In this week’s episode of The Story Grid Podcast, Tim delivers the second Hero’s Journey action trial for Jessie in his middle build.
I thought it was a very good choice because it takes Jessie inside the virtual world again, but without the formal supervision from her first exposure. That is, the climactic scene represents a “street fight.” Without there being an authoritative presence to keep everyone “fighting fair,” we get to see Jessie facing unsanctioned confrontation.
What was also a very good choice was to put Jessie in this “Hero at the Mercy of the Villain (HATMOTV)” scenae far earlier in the story than the reader would intuitively anticipate. As the HATMOTV is the core event of the thriller, writers often save up a huge amount of energy to build to this monstrous moment in their ending payoffs. There is so much set up that no matter how well conceived, the reader isn’t completely satisfied. What they often find is that the build up takes so very long that the reader isn’t as surprised by the scene as they’d planned. By giving them mini-HATMOTV scenes at surprising moments in the story before the Big Kahuna at the very end, the writer is able to satisfy the HATMOTV excitement requirement cumulatively rather than all in one big fell swoop.
A way to achieve this strategy is to plant mini-moments of the hero staring down villains in seemingly unwinnable moments throughout the novel. Of course that’s easier said than done because the better these HATMOTV scenes are in the build up, the more pressure the writer will face with delivering the climactic HATMOTV action scene…which is the ending payoff of the ending payoff (EP).
To get a better sense of what I mean by doing a string of HATMOTV scenes before the EP HATMOTV, watch the movie GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.
The EP HATMOTV of that film is terrific, but I suspect that without the earlier HATMOTV scenes before it, it would not have worked in the way it ultimately does. I think it would have come off as cheesy and unbelievable and obviously the work of a writer’s room trying to be too cute by half.
But because the earlier HATMOTV scenes are so well done (the escape from prison and the first confrontation with the central antagonist that leaves the Zoe Saldana character adrift in space) and establish the effective goofiness of the hero, when he tries the ultimate goofy act at the end (in collaboration with his posse), it works.
To listen click the play button or read the transcript that follows.
[0:00:00.3] 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’m a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he’s the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid, and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
As you may be able to hear, I’m fighting a little bit of a cold. Thankfully this came on after the recording of the episode so you won’t have to listen to this for the next hour. In this episode, we talk about — We’re continuing into the middle build of my book and I’m struggling with these big moments. If you’ve been following along, as I come against these big moments in the middle build, I really freak out and can’t figure out what I should write about and feel like I have no good ideas.
We talk some more about that and what I have left to do in the middle build. I think you’ll really enjoy it because it will help you as you think about your big moments in your middle build and how to keep the momentum going and hit the right notes at the right time.
Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:13.3] TG: So Shawn, I worked on the next sequence which ended up being four scenes and I was, after admitting to you that I kept waiting until two days before I had to turn in the scenes to write anything, I decided I was not going to do that this time and I actually wrote five out of the seven days between episodes. Actually, just tried to chip away at it instead of just sitting own and writing 2,500 words at once.
Anyway, I don’t know if it made it any better or worse, but that’s what I tried to do just to build consistency instead of these days of tons of writing and then I don’t write for five days. Anyway, four scenes, we got through — In the last one, we got through kind of the aftermath of the severing where she had burnt down the tower and so she had to confront the president and he gave her the warning, those three scenes. Now, we’re in to — We decided that she needed to have a run in with Az, her enemy, and then I wanted to started telegraphic the meeting with the brother. I had her drop into this empty space. I had a lot of fun writing that because it allowed me to get more into the digital world that I just haven’t yet. That was a lot of fun to write.
Anyway, those were the — Sent you the four scenes. What are your thoughts?
[0:02:49.0] SC: This might be a short podcast, because I think you did a really nice job. Again, when we talked last week, we were talking about the aggressive complications. One of the difficulties of the middle build is that you have to keep ratcheting up the tension and the complications for the protagonist so that she is facing more and more difficult tasks and more strange things are happening to her that are undermining her global goal.
When I talk about what she wants, and what she wants is to go back home and go back to the place where she felt the most comfortable, which was a time that was in her past when her brother was alive and her parents were just average functioning people and she was part of a larger family. She just wants to go back to that. Now, all of her actions are based upon that global wanting to back to a better time.
Within each scene, this is a thing that writers really need to remember is that — And the way I explained it often is when former President Obama wanted to become president, while he was campaigning there were certain things that he had to do to ultimately reach that goal. Each day, he would have a little want, “Today, I want to convince the Iowa farmers that I can do a great job of president. Today, I’m going to go to the diner and sit down with some Iowa farmers and see if I can get them on my side.” That was his micro want that served his larger want.
The micro ones that we’re talking about in your book concerned Jessie moving her agenda forward so that she eventually has the ability to go home with the least amount of damage possible. In the last sequence, you wisely ratcheted up her problems to include her compatriots. She’s not just fighting for herself anymore. If she fails or if she does something in the wrong way, if she disappoints the authority figure, her companions will be harmed and they will be sent home permanently damaged and their families will no longer be able to get the benefits that they’re getting now.
That was a really great way of escalating the stakes for Jessie. Now, she’s got to concern herself with not screwing up, because if she does, then those things will happen to her friends. They’re not even really her friends yet, but they are the only people who are doing anything close to helping her. That last sequence was really terrific, and those consequences were put on Jessie by the antagonist. The antagonist has finally showed his face, he is the president, his name is Marcus. He’s been using other ponce to do his work for him. What he wants is your antagonist must have their own want too. The antagonist’s global want is to win the threshing.
It’s the most important thing to him and he would do whatever is necessary to make this happen, is to maintain his power in the society. The only way he can maintain his power is by winning this upcoming threshing. One of the ways he’s decided that will help him do that is by using Jessie, because she seemingly has talents and a gift that could prove very useful at that time.
All of these stuff that I’m saying right now is embedded in the work that you’ve done. If we were to pull somebody off the street and we gave them these 28 chapters and say, “What is Jessie want?” I’m pretty sure they would say, “Oh, she wants to go home back to a better time when things were better.” I still think we need to ratchet that up, and we can do that in the next draft. I think it’s clear. If we ask them, “Who is the antagonist?” they would say, “Well, there’s a bunch of them. There’s this guy who is the president who sent her down into the numbered and now the president is also threatening her while she’s part of this larger team of people who have to fight in this big event. I would say — Then, there’s some personal stuff between [Corine] and the other guy who’s in the program.”
I think they would be able to say, “Well, there’s personal one on one conflict between Jessie and Az, plus, there’s larger societal conflicts that are bearing down on Jessie,” and you furthered those — You made those even more clear in these four chapters, and that it’s not just Az who’s not in her camp, it’s all the other coders. It’s, in fact, the military guy who’s in charge of the entire program. They’re not in her camp. They think she’s a troublemaker. They think she’s a liability. They want to get her out.
There’s the one on one, and there’s the larger societal thing, and then there’s the internal antagonist that she hasn’t even identified yet, which is her naiveté. This is a coming of age, maturation plot inside of an action story thriller, and her naiveté is keeping her from asking herself questions that could really help her. She’s not asking herself, “Why me? What does the president want me? What’s the big deal with me? What’s going on? What happened to my brother?” She’s not asking any of those internal questions, she’s just blindly moving forward with an agenda that only takes her back to some mythical time when things were okay.
All of these stuff is going on, and in these four chapters, you made a really nice choice, but adding, yet, another level of mystery and conflict. It was a really wise decision to have Jessie enter this netherworld without explaining who’s behind it.
Now, I’m sure a lot of people who’ve been following this podcast from the very beginning will say to themselves, “Well, of course, it’s the brother. Duh? We know it’s the brother. Tim’s been saying it’s going to be the brother.” What I think you’ve done here is — When we’ll see when we go through further drafts down the road, is you have dropped in the brother element very, very early on in the book. You’re setting up the brother revelation for the climax of the middle build, and you introduced it very, very early on in the book.
Depending upon the grade level and the age of the reader of the story, they may or may not have figured that out. My gut is that — Go ahead.
[0:10:49.3] TG: Yeah. I mentioned it in the scene one, but I have not mentioned these things.
[0:10:54.4] SC: Right
[0:10:56.0] TG: I’ve referred to him, but not in any context as her family. When the president said he has an advisor — There was one other time, I think. I’ve referred to him, but I’ve only mentioned him once, and that was scene one.
[0:11:12.6] SC: Right. That’s good. That’s good.
[0:11:15.4] TG: Okay.
[0:11:16.1] SC: Anyway, this — What also like about these four scenes was they were very clear crisis in each of the scenes. We pick up after the whole crew, the whole team of people, through her parents in the threshing have learned that not only did Jessie not get in trouble, but she was rewarded for burning down that tower. That her team now has better equipment. They’ve got better resources, and it’s as if she won the entire threshing, or won the entire severing by herself.
Now, they’re kinda walking down the hall, she and her two compatriots, Ernst and Alex, to go check out the new stuff. They run into Az who is the person who was sort of humiliated in the last severing.
What’s really nice here is that you immediately had Az — Az has an agenda, and his agenda is to do dupe these people, these three, into doing what he wants. He’s explaining to them on very straightforward terms, he wants to practice, and he wants to get back at her. He wants another chance. He wants to fight again. It’s like the UFC fighter who wants to rematch soon after being beaten.
[0:12:49.2] TG: Yeah.
[0:12:50.3] SC: Then, he pulls out this mysterious zip drive, or whatever, and says, “Look, I’ve got the whole simulation here. All we have to do is go in, and it would just be me and you, one on one. If you don’t like it, you can choose to always logout.”
This is all information that all of the people assumed to be true, and so does the reader. We sort of go along with it too. As we’re reading it, we’d go, “Oh! Well, I guess that’s a good point. I wonder what the trick is.” Even though after you read it, you’d go, “Oh! Of course, that’s what he did.” You’re invested in the narrative drive of the story so that you’re not immediately trying to figure out the puzzle, because you want to see what Jessie is going to do.
She agrees to do it, because they make a good argument, “Hey, if we wiped him out now and we destroy his confidence, he’ll get out of this entire thing. He’s the biggest competition. Wouldn’t it be better to get rid of this competition now and have to deal with him in the next severing?”
There’s this best bad choice crisis that she faces, and she makes the best bad choice, and her opinion is, “I’d rather face this guy now, get him out of the equation and then that can move my agenda forward. If I get him out of this, I’m closer to going home.”
It all makes really solid storytelling sense. Then, when she gets there, the element I really liked is when she goes back into the cyberspace and she’s facing and it’s the same setup, and something’s weird. She doesn’t know what it is. We think, as the reader, “Oh! This weird thing is something that Az is doing.” It’s a really great red herring. It’s a way of distracting the reader and making them think one thing and then delivering something else later on.
I’m not even getting to the part where I like. The part I liked is when she gets in the open field and then these other people starts stepping out, one’s got a baseball bat, and these are the other [inaudible]. It’s obvious that everybody in her entire thing wants her out. What you did is you escalated the stakes. You complicated it even larger than it was before. Now, it’s not just Az who’s a jerk who wants her out, it’s everybody, even the guy who is the military officer who runs the training wants her out. She’s a bad egg. He doesn’t like her well. She’s not playing by the rules. She’s a favorite of the president. All these things are adding up and not once did you ever have to write, “Hey, Jessie. You’re the favorite of the president. We don’t like you.” No. Instead, what you did is you actively showed these people attacking her.
Then you went one better. Then, we’re thinking, “How is she going to get out of this situation? It’s the hero at the mercy of the villain scene early. This isn’t even the ultimate villain. What you’re doing is you’re setting up some payoff down in the future that’s even bigger than this hero at the mercy of the villain scene.
[0:16:15.0] TG: Oh, no.
[0:16:15.9] SC: Yeah. You’re really digging yourself a big hole, and it’s great, because you’re at midpoint. You’re at midpoint in your novel. When your readers get to this point and they’re engaged and they’re locked in and when Jessie falls into that wormhole, they’re going to go, “Oh my gosh! What’s going on? Holy cow! This doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Then, you did a really nice thing and you resolved it by having the nasty guy, the military guy pull her out, and he unplugs her, and he yells at her, and he physically abuses her, then pulls her down to his office, and it looks like he’s really going to slap her around her a little bit. Then, the president shows up and asks her what happened.
Now, she has an even bigger crisis. For whatever reason, she had a feeling when she was in that netherworld, that it was a friendly world, that the voice that she heard in that friendly world was going to help her. If she ratted out that friendly voice to the president, that would be a mistake. It would be a betrayal of that friendly voice.
What’s really nice about here, Tim, is that if you look at this metaphorically, that friendly voice is her authentic self, even though it’s her brother, and we know that. She thinks it’s her authentic self. What you’re doing here is you’re saying, “She needs to start listening to her authentic self and inside of herself and start questioning the things that she’s doing and stop thinking about the world in terms of going back to some mythical, wonderful time. Get with the program, honey. You got to figure out life is not what you think it is. It’s a lot more complicated. The sooner you get a grasp of that, the better your life will be.
That’s the metaphor that you’re playing with, and because you’re writing now, you’re very locked in to, for lack of a better word, your muse. Your muse is directing you in a way that hasn’t directed you before. Do you feel that or you just feel like —
[0:18:37.7] TG: I’m just cranking it out. I feel like it’s coming more naturally and that I’m making decisions. What’s happening is I’m like playing it over in my head, in the shower, in driving to work, or whatever, and when I find the right answer, and I feel confident it’s the right answer now.
I had a lot of fun — The part in the simulation, I thought of that too of like, “I wanted to telegraph that Az had done something,” and then it wasn’t Az and she uses it to escape him. I did think of that, of like — Everybody is going to assume Az is up to something. Let me just tell them he’s up to something, but then like, make that a lie, like it wasn’t really him. That was one.
I really enjoyed the kind of netherworld. I kinda sat down and wrote that in one sitting without planning too much. I felt like that just fell out of me. I was a little worried, because there wasn’t much of a crisis in it, because it was mostly her just walking around, trying to figure out what was going on and then it disappeared.
I was worried that scene didn’t work, because I couldn’t really pinpoint what the crisis was. Unless —
[0:20:05.3] SC: Well, let me just stop you there. Let me stop you there. What you did instinctively in that scene was you cut the scene at a progressive complication. Technically, some story grid nerd like myself will say to you, “Your crisis occurs in the next scene, or chapter, and that crisis is do I tell the president about the netherworld and the ghostly voice, or do I not?”
That’s the crisis —
[0:20:41.8] TG: I knew —
[0:20:42.3] SC: Yeah.
[0:20:43.6] TG: Okay. I knew that for that scene, you’re basically saying I just wrote one long scene.
[0:20:49.0] SC: Yeah. Yeah. It’s perfectly reasonable and it’s a good idea to do this sort of cliffhangers every now and again. Now, a lot of people think, “Oh! I’ll just do the cliffhanger in every scene. I’ll stop before they make the climactic decision, and then I’ll pick up the climactic decision in the next scene.”
What you did here was you set up your cliffhanger by stopping on the progressive complication, because your progressive complication is so large, it works. If the progressive complication was she’s going to the cafeteria and they’re out of trays for her to get her food and you stop the chapter there, that’s not enough. Do you know what I’m saying?
[0:21:40.5] TG: Okay.
[0:21:42.0] SC: That’s just a stupid progressive complication. That’s fine in this story, but you can’t end a scene on that, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. It doesn’t provide any suspense or mystery.
This progressive complication is the emergence of even yet, even yet, another virtual reality. What you’re doing is you’re almost — She’s living in a dystopia. She goes into a virtual reality into a battle. That virtual reality has its own wormhole, that’s yet another virtual reality. Nobody’s talked about this wormhole, it’s a completely unique and fresh thing that you’re sticking in here. To stop the scene after she comes out of this wormhole and people say, “You’ve been in the netherworld for five hours, everybody’s in bed. What’s going on?” That is a great way of ending a chapter, because you’re ending it on a very massive story point that progressively complicates the entire story, because up until this point, we’ve been thinking, “Oh! This is going to be like Ender’s Game where she joins his band and she gets better and better and — Oh my gosh! Wait a minute. What?”
You’re innovating the convention of this particular science fiction, fantasy, coming of age, action, dystopia story.
[0:23:30.6] TG: Whatever the hell this thing —
[0:23:31.5] SC: Yeah, like Ender’s Game. It’s a good one to think of. If anybody hasn’t read it, it’s Orson Scott Card, it’s a terrific story about a young boy who is gifted and he has to fight battles for his government. It’s a very strong straightforward action story and there’s some similarities in your story about the setup. It’s a different world. It’s fresh. You’re innovating. You’re not ripping up Orson Scott Card other than using the plot point of somebody who has to go to an academy to learn how to fight something.
This element that you just threw in is that moment when readers really get excited and they go, “Oh my gosh! I thought it was about thing, but what is that trap door that’s just stuck in me. What is that all about?” Let me just get back to the fact that you were worried that you didn’t have a crisis in that scene and you cut it off right at the progressive complication.
What I’m saying is that works, because the progressive complication is so vast and large and it takes the story to another level, to another — There’s a force. We don’t know whether it’s good or bad yet. We suspect it’s good, but we’re not really sure. We’re sitting in Jessie’s shoes right now, which is exactly what you want. You want your reader to empathize with your protagonist, and this chapter — If somebody hasn’t been fully committed to Jessie by now, this will really do it. Now, they’re going to say to them self, “We’re going to find out what that wormhole is about.” This is now her next want. Her next thing is while she navigates this goal, her next want is she’s got to figure out what the heck that wormhole is. She is smart enough to — Now, she’s going to have to say to herself, “Do I trust Alex and Ernst? Can I tell them? Will they betray me? How am I going to figure this out?”
[0:25:54.1] TG: Oh, yeah. I didn’t even thought about that yet.
[0:25:56.5] SC: Yeah, because you want to set up a Judas figure for her.
[0:26:00.2] TG: Because she’s already keeping things from them.
[0:26:04.1] SC: Right. She’s going to reach a point of, “Oh my gosh! As must as I hate to do it, I’ve got to trust somebody. As much as this is going to bother me, I’ve got to trust somebody.” Guess what that is? That’s a maturation point. That’s a point when we start to discover, we can’t make it all the time by ourselves. Sometimes we have to trust somebody even though they might betray us. We’ve got to risk. We’ve got to take that risk, because the stakes are so large, that is she can’t figure out what’s in that wormhole, there’s no way she’s going to survive the severing, let alone the threshing.
These are all wonderful, juicy plotlines and opportunities that have risen with this new sequence of events. It’s really terrific, because you boiled this story to a place where she can’t go back. It’s irreversible. If she tries to get out of this thing, other people are going to suffer. She’s already made the choice that that’s not going to work for her. He said to herself, “I’m not their kind of person who’s going to selfishly try and get back to my home at the expense of other people.” Now, it’s irreversible.
Now, her goal is, “I’ve got to get through the threshing. I’ve got to get this antagonist what he wants, and I’ve got to figure out what that wormhole is,” because that wormhole is the thing that she secretly knows in her heart of hearts. That’s the thing that she’s going to need in the threshing.
[0:28:00.6] TG: Okay. Before we go on, I want to mention one thing too. I don’t know if you noticed this, but in the last couple of sequences, I started going inside her dead.
[0:28:11.3] SC: I didn’t notice. Good! Right!
[0:28:14.5] TG: One again, I was listening to Harry Potter, and I was just noticing how much of the book — because my struggle has been, I want it all from Jessie’s perspective. There’s not a single scene in the book that is not from Jessie’s perspective.
[0:28:31.1] SC: Right.
[0:28:32.0] TG: I’ve tried to just do it as if I was just watching what she was doing. I finally just reach this point a couple of weeks ago where I’m like, “I don’t know why I decided to pick up this fight of staying out of her head. I think at the beginning of the book, if I went back and listened, it would probably be because I didn’t think I could do it.
I started using that, basically sharing her thoughts as a way to continue to tell the story and — I don’t know. Finally, it was like, “I need to tell this story from her perspective in a much more literal way than just like if a camera were sitting on her shoulder.”
I’m pretty sure the last two — It might have been the last three sequences, but definitely the last two, I just went ahead and just started writing as if we are inside her head. In the last one, when she’s trying to make the decision, the last scene of the last sequence, when she met with the president and went back to see them, I do this whole thing about how she’s like struggling inside of herself whether or not to sell Alex and Ernst what the president said and that she met with him. There’s like — I’m looking at probably a dozen sentences that’s all inside her head, what’s she’s thinking.
‘Because I cannot figure out a way to tell that without just telling what she was thinking. Anyway, that was another decision that I’ll have to go back and probably fix in the second draft.
[0:30:11.9] SC: Not necessarily. Let me just interrupt you there. What you’re talking about is free indirect style, which is a — It’s this sort of this glob of point of view that allows the writer to present third person and the interior thoughts of a specific character. One of the first people to ever do it was Jane Austen. Just coincidentally, after I’m finishing up Pride and Prejudice’s story grid, and I tracked her use of free indirect style and she doesn’t get into Elizabeth Bennett’s head until chapter 33. Chapter 33 is about midpoint of the story.
I was thinking about why she made that choice. Beyond the fact that nobody had ever don’t it before, very few, I don’t know off the top of my head if Flaubert was writing at the same time. He did it with Madame Bovary.
Anyway, why it [inaudible] if you don’t do it until the midpoint, is that it provides a bold [inaudible] or a foundation for the ultimate worldview, point of view change of the lead character. It’s almost as if — When we don’t want to deal with things, we don’t listen to our thoughts. We try and drown out whatever that noise is in our head.
The fact that you’re starting to use this, I didn’t even noticed it, which is great, because it means it’s organically coming through. I confess, I did not put on my story grid goggles. I just read this like a normal person.
You were mentioning Harry Potter though, and Harry Potter, there’s a lot of free indirect style on that too, correct?
[0:32:05.5] TG: Right. We had a road trip a few weeks ago, and so my wife and I were listening to the final book, the Deathly Hallows. It’s been a year now that I’ve been working through the audio books of the book and I just noticed that, of like how much of the book is him struggling inside his head with what’s going on. It was finally when I sat down the right after listening to that, I was like, “I just need to use this, because there’s so many things I’m not getting across that I really need to get across and I can’t figure out on how else to do it.”
Then, I was like — And I was trying to think, “Why am I not doing it? I couldn’t remember whatever reason that was seemed to important at the beginning, except for, I think I just wasn’t — I thought just writing what I saw was so overwhelming anyway trying to do the inside of the head too probably just seemed too overwhelming that I couldn’t pull off.
[0:33:13.8] SC: You might not even have to — I suspect you might not even revise that on later on drafts. When we did work on the early scenes, I remember I did stick in free indirect style in one of the early chapters. You read it, you liked it, but then you cut it and I thought, “Okay. He doesn’t want to do that, that’s cool.”
Now, you’re sort of seeing — The reason why you may not have wanted it earlier is that there’s so much stuff you got to keep controlling your head and to be able to move from wide angled to interior thinking. It takes a while to develop, and the story wasn’t completely solidified in your head. It’s still not completely locked in, but at least now you have a confidence that you can take the wide angle view, watch the scene, describe the scene, and then you can also say to yourself, “What is Jessie thinking about watching all these? Maybe this is a good time to share her thoughts.”
My advice to you is just keep doing what you’re doing and we can deal with whether or not you should open with free indirect style or you should wait until the midpoint. Right now, I like the idea of not having it until these really, really progressive complications, because I think that is a metaphor for the way we deal with change. We try and avoid it. We just have our ideas, and then all of a sudden we have to start deliberating in her head.
Having her deliberate now and having it on the page is really paying off and it’s really firmly establishing every crisis in every scene. Once the reader understands what she’s thinking, they can understand her. They can empathize, because they had the same crisis moments in their own lives. Just keep going on the free indirect style, I think it’s really helping.
[0:35:31.4] TG: Anyway, back to your pervious, previous question. Yeah, I feel like it’s definitely flowing better. Now, because I feel like a while ago, I got to where I could write a scene that worked. Then, the beginning of the middle build, I kept writing these scenes that worked in and of themselves, but did not fit into what a middle build is supposed to be.
Now, I feel like I got a pretty good rhythm of what this middle build is supposed to be, and so I’m able to like kinda knock these things down one at a time. It’s like I can write a scene and now I’m finally understanding how this middle build is supposed to work. I could put those together and actually start writing stuff that works.
Every time — Literally, every single time I feel like I’m starting to get it, I end up blowing everything up and we got to stop. It’s like right before the middle build, I was talking to a friend of mine and I’m like, “Yeah! I’m finally at this place where Shaw is letting me write three scenes at a time.” Then you’re like, “No. This doesn’t work. We got to stop.” I’m like, “All right.”
[0:36:46.0] SC: The big advice I’m going to give you now is very simple. Just follow the line of reasonable action as you’ve moving forward. When I was — Just follow the story. Almost let your brain start working for you. I know that sounds esoteric. Like I was saying earlier, think about the situation that she’s in now, right now. She’s just lied to the antagonist and said, “Oh, no. I was just hiding in the woods for five hours.” He’s like, “I don’t think that possible.” “Seriously, I was just hiding in the woods.” He lets it get away with it. Now, what’s she going to do now? Just think of it. What is she going to do now?
You also need to think about peppering in deadlines, severing. When is that? When is the threshing? Are they going to have — One of the things that you do when you’re on a sports team is that you watch films of previous things. They probably have some training session where they show the threshing, the last threshing, “You’re in the highlights from the last threshing.” You can explain and describe the setup of the threshing and you can pull in something really cool, like, “Oh my gosh! That’s 61.” She can remember the guy from the numbered who’s on the video screen when they’re showing the old thing of the last threshing.
Those are ways to signal to the reader, “Hey, we still have two major action scenes coming up, so hang in there. Here’s some more of really cool stuff to keep you interested. Don’t forget, the aw thing are these two amazing action scenes.” That’s what you need to be thinking about as you’re planning the next sequence, “How do I get from Jessie’s in a really difficult quandary. What is this wormhole all about?” To, “Do I want to do another severing scene, or do I want to do something else?”
You know your ending payoff is the threshing. The ending payoff of this entire novel is going to be just to kickass five scene, amazing roundabout, incredible threshing thing.
[0:39:28.3] TG: You can’t say that to me right now.
[0:39:31.3] SC: No, but that’s what you have to deliver. That’s the promise that you made and you will deliver on that promise. You wouldn’t have gotten this far. If there isn’t something inside of you that knows what to do later on, I’m convinced that you’re going to come up with something great. Don’t worry about it.
[0:39:49.1] TG: All right. The next sequence is the announcement of the next threshing — Wait. Where are we? Yeah, the announcement of the next threshing, then daring the — Sorry. The next severing. Daring the severing is where she’s going to see the wormhole again and she’s going to go back into that. She’s going to reach the crisis of, “I can keep trying to win the severing, which is what President Marcus told me to do and I have to do, or I can trust the wormhole thing.”
She’s going to trust it — Spoiler alert, and that’s where she’s going to meet her brother. That’s going to be the moment when she switches from caring only about herself to caring about this bigger thing. That’s going to be the — Gees! I forgot what it’s called.
[0:40:50.0] SC: Well, it’s not the All is Lost moment.
[0:40:52.4] TG: Oh! That’s what I was thinking. Isn’t it not the All is Lost moment?
[0:40:55.5] SC: No. The All is Lost moment is when she’s already made that decision, but she figures that she can’t. There’s no way she’s going to be able to be successful.
[0:41:06.9] TG: What is the moment called where she —
[0:41:08.7] SC: This is her taking — This is the final challenge, basically. This is when she takes on the burden of far more people than she ever imagined. Before, she was always fighting for herself. Now, she’s heroically taking on the lives and livelihood of other people. It’s a major moment in the thriller when the hero takes on the burden of a group of other people. The All is Lost moment is when they realized, “My tools that I have in my command are not enough. I’m going to lose unless I figure out something else. I have to change and I have to press myself to come up with some kind of solution where I could get myself out of this problem.”
It’s like when Rocky in the first Rocky movie, the night before the big fight with Apollo Creed. He goes into that arena and he looks at that stage and he says, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to win this fight. The guy is going to destroy me. What am I going to do? I’m going to lose.” That’s his All is Lost moment. He goes home and he says that to Adrian and she says, “What are you going to do?” He says, “You now what? Nobody has ever gone 15 rounds with him. I’m going to stand up. If I can stay up for 15 rounds, that’s enough for me. I need to win. I just need to stand up.”
That’s what propels the final — We know. We know what’s going to happen at the end of Rocky, he’s going to lose, but the payoff of that movie is so strong, because the film makers and the writers, Sylvester Stallone said, “Oh, well, we know he’s going to lose, but will he stay on his feet?” You need to think of something like where Jessie hits a hole — We’ve discussed this before where her big gift is her ability to resuscitate herself after she dies in the game. Nobody else can do that.
She gets zapped, or whatever — I forgot — Scrambled. She’s expected to not recover from that scrambling. She’s in her own mind probably at that point, or she’s talking to her brother in the wormhole and she’s got to say, “I’m scrambled. I’m done. There’s no way I can come out of this.” She’s got to find something within inside her that gets her out of being scrambled and to show up for that threshing with some gift that only she knows she possesses that will allow them to win or lose. Whatever way you decide.
If you’re going to make this a trilogy, you got to figure out — I’m not saying you have to map out the next two books, but you globally need to know, “Oh my gosh! At the end of this novel, I’m going to want my reader to go, “When is the next one coming out?”
That’s the All is Lost moment. The All is Lost moment happens right before the big threshing. Right now, you’re reaching — What you’re moving toward is she’s accepting the final challenge call in the hero’s journey. This is when Odysseus — He’s only five miles away from Ithaca. He goes, “Yeah, I’ll take a nap. I’m going to take a nap, fellows. We’re going to be in Ithaca in five minutes. I’m just going to take five minutes quick nap.” What did they do? They opened up that bag of winds and it blows him off back to where he started.
That is — What you’re leading up to is she’s building her confidence and she’s — She got out of that Az situation. She got out of the first severing. She’s got to feel like, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this.” This next thing is going to make her, “You know? I am big enough. I am strong enough. I think I can do this. You’re right, we need to beat this tyranny, and I accept that challenge. I will take the world on my back and I will beat down this guy.”
Then something happens that’s says, “Holy shit! There is no way I can do that.” That’s the All is Lost moment, and that’s the moment when she needs to dig deep down itself.”
In terms of — I’ve been doing a lot of studying about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is a psychological profile. I won’t get into it here, but the moment in every story that really takes us to a catharsis, to a moment as a reader, “Oh my gosh! This is incredible,” is the moment when the hero, or the protagonist, reaches self-actualization. It doesn’t mean that they live there. It means that they have a moment. They have a moment of self-actualization, which means that they are able to understand themselves at a really, really high level, and it’s at that moment that they seize control of the moment and their gift comes to fruition and they’re able to be bigger than they ever were before.
Like in an action story, it’s like a MacGyver moment. It’s when MacGyver figures out, “Oh! Give me that chewing gum and that lighter and that hanger over there and I’ll get us out of this prison in five seconds.” MacGyver is always based on him reaching these moments of self-actualization at critical times in the story. This is a metaphor for storytellers. What’s the MacGyver moment for your character? What is Jessie going to have that MacGyver moment?
For Rocky, his MacGyver moment was, “Oh! I know how to win. I’m going to go 15 rounds. Nobody can say I’m a bum if I go 15 rounds. I don’t have to win the fight, I just have to stand up at the end when that bell rings, and that makes me a not a bum. That makes me Rocky.” That’s what he does, and even though he loses the fight in Rocky I, everybody thinks he’s the greatest thing on earth. You can’t not cry at that end of that movie.
Stallone, who wrote the screenplay, he knew that. He knew, “Oh my gosh! He’s going to have a MacGyver moment. He’s going to have an All is Lost moment.” Not to be a spoiler, but this recent movie, which is fantastic, is Manchester by The Sea. I don’t know if you’ve seen it.
What is it, it’s a redemption plot that never redeems. The courage of the writer, Ken Lonergan, who wrote it, is just — It was amazing when I watched the movie, because I’m like, “Is he going to do it? Is he going to have the guts not to do this,” and he did. He did. That’s why it’s such a devastating movie, is because we don’t get the redemption. Some things are so freaking awful that we can’t do it. That movie was such a courageous act of filmmaking, because it’s not a redemption story. He is not redeemed at the end, but we love him anyway, and we understand his decision, because it’s real. The realism in that movie is just so good, and the acting is amazing. It’s kinda like every guy he ever grew up with is like Casey Affleck in that movie.
What was so great about that storytelling is that the writer said to himself, “You know? I can’t do it. I’m not going to get the happy ending here.” Sometimes things just don’t end happily. Some people walk around on this planet devastated by circumstances and mistakes that we’re human. Human error, stupid things, and it destroys them. That is life. That’s part of life too.
The All is Lost moment is a critical moment for you as the writer, because when you get there, you’re going to say to yourself, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to figure this out. There’s no way that I’m going to make this payoff in the way that my readers going to expect.” The really, really great news is that you’ve got it. You will find a solution, because you don’t put yourself in that place unless inside of you has the solution.
The trick is, is to challenge yourself and to take the risks necessary to put yourself in a position that you can’t solve in five seconds, that you’re not going to be able to figure out in an hour. You’re going to sit, and walk around, talk, and drive in your car, and take 20,000 showers, and think through this, and exercise, and do anything to get it out of your mind, and you will find a solution to this. That’s what Sylvester Stallone did, “How am I going to satisfy this audience? They want Rocky to win. I want Rocky to win. How am I going to make it great?”
The way he saw that was by looking at the character of Rocky. What did he want? What Rocky wanted was not to be a bum. He didn’t want to be a bum. It didn’t matter if other people thought he was a bum. He himself needed to respect himself. He said to himself, “I’m not a bum if I can go 15 rounds.” Once he went 15 rounds, everything else didn’t matter, because he knew, “Hey, I’m not a bum. I’m not a bum anymore.”
That is how you solve the problem. What does your character want? What is the story about? What does it mean? What’s the controlling idea? You know what Jessie wants. She wants to go back into some mythical fantasy world where she’s the little girl, she’s got a big brother and her parents are nice.” Well, fine. We don’t have that life. That isn’t the way life is. Once you’ve become an adult, you understand things at a deeper level than a child does. It’s a very difficult transition. That’s what this story is about, it’s transitioning from a child to a grizzled adult in some ways.
Knowing that what she needs is to mature, and what she wants is a fantasy. Her self-actualization will be that moment when all is lost when she says, “Screw it. I can’t go back to fantasy world. I can’t. I’ve got to do this instead.”
[0:52:58.0] TG: Okay.
[0:52:59.9] SC: Simple, right?
[0:53:01.7] TG: That’s simple [inaudible]. Four sequences in and I’m just going to work on the next one, and the next one will include meeting her brother.
[0:53:15.2] SC: It sounds great.
[0:53:16.4] TG: Then we’ll go from there.
[0:53:18.0] SC: Yup.
[0:53:19.0] TG: All right. All right, I’ll talk to you next week.
[0:53:21.5] SC: Okay.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:53:22.5] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, checkout storygrid.com. 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.
If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you’d like to reach out to us, you could find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review.
I’ll also mention here that next Thursday, February 9th, 2017, in case you find this in a couple of years. So, February 9th, 2017, I’m normally based in Nashville, Tennessee, but I’m going to be in New York City for a couple of days. I’m going to be at the McNally Jackson Bookstore on Prince Street at 11:00 AM Eastern Time. I have some other Story Grid people meeting me there, but if you’d like to come out, have a cup of coffee, talk Story Grid, very relaxed, nothing major, we’re just hanging out. But if you’re in the city and you can make it, I’d love to meet you and meet as many Story Grid listeners as possible.
Again, February 9th, 11:00 AM Eastern, I’m going to be at the McNally Jackson Bookstore. If you’re going to come, if you could just let me know by tweeting @StoryGrid and saying, “I’m going to be there,” and letting me know if you’re not on Twitter, then track down my e-mail address and shoot me an e-mail. I’m just trying to make sure we’re not going to like pack up the store or something. Anyway, I’m looking forward to meeting as many of you as possible and that can make it there. I’ll see you next week.
Thanks, as always, for listening and subscribing, and being a part of Story Grid. We will see you next week.