One Simple Question

What happens next?

This is the one question you must use as your North Star.  Have you created a scene that will elicit this question in your reader?  If you consistently bring the reader to this delicious state of not knowing, but desperate to find out… then you are creating the one thing that will ensure commercial success…narrative drive.

In this episode, Tim and I talk about this one question specifically and tangentially.

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

[0:00:00.6] 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 is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, he wrote the book Story Grid and ha has 25 years’ experience as an editor with, and he is helping me as I struggle through writing my first novel.


In this episode we talk first about his edits on my scene, my first scene, and we really go deeper into what it means to be an editor, what it means to be a mentor and a developmental editor and talk about all the ins and outs of what that means and what a good editor knows. Then of course we dive in to more of the nitty gritty of how to make my scene better. But if you’ve wondered about what an editor’s job is, what it’s like to be a mentor, this is a great episode for you, I think you’re really going to enjoy it.


Before we jump in and get started, I do want to mention one thing. Shawn and I have been invited to speak at Jeff Goins tribe conference, this coming September. If you’ve ever wanted to see me and Shawn in person, we’ll be doing a talk together, you can come to that conference and meet us in person and watch our talk. So that is at if you want to grab a ticket and I would love to actually meet you in person.


Okay, well let’s jump in and get started.




[0:01:32:.6] TG: So Shawn, last week I named the episode calibrating your scenes because when I went back through my notes on our conversation and re-listened to the episode getting it ready to publish, that’s what I felt like we were kind of talking about as I was going too far here and not far enough here and trying to find that middle ground and you actually did like a full edit of my scene and sent it back to me.


It was really interesting, and I’ll post it up so everybody can see your edits and I’ll post it with the changes track so people can see exactly what you changed. But what stood out to me is like, I tried to go really big where she’s like stabbing the guy at the end of my scene. The end of the scene that you had tweaked was her just saying, “No.”


[0:02:31.6] SC: Yup.


[0:02:32.6] TG: But yet, I was just like, “She said no.” And so it just — I think that’s what, it’s almost like I’m going to get like workout nerdy here, but last year I learned how to hand stand walk. It took me like three months and it was either like if I went too slow, I would fall, and if I went too fast I would fall. Learning to find my balance right in the middle of going like the right speed is kind of how I’m feeling where it’s like way amping up too early in the book or like not going far enough because you called me on not going far enough.


Anyway, I would just love to hear kind of what you were thinking when you kind of pulled it back and ended the scene with just a word “no” instead of somebody getting stabbed and somebody running of into the night.


[0:03:39.8] SC: I’ve got a whole bunch of things to say to that. The first thing I want to say is that I just wrote a post on Steve Pressfield’s site called Is Good Enough Good Enough? It’s sort of a reflection of what we’ve been talking about over the past few weeks and how I as a mentor have been getting frustrated.


It’s not anything that you have done but I could relate it because the other day I was playing catch with my youngest son who is a terrific baseball player and a wonderful guy but I’m trying to get him to throw a proper overhand fast ball. He just hasn’t gotten it yet and I was getting more and more frustrated with him because I was giving him all of these mechanical instructions, I was doing all this sort of drills with him and yet, and yet, and yet.


It got to the point where I had to say to him, “Honey, I’ve got to go in and make a phone call,” because I was getting so frustrated with him and it wasn’t his fault. The reason, I was thinking about it, what happened there? I came up with this sort of cheesy formula and the formula is this: it’s M + TEn = IF. That’s what the problem is. That’s what you and I are going to you right now.


Let me explain what this formula means. “M” means mechanics and in our case it’s story mechanics, the five commandments of storytelling your inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution. I’ve been teaching you the mechanics of storytelling for a while now and you’re getting them, they’re sinking in. Mechanics plus TE to the nth power. Now, “TE” stands for trial and error. “n” stands for however many times it takes the student to try and fail until their each a critical moment and that critical moment is when they throw their first fast ball overhand and they get the feel of what it means to throw a fast ball overhand and where to release it right from the ear.


So I can tell my son about throwing fast ball until I’m blue in the face but until he executes his first fast ball, he’s going to not really be sure what I’m saying all the time. Once he does, and I know this is true because I went through this with my oldest son and my daughter. Once they get it, then they’re like, dad, I totally get it now. Then they’ve got that feeling. Now, what “IF” means is internal feeling. That is the cathartic moment that you have after you’ve thrown your first fast ball and it feels great.


It’s the same feeling that somebody gets if they play golf or they shoot a three pointer and they know the second that ball goes off the fingertips, it’s in, it swish, it’s nothing but net. They can start running back down the court to play defence because they know that ball’s in, it’s like Steph Curry. The golfer, he picks up his tee when the ball is still in the air knowing it’s going right down the middle of the fair way.


So that’s what you want to do as a writer, you want to be able to learn how to throw the Tim Grahl fast ball. What you’ve been doing before you’ve been throwing these fast balls is you’ve been sort of piecing together a herky jerky motion that gets the ball close to the home plate but not exactly over the plate. You know what I’m saying?


[0:07:31.8] TG: I’m like those famous people that throw the first pitches and it lands halfway to the catcher.


[0:07:38.1] SC: No, no, you’re not like that at all. But that is a funny image to think about. What I’m basically teaching you is how to throw your own version of a fast ball. I can’t throw the fast ball for you, I have my own fast ball, I can’t give you mine. But what I can do is I can show you how other people throw fast balls, I can throw a fastball for you, I can show you, I can go through it.


So anyway, what happened last week in this last couple of weeks when we’re sort of grinding down to figure out what the next steps are is that moment of teaching, mentoring somebody’s internal feeling. Now once you start to get this internal feeling when you can read your own work and know, “Oh yeah baby, that’s a fast ball, right down the middle, there’s no way anybody’s going to hit that, that’s a 105 miles an hour.” When you’re a pro and you’re writing all the time, you’re going to recognize those scenes and you’re going to go yeah, I know what I’m doing here.


[0:08:40.8] TG: Yeah. I know that feel on the other side when I’m writing my business like nonfiction or whatever. I can’t remember if I talked about it last week but it was like, I’ve been grinding on this nonfiction book and I got some coaching from a friend of mine and then I wrote a new introduction for the book. I hit period after like 1,400 words and I’m like — I stood up, dropped the mic, I’m like, “That’s a good intro.” I send it over to him and he’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is the best thing you’ve written so far,” and I knew it.


Yeah, it’s that I haven’t been doing this long enough because there’s things that I put the period on and I’m like, “That’s pretty good,” I send it to you you’re like, “Nope.” And I’m like, “Okay.”


[0:09:28.8] SC: Okay so that’s the first thing and I think that’s kind of a — it’s a good way to give yourself the freedom to try and fail because you understand, you didn’t learn how to write great nonfiction practical nonfiction overnight. It took you a long time, you probably had to self-teach yourself that and now it’s a skill that you can rely on.


You can get the bio feedback moment when you hit that period and you go, “Okay, I can tweak this and I can make it even better, but I know I’ve got my five principles of storytelling down there, it’s nailed.” So what’s fun about working on this one particular scene is that it’s such a crucial scene, it’s the inciting incident of the entire story. Instead of us trying to figure out everything, we have a global sort of generic understanding of what the story is.


We know, generally we know the genre that you’re going to be hitting, we know the lead character, we know the villain, we know the victim, we know the hero, we have a lot of information that we’re doing so now is the time to start to trust all of that nine months of work that we’ve already done, you already generally know this world.


So when you said earlier that you really went for it on this initial scene and you had her using a knife and stabbing and going to the extreme, the reason why I cut all that back was that when I was reading through your work and I was line editing it, going sentence by sentence, the thing that an editor does when they line edit is they want to take away all stuff that doesn’t matter. All stuff that is explanatory for no reason, exposition that’s just going to bore the reader and they want to load in setups. Set ups for future payoffs.


One of the great tricks that I love to use and I always whenever I do use it, I’m always surprised that I’m like, “You know what? I’m going to end that right there and that’s going to get people to want to read the next page.” That’s what I did with your story, we were talking last week about the hero’s journey and you were making some really good points and I had to really mull them over when you said, “Oh wait a minute, I thought you said Shawn that the beginning hook of the story should be the hero denies the call and then slowly they’re forced to accept the call because that’s sort of the generic hero’s journey kind of structure?” And that is true.


Last week I was saying, “Yeah, but everybody knows that structure. Why don’t we try and tweak it and innovate it a little bit and have her go on that journey immediately?” But then, after we get off the phone last week I was like, “You know, I might be rushing this, I might be throwing away and giving him the wrong advice that we could have a real opportunity to make a transitional moment between the ordinary world to this fresh, strange brave new world in the future.”


So what would be a great way of doing that is to have a consequence, a threat, a crisis moment for Jessie in this first scene that has very, very high stakes but is not life and death yet. But we can tell life and death is going to come in to the equation just based upon the setup of the scene. The setup of the scene is that you’ve got a lead character who is outside the law, she’s breaking the law. She’s breaking the law for good reason because her family needs the food or her community needs the food.


I think you’ll notice when I went through your scene, I tried to load in the fact that she didn’t take the primary food source of these people she’s stealing from, she took the left overs. She took the second loaf of bread. That establishes her as a lead character who has to live outside the law, not of her own choice but out of necessity. But she also has a code, she has an internal code already in place, a moral right and wrong that says, “Okay, you’ve got a steal. If you’re going to be a thief, you’re going to be the best thief that you can be but you’re not going to take somebody’s last can of who hash. You’re not going to take all of their stuff.”


So it’s sort of like a robin hood figure who would take from the wealthier and redistribute to those in greater need. All right, so at the beginning of the story, you’ve established that your lead character is living outside the law. So the law, the sub text of that is that, “Oh there’s something weird going on in this society if the lead character in the story is living outside the law. There must be some justice, injustice, there must be some kind of wonky value at stake here.”


And then when you introduce the threat to your hero, which is the interrogator, then you’re establishing this very authoritarian figure who is catching somebody in the act of breaking the law. Anybody who has ever been caught speeding and gotten a speeding ticket, anybody who has ever experienced being called into the principal’s office knows that feeling. We can all relate to the feeling of being caught.


So the stakes are pretty high very early on and it’s all through your setup. The setup of the scene, somebody is stealing from a group of people who are so out of it that they don’t even know that the girl is in their house, that’s even cool too. So you have all this layers of interesting stuff percolating that to go all the way to life and death in this opening scene, I thought was too much too soon.


[0:16:23.2] TG: Why? Is that because it’s like almost like starting, having your car too high RPM’s, you have nowhere to go? Is it like.


[0:16:33.2] SC: Well, this is not a James Bond. This isn’t a James Bond


[0:16:38.2] TG: So it’s not so much as too much for the reader, it’s too much for the book.


[0:16:43.2] SC: It’s too much for the genre.


[0:16:45.2] TG: Oh okay.


[0:16:46.2] SC: Okay because the genre, the overarching genre of your story, correct me if I’m wrong, is coming of age. It’s a maturation plot, right? So does Harry Potter get to life and death stakes? Of course it does. But not at the beginning.


[0:17:02.4] TG: Yeah well it’s at the end, only at the end.


[0:17:05.4] SC: Yeah, but there’s death involved in Harry Potter but you’re talking about the maturation plot, which is a movement, the value at stake is naiveté. Moving from a world where you see the world black and white meaning there’s very clear divisions between people, right and wrong, people don’t do certain things and then when we become an adult, we become jaded, we see the gray areas in life. We begin to believe that some people do bad things but are internally okay and vice versa. So there are shades of gray.


Maturity is about holding two opposing thoughts in your mind at the same time and not going crazy. So that’s the value at stake is maturity and naiveté, it’s moving from naiveté to maturity. It’s not life and death, the global genre that you’re dealing in is internal and yes, you’re piling a lot of external stuff on it, which is exciting and fun and will go to life and death and will push the edges but we want the reader to understand that the very beginning of the story, we want them to start to attach themselves emotionally to this lead character.


So when a lead character starts killing people in the first scene, it’s not so easy to attach to them. We don’t really attach to James Bond, we look at James bond and we go, “Oh my god is he cool. If I were only as cool as James Bond,” you know? There’s no way I’m every going to say to myself, “Oh, I feel just like James Bond today.”


[0:19:13.3] TG: You don’t know that Shawn.


[0:19:18.0] SC: But for a maturation story like for example one of the great, great maturation plots of all time as the movie Saturday Night Fever where you’ve got this mook, this Italian guy form Brooklyn who moves from a guy he’s never going to get out of the neighborhood, who will never get out of the hardware store through an inner genius by the end come to understand that where he is from is no longer where he should be.


He literally starts in Brooklyn, at the end of the movie, he’s in Manhattan. It’s an amazing story that’s a great maturation plot where he’s this childish fool at the beginning and at the end he’s a world weary, young person who is ready to go into adulthood and his dreams have been shattered but he’s ready to see the world in a different way, his world view has changed.


So this is what we want to do for Jessie. We want to take her from this very sort of naïve but principled person at the beginning to somebody who is world weary at the end, somebody who goes through a very big emotional mission and journey that results in her understanding that everything really isn’t what it appears to be. That life is ambiguous and the people that you trust the most can turn out to be the people that you should trust the least and all that great stuff.


So you don’t want to jam all that in your first scene, you want to set it up. You want to set it up at the beginning of this story is it’s crucial because it’s going to mirror the payoff of the story. So the beginning of the story, we want to establish the genre, we want people to understand internally,. I mean nobody’s going to start reading this book and go, “Oh my gosh, a great maturation plot, I can’t wait to read it.” They’re going to say, “What the hell is going on? I don’t know, but this is really cool. I’m going to read the next chapter.” That’s our immediate goal.


[0:21:46.4] TG: That’s more of me learning to pull back and let it slowly burn instead of trying to move so fast.


[0:21:54.3] SC: Yeah, exactly. You want to pick and choose the moments that you’re going to use to reveal facts that you as the god like author of this story know that the reader doesn’t. Why do you want to tell them everything when you can really rock their world later on by a big reveal?


Remember that stuff about turning points? Now, turning points are these really incredible moments that shift the valance in a scene from positive to negative or negative to positive or negative to double negative or whatever. There’s a critical moment in every scene that’s called the turning point and that’s when the positive shifts to the negative or the negative shifts to the positive.


So turning points happen through one of two ways. The first way is through a character’s action. A character punches somebody in the face, just out of the blue. What had been positive is now negative. Somebody’s threatened. So that’s a character action that shifts the valance of the scene from positive to negative and is the turning point of the scene. Okay? Another one, the only other way to change in a turning point is through what you call a revelation. A fact that the reader does not know or the character does not know comes through fruition.


Revelation is a way of using information that the author already has about the story that the reader doesn’t have nor should the character necessarily have and to use that information to turn a major moment in the story. For example, I’m not giving anything away because we’ve been debating about this. We were talking about when should we have the idea that the brother is alive, surface in the story? When should Jessie learn that her brother who she’s been assuming is dead is actually alive and is being held captive?


Now we could have revealed that in the first part of this inciting incident scene and in fact I may have even suggested we do that last week as I was trying to evaluate your fast ball and trying to fix it. But I think our initial gut reaction to make that the major turning point of the beginning hook to transition us into the middle build is the right decisions.


[0:24:31.5] TG: Yeah, in the email you sent with the scene revisions, you said part of what we’re doing is establishing Jessie as like just emotionally — I forgot exactly but emotionally immature and that she’s going to dig her heels in just because she’s young and she only sees the world black and white and all that kind of stuff and it got me thinking about my oldest son is very kind of compliant to rules, you set a rule, you set consequences, he’s like, “I’m good, I don’t want those consequences, I’ll abide by the rule.” Where my youngest son will fall on a sword just to spite the sword.


When you’re saying that, that’s what I was kind of thinking of is just like, she’s saying no, just because. She’s not thinking about the consequences, she’s not thinking down the road, she’s just not going to do what she’s told. To me, that sets up this kind of it puts the villain in this weird spot where he has to abide by his own laws so he can’t just drag her out of the city and make her go. He has to keep upping the stakes to where she finally decides to go. Is that how I’m thinking in this first beginning hook?


[0:25:54.2] SC: Yes. The other thing to think about — and this is one of the great things about doing your foolscap page and planning and all the stuff that we’ve been doing is fantastic preparatory work. You know why? Because it enables you to have so much information about the possibilities. The possibilities of h ow this story is going to turn. So that whole first draft that you did, it was a way of going down all kinds of different paths and now we can pick and choose whether or not that particular path is the right way to go.


We didn’t really know what the right choice was going to be until we saw this scene. The scene can probably be improved even more but for now I think it’s a good place to start. It’s a very clear scene. It’s clear, at the end of the scene that Jessie has said to her interrogator, “I don’t care. I don’t care about the consequences,” and she’s faced with a lesser of two evil’s choice in her crisis.


Does she go to the capital and become this big cheese and fight for something that she doesn’t believe in or does she risk exile? Does she accept exile? I think it’s fun to think about what’s the consequence here? Instead of having her just go to the capital and get integrated into the brave new world, why don’t we explore the consequences of this world? She says to the guy, “No, I’m not going to go, you’re going to have to arrest me and you’re going to have to put me through the shaming,” or whatever it is.


Now this opens up this kind of fun opportunity for you to say to yourself, “Okay, I get to play around for the next couple of scenes. Now, what would be a fun follow up to this inciting incident scene, the inciting incident of our story started positively and this scene ends negatively.


So she’s given this great opportunity but she turns it down. That’s a negative ending, you’re going to want to start your next scene and sort of a negative space and because we always want to switch up our valances, you wouldn’t going to want to end that scene positively. Your next scene you can think about and you can say to yourself, okay, my lead character just turned down the opportunity of a lifetime and now she’s going to face shaming in the society.


“Wow, I wonder what that means. Let me think about this society again. It’s divided, there’s no movements, it’s very security conscious, the boarders are very locked. I wonder what it’s like if you’re thrown outside of the kingdom’s walls, what’s that like? What’s out there in that big darkness? Is there a big darkness that the government uses to threaten and scare the population into being compliant?”


In addition to — you got to think about the way governments and political factions work, they’re carrots on sticks, right? There’s the carrot of the game that people get to play and I got to tell you Tim, I thought this whole game concept was a little bit, might be going a little too far until this whole Pokémon Go thing has started. Are you aware of this?


[0:29:45.4] TG: Yeah, I actually just downloaded it and went out with my kids to do it a couple of days ago.


[0:29:52.7] SC: I was in New York City yesterday and there is a beautiful park right in front of the Plaza Hotel on 57th street and 5th avenue.


[0:30:07.8] TG: There was just a bunch of people standing there looking at their phones, right?


[0:30:10.4] SC: Not just a bunch, it was the entire park. I’m not kidding, they were all staring at their phones and nobody was looking at the Plaza Hotel or the sky and I was saying to myself, “Gee, Tim’s idea about people being so engrossed in a game that they are completely oblivious to the rest of the world is not that far off. In fact, it’s alive right now.” I should have taken a picture of it and we could have posted it on the site notes but it was shocking. It was really shocking. It was disturbing in a way.


Anyway, that’s New York City, it was 12:30 in the afternoon and every kind of person too. You had grandma’s and you got Puerto Rican guys and you had black guys and you had white women and you had kids. Every single kind of New York personality was in that park playing that game with their head down. It was weird.


So anyway, just to get back to the notion of this next scene, what I like now is that now you kind of get to play round a bit because you know, “Okay, my next big trigger point for my story is the revelation that the brother is alive and that she can no longer selfishly sort of play by her own rules.” Because now, this is like five, six, seven scenes ahead when she does learn this, that’s going to be a moment where she has to say to herself, “Oh man, I guess I have to go.”


She’s going to have to accept the call once the stakes are raised, when she understands that her brother’s in captivity and that she has to do her best to bring him back. Anyway, I don’t want to keep going if you have other questions.


[0:32:16.3] TG: Yeah, no I had one more question on the scene before we get any further is who is the victim in this scene? Because that was one of the things — that’s why you are actually leaning towards having the revelation of the brother in the first scene because then he would be the victim. So if that’s not happening, we had the hero, it’s supposed to be the hero, the villain and the victim and the villain gets the ball rolling by victimizing the victim.


[0:32:51.3] SC: Yes, yes absolutely and those concepts are extremely important to understand. Here’s the tweak though that is either going to make you very happy or irritate you. You have to remember that hero, victim and villain is malleable, meaning it’s not just one character is the villain, one character is the hero, one character is the victim. Those roles, their roles, they’re not characters. The role in the sensibility of victim on the stage of villain on the stage and a hero on the stage has to be present throughout the scene. Yes, absolutely.


So let me answer the question that you have. Jessie, at the beginning of the scene is the villain. She is robbing people who are asleep, essentially. So she plays the villain and the protagonist, she’s playing a dual role at the very beginning of the scene. She’s hero, and villain and she’s victimizing the people who are asleep at their terminals. Okay, that’s the beginning of the scene. Then it transitions to conflict when she realizes that there’s a policeman or a member of the government who is also in the room watching her.


Then, we had this nice shift where Jessie who has been playing the villain and the hero now transitions into playing the hero and a victim because she’s being victimized by the authoritarian figure, the villain, played by the guy in the chair. The comatose people are still playing victims. They never transition out of victims. They never transitioned out of victims. They are present on stage to present the sense that there is a whole population of people who are being victimized. Now, then Jessie begins to transition so that at the very end of the scene, she transitions into the power player over the authoritarian figure because she says “no”.


So what you have here is a great dynamic of movement of roles. Now, I’m not going to get too much into this because it’s even wonky for me but I’ve been doing a lot of research about and I’ve written a lot about transactional analysis, which was a psychological theory that therapist use that was developed by a guy named Eric Berne back in the 1970’s that essentially breaks down social dynamics into those three very amorphous roles; victim, villain and hero.


And what Berne says is that you can start to look at the way people manipulate one another and the uses of language through that prism of looking at who’s playing the victim here? Who is playing the villain here? How does somebody transition themselves from playing the villain to being the victim? It’s a very interesting dynamic when you see people at play and like if you’re in a business meeting and you see somebody go, “Hey, who has the Fitz William’s report? Sweeney? Sweeney, I thought you’re going to have that on Tuesday?”


And then Sweeney transitions from victim being yelled at to villain by saying, “Oh I finished that a long time ago. It’s actually Jim’s fault.” See what I mean? If you look at the way things happen and the way conflicts shifts and power shifts in a scene and in reality, it’s fascinating. So what I’m saying to you Tim is that you do present the victim, the villain and the hero throughout the scene and you set up that there are a lot of other people at stake in the story.


So that’s one of the reasons when I was looking at your scene again and I said to myself, “Well geez, maybe we do need to reveal that the brother is still alive, and that way, we can firmly establish that Jessie has to go on a mission to save the brother’s life.” And then I said to myself, “Yeah but Tim made a really good point that maybe I’m just blowing off a really important part of the hero’s journey which is denial of the call. Maybe I shouldn’t be cavalier about that.”


Now, if this was an action story that didn’t have a deep internal genre as it’s global, if this wasn’t a maturation plot and this was a James Bond action story, I probably would say, “Yeah, James Bond doesn’t care. He’s not going to deny his calling.” They tell him to kill that guy, he goes right? So you don’t need to go through that stuff unless your genre is really, really clue locked into the hero’s journey and the maturation plot definitely is. So I said to myself, “You know, no. We shouldn’t push that. We shouldn’t ignore denial of the call. That needs to be an important part of the story.”


And the other thing is, does it make sense that the flunky that they send to bring Jessie to the capital is going to know that the brother is alive? No, that guy is just a flunky. Somebody at a higher level is going to pull that tool out of the tool box to get Jessie to do what they want. That guy doesn’t even know that tool exist. So if you rationally think this stuff through and you think about, “Okay, what’s my global genre again? Okay, it’s maturation. No, I don’t want my hero to be killing anybody in the first scene because that’s going to make them unsympathetic to my reader. Let’s think. Should I really put in a big revelation to establish a third party victim that will put my hero on a mission?”


You don’t necessarily have to get your maturation plot to mission stage until they’ve accepted the call. So that’s why I delayed the revelation that the brother is alive and I decided to really firmly establish that this is a child. This is a child who says, “I don’t care. Arrest me.” It’s like a naïve teenager who’s protesting for civil rights in 1967 and they’re white and they’re from Scarsdale and they’re in Alabama and the police come down the road and they’ve got Billy clubs and they have dogs. They’d go, “I don’t care, arrest me!” And they don’t understand the reality that those cops are going to take them back to the jailhouse and beat her within an inch of her life because she’s naïve.


Now, I’m really going over the top of that with that example but I think that’s an important thing to establish to the reader that we’ve got a child here. Yes, she’s a great thief, she’s really smart, she has a code, but she’s a child. She has no idea what she’s getting herself into when she says, “Okay. Then okay, it’s the third time you’ve caught me cheating, caught me thieving. I understand now, I’m going to be exiled from society. Go ahead exile me, what do I care?” And that says to the reader, “Oh boy, maturation plot. I can’t wait to see how she’s going to change,” without explicitly saying, “Jessie was a 12 year old girl who really,” — you know what I mean?


[00:41:28.3] TG: Yeah.


[00:41:29.2] SC: You’re not doing godly exposition like a Charles Dickens would. So that’s why I think the scene is interesting because, as you’ll recall, I was saying to you we should do a knock on the door scene and you tried a knock on the door scene. It didn’t work but instead, you found your inner fast ball and you’re like, “You know what? I want to try this thing where she’s caught stealing. I think that’s going to work,” and guess what? You were right.


[00:41:58.0] TG: Yeah, that came from that thing where I basically just did a graph of all of my options.


[00:42:06.8] SC: Oh, I’d love to hear that. Love to hear that.


[00:42:09.1] TG: Yeah, I’m like, “Okay, who’s the guy doing the knock on the door?” I listed out two or three. Did he come from the brother? Did he come from the government? I forgot everything and then next to each of those, I put nice and mean. They could be a nice person or a mean person and then I did that with location too of where does it happen? Well the house is the obvious so we can’t do that and one of the things was she was out doing her thing.


Well what is she doing? So I listed out a bunch of different things she could be doing. So I took your list, the first 10 things that come to mind in a more systematic way of taking each character, each location and trying to just come up with all my possibilities. Then looking at them of how can I put them together in an interesting way?


[00:43:05.0] SC: It was really smart because you established an alien world very, very quickly with those people just sitting on their chairs zonked out. We don’t know if they’re being drugged, we don’t know what the situation is and so you’re setting up an explanation of that through action as opposed to “In the year 2525, people played games all the time.”


So you don’t have to establish all the realities of this world because you’ve got a lead character who’s actively doing something and is confronted by an authoritarian figure and you’ve established hero, victim, villain, the roles in that scene in a dynamic way.


[00:43:51.0] TG: Yeah, you know it comes back to when you are talking about the frustration as the mentor, it reminded me, again, I’m going to bring up exercising but when I was learning how to snatch which is where you take a barbell from the ground and put it over your head, it’s one of the Olympic lifts. My coach at the time kept talking to me and he said this one thing that clicked and then all of a sudden my snatch got a lot better.


I’m like, “Yeah, when you said that one thing, it really clicked.” He’s like, “You know, I have been coaching for a long time and what I’ve realized is I just have to talk a lot and say a lot of different things because each person is going to have something different click. So that clicked for you but if I said that to this person over here, it would be more of the noise of me talking,” and one of the things that clicked for me, and I mentioned this a few weeks ago is when I read that book Alice and I realized how little the author explained about anything and that is part of what kept me in the story even though I never really knew what was going on but the thread of the story was strong enough to keep me going.


So that was when a lot of what you’ve been saying clicked and I’m like, “I need to under explain everything,” and so that’s where this scene came and I’m like, “I’m just going to sit people in the chair,” and I had them dumped them out of the chair to show how inert they were. But have zero explanation because both Jessie and him know what’s going on so they don’t have to talk about it and so that was a big kind of “click” in my mind of when I read that of all these other stuff you’ve said, finally it was like, “Okay, now I’m starting to see what he means by I’m putting too much in.”


So my next things is like, “Okay where,” — so I kind of have my point A is this first scene, my next point B is the revelation of the brother, which will spur her to say “yes”. So I have roughly 13 other scenes that I’ve got to write between those two.


[00:46:07.8] SC: Yeah and I don’t think that will be a problem.


[00:46:10.3] TG: Okay, well I’m just kind of making sure I understand what’s happening next because again, back to the episode on the chapter on Story Grid two on the mathematics, you have 60 scenes. 15 are the beginning hook, 30 are the middle build and 15 are the ending pay off. So my beginning hook, my journey in the beginning hook is from the refusal of the call in this first scene to acceptance of the call and that will begin the middle build. Am I thinking about that the right way?


[00:46:46.0] SC: I think so, yeah and one of the things that I loved about The Hunger Games that Suzanne Collins did so very well was she established the everyday very dystopian, sad world of Katniss before she ever went to the Hunger Games in a way that was organic and interesting and that she established that here is a provider, here is a young girl/woman probably just on the verge of womanhood who would go out and hunt.


She was able to feed her family and she would go outside the town limits to do the hunting and so by the time she goes on the journey to the extraordinary world in the Hunger Games arena, in fact they have more transitional moments of the preparations for the events. It’s such a terrific story and I was thinking for you, I like the idea of exploring the consequences of this young girl’s decision and I think it would be worth it for you to think about, “Well, what would be the consequences of somebody who’s broken the rules three times and by law has to be exiled, has to be thrown outside of even this not so great living circumstances where she is now? Maybe the alternative is even worse?”


[00:48:45.4] TG: Yeah, I was thinking about this because the normal way of exile would be to be thrown literally physically outside of the city. If you think of the leper colony or shunning, that kind of thing. What I was thinking was like people that are down trodden, whatever I’m just going to make a generalization, so people that are down trodden…


[00:49:16.5] SC: I know, I find myself stopping, yeah.


[00:49:19.5] TG: …want nothing more than to think they’re better than somebody else. They’re so low on the totem pole that they fight for just a little bit of, “I’m not as bad off as this person.” So my thinking is that the exile involves two things. One is, she’s cut off from the online game. She’s not allowed to plug in at all and she’s in charge of taking care of the people that are. So she has to literary clean up the shit that is dropped while they’re plugged into the game.


She has to then do all of the work that it’s almost like they’re now the caretakers of the people that are plugged into the game. So they have to provide the food. Instead of stealing the food, she’s now in charge of providing the food. She’s in charge of cleaning up after them because they’re in the game doing the work that the faction needs and so the people that are exiled are doing that and they’re doing it to earn their way back into society. Somehow there is some kind of physical mark or something, but exile is they’re in the middle of the community still, doing all — they’re now less than the least of these.


[00:50:47.4] SC: I really like the concept of it because it has parallels to real life and when you can do that in a fictional world especially in a science fiction fantastical dystopian world, it will have far more emotional resonance to the reader and I say that because we live in a world of service, the service industry and the valet at the hotel who takes your car when you’re in a business trip, you don’t even really look him in the eye. You just throw the keys and you start getting into these habits.


In India, there’s the whole cast system and the lowest cast on the cast systems are what they call “the untouchables” and the untouchable people and it’s a genetic line of people who are responsible for the kinds of things that you are talking about. They handle the garbage and ironically, they’re also the ones who handle cremation. So if somebody dies in your family, you have to find a crematorium and it’s run by an untouchable family.


They’re literary people that you’re not supposed to touch because they are on the lowest level of the social spectrum. So this idea that exile means to be completely ignored and treated as if you are beneath contempt is a good one and I think it’s a unique twist. I always say that the first inclination that you have is always a cliché and you just confirmed it for me because mine was, “Oh we’ll throw her outside the city walls and then she’s going to have to get food,” and that’s what you would expect it to be.


So it might even be fun in this next scene, would be to present a scene that doesn’t seem that bad, right? Like she’s delivering food and then you discover at the end, “Oh wow,” — or maybe you even want to do like what Suzan Collins is so great at doing, making a spectacle, a ceremonial spectacle out of the process. So there could be some kind of event in the square or online or in the game maybe, I don’t know? Where your next scene could be the exile process. The things that she has to undergo to be kind of erased from society in a way.


These are all possibilities, I’m not saying you have to do it that way. Kind of the way I’m feeling about it now is that you should start and you are doing this, but you might want to just goof around and map out a scene like you did for this first one, list your possibilities and come up with a follow up here that’s going to move from negative to positive in some way by the end.


[0:54:10.3] TG: Yeah, because I was actually, what I was thinking with it was it would open with her putting food in the cupboard because that’s now her responsibility. I haven’t thought deeper, that’s all I’ve got so far. Would it be better to just write? Because my first draft, I mapped out every scene and we decided we’re going to go slower here so I don’t write 60,000 words before I realize it doesn’t work.


So should I just work on the next scene or should I kind of map out the next 13 scenes or not like scene by scene but like where I’m going? Or should I just trust that I’ll find my way there by going scene by scene and just work on scene two?


[0:55:03.4] SC: I think the right way to do it, the organic way to do it is to go scene by scene. You know how to get to Pittsburg from New York? You know you’ve got to hit that mark and you’re not necessarily sure quite yet of how you’re going to build up to that revelation. So instead of trying to figure that out before you have gotten there, I think, and I’m going to give you one suggestion but just based on one thing you said a minute ago. I don’t think you should have her putting food back in the cabinet because that does not progressively complicate the situation.


You need her to serve, she has to be doing a service thing but you don’t want to repeat a motif right directly after the other one. So progressive complications mean, things are getting more and more — the stakes are being raised. You want to, this next scene, you also want to think about the size of the cast in the scene. Again, this is where Suzan Collins was really good at doing is that she had this intuitive sense of when to bring the focus down to a three person scene or even a two person scene and then explode it out into a spectacle scene where everybody’s at the big event. The television cameras are there and then bring it back.


It’s sort of like seeing a camera, the eye of a camera focus and pan. So you want to think about that too as you’re progressing to the end of your middle build when big revelation scene comes, you want to say to yourself, “Okay, I just did a very intense two person scene. Do I want to do another two person scene? Maybe? Or do I want to go big and do a spectacle scene that will give a bigger taste of just how large and how strange this dystopian world is?” That’s something to think about too.


So not only think about the mechanics of the individual scene, think about the set design, think about how many people were on stage. The great thing about The Silence of the Lambs is that Thomas Harris knew it was a slow boil right? It was a two person scene, it’s starling and Jack Crawford. I think Starling goes to the insane asylum and she runs into four people so the cast slowly gets larger and then the big moment at the end of the beginning hook in Silence of the Lambs is when she literally gets on that plane and she leaves Quantico to go look at a body.


Think about it in terms of if you were a movie director, do you want to have two shot, two shot, two shot? Or do you want to have big wide shot into a close up. Do you want to do a David Lean kind of big scene or a smaller David Mammet kind of confrontation scene between two guys? This is kind of like the fun thing now, you start to be able to immerse yourself into your imagination and you Tim, you’re Steven Spielberg, right? You’re saying to yourself…


[0:58:58.1] TG: Oh yeah.


[0:59:02.1] SC: You’re saying to yourself, “What would make me excited to see after that scene?” Anyway, I’m giving you a little bit more bread to chew on now because I think progressively building up to the climax and the beginning hook, which is, “Hey, by the way, your brother’s alive.” That’s going to be a big moment. You remember, you’re going to want to set that up, you’re going to want to drop little breadcrumbs in the story as you’re doing this scenes that will refer to that brother every now and then. “Oh, nice dead brother,” whatever people would say to a kid to make her feel bad about it.


[0:59:51.0] TG: Okay.


[0:59:52.6] SC: But yeah, I think let’s just do the next scene and just keep asking ourselves, “What’s going to happen next? What is unexpected? We know we’re going to go there, but how can I get there in a way that is going to surprise not only my reader but maybe me?”




[1:00:10.9] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For all things Story Grid, you can go to and sign up for the newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything Story Grid related. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of the book, make sure you go to Amazon, go to and grab a copy of Story Grid.


If you want to find us on twitter, we’re @storygrid. For any past episodes and show notes that can all be found at Thanks for continuing to listen, thanks for sharing the show and if you haven’t yet, make sure you drop in to iTunes and leave a rating and review, that’s a big help to us.


Lastly, as I mentioned at the top of the show, if you want to come see Shawn and I speak in person together, you can find that at So thanks for listening and we will see you next week.

9 comments on “One Simple Question

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    This was a great follow-up to the “Is Good Enough Good Enough” post. Hold back, under explain…my new mantra! Shawn, the advice you gave at the end of the podcast was, indeed, great “bread to chew on.” Varying the scene sizes, locations – seeing the novel in the mind’s eye as a movie – all gems of advice!

  2. Victor Santiago says:

    Great episode. As you talk about Jessie I just kept remembering of the protagonist of the really great book series His Dark Materials of Philip Pullman. You even have the missing brother/friend drama and a also young main character. Don’t know if you ever read it, but it’s a nice resemblance.

  3. jeannevoelker says:

    Excellent discussion. Thank you. Many great points, and the hero/villain/victim triangle was very well explained.

  4. NewspaperMan says:

    Great episode again, many thanks. Please indicate where Shawn has written about transactional analysis – as mentioned in this PodCast. If you could share few links,please.

      1. NewspaperMan says:

        Many thanks Mr.Shawn. By the way, after listening to this post and your Transactional Analysis comment, I found this

  5. Victim, hero, villain. So, this explains the love triangle.
    Ah, I’ve played each role.
    Being the villain is, so far, vastly more satisfying.
    But, I am trying to change.

  6. Larry says:

    As I’ve been listening to this and the next podcast, I get a little worried for Tim. I think that, for most readers, it’s not going to be much of a big reveal that the brother’s still alive. We’ve all learned the lesson from countless books, movies and TV shows: If You Don’t See The Body, The Guy’s Not Dead.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Larry,
      The trick is to innovate the obvious.
      There is no plot twist we haven’t seen before when it comes to “someone’s dead…but wait, no…they’re still alive.” What’s required is to figure out a way to zig the reader when they expect a zag. That’s why we keep reading…we want the conventions and obligatory scenes of a particular genre to be twisted. So, yes your worry is warranted…but it’s not a reason to change the decision. How do you innovate? Well, as this major plot point will be orchestrated by the villain (the villain is responsible for the major inciting incidents that make the hero react in a thriller) then we must think of a way for the villain to use this information that will “hurt, push, prod etc.” the hero to give him/her what he/she wants. So how does the villain use the information about the brother to shock the hero and the reader at the end of the Beginning Hook? That’s the problem to solve…not the fact that we’ve seen the “brother isn’t dead…he’s alive” plot point before.

Leave a Comment