What makes for a great beginning? How should you approach the hook?
The transcript from last week’s Story Grid Podcast gets into the nitty gritty of it. And for those of you who’d like to listen again you can here:
Shawn: Welcome to the Story Grid Podcast where we help you become a better writer and storyteller. I’m Shawn Coyne. Tim Grahl is out this week because of laryngitis but we did record the episode before he got sick. He put this intro on me this week, so bear with me.
In this episode, we talk about the beginning hook of your story and the importance of really hooking the reader at the very beginning. Also, we get a little bit into character development. Without further ado, let’s jump right in.
Tim: Shawn, before we jump into what I want to go over today, I had a question. I was working on a new story idea and I wrote the first scene, but I had written a different version of this book before and somebody who read it said I should start with the most exciting scene that was in the middle. I wrote that, but it got me thinking about all these different ways that people open their books.
I think about movies. A lot of times in action movies, there will be this throwaway early scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It would be some kind of breaking in, getting something and then running out. That’s it and then they move on with the movie. Then we talked about before with “Bird Box” where the author basically started telling the ending payoff at the beginning of the book.
The way I was working on it was something where I basically give a scene from the middle of the book that’s kind of intense to let you know this is where we’re heading. You know how they’ll show you a scene, then it’s two days earlier and then it picks up from there.
What are your feelings on that and what kind of things do you feel work really well as far as opening a book so that it’ll really grab people’s attention if you feel like maybe your opening inciting incident isn’t extremely strong?
Shawn: That’s a really good question. In fact, I was thinking about that the other day. Here’s usually my advice about that. I think your friend was pretty much on track.
A lot of people, what they’ll do is they will start something with an action scene that’s either the ending climax of the entire novel or somewhere in the middle, and then once you get to the midpoint, you’ll have your final ending be completely new material.
Oftentimes what you’ll do is tack something on after you’ve done your first draft. For example, a crime thriller that is character-driven, meaning almost a mystery/crime/thriller combination where you’re really following the detective or the amateur sleuth as they’re compiling clues to start the novel where they discover a body, they start to get the clues and they slowly build up to a confrontation of possible suspects, that takes a slow build.
What often I’ll do is suggest doing the climax moment without giving any context and tacking that on as a prologue. Then you have a very direct break and then you begin chapter one.
The reason why you do that is it’s a way of enticing the reader to let them know, “I get it. You’re not sure if you want to invest six hours of reading experience in this book, you want to know that there’s going to be some great action later, so here’s a little bit of some action to start.” That’s a trick that a lot of people use and it’s perfectly valid.
Literary fiction writers, people who are writing very much in the internal genres, know that the people who are attracted to their stories are going to engage with their writing longer than somebody who is going to read a Dean Koontz novel. Dean Koontz is usually going to start something with a big bang, will go into a lull, and then rebuild.
It’s always tricky to figure out what the perfect beginning is. Obviously, what you want to do is make a promise at the very beginning of your story. The promise is you are going to have an incredible reading experience and the climax of this story is going to be really terrific.
The promise at the beginning of your story has to mirror your ending payoff. Even if you’re pulling a scene from the middle of the plotting, that has to be the building block to the major shift of the story at the very end.
It’s difficult for me to generalize about it because it’s on a case-by-case basis, but I think your friend who gave you that advice was giving you some good advice. Basically, what they were saying is you have to really hook the reader at the very beginning and the more active you are at the very start of the story, the more that will hook – unless you’re writing at the level of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Jonathan Franzen, or Anne Tyler.
Tim: I don’t think I’m quite there yet.
Shawn: If you’re writing genre fiction – and I love genre fiction; I’m not denigrating it in any way because I love it – you really do need active beginnings where maybe there’s a heist. The beginning of Pulp Fiction is a great example. It’s a coffee shop and a holdup. Then bang, you’re right into the middle of the story. Quentin Tarantino brilliantly juggled five or six plotlines in that story.
It’s based upon the old “Pulp” novels. He took a little smattering of all of the little micro-genres within the Pulp Fiction world and he created this universe that all collides in terms of timing. It’s a brilliant screenplay. You can read that screenplay as if it were a novel.
That’s a really great way of beginning his story because you know this is going to be great. If this is the very beginning of this story, I can’t wait until the end. Of course, he circles all the way back to the very beginning of Pulp Fiction at the very end and it’s a really great climax.
If I were to give advice about a perfectly timed sequence of active scenes and sequences – someday I’ll do a story grid for Pulp Fiction – it is Pulp Fiction. Buy the screenplay, read it like a novel, and you’re going to learn a lot.
Tim: I’m going to take a complete left turn now because I’ve gone back and I’ve started rereading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. Have you read that?
Tim: I love those books. I read them all in one week, all three of them. I remember thinking if there were three books that I wish I could unread to go back and experience them for the first time again, it was them. I think I’ve waited long enough where I’ve forgotten what happened so I’m rereading them.
But what struck me is how the girl with the dragon tattoo – her name is Salander – I feel like the author, Stieg Larsson, pushed her to the edge of her personality. He didn’t just take somebody who was kind of goth. It was like the nth degree goth, the nth degree socially awkward, and all of those things. It got me thinking about some of my favorite characters are those ones who seem to be extreme.
When we’re thinking through characters, I know when we talk about characters, you always say characters are the decisions they make, but I guess I was starting to think, “Should I be thinking about my characters as I can’t just take them to five on a scale of ten. I need to take them to a nine or ten on a scale of ten in order to make them remembered.”
So many of the characters that have huge flaws, I think of Jack Bauer in 24. He is a ten on a scale of what somebody will do to save his country. It got me thinking about my own characters because I started filling out the foolscap for this new one.
I wrote the first scene and then I started filling out the foolscap. It got me thinking about my characters. I was thinking, “If they’re a little bit like this, should I find these character flaws or these strengths and really crank the dial as much as I can on them?”
In Misery, Annie Wilkes, if she was just a little psycho, the book would not be that good. She had to be to the nth degree crazy, psycho fan person.
Shawn: Exactly. Yes, my advice about that is to think of your characters in terms of global archetypes. I don’t want to get into Jung, Freud and everything here, but to think of your character, what is the one defining element of that character that you think best expresses them?
For Annie Wilkes, it’s the hermity, old maid stuck in the wilderness who’s obsessively following a fictional fantastical universe. She is a remarkable villain because her yearning and her desire is so on the nose in that we know that she is addicted to Misery, the character. It’s such a great name that Stephen King came up with for the lead character of Paul, the writer’s, novels.
She’s addicted to this fantastical universe where there’s love and romance. The brilliance of that novel is that it’s that addiction to that fantasy that ultimately undoes her in that Paul, the writer, the way he tricks her and he beats her in the “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene is that he tricks her to believe that he’s fallen for her, that he’s in love with her.
It’s not some superficial love that’s just purely sexual or in need of a personal relationship. It’s a true romantic love and that he is going to have a suicide pact with her. He lures her into his trap by playing upon her weakness, and her weakness is her addiction to the fantasy life of romance.
If you can think of that one thing that that character will hold onto until the very end, Jack Bauer you mentioned. There is a guy who will hold onto his patriotism until the very end of his days.
The thing about Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, is that she’s addicted to her isolation. She has separated herself from the rest of the world and she feels more comfortable being alone. She uses sex as a fun, strange side experiment. She doesn’t really fall in love with anyone. Of course, her personal back story is so horrific that you can understand that at the very end. The whole sexual dynamic of Lisbeth Salander comes to play at the very end of the novel.
When you’re saying to take your characters up to these levels of nine and ten, I think the way to think of that is not to make them cartoons. Cartoons means people who are really bad. That doesn’t really make any sense because then you come up with a snidely Whiplash guy with a mustache that he twirls all the time.
But if you think of that one tragic lie they’re telling themselves, what’s the core lie that your lead character or your antagonist – and of course, we all know the protagonist and the antagonist are opposite ends of the spectrum of one being. When you’re thinking about your protagonist, you should think about your antagonist as the opposite of their core thing.
As a way to give you some advice about how to ratchet up your characterization, think about that one lie that your lead character is telling themselves. Your protagonist, in many cases, is going to recognize that lie in the “all is lost” moment in the middle of your story and they’re going to change their behavior once that knowledge comes to them. That is how they triumph at the end. The antagonist never, ever gives up their lie. They’re going to hold onto that lie until they burn in the fires of hell.
The way to think about your characters is to think about those things that they’re protecting that are the most precious to them that they don’t want to give up. I hope that helps.
Tim: Yes, it does. It got me thinking because every year between Christmas and New Year’s, my wife and I go back through and watch Lord of the Rings. It got me thinking because last year, when we watched it, I was like, “Frodo’s not the hero in that story; Sam is the hero in that story.”
It got me thinking, “What are each of the people in that movie trying to protect?” I guess it’s more like not taking something to the nth degree except they want to protect this so badly, they’ll sacrifice anything else for it.
Shawn: Exactly. What is their worldview that they refuse to let go? We all believe things about ourselves that are not true. I’m the first one to say that there are absolutely things about myself that I believe are absolutely ironclad true about myself that are not true. But I don’t know that and I can’t change my behavior until I reach some sort of traumatic experience that makes me change. That’s what stories are all about. They’re about changing our worldview so that we can learn deeper universal truths,
Even Pulp Fiction, all those characters in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, they’re holding on to some sort of lie. The ones who change and the ones who don’t… Vincent Vega does not change and Vincent Vega does not make it. But Sam Jackson changes.
It’s a beautiful story in Pulp Fiction. Underneath all that gore and wonderful dialogue, this is about the transformation. It’s a redemption story about Sam Jackson’s character. The great thing about that movie is that you get that in the first scene. The whole movie is leading up to Sam Jackson’s redemption as a character. He gives up the hood life. It’s great.
Anyway, there’s a book I would recommend called “The Writer’s Journey”. I forgot the guy who wrote it, but he’s a terrific writer. It’s about the archetypes that I was talking about. This is stuff that I need to write more about to help people glom onto their casting. Casting is a really important thing when you’re writing a story, of course. Most of the Story Grid is dealing with the real fundamental, foundational elements of story.
Casting, protagonist and antagonist choices, the archetypes that you can play with, and the hero’s journey stuff, that’s very, very important too. I write a lot about it on the blog in terms of story spine, but I really need to do more of that stuff so I’m glad you brought this up.
The book is called “The Writer’s Journey” and it was written by a former Disney movie executive who wrote some notes about Pixar movies. He wrote this terrific book I would recommend anybody read.
Tim: I forget the name of the book, but I remember I read a book a couple of years ago. I was thinking about it the other day because I was thinking about characters and how, obviously, important they are.
I was thinking about it because this book had a lot of clichés in it. It’s this tough private investigator who was a girl who had this gorgeous boyfriend and then this serial killer popped up that was attached to her in some way. But yet, it still pulled me through the story. I’m the one who puts down a story a couple hundred words in if I think it’s not grabbing me. It pulled me through the whole thing.
I was thinking about how so many of these things within the Story Grid, the math that we talk about and coming up with good characters, it covers the multitude of sins. You don’t have to be the perfect writer, you don’t have to get everything just right, but if you hit some of these fundamental things, it puts you in a place where you’re much more likely to succeed even with your flaws.
Shawn: Exactly. When we have a hankering to read a terrific mystery, there are any number of clichés that we’ll go with because we have the specific desire to read that kind of story. Of course, Pulp Fiction is littered with cliché figures. There’s the very difficult mob boss. There’s the prize fighter. There’s the Moll. There’s the hitmen. There’s the fixer. There are all those things.
Tim: The gimp.
Shawn: Right. But we forgive it because we’re so immersed. The plot points, the twists, the foundational story work is so deeply ingrained, and Tarantino is such a master of story structure that we’re having the time of our life watching that movie. You’re right. It will forgive so many sins knowing the foundational elements of story, story casts and all that stuff.
You can play with archetypes. You can play with cliché characters. As long as you have very original and innovative story climaxes, crises and inciting incidents, you can carry pretty much anything off.
Tim: I was watching this old interview with George Lucas this last week and he was talking about how after Star Wars came out because the movie almost didn’t get made and nobody thought it would make any money. Then it comes out and it’s this huge success. He’s like, “Everybody started trying to make movies by throwing spaceships in it and doing space movies.”
He didn’t talk about this particular part of it, but I was thinking, “I know that he was deep into the hero’s journey and that he basically just copy and pasted the hero’s journey into the script and then filled in all the pieces. It’s obviously more intense than that, but it made me think of that. That’s why the story works so well because it followed this ancient – like you always talk about it’s embedded into us from birth – way of telling stories that any number of spaceships, guns or anything else is not going to make up for if you’re missing those fundamental things.
Tim: Now that we’re 20 minutes in, I want to get into what I actually planned on talking to you about. We talked through the different parts of the story last week, the beat, the scene, all the way through the acts, the overarching story, subplot, and global story. Now in the Story Grid, you move into actually getting into the Story Grid spreadsheet.
I thought it was interesting, some of the things you said in the book because you talked about where editors begin. You talked about how when an editor reads a book and they don’t like it, something is missing or they feel like it doesn’t work. That’s often the phrasing you say is telling a story that works or doesn’t work.
But you say with the spreadsheet, these problems that are out in the back of my mind, I know something doesn’t work, it becomes obvious using the Story Grid spreadsheet. Why is that? Even seasoned editors can’t always put their finger on it. What’s so important about spreadsheeting out a book?
Shawn: What you’re doing with the spreadsheet is deconstructing the building. Essentially, the spreadsheet opens up the walls. It opens up the floors, the roof, the tiling, the plumbing, and the electricity and it shows you.
Whenever you have a problem in your house – say the electricity is out – the first thing you’re going to do is go down to the box where all the fuses are and see if any of the fuses are out. That’s the first diagnostic tool you’re going to figure out beyond knowing if everybody else’s lights are out in the neighborhood.
Then you’ll go down to the basement and you’ll say, “All of the circuit breakers are fine so there must be something wrong with that particular switch inside my house in the living room. The living room light is not working and the circuit hasn’t blown, so something happened within the wiring of the fixture. I have to get the lighting fixture looked at and I have to turn off the electricity and check that.” This is what the Story Grid spreadsheet does for you. It shows you all of the building blocks of your entire story.
As I talk about in the book, what you do as an editor took me years to figure out. I’ll tell a quick story about the process of becoming an editor. The first thing that you do is you want to become an assistant to an editor at a publishing house. People who graduate with English degrees or want to get into book publishing, their first step on the chain is they’ll have an interview with an editor at a publishing house. They’ll talk about their education, the books they like, etc.
If the editor and the candidate get along, the editor will say, “Great. I think you’re a very interesting person. What I’d like you to do is take this manuscript.” They’ll hand them a manuscript and they’ll say, “Take this home with you and I want you to write me a one-page report on what you think about this manuscript, what the story is and what any flaws are that you see in this story, and how you would suggest that you would fix the story.”
When I interviewed way back in the early ‘90s, I was handed a manuscript. I brought it home, I didn’t know anything about the manuscript and I read it overnight. I went through my own rational thinking and I said, “Is this story interesting? What’s wrong with this story? Is there anything wrong with it?”
I wrote up my one-page document, I wrote down every single flaw I thought was in there, and I turned it in. It turned out this was the lead fiction title for the publishing house and I had ripped it to shreds. I had basically said this thing is un-publishable, it’s terrible, and it’s unbelievable.
I did get the job. I think one of the reasons why I got the job was that it’s hard to find people who are so obsessive about individual tiny little bits of elements in a story. If you can find those people who can help make those little bits better, it makes the overall experience better.
Throughout my years as a learning editor, I started to develop the Story Grid spreadsheet which is column after column of very specific questions that an editor must answer for every single scene in the entire novel.
Basically, it lays out the entire electrical plan, the plumbing plan, the roofing plan, the walls, the rooms, all of that in the entire novel so that once you have that in front of you, you can say, “This moment doesn’t quite work because it doesn’t echo a moment that happened seven scenes prior to it,” or “There’s no real climax in this scene. Why is this scene in here? This just seems to be exposition.”
You can be very specific with a writer as an editor and say, “Here’s what I’ve done. I’ve taken your novel and I’ve taken a stapler. I’ve gone through every single page of your novel and I’ve stapled all of the scenes into individual little packets. Your novel breaks down to 62 scenes” – I’m just pulling this off the top of my head – “and what I’ve found is that in scene number seven, you have a flaw. Here’s how you might want to fix it. That scene number seven does not pay off in the way that you want it to in scene number 31.”
I can be very specific with a writer instead of saying such things as, “I just didn’t feel attached to the lead character,” which a lot of editorial people will give notes like that to a writer. “I never felt myself able to suspend my disbelief,” or “I didn’t find that the third act paid off as well as I’d like it to.” Those are all very…
Shawn: They’re not useless. They are identifying problems. I’m not saying that they’re not. But what they don’t do is identify specifically in the novel itself, in the exact place, where the writer can actually go in there with the chainsaw, the new electrical plan, or the new copper pipe and fix that plumbing problem or fix that electrical problem.
Sometimes you have a house that is a disaster and should be torn down. Sometimes you have novels that are sent over your desk that have to be torn down. Those are difficult discussions to have with writers because everybody wants to hold onto their mess. But this is where the spreadsheet came from. I didn’t just make this up on the fly. This is 25 years of experience finding ways to communicate with writers in very practical ways.
I say this over and over again to people and I don’t think I can ever say it enough. It’s not any personal problem that the writer has. It’s not that they weren’t given the God-gifted ability to be able to do a certain magic. There’s no personal problem with any writer.
The problems are in the work itself. If you say to somebody, “You need to put a new fuse in your electrical box in order for your light to work,” nobody takes that as a personal insult. But if you say to somebody, “I just never really attached to your lead character,” that’s going to devastate them. I prefer to say, “You need to fix the fuse in your fuse box to make that light go on.”
This is where the spreadsheet comes from and this is why it’s a wonderful tool, not just for editors but for writers. If you, as a writer, can go through your own work and separate yourself from your emotional attachment to it, lay out all of the things that you’ve done in a way that is very straightforward, then you will be able to see the places that you did very well and the places that you didn’t do so well, the places that you can improve and places that you need to cut.
You can take away all of that self-flagellation, all of that, “I’m such an idiot. Why can’t I do anything right? My book is never going to work and I’m never going to be the writer that I want to be.” These are all tasks that are very practical. They’re very analytical. This does not require a Ph.D. It requires blue collar hard work, going through scene by scene in very stringent, specific ways.
Tim: You talk about two stages you go through with a book when you first get a manuscript. You print out scenes and staple it together. I think it would be helpful just to hear what your process is. If I’m a writer and I’m trying to do this to my own book – I’m done writing and now I need to put on my editor hat – what kind of process should I go through to start putting on the editor hat and moving towards going through it analytically, like you said?
Shawn: Let me take it back to what I did when I was at the major publishing houses. I think this will be instructive for everyone because everybody’s curious what those editors behind closed doors actually do all day. Most of what they do is go to meetings.
When you get a manuscript as an editor, the first thing you do is you read it. You read it like anybody else would read it. Is this compelling me to continue to read the next page? Say you get through the entire book and you say to yourself, “The fact that I went all the way through this book is a very good sign. It means that the story held my interest long enough for me to actually wonder what was going to happen at the very end.”
Even if the ending disappoints you as an editor, you say to yourself, “There was enough juice, there was enough electricity, there was enough narrative drive in the story to get me from the very beginning to the very end.” I would define that kind of book as something that works.
Is it perfect? Of course not. Could it be published? Maybe, maybe not. But fundamentally, the story works. I’ve got a book that works. Now how can I make it better? That’s the next question I would ask.
On the second read, I wouldn’t get into trying to figure out what’s wrong with it yet. I would do what I mentioned before. I would go through the manuscript and staple each one of the scenes together so that I would have a stack of 62 stapled little mini scenes. After I was done with that, which would take a couple of hours, I would probably call it a day.
The next day, I would start to do what I call the Story Grid spreadsheet. I would fill out, on an Excel spreadsheet, column after column, all of the little bits and pieces that I go through in the book. We can get into them specifically later on.
After I’ve finished that for the entire book itself, I would really have some very strong clues about where things went off-track, where things were really working and the best place to start analyzing and going back to fix. I wouldn’t fix anything until I had a global plan, a strategy. What is my grand strategy? How am I going to make this book that works be even better?
Before I even went into one scene and started tinkering with any structure of a scene, the climax or anything like that, I would think globally. I would think, “What about my beginning hook? How is that working? Is that really pulling me through? What about the middle build? Am I really reaching an ‘all is lost’ moment there? Is it clear? Are the characters moving in the way that they should be? How is the ending payoff?”
I’ll think of the very big moments in the story. Those are the ones you really need to nail because those are the ones that are going to compel somebody to go through the entire book.
If I have already gone through the entire book, I’m pretty sure what those global moments are and I’ll think, “Is there a way to tweak them to make them even stronger?” I’m not going to start on the first scene and start tinkering with the first scene if I don’t know that the global moments are working, because if I mess with the first scene, it might mess with a global moment that I haven’t quite figured out yet.
Tim: Again, it’s going back to that idea of these are sign posts along the way. You want to start with those big things before you try and get into the nitty-gritty.
Shawn: Exactly. The thing about the big things is that they need to be surprising. The climax of your beginning hook needs to be very surprising from your inciting incident of your beginning hook.
What do I mean by that? Well, if your inciting incident is very positive, say your lead character has just received a major promotion at their job, whatever they are. Before, they were one of the worker bees, and at the beginning of your story, they become named CEO or head of their division. That’s a very positive change for the character. They’re going to get more status, more money, more of all those things.
If the climax of your beginning hook after that very positive inciting incident is also positive – instead of them becoming the head of their department, now they’re the CEO – that’s not so good because when you begin positive and you end your payoff positive, it feels not quite that surprising.
Tim: That would be an example of reading it, feeling like something was off and then being able to see it once it’s in the spreadsheet. You’re like, “The polarity change is positive and positive.”
Shawn: That’s exactly right. You would read it and say, “For some reason that big moment at the end of the beginning hook didn’t compel me all that much. I wonder why.” Then you’ll figure it out and you’ll say, “Oh, because they’re both positive.”
Instead you would want a negative. Let’s say the beginning of the story is the person gets promoted to the head of their department. At the end of the beginning hook, they lose their job. That would be surprising because you would think that this was a story about somebody who is climbing the corporate ladder and is going to make a big name for themselves.
Then if you pull the rug out from the reader and say, “No, that’s not what this story is about. They’re going to lose their job.” Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen next? Wait, the beginning of the story is that they became a big shot and now they’ve lost everything. How are they going to rebuild their life? That will compel the reader to go to the middle build.
Your inciting incident of the middle build will probably be positive and then it will end on a negative. Then it will end on a positive. You want to pay real sharp attention to the polarity shifts of your storytelling.
These are the major movements of your story. This is the first thing I’m going to look at when I’m editing my first draft. Am I surprising? Am I really pulling the rug out from the reader? Would they never believe that this is what’s going to happen? If you can pull that kind of innovative twist off, then it’s going to compel them to keep reading.
We were talking last week about the units of story. We were talking about beats, scenes, sequences, acts, subplots, and global story movements. You’ll see that I’m starting at the global story level when I’m first approaching the editor and then I’m going to slowly move down that unit of story list.
Then I’m going to look at the subplot. Are the subplots mirroring and paying off in a way that is supportive of the major thematic shift of the story? Are they in sync? Are they helping? Are they hindering? Are they more interesting than the lead story? If that’s the case, I’ve got to do something about that.
As you can see, you want to move down that chain of global story to subplot to act to sequence to scene. Ideally, on your ninth draft, then you can goof around with the beats but I really wouldn’t obsess about beats until you’re doing those final line by line tweaks after you have really gone through a number of drafts of editing prior to that.
The spreadsheet is the key place that’s going to tell you where all of your problems are. Then once you know where all the problems are, then you use the levels of story to attack those problems. Always attack the big, major problems first.
Tim: If you can go back, talk a little bit about how subplot should interact with the main story. I think one of my favorite movies that really uses subplots, have you ever seen the movie Snatch, one of those Guy Ritchie movies?
Shawn: Yes, a long time ago.
Tim: There are all these separate threads running, probably five different stories running. At one point, they all coalesce where they’re all passing each other in cars, there’s a wreck and all this kind of stuff. What’s funny about it is it’s all happening because of this diamond, even though many of the people involved don’t realize everything is happening because of this diamond.
Anyway, that’s what it made me think of, how all of a sudden, these separate threads of story get tied all together at once and you see how they all interact. But, of course, there are other movies that have all these different things going on that are, in theory, going to tie into the story. What are you looking for, as an editor, when you’re reading the subplots? How much screen time should they get and how do they need to interact? Talk a little bit about that.
Shawn: To take a very giant step back, there are three global kinds of structures. There’s the arch plot, the mini plot, and the anti-plot. The mini plot is sort of what you’re talking about with Snatch, Pulp Fiction, and Lord of the Rings. These are multiple strands of story that all come together into a larger thematic story at the very end.
Those are different than the straightforward arch plot which would be a James Bond story, The Martian, a traditional mystery story or a traditional love story. Love stories have subplots, but they’re usually mirroring or are counter-thematic to the central storyline.
Subplots, let me try and think of a perfect example of one. Since we did The Martian a couple of weeks ago, we can talk about that because The Martian is a terrific arch plot where the lead character doesn’t make a hero’s journey. Mark Watney does not change at the beginning of the story. At the end of the story, he’s the same guy as he was at the beginning of the story.
He’s a catalyst character. He’s the protagonist of a sort, but what he does is he creates change in other people in the story. The other people are the people at NASA and the people on the ship on their way back to Earth. He affects change in those people.
When you’re looking at the global story of the Mark Watney story in The Martian, what you’re looking at are the major elements of his journey to begin with, the global story. How is Mark Watney going to come back to Earth? How do I move him from Mars to Earth? That’s what you’re thinking about. You’re thinking of the beginning hook of that story, the middle build of that story, and the ending payoff of that story.
The subplots would be akin to the stories on the spaceship with he captain of the ship. She has to make a decision about turning back. Does she turn back to go back and get Mark Watney or doesn’t she?
If she does turn back, she will be disobeying direct orders from NASA. She has to understand that she’s defying direct orders, which is against the law and she’s going to get in deep trouble if this thing backfires. What she decides to do is to talk to the rest of the crew and get their acquiescence to go back for Watney, and they decide to do that.
But that is mirroring the courage of Mark Watney himself on planet Mars. Does he just stay in that little area that they made where they can live, hope for the best and hope that they come and get him? Or does he have the courage to venture outside of that hub and try and affect his own discovery and survival? The subplot is supporting the global plot of Mark actually being rescued from Mars.
Tim: The difference is this one main story that has other almost supporting stories, to round it out, where something on the mini plots is a bunch of little plots that are all happening at the same time that come together at the end.
Shawn: Right. You don’t have one compelling lead character. You might have somebody like Frodo in Lord of the Rings but it’s this group of other heroes that have to come together to really change the story. You get all those little stories that all add up into a bigger theme. That’s a mini plot story.
The Lord of the Rings is terrific because it’s an action epic adventure that has multiple strands of plot that all come together. A lot of literary fiction is concerned with mini plot which has a large group of characters who don’t really do all that much. They come together for a Thanksgiving dinner is the climax of the corrections, and to get there, takes a lot of reading.
I think we may have gotten a little bit into the weeds here with my backtracking, but I can say this with confidence. Any subplot that a writer sticks in there, they intuitively know that it’s supporting the global larger story. Subplots don’t usually have to be completely re-jiggered. They either work or they don’t. If they don’t work, an editor will probably say to the writer, “Cut that character. We don’t need him.”
The subplots are really not as crucially important as the scene by scene movements and the global, climactic moments of your beginning, hook, middle build, and ending payoff.
Tim: I also want to go back to as an editor, you sit down, you read it, and you figure out if it works. Obviously, as the writer, I’m way too close to the story to make a good call on that. I was trying to think. Should you try to get together a handful of people who will suffer through all of your first drafts or second drafts and give you feedback?
If you do, what kind of questions are you wanting them to answer? I’m assuming it wouldn’t be extremely specific questions, more like things like, “Where did it get boring?” or “Where did you lose interest?” or “Where is it confusing?”
Shawn: No, that’s not going to help you. That’s a recipe for disaster. I’ll tell you why: because whoever you lure into that terrible position is going to lie to you. They just will. They won’t do it to hurt you. First of all, they’re not professionally trained to evaluate story in the way that an editor is, so I would skip the part of the works doesn’t work.
As a writer, assume your first draft is a piece of shit. Just assume that. That’s a pretty good assumption because usually your first draft is pretty sketchy and not the best thing that you’re ever going to write. That’s the way it should be. Nobody writes a first draft that’s perfect. No matter what anybody says to you, it’s never happened.
Tim: Anne Lamott talks about that with the shitty first draft in “Bird by Bird”.
Shawn: Forget about it. Nobody creates something whole on a first. They didn’t create the B-52 off of the plans and then it was this perfect plane.
Live and die by the spreadsheet. Let the spreadsheet inform you. The great thing about the spreadsheet is that it’s not subjective. If you’re asking yourself questions like, “What is the story event in this scene? What happens?” you have to rack your brain to come up with one sentence that says what happens in that scene.
If you can’t come up with that sentence, that’s a problem. You’re going to figure that out and you’re going to say to yourself, “I’m going to staple this scene and I’m not going to be able to fill out the story event, but I’m not going to fix that right now. I’m just going to set that aside and I’m going to put a question mark on the story event for that scene, and then I’m going to move on.”
What you want to do with that first draft is you want to get the lay of the land. You want to see where you went well, where things were clicking, where things didn’t click, where you’re very clear in your polarity shifts, and the moments where your obligatory scenes are paying off. You want to make sure those are in there. You want to make sure that you have abided by the conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen genre.
You want to check that out and make sure that you have a “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene in your thriller, a “hero at the mercy of the monster” scene in your horror novel or your “lover’s kiss” scene in your love story. If your lovers never kiss in your love story, people are going to say, “It was pretty good but they never got together. I don’t know why I read this thing.”
You need to know that your obligatory scenes and conventions of your chosen genre, your global genre and your internal genres, that you’re hitting those marks.
If they’re in there but they’re a little soft, you’re going to figure that out when you look at your global Story Grid spreadsheet because it’s going to be a little soft like, “Melissa pecks Pete on the cheek.” That’ll be the lover’s kiss scene in your Story Grid and you’ll be like, “Maybe that’s not that thrilling of a scene. Maybe there should be something else.” Or maybe that is the perfect lover’s kiss.
There is a scene in The Martian, the movie, where the character played by Kate Mara, one of the crew, one of the other guys is going out to rescue Watney. He’s got the spacesuit on. He’s got the helmet and she gives him a little kiss on the mask of his space helmet. That’s the lover’s kiss scene in that love story. In that moment, we know that those two are in love. We know that they’re going to get together at the end of the movie.
Guess what happens at the end of the movie? There’s a resolution scene where you see Kate Mara in a hospital having given birth to their child. It’s a beautiful moment because you say, “There was that lover’s kiss scene.” It was this tiny little bit, a moment.
Obviously, the screenwriter and Ridley Scott came up with that moment because I don’t think it’s in the book. It was a really nice little subplot. These two people on this crew fell in love and she showed him that she loved him because she might never see this guy again. She kisses him on his helmet and that’s enough.
If they didn’t have that moment and they had them later on, she’s giving birth to their baby, it wouldn’t have made sense to the audience. They would have been like, “Why did she give birth to that guy’s baby? They weren’t in love.”
Tim: That reminds me my wife and I just went back through and watched the entire The Office series again.
Shawn: You guys got to get away from the screens, Tim.
Tim: I know. As I said that, I’m like, “We watch too much TV.”
Shawn: The Office is fantastic though.
Tim: What it got me thinking about is how you have Jim, Pam and Michael who are the main characters but then there are ten other characters in the show. It’s only a 22-minute show so a lot of times these characters either don’t have anything going on in that particular episode or if they do, it’s probably two minutes of screen time. Yet, we feel like we know these characters intricately just from those little, tiny glimpses into what they do.
I felt like that when you just said that about The Martian. There are only three or four mentions in the entire movie. Now I can’t remember if this was in the movie or the book. I know in the book, when Mark Watney is basically writing all of his good-byes, he tells the guy, “You need to go after her. You need to just go for it.”
In the movie, she says they have to bunk up because they’re already bunking up. I think she says that, then she kisses him on the helmet and then they have the baby at the end. Maybe there is one more scene but probably all together, it’s less than a minute.
Shawn: Yes, that’s enough.
Tim: Yet you get this entire story of their relationship in less than a minute in a two-hour movie.
Shawn: That’s absolutely true and that’s the thing. You don’t have to hammer home every single bit. Tiny little details, specificity, can pay off in such a large way. Let me quickly mention my point about The Office. What makes that show work is the narrative device of that show.
What is the narrative device of that show? It’s the conceit that this office, somebody is making a documentary about the office. They have the takeaway and they have the interview sessions with some of the characters. It’s very Shakespearean in a way where they have these soliloquies talking directly to the camera which gives you the feeling of a documentary being filmed of this office.
It’s that narrative device that is so brilliantly consistent throughout the entire series of this show that makes it so funny and so compelling because you feel as if you’re watching a documentary and these people are revealing themselves in ways. They do a lot of cutaways between the people. It’s great. Narrative device is such a key part of writing.
Tim: It works so well because one of the things about the screen is you can’t get the inner dialogue in like you can in a book. The way it used it was they would show you something and then they would be interviewing that person who is saying the exact opposite of how they just acted.
Shawn: Exactly. That was a great solution to it. The narrative form of film is that you can only film the external. I talk a lot about Eugene O’Neill but the thing that Eugene O’Neill as the playwright did to figure this out – and he didn’t figure it out until he was very late in his career – was to use drunkenness as a way of revealing the internal inner worlds of his characters.
The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Hughie and Moon for the Misbegotten are all great plays because you get the inner worlds of these characters through their statements while they’re intoxicated. That’s how he got around the fact that in a play, you cannot go inside the character’s mind like you can in a novel.
The thing about O’Neill, he always wanted to be a novelist but he never felt comfortable in that medium. He always wanted to be able to, in free, indirect style, get inside his characters’ minds and reveal their thoughts.
The way he finally figured that out was by using alcohol and intoxication to reveal the innermost thoughts of his characters, another narrative device that once he figured that out, he banged out those plays in six months. His major plays – these are plays he wrote after he got the Nobel Prize, by the way – these are ones that he banged out without even really thinking because he figured out his narrative device. Once he did, it was as if he was taking dictation.
Tim: Thanks for listening to the Story Grid Podcast. For all things Story Grid, check out StoryGrid.com. Also, all past episodes of the Story Grid Podcast are at StoryGrid.com/podcast. Also, to support the show, please tell one of your friends or a friend of a friend about it and ask them to listen. Thanks again and we’ll see you next week.