The Allure of Flailing

Here’s the transcript for episode four, “What about Deliverance, right?” of The Story Grid Podcast.
You can also listen to it by clicking the play button below.

Tim: Hello, and welcome to Episode 4 of The Story Grid Podcast. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, and this podcast is dedicated to walking through all of the ideas in the book “The Story Grid” and putting them into real life to help you become a better writer.

We’ve been doing that over the first three episodes, and we dive into a lot of fun stuff in this episode. We talk about how we assume Stephen King does his writing. We talk about the difference between learning and flailing, and we start to dive into what character development really is and how to use the almighty content leaf from “The Story Grid” book.

Before Shawn and I jump in, I just want to remind you that you can subscribe to this podcast. If you use iTunes, you can just subscribe to the podcast directly into iTunes and the new episodes will automatically get downloaded.

If you want to use other apps, I recommend Stitcher. That’s what I use for my podcast listening. You just go into Stitcher, you put in our show, you mark it as a favorite, and new episodes will automatically download every time we put a new one out. Make sure you subscribe to the show. Here are Shawn and I as we dive into this week’s episode.

I want to start out this one… I had this thing pop out in my head the other day as I was talking about something, and it came back to “On Writing” by Stephen King when he talks about where his story ideas come from and then how he writes his stories. Basically, he makes it sound like he comes up with the scenario he wants to write, he just sits down and starts typing, and the story falls out the other end. There’s this constant struggle. I see it online. It’s called plotters versus pantsers.

I have this theory. I came up with this theory and I want to run it by you. In “The Story Grid,” you talk about the three acts, the inciting incidents, the middle build, and all the different parts of a story and how to lay those out. I have a theory that Stephen King has been reading for so long and writing for so long – because he talks about how he started when he was basically a kid – that he does all of those same things, but they just come to him so naturally that it feels like he’s just sitting down and writing.

I picture it like if I take my seven-year old to play basketball, the amount of concentration it takes for him just to dribble the ball is like total concentration where you compare that to an NBA player and they can dribble, shoot, and be in the exact right place in the court that they’re supposed to be all without even consciously thinking about it.

I think of it that way, where people like me who are just getting started, we need these things because we’re just getting started, whereas somebody on Stephen King’s level just naturally does all of these things when they write. What do you think about that?

Shawn: I think that’s very accurate. I think what happens, as you describe, is that the writers like Stephen King and John Grisham, for example – very, very commercial – James Patterson, they’ve been doing it for so long, and I like your analogy, too, about the basketball.

I like to use high diving. Whenever you watch on the Olympics, these amazing divers who get up there and they do this triple Lutz dive with a tuck and they enter the water perfectly, and you think to yourself, “Geez, they don’t have any time to really think about all of the practice that they had to do when they got to the top of that diving board.”

They’ve already done all that work so what they basically want to do is let their muscles remember all of that work and let their brain slow down and let their body do the work for them and execute the dive in the way that they want and just perform. They want to perform knowing they have all of the hours behind them.

That is, I think, what Stephen King was describing in “On Writing.” When he sits down, he has in his mind – and Steve Pressfield told me he does this, too – he has a very specific beginning point, inciting incident, and he has a vague understanding of how it’s going to end in a surprising way that’s inevitable, and then as he’s writing, these sort of autonomic systems go into overdrive and he knows when he finishes a certain chunk, “Now I have to mix it up; now I have to turn the table; now I have to do the next thing,” and he just starts to do that intuitively.

The things that I’m teaching in “The Story Grid” are all the craft lessons that Stephen King, and Steven Pressfield, and John Grisham, and Nora Roberts, and Anne Tyler, and Anne Rice, and all these people, have learned from writing from book to book to book.

I love the basketball analogy. It’s absolutely true. Anybody who picks up a hobby or wants to start, say, playing pool, like billiards, it takes a while to learn how to get the shot. You don’t have to worry and line up every shot because you already know it. But when you’re just starting out…

This is another thing that I remember from our conversation last week, and I felt a little bad because you had asked me something and it took me a while for my brain to click in and to remember what I had actually written in “The Story Grid.” I think also a part of it, too, is that I refer to “The Story Grid” probably as much as you do day to day because these are really great principles that you understand them, you learn them, and then when you’re in process of describing them, you need to kind of refresh your memory.

The great thing about the whole craft of it is that these are the places that you can go back to and reference and remember, “Oh okay, now I know why I’m stuck; now I know where to get going again.”

Tim: Yes. I feel like this is where, again, thinking about how all of these are absolute assumptions – I’ve never actually worked with him – but thinking about how Stephen King goes through his first edit read-through, I don’t think he reads a scene and thinks, “I didn’t turn that scene from negative to positive.” He’s just like, “Oh, something’s wrong,” and then he fixes it and it’s done.

Shawn: Right. That’s absolutely correct.

Tim: So that’s where I think basically what we’re trying to do if we’re an amateur writer and we’re trying to do something like “The Story Grid” is we’re trying to shortcut not all of them, but some of those years where Stephen King and others – again, making total assumptions – were just flailing.

They’re just failing, writing, writing, and writing and then, that doesn’t work, that doesn’t work, that doesn’t work, that doesn’t work, rejection, rejection, rejection, trying to learn why it doesn’t work. Where this is more like, “Here’s why it’s probably not working,” and it kind of shortcuts those years and hundreds of thousands of words. That’s the goal with some of this stuff.

Shawn: Yes, exactly. I think what you’re doing is a very interesting approach, which is if I set myself a task, my task is I need to write a scene that starts one way and ends another way. At the beginning of my scene, let’s say my lead character has a lot of hope. Things have gone right for them. They think things are turning around for them. The beginning of this scene is when somebody starts out with a lot of hope.

Say they’re feeling really great and they decide they’re going to ask their next-door neighbor out on a date. They decide to raise the courage to do that. They have a lot of hope. Things are going well for them. They go across the street. They make niceties with the neighbor.

The reader or the person who is following the story believes that something good is going to happen because it started on a positive and then something strange happens to turn it from a positive of hope to despair.

At the end of the scene, it’s turned. At the beginning of the scene, our lead character who is going over to ask her next-door neighbor for a date feels really confident. Then at the end, it ends in despair. That’s an example of a scene that turns.

If you know from the start generically, “The beginning of my scene, my lead character is going to be hopeful and at the end of the scene, my lead character is going to be in despair, how do I get them from A to B?” Then when you write that scene with that completely focused in your mind, I guarantee you that scene is going to turn. You’re not going to be thinking about the crisis question or the progressive complications of each beat-by-beat scene; you’re going to just know, “I have to start here and I have to end there.”

For instance, somebody like Stephen King when he’s 12 years old and he’s writing a little story for himself, he might begin a scene with a lot of hope and end with a lot of hope and the scene doesn’t move anywhere. Then he gives it to his friend to read, and he goes, “I didn’t like that story. It was stupid. It didn’t go anywhere.” Then he’ll say, “Oh, I wonder why.” He’ll re-read it and he’ll go, “Well, the guy just doesn’t change, so maybe I’ll make it that something happens to him that he’s in despair at the end of that scene.”

He learns that through trial and error, whereas you, Tim, now it’s trying to really do Occam’s razor of writing a story; you know the principles, and so you bypass that moment where your friend tells you that the scene doesn’t work.

Tim: Do you think you lose something in that process?

Shawn: No, I don’t, because what I think you learn is a really critical… You’re building up a muscle. It’s like if you want to get strong, you can do a couple of things. You could go outside, chop down a tree, drag it somewhere, and push it really hard or you can go into a weight room and concentrate on that one specific muscle for a period of a week. It’s going to take you probably an entire summer to get as strong doing the bushwhacking work as it would going into a weight room.

I think a similar analogy there is that you’re trying to exercise very specific muscles when you use the approach of “The Story Grid.” I don’t think it’s any less creative than it would be doing the bushwhacking work. In fact, I think you’re going to get less discouraged by knowing these principles and you’ll have something to hold onto.

Tim: I’m not thinking of it as less creative as much as I guess I worry trying to find shortcuts like this, because that’s how I see it. That’s probably a crass way of saying it, but my goal is I don’t want to spend the next ten years flailing until I figure this out; I want to start ahead. But I worry sometimes, am I losing something by not flailing for ten years?

Shawn: See, I would make the argument that you have reached a point in your life where you have flailed enough.

Tim: Everybody would assume that.

Shawn: I don’t think so. You would be surprised, Tim. A lot of people, when I start to describe “The Story Grid” and what I’m talking about, their eyes will roll and they’ll say, “You can’t create anything creative that way. That’s ridiculous.” Those are people who haven’t flailed enough because they’re assuming that there’s some magical moment where the heavens part and the angels descend and give you a story, and that’s not the way it works at all. Stephen King would be the first one to tell you that.

A very short, little aside here: in the novel “Misery,” he has this wonderful section in the middle of the book where he’s talking about the creative process. I forget the lead character who’s imprisoned in the house, but he’s in bed and he’s thinking of how this woman who really wants to know how he creates these stories, he could hand her how he actually does it and she wouldn’t care – she would have no idea what he’s talking about; she would say that the whole process as valueless and stupid – whereas somebody who has really been dedicating their life would go crazy to get that little writer’s handbook.

I think the people who have flailed understand that there is a structural form underneath everything that they need to learn and they slowly do learn it through flailing. When somebody approaches them like a Robert McKee and they go to his seminar, or say they read “The Story Grid,” or they read Stephen King’s stuff, or other practical guides – there are plenty of practical guides – and it touches them, they go, “Oh my gosh, now I know where I’ve made my mistakes.”

I think the flailing part is a personal choice. It’s a form of resistance, I think. I think we all like the drama of flailing around and saying, “Woe is me. I can’t fix anything, and I’m an idiot.”

Tim: Yes. I’m trying to think. I remember this point ten years ago or something, and I was reading a bunch of Seth Godin’s stuff. I’m a huge fan of Seth Godin, but he was talking about I can’t remember exactly what, but it felt like he was saying – this is how I remember it feeling –just put out work that you care about, that you’re passionate about, that you feel like really makes a change in the world and that’s what you should be focusing on.

At the time, I was barely making enough to pay my bills. I remember thinking, “I can’t do that. If I have to choose between work I care about and work that will pay the bills, I have to pick work that will pay the bills.”

Sometimes I think we get too far away from being hungry that it changes the way that we see our work. It’s a bonus, right? If we can be much more picky and only work on things we really care about or are passionate about, that’s a bonus.

I don’t know why… That came into my mind as we were talking and I think it has something to do with this. Maybe it’s a parallel more than anything. I feel like you have to get out of your system this idea that you have to struggle or this idea that – like you said – the heavens are going to part one day and everything is just going to come down and realize there is a practical way to go about these things that will save you a lot of heartache if you can get over yourself and get over your weird pride, and just focus, and do what has been proven over and over to work.

Shawn: Yes, I would agree with that. I think your bringing up Seth Godin is a very good point, because I felt the same way. Years ago, I actually bothered him enough where he agreed to meet me for a ten-minute coffee. I had this grand scheme. I was going to do this amazing website where all of these unwanted and unloved but beloved works of fiction would find a home. It was this very complicated thing that may or may not work ever.

Anyway, I call him, I go up, and I pitch him. He says, “Yes, that could work if you really love it enough, but what are you going to do then? What’s next after that?” What that said to me was you can’t think of your work as having an end. You can’t think of “When I finish this dissertation for my Ph.D., that’s when I’m really going to apply the principles of everything that I’ve learned studying for the Ph.D. to something practical that will make me happy.” You have to think about “How do I make my work every day…?”

This doesn’t happen overnight. Obviously, you’re talking about something that happened to you ten years ago. I’m talking about something that happened to me seven years ago. It takes you a while to put into practice what you want in the long-term.

Understanding that there isn’t going to be any magical moment when everything is going to be great and you’re going to be able to write your novel without any distractions. That’s just never going to happen. So how can you make every day a little bit more interesting and creative that gives you a little bit more happiness each day that you’re doing something that you like?

Tim: That’s what’s interesting about where I’m at right now. It’s hard because I was pursuing this one thing for a long time and it really crystallized, and came together, and gave me exactly what I had been wanting for years. It was one of these things.

This reminds me of a Friends episode where Joey had just gotten fired from his soap opera and he was like, “You know how you think these things are great, you want them for the longest time, and you finally get them and they’re not that great?” He’s like, “This was not that. It was everything I thought it would be.”

That happened for me. I got it and literally, it was one of these wake up one morning and realize what I had been striving after for a decade, I’m finally there. What was funny is not too long after that, I realized I wasn’t doing anything anymore. I just stopped working. I was like, “My why – the reason I got out of bed in the morning – was gone now,” because it was to get here. I’m here now and I’m like, “Oh, I need to find something else that I need to go after that I actually want to accomplish.”

That’s when a couple of months later after lots of conversations and figuring it out, I’m like, “I’ve been playing around with writing fiction for a long time. Now I can do this. I can really go after it because I’ve worked so hard in these other ways.”

Shawn: It’s terrifying, right?

Tim: Oh, yes. It was funny because my friend who finally crystallized that part for me, he brought it up because he’s like, “You’ve never published anything. You’ve got books, and why haven’t you done this?” He’s like, “Why don’t you just do that next?”

I had three or four things I had been playing around with and that wasn’t even on the table. When I stopped and thought and I gave my answer, my answer was, “Because I don’t know that I can succeed at that.” He’s like, “Yes, that’s why you should do it.”

Shawn: Exactly. I hate to interrupt you, Tim, but what I also like about your story is that I remember last fall, you were working on a novella or a NaNo Month or something like that.

Tim: Yes, the NaNoWriMo.

Shawn: Yes, and here it is a year later and you’re still at it. I think that’s real testimony to your commitment. You’re enjoying the process, and you’re like, “Well, I think I have more to learn. Let me see if there’s something I can learn from Shawn. Let me reach out to him and see if he’d be interested.” I think that’s really neat.

Tim: We were talking about this idea of Stephen King and where his writing comes from. I wanted to ask, too, about… In “The Story Grid” – I’ve read it a while ago now – you don’t talk a lot about characters and character development. Am I remembering that right?

Shawn: No. You are remembering that right, yes.

Tim: Where does that fall into it for you, because a lot of the other things I’ve read, there’s a lot of character development focus and this other thing called the Snowflake Method that I went through last year. There’s this whole thing where you plan out all the characters in the book, who they are, what they want, describe what they look like, go through these whole things. How do you feel about that, because you don’t really get a sense of that from “The Story Grid”?

Shawn: There is obviously another book that I could write about character development, but I’ll say this about it. The reason why I don’t stress it in “The Story Grid” – and this is really, really, really important to always remember – is because character is revealed through action. You can have the most florid and beautiful description of the way somebody looks or an expression that they have, but true character is revealed by what people actually do.

“The Story Grid” is really about structuring the scenes so that people do things. Through those actions, it reveals the characters that you want to explore. Obviously, there are any number of scenarios to map out a cast of characters, and it depends upon your genre that you want to write in who that cast of characters will be. I stress a lot about choosing your genres within “The Story Grid” because that is going to help you flesh out your cast of characters.

The other thing I know, being a wannabe fiction writer myself, where I haven’t reached that level of nirvana yet where I’ve given myself freedom to do it, what I do know is that every single person who writes fiction, there is a character in their head.

It’s either an antagonist or a protagonist. There is some sort of primordial, oozing kind of idea of a character – or a cast of characters if it’s a family drama of sorts – that they’ve been toying around with in their brains.

This notion that you should figure out your entire cast before you start plotting your book, I think is a mistake because what you end up doing is we all think of casts in a certain way. We think of usually a family cast. You have your brother, you have your sister, you have your mother, and you have your father. If it’s an office, you have the boss, you have the managers, you have the worker bees, and all of those things have specific prejudices and specificity to them that we unwittingly start to let cloud our mind and our judgment when we’re trying to plot out an overall structure for a specific genre.

If you’re so enamored with a cast of a family, and you decide you want to write a thriller, and you can’t figure out where to put the sister in that story, you’ll jam her in somehow and make her a secondary or tertiary character who has no meaning at all but will get a lot of really good scenes and lines and it’ll just cloud the drive of the story.

What I think is a better approach is to think about the genre that you want to write in, first of all. We’ve been talking about genres generically, and I think we’ve covered four of the five leaves of the genre clover so far. It’s the fifth clover, the content clover, that’s really going to help you flesh out that beginning, hook, middle build, and ending payoff of your story.

Then once you have those ideas and those events down, your cast is really going to start to come to you and you can layer in all of that character stuff about how tall they are. I really don’t even think you need to put much physical description unless it’s a strikingly important physical description like Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby.”

His physical description is an important thing for Fitzgerald to give the reader. He lets the reader know this guy was a tight end on the Yale football team with a granite jaw – one of those natural athletes. Everything always came easy to this guy.

The description of a Yale tight end who’s an All-American tells the reader very specifically, this is somebody with a lot of power. This is a powerful person who’s not going to be easily overcome. That’s a physical description that has an active presence in the reader’s mind.

But to flesh out character biographies, and character sketches, and casts, and to do all that work, I think it’s busy work that will cloud you and really throw a pipe wrench into the real fleshing out of the structure and the form, which are what I described earlier, which are basically saying to yourself, “Here, I need a scene where it begins with life and it ends with death. At the beginning of this scene, somebody is going to be alive, and at the end of the scene, somebody is going to die.” That’s a value shift from life to death. “In this scene, we’re going to have a scene where there’s a truth at the beginning and then at the end, it turns out to have been a lie.”

You don’t have to have so many specifics loading down each scene and it gives you the freedom to work within… It’s like playing a 12-bar blues if you’re a musician. You know the chords that you have to use but there is any number of millions of ways of being able to create it.

Tim: I want to put a pin in right here because that naturally leads me to the question of what do you do at the beginning of your story to get started? But I want to stop before we hit that and talk about the content leaf of genre, to wrap up talking about genre.

We talked about reality, which is realism, fantasy, factualism, absurdism, we talked about time, style, structure, but the big one that seems to really drive your obligatory scenes, who your characters are going to be, all of this stuff, seems to be the content leaf. Would you agree with that?

Shawn: Absolutely.

Tim: Talk a little bit about what the content leaf is all about. Yes, let’s just start there.

Shawn: What the content leaf is all about are two things. It’s the levels of antagonism that are in your story. Every story has to have a conflict. If you don’t have any conflict, you don’t have a story. You have a setting, maybe – if you’re lucky.

I break them down into two kinds of content. There’s the external content and the internal content. The external content genres are all concerned with external levels of antagonism, meaning the weather – like an avalanche – or a personal vendetta, one person against another. These are all external things that somebody or something is happening to your protagonist or if it’s a small cast of a mini plot, your series of protagonists.

The external content genres, I’m just going to run them down for you. You have your action story, which is like a James Bond story. You have horror stories, which are monsters and victims. A great horror would be “The Exorcist.” That’s a great horror story.

Crime stories, the value at stake is justice. A criminal act has been made; will that criminal be brought to justice or not? Those can include murder mysteries, spy novels, organized crime stories, any number of things. I get into voluminous detail in the book, so I’m not going to go crazy here. That’s crime.

A really cool thing that came together over time was a combination plate of action, horror, and crime, which I call the thriller. The thriller is a combo of a crime story and a horror story. It’s like the protagonist becomes the victim and the protagonist is the investigator in a crime story.

Luckily, “The Story Grid” is all about “The Silence of the Lambs,” which is a thriller and all of my theories about thriller are in the book, so I’m not going to get too deeply into the thriller, but that’s another external genre where a serial killer, a legal thriller, or a journalistic thriller where your lead character becomes the controlling element victim in the story.

Tim: Would you take a book like “The Firm” and call that a thriller?

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: Because it has crime and action, right? That’s what I would think, because I want to say there’s a fate worse than death in that one for horror.

Shawn: There’s a fate worse than death for “The Silence of the Lambs.” For “The Firm,” the thing is that the fate worse than death is what I call the negation. I’m going a little bit deep into my theories about story, but you don’t necessarily have to take it to the end of the line in a thriller.

What Christian did is he took it to the life and death. He didn’t really take it all the way to the fate worse than death. If Mitch McDeere in “The Firm” doesn’t succeed and outwit the mob that controls his law firm, I don’t think he’s going to face damnation – he’s not going to go to hell for that failure – whereas somebody like Clarice Starling, if she doesn’t go the full nine yards to try to get that woman out of that hole in “The Silence of the Lambs,” she will be tormented the rest of her life. She will have hell inside of her own mind. That is a fate worse than death.

You don’t necessarily have to go to the end of the line of the value in a thriller. Those that do and do it successfully I think are incredible works of fiction. If you can go to the end of a value line in a specific story, you’re really, really taking the genre to its outer limits. You’re pushing the envelope.

Just to continue on the contents, on the external, there’s the love story, which we all know and love. There’s the war story, which we’re all familiar with. The obligatory scene in the war genre, of course, is the big battle at the end of the story. There’s the society story, which is really oftentimes the genres that literary fiction writers like to work in, like a domestic drama.

To take an example from a play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” there’s a story about a family. It’s a family domestic drama that has to deal with social life. Again, there is far more description in the book about this than I can really get into now unless we went into a specific novel or story.

There’s the western, which we’re all familiar with, and then the last one is performance, which is those great stories that we all know where there’s a big event at the end, like Rocky, a lot of the sports stories that we know and love. Music stories like that great movie “Whiplash” is a performance story.

Those are all external genres, where there are these big external forces of antagonism and personal forces of antagonism that are stopping your lead protagonist from getting what they want and their object of desire.

To move on into the internal, the internal, as opposed to the external, is all about what’s going on inside the protagonist. What are they coping with in terms of their own internal buttons that are holding them back from getting what they want and what they need?

The internal genres are really about personal growth. Just to give you an example, you have stories like the maturation plot, which is a change in a worldview of the lead character. At the beginning of the maturation plot, something like “Saturday Night Fever,” you have a lead character who’s immature and believes the world is one way. Then at the end of that story, he understands it’s a much larger universe than what he believes he could ever have imagined.

Again, another maturation plot would be “To Kill a Mockingbird” where Scout’s worldview at the beginning is dramatically changed by the end of the story.

There’s also the disillusionment plot, which is a very, very popular one in American literature, where you have a character at the beginning of the story who believes in a certain order and justice about the world and then at the end finds that everything that they thought was true was actually not true.

“The Great Gatsby” is a great example. The lead character, the narrator of the story is Nick Carraway, who is this up-and-coming bond trader who goes to New York for the summer and he’s in this fabulous world. He thinks that there are these really good people who have a lot of wealth and there’s justice and goodness in that society. By the end, he discovers it’s all rotten, and empty, and vacuous.

That’s a shift in a worldview. It’s a change of perception of life in and of itself. The worldview is one of the internal genres. Again, there are subgenres that I just talked about, including outside of maturation and disillusionment, there are education plots and revelation plots.

Let me just get through the last two and then you can nail me with as many questions as you have.

The last two in the internal genres are the morality genre and the status genre. The morality genre is about how the lead character’s moral compass has changed. There’s the punitive plot where somebody who’s good at the beginning of the story goes bad and he turns out to be evil.

One of those kinds of stories is “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Another one is “Wall Street,” where the character, Bud Fox, at the beginning is this naïve young trader and by the end, he’s doing the dirty dealings for Gordon Gekko, and then in the third act, he has a turnaround where he finds redemption, which brings me to the redemption plot, which is part of the morality. That would be where a bad guy at the beginning of the story reforms.

The redemption plot is a very, very popular one, and a lot of Hollywood movies like Drugstore Cowboy… That’s one of my favorite movies from the 1990s with Matt Dillon. That’s a really strong redemption plot where somebody at the beginning thinks they’re a horrible, terrible person and by the end, they have a moral shift.

Then you have in the morality, the testing plot, which is where somebody’s willpower is tested against temptation. “Cool Hand Luke” is a really good testing plot. Also, “The Old Man and the Sea,” that’s a great testing plot. That’s the morality internal genre.

The last one is the status genre. This is where we have a change in social position. The lead character moves from either a higher place to a lower place on the social hierarchy or vice versa. There are four different kinds of subgenres of that but generally, that’s really what it’s about. It’s about somebody who moves from a small lower class to a higher class.

The great example is “An American Tragedy,” Dreiser’s novel, which is the story of this clerk who falls in love with this beautiful woman played by Elizabeth Taylor in the movie. It was called A Place in the Sun. It’s a great movie. Montgomery Clift plays the lead character, and he wants to rise from just a nobody to a somebody.

A great example of the tragic plot matched with a crime story is Patricia Highsmith’s story “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” if you ever saw that movie with Matt Damon. The novel is fantastic. It’s the story of this loser guy who pretends that he’s part of upper society, and then when people start to find out that he’s not, he starts killing. It’s great.

That’s really it. There are lots of subgenres that swarm these two general content areas, and as we talked about last week, you can have a story that has both. You can have the redemption story within a crime story. You can have a testing plot part of a love story. There is any number of combinations.

This is why I think it’s really great to start with what genre you want to write in because, as I said earlier, if you know you want to write a western redemption story, then you know you’re going to need a barmaid in there. You’re going to need some sharpshooters. You’re going to need the guy who owns the farm. You’re going to need a certain cast.

A lot of those questions about cast and all that stuff are going to be solved for you just by your choices of genre. Also, as you mentioned earlier, the obligatory scenes and conventions are going to help you map out your beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff, too.

Tim: I want to try to break down how this is actually useful. I sense that I’m not taking all of these external genres, throwing them in a hat and picking one out and then doing the same thing with an internal genre and I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to write a story on these things.” We usually come with an idea for the story.

I’ll just use an example. Right now, I’m working on this idea for a story where a bunch of people are basically locked out on this boat. They can’t get back, somebody is trying to kill everybody, and they’re trying to figure out which one is which.

To me, what I would do is I have an idea of the protagonist and who he is. I’m starting to have an idea for who the characters are and where the story is going to go. How do I use this genre five-leaf clover here to actually help me write that story?

Shawn: What I always advise is there are two kinds of thinkers when they’re thinking up a story. If you ask somebody, “What’s your story about?” they’re either going to say, “It begins by an alien invasion, and when the aliens invade, this happens. Then this happens and this happens and this happens.” That’s what I call the “what if” kind of thinker.

Then if you talk to somebody else, they’ll say, “What’s the story about? This woman who has a change of heart. At the beginning of the story, she thinks that her life is perfect, and this stranger comes to town and because of the way she interacts with this stranger, she discovers that she really wants something else.”

Tim: It sounds like you’re saying some people come at it from an external-genre-heavy thinking and some people come at it from an internal-genre-heavy thinking.

Shawn: Exactly. From what you described to me, it sounds like there’s this boat in the middle of the ocean, it’s lost all of its communication ability, there are 52 people on board the boat, and things start to happen. The ship’s captain is trying to get a message to get rescued, they’re running out of supplies, and things are getting very, very tense. Then, all of a sudden, a body is found. Somebody has been murdered. Then it would proceed from there.

The inciting incident would be ship loses all forms of communication and is adrift. What that would say to me is that’s a pretty good set-up. Now, let’s walk through the five-leaf clover and see if we can hone in on exactly what specific genres you want to work in.

Tim: Can I try?

Shawn: Sure.

Tim: Time is easy. This is going to be a long story. Reality is I want to do realism because it’s not fantasy. It’s not absurdism. I’m trying to remember. What would factualism be? Is that like if I’m telling a story inside of a historic thing that actually happened?

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: So I would say realism.

Shawn: So it’s something that has not happened but could happen.

Tim: Right. So that’s realism?

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: Okay. Then under structure, I would say it’s just drama. When we talked about structure, you basically cut out almost all of them. You can’t write cartoons, you can’t write dance, you can’t write musicals, most of these you can’t write. You’re just saying these exist, but for writing, you were like, there’s literary, drama, maybe documentary and comedy.

Shawn: Well, yes. It would probably be a dramatic story, and the only other little thing that you might want to tweak, it might be a little cinematic. If you’re thinking, “This could be a great movie,” then if you’re thinking in those terms, using the cinematic/drama style is not a bad choice.

Tim: So what’s the difference between cinematic and drama?

Shawn: Cinematic would basically be you’re thinking in terms of the visual representation of the action. You’re not just going to be writing about somebody’s panic in a closet; you’re going to be doing a big action sequence in the story so that if somebody in Hollywood reads your novel, they’re going to be able to see what that action sequence will be. Do you know what I’m saying? So it would be much more over-the-top. “A shark bites through the ship and then…” you know, whatever.

Tim: Yes. Okay, structure is pretty simple because it’s mini plot, anti plot, or arch plot. Is it arc plot or arch plot?

Shawn: It’s arc plot. But yes, you’re definitely in the external genres, which are all arc plots.

Tim: Right. In the content side, I would say this is going to be a thriller with a combination of action and a crime, basically, because there are going to be people being killed so that’s a crime and then there’s going to be action. It’s going to have a lot of action in it.

Shawn: The only thing on thriller is that you have to make a choice. You can have a crime action story. What separates the thriller from a crime story is that oftentimes, the crime story, the protagonist who solves the crime – the master detective or whoever is the lead – they don’t necessarily have any connection to the forces of antagonism. What that means is that it’s never made personal. For example, in “The Silence of the Lambs,” it’s made personal for Clarice Starling when Hannibal Lector gets inside of her mind and makes that quid pro quo sort of thing.

Tim: In action – I think we talked about his before – James Bond is just pure action because there is no real character growth and no personal investment in the outcome other than this is what he does. Then I would say crime then would be more like the Law & Order, where the cops are just doing their job. It doesn’t become personal in most of the stories.

Shawn: Exactly.

Tim: My current plan for the book is it’s going to be a group of guys who went to high school together. They were all friends in high school. It’s now a set number of years later and they are getting together for this scuba diving trip. They’re called liveaboards where it’s like a cruise but for scuba diving, so they’re out on sea for a week and they’re doing all these scuba trips. It’s kind of this get-together. Then one of them has his reasons for why he’s killing everybody off.

I would put that in the thriller category because the reasons that he’s killing everybody off are all personal.

Shawn: Yes, that works.

Tim: Okay.

Shawn: I’m assuming that the final showdown would be between the guy he really, really wants to get back at.

Tim: Yes. Most of it’s going to be told through one character. I have a protagonist who is one of the guys and he can’t figure out which of the other ones is the bad guy.

Shawn: Right.

Tim: So yes, a final showdown where they’re basically the only two left.

Then, when I start thinking about the internal genre, I don’t think it’s morality. I guess it could be because I want my protagonist to be a good guy who would never hurt anybody, who’s just your run-of-the-mill guy who has a family, has a job, and wears a tie to work. It could be morality where he realizes he’ll do amazingly awful things to survive.

I don’t think it would be status for sure, but I don’t think I know enough about worldview versus morality to make that choice.

Shawn: I think it depends on the MacGuffin. Whenever it comes to a thriller or a crime story, I always say before you start thinking about your protagonist so much, you have to nail the antagonist.

Tim: Okay.

Shawn: You have to really, really focus on the darkness because the darkness is really the thing that drives readers’ interest. That seems strange, but think about it. It’s far more interesting to not know how dark somebody is going to go or what motivates a psychopath than it is the nice guy from down the block who works at the PTA.

We’re fascinated by evil. This is what drives serial killer thrillers, all those dark horror novels, and any darkness that features a murder, even posing murder mysteries. We want to know. We want to have some excitement when we’re reading the book.

The thing about excitement is that somebody described it as it’s like going to the zoo and there’s a tiger in the cage. It’s exciting to look at that tiger but we also know that there’s a cage there. The tiger’s not going to get out and eat us up. But we do get excited to see that danger without personally experiencing it.

If you can create a danger, like a tiger in a cage, and slowly make the reader think that that cage is starting to fall apart, then that’s what’s going to keep them moving. It’s going to engage them in the work.

When you’re thinking about a thriller, a crime story, an action story, this is why you always think about the villains in James Bond. You think of Goldfinger. What a great villain. “I expect you to die, Mr. Bond.”

Tim: That was a great impression.

Shawn: Thank you. If you can create… This is what makes great horror movies. Freddie Kruger, what a great creation. The thing only comes after you when you’re asleep and everybody needs to sleep, so how do you stop the guy from coming after you? It’s amazing.

That’s the way Dracula, and vampires, and zombies, these all come back because they’re these really, really entrenched ideas that terrorize us and make us really frightened. If you can create an antagonist who is unique, innovative and interesting, you can write anything and people will really, really engage in it.

It looks like what you’re looking at is a thriller on a ship. Like “Alien,” there’s a thriller on a ship, right? That is incredible. It’s not really a thriller because it’s sort of a horror/action/science fiction pastiche because the alien doesn’t care about Sigourney Weaver or anybody else. That thing, it’s only goal is to reproduce and survive. That’s a really great screenplay because it introduces a really innovative force of antagonism.

What we often do when we start thinking about stories, we put ourselves in the position of being the protagonist. What I always advise people is think about all the worst things that you think of, all the terrible ideas that you have – like somebody cuts you off in traffic and you have five minutes waiting at a stoplight and you just want to fantasize about what you would do to that person for almost sending you to your death.

You think about all those things that you could never ever tell anybody. Then you give that to this alter ego force of antagonism. Think it through. Spend a lot of time on it because the more time you spend on that force of antagonism, what you’re going to find is that that guy, or that woman, or that creature is going to feed you so many story ideas to make your story rich, unique and with so many wonderful twists and turns.

Just think about it for a second, when they were creating the alien creature, they were probably like, “Well, everybody’s done aliens before. How are we going to make this different?” They probably were thinking, “What if its blood was like acid?” They’re like, “Yeah, that’s good.”

You have to think about those forces of antagonism in really fun and unique ways, and again, what they’re going to do is they’re going to help you add twists to scenes that you haven’t even thought of before.

I know you’re using a realistic setting and it’s going to be a real ship on the ocean but you might want to just even take a little step back at this point and say, “Let me figure out my force of antagonism and really tweak that and make it something.” Give yourself the freedom to be able to shift and change. You might say to yourself, “Maybe this is a spaceship lost or maybe this is something else.” Do you know what I’m saying?

The beauty of asking these questions is that you know you want to write a thriller, basically, generally. There are a million ways of doing that, but the really key thing in a thriller is the force of antagonism, so you say to yourself, “The most important thing in the thriller, the one thing that I have to have that’s going to make everybody want to read the book, even if there are a ton of holes in it and the writing’s not so great, is the force of antagonism, is the killer.

“How can I make this killer fresh? Who are the best forces of antagonism in the thriller arena? Let me go look at ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ Let me go look at ‘Kiss the Girls.’ Let me go look at ‘Along Came a Spider.’ Let me think about do I want to make this a force of evil as opposed to a specific human being? Do I want to do a combo play? What do I want to do?”

Tim: That gets into the next step, because that’s what I feel like. Once I have my genres mapped out, at that point, if I want to find my obligatory scenes, I want to find my general cast of characters – like you said in that western, you have to have a barmaid – I’m feeling like the best thing I could do is grab five novels that are as close as possible to the genre I want to write in and basically read through them again, map them out, and be like, “Here are the characters, here’s who they are, here’s what’s driving them, and then here are all of the scenes that show up over and over in all of these different books.” That is kind of where I get my structure for what my book should be like, as well.

Shawn: That’s a great idea. I make that suggestion to people all the time. It requires a lot of fun work, and a lot of people are like, “I really need to get into the writing, though. I don’t want to analyze five books. I just want to get into my writing. I want to plot out…” The thing is that by doing that work, it’s going to pay off in such a large way later.

When you’re facing a dilemma, you can say to yourself, “Let me think. James Patterson solved that this way. Let’s see. Peter Benchley solved it this way. I don’t want to do it that way. What about his? No, it’s a little cheesy. I think what’s-his-name did it there.”

By having the comprehensive knowledge of the genre you want to write in, you can take it up a level. If you’re constantly trying to challenge yourself to create something unique and innovative in each of the obligatory scenes or conventions, by the time you actually write that book, it’s going to have that extra-special something that an editor at a major publishing house or a group of readers who buy things just based upon their concepts online would really be interested in reading.

You’re going to innovate within your genre if you know the genre. You can’t make a better bookcase if you haven’t studied 10 or 20 bookcases before. It’s the same thing in writing. Your idea about, “Let me go out and let me think this through. What are stories that feature some sort of vessel or small culture stuck…? Even ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a great example, right?”

Tim: Yes.

Shawn: There’s the disillusion of a cult. “The Beach,” I think was a great book by Alex Garland about something similar, where you have a group of people who are castaway, who devolve or evolve based upon the external pressures on them, and you might even say to yourself, “Maybe my forces of antagonism even aren’t personal.”

What about “Deliverance”? “Deliverance” is the story of four guys who go down a river for fun and they’re going to go on their final whitewater river rafting trip before they flood the area and everything is going to be under 30 feet of water. It’s going to be this great weekend. They go into the middle of nowhere. They have their canoes. The inciting incident of the story is that, four guys go on a river trip.

Just before they leave, they drop their cars off with these guys who live in the woods. They’re kind of weird, but they’re cordial and everything, and everything’s fine. Then they start going down the river and things really start going badly for them, and how they react to those external problems is fascinating.

Do you remember at the beginning of the podcast when you asked me about some people say to write out your list of characters, your cast, and on and on? I always say, no, go with your genre first. This is why you go with your genre first.

“Deliverance” is a perfect example. The lead character in “Deliverance” is played by Jon Voigt in the movie. He’s a schoolteacher. He’s just a normal, everyday guy who’s trying to get along who also has a really tough friend who kind of challenges him, played by Burt Reynolds. There are only four guys in the movie and in the novel, too. It’s a brilliant novel.

This character moves from being this mild-mannered guy to somebody who has to protect his best friends, and he goes out, and he hunts down and kills somebody because he needs to protect his clan. It is brilliant. You’re rooting for that guy, and he makes a moral change from somebody who would never kill to somebody who makes a firm decision that he has to, and he does it.

That action of making that choice to hunt down that bad guy and kill him is character. We now know what that guy is really all about. At the beginning, we thought he was one thing but he turned out to be something else in the end. That’s where action really, really creates characterization. It’s not how you describe them. It’s what they do.

Tim: That’s it for this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. As always, I appreciate you listening, and I appreciate you sharing the podcast, as well.

So far, we’re getting a couple of thousand downloads of each episode, but because it’s constantly not good enough, my goal is 5000 downloads per episode. I could use your help doing that. There are several different ways you could do that. The biggest one is just tell a friend. If everybody tells one friend, we’re going to get pretty close to that goal of mine.

Other things are go to and sign up for the e-mail newsletter. You wont’ be sorry. That’s where you get all the new stuff from Shawn around “The Story Grid.” On top of that, you can go into iTunes and drop us a rating and a review. But the biggest thing, once again, is just tell a friend. We appreciate you sharing it. It makes it fun for us to keep doing this podcast as we march on forward through “The Story Grid” book.

Thanks for listening, and I will catch you on Episode 5.


12 comments on “The Allure of Flailing

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks guys! Even having read The Story Grid, it’s incredibly helpful to listen to the two of you noodle this stuff around. Looking forward to the next podcast!

  2. Michael Beverly says:

    Hey Shawn! So I’ve been gone, but for good reason. I finally finished my thriller novel. After reading through this transcript I wanted to reiterate a couple points:

    As you might remember I outlined and did a 80K rough draft last January, after really putting myself into the “Story Grid” mindset.

    I read SOTL twice (I also listened to it on audio). I read books you recommended, The Marathon Man, Sleeping With the Enemy and The Shining (and I read a few others like The Da Vinci Code) because I really wanted to try and “see” what you were talking about.

    Then I did a hand written Story Grid for my book and made sure I had the conventions I needed to have and that I had good movement, ups, downs, etc., trying to remain true to my vision while making sure I did the things you recommended.

    Then I edited. I mean I got someone (not a pro, but close) to edit, re-edit, edit again. Then I read it out loud to her (my editor) and we made more changes.

    So, finally a few days ago I felt I’d edited and proofed it to death and I uploaded it to Amazon and bam…. I’m a writer.

    Thank you.

    I really was encouraged by you, helped by you, strengthened by your continued generous use of your time, and so forth.

    So, yeah, basically I love you. Thanks again.

    1. Mary Doyle says:

      Congrats Michael for crossing the finishing line!

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        Thank you.

    2. augustina says:

      You were a writer before you uploaded your novel.

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        Indeed. However there is something fulfilling and maybe more “official” about having published it to the world. This morning I received an email from an Amazon reviewer. She was up until 1am to finish reading, she loved it, and is going to post my first review today.
        I must say that is a new kind of motivation.
        I do agree that you are a writer if you write, but being read is something special that makes it different.

        I am truly grateful that this blog exists and that I found it and for all the encouragement I’ve received.

        1. Congratulations, Michael, and all the best!

        2. Doug Walsh says:

          Any chance you’re using a pen name – either here or on Amazon? I did a search on Amazon Kindle books for “Michael Beverly” and can’t find it.

    3. Stacy says:


    4. Doug Walsh says:

      I’m slowly catching up on SG posts and transcripts, but wanted to say congrats to you Michael. I remember your name from comments back in January, when I was able to be more active on this site then as well.

      I’m not at your stage yet, but I’m already just thrilled with how much I learned by coming to this site. I’m so glad Joanna Penn linked to Shawn’s blog one day (a year ago, already?) and I’m so glad I found that link in my hundreds of bookmarks.

  3. Jean Gogolin says:

    I love these podcasts — just as I’ve loved “The Story Grid” in book form and am finding it incredibly helpful in trying to write my first novel a few (ahem) decades after every other first-time novelist. But may I pick a small nit? I’d enjoy the podcasts even more without all the “likes”s.

  4. Jayce Ellis says:

    I’m relistening to episodes. How do you ensure diversity of characters, without making them stereotypical cardboard cutouts, without sketches?

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