Beginning the Ending Payoff

As Shawn mentioned last week, he’s head down in some new projects so I’m taking over emailing and publishing new podcast episodes for awhile.

This episode got me thinking a lot about how important story telling is to people’s lives. Also, how it can serve the role of pulling truths out of our subconscious that may be too scary for us to directly address.

Anyway, I open the episode with some thoughts on this subject and then Shawn and I dive into the first set of scenes from the Ending Payoff. Enjoy!

[00:00:00] 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 shortly is Sawn Coyne, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book, Story Grid, and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

There’s two things I want to say here at the beginning. The first off is just, this is a great episode. We go over the first few scenes of my ending payoff, and we use that as an opportunity to talk about what an ending payoff is, what you have to do at the beginning of an ending payoff to really make it work. If you remember back at the middle build, I kept writing all these scenes at the beginning of my middle build that worked as individual scenes, but then it worked as the beginning of a middle build. So I think this is a really important episode that gets you into the ending payoff, helps you understand how to start your own ending payoff.

The second thing I want to mention is this thing that’s been rolling around in my head, and so I wanted to work on it a little bit here, kind of work it out as I talk about it. It really came into focus is during this episode with Shawn. This was happening in my head. I didn’t actually talk about it. But I realized that one of the threads through this story is understanding that just your family doesn’t have to be the people that you’re related to with blood.

In fact, a lot of times, those are the people that let you down the most, but yet we constantly hang onto the them hoping that they’ll be the people we need them to be. While so many times, the people around us are our true family. They’re not related to us by blood, but they are our true family. They’re the ones that are supporting us in a day-to-day basis and we’ll be there when the chips are really down.

I just realized in this episode, that is a major part of this story that I didn’t even know I was writing into and it’s something just personally I’m dealing with on a couple of different levels. It kind of brought into a sharper focus the importance of writing fiction. For those of you that have been listening for a longtime, you know that my day job is working with authors with marketing, helping them build their outer platform, some were books, all that kind of stuff.

One of the things I often run into is authors feel like — Nonfiction authors, a lot of time, it’s really straightforward what the promise of the book is, “If you read this book, you’ll lose 20 pounds, or you’ll make more money, or whatever.” A lot of fiction writers feel like, “My work is not as important, because this is fiction and it’s hard for them to wrap their head around it.”

The thing that’s been rolling around in my head is this understanding that — I haven’t come up with a great metaphor, but somehow telling stories is a way to embed a truth further into somebody’s brain, then you can by just telling them the truth. I could come up to you and tell you, “Blood is not as important as the people that are really supporting you.” You may or may not believe me, and even if you do, it won’t really get down to your gut level how you see the world. But when you read a story that lays that out without actually saying it, it digs down deeper into our psyche, I think, and it changes us on a fundamental level.

Anyway, it’s just been something that’s been rolling around in my head the last few weeks anyway. Then, as that came into focus in my mind while Shawn and I were discussing my ending payoff and realizing this entire thread in the story that I’d been saying, but didn’t realized I was saying, it just made me realize even more how important it is that we all learn to tell stories better. Because the better we tell stories, the farther our stories will go and the more that they’ll change people’s lives.

Anyway, I hope you really enjoy this episode. I think you’re going to get a lot out of it, so let’s jump in and get started.


[00:04:16] TG: All right, Shawn. With the last episode, we finally got through the middle build, finished that. Just as a recap, there were three tests that Jessie, our protagonist, had to go through in the middle build. At the end of the third test, she died inside of the digital world, which means she was supposed to die in the physical world and did die in the physical world as well.

I then transitioned into writing the next three scenes, which will be the first three scenes of the ending payoff, and it’s the aftermath of what happened at the end of the middle build. It’s also the All Is Lost — The aftermath of the All Is Lost moment, because Ernst and Alex are in trouble, Jessie is dead, everything — We can’t find her brother. We don’t know what’s going on.

I also wrote — Because you gave me some changes, the biggest one would be that Az, the villain, did not kill her on purpose. Instead of choking her out, he accidentally kills her. I didn’t go back and change this because you said just take notes and we’ll fix it later. The next three I’ve wrote is if that was the case.

Yeah, I wrote these three scenes. I decided to open up the first scene from her brother’s perspective, because we talked about the entire book has been from her perspective, but she’s dead now, and so how do we get past that. I decided just to jump over to her brother and kind of give an update on what he’s been up to. Then, the next scene steps back into the room and we see what happens as she wakes up and then the aftermath of her waking back up. What did you think?

[0:06:12.1] SC: Generally, I think the choices that you made are intriguing and workable. Let me take one step back in terms of how — The big question for this episode is this; how do you best transition from the end of the All Is Lost moment at the end of your middle build to the kickoff of the ending payoff sequence of events that will lead to the conclusion of the novel and the big, big — Big events at the end?

You’ve set up at the very start that there is this big threshing, it’s akin to the big moment in The Hunger Games, or in a war novel, there’s the big climactic battle at the very end of the novel that you’re using as bait to get the reader to continue on the journey to that big moment. This is a really critical moment in the story, because we really need to kick it into overdrive, and this is the moment where we want people to put down the book, go to the bathroom, get a bowl of potato chips and then come back to the living room and read right through until the end.

The thing I always say about the middle build, and I’m not the only one who says it, is that the middle build belongs to the antagonist. What that essentially means is that the antagonist in the story has been using the events of the middle build to get to a place where they can “get what they want”.

What’s interesting in your choice of starting a sort of kicking into the ending payoff with the point of view of Jessie’s brother and also what you do in that scene is make it very cryptic to a degree. We’re not really sure why the brother isn’t so upset about Jessie dying. He says at the end of the chapter, it won’t be a surprise if he tells his colleague who is probably 81, or 83, right?

[0:08:30.8] TG: You’re right. Yeah.

[0:08:32.6] SC: He’s telling her —

[0:08:34.1] TG: Do you think the reader will pick that up?

[0:08:38.5] SC: It’s really hard to say, because you and I have been at this for so long that our ability to read it fresh is very compromised. My suggestion is to leave it as is and then when we go through the editing, we’ll see whether or not you set it up in a way that’s surprising. I think it’s surprising. You set up that 83 was in the training video so many scenes ago. She was present at the last threshing. Something happened in the last threshing that actually threw her out of the good graces of the faction and stuck her as a numbered, or did it.

What’s really nice here is you’ve got a whole thing, a bunch of things, a whole lot of questions are rising in this chapter. Even though the chapter isn’t all that — I don’t mean to insult you, but it’s not all that compellingly well done. There are a lot of questions that it raises. The question — Now, just to go back to my statement about the antagonist owns the middle build, is in a thriller, the antagonist and the protagonist are mirrors. Meaning, the protagonists has objects of desire. They have conscious and sometimes unconscious objects of desire, and so does the antagonist.

We suspect that the antagonist is the president of the faction, because he’s been on stage and his object of desire is very, very clear throughout the novel. He wants the best team possible to go in and win the faction again. If he loses — I’m sorry. Win the threshing again. If he loses the threshing, he’s out of power. He’s going to lose everything that he’s worked so hard to gain if he loses the threshing.

He wants the best possible players in this threshing to keep his faction in power. His desires are very crystal clear. As antagonist, he serves, for lack of a better phrase, a red herring, in my opinion. Ideally, you’ll have somebody behind the scenes who’s manipulating the circumstances for his own private goals.

[0:11:12.7] TG: Right. Which is what I want the brother to be.

[0:11:14.7] SC: Exactly. I think it’s working. There now is a moment of doubt in the reader’s mind about the real motivations of Randy, the brother. Randy seems to have information that 83 or — I forgot. Is it 83, 81? Do you remember?

[0:11:34.8] TG: I can’t remember.

[0:11:35.4] SC: You can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. We’ll figure it out.

[0:11:37.7] TG: It’s 83. I just pulled it up.

[0:11:39.9] SC: Okay. 83 doesn’t have information that Randy has. What’s kind of cool is that all these stuff can start tumbling back in the reader’s mind and say, “Wait a minute, 83 is now — She’s allied with Randy? What was she doing as a numbered, because she was sort of the one who is protecting Jessie when she was numbered? Maybe she was protecting her in order to get her to do this training so that she could; A, B, C, D.”

Now, the antagonist’s object of desire is starting to become clear, or not clear, but at least rumblings of it are happening in the reader’s mind. Randy doesn’t seem to be who he originally professed to be. He never contacted Jessie after he told her he would. He tells 83, “Oh! It just couldn’t happen because of the lockdown of the systems, which seems ridiculous. It also seems ridiculous that he’d be able — That there’d be these easy to access terminals at the bottom of the building.

All of these stuff is working well, and what I like is that you’ve transitioned from the moment of All Is Lost to, now, we are in the antagonist’s layer. This scene was a really good choice, and I think with some polish, it could really work, and it’s going to push the reader into the ending payoff and set up a lot of surprises in the ending payoff.

I like that scene, I like that choice, that after Jessie dies, we go to the scene where the All Is Lost moment is discussed. The antagonist is discussing the All Is Lost moment with his compatriot, or colleague. I think that works, and I think it’s a pivotal moment for you as writer, because, now, you sort of — You’re nudging yourself into solving your major problem.

I have to say that the end of the middle build, you really set it up in a way that is really, really at the bottom of the trough, because if we look at it, rationally, the faction is in deep trouble. Their best laid plans really backfired here. Az is in deep trouble, because he killed the best player. The people who supported the best player are under arrest. Az seems mentally unstable, and they’ve got a threshing in four weeks.

You can really even build this up more in dialogue and say, “Look. We’ve been preparing this for a year. These kids have been in training for a year, and now we’ve just completely annihilated the entire team. What are we going to do?” which is great. It’s even better if you don’t know the answer to how to solve it yet.

[0:14:54.6] TG: I have no idea.

[0:14:55.9] SC: Okay. Good. That took some work to get to that really deep trough of All Is Lost. Now, the reader is going to think to themselves, “Oh my gosh! How are these people going to compete against just some phenomenal other team from Russia?” How are they going to beat the Russians? I think maybe in another draft, you could play up sort of the pseudo nationalistic antagonism between the American faction and the Russian, and European, and East Asian factions, or whatever you decide are the team competence, or whatever.

All right. The first — This first scene, if somebody read it without having read all the other material, they would see this scene and they would say, “Oh, it’s okay.” Because it’s falling where it is and because there’s a lot of room to play with Randy’s diabolical, or Machiavellian setups. From my point of view, when I read it, we got to believe, or I have to believe, Randy’s got everything exactly as he wants it. This is exactly the plan that Randy had from the very start.

If you look at it from that point of view and say to yourself, “Randy, after the last threshing, came up with a plan to do something that would allow him to take complete power of the faction. Now, he’s at that moment as the master planner, that he’s got everybody panicking. The players are panicking. He’s the only one who knows about Jessie’s gift, and he’s going to exploit that knowledge for all its work.

I think the next chapter, which is a fun chapter, where everybody is sort of freaking out. It’s the fallout from Jessie’s death in the cyberspace and everybody is in the control room, the big nasty colonel comes in, slaps people around. Alex is freaking out. Ernst is crying on his knees. The president comes in, beats up Az for a little bit. That’s really terrific, because it just dramatically explains how every single person in that room is freaking out, right?

[0:17:36.9] TG: Okay.

[0:17:37.7] SC: I think that’s a good thing. This is the moment where somebody who’s just a master Machiavellian political player, they will see, “Here is a moment where I can step in and take absolute control.”

This might be a place where Randy surfaces from the underground. I’m not sure yet, but you have to look at it from Randy’s point of view. The reader is going to look at this scene and Jessie and all the players in the scene are panicking, except for Jessie, because she’s oblivious to the panic, because she’s sort of been in some netherworld for a while until she’s resuscitated.

Do you know what I’m getting at here? Do you understand what I’m saying, where the antagonist at the end of the — It’s Hannibal Lecter at the end of the middle build of Silence of the Lambs.

[0:18:41.6] TG: Oh, when he escapes? Is that when he escapes?

[0:18:43.2] SC: Yeah.

[0:18:44.3] TG: Okay.

[0:18:44.9] SC: It’s not exactly under the middle build of Silence of the Lambs, it’s right before the end of middle build. But he gets out, because he’s planned his escape from the very start of the novel. He’s got all these people doing things that they think they’re doing independently, but he’s pulling the strings behind the scenes. This is exactly the attitude that you have to have about Randy. He’s been pulling the strings of all these players in a way that is going to suit his purposes at the very ending payoff of the novel.

[0:19:20.8] TG: Let’s go through — I have an idea, but we need to talk about scene 45 and 46 to talk about what I did so far.

[0:19:28.6] SC: Okay.

[0:19:32.2] TG: Scene 45, you kind of explained it. Everybody is just kind of flipping out. Yet, you are right. What I wanted to do is set this up so that Randy, from day one, was pulling the strings. He got the president to go after Jessie, which got her in the numbered, but he had Lila there, 83, to manipulate Jessie into actually going to the capital. Once she was there, he was manipulating behind the scenes, helping her win the whole time. He had a plan even if she died, because he knew she would come back.

I tried to set that up. I tried to explain that in scene 46, in the 3rd scene, where she has a memory of him running through — Thinking. I tried to have a memory of him flipping out the first time she died in the grid when she was really young, and then she came back. Did that work at all?

[0:20:39.1] SC: That absolutely works, and it was fine to put it in that scene.

[0:20:44.8] TG: What I wanted was he knew she would come back if something happened to her. He wasn’t worried about her dying in any of the training.

[0:20:52.7] SC: Of course.

[0:20:53.6] TG: You haven’t said this, but I did feel like the way I brought her back was a little anti — It’s like she just kind of woke and everybody was like, “What the hell is going on?”

[0:21:03.1] SC: Yeah, that was going to be my big note about it. It’s just too obvious, and it’s signaled, and —

[0:21:11.1] TG: Maybe this is where Randy gets his freedom. Maybe Lila either breaks him out, or he tells us the president, “I can bring her back, but you’ve got to get me unhooked.” He knows how to bring her back.

What are your notes on scene 46? You seemed to like scene 45, probably up until the end, because that’s when she just kind of wakes up.

[0:21:42.6] SC: The trick in the ending payoff is to get to the big event as quickly as possible with the least amount of — But in a surprising way, and that’s easier said than done. Having Jessie just wake up, it seems anticlimactic, because we’ve been doing this for so long and perhaps we have really gotten people to think that she’s going to wake up from the very start of the book, which is a possibility.

I think there’s got to be a dramatic moment where everybody’s panicking and there’s some kind of communication that happens where the president gets a message from Randy, “I know how to fix this, but it’s going to — Come see me.” It’s almost like if you’re ever working in a job in a corporate environment and something horrible happens and the last thing you want to do is tell your boss, because you know you don’t have the solution to figuring it out.

You’re just sort of like sitting on the information for a while and then you get a call where the boss’s assistant says, “The boss wants to see you.” You know you have to — You’re not sure if they know what’s happened, but you kind of figure they might. If you have that moment where somebody could save you from that pain, and while you’re sitting there with the information and a colleague comes in and goes, “Hey, I head what happened. Hey, I can fix it.” How much would you appreciate that person? What would you do to get them to fix it so that you didn’t get in such huge trouble? That’s kind of the moment I think you can find here.

[0:23:43.5] TG: Okay. Let me talk through this, because it’s hard to come up with that moment if the president is the one that has a problem he can’t fix, because there’s nobody he’s scared of, except for the people that were on —

[0:23:53.8] SC: Randy. He’s scared of Randy. Why do you think he imprisoning Randy? Because Randy won the last threshing in a way that we still don’t know as the reader how did he did it, but he did it in such a dramatic way that the president saw him as a threat. What he did is he put him in his own private world, in his own Guantanamo Bay.

This guy has been sitting on ice in some netherworld inside this reality somewhere, because he can’t get out, and he’s been working for four years to figure out a way to get out.

[0:24:33.6] TG: I was thinking, what if in the final scene of the middle build — I left it where there was still three, it’s Az, Craig, and Mark. Mark is the one that’s lost. What if I had him die, because he lost, and then Jessie still got accidently killed? The problem is they’re now down to two. If they don’t have three, they automatically forfeit. That’s an even deeper whole for the president, as he now doesn’t even have enough players for the game.

[0:25:07.4] SC: Yeah.

[0:25:08.2] TG: Then, that’s the problem that Randy can say, “You let me out, I’ll fix it.” Now, the president has no idea how he’s going to fix this, but Randy knows Jessie is coming back, so they’re fine, but this is his way of twisting the president’s arm to get him out. Right now, the president is really upset, because he doesn’t have the best players, but he still got three, which is what he needs for the threshing. He’s like, “Maybe I can pull this out.” If he’s down to two, he’s seriously screwed, because he can’t even compete with two.

[0:25:48.7] SC: I think using a rule as a way to raise the stakes and pulling the rule out at the end is a cheat. I don’t think you need a rule to have this guy panic, because — Yeah, I like the idea of only having two teams now instead of three. I think that’s okay that mark dies accidentally, but I don’t think they would have to forfeit. It’s sort of like — A couple of weeks ago, I was watching the movie Hoosiers, and there’s this great scene where Gene Hackman plays this basketball coach and he’s trying to teach his players how to play his way as the coach, and they’re all taking shots from half court, they’re not listening to him and he only has six players to begin with.

He pulls one of the guys who’s not listening to him to prove a point to the other guys and he sends in his worst player. There’s the one guys who’s been pulled for not listening to the coach on the bench, and the other five guys are out playing. Then, one guy fouls out. The guy comes out and the guy has been pulled, takes off his shirt and is about to go into the game and Gene Hackman looks at him and goes, “Where are you going?” He goes, “He just fouled out, so I have to go in, because we only have four guys.” He says, “Sit on the bench.”

The referee comes over to Gene Hackman and says, “Coach, you only have four players. You want to put in your fifth?” He says, “My team is already out there. The team that I’m playing with is already out there.” He plays the rest of the game with only four guys and the other team, of course, destroys them. He makes a point that, “I’m going to play with what I have.”

I think the idea of having — I love that scene, because it’s so strong of the coach not to give in to letting this guy who’s been disobeying him get away with murder. What could be fun would be to bring it down to two teams, and Randy has got the president right he wants him, right? Because he’s only got two teams and he knows he can get Jessie to wake up. Everybody is panicking, and Randy sends a message saying, “I can fix this for you.” Instead of the president agreeing to Randy’s thing, he says, “I’m going to play with two.” Then, when Jessie comes back to life, then Randy’s whole plan is destroyed, because he wasn’t counting on the president having the guts to only play with two.

This way, it’s kind of an interesting — It’s a way of denying the antagonist their ultimate plan. Imagine if you’re Randy and you’ve been planning this scenario for four years or however long it is and he says — He’s building up in his mind, “The moment where I win is when the president panics, and I can step in and resuscitate Jessie and then save the day, and then I will not only be released from prison, I will then probably get complete control of the faction.” He’s using his sister to get this ultimate goal.

The way to really kick the ending payoff in, is to make that setup work, have Randy, his best laid plans have come to fruition, but then have the president, Marcus, have a different reaction than Randy was expecting. Now, Randy has got to really think on the fly, “What am I going to do now, because Jessie is definitely going to wake up. I’ve got to figure out a way to get to her before she wakes up.”

Maybe the next scene is him somehow going into that deep nether space where Jessie is sort of on ice until she wakes up. I wouldn’t wake her up until Randy — Randy can try and get her to do his bidding. Does this make sense?

[0:30:21.6] TG: Yes. I’m thinking —

[0:30:24.0] SC: The trick about the ending payoff is not have it be, “Okay. It’s just going to run through, and everything that I expect that’s going to happen is going to happen.” I’m talking from the point of view of the reader. The reader is going to expect President Marcus to take up Randy on this offer.

[0:30:46.2] TG: Okay. A couple of things. One is; do you think at this point the reader is going to know that Randy is the bad guy?

[0:30:54.3] SC: No.

[0:30:55.4] TG: Okay. What I’m thinking is, is to insert President Marcus into scene 44, the scene right after, the first scene in the middle build, or ending payoff.

[0:31:07.2] SC: Right.

[0:31:08.5] TG: Instead of this scene being a discussion between Lila and him, it’s the negotiation between Randy and Marcus that Lila is privy too, because she was brought into work with him anyway. I still get to introduce 83 and —

[0:31:24.5] SC: I think the way to introduce her is to do what we’ve always said, which is to say, “She’s the Obi Wan Kenobi for the final stage.” She’s the one who’s going to take care of the training for the next four weeks before threshing. She’s the one who’s going to give them the final mojo to be able to go into the threshing and be successful, because she was with Randy when their team won the last one.

[0:31:52.9] TG: Right. Okay.

[0:31:53.9] SC: Yeah. Does that make sense?

[0:31:55.6] TG: Yeah. Should that scene 44 be the negotiation that Marcus ends up turning down?

[0:32:02.7] SC: Yes. That’s a great idea.

[0:32:04.4] TG: Basically tells him to go F himself.

[0:32:06.8] SC: Yeah. Like, “No. I’m going to go with two.”

[0:32:08.9] TG: Like, “I still don’t trust you. I’m not letting you out ever, ever, ever, ever.”

[0:32:13.3] SC: Right. After what you did in the last threshing, I’m not — Make a really cryptic statement about Randy did something in the last threshing that resulted in them winning, but it was morally reprehensible, or something. We don’t know what Randy did to win the last threshing that caused him to be thrown in the dungeon, which I think is a great bit of business that is creating a lot of narrative drive here and remind the reader of these little Easter eggs that you’ve planted, is a good idea, because then you can use them in the climactic battle. Will Jessie revert to the things that Randy did to win, or will she find another way?

[0:33:01.4] TG: If that’s scene 44. Scene 45 could be —

[0:33:08.8] SC: I think it’s the same. It’s the aftermath of what happened. I just don’t think she wakes up at the end. I think they prepare — They start preparing her body for cremation. Randy, then — That puts a real stopwatch on Randy, because Randy’s plot to get to co-opt President Marcus fails. He has to really put his brilliant evil brain to work. What he does is he hacks death and he goes to the place where Jessie is sort of swirling around in this alternative universe.

Just like that scene you had in the middle of the middle build where they talk and he explains to her, “Hey, you wait for instructions. I’m going to tell you what you have to do.”

[0:34:00.7] TG: Okay. I’m trying to set this up, because they would not leave her plugged in to the grid once she’s dead.

[0:34:09.2] SC: That’s right. She’s in an alternative reality that is not in the traditional grid, but is almost like a parallel universe. This is how Randy is kind of hacked this world. That’s how he’s able to get in. you can have him explain this to Jessie, because he’s going to have sort of the speech that explains what he’s done, why he’s so powerful, et cetera, et cetera, and also why he’s so threatening.

[0:34:41.7] TG: I’m stuck on how he’s going to communicate to her if she’s not connected to the system. I was thinking of — Are you thinking there’s some way he’s communicating with her outside of that? I was thinking there could be this whole thing where he sends Lila to steal her body and jack her back in so he can get to her and wake her up and that kind of stuff. Are you saying —

[0:35:09.9] SC: You could do that. That would probably be more reasonable. I think what I just suggested is too metaphysically complex.

[0:35:20.6] TG: Yeah. I don’t want to do it that way.

[0:35:23.3] SC: Absolutely cool. Yeah, I like — Get 83 to get her body before the cremation. It can be a little thing. It could be a nice scene. I have lost my ability to think. Yeah, she gets the body and they can get her back into the system for a period of time so that he can rush her process to awaken.

[0:35:48.6] TG: Okay. Scene 44 — Let’s roll it back and talk about the fundamental issues is what I have right now. One is there needs to be this kind of coming to the forefront of the villain. The villain coming to the forefront, which I kind of did, but it sounds like I think it’d be much better if it’s also this confrontation between him and his captor. That’s one problem.

The next problem is it was extremely anticlimactic how I brought her back. Having a body smuggling and jacking this dead body back into the system and then him kind of getting into her head and doing his speech and giving these instructions, “If you’re going to wake up, and this is what you’re going to do, and this is why it’s so important.” Then, she wakes up, and then her and 83 have their confrontation and then that’s when we move into 83 does the final preparations for the three teams to get them ready for the threshing.

[0:37:00.4] SC: Right. I think you can skip the scene with 83 and Jessie. I think after they get her to wake up, the next scene is 83’s training day, and she’s got Az and the other guy and the teams and she’s just about to jack them in to go through some training session and then all of a sudden Jessie shows up, or something like that.

I don’t think you need to have a big, “How is it going? What’s it like back in the numbered?” You don’t need that scene.

[0:37:37.7] TG: All right.

[0:37:38.2] SC: I think that’s a pretty good plan. I think —

[0:37:42.2] TG: Now, you would say — I want to stay up high for just another minute, because when I tried to write the first few scenes of the middle build, I completely missed the point of what the middle build was. I kept writing these scenes that encapsulated the scene was fine, but it didn’t accomplish what the beginning of a middle build should accomplish. It took me three tries to finally hit that.

What I’m asking is — What we established — One of the things, thinking back, I learned is, “Okay. Introduction to new world, introduction to allies and villains, and setting up the first kind of initial problem of the middle build,” which is going to be somehow tied to her still trying to get back to the original world. That’s what I remember from the next time I’d write the first few scenes of a middle build. I won’t make those mistakes again.

My worry with writing the beginning of an ending payoff was I would also completely miss the boat on what I’m supposed to be doing at the beginning of an ending payoff. In my mind, it was start resolving the All Is Lost, because All Is Lost, hopefully — Especially, I think if I kill Mark, that even adds another whole twist, which is now we don’t even have enough teams for the threshing.

Start — Introduce the villain. Give him some center stage. I was trying to introduce — Randy is now going to play a real role and we’ve only heard from him once before, but he’s — That’s why I decided to do the scene from his perspective instead of some of the other ideas. It was like, “Okay. He’s going to be a main character in these last few scenes, so let’s start with him.” Then, I wanted to deal with how to get them out of that hole, out of the All Is Lost moment so we could get to the threshing, so we could get to the ending payoff moment.

[0:39:45.7] SC: Okay. Let me answer the big question.

[0:39:48.3] TG: Okay.

[0:39:48.9] SC: The purpose of the ending payoff is to deliver the answer to the beginning hook. The beginning hook we established that Jessie wants to return to her idyllic sort of family fantasy world, that’s what she wants. All indications are is that that world is dead and gone, but she refuses to accept that fact. She refuses to leave home at first until she’s forced to, because other people would suffer if she didn’t.

The ending payoff is about her, either, is getting her fantasy to come true or not come true. She has to either get what she wants or not get what she wants. What she wants is to go home with Randy and live a nice quiet life with mom and dad and Randy.

This is what Randy, who’s the antagonist, understands about Jessie. When he jacks in to her body again and explains to her why she has to wake up now and what she has — 

[0:41:02.0] TG: The promise he’s going to make.

[0:41:03.2] SC: Yes.

[0:41:04.6] TG: Okay.

[0:41:04.8] SC: “We are going to go home, you and I. After you win the threshing, we are going to get so many credits for mom and dad that we will live the life that we were always supposed to live. This is what you have to do in order to win the threshing and that we can go back and live a nice quiet life like we were promised.”

Jessie is going to say to herself, “Okay. That’s the plan.” He also has to plant in her mind a doubt so that at a critical moment in the critical time at the threshing, she understands that what he has said to her is a lie and that he has been using her from the start in order to get what he wants.

[0:41:55.3] TG: Because the final question — The climax of the ending payoff —

[0:41:59.4] SC: Does that make sense though? It has the payoff, the beginning hook.

[0:42:04.0] TG: Yeah. Okay, because we’ve talked about this a little bit with the climax of the ending payoff will be, and so I want to reestablish that so I know where I’m going. The climax is going to be, “Am I going to believe my brother, do this thing that he wants that I either don’t want to do, or is like morally reprehensible?” I haven’t figured that out. This bad thing to get this good thing that I’ve wanted since the beginning, or am I going to not do this bad thing but lose the thing that I wanted?

[0:42:40.3] SC: Exactly. It’s a best bad choice situation. Which of the bad choices is she going to take? If she doesn’t do what Randy says, she’s not going to be able to go home and live a quiet life. If she does do what Randy says, it’s going to cause a crazy amount of suffering for other people. Maybe he tells her to lose. I don’t know. Maybe it’s an irreconcilable good. The great crisis questions are both. The irreconcilable good is, “It’s good for me, but terrible for everybody else. Do I sacrifice for me to make things good for other people?”

That’s really what you want to lead up to and there has to be something planted in her mind that reveals that her fantasy is a lie. Something that Randy does or says to her strikes her as a lie, and she’s been avoiding that truth until the climactic moment when she has to make a decision.

Because this is a maturation plot, she’s going to choose living the truth, even though that will cost her personal suffering. It will be better for most people if she makes the choice to live in the truth and for herself.

The thriller, which is this is also a part of the thriller genre, the thriller, the ultimate scene is the hero at the mercy of the villain scene. What this scene is, when Randy goes into her mind when she’s dead, is the hero at the mercy of the villain scene. You’re going to do that scene a little bit early and sort of put mystery on it. You’re going to disguise it.

[0:44:36.6] TG: What he’s not going to say, but what’s the truth is, “Unless you agree to help me, I’m not waking you up.” Is that the mercy of the villain, which is —

[0:44:48.1] SC: That’s possibility. I don’t think he would bring — I think he’s going to really play off of her —

[0:44:55.3] TG: Yeah, I don’t think he’ll say that, but in his mind, he’s approaching this, “She has to help me, otherwise I’m not going to wake her up. There’s no point in waking her up.”

[0:45:05.9] SC: Yeah.

[0:45:06.9] TG: Isn’t the hero at the mercy of the villain, the whole thing is like, “He could end you.”

[0:45:15.7] SC: Right. She has to outsmart — Okay. Let me really clarify the hero at the mercy of the villain scene. The hero at the mercy of the villain scene is the moment when the hero discovers their true inner gift and exploits it to outwit or overpower the villain. In psychological theory and in general humanistic thought, which we’re living in now, there’s the belief that each and every individual in society has a special gift within their soul and it is their purpose on earth to express that gift and give it to the rest of society before they leave the earth. 

The hero at the mercy of the villain scene is the moment in time, and it can be a fractional moment where the hero realizes that gift, and the only way they do is when they sacrificed their own personal stuff for the greater good. That is the really crucial moment in a thriller, is when the hero puts his self-sacrifices in order to save someone else.

In Silence of the Lambs, it’s when Clarice Starling goes back to Ohio, because she can’t live with herself knowing that she might be able to save another person who’s going to be skinned alive if she doesn’t act. She sacrifices her life goal of being in the FBI, she puts that at risk in order to try and save somebody else. Jessie needs to go to the threshing to fight in the threshing even though it will hurt her.

One of the things you might play with is get her to agree with Randy that she will — Once she wakes up, she will refuse to fight in the threshing and then he decides to. I’m not sure. This is the place where you, the writer, has to really shine. I can’t give you —

[0:47:35.8] TG: Yeah, I can do this.

[0:47:37.2] SC: I’m trying to explain the scene and the purpose of the scene from the 30,000 foot cultural view of this story. All of these has been leading up to revalidate a social and cultural belief. In our culture today, we believe in humanism. We believe that every person and every individual is sacred.

Stories are a process in reaffirming that belief, and a thriller is a really strong example of reaffirmation of humanism. When the hero is able to access their internal gift to outwit and overpower a much stronger opponent.

Now, Randy’s gift may be chaos. It may be really brilliant political thinking and outmaneuvering. Jessie has to rise above and figure out how to be beat him in the hero at the mercy of the villain scene. I think the idea that Randy could perhaps successfully keep her from waking up is kind of interesting. He might be like, “Sorry honey, I’d like to help you, but unless you do what I tell you, I don’t think I can.” She’ll go, “What do you mean?” “I don’t know. Maybe you won’t wake up. Maybe that time, when you’re a little and you woke up, maybe that was because I helped you. What do you think?” He could put real personal deep doubts into her. You may even begin this entire story with a prologue where two little kids are playing by the river and the little girl awakens, or whatever. I don’t know.

I think we’re in a nice place. I think your marching orders are a little bit vague, but clear. I think you know the global — The global thing that you have to create is this hero at the mercy of the villain scene. If we’re able to use that scene early and pay it off in the threshing scene itself, in the climactic global thing — If she can get out of the hero at the mercy of the villain scene without the reader knowing what her ultimate decision and thought process is, and then pay it off in the big climactic battle, that could really be great.

[0:50:20.5] TG: Yeah. I’m thinking — Okay. I think I’m good. I think I have a general understanding of where I’m going now, because I’m looking at this as — I think I’m even having clarity, because I don’t really — I have never really known how he won the first threshing, or the last threshing.

[0:50:39.4] SC: Right. That’s actually good, because now you can make something up. Before, if you had locked yourself into this elaborate reasoning and thought process, it’s really difficult to abandon that stuff. The fact that you did not solve that problem helps you now.

[0:50:57.8] TG: Okay. I’m thinking things like he won by basically sending his compatriots, his lambs, into the slaughter. That’s why Marcus doesn’t trust him. Then, there’s something around 83, basically, helping him with — Being a believer that he’s going to free everybody, when really, he just wants to take power. That’s his whole play with Jessie, is like, “Look, everybody is a slave. Help me, and we’ll actually free everybody.”

[0:51:33.6] SC: Right. Make the faction great again.

[0:51:36.9] TG: Yeah. Oh, gees!

[0:51:41.0] SC: Sorry.

[0:51:42.5] TG: Yeah, it took me a second. I’ll have to figure that out, because it still just — I just can’t wrap my head around what the threshing is yet.

Okay. I’m going to rewrite — I think I should rewrite at this point, because it’s such a vast change. Rewrite scene 44 to include Marcus. Keep 45 the same. I’ll probably have to tweak some things based on the change we’ve made, but pretty much the same. Then, have body smuggling issue with Lila. That then rolls into Randy going in and pulling Jessie out of this deep state that she’s in. That sounds like four scenes instead of three. If I can get there, then that sets us up for the final prep and rolling in to the threshing.

[0:52:43.1] SC: Yeah.

[0:52:45.0] TG: Because you said the ending payoff is what? 12ish scenes?

[0:52:49.6] SC: Yeah.

[0:52:50.1] TG: All right. I’ll use up four just getting us to that point.

[0:52:54.9] SC: You could go four scenes to the setup, three or four in the actual threshing itself, just the complete action packed, one scene after another, with cliffhangers. Then, you have two or three resolution scenes and you’re done. Maybe two resolution scenes.

Then, you’ve got a first draft and then we could go all the way back at the beginning again and rip it apart.

[0:53:19.5] TG: Hey! All right. Okay. What I’ll do is I’ll rework these scenes based on that and then we can talk in the next episode  about what the threshing is going to be, and I’ll try to start thinking about it. With figuring out the third test, it was like just this long slob flailing in my head, lots of thinking in the car and the shower trying to come up with something. I’m assuming I can do that again. Right now, I feel like I have no idea how to top what I’ve already done.

[0:53:59.5] SC: I think since you’ve use the intellectual challenge for the third severing, this one has to really be very intense, physical and mental. It’s going to combine both. It’s almost as if you have to run a triathlon while you are solving a quadratic question. I don’t know. Something like that. That there’s so many different levels of challenge, it becomes really exciting for the reader.

[0:54:36.9] TG: So I’ll work on those scenes, start thinking through an idea for what the threshing will be, and then we’ll reconvene and go from there.


[0:55:47.7] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, checkout Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe, and man are there things coming up that you will not want to miss! So if you want to make sure that you know everything going on, make sure you sign up for the newsletter at

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