Thinking in Sequences

When we’re revising scenes,rather than overwhelming ourselves with the big global story movement, it’s often helpful to think in terms of story sequences.

A sequence is just a series of scenes that move us from one large place in our story to another large place.  Examples of shorthand notations for sequences include such multi-scene movements like “Getting the Job,” “Making the Team,” “Losing the Bet,” etc.  These are biggish mile-markers in your story’s progression.  They aren’t necessarily the irreversible changes that occur in Acts, but they are more substantial shifts in the life of the protagonist/s than those value shifts that comprise the individual scenes that comprise them.

Another example of scene sequences comes from that great 1970s movie about a big con, The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  If you’ll recall the filmmakers chose to insert title cards: The Players, The Set-Up, The Hook, The Tale, The Wire, The Shut-Out, and the ending payoff itself, The Sting, as place markers for the viewer.  Each of these title cards represent a sequence in the film.  If you haven’t seen it, rent it tonight.  If you have, watch it again.  It’s simply wonderful storytelling and impossible to stop watching.

In this episode of the podcast, Tim and I discuss how he can best approach his scene to scene sequencing–when to raise the stakes of the value in a particular scene and when to pull back.  As the Beginning Hook of any long form story is all about grabbing the reader by the lapels so that they’ll make the commitment to continue reading into the Middle Build and ideally all the way through the Ending Payoff, my suggestions to Tim require him to escalate the stakes in his early scenes.  The trick to doing this without getting your protagonist into crazier and crazier life and death cliffhangers is to escalate the threats to the world the protagonist finds herself in.

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

[0:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience.


In this episode, we dive into how to rewrite your scenes. As I am going back through these scenes that Shawn has edited, I am trying to figure out the best way to rewrite them because I feel like my natural thing is to just, “Let’s throw it out and start over,” and that’s inefficient and so Shawn walks me through how to rewrite scenes, how you can approach your scenes and the right way to do that and so for all of us listening, I’m sure this is going to be an episode that’s really helpful. So let’s dive in and get started.




[00:00:57.0] TG: So Shawn, I have been working on this rewrite and I’m really struggling with, I’ve never actually rewrote anything like this and I am facing this a little bit with my first book to, your first 1,000 copies. I wanted to write a second edition, I got this editor to give me all of this. It was 20 pages of things that I should add and change and everything and it makes me just want to throw everything out and write again from scratch.


And so when I’m looking at rewriting some of these scenes, I’m really struggling with not just throwing away everything and just rewriting it again based on your advice but I know that’s a really inefficient way to do things. So how do you suggest I approach? If I had this scene that’s 1,500 words but 700 of the words need to change, I’m just struggling to change those and still piece it all back together.


[00:02:00.8] SC: Well my advice about that is to almost block out all of the other scenes from your mind and go back to those notes that you’ve made because I know one of the things that you sort of intuitively picked up about structuring scenes is to look at each of the major players in the scene and look at the scene from their particular point of view and say, “Oh well this could happen if this person did this. If this person did this, then this might happen,” and then constructing the different possibilities of altering that scene so that it complies with the note I gave you.


So for example, one of your scenes, as I recall begins with Jessie going into the canteen of the numbered people and there, 83 is having her cup of coffee and they sit down and have a chat having coffee and my note to you was that’s not active enough and you’re wasting an opportunity to pound in some fun and interesting exposition about the world here. So what you should do is use that scene and the scene event and expand it so that it moves out of the canteen coffee arena and instead 83 takes Jessie on a tour of hell, in a way.


So for that example you probably will end up tossing most of the original scene but the event of the scene will remain standard and whatever and the choices that you have to make are how do I get this to turn? At what point am I going to make it turn? What value is it going to turn on and how can I think through my brain, how can I map out a scene that could be interesting? So you could say, the scene opens with Jessie and 83 walked outside during daylight and before they actually even go outside, 83 has her put on almost like an asbestos suit like they do in the old steel mills. Because it’s so hot outside and the ultraviolet rays are so intense, the numbered people they worked during the day while everybody rests.


So you could actually have 83 putting the uniform on Jessie so that she can go out and do the work and that could be your opening foray into this world, which will be kind of strange and shocking to the reader because they’ll not be sure what’s going on here. So after you get them outside, then they can progressively move towards one single, really nasty task that they have to perform and 83 tells her, “This is the way to go. You don’t want to go this way because of the toxic fumes that are coming off of the whatever.”


So that you want to, instead of worrying so much about re-writing the scene, just give yourself the imaginative license to play around a little bit and one of the things I talk about in the book is the power of 10 and mapping out 10 variations of how you might accomplish the goal of this particular scene. So the other scenes that don’t need massive work that could be tweaked later on, my recommendation is leave that for another day.


The goal in this process right now, and we are discovering this together, is to really get a very, very strong beginning hook to this story. The core story spine of the hero’s journey for Jessie, you want to get her in a hole and you want her to get out of the hole at the end but in a negative way and we’ve mapped that out and you know what to do, but it’s each of these individual scenes that you have to challenge yourself by saying, “Okay how do I make this scene the most memorable scene in the novel?”


[00:07:05.4] TG: For each scene? I am trying to make each scene the most memorable scene in the novel?


[00:07:11.1] SC: Well that’s the psychological ploy that I would use personally. I would say to myself, just to give an example, in every great movie we all have our favorite scenes like for example The Godfather. Now if you ask say my brother, his favorite scene in The Godfather, he would say it’s the scene when Michael has to shoot Sollozzo and the cop at the Italian restaurant because the tension in that scene is just incredible, right?


But if you ask me, I would say my favorite scene is when Michael is sitting at the Don’s desk and the Don has just been shot, he’s in the hospital, everybody is panicking and they all turn to Michael and Michael says, “It’s very simple. You get the cop and Sollozzo in a room, you plant a gun and I’ll kill both of them,” and it’s this wonderful moment because then James Caan goes, “Oh you know big Ivy League tough guy, I thought you don’t want to be part of the family business. Bada-bing, bada-boom, what are you crazy? You’re not going to be able to kill these guys?” And it’s that moment for me, that’s one of my favorite scenes.


So if you look at Godfather, you look at every single scene in that movie and it might be somebody’s favorite scene. Because Puzo and Coppola, when they were creating this they challenged themselves and you can see, they didn’t just say, “Oh you know, here’s the wedding scene let’s get this over in two minutes so that we can get to the don getting shot.” No, they were like, “Let’s bring in Johnny Fontane. Let’s really milk this.”


So to think about each scene in terms of constructing almost the cinematic experience for the reader, in my opinion, is a great way of having fun as a writer and creating very unique individual scenes that just bang, bang, bang, bang and when the scenes are great, the readers just, they can’t get enough. It’s potato chips. They’re just so wonderfully constructed and they feed into next and the transitions are seamless and you don’t have a lot of exposition. You just have these movements of scenes that are very strong.


So I always to you and I have said this to you, I don’t know how many times, for me all of story boils down into the fundamental unit of storytelling and the fundamental unit of storytelling is the scene. It’s the scene in television, it’s the scene in cinema, it’s the scene in novels. It’s just such a primary primal perfectly constructed Russian doll from which everything else is built from. So when you really challenge yourself to make each of your scenes the very best that you believe it can be, then it’s just going to make the whole novel better and better and better.


So if you have a scene, like the inciting incident of your novel, it’s just a meeting scene. It’s a stranger knocks at the door scene with either a good or a bad event. That’s essentially what it is, but instead what you did is you didn’t literary have somebody knock on the door. You decided, “Why don’t I have Jessie in the middle of what she’s good at, stealing food, and have her being caught in the act?”


So you took a generic idea, which is stranger knocks on the door inciting incident and you created something unique and that’s what you want to do when you look at the purpose of each of your scenes is you say to yourself, “Okay, the event is this, the valence of movements is from positive to negative, the value shift is from life to threat of death. How can I make that work in a really unique way that’s consistent with the rest of my story?”


[00:11:38.5] TG: You know, I feel like there’s so much — I struggle with this, but did you ever watch the show the office?


[00:11:46.5] SC: Yes.


[00:11:47.5] TG: Okay so there was that one episode where Michael Scott was taking improv classes and everybody hated him because in every scene he pulled out a gun. So they did this interview, one of those side interviews in him and he’s like, “What’s the most exciting thing that ever happens in a movie?” It’s like, “Somebody pulls out a gun.” He’s like, “So I make sure I do that in every scene,” and it’s just this stupid thing.


But this is what I struggle with, is that I tend to pack too many things, you’re like, “You put too many things into a scene,” and when you critique my full manuscript I did back in the spring, you said, “This is like three books. It’s not one book. It’s should have been three books. so you’re doing way too much stuff.” But then you say, “Make this scene the best you possibly can,” and all I think is basically a version of I’ve got to pull out a gun in each scene. I’ve got to do this big thing in each scene. So what I just struggle with is how can I make this scene that to me is just moving the story just a little bit ahead, a really compelling scene?


[00:13:05.1] SC: Well that’s a good point and the way you figure that out is by understanding the global movement of your story. So for example, again, where you have a scene where Jessie and 83 walk into hell and 83 — the purpose of that scene, the story purpose of that scene, the thematic purpose of that scene is to present to the reader the ordinary world of the numbered people.


[00:13:37.9] TG: The hole. This is like describing the hole that she just fell into right?


[00:13:43.1] SC: That’s exactly correct.


[00:13:45.0] TG: Okay and so I did it by having them sit and sip coffee and just tell her what this world is.


[00:13:52.9] SC: Right, instead what you want to do is show her what this world is like through a purposeful active moment. One of the things that when you’re an actor is, and it’s very similar to when you’re a writer and an editor gives you notes like, “Well I didn’t think the middle had enough juice to it,” and when you’re an actor if a director says to you, “I’m just not getting where you’re coming from. You’re not giving me enough colors.” These are the kinds of things that will make somebody like myself, a very practical kind of person, want to hang them self because there is no practical thing that you can actually do.


[00:14:39.2] TG: Just put more colors in.


[00:14:41.3] SC: Yeah. How do you do that? So that’s why your question about the gun is a very good one and it goes to the global movements of the emotional movement of the story. The story spine, the hero’s journey, those six things that we talked about the hedometer and Andy Reagan at University of Vermont a couple of weeks ago. These are the things that grab the insides of a person and drag them through the story.


So the purpose of this opening beginning hook of your novel is twofold. It’s to really suck the reader in by putting your protagonist in a man in the hole narrative arc that gets very, very deep very, very quickly and when you make that promise to the reader, what you’re saying to them is, “Hold onto your seats. I am pulling you into a story that goes very, very quickly into a deep crevasse. So I am making a promise to you and my promise to you is this: This is just the beginning. Hold onto your socks because this is going to get even more deeply involving for you.”


So these early moments, you are challenging yourself to really make a deep promise to the reader. One of the reasons why I like the fact that we’re doing this beginning hook and we’re not really going to move further along until we feel good about this hole that we’ve dug and how Jessie gets out of this hole is that once you make this promise, this deep promise to the reader, it’s going to push you into your middle build with very big expectations of yourself.


You should have those expectations of yourself because if you’re able to create a beginning hook like this, then you have to challenge yourself to make it even stronger in the middle and the big payoff is going to be really terrific. So just back to your question about how do you make it more involving and interesting without bringing in guns and…


[00:17:10.6] TG: Because that’s what I do in my first scene, right? The first draft of the first scene had a stabbing at the end and you’re like, “That’s way,” — and that is like pulling out the gun and so you ended it with just the word, with her saying “no”.


[00:17:30.4] SC: Yeah.


[00:17:31.1] TG: And so I think what I’m struggling with is how do I make — like it is, when you say, “You’ve got to go big on the scene,” you’ve got to make them like, “All right somebody is getting stabbed,” you know?


[00:17:47.1] SC: When I meant big, I mean not necessarily the active life and death value but big in terms of the purpose of the scene. The purpose of the scene for Jessie and 83 is to introduce her into the hellish world and so it’s not a big scene when they are sitting and having a coffee and she’s telling her what the world is about. It’s far bigger if instead of a dialogue over coffee, 83 is putting an asbestos suit on her and she’s zipping her up and she’s putting the really intense goggles on her and then maybe there’s an extra oxygen pack that she’s going to have to strap to her back like a backpack and she says to her, “Don’t use this up in the first 15 minutes because we’ve got X amount of time to take care of this and if we don’t get this done, you’re going to run out of your oxygen before we get back. You ready? Here we go, one, two, three.”


They open the door and there’s the furnace and they step into the furnace and then they go back and they do their task. And we follow Jessie as she struggles along with 83 to get this task done and then they come back from the task exhausted and just wiped out and that’s going big because it’s saying to the reader, “Look at this environment that this poor girl has put herself into.” When you say, “Hey, don’t go out,” instead having a scene where they say, “Hey don’t go outside because it’s really hot out there,” right? That’s small, that’s not a big scene.


So that’s the difference, it’s letting your imagination live in the world a little bit and describe it in a way that is shocking and compelling to the reader in an active way. They have a goal at the beginning of this scene. The goal is to, I don’t know, turn on the water at somebody’s house so that their cooling system works enough to keep them inside the game. They’ve got some kind of alarm saying, “House number 76 down on the corridor needs a water treatment system checked.”


So 83 takes Jessie on that trip, and that way you are giving information to the reader beyond just the hellish world. You’re also saying, “Wow, so these environments have to be perfectly calibrated and it’s so important that these people are locked into this game like digital virtual reality that they send people out in horrible situations to keep those people in the game.”


[00:21:05.8] TG: Okay, so I’m trying to break this down because the mistakes I made in writing my beginning hook is at several scenes that didn’t move and several scenes that weren’t as big or as riveting or grabbed the reader as they should be. And so one of the things that we changed for me trying to write an entire first draft of a book to this is to write just the beginning hook and then we started with the first two scenes and then you released me to write the rest of the beginning hook.


And as I approached these scenes, I was just like, “Okay,” I was thinking, “Okay what happens next?” And what I’m starting to hone in on, is there is some value in not mapping out all 60 scenes before I write one of the scenes. There’s a value to just kind of figuring out what’s next but I think I need to have like a list of questions I ask myself when I get to the next scene. One of them is, something around, “Where are they going in the scene or what is the main thing that happens?” Maybe it’s four of the spreadsheet columns, “Okay, what’s the polarity shift?” Because I think one of my issues was, I didn’t really know where the scene was going until I was writing it and then once I got to the end of that scene I’m like, “Okay, I got there,” and I move on to the next one.


Where if I’m saying, “Okay, what am I doing in the scene?” Again, we’ll just stick with the same scene, “Okay, in this scene, I’m getting 83 to introduce Jessie to the world. Okay, by the end of it, Jessie needs to understand what she’s gotten herself into.” Then I can stop and say, “Okay, what’s the most compelling, interesting, non-cliché way that I can get from where we’re at, at the beginning of the scene to where we’re at, at the end of the scene?” Instead of just kind of writing my way to the end of the scene, do you think that would be helpful to kind of ask at the beginning, not map out every scene but once I’ve written one scene, go to the next scene thing. “Okay, where am I going, what’s the polarity shift?” Those kind of things.


[0:23:25.7] SC: Yes, I think that’s a good way of handling it, the primary question that you always want to ask is, “What happens next? What’s going to be interesting in the next scene?” And form that question, you’re probably going to have some initial idea that you’ll say, “Oh well this will happen next because that just previously happened in the last scene.”


My thing would be, write down your first instinct to what should happen next. Before you write the thing, save yourself, “Okay, does that make sense in terms of what happened before?” Now what happened before was a shift from negative to positive. “Oh jeez, this scene that I want to write next is also negative to positive. Is that going to work or should I go positive negative?” Which is traditionally the way you want to handle a back to back scene. You want to move the valence from negative to positive and then start the next scene going positive to negative and this is a way of keeping the reader engaged in the story. It’s a technique, it’s a structural technique, it’s a story technique that is extremely helpful to keep you on track so that the reader, your eventual reader, will be engaged by the story.


The other thing to think about is to think in terms of sequences. Now, sequences of scenes, they can be tricky and they can boggle your mind sometimes and if that’s the case for you then disregard what I’m going to say but sometimes they help. So for example, I’ll use the movie misery, which is a fantastic movie, it’s based upon Stephen King’s novel. Just a — William Goldman wrote the screen play. There’s just nobody better than William Goldman. He wrote Marathon Man, All the President’s Men screenplay. Just a genius writer. If you look at Misery, the great thing about it, one of the great things about it is the sequences of scenes are so purely clear that just, if you stop your video and just watch each scene and say, “Okay, what happened in that scene? Oh, this happened.”


I do get in to this a little bit, I think I used this in the book to talk about sequences. But the beginning hook of Misery is what? It’s getting Paul, I forget his last name, Paul the writer into a hole. He gets into a whopping hole and so it begins with this writers, this famous writer who’s sort of sick of the kind of the boiler plate stuff he’s been writing for years, that’s extremely successful, he’s a very wealthy man, but he wants to write his great American novel.


So the beginning of the movie and in the novel, he’s just finished this book that he’s sweated out for a long time. He’s in the mountains, he’s at this very nice hotel, he rewards himself with a cigarette and a glass of champagne, it starts to snow. He says to himself, “Ah man, I don’t want to stay in this resort tonight, it’s just snowing a little bit, I’m going to make it back to LA.” I think he’s in like somewhere in Colorado and he says he’s going to go back to LA, or whatever.


So it starts to snow and he gets in his car and it’s snowing more and more heavily and bang, he gets in a car crash, his car gets totaled, he falls in a snowbank and cut, that’s the end. Now that, I just described a sequence. There’s two scenes maybe or three scenes in that entire thing but it’s a sequence. It’s getting Paul from finishing his novel and celebrating to wiping out on the road with his car totaled and snow fall. So that’s the inciting incident of Misery and everyone says to themselves when they see the movie or they read the novel, “Oh my gosh, how is he going to get out of this?”


Then, the next sequence begins and that sequence is him being rescued. William Goldman was like, “How can I create this scenes visually that will be interesting to get him rescued?” And Stephen King, when he was writing the novel, was thinking the same thing. So in the film, you see this sort of hunched over figure, it’s almost like Sasquatch coming out of the woods, right? It’s just got this big coat on and you see it ripping the door open and pulling the guy out and obviously it’s Paul our writer and he’s unconscious because he was hurt terribly in this car crash.


The figure throws him over his shoulder, sort goes into the woods and cut. Then the next scene is he wakes up and we see Paul in a bed and he’s immobile, his legs are broken, he’s black and blue and he’s been rescued by some nice person who has brought him to their home and put them in bed.


[0:29:21.2] TG: I just laugh at nice person.


[0:29:22.8] SC: Yeah, exactly. Then, now we’ve got another two scenes that have established his rescue. So that’s a sequence of Paul gets rescued. So it moves from Paul gets in a crash, to Paul gets rescued and we have four scenes. What I’m saying about this sequences is they can help you figure out what happens next in a way that keeps you on track because if — Goldman and Stephen King needed to move from “man falls in a hole, man gets out of the hole, man falls in a deeper hole”, right?


So the inciting incident, and this all happens, it’s brilliant film making because the man in the hole beginning is maybe seven minutes of entire screen time, maybe nine minutes? So you get this full man in the hole and then you get a double man in the hole that will take you to the realization that Paul is being held hostage and he’s with some crazy fan, his number one fan and if there’s any writer’s wort nightmare, it’s spending time with their number one fan.


[0:30:40.6] TG: Yeah, so thinking through mine, it would be Jessie falls into the hole, that’s the scene where she says “no” and then we have the shaming, then Jessie’s introduced to the hole, Jessie would be like tries to escape the hole?


[0:30:59.9] SC: Well, what’s nice Tim is that you have a mini hole at the beginning, the mini hole is that she decides, “Forget it, I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to do that. No way.” Then she gets the consequences of falling in the hole which means that she gets really physically harmed, she gets a cap put on her head and she’s rescued. So she comes out of that hole only to go into a deeper crevasse after she’s rescued. So what I’m saying is that, the crevasse of the second fall is not very interesting now.


[0:31:41.2] TG: Okay.


[0:31:42.2] SC: But the first fall, the first hole, when she gets shamed, the scene when she gets shamed is really good, right? Because she gets her hair cut off and she gets that thing plugged into her head and her father abandons her and it’s all done in a very, very compact 2,000 words or so. So the challenge is to do a fresh hell for the second fall that’s even worse than the shaming because the reader’s going to think, “Oh man, it can’t get worse than getting a cat put on your head,” and then you’re going to be like, “Want to bet?”


You’ve got the — it’s called progressive complications. It’s one of the things in the five commandments of storytelling, it has a progressively complicate, at deeper and deeper levels. More and more negativity, more and more positivity so you can’t go back, you can’t go from… I read about this in the book, the power of 10, right? Evaluate your scene and give it a number, what are the chances of your character being able to turn back time and have no consequences for what happened in that scene? If it’s small, you give it a two.


Now you created, at the very beginning, there’s no way she’s going to be able to go back after the shaming. So you’ve got to make the next one even more horrifying. Not only are you a number but you have to spend your time in horrific working conditions to keep society going and again, we were talking last week a little bit about using historical record to inform your fiction and just as someone who grew up in Pittsburg in the steel mills, that’s the first image that comes to me is the way these guys just have to go to work every day was literally putting on asbestos suit, putting on goggles, it was 150 degrees in the mill and they had to tap molten lava, it was hellish. It was hellish work.


If you could use something or a coal mine or the garment industry or there’s any number of really, the oil industry the roust abouts, there’s any number of rank and file jobs from the early 1900’s that you could use thematically to root your fictional universe. When you’re creating a fictional universe, I always suggest, root it in reality. So that’s just a suggestion note, that’s your artistic choice to do with as you wish.


[0:34:44.2] TG: Well it actually made me think of, there’s this completely has nothing to do with writing, but Scott Adams, the guy who created Dilbert, I read this post he did one time and he talked about how to become successful at something was to either become the top 0.01% at one thing so become the best scientist or the best whatever. He said, “Or be mediocre at two things and put him together in an interesting way.” He’s like, “You know, I’m not very good cartoonist, I’m not a very funny guy but I’m decently good at both of them and I put them together in an interesting way.”


In this, I wonder if I could do that where I basically, because they’re basically just housekeepers but if you combine housekeeping with going to a coal mine every day, it puts it in whole, like if I can make going in as a house keeper seemed like going into a coal mine, that’s just what popped in my head, it would be a way to root it in reality but combine two unrelated things to create a reality that never actually existed, does that make sense?


[0:35:58.2] SC: Absolutely.


[0:35:59.7] TG: is that kind of what you’re getting at?


[0:36:01.6] SC: Absolutely. Just as another sort of example of what we’re talking about, in the movie Alien, which is just so scary and so remarkable. I forget who mentioned this but Ridley Scott, when he was shooting it, somebody had mentioned, you know, these guys in space, they’re kind of like this truck drivers. They’re like interstate truck drivers in space. So the characters in Alien who are on this ship have the mannerisms and the sensibility of long haul truck drivers.


So it’s in that familiarity of those characterizations that made the viewer look at them and say, “Oh, I totally get it, these guys are just like the blue collar workers in space.” They’ve got the space ship and they’re out to go pick something up, they’re like the guys who drop off your furniture when you buy it or…


[0:37:03.1] TG: Or like Rirefly Joss Whedon’s show was a space western, they were all cowboys.


[0:37:09.7] SC: Yeah.


[0:37:09.9] TG: Basically and they were not pirates but what were they in the western, the outlaws.


[0:37:17.5] SC: Right.


[0:37:19.3] TG: They had him have like a long jacket and his gun even though it was like it didn’t shoot bullets but it looked like a six shooter.


[0:37:28.4] SC: Right, exactly. So that speaks to the Scott Dilbert idea of bringing two seemingly different things together in a unique way. It’s also a genre meld by busing the troupes of one genre in a different universe. You have the space western as you described and you have this space epic opera like Star Wars too. So using things to ground your work so that you say to yourself, “Okay, this is as if these are late night,” — it’s sort of like when I worked in the city, I would stay late, a lot of people would stay late but I would stay until sometimes 10, 10:30 at night and the cleaning crew would coming and they would come in at 10 o’clock and they’d say, “Oh excuse me, I’m sorry I didn’t know you were here,” and I would hand in my garbage and there was a whole community of people who were there to clean up the mess of people like me. That’s an interesting way of looking at the number people are and I think that’s a very clear signal that you’re putting into the novel and I think it’s a good one to show that these are the people who clean up messes.


[0:38:52.4] TG: Yeah, I want to — I was already planning on making it something where Jessie had never really seen them before because they always come when she’s not there, they come out when she’s not there and really kind of playing, because we talked about last week or the week before, like flipping it where people lived outside at night and inside during the day.


The number have to go out during the day so that they’re unseen which is why Jessie never really understood the hell that they lived in. It’s because I was thinking like, even after we talked last week and I was thinking through and rewriting that scene, I was thinking like, you took it further with the asbestos suit but I was thinking already of like having 83 like hand repair sunglasses and she didn’t really know what those were for.


[0:39:42.9] SC: Right.


[0:39:45.6] TG: Because I’m trying to think of ways to explain what’s going on without explaining what’s going on.


[0:39:51.0] SC: Yeah, you just walk the reader through the routine and it’s through the routine, the things that they do in the routine that will inform the reader of what’s going on. You always have to remember how brilliant your readers are. Your readers are so far ahead of the game that all you have to do is, and I would take it further than sunglasses. I would say they’re putting on, “Here you got to wear these.” “What are these?” “These are made asbestos and you need to wear them because of the UV rays,” or whatever.


They just put the asbestos gear on before they go out and there’s a lock down, there’s a chamber in between, it’s like in those cheesy virus thrillers where they’ve got the air lock. That way, the reader’s going to be like, “Oh god, oh I love this kind of book. They’re going out and it’s really hellish out there, I can’t wait to see what happens next.” So you don’t have to do too much of that, just enough to say, “Okay, they’re putting on the very deep, dark protective gear because of the environment that they have to be in.”


So those are ways and we’re talking about this one scene in this episode but those are the ways to attack the scenes that you have to redo. Again, if you have a scene that’s working that you need to sort of play up the dialogue and maybe make the turning point a little bit more clear, but essentially you’ve got the bones of the scene pretty much cracked, I say, leave that for another day and focus on the ones that the scene is just not working, there’s no movement and up your game as best you can so that by the end of this beginning hook, we’ve got this moment.


I think, I’m not sure what your final decision at the end of the beginning hook was but I like the decision of her, of Jessie surrendering in a way and saying, “Okay, enough is enough, I’ll go.” That way, she loses and it’s ironic but her loss will take her into how the 1% live. So she’s going to have, she’s going to be thoroughly exhausted from the hell of the numbered and bang, she’s going to go into this magical, incredible world where the 1%, things are just done for them. It’s great, it’s dramatically ironic because she would do anything not to go there because she suspects what’s waiting for her is not anything that she wants to combat.


[0:42:55.7] TG: Yeah, when you were talking about leaving scenes that are close, it made me think of when my dad was trying, ended up being unsuccessfully to teach me how to play golf and we were putting, he talked about like he said, “Picture the hole as like the size of the top of a barrel, he said, just get it in that barrel.” He’s like, “If you try to, from 30 feet away, sink a putt when you don’t know how to putt very well, it’s just going to drive you crazy. So just try to get it where like in a two foot radius around the whole and then you can get it in from there.


It was this way of not putting this pressure to get the putt, the 30 foot putt perfect, it’s just get it close enough that you can fix it on the next one. That’s kind of what I was, the picture I was thinking when you said that about just we’re basically, and you kind of said that last week when we talked when I was worried my beginning hook’s only going to end up being maybe 10 scenes and you’re like, “Oh no, no, no. We can fix that later as long as the big pieces are there.”


[0:44:06.3] SC: Yes.


[0:44:08.1] TG: I think that’s what’s been, I’ve been struggling because I’m like, I want the next version of this scenes to be it. Like ship it off to copy editing, and we’re ready to go. Remembering, I’m just kind of slowly scooting everything, getting things closer and closer to the hole and hoping like on the fourth or fifth round, it will finally be ready to go.


[0:44:37.3] SC: Yeah, that’s a good way to look at it. It reduces the pressure on you to make everything perfect on the second draft or the third draft. As long as you understand, “Hey, I’m going to come back to that and it’s going to be fun to tweak that because I have some ideas,” and as you move forward, the great thing about the creative process is you can never under estimate the wonderful things that are going to come to you when you put something into the back of your mind to percolate.


So when you’re leaving a scene that’s 80% there to move onto a more challenging thing, your brain is still working on that stuff without you even realizing it and something will come to you, you’ll write it down and then you’ll drop it in later and it will be perfect. You’re never, it’s just not possible to write a perfect scene after perfect scene and to understand that even these things that you’re going to construct now are going to need some work later on too. Just to speak to that 10 scene beginning hook that we talked about in you were worried, “Oh boy, my beginning hook’s only going to be maybe 10,000 words, maybe 12, is that enough?”


Again, what you’re going to find is that when you get into your middle build and even your ending pay off, you’re going to come up with ideas that are going to need to be set up earlier. So you’ll say to yourself, “Oh thank god I have some room at the beginning because I can drop in an 800 word scene that’s going to set up the climax of my middle build.” Whereas if you just pound and pound and try and fill out the entire thing at the first round, you’re not going to have that opportunity later on to drop things back in later.


[0:46:40.4] TG: Yeah, you know, after we recorded last week, I told you about that book Pines by Blake Crouch and how it just, I hadn’t had a book that just — I literally couldn’t put it down like in the most literal sense of the word. Because I started reading it, it’s 7 PM, I told my kids to go back and read before bed, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to start this new book,” and at 1 AM I finished it, I just didn’t put it down. And afterward or acknowledgements or whatever part, at the end of the book, now that I’m writing more, I like reading those.


He was just talking about, “Thanks to these people who solved this draft of the book and thanks to these people who solved this draft of the book and had me like rip out these scenes. I’m sure I was reading between the lines to a certain extent but it was this like how many times he went back to this book because it was such a tightly written, there was no scene that I felt like I could put it down and just come back to the book later. So the book was just so tightly written and pulled me all the way through and I’m like, “That was not his second or third or fourth draft, that was that tight.”


That was like draft after draft, feedback after feedback, cutting stuff, tweaking stuff and getting and doing that where each scene was extremely compelling and led you into the next scene. So yeah, I was just thinking that I’m sure, if I go back and read it now, he didn’t say all of that but I was reading all of that into it of just how much went into it, how many people read early drafts and gave feedback and just remembering that on mine especially as like I’m new, this is really my first book and so I’m going to have to churn through a lot of this stuff to finally keep get it dialed in by the end.


[0:48:46.5] SC: Yeah, again, it goes back to the beginning of this episode where we talked about the importance of the scene itself as the fundamental unit of story. The reader will forgive a lot of things if each of your scenes are just perfectly crafted. They move, they’re clear, there is surprise and innovation on each, they turn in a way that is surprising to the reader, those are skills that anyone can learn and if you look at a great television series, you look at an hour long television show, each one of those scenes, like a Breaking Bad, you’re hard pressed to say, “I don’t know if they needed that scene.”


Because there are 10 writers in a room who are beating on each other and not accepting the first scene that somebody comes up with. They sit there and somebody says, “How are we going to get Walter White from a classroom to the meth lab in the mobile home? How are we going to do that? They grind on it and they come up with so many unique things, who came up with the idea like he takes his clothes off to cook the meth because he doesn’t want to contaminate the meth.


He doesn’t want to get the fumes on this clothes because then his wife’s going to smell the clothes and his wife’s going to be suspicious of him, so he’s always thinking nine steps ahead. That’s just scene work at a level that is so intense that as a viewer, you’re just riveted. Why is he taking his clothes off? He never explains it, right? He just takes his clothes off. He puts a gas mask on and he takes his clothes of and you’re watching it and you’re saying, “What the hell is he doing?”


[0:51:04.0] TG: Yeah. You know, I remember reading this article about the writers for the show 24. Did you ever watch that show?


[0:51:13.8] SC: So many people have told me to and I just never have, I confess.


[0:51:19.1] TG: That’s fine, to me, it’s like the perfect TV that I enjoy watching. Fast paced, lots of violence. But the writer, so the whole thing happens in real time and they were just talking about how taxing it was to write that show because you could have no play in the script because while you were watching one scene, if that scene took four minutes, there was four minutes that was happening somewhere else that you had to account for. Because everything happened in real time.


They were just talking about by the time they were getting to this sixth and seventh season they’re like, “Well now, what are we going to do?” Because they had like pulled out all the stops on every season and it was just interesting, I remember reading about that and how they were just talking about how exhausting it was to try to write that show because it wasn’t so much just making every scene work, it was making every scene fit in this very constrained thing of they only had 44 minutes, you couldn’t have anything that happened off camera that was important that you could go back to because it had to happen in real time.


Anyway, it was just that, how taxing it is to create compelling stories. Being gracious with myself as you go through the spreadsheet and half of my scenes don’t go anywhere. I’m just like, “Well…” you know?


[0:52:56.6] SC: It happens to all writers, they do it all the time. They go okay, that didn’t work, I got to fix that. It’s a problem that they know, I know how to fix that, I know how to write a scene. Jeez, my challenge today is to write this kind of scene, “Oh how can I make that interesting instead of man, I blew it, I’m never going to be a writer because I just could never get this down. Build the scenes and the rest will follow and even if you have to throw out a great scene, what you’ll discover is that you’ll have a file of that scenery, it will lodge in your brain and six books from now, when you need to pull out a scene, you’ll go, “Oh man, I already wrote this scene, this is great. I’m just going to pull it form that thing that I threw out six years ago.




[0:53:53.1] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so that you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at


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8 comments on “Thinking in Sequences

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    This podcast gave me some very specific direction. Like Tim, once I know that something is wrong with a scene my tendency is to throw the whole thing out and start over. That becomes impractical after you’ve done it five or six times (which I have), so thanks for spending time on this issue – it was really helpful.

  2. Amy says:

    One of my favorite episodes to date — lots of applicable info.

    Reading between the lines, I like the idea of working backwards . . . to think of a sequence first, then construct the scenes for them. This helped me to understand a particular situation in the movie, The Gift.

    The sequence is “villain delivers first gift.” Scene 1: Robyn is in the shower, hears the doorbell, shuts the water off. Scene 2: Robyn opens the front door, picks up the gift and note, then closes the door (we find out in the next scene that she has called her hubby at work and told him about the gift).

    If I look at this as a sequence first, then I’m okay with dividing the scenes into 2 . . . then I can further analyze each of the 2 scenes for their 5 commandments. But if I look at it first as “what is the scene?” then it becomes tricky; I tend to want to apply the 5 commandments to cover the 2 scenes, as a whole — as if there was only one scene that was time-continuous, although not location-continuous.

    Anyway, I like this “sequence” area. I also like the idea of looking at the sequence, then determining both it’s primary mission AND the polarity shift, then maximizing the circumstances that create the dramatic polarity shift. GREAT ARTICLE TODAY!!! Thanks so much — learning lots!!!!

    Quick question. Shawn: When you write your Numbered Scenes for your novel on your spreadsheet, are some of those “sequences of scenes”? (I can’t quite tell — it’s been a long time since I’ve seen SOTL.)

    I am trying to wrap my mind around the differences between scene numbering for films versus for novels. Again, in The Gift, the first 2 scenes are location shots that show an empty house, but locations that will play into the plot later on. The third “camera shot” shows the living room location, but then pans toward the couple at the foyer, who, from then on occupy the scene as they move into the living room. So three locations total. Are those first two locations “telling a story” too? Would I include them on a spreadsheet as Scene 1: Shot of outside walkway. Foreshadowing. Or something like that? Or should I think of Scene 1 as something more generic, like: “empty house” . . . “couple shows up with realtor to look at house” . . . “couple agrees they like house” . . . “couple goes to look at the bedrooms”? (Sorry to sound so picky)

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Amy,
      When I was writing the book, I thought of doing a “Russian Doll” graphic, but I decided it was way too wonky for public consumption. What it would have looked like would be like a very large organizational chart with the global Story at the top and subdivisions underneath that broke down SOTL into Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and even Beats.
      My advice is to do what works. If you find that thinking in sequences will improve you scene by scene work (and I think once you reach a first or second draft this is the time to apply sequence thinking) then do it. If it’s getting in the way and getting too analytical, then don’t. The Scene is everything. When they hum and build, sequences often just take care of themselves. But if you hit a wall, trying something else is always a good idea.

      1. Amy says:

        Okay — will do. Thank you for the reply! (And I LOVE the Russian Doll concept — that works well for a systems-approach person like me.)

  3. Alicia says:

    Something struck me here – which may or may not be a linear thought from this podcast (and remedial for more experienced writers). It dawned on me that I tend to approach an idea for a scene from a feeling rather than an action. I get muddled in this and lose track of the purpose for the scene. Some of this has to do with it being non-fiction and still evolving. I’m very early on in determining tone, which for me, is crucial. But sometimes I just want to lay out the facts and other times I want to express emotion. One trick I’ve used is that I come up with a chapter title and write to that. It doesn’t always remain that title, but at least it points me in a direction. One of my favorite genres is film noir and planning to rent a bunch and examine. Thank you for recommending The Sting. Haven’t seen it in ages.

  4. Shawn and Tim,

    Thank you guys so much for doing this podcast. The Storygrid is a true gift and this site is a wealth of knowledge for writers!

    One question:

    I’m writing a multiple POV novel, each chapter being a different POV. One POV is the protagonist, the second POV is a friend of the protagonist and the third POV is more of an antagonist (a friend that betrays). How do you look at the value shifts in a multiple POV novel? Should all the value shifts be calculated globally from the antagonist’s point of view or should the value shifts relate to each particular character?


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Ted,
      Well I have no idea of what Genre you are writing so giving you any advice just based on point of view would be a mistake. Remember that the global genre determines the global value of the story. Crime is about justice/injustice. Love is about love/hate. Action is Life/Death. Performance is about Respect/Shame. Etc. Value shifts in a scene are determined by the central protagonist of that scene. For example the value shift in the scenes in which Jack Crawford is featured in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS concern the value at stake for Crawford, while those in other scenes concern Starling/Lecter etc. But every single scene must be “on theme,” meaning that the values at stake in the scene should reflect the global “life/death/damnation” values at play in a thriller.
      So without knowing what your story is about (controlling idea) and in which Genre you’ve chosen to explore that idea, I’m unable to give advice.

      1. No need to apologize as you hand me the gift! This: “Value shifts in a scene are determined by the central protagonist of that scene” answered my question. Thank you for expanding even more on the topic in your post. Looking forward to the next podcast! – Ted

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