Go back to Genre. Think about what promises you are making your audience with the Genre choices you’ve made. Whenever you hit a wall, go back to that question. How can I streamline my work to best serve the people who love these kinds of stories?
In this week’s episode of The Story Grid Podcast this “go back to Genre” theme rises again and again and again.
To listen click the play button below 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 years’ experience.
In this episode, I have some questions about genre, what genre I’m writing in, and how that will affect my overall story. Shawn and I dive into this, and if you’ve been listening to this show for a while, you know Shawn believes genre is extremely important. It gives you the conventions and obligatory scenes that your story needs to hit, and I was just getting a little confused about what that meant for my story, as I’m sure you have felt about your story from time to time.
I think it’s a great episode, I hope you enjoy it, let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:54.5] TG: So Shawn, a few weeks ago, a month ago, something, I was talking with a buddy of mine and I was kind of bragging. I’m like, “I’m to the point where Shawn, he doesn’t just let me write one scene, he’ll let me write a whole sequence before he’ll look at it and give me feedback,” and literally like the next day we recorded and you made me stop writing.
[0:01:14.2] SC: Entirely.
[0:01:17.2] TG: Right, as we figured out how to do a middle build. It’s been nice to have this plan in place, and I’m moving. I’ve got four scenes done since we talked — my first sequence actually expand out to four scenes, because I found this great opportunity as I was writing to stop and explain the world through the eyes of one of the characters, which was kind of neat.
Yeah, I’ve been writing on that, I’m going to try to get the first two sequences done, so roughly seven scenes done before you look at it. I’m going to get that to you probably next week. I’ve been thinking, I want to step back, since I’m not ready to go over the writing yet, and just — I had some questions around a genre, and this is kind of based on some of the emails you and I have been passing around from one of our listeners about the Lit RPG genre. I’m struggling a little bit with how to think about — we keep saying, “Okay, we’re writing a coming of age thriller, and so because of that, it has these certain kind of scenes we’ve got to hit,” and you know, obligatory scenes and conventions and all that.
Then when we layer in like a lit RPG, that doesn’t seem to be its own genre, that’s almost kind of like a different set. Anyway, I’m curious how you think about these things, because I don’t think you lay out in your book, like, here’s the sci-fi genre, and here is what has to be in your sci-fi book, because sci-fi is not really one of your genres. It’s more like okay, are you writing a war story, or are you writing a thriller, or you’re writing an action story, a love story.
How do you kind of think about, especially these new genres, like a lit RPG, as a newer genre that’s popping up? How do you think about how these things fit together, because I’m a little lost on it?
[0:03:04.9] SC: Okay, good questions, and I’m glad you brought it up, because somebody sent me an email about how I was classifying young adult fiction as a genre instead of a market. If I said that YA was a genre, it was probably, I was just speaking too quickly, but young adult stuff is a market. Meaning, it’s a put upon idea from publishers that just divides books depending upon the age of the reader. It really has nothing to do with genre classifications in general.
It’s a market place, and the other question that they said was that there are plenty of YA books where the pivotal moment and the pivotal story is not dependent upon coming of age. Yes, that is true too, just as there are action-adventure novels that don’t have any internal component whatsoever.
That great sort of video that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, where they explain Star Wars and the internal and external movements using that terrific television writer’s concepts was good, because what happens with genre, and obviously, you’re going through this now, is that we can get so deeply overwhelmed by all of the different conventions, obligatory scenes, et cetera.
To answer your question specifically, lit RPG is literature that concerns role playing games within the story itself. That’s what lit RPG stands for. I think so, or at least that’s the way I view it.
[0:04:47.7] TG: Yeah, that’s right. Role playing games, RPG’s.
[0:04:51.4] SC: Okay. That, as a genre, is a new sort of thing, and what I mean by that is that there are no Amazon classifications as of yet that determine that something’s lit RPG. It’s a movement among fans of stories that feature games inside of a larger story. Lit RPG has very few requirements. Essentially the requirements are that there are, there’s a game involved, usually a virtual reality game where somebody goes in to a mystical world that is digitally driven, be it a game world or a matrix.
There are two realities. There’s the reality in the game, and then there is reality, reality. That’s one thing. The other thing is that there has to be different levels inside of the game, meaning that the player has to progress inside the world from one hierarchy to another. That’s another convention of it. Then there are other minor conventions that are to be found.
I think there is a Facebook group that’s dedicated to lit RPG. I think there’s a lot of people who are now putting lit RPG in their subtitles for their books so that the Amazon readers will find them. I think if you go to Goodreads, I think there’s a lit RPG section, and this is for everybody who is interested in it. What lit RPG is, it’s one component, one element in the five-genre clover. You can go to storygrid.com and look at the genre clover, and where it belongs is in the reality clover.
It’s one of the petals on the clover, and it’s in the reality section, and the reality section has four major kinds of reality. There is — trying to find my book, as even I forget this stuff sometimes. Hold on a second.
[0:06:48.8] TG: Yeah, I’m pulling it up too. Page 55.
[0:06:51.9] SC: Okay, they’re factualism, and factualism is “our story is based upon historical fact.” They’re based on them, and it feels as if the story is almost a documentary field, there’s a movie out now about Jacqueline Onassis that uses that sensibility. Also, Forrest Gump, if you remember that movie. They put a lot of documentary footage within that larger story to give it a feeling of factualism.
Factualism plays as if we’re watching truth. Truthful events that happened, that are moving forward in a factual way. It doesn’t mean that it’s true, but it means it feels, the reality feels as if it’s fact. When Steven Spielberg made the movie Lincoln, he made that feel factual. The look of the set, the performances, all felt as if we were stepping back in time and seeing what the world was like in the United States during the Civil War, and we are inside the Oval Office with Abraham Lincoln. It’s a terrific movie.
Okay, that’s one part of the reality genre petal on the clover. Factualism. The second one is realism, and what realism is are stories that feel as if they could be real, but they’re made up. A couple of years ago, they released movies made about this drug dealer in New York City. I think I forgot what it was called. You know, Steve Pressfield has a new novel out and it’s called The Knowledge. The Knowledge is set in 1970’s New York, and all of the things that happen in the novel feel real.
All of the particular streets that he talks about are real streets, the restaurants he talks about are real restaurants from that era. Steve came back to New York and did four or five days of hunting down all of the specific details so that the realism of his story is true to life. It’s a wonderful story. I edited it, so take that for what you will.
It’s a wonderful story, a Big Lebowski-esque crime story, which it’s like half [unintelligible], half Coen brothers. It’s terrific. Anyway, that’s realism, it’s when you create a story, and you pack on the details that make it feel that it could have happened. You know it’s not factualism. The third one is absurdism. Absurdism means that it’s just a crazy mixed up world that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.
Jean-Luc Godard made great absurdist movies, and if you love that kind of thing, Godard is your guy. I think he made only two or three realistic films, and everything else was sort of — he made one movie where there’s this scene where this contemporary couple was walking in the woods, and all of a sudden Jane Austen comes up and starts having conversation with him. The real Jane Austen.
It’s an absurdity where Jane Austen would come back and talk to somebody in the woods. Another absurdist person was Waiting for Godot, that famous play by Samuel Beckett, and pretty much all of Beckett’s works were absurdist dramas. I write about this in the Story Grid, but absurdism came out of World War II, and it just made no sense that the world was the way it was. Absurdist dramatist came on board. It’s not a very popular genre, it’s not a very popular reality that people love anymore. My advice is to steer clear of absurdity.
Now, the last one is where lit RPG falls. That is the fantasy division of the reality. Fantasy is, it’s a very strict set of rules of mystical other-worlds, in which people would have it. Like Lord of the Rings is a great example of a fantasy world that is completely believable, it has its own rules, there’s magic, there’s all kinds of different things that occur in that world. We know that world has very specific rules and so…
[0:11:17.9] TG: You put science fiction inside of fantasy as well. As like a subgenre of fantasy?
[0:11:24.2] SC: I did.
[0:11:25.7] TG: Fantasy is basically — we have factualism, which is basically a true story, realism which is a could be true story, because it’s based in the real world, and then you basically have — the other two were basically stuff that doesn’t exist in the real world. One makes sense, which is fantasy, and one doesn’t make sense, which is absurdism.
[0:11:47.7] SC: That’s correct. Absurdism is driven by chaotic, unfathomable things happening, there aren’t really any rules. Fantasy has very strict rule base. Now, science fiction differs from sort of your Lord of the Rings kind of stuff, where the magic is science-based. Meaning that science fiction uses extrapolations of scientific possibility to their furthest place.
For example, Jurassic Park. That’s science fiction, because it’s based upon genetics, it’s based upon current research that has to do with DNA, but what it does is it takes a leap forward and it says, “What if this science — we were able to clone dinosaurs form old DNA? What would happen then?” That is a story, science fiction based upon real science. Hard science.
Now, there’s other science fiction that’s based on sort of what they call “soft science,” or magical kind of scientific thinking. Basically, it’s a made up idea that doesn’t make any sense, but people go with it.
[0:13:00.7] TG: It still creates a set of rules.
[0:13:02.8] SC: Yes.
[0:13:04.1] TG: You have Star Trek listed as an example, and it’s like, there’s still a set of rules that runs the Star Trek universe. I mean, they’re not like real world rules, but that doesn’t mean like all of the sudden they can breathe in space. You know, or something. Like they’ve set rules that they’re following inside of the book.
[0:13:22.4] SC: Exactly. The science…
[0:13:26.3] TG: Or inside of the world that’s created.
[0:13:26.7] SC: I mean, there are books that are written called The Science of Star Trek, which explores the fictional universe of Star Trek and how it mirrors possible futuristic things in our own world. Science fiction in that way is very much driven on realistic science-based ideas. Now, lit RPG is kind of interesting, and there’s a reason why genres evolve at particular times in the universe. I mentioned earlier why absurdism came about, because it was right after the bloodiest, most crazy time, which made no sense. An entire country of people seemingly lost their minds and perpetrated such evil that it made no sense anymore.
Millions of people lost their lives, it made no sense. Based upon that reality, that things just don’t make any sense anymore, dramatists and writers reacted to the culture and to the reality of history at the time, and evolved a new art form that was an intellectual statement of that fact. The world is unfathomable. It’s absurd. Get used to it.
Waiting for Godot, it’s one of the primary plays of the 20th century, is about two guys who were waiting for somebody who never shows up, and Godot is the not-too-subtle term for God anyway. Lit RPG is interesting to me, because it’s evolving as a genre right now, and what’s interesting is I would put it in the fantasy arena, but it’s almost this hybrid of thought science fiction — no, actually hard science fiction and fantasy, because the fictional world in the game itself comes from the imagination of the writer, who has to place himself or herself from the point of view of a game developer.
It’s this very meta idea, where the game developer as novelist. Why would you write a novel about a game when the very things that make you write a believable world could be transferred into becoming a game maker? It’s a very meta idea, where novelists are creating false games in their fictional reality in order to make a statement of some sort.
Lit RPG is interesting, because also to me, it’s evolving now when more and more people are playing more and more of these games. If more and more of these people are playing more and more of these games, why do they have the time to read a novel about it? Why are they reading novels about it? Because, in my opinion, the experience reaches a place of almost absurdity to the people who were playing the games.
You and I talk about this a lot, about time management, and I know you’ve played games in your past, and I certainly have. The thing that you slowly come to realize when you become addicted to a video game, there comes a place, it’s almost like learning how to play golf, there comes a place where you realize, “I am spending so much time doing something that has absolutely no meaning. Why am I doing this?” I think that that place is coming for the gamer.
[0:16:52.5] TG: You just made like, all the people that play golf really upset. Our listenership just dropped.
[0:16:59.8] SC: Well, the thing with golf is that you come to a point, and I came to this point sooner than most people do. When you realize, “I’m never going to get good. I’m just never going to get — I’m never going to shoot better than 80. That’s going to be my best,” and then you realize, “I’m spending 16 hours a weekend playing golf and I don’t know anything else, that’s all I do.”
What’s interesting to me about Lit RPG is that it’s this underground movement of people who were probably gamers themselves who are going to these novels, because novels have meaning embedded inside of them. There’s a story. For you, you have a coming of age story and a thriller, which is about the hero rising in defense of the greater good. Those two messages of seeing the world in a different way, changing your world view, and the heroic message of sacrificing yourself for the greater good are messages that lit RPG readers are really attached to.
I think in up-and-coming genre that will really get larger and larger, I think a lot of the people who read Hunger Games and Harry Potter, these are gamers too. I kind of forget your original question, other than lit RPG is part of fantasy, which is part of the reality petal on the five leaf clover of overall genre.
[0:18:21.6] TG: I guess I worry, well, my biggest worry right now is that the main lit RPG novel, the most well-known, is Ready Player One, and a vast majority of that book takes place in the digital world. Same thing with like, Matrix, where my book is shaping up to be where only a small part is actually played inside of the game. We could throw this in the bucket of things I worry about that don’t matter, which is getting full at this point.
If I say, well that’s what I’m trying to write, yet I’m not really, I don’t seem to be hitting any of the markers of a lit RPG, does that matter? Okay, you didn’t write lit RPG, you’re still writing a coming of age thriller, which is really all you need to know.
[0:19:13.7] SC: Lit RPG in my estimation is similar. There was a big movement in books a while ago where it was Me and Marley. There were all these books about dogs, and there were nonfiction books, and there were fiction books, and all kinds of things. Each one of those books was different, but they all shared one thing. They had a dog in the book. In my estimation, lit RPG is an evolving genre that does not have strict conventions and obligatory scenes yet.
It is not part of the content genre, it’s sort of the — I don’t mean to denigrate it in any way, but it’s sort of the setting element. It’s sort of the window dressing, and you know, I would say that this first novel that you’re writing, and we’ve talked about this since you started writing, is that you plan on making this a much larger story than one novel.
The first novel is an important place to establish character. For your character to be spending all her time inside this magical world, this lit RPG world, at the very start of the story, I think would be too distracting, because you have to remember your content. Your content is the thing that you need to focus on and make sure that you’re hitting those points. The global story here is a revelation, coming of age plot, where your lead character moves away from naiveté to knowingness of the world.
She gets a worldview shift from thinking the world is one way and ending up seeing another way. That’s the global coming of age movement. The thriller movement is the external genre, where the action is going forward, straight forward. In that genre, she is absolutely moving on the thriller arc. The beginning hook gets her to a place where she has to understand that if she does not accept the call, she’s going to hurt other people.
Reluctantly, she decides to accept the call, and figures she’ll just go through this program as quickly as she can, and then go back home, and then maybe everything will be okay eventually. You are not betraying the lit RPG genre conventions, because they are not firmly established yet. The worst thing that’s going to happen is that people who love lit RPG will read the book and say, “Hey, pretty good book. I wish there were more time in the game world though.” If you hit the thriller well, they will forgive you for not having Ready Player One’s in-depth game life in it. Does that make sense?
[0:22:03.9] TG: Yeah, it makes sense. The question I’m getting at is like, we talk so much about a genre, because you’re like, “Once you know your genre, it answers all these other questions for you,” right? I guess what I’m worried about is, you’ve probably already answered this, but I want to get at my struggle with this question that I think other writers probably struggle with, which is like, “Okay, if I’m still kind of unsure on the whole lit RPG thing, am I missing questions I should have answers to?” Because you’ve got to know the genre so that you know all this other stuff, so you know what points to hit, because if you’re writing a war story, you have to hit different moments than if you’re writing a thriller or whatever. If I am super squishy on the lit RPG thing, it’s okay, because you’re like, “That doesn’t matter as much, because you’ve got your external and internal, your thriller, you’ve got the content genres picked.”
That’s what’s giving you the information you need. The setting is just, again, like you said, not like denigrating, it but it’s basically the window dressing, right? Bad science fiction books are the ones that it’s more about the science fiction than it is about the story.
[0:23:15.6] SC: That’s exactly right. Let me say this, as a writer or as an artist, there are some fundamental decisions that you make as a creative person without even really thinking about it. What do I mean by that? Okay, there are as you said, science fiction stories that all they are about is the spaceship on the cover. There isn’t any global arc of character movement. There is no coming of age element. It’s a ship, it’s abandoned in space, it has to find its way home, go. That’s the entire story.
Will they get home or won’t they get home? The Martian is a great example of a story where the character does not change, and the whole story is externally driven by the content, and the science fiction element is really the exciting stuff that keeps the viewer and the reader’s interest going…
[0:24:13.9] TG: You could like, lift that entire book and put it on the bottom of the ocean and have the same book.
[0:24:18.5] SC: Yeah, I’m sure somebody is probably making that note right now, and we’ll probably do that. The thing that made Andy Weir’s book so great is Andy Weir is a space nerd. He wanted to write a story about a thing that he adored, which is space life, and all of the “what if’s” of what would happen if you had somebody who lived on Mars. How would it work?
He figured all that stuff out, and because it was so fascinating to him, he wrote the book. He didn’t think anybody was going to like this thing beyond himself, and he really got into the details. How would I grow my own food on mars? How would I solve that problem?
That book is a series of solving scientific problems from the point of view of Mark, who is the lead character. That’s an example of a guy who writes a very strict genre book. He’s not out to have some wild worldview point of view shift from his lead character, who discovers something terrible has happened, and he changes the way he sees the universe, and he’s capable of loving again.
He wasn’t trying to do what they did in Gravity, which was not very successful in my opinion, where the female lead character, Sandra Bullock, she’s in this moment, is she going to get back to earth is the big question in Gravity, but the film makers thought that might not be enough.
They threw in this thing about mid-point where she has this moment of crisis, where she tries to decide whether to kill herself or not, and whether that life is worth living. To me, it always felt hollow, because we didn’t need that. We just needed that action of her desperately trying to get back to earth. We didn’t need any deep dark recesses in her motivation.
That was wise the decision Andy Reader made, too, was when you have an extremely deeply researched and compelling external setting, like a guy on Mars or a woman stuck in space, go with your strength. Don’t necessarily need the coming of age element. Now, when you came to me and said, “I want to write a book, kind of like Harry Potter, which features the growth of a younger person who learns certain lessons, and by the end of this whole thing, I want her to have a very strong sense of the world, et cetera.”
I thought, “Okay, he wants to write a coming of age story,” and then we came up with a thriller plot. The apple that you wanted to bite was pretty large, and I didn’t discourage you from biting that big chunk of apple, because I believe that people want to write something, and the reasons why they want to write them are none of my business, but that I need to help them fight that white whale and figure out what it is that they needed to write; why they needed to write this specific story.
There are certain people who say to themselves, “I’m going to make $150,000 this year, and I’m going to do it by writing genre fiction. I don’t care about any internal movements. I’m going to put spaceships on the cover, and I’m going to deliver a really great story as best as I can that complies with all of the conventions of the genre, and I’m going to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, book after book, and hopefully I will get a big enough genre audience that I can make $150,000 a year.”
Now, that’s okay with me, but you shouldn’t confuse what that is with something that you’re trying to do. If you wanted to make $150,000 a year in writing, you would not be on this podcast with me, because you haven’t made a penny in 16 weeks.
[0:28:00.2] TG: Yeah.
[0:27:59.9] SC: So that’s not your motivation. So people who really get locked into the settings of science fiction, and the lit RPG, and they just want to write a genre book, they’re not tacking on these other weights around their neck. So they don’t have a problem starting their book in the middle of the fantasy world, and having people ratchet up, and get higher and higher in level.
Years ago that I represented a book that was just — I don’t represent the write anymore, and he’s sort of a famous director. He wrote this incredible lit RPG book 10 years before the genre even evolved, and everybody, when I was representing the book sending it around to all the major publishing houses, and every single major publishing house said, “This is really good, but I don’t know what it is. I’d really like to publish it, but I’m not going to offer.”
So what happened was nobody offered on the book, but I think if it went out now people would go, “Oh my gosh, this was Ready Player One”. So sometimes you could be ahead of the curve, and unfortunately, for that guy, who’s doing fine I’m sure, he was ahead of the curve. He was disappointed, but if he came out with that book now, the lit RPG people would go crazy for it, and if he’s listening, he can send me an email. I’ll help him do it.
[0:29:23.2] TG: Okay, that answers my question about getting all worked up about the lit RPG thing, and the biggest thing is I need to hit the marks on my content genre, because that’s what really drives the story more than anything else.
[0:29:37.0] SC: Well, the other thing Tim — and Steve Pressfield and I faced this in our career together. When he writes a novel, what I’d just say to him is that, “Hey Steve, you need another action sequence in the war arena, and give us another 3,000 or 4,000 word great sequence of events that is action driven.” In that way, he complies with the conventions and obligatory scenes, and he adds on extra stuff, but that’s not the central focus of the storytelling.
I can say that to him. He’ll go, “Oh yeah, you’re right,” and he doesn’t get all bogged down and worry that he missed something. He’ll go, “Oh yeah, I forgot that scene. I’ll fix that.”
[0:30:17.3] TG: I see, because it’s like, you said, I need to have three different tests in my middle build, where it gets progressively harder and harder and more dangerous.
[0:30:25.9] SC: Yeah, that’s the convention of a lit RPG. It has to ratchet up. There has to be certain levels. It has to have levels of difficulty.
[0:30:35.8] TG: So I want to change the subject a little bit, because every year, my wife and I, Candice and I, have these movies. We watch the same Christmas movies, so every Thanksgiving night the kids go to bed and we watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. That’s every Thanksgiving, and so we have these movies we watch, and so this weekend was…
[0:30:59.2] SC: That’s the convention of a love story, by the way. That lovers have rituals, they go out.
[0:31:04.5] TG: Oh so we’re on a good path.
[0:31:06.2] SC: Yeah you are.
[0:31:07.2] TG: Hopefully, it’s not a tragic love story.
[0:31:08.7] SC: No, no.
[0:31:09.7] TG: So this weekend we watched The Family Man. The Nick Cage movie with Tea Leoni or whatever, did you ever see this movie?
[0:31:18.2] SC: No, but I think I remember. It’s like he wakes up and it’s Groundhog Day or something?
[0:31:21.9] TG: So what happens is at the very beginning of the movie — the movie has been out 15 years, so if you haven’t seen it now I’m going to spoil it. So it starts with this scene of they’re in college, and he’s going to London to do this internship, and she does this whole speech where she’s like, “I want you to stay. Don’t go. If you go, I’m afraid we’ll never see each other again. I love you, and I choose us. I want you to stay.” And he’s like, “No, I’m going to go, but that doesn’t change anything. I’m going to come home.”
But sure enough, it fast forwards, and he’s this big time super successful investment banker, and he has all the trap. Everything he could ever want, success-wise, except he never got married. He never had kids, all that kind of thing, but he’s fine. He’s like, “I’ve got everything,” and in fact, there’s this point where he meets — they never really say, but it’s like an angel or something that’s played by Don Cheadle, is that his name?
[0:32:16.8] SC: Yeah, he’s great. I love him.
[0:32:18.3] TG: Yeah, who is just — I wish he was in almost every movie, he’s just amazing. Don Cheadle is basically like, “Well, what do you need?” and he’s like, “I don’t need anything,” and he goes, “I want you to know you did this to yourself.” And he’s like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “I want you to know,” and so he goes to bed that night. It’s Christmas Eve. He wakes up the next morning, and he’s in bed with Tea Leoni, and he’s got two kids, and it’s this whole thing of like, he wakes up in the world of what would have been like if he had not got on that plane.
It was so neat to watch it, with everything I have learned about story, and looking at the video that solidifies some things in my head that we talked about a few weeks ago, because it’s a really obvious world change, right? So he goes to sleep in one world, wakes up in the next. So very obvious there, and then he spends the next 25% of the movie just fighting to get out of this world. I don’t want to be here, and he does all of these different things.
And then right at the midpoint of the movie, he flips over and realizes this is good. It completely changes his attitude, but then he keeps making mistakes, right? So what he tries to do is recreate the old world inside of the new world, and then he learns like, you already have everything you want in this new world. Don’t try to recreate this. It’s this whole perfect arc, and then sure enough at the end of the middle build, he goes to sleep and wakes up, and he’s back in the original world, but now he’s completely changed.
I like the movie, and it’s good, and there’s really funny moments in it, and it’s all the normal things that you would think it would be in this kind of a movie, but watching it with these new eyes has just been like, “Man, they hit every mark at the exact same time,” and I’ve realized it now, because I have been studying this, but I have been watching that movie every year for years and I was never like, “Oh they are hitting the conventions.” It just is still, I get surprised by how I guess formulate something could be, and it’s still just really good, and you don’t feel like it’s formulated. I don’t know, I really don’t have a question.
[0:34:30.4] SC: Well, Charles Dickens wrote that story in the 1800’s, and it was called The Christmas Carol. That is indicative of — stories come from the culture, they don’t necessarily come from innovative writers. So what’s interesting is that certain stories, they become very popular at very specific times in the cultural movements. So the collective unconscious of the popular culture is something that none of us can anticipate, but The Family Man, yeah.
The way you are describing that was the Ebenezer Scrooge story, and they cut a couple of ghosts, and they didn’t make it as strictly metaphysical as they did back then. But instead, they said they used the redemption plot, which is the modern day controlling idea for modern redemption stories, is that the lead character pursues money, or sex, or anything that’s very…
[0:35:32.0] TG: Carnal?
[0:35:33.6] SC: Yes, stuff like that, and they do it with such a vengeance, and then they have to have a revelation, a worldview change, where they come to the realization that that stuff is not going to save them. Then they redeem themselves by rejecting that worldview and changing themselves. So The Family Man is obviously in that tradition of story, and it’s indicative of the way our modern world is, that everybody is pulled between their work life and their home life.
So a great redemption story that plays on that conflict in all of us is pretty much going to work. People are going to have an emotional reaction, no matter what they say. If everybody in our audience goes and rents The Family Man and watches it, even though they know what’s going to happen, they’re going to have an emotional response to it, because the conflict in all of us is so deep between, “If I spend another five hours at the office, I might be able to make an extra 10 grand this year, which means I can get a better car and reduce our credit card debt, but if I do spend that extra four hours, I’m not going to be able to help out with the kid’s play,” and what do you do? Which is more important?
And a lot of times you say to yourself, “I’ve got to get that credit card debt down, but everybody knows deep down that’s the wrong choice. Everybody, every single person deep down knows when you choose to worry and obsess about intangible things, like credit card debt — that’s not to say that you should get it — over being with your family, and all of that positive and negative energy at the same time, you’re not making the right decision.
This is all in our DNA. We deep down know that the only thing we have to say for ourselves on this planet are the relationships that we have with the people, the other people on it. And that no matter how many Trump Towers you have, you’re still not going to be all of that engaged with the world. You’re not going to live a fruitful life if all you care about are cars, and jets, and things like that. And that’s cliché to say it, but when you do it in a story that is very clear and crystal to the audience, they will have the emotional response, and it will make them feel good, because it will say, “Yes that is something I value too. I value the time I spend with my family, and it’s okay that I don’t have a brand new car, because I don’t care about that, because that’s not important.”
So that’s why it’s nice that you and wife have that tradition, because what you are doing is reaffirming what you both cherish, and you’re saying, “Hey, I value this too, and so do you, and isn’t this fun to watch Christmas Vacation, too?”
[0:38:29.0] TG: Yeah, the other thing I’ve been noticing, well, one thing is I was always afraid — so I have these buddies that make films, and I’ve always wondered, like, “Do the films lose the magic once you know how they’re made?” Like the whole, I don’t want to know how the sausage is made thing, because then the sausage will suddenly lose its magic, and so I’ve wondered about are stories going to lose their magic as I understand how they’re made.
And it’s been neat to watch them, and I am finding especially re-watching anything that I’ve watched before, I’m catching these things that are really interesting. So one of the things, because you talked about how your job is to innovate on a convention. So you’ve got to tell this textbook story like Family Man, it’s been told over and over, but you’ve got to innovate it. So it’s not just cliché, and so as I have watched movies and shows, I’ve realized my favorite moments, whether it’s a comedy, or a drama, or whatever, are the moments when I thought I knew where it was going and it does the opposite.
Like the mentor character in Family Man is his four-year old daughter, and there’s two great scenes, because you have this whole question of should he have sex with her, because she’s his wife, but not really. He’s from this other world, and so there’s this scene where they’re about to have sex, and then they don’t, and then they do it again, and you’re like, “Okay, this is the one. They’re going to have sex”.
And sure enough, they don’t again, and then they do it at the perfect time. That’s when he finally flips over, and then — I might have mentioned this before, but there’s this episode of The Office where Dwight makes everybody thinks there is a fire, and so everybody’s scrambling, and he had locked all the doors to lock them in, and so everybody is freaking out trying to get out of there. They’re breaking windows, trying to break down doors, and then they show Kevin, who’s this really obese guy.
The whole jig through the show is he eats tons of M&M’s, and he’s super unhealthy, and he’s really overweight, and they flashed at him where they just showed somebody trying to throw something through a window, and they showed somebody else ramming something into a door trying to knock it down, and then they show him pick up a chair and throw it into the vending machine glass, and he’s pulling out all the potato chips and putting them in his pocket. It was so unexpected.
[0:40:59.7] SC: But in character, but completely in character, right?
[0:41:02.7] TG: Right, and you always say inevitable but…
[0:41:05.8] SC: But surprising, yeah.
[0:41:07.5] TG: Yeah, surprising but inevitable. Completely surprised, but then you’re like, “Well Kevin wouldn’t be doing anything else except that during a fire,” you know? And so it’s been really fun as I watched these movies, and again, ones that I already know, and then I am watching them again. It’s just over the past, probably, six months that I’ve actually started understanding what the hell is going on, and noticed that all of my favorite scenes are when I’m tracking, like, “They’re going to do this, they’re going to do this, oh my gosh. It’s completely out of left-field, but it’s perfect for what the movie should have been.” So again, I don’t know where I am going with that, other than it’s been fun to start to notice these things in some of my favorite movies and books and stories.
[0:41:51.5] SC: Well, the other way to apply that knowledge is to just start writing down the solutions to the problems that your favorite movies come up with. What do I mean by that? Write down the big revelatory moments that you witnessed. What was it? What active thing was the thing that made the character make the choice that they made? This really works well in terms of thrillers and crime stories, is that you pick out the scenes.
How did they solve the villain speech convention? Who delivers the villain speech? And the villain speech in a thriller is when the bad guy explains the world to you, and they explain it in a way that makes sense. The speech and praise of the villain in movies like — let’s see, what’s a great thriller that has a great speech and praise of the villain? In The Silence of the Lambs, they talk about how Buffalo Bill is getting rid of his victims, and how he’s doing it, and how ingenious it is, and how it’s impossible to track him, and all of these things.
And every time they try and get close, he gets further and further away from them, and there are moments like that throughout thrillers. And there’s also the hero at the mercy of the villain scene. Writing down how other people solved that problem, and what you’re also going to find is when people just bail on the problem all together, and they just do some cliché, and you’re like, “Wow, that was bad. I can’t believe that didn’t bother me before.”
When you have a list of how the masters solve these problems in innovative ways, then when you get stuck on something, you say, “Well how am I going to get this guy to change his worldview from being all into money and being happy into money, to recognizing that having a family and children is more important than that?”
The film makers said to themselves, “Well, what’s the one thing that everybody recognizes as even being more pleasurable than money, and having a deeper meaning than money? It’s sex. It’s sexual intimacy. If we can use sex between him and the love of his life that he’s returned to, as the thing that, once he does reach that place and they do have sex, it will change him.” That will change his worldview, because he will then discover that all the other things that he thought were important were meaningless. That choice, they had to think through that. They had to say to themselves, well maybe the little kid might get hit by a car, and he rushes and saves her, and maybe that’s what changes his worldview.
Somebody said, “That’s a little bit playing off of the danger and the child. It’s exploiting the child, this isn’t really an action story. This is about intimacy. This is about somebody who is alone who can’t find a connection with somebody. The big moment has to be when that person has a connection with somebody else.”
In Steve’s The Knowledge, there was a moment when he gave me his draft and I said, “You know, there’s got to be something-” and he writes about this a couple of weeks ago in one of his posts, “there is a moment when sort of the mentor figure has to save the mentee, and if she isn’t the one who saves the mentee, and somebody else does, it wouldn’t be as suck at the hard strings like it should.”
Learning from the masters, and finding your favorite movies, and finding out how those people solve the problems. If you’re writing a thriller, rent a bunch of thrillers that are like your — Chinatown’s a great thriller, The Fugitive is a great thriller, use those as your beacons to come up with your own fresh ideas, and innovate, and see how those people do it, so that when you face the same problems, you’ll be inspired.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:45:44.8] 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 you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.
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