As we work through Tim’s middle build, a theme has emerged. That theme “Limitations Beget Innovation,” simply means that the more restrictions you put on your scene work, the more innovation that is required to make them fresh. Writing a scene whereby the character is introduced to the magical world is a severe restriction. The reader is expected a “walk-through” of sorts that will define the world for them. To deny them that scene is to risk disappointing their expectations of your chosen story. So the trick is to write that scene, but also devise ways to make it fresh. How Tim chose to do that is a good example of accomplishing a whole slew of goals with one obligatory scene.
To listen to this week’s episode of The Story Grid Podcast press the play button or read the transcript that follows.
[0:00:00.5] 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 a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid, and an editor with over 25 years experience.
In this episode, we go over the first set of scenes that I have written for the middle build of my story and we start talking through, as well, how they fit into the sequences and how to transition between sequences. It’s this whole thing that’s super intricate and I think will be really helpful as you think about how to transition from the beginning hook of your story into the middle build and how you can show this new world without just it all being exposition and kind of boring.
So we dive pretty deep into this, go over my scenes, so I think it will be really helpful for you. So let’s just in and get started.
[00:00:57] TG: So Shawn, I was hoping to get two sequences done but I got one and then a scene in the next one done. Because I’m still just — I feel like I’m churning more than I’m writing. The first sequence ended up being five scenes, which I sent you and I’ll post in the show notes as well. So I had gone through and tried to do the value shift and polarity shift, but I wanted to get your take. Because this is the first six scenes of the middle build since we threw away the other ones I had tried. So what’s your take on them with your quick read through of them.
[00:01:34] SC: My take is that you’ve made enormous strides. Just all that work that we did that didn’t seem like any work and seemed like it was just a pain, I think really paid off. Because the specificity of the storytelling here is very clear and I have to confess, I want to know what happens next and that is the mark of hitting a good stretch of writing. And also, what you were able to do was you established a whole bunch of different new, fresh characters in only, probably 5,000 words, 6,000 words.
All of the characters, because what’s also good is, I know I said back in March that the first draft you had written that we ended up throwing out that you were going to be able to mine that material later on even though you didn’t know at the time what would stay and what would go, now you can see what I meant. Because there is a real feeling of this echoing material that you wrote in your first draft last year.
[00:02:45] TG: Yeah.
[00:02:45] SC: These characters are much more specific than the characters in the last idea that you tried to write, and the reason why is that what you had to do in these scenes was a whole bunch of different things. So you had to establish the setting of the academy, you had to introduce Jessie into this world, and then you had to provide a lot of conflict inside the scenes that are traditionally the scenes that are exposition ready and using Jessie as an innocent in this world really paid off. The reading of the exposition doesn’t come like a sledge hammer. It doesn’t feel as if, “Oh, this is the writer just trying to bang out a whole bunch of information so that I’ll know what’s going on later on.”
[00:03:42] TG: So that’s — when you say “exposition” you’re saying the parts where I’m explaining the world?
[00:03:48] SC: Exactly. So all that stuff about who the factions are, what the credits are, what the threshing is, what the severing is, how the academy works. All of that stuff is inside of these chapters, inside of these scenes, but it’s coming out of dialogue and it’s also coming out in character action and what I mean by that is the character — is it Az, is the name of the character?
[00:04:18] TG: Yeah.
[00:04:20] SC: Okay. So he is using this information, that thing that Robert McKee always says that I always bring up is to use exposition as ammunition. So what you did is you did do that. You had a character, Az, use his deep knowledge of the Academy and the world that he’s living in as ammunition to belittle Jessie. So he’s sort of playing this role of the hot shot on campus who’s been assigned to bring in the newbie and he’s also trying to get the lowdown on who she is, where she’s come from, why she’s being brought in so late into the training. He’s trying to establish her as a threat in his own life.
So essentially what you’ve done here, and if I had said to you, “Write a scene where there’s a character who is upset and is challenging Jessie,” you wouldn’t have written this scene. Instead, you would’ve written a more direct conflict kind of scene where they get into a physical fight or something. But instead, because you needed to establish the world, you put in that conflict as almost an afterthought and it’s not this heavy-handed conflict that is too much.
I think, as I suspected a couple of weeks ago, after you sat down and banged out and really thought through those four dimensions of your setting, then you were able to really ground this middle build and the beginning of the middle build in very straightforward, active pros. So we’re following Jessie as she wakes up, as she is talking to this guy who’s trying to acclimate her to this training, and then she runs into the guys who she’s eventually going to end up being teamed with.
I think, what you’ve done in 5,000 words is a hell of lot of work and a year ago if I said, “This is what you have to be able to do in five scenes,” you would’ve been like, “That’s impossible. I’m not going to be able to get all the information of what this world is about, and have a conflict, and establish victims, and put in a clock.” Because you established the clock of the thriller too in this short passage. So there’s nine months away from the big, big event, there’s three mini challenges that lead up to the final cut because there are only going to be three teams that represent the faction in this threshing.
All of this information is in there, and it’s very easy for the reader to file it away because they’re expecting this information, they’re expecting this kind of introduction to the world and it really flows. I read these scenes in five minutes. I just zipped right through it. I wasn’t able — I didn’t have the time to Story Grid spreadsheet them, but my gut is that each one of them had a polarity shift, there were very distinct moments and turning points in each of the scenes.
Now, these weren’t highly dramatic turning points, but that’s okay. Because the middle build is about establishing the world and the moment and the stakes, and again, I think you did a really nice job here and the fact that they go to visit the last guy who was the head of this mini team in the medical facility, and he’s all creeped out and weird, was a great thing too. Because what you established there was the negation of the negation. Like, what could be in the future for Jessie? It’s a very real possibility that she’s going to get her brain fried like that other guy and she might never be the same again. So, it’s good stuff. Keep going.
[00:08:33] TG: Thank you. Once we backed up and grounded the setting and then we talked through it and re-talked through the hero’s journey path and once I got clear on, “Oh, I need to establish the setting, establish the allies, establish the enemies,” — I still feel like one of the things I think we’ll need to nail down in the beginning hook, or maybe not? But I wanted a way to solidify — we’re always asking, “What does the protagonist want? What do they want?” And that’s what they’re always going after.
So I wanted to establish that she just wants to go home without saying that, without her saying, “I just want to go home.” So that’s why I tried to slip it in where she was just like, “Hey, well what’s so bad if he just got to go home?” And then end it with her, that hope that she would just get to go home if she washes out of the program. Like, “No, no, no, you don’t want to go home that way.” I also was thinking through most introductions to the new world that could come to mind are usually done by who will end up being the allies, right? So they’re the friends and so they’re showing them around.
So I wanted to have her shown around by the guy that would end up being the enemy and have that switch by the end as well, just as a way to try to do it differently. Oh, the other thing that I wanted to do — because I needed to establish so much in the world, I wanted to split it up. So I had Az do part of it in one scene, Az do part of it in another scene, and then the drill sergeant guy do it in another scene so it wasn’t all just crammed into one place. Oh, and I was trying to keep them moving while they were doing it. I actually went back and changed some things because at one point I had them just sitting down telling her everything. So I tried to keep everything moving as fast ast I could, while slipping all of this stuff in.
[00:10:38] SC: Yeah, it had a very Aaron Sorkin-esque walk-and-talk feel to it and that’s a compliment. What I mean by that is Aaron Sorkin who wrote The West Wing and A Few Good Men and a lot of great movies — The Social Network. He’s famous for having his characters moving. Like walking down the hall and having very deep conversations. So there’s action as they’re moving from one scene to the next and that’s the feeling this had. It had a feeling of urgency that she is way behind, it doesn’t look like she has any chance whatsoever of ever becoming acclimated to this world in a way that will be helpful to anyone, especially herself.
I like the fact that she just wants to go home, and it’s not heavy-handed either. It’s sort of “she didn’t want to go there in the first place”, so it doesn’t feel like you’re trying to establish a character’s’ want. I feels like a 12-year-old kid just wants to go home, you know? They’ve had enough. And I also like the moment when she’s plugged into the grid and she’s figuring out how to get through this door and all of a sudden they have to pull her out and that was great too because it doesn’t make any sense. Then you used that as a cliffhanger to push you into the next sequence.
[00:12:08] TG: Yeah, well that’s actually, in my mind, the opening of the next sequence, is that scene. So you’ve got essentially six scenes, the fifth scene ended with her seeing the guy in the medical ward and to me that was the end of the sequence that I’m calling Intro to the New World. And then the next sequence is the first severing, so the first test. So that was, in my mind, the first scene of getting her to the severing because she goes into this world — and I guess I am establishing it some more because they’re explaining about how it works. But she gets pulled out so that they can go get ready for the severing.
[00:12:52] SC: No, that’s good. That’s good. There’s a real sense of time elapsing and time being at a premium. She’s been there maybe 8 hours, 6 hours, and she’s already been inside the grid, she’s already figured out what’s going to happen to her if she doesn’t succeed, she’s already established possible friends. The Ernst character is obviously a nice guy and Az is just a duplicitous kind of Machiavellian figure who the faction obviously had him orient her so that he would be threatened.
So the organic sense and rational thinking of the villain, if we’re thinking of the faction as the villain, it makes sense that they would use him to show her around because they want him to up his game too. So the fact that she explains to him, “Oh, well the president of the faction came.” And he’s like, “What?” And she’s like, “Well, I turned him down,” and then he couldn’t believe that either. So that’s good, because you’re escalating, you’re progressively escalating the conflict with Az and it’s obvious that Az was responsible for the other guy having his brain scrambled.
So you’re establishing a lot of really good dynamics here. Jessie is, one moment she’s the victim, the next moment she’s the villain because she is a threat to Az. The next moment she’s a hero. Same thing with these other characters. You’re mixing it up really well and it’s flowing. If there’s one thing you’re always looking to do, is to not worry so much about the details if the story is flowing. And this feels like, you know, this is like Starship Troopers, a little Hunger Games. It’s fun, it’s interesting, there’s a lot of different things. We’re not sure what the threshing is actually going to be like. You’re slowing introducing what…
[00:14:56] TG: That’s because I don’t know what the threshing is going to be like.
[00:14:59] SC: Well, yeah. That’s fine. That’s absolutely fine, but as you’re playing around with the setting, it’s keeping the flow of the storytelling going and you’re making promises to the reader in a way that it’s slowly, they’re getting it. Now, also what I love and Jane Austin is great for doing this — and a lot of novelists are — is setting up things in the future for the reader to hang on.
So when you say, “Oh, there’s going to be three challenges and then there’s going to be the big threshing.” Essentially what you’re telling the reader with that information is, “You’re going to have at least four great action scenes coming up.” And you would be surprised, but knowing that there are four great action sequences coming up is going to keep a lot of readers continuing to read the book. So now you’ve set that up, now you’ve got to make each action sequence organically reasonable, but also more and bigger than the previous one. So you’re ending payoff is going to be the threshing itself.
And you know what? You have, in the last conversation that we had in your global when you were outlining the entire middle build, you set in these mile markers that are going to do that. You established very early on in the beginning hook that there is some mysterious thing with her brother. You’re going to pick that up later. You might bring back one of the characters from the numbered, I think 81 or somebody like that to serve as an Obi Wan Kenobi sort of mentor-ish figure later one. There’s a lot of good stuff going on in here and again, I didn’t go through and map out the grid. Did you happen to map out the spreadsheet for it?
[00:16:50] TG: Well, I did the value shift and polarity shift. I’m trying to do that now before I send you anything to make sure at least each scene is turning on something before I send it to you because that was the…
[00:17:02] SC: So what did those five scenes turn on?
[00:17:05] TG: So the first one is when she wakes up in the new place and Az is showing her around and then they have the discussion where he can’t believe that, or he’s poking, kind of asking her all these questions to try to figure out how important she is. So I put that as negative to positive because she went from alone to a friend. Then the next one was when — so this is when they run into Ernst and Alex and Az protects her from them and then he takes her over and shows her the room that they do the threshing in and then explains to her how the threshing works and why it’s important. So we get that information. So I put that negative to positive as well, and confused to knowledge.
Then the next scene is when she first plugs in and she’s in with all the students in the grid, and this is where the sergeant puts her in with Ernst and Alex. Since they lost her coder, she’s now their coder and this was right after Az had explained to her that coders don’t end up — they often don’t make it. So I put plus to minus, safe to unsafe. Then the next one was when she catches up with Ernst — so at the beginning Az shoves her off because he’s pissed off that she was put with them and so she tries to catch up with them. They kind of push her off at first and then Ernst talks Alex into at least bringing her in and talking to her. So that’s minus to plus, outcast to belonging.
Then the last one is — oh, the last one, so this is the end of that sequence is when they’re eating. They explain to her, you know, they’re talking some more about just being on the team together and why she’s probably not going to make it and then it ends with them taking her to see the coder that got scrambled and he’s out of his mind. So I put plus to minus, hope to fear. Then the first scene of the next one — oh, I didn’t do this one. But I would say it would be plus to minus because it turns on the fact that the severing is happening the next day and she’s only been there one day. So it would be like safe to danger, something like that is probably what I would put.
[00:19:26] SC: No, that works. I mean, it’s not as specific as you would love, but if you thought about it some more, that last scene would be getting acclimated to having the rug pulled out from under you. That kind of thing where she’s in the world and she’s starting to move through the tasks and getting her feet wet and then she’s pulled out immediately and said, “Oh, we’re going to have to battle tomorrow.” Yeah, I mean obviously I intuitively could feel those shifts as I was reading it, and that’s how you got the narrative momentum going.
It’s always a good idea to do what you did, especially before you share anything with anybody. Do your homework, make sure that your scenes are moving. So all-in-all, I think this is a really, really good start. I’m interested to see what’s going to happen next. There was just a couple of very small notes. One is when Az and Jessie are walking down the hall and they first run into Ernst and Alex, it’s kind of obvious that she’s going to be stuck with those two.
If there’s a way to hide that information in a little bit better way that would be better because when we do learn that she’s going to be paired with those two, it’s not so much a surprise. We could see that telegraphed quite a while before it happens and as I recall, Az is the one who says to her, “Don’t worry about those two, they’re going to flush out soon enough. Their guy was scrambled.” So when he tells her that, the reader’s immediately going to go, “Oh, I bet she’s going to get paired with them.” Right?
[00:21:05] TG: Okay. Yeah, I can seen that.
[00:21:07] SC: You could probably just even cut out those lines and just say, have Az say nothing, like they’re not even worthy of commentary.
[00:21:14] TG: So, when you first said to hide that I thought to hide it in some noise. So should they run into other people? Should they talk to other characters? Or you’re saying, hide it by just removing some of the information I shared?
[00:21:29] SC: Yeah. I would remove the information that you shared. The reason why you want to do that, always remember, when you’re writing your first draft of a scene or whatever, it’s perfectly fine to add all the information so that it makes reasonable, rational sense. But when you go back later on, your objective is to look at information that characters give away for free, remove it, and then you can use that information later on and pay it off in a much bigger way.
What do I mean by that? Okay, so when Az says to her, “Oh those guys, don’t worry about them. They’re going to flush out. Their guy was scrambled.” If he doesn’t tell Jessie that and Jessie asks about where their partner is because she doesn’t know, then when she goes to that hospital unit and sees the partner, then that information is going to hit the reader in a much bigger way. So when they say “scrambled”, having the scrambling pay off in a bigger way with her witnessing it in the moment as opposed to being warned before that information happens, that’s a way of establishing a stronger narrative drive.
So establish the mystery of these two guys, where’s their coder? Then you discover, “Oh, their coder’s in the freakin — oh these are my guys? Their coder, they put into the hospital. Great.” You know what I’m saying? So that Jessie, when she sees their former partner is in the hospital, and maybe they don’t even tell her that, you know? Maybe she goes and sees that partner by herself, or maybe Az shows her later on? I’m not sure. But all I’m saying is that when you have powerful information, the longer you delay the information getting to the character, and if you can dramatically pay it off, it will be a bigger moment.
[00:23:31] TG: Okay. All right, you said there were a couple of notes.
[00:23:33] SC: You know, I might have just combined both notes because I think the scene where they go to see the guy in the hospital, it works, but I think you can make it work even bigger.
[00:23:45] TG: Okay. Because what you described is actually — I’ll have to make changes to like three or four of the five scenes to kind of string that out longer, which is fine.
[00:23:56] SC: Then don’t — you know, I wouldn’t do it now. It’s a small thing.
[00:23:59] TG: I’m making a series of notes that I can refer back to when we’re actually doing the whole book.
[00:24:04] SC: Oh good. Okay, yeah. But don’t stop and go edit now.
[00:24:09] TG: Yeah, my thinking is if you say it works, because what you’re describing is it works at a level 7, but we could probably get it to a 9.
[00:24:19] SC: Right, right.
[00:24:20] TG: But working is all I care about now because we’re moving forward. Because I feel like…
[00:24:26] SC: When you were writing, did you feel like you were in a groove and that you knew what you were doing?
[00:24:32] TG: Yeah, it felt like it was — I’m trying to think of the proper metaphor. It felt like it was unfolding naturally in my mind. Well, it was really nice because I have all my scenes kind of laid out and what I think helped a lot too was grouping them by sequence. So I have these mini arcs I’ve got to fill. So actually, when I compare, it ended up being five scenes in the first sequence. It did not match, you know, I only gave it three scenes in my plan. But the arc is the same.
[00:25:05] SC: Yes.
[00:25:05] TG: So, it allowed me a little more — because in the past when I tried to map out scenes and then one didn’t go the way I wanted it, or the direction I thought, it screwed up the whole rest of the plan. Because it’s like I picked a different path to walk on so all those other weigh points don’t matter. So when I was writing, I kind of had those scenes in mind, but I more had like, “Okay this sequence just has to get me from she showed up, I’ve got to establish allies, enemies. I’ve got to explain the world, I’ve got to set some tension between characters. I’ve got to destroy her hope of going home. I’ve got to touch on that a little bit.”
So I had those things to do and I just had to get to the end of that. So as I wrote and I cut one scene at 600 words, but I’m like, “Okay, well that’s fine because I had a value shift and I got to the next point where I could give the next part of the story. So it felt natural and it was nice to have because in the past, the middle build was just too big to think about. But then, looking at individual scenes, I kept getting off course of where I was trying to go.
[00:26:16] SC: Right, right.
[00:26:18] TG: So, breaking it into sequences was much more digestible. I could kind of play around with that because as long as I got there, it didn’t really matter how, as long as I got to this point. Because that sets up the next test, and then I’ve got to write the test and no matter how I get to the end of the test, it doesn’t matter. Because the end of the test will set up the next sequence.
[00:26:41] SC: Right.
[00:26:41] TG: So I feel like it’s giving me space to kind of let it flow and now be so confined, but also not so free that I’m just writing all of this stuff that’s not getting me where I need to go. Because when I think back to the first — because I wrote a few scenes and we threw those out, wrote a few scenes and threw those out. It was because it was like gazing into this canyon when I was thinking of writing the middle build because it was just so long.
[00:27:07] SC: Right.
[00:27:08] TG: I had no idea where to start. So that felt good. Yeah, it felt like it flowed really well. I just feel immensely more comfortable writing a scene now. I know when I sit down to write, I know exactly where I’m going and I kind of play around with it as I go and it’s still interesting to me how I feel like I’m building a scene with blocks instead of writing linearly. So I’ll write a little bit and I’m like, “Oh, I need to set that up.” So I’ll back up and write a little bit. Then I’ll go forward and write some more. Then back up and write a little bit, and by the end I have a working scene.
But I wrote, if you watch how I wrote it, I’m placing pieces instead of writing from point A to point B, which is not how I thought it worked. I’m sure different writers do different things, but I’ve always been a linear writer and this feels much more like I’ll write something and I’m like, “Well, that works but I need to set it up a little more.” So I’ll back up and add a paragraph or two here and then I’ll fast-forward and keep writing, and then back up and just keep doing that over and over. Again, almost like I’m molding something than I’m actually driving.
So, then I did that within the sequence too where some of the exposition that Az did I actually cut out and moved forward to the last scene where they were explaining scrambling. I kept trying to figure out an interesting way to up the stakes of scrambling. Because the only thing she knows is the crazy dude from the numbers, which doesn’t seem so bad. He was kind of fun. So I’m like, “Well, how can I reveal that this is extremely dangerous without them saying this is extremely dangerous?”
So the first way I wrote it is Az saying, “This is extremely dangerous.” So then once I got to that last scene in the sequence I’m like, “Oh, I could show her ‘this is what will happen’.” So then I wrote that and went back and cut all of that out of the scene where Az is explaining things. So I even had this big bowl of things that I needed to introduce and I kept placing them in different pieces. Again, I was trying to cut down the amount of exposition in any one scene.
[00:29:19] SC: Well I’m glad you explained that to me, because I’m going to take back what I said about the payoff of Jessie seeing the former coder in the hospital. And the reason why I’m going to do that is that I forgot, because I only read the thing very quickly, and…
[00:29:37] TG: I mean that’s because I got it to you like four hours ago. I just want to be clear on who was responsible for that.
[00:29:45] SC: But the fact that there’s a character choice, I really like the fact that you did use exposition as ammunition. So instead of those guys saying, “Oh it’s really, really bad.” Instead they took her to see the guy in the hospital. Those were character choices on the part of Ernst and Alex that established them as good soul. Because what usually happens is if somebody is out to get you, say you start a job and somebody sees you as a threat, the last thing they’re going to do is warn you about some really stupid thing that you don’t do in the office.
Just as an example, I wrote about this a long time ago, but when I started in book publishing I was an editorial assistant, which is basically a secretary to the Editor in Chief. Nobody tells you all of the things that you have to do and the etiquette of the editorial meetings in publishing. So somebody was showing me around the office and the editorial meeting came and she didn’t tell me, “Whatever you do, don’t sit at the table because only senior editors get to sit at the table. We sit in chairs around the table.” Nobody told me that and I sat at the table and it was so embarrassing because it was just the first week of work and I’m making and ass out of myself, right?
The publisher was so great, she looked at me and she said, “Hey, new guy. You can’t sit at the table.” So it took the publisher to speak to me directly, and it was at that point I knew, “Oh, that woman who was showing me around, she’s not my friend. Gotta watch her.” So Az isn’t going to tell Jessie how terrible scrambling is because he wants her to be over-confident or not know because then he can beat her in all the competition. Whereas Ernst and Alex do want to tell her because they want her to know what she’s getting into because she’s on their team. So the more information that she has, the better it is for Alex and Ernst. That is a really good way of saying all that stuff without saying that stuff, if you know what I mean?
So through the character’s actions we are learning about who they are, how they think about Jessie, who’s on who’s side, etc. So Alex and Ernst don’t have to say, “Don’t worry about it Jessie. You’re on our team and we’re going to take care of you.” Instead, they show her something that she probably isn’t going to want to see or deal with. But she needs to know it, so they’re giving her the truth and they’re giving it to her very quickly and it’s establishing their relationship very quickly and you had to do that because this is a thriller. This isn’t some long British novel from the 1800’s. You’ve got to keep the action going.
[00:33:08] TG: The thing that I’ve learned and you’ve drilled into me early on that I just keep telling myself is, say as little as possible and make you or whoever tell me, “I don’t know what’s going on. You need to give me more information.” I’d rather er on that side than on the side of saying too much. So even as I was putting in the exposition I was like, “Okay, I want to just rip this stuff out just enough where they know enough where they don’t feel lost, but they are waiting to,” — again, I’m not entirely sure where I’m going, so that helps me hide things because I don’t even know what’s happening yet. But anyway…
[00:33:51] SC: Well no, you’re doing it organically. Because you’re using characters who don’t have information. So Jessie stands in for the reader and it makes sense that people are like, “Okay, this is where the cafeteria is, this is the time we wake up, your clothes are in the closet.” So you’re not just saying that to a character that doesn’t matter. You’re giving that information to the protagonist who is standing in for the reader at the same time.
So you’re aligning your reader and your protagonist as the same thing, which is a way of establishing empathy for your protagonist through your reader, if that makes sense. So the reader is experiencing and getting this information at the exact same time as the protagonist. So that’s a great way of establishing empathy. We don’t know anymore than Jessie knows, and that is — go ahead.
[00:34:51] TG: I wanted to make sure — there’s one thing I wanted to make sure I get done today because I’m struggling with something. But the other is, so I’m reading right now The Count of Monte Cristo and I’m struck by — so I’ve literally, this is a confession time, I’ve literally never read any of the classics. Any of the classics. Like, name a classic. Have not read it. So I’m on Ryan Holiday’s list where once a month he sends you books he’s been reading that he recommends and The Count of Monte Cristo made his novel of the year or whatever. So I’m like, “Okay, it’s time to read a classic.”
[00:35:30] SC: It’s a good one.
[00:35:31] TG: Yeah, I don’t mind long books. Just, I’ve tried to read so many of the classics. I saw this quote once that was like, “The classics are the books everybody wants to have read but don’t actually want to read.” And I’m like, “That’s me.” Because I’ve tried to read several and I’m like, “This is boring. I’m not reading this.” So this one’s caught my attention. I’ve enjoyed reading it.
So anyway, but there is so much where the author directly tells you something and I’ve noticed that in several books I’ve read lately where Jane Austen does this in Pride and Prejudice where she just tells you the setting. Like, “Here you are, this is what’s happening, this is how things work,” and then we enter. And I’m not doing any of that. I’m just trying to only give information through what’s happening, which is tough. It’s just tough. It feels like, I’m so much more straightforward, I should just tell people what’s going on. But I’m like, “Well, I’ve already decided. I’m not rewriting those early scenes because I finally have those scenes and I’m not going back so I might as well just keep doing this.” But I’m like trying to figure out how to tell all this stuff without doing it through just like opening the chapter and explaining where Jessie’s at. Anyway, so…
[00:36:48] SC: That’s an authorial choice and Dickens, all of the major classic novelists, Melville, Hawthorne, etc, they all did take the big authorial third person omniscient 2,000 foot God-like point of view. But you’ll find that those are the passages that make you go right to sleep and commercial fiction today, the more of that that you do, the less people want to read.
Because we are all so conditioned now to television and film and storytelling through visual means that there is no third person omniscient authorial point of view beyond our director or screenwriter. But it’s all spoken visually, so in the literary world there’s been a drastic movement to eliminating that sort of voice. Now, somebody like Wes Anderson in films likes to play around with that old convention and so some of his films are so wonderful because they feel as if they’re 19th century novels.
[00:38:02] TG: I hate everyone of his movies. Every single one. Like it comes out and I’m like, “Maybe I’ll like this one?” And I hate it.
[00:38:12] SC: The last one, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was very much in that sensibility and so was The Royal Tenenbaums and the way he got around that was having the actual narrator — I think Alec Baldwin did the narration in The Royal Tenenbaums. Anyway, so you’re making an appropriate commercial choice to not give that, “Once upon a time, long ago and far away in a land filled with fiords, there was a young shepherd.” Nobody wants to read that. They want to see the shepherd took a spear and killed the whale.
[00:38:52] TG: That’s a hell of a shepherd.
[00:38:53] SC: Yeah!
[00:38:54] TG: So, here’s a part — and this is why I didn’t give you two sequences, I gave you one sequence in a scene — is I am really stuck on what to make this digital world feel like. So I gave a glimpse at it in the last scene that you read. How did you that feel to you? Because I don’t know — basically I’m taking The Matrix approach, which is like there’s this world that’s like the real world and then she has to manipulate that world using her ability. Did that ring true the way that I set that up?
Because if it did, I’ve got to — and plus, I’m honestly trying. I know this first test, so there’s three tests and I know this first test has to be good. It has to have some kind of, where the sequence I just wrote was just kind of like “okay, I’m introducing the world. It’s pretty straightforward. There’s no surprise”. So I’ve got to do this in some kind of way, and I remember that with Ready Player One as like every time he won a test it was like, “Oh man!”
It was just this awesome moment and especially with her, I’ve set this up where everybody including Alex and Ernst thinks that she’s going to just be crushed immediately. So I have to set this up where she is going to be crushed until the very last second she kind of slides under the door as it closes. Because I still have to maintain the tension that she might be crushed in the next one. So she can’t just come in and own the place. Then it’s this whole — I’m kind of rambling, but I’ll just keep going for a minute.
So there’s this one convention I hate in movies where they set up all of this mystery and it’s really got you hooked and all these crazy things are happening and the whole time you’re trying to figure out, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” And I hate where at the end they’re like, “Oh, it was aliens.” And it’s like, well, fuck you. You can just say anything. “It was aliens.” Or, “They were in a dream.” Or, “It was all magic and it’s fantasy.” Instead of actually pulling it together where it actually makes sense, and I’ve kind of set myself up for there where you’re in this digital world that can be anything and so I don’t want to do that where it’s like, “Oh, well she just won.” Anyway, I’m just really churning on how to do all that.
[00:41:33] SC: Well, I think the answer will come from a couple of things. The first thing is to concentrate on the qualities that each of the tests is challenging.
[00:41:43] TG: So I set that up, right?
[00:41:45] SC: So what are the three qualities again?
[00:41:47] TG: Hold on, I have it in my notes. Okay, so scripting, and coding speed, and dexterity. So basically, how fast and how good she can code, manipulate the world. I looked up a bunch of stuff on what makes you good at hacking. So I think the NSA is now watching me. So I was reading all this stuff and I kind of put it down into three categories that you have to be good at to be a good hacker. So the first is just your overall knowledge of coding and how robust you are in that are.
The second is basically how good you are at hiding what you’re doing. So forensics and stealth is the second one because it’s not just “can you code?” It’s, “can you do it without being caught by the powers that be”, and I’ve set that up as well of the whole reason you get scrambled in the grid is it’s “reapers” is how I’m calling them. It’s their way of keeping people from even trying to hack because it will kill you in real life, or hurt you in real life. So it’s not just how good you are at coding, it’s being able to hide it from the reapers and from the grid itself. So that’s the second one.
Then the third is physical stamina. So how hard and long can you go without giving out, and I kind of set that up too when Alex is like, “You haven’t evolved to the point where you brain is used to doing things separately from your body. So the more that you go in the grid, the more your body tends to shut down.” So that’s his job is to keep her alive while she’s doing this.
[00:43:25] SC: That’s good stuff, yeah.
[00:43:26] TG: And you gave me that. When you said that, I was like, “Oh, that’s perfect.” So there’s the coder, she’s the one, or he or she is the one plugged in and they have two support staff. They have a coms person who can directly communicate with her while she’s plugged in and kind of feed her what she needs and then the medic is there to keep her body alive while she’s doing this because the body doesn’t like how much her brain is working when the body’s just laying there. So those three things.
[00:43:52] SC: Okay so one of the things that I always do whenever I can’t figure out a story is think about what stories have happened already that I can rip off? So in terms of these three trials, think about what the reapers, the people who control the game would do. What would they want? They would want to find the brightest people who have the deepest knowledge of probably history.
One of the things to think about is were there famous battles in military history where one general, or platoon sergeant, or somebody who won the medal of honor did something extraordinary in a moment of incredible stress that turned the tide of a battle? So that’s one thing to do some research on and then if you find that battle, what you would do is manipulate that battle and the circumstances of that battle and fictionalize it for the trial.
So for example, when they get the severing they’ll probably get — like, “Here are the severing materials and the challenge rules.” So they’ll get a dossier of some sorts, I’m thinking. And what they’ll say is, “The goal of this is to get from X to Z, or from A to Z.” This is what they do in special forces training, by the way. A friend of mine is a Green Beret, and they had this training session at the very end for the guys who make it and he was a really highly decorated Green Beret and what they do is they give you challenges that are impossible.
So the challenge was to take a basket 500 miles in an hour. Or like 100 miles in an hour and you have no car, you’re dropped in the middle of the woods, there’s no way for you to possibly accomplish the task. So I asked him, “How did you do it?” And he said, “Well, I could smell smoke from a fireplace, a chimney where we were in the middle of woods and I figured we were somewhere near a farm. So I went and I knocked on the farmers door and I asked him if he could give us a ride to the base. And he said, ‘sure’ and not only did he give us a ride but he gave us a piece of blueberry pie.”
So they went all the way back to the base in 15 minutes from the time they were dropped off in the middle of the woods and he hands the colonel the basket and he says, “Mission accomplished, Sir.” And the guy’s like, “How did you do that?” And he said, “Mission accomplished, Sir.”And that’s all that mattered, right? And the colonel was like, “Well good for you. You did it.” And it didn’t matter how he got the mission accomplished, he figured out a way to get it done.
So that’s a way to think of these tasks is there’s the traditional straight-through path like, “Okay, if we start running the second we get dropped off in the woods and I’ve got my compass and we each run 6-minute miles, maybe at the last second we’ll make,” — so it’s this impossible task for everyone. Instead somebody’s like, “Oh, I smell smoke. Oh, there’s got to be a farm around here. I bet the guy’s got a truck. If I ask him nicely, he’ll give us a ride.” Do you get it?
[00:47:21] TG: Yeah.
[00:47:22] SC: So there are these kind of riddles. I would look up ancient Greek riddles. There’s the famous Medusa riddle, “What animal begins on four legs, then has two legs, and ends up on three?” And Odysseus I think answers the riddle and he says, “It’s man. You start out as a baby, and then you walk as a man, and then when you get old you get a cane.” And that’s what got him out of deep shit.
So if you figure out these riddles and then build a world or a task around the riddle — think of it as a game. It’s like you have to play ping pong in the first challenge. Then the next challenge you have to play badminton. So it doesn’t have to be a consistent world, as long as the rules are straightforward and once they go into this world, the world is established. So the first task might be, okay this if from The Battle for Verdun, or something, or I don’t know. But this is a way of solving is a problem is to find some famous riddle in history or in storytelling and adapting it for your purposes.
[00:48:39] TG: Well I wonder on the forensics and stealth, could I look up bank robberies? Famous bank robberies. So back to my one question. So I like that. That gives me some direction. I’m still back to what this digital world is. I’ve been thinking of this almost like the mazes you give rats in the science lab, or whatever. Where you build this thing that you know is going to be hard for them to do, but there’s — well, I thought that of the direct path and that’s what I tried to establish when she uses the sledge hammer instead of trying to pick the lock. You know, of like, “I’m not going to do this the normal way. I’m just going to brute strength my way through it.”
So does that scene work like the way I set up the digital world with how she’s interacting with it, how she’s interacting with Ernst steering it? Did you feel like…
[00:49:38] SC: Yeah. I think I wouldn’t get hung up on this digital world. I would think of it like The Matrix, where they go into a reality that looks like a reality. So she could go into an autumn field that looks like an autumn field and there could be a farmer on the mountain and she has to run up the field to get to the farmer. And then the next task she could be in the middle of a rainstorm in Tokyo.
So think of these as mini little story movies and don’t worry about digital stuff. Think of her in a real world context. It’s a virtual reality. I think what you’re doing is you’re thinking of it like Tron. Remember Tron? That first movie? It’s like this weird grid system, it just doesn’t — it seems like a guy who’s got stuck on graph paper, you know? And you don’t want that in yours. You want The Matrix, which is this virtual reality that seems absolutely real.
So the reality can change every single time and so one time it could be Elizabethan England and she has to get the role of Juliet in Shakespeare’s new place. How’s she going to do that? I’m just making that up. And the next one could be it’s World War I and she’s in a trench and so to make up these little mini, you know, it’s sort of like a time travel thing as opposed to this digital gridy system that…
[00:51:20] TG: Yeah, what I was getting hung up on was just “ho-hum” or just basically establishing a real world thing in this grid to set up the scenario. That’s a good way to approach this. I guess I was trying to, I get in these spots where I’m like, “Well that’s been done so many times where it’s just like the real world in a digital world. Do I need to come up with some kind of other thing?” So I’m just like spinning on that instead of like, well if I come up with an interesting way to test each of these things and just, like you said, establish it in a real world setting that works and is interesting enough.
[00:52:01] SC: I think so. Then you have these little sort of “escape hatches” within the virtual reality that she discovers. When she finds one of these hatches and she goes down it, it’s almost like going Alice Through the Looking Glass and she ends up — did you ever see the movie 2001?
[00:52:20] TG: No.
[00:52:20] SC: Oh well you should rent it. I mean, it’s a great movie. It’s one of the first crazy science fiction movies Stanley Kubrick. The way he solved this problem was the characters kind of move inside of their brains and it’s really the kind of movie people used to smoke marijuana and go see. And they’d be like, “Wow man, it’s so heavy.”
What he chose to do, Kubrick, was to mix space travel with the space inside somebody’s mind, which is the virtual reality. There’s this one very strange room where this astronaut ends up going and we don’t know why, but it works. So I think your big moment is when she falls down one of these rabbit holes, and who’s there but her brother or maybe it’s the ghost of her brother. We don’t know.
[00:53:14] TG: Yeah, I set that up…
[00:53:15] SC: That place…
[00:53:16] TG: I set that up in the second severing. I can’t remember. I’ve got that mapped out. I’ve been just stuck on what the digital world looks like once she logs in. So being able to establish just a time and place and using that makes sense. Then I like…
[00:53:34] SC: Also think about dream world, the life of dreams.
[00:53:36] TG: Yeah I was thinking of things like Inception too.
[00:53:40] SC: Yeah.
[00:53:40] TG: Have you seen Inception?
[00:53:42] SC: Yeah.
[00:53:43] TG: You know where it’s like, all of a sudden everything goes caddywhompus when the person realizes that they’re in a dream. So yeah, I was thinking those things and I was thinking basically she’s able to naturally find these back doors that everybody else can’t find, and she doesn’t even realize what she’s doing is interesting just because it comes so naturally.
[00:54:07] SC: Let me tell you, just to close this out because this is one of the best dreams I’ve ever heard of.
[00:54:12] TG: Okay.
[00:54:13] SC: This is Steve Pressfield’s dream and it’s just — I tell people this dream all the time because it’s so wonderful. So Steve had this dream years and years ago and he writes about this in The War of Art, and the dream is this: he’s on a ship. He’s on one of those big navy ships, the Destroyer. It’s in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and he’s a sailor on there and they hear, all the guys hear that there is an enemy ship very close by.
All of a sudden they take fire and part of the ship gets hit and Steve, in his dream, was asking the other guys, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” And he’s hearing over and over again from people down the corridors, “Don’t worry about it. Largo’s here. He’s our gunnery sergeant and he’s going to take care of everything.” So Steve, in the dream, is feeling relaxed and he’s like, “Okay good. There’s a gunnery sergeant named Largo who’s going to fix everything, this is going to be great. Everything’s going to be fine.”
So he goes up above deck and he’s going towards the place where the bullet hit, or the missile, and they’re taking on water and he gets up to the place and the captain turns to him, to Steve in his dream, and he says, “What are we going to do, Largo?” And Steve wakes up and he realizes that he was Largo in the dream and that everybody expected him to fix what was going on. And I always love that dream because — and I think if you were able to, if somebody were to use the sensibility of that dream where you think somebody else is going to take care of it and you don’t even know your own name, and to realize that you are the one who’s in charge.
You are the one who’s going to save the day, is so interesting to me. And it was that moment like, Steve the writer, realized that he had to take control of his own life. That he was expecting other people in his life, I mean this isn’t deep, dark, Freudian psychoanalysis, this is Steve waking up from a dream and going, “Man, I’ve got to take care of my own shit. I’m expecting other people to do things for me when I should be doing it myself.”
I always love that dream because it’s so clear and it’s got a great payoff, and it’s fun when you realize, “Oh my gosh, I’m the guy in charge. I’m the one who has to get things done. I’m the one that everybody’s relying on.” To use a dream-like world in a circumstance like that, that pays off tremendously in the story because everybody can relate to that.
[00:56:54] TG: Oh I thought you were telling me that dream because you were saying, “Tim, stop asking me. This is yours to figure out.”
[00:57:04] SC: Well, that’s it. That too.
[00:57:06] TG: Alright, well I’ll get to work and I’ll have something to show you for next week.
[00:57:09] SC: Okay, great.
[END OF EPISODE]
[00:57:11] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.
If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show, and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review. Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.