Three Sentences

Tim and I were on hiatus for a few weeks. In that time away from the project, we exchanged a few emails.

Actually the majority of the emails were from me as I thrashed about how to best direct him on the new course for his novel. And as these things go, oftentimes a friend or acquaintance will put something out there that speaks directly to a problem. Well I got lucky because Steve Pressfield wrote a piece about The Story Spine. You can read it here.

Heck, I wrote a whole series about The Story Spine here, here and here. But I didn’t nail it like Steve does in his post.

Why is The Story Spine such an important concept?

Because you can’t get lost in the weeds when you talk about the spine. You have three sentences to nail it and it must make sense and be compelling. Beginning hook one sentence.  Middle Build one sentence. Ending Payoff one sentence.

Here’s Moby Dick

Monomaniacal whaler Ahab secures a ship and a crew to hunt down the whale that almost killed him.

Ahab hunts Moby Dick.

Ahab fights Moby Dick to the death.

Here’s The Great Gatsby

Gatsby moves across the bay from his true love.

Gatsby does whatever it takes to get his true love back.

Gatsby covers up true love’s crime and pays the ultimate price for his obsession.

Simple stuff.  But so so so crucial to nail before you set off on your journey to THE END.

So this episode is getting Tim back on track…getting him to really solidify and understand the spine of his story.  And one great way to do that is to hammer on your global inciting incident.

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


[0:00:00.6] 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 soon is Shawn Coyne. he is an editor with 25 plus years’ experience, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and he is helping me fumble around in the dark as I figure out how to write a story that actually works.

In this episode after a few weeks off where we had the Steven Pressfield episodes and the Publishing 101 episodes, we’re diving back in to my story and we talk about the importance of villains, we talk about how to open up a story that works and really nailing that first scene and hooking people so that they stay in for the rest of the book. We dive into that plus a lot of other stuff I think you’re really going to enjoy this episode as we continue down this journey of helping me figure out my first book.

So we’re going to jump in and get started.

[0:01:08.5] TG: So Shawn, after taking something like five or six weeks off and we both were traveling but I had this big plans of getting all this writing done while I was traveling and I think I wrote like three days while I was on the road. But still just trying to figure out the story and now that I’m back in the swing of things again, trying to figure out how to land on a story that is actually worth writing.

So we’ve been exchanging some emails which I’ll share a lot of those in the show notes for this episode of just trying to figure out what story I’m trying to tell. So where are you at with, I guess, this thing I’m working on?

[0:01:55.5] SC: Well, the thing about it and the thing about writing and about storytelling and this always comes back in pretty much every project I’ve ever worked on and I always forget it. But there comes a moment, even before you have anything finished, when you kind of think to yourself, “Man, this is just too hard. I’m overthinking it, I’m not really sure what I want to do, I’m not sure that this is the right direction.”

As an editor, when I’m working on the developmental project like I am with you, there is a moment that comes to me when I think to myself, “You know, I don’t even know if this is going to work. I don’t even know if this is viable,” and it’s not a reflection on the writer that I’m working with. It’s almost a reflection on my internal systems sort of shutting down for a minute and I have to reboot them.

I think a lot of writers face this too especially — you’re at a point where you have, you’ve written a first draft, let’s not forget. You wrote a 60, 70,000 word first draft and what we’re doing now is we are trying to take the controlling idea that came from that first draft and the characters and the general world and we’re trying to reconstitute it in a very clear decisive way that speaks to the marketplace and also speaks to your strengths, your personal strengths as a professional and a writer.

So we’re trying to do a lot of different things to move to the next level and wisely, you have not or if you have, you haven’t told me about it. You haven’t tried to start fixing all of the scenes that you thought were problematic in the first draft and really miring yourself in the minutia of scene by scene, line by line work. So what we’re doing now is we’re trying to come up with a global concept. A global story that is simple and elegant and something that can serve you as a roadmap for your next draft.

Over the past five or six weeks since we’ve been — we haven’t talked since then. We’ve traded some emails where I was trying to do that, I was thinking to myself, “Well, let’s go back to brass tacks, what is it that Tim wants to do and what are the principles of the things that he wants to do that can help us come to a plan for the next draft?” The other day, I shot you an email after our friend Steve Pressfield put up his take on the story spine and it was like the gods heard my inner drama and said to Steve, “Write something for Shawn so that he can clear his head,” and it did.

Because the story spine is so essential in working through a problem. Always, when you get into a big massive crazy so many different elements are flooding your brain about “what’s wrong, what’s right, how you’re going to fix it?”

Going back to the story spine will help you fix those problems. The story spine is a simple and I love the way Steve put it. He boiled down Moby Dick into three sentences. “Ahab decides to chase Moby Dick, Ahab chases Moby Dick, Ahab loses the battle and dies trying to kill Moby Dick.” That’s pretty much the beginning, the middle and the end of Moby Dick, right?

[0:05:54.8] TG: Yeah.

[0:05:55.6] SC: That, when you think of your own work that way, what it requires is it makes you think, “Okay, I got to start here, I’ve got to move here and I’ve got to finish there.” So I think, as we’re talking today, the thing to think about is what is the beginning, middle and end of your story? What’s the spine of it? How can we tell this story in three sentences or four sentences?

[0:06:23.4] TG: Yeah, it was interesting when you sent me that and I read through it because then it made it, I keep bouncing back and forth between — I haven’t dug in to the old book because I kind of feel like it’s just kind of dead in the water. I mean there’s nothing to fix there, I’m just going to have to rewrite the whole thing anyway. I don’t want to spend time fixing something that’s broken, so broken.

But there’s that idea of I keep kind of getting caught with like, “What’s the first scene going to be?” Or, “What are these different pieces going to be?” So it was helpful to kind of pull back and say, “Okay, this is where we’re starting, this is what’s going to happen in the middle and then this is where we’re going to end.” Thinking through like how the end has to reflect the beginning and that kind of stuff. It was helpful to kind of pull back and look at that so that I could kind of get a sense of where we’re going.

[0:07:24.1] SC: Yeah.

[0:07:25.5] TG: So what I came up with was Jessie wants to win the game to save her family, she gets an amazing but dangerous opportunity to advance and win the game, she wins the game but loses her family.

[0:07:37.6] SC: Yeah. That is a great start. Now, in some of the emails that we talk about just a couple of seconds ago, one of the things that you have to remember in terms of an action story which evolves into a thriller and you’ve wisely chosen and really nailed down your genres. The genre’s that you’re working in are lit RPG, thriller, coming of age.

So if you were to really just boil all that stuff down to, I think your global genre would be the action story. The action story requires that the villain of the entire piece is responsible for the inciting incident.

[0:08:25.1] TG: Yeah, I think that was one of the things you hammered on in the email is the villain has to drive the action.

[0:08:32.9] SC: Yes.

[0:08:34.1] TG: So what in that case do — what kind of mistakes was I making and do people often make in action movies that break that kind of rule or convention.

[0:08:46.5] SC: Well it’s an easy thing to fall victim to and here is what they do, they become so enamored with their protagonist that they lose the fact that the protagonist is not the driving force that really keeps people reading in an action story or a thriller. I’ve said this over and over again and I always forget it myself. The thing that really keeps people glued to an action story or a thriller is the villain, it’s the force of evil because the force of evil is that, it’s like the serpent in the Garden of Eden. What compelled Eve to listen to that serpent and eat the fruit of knowledge, right?

Because the serpent was so fascinating and interesting to her and this is the primal Christian story. I think we have to remember that who is the serpent in the story and how are they going to manipulate and get the protagonist to do things that they necessarily don’t really want to do? The reason why I’m saying this is that the best way to always remember your inciting incident in an action story is have the villain motivate and start that inciting incident. Here’s the way I’d like to think about it.

Now I don’t really know where your story is going but here’s kind of when I’m thinking. You have a villain who is, before the story even begins, the villain wants something or need something so desperately that they have finally gotten to the point where they understand that they can’t get it, they can’t get what they want without that protagonist. So the villain has basically hit a wall and they are not going to get what they want without the protagonist using the protagonist to bring them something or to do something for them so that they can eventually get what they want.

So the villain is at the end of their rope. This is what motivates them to do really heinous things throughout the story. It’s like they are just about to grasp that brass ring and they understand, “Oh my gosh, I’m just not going to get it and until I get that protagonist to go do something for me or to bring me something or to give me information or to do something that will give them that last oomph to get what they want.” So this is why it’s so clear to understand what your villain wants and what your protagonist wants before you start trudging along on your story telling. The story spine is a way to help you really clarify that.

When I was sending you those emails and you’re right. I did harp on, I was slamming home that the villain is the one that starts the inciting incident in an action story. Before we went on vacation, we were talking about this scene, this generic scene that is always a good one to get an action story going and this scene, which has been done a number of times throughout storytelling, it’s not anything new, it’s the knock at the door scene. It’s the knock at the door where somebody comes for something from somebody behind the door.

We’ve been futzing and fooling around with the notion that there’s this ambassador of sorts who comes and knocks on to Jessie’s door, Jessie is your protagonist and the ambassador is the person who the villain sends to do a task. So, and I know I wrote in one of the emails a great knock at this door scene, which is one of my favorites is Inglorious Bastards, which is the film by Quintin Tarantino.

[0:13:01.3] TG: Yeah, that scene that you described with him coming in the house and everybody’s in the basement. I remember watching that. At one point I just stop breathing because I was just so on edge of what was going to happen next.

[0:13:14.8] SC: That’s exactly true and what’s so great about Tarantino is he knows to string up those moments and he does — he innovates everything he does. You’re not going to find a person more attuned to genre conventions and obligatory scenes that Quintin Tarantino. This is a guy who has probably seen every movie ever made four times, right? So when he was thinking to himself, “I’m going to make a world ward 2 movie and I’m going to really blow the box off of all of it. I’m going to really make these scenes, the music, everything. Everything that people expect and then I’m going to completely innovate it.”

That’s what he did in the opening scene. One of the ways he did this was by casting the right people. Before Christoph Waltz, who is one of his prime players now, this was his first time doing a Tarantino movie and this guy is given the role of the most sadistic SS Nazi bastard you can ever imagine. So what does Waltz do? He doesn’t play what we all think of as the Nazi bastard. He plays this guy as sort of in a feat, brilliant, charming…

[0:14:30.0] TG: Suave.

[0:14:53.0] SC: …suave, smart, mannered, nice guy, right? All right, I don’t want to get too into describing the scene because anybody can watch it and I highly recommend that they do. It barrels that movie forward.

[0:14:53.0] TG: Well we don’t have to get too deep into it, but point out specifically why that scene jumps to your mind as one of the best “knock on the door” scenes? What is it that it turns. So we talked about the fact that it wasn’t, he didn’t kick down the door and come in like he came in as a charming nice guy. What else about that scene turned it so it was so good?

[0:15:20.3] SC: Oh okay, this is great.

[0:15:22.3] TG: Because that’s what you keep telling me to figure out is like, “Okay, figure out what has everybody done and then turn it your own way,” and it’s hard sometimes. I can think of that scene and think that was an amazing scene but when I try to point out exactly why, it gets fuzzy?

[0:15:40.3] SC: Okay, I’ll tell you exactly why. Inglorious Bastards is an action story. The villain of the story is Christoph Waltz, the Nazi’s and everything that he represents. So all the way to the Führer, all the way to Nazi’s, right? So Tarantino knows, my villain is the biggest villain of all time, right? He knows, the minute I show a guy in a Nazi uniform, the audience is going to be scared shitless and they’re going to know, “Oh my gosh, death is on the horizon. Death is coming.”

So the stakes of life and death, the minute you put a guy in a Nazi uniform, are on the table. He doesn’t have to do anything about escalating mistakes of his scene because just using this villainous force gives him that. So he says to himself, “Okay, what are people going to expect if I open up this movie with a knock on the door and Nazi hunter coming to kill Jewish people who are hiding from them? Well they’re going to expect this guy to be kicking in the door, beating the daughters, raping them, just really abusing everybody in town and maybe he’ll just throw a bomb in there anyway. So how can I play with the convention of the Nazi coming to the door in a way that people aren’t going to expect?”

What he did is he said to himself, “I’m going to write the nicest Nazi ever. I’m going to write a scene but this Nazi is so mannered and nice and really sympathetic that it’s going to creates so much tension in the audience that they’re going to want to crawl out of their skin. So he has Christoph Waltz deliver this very nice speech. “Oh, good day sir, I hate to trouble you but would you mind stepping in? Would you invite me into your home to discuss some problems that I’m having?” The farmer knows, he doesn’t have a choice because they are five guys with machine guns sitting in the jeep, right?

So of course he’s going to say, “Yes sir, I’ll do that.” So he invites them in and he goes, “Here are my daughters,” and they are these beautiful young women. Then you think, “Oh now the Nazi’s going to go crazy,” and he says, “Oh, what beautiful young women,” and he kisses their hand and says, “Now sir, if you wouldn’t mind, would you mind terribly if they went outside because I have some difficult things I have to discuss with you?”

So he sends them outside and he drinks a nice cold glass of milk, he tells them what a wonderful farm it is. Meanwhile, the audience, as you’re watching, you’re getting more and more anxious because you’re like, “When is it going to fall? When is the bad stuff going to happen?” So it goes on and on, the villain creates the inciting incident, right? Because Christoph Waltz wants something from that farmer. He wants to know where the Jews are. “Where are the Jews, I have to kill the Jews, that’s my job as an SS bastard.”

So we know that’s what he wants from the beginning. Tarantino instead, he really milks it and he literally drinks milk on scene. I mean just to go to the levels of Quintin Tarantino’s head are just beyond it. So the turning point, and this is a brilliant decision on Tarantino’s part is he says to himself, “Okay, now the Jewish people were hiding underneath the floor, they’re going to know the SS officers knocked on the door, right? They’re going to hear the boots, they’re going to hear the SS officer, they’re going to be speaking French, they’re going to know everything that he says.”

So Tarantino says, “Okay how can I make it so that it’s really exciting and different and a shock when the bad stuff happens?” So he has Christoph Waltz say to the farmer, “I hate to do this to you sir, I know you speak English and my French, I’m running out of my ability to speak French appropriately. Would you mind if we start speaking in English?” The farmer says, “No, that’s fine.” So the rest of the scene is played out in English, and guess what? The French Jewish farmers underneath the floor don’t understand English.

That’s another innovation that, faced with the problem of keeping this scene going so that the tension expands from the audience to the fictional Jewish people underneath the floor, I’m going to have the switch languages and I have already established that this sadistic SS bastard is so smart that he would do that because he’s allowing the French farmer to save face.

[0:20:50.0] TG: Because I remember, it reached a whole new level of tension when they start — when8 he was basically like, “They’re under the floor aren’t they?” And he says, “Yes.” But the people under the floor don’t know that…

[0:21:00.6] SC: He just gave them up.

[0:21:01.2] TG: Right.

[0:21:03.7] SC: I mean can you do any better writing for a film than that? Yeah, just forget it. Forget it. Anyway, he’s very nice and he says, “Look, I know that you probably are hiding these people and I completely understand that,” and then he tells this very long story about vermin, it was just raising the tension to such a degree. Then he says to the man, the turning point, “We know I’m an SS officer, right? You know what my nick name is, which is the Nazi hunter,” the Jew Hunter I think he says it, and he says, “Yes, yes I do know.”

“So you know I will not be denied of what I need. So either you can give me what I need now or I’m going to have to, I’ll have no alternative but to abuse you and your family to a degree that will be very, very, very unpleasant.” So you understand why this man’s — because Tarantino had three daughters in that house. If it was just the man without the three daughters then the guy giving up the Jewish people underneath the floor would seem like he was a coward. But he was saving his daughters because he had established this really tightly focused family so quickly.

So this is a great knock at the door scene which is driven by an inciting incident by the villain. The villain wants to get the Jewish people underneath the floor. But the big turn, the big, big turn — every scene has to have a turning point that is unexpected and yet inevitable, is that they shoot up the floor and they kill most of the Jewish people except one girl, one young girl who somehow is able to escape underneath the house and run across the field, it’s an open field though, right?

So Christoph Waltz, he enjoys this, he’s a sadistic bastard. So he walks outside and he opens up, gets his luger out of his pocket, he takes aim and you know he’s going to kill her, but his gun jams and the girl gets away and that’s the end of the scene. The audience is like, “Oh my gosh, that girl got away, what’s going to happen next?” Do you think they’re anticipating the next scene? That — he created such a great opening knock on the door scene that it allowed him to completely shift gears and the next scene is Brad Pitt playing the American Special Forces guy who pulls this group of Jewish guys together to go and do the exact same thing to the Nazi’s that the Nazi’s are doing to everybody else.

So he’s using, Tarantino is using this life and death stakes on both sides of the equation on the force of evil and on the force of good. What’s really great about this opening scene, it establishes the stakes of the story. So the reader or the viewer of Tarantino Inglorious Bastards knows, “We’re going to see some people die in this movie. We’re going to see some really sadistic stuff. I’m ready for it, in fact, I’m anticipating it.” So they’re not going to be shocked when later on in the movie, Brad Pitt abuses somebody to get some information out of them.

You’re not going to be shocked when somebody uses a baseball bat to beat somebody to death because they’ve already experienced what’s in store and that opening scene, it’s terrifying, suspenseful, life and death stakes are already established and it leaves you hanging at the end to want to know, “I got to know that this guy gets what’s coming to him, and I’m going to stay in this entire movie until that Nazi bastard gets what’s coming to him.” Tarantino gives him what’s coming to him in a way that is so satisfying, I don’t want to give it away.

So your question was, “Shawn, you tell me to do this all this things and when you show me the way people do it and the ones that are great, I totally agree, I don’t know how to do it though.” My advice to you is this. I think I write this in the book a few times but it’s really a good idea is let your brain write the scene without any kind of in intellectual manipulation. What I mean by that is, write the scene where the Nazi bangs on the door, kicks in the door, rapes the daughters, beats everybody up, kills all the Jewish people and then the woman escapes.

Okay, that’s your first impulse. Now, this is probably what Tarantino did. Then he looked at it and he said, “Okay, everybody’s going to expect that. What’s the opposite? What is the opposite thing I could do instead? Okay, instead of having Woody Harrelson playing the Nazi and beating everybody up, I have this really nice sort of Swiss guy who is very mannered. I’ll do that. Why not try that? And he wouldn’t do that, he would do this and he would do this.” But his goal is still the same as really sadistic guy. So at every turn, he does the opposite.

[0:26:40.6] TG: Yeah, I did that actually, I wrote an entire scene that was the first thing I thought of and it’s so not unique at all. The guy kicking in the door, the dad trying to save Jessie, all this different things and then what I actually did is I took out a piece of paper and I wrote “location” and I just started branching off all the different places that the first scene could take place. Then I did ambassador and I said, “Who sent them?” I put a couple of different things and then I put, “Are they nice or are they mean?”

Then I did the same thing with the dad of like, is the dad weak? Is the dad trying to protect her, or the dad doesn’t try to protect her? Basically, “she gets away, she doesn’t get away?” Trying to come up with all the different options that I have so that I can kind of choose and pick the ones that I think will go together in the most interesting way I guess? Because yeah, that first scene I hit like 1,600 words and it was just kind of fine.

Because I sent you that, I had actually forgotten about it until I was right in the scene again. I have a short story in a collection of short stories based in this world of another author. So I sent you that story that was basically the knock on the door scene and I had actually — so I’ve actually published one of those before, it’s the only thing I’ve ever published before in fiction.

[0:28:17.2] SC: Isn’t that weird?

[0:28:18.2] TG: Yeah.

[0:28:22.6] SC: And that scene works. That scene works. The one that you sent me in the anthology works and there’s a reason why the guy who invited you to write in that anthology accepted it because it works. It gives rise to a lot of suspense and tension in the reader and it’s a really interesting world too because it’s sort of like an alternative Amish world where — it’s not dissimilar to the kind of thing you’re trying to create here.

Now I’m just going to quickly give another example because the knock on the door scene is, I love it. It’s a very difficult one to innovate. But I’m going to tell one other one because I had a thought for you that you can use or not use or whatever and it comes from — and I think I had mentioned this to you before either on the podcast or offline. But in the scene in Marathon Man.

Marathon Man is one of the greatest thrillers ever written and the film actually is as good as the novel itself. It was written by William Goldman, who is a genius. I mean one of the greatest story tellers of my generation or anybody’s generation. There’s a scene where Dustin Hoffman plays this young guy, he’s been brought in to be interrogated by this, again, a Nazi sadistic Nazi bastard. The Nazi’s not getting what he wants out of Dustin Hoffman. He thinks, “Oh, he’s just really great at taking torture. So I need to psychologically manipulate him in a way that will really get him to give me the real information that I need.”

So we don’t understand this at the time, and it’s not revealed util much later on in the story. What the Nazi does is he goes to one of the people he works with and he says, “Look, I want you to come in and rescue him. So you break in, you fire off some shots, there will be blanks in the gun and we will — and I want you to rescue him so that he feels as if you have gotten him out of this torturous situation and everything’s going to be fine. Then as you’ve gotten him in the getaway car, you ask him questions that I need to answered so that he will feel that you have rescued him, therefore he should give up all the answers to you because you’re the one who made his life better.”

So that’s exactly what happens and we do not discover that this is a rescue scene until much later on. William Devane plays the CIA character and he comes in and he rescues Dustin Hoffman so it’s like a knock on the door, bang, the door bangs in, William Devane rushes in, he takes the restraints off of Dustin Hoffman who had his teeth drilled into without any of the aesthetic, this is how he’s being tortured, it’s one of the great dental scenes of all time.

So William Devane goes, “Come on, come on, we got to go.” He starts firing the gun and as the audience is watching, you’re thinking, “Oh, the good guys have arrived, isn’t this great?” So that’s the way Dustin Hoffman feels and he drags Dustin Hoffman and he throws him in the back of the car and he skids out and they start driving around Manhattan and all of a sudden William Devane turns to the back seat and he goes, “Hey, what was he asking you? What information did he need?” Dustin Hoffman is like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t have any information, I don’t know what he wanted, I don’t know anything.”

Finally, William Devane’s like, “He really doesn’t know anything, I’m just going to take him back and let the Nazi kill him.” So he drives him back to this torture station and he leaves him there to be killed by the sadistic Nazi. The reason why I say this is that what the expectation of the audience is that William Devane is a good guy. So when you can have a good guy who never really was a good guy but we didn’t have that information, you create a way of really giving a suspenseful gut punch to the audience.

So this is one of the reasons why it’s a great idea to chart out, like you just said you were doing, the scene. What does the Ambassador know? Who hired the ambassador? What is the ambassador’s — are there any restrictions on what he can do to get the information that he needs, and if there are, what are they? What’s the world that we’re living in? Who are the people who are powerful and who are the weak? What’s the father really like? Is he really going to bend over backwards to save his daughter when his son is already dead and his wife’s an emotional wreck or has he just had enough? Has he gotten to the point where in his life where he’s just had enough?”

So these are really interesting things to do and also to map it out in your mind and say, “Okay, here is the inciting incident of my entire freaking story. If I can get this thing to a level that’s surprising to me, that really knocks my socks off and it establishes all this information that it’s somehow going to come to light by the end of this story, then I’ve got a real, real good shot of being able to propel myself from beginning, middle to end. And you’re also, by the strength of your global inciting incident of your first scene in your book, you are also going to know how this thing is going to end.

Because you’re going to say to yourself, “Well, whatever happened at the beginning is pretty much going to be kind of the opposite of how it’s going to end. Maybe my protagonist isn’t so interested in being taken away at the beginning and at the end she becomes the triumphant hero. She’s going to ark from somebody who really doesn’t care to someone who does care. I’m not saying this specifically for your story Tim, I’m just globally talking so don’t feel like I’m saying that’s the way it has to be for Jessie because we have established that there’s sort of this world that she’s living in is a very interesting world that is almost like today, only exploded to the nth degree and it’s all built on a lie, it’s all built on a game.

I think there’s a reason why the lit RPG genre is starting to come forward is that literally role playing game novels, it seems kind of strange, right? People who play games what are they reading novels for? I thought they loved games, right? Why would they go to a novel to get entertainment? I think the reason why the genre is starting to come to the fore is that, the more games you play, the less fulfilled you are and it makes you play more games. So if you have stories where people are so obsessed with games and yet they discover a real innate purpose inside of the character, it brings them a little bit of relief.

So if you can read a lit RPG novel and discover that the character that plays video games all the time or whatever games, reality gander, I’m not really — I’m not an expert on the game world. If they discover that those people have an inherent thing that is required in society too by the end of the novel, it gives them a sense of, “Oh well, maybe this game stuff isn’t so bad.” I think you can — all I’m saying is that the arc of character from a role playing game into somebody who cares more about humanity than games is an interesting sociological development for me because I think that’s a story that people who are obsessed with games want to hear. They want to read a great story that tells them that.

[0:36:49.5] TG: So the story spine is basically three sentences that describe the beginning hook, middle build and ending hook.

[0:36:58.5] SC: Yes, and it should be driven — ideally what you’re going to do is you’re going to, in your beginning hook you’re going to establish the stakes and it’s going to be driven by the villain. The inciting incident is driven by the villain. So the villain sends one of their flunkies to Jessie’s house because she needs Jessie to do something for her or him. So that means that the inciting incident has started, it’s a causal inciting incident, it’s not a coincidence, it’s not the Martians landed and she has to fight to the death with the Martians. It’s a causal incident where the villain has purposefully sent somebody to collect her so that she can do something for the villain to get what they want.

Now the other thing that you have to think about is the stakes of this story. How dark are you going to go? Are you going to have people die in this story? Are you going to have people tortured in the story? How far along that sort of physical, psychological darkness are you going to go? Because if you are going to go there, you damn well better get that in the very beginning of your scene. The inciting incident of your scene has to at least threat, there has to be a very strong threat of life or death or what will happen is you will mislead your audience and they will say, “Oh this is kind of cool. But I don’t think anybody’s going to get hurt though.”

You don’t want that because if you hurt somebody later on after they had believed that nobody’s going to get hurt, then, you’ve got a big problem. They’re going to not like your book and it won’t work. This is why Tarantino used the Nazi so effectively. If you go see Inglorious Bastards, and it has a swastika on the poster, you know people are going to get killed and if you go see finding Dory, chances are, people aren’t going to — fish aren’t going to get killed in a Disney story.

[0:39:06.3] TG: Well so where is it in — we’ve talked a lot about Hunger Games and where is that…

[0:39:13.4] SC: Threat of death?

[0:39:15.6] TG: Yeah, is it the fact…

[0:39:17.5] SC: It’s the very opening, it happens within the first two pages. I believe it’s written in first person where Katnis describes the reality of hunger games. “What’s the hunger games? Here is the hunger games, every year, the 12 districts or whatever they are have to offer up a kid to fight to the death in a game that’s televised.” That happens within the first two pages of that novel. In fact…

[0:39:47.7] TG: So that’s the threat of violence.

[0:39:50.1] SC: That’s pretty — well, yeah, you know.

[0:39:52.7] TG: That’s fulfilled later in the book.

[0:39:55.3] SC: Yeah, you know, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait till they get to the hunger games theme where these kids fight each other to the death.” You don’t say that literally in your mind but emotionally, remember what I said earlier on? We are attracted to darkness more than lightness. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s just kind of true. So if you are afraid of the darkness, if you are afraid of the darkness, if you are afraid of writing really compelling villains, and if it gives you the heebie jeebies to take yourself to the fate worse than death, or at least threaten death, then you shouldn’t write an action story.

Write a love story. I mean plenty of love stories go to that level too. All I’m saying is that, I think it’s — we have to realize as writers what really gets people’s juices flowing. What makes them want to — what compels them to continue to read stories is the threat of darkness. Because we all have darkness within us and very few of us give into it. When we see other people give into their darkness, we get some kind of charge out of it.

We say, “If I really went and really dark with what’s really in my mind, I could see why I would want to run for president,” or something like that. So the darkness — if you ever make a mistake, always go on the side of darkness. If you can make your villain so monstrously compelling, you’re in man. Your story’s going to work. I mean this is what makes horror so great. Horror stories, there’s no character development in horror, it’s all about the devil, it’s all about the demon, it’s all about the monster and the bigger the monster you can create and the more compelling the monster…

[0:42:00.2] TG: This is why I like Jurassic Park work so well because the villain is this dinosaurs that is so captivating and dangerous?

[0:42:09.6] SC: Yeah, it’s sort of like the Indifferent Universe Theory. You have this dinosaurs who will eat anything, they don’t care about human beings, they don’t — you give them an opportunity to kill you, they will, they don’t care. It’s like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

[0:42:28.0] TG: Yeah, I haven’t watched that movie. I can’t — who are those guys? The Cohen brothers?

[0:42:35.7] SC: It was a novel by Cormac McCarthy and it’s right up — I think that’s his masterpiece because it’s such simple storytelling and the force of evil in that book is just literally the indifferent universe who just will do whatever is necessary to win, for himself.

[0:42:56.2] TG: Recently I read a book called Alice and it’s like this almost on the edge of horror story reimagining of Alice in Wonderland. One of the things I was struck by was like this book, it just pulled me all the way through it, super compelling, it was very violent and the villain in it was this character that all you saw basically was his effect on people, you never actually saw him, and it was just disaster.

What I couldn’t get over was how little the author told us about anything. It was this whole thing of the new town versus the old town, right? So the new town is where the rich people live and the old town is where everybody else is kind of pushed to the side. Those were the names of the towns. New town and old town. It was just this, there was so many things where I was just kind of like — she just kind of threw out the first thing that came into her head but yet the villain and the protagonist were so just compelling that I had to stay on to see what happened.

And so it was this kind of — cause the thing I’m struggling with in my nonfiction right now is so similar to the thing that I struggled in my fiction where you told me the book I tried to write was basically three books crammed into one. Because I’m over explaining everything, I’m trying to put too many things in there and it just needs to be simple storytelling. That’s what I’ve been trying to learn how to do but it was, it was just this like everything was a little vague, there was nothing super — I don’t know how to put it.

It just was simple, it was a simple story that you kind of knew what was coming because it was based on Alice in Wonderland. But it just pulled you through the entire thing even though it was so simple. I think that was kept kind of surprising me was how little extra things there were to this story. It was a compelling villain, it was a compelling protagonist and all the characters in it led the way down this path towards, again, an inevitable ending.

[0:45:21.5] SC: Yeah, I think I mentioned this movie before too, a movie called Breakdown, which has Kurt Russell in it I think.

[0:45:29.4] TG: Yeah, I saw that years ago.

[0:45:32.9] SC: Wow, just great story telling, simple, lean and the other thing is that, these archetypes are so deeply ingrained in all of us, the villain and the good guy, right? That often times, just let the person project all of their own ideas about it onto the character in your story. If you simply just tell the story as it would from the beginning to middle and end — I know that’s easier said than done.

[0:46:04.9] TG: I know. It’s these like constant, “Well, these stories just kind of exist and they’re out there and their archetypes, but you got to tell it in a way nobody’s ever heard before.” You know? It’s like, “Well, don’t over think anything, don’t put too many things in there but you know, it needs to be like 100,000 words long.” You know? And it’s like, so many of these things, it’s finding that balance that it’s just hard. I was telling you right before we started with this nonfiction book I’m working on, I thought I had it. It was in my head, I knew what I wanted to say. All I’ve done is just flail on it and write and rewrite and I can’t even figure out what I’m trying to say.

But when I’m like, I went to dinner with some people and I was telling somebody about the book I’m working on, I can explain it and I’m like, “Oh man, I can write this,” and the next morning I sit down and I just stare at the screen because I don’t know how to put it down. It’s just such, these creative pursuits are just so — the work is always so much different than I think it should be and it’s always so, I don’t even know how to put it. It’s like these things that you can’t — always seem right outside of your grasp.

[0:47:22.2] SC: Yeah, it’s absolutely true.

[0:47:25.9] TG: So what I’m going to work on as I’m thinking through this is — oh, I talked about the villain being part of the different factions and I’ll put this, the emails I wrote in the show notes. But having like different warring factions and the villain being the leader of one of the factions and he needs Jessie to win. Do you think that works as the villain?

[0:47:49.9] SC: It’s hard…

[0:47:51.1] TG: Or do I just need to put it down and let you look at it.

[0:47:55.1] SC: I think it’s the second one, it’s hard to say, you know a motivation for somebody who is the villain to just gaining power, that’s a very strong motivation. If you’re going to create a world that’s in the midst of civil war, that’s a choice. But then what happens is that if it’s in the midst of civil war, then you end up explaining political stuff and social structures and it can snowball into something very complex and the driving force of the story gets lost in the world.

So the trick is to balance the excitement and difference of the world with a very straight forward story. Girl decides to go save her brother to save her family, has to win something or do something in order to get him released, succeeds or fails, the end. So that’s kind of the spine of the story. Will Jessie get her brother back? That’s what’s going to keep the reader moving forward. The more you get off of that main track, that span of bridge, the easier it is for people to quit on your story.

Is she going to get her brother back? That should be in the mind of the reader almost throughout the storytelling. Little tangential things are okay, but once they start to lose, “Oh my gosh, she’s not going to get her brother back because X happened. Oh “phew”, now she will because now she’s got that thing, and oh my gosh, no,” and you escalate, progressively complicate the hurdles that she has to jump over in order to get her goal and then constantly pulling the rug out from the reader.

But the more you get into the motivations of the villain based upon a very complex social organization, the more that pulls away from this central part of the story. If you think of it in terms as the villain is holding her brother hostage. He or she, the villain, discovers that maybe they try to get the brother to do the thing that they needed and then in that process discovered that it’s the sister who can do it. So how are you going to get this sister to come do the thing that you want? “Oh I know, I’ll hold,” — I mean think of it in terms of the villain.

If I want something and I hold somebody’s brother hostage and say, “Hey, I’m going to kill your brother unless you go and score a pound of meth for me,” then Tim’s going to go out and try and get a pound of meth. Because you don’t want your brother to get killed. Then all this trouble that you have trying to get what I want, the further away from you getting what I want, the closer to death your brother is. That’s a triangle. It’s a triangular relationship that you never want to lose sight of in your story. You’ve got hero, villain, victim.

[0:51:20.1] TG: We’ve talked about that before. Okay.

[0:51:25.9] SC: I know, it’s like a microscope, the more you look at the mitochondria, the more of the DNA is giving you trouble. You know?

[0:51:32.1] TG: The more I get crosseyed.

[0:51:37.0] SC: Stories are organic things. This is why — that’s why we love them so much. They’re almost — their mind organisms. They live inside of us and that’s why they’re complex and it’s simple. Just like we are, we’re complex and simple at the same time. We’re all made out of the same four base pairs of DNA. All of life, it’s amazing.

[0:52:03.6] TG: So before we end this, I just have to ask this question. Does this ever get easier? I feel like now I’ve been working on to get a working story idea for something like four, five months. I mean surely it won’t be that hard to come up with a working story forever.

[0:52:20.3] SC: Well let me put it to you this way; think about the great writers in our history. They’ve written maybe two, three outstanding novels, right? They published 12 to 15. So it’s not easy, it’s never easy and I mentioned William Goldman earlier. William Goldman hasn’t published a novel in decades. He faces the same difficulties as everybody else.

He might have gotten to the point where he said, “Ah, I got enough money in the bag. I’m not going to face with Tim Grahl’s facing right now.” Not for all the money in the world will he do that. This is what — you know what Steve, in our conversations with Steve Pressfield a couple of weeks ago, he said, “You know, if you want to be a writer,” — this is what he was talking about I think. He said, “You’ve got to give up everything to be a writer,” and you and I kind of took a little bit of issue with that because we’re like, “Well, we have families and we were able to write too.”

But I think this is what he was talking about. This is the struggle, this is the thing that you have to dig into and accept about the craft and about writing in general is that no, it does not get easier. It does and it doesn’t. You’ll be able to, you know this in your nonfiction, you’re able to bang out 5,000 words or something in a day. It’s workable and it’s okay. But the more you elevate your game, the more you try and get better, the harder it’s going to be. So it’s not going to — and the fact that you’re spending four or five months on a concept for a story that may or may not work, yeah, it’s frustrating. I find it frustrating.

I find it — this is why I’ve never published any fiction. I mean it’s scary. You can turn around and lose a year of your life and say, “Yeah, man, it just never came together.” Steve Pressfield has seven, eight scripts in his drawer, nine, 10, who knows? Every writer has so many aborted ideas that — they get excited each time too. It’s fun to think about the possibilities. Look at Quintin Tarantino, he keeps going after it. Some of his movies are better than others. You know? It’s just the way it is.


[0:54:42.2] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. As always, you can find everything Story Grid at If you want to look back at any past episodes, any show notes, I mentioned a lot of show notes in this episode. So if you want to access any of those, that is all at

As always, if you want to continue to support this show, there are two things that you can do. The first thing is to go in to iTunes, find the show and then leave a rating and review. We read every one of them because I apparently am codependent with you as my listener and we just enjoy hearing what you think about the show and it’s also a way that other people find the show by seeing those reviews and ratings.

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13 comments on “Three Sentences

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    The break for the podcasts with Steve and the publishing series was a happy detour, but I’m glad we’re all back in the trenches. Aside from what I’m learning from these podcasts, you guys help me to stay grounded through the frustration (and excitement) of wrestling with this novel. As always, thanks!

  2. michael777stephen says:

    So I started editing my LitRPG novel last week after letting it sit for a few weeks.

    I think it’s good. Maybe I’m delusional, I don’t know. What I do know: banging out 120,000 words in a couple of months, editing, and then just simply moving forward seems to more fun and less painful than agonizing over an outline for six months.

    Callie had mentioned to me (in some other comment) about the amount of research required for one of Steve’s historical books, so I realize there are reasons for something requiring a year or two, I get that.

    But one of the great things about science fiction/fantasy, sub: LitRPG, with war, action, love, coming-of-age, and/or thriller is that we don’t need research per se, just invention and imagination.

    Or maybe I’m entirely wrong?

    Just a counter narrative here.

    I used to have the mind set of “well, writing is re-writing” and blah, blah, blah, and I dismissed Heinlein’s rule about re-writes (and agony).

    Now I see the value in that mindset, I guess I’m saying: why not try?

    Could Tim do this, Shawn?

    Or is this personality driven?

    What I’m wondering is what advice is universal and what advice is not?

    As a side bar: A simple LitRPG series without being a masterwork, just action, not even well written, can and will gain a following with the hard core readers, I’m wondering if this idea of writing straight pulp is counterproductive? Or no?

    Anyway, I’ll be publishing in a couple of months and I’ll be happy to share the sales figures and feedback and learning experience, and well, in closing, I too want to write a best selling amazing novel (or series, I’m currently in love with the Fire and Ice series, and I know no king except the King in the North, who’s name is Stark) so I get that, I really do. But I’m also impatient, because, you know, winter is coming.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,

      How you work is absolutely valid and I love pulp fiction. But winter is coming indeed. And I have little time for base hits anymore. And I’m not speaking of commercial base hits either. I mean a Story that just “works” without being extraordinary. Whether or not 100,000 people are going to embrace what I think is wonderful is out of my control. I only know what I need out of a story. And I’ve read thousands of them and been exposed to tens of thousands in my life.
      And just working ain’t enough for me anymore.
      Poor Tim, but he asked for it.
      I want to push the Story Grid methodology to its limits…to see if it can help someone like Tim with desire and discipline and stamina to move his understanding of Storytelling from amateur to pro in as few steps as possible. Deliberate…intense…practice. Not BANG OUT A BOOK IN SIX MONTHS.
      Is there a time to let something go? Absolutely. But that’s the choice of the writer. Not me. He can quit any time he wants.
      I can only say that “good enough” isn’t what I’m after. For me a Story doesn’t work until it surprises and innovates and pushes the writer to confront the deep truth inside himself or herself. It is that deep truth realized (a tangible expression of an inner genius) that makes a well told and LASTING tale.
      Will the Story Grid help writers hit singles and doubles? Yes and I applaud all of those, like you, who use it to do so. All by their lonesome, without a grind like myself refusing to let them slide on a plot point of scene that’s weak. That’s really the long term point of The Story Grid…to demystify a difficult but rewarding process for the individual to teach himself how to be a better writer. Using the methodology from one book to the next will get a writer interested in triples and home runs and grand slams too. My gut is that three of four books down the road for you…you’ll be chasing those fastballs too. But until that time, please understand that what I think you’re doing is perfect! Couldn’t be better. Please proceed knowing that I’m cheering you on.
      And what Tim is doing is a painful process that could break him.
      It could make him throw in the towel and say to himself that he’ll just never get to the place where I’m forcing him to go. The Truth is that I don’t have a final destination for him either. I’m not positive what’s going to be magical for his storytelling and what will fall flat either… That’s the nature of the beast. I only know when I read it.
      He could be better served going down the pulp route. Who knows?
      I only know that hard, deep internal work is its own reward (the unexamined life and all of that) and that commercial success without hard work is soul-crushing. It’s kind of soul-crushing even with hard work. It brings a “is that all there is?” existential crisis…the “am I a hack if the mass market embraces my work?” dilemma. Should we all face such crises…I know.
      Anyway, I’m no spring chicken and I’m in it to push my knowledge base…to challenge myself to the point where my work can add something to the body of Story thought that’s been firmly established by others. I’m not here to just help out Tim (I’m not that nice). I’m here to learn too. The student teaches the teacher as much as the teacher teaches the student. Any teacher without that Weltanschauug isn’t a teacher…he’s a salesman.
      All the best,

      1. Hey Shawn, thanks for the thoughtful response. I had updated my Mac and Firefox simply went back to scratch, so Word Press didn’t recognize me, anyway, it’s still me, just in my other persona.

        I too want to hit a grand slam, or at least some home runs. I want to create lasting art, and well, to be completely honest: If you Google “Andy Weirs Girlfriend” < that's what I want, movie deal, red carpet, millions, and the hottie on my arm.

        Emphasis on the hottie, really, I could surrender the good art, the meaningful writing, the movie deal, the call from Ridley Scott, if I just have a nice life with a good woman.

        Tim says he wants to be a professional writer, so yeah, we are both dreamers here, none of this is easy.

        But this is my confusion about it (this is, perhaps, more for Tim).

        If he's around.

        Shoot out 5 years from now.

        Player A: Has devoted himself to the craft like insanely and has 2 books done, let's play the odds and say one has been bought by a major house, maybe even both. Maybe a book three deal is on the table…

        Player B: Has 40 books out, is making 250,000 grand a year, self published.

        Now, what player has the best chance of writing a Grand Slam in Year Six?

        And that's an honest question, I really don't know, maybe the temperament is set here, maybe Thomas Harris couldn't have written 30 books if his life depended on it.

        What player would be better off (in the scheme of things) if the Grand Slam, or even the home run, never happens?

        And I don't think I've set up unreasonable parameters, I think if someone has the talent to get a few books bought by a major publisher, they have the talent to make 6 figures with self publishing. Joanna Penn just released her numbers, about the year five mark she passed a hundred grand a year (just from writing fiction, she was making money from her other business all along) and there are lots of others, it seems the work ethic and marketing savvy are more important than pure talent.

        Obviously Tim is doing what he wants to be doing and I'm cheering him on with the rest of the tribe.

        But the strange thing to me is that he's said that he has a family to support and he doesn't want to sacrifice them, so I think, gee, he should be writing step-brother dragon romances for now. Write Catcher in the Rye down the road a bit.

        But I totally 100% get what you're saying about wanting to create the real deal.

        And, heck, we have an experiment running here, don't we?

        The test: Who will Shawn be representing when the Grand Slam happens?

        1. Paul Worthington says:

          I think Tim wants to write successful commercial fiction, not a few literary masterpieces.
          And it seems to me that all Shawn is saying is that for him at this stage in his career to be involved in a work of commercial fiction, it must do more than merely touch the bases and score a run. It has to have artistic merit and lasting value.

          Me, I agree with both: I want to write multiple works of successful commercial fiction that have lasting value. Compelling entertainment that is also ‘literary’ in that it makes a strong point on resonant themes.

  3. Terrific, thank you! I love listening to these podcasts, they’re so relaxing I go into a little trance applying what you’re saying to my current story problems. I think I’ve solved several of them today alone. .

  4. Fanchon says:

    Hi Shawn. I’m attempting to write a “coming of age” story that involves several characters. The three examples given of the three sentences are wonderful, but I’m having trouble applying it to several characters because each character has their own goal, i.e., hook. This lesson was fabulous. Even though I’m not writing a thriller, etc., it still gives me food for thought with regards to surprising the reader and drawing them in. Thank you for sharing that.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Fanchon,
      Well, I think you’re confronting internal resistance, not the limitations of the three sentence outline. Your story can be summed up into three sentences. I’m sure of it.

      Here’s the Bible:
      God creates man
      Man disobeys God and is cast out of paradise
      Man strives to return to paradise

      So think about the global concept of the story as opposed to the individual micro-stories. All multi-character works concern themselves with a central concept/theme/controlling idea. What’s yours? How doe that idea express itself in your story at the beginning, the middle and the end?
      Hope that helps

      1. Fanchon says:

        Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh K. I get it now. That really helped. Thank you, Shawn. 🙂

  5. sjarol says:

    I’m a little unclear on the structure of The Hunger Games. Based on story proportions, and the main storyline, wouldn’t the scene in which Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games be the inciting incident? I think she actually does refuse and then accept the call later, when she considers ways to escape, and then finally accepts that she must compete. I haven’t thumbed through it again, but I think the scene in which Katniss shoots an arrow through the apple in the roasted pig’s mouth is symbolic of her transition. It’s as if she’s declaring, “Okay you bastards, I’m in it to win it.” If volunteering for the Games had been her acceptance of the call, then I’d have assumed the story was about protecting her sister, and not about the grander defiance story.

    I’m also wondering whether the moment where Katniss and Peeta threaten to eat the berries and kill themselves, in defiance of the Capital, is the acceptance scene for the trilogy.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I think you’re getting lost in the weeds my friend.

      Here’s THE HUNGER GAMES in three sentences

      Teenager sacrifices herself to save her sister from a fight to the death.
      Teenager fights in her sister’s place.
      Teenager outwits the game-makers and triumphs.

      Those three sentences were Suzanne Collins’ story spine. Simple and brilliant.

      1. sjarol says:

        Sure, I get it. That’s the three sentence backbone. But how can the “Acceptance of the Call” occur when Katniss takes her sister’s place? At that moment her sister is no longer in jeopardy, and therefore irrelevant to the story. The story is about winning the games, and the series is about undermining and overthrowing the Capital. I still say, and this is based on all the various story structure frameworks I know of, including your Story Grid, that taking her sister’s place is the inciting incident. However..despite my education in English Literature, I’m still an amateur novelist, and therefore defer to your considerable knowledge and experience.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          I agree that Katniss taking her sister’s place is the global Inciting Incident of the story. But it’s not her acceptance of the call…it’s more of a resignation that she’ll die in place of her sister. Her acceptance of the call is when she decides that she needs to represent her people. It’s been a while since I read the series, but my gut is that Katniss doesn’t “accept her call” until at least the second book in the series. The entire first book is about her coming into herself…discovering her inner genius and doing whatever it takes to survive. It’s her coming of age, maturing. There’s great action of course, but it’s really a story about a woman finding her inner power and navigating a treacherous society… No wonder so many adults love it so…

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