Building Better Scenes

Here is the second in depth episode with Tim Grahl’s  eleven scene Beginning Hook work in progress.

The key idea here is that once you start to get a feel for the progression of a particular part of your story…it may be time to deliberately build better scenes for that sequence before you move forward.

As you’ve witnessed, Tim and I are discovering the best practices for TIM in creating his novel.  What works for Tim, may not work for you, but as he has demonstrated an ability to create a full draft (remember he’s already written a first draft that we decided to put in a drawer)…I think the chances that he’ll bail on finishing his book obsessively tweaking his early scenes is slim.  That is most definitely not the case for most amateur writers who NEVER FINISH A DRAFT.

But Tim has finished a draft and he has never been late delivering his work for critique…so…I think best practices for him are slow and deliberate bricklaying of scenes one on top of another.

An essential part of discovering how to better your scenes, of course, is in analyzing the state of each scene after you’ve drafted it.

You do that by laboriously building your Story Grid Spreadsheet.  Once you have that in hand, you’ll discover all of the things that Tim discovers here about his scenes…how some don’t move…how some repeat staging…how some are too claustrophobic etc.

Below I’ve attached my spreadsheet for Tim’s scenes as well as my initial…off the top of my head notes after reading scenes 3 through 11.  After that are Tim’s actual scenes.  And beneath that of course is the play button to listen with the transcript to follow.




[0:00:00.7] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he is the creator of story grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.


In this episode, we continue talking about the scenes in my beginning hook. So we went through four, five scenes last week and we’re diving into the rest of them this week and again, getting in the weeds, talking about specific scenes, how they turn, the value shift, all of those things that make the story better. Once again, there are some highs and there are some lows but I hope that you learn alongside me as I’m trying to figure out how to make these scenes actually string together into something readable.


Let’s jump in and get started.


[0:00:54.7] TG: So last week, we started talking through some of this scenes. I sent you I think 11 scenes and we got through the first four of just talking through that plus some other things. I’ve been thinking about it obviously this last week and just, it’s that whole difference of reading the theory and then seeing it practiced and how as soon as you started running my scenes through the spreadsheet, it immediately showed all these problems.


The scene I should have thrown away, I felt that I should throw it away, but it was more of just a feeling and not like a good reason and you’re like, “Well, it doesn’t have a value shift and there’s nowhere that it turns,” and it automatically, I was just thinking later I’m like, that’s seeing again after we’ve been doing this almost a year of just how powerful it is like once you just run it through the spreadsheet, it immediately shows this issues that are feelings, which is the whole point is to get it out of that space where an editor kind of vaguely thinks something is wrong and can point to something that’s wrong.


[0:02:12.7] SC: That’s exactly right. As I said last week, I don’t enjoy creating the spreadsheets. The spreadsheets require very intense analytical thinking that’s almost scientifically based. People who love to write and people who love to read, they just kind of want to go with the flow. So turning on that part of your brain that makes you sit down and say, “Okay, what happened in this scene? I need one sentence to say what happened.” When did it turn? What is the value at stake? All of those things require intellectual capital that is very important for you to get better as a writer.


So once you start training yourself and forcing yourself to go through the spreadsheets scene by scene and go through ever single column and be honest with yourself, you’re going to find things that are so obvious and easy to fix that it takes you right out of, “Oh boy, I hope Shawn likes my scene.” Because it’s not really about whether I like the scene or not. The scene first has to work and working means it has to have a value at stake, it has to have shift, it has to have a turning point, it has to be clearly a revelation turning point or an action turning point.


Because the more clarity you bring to the scene, the tighter and easier it is for the reader to follow your story and that doesn’t mean giving them exposition, it means being very clear about a valence shift of a value from the positive to a negative or a negative to a positive. Also, they need to know that moment when it changes. When the value moves, actually does move, at what point? It’s that decision that they made or it’s that thing that they said or it’s when he punched him in the face, literally that. So I’m glad to see that once I forced you to put your own scenes under the spreadsheet, you start to obviously see everything that I was talking about last week.


[0:04:35.7] TG: Yeah. So we talked about, we got through scene four and the biggest thing we talked about was turning that kind of exposition into an active thing where she’s taking her around town. Now we’re in scene five and we’re just going to pick up there as we continue to work through this.


[0:05:00.7] SC: Yes, and I’ll talk more about that note I gave you about having 83 take Jessie on the rounds and show her the hell that she is now subjected to. That’s an important thing because we have to remember and you have to remember as a writer is that 83 has her own world, right? She has her own motivations. We can use the fact that she has her own things that she wants out of the world to surprise the reader later on.


Okay, so anyway, let’s go to scene five. It’s 1,249 words, it’s nice, you’ve got potato chip length scenes here, which I think is a really good thing and what I mean by that I mean the scenes aren’t dragging on and on. You’re trying to get your players on the stage, nail the value at stake, move the story forward in as few words as possible so that the reader feels a narrative momentum and velocity building. Part of doing that is literally through the word count.


So 1,249 words, what’s the event in scene five? What I had down is, and bear with me if I forget some of the stuff because I read all of the stuff last week and I’m just going on my memory. I did review it but anyway, what I have is “Jessie goes home”. That’s the core event of the scene and the value moves from free to captured. That means that she actually begins captured, moves to free and then goes free to capture it again. So at the very beginning of the scene, Jessie is leaving the numbered compound and she’s on her way home.


So she’s free, she broke away and then she reaches home, it moves from a negative of being captured at the very beginning of the scene to free, which is a negative to positive and then by scene’s end, it ends up captured again. So it moves from negative to positive to negative and that’s perfectly valid and that works. In fact, it’s a nice little thing to even make this scene have a little bit more juice to it. So the polarity shift again is negative to positive to negative, the turning point is on an action and the action is when 83 arrives at Jessie’s house to confront her.


So Jessie thinks that she’s sort of sneakily gotten away and then 83 gets there to tell her, “Hey, I know you’re here and you;ve got to come back.” The point of view is third person omniscient through Jessie’s eyes. The period time, I’ve got down “two days after the shaming”, which is either close or not close but that’s something that it maybe draft three or draft four when you’re going through to make sure that everything is reasonable and rational, rational and easy to figure out if somebody really wanted to do it. You want to make sure that your time is very clean.


[0:08:24.0] TG: Yeah, that was another thing as I was thinking about our discussion of, I’m afraid to commit to that stuff.


[0:08:32.0] SC: That’s okay.


[0:08:32.1] TG: So I didn’t put it in.


[0:08:33.0] SC: That’s okay. It’s okay not to commit to it now because you don’t really know, you know, when we talk about the foolscap global story grid, what we’re talking about are places on a map. So if I want to go from New York to Los Angeles and I say, “Okay, I want to go to Pittsburg first and then I want to go to Chicago, then I want to go to Denver and then I want to get to LA. That doesn’t mean that I have to take all the interstates. You’re trying to give yourself a really nice global map but you’re allowing yourself to make detours as the story comes to you as you’re writing.


You’re leaving the door very widely open for the muse but you’re also having a map so that you know if you’re stuck one day, “You know what? I’ve got to get to Pittsburg. Where am I now? I’m in New Jersey? I’ve got to move from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, that’s my goal today.” That’s a way of keeping yourself, as a writer, writing. But you do want to open yourself up and keep the door open for the muse and the fact is that this is early days in your draft and you don’t want to get fully reigned into a specific time period so that’s perfectly reasonable, these are decisions that you can defer to later and you just put a big TK there, “to come”, which is the copy.


Okay after that, the duration of this moving from the compound of the number to her house, I say it’s about two hours, maybe it’s shorter than that and then the setting or the location is the courtyard to Jessie’s house. So it begins in the courtyard as she’s already gotten away from the compound, in fact, she slips a little piece of paper underneath a brick at the courtyard and then it progresses to Jessie’s house. On stage characters are Jessie, two men who are sort of in the courtyard area who she is concerned about, her father, bald man in the window, Jessie’s mother, another bald man and then 83.


So again, later on in another draft, you really want to sort of nail down all of these figures so it’s not bald man in the window, it’s 97 or whatever that other guy’s name is who helped lead her away from the shaming earlier on. But you can deal with that later. The number of people on stage is eight. I don’t know why I have marked down four on my spreadsheet, I don’t know why. Okay, so it’s eight and then the off-stage characters, I didn’t really pick up any, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t but I did the spreadsheet not quickly but I always go through a spreadsheet probably two to three times to double check my work and even then, things creep by me.


Anyway, this scene of Jessie escaping the compound and going home is a good scene. It works…


[0:12:00.5] TG: I just wait — you’re going through all that, I’m like, “Okay, tell me if it’s any good.”


[0:12:07.8] SC: No, it totally works and it also makes sense if the prior scene is the scene that I suggested you revise of the previous scene where 83 takes her into hell. What’s a kid going to want to do once they’re faced with this horrific future but run home to mom and dad? So it makes perfect sense for her to do that.


[0:12:35.8] TG: Okay. Yeah, I was trying to establish both the youngness of her character because the first thing she wants to do to feel safe is go home. But at the same time show that her first reaction to any rules is to do the opposite.


[0:12:52.5] SC: Right.


[0:12:53.9] TG: So as soon as she was told she’s not allowed to leave, she’s like, “Well screw that, I’m leaving.”

[0:12:59.0] SC: Yeah, the thing you have to be a little bit cognizant of is you are writing a coming of age story and coming of age is this really interesting genre where you want to give your lead character a rebellious streak in some way shape or form. But you can’t escape and you can’t run away from the fact that they’re still a child. So children have a lot of rebellion within them but when faced with darkness and repercussions of their actions that are going to be really bad, they go back into their childhood behavior and they get frightened.


So it’s good to have the rebellious streak but you have to remember, this is still a child who is going to have fear. I mean adults have fear too but coming of age is about confronting things that don’t make sense, coming to a painful truth, understanding that truth and then it’s a changed world view from naiveté to worldliness.


[0:14:16.9] TG: Right, I mean, part — I think we’ve talked about this before. Part of her growing up is going to realize that she has to take care of herself. That’s something else I was trying to establish here, she keeps trying to go home and make her home life what she wants it to be and it’s just, she’s never going to find it there.


[0:14:40.7] SC: Yeah, I think that works and I think the father in this scene is, he’s in character, he’s sort of milk-toast kind of figure who truly does love his daughter but doesn’t want to break the rules. He’s very much tied into the society. The only real minor note I had on it was that the mother howling at the end seemed a little over the top. I think she would be more of a catatonic presence like she’s been before sort of like your aunt who is a little bit old, it doesn’t really understand what’s going on all the time.


Like, “Oh hi, why are you at the house for it?” “Well, it’s time to take you to the doctor.” That worked. This is a scene of her running back home and she’s caught in the end. It’s not really surprising that she’s caught in the end but it’s okay, it’s okay that it’s not so surprising and the fact is that you set up the fact that she’s easily going to be caught with this beeping that only she is hearing. I love that notion that there’s this beeping.


[0:16:00.9] TG: Did that work where I like drop it in and don’t explain it.


[0:16:04.8] SC: Oh yeah.


[0:16:05.9] TG: So that worked? That was one of those like in my being, give me key or am I doing something that will catch the reader’s attention and they’ll want to keep reading to figure out what the hell that beep is.


[0:16:17.9] SC: Yeah, I think it’s the second part, I think the beep works. Okay, so that scene works, scene six works too but you’ve got to be a little bit careful here because it’s a little bit repetitious and when I say repetitious, Jessie escapes again and then surrenders again. At the end of the previous scene, 83 catches her and that’s almost the end of this scene. I think that may be the end of the scene so it’s like a cliff hanger.


[0:16:56.9] TG: Yeah, like the door flies open and 83 says, “It’s time to go.”


[0:17:01.9] SC: Right. Then in the next scene, Jessie escapes again and then is hunted down again and is caught again. She moves from free to captured, again. So it moves from positive to negative.


[0:17:18.6] TG: Okay.


[0:17:19.6] SC: You see where I’m going with this? You’re kind of repeating the same thing. My suggestion would be, lengthen scene five to include scene six. The way you could do that is when 83 comes and they finally bang through the door, Jessie’s not standing there, she’s already scurried away and then you can keep the narrative momentum going by having them go chase her.


[0:17:49.8] TG: Okay. She’s never caught that first time?


[0:17:53.6] SC: No.


[0:17:56.0] TG: As soon as that head shows up in the window…


[0:17:58.3] SC: She’s out of there.


[0:17:59.0] TG: She bolts.


[0:18:00.2] SC: Yeah, and she would, she’d be like, “Shit, I got to get out of here.” She wouldn’t wait for the door. She might even not accidentally knock her mother over on her way out and her mother could be blocking 83 and the other people’s way of — it might get her a little time to escape under her rabbit hole, you know? So I’m thinking that works well if you can combine those two scenes in a way that are quickly paced and action filled. I like, as I recall, she ends up in the shed and 83, 97 or the bald guy says to 83, “We don’t’ have any time, we got to get the hell out of there before our lights change.” She said, “Well I’m going to stay.” The fact that 83 stays is a setup, right?


[0:18:52.4] TG: Right.


[0:18:53.2] SC: Because we want to know later on why the hell did she stay? What is she getting out of this? Because the truth is, in the adult world, maybe not the child-like world, in the adult world that we live in today, very few people do anything unless they get something in return. When you have an adult sacrifice themselves in some way, they’re either the hero of the story or they’re going to get payback somewhere from somebody else.


[0:19:27.6] TG: What I want to do later, I was thinking at the beginning of the middle build, is have her tell a story about losing her daughter but that sets up at the end the whole reason she sold Jessie out was to get back to her own daughter.


[0:19:47.3] SC: I would strongly recommend that you avoid backstory stories. The reason why…


[0:19:54.3] TG: I wasn’t going to put a scene and tells this whole story, I want Jessie to ask why and she just eludes to she lost a daughter, that’s why she has stuck up for her and stayed with her or is that not…


[0:20:09.5] SC: Hey, it could work. First of all, I’m not saying that what I’m going to suggest or think is any better than yours. That could work, a lot of people like that sort of “she’s attached to her because she lost a daughter herself”. My gut though is that you are writing a dystopian action story that’s coming of age. In a dystopian universe, people live at the very selfish level. For this woman to act heroically, seems counterintuitive to the dystopian world and I think it’s fine if she redeems herself at the end.


But at the beginning, I think she’s got to be a sort of a Judas figure. She’s going to trade sort of doing the duty for the faction to get Jessie to go to the capital. She’s going to do that duty in exchange for a reduced sentence or money or something. Later on, she may redeem herself and I think she would it’s usually that great moment in action stories where the hero shows up and he’s all or she’s all by herself and there are 20 guys there and 20 women ready to beat her up and then the old crusty guy, “Oh I had nothing to do anyway.”


[0:21:53.5] TG: Han Solo


[0:21:54.4] SC: Yeah, exactly. “Ah, I figured I was in the neighborhood.” It’s that great moment and you’re like, “Oh I knew it.” It’s like that moment when Jack Nicolson shows up at the end of Terms of Endearment and he’s like, “You know, what can I say? I love you, here I am.” People love that kind of moment and I think you could build that moment with this character where the reader may come to sort of despise her in a way for selling Jessie out at the end of the beginning hook or whatever it is and maybe it’s not that.


But that’s another alternative. I’m not saying that’s what you have to do and a lot of people would say, the notion of her attaching to Jessie because she lost the daughter is a good one. Deep down my gut is dystopian worlds require very negative humanity surrounding the hero but we can table that.


[0:22:53.0] TG: Okay, we’ll table it.


[0:22:56.6] SC: All right so at the end of this scene, it’s a great cliff hanger at the end of the scene because the back of their heads are going off, it’s turning yellow and we don’t know what the hell is going to happen if the back of their heads turn red. So they’re running back and they have to get in within their compound limits for the numbered compound before that beeping turns into a red light, correct?


[0:23:24.1] TG: So this is where you said I need to kill one of the guys.


[0:23:28.8] SC: Not necessarily. What I think needs to happen is somebody’s light has to go to red, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they die.


[0:23:38.3] TG: That was what I was thinking was that when it goes red, they’re done.


[0:23:43.0] SC: I do think that’s the way you could explain to the reader, this is a kill warning. So you could have one of the bald guys that we don’t care about die.


[0:23:55.9] TG: Yeah, he’s like the red shirt in star trek.


[0:23:59.8] SC: Yeah, that way it gets information to the reader without having to explain the kill thing. So somebody can explain it to her later but the reader will have witnessed what happens when the head goes red. Actually, thinking now, that’s probably the best way to go. Maybe you have that scene where the 97 bald guy says, “I’m out of here, I got to go,” and 83 goes, “Go ahead, go ahead.”


For whatever reason, he decides, hell, just stay and wait five more minutes and he waits there to auger on and then those two, Jessie and 83 make it across the border but he doesn’t and his head explodes or something, I don’t know. Depending on how you want to do it. Or maybe somebody materializes or he just falls dead, I don’t know.


[0:24:56.2] TG: That’s what I was kind of picturing is he actually waited, Jessie comes out, they’re all running back and Jessie’s behind because she’s short and slow and she sees his light turn red and he just goes limp and then when she stops, 83 just drags her to keep running and just leaves him behind because it’s too late anyway and then they’re in danger too. That was kind of what I was picturing.


[0:25:24.6] SC: That works.


[0:25:26.3] TG: Okay.


[0:25:29.6] SC: That’s good. Okay. But the flashing lights on the back of the head are pretty cool and you can see it in your mind’s eye, it’s a cinematic moment. Especially with those metal caps on their head and they’re bald. It has a real early George Lucas kind of feel to it. If you ever saw that movie, his first movie I think it was called THX19 or something. It’s a really dystopian universe where everybody’s bald, Robert Duval was the lead character and everybody sort of drugged out. It’s a really, really interesting movie and I think it was his first one ever made. Anyway, your story kind of reminded me of that in a way.


Okay, that’s scene number six, let’s go to scene number seven which is 1,420 words and Jessie is safely home and the rats arrived to help. Now, you began this scene, you left scene six with a cliff hanger and you made a mistake at the beginning of scene seven. The mistake that you made is that you flash forwarded to Jessie’s safety. That bum me out because you had established this through line straight forward, narrative momentum and then you flashed forward where she’s all safe and snug. If you’re going to stop with whether or not they make it then you stop with maybe the guy going limp or the red light is beeping on the guy and you cut the scene and you begin the next scene with the exact next moment.


[0:27:22.9] TG: Okay.


[0:27:23.5] SC: But having Jessie sitting on her bed saying, “Oh close call,” whatever that was that she did and sort of thinking about what happened as supposed to having it happen on the page, that’s a mistake.


[0:27:36.2] TG: Okay.


[0:27:38.6] SC: This scene doesn’t move. It starts positive, Jessie’s safe in her bed and it ends positively. The rats come to help. So when you have no movement, sometimes it feels okay because it’s like, you feel like you’re putting a place mark in the story and you’re filling in some exposition and you’re getting some things done, but you’ve got to really look hard at it and you need to say to yourself, “Okay, let’s see. What’s the value at stake? Is it freedom? Jessie starts free, Jessie’s captured and then she’s captured at the end still. Okay, it’s not really freedom that’s at stake. Is it learning new information, uninformed versus informed?” Yeah, that’snot exactly it.


It just doesn’t move because you can’t move — it doesn’t feel good when the scene is about getting information to the protagonist and as I recalled in the scene, 83 explains a lot of things to Jessie. She explains what the lights on the back of the head are, she explains that you die if your thing goes red. So I think you need to look at this scene and get something at stake. Now, the rats I think are an important element to get in here because I have an idea about tweaking some of the stuff that you have in the final here.


But I would suggest, if you can just get the rats in shortly maybe even in the scene where 83 takes, I think it’s scene three or four, where 83 takes Jessie on the tour of hell. Maybe just before they begin their tour, the rats are there. That way, you can establish that these rats are coming for her to help and then Jessie will probably shoo them away because she doesn’t want to get in trouble but then later on when she puts that note underneath the rock that establishes that she’s taken up the communication again.


[0:30:07.8] TG: Yeah, you had mentioned that last week about establishing them earlier in the story than I did.


[0:30:14.1] SC: Yeah, I’ll tell you why because you have a great moment where the rats are discovered by the bad guys and the rats are thrown into being shamed themselves, which puts Jessie in a terrible position because she’s basically doomed her compadres, she’s doomed her friends, which is a way to get her to change her behavior for the good of somebody else. One of the things that you also have to remember is that, and this is something to think about for when — maybe this is the scene, let me back up for a second.


Okay, so the scene that has no movement. This is the scene that we’re just talking about when the rats arrive. If you establish the rats earlier on, you can make this scene about the consequences of her running away, okay? So it’s not both rats, maybe it’s not even a rat that was introduced at the very first one. Here is what I’m getting at, back in the feudal days when they had young kings, and so somebody who is seven years old becomes the king of England or the king of France or whatever.


What they used to do to this kings when they got in trouble because they were still children right? What they used to do to the kings is they would bring one of their friends out and they would say, “Oh King George, you’re a bad boy today, now we’re going to beat your friend because you were bad.” Because they can’t beat the king because he’s the king, right? So they beat people close to the king to make him feel bad.


Now, what you could do here is something similar with Jessie after she finally, she makes it back and 83, they barely make it back and now 83 may say to her, “Okay, here’s the situation, I’ve been alerted by the faction that they found somebody who must suffer for your running away.” You could even make 83 to be the one that gets, who suffers.


So Jessie has to watch the only person that seems to care about her be hurt in some fashion and that will raise the stakes of the story, establish that “man, the consequences, not only was she shamed but now it’s getting darker and darker”, and it can lead up to the bringing of the two rats into the center of the community to be shamed. I think Jessie needs to witness that. She needs to witness those two friends of hers have her hair cut off, being put in the stockade, et cetera, and that’s got to be the thing.


It’s almost like the moment in The Hunger Games when Katniss sacrifices herself for her sister. That’s when Jessie’s just got to be like, “Okay, enough is enough, I’ll do whatever you want me to do. But you have to save my friends, they cannot be shamed.” And we were talking about using the fact that Jessie’s brother is still alive as the climax of the beginning hook and my thinking today is, it might be interesting to save that as the inciting incident of the middle build. That way, the beginning hook will be more organic about the world from which she is coming without having to pull the world in which she is going into that world to get her to go there if you know what I’m saying?


[0:34:07.9] TG: Okay.


[0:34:09.3] SC: So that’s a thought.


[0:34:12.4] TG: All right. So this is what starts to worry me about how we’re doing this. Because I mean, that’s fine that completely trashes the next four scenes that we’re going to go over in the next five scenes.


[0:34:26.5] SC: No it doesn’t.


[0:34:28.7] TG: It doesn’t?


[0:34:29.3] SC: No.

[0:34:29.4] TG: Well because — okay. Which is fine, I don’t mind that, it’s just like, do we keep going and talk about scenes that will probably completely do?


[0:34:40.8] SC: Yes we do because we need to explain why the scenes need to change.


[0:34:47.4] TG: Okay.


[0:34:49.3] SC: I’m not just doing it willy-nilly, the reason why I sort of am suggesting that is because when I was going through this, I said to myself, “Okay, we have another scene where Mason visits Jessie in somebody’s house.”


[00:35:06.9] TG: Oh, yeah and it is exactly the same.


[00:35:08.8] SC: Oh my gosh, what are we going to do with that? Yeah, oh no. So we repeated a scene a couple of these scenes don’t move. I’m not saying they’re not well done. I’m not saying that they’re terrible but they’re not working, they’re not pushing the story forward in a way that’s going to make your reader go, “Holy crap! What is going on? This is incredible, I’ve got to keep going.”


Because once you have that scene where Mason shows up again and they have another conversation, the reader may not know intellectually. But inside themselves, they’re going to be like, “This seems familiar. Didn’t I already read this?” And again Tim, this isn’t to put you over the iron. This is what first drafts are about, this is why you do these spreadsheets because then you can say, “Oh my God, I have the exact same scene here. Oh, I just got to fix that. Oh, this scene doesn’t move, oh I’ve got to fix that.”


[00:36:06.3] TG: Okay, so we’re on scene seven and that’s the one where there’s just too much of explaining and it ends well because her friends are there.


[00:36:15.2] SC: Instead I think what you need to do is you can’t just push forward without talking about that incredible action scene and the consequences of that action scene. So just keep your focus and say to yourself, “How do I do a scene that will move from”, let’s see the previous scene, it ended negatively. Well, it ends positively because they escaped the killer. So this scene has to begin positively and end negatively.


[00:36:47.8] TG: And this is where it begins with they’re safe but then would it end with 83 getting punished for it?


[00:36:57.8] SC: Yeah, I think so and establishing getting 83 punished for it will make the reader sympathetic to 83, even more so.


[00:37:11.0] TG: Okay.


[00:37:12.0] SC: So if and when 83 betrays Jessie, I mean you’ve got to remember the greatest story ever told, as they say, Judas was the best disciple, right? I mean until he sold Jesus down the road for the coins. So that was a bug surprise for people when they first hear the Jesus story. So anyway, what you want to do is you want to build up sympathy for 83 so that it gives you the opportunity to pull the rug out from the reader later on by having her not be so great or being very Machiavelli and she can explain herself too.


Like, “Geez, I have the option of getting out of being a numbered person and having to manage all these people by just doing a couple of things and maybe getting a couple of whip strokes on my back? I will trade that anytime, sorry sweetheart, you’re a little kid. When you’re older, you’ll understand.” Putting her in the same position and the other thing about being a writer, which is so much fun, is that you can have these conversations with yourself and you say to yourself, “Well geez, if I was in a situation where I was basically in prison and they tell me that this little girl who’s coming who refuses to go eat ice cream all the time, could you help us go and get her to eat ice cream all the time?”


You’ll say , “Yeah, sure. What do I get?” and they go, “Okay, well we’ll half your sentence and we’ll give you a ton of money and all you have to do is get her to go become really socially accepted and gets all kinds of ice cream” and you’ll say, “Yeah, sure. She’s just being a little brat. I’ll do whatever I have to do to get her to do that.” And so people will understand why 83 does what she does because we can understand that reasoning. We can understand the reasoning of her in her position.


So anyway, let’s move onto the next scene. So if you were to make scene seven move from positive to negative, Jessie and 83 are fine. 83 at the end suffers some kind of humiliation for the act, for the punishment for both Jessie and herself so scene nine would have to begin negatively and you have Jessie cleaning the house of people who are plugged in.


[00:39:53.4] TG: No, so scene eight is…


[00:39:56.3] SC: Oh scene eight sorry.


[00:39:57.8] TG: Okay, yeah scene eight. So scene seven ends with her friends showing up, the rat showing up at the door. Scene eight was the one where they have the conversation.


[00:40:08.2] SC: Yeah and so Jessie basically gives them orders and there’s no real movement to the scene again because it’s her giving orders to her underlings and it rings false because Jessie’s been through so much trauma at this point that her seizing her rebellious powers again and commanding the night brigade, just does not seem believable.


[00:40:42.0] TG: Okay.


[00:40:43.0] SC: She’s in a hole and that hole is getting deeper and deeper and deeper and this is a man in the hole sequence and so what’s really nice about this sequence is you are getting her deeper and deeper into this very dark, dystopian world that she had no clue. She thought her life was bad as sort of a member of the blue collar life and, “Holy cow, I had no idea about these other people, these numbered people. It’s even worse, not just worst but like I want to jump off the cliff worse.” You know? All right, so scene eight doesn’t move and it’s exposition heavy and it just seems like the writer trying to set something up for later on.


[00:41:37.1] TG: But it’s so hard to do it otherwise.


[00:41:39.7] SC: No, all you have to do is to get those two little rats to visit her and then she drops that note under the rock, right? The reader picks that up, they know what’s going on. The reader does not need you to tell them that Jessie put a note under a rock. You told them that she did that, they know. They know, “Oh okay, she’s trying to communicate with somebody.” Why would you put a piece of paper under a rock unless you wanted somebody to read it?


So the very action of her putting a note under a rock tells the reader, “She’s communicating with somebody, the end.” You don’t have to say anything else and if you introduced those rats earlier on and Jessie says, “Get away from me. I can’t deal with you. Don’t look at me, I can’t help you.” and then she puts the note under a rock. Now we know, “Oh she’s taking up the communication with the rats again.” So that’s all you need. So that’s planted in the reader’s mind that she has reached out again to the rat. Now, all you have to do is pull those rats out in the middle of the compound and have them shamed and you don’t have to do any of this exposition.


[00:42:57.4] TG: Oh okay, so this is part of that trusting the reader.


[00:43:01.3] SC: Less is more, yeah. The reader is so smart, it’s incredible and I’ve never seen it where if you’ve constructed your story and it makes sense to you and you write it all down and then you pull it all, you pull 98% of it out, the reader is going to get it. They’re going to get it. They know what she’s doing. So to tell them what she’s doing pisses them off because they’re like, “I know, what do you think I’m stupid Tim? I know.” Okay, all right scene eight you can do without. Scene nine is that moment we were talking about earlier where Mason returns again to speak with Jessie and tell her…


[00:43:53.3] TG: In the exact same way he did before.


[00:43:58.2] SC: Well, okay yeah. So instead of having that scene, here is another thing that you could think about doing. It goes to what I was saying before, you could have Jessie cleaning the bedpans of these people and I think that’s pretty gross and pretty cool. So I think you could still — go ahead.


[00:44:18.5] TG: Yeah, so let me ask you a question here. One of the things that I’ve struggled with is like I remember this was months ago now, I was like, “So each scene you could sum up in a sentence, so what do I do for that other 1483 words?” And you brought up the Willy Wonka and you’re like you established -0 who wrote that? I forget now.


[00:44:47.7] SC: Roald Dahl.


[00:44:49.9] TG: Yes, he establishes this amazing world with all of that other, and then as I am trying to pay attention and as I just read books on my own of like, “Well what are writers doing here?” I was reading this book and it was describing the guy coming home and he never gets to see his son and so he wanted to go upstairs and kiss him before bed and as he walks up the stairs he skips that fifth step that creaks. So those little things, which establishes it.


So that’s what I was trying to do at the beginning of chapter nine, which I will probably move a lot of this into scene four of describing the chores she’s doing but that was what I was trying to do, establish that it’s hot and establish that she has this really crappy job of pushing this wheel barrow or whatever out to the edge of town and she’s cleaning out bedpans, this is her job now. So that part works?


[00:45:59.9] SC: Yeah and have fun with that stuff.


[00:46:02.4] TG: Okay.


[00:46:04.3] SC: Because yeah, you want to paint a picture into the reader’s mind of this world because this is, in terms of the hero’s journey, this is the ordinary world. This is the world from which she is going to move. She has to leave this world to go to the capital. Now the capital is going to be a completely different universe with new rules and new ways of behaving.


Another thing to think about in terms of this stuff, and I was thinking about this yesterday, is that when you write a dystopian novel, a great thing to do and this is what Suzanne Collins did so well in Hunger Games, which is to establish, to use historical references as fun little details into your story and what do I mean by that? What I mean is instead of having these people inventing a completely new language, you can use historical references from the past that could make sense.


So when was the last time that there was this big moment in history when there was such a division between social classes? Well, it was at the turn of the 20th century when the robber barons were around and Carnegie and Standard Oil and the Rockefellers, they used human capital in a way that was exploitation. And what rose to defeat that or to counter act that was trade unionism. So the unions came around to collectively organize the blue collar people against the one percent zillionaires who owned all the means of production, the factories, etcetera, etcetera.


So I was thinking for you because this is like a blue collared world versus this deluxe incredible gold coast one percent universe of people who live in the capital, you could use some of that language of that era. The language was rank and file workers versus management and the management were people who work for the very, very ultra wealthy and they separated themselves from the rank and file workers because they thought they were special but they were really under the same thumb as the rank and file workers.


So you would have these divisions of class. Rank and file workers, shop workers and then you would have management and then you would have the owners and the means of production or whatever the robber barons and so what I was thinking is that if you used instead of the numbered, you could call them the rank and file or something like that so that it reflects of truth of history in the future because what this history do will repeat itself. History repeats itself in different ways. “It rhymes, it doesn’t repeat,” I think somebody said that.


But that was a thought that I had that could be a way of honing in on these social classes in a way that could be instructive to the reader and be fun for you too. You could research what would the coal mines be like for little kids back then? And these could be virtual coal mines, right? You mentioned that these people have to go into this digital world and do mining in order to earn their keep. Those mines in the digital world, what would they look like? Would they be similar to the mines in West Virginia in 1896? They might be, I don’t know? But it’s something to think about and it’s a way of adding truthfulness and veracity to a fictional world.


[00:50:22.3] TG: Okay.


[00:50:23.5] SC: Okay. So scene nine is 1416 words and it works. It’s a scene where Mason basically blackmails Jessie into going into the capital and then scene 10 is the actual what happens in order to get her to do that. Angel and Aaron who are the two rats not only have they been shamed but now, they’re being traded into slavery. I think you’re gilding the lily here and I think you can just do the one scene of them.


[00:50:57.8] TG: What do you mean? I don’t know what that word is.


[00:50:59.8] SC: Oh, gilding the lily, it means that you’re adding too much on top of something. So not only were they shamed, not only was she responsible for them being shamed but now, they are going to be traded into another faction and that could work. I’m not saying it doesn’t work but in the present draft, it doesn’t feel organically truthful because I think once those kids, once Jessie understands that those kids are shamed because of her, she’s going to feel great guilt. But if you could have Jessie save them from being shamed, then she would gain stature in the eyes of the reader and she would start to feel better about herself too.


[00:51:54.9] TG: Okay, so the way that she regains stature is by trading going to the capital for getting her friends out of the shaming?


[00:52:06.2] SC: Yes.


[00:52:08.0] TG: Okay because at this point, I am trying to think. We have to dig her deeper and deeper into the hole. So she’s been shamed then she caused one of the numbered to die and then 83 got beat and then her friends get shamed.


[00:52:32.0] SC: Which just stops them. Yeah, she stops the shaming. So you have three…


[00:52:36.1] TG: Now did she stopped the shaming or did she get them out of it after the fact? Because right now, I have her getting them out of it after they’ve already been shamed.


[00:52:46.0] SC: You know what? I think you’re right, because if you have another shaming scene then the reader will be like “Oh, I already saw this scene.” So you could use, and I’m going to go back on what I said about you gilding the lily.


[00:53:02.5] TG: Because right now I think, let me pull it back up here. I think I actually skip, I don’t reshow the shaming.


[00:53:09.9] SC: No, you don’t, which was a good choice. But having them back at the compound at the bed, don’t do that. You’ve got to come up with something equally weird and strange that it’s like enough is enough at this point. Jessie seems them, they’re being carted away or whatever they are doing to send them to a different world and Jessie goes to 83 and says, “Contact Mason at the faction. Tell them I’ll do whatever the hell he wants but they’ve got to get these kids back to their parents.” And that could be the end of the beginning hook and its sort of she is defeated.


So we need to end this, remember what we said at the very beginning of this process. At the very beginning of this story, a positive inciting incident occurs. The positive inciting incident is that Jessie has been chosen to go to the capital and become a manager or part of management for the great billionaires of the universe and she turns it down. So the end of the beginning hook has to go negative. So it begins positive and it ends negatively.


It ends negatively because Jessie in her rebellion has been defeated. She is not going to be able to be the little rebel and everything will work out for her. No, she has to give in and she gives in in a good way, it saves her friends but it ends negatively. She didn’t want to go to the capital but she’s going to the capital. She assumes the call, her heroic call because she has to sacrifice for somebody else. That’s a good way of getting her there. Now, it doesn’t mean that she has any confidence of being successful when she goes on this calling right? Which is good.


[00:55:21.6] TG: I mean that fits the theme that we found months ago now of sacrificing yourself for others.


[00:55:30.8] SC: That’s right. So she’s going to sacrifice herself for others and it’s going to bite her in the ass, I’m not kidding because when she goes into the middle build, she’s going to discover some really heinous, horrible things. She’s going to fall down a bigger hole, believe it or not. Because we are going “man in hole, man in hole, Cinderella, tragedy” as our friends at the Hedomena would say. But again, don’t overwhelm yourself with that. I am keeping track of that in my mind so you don’t have to worry about that.


[00:56:08.5] TG: Okay.


[00:56:09.4] SC: So anyway, does that make sense?


[00:56:12.3] TG: Yeah. So I have a couple of questions. One is, is 11 scenes because we’ve cut it down to 10, is that long enough?


[00:56:24.9] SC: Well, it’s not something to worry about now. The thing that you have to remember is that the most important thing you want is narrative velocity. You don’t want to put in scenes just to have a scene because that just slows down the read and unless they are scenes that are going to pay off in a huge way at the very end of the book, they’re filler. It’s fat and this is not going to be your final draft, also remember that.


Also, what you’re going to find out is that as you’re doing the middle build and ending payoff, you’re going to make notes to yourself and you’re going to say, “Oh okay, there’s going to be this great payoff but I need to set it up”.


[00:57:17.9] TG: I’m going to go back and set it up.


[00:57:19.4] SC: I’m going to drop in the setup scene and in between four and five, that will set up this great moment and then you’re going to put T.K. scene to come where the dragon eats the bullion or whatever. I just made it up.


[00:57:38.6] TG: Yeah, that’s what J.K. Rowling did over and over so well in the Harry Potter books in going back to those. There are so many of these little throwaway things all the way back to the first book when right at the beginning he meets the professor that ends up being the bad guy. The professor won’t shake his hand and that’s because at the very end of the book he wins by just touching the professor because it burns him. She had to add that later, you know what I mean?


[00:58:15.3] SC: Definitely, she definitely did.


[00:58:16.7] TG: So okay.


[00:58:17.4] SC: What she did, I don’t know what she did but I’ll tell you what I think she did because it’s such a…


[00:58:24.8] TG: We should get her on the show. We should just ask her to come on.


[00:58:26.1] SC: Oh yeah, she has nothing else to do. “Both of you are absolutely stupid,” you know? But what she did was she focused on the spine of the story. She’s focused on the narrative art of her lead character and then later, once she nailed that then you can pepper in all these other scenes that will add word count and volume and depth and etcetera, etcetera later on. But right now, honing in on the narrative story spine of the hero’s journey of your lead character in a coming of age is the right process for this draft.


Because if you get this correct and you get this to hum in a really, really great way then you can add all of that other stuff later on that will even increase the innovation of the global story later on but if you are worrying about setting up the professor at the very beginning, you’re going to get lost in the weeds. It’s like Beethoven didn’t write the 9th symphony the first time he wrote a symphony. The 9th symphony is a genre-smashing, amazing, phenomenal thing.


He wrote the first symphony, the second symphony and each symphony that he wrote, it all built to this moment when the 9th symphony came out and it just was shattering. If you listen to it today and you’re like, “Wow! Holy cow, how did he think of adding that chorus at the end?” So that’s what Rowling did is she did her story spine and then she filled in later on with scenes T.K., to come, that would increase the innovation and the crisis moments and the climaxes later on, and then it tumbles you all the way back to the very beginning of the story.


So did Thomas Harris. The very first scene where we meet Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs, he literally tells Clarice Starling where Buffalo Bill is. He says, “Oh that’s my painting of the Belvedere in Italy,” and where is Buffalo Bill? Belvedere, Ohio and that’s the first time we meet Hannibal Lecter and so after you read that book 90 times like I did, you see what Thomas Harris did. Now, most people who read The Silence of the Lambs didn’t get that reference. But what they did get was a perfectly organic set up for the introduction of Belvedere, Ohio in the ending payoff of the story.


So focus on your narrative spine, your narrative arc of your protagonist, your hero’s journey in your fist draft really, really hone in on it like we’re doing now. So okay, you’re going to have nine scenes on your beginning hook. Well, maybe 11, who knows? Maybe nine, 10? Let’s keep moving. Let’s keep the narrative momentum going, get into the middle build because you’ve hit the points. You’ve done your man in the hole and you’ve got her out of the hole and she got herself out of the hole by sacrificing herself, which will create sympathy for her in the reader and will make them want to know what’s going to happen next.


[01:02:01.4] TG: Okay, so it’s my job now to basically go back and rewrite the different scenes we rewrote, rewrite, just basically make all these changes we just talked about?


[01:02:13.3] SC: Well that’s really your choice. My recommendation would be yes, would be to do that now. Now later on when you’re writing your fifth novel, you might do these 11 scenes as your beginning hook and say, “Okay, let me story grid spreadsheet these and see how they’re doing,” and then you’ll do that and you go, “Oh I’ve got a problem there, a problem there,” and you’ll make notes to yourself and say, “Okay, rewrite scene six this way. Rewrite scene nine this way. Shit can scene three.”


And then you will put those notes in a file and then you’ll move onto your middle build but for now because it is fresh in your mind, I think it’s a good idea to redo these scenes with interesting innovations in the action so that when you do start your middle build, you’re going to feel like, “You know what? I’ve got a concrete foundation and if things go wrong in the middle build, I know at least I can throw out my middle build and I’ll still have a concrete foundation to start again.” Does that make sense?


[01:03:25.0] TG: Yeah.


[01:03:26.4] SC: Okay.


[01:03:27.7] TG: Okay, I’ll get to work.




[01:03:30.1] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so that 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 If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review. Thanks for subscribing and being part of our work here at Story Grid and we will see you next week.

3 comments on “Building Better Scenes

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    Really enjoying this “deep dive” and continue to learn a lot even though I am writing in a different genre. Tim, thanks for your ongoing courage in letting us have a ringside seat to this process, and Shawn, thanks for the reminder to “have fun with this” – it’s easy to forget that when the angst level rises!

  2. Kent Faver says:

    The Silence of the Lambs note toward the end was worth the price of admission times ten. Incredible. Thanks Shawn.

  3. Anne-Maree says:

    the kid who was whipped instead of the king was called a whipping boy.
    Thanks for all the info, guys

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