Stealing Versus Inspiration

Is using a masterwork as a structural template to inspire your work okay?  This week’s podcast episode concerns the notion of when inspiration becomes stealing and vice versa.  And what better Story-rule guru to lead off the discussion than Joseph Campbell?

To listen, click the play button below, or read the transcript that follows.


[0:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. My name is Tim Grahl, I’m your host and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me soon is Shawn Coyne. He has 25 plus years in the publishing and editing world. He is the author of The Story Grid and it’s a fantastic book to help you write a story that works from start to finish.


In this episode, we dive into the hero’s journey. I’ve become fascinated with this over the last few weeks. So I ask a lot of questions about how the hero’s journey works alongside of Story Grid and get Shawn to explain to me how the mentor role works, how do we figure out what characters to have in our book and what roles they have to play and who can play them.


Along with that, the last half of the episode, I dive into something that I was actually pretty nervous to bring up with Shawn and ask him and well, you know what? I’m just going to let you follow along with me as I talk to him about it. So let’s jump in and get started. I hope you enjoy this episode.




[0:01:04] TG: So Shawn, I’ve been thinking a lot and reading a lot about the hero’s journey. The thing from The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell and I’m sure we’ve talked about it before. But I’m wondering your take on it because it’s resurged in my mind because the new Star Wars is out and all my like story nerd friends are like, “Oh man, it’s just straight hero’s journey.”


And then I had a long drive last week for 10 hours, so my wife and I listened to the entire first Harry Potter book again and as I was listening to it after reading about The Hero’s Journey I’m like, “Oh this is just straight hero’s journey from start to finish.” And so I just was wanting to get your take on hero’s journey. Is it useful, how does it work with the story grid?


I tend to wonder sometimes if these things are things you look at after writing or is it something that can help you with the planning of the writing as well. So I just want your take on it.


[0:02:09] SC: Well, that’s a really primal question there and it’s a really important question. The hero’s journey is, a while back in Story Grid, I wrote a series of post about what I call “The Story Spine” and what the story spine is, what is fundamental in just about all stories is the hero’s journey. We read about it, we talk about it, we hear about it all the time but what it is, the hero’s journey is something that came from Joseph Campbell and also from Carl Jung.


These two guys, Campbell and Jung were fascinated by storytelling and myth and where did all these stuff come from and are there things that are in common among different cultures? So what Campbell and Jung did is they looked at all of the big myths from Herodotus and Homer to the Bhagavad Gita, Indian cultures and Asian cultures and they discovered that there is this very simple structure to the majority of myth.


Jung called it the collective unconscious and Campbell actually specified it in a trajectory. He used a circle, like a revolutionary circle to track what the hero’s journey is and something that I have done in Story Grid is to track it in terms of change. In terms of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross grief cycle, which is also used to track change.


So generally what it means and the question is, is this helpful to writers before they begin the work or when they are editing the work or when us this useful? And I think it’s useful from the very start and here’s the reason why, because what it does is it gives you those mile markers in your story that are going to be crucial for you to nail.


We talk about conventions and obligatory scenes and specific external and internal genres and those are all very important but they all fit in within the story spine, which is the hero’s journey. So what is the hero’s journey just generally? Let me just quickly outline it for you. There’s a great book that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago by Christopher Vogler which is called The Writer’s Journey, I believe.


It goes into the hero’s journey in terms of craft and much more specifically than what I’m going to talk about now. So if this excites you and you are passionate about it, I highly recommend buying and reading that book. I refer to it a lot and I’m going to go over some of the principles now.


So in a hero’s journey essentially what you have is a moment of crisis in a culture. So let’s say you and I are part of a tribe Tim and there’s a lack of water and we’re all looking at each other in our tribe and one of us is going to have to go out and go over the mountain and get some water because our tribe needs the water.


This is sort of, the ordinary world of our tribe is the way things are and a crisis results and that would become your inciting incident of your global story if we’re looking at in terms of story grid and one of us in the tribe takes it upon himself or the group decides that that person is the one who has to go over the mountain and get the water.


Generally, what happens in that moment is that person or that group of people become the heroic center of a story. They need to lead the tribe and go on an adventure and come back and hopefully, they’re going to come back with some water. Generally, this is what happens when we face something that disrupts our own world personally or within a group.


After somebody is selected, that hero leaves the ordinary world, they have a calling now and they have a purpose. They have a very clear want, what they want is to go over the mountain and bring back some water or tell us where other water is. So that hero leaves the tribe and goes on an adventure. This is the beginning of the hero’s journey, it makes sense right?


[0:06:55] TG: Yeah.


[0:06:56] SC: So after they leave the tribe, they are met with all kinds of obstacles. It gets progressively more and more complicated. When they go up the hill, they lose their sandal. Their foot gets caught on a rock and so they have to get themselves out of the rock meanwhile a rain storm is coming and they can’t get into shelter.


So they actually have to do something to go to a shelter and on and on and on until the hero returns triumphant with the water or not and this is essentially the core spine of a story if you think about it. We have at the very beginning an inciting incident that happens. It creates a need in the character.


That character goes in pursuit of that want being satisfied and as he or she progresses through the story, things happen for good and for ill, they may or may not get what they want initially or they may get something else when they return. This is the classic story structure of the Odyssey, the Iliad, Harry Potter, Star Wars.


If you look at it globally, it’s a very, very good way to structure your story. Now, the beginning of your story is about 25% of your story is going to be the ordinary world. The inciting incident arises and something in the ordinary world is amiss and somebody within the tribe has to leave and then they go into the transition between the ordinary world and extraordinary world.


Another example that I always use for this is the Wizard of Oz, which is wonderful and I’ll speak of the movie not the book. But the movie is such a wonderful trajectory of the hero’s journey and it’s so clear. At the beginning of the movie, it’s in the black and white world. It’s in the middle of Kansas.


[0:08:57] TG: Yeah.


[0:08:58] SC: There’s going to be a tornado and the inciting incident is this tornado. Dorothy gets thrown up in the house. It’s torn from the ground and she lands and destroys the wicked witch of the east accidentally but that’s the inciting incident and then the new world that she enters is extraordinary.


[0:09:19] TG: It’s literally a new world.


[0:09:21] SC: It’s literally color, it goes from black and white to color and then as you can see in the movie, all of the characters from the ordinary world are transformed into extraordinary characters in the extraordinary world. The farmhands become the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion.


The carnival barker in the black and white world becomes the Wizard of Oz. It’s such an incredible example of the hero’s journey. All kinds of obstacles arise. There is a very, very strong negative antagonist in the wicked witch of the west. Toto, her sidekick is her dog who sort of represents her inner energy, her innocence.


As you go through that story, you discover and there is no place like home, that’s how she gets home. Her goal is to go back home and that is the hero’s journey, is once you leave the ordinary world to go on an adventure, you want to return home just like Odysseus did in the Odyssey. He wants to get back to Ithaca after the Trojan War.


It takes him 10 years to get there but his entire journey, his Odyssey is about the transition from the warrior life to a domestic life back with his wife, Penelope and with his son, Telemachus and so these are stories that they’re so much a part of us and they are so much a part of every culture and every one of our myths that to ignore them when you’re thinking about your own story and writing your own story is a mistake.


Because when you get off track, you can think, “Let me think my story in terms of the Wizard of Oz. Is this the moment when they get in the castle or is it clear that this is the Wicked Witch?” So the hero’s journey is a wonderful metaphor and it’s also literal, you can bring that stuff to bear at every single thing that you write.


[0:11:30] TG: Yeah, one of the things that stood out to me that has been helpful looking at it is some specific characters you need and specific things that have to happen along the way. So for instance, it’s made me realize like I need to have the mentor role and somebody has to come along when I’m stuck to tell me what to do next.


Just again in Wizard of Oz, it’s the Good Witch. In Star Wars it’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, it’s Han Solo in the new Star Wars, it’s those things and then the helpers too of like the hero always finds people that he needs that will help him get him to the next step.


[0:12:17] SC: Yes.


[0:12:18] TG: So it’s helped me like, “Okay,” because I have really struggled with figuring out what characters should be in my stories and reading through The Hero’s Journey is like, “Oh I have to fill these roles in order to flush out the story” so that’s been one of the things that’s been helpful. It’s like, “Okay, I got to have somebody that comes along and tells my hero what to do because he’s not going to know what to do.”


[0:12:45] SC: Well that’s true and the trick of the things is to identify those roles and then innovate them and when I say innovate them, I’m meaning one of the great things to do is to take the mentor role and traditionally, we think of the Obi-Wan Kenobi, the one who teaches you about the force. He’s a very clear character. He’s an older warrior who has been through the wars.


[0:13:12] TG: Yeah, the wise old man.


[0:13:13] SC: Right, so one of the ways to do that is to have the sensibility of the mentor come through in other characters. It could be a series like Hercules had to perform seven heroic deeds before he became Hercules and so you could have the mentor role be these challenges that your lead character has to overcome in order to gain experience. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be a specific person.


The mentorship could come through a series of tasks that are brought on by antagonists. At the beginning of a story, there’s no way that a character you would ever believe would be able to slay a dragon but if you build to the slaying of the dragon through smaller tasks where they learned little tricks that they can pull off to outwit and outsmart the dragon at the very end, then you can build into that rational journey so the reader or the viewer will believe it.


[0:14:24] TG: So the mentor role is basically whatever tells the hero what they should do next?


[0:14:31] SC: Right. It’s experience. The mentorship is a process by which someone gives you some experience and they explain to you, “Watch out when you go down this road because there’s a snake at the end.” So that’s what the mentor does, is to help the hero navigate their journey and a lot of mentors can be hidden antagonists too.


Like for instance, the first Christopher Nolan Batman movie, I think Liam Neeson plays the mentor role to Batman, so we love Liam Neeson and then we discover, “Holy cow, Liam Neeson is the bad guy. How is Batman going to beat the bad guy because the bad guy taught Batman everything he knew?”


And so it raised the stakes and it was a great twist to make Liam Neeson the bad guy because he had been built up in the viewer’s mind to be such a strong figure through his experience teaching Batman how to be Batman. So it’s like, “Oh my gosh, how are you going to overthrow the guy who taught you everything you know?”


That’s the same thing in The Color of Money or The Color of Money is the sequel to The Hustler and it’s a great movie with Tom Cruise and Paul Newman and Paul Newman plays the old wise and gold pool shark who teaches the inexperienced and naïve but extremely talented young pool player Tom Cruise how to hustle people.


[0:16:08] TG: Yet it makes me think of the movie Unbreakable, have you seen that one?


[0:16:13] SC: Yes, is that the one with Sam Jackson in it?


[0:16:16] TG: Yeah and Bruce Willis where like Bruce Willis you find out because he survives this, I forgot what he survives and you realized that, “Oh he can’t be hurt.” And then Samuel L. Jackson mentors him on this role of becoming a superhero, basically. And then at the end, spoiler alert, you find out that Samuel L. Jackson had been systematically creating devastating accidents that killed hundreds of people looking for Bruce Willis.


[0:16:45] SC: Right.


[0:16:46] TG: And so at the very end though, to me that’s what reminds me of that twist of he ended up being the bad guy from the beginning.


[0:16:55] SC: Right or that cartoon, The Incredibles, the Pixar movie. We can go on and on but that’s the thing. A lot of these very, very big movies and big ideas and big action thrillers are built on the primal myth and when people say, “Oh that’s just the hero’s journey.” It’s extremely difficult to innovate.


I say this all the time about the action genre, it’s very difficult to innovate the primal genres because we have seen them so often and we love those parts so much. We love the role of the old mentor and to make that interesting and different and twisted in a way that’s unique is quite difficult. So what a lot of writers will do is the fake things.


They will make the mentor a shadowy figure or they’ll make the best friend the one who ends up being the real antagonist in the end of the story but these are fun things to think about while you are tracking the spinal movement of your story. As an editor, the first thing that a writer wants from me is they want me to tell them is, “Is my global story working? Is it tracking? Does it feel like the movements are hitting their marks?”


And it’s difficult as an editor when you’re first reading something because especially someone like myself who’s read so many stories, I know very quickly when it’s not working and then it’s this moment when I say to myself, “Oh my gosh, now I’ve got to open up the hood in this thing and figure out what went off the tracks and when and where and how.”


But that’s a good thing because I always say, “The problems are the problem. You’re not the problem, it’s just the problem. So figure out what the problems are and then you can fix them.” And then one of the ways to identify the problems is to look at your global story and say, “Is it following the mythic structure of the hero’s journey?”


Is there an ordinary world at the beginning? Is my lead character being called to go pursue something that’s going to take them into another universe, another way of looking at the world? Are they going back? Is the climactic moment when they’re going back to the ordinary world with the thing that they were always looking for or the thing that they never got?


So you have your beginning, your middle and your end and you want to move from the ordinary world to an extraordinary world and back again because you need that full circle resolution and that tracks exactly what I talk about inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution. What are those five things?


Those are the five global movements of a hero’s journey and you’ve got to have them in every scene, every beat, every act, every sequence so that the form is repeating itself in deeper and deeper levels, globally and micro levels as well.


[0:20:15] TG: Yeah, so I want to mention another thing that stood out to me and it is one of the things that I read about The Hero’s Journey is that along the way, basically what I’m doing and you’ve already said so many things that overlay with the Story Grid is basically, “Okay what parts of the hero’s journey fit into what parts of the story grid and how can I basically pull things out of the hero’s journey?”


So one of the things that stood out to me is during the middle build, when I was reading and I forgot where I read this. Now, when I was reading something about the hero’s journey, it said the hero gets tools along the way that he will eventually need at the end for his final test and he doesn’t usually know they’re tools along the way and so this stood out big time in Harry Potter where through the entire middle build, he kept getting these things that he ended up needing all of them at the end.


So him and Ron kept playing chess off and on through the entire book and sure enough at the end, the final test, one of the obstacles was a giant chess game and then one of his friends is Hermione, who can solve and is super smart and has studied everything and she’s like the book nerd and sure enough, she needed all of this stuff that she had learned along the way to get them past one of the tests.


And it made me think about the middle build differently because I am thinking somewhere in these scenes, I need to have the resolution be that they get something that they’re going to need at the end. They get a series of either skills or knowledge or actual tools that low and behold, they’re going to need to overcome in the end.


[0:22:11] SC: That’s a good way at looking at it. The trick to doing that is to not make them so sledge hammer-y, meaning you don’t want the reader to feel like they’re being manipulated and whenever you set yourself up and say, “Okay, here’s the scene.” Now, I also recommend this. So I think this is a very good place to start but I think your third or fourth draft, these are the questions that you need to start asking yourself.


So for example, say you say to yourself, “This is the scene where my hero needs to acquire the certain skill,” and your initial instinct would be for them to get into a fight and learn that they have a really powerful left hook or something. That being your initial thinking, I would always say to the person, “Okay write that down and then come back to it and then do it the opposite way the next time.”


[0:23:12] TG: Is this where you write 12 things down?


[0:23:14] SC: Yeah kind of, kind of. Because the reason why you do that and there’s no way that I’m going sit here and say that J. K. Rowling made any mistakes but I will say that I did not go so crazy over the moon for Harry Potter like a lot of people did, and I’ll tell you one of the reasons why. I went to see the first movie. Now, I hadn’t read the book.


This is probably not J. K. Rowling’s fault, it might be the screen writer, but the problem that I have with the first movie of Harry Potter was that Harry Potter never lost. He never ever lost. He would always be challenged and it would look like, “Oh my gosh, he’s going to lose,” but he never lost and I always found that disappointing. I want somebody when at the end of that sorry, they’ve got bruises man. They’re bleeding.


[0:24:08] TG: Do you think that’s because it’s a children’s book?


[0:24:11] SC: Probably.


[0:24:12] TG: Because as I’ve…


[0:24:13] SC: I don’t think you have to literary be bleeding though but I think children need to understand, I think that’s a copout too. I think children need to learn that the best of us and children experience heart ache all the time. Things don’t go well for children a lot of the time. Things that they want they don’t get a lot of the time.


So when the heroes of their stories always seem triumph, I think it sends the message that, “Oh well, you’re just a looser. People in stories win all the time and because you don’t win all the time, you’re never going to be Harry Potter.” I don’t know.


[0:24:57] TG: You know you’re probably going to get e-mails after this episode.


[0:24:59] SC: That’s okay, that’s okay. Because I think part of growing up is learning perseverance and resilience and part of how we learn that is through what we read and what we enjoy in our stories. So I was always attracted to the stories where the hero is against all, that’s why we all love underdog stories because against all odds, they were the ones that did get picked first for the basketball team.


They had to go home and train and work really hard before they could make it to the basketball team. I always like those stories more than the one touched by greatness who’s greatness eventually triumphs when everybody recognizes how great they are, you know what I mean?


[0:25:46] TG: Yeah. So I want to come back to this tools thing. Is that, is what I was saying about like acquiring the tools along the way — and I would say this was again a little heavy handed in Harry Potter that again, because I think it’s a children’s book is the fact that he happened to get this cloak that he needed at the end but I find that as like I have read more children’s books along with my son as they’re growing up, for them, it needs to be pretty clear or they’ll miss it.


Where like once you get older, if it’s that clear you’re kind of like, “Okay, yeah, yeah.” But what it did, re-reading Harry Potter made it stand out again, it was perfect timing because I just read all this but it was that idea that along the way and if we go back to Wizard of Oz, it’s the same thing except the tools in these cases where the people she picked up along the way.


[0:26:52] SC: Yes.


[0:26:53] TG: The slippers and all of these things she got at the very end made it where she could get back home.


[0:27:02] SC: I just have to interrupt on that one element because the most favorite thing about the Wizard of Oz for me is that at the end of the story, we realize that all of these people searching for these things. The Tin Man, he’s the most romantic of the group and he wants to get a heart. He’s the guy with the biggest heart from the start.


The Scarecrow says, “I want a brain”. He’s the guy who comes up with the plan to get out of the castle and the Lion is like, “Oh I don’t have any courage.” He’s the one who fights all the guards. So the beauty of that story is that they all have those qualities before they went on the search and Dorothy, all she had to do was click her heels three times at the very beginning of the story and say, “There’s no place like home,” and she could have gone home.


But she needed to experience those very traumatic moments and that passage along that yellow brick road for her to actually appreciate home in the way that would make her change and this is a really important point. The character, we always talk about character arts. The character has to start some place and they have to finish the other way.


It’s the path of their journey that makes them change. Odysseus in the Odyssey, remember at the beginning of the Odyssey, he’s this really kick ass warrior. This guy is a very triumphant warrior and he’s heading home as this very strong undefeatable warrior. He ends up when he gets back to Ithaca, he looks like a bum.


He’s wearing rags, nobody could even could recognize this guy. The only people who recognizes him is his dog and so he has to change, he has to come back as somebody who is a vulnerable human being and that’s part of the beauty of the Odyssey. It’s the change of the warrior. The triumphant warrior when he comes home, he has to come back as a vulnerable human being, he is no longer indefatigable.


So when we say all these stuff, “Well, you’ve got to do X, you’ve got to do Y, you’ve got to do Z, they got to get certain tools” it sounds very, very cynical and it sounds very formulaic and I get this a lot. People are like, “Ah story grid, it’s so formulaic and it’s baloney.” Well, it’s not. It’s what you bring to it. These are the tools by which you can show your character change. They’re attitudes and what they think.


[0:29:34] TG: Yeah and that’s I think is what’s helpful to me, thinking about it because I was looking at the middle build as like filler.


[0:29:42] SC: Right.


[0:29:44] TG: Like, “Okay, we have the inciting incident that gets them moving towards something that they really, really want and then at the end, it all comes together and I’ve got to put a bunch of stuff in the middle to make sure I have enough words.” So what it made me start thinking of is like, “No, no, no I have to have the middle build or the hero won’t be ready for the end.”


[0:30:05] SC: Right.


[0:30:06] TG: So, which actually…


[0:30:07] SC: He has to have a moment. It’s what in Hollywood they call “the all is lost moment”. And the all is lost moment is what usually happens at the end of the middle build. It’s sort of the climax of the middle build and the climax is, everything that I thought to be true, everything that I thought I needed to do to get what I wanted is false.


Everything that I believe before I went on this journey will not help me anymore. I need to change and I call it “the truth will out scene” and this is really important for internal genres, a coming of age story, a redemption plot. Everything that I thought before this moment that I held to be true is false. So that’s the all is lost moment.


I’m not going to be able to solve this problem. So in a redemption story, usually a redemption story is about self-hatred and it’s about coming to a realization that you’re not as horrible as you think you are, that hey maybe there is a little bit of hope for you. It’s like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. His heart grows three times its’ size.


That’s his all is lost moment. He’s standing on that top of that hill, he’s stolen all of the Christmas gifts, he has ruined Christmas for the Whos and this is his moment, he’s like, “Yes, now I’ve stopped Christmas. These idiots down below are not going to be singing, they’re going to be crying, they’re going to be going boo-hoo-hoo.”


He’s standing on top of that hill and he’s waiting for that moment and it’s going to be the best thing and they started seeing instead and that’s the Grinch’s all is lost moment because that’s when everything that he believed to be true was false. No, Christmas is not about gifts bro and that’s when he realizes it and that’s when he changes.


He turns that sleigh around and he takes it down the mountain and he gives the Whos back their gifts and he even carves the roast beast and then he’s their friend and he understands what communal living is about, what it means to be a part of a tribe. The Grinch was a loner. Up on the top of the mountain, he was better than everybody else.


He thought everybody was an idiot and it was through that experience he changes and that is another great example of the hero’s journey. The ordinary world of the Grinch, at the beginning of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas is a very dark place. He’s all by himself in a cave and he can’t stand the noise from all the people down below because he’s not included.


He’s an outsider. He doesn’t like being an outsider. He doesn’t know he doesn’t like being an outsider. You can see that he likes it so he is lying to himself. “I am the Grinch. I hate everybody. Those people down there suck. I’m going to ruin their Christmas,” and the whole story is about how he’s going to go and he’s going to destroy the Whos Christmas.


This is why I cry every time I see that thing because we all have those thoughts. We all think we’re the outsider. We all think that nobody wants us to join in their celebration. We don’t understand what everybody is all excited about. We feel left out and that is the hero’s journey and so it’s that simple and it’s that complex too.


So the all is lost moment is at the end of the middle build, it kicks you into the climax of the ending payoff. The ending payoff is, Grinch turns the sleigh around and he makes the choice to go back and give them the gifts. That’s the resolution and it’s beautiful and we love it. If they cut off the story with the Grinch heading down the hill without him giving the gifts away, we’ll all be like, “Oh man, I really wish I had seen that scene where he throws the gifts to all the guys.”


[0:34:29] TG: Yeah.


[0:34:30] SC: So that’s why you need the resolution. I’m just bringing that up because a lot of people are like, “Well why do I have to have a resolution scene?” Because you need that. We need to feel that completion.


[0:34:40] TG: Yeah, so I want to go a different direction before we run out of time. This is something that this week as we’ve been getting closer to our time to record, I was like actually embarrassed to ask this question. I’m like, “I just can’t do it,” but what that means is I probably should. So I had this idea and it sounds like the worst way to go about doing something but I think it might work and I want your feedback on it.


So a couple of weeks ago, we went over another one of my scenes and you had talked about how I’d come a long way and so I’ve been writing standalone scenes as practice and I really want to write an actual book now. And so, as I’ve started to map it out, I have just gotten completely overwhelmed because I feel like I understand the story grid well enough to put 1500 words together.


But the idea of putting another 60,000 words or 70,000 words together in a way that tells a complete story just becomes completely overwhelming and so this again came to me while I was listening to the Harry Potter audio book. The first scene opens and I thought, “Oh you know if I had that scene in my book, I would do it this way,” and then the next scene happens.


I thought, “You know if I had that scene in my book, I would do it this way.” And I thought, “Okay, what if I just sat down with Harry Potter and did a front to back story grid of every scene and then replaced each of those scenes with my story” and so it would basically be a scene by scene map for a book that I rewrite as my own scene.


In this scene when the mentor comes along, the big guy comes along and tells Harry, “No, you’re not normal. You’re a wizard.” That would be the scene in my book where the mentor comes along and kicks the hero out of their normal world by telling them, “You’re not normal, this is what you have to do.”


And basically, took the Harry Potter story grid and replaced it with my scene by scene with my own story grid and then wrote that book. Would that be basically just a bad version of Harry Potter? Is that ethically questionable to even do or is that a good place to start when 80,000 words seems just completely overwhelming?


[0:37:30] SC: Well, let me answer that by just saying that years and years ago before Robert McKee and everybody started really dialling into structure and everything, what writers would often do when they get stuck is they would pull out The Sun Also Rises or Little Women or Pride and Prejudice and they would turn to page one and they would start typing.


They would retype the book because they felt that if they could channel the writer’s work through themselves, it would give them a sense of voice and it would give them some kind of quality. There would be some magical dust that would sort of go into them when they did it and most of the time, it was a waste of time but I will say that the idea that you have is not stupid.


It is a really good way to learn a craft. If you were to want to build a work bench and you ordered a bench from a great wood manufacturing company and it came to your house, what I would do is I would look at the way that thing is put together and then I would draw a plan based upon the way those materials were put together.


Then I would try and re-engineer that table based upon the way it was put together. So you are deciding or thinking about going through step by step Harry Potter and writing it scene by scene with the same choices and structure that J. K. Rowling did is not a bad idea at all. In fact, what it will do is it will give you a very, very strong starting point.


It will free you from all of those panicky things like, “Oh I don’t know if my climax in the third act is really paying off?” But if you’re doing the same structured story scene that J. K Rowling did at that moment, this is why I always recommend to people and people always ask me, “Can you give me all the list of all the conventions and obligatory scenes and tell me where I need to put it my book so that I can outline it exactly like the part of a typical thriller or love story?”


I always say, “You don’t need me to do that. In fact, if I gave you that formula, it’s not going to really help you that much anyway.” What you need to do is to find those stories that mean the most to you and do exactly what you’re talking about Tim. Go through every scene and see the way the writer of that story solved the problems that you’re facing. If you get stuck, steal, re-write the scene.


[0:40:23] TG: Well ‘cause…


[0:40:24] SC: Re-write the scene with your characters using the fundamental structure that your hero wrote, that’s not stealing. That’s called inspiration. You’re not stealing, you’re not plagiarizing, you’re not taking their intellectual property, you’re looking at the kind of wood that they’re using.


They made a cherry wood dresser and you decide to make your dresser out of cherry wood too. There’s nothing wrong with that. The idea that J. K. Rowling has a patent on the climactic scene where the mentor reveals something to the hero that they don’t want to know, that’s not true. That scene has been done.


I mean every love story is a rip off of Romeo and Juliet. Look at the structure of Romeo and Juliet and that’s pretty much a romantic comedy. So what you’re doing is, you’re becoming a writer is what you’re doing Tim. You’re saying to yourself, “I’m not going to let my fear keep me from my work. I’m going to try this. I’m going to try this idea.”


“My fear is keeping me from outlining every single scene in my book because I don’t know if I am going to do it the right way. So what if I just do it the same way that J. K. Rowling did and see what happens at the end of that?” And at the end of that what you’re going to do is you’re going to have a first draft of something that probably works to a degree.


It probably works, and then you can look at it and go, “You know what? That’s a complete rip off, everybody is going to expect that, I’m going to twist that. I’m going to change that scene and I’m going to fix that. And that scene could be better and everybody who has seen Harry Potter is going to know that that’s going to be their climax. So I am not going to do it that way.”


[0:42:12] TG: Yeah, so there’s two fundamental worries that I have with this. One was that it’s like ethically questionable to do it. The other one is, it’s almost like when you go and see an impersonator. A good impersonator is good but it’s not as good as the real thing.


And if you actually put them side by side, you’re like, “Oh, that’s really sad.” And that was like thinking, “Would doing this create just a sad, wimpy, impotent version of an actually good story?”


[0:42:50] SC: You’ll never know until you have tried. You’ll never know.


[0:42:52] TG: Yeah, well what I was telling to a buddy of mine about talking to you about this and I was like, “Yeah, you know there’s been times where I throw out this crazy thing to Shawn and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” and then there are those times where you’re like, “That’s a complete disaster, don’t even try it.”


And so before I do this, I want to make sure that you wouldn’t say, “That’s a complete disaster, don’t even try it.” But as you say that, I feel like that’s what it does is it’s like because my biggest worry is I start to map out the story is like…


[0:43:22] SC: What’s a Haiku? You know what a Haiku is? It’s a little poem. I forgot what the structure is but it’s like seven words, seven words, eight words.


[0:43:30] TG: Yeah, yeah.


[0:43:31] SC: Right, something like that?


[0:43:34] TG: I know what you’re talking about. I don’t know what the actual structure is.


[0:43:36] SC: Yeah so what you’re doing is you’re creating a Haiku, only you’re doing a long form Haiku. You’re doing the work, you’re analyzing the work of a master and you’re discovering how she is paying off and doing the five commandments of each unit of story and her story and you’re letting that inspire you. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it and I’ll tell you what Tim, this is why people don’t ever talk about their writing.


[0:44:10] TG: Because they’re afraid to say that…


[0:44:11] SC: Jonathan Francine probably, in fact I’ve read this somewhere, he read a really dense book years ago. Man I wish I could remember the name, but it’s just this really intellectual writer and he basically used the form to write the corrections. He rewrote a famous novel, he didn’t rewrite a famous novel. He was inspired by a famous novel.


He was inspired by the structure of it and then he restructured his work, his ideas, his thoughts, his characters in terms of that global structure. Sam Shepherd, he wrote Curse of the Starving Class, Barry Child, he’s greatest plays if you look at them in terms of Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neil of course.


If you look at Long Day’s Journey Into Night and you look at any domestic drama with a family in it, it’s exactly the same structure. It’s a group of family members who end up attacking each other in the third act. That is not a coincidence and there’s nothing wrong with that. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That’s a Long Day’s Journey Into Night with two couples.


I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. This is why when somebody creates a new genre or a new form, there wasn’t any Long Day’s Journey Into Night until Eugene O’Neil wrote it. That’s why he’s won the Nobel Prize, that’s why we all talk about him 50 years after he’s dead. Now, he didn’t write Long Day’s Journey into Night until he wrote 70 other works before he could do that.


The first works that he wrote were based upon the drama of the era. So when you say, “I want to someday be able to be as good as J. K. Rowling and write a story as good as hers, there’s nothing wrong with being inspired about the way she structures her work. She’d be flattered by it. She’s not going to be insulted.


[0:46:17] TG: Yeah, well if she ever realizes I even exist, that will be amazing. So I think what I was trying to accomplish with this is we keep using the map as a reference. So what I feel like when I sit down to map out an entire book is like if I am sitting in Chicago and I want to get to California and there’s two roads or like eight roads and I have no idea where each of those go.


I don’t want to get to the end of those roads before I realize I’m not in California and that’s what it feels like when I am trying to do this thing from scratch and so the idea that I could use that and then basically then each scene I can make my own knowing that it’s the long road that’s already been traveled.


[0:47:08] SC: That’s true. Yes and one more bit of advice. This is an old screen writer’s trick. It’s not even a trick but it’s a great thing to think about. Start at the ending. Think about where you want to end up. So start in Lost Angeles and then walk your way back to Chicago. Don’t start in Chicago and get scared about it, because it’s sort of like — did you ever do those little puzzles where you have to get into the center?


My kids do it all the time and I always cheat. They go, “Dad, can you do it?” and I go, “Yeah,” and I start in where you have to end up and then I just follow the squiggles back and that’s how you can write too. If you start knowing that the climactic moment is when the daughter turns to the mother and says, “I’m never going to see you again. You’re dead to me.” And you know that’s the climax of the story then walk it back.


What led you to that moment? Those two, that’s such a primal relationship between mother and daughter. There had to be all those little things that have to have happened to lead to that moment that is so climactic. So if you start at the ending like The Raiders of the Lost Ark, they knew. “Okay, the end of The Raiders of the Lost Ark,” spoiler alert, “We’re going to open up the Ark of the Covenant and because the power in that ark is going to fry everybody in the room who has their eyes open.”


So our hero and his girlfriend are going to keep their eyes closed and that’s what they’re going to save them. How can we get from there to Indiana Jones at the classroom at the beginning of the story? And then you don’t end up going down as many blind road ways as you would if you’re just starting in Chicago and you say, “Oh I will take Route 15,” and you end up in Jackson, Mississippi.


[0:49:03] TG: Yeah, okay. Good, I am kind of relieved because I actually right here in my bag on the floor next to me, I had my son dig out his copy of Harry Potter and I’m carrying it with me and I was like, “I have to ask permission before I can do this.”


[0:49:20] SC: I give you permission, just don’t play dress.




[0:49:23] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything story grid, make sure you visit Sign up for Shawn’s newsletter. He’s constantly sending out great information there. You won’t want to miss it. Also, if for some reason you’ve been listening to this show and you still have not purchased a copy of the book, Story Grid, stop right now, go to Amazon and buy a copy for yourself. You will not regret it.


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Thank you for all of you that have left ratings and reviews. Shawn and I read every single one of them and enjoy all of the good ones. Okay, thanks for listening and we will see you next week.

13 comments on “Stealing Versus Inspiration

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for another great podcast! Lots to digest here. Thanks for outing the strategy of borrowing a structure from an existing novel. And thanks for the great idea of starting at the climactic moment and “walking it back.” Like Tim, I’m feeling relieved!

  2. Michael Beverly says:

    Btw, we have a thread on the forum specifically for discussing the podcasts, it’s new, so there’s not actually a discussion started, yet, but if anyone cares to begin (or jump in,,,as the case may be)…

    As to using an existing book: This is how I cut my teeth before I discovered Shawn’s blog.
    I wanted to write an urban fantasy series.
    I took Storm Front, by Jim Butcher, and I wrote notes on a 3.5 card for each chapter.
    What happened, who it happened to, the decisions made, etc.
    I then started writing my own story based upon the notes.

    I got to maybe 40,000 words or so before I got hopelessly lost.

    Fate intervened, I found Jim’s sister online, she’s a developmental editor (among other things) and she did a 3 chapter analysis for me.

    The critique was invaluable. Among other things, it made me realize I was shooting WAY too high.

    Start smaller…. By giving up my dream to write the next Harry Potter or Dresden files on my FIRST go….I saved myself years of pain (or giving up).

    My best advice to myself: write something for fun that means nothing, not special, not important, but try to follow the rules.

    That lead to my first completed novel, a thriller, which was fun to write and in the end, turned out to be an okay story.

    It then lead to a bigger, better, story, book 2, in which I can see the progress and magic happen.

    Book 3 is going to be even bigger, more complicated, a better story, and it all started by not caring about trying to be JK Rowling right off the bat.

    Anyway, Shawn told me that becoming rich and famous would ruin me and I’d end up lying in a gutter somewhere….or worse,,,,or at least he intimated that… LOL…

    Oh well, I’m going to try anyways.

    1. The quality of that outcome really depends on which gutter you end up in.

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        Very true.

        The gutter I’ll be lying in will be the one in front of my 3 million dollar home, after tripping out of my Lamborghini, because I’m slightly tipsy, after taking my supermodel wife out on the town. I’m not in the mood to park the car in the garage because I don’t want to dent the Land Rover or the Tesla or the RV, or the boat….

  3. Patrick Maher says:

    Oh, I forgot to mention, if you are using Shawn’s book then you will also benefit from “BOOK ARCHITECTURE, How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula, STUART HORWITZ”
    He puts HP and the OP, Slumdog Millionaire, and Catch 22 on a useful grid.

  4. Hypatia says:

    I couldn’t agree with you less about Harry Potter never failing. He starts as a failure – a pariah living under the stairs, second class citizen compared to his cousin, servant to his aunt and uncle. When he gets the chance to go to Hogwarts, his uncle would rather they escape to some lone rock in the middle of the sea where he won’t be found rather than let Harry Potter read his invitation letter to Hogwarts. That’s half an hour of the first film right there. How much of an antagonist do you need? How much more hateful and scarring is the fact that your own family are working so hard to humiliate you and make sure you fail? It’s pure child abuse.

    The rest of the film needs to make up for his lifelong deprivation, to assure us that Harry Potter was special all along. And after the opening sequence of hatefulness piled on hatefulness by his aunt and uncle, it needs some countermeasure of blessings and people who want to be his friend. Yes, in some of the movies he seems to win too easily. But in others he is ostracised again and again.

    If he wins, it’s because he needs to win – he’s the protagonist, that’s the whole point of the story. I don’t see him as winning easily though (or not without hard losses), and I don’t think he’ll ever fully get over his horrific childhood. That, too, is the whole point of the story.

  5. Doug Keeler says:

    Shawn, you spend a lot of time talking about the need for the hero to change, but in many books the hero does not change at all. I’ve heard Brad Thor talk about how he doesn’t want his hero, Scott Harvath, to change one bit. It’s the same thing with Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp, & Nelson Demille’s John Corey characters. They don’t change from the beginning to the end of a story, or even through an entire series. Is this more endemic in a crime fiction or Thrillers?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Doug,
      Action, Crime (not thriller) use characters like James Bond and master detectives who do not change. Check our the podcast that features our breakdown of THE MARTIAN.
      I stress the necessity for writers to have their lead characters change because those are the stories that I find the most satisfying. If Jake Gittes didn’t change in CHINATOWN or Nick Carraway didn’t change in THE GREAT GATSBY, needless to say those two classics would have far less emotional impact at climax than they do.
      So, yes of course you can write a story with the internal movement of the lead character remains stagnant. And it’s a great exercise to take up that challenge. But for me, I’m a sucker for a revelatory moment in a Story where the lead character finally sees the light and has to change their behavior accordingly.
      To answer your question directly again. Yes you can have Stories where the lead character doesn’t change and they still work.
      All the best,

      1. Doug Keeler says:

        Thanks for the response. Does Lee Child’s Jack Reacher fall into the does not change category? It seems like he shows up in a particular town, gets into & out of trouble, and is basically unchanged from start to finish.

        Also, since a thriller is a genre where most lead characters do change, which genre does Brad Thor write in? I assumed it was a Political Thriller.

        Thanks again!

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Doug,
          Yeah, I’d say Reacher is intractable…not much changing in his character from book to book. Thrillers for me are very specific in that the hero becomes the victim and as victim they are required to pull something from within themselves that they did not recognize as special in order to defeat the villain. I’d categorize Brad Thor’s work as Military Action Adventure. But for commercial purposes, they’re called thrillers.

          Keep in mind that the beauty of analysis of the sort we’re doing gets more and more personal the deeper you go. That is…one man’s thriller could be another woman’s action story. This is the beauty of Story…it pulls things out of the individual reader/viewer that are very personal. You may disagree and say Reacher changes from story to story and that is perfectly reasonable…as long as you have a rational argument to support it.

          1. Michael Beverly says:

            Some of us (me) will read maybe one or two books like Lee Child writes. I’ve had enough of Jack Reacher for a lifetime with two books.
            But I’ll read SOTL, Gone Girl, or since we’ve mentioned DeMille, Gold Coast…

            I’ll read those books (and ones like them) over and over.

          2. Doug Keeler says:

            A thousand thanks, Shawn. Very helpful & greatly appreciated. One thing I’ve observed is that a lot of series protagonists don’t change much: Reacher, Mitch Rapp, Scott Harvath, John Corey, etc. But I’m sure there are series where the main character does change throughout the life of the series.

  6. Anika says:

    Shout out to Jackson, MS! No, that’s not my only take away. This was an interesting podcast and I am glad to know I shouldn’t be ashamed at using other works as inspiration. Thanks.

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