Russian Dolls

It’s worth repeating. Again and again…

Storytelling is a process by which you learn how to craft the primary unit of on-the-page Story (the Scene) in such a way that the scenes combine to form a larger entity called the Sequence, which coalesce to form an even larger unit called the Act, which form the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff to your global Story.  Think of Story as a series of Russian Dolls, self-contained little units within larger units.  If one masters the art of crafting a single Scene, the other units are much easier to create. When you become a pro, they begin to even “write themselves.”  Invest your time in learning the scene…like an apprentice mason focuses her efforts learning how to lay a perfect single brick.

And to master the Scene, hold fast to the cement, sand, water, lime and clay of a single scene…the 5 commandments of Storytelling…

Here’s the transcript for episode eight, “The 5 Commandments of Storytelling” of The Story Grid Podcast.

You can also listen to it by clicking the play button below.

Tim: Hello, and welcome to The Story Grid podcast. This is the podcast dedicated to helping you become a better writer. My name is Tim Grahl. I’m your host, and I am a struggling writer trying to get my first book done and learn how to write a good book, a book that actually works.

Shawn Coyne is the expert, 25+ years editing experience in New York Publishing, and he is sharing his expertise with me along the way. The goal of the show is to let you listen in to our conversation, so hopefully we both can learn something at the same time.

I’ve really enjoyed going through this process. It’s been really interesting to share my scenes with you and to have your feedback along with Shawn’s. If you’ve listened to the previous episodes, you can go and download the actual scenes that I wrote and then that Shawn fixed. You can see all of his comments, as well. Those are in previous show notes at

As we go through this, I’m hoping that you learn alongside me. I know one of the things that I’ve learned the most is how to trust the audience, not put too much in the scene, and actually learn to draw things out. I always rush things and try to cram too much into every scene instead of letting things draw out and play out. We talk about that a good bit in this episode as we go over my rewrite of a scene and then we dive into the math.

One of the things that I love about “The Story Grid” and why I initially reached out to Shawn to do this podcast after reading his book is that I feel like it helps writers who are just getting started like myself, and even seasoned writers, put some constraints around their work, allow them to have a box that they can work inside of so that there are not too many options, there are not too many decisions to make early on.

This discussion on math is really central to this idea. It helps you make decisions early on, helps you know what scenes you should write, how many scenes you should write, and what those scenes should be. We dive into that in this episode. I think you’re really going to get a lot out of it. We’re going to jump in and get started. I’ll see you on the other side.

Shawn, I hesitate to even ask this question because a couple of weeks ago, we went over my scene and it was exactly how I wanted it, which is what an editor would say about my scene, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “Thousands of people are going to hear him rip apart my scene.”

You gave me a lot of pointers. Again, we went over them, and you can see all of Shawn’s notes on those in previous show notes, but I rewrote the scene based on your feedback, at least what I think was your feedback because we always hear different things than are actually said. I sent that to you and I wanted to hear what you thought.

Shawn: I’m really glad that you brought this up because I did read through the revision and I think it’s immeasurably better than the first draft of the first scene. There are a few reasons why. It goes to all the red-lining notes that I put in the program notes from last week.

Primarily, the very first thing is that you’ve limited the cast – the only people on stage in this scene are three people – and you also have a central conflict that you pull up immediately. What you decided to do here is to begin what I would call in medias res, which means right in the middle of a conflict, which I think is a terrific idea. It’s a great way to suck a reader right into a story.

Again, you have two primary figures at the very beginning of this scene who are debating something. I think you did a pretty good job of stringing along the reader for a time period for the reader not to know exactly what they’re talking about.

Tim: That was much harder than I assumed it would be, because I actually kept going back and taking stuff out to make it string even further along. I spilled the beans in the first hundred words on the first try.

Shawn: Exactly. This is a process of learning how to trust your audience and your reader in that this is something that we have seen… As creatures of the Western world, we have been exposed to so many stories since birth that by the time somebody is 20 to 25 years old, they really know so much about story and structure all intuitively. They’re not really even thinking about it, but they know things that the writer is not going to have to put in.

The fact is that you start here and these two guys are having a discussion. I would say that you should cut the very first sentence of this scene, because it says, “Both men look to bend the other to his will.” To put that sentence in there to start the story is a mistake.

I’ll tell you why. What it does is it says to the reader that there is a third person omniscient voice above this scene who is evaluating what these characters are doing on stage. It’s a God-like sort of presence.

Unless you’re going for a narrative altitude that is Dickensian – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – and then slowly panning down into a street level, ground level scene, the message it sends to the reader is that this is going to be an old-fashioned story where there is a narrator telling me the goings-on of this fictional universe.

But your strength in the scene is in the conflict between these two men. Are they going to head back because somebody might be seriously ill, or are they going to stay the course? That’s the central conflict in this scene.

The question that is going to arise for the reader is “Who’s going to win? Who’s going to win this argument?” I think this is a terrific first draft of a scene and you have a lot of things that you can do to tweak it, to improve it, and to enhance it.

I’ll tell you the other thing that I really like about this scene is that the last time we talked, I said to you if you write a story that has ten guys on a ship and there is no female presence, it’s going to have a limited audience because you need to have at least one strong female character in a story to attract the widest readership possible.

As I said before, estimates are between 70% to 75% of book readers are women. Most books are bought and read by women, so if you didn’t have any female characters in your story, you’re basically shutting out 70% to 75% of an audience. That’s not a great decision.

Also, one of the great things about having a man and a woman in a scene is that there is so much subtext that you never even have to put on the page, because the minute there is a man and a woman on a boat and they’re alone, there is sexual tension – whether you know it or not or whether the writer is putting it in there. The reader is intuiting “That’s kind of strange that they’re in this locked cabin together. I wonder what’s going to happen.”

What you do is you’re foreshadowing a relationship that may or may not develop later on between the husband’s wife and the captain, and the captain and the wife, and the captain and the husband. What you’re doing is you’re setting up a triangle of conflict that you’re going to be able to play with for the rest of your novel and your story.

All of this is to say that I made a lot of suggestions based upon your first draft that you could have chosen and taken any which way you wanted. You may even go back to those editorial suggestions later on when you get stuck and say to yourself, “Maybe that is a good idea to try and set up a situation where we have a front story and a back story.”

I’m not sure if you remember, but in my notes, one of the things that I thought might be interesting for you would be to have the very, very beginning of your story be the discovery of the floating woman at sea.

Tim: I actually wrote this scene, the second version of the scene, before I saw those notes, and I started working on another first scene based on your notes. I’m going to rewrite this scene probably 12 times.

Shawn: Yes, you will. The really great news here is that you have a lot of meat on the bone here, you have a lot of stuff to play with, you have a central conflict in the scene, you have an inciting incident, you have progressive complications, you have a crisis, a climax, and a resolution all in this scene.

The value at stake in this scene would be power. It’s a shift of power. There is a struggle for power. At the very beginning of this scene, one character, the customer, seems to have the power, but at the end of the scene, the power shifts to the captain.

What’s also interesting is that the critical moment when that power shift happens, the turning point, is when the female character who is the wife of the passenger comes on the scene and she sides with the captain.

That’s interesting because when you have a married couple on a boat and a captain and the husband is saying one thing and the captain is saying another thing, usually the wife is going to side with the husband. That’s just the way it usually goes, because they have a long history together and she’s going to trust her husband more than she would this strange captain.

What I liked about your choice in this scene was for her to placate her husband and side with the captain in a way, which raises all kinds of wonderful mysteries and tension for the reader. The reader is going to say, “Geez, I wonder what the hell is going on. I’m going to read the next chapter.” That’s kind of the goal of the scene, to get them to read the next chapter.

Tim: This was the first scene I had written thinking through the inciting incident, building it to the climax and resolution. I had that goal of 1500 words and I kept thinking I have to make it a little bit worse, a little bit worse, a little bit worse. At first, I tried to think, “They disagree but it’s not that big of a deal,” but by the end, it’s on the verge of coming to blows.

I felt like when I brought her in, that was a way to turn it. Maybe I’m getting too deep. This is all the crap I hate hearing writers talk about.

Shawn: No, you have to go through this in your head, though. Keep going.

Tim: Then I was thinking I don’t want either of them to be the clear victor, where one finally says, “Okay, fine.” I thought by bringing her in, it would be a way to let the captain win, because that was a goal, while him not just deciding that he’ll give in. His wife asks him to give in with the caveat that he’ll get his way if certain things don’t happen.

Shawn: That’s right, and that’s an active turning point where the introduction of the female character into the scene is an active way of turning it, whereas if you decided to go with a revelatory turning point, what would have happened is they discover something – like the navigational equipment falls overboard or something like that, or they discover that they were going one course of direction and, in fact, they’re going in another one.

The revelatory turning point is a perfectly valid way of getting things going and to turn a scene, but I think at the very beginning of your story, it’s better to use active turning points because revelatory turning points are usually those moments that you want to save up for much later on that are kind of beneath the surface that the characters already know but the reader doesn’t.

I wrote something a long time ago for Steve Pressfield about narrative drive. If you go to and search for an article called “Narrative Drive” that I wrote, I discuss the three ways to generate tension, and excitement, and mystery, and all that kind of stuff. It’s an important thing to think about, and you intuitively knew “I should turn this scene in an active way,” as opposed to “Oh, this just in from ABC News,” that kind of a revelatory turning point.

One of the reasons why I wanted us to work through a scene is that – again, this goes back to the whole Russian doll element of storytelling – the more comfortable you get writing scenes, and perfecting them, and tweaking them, and having the fun that you seem to be having analyzing them and then saying to yourself, “Have I really progressively complicated this in the best way possible?” the more you get into that primary unit of story for a novelist which is the scene, the better you’re going to be able to evaluate not just your scenes but your sequences, and your acts, and your major turning points, and your global story. But if you try and attack the global story a little bit too soon, you’re going to get really deeply into your mind and a little bit too analytical.

I like working on a scene and then taking a step back, doing a little editing, rewriting the scene, and then working it that way, as opposed to trying to plot out all 58 scenes without writing anything, just saying, “Jim goes to the boat. Boat capsizes,” those sort of shorthand scene descriptions.

Tim: I think what has been the most helpful takeaway for me is trying to do as little as possible in each scene. I guess you probably wouldn’t say that, but not trying to do too many things in any given scene. It’s almost like you should just have one thing you’re trying to do in each scene.

Shawn: Yes. You want to turn it from one pole of the value to another pole of the value. The other thing about your beginning here is that the reader is not really sure who the protagonist is yet. That’s kind of cool because that’s another element that’s going to get them to want to read the second scene.

Tim: You’ve only given me the good so far. Give me the bad.

Shawn: The bad is the line-by-line stuff and the dialogue isn’t exactly super-duper fantastic.

Tim: Okay. The resolution is they’re not going back, but I keep writing. I go into he goes downstairs and recap what happened.

Shawn: Yes. I don’t know that you would want to do that in your final draft because it’s a telltale sign of the writer covering his ass, like, “I am not confident enough in my storytelling skills to leave a lot of open questions here, so what I’m going to do is fill in the blanks. I really want the reader to be able to follow what I’m doing.”

Again, when I first started talking about this, part of the skill of becoming a really good writer is to really start having deep respect for your audience. Your audience is going to know something’s up. They don’t need to know the specificity of what’s up quite yet, especially if this is your inciting incident to your global story. They want to just eavesdrop on this conversation on this ship in the middle of nowhere and these two guys are debating whether or not they need to turn back or not.

They’re not sure what the motivations of these people are. Maybe the guy who wants to go back, he wants to go back for a different reason than what he’s saying. The other thing about dialogue and about storytelling is that the subtext is what is going to drive the curiosity of the reader.

Here’s a really good thing to remember. The scene is never really about what’s being spoken. This scene, although it’s about whether or not they’re going to turn back or not, it’s not really about that. What it’s about is the captain wants something, the passenger wants another thing, and usually, the reasons why the passenger wants to head back to shore have nothing to do with the health of the other guy on board.

Those are revelations that are going to drive a reader to want to find out what happens next. The fact that these guys are arguing about money and they’re wondering whether or not the guy is too ill to continue, what that says to the reader is “Wow, these are pretty good reasons why they’re using and having this argument, but I really wonder what the truth is underneath all of that.”

When you’re writing dialogue… And you can really sort of get mind-trippy thinking through all of this stuff so I hesitate to really start getting into a deep philosophical discussion about dialogue. But you have to remember that dialogue is…

Just think about your own life. Say you don’t want to go to the movie that your wife wants to go to but you don’t want to hurt her feelings, right? Usually what you’ll do is you’re not going to say, “I don’t want to go to your stupid movie because there’s going to be no action in it. It’s going to be a bunch of people talking, somebody’s going to end up crying, and I don’t want to go see that movie because it’s stupid.” You’re not going to say that to your wife.

Instead you’re going to say something like, “Yes, that sounds pretty good. The only thing is that I read a review in The New York Times, and it said that it was kind of bad. Are you sure you really want to see that?”

Tim: It’s funny. Just yesterday, I was listening to this podcast. No, I’m not going to tell you about a conversation between me and my wife.

Shawn: No, please don’t.

Tim: No, I’m going to tell you about something else. There’s this podcast that’s relatively new called Hidden Brain, and their first episode was about switch tracking. It was talking about this idea of how two people have two different motivations but they’re in one conversation.

I think Stephen King talked about this in “On Writing.” He’s basically like, “People lie, so dialogue is the best way to tease that out because they’re going to say things that are lies or half-truths and you’re left wondering what’s really going on.”

Shawn: Exactly. Everybody lies all the time. The motivations for the lying are often good intentions. You don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings by saying what you really, deep-down think, but you also want to get what you want, too. We’re all masters of talking around the thing instead of actually formally addressing the thing.

That’s why I had you read “Hills Like White Elephants” because that’s a masterful way… What Hemingway did was he wrote everything but what they were really talking about. At no point does he mention what they’re really, really talking about.

Tim: I felt like my favorite part of that was how hard the man was pushing the woman in that scene when everything he said was, “Hey, whatever you want.”

Shawn: Exactly. That’s what we always do. We always are like, “Hey, it’s totally your decision, but just think about it. It’s going to be terrible, but it’s your decision.”

That’s something that’s taught in English literature classes from 6th grade through post-graduate degrees. It’s a great piece of writing.

Tim: I’m going to take another couple of cracks at the scene, clean it up a little bit, but for any of you who want to read my rewrite, it will be in the show notes of this episode, Episode 8, at

Because I’m sure everybody is sick of hearing about my one little scene, I want to dive into the episode on math that you talked about. I looked it up. What did I look it up for? I was writing something about how to write a book in 90 days for my other website, and I came back to this because I was telling people break everything down into scenes. I remembered you had most books are about 80,000 words long. They have roughly, is it 60 scenes?

Shawn: Yes, about.

Tim: Then you know ahead of time that you have 15 scenes already that you have to write. What are those, and can you name them all from memory? I have them here.

Shawn: Sure. Let me test my own knowledge of things I’ve written before. It’s dicey sometimes but this one is pretty easy.

The thing about “The Story Grid” that I love… And the thing that you’re referencing is a chapter called “The Math.” The thing that I really love about the methodology of “The Story Grid” is that what it’s about is breaking down huge, big tasks into manageable step-by-step mini problems.

You can say to yourself, “I can write 1500 words,” but if somebody says to you, “Can you write 80,000 words in 90 days?” you’re like, “No, there’s no way I’m going to be able to do that.” If you say to somebody, “Can you write 1500 words in two days?” they’re like, “Yes, I could probably do that.”

The whole chapter about math is to break down this monumental, painful monster problem into easily identifiable tasks that you can actually put on your calendar and say, “Today’s task is to do this scene, and it has to be 1500 words. This is where it needs to start and where it needs to finish. I have seven hours to do it.”

When you look outside and you see leaves on your front yard, you go, “I need to get my rake and I need to rake up those leaves.” It’s a very easy thing to measure and picture in your head. What I’m trying to do with “The Story Grid” is to make these very esoteric monster problems smaller.

In a story – I go over this over and over again in the book – very simply, you’re going to have a beginning, a middle, and an end to a story. If you were to distill story structure, that’s it. There are three sections to a story. There’s a beginning, there’s a middle, and there’s an end, so you have three major movements in a story. It begins, there are middle complications, and then there’s an ending payoff.

If you know that you have to write an 80,000 word novel and that the scene length today that most people really appreciate is around 1500 to 2000 words, then you divide 2000 words into 80,000 and you get 40 scenes.

Tim: You call that potato chip length?

Shawn: I do. I call it potato chip length, and it’s because when we were all back in high school and we had to read those big books like “Moby Dick,” it’s like, “Read chapter six tonight.” It’s the codification of whale classifications, and it’s 112 pages. You’re about ready to jump off a bridge when you look at chapter six and it goes on 112 pages or whatever it goes on.

What people would prefer – and it’s evolved to this point in commercial fiction – is to have a scene that they could read in three to four minutes. If the scene is great and it’s late at night, they’ll say, “The next chapter is only six more pages. I’m going to read that chapter.” It’s like potato chips. If you eat one potato chip, then you want to eat another.

If you go from a 1500-word scene that’s five or six pages in a book and then the next chapter is 42 pages, guess what’s going to happen? People are going to stop reading and they’re going to go right to bed.

I refer to them as potato chip length because 1500 to 2000 words, if you do it really well, it will make people say, “Oh, what the heck? I’ll read one more chapter before I go to bed.” If that chapter is even better, then they’ll go, “Oh my gosh, I can go to bed at 11:30 tonight. I’ll read another chapter.” If you do it really, really well, you’ll get people to stay up all night reading your book, and that’s really the goal.

But if there’s a 45-page chapter, they’re going to say, “Okay, I’m definitely going to stop here because I can’t commit to reading 42 pages before I go to sleep,” because everybody likes to have a moment of accomplishment before they go to sleep, right? Nobody wants to stop in the middle of a chapter.

Tim: I do this with my Kindle. When I realize I’m getting past about two-thirds into the book, I’ll check to see how long it says I have to read to finish the book, and I’m looking at my clock, playing that like, “I’m supposed to get up this early but I want to finish the book. I could do that but then I lose this amount of…” I’m doing all of this negotiation in my head.

Shawn: All that internal calculation. I say this in the book. “The Silence of the Lambs” is 64 scenes; each one is not more than 2000 words. Why not take advice from somebody as masterful as Thomas Harris?

Another guy who does this is James Patterson. He’ll have a chapter that’s 127 words. He’s known for a lot of chapters and a lot of breaks in his storytelling because he wants people to keep reading it. He doesn’t want them to get bogged down by one particular chapter. I think it’s a very good choice.

Anyway, let’s get back to the math. 80,000 words is your typical novel and you’re going to do 1500 word scenes so you’re going to have about 60 chapters. If they’re 2000 words, it’s going to be 40 chapters. I think 60 chapters of 1500 words is a good place to start.

Now we have the beginning, we have the middle, and the end. I go into great detail in the book about why the following fact is true, but I’m just going to give you the fact now because I could talk about it for another hour. The fact is that in a traditional story, the beginning is 25% of the storytelling, the middle is 50% of the storytelling, and the ending is 25% of the storytelling. It’s a 25/50/25 percentage between beginning, middle, and end. That is just the way storytelling has evolved since the beginning of time.

Again, I have a couple of chapters in there that explore the reasons why that may be. It’s pretty fascinating to me; it might not be fascinating to other people. But just in terms of math, if you say to yourself, “Okay, 25% of my book is going to be the beginning. It’s 80,000 words so about 22,000 words is going to be my beginning and 22,000 words is going to be my end. The middle is going to be whatever 80,000 minus 44,000 is, which is 36,000?” I don’t know, something like that.

Then you divide 1500 words into each of those word counts, and you come up with between 12 to 15 scenes to begin with, then about 20 to 25 scenes in the middle,, and then 12 to 15 scenes at the end. We’ve broken down a very big problem already into three distinct units. Your beginning is going to be about 12 scenes, your middle is going to be about 24 scenes, and your end is going to be 12 scenes.

Can we break it down even further to give us some more battle plans to attack this novel? Yes, you can. This goes to what we were talking about three minutes ago. Every beginning is going to have to have an inciting incident, progressive complications, a crisis, a climax, and a resolution, and each one of those things is going to have to have a scene that is dedicated to that one particular beginnings unit of story.

You’re going to have to have one scene that is the inciting incident of the global story that will be in the beginning of your story, and this is the one that you’ve been working on, Tim. It’s the inciting incident of the entire story. It’s also the inciting incident of the beginning of the story. That one scene, you’ve been tackling over the past couple of weeks.

Then you’re going to have to have a scene in that beginning that really raises and progressively complicates the beginning to a very big crisis point for the beginning hook of your story. For example, let’s say in your story that progressive complication is they decide not to turn back and as they are deep-sea diving again, a storm picks up. The storm wipes out all the navigation equipment, and all the guys have to get back on the ship. Now what are they going to do?

The crisis will be now are we going to turn back or now are we going to try and find shelter somewhere else? I know that’s kind of cliché and it’s just off the top of my head, but that would be an example of the beginning hook crisis for the early part of your story. That would be the big crisis in the beginning hook. It’s going to turn the story from life at the beginning to the possibility of death. It’s going to go from a positive to a negative at the end of your beginning hook.

Then you’re going to have a scene that’s going to be the climax of that crisis – what choice do they make? You’re going to do an entire scene where they deliberate and somebody is going to step forward and say, “I’m going to make this decision. The rest of you have to follow me, and this is going to be the way it is.” Then you’re going to have a short resolution scene to show the result of that climactic decision.

You’re going to have five scenes where you have to really pay that off in your beginning. You’re going to have one scene that is dedicated to the inciting incident of the beginning hook, one scene that is dedicated to a progressive complication of the beginning hook, one scene that is dedicated to the crisis of the beginning hook, one scene that is dedicated to the climax of the beginning hook, and one scene that is dedicated to the resolution of the beginning hook.

Guess what? You’re going to need those same five scenes for the middle build and the ending payoff. So you know from the very beginning 15 scenes that you’re going to have to deliver in your story.

Tim: We have 40 scenes, 12 for the beginning, 24 for the middle, and 12 for the end. We already have 15 of those laid out because we have five, five, and five. That leaves 33 scenes that we have to write.

Shawn: Right. Those other 33 scenes, you’re going to be able to narrow those down too, because if you’re an expert in your genres and you’ve already spent a lot of time really deliberating the specific genres that you’re going to be writing about, you know that there are obligatory scenes in specific genres.

If you’re writing a love story, you’re going to say to yourself, “I’m going to have to have a scene where the lovers break up.” That’s in every love story, so that’s an obligatory scene in a love story. Then you’re going to say to yourself, “The lovers’ break-up scene, should I have that in the beginning of my story, the middle of my story, or the end of my story? Should I make it the climax of my middle build? Should I make it the climax of my beginning hook? Maybe I should just make it the inciting incident of my ending payoff.”

Tim: You’re just overlapping those at that point, the obligatory scenes.

Shawn: Yes, you could be. The obligatory scenes are wonderful because they can help you answer a lot of these dilemmas.

You also have to say to yourself, “How can I innovate this obligatory scene that everybody knows is coming? How can I make it interesting? How can I make it different from what they’re expecting?”

One of the ways that you could possibly do that is to zig when the reader thinks you’re going to zag. If you build up a love story and in your subtext, you’re saying to your reader, “This is leading up to this moment where they’re going to get married,” and bang, you pull the rug out from under them and they decide to break up instead, that’s a way of innovating and also delivering an obligatory scene.

Tim: I thought, too, as you were saying that if the subtext leading up to it is that the woman is unhappy, so you’re expecting that she’s going to break it off, you have him break it off instead.

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: I have my 12 scenes for my beginning of my book. I have five of those in the bag. Let’s say I have a couple more from obligatory scenes or something. That still leaves me five to seven scenes that I have to come up with. I guess in my mind, those would all be progressive complication scenes.

Shawn: Yes. You’re way ahead of me, but yes. You’re going to want to slowly be twisting the rope. I write about this a lot in the book. You can’t go back. You can’t progressively complicate something and then pull back and progressively complicate it with something that’s less than what you’ve done before.

You have to think logically “How can I keep twisting this and making it more difficult and painful, and how can I build it up to this climactic moment at the end of my beginning hook that’s going to pull the rug out from the reader, surprise them, and really get them driven into the middle build?

Here’s an example. A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that you watch that movie Dead Calm. I don’t know if you had a chance to watch it, but I can tell you, basically, the beginning hook of that movie and how it climaxes into the middle build.

It’s very simple. It’s a series of scenes at the very beginning of the movie. It opens with a train. On the train are a bunch of Navy guys, and in the background, you hear Christmas music. This is all in the very first couple seconds of the story.

The train pulls into the station and the very handsome Sam Neill gets off the train. He’s obviously a big deal. The other sailors are saying, “Have a great Christmas, Captain!” He gets off the train, and he stands there and stops. He’s sort of looking around. Bang, that’s the end of the scene.

The next scene is the director has made it seem as if time has now gone on. It’s like a half an hour later. Sam Neill is still standing there. He’s obviously waiting for someone to come pick him up from the train station, and they haven’t arrived yet. The time is getting longer and longer and longer. He’s starting to get a little upset, so he starts to walk into the main, concourse and he notices that there are two policemen who are looking at a photograph. They look up at him, they look at each other, and then they start to approach him. That’s the cut of that scene. Those are two scenes.

The next scene, Sam Neill is being led down a corridor of a hospital, and in the hospital, we see his wife, Nicole Kidman. She’s under a respirator. She’s been in a terrible car accident, and we overhear the doctor say to Sam Neill, “I’m sorry, but we could not save your son.”

Now we understand. This guy was coming home from leave for Christmas. His wife, Nicole Kidman, was going to pick him up at the train station with their little boy, and they were in a car accident. The scene with the car accident ends in the hospital with Sam Neill leaning over, trying to communicate with his comatose wife, Nicole Kidman.

We pull back, and we see the vantage of the patient, Nicole Kidman, looking up and we hear Sam Neill say, “Darling, darling, are you in there?” That’s the cut. That’s the end of the beginning hook of Dead Calm.

The next scene is a flashback scene. The flashback is of Nicole Kidman in the car on the way to the train station. She’s got the little boy in the back seat, and the little boy drops his teddy bear. He opens up his car seat to lean down to get the teddy bear, and Nicole Kidman says, “Don’t do that, Joey,” or whatever his name is. “Get back in your chair.” It’s at that moment, she takes her eyes off the road for a second that she has the car accident and the little boy is killed.

Now we hear a shriek. That scene cuts and obviously, now we see Nicole Kidman on a bed, and it’s been a dream. We’re getting a lot of great information in this beginning hook that’s really only five minutes at the very beginning of this film.

What we discover is that she’s on a boat. She’s on a boat with Sam Neill. They’re all alone and he says to her, “We have all the time in the world. We need to be together. We need to get over this.” This is the end of the beginning hook of Dead Calm. The climax is Sam Neill’s decision to take his wife on a months-long vacation on the open sea by themselves with their dog so that they can reform their marriage after the loss of their child.

This is a really, really terrific beginning hook because now the viewer is really attached to these two people. They sympathize with them. They’ve lost a child. The wife is bereft. She can’t believe it. She can’t sleep at night. She’s addicted to painkillers. The husband has the courage to pull her out of the universe and put her on this boat, and together, they’re going to go on this journey in this middle build that’s going to repair their marriage. That’s the end of the beginning hook.

The inciting incident of the beginning hook is “Wife doesn’t show up at train station. Where is she?” The progressive complication is “Oh my God, she’s still not here. I’ve been standing in this train station for two hours. Oh my gosh, here come policemen. They have a picture of me. What the hell is going on?”

The crisis is “I’ve lost my son, my wife is comatose. What in the hell am I going to do?” The climax is “I am going to take my wife on a long, long journey and repair our marriage.” The resolution is they’re on the boat. Those are five scenes that I just described that were in the beginning hook of Dead Calm. The next section is the middle build, and boy, does that really pay off too.

Tim: The whole point of all of this information is to help you map it out and put in, like you were saying, these bite-size things that I feel like I can accomplish instead of this giant project I can never do.

Would a way to do this – again, back to the beginning, my 12 scenes, and the five laid out – is to basically lay out four of them, the inciting incident, the crisis, the climax, and the resolution – so those are like bookends to your beginning – and then I look at the other scenes and say, “What is my path going to be between the inciting incident and the crisis, climax, and resolution, and those are each of the scenes where I keep, like you say, twisting the rope to get me to the point where I have to do that?

That seems much more doable. You’re basically starting with the beginning and end and then filling it.

Shawn: Yes, exactly. It’s kind of fun, too, because what you end up doing is telling yourself your own story, like “Okay, what am I going to do next?” It’s kind of fun. You start to picture these people in your head and say, “What if that happens? No, that’s kind of cheesy; that’s been done before. What if I tried this? No.”

Slowly, what you’ll do is you’ll start to eliminate all the stuff that’s been done a million times, the more you think about it, and you’ll chart out 12 scenes. You’ll go from your inciting incident, you’ll get all the way through, and that’ll be your good starting map.

Then you’ll want to do the same thing for your middle build, and then you’re going to want to do the same thing for your ending payoff. By the time you’re done, you’ll have 15 major movements that will show you the global path of your story. You’ll be able to track the valances of how the scenes are moving.

If you move a scene from a positive charge to a negative charge in your inciting incident, you’re going to want to progressively complicate it in the next scene by moving from negative to positive.

Things are looking terrible at the end of the inciting incident, and then maybe, in your case for your novel, the guy with the bends, he’s really feeling a lot better now. Isn’t this a relief? He really doesn’t have the bends. Everything is going to be good.

That moves from a negative to a positive in the second scene. Then in the third scene, you’re going to want to go from positive to negative. He goes back into the water and he has a seizure, something like that.

You don’t want to go positive, negative, positive, negative, positive, negative, positive, negative because it doesn’t seem organic. It doesn’t seem like the way life happens. The way life seems to happen…

Tim: Last year, I took this online copyrighting course. It taught this idea called the soap opera sequence. Basically, it’s about how to write e-mail marketing copy and how you open up all of these story threads and then you keep weaving them in and out of each other and only resolving them at certain times.

The way that they talked about it was in a soap opera, if you watch the scenes, they do it like cliffhanger, cliffhanger, resolution, cliffhanger, cliffhanger, resolution. They’ll do a scene and then it’s the real cheesy pan-in on the guy’s face and “Oh my gosh, what’s he’s going to do?” and switches to the next scene.

But if all you do are cliffhangers, it won’t keep them engaged because nothing ever gets resolved so every third or fourth scene, they resolve some sort of previous series of cliffhangers, and they keep weaving these things together. It reminded me of that when you were talking about this.

If you end every scene on a negative, it will be too much and it will start to get predictable so you have to weave in positives, too, even though those positives will eventually turn into a negative.

Shawn: Exactly. Just your mentioning that… When I was a real little boy, I had this dream of writing a story. I was thinking to myself, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll write a story about a little boy who has a broken arm, and then the next day, he breaks his leg. Then the day after that, he breaks his other leg.”

I thought to myself as a little boy, “I’m making it worse and worse and worse for the kid,” but in fact, I wasn’t really because I was just putting more and more of the same thing on the character instead of having something go well, then not well, then well, and then not well.

Tim: You said before that we can’t use the same thing over and over, so that also broke that rule you gave last week or the week before where you can’t keep using the same complication over and over. You can’t get a little bit sicker, a little bit sicker, a little bit sicker. You have to keep changing up the actual source of the complication.

Shawn: Exactly.

Tim: It makes me think you’re trying to create this situation where you’re just throwing all of this stuff that keeps people off balance.

Shawn: I just want to say this one thing, Tim, because you and I, we love to pick apart the inciting incidents, the resolutions, the blah, and the climaxes. The thing that I would always advise people to do is when you’re just goofing, when you’re thinking in your head, you’re walking down the street and you’re goofing up scenes, don’t worry about identifying these particular moments in the particular time because what you’re going to find is you do this intuitively.

What you’ll do is to goof around, you’ll say to yourself, “I have these three people on a boat. How am I going to play this? What’s going to happen? What if one of the people jumps overboard and gets eaten by a shark? What are they going to do then?”

You play with all of these things in your head, and then you map it out. Then after you have a map, you can look and say, “Is that my climax? Oh yes, that’s my climax.”

Separate your writer head from your editor head and don’t mix and match. When you’re writing your scenes, you’re using part of your brain that’s about being creative, inventive, and thinking up things for people to say, and all that stuff. If you’re constantly worried about whether or not it’s an effective inciting incident, it’s going to hamstring you to the point where you’ll be completely lost.

I always say separate your writer side from your editor side. I even advise people to put on a hat. When you’re editing, put on a different hat.

Tim: You should make Story Grid editor and writer hats, and people switch them out.

Shawn: That’s a billion dollar idea, Tim. Oh my God, we’re going to make money hand over fist.

Tim: I do Olympic weightlifting.

Shawn: Of course, you do.

Tim: Yes, I’m very manly that way. There’s this movement called a snatch where you have a barbell with weights on it and you get down into a squat and your hands are real wide, and you have to lift the weight off the ground and then drop back underneath it.

It’s this really complicated movement that has all of these tiny little moving parts – where your feet are, when you explode, when you drop back underneath. It’s all these little, tiny moving parts.

What I’ve realized – I’ve been doing it about four years now – is that what you’ll work on is, “Today, I’m going to work on my footwork.” You’re focusing everything on your footwork, and what happens is it throws off everything else – you can’t catch the weight – but you’re just thinking about your footwork and your footwork feels awful through the entire thing because that’s all you’re thinking about. “I’m going to go a little wider. I’m going to point my toes out a little more,” whatever.

But what you’re doing is you’re basically cramming it into your subconscious because then what will happen is a few days later when you go to do one without thinking about your footwork, it’s like all of a sudden, your footwork will work.

Shawn: Exactly.

Tim: I’m not a writer, so I’m going to try to push back on what you said and tell me if I’m wrong. I feel like it would be a good practice… Because for me, when I wrote the scene that was much better, the second version, I was thinking through, “I have to progressively build this without spilling the beans on what’s really going on as long as possible.” I kept doing that on-purpose thinking, “Progressively build, progressively build.”

Then at the end, I’m like, “How am I going to turn this thing without either of them giving up all of their power?” That’s when it’s like, “I’ll just have the woman come. Maybe that’ll work.” I thought through what she’ll say, and I was like, “There’s my crisis, climax, and it resolves. I’m going to write that.”

I want to get to a point where I just sit down, I have my scene and it automatically comes out. I think there is some good practice in…

Shawn: I hear what you’re saying. I think you’re right. I think once you know how to do the snatch, then you don’t worry so much about your footwork. But right now, you need to get your footwork down and thinking of it in those terms is probably very helpful.

I stand corrected. I think for you, that’s the right way to go.

Tim: Yes, because that’s what it felt like. It felt very frustrating in the moment trying to cram myself into this form. To me, I’ve learned through my past mistakes in all my areas of life that constraints always increase creativity. I wanted to say, “It’s going to be 1500 words, so it’s not done until it’s 1500 words.”

Then it’s like, “I want to do the whole dialogue and not spill the beans on what’s going on, because that’s what you told me to do, so I’m going to do that. I have to have these five pieces, my inciting incident through my resolution. I have to do that.”

Cramming myself into that form forced me to think through all of these things in a way I never have before. What fell out the other end was a much better scene than when I was just kind of willy-nilly, throwing people in and kind of thought I knew where I was going.

My goal is where I can sit down and write those scenes without thinking through the pieces. It’s horribly frustrating and feels awful while you’re doing it, but it’s that practice of “I have to learn this form the right way before it will become subconscious and I do it automatically.”

Shawn: That’s a very good point, and I salute you. That’s the way we learn things. That’s called practicing with a purpose. Again, I stand corrected. I think what you’re saying is absolutely true. Because it’s so intuitive to me at this point – I’ve been doing it for 25 years – I don’t have the perspective that you do.

I think your idea to do this podcast to begin with was a really good one because it’s teaching me that all the things that I take for granted, like, “Of course, you’re doing to do that,” please, it’s not so obvious.

Tim: When is the last time you really looked at a scene that was written so badly as my first try?

Shawn: All the time.

Tim: Really? Because I was thinking, “Shawn is probably dealing with these professional writers who wouldn’t make those kinds of mistakes.”

Shawn: That’s true. Do Steven Pressfield, David Mamet, and those people make these kinds of mistakes? No, they don’t. You can pretty much be guaranteed that their scenes are going to have beginning, middle, and end, they’re going to turn, and they’re going to have all the things that we discussed. But people who want to become Steven Pressfield and David Mamet, the stuff that people send me for me to consider to represent them is exactly at the level that you wrote your first scene.

This is one of the reasons why I wrote “The Story Grid,” so that there would be a resource for people to reach out to, read it, and then if they keep making the same mistakes, it’s their own fault.

But the fact is when I was starting out in the business, there was nobody out there saying exactly all of the things that I’m saying now. Nobody ever told me about the inciting incident, the crisis, the climax, the resolution, progressive complications.

I had to learn that by reading Aristotle and Plato and going to Robert McKee’s course and transferring his theories into novel writing, because he writes about screenplays but it’s all the same stuff. It’s a story.

You taking the time to dedicate yourself to learn these very grounding principles and etching them in the furrows of your brain is going to pay such dividends. Right now, it’s really hard and frustrating, just like learning how to skate, ski, high dive, or clean and jerk a barbell is hard. But once you have it, it’s like being able to play the guitar. It’s great.

Tim: Thanks for listening to Episode 8 of The Story Grid podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. I definitely enjoyed recording this one.

As always, if you would like to get more of Story Grid, you can go to Sign up for the newsletter. That’s where Shawn sends all his latest stuff, so you won’t want to miss that. If you want to go back and listen to archived episodes, look at show notes, that’s all at

I also want to thank those of you who have gone into iTunes, left a review, left a rating. Shawn and I read every one and we really appreciate the feedback. If you haven’t done that yet, we’re just 12 away from hitting that magic 50 number, so if you want to drop into iTunes and leave your review, leave your rating, that would be really helpful. Also, if you want to follow us on Twitter, if you want to ask questions, that’s the place we’d love to have you do that. It’s at

As always, thank you for listening. We really enjoy sharing this show with you, we really enjoy recording it every week, and we will look forward to seeing you next week for Episode 9.


11 comments on “Russian Dolls

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Fantastic podcast – I just finished listening and am saving a copy of the transcript for future reference. Thanks so much Shawn and Tim – this is a terrific series!

    P.S. I think the hats are a great idea – I’ll be your first customer!

  2. Mark McGinn says:

    The Dead Calm illustration is very interesting. But in the crisis question, its difficult to see the irreconcilable goods or lesser of evils choice that preceded the decision to go on the cruise and repair the marriage after the loss of the child. For some readers, such an act is an obvious thing to do. So is this is pointing to the reader doing more work? For example is the reader expected to conclude it would be difficult for them to take this step because of the good things they would be forgoing if they stayed at home but if they stayed at home, there’d be constant reminders of what they’ve lost and they’d drift apart. But if they go on the cruise, just them and the dog, they’ll have no “space” and might end up tearing each other apart. Or am i overthinking this?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I think it’s a “lesser of two evils.” To stay on land requires constant reminders about loss of son and external world distractions…the distractions will “put the loss out of the mind,” but they won’t do anything to heal the rawness of the loss. Being on the ocean will of course be a strain on the relationship, but it will force the couple to work together to navigate not just the everyday life on the sea, but navigate their personal relationship. If stay on land…reminders of dead son (bad) and distractions from dealing with the raw emotions of loss (bad). On the sea is confrontation of feelings (difficult and/or bad if you are afraid of real emotional communication) and confrontation of an environment that can kill you (bad, but good too). So the best bad choice is between staying on land (long term bad) versus going to sea (short term bad). The couple wisely chose to go to sea. They didn’t know that there was a psycho waiting for them out there…progressive complication anyone?

      1. Mark McGunn says:

        Thanks Sean. I think finding the balance between what we let the reader infer about choices and how we show those choices at play will always be a tough part of the craft.

  3. Well, now we all want hats.

  4. Prospero says:

    Thank you Tim and Shawn. Very interesting conversation. It raised some questions:

    I am a little confused about Tim’s scene compared to the short opening scenes from Dead Calm. Is it true to say that certain scenes are a microcosm (i.e., they have an Inciting Incident and a climax) whereas other scenes do not (as in the first scenes from Dead Calm)?

    Do you make a distinction between the subjective story and the external story? A story about the Titanic would presumably be about a cruise ship sinking (the external story) and have as a subjective story the relationship between two of the passengers. How do you deal with this when you map out your 60 scenes?

    Do progressive complications apply equally to comedy and satire?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi, I suggest you read the entire book, which you can do for free by just reading each post. I suspect that these questions will be answered and then some. All the best, Shawn

  5. Larry says:

    One great example of having action replace exposition is in the movie “The Conversation”.

    Gene Hackman’s character, Harry Caul is attending a trade show, going from booth to booth. At one of the booths, he gives his name, and the guy manning the booth says “YOU’RE Harry Caul?”. That’s it. Nobody has to tell us that Harry is one of the top guys in his field, well known and respected by people in the industry. Just the guy’s three word reaction says it all.

    It’s a 1974 movie written and directd by some guy named Francis Ford Coppola.

  6. Doug Walsh says:

    Great podcast! Thanks for the transcript!

    I have to admit that it never occurred to me that people would care how long a chapter/scene is while they’re reading it. I never flip ahead to see how long a chapter is; I just read until my eyes close and I fall asleep. Sometimes it’s after half a page (because I was exhausted) and sometimes I stay up all night, but I never gave the chapter length any consideration.

    It’s interesting to discover that what I thought was the “normal” way one reads a book, may not be that normal after all. Hmm…

    1. Generally the only time I’m checking chapter length is if the chapter is already too long.

  7. Vikk Simmons says:

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used the “Russian dolls” concept when trying to explain on a very basic level how to think of story. I’m nearly finished with your book and LOVE it. Of course I particularly enjoyed coming across the nesting Russian dolls. I have simply used it to suggest that each has a beginning, middle, and an end from the macro to the micro simply to suggest the unity and cohesiveness of all the working parts. I can see I’ll be spending a lot of time here. Can’t wait for the next book.

    Thank you so much for all your work!

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