Non-fiction Conventions and Obligatory Scenes

If you’ve been around Story Grid very long you know that understanding your genre is job one for any manuscript. Then, once you know that, you identify the conventions and obligatory scenes that go with your chosen genre.

The same is true for non-fiction.

In this week’s episode, Shawn and I talk through the conventions and obligatory scenes for the non-fiction, big idea genre.


[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 continue talking about nonfiction and how to come up with the theme for your nonfiction, how to edit it and a lot in this episode is talking about the conventions and obligatory scenes of your nonfiction work.

It’s a really great episode, I think you’ll get a lot out of it even if you’re not writing much nonfiction, it’s nice to hear the same ideas from a different standpoint. Let’s jump in and get started.

[EPISODE]

[0:00:52.3] TG: Shawn, last week, we looked at the six story grid questions as it relates to nonfiction. Specifically, the book I’m working on and I got some more feedback in some other places about the book and you know, we were talking about it and you know, I think it’s good to step back again and talk about the difference between a how to book and a big idea book.

Because, you know, some of the advice I got was you know, basically rearranging the book so it makes more sense and I was kind of like okay, I could do that and make it flow a little better and then when I sent that feedback to you, you’re like, well this is still trying to make the book a how to book not a big idea book.

Then I spent a little time, I wrote probably a thousand words, some of it answering the questions, the six questions and a bulk of it just kind of freewriting about the book kind of flailing around trying to figure out exactly what it is I’m trying to say with it and still struggling with that.

Anyway, I’d like you to just talk a little bit more about like the difference between a how to book and a big idea book and like examples of each. Because before, you had said, this would be like a how to gardening book, you know, step by step, how to garden. Then you mentioned getting things done which you know, would you call that a how to book?

Because that also seems like he has a particular thing like idea that he’s bringing to getting things done. Anyway, just curious if you could talk a little bit more about the difference in how you see them?

[0:02:44.4] SC: Okay, well, one of the things to always remember is categorizing stories and all that stuff. It’s an important method you know, to do, to be able to help somebody make their story better but it’s also a little bit squishy, meaning some how to books have elements of big idea.

Big idea always has self-help elements within it. The big difference for me and the way I look at how to and the way I look at big idea is this. How to is sort of an expert advice. If somebody is you know, an expert at creating – there’s that square foot gardening book I bought and I forget the name of the man who wrote it and I think he passed away recently.

He came up with this idea of how to get the most food out of specific plot of land and the best thing to do is have raised planters instead of digging into the ground. Anyway, he positions himself as an expert because he’s been you know, working on farming his entire life and he came up with this theory, he tested the theory, he lived by the theory and he presents his findings on how to grow a garden with that point of view.

The point of view is, I know this better than anyone else and here is what I do and what you should do if you want to raise the most food per square foot. He positions himself as an expert, it’s almost – it’s a god like point of view meaning he’s not going to give you all the other information that other experts might have, he’s going to say to you, do it my way and you will be rewarded.

That’s how we are attracted to how to books because we don’t have to hear all of the theories and all of the stuff that he’s learned or she’s learned to – they boil everything down into a very step by step process that teaches you how to do something.

The point of view of how to is very much expert driven. Robert McKee’s book story. It’s not really a how to book but it gives you the very specific, grand ideas about story structure and it’s indispensable and he’s an expert. He’s been studying this stuff for decades and decades and when you read his book, hiss writing is very much from the point of view of an expert as it should be.

That’s what how to is. It isn’t adding a lot of evidence from other sources, it’s not telling stories about how you came to the idea, it’s just the facts ma’am, it’s just – this is the program, do this and you know, you should be able to be successful like the writer.

Now, how to books are terrific, everybody loves them you know? I have nothing against how to books, I think they’re really important but in my stage in my career as an editor, they’re not that exciting to work on. As you mentioned, I think it’s a lot of detail work about what the best presentation of the information is, the most useful, the best structure and it’s very bang, bang, bang, the end.

Now, what a big idea book is, is something different. A big idea book has all kinds of levels of investigation. It’s a story. Remember when I said, you know, months and months ago about big idea is that it combines the other three huge categories of nonfiction that I laid out.

Academic, how to and narrative nonfiction and we’ll get into it in a minute how it does that but big idea is not “my gosh, here’s exactly what you have to do, do it”. It’s very much an investigation, the writer and the point of view is more equal to the reader.

Malcolm Gladwell is a perfect example of somebody who has perfected his point of view. His point of view is hey, I’m Malcolm Gladwell, I like to read stuff and I like to think about things and let me tell you what happened to me when I was investigating this thing that was curious.

It’s almost like a friend at a coffee shop telling you something that they have discovered. They’re not an expert, they are enjoying the journey of discovery. In that journey of discovery, it leads to the proof or the belief in a big idea.

The big idea is about one central blatant idea that the writer usually tells a reader right upfront at the beginning hook of their book and I always like to think a big idea’s as things that are counter to popular belief.

Usually it’s debunking something that somebody – that all of us believe. Then, the middle of the big idea is actually proving and investigating why the writer has come to that conclusion. It’s not talking down to the reader saying, this is what you have to do in order to get things, what it does is it explains.

Here’s what I was thinking about this idea. In order to test my ideas about it, I went and I talked to this person or I read this article from Psychology Today and this is what these famous psychologist at Stanford have found and then they tell a short story that outlines the entire paper of a psychology experiment.

After you – when you’re reading that, it’s very fascinating and interesting and you’re on an adventure, you’re on an intellectual adventure. The big idea is different than how to primarily because of the attitude of and the point of view of the narrator.

It’s sort of, it’s not didactic, it’s very much using all of the tools available to persuade the reader of the validity of the idea. I know I’m talking in like very general concepts.

[0:10:15.8] TG: No, but this is helpful, I feel like it’s you know, I have to be told something like eight times before I finally understand what’s being said. I think this is helpful to hear it again and you know, kind of a different view point.

[0:10:30.5] SC: Well, just to be a little bit more specific. When you sent me the notes of your friend who read your book and had some really good points in his notes, what his notes struck me as was someone who immediately said, what’s on the page right now for Tim is a how to book.

I’m going to give him notes about how to write a better how to book. Yeah, that’s perfectly reasonable and that’s sort of what you would expect from – if you were to hire a freelance editor. What interests me though is not so much what’s on the page, what interests me as an editor is what compelled the writer to write the damn thing in the first place.

A lot of times, a writer, I include myself when I write my own stuff, you’re really not sure what it is that compelled you to write this stuff right?

[0:11:39.8] TG: Right.

[0:11:40.6] SC: I think yeah, you can fix and polish the apple until whatever it is that you cranked out is done and it’s over and you know, here’s my how to book about how to be creative and that’s perfectly fine. The shelves are filled with books like that and often times, what we do, if we buy a how to book on how to be creative and it doesn’t work for us, we go, I’ll just buy another one because somebody else has a different how to approach.

That’s the reason why there are so many different kinds of how to books on being creative, how to write, well, there’s this method, and this method, and this method. What happens is a lot of people just sort of go through a million of them until they find the program that works for them.

But, that personally, that kind of book, publishing that book or editing that kind of book is not as interesting to me as a big idea book. A big idea book results from self-examination. What meaning, why does the writer want to write the book in the first place, what is it going to give them, what is it going to bring to them, what are they trying to communicate to a larger audience?

To create something is, it’s not just about here’s the thing, it’s done, let me polish it up and then I’ll get it out in the world. Yeah, sure, you can do that. A lot of people do that and there’s nothing wrong with that. At my stage in my career, I’d rather investigate with the writer why they’re writing something in the first place.

That’s why I’m hammering home to you why I think you should pursue a big idea book. Not just a how to book because the Grahl method, you know, it connotes a how to book. Do it like I did it and maybe it will work for you and if it doesn’t work for you, sorry.

I think that a big idea book, it provides a lot of the things in a how to book. It does give practical advice. Steven Presfield’s The War of Art, that’s a big idea book with a lot of practical advice in there too.

He talks about beginnings, middles and ends. He talks about staying away from relationships that are going to suck you dry so you’re incapable of doing any work. He gives all kinds of advice in that book but it’s not about this is you know, just do this and you know, you’ll beat resistance and everything will be fine.

I think part of what attracted you to the subject matter was Steve’s decision not to sort of give a very straight forward program. That’s why when I begin an editing project, I don’t just go, well why don’t you move this over here and that over there and everything should look like this and that and I don’t immediately do that because that’s micro editing.

I don’t want to micro edit until you know, the whole thing is figured out. The most difficult thing to do is to be very clear about your intentions of your book and if you can be very clear about what you’re going to give the reader, very early on in your nonfiction, the reader is going to be super engaged by that because if you’re very clear and say, you know what I’m going to do? Is I’m going to investigate what makes things become hugely popular, seemingly overnight. That’s what Malcolm Gladwell promised in The Tipping Point.

That’s interesting to everybody because everybody would love to create something that becomes hugely successful overnight. And we’ll get in to that promise that he makes at the beginning of The Tipping Point and how he delivers on that promise, he does tell you the methodology and the way things catch on in the book.

But it doesn’t end with – so there you have it, that’s how you do it. It ends with a paradox. Okay, now that you know that things can become very popular very quickly through these methods, you have to make some decisions about whether or not, what you want to become popular should really be popular.

You have to think about contagious ideas and about whether or not unleashing one into the world will end up being a good thing or a bad thing. Because ideas are contagious. At the very end of the book, Gladwell sites, he studies when popular people in the media or in movies commit suicide and it’s widely publicized in newspapers.

Guess what happens? The suicide rate skyrockets. People feel as if, since somebody famous decided to take their own life, now, maybe I have permission to do it myself. Ideas are very contagious.

Tipping points are very – you have to be very careful about them. The promise he makes at the beginning of the book ends up with a different payoff that is extremely meaningful and a wonderful – that book is extremely well written, it reads like an adventure story and it ends with something surprising but inevitable. That’s why I think big idea books and projects are really – they’re really great to work on because it makes you be very clear about your intentions.

Your intentions beyond just, “Oh I want to write a book”.

[0:18:06.5] TG: I want to plug a book while asking a question about it. Ryan Holiday’s new book, The Perennial Seller, I’m almost, I’m going through it, would you – because you read a version of that right? One of the drafts.

[0:18:19.9] SC: Yeah, Ryan and I had talked about that concept for I don’t know, four years and I didn’t write the book with him in any way, shape or form, the book is all his work. Yeah, I think he did a really terrific job and he did what – he took a big idea and he delivered a paradox at the end too. Anyway. What was your question?

[0:18:47.2] TG: That was my question, that’s a big idea book right? The idea is it’s better to create works of art that are going to last a long time than these one off works of art and then he dives into his journey on figuring out what that means and how to do that.

His would be a big idea book as well?

[0:19:11.5] SC: Yes, I think it’s a wonderful book because it explains to people, if your goal is to just pump out a book and get it out there, okay, yeah, sure, you can do that. What’s really a great thing is when your work, your creative work outlives you and a perennial best seller or Perennial Seller, it’s something like Dark Side of the Moon by pink Floyd.

That album sells like crazy every single year because it’s a work of art. You know, if that album came out today or Sergeant Pepper or any number of like the classic progressive rock or standard rock albums or classical music.

Those are what you need to strive for if you’re an artist. It’s very difficult in our culture because everybody wants that big hit fast. Perennial sellers, usually don ‘t become big hits, they become cultural artifacts that last forever and Holiday talks about “hey, you know what? Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to create a perennial seller instead of losing your mind over how to market your latest thing that you tossed off in a year.”

Yeah, I absolutely believe that’s a big idea book and I think it’s an important book and I think he did a really nice job on it.

[0:20:47.7] TG: Looking at what I should be doing, because I feel like I’m kind of stuck now because I don’t know what my big idea is, I don’t know what it is exactly I’m trying to say. How do you go about telling somebody how to find what it is they’re trying to say?

[0:21:11.7] SC: We talked about this last week, you need to think about what it is that is really at the core of your program. What is it that could speak to people who are frustrated who don’t believe that they have what it takes to create anything.

Bow can you teach them that through changing their behavior, they can become creative artists. What is the root of your book? Yes, this is a program to teach you how to carve out the time, what is your controlling idea again?

[0:21:57.3] TG: What I wrote down was “creativity flourishes when you bring the right mindset and practices to the craft while being focused on sharing your gift with the world”. I think that we talked about let’s see, you had something like “creativity triumphs when” and then that’s where I left off, I was supposed to fill that in. That’s kind of where I’m at.

I put “creativity flourishes, creativity triumphs when you bring the right mindset and practices to the craft while focusing on sharing your gift with the world”.

[0:22:33.6] SC: There is absolutely nothing wrong with that controlling idea.

[0:22:39.1] TG: That’s usually what you say right before you tell me what’s wrong with it.

[0:22:42.2] SC: No, I mean, I think what you want to do is you want to boil it down to this simple as possible phrase. Creativity triumphs when we do our work. When we aren’t precious about our work, we have to work to be creative. It’s not magic.

Magic does come sometimes but only when we’re working. Your book is, your big idea is creativity is blue collar work. It’s not magic and here is the workplan. Is that generally what you want to get across?

[0:23:21.7] TG: Yeah, you know, when I was kind of –

[0:23:22.6] SC: You want to debunk – remember I was saying earlier that a big idea book wants to debunk popular notion. Conventional wisdom. Now, the conventional wisdom about creativity and this is important to remember because the conventional wisdom is not all of the people that you know that – and you feel that this a belabored point, it’s not belabored.

Conventional wisdom is that creativity is magical. That certain people are capable of creativity, they’re born with it and they are chosen by the gods and you know, some people just don’t have that talent and a lot of people believe that if you don’t have talent, you can’t be creative.

[0:24:13.5] TG: Yeah, one of the things I wrote down as I was just trying to write everything down that came to mind about what I believe about creativity is the fact that I believe creativity should be, it is much more like the scientific process than a kind of loosy goosy process.

[0:24:34.6] SC: See, I would argue that it’s craft, science and craft bring magic. Magic doesn’t come.

[0:24:42.5] TG: Yeah, but – so my point is like, waiting on magic is like waiting on – it’s like planning your retirement on winning the lottery.

[0:24:53.5] SC: Yeah, exactly.

[0:24:55.5] TG: I wrote this down. Hold on, where did I put it? Basically, the idea is that you know, if you rely on waiting for the muse to show up, that’s like relying on the winning the lottery to – for your retirement fund. The other thing I put down is yeah, the muse is like the lottery. Sure, it’s great if you win but let’s plan as if it’s never going to happen, you’re going to work as if the muse is never going to show up.

If it does, that’s great but it’s just a bonus.

[0:25:23.9] SC: Okay. Well, you know, the great thing about Steve Presfield’s book, The War of Art is that it tells you the big idea and the tale. Art is a war, it’s a war against you, against resistance. What is creativity to you? Creativity is – is there a metaphor that you could use? Is it a war to –

[0:25:48.6] TG: When I close my eyes and think back over, so this morning when I was working on this, I closed my eyes and I thought back over, you know, the last decade plus of trying to figure this stuff out. I felt like there was this constant war – not war but flip flop between two versions of myself.

In my lucid moments, I would create these kinds of systems that would allow me in my idiot moments which were much more, to still head in the general right direction. It’s almost like you know, I would switch between the scientist and the rat. Right? The rats in this maze and I would create this kind of system that would make sure, no matter how screwed up the rat was, it would still head in the general right direction.

That is you know, I remember feeling a lot of shame that I didn’t work hard enough, or shame that I wasn’t doing the right things or wondering if I was good enough or lots of procrastination and then as I started putting these things into practice, I didn’t change, my environment changed around me that would allow me to eventually move in the right direction.

[0:27:13.1] SC: Okay, it seems to me that yeah – it seems to me that what you’re selling is shameless creativity. Creativity without shame. That’s a really interesting idea because I think the concept of shame is a good one.

And shame is a tool that you know, cultures and religions have used for centuries in order to get people to behave.

[0:27:46.0] TG: Yeah, like one of the things I wrote down was “the elite, snappy totters are missing the point, it’s not even that they’re assholes, though many are. The problem is that they think that they are good and bad standards to creativity”.

[0:28:02.1] SC: Yes.

[0:28:02.9] TG: We try to live up to those standards.

[0:28:05.8] SC: Yes. Also, the shame element is the personal – I mean, it’s resistance beating on you. You loser, you didn’t do your words, you didn’t write anything, you didn’t do that project, you’re so cool aren’t you? You can’t figure out anything can you?

That shameful notion is what – you know, that’s a bit very large hurdle to overcome. You know, Steve and I talk about this all the time, I mean, we talk about our routines and you know, some days, I don’t get much done you know? I sit down and I’m wasted after 30 minutes and I’m out. I can’t do it.

I have to stop and go do something else. I always think that Steve’s in there banging out eight hours a day. He goes yeah, that happens to me all the time. It’s learning that once you start shaming yourself and saying you’re not doing it the right way, you know, that’s a very big thing to overcome and I think your method, what you have put together in your book is a very smart comprehensive way of debugging all of that stuff in your head so that you’re given the opportunity to be creative in a way that will actually produce stuff.

It’s a very practical how to be creative but the big idea is, creativity without shame and I think that would appeal to a lot of people because shame, it never produces great stuff, it’s once you’re locked in to the work, that’s – everybody had that feeling one way or the other, at one time or another.

You know, that’s something to think about in terms of the overall concept of the book. Creativity without shame. Anyway. I think we’re not going to crack this right now, just riffing on this, I think the reason why I have those six questions is to guide me, like the scientist and the rat is to guide me the rat through the maze of figuring this stuff out.

The six questions always get me back on track. I think it would be a good idea now to talk about the conventions and obligatory scenes in big idea book, that’s question number two, the first question is, what is the genre we’ve decided, it’s big idea, nonfiction so number two is, what are the things that have to be in this book to satisfy the reader?

If we look at what has to be in the book, we may stumble upon and even more blatant and interesting ideas. Let’s go down that road.

[0:31:26.1] TG: Okay.

[0:31:27.4] SC: Now, the very first thing that has to be in a big idea book is persuasion and there are three ways to persuade somebody of your big idea. This comes from Aristotle and there are three Greek words, ethos, logos and pathos. Those are the three kinds of ways to persuade somebody to do something.

Now ethos is sort of like, ethos means the ethics of the person giving advice or explaining an idea. Ethos is generally the position of the story teller. Are they really an expert or are they just faking it? I think you have to, in your – and you do, do this. In the book, you have to present the fact that you know, you’ve started a marketing company, you’ve sold the marketing company, you’ve written a bunch of books, you write web posts, you do the podcast, you work on story grid stuff, you help me for the conferences, you do a tremendous amount of creative work.

And you’ve been doing it for 10 years which is a really sweet number since you left the corporate world. You have the goods for the reader if they were to take your advice, you know, they’re going to learn how you were able to figure out a way to be productive creatively.

The ethos part of your big idea is firmly established. It’s the kind of thing that you know, they put on the front cover of a book. Jim Smith, MD. Elaine Venice you know? Whatever, head of pharmacology or whatever. The ethos part is the status of the persuader. I’m not going to be able to persuade you about much but story stuff, I can – you know, I’ve got 25 years under my belt and I’m confident that what I do and the advice that I give is good.

That’s why you know, I wrote the Story Grid. Okay, the next one is logos. Now, logos is just logic. What’s the logical argument that makes this idea believable. Logos is all about adding additional things into the book. Adding behavioral psychology papers, I’m not saying that you want to belabor the point.

Always a great way to – a great person to mimic is Gladwell because Gladwell’s capable of bringing in very wonky scientific reports and studies in an entertaining way, those are his logos moments and the tipping point and in his other books.

He cites psychology reports, he cites science, he cites all kinds of really important backup that you know, fortifies the foundation of his ideas. You have to have logos in order to persuade somebody. Somebody says well why do you think that is and you go, I don’t know, I just do. They’re not going to believe you.

But if you say well, I read a really interesting psychological you know, survey that was done in affiliation with Stanford and the University of Cambridge and they discovered that if you do this one thing, the behavior of the people changes dramatically.

You know, putting in those fun little steps is I think an important part of your book because it’s going to support what you have to tell the reader.

[0:35:37.9] TG: Are there other forms of backing it up besides just science papers and studies?

[0:35:44.3] SC: Yeah, interviewing –

[0:35:45.9] TG: Is this where like, anecdotal, this is what this person did and they were successful.

[0:35:52.7] SC: Yes, to a certain degree, interviewing people and their thoughts about it. Interviewing other people with strong track records in the arena that you’re are talking about. So say in your book, you interviewed Ryan Holiday and he gave you a bit of information. I mean Ryan’s book he interviewed me and stuck my name in there, right? What do I know? But it did support his argument by he cited my 10,000 reader rule as a way to support his argument that here’s the way that you can become a perennial seller.

Is don’t worry about a million people, if you can get 10,000 people and that is pretty much in my estimation I think a good number based upon logical reduction of how many people read in this country and how many, the velocity of sales based upon 25 years of publishing experience. I came up with the 10,000 reader rule which essentially means a publisher’s job is to get a book into the hands of 10,000 people. If after 10,000 people have looked at the book and given it a chance.

And the book doesn’t work well, too bad. It means that the book didn’t hit the mark but if you don’t get to 10,000 you will never know whether or not something can become a perennial bestseller. So when I came up with that idea, I cited how many people in the country using statistics from reliable sources, what the estimate of how many people in the country who read at least one book a year and it’s about 100 million people.

Anyway, I don’t want to get into proving my 10,000 theory but that’s the point. You can interview other people who have expertise in the arena. Now the last thing is pathos and pathos is an appeal to the emotional core of the reader and the way you create pathos and argue with pathos is by telling a story. Pathos is storytelling, how you present the idea in story form. So ethos, logos and pathos are the three forms of persuasion and Aristotle came up with them.

So it’s a pretty solid idea, I mean thousands of years and we still use those three terms for traditional rhetoric and persuasion. Do you have any question about ethos, logos and pathos?

[0:38:44.6] TG: Not off the top. I think I read a ton of big idea books so I can see how these are at play in those books and it seems like some of them are heavier on one some than others right? So like if I think about –

[0:39:03.7] SC: If you divide all of the non-fiction categories, academic that’s logos driven, right? Academic books are logos driven, they’re all basically logical arguments based upon logos. You are not really getting much more than the real logical arguments. How-to books are ethos driven meaning you believe that Tim Grahl is a marketing genius so you are going to buy Tim Grahl’s marketing book. You, Tim Grahl, don’t go into all of the marketing theories in your book.

You simply lay out how you market a book and that works. That’s an ethos how-to driven project. Narrative non-fiction –

[0:39:53.2] TG: And so that would be like my first book.

[0:39:55.7] SC: Yeah, your first thousand copies that’s it. That’s an ethos driven straight, fastball down the middle. If you want to market your book, here’s what you have to do. You don’t cite anybody because you don’t have to because you did it on your own and it worked. The third one pathos are narrative non-fiction stories. So these are real, true, factual stories that are told in the form of a story that use fictional techniques and non-fiction.

So the Devil in the White City is a crime story, it’s a thriller and on and on and on. So ethos, logos and pathos having that in a big idea book makes absolute sense because as I have said before, the big idea combines all three of those other categories into a really fun digestible delicious package.

[0:40:53.8] TG: Okay when you say though that so the conventions and obligatory scenes, I mean these would be conventions, right?

[0:41:01.9] SC: Yes.

[0:41:02.8] TG: Okay, so are there more conventions of the big idea book or?

[0:41:07.8] SC: Yes, there’s a lot of them.

[0:41:10.0] TG: Okay, okay.

[0:41:13.6] SC: The second one is obvious and that is you need to have a blatant idea. You have to state that idea very clearly, very early on and always go back to it throughout the book. So the big idea must be blatantly stated early on in the beginning hook of the story. It has to be clear and you need to use it as a lure to get the reader to read further and then you have to drop back and forth every now and then to reiterate it as Gladwell does in the tipping point.

You know within the first 500 words, he’s told you what his big idea is and then he tells you again and again and again but not in an irritating way. He just reiterates what the purpose of the entire book is over and over again. So the blatant statement of the controlling idea and theme is a convention too. Now that is not what you do in a narrative non-fiction. A narrative non-fiction, you use the controlling idea theme as your north star as you are writing the story.

But you never go, “Well Abraham Lincoln was…” blank, blank, blank because you want to tell the story of how he changed slavery and had the emancipation proclamation, etcetera and that was Team of Rivals. That was a narrative non-fiction book about how that law was changed. Okay so the next convention, so that’s the second one. The first one is you have to have the three forms of persuasion in the big idea book, ethos, logos and pathos.

The second one is you have to have a blatant clear controlling idea and theme and state it clearly early on in the book and throughout the book. I’m just pulling up my notes here to find the others. Destination promise. You have to explain to the reader very early on what the destination of the end of this sort of adventure is going to be. You have to make them a promise. At the end of this book, if you go through it from beginning middle and end, you will know X.

Not only will you understand how creativity actually works but you will be able to use my system and create things of your own. So you have to make a promise and explain to the reader early on what the destination is. That’s another convention.

[0:44:15.4] TG: Okay. Destination promise.

[0:44:18.9] SC: The other thing is a big idea book is an intellectual adventure story and what I mean by that is in adventure stories, action stories and fiction, we love them because there are three characters in an adventure story and these three characters are also in the big idea book and those three characters are the hero, the victim and the villain. So in order to deliver your pathos, you need to embed in your big idea book a hero, a victim and a villain.

So you need to really, really hammer home who the villain is. The hero of the story is the narrator, you, Tim and the hero is also the reader because you are going to be bringing them along on your adventure. The victim is also you Tim and it’s also the reader. So hero, victim, villain are those three major figures that have to be in an action story. They also need to be in a big idea book. “Before I knew this, I was the victim of X” and the real villain of creativity is “blank”.

It’s resistance, right? It’s the thing that Steve defined really well in the War of Art but you need to figure out if you’re going to use Steve’s terminology of resistance or are you going to focus on one element of resistance that is the most pervasive for the amateur and I think we answered this a little while ago when we brought up the notion of shame.

[0:46:12.4] TG: Yeah.

[0:46:13.3] SC: You shame yourself to the point of inactivity. So you abandon your projects because you’ve shamed yourself so much that you can’t deal with it anymore right? This is what the amateur creative does. He says, “I’m going to build a shed all by myself and I’m going to do it, I’m going to start in the morning” and then when she hits some roadblocks then everything – you are not cutting the wood the right way, nothing’s level. It looks terrible.

I am speaking personally because some of the wobbliest things ever created I’ve made and I shame myself like, “What an idiot. Why didn’t you do that?” and a lot of time you just quit. You go, “Well you know what? Forget it. I’m just going to buy a shed. I’m going to throw all that crap out and buy one” so the shame element is a really interesting idea because everybody goes through it. Everybody shames themselves. They are not doing it the right way.

“Oh their choice of genre is stupid. They don’t really have a big idea” so I like the notion of you defining the villain of your book as shame. I don’t know if that works for you, if that was helping you in anyway. You probably won’t know until we get off this call and maybe tomorrow and they will work or it won’t but this is why I love going through these questions because if I hadn’t reminded us that we needed a hero, a victim and a villain we wouldn’t even know to read blatantly state:

“Oh okay. If the villain is shamed, then shame has to be in my book. I have to talk about shame. I have to talk about how it hurt me. I have to put myself in a position of being a victim” because you were, right? You played video games to avoid shaming yourself because –

[0:48:19.2] TG: But then I would shame myself for playing the video games.

[0:48:21.6] SC: Exactly, so you know it’s not an easy thing to get over with. I mean while you are playing the video games, your brain is obsessed with the imagery so you can’t shame yourself. So coming to terms with your own internal self-flagellation, shame is a very important step for a creative person. Until they can say, “Oh yeah, I’m going to shame myself. It is what it is. I still need to get down to the office today” until they can get to that point.

We need to know creative people or people who want to be creative need to know they are not the only person who shames them self. It’s part of the deal. That’s part of the battle that you have to fight to create something. So hero, victim, villain are three key parts of a big idea book and the reader is going to assume your point of view and they will start – when you start talking about the shame that you made for yourself, they will reflect and they will think about what they have done.

And they will say, “He’s absolutely right. That’s exactly what I did and that is the thing that screws me up. If I could only beat shame maybe I could create something. I’m going to read another page, maybe there’s another idea about that” so that’s another convention. It’s kind of an obligatory cast of characters in the big idea book. So hero, victim, villain. The other thing in a big idea book is sidekicks and what sidekicks are, are all those sort of hero’s journey characters that we talked about a couple of months ago.

The mentor, you as a writer you should bring in some mentors, bring in some colleagues and guys that are from work, your sister or your cousin or somebody. The sidekicks sort of come and go like Malcolm Gladwell did this so well in The Tipping Point where he goes in literary and has lunch with people and then he brings you into the conversation with the lunch that he has with these people. One of his friend’s mother is a big figure in his book.

These are sidekicks who come in at certain junctures in the book that explain a particular feature of your program and what you have discovered. So sidekicks is always a good thing. It’s an important thing to have in a big idea book because it broadens the canvass of the story. We get these little way station experiences, these little mini-stories with these sidekicks that illustrate a certain point in the big idea. Now the other thing that you need is a clear path and methodology to explain to the reader.

You may – yeah, here’s how I came to this decision. I learned, I was thinking about creativity and I was thinking about how people learn how to play the guitar and the way they learn how to play the guitar is they play a bad note and they immediately know it’s a bad note because it sounds terrible. So the path and methodology again, it’s a little squishy because your sidekicks are going to be people who could help with the path of methodology.

You know after I learned that, then I went to lunch with Jim and Jim is this famous guy who does this and so I asked him specifically, “Hey, I am trying to figure this thing out. What do you think of that? And he told me this”. So there’s a path, there’s a movement, there’s a progression of storytelling in a big idea book that we feel confident that the writer has plotted out this journey and is explaining to us as he’s going that he has a clear destination.

Okay, this is a big one. This is an obligatory scene. This is the hero at the mercy of the villain. You’ve got to have it.

[0:53:05.9] TG: Okay.

[0:53:09.1] SC: Right? So we know what the hero at the mercy of the villain scene is. It’s when the villain’s got poor Tim down on the ground, he’s got his foot on his neck. There is no way, it’s an all is lost moment, you’ve got to step up and this is the moment in your life that you are going to tell the reader and you’ve realized, “Oh man I’ve got to figure something out here. I’ve got to change my behavior somehow, someway because this guy’s foot is on my neck”.

“I’m going to die without doing anything if I don’t change myself” so we need the hero at the mercy of the villain scene and the way Tim overcame the villain was through the Grahl method. You thought of a way of living with the shame understanding it is going to be there. Okay, hero at the mercy of the villain. Now let’s see, I sort of already talked about this but it’s a good thing to think about. The big idea book, I think it’s fun if you look at it in terms of the Kubler-Ross change cycle.

Because what a big idea book is it’s a process of trying to persuade people to change themselves. So we learned from Kubler-Ross how people actually experience change. So if you use her eight moments as inspirations to drive your book and they will progressively lead to hopefully your reader deciding to make a change and those eight stages, these are what I call way stations. They are, I’ll just go through them again, shock.

You need to have a scene or an idea or a moment where there is a shock. Something happens that is shocking. Denial is the second one. The third one is anger. The fourth one is bargaining. The fifth one is depression, this is the turning point of the book. This is the moment when the writer conveys to the reader, this is the all is lost moment. This is the moment when the villain has me so down on the ground, I’m at his mercy and the only way I am going to get out of this is to change.

After that is deliberation, “Okay I am going to change, how am I going to change? What tools can I dig around and find that will help me change my behavior?” Choice is the ultimate, “Okay now I am going to do the program. Here is what it is. On this day I did this” and lastly is integration, “Now that I do this things work out. They don’t always work out but I have a better hitting percentage with my projects than I ever have, at least I finished my stuff”.

“It might not be perfect but it’s done, I’ve created something and now it’s time to ship” or whatever. Now the last thing in a big idea book is it has to have some sort of ironic ending. An ironic ending meaning it’s good and it’s bad. So I talked earlier about the tipping point. It’s ironic ending was tipping points can lead to really horrible things too. So you might want the recipe for creating tipping points but be careful because you really need to think about if you want something to tip or not.

And if you do, the tools that Gladwell provides and talks about in the book, those are things that you can use to get something to tip but tipping stuff, you know like school shootings at the high schools are tipping points too and suicide rates are tipping points and on and on, drug use, cigarettes, all these things. So there was a real ironic ending there is that we’ve got to be careful about what we put in progress to tip. So the ironic ending for you is that you can go through all these process.

You can create something and it still not might not work but that shouldn’t be your goal because creativity is a process of discovering. It’s self-discovery. This is another thing that a lot of people don’t really realize about creativity is that when you put yourself out there and you create something, you learn so much about yourself in the process. So just going on the journey to create something is valuable even if it isn’t commercially viable.

Even if you lose money or lose time, it’s a valuable experience. It provides meaning. Creativity is a meaning machine, it gives your life meaning. So that’s the paradox at the end of your book. I think the ironic ending is that, hey you know what? Even if you go through all my process, I can’t promise that your thing is going to be successful.

[0:59:10.4] TG: Yeah, but I mean the ironic ending will be you won’t feel any shame about that though.

[0:59:15.7] SC: True, I mean the great thing about any big idea is that it has irony built and baked into it. So a lot of these things you’ll find that once you finished the next draft that you’ve already baked them into the story. So the ironic ending isn’t something that you really, really have to consciously keep in the front of your mind all the time. “Oh my gosh I don’t know if this is ironic or not” because there is irony. If you could tell somebody how to create something successfully over and over and over again, you would be King Midas, right?

It’s just not possible but what you can tell people is the importance of creativity. Don’t shame yourself not to create because you have to create something or you’ll never discover what’s inside yourself and walking around the planet without knowing anything about yourself is really not a very meaningful way of going through life. You are just here consuming things and then you’re going to broaden the ground after you have consumed things.

That’s not really much of a life. Creating things is the process of discovery and discovering meaning in your own life. I am getting a sore throat because of this monologue.

[1:00:49.1] TG: Yeah, I know. I am just trying to take it all in because I am trying to figure out, you know like you said the work will be. I mean that’s my next question is like so is my job to just think through these things and try to get down? Because I’m realizing I set out to write a how to book. So expanding it to something bigger, I don’t know how to do that which is okay. I mean I need to learn how to do something new. I guess I wonder like – I don’t even know what to ask.

[1:01:25.3] SC: It’s not necessarily that you’re going to have to completely rewrite and redo everything in your book. It’s really about a crystal clear notion that will come into your brain and you will rewrite your book in a way that is far more entertaining and interesting because you have clearly stated who the hero, the victim and the villain is and how to combat that and you’ll use more little stories than you do presently to broaden the applicability of your method.

[1:02:03.8] TG: Yeah, the thing about shame really resonates with me so I think I am going to dig around on that a little bit because it comes from so many external and internal places so –

[1:02:17.0] SC: And we have to – I do think that there’s a level and you write about this in your draft, there is a level of “Oh I am such a loser. Look at me creating this stuff. Nobody wants this stuff. It’s so indulgent to be writing this novel and who cares? Nobody is going to care” so that really externally driven “Oh well, you know…” it’s like this really horrifying way of degrading yourself to the point where you’re completely incapable of doing it and everyone goes through that. Everyone.

Everyone who sets out to do anything has internal shame and it’s usually thinking about what other people are going to think of you and there’s also people in your family will say that to you. “You know when are you going to give up that dream dude? Get it together. Get a real job” people say that stuff to other people all the time. I think a book talking about the connection between our inability to create things and this internal and external shame device is very interesting.

And literally just framing the argument like putting that in your beginning hook in the introduction of your book saying, “I set out to write a book to teach you that you’re not the only one who shames them self and why I’ve shamed myself to such a point that I got nothing done and I had to change my behavior or my kids would not have any food” please.

[1:04:19.4] TG: Yeah, you know I’m sitting here looking at this Kubler-Ross and I feel like this is the framework because it also reminds me of you know how the second part of the middle build is when the character starts to get it but still doesn’t get it, right? So they make some initial changes but they’re still stuck in the old way of thinking. So they realize I can’t live like that anymore so I’m going to make these changes. It’s always like this hedging Tibet changes, yeah.

And I realize that there is this really important moment in my career where I was extremely successful for what I had set out to do. It was when I launched a book for Daniel Pink that hit number one on all the major bestseller list and two or three months later, I had five clients on the New York Times list at the same time and I still felt no happiness in it. So I had figured out how to get myself to do the work but I still found zero. All I felt was more pressure and all I felt was more like I wasn’t good enough.

I’ve worked with the clients that have hit the dream of hitting the New York Times bestseller list or getting that contract or selling a ton of books or whatever and all it does is turn up the heat under their unhappiness because it’s also just based on shame. Yeah, I think following that kind of path. So I mean if I am telling the story of my path out of shame, shame based creativity or the first part of the book would be not creating because of shame and then the second part of the book will be creating.

But still in shame and then the payoff would be creating without shame and so will it just basically follow my own story with other stories woven in. Like would mine be the ark from – because if you are saying I am the hero and the victim, I mean that’s the thing is we’re going to follow my path because other people will see their path inside of my path.

[1:06:41.3] SC: Yeah.

[1:06:42.4] TG: So should I just step back and try to? Because it seems like so much of the big idea book is kind of tackled in the introduction right? Instead of the 25-50-25 beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff, you said it was like 10-80-10. So should I just step back with this and try to rewrite the introduction from this point of view and see what I come up with?

[1:07:10.0] SC: Yes.

[1:07:11.0] TG: Okay.

[1:07:11.5] SC: But yeah, what you just described about the – I call it the “is that all there is” syndrome. The famous Peggy Lee song from the 1950’s. It’s a great song but when you reach that moment of “success” and you feel, “Oh my gosh, this is even worse” that is a really, really important moment for everybody and that story about doing the marketing and everything for those guys – yeah I think you tackling the introduction and just you know what?

Read the introduction of The Tipping Point. It’s maybe 1500 words. It begins with Hush Puppies and it ends really, really well and it explains exactly what the book is all about. So just read the first chunk of the tipping point and you’ll know when you’ve hit the end of the beginning hook because then it gets into specific stuff.

[1:08:22.3] TG: Okay.

[1:08:23.9] SC: And then see if you can mirror, be inspired by how he did it and then take a crack at it.

[1:08:33.0] TG: Okay, I’ll do it.

[END OF EPISODE]

[1:08:35.7] 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.

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[END]

The co-host of the Story Grid Podcast and amateur writer.

One comment on “Non-fiction Conventions and Obligatory Scenes

  1. Brian Carter says:

    Hi Shawn, enjoying the NF stuff as usual. Have listened to almost every podcast you guys have done. My question is about the voice of a big idea book if it has coauthors. When you go to your “why” and talk about the adventure of discovery, should it always be we? Can one individual author have a story, then another, then discuss it? Should that story of the authors discussing be shared? Or just simplify it with third person or 1st person plural? Thanks!

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