Back to the Foolscap

What do you do when you’re lost?

You’ve overwhelmed yourself with every nitpicky itty bitty thing that is wrong with your work in progress.  You just don’t know where to begin to piece together a plan to take what’s good in your first draft and rejigger it into something that works for your second.  In this episode of The Story Grid Podcast Tim and I talk about getting back to basics.  Tim went back to the very beginning of his story idea and mapped out a new foolscap page for his next draft. Now that he has a general sense of his new direction, I recommend that he take the time to think about his “narrative device.”  If there’s one thing that will serve as a North Star for your story, it’s your choice of who tells it…

Click the play button below to listen or just read the transcript that follows.

[0:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the 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 soon is Shawn Coyne. He is an editor with over 25 years’ experience and he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and he is helping me to plan out and write my first novel.


In this episode, we are finishing up the outline and the preparation so that I can begin writing my second draft of my novel. If you’ve been following along, you know that this has been a long road and we’re hoping to get me to a point where I can actually sit down and start writing. This is also the last episode where we’re going to be talking about editing for a while because we’re doing a couple special segments.


First off for the next two weeks, we’re going to do a series with Steven Pressfield. He’s the author of the book, The War of Art and he’s got a brand new book coming out and I am really excited about it and I think you’re going to like it and Shawn and I spend a couple of weeks talking through his new book and resistance on how you can get your writing done. It’s a really great set of episodes that I know you’re going to enjoy.


After that, we’re doing a three part series called Publishing 101 where Shawn and I are going to walk you through the publishing ins and outs of how to get an agent, how to get a book deal, how to work with an editor and all the ins and outs of publishing your book. It’s a really great series that you’re going to learn a lot from and if you’re hoping to one day publish a book, then you’re going to want to listen to that series.


So for the next five weeks, we have some really cool episodes coming up that you’re not going to want to miss but for now, we’re going to jump in and get started in this final episode trying to get me to a point where I can start working on my second draft.


So let’s get started.




[00:02:02.0] TG: Shawn, before we take our little summer break we are going to try to wrap up this foolscap — figure out the story I’m trying to tell so I can actually work on the second draft and so I sent you and I filled out the foolscap from I sent that to you and that’s going to be the show notes as well if somebody wants to see it along which is some notes about the world that I was just thinking through.


So I wanted to get your initial feedback and thoughts of where we’re at. A lot of it is what we’d already talked about and then I’ve tried to flesh out some of the other details. So I would love to hear your thoughts on it.


[00:02:42.7] SC: Okay. The first thing I need to say is that this process has been really, really fun for me and I’m excited about the developments that have happened and I think the story that’s represented in this foolscap versus the first foolscap that you did is extraordinarily better. So with that said, I think there’s a couple of things to think about.


The first thing that I’m going to say to you has nothing to do with foolscap but I want to get it out there before we go on break because I think this is going to be tremendously helpful for you and for other people and we’ve talked about this a lot before but now since you’re in the throes of things, I think it’s good to reiterate it.


This is something that Steve Pressfield really recommends very highly and the reason why he recommends this very highly is because it’s what turned his career around and what happens is if you can figure out what I call the narrative device, who is telling the story? A lot of the problems that we’re grasping with right now becomes much more clear.


The answers become much easier to come to and what narrative device is again who is telling the story? How are you going to tell this story? In this story, there’s a couple of things that you could do. Just off the top of my head, you could have it in the first person meaning Jessie, the lead character is telling the story.


So she would be the figure who was literally telling what has happened, that’s one way to go and some thrillers are very good at this technique. Gone Girl is written in two first person voices. One is the point of view of the woman and one is the guy.


So another thing to think about is what I call the set up narration within narration. This is an interesting thing to think about. An example of this would be Gates of Fire. Gates of Fire is Steve’s novel about the Battle of Thermopylae and what he decided to do to figure out how to tell the story the right way was he created a set up and the set up was this: In the Battle of Thermopylae, all the Spartans died. That’s the big thing, they all died there, the 300 died.


So Steve thought, “What if King Xerxes who was the Persian commander, the leader, the king of all the Persian armies, discovered that there was one survivor? And they pulled this guy out of the piles of dead bodies and he says to his people, “You go get that man and I want to interview him. I want to know how these Spartans we’re able to hold us off for so long. I need to know the secrets behind the Spartan army,” and that’s the setup of the book.


So they drag this guy, they give him medical attention and then he starts to tell the story and he tells this amazing story and it’s a story within a story. He’s telling Xerxes and the Persians the story of the Spartans, which gives it such a strong narrative thread that the reader knows where they are all the time. If they ever get confused, they’re like, “Oh right, this is that sole survivor telling the story of what happened at the Battle of Thermopylae. There’s going to be this great battle at the end, all I have to do is go with this,” and it’s like listening to a good friend of yours tell a story.


So one of the things to think about with your project is, is there a way to tell this story that’s unique and interesting and different and captivating? Is there a way to do a narration within a narration? Is there a way to do some kind of report? This could be the report from the Commission for Rogue Terrorist or whatever, and so this could be like the log of some kind of military police or the police system of this game world or whatever. Or it could be — there’s any number of possibilities.


But the reason why I’m bringing this up now before we go on break is if you figure out who’s telling the story, maybe the story is being told like for example in Amadeus, which is this fantastic play which they made into a movie. It’s the story of Mozart and this very competitive other composer who basically decides to destroy Mozart because he is so talented that his work is going to become immortal while his work is not going to work.


The story of Amadeus is told from the point of view of Salieri and Salieri tells this wonderful story of Mozart knowing that he says at the very beginning, “I killed him. I destroyed Mozart and I’m going to tell you how I did it,” and that set up is amazing. Another great example is True Grit which is an amazing story told by 14 year old girl. The very first sentence of the novel is, “This is the story of how I tracked down that no good son of a bitch who killed my father,” right?


[00:08:31.1] TG: Yeah.


[00:08:31.7] SC: And I don’t know if that’s the exact line but then you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I got to keep reading this. This little girl somehow tracked down the killer of her own father and got revenge.” So the reason why I am bringing this up again is that, just to sort of pin parts of your brain to think about, “Is there an interesting narrative device that I can use as a means to keep the reader going, to keep surprising the reader, to keep it interesting?”


Once you do that, you discover these moments where you’re like, “Well, the guy who’s telling the story would hold back that detail until later,” and then you’re not constantly getting confused in your brain, “How am I going to maintain suspense?” Because you’re going to almost be channeling this fictional being that is telling the story and you’ll start to hear the voice of this narrator in your dreams. And Steve Pressfield, this is what broke his block.


He wrote a lot of manuscripts before he wrote his first published novel called The Legend of Bagger Vance and I asked him about it. I said, “Steve was the breaking point when you discovered your narrator?” And he goes, “Absolutely. Once I knew that the narrator of my story is an old man looking back on an event that had happened 50 years prior and that he was a caddy for two of the greatest golfers of all time and some kind of a mystical figure, then I knew then I could play.”


He’s telling the story to another golfer who’s in a rut, “Then I knew my beginning hook, my middle build and my ending payoff and I knew how this old guy would tell the story.” He would ease into it. He would introduce these figures, he would take little digressions about a particular character and tell little side stories that were really, really entertaining all the while the narrative thread is just unwinding throughout the story.


So when you’re thinking about Jessie’s story, it could be something like that, a narrative within a narrative. Somebody is explaining what happened. “You want to know the story of Jessie? Here is what happened,” and that is interesting because whenever we meet a friend for coffee and they go, “Oh my God, you’re not going to believe what happened to Jim.” And you’re like, “What?” “Okay, get your coffee, you’re all set now? Okay.”


Here’s another great example of this is Broadway Danny Rose, which is a great movie by Woody Allen and it’s the story of this second rate talent agent in the 1950’s and the narrative device is these bunch of old comics are in Carnegie Deli and they’re all telling Broadway Danny Rose stories and then one guy goes, “I’ve got the best Broadway Danny Rose story of all time. Are you guys ready? You have your sandwiches because this is going to take a while.” Then bang, he goes, “Okay, this is the story of this,” and then you’re like, “Oh I can’t wait to know what happens.” So okay now, I know you’re anxious to get to the foolscap stuff…


[00:11:50.2] TG: No, I have a question on that. So most books are just told in a straight third person, what’s the first?


[00:12:01.7] SC: Third person omniscient, yeah.


[00:12:03.7] TG: Yeah or what’s the other one that combines?


[00:12:07.0] SC: Oh free indirect style.


[00:12:09.3] TG: Yeah, so is that a narrative device?


[00:12:11.7] SC: That’s absolutely a narrative device.


[00:12:14.1] TG: It’s just a standard one not an overly interesting one?


[00:12:18.5] SC: Right, it’s an omnipotent sort of God-like, like Silence of the Lambs is a great example of free indirect style because we get to hear and read what Clarice Starling is thinking and occasionally other characters in the book, but it’s third in the third person, “Clarice Starling went into Jack Crawford’s office.”


So if you were to take that and one of the things that I think is a real strength of young adult or coming of age stories is the narrative device. If you nail the narrative device, it’s almost as if the story writes itself and To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example too because you have Harper Lee who wrote a book called Go Set a Watchman.


I haven’t read it but that was like an early draft of what became To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s substantially different enough that they could publish it as a separate book, but it wasn’t until her editor suggested to her, “Hey, what is you told this story from the point of view of Scout?” And it’s not Scout like as Scout was a little girl but it’s Scout looking back.


It’s Scout as a woman looking back at what it felt like as a child and that whole story is exactly that. You fall into this nostalgic voice of somebody recalling a very important thing. Another great example of that is Stand by Me which is a Stephen King short story about a man talking about the first time he saw a dead body and he builds up to it. He said, “The first time I saw a dead body was when I went camping with my friends and we deliberately set out to see the dead body.”


And it’s an amazing movie based on the short story. Rob Reiner made the movie, great movie, just rip your throat out it’s so good, and it’s so funny and that is a narrative device par excellence. So what I’m suggesting to you is that a lot of this intellectual stuff that we’re wrestling with now becomes a lot clearer when you solve your narrative device situation.


[00:14:45.2] TG: I’m not clear on how that would help solve what actually happens in the story.


[00:14:50.7] SC: Okay.


[00:14:51.7] TG: I can see how it would solve the perspective, you know, if the perspective is coming from this one character then you can get a sense of how they would tell the story, things that they would leave to later, things they would obscure and all of that kind of stuff because we talked about this I know back with my shipwreck idea where it’s like, “What if they found the last person and they’re interviewing her and she’s telling the story from her perspective?” So that’s answered — but does that drive the actual what I put on this foolscap which is the actual sign post of what happens in the story?


[00:15:29.3] SC: I think it could really substantially affect the choices that you make for these big moments, yes and the reason why I say that — let’s just get into the foolscap a little bit and then I think it will become more clear on what I mean by this if we talk about the movement of the story. And the movement of this story is — there was a really great comment on website the other day.


I forgot his last name but a guy named Peter, and Peter suggested and he made a really good point that we can talk about a couple of weeks ago which was you had asked me, “What was wrong with your idea where Jessie goes and discovers that her brother is fighting against this thing?” And I said, “Well you can’t change the heroic nature of the character, of the core hero of the story has to remain consistent in an action story.”


What Peter said at the website was, “Now if you shifted the global genre to coming of age, then you could use that idea that you had Tim where the brother is a force of good who becomes a mentor figure to the lead character and that was a really good idea and an interesting thing to think about as we’re going through your foolscap now and the idea here is, which genre — again, we’re going back to the genre. Which genre do you really want to be the global genre?


Is this a global action thriller or is this more coming of age? Are we going to be more interested in how this character evolves throughout the story from a maturation point of view, someone who’s immature and naïve to an understanding of the wider array of human life and mendacity and goodness too? Or do we want this to be slam, bang, action Martian, will he, or will he not get off the planet?


My gut from what I’ve read on your fool’s cap and from your ancillary and the material that you sent me is that what’s going to make this story really stand out beyond any great details that you come up with the world etcetera is this internal relationship between a daughter, a mother, a father and a brother. I think this has a level of family conflict, things said and things unsaid that could really drive a lot of the big moments in the story. So my thing for you to think about and perhaps answer now is do you want to air more on the side of coming of age or do you want this more to be straight action?


[00:18:51.5] TG: I don’t know. If you’re saying would I rather write something that’s James Bond-isk versus something that’s Hunger Games-ish, I would lean towards Hunger Games-ish.


[00:19:05.8] SC: Yeah, that’s what I thought. That’s what I thought.


[00:19:08.1] TG: Okay, did that answer the question?


[00:19:10.5] SC: That absolutely answers the question.


[00:19:12.3] TG: Okay.


[00:19:13.2] SC: Because the Matrix is more action than it is anything else. There’s a love story that’s pretty important in it but you know Neo isn’t really the most dynamic of characters beyond his understanding that he’s the one.


[00:19:30.9] TG: I would just say that about anything that Keanu Reeves plays.


[00:19:35.1] SC: Kind of true. Okay so how do you want to handle this? Do you want to go beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff, do you want to talk about the big major points in the story?


[00:19:45.9] TG: So if I understand your past advice just trying to pull it from memory, your thing is, if you get the genre and you get the major points in your story right, everything else is a little easier to fix down the road.


[00:20:04.2] SC: Yes.


[00:20:05.6] TG: And the whole point of the foolscap is to make sure I am getting my major points in the story nailed down. So I would say that’s what we need to do first because anything else I will be able to fix easier later.


[00:20:25.9] SC: Yeah. You will be able to build out this virtual world in a way that’s very exciting and fun. That’s the fun part but let’s just take one giant leap back and I’m going to explain what a story is again.


[00:20:44.0] TG: Am I that bad off you’ve got to tell me that?


[00:20:46.4] SC: No, I do this all the time. I always say to myself, “Okay, let me go all the way back, what’s a story?” And the story is it begins with something that insights the imagination. It insights a question to the reader or to the audience and that question is, “What’s going to happen next?” And it ends with an inevitable but surprising — that’s the crucial part — surprising way.


So when we think about that and we’ve got a lot of really great building blocks already on the machine table that we’re building, let’s think about that. I think our inciting idea is interesting and fun where there’s a family. Let’s just boil it down to brass tacks, there’s a family. There’s a mother, there’s a father, there’s a big brother and there’s a little sister.


The big brother is gone, they don’t know where he is. He’s been gone so long that the family has a funeral for him. They do not believe he is ever going to come back. The mother of this family has decided that the loss of that son is so great that she can no longer function properly in society. She’s a depressive wreck.


Now the father believes that if he can just handle his wife a certain way with kit gloves and treats her with so much sensitivity that eventually maybe perhaps one day she will be able to snap out of her depression and become the woman that he married to begin with. She can retake the motherly role of this family.


Meanwhile, little sister has been basically shunted to the side. She has been indirectly told, “You are not important. Your brother was the important one in the family. You are not important whatsoever and please, if only your brother came back everything would be fine but until your brother comes back, we are not going to give you anything. We are not going to give you any comfort or emotional attachment whatsoever.”


This is kind of this beautiful little conflicting familiar world that you have already constructed. That is a very strong role. So our inciting incident is a guy comes to house, says to the little girl, “Hey, your brother is alive but there’s one problem. He needs you to get him safely home.” That’s a great inciting incident because what that says to the lead character is, “Hey, here’s the solution to my problem. I just go with this weird guy who showed up at my door and I’ll go bring my brother home and everything will go back to normal.” So that’s our inciting idea of this story.


Now, let’s jump all the way to the freaking end. How can we make the ending of this story absolutely inevitable, but surprising? Now it’s going to be inevitable because we all understand that her family is not going to go back to the way it was. It’s not going to end perfectly. The brother is not going to come home. The mother is not going to snap out of it. Everybody is not going to go bowling and enjoy the evening. That’s not how it’s going to end.


How it’s going to end is that this young girl is going to realize that she’s on her own. That her mother and her father are not going to be able to take care of her for the rest of her life and that her brother is not going to save her. She is going to change as a human being from a naïve immature person who believes that some magical moment that she can bring about by doing the right thing at the right time is going to make everything better again.


She is going to move from that place to understanding, “Hey, shit we’re all in this alone. We have to negotiate the world by ourselves and we’ve got to do the best we can by forming this tightest bonds with the right amount of people that we can but there ain’t no magical time or magical event that’s going to make our life perfect. It’s never going to bring back perfection.”


So that is going to be the inevitable conclusion of a maturation plot. Where we grow to understand that the world is a place that we all have to personally navigate. We cannot rely on our mother and father taking care of us for the rest of our lives, because guess what? Someday we’re going to be a mother or a father and we are to pass on any information that we have to make our children stronger than we are.


Now her parents are incapable of doing that. She has to come to the realization that her parents cannot save her nor can her brother. So what we discussed the last time we were talking about was, how do we make it surprising at the end? And one of the things that I suggested was let’s play with the role of the villain. Let’s play with that.


Now, who could the villain be? A villain could be a third party corporation that it’s almost cliché. The bad corporation like the Monsanto is destroying everything and they’re so bad and evil they just want to take over the world. Now that’s one way to go and that’s a way to go perhaps in an action story.


An action story doesn’t necessarily have to plumb the depths of maturation movement but we’re going to do kind of a Hunger Games thing and the Hunger Games thing is really a character evolution as much as it is an action story and with Harry Potter the same. So what we discussed is why don’t we play with the role of the villain and say, “Hey, maybe the mother is playing a game here. Maybe mom is playing a big fat game and is not who she’s pretending to be.


Wouldn’t that be a big smack in this old stomach to our lead character and to our audience, to discover that this pathetic woman who seems so frail and gentle and just so upset about her baby boy leaving is actually not so nice? She’s actually a mono maniacal monster. That could be interesting and that revelation that we talked about happening at the end of the middle build that mom reveals her true nature to the shock and horror of her daughter at the end of the middle build.


So how does it end? It’s going to end where the daughter has to confront her mother in a way where the daughter wins but loses. She’s going to win the action battle but she’s going to be disillusioned.


[00:28:42.1] TG: So should the crisis of the ending payoff be a decision between she could have her family back together, but everything would be awful and she would know all the true things that she could never live with? Or she makes the decision to do the right thing that tears apart her family because the thing that she wants most in the world is to bring her family back together. Should that be the crisis question?


[00:29:13.1] SC: What do you think?


[00:29:14.8] TG: Yes?


[00:29:20.6] SC: Remember, the beauty of a story, a double edged story that one that works in the surface and one that works underneath, the beauty of a story that it makes us confront really, really deep, painful truths and given the choice between pretending and living in the truth, that’s a really difficult thing because a lot of us love to pretend.


[00:29:51.6] TG: Well — and so spoiler alert, in the end of Gone Girl, he chooses to pretend.


[00:29:58.7] SC: That’s correct.


[00:30:01.3] TG: Okay so he stays with her because of the baby.


[00:30:04.0] SC: That’s right.


[00:30:05.4] TG: Okay.


[00:30:07.2] SC: Now, I would say that that’s a heroic choice.


[00:30:11.8] TG: That’s the heroic choice?


[00:30:13.9] SC: Yes and the reason why that’s the heroic choice is because there’s an innocent life at stake, right? So the choice that he made to stay and live in a lie was for the benefit of the child but if he leaves and the woman, I forget her name, if the wife raises the child without the influence of him, that child will become, if you believe in this that children are a reflection of their parents, that child will be so psychologically damaged by the mother who’s a sociopath, obviously.


[00:30:55.9] TG: Okay, so is that an example of it reaching damnation?


[00:30:59.6] SC: That’s an example of someone sacrificing themselves for the betterment of somebody else. The damnation part is if he didn’t stay, he would be damned.


[00:31:13.5] TG: Right, so the final choice came down to, because we’re talking about life to unconsciousness to death to damnation or fate worse than death and so…


[00:31:24.5] SC: Before we lose the train of thought on your story, what we want to do is exactly what you said. We want the crisis at the ending payoff of this story is, “Hey sweetheart, we can go back to the way it was and we can make it better than the way it was. We’re not going to live in Shitsville anymore, we’re going to live in the good world.” We haven’t figured out all the minutia of all that stuff but…


[00:31:52.9] TG: Because I was thinking the mom, if she’s the villain then her object of desire is to move herself from the poor to the one percent and she sees her daughter as the way to pull that off.


[00:32:07.2] SC: That’s correct.


[00:32:08.6] TG: Okay. Man, I got two in a row.


[00:32:11.8] SC: Yeah. Now the wants and the needs are important here and if we can climactically have her, Jessie, make a choice between her wants and her needs at the climax of the ending payoff, then we have the opportunity to possibly have a cathartic moment for the reader. So her choice is, do I pretend and live a lie and get what I want or do I not pretend and get what I need?


What she needs is truth. So the thing that you have as your crisis is does Jessie commit suicide to keep her powers safe from evil government? You can make that work within this thing that we’re talking about. So the mother could say to her, “All you have to do sweetie is kill yourself, and because you have the resurrection, you will come back and live.


I haven’t figured it our yet but there’s something to do with that power that she will have to make a choice that will exile her from her past family and it’s a great climatic moment for the first book in something that you may consider as a possible series in the future because this is the moment where she becomes Lone Wolf McQuade. She chooses exile than a false sense of community and that’s a heroic act and the reason why she does that is her exile will make life better for others.


[00:33:57.4] TG: Okay because I keep trying to come back when I was trying to figure out what to do, I was trying to come back to my controlling idea, my theme of life cheats death when heroes confront their darkest fears and sacrifices themselves for the greater good.


[00:34:15.0] SC: That’s exactly what we’re talking about.


[00:34:18.3] TG: Right. So that’s why I landed on that kind of crisis because she’ll have to sacrifice herself.


[00:34:25.4] SC: Well, the sacrificial moment doesn’t necessarily have to be literally sacrificial, meaning she does not have to try suicide. She may decide that she has to live with immortality. So she’s accepting a fate worse than death in order that others will benefit, that others will be safe.


I mean this is a great thing Tim is that, remember at the very beginning of the podcast I said, “Sometimes when you come up with a narrative device, it will help save that problem.” So this could be, I’m just throwing something out, this could be narrated by the brother or it could be trial. I don’t know? It could be anything.


[00:35:20.1] TG: Yeah, I wish I had said it now. Like earlier when you are telling me about narrative device, I was thinking if she escapes somebody’s going to have to be held responsible for the fact that she got away and so the brother is being interrogated by the government about what happened with his sister because she is now gone and so he’s telling the story to explain what happened to try to save himself from the repercussions of the fact that she got away.


[00:35:57.7] SC: I really think that’s strong, the only thing — the other great thing about narrative device is that once you make a decision, then you can use it for a big twist. So what you could do is not reveal the narrator but know it’s the brother, right? And then you could do the revelation of who the narrator is at some point in the story that will really shock. You are basically setting up a payoff of a revelation that will shock the reader.


[00:36:35.4] TG: Now can you have it where — could that revelation come at the end of the middle build and now we’re back up to real time and rest of the story is told in real time?


[00:36:49.6] SC: Sure.


[00:36:50.8] TG: So, I don’t know what that means though.


[00:36:53.5] SC: Well, you could structure it so that the first two thirds of the story is the narration within the narration where — I’m just making stuff up here — “The tribunal for blah, blah, blah is now commenced interrogator XYZ is interviewing perpetuator X,” and then you do a very short prologue that establishes this narrative device and then chapter one is, “The morning we brought in Jessie was the morning of the 5th of July. What’s his name went to the door.”


And then you can transition the storytelling into almost a third person omniscient so that it reads as if a third person narrator is telling the story but then occasionally, you will go back and say, “And then the tribunal commenced, took a break,” and then at the end of the middle build, you could have a climactic moment where Jessie actually comes into the interrogation room and saves the brother from further interrogation or something. So I mean I don’t want to get into the technicalities of how you can make that work.


[00:38:21.5] TG: Right. Okay, so we have established the inciting incident of the global story. I feel like we’re close enough on where it’s going to end up that it will resolve itself as I tell the story, since I know that I am getting to a point where she has to decide between pretending and getting what she wants or getting what she needs, which is the truth.


[00:38:44.4] SC: Right and the other thing that you could do is you could save the big solar plexus revelation that it’s the mother the entire time until the crisis of the ending payoff and you could use that idea that you just came up with, with the brother as the climax of the middle build so that it’s still within the family.


Basically what you want to do is, because this is a maturation plot that has to deal with separation from your family and your parents, now you know a lot. You know a lot of things that you have to do. The big moments in your story have to hit that emotional charge point of the family. So if you’re going to do a climax, is has to — the other thing that you need to think about it you’ve got to bring some death into here. You’ve got to bring in a death moment and I would suggest that you kill the father.


[00:39:42.1] TG: Okay.


[00:39:44.0] SC: And you might want to kill the father at midpoint or something but you do have to establish the spectrum of value and there has to be the stakes of this story have to reach death. So somebody should die and somebody should die in a shocking way that is setup and paid off in a way that is another great climactic moment in the story that’s just going to keep the energy going so that it escalates.


[00:40:14.1] TG: And that should be in the middle build because that’s when you move from unconsciousness to death, right?


[00:40:19.2] SC: Yes.


[00:40:19.5] TG: Okay.


[00:40:21.1] SC: Now you are establishing the threat of death with the inciting incident but you do need to get the literal death if you’re going to really make this thing sing and that literal death should be a shocking death that will basically mirror the point of no return for the girl, right? The point of no return is once that father is dead, she’s going to have to face facts, she’ll never have her family back. One member of her family is now dead. She will not be able to get what she wants.


[00:40:58.0] TG: So that could even twist the final crisis even more because now her only family left is this brother and this mom and if she loses them, she’s now — okay, so shall we look at the beginning hook then closer?


[00:41:17.9] SC: Yeah, sure. Let’s see.


[00:41:19.9] TG: Okay, so I am having whoever the ambassador that is sent for the brother meets up with Jessie and I have the setup as basically, and I don’t need to go through everything here because if you’re listening you can go through all my notes on the world, but the basic idea is she is breaking and entering and stealing from people while they’re jacked into the system and she knows when they’re going be.


That’s where he finds her in the middle of that, so then she goes to see her brother and then the complication is she can’t decide what she should do and then the thing that forces her to make a choice is that she gets caught as the one breaking the law and so now, she has to decide whether or not to stay and face punishment or escape and do what her brother has been asking her to do because I can’t softly make her make that decision. She has to come to a crisis.


[00:42:21.3] SC: I agree with you. That’s a really good choice. There’s a thing in the hero’s journey called the hero refuses the call and that’s what a lot of people skip and you’re not skipping it, which is good.


[00:42:36.3] TG: Well I was thinking that that’s the whole Luke Skywalker’s not going to go and then his family is dead so he has to go.


[00:42:44.3] SC: Right.


[00:42:45.0] TG: So the resolution of the beginning hook is when she’s reunited with her brother for the first time and since that ends positive, the negative aspect of that is the beginning of her disillusionment then which is where there’s some iffy, “Why didn’t he tell her? Why didn’t they know that he was alive? Why does he want her there?” All of those things come into question and so, it taints the fact that she’s finally reunited with her brother.


[00:43:18.8] SC: Yeah, I think that works. Now the one thing that’s getting a little murky is remember, the villain incites the story. So the villain wants something from Jessie and we need to establish what that thing may or may not be. I like the idea of escalating. The villain wants something specific from Jessie at the very beginning and then it goes quantumly larger after the villain discovers that she’s got something even better than what she thought she had, which is immortality.


[00:44:03.4] TG: How do we set that up when we’re hiding who the villain is?


[00:44:07.4] SC: Oh okay, so the initial McGuffin is the brother is being “held captive in this world” and the only way that he will be released is if she provides a service to the system and that service, I haven’t figured out nor have you have, but it would require some kind of secondary gift that she has. She’s a great breaking and entering person.


“Okay, you’re so good at going into people’s houses, your great at traveling in the real world between the 1% world and the service world and the shitty world, so let’s see how great you are breaking and entering in the game,” and so they teach her about the game and these are parts of the conventions and obligatory scenes necessary to abide the lit RPG genre.


[00:45:05.3] TG: Yeah, I’ve read that thing that you sent me that was that giant list of lit RPG novels and again, I’ll put the link into the show notes for that and once of the things was like they have to level up, that was the main thing that stuck out to me is that they have to basically become better and better and better inside of the game that will prepare them for the end.


[00:45:28.3] SC: Yes. Now, just a quick thing about what this game could be, which could be interesting is the game could be the American Dream. What do I mean by that? The game for people in this future world is the only way to rise in society is by winning this electronic virtual game. So if you are really great, you can move ranks of society.


[00:46:05.2] TG: Oh this could be, what about each year a single person or only five people at the top of the game are selected to move up into the elite society?


[00:46:18.4] SC: There you go. That could be something that could be cool and then part of the build up to the climax of the story is she has to make a choice. She can go into the next level and she can bring her mother and her brother with her or she can reject that next level and she can hack through a system where anybody can do it. I don’t know?


I don’t know what it is, but I like this concept of the American Dream which seems to be very viscus today. Meaning it used to be, when I was growing up, the American Dream was to do better than your parents and to get a nice house and to have an honorable life where you serve society and you served your fellow man and you raise a good family and you did a little bit better than your family did.


Today, people’s virtual lives and their real lives are so strangely bipolar that nobody really — what is the American Dream? Is it to be Kim Kardashian and have a sex tape and become famous on a reality television show and make $50 million a year but never actually create anything of any value but entertainment that’s sort of weird and makes you feel strange and icky for watching it? You know what I mean?


So it’s like this virtual — Kim Kardashian is winning the game American Dream, but that game has been morphed in a way that nobody with any past experience can understand anymore. So this new generation of people that you’re writing about, this Jessie person, she’s been raised in the Kim Kardashian American Dream game, which doesn’t have any substance underneath of it.


So part of the revelation of the story is her discovering that that American Dream is empty and the game, the American Dream, is a bunch of baloney to get people to behave. So thematically you are dealing with a lot of really fun interesting stuff at a really sub-textual, psychological level and now, but you can do it by creating a really fun online game called American Dream.


And because the mother and the brother is so anxious to win that American Dream game at any cost, this girl understands that she is the collateral damage of this game. She is emotionally sterile and has gotten no support from her family because everyone in her family, sans her dad. Her dad is probably the only good figure in the family besides Jessie meaning he doesn’t care about the American Dream. He just wants his family back together again so they can have dinner, you know?


So the death of the father at the end of the middle build could be a really revelatory moment for Jessie like, “Holy shit, if my father’s values and everything he cares about die with him, what’s that going to mean for the rest of us? I can’t support this American Dream game even though I’m the best player because it’s an empty dream.”


So you’ve got a lot of really cool things to fits and futs with here not least of which is setting up the RPG of this American Dream game which can be a great combo play of reality television and point systems and FitBit, all that FitBit stuff where you get points for how many steps you walk during the day and all that baloney and competing against other people.


[00:50:11.1] TG: So her special power has something to do with how she can basically cheat in the game to win, if she wanted to.


[00:50:18.8] SC: Yes, she sees through the loop holes of the game. She’s got this, you know there’s a great line from some novel I read, “Seeing through the game is not the same as winning the game,” and what that means is that you can see cynically how all these people are manipulated by the game but that doesn’t mean that you get to win.


Winning the game in this instance would mean material possessions, public adulation, all that stuff that we pry so much in our culture that is empty and meaningless. It’s like Donald Trump is the epitome of a winner of the American Dream game and it terrifies most of us. I am not going to speak for you. It terrifies me because there’s no substance, there’s no values, there’s no there-there behind just this land grab for making America great again. I don’t know what that means.


[00:51:21.4] TG: Okay, so what I’m worried about is if I have enough to actually start mapping this thing out?


[00:51:29.8] SC: Think about this, yes, don’t worry so much about mapping out your 60 scenes.


[00:51:36.9] TG: Okay.


[00:51:37.0] SC: Here’s what I think you should do, try and just write, “This happens, then this happens, then this happens.” So you just want to do a very bare bones, “Here’s my narrative device. The story begins with a prologue that describes this interrogation. The interrogation will use in the matter of Jessie Phil DeCamp,” or whatever her last name is.


So it’s interrogation and then you say, then we move to the beginning of the story. Our storyteller is the brother of Jessie and he is describing how he got into the situation that he is facing now. If he can’t help these people find his sister, he will be cast out and just walk it through logically so that you have maybe a two page narrative of how you’re going to move from the beginning hook to the middle build to the ending payoff.


Leave out the details of the world and say things like, “Jessie indoctrinates herself into the deep systems of the game T. K — to come. Descriptions of game players, T. K. Mentoring session with Obi-Wan Kenobi figure from the game, T.K.” But you want to get a skeleton. You want to get that maturation plot, beginning, middle, end and laid out for yourself. If you get stuck, one of the things to do is to noodle and think about the narrative device.


Think about how you’re going to tell this story, and if you get stuck there, think about this game. How are you going to structure this game? Do people get credits to move up to the next level, what do they have to do? Are there special missions? Do they get dossiers where they have to rise in their mythical company on this online game? Is it like a scavenger hunt? All that kind of stuff.


[00:54:07.2] TG: Okay.


[00:54:08.4] SC: But the thing to try and not do is lock yourself completely into A,B,C,D,E,F,G,H,I,J,K,L,M,N,O,P.


[00:54:19.0] TG: Yeah, I thought with this one I’m not going to try to map out all the scenes first. I’m going to have my, well, what you just described and I just will write from point to point to point and I was planning on anyway, once I finished the beginning hook, like having you look at that before I move on to write the other 75% of the book.


[00:54:44.7] SC: Yeah, that’s a good idea.


[00:54:46.7] TG: Okay, so I’m going to do that. I’m going to try to create the spine of the story and then we’ll go from there.


[00:54:53.9] SC: Great, great.




[00:54:56.1] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. As always for everything Story Grid related, you can see that as and we actually just put up a brand new website. So much easier to find all the old articles, got some really cool resources up there. I think you’ll love it so make sure you go checkout


On top of that, if you’ve missed any past episodes and want to look at show notes, all of that is at and make sure you hang on for the next five weeks as we do the special episodes with Steve Pressfield and the Publishing 101. Shawn and I have been working on those for a while and I think you’re really going to enjoy them.


Thanks as always for continuing to share the show, tell your friends about it. If you haven’t yet, make sure you go to iTunes and leave a rating, leave a review that really helps us out. So thanks for listening, and we will see you next week for our special episodes with Steve Pressfield.



8 comments on “Back to the Foolscap

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    What a great wrap-up of the editing podcasts! Looking forward to the upcoming series with Steve – I started reading the new book yesterday. In the meantime, good luck with your second draft Tim – as always, thanks to you both!

  2. Larry says:

    Great podcast. Tim mentioned putting a few things in the show notes, but I didn’t see any show notes in the Podcast page or here. Will they be posted?

  3. Larry says:

    So, I’ve been thinking about Tim’s book as a potential reader, and I offer these suggestions –take them for what they’re worth.

    First, there’s a problem with having everyone who dies in a very popular game die in real life — people would notice. A possible solution: you don’t physically die if you die at the lower levels, but you do need to create a new character and avatar. Only if you die at the very top level of the game do you die in real life. Also, most people think level (say) 25 is the top. You have to be invited to the secret level 26, and sign an NDA. That way, nobody connects a game death with a real life death.

    Or, almost nobody. Your inciting incident could be that Jessie somehow discovers the connection. Now, people are after her, and (for some reason) her best way of avoiding them is to play the game — where she dies but somehow survives real life.

    When Shawn suggested that a stranger show up on the porch toward the beginning, I thought of a convention that I posted in the forum called The Stranger Who Shows Up To Help. Examples I gave in more detail are from the movies Charade, Legal Eagles, and Dead Again. In these, the stranger showing up is the inciting incident of the Middle Build. He gives the protagonist some backstory, explaining why they’re caught up in a web of intrigue. In the ending payoff, he turns out to be the bad guy. Tim might want to use this so he can have escalating villains in the trilogy (save the mother as top villain reveal for the final book).

    I’ve thought of more (genetic markers for immortality, add a little brother to protect, etc.) but at certain point I realize I should be thinking more about my own work. Ah, the different forms that Resistance takes.

    Anyway, thanks for the ride. Looking forward to the podcasts with Steve Pressfield.

    1. I REALLY like Larry’s notion that death in real life only happens at the highest level – for the plausibility that he mentions – and for the stakes that would draw only the toughest players (like a huge cash prize ‘in reverse’ – the threat makes the game at that level more exciting for the real game junkie)

  4. michael777stephen says:

    My MMORPG world has grown into a monstrous beast. I had a two hour story meeting today with my VR-story consultant, then we watched the latest Star Wars together and compared that to Warcraft.

    I think having someone to bounce off ideas off of is a fabulous way to help outline, I just finished writing the Darkest Hour Scene and I was stuck, my story helper really did provide a way to brainstorm myself into fixing story problems.

    FYI: In spite of bad reviews, Warcraft is a very entertaining movie, the CGI is amazing. Anyone considering writing in this genre should watch the film, imho.

    Second FYI: They played a preview for Assassins Creed. Granted, that’s a FPS, but the concept is the same: MC is in a game world. The preview was awesome, I hope the movie does well.

    The genre is going to grow. I hope it explodes.

    Third FYI: Readers keep telling me they want epic books (big fat books, not serializations) in the LitRPG sub-genre. This actually makes is fun to world create, which is often a negative… Just saying.

    If there is enough interest, we can start a thread in the forum and discuss the OS&Cs for LitRPG.

    1. Larry says:

      Mike, it looks like Tim was going to post something like that in the show notes:

      “Yeah, I’ve read that thing that you sent me that was that giant list of lit RPG novels and again, I’ll put the link into the show notes for that and once of the things was like they have to level up, that was the main thing that stuck out to me is that they have to basically become better and better and better inside of the game that will prepare them for the end.”
      It looks like Shawn sent, not just a list of novels, but some conventions (“they have to level up”).

      Maybe he’ll get to posting that and his foolscap (also promised) at some point.

      1. michael777stephen says:

        The list of LitRPG novels, I think, has a link that got posted in another thread, a couple shows back.

        Yeah, just google it:

        The leveling up is a very common (almost required I’d say) convention.

        Real world death is another convention: Sword Art Online, and others have this.

        1. raizscanlon says:

          That’s a great list! I also came here looking for the things Tim said he would post in the notes. Can’t believe how huge that litRPG list is!

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