harris did was he switched roles there. He had the very attractive Crawford, so everybody who starts reading that book and it opens the meeting between Crawford and Starling and this is the meeting every one of us has always had in our lives it’s when you want to get a job, you want to ask your potential wife’s father for permission to marry his daughter, you want something from somebody who has a higher level of status than you are.

There’s nothing more exciting and flattering and wonderful than when that figure looks upon the protagonist and says, “Not only am I going to help you, I’m going to be your mentor,” and they don’t literally say that, they do that by actions. So that relationship is very intense and being able to manipulate it in your story in a way that’s unique and innovative, and this is all about the internal genre too.

This is what’s going on underneath the surface of your action adventure external plot. So think about those moments, “How can I do a set piece or a scene that will feature a transition between the ordinary world to the extraordinary world or the transition that my mentor goes through? What is the critical moment when Crawford changes?”

Because Crawford is all about being a stoic, doing what’s necessary to move to get rid of all the external stuff that is going to stop him from doing his job. Getting rid of that and doing whatever is necessary in order to get his job done. He stops being that stoic at the death of his wife and that is, not coincidentally, the end of the middle build.

That’s their transitional moment from moving from the extraordinary world to the super extraordinary world of literally going in to the devil’s lair and getting Buffalo Bill. That requires Starling to go rogue. She has no backup from the FBI, the only person supporting her is Crawford who says, “You know what? Go. Go to Cleveland, here’s my checkbook, here’s every dollar I have in my pocket. Go, you need to go.” That’s how he changes.

[0:37:48.0] TG: Oh man.

[0:37:49.9] SC: No, don’t despair. The reason why I’m saying all this is that what you are doing right now is the right path. You are concentrating full bore on your external story that is an action adventure man against state story that you need to hit certain demarcations in your story line. You’re 10,000 words in and you think, “Oh my gosh, I’m already into my middle build and I maybe have 30 to 40,000 left, is 50,000 really an epic man against state story? I don’t think it is. Oh my god, what am I going to do? What I’m saying is get that 50,000 words done and then put the grid on it. See how your story is moving and guess what you’re going to discover?

You’re going to find moments, “Oh here’s a moment that I can really juice up. Let me think of a great scene to insert here that will move my hero’s journey and add more depth to it. Maybe my mentor — I need a scene where the mentor changes. How does that change come about? And I bet Thomas Harris thought of this, “How am I going to get Crawford to change? Oh I know, I’ll put his wife in a coma. At the very beginning of the book, I’ll show how he has to take care of his wife, he’s literally in between life and death right? Then when she dies, that’s what’s going to change him.

[0:39:22.1] SC: This comes back to the question I’ve had before of always, it seems like the best way to. I know this is something after the fact. I’m going to have to play between having — because most writers are having these conversations while they’re trying to get their first draft out.

They’re just getting the first draft out or maybe they are but no, maybe they are?. Here’s what happens is they get stuck in a moment that you’re in right now and they don’t have the resources to talk to anybody like me who can say it’s going to be okay because it will be okay. Get the task done. Stay the course.

[0:40:01.7] TG: Well what I’m thinking is, it seems like we always come to this of is the way to — it feels like most books are going to be like, you can’t see as I do this but this, but kind of undulating up and down this books and the way.

[0:40:20.9] SC: The cosigner sign.

[0:40:21.0] TG: Yeah, We see that right? We’re like, this scene should be minus the positive and it should be that. When you go back through and need to make the book better, you basically grab the tops and bottoms of those things and stretch them up and down.

Like, “I need Crawford to change, what’s the absolute worst thing that I can do to him? I’m going to kill his wife,” but progressively when you go back and add it in where like, Let’s assume some things lie maybe Thomas Harris didn’t even put anything about his wife in until he got two thirds of the way into the book and was like, I need.

[0:41:03.5] SC: This Crawford guy is not coming off very well.

[0:41:05.2] TG: Yeah, I’m going to kill his wife but to kill his wife properly I got to start her dying at the beginning and put her in a coma and so you go back and add that in and that’s what I’ve been seeing too Rowling did so well is like the main kind of item in book two is this diary.

It’s Tom Riddle’s diary and it’s what kind of forces everything forward at the end and at the very beginning of the book or when we’re getting close to the end of the beginning hook, all the kids would go into school and it’s this real funny scene where they keep having to go back because everybody forgets things and one of the things that was forgotten as the sister’s diary.

Well that’s the diary that shows up at the end. And so she drops in this diary where you’re reading it and you just read it like it was one of four other things that was forgotten, it doesn’t even pop in your head until the end and you’re like, “That’s the diary from the beginning.”

[0:42:01.4] SC: Right. It’s a setup and payout.

[0:42:02.1] TG: I’m sure like when she got the diary she’s like, “Oh I need to put it in the beginning so I’m going to add this scene where they keep forgetting things and one of the things that are forgotten is the diary.” Then it looks like, it feels like…

[0:42:14.2] SC: That’s right because if she didn’t do that, what will happen is something called the Deus Ex Machina and there’s that film and Deus Ex Machina means that god likes things happen at the very end to tie up your problems.

[0:42:29.6] TG: Okay.

[0:42:29.7] SC: So she’s probably stuck in the diary at the end of the book to solve the problem and then she said to herself, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t establish the diary, having it come here is like god dropped the diary in the middle of my story to solve my problem. So I need to set that up. If I do it very well, it will pay off and people will say, “Oh that makes perfect sense.”

[0:42:56.5] TG: It’s been so fun as we’ve done the podcast and have gotten into writing and then as I read, it’s like…

[0:43:04.8] SC: You see the craftsman’s edges. You see the tools that they use.

[0:43:08.9] TG: Because I only read, of course we only read from start to finish and so at the end we’re like, “Oh my god, how did they pull that off?” And then now, looking at it as a writer now, I’m like, they just wouldn’t — they’re allowed to just add it back in at the beginning before it goes to the public. They didn’t write it linearly, they wrote it going back and fourth all the way through.

[0:43:31.9] SC: Right.

[0:43:34.3] TG: It’s fun because as I outline the book I kept doing that where I’d hit a spot and I’m like okay, I need to do this here but I need this down that earlier so I go back and I like tweak something the way it is here so that it wouldn’t be like out of the blue. But it was interesting, I was reading that how to write a blockbuster novel by…

[0:43:56.4] SC: Hal Zuckerman yeah.

[0:43:57.2] TG: Yeah. He talked about how if you don’t put in basically insane coincidences that would never happen in real life, people won’t enjoy your book. There’s always got to be these things and that’s where I’ve struggled because I’m such a like — I read books and I don’t mind them happening in the books I read. I’m like, “Well that would never happen,” we suspend our disbelief to do it but as I plan out my own book, I want everything to be extremely logical like I don’t want to look at it and be like, “Well that would never happen.” It’s like…

[0:44:31.4] SC: That’s — remember we were talking last week about the McGuffin, that’s where a lot of people get really over the top crazy is making their McGuffin so logical and so perfect that it bores the hell out of people. There’s a level of uncertainty and strangeness in our world and to ignore that and to make everything so rational and logical does not feel real.

[0:45:01.2] TG: Which is funny because it’s like, you’re walking through the airport in Dallas and you bump into the guy you haven’t seen in 15 years, what are the odds of him being in Dallas at the same time? We do have those in real life.

[0:45:16.5] SC: Yes.

[0:45:16.6] TG: But yeah, it’s hard to…

[0:45:18.0] SC: Hitchcock was the master of that. North by Northwest is a great movie and it’s simply the man who is mistaken for someone else. Roger Thornhill played by Cary Grant is so great. He’s mistaken for this spot because he had on a grey suit and was carrying a black briefcase. The bad guys thought he was the spy.

[0:45:37.5] TG: There’s that Bill Murray movie.

[0:45:40.2] SC: The man who didn’t know or…

[0:45:42.9] TG: He thinks…

[0:45:44.0] SC: The man who knew too little?

[0:45:47.2] TG: Yeah, that’s what it was. ‘Cause he thought he was in like an at play but he happened to pick up the phone at the wrong time and got sucked into the this real thing. I loved that movie. That’s one of my guilty pleasures.

[0:46:00.7] SC: Yeah, those are the kind of movies that you initially don’t perform all that well because they’re a little bit too intelligent for their own good. I mean like doing a satyr comedy about McGuffin is — whoever green lit that? But the thing works right? People watch it, it’s like all those movies that bomb and then become cult classics.

Now, the studios don’t want to do any bomb movies anymore but then we don’t — It’s hard to find those called classics. Because everything is so perfectly wired to appeal to the least common denominator. That’s why you have iron man nine and Avengers 37.

[0:46:42.9] TG: People keep going to watch it.

[0:46:43.2] SC: They do, they do. That’s the power of action.

[0:46:46.9] TG: Yeah.

[0:46:49.1] SC: So just to give you a little bit of confidence and to inspire you, the action story, and I’ve written about this a lot is very difficult and people say, “Oh yeah it’s so easy to just do those silly Iron Man.” That is really difficult to innovate an action story that is so purely action driven. The Fast and the Furious franchise keeps reinventing and keeps redoing, and they keep coming up with — I mean the last plan was some…

[0:47:22.0] TG: Wasn’t it like a car going between buildings?

[0:47:24.6] SC: Three buildings, right? And it was believable. I mea it wasn’t believable but it was fun because Vin Diesel the man with no expressions, “I’m going to floor it, I’m going to unleash the beast,” or whatever he says. Then they come up with this crazy McGuffin, about God’s eye software and there’s a woman who is this genius who is also really attractive and she’s in the passenger seat of the car with a laptop.

Basically controlling satellite communications all over the globe, it’s ridiculous, right? There’s no way it’s going to happen but because the action is so propulsive and the inciting incidents and the progressive complications and the crisis and the climaxes and the resolutions are so tightly controlled, you can’t help but be in the world and root for that car to keep getting away from the helicopter.

[0:48:22.0] TG: So what goes wrong, ‘cause like — but at the same time you’ve seen those movies that don’t pull it off. There’s those exact same things where it’s bigger than life and all this kind of stuff but the whole time you’re kind of like, “Ah..”

[0:48:40.6] SC: There’s a lot of alchemy and it’s about casting, it’s about a particular — because the great thing about the fast and the furious is it has something for everyone. The characters that are in that, everybody, there’s somebody somebody can relate to. Certain people relate to Vin Diesel, certain people relate to Paul Walker, some people, Michelle Rodriguez. It’s not a coincidence this group of six or seven people encapsulates sort of six or seven different kinds of personalities and they probably have really smart psychologist saying, “Okay, let’s get that one.”

Vin Diesel is perfect for this role but you’re not going to put him in Othello. He’s that perfect kind of character. The guy who can’t talk really that well. Uses his muscle, and he does it perfectly. Some people, if they’re miss cast, this is the genius of the casting director, they’re like, “I don’t know that Jamie Foxx could play that role perfectly. Jamie Foxx could play this other guy but the Vin Diesel role is almost Vin Diesel is the perfect,” you know?

[0:49:55.0] TG: I’ve read or seen those things where people write, I was watching…

[0:50:00.8] SC: Write for a star.

[0:50:01.8] TG: The director.

[0:50:03.0] SC: Think about the stars. Who is going to play this part? It’s going to help you characterize that archetype because you know what they are? They’re Jungian archetypes of human behavior.

[0:50:16.1] TG: Okay.

[0:50:17.6] SC: So it might — that’s like deep psychological stuff to describe what Vin Diesel is but Vin Diesel is a particular American kind of figure that people around the globe recognize immediately, he’s descendant of Clint Eastwood and the man without a name and those great Sergio Leone westerns, he’s part of a long tradition of a strong, silent American who just get shit done.

[0:50:48.1] TG: Yeah, do you think that’s helpful in writing a novel too?

[0:50:52.6] SC: Yeah. If you want a great — think about, I always say darkness is the key. Think about your antagonist very strongly before you start going nuts about your protagonist because the greater, the more time and effort you put into creating the force of evil, the force of darkness. You’re going to just have to create an even better protagonist.

But if you start with the protagonist and you fall in love with the protagonist then the force of evil, you’re kind of afraid to make too great because then you might — your protagonist, it might not be believable that they could overcome that force.

[0:51:34.1] TG: Okay.

[0:51:34.4] SC: If you’re thinking, horror directors and horror story tellers. They intuitively know, “Man, I got to think up a Freddy Kruger kind of terror. I got to think of the worst possible—” Hannibal Lector, is there anybody worse than you go to a psychiatrist or a psychologist, you give them your deepest thoughts and he turns out and he eats you?

[0:52:06.5] TG: My whole thing in my story is that, well because I want to have this overarching evil that she’ll eventually have to overcome but she has to kind of basically…

[0:52:15.4] SC: At least five bucks though.

[0:52:17.5] TG: That’s the whole idea but she has to kind of work her way up.

[0:52:21.9] SC: Yeah.

[0:52:22.2] TG: Evil and she just is taking care of little pieces of it to get to the big one. So I thought more though about that overarching evil than the one particular one she’s dealing with in this book and I should probably…

[0:52:34.1] SC: Don’t forget about your evil too is that the evil has to make a good point, you know what I mean? The evil, I don’t want to get too political but Donald Trump is appealing to a group of people that are very dissatisfied with the United States and the way it’s going right now. He appeals to them because he reinforces their disappointment.

So he’s capitalizing upon so much discontent in the country and the other people who are in the race, they didn’t sort of latch on to that dissatisfaction in a way that is very in your face and so amazingly heated. He wasn’t afraid to go dark. Donald Trump is not afraid of going dark if it means it will further his political ambitions. You have to think about your antagonist in a much similar way. The antagonist needs to have a world view that kind of makes sense.

[0:54:05.5] TG: One of the, becoming a cliché at this point is the person that wants to destroy the world or wipe out the human race is because we basically become locust and we’re just destroying this planet and the next step is to just take us all out. Because look at us. And this was in Matrix of just…

[0:54:04.8] SC: Well that, I think the Matrix was far more nuance than that because the Matrix’s genius was in creating an artificial intelligence that was almost symbolic and metaphorical of evolution. If we create a thing and Ex Machina the movie is like this too. Really great movie. There is a movie that has an example, a great action pot on a very, very small stage that is believable and exciting but it’s made up of three characters.

The entire screen time, there’s four really. It’s kind of two AI robots and two men. It’s great story about politics between men and women, the genius role, the mentor role, the protagonist who wants to be a “do-gooder” and how those guys are no match for two artificially intelligent female bots. They will always win.

[0:55:13.7] TG: Well we talked about the antagonist, his view on the world has to at least make sense. This idea that humanity has used up their usefulness and is now destroying everything. It makes sense to just get rid of all of us. I’m seeing that in like the latest X-files reboot, the latest Mission Impossible movie, it’s like that, you can make that argument that this world would be better off without humans. And it’s like, “Yeah, I get that.” Is that kind of what you mean of the point of the antagonist makes is like a good point. At least understand what they’re saying.

[0:55:53.3] SC: Well, the great point of Darth Vader in the early Star Wars movies is we need order, we all can’t be special little fish and have our own little aquariums, we need somebody to keep things in order. This is sort of the argument that a lot of really great capitalists make. Steve Jobs was an autocratic desk bot. The guy controlled his company from his own personal vision. If you have no vision in your company, forget about it. Then it will degenerate into a bureaucratic mess where everybody’s fighting for political favor and nothing ever gets done.

That’s a really good point that you can extrapolate to a story. How can I make my bad guy make a really good point? I think we’d all agree, you need a leader with vision. Somebody who will say, “We need to move from here to here. Phones are terrible, cellular phones are terrible. I’m going to create a new product that will make cellphones superfluous. I’m going to create the perfect machine that will not only be a phone, it will be a camera, it will be a global positioning system. It will teach you things, it will talk to you, it will make you feel comfortable with yourself. You won’t have to type, all you have to do is use one finger and swipe things.”

If you look at it, what was Steve Jobs’ speech? This is a great thing about the antagonist needs to have a great speech in every great action story. You need a moment where the antagonist can basically lay it on the line, “Look you idiot, don’t you see this? If we don’t do this, this is going to happen. If that happens, this will happen.” You rationally take, walks the reader or the viewer through this dystopian horrible thing that will happen if he or she doesn’t get their way. You know what? Who did this very well was, in the Gone Baby Gone, a great novel by Dennis Lane and Ben Affleck made the feature film.

It was this amazing story about this poor little girl who was being essentially abused by her mother. She didn’t really care about her, one of the guys said, Morgan Freeman in the movie who is a police detective staged her “death” so that he could raise her in an appropriate environment. The whole story is about this detective who is hired to investigate the murder of this little girl. The climax of the story is, the girl’s not dead. The girl was taken away from her mother because somebody saw that their mother was not a good mother and decided that he would be a better father and a better figure for that little girl to grow up in. Guess what? That’s a good argument.

[0:59:03.9] TG: Yeah.

[0:59:04.3] SC: Have you ever walk down the street and seen some unfit father, slapping his son and saying to yourself, “That father should not have a child. That child should be taken away from that father,” but guess what? You can’t do it. The climax of that book which is very disturbing is that the detective says, “Sorry dude, that’s not your child, that child has to go back to his mother. And he takes that child and he gives it back to the abusive mother who looks at the child and goes great. She’s back now. Anyway, I’m going to the bar,” and that’s the end of the story. Justice is served but it’s a painful justice but it’s a justice nonetheless. We cannot take children away from people because we think that we’d be better for them.

[0:59:51.7] TG: That’s the example of…

[0:59:53.6] SC: The bad guy…

[0:59:54.9] TG: The external story ends in a positive but the internal story ends in negative.

[0:59:58.7] SC: Exactly. That’s why it’s right in the solar plexus at the end of it you’re like, “Oh my gosh, that poor little girl.” But you know what? A lot of people grow up with parents who aren’t the best and they become great people. You cannot take a child away from her family just because you don’t like the way they’re being raised.

This is — so the bad guy in that movie is Morgan Freeman who ends up, have so much sympathy for him. But guess what? He’s the bad guy, he took a child away from their mother and he staged the death because he thought he was better than that mother. He was being in despot. He was saying, “I know better than you do and I’m going to take away all of your rights and take away your child from you.” That is wrong.


[1:00:53.0] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. Again, this was the one where Shawn and I were actually sitting across from each other, my kitchen table and you may have even gotten to hear my dog barking in the background. That’s a feature that wasn’t a mistake. So I hope you really enjoyed the episode I enjoyed recording it with Shawn and next week we’ll be back on Skype where we won’t have as much background noise hopefully.

So anyway, thank you for listening. As always, you can catch everything Story Grid related at If you want to see any of the past episodes or the show notes or the downloads we reference in these episodes, all of that is at You guys are awesome and keep adding iTunes reviews and ratings even though I’m not begging for them every week. So I’m not going to beg for them now even though you probably should go leave a rating or review on iTunes if you haven’t yet.

Continue to share it with your friends, continue to share in any online author groups you have, this is what keeps us going. This helps us keep from having advertising on here and we can continue to share these episodes with you. So thanks for listening, thanks for your support of the show, and we will see you next week.

7 comments on “Coping with Imperfection

  1. I can leave a comment early this time because I actually listened to this Sunday night before falling asleep…

    So, a friend tells me that he ordered three silk shirts in India, in a small family owned shop. Upon receiving the shirts, which were beautiful, he noticed a small hole in the bottom seam.

    “What’s this?” He realized they all had the same flaw.

    “Only God is perfect.” (Say that in a voice like the Seven-Eleven guy on the Simpsons).

    It’s kind of interesting listening to the podcast realizing Tim is in the same place I was about 15 months ago (after having consumed the blog like Francis Dolarhyde eating the Great Red Dragon).

    I can concur that the best thing I ever did was create and write a rough draft without looking back and without caring. 80,000 words in three weeks out of the crazy mind.

    Then the rational mind can show up and work.*

    *Assuming you have one. Jury is still out in my case, but Tim seems rational enough.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for another inspiring podcast — great energy with you two guys in the same room (even with the barking dog)! Resistance is so insidious – I’m sure it had a hand in Tim’s picking up the King novel when he did to try to undercut his confidence. The takeaway for me today is to “keep barreling through!”

  3. Kent Faver says:

    Great episode Tim and Shawn. I re-watched The Deer Hunter for the first time in 25 years last month – and had forgotten just how incredible that story is. Oddly enough, my main memory was that darned long wedding scene. Yet, it was crucial to the story.

  4. Anne-Maree says:

    The FF movies are so enormous they tentpole the whole studio. They have already greenlit 8,9 and 10. And really, they are one of the most racially inclusive casts out there. And all (allegedly) just friends of vin’s. Enormous fun.

  5. Jean Gogolin says:

    These are so valuable – especially this one because I’m one of those people who finds it very hard not to edit as I go; to just barrel through. But I’m also one of those people who reads these rather than listens to them, so the errors in the transcripts stick out like crazy. To wit: “micro chasm” and “Michael Angelo.” Would it be too difficult to have an editor go through the transcripts and fix those things?

  6. Kerry West says:

    Hi Shawn and Tim. Thanks for your podcasts. I’ve been reading the transcripts quietly, making no comment, learning as I write, and discovering filler – having the same thoughts on this subject as you Tim, although in a very messy way, I think I can say I’ve started a second draft now. What I’m finding is that while some of the filler needs to go, I’m also writing it for different reasons and in new places. I’m wondering if filler in the right places, once you work out where those places are, allows you to refine the story structure. As I say, this could be about the messiness of writing a first novel without starting out with a plan, but maybe not.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Kerry,
      Tim and I taped yesterday and this tangentially came up. My gut is that the filler we all write when we’re doing a first draft or second or third is some sort of “musing” that has to be released from our subconscious. So definitely pay attention to the filler. There are probably some cool things in there that you can use in the final draft and/or in another project.

Leave a Comment