Grahl’s Mojo, Vonnegut’s Master’s Thesis, and the Hedonometer

In this episode, Tim nails the second scene of his novel.

I gotta tell you that I was unprepared for the work he created all by himself.  I found it unique and compelling, unlike any of his previous scenes we’ve worked through.  My gut is that he’s begun to get the feel of his narrative fastball and he’s now letting that mojo work for him without over-analyzing where it’s coming from.  Having a solid grasp of the five fundamentals of storytelling, but not being overwhelmed by the chatter in his head associated with them is freeing up his inner voice.

Craft begets inspiration.  Tim’s nearly year-long deep dive into Story craft principles is starting to attract the muse…very, very exciting. All he has to do is keep pressing forward.

The other thing we talked about in this episode is the recent research that came out of the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington with contributions from The University of Adelaide in Australia.

Andrew Reagan, Lewis Mitchell, Dilan Kiley, Christopher M. Danforth, and Peter Sheridan Dodds ran 1700 English language novels through a machine called the Hedonometer.

What they discovered is something Kurt Vonnegut proposed back in 1946 in his rejected Master’s Thesis from The University of Chicago, “Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales.”  Here is the paper Reagan and company wrote supporting the idea that there are just six basic forms of Story.  And here is an article from The Atlantic that maps out what they hell I’m talking about in a better way.

If you look at the different graphs that the Hedonometer created for each of these 1700 stories, you’ll see how the Story Grid principles are very much in evidence.

Anyway, this episode comes with a major “Story Nerd Alert.”  To listen, hit the play button or read the transcript that follows:

[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and Welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne who is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience and he is walking me through how to write my first novel, a novel that will actually work.


In this episode we start out by looking at scene two of my story that I sent Shawn and I was pretty surprised by his feedback and then we dive into the six different basic story types and some really cool new research that has come out about these six basic types of stories. It’s kind of heady stuff but it’s really good to look at this things and see that this basic stories have been told over and over and it is a beginning place that we can start with our own stories.


So I think you’re going to really enjoy it, let’s jump in and get started.




[0:01:08.5] TG: So Shawn, I took all of what we talked about last week and I kind of rolled that into a new scene, which was hard. I wrote about half of it and got stuck and had to back up and write like a whole beginning because I have this thing where I start writing a scene and it’s over in like 500 words. So I’ve got to figure out something.


Anyway, I sent that to you, and wanted your feedback on where I went with it.


[0:01:36.3] SC: Well, I can only tell you what — I only read it one time and what editors, the first test of a story is whether or not you want to read the next thing and that’s just a pure anybody, a five year old kid if you tell him a story if they have wrapped attention, then you know the story’s working. I’ll tell you, after I finished reading the second scene, I wanted to know what’s going to happen next.


The very first thing is that you’re keeping the momentum of the storytelling moving forward. So with that inciting incident scene, you established your hero is defying the societal norms. The next scene that you have, that the reader’s going to expect is the repercussions of that action and I think your scene is really, really weird and really, in a good way. In a really good way. It establishes a lot of things very quickly and it also seeds in a lot of curiosity, mystery and doubt for the reader to know, “What is going on here?” It also uses a lot of imagery and metaphor that have a lot of internal, you know, people can identify with their imagery and the metaphor that you’re playing with.


One of the things that’s happened through our time is when, especially girls or women, have gotten into trouble in a culture, one of the things that the tribe in a culture does is to cut off their hair and to use that imagery here, I thought was a brilliant idea. I also liked the fact that you expanded the camera lens to include a very large mob of people that are nameless but the fact is that you’re allowing the reader to fill in that mob in their own brain without describing 10 people in the mob.


So all in all, I think this scene works extremely well and I think it gets you on a course that the reader is going to say to themselves, “What’s going to happen next? Oh my gosh, who are this people we just came to rescue her? What’s with this weird helmet on their heads? What is going on? Why did her father abandon her? Why was the mayor so nice? Why do they really want her in the capital?” So all of this questions are what are going to propel readers to want to read the next scene.


When I read it I was like, “Oh boy, he’s starting to lock in on letting the story almost organically flow through him as he’s writing it as opposed to not overly planning and knowing exactly each and every scene as opposed to knowing the big road blocks,” which is something we’ve been talking about over the past couple of weeks. How do we go back and get you to write a second draft in a different way than you wrote the first raft but take a step forward.


I think we’re landing on something that’s working that I did not really even know myself because this is sort of the first time I’m doing this too. I don’t usually go scene by scene with writers when I develop their work. Usually they’ll send me drafts or they’ll send me very large chunks. So I think there’s really something to this process but I will also say this. There’s no way you would have been able to do what you’re doing now if you hadn’t gone through the pain of the first draft and incorporating all the things in the Story Grid stuff beforehand. I really believe that. I don’t think we could have gotten here so quickly without having done all that preparatory work beforehand.


[0:05:58.8] TG: Okay. Yeah I tried to do, because I’m trying to keep all this stuff in mind. I’ve really been thinking a lot about our last episode about calibrate or two episodes ago, the calibrating the scene and then what we talked about last week with spanning back to see a crowd of people. Because it’s one thing to read, you have to go back and forth, you have to go in positive and in negative and vice versa. But even, I had never thought of well, there’s something to staying small with one or two people than going big with a crowd and then going back down halfway.


Even that is, because that was actually the part I wrote first was the part in front of the crowd but I finished in 600 words, so I went back and wrote the beginning. What I was going to do was in the scene with her dad coming to rescue her but I realized that’s like the opposite of how he would act. So I instead started the scene with him abandoning her so that she was on her own.


[0:07:14.1] SC: The other thing that you did which is important and I didn’t even really tell you to do this last week was you intuitively figured out that you needed to transition. You transitioned from a two person scene, which was the first scene in the book, the inciting incident scene and then of just going directly into the crowd scene, which could have been a shocker to the reader, you transitioned into it by having a two on two conversation between Jesse and her father prior to the big event of her public humiliation.


That’s something that I could say to you a million times and you’d say, “Oh yeah, that makes perfect sense.” But until you actually did it yourself, you wouldn’t really know what I mean or would have come off kind of stiff. Because this was organically grown, you’re starting to get the feel of a writer, of what a writer feels and that’s the one thing I can’t teach you is your own internal feelings. I don’t want to belabor the point but I wrote something about teaching my son how to throw a fastball.


[0:08:35.7] TG: Yeah, we talked about that last week. With the M plus TE to the nth power.


[0:08:42.5] SC: Yeah, exactly. So what you’re doing is, you’ve thrown a few fast balls and you’re starting to get the feel of it, and so when you’re off, your body is telling you, “That’s 500 words, that’s too short. I’m going to have to let that sit for a second,” and then your writerly instincts started to help you and worked offline while you were probably cutting the grass or something.


And when you came back to it, you probably said to yourself, “Oh, why don’t I start it with the father and Jesse and he’s dropping her off to be humiliated and he’s trying to get her to just change her mind because this is silly, she’s going to experience an incredible,” — and I also like the fact that the reader doesn’t know just what a terrible thing the father did until the end of the scene. The mayor, the person who has to perform this act on the young girl, that’s the last thing he wants to do.


So you’re doing a really nice balance of zagging when people are expecting a zig. People expect the father to be the good guy and the good presence because he’s the father. Instead, you said, “Nah, I’m not going to make him an evil person, I’m just going to make him weak and then I’m going to have the mayor who everybody expects to be the villain to be sympathetic.”


What you’re doing is when we were talking about values systems and how you had to have the roles of villain, victim and villain in each scene but not necessarily each character embodies those things but the essence of those roles transfers and moves from scene to scene, you did that this time intuitively in a way that was really surprising and innovative and I got to say, when I read it, I was like, “Jeez, wow, Tim’s really nailed it. Good. Yeah.”


[0:10:49.3] TG: Well I went through the same process as the first scene where I listed out all the roles I needed to fill and kept trying to figure out who should do them and what their attitude is and that’s kind of where I landed because I liked — what I enjoyed with the first scene that I was trying to do again in this scene is like combining this old western world with new. They’ve had to revert back, so they have some technology but not much.


[0:11:24.2] SC: Right.


[0:11:25.3] TG: So that’s why I kind of like the scene and the town square with her in the stocks kind of goes way back, but it still ends with a technology thing.


[0:11:38.0] SC: Yeah, it has Salem witch trial sensibility to it which is very, you know, every American knows the Salem witch trials that it’s deeply engrained in them. Also, what I really liked at the end is that it starts negative and it ends positive and the way you ended this scene was positive. “Oh my gosh, there are people who are going to help her. She’s — there’s strangers and they’ve got this weird helmets on too.” But she was rescued at the end in a manner, which raises more curiosity.


[0:12:21.4] TG: Yeah, I struggled with that because I didn’t feel like it was very positive. That was one of my questions I was going to ask you is I felt like I ended negative.


[0:12:33.2] SC: No, no, no, you have to remember that when you have such a traumatic action element in your scene that’s negative or even very positive. You don’t have to have the equal, it’s not a Newtonian equation. You don’t have to have an equal and opposite positive to balance that. Rather, you just need to have a shift in the positive. So you just had a shift, a minor shift but it’s a huge shift too because this poor girl was just abandoned by her father and her mother.


She obviously has a deep will and is strong, stronger than she even knows herself, to withstand this horrible shunning and painful episode and to have this other people come out of the wood work to sort of bring her in, it also is a very strong element in the Hero’s Journey where Joseph Campbell writes, when the hero is struggling, there are forces that come to the hero’s aid. Those forces are gate keepers or tricksters or any number of different kinds of things depending upon the culture.


But what’s really nice here is that it has that hero’s journey coming of age maturation, sensibility to it and you’re only 2,000 words into the book and you’ve clearly in my estimation, you have clearly shown the reader what the story is, what the genre is and where it’s going to end up. You’ve already established to the reader, expectations that they’re going to want to have answered. What they are going to want to know is, what in the hell is going on, A? B, how is this girl going to get out of this situation she’s in? And C, how is that going to change her? Is she going to succeed, is she going to thrive or is she going to fail in her journey?


That’s a hell of a lot to accomplish in 2,000 words. You’ll understand too when I tell you, there’s not one second or one word in those 2,000 that states any of that stuff. So it’s what you leave out is crucial, is as important as what you put in. You, like all beginning writers, you had a tendency to over explain and give exposition until the nth degree and instead, you’re now starting to get the feeling like, “Oh, I’m just going to sort of put my mind camera on to a scene and just play the scene the way I see it in my mind and I’m not going to get nervous and explain all this stuff that the reader doesn’t want to,” — they want to fill in those details themselves. They don’t want to hear your version of the crowd, they have a crowd in their mind that they want to put in there for themselves. So that’s a strength, not a weakness, not overly explained.


[0:15:59.9] TG: Yeah, the two things I, well first of all, I find myself, that’s what I’m back spacing more than anything. I start to explain something and then I back off. Other thing is, I’ve decided I’m going to keep leaving as much out as I possibly can until you tell me it’s too much. Because I’ve swung so far to the other end, I’d rather you be like, “I have no idea what’s going on in this, you need to explain something.”


So I’ve been trying to just pull all of that back and that is the kind of trick that’s been helpful is when he pulls out the little cap thing and fiddles with it to turn on the light, that’s all I say about it because that’s all I know about it because I’m just watching what’s happening.


[0:16:52.0] SC: Yup. That doesn’t surprise me that that detail came to you. We’ve talked about before, the idea of the muse and the inner genius in each and every one of us and you and I are more on the side of “oh just shut up and do your work.” But the point that our friend Steve Pressfield always makes is that don’t forget about the muse, because the muse gives you gifts all of the time. But she only gives them to you when you’re working hard.


So all of that time that you spent writing that first draft and all that frustration you’ve had over the past nine months with me saying, “No, that’s not right. No that’s not right. You’re not doing it right.” All of that stuff is now deeply embedded in you and the muse is starting to feel sorry for you. She’s giving you these great little things and the wonderful thing is that’s not true.


I absolutely think that there are these wonderful things that come to all of us all of the time. The muse is trying to contact us constantly but we’re always so deeply distracted in our own minds that we don’t listen to a damn thing that the muse is telling us. The more craft you gain and the better writer you become, the more you start to let it go. When you start letting go, meaning, I got to say, I doubt that when you started the second scene that you were like, “Okay, what’s my crisis going to be here? What’s the climax of this thing?”


Instead, you kind of gave yourself this world and you said, “Okay Shawn says I need to have a scene where the consequences of her decision from the previous scene present themselves. He also said, it might be cool to do a larger scene, let me think. What could I have her do? It could be like when they used the stone people. Oh that would be good. Well what can I do on top of that?”


So instead of worrying about the mechanics, you were allowing yourself to let your imagination work and the imagination is the most valuable player for any writer. This is really nice because you’re starting to get a sense and a feel for allowing the story to present itself to you while also knowing your craft. So you didn’t just stop after that 500 words, you’re like, “Yeah, that’s something, there’s something there but it’s not a scene yet. It’s not quite a scene yet,” and you didn’t know what exactly what you had to do but you knew it wasn’t quite right yet.


So that’s when you went back and you added, the introduction with the father and then the crisis moment again is, “Hey, we’re giving you one last chance here. Are you going to go to the capital honey? Or are you really going to go in there and get stoned?” The fact that the girl is like, “No, I’m not going. I’m not a wimp, I’m not like you are, I’m going to take the consequences, I’m going in, I’m not going to be a tool,” and so that just makes the reader like that girl all the more because every single one of us would have gone to the capital.


This might be a terrible transition but I would like to bring up one thing that I’ve kind of discovered, which I think is pretty fascinating. It has to do with the stage of the work that you’re at now. Now I don’t know, and I should have prepared better, but there were three professors at the University of Vermont who created something called, I’m probably mispronouncing it, the hido meter. What it does is it’s this machine that’s computer programmed that evaluates positive and negative feelings.


What they did is they started by analyzing when Americans are happiest throughout the year. They sort of went on Twitter and they analyzed the kind of language in the tweets to discover happy language versus sad language, I’m really over simplifying here but essentially what they were able to do is graft this entire year of American sense of whether they feel good or whether they feel poorly.


It’s really kind of cool heartbeat kind of graph where at Christmas time, everybody’s happy, Fourth of July, people are happy, at the anniversary of 9/11, everybody’s sad. That kind of thing. What they did is they took that tool and they started to say to themselves, “What if we analyzed Kurt Vonnegut’s six core story arcs. If you’re not familiar with this Kurt Vonnegut, the famous writer who — fantastic writer, science fiction literary, all kinds of things. When he was back at the University of Chicago, he was writing a thesis and it got rejected. Because it was too simple.


But the simple nature of Kurt Vonnegut’s thesis was that there are only six story arcs ever, which is kind of interesting. These guys, this professors decided to analyze 1,700 stories in the English language novels that are part of this Gutenberg project that are online and free and everything. What they did is they plugged 1,700 books into the hedo meter and analyzed to see if Kurt Vonnegut’s theory made sense and guess what, it did. The thing that really made me excited was that it absolutely mirrors the kind of sign, cosign curve that I discovered and thought about for the Story Grid.


The reason I’m bringing this up is that a lot of times, we struggle for, “You know, I wonder what the real emotional arcing, the most resonant, emotional arcs are for people?” What these professors did is they analyze these six stories. Let me tell you what the six different stories are and when I tell you, you’re going to say, “Oh yeah, that’s totally obvious.” The first story that we all can relate to and we all think is great is the rags to riches story and that’s simply a steady rise from a point of not exactly negativity but kind of blah-ness to riches. They could be real riches or they could be emotional riches. It’s a rise from a negative to a positive. That’s one simple emotional arc that you can have in a story.


A second one is the opposite of that which is the riches to rags story where there’s a steady fall in the emotional arc. This is a great example of that is Faust. The Faust story where Goethe wrote the story about this very, you know Goethe was the German literary figure from hundreds of years ago. I’m blanking on what his era was. I think it was around 1700 or so. He wrote the Faust story which is adapted over and ever again and retold where there’s a very wealthy person who just doesn’t seem to find enough greatness in the world. So he makes a pact with the devil and the devil says, “I will give you completely knowledge if you give me your soul.” And Faust makes that bargain and discovers, he had made the stupidest mistake of his life. So it’s this fall, the steady fall from riches to rags. That’s the second kind of story.


The third kind of story is called the man falls into the hole story and this is something that I wrote about in the Story Grid and the man falls into the whole story, to get themselves into trouble and then the rest of the story is how they get out of that trouble. It has nothing to do with whether or not a man falls into the hole but the reason why we use man falls into a hole because it makes sense. He falls into a hole and he’s got to do all kinds of things to get himself out of it. So that’s a fall with a rise at the end.


The fourth kind of story is the Icarus story which is a rise and then a fall. Then, the fifth is the one that we all recognize as the Cinderella story. This is the rise, the fall and the rise. So Cinderella starts, she’s this poor girl who has to do all this house work and her evil step mother and step sisters, abuse her and then all of a sudden, the fairy god mother comes and makes her a princes and she gets to go to this beautiful ball but unfortunately, after she meets the prince and has this amazing dance, it strikes midnight and she turns back into Cinderella. She rises and then she falls back to where she was before.


Then of course in the end, the price travels around the land, he’s got the shoe that she left, discovers that Cinderella is actually — the princess is actually Cinderella and they lived happily ever after. So that’s the rise fall, rise story. That’s a great one that everybody loves. The last one of course is the fall, the rise and the fall and that’s the Oedipus story. I can’t be as quick about describing as I can Cinderella because it’s a Greek play by Sophocles but it concerns this horrible thing that happens to this guy who becomes king and he loses his eyes and he ends up all of this terrible things happen to him and at the end, he discovers that he cannot fight the universe and the universe will always win.


So those are the six stories, you have the rags to riches, the riches to rags, the man falls into the hole, the rise-fall of Icarus, the rise-fall-rise of Cinderella and the fall-rise-fall of Oedipus. Now the reason, I’m sorry this is going on so long Tim, but the reason why I’m explaining this to you is that what this professors discovered was that there is one sort of grouping of narrative that is really popular and it’s this: you start with a man into a hole, you follow it up with a man into a hole, you then have a Cinderella and then you end with a Faust.


[0:28:05.4] TG: All in one story?


[0:28:06.8] SC: Yes, this would be — this would sum up sort of your beginning hook, your middle build and your ending payoff is that you go man into a hole, somebody gets themselves into a terrible problem and they get out of it. Then the next sequence of scenes is they get into a bigger problem and they get out of that one. Then, they’re rewarded in a Cinderella fashion. They are moved, they move up in social ranks from a lower order to a higher order because a whole set of circumstances.


A fairy god mother comes and grants her wishes and then bang, something terrible happens and they fall again. Then, the Faust is they realize that everything that they once held dear and thought was true is not true. So the reason why I’m bringing this up is that we have sort of structured your story in a similar fashion. These first two scenes are representing the first man in a hole sequence for your novel. So Jessie begins by getting herself into some trouble.


She’s stealing from people’s cupboards, she gets caught and now she’s hit the fall point and your second scene is the repercussions of that man in the hole narrative. The reason why I’m bringing this up is that if we look at your story and the progression of it and if we get stuck and remember, “Okay, we’re progressively complicating this story and make it richer and richer and richer, let’s also not forget this global narrative arc that we would like to make sure is also underneath the storytelling.


I didn’t bring this up to make you confused or freak you out, I brought it up because it was fascinating to me to read about this article, I’ll get you the information for the story notes so that people can read about this computer program and about these professors and you can put it in the story notes but it’s very interesting to me that through 1,700 works of English literature, these six core narrative arcs, which I broke down even more into what I call the internal genre in The Story Grid. These are nothing less than the internal genre is sort of even more sub sets of this six core stores.


It’s just really fascinating to me that the intuition and the hard work of 25 years of being an editor and creating the Story Grid methodology syncs with the work of Vonnegut and this computer and these three professors and that Joseph Campbell, Hero’s Journey path, all these things are coming together in a way that just more and more tells me that the structure of storytelling is so deeply engrained in each one of us that our expectations for each story that we begin to read  are so firmly embedded in us that when the writer does not abide them, we reject them almost instantaneously. The more you know about this stuff, the better equipped you’ll be to be able to make this things come true to life in your own work.


[0:31:53.5] TG: So why don’t you — because I don’t still fully understand what you were going for with the man falls in the hole and then this, and then this. Why don’t you transition me into — so my next job is like figure out where I’m going with the beginning hook of my story, we know we’re going to the point where it’s revealed, her brother’s alive and that’s what gets us into the middle build, because that was my next question, is we have roughly 60 scenes in the book. I don’t think we want to go scene by scene this way, otherwise my book will be done sometime in the fall of 2017.


So at some point, I want to actually write more than a scene at a time that you look at. So where I’m struggling now because I kind of came up with — this is the part of me that’s like screaming that I don’t have a plan because I came up with this whole these people that came to save them kind of save her at the end and take her away, it just popped in my head so I wrote it down, but I have no idea how they’re playing into the story. What kind of advice would you give me now because now I’ve got roughly 13 more scenes to write in the beginning hook? What should I do next?


[0:33:22.5] SC: Well I think the thing to do next does tie into what I was talking about earlier and I obviously didn’t explain it well enough.


[0:33:32.4] TG: It’s one of those things like — it’s like so much of this is when you say it, I’m like, “Oh yeah, I see that.”


[0:33:39.6] SC: Right.


[0:33:40.8] TG: But when I’m like actually trying to think how that applies to my story, I’m like, “I don’t know what to do.”


[0:33:46.6] SC: Okay, well, it’s like what you were saying last week or the week before about your trainer, he said I just come up with 17 different ways of saying the same thing and one’s going to click. So let me take a half step to the side and just go back to The Hero’s Journey which we’ve talked about before. The hero’s journey uses this man in a whole “man in a hole, man in a hole, Cinderella, Faust” in a way that people are most familiar with. Because I’m a story nerd, when I heard that I’m like, that’s just the hero’s journey. I can piece together all this things that obviously are not so obvious to people who haven’t been studying it for 20 years.


So what’s going to happen next is that you intuitively put in the next stage of the hero’s journey, which is after the refusal of the call, the hero undergoes some trials and tribulations that will force them to actually heed the call. So when you brought in those people at the end of the scene, these are what Campbell would call messengers or gatekeepers or helpers who come to the hero — hold on a second, I have a quote from Campbell on my computer that might help. Okay;


“The hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid ambiguous forms where you must survive a succession of trials. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets and secret agents of the super natural helpers who he met before his entrance into this region.” Just to clarify, those people who came to help her at the end of scene two are the secret agents of the super natural helpers who come to the hero in the hero’s journey to aid them before they have to go on their big trial.


So what’s going to happen next for you is you’re going to explore how these helpers are going to teach Jessie some skill or some intellectual skill that she can use further on down the road. They are going to transition her from being sort of this really cool hacker who can do whatever she wants to the lowest form in society. They’re going to teach her the ways of those poor people who have to serve everybody else. It’s sort of like they will be her guides into this desolate world that we can’t even begin to understand how horrible it will be.


So Instead of you worrying about, “Oh my god, how am I going to get to the scene at the end of my beginning hook where she discovers that her brother’s alive and that she has to go to the capital and actually has to heed the call,” instead, give yourself a little room. You’ve got another eight, nine, 10 scenes to get you there. So allow yourself to think about, “What happens next? Now, Jessie has just gone through a terrible ordeal, she’s fallen into a hole, she never really realized how bad this hole was and now she is at the pit of despair.


So super natural forces in the guys of this two people who come to her aid, they come to her aid, they’re going to take her somewhere, I don’t know where, they’re going to take her to a cave, they’re going to take her underground, they’re going to take her somewhere that is a form of exile from the rest of society and they’re going to say to her, “Okay, this is what our lives are and this is what you have to do in order to survive. It is our job to get you to a survival mode and to hook you up with the right family or whatever it is that you come up with and you are going to have to do a service, your life now is now devoted to service. You will never get out of this world, so get used to it and you know that helmet on your head and the green light? You better hope it never turns to yellow, if it turns to yellow, if it turns to read, you’re really in deep shit,” I don’t know, I’m making this up.


But they are going to guide her, they’re going to be her mentors through this darkness, they’re going to move the story forward in such a way that will take Jessie to a course that will lead to a place where she has to go to the capital. She has to find her brother.


[0:39:16.2] TG: Okay.


[0:39:17.2] SC: Then, if you think of that in terms of eight scenes or 10 scenes and you think to yourself, “Okay, do I want her to,” — what you’ve kind of set up here is kind of fun too because what it brings up to me is you’ve setup the possibility that Jessie actually does heed the call to go to the capital but she doesn’t do it on the terms of the power. What makes her heed the call is the realization that her brother needs her help.


So maybe she goes to the capital not as super smart, great hacker who is going to be in the special program. Maybe she uses some kind of underground rail road amongst the people with scull helmets to make her way there and then she has to figure out a way to get inside and find her brother. That’s just the thought.


So these are the kinds of things, instead of worrying, you’ve got that sign post of revelation brother is alive. That’s going to be a big — that’s going to be the end of the beginning hook of your story and that’s going to be time when she leaves the tribe. She’s going to leave that world she’s in now and she’s going to go on a journey and she’s going to go to the capital and she’s going to find her brother. That’s the beginning of the middle build, when she heeds the call and goes for the big event of trying to find her brother and trying to get his release and trying to bring her family back, does that make sense?


[0:41:09.9] TG: Yes. Is this a situation where I should just write the next scene? Just, “What do I see happening next?” And trust that I’ll kind of find myself with the place where I’m going.


[0:41:26.6] SC: If you feel comfortable and I think it’s time, I think you should write scene three through scene 12 or right to the end of the beginning of the beginning hook.


[0:41:41.3] TG: Okay.


[0:41:42.1] SC: Remember that ending of the beginning hook has to be, you have to build it so that it’s almost, it’s a holy shit moment for the reader.


[0:41:55.0] TG: How do I do that?


[0:41:56.1] SC: I don’t know. The way you’re going to do that is in the second scene, you referred again to the brother and continuing to see the fact that this guy’s dead, we think he’s dead, “Oh that’s terrible your brother’s dead.” That is a way of — now you don’t want to overdo it but if you can subtly put setup the revelation, “Oh, you don’t think your brother’s dead are you?” Somebody’s going to say that to her.


Somebody’s going to say, “Hey sweetheart, your brother’s not dead, he’s still in the capital, who do you think is doing X, Y and Z? Who do you think they’re using for X, Y and Z?” I’m just making this up but somebody’s going to say to her, somebody that she’s either going to look up to them as a mentor or they’re going to be a very big rival who is going to use the information to rip her heart out.


That’s what’s called exposition as ammunition. So if you can setup somebody using the information that her brother’s still alive to turn the beginning hook into a middle build, you know you’ve done something. Think of it in terms of somebody saying to Jessie, “Oh you poor little stupid girl, do you really think your brother’s dead? Why do you think they need you in the capital? Your brother is blah.”


I don’t know, this is where — you’re the writer, you have to handle this but what I’m saying is that that is a way of turning. Also remember, the end of the beginning hook has to have a kind of a positive valence because the inciting incident was negative. So the positive thing is, the brother is alive. So a lot of people would use that information to hurt her because they don’t think she has what it takes to actually do something about the fact that the brother’s alive.


If you can turn it so that somebody’s using that as ammunition to hurt her and instead of it hurting her, it empowers her, then you will create a holy shit moment for the reader. They’re going to say to themselves, “Oh, my, god, what’s going to happen next? How is she going to get to the capital with a skull helmet on in the middle of, you know?” And you don’t know this yet either. What’s great is that your muse is setting up progressive complications for you, she’s seating them in for you, and she’s putting this super — Joseph Campbell wrote, “Secret agents of the super natural helpers,” who he met before as entrance to this region, this is very similar to the writer’s journey.


For some reason, a some kind of super natural thing came to Tim Grahl to say, “Have two people come out at the end of the scene and lead her out of the square, the town square.” You didn’t know you were going to write that. So there’s a level of trust and fun, part of the fun is discovering this yourself but I think just go to the beginning hook, the end of the beginning hook and see what you can do.


Then you’re going to have 25% odd maybe 18%, who knows? Of your book done and what it should feel not done but you’re going to have a good solid draft to get you into the middle build. Then we can talk about what’s going to happen in the middle build and what journey she’s going to have to go on and how.


This just goes back, and I’m half regretting telling the story about the University of Vermont professors and hedo meter. The reason why I did bring that up is because what I was trying to say to you is that you intuitively put a man in the hole narrative arc to start your sequence of story and then that is going to transition into the progressive complicated man in the hole that will be the first sequence of your middle build and then it will go in Cinderella and then to Faust at the ending pay off.


Just feel confident that I know where you’re going and I can help guide you and when you get off track, I can say, “No, it’s not working that way.” But I think it’s a good idea for the next couple of weeks or however long it takes you for you to map out those next eight to nine scenes and then when you’re done with those, you can send them to me and then we can have a conversation about those.


[0:47:30.7] TG: Okay. So before we get off the phone here, I wanted to ask one more question. When I went back months ago when I did the story grid for Harry Potter, one of the interesting things was that the entire book is only told from his point of view pretty much. There’s like a scene at the beginning of the fourth book that Harry’s not a part of but the whole book is just what’s happing to Harry the entire time.


Then of course, most books aren’t like that. I’m in the middle of this book called The Darker Shade of Magic and they introduce one character then they introduce another and at the end of the beginning hook is when they cross paths and run in to each other. I know we’ve talked a lot about narrative device, I’ve kind of fallen into something that’s not too out there but what should I do as far as, should I be introducing other points of view into this besides Jessie’s? Should I be showing the villain is trying to figure out how to get her to come over to their side? Or should I just kind of stick with Jessie’s, you know, just watching Jesse as I’ve been doing. Just watch her go and tell that story. How do you make those decisions?


[0:48:53.8] SC: Sometimes there’s two ways to make the decision. One is to use the genre conventions of your chosen genre. My initial reaction is that this is very much in the tradition of Harry Potter and also Hunger Games which also followed, correct me if I’m wrong but I think it was always a Katnis point of view and I think third person omniscient is working for you and third person admission, you should think of as your inner Steven Spielberg. I think that’s a good way of explaining third person omniscient to people so that they can kind of understand.


You’re using one person’s point of view, third person omniscient so it’s sort of you’re following one character on their journey, it’s like you’ve got a camera on their shoulder and we’re watching things happen to them. Now this doesn’t mean that you don’t want to plan when the villain is going to do things to this character. Rather, you’re going to do that off book, you’re going to do that like you do when you plan your scenes and you go, “Well what if I have the character to do this? What about this way? What are the six ways they can do it?”


So you want to think to yourself, “Okay, my villain wants something, my villain needs something. My villain needs Jesse in the capital hacking the system. My villain has been denied that and my villain doesn’t want Jessie living the life of an unwanted person at the bottom of the social order.” Yeah, “How would my villain make things work to his or her advantage?” So you want to think about that. Would the villain be smart and say to themselves, “Okay, well the carrot’s not working, the stick didn’t work, what am I going to have to do?”


Because remember, the carrot was you get to go to the capital and live the life of a pampered princess and the stick was, “You’re going to get beaten and shunned and a helmet’s going to be stuck on your head.” Okay, well the carrot didn’t work and she’s still alive and she’s got the helmet on and she still hasn’t begged to come to the capital. That hasn’t worked either, what’s the villain going to do? You think about how the villain would make that happen?


Would the villain send emissaries to psychologically manipulate Jessie into doing his or her, you know, what they want in a way that Jesse thinks that she’s doing it for herself? Is that a possibility? Probably because you want to have a villain who is really smart right? If I said that, “Hey Tim, I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you redesign my website.” You’re like, “No thanks.” I’ll say, “Well, if you don’t do it Tim, I’m not going to help you with your book anymore.” You go, “No, I still don’t want to do it.” Then I’m going to have to manipulate you somehow to do my website psychologically so that it’s your idea. I’m just making this up, I didn’t do that in any way, shape or form.


[0:52:21.1] TG: Yeah I know, I was thinking that because what was running through my head too was like, she’s going to fall in to this way of life and just suck it up and deal with it and so again the villain’s going to have to move the story forward.


[0:52:35.6] SC: Right, exactly, oh my gosh. That’s exactly right.


[0:52:39.9] TG: Okay.


[0:52:40.8] SC: Maybe these really nice emissaries, maybe one of them, it’s like the Joey Pantalino character in the matrix, he’s this fun loving guy, member of the crew who is actually not so cool. You got to plant those and that’s all in Joseph Campbell too. You have the two headed, the trickster and you don’t want to be obvious about it but you also have to think about how’s the villain going to get Jessie to the capital? Well the villain’s going to know, Jessie would really like to know the information that her brother’s live. Because Jessie thinks, he or she suspects that if she can just bring back the brother, mom’s going to be okay and dad will be okay too and then she can go on with her life and she can solve everybody’s problems.


[0:53:32.4] TG: Okay. Well, I’ve got some more work to do.


[0:53:40.3] SC: Yeah.


[0:53:42.0] TG: I’m just going to write the next scene, and write the next scene, and write the next scene and just kind of hope — it was encouraging that I ended up in a good place at the end of the scene when I didn’t really know where I was going with it.


[0:53:59.6] SC: Yeah, trust that.


[0:54:01.3] TG: So let me try this for the next eight or nine scenes and see where I end up.


[0:54:06.3] SC: Sounds good.




[0:54:07.6] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. As I mentioned last week, Shawn and I are going to be speaking at an upcoming conference this September. The conference is called, Tribe Conference and you can see more at As always, for everything story grid related, you can go to If you haven’t signed up for the email list, make sure you do that, that’s where we send all the latest and greatest Story Grid stuff. Of course, if you haven’t picked up a copy of the book, you should do that now as well.


To take a look at past episodes or the show notes for this episode including the scene two that Shawn and I discussed, you can get all of that at Thanks as always for continuing to share the show, leaving a rating and review on iTunes, all of that is extremely helpful for us. If you want to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. So thanks for listening and we will see you next week.

9 comments on “Grahl’s Mojo, Vonnegut’s Master’s Thesis, and the Hedonometer

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    Another great podcast – the Hedonometer test of Vonnegut’s thesis is mind blowing – thanks for including it here!

  2. Larry says:

    Love the podcasts and “all things Storygrid.” Some non-professional advice about Tim’s story: we’ve all learned from countless books, TV shows and movies the lesson, “If you don’t see the body (and sometimes even if you do), the guy’s not dead.” Heck, it’s almost a story convention. Given that, I don’t think the average reader will be surprised that Jessie’s brother turns out to be alive. Maybe the big reveal can be that Jessie’s abilities are a family trait, and that’s why the brother went missing. Kinda like in Ender’s Game — they test the siblings, but only one fully measures up (Peter — too hard; Valentine — too soft; Ender — just right). Anyhow, my two cents.

  3. Okay question time:

    A good story, well constructed, with compelling characters, plots, oblig. scenes, conventions, etc., esp. one that hits a popular topic, is going to have an audience, be well received, maybe even sell a 100K copies.

    So, the next level is voice, style, uniqueness OR deciding to be a John Grishman or Patterson type of writer.

    Is this a conscious choice? Is this something you’d recommend to Tim? Like be a straight laced story teller because more people read Patterson than James Lee Burke?

    OR (and maybe Tim can answer this) does the unconscious mind/muse force the choice?

    When I went through Silence and Red Dragon to copy every simile, I think some of us on the forum where surprised that there were so many. I know I was. I think each book had about 70 +/- similes/metaphors.

    Colorful language, that when looked at standing alone, was sometimes cheesy. I mean, Harris used a lot of animal similes. Like a crap load of them, as if he’d gone to the zoo and decided not to hurt any species feelings.

    A few of his similes were not only good, I mean in the language/poetic sense, but in that they were foreshadowing things, the one about the bait fish trying to escape a predator under a fish hook moon was an especially fine example of what I’m talking about.

    So, what do you think Shawn? Is this something to decide and work on? Does it come naturally?

    We talk so much about structure, outlines, story principles, and so on, that I just thought I’d bring up the subject of voice and style.

    As I edit my own work, I’m sometimes tempted to add in some colorful language, Tim mentioned leaving out too much description (until you told him it was too sparse) and I wonder if that ends up also eliminating all the color?

    Do you suggest he go back later and add similes and metaphors and other spices?

    Or do you think if they don’t come naturally, one ought to leave it alone and not force it?

    After all, the best bread in the world is warm sourdough with a pat of butter.
    The best date is holding hands along the beach at sunset.
    The best parties are often comprised of a few good friends, a bag of Doritos, and six pack.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      I think a writer’s voice evolves to a point when they “feel” it. They know when to stop tinkering because when they read it back to themselves…there is a sense of “that’s good…that flows…leave it alone.”
      The only way to come to this “feel,” as you are learning and Tim is learning, is through doing the work.
      You use craft as a crutch to keep you moving until the craft becomes a part of you…your scenes start to automatically comply with the five commandments.
      Ted Williams analyzed hitting from every possible angle, but when he got to the plate, he stopped thinking and just watched the ball and hit the damn thing. Steve Pressfield decides he’s going to write narrative nonfiction…he goes out and learns the fundamental craft of interviewing…then he puts his writer pants on and let’s his scenes flow by relying on the decades of craft work he’s done in the past.
      We all have a voice. The difficult thing is stripping away the piles of rock and mud from our lives that smothers it. Once we work out the craft the rocks and mud shift and the muse gets in there with a shovel and digs us out.
      So my advice is to just keep pushing yourself with the blah blah structure and craft stuff… The voice will emerge and before you know it, you’ll know when it’s clear.
      Hope that helps.

      1. Yes, that’s very helpful, the mud and rocks analogy really hits home.

        I was telling my daughter today about the feelings of love, excitement, hope, and clarity I’ve been having lately and she reminded me that I hadn’t been dwelling on the past (failures, regrets, and the desire for revenge).

        That realization, that I’d changed my focus, was a huge milestone for me.

        I have two drives right now: my work and love.

        The marriage of these is creating a lifestyle that will put me on the moon.

  4. Maryann Palmer says:

    Hedonometer. I was just reading about this in Shawn Achor’s “The Happiness Advantage”!!

  5. This is the best of The Best of Tim and Shawn (so far). You’re giving us a priceless education for free, and I truly appreciate it!

  6. I woke up today thinking about this podcast. I knew it had made a deep impression on me! Anyway, what I saw was the 6 Vonnegut story structures as musical notes on a staff. Can’t you picture it, too? Notes going up, down, mostly down, etc. The music our stories make in the reader’s head is what entrances them, or not. This is so exciting, I can hardly stand it!

  7. Paul Worthington says:

    Fun video on the subject:
    “Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories”
    Vonnegut even opens the lecture by noting that stories can be input into computers.

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