The Martian Carol

Here’s the transcript for episode eleven, “The Martian and A Christmas Carol” of The Story Grid Podcast.

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

Tim: Hello, Merry Christmas, happy holidays. Welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. My name is Tim Grahl. I’m your host, and I am a struggling fiction writer trying to figure out how to write a story that works.

Shawn Coyne is going to join me soon, and he is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book “The Story Grid,” and he has 25 plus years experience as an editor, and he’s answering all of my main questions on writing.

This is a special episode. It’s based on a survey we did to all of the Story Grid e-mail list subscribers asking them what story they would like us to run through the Story Grid, and by far “The Martian” won the survey. So, we are taking this episode to run “The Martian” through The Story Grid. Also, as part of this Christmas episode, we are running “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens through the Story Grid, as well.

This is an epic, long episode – an hour and a half – but I think you’ll really enjoy and it will help you understand better than ever how you can use the Story Grid method. We go through the entire Foolscap Story Grid for each of the stories.

We’re going to dive right into this epic episode. See you on the other side.

Shawn, I’ve been really looking forward to doing this episode because we’re breaking out of our normal mode; this is our Christmas holiday episode, and for that, we’re going to go over “The Martian” and “A Christmas Carol” and Story Grid them and talk through it.

I’ve been really looking forward to doing this because I know this is what a lot of people want to hear and it was good for me to go back through it, too.

Shawn: Yes. This is always a fun time because the great thing about Story Gridding is that – and as soon as we get into it, we’ll see – different people have different interpretations and it doesn’t mean that because I say one thing and you say something else, that one of us is wrong; it just means that there’s a different read that is inherent in the actual writing itself, which is testimony to how good the writer is. This should be really fun.

Tim: So, I used this like an open-book test for myself. What we did is we went through The Foolscap Global Story Grid where you outline the entire book on one sheet of paper, and without looking at yours – before you sent it to me – I did it myself, and it was a really good exercise. For those who are listening, I would really highly recommend you do this to books that you’re reading.

I went back and I read “The Martian.” I read it when it first came out as a self-published book years ago and then I saw the movie, but I went back and re-read it, and then I filled out the Foolscap Global Story Grid. It was cool because I was like, “Okay, the first thing is the external genre,” so I flipped to the external genre section of the Story Grid and I went through all of them and I found what external genre I thought it was. Then I did the same thing for everything.

It was really fun to actually take all the stuff I’ve been learning and put it into practice.

Shawn: Yes. It’s pretty cool. It really is. When you’re able to categorize things and break it down in your own mind, then it’s easier when you’re approaching your own story to say, “Oh, well, one of my favorite books is this genre and I want to write in that genre, so let me use that as my benchmark to get the thing going.”

Tim: Yes. It was good because as I read “The Martian,” I was reading it with this in mind, so I’m looking for the inciting incidents and I’m looking for when does the middle build start, and I was looking for all of those things.

Oh, and just FYI, this is going to be huge, huge spoilers if you haven’t read or seen “The Martian.” So turn it off now and go read the book if you’re worried about that, because we’re going to talk all the way through the ending.

It was really good to think of it that way, but when I actually sat down and started working through it, it was harder than I thought to pinpoint some of these things.

Shawn: Yes, it is.

Tim: For those of you listening, we’re going through the Foolscap Global Story Grid. If you go to, if you go into Resources, you can download a blank version of this. This is what I did. I downloaded it from that, from, I printed it out, and I filled it out with a pen.

If you want to follow along, that’s how you can follow along, and then of course, you can download both Shawn’s and my versions of the Foolscap in the show notes for this episode at

That said, we start with external genre or I guess global genre.

Shawn: Yes, I added global genre because in a lot of cases, there are two genres at play; there is an external and there is an internal genre.

In the case of “The Martian,” there’s only one genre at play. There is really no internal genre. In fact – somebody had mentioned this to me; I think it was Kent Faver – Andy Weir had been interviewed about writing the story and he said one of the things that he was happy about is that he made the decision not to have an internal shift for his main character from the beginning of the story to the end of the story.

You can do this, and I’m glad we’re starting with this, because if you have a big action story, which is what “The Martian” is, you don’t have to have your lead character have an internal metamorphosis. He doesn’t have to move on a morality worldview track from sort of bad to good, as we’ll discuss later on. He can just deal with the situation as it arises.

When you have a great action hook or story, it’s great because all you do is just keep throwing fireballs at the guy or the woman who’s you’re lead protagonist and then they have to constantly be reacting to them.

If your premise is great and if your world is great – as “The Martian” certainly is – then you don’t have to worry so much about the internal misgivings or comings and goings of any one particular character.

The great thing about “The Martian” is – this is why it was picked up by Ridley Scott and made into a movie – it’s a great action story, and like it’s an early James Bond where there was no internal movement on James Bond.

Tim: Yes, I was going to mention that because we’ve talked about that before, and we’ve usually mentioned that as the example: James Bond does not change. Now, I would say he does in the recent movies.

Shawn: Yes, he does that.

Tim: But, in the books that I’ve read, he’s just the same person from start to finish.

Shawn: Exactly.

Tim: Okay. I was extremely excited to see that we had the same external genre. I actually agonized over this. I’m looking at all the external genres and I’m like, “I think this is the right one. I want to write down the same one Shawn is going to write that one.”

What did you put down?

Shawn: Okay. I put down the global genre is action and the more specific plotline of the action – and you can get all of this in my book – is the action-adventure “man against nature” story. Within that, there are four choices that you can have within the “man against nature” stories, and they are the labyrinth plot, the monster plot, the environment plot, and the doomsday plot.

Now, the labyrinth plot is like Die Hard, where the guy has to get around a maze of difficulty in order to get out of the thing alive. The monster plot is like an animal attack, like Jaws. The environment plot is where the global setting of the entire story is the villain, and a great example of that is Gravity. And then, the doomsday plot is when you have to save the environment from a disaster, so a movie like Independence Day would be a doomsday plot.

What I said for “The Martian” is it’s an environment plot. The environment itself is the villain in this story, and I suspected you said the same thing.

Tim: Yes, and honestly, I was worried I was writing down the right one, but when I saw in the book that you had Gravity, I’m like, “Well, they’re both in space, so it must be right.” But yes, that’s what I put down, too: man against nature and the environment plot.

Shawn: Great.

Tim: And I had the external value at stake as life and death.

Shawn: That’s exactly right.

Tim: Okay, because you have life to unconsciousness to death to damnation.

Shawn: Now, the reason why I put all of those down – and I talk about this a lot in the book – is I like to put down when I’m putting my value shifts to go from the best good to the absolute worst, so the negation of the negation.

Now, “The Martian” does not get to negation of the negation in the storytelling, and this is another great thing to remember. You don’t have to go to the end of the line all the time on your value, and “The Martian” doesn’t.

In “The Martian,” the stakes move from life to unconsciousness – and unconsciousness doesn’t mean literal unconsciousness – although in the story, in “The Martian,” he does go literally unconscious a couple of times – but unconsciousness is sort of like this place in between life and death.

If you’re going to do a spectrum of life and death, you have life, unconsciousness, and then you have death, and then you have what you call the fate worse than death. That’s what I call damnation. This is when you die and you die in such a way that you’re damned.

Tim: Yes. I would say in this, this was even like if he died, he’d be a hero. So there was even this level of…

Shawn: Well, it’s a little bit… It would be an unnatural death in a way because he would be cast out of humanity. If you look at it in big thematic terms, he would be the only man to die on a distant planet, and that’s an unnatural death. When we die, we all assume we’re going to die and fall into the ground and be part of earth again, but he would be exiled from earth.

I mean, in a way, that would have been the threat of damnation, but I usually look at damnation in terms of have you done a moral wrong, do you have a fate worse than death? We’re going to talk about this later on when we talk about “A Christmas Carol.”

Anyway, “The Martian” does not bring damnation into the equation beyond the fact that he could die on Mars and be the only person there who dies – and that’s a little heroic, too.

Anyway, the difference is in The Silence of the Lambs, there is literal damnation… In the case of Clarice Starling, if she doesn’t sort of throw her entire career and put her life in jeopardy to save the woman who is stuck in the hole with Buffalo Bill, she will be spiritually damned in her own mind. She will know, “Oh my gosh, I did not try to save that woman when I could have,” and, for her to live with that guilt for the rest of her life would be a level of damnation.

Tim: Right.

Shawn: Let’s move forward. Again, there is no internal genre, so I just wrote “Negligible” on both. You probably just left it blank.

Tim: Yes, I put “None” and then “N/A” – not applicable – because yes, he’s the exact same person. And that’s the whole point is… Well, we’ll get to that when we get to controlling ideas.

Now, you had on yours the narrative device. I didn’t have that on mine, so I didn’t even think about it. We talked about narrative device a few weeks ago and I’m still a little fuzzy on what that even means.

You have down “comedic epistolary.” What does that mean?

Shawn: Okay. This is great because this is going to tie into the five clover genre meshugas that I have created.

Remember in the five clovers of genre, you have the reality genre, which is is it realism, is it factualism, is it fantasy? Because this is a hard science story, this is not possible at this time. What Andy Weir did was to think to himself, “What would it be like if this were possible now?” and he rooted all of his work in real science, which is really an incredible feat. He does such a great job of it that you actually feel as if this is a realistic story, but it is fantasy. It’s science fiction; it’s hard science fiction.

That is part of the reality genre. That’s how I would classify it. It’s so well done that it almost feels like realism, but it’s actual science fiction.

Tim: I actually saw this article after the movie came out, and the title was something like “A disturbing number of people think ‘The Martian’ is a true story.” But yes, reading through it…

I remember talking with a friend about the book early on, again, when it was self-published and barely anybody have heard about it. We’re talking about how it seemed like Andy Weir had just read all this science and was like, “Well, I need to do something with all of this knowledge, so I’m just going to put it in a book.”

There’s so much… He walks you through how he distills hydrogen and turns it into water and all this kind of stuff. But yet, somehow, it stays interesting.

Shawn: Yes, exactly. I’ll tell you why it stays interesting, and I think he really nailed it in his narrative device. Now, when we talk about narrative device is who is telling the story, what is the flavor of the storyteller?

This is really a great thing to crack very early on, because it helps you really get the flow of the story. If you know “Oh, well, this is a kind of grandfatherly storyteller,” you know how to present that kind of quality just intuitively.

What Weir did here is he decided, “Look, this is a science fiction story and what would be fun…” – and I’m just extrapolating what I think maybe his thought process was. Instead of this being all serious and dramatic – like the first season of Star Trek with William Shatner, where everybody is very stoic and dramatic, and everything is taken very seriously – what Weir decided to do for his narrative device was to present a guy who’s sort of a dorky, fun kind of comedic sensibility, somebody we can relate to, somebody who complains about the disco music on his boss’s hard drive. This is the only music he can find, and it’s driving him crazy.

The very first words of the book are like, “I’m basically fucked.” I think that is the first line of the book, which was brilliant because…

Tim: There is that whole section, too, where it’s like this two-page argument that ends with him being able to call to himself a space pirate.

Tim: Yes, exactly.

It’s this really sweet… This is a guy who is facing imminent death. So what he does to get away from that reality is to be funny about it. Comedy is all about not dealing with real truthful emotion; it’s about avoiding emotion and truth, emotional truth at all cost.

If this was very, “Oh, how am I going to stay alive?” it would get pedantic and boring after a while. But because this guy is a fun guy to be around, you do find yourself being really interested in hydrazine, and how is he going to get water, how is he going to grow his potatoes, and all that sort of thing.

The epistolary element is that Weir was like, “I’m must going to use what Captain Kirk used on Star Trek. I’m going to do a captain’s log.” What he did is he has… The lead character’s name is Mark Watney. Mark Watney is writing his diary entries for the logbook of the mission.

So, right off the bat…

Tim: And the name of each one is the sol, which is a Mars day, what day he’s on Mars, so it’s like sol 36, so he’s been on Mars 36 days and that’s the log entry for that day.

Shawn: Right. It’s fantastic because with that kind of structure immediately in place for the reader, they feel like, “Oh, I know this kind of story. This is like the captain’s log of Star Trek,” or this is like any number of diary entry kind of storytelling devices. It feels familiar. You know what’s going to happen. You know you’re sort of in the cockpit of the guy’s life who’s writing the diary entries.

So his narrative device is comedic epistolary, meaning it’s a funny guy writing diary entries, and that’s a really great idea.

Tim: Is there a list of narrative devices somewhere that I would find comedic epistolary?

Shawn: No.

Tim: Okay.

Shawn: Part of what an editor does is he or she is constantly thinking about “What’s at play here? How do I keep this story consistent? How do I make sure that the author doesn’t fly off the rails introducing a narrative device at the very beginning in the story and then abandoning it later on, never to come back to it?”

Now, he does shift to third-person omniscient later on, when we head back to Earth and that’s in the beginning of the middle build. But the reason why I always track narrative devices and the reason why you should think of them as a writer is that they’re really, really helpful. They give you so much information and they always put you back on track.

If you fly off the rails and you decide to go into the back story about hydrazine a little bit too long, you’re going to read that passage later on, and you’ll go, “This doesn’t make any sense if this guy would go into such depth about hydrazine when he already knows all that information and he’s writing for an audience of NASA people.” He’s not thinking that this is going to be read by normal everyday Joes.

That’s a really great device and it basically stops you from going overboard with explanations.

Tim: The one I reread was the original that came out self-published. There are some spelling mistakes and things. So, I was wondering if there was any differences, and one of the ones I wondered is there is like three spots in the book where he throws in a completely different narrative device.

Yes, it’s first person him making these log entries for him and then it’s third person back on Earth where you hear a conversation, that kind of thing. But there are a few spots… One in particular when he’s going into the final canyon and he flips the rover. Do you remember that part?

Shawn: I do.

Tim: There’s this one space – and I don’t know if it’s in the version you’ve read, but it was in mine – where all of a sudden you’re third person on Mars where you watch him skid out, it tells what happens and that the rover flips over and you don’t know what happens to him because he’s inside.

I was a little kind of jolted because it broke… And that was the only time he did it in the entire book. Was that in the version you read?

Shawn: Oh man, this is going to be embarrassing Tim, but I really can’t remember. That’s really something that would be interesting to know, so I’m going to go back and look.

Tim: It wouldn’t surprise if it got cut because I remember feeling…

Shawn: I know his editor. He’s a guy named Julian Pavia, and he works at Crown Publishing. Julian is a terrific editor, and I suspect he might have tweaked that, but I’m not going to say that he did or didn’t, because I kind of think that you shouldn’t do that. I think if that is in the final book, it would be an error. The book is so good and the storytelling that it’s not going to make it not work, it’s not going to make the book not work, but I would have advised him to go back to the first person for that.

Tim: Yes, because thinking back to the first time I read it, I don’t remember thinking, “Oh, that was weird. That really messed up the book for me.” But rereading it…

Shawn: It did stop you, I bet. I bet it did stop you for a second and you’re like, “Well, who cares.”

Tim: Yes, “I just want to know if he lives or not.”

Shawn: Yes, exactly.

Tim: But yes, it was interesting, because there was that spot and there was another spot where all of a sudden, he starts foreshadowing to the Hab ripping apart. He starts kind of foreshadowing… You’re seeing these workers build something. But it’s a completely different narrative device than the rest of the book, and again, it felt weird. It felt it was kind of shoved in there.

Shawn: Yes. That’s why you really want to be able to track everything, and that’s why The Story Grid Spreadsheet is such a good idea to do because you have to fill in the narrative advice for every scene that you write in the spreadsheet. If you see that you switch so haphazardly, you’re going to catch that very quickly and you’re going to fix it.

Tim: Yes.

Shawn: But if you don’t do spreadsheets, then that can happen, and I’m sure Andy Weir does not follow the Story Grid.

Tim: Not yet.

Shawn: Not yet, yes. I don’t think he needs it.

Tim: You have the point of view as first person, third person. I thought that was free indirect. Is that not the same thing?

Shawn: It is free indirect style. It’s not really because first person just means that you use the word “I.” Because Watney is writing diary entries, he’s using the word “I” and he’s sharing his thoughts and he’s sharing his feeling. The difference between first person and free indirect style is that free indirect style is this sort of hybrid between third person and first person in that you have an omniscient narrator.

In the case of “The Silence of the Lambs,” you have Thomas Harris who’s writing this story and he’s putting Clarice Starling into situations, and then, now and then, he will actually use her thoughts and put them in italics on the page.

For example, when she goes to meet Chilton at the psychiatric hospital… Just to remind everybody, Chilton was this scuzzy loser who runs this psychiatric hospital and he kind of comes on to Clarice Starling and she realizes that this guy is really a creep. So, we get her thoughts like, “What an asshole,” on the side on the page. That’s free indirect style where we’re getting inside the brain of the lead character but it’s also written in third person.

Now, Jane Austen is a master of this, and Flaubert. Really, where it started was in the late 1900s, maybe a little bit Stendhal, maybe did it a little bit. And now, it’s what a lot of people use in order to get you inside the head of a character without using first person.

I know that’s a little bit long and convoluted. But first, free indirect style is a combo play between third person and first person. That’s not really in this book because we don’t get a lot of thinking in this book. This is all about action.

Tim: Yes, okay. So, free indirect almost sounds like third person that occasionally dips its toe in the first person.

Shawn: Yes, but you can’t do it for more than one character in one scene. So Thomas Harris couldn’t do Chilton’s brain and Starling’s brain at the same time because then it would just be too weird.

Tim: Okay.

Shawn: But he does go into Crawford’s brain when Crawford has his own scene and Starling is nowhere to be found. That goes to point of view.

The great thing about “The Martian” is that it’s a very, very simple story. It doesn’t mean it was easy to write; it’s a very straightforward action story that uses first person and third person, and that’s it. There’s no deep thoughts, no deep feelings, no internal agita here. This is just a great thrill ride from beginning to end.

Tim: Okay. Object of desire was pretty straightforward. I have “To live and escape Mars,” and you said, “Wants go home. There is no deeper need.” So that was pretty straightforward.

Shawn: Right.

Tim: I thought it was interesting, too. He doesn’t even talk about his… He mentions his parents a couple times but there was no talk of like, “I want to see anybody on Earth.” The only people he talked about were his crewmates who were on the ship Hermes going back to earth without him.

Shawn: Yes, that was a wise choice. Why get into this guy’s personal life? He’s a scientist. The lead character, he’s a simple guy. He loves science. His closest relationships are with the other astronauts of his crew, and he loves his mom and dad.

Tim: The end!

Shawn: We don’t want to hear about his sweetheart back home. I’m glad he doesn’t have kids, I’m glad he doesn’t have a wife, because if he did, then it gets very. Like in the movie Gravity, I’m sorry, but I find it a little bit cheesy when she’s having the crisis moment about the death of her daughter and all of this rigmarole. I just wanted her to get back to earth.

And when she has that suicidal moment where George Clooney comes into the spaceship while she’s considering killing herself, that seemed like a stretch to me and it seemed like somebody trying to add more gravitas to the story than it really needed.

Tim: Yes, I liked that the book was so straightforward. It’s like, “It’s my job to live, and so I’m going to just do what I can to live.”

Okay. Controlling idea/theme, I had science and this is where we start to diverge and basically don’t find each other again for the rest of the Foolscap. So I put “Science and levelheadedness can rescue you from impossible situations,” and you have “Individual ingenuity plus community equals survival.”

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: I guess I had science in level head in this and that would be the same as ingenuity.

Shawn: I think the simple message in the controlling idea of this story, it requires not just individual ingenuity, because Watney has plenty of that; it also requires community. He needs the crew to come back and get him, and he also needs all those wonky guys at the Jet Propulsion Lab and at NASA to come to his aid, especially another individual who comes up with the maneuver that will eventually save his life, Rich Purcell. If he doesn’t have a Rich Purcell, he’s not going to live. If his crew doesn’t come back to get him, he’s not going to live.

So he can’t do it by himself; he needs the community. I think this is a global controlling idea that needs to be reinforced in our everyday life and we all say stories are really important because they teach us about how to navigate our worlds and here’s a perfect example.

Here’s this really fun story – it’s a science fiction story about a guy stranded on Mars – but underneath all of that is this very, very important message that says, “Hey, everybody needs to be themselves, everybody needs to be an individual, because everybody has certain talents that will enable them to survive, but without other people, we’re lost. We are exiled.”

I know this sounds super deep, but it’s true and this is the important element. This is one of the major reasons why this book and this movie are so successful. It’s because they reinforce these things that we all kind of take for granted or we need to be reminded about these things. We need to remember, “Hey, I can be the smartest guy in the world but if I don’t have people supporting me, who care about me, who will risk their lives to save my life, then what’s it all about?” It’s about community.

So community plus individuality will let us survive. If we don’t all come together and solve global warming, sooner rather than later, we’re going to destroy our Earth. Now, that’s terrible. We have to be reminded we all have to come together as a community, and we have to leverage individual genius in order to save ourselves. That’s the message of “The Martian,” and it’s a great message.

Tim: Okay. Before we dive into beginning hook… What’s next is the beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff, and then the inciting incident, complication, crisis, climax, and resolution for each of those.

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: This is where I started to get fuzzy because I had trouble coming up with one complication, because in the book it’s like, first, he runs into this problem and then he fixes that problem, and then he runs into another problem and he fixes that. That’s the entire book.

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: When I was trying to nail down… I guess I was looking for an overall complication that covered everything. So, let me just kind of go over what we have done, and then we can talk about that.

Shawn: Okay.

Tim: Inciting incident is I have “Watney gets left behind,” and you have the same thing except you have “Wounded Watney is marooned on Mars.” On the complication, you have “Need water to grow food,” and this is where I was kind of getting fuzzy, because I was looking for, “Okay, what’s the first part of the story that’s roughly 20%? What’s the middle part of the story that’s roughly 50%? And then, what’s the ending payoff?”

I put down the beginning hook complication is “No way to survive until they can rescue him.” At first, once he survives the inciting incident, he realizes like there is no possible way for him to survive. But you have a very specific one, which is he needs water to grow food. So, I’m just fuzzy on what…

Shawn: Let me just jump in right there because it’s a good point. The important thing to remember about the Foolscap one page is that you don’t have to get the whole book on here. What you wanted are sort of guideposts. The reason why you do the Foolscap either before or after you complete a draft – usually, I think it’s a good idea to do it both times – is to just give yourself some guideposts. You don’t have to jam every complication into each one of these sections in a brilliant way; you just need one.

The reason your complication is perfectly valid… My complication is valid, too. It’s a progressive complication from the one that you’re talking about. You’re talking about the primal complication of the story at the very beginning. There’s no way this guy can survive unless he is rescued. Okay, that’s totally cool.

Now, the beginning hook for me is… I’ll just talk about it globally. The beginning hook is it’s establishing the world in a way. It’s establishing the predicament. It’s like the beginning hook of the movie Rocky, which we talked about a while back, the first Rocky. I heard the new one is great. I haven’t seen it yet.

The beginning hook of Rocky takes a while because we want to get into the world, we want to learn… Stallone who wrote the screenplay knew, “Hey, we need to get a sense of who this Rocky guy is,” so it takes a good 20 minutes, a good 20 pages of screenplay before you even get the inciting incident of the main story, which is when they say to Rocky, “Hey, we’re going to give you a shot at the championship.”

It’s the same thing here with “The Martian.” Weir knew, “Hey, I have to establish this world, and I have to make it interesting, and I have to suck the reader in in the best way possible.” So he gives us a big chunk at the beginning that is just on Mars and it’s dealing with the realities of this guy’s situation.

Your complication is perfectly valid. Mine is too, because he realizes he has to grow his own food, and in order to grow food, he has to make water, and in order to make water… I went all the way up to the crisis point of what I think the crisis of the beginning hook is, which is that he realizes the only way he’s going to be able to make water is he’s going to have to make little explosions. He’s going to have to bond hydrogen and oxygen together from the hydrazine, and that’s going to require a flame. So that’s a crisis moment. That’s a best bad choice situation.

“I either risk blowing up the entire place and myself with it or I starve to death. Which one am I going to do?” That is the crisis of the beginning hook of the story. “Do I risk blowing up the Hab or starving?”

The climax is he chooses to risk blowing up, and he almost does blow himself up, which was a really smart choice by Weir because it wasn’t easily solved. He just barely didn’t die.

Tim: Yes. That’s an interesting way… I was looking at this as “Okay, I need to kind of wrap up the whole thing, the whole beginning hook in this kind of…” So I have the crisis is… And this is where I knew writing it down, this was weak. I have the crisis is “Will he try to live or die?” the climax is “He decides to do everything he can to live,” and then, the resolution is “So he gets to work,” basically.

Shawn: That’s little unspecific.

Tim: Right. I was thinking that’s the way it should be, whereas yours was much more specific.

Shawn: Yes, you want to be really specific.

Tim: Why I didn’t think that, though, is that that whole “I need water, does something risky to get water, and then he gets water,” or whatever, that series of events happens, what, 20 times in the book? It’s, “Oh, okay, I need this thing. It’s really dangerous to get that thing. I’m going to go get that thing anyway,” and then it resolves.

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: I was thinking the Foolscap was more overall instead of extremely specific, so when I think of it as signposts, it’s a little easier to think of instead of overall.

Shawn: I think it’s really important to be really specific on your Foolscap because you have to pick out the very specific active moment, not the general thing, because generalities, they make you a little bit lazy. When I say, “You have to tell me the exact place in that book or in that story that is the climax of the beginning hook,” you really have to rack your brain, because you have to say to yourself…

All of those little progressive complications have to lead to a very dramatic moment. There are big dramatic moments that happen at the end of the beginning hook, at the end of the middle build, and at the end of the ending payoff, and they are specifically events that are bigger than everything else.

The reason why I chose the water thing for the beginning hook – beyond the fact that it’s almost at the end of the first-person diary entries – is that it goes to a very critical decision, and that critical decision is “I could blow myself up here. I am facing death. By lighting this match or by using this cross of wood to create this flame…” The last thing you want to do in space is to have flames. And it’s a set up later on for the ending payoff, too. You know what the ending payoff of this story is: it’s that they have to blow up that hatch.

Tim: Oh, man, I didn’t even think about that.

Shawn: So, it’s a set up. Remember when I always say your beginning hooks and your ending payoffs have to sort of mirror each other. And, Weir did this. I can tell you this. I will bet you he did not consciously think of that. I think he did it organically, because we’re all so good with story, it was almost like coincidence. I think if anybody ever asked him, he might say, “Yes, oh my gosh. Yes, that’s true. I guess it does mirror.” There’s an explosion at the beginning and there’s an explosion at the end, and both of those explosions save the guy’s life.

Tim: Yes. When you say that, I see it, but I didn’t see it without it. Did you read the “Bird Box” yet?

Shawn: No. I’ve read a chunk of it. I had to do this.

Tim: Yes, I’m sorry. Yes. Again, spoiler alert for “Bird Box.” I’m going to spoil it for you, too, Shawn, so sorry about that.

Shawn: That’s okay.

Tim: It starts with her finding out she’s pregnant, and it ends with her giving birth, which sounds so straightforward, but it’s done so well in the book, which I raved about a few weeks ago, so I won’t do it again. But I saw it in that one, whereas this one…

Anyway, what I think is interesting here is… On your Foolscap, you have him going after water, so it’s basically the first big problem he has to face once he figures out he’s there, the inciting incident.

Then, in the middle build, which I actually realize now, we had the same thing, where I have the complication… Again, I was not specific on my inciting incident and complication, but our crisis was the same. You have “Do we risk all for one?” and I have the same thing in the book, which is “Are we going to send Hermes back with six astronauts to get him, or are we going to just send him supplies and hope that lasts until the next mission?”

Then the climax is that they do the Rich Purcell maneuver, and I have “The Hermes disobeys orders and goes after him”, which is the same thing. Then, you have the resolution as “The team goes back to save Watney.” I have “NASA does the supply run to Hermes.”

What I think is interesting in yours is that you have this very specific thing – which is he has to get water to grow food – and then you have the team goes back to save Watney. Then everything in the middle is just – middle build – building towards that event.

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: Now, I see a little bit better about how to use this Foolscap, which is, yes, my first post in the ground was he gets stuck on Mars, what’s the first thing he has to do to survive? Very specific. And then the next post is the Hermes crew, his crewmates, go back to get him. Then, now, when I go to actually write the book, I’m just filling in between those two.

Shawn: That’s right. You have your map out and you’re in New York, and you know you have to get to Columbus, Ohio, and then from Columbus, Ohio, you know you have to get to Denver, and then, from Denver, you get to LA. That’s exactly why you do these things.

Also, the middle build of this story, this is a great example of somebody who really loves his research and he loves all the minutia of science and physics, and all that great stuff., ad he does it in such a way that it’s very humane. It’s not boring because everything doesn’t work out. Most of the time, everything screws up. Whenever one of these people in this story thinks that they have a solution, it doesn’t work, and then they have to work their brain on the fly.

What I think Weir is so good at doing is never accepting and cheating. He does not cheat.

Tim: What do you mean by cheat?

Shawn: By cheating, it’s like… You always have to have plans and little set pieces in an action story. A lot of people when they’re writing an action story say, “Okay, I know what I’ll do. I’ll have my protagonist decide that in order to make water, he’s going to use the hydrazine, and then he’s going to bond the hydrogens and the oxygens, and then he’ll be able to get water.” So, he’ll just burn the hydrazine and it will make the water, and they won’t have the explosion, right?

They won’t say that the protagonist made a huge mistake, he miscalculated, he’s not as smart as everybody thinks he is, and he beats himself up. He did not weigh in the factor that he was exhaling oxygen into the atmosphere at the same time he was doing his calculations. So, with the excess of oxygen, it caused the explosion.

Tim: Yes, I can remember other times he did that, too. When he was making the bedroom for his long trip, he cut up the Hab, and when he first put it back together, there were holes, so he had to fix that. Then when he first tried to inflate his bedroom, the whole thing popped apart and deflated. That happened over and over where he would try and it would fail and he’s like, “Well, now, what am I going to do?”

Shawn: Exactly. This is what a really great action writer is constantly doing that to themselves. They’re constantly saying, “I cannot accept the fact that this guy was successful on the first chance,” Nobody is ever successful on the first try of doing anything, so a reader will intuitively say, “No, I don’t believe it. There’s no way that would have worked.”

But once he fails and then fixes it, and then they progressively get more and more difficult and more and more difficult and more and more difficult, and the way he solves the problem communicating, it’s just a great action story writer who really loves the minutia of active choices and active failures.

You have to have so much of this stuff in an action story because you don’t have any of those moments where the guy can sit in the corner like “Hamlet” and contemplate the loss of his loved ones back home. Because he’s inherently saying at the very beginning of the story, “This is an action story. It’s going to be kind of funny. We’re going to avoid all the big dramatic moments. We’re just going to play it as it goes, and it’s going to be as if you were at NASA and as if you’re at the Jet Propulsion Lab, and here we go.” And you go for the ride because you know you’re in the hands of a guy who did the research and did the work.

Tim: Yes. Oh, man, there are so many things that… Yes, the amount of research that went into this book. Now, my guess is 90% of it was in his head already because he just likes this stuff, and it was like, “Okay, I’m going to make the story.”

Okay, let’s get to the ending payoff. Actually, we’re pretty in sync here. I have “Watney has to get to the MAV,” which is the rocket that’s far away. You have that Watney has to get there. Now, the complication: I have “Driving to the MAV” was a complication “and then taking off.” You have “Watney burns out the Pathfinder, so no more direct communication.”

Talk about that.

Shawn: Yes, yours works, too. Mine is a minor complication. Yours is a much larger complication. Again, you can put down whatever complication you want here. You just have to make sure you have one – at least one. I think we’re both right on that account.

Now, the crisis of the ending payoff is brilliantly executed, and again, it goes to what we are just talking about with the crisis at the beginning. It requires an explosion, and all of the physics and all of the work that he did to lead up…

The great thing about the ending payoff is that things just keep screwing up. It’s never going to get there. They’re never going to make it. They’re always off-track, they’re always off course, and they have to keep thinking on the fly, and each one of the members of the team contributes to these solutions. That’s another great element of the controlling idea.

All of those guys on the crew… If they were one person, it wouldn’t be as good because there has to be a community of people pulling together to do this. And the real heroes of the story are his fellow astronauts, right? Because in every action story, you have to have a hero, a villain, and a victim. Now the victim here is Watney, who’s our protagonist, the villain is the environment – it’s an indifferent universe – and the hero are those five crew members who decided to turn back and go get that one guy – all for one and one for all. It’s a great story.

Tim: Okay, I have to stop here and take a little bit of a side note. I was watching Lord of the Rings with Candice, my wife, a while ago. For some reason, we sit down and watch all three of them once a year. At the end of the third movie, I was like, “Frodo isn’t the hero of that movie; Sam is.” When you said that, it made me think Frodo was the victim, Sam was the hero. Would you agree with that?

Shawn: Well, this is going to be a big confession, Tim, but I’m not a huge “The Lord of the Rings” guy, but I remember reading the books when I was a kid. The thing about “The Lord of the Rings” and a lot of people ask me about this, because everybody is fascinated by it and it’s such a large universe. There are so many books in it, there are so many characters.

Tim: Well, I will confess I hate the books. I cannot get through them. The movies I like, but I have tried to read the book, I don’t know how many times, and I usually can’t even get past the part where he gets lost right when he starts out. It’s just so long and boring.

Shawn: But there’s a whole clan of heroes, that whole group of people who come together – the elf woman and the archer, and the…

Tim: Yes, because all along, Frodo would have never made it without everybody else and Sam.

Shawn: Exactly.

Tim: Now, I’m just going to base on the movie because – like I said – I haven’t read the book, but at the very end, Frodo just sits down. He’s like, “I’m not climbing this mountain,” and Sam carries him the rest of the way. That’s when I was like, “Frodo is not the hero. Sam is the hero,” because Sam stuck with it when he should have stopped, and Frodo was the one that kept trying to stop.

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: Anyway. Okay. The crisis is they have to set off the bomb. The climax is they go out and they get Watney, and they pull Watney back into the ship, so he’s saved. It’s a pretty abrupt ending. It’s like they get him, they’re all happy, there was this one short scene where he’s back on earth and a little kid asking him if he’d go back to Mars and he’s like, “Nope,” and that was the end.

Shawn: Yes. You just needed that little scene at the end for the resolution. Weir wisely put it in there because if it just ended he’s in the ship, you need to come down a little bit. And, he makes it a little comedic, too, I think.

Tim: Have you seen the movie yet?

Shawn: Yes, I did.

Tim: Okay. It holds extremely true to the book.

Shawn: It does.

Tim: There are three significant changes to the end. The first is in the book, he talks about how if he punctures his hand and his suit, he’ll be able to fly around like Ironman, but he never does it in the book and he does it in the movie. I kind of got of kick out of going back and reading the book and remembering that he didn’t actually do that in the book. The second is the captain goes out to get him in the movie, and she doesn’t… I liked the book better because it stayed true to their jobs. It was like Beck is the guy that’s in charge.

Then I hated the ending monologue by Matt Damon at the end of the movie. I just thought it was a complete waste. I wish they would have just ended it with him sitting on the bench and saying he’s never going back.

Shawn: Yes. I don’t really think… It didn’t kill the movie. It’s like “We’re paying Matt Damon $50 million. Let’s get a full day out of him. I don’t want Matt Damon to clock out before 9:30 in the morning. We’re going to do a scene and he’s going to be Matt Damon for at least 20 seconds at the end of this movie.” He was the perfect casting choice. It’s Matt Damon. Everybody wants Matt Damon to come back. That’s a dollars-and-cents Hollywood decision if there ever was.

Tim: Yes. And I broke down, because I want Candice to watch the movie with me and I had to tell her that he survives or she wasn’t going to watch it.

Shawn: Of course.

Tim: Okay. That is pretty much Foolscap Global Story Grid for “The Martian.” Is there anything you wanted to add to that?

Shawn: There really isn’t. I’ll just say one thing. The Foolscap Global Story Grid is one element of two that you need to create the actual nifty whizbang graph of the movement of a story. The second one is the Story Grid Spreadsheet. What you would do to create the Story Grid Spreadsheet would be to go through each chapter in the book – and you can see all this at – and fill out this very large Excel spreadsheet that shows the movement from scene to scene.

What we’ve just gone over are the major movements of the story. Now, you can do this exact same thing for each scene. Then once you have the spreadsheet and the Foolscap done, then you can do this really cool graph – like I did for “The Silence of the Lambs” – that will show the actual movement, the positive to negative charge, and the movement of the story on an actual graph, which people seem to love and I would certainly do it. It would just…

Maybe I will do it. If I do do it, it will be on the notes. But I probably would do something less specific than the full deal I did for “The Silence of the Lambs” just to be easier to get that done. But anyway…

Tim: You wouldn’t recommend that somebody tries to do that before they write the book?

Shawn: No. It’s really sort of like a fun infographic for story nerds. The Story Grids themselves, they’re a great thing to have as reference for moments in your own crisis when you’re writing and saying, “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do about the ‘hero at the mercy of the villain’ scene?”

If you have a whole collection of Story Grids, you just walk over to your bulletin board, you look at this “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene of your favorite stories, and you go, “Oh, that’s how they solved it.” It will help inspire you to create your own answers to your own problem.

Tim: All right. Let’s dive in to “A Christmas Carol.” As a holiday thing, we’re looking at “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.

Shawn: I just have to say, this is like one of the most perfect stories ever created, probably.

Tim: I didn’t do my own Foolscap for this one but this was the first time I’ve actually read the book. What was funny is as I’m reading the book, I’m remembering the Mickey Mouse version and Scrooged with Bill Murray and all the different iterations of this story and realizing I’d never actually read the source material.

Shawn: Oh, it’s so good. It just takes you back to that era. My favorite adaptation is one with Alastair Sim. He’s just the impeccable Scrooge, and it’s in black and white, it feels so Dickensian.

Just for fun, Tim, let me just run this through because this is a great example of a very simple story that has both an external and an internal genre and is impeccably done, and it’s very short.

Tim: And it’s relatively short, yes.

Shawn: Yes, it’s very short. I think it’s five chapters and within those chapters, there are maybe 12 scenes, tops, maybe 15 scenes.

Anyway, the global genre: this is a redemption plot. A redemption plot – I’ve written about it at – is one of my favorite kinds of stories. It’s where we have a shift of moral stature or worldview from a negative one to a positive one and somebody redeems himself. The global genre is redemption.

Now, the external genre is a horror story. It’s a horror supernatural, and that’s because we have ghosts who come and arrive on the scene. The external value of the horror story moves from life to unconsciousness to death to the fate worse than death – damnation. Horror is a turbo-charged action story, and the fate worse than death is living for eternity shackled with chains and having to… I’ll get into it when I talk about the visit of Jacob Marley.

The internal genre is morality redemption – and all this terminology again is in the book. The internal value at stake for a morality redemption story is about altruism. It’s about moving from a place of pure selfishness to being altruistic, meaning caring for other people, one other person, a tribe of people, and ultimately, all of humanity more than you do yourself.

The spectrum moves from selfishness that is sort of disguised as altruism. Politicians always come to mind. “I am here for the people,” and meanwhile, they’re all about themselves. Then that would move to just purely selfish, somebody who’s straightforwardly selfish, and that’s the case of Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” This is a guy who does not hide the fact that he’s a miser, that all he cares about is money and work.

Then it moves to caring for one other person – so if you care for one other person, that can become an obsession – and then it moves to a group of people and then ultimately, all of humanity more than yourself.

I’m quickly going to go over the obligatory scenes and conventions in redemption stories because everybody loves the redemption story. People always ask me, “Can you just give me all the answers to all the stories and then I can just do whatever I want?” Actually, I love doing these because they’re my favorite stories.

Okay. The first thing is you need a self-obsessed protagonist – all they do is care about themselves – and with Scrooge, you don’t get much better than that. He’s like the archetype of the redemption plot to begin with.

The second thing is you need a spiritual guide as a sidekick. Of course, we have that here. We have Jacob Marley, who is Scrooge’s old business partner, and Marley was much of a miser as Scrooge was, so he is a great sidekick.

Then the third thing you need is the “truth will out” scene. This is the moment when the protagonist discovers to their horror just how terrible a person they are. It’s a pivotal moment in a redemption story. It’s that moment when they go, “Oh my gosh, I am terrible. I just cannot believe how terrible I am.” The “truth will out” scene usually comes at the climax of the middle build, just before it moves into the ending payoff.

Then, right after you have the “truth will out” scene, they usually have a moment of contemplating the abyss. This is another convention of the redemption story, where your protagonist contemplates the fact that they’re going to rot in hell, they’re going to be damned.

Then you have the big event. The big event is when the protagonist makes that big decision and that big action that changes the course of their life. They stop being one way and it become another.

Then the final thing is you have a “winning for losing” resolution. What that means is that your lead protagonist wins by giving up their old way of thinking.

I’m just going to keep running through this because it’s just easier that way.

Tim: I find it interesting that a lot of the obligatory scenes, as I’ve looked through a lot of this stuff and read your stuff, they seemed very kind of end-loaded, a lot of them come right at the end of the book, everything is building towards these obligatory scenes.

Shawn: Yes. Every single genre has a core event, the most important event in the story. For the internal genres, the worldview, it’s always a revelatory moment. It’s that moment when the worldview of your protagonist shifts and changes. In the action story, it’s usually the hero at the mercy of the villains. For crime stories, it’s when you discover the perpetrator. That’s the big core event, when the perpetrator is outed, and then becomes will justice prevail or will it not?

Each one of the genres, they have that big moment, that big core event. For the redemption story, it’s when the protagonist changes their worldview and changes the moral compass from purely selfish to altruist.

Now, the point of view for “A Christmas Carol” is third-person omniscient, Charles Dickens is the master of the third-person omniscient voice, which is the great narrator, the disembodied narrator who’s looking down from above in a godlike fashion telling the reader a story. Dickens is like “Forget it, he’s the king.”

Okay, now, for the redemption story, the objects of desire are usually the lead protagonist wants respect or third-party validation. What I mean by that is they want the community to recognize them as a very, very important person, and all they really want is that recognition and respect. But what they need is enlightenment. They need to understand what’s really important about life.

They’re chasing respect and third-party validation believing that they will eventually reach a place of nirvana and happiness when they get that validation, like becoming a New York Times bestseller. A lot of people think, “Oh, boy, once I’m on the bestseller list, everything will be great,” and that’s usually just the beginning of your problem. So, the character needs enlightenment.

Now, the controlling idea theme of a redemption story is just so great because it’s one of those messages we all need to hear over and over again. I get this from Robert McKee, and it’s a long sentence and feel free to read it on the notes, but I’m going to read it anyway: the compulsive pursuit of contemporary values will destroy you, but if you see this truth in time and throw away your obsession, you can redeem yourself.

Basically, what this means is that once you discover that getting a mansion and a new Ferrari is not going to make you happy, then you can redeem yourself. You can understand that chasing all the riches in the world is not going to make you happy; what’s going to make you happy is to have a community with your fellow men.

The beginning hook of “A Christmas Carol” is “Hey, it’s Christmas Eve,” and that’s a coincidental inciting incident for the beginning hook. It’s Christmas Eve, so what that entails is next day is Christmas and everybody gets off for Christmas.

Now, the complication for the beginning hook of the story is Scrooge is this miser, he’s sort of like a banker, probably runs some kind of factoring business back then – I’m not really sure – but he’s interrupted during his work. It’s complicated because he likes to do his calculations and these people keep coming in and saying, “Merry Christmas and good tidings, and would you like to donate to our poor folks fund?” and he’s finding it very, very irritating.

The crisis at the beginning hook is for Scrooge is is he going to call off work tomorrow, is he going to give that guy Cratchit the day off for Christmas? It’s like a best bad choice for him. He’s thinking, “If I let Cratchit off of work, I’m going to get behind of my workload. If I don’t let him off, he’s going to moan and be a baby for the rest of the year.” The climax of the beginning hook is Scrooge reluctantly agrees to give Cratchit the day off only with the one condition that he comes in early on the 26th. He’s that kind of guy.

Then the resolution of the beginning hook is Scrooge goes home alone and he has to walk through the streets where everybody is very happy, but Scrooge likes being alone, so he heads home. Now, that’s the end of the beginning hook, which is basically an introduction to the world of Ebenezer Scrooge, what it’s like to be a miser.

A lot of us can sympathize with Scrooge sometimes because he’s a very smart guy and he makes very good points about the fake frivolity of the holiday season. It’s a really great sucking in of the reader into the story because either we think this guy is just funny to read about or we relate to him a little bit.

Tim: It’s like Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Shawn: Exactly. Larry David would be a great scrooge.

Tim: I thought it was interesting. You just said that you get introduced to the world of Ebenezer Scrooge, and that was the same thing that went along with “The Martian,” which is the whole thing about the beginning is “This is now the world that he’s living in.”

Shawn: Yes.

Tim: Okay, I just thought that was interesting.

Shawn: Yes, that’s why you have to be really specific about your storytelling. You want people to go into a new universe, so give them a little bit of the world, have fun with it. Dickens certainly had a lot of fun bringing you right into Scrooge’s workspace – like Cratchit, he gives him one lump of coal to heat his little space. It’s crazy. It’s just so delightful to read.

The middle build is really when things start to really get fun in “A Christmas Carol”. Scrooge goes home, and of course, he doesn’t like to use candles or anything, so it’s pitch black on his way home. He finally gets up to his door, and he’s about to pull the knocker to pull his door open, and he notices that the face of Jacob Marley is in the door knocker. It’s this apparition, and it’s very strange. Jacob Marley was as big of a miser as Ebenezer was, and he’s dead.

In fact, Dickens begins his entire story by letting the reader know Jacob Marley is dead. He’s absolutely dead. So, when Scrooge sees Marley in the doorknocker, it’s a very, very chilling inciting incident that, “Hey, things are getting very weird.”

Now, the complication of the middle build – this is one of them – is as Scrooge goes into the house, he’s going to go upstairs and stay in his little bedroom with his little eating chamber there, his reading fireplace, and as he’s walking up the stairs, he swears that he sees a hearse with a dead body, with horses going up his staircase as he’s walking up. There’s another apparition that things are getting stranger and stranger and stranger for this guy as he’s moving forward.

Now, the crisis of the middle build is when Scrooge has to say to himself, should he ignore these visions and just maybe go to bed and try and get this night over with, or should he go seek help? Now, the last thing Scrooge is going to do is seek anybody’s help, so he decides he’s just going to ignore them, he’s going to, “Bah, humbug,” he’s going to talk to himself, “Things are going to be okay. Everything is going to be all right.”

The climax of the middle build is when Jacob Marley comes to him. He literally walks through the walls, and he says to Scrooge, “I’m Jacob Marley. I’ve come back from the dead. I am a ghost. I’ve been walking around for eternity with this chain of all of this money that I was groveling and groveling for when I was on earth, and it’s wearing me down. I’ve come to tell you that you are going to be visited by three ghosts, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Christmas Yet to Come.”

At this point, Scrooge accepts that he’s basically in his own mind going a little crazy, but he accepts it because he does not want to seek help. He doesn’t want to be this crazy old guy running down the streets saying, “These ghosts are visiting me.” So he’s going to run this thing out until the very end.

The resolution of that acceptance in the middle build is that the first two ghosts – the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Present – don’t harm him. They’re pretty nice to him actually. They take him on these journeys. They show him what life was like when he was a little boy.

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge, “You had a really good boss. He was really nice to you when you’re growing up and he brought you a lot of joy.” Scrooge is starting to warm up, like, “Hey, old Fezziwig,” – or whatever his name; I think it is Fezziwig – “He was a really, really good boss. And boy, there was that woman I wanted to marry, and I got really, really miserly at the time and she told me she didn’t want to marry me anymore.” The ghost takes him to see what happened to that woman, and she’s happily married and they’re having a wonderful Christmas. So, he’s starting to warm up and he is accepting these truths about the choices that he’s made in his life.

Now, the next ghost – the Ghost of Christmas Present – is nice to him, too. When he wakes up from meeting with that guy, there are all these great treats in his bed chamber and all the people in the street are happy and jovial. So these ghosts aren’t really scary ghosts; they’re sort of spiritual companions.

This leads all up to the ending payoff of “A Christmas Carol,” when the Ghost of Christmas Future comes, and this ghost isn’t so nice. He doesn’t even talk to Scrooge. He’s in a very dark cloak. Scrooge can’t make his face out. He’s basically the Grim Reaper. This guy is going to take Scrooge and make him face the realities of his future, and his future doesn’t look so good.

He takes him to Cratchit’s house, and he shows him Tiny Tim has died. Cratchit’s son Tiny Tim has died because they don’t have the money to get him the kind of medical attention that he needs. This is really, really bumming out Scrooge, like, “Oh, boy. Yes, maybe I could have thrown the guy a few bucks and maybe saved this kid. That’s not so cool.”

But that’s not even the crisis; the crisis is when Scrooge sees his grave. The ghost takes Scrooge around town, and everybody is saying, “Oh, that’s so great that guy is dead. Oh, what a jerk that guy was. I couldn’t stand that guy.” Scrooge is like, “Who are they talking about? Who are they talking about?” Then the ghost takes him to his grave and he sees that he’s talking about Scrooge.

It’s at this crisis moment when Scrooge has to… This is the big, big moment, the big event when Scrooge has the “truth will out” scene. He discovers that he’s been a terrible person and if he doesn’t do something now, he’s going to be just like Jacob Marley and have to walk around through eternity dragging all the money that he made on earth. So he pleads with the ghost for a second chance to live. He doesn’t want to die. He thinks he’s going to die. He thinks this ghost has brought him to the end of his time and he’s going to die.

The climax of the story is that he doesn’t die; he wakes up the next day, and he’s a completely changed person. The resolution, of course, is when Scrooge sends the boy down below and he says, “Hey, what day is it?” and he says, “It’s Christmas Day,” and he says, “Go get the best finest turkey, the prize turkey, and send it to Cratchit’s house.” Then, he goes and he visits his nephew, and then he becomes very friendly with Cratchit and he gives him a raise, and he takes care of Tiny Tim, and he’s a changed man.

That’s the resolution of the ending payoff of the story. It’s a beautiful story. It’s superbly done. It’s a message that is eternal. It’s one of Dickens best stories he ever, ever wrote, and it’s one of the best in Western culture, too.

Tim: Yes, when we first started talking about doing this, I think it’s interesting how the concepts you talk about in “The Story Grid” hold true for such two vastly different types of story. Throughout there, you’re getting introduced to Scrooge’s world, and I don’t remember you explicitly talking about that in “The Story Grid,” but now I see through our conversations that what you’re trying to do in that beginning hook is not only hook them in with the story but you’re trying to set some parameters around the world that you’re inviting them into.

Shawn: Yes, that’s a really good point, and it’s one I often forget talking about. Yes, you have to give the reader a sense of the universe that they’re entering, and these are two great examples. Weir does such an amazing job. You feel like you’re on Mars when you’re reading it. You just buy in immediately.

And Dickens, his language is very accessible but it also has a lilt to it. It has a really great Industrial Revolution 1800s feel to it. You can see the gas lamps on the street, you know you’re in London, you can see the poor people, you can see the great apples and pears in the windows, and it gives you a real sense of what life was like back then. It’s the same as it is now except you had to use candles then and there was no Internet.

Tim: Thanks so much for hanging on for the entire hour-and-a-half episode of this special edition of The Story Grid podcast. I hope you really enjoyed it, and I hope you learn how running a movie or a book through the Foolscap Story Grid will help you understand that story better and help you write your own story better, as well.

As always, if you want more Story Grid, all you have to do is go to Sign up for the newsletter, read the blog, buy the books – you’ll be glad you did. Also, if you want the show notes for this episode or any of the past episodes, you can see those at Make sure you subscribe to this podcast, make sure you go to iTunes, leave a rating, share it on Twitter, share it on Facebook, share it with any struggling writer that you know to help them write better stories, as well.

Thanks again for listening. Happy holidays. Merry Christmas. Thanks for being a part of what we’re doing at Story Grid, and we’ll see you next week.


8 comments on “The Martian Carol

  1. Tony Levelle says:

    Podcast is great! I read the book and saw the movie before listening. Thanks again!

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Love this podcast! I haven’t seen the movie yet, but did read the book. Thanks for the bonus grid too – Happy New Year guys!

  3. Kent Faver says:

    Thanks for the mention Shawn. The Authorpreneur podcast with Jim Kukral interviewing Andy Weir was very enlightening. Andy was always surprised by the Martian’s success.

  4. Mark McGinn says:

    Sean & Tim – many thanks.Probably the best podcast yet because you swiftly move through two stories highlighting how the principles are applied to the content. It’s like the more examples I see this demonstrated with, the greater the appreciation of nuances. I had a coffee discussion with my wife this morning that went something like this.
    Me: Those book club books you read. It seems there’s a huge variety but you’re clear on what doesn’t work for you. (She’s reading one when I join her for coffee after this podcast)
    Her: I think I’m supposed to be impressed by the writing but some of these books go nowhere. I get to the end and wonder what the hell that was all about.
    Me: Bit they have different scenes, right?
    Her: I guess. They all sort of merge and you wonder where the hell its going as nothing’s really happening.
    Me: So there’s nothing to indicate what’s different at the end of the scene to when it started.
    Her: No. Sometimes, but mostly no.
    Me: (I tell her about the inciting incident, progressive complication, Crisis question with no obvious answer, climax and resolution,
    Her: (Pulls a face) I don’t need to know that. I’m not going to read a book and look for all that. That doesn’t sound like much fun.
    Me: No? I think its a lot of fun. I get a book and see how it’s written. It will change the way I write.
    Her: (Shakes her head, incredulous – picks up i pad again). What time are we going to the tip?

    I think this stuff does make us a bit nerdy – but in a good way. She didn’t see I was going through an adult learning experience of reinforcement.

  5. Larry says:

    Is moving from a general attitude/worldview to another — e.g., selfishness to altruism — the only kind of Redemption story?

    I’m thinking of movies like _They Came To Cordura_ or _Seven Pounds_, where the protagonist has committed one act for which they feel ashamed/guilty, and spends the rest of the movie making up for it.

    Is that Redemption, or does it fall into another internal genre?

    1. Larry says:

      Good grief, I forgot _Four Feathers_, another example.

  6. Doug Walsh says:

    Excellent transcript/podcast. I spoiled “The Martian” for myself, but it was worth it. Great discussion, the two of you.

  7. Jeff says:

    I did the same, Doug. When the podcast aired, I put it on hold intending to read The Martian first, but eventually saying, “Heck with it, I want the inside baseball stuff.” I’ll read the book later. Absolutely worth it, I agree.

    Side note: I chuckled when Tim said he had to tell his wife that the guy lives at the end, in order to convince her to go with him to see the movie. My wife is the same way.

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