For those of you keeping score at home, you’ve probably noticed that the titles of our podcast episodes have changed/evolved over the last week or so. The reason being that Tim Grahl is a consummate marketer/tinkerer. He noticed that a few of the episodes weren’t getting the airplay they deserved so he decided to change the titles to reflect what they were all about more directly. And wouldn’t you know it, the stats of the podcast have increased almost 80% since he made those changes.
What I appreciate about Tim is that he doesn’t get all emotionally overheated trying something new. Maybe we didn’t make the best choices with our titling, so let’s try something else. The end. No biggee. That might not seem like a huge competitive marketing advantage…but it is.
Anyway, last week’s transcript is below and for those of you who’d like to listen again you can here:
Tim: Hello, and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, the struggling writer trying to figure out what it means to tell a good story. Shawn Coyne is going to join me soon. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book “The Story Grid,” and he has 25-plus years as an editor, and he shares all of his insights with me so that you and I can learn together.
In this episode, we talk about the Five Commandments of Storytelling. We walk through what each of the commandments is and why every piece that he talks about has to be in every story to make sure it works. It’s a really great episode. I know you’re going to learn a lot. I did while talking through it with Shawn, so we’re just going to jump right in and get started.
Shawn, we’ve finally reached that point in the Story Grid where we have to talk about the Five Commandments of Storytelling. This is feeling very biblical and rule-based. Tell me why you call them the Five Commandments of Storytelling?
Shawn: Well, for that very reason, that it does sound very authoritative and dictatory.
Storytelling really does go back. The mother of all stories is the Bible. The Bible is a great example of classic storytelling. The way we communicate as human beings is through stories, and that’s what separates us from every other living thing.
I use the word “commandments” because they are, in my opinion, holy. They’re mystical. They’re things that are really part of our metaphysical life. I wanted to use the word “commandment” to make the point that these aren’t suggestions.
These are not, “Oh. I’ll take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and it’ll be fine.” No. You have to really take these commandments seriously, because if you don’t, you’re an amateur, you’re not dealing with reality. you’re not dealing with the craft.
They are that important, and it’s really essential that you understand what they are.
Tim: The first one, we actually touched on a few weeks ago. We talked about how you have to have an inciting incident. Why is that the first commandment we come to, that you have to have an inciting incident, or as you put it, “Thou must have an inciting incident”?
Shawn: I’ll use an example here. “It was a dark and stormy night. The wind came out of the west at 26-miles per hour. When the darkness hit Jim Smith, it was really dark. The grass that he was standing on was wet, and the wetness was really wet.”
I could go on and on and on and on with descriptive passages of nothing. An inciting incident, however, can be as simple as “The last camel died at noon.” That’s a very active statement that implies that something has just happened that has up-ended the universe.
The difference is if you don’t have an inciting incident, you’re just basically describing. You’re just writing exposition that nobody cares about.
As we talked about before, inciting incidents can either be causal or coincidence. Causal means it was caused by some person doing something active to another person. Coincidence is something falls out of the sky, or there’s a snowstorm. The universe is behaving indifferently, but up-ending the world of the protagonist or the group of protagonists. Those are the only two ways to have an inciting incident.
The other thing to remember about them is that you intuitively know whether or not you’re cooking with gas when you’re writing. You intuitively know because you have an inciting incident. You start it.
Usually, people, especially Hollywood, talk of what ifs. “What if the President of the United States’ daughter was kidnapped?” That’s an inciting incident. These are global high concepts of Hollywood. This is the trade. This is what they talk about all the time.
A lot of people say, “Oh. I’m not Hollywood. I don’t do high concepts.” Well, you should think in those terms because what those high concepts are are inciting incidents. The book that we went through over the Christmas holiday was “The Martian,” and the high concept was what if somebody gets stranded on Mars? How is he going to survive? That’s a great inciting incident.
Tim: You say that you have to have an inciting incident in every unit of your story – the beat, the scene, the sequence, the act, and the global story.
Tim: Obviously, some of those are going to overlap.
Shawn: Of course, they are. Again, this is also about the whole Russian doll concept that I talk about a lot, which is the beat feeds the scene, which feeds the sequence, which feeds the act, which feeds the beginning hook, middle build, or ending payoff, which feeds the global story. So you can have an inciting incident for the global story that is also the inciting incident of your scene and also the inciting incident of a beat.
You talk about this a lot, Tim, and I can’t agree with you more. What you always say is the way to be the most creative is to put a lot of constraints on yourself. You want to build that box around yourself so that you can find a way to get out of it. But if you don’t have a box, then you’re just spitting into the wind. You don’t know what you’re doing.
When I was writing “The Story Grid,” I was thinking, “Oh, what would be really cool is if I could diagram an entire novel from beat to scene to sequence to act and people would literally see the pyramid that these things all build up to.” Someday, I will do that, but it’s almost obsessive compulsive to a degree that some people would really appreciate but most people would find crazy.
But I may do that because I did spend maybe three days deconstructing the first six or seven scenes of “The Silence of the Lambs” in this way and just going sentence-by-sentence and word-by-word to look at the beat that feeds the scene. It’s fascinating.
This is all to say that you’re correct. Inciting incidents, you don’t have to have a unique one all the time. Intuitively, you’re going to know…
I always talk about the scene as being the primary unit of storytelling for novels and screenplays and plays, etc. – basically all narrative. The scene is really the thing that people… Because we live our lives in scenes. There’s the scene of you when you wake up in the morning going to the gym or taking a shower.
You plot your daily life in terms of scenes. We call them internal checklists of things that we have to get accomplished in a particular day. But if you look at them, you say to yourself, “Oh. That’s the scene where I give my son his evening bath.”
There’s always something that happens in your day that you’re not expecting, so you have to shift your life based upon things that happen to you for good or for ill. That’s why we all connect to the scene so easily, because our days are made up of these little units of scenes.
Tim: Yes. You say here that an inciting incident, what it must do is arouse a reaction by your protagonist. So, we have to have an inciting incident, but are there also good and bad inciting incidents?
Shawn: Oh, sure. Yes. It’s like everyday life. Sometimes the inciting incident is fantastic or it seems to be fantastic – you win the lottery, or you get that great new job, or the woman you’re in love with says that she will marry you. Then there are terrible ones, too – your dog gets hit by a car.
It’s also a good idea to mix them up. You don’t want constant negative and you don’t want constant positive inciting incidents. You want things that are dynamic.
Tim: Mixing it up and stuff, that leads to commandment number two. You say that the conflict has to escalate that the protagonist is facing.
Tim: Does that mean it has to get worse and worse and worse and worse?
Shawn: No, not exactly. What it means it that has to get complicated, progressively complicated. It can complicate positively and negatively. I’m just going to try off the top of my head to think of some kind of scenario that will explain this.
Say you wake up in the morning and you have a plan to go to the gym at 5:00 in the morning – you want to get it over with – so you set your alarm for 4:30 the night before. But what often happens is your alarm doesn’t go off for some reason. You screwed up the way you did it. It goes off at 6:30, so you wake up and you’re an hour and a half behind schedule.
That’s a negative complication to your plan, and it’s an inciting incident, too. So, what are you going to do? Do you skip the gym, or do you rush to the gym and try to get it in before your first 9:00 appointment?
Tim: You absolutely skip it. That’s what you do.
Shawn: Let’s say you’re crazy, and you decide to run to the gym and get it over with. When you get to the gym, you say to yourself, “I’m going to cut my usual workout of 45 minutes down to 20 minutes. Do I do the cardio, or do I do weights?”
Then you notice that all the cardio machines that you like the best are taken, so there you go. You have to shift your want. You want to do cardio, but now you’re going to have to do weights, so you do the weights.
Then as you’re getting done with the weights, you go into the locker room to get ready to go to work, and all the water is out. Now, this happens all the time in Manhattan, by the way. All the hot water is gone, so now you have to make another choice. Do I rush home and try to take a shower, or do I go to my first appointment and hope that they don’t notice that I haven’t showered? That’s a negative.
But just as you’re about to make that decision, the hot water turns back on. That’s a positive, and things are getting better for you. You do get the shower. Then when you do get to the meeting, the guy doesn’t show up on time, so you have a few more minutes to check your e-mail and get everything straight and get your head cleared before your meeting. That’s another positive thing. These are the kinds of things that happen to you every day.
Now, you can’t build an entire novel based upon these inane happenstances of everyday life because you’re going to bore the hell out of your reader. But these are the things that you should think about when you’re thinking about complicating progressively the day’s events or the time period’s events of your lead character. You need things to happen for good and for ill, and they have to get worse or better.
You can’t go back. For example, I write in the book about a lot of people… This happens when you’re an agent or a publisher. You get submissions from people whose books start out really well. It begins like this.
Jim Smith gets a job. It’s his dream job, and it’s fantastic. It’s a really good start to the narrative. Then he loses the job. Then he gets another job that’s just as good as the other one, and then he loses that job. Then he gets another job. You have the three similar things, complications, that happen again and again and again.
A lot of writers will say to you, “Oh, well, the first job wasn’t as good as the second job, so I did progressively complicate it.” The answer to that is no, you didn’t. You just used the exact same mechanism and changed the parameters. Oh, it’s a little bit better job.
It is not interesting to a reader to repeat or go back in escalation of tension. You have to constantly be raising the stakes to these major movements in your story so that there are climactic moments that change everything.
Tim: When I hear the word “complicate,” that’s bad. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around it. You said, “The stakes have to get bigger.” The choices matter more and more each time?
Shawn: Yes, exactly. The choice between whether or not you’re going to take a shower at the beginning of your story has to escalate to whether or not you’re going to steal from your employer to be able to make your rent. Do you know where I’m going here?
Tim: The consequences of your decision.
Shawn: Yes. In the book, I come up with this power of ten. When I analyze a story, I’ll assign a number between one and ten to the reversibility of the decision. What the reversibility means is is the character going to be able to be okay? Can they reverse their decision? What are the consequences if they can’t?
Can you reverse the decision? One example I use in the book is this. You’re at a party. Your friend is drinking too much, and you have to make a decision. Am I going to take his car keys and not let him drive and possibly save not only his life but other people’s lives, or am I going to not have the courage to get into a verbal confrontation with the guy because drunks always think that they’re fine?
No matter what anybody says, if they’ve been drinking, and you say, “You’ve been drinking too much, and I don’t think you should drive home,” a drunk is always going to say, “No. I’m fine. Seriously, I’m totally fine.”
They’ll slur their words. It’s just what you do when you drink too much. That’s why you should never drink and drive. That’s why you should always, if you’re going to a party, go with a friend and make sure you have a ride home.
Anyway, the point of it is that if that person goes and drives and gets killed in a car accident, you cannot reverse that decision. You cannot reverse the decision of not taking the keys away.
But a lesser decision would be at first, you say to yourself, “I think he’s only had a beer, maybe a beer and a half. I’m not going to confront him about it.” But then you see he has another beer. You can reverse that decision. You can say, “Oh. I see he’s already had another beer. Now is the time for me to go talk to him.”
That’s a reversible decision. The other one is irreversible.
Tim: In general, at the beginning of my story, I start with reversible decisions and move closer and closer to irreversible decisions?
Shawn: Well, you want to mix it up, and you also want to save those irreversible decisions. Those are the ones where the stakes are very high.
Tim: If the protagonist has to choose between saving his son or his wife, and that’s in the second scene, and that’s the worse decision he has to make in the book, that’s a problem.
Shawn: Yes. For example, William Styron didn’t have Sophie make the choice between her daughter or her son at the beginning of the novel. You spend 400 pages reading that brilliant novel to discover what Sophie’s choice actually was. He didn’t just drop that bomb on page one. That’s the climax of the entire novel.
If you think of a great irreversible conundrum, use it for the major points in your story. Don’t blow them early on. Yes, you’re going to hook somebody with an irreversible decision at the very beginning of the book, but save the really amazing ones for the climax of your middle build and ultimately, the climax of your entire global story.
You don’t want a reversible decision at the very end of your story because then you know what will happen? People will be really bummed out. You’re going to bum out your reader if they can reverse the decision at the very end of the story.
Tim: So, you do want an irreversible decision at the end?
Shawn: Yes, you do.
Tim: So, when I’m progressively complicating the story, I’m constantly moving towards… I’m trying to say this in a way where I actually understand what’s going on. At the beginning, we want to grab them with something.
Back to “The Martian” that we went over last week. An irreversible decision was that they left Mark Watney behind.
Shawn: No, because they went back for him. An irreversible decision in “The Martian” is when Mark Watney lights the match to start the hydrazine drip. You can’t stop the fire.
Tim: But then the downside was much lower than the decisions he had to make later in the book.
Shawn: That’s right.
Tim: Maybe I said it already, but the consequences of the decision continue to grow and grow and grow.
Shawn: Yes. They still have to be high. We talked about this in “The Martian.” There are two major explosions in the book. There actually might be even more than that. I think there’s probably three or four.
Now, the first explosion that is critical is the one where he discovers that he’s been breathing too much oxygen into the air, he does a miscalculation, and he almost blows himself up at the very beginning of the book.
One of the climaxes of the ending payoff is when the captain discovers that the only way that she’s going to be able to slow down the ship is to rig an explosion on the spaceship to stop the momentum so that they can slow down to pick up Mark Watney.
That’s an irreversible decision, too, but it’s at a much higher level because there are more lives at stake, right?
Shawn: The only life at stake at the very beginning is Mark, and that’s an irreversible dangerous decision that’s actually the climax of the beginning hook of the story.
Now, very much later on, there’s an explosion on that ship, which is irreversible. That is a much higher level of stakes because six people could die as opposed to just one, and it’s a completely different kind of explosion. It’s the same mechanism, but it’s not like a new job; it’s a completely different reason.
The one explosion is to generate water to make food. The other explosion is to slow a spaceship down. So while they’re both explosions, they’re different because of the stakes.
Tim: That’s what builds throughout the book.
Tim: So if those were opposite, where there was this major decision to blow up the spaceship early in the book, and then at the end was to get water, it would feel off. It would feel counterbalanced the wrong way.
Shawn: Yes, it would feel like… And I’m sure you’ve had this experience. I’ve had it a lot where a book starts out like a bat out of hell and then it just fizzes into who cares? I don’t want to give any examples. I can’t really think of one off the top of my head, and that’s a good thing. Usually the minute it starts to fizz, you throw the book out. You stop reading.
Tim: Yes. I started a while ago, giving myself permission to stop reading sooner than later.
Shawn: Yes. There’s just too much other stuff to read.
Tim: You give the little buddy of commandment number two. It’s about turning points. Is it every scene has to have a turning point?
Tim: Talk about what a turning point is.
Shawn: The turning point and the climax are similar. I’m going to have to reference my own book.
Here’s the situation with turning points. Turning points are the moments when the scene and the polarity of the story shifts dramatically. When we talk about polar values in a scene, something like life to death. At the beginning of a scene, somebody is alive, and then something happens, and they’re either threatened with death or they die.
That’s a turning point. It’s that moment where things move drastically from the value of life to death. I give an example in the book about a great scene in Zero Dark Thirty, which is that wonderful movie about finding and assassinating Osama bin Laden. There’s a scene in there where the lead character, played by Jessica Chastain, goes out finally. She’s obsessively trying to find the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.
One night, she’s asked by one of her friends in the CIA to have dinner at the hotel in Pakistan, I think. It’s the only western hotel around, so she reluctantly decides, “I should really make friends here. There aren’t many women in the CIA. This woman’s really nice. I’m going to go.”
The scene opens with the friend waiting expectantly at the hotel. The set up for the scene for the viewer is like, “Oh. This is going to be one of those really soft, really nice scenes where two people get to know each other, and it’s going to be a girl-talk thing where they talk about the misogynists in the CIA and how tough it is.” As a reader or a viewer, you’re expecting a certain kind of scene.
Finally, Jessica Chastain arrives. There’s some tension. There’s some conflict because the other woman had to wait for her. They decide to have a glass of wine. They start to talk. Things are chilling out, and then – bang! – there’s an explosion.
That is the turning point of that scene. It’s a complete reversal of the expectation of the audience. We’re expecting a particular kind of soft scene, and then all of a sudden, in action, it completely changes the tenor of the scene. This is a scene that’s now about life and death, and are they going to escape the firestorm that comes off this explosion?
The turning point there is the moment when that thing goes off. That is an active turning point – meaning, something happens. That’s one kind of turning point.
The other kind of turning point is through what I call revelation. I think we were talking a couple of weeks ago about one of your scenes where you wanted to get in all this information, all this exposition in your scene I think it was on the boat.
One of the things I mentioned to you is something that Robert McKee talks about, which is exposition is ammunition. The way to turn a scene sometimes – and usually, this is deep into the story – is to use a revelation of something that all the characters know but the audience, the reader, doesn’t. It’s like an exposition fact.
The classic example is from Chinatown when Jake Gittes goes to confront the femme fatale of the story, Evelyn Mulwray. He believes that she has kidnapped this young girl, who was the lover of her now dead husband. He confronts her, and he says, “Who’s the girl?”
Evelyn Mulwray says, “She’s my sister.”
He slaps her. He says, “No. Tell me for truth.”
She says, “She’s my daughter.”
He slaps her again and says, “No. That’s not the truth. Tell me the truth.”
She looks at him, and she says, “She’s my sister and my daughter.”
That completely not only turns that scene, it turns the entire story. This is the revelatory moment of the movie, and it’s exposition as ammunition. We finally spin back, and we discover that this poor woman was raped by her father, gave birth to her sister, and is now protecting her sister from the wrath and pedophilia of her father. It makes that story just grab you in the gut.
That’s a revelatory turning point that changes the complete tenor of the scene and the tenor of the entire story in a way that is so surprising but inevitable. Once you think about it and you think about all the things that happened prior to that moment, it all spins back, and you say to yourself, “Oh, my gosh. Of course.”
That’s what storytelling is. It’s something that’s surprising but inevitable.
Tim: I feel like it’s easy in a way to come up with these big examples. But with 60-something scenes in a book, not every one of them can be like, “Oh, she’s my sister and my daughter.”
Shawn: No, of course not.
Tim: Give examples of what smaller turns would be in the in-between scenes. Does that make sense?
Shawn: Yes, it does.
Tim: Or am I asking the wrong question?
Shawn: No. Here’s a revelatory turning point that we talked about a second ago. It’s the guy who is at the gym, who discovers that the hot water is out. That’s a turning point.
Tim: Say that’s leading to the point where he steps out in the street and gets hit by a cab, and if the hot water had not been out, he wouldn’t have got hit by the cab. But in that previous scene, the water being out and him having to make a different decision, that’s the turning point?
Shawn: Yes, exactly. That’s like a revelatory turning point, where you discover, “Oh, what I was expecting is not the truth.” You’re confronted with a truth that isn’t an expectation of what the truth will be.
An active turning point is he goes to take his shower, and on his way, somebody trips him, he falls and is knocked unconscious. That would be an active turning point because the reader is not expecting him to trip and fall on his way to the shower, but there’s somebody there who trips him, so that actively changes the polarity of the scene. Does that make sense?
Tim: Yes. Why do you put commandment two, and then the little buddy of commandment two…? Why do you have to progressively complicate, and then the little buddy is every scene has to have a turning point? Why do you put those two together?
Shawn: In order to complicate, you need to turn it. The way to turn it is through revelation or action.
It’s a little buddy that helps you… If you say to yourself, “If I’m progressively complicating and I don’t know how to do it and I don’t know whether or not these are being progressive or not,” then you ask yourself a question, “Is this a reversible decision or an irreversible decision? How have I turned this scene? Is this scene being turned by revelation, or is it being turned by action? Are these revelations or actions reversible? To what degree?”
These are all ways of taking a look at the anatomy of your story, assigning a power of ten to the reversibility of a particular scene and its turn, and then you can say, “Oh. I’ve got this scene is a two. It’s completely reversible. The stakes aren’t that high. This scene is a four. Four after the two sounds like a good progression. The next one is a five, the next one is a six, and on and on and on.”
You don’t want to go from two, to four, to two.
Tim: These sound like the questions you should be asking after its all written and you’re going back and looking at each scene. While you’re writing, could you just start out saying, “Halfway through this scene, what are people expecting it to do, and could I do the opposite?”
Shawn: Exactly. “What would a normal person listening to this story expect to happen next?” You can usually answer that question because it’s usually the first thing off the top of your head that you’re going to do. If you’re planning your story and you’ve written a great scene, and you go, “Oh. The next thing I’ll do is I’ll have the scene where the car chase happens.” You can count on it that everybody who starts to read your story is going to expect to see a car chase in that next scene.
What you do is you don’t do the car chase, or you hide the car chase in another way. Like they did in Zero Dark Thirty, if they set up a scene that looks like it’s going to be an intimate dialog exposition scene between two women, they zag it, and they turn that scene into a very active explosive moment.
These are ways to think about when you’re writing, that first instinct you have, live with it, and then say, “How can I make this unpredictable? How can I innovate this so that it’s going to surprise the reader, but it’s also going to be progressively moving my story forward?”
Tim: Can you do the opposite? With the scene where it seems like it’s going to be this easy conversational scene and a bomb goes off, can you do the opposite – where I’m thinking a bomb is about to go off, and then it fizzles?
Maybe I’m getting too much in the weeds, but I’m trying to think of all the different ways I can look at a scene.
Shawn: There’s a great moment in Star Wars that describes that very thing. It’s that moment when Han Solo is confronted by the guy with the scimitar. The guy with the scimitar starts wheeling around that thing, and he’s six foot nine… Not Han Solo. I’m sorry. This is Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Tim: I was like, “I don’t remember that scene in Star Wars.” You got the actor right, though.
Shawn: I was thinking of Harrison Ford. It’s not Han Solo; it’s Indiana Jones.
Yes, the guy with the scimitar, and Indiana Jones just takes out a gun and shoots him. It’s funny because you’re expecting this big hand-to-hand combat. Instead, it’s like, “Oh, geez. I’m going to just shoot this guy.”
Tim: Have you heard the story of that scene?
Shawn: Yes, I love that. Tell it again.
Tim: He’s got some kind of stomach bug because they’re out in some country and the food is messing with him. It was something like that, and so he’s been really sick. It was supposed to be this whole scene where he pulls out his whip, and he does this big fight thing where he’s fighting the guy with the sword. But he felt so bad that, as a joke, he took out his gun and shot the guy, and it was so funny; they left it in the movie. They ended up putting it in the movie.
Shawn: I love that. That’s why Spielberg is such a genius director. He always finds that little way of tweaking the action either through a point-of-view shot or something that is unexpected.
Tim: Did you ever read that – it came out last year or the year before – that they found a recording of Spielberg actually coming up with Indiana Jones? Did you read that?
Shawn: No, wow.
Tim: If I can’t find it, I know a buddy who will have it, and I’ll put it in the show notes. It’s really fascinating because they were talking about, “Well, he can’t be perfect. He has to have these things. It would be cool if he carried around a whip. That would be cool.”
It was this look at like, “Oh, the magic gods don’t come down and just download this into Spielberg’s brain either.” He actually has to work through and come up with this stuff. You have this idea of that character is so perfect, as well.
Again, I was having a discussion with a friend a while ago, and he makes films. He said, “The problem is that the film, people think it’s easy to do this,” and I said something like, “I think the mark of doing something well is that from the outside, it looks easy.”
Tim: When you look at Indiana Jones, you’re like, “Of course, he’s this way.” But to actually hear Spielberg – I forget who he was having the discussion with – actually banter back and forth and form this character is really interesting.
Shawn: Yes. That’s an example of a story that feels like, “Oh, yes. I know this story,” because it’s so familiar, and yet so innovative. What he did is he took the beauty of those old serials from the 1940s, he put a new spin on it, he got a great lead character, and he added that three-headed villain of the Nazis. Oh, it was so good. That’s such a great movie.
Tim: Yes. It makes me want to go watch them again.
Shawn: I know. I want to go watch it now.
Tim: Let’s keep going here. We’re two commandments in. Your third commandment is “Thou must have a crisis.” Talk about that a little bit.
Shawn: The crisis is the deliberation moment. It’s the deliberation where the lead character or the character that you’re featuring in the particular scene has to face a dilemma. I always boil down the crisis into a question, and the question is between irreconcilable goods or the best bad decision. You’re beginning with an inciting incident that throws the lead character’s life out of balance, and it progressively complicates to the point where they have a crisis question that they have to answer.
A while back, we were talking about “Kramer vs. Kramer.” The crisis question that he faces early on in the story is “Do I continue on my professional path and become a bigshot CEO of an advertising agency, or do I take a lesser job so that I can spend more time with my kid?”
That’s a best bad choice situation from his point of view. “If I don’t pursue the big job, I’m not going to feel very self-fulfilled perhaps, and if I don’t spend any time with my kid, my kid is going to feel abandoned.” There are two bad situations there. “If I choose for myself, my kid suffers. If I choose for my kid, I suffer.”
That is a crisis, and the choice that he makes is the choice that shows his character. His active choices show who he is. It’s not what anybody says; it’s what they do.
The crisis is a crucial moment, and you have to be very clear in your mind. You don’t have to explicitly have dialogue. You never hear in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer or in the book, “Oh, do I do this, or do I do that? Hmm, let me think.” They don’t do that. It’s implicit in the setup of the story.
That’s where the turning point comes in. It brings in the boil of the revelation or the action that forces that choice on the character. They’re confronted with the crisis.
Again, there are irreconcilable goods and there are best bad choices. A lot of people get confused by these. My advice is you can look at any situation in one of two ways. You can look at it as a best bad choice situation or irreconcilable goods. It just depends. But basically, somebody has to lose. Somebody has to lose something. Somebody has to win something and the other person has to lose.
In “Kramer vs. Kramer,” he believes that he’s losing when he makes the choice to take a lousy job so that he can pick up his kid at school, and the kid wins because now, he has his dad picking him up at school and not just a nanny.
Tim: So, in that Zero Dark Thirty example, the bomb going off would be the turning point, and then what she decides to do next, is that the crisis?
Shawn: The crisis of that situation is “What do I do now? Do I run for my life and forget about this new-found friend, or do I try and help her get out, too? Do I help other people who are in this café who were hit with shrapnel? What do I do?” What’s the crisis? “What’s good for me? What’s good for other people? What choice am I going to make?”
The choice that the two of them make is that they help each other out. Together, they find the passageway out, and they help other people get out, too. That crisis situation is all about “Do I take care of myself first, or do I help other people first?” The choices that those two characters make tell us about who they are.
These are two women who are going to fight the world together. They’re going to find the way out together. That active choice of the blow up of the hotel shows who those women are. All that talk that we were expecting at their dinner doesn’t matter at all. They could say, “Oh, well. I really just have to take care of myself and my own career.” But when that bomb goes off, the two of them get to work, and they help each other get out.
Tim: That’s where we’ve talked about how you see who a character is by what they do.
Shawn: Exactly. A lot of people love to put down words and dialogue and exposition and say, “He wasn’t the kind of man who would do this.” Don’t do that. Have them actively make choices and have those choices show the reader who they are, not tell them who they are.
Here’s another example I always talk about. Years ago, there was a hockey player. I forget who it was, but he was brought up on charges by his wife or his companion for spousal abuse. It was all over the news, and there were photos. The poor woman had bruises all over her.
He does this press conference, and the first thing he says is, “I’m not the kind of man who beats his wife.” It’s like, “No. You are.” You obviously are the kind of man who beats his wife because there’s evidence that shows that he is.
He doesn’t, in his heart of hearts, see himself as the kind of person who would hit his wife, but in actuality, he is. His actions show who he is, not his words. We’re all liars, and we all think we’re different than who we really are. It’s our actions that speak for us.
I can say to you, “Tim, I’m really courageous. I’m not afraid of anything.” But if an alarm goes off and I’m the first guy to run out of the movie theater, who do you think is all that courageous? I can say that until I’m blue in the face, but my actions speak louder than anything I might have said.
That’s such an obvious point, but you have to remember this as a writer because a lot of times, we think that, “Oh. Well, I had the character say that he stands for justice,” but that doesn’t mean anything.
A lot of people say I stand up for justice, and they’re the first ones to run when any kind of injustice happens. They’re not going to stand for justice if it means that they’re going to lose something for that.
Tim: Stringing these together so far, we have the inciting incident that happens at the beginning. I’m going to look at the scene. We have an inciting incident that throws something out of whack, and the progressive complications are basically me trying to get back what I lost with the inciting incident.
Shawn: Yes. We don’t like to change, so we always come up with these strategies that will get us back to equilibrium. When we can’t get the shower, we think, “Well, when am I going to shower later?” How am I going to get back to equilibrium?
I like to shower at least twice a day. I like to shower in the morning and then after I workout in the afternoon. If I miss one of those showers, I try to make up for it, and if I don’t get to have that shower, I don’t feel right. I want to get back to equilibrium.
Tim: It almost sounds like these progressive complications build and build until the turning point is almost like, “I can’t take this anymore. Something has to give.” The progressive complications build towards this point where it’s like, “Look. Something happens that finally puts me over the edge where I now am facing a decision that I have to figure out what I’m going to do.
I’ve been thinking about the rewrite of my scene on the boat where the protagonist and the boat captain are arguing over whether or not to go back. They keep bouncing back and forth on this thing, and it keeps getting complicated and more complicated. Then the wife walks in and forces a decision. That’s the turning point when she walks in.
Tim: That leads us to commandment number four, which is the climax. There has to be a climax where there is an active answer to the question raised by the crisis.
Shawn: Yes, exactly. The climax is what they do, the decision they make, and how they actively make that choice.
A lot of people get confused by this because sometimes, you have a character like Hamlet, who actively chooses not to do anything – meaning, they refuse to choose. This is strange, but that is a choice. That is a choice that says something about the character. It shows their character. Their inability to make a choice is a choice.
That is a very important point because if you’re going to make that choice as a writer to have one of your characters refuse to make a choice, that’s a perfectly valid decision, but you need to know that you’ve made that choice.
If you just skip it or it’s out of character for something that you’re trying to create long term, it’s going to feel weird, and it’s not going to resolve the scene in a way that’s organic and feels correct.
That’s a little in the air, and it’s hard for me not to come up with specificity. The whole play “Hamlet” is a process of this guy refusing to confront his stepfather who murdered his father. He’s supposed to go and get some vengeance, man. Take out that guy. He killed your father, and he took your mother away from your father. Go kill the guy.
But the whole play is about him, “I don’t know. Should I do it or shouldn’t I do it? I don’t know.”
Tim: I’m kind of getting stuck. The fifth commandment is that you have a resolution. Those are the five parts of the story now. We have the inciting incident, the progressive complications, the climax, crisis, and then the resolution.
You’re saying that every part of your story has to have that?
Tim: What about…? We talked before cliffhanging. There’s this one author I love. I’ve mentioned him before. His name is Brent Weeks. One of the reasons I like him so much is so many of his scenes end in a cliffhanger. To me, the cliffhanger is reaching the crisis and then stopping.
Shawn: Yes, but he picks up later. The scene ends.
Tim: It’s out of order now, though, right? So then you have climax, resolution, inciting incident, progressive complications, and crisis if you end in another cliffhanger. Does that make sense? That’s what I’m asking.
You’re saying that every scene has to have all five pieces. They’re your commandments. My scene has an inciting incident, progressive complication, crisis, and then ends. Am I thinking too literal about what a scene is?
Shawn: It doesn’t end. Here’s the structure of a cliffhanger. You’re correct. You have an inciting incident, it progressively complicates to a crisis. These are like Batman scenes. Is Batman going to get out of the quicksand before he dies? These old Batman shows – when I was a kid – would always end on a cliffhanger. Now, the next episode would be the climax from the previous scene and the resolution, how Batman got out of the quicksand, and then it resolves. He gets out of the quicksand, and now, he’s going to go chase the Riddler. All that is is an editing technique.
You can do cliffhangers if you have multiple strands of story, if you have subplots. One of the things I suggested in your story is to use the technique of time. You have a front story and a back story. You have, say, a sole survivor of a terrible tragedy, who’s being interviewed by the police department or her psychiatrist or whoever, and so use the narrative device of this interview.
This is what True Detective did so well in that first season. You use that narrative device, and then you can set up cliffhangers in that particular interview sequence, and then flash back to a previous time period or flash forward. The Usual Suspects, that’s another example of this technique.
Tim: So, when you’re saying, “scene,” that doesn’t mean the scene can’t be interrupted.
Shawn: That’s correct. It can always be interrupted.
Tim: I guess I’m being extremely literal, like a scene is chapter one. That’s a scene, and then chapter two is the next scene. Basically, now, what a scene is is anything that has those five pieces.
Shawn: Yes, and it has a linearity to it. There’s a beginning, there’s a middle, and there’s an end. The beginning is the inciting incident, the middle are the progressive complications leading to the crisis, which goes to the climax, and then the resolution is the ending pay off, what happens after the active climax.
Resolutions are really important to have. For example, we talked about “The Martian.” At the end of the story, he has a moment on the park bench or something like that, where the kid comes and asks him if he’s ever going to go back to Mars.
You said, “I’m not really sure why he added that.” Well, you needed to come down from the climax of the story in a way that settles you as a reader. You need to know, “Okay, he’s back on Earth. He’s reflecting back on what happened to him. He says he’s never going to go back.” Great. Now, I’ve metabolized the story, and I can move on with my life.
Those resolutions are really important because if you just end on the climax and the action, there’s a certain sense of, “Oh, I don’t know what’s going to happen” The resolutions are important because it’s necessary for the reader or for the viewer to get an end to the anxiety. It’s a way of coming down from the sugar high of the story.
Tim: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. I hope you enjoyed walking through the Five Commandments of Storytelling alongside me and that it helps your writing become better than ever.
If you missed the last episode, you’re going to want to go back and listen to that. That’s where we take the movie The Martian, the book “The Martian,” and the book “A Christmas Carol,” and run them through The Story Grid method. It was a lot of fun. Make sure you go back and listen to that one.
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