High Concepts

In this week’s episode Tim and I talk about when to share your work-in-progress (I strongly recommend you don’t until you have a first draft…and even then to do so very carefully) as well as a very helpful phrase from way back in the 1990s.  That phrase is “High Concept,” which is an instantly understandable hook that will tantalize prospective readers/viewers to give your story a try.

To listen, click the play button below, or read the transcript that follows.

[00:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to The Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl, and I am in the middle of writing my very first novel, and I’m hitting up Shawn Coyne with all of my questions about how to do it right. Shawn is the creator of Story Grid, he’s the author of the book Story Grid, and he’s an editor with 25 plus years experience and he’s showing me all the tricks to the trade of how I can write a story that works.

In this episode we cover a whole lot of ground. We start by talking about beginning hooks and how you can think about them in a new way. We also talk about the high concept pitch and how to pitch your novel, and we dive into how to get feedback from other writers and a few other things as well. So it’s a big episode, we cover a lot of ground. I know you’re really gonna love it, so let’s jump in and get started.


[00:00:59] TG: So Shawn, I have to start off by saying I’m now 20,000 words into my manuscript of my first draft.

[00:01:05] SC: Nice.

[00:01:06] TG: So I’ve been feeling good, I had a day two days ago where I knocked out 2,700 words in like one setting. So you know, I have those days where like I hit the wall at 800 words and I can’t do anything else, and then it just like falls out of me the next day. But I even found myself at one point like giggling, literally giggling in a coffee shop while I was writing a part that I thought was kind of funny.

[00:01:38] SC: Oh that’s great.

[00:01:39] TG: So I’m definitely having fun with it.

[00:01:39] SC: Yeah, that’s great.

[00:01:40] TG: So I’ve been talking with a couple friends of mine, we’re all kind of struggling writers and apparently they’ve decided I know what I’m talking about since I talk to you all the time. So we were talking about the beginning hook; so a friend of mine was asking me a question about his beginning hook and what popped in my head, I wanted to run this by you, is as I started thinking through The Martian, Harry Potter, the Stephen King book I’m reading, 11/22/63, my own book, I’m realizing the beginning hook almost stands alone as it’s own story. Would you agree with that?

[00:02:19] SC: Yeah I mean every unit of story stand on it’s own two feet. A great scene is it’s own thing, it’s like a joke or like a comedian’s one hour set, each one of those jokes can be repeated to somebody else and still work. But the global arc of a comedian’s set starts one place, goes someplace else, and then finishes and usually it wraps up on a theme.

Like Chris Rock and Amy Schumer and Louis C.K, they have a real talent for creating material that has an arc within the jokes themselves. And the same thing goes with a work of fiction. The beginning hook, I would say this, the beginning hook is so crucial because if nobody reads the beginning they’re not gonna read the middle.

[00:03:16] TG: Right.

[00:03:17] SC: And it also sets up so many elements in the story in the middle build and especially the ending payoff. The ending payoff is the — what does David Mamet say? He says, “It’s the inevitable, but surprising conclusion of what is set up in the beginning hook. A story is the surprising and inevitable conclusion of your set up.” So the beginning hook, when you do it very, very well or you have a great “what if”, and I talk about this in the book. The what if is a great way to sort of generate beginning hooks for yourself, or inciting incidents of your global story.

So back in the ’90’s and the ’80’s when screenwriters were selling spec scripts, they used to go into meetings at Fox and all the studios and go in withe like a great, what they called, high concept. And the high concept was essentially a log line that somebody would immediately understand and it would hook them and they would say, “Oh yeah, I wanna give you $150 million to make that movie.”

So back in the ’80’s and ’90’s, Die Hard, right? Die Hard became sort of like this key element in the high concept. So people would say things like, “Oh it’s Die Hard on a boat.” And I mean that movie Speed, that’s Die Hard on a bus, right? And so using the concepts of the inciting incidents, global inciting incidents, what if’s, are really a great way of getting yourself into the flow of the ultimate middle build and ending payoff.

[00:04:59] TG: What I started realizing was the beginning hook was like the story of getting your hero to the point where they can enter into the real story of the book. I don’t know if I said that right?

[00:05:13] SC: Yeah, it’s starting at the ordinary world, the ordinary world that we live in, and as in The Hero’s Journey global thread concept that we’ve talked about before, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, there’s a transitional moment when the hero moves from the ordinary world to the extraordinary world. And in the Wizard of Oz it’s when Dorothy begins in Kansas in the black and white world, the way she lives on the prairie, and it transitions into the extraordinary world of Oz.

So that’s always a nice way to always remember what I’m talking about when I say “ordinary to extraordinary”. So for example, another example, I saw this wonderful movie the other night called Brooklyn. And it’s a very, it’s a minimalist story, meaning that it’s not about blowing up buildings or hurricanes, it’s the simple story of a young woman in Ireland who, I’d say it’s the 1950’s or so, or 1940’s and Ireland at that time was very provincial, it still is a little provincial, but each small town had it’s own rhythms, and everybody knew everybody’s business.

And so her sister reached out to a priest in Brooklyn, New York and said, “Look, can you help me out? My sister really needs to get out of Ireland.” So she gets this job in Brooklyn and she travels across the sea from Ireland to Brooklyn. This is really great story telling and it’s based upon a novel by — I always mispronounce his name. Like Colm Toibin, and it’s a great novel too. But the transition between the beginning hook of that movie and that novel to the middle build is literally her leaving Ireland and getting on the ship.

And what’s also great is that he doesn’t just put her on the ship. We travel with her on the ship as she experiences a lot of escalating circumstances that are very difficult for her to overcome. So when you’re thinking about your beginning hook, you wanna think about it in terms of the ordinary world. How do I establish this place where my hero is? It’s a place of uncertainty and the inciting incident is either positive or negative in their life. In the movie Brooklyn and in the novel, it’s positive in that she’s getting out of Ireland, she’s getting out of the provincial town.

But it’s also negative too because she has to leave everything that she’s known before. And because it’s so well crafted and so specific to this one particular character, it becomes a universal metaphor for the immigrant experience in United States. And I can’t recommend it more highly. There’s so many wonderful setups and payoffs in the movie. Because I’m such a story nerd I always see, whenever I’m watching something with my wife I always go, “Oh we’re gonna see that guy again.” You know?

[00:08:28] TG: I’m sure she loves it.

[00:08:29] SC: Yeah, yeah. She does yeah.

[00:08:31] TG: Yeah, it’s interesting because what struck me in 11/22/63 – so spoiler coming up – is it’s all about this guy. Of course it’s Stephen King’s like, this random thing that’s found, right? Like in Tommyknockers it’s like, “Oh, I have a spaceship in my backyard.

[00:08:51] SC: Right.

[00:08:52] TG: And in this one it’s like there’s this portal in a closet in a diner that takes you back to a specific day in 1958. And so the whole idea, the guy who originally finds it is the diner owner and he’s dying so he’s gotta pass it off to the hero of our story while he goes back. But in the book he goes back and he wants to change this one thing to make sure that it works. So he goes to this town and he kills this guy that was evil to change what happens in the future.

He comes back, sees that it’s changed, his mentor dies, and so now he steps back to do the real job, which is stop the Kennedy assassination. And when he steps back in time the second time to actually go after Kennedy, I checked and it was 28%. So it was like the first whole thing was just him getting to the point where he was ready to take on the mission, right?

[00:09:51] SC: Right.

[00:09:52] TG: And as soon as he stepped — that scene where he stepped back into time the second time to go after Kennedy, Kennedy’s assassination, was the beginning of the middle build and the whole first part was this, it’s own story. Kind of like the whole beginning hook of The Martian was the whole story of him getting stranded.

[00:10:10] SC: Right.

[00:10:11] TG: And then once he was stranded we started the middle build of how he’s gonna survive.

[00:10:15] SC: Right.

[00:10:16] TC: And so it’s just like when I was talking with my buddy on this and he was telling me his story idea, I’m like, “Well the whole point of the beginning hook is to just get the guy to this point where he’s been kidnapped. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s every beginning.” Like I don’t know why saying it that way made it stand out to me differently, but it did something in the way I looked at the beginning hook of like the whole point of it is to get the guy from point A to point B so he can take on the actual mission of the story.

[00:10:46] SC: Yeah. Another way to look at this is I speak a lot about the ability to reverse course, right? So part of the escalation of story is at the very beginning of the story there’s always opportunities for your lead character to sort of change their mind and life will go back to normal, right? So in 11/22/63, the character can decide, “Oh second thought, I’m not gonna go back to that portal.” And his life isn’t gonna change all that dramatically. But once he goes back and decides, “No, it’s my — I know that I have an opportunity here that I can change history, and geez, I’m gonna do it.”

So once he makes that second choice it’s not an irreversible choice. And this is a way to look at your turning points in your scenes is what is the degree to which the character can return, can reverse their choices? So for example, I write about in the book about the Silence of the Lambs, and at the very beginning of the story, the very first scene, we have Jack Crawford, the FBI behavioral expert, interviewing Clarice Starling to do a little errand for him. And he’s sort of soft selling this, “Oh it’s just a little thing that I thought you might be qualified for. You have a degree in psychology, and maybe you could do this for me?”

And she wants to please the big boss, so she’s interested and he says, “Oh all I want you to do is go interview the craziest serial killer of all time, who eats people.” And so at that moment in the career of this young woman who’s just a trainee at the FBI Academy, she can make a couple of choices, right? She could either say, “Okay I’ll do it.” Or, “No I don’t think so. That’s a little too scary for me.” But she decides to do it. Now that is a decision that is reversible, right? Nobody’s going to say, “Oh well she’s a chicken because she didn’t go do it,” because Hannibal the Cannibal is the real deal. You know, you don’t wanna be in a room with that guy because he can mess up your mind.

So that’s a very reversible decision at the very beginning of the novel. Later on in the novel when she’s sitting with Hannibal Lecter, and he says to here, “Hey, I can help you out by getting Buffalo Bill. But you have to do something for me.” Now here’s a decision that’s irreversible, right? Once she makes this decision she can’t get away from it. And he says to her, “I will help you out if you share all your deepest darkest memories with me.” And that’s essentially saying, “If you let me get into your brain and mess around in there, then I’ll help you find this killer who’s got this woman kidnapped and is probably going to murder her.”

So she’s facing this crisis, “Do I say yes, or do I say no?” And it’s irreversible. If she says no to Hannibal Lecter, “No, I’m not gonna do that,” do you think he’s ever gonna let her talk to him again? He’s a sociopath. If he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll just reject whoever that person is again. And then once she lets him inside of her brain, she’s never gonna get him out. So that’s a great moment where action reveals character. Wen she says, “Okay, I’ll tell you about my childhood, you tell me about how I’m gonna get Buffalo Bill.”

Once she makes that decision it’s irreversible and she cannot go back in time. Once Hannibal Lecter is literally in her brain, she can’t get him out. And so these are the moments that you have to think about in your book. Now at the end of your beginning hook, you wanna have an irreversible decision so that once Dorothy can’t get into that shelter in the Wizard of Oz with her Aunty Anne, and she makes the decision, “I’m just gonna go in the house and lie on my bed and fall asleep and maybe this whole thing will blow over.”

Once she makes that decision, it’s irreversible and that is the moment when she goes to Oz, when her house is literally ripped out of Kansas and in the air. So think about the end of your beginning hook as a moment of an irreversible decision. Once your character goes down that road, once they accept the mission, once they go to the extraordinary world, there’s no turning back.

[00:15:26] TG: Yeah it’s interesting because in 11/22/63 it’s Stephen King kind of manufactured that, right? So there’s this diner that has this portal and when you go back in time you always go back to the same exact time and day, and no matter how long you stay, when you come bak you are only gone from the present for 2 minutes. And so on the surface it’s like, well at any time he can just go back and restart the whole thing. But what Stephen King does is first he kills off the mentor, which means there’s no more information to be had by going back, because he’s dead.

So he can’t like keep learning from his mentor and he says that the land that the diner’s on has been sold and it’s gonna be torn down like in the next couple of weeks. So like he can’t wait three months to make a decision of whether or not he goes back now. He has to go back right now or they’re gonna tear down the diner, and who knows what’ll happen in the portal then. And so it’s just really…

[00:16:30] SC: You think that’s a coincidence?

[00:16:32] TG: Yeah well, now that he say that I’m like, “Oh, that was him setting it up.”

[00:16:35] SC: Of course.

[00:16:36] TG: Because when he goes back, this is his last shot.

[00:16:39] SC: Right. ‘Cause Stephen King’s a pro and he knows you cannot have a reversible course of action for his protagonist because if he does, then you lose all the stakes in the story telling and people will be like, who are reading it, will say, “Why doesn’t he just go back through the portal and get outta there?” So those are things that you have to think about and to think about them analytically may or may not help you when you hit a roadblock.

Usually they do help you because then you can say to yourself, “Oh, something feels wonky about my beginning hook. It just seems like there’s not a clear” — what you want is almost like, you want the reader to have an unconscious understanding that, “Oh, this is the end of the beginning hook. I’m gonna be able to put the book down now and get myself a cup of coffee because I want to get into the middle build.” It’s like this very clear cleaving of the beginning into the transition, into the middle.

And that’s the great thing about, you know, I end up always using the same examples, and I’ll try and figure out more but in Brooklyn the movie, I’ll use that one because it’s not a well seen movie and it’s definitely worth watching. The end of the beginning hook is when she arrives in New York City and she’s just desperately alienated and alone and misses home so dramatically that she can barely keep it together.

And it’s the transition into the middle build is when her boss at her job has the priest come and talk to her. And it’s nice because what do we do when we’re in our deepest, darkest place is we need someone to help us. The priest is played by Jim Broadbent who’s just, forget it. Anything this guy’s in, he’s fantastic. He’s in all those movies, the Renée Zellweger, like Bridget Jone’s Diary he plays her father. He’s just great. He’s in a great movie called Topsy Turvy where he plays one of the — who was it?

Anyway, it’s a great movie about the creators of the Pirates of Penzance and these great musical theatre people from the 19th century. Anyway, I digress. But the point is is that your friend saying the beginning hook should be sort of a mini story in and of itself, yeah if you think about it, there are some great writers like John Cheever who was a great short story writer. Probably top 10 American short story writer of all times. And he was wonderful in that he would leave the short story in this place where there were just astronomical number of questions about what’s going to happen next.

And that is, if you look at a short story in that way and you see that cliffhanger sort of, what’s gonna happen to this person? That is a great way of looking at a beginning hook, is if you can create this really rich world that transitions into this moment of crisis and the climax is the decision of the character to do what they must do. And then they resolve it by actually going to do it, and then you end it. That is a way of giving that cathartic moment to the reader in a way that a novel does.

But the trick for a novel is that you have to then take that great beginning hook and one up it in the middle build twice, and then you’ve got your ending payoff. But anyway.

[00:20:29] TG: Yeah, it reminds me how you said before how these are like those dolls, those Russian dolls that go into each other.

[00:20:35] SC: Yes.

[00:20:36] TG: Is like, if I look at my beginning hook as a standalone story, how can I make that the best standalone story possible knowing that it’s going to transition into my middle build? You know, so it’s just — yeah, it was just interesting thinking about it that way.

[00:20:52] SC: Yeah, another thing to think about and I think this will be very helpful for people. If you get stuck, one of the things I always advise is to look at the polarity shift of positive or negative at the end of your beginning hook. So for example, say your inciting incident of your global story, like in Brooklyn, is positive. This young woman gets the opportunity to go to the United States, she’s gonna be set up with a job, she’s got a place to live, she’s got a support system in the church, it’s gonna be a good thing. That’s a positive opening inciting incident.

Now, if the end of the beginning hook is also positive, meaning she gets to Brooklyn and there’s a big party for her and everybody loves her and everybody wants to go out with and be her friend, and everything’s great, the reader would say, “There’s something wrong here. This is kind of boring. Nothing’s going wrong for this woman.” Instead, what the writer did was say, “Okay, I need to end my beginning hook with a negative.” So he’s moving from positive inciting incident of the global story to a negative climax of the beginning hook.

And the reason why he does that is because you want that sine/cosine shift of emotional story telling to land with your readers. So the climax of the beginning hook in Brooklyn is despair. “I have made the biggest mistake of my life. I had..

[00:22:25] TG: I’m all alone.

[00:22:26] SC: I’m all alone. I was in a small community, yeah it had it’s problems but now here I am in the United States, nobody knows my name, nobody respects me, nobody cares about me. So…

[00:22:40] TG: Yeah, in thinking about…

[00:22:41] SC: Go positive and negative. Or if it’s negative, if you’re beginning with a negative like aliens land, right? And they’re attacking, then the end of your beginning hook should be the hero emerges and fights back a small troupe of aliens to protect the family if only for a week. You know, he buys time. So that’s a positive. Think about it in those terms and then you wanna keep doing this so that you’re going positive, negative, positive, negative because this is the way our lives happen.

These are things that happen to us every single day. You wake up and the coffee maker isn’t working. Ah, that’s a negative. But your neighbor got an extra coffee and brought it over to your house and gave it to you. That’s a positive. Everything doesn’t revolve around coffee, but you get my point.

[00:23:33] TG: Well I don’t know, I mean yeah. ‘Cause I’m thinking about my own story in this too where I’m like, at the beginning my hero gets a great job, finally after trying, and she’s escaping the shadow that her brother disappearing left over her life. And it like destroyed her family, so she’s finally getting out of the house and getting this job. But at the end of it, she actually stumbled — of course where she’s going to work is this like evil corporation she finds out about and her brother’s ghost is standing there waiting for her when she gets there, you know? And like not literally a ghost, but like she falls right back into that following her.

[00:24:16] SC: That’s a nice transition because it sounds like it’s on theme. It’s that old chestnut theme, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.” William Faulkner said that about writing and about to having tortured characters is that a lot of us, we walk around with a lot of our past riding on our spinal chords ready to knock the wind out of us the second we try and change ourselves. And so if you use that in your story telling and use the power of the haunting family, you know, it’s Tolstoy, all families are — all happy families are the same. I forget what he said.

But the point is that the past life experience of your characters and their families haunting them, is a good way to pull out a shift. The woman in Brooklyn wanted to get away from her family, they were too obsessive, they were clingy. And then what happens, she gets over there and she has no family anymore. So taking away what is being taken for granted at the end of the beginning hook is a good way of transitioning into your middle build and it’s a way of solving a problem. And the problem is, how do I shift from a negative to a positive, or a positive to a negative, in my story telling? And using things like, oh familial past histories, is one way to solve it.

[00:25:51] TG: Well one of the things that I kept noticing when I was thinking back through different stories was how much writers will inject family issues to get you emotionally attached to what’s going on. You know like Harry Potter and his dead parents…

[00:26:05] SC: Right.

[00:26:06] TG: …who like show up over and over. Even though they’re long dead, they just show up over and over and over in the entire story. And then even I thought about like soap operas, you know, and how like, “[Gasp] I’m dating my cousin!” And it’s like heavy handed, but…

[00:26:24] SC: But it works.

[00:26:26] TG: Yeah well so many stories, what was I — I think it was the Blockbuster novel one and they were talking about how your readers want to have a certain level of unbelievability. Like I open, you know, I walk into a coffee shop and I bump into the one person I need to see out of seven billion. And we talked about this a little bit about how like, well that is how life works. But the odds of you showing up somewhere and your dead cousin’s working there and they’re like hiding out from the mob.

But having those family things, that seems to — a writer seems to use it over and over to really twist the story and get you emotionally involved. And so that’s why I added the whole dead brother thing because it would be a way to kind of pump it with that family emotion. It made me think of X-Files and how Mulder was always driven to find his sister.

[00:27:24] SC: Right, right.

[00:27:25] TG: You know? So it wasn’t just he was this crazy conspiracy — him being just a crazy conspiracy theorist would be one thing, but to have it pumped full of it started after his sister disappeared, and this one thing is him trying to find out what happened to her. That added a whole other level to his character even though she only shows up in a handful of episodes.

[00:27:48] SC: No that’s true, that’s true. But I would advise, you can use one extraordinary happenstance extremely effectively. Like you were talking about Writing the Blockbuster Novel, was about Ken Follett writing The Man from St. Petersburg and it was written by Al Zukerman who’s a literary agent who founded an agency called Writer’s House and I’ve known now for 25 years, 30 years. And Al, Al’s a terrific agent and he used to be the head of the Yale School of Drama, or he was a teacher there or something.

So he’s very familiar with extraordinary dramatic situations that you can exploit for the story. I think it comes from all of our wish, we all sort of vacillate between rational thought and magical thinking. And our rational selves are always saying, “Okay, if I do this, I do this, I do this and I do this, the result should be this.” But often times what happens is you do all those steps and you don’t get the result that you want. And other times in our lives we’re goofing around and a check will show up in the mail and we’ll be like, “Where did this come from?”

And it’ll be like, “Oh this is from, do you remember that security deposit that you left back on your bike, back when you were 16?” And so that’s like a magical moment that we don’t expect. So we do have both of those levels of thought in our head, so when we’re reading a story we will accept a magical moment that defies rationality. But if you keep piling them up, this is why you can’t tell a story that’s completely rational in a way that is all that convincing. You need that one sort of magical element.

Like Stephen King understands this probably better than anybody. He probably thinks of the magical elements all the time. What if a girl in high school was actually the incredible clairvoyant who can cause havoc? I mean that’s Carrie, you know? What is a bunch of vampires go into — this is the magical high concept “what if” that I was talking about earlier. What if a man discovers that his wife really isn’t his wife, it’s the sister of his cousin who’s been trying to gaslight him for his inheritance? That’s like — that’s an every 1940’s film noir movie.

So my point is is that these magical thoughts are perfectly valuable in your story, in fact you need one. But don’t over do it. Because then it becomes unbelievable and you lose the reader’s ability to suspend their disbelief. The reader wants to suspend their disbelief, they don’t want a rational sort of straightforward, realistic story that doesn’t have a magical element in it. You’ve got to be really careful about what that magical element. Being haunted by a dead family member, that’s a pretty good one. A lot of us can relate to that.

[00:31:06] TG: Yeah, so I wanna transition here ’cause I wanna get to this in this episode. How do you feel about opening up your writing to other writers? So I have a couple friends, one’s in a group of writers and we were talking about this kind of offline line before, I think. And I was like, “You know, the last thing I need in my life is other crappy writers like me giving me feedback on my writing.” ‘Cause I had a friend send me one of his scenes, and I’m like, I read and I’m like, “I don’t know? I guess this seems good?” I don’t know how to give him feedback, but so many people, they like to give feedback even though they have no idea what they’re talking about.

[00:31:47] SC: They can give you visceral feedback. Visceral feedback is absolutely valid. They’re not gonna be able to — when I say “visceral feedback”, that means things like, “I dunno? I just couldn’t have sympathy for your lead character and I just couldn’t get into the story.” That’s visceral feedback and you have to be able to learn how to translate those kind of comments into practical tasks. We could go on for 19 hours about these individual sort of things. And a lot of editors in New York, this is how they learn the craft.

They have a very attuned visceral sense of when a story is working and when it’s not working. Because most people get into book publishing are book nerds. You know, all they do is read, so they have a deep, deep understanding and experience with stories. But they don’t know the craft language that can be translated to the writer that will actually help them. So a lot of writers get very frustrated when their editor says things like, “You know, the middle just kind of sagged for me.” And I’ve met a lot of writers who have editors in New York and they’ve gotten that…

[00:33:01] TG: It’s like, “What the hell does that mean?”

[00:33:03] SC: “It sagged. You know, it sagged like there wasn’t enough suspense or excitement in there, so I stopped reading it.” That’s not really that helpful except saying, “You’ve got to completely rework your middle build. But that kind of comment I would say this is how I would diagnose this comment; what that means is that your scenes are either not turning very well, meaning there’s no clarity about beginning as a positive and ending as a negative. Or you’re going positive, negative, positive, negative, positive, negative, positive negative, scene after scene after scene after scene so that you lose interest because nothing seems to be changing.

Because even though things are changing and they’re moving from positive to negative, it’s weary. It’s like listening to the same song over and over again. So you need to rethink your scenes. You have to go back to your middle build and plot out all your scenes and look at them under the story grid microscope and say, “Oh, okay. I’ve got four scenes that go negative-positive one after the other. Why don’t I switch that up? There is no irreversible decision that my character is making throughout the entire book. Oh my gosh, I’ve really gotta go back and figure that nonsense out.” So going to a group of writers who don’t have the language of craft, can be very despair inducing, and counter productive.

[00:34:34] TG: Yeah and I’m wondering cause — so the process I’ve gone through is, I had my idea, I wrote a couple scenes based on the idea, then I did the foolscap, and then I story gridded Harry Potter, and then I used all of that to build my story scene by scene. So I came up with 50 something scenes, still missing some middle build stuff, but you said it was okay to start writing, so I started writing. And so I’m however many scenes in now, I’m into the middle build and where I’m at is, should I keep writing?

So Stephen King talks about “keep the door closed”, right? Don’t let anybody in to see anything until you’re done with your first draft and you’ve given it a look. And I’ve sent out my scene list with all the descriptions of what happens in each scene to a couple of people and gotten some feedback on that. But would there be any good to letting people see my writing now, or do I just need to finish before I open the door at all and let — cause my worry is they’ll give me feedback and it’ll be like a record scratch and I’m like, “Okay, now what do I do?”

[00:35:46] SC: No, don’t do it. Don’t do it.

[00:35:49] TG: Oh, okay. And once the first draft is done, is that when I should get people to read it and give me some feedback?

[00:35:58] SC: No.

[00:36:00] TG: Okay.

[00:36:00] SC: When your first draft is done, the thing to do next is to let it sit for at least a day, unattended. Probably a week. Just enough time for you to give yourself a little bit of a pat on the back for actually completing a first draft and there’s nothing more difficult than writing the end after taking on a very large project like writing a novel. So the fact that you have 60,000-70,000 words, whatever it is, maybe it’s 150 ’cause you went crazy. Great, take a couple of days off, take a week off.

Now the next thing you wanna do is go back — like right now what you have is a big pile of clay. And it’s sort of like close to — it’s like Michael Angelo when he was building the statue of David, he got a 2,000 pound thing of marble and all he had to do after he got that marble was to reveal David underneath. That’s what he alway says, “I chip away at the stuff that isn’t David.”

[00:37:07] TG: Yeah.

[00:37:08] SC: So that’s what your first draft is. It’s sort of that hunk of manageable marble that you can chip away at and reconfigure and polish. But each draft you need to think about, “What is my goal? What is my intention with this editorial mission? What’s my mission for this draft, going through this draft?” And the first mission you should really handle are the major moments of your story. Don’t get into, “Scene 15 is very weak. It’s terrible. Maybe I’ll just fix scene 15 ’cause I know it’s terrible.” Don’t do that.

Instead, think about the global story first. Is that beginning hook really a grabber? Should you up the stakes? Should you up the ante on the inciting incident? Somebody gets a job, is your inciting incident a positive inciting incident? Should you escalate it? Should they get a huge job? Something that they’re unqualified for but because they’re really good in the interview, they get it at a level that they really, it’s above their competence? That’s kind of an interesting thing because we’ve all experienced moments in our lives when something comes to us and we don’t feel quite ready to be able to handle it. And so we kind of have to fake it a little bit for a while until we can gain our confidence.

So look at those major moments, look at the “have you established an all is lost moment at sort of the, almost the end middle build?” And when I say “the all is lost moment” is, it’s that moment when the hero thinks, “There’s no way out of this situation. There is just absolutely no way I can continue on the path that I am and have any resolution or bring myself any kind of satisfaction or happiness. I have to change my thinking. I have to come up with a new tool in order to succeed.”

So these are the moments that you want to look at, and I talk about the conventions and obligatory scenes a lot in Story Grid, and that’s a good place to start too. “Is my hero at the mercy of the villain scene really that good? Or is it just a rehash of Taken with Liam Neeson? Is my lovers kiss scene, my lovers first kiss scene, a really good scene in my love story? Or is it just sort of a one off that I saw from an old George Clooney movie?” These are the questions you should ask yourself after that first draft.

[00:39:48] TG: Okay. So is this like, print the thing off and read it start to finish and make notes on like, “Okay, I need to make my all is lost scene more all at losty”?

[00:39:59] SC: Well I like to use the power of 10 as a way — I like to figure out ways to make things that are qualitative quantitative, and things that are quantitative qualitative.

[00:40:11] TG: Okay, you’re gonna have to explain that.

[00:40:13] SC: Okay. So I talked about it in The Story Grid, when I say “powers of 10”, think about the moments in the story as whether or not they’re reversible or not. If I had to put this on a scale of 1 to 10 of reversibility, number one is easy reversible. Like, “No, I’m not gonna go to coffee that day because I’m busy. Sorry I committed, but I can’t do it.” So I can reverse the decision to have coffee with you and you’re not gonna get that mad, especially if it’s a week out from when the date is.

So on a scale of the coffee with Tim, that would be a 1. I can easily get out of it. Now a 10 would be, you’re sitting at the coffee shop and we’re supposed to have a big meeting about doing some big business venture together, you’ve been preparing for four weeks, you’ve got all the documents in front of you, and I call you and say, “Oh I don’t wanna go to the coffee. I decided not to do it.” That would be like a 7. Like I’m gonna lose your friendship if I pull that.

So these are degrees of reversibility to think about. Like in the world of your universe of your story, are your degrees of reversibility from scene to scene, can you track them? Can you assign a number to them? Can you think of them — you know everybody says, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you want to eat that piece of pie?” And people…

[00:41:43] TG: Yeah like 1 is “I don’t want it at all”, 10 is, “I will stab you and take it.”

[00:41:47] SC: Exactly. And this is — I always think of that pain scale when you’re in the hospital and they’re like, “Oh a scale of 1 to 10 with a happy face you’re content, or I’m going to kill myself, which one are you?” And so think of your scenes in those terms. Like that’s a way of seeing whether or not you are fluctuating and escalating the stakes throughout the story. So if you do this and you say, “Okay, I’m gonna track on a power of ten scale my scenes. Okay that’s gonna be a 2, that’s gonna be a 3, that’s gonna be a 1, that’s gonna be a 1, that’s gonna be a 1, that’s gonna be a 5, that’s gonna” — and you do that and you watch and you look at all your scenes, what you will find often on a first draft is you never go to 10.

[00:42:36] TG: Ah, it’s everything’s too weak.

[00:42:37] SC: Yeah. You’ll never do it, because you’re holding yourself back cause you just wanna get that first draft done.

[00:42:44] TG: Yeah.

[00:42:46] SC: And then you’re gonna say…

[00:42:46] TG: And what I’ve realized is I’m worried about making commitments that I can’t go back on later in the story. Like I found myself, like as you say that I’m like, “Oh, I’ve pulled back because I wanna keep my options open ’cause I don’t exactly know where this story’s gonna take that part of it.

[00:43:03] SC: Right.

[00:43:04] TG: And so at the end you can go back with the knowledge of your entire story and start asking those questions and have like less commitment phobia, to really turning up the dial. ‘Cause this goes back to like…

[00:43:16] SC: If you do it in a qualitative analytical way, not an emotional way, which most people do. Emotional way would be this, “Oh my god, I’ve got my first draft done. This is gonna be so great. And I read it through and you know what? It’s pretty good. You know? It’s pretty good. I do a little polish here and there and I’m gonna be fine.” Instead if you go back as the really critical editor in your editor brain, you don’t read a scene for the language of the scene or for any flowery description you came up with.

But you just say to yourself, “Okay, how hard did I work to make this scene a 4? Because I’d like to start” — like you look at some of the great works of fiction and non fiction. They’re operating at very, very high levels. Very high emotional life and death stakes that even this quiet little movie Brooklyn, this woman’s entire life is at stake, you know? And damnation is on the table for this woman, and it’s a small little story about a woman who goes to Brooklyn and falls in love with another immigrant.

[00:44:28] TG: But we should start with those — cause you don’t wanna make every scene a 10, right?

[00:44:34] SC: No.

[00:44:35] TG: So you wanna start with those like major points in your story. Like, “Is the end of my beginning hook, is that a 10? Is the all is lost moment scene in the thriller, it’s gotta be a 10, it can’t be a 6.” ‘Cause you said, “Find the major points and look at those.” And they’re saying the analytical way to do it is find those major points and say, “Is this a 10?”

[00:45:00] SC: Right. So just as an example, and because I’ve been talking about Brooklyn I’ll just keep talking about it. Okay?

[00:45:07] TG: No, that’s fine.

[00:45:08] SC: So the beginning hook of Brooklyn, there’s the moment, the transition between the ordinary world and the extraordinary world. Now the writer of the screenplay and of the novel decided, “You know what? When she’s on that ship, some stuff’s gotta happen to here. I just don’t want her to go on the ship and then land in Brooklyn and start in Ellis Island. Something has got to happen physically to her to make her realize what a dramatic shift this is. And what they decide to do is make it a very physical and difficult struggle for her on that ship, which is all realistic and true.

So ships in those days were, they were just buckets. They weren’t really all that well — there wasn’t a lot of balance, so they moved back and forth and everybody got sick. So what they do in this movie is they show her being the only person in the dining room eating a big bowl of mutton stew, right? And you kind of, you’re like, “I wonder why she’s the only one in the dining room while I’m watching this movie?” And then that’s called a great setup.

And then the waiter comes up and says to her, “Oh you must have an iron stomach sitting there because nobody eats on these things because the storm that’s gonna come.” Next scene, she has to throw up because she’s got the mutton stew in her stomach. Now she goes to try and open up the bathroom door that she has to share with the people across the way, and they’ve locked it. She can’t get into the bathroom. So these are progressive complications that are physically — and they’re funny too, right? And we can all relate to this.

So then she has to go out in the hall and find some way to relieve herself. And she finds a bucket that they use for the fire system. And so she has to grab that bucket and go to the bathroom in it and then throw up in it. And so those moments were brilliantly conceived by the writer because they were saying, “How can we make this as difficult as possible that is realistic that can show our character going through a traumatic experience?”

[00:47:19] TG: If she had been laying in her bed with a stomach ache, it would’ve been a 4. And instead she’s like sitting on a bucket in the hallway, now we’re at a 10.

[00:47:28] SC: Exactly.

[00:47:29] TG: Yeah that reminded me, did you see that movie Bridesmaids?

[00:47:32] SC: Yes, yes. Yeah they went to 10, they went to 15 there.

[00:47:37] TG: Oh yeah. I mean their sitting, you know, they’re throwing up on each other, one of them’s scrapping in the street. It’s this whole thing, and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good if it was like scaled down at all.

[00:47:50] TG: Right. If somebody passed wind, that wouldn’t have worked. That would’ve been, “Oh, isn’t that silly?” But because they were violently, you know, crazily violently ill, all of them. It was. And then watching them all try to suppress their illness is always a comedic moment because we’ve all experienced that. When you know you’re gonna be sick and you’re in company with people and you’ve got to excuse yourself and you don’t have much time.

[00:48:20] TG: Oh man. I’m in the movie now. Oh I love that movie. So when we’re going back through, we’re looking like, “Okay, this moment was good, but it was like a six good.” Like what would it look like if it was a 10 good?” So like you were saying in the beginning hook you go, if you start with a positive moment, you’ve got to end with a negative moment. Well so both oft hose, the positive inciting incident and the negative resolution, that arc, it can’t go from a 5 positive to a 5 negative. It needs to go from a 10 positive to a 10 negative.

[00:48:55] SC: Well yeah. I mean I think that’s a good way of looking at it because if you look at that story specifically, here’s an opportunity to completely change your life. And then the end of the beginning hook is, “Okay, you look the chance. Now your life is destroyed.” So they’re mirrors. They’re mirror images of the same value and to look at the beginning hook and the ending payoff in that way too, the beginning hook of Brooklyn is very sort of naïve, wonderful, innocent women goes to Brooklyn.

The end of the movie is a hardened, smart, takes no shit, tough Irish woman that you know is going to give birth to children who are going to take control of the United States within a generation. She comes back from Ireland and she returns to Brooklyn and she’s married to the Italian guy, and together they’re going to rebuild the United States. So those are two mirrors, that’s a mirror image. You’ve got the naïve going to — and it shows/expresses the entire arc of the story and the theme of the story, which is coming of age, moving from naïveté to strong willed independence.

So to look at your scenes in this way, like a lot of times a writer will say to themselves, “Okay, my setup scene is this and my payoff scene is gonna be this later on.” And then construct scenes as sort of the black and the while of a particular value and they place them within the story as a means to move the story to climactic moments. So just to go back to the moment on the boat, at the beginning of the story in the beginning hook this woman is naïve, she can’t figure out how to take care of herself, the people next door have locked her out of the bathroom, she’s had to use a bucket to take care of herself.

And then the mentor figure arrives, who’s her bunk mate and she’s like, “Ah honey, you’re sick. Oh, let me take care of you here.” And then so she figures out how to Jimmy the lock to get that bathroom door open and she seizes control of that bathroom, and then she shows her how she’s going to behave. The ending payoff, the end of the middle build, the woman’s returning to the United States and she’s the mentor. There’s some young, naïve little Irish girl on that boat and she’s like, “I’m going to some place called Brooklyn. Do you know where that is?”

And she’s like, “Let me give you some advice, you’re not to eat dinner, you’re not to eat anything and go downstairs right now and lock the door of the bathroom to the other people because you’re gonna need to negotiate that bathroom.” And it’s a beautiful moment because those two mirrored images have shown us, through the actions of the character, her evolution from naïve little, scared little bunny to hardened, tough, compassionate, empathetic, wonderful person who’s going to give birth to the strong American men that are alive today.


[00:52:22] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. This week I want to mention a website that I highly recommend. It’s called TheWritePractice.com. It’s run by a friend of mine, Joe Bunting and it’s a really great resource to practice your writing. He offers writing prompts, inspiration, and all kinds of content around becoming a better writer through deliberate practice. Go to TheWritePractice.com, check it out, subscribe to their blog, you will definitely thank me later.

Now for everything Story Grid related, go to StoryGrid.com, sign up for the email list, read the blog, everything is there. If you wanna see any past episodes of this podcast, that is StoryGrid.com/podcast. Thanks as always for continuing to listen, for subscribing to the show, leaving your ratings and reviews, telling your friends. It means a lot to us and we appreciate all of the support from you, our listeners.

I hope you enjoyed this episode and we will see you next week.

5 comments on “High Concepts

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks so much for these podcasts Shawn and Tim – listening has become a weekly appointment for me.

  2. Mark McGinn says:

    Hi Shawn I love these insightful conversations. A question of clarification. I think you state in The Story Grid that turning a scene could also be starting at the negative pole but ending worse, a double negative, increasing the dramatic tension. So it’s not always starting positive, ending negative or vice versa. That the real test is how well we mix up the turning points?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Absolutely correct. You can go negative double negative or positive double positive. And yes, it’s all about zigging when the reader expects a zag.
      All the best,

  3. Anne-Maree says:

    Nick Hornby wrote Brooklyn… we know he’s good at this.
    Thanks guys, lots of great info as always.

  4. Tim says:

    Nicely evolving this – joined a few weeks ago – and getting more useful as I start using the stuff too.

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