Where do your interests as a writer and the interests of an under-served community of readers intersect? This is the gist of this week’s Story Grid Podcast. We often get so enamored with our own particular fascinations, that we forget about an all important component of being a professional. That component is considering your audience, those who would be interested in your story, as an equally crucial to your development as your craft. A perfectly executed story that is published into a saturated market will not bring you a readership… But if you publish that work into an ignored market desperate for new writers to follow…you’ll be welcomed with open arms and wallets.
So think about the intersection between your interests and the genres that just aren’t being supplied with ample talent. Especially in the early stages…when your planning your next work.
To listen click the play button or read the transcript below.
[0:00:00.4] 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 novelist, trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me soon is Shawn Coyne, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience and he is helping me figure all of this writing stuff out.
With my role as host of this show, I’m constantly trying to straddle the line between being the host and making sure the show is something that is relevant and useful to all of you that are listening but then also I’m a writer and he’s helping me with my own book, and so I’m trying to get all of the information I need to write a book of my own. I’m constantly kind of bouncing back and forth between those.
So this episode ended up being quite the epic length. We spent the normal hour just talking through different things about my book and again I’m trying to keep it more focused on you, the listener as well as me, the writer. And then after we cut for this episode, we kept talking and we just kept the tape rolling and we talked specifically about my book and my writing style and things I have to work on to get better.
So I took that whole extra chunk and I put it at the end of this episode, after the outro, so you can listen to it almost like an epilogue. So this is a very long episode, I think you’ll enjoy the entire thing but the first part is kind of a normal episode and the last part is me and Shawn just kind of riffing on specific things I need to work on.
So I hope you really enjoy the show, I think you’ll get a lot out of hearing me struggle through some of these things. Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:45.4] TG: So Shawn I did my homework this week where I went through a bunch of action books and movies and came up with my hero, my villain, and my victim and then I also did a lot of thinking. I was thinking about my victim and how that was going to get setup but right at the end of the episode that we ended actually cutting out because we didn’t get to finish conversation, you kind of threw out that I should think about setting. So I went and read the first couple of chapters of Hunger Games again and then went and read the first couple of chapters of Divergent. I want to come back to the hero, villain, victim thing but I’ve been thinking a lot about setting. So I wanted to just hear what you’re going to tell me last week about thinking about my setting.
[0:02:41.4] SC: Okay. Here is the thing that I couldn’t get into last week that is really super-duper important. It transitions into setting, so let me just take a half a step back and talk about writing to your market. One of the story grid nerds out there, a guy named Michael Beverly has turned me on to this book called Writing to Market by I think the name is Rob Fox or something or maybe Rob Cox? Sorry Rob, or it might not even be your name, Rob.
[0:03:15.1] TG: You had me read that too.
[0:03:17.2] SC: Oh okay, good. Now the reason why I wanted you to read that he really brings up an amazing point about writing to the market and what it did is it — sometimes in the life, things will tumble back in your memory and you’ll go, “Oh my gosh, how did I forget to bring that up before?” Years ago when I left big publishing, I started my own publishing house, this was before the internet boomed and it was dedicated to finding those genres that were under appreciated by the major publishers and finding those nerds who loved those genres in satisfying their demand for new books.
The reason why I bring this up is that writing to market is all about that phenomenon. What it means is when you want to write a particular book, think about those genres that are being underserved. Those genres that are very popular and if you hook it the right way, there’s plenty of readers who are just dying for new material. That’s what Write to Market is all about and it’s a fine beginning resource to do some analytical work, to figure out where the intersection, the Venn diagram if you will, of your interest and the market’s interest, where do they intersect?
If you can find that intersection in a genre that’s being underserved, then you can create something that will be a lot of fun for you to write and also it will satisfy a demand in the market place too. When we’re discussing your book in the setting and things, I was thinking to myself, “Okay, Tim’s story is an action story and it’s in a setting that is a little bit fuzzy right now, it’s not exactly very specific to what Tim knows best.” So I was thinking to myself, “And also is there a genre that Tim could write for that is being underserved right now?” So those are two questions that I was thinking about over the past couple of weeks and I have some suggestions about a place where your real deep understanding and a genre of fiction could come together. Let me just dump it on you now.
[0:06:02.4] TG: Okay, I got my pen ready.
[0:06:06.8] SC: Oaky, so again, I’m going to have to credit Michael Beverley with this but he had mentioned to me in an email that there’s sort of a new-ish genre out there and these are fictional stories that are set in an alternative universe. I always screw this up, but they’re about gaming. They’re about multi-player games.
[0:06:34.6] TG: Yeah, it’s like Ready Player One is probably the most popular one of that genre.
[0:06:39.3] SC: That’s exactly right. Ready Player One for those of you who are not familiar with it, it’s an action story where the lead character lives in the real world, which is sort of a dystopian future and he lives also in an alternative universe which is an online game that is played by millions of people around the world.
What happens in that story telling is that you sort of alternate between these two worlds, the online game world and the real world and the trick is to use your story telling so that the two worlds are very delineated and yet they overlap occasionally. I was thinking about Ready Player One and then I was thinking to myself, “What was the first one, what was the archetypical story that started this mini genre underneath science fiction?”
There are a couple of books, one is Neuromancer by William Gibson which was the first novel that even created the term cyberspace and that was a big, big phenomenon when I first entered book publishing in the early 90’s because it was this fantastical universe where people were living in their dreams if you will because they’re playing in this cybernetic world, an inter-connected universe by a computer.
Then there was another one maybe early 90’s, mid 90’s called Snow Crash by Neil Stevenson. That was another sort of two reality world game where the hero plays in this game world and also lives in the real world and their dystopian futures. I also know about you Tim is that you went to college and you were a computer guy and you do a lot of — you have a deep knowledge in computer programming and I also know that you’re an online gamer occasionally.
So the reason why I bring this up is that the Ready Player One universe is not being all that well supplied with material and there are a lot of people who love to read novels where this real world gaming world intersect and I was thinking about your story and how you Tim could create a universe that is so specific because you know it so well, and also is in keeping with market demand.
So I think the proper term for this genre is lit role playing game — RPG. LIT RPG I think is the way, it’s such a new genre in a way that Amazon doesn’t even have a category for it. I think that’s a good opportunity, I think it’s a great opportunity in fact. Because, one of the other things that you want to think about when you’re planning your novel or editing your novel or whatever you’re doing with your fictional worlds that you’re creating yourself. Is you want to — and Steve Presfield and I always talk about this.
You want to be at the cusp of a breaking wave as opposed to being underneath it. You want to be at the forefront of a new kind of thing that will come about, like John Grisham for example. That was a guy who was on the cutting edge of the legal thriller. He was so far ahead of it for a while that he couldn’t get published. His first novel was A Time to Kill and his agent sent that around New York and everybody was like, “Who cares about some lawyer thriller thing, I don’t get it?” By the time he had written The Firm, it was, he had perfected his craft to the point where a guy named David Gerner at double day read the novel and not only David Gerner but everybody else in town in New York.
They immediately recognized, “This is a thriller that it just happens to be about a lawyer,” and that’s what started the whole legal thriller phenomenon. So if you can sort of read the tea leaves of society in a way and say to yourself, “What’s going to be the new thing in fiction and how could I create a work that could fill the void of a popular genre that’s already been established?” Then I guess these are good questions to ask yourself especially when you’ve got a blob of clay that has some really good stuff in it and it also has some stuff that you need to really define in a much more purposeful way. So to think about, “Okay, what’s my theme?” Now we’re pretty good on what the theme is of your book, which is, I mentioned it a number of times before. It has to have the value and the cause in the thematic description. I think what we decided last week was…
[0:12:03.0] TG: Yeah, I have it here, “Life cheats death when heroes confront their darkest fears and sacrifice themselves for the greater good.”
[0:12:10.4] SC: Exactly. Think about that theme, does that theme — now, here’s the next thing you have to think about: does that theme suit that market? Does that market, “the online game player who also likes to read fiction”, would that market be attracted to a story about a hero who has to confront his darkest fears or her darkest fears and has to sacrifice himself or herself for the greater human good? I think the answer to that is pretty obvious, yes! I mean, the story that we’re talking about, the framework is essentially the Matrix. Now the Matrix is that fantastic movie from, I dunno? Was it early 2000’s?
[0:13:00.3] TG: I think it was ’99 actually.
[0:13:01.9] SC: Amazing, you watch that movie today and it’s as compelling and interesting as it was 15 years ago.
[0:13:09.7] TG: Yeah, that’s on my list of movies I looked at for hero, villain, and victim.
[0:13:17.3] SC: Excellent. That’s a very good one to look at for that. As you recall in the Matrix, the story is of the chosen one, the one who lives in the Matrix and also has the potential to save humanity because everybody’s so plugged into this fictional world that this artificial intelligence has created and the person is played by Keanu Reeves and he’s sort of an, you know, he’s a guy who works in a middle of a corporation, who is a computer programmer, who likes to hack on the side and wouldn’t you know it, he gets called one day to go on the other side and to see what the world is like in reality as opposed to his fantasy.
So anyway, the reason why I bring up Write to Market and theme is that once you’ve discovered that thing that your muse has loaded in for you, and you discovered that in your first draft, your theme is about a hero who has to confront our darkest fears in order to help the greater human good. That intersects very well with this new genre that is being underserved.
You do not have to answer now and there’s any number of other genres where your theme will certainly click in with that one too, but I did want to bring this up because this sounds like a monumental, incredibly difficult change that I’m saying that you have to consider and to a certain extent it is, but it’s also not as intimidatingly difficult as you might think.
[0:15:10.5] TG: Well, I had already come to the conclusion over the past few days that I would not throw out every idea that I wrote into my book but I’m basically going to have to throw out the first draft and just start over. Because the idea of trying to work in a victim, a new setting, all this stuff into what I have, I’m like, “I might as well just start over and rewrite from start to finish.” I can’t imagine that you would argue with me on that. I’ve just kind of like come to terms with that, cried my tears and I’m ready to get back to work. You know, it’s interesting because I read that book, you had sent me that book and it’s by Chris Fox.
[0:15:55.4] SC: Sorry Chris.
[0:15:56.5] TG: I just looked it up and…
[0:15:59.1] SC: I think it went to a Rob Fox in college, there’s a Rob Fox.
[0:16:03.7] TG: Yeah, it was interesting because I felt like it was a simplified version of you making the case for genres. Now it’s simplified to the point where if that’s all you read, all you’ll be doing, you’ll be lost. But I like the idea of how he talked about finding these underserved genres. Looking at, well he calls them tropes in the book but basically what you call conventions and obligatory scenes and using that to map out your own novel.
I went through some of the exercises in the book and I was having trouble identifying what kind of genre should I be looking at and that was to me one of the failings of the book was that he used his own example and one other and that was it. I was like, “Well,” and I know from experience like what that usually does is end up confusing people and that’s what it did to me.
So I was kind of working through this and one of the things that you said from the beginning or when you read my book was like the company in the book is just too obviously evil. So I started thinking through this again and what I landed on and I think it would be really easy because I wasn’t — what I landed on was basically the company is actually seen as good and they did something that, and I haven’t figured out the something but I think you figured it out and your lit RPG thing for me.
It did something that helps humanity in a way where they are seen as the godsend. The savior of the human race in some way. So they’re almost to the point where they’re just ubiquitous and somehow they completely changed the way the human race interacts. So I was thinking things like they either came up with a cure for death or something so amazing and great that everybody just sees them as good and anybody that doesn’t is a crazy conspiracy theorist and talking against them is borderline illegal.
But the problem is, that there’s something broken that they’re desperately trying to hide because if they can’t fix it in time, it’s going to wipeout the human race. They’re desperately trying to hide it, and that’s the problem. So I was thinking in terms of — there was that Bruce Willis movie, I forgot the name of it, you were talking that popped in my head, everybody…
[0:18:49.7] SC: 12 monkeys?
[0:18:51.2] TG: No, no, no, no. It was more recent than that. Everybody’s in this virtual reality machines and they just lay in them in their homes and they basically have robots running around that they control. And a virus gets in and starts killing people and so Bruce Willis has to actually venture out into the world for the first time “unsafe” because if he gets killed, he’s not coming back like when his robot gets killed and he’s a cop.
Do you remember what I’m talking about? But the whole thing is everybody uses these and a virus being in it is a major issue because it can get to anybody because everybody uses them, nobody goes out of their home anymore, they just send their mind controlled robots out. Does that make sense?
[0:19:38.8] SC: It does.
[0:19:41.7] TG: I know, I’m just like talking and now I’m looking up what movie it was but that was kind of like, I mean, I’m thinking there’s something in that mess.
[0:19:53.1] SC: Right, right. Okay, let’s explore it out for a little bit because a lot of people ask me, “Well jeez, being an editor must be boring after a while.” But this is the stuff that I really get excited about because it’s a lot of fun to toss the stuff, spitball the stuff around. Here’s the thing that I always come back to when I get a little bit confused or I get a little bit off track. I try and think about present day reality and try and look at it objectively as supposed to — if I were a Martian and I had to come and objectively say what’s going on in contemporary society, how would I describe it?
Essentially what we have is, we have a major super power. We have the United States which represents the western world, which is very, very powerful economically. Then we have the biggest threat to the western world, it’s fundamentalist Islam. So you have ISIS and Al-Qaeda, but — here is the big but, the way the wars is fought today is completely interesting to me in that the war is fought through terrorism and terror and fear are the operative words, Homeland Security.
We live in the United States and we’re constantly under threat. We’re all worried about that suicide bomber with the vest full of explosives who is going to walk into our town and detonate himself. This fear is palpable, I read a statistic the other day, there are more guns than people in the United States because fear is a major source of political power. The more we can get people to fear, the more they’ll insulate themselves and sort of dissociate from society, which I think is kind of an interesting world we’re living in right now. And when I was thinking about this, I thought of this very classic film that Terry Gilliam made in 1985 and it was called Brazil, did you ever see that movie?
[0:22:24.7] TG: No.
[0:22:25.2] SC: Okay. Well essentially, Brazil is about the society that is controlled by a very powerful government and they’re constantly worrying the population about terrorists. There are bombs that go off and there are literally terrorists. I read something about somebody asked him about how he came up with this idea and he said, “Look, I was living in London at the time or in England and this was around the time when the IRA, the Irish Republican Army was doing these really horrible terrorist acts in and around England.”
Explosives would go off and people would die and it was horrifying. In the classic British way, they tried to have a stiff upper lip and went on with their daily routines while these horrors were going on around them. If you have time, I highly recommend seeing the movie Brazil because it will knock you on your socks, a very good movie. Anyway. My point is that I was thinking about your victim hero, villain problem.
As we discussed last week, the villain is the one that gets things moving in an action story. The villain has a very big need that requires an inciting incident that starts things. They victimize somebody, which raises the interest of the hero so that the hero now has to act, the hero has an object of desire which is to save the victim. I was thinking about all of these things and lit RPG and Tim’s understanding of computers and coding and gaming and all that stuff and Brazil and the current state of society where we live in a world of fear and how we’re looking toward escape, we’re looking toward fantasy.
This is why people never leave their house and watch Netflix for 27 straight hours today. Watching Netflix is the same as staying on Facebook for nine hours or going to Twitter or doing anything you can to distract yourself from the fear mongering of our culture and get — online gaming is certainly a part of that. The villain could be a corporation and I’m not saying that this is the case in any way, shape, or form but a corporation on a par with something like a Facebook, or a Twitter, or a Google, or any of these major corporations that control the matrix of the web, the internet.
I read a statistic the other day, there’s 1.65 billion people last quarter spent at least an hour a day on Facebook. There are seven billion people in the world. So Facebook is this place where, what’s that? I don’t even know. That’s, I think, 25% of the population?
[0:25:46.0] TG: Something, it’s approaching that because we’ve got like seven billion on the planet right now, I think, a little over. What I was thinking, one of the things that I was thinking that’s interesting to me is the constant tension between giving up freedom for safety. It’s come out with the whole thing between Apple and the federal government, the federal government wanting apple to give them access to phones.
The more freedom you give up in theory, the safer you are and so what I was thinking would be an interesting is to run that out to the end and have my setting be a world where everybody’s given up their freedom to something that’s kept them safe.
[0:26:38.2] SC: That’s a pretty good theme. If you’ve ever read Animal Farm by George Orwell where one of the classic lines in there is freedom in slavery. What’s great about that idea Tim? Is that it’s a theme that never goes away.
[0:26:51.2] TG: Yeah, and the way I thought was marrying it, because I know that’s nothing new when it comes to stories but I thought the new twist would be something around a technological solution and as you talked, what if I could come up with a technological solution to terrorism?
Everybody’s given up their right to that technological answer to terrorism because now we don’t have anything to be afraid of because there’s no way that anybody can set off a bomb or run a plane into anything. That is the setting that my story is in.
[0:27:32.9] SC: I like that idea. That is similar to Philip K. Dick’s, the story about they arrest people before they commit the crimes, I forget what it is.
[0:27:42.5] TG: Yeah, that was a killer movie, that was with Tom Cruise.
[0:27:46.0] SC: Yeah.
[0:27:46.5] TG: The one I mentioned with Bruce Willis was Surrogates.
[0:27:51.1] SC: Oh I haven’t seen that.
[0:27:52.0] TG: For those following along. What was that movie? I’m going to look it up here.
[0:27:58.8] SC: Yeah, I think Steven Spielberg directed it or maybe I don’t know? Well okay, I think we’re getting a little unspecific. Let me pull it into specificity and we you can sort of build out the McGuffin of your villain as you get deeper and deeper into the streamline of your story spine, if you will, because what I think you need to do is really streamline this thing. Remember I said last week that you had four and a half books in one book?
[0:28:35.8] TG: Right, exactly.
[0:28:38.3] SC: Okay. So what do I mean by stream lining? Well, what I mean by streamlining is get it down to the very, very core motivation of your lead character. Now, we have a lot of information that’s going to help us streamline. That information is understanding that this is essentially going to be an action story. So an action story requires that a villain get the thing going by victimizing somebody, which will get the hero moving.
Based upon your first draft, here’s an idea that I came up with. What if the villain, which we can build out later, we can put a villain TK. What if the villain were to — and this is based upon your first draft. Now, your first draft, it has a lot of good juicy stuff in it and one of the juicy things that I liked about it was that there is, your protagonist has this ghost. The ghost is her brother who disappeared mysteriously working for some corporation.
We don’t necessarily have to explain or figure out or solve what that corporation is right now. But I love the idea of the protagonist whose sibling is gone, mysteriously because that immediately tells the reader or the viewer, “This person has a secret, this person’s brother or sister, in this case brother has been victimized in some way.”
So wouldn’t it be interesting, and this scene, for the strangest of reasons, the scene that I’m going to describe to you comes from that great movie Bull Durham and it’s like the climactic ending payoff of that movie and I’ll explain it to you, is that Kevin Costner plays this catcher, Crash Davis. He falls in love with his sort of baseball groupie played by Susan Sarandon.
The ending of the movie and I’m sorry to ruin it for anybody but it’s not really ruining the movie. The ending of the movie is that they had this tour at a fair and he takes off and he’s gone for week upon week and Susan Sarandon is coming home from the ballpark one night and it’s this great shop, Ryan Shelton I think directed the movie and she’s walking home and she sees Crash Davis sitting on her porch.
It’s a moment for the viewer when you’re like, “Awe, isn’t that great?” What I was thinking is that classic thing in all of our lives is when you’re a kid or even not a kid, high school or whatever and you’re walking home and you see your uncle sitting on the porch or you see somebody intriguing who is kind of just hanging out on your porch and you’re wondering, “What’s going on here? Why is that guy on my porch and what does he have to tell me?”
The thinking in the inciting incident that I sort of thought about for your story was your protagonist is on her way home and she sees a figure that’s sitting on her porch. Now, she knows very well that her mother and father are already in that house because it’s close to dinner time and she’s coming home from school and who is this guy or woman or whoever sitting on her porch? What does that guy want?
That is sort of a primal thing that a lot — and I like to think of in terms of inciting incidents and major plot points, how can you manipulate a primal scene that all of us would be able to identify with? So the idea would be that the protagonist comes home, she sees this strange figure and you do, do this in your first draft. It’s that figure in the hood who is watching the events of the funeral. I think the funeral is a little, as they say, on the nose.
Because what you’re doing is you’re describing, you’re giving away all the juicy stuff in the very opening of your story. Don’t give that stuff away, we don’t know anything about that brother. We don’t know anything. But what we do understand is the idea of coming home in the twilight or just at dusk or just as the sun is setting and seeing some strange figure sitting on your porch waiting for you.
It’s as if you’re coming home and there’s somebody waiting for you and they have information to deliver to you and you say to yourself, “Jeez, maybe I should just turn around and wait for them to leave.” So it raises this question in the reader’s mind and then the character’s mind like, “What is that person doing on my porch and what do they have to tell me?”
I can see your protagonist coming home and there’s the figure and he says, “Jessie,” or whatever her name is, “I need to talk to you.” She’s like, “Who are you?” “Well, that’s not really important right now. What I have to tell you is very important, it’s about your brother.” Then bang, “My brother? My brother has been gone for seven years, we buried him seven years ago, what do you have to say about my brother and who are you?”
So it raises all of this questions that are interesting. Is this person, this messenger, is this messenger the villain? Is this messenger out for her good, the protagonist? It raises an immediate victim, there’s somebody who is a victim, and the victim has become a victim because there’s some villainous force that has now sent somebody to come collect his sister.
“Holy crap, what the hell is going on?” It’s kind of an interesting beginning because it raises so many questions that the reader or the viewer is going to say to themselves, “Oh wow, this is one of those stories where somebody comes” — it’s like that moment when I think his name is Hagrid in Harry Potter and says, “You’re a wizard Harry. Come with me now. All the foolish silliness of your past is now over, now you have to — your real path is moving forward.”
So you setup all of these things in your story telling, you set up all of these ideas and I think, if you think very clearly, “Oh my gosh, okay, how can I use the fact that there’s this ghost figure brother in my protagonist’s life in a way that’s interesting? How am I going to suck in the reader?” And one of the ways to do that is to think about scenes from your past and your life, some story your kid told you that says, “oh right, I kind of remember that day when I was seven and I came home and I went to the porch and my aunt was there and my parents weren’t home.”
She said to me, “You have to come with me,” and then the next thing I knew, it was a surprise and they took me to Chucky Cheese and there was a birthday party for me. That’s one of those primal things that we all have one of those in our lives. If you can manipulate that thing in a way that will propel your story forward and hook somebody, immediately that’s the way to do it.
[0:36:43.6] TG: Okay. All right, I want to get my homework for this week because I have an idea of what it may be but I want to go over the whole hero, victim, villain thing for a little bit because hat was a lot of what we talked about last week and I went back through some books that I’ve read, I went back through some movies and it was weird to look at things through that frame. I’m in the middle of reading a book right now called The Girl with All The Gifts which is like I didn’t realize I was, I like zombie novels anyway.
[0:37:24.7] SC: I think I read that.
[0:37:26.3] TG: Oh man.
[0:37:28.5] SC: It’s the hungries.
[0:37:29.4] TG: I’m only halfway through so don’t say anything but in the first scene, I’m pretty sure it’s the first scene.
[0:37:38.0] SC: It’s a great beginning.
[0:37:39.4] TG: It’s super clear who the hero and the victim and the villain is. The interesting thing is that then morphs over time. I thought that was interesting and that wasn’t the only one I looked at where the villain in the beginning is not the villain in the end. It ends up being somebody different. Another one that came to mind because I watched it with my son was the Martian. We spent a ton of time back in December going over the Martian. Is Mark Watney the victim in that or the hero?
[0:38:19.9] SC: He is both hero and victim.
[0:38:22.5] TG: Okay.
[0:38:23.2] SC: Now, remember I talked about this last week and this is important to bring up. Hero, victim and villain are roles, they are not characters. Your hero can be both victim and hero. You can morph it and this is how you play with the genre to surprise your audience because you just need those forces in your book, they can morph and change from one to another, from one character to another, to another, to another, to another. The person that you think is the horrible piece of shit at the beginning of the film, the beginning of the book, can end up to be the hero.
[0:39:09.4] TG: All right, so let me run through a couple and give you my take on them and I would love to hear your feedback. One thing I noticed was, there was a lot of— so big action movies are often about saving humanity. They are often focused in on one or two people that they’re trying to save kind of as a representation of humanity.
For instance in Hunger Games, it’s her sister, although the real victim is everybody that lives in the society. In Matrix, it’s all of humanity but it’s actually Trinity that he’s fighting for, especially by the third movie. In Iron Man, at the beginning, the object of desire is himself because he’s so self-absorbed that all he cares about is surviving and all he cares about is himself and then the victim morphs by the end. In 300 — oh I have a question, is 300, who is the guy? Frank Miller did that, was that based on Presfield’s book or no?
[0:40:24.3] SC: I don’t have the definitive answer to that but I do know that Steve’s book came before the 300 and I think Frank Miller has been quoted as saying that he thought that Gates of Fire was fantastic.
[0:40:37.7] TG: Okay. I was curious. But King Leonidas is fighting for Sparta but specifically his son. And the way of life of the Spartans is kind of the victim in that one. Would you agree with that?
[0:40:53.8] SC: Yeah, I would agree with that, I don’t have as much recollection of the movie as I do about the book because I edited the book.
[0:41:03.3] TG: It was just interesting going through these and seeing how — well it’s nice that you said that of remembering. I was looking for characters. Like a single stand in for each role but just, you’re more saying at any given point in time in the book, you should be able to identify all three roles even though they may shift. Who you think is the villain and in the beginning may end up being the hero by the end but somebody else has to be the villain by that point.
[0:41:36.0] SC: Exactly.
[0:41:36.2] TG: Okay. No, that was interesting because I went through, I think I’ve got like a dozen here that I actually wrote out. Then, I started reading the Divergent series and I got like several scenes in and I didn’t know who the victim was. I don’t know if I missed it or that wasn’t action and I know I’m like really getting into the weeds on this but I’m trying to get into the habit now of when I’m deciding on a genre I want to write in, I need to go look at other books in that genre to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing.
[0:42:12.1] SC: Without a doubt.
[0:42:13.5] TG: All of the highlights. Yeah, it was a good exercise for me to kind of call back through, I mostly looked at books I’ve just read before so I didn’t have to read 10 books over the last week but it was a good exercise to do for sure.
[0:42:28.2] SC: Let me just say this one thing and I write about this in the book in Story Grid book. A lot of people give me a lot of push back when I talk about genre and conventions and obligatory scenes and necessity of understanding and having a very deep knowledge of the genre that you want to work in. Here’s the analogy that I always use because it always hits home with people.
It’s this: The iPod was sort of running it’s course and Steve Jobs had to come up with a new kind of idea. He thought to himself, “What’s the thing that’s broken? What’s the thing that I can — what market share can I dominate? How can I figure this out.” And he thought to himself, “You know what’s very vulnerable? Our phones,” right? You think about those flip phones and all those phones back in the day when Nokia and all those phones and he said, “I can — that’s a market that really needs to be better served. Let me think about that market.”
What did Steve Jobs do? Do you think he just thought of brand new phone ideas or? No, what he did is he probably went out and he got every single phone that was on the market and he opened them up and he said to himself, “I need an antenna right? I need to be able to make a phone call and clear voice recognition, I need this,” and then he started to add features on top of that. What he did is he dissected the phone genre and then he innovated.
Then he added things that you would never even consider. “I’m going to put an iPod on there, I’m going to put music files on there, I’m going to put memo, voice memo services, I’m going to put a computer in this phone so you can walk around with your own handheld computer that’s just as powerful as an IBM super computer from 1983.”
So Steve Jobs when he was thinking about getting into the phone genre, he actually looked at all the phones that were already out there and said, “What did these phones do well? What don’t they do well? How can I create something that not only does what those phones do well better than them, but adds features that innovates and brings new things to the table?” When we’re thinking, we’re having this fun, talking about your first draft and we’re thinking about — we’ve got this clay right, we’ve got this thematic clay and we want to manipulate it in a way that’s not only going to be fun for Tim and Shawn but it’s actually going to serve people who want to read a great story.”
Because that’s the goal really, nobody remembers who writes the stories really, we remember the stories. Quick, who wrote South Pacific? Who wrote The Wind in The Willows? You don’t really remember but you remember the stories and that’s the important thing. So when you stop thinking about the market and everybody says, “Well I’m an artist, I don’t think about the market so much as” — Well you know what? Think about the market.
Because if you’re only writing for yourself, you’re not getting anywhere, you’re not delivering anything to the culture, it’s your job as an artist to deliver something that other people can take from, that other people can see things in that you don’t. You probably didn’t know what that them was that I pulled out the other day when you were writing it, you were just writing your story.
[0:46:21.4] TG: Right.
[0:46:23.4] SC: That’s what you do when you create a work of art, you are intensely specific but you’re mindful of the marketplace. I’m not going to say marketplace anymore because it sounds like I’m selling toothpaste. You’re mindful of other story lovers and how you can serve them because you’re writing the story for them, you’re not writing it for you. Yeah, you want to get your ideas in it, you want to get your theme in there but ideally, the best moment is when the book is out there.
Like you mentioned a minute ago, 300 and Steve Presfield’s Gates of Fire. Is Steve upset that the 300 was not based upon Gates of Fire? Yeah, he probably is a little bit but on the other hand, he probably is really excited that his book inspired another artist named Frank Miller to create something completely unique and different from Steve’s that is in the same terrain and gets the Spartan story out there even more.
That’s what Steve is probably taking away from the Gates of Fire experience. I take away from it, “Ah, jeez, Frank Miller just did this and that and he twisted it.” But you know what? Frank Miller put his spin on it. Steve has been, Frank Miller has a spin, they’re two completely different things on the same story but they’re really interesting both of them and different people take different things from them.
[0:47:55.5] TG: Okay, looking at my homework, I need to…
[0:48:04.2] SC: I want you to think about the setting, I want you to think about if I were to give you the assignment Tim, I want you to create a world, a game world that is so immersive that people who play this game don’t even want to go to the bathroom, that they are just locked in and they are fully engaged in that world in a way that you can’t pull them away.
As somebody who went to college to learn software development and to learn about how to code things and create software, that is something that you uniquely know that I don’t. If you can communicate a vision that I can understand and you can add the details that you already know about it, then that’s going to be far more engaging because you have such a — it’s like if I were to write a novel about book publishing, I know book publishing really well and the things that I could bring to the table are things that would engage somebody who has no idea about book publishing.
It’s like entering an alternative universe. We talk about all the time like the hero has to go from the ordinary world, to the extraordinary world, the way you create that extraordinary world is to use what you already know. It’s not for you to become Michel Crichton or a biotechnologist in creating a world from whole cloth and doing research and all that. You, Tim, know a world that’s extraordinary that other people don’t. Find out what that world is and then I think you could create a world that the lit RPG people would really find fascinating. That’s kind of my thing.
I think if you can figure that out then the villain and you already have a heroic figure. I think you’re starting to understand the victim element and how that brother ghost figure can serve as a victim. Now you need to create the extraordinary universe that has some villainous thing locked inside of it. But I think you’re on to something when you said the company/corporation, whatever it is, has to be really attractive. It has to really make people feel good.
Like Facebook makes people feel good because it’s a false sense of connectivity to other people. You see a picture of somebody, it feels like you spent time with them when you really didn’t. You’re not really that close to the people that you’re friends with on Facebook, you share photos and stuff but it’s not the same thing as being on a car trip together and having to sleep at a motel six overnight and the lousy food and how you’re both going to deal with that, how you’re going to laugh about it. You know? Anyway, I think you know what I mean.
[0:51:13.1] TG: Yeah, the way that you get to those places are basically running out a “what if” scenario. To me, that’s what all of these land on, it’s just taking something that exists to the nth degree. That’s kind of where I’m landing.
[0:51:32.6] SC: Using those very strong action story principles to be your guide. You need a hero, you need a victim, and you need a villain. Now, you can morph those and you can play with those and I have some ideas about how you can do that, but I’m not going to share those with you until you kind of come up with this extraordinary world that if you had to invent a role playing game that people would not want to get off of, what would it be? That’s the what if.
[0:52:07.5] TG: Okay. That’s my homework.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:52:11.5] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. As I mentioned at the beginning of the show, there’s a lot more coming after this outro. There’s kind of an epilogue where me and Shawn keep on riffing on my writing. So stay tuned for that.
As always, thank you for listening to the show and being a part of sharing the show. If you want anything else Story Grid related, you can see that as Storygrid.com. Make sure you sign up for the newsletter. For any past episodes you can go to Storygrid.com/podcast and of course continue to share the show. You can find this on Twitter @storygrid, you can find us on iTunes and that’s where you leave your rating an review.
Thanks again for listening and we’re going to dive in to this epilogue.
[0:52:57.5] TG: Okay. I got work to do now.
[0:53:01.1] SC: It’s kind of fun though, I mean this is really the stuff that gets me excited when I edit is to think about how you can begin from a core idea and keep pulling the rug out from the reader and really going back to your hero wants to save the victim.
[0:53:22.5] TG: The path I’m stuck on and I may go down different things is I’m thinking something like okay, what RPG, Facebook type world would be so compelling that it causes everybody to put their weapons down?
[0:53:42.8] SC: See I think you might be making a mistake there.
[0:53:45.3] TG: Okay.
[0:53:46.0] SC: I think you need to think about the notion of power and what power does is it creates fear. If you fear then you’re looking for somebody to take care of you. The company, the RPG game is going to create fear that will keep people enslaved. The fear that they use is this terrorism.
“There are terrorists out there and we’re constantly and vigilantly looking for them, and they’re all part of this — and make up some organization — and if we don’t eradicate these people, they’re going to come and destroy your lives. This is why we have this online game, so that we can inform on each other and find out who those terrorist are.”
[0:54:34.2] TG: What if it was like a culminate, like taking the Enders Game kind of slant too it where every time you’re a part of this RPG world, you’re fighting the terrorists.
[0:54:44.0] SC: I think that’s…
[0:54:46.2] TG: And you’re rooting out, it’s almost like…
[0:54:50.0] SC: That was the big reveal. That was the big reveal of Enders Game.
[0:54:53.1] TG: Right, at the end.
[0:54:54.7] SC: Yeah, that was the very end. Now, the guy who wrote Ready Player One, and I forget his name, Ernest Klein I think? His second novel was called Armada, which was very much playing off — this is what you need to know the conventions. That was very much playing off the Enders Game idea.
You can’t really do that, what you need to do is to come up with something unique that is — Here is just off the top of my head what I was thinking about was that the setup is:
“Your brother is in trouble, you have to come and rescue him.”
“No, I don’t want to come rescue him.”
“If you don’t, he’s going to die, we have him under — he’s locked in to this RPG game, he’s on life support but we can’t get him out of the RPG game, you have to come help.”
“How am I going to help?”
“I don’t know? But you have to.”
So she goes and she goes to this place where she sees her brother who is on a life support system like he’s in a comatose state. He’s like hanging from a roof because they don’t want him to get bed sores. Did you ever seen that movie Coma where they’re locked in on the bones and anyway.
[0:56:08.9] TG: I’ve seen it, I know where you’re going.
[0:56:12.4] SC: It’s like maybe it’s some primary goo, he’s in some — he’s suspended, his life is suspended and she now has to train, right? She ha to train with some super Obi Wan Kanobi figure to get into that game and free him. But there’s a clock, right? I’m just thinking, so there’s this clock and if she doesn’t get in there and save him within a particular timeframe, so it’s a man against time thriller action story, this is the setup. She has to go through this training period so he can indoctrinate and you can teach the reader about the world that she’s going into by teaching her how to get in there, right?
[0:57:04.1] TG: What does this have to do with the fear?
[0:57:08.6] SC: Oh this is just the story spine. You want to parse out the…
[0:57:14.3] TG: Why is he — ‘cause now what my job is figure out why he’s so damn important.
[0:57:18.5] SC: Because what you’re going to do is you’re going to use him and do a major, major rug pulling out of. You’re going to do a Darth Vader thing. So she gets into the world and she discovers at the end of the story that her brother is the evil villain and that he needs something from her in order to get what he wants. The only way he knew he could get her to come was to use himself as a victim. So it’s like she gets into this netherworld, she goes to rescue him after all of this horrible shit that befalls her and she discovers that he is the one behind everything.
[0:58:07.1] TG: Let me stop. So here is my worry with this and it is, am I going the write…
[0:58:15.0] SC: You don’t have to use that. All I’m saying is that you have to think about how can I completely pull the rug out from the reader in the next scene? How can I build to a payoff that is obvious and surprising? So if you get to the end of this novel, we discover that that guy at the very beginning who lured her to go save her brother was a sentinel to bring her so that her brother can manipulate her and take something from her, it would make sense and she’s a good person. The only way to get her to do this was to bring her in to save her brother. I don’t know? I’m not telling you, “Tim, you have to do it this way.” What I’m trying to do is to offer you solutions to problems that can inspire you to come up with your own solutions to the problems.
[0:59:15.2] TG: Right, so what I’m trying to tease a part is why does that solve my problem?
[0:59:21.1] SC: Your problem…
[0:59:23.9] TG: Yeah that’s what I’m unclear on is like, I feel like you’re handing — one of the biggest issues with this is I want to learn how to do this without you telling me. And I want to make sure that I understand what the problem is and why you see this as a solution because if you hand me the story and I go and write it and it’s fine, that’s great. But then my next book I’m going to be like, “All right Shawn, what do I write now?” What I want to make sure is, I’m learning — that sounds great, I don’t fully understand why that is where you went and what problem you’re trying to solve with that?
[1:00:05.7] SC: The problem that you’re trying to solve is what happens next? You do not want the reader to be able to anticipate any of the plot twists that you’re doing. Unfortunately right now, from the minute you start reading your draft, you know exactly how it’s going to end.
You know that she’s going to win, you know that her world is going to be fine, you know that this is episode one of a multi-episode thing because everybody has seen so many stories that they already are anticipating so much further down the road than you’re giving them credit for it.
You’re thinking that you have to spoon and feed them specific scenes and information so that they “get it”. The thing is that what you have to be keep mindful of is constantly surprising them. So the opening scene, you want to hook them.
[1:01:04.9] TG: Is that why my book wasn’t long enough is because I was giving too much information too fast?
[1:01:12.1] SC: Yeah, you were telling and not — you were not, think of it as taking someone on a long ride and you want to surprise them at each and every turn. So one of the exercises I used to do when I was an agent is called spit balling with my friend and what we would do is we’d say, “Okay, what would happen if we began in a prison,” and somebody is like, “Yeah, that’s kind of interesting,” and you just sort of like, “Okay, what would people expect?” Now do the opposite of that.
People are going to expect, your hero is going to go in there and after a long hard battle, she’s going to save the victim. Don’t give them that, have her go there with the greatest of intensions to save that victim and then the pivotal scene in an action story, is the hero at the mercy of the villain scene. You have that in your book but it’s not surprising.
[1:02:17.6] TG: Why wasn’t it surprising?
[1:02:18.9] SC: It was marginally surprising but it’s an old troupe where the mentor turns into the villain. It’s a trope too that the victim turns into the villain too and that’s what I’m suggesting you do but if you manipulate…
[1:02:35.8] TG: Such a mind fuck. Because everything has been done before.
[1:02:44.2] SC: But not in the way that you’re going to do it. You can create a setting in the universe that’s never been done before. You can create a character that’s never been done before.
[1:02:58.5] TG: Earlier when we were talking, you were saying one of the things I need to use more of is the worlds that I already know of programming and gaming. It reminded me of a Scott Adams blog post who is the creator of Dilbert. He wrote this blog post a long time ago that was talking about how to have a successful career. He said, “There’s basically two paths.” He’s like, “The first is to become really, really, really good, top 0.1% in a field. Neurobiology or something.”
He said, “The other way to do it is to become marginally good at two different fields that aren’t often combined.” That’s what he did with Dilbert is he was like somewhat good at drawing and somewhat good at telling a joke or telling — I forgot what he said. Like telling a joke, and he just put them together.
He’s not really good at any one thing, he just put them together an interesting new way. So that’s what popped in my head when you’re talking about some of this is, I need to take what I know about these genres that I read all the time. Then I need to take what I intuitively know about the world based on my life. If I combine those together, I’ll get something that’s never been done before.
[1:04:18.2] SC: That’s right, that’s right. That specificity becomes universality, and I talk about that all the time and it’s gobbledygook to most people because it’s hard to really explain. Nobody can have the experiences that you have or the feelings that you’ve had in your life. In order for you to draw people in and surprise them is to deliver to them the experiences and the strangeness and the fun and the interesting things that have happened to you using a fictional universe in a way that is primal.
It’s like all of these stories have been told before, the resurrection myth has been told before, the redemption story has been told before. I mean we listed 20 action stories that had RPG in it. And guess what? That’s a genre that is desperate for more stuff. We came up with like 10 of them.
[1:05:18.5] TG: Yeah, no I like sticking with that. I feel a little flailing figuring out what I’m trying to fix.
[1:05:29.1] SC: What you’re trying to fix is a book that doesn’t work into a book that works. The book that works constantly surprises people and keeps them wanting to read. You want narrative velocity in your book. The way to get narrative velocity is to constantly surprise them. That’s what minus and plus are all about, that’s what alternating values of scenes are all about. That’s what a major shift in a crisis and climax is all about.
[1:05:59.9] TG: So should I be looking at my first draft and saying, “How do I fix this?” Or should I be saying, “Okay, forget that, I’m starting over.” That’s what I’m kind of unclear on, because everything you’re kind of throwing out to me has nothing to do with my first draft which is totally fine. I’ve made my peace with god on that.
But should I be looking at, “Okay, what are the pieces of the thing I’ve already written that work and what are the pieces that doesn’t and how do I twist everything to have it right?” Should I be like, “You know what? I need to just put that in a drawer and start a completely new story.”
[1:06:37.4] SC: Okay, that’s a really good question. The thing to do is to think about the things that you like and that you can reuse and repurpose, from your first draft. You’ve got a protagonist that you’ve played around in your mind, you know her parents, you did a really nice scene where we have an understanding of the parent’s relationship, how she fits in, the ghost of her brother, all that is stuff that you can use in the next draft.
You also have, that setup of the two friends who are part of her group and then the antagonist who is sort of part of the group and is an insider. She’s an outsider, he’s an insider. The guy who is in the other lab. You have the mentor figure who is kind of fun and interesting and you can use that sort of prototype in your next draft too. The bio tech stuff, you have the concept of “this is a woman who is immortal and she doesn’t know it.”
Now in your first draft, you decided to make it more accidental, Spiderman-y kind of thing where she injects herself with a fluid and she becomes immortal because of it. Instead, you may want to make that she was born with this gift and she doesn’t know it. So she discovers it somewhere in the story. Her brother maybe the only one who knows about it and he discovers her secret somehow. She doesn’t know she’s immortal, he does. So what he wants, the villain starts this thing going, right? What he wants is to solve the riddle of her immortality. Why is she immortal?
So you’ve got a whole bunch of stuff in that first draft that you can manipulate and use but can you just go start on page one of your first draft and fix it? No. You have to reconfigure your story so that it has far more action, has far more narrative drive, that it works within the conventions of the action genre and is innovative too. You need to deliver to the lit RPG crowd something that they’ve never seen before, and you are perfectly capable of doing that.
[1:09:07.4] TG: Would it be helpful or distracting to completely story grid, scene by scene, Ready Player One.
[1:09:13.9] SC: That would be helpful.
[1:09:15.6] TG: Okay.
[1:09:16.9] SC: What that’s going to do, that’s a book that’s sold over 500,000 copies. That’s a huge bestseller.
[1:09:24.7] TG: Right.
[1:09:25.6] SC: So what that book will do, it’s going to tell you what the lit RPG crowd loves, what worked? Now Armada, his second book has sold maybe 85,000 copies so far and it’s not going to be anywhere near as big a success as the first one. I think the reason why is that the lit RPG crowd was like, “Awe, come on man, you can’t use Enders Game.”
[1:09:53.9] TG: I think the reason why ready player one hit so hard was because of all the 80’s game references, it was like as somebody that is basically the same age as the author and grew up with that. It was so — it’s like visiting your childhood home and just feeling all those warm, wonderful feelings.
[1:10:13.1] SC: Yeah, it also has a narrative drive where the guys — here’s the setup of the story. “Hey, it’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” right? That’s what it is, he stole Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s idea and he put it in a video game. What happens? There’s a guy who controls all of the video game technology, he’s dying but in his will he says, “The first person to go and get all the Easter eggs in my video game gets my fortune.”
[1:10:45.6] TG: Right.
[1:10:46.8] SC: That’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
[1:10:50.4] TG: It is. My god.
[1:10:53.1] SC: Whoever gets the golden tickets wins and gets the factory. Same thing.
[1:10:56.9] TG: Is there a victim in that story? I write it when it first came out, I’m a little fuzzy on the details.
[1:11:04.3] SC: The victim is society and specifically there is a corporation that wants the guy’s fortune. What they do is they try and — it’s like Slugworth in — did you see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?
[1:11:19.8] TG: Yeah.
[1:11:20.2] SC: Go see that again, there’s this guy’s Slugworth, right? Who comes in and constantly trying to get Charlie Bucket to sell his soul and say, “Hey, if you give me the gobstopper.”
[1:11:31.6] TG: Yeah.
[1:11:33.0] SC: That’s sort of the villain or under work but it’s all at the end of the thing, you discover that Willy Wonka has set it up to test the morality of each of those children. He is the villain, he is the hero, he is the victim. Willy Wonka plays all the roles.
[1:11:51.0] TG: Because once again, it’s the role, it’s not a character. I got to — that’s going to be hard for me to break out of.
[1:11:58.9] SC: Man, if you can master that, you win. I’m telling you, that’s how you surprise the audience. That’s why I’m suggesting switch the role of victim from the obvious victim at the beginning, I was thinking like the climax of act — of your beginning hook of your story, is the girl accepts the challenge. It’s like in Silence of the Lambs, she gets appointed to be Crawford’s right hand person and she gets to leave the campus and go to West Virginia to actually investigate a death.
[1:12:43.3] TG: The end of the beginning hook of The Girl With all the Gifts was them now stranded out in the jungle or whatever and they got the hungry with them.
[1:12:56.2] SC: Yeah.
[1:12:56.7] TG: The entire point of the first — it was funny, I forgot, it was like 28% or something like, “Dammit Shawn, every time.” The whole point was that I haven’t read the whole book yet. The whole point was to get them stranded out there together and now the whole middle build is them trying to get to Beacon is what I’m assuming. Obviously Beacon is not what they think it is, it’s what I’m assuming. Don’t tell me.
Okay, I feel like I’m getting a little more clear on — I know I just went through, I’ve just been learning a ton about deliberate practice and one of the hallmarks of deliberate practice is you constantly feel like shit. So I’m like, “Okay, I’m in a good place, I feel like shit.”
[1:13:49.7] SC: Always go back to the foundational idea. The foundational idea is a story that works, hooks you at the very beginning and at the very end, is both surprising and inevitable. You have to have both of those things. My suggestion at the beginning was to make it surprising that this guy who is on life support is actually the ghost in the machine, he doesn’t give a fuck that his body’s on life support.
That’s what he wants everybody’s body to be. He wants the immortal, right? He wants his body, he wants to put — think about this, if he’s able to keep his body on life support and he’s able to solve the immortality problem, he can live in this fantasy world for eternity. Now the girl has the capability, the bodily capability of regenerating herself. Now, what he thinks — I’m trying to solve your trilogy.
[1:15:05.8] TG: Don’t say anymore because I have a real problem with lateral thinking and so when one path is laid in front of me, I have a real trouble breaking out of that path. So if you lay out a path, I’m not going to be able to think about any other path because I’ll be like, “Well that sounds good to me.” Because again, not even just from an artist standpoint, “I want to write my story not Shawn’s story.” My biggest fear is I don’t want to come out of this not knowing how to solve this problems myself. If I rely on you to give me the solutions to the problems I don’t fully understand, then you’re going to be stuck at my next book for free too. So that won’t help either of us.
[1:15:51.0] SC: No, it’s absolutely a delicate balance because if I don’t offer solutions to the problems then all I’m doing is talking in circles, you know what I’m saying? If I don’t say to you, “Here’s how to solve the problem of narrative velocity, you have to surprise the reader after every scene.” And you’re like, “Oh okay, I got it, surprise the reader.”
Then you keep doing the same thing over and over again and having an exposition and saying, “That’s surprising, they didn’t know that she’s immortal, now they do.” I’m like, “Yeah, they did know she’s immortal because you signalled this to them at the very beginning of the story by giving all that exposition.” Because the thing is that we are so good, we’re like viruses that are immune to innovations and stories. This is why it’s so hard to do.
[1:16:46.4] TG: Tell me, what are the queues — are there any queues where I’m like, “Oh, I’m doing exposition.”
[1:16:53.8] SC: Yeah, she felt this way in dialogue. “The reason why I’m not interested in doing that is because my mother is upset about the death of my brother.” Remember all that stuff, what your goal is, try and keep it lean and mean and have the action drive the story telling and let all the personal feelings and ideas and thoughts, unless they’re instrumental in driving the story forward, you want to keep those in the back room. Think about this. Scene one: “girl comes home to find weird guy on her porch.” Scene two: “guy on porch tells girl, your brother needs you.” Scene three…
[1:17:43.5] TG: Stop right there. Scene one, girl comes home and finds guy on her porch. I got to write 1,500 words about that?
[1:17:52.1] SC: If you do it…
[1:17:53.5] TG: That’s what I’m struggling with.
[1:17:54.8] SC: Okay, you’re reading The Girl With All the Gifts, right? Okay, read the first chapter that hooks the shit out of you. There’s a lot of words there talking about things that don’t make any sense, right?
[1:18:10.0] TG: Well I don’t, I don’t remember.
[1:18:12.0] SC: All right, let me see…
[1:18:13.6] TG: I’ll go back and look at it, and that’s one of my problems.
[1:18:19.0] SC: You’ve got to slowly boil the frog. I know people have told me that you can’t boil fronts like that, it’s baloney but…
[1:18:30.1] TG: You can if you put the lid on it.
[1:18:32.5] SC: You slowly have to turn up — I’m just going to find, here I just have my kindle, I’m going to go all the way in the beginning of this book. I tore through that book in maybe three hours. Her name is — here’s the first couple of sentences.
“Her name is Melanie. It means the black girl from an ancient Greek word but her skin is actually very fair so she thinks maybe it’s not such a good name for her. She likes the name Pandora a whole lot but you don’t get to choose. Miss Justinow, assigns names from a big list. New children get the top name on the boy’s list or the top name on the girl’s list. That, Miss Justinow says is that.”
[1:19:19.7] TG: Right in the middle I’m like, “What the hell is going on? Where are these children coming from?”
[1:19:24.8] SC: “What’s going on? I’ve got to keep going. What do you mean people get their names? This doesn’t make any sense at all. I have to keep reading.”
[1:19:31.6] TG: Okay, okay.
[1:19:32.9] SC: Do it like that. Just mimic that. It was Thursday and Thursdays it meant taco night, I don’t know?
[1:19:43.5] TG: This gives me…
[1:19:45.4] SC: Slowly walk the reader into your universe, you know what that first paragraph does? It establishes the ordinary world, it establishes the way things are very, very quickly but it seems very languid and long but what it’s doing is showing you the way the world is. There is a little girl who is in a freaking cell.
[1:20:14.0] TG: Strapped to a chair.
[1:20:15.0] SC: Strapped to a chair. Nobody gets near her and every week, they give her a bowl full of grubs that are little microscopic ants and crap that she wolfs down. Then she takes a shower which is right out of a holocaust imagery. It sets up this ordinary dystopic world in a brilliant way, right off the bat and you’re like, “What’s going to happen to this little girl? Oh my god, I have a little girl. This is horrible, what’s the matter with her? What are they doing to her?” And you keep reading because you want to know what’s going on, right?
[1:20:54.1] TG: Yeah, yeah.
[1:20:55.9] SC: You don’t’ think — nobody ever explains to you, they lock Mallie up in a cage because she’s one of the hungries and she eats people.
[1:21:06.6] TG: That’s exactly what I would write. All right. Okay, all right.
[1:21:17.8] SC: It’s like playing poker, it’s playing poker. You’ve got to hold the cards man, you’ve got to play this stuff out and it’s like Chinese water torture, a great writer is torturing the reader because he’s not giving them any information. Just enough to keep them going, just enough. Here’s a little drop of — here’s a little honey.
[1:21:42.1] TG: I’ve said to Candice so many times like how miserable I get reading a good book because I just…
[1:21:47.0] SC: Exactly.
[1:21:49.1] TG: I just want the fucker to be over so I know what happens.
[1:21:51.4] SC: Right. But you’re enjoying it. It’s just amazing pleasure when you’re like, “I have no idea where this is going. Oh my god, I’m locking myself in a room,” and that is what everybody wants to write and the way to do it, you got to plan the reveals, plan your revolutionary moments to the reader and each one of those revelations has to incrementally get more and more interesting.
[1:22:23.0] TG: I went through this online course about copywriting and it talked about these soap opera sequence and sales copywriting. It says, you need to write your copy like your soap operas and how soap operas work is each scene, here’s how the scenes go: Cliff hanger, cliff hanger, resolution. Cliff hanger, cliff hanger, resolution. That’s because if every scene was a cliff hanger and nothing was ever resolved, nobody would like you get…
[1:22:55.4] SC: You’ll get no relief.
[1:22:57.0] TG: If every loop open loop was close, the story is now over. The reason they can keep soap operas going for years and years is — and they were like walking through different soap operas and they’re like, “Look this scene is a cliff hanger, this scene is a cliff hanger, this scene they resolve something from earlier, then cliff hanger, cliff hanger, resolution.”
Because as you kind of piece out these things, at some point you realize, well even that I see what you’re saying is like, the author of The Girl With All the Gifts, never explicitly tells you that she’s a zombie. You just figure it out based on what happens. That’s what you mean by the actions driving it.
[1:23:45.4] SC: That’s right. What she does, her longings, her desires, it was a brilliant way of making the villain a victim because the villain of the story are the zombies. Because zombies eat all of us, everybody dies, right? Zombies are evil. So what he did is he made the villain the victim, the victim is the little girl. We discover her villainy after a while but we love her so much by that time.
[1:24:18.5] TG: Yeah, that’s how he flipped over a genre convention as you — he started you out by being emotionally connected to zombies which never happens in zombie stories.
[1:24:30.8] SC: Exactly and that’s why it’s a big book. I mean, I don’t know if it’s hit the bestseller list but it’s a book that a lot of people are referencing and they’re enjoying and they’ll definitely make a movie out of it someday because it’s got the stuff.
What’s great about — I mean that’s what Twilight’s about, it’s making a vampire a victim. It’s making those things that — this is what’s interesting is that if you can make, here’s an interesting what if. What if there had never was an Osama Bin Laden? What if Al-Queda is a myth? What if it was manufactured by a great advertising agency?
And the United States people in charge said, “Hey, the economy is — we just can’t feed all these people, we don’t know how to do it, we’re losing power, we don’t know how to keep people in control, what are we going to do?” And it’s like that movie Wag the Dog that David Mamet wrote. It’s manipulating the public to believe in a threat that is so consuming that it keeps them docile. It keeps them so worried about survival that they don’t question the power in charge. So what if Osama Bin Laden was an actor and that whole all of that shit was just made up?
[1:26:04.5] TG: Yeah, that’s Iron Man III.
[1:26:06.8] SC: Is it that? I didn’t see that.
[1:26:10.0] TG: That’s exactly what they do. I get what you’re going at, they’re like…
[1:26:14.8] SC: So look at the things that are obvious and twist them. That’s what the guy with The Girl With All the Gifts did, he said, “What if the zombies were good? What if there was a good zombie? How I would I make a good zombie? Oh I make her a little girl.”
[1:26:31.2] TG: Yeah. Then your heart just gets ripped. Yeah I see.
[1:26:34.1] SC: Then you’re like, “Oh my god, of course,” and that’s what they did with left and right one in, that movie, that Danish movie about the vampire?
[1:26:44.1] TG: Oh yes. I read that book, it was a book first, wasn’t it?
[1:26:47.1] SC: Oh it was. Yeah, probably.
[1:26:50.5] TG: Yeah, yeah. That was brutal.
[1:26:52.0] SC: Think about that, “How do I make evil sympathetic to a degree that I’m rooting for the evil?” The trick with that though is that you do have to make the evil have goodness inside of them. Making the good evil is another way of doing it too. Making the victim the villain.
Think about the things that we take for granted and then put a twist on it and usually that can sustain an entire novel, just the revelation that what we think is evil is good and what is good is evil. That’s why the villain is so important in an action story is that they drive the fascination.
[1:27:38.4] TG: All right.
[1:27:41.5] SC: Simple.
[1:27:42.6] TG: Yeah, no it’s great that this is getting at where my problems lie and it gives me something to go work on, which is what I want. All right. Okay.
[1:27:58.4] SC: I’ll just give you one more example of a morph.
[1:28:00.5] TG: Okay.
[1:28:01.2] SC: This is what Stephen King did with Carrie, right? He made the victim this super natural villain. So Carrie is just a poor girl in high school who is abused by all the cheer leaders and we root for her to become a villain. So much so that by the end of that movie, we’re cheering these children being slaughtered, right? And we’re like, “Yes! Fuck those cheer leaders,” you know? That’s the compelling idea there is it’s just so great because what Stephen King has done is saying, “Be careful of who you fuck with.”
[1:28:49.6] TG: Yeah, yeah.
[1:28:51.1] SC: Those people that you’re messing with today, they can cause some serious shit to you tomorrow. The moral undertone, the theme of that story is, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a horror story but that’s theme there. “Beware: don’t be mean to people or they could really hurt you.”