This Far, No Further

When should your hero get out her gun in your thriller? What about that first kiss for your love story?

In the global inciting incident?  In the middle build? Ending payoff? When?

How do you push your storytelling to the most delicious place and stop, leaving readers wanting more…so much so that they just have to turn the next page? Go to the edge of your scene without going over the top?

These are obviously critical questions. And unfortunately, the answer is squishy.

That’s as it should be because these decisions require individual genius.

The answer is that every writer has to start to “feel” when it makes the most sense to break out the innovations he’s planned for his global genre’s obligatory scenes and conventions.  I wrote a post for Steven Pressfield’s site last Friday that talks about this critical skill.  A writer must come to command his own private Idaho or he’ll have trouble making his stories work.

It’s like learning how to throw a proper fastball in baseball.  Or learning how to swing a golf club.  Or when to drop the punch line for a comedian. Coaches are great and they can put you in the frame of mine to discover your inner flow, but they can’t turn on the pipeline.  Only you can let the water flow.

What’s a poor writer to do?  Tim and I talk through it on this week’s episode.

You can listen by clicking the play button below or reader the transcript that follows:

[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and Welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me in a minute is Shawn Coyne, the creator of Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience and he is helping me figure out how to write my first book.


As I was looking back over my notes for this episode, I was trying to figure out what this episode was all about and what I think it is, is about calibrating your scenes and calibrating how you build your story. So you’ll hear him talk about a couple of scenes that I wrote and those are going to be on the show notes of course. But he keeps talking about how I go too far in some ways and not far enough than others. I think it’s this really nuanced thing that I’m trying to learn about how to keep the reader engaged without just hitting them over the head with it. It’s this hard kind of middle ground to find.


And so that’s why I call this episode Calibrating Your Scenes which seems like a really boring title but I think it’s really important especially for those of us really getting into writing for the first time and making sure that our story is building it the right pace and we’re not going too fast and slowing down. So that’s what this is about, and we talk of course about villains again and inciting incidences again but we go for my scenes as well and really get into the weeds on it and I think it’s something that you’re going to really enjoy and learn a lot from.


Let’s jump in and get started.




[0:01:41.5] TG: So Shawn, based on our conversation last week, I went back and I wrote two different opening scenes for the book and I sent those to you, what did you think?


[0:01:54.2] SC: I think you did, first of all, your ability to — you’re getting into a groove of leaving out things that are really important to leave out. The exposition problem that you used to have is slowly fading into the background and that is a huge step forward for a writer.


[0:02:13.5] TG: What do you mean?


[0:02:14.8] SC: When you first begin to write, you have a tendency to, we all do, to over explain things. We’ll add in extra exposition that explains a particular moment. She came in to the house that was 20 feet by 36 foot feet and it was a 500 square foot home. So that is the tendency that we all have when we begin to write because we want to be understood. It’s so important that we don’t make mistakes, as a writer when we’re beginning, that we overcompensate by adding so much information that it bores the shit out of the reader.


For example when you first started sharing things with me, you would have a tendency to have the character say things exasperatedly or, “Fruitfully he walked through gingerly,” adding a lot of extra adjectives and adverbs to create a false sense of description. As you’re writing more and more and more, you’re discovering within yourself an ability to just get to the point, to just describe the action in a very straightforward way.


So these two scenes that you wrote — and I have comments about both of them — are like four, five steps ahead than anything that you’ve shown me before. They’re better than the scene that you wrote for the anthology and I suspect that you didn’t spend a lot of time on this meaning you didn’t edit the hell out of them before you sent them to me and I think that’s a very good thing because you’re writing from a place of wanting to go from A to B to C to D to E to F and then bang, finish your scene in a way that has a mini cliff hanger to it.


So you’re using the story principles that we’ve talked about so many times before where you have an inciting incident, you progressively complicate it and then you have a crisis, a climax and a resolution. All of those things are clear in these two scenes that you wrote. Again, just to give the listeners a little bit of background on where we are now, Tim has returned and I have returned from a long sort of hiatuses and so we’re getting back into Tim’s manuscript and the thing that we’ve been corresponding over the past few years about, you want to write an opening scene that your reader becomes extremely invested in.


You want to have a slam-bang, action scene that is going to really suck in the readers so that they’ll read your second chapter. That is really a crucial part of any story, of any novel, of any long form narrative non-fiction is that you have to open really strongly, you have to hook that reader as soon as possible. One of the things we were talking about in emails back and forth over the past few weeks is the necessity of establishing your inciting incident of your global story in such a way that it establishes the stakes, which you’re going to be life and death, and also establishes the world that this character is living in, however briefly and shortly you can do that, and it has to end with a cliff hanger of sorts where you’re not really sure what’s going to happen next.


So in the two scenes that you wrote, you have that stuff. Now, I have some ideas about how to take them to the next level and there are a couple of things I need to tell you about your protagonist here and I think you need to — the last time we ended our podcast, we were talking about hero, victim and villain. This is the moment in this very first scene where you have to establish those three roles extremely clearly so that the reader understands what the stakes are, who is the potential hero, who is the villain and who is the victim.


[0:06:31.1] TG: I didn’t do the victim very well.


[0:06:33.3] SC: That’s what I wanted to say. Yeah, that’s the big thing. Now the first thing I’m going to say is that I think that the scene where Jessie is called in medias res, meaning she’s in the middle of stealing, she’s in somebody’s house and she’s in the middle of taking things. The bad guy or whoever it is, the authority figure is sitting in an armchair sort of watching her doing what she’s doing.


I really liked this because it’s catching her in a moment of vulnerability so that it raises the power of the powerful figure who begins to talk to her and it gives that guy a lot of confidence. Now Jessie is in a moment of real vulnerability and what I also liked about the scene was that there are these sort of third party figures who were there sitting there but they’re sort of locked into the world. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s a virtual reality world where these two people are locked in and they are oblivious to Jessie being there and this other guy being there, is that correct?


[0:07:55.5] TG: Right.


[0:07:56.5] SC: Okay.


[0:07:57.5] TG: I tried to leave that like unclear, but we’ve talked so much about it. But yeah, that was one of the things — I kept…


[0:08:07.0] SC: That’s a hook.


[0:08:08.0] TG: Yeah, I kept trying — I actually wrote, like there’s so many times I pulled back in the middle of a draft where I started writing what they were there for and then I just deleted it all and then I’d add a bunch of adverbs and I’d delete all the adverbs. I kept just pulling back throughout the entire draft.


[0:08:31.1] SC: That was absolutely the right thing to do because what you’re establishing here in this very first scene, it’s like that very first scene in that novel that you were telling me about, I read a long time ago. Long time ago meaning like maybe three months ago when it was the woman with their two kids and they have to leave and she’s got to blind herself.


[0:08:53.4] TG: Bird Box I think.


[0:08:54.8] SC: Bird Box yeah. What I liked about this scene that you wrote with Jessie sort of in the middle of stealing is that it h as a feeling of that very strange, alternative universe, weird, “what the hell is going on?” sensibility that Bird Box had to and also The Girl With All The Gifts. Those two examples of opening inciting incident scenes, Bird Box and The Girl With All The Gifts, I think have helped you understand what you wanted to create here.


Added on to those two sort of examples of mysterious alternative universe worlds, you added on what we’re discussing last week which is the knock on the door scene which we talked about in terms of Inglorious Bastards and you brought that to the table to here. The fact that you left out all of the details about why there’s this two figures sitting in chairs who are completely oblivious was a really great decision because again, everything in writing is hooking and paying off. So what you’ve setup for the reader is a big mystery, they don’t know why this people are sitting there. They’re going to want to find out why they were, they’re going to want to keep reading because…


[0:10:18.7] TG: Oh man, I’m just so glad to hear you say that because that’s what I was trying to do.


[0:10:25.2] SC: Yeah, and it’s easier said than done and you did it. Follow that instinct more and more and what you’ll discover is that a lot of the — one of the problems that you mentioned last week was that you over plot. You add everything in the kitchen sink into something because you think you need to keep adding more elements and more plot turns and twists and the reality is that if you have a very strong central story spine then that’s going to be enough really to pull your reader along.


The tendency for overthinking writers like yourself and all including myself in this, is to constantly be complicating the storytelling and adding more plot points. When in reality, if you can just slow it down and walk us through, really tightly constructed scenes that have very strong, beginning, middles and ends, you don’t need as many major plot twists as you think you do.


Okay, so let’s get back to this two scenes. All right, I’m just going to — and you’ll put this in the show notes I know, but the one scene is written from the point of view of it’s third person point of view. Its’ third person omniscient, I didn’t read it that closely to see if there was free and direct style there. Do you ever go into the mind of Jessie?


[0:11:57.0] TG: I don’t know, I can’t remember.


[0:11:58.7] SC: That’s fine. It’s absolutely kind of cool that it didn’t strike me that you had or hadn’t because what that says to me is that the narrative was strong enough to drive me through without my editor hat jumping on and going, “Oh he’s…”


[0:12:19.9] TG: I don’t think I did because my worry is, when I’ve done that in the past is when I start over explaining things. I use that as an excuse to tell everything she’s thinking. Where what I try to do in this one was like, if I showed up in the room and had no idea what was going on and started watching, I’m just going to tell you what I see because I don’t understand what the hell is going on…


[0:12:43.5] SC: Great.


[0:12:45.3] TG: …is kind of what I was thinking when I started writing.


[0:12:49.2] SC: That’s a really good strategy. Okay, in the second scene, there’s a setup where the brother is being interrogated and then it’s maybe in a paragraph or so and then bang, it switches into his narration of the story. Now right now, I would advise that you go with the Jessie and the ambassador scene without tacking on that bit about the brother.


[0:13:20.9] TG: Yeah, I was trying to think, you know, you keep telling me to think hard about the narrative device. That was kind of my stab in the dark of I was thinking about — ah jeez, super popular book with the journal entries.


[0:13:37.3] SC: Oh Gone Girl?


[0:13:37.3] TG: Yeah, Gone Girl where each chapter open with a journal entry. I was like playing around with what this chapter opened with testimony from the trial. We talked about there being a trial and that’s where — the narrative device. But that was just kind of what I was messing around with at the beginning of that.


[0:13:57.8] SC: I think I’m not going to say that that, maybe you should throw away that idea yet but it’s always been my advice to, if you can get away with not having to add that kind of meta, narrative device stuff at the very beginning then don’t do it. Sometimes it works because there’s a sensibility to the writer where there’s this sort of, this mystical character inside of their mind, that’s kind of almost dictating the story to them.


We’ve all had kind of experiences like that where we just sort of are, I don’t want to get too mystical here, but it’s almost as if you’re listening to somebody tell you a story and then you’re just sort of taking dictation of what they’re telling you and that’s a great example of a narrative device that works. The first thing that comes to mind is, Steve Pressfield’s book, The Legend of Bagger Vance which is the story, it’s a first person narration of an older man looking back in a seminal moment in his life when he was a young boy and he’s this great old, sort of grandfatherly storyteller who is telling a story to somebody who needs to hear it.


But I don’t think you need that here. Your beginning with Jessie and the middle of the house rang interesting and it did feel as if somebody was narrating a scene that they were actually picturing in their mind, which has cinematic feel to it, which is great. With that said, I think the scene with Jessie and the representative of the villainous dark force works.


Now, here’s what doesn’t work in the scene. What doesn’t work is that you don’t establish the victim which is something I talked about just a second ago. The reason why you want to establish the victim is because you want to establish in the reader’s mind a mission. A mission story spine that they can anticipate to the end of the line. So without a victim mentioned and without a mission for the hero to save that victim, there’s a level of uncertainty that can really work to your disadvantage.


Because you want to be able to fire on all cylinders in this first inciting incident scene such that there’s no way that your reader will not read the second chapter. So a way to do that is to firmly establish the hero, the villain and the victim. You’ve established the hero, you’ve established the villain, you don’t really talk about the victim, you talk about the victim the brother but you talk about him as if he’s dead.


[0:16:55.5] TG: So let me run this by you. My plan was to use, was to have the brother be dead or they assume he’s dead and the revelation that he’s still alive is basically what gets us from the beginning hook to the middle build where that’s what gets her over the hump. What I try to do and I obviously didn’t was basically the reason she ran was to protect her friends. I never know if this is getting lame as I say it.


But the idea was her friend’s a rat, were basically endanger now and she was going to save them, that’s why she ran. My thought was, that would be the victim in the beginning hook and the victim would switch to her brother, which would be why she went at the end of the beginning hook.


[0:17:51.6] SC: I think you’re trying to establish too many victims early on and I think that the best choice is to make a single victim that will — so here’s what I suggest you do and the other thing that I need to say before we get too far is that the choice of turning point, now the turning point is something I talk about in the story grid book and it’s a crucial moment that turns the tenor of the scene, it turns the value shift of the scene, from the core value of the scene to its opposite. For example, if the core value of the scene at the beginning is life, there’s got to be a turning point that shifts it to the thread of death. The turning point that you use in this scene is Jessie stabbing the ambassador, correct?


[0:18:39.6] TG: Right.


[0:18:40.4] SC: Okay. Now, every turning point we have two choices to turn a scene. We can do it through character action, which is what you chose which is when Jessie stabs the ambassador. That’s character action is one way to turn a scene, one character does something to somebody else, somebody acts to do something to somebody else and the other way to turn a scene is through revelation.


Now revelation is a way of somebody throwing out information that the other character does not know that changes everything. Their life was one way before they hear this information and it’s another after they hear this information. The choice that you made was to make your hero do a violent act. I’m going to warn you about that, to have your hero resort to violence in the inciting incident of the scene, especially when she is, we haven’t even really established what her age is yet but she’s more in the Katniss Everdine Arena, maybe 16 to 19.


[0:19:55.7] TG: I established it in there. I said, because there was that line where he said, “Even a 12 year old girl will get blah, blah, blah.”


[0:20:02.4] SC: Okay, then this is even more important. A 12 year old girl using a knife, inciting incident in the scene is going to turn off a lot of people because it’s just too dark to early.


[0:20:17.3] TG: Okay.


[0:20:19.4] SC: I’m not saying that she wouldn’t use violence at some point in the storytelling but it’s going to be the last resort. It’s going to be a moment that is just so over the top, threatening to her or the people that she cares about that there’s just no other alternative because we have to think about not just perhaps the reality that there are some 12 year olds who would resort the violence very soon but I think the overarching sensibility of most people is that a 12 year old is innocent.


A 12 year old is not a fully formed human being yet and they are frightened. They are vulnerable, they are fearful of violence. This is all to say that I think you should switch the turning point from character action to revelation. Now, prior to the turning point, Jessie is insistent that there’s no way in hell she’s going to go with this guy. The core action, The core value of this scene, is she going to go to the capital under this new program or is she going to stay in the world in which she is? Is she going to leave or is she going to stay?


So the thing that’s going to make her leave is going to turn the scene. Now you decided for her to stay, to protect her third party rat friends. Now, we don’t care about the rats. All we care about is this girl because we don’t have any back story about these rats, we don’t really care that she wants to protect them, we just want to get this story moving. What we want to establish is a clear hero villain and victim.


I know I’m repeating myself but it’s important to sort of get this mantra in your head. So here is what I suggest. I suggest that you have the story turn the scene turn through the revelation that the ambassador says to her, “Oh by the way, your brother’s not dead.” So you can establish early on that she thinks that the brother is dead, everybody in this community thinks the brother is dead. There’s no way in hell that she’s going to go to this special program because what happened to her brother?


So when the ambassador says, “Okay, I understand your point of view Jessie, okay, we’ll leave you here.” You can also establish, “Look, we’re not going to come after the rats, we like rats, The rats help us find the bugs in our systems so don’t worry, we’re not going to come after your friends.” You can have this guy be that Christof Waltzian and kind of figure, “Don’t sweat it, we’re not here to rid the world of rats, we need rats in the system to find the bugs.”


I understand your trepidation of her abandoning her friends so you can get rid of that very early with sort of a way of this guy charming Jessie into going with him. He’s going to try out a whole bunch of different things to get her to go with him and he’s not going to budge until he throws out the trump card, “Oh by the way, your brother’s not dead. I know it seems like he is but in fact, he’s one of the people who asked us to come get you.”


[0:24:16.1] TG: Okay, my issue is, I thought the way I was picturing the beginning hook, so the first 25% of the book was basically her refusing the call and then ending with her accepting the call, the whole thing was, “Not going to go, not going to go, not going to go. Okay I’m going,” and then that’s what kicks off the middle build.


That’s why I was trying to turn it in a way where she ran and said no because then the rest of the beginning hook would be building towards her saying yes. It’s changing that, that was just my current plan but obviously we thrown about 83 of my plans out of the window so far so an 84th won’t hurt that bad. So we’ll just — I need to know where I’m going with the beginning hook if she says yes in the first scene.


[0:25:10.8] SC: Okay.


[0:25:11.5] TG: I was planning on using the revelation of the brother still being alive is the reason why she would go. I was like, 14 scenes away from giving that away.


[0:25:22.6] SC: That’s exactly correct and now that, from what I recall, is what I probably advised you to do. Now the reason why I’m changing it now is this. We have to write all the plans that we make are great for a map but we have to react to where the story is taking us as we’re actually writing it. So what I’m saying to you is that, the way you’ve established this world has a lot in common with the Hunger Games and I think — and it also has a lot in common with The Girl With All The Gifts and Bird Box and the thing about that kind of establishment of a world is that the reader is very, very, very, very familiar with the hero’s journey.


Just in their bones, they know what it means. So they know that the hero is going to refuse the call and Jessie does refuse the call in the scene at the very beginning. She’s like, “Ehat are you crazy? I’m not going there, my brother’s dead. If I go, what’s my mother going to do? She already lost one kid,” and the guy is like, “Well, it’s not really, you know how that goes, she doesn’t really care if you go,” he doesn’t really say it that way. My point is that the reader, once they read this, they’re going to go, “Oh, she’s got to go.” It’s like in the Hunger Games, I think Katniss goes, agrees and sacrifices herself for her sister in the second scene right? Or the second chapter or third chapter?


[0:27:13.5] TG: Yeah, the first one is she’s out hunting with her buddy and they’re talking about it and then the second scene is they go and she…


[0:27:22.4] SC: Sacrifices herself. Okay, she doesn’t deny the call, she doesn’t want to go to the hunger games but the revelation that turns the second chapter is if you don’t sacrifice yourself, your sister’s going to go and your sister’s going to get killed immediately because she’s an innocent. Katniss goes, “Oh jeez, I can’t refuse this call or my sister’s going to die so I’m going to go.”


So similarly, what you’re establishing in this first scene is a girl who has been caught basically stealing and that’s a capital offence, right? So she could theoretically be arrested by this guy and thrown in the clink for and put to death, is that correct?


[0:28:12.3] TG: Yeah, because the people she was stealing from were plugged in.


[0:28:16.0] SC: Okay, so you really need to hammer that home to her. You don’t go, you die. Now that’s a revelation that works and it establishes the cruelty of this world too because she’s there, she’s not stealing like silverware, she’s stealing food, right?


[0:28:39.5] TG: Right.


[0:28:40.6] SC: Okay, she’s stealing food from this people who are plugged in and that is a capital offence, that’s a pretty good revelation, if you want to save the brother is alive revelation for somewhere down the road, you could use that one instead. I wouldn’t have it be a capital offence, I would say it will require incarceration because if it’s a capital offence, it raises the stakes a little bit too quickly so that it seems a little over the top. But if you’re caught when somebody’s plugged in, the first offence means — I don’t know, I’m just making this up. A year of hard labor in the mines or whatever. The guys says to her, “All right, you’re 12 years old, let’s see. Statutes would say yeah, you got to give a six month in the copper mines.” So do you want to go like copper mines or you want to go to the super duper great program that I’m offering you? Then she goes, “Well, I guess I’ll have to go to the copper mines?” He goes, “Okay, well let me think about that. Yeah, we can make that happen, the thing of it is though, if you go to the copper mines, your parents are not going to be able to get your credit.


You can kind of like — you want to think about if from the point of view of the villain, his job is to get her to come and he’s got a whole bunch of tools that he can use to do this and the big trump card that he has is, okay, I’m going to level with you, it’s your brother who sent for you. He’s in deep shit and the only way that he’s going to get his life saved is if you come and join this program. Are you going to come now? That’s a thought too.


Think of it in terms of you’re trying to get your son to cut the grass and he says, “Dad, I don’t want to cut the grass. There’s no way I’m cutting the grass today,” and then you’ll say, “Well, I’ll give you $2 if you cut the grass.” “Nah, that’s not enough.” “Okay, $5.” “No, I don’t want $5.” “Okay, how about you stay in your room for the rest of the day?” “Okay, well I don’t mind staying in my room?” It’s like, it’s literally that kind of arguments that you try and go back and forth, you’re trying to convince somebody to do something then you need them to do.


So just to take a step back, the character action of her escaping and stabbing the guy in the leg is too much, you don’t want your hero to do that especially she’s 12 years old. She is not going to use violence if you can help it. She is going to use her brain and her really smart, clever way of getting out of situations, not violence because she’s just not going to be strong enough to overpower a grown man and if she does, it’s going to ring false to the reader and that little bell will go off in their head and will say, “Nah, I don’t believe this, this is baloney.” Now, if you do want her to get out of this situation and deny the call in this first scene, you’ve got to figure out a different way for her to escape that is going to use her brain and not a knife.


[0:32:15.9] TG: Okay, so are you saying that because, the hero’s journey calls is denied so often, having her accept the call in the first scene is a turn that’s unexpected and that’s why you should do it? I’m trying to understand why you’re encouraging me to go down one path over the other.


[0:32:36.2] SC: It’s not that I’m encouraging to go down one path over the other, it’s that I’m trying to think of the logic of the story. The logic of the story is that this is a dystopian world where there is have’s and have not’s. It opens in the scene where a young girl who is 12 years old is smarter than everybody else and she’s caught stealing from a family that’s plugged into the alternative reality. That is a crime in the society because they want to encourage people of plugging in to the alternative reality.


As she’s in there and she thinks she’s completely undetected because she’s been doing this a lot and she’s really smart, all of a sudden there is this figure who is sitting in a chair who says to her, “Hey, how are you doing? Yeah, I see you’re stealing, this is a problem. We’ve been watching you, we’ve been letting you get away with this stuff. Now here is the deal, we need you to come to the capital to join our super special program because we actually look for people like you and it’s important that you do this.”


She says, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” “Well why not?” “Well because you did this to my brother and he’s dead. If I go with you and I die, what’s that going to do my parents?” So the guy has to say, “I understand what you mean. Well here’s the situation, if you don’t do it, you got to end up getting six months of hard time and labor.” So what you’re doing is you’re establishing the parameters of this world through this active scene where one person is trying to get something from another and there is a perpetrator and a victim in the scene.


The victim in the scene is the girl but she’s also going to be the protagonist of the story. So you want to seed into this inciting incident of your story that there will be somebody else that she has to sacrifice for in order for her to be the hero. So the hero’s journey is, the hero begins and is told that they have to go do something and their initial reaction is, “No. No, I’m not going to do that.” Okay, so you actually have that in this opening scene? She says, “No, I’m not going to do that, I know what happens to people who go on this stuff and I’m not going to do it.”


So you have abided by the hero’s journey, denial of the call. Just in this opening scene. Now, if you have five more scenes where she keeps saying no, the reader’s going to get exasperated because you have established in the very first scene her saying no. I think that’s fine, because you know what? We know that she’s going to eventually go. Right?


Somebody offers an opportunity like this to get the hell out of the dystopian world, they’re going to do it. That’s what the story is where somebody goes from one world to a new world. So to delay that just because of the formulaic elements of the hero’s journey, you are abiding by the hero’s journey but you’re escalating, you’re speeding up the hero’s journey and that’s what Susan Collins did in The Hunger Games.


She didn’t fits and futs with The Hunger Games, she got her on the way to the hunger games after two chapters, the book is called The Hunger Games and guess what? She is in the hunger games in two chapters and we’re with here, “Oh great, we don’t have to read all that crap about her not wanting to go. She’s going. My gosh this is great, we don’t have to,” — you know what I’m saying?


I think your instinct to get her into this program is going to pay off and going to excite the reader because they’re going to say to themselves, “Oh this is great, Tim’s not going to make me read those seven other scenes that I don’t care about where she goes and protects the rats and the rats say, “Thank you so much Jessie for protecting us and — eventually she’s going to go to the capital, we want her to go to the capital immediately.”


[0:37:06.7] TG: So in Stephen King’s book, jeez, the date one, about the JFK killing, 11/22/60. Yeah. The beginning hook of the book, which was I remember was talking about it on the show because at the end of the beginning hook, I checked percentage and I was at like 26% of the book, I’m like, “Yeah, nice one. Nice Shawn.” The whole thing was like, he goes back to do this kind of mini journey as a test for the big journey.


So he goes back to do the mini journey, he comes back and then at 26% he dives in for the real story of the book. I thought, like so, I’m just struggling with then what am I doing with the rest? I’m 2% into the book. If she says yes in the first scene, I’ve liked killed where I thought I was going with the first 25% of my book and I’ve done it in like the first 3%. So where am I getting her at 25%? What am I doing for the next 14 scenes in my beginning hook?


[0:38:19.3] SC: Well, the beginning hook, you have to think about it, you have to say to yourself, “Okay, that’s what Stephen King did in that book.” You have to also remember that was a different genre, that was a historical alternative fiction reality kind of thing. It was like science fiction with alternative history so he needed to establish the vehicle that would get us back in time. He had to create the time machine, so he spent the first 25% of the book creating the time machine, correct?


[0:38:57.1] TG: Well, I don’t want to get in the weeds on it. The time, you know how his books are, it’s just a weird super natural thing exist and he doesn’t explain why. The whole thing is, the guy, his mentor figure wants him to go back and stop the JFK killing but he goes back and stops a smaller issue just to see if it’s possible.


[0:39:18.8] SC: Right.


[0:39:19.9] TG: That was the whole thing. So he was establishing that “yes I can actually change history so now I’m going to go back and change the JFK shooting”. I’m trying to think where I want to go is she ends, up the training portion, the middle build is her developing the skills and getting the knowledge and tools so that she can fight in the threshing for her faction. The whole reason why they want her is they figured out that she doesn’t die in the game. So she’s a soldier that can constantly regenerate which will give them the upper hand. That’s where I was going with it.


[0:40:03.5] SC: So the threshing is what? Is that sort of like a hunger games competition between rival factions or what?


[0:40:11.5] TG: Yeah, but in the digital world.


[0:40:13.5] SC: Okay. So the capital and this ambassador represents the power in charge correct?


[0:40:23.1] TG: Correct.


[0:40:23.8] SC: Do they have an annual threshing where they fight alternative factions in this online world?


[0:40:32.5] TG: Yes, it’s every —  I had in my head, four years, they come together to fight for who establishes the power. Maybe it’s because we’re in election cycle but I’m thinking of that like it’s been agreed long ago that they come together and fight for who will rule for the next four years. Is there — side note. I feel I can talk about what I’m writing in nonfiction all day long and not feel embarrassed but every time I talk about some story idea in fiction, I feel like so stupid. Because I’m like, “Well, there’s this rats,” and it’s like it sounds good in my head, I say it out loud, I’m like, “This is so lame,” you know?


[0:41:20.5] SC: No it’s not. I had — I mean poor George Lucas had this little animated, this little puppets that he used to do for Star Wars and people thought he was out of his mind. This is the difficulty about doing fiction and especially the difficulty about doing what you’re doing is opening yourself up to critical thought of basically dream like ideas that you have in your own mind. Yeah, it is embarrassing to reveal plot points and ideas that we have for stories that do not reflect reality because they come from your own subconscious.


So you’re feeling vulnerable to — you feel stupid because you’re talking about something that’s coming from your insides. When you do that, criticism can really be very painful because it’s literally coming from the inside of you and it’s not, you’re not sort of projecting these nonfiction ideas that are in the public record and you can say, “Well, Seth Godin says this and this guy says this. So what I’m going to do is combine those two things.” When you talk about nonfiction, you’re talking from a point of view of things that are in the record now.


So when you’re creating something from whole cloth, it’s coming from your internal self and you get very embarrassed about it because it makes you feel vulnerable and it makes perfect sense. So I am not here to ridicule or make you feel bad about what you want to fictionalize and come up within the story. What I’m here to do is to help you construct a world that has a beginning, middle and end, that has consistency and progressively complicates to a crisis moment in the story that will pay off in a thematic way that you want to do within the genre that you’ve chosen.


The genre that you have chosen is the thriller genre and the value and the payoff of the theme of the thriller is that heroes sacrifice themselves in order that others, a larger group of people, will benefit from their sacrifice. So the global theme of your story is that it’s important that heroes sacrifice their own petty lives and things in order that a larger segment of people will benefit from that. So that’s the controlling theme of a thriller and that’s what you’re shooting for. You are establishing a protagonist named Jessie who we expect because we all love thrillers will eventually sacrifice herself for the greater good, and that will be the payoff of your story.


So all this other stuff that we’re talking about, the threshing and the capital and the ambassador, this is all to serve that theme. That theme of a young girl who is pressed into service for reasons that she doesn’t understand but a villain does. She will come to a crisis moment where she either does the bidding of the villain and benefits from doing that bidding or she betrays the villain and undoes the villain undoes the greater good will result and she will sacrifice herself in order for the greater good.


So that’s generally this story is going to go. The inciting incident is that Jessie is called by the villain to join the villain’s plot. She’s not going to want to do it at the beginning. It gets induced to doing it for a reason. Then the middle build is her discovering what the villain’s plot is, trying to gain favor with the villain in order that she can do what the villain wants so that she can save the victim who will be her brother and then she thinks everything is going to be okay.


But there there’s going to be a big reversal where the brother is actually part of the villain and then she discovers that she’s been played this entire time and then she has to make a decision about whether or not she is going to sacrifice herself for the greater good or she’s just going to go along to get along and all the other stuff that we’re talking about, the threshing in The Hunger Games and all of these things is to serve that very simple spine of story.


A hero is brought in by a villain to do the villain’s bidding, the hero finally discovers the truth and has to make a crisis decision, “Do I do what the villain wants or do I do what’s good for everybody else?” And she does what’s good for everybody else and the resolution is that the villain loses and she loses but the greater good is served. Does that make sense?


[00:46:52.5] TG: Yes and it sounds amazing.


[00:46:58.8] SC: It is amazing and the difficult thing is to be able to go deep and figure out this threshing stuff and the world and whether or not we want to extend the hero denying the call for the first 25% of the book. It’s getting into all that stuff is to serve this global story spine that is an important thing that we all want to hear. We all want to hear if there are bad people out there that they are asking us to do bad things for them, we might end up doing some bad things for them and then we will come to a realization that what we were doing is not right and we will change ourselves for the greater good.


This is an important story for society. We have to learn that there are forces of evil out there trying to manipulate us into doing things that we don’t think are right and sometimes we go down that road for the villainous things but we have to understand that at some point, we are going to have a deep realization that what we are doing is not serving the greater good and therefore, we must change and that’s what a thriller is all about.


It’s all about the hero coming to understand that they have to change and that their change will be for the greater good and they will sacrifice the petty life or their pettiness in order for other people to have a better world and that’s why this story is important and that’s why you shouldn’t denigrate yourself for coming up with really fun ideas that are inside of you about threshing’s and about all of the stuff that you’re coming up with, which is really cool and interesting.


I think your first scene with Jessie being interrogated by this nice ambassador while these two people are plugged into machines that we don’t understand is kind of cool. So let’s go with that, let’s use what you’ve come up with for this inciting incident of your global story and just build off of that instead of trying to figure out how where everything is going to figure out in the end. Let’s just go step by step, maybe the first 25% of the story is going to be her indoctrination into the capital world.


The turning point at the end the of beginning hook of the global story will be something that says, “Oh by the way, you’re going to be the commander of the rats and the threshing.” I don’t know, I just came up with that but let’s not worry about, “Oh shit poor tense, it’s already mapped out 14 scenes at the beginning hook what are we going to do? Now we’re going to have to throw those away?” Well the good thing is you haven’t really written all the scenes yet.


So this is why I said to you in an e-mail a couple of weeks ago, “Look let’s really nail down this inciting incident of your global story because that’s going to really give us our north star into how this thing is going to move forward.


[00:50:11.3] TG: Okay, so between the two scenes I sent you because actually the one, not the one we’ve been talking about the most, the first one with the whole kicked down the door and come in and attack the dad one, that was the first one I wrote. That was the one that just was very cliché, I would say. Would you agree with that?


[00:50:32.6] SC: Well, I wouldn’t say cliché, there were unique elements in it. It was familiar and it’s a classic kick down the door scene but the second one was more interesting because it had a level of — there was a terrific, I think the first novel that David Baldacci ever wrote was about this thief who breaks into, I think the white house or something, and he’s in the middle of stealing something and he sees a crime where the president is I think raping somebody, I forget what the novel was called but it became a movie Clint Eastwood starred in it.


Anyway, that’s an interesting way to get something going too where you have somebody who is living outside the law, Jessie’s living outside the law. Now she’s motivated for good reason, she’s there to take some food from people who have more than they need but she’s living outside of the law and she’s being confronted by the law inside this very strange world. That is, I think, more interesting than my idea which was the kick down the door scene.


[0:51:48.3]TG: Yeah. I tried to establish like things in the world without saying it as well. The fact that he lit a fire or there is an oil lamp for light but he have like a walkie-talkie in his ear. I was also trying to establish the whole juxtaposition of the elites have basically access to electricity in the commoners don’t.


[0:52:19.4] SC: Right.


[0:52:19.9] TG: Okay, as my homework, should I like take the first scene and fix the things we’ve talked about? Is that what I should work on next?


[0:52:32.9] SC: I’m trying to think what the best strategy is. I do think that it’s worth working on this scene to really get us to the next scene. Now globally, you have a million ideas, you have — and what I do think you do have Tim here is you have a vision in your head that is getting more and more clear. It’s a lot more clearer than your first draft of your last book, which seemed to be a bit generic, like there was this sort of bad corporation and this seems very distinctive and interesting and unique.


So yeah, your homework is to work on this scene and to keep in mind the following: Jessie cannot use violence, she cannot use a knife, you might want to turn the scene using revelation instead of character action. Or, if you do use character action, it has to be really clever. Clever in a unique way that will get her out of the situation that will make the reader go, “Oh my gosh, she is so smart. I can’t believe she did that, but they’re definitely going to get her. I wonder how they’re going to get her?” Then that would setup the second scene where she thinks she’s gotten away and in fact she’s fallen into the exact trap that the ambassador set for.


So she thinks she’s really smart and she got away but the reality is that the ambassador just three or four steps ahead of her and it’s at that point where she’s forced to do what the ambassador tells her to do. So I think you may be right, I think you may want to save the fact that the brother is alive for a bigger moment. Later on in the story but what that’s going to make you do is to come up with a really great way for her to escape this situation that does not require any violence.


[0:54:55.0] TG: Okay, I have that down.


[0:54:57.9] SC: Right.


[0:54:59.2] TG: All right, well I’ll work on that and we’ll come back next week.


[0:55:03.5] SC: Okay.




[0:55:04.2] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, make sure you go to Also, when you go there, make sure you sign up for the email newsletter. That’s where  we send out, not just new stuff with the podcast, but everything in the Story Grid universe. To take a look at downloads for this episode and my scenes and the show notes and if you want to look back at any past episodes, all of that is at If you have a question for us and want to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter, @storygrid. Thanks as always for listening, and we will see you next week.

6 comments on “This Far, No Further

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    Tim and I are writing in different genres, but I found this podcast helpful nonetheless. Thanks for posting the two scenes you were discussing. Tim, your courage here continues to astound. Shawn I also appreciated your specific feedback. While I have managed to retain Stephen King’s “no adverbs” admonition, the problem of “over explaining” continues to dog me. As always, thanks to you both!

  2. I enjoyed this episode a lot and learned a lot again. I’m glad Shawn gave the OK to hit that turning point where she finds out her brother is not dead so early, as the book I’m plotting out has a similarly early real world to new world transformation and I was worried it was too soon. But the Hunger Games example shows that this is a great tactic and if used properly can give you a whole set of build-up chapters to really hook your reader in. Ha ha look at me talking like a pro just because I’ve listened to a few podcasts! But really, I’m just like Tim – non-fiction is my ‘thing’ and I’m only just venturing into my first novel. This podcast is always top of my list for learning opportunities though. Thanks guys, great job.

  3. Danny says:

    Another solid podcast. The relief I felt when Tim admitted to sounding stupid explaining his story. I am not alone.
    Shawns reply was perfect.
    Thanks guys.

  4. Kent Faver says:

    Wow – wow! Shawn’s wisdom to Tim at the 41 +/- minute mark and following is worth the price of admission alone. I can totally relate to Tim’s fear / embarrassment in explaining a fictional plot point to someone not down firmly yet – if you missed it – go listen again to Shawn’s encouragement. So good! We are so fortunate to have these resources.

  5. Just hit the B52’s reference and had to stop and give you a thumbs up. Nice 🙂

  6. Rebecca says:

    First and foremost, this podcast is so helpful. I spend time listening (and re-listening) while also thinking about my novel and how to create it in a way that works. Every episode seems to tell me exactly what I need to hear when I need to hear it (and then some). I think it helps that I am also writing young adult action adventure, but even so.

    With that said, I’ve noticed that Shawn’s expertise seems to be more in the realm of adult thriller. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (his advice certainly still applies and is beyond helpful), but as someone who loves YA and comes from that background, I wanted to give Tim a list of books that I think are helpful to at least checkout since they each offer a unique take on story. They each can teach something valuable to writing within YA.

    1. Illuminae- this is action/adventure in space with some technology aspects built in and I think the narrative device is perfect for the story
    2. The Chaos Walking trilogy- a space/alien world action adventure that is worth studying because it’s impossible to put down once you get used to the voice
    3. The Raven Cycle- not so much plot based, but interesting because the world and characters are so captivating
    4. Six of Crows- a heist/labyrinth plot that is magical. It uses exposition as ammunition in relevant backstories to interesting characters in a fascinating world
    5. Fire & Flood- Hunger Games meets The Maze Runner that does a good job of including the commandments of storytelling in an interesting way
    6. Caraval- not out yet, but a game plot that could be interesting and relevant

    Not that this list is by any means complete and it is just my opinion, but I’ve found them helpful to read while using the Story Grid materials and trying to write my own novel.

    I also had a question for Shawn on the topic, if that’s ok. What’s your take on the shift in romance in YA? I’m not sure you can answer that if you don’t read a lot of it, but it seems to me that after The Hunger Games and, really, Divergent, there was a movement to include more of a love story plot within YA novels. Obviously with the age of a character as young as 12 or 13 like in Tim’s book, it’s not going to be as prevalent, but sometimes it feels like a requirement to include this aspect to a story and I’m wondering what you think about it.

    Thanks again for this awesome resource, I’m excited to learn more as more material becomes available.

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