What’s In Your Control and What’s Out of Your Control

In the last episode of The Story Grid Podcast, before we got into the nitty gritty scene work from Tim’s work in progress, we discussed two questions from one of our listeners, Peter Michael. Broadly, the questions concern why some books reach blockbuster bestselling success even though the line by line language is not of Nabokovian quality.  And exactly what role a writer’s style plays in his or her work’s commercial success or failure.

For me, the answers address those commercial vagaries that a writer can directly influence as well as those that he or she cannot begin to fathom.  What can one do to increase the chances of commercial success without falling into an impossible calculation of “giving the public what it wants?”

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

[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience.


In this episode we first dive in to some listener questions and if you ever have questions for us, you can shoot them to us at our Twitter profile which is @storygrid and we get to as many of those as we can. So we start with some listener questions and then we dive into some more of rewriting of my scenes. I also want to stop here and just thank all of you for listening.


This is our 50th episode. When Shawn and I started doing this podcast, I only talked him into agreeing to do 10 episodes and it just got so much response from you and we are enjoying it so we decided to just keep going to see how long we wanted to do it and we’re at episode 50 and our listenership has only grown and we’re enjoying it more and more.


So I just want to thank you for listening to it. This is why we do this so we can share it with you. So a big thanks to you for listening and getting through 50 of this ginormous episodes. Without any further ado, we’re going to jump into this week’s episode and get started.




[0:01:24.5] TG: So Shawn, I sent you the one scene and we’ll go over that in a few minutes. But we have gotten a couple of questions from some Twitter followers and for any of those listening, if you want to pitch this questions on twitter, sometimes we’ll throw those into the show. But there is a couple from Peter Michael that I thought would be good. I think they’re probably other questions other people, I know one of them in particular, I’ve wondered too.


Let’s just start with this one:


[0:01:52.5] PM: “Could you share your thoughts on why some books sell spectacularly well even though they’re considered to be poorly written?”


[0:02:00.5] TG: When I read that, the first thing I thought of was 50 Shades of Grey because if you go and read the reviews of 50 Shades of Grey, you will see like all the top reviews say it’s like horribly written. But yet it’s one of the biggest sellers of the last few years. Then people would arguably say that about James Patterson because it’s these books that are just churning out. You know, you don’t have to have an opinion on their writing but just, I think we can all agree that some books that sell really well are not written as well as other books. So why do you think they take off when others don’t?


[0:02:35.9] SC: Well I think there are two things at work and at play here and one of them you can do something about and the other you really can’t.


[0:02:44.6] TG: Okay.


[0:02:46.0] SC: So the first thing at play is the quality of the storytelling. So when I say the quality of the storytelling, I’m talking about all the things that we talk about on Story Grid and the podcast. I’m talking about valence shifts from scene to scene, compelling inciting incidents, great turning points in scenes that are unexpected. Things that keep the reader turning pages because they want to find out what happens next.


Now, that is such a simple formula, “just make sure your reader wants to keep reading the pages”, that we often forget about that and the way you do that is by offering extraordinarily compelling scene by scene work. That doesn’t mean that necessarily the language is Keats’ quality or David Foster Wallace’s intelligence or any great literary master writer’s cadence. But what it does mean is that there are clear and distinct movements in the scene and if not the scene, there is something compelling in the act or the inciting incident of the global complication of the entire story.


So James Patterson has a real gift for very compelling inciting incidents and in generating suspense in that we don’t know what’s going to happen and the character, the lead character usually doesn’t know what’s going to happen either. He does not deal so much in dramatic irony. Obviously, there’s no way I could ever read everything that James Patterson has written, I have read…


[0:04:22.7] TG: I don’t think he could read everything.


[0:04:26.6] SC: But, you know, I’m talking about his early stories that really made them a bestseller like Along Came a Spider. That book I believe has some wild number of chapters which are scenes which I think it’s 120 or 30 chapters and everybody at the time when I was in the industry at the time and as an acquiring editor, the big talk was, “Jeez, the guy has 10 word chapters, what’s going on here? He’s deconstructing the entire novel form. But for some reason I read the whole thing last night.”


That’s the first thing, they’re very good storytellers, they’re not necessarily great line by line writers. That is something we can control, right? We can all learn how to be better storytellers and, in fact, what this entire podcast is about is learning the craft and the form of story structure and constantly not settling for the first idea that pops into our head. So that’s one reason why this books work so well is that you just can’t stop reading them.


The second reason is something that speaks more I think to the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon and I might dig myself some sort of hole, some social hole here by my theories, but I’m going to do it anyway.


[0:05:46.5] TG: Okay.


[0:05:48.2] SC: Because why not? I think that our culture, meaning the global mish-mash of everything that gets, injected into our brains is we’re walking down the street or on the internet or watching television has a great effect on what becomes the next big thing. What becomes popular. And if you look at sort of the mass psychology of a particular culture form a very big point of view. Almost as if Martians landed on the planet and they were trying to figure out, “What’s going on here? Why do these people behave in the ways that they’re behaving?”


I think you can say, you can draw some conclusion, and one of the things over the past, I’ll just use that as an example of the rise of the legal thriller in the 1990’s. The rise of the legal thriller coincided with a lot of the trial of the century, the OJ Simpson trial, and a lot of real turmoil within a number of communities and that continues today. That really started to question the whole system of justice and criminality in our country.


So people started to think about, “Well jeez, maybe the court systems aren’t fair? Maybe there’s such prejudice within the court systems that it’s impossible to get a fair trial?” I think it’s this underlying questions and experiences that people are having that drive them to a fictional story that explores those themes. So the legal thriller was about justice, it was about whether or not the criminal justice system works. And in many cases, all of those thrillers that explored and showed the flaws and the hypocrisies of the criminal justice system were the ones that became the most popular.


Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, these were primarily written by lawyers who were frustrated by the systems themselves and they were writing probably to vent a lot of their own personal strife and anger about it. John Grisham rose at this point. Robert Tanenbaum, they were, you know, book after book in the 90’s was of this legal thrillers that were just astounding. Then what happened is I think they started to wear out the public’s welcome after OJ. After the OJ trial, it was sort of this moment of, “Oh man, I don’t want to deal with this stuff anymore. I can’t figure it out.” That was sort of the general thing.


So to extrapolate from that global theory, my global theory that the cultural underpinnings of society really do the reflected in the books that we find most compelling. The 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon, in my opinion, is a reflection of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970’s, women in the work place, women getting more and more powerful, men losing their perspective of what it means to be a man anymore. When I was growing up, I’m in my 50’s now. When I was growing up, it was pretty clear what it took to be a man. You had to be forceful, strong, you had to support your family, you had to do these things, this thing and it was a very long list if things that were required of a man.


But today, to become a man requires a lot of deep thought. The male roles and the female roles have shifted in ways that are completely different from the historical record. So what you have here is a lot of male-female tension that’s in the culture. I can speak for myself, I always get uncomfortable when I have to talk about this kind of stuff because I don’t want to offend anybody and this is one of the reasons why Mad Men, the television series, I think was so popular. Because it reflected what was before and that conflicting moment in the 1960’s and early 70’s where women in the work place, and were just saying, “I’m not going to take this anymore, this is ridiculous, you guys don’t know what you’re talking about. I am just as valid as you are, I’ve got my own ideas, I’m thoughtful.”


I know this is a long explanation but for me, 50 Shades of Grey, it puts men and women in this old historical contextual roles where the man seems powerful at the beginning, the woman enjoys his power over her. It’s a game though. It’s a game. The movement of the story is about, I don’t want to make it simple, but it’s sort of taming the wild man, the untamable beast in a way. My idea about that is you can’t, nobody has any idea, right? You can’t sit down and write a novel based upon what you think the culture is all about right now. You can try and maybe you could be close, who knows?


But you can’t, as an artist, be worrying so much about getting that perfect sweet spot of cultural movement to a line with the planetary shifts of your novel so that it becomes successful. So my recommendation is, of the two things that you can control, the one thing I always recommend over the other is that concentrate on your story’s form, dig deeply into all of the elements that make up your story and don’t settle for the first thing. Challenge yourself, get better and better and let the culture sort of take care of itself.


[0:11:25.0] TG: That actually leads into the second question that came in from Peter.


[0:11:29.0] PM: “Could you share your thoughts on the significance or insignificance of a writer style, i.e. their use of language?”


[0:11:35.0] TG: And this came up to me, I was talking with another writer friend of mine because I’m starting to have writers think that I know what I’m talking about because you and I do this podcast, and so they start asking me my advice and I’m like, “Well, I think Shawn would say in this case ____.”


So one of the things that I said was just the writer was kind of worried about their form and their use of language and all this kind of stuff and I feel like with the books that I’ve read and the books that are popular. So if you read On Writing, Stephen King spins a spectacular amount of time talking about cutting out adverbs. But yet you read the Harry Potter series which is one of the most popular series of our time and she uses adverbs after almost everything. “He walked down the hall sneakily.” All of this kind of crazy adverbs you’ve never heard before, she just shoves in there and it works.


So my thing is that language and the beauty of language or your style of writing is a supplement to a killer story. Because the story is what dries it and I’ll forgive, even in some self-published books, I’ve forgiven like major grammar mistakes that are annoying because I just got to know what happens next. So that’s kind of what my answer to a friend about that same thing. I’m curious if you would agree with that? How much writer style and use of language and that kind of stuff really matter versus getting the story right?


[0:13:13.0] SC: I think I would agree with you Tim. I think the story, it’s the beating heart of the creation and the language and that sort of thing, I’m not trying to belittle it or to say it’s not important but what’s important about the language is that it be authentic that it be an original voice, that it be sincere. And I remember as an editor at the major houses, I would use a phrase when I was pitching at the editorial board and the phrase I would use is that “the storytelling is sincere, the language is sincere”.


And what I would mean by that is when you read say The Da Vinci Code. I’m not a great fan of the literary skills of the language in The Da Vinci Code but what I will say, it’s sincere. You don’t feel like Dan Brown is trying to put on some sort of a disguise to write his novel. It feels like “here is somebody who is working hard, who is writing at his best voice with the best language he is comfortable with and this is sincere”. Whereas, if you’ve often times, what you’ll find in publishing is that a very highly regarded literary artist, somebody who has given rave reviews by the New York Review of Books or whoever, they sometimes slum it and they say, “Well, I always wanted to write a crime story so I’m going to write a crime story and here it is.”


What you discover in those stories, even if they’re technically and the form and the story are pretty solid is that the language feels inauthentic. It feels as if somebody is putting on some kind of mask to pretend to be somebody that they’re not. So language is a very important — it’s the skin. Everybody has a heart but everybody looks differently. The heart of your story is the form of the story, the things that we talk about at the story grid podcast. Your inciting incident, your progressive complications, your crisis, your climax and your resolution. From scene to scene, from sequence to sequence, act to act, et cetera. That is the beating heart of your work.


Now, the skin and all the other things that comprise that living thing are made up of the language and your authenticity as a writer. My point would be if some of this great writers — now, there are people who can do both, right? Those are the people that we all just sort of fawn over because when they write a great novel, I’m thinking of John Irving when he wrote The World According to Garp. Now, he’s written a lot of terrific novels but I think that novel was so remarkably interesting and also filled with story innovations in a way that nobody had seen before. Plus he was just a great wordsmith and when you read the book, it’s this fantastical strange story that is believable too.


So when you combine both, you really have something. But what I would say is, grow into your voice as you’re learning the form, right? Learn how to tell a great story and as you tell more and more and you work on your scenes more and more, you will eventually find a sweet spot for your own personal writing when you say, “That sounds like me. That sentence,” and it followed by, if I analyze my own writing, I would see probably a long sentence and then a short sentence and then a long-ish, and then a medium. If I were to put it under some hedometer or a computer, it might give me some sort of pattern that would sound like Shawn Coyne. But I know it internally and you know your voice internally.


When you’re hitting on all cylinders and you feel good about your scene, you say to yourself, maybe not really but deep down you go, “That’s me. I feel good about that scene and I’ll put that scene in front of anybody and if they have a problem with it, they just don’t like the way I write and that’s okay with me. But that’s me, that’s my voice. And yeah, I can’t mimic Shawn Coyne’s voice because I’ll never do it as well as him. But he’ll never do me as well as me.” So that’s the trick in learning about language. I would say, learn your craft first, learn the form first and as you are doing the blue collar work necessary to do that, guess what’s going to happen? You will be writing more and more and more and eventually you’re going to start feeling your original voice.


[0:17:54.2] TG: Okay. I like that answer. Okay, so let’s go ahead. The reason I sent you this scene was this is the one that we talked about the most. So if you go back and read the scenes that I posted with the last two episodes, this is the fourth scenes because we cut the third scene. This is the one where Jessie and 83 — where 83 is basically indoctrinating Jessie into this new world but my original scene was like them sitting in a living room with coffee and you said it needed action. So that’s what I try to rewrite and I sent you that this morning and before I give how I felt about it, I want to get your feedback on it.


[0:18:38.1] SC: Well the first thing I’ll say is I think it’s a very large step in the right direction and the reason being is that it feels like we’re watching two people do something interesting rather than watching two people have a conversation and that’s because that’s what’s happening and the other thing that it’s doing is that you’re just dumping so much exposition into this scene in a way that’s organic and when I say organic, what I mean by that is that we the reader are learning about the world in the same way that the protagonist is learning about the world.


Putting the camera over Jessie’s shoulder as she wakes up and we watch her put on these clothes and leave the compound and see all these bald headed people, it’s very disturbing and strange. In the meantime, you are teaching the reader about this universe. You’re talking about this world that they are living in without saying, “It was a very hot day and on this very hot day, a little girl,” you know?


Through active movement of the two characters, the one character wakes up the other who has a terrible hangover from a terrible experience being shamed and she is like, “You got to get up, we got to move, we got to get you out of here,” and I like it because it does feel literally like somebody has a hangover at the beginning. So all of this is to say that this is a very large step forward, as supposed to the previous scene. How did you feel about it?


[0:20:13.7] TG: So one thing I loved about it is it was significantly longer without, I think, being boring. The original was 1,200 or 1,300 words or something like that, I can’t remember off the top but this one was almost 2,000 words and I didn’t even realize it was that long until I was done. So most of my scenes, I’m like struggling to extend them out to the 1,500-word mark and most of them don’t hit it. Where this felt like pretty natural to extend it that long and it didn’t feel like I was just like adding stuff in to extend it.


Which makes me feel good about if we’ve got to cut it like cut pieces out of it, there’s room to do that now. So that felt good. It just felt good to write that long of a scene without trying to add stuff in. I felt like I couldn’t figure out how to end the scene in a, you know, I was thinking, “Okay, she’s starting out negative and did I end it negative? So I feel like there wasn’t a valence shift but I couldn’t figure out how to…”


[0:21:23.8] SC: That’s very good, that’s exactly the problem.


[0:21:28.0] TG: Okay, I couldn’t figure out, but it needed to start negative because I cut out the third scene. No I need to start positive.


[0:21:35.9] SC: That’s correct.


[0:21:38.4] TG: Oh! So if I had figured out a way to start positive, the rest of the scene would have worked?


[0:21:43.0] SC: Well, it does start positive. Let me just jump in here, it does start positive.


[0:21:48.1] TG: So let me finish real quick. That I could sense that something was off and I struggled at the end of the scene to end the scene in an appropriate way. I couldn’t figure out really what to do with it. So I just ended it how I did and you all can go read it in the podcast notes, that are listening. So there was that.


The other thing was I did have fun just kind of figuring out, there are a couple of points when she puts on the goggles for the first time and then when she forgets to put them on when she goes back outside that I’m explaining the world without explaining the world. You know. Those points were kind of fun to just drop those in and I’m more and more feeling like, well the reader figured out what’s going on or make up something that works to go along with what I’m writing.


[0:22:43.2] SC: That’s a great example of — let me just jump in and I’ll let you go on but…


[0:22:46.4] TG: No, that’s about it on my end.


[0:22:48.5] SC: That’s a great example of showing and not telling. A lot of people get confused when somebody says, “Show, don’t tell.” That’s what that means. Have your character deal with the environment, literally by putting on goggles rather than saying, “The sun burst through the door in a way that was remarkably powerful.” Because it’s much more interesting to the reader because if you look at this again, like being Steven Spielberg in your mind, you are explaining the movements of the story as you are witnessing them in your mind’s eye.


So when you’re creating this scene, the way I would create this scene is think of a little girl lying in the bed at the beginning and slowly walking her out the door, putting on these clothes, putting on this goggles et cetera. So that has literal movement in the scene that the reader can feel a progression of moving from one room to a new room to another area, to this. So that works very well. Now, let me explain the challenges here, and I’ll offer some solutions to the challenges too.


But before I say that, I just want to say again, this scene is much better than the previous scene serving this purpose. Now the previous scene, the value shift move from uninformed to informed. Jessie at the beginning of the scene is uninformed, which is a negative and it ends informed, which is a positive. Now, that is sort of the same — that value is at stake here too.


But what I’m suggesting to you is the value isn’t strong enough to support this scene because when you move a scene from uninformed to informed, as a means just to sort of get some exposition out, you face a problem that you are facing in this scene. That is it doesn’t feel interesting after a while. There’s no turning point, there’s no big moment that we can pinpoint that says, “Oh my god, oh my god. What’s going to happen next?” And that’s what you need at the end.


[0:25:04.5] TG: It just kind of petered out.


[0:25:07.0] SC: Yeah, it kind of did.


[0:25:07.0] TG: Okay.


[0:25:08.0] SC: So good, you recognize that. So the way to deal with this is to say to yourself, “How can I kill two birds with one stone?” And you’ve done a nice kill of setting up the extraordinary world here. We’re getting a feel for it just how difficult the circumstances are in this world. Now the other thing that you could do is explain the other side of the world and what I mean by that is, “Okay, we have this numbered people who go and do all this dirty work during the day and they service those who are locked, having their brains locked into this game and this game is so compelling and so interesting that they don’t notice these numbered people at all. They’re anonymous.


Jessie doesn’t even remember seeing this numbered people when she was on the other side of the equation. Which brings up the question, what is it like for those people who are plugged into the game? And instead of trying to describe the whole kit and caboodle, what you want to do is set up the transition from this very dark world to this utopian, fake utopian world in the future in the next act. So this is a very long-winded way of saying that have a turning point that informs the reader about what it’s like to be in the weird world.


So as an example, what you can do, is as Jessie is cleaning up the bedpan of the woman or the man, whichever one you want to pick, as somebody who is a newbie doing something, what happens is that you inadvertently do something wrong without knowing, you don’t know all the rules yet. So Jessie could inadvertently pull the cord out of one of this people’s heads and then, that would be an active moment that turns the scene. She actively, even though accidentally, she actively removes the cord, the Ethernet cable if you will, that the people put in before they go to bed before they go to sleep so the thing lives in this dream world. And then after she does that, something extraordinary has to happen, something so shocking and strange that it really makes the reader flinch a little bit.


One of the things I was thinking about for you is you might want to mimic a real life thing. And a real life thing that is extraordinarily strange and weird is when people overdose on opiates. When they overdose on opiates, what the police departments now have to do is they have to inject Narcan into their blood stream as soon as possible so that it blocks the opiates and then their breathing can come back and they resuscitate. So if you ever saw the movie pulp fiction, there’s that amazing scene when John Travolta sticks the needle in Uma Thurman’s heart to resuscitate her after she’s OD’d on heroine and she lets out this gasp. It’s almost as if she’s pulled out of a, you know, she’s drowning and somebody pulls her out.


Today, unfortunately, we have opiates that are far more addictive and horrifying than heroine. There’s something called fentanyl, which is just this thing that’s like 150 times as powerful as heroin. So when these people who are OD’ing on fentanyl are given Narcan, what happens is that they have the withdrawal of losing the opiate rush in exponential form. So when they’re awakened by the Narcan, they feel so horrible that they lash out when they wake up. So it’s almost as if they’re these zombies lying on the ground, they get the Narcan shot and then they attack whoever has just saved their life.


So my thinking was, because you’re building up this thing where you have this docile zombie-like people who are so out of it, they’re lying on bed and they’re going to the bathroom through intravenous tubes and these poor women and numbered people have to empty their bedpans and it seems that these are like — and also you’ve set it up earlier before that they’ll fall to the floor and won’t even know it because their cords are still in. So if Jessie pulls out the cord and one of this people attacks her as if to kill her, then you escalate the stakes very quickly. You turn the scene from “oh Jessie, we’re indoctrinating you into the world, isn’t this difficult? This is going to be very hard Jessie”. But bang, “this is life threatening, you make one mistake and you pull out one of this people’s cords, they can kill you”.


And then we could have 83 rescues Jessie before she gets the Ethernet cord back into the head of the person, puts her back on the bed and then bang, you end the scene and the reader goes, “Oh my god, what is going on in that virtual world? How addictive is that? That is some messed up thing going on. What’s going to happen next?” So that was a thought to take this away from a scene of moving from uninformed to informed, to safe to vulnerable death. So you can move the value from being this kind of a soft value to a very hard value that’s action driven, that’s my suggestion.


[0:30:41.4] SC: I like that because I could even use it as like, if you don’t log out of your computer the right way and just shut it down everything can go haywire, right? It also explains the behavior of her mother, right? We’ve seen her mother on stage once and we’re going to see her shortly again. One of the things, one of the notes, the mother seems a little over the top. But now when you put this in, the mother, we will be explaining the behavior of the mother through this. So there might be a certain kind of person who really gets locked into this and is a mess when they’re not in the world and then there are the other kinds of people like Jessie and her father who seem to be able to negotiate the dream-like world in reality in a far better way.


[0:31:28.3] TG: Well just like the vast majority of people that take drugs don’t actually get addicted to them.


[0:31:33.4] SC: Right. But I will say that I’ll say this about the drug problem now is that the drugs now are so outrageously addictive that the fentanyl thing is, you take that one time, you got a good shot at being addicted very quickly. So it’s not like that whole — there used to be this thing when I was growing up in the 70’s, “Oh he’s experimenting with drugs.” Well, it’s not smoking a joint that has no power in 1970. Today, you smoke a joint, you’re out man, it’s over. So people keep experimenting but the drugs are so strong now that you — don’t experiment, don’t go near that stuff. Really, seriously.


[0:32:17.0] TG: No, I know. I’m not advocating it.


[0:32:18.0] SC: No I know you’re not advocating. I know that but I’m just saying, if you had any inclination to try something for the heck of it, that is a terrible, terrible mistake.


[0:32:29.5] TG: This come back to okay, I’m building the tension with kind of rolling through that. I basically remove the ending and replaced it with something like this, it would fix the scene and the scene would work.


[0:32:46.6] SC: Well the scene works now, it’s just not very — it’s kind of, if this is the third scene in your novel and it is, you’re going to want to keep the engine going. Keep rattling, ratcheting up the suspense. The scene works but it’s not your best scene, right? It’s not as good as it could be. The way to fix the scene that’s not as good as it can be is to really look at the value shift. What’s at stake in this scene? What’s at stake in this scene now is information. She doesn’t have it at the beginning, she has it at the end, that’s a change that worked, is it great? No, it’s not great. It’s too soft, especially for your genre, right?


Now, if this was a coming of age novel and somebody was going to work in a candy store and they learned how to use the cash register, that might work but you’re running a dystopian action thriller with a — so you need to abide the conventions of your genre. This isn’t a soft coming of age story, and this is a hard action thriller coming of age story. So when I noticed this, I said, “How can we increase the value at stake so that it’s consistent with what’s come before and what’s going to happen in the future, without being absolutely life threatening?” And this is a way to do that and it also kills two birds with one stone because you can really set up exposition like you’re using exposition as ammunition as Robert McKee likes to say. It’s a great piece of advice.


The exposition that you’re putting in this scene is setting up things that you’re going to be able to really nail and hammer in your middle build because you’re setting up this mystery for not only the reader butt Jessie. Jessie doesn’t know what she’s in for you know? She’s getting deeper and deeper into the hole and of course, 83 is going to save her from the zombie because we need her to. But, you know, she might get a nice little scratch on her cheek or something, something that’s going to hurt and is going to need to heal over time so that she’s learning, “My gosh, maybe I should have taken that scholarship. What am I, nuts?”


[0:35:03.7] TG: Right.


[0:35:04.9] SC: This is also going to move a polarity shift from a negative to a positive instead of the positive to a negative because you want — let me just, I have your thing up on my computer. Let me just click the story grid spreadsheet from your beginning hook. Now, the second scene moves from negative to positive.


[0:35:24.6] TG: I thought it moved from…


[0:35:25.9] SC: Go ahead.


[0:35:26.0] TG: Yeah, I thought it was — yeah, it’s negative to positive.


[0:35:29.2] SC: Right, she’s saved at the end.


[0:35:30.8] TG: This should be positive to negative?


[0:35:33.2] SC: Yes, and it does open positive because she is awoken by a maternal presence who is going to guide her through this hell. Her mentor shows up. That’s a positive thing. But at the end, it’s negative because she almost gets killed.


[0:35:49.4] TG: So this brings up something I was wondering. One of the writers I like is Brent Weeks and he does this thing where almost every scene he ends with a cliff hanger. We’ve talked about this before about how a scene is an inciting incident. Oh man, okay. I feel like I should get this right on a test now. The inciting incident — oh shit. The middle part, the climax, or the crisis to climax.


[0:36:21.7] SC: He ends on climax instead of resolution.


[0:36:24.0] TG: Right. Then the resolution is the beginning of the next scene. So we leave off the resolution for the next scene of that storyline. So to really end it on a negative, should it end with her being attacked like turning around and the old lady’s woken up and is on top of her and then it ends and then the next scene begins with the struggle and 83 saving her or should I finish out that thought process in this scene? Does that make sense what I’m asking?


[0:37:03.0] SC: Yeah, it absolutely does. My inclination is to end it on a cliffhanger. That’s my gut reaction because then it will catapult the reader into chapter four. If you’re going to pull out sort of narrative velocity trick, you want to get people really so sucked in as quickly as possible. So yeah, I would probably end it on a cliffhanger where the old lady’s got a razor blade and is about to cut her face or something and then you open up the next scene with the, you’re resolving scene three at the beginning of scene four.


So yeah, I think that’s a good course of action and the other thing is, once you know what you’re doing, you can change it, right? You know, “This is how I create a cliffhanger, should I put a cliffhanger in chapter three? Yeah, I think I should because I ended chapter two with her being saved by these unknown numbered people. So I gave the resolution in chapter two, I cliff hanger chapter one.” Remember, she just says “no” at the end.


[0:38:08.6] TG: Right.


[0:38:09.5] SC: the sort of a cliff hanger end of chapter one, end of chapter two was you had a full resolution there and chapter three ending on a cliffhanger, I think is a good idea.


[0:38:19.7] TG: Okay. Which will automatically — so it will end negative, which automatically because I have to finish that story so it’s going to be dangerous at first, it’s going to automatically start negative again?


[0:38:31.4] SC: Yeah, I mean, again, to the valence shifts and the positive to negative stuff, they’re not absolutes and what I mean by that is that you interpret them by the value at stake. So even though the beginning of chapter four could start negatively with her fighting for her life or something, because it’s the resolution of the previous scene, you can — all I’m saying is that don’t kill yourself over that.


[0:39:01.1] TG: Wait, you just said something that clicked I think for the first time about “you have to know what’s changing, what’s at stake before you can do negative or positive.”


[0:39:13.7] SC: Yeah.


[0:39:14.0] TG: So even though, because I was thinking, “Well, she’s waking with this terrible headache in this really scary place, that’s a negative beginning but if we’re looking at the value shift as safe to unsafe then she does start positive because she’s safe at the beginning and unsafe at the end.


[0:39:37.2] SC: That’s exactly correct.


[0:39:38.3] TG: Okay, that’s where I’ve always just struggled of like, I could have read that scene and interpreted it that it was positive to negative where you said it was negative to positive and I didn’t understand what I was missing. So that was the missing piece for me was you have to know what’s at stake first and then you can see whether or not it has shifted and where it shifted to.


[0:40:03.8] SC: Exactly. You want to look at…


[0:40:08.6] TG: It only took me a year of you saying that to understand it.


[0:40:12.2] SC: It’s not — these are discussions, some would say arguments that I have with people sometimes about their interpretation of a particular text and the thing is, it’s a little squishy. So your evaluation of a scene and my evaluation of a scene might be different and we might be attracted to a different value than the other person. So you could be doing a story grid spreadsheet of your scene and you could move from uninformed to informed as you would have in the second draft of the scene.


[0:40:48.8] TG: But I couldn’t end in that same way because uninformed to informed, it would need to turn on a critical piece of information.


[0:40:56.3] SC: On a revelation. On some piece of information that was a very big revelation. What you had was a lot of progressive little revelations that didn’t add up to a big revelation. Now in the notes that I had written in the previous draft, I had written in the spreadsheet something like, “Jessie has one week to acclimate.” And I remember telling you if you’re going to use uninformed to informed, not in so many words Tim. I’m not saying that I said that specifically. I was just talking about the scene globally. I said, “You’re going to want to have some revelatory piece that turns the thing.”


So in that case, the way you would turn the scene would be to have 83 at the end of the scene, after they’ve emptied the bedpans turn to Jessie and say, “You do know you only have one week to get ready?” Bang, that would be the revelatory turning point of the scene and as I was thinking of that, I thought it was cheesy. I thought it seemed too forced for 83 to do this. So instead, what I’m recommending instead is to turn it into action and to raise the value incrementally from a kind of wishy-washy uninformed to informed, to safe to vulnerable.


So yeah, the way to look at scenes is to say to yourself, “What value is going to serve me well in this scene and how do I turn the value?” When you’re dealing with something, somebody being threatened physically, it’s pretty easy to turn the value. You have somebody attack them. When you’re dealing with somebody who is looking for information like in a mystery novel, like a detective who is interviewing somebody, this is all detective crime fiction is built upon the scene where the investigator is interviewing somebody and at some point, the, somebody says something that gives a clue, gives the investigator a clue. It’s a revelatory turning point.


So those are moments that are throughout mystery crime fiction which is softer especially in amateur sleuths. But in action stories and thriller stories, you know, the primary thing at stake is life and death. So when you think about that, you want to say to yourself, “I want to have a lot of active scenes where life and death are at stake so that I pay off the promise to the readers that I’ve made by the cover on my book.” If you pick up a book and it looks like a thriller and it’s all revelatory changes in the first three or four chapters, it’s like, “Wow, jeez, this is boring, I thought somebody was going to punch somebody. Where’s the action here?”


So this is what to think about, as you have chosen your genres, whenever you get a little confused, you say to yourself, “Okay, what promise did I make the reader? Okay, I’m writing a thriller about a young girl who has to go on a mission to save her family and it’s a thriller and it’s dark. So how am I best going to keep that promise to readers? I’m going to turn scenes as best I can, as frequently as I can with as much innovation as I can on the life and death value.


The other thing that you’re accomplishing in this scene, remember, this is a scene that I said to you, “You need a scene that basically shows the ordinary world for this girl.” Because when you move into the extraordinary world in the hero’s journey sort of path and in the middle build, we need the reader to know, have a firm grasp of where she came from. So I said, “Take her on a tour of the place so that the reader can learn.” So this was a scene that we built as an expositional scene that is about informing the reader of this world.


[0:44:53.0] TG: Did it accomplish that?


[0:44:54.0] SC: I think it did. I mean yeah. I think you’ve got the really strong foundation of a very interesting active journey that this girl goes on that shows just how dark this world is and in addition to that, to use a life and death stake at the very end. What you’re doing is you’re zigging the scene when the reader is expecting a zag. So when they start reading the scene to him, they’re going to say to themselves, “Oh I get it, this is the scene where we walk through the ordinary world.”


Now, they’re not going to know that — they’re going to know that intuitively, right? They’re going to expect you to do what you did and you did it. The way to zag them when they’re expecting a zig is to change the value at the end. “Oh, you thought it was about this. No, this is about how dangerous these people are when you unplug them,” which is kind of an interesting thing when you think about it. So they’re going to expect, “This is what she has to do. Oh my gosh, that zombie woman just almost killed her, what’s going to happen next?”


[0:45:57.6] TG: Okay.


[0:45:57.7] SC: You get it? So you’re paying off the promise that you made the reader. “Well, this is a thriller, seriously. Stick with me.” And then they start scene three and they’re like, “Oh, this is that scene where they’re going to walk around town and see everything. Oh my gosh, wait, maybe this is a thriller, I got to keep going.”


[0:46:13.3] TG: Yeah, you know, I told you about that book Wayward Pines and I’m thinking I might go back and read the first few chapters because it’s all about waking up in this world that kind of looks familiar but everything is wrong with it. The author did a really good job of just sucking you into wondering what the hell is going on.


Okay, so that gives me, you know, I can work on that scene, the end of that scene. Oh, so how did you feel about the length of it? Did you feel like it was too long or did it work if again these last, it turns the right way at the end?


[0:46:54.3] SC: I didn’t feel one way or the other about it, I think it’s perfectly fine, you have to remember that it’s okay to have 900-word scenes. I mean, you and I were talking about Pride and Prejudice the other day, it opens with three scenes that are less than a thousand words and you’re sucked right in, you can’t help yourself. You want to know, “Oh my gosh, there’s a bachelor in town? Is he going to marry? Who is he going to marry?”


[0:47:19.2] TG: Yeah, I know that but at the same time, when I repeatedly — when all I seem to be able to write is 900-word scenes, I start to get concerned.


[0:47:31.4] SC: Well, that’s just because you’re at the beginning of your craft and I don’t know any professional writer who says to themselves, “Oh my scenes are too short.” So being able to accomplish the five fundamentals of storytelling in one 900 word scene is something to be proud of and trust me, it will not be difficult to go in and pad with all that stuff we were talking about earlier, the language stuff. And once you start the line by line editing is when you can start saying, “Oh it seems like I’m [inaudible] one note. I’m doing 900-word scene, 900-word scene, 900-word scene.”


And you might say to yourself, “These two scenes work, maybe I can just jam them together into a single chapter with a good transitional sentence and then I could have a two scene chapter that the reader will feel as if they’re getting a full body chapter while,” — you know, there are tricks that you can do but these are tricks that are, these are like, this is polishing and sanding before you put on the polyurethane on your table. You’re working with two by fours right now and you’re putting in foundational, pouring concrete on the foundation. So to be very short with your scenes is perfectly fine and I encourage people to do that. So this is all the same, don’t sweat the short scenes.


[0:49:00.8] TG: Okay, well I’ll keep moving on this rewrite of beginning hook and try not to think about that it’s only 25% of the book that’s taking this long. So I’ll keep rolling and we’ll be back next week to go over some more scenes I guess.


[0:49:19.9] SC: Okay, cool.




[0:49:21.4] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so that you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any of the past 49 episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.


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2 comments on “What’s In Your Control and What’s Out of Your Control

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    Tim, thanks for confessing that it’s taken about a year for you to gain an understanding of scene polarity. It’s something I struggle with, not being sure whether I’m judging the polarity of my own scenes accurately and berating myself — “You wrote it! Why don’t you know???” Shawn, thanks for pointing out that one reader’s perception about how a scene begins and ends in terms of polarity might well be different from the writer’s. I’ll keep working on it. As always, thanks!

  2. NewspaperMan says:

    Great episode. Almost a revision of sorts / a quick recap of all the fundamentals – sticking to the pentagram (inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution), show not tell, exposition as ammunition, narrative velocity trick ( how to get a reader get sucked in), valence shifts, promise made to a reader, ending on cliffhanger so that the reader catapults to next chapter.

    Once you had discussed Transactional Analysis. While reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, a simple fact became obvious – because reading and writing are mental activities – a writer needs a firm footing in Psychology. Ex. what you call ” the first idea that pops into our head” Daniel Kahneman would translate it to “System 1 thinking” (and a lazy System 2 !). Chapter 4 of Thinking, Fast and Slow – The Associative Machine – is an excellent introduction to the power of priming and how it’s use in writing can emotionally affect the reader (Florida effect). Maybe one of these days – you can have an exclusive podcast on your favourite theories in Psychology.

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