In this week’s episode of The Story Grid Podcast Tim and I talk about a very big moment in his work in progress.
It features what Joseph Campbell called “The Meeting with the Goddess.” In strict “Hero’s Journey” terms, this is the moment in the story when the traditional male heroic figure meets with the other half of his internal being, represented by a powerful female imago. The two sides come together and ally to confront a third party antagonist in the ending payoff.
In Tim’s case, since his protagonist is female, the meeting comes with a male force, her long lost brother.
For this first crack at the scene, I think Tim did a very good job. The reason he did so is because he spent a serious amount of time setting it up. We’ve been talking about this scene since we began work on this new draft almost a year ago. So when it came time to actually write it, he was more than prepared. I suspect the thing even “wrote itself.”
Tim has withheld so much information from the reader (and Jessie) since the start of the novel that he intuitively recognized the opportunity in this scene to use that exposition as ammunition to push the stakes of the story progressively larger. The scene between Jessie and her brother never devolves into cheesy declarations of love and devotion because the set up of the scene would not allow for that. Tim used the pressures inherent in his external plot (the second “severing” challenge) to validate the urgency of the meeting and thus, there just isn’t any time for the two of them to travel down memory lane.
A programming note.
We just finished up our first ever Story Grid Workshop in New York which featured all of the Story Grid principles in the book with a special focus on Love Story and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m exhausted and proud of the work we did over the weekend. Perhaps some of the attendees will post their comments about the work we did here… But then again, I’m sure they’re as saturated with Story Grid Stuff as I am.
I’ll be traveling for the next few weeks while Tim continues to write. So the Podcast will be going on hiatus. As soon as my batteries are recharged, we’ll pick up where we leave off at the end this episode.
To listen click the play button or read the transcript that follows.
[0:00:00.3] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, and I’m a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he’s the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book, Story Grid, and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode we continue down the path of my middle build. We talk about game theory, we talk about character versus plotting, and how to continue to keep moving that middle build until you can get to the ending payoff. I think you’re really going to enjoy it.
Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:41.3] TG: So Shawn, we’re now — I should probably do a recap. We’re working our way through the middle build. We are, I’m guessing, a little over a half way and it’s all been kind of building towards this moment where she meets her brother and finds him for the first time. This was one of those sequences that — Because I think it’s the fifth sequence now in the middle build; beginning hook and then the middle build.
This was one of those that I was just nervous to write because it was like so much was leaving up to it. I wanted to kind of pair it. I wanted to make several things happen. The first is you gave me the idea a couple of weeks ago of her basically figuring out that 83 from the numbered in the begging hook, that woman was in the capital at one point. I did where they were basically showing a video of past participants in the threshing, and she saw her in the background.
Then, the next scene was basically her going in to — Preparing for and going into the second severing, the second test. When I went back and was thinking through my scenes and looking at some of them, I realized she keeps kind of getting by by the skin of her teeth and she hasn’t really done anything all that extraordinary yet as far as showing ability.
What I thought would be interesting in this one would be to continue that thread and put her in the severing and then put her in the position where she basically — It is going to be the first one that kicked out. I tried to build some tension around that and then the way that she escapes is the bubble thing, the wormhole thing, shows back up and she goes through that to escape. Once again, she wins the severing by not being extraordinary. I wasn’t sure if that was a good move or not, but that was what I was thinking with that. Then, the scene with the brother, I wrote it, I reread it and I just don’t know if it’s any good. I feel like it’s such an important scene that I’ll never be happy with whatever it is.
Anyway, those were the three scenes that made up this sequence that gets us to this point where, now, Jessie will have a new objective and everything turns now from her just looking out for herself. That’s what those three scenes were and trying to get it to this point where I’m thinking back towards that one video we talked about a couple of months ago where like everything — The attitude is what changes halfway through.
Thinking like meeting her brother and her brother giving her this bigger objective, bigger than her just trying to go home will change her attitude in how she approaches everything now. Then, it ends with her brother basically giving her this objective and sending her back and then that was it.
I would love your thoughts.
[0:04:14.2] SC: I was really impressed with these three scenes. I think you really pulled them off. What I liked too about them is that you raised so many wonderful questions with these three scenes that they’re going to propel the reader further on into the adventure. It’s sort of like that moment when we all have when we’re either watching a movie or reading a book and we get to that point and we pause the movie and we go to the bathroom and we get another bowl of ice cream and we — It’s sort of like rub our hands together knowing, “Oh my gosh! This is going to get really great now.”
Just to go back to the global storytelling monomyth of the Hero’s Journey, this is sort of — Some people call it the meeting with the goddess. This is the moment when I think Joseph Campbell used that expression. This is the moment when the greater force of the universe becomes apparent to the hero. You use Jessie’s brother as that force, that person who delivers this information to her. I think it works very, very well for a number of reasons.
The choice that you made for Jessie to always sort of get out by the skin of her teeth in these very bad situations. For example, in the first severing, Jessie burns down the tower to sort of try and figure out a way to get home by messing everything up. That doesn’t work.
[0:06:05.3] TG: She only made it that far too, because those other two coders helped her.
[0:06:12.0] SC: Right. Exactly. Then, in the — It’s almost like the knife fight in the alley between the two rival gangs, the scene where Az gets her to go into the simulation again. She gets saved by this nebulous force, right?
[0:06:31.7] TG: Right.
[0:06:33.1] SC: She’s saved at the last minute by that. In this severing — But before that happens, she does have to have the courage to jump through the wormhole, right? Let’s not say that she’s not doing anything active to solve her own problems, because she is.
She’s sort of been a hero at the mercy of the villain scene in the knife fight with Az in the netherworld, in the virtual reality and the wormhole opens up. She’s faced with the best bad choice decision; does she stay and get hacked to death and get scrambled, or does she risk jumping into the abyss? She doesn’t know what’s behind that goo. She has the courage to jump into the wormhole.
That’s not nothing. That’s a very, very big telling character strength. In this scene — This scene, she is put into a position — I really love this setup of this severing, because it’s very intellectual. Are you familiar with Game Theory and John Von Neumann in the 1950s?
[0:07:59.0] TG: No.
[0:07:59.9] SC: Okay. Just a brief aside here, because this is kind of compelling and interesting. During the escalation of nuclear weapons between the Soviet Union and the United States, the United States was curious about, “Well, geez! What’ our overall strategy? If we all have the same amount of nuclear weapons and somebody launches the missiles and the other responds, we’ll just blow up the world. What is the right strategy to deal with that kind of zero sum gate, because it destroys the entire planet?”
The went to this guy named John Von Neumann and a number of other people, it wasn’t just him. Neumann was famous for creating Game Theory. Game Theory is based upon playing a game of variables. Do you — The game that most closely mirrored the nuclear crisis was something called prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma is this, you and your colleague are fighting a faction and you are put into prison and you know that your colleague was caught to, but they separated. The guy who comes in from the powerful force turns to you and says, “If you rat out your companion, your colleague before he rats you out, you will survive. If he rats you out before you rat him out, you will die.”
It’s this really difficult best bad choice situation, “Do I rat out my friend and he dies and I survive, or do I hold my ground hoping that he will hold his ground too and we’ll both end up being tortured.” Von Neumann did this as a mathematical situation and what he discovered is the best scenario is to always rat out your friend.
The reason why I’m bringing this up is that your simulation of the severing is similar to a Game Theory game, where there’s no easy solution. If she leaves her room and goes on the offensive, her room is then vulnerable. If somebody comes into her room, she’s immediately scrambled and thrown out of the game. If she stays in her room, she will quickly eat up all of her credits and her reserves and she won’t be able to defend herself and people will be able to breakthrough and get into her room anyway.
If she goes on the offensive, she can get more credits. She’s put in this really, really difficult psychological problem. It’s a problem that doesn’t have an easily solvable solution. If you were a mathematical genius like John Von Neumann, you would run all of the variables. You would say, “Well, if I can only stay in this room for a certain amount of time before all of my power is exhausted and somebody gets through, how long is that time?” To make all these calculations would require a lot of time. The great thing about your simulation is that these people don’t have any time to make these calculations, so they have to go on their instincts.
The severing game setup that you came up with I thought was really ingenious, because it’s the kind of thing that a mad genius would come up with to see who can operate at the highest level of efficiency in the most stressful situation, which is what they’re trying to get out of these people in the first place.
Anyway, that’s a very big compliment to you in this severing scenario.
[0:12:04.9] TG: Bu then I hijack the whole thing and —
[0:12:08.6] SC: Which is great.
[0:12:09.1] TG: Okay. Because that’s what I was trying to do is is I like I try to set up this super intense battle and then just end it before it even got started.
[0:12:18.8] SC: You set that up with the wormhole before and you had a choice. You had a choice, “Do I have Jessie show an extraordinary amount of intellectual fortitude where she’s capable of figuring out this Game Theory puzzle before anybody else, or do I do a little bit of deus ex machina and, again, get her out of the situation through a third-party mystical force?”
You did that with the wormhole before that did not result in a wormhole connection. You set up the fact that she could be saved again, and you do do that here. A lot of people — Some people might say that you cheated and then she would have had to have gone through this process, but it’s my evaluation of your idea though, character trumps the plotting. What I mean by that is Jessie is at a stage where she’s living in a very uncertain place. It’s like a place of cognitive dissonance, which means that she can’t really get a hold of what’s going on. She doesn’t know what her reality is. There’s a wormhole. She’s got to win these severings. She’s up against the wall if she makes a mistake and her friends are going to end up in trouble. It’s going to ruin her family.
There’s all of this stuff swimming around in her brain that she just — It’s just one-to-many pieces of straw on her back. That’s called cognitive dissonance, when your brain sort of shuts down because you can’t negotiate all of the things that are firing in your environment.
She shuts down in that room and she just can’t function, and she pretty much just sort of gives up a little bit, not a little bit, a lot. She freaks out. I think that was great choice, because the hero, the heroic movement must require that an ordinary person go through this trauma and at the very, very end they reach a level of — They exceed their own capabilities. They reach a place of transcendence of their selves.
I know I’m talking in like philosophical stuff right now, but what I’m trying to explain to you is that whatever is working inside of your writer-brain right now is firing on all cylinders, because it’s giving you really good instincts in your storytelling. If I tried to explain what I’m explaining to you about what you’ve already done before you did it, you probably would freak out and say, “There’s no way I could do that.”
Because you did it intuitively, because you’re allowing your inner writer, your inner muse to kind of take the controls and following where it takes you, these problems are sorting themselves up. The choice to make Jessie really super vulnerable in this place, and in fact, quit, is mirrors their Hero’s Journey in a very, very strong way. Then, to have her rescued by — Sort of the meeting with the goddess is what Joseph Campbell calls it. It’s meeting with a higher power, and she does meet with a higher power. The higher power is revealed to be her brother.
What’s also nice about that scene when she does meet with her brother is he’s very straightforward with her. He’s not trying to be Obi-Wan Kenobi to her or follow the force. He’s like, “I won the threshing. I’m imprisoned. I need your help. We don’t have much time. I barely was able to hack the system so that I could have this time with you.”
He is very, very clear about his intentions. He’s telling her, “Look, here’s the situation. I know this is a lot for you to handle right now, but I’m the one who got you here. I’m the one. I need your help. All these stuff is baloney, we’re being enslaved. The game is rigged. I need your help.” That all is fantastic because he’s giving her a new paradigm of the universe, right? He’s telling her — He’s reducing her anxiety by filling her in on all these information.
He’s giving her a new mission with a new path, a new worldview. Her worldview before she goes into this meeting with him is all of cognitive dissonance. She just wants to go home. She can’t figure anything out. Nothing makes sense. Everybody hates her. She’s winning these things and she doesn’t know why. It’s all screwy, right?
[0:17:52.3] TG: Right.
[0:17:53.8] SC: Your right. You should have been afraid of writing this scene, but the scene works extremely well because of all the work we did before. All of that work that we did with the beginning hook, all of that work we did about constantly saying, “What does she want? What’s her object of desire? What is the thing that she needs most?” She needs, she wants love. She wants familiar love and safety at home, but the way she figures that is, “I want to go home,” meaning I want to go back in time to when things were good at home.
What the brother is offering her in this scene is a chance to get that, a very clear chance to get that. He says to her, “We can go back. We can have it like the way it was. All you have to do is do what I tell you to do.” This is a really great scene, because not only are you fixing Jessie’s worldview, you’re imprinting on the reader what’s going to happen next. You’re giving them an anticipatory suspense of, “Oh my gosh! Oh! Now, it all makes clear.” Her brother didn’t die. That was a lie. In fact, he was imprisoned because he had this secret to figuring out how to win a threshing. He’s not giving it up. That’s when they had to get Jessie.
There’s a really nice moment of coalescing of plot here. A lot of questions are being answers, and this is pretty much the midpoint of your novel. This is the moment when Jessie gets the new mission. This is uber mission, right?
[0:19:56.6] TG: Right.
[0:19:56.7] SC: Her mission before was to flunk out at the school in the least amount of pain as possible and so that she can go ho me. Now, her new mission is do her brothers bidding and then all will sort itself out and she will get back with her brother. In her mind, she’s probably having fantasies that her and her brother skip down the road back to their house and everybody lives happily ever after.
I think this is a really, really nice place and you’re also pushing the plot and you’re raising the stakes. Now, she’s in involved in a serious conspiracy. There’s no going back now, because she’s now taken on the mission from her brother, who’s the ghost in this machine. Who even knows if the brother is being forthright or not? We don’t know what 83 is all about. There’s a whole slew of questions here that are raised.
Who really is the bad guy? Who are these — What’s the name of the —
[0:21:09.8] TG: The reapers.
[0:21:11.6] SC: The reapers. Who are they? What’s that all about? We’ve never seen those people before. We’re supposed to take this at face value? All of these sort of — All of these questions that you’ve unleashed here, it’s great, because you’ve answered a lot of questions, but you didn’t just answer them, you raised a whole bunch of new ones. It’s all those new questions that will keep the reader reading, keep the reader anticipating and hoping, trying to figure out the clues in the puzzles to what’s really going on here. Who’s the bad guy, really? Who’s been manipulating who? What’s the story with 83? Is she going to come back? I wonder if she’s going to come back. I wonder — She seemed like she was a good person and now it seems like she’s not a good person. We’re not sure.
All of these things, you’re giving fuel to the narrative velocity of the story through suspense. We have the same amount of information as Jessie has, which is great, because knowing more than Jessie knows would really ruin the suspense here. Not knowing as much as she knows, that’s something that you could use as some sort of payoff later. Jessie has information that the reader may not know. Jessie has — She has that past of being her own hacker. She was hacking the ordinary world by herself with her group of sort of [inaudible 0:22:57.8] group of people, that little — What do they call them? The rats or the —
[0:23:03.8] TG: Right. Which like we may —
[0:23:07.1] SC: They could come back. They could come back.
[0:23:11.2] TG: We cut all of that. They haven’t even been in there.
[0:23:16.7] SC: No. You left a little Easter egg in the beginning hook.
[0:23:20.8] TG: Right, the note under the thing. Then I had that weird guy that showed up in the middle build.
[0:23:26.8] SC: Exactly.
[0:23:28.0] TG: But I know at some point I’m going to have to go back and tile that together to actually makes sense. What I figure is this — Tell me if I’m wrong here. I want to come back because I have some questions about the last scene I had sent you. What I figure is once I get to the ending hook, I’ll know —
[0:23:46.2] SC: Ending payoff.
[0:23:47.9] TG: Sorry. Yes, ending payoff. I’ll know who needs to come back on the stage. If I need the rats, then I’ll just go back and write them into the story. I’m already setting up, because I figured I gave so much ink to 83 in the beginning hook. She has to come back. She’s got to come back, but I figure if I need the rats to pull up whatever I come up with in the ending payoff, then I’ll have to go back and put them in a little bit more in the book later. Figuring out the ending payoff will help me figure out some of those things.
[0:24:32.5] SC: Remember that your ending payoff, it’s thematic. It has to be on theme. What that means is that the ending payoff in a thriller is usually the moment the ultimate hero at the mercy of the villain scene. The way the hero outmaneuvers and outsmarts the villain has to be on theme. What I mean by that is that the theme, the underlying theme of this story is a maturation plot. Look, I don’t want to get a million e-mails from people telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about in terms of maturation plot and markets and blah-blah-blah.
The overarching global story that you’re writing is a maturation plot, but the external story that is driving the commercial potential of your story is an action thriller dystopian science-fiction thriller featuring a middle grade protagonist. All these is to say that your ending payoff, ideally, will have your hero use their new worldview as a means to beat the villain.
Part of the worldview shift that Jessie is having is a maturation plot which moos from a sort of naïveté
to sophistication. Naïveté of the world, meaning seeing things in very crystal clear black and white terms. People do what they say and say what they do and everything is on the level. When you mature, you understand that people say things and do other things. They say one thing and it’s doing another. People are very political. Things aren’t what always they seem. The world is filled with shades of gray. You have to evaluate people’s words with a really, really fine-tooth — Good microscope to see that their words match their action, et cetera, et cetera. Her maturation moves from understanding that you can’t take things at face value anymore. It’s also a search for safety, and love, and community from her home. Finding her place in the universe.
The rats represent — The rats were really her family. Her family wasn’t her family, right? Her family was what she was told should provide comfort; her mother and father and her dead brother. That’s what she was told was family. She didn’t consider the rats her family. She doesn’t consider Alex and Ernst her family. What she discovers in this journey is that family does not have to be blood.
What could be cool — And this is just a suggestion and it might not work, would — In the climactic moment, in the climax, the ending payoff of this story, it appears as if she will be destroyed by this power. It’s at that moment that she realizes that her family, her family comes and helps her in some way. That little note that she left all the way at the beginning hook tumbles forward and saves her in some way.
It’s like — Did you see the movie Guardians of the Galaxy?
[0:28:28.6] TG: Yeah.
[0:28:30.0] SC: It’s the moment when the lead character grabs that orb and he’s going to obliterate and all the other people put their hand on his shoulder and they hold hands and together they absorbed the evil and they were able to put it back in that orb. That is the hero at the mercy of the villain scene in that movie. What captured and solved that incredible problem — That was a Force of Evil that was really difficult to overcome, was when those five guardians of the galaxy put their hands together and absorbed the shock of that pain all together as one.
By the way, that’s the — The Guardians of the Galaxy movie is like textbook story grid. Right out of Hero’s Journey. Right out of action thriller. Right out of — It’s really — It’s something —
[0:29:24.9] TG: I should go back and watch it now that I have this perspective on it.
[0:29:28.5] SC: You should. Oh, man! You’ll look at it and you’ll go, “Oh my god! There’s the hero at the mercy of the villain. There is The Mentor. That’s the first trial, when they’re in the prison.” All of those moments are just really terrifically portrayed. That’s why it’s a silly story, but the underlying concepts of the storytelling in the Hero’s Journey are so perfectly — They clicked together so well that you, you’re watching this thing, and it’s absolutely ridiculous. The amount of suspension of disbelief required to enjoy that movie is outrageous.
The storytelling is so good, the core of it — They hit the conventions and obligatory scenes. They’ve got the Hero’s Journey. They’ve got The Mentor. They’ve got the Force of Evil, The Antagonist. The Antagonist, it’s the — The middle build is all about The Antagonist. It’s just great.
Anyway, I lost my train of thought. Other than to say that the ending payoff needs to be on theme — That’s what’s going to make your ending payoff inevitable, but surprised. Ideally, that’s what will happen, we’ll go, “Oh, of course. Of course, that’s how he solved it, because that makes perfect sense. Of course, that’s the real villain behind these all thing. Oh, I get it.”
All these is to say is that these three scenes are they’re really taking the story the next level and you’re really making a promise to the reader that this story is it’s going to go places that you can’t anticipate, and this is a young girl who’s going to reach a level of heroism that is believable because of her vulnerability.
That’s one of the things — I’m not saying I’m criticizing Harry Potter, but I think he was a little bit too strong too soon in the storytelling and that we lost a little bit of empathy for him, because the trick for the reader is to really see Jessie as somebody that they know ideally themselves. Jessie is sort of just getting by, just barely — She’s fraudulently keeping it going somehow, and that’s the way we all feel about our lives. We think, “Oh! If people find out the truth about me, then I’m really in shits creek, but let me just keep it going for another podcast until they find out I’m a real fraud.”
[0:32:28.5] TG: I don’t ever think that. What are you talking about?
[0:32:34.3] SC: That’s the thing that connects people to a protagonist, is their believability of — We want them to get what they want and we understand in ourselves what they need. I talk about this a lot, the difference between want and need. What Jessie wants is to go back home. That’s her external object of desire. She just wants to go home. She wants to go back to the way things were.
What she needs is love, and safety, and comfort, and that’s represented by this mythical family life that she lost a longtime ago. What she needs and what she wants are sort of at loggerheads throughout the story. At the end of the story, she’s going to get what she needs, but it probably won’t be what she wanted. That is when people fall in love with the story, because what we want and what we need are on the same psychic plane, but there at different ends in the spectrum.
When we get what we want, often times we lose what we — We don’t get what we need, and vice versa. If Jessie were to get what she wanted right now and get to go back home, do you think she would live happily ever after with her crazy mother and her wimpy father? No. That’s what she’s telling herself. I could just get home and go back to my little hole underneath my bedroom that everything would be cool.
What she needs is something better than that. She needs a safe place with family and connection with people who care about her and will have her back. That’s what she’s going to get somehow at the end of this novel. Once she has her band of brothers, or whatever, then she can take on even larger challenges, and that would be — The Guardians of the Galaxy is a great example. They set that thing up perfectly at the end.
We don’t know who is father is. We know that he’s got a bunch of friends now, he’s got a brand new ship, and off he goes. We know that story is not over. That thing made a billion dollars. I kind of want to see what happens in the — Wait. Who is his father? There’s no way that guy could have been able to hold back that little thing. He must have some special gift that he doesn’t even know about, and it comes from his father. His connection and his need for connection came from his human mother, that’s why he has the cassette tape of all the songs. It’s brilliant. The other cassette tape at the end is just great. That will sustain it.
[0:35:43.9] TG: Now I’ll have to back and watch it. No, I’m really excited to go back and watch it.
[0:35:50.3] SC: You should, because it will probably — Something will click inside that could be helpful, and it’s a fun movie to watch.
[0:36:00.4] TG: I have some questions about the scene where she meets her brother. My first is did I hit the emotional level the right way? Because I felt like I don’t know how I would respond in that situation. Then I wanted to make sure I didn’t like over-explained the family stuff, because they already know all their family stuff. That’s why I was like, “I’m just going to have her say that she knew he was alive,” and then just kind of leave it there. Did I hit that at the right kind of level?
[0:36:40.1] SC: I think you did. Here’s tip. The more setup you do for that kind of scene, the better, because — Look, a couple of readers have said, “Oh, we know that in Tim’s story that the brother is alive. It’s silly to even use that. It’s not going to be that big of a surprise,” and that’s kind of true. When you reference a person and you say they’re dead and there’s no body and they don’t bury anybody, you know, “Yeah, he’s probably alive.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use that plot device.
The way you use the plot device and the way it works is when it’s surprising the revelation. We kind of think it could be her brother when she goes into the netherworld. What’s surprising is the situation. The situation is he explains to her, “I’m alive,” and he gives her all kinds of information, and he has to tell her very quickly. He’s got an agenda, and he doesn’t have time to be, “Oh sweet sister! It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other. How I love you and adore — ”. He doesn’t have time for that.
That was a great choice to make that scene where he couldn’t be Mr. Sentimental, and she couldn’t neither, because she’s going to get her brains scrambled if she doesn’t get back there quickly. That was a great choice. The setup of you prepared for that scene in a way that made it non-cheesy. There’s nothing worse than that scene to dissolve into cheesy declarations of love. Nobody wants to hear, “I love you.” They want to see it. They want to see the action of I love you.
His actions of I love you are, “I’m the ghost in the machine that’s been protecting you, and I need your help, because you’re great.” I think the scene works. I don’t think you hit it too hard or too soft. It’s hard to tell right now, because we’re not looking — I’m not editing the book with a fresh eye. For now, it seems perfect. It seems great.
[0:39:02.1] TG: Okay. The amount of information I shared was good, because I’m like trying to cram all of that information in at the same time. I’m trying to cram in he’s alive, he’s trapped, the controlling force is evil, not good, the whole faction-threshing thing is kind of a scam. Then, I’m going to need your help, but you got to go. I was just kind of like, “Okay. I’m going just kind of cram all these in real quick,” and then kind of shove her out the door and I’ll figure out how to get her the information she needs later.
[0:39:48.1] SC: Yeah, it works, because you set up the game. You set up the simulation. Yeah, it’s all within the universe. It follows the rules of the magical world. Magical world, you don’t have time to be friendly. You don’t have time. It’s great. You have to jumble that information in. it’s a great — You know what that is? I’ve told you this before when you haven’t done it, it’s exposition as ammunition. All that stuff is exposition; the world sucks, this is a lie, I need your help, I’m trapped. That’s all exposition, right? It’s ammunition to move the scene forward. When she goes in there, she’s curious, “I’m not coming up with the best life value right now.” When she lives, she’s enlightened. She doesn’t know what’s going on, so she moves from unenlightened to enlightened in this scene.
There’s a million turning points in the scene because of all the information that’s pummeled at her, but it makes perfect sense, because you set up that moment where you could have this great pummeling of exposition that increases the suspense and interest of the story instead of it saying, “Hey sis! You remember that time when we’re little and dad said to always remember what boy scouts did back — ”. It’s not that. It’s, “I’m in trouble, we have five seconds before you have to go. Here is the situation. You have to be ready for X.” It’s exposition as ammunition in the best possible way, and you make it as a very active scene that’s invigorating, that really is just a meaning between two people and two chairs by a fireplace.”
[0:41:48.7] TG: Right. Okay. Looking at — I guess this is a good time as ever to let everybody know that we’re taking a few weeks off after this episode. Both of us are doing a bunch of traveling. We’re going to take a few weeks off from the show, be back after that. I’m looking down that — I don’t want to just write three more scenes over the next three or four weeks before we talk again.
I kind of want to go over my plan to get — What I’m hoping is to write — Because at this point, I’ve now written three or four sequences in a row that you just approved and let me keep going. I’m wondering is should I like power through the rest of the middle build over the next few weeks and see how I do on my own for that much before you take a look at it? I think that’s my first question.
[0:42:49.1] SC: How many chapters at — You’re at 31, 32?
[0:42:53.4] TG: 32.
[0:42:54.8] SC: Okay, 32 chapters and we’re shooting for what? Like 62, 64? It’s not the end of the world if we come in a little over upper. You’re basically at midpoint. How many scenes were your beginning hook again?
[0:43:15.1] TG: Yeah, 11 scenes was the beginning hook. That means we’re at 21 scenes into the middle build.
[0:43:22.9] SC: Okay. Yeah, I would write — I think you’re probably, and again, don’t take this as an edict from on high. I think you need about 12 more scenes in the middle build to kick you in to your ending payoff. You’re at 32?
[0:43:42.5] TG: Yeah.
[0:43:43.3] SC: Yeah, I think the end of your middle build is around scene 44. Just as reference, Silence of the Lambs beginning hook was, I believe, 13 scenes. The end of the middle build came at about scene number 48. Yeah, I think it’s around 48, and then it kicked off and ended at 63 scenes. Pride and Prejudice, it’s opening is 12, and then the middle build ends, I believe, at 46, or 44, and then it kicks off. These are just good ballpark things to keep in the back of your mind to see where you’re going.
[0:44:29.4] TG: What’s the word count on those two books? Do you know off the top?
[0:44:32.7] SC: Yeah. I think Silence of the Lambs is about 78,000, maybe 80,000. Pride and Prejudice was maybe a hundred, because it was much more fluoric language, but same scene package. One was written in 1813 and one was written in 1986.
[0:44:58.6] TG: Okay, because I’m at 36,000 right now.
[0:45:02.2] SC: Yeah, you’ll be fine. You’ve got probably 30,000 to 40,000 left. Maybe 30 to finish up your first draft. Then, what you’ll find is you’ll tweak things, you’ll add maybe a chapter or a scene here or two and you’ll probably end up somewhere around 75,000 to 80,000.
[0:45:23.8] TG: Okay. You’re saying —
[0:45:25.7] SC: Yes. The answer is yeah, finish the middle build and then we’ll see what happens.
[0:45:30.3] TG: Okay. Let me kind of tell you where I’m going. I have two sequences already kind of laid out, but I laid those out weeks ago now. The next sequence is basically she shows back up and then there’s this aftermath of her winning the severing again and nobody quite understands how she pulled it off, and she’s got to lie and hide.
Then, she’s going to get her directive from her brother that wouldn’t be something that she has to do sneaking around the actual capital, because I thought it would be fun with, basically, all of the action in the middle build that’s happened in the virtual world. I want him to put in action kind of sequence in the real world where she’s actually having to sneak around the actual capital and pull something off that her brother tells her to do.
Then, when she does it, she does it, but as almost catches them. That’s how I’m going to set that up. In reality, he actually did figure out what they were doing, because, then, it sets it up so that in the final severing, she gets down to six teams and the three left standing go to the threshing. While she’s in the severing, she’s runs off to do her brother’s bidding and Az follows her. This is when — At the end of this sequence is when she dies.
Then, the final sequence of the middle build is going to be her coming back to life, all of that kind of aftermath that I haven’t figured out yet, but that last sequence will go from her coming back to life to the threshing beginning, because the beginning of the threshing will be the beginning of the ending payoff.
[0:47:43.9] SC: I have one suggestion. I would not have the brother get in touch again. Are you still there?
[0:47:51.0] TG: Yeah, I’m just trying to figure out why. Why?
[0:47:56.1] SC: Okay, because the reader is going to expect some magical moment when she gets her assignment, right? She’s going to expect that. What’s interesting to me would be if the message never comes. She’s expecting this. She’s expecting this. Things are just moving along. She’s getting more and more panicky, “I’m supposed to do something to save my brother’s life, and nothing’s coming.”
It’s at that point where she reaches a climactic moment in her thinking and she says, “All right, I’ve got to — Something’s happened, he can’t communicate with me.” What did he say? He said something about, “I need to get something in the capital.” She has to proactively make the choice herself to go on the mission without having any information. She goes to think about — Her inner coder comes to her rescue. She has to think through the thinking.
One of the things that’s really moving, and it’s sort of like in Star Wars when Luke — After Obi-Wan Kenobi dies, right? He sacrifices himself so that they can get away on Harrison Ford’s ship, or whatever.
[0:49:21.2] TG: Yeah, the Millennium Falcon. Come on.
[0:49:27.6] SC: It’s sort of like the force is dead. The guy is dead. You can’t help him anymore. Within himself, that’s when Luke has to remember on the ship, “Oh, I have to trust the force. He’s dead, but the force is still alive. It’s my job to do it without him and to trust.”
Jessie has been given the information that’s absolutely necessary. She’s been given her mission that she has to something to help her brother, to free him from his prison. He says that he’ll be able to get a message that specifically tells her what she has to do, but we never get that message, do we?
Thematically, human beings never get the message of what they’re supposed to do on the earth. Do we? We’re all born and we don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to do tomorrow. What do we have to do? We have to think of it ourselves. We have to say to ourselves, “Okay. What do I need to do? What’s the effect that I need? Okay, so how can I make that happen?”
Jessie has to sort of be a human being and think for herself and say, “The goal is X. How am I going to free my brother? Let’s see. Ernst, what do you know about the capital? What do you know about the wiring? What do you know about where are all the computers? Where’s the whole motherboard?” She’s going to have to ask and trust other people to help her with this riddle, “Why do you want to know?” “I’m just curious. Do you ever know? What about that secret room you have downstairs? How did you find that?” “Oh, well, it’s funny, I did this.”
She has to get some help and she has to start trusting other people. Luke has to trust Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. The message shouldn’t come. If you have the message come, the reader is going to go, “Oh! This is stupid. This is stupid. You mean she’s going to know exactly how she’s going to get this guy up? Now, we’re just going to watch her do it? Then, okay, here comes the scene where the guy catches her doing it.” You know what I mean?
[0:51:51.5] TG: Yeah.
[0:51:52.7] SC: That’s a way to outsmart your reader and say, “Oh! You think. You think that just because he said he would get her a message that I’m going to have him get it to her. No. That’s not the way life works. There aren’t any messages that we get. Nobody tells us what to do.”
That’s why fiction and storytelling is so important is because the closer you can have it mirror the reality of our living day-to-day is that we don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t know what’s on the highway on the way home. I don’t know what’s for dinner.
The trick of storytelling is to constantly be surprising the reader. You tell them, “We all think we know what’s going to happen next, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.”
[0:52:49.5] TG: Okay. Sure. The other question I had is when she dies, is that the All is Lost moment, or does the All is Lost moment come in the payoff?
[0:53:08.9] SC: No. I think the All is lost moment is when she “dies”. Here’s the thing, you’ve been setting up the scrambling, this brain scrambling very intensively, and she has yet to be brain-scramble. The opportunity is — There’s a great scene in the movie Cool Hand Luke, which is an old movie. It’s a fantastic movie. It’s Paul Newman at his best. He plays this guy who ends up in this chain gang in the south. He’s in prison for doing something stupid, and he’s just kind of a wise guy, and he sees the world in a different way. He’s thin, he’s not that strong, but he’s got an inner fire that nobody can stop. He mouths off to some guy, this guy, and the guy says, “We’re going to settle this on Sunday and we’re going to have a boxing match. This is how we settle things here in prison.”
The Sunday comes, Paul Newman steps out into the ring with George Kennedy who plays the big, tough guy. George Kennedy, he proceeds to beat the hell out him to the point where he’s bleeding, he can’t barely see straight, but Paul Newman keeps getting back up, and George Kennedy keeps knocking him back down and it’s getting so uncomfortable for everybody who’s watching it, that people start to walkaway because they don’t want to watch this guy get beaten to death.
The scene is so wonderful, because these guys recognize something in Paul Newman that they don’t have. What Paul Newman has as Cool Hand Luke is an inner fire that refuses to accept the way things are, and he’ll die fighting to the very end. George Kennedy eventually gets to the point where, “This is humiliating, I can’t kill this guy. I know what I’ll do, he’ll now be my best friend.” He picks up Paul Newman and he throws him over his shoulder and he goes, “Oh, Cool Hand Luke. Oh! This guy has got fire.”
I think that’s what Jessie is going to do. Cool Hand Luke doesn’t think he’s very special. Cool hand Luke thinks he’s an idiot, but everybody else sees the fire in him. Eventually, when you have that much fire, people try to destroy you.
Jessie, I think, when she has her All is Lost moment, it’s not necessarily her All is Lost moment. It’s everybody else sees her as dying. She has too much fire inside of herself to really — To allow herself, her brain to be scrambled and to die.
Yes, she dies. She dies just like everybody else, but something within her resuscitates her. She doesn’t think anything over that. It’s just — It’s happened to her before and there’ a certain thing she does within herself and, “Bang!” the engines starts again.
I think the All is Lost moment for the reader — Yeah, it is her All is Lost moment, because when she wakes up and she’s alive, she’s still — Next day is the threshing. I don’t know if you’ve ever been so sick that you’ve been in the hospital, but if you’ve ever been in the hospital and there’s something that you have to do the next day, there’s no way you can even conceive of even doing that thing.
It will be her all is Lost Moment, but not from the reasons it is for everybody else, if that makes sense. She’s going to be exhausted and she’s going to be recovering from her death that she didn’t die from. She’s going to have to raise the energy and the will-power to get up off of the table and go into the threshing.
Yes, the answer to your question is yes it will be the All is Lost moment for her and the novel, but thematically, it’s the moment when she realizes her gift. She pulls out the gift card. This is the moment when she’s like, “Okay. I got to pull out the gift card. Yeah, this is my gift. I refuse to quit. That’s my gift. It’s not very special or interesting, but I’m just not going to quit. I’ll go to the threshing and I’m going to just keep going until they obliterate me, because I don’t quit.” That’s her gift, and that’s what thematically Is going to make yours story work, because that’s a message that we all want to hear and need to hear, is you just don’t quit.
[0:58:22.4] TG: Okay. All right. I’m going —
[0:58:25.2] SC: All right. Don’t quit.
[0:58:27.0] TG: Don’t what?
[0:58:28.8] SC: Don’t quit.
[0:58:29.8] TG: Yeah. I’m going to work on — I’m just going to write until the end of the middle build and then that’s what we’ll go over when we come back online and it will be perfect and you’ll approve it and we’ll be able to move right into the ending payoff.
[0:58:51.1] SC: The only advice I’m going to give you is do everything in your power to write yourself into a hole that you don’t think you’ll be able to get out of, because that will be a great problem to solve. If you can’t solve it, we can always go back and cheat, but pretend that you’re not going to cheat and write yourself into a hole where all of the odds — Just like in Guardians of the Galaxy. At the very end of that movie, you’re like, “Oh my — How is this guy going to get out of this?” He does that stupid dance routine. You’re like — You have the point of the even The Antagonist and you’re like, “What the hell is he doing?” Then it all becomes clear.
You want to get into the position that they are at the end of — Obviously, you can see the guys who worked on that story, they were like, “How are we going to get him out of this situation?” It probably took a long time for them to think of that. It was perfectly in character, because at the very beginning of the movie, he’s goofing around dancing — In the first introduction to him as an adult is that he’s just a goofball. He’s dancing around this desolate area. In the end, that’s what saves him.
[1:00:19.5] TG: Okay. I’m writing this. I got to kill her — I got to put her on her own so her brother doesn’t save her. I got to kill her and bring her back and then I got to dig a hole so that going into the threshing, that like there’s just no way she’s ever going to win.
[1:00:42.8] SC: Yes. The other thing is that she — I would not bring back the brother or any of that plot line until the ending payoff.
[1:00:52.9] TG: No brother, no 83, no rats, none of those people show up until the ending payoff.
[1:00:58.3] SC: I think you can bring up 83. You could even bring back 61, but I would hold back the rats until the ending payoff. I think there has to be a combination of brother, rats, Marcus the president, and whatever the Russian team is.
[1:01:20.3] TG: I think Az will be involved in some way as well.
[1:01:24.8] SC: Yeah.
[1:01:25.1] TG: Because I feel like — I was thinking of this in the shower yesterday, like his story is he truly believes in the faction. What I want him to do is to realize that Jessie is the only one that can win the threshing and he sacrifices himself to save her, because he wants the faction to win, because that’s all he really cares about.
[1:01:52.1] SC: I think that’s in character, and I think it’s a good holy shit moment. I think that could work.
[1:02:00.6] TG: That’s what I was thinking about yesterday, and I was like, “The whole reason he hates Jessie is because she’s not taking it seriously. He feels like her even being there is the faction not taking it seriously, but he redeems himself by giving himself for the thing he believes in.
[1:02:23.9] SC: Yes. That’s good. I think it’s surprising too.
[1:02:29.2] TG: Okay. I’ll get to work on this and we’ll talk in a few weeks.
[1:02:35.6] SC: Okay.
[END OF EPISODE]
[1:02:36.9] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. As I mentioned, Shawn and I are going to take a few weeks off. This is actually the first time we’ve really done this where we’re going to go a few weeks without an episode. We’ve got some traveling to do and I’ve got some writing to do, and so we will see you back here in the feed in a few weeks.
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