Beginnings Differ from Endings

This episode of The Story Grid podcast is about getting back to basics.  When you’re flummoxed, it’s always a good idea to take a deep breath and go back to the basics.

What is my global over-riding Genre? In Tim’s case, it’s the Action Genre

What is the value at stake in that Genre? For Tim, that value is Life/Death.

Which end of the spectrum of value should my story begin? For Tim, the value should begin negative with a crystal clear threat of Death…or literally death.

Which end of the spectrum of value should my story end? For Tim, the value should end positive with Life defeating Death.

The global Genre’s value at the beginning must differ from the global Genre’s value at the end.

Things must clearly and convincingly CHANGE!

To listen click the play button or read the transcript below.


[0:00:00.1] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. My name is Tim Grahl and I am the host of the show and I am a very struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me in a minute is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with 25 plus years experience helping authors write books that can sell and that work.


So last week, we went through the first draft of my book and Shawn pointed out to me many, many things that were wrong and I basically spent the last week being in a sort of depression trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do next. So this week, we actually get to work on how to fix this first draft and turn it into a workable second draft.


So it’s really a strong episode about how you can take your first draft, the questions you should be asking and how to find your theme and your genre and how this gets you to a point where you can actually work on your second draft. So I feel a lot better going through this episode and I think it’s going to be really helpful for you as you finish up your first drafts and knowing what you should do with this giant thing that you created.


So let’s jump in and get started.




[00:01:24.3] TG: So Shawn, the last week has probably been the worst week of this entire process for me. I have been so just tied up through this entire week because I was like, “Well, he didn’t even tell me I’m allowed to write. He just told me to go read some stuff.” So I’ve had several issues. One is every time I’ve tried to think deeply about my book, I can’t. I don’t know, it feels like if you’re in the woods and you’re looking for a deer and you catch it out of the corner of your eye but as soon as you look at, it’s already gone.


I’ve tried to just think about it. I’ve had to the point where I just think about it peripherally, if that’s a word. Because every time I tried to put my conscious mind to it, I’m like, “I can’t do anything with this”. So I actually started a whole other book, a non-fiction book that you and I have talked about offline so I started writing that. I’m at 4,000 words into that because I’m just like, “I can’t do anything with this.”


So you told me to think deeply about the controlling idea, the theme and so I re-read that chapter of your book. I went back and read some of the posts that Steve’s done on on theme and you said the theme that was on my book was, here I’ve got it here written down. You said, “Those who can overcome trauma will gain in strength.” Every time I think about it I’m like, “Well that sounds good to me. Can we not just use that one?”


So that’s where I’m at, I’m not sure. I’m completely blocked on what should I be doing or how to handle this or how to go about re-working into a second draft. So much of this has been like, “Okay, I just need the next thing I’m supposed to work on.” I’m completely at a loss and so that’s where I’m at and I have just dumped all of that on you. So your thoughts?


[00:03:51.0] SC: Okay, well the reason I wanted you to think, sort of take you out of the minutia of the work for a little while is that you have a tendency as I do to have a checklist of stuff to do to fix things and there’s a time in a project where you have to accept the fact that the book that you have created, the first draft, it’s a great thing to accomplish a first draft but you have to step back and look at it now very, very analytically.


You have to look at it in a way that is completely the opposite of a writer writing a scene or writing an outline and this is where editors can really, really earn their pay. So the place that you are right now is you’ve got a first draft, your editor has said, “The book does not work, that the genres that you’re working with are hurting each other so that the reader when they start reading the book is assuming one sort of genre. Then once they get further in, it switches to another and then it goes back and forth and they’re not really complimenting each other appropriately now.”


So the reason why I wanted you to think about theme is because them and controlling idea are the Rosetta Stone of the story and so if we can lock down our theme in a very specific way, what it’s going to tell us is, what is the perfect genre to match this theme to? Right now, your story has a thriller-ish, techno thriller clot device akin to something like a Michael Crichton story and it also has a hero’s journey sort of revelation or education plot where your lead character is discovering things about herself as she changes through the course of the story and they’re not really jelling now but the good news is that there is a clear theme that I was able to sort of pull out of it, and I think you were working subconsciously to get that theme to be very clear in this first draft.


So this is the stage for the writer to say, “Okay, here is my first draft. I’ve got to accept the fact that I may have to abandon every single word of it and I need to be open to change. I need to be open to throwing out things that I really love, manipulating things that I’m sort of so-so on and I need to look at this from the 30,000 foot point of view. I need to really get down to brass tacks and figure out my beginning hook, my middle build and my ending pay off,” and the way to do that is to hone down your controlling idea theme.


Now how do you do that? Okay, the thing to do, and I got this from Robert McKee, when you’re trying to figure out what the controlling idea is, is you have to look at the controlling idea as sort of — here, I’m going to read a sentence from his book Story. “A controlling idea maybe expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.” So basically, what your controlling idea is going to tell you where you start in your story and where you’re going to end and the way you’re going to do that is you’re going to really focus on the global value at stake in your story.


Now you’re lucky because we’ve had a lot of discussions about your story and what you want to do and we sort of came down in the action genre. The action external genre, the value at stake in action is life and death. Will the hero survive or will the hero not survive? Will the hero save a victim or will the hero not save the victim? Somebody’s life is at stake. So we know the value is life and death. The other thing about a controlling idea and the theme is that you have to have in one sentence the cause of the change.


So for example, after our call last week I’ve been doing some thinking about this and here is kind of what I came up with that I think makes sense. So here’s what I have: “Life cheats death when heroes confront their darkest fears and sacrifice themselves for the greater human good.” Now, that controlling idea theme is very interesting because it talks about the central McGuffin of your hero and what that McGuffin is, is her ability to cheat death. She is capable of not only just surviving a mortal situation but actually she gets stronger from that experience. Go ahead.


[00:09:58.6] TG: Let me stop you there. So if I don’t have access to Shawn Coyne to read my story and tell me that for me, what would I do? Is this a situation where you get some other literary friends to read it and say, “This is what your story says to me,” and try to find that guiding light theme based on — if I can’t see what I’m putting in there subconsciously, that means I have to get input from other people, right?


[00:10:27.4] SC: Well you can and I’ll tell you how to do it. You have to look at the plot devices and the ideas that you came up with for your story and you have to look at them from an analytical psychological point of view instead of, “Oh here’s a really neat thing that I’m going to use to make my character different than every other character in fiction.” So what do I mean by that?


You need to think about, well why did you choose that your hero would have the ability to resurrect? What is it about resurrection and the resurrection myth that is interesting to you and how could you use the information in the resurrection myth, the resurrection stories from history? How could you use that information to help you hone in on the right genre to really, really present?


[00:11:25.6] TG: So you’re saying, take the unique parts of my story, this is almost an oxymoron. So take the unique parts of my story, see where those have been used before, that doesn’t really make sense but…


[00:11:38.1] SC: No, no that does make sense.


[00:11:39.0] TG: Well because then they’re not unique and then that’s going to tip me off to the kind of story I’m telling.


[00:11:47.9] SC: Yes.


[00:11:48.0] TG: Is that what you’re telling me?


[00:11:48.9] SC: Yes.


[00:11:49.7] TG: So like when I think about people coming back from the dead, I think about Lazarus in the Bible, I think about — oh what movies have I’ve seen that in? I’m sure I have seen that in plenty of movies, if I really went back and looked. And so start trying to look at where these devices has been used in other places and that’s going to tip me off to the type of story I am trying to tell?


[00:12:11.7] SC: Yes.


[00:12:12.4] TG: Okay.


[00:12:13.3] SC: Now, the resurrection myth is — so the great thing about myth is that is pervasive in all of our lives and we all understand it intuitively because the myths have been with us for thousands of years. So to look at the gift that your protagonist has which is an ability to resurrect and not only resurrect but get stronger and not die is a great way of discovering which genre is the best one for you to use to really focus on.


The resurrection myths go back to Persephone, the Greek myth where there is a young woman named Persephone who was desired by the god of the underworld and she was also desired by people on earth. So the myth that explains the turns of the season is the Persephone myth. For six months of the year, she has to go live with the god of the underworld and the other six months she comes and lives on earth.


So she literally dies for six months and then resurrects for six months and if you look at the myths throughout time, there is the Lazarus myth, there is a myth in Viking Norse mythology. So what these things all have in common is that they’re very strong action stories and what an action story is, is it has to have three things and you, you’re playing around with the action story genre in your book but it’s unclear right now because it’s a little bit muddled.


We’re not really sure that the conventions and the obligatory scenes of the action genre are all there right now. So you have a theme that says, “Life cheats death when heroes confront their darkest fears and sacrifice themselves for the greater human good.” Remember when I said that your controlling idea or your theme has to convey change?


[00:14:21.5] TG: Right.


[00:14:22.3] SC: Now, the change in that statement is, life cheats death. So at the beginning, life is challenged by death and at the end, life wins. So just that very, very short little bit of information tells us a lot about how your story should be structured. The beginning of your story should begin negatively and the end of your story should end positively.


So what that means is that when you’re charting your story and you’re looking at it globally as we are now, you have to say to yourself, how does my story begin? Does it begin negatively? Is it a negative inciting incident or is it a positive inciting incident? Because if it’s a positive inciting incident, it would probably mean that the ending is going to be negative because you want to convey change in your story.


[00:15:16.1] TG: Okay.


[00:15:17.3] SC: So let’s look at the inciting incident of your story. The inciting incident of your story is, a young woman gets a job at a very coveted corporation.


[00:15:29.9] TG: Right, which is positive.


[00:15:31.0] SC: It’s kind of positive, right? And it ends with her defeating the force of evil that arises in that corporation. So it ends positive too. It begins positive and it ends positive. Now I’m not saying that this is an iron clad rule but it’s a good rule of thumb especially for the really intense global genres like action. Action is one of the first genres to ever come into human activity.


Now when I was thinking about this, I was saying to myself, “Okay, so Tim should probably think about changing his inciting incident from that being positive to negative and the other thing that Tim needs to think about are the three primary conventions of an action story.” Now, these are pretty simple and when I say them to you, you’re going to say, “Oh yeah that’s so obvious,” but…


[00:16:34.7] TG: No, I’ve been talking to you long enough to know that even if that’s my first reaction I’m like, “Oh that can’t be right.”


[00:16:44.4] SC: Okay, this is very simple; in every action story — now these are roles, these are not characters.


[00:16:51.6] TG: Well, what’s the difference?


[00:16:53.5] SC: Well, a role is something that can be many characters can fill the role of what I’m going to talk about or a single character can, or they can switch up. So let me just say what I’m saying. In an action story you have a hero, a villain and a victim. Those are the three conventions of an action story to begin with.


If you don’t have a hero, a villain and a victim, you don’t have an action story because the action genre, it concerns life and death. So in all action stories, you have a role filled by a hero who must confront a villain to save a victim. So when you’re doing an action story, you need to say to yourself, do I have all of those roles assigned?


[00:17:48.4] TG: I don’t have a victim.


[00:17:50.7] SC: You don’t have a victim, do you? No.


[00:17:52.8] TG: No.


[00:17:54.0] SC: Okay.


[00:17:54.5] TG: Or I tried to make the hero the victim.


[00:17:58.6] SC: That’s absolutely a reasonable choice, but that is really convention of the thriller and you can make that choice in an action story but that’s a mid-point, middle build big switcheroo as opposed to starting from there.


[00:18:15.8] TG: Okay.


[00:18:16.7] SC: So let me give you an example. One of my favorite action stories over the last 10 years and I’m not alone here obviously, is The Hunger Games right? Now, The Hunger Games is a story of a 16 year old girl who lives in a dystopian world and it’s run by a technocracy, a bureaucratic division that in order to keep the society under control, it stages these Hunger Games every year or every five years. I’m not sure what the mythology is off the top of the my head.


But these Hunger Games mean that two children from each community have to go onto this television show and basically, who’s ever left standing at the end of this game wins and they literally die. So this young girl, 16 year old girl, she’s in this town and the inciting incident of the entire story is this. So each year they have to pick two people. So all the people show up in this community in this area and there’s a guy at a microphone and he draws out of a hat, “Okay our first Hunger Game participant is Jim Smith, and the second one is,” I forget her name but, “Penny Everdeen,” who is Katniss’s sister.


So the little girl is six or eight years old and she’s definitely going to die very quickly in this big competition. So what does Suzanne Collins do here? She is setting up the hero, the villain and the victim in one fantastic inciting incident scene, and so what Katniss does is she says, “Hey, I’ll take my sister’s place. I’ll go to the Hunger Games, she can stay here.” So what she has done, the writer has done, Suzanne Collins has done is she’s established a victim, a hero and a villain all in one big scene.


The villain is this very strange government tyranny that actually shows and runs this strange world and televises this blood sport. So that’s the villain. The hero is Katniss because she sacrifices herself very early on to save her own sister and the victim begins as the sister, right? She’s the victim at first but it ends up being Katniss too because she has put herself in the position of victim as well as hero.


So in this one very fantastic opening scene, all the conventions, the really core conventions of the action story have been satisfied and the reader is like, “Oh my gosh. What’s going to happen next?” I know exactly what this story is and we know that Katniss is going to have to go away and she’s going to have to be in this incredible competition. How is she going to survive? What is her major skill? How is she going to get through this horrible set of events?


So we’re rearing to go to keep reading that story and this is the key thing when you want to tell an action story. You have to think of a really great beginning hook. You’ve got to really reel in the reader in that first scene, ideally. So the reason why I am saying this is that we have a controlling idea theme that fits perfectly, it aligns perfectly with the action genre. So the action genre is very specific. It’s not a techno thriller.


So the things that you have used and stressed in this first draft that are techno thriller-ish have to step back. We need to bring those back. I’m not saying we have to throw out the McGuffin of how she gets this super power, but we have to pull it back and the other thing that we have to do is immediately establish a victim and a villain in the reader’s mind from page one, if we possibly can.


[00:22:54.7] TG: Okay.


[00:22:55.1] SC: So we know, we also know the ending of your story. The ending of your story is that your hero is going to win. That’s a big deal. We know that she’s going to overcome the villain at least the first villain in this. Because let me just take a step back now and talk about the difference between characters and roles.


[00:23:15.9] TG: Okay.


[00:23:17.0] SC: A role is something like in Lord of the Rings, there are seven heroes that make up the heroic core. There are seven different characters who have a specific skill set and when they’re all together, they’re extremely powerful. So that core group is the heroic center of the story.


In Raiders of the Lost Ark, there is more than one villain, right? There’s the Gestapo guy, there’s a mad scientist in there, there’s three heads in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They’re not all coming to me now but I do think there’s at least three forces of evil in Raiders of the Lost Ark. So you can have more than one villain but the villainous force is a crucial, crucial element in a story. Go ahead.


[00:24:15.9] TG: So back to Hunger Games, the villain at first is this kind of government and it solidifies into the leader of that government, White I think was his name or Snow I think was his name. So it’s like personified, even in Hunger Games, in a couple of ways where this evil government but also the guy that leads the government. Is that what you’re talking about?


[00:24:43.6] SC: Yeah. The villain is a force that can have multiple heads and if you’re planning on making this more than one novel, then you want to think about how can I have layers of evil? Now the villain in an action story is more important than the hero, right?


[00:25:04.5] TG: Yeah, we touched on that before.


[00:25:05.8] SC: Yeah and I’ll tell you why because the villain is the force that generates the spine of the story meaning what the villain wants will raise an object of desire in your hero and what the villain wants is the major thing that you have to figure out.


[00:25:33.2] TG: Okay because the villain is the one that constantly throws up — it dictates what the hero has to do based on the road blocks it throws up.


[00:25:46.2] SC: Exactly.


[00:25:47.1] TG: I am thinking of Die Hard now.


[00:25:48.9] SC: Yes.


[00:25:49.6] TG: Right, so the entire movie, is it John…


[00:25:52.9] SC: John McClane.


[00:25:54.3] TG: McClane, all he is doing is reacting to what the villain is doing.


[00:25:59.9] SC: Well he has an object of desire and his object of desire is to get his wife safely out of the building because he still loves her.


[00:26:07.9] TG: Right but every single thing he does is basically jumping over a road block that the villain has put there. So the villain is dictating what he does based on the road blocks it puts up to get to the object of desire.


[00:26:21.8] SC: Exactly.


[00:26:22.4] TG: That’s why the villain is the one you have to figure out first because it will dictate to the hero what’s happening.


[00:26:29.2] SC: That’s exactly right. Now, I think it’s a good thing to talk about the Hunger Games for you because in the Hunger Games, the villain manifests itself as individual people throughout the trilogy of stories but the central villain of Hunger Games is the tyranny of the government, right? The tyranny meaning that they get to make all the rules and everybody in that society has to behave according to whatever it is that they want.


Now, the way they get that tyranny, the object of desire for the government in Hunger Games is to keep the insurgents down to make sure that no movement arises that will challenge their power and so what they have masterfully decided to do and this goes all the way back to Rome is to entertain the population and entertain the population with a mass spectacle.


And the spectacle shows just how very powerful the government is and it makes victims of each one of the — and it rises in this competitive zeal of all these communities to have their children be the ones that survive and become the winners of the Hunger Games. It’s like one big reality TV show that has mortal results. People die and they not just die, these are kids who are dying.


[00:28:15.7] TG: So even in the Hunger Games, you can look back — so you look at the Hunger Games and the particular unique thing about it is this Hunger Games that these kids are sent to you and then you can look back and even history, not just myths and see this play out over and over and if you could probably just overlay Hunger Games on top of all of these myths. Is that what you’re kind of getting at when we first started talking about looking at past myths of resurrection?


[00:28:46.2] SC: Yes, exactly and we’ll get into the sub-genre of the action story. I guess we could do it now but I think let’s stick with the — you can see how as an editor it’s very easy to get off track.


[00:29:04.1] TG: Yeah.


[00:29:04.4] SC: So I always come back to genre and I say, “What are the conventions and obligatory scenes of a genre? Have I delivered those conventions and obligatory scenes?” And so the first thing that I always say that your story has to be about something. There has to be a theme or a controlling idea inside of the machine or your reader just will not be compelled or they will not have any sympathy or empathy for any of the characters in the story if you don’t have something, a controlling idea or a theme underneath.


So when we began this editorial process, what made me very excited was the fact that you definitely have a controlling idea and theme and our goal now in this conversation, and I think we already have done that, is to really clarify what that theme and controlling idea is and then use that theme and controlling idea to select the very best, meaning the one that you are the most attracted to and the one that could have the most commercial appeal because you are not doing this just for fun. I mean you want to become a professional writer who makes money doing this and there’s nothing wrong with that. So you have to think about how big of an audience you can reach with your story.


Now, we could have decided to write a much smaller story that was internally driven about your lead character and her sorrow about the disappearance of her brother but that’s not going to have as large of an audience as Hunger Games kind of concept behind it.


So anyway, that’s why we went through the controlling idea and the theme because that will lead us to the perfect choice of genre, global genre of your story and we’ve come to the conclusion that you want to tell an action story and, so now we’re talking about the conventions and obligatory scenes in an action story so that we can go back later and check all of the stuff that you’ve done in your first draft, amplify some, change some, completely throw some of them out but at least will have a checklist of things that we need to evaluate and think about for our next draft.


So the goal that we’re doing now is we’re doing a very big foolscap global story grid review and it all goes to that, I think it’s the six core questions an editor always asks, and the first one I always ask is, what’s the genre? And the way I get that answer is I think about the controlling idea theme is and that will help me.


[00:31:44.0] TG: Okay, so I want to stop here and try to back up and make sure that we don’t get too focused on just my story. So the path here is once I have a controlling idea and theme, something I am trying to say, then we look at the genres and we think, “What’s the best way to tell this theme?” So if my theme, if you have pulled out my theme, “Love will overcome all boundaries”, we would pick a genre that was probably one of the sub-genres of a love story.


[00:32:18.3] SC: Yes.


[00:32:19.5] TG: And because telling an action story with that theme, they just don’t match.


[00:32:25.4] SC: Or if your controlling idea is, “Justice prevails when protagonist outsmart the murderer or crime committer.” So justice prevails and that would say, if justice is what’s at stake in the core thing at stake in the story, then it’s a crime story. If life is at stake, it’s an action story.


[00:32:51.7] TG: So it sounds like, and I would say most writers are coming to the page already understanding what they’re theme is, the first draft is basically me trying to let something come out. Let the theme come out. Then I identify what that theme is and what I’m trying to say and then I go back and look at my story and say, “Okay, what’s the best genre to tell that theme?”


And then now, I can look at, “Okay what am I missing?” Look at those obligatory scenes, the conventions all of those things and then say, “Okay, what do I have? What am I missing and what’s in there that needs to be pulled out because it doesn’t match my genre?”


[00:33:38.4] SC: Yes and also what your theme/controlling idea will do is tell you how your story begins and how it ends. Remember, the thing that has to be in your controlling idea theme sentence is the value at stake and the cause of change. So, “Life cheats death when heroes confront their darkest fears.” So that means, I mea you can waddle that one down to “When heroes sacrifice themselves for the greater human good.”


So the cause is when heroes sacrifice themselves creates life. If heroes don’t sacrifice them, death wins. So knowing that then you know what the beginning of the story, somebody’s life has to be threatened and at the end of the story, life has to overcome that threat through the cause of the hero sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Does that make sense?


[00:34:39.3] TG: Yeah.


[00:34:41.0] SC: Okay.


[00:34:41.4] TG: I’m coming out of the darkness I’ve been in for the last week.


[00:34:45.0] SC: I know, this is why I called my company Genre Management Inc. It’s because the genres are such a gift to us because when we get stuck, all we have to do is take a step back and say, “Okay, what genre am I writing again?” Because everybody gets stuck. Everybody gets lost in the weeds of their own storytelling stuff because it’s fun and sometimes we forget to even put a villain in the story and when we write an entire first draft, we don’t even have a villain or a victim in there.


[00:35:18.1] TG: Yeah, I don’t have a victim. There’s nobody that my hero is fighting to save.


[00:35:24.1] SC: That’s correct. So there’s many, many opportunities to fix that and it’s fun. It’s fun to know what the problem is because you can fix the problem that you know you have.


[00:35:36.2] TG: Yeah, man I’d tell you somebody asked me just this morning he was like, “Yeah, so what have you been working on?” I’m like, “Yeah, I have been doing a ton of writing,” and he’s like, “Are you enjoying it?” And I’m like, “Well, I was and then I’m not anymore, but I think that’s a short term problem,” and I kept thinking like, “Shawn told me I was going to go through depression and here I am depressed. I can’t write, I can’t do anything.” So anyway, yeah I know.


[00:36:11.9] SC: And that’s a good thing. It’s impossible to explain to somebody when they’re in the middle of it but it’s a good thing because you are not blowing smoke up your ass right now, you know what I’m saying? You are not saying, “Oh Shawn just doesn’t get it. I’ll find somebody else who likes this. Somebody else will like this, right?” And then you force it upon your friends and then they belatedly say, “Yeah, it’s not bad.” Then you end up months and months go by and you just perpetuate the lie.


So anyway, what we’re doing now is what an editor does. We are taking a deep, deep breath and thinking about the global projection of this story. What’s the beginning hook? What’s the middle build? What’s the ending pay off? Now, the great thing about knowing your theme and your controlling idea, it tells you what the beginning hook is and it tells you what the ending payoff is.


The beginning hook of your story has to begin negatively and it has to put somebody’s life at stake and the ending ends positively. The hero overcomes the villain and life is restored to its balance. So it begins negatively and it ends positively, and I can’t tell you what great information that is to know. So here’s another little trick. If you know that you’re inciting incident of your beginning hook is going to begin negatively, guess what the climax of your beginning hook is going to end?


[00:37:48.9] TG: Well positively.


[00:37:49.9] SC: Positively, and then the inciting incident of — the positive movement will transition from your beginning hook to your middle build and then the end of your middle build is going to end how? Negatively because you’re going to end this thing positively. So the negative end of your middle build will coincide with that thing we talk about a lot, the all is lost moment. That is the moment when a hero has to reach a point where all is lost.


Kind of what you’re going through now as the writer. Right now, you’re thinking to yourself, “All is lost, there’s no way I can fix this. I’m going to start working on my non-fiction project because this thing is going to kill me if I keep going,” and that is actually a good choice to make when you’re in the throes of the belly of the beast. Try and move elsewhere because it will give your mind time to be able to step away from the project for a moment and think about it globally, which is what we’re doing now.


[00:38:55.1] TG: Yeah, I remember in an episode of Mad Men, it’s been years since I’ve watched Mad Men, but the girl, the copywriter that got the job and she’s the only girl.


[00:39:10.4] SC: Peggy Olson.


[00:39:11.9] TG: Yeah and she was really stuck on this problem and Don Draper said, “Think about it really, really hard and then let it go,” and that was like over the weekend when I’m like, “I’ve got to just let it go,” because we recorded early last week and then a little late this week, I actually had nine days in between us talking instead of the normal seven and so I’m like, “Of course,” I kept thinking, “God, I just want to talk to Shawn again.”


So over the weekend and I’m like, “You know Monday, I’ve really committed to this writing thing. I want to write as much as I possibly can and I’m not writing anything on this fiction right now,” and so when I was on a plane last week, I had sketched out kind of the initial thing of the non-fiction. I’m like, “I just have to write something to clear my head of this other thing that’s driving me insane.” So yeah, that’s why I started doing it.


[00:40:12.7] SC: That was a very wise choice. Do you want to keep going for the next sort of big whammy?


[00:40:19.7] TG: Oh yeah. Yeah, okay.


[00:40:21.4] SC: All right, so we know that it’s an action genre. We know we need to have a hero, a victim and a villain. We know that the villain is actually more important than the hero because the villain has to have the McGuffin, which is an object of desire. What does the villain want? Because what that villain wants will be the thing that starts the inciting incident. The villain is going to do something negatively that will cause the hero to have their object of desire which is always to save the victim.


So when you get lost in your story, you always have to see, especially when you have an action story, you say to yourself, “What’s my hero up to? Is my hero concentrated on his object of desire or her object of desire? Are they concentrated on finding where the victim is and saving them from the villain?” So when you get stuck, that is the through line of the story. We will follow the hero as they aggressively pursue the villain so that they can free the victim.


So we know that. We’re going to know that. That’s a convention of the genre and it’s very, very helpful. So again, the villain’s actions give rise to an object of desire in the hero and that object of desire in the hero is always to rescue the victim. That’s the external object of desire. Now, we’ve talked about the hero’s journey and all that stuff in many episodes and the hero’s journey is part of the action story because how does an action story work?


Just generically, you have a hero who’s called out of his or her ordinary world and they have to go into an extraordinary world and confront all kinds of obstacles in pursuit of an object of desire, which will inevitably change them until they return from that extraordinary world back to the ordinary world with knowledge and a gift for the rest of the community. So you see how these two things are running in parallel. The external action genre story line actually parallels the hero’s journey. So it’s always nice to know that because then we don’t sit around and go, “Oh my gosh, how’s my hero’s journey doing? Oh I forgot all about that.”


[00:43:09.5] TG: Right.


[00:43:10.4] SC: Because guess what’s going to happen in an action story? There’s a victim, something negative happens, a victim emerges, somebody comes to the hero and says, “Hey, check out this situation. This bad force has taken the victim away from us. We need your help,” and usually, the hero will say, “You know I’m not really the person for the job here. There’s plenty of more qualified people. I’m just going to stay here in my ordinary world for a little while.”


And then eventually they have to realize that they have to step up and do it, and then they transition into the extraordinary world and a whole series of mentors arise to teach them about this new world and how to behave in this world, what the rules are, how to be successful, how to defeat the villain and then they have to go in and then they have to fight the villain and either win or lose, usually they win because it’s a bummer when action stories end negatively because it makes us all feel like there’s no force of good in the world. So it’s great now and so now we know essentially that we have a couple of weaknesses. Major weaknesses in the book from the start. But you intuitively built in solutions in that first draft and here’s what I mean by that.


[00:44:47.3] TG: Wait, let me stop and ask one question real quick. So we already said I don’t have a victim and that’s why my villain is a little soft. Well, probably a lot soft because the villain…


[00:45:00.5] SC: We don’t have any idea what the villain wants.


[00:45:03.4] TG: Right.


[00:45:03.6] SC: It’s the amorphous force that you say is evil. You say this is a corporation that’s really evil. Basically you tell and don’t show and there’s no confusion about what’s really going on and you need that. You need something to arise that will get the reader going along for the ride.


[00:45:30.5] TG: Oh God, okay. This is great. Okay, you keep going.


[00:45:36.0] SC: Okay, so let me just give you a couple of ideas on that end. Your novels begins with sort of a service for the brother of your protagonist who disappeared one day and never came back and it’s been so long that they’re actually having a funeral service even though they don’t have a body, correct?


[00:46:00.4] TG: Right.


[00:46:01.2] SC: Okay, so what if you did this instead? What if, and I don’t know how to do the scene yet, but what if some strange guy shows up and he knocks on the door and he says to this young girl, “We need your help. Your brother has been gone for three years and we just got a transmission that he’s alive. We need your help.” Then that will immediately establish that there’s a victim out there who needs this woman’s help.


In the Silence of the Lambs, they didn’t bring in the victim, a real live victim until the middle build because they wanted to indoctrinate you into this world and there was Hannibal Lecter so there is so many great elements in that book that Thomas Harris could say, “Eh I’m going to wait a little while on my victim.” But you are writing a first novel, your first action story.


So my advice always is lay your cards on the table as soon as possible. Set up an unbelievable inciting incident that’s going to suck the reader in and forgive you for the myriad amount of mistakes that you’re going to make and a great way of doing that is always the call. This is a scene where your hero is approached by somebody else. Did you ever read Ender’s Game?


[00:47:33.2] TG: Yes.


[00:47:34.1] SC: Orson Scott Card.


[00:47:35.6] TG: I actually just read that in the last year for the first time.


[00:47:38.3] SC: It’s a terrific book, it’s a great book to read for an action story. It’s hard science fiction. We’ll talk more about Ender’s Game as these talks proceed, but what’s really — you have this chosen one who seems to be the only person who can come in and help and your lead character is, we’re not really sure what her expertise is or what she does yet and we might want to think about changing that. We might want to think about the McGuffin for her expertise.


We can talk about this more next week, but the thing that I would love you to think about right now is how do you set up a scene that’s interesting that hasn’t been done a million times before, where you introduce the villain, that there is some evil force out there that has abducted this young woman’s brother and I think the way to think about that is to look at the Hunger Games and think how did Suzanne Collins figure out how to establish a victim very early? So for the next week, I think it would be a great idea to think about the beginning hook and inciting incident of your entire novel and think of a concept that could be really fascinating.




[00:49:11.5] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. As you can probably tell, I’m in a much better mood after this episode as opposed to the last couple of weeks and I really hope it’s been helpful for you to kind of walk through what you can do to get your first draft, the kind of decisions you have to make to get it to that second draft space. So I really appreciate you listening to this and walking through this with me and I hope it’s been really helpful for you as well.


As always, if you want to see everything that has to do with Story Grid and really dive deep, you can go to Shawn has all kinds of blog posts and resources. Sign up for the newsletter. Make sure you don’t miss anything that Shawn is working on. Along with that, if you have missed an episode of this podcast or you want to reference any of our notes, those are all at


Thanks as always for continuing to share the show with your friends. If you want to reach out to us and give us any feedback or ask us any questions, we’re on Twitter @storygrid. So we will see you next week for Episode 31.

11 comments on “Beginnings Differ from Endings

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    What a great follow-up to last week’s post! Only those of us trying to get a first novel out can understand how you can write an entire first draft and not only not know your theme, but not know your genre either. Tim, thanks for being brave for the rest of us, and Shawn…thanks doesn’t even begin to cover what I’m learning from you!

  2. Oh happy day! Another fantastic podcast! (I can’t believe it’s #30!)
    It’s fascinating that an inciting incident like the one Shawn suggested to Tim at the end of the podcast can add so much rocket fuel to the beginning of a story. As soon as Shawn suggested the knock on the door, some guy saying to the sister, “We need your help. Your brother is alive,” I could feel my heart race. I’d definitely read a story like that. I’m hooked already and you haven’t even written it yet, Tim!!!

  3. Tony Levelle says:

    Probably one of the richest, most useful of all the podcasts in this series. It ties together everything covered so far. I am listening to it for the third time, and learning more each time. Much Thanks for this generous resource.

  4. augustina says:

    Doesn’t the villain want the McGuffin? Is the power of resurrection the McGuffin? Is the corporation trying to obtain the power of resurrection by kidnapping the brother and studying him? They may know that he has the power or resurrection but don’t know how to use it. They may want to test the hero to see if she has it too, or to use her as leverage to get the brother to do what they want. If I were the villain, that’s what I would want. I would want to control the power of resurrection.

    1. pen draggin' says:

      That’s a great observation, augustina. It certainly set a few gears clicking for me, at least. Perhaps Tim could use that idea as a jumping-off point for a second book (if this is a series)?

    2. Excellent points! I use this process, too. I find it helpful to imagine that I’m the villain, then make a list of all the possible actions I might take to get what I want. Also a list of all the possible feelings that might logically motivate me (as the villain) in each situation/ scene. And, of course, the same process for the protagonist.

  5. Shawn –

    So, today’s discussion of hero/villain/victim has laterally brought up something I’ve wondered about from time to time. Back in the days before The Story Grid I would take notes on the nuggets presented in Writing Wednesdays and What It Takes (still do). Most of these concepts were later further explained and/or developed by the Grid or your other writings. One thing you mentioned a couple of years ago, but hasn’t been discussed since, is a way of deciding how a given character would act in a given conflict by an analysis of imagining the character inhabiting the role of either the Victim, or Perpetrator, or Rescuer in said conflict. The concept is clear, and certainly stands on its own, but I’ve wondered periodically if this might be something you’ll be delving into again in the future?

    This podcast – and the series – has been enormously helpful. Thanks Shawn and Tim!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Jonathan,
      For those of you playing the board game at home, here is the post Jonathan references,

      I love this whole way at looking at role play in your storytelling (and in your own life). I’ve been meaning to do more writing about Transactional Analysis and Steven Karpman’s work, which is fantastically relevant to all writers. This work is invaluable for scene by scene writing and it can really make scenes clear, concise, and powerful. Here’s Steve’s site, This stuff is gold for writers and I hope one day to do a whole lot more on it. Thanks for reminding me!

      1. Thanks, Shawn. I went over to Karpman’s site and agree it looks like a gold mine for writers. All those triangles of conflict from his medical practice are an education in realistic character conflict, as well as a springboard for character-driven plot ideas. Thank you for sharing.

  6. It’s eerie how much Tim’s experiences with his current WIP parallel my own. I’m getting so much out of this series – keep up the good work! Question about obligatory scenes and conventions: is there a resource that groups them all in one place by genre/subgenre?

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